Chapter Nineteen

IXX  -  Dinner with Vernon

TO SaY THE DEMON PESTERED ME IN THE FOLLOWING DaYS aBOUT coming to her birthday party is like saying a cat has a fondness for the company of mice. Between the Demon's insistent whispering and Leatherlungs' window-shaking bellows, I was a bundle of nerves by Wednesday, and I still couldn't divide fractions.

On Wednesday night, just after supper, I was drying the dishes for Mom when I heard Dad say from the chair where he was reading the paper, "Car's stoppin' out front. We expectin' anybodyi"

"Not that I know of," Mom answered.

The chair creaked as he stood up. He was going out to the porch. Before he went out the door, he gave a low whistle of appreciation. "Hey, you oughta come take a look at this!" he said, and then he went outside. We couldn't resist this invitation, of course. and there parked in front of our house was a long, sleek car with a paint job that gleamed like black satin. It had wire wheels and a shiny chrome grille and a windshield that seemed a mile wide. It was the longest and most beautiful car I'd ever seen, and it made our pickup truck look like a crusty old scab. The driver's door opened and a man in a dark suit got out. He came around the car and stepped onto our lawn, and he said, "Good evening" in an accent that didn't sound like he was from around here. He came on up the walk, into the porch light's circle, and we all saw he had white hair and a white mustache and his shoes were as shiny and black as the car's skin.

"Can I help youi" Dad asked.

"Mr. Thomas Mackensoni"

"Tom. That's me."

"Very good, sir." He stopped at the foot of the steps. "Mrs. Mackenson." He nodded at my mother, then he looked at me. "Master Coryi"

"Uh... I'm Cory, yes sir," I said.

"ah. Excellent." He smiled, and he reached into the inside pocket of his coat and his hand came out holding an envelope. "If you pleasei" He offered the envelope to me.

I looked at Dad. He motioned for me to take it. I did, and the white-haired man waited with his hands clasped behind his back as I opened it. The envelope was sealed with a circle of red wax that had the letter T embossed in it. I slid from the envelope a small white card on which there were several lines of typed words.

"What's it sayi" Mom leaned over my shoulder.

I read it aloud. "'Mr. Vernon Thaxter requests the pleasure of your company at dinner, on Saturday, September 19, 1964, at seven o'clock P.M. Dress optional.'"

"Casual wear recommended," the white-haired man clarified.

"Oh my," Mom said; her worry-bead words. Her brows came together.

"Uh... can I ask just who you arei" Dad inquired, taking the white card from me and scanning it.

"My name is Cyril Pritchard, Mr. Mackenson. I am in the employ of the Thaxter household. My wife and I have looked after Mr. Moorwood and young master Vernon for almost eight years."

"Oh. are you... like... the butler or somethin'i"

"My wife and I serve as we're required, sir."

Dad grunted and frowned, his own mental worry-beads at work. "How come this was sent from Vernon and not from his fatheri"

"Because, sir, it's Vernon who wishes to have dinner with your son."

"and why is thati I don't recall Vernon ever meetin' my boy."

"Young master Vernon attended the arts Council awards ceremony. He was very impressed with your son's command of the language. You know, he had aspirations of being a writer himself at one time."

"He wrote a book, didn't hei" Mom asked.

"Indeed he did. The Moon My Mistress was its title. Published in 1958 by Sonneilton Press in New York City."

"I took it out from the library," Mom admitted. "I have to say I wouldn't have bought it, not with that bloody meat cleaver on the front. You know, I always thought that was odd, because the book was more about life in that little town than the butcher who... well, you know."

"Yes, I do know," Mr. Pritchard said.

What I didn't know until later was that the butcher in Vernon's book had cut out a different intestine from a number of ladies every time the moon was full. Everybody in the fictional town raved over the butcher's steak-and-kidney pies, spicy Cajun sausages, and lady-finger meat-spread sandwiches.

"It wasn't bad, though, for a first novel," Mom said. "Why didn't he write another onei"

"The book unfortunately didn't sell, for whatever reason. Young master Vernon was... shall we say... disenchanted." His gaze returned to me. "What shall I tell young master Vernon in regards to the dinner invitationi"

"Hold your horses." Dad spoke up. "I hate to state the obvious, but Vernon's not... well, he's not in any mental shape to entertain guests up at that house, is hei"

Here Mr. Pritchard's stare went icy. "Young master Vernon is perfectly capable of entertaining a dinner guest, Mr. Mackenson. In response to your implied concern, your son would be safe with him."

"I didn't mean any offense. It's just that when somebody walks around naked all the time, you've got to believe he's not rowin' with both oars. I can't figure why Moorwood lets him go around like that."

