Serene on the surface, the ivy-clad, tree-lined campus gives few clues to the school’s history of special privileges, petty corruptions, and hidden allegiances. And as winter closes in, students, teachers, and staff get an education in savagery and murder. With his uncanny awareness of the intricacies of human nature, the acclaimed author of The Church of Dead Girls once again probes the daily life of an ordinary community to reveal the depths of good and evil.
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Like a black island on a turquoise sea, the dark shape floated on the surface of the water, lit from beneath by a string of underwater spotlights evenly spaced along the twenty-five yards of the swimming pool. They gave off the only light apart from the glow of a red exit sign above the door. The shape at first looked like a barrel or log. It took a moment to realize that it was a body: a boy, naked except for a pair of white Jockey shorts. He was small for his age and quite slender. Perhaps he was thirteen—an eighth grader. Only the boy’s torso and the back of his head rose above the surface; his arms and legs hung down toward the black lines that ran the length of the pool’s bottom. His elbows were bent and his fingers were curved and relaxed, as if he had been holding something but had just let it go. The underwater lights made the air shimmer above the water and formed rippling shadows on the green cinder-block walls and tile ceiling.
Something small with pointed ears and a bedraggled tail stepped gingerly across the boy’s back, tentatively lifting and shaking one paw after another as it moved along the boy’s shoulder blades. It mewed and the sound echoed throughout the pool area. When the creature turned and its full silhouette became visible against the turquoise, one could see it was a kitten stranded on this dark island, stepping lightly from one part of the boy’s back to another, seeking the highest spot, while its movement caused the body to bob and turn very slightly. As a trickle of water ran across the boy’s skin, the kitten reared up like a miniature horse to keep its paws from getting wet.
One side of the boy’s body was white as parchment, lit up by the row of underwater lights. The other side was dark. His long red hair floated on the water in a ragged fringe. The kitten continued to mew and pace across the body as the turquoise light flickered and the boy’s shadow drifted like a dark swimmer across the left-hand wall. The kitten’s fur was orange-colored, and the orange of its fur and the red of the boy’s hair seemed significant, as if there were a family connection. It was warm and humid in the large room and the air smelled of chlorine and mold.
Two men stood at the shallow end, watching. Their backs were to the door and together they formed two black silhouettes.
“When did you find him?” asked the one in an Irish fisherman’s hat.
“Half an hour ago.”
“And we’re the only ones who know?”
“Except for whoever put him there.”
The kitten paused and arched its back, and its damp fur bristled. Then it began to mew frantically.
“Do we call the police?” asked the bareheaded one.
“Let someone else do it.”
“You’re taking a chance.”
“I see no reason to think so.”
Both men wore heavy overcoats, giving off an odor of damp wool.
“And is this what you were expecting?”
“No, but it will do.”
Outside it was snowing, as it had been for the past ten hours. More than a foot had fallen and the snow spread its white, uninterrupted surface across the lawns and playing fields to the edge of the forest. A half-moon glowed dully behind the clouds so one could make out the school’s buildings: five two- and three-story structures built in the nineteenth century and laid out in the shape of the letter H. The bridge of the H was Emerson Hall, the administration and main classroom building, with its illuminated bell tower. Lights were spaced along the driveways and sidewalks, creating brilliant circles of white. Beyond the school buildings on a curving driveway stood a row of six dormitory cottages for students, and further along the driveway and scattered among the trees were five small houses where faculty lived. Lights burned in the windows of two of the cottages: Shepherd, where a dozen students and two teachers were eating popcorn and watching Die Hard 3, and Pierce. Here, in the faculty apartment on the top floor, a tall, thin man was hurriedly taking clothes from the bureau and closet and dumping them into the two suitcases that lay open on the bed. It was the Friday night after Thanksgiving and most of the students were gone.
Lights also burned in four of the five faculty houses. In one a woman was mending a tear in a blue denim skirt. Beside her was a bowl of red-and-white peppermints and every so often she would stop her sewing, unwrap the cellophane from a candy, and almost tenderly put it in her mouth. In another house, a boy and his mother were watching the last minutes of a college basketball game. In a third, a man and woman were making love on a blanket before the fireplace, in which three logs were burning. Their damp skin flickered orange in the firelight. In the fourth house, a bearded man was cleaning a double-barreled shotgun in the basement, gently pushing an oiled cotton swab down the length of one of the barrels. Upstairs, his wife watched television.
Over at the school garage, in his overheated office, the night watchman was sleeping with his head on the desk, his arms hanging down so his knuckles brushed the floor. He snorted as he breathed and a trickle of saliva had made a kidney-shaped stain on the green blotter beneath his mouth. Upstairs in a small studio apartment, the assistant cook lay on his single bed, studying the cracks in the ceiling. He was smoking a cigarette and the smoke spiraled upward, forming a nimbus around the bare bulb that hung from a black wire. Next to him on a small bedside table was a half-empty bottle of Budweiser and a saucer overflowing with cigarette butts. In the apartment behind Stark Chapel, the chaplain, a woman, was lying in bed reading an Ellery Queen mystery. Across from the chapel in the library, an overweight, balding man was sitting at a desk leafing through the week’s magazines, licking the index finger of his right hand as he turned the pages. The half dozen other faculty and staff who lived on the grounds were away for the holidays.
The snow swirled around the security lights along the sidewalks and driveways. It seemed to plunge through a hole in the sky above the floodlit bell tower. It accumulated on the scaffolding where workmen had been repairing the roof of Emerson Hall. It dusted the heads of the alligatorlike gargoyles protruding from the cornices of the buildings. It collected on the vines of dried ivy clinging to the brick walls. It drifted through the broken windows of an unused dormitory and mixed with the dust on the floor. It formed delicate caps on the gilded tips of the iron fence posts lining the driveway. It gathered on the soccer goals and bleachers in the playing fields. It gave white cloaks to the pines. It seemed to bring the trees closer—the White Mountain National Forest that surrounded the school on three sides, three-quarters of a million acres stretching across north-central New Hampshire, a vast expanse of wintry dark, spotted with ice-covered lakes. The silence was so profound that a person standing motionless in the middle of the playing fields might have supposed that he had been struck deaf. Then a dog barked out in the woods, or perhaps it was the high yelp of a coyote.
South of the school, a quarter mile beyond its front gate, ran the Baker River. Then Antelope Road, extending through the woods between the tiny villages of Brewster Center and West Brewster, where a few of the faculty lived. Beyond Brewster Center lay the road to the city of Plymouth, twenty miles away. Not much was moving except snowplows at this time of night—sometimes a tractor-trailer out on the interstate, heading up to St. Johnsbury or down to Boston, leaving a cloud of snow in its wake.
The two men made their way out of the gymnasium, the one in the hat tugging at the door with his gloved hand to make sure it was locked. They turned up their collars and the bareheaded man put on a blue ski cap. They buried their hands in their pockets and seemed to pull their necks down into their collars.
“Where’s Hawthorne?” asked the man in the ski cap.
“He went down to Concord to visit his friend Krueger.”
“What a shame he was gone just when something like this happened—a boy dead in the pool. What kind of headmaster is he, anyway?”
The other man laughed and began to move away from the building out into the snow. “One whose tenure at Bishop’s Hill will be blessedly brief.”
The men chuckled together as they made their way along the path, lifting their boots above the surface of the snow, like shore birds walking through water. The wind was beginning to pick up, blowing the snow in gusts across the playing fields, creating white billows that swirled and rose, as if the snow had a sort of life, enwrapping the men as they walked and smoothing out their footprints until, as the night progressed, there was no evidence that the two men had ever passed that way at all.
Burnt flesh newly whole, pink skin puckered on the back of the hand, a moonscape of scar tissue extending from the sleeve of a gray sport coat. In the correctness of dress, only the scars were out of place. As he reached out to shake the hand, Kevin Krueger tried not to hesitate. This was his friend, Jim Hawthorne, his former teacher, a man he loved, a man to whom he owed his career.
“Been a long time,” said Krueger, squeezing the hand. “It’s great to see you.”
Bright morning light cut a yellow wedge across the office floor, the northern light of a fall day under a blue New Hampshire sky. The gold dome of the state capitol seemed to blaze under its regard.
His visitor noticed Krueger glancing at the scars. He gripped Krueger’s hand firmly, as if to show he had entirely healed. “We talked on the phone.”
“But I haven’t seen you for nearly a year.”
“Since before the fire.” Hawthorne let go of Krueger’s hand and stepped back. He was tanned and muscular, as if he spent part of every day at the health club, which was probably true. After all, he had been recuperating. Or perhaps it was that California glow. His hair was lighter than Krueger remembered, nearly blond and finely textured. Then, with shock, Krueger realized that Hawthorne’s hair must have been burned off.
“You look well,” said Krueger, hesitating whether to remain standing or sit down.
Hawthorne considered this estimate with amusement. “My doctor says I’ve been putting myself back together, but it feels like loafing. Now I want to return to work.”
Renovation was going on in one of the state offices down the hall and the sound of an electric saw shrilled through the air. The work had begun on September 2 and after nearly three weeks Krueger still hadn’t gotten used to the noise. He noticed Hawthorne’s jaw tense, then relax.
“But not in your field?” said Krueger, turning to shut the window behind him.
“It’s still school administration.”
