Way to the Dump
ZUERNER WAS BREAKING AWAY FROM THE BOSTON meeting to come to the Cape, but surely not because of a casual invitation extended in a passing encounter with Elligott a year ago. The two men disliked each other for no particular reason, the most incurable kind of aversion; Elligott’s invitation emerged for want of something better to say; neither he nor Zuerner had expected it to be taken up. Even so, Zuerner had telephoned and asked if it would be convenient if he came by.
Was the merger on again? Did they want his stock?
“Stay for lunch,” Elligott had said, impulsively, and immediately regretted this sign of weakness. He never managed to get the tone right with Zuerner. He hadn’t even had the presence of mind to say, “Let me look at the calendar.” Not even “Let me see if Daisy can make it for lunch.”
Elligott moved the slider and stepped out onto his terrace. Unlike early settlers’ houses, placed with buffers between themselves and the wind, his house had been a summer shack before the alterations and had been built right there on the low bluff above the beach. Its prospect was across the steaming bay toward an awesome pink dawn. On the way out the tide had trapped his skiff in shore grass; returning, it mirrored the forested dune. Some day! Some scene! Elligott felt the exhilaration of a discoverer. He wondered what he’d have to pay to commission this view from the fellow who did the Indian marsh paintings in Derek’s gallery. It would be worth a thousand dollars. First a strong week in the market, and now a day like this!
He shrugged comfortably in his new Bean sweater; it was just the thing for this chill Sunday morning in October. October—so soon. Quarter to six. Dowling would be open in . . . now fourteen minutes.
Nobody was on the water. Nobody was anywhere. Not a bird. The only sound came from a ratcheting cricket, augmented in Elligott’s hearing aid. Fat with good luck, the cricket tensed toward cover, but the man’s foot was too quick. Elligott felt a small startle at the confrontation, not enough to call fear—afraid of a cricket?—but it would have read on an instrument. Perhaps a blood admonition not to kill easily. He kicked the squash over the edge into the sand, leaving a stain and a twitching leg on the mortar joint. In an impulse of compassion or guilt he stepped out the twitch.
He stood for another moment at the terrace edge, bothered slightly that the new sun-room, in the nature of all new things, had estranged the house from its environment. It had happened before, and he knew now that in a few years the rugosa, creeper, poison ivy, catbrier, fox grape, beach plum, and innumerable unidentifiable windand bird-brought weeds fleeing upward from the salt would blur the margins of the foundation into the land, and the shingles would darken. The house would then come fully into its destiny. It was an extraordinary house.
He thought of a small boat going by and somebody looking up and saying to himself, That’s Elligott, a noticeable man. You would trust your widow to Elligott. Perhaps not your wife; look at the bush of hair for a man his age and the athletic way he carries his weight. The house is suitable to the commanding view, what you would expect of a man like Elligott.
The hydrangea that he had cleverly placed below the terrace, so that its enormous plates of bloom could be seen from above, was at its fullest. The branch he had layered stood erect in full leaf, surely rooted. He had never imagined that gardening could be so pleasurable, and that he had such a hand for it. Farther below, in the narrow courses veining the grassy marsh, blue crabs fed; they were mostly big this time of year, no chicks; big as mitts, swimming to the rotten-meat bag and taking alarm too late to escape the sneaking net.
Wait till Zuerner began to net crabs down there for his lunch. That would get to him, all right. That would open his face! That would balance all accounts.
The irritation at his forced retirement which Elligott frequently waked with before they came to the Cape had been diminishing all year, and this morning it gave way completely to the anticipation of how boggling it would be to Zuerner to see, on this best of all possible days, how well he and Daisy lived.
Gone were the clubs and restaurants, the church and duty boards, where men who knew he had been pushed aside observed him. He had made known that resigning to become a consultant was his idea, but McGlynn, Andrewes, Draveau, Thompson, Zuerner—all of them and their wives—had known that his résumé circulated. He felt himself become transparent. To distance himself from his telephone he had the building agent’s girl record that she was Mr. Elligott’s office, and if you waited for the tone you could leave a message of any length. After an interval Elligott called back insurance agents he had never before heard of; The Wall Street Journal offered a trial subscription; business papers wanted ads for Consultant Service Indexes; somebody wanted his cousin Lewis Elligott.
