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Headlights illuminated the curve on the top of the road. A police car slowed and stopped at the end of the driveway. “Had any more trouble, Mr. Randall?” asked a deep voice.
I could tell Bruce hoped to speak to the officer privately, so I followed, so did Mr. Spear, of course. Bruce eyed us with a let-me-do-the-talking frown and said: “No, officer. No one’s come near the house.”
In the light from the dashboard, the policeman’s round, snout-like, whiskery-black face reminded me of a panda’s.
“Good,” he said.
“No, it isn’t, officer,” I said. “We think the gang that did the damage was down on the beach just now.”
The policeman’s dull eyes shifted from me to Bruce.
“We’re not sure,” Bruce muttered.
“Listen, Bruce,” I said, upset with him, “maybe he knows them. Maybe they’ve caused trouble before.”
Bruce didn’t reply. Mr. Spear coughed. The officer looked from one of us to the other, his chunky hand on the top of the steering wheel. “How many were there?” he asked me.
“About four boys and four girls in two cars. I heard two names, Jake and Harry. Otherwise, it was too dark for me to see much.”
“So what made you think they’d done the damage? Did they say so?”
“No, but they were giving us a hard time, like they had a grudge or something.”
“Got anything to add to that, Mr. Randall?”
“Did either of you get the license plate numbers?”
“No,” Bruce said. I shook my head no.
“Which way did they go?”
“Took off like bats out a hell down that way, toward the Seavey place,” Mr. Spear piped in. “Seems to me they was headed for the next town over.”
The policeman hesitated and then said: “Off-hand, I don’t recognize those kids as trouble-makers and I don’t blame you for not being sure, Mr. Randall. And you, son,” he added, lifting a critical eyebrow at me, “you’ve got to be careful who you accuse.”
Terrific, I thought. Warn me, the guy who’d prefer to settle this peacefully, and practically give Bruce permission to duke it out with kids half his size. Christ, what a stupid cop.
The policeman shifted the car into first gear. “I’ll drive by here a time or two during the night and keep an eye out for you, Mr. Randall,” he said.
“Thanks,” said Bruce, his tone all but dismissing such inadequate protection. Oddly enough, Mr. Spear said nothing, just stood there nodding like a bobble head doll, and Kathleen might as well have been a statue, only statues are typically stony, and she looked ready to crumble. I walked over to stand next to her.
“But it’s a big town, you understand,” the cop said. “I can’t promise anything.”
“He isn’t much help, is he?” Kathleen whispered.
“No and neither is Bruce,” I said, sorry and not sorry for adding to her pain, thinking that until she stood up to him, Bruce would dominate what for her could be a very long, unhappy marriage. But hell, I was tired, too damned pooped to reason with Kathleen, argue with Bruce, indulge Mr. Spear, or give the finger to the dumb cop as the car drove off. Eating would be more profitable, I thought, so to hell with it for now.
“Who wants to share a bucket of fried chicken with me?” I asked in a belligerent tone that implied I’d beat on the head anyone who wouldn’t. “Mr. Spear, how about you? Want to ride over with me and get some? Or maybe you’d rather have fried clams.” Not a big fan, the thought of smelling clams in my car made me feel slightly ill, but I was sure my gesture was easing the tension.
“Never eat stuff fried in deep fat myself, ‘specially after hearin’ they don’t change the oil any more than they have to,” Mr. Spear informed me as we moved into the circle of light from the bulb over the porch. “Can’t think of a better way to be kept up all night, too. That fried stuff hardens the bowels somethin’ awful. You get all bound up.”
Having lost my appetite, I nevertheless asked Bruce and Kathleen if I could get them something, had my offer declined, and said: “Well...maybe I’ll settle for a glass of milk.”
“Warm it,” Mr. Spear advised. “Nothin’ puts you to sleep faster.”
Then, we seemed stalemated. Kathleen sat on the steps. I stood and watched Bruce whose face was not impassive when studied closely. He always seemed to be thinking, planning the next moves, near and far term, in spite of the distractions around him. He was distant, but not in an escapist way. His mind was simply centered on his problems, at times admittedly, more often inwardly. His somber facial expression tonight aroused my suspicion that his enthusiasm for the house was weakening. But hell, no wonder. His strong-minded, high-pressure father had riddled it with criticism and scorn in a fiercely controlling reminder to his son that he couldn’t scratch in the dirt and get away with it. Bruce wasn’t defeated, but he’d lost headway. The old Bruce, the defiant Bruce who’d married Kathleen and bought and renovated the old place would have put in new windows himself and to hell with collecting insurance. Now, I doubted he’d hire a man to do it until the claim was paid. He wanted to fight the kids, but how much longer would he fight his father’s insistence that he develop and apply his scientific and mathematical brain to interesting work and a successful future? Was it wrong to be satisfied with tinkering when you might do great things? I thought so. I thought he thought so, too. That’s the way I read his face anyway.
