—The Memphis Commercial Appeal
"Savor the novel to the fullest."
—Dayton Daily News
"You will be transported!"
—Richmond News Leader
"A blend of . . . the old horrors that crouch in the dark corners of the adult mind."
—John Lutz, author of Jericho Man
Berkley books by Peter Straub
The two schools, old and new, are inventions of the author and should not be confused with any existing schools. Similarly, Shadowland, its location and inhabitants, are entirely fictional.
I owe many thanks to Hiram Strait and Barry Price for their advice and comments about magic and magicians, and to Corrie Crandall for introducing me to them and to the Magic Castle.
by Peter Straub
Along toward the end of 1978, when Gerald Ford had bungled the Oval Office into the damp, eager hands of Jimmy Carter back home and, in my adopted country, James Callaghan's Labour Party was soon to be trounced by that iron cupcake Maggie Thatcher, I began writing this book on the second floor of the first house I ever owned, 79 Hillfield Avenue, London N8, otherwise known as Crouch End. It was a nice, comfortable place, a terrace house with the living room, dining room, and kitchen on the ground floor, two bedrooms on the top, and my office, two good-sized rooms knocked into one, in the middle. The front half of the office floor contained a television set, bookshelves, red leather furniture, and two of four AR speakers wired up to the amplifier and other sound equipment enthroned on a broad length of wood fixed to the rear wall of the back room and flanked on either side by long oak shelves crammed with LPs and books. Directly opposite the electronic toys—the life-support system, as I thought of them—and pushed up against the corresponding wall stood my desk; another long stretch of wood, this supporting one of a series of bound journals with numbered pages; a jam-pot from which jutted the sharpened points of about a dozen pencils; and, off to the side, an Underwood manual typewriter waiting to be drafted into service at the final siege. Above the desk hung two "book jacket" graphics by R.B. Kitaj that went unnoticed as I bent scribbling over the journal. Most of the time I scarcely heard the wall of sound blasting toward me. Facing a wall when you write really aids your concentration.
In those days, as the above indicates, I wrote everything by hand, filling the left-hand pages of the big journals with an entire first draft, and inserting revisions on the right-hand pages as I went along. When I reached the end of the book, I generally did some more revising in the journals before pulling the typewriter before me, loading it up with two sheets of paper separated by a carbon, uttering a heartfelt groan, and readying my right index finger for its long, coming torture by hunt-and-peck. If I were able to type, why would I bother writing everything out in longhand to begin with? Typing up a whole book at one go cannot be anything but excruciatingly boring, especially for one-fingered typists, but the process gave me another chance to revise. When I began Shadowland, I assumed that the work of the next year and a half would travel along these familiar rails.
A great change was gathering itself to surprise the industrious lad at the desk, but another had already occurred. Our first child, Benjamin Bitker Straub, had been born the previous year, obligingly entering the world to occupy the increased space we had provided for him. By the spring of 1979, Ben was old enough to understand most of what was said to him, and I had jumped at the chance to entertain him by inventing stories.
Nightly, stories poured out of me, as from an inexhaustible source. I had no idea where they were going when I started them, but along the way they always turned intoreal stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends, complete with hesitations, digressions, puzzles, and climaxes. This was thrilling. My little boy was entranced, and I felt as though I had tapped into the pure, ancient well, the source of narrative, the springwater that nourished me and everyone like me. After I had uncorked maybe twenty of these homemade fairy tales, it occurred to me that I should write some of them down. Now I wish that I'd written down every single one. I made up stories for years, and the only ones I managed to put on paper are in Shadowland. (The best one is about why frogs leap and croak.)
Traditional fairy tales, which I began to investigate soon after I started making up my own, pervade this novel. The beautiful story called "The King of the Cats" is the novel in miniature. Rose Armstrong is Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, who accepts human form and forever walks across nails and razor blades. Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale step in and out of the skins of the lost, wandering children inhabiting the Brothers Grimm's compilations of folktales, and the Brothers Grimm inhabit Coleman Collins's mansion.
That same year, I had been moved by John Fowles's novel, The Magus, which suggested a way to unite the powerful strangeness resulting from the oral tradition with more conventional narrative satisfactions. No one familiar withThe Magus who reads Shadowland can fail to notice Fowles's influence on me, which was profound and pervasive: But this influence was above all liberating, not enslaving. Fowles demonstrated how the seductive uncertainty implicit in theatrical illusion and, even more importantly, the emotional effects of this uncertainty, could find expression in a narrative that itself moved through successive layers of surprise, doubt, suspicion, and uncertainty.
What disrupted the familiar process was an abrupt shot across the bows from my accountant. My previous and still as yet unpublished novel,Ghost Story, had begun to alchemize a startling quantity of moola, ninety-five percent of which James Callaghan's bloodthirsty Department of Inland Revenue would have for lunch were I not to accept banishment from the United Kingdom—"yesterday," the accountant said. So after a brief flurry of packing, off to America we sailed, the three of us, on theQE2. There was an agreeable rented house on Crooked Mile Road in Westport, Connecticut, and by the end of the summer, we had signed the papers for an older, larger, even more agreeable house on Westport's Beachside Avenue. By September, the architect, the contractor, and a platoon of carpenters had turned the place into a beehive.
I wrote the middle third of Shadowland in what would be its dedicatee's bedroom as soon as all the worker bees had vacated my brand-new office on the floor above. Up there, in the best workplace I've ever had or will have, I began the final third, still writing by hand in big journals. In mid-December, 1979, my publishers, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, demanded a finished manuscript in two months. They had already bought the cover ofPublishers Weekly to advertise the book as an October publication. Somehow, I wish I could remember how, I found Barbara Bouchard, a wonderful woman in my neighborhood who was married to an official at the UN and willing to do typing. Every couple of days, after finishing another stretch of pages, I walked over my lawn to Beachside Avenue and over the little stone bridge at the entrance of Burying Hill Beach to Barbara Bouchard's pretty white house, where Barbara took me to a room on the second floor, settled herself down before her trusty Underwood, me in another chair behind her, and medium-like, flawlessly, typed every word I read aloud to her from my journal. Together, we sailed along to the end of the novel. What an immense satisfaction—it was exactly like telling a story.
Little Red Riding Hood was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss.
The key to the treasure is the treasure.
Tom in the Zanzibar
More than twenty years ago, an underrated Arizona schoolboy named Tom Flanagan was asked by another boy to spend the Christmas vacation with him at the house of his uncle. Tom Flanagan's father was dying of cancer, though no one at the school knew of this, and the uncle's house was far away, such a distance that return would have been difficult. Tom refused. At the end of the year his friend repeated the invitation, and this time Tom Flanagan accepted. His father had been dead three months; following that, there had been a tragedy at the school; and just now moving from the well of his grief, Tom felt restless, bored, unhappy: ready for newness and surprise. He had one other reason for accepting, and though it seemed foolish, it was urgent—he thought he had to protect his friend. That seemed the most important task in his life.
When I first began to hear this story, Tom Flanagan was working in a nightclub on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, and he was still underrated. The Zanzibar was a shabby place suited to the flotsam of show business: it had the atmosphere of a forcing-ground for failure. It was terrible to see Tom Flanagan here, but the surroundings did not even begin to reach him. Either that, or he had been marked by rooms like the Zanzibar so long ago and so often that by now he scarcely noticed their shabbiness. In any case, Tom was working there only two weeks. He was just pausing between moves, as he had been doing ever since our days at school—pausing and then moving on, pausing and moving again.
Even in the daylit tawdriness of the Zanzibar, Tom looked much as he had for the past seven or eight years, when his reddish-blond curling hair had begun to recede. Despite his profession, there was little theatricality or staginess about him. He never had a professional name. The sign outside the Zanzibar said only "Tom Flanagan Nightly." He used a robe only during the warming-up, flapdoodling portion of his act, and then twirled it off almost eagerly when he got down to serious business—you could see in the hitch of his shoulders that he was happy to be rid of it. After the shedding of the robe, he was dressed either in a tuxedo or more or less as he was in the Zanzibar, waiting patiently to have a beer with a friend. A misty Harris tweed jacket; necktie drooping below the open collar button of a Brooks Brothers shirt; gray trousers which had been pressed by being stretched out seam to seam beneath a mattress. I know he washed his handkerchiefs in the sink and dried them by flattening them onto the tiles. In the morning he could peel them off like big white leaves, give them a shake, and fold one into his pocket.
"Ah, old pal," he said, standing up, and the light reflected from the mirror behind the bar silvered the extra inches of skin above his forehead. I saw that he was still trim and muscular-looking, in spite of the permanent weariness which had etched the lines a little more deeply around his eyes. He held out a hand, and I felt as I shook it the thickness of scar tissue on his palm, which was always a rough surprise, encountered on a hand so smooth. "Glad you called me," he said.
"I heard you were in town. It's nice to see you again."
"One gratifying thing about meeting you," he said. "You never ask 'How's tricks?'"
He was the best magician I ever saw.
"With you, I don't have to ask," I said.
"Oh, I keep my hand in," he said, and pulled a pack of cards from his pocket. "Do you feel like trying again?"
