"Go ahead." I want suddenly to be free of him. I want to share his odd news with Kimmer, even though he told me not to. I want her to kiss me happily, overjoyed that she seems to be on the verge of getting what she wants.
"Others will ask this of you, some with good motives, some with ill," he explains unhelpfully in his mysterious accent. "Not all of them will be who they say they are, and not all of them will mean you well."
I forgot Uncle Jack's eerie, unfathomable certainty that all the world is conspiring, but he evidently has changed little from the days when he used to drop by the Vineyard house with gifts from foreign ports and complaints about the machinations of the Kennedys, whose irresolution, he used to say, cost us Cuba. None of the children knew what he was talking about, but we loved the passion of his stories.
"Okay," I say.
"And so I must ask what they will ask," he continues, the mad eyes sparkling.
"Well, fire away," I sigh. Over by the limousine, Kimmer is glancing at her watch and raising her hand, beckoning, to urge me to hurry. Maybe she has another telephone meeting coming up. Maybe she, too, is scared of Jack Ziegler, whom she has never quite met. Maybe I need to get this over with. "But I really only have a few minutes to . . ."
"The arrangements, Talcott," he interrupts in that wheezy whisper. "I must know everything about the arrangements."
I stand for a long moment in the narrow front yard, the key dangling from limp fingers, remembering the glorious Martha's Vineyard summers of my childhood, when friends and family swirled constantly in and out of the double front doors with their tiny panes of glass, some rose, some azure, some clear, held fast in frames of involute leading; remembering the many sad and lonely visits to this house through those endless months when my mother sat dying, often alone, in the front bedroom on the first floor; and remembering, too, how easy it became to avoid coming back here once the Judge began his tumble toward megalomania. As Kimmer fusses with Bentley and I stare at the summer home of my youth, I find that I have difficulty recalling precisely why I was so filled with joy when I learned that the Judge left me this cramped and unhappy shell. With my parents both dead, the house should by rights be dead as well, quiet and neutral; instead, it seems almost a live thing, fiendishly sentient, brooding malevolently on the family's misfortunes as it awaits the new owners. Quite suddenly I am paralyzed with some emotion far more primal than terror, a clear and utterly persuasive knowledge, shivering through me from some unnatural source, that everything is about to go wretchedly wrong: I fear that my legs will not move me to the porch, or my hands will not work the key, or the key will break off in the lock. In that terrible moment, I want to reject this scary inheritance and all its ghosts, to grab my family and hurry back to the mainland.
As usual, it is worldly Kimmer who restores me to my senses.
"Can you hurry up and open the door?" she demands sweetly. "Sorry, but I have to piss in the worst way."
"No need to be vulgar."
"There is if nothing else will get you moving."
She is correct, after a fashion, and I am being foolish. I smile at her and she almost smiles back before she catches herself. I heft the heavy suitcase in my left hand and bounce the key in my right. Then I stride boldly up the steps, heedless of the demons who caper in the shadows of memory. Drawing a breath, I dismiss them like a veteran exorcist and rattle the key into the lock. Only as the lock begins to turn do I notice that one of the tiny panes of colored glass is missing--not broken, just not there, so that through the space defined by the narrow gray leading I can see into the darkness of the house. I frown, pushing the door wide open, and, standing frozen on the threshold of the house I have loved for thirty years, I realize that the goblins have not all retreated. I try to swallow but cannot seem to gather any moisture in my throat. My limbs refuse to move me forward. Through a slowly descending curtain of the deepest angry red, I see my handsome wife brushing past me with a whispered, "Sorry, but I gotta go," and I feel her transferring Bentley's hand to mine.
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.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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