The first thing I notice about Uncle Jack is that he is ill. Jack Ziegler was never a very large man, but he always seemed a menacing one. I do not know how many people he has killed, although I often fear that it is more than the numbers hinted at in the press. I have not seen him in well over a decade and have not missed him. But the changes in the man! Now he is frail, the suit of fine gray wool and the dark blue scarf hanging loosely on his emaciated frame. The square, strong face I remember from my boyhood, when he would visit us on the Vineyard, armed with expensive gifts, wonderful brainteasers, and terrible jokes, is falling in on itself; the silver hair, still reasonably thick, lies matted on his head; and his pale pink lips tremble when he is not speaking, and sometimes when he is. He approaches in the company of a taller and broader and much younger man, who silently steadies him when he stumbles. A friend, I think, except that the Jack Zieglers of the world have no friends. A bodyguard, then. Or, given Uncle Jack's physical condition, perhaps a nurse.
"Well, look who's here," Addison seethes.
"Let me handle this," I insist with my usual stupidity. I discipline myself not to speculate about what Mariah suggested as we sat in the kitchen Friday night.
Before Jack Ziegler quite reaches us, I warn Kimmer to stay down by the car with Bentley, and, for once, she does as I ask without an argument, for no potential judge can be seen even chatting with such a man. Uncle Mal steps forward as though to run the same interference for me that he does for his clients as they leave the grand jury, but I motion him back and tell him I will be fine. Then I turn and hurry up the hill. Mariah, of course, is already gone, which is just as well, for this apparition might push her over the edge. Only Addison remains nearby, just far enough away to be polite, but close enough to be of help if . . . if what?
"Hello, Uncle Jack," I say as Abby's godfather and I arrive, simultaneously, at the grave. Then I wait. He does not extend his hand and I do not offer mine. His bodyguard or whatever stands off to the side and a little bit behind, eyeing my brother uneasily. (I myself am evidently too unthreatening to excite his vigilance.)
"I bring you my condolences, Talcott," Jack Ziegler murmurs in his peculiar accent, vaguely East European, vaguely Brooklyn, vaguely Harvard, which my father always insisted was manufactured, as phony as Eddie Dozier's East Texas drawl. As Uncle Jack speaks, his eyes are cast downward, toward the grave. "I am so sorry about the death of your father."
"Thank you. I'm afraid we missed you at the church--"
"I despise funerals." Spoken matter-of-factly, like a discussion of weather, or sports, or interstate flight to avoid prosecution. "I have no interest in the celebration of death. I have seen too many good men die."
Some by your own hand, I am thinking, and I wonder if the other, rarely mentioned rumors are true, if I am talking to a man who murdered his own wife. Again Mariah's fears assail me. My sister's chronology possesses a certain mad logic--emphasis on the adjective: my father saw Jack Ziegler, my father called Mariah, my father died a few days later, then Jack Ziegler called Mariah, and now Jack Ziegler is here. I finally shared Mariah's notion with Kimmer as we lay in bed last night. My wife, head on my shoulder, giggled and said that it sounds to her more like two old friends who see each other all the time. Having no basis, yet, to decide, I say only: "Thank you for coming. Now, if you will excuse me--"
"Wait," says Jack Ziegler, and, for the first time, he turns his eyes up to meet mine. I take half a step back, for his face, close up, is a horror. His pale, papery skin is ravaged by nameless diseases that seem to me--whatever they are--an appropriate punishment for the life he has chosen to live. But it is his eyes that draw my attention. They are twin coals, hot and alive, burning with a dark, happy madness that should be visited on all murderers at some time before they die.
Excerpted from The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter Copyright 2002 by Stephen L. Carter. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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