A serialization of the novel The Sound and the Shadows. Last week’s chapter is here.
When Davy got out of the loony bin after his first nervous breakdown, he returned to Cambridge, to a job in the MIT labs. Enjoying his work, settled into a spacious apartment with a leafy view of a quiet street, he seemed fine. But his psyche was unmoored, searching for something—or someone. Seeking a path, he fellow-traveled The Socialist Workers Party, thumbed through The Militant, and attended some meetings. But it didn’t stick.
One evening as he passed a newsstand on his way home, a Boston Herald headline grabbed his eye. Davy paid the newsie for a copy. At first he laughed at hot-head editorials, then with them, until, a week later, he began nodding in agreement, cruising into conservative waters, cautiously at first, then full steam ahead. Scouring used book shops, he discovered volumes by and about Buckley and Goldwater. He graduated to the harder stuff: Smoot, Schwarz, Stormer, marching ever rightward into the labyrinth of profound paranoia until a June Friday twilight found Davy disembarking a Red Line train, trotting a few blocks to a meeting of The John Birch Society held in a pastel-hued ranch house in Braintree, hosted by one Melissa Mudge.
There he was introduced to the dozen or so monthly regulars, most notably: Hank, a retired army sergeant, in is his civvies uniform, a short-sleeved white Sanforized shirt, brown polyester flares, argyle socks and a pair of Payless wingtips; and the Paulsons (never addressed by first names, they were always Mr. and/or Mrs. Paulson), looking like audience members from You Bet Your Life, he in a gray suit, French cuffs and silk tie; she in a dress, hat and white gloves, a flower pinned to her bosom. Parked out front, their black 1949 Ford two-door sported a “US Out of the UN” bumper sticker.
And there was Melissa. Fifteen years Davy’s senior, she what was once termed an old maid. She worked as a chemical engineer at Plastico. Collapsible lawn furniture, the kind made of aluminum tubing and lime-green and yellow plastic strips, appointed her home. The ranch’s basement was crowded with gray industrial shelving packed with science-fiction publications of the John Campbell variety, stories written by scientists for scientists. No space opera buffoonery, nor poetic tales of melancholia à la Ray Bradbury. For Campbellites, sci-fi was sober stuff, a physics or biology puzzle in the form of a short story or novel.
Before the meeting was called to order, chit-chat. Hank’s notion of socializing was to grouse about the “minorities,” his aqueous pale-blue eyes wandering, his flattop erect with Butch Wax, a scent of lanolin.
Mr. and Mrs. Paulson were of another order: genteel Harvard grads. Ancient and gaunt, their movements herky-jerky, as if skeletal creatures animated by Ray Harryhausen. Old New Englanders, they lived by flinty Yankee thrift. They’d drive their rusty Ford into the ground, changing the oil every 3000 miles until it collapsed in a puff of blue smoke.
The meeting called to order, they gathered in the den, some seated on folding chairs, younger gentlemen standing. Once the overhead light was turned off, a Birch Society filmstrip about the Federal Reserve projected onto the wall, Hank advancing the image with military precision each time the accompanying phonograph record went “ding.”
Afterwards, in the yellow Formica kitchen, refreshments: pink lemonade and homemade chocolate-chip cookies fueling a discussion of the creeping, near ubiquitous, socialism. Hank managed to blame things on “the blacks and the Hispanics,” Davy mildly amused that his view was devoid of epithets, politically corrected by cultural osmosis.
Hank glanced over to Melissa at the fridge. He lit a Tareyton, inhaled, held the smoke for a second or two, exhaled, then looked at the floor, studying the linoleum patterns, committing them to memory. He had a thing for Melissa, and that was a problem for him, he the product of a life devoid of viable females (his mother had died when he was three). Hank grew up with his tough Irish dad and a bunch of roughneck brothers, entered a boys’ Catholic high school, had his knuckles rapped by a nun’s ruler and his head smacked by the football coach. After graduating, he enlisted and lived decades of barracks life. Women, rare as rubies, were unearthed in an Okinawa brothel or a Saigon bar. Hank never had a real conversation with a woman, never had a real conversation, period. Now he found himself smitten with Miss Mudge: the way she moved, her voice, those eyes. A bulls-eye for Cupid. He hadn’t known he had a heart, but there it was, bursting. How to approach her, to win her? Each week he put on a clean shirt and buffed his shoes, but in her presence, his tongue was a knot. Try as he might, he couldn’t find words, simple words, little words, right words, true words. “I love you.” Can anything be simpler to say? Yet, all he could do was stand there like an idiot and stare, then join the menfolk in a corner and bitch about the minorities—a bunch of animals!—while wondering, with some desperation: What’s the matter with me? She’s perfect in every way! What’s the matter with me? Why can’t I behave like a normal man?
