Quicker Than The Eye, 1996
1. Unterderseaboat Doktor, 1994
The incredible event occurred during my third visit to Gustav Von Seyfertitz, my foreign psychoanalyst.
I should have guessed at the strange explosion before it came.
After all, my alienist, truly alien, had the coincidental name, Von Seyfertitz, of the tall, lean, aquiline, menacing, and therefore beautiful actor who played the high priest in the 1935 film She.
In She, the wondrous villain waved his skeleton fingers, hurled insults, summoned sulfured flames, destroyed slaves, and knocked the world into earthquakes.
5. Zaharoff/Richter Mark V, 1996
In the twilight just before sunrise, it was the most ordinary-looking building he had seen since the chicken farm of his youth. It stood in the middle of an empty field full of cricket weeds and cacti, mostly dust and some neglected footpaths in the half darkness.
Charlie Crowe left the Rolls-Royce engine run-fling at the curb behind him and babbled going along the shadowed path, leading the way for Rank Gibson, who glanced back at the gently purring car.
"No, no," Charlie Crowe cut in. "No one would steal a Rolls-Royce, now, would they? How far would they get, to the next corner? Before someone else stole it from them! Come along!"
5. Remember Sascha?, 1996
Remember? Why, how could they forget? Although they knew him for only a little while, years later his name would arise and they would smile or even laugh and reach out to hold hands, remembering.
Sascha. What a tender, witty comrade, what a sly, hidden individual, what a child of talent; teller of tales, bon vivant, late-night companion, ever-present illumination on foggy noons.
He, whom they had never seen, to whom they spoke often at three a.m. in their small bedroom, away from friends who might roll their eyeballs under their lids, doubting their sanity, hearing his name.
5. Another Fine Mess, 1995
The sounds began in the middle of summer in the middle of the night.
Bella Winters sat up in bed about three a.m. and listened and then lay back down. Ten minutes later she heard the sounds again, out in the night, down the hill.
Bella Winters lived in a first-floor apartment on top of Vendome Heights, near Effie Street in Los Angeles, and had lived there now for only a few days, so it was all new to her, this old house on an old street with an old staircase, made of concrete, climbing steeply straight up from the low-lands below, one hundred and twenty steps, count them. And right now...
4. The Electrocution, 1946
She let him tie the black silk over her eyes and he knotted it and jerked it so tight that she gasped and said, "Loosen it, damn you, Johnny, loosen it, or I won't go on!'?
"Sure," he said easily, and she smelled his sharp breath; while beyond; the crowd rustled against the rope barrier and the carnival tent flapped in the night wind, and off, there was a drift of calliope music and the rattle of a trap drum.
Dimly, through the black silk, she could see the men, the boys, the few women, a good crowd, paying out dimes to see her strapped in this electric chair, the electrodes on her wrists and neck, waiting.
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4. Hopscotch, 1978
Vinia woke to the sound of a rabbit running down and across an endless moonlit field; but it was only the soft, quick beating of her heart. She lay on the bed for a moment, getting her breath. Now the sound of the running faded and was gone at a great distance. At last she sat up and looked down from her second-story bedroom window and there below, on the long sidewalk, in the faint moonlight before dawn, was the hopscotch.
Late yesterday, some child had chalked it out, immense and endlessly augmented, square upon square, line after line, numeral following numeral. You could not see the end of it. Down the street it built its crazy pattern, 3, 4, 5, on up to 10, then 30, 50, 90, on away to turn far corners. Never in all the children's world a hopscotch like this! You could Jump forever toward the horizon.
3. The Finnegan, 1996
To say that I have been haunted for the rest of my life by the affair Finnegan is to grossly understate the events leading up to that final melancholy. Only now, at threescore and ten, can I write these words for an astonished constabulary who may well run with picks and shovels to unearth my truths or bury my lies.
The facts are these:
Three children went astray and were missed. Their bodies were found in the midst of Chatham Forest and each bore no marks of criminal assassination, but all had suffered their lifeblood to be drained. Only their skin remained like that of some discolored vineyard grapes withered by sunlight and no rain.
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4. That Woman on the Lawn, 1996
Very late at night he heard the weeping on the lawn in front of his house. It was the sound of a woman crying. By its sound he knew it was not a girl or a mature woman, but the crying of someone eighteen or nineteen years old. It went on, then faded and stopped, and again started up, now moving this way or that on the late-summer wind.