“Another sort of school . . .” Krueger let the remark hang. He didn’t wish to bring up the fire, but that meant their talk stayed on a level of superficiality that he had never experienced with his friend. Was he afraid Hawthorne might cry? Or he himself would? After all, he had baby-sat for Lily at least half a dozen times in Boston. In his mind’s eye, he could see her sparkling blond curls.
Krueger had met Hawthorne seven years earlier at Boston University, when he had begun graduate study in clinical psychology. Jim Hawthorne had been his adviser as well as teacher. Hawthorne was now thirty-seven. His birthday was in February, the same month as the fire. Only six years separated them and the two men had made many trips to various agencies and residential treatment programs throughout the state, especially to Ingram House in the Berkshires, where Krueger had done the work that resulted in his thesis. And when Krueger had said he was interested in a job with the New Hampshire Department of Education, Hawthorne hadn’t protested but had made the necessary calls from San Diego, even though he would rather have seen Krueger working in mental health. Yet if Krueger had taken a position someplace else, Hawthorne wouldn’t have been here this morning and Krueger wouldn’t have had the opportunity now to assist him.
“I’ve been on the phone with members of the board,” said Hawthorne, “and they’ve sent me cartons of papers. Without actually visiting the place I don’t see how I could be any more prepared.”
“All this in six weeks?”
“They want someone in residence before the semester is much advanced. Classes began two weeks ago. And I was ready to make the change.” He looked uncertain for a moment. “You know, it’s time to make a fresh beginning.”
Krueger wondered what Hawthorne meant by being “ready.” His dark gray jacket, blue slacks, white shirt, even his tie looked new. But of course his other clothes had been destroyed. In fact, in terms of property, he’d probably lost everything. But what had he lost of the rest—of his essential self, what people outside their profession might call the soul?
“There’s no real town nearby, at least for twenty miles,” said Krueger.
“I like the country. Perhaps I’ll learn to ski.”
“You could get stuck after the snow begins. The roads can completely shut down.”
“You’re not very optimistic.”
“These places, they develop their own ways of doing things. They get terribly ingrown: cousins and high school chums working together for years . . .”
“That’s probably why the board insisted on an outside hiring.”
“Of course, of course.” Glancing at Hawthorne’s hand, Krueger saw how the scar tissue extended up the backs of his fingers, how the little finger had no nail but ended in a sort of pink fragility.
Hawthorne was thin and handsome and somewhat gaunt, with dark indentations beneath his cheekbones. He wore glasses with pewter frames that kept sliding down his nose which he pushed back up with his thumb. Krueger was a few inches shorter and stocky, with a receding hairline, bushy eyebrows and a thick mustache, as if these bristling growths were soft bumpers between him and the world. These were men of similar backgrounds who had gone to similar New England schools and universities. They read the same magazines and newspapers, the same books. They felt at home in the same fashionable sections of Boston or San Diego, New York or San Francisco. But one had suffered great tragedy and the other kept trying to imagine it. Krueger had felt inadequate to the task of helping his friend. He had written. They talked on the phone. Hawthorne’s life had taken a turn impossible to anticipate and Krueger had been struck with wonder and compassion.
“It’s hardly your sort of school,” he said.
Hawthorne suddenly grinned. “On the cutting edge of failure, much like myself.”
“You’re a clinical psychologist with a tremendous reputation.”
“The school claims to specialize in youngsters with special needs.”
“You know what that means. Highly structured environment, empathy development, special needs—it’s code. The school’s just a dumping ground.”
“It’s been around a long time.”
“In name only. Even ten years ago it was different. They started that business about special needs when enrollment began to fall. Their accreditation hangs by a thread.”
“You think I can’t save it?” There was a hint of something in Hawthorne’s voice. Not anger or bravado. Perhaps it was no more than a touch of mettle.
“I think it’s an impossible task. Bishop’s Hill needs an endowment, a new student body, a new faculty, and a new physical plant. They’d do better to tear the place down and start over.”
“The board’s given me complete control.”
“But what about the staff? Do they know you’re coming?”
“They were notified on Thursday.”
Krueger almost smiled. “They must be jumping. And why did you decide against a residential treatment center?”
“Maybe I need a break.” Hawthorne sat down at last, perching on the edge of the chair. Glancing around the office, his eyes settled on the photograph of Krueger’s wife, Deborah, and their son and daughter. He looked away. “Maybe I just don’t want that work anymore.”
Krueger began to speak quickly. “I’ve been hearing about Bishop’s Hill ever since I came here. The faculty keeps leaving, many are barely qualified. Parents complain. The health department came within an inch of closing down their kitchen. And there were other stories, allegations even.”
“That’s why they were eager to have me.”
“What happened to the previous headmaster?”
“He’s been gone several years. They had a sort of halfhearted search but it was only this summer that they decided to make a new commitment.”
“It was either that or sell out to the Seventh-Day Adventists.” Krueger rubbed the back of his neck. He hoped he wasn’t getting another of his headaches. Hawthorne had been one of the preeminent administrators at one of the preeminent treatment centers in the country. He could probably go anywhere. Instead, he was choosing a fifth-rate institution on the verge of closing. “You’ll be buried there,” added Krueger.
Hawthorne seemed not to have heard. “What sort of person is the acting head?”
“Fritz Skander? He’s the bursar. I’ve talked to him on the phone. Well-spoken, kind of upbeat and ironic at the same time. He was hired to teach math, then worked his way into the management end of things. He’s been acting head for two or three years. Personally, I thought he’d be the one to get the job.”
“He has no background in psychology or administration. He has the ability, but I have the résumé.”
“You have tremendous ability. What about your research, your writing?”
Hawthorne began to speak, then turned away. A bony, angular face with a jutting chin—the morning light emphasized every wrinkle that had appeared since Krueger had seen him last, and again he recalled Lily’s glorious curls. The mother, too, had been blond.
“Skander will be associate headmaster and continue as bursar, as well as teaching a section of geometry. The board chairman kept saying how everyone would have to bite the bullet. Otherwise, there’s a psychologist at the school, a couple of mental health counselors. I’ve looked over the records of about half the students. I’d like to hire another psychologist as soon as possible.”
“And the physical plant?”
“Serviceable but failing. There’s a fund drive to replace the roof of the main building, Emerson Hall. Several of the dormitory cottages need substantial work.”
Hawthorne ticked off various problems on his fingertips: a crack in a boiler, the need to replace a stove in the kitchen, faulty wiring in one of the dorms, cracking plaster. Krueger asked questions and his friend responded. Despite the difficulties, Hawthorne was eager to face the challenge. It was a new undertaking to fill his mind. As he said, a new beginning.
Krueger had heard from Hawthorne two days earlier after a silence of six weeks. He was leaving San Diego and would fly into Logan Sunday evening, then stay at a hotel and drive up to Concord on Monday. In his initial surprise, the only detail Krueger found odd was that Hawthorne would stay in a hotel. He probably had dozens of friends in the Boston area. It was only after Krueger hung up that he began to wonder about Hawthorne’s whole enterprise.
“Why’s Jim coming to New Hampshire?” Deborah had asked.
“He’s taking a job at Bishop’s Hill. Headmaster.” Saying those words, Krueger had thought they sounded crazy, as if his friend had taken a job flipping burgers. Even though it was the weekend, Krueger made some calls. Maybe something had changed at Bishop’s Hill in the past few months. But nothing Krueger heard had encouraged him and what had started out sounding insane only appeared more so. Perhaps, he thought, Hawthorne was planning a book and the school was connected with some new area of research.
Now, talking to Hawthorne, Krueger felt in no way persuaded, especially since the research and writing appeared to be a dead issue. But even if Hawthorne’s only intention was to keep the school afloat and even if the board had committed itself to a new financial effort, it seemed too little too late. Krueger rubbed the back of his neck and wondered where he had put his aspirin.
“Maybe you can do it,” said Krueger, trying to be optimistic. “It’s astonishing that the place is still open. And of course it’s expensive. Dumping grounds usually are.”
Hawthorne rose from his chair and walked to the window. Sunlight illuminated the white bark of the birches on the far side of the parking lot. Hawthorne looked both ready and stoical, like a man about to lift something heavy. But mixed with his stoicism was sorrow. Not that his brow was creased or his shoulders were bent; he seemed perfectly calm. Indeed, in the strong chin, Krueger believed that others would see determination. But Krueger couldn’t help but imagine the awfulness of Hawthorne’s memories. If it had been his own wife and child, he didn’t see how he could live.
Hawthorne walked over and squeezed Krueger’s shoulder. “Jesus, it’s great to see you. You remember those basketball games we used to have? Maybe we can do that again.”
The warmth of his smile was a great reassurance. Krueger tried to speak but could only nod a little foolishly.
“I wanted to come out to California in February.”
“I couldn’t have seen anyone. I was dead. Dead inside at least.”
“Even so . . .” Krueger tugged at his mustache.
Hawthorne turned again to the window. “What other problems do you think I’ll have at Bishop’s Hill?”
With relief Krueger returned to the subject that, though bleak, was at least precise. “Your presence should do wonders for morale. I’ll bet even the non-psychology types have been reading your articles. You’ll have to be firm, of course. I’m sure they’ve been worried by how things have drifted along. The main thing is the children—teenagers really. They’re the ones who’ve suffered.”