"Young master Vernon has his own life. Mr. Thaxter has decided to let him do as he pleases."

"That's clear to see," Dad said. "You know, I haven't seen hide nor hair of Moorwood in... oh, I guess over three years. He was always a hermit, but doesn't he ever come up for air anymorei"

"Mr. Thaxter's business is taken care of. His rents are collected and his properties maintained. That was always his principal pleasure in life, and so it remains. Now: what may I tell young master Vernon, pleasei"

Vernon Thaxter had had a book published. a mystery, by the sound of it. a real book, by a real New York City publisher. I might never get the chance to talk to a real writer again, I thought. I didn't care if he was crazy, or walked around in his birthday suit. He had knowledge of a world far beyond Zephyr, and though this knowledge may have scorched him, I was interested in finding out his own experiences with the magic box. "I'd like to go," I said.

"That's a yes, I presumei" Mr. Pritchard asked my parents.

"I don't know, Tom," my mother said. "One of us ought to go, too. Just in case."

"I understand your hesitation, Mrs. Mackenson. I can only tell you that my wife and I know young master Vernon to be a gentle, intelligent, and sensitive man. He doesn't have any friends, not really. His father is and has always been very distant to him." again, the ice crept back into Mr. Pritchard's eyes. "Mr. Thaxter is a single-minded man. He never wanted young master Vernon to be a writer. In fact, up until quite recently he refused to allow the library to stock copies of The Moon My Mistress."

"What changed his mindi" Mom asked.

"Time and circumstances," Mr. Pritchard replied. "It became clear to Mr. Thaxter that young master Vernon did not have the aptitude for the business world. as I've said, young master Vernon is a sensitive man." The ice left him; he blinked, and even offered a shade of a smile. "Pardon me. I didn't mean to ramble on about concerns with which I'm sure you don't wish to be bothered. But young master Vernon is eager for an answer. May I tell him yesi"

"If one of us can go, too," Dad told him. "I've always wanted to see the inside of that house." He looked at Mom. "Is that all right with youi"

She thought about it for a minute. I watched for signs of a decision: the chewing of her lower lip usually brought forth a no, whereas a sigh and slight twitch of the right corner of her mouth was a yes being born. The sigh came out, then the twitch. "Yes," she said.

"Very good." Mr. Pritchard's smile was genuine. He seemed relieved that a positive decision had been reached. "I've been instructed to tell you that I'll pick you up here on Saturday evening at six-thirty. Is that suitable, siri"

The question was directed to me. I said it would be fine.

"Until then." He gave us all a stiff-backed bow and walked to the black-satin-skinned car. The noise the engine made starting up was like hushed music. Then Mr. Pritchard drove away, and turned at the next intersection onto the upward curve of Temple Street.

"I hope everything'll be all right," Mom said as soon as we were back in the house. "I have to say, Vernon's book gave me the willies."

Dad sat down in his chair again and picked up the sports page where he'd left off. all the headlines were about alabama and auburn football games, the religions of autumn. "always wanted to see where ol' Moorwood lives. I guess this is as good an opportunity as I'll get. anyhow, Cory'll have a chance to talk to Vernon about writin'."

"Lord, I hope you don't ever write anythin' as gruesome as that book was," Mom said to me. "It's strange, too, because all that gruesome stuff just seemed sewn in where it didn't have to be. It would've been a good book about a small town if all that murder hadn't been in there."

"Murders happen," Dad said. "as we all know."

"Yes, but shouldn't a book about life be good enoughi and that bloody meat cleaver on the cover... well, I wouldn't have read it to begin with if Vernon's name hadn't been on it."

"all life isn't hearts and flowers." Dad put down his paper. "I wish it was, God knows I do. But life is just as much pain and mess as it is joy and order. Probably a lot more mess than order, too. I guess when you make yourself realize that, you"-he smiled faintly, with his sad eyes, and looked at me-"start growin' up." He began reading an article about the auburn football team, then he put it aside again as another thought struck him. "I'll tell you what's strange, Rebecca. Have you seen Moorwood Thaxter in the last two or three yearsi Have you seen him just oncei at the bank, or the barbershop, or anywhere around towni"

"No, I haven't. I probably wouldn't even know what he looks like, anyway."

"Slim old fella. always wears a black suit and a black bow tie. I remember seein' Moorwood when I was a kid. He always looked dried up and old. after his wife died, he stopped comin' out of his house very often. But it seems like we would've seen him now and again, don't you thinki"

"I've never seen Mr. Pritchard before. I guess they're all hermits."

