A dark matter, p.10
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       A Dark Matter, p.10

           Peter Straub

  He moved to the side and caught sight of Dill dancing with a great-looking girl with long, straight blond hair, huge eyeglasses, and wonderful white legs. Dill was grinning like an idiot. Then the crowd closed in front of them, and Howard saw leering Keith Hayward whisper into another student’s ear. The feeling that Hayward had been talking about him filled Hootie with revulsion, and instantly he whirled away.

  He and the Eel clung together for half an hour, chugging beer and letting the music pound into them. When he was drunk enough to forget about his inhibitions, Howard spun into the crowd and began to dance by himself, wildly, throwing his arms about and bobbing to the beat. Laughing, a college girl moved aside to give him room, and in seconds she and another girl were bopping around in front of him, being both his partners and his audience. A squat guy with hairy arms moved up alongside the girls and started making corny rowboat gestures, then held his nose and pretended to drown. He was a friend of Hayward’s, but Howard couldn’t remember how he knew that. Someone passed him another sixteen-ounce beer, his third, and he squirted some of it through his nose, laughing at the cornball guy who was a friend of Keith Hayward’s. Oh, yeah! They had been talking together, that was how he knew.

  His hands on the waist of the blond girl, Dilly grinned at him and pumped one fist in the air. When Howard copied the gesture, the cornball guy grasped his hand and spun him around, making him laugh all the harder. Most of his beer slopped onto the ground. For a second, he caught a glimpse of the Eel babbling away to two guys who looked like football players. The Eel made him laugh, and he laughed a delicious Eel-laugh, watching a compact man in a gray suit weave across his field of vision.

  Unstrung by shock, Howard’s legs dissolved beneath him. Before he had time to melt into a puddle on the wet floor, someone caught him around the chest and pulled him upright. His legs returned, though they felt like stilts.

  The music went rubbery. He thought it had been indistinct for some time, though he had failed to notice the moment of decay. The individual dancers had turned into blurs. Whoever was in front of him lowered him into a chair. Eel’s football players stepped on by, though the Eel was not with them. Then he, too, was traveling down the hall, and being assisted through the doorway into a dimly lighted room with mattresses and huge soft pillows instead of sofas and chairs. The cornball guy with hairy arms settled him down into one of the gigantic pillows and was just stretching out beside him when Spencer Mallon swooped down, spun the guy off the pillow, sank a booted foot into his stomach, and helped Howard scramble to his feet. “Hope you’re enjoying your first fraternity shindig, Hootie,” he said, and walked him back toward the throbbing party room.

  “Only old people say ‘shindig,’” Howard informed him.

  In the enormous room down the hallway, the band was taking a break. The crowd had refocused on the bar, from which it radiated out along both sides of the room and knotted together again in front of the bandstand. Howard realized that Spencer Mallon had set him free and wandered, not quite so unsteadily as before, over to a sagging old couch pushed against the wall and sat down next to a drunken boy wearing madras shorts. The drunken boy looked him over and said, “Shane, come back! Come back, Shane!”

  Inspired, Howard told him that only old people said that. Then he looked across the room and forgot all about the boy in the madras shorts.

  On the other side of the empty dance floor, a man in a gray suit was bending over the Eel, who was sprawled out over a baby blue beanbag chair criss-crossed with duct tape. A fraternity boy touched the man’s arm, but he paid no attention. The boy grasped his elbow and yelled something. Without seeming to move in any way except to straighten up by a few degrees, the man in the suit caused the frat boy to flail backward across the beer-stained, cup-strewn floor, flapping his arms until he collapsed into a messy tangle of elbows, knees, and feet. Two other fraternity boys had noticed the backward flight of their brother, who presently lay on the wet barroom floor, apparently bleeding a little from his nose and eyes. One of those who had seen the man deflect his brother had the vast chest and squared-off head of a football player; the other was simply so large he looked impervious to assault. These two turned to the dog, the agent: the killer angel, in Hootie’s drunken estimation. He wanted to say, Leave that guy alone, you don’t want to screw with him, no matter how big you are. They were going to die, Hootie knew, they’d be torn to bloody shreds. Terror so unmanned him that he closed his eyes.

  When he opened them, the two giant Beta Delts were picking up their stunned, bleeding friend, and the creature in the suit had disappeared like the unseen beings who had overseen their rehearsal. Hootie wondered if he actually understood anything at all.

  When he remembered that Spencer was going to leave them the next day, sorrow again overtook him. The Beta Delt in the madras shorts said something about babies and walked away. Through his tears, Howard saw a blurry Eel slide up to blurry Boats and grip his shoulders. Like him, she was in tears, which were shed, he understood, for the same reason.