“Anything more than educational neglect?”
“A tenth grader was arrested for shoplifting in Plymouth in May. Some drunk driving. Marijuana. The school uses a totally antiquated merit system with so many checks resulting in punishment. On the other hand, a new teacher joined the staff in January. I don’t think it’s an us-against-them scenario. There’s even a new cook.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I’d like you closer to Concord, where I can see you.” Krueger gave a laugh, but it sounded false to his ears. “And it’s not your area of expertise.”
“You think I won’t be able to do it?”
“You’re a tremendous administrator.”
“That was before.”
Krueger turned in his chair. “I’ll be frank with you. I don’t understand why you want Bishop’s Hill. It’s a pseudo-prep school for kids who have managed to stay out of agencies or institutions only because their parents have money. It’s a sinking ship. I don’t know if anybody could fix it and I don’t know why you want to.”
“I told you, I want to do something different.”
“And that’s sufficient reason to go to Bishop’s Hill? You could go to one of the best places in the country and you’re choosing one of the worst. The money must be terrible.” Krueger tried to make it a joke, but it didn’t sound like a joke.
“I’m not doing it for the money.”
“So what are you doing it for?”
“It’ll be like trying to empty Lake Winnipesaukee with a pail.”
“Maybe that’s what I’m good for right now. Listen, I have to start completely over. Can’t you see that the fire was my fault? When this position opened up at Bishop’s Hill, I jumped at it.”
“You know as well as I do who caused the fire.”
Hawthorne ignored him. “If Bishop’s Hill doesn’t work out, then I’m finished. I don’t mean I couldn’t get other jobs. Just that this is the last chance I’m giving myself.”
The silence that followed was filled with the whine of the saw. Krueger heard his secretary laugh and a door slam. He thought of how far Hawthorne had traveled from Krueger’s own life. “You’ll spend the night? Deborah’d love to see you. And your namesake, he’s already four.”
“I’d like to get up there as soon as possible. About how far is it?”
“Two and a half hours door-to-door. The color should be just getting started.”
“I had some stuff shipped from San Diego. It’ll arrive next week.”
“But you’ll stay for dinner?”
“Thanks, but I still get tired pretty easily.”
Krueger stood up. His chair spun back and hit the wall with a thud. “We need to talk more. Stay for lunch. If I were the one going up there, I think I’d move into it gently.”
“You think I’ll fuck up, don’t you?”
“Of course not, but they’ve had lots of time to get fixed in their ways.” Krueger was aware of not answering the question. What did he know of his friend’s mental state? Only that Hawthorne had chosen to bury himself in a backwater, which was itself evidence of eccentricity. Perhaps something worse than eccentricity.
Hawthorne had paused at the door. “As you say, the children come first.” It seemed only politeness that was holding him back.
Krueger gave up. The conversation had exhausted him. “Give me a call once you get there. Or I’ll call you. You know that my office is at your disposal.”
Hawthorne grinned. “It’s been a while since I’ve gone to school.”
They shook hands again. This time Krueger kept his eyes away from the scars. He wondered how much was hidden by Hawthorne’s clothes, whether his entire body had the shiny delicacy of the wrist. Although Krueger felt guilty, he was comforted by Hawthorne’s grip. It seemed evidence of something positive. I’m grasping at straws, he thought.
After he had shut the door, Krueger was struck by something Hawthorne had said. What had he meant by saying the fire was his fault? That kid Carpasso had set the fire. Everyone knew that.
The girl sat on the edge of the stage with a cigarette hanging from her lips and stared at her toes in their small, golden thongs. The toenails had just been painted a shade of red called “Passion Juice” and were not entirely dry. They sparkled in the intensity of the spotlights. The girl’s back was bent and a strand of peroxided hair fell forward, concealing one side of her face. She picked at a dab of red on her toe and blew smoke from the corner of her mouth. Around her left ankle was a gold chain with a heart, a gift from her father six years earlier.
She seemed alone in the room despite the two dozen men and the waitresses in their skimpy dresses weaving between the tables. A few men clapped as Gypsy, naked and businesslike, walked briskly from the stage to the dressing room, carrying a little blue dress in one hand and a pair of black high heels in the other. She had just finished her number, and briefly there was a kind of silence. Someone whistled shrilly; a chair scraped; the neck of a beer bottle clinked against the rim of a glass.
The music began again. The girl dropped her cigarette and ground it into the tile. By the time she was on her feet she was already into her dance, sashaying up the remaining two steps and across the stage, her eyes focused on the spotlights so everything would be a blur when she looked away. The music was the long disco version of the Stones’ “Miss You,” and she matched her steps to the staccato precision of the drums and bass, snapping her fingers and lifting her knees so they flashed in the lights. She thought of the music as antique—the song was twenty years old—and she imagined that her parents had once danced to it, her father taking Dolly’s hand, then spinning her away.
The girl kept her head raised as she moved to the chrome pole in the middle of the stage. She was the cool one who never let her eyes drift below an imaginary line, as if beneath that line were only fog, like early-morning fog at Rye Beach. When she table-danced, men would often say, “Why don’t you look at me?” And sometimes they whined and sometimes they called her “Bitch.” She wanted to say, “Fuck you,” but she’d just smile as if her thoughts were in exotic places, Zanzibar or Rio de Janeiro. And when the men tucked ten- or twenty-dollar bills under the thin gold chain around her waist, she would stroke their cheeks just once and draw her nails lightly down the stubble on their faces, but she still wouldn’t look at them.
Gripping the pole with her right hand, the girl swirled around it with her head back and her nearly white hair streaming behind her. She had pinned it up but, as she spun, her hair came free and she could feel how the men grew attentive, as if her hair’s very loosening were a sign of her wildness. The girl focused on the mirrors on the ceiling above the stage, watching the pretty, heavily made-up face of her reflection stare back at her. At one moment she was amazed by her beauty and at the next by what she saw as her ugliness: her lips not enough of this, her nose not enough of that, and the blue of her eyes insufficiently dazzling. She wore a mixture of pastel-colored veils that fluttered in the breeze from a fan at the edge of the stage: a two-piece costume made by an ex-dancer who had gotten fat and now designed costumes for other girls, polyester delicacies whose only function was to be ripped away in a fantasy of sexual abandon. The veils whirled and eddied around her in varying shades of blue, green, and red—pulsings that let the girl imagine herself a multicolored bird of Eastern mythology, beautiful but deadly. The stage was eight feet wide and formed a runway between the tables where the men sat. The dancers called it the meat rack. As the girl spun round the pole, the veils separated and came together, giving glimpses of her tanned body and revealing her small breasts—too small to the girl’s mind, small and undeveloped, almost boyish. They embarrassed her, but after all, she was only fifteen.
As she spun, she kicked off one slipper, then the other. Her movements were a mixture of sensual languor and military precision as she keyed them to the rhythm of the song: “I been sleeping all alone; Lord, I miss you . . .” She had begun work that day at one and now it was rush hour on a Monday afternoon, September 21—men leaving work in Boston and heading to suburbs along the North Shore. A few would stop for a beer and to watch a pretty girl show her naked body. Some would pay to have the girl dance for them alone—one man at a table with a beer and a shot and the girl weaving back and forth with her pubic hair trimmed into a heart shape or diamond shape, whatever had become the newest fashion among the girls, the same way they would get boob jobs or even lip jobs and rush to one surgeon after another. And this girl, too, though she needed every penny she earned, had gone to get implants—it only made sense, she told herself, because her breasts were so small. The doctor had refused, saying she was still growing, but he didn’t say anything else; that is, he didn’t report her, though he could tell she wasn’t eighteen.
The club had no windows, so it could be any time of the day or night. Mostly it seemed like one unchanging minute. One dancer replaced another, one song replaced the next, and even the men looked the same in their longing and feigned boredom—small but endless variations of the same sixty seconds till the club closed at one in the morning and the girls went off to whatever domestic deficiency they called home. By then the girl would have danced on stage a dozen times and, if she was lucky and the club was busy, she would have danced at a dozen tables. She would have washed a dozen times and changed her makeup a dozen times and still she’d feel the places where men had touched her ass or tried to rub against her breasts and tell her what a fox she was or what a bitch and how they wanted to push her down on the floor and do things to her. One fat man had come back night after night to say how he wanted to piss in her mouth, until she had complained and Bob had told the man not to come back, because he wasn’t spending any money. But if the man had been buying drinks, then Bob would have told her to get used to it and what the hell did she expect. She would have accepted it because Bob knew that her ID was phony, but he wouldn’t let her go unless there was a problem, because he got his percentage and many of the men liked babies, liked little girls, even if their tits were small and they looked like boys from the back, the cheeks of their buttocks tight and shiny.
The girl’s sweaty fingers squeaked on the pole. She drifted to a stop, putting her hands down low on the cold metal, then kicking her feet so they rose up and curled around the pole until she was upside down with the veils swirling over her head and the sequined V of her bikini bottom catching the light. She imagined the sequins sparkling, the men slowing their drinking to watch, the stupid pigs, the hairy scum. One man whistled, and one of her regulars yelled her name: “Misty!” She was Misty. She slid down onto her shoulders and did a backward roll and when she stood up the top part of her costume fell away into her hand. Tensing, she waited for the jokes about her flat chest, the jeering that sometimes came—not all the time, but enough to grind her guts. But this time no one shouted about tiny tits or banana body and Misty let the veils drop at the side of the stage, then did a slow cartwheel back to the pole as Mick Jagger sang about “some Puerto Rican girls who’re dying to meet you.” It amused her that the thousands of dollars Dolly had spent on gymnastics classes now let her be such a hotshot, as Bob called her, doing tricks that none of the other girls could match.