"Give me one more chance," I said.
He shuffled the cards one-handed, then two-handed, cut them into three piles, and then reassembled the pack in a different order. "Okay?"
"Okay," I said, and he pushed the cards toward me.
I picked up two-thirds of the pack and turned the card now on top. It was the jack of clubs.
"Put it back." Tom sipped at his beer, not looking.
I slid the card into a different place in the deck.
"Better watch closely." Tom smiled at me. "This is where the old hocus-pocus comes in." He tapped the top of the deck hard enough to make a thudding noise. "It's coming up. I can feel it." He tapped again and winked at me. Then he lifted the top card off the deck and turned it to me without bothering to look at it himself.
"I can't figure out how you do that," I said. If he had wanted to, he could have pulled it out of my pocket, his pocket, or from a sealed box in a locked briefcase: it was more effective when done simply.
"If you didn't see it then, you never will. Stick to writing novels."
"But you couldn't have palmed it. You never even touched it."
"It's a good trick. But no good on stage—not much good in a club. They can't get close enough. Paying customers think card tricks are dull anyhow." Tom looked out over the rows of empty tables and then up at the stage, as if measuring the distance between them, and while he pondered the uselessness of skills it took a decade to perfect, I measured another distance: that between the present man and the boy he had been. No one who had known him then, when his red-blond head seemed to shoot off sparks and his whole young body communicated the vibrancy of the personality it encased, could have predicted Tom Flanagan's future.
Of course those of our teachers still alive thought of him as a baffling failure, and so did most of our classmates. Flanagan was not our most tragic failure, that was Marcus Reilly, who had shot himself in his car while we were all in our early thirties; but he might easily have been the most puzzling. Others had taken wrong directions and failed so gently that you could still hear the sigh; one, a bank officer named Tom Pinfold, had gone down with a crash when auditors found hundreds of thousands of depositors' dollars missing from their accounts; only Tom Flanagan had seemed to turn his back deliberately and uncaringly on success.
Almost as if Tom could read my mind, he asked me if I had seen anyone from the school lately, and we talked for a moment about Hogan and Fielding and Sherman, friends of the present day and the passionate, witty fellow-sufferers of twenty years past. Then Tom asked me what I was working on.
"Well, actually," I said, "I was going to start a book about that summer you and Del spent together."
Tom leaned back and looked at me with wholly feigned shock.
"Don't try that," I warned. "Nearly every time I've seen you the past five or six years, you've gone out of your way to tease me with that story. You asked enigmatic questions, dropped little hints—you wanted me to write about it."
He smiled briefly, dazzlingly, and for a second was his boyhood self, pumping out energy. "Okay. I thought it might be something you could use."
"Just that?" I challenged him. "Just something I could use?"
"After all this time you must realize that it's more or less in your line. And I've been thinking lately that it's about time I talked about it."
"Well, I'm happy to listen," I said.
"Good," he said, seemingly satisfied. "Have you thought about how you want to start it?"
"The book? With the house, I thought. Shadowland."
He considered that for a moment, his chin still propped on his hand.
"No. You'll get there eventually anyhow. Start with an anecdote. Start with the king of the cats." He thought about it a moment more and nodded, seeing it as a problem in structure, like his act. I had seen him improve it in a dozen ways, revising with a craftsman's zeal, always bending it more truly toward the last illusion, which should have made him famous. "Yes. The king of the cats. And maybe you should really start it at the school—the story proper, I mean. If you look back there, you should find some interesting things."
"If you look. I'll help you." He smiled again, and for the space of the smile his thoughtful tough's face was that of a man who had looked, and I thought again that whatever his circumstances and surroundings, it was only a dead imagination that could call him a failure.
"It might be an idea," I said. "But what's all that about the king of the cats?"
"Oh, don't worry about that story. It'll turn up. It always does. Say, I ought to check over some of my equipment about now."
"You're too good for a place like this."
"Do you think so? No, I think we're pretty well suited to each other. The Zanzibar's not a bad old room."
We said good-bye, and I turned away from the bar toward the hazy light rectangle of the open door. A car sped by, a blue-jeaned girl jiggled past in sunlight, and I realized that I was happy to be leaving the club. Tom said that he was suited to the club, but I didn't believe that, and to me it felt—suddenly—like a prison.
Then I turned around again and saw him sitting in the murk with his sleeves rolled up, and he looked like the ruler of that dark empty room. "You're here two more weeks?"
"I'll only be in town another week myself. Let's get together again before I go."
"That'll be nice," Tom Flanagan said. "Oh. By the way . . ."
I lifted my head.
"Jack of clubs."
I laughed, and he saluted me with his beer glass. He had never once glanced at the card, not even when the trick was over. Casual little miracles like that had nailed him into his life.
The king of the cats?
I hadn't the faintest idea of what this "story" was, but as Tom had promised, it turned up a few weeks later in a reference book. When I had read it, I knew immediately that Tom's instincts had been accurate.
When I set the story down here, I am going to put it in the context in which Tom first heard it.
"Imagine a bird," the magician said. "Just now—flapping up, frightened, indeed tormented by fear, up out of this hat."
He twitched the white scarf away from the tall silk hat, and a dove the shade of the scarf beat its wings on the brim and awkwardly fell to the table—a terrified, panicked bird, unable to fly, making a loud clatter of wings on the polished table.
"Pretty bird," said the magician, and smiled at the two boys. "Now imagine a cat."
He whisked his scarf once again over the hat, and a white cat slipped over the brim. It came up out of the hat like a snake, flattening itself down onto the table, looking at nothing but the dove. With a slow predatory crawl, the cat went toward the dove.
The magician, who was dressed as a sinister clown in white-face and red wig above black tails, grinned at the boys and abruptly sprang over and backward, landing on his gloved hands. He held himself rigidly still for a second and then folded his legs down and his trunk up in what looked like one flawless motion. Now he was standing where he had been, and he dropped the white scarf over the elongated form of the cat.
When the magician passed his hand into the scarf, it fluttered down onto the flat surface of the table.
Three inches away, the dove still worked its wings and made its terrible clattering noise of panic.
"And that's it, isn't it?" the magician said. "Cat and bird. Bird and cat." He was still grinning. "And since our little friend is still so frightened, perhaps we'd better make her disappear too." He snapped his fingers, twitched the scarf, and the bird was gone.
"Cats remind me of a true story," he said to the mesmerized boys, speaking as if he were merely yarning, as if nothing but entertainment was on his mind. "It's an old story, but the truest stories are very often the oldest ones. This was told by Sir Walter Scott to Washington Irving, and by Monk Lewis to the poet Shelley—and to me by a friend of mine who actually saw it happen.
"A traveler, in other words my friend, was journeying on foot to the house of a companion—not me—where he was going to spend the night. He had been walking all day, and even though it was already late and night was coming on, he was tired enough to rest his feet when he came to a ruined abbey. He sat down, took off his boots, leaned against an iron fence, and began to rub his feet. An odd series of noises made him turn around and peer through the bars of the fence.
"Down below him, on the grassy floor of the old abbey, he saw a procession of cats. They were formed into two long equal lines, and were marching forward very slowly. Now, of course he had never seen anything like that before, and he bent forward to look more closely. It was then that he saw that the cats at the head of the procession were carrying a little coffin on their backs, and were making for, were slowly approaching, a small open grave. When my friend had seen the grave, he looked horrified back at the coffin borne by the lead cats, and noticed that on it sat a crown. As he watched, the lead cats began to lower the coffin into the grave.
"After that he was so frightened that he could not stay in that place a moment longer, and he thrust his feet into his boots and rushed on to the house of his friend. During dinner, he found that he could not keep from telling his friend what he had witnessed.
"He had scarcely finished when his friend's cat, which had been dozing in front of the fire, leaped up and cried, 'Then I am the King of the Cats!' and disappeared in a flash up the chimney. It happened, my friends—yes, it happened, my charming little birds."
The true beginning of this story is not "More than twenty years ago, an underrated," etc., but,Once upon a time . . . or, Long ago, when we all lived in the forest . . .
Arise and sing the praises
Of the school upon the hill
He Dreams Awake
The last day of summer vacation: high cloudless skies, dry intense heat; endings and beginnings, deaths and promises, hover regretfully in the air. Perhaps the regret is only the boy's—that boy who is lying on his stomach in the grass. He is staring at a dandelion, wondering if he should pull it up. But if he pulls that one up, shouldn't he also pull up the one growing three feet away, whose leonine head is lolling and bobbling on a stalk too thin for it? Dandelions make your hands stink. On the last day of summer vacation, does he care if his hands smell like dandelions? He tugs at the big tough-looking dandelion nearest him; at least some of the roots pull up out of the ground. He thinks he hears the dandelion sigh, letting go of life, and tosses it aside. Then he slides over to the second weed. It is too vulnerable, with its huge head and thin neck: he lets it be. He rolls over and looks up into the sky.
Good-bye, good-bye, he says to himself. Good-bye, freedom. Yet a part of him looks forward to making the change to high school, to really beginning the process of growing up: he imagines that the biggest changes of his life are about to happen. For a moment, like all children on the point of change, he wishes he could foresee the future, somehow live through it in advance—test the water there.