He decided to show up, simply show up, at her home up one Saturday, with flowers and candy like in a Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie. Armed with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of yellow roses, he drove to Braintree, to her block, but sailed, slowly, past her house. He circled the block a few times, and then returned home to Revere Beach, shot with anxiety. Trading fire with the Viet Cong had been child’s play compared to courting the gal of his dreams. That night, in bed, he stared at the ceiling until dawn, grinding molars and muttering. Around four in the morning he heard a racket: laughing, drunk teens tipping over his garbage can, spilling trash all over the front lawn.
It was Davy who won Melissa’s heart, without breaking a sweat. By July, they were relaxing afternoons away as her nieces and nephews dove in an above ground swimming pool.
“Hey! Unca Davy! Watch this! No, wait... Now, watch!”
“Wow! You are Olympic-bound,” he almost yelled, but stopped himself. The Olympics were commie.
Even poolside, Melissa dressed with modesty: a one-piece suit, her shoulders covered with a cotton cardigan. The sun warmed her thighs, breasts, belly.
A staunchly reactionary Roman Catholic, a sedevacantist, Melissa attended a Tridentine Mass at a local shrine housed in the backroom of an old bakery, one soon to be nudged into extinction by a gourmet pastry shop two doors down and a Dunkin’ Donuts one block over. Davy followed Melissa to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, of course, but often early mornings as well. Never mind their bedroom life: tacitly, both gave themselves a plenary indulgence via Acts of Contrition and liberal doses of holy water. Melissa was a lonely woman, Davy a lonely man. If they found a messy sort of solace in the dark, who’s to judge? A bunch of frustrated men in cassocks? As if the old boys weren’t having at it in the rectories, doors locked, shades drawn, lights out.
One night, just as Davy slipped into slumber, he mumbled, “I’m hungry...” From nowhere, a chocolate-chip cookie was at his lips.
Davy saw Bolshevism everywhere. Those kiddies with healthy chompers? Fluoridated water, a carrot luring a lulling nation into the abyss of a Soviet-style medical system. He agreed that President Eisenhower had been, in actuality, a conscious dedicated agent working on behalf of the Kremlin. Let the squishes, Buckley and that ilk, dismiss the charge! Bill was entirely too friendly with Galbraith, Kissinger, that entire pinko crowd.
Early on, Davy cemented his relationship with Melissa when he looked up from his magazine, turned to her and said, “You know, liberalism is really nothing more than communism on the installment plan.” Hearing this, she felt weak all over. Davy’s intellect was second only to Mr. Paulson’s.
At Mass, Davy paid rapt attention to the sermons, came to learn that Pope John XXIII and his Satanically-driven Vatican II Council was all part of The Conspiracy as well; that J-23 had been in league with Lutherans, Reds, The New York Times, Hugh Hefner, international bankers, Freemason Illuminati, and the ADL to destroy the mighty Roman Catholic Church from within, wielding a berserk chainsaw to its support beams while simultaneously swarming the moat and jack-hammering at the outside of the citadel.
One evening, after Swanson TV dinners of turkey, mashed potatoes, peas, and soggy smears meant to pass as stuffing and apple something-or-other, Melissa served Davy an extra dessert, a little dish into which she’d poured Sue Bee honey. Dipping a silver teaspoon into it, she brought the sweetness to his mouth and cooed, “It’s like pudding...” Suddenly, he was transported to his high chair in the New Hampshire boarding house. At that moment, he tumbled head-over-heels in love with her, hopelessly dizzy, dizzy, dizzy...
