A dark matter, p.30
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       A Dark Matter, p.30

           Peter Straub
 

  And this appearance from nowhere and nothing, a twist of the air’s fabric, from the same vast dark space whose odor he had just caught, of an alert-looking fellow in a neat gray suit and a buzz cut served only to reinforce what had just taken place. Beside the man, a big dark dog with a thick black ruff and a tail like a curved sword jumped to his feet and swung his head to capture Boats with his shining, attentive eyes. He could think all he liked about packing his bags and catching trains to fat, sleepy, little towns, but he could not go back to the Pfister. That way had been barred.

  So now one of those agent guys, they might as well call them that, was watching Boats from behind, and the dog wasn’t anything like a real dog. If you asked Boats, that made him scarier. That agent and his mutt were from the same place as those noises that might or might not have been from some big private yacht where the drunks were whooping it up.

  If a person shouts I need what you need, is he saying I need you? Is he saying, Your appetites fill me up?

  Boats had to walk around the duck pond. The grass felt stiff, like bristles. The ducks swept their wings over their heads when he approached, and when he looked back after he had passed, they stayed floating that way, wings over their heads, looking like so many folded envelopes, inanimate things without consciousness. The agent guy trolled along forty feet behind, not paying nearly as much attention to Boatman as the fierce-looking dog.

  The sky darkened. The clouds ceased to scud through the air, and at once looked as if they had been painted on the flat, hard surface above them. The remaining light, so pale it was almost blue, held no warmth. The atmosphere around the marina had a neutral, dead quality, the quality of the inert and unmoving. The grass beneath his feet, no longer yielding, felt dry and crunchy, as if it had turned brittle, yet its vibrant green had not changed. After taking two more crunching steps, Boats felt curious enough to lower himself and inspect the paradoxical grass.

  Each identical stalk had been embedded, as if by an assembly line, into a raised cone of dark brown plastic. With their perfectly rounded edges, the cones resembled tiny volcanoes. Boats tried to pull a stalk from one of the molded cones, and was forced to give it a sharp, hard pull he feared would snap it in two. Instead, the green stalk separated cleanly, followed by a little puff of air from the crater and the sound of tiny metal parts locking together. He held up the stalk he had extracted from its fitting and watched it shrivel in his hand. When it resembled a sagging toothpick, he dropped it, stood up again, and continued crunching across the grass until he reached the white concrete at the edge of the marina.

  He stepped off the grass, noticed that the impression he had left behind was turning a pale brown, and looked back. All along the side of the duck pond, his footsteps recorded his passage in prints of dead, sand-colored grass. On the sidewalk, the man in the gray suit opened his hand parallel to the ground and raised it a few inches. The big dog, already upright and alert, lifted its tail, bared its pointed teeth, and trotted out on the grass. As if scorched, the false grass died beneath its pads, and rows of tidy paw marks followed the creature in its course toward Jason Boatman. The animal paused twenty feet away. Flat, inert blueness filled the air. Forcing himself to hold his ground, Boats inspected the dog. It resembled a stuffed thing on a wheeled cart. The ruff of bristles looked artificial, and he thought he could see that each of the dog’s fearsome and perfectly white teeth emerged from a small, molded, pink mound that looked nothing like actual gum tissue.

  At that moment, wing beats and birdsong awakened the air, and Boats looked up. Overhead, a skylark sailed, wheeling in its course. It was blatantly, gloriously present, burning with life, pouring out a fresh, ardent, unending melody that nearly stopped his heart. Boats thought: This painful goddam life is full of blessings. Then, as abruptly as it had appeared, the lark vanished.

  How, you ask, did he know it was a skylark? Anyhow, you say, he must have been mistaken. The guy’s a washed-up criminal, not a birdwatcher, isn’t he? Doesn’t he know that skylarks have never been seen on this continent? That they don’t exist on this continent? The guy saw a barn swallow. Well, guess again, pals, because when Boats finally managed to get home from his encounter with the dark matter, he looked up “skylark” in the encyclopedia. And there it was, a longish brown bird streaked with black above the wings and with dull white below. There was a picture, and it was the bird he saw, all right, the same exact bird. Let me tell you, that song, that melody, of the skylark … well, all he can say is, he heard it, and it’s something, all right.

  (I should have been there, I almost said.)

  In the blue air, beneath the coruscating sun, the memory of the skylark already growing dim, he walked out onto the long, curving slip and within a few minutes spotted one of his father’s boats, a little sloop with a bright yellow nylon spinnaker that hung limp and raglike from the mast. Just to make sure he was right, he hunkered down at the edge of the dock and looked at the topmost section of the hull. Exactly where he had expected it to be, he found his father’s lightly burned-in mark, C. BOATMAN, 1974, along with his logo, the letters C and B placed together with no space between them, so that it looked like a letter from an unknown alphabet. But really, he had not needed to see the logo: the sloop had the tidy, Alles im Ordnung air common to Charles Boatman’s products. As soon as you saw one, you knew it would be fast as hell, too. It was pretty funny, when you thought about it. This guy whose life was a funky mess, who stayed as stoned as possible for long stretches of the day, detested authority, and had a lifelong, sentimental connection to the working class, made these perfect vessels that were essentially playthings for rich people. The poor could learn to sail, if they grew up in the right places, but you had to have a lot of money to buy a Charles Boatman product.

  A single line wound around an iron staple tied the sloop to the dock. The spinnaker should have been taken down and folded into the little bag called the turtle, but instead it drooped like a dead thing from the mast. The owner must have rushed back to the marina, jumped out, tied up, and run off to a meeting, intending to return to his boat as soon as possible. But where was the mainsail? The harried owner was nowhere in sight. Neither was anyone else, but for the creature with the attentive dog. Both of them still gazed at him, waiting for whatever he would do next.

  The world looked wrong. No cars swept down Memorial Drive, no joggers or runners moved along the path, the ducks cowered frozen under the abrupt angle of their wings, and what he could see of the city looked dead. The stop signs all glowed red. Out before him, the entire lake had turned the flat dark blue of a bruise.

  The thought of sailing away, of escaping, brought with it the memory of unhooking a Sunfish from a private dock and voyaging out in search of his father.

  As if a window in space had flown open, the raucous uproar of the floating party blasted toward him as if from thirty feet away: the terrible scream-like laughter, the blaring voice with its mystifying, aggressive statement. The second the speaker had trumpeted his message, the whole thing was cut off again, as if the window had blown shut, or as if a giant radio had suddenly lost the signal from the Party Channel. What followed was not pure silence, but silence threaded with two voices. Although he could not make out the words they were speaking, the voices seemed familiar to him, more than familiar, as dear as the voices of tutelary spirits from his childhood. Long before he identified these voices, he understood that he knew them intimately, and that at this stage in his life, nothing they said could be pointless or unnecessary. That they had returned meant that they had returned for him, that they had sought him out. He needed to hear what they were saying.

  Then the dog stepped forward, and the dying sun turned rusty, and the deeper of the two voices could be heard to say, Don’t you think … (indistinct muttering) … think we need …? To which the second voice replied, … I need what you need …

  Great movements as of iron walls sliding forward and huge sections of concrete blocks fitting perfectly into place achieved i
ntricate mental alignment, and he knew who was talking, out there on the lake. The first voice belonged to Spencer Mallon, and the second voice was Donald “Dilly” Olson’s.

  He’s somewhere new, Mallon said.

  We are what he needs, said the Dilly-voice.

  Without pausing to think for any longer than it took to visualize the actions, Boatman unwound the rope from the staple, stepped from the dock into the boat, and pushed himself away. He saw himself do it, then he did it, step by step, with no regard for the consequences. Just as he was about to drift to a dead stop, the one and only breeze in the strange little world around him puffed out the yellow spinnaker and, astonishingly to Boats, spun the boat out into the lake.

  It wasn’t that he was a terrible sailor, for he was good enough to stay upright and get where he wanted to go, and he knew all the basics, but he now labored under two great handicaps. His feelings about his father had kept him from loving sailboats and sailing, so his instincts were crude and sometimes faulty; and he had never been out in a boat equipped with only a spinnaker. As far as he knew, neither had anyone else, at least by choice. Losing the mainsail made the whole enterprise trickier, more difficult by an exponential factor. A spinnaker was an extra sail that let you go faster downwind, and it was not rigged or positioned to do the job of the mainsail.

  He had to steer using both the rudder and the spinnaker pole, but first he had to trim the sail, an impossible task when there was no wind. Upon the instant a nice breeze struck up, and he had to scramble to hook up the halyard and sheets to the three corners, and while he tugged at the sheets, the boat listed and hawed, circling around on itself so violently it nearly dipped the deck into the lake. It came to him that three people were really needed, one to steer, one to trim, and one to handle the pole. One guy alone had to battle to maintain a barely minimal level of control. By the time Boats was leaning back and pulling on his lines, the marina had disappeared, and he had no idea where he had drifted. The air had grown bluer and bluer, though it was still transparent. The sun had vanished, and the water looked almost black.

  Abruptly, the party noises blared out at him from around what would have been a corner, had corners existed on lakes. The screaming woman, the shouting madman, the tumult of jabbering voices: he welcomed their return. He considered them a summons, a noisy call to arms. As a fresh wind filled the sail, he pulled in the sheet, and like a greyhound leaping from the gate, the boat took off in the direction of the invisible party. In moments, the din ceased, permitting two familiar voices to furl through the silence. He caught their intonations and the cadences of their phrases, but not their words.

  Then he saw a length of sandy beach ending at a line of trees. It looked like a cartoon of an island. A dark fog floated like a low cloud through the tree trunks and along the beginning of the sand. Unless he acted quickly, he was going to run aground and do irreparable damage to the boat. Boats thrust at the pole and hauled on the tiller, and the boat swung sideways to the wind. The yellow sail collapsed. Everything stopped moving.

  Over the drumming of his heartbeat, Boats heard Spencer Mallon say, The tiger IS the lady, and the lady IS the tiger, and that’s the part that nobody …

  Understands? Thinks about?

  Boatman slid into the water. His skin went numb and shriveled, and he felt his penis retract. He touched down on a squirmy, slimy substance like rotting weeds that wrapped about his ankles and burned the soles of his feet. Only great effort extracted his feet from the grip of the weeds, and he had to repeat the effort with each step as he moved, guiding the boat toward the beach and the gliding fog. When the keel rasped along the bottom, he pulled himself free of the weeds, stepped up onto sand, and moved to the front of the boat and dragged it three-fourths of the way out of the water.

  Boats was almost certain the voices had come to him from within the woods. Subtle low sounds that easily could have been the voices pitched at a lower volume continued to drift out from between the trees.

  As soon as he moved forward over the sand, the low-lying fog swept over and engulfed him, obliterating everything before him. He cried out, “SPENCER! SPENCER MALLON! HELP ME!”

  No voice came to him, and he stumbled forward, his mood falling with hideous speed from expectancy into despair. He had been lured to this part of the shore, which must have been an island because it certainly did not exist anywhere on the shoreline of Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Chicago, no, it did not. The world had turned sour and dead, and the dead world had captured him within it. His arms outstretched, he took a step forward, then another.

  Knowing it was useless, he cried out, “MALLON? CAN YOU HEAR ME?”

  The fog chilled his skin and threaded into his nose and mouth. He had never felt more lost in his life. What had happened to him?

  Ever since the insane voices had come across the water, the world around him had warped and darkened. Grass that was not grass died at his footstep, the lake became a giant bruise, the sun cooled and turned the color of rust, one of the awful dogs was merely an unliving animated thing. The darkening world had coaxed him into a boat without a mainsail and blown him to its wretched heart, this maybe-island where he could see nothing because of fog that smelled like ammonia and tasted like chlorine when it trickled down his throat.

  He told himself to keep moving, at least. Groping with his hands, coughing, Boats stepped forward and felt his fingers touch the tree bark. He was a fool, and he had come to the end of the line. That he had stolen one of his father’s boats seemed like part of the cruel joke.