A solitary bird wheels overhead, so high up it breathes a different air.
Then he must have fallen asleep: later, he thinks that what happened after he saw the bird must have been a dream.
It begins with the air changing color—becoming hazy, almost silvery. A cloud? But there are no clouds. He rolls over onto his stomach and idly looks sideways, where he can see over four backyards. The swing set in the Trumbulls' yard is so rusty it should not stand another year—the Trumbull children are older than he, but Mr. Trumbull is too lazy to dismantle the swings. Farther on, Cissy Harbinger is climbing out of her pool, stepping toward a lounge chair in such a way that you know the tiles are burning her feet. She gets to the chair and stretches out, trying to deepen her already walnut tan. Then there are two wider backyards, one with a plastic wading pool. Here, Collis Falk, the gardener the boy's parents have just let go, is riding a giant black lawn mower around the side of a white house. No dandelions there: Collis Falk is a ruthless executioner of dandelions.
Way down there, past the houses and the yards, a man is walking up Mesa Lane. In this old suburb, pedestrians are not as uncommon as they are in a lavish new development like Quantum Hills, but still they are rare enough to be interesting.
The boy still does not know that he is dreaming.
The walking man pauses on Mesa Lane—probably he is a customer of Collis Falk's, and is waiting for the gardener to swing back toward him so that he can say hello. But no, it seems he is not waiting for the gardener: he is tilting his head back and looking at the boy. Or looking for him, the boy thinks. The man puts his hands on his hips. He must be three hundred yards away: he shimmers a little in the heat from the pavement. The boy has a sudden overwhelming conviction that the little figure is trying to find him . . . and the boy does not want to be seen. He flattens out in the grass. Unexpected fear sparkles in the boy's chest.
This is an interesting dream, he thinks. Why am I afraid of him?
The air becomes darker, more silvery. The man, who may or may have not seen him, walks on. Collis Falk chugs into sight, appearing to be intent on mowing down the wading pool. Now the boy is blocked from the man's sight, and he can move.
I'm really scared, he thinks: why? The entire neighborhood has turned unpleasant, somehow tainted and threatening. Though he cannot see the little figure way down there on Mesa Lane, the man is somehow broadcasting chill and badness. . . .
(His face is made of ice.)
No, that's not it, but the boy scrambles to his feet, starts to run, and then fully realizes he is in a dream, for he sees a building at the end of his backyard which he knows is not there; nor are the thick trees which surround it. The house is only about twenty feet high and has a thatched roof. Two small windows flank a little brown door. This fairy-tale structure is inviting, not threatening—he knows he is supposed to enter it. It will save him from whatever is pacing up and down on Mesa Lane.
And he knows it is a wizard's house.
When he goes through the trees and opens the door, all of his neighborhood seems to sigh: the rusty swings and the wading pool, Cissy Harbinger and Collis Falk, each brown and green blade of grass, send up a wave of disappointment and regret; and this real regret is from down there, from the man, who knows the boy is blocked from him.
"So here you are," the wizard says. An old man with an extravagantly wrinkled face mostly concealed behind a foaming beard, dressed in threadbare robes, the wizard is leaning back in a chair, smiling at him. He is the oldest wizard in the world, the boy knows; and then knows that he himself is in the midst of a fairy tale, one never written. "You are safe here," the wizard says.
"I want you to remember that. It's not all like that . . . being out there."
"This is a dream, isn't it?" the boy asks.
"Everything is a dream," says the wizard. "This world of yours—a flag in the breeze, a plaything full of meanings. Take my word for it. Meanings.But you're a good boy, you'll find out." A pipe appeared in his hand, and he drew on it and breathed out thick gray smoke. "Oh, yes. You'll find what you have to find. It'll be all right. You'll have to fight for your life, of course, you'll have tests to pass—tests you can't study for, hee hee—and there'll be a girl and a wolf, and all that, but you're no idiot."
"Like Little Red Riding Hood? A girl and a wolf?"
"Oh, like all of them," the wizard said vaguely. "Tell me, how is your father doing?"
"He's okay. I guess."
The wizard nodded, blew out another cloud of smoke. He appeared very feeble to the boy; an old old wizard, at the end of his powers, so tired he could barely lift his pipe. "Oh, I could show you things," the wizard said. "But there's no use in it. I just wanted you to know . . . Guess I've said it all. This is a deep, deep wood. Wish I weren't so blamed old."
He seemed to fall asleep for a moment. The pipe drooped in his mouth and his hands trembled in his lap. Then his watery eyes opened. "No brothers or sisters, correct?"
The boy nodded.
The wizard smiled. "You can leave, son. He's gone. Fight the good fight, now."
The boy has been dismissed; the logic of the dream compels him outside; the wizard's eyes are closing again. But he does not wish to leave—he does not want to wake up just yet. He looks out the windows and sees forest, not his backyard. Thick cobwebs blanket several trees in dark grayness.
The wizard stirs, opens his eyes, and looks at the reluctant boy. "Oh, you'll have your heart broken," he says. "Is that what you're waiting to hear? It'll be broken, all right. But you'll never get anything done if you walk around with an unchipped heart. That's the way of it, boy."
"Thanks," he says, and backs toward the door.
"That's the way, and there isn't any other way."
"Keep your eyes peeled for wolves, now."
"Right," the boy says, and goes outside. He thinks the wizard is already asleep. After he goes past the trees which are not there, he sees his own body asleep on the grass, lying on its side near a lolling dandelion.
For various reasons the Carson School is now no longer the school it was, and it has a new name. Carson was a boys' school, old-fashioned and quirky and sometimes so stern it could turn your bowels to ice water. Later we who had been students there understood that all of the rather menacing discipline was meant to disguise the fact that Carson was at best second-rate. Only a school of that kind would have hired Laker Broome as headmaster; perhaps only a third-rate school would have kept him.
Years ago, when John Kennedy was still a senator from Massachusetts and Steve McQueen was Josh Randall on television and McDonald's had sold only two million hamburgers and narrow ties and tab collars were coming in for the first time, Carson was Spartan and tweedy and a bit desperate and self-conscious about its status; now it is a place where rich boys and girls go if they have trouble in the public schools. Tuition was seven hundred and fifty dollars a year; now it is just under four thousand.
It has even changed sites. When I was there with Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale and the others, the school was chiefly situated in an old Gothic mansion on the top of a hill, to which had been added a modern wing—steel beams and big plates of glass. The old section of the school somehow shrank the modern addition, subsumed it into itself, and all of it looked cold and haunting.
This original building, along with the vast old gymnasium (the field house) behind it, was built mainly of wood. Parts of the original building—the headmaster's office, the library, the corridors and staircases—resembled the Garrick Club. Old wood polished and gleaming, oak bookshelves and handrails, beautiful slippery wooden floors. This part of the school always seduced prospective parents, who had the closet anglophilia of their class. Some of the rooms were jewel-box tiny, with mullioned windows, paneled walls, and ugly radiators that gave off little heat. If Carson had been the manor house some of its aspects suggested, it would have been not only haunting but also haunted.
Once every two or three years when I go back and drive past the school's new Quantum Hills site, I see a long neo-Georgian facade of reddish brick, long green lawns, and a soccer field far off—all of it fresh green and warm brick, so like a campus, sogeneralized that it seems a mirage. This cozy imitation of a university seems distant, remote, sealed within its illusions about itself. I know looking at it that the lives of its students are less driven than ours were, softer. Is there, I wonder, a voice still in the school which whispers: I am your salvation, squirt: I am the way, the truth, and the light?
* * *
I am your salvation—the sound of evil, of that flabby jealous devil of the second-rate, proclaiming itself.
Registration Day: 1958
A dark corridor, a staircase with an abrupt line of light bisecting it at one end, desks with candles dripping wax into saucers lined along a wall. A fuse had blown or a wire had died, and the janitor did not come until the next morning, when the rest of the school registered. Twenty new freshmen milled directionlessly in the long corridor, even the exceptionally suntanned faces looking pale and frightened in the candlelight.
"Welcome to the school," one of the four or five teachers present joked. They stood in a group at the entrance to the even darker corridor which led to the administration offices. "It isn't always this inefficient. Sometimes it's a lot worse."
Some of the boys laughed—they were new only to the Upper School, and had been at Carson, down the street in the mansard-roofed Junior School, all their lives.
"We can begin in a moment," another, older teacher said flatly, cutting off the meek laughter. He was taller than the others, with a narrow head and a pursy snapping turtle's face moored by a long nose. His rimless spectacles shone as he whipped his narrow head back and forth in the murk to see who had laughed. He wore the center-parted curling hair of a caricatured eighteen-nineties bartender. "Some of you boys are going to have to discover that the fun and games are over. This isn't the Junior School anymore. You're at the bottom of the pile now, you're the lowest of the low, but you'll be expected to act like men. Got that?"
None of the boys responded, and he gave a high-pitched whinnying snort down his long nose. This was obviously the characteristic sound of his anger. "Got that? Don't you donkeys have ears?"
"That was you, Flanagan?"
"Yes, sir." The speaker was a wiry-looking boy whose red-blond hair was combed in the "Princeton" manner, flat and loose over the skull. In the moving dim light from the candles, his face was attentive and friendly.
"You coming out for JV football this fall?"
All the new boys felt a fresh nervousness.
"Good. If you grow a foot, you'll be varsity material in two years. We could use a good end." The teacher coughed into his hand, looked behind him down the black administration corridor, and grimaced. "I should explain. This incredible . . . situation has come about because School Secretary can't find her key to this door." He banged a heavy arched wooden door behind him with his knuckles. "Tony could open it if he were here, but he doesn't report until tomorrow. Be that as it may. We can all function by candlelight, I suppose." He surveyed us as if it were a challenge, and I noticed that his head was as narrow as the side of a plank. His eyes were so close together they all but touched.
"By the way, you'll all be on the junior-varsity football team," he said. "This is a small class—twenty. One of the smallest in the whole school. We need all of you out on the gridiron. Not all of you will make it through this . . . crucial year, but we have to try to make football players out of you somehow."
Some of the other teachers began to look restive, but he ignored them. "Now, I know some of you boys from the good work you did with Coach Ellinghausen in the eighth grade, but some of you are new.You." He pointed at a tall fat boy near me. "Your name."
"Dave Brick, what?"
"You look like a center to me."
Brick showed consternation, but nodded his head.
"You." He pointed at a small olive-skinned boy with dark liquid eyes.
The boy squeaked.
"We'll have to put some meat on you, won't we, Nightingale?"
Nightingale nodded, and I could see his legs trembling in his trousers.
"Speak in sentences, boy. Yes, sir. That is a sentence. A nod is not a sentence."
"I guess so, sir."
The teacher snorted, surveyed us all again. The waxy smell from the candles was beginning to build up, hot and greasy, in the corridor. Suddenly he snaked out one thick hand and grabbed Dave Brick's hair, which was combed into two small curling waves meeting in the center of his forehead. "Brick! Cut that disgusting hair! Or I'll do it for you!"
Brick quailed and jerked back his head. His throat convulsed, and I thought he was choking back vomit.
The narrow-faced man snapped his hand back and wiped it on his baggy trousers. "School Secretary is sorting out some papers you will need, forms for you to fill out and things like that, but since we . . . seem to have some time, I'll introduce you to the masters who are here today. I am Mr. Ridpath. My subject is world history. I am also the football coach. I will not have any of you in class for two years, but I will see you on the field. Now." He took a step to the side and turned so that his face was in darkness. Oily tendrils of hair above his ears shone in the candlelight. "These men are most of the masters you'll have this year. You will have the pleasure of meeting Mr. Thorpe, your Latin master, the day after tomorrow. Latin is a compulsory subject. Like football. Like English. Like Mathematics. Mr. Thorpe is as tough as I am. He is a great teacher. He was a pilot in World War One. It is anhonor to be in Mr. Thorpe's Latin I. Now, here is Mr. Weatherbee—he will be your Mathematics I teacher, and he is your form tutor. You can go to him with your problems. He comes to us from Harvard, so he probably won't listen to them."
A small man with horn-rimmed glasses and a rumpled jacket over shoulders set in a permanent slouch lifted his head and grinned at us.
"Next to Mr. Weatherbee is Mr. Fitz-Hallan. He teaches English. Amherst." A rather languid-looking man with a handsome boyish face lifted a hand in a half-wave. He had made the joke about efficiency, and he looked bored enough to fall asleep standing up.
"Mr. Whipple, American history." This was a rotund, bald, cherub-faced man in a stained blazer to which the school crest had been affixed with a safety pin. He put his hands together and shook them before his face. "University of New Hampshire."
Mr. Ridpath glanced back down the black corridor now to his left, where a single dim light wavered behind flat glass. "See if you can help her, hey?" Whipple/New Hampshire padded off into the dark. "We'll have those papers in a minute. Okay. Talk among yourselves."
Of course none of us did, but just jittered in the dark corridor until Mr. Ridpath thought of something else to say. "Where are the two scholarship boys? Let's see some hands."
Chip Hogan and I raised our hands. Chip was already standing with Tom Flanagan and the others from the Junior School. Everybody looked curiously at the two of us. Compared to us, all the others, even Dave Brick, looked rich.
"Good. Good. Call out your names."
"You're the Hogan who ran seventy-five yards last year in the eighth-grade championship against St. Matthew's?"
"Yeah," Hogan said, but Mr. Ridpath did not seem to mind.
"You two boys know the great opportunity you're getting?"
We said "Yes, sir" in unison.
"All of you new boys?"
There was a general sibilant mutter.
"You'll have to work, you know. Work like you never have in your lives. We'll make you break your backs, and then we'll expect you to play harder than you ever have in your lives. And we'll make men out of you. Carson men. And that's something to be proud of." He looked around scornfully. "I don't think some of you are gonna cut the mustard. Wait till Mr. Thorpe gets his hands on you."
A large old woman in a brown cardigan shuffled out of the corridor, followed by Mr. Whipple, who carried a flashlight. She too wore rimless glasses, and toted a large bundle of papers sorted so that they were stacked crosswise, in different sections. "Behind the duplicator, wouldn't you know? Frenchy never washes his cups, either. He couldn't put these on the counter like anyone else." While she spoke, she dumped the stack of papers on the first desk. "Help me distribute these—different piles on different desks."
The knot of teachers dissolved, each of the men picking up a separate stack of papers and moving to a different desk. Mr. Ridpath announced, "Mrs. Olinger, school secretary," in a parade-ground voice, and the old woman nodded, snatched her flashlight back from Mr. Whipple, and marched up the stairs into the light.
"Single file," Ridpath ordered, and we clumsily jostled into each line and went down the desks, picking up sheets from each.
A boy behind me mumbled something, and Mr. Ridpath bellowed, "No pencil? No pencil? First day of school and you don't have apencil? What's your name again, boy?"
"Nightingale," Ridpath said scornfully. "Where are you from, anyway? What sort of school did you go to before you came here?"
"This sort of school, sir," came Nightingale's girlish voice.
"Andover, sir. I was at Andover last year."
"I'll loan him a pen, sir," said Tom Flanagan, and we passed down the line of desks without any more bellowing. At the far end of the corridor, we stood and waited in the darkness to be told what to do.
"Upstairs, single line, library," Ridpath said wearily.
We went, like Mrs. Olinger, up the stairs into sunlight, which fell and sparkled through the mullioned glass set beside the high, thick scarred front door. The light was already dim and gray up here, but across the hall was the library, which had rows of big windows set between bookshelves on either side. If the library had not been so naturally dark, it would have shone. Cordovan-colored wood and unjacketed spines of books blotted up the available light, and on normal schooldays the big chandeliers overhead burned whenever the library was in use. Without this light, the library was oddly tenebrous.
Two rows of long flat desks, also of the cordovan-colored wood, filled the center of the front main section of the room, and we took our papers to them. Across the room ahead of us was a waist-high shelf of reference books behind which sat the librarian's desk and file cabinets in a kind of well with clear sight lines to all the tables. Mrs. Olinger watched us file into the library and take our seats, standing beside a thin woman with tightly permed white hair and gold-rimmed glasses. She wore a black dress and a strand of pearls. The teachers came in last and sat all at one table behind us. They immediately began to mutter to each other.
"Masters?" Mrs. Olinger queried, and the teachers quietened. One of them drummed a pencil in a triplet pattern, and continued to do so as long as we were in the library.
"This is Mrs. Tute," said Mrs. Olinger, and the thin woman wearing the pearls gave a nervous nod like a tremor of the head. "Mrs. Tute is our librarian, and this is her domain. She will be present while you fill out the registration forms and digest some of the information on the other sheets, after which she will provide you with an orientation to the library. If you have any questions, raise your hand and one of the masters will help you."
The pencil continued to rattle against the master's table.
When I had finished, I looked up and saw one or two other boys gazing idly around the murky room. Most of the others were still writing. Dave Brick's two curls had fallen over his forehead, and he looked red and sweaty and confused. He held up a hand, and Mr. Fitz-Hallan slowly lounged up toward his table.
"He's cool," Bob Sherman whispered to me, and both of us watched Fitz-Hallan idly lean over Brick's paper, hands thrust in his pockets holding out at an elegant angle the bottom of his well-cut jacket. Fitz-Hallan was a stylish figure whose elegance seemed so deeply ingrained as to be unconscious, but it was not merely that to which Sherman had referred. He was one of the younger teachers, perhaps not quite thirty, and even his languor was youthful: it seemed detached and kindly at the same time, and separated him from the other teachers as surely as we were separated from them. Fitz-Hallan straightened up, strolled to the librarian's desk, and returned with a ball-point pen. This he presented to Brick with an abrupt gesture which somehow conveyed both sympathy and amusement. The perfection of this little charade mysteriously contained in it the information that Fitz-Hallan had once been a student at the school, and that he was a kind of living exhibit, a model of what we should try to become.
And that is the first of the three images I retain from the school, less remarkable than the two which followed but which in its way also led inexorably to all that happened. With hindsight I can see that here too was betrayal, delicately implied by the teacher's elegant clothing and manner, his amused sympathy: the way he thrust a cheap ball-point pen toward sweaty, doomed Dave Brick. We were so raw that we could be seduced by civility.
* * *
The half-dozen other sheets before the boys contained mimeographed data. The words to the school song(Arise and sing the praises/Of the school upon the hill) and the fight song(Green and gold, gold and green!), the school motto, Alis volat propriis. A translation thoughtfully followed:He flies by his own wings. "He" may have been B. Thurman Banter, who had founded the school's first incarnation, the Lodestar Academy, in 1901; Carson began flying under its present name in 1914, under the headmastership of Thomas A. Rowan. "Of Irish extraction and English birth," read the sheet. There followed a list of all headmasters from Rowan to the present, ending with Laker Broome; a list of present faculty, some thirty names, of which the last, Alexander Weatherbee, had been added in ink; the number of books in the library, twenty thousand; of pupils in the Upper School, one hundred and twelve; of football fields and baseball diamonds, two. Another sheet gave the names of all the boys in the senior class, with stars by the names of the prefects.
A commotion at the back of the library made me turn suddenly about. Mr. Ridpath was on his feet behind one of the tables, shouting, "What? What?" His narrow face flamed. With his left hand he gripped Nightingale's collar; with his right he groped beneath the table, trying to capture something which panicked Nightingale was attempting to pass to his table-partner, Tom Flanagan. Both boys looked frightened, Flanagan slightly less so than Nightingale. Mr. Ridpath's question had deteriorated into a series of animal grunts. When his right hand closed over the infuriating object, he withdrew it and held it up, giving his high-pitched snort. It was a pack of Bicycle playing cards. "Cards? Cards?" The flap of the box was still open, suggesting that the cards within had been replaced only a moment before. The three other teachers seated behind Mr. Ridpath looked as startled as the boys, all of whom had by now turned around on their seats. Mr. Ridpath snorted down his nose again. His face was still very red. "Who brought these here? Whose are they? Talk!"
"Mine," Nightingale uttered. He looked like a drowning mouse in Ridpath's grip.
"Well, I'm . . ." The teacher jerked harder on the boy's collar and looked around the room in angry disbelief. "I can't understand this. You. Flanagan. Explain."
"He was going to show me a new card trick, sir."
"A. New. Card. Trick." He tightened his grip on the mouse's collar, twisting it so that Nightingale's necktie slid up toward his ear. "A newcard trick." Then he released both the Bicycle cards and the boy. When the pack struck the table, he slammed his hand down over it. "I'll dispose of these. Mrs. Olinger?"
She strode down between the tables, Ridpath lifted his hand, she walked back up to her desk. The metal wastebasket rang. She had never even glanced at the deck.
"You jokers," Mr. Ridpath said. "First day. You get away with it this time." He was leaning on the table, glaring at each boy in turn. "But no more. This is the last time we see cards in any room in this school. Hear me?" Nightingale and Flanagan nodded. "Jokers. You'd better stop wasting your time and start memorizing what's on those sheets. You'll need to know it, or you'll be doing card tricks, all right." He had one final threat. "Your Upper School career is getting off to a bad start, Flanagan." He returned to the teacher's table and pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets.
"Pass the registration forms to the ends of your rows, boys," said Mr. Fitz-Hallan. I saw that little olive-skinned Nightingale's face was gray with shock.
A few minutes later we were snaking down the dark hall toward a small wooden staircase, on our way to our first glimpse of Laker Broome.
The headmaster's office was at the bottom of the original manor, at the heart of the old building. Mrs. Olinger went before, illuminating her way down the black staircase with her big flashlight. She was mumbling to herself. The other teachers followed her, followed in turn by Mr. Whipple with a wavering candle for the boys' benefit. Whipple's candle was momentarily paled by the light from a window in a door on a small square landing. The light endured until another right-angled bend in the staircase, and after that we followed Whipple's bobbing candle down into an antechamber.
Not a true antechamber, it was formed by the end of the black corridor housing the school offices, from which Mrs. Olinger had first appeared. At that end, a curved wooden arch created the illusion that we were in a room. An oriental carpet lay on the floor. An antique table held a library lamp and a Persian bowl. Opposite the arch was a vast wooden door like the entrance to a medieval church, cross-braced with long iron flanges.
We stood silent in the flickering light of the candle. Mr. Fitz-Hallan knocked once at the big door. Mrs. Olinger said, "Farewell, boys," and took off down the corridor with her characteristic air of irritated urgency, lighting her way with the flashlight. Fitz-Hallan swung open the door, and we jostled into Mr. Broome's office.
* * *
Sudden brightness and the smell of wax: on every surface sat at least two candles. The sense of being in a church was much stronger. The headmaster sat behind his desk, his coat off and his hands laced together behind his head. His elbows were sharply pointed triangular wings. He was smiling. "Well," he said. "Step forward, boys. Let me get a good look at you."
When we were ranked in two rough rows before the desk, he lowered his arms and stood up. "Whatever you do, don't knock over a candle. They're pretty, but dangerous." He laughed, a short thin man with gray hair cut down to a bristly cap. Deep grooves beside his mouth cut into the flesh. "Even when school is not in session, the headmaster must slave away at his desk. This means that you will almost always find me here. My name is Mr. Broome. Don't be shy. If you have a problem you want to discuss with me, just make an appointment with Mrs. Olinger." He stepped backward and leaned against a dark wooden bookshelf, his arms crossed over his chest. The headmaster wore horn-rimmed glasses the color of a marmalade cat. His shirt was very crisp. I see now that he was perfect—the final detail in his whole paneled, oriental-carpeted, book-filled office, the detail around which the delicate, deliberate, old-fashioned good taste of the office cohered.
"Of course," he said, "it is rather more likely that your visits here will be in the service of a less pleasant function."
His mouth twitched.
"But that should concern only a small portion of you. Our boys are generally worked pretty hard, and they don't have the time to find trouble. One word of warning. Those who do find it don't last long here. If you want to enjoy the benefits of being a student at this school, work hard, be obedient and respectful, and play hard. Considering the advantages, it is not too much to ask." Again, his taut, measured replica of a smile. "Just what we have the right, not to mention the duty, to ask of you, I should say. It is my intention, it is the school's intention, to leave our mark upon you. Wherever you go in later life, people will be able to say, 'There is a Carson man.' Well."
He looked over our heads at the teachers; most of us too swiveled our heads to look back. Mr. Whipple was leafing through the forms we had filled out. Mr. Ridpath stood at a sort of soldierly ease, his feet spread and his hands behind his back. The other two stared at the floor, as if putting themselves at a private distance from the headmaster.
"You have them, Mr. Whipple? Then please bring them here."
Whipple moved quickly around us to the desk and laid the pile of forms immediately before the headmaster's leather chair. "The two on top, sir," he muttered, and vanished backward.
"Ah? Yes, I see." He uncoiled, the frames of his glasses glowed red for a moment as he passed before a stand of candles, and he lifted the top two forms. "Messrs. Nightingale and Sherman will stay behind a moment. The rest of you may return to the library to pick up your textbooks and schedule cards. Lead them away, Mr. Ridpath."
* * *
Fifteen minutes later Nightingale and Sherman appeared in the door of the library and moved aimlessly toward the now book-covered tables. Sherman's cheekbones were very red.
"Well," I whispered to him. "What'd he say?"
Sherman tried to grin. "He's a frosty old shit, isn't he?"
We compared our schedule cards before our lockers in the second-floor front corridor of the modern addition, where the inner walls were tall panes of glass looking out onto a gravel-filled court with a single lime tree.
* * *
I heard weeks later from Tom Flanagan why Bob Sherman and Del Nightingale had been kept behind by Mr. Broome. Nightingale had not filled in the blanks for parents' names. He had not done so because his parents were dead. Nightingale lived with his godparents, who had just moved from Boston into a house on Sunset Lane, four or five long blocks from the school. Sherman had been dressed down.
New York, August, 1969: Bob Sherman
"Why am I here?" Sherman asked. "Can you answer that? What the fuck am I doing here when I could be out on the Island sipping a Coors and looking at the ocean?"
We were in his office, and he was speaking loudly to be heard over the rock music pumping out of the stereo system. The office was a suite of rooms in the old German embassy, and all of the rooms had twelve-foot ceilings decorated with plaster molding. Leather couches sat before his long desk and against the wall. A big green Boston fern beside the Bose speakers looked as though it had just taken a vitamin pill. Records were stacked carelessly on the floor, flattening out the deep pile of the carpet.
"You usually have an answer. Why am I in this shithole? You're here because I'm here, but why am I here? It's just another one of those eternal questions. Do you want to take that record off? I'm sick of it."
His telephone rang for the sixth time since I had been in his office. He said, "Christ," picked up the phone, and said "Yeah," and motioned me to put the new record on the turntable.
I tuned out and relaxed into the couch. Sherman ranted. He was a very skillful ranter. He had a law degree. Also he had an ulcer, the nerves of a neurotic cat, and what I assumed was the highest income of anyone from our class. In these days his wardrobe was always very studied, and today he wore a tan bush jacket, aviator glasses tinted yellow, and soft knee-high yellow boots. He clamped the phone under his chin, crossed his arms over his chest, leaned against the window, and gave me a sour grin.
"I'll tell you something," he said when he had put the phone down. "Fielding should bless his soul that he never decided to go into the music business. And he had more talent than most of these bozos we manage. Is he still trying to get his Ph.D.?"
I nodded. "This will sound funny, but when you were leaning against the window like that just now, you reminded me of Lake the Snake."
"Now I really wish I was out on the Island. Lake the Snake." He laughed out loud. "Laker Broome. I better clean up my act. What made you think of that?"
"Just the way you were standing."
He sat down and put his boots on the long desk. "That guy should have been locked up. He's not still there, is he?"
"He retired years ago—forced out, really. I wouldn't have worked for him." I had just quit the school myself, after three years of teaching English there. "I never asked you this before, or if I did, I forgot the answer. What did Lake the Snake say to you, that first day? When he kept you and Nightingale in his office."
"The day we registered?" He grinned at me. "I told you, but you forgot, you asshole. That's one of my favorite party bits. Ask me again after dinner on Saturday night, if you're still coming."
Then I did remember—we had been in his father's "den" one warm day in late fall, drinking iced tea from tall glasses withParty Time! embossed on their sides. "I'd come just to hear it," I said. I was in New York on my way to Europe, and Sherman and Fielding were the only people there I cared to visit. And Sherman was a good cook whose dinner parties had a bachelor's haphazard lavishness.
"Great, great." He was already a little distant, and I thought he was thinking again of the grievances given him by his twenty-year-old geniuses. "I saw Tom Flanagan on the street the other day," he said. "He looked really strange. He looked about forty years old. That guy's nuts. It doesn't make any sense, what he's doing. He's working some toilet over in Brooklyn called the Red Hat Lounge. Magic is going to come back when Glenn Miller climbs out of the Channel. When Miss America has . . ."
"A mastectomy," Sherman said.
* * *
On Saturday night there was as much of a lull in the after-dinner conversation as Sherman ever permitted in the days before he moved to Los Angeles. The famous folksinger seated to my left had wiped food from his beard and described a million-dollar drug deal just concluded by two other famous folk singers; the woman with Bob, a blond with the English country-house good looks to which he was always attracted, had opened a bottle of cognac; Sherman was leaning on one elbow, picking bits of bacon out of what was left of the salad.
"My friend across the table wants to hear a story," he said.
"Great," said the folksinger.
"He wants to be reminded of the famous Lake the Snake, and how he welcomed me to his school. On our first day we had to fill in registration forms, and when it asked for my favorite subject, I put down 'Finance.'" The girl and the singer laughed: Sherman had always been good at telling stories. "Lake the Snake was the headmaster, and when a fat little shit named Whipple who taught history showed him my form, he kept me back in his office after he made his welcome-to-the-school speech. Another little kid was kept behind with me, and he sent him out into the hall. I was practically shitting my pants. Lake the Snake looked like an Ivy League undertaker. Or a high-class hired killer. He was sitting at his desk just smiling at me. It was the kind of smile you'd give somebody just before you cut his balls off.
"'Well,' he said. 'I see you are a comedian, Sherman. I don't really think that will do. No, it won't do at all. But I'll give you a chance. Make me laugh. Say something funny.' He braced his hands behind his head. I couldn't think of a single word. 'What a pathetic little boy you are, Mr. Sherman,' he said. 'What is the motto of this school? No answer?Alis volat propriis. He flies by his own wings. I presume that now and again he touches ground too. But he does fly, the kind of boy we want here. He doesn't look for cheap laughs and gutter satisfactions. Since you are too much of a coward to speak up, I'll tell you something. It's a story about a boy. Listen carefully.
"'Once, a long time ago, this certain boy, who was, let me see, fourteen years old, left his warm cozy little house and went out into the wide world. He thought he was a funny little boy, but in reality he was a simpleton and a coward, and sooner or later he was bound to meet a bad end. He went through a city, and he made little comments that made people laugh. He thought they were laughing at his little comments, but in fact they were laughing at his presumption.
"'It so happened that the king of that country was proceeding through the city, and the boy saw his golden carriage. This was a splendid affair, made by the king's craftsmen, and it was of solid gold, drawn by six magnificent black chargers. When the carriage passed the boy, he turned to the good citizen beside him and said, "Who's the old fool in the fancy wagon? He must weigh as much as all six horses. I bet he got rich by stealing from people like you and me, brother." You see, he was interested infinance. He expected his neighbor to laugh, but the neighbor was horrified—all citizens in that country loved and feared their king.
"'The king had heard the boy's remark. He stopped the carriage and immediately bade one of his men to dismount and take the boy by force back to his palace. The men dismounted and grabbed the boy by the arm and dragged him yelling through the streets all the way to the palace.
"'The servant pulled the boy through the halls of the palace until they reached the throne room. The king sat on his throne glaring at the boy as the servant pulled him forward. Two savage dogs with chains on their necks snapped and snarled at the boy, but kept guard by the sides of the throne. The boy nearly fainted in terror. The dogs, he saw, were not only savage, but starved down nearly to madness.
"'"So, little comedian," the king said. "You will make me laugh or you will die." The witless boy could only tremble. "One more chance," said the king. "Make me laugh." Again, the boy could not speak. "Go free, Skuller," snapped the king. The dog on the right flew forward toward the boy. In a second he held the boy's right hand between his teeth. The king told the boy to make a jokenow. The boy turned white. "Go free, Ghost," the king said, and the dog on the left flew forward and bit down on the boy's left hand.
"'"You see where tasteless remarks get you," said the king. "Begin to eat, my dogs."
"'Begin to eat, my dogs,'" Sherman repeated, shaking his head. "I practically fell on the floor and puked. Lake the Snake just kept looking at me. 'Get out of here,' he said. 'Don't ever come back here again for a stupid reason like this.' I sort of wobbled toward the door. Then I heard something growling, and I looked back and a great goddamned Doberman was getting to its feet beside his chair. 'Get out!' Lake the Snake shouted at me, and I ran out of that office like fiends were after me."
"Holy shit," mumbled the folksinger. Sherman's girlfriend was staring at him limpidly, waiting for the punch line, and I knew he had told this story, which by now I remembered perfectly, many times before.
Sherman was grinning at me. "I see it's all come back to you. When I was nearly at the door, that sadist behind the desk said 'Alis volat propriis, Mr. Sherman.' I saw a sign on the wall next to his door, where you'd see it every time you left his office. It said, 'Don't wait to be a great man. Be a great boy.'"
"Be a fuckin' son-of-a-bitch bastard," the folksinger said, and then looked up confused because Sherman and I were both laughing. The country-house blond was laughing too: Sherman could always make women laugh. I had learned a long time before that this ability was a large part of his undoubted sexual success.
Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale had picked up their freshman beanies like the rest of us from the carton just inside the library doors, and at the end of Registration Day they stood for a moment together at the entrance to the school, trying them on. "I think they're one-size-fitsnone," Tom said. Both boys' beanies were a quarter-size too large and swam on their heads. "Don't worry, we can swap them tomorrow," Tom said. "There were a lot left over in that box. Do you know how to wear these, by the way? This little bill is supposed to be two fingers above the bridge of your nose." Using the first two fingers of his right hand to demonstrate, he adjusted the cap with his right. Nightingale imitated him, and brought the brim down to the level of his topmost finger.
"Well, it's only for the first semester," Tom said. But then, at the beginning, they shared a secret pleasure in wearing the absurd caps: Tom because it meant that he was in the Upper School—the entrance to adulthood. If Tom thought of the Upper School as the realm of beings who were almost men—the seniors did look alarmingly like real adults—for Del it was something simpler and more comprehensive. He thought of it, without being quite aware of the thought, as a place which might become home. Tom at least was at home in it.
At that moment, he wanted Tom Flanagan to befriend him more than anything else in the world.
* * *
Of course I am ascribing to the fourteen-year-old Del Nightingale emotions which I cannot be sure he possessed. Yet he must have been very lonely in these first weeks at Carson; and I have Tom's later statement to me that "Del Nightingale needed a friend more than anyone else I'd ever met. I didn't even know, this is how innocent I was, that anyonecould need a friend as badly as that. And you know how schools are: if you want something, security or affection, very badly, it means that you're not going to get it. I didn't see why that should always be true." The statement shows that Tom was more sensitive than his appearance ever indicated. With his gingery hair, his short wiry athletic body, his good clothes a little scuffed and rumpled, he looked chiefly as though he wished he held a baseball in his hand. But another thing you thought you saw when you looked at Tom Flanagan was an essential steadiness: you thought you saw that he was incapable of affectation, because he would never see the need for it.
I think Del Nightingale looked at him bringing the school beanie down to the level of two fingers balanced on his nose and adopted him on the spot.
* * *
"That trick you were showing me isn't in my book," Tom said. "Sometime I'd like to see how it goes."
"I brought a lot of card books with me," Del said. He dared not say anymore.
"Let's go have a look at them. I can call my mother from your place. She was going to pick me up after registration, but we didn't know when it would be over. How do we get to your house? Do you have a ride?"