"Except Vernon," I said. "Until the weather turns cold, I mean."

"Right as rain," Dad said. "But I think I might ask around tomorrow. Find out if anybody I know has seen Moorwood lately."

"Whyi" Mom frowned. "What does it matteri You'll probably see him on Saturday night."

"Unless he's dead," came his answer. "Now, wouldn't that be somethin'i If Moorwood's been dead for two years or more, and everybody in Zephyr still jumps at the sound of his name because his dyin's been kept a secreti"

"and why would it be kept a secreti What would be the pointi"

Dad shrugged, but I could tell he was thinking in overdrive. "Inheritance taxes, maybe. Greedy relatives. Legal mess. Could be a lot of things." a smile stole across his mouth, and his eyes sparkled. "Vernon would have to know it. Now, wouldn't that just be a hoot if a naked insane man owned most of this town and everybody did what he said to do because we thought it was Moorwood talkin'i Like the night the whole town turned out to keep Bruton from bein' washed awayi I always thought that was peculiar. Moorwood was more interested in keepin' his money in a tight fist than givin' it away to Good Samaritans, even if they had to be threatened to be good."

"Maybe he had a change of heart," Mom suggested.

"Yeah. I suspect bein' dead can do that."

"You'll have your chance to find out on Saturday night," Mom said.

and so we would. Between now and then, however, I had to face the Demon and hear about how much fun her birthday party was going to be and how everybody else in the class would be there. Just as my father was asking around about sightings of Moorwood Thaxter, I asked my classmates at recess if they were going to the Demon's birthday party.

No one was. Most made comments that led me to believe they'd rather eat one of her dog dookey sandwiches than go to any party where they'd be at her booger-flicking, Munster-family mercy. I said I'd lie down in red-hot coals and kiss that baldheaded Russian guy who beat his shoe on the table rather than go to the Demon's party and have to smell her stinking relatives.

But I didn't say this where she could hear me, of course. In fact, I was starting to feel more than a little sorry for her, because I couldn't find one single kid who was going to that party.

I don't know why I did it. Maybe because I thought of what it would feel like, to invite a classful of kids to your birthday party, offer to feed them ice cream and cake and they wouldn't even have to bring a present, and have every one of them say no. That is a hurtful word, and I figured the Demon would hear a lot of it in time to come. But I couldn't go to the party; that would be begging for trouble. On Thursday after school, I rode Rocket to the Woolworth's on Merchants Street, and I bought her a fifteen-cent birthday card with a puppy wearing a birthday hat on the front. Inside, under the doggerel poem, I wrote Happy Birthday from Your Classmates. Then I slid it into its pink envelope, and on Friday I got into the room before anybody else and put the envelope on the Demon's desk. I thanked God nobody saw me, either; I never would've lived it down.

The bell rang, and Leatherlungs took command. The Demon sat down behind me. I heard her open the envelope. Leatherlungs started hollering at a guy named Reggie Duffy because he was chewing grape bubble gum. This was part of the overall plan; we'd learned she despised the smell of grape bubble gum, and so almost every day somebody became a purple-mouthed martyr.

Behind me, I heard a faint sniff.

That was all. But it was a heart-aching sound, to think that fifteen cents could buy a happy tear.

at recess, on the dusty playground behind the school, the Demon fluttered from kid to kid showing them the card. Everybody had the good sense to pretend they already knew about it. Ladd Devine, a lanky kid with a red crew cut who was already showing signs of being a football star in his quick feet, loping passes, and general fondness for mayhem, began telling all the girls he'd bought the card when he heard they thought it was sweet. I didn't say anything. The Demon was already staring at Ladd with love in her eyes and a finger up her nose.

On Saturday evening, at the appointed time, Mr. Pritchard arrived at our house in the long black car. "Watch your manners!" Mom cautioned me, though it was meant for Dad, too. We weren't dressed up in suits; "casual wear" meant comfortable short-sleeved shirts and clean blue jeans. Dad and I climbed into the back of the car and the impression I had was of finding yourself in a cavern with walls of mink and leather. Mr. Pritchard sat divided from us by a pane of clear plastic. He drove us away from the house and took the turn up onto the heights of Temple Street, and we could hardly hear the engine or even feel a bump.