“Well,” said Mr. Spear, “if I offered money for thoughts I’d go broke, so I guess I’ll wander on home. Gettin’ late, too, for me at least. Can’t do much carousin’ anymore like you young folks.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. “We stay up all night drinking warm milk.”
“I’d think you would what with kids sneakin’ around.”
Kathleen turned the plain gold band on her finger.
“Yup, I’d stay mighty alert to the doin’s of them kids.”
I wanted to tell him to shut up. I said: “What makes you think they’ll be sneaking around?”
“A feelin’. Call it a hunch.”
“Have you heard anything unusual at night, Mr. Spear?” Bruce asked.
“Nope. Even the gut’s quiet long as I don’t eat nothin’ fried.”
“We’ll see you in the morning, Mr. Spear,” I hinted.
“Yup. I’ll be down with my trunks on lookin’ for swimmers.” He pulled the bill of his cap lower and added: “If it don’t rain, an’ I got a feelin’ it might. Call it–“
“A hunch,” I finished for him.
“You got one, too?”
No, I thought, but I hope the hell it does rain. The land needs water and I’d like a chance to read or sit and do some work at my desk for awhile.
“Say, Tom, would you be goin’ by a store in the mornin’?” Mr. Spear asked.
“I thought you were going swimming,” I said.
“A man can’t swim if he don’t eat first.”
“Well, I wasn’t planning to go to the store, Mr. Spear.”
“Just thought I’d ask. A man don’t lose nothin’ by askin’. Maybe Rab’ll be goin’. Heard his father isn’t well.”
“That’s obvious,” I said without thinking, but I was weary, tired of being robbed of my time, and there came a point in every conversation with Mr. Spear when you wished he’d suddenly be whisked off the scene.
“It’s more so now, Tom, he took to his bed this mornin’.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Do you know what’s wrong with him?”
“Didn’t know what was wrong before. Don’t know what’s wrong now.”
I wondered if I should go up to see him, maybe take Mike along.
“Hey, where’s the dog?” I said.
“Still on the back porch, I think,” Kathleen said.
“The dog’s useless,” Bruce complained. “He’s either gone or asleep when he’s here.”
In other words, he’d taken offense that the dog wasn’t slavishly at his side to follow, obey, cooperate, guard, protect, fight, and be mastered; that even the dog had deserted him.
“Maybe he’s sick, too,” I defended. “It isn’t like him to be so listless.”
“He isn’t sick he’s fat and lazy.”
“That’s ’cause those old men at the Rouser place feed him every mornin’,” said Mr. Spear.
Christ, I wanted to smack the old tattler. I opted for sarcasm. “You don’t feed him though, do you, Mr. Spear?”
“Nope. Don’t have nothin’ to spare. I eat what I cook. But say, Tom, I hear you did some cookin’ in the army.”
“For awhile, yes.”
“That all you did in the army?”
“I had some infantry training.”
That seemed to be the end of it. I guess he had no grand stories to tell about World War I. Too young? Mr. Spear, young? Hard to imagine.
Bruce had taken off somewhere. I told Kathleen I was going for a walk.
“Which way?” Mr. Spear asked.
“Down the road,” I said, and realized I’d left myself wide open when his eyebrows lifted. So, using my wits, I said: “The hill climb back will tire me out so I can get to sleep.”
“Be sure it’s the walking that wears you out, Tom.”
What the hell business is it of yours? I silently asked him, my ears hot.
“Better to drink that warm milk than go near that woman down there.”
Teeth clenched, I muttered: “Don’t worry about it.”
“Can’t help it, Tom, she’s–“
“I’m going in,” Kathleen said.
She stood up, crossed the porch, opened the door, walked inside and shut the door.
“Well now, that was hasty,” Mr. Spear said as we walked to the edge of the road.
“And worried about prowling kids, right?”
“I guess so.”
“Don’t blame her a bit. What happened down there on the beach, Tom? Bruce didn’t say much.”
“You heard what I told the police officer. That’s what happened.”
It was darker. Clouds had nearly covered the sky, but the air didn’t feel wet. I was tempted to ask him about Dr. Randall, and what the contractor had said, but thought Kathleen could tell me in fewer words. I took a step and said: “Well, I guess I’ll get going.”
“How’s the writin’ comin’ along, Tom?”
He wouldn’t give up. “Fine,” I lied.
“Haven’t had much time for it lately, have you?”
“Seems to me Bruce’s father isn’t all that fond of what he’s doin’ out here.”
“No, he isn’t.”
“What’s the story on that, Tom?”
“It’s a long one, Mr. Spear.”
“Well, I’d like to hear it someday. I got the gist of it on Saturday, been thinkin’ about it ever since. What’s your opinion? Should that boy be in college?”
My legs were beginning to ache. “I don’t know,” I said in a dismissive tone that might send him home.
“How come you didn’t go, Tom, a smart one like you? Money problems?”
“That’s another long story, Mr. Spear. Guess you’ll have to wait to read my book.” If there is a book, I thought, any book. Damn, I’m tired of pretending to be a writer. Writers write. They don’t stand around talking.