"It's close enough to walk," Del said. "It's not really my house. My godparents are just renting it."
Tom shrugged, and they went down the front steps, crossed Santa Rosa Boulevard, and began to walk up sunlit Peace Lane. Carson was in a suburb old enough to have imposing elms and oaks lining the sidewalks. The houses they passed were the sort of houses Tom had seen all his life, most of them long and of two stories, either of white stone or white board. One or two houses on every block were bordered by screened-in porches. Concrete slabs gray with age and crossed by a jigsaw puzzle of cracks made up the slightly irregular sidewalk. Tough, coarse grass thrust up between the slabs of pavement. For Del, who had been raised in cities and in boarding schools thousands of miles away, all of this was so unreal as to be dreamlike. For a moment he was not certain where he was or where he was going.
"Don't worry about Ridpath," Tom said beside him. "He's always hollering. He's a pretty good coach. But I'll tell you who's in trouble already."
"Who?" Del asked, beginning to quake already. He knew that Tom meant him.
"That Brick. He'll never last. I bet he doesn't get through this year."
"Why do you say that?"
"I don't know exactly. He looks kind of hopeless, doesn't he? Kind of dumb. And Ridpath is already shitting hot nickels over his hair. If his father was on the board, or something like that—or if his family had always gone here . . . you know." Flanagan was walking with what Del would later see as the characteristic Carson gait, which slightly rolled the shoulders from side to side and wagged neckties like metronomes. This was, as Del immediately recognized, finally "preppy." Amidst all the Western strangeness, the strolling, necktie-swinging gait was familiar enough to be comfortable.
"I guess I do know," he said.
"Oh, sure. Wait till you see Harrison—he's a junior. Harrison has hair just like Brick's, but his father is a big shot. Last year his father donated fifteen thousand dollars to the school for new lab equipment. Where is this house, anyhow?"
Del had been dreaming along under the ninety-degree sun, self-consciousness about the beanie melting together with his sense of unreality and his pleasure in Tom's company to make him forget that they had a destination. "Oh. Next street."
They reached the corner and turned into the street. It seemed impossible to Del that he actually lived there. He would not have been wholly surprised to see Ricky and David Nelson playing catch on one of the lawns.
"Mr. Broome wanted to talk to you," Tom said.
"I suppose your father is an ambassador or something like that."
"My father is dead. So is my mother."
Tom quickly said, "Geez, I'm sorry," and changed the subject. His own father had recently begun a mysterious siege of X rays and over-night stays in St. Mary's Hospital. Hartley Flanagan was a corporation lawyer who could chin himself a dozen times and had been a varsity fullback at Stanford. He smoked three packs a day. "Mr. Ridpath isn't too bad, he's just not very subtle"—both boys grinned—"but you ought to watch out for his son. Steve Ridpath. I remember him from the Junior School."
"He's worse than his father?"
"Well, he was a lot worse then. Maybe he's nicer now." Tom's mouth twitched in a pained, adult manner, and Del saw that his new friend doubted his last remark. "He beat the crap out of me once because he didn't like my face. He was in the eighth grade. I was in the fifth grade. A teacher saw him do it, and he still didn't get expelled. I just sort of made sure I never got near him after that."
"This is the house," Del said, still unable to refer to it as his. "What does this guy look like?"
Tom took off his beanie and folded it into a hip pocket. "Steve Ridpath? His nickname is Skeleton. But don't ever say it in front of him. In fact, if you can help it, don't ever sayanything to him. Are we going to go in, or what?"
The door opened and a uniformed black man said, "Saw you and your friend coming, Del."
"Skeleton . . ." Del said, shaking his head, but Tom Flanagan was looking at the tall bald black man who had let them in. He was too surprised not to stare. A few families in this affluent suburb had live-in maids, but he had never seen a butler before. The first impression that the man wore a uniform gradually dissipated as Tom realized that the butler was dressed in a dark gray suit with a white shirt and a silk tie the same charcoal shade as the suit. He was smiling down at Tom, clearly enjoying the boy's startled inspection. His broad face looked young, but the short wiry hair above his ears was silver. "I see young Del is going to get on well at that school if he made such an alert friend already."
"This is Bud Copeland," Del said. "He works for my godparents. Bud, this is Tom Flanagan. He's in my class. Are they in?"
"Mr. and Mrs. Hillman are out looking at a house," the butler said. "If you tell me where you'll be, I'll bring you whatever you want. Coke? Iced tea?"
"Thanks," Del said. Tom was still wondering if he ought to shake hands with the butler, and while Del said "Coke," realized that the moment for it had passed. But by then his hand was out, and he said, "Coke please, Mr. Copeland. I'm pleased to meet you."
The butler shook his hand, smiling even more widely. "My pleasure too, Tom. Two Cokes."
"We'll be in my room, Bud," Del said, and began to lead Tom deeper into the house. Cartons and boxes crowded what was obviously the living room. As they passed the dining room, Tom saw that it was nearly filled with a huge rectangular mahogany table.
"If you just moved in, why are they out looking at houses?" he asked.
"They're looking for a bigger place to buy. They want more land around them, maybe a pool. . . . They say this neighborhood is too suburban for them, so they're going to move somewhere even more suburban." They were going upstairs; lighter squares on the wallpaper showed where pictures had hung. "I don't even think they want to unpack. They hate this house."
"You should see what they had in Boston. I used to live with them most of the time. In the summers . . ." He looked over his shoulder at Tom and gave him an expression so guarded that Tom could not tell if it signified suspicion, fear of being questioned, or the desire to be questioned.
"In the summers?"
"I went somewhere else. But their place in Boston was really huge. Bud worked for them there too. He was always really nice to me. Ah, here's my room." Del had been walking down a corridor, his black-haired head proceeding along at about the level of Tom's eyes with more assurance than his behavior at the school had indicated that he had in him, and now he paused outside a door and turned around. This time Tom had no trouble reading the expression on his face. He was glowing with anticipation. "If I was really corny, I'd say something like, 'Welcome to my universe.' Come on in."
Tom Flanagan walked rather nervously into what at first appeared to be a totally black room. A dim light went on behind him. "I guess you can see what I mean," came Del's high-pitched voice. He sounded a shade less confident.
Ridpath at Home
Chester Ridpath parked his black Studebaker in his driveway and reached across the seat to lift his briefcase. Like the upholstery of his car, it had been several times repaired with black masking tape, and graying old ends of the tape played out beneath the gummy top layers. The handle adhered to his fingers. He wrestled the heavy satchel onto his lap—it was crammed with mimeographed football plays, starting lineups which went back nearly to the year when he had purchased the car, textbooks, lesson plans, and memos from the headmaster. Laker Broome spoke chiefly through memos. He liked to rule from a distance, even at faculty meetings, where he sat at a separate table from the staff: most of his administrative and disciplinary decisions were filtered down through Billy Thorpe, who had been assistant head as well as Latin master under three different headmasters. Sometimes Chester Ridpath imagined that Billy Thorpe was the only man in the world who he really respected. Billy could not ever conceivably have had a son like Steve.
He exhaled, wiped sweat from his forehead back into his hair, temporarily flattening half a dozen fussy curls, and left the car. The sun burned through his clothes. The briefcase seemed to be filled with stones.
Ridpath found his bundle of keys in his deep pocket, shook them until his house key surfaced, and let himself into his house. Raucous music—music for beasts—battered the air. He supposed many parents came home to this din, but was it so loud in other houses? Steve had carried his phonograph home from the store, twisted the volume control all the way to the right, and left it there. Once in his room, he walled himself up inside this savagery. Ridpath could not communicate through a barrier so repellent to him; he suspected, in fact he knew, that Steve was uninterested in anything he might wish to communicate anyhow.
"Home," he shouted, and banged the door shut—if Steve couldn't hear the shout, at least he would feel the vibration.
The house had been in disarray so long that Ridpath no longer noticed the pile of soiled shirts and sweaters on the stairs, the dark smudges of grease on the carpet. He and Margaret had bought the living-room carpet, a florid Wilton, on a layaway plan just after they had mortgaged his salary for twenty years to buy the house. During the fifteen years since his wife had left him, Ridpath had taken an unconscious pleasure in the gradual darkening and wearing away of the nap. There were places—before his chair, in front of the slat-backed couch—where the awful flower-spray pattern was nearly invisible.
Overlaying the piles of dirty clothing were the magazine clippings and pages of comic books which Steve used to make his "things." They had no other name. Steve's "things" were varnished to his bedroom walls. Korea had supplied a surplus of the images Steve preferred in his "things," and by now the room was a palimpsest of screaming infants, wrecked jeeps, bloated dead in kapok jackets. Tanks rolled over muddy hills toward classrooms of dutiful Russian children (courtesy ofLife). Mossy monsters from horror comics embraced starlets with death's-heads. Ridpath never entered his son's room anymore.
He dropped the briefcase beside his chair and sat heavily, wrenching his tie over his head without bothering to undo the knot. After he had dropped his jacket on the floor beside it, he reached for the telephone set on an otherwise empty shelf. Ridpath shouted, "Turn it down, goddammit," and waited a second. Then he shouted again, louder. "For God's sake, turn it down!" The music diminished by an almost undetectable portion. He dialed the Thorpe number.
