A nice street, Fred. A nice neighborhood. Oh, I know how the intellectuals sneer at suburbia—it’s not as romantic as the rat-infested tenements or the hale-and-hearty back-to-the-land stuff. There are no great museums in suburbia, no great forests, no great challenges.
But there had been good times. I know what you’re thinking, Fred. Good times, what are good times? There’s no great joy in good times, no great sorrow, no great nothing. Just blah. Backyard barbecues in the summer dusk, everybody a little high but nobody getting really drunk or really ugly. Car pools we got up to go see the Mustangs play. The fucking Musties, who couldn’t even beat the Pats the year the Pats were 1-12. Having people in to dinner or going out. Playing golf over at the Westside course or taking the wives to Ponderosa Pines and driving those little go-karts. Remember the time Bill Stauffer drove his right through that board fence and into some guy’s swimming pool? Yeah, I remember that, George, we all laughed like hell. But George—
So bring on the bulldozers, right, Fred? Let’s bury all of that. There’ll be another suburb pretty quick, over in Waterford, where there was nothing but a bunch of vacant lots until this year. The March of Time. Progress in Review. Billion Dollar Babies. So what is it when you go over there to look? A bunch of saltine boxes painted different colors. Plastic pipes that are going to freeze every winter. Plastic wood. Plastic everything. Because Moe at the Highway Commission told Joe down at Joe’s Construction, and Sue who works at the front desk at Joe’s told Lou at Lou’s Construction and pretty soon the big Waterford land boom is on and the developments are going up in the vacant lots, and also the high rises, the condominiums. You get a house on Lilac Lane, which intersects Spain Lane going north and Dain Lane going south. You can pick Elm Street, Oak Street, Cypress Street, White Pine Blister Street. Each house has a full bathroom downstairs, a half-bathroom upstairs, and a fake chimney on the east side. And if you come home drunk you can’t even find your own fucking house.
Shut up, Fred, I’m talking. And where are your neighbors? Maybe they weren’t so much, those neighbors, but you knew who they were. You knew who you could borrow a cup of sugar from when you were tapped out. Where are they? Tony and Alicia Lang are in Minnesota because he requested a transfer to a new territory and got it. The Hobarts’ve moved out to Northside. Hank Albert has got a place in Waterford, true, but when he came back from signing the papers he looked like a man wearing a happy mask. I could see his eyes, Freddy. He looked like somebody who had just had his legs cut off and was trying to fool everybody that he was looking forward to the new plastic ones because they wouldn’t get scabs if he happened to bang them against a door. So we move, and where are we? What are we? Just two strangers sitting in a house that’s sitting in the middle of a lot more strangers’ houses. That’s what we are. The March of Time, Freddy. That’s what it is. Forty waiting for fifty waiting for sixty. Waiting for a nice hospital bed and a nice nurse to stick a nice catheter inside you. Freddy, forty is the end of being young. Well, actually thirty’s the end of being young, forty is where you stop fooling yourself. I don’t want to grow old in a strange place.
He was crying again, sitting in his cold dark car and crying like a baby.
George, it’s more than the highway, more than the move. I know what’s wrong with you.
Shut up, Fred. I warn you.
But Fred wouldn’t shut up and that was bad. If he couldn’t control Fred anymore, how would he ever get any peace?
It’s Charlie, isn’t it, George? You don’t want to bury him a second time.
“It’s Charlie,” he said aloud, his voice thick and strange with tears. “And it’s me. I can’t. I really can’t ...”
He hung his head over and let the tears come, his face screwed up and his fists plastered into his eyes like any little kid you ever saw who lost his candy-nickle out the hole in his pants.
When he finally drove on, he was husked out. He felt dry. Hollow, but dry. Perfectly calm. He could even look at the dark houses on both sides of the street where people had already moved out with no tremor.
We’re living in a graveyard now, he thought. Mary and I, in a graveyard. Just like Richard Boone in
I Bury the Living.
The lights were on at the Arlins’, but they were leaving on the fifth of December. And the Hobarts had moved last weekend. Empty houses.
Driving up the asphalt of his own driveway (Mary was upstairs; he could see the mild glow of her reading lamp) he suddenly found himself thinking of something Tom Granger had said a couple of weeks before. He would talk to Tom about that. On Monday.