  Mallon said:

  One day, probably far in the future and certainly when you least expect it, you will find yourself in some totally impersonal, anonymous space, and the most important choice of your life will be before you. You’ll be on a business trip, or on vacation, getting off an elevator or walking into a hotel lobby. It could be anywhere, but let’s stick with these nice, neutral possibilities. And it won’t happen like this, but let’s say it does. Let’s say … let’s say for some reason you know I’m in Nepal right then, or you know I’m in the hospital. Or you know I’m dead! For whatever reason, I’m gone, I can’t be there, but there I am anyhow. You see me walking across the lobby, or getting off the adjacent elevator. Can’t be him, you say to yourself, Spencer can’t be here, and yet despite all the reasons to the contrary, it’s me, all right, and you know it. So the question is, what am I doing there? Because you can sure as hell see that I’m doing something, I’m not just out for a stroll, I’m going somewhere. And the next question is even more important: Why did you see me? Did I just wander into your field of vision by accident? How likely is that? No, there’s a reason you saw me, and it’s gotta be something pretty important.

  So you take off after me—you don’t say anything, you just follow along to see where I’m going. Because I’m not just going there, I’m taking you with me—it’s your goal, too, not just mine. And the second you start following me, I step up the pace and make it harder for you to do what you have to do.

  Is it clear that all this is a kind of parable? Parables don’t mean one thing and one thing only, you know, which is the reason people still argue about them, two thousand years later.

  I walk you around the block, I duck down alleys, I go into stores and leave by the back door, but you manage to stick to my tail no matter what I do. In the end, we’re back in that hotel lobby, so you could say our destination is the place where we started. I get there before you, and when you make it into the lobby, you see me getting into an elevator just before the door closes. You watch the needle swing up and see it stop on the fifth floor. Did I get off there, or did someone else? There’s no time to debate about it—the next elevator comes down and opens its doors, and you jump in and push five and the Close Door button before anybody else can get on. The elevator chugs upward, going slower than seems possible, but finally it gets to five, and the doors slide open, and you charge out, trying to look in both directions at once. I’m way down to your right and at the end of the hallway, just turning a corner. You break into a run, because you don’t want me to vanish through a doorway without you seeing which one it is.

  A door slams shut the second you make it to the bend in the corridor. You barrel around the corner and realize that I must have disappeared through one of the first two doors on the inner side. There are doors on the street side, too, but if I had used one of those you would have seen it closing.

  All right, this is the point at which you have to make a choice. But now you face
a dilemma. The meaning of your choice became clear to you about a second after you turned to face those two doors, and an immense amount is riding on your decision.

  If you knock on the door to my room, I’ll open it and invite you in for a long talk. As long as you like. You will have done exactly what you should, and your reward is that you can ask me anything you want—I’ll answer all the questions that you’ve wondered about, all the questions that have plagued you. And believe me, there’ll be a lot of questions—once you’ve had time to think about everything we’ve done and are about to do, you’ll be overflowing with questions. The answers you get will be the explanations you have needed, in fact really hungered for, all your life.

  But you realized a second ago that if you pick the wrong door some terrible personal catastrophe will happen to you. This dreadful recognition came to you right out of the blue—guess what, there are consequences to making the wrong decision, and in this case those consequences could be really horrible. And what makes this deal even worse is that the catastrophe will happen not to you personally, although it’s still going to be personal, all right, but to someone you love. If you make the wrong decision, something terrible is going to happen to some person you care for with all your heart. Could be a crippling stroke, a hideous mutilation in an auto accident; could be a horrible lingering death, with screams of pain and shit all over the sheets.

  Then you will have to make the choice. How much are you willing to gamble? Let’s say that you have a feeling about which door is the right one, a sort of gut instinct. Can you trust that instinct?

  Tough, isn’t it?

  But this story ends when you open the door. It doesn’t matter if you managed to guess which room is mine, which door I closed behind me. You put your hand on the door handle, you knock, it’s all over. End of story. By choosing one, you chose the other, too. Do you understand why? Those two consequences are joined at the hip, they’re Siamese twins. Even if you picked the door with the lady behind it—all questions answered, all explanations given, your life solved for you—it’s still true that you gave the tiger permission to jump. You gave your assent to catastrophe, you invited tragedy and horror to walk right in. You got lucky, that’s all.

  Mallon said:

  Every secret mission requires a good thief.

  Mallon said:

  Trust me. When the tide rises, you shall be at my side.

  Mallon said:

  One of you shall inhabit the country of the blind.

  Mallon said:

  I think you will rise up singing, you will sail up into the blue. Singing one long, continuous song so beautiful that it will entrance everyone who hears it.

  Mallon said:

  Words create freedom, too, dear Hootie, and I think it is words that will save you.

  donald olson

  Chicago, Early Summer

  Sprawled out in a high-backed stool, Don Olson had commandeered the entire lower half of the long bar at Mike Ditka’s. While his left arm barricaded his drink, his right index finger jabbed the air. He kept his head turned back toward the bartender. The bartender was ignoring him.

  “There he is, the guy I was telling you about. You read a book called The Agents of Darkness, didn’t you? Eighty-three, right? Year it came out? Cover of Time magazine?”

  “Good memory,” I said.