"Billy? Chester. Just got home. Thought maybe you should get the poop on the new boys. Look pretty good on the whole, but there are a few items I thought you'd want to know about. Sort of coordinate ourselves here. Okay? First off, we got one good, one real good football prospect, the Hogan kid. He might take a little watching in the classroom . . . No, nothing definite, just the impression I had. I don't want to prejudice you against the kid, Billy. Just keep him on a tight rein. He could be a real leader. Now for the bad news. We got one real lulu in the new intake. A kid named Brick, Dave Brick. Hair like a goddamned Zulu, more grease on it than I got in my car. You know what kind of attitude that means. I think we want to crack down on this kind of thing right away, or one bad apple like that could spoil the whole school. Plus that, there's a wiseacre named Sherman. The kid already lipped off, fooled around with his registration form . . . You getting these names?"
He wiped his face again and grimaced toward the stairs. How could a boy listen to that stuff all day long? "One more. You remember our transfer from Andover, the orphan kid with the trust fund? Nightingale. He might of been a big mistake. I mean, Billy, maybe Andover was glad to get rid of him, that's what I mean. First of all, he looks wrong—like a little Greek. This Nightingale kid looks sneaky. . . . Well, hell, Billy, I can't help the way I see things, can I? And I was right, too. I caught him with a pack of cards—yeah, he had the cards out. In the library. Can you beat that? Said he was showing Flanagan a card trick. . . . Yeah, a card trick.Man. I confiscated the cards PDQ. I think the kid's some kind of future beatnik or something. . . . Well, I know you can't always tell that kind of thing, Billy. . . . Well, he did have those cards in his fist, big as you please, gave me a little tussle, too. . . . Well, I'd put him in the special file along with Brick, that's what I'm saying, Billy. . . ."
He listened to the telephone a moment, his face contracting into a tight, unwilling grimace. "Sure, Steve'll be okay this year. You'll see a big change in him, now that he's a senior. They grow up pretty fast at that age."
He hung up gratefully. "Grow up"—was that what Steve had done? He did not want to talk to Billy Thorpe, who had two good-looking successful boys, about Steve. The less Thorpe thought about Steve Ridpath, the better.
Ridpath shoved himself to his feet, knocking over the easeful of football plays, took a few aimless steps toward the stairs, then turned around and picked up the case, deciding to go down to his desk in the basement. He had to do some more thinking about the JV team before their first practice. When he walked out of the living room, he glanced into the kitchen and unexpectedly saw the gaunt, looming form of his son leaning over the sink. Steve was pressing his nose and lips against the window, smearing the glass. So he had somehow flickered down the stairs.
"I've only been here three days," Del was saying, now positively sounding nervous, "but I didn't want to just live out of suitcases, the way they're doing. I wanted to get my stuff set up." There came a sound of scuffing feet. "Well, what do you think?"
"Wow," Tom said, not quite sure what he thought, except that wonder played a large part in it. In the dim light, he could not even see all of Del's things. On the wall behind the bed hung a huge star chart. The opposite wall was a frieze of faces—framed photographs. He recognized John Scarne from the photo on a book he owned, and Houdini, but the others were strangers to him. They were men with serious, considering, summing-up kinds of faces in which their theatricality appeared as an afterthought. Magicians. A skull grinned from a shelf at waist level beneath the photographs, and Del hopped around him to light a little candle within it. Then Tom saw all the books held upright by the skull. The middle of the room and the desk were crowded with the paraphernalia of magic tricks. He saw a glass ball on a length of velvet, a miniature guillotine, a top hat, various cabinets filigreed and lacquered with Chinese designs, a black silver-topped cane. Before the long windows, entirely covering them, a big green tank sent up streams of bubbles through a skittering population of fish. "I don't believe it," Tom breathed. "I don't know where to start. Is all this stuff really yours?"
"Well, I didn't get it all at once," Del said. "Some of this stuff has been around for years—since I was about ten. That's when I got involved. Now I'mreally involved. I think it's what I want to be."
"A magician?" Tom asked, surprised.
"Yeah. Do you too?"
"I never thought about that. But I'll tell you one thing I just thought right now."
Del lifted his head like a frightened doe.
"I think school is going to be a lot more interesting this year."
Del beamed at him.
Bud Copeland brought them Cokes in tall frosted glasses with a lemon slice bumping the ice cubes, and for an hour the two boys prowled through Del's collection. In his eager, piping voice, the smaller boy explained to Tom the inner workings of tricks which had puzzled him for as long as he had been interested in magic. "All these illusions are the flashy stuff, and no one will ever see how they work, but I really prefer close-up magic," Del said. "If you can do close-up card work, you can do anything. That's what my Uncle Cole says." Del held up a finger, still in the dramatic persona he had put on with his top hat at the beginning of the tour. "No. Not quite. He said you could do almost everything. He can do things you wouldn't believe, and he won't explain them to me. He says certain things are art, not just illusion, and because they're art they're real magic. And you can't explain them." Del brought his finger down, having caught himself in a public mood at a private moment. "Well, that's what he says, anyway. It's like he's full of secrets and information no one else knows about. He's kind of funny, and sometimes he can scare the crap out of you, but he's the best there is. Or I think so, anyway." His face was that of a dark little dervish.
"Is he a magician?"
"The best. But he doesn't work like the others—in clubs and theaters and that."
"Then where does he work?"
"At home. He does private shows. Well, they're not really shows. They're mainly for himself. It's hard to explain. Maybe someday you could meet him. Then you'd see." Del sat on his bed, looking to Tom as if he were almost sorry he had said so much. Pride in his uncle seemed to be battling with other forces.
Then Tom had it. The insight which had given him knowledge of the other boy's loneliness now sent him a fact so positive that it demanded to be spoken. "He doesn't want you to talk about him. About what he does."
Del nodded slowly. "Yeah. Because of Tim and Valerie."
"Yeah. They don't understand him. They couldn't. And to tell you the truth, he really is sort of half-crazy." Del leaned back on stiffened arms and said, "Let's see what you can do. Do you have any cards, or should we use mine?"
* * *
Years later, Tom Flanagan described to me how Del had then quietly, modestly, almost graciously humiliated him. "I thought I was pretty good with cards when I was fourteen. After my father got sick, I sort of more or less threw myself into the work. I wanted to get my mind off what was happening. I had my card books damn near memorized after a month." We were in the Red Hat Lounge, where Sherman had told me Tom was working—it was not the "toilet" Sherman had called it, but it was only a step above that. "I knew that Del was very accomplished after he had shown me all of the stuff in his room. He had the basis of a professional kit, and he knew it. But I thought I could hold my own in card tricks—the close-up work he especially liked. I found out I couldn't get a thing by him. He knew what I was going to do before I did it, and he could do it better. He didn't like any of the obvious stuff, either—misdirection and forcing. Del had a fantastic memory and great observation, and those faculties have more to do with great card work than you'd believe. He wiped me off the board . . . he blew me away. He must have been the slickest thing I'd ever seen." Tom laughed. "Of course he was the slickest thing I'd ever seen. I hadn't seen much before I met Del."
* * *
Del revolved the head of the dim light so that it faced the wall, and darkened the room. Now, with the big tank blocking most of the light from outside, his bedroom was the same tenebrous cloudy gray that the library had been that noon.
"I ought to call my mother," Tom said. "She'll be wondering what happened to me."
"Do you have to leave right away?" Del asked.
"I could tell her to come over in an hour or so."
"If you'd like. I mean, I'd like that."
"Great. There's a phone in the next bedroom. You could use that."
Tom let himself out into the hall and went into the next bedroom. It was obviously the bedroom used by Del's godparents; expensive leather suitcases laden with loose and tumbled clothes lay open on the unmade bed, labeled boxes were stacked on a chair. The phone was on one of the bedside tables. The telephone book sat beside it, its green cover bearing the graffiti of real-estate agents' names and telephone numbers.
* * *
Tom dialed his own number, spoke to his mother, and hung up just as he heard a car coming into the driveway. He walked over to the window and saw a boatlike gray Jaguar stopping before the garage doors.
Two people in bad humor got out of the car. Either they had just been quarreling or their bad temper was a moment's paring from a lifelong and steady quarrel. The man was large, blond, and florid; he wore a vibrant madras jacket the gaiety of which was out of key with the petulance and irritation suffused through his neat, puggish features. The woman, also blond, wore a filmy blue dress; as her husband's features had blurred, hers had hardened. Her face, as irritated as his, could never be petulant.
In the hall, their voices rose. Bud Copeland's last name was uttered in a flat Boston accent. In anyone else's house, Morris Fielding's or Howie Stern's, this would be the time for Tom to go to the staircase, announce himself, and speak a couple of sentences about who he was and what he was doing. But Del would never take him down to meet those two irritated people; and the two irritated people would be surprised if he did. Instead Tom went to the door of Del's room—Del's "universe"—and slipped around it, and doing so, helped to shape the character of his own universe.
* * *