November 25, 1973
He was watching the Mustangs-Chargers game on the color TV and drinking his private drink, Southern Comfort and Seven-Up. It was his private drink because people laughed when he drank it in public. The Chargers were ahead 27-3 in the third quarter. Rucker had been intercepted three times. Great game, huh, Fred? It sure is, George. I don’t see how you stand the tension.
Mary was asleep upstairs. It had warmed up over the weekend, and now it was drizzling outside. He felt sleepy himself. He was three drinks along.
There was a time-out, and a commercial came on. The commercial was Bud Wilkenson telling about how this energy crisis was a real bitch and everybody should insulate their attics and also make sure that the fireplace flue was closed when you weren’t toasting marshmallows or burning witches or something. The logo of the company presenting the commercial came on at the end; the logo showed a happy tiger peeking at you over a sign that said:
He thought that everyone should have known the evil days were coming when Esso changed its name to Exxon. Esso slipped comfortably out of the mouth like the sound of a man relaxing in a hammock. Exxon sounded like the name of a warlord from the planet Yurir.
“Exxon demands that all puny Earthlings throw down their weapons,” he said. “Off the pig, puny Earthmen.” He snickered and made himself another drink. He didn’t even have to get up; the Southern Comfort, a forty-eight-ounce bottle of Seven-Up, and a plastic bowl of ice were all sitting on a small round table by his chair.
Back to the game. The Chargers punted. Hugh Fednach, the Mustangs’ deep man, collected the football and ran it out to the Mustangs’ 31. Then, behind the steely-eyed generalship of Hank Rucker, who might have seen the Heisman trophy once in a newsreel, the Mustangs mounted a six-yard drive. Gene Voreman punted. Andy Cocker of the Chargers returned the ball to the Mustangs’ 46. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut had so shrewdly pointed out. He had read all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books. He liked them mostly because they were funny. On the news last week it had been reported that the school board of a town called Drake, North Dakota, had burned yea copies of Vonnegut’s novel
which was about the Dresden fire bombing. When you thought about it, there was a funny connection there.
Fred, why don’t those highway department fucksticks go build the 784 extension through Drake? I bet they’d love it. George, that’s a fine idea. Why don’t you write
about that? Fuck you, Fred.
The Chargers scored, making it 34-3. Some cheer-leaders pranced around on the Astroturf and shook their asses. He fell into a semidoze, and when Fred began to get at him, he couldn’t shake him off.
George, since you don’t seem to know what you’re doing, let me tell you. Let me spell it out for you, old buddy.(Get off my back, Fred.)
First, the option on the Waterford plant is going to run out. That will happen at midnight on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Thorn McAn is going to close their deal with that slavering little piece of St. Patrick’s Day shit, Patrick J. Monohan. On Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning, a big sign that saysSOLD!
is going up. If anyone from the laundry sees it, maybe you can postpone the inevitable by saying: Sure. Sold to us. But if Ordner checks, you’re dead. Probably he won’t. But(Freddy, leave me alone)
on Friday a new sign will go up. That sign will say:
SITE OF OUR NEW WATERFORD PLANT THOM MCAN SHOES
Here We Grow Again!!!
On Monday, bright and early, you are going to lose your job. Yes, the way I see it, you’ll be unemployed before your ten o’clock coffee break. Then you can come home and tell Mary. I don’t know when that will be. The bus ride only takes fifteen minutes, so conceivably you
end twenty years of marriage and twenty years of gainful employment in just about half an hour. But after you tell Mary, comes the explanation scene. You could put it off by getting drunk, but sooner or later—
Fred, shut your goddam mouth.
—sooner or later, you’re going to have to explain just how you lost your job. You’ll just have to fess up. Well, Mary, the highway department is going to rip down the Fir Street plant in a month or so, and I kind of neglected to get us a new one. I kept thinking that this whole 784 extension business was some kind of nightmare I was going to wake up from. Yes, Mary, yes, I located us a new plant—Waterford, that’s right, you
—but somehow I couldn’t go through with it. How much is it going to cost Amroco? Oh, I’d say a million or a million-five, depending on how long it takes them to find a new plant location and how much business they lose for good.