A handstand let Misty slide her feet up the pole again, gripping it with her thighs. As she turned, she extended her tongue, flicking it against the shiny metal, which tasted of salt from the other girls’ sweaty hands. A man pounded his fist on a table so that a bottle overturned, and he or someone else whistled. But she had detached her mind from where she was and thought how good it would be to get back to the apartment she shared with two of the other dancers, how she would take a long bath and listen to her Walkman in the tub—Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny on the CD Beyond the Missouri Sky, because away from the club she hated to listen to any music she could dance to. And she thought how she wouldn’t be working tomorrow and she would take the T to Revere Beach, then to a movie or the Cambridgeside mall, where she could walk and walk and look in the shops, but she wouldn’t buy anything—she was saving her money. She’d spend the whole day by herself and if anyone spoke to her she would tell him to fuck off, fuck off, because she’d been dancing too much, getting her ears too full of those people’s cheap noise. Isolation was what she wanted, because in two months at the club she had seen girls burn out on stage—dancer meltdown. It scared her because it seemed so easy and she thought, I could do that. I’ve got to be careful.
Misty arched back in a slow flip, then she spun away from the pole and sent her hands into a splayed-fingered ballet around the gold clasp that held the bottom part of her costume in place, inserting her thumbs under the elastic and pulling the waist band from her waist, letting it snap back, then pulling it again and holding it with her elbows out to the side, striding to the music along the perimeter of the meat rack. But because she’d been staring at the lights, she could see little except thick masculine shapes and the lights of the video games and three pinball machines along the back wall, and she realized that was a mistake because she wanted to find out if the man was here, the one with a sport coat and tie who had been coming for the past several days and drank only Coke and watched only her. He didn’t seem hungry or excited, though; it was as if he were seeing not a naked young girl but a piece of furniture, something not special or collectible, only part of his job. That had worried Misty and she thought he might be a cop, but Bob swore he knew all the cops and he’d never seen this guy before. Even so, Misty hoped she wouldn’t see him again, because if he wasn’t a cop or a nutcase, then he could be a PI. It was Gypsy who said he might be a PI, and Misty had to ask what that meant. “Private detective, dummy,” Gypsy told her, not mean but sarcastic, as was her way.
If the man was a detective, then Misty knew what would be coming next. Partly that frightened her and partly she felt relieved, because she already had four thousand dollars put aside, and though she meant to save more and have ten grand by Thanksgiving, she was worried she might blow it on something else or melt down or buy drugs and forget about her plan—about the only thing that mattered in her life, the reason she had been shaking her butt in men’s faces since the July 4 weekend, when she had started work, getting her ears full of the noise, the men’s talk, words that were meant to be sweet or sexy or macho but that made her hate them, made her want to reach into the men’s pants and rip away their pricks like yanking weeds out of the ground.
Misty went into a forward roll as Mick sang, “I guess I’m lying to myself because it’s you and no one else,” and when she came onto her feet she was holding the bottom part of her costume in her left hand and keeping the splayed fingers of her right mockingly across her pubic hair as men shouted. She turned her eyes away from the lights now because she wanted to see who was there, wanted to drag her eyes across each male face. She was naked except for the chain around her waist and the chain around her ankle. Her skin was a light bronze from the three times a week she went to the tanning parlor. No strap marks or bikini lines: she never showed her skin on the beach. Just above her buttocks and around her coccyx was her one extravagance, a tattoo of the biological symbol for woman in bright blue and red and the size of a closed fist so the scumbags would know they weren’t looking at a boy when they stared at her ass, the tight, muscular buttocks each forming half a golden peach. She bent forward and ran her spread fingers down her thighs to her ankles, gripping them as she turned a slow 360 degrees, showing her tattoo to the entire room.
Then, at the end of the bar, she spotted him in his tie and sport coat and this time he wasn’t alone. Misty recognized the other man even before she saw his mustache, knew him just by the curve of his shoulders, the thick graying hair he was so vain about. She believed she could have spotted him if the room had been pitch dark. Even at this distance she felt she could see the black hairs on the backs of his hands and the yellow flecks in his brown eyes, turd-brown eyes, she called them.
Misty began spinning around the perimeter of the stage with her arms outstretched. Several of her regulars called to her but she ignored them. On the far side from the two men, she fell to her stomach, then she wriggled snakelike across the tiles with her tongue darting and her fingertips fluttering against the cheeks of her ass. Reaching the edge, she pushed herself up into a handstand and came down with her back to the men, bending over with her legs wide apart, down, down until her hands rested on the floor and her peroxided hair dragged on the tiles as she looked back between her legs at the two men at the end of the bar, the one she didn’t know and the one she hated, pursing her lips and kissing the air, before gripping her ankles and dragging her red nails up the backs of her legs, leaving parallel scratches on the backs of her thighs till the heels of her hands touched her buttocks. She let her fingertips play against the black diamond shape of her pubic hair, let her fingertips caress the creases of her vulva, and all to the same precise beat of the song, “Miss You,” which was now coming to an end. Then she dug two fingertips of each hand into the bristly pubic hair and began to draw the flesh apart, holding her vagina open with two fingers of one hand as she inserted the index finger of the other, listening to men shout and hearing Bob’s angry voice because she had broken the club’s primary rule, the rule that stood at the head of a hundred other stupid rules and that would cost her the job, but what did it matter? This was her last night, she was already out of here.
The music stopped, not because the song had ended but because Lucy at the bar had flicked the switch. Misty stood up and walked to where she had left her costume and cigarettes, striding as purposefully as a soldier, with her chin raised. Men were shouting and whistling. She shook a cigarette out of the pack, stuck it in her mouth, and lit it, clicking the Zippo shut as she blew a mouthful of smoke at the ceiling. Then she walked quickly to the dressing room. She heard someone calling to her, “Jessica, Jessica!” But that wasn’t her name. Her name was Misty.
She went through a door that swung shut behind her and tossed her costume onto the table. Out there she had felt mean and proud of herself, but all of a sudden she could feel herself choking up as tears filled her eyes.
“What in the fuck’s wrong with you?” said Gypsy angrily. She stood in front of Misty, six inches taller in high heels and a mountain of red hair, with her artificial breasts shoved between the two of them like small haystacks scantily contained by pink polyester. “You’ve just thrown away your job—an easy grand a week into the trash. You know that Bob won’t take that shit.”
“I’m quitting anyway,” said Misty, wiping her hand across her eyes and going to her locker. She worked the numbers of the combination. “You can have my costumes if you want them.”
“Who’s the guy you were showing your pussy to? I hope he’s paying you big money.”
Misty pulled on her blue jeans. “My old man,” she said. She didn’t look at Gypsy.
“You were sticking your fingers up yourself for your father?” Gypsy had lowered her voice. There was still shouting out in the club.
Misty drew a blue University of New Hampshire sweatshirt over her head. It hung halfway down her thighs. “Not my father, my stepfather. My father’s dead.” Her voice was neutral—the practiced tone she thought she had perfected. She tied her money belt around her waist and shoved it under her jeans. Then she stuck her feet into her Tevas and adjusted the Velcro. She grabbed her green backpack off the hook and collected a couple of loose dance tapes from the shelf along with a squirrel-sized brown teddy bear that was missing an eye. The bear’s name was Harold; she couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t have him.
Misty wished she could wash the makeup off her face and body but she didn’t have the time. Maybe later, depending where Tremblay took her. She hoped the detective would stay with them. She was afraid of being alone with Tremblay. Misty dug a blue Red Sox cap out of her bag, then twisted up her hair and pulled the cap over it, turning the cap around so the bill pointed down her back. Taking a towel from a hook, she rubbed it across her mouth and face, trying to remove her lip gloss. The towel smelled of sweat and cheap perfume.
There was a hammering on the door and Bob entered without waiting for a response. He was tall and he shaved his head to look mean. “You’re done. You’re outta here!” He stood holding the door open. Misty could see her stepfather standing just beyond him. Tremblay was brushing his thumb against his gray mustache, and he wore a little smile to indicate he wasn’t surprised. He was never surprised.
“Where’re you going to go?” asked Gypsy, already taking the costumes from the other girl’s locker and putting them in her own.
“School,” said Misty. “I’m going to school. I’m going to start tenth grade.” She tossed the dirty towel at Bob, then walked past him without saying a word.
The bigger of the two men walking along the edge of the surf was laughing and scuffing his heels in the sand. It was a cool night on the first day of fall and the men wore dark jackets. The moon to the east was a little past full and seemed to lay a silver finger on the water off Revere Beach as the surf advanced and retreated with hisses and melancholy sighs. There was no wind.
“If you could of seen him, Sally,” he was saying, “I almost pissed myself. That would have made both of us. He was wearing these light pants and suddenly I seen this big wet spot. I couldn’t help it, I snorted right through my mask.”
