ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE
Out Of Nowhere
Sunday October 23 ...
Danny Brogan burned his future wife's family to death when he was eleven years old. Whether by accident or design, he's not entirely sure, or at least, that's what he's always told himself. It was probably no great surprise in any case that as a result he should develop a morbid fear of fire, nor that this fear should stay with him throughout his life. Fear is a man's best friend, or so the song goes, and Danny carried his fear of fire, just as he carried his fear of the friends that were with him that night, until it sometimes looked like the twin burdens might overwhelm him.
No one really knew what he had done except his friends, Dave and Gene and Ralph, and even they differed on the details, and while they had all promised never to tell, there was always the fear that they might. Not at first, not in the immediate aftermath, the whole city in shock, the church services and processions of mourning, the burial of the dead, the tiny white coffins. Not in the following weeks and months, the surviving child placed in foster care and then with adoptive parents miles away, the burnt-out house demolished and rebuilt until you'd never know there'd been a fire there at all. Not in the years after that, as junior high gave way to the high school riot of sports and studies and hormones, Brains, Emotions and Muscles vying daily for supremacy, like in the old comic book advertisement. No one ever said a word. It was as if it had never happened, as if their childhoods had never happened, as if memory was no longer necessary. The future was the only game in town: the next exam, the next football game, the next pretty girl. Who cared about what happened when they were kids?
It was only later, when they had kids themselves, that things changed. You relive your own childhood when you have children, Danny came to understand.
Danny's elder daughter, Barbara, was the same age now as Danny had been when the fire took place. And once the kids had started coming, that was when the memories began, that was when the questions started, that was when the past became present. And for Danny, that was when the fear took renewed, redoubled hold. That the guys had all drifted apart was perhaps inevitable. After all, how many eleven year-olds remain friends for the rest of their lives? But it increasingly seemed, even if it was never spoken of, as if the fire at the Bradberry place was the only thing they had left in common.
But Danny Brogan refused to let his fears overwhelm him. He met his fear of fire head on, spouting and sputtering from the gas burners in the kitchen of the bar and grill he owned and ran. And when the season was right and his family clamored for barbecue, Danny met his fear there also, even though the reek of burning charcoal and seared meat sometimes infused his brain with visions and sense memories all the more insidious for being imaginary (for Danny was out cold before the Bradberry fire took hold and has little real recollection of it). They didn't cook out nearly as often as other families, Danny's excuse being that it was too much like bringing his work home with him. But the family barbecue can't be avoided altogether.
And here it is, the last of the season, on a clear and bright October day, the leaves turning, the air still mild but with a bite, a cold admonitory finger warning of frost, and more, to come. Halloween's just a week away now. The lanterns have been lit and the pumpkins carved. In the windows hang curtains of black net, watermarked with spiders and skulls and witches in flight. And everyone's here, in the rolling backyard, vampires, werewolves, spooks and ghouls, and their kids, and their dogs. Everyone's here. The turn of the year. The harsh Wisconsin winter looming, but for now, the air still mild, just, as Fall's cold blaze flickers along the apple trees heavy with fruit at the foot of the garden and out across the wall and spreads like, yes, like wild fire through the forests of the neighboring Arboretum.
As the afternoon wears on, and the beers take hold (cocktails for Danny and his noisier friends, brandy Old Fashioneds, the local favorite), as the flames twist and turn, wrestling with the shimmering light, as the charcoal smoke stains the haze inky black, reality seems momentarily suspended. Talk gets heated, wild and reckless, painted cheeks flush, and masked eyes glitter, and fleetingly, anything seems possible: someone else's wife, someone else's life! All are called to the masquerade! Louder music, wilder women, stronger wine!
And speaking of wilder women, there goes Karen Cassidy, Danny's indispensable chief bartender, teetering about on six inch heels, part of a customised Catwoman costume that sees her blonde hair lacquered and coiffed into two pointy kitty ears, the heels-and-ears combination hauling her five feet in height perilously close to six. Karen, who, day-to-day (apart from dressing like a finalist in a Dolly Parton lookalike contest), is dependably level-headed and smart, not to mention hard as nails, but once she's had a drink, or in this case, five Brandy Old Fashioneds and half a bottle of Chardonnay, well, there she goes! Danny once had to shut himself in the janitor's closet at a staff party because Karen wouldn't take no for an answer (she never remembers anything the following day, and woe betide anyone who challenges her).
Karen demands that eleven year-old Barbara put Highway to Hell by AC/DC on the sound system at full volume, that it be turned up to eleven, and that everyone dance to it out on the deck, no stop-outs or dissenters. Having had her eye for a good hour or more on one of Claire's theatre friends, Simon, who is dapper and handsome and charming and dressed in a, big clue this, a sailor suit, there she goes, big time, her Catwoman tail shaking, her arms around his neