The East Coast of Nebraska
The picture was good, and the story was better. Heartland businessman builds empire, then dies tragically young. All was praise and adulation. The fellow from the The Speculator wrote what he was fed, and the widow was none the wiser. The daughter could show her face in school, the collection was in the river, and Parkhurst Gramble lay alone in his unmarked grave, brought safely home to Unthank.
S. Brookton Croy had done his job.
Or what felt like his job. His duties never had been precisely defined. He’d always acted according to the moment’s requirements.
Croy sat on his couch and stared out the window at the snow.
He’d had two sips of coffee and a bite of toast. He’d been sitting for an hour. It was ten in the morning, and he was in his pajamas and robe. And he was barefoot.
The snow swept across the picture window. Wind whistled from various corners of the house. He couldn’t see the house across the street, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d sat here at this hour of the day. The window was a flat screen of blowing snow, grey and impenetrable and distant and calm.
Croy let the newspaper slip from his fingers. He wasn’t asleep. He just didn’t care. He’d read the story. It said all the right things. He was happy.
The wife and daughter, he supposed, were getting on with their lives. It was a day later. The house was empty. They must be doing something.
Croy couldn’t imagine what. He couldn’t recall their names, and he’d been there yesterday. He’d seen their pictures on Gramble’s desk for years. They were fixtures, like the pen set, which Gramble never used. It was issued by HortiCorp when it took over Drury Implement. It said Drury Implement, but it showed the HortiCorp logo. The memo accompanying it couched the pen set as a gift. Congratulations on joining the HortiCorp Team.
At least they hadn’t called it a family.
Janey. That was her name. And the daughter was Susie or Becky or Winifred. Something. Croy couldn’t remember.
She was sickly looking, with bulging eyes and hollow cheeks. Just in from the wild, really. Her hair was stiff and grey, like tree bark, and she was skinny. Ran straight up and down. Her arms and legs were sticks.
Not her father’s type at all.
Croy hated having that thought, but he couldn’t help it now. Gramble had made it impossible to dodge. That was what Croy resented. He’d done his job. He’d always done his job. He’d mailed letters and picked up toiletries. He’d mapped out campaigns and sweated over budgets. He’d watched the man buy socks in menswear stores around the world. Tiny Asian clerks and hulking Africans in pinstripes stood to one side as Gramble’s fingers rippled with silk or cashmere. The patterns could have come off museum walls. They were colors Croy had never seen with names he had not heard. When a conversation turned to two- or four-ply yarn, Croy usually stepped outside, even if it was raining, and now that he thought about it, it usually was. Wet weather inspired Gramble to shop.
It was worse after HortiCorp. By then the sales trips were good will gestures, writeoffs instead of negotiations or closings. HortiCorp staff had replaced Drury Implement employees nearly everywhere abroad, and they did the real work. Gramble was so insignificant they didn’t even mind him being shipped in for PR purposes. He was a flag hoisted for the occasion.
Drury Implement existed now for the sole purpose of losing money. It was a tiny subsidiary being let to wither. Croy gave it five or six years, seven tops. Then it would be sold off entirely or simply dissolved.
Gramble’s Aunt Hyssop had seen it coming when HortiCorp first expressed its interest.
“Drury Implement has reached its limit,” she said. “Short of a public offering, we have no alternative.”
Croy had explained all this. Aunt Hyssop, however, was announcing it.
Gramble’s fingers patted at his desk. Under his mustache, his lips made kissy noises, and he looked from his Aunt Hyssop to his Cousin Emmaline, who was dressed for tennis. She sat with her legs crossed, but like a statue, completely oblivious to her surroundings. An odd piece of sculpture, Croy thought, but she always gave him that impression. Gramble’s fingers grazed his desk again, and he cleared his throat.
Aunt Hyssop said, “No. It’s out of the question. Drury Implement is a family business. We will not be bullied by any pack of fools with a spare million or two for the purchase of shares. We will dispose of the company before we take in boarders. Someone else may drag it into bankruptcy, but I will have no part of it, and I will be paid handsomely to give someone else the privilege.”
A most formidable, most admirable woman, in Croy’s opinion.
There were days she made him nervous, though. It wasn’t that she saw through him, but that she saw through Gramble and knew that Croy did, too.
Lying to the press and to the wife and daughter had been as easy as lying to the police. He steeled himself for the effort and said what was wanted to be heard.
Aunt Hyssop hadn’t asked a single question, and Croy was perfectly aware that she would not.
“Okay, sweets,” Parkhurst Gramble said. “Here’s what I want.” He fanned the sheaf of handwritten letters across the secretary’s desk and explained which should be dated when. He hated to be so explicit, but employees didn’t seem attentive anymore. Details slipped past them. He underscored with his fingertip the phrase he wanted in boldface, even though he’d labeled it as such, and asked her, “Do you understand? Is that clear? For want of a nail, sweets.” Then he left her with the notes on blue-lined paper and hurried back to his office.
He still hadn’t opened his mail. There were several tantalizing packages. Two from Denmark, one from Scotland, and a long-awaited letter from Paris were stacked with corners squared to one side of the new computer.
An infernal device, he thought. Very useful, of course, and Croy was right, the employees needed them, but they contributed to the downfall of penmanship, he was sure. Secretaries acted as if his notes were hieroglyphics. They thought he didn’t hear the muttering. If they knew just how much their jobs depended on his appreciation of their finer qualities, they’d sing a different tune.
He opened a drawer and took from the rear a stack of index cards. The pads on his fingers pressed against the edges only. When he had the cards positioned, he unscrewed his fountain pen and turned on the computer. He clicked his way to “Foreign Items” and starting typing from the first card. He was a hunt-and-peck man, and after a few minutes he was ready for a cigarette.
He lit one and kept typing. A few more cards and he’d earn his real break. He was building up to opening the mail. One of the Danish concerns was new but very reputable. He’d been told he could expect real value from them.
“Maybe it’s not in a hand basket,” he said. Opening the package would be the proof, of course, but he had more cards. He checked off a BCLG and turned it over. And there was the letter. He’d have to talk to Croy and get that trip coordinated. That new European line needed launching. It should dovetail, he thought.
He tapped at the keyboard, leaning close, his breath like a pool of smoke. He was making progress. Just a few more to go.
Croy dumped the lukewarm coffee and poured fresh. His toast he left on the counter. It was possible he’d come back for it. He scratched his stomach and looked at the snow.
Yesterday had been clear and cool. Quite pleasant weather for a funeral, actually. Polson Field had been filled with mourners, some of them confused by the lack of headstones. Croy understood, but it was a Drury tradition. No one after death received recognition. Aunt Hyssop explained it once. “The dead are gone. There’s no reason they should be cluttering the landscape.” The funeral at that moment was her husband’s. Croy and Gramble were very young men. Two days later Gramble was installed as the head of Drury Implement. Aunt Hyssop assigned Croy the writing of the press release. She watched him on the job for a few days and then stayed out of his way.
In the next thirty years she’d voiced not a single complaint. That was her highest praise.
The reporter from The Speculator was hot to write a sidebar on the graveyard without markers. Polson Field was exactly that, a field within a fence on the outskirts of Unthank. Except for some distant trees to the east, one might see the river. Iowa spread beyond it. Croy persuaded the reporter that a feature several months later would be more tasteful. The family would be more inclined to discuss its heritage than at this sad time. Cemeteries throughout the state or region, perhaps, might merit a lengthier discussion.
The man was both apologetic and enthused. Croy noted how easily he was deflected. He fed the man a few sympathetic facts about the Paris trip and Gramble’s unexpected, so very shocking demise.
He did not mention the long flight home or his own failure to sleep across the miles of ocean. He must have dozed but remembered only the engines and the circulating air of the plane and the yellow half light through which the flight attendants walked, leaning over occasionally to tend to the bodies in their seats. Croy watched this sepia ballet and could not put out of his mind the fact of Gramble crated below among the luggage and other cargo he had seen loaded into the hold. The crew on the tarmac wheeled their flat trucks into place and transferred every object on them to the belly of the plane as, Croy realized, they did every day and every night without the slightest concern for contents. Men in coveralls with reflective stripes saw that the plane was prepared for Gramble’s return home to the east coast of Nebraska, where Croy would not mention the Russian child, still naked except for panties, her breasts so amazingly large for a girl he’d guess was no more than twelve and whose eyes in her stone cold face could not hide her terror that she’d be blamed for the death of the homely, rich, American man who had not yet removed his beautiful, plush socks.
Gramble flipped another card and squinted at the next one. Here was a beauty. Always a surprise with this one, a quick guarantee, and this from the days when photos might be blurry. An early product he’d not looked at in years.
He could put his finger on the binder, though. He could see it without unlocking the glass. He didn’t even have to enter the room to feel the texture of the pages. Lightweight, a little cheap, but smooth. It wasn’t newsprint or something just above it. He remembered a try at quality.
Still, he could use a refresher. That would be fun.
“No, no, no,” he said. “Not till you deserve it.” And not with the letter still before him.
“Eye on the ball,” he said. “Don’t be swinging for the trees.”
He lit another cigarette, sat back in his chair.
Inhaled. Relaxed for several more seconds. Exhaled.
The computer asked if he wanted to Save. “Yes,” he said, clicking. He typed a few more words off the card.
The Algerian, he thought. The man dealt in only the finest. His shop alone would justify the trip.
Gramble’s fingers slid toward the letter from Paris.
Croy tried to remember what he usually did on weekends.
Gramble spent the time with his wife and daughter. He’d never been one to overdo it on the job. He’d show up at the office, though. Croy might be making some progress while the phones were quiet and hear Gramble in the next room doing a little solitary chatting. After a while he’d poke his head in and see what Croy was up to. It was always fine, no matter what. He was glad Croy kept himself busy.
Off he’d go.
He’d whistle all the way down the hall. Then the bell would ring, the doors would hiss open, they’d close, and Croy would sit again in silence and finish his project for the day.
So which one of them, Croy wondered, was the ghost?
In his pajamas and bathrobe, it was looking like himself.
He shouldn’t have had to dress the man. He didn’t deserve that duty, too. A wad of blue underwear discarded on the floor should not have been his responsibility.
It started with a knock on the door at ten p.m. He’d been watching television and was practically asleep. Then another knock, and he was awake to a voice saying, “M’sieur Croy, you must come at once.”
And he had.
Now he wasn’t even sure how they’d got his name. Gramble surely didn’t sign a register. There wouldn’t be a card on file listing emergency contacts. But find him they did. He’d donned his overcoat and taken on this latest task.
The wind beat against the house. Inside, all he heard was the coffee maker. Its heating element was buzzing. He couldn’t even hear the hum of the refrigerator. The place was as good as empty. The phone might ring, but he doubted it. There wasn’t anyone now who’d call. Not that Gramble ever did. They saw each other every day. What was there to discuss?
Croy watched the snow.
He’d been lucky with the weather. He could have got off the plane to this. The magazines would have been a much larger chore.
They were gone. He’d done that much.
He’d let himself in after midnight, carrying the small gold key he’d seen hundreds of times. He’d seen Gramble’s fingers squeezing it, the flesh of his tanned thumb turning white. Then it was slipped into a leather pouch and dropped deep in a pocket, with Gramble suddenly ready for any discussion Croy chose. Croy counted on being persuasive whenever Gramble emerged from his private room. Sure, sure, whatever you think. Don’t let me spoil the broth.
Croy discovered the key in a pair of pleated trousers he’d seen purchased that very day. They were folded neatly and draped over the back of a chair, but no one had laid even a sheet over Gramble. And that Russian girl, that child, hadn’t covered herself, either. Croy did his best not to stare, but her breasts hung like tubes of meat from her flat, white chest. Her nipples were brown stubs.
“He must not be found here,” a voice kept repeating, a fact so obvious Croy didn’t know how to answer. He patted at Gramble’s pockets.
The girl watched his every move. She stood close, as if to prove her innocence. She’d stolen nothing. “Nyet,” she said.
The key was in its leather pouch. He recognized it instantly. The girl’s eyes widened at the gleam. She stepped away from him, vindicated by gold, untouched, in the American’s pockets.
Her panties sagged. They were loose, too big, someone else’s. She sank to the floor and sat cross-legged, bored now, picking at some tiny blemish on her shoulder. Her nipples stuck out as fat as thumbs.
Children like her filled Gramble’s magazines. Croy couldn’t avoid looking at a few. The binders fell open as he packed them in boxes he’d taken from the copy room. There were girls with breasts but not a wisp of hair. Naked little slits were peeled open for the camera. It just happened to be there, was the attitude, a happy coincidence. All these frolicking children, and what have we here?
Croy taped the boxes shut and carried them one by one to the loading dock. He stacked them three high in the bed of his truck and drove them to the Missouri, a rushing swath of water even in the dead of winter.
At least there’d been no snow that night. It was cold but only enough for a jacket.
Even so, he worked up a sweat. He lugged each box from the truck to the end of the abandoned dock, and when all twelve were in place he heaved them as far as he could into the sliding, black water. They all sank. The water moved past each splash as if nothing had happened, and Croy stood for a long time watching the Iowa treeline doing not a blessed thing.
Now the key was on his dresser. He’d scooped it without thinking from one suit to the next with his own change and billfold, and his fingers brushed against the soft leather in his pocket at the oddest moments.
While talking with Aunt Hyssop or Cousin Emmaline. Or with the wife and daughter. His finger pressed the smooth pouch and reminded him of the glass case. Hearing Aunt Hyssop, he’d watch Emmaline’s impassive lips and remember the click of the key in the lock.
He thought of Gramble closed inside that private room. It might be two and three times a day Croy heard him in there, talking to the damn pictures.
An exquisite pleasure experience for the discriminating connoisseur.
Gramble replayed that phrase, that promise, over and over again. The letter was confident he would join the ranks of like-minded souls in full satisfaction. Discretion was of course guaranteed to protect against the prejudice of those who misunderstood the active appreciation of a youth’s first blush. He was encouraged to make an appointment at his earliest convenience to ensure the fulfillment of his most subtle expectations.
He’d sent his answer off right away and had Croy arrange the new product launch tour. The man was a detail genius. Give him a couple of dates and cities and he could build a full itinerary. He knew all of Gramble’s favorite stores, too. Time was allotted for afternoons of shopping all across the continent. He sat beside Gramble now, pecking away at a laptop. Sales projections, it looked like. Hard to tell at this angle, but he was deep in study. New charts shimmered up every few seconds. His eyes never left the screen. Doing it for his own peace of mind, obviously. The HortiCorp boys had it all figured in advance. It was like having elves run the whole show.
Gramble reached up and twisted the air nozzle. The increase tickled past his mustache. He closed his eyes and listened to Croy hard at it. The man never stopped. He should have got married. All work and no joy. The comforts of hearth and home and so on would do him some good. He might smile more than once a week or so, although Gramble had to admit the man wasn’t quite the domestic type.
Janey had done a good job with Candiss. She was turning into quite the lady. A bug-eyed little creature, but that might be good. Boys would keep their distance, especially since she didn’t always remember she owned a hairbrush. Half the time she looked like a matted dog. Not bump on her chest, either. Not the softest little bulge. Pretty unusual for fifteen, he thought, but again, it could be a boon. No blood in a turnip. Boys stayed away by the hundreds.
Emmaline didn’t have dates, but she never wanted them. There wasn’t a boy in Unthank who could turn her head. A few had flirted with her, but Gramble always thought she seemed surprised and puzzled, as if a piece of furniture had decided to confide in her. She was polite but spoke in a tone that suggested she thought it best not to converse with shelves and tables. Gramble watched her petaled lips shape their tiny bits of speech and grinned at every athletic oaf suddenly trying to talk himself into an exit. Girls were supposed to be impressed, at least the pretty ones. The poor boys wandered off as if they’d passed through a cloud of bafflement themselves.
Oopsy-daisy, Gramble thought. Just because no girl on this entire earth ever looked better in a one-piece swimsuit was no reason to get your hopes up. Gramble always walked safely hidden in the pool, the water up to his neck. He’d squat if he had to. And even today, a one-piece really was her best bet. She never developed the upper attributes to justify anything more revealing. Plunging necklines wouldn’t do her any favors. She was smart to stick to tennis skirts as much as possible.
There were those who went for the boyish look. Pages and pages were devoted to girls with nipples smooth as custard and no other swelling to be seen. They weren’t his particular favorite, but sometimes as a change of pace he’d been known to surprise himself. No sense being snobbish. He didn’t need a showcase, a whole lollapalooza. He could enjoy the slighter pleasures.
The beverage cart rattled a few seats ahead. It was about time. If you couldn’t smoke anymore on an airplane, they at least ought to keep the drinks in regular circulation.
Gramble’s heart squeezed in his chest like something much larger than his own. It was big and slow and powerful. He felt blood push like a bullet through all of his veins.
He unbuckled his seatbelt and rearranged the fabric of his pants. No one needed to see under the big top on his way down the aisle. He caught the eye of the woman manning the cart, who was busy pouring orange juice over ice. “Hey, sweets,” he said, “when you get to here I’ll take two more.” Then he strode to the rear, thinking that if it were occupied he’d have that much more time to consider a girl to remember.
The silence of the house was not the solitude of the office on weekends. Croy had nothing to do. He was a lost soul in empty space.
Although the idea struck him as foolishness. He’d lived here his entire adult life. He saw no reason to be imagining nonsense.
It was tempting to blame the snow, but he rather liked it. He’d heard of people in blizzards getting lost not a hundred feet from the house. They’d be found in the spring. They hadn’t vanished after all.
People inside had assumed the worst. A simple accident came as a relief. They hadn’t been abandoned.
But they were just as left behind.
Funny, the adjustments people made.
Croy peered down at his bony toes. They were bleached, misshapen things in anybody’s book, but they were no one’s business but his, and when someone eventually found him dead, they wouldn’t be swaddled in angora socks.
Now the wife had drawers of the things. She had to, Croy thought. Her husband bought two or three pair in every store worth half an hour of browsing. This didn’t include the shirts and sweaters and slacks that went together only because Gramble wore them that way. Croy couldn’t say any of the man’s outfits exactly matched.
He’d always had peculiar taste in clothes. Croy’s first thought had been that Gramble was deflecting attention from his face. He’d had an adult’s ugliness at the age of ten. He looked like a bulldog. It only got worse as he got older. His eyebrows turned unruly and low. His had hung forward from shoulders hunched with fat. He grew jowls that flattened and sagged, especially now that he kept himself tanned all year. He was as brown as a baseball glove.
Except for the band of white skin like a strip of underwear. It flashed against the eyes, and in the center was the nest of hair with its plug of lazy, thick flesh.
“Please, he must not stay here. He must not be seen.”
Was this how the wife was greeted every night? Her husband laid out? Presenting himself?
It didn’t seem likely. Gramble never looked a woman in the eye, not in Croy’s experience. He fiddled with his mustache, made himself busy, issued orders. Then he’d glide away and lock himself in the room. His fingers would go right for the leather pouch.
The man preferred a period of self storage, no doubt about it.
After the funeral, Cousin Emmaline wandered the house like a stranger. Her mouth was a perfect rosebud. She seemed like someone who’d forgotten English. If she listened enough, she might take it in. Croy studied her unspeaking lips. He memorized them.
The daughter glared at the world. She said nothing. Her father was dead.
She wasn’t his type.
He liked them younger. He wanted the tits to be sausages or bags of oatmeal. He liked them fat and unwieldy, like afflictions, a joke on some little girl’s chest.
BCLGs. Big-chested little girls. Gramble had them catalogued. They were written up on recipe cards. He had one on his nightstand in the hotel room. “Svetlana” and a question mark. No other information provided. His fountain pen rested on top.
Croy had laid him on the floor. The bed was too easy. It might make people wonder. He let him lie with spraddled legs and one arm bent back like it hurt.
The world was codified according to his magazines. It was how his eyes worked, and now so did Croy’s. He couldn’t help it. He’d seen the cards and magazines. He’d got rid of all of them, but he knew Gramble’s habits now. His eyes were Gramble’s ghosts.
The daughter would be easy to place in the collection. She was tall and wore her clothes like a refugee. She was shadows and bones. Her teeth were like pellets. But hair must have started. The grey thatch of it would stick out below her vertical hips. She’d probably warrant a special feature.
She stared back at him in utter hatred. A pin on her blouse sagged against her useless chest, and she didn’t blink, not even once. Croy threaded his way to the coffee to escape. As he filled his cup, the wife whispered into his ear.
“Mr. Croy,” she said.
Her eyes were clear and blue and had not been weeping. She looked like no one. Croy couldn’t remember when she and Gramble met.
“I wanted to thank you,” she said. “I know you took good care of him. It must have been difficult, bringing him home.”
Croy murmured something. He sipped his coffee. He waited. He listened.
She knew nothing, he decided. She had no suspicions. She was expressing her gratitude for his care and attention at the death of her husband. And for Croy’s friendship. It meant so much to him over the years.
“Of course, you saw him more than I ever did,” said the wife. “I don’t think I had a fair chance.”
She turned and walked away. He was holding a gold rimmed porcelain cup with a handle too thin for his fingers, and the woman left him with it, pinched there, like an insect.
He was the reason that everything was wrong.
She had sorted out the world, and he was its flaw.
Croy looked at the leather pouch on his dresser. He wondered if she’d ever noticed it.
But why should she? Even Croy knew they’d dressed in separate rooms. A matter of policy, said Gramble. Good for the gander. The most important meal of the day.
And he’d wink. And tug at his mustache. And blow across the palms of his hands.
The moist towlettes were a nice touch. Gramble thought public restrooms everywhere ought to be so supplied. He dabbed at the last little jelly bits and flushed the handful down the stainless steel. Another green ice ball from 20,000 feet. Maybe they melted before they hit the ground. He’d never seen one himself, but Unthank was hardly on anyone’s flight path.
The Danish package was as good as advertised. Two or three real charmers in that one, and not a bum in the lot. No suffering through pictures of somebody’s dick laid out wet like a gauge for size. Nothing spoiled the mood faster, in Gramble’s opinion. If he wanted that sort of thing, he’d order it, but turning the page onto some guy’s round column of muscle guaranteed a broken spell. All the fine feelings were instantly forgotten. You practically had to start all over.
Negro girls had the same effect. He just did not find their nipples appealing. They looked tough as rubber or else smudged with charcoal. He passed them as if they didn’t exist.
In Paris he’d be given his choice. He’d already picked her. They specialized in the Slavic. No Asiatics, no Spanish-speakers, no sub-Saharans. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Balkan and Ukrainian girls were flooding westward, making better money than they’d ever dreamed and sending it home. Whole villages were thriving on these shots of hard currency. And the girls knew some techniques not commonly practiced in Europe. Those long winter nights added up.
Gramble couldn’t believe the fortune this was costing. The trip to Paris was nothing. It was HortiCorp’s dime. But the salon when he got there, and the prepayment before. The prepayment alone! He’d always kept some side accounts for magazines and the like, and he was sure Janey had some secret funds. A marriage prospered when both parties had some independence squirreled away. This little expedition, though, this venture into real indulgence, this was turning into money.
HortiCorp made it possible. Drury Implement on its own was too much work, even with Croy doing the steering. Dreary Implement was more like it. The buyout was the greatest gift Gramble had ever seen. He got mountains of cash up front, steady income for the rest of his life, and stock options that could buy a small country, maybe two. He should have Croy check into that. A sovereign state with its own laws regarding imports and duties might make some favorite shipments much easier.
All this from signing on the dotted line, which wasn’t dotted but a line nonetheless, and his sole responsibility was to be a poster boy and shake hands and make predictions about cooperation and good fortune. He offered them phonetically if he were in a country that didn’t speak the language. People applauded all the more. Not bad for a boy from Unthank.
Aunt Hyssop should have had more confidence. His whole life she’d acted like the world was his fault. He didn’t kill his parents in a car wreck. He didn’t put himself on her doorstep. She seemed to think he’d mismanaged his life and shown up to beg. But the company’d done well enough, hadn’t it? HortiCorp was the one who’d come sniffing. If she hadn’t thought him capable, why had she put him in charge? It wasn’t like he genuinely shared the good family name. Everyone knew he was a Gramble, not a Drury. He was in by default. They were stuck with him, but stuck or not he’d made them their money. No one was complaining about the checks.
Gramble stood to pull up his trousers and immediately wanted to sit back down. He clutched the small shelf beneath the mirror and let the moment pass, but it took its damn sweet time. He held on tighter. His lungs just didn’t feel big enough. He couldn’t get in the air he wanted.
He slowed his breathing. In, out. Nice, easy.
It felt better. He shouldn’t be sweating, but at least he didn’t feel like he’d just run half a mile. And to think people did that for fun. Out there in their little shorts and shoes, cheeks huffing and puffing, never mind the weather.
“Not for me,” said Gramble. “I’m an indoor sportsman.”
He drew his pants up from his ankles and made himself presentable. A little tucking, a little straightening, a shimmy to slip things in place, and there he was, suitable for framing.
He stepped onto the toilet seat for a better look in the mirror.
It wasn’t a bad outfit, but he wanted something new for the occasion. A hint of luxury would be nice, something elegant. Maybe even cashmere, since he was spoiling himself. A visit to the Algerian’s definitely was in order. You always left his shop feeling impeccable.
Croy dressed slowly, pulling heavy socks onto his feet after climbing into a suit of thermal underwear. The socks were grey, with white at the toes and heels and red stripes above the ankles. They looked odd at the ends of his long underwear legs, a pale beige a bit like yellowed cream, he thought, and not designed to flatter even a body as thin as his. It drooped at the behind and cinched at the knees. A small lump poked in front like something left hanging by mistake.
He blinked at the mirror. He should have been checking for lint on a suit, or a loose thread, or a scuff that needed attention. Now he looked like a man unsure what brand of beer he wanted to buy.
The long underwear in the men’s shops Gramble patronized tended to be silk. Croy was willing to concede all the arguments about comfort and versatility in a full range of temperatures and climatic conditions, but he still believed the bottom line was self-indulgence. Gramble bought the clothes he did because he wanted to. It was his pleasure. A man didn’t enter a store that would wait on him hand and foot and everywhere in between because he thought the clothes were purely functional.
Not when he stroked his mustache with one hand and leaned over drawers of samples, petting the material and mumbling, “Very sweet, oh yes, very, very sweet.”
How many times had Croy heard that from the next room?
The little Algerian obviously knew his business. He dressed like a movie star and probably combed his eyebrows and had the manners of a British diplomat.
“Of course we do have alpaca, but it is, alas, more costly than its genuine value. In confidence, the quality is not in keeping with previous years. I do have excellence in other areas, however.”
The tiniest flicker of his eyes had Gramble saying, “Yes.”
Eight hours later Croy was searching the pockets, with Gramble wearing only the socks.
“Please, not here. He must not be here.”
Croy didn’t know who was in charge, but it wasn’t the man with the brown teeth who kept begging for Gramble’s removal and who eventually helped get him back to the hotel. He had a chest so sunken Croy could see the dent through his pea-green shirt, and he pulled a wad of francs and dollars both from his ill-fitting pants to buy the silence and even the disappearance, if Croy trusted his French, of the uniformed boy who escorted them unseen through back hallways and stairwells to return Gramble to his room. The man was paying with money he’d been given for the purpose. He was too careful counting it out for it to be his own.