Davy and Melissa visited the Paulsons in August, Mrs. Paulson having invited them for tea at two. While they sat about the Victorian living room sipping Earl Grey, Mr. Paulson tended to the rose garden and the apple orchard, ignoring the outside world encircling, moving in for the kill. To the north, the development that went in when JFK was embarking on his presidency; to the east, cascading condo villages, home to singles and young marrieds; to the south, public housing towers; to the west, an Interstate. The bottom-line vultures were scheming, anxious to grab the Paulsons’ rolling acreage by hook or crook, pummel it and build something that would be razed in a generation. The location was ideal. Local politicians and developers, stinking with corruption and greed, were working the eminent domain angle behind closed doors, eager to line their pockets.
From a dusty mantel, a clock ticked loudly, as if amplified. Davy looked over and saw next to it the framed portrait of the Paulsons’ only child, Jerry, in uniform. The young lieutenant never returned from the Pacific Theater, his aircraft carrier sunk by kamikazes.
In a life jacket, bobbing like a cork, surrounded by an infinite black of sky and sea, drifting apart from his shipmates, Jerry heard voices in the distance screaming in mortal agony, men being eaten by sharks. Feeling one of the killer fish brush against his leg, he wept, he cursed, he prayed, but none of it diverted the shark from its mission. Shortly after its razor teeth took the first bite of him, his salty blood spilling into salty sea, Jerry Paulson was in shock, numb as he was consumed alive.
His sad photograph eyes, staring across the decades, seemed to know that he’d never return home, seemed to say, I’ve got to tell you something. Next to him were other framed shots: of the Paulsons looking old even when they were newlyweds, of infant Jerry in their arms, of faces filled with a joy. Mr. and Mrs. Paulson boycotted anything made in Japan.
In 1958, a candy manufacturer named Robert Welch formed The John Birch Society, naming it after an obscure figure, an American missionary and military intelligence officer who worked behind enemy lines in China during WWII, even assisting Doolittle’s Raiders at one juncture.
The commanding officer of John Birch’s base, Major Gustav Krause, wrote in his diary: “Birch is a good officer, but I’m afraid is too brash and may run into trouble.” Ultimately, run into trouble Birch did. He survived the war only to be killed days into armistice after an encounter with a small gang of Maoists, his corpse allegedly mutilated. One witness claimed that Birch didn’t back down from the Reds, but talked back to them instead. The tale of his murder was hushed, some believed, because traitors nestled within the American government and media were anxious to advance the cause of a one-world government. It was all part of a vast conspiracy designed to cinch complete control over the planet’s populace, the human race enslaved to a tiny ultra-elite of insiders. The isolationist paleo-right considered Birch to be the first martyr of the Cold War, a sacrificial lamb the powers in Washington, DC were delighted to bury. It happened over and over again, this endless war machine taking somebody’s child, their flesh and blood, and tamping them into the cavernous cannon. Davy sensed that the Paulsons saw something of Birch in Jerry. Damn FDR and his bloody war! As if Pearl Harbor were a sneak attack!
And Davy thought, the war machine keeps on a-chugging: Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, US bases on every continent covering the earth like Sherman Williams paint. The elite must become ever richer and more powerful. That’s why they’re trying to take our guns away like Hitler did: so we can’t fight back. We’ll be vassals to the whims of the master caste.
Tearing through volumes and magazines and pamphlets written by Welch and his disciples, Davy came to see The John Birch Society not as the extremists as he’d been naively led to believe from reading Time, Life, and “Pogo.” On the contrary, they were dead center in the political constellation. To their left was big government, logically leading to communism and fascism; to their right was an absence of government, logically leading to anarchy, bedlam. It was all so clear.
Born in the dusk of the 19th century, Robert Welch nurtured a nostalgic view of a vanished America, where the states were merrily not-so-united. States operated autonomously, less as brothers than cousins—often third cousins once removed. All was a perennial sunny spring morning in this laissez-fairyland of opportunity, defined by citizens modeling themselves after Horatio Alger––no Alger Hiss on the horizon. In the Welch worldview, local police forces are comprised of Andy Taylors, not Barney Fifes. Support 'em!