On Temple Street, amid huge spreading oaks and poplars, were the homes of the elite citizens of Zephyr. Mayor Swope's red brick house was there, on a circular driveway. Dad pointed out the white stone mansion of the man who was president of the bank. a little farther along the winding street stood the house of Mr. Sumpter Womack, who owned the Spinnin' Wheel, and directly across the way in a house with white columns lived Dr. Parrish. Then Temple Street ended at a gate of scrolled ironwork. Beyond the gate, a cobblestoned drive curved between rows of evergreens that stood as straight as soldiers at attention. The windows of the Thaxter mansion were ablaze with light, its slanted roofs topped with chimneys and bulbous onion-shaped turrets. Mr. Pritchard stopped to get out to open the gate, then he stopped again on the other side to close it. The car's tires made pillows out of the cobblestones. We followed the curve between the fragrant pines, and Mr. Pritchard pulled us to a halt under a large canvas awning striped with blue and gold. Beneath the awning, a stone-tiled entryway led to the massive front door. Before Dad could unlatch the car's door, Mr. Pritchard was there to do it for him. Then Mr. Pritchard, moving with the grace and silence of quicksilver, opened the mansion's front door for us, and we walked in.

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, gentlemeni" 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 iti" he asked. "Poulter Hill's even got tombstones on it! Mr. Thaxter, how'd you do all thisi"

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 thisi"

"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 understandi"

"Understand whati" 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. Whyi"

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 youi" 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 monthi 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 thisi-plastic jugs."

"Plastic jugsi" 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 Zephyri Kind of makes you feel like you could fly right over the roofs, doesn't iti"

"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. "Eldersi 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! Okayi" He was standing next 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 doi"

"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, Vernoni" my father asked.

"Resting. He's upstairs, resting." Vernon's attention was fixed on the trains.

"Can I see himi"

"Nobody sees him when he's resting," Vernon explained.

"When is he not restin', theni"

"I don't know. He's always too tired to tell me."

"Vernon, would you look at mei" Vernon turned his head toward my dad, but his eyes kept cutting back to the trains. "Is Moorwood still alivei"

"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 stuffi"

"Maybe Mr. Pritchard doesi"

"My daddy is upstairs resting," Vernon repeated with firm emphasis on the resting. "are you a milkman or a member of the Inquisitioni"

"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 iti"

"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 awayi"

"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 iti"

"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 hei You know what I believei" 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 milki How do you figure thati"

"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.

"Whati" 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 somedayi"

"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 whati" I asked.

"I don't know. He never would tell me."

"Oh." Somehow this made sense. "How come you didn't write another booki"

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 comei" I asked. "Can't you think of a storyi"

"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, Coryi"

"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.

"So," Vernon said in a quiet voice, "the boy packed his bags while his daddy told him he was a stupid fool that he'd come back to this house crawling and then we'd see who was right, wouldn't wei and the boy was a very naughty boy that day, he told his daddy he'd see him in the bad place first. He went from Zephyr to Birmingham on a bus and Birmingham to New York City on a train, and he walked into an office in a tall building to find out what was going to happen to his child."

Vernon lapsed into silence again. He picked up his batter bowl, trying to find something else to lick. "What happenedi" I prodded.

"They told him." He smiled; it was a gaunt smile. "They said this is a business, like any other. We have charts and graphs, and we have numbers on the wall. We know that this year people want murder mysteries, and your town would make a wonderful setting for one. Murder mysteries, they said. Thrill people. We're having to compete with television now, they said. It's not like it used to be, when people had time to read. People want murder mysteries, and we have charts and graphs to prove it. They said if the boy would fit a murder mystery into the book-and it wouldn't be too difficult, they said, it wouldn't be too hard at all to do-then they would publish it with the boy's name right there on the cover. But they said they didn't like the title Moon Town. No, that wouldn't do. Can you write hard-boiledi they asked. They said they needed a hard-boiled writer this year."

"Did he do iti" I asked.

"Oh, yes." Vernon nodded. "Oh, he did it. Whatever they wanted. Because it was so close, so close he could taste it. and he knew his daddy was watching over his shoulder. He did it." Vernon's smile was like a fresh wound in scar tissue. "But they were wrong. It was very, very hard to do. The boy got a room in a hotel, and he worked on it. That hotel... it was all he could afford. and as he worked on that rented typewriter in that mean little rented room, some of that hotel and some of that city got into him and made its way through his fingers into that book. Then one day he didn't know where he was anymore. He was lost, and there were no signs telling him which way to go. He heard people crying and saw people hurt, and something inside him closed up like a fist and all he wanted to do was get to that last page and get out of it. He heard his daddy laughing, late at night. Heard him say you fool, you little fool you should've stood your ground. Because his daddy was in him, and his daddy had come with him all that way from Zephyr to New York City."