I’m warning you, Fred.
Or you could tell her what no one knows better than you, George. That the profit margin on the Blue Ribbon has gotten so thin that the cost accountants might just throw up their hands and say, Let’s ditch the whole thing, guys. We’ll just take the city’s money and buy a penny arcade down in Norton or a nice little pitch ’n’ putt out in Russell or Crescent. There’s too much potential red ink in this after the sugar that son of a bitch Dawes poured into our gas tank. You could tell her that.
Oh, go to hell.
But that’s just the first movie, and this is a double feature, isn’t it? Part two comes when you tell Mary there isn’t any house to go to and there isn’t going to be any house. And how are you going to explain that?
I’m not doing anything.
That’s right. You’re just some guy who fell asleep in his rowboat. But come Tuesday midnight, your boat is going over the falls, George. For Christ’s sweet sake, go see Monohan on Monday and make him an unhappy man. Sign on the dotted line. You’ll be in trouble anyway, with all those lies you told Ordner Friday night. But you can bail yourself out of that. God knows you’ve bailed yourself out of trouble before this.
Let me alone. I’m almost asleep.
It’s Charlie, isn’t it. This is a way of committing suicide. But it’s not fair to Mary, George. It’s not fair to anybody. You’re—
He sat bolt upright, spilling his drink on the rug. “No one except maybe me.”
Then what about the guns, George? What about the guns?
Trembling, he picked up his glass and made another drink.
November 26, 1973
He was having lunch with Tom Granger at Nicky’s, a diner three blocks over from the laundry. They were sitting in a booth, drinking bottles of beer and waiting for their meals to come. There was a jukebox, and it was playing “Good-bye Yellow Brick Road,” by Elton John.
Tom was talking about the Mustangs-Chargers game, which the Chargers had won 37-6. Tom was in love with all the city’s sports teams, and their losses sent him into frenzies. Someday, he thought as he listened to Tom castigate the whole Mustangs’ roster man by man, Tom Granger will cut off one of his ears with a laundry pin and send it to the general manager. A crazy man would send it to the coach, who would laugh and pin it to the locker room bulletin board, but Tom would send it to the general manager, who would brood over it.
The food came, brought by a waitress in a white nylon pants suit. He estimated her age at three hundred, possibly three hundred and four. Ditto weight. A small card over her left breast said:
Thanks For Your Patronage Nicky’s Diner
Tom had a slice of roast beef that was floating belly up in a plateful of gravy. He had ordered two cheeseburgers, rare, with an order of French fries. He knew the cheeseburgers would be well done. He had eaten at Nicky’s before. The 784 extension was going to miss Nicky’s by half a block.
They ate. Tom finished his tirade about yesterday’s game and asked him about the Waterford plant and his meeting with Ordner.
“I’m going to sign on Thursday or Friday,” he said.
“Thought the options ran out on Tuesday.”
He went through his story about how Thom McAn had decided they didn’t want the Waterford plant. It was no fun lying to Tom Granger. He had known Tom for seventeen years. He wasn’t terribly bright. There was no challenge in lying to Tom.
“Oh,” Tom said when he had finished, and the subject was closed. He forked roast beef into his mouth and grimaced. “Why do we eat here? The food is lousy here. Even the coffee is. My
makes better coffee.”
“I don’t know,” he said, slipping into the opening. “But do you remember when that new Italian place opened up? We took Mary and Verna.”
“Yeah, in August. Verna still raves about that ricotta stuff ... no, rigatoni. That’s what they call it. Rigatoni.”
“And that guy sat down next to us? That big fat guy?”
“Big, fat . . .” Tom chewed, trying to remember. He shook his head.
“You said he was a crook.”
“Ohhhhh.” His eyes opened wide. He pushed his plate away and lit a Herbert Tareyton and dropped the dead match into his plate, where it floated on the gravy. “Yeah, that’s right. Sally Magliore.”
“Was that his name?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Big guy with thick glasses. Nine chins. Salvatore Magliore. Sounds like the specialty in an Italian whorehouse, don’t it? Sally One-Eye, they used to call him, on account of he had a cataract on one eye. He had it removed at the Mayo Clinic three or four years ago ... the cataract, not the eye. Yeah, he’s a big crook.”