Within a few years of their founding, The Birchers, thundering from the right, couldn’t be ignored. Enrollment swelled. Members were elected to Congress. Their ranks included semi-celebrities: Taylor Caldwell, Adolphe Menjou. WWI flying ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker rubbed elbows with the Society. But following their banishment from the garden of conservatism by Buckley, and the thorough trouncing of Goldwater in 1964, they withered and fractured, until all that remained by the time Davy hopped on the broken bandwagon was a toss of diehards and stragglers.
For 1960s-American youth, the JBS never stood a chance against the sex appeal of SDS or LSD.
After tea and conversation, Mrs. Paulson served a dinner of thinly-sliced roast beef, green beans, mashed potatoes and blueberry pie. Then Davy and Mr. Paulson retired to the den while the ladies tended to cleaning chores. A one-time professor of the classics, Mr. Paulson kept a library of leather-bound volumes: histories of ancient Egypt, China, Greece and Rome. Lighting a browned corncob pipe, Mr. Paulson settled into the swivel chair at his oak desk while he and Davy discussed Woodrow Wilson and the destruction that followed in that demon’s wake until it was time to go. Davy and Melissa beetled back to Braintree through the warm, moist night, car windows rolled down. They adored the Paulsons.
That night, in bed, just before lights out, out of the blue, Melissa said, “She sells sea shells by the seashore,” rapidly and perfectly, three times. Davy said, “Wow! That’s something!” She did it again, faster. Seeing his flabbergasted expression, she performed again, faster still. For an encore, she did an imitation of Dino, the Flintstones’ pet. That prehistoric barking set Davy off in a fit of laughter while he hugged her. They were an owl and a pussycat at sea in a beautiful pea green boat.
So they sailed until a November Friday when Davy tagged along with co-workers to an impromptu Cambridge cocktail party. He had no idea he’d meet Lizzy, the girl he’d marry. She was ultra-liberal, from a Philadelphia Main Line family, Unitarians tracing family tree branches to noted abolitionists, suffragettes, Thomas Paine, and a blacklisted uncle. Dazzled by her beauty, brains, and pedigree, Davy cleared out all his Birch collection the very next day, tossing books, magazines and pamphlets into a dumpster at a construction site.
To be safe, he cut off all the magazine address labels, burning them in his bathroom sink and washing the ashes down the drain. Then, sleeves rolled up, Davy scrubbed the sink with Bon Ami. Properly purged, all traces to his recent past gone, he stood, shoulders back, ready for his new life and identity. He looked in the mirror and liked what he saw.
“What the hell’s the matter with kids having healthy teeth, anyway?”
Melissa’s calls went unreturned. One day she found his number was disconnected, no forwarding number. She drowned her sorrows in editions of Astounding Science Fiction, before losing herself in sherry. Open my heart? That’ll never happen again!
Many years later, after Lizzy divorced him, Davy was driving down a back road when a song came on the radio, one he’d always associated with their happy years, a song about a house, two cats in the yard, a life no longer hard. He could see it all again: their two-story Federal in Bryn Mawr, tall elms shading, and the two tabby cats, a gray and an orange, sitting in the grass thinking or frolicking or chasing a moth, Lizzy looking up at him, smiling. Behind the wheel, Davy’s face scrunched and twisted into something unrecognizable. He released a high-pitched, almost silent, single note for 10 or 12 seconds, years of dry and hard anger transformed into a keening wail. He thought, “Don’t go away... Don’t go away... Please, please stay... I need more time...”
Their marriage was murdered, bit by bit, piece by piece, the death of a thousand cuts, some tiny, some to the bone, the very marrow. No physical violence ever took place, it never came close to that, but oh those words: sometimes just a volley shot across the bow, yet other times, when targeted for a direct hit, they had a power of a punch, a punch to the gut, a punch to the head.
Where do the good times go? Why did they ever exist only to erode, crumble and cave? When does the dream turn a corner and enter a nightmare’s neighborhood? Blinded by tears, Davy pulled over to collect himself. Parked, motor running, his hands were held about six inches from his temples, fingers splayed and taut, as he shook. A few minutes later, back on the road, another song: a woman’s voice soothing, yet taunting, “Big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry...” He felt like a space-walking astronaut whose tether had snapped. He was swallowed whole by the ink of the cosmos, the myriad stars distinct and fascinating...