The smaller man chuckled appreciatively, but all he wanted was to go home. It was past two-thirty and he had an appointment at eight the next morning to look at a greyhound puppy, “a guaranteed champion,” he’d been told.
“He didn’t even notice what he’d done. ‘Jesus, you piece of shit,’ I told him, ‘look what you done to yourself. Didn’t you have a mommy?’”
The smaller man chuckled again. His name was Sal Procopio and he was twenty-six. The guy with him, Frank, was a little older. Sal didn’t know Frank’s last name, or rather, he’d heard Frank give several—all of them French, so maybe he was a Canuck. For that matter, Sal didn’t even know if the guy’s first name was really Frank, so maybe that was phony as well. In fact, the longer he knew Frank, the less he knew him, as if each new fact took away a piece of knowledge instead of adding to the small amount already accumulated. Sal wasn’t sure how he felt about this.
Frank laid an arm across Sal’s shoulder, squeezing the muscle. With his other hand, he accompanied his story, spreading his fingers or closing them into a fist. “But, hey, I didn’t have a lot of time. The longer you’re inside, the bigger chance you take. You hear what I’m saying? What if a cop had wandered in? It could be anybody, some alkie wanting another drink. The chickenshits are worse than the tough guys. They don’t fuckin’ move! This guy just stood there and pissed himself. ‘What’s wrong,’ I tell him, ‘ain’t you seen a gun before?’ Asshole in a liquor store. You’d think he was a virgin. These guys get stuck up all the time.”
Sal tried to keep his feet out of the water but Frank kept bumping him. Although the tide was going out, every so often a large wave sent the foam right up to his basketball shoes. The two men were walking south. Few people were visible: some couples making out but no one nearby. Sal had brought girls to Revere a few times when he was a kid but he didn’t like getting sand in his Jockey shorts and he didn’t like being seen. People knew what you were doing. Even under a blanket, they could tell what was going on. If you couldn’t afford a motel, then you had no business with a girl in the first place, that was how he saw it.
Frank gave his shoulder another squeeze. “So I tell him to get a move on. I should never of been friendly in the first place. ‘We’re closing in ten minutes,’ he says. His back was to me and he hadn’t seen the mask. So I put the barrel against his ear, smacking him a little so I could hear the clunk against his skull and I asked him as sweet as I could, ‘You ever seen one of these?’ He cut his eyes toward it and I cocked it. That little double click—it’s almost like music. That’s when he pissed himself. Jesus, I laughed.”
Sal tried to laugh as well, but it ended up more like a grunt. He’d been out in the car ready to take off at the first sign of trouble, even though he’d sworn to wait. This was their fourth job together and Sal wanted out. In the morning, he’d get this greyhound pup, train him, and make a bundle. It was honest work, pretty much. His only worry was that Frank would get mad when he said he didn’t want to drive anymore. He’d seen Frank’s temper in a bar about two weeks earlier. Frank hadn’t been drinking but that only made it scarier, that he’d try to beat a guy to death cold sober. If he hadn’t been pulled off, Frank would have killed the guy, just beaten his head in with the pool cue. And what had the guy done, for Pete’s sake? Called him a loony when Frank got mad and threw down his cue. Five bucks on the game, and Frank was ready for the slammer. Shit, Sal had been called worse than that, a whole lot worse.
Frank stepped away as another wave came up the beach. The foam glittered and slid toward them. “But the kid wouldn’t do shit. He wouldn’t get the money and wouldn’t budge. A red light on the video camera kept blinking. So I grabbed his hair and shoved the pistol right into his mouth so it jams against his tonsils. ‘You got two seconds,’ I told him. No way was he going to fuck with me, piss or no piss. He straightened up, though he was bawling. Nodding and gagging all at once. At least he emptied the cash register.”
“A couple of grand or more. We’ll count it out.”
The two men had met at a bar across from Wonderland in May. Frank was from New Hampshire, at least that’s what Sal thought. He was about five ten, with a narrow face and thick dark hair that he slicked back with gel. Frank wouldn’t say much about himself. Sometimes he talked about cooking, so maybe he’d been a cook. He told a lot of jokes and had no trouble talking to women. He was always upbeat, or pretty much. He didn’t seem to have a job and Sal figured he made his money at the track, until Frank asked him to drive for him. Before that Sal had already told him about his troubles with the law. Frank had been sympathetic, like he’d had cop problems of his own. And Frank didn’t drink much or do drugs. He seemed like a guy who was always in charge so Sal figured he could do the driving. After all, he’d be sitting in the car; if anything bad happened, he could drive away. That was in June. Now Sal didn’t trust Frank anymore. He’d seen him in fights, he’d listened to stories that he’d thought were total bullshit, then he got to be unsure. Frank didn’t have a lid, was how Sal put it to himself. If he thought of doing a thing, he’d do it. He was like a drunk but he never got drunk and Sal almost laughed at that, though he didn’t feel like laughing and only wanted to get his cut and go home, have a glass of milk, eat a couple of Devil Dogs, and hit the sack.
Frank carried a small backpack. His Chevy pickup was parked in the lot. Sal’s was farther up along the curb. They always met at Revere Beach. Frank had talked about being followed and being careful, and at first Sal had thought that sounded smart. But now he thought, who the fuck was going to follow them? Earlier Sal had meant to tell Frank that tonight was his last job, but he didn’t know how to bring it up without sounding chickenshit. Then he thought, why say anything? The next time Frank called, Sal would say he couldn’t do it, that he’d had enough. Then he thought of moving, getting a whole new place, so he wouldn’t have to see Frank again. The more he thought that, the more he liked it. He liked the idea of Frank calling and there being nobody home.
“Did I tell you the one about the two cannibals who cook themselves a clown?”
“Yeah, you did,” said Sal. “‘This taste funny to you?’ I liked it.” He tried laughing again but his throat hurt. The sand curving ahead of them was divided into two shades of darkness, showing how far the tide had climbed the beach.
Frank was laughing. He put his arm across Sal’s shoulder again, hugging him to him. “You know, I did a guy the other night.”
“‘Did a guy’?” Sal felt Frank’s fingers gripping his shoulder.
“Yeah, I fixed him.”
“You shot him?”
“Doesn’t matter how I did it. It got done, that’s all.” Frank kicked up a spray of sand. “What’s more it felt good. Felt like I was creaming my jeans. He was a guy I’d known a long time. I hadn’t seen him for a while, but he’d been in my head. He was from Manchester, like me. Buddy Roussel—shit, I’d known him way back in school. Ran into him in a club.”
“What’d he do?” Sal tried to step away and got his feet wet.
“Jesus, what didn’t he do? He got me in trouble in school when some equipment was stolen, a bunch of bats mostly, a couple of old gloves. Then he told this girl some stuff about me, that I’d slapped another girl, which was a lie. She’d tried to hit me and I’d put up my hand, that’s all there was to it. I couldn’t even get work because of him. There was a kitchen job I applied for and Buddy said something to the owner. I couldn’t find out what he’d said, but it was total bullshit. I’d done lots of cooking. I was good at it. But it didn’t make any difference. Buddy’d already been at the guy. A fast-food joint, what do they cook anyway? Burgers and ice cream—that’s not food, not real food anyway.”
“Sounds like a long time ago.” Sal’s stomach felt like it got when he was outside in the car and Frank was in the liquor store with his gun—partly it was cold, partly it was fluttery.
“Yeah, what goes around comes around. Course I was willing to let bygones be bygones, but he had to shoot off his mouth. He said he figured I was locked up somewheres. What’d he have to say that for? He had a girl with him, like he was saying it just for her. So I made like I was leaving and waited outside. I got him when he came out. Just like the end of a movie. Boom—The End of Buddy Roussel, starring Francis LeBrun. He was still with the girl, but she didn’t see my face. Shit, she was too busy screaming at Buddy to get the fuck up off the sidewalk, like she didn’t even know he was dead yet, the stupid cow. But I don’t know what Buddy might have told her. Like my name or where he knew me from. Anyway, now I got to change my game plan sooner than I meant to. I got a cousin north of Plymouth and I’d already been talking to him about a job, something legitimate. The trouble is, it means the end of our party. No more liquor stores for a while. I hate to disappoint you.”
A young couple were wrapped up in a blanket with only their toes showing. The men didn’t speak as they walked past. Frank was still scuffing his heels as if he enjoyed making cuts in the sand that the tide would erase. No more liquor stores, thought Sal. He wondered why Frank was telling him this stuff. Again he thought how he wanted to get his share of the money and go home. Tomorrow he’d start looking for a new place. Even Providence wouldn’t be too far away. It didn’t matter that Frank was leaving. He could always come back.
“This cousin of mine, Larry, he’s never been in trouble. He’s a real good cook and even took some classes up in Vermont, at least for a while, but it was too chichi, you hear what I’m saying? Fuckin’ sauces up the wazoo. Now he’s cooking at a school. He said he’d give me a job any time I wanted, full time, part time, it didn’t matter. Larry’s dad was the brother of my old man, the cocksucker. Both dead now, but he was okay. Worked in a hardware store. He gave me my first hammer when I was six or seven. Means a lot, your first hammer.” Frank paused to light a cigarette.