And one day Daisy had said, “Why don’t we fix up the cottage and see what living on the Cape would be like?”
A steadying wife—what a blessing.
From that came days like this. Today he wouldn’t mind comparing lives with Andrewes, Zuerner, with McGlvnn himself—any of them. Most of all Zuerner.
An odd feeling of emptiness seeped into him. He felt as he had after eagling the fifth at the Heights Club, a mixture of triumph and loss. He had been playing alone; nobody was there to see the two iron drop, nobody to take the burden of telling from him. The not quite convincing story was one he could slip into a conversation but couldn’t tell. Zuerner was the man to sign your card. Zuerner’s authority would authenticate Elligott’s life to McGlynn, Andrewes, all of them at Elligott Barge & Dredge.
He decided to take the wagon. It hadn’t been turned over all week; it would do the old girl good to have hot oil in her cylinders and valves. He punched the garage-door button and got in while the door complained to the top and the control panel nattered at him to put on his galoshes, comb his hair, brush his teeth, stop squinting. At The Pharmacy the Times would be shuffled by six. Dowling’s wouldn’t be busy yet; he would be able to open the paper on the counter. Be back before Daisy was even up.
The driveway crackled through the allowed disorder of scratch pines and pin oaks, bayberry and blueberry bushes, rising from the rust of pine needles. He regretted mildly that for thirty years he had let the native growth have its way when for a few dollars he could have set seedlings of better breeds that by now would have been huge, towering, elegant. You could truck in hand-split shakes for the roof and Andersen windows with instant Colonial mullions and eighteen-dollar-a-square-foot tiles, but only God could make a tree. Only time marketed tall white pines. And rhododendrons like Pauley’s.
He bobbed along the stony humpbacked lane kept up by the Association — PRIVATE 15 MPH PLEASE OBSERVE—and onto the state blacktop that forked at WAY TO THE DUMP, taking him toward town by the back road past Pauley’s rhododendrons.
Development had not yet made progress here. The small properties were held by owners who frugally fought mortgages every percent of the way and counted on thirty bags of December scallops to help with the fuel bills. The houses had no views. The families used to grow cranberries in adjacent bogs. Cut off by barrier roads, the bogs were reduced to wetland unbuildable by law and some years away from the sort of new owners who could see the interesting tax consequences of a gift to the Conservation Fund.
But here ancestors and young marrieds had seen thickened hedges prefigured in a few sticks. He slowed while he envied the maturities. Cedars spiked in a grove of pines; lilacs that, come spring, would bear trusses above a man’s reach; Pauley’s rhododendrons.
Elligott knew Pauley the way he knew half a dozen building tradesmen around town; he had assumed the driver to be the man whose name was on the truck. He had called Pauley once and asked if he would work up a price on a new shower.
I’ll stop next week and look at it. You near Haseley?
Elligott explained how one could easily find his place from Haseley’s. He never heard from Pauley again. Par for the trades. Meanwhile, out of courtesy, Elligott waited three weeks, lost all that time before calling another plumber.
In June the rhododendrons between the road and Pauley’s house had been amazing, a jungle. Maybe the bogland accounted for it. Purples, whites, reds, creams shot with yellow, ink and blood spatters. Like a park. Fifty or sixty plants must be in there, some of them giraffe-high, twenty or forty thousand dollars’ worth if you had to truck them at that size and set them, and all from a few sticks. Imagining the plumber’s rhododendrons transported to border his own driveway, Elligott regretted and went on.
Not a soul on the road. Not a car. Not a fisherman. Not a mass-bound Catholic.
HE SWUNG INTO THE BUSINESS-CENTER BLOCK AND parked at The Pharmacy. The business had been sold recently by heirs of the original owner, four brothers, each more famous than the next for surliness. No one had ever been said good morning to by one of these men. Downcast or elevated, each was on his way to transact troubling business; taking inventory; looking for dropped quarters, spider webs. They had sold out to a chain whose owners—some said from Worcester, some said Quincy—could distance themselves from light-bulb specials, jewelry deals, ad tabloids, senior-citizen discounts, and generic-drug propaganda. The first act of the new owners after the opening Days of Bargains was to add a dime to the price of the Sunday Times.