That was all then—incarnations ago for Davy Raboy. This was today, a wicked morning hangover in Spilka’s, cruel sun blasting through dusty windows. Davy roused himself, managed to shave just once—he was spent—then showered in the cramped, mildewed excuse for a bathroom. He donned a charcoal gray suit, dress shirt, old school tie and oxfords. Silk socks cemented the look. To the impressionable, he was Utica’s leading businessman.
Davy exited the hotel hovel, entered the morning streets, wandered until he found a diner. From a booth near the front door he ordered a huge breakfast, an empty wallet not getting in the way of a stack of hot cakes, swimming in butter and maple syrup, a side order of an omelette, coffee. “And a grapefruit juice. Large. Please.”
When he finished, he motioned the waitress over for a coffee re-fill as he went to the men’s room. The door locked behind him, he stuffed the wastebasket with paper towels, lit a match and set a fire. Once it took hold, he exited, closing the door behind him, went back to his booth. Calmly, he drank his fresh coffee. Smoke billowing from under the door, a man yelled, “Fire! FIRE!”
Davy held the front door for fleeing breakfasters, panic in their nostrils. The owner ran to the back with an extinguisher, but the conflagration was beyond control, flames leaping up and within walls, across the ceiling, eating the floor like a ravished animal. On the sidewalk, frantic customers dialed 911. Belly stuffed, Davy strolled away, his hangover fading with each step as sirens approached.
He came to the corner of State and Columbia in front of Empire Bath and Kitchen. A speeding SUV caught his eye—he was about to shout but it was already too late—the vehicle caromed, skidding on its left wheels, swiping a baby buggy, the mother screaming as the tot, flung from its carriage, flew into the atmosphere, a football kicked by Broadway Joe arcing into traffic. Davy dashed, not looking to assess the danger, and caught the infant like a pro, jogging to the sidewalk with his prize.
The vehicle kept going, as the woman raced to Davy, tears of terror turned to tears of relief. At first speechless, then stammering, she finally managed, “I c-can never ever thank you, never thank you enough! You saved my child! You must let me thank you somehow! Somehow!”
“I just did what anyone would do, I wasn’t even thinking, just reacting.”
“Please come to our house for dinner tonight!”
He demurred, twice, but finally gave in, agreeing to visit them in Clinton, a tony old township about a half hour south. She jotted a name, address and phone number on a slip of paper. They were the Thorndikes. “My name is Jenny,” she said, extending a hand. Her auburn hair sang a song in the sun. That evening, Davy stole a car and drove to Clinton, parked a block away from their house and hoofed it. At the door he was greeted by a young and piquant ash-blonde who said, “Whom may I say is calling?”
Jenny appeared and said, “Mr. Raboy! How good to see you! Please come in! This is Kira.” Davy felt a warm rush to his groin looking at Kira. “She’s from Norway, a student at Hamilton, majoring in Marxism. She’s working on what will prove to be the authoritative biography of Che Guevara!”
“A saint!” piped up Kira.
“I agree wholeheartedly,” Davy smiled.
Roger Thorndike, decidedly older than Jenny, entered, offered his hand to Davy. Davy hated these old bastards, such goddamn phonies. At a glance, the man was a bore in a bow-tie. Over dinner, he proved to be worse, not just a bore, but a persistent one. Whenever Jenny held court, he cleared his throat until the floor was relinquished to him, allowing him to inflict a pointless monologue as distant and arid as the Gobi. What was Jenny doing with this fool? She had some kick to her. He loved her story about post-college life in Joujouka. “At that time, I was living with my boyfriend, Phillipe. He knew about the pan pipers, so one afternoon we packed a lunch and a small brick of hashish, and climbed the hills to listen outside a cave...”
Roger hemmed and hawed his way into and over her, the better to expound upon the vagaries of his day.
“I went to town to buy a fresh typewriter ribbon, but they had none! Sold out! So I drove to Staples! The kid there had never even heard of a typewriter! Can you believe it? So! I had to drive to Syracuse...” On and on he went, describing in excruciating detail the traffic patterns on the way, the annoyance of dealing with one-way Syracuse streets, of searching for a parking spot, his lack of proper change for the meter... But his day ended on a happy note: he’d found a ribbon, even bought two so he’d have a reserve supply, you can rest assured. He nodded and sighed, an old womanly sort of sigh. Davy’s upper lip pulled back, a bit, in disgust.