  Stationed in front of the two men at the far end, the bartender appeared to be engrossed in passing celery sticks through a stream of cold water. This was going to be even more terrible than I had feared. I wished I had never talked to the guy. The people at the tables were shifting their eyes between Olson and myself. The guys at the far end stared straight ahead. They might have been watching television, but what they were watching, with increasing wariness and alarm, was the former Dilly-O.

  “I asked you a question, my friend. Does the name Lee Harwell mean anything to you?”

  “Sir,” said the bartender, “in 1983, I was eight years old.”

  “How fleeting is the bauble, fame,” Olson said. “Come over here and give your daddy some sugar.”

  So now this guy was my daddy? The odors of sweat, unwashed flesh, and tobacco intensified as I drew nearer, and I held my breath while I embraced my old friend. Salt-and-pepper stubble covered Olson’s cheeks. The stench was part of the reason everyone else had fled to the other end of the bar. The rest of it would have been whatever he had said or done. Olson gripped me a couple of beats too long before releasing me.

  “Let me buy you a drink, man, hey? That sound like a good idea?”

  “Good enough,” I said, and asked for a glass of pinot grigio.

  “Pinot for my buddy, and another margarita here. Hey, Lee.” A slap on the shoulder. “You gotta know—I really appreciate this.”

  He leaned back, grinning. “Should we maybe grab a table?”

  “Let’s,” I said, and saw the bartender’s shoulders drop an inch or two.

  “Which one you like? That one?” Olson was pointing at one of two empty tables at the back of the room.

  I was trying to reconcile the scruffy, hard-used man before me with both his eighteen-year-old self and the man Jason Boatman had once described to me in the lobby of the Pfister. Olson looked exactly like a man who had just walked out of prison. The yardbird bravado made him seem inauthentic, potentially dangerous.

  “That one’s fine.” I felt an instinctive need to keep Olson pacified.

  The entire room relaxed when we sat down at the back table.

  Olson faced the door, keeping a watch out for something that was never going to happen, and the other patrons went back to their conversations, their burgers, their laughter. A small, brown-haired, and extraordinarily good-looking female waiter brought our drinks on a gleaming tray and set them down with a flicker of a glance for me, nothing for Olson. She evoked the memory of forties movie queens like Rita Hayworth and Greer Garson. She also evoked another memory, sharper, more immediate, and charged with feeling.

  “This is a great place, right? I thought you’d like it.”

  “I like it fine,” I said.

  “You’ve been here before, I suppose.”

  “I think so.”

  “Places like this are so common in your experience, you don’t remember if you were here before?” Olson’s eyes flicked away and for a moment inspected the bar’s entrance. Then his attention snapped back to me.

  “I was here once before, Don. About a week after it opened. We came for dinner.”

  “They serve good food in this place, right?”

  “Their food is dandy. It’s ducky. It’s swell.”

  “Okay, I get it. Hey, can I get you anything? An appetizer, maybe?”

  Ditka’s was on East Chestnut, five blocks south of my house on Cedar Street, not so close that Olson’s arrival felt like an intrusion—apart from all the ways in which it felt precisely like an intrusion.

  “Come on, let’s split a shrimp cocktail.” Here he gave another sharp, brief glance at the doorway, but whatever he was dreading or waiting for failed to appear.

  “Look, I never got around to having lunch,” I said. “And now it’s almost four. Let’s have a late lunch or an early dinner, does that sound good? On me, please, Don. I know you’ve had some hard luck lately.”

  “Today my luck is good. Tell you the truth, though, I could eat a cow.”

  “Then you picked the right place.”

  He waved to the waitress, and when her blue-gray gaze found him, performed a mime of reading a menu.

  She came to our table with two big gull-wing menus, and Don Olson, alas, folded his hand around her wrist. “What’s good here, honey?”

  She jerked her hand from his grip.

  “What do you think I should order?”

  “The Da Pork Chop.”

  “Da Pork Chop, that’s like the specialty of the house?”

  “Comes with cinnamon apples, green peppercorns, and au juice.”

  “That’s the baby for me. Start me of
f with the Fried Calamari. Extra crispy, can you do that for me?”

  I ordered a blue-cheese burger and a second glass of wine.

  “Another margarita, too, honey. Corona back. Did you ever read a book called The Agents of Darkness?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “This is the guy who wrote it. Forgive me, I’m Don Olson, and this is my friend Lee Harwell. What’s your name? It has to be as pretty as you are.”

  “My name is Ashleigh, sir. Excuse me, but I’m going to punch in your order now.”

  “Hold on, please, Ashleigh. I want to ask you an important question. Think it over, then give me your honest response.”

  “You have thirty seconds,” she said.

  Olson checked the entrance, lifted his chin, and closed his eyes. He raised his right hand and pinched his thumb against his index finger. It was a parody of careful discrimination, and it was awful to behold.

  “Does a person have the right to turn his friends’ lives into entertainment, for money?” He opened his eyes, his hand still raised in that snuff taker’s position.

  “You don’t need permission to write a novel.”

  “Get outta here,” Olson said.

  Ashleigh twirled away.

  “Ten years ago, that little slut would have gone home with me. Now she won’t look at me twice. At least she didn’t want to look at you, either.”

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