Vernon's eyes squeezed shut for a few agonized seconds. Then they opened again, and I saw they were rimmed with red. "That boy. That stupid little foolish boy took their money, and he ran. Back to Zephyr, back to the clean hills, back where he could think. and then that book came out, with the boy's name on it, and he saw that cover and knew he had taken his child and he had dressed that beautiful child up like a prostitute and now only people who craved ugliness wanted her. They wanted to wallow in her, and use her up and throw her away because she was only one of a hundred thousand and she was crippled. and that boy... that boy had done it to her. That evil, greedy boy."

His voice cracked with a noise that startled me.

Vernon pressed his hand to his mouth. When he lowered his hand, a silver thread of saliva hung from his lower lip. "That boy," he whispered. "Found out very soon... that the book was a failure. Very soon. He called them. anything, he said. I'll do anything to save it and they said we have the charts and tables, and numbers on the wall. They said people were tired of murder mysteries. They said people wanted something different. Said they'd like to see his next book, though. He had promise, they said. Just come up with something different. You're a young man, they said. You have lots of books in you." He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand: a slow, labored movement. "His daddy was waiting. His daddy grinned and grinned and kept on grinning. His daddy's face got as big as the sun and the boy was burned every time he looked at it. His daddy said you're not fit to wear my shoes. and I paid for those shoes. Yes I did. I paid for that shirt and those pants. You're not fit to wear what good money buys you. all you know is failure and failure and that's all you'll ever know for the rest of your life, and he said if I died in my sleep tonight it would be because you killed me with your failures. and that boy stood at the foot of the stairs, and he was crying and he said go on and die, then. I wish to God you would die, you... miserable... sonofabitch."

On that last terrible, hiss-breathed word I saw the tears jump in his eyes as if he'd been speared. He made a soft moaning sound, his face in torment like a Spanish painting I'd once seen of a naked saint in National Geographic. a tear streaked down to his jaw, followed by a second that got caught in a smear of chocolate batter in the corner of his mouth.

"Oh..." he whispered. "Oh... oh... no."

"Young master Vernoni" The voice was as soft as his, but spoken with firmness. Mr. Pritchard had come into the room. Vernon didn't even look at him. I started to stand up, but Mr. Pritchard said, "Master Coryi Please stay where you are for right now." I stayed. Mr. Pritchard crossed the room and stood behind Vernon, and he reached out and put a gentle hand on Vernon's thin shoulder. "Dinner's over, young master Vernon," he said.

The naked man didn't move or respond. His eyes were dull and dead, nothing alive about him but the slow crawl of tears.

"It's time for bed, sir," Mr. Pritchard said.

Vernon spoke in a hollow, faraway voice: "Will I wake upi"

"I believe you will, sir." The hand patted his shoulder; it was a fatherly touch. "You should say good night to your dinner guest."

Vernon looked at me. It was as if he'd never seen me before, as if I were a stranger in his house. But then his eyes came to life again and he sniffled and smiled in his boyish way. "Dust on the tracks," he said. "If it builds up, a train can crash." a frown passed over his features, but it was just a small storm and quickly gone. "Cory." The smile returned. "Thank you for having dinner with me tonight."

"Yes si-"

He held up a finger. "Vernon."

"Vernon," I repeated.

He stood up, and I did, too. Mr. Pritchard said to me, "Your father's waiting for you at the front door. You turn right and walk along the hallway, you'll come to it. I'll be outside to drive you home in a few minutes, if you'll just wait by the car." Mr. Pritchard grasped one of Vernon's elbows, and he guided Vernon to the door. Vernon walked like a very old man.

"I enjoyed my dinner!" I told him.

Vernon stopped and stared at me. His smile flickered off and on, like the sputtering of a broken neon sign. "I hope you keep writing, Cory. I hope everything good happens to you."

"Thank you, Vernon."

He nodded, satisfied that we had made a connection. He paused once more at the entrance to the dining room. "You know, Cory, sometimes I have the strangest dream. In it, I'm walking the streets in broad daylight and I don't have on any clothes." He laughed. "Not a stitch! Imagine that!"

I can't remember smiling.

Vernon let Mr. Pritchard lead him out. I looked around at the carnage of plates, and I felt sick.

The front door was easy to find. Dad was there; from the way he smiled, I could tell he had no inkling of what I'd witnessed. "You have a good talki" I guess I mumbled something that satisfied him. "He treat you okayi" I just nodded. Dad was jovial and happy now that his belly was full of beef stew and Vernon hadn't hurt me. "Nice house, isn't iti" he asked as we walked to the long black car. "a house like this... there's no tellin' how much it cost."

I didn't know either. But I did know that it was more than any one human being ought to pay.

We waited to go home, and in a little while Mr. Pritchard walked out of the house to deliver us at our own front door.

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