Sal saw Frank’s face flare in the light of the Bic: dark eyes squeezed half shut against the smoke, dark hair combed back from his forehead. Why’s he telling me this? Sal asked himself. He glanced back at the couple on the blanket about fifty feet away.
“That’s too bad about you going away,” said Sal. “We were doing all right.”
“Yeah,” said Frank philosophically. “Everything gets fucked sooner or later.”
“You really killed this guy?”
“Deader’n a doornail.”
“Didn’t it bother you?” Sal tried to keep the surprise out of his voice.
“Sometimes there’s a fuss, and I hate fuss. This time there was no fuss. First he was there, then he wasn’t.”
Sal wanted the night to be over. He wanted to be someplace with other people and lots of activity. “It’s about time to split up the money, wouldn’t you say?” They were again walking side by side on the packed sand. Frank’s cigarette made a red streak as he moved it to his mouth. Sal could feel his wet socks bunch between his toes.
“I got bad news about that,” said Frank, sounding apologetic.
“You mean about the money?”
“Yeah, the money.”
“You mean you didn’t get as much as you thought?”
“No, I got it all right. He had a whole bunch of fifties.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I just don’t want to give you any.”
Sal didn’t think he’d heard right. “Say again?”
“This going-away business, I don’t know how much I’ll need. So, you know, I’m going to keep your share.”
“I thought you’d be getting a job.” Sal forgot that his feet were wet, hardly heard the splash of his footsteps.
“Actually, I got two jobs. I met a guy who offered me a sweet deal at this place. He looked me up a couple of weeks ago. Wants me to do a number. I didn’t have to go find him or anything. He’d heard of me in Portsmouth. Where I was before here. Did I tell you what they call a female clone?”
“Yeah, a clunt. I thought you were going up to this school to cook.”
“Jesus Christ, can’t you keep anything straight? Why the fuck would I stick myself up there in the boondocks unless I had a good reason? The number came first, the cooking came second, Buddy Roussel came third. The school’s going bust; they’re dying for students. They’ll take anybody day or night. It made the whole business a piece of cake.”
“ I still don’t see why you can’t give me the money. I want to buy a dog, a greyhound.” His stomach was hurting again
“Jesus, you’d be better throwing the money into the street. I’m doing you a favor.”
“By not giving me the money?” Sal stopping walking. They were both in the water.
Frank flicked his cigarette through the air. It made a red arc into the surf. “I fuckin’ told you. You fuckin’ stupid? I’m in a jam and got to move fast. And this other job, the big one, after I take care of it, then I’ll have to disappear. Get up to Quebec or someplace and live fat.”
“I could lend it to you.”
“You’re not going to be lending it to me, asshole, I’m going to be taking it.”
“What about me?” Sal thought about what Frank had told him about killing that guy Buddy something.
“You, nothing,” said Frank. “You don’t even exist. Jesus Christ, you’re dumb. Did I ever tell you how you brainwash an Italian?”
“Then keep the money.” Sal took a step deeper into the water. “I’m glad to do you the favor. We’re buddies, right? Keep the whole thing.”
“You didn’t say if I’d told you the joke.”
“An enema, goddamnit. That’s how you brainwash an Italian. You give him an enema!”
“Don’t talk to me like that, Sally. I always been polite to you.”
Sal stood up to his ankles in the water. His head felt full of yelling, and in the midst of the clamor he realized he was going to piss himself just like the kid in the liquor store.
“Bishop’s Hill,” said Frank. “Bishop’s Hill Academy. I love names like that. You can almost smell the money. Me, I never got past tenth grade. Thought of taking the G.E.D. at one point, but why bother? I don’t need a fuckin’ piece of paper saying I can count. But this cooking job at Bishop’s Hill, it’ll be like being in school again, except nobody’s going to be shouting at me or pushing me around or making fun of me. Shit, I’ll even get paid. Can you beat that?”
“Let me go, Frank.”
“No can do.”
“I’m a friend, right. I won’t say anything. You can even have my car. Let me go.”
“I already got a car.”
“I got the money from the other jobs at my place. I’ll give it to you. Just follow me back.”
Frank zipped up his backpack, then swung it onto his left shoulder. “I’m not dumb, Sally. Stupidity’s not my problem. It’s like an insult to think I’m dumb.”
Sal stepped deeper into the water. There was something in Frank’s hand but it wasn’t a gun. It was something small.
“You do a little business for a while,” said Frank, “then it comes to an end. It’s fall and I got to go to school. Did I tell you that joke about what elephants use for tampons?”
The ice pick in his hand was tilted so it wouldn’t catch the moonlight. Frank grinned and rested his arm on Sal’s shoulders, a friendly gesture. Sal tried to step away, but it was too late. Perhaps he felt the prick of the needle point at the base of his skull but most likely it happened too fast to feel even that. Frank shoved the ice pick upward into the softness, then gave it a little swirl, cutting a cone shape into “the gray stuff,” as he called it. Then he slipped it out. Sal’s whole body was twitching and jittering. He grabbed Sal’s shoulder with one hand and the seat of his pants with the other. He walked him deeper into the water. Sal himself wasn’t walking; he was dead weight.
“Sheep, asshole, that’s what elephants use for tampons.” He lowered Sal into the water so he wouldn’t splash. It was like those baptisms he’d seen on TV. He liked the idea of making Sal clean again. Frank pressed his foot down on Sal’s back to force the air out of his lungs—the bubbles burst around him like farts, like farting in the bathtub, and that made Frank chuckle.
“Think of it this way,” he told Sal, “I’m saving you from ever being sent to jail.”
Frank turned and walked back to shore with the water running off his clothes. He was going to school. He was almost excited.
Because she was interested but still expected to be bored, the woman sat in the back row over by the window so if she wished she could turn her attention to the late-afternoon sun laying its orange light across the playing fields, where some half-dozen young men were kicking a soccer ball as if it represented the very acme of earthly endeavor. Her name was Kate Sandler and she had been teaching Italian and Spanish at Bishop’s Hill since January, when her predecessor, Mr. Mead, had given the school two days’ notice before relocating to the west coast of Mexico, “for his health,” he had said, “both mental and physical.” As a divorced mother with a seven-year-old son, Kate had felt lucky to get the job. Now, three weeks into the fall semester, her sympathies lay with the absent Mr. Mead. Kate was trim, athletic, and thirty-four with shoulder-length black hair that she wore in a ponytail at school. Reaching back from her left temple was a white streak about an inch wide that had made its appearance while she was still in college. At the time she had been sorry to turn prematurely gray but the white streak had been the extent of the change and now she valued it as something that made her memorable to clerks and garage mechanics.
Eighteen of Kate’s colleagues sat in front and to her left; the remaining three or four probably wouldn’t appear. Kate thought of them all as survivors—some she liked, some she didn’t, others she hardly knew. Now she felt herself to be a part of them. She, too, was a survivor. In the spring semester, she had been invited to several dinners, she had gone on one rather dreary date, and once, when her daffodils were in bloom and she was feeling optimistic, she had invited an older couple over to her small house for lasagna. Still, there was no one to whom she felt particularly close.
The meeting was scheduled for five and it was nearly that now. Her colleagues were beginning to look attentive, turning from their slouched positions and perfunctory conversations. Green shades were drawn down over the top half of the high windows, giving an aquatic tint to the ceiling. The dark oak woodwork had been recently polished and the air retained the faint aroma of Murphy’s Soap. Next to Kate, Chip Campbell, the history teacher and swimming coach, patted her knee and said, “Let’s vamos, buster!” But whether he meant that they should leave immediately or that he wanted the meeting to begin, Kate couldn’t decide. Chip had a round red face and the look of a former athlete who has gone to seed. His short sandy hair was brushed back in a ragged flattop. He had taught at Bishop’s Hill for twelve years. Before that he had taught in public schools in Connecticut until, as he said, he couldn’t stand the bullshit anymore.
Directly in front of Kate sat Alice Beech, the school nurse, in her white uniform. She glanced over her shoulder at Chip, then smiled at Kate before turning away. Chip directed a mocking smile at her back. He and a few others claimed that Alice was a lesbian, but Kate had no proof one way or the other. Nor did she care. Alice was an unattached single woman in her midthirties. Her short dark hair was perfectly straight and clung to her skull like a cap. The nurse had always been pleasant to Kate, and sometimes they sat together at lunch.
People grumbled about attending a meeting so late in the day but their annoyance was offset by curiosity about the new headmaster, Dr. Hawthorne, who’d been observed since his arrival three days earlier but not officially met. A number of faculty had asked Fritz Skander what they were in for. Skander only smiled and said, “I guess we’ll find out.” But Hawthorne had made his presence felt right from the start when he indicated that he wanted faculty cars parked in the lot behind Douglas Hall, not in the circle in front of Emerson. And there were other indications: the grounds crew had grown more active and a number of litter baskets had suddenly appeared. And Kate had seen him at lunch talking to students—a tall man in his thirties with a thin, angular face and light brown hair.
The heavy door at the front of the room opened and Fritz Skander entered, followed by Hawthorne, Mrs. Hayes—the school secretary—and a third man whom Kate recognized as one of the trustees, Hamilton Burke, a lawyer from Laconia. Burke was about fifty and portly in a three-piece blue suit. He looked as serious as if he were standing before the Supreme Court.