No one at the funeral doubted a word Croy said. Gramble died alone in his room. The Russian girl didn’t need to exist, and so she didn’t.
C’est très simple, n’est-ce pas?
Aunt Hyssop loomed near as soon as the wife was gone. Croy still had in his head a picture of Gramble blowing on his hands. Then he’d rub them together, all gusto and joy. It rasped like sandpaper. Croy watched the door through which the wife had left and was suddenly aware of Aunt Hyssop beside him. She poured herself a coffee from the urn and stood drinking without giving any indication that it was hot. He could see the steam, but she swallowed as if it were pleasant and refreshing. She acted like a woman with all the time in the world. When her cup was empty she refilled it and cast her gaze about the room, Croy thought, as if she meant to redecorate.
She spoke in a low voice, without facing him. “Janey is not perceptive. She cannot be expected to know any better.”
Croy tried to remember the last time Aunt Hyssop had spoken to him about a matter other than business. He wasn’t entirely sure she had.
“The woman believes her husband is a genius. You of course have ensured that The Speculator will confirm that opinion. She shall have more articles for her scrapbook.”
The two of them moved to allow others near the urn, but essentially they stayed where they were. Croy had the odd feeling that they were standing by the river, watching it flow.
“I am most appreciative,” Aunt Hyssop said, “of your conduct and discretion. My nephew often required more in the way of care and feeding than a savory man might wish to provide. No doubt you will find it consoling that certain duties have come to their end.”
She set her cup and saucer on the table, well back from the edge.
Croy stood by himself, no more necessary, now, than Svetlana.
Gramble opened and closed his fingers, working them over and over, but the pain in his arm was as stiff as an iron bar. He rolled his shoulder and neck. Nothing doing. It was tenacious, and aspirin didn’t faze it. Maybe he’d pinched a nerve on the plane. He’d slept funny, with his head jammed between the seat and window.
“If He’d meant us to fly, He’d have given us codeine,” Gramble said. “Or better drinks.” He took one last pull on his cigarette, tapped it out, and blew a smooth wand of smoke into the air.
The elevator was his alone all the way down. Even the lobby seemed empty. The carpet spread like a blue and yellow lawn to the main desk and beyond, to the glass doors, which were polished and spinning. Someone must have just left. The only person in sight was a teenager in a burgundy coat with gold bands at the cuffs. He looked up from cleaning an ash tray and seemed relieved when Gramble wanted nothing of him.
Another drink, perhaps, but he was probably underage and he wasn’t a waiter and Gramble didn’t want to go overboard. He’d had enough for his nerves, enough to put a glow on the world. He moved through the doors and onto the sidewalk and felt as ready as he’d ever been in his entire life. He was a burning wire from head to toe. He took a deep breath of the cool night air and stepped off smartly.
An invisible fist pressed against Gramble’s sternum. It hurt. It didn’t ache. It wasn’t discomfort. It hurt. His breastbone was pushing all the way back to his spine.
It stopped. His lungs swelled to take in air. They flapped in his chest like bellows.
Gramble watched a pebble on the sidewalk and felt sweat crawling out of his pores. The pebble didn’t move. It lay by itself. It rested until he was able to pick it up and hold it in gratitude for letting him stare at it while collecting the use of his heart and and his lungs and his blood.
But he had an appointment for which he had flown across the ocean.
Gramble remembered her picture and felt himself smile.
Croy stepped into a pair of moleskin pants, then buttoned a flannel shirt that was looking thin at the elbows. He could probably stand dropping by the rod and gun shop for a couple more. He’d certainly got his money’s worth out of this one.
Same with the boots. They were still in basement, he thought. He’d left them by the floor drain. They were rated down to forty below. The liners inside looked like carpet backing, and the boots themselves had to be fifteen pounds apiece.
He pulled a sweater from a bottom drawer. It showed a few ragged holes. He’d never thought to put mothballs anywhere but the closets. Maybe that was a mistake.
He lifted the sweater over his head and slithered into it.
The cost vanished from Gramble’s mind as soon as the envelope was taken from his hand. He had a few doubts about the decor, but these were quibbles. The establishment was clean. It had no doubtful odors. Only one person looked sinister, and he, Gramble thought, surely was a necessary fixture. There was always the risk of some rough trade now and then. A man with such horrible teeth gave just the right impression of official menace. His shirt, however, shined like the butt end of a housefly. Some people were put off by that sort of thing.
There was talk of amenities, however. In his suite he would find a wide range of refreshments, but if a particular product were lacking, or if he simply had additional requests, a telephone was of course available. Lifting the receiver would immediately connect him. There was no need to dial.