What is Jenny doing with this tedious boob, this cross between Elmer Fudd and an aged Charlie Brown? He must have an awful lot of dough. Not a million or two: many millions. In the blizzard of boredom, Davy caught himself using his fork to draw strips of parallel lines on the tablecloth. He stopped, but minutes later he was doing it again. Excusing himself, he went to the bathroom. Returning to the table, passing the kitchen, Davy saw Kira slicing the pie. He snuck up behind her, his crotch to her ass, and put a hand on her lower abdomen, pulling her close. She whirled around to slap him, her face red with fury. He caught her wrist, mid-way, and held it. Then he grabbed her other wrist, twisted it behind her, to the small of her back, and kissed her full on the mouth. For a moment she resisted, but only for a moment, before melting in his arms. She gasped, “Oh... Jesus...”
In her ear he whispered, “I want to screw the living daylights out of you...”
Over dessert, Davy handed the Thorndikes incredible yarns, beginning with a change of address, upgrading himself to the historic Hotel Utica. He told them how he’d had lost his life’s savings, you see, because his older brother, Bob in Phoenix, contracted cancer, and insurance companies being what they are, well, what’s a kid brother to do? The important thing is, Bob’s still with us, active and healthy, buzzing about.
“Growing up on our Indiana farm, dad killed in a threshing accident, Mom and I depended on Bob to bring home the bacon. He dropped out of high school to work the farm and a late shift at the Pepsi plant. Well, here was my chance to rescue Bob, the way he’d saved us.”
“A threshing accident? My, how grisly,” Jenny said with a ghost of a smile.
He spun a tale about two decades in the US Army Air Force. When questioned about his years in the service, aware that these civilians knew as little about the military as he did, Davy served them lines about the 59th Street Airborne, Serbia, NATO and Afghanistan: silliness cut from whole cloth, fueled by the wine he was drinking although he was cautious regarding intake. He couldn’t afford to get sloppy. He held his goblet so its bowl rested in his palm. Gesturing with it, Davy played Christopher Lee playing Count Dracula, regal and wise.
After he finished a war story about dodging Bosnian gunfire, Jenny said, “Do tell, Mr. Raboy. We’re so fortunate to have you with us. If you’d been killed overseas, there’d have been no one to snatch Will from the jaws of death this morning. Odd, isn’t it, how Fate manifests?”
Mr. Thorndike jumped in, “Well! By saving little Will’s life you have done something for us that we can never repay in kind. Never. That said, please allow us to provide room and board for you until you can get on your feet again. Six months should be sufficient for a man of your talents and ambitions? Please accept our offer.” Twice Davy refused the generosity with a faux grace, until accepting on the third, playing Roger like Bob Wills would a fiddle. Davy would be out of the Spilka, in Kira’s pants, from there networking this wealthy neighborhood to a brand new and bountiful life.
Around 11:00, in his upstairs room, Davy undressed, got in bed, the high-ceilinged room pitch black on this moonless night. For a while he lay there, hands behind his head, fantasizing about Kira, tasting those Norse nipples, red gumdrops, sweet and chewy, before wondering if the rain needs the flower as much as the flower needs the rain. He decided, yes. Then, no. Then, finally, yes, while dozing off. He woke to the sound of his door opening, then closing. Silent were the bare feet crossing the Persian carpet. In the complete quiet he felt a feminine hand cover his mouth.
She slipped into bed with him, on top of him, and he found himself aroused more quickly than he could remember. He couldn’t see a thing as they made love, triumphant, for almost an hour, ascending purple mountain heights, above the tree line, and farther still, looking down on the few clouds, out to a vast blue interrupted in the distance by huge thunderclouds, black and electric.
How could a land of gelid fjords generate such heat?
Finally, both sated, exhausted, she lay at his side, running a hand up and down his torso, settling it between his thighs, and panted, “You’ve got to help me. You’ve got to murder my husband.”