Skander seemed especially genial and winked at several of the faculty who caught his eye. He was perhaps forty-five, rectangular without being heavy, and with a full head of thick gray hair that crossed his brow in a straight line. He was a man with a lot of charm and fond of wearing humorous neckties. When Kate had met him in January she had thought they would become friends but she hadn’t learned much more about him than she did at that first meeting; and while Skander was affable, even effusive at times, Kate came to realize that was just his manner and didn’t necessarily reflect his interior self. Skander was several inches shorter than Hawthorne, who was also smiling, although his eyes were alert. Kate couldn’t blame him for being tense, if that was what it was.
Mrs. Hayes looked motherly and somewhat anxious—a stout woman in her early sixties in a flowered dress who was reputed to have a temper. Now she appeared particularly eager to help and, indeed, that was often the case. But her evident strain made Kate conscious of how she herself was looking at her new boss, and she realized she too had some skepticism, even suspicion, having to do with her sense of Bishop’s Hill as it had developed over the past eight months. Not that she could entirely fault the school. After all, there was so little money.
Fritz Skander went to the podium, joined his hands together palm to palm, and pressed them to his lips for silence, though by that time the room was mostly quiet.
“I know it’s frustrating to have to meet so late in the afternoon. You all have terribly busy schedules with far too many demands on your time.” Skander spoke in a sort of stage whisper that suggested intimacy, and Kate had to lean forward to hear. “We wanted to take this opportunity,” he continued, “to let you get just a little acquainted with Jim Hawthorne, our new headmaster. I think you’ll realize, as I have done, how lucky we are at Bishop’s Hill to have someone of his reputation and experience ready to take the helm.”
Mrs. Hayes had sat down to the left of the podium, next to Hamilton Burke. Hawthorne stood next to Skander with his hands behind his back. He looked cordial but serious and Kate thought his face reflected a sobriety that he brought with him, not a temporary nervousness or tension but a gravity in his nature, as if he wasn’t a man who laughed much. Behind them on the high wall were six marble panels with the names of young men from Bishop’s Hill who had fought in six wars from the Civil War to Vietnam. Small black crosses indicated the boys who had died, and whenever Kate was in this room, known as Memorial Hall, she wondered about them and what their hopes had been. The panels gave an indication of the school’s long history, all the more affecting, Kate thought, considering how close Bishop’s Hill had come in the past year to shutting its doors.
Skander’s voice remained at the level of a soothing purr as he spoke of Dr. Hawthorne’s years as director of a school in San Diego, his time at Ingram House in the Berkshires, his many articles, and his professorship in the Department of Psychology at Boston University. Hawthorne’s experience was in clinical psychology working with high-risk adolescents and Kate realized that his appointment signified a shift in the ambitions of the board of trustees. For although Bishop’s Hill promoted itself as catering to young men and women with special needs, that had, in the past, seemed more advertisement than actuality.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one,” said Skander a little louder, “who wishes that our relationship with Jim Hawthorne will last many years. Obviously in these three days I can’t say that I have gotten to know him. But already my wife and I see him as a friend as well as a colleague, and I look forward to that friendship deepening and becoming a sustaining timber not only of my professional life but of my private life too. Won’t you help me welcome him.” Skander stepped back, beaming and clapping his hands. His head was tilted to one side and his dark eyes crinkled at the edges, which gave a touch of whimsy to his enthusiasm. It made him seem inoffensive and endearing. As he clapped, his jacket opened and Kate saw a red necktie patterned with the white silhouettes of dogs.
The faculty and staff began applauding as well; two teachers, then two more stood up. Roger Bennett, the math teacher, whistled with an ironic cheer. His wife, the school chaplain, was absent from the meeting. Bennett was a tidy, small-boned man, and beneath his heather-green tweed jacket, he wore a bright red crewneck sweater. He glanced around at his colleagues, grinning and making quick lifting motions with his open hands, urging them to get to their feet.
It seemed to Kate that the sudden release of energy merely masked the staff’s anxiety. Hadn’t she heard them wondering what changes lay ahead? More than half taught at Bishop’s Hill because they couldn’t go elsewhere. They lacked the credentials to teach in public schools, and any private school, unless desperate, would examine them with care. Just the fact they taught at Bishop’s Hill was suspect. In some cases there were other shadows on their records—an affair with a student years before, possibly the striking of a student, perhaps a breakdown or time spent in a rehab center. Some were just too old. So if their positions were in jeopardy, for many it meant the end of the line as far as teaching was concerned. And still they clapped—thankfully and heartily—even though most would have preferred Skander as headmaster. Whatever his shortcomings, at least he was a known commodity.
On the playing fields, a wrestling match had developed among four of the soccer players. From this distance Kate couldn’t tell how serious it was. Hurrying toward the group rolling on the ground was a man in jeans and a white jacket. It looked like Larry Gaudette, the red-haired cook, who had come to Kate’s small house the previous spring to help her shovel snow off the roof. Gaudette dragged two boys away by their ankles. What at one moment had been a picture-perfect scene of boys kicking a ball across the playing fields had turned into something ugly. It reinforced Kate’s idea of Bishop’s Hill as a place where things went wrong. A number of the faculty and staff applauding Jim Hawthorne had assignments in the dormitory cottages and Kate wondered who was left to monitor the students, one hundred and twenty boarders ranging from the gloomy to the criminal. Then Kate stopped herself. She certainly had students who were intelligent, even students she thought of with great affection, but in every instance there was a reason why the student was at Bishop’s Hill and not someplace else. And none of those reasons pointed to a quality to be found here and not elsewhere. Indeed, many were at Bishop’s Hill simply because no place else would take them.
Jim Hawthorne stood at the podium with his hands holding the edges as he waited for the clapping to subside. He adjusted his glasses and brushed back a lock of hair that had fallen across his forehead, a gesture that made him seem suddenly younger. Chip Campbell leaned over to Kate. “There’s a handsome guy for you.”
Without doubt Hawthorne was in good physical shape—he was even tan—but was he handsome? Perhaps more distinctive than handsome, thought Kate; there was something too serious to be considered in the category of conventional good looks. Kate saw that Alice Beech had turned and was looking at Chip. Since she was directly in front, Kate couldn’t see the nurse’s expression but she guessed it was disapproving. She was glad she had kept her mouth shut. She could have easily said something stupid just to be sociable. Alice turned back and her starched white uniform rustled. Chip raised his eyebrows at Kate and winked.
The teachers who had been standing took their seats. Out on the field, Kate saw Gaudette talking to one of the soccer players while the others trotted back to the gym.
“I want to tell you,” said Hawthorne, “how glad I am to be here and how glad I am that we’ll be working with one another. However, I don’t want there to be any doubt about the enormity of our task.” He paused and looked out at his audience. Kate felt his eyes move across her. There was a slight burr in his voice that Kate found attractive and a slight accent that she associated with Boston: the broad a and a mild reluctance to confront the letter r.
“The school’s increasing debt, the low salaries of everyone who works here, problems with the physical plant, decreasing enrollment—at the moment the only circumstance in our favor is your own willingness and the board’s decision to give the school one more chance, a chance that I’m afraid will be our last.”
Hawthorne went on to cite further problems—lack of money, vacancies among faculty and staff, electrical and heating problems, broken equipment, low test scores of students. Kate already knew much of this but together it formed a depressing catalog. Hawthorne, while not exaggerating, was making certain that nobody held out any false hopes. The list was being made dire because dire solutions would be called for.
“If the school doesn’t begin to turn around this semester,” Hawthorne continued, “we will lose our accreditation before the end of the year. If that happens, then we won’t open next fall. That’s one possible calamity among many.”
Kate glanced at her colleagues. A few looked as if they were being scolded. Chip was digging at his thumbnail with a toothpick. Did any look hopeful? Kate thought not. Most were keeping their faces purposefully blank. Some students ran down the hallway outside and Chip heaved himself to his feet and walked to the door, where he looked out threateningly, ready to catch someone doing what he shouldn’t.
If it hadn’t been for her ex-husband in Plymouth and the terms of her divorce, Kate would have returned to Durham to finish her Ph.D. in Romance languages. Her choices were teaching at Bishop’s Hill or finding a job in an office. Even if she had wanted to teach at Plymouth State, there were no jobs available except for tutoring. And Plymouth was a thirty-minute drive, while Bishop’s Hill was less than ten. Most days she could be home when Todd got back from second grade. Even today she had been home to fix him a snack. Then Shirley Hodges up the road had agreed to watch him until Kate returned around six-thirty or seven.
“Despite our history at Bishop’s Hill,” Hawthorne was saying, “we cannot pretend to be a traditional prep school. Over the past ten years our attention has been increasingly focused on what was once called ‘the problem child,’ and if Bishop’s Hill is going to continue, then it will have to be in the area of helping such children. But instead of using the phrase problem child, I’d rather talk about children at risk. Reading their files, I’ve been dismayed by the psychological and physical handicaps, the divorces, delinquency, academic failures, sexual and substance abuse—I’m convinced the only way to help them academically is to help the whole child. And because one of our first obligations is to strengthen deficient ego functions, we need to think of our work as a twenty-four-hour activity. The entire day at Bishop’s Hill is our milieu and this milieu is our primary teaching tool. Along with educating our youngsters, we are trying to teach them age-appropriate behavior, to offer a counterdelusional design to break down their defenses and enable them to become productive members of society.”