As a businessman, Elligott conceded that combination was the order of the day and that somebody had to make up the premium paid for the Going Concern—but not necessarily Paul D. Elligott. He would have taken his trade elsewhere except that The Pharmacy still employed at its cash counter a pleasant man named Len who had overheard his name and very nearly remembered it. It was worth a dime to have Len say, “It’s Mr. Elliott. Good morning, Mr. Elliott.”
“How are you today, Len?”
“Gonna make it. Will that be it? One seventy-five out of two bills. Have a nice day, Mr. Elliott.”
Twice Elligott had spelled his name in full for the Times reservation list, but Len’s memory scan rejected such an improbable reading. Elligott forgave him. Had he thought about it at the time, Elligott would have written “Len" in the space on the Board of Trade questionnaire that asked for reasons he liked to shop in town: Good selections. Good prices. Good parking. Convenience. Other. . . “Len.”
Nevertheless, Elligott’s acknowledging smile was of measured width. He recognized in himself a tendency to overcordiality. One of the images of Zuerner that dripped in him like a malfunctioning gland was the recollection of the day Zuerner had come aboard and had been introduced around by McGlynn. Elligott had gone out to him, welcomed him warmly, braced his arm, and gotten back— what would you call it: reserve? civility? The face made interesting by the scarred cheek had barely ticked.
“I look forward to working with you, Elligott.”
He might have been talking to a bookkeeper instead of the vice president for corporate relations.
Zuerner’s disfigurement conveyed the idea that something extraordinary had formed him and implied that the distinction was not only external.
Since that meeting Elligott had become increasingly aware of a recompensing phenomenon that in time brought forward men who had certain kinds of injury, handicap, unhandsomeness, names—asymmetries that when they were young had kept them down. Elligott had occasionally pointed out to people whom he suspected of thinking he lacked independent weight that the advantage of being the namesake of the founder, even in a collateral line, might get you in at first, but in the long run it was hardship. Elligott sensed he would have difficulty being taken seriously compared with a man like Zuerner, with a mark on his cheek and a bearing rehearsed to imply that he knew how to make up his mind.
In most matters whatever decision was taken, even a decision to do nothing, worked out all right if firmly asserted. Zuerner’s function was to make one decision seem better than another and to identify himself in this circular way as the cause of what he was in truth an effect. McGlynn had been taken in, but not Elligott.
He thought himself wiser than Zuerner by virtue of having understood him and the power cards he played. His way of holding back to conceal his limits. His strategic unwillingness to speak early in meetings. Never answering a question if it could be turned back on the asker.
“You’ve given it thought. What is your feeling?”
“Come on, Walter,” Elligott had once said, “stop the crap. Just answer the question. I’m not asking you to invest in it.”
He had been certain Zuerner would retreat from such a frank challenge. But Zuerner had maintained a steady silence that made Elligott seem petulant even to himself. Involuntarily, his face repeated its recollection of Zuerner’s at their first meeting, the moment watched by McGlynn, when Zuerner gained ascendancy.
At other times, when he reflected with the candor he was pleased to note in himself, Elligott conceded that the ascendancy also derived from a magical emanation from the man. He remembered from his days at Colgate an upperclassman who had the same mysterious ascendancy. For no particular reason this Clybairne occasionally appeared in Elligott’s thoughts, and Elligott felt himself back down, as he had with Zuerner.
In consideration of his move to the Cape, where he could live the personality he chose, he resolved to contain himself so that nobody would ever again observe his limits in the sincerity of his smile, and have ascendancy over him.
Pleased by the exchange with Len, and enjoying the additional insight that he had risen a notch toward the status of old-timer, now that the heirs were gone‚ Elligott carried his newspaper the few steps to Dowling’s,
As usual, others were there before him. He never managed to be the coffee shop’s first customer. Even when he arrived at the opening minute and the door was unlocked for him, locals were already there, having coffee; these were insiders, friends of Dowling’s who came through the kitchen door or grew in the chairs, fungus.
Two of these insiders were at a table. He recognized them and assumed they recognized him, although they were not acquaintances, not even the order of acquaintance he would have crossed a room in a distant city to greet as compatriots; at most he might in, say, Milan have widened his eyes more generously and nodded less curtly. They returned his signal in a way that indicated they might not know him even in Nairobi.