Gramble tried to listen to what he was hearing, or at least appear to be paying attention, but this was taking too long. He was satisfied. He’d feared the place would be tawdry, but he’d stayed in hotels less well maintained. The walls were flat and painted and the carpets were new. The staff was solicitous. Enough already. They’d proved their point. He didn’t give a rat’s patoot by now that service was on the up and up.
His rib cage locked. It felt like a steel band clamped around his chest. His breath snagged every time he inhaled. He walked forward anyway, aiming for the door of his suite. He felt clammy again. His heart was pounding in his eyes.
“I’m no better than a schoolboy,” he marveled. “No wonder I hated it.”
He hesitated, thought about knocking, then simply entered the room.
It was nice. Nothing special, but very nice. There was a bar. The bed was gigantic. Another door was the bathroom, which looked spacious. There seemed to be both a shower and a tub. He thought the pictures on the walls were interesting. English fox hunting, mostly. Lots of horses and dogs.
“Tally ho, I guess.”
And then he saw the girl.
She was as beautiful as he imagined. She more than matched her photo.
He had not expected her to be so naked so soon. Her nipples stuck out like thimbles. They were brown against her alabaster flesh and perfectly round, circles as if they’d been traced. As big as half dollars. And she was waiting for him.
Immediately he was damp. He could feel the cool, wet seeping.
She stood and slipped toward him, unfolding her legs. She walked on tiptoes, with great care, and touched his belt. Her fingers slid in and out of his clothing until it was gone. It was folded in her hands and set aside, and he was more naked than she was. He watched the long sway of her breasts and the swimming of her bones beneath her skin. She wore panties. She was saving them for last. They hung there weightless, like a little flag, ready to be snapped away. He wondered if she would look knotted, or like worms laid side by side. He wanted to see her patch of hair. It would be thin, he thought, and soft, a riffle of air. Or it would scrape against him going in. She was hiding that much, skimming her fingers, testing his flesh.
She moved down his legs, kneeling, one hand braced against his hip. The other was open and descending his thigh. He watched her hair on her shoulders. It was liquid and golden and magnificent, and then something popped in his chest. It was hard and surprising, and it shot through his blood in a quick, black starburst of pain.
Croy put the key and its pouch in the trash with the coffee grounds and dry toast, and then he tied it in a plastic sack for the curb. He walked through the house once more, checking on the faucets and timers. It was like any trip out of town. He wondered how long it would be before someone was curious, and who it would be.
Nobody from HortiCorp. Their representatives yesterday had no idea he existed. They didn’t know Gramble from a hole in the ground.
Croy wondered if that might be considered a joke.
The HortiCorp boys were a timid lot. Arrogant, too, surprisingly. They seemed to think they ought to be in charge but had been issued instructions forbidding it. “Be considerate to the locals,” was all but written on their faces.
They didn’t like the cemetery. The lack of markers alarmed them. One kept whispering about a map.
“This can’t be the right address,” he said. “Do you see a headstone anywhere?”
The dirt piled at graveside, and the winch, didn’t convince them. They huddled closer together in their identical grey suits.
Croy understood the suits. The exact replica haircuts seemed a bit much.
There they stood: the future.
But then, they’d been the future for an awfully long time. They hardly needed to put in a physical appearance.
At the house they drank sufficient coffee to be polite, but their talk was of the weather. They made their apologies early, afraid the storm blowing in would engulf them. It was a good twelve hours off, but they did have to drive.
The wife was most understanding. They had no place here. Let them go.
Croy could imagine the conversation in the car once they got enough over the horizon to really step on it. And the reports filed back at the office. Those boys, he bet, could write up some memos.
He was pretty sure he wouldn’t appear in any of them. He was invisible. Not even The Speculator quoted him by name. He was Gramble’s ghost.
He was Gramble’s assistant.
One more person who shouldn’t be cluttering the landscape.
He’d hardly be missed. The wife and daughter might think of him by surprise. Whatever happened, they might wonder, and he’d be like a long ago dream.
Aunt Hyssop might pause for a moment. It was possible he’d cross her mind, but she’d be reassured. She would know she’d been understood.
Her grasp of complicity was as shaded as his own.
Cousin Emmaline was half dream even to herself, he thought. She would cost him nothing to remember.
Croy climbed into the cab of his truck and hit the button. In the rearview mirror the garage door trundled open. The snow outside seemed to rise from the floor like a frame of light.
He put the truck in reverse. The lever chunked in his hand, and he rolled into the flat screen of snow. It was like entering a cloud. The windows swirled with white. Croy watched it pelting the glass and listened to the blank scratching of wind. He smiled, knowing they’d find the house before they found him, and drove forward, letting the snow close itself behind him.
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