He lay in bed listening to it until it made his eyes fill with tears. He turned over, shut his eyes, let the tears fall, but could not stop the sound. Why should a young woman be weeping long after midnight out there?
3. The Very Gentle Murders, 1994
Joshua Enderby awoke in the middle of the night because e felt someone's fingers at his throat.
In the rich darkness above him he sensed but could not see his wife's frail, skelatinous weight seated on his chest while she dabbled and clenched tremblingly again and again at his neck.
He opened his eyes wide. He realized what she was trying to do. It was so ridiculous he almost cried out with laughter!
His rickety, jaundiced, eighty-five-year-old wife was trying to strangle him!
5. Quicker Than The Eye, 1996
It was at a magic show I saw the man who looked enough like me to be my twin.
My wife and I were seated at a Saturday night performance, it was summer and warm, the audience melting in weather and conviviality. All around I saw married and engaged couples delighted and then alarmed by the comic opera of their lives which was being shown in immense symbol onstage.
A woman was sawed in half. How the husbands in the audience smiled.
A woman in a cabinet vanished. A bearded magician wept for her in despair. Then, at the tip-top of the balcony, she appeared, waving a white-powdered hand, infinitely beautiful, unattainable, far away.
5. Dorian In Excelsis, 1996
Good evening. Welcome. I see you have my invitation in your hands. Decided to be brave, did you? Fine. Here we are Grab onto this."
The tall, handsome stranger with the heavenly eyes and the impossibly blond hair handed me a wineglass.
"Clean your palate," he said.
I took the glass and read the label on the bottle he held in his left hand. Bordeaux, it read. St. Emilion.
"Go on," said my host. "It's not poison. May I sit? And might you drink?"
"I might," I sipped, shut my eyes, and smiled. "You're a connoisseur. This is the best I've had in years. But why this wine and why the invitation? What am I doing here at Gray's Anatomy Bar and Grill?"
7. No News, or What Killed the Dog?, 1994
It was a day of holocausts, cataclysms, tornadoes, earth-quakes, blackouts, mass murders, eruptions, and miscellaneous dooms, at the peak of which the sun swallowed the earth and the stars vanished.
But to put it simply, the most respected member of the Bentley family up and died.
Dog was his name, and dog he was.
The Bentleys, arising late Saturday morning, found Dog stretched on the kitchen floor, his head toward Mecca, his paws neatly folded, his tail not a-thump but silent for the first time in twenty years.
5. The Witch Door, 1995
It was a pounding on a door, a furious, frantic, insistent pounding, born of hysteria and fear and a great desire to be heard, to be freed, to be let loose, to escape. It was a wrenching at hidden paneling, it was a hollow knocking, a rapping, a testing, a clawing! It was a scratching at hollow boards, a ripping at bedded nails; it was a muffled closet shouting and demanding, far away, and a call to be noticed, followed by a silence.
The silence was the most empty and terrible of all. Robert and Martha Webb sat up in bed.
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3. The Ghost in the Machine, 1996
The talk in the village in the year 1853 was, of course, about the madman above, in his sod-and-brick hut, with an untended garden and a wife who had fled, silent about his madness, never to return.
The people of the village had never drunk enough courage to go see what the special madness was or why the wife had vanished, tear-stained, leaving a vacuum into which atmospheres had rushed to thunder-clap.
On a sweltering hot day with no cloud to offer shadow comfort and no threat of rain to cool man or beast, the Searcher arrived. Which is to say, Dr. Mortimer Goff, a man of many parts, most of them curious and self-serving, but also traveling the world for some baroque event, or miraculous revelation.
5. At the End of the Ninth Year, 1995
"Well," said Sheila, chewing on her breakfast toast and examining her complexion, distorted in the side of the coffee urn, "here it is the last day of the last month of the ninth year."
Her husband, Thomas, glanced over the rampart of The Wall Street Journal saw nothing to fasten his regard, and sank back in place. "What?"
"I said," said Sheila, "the ninth year's finished and you have a completely new wife. Or, to put it properly, the old wife's gone. So I don't think we're married anymore."