Nobody was sitting at the counter, but someone had cluttered what Elligott thought of as his regular place, at the kitchen end, with a half-finished cup of milky coffee and a cigarette burning in an ashtray. They would belong to a waitress. He disliked having to choose a stool in unfamiliar territory. He felt exposed, diminished in wellbeing. He was happy, however, to see that the doughnut tray had arrived from the bakery and he would not have to eat one of Dowling’s double-sweet bran muffins. Brewed coffee dripped into the Silex. On the stool he arranged the Times in the order he would get to it: sports, business, front news, the rest.
Small tremors of alienation continued to assail him. He was still not entirely used to having breakfast in a coffee shop. Men of his rank had breakfast at home. Unless they were traveling, or early meetings required them, they never entered restaurants, let alone coffee shops, before lunch. It seemed illicit, a step over the threshold to hell, a date with Sistie Evans. It took some getting used to that among carpenters, telephone repairers, real-estate agents, and insurance men were authentic businessmen, retired like himself. They, too, had discovered late in life the pleasure of coffee and a bakery doughnut that was neither staling nor slippery, not one of those mouse-skinned packaged doughnuts.
Where was the waitress?
With the Gabberts last night the subject of best-remembered meals had come up, which led to choices of what you would order if you were on Death Row. When his turn came, he said coffee and fresh cinnamon doughnuts.
They wouldn’t accept a frivolous answer. He withdrew it. He asked Daisy to refresh him on what had been served that night at the governor’s, still believing in the doughnuts and knowing in his soul that he mentioned dinner at the governor’s only to tell the Gabberts he had been to such an event. Daisy did not remember the frogs’ legs as all that remarkable.
A profile appeared in the window of the kitchen door, like a character on TV. A new blonde pushed in, not the dark girl with a dancer’s tendony legs whom Elligott had expected.
While she hesitated, considering whether her first duty was to her coffee and burning cigarette or to the customer, he read her marked-down face and slightly funhouse-mirror figure, the fullnesses to be made marvelously compact throughout her life by tights, belts, bras, girdles, pantyhose, and the shiny, sanctifying nurse’s uniform Dowling provided for his staff. She would smell like an hour in a motel.
“Black. Is there a cinnamon doughnut left?”
She assembled the order, remembering at the last moment what Dowling had told her about picking up pastry with a waxed square. She filled the cup two-thirds full, placed the spoon with the bowl toward him. The tag read Linda, in Mrs. Dowling’s childish cursive. The blonde reached for two cream cups and showed a tunnel between her breasts. Sexuality is whatever implies more. Elligott drifted forward to fall within her odor, but couldn’t find it. Without drawing back from the counter she tilted her head to him, intimately; the gesture may have been something she picked up from her mother.
“Will that be all?”
Their eyes met precisely. She was no longer furniture of the establishment; she had come forward and was isolated with him.
She closed her order book, stuffed it in the apron pocket, and walked away, around the end of the counter to take up again her cigarette and milky coffee. He felt that he had opened a conversation and had been rejected. When they picked up again, he would not be so subtle. He could ask her where she came from, what she did before, what schedule she worked.
He scanned the newspaper with an inattention that would have enraged the editor. He found nothing about why the Steelers hadn’t scored with all that first-half possession he had caught a mention of on the ten-o’clock news, only junk that came in before the paper went to bed: the weather and highlights from the first few series of downs, and nothing on Colgate other than the losing score. Unimportant golf and tennis this week. Horses. He didn’t know anybody who paid attention to horses beyond the Derby-to-Belmont sequence in the spring, and the steeplechase, on account of Rolling Rock and Dick Mellon. Hockey was Catholic, a real Massachusetts sport for you. Basketball was black. Nobody he knew followed those sports until the playoffs. From yesterday’s paper he already knew what his stocks had done. He scanned the section all the way back to the engineering jobs and didn’t see anything about Interways making a new offer for Elligott Barge. He could see her in the back-counter mirror, poking at the falling-apart bundle of her hair.