With surprise Kate realized that Hawthorne was sincere, and she saw that she had expected something specious about Bishop’s Hill’s new headmaster. She had thought he would be like the others, someone who couldn’t get a job elsewhere and for whom Bishop’s Hill was the last stop. At best, she’d seen his hiring as a cosmetic change: a good-looking professional man to handle the fund-raising. This insight made her more attentive, and her colleagues, she noticed, were more attentive as well, sitting straighter, and two or three of them were even taking notes, although their faces, if possible, were stonier.
Hawthorne spoke about theories of alternative behavior, how that didn’t mean enforcing rules that led to punishment but called for the substitution of other responses that in turn meant increased interaction with every child. He wanted to dismantle the school’s system of merits and demerits. “We can’t punish behavior unless we’re willing to teach the child alternatives that he or she can substitute. A merit/demerit system is how you create a prison. We must be careful to be neither baby-sitters nor prison guards curbing our students’ actions till their sentences are up.”
It occurred to Kate to wonder why Hawthorne was there. Not why he had been hired but why he had decided to come to Bishop’s Hill. Unlike Fritz Skander, he had nothing casual about him, no trace of the easygoing administrator. He appeared thoroughly professional. Why should Hawthorne want to settle in rural New Hampshire, where people’s main links to the outside world were the satellite dishes attached to the sides of their dilapidated barns? And with that question Kate felt a rush of fear she couldn’t understand. After all, she held her job lightly no matter how much she cared for her students. Were she fired, she would find another. Even though she had no wish to work in an office or a store, such a situation would hardly be permanent. Then it seemed to her that fear was what she saw on the faces of her colleagues. Whatever the past had been, the future would be different and the angular man at the podium represented the moment of change. Even his angularity made Kate uncomfortable. It made her think of sticks shoved in a bag, chafing and poking at the insides.
“We’re here to help these children in their transition to the adult world,” Hawthorne was saying. “They have been injured and their sense of cause and effect is based on a distorted sense of survival. Even those of you who have been victims of their anger must realize that it is characteristic of damaged children to display anger when it would be more appropriate for them to be sad.”
The reference to anger made Kate think of her ex-husband, whom she hadn’t seen since July, when the divorce was finalized. She supposed even George’s anger existed because he lacked the courage to show his sadness, but after a point Kate no longer cared, especially when he had drunkenly tried to knock her down. Every Saturday morning Kate drove Todd in to the YMCA in Plymouth for his swimming lesson. George would pick him up. Then on Sunday evening he would drop Todd off at the library for Kate to pick up. She wouldn’t ask Todd about his time with his father. She knew that George would again have told Todd what a terrible mother she was and would have grilled him as to whether she had a boyfriend or whether any man had been sleeping at the house. He had even made Todd reveal her uninspiring date with Chip Campbell the previous spring, a dull dinner followed by a bad movie to which Chip brought a thermos of martinis. And at least once George had yelled at Todd and called him a liar. She had tried to ask Todd if there had been other kinds of abuse, but Todd was oddly protective of his father, as if George were a younger sibling who was especially clumsy or weak.
Kate shifted her legs and the afternoon light reflected on the gold ankle chain with the letter K around her left ankle. She had bought it the day her divorce had been finalized. At first she had intended to get a golden heart but that seemed sentimental. Even with a K, though, the chain represented her future, a new future. She had also wanted it to mean hope, but as her life continued without dramatic change, the chain came to mean no more than “on-goingness.” And what changes did she still hope for? If not romance, at least some form of male companionship. The very fact that George was jealous made her wish for something just so it wouldn’t seem that she was agreeing to his terms. And he wasn’t really jealous. He had for her neither love nor liking; rather, he hated the idea of another man’s fingerprints on what he still saw as his property: his hunting rifles, his Dodge four-by-four, his ex-wife. What appeared to be jealousy was the result of frustrated ownership, not affection. Surely that was why he was so insistent that Kate stay in the area and not because of Todd, whom he never called except to question him about his mother’s behavior and whose visits with his father were mostly spent in front of the television.
Kate smoothed her green cardigan down over her breasts. She found herself trying to determine the last time she had been held. Two summers ago she had taken a seminar for secondary school teachers in Romance languages at UNH and had gone out half a dozen times with a Spanish teacher from Portsmouth. Todd had been staying with her parents in Concord. Was that the last time she had been embraced—fourteen months ago? She had had no strong feelings for the man, whose last name she couldn’t recall, but now he stood as a high point in her romantic life. How pathetic, Kate thought. Here she was, still young, reasonably attractive, and in good physical condition and she could almost feel the skin decaying on her bones. Her sense of waste heightened the anger she felt toward her ex-husband. There were plenty of places where she could take courses next summer. Even California wouldn’t be too far. She would apply and take Todd with her. To hell with George. But the summer was nine months away. It was only September and she still had the winter to get through.
“If we see teaching as a twenty-four-hour activity,” Hawthorne was saying, “it will require a great deal of communication not simply among the faculty but among everyone at Bishop’s Hill. Our job is behavior management and behavior change—education is part of that but our primary instrument of change is Bishop’s Hill itself. We’ll need to have regular staff meetings, which won’t just be the usual, depressing rehashes of inappropriate behavior and who did what to whom. The point won’t be to discuss what’s been done but what might be done. And we’ll all need to pool staff resources to think up alternatives that might be of assistance.”
Kate perceived that whatever changes were initiated by the new headmaster she herself would be asked to give up more time. This thought was followed by resentment. She saw herself as a responsible teacher whose homeroom duties, six sections of languages, field hockey chores, and occasional mail room and dining hall duties kept her fully occupied. What right had Jim Hawthorne to demand more of her? By redefining their endeavor and calling it a milieu—Kate automatically suspected other people’s jargon—he was making her job something else. But along with irritation she felt sympathy for Hawthorne, who surely was arousing the resentment of her colleagues. They were used to their routines. It wasn’t necessarily that Hawthorne was asking them to do more work—he was meddling with their complacency.
Yet Hawthorne was right about the students. Many were disturbed and troublesome. They acted out and lost their tempers. They were unhappy and felt unloved by their families. Even the best seemed to be trying to accommodate themselves to what Kate thought of as a reform school mentality—following orders out of fear of punishment rather than to be successful. And she was reminded of the new girl who had appeared in Spanish I on Tuesday—Jessica, her name was. She had an ankle bracelet like Kate’s, though thicker and shinier. Her roommate, Helen Selkirk, also took Spanish. Helen had talked to Kate about the girl after class, saying that Jessica had made Helen switch to the top bunk, threatening to wet her bed if Helen didn’t move. But that hadn’t been the most disturbing thing. What had Jessica said? “Who do I have to fuck to get along here?” In class the next day—pretty and blond and fifteen—Jessica had seemed to exude the animated naiveté that passed for innocence among adolescent girls. Yet what was her history and what dreadfulness in her past had led to her question? And when Helen told Jessica that she didn’t have to fuck anyone, she hadn’t believed her. “Sooner or later you got to do it,” Jessica had told her, “that’s just how things are.”
Kate studied Hawthorne standing behind the podium—his dark gray jacket, his white shirt and tie. She saw he wore a wedding ring, though she’d heard nothing about a wife. She wondered how she felt about that and detected a trace of disappointment. It made her scold herself again. Perhaps Hawthorne’s wife was someone with whom she could be friends. God knows, she’d be glad to find someone to talk to. As Kate listened, she felt that Hawthorne knew what he was saying was unpopular and that he didn’t care. No, that wasn’t right. He cared but it wouldn’t make him change his approach. He meant to take Bishop’s Hill forward and those who didn’t follow would be cut loose.
Kate glanced out the window—the shadows were lengthening across the playing fields and the light was increasingly golden. A red-haired boy in a red sweater was walking toward the trees, presumably to have an illegal cigarette. She recognized him as an eighth grader, although she couldn’t think of his name. He kicked a stone and it glittered in the light as it flew through the air.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I understand Stephen Dobyns has been writing for a while, but because I had never heard of him before picking up this book, I felt as though I had made a fantastic discovery of a brand new author with an amazing talent for suspense. I literally could not put this book down (much to the chagrin of my family) and upon finishing it, grabbed up another of his books from the library--Church of Dead Girls. I am equally caught up in this second novel. While there are several characters to keep track of in "Boy in the Water", which can at times be difficult to keep track of, he makes each of them so intriguing, you want to know more and more about them. He also keeps the reader engaged by having an action-filled plot, while at the same time spending the time to let the reader get inside the characters minds. If I had one complaint, it was that the epilogue stepped away from the main characters and I would have liked to see some followup with Hawthorne and the future of the school. However, that is a minor complaint. All in all, if you enjoy suspense novels, you'll enjoy Stephen Dobyns' work.
this book is the best book i have ever read i am in 8th grade and kewit middle school and it was so hard to put it down at the end of reading class. this book is for people of all ages from 14-100
I can tell that the author is a good poet by reading this book, but the first half of Boy In The Water was a too gossipy for my tastes.
When I first read 'Church of the Dead Girls', I thought to myself ... how can his next novel possibly equal this? Well it did, and the wait was well worth it. You will be on the edge of your seat from cover to cover.