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4. Bug, 1996
Looking back now, I can't remember a time when Bug wasn't dancing. Bug is short for jitterbug and, of course, those were the days in the late thirties, our final days in high school and our first days out in the vast world looking for work that didn't exist when jitterbugging was all the rage. And I can remember Bug (his real name was Bert Bagley, which shortens to Bug nicely), during a jazz-band blast at our final aud-call for our high school senior class, suddenly leaping up to dance with an invisible partner in the middle of the front aisle of the auditorium. That brought the house down. You never heard such a roar or such applause. The bandleader, stricken with Bug's oblivious joy, gave an encore and Bug did the same and we all exploded. After that the band played "Thanks for the Memory" and we all sang it, with tears pouring down our cheeks. Nobody in all the years after could forget: Bug dancing in the aisle, eyes shut, hands out to grasp his invisible girlfriend, his legs not connected to his body, just his heart, all over the place. When it was over, nobody, not even the band, wanted to leave. We just stood there in the world Bug had made, hating to go out into that other world that was waiting for us.
2. Once More, Legato, 1995
Fentriss sat up in his chair in the garden in the middle of a fine autumn and listened. The drink in his hand remained unsipped, his friend Black unspoken to, the fine house unnoticed, the very weather itself neglected, for there was a veritable fountain of sound in the air above them.
"My God," he mid. "Do you 'hear?"
"What, the birds?" asked his friend Black, doing just the opposite, sipping his drink, noticing the weather, admiring the rich house, and neglecting the birds entirely until this moment.
4. Exchange, 1996
There were too many cards in the file, too many books on the shelves, too many children laughing in the children's room, too many newspapers to fold and stash on the racks ...
All in all, too much. Miss Adams pushed her gray hair back over her lined brow, adjusted her gold-rimmed pince-nez, and rang the small silver bell on the library desk, at the same time switching off and on all the lights. The exodus of adults and children was exhausting. Miss Ingraham, the assistant librarian, had gone home early because her father was sick, so it left the burden of stamping, filing, and checking books squarely on Miss Adams' shoulders.
3. Free Dirt, 1996
The cemetery was in the center of the city. On four sides it was bounded by gliding streetcars on glistening blue tracks and cars with exhaust fumes and sound. But, once inside the wall, the world was lost. For half a mile in four directions the cemetery raised midnight trees and headstones that grew from the earth, like pale mushrooms, moist and cold. A gravel path led back into darkness and within the gate stood a Gothic Victorian house with six gables and a cupola. The front-porch light showed an old man there alone, not smoking, not reading, not moving, silent. If you took a deep breath he smelled of the sea, of urine, of papyrus, of kindling, of ivory, and of teak. His false teeth moved his mouth automatically when it wanted to talk. His tiny yellow seed eyes twitched and his poke-hole nostrils thinned as a stranger crunched up the gravel path and set foot on the porch step.
2. Last Rites, 1994
Harrison Cooper was not that old, only thirty-nine, touching at the warm rim of forty rather than the cold rim of thirty, which makes a great difference in temperature and attitude. He was a genius verging on the brilliant, unmarried, unengaged, with no children that he could honestly claim, so having nothing much else to do, woke one morning in the summer of 1999, weeping.
Out of bed, he faced his mirror to watch the tears, examine his sadness, trace the woe. Like a child, curious after emotion, he charted his own map, found no capital city of despair, but only a vast and empty expanse of sorrow, and went to shave.
4. The Other Highway, 1994
They drove into green Sunday-morning country, away from the hot aluminum city, and watched as the sky was set free and moved over them like a lake they had never known was there, amazingly blue and with white breakers above them as they traveled.
Clarence Travers slowed the car and felt the cool wind move over his face with the smell of cut grass. He reached over to grasp his wife's hand and glanced at his son and daughter in the backseat, not fighting, at least for this moment, as the car moved through one quiet beauty after another in what might be a Sunday so lush and green it would never end.
3. Afterword: Make Haste To Live, 1996
When I was eight years old, in 1928, an incredible event occurred on the back wall outside the Academy motion picture theater in Waukegan, Illinois. An advertising broadside, some thirty feet long and twenty feet high, dramatized Black-stone the Magician in half a dozen miraculous poses: sawing a lady in half; tied to an Arabian cannon that exploded, taking him with it; dancing a live handkerchief in midair; causing a birdcage with a live canary to vanish between his fingers; causing an elephant to . . . well, you get the idea. I must have stood there for hours, frozen with awe. I knew then that someday I must become a magician.