  The unmistakable timbre of Spencer Mallon’s voice came to him from deeper in the woods, and he swung toward it. A thick branch scraped his face, and a fistful of twigs dug into his hair. Boats forced himself not to scream, though screaming was what he most felt like doing. While he fingered his hair free of the twigs, he could hear Mallon going on, obviously conversing. Holding his hands about his head like a cage, he took small steps toward the unspooling voice. He squinted through his burning eyes and saw only the fog’s heavy wool.

  Mallon’s voice said, … picked up that severed hand and threw it into the corner … dog … carried the hand outside, the wounded man’s wrist … having a drink from a glass …

  “Sticky with his own blood!” Boats shouted, remembering what his hero had said in the downstairs room of the Italian restaurant. “The glass was sticky with his own blood!”

  The scene in the lower room had come back to him complete and entire, as if fixed beneath a bell jar. He could see vulpine, ridiculously handsome Mallon at his table, flanked by those gorgeous women. As Boats looked on in the clarity of returned memory, Mallon snapped his head to the left and squinted at something visible only to him: a figure that had flashed into being and almost immediately disappeared.

  Boats said, “You saw one of the dog-things, didn’t you?”

  Dilly’s voice floated toward him from between distant trees that seemed to clothe themselves in the fog, thinning its substance as theirs increased.

  … what he needs, what we all needed, what we need now …

  “DILLY!” Boats shouted. “MAN, YOU TWO ARE EXACTLY WHAT I NEED!”

  … Sticky with his own blood, kiddo … while the dog tore that hand to shreds …

  Boatman’s eyes still stung, and his throat felt raw from the fog he had swallowed. He could see fog twining around the stout trees before him, hanging between them like spider webs, thinning out as he moved deeper into the woods.

  … shreds … knuckle and gristle … dripping down the black muzzle …

  Boats felt himself gripped by two contradictory, utterly paradoxical feeling-states. He was elated, nearly joyous; and he felt like vomiting. All his elation seemed mocked by some underlying falsity, a cynical darkness momentarily epitomized by the image of a mutilated human hand dripping blood from a terrible muzzle.

  “HEY! I’M HERE!” Boats shouted, wondering why they seemed not to hear him. Whipped by thin, low-lying branches, he took two steps fo
rward, and had to stop moving, open his mouth, and bend over. His stomach convulsed, but nothing came up. It was the poisonous fog, he thought (and immediately said to himself, no, it wasn’t, fog isn’t poisonous, and it doesn’t make you want to puke). His nausea passed.

  … this foolhardy young idiot, said the Mallon-voice…. wisdom, some of it just came through.

  “No,” Boats said, “that’s not what you meant.”

  Violence is woven right into the fabric of our time …

  Birth is violence.

  “The divine sparks yearn to be reunited,” Boats quoted. He ducked beneath branches and the thinning fog. “That’s right, too, isn’t it?”

  Mild light, tinted a faint blue, filled a clearing about twenty yards through the woods. In that clearing, visible only in the flashes granted by the intervening trees, moved a man with blond hair who was saying, We live in a time of profound transformation.

  Boats’s heart expanded with love. “Spencer! Spencer Mallon! Look behind you!”

  Though he must have heard his voice, Mallon paid him no heed. Boats moved faster, more recklessly, bumping into tree trunks and stumbling over raised, snakelike roots. He scraped his forehead on a branch, and quick blood slid down past his eye and over his cheek. The swipe of his hand smeared the blood across the entire side of his face. He wiped his hand on his shirt and left a ragged stain. Boats moved to within ten feet of the clearing and saw the source of all the meaning in his life, Spencer Mallon, turned away from him in jeans, a chambray shirt, a safari jacket, and Dingo boots. His hair, rough looking and a touch too long, tended to bob when he moved. Even from behind, he looked shockingly young. Jason “Boats” Boatman had reached the weary age of forty-five: some long and equally weary years later, he would run into Lee Harwell, the once-famous author, on the sidewalk just outside the side entrance of the Pfister Hotel. Donald “Dilly” Olson was even more shockingly youthful. Seated with his back against a tree, a cigarette, most likely a Tareyton, dangling from the first two fingers of his right hand, and clothed in his high-school uniform of T-shirt, worn jeans, and moccasins, Don Olson looked youthful because he was only eighteen years old.

 
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