He shifted the paper and looked around column one into the tunnel of her armpit. The girl was seamed with tunnels. Her raised arms drew her back erect, giving an inviting thrust to her figure. He mused that women could come off while looking you in the eye and combing their hair, while talking about flowers, money, baked potatoes, anything, just squeezing; the hidden agenda of mothers who told their little girls to keep their legs crossed. He willed the girl onto his wavelength: right guard not that many years ago at Colgate. A girl with a figure like hers wouldn’t mind a little mature fattening. He watched for a sign, an eye flicker, that she was heating with him, but she finished with her hair and slumped into her mass. She seemed to have no spine. She subsided into wasted time, dribbling smoke.
He folded with a motion that caught her eye. He raised a hand to bring her to him to fill his cup, to try again to fall within her odor of cheap powder or sweat, it made no difference, and to tell her that all he wanted was an hour of the thousands she had to give carelessly away. Why should he have to look for a new way to say God’s first truth? In the Beginning was no more or less than this moment. It wasn’t as though he had nothing to bring to the transaction; he would give more than he asked — more want, more skill, more risk. Elligott, husband, father, grandfather, retired vice president of corporate relations, elder, member of duty boards. More risk.
He thought of her going back to the kitchen and asking Dowling what kind of creeps he had for customers. Linda and Dowling talking about him and laughing while they challenged each other in the narrow aisle in front of the work table. He couldn’t find her odor. He imagined it from Sistie Evans forty-one years ago.
“I’ll take a check.”
She put it in front of him and wished him a nice day. He nodded briefly, as Zuerner would have. He put the paper together again, left her a quarter more than the usual change from the dollar so that she would remember him. Who was he? What did he do?
Walking out, he saw that the plumber Pauley had joined the two at the table. That reminded him to go home again by WAY TO THE DUMP. The girl ceased to exist for him.
CAR EKY POISED AT THE LOCK, HE WAS SUDDENLY disoriented. How did I get here? Where am I going? Am I stopping, or about to start? Everything is too quiet for the amount of light. As if it were an hour ago, people weren’t coming and going to get the day moving. The purity of the air and the stillness were like the moment before a tornado; everyone had taken shelter. But, of course, it was Sunday, the hours were displaced. He started up and drove out of the lot.
Having grown up in the city, where nature was the lawn, the hedge, and the golf course, he had been slow to accept the grosser performances of nature, the turning seasons and rotation of flowers. Now he saw the texture of light, predicted weather from sunsets and fuzzy moons, identified the velvet red on the roadside as poison ivy, and leaves speckled like worm-infested apples as shrub cherries. He supposed he should have gone into the landscape-gardening business early.
Like two daring girls back just in time from an all-night party, an apricot maple and a maple more golden stood in the respectable green row that shaded the Pilgrim School. He rolled the window down far enough to get a better look at them, and then at the Betty Prior roses, the ones with a pale splash, piled along the fences. A great rose, out early and still holding; next spring he would put in a couple.
At Pauley’s he slowed as he had when coming to town. He was driving so slowly that he might as well stop a moment and really look at the rhododendrons. He pulled onto the shoulder, dropped the keys on the floor, as was his habit, and went over.
Every finger of leaf had the thick look of health: none were browned or curled in distress. Buds were packed so tightly that they seemed ready to explode before wintering. But they would hold until spring, when great holiday bursts would show on the big broad-leafed plants, and the crisp varieties with small clustered leaves would light up like Christmas trees. No rain had fallen since early July— where did they get their well-being? Pauley seemed unlikely to water stock this fat.
Elligott bent to the ground and scratched with a forefinger. Sandy black stuff, hard and dry as his own dirt. Did the old bog leach up here to wet the roots? Elligott didn’t have a bog, but he had a hose, and the town water bill didn’t amount to much. He looked for the angle of the sun and saw that it got in there a few hours every day, over the oaks, beyond where the wagon was stopped. His plantings at the Association got that much sun.
He noticed young plants a foot or two high scattered through the hedge. Probably grown from cuttings to replace the older stock. Maybe layered off the big stock. He felt for a branch that might loop into the ground and come up as a new plant. He found no connections, and decided the young plants must be cuttings.
Bent and reaching, Elligott now had an idea whose enormity tightened his chest. He pivoted to look both ways along the road. Carefully he opened the hedge to see the house. The shades were down.
Pauley owed him something for the time he had wasted waiting for the shower. Elligott grasped a plant by the throat and felt it break free of the top crust so easily that he reached for another and slung it under his arm. He looked again both ways on the road and quickly crossed.
Unlocking the tailgate delicately, to avoid a loud click, he laid the plants on the carpet. He was going around to the driver’s door at the accelerated pace of someone not wanting to look pushy but nevertheless determined to get to the head of the line when he sensed an action at the house—a door or window opening—and somebody hollered, “What the hell are you doing there?”
He jumped into the seat while the voice pursued him; he dragged the door closed, found the key ring on the floor, stabbed at the ignition. The lock rejected the upside down key. He fumbled it home, jerk-started and stalled, and rammed his foot on the pedal to clear the flooded carburetor, thinking Calm! Calm! Breathe!, terrified that he had done himself in. He fought the key, and the engine caught at the moment frost sprang on the window lip, and he was struck on the side of the neck by what he experienced as hard-thrown gravel. He ducked and fell away from the blow and straightened again to control the careening wagon. Get away from here fast!
In seconds he was over a low rise and curve that distanced him from Pauley’s place. He realized he was locked at mach 2, rigid arms and legs shoving him hard against the seat back. He relaxed a turn and took in air. As the tension eased from his shoulders and back, he became aware that his neck ached.
He put his hand to it and it came away wet. Blood. Blood thin as water defined the creases and whorls of his palm. He was not prepared for blood. So much.
He wiped his hand on his new sweater and felt the wound with his fingertips. It felt like no more than an open boil, but the amount of blood scared him. He rolled his head to feel if the injury went deep. It seemed to stop at the surface. A spread of light shot? Had the man been lunatic enough to shoot because someone was poking in his bushes? What if the target had been some poor bastard with bad kidneys?
Christ, look at the blood! He eased the speed and held the wheel with his bloody hand while he reached around with the other for a handkerchief, but he hadn’t put one in his pocket that morning. With his knees he held the wagon in line, though falling toward the berm, unbuttoned his sweater, and ripped open his shirt to get enough cloth to piaster against the wound. He hunched his neck to cramp the cloth tight. His mind set changed from Get away! to Where to? and he couldn’t deal with the options.
Home was four minutes away, the hospital emergency branch was twelve by the shortcut back past Pauley’s, but he couldn’t even think of going back that way. The other road around the rotary was long, very long, and he was so very bloody, his neck cramped awkwardly against his shoulder. He tried to remember the name of the doctor, and what kind of doctor he was, who had a shingle at the lane going off after the next right—or should he try for a paramedic on rescue-squad duty at the firehouse? He would have to do so much explaining. Had the wagon been identified? Just an old Chevy wagon. Who would believe it was his? His head felt enlarged, packed with engine noise and a mossy texture that resisted intelligence. It was only partly from the blow: his mind blurred in a crisis; he was not at his best at such times, he knew it, and there had never been a time quite like this.
The corner came at him faster than he could steady himself for it. The wagon waited for direction until the last instant before lunging over-steered toward the doctor, the Association, and home almost out of habit—his hands grabbing for control of the slippery wheel. The wagon bolted across the eroded center line; the tires washboarded, skidded, and sprayed berm. His neck jarred loose from the bandage. He got back in lane while blood poured down from the shoulder and sleeve of his sweater as if pumped.
As if pumped! It was more than he could get his mind around. He had just gotten up and gone for a cup of coffee and a doughnut, and his blood was slopping out down his arm into his lap. He stuffed the wad of makeshift bandage back in place and pressed hard against the wound; this is what you were supposed to do to an artery wound—press hard, and not too long, or you would black out. An artery? He refused the word, absorbed it into the moss of his head.
Dr. Albert F. Bernhardt’s sign came out of the brush like a cue card to remind him that Daisy, joking, had said a psychiatrist lived there, if they ever needed one. He raced past the psychiatrist who wouldn’t know anything about blood, about arteries, not as much as an Eagle Scout, in a wagon full of blood and stolen plants, and Zuerner on the way. A scrim of weakness fell. He wanted to let his eyes close. He sobbed to suppress the perception that he could be dying and didn’t know what to do about Zuerner’s coming just in time to find out that he stole plants in the neighborhood.
A small gray car, the first traffic on the road that morning, closed toward him, and he roused to the thought of something better than sleep: obliteration. A smashup jumbling and concealing everything, everything wiped out, blood explained in bashed rolling metal and fire.
The small car came on as innocent of danger and terror as he himself had been a short while ago. Catholics going to church. It would be easy, fast, over.
At the moment, the only moment he had, he was incapable of aiming. He felt a blurt of nobility as the small gray car went by. Did they see the blood? Did they think he held his head this way because he was sleepy? Did they know he held their lives in his hand for a moment and was merciful? He was a merciful man with no possession in the world but memory, toward strangers, and nobody was there to sign his card.
The wagon was at the fork where the Association road came in. Barely driven, it was taking him home to tell Daisy to protect him from Zuerner. Daisy would clean up everything and think of a plausible story. He found the least strength necessary to guide onto the sudden rough and sounding surface.
He couldn’t bother to steer around potholes. He went down the crown of the dirt road, jouncing and pounding the shocks, slack hand on the wheel like a dozing passenger. At the turnoff to his own driveway he knew he wasn’t going to get to Daisy. He was gone, he didn’t have time to tell Daisy what she had to do. He was going to pass out. In a gravel-scattering skid he entered his own long, curving drive at forty, forty-five, fifty, toward the open garage door that waited to swallow him against the far wall and create a mystery (heart attack? pedal stuck?), his name intact.
ELLIGOTT NOW HAD HIS LAST GREAT IDEA OF THE morning.
Alongside the garage the land sloped to the cove through an insubstantial hedge of nursery plants—forsythia, hydrangea, cinquefoil, and the like—and, lower down, wild honeysuckle, briar, and saplings that had volunteered to try again where the city people had cleared. At the foot the returning tide infiltrated the bordering marsh grass.
The possibility came to him almost too late to act on. With nothing measurable to spare he veered past the corner of the garage and over the sunk railroad tie that defined the hedge line, trashed the honeysuckle, flailed through a berserk car wash of saplings, briar, rugosas, grapevines, forcing all the momentum he could into the wagon to scar through the soft wetland and on into the cove where the thrust ended almost gently, like a boat with a sail dropped or an engine cut.
The wagon tilted on a rock and stopped.
He would have to stay in motion to keep from blacking out. He pulled the latch; his weight pushed the door open and he slumped with it clumsily into a tide that took him at the knee. By noon it would be chest-high. He steadied on the door. Everything was quiet after the last tearing minutes. Forget the plants. Can’t lift the door. Not unusual to carry plants in the wagon. Water will make a slop back there, mix everything up. Keep moving.
He staggered around the drowning wagon, slipping on bottom rocks greasy with eelgrass. He glanced up at his house. Through sagging eyelids he saw that it was handsome in the early sun. He started to take his hand from the bloody bundle at his neck so he could look at his watch and verify the time, but he knew at once that the gesture was too foolish to complete. If only Daisy would appear, they could wave good-bye to each other.
Crouched, balancing with his free arm like a remembered sepia picture of a farmer scattering grain, he lurched against the heavy purpose of the tide, toward no vision of a further life or of beings natural or supernatural intended to be called up by ten thousand Sunday-morning mumblings. That and all love, error, and regret; all papers on his desk, all letters, all unkempt plantings, all things unsaid to Daisy and Margie and the grandchildren and the judge in the traffic court: gone, irretrievable. His last mercy dispensed. His last desire a girl in a doughnut shop. His last act theft. Only honor was now left to him.
His new sweater sucked up a weight of water. He swayed and stumbled over the unstable bottom. His eyes closed to a minimum blur of light and form. His head hung forward. The hand that held the blood-wet cloth failed to his side. He dragged one more step, and another, and another toward the obscure channel hidden in the grass over there where an hour ago he had imagined sneaking the net under big blue crabs so that Zuerner would sign his card. Elligott, a man whose name had decided his work and chosen his wife; and she had brought him to this place where a stranger with a gun decided when he was to die.
Or was it Zuerner, who would follow him everywhere, who had decided? Caving to his knees, fainting, falling toward drowning, his impression (the vapor of exhaustion could no longer be called something as coherent as thought)—his impression was that to die this worthily was an act of transcendent honor; beyond the comprehension of a man like Zuerner. And yet, the vapor formed, faded; what is Zuerner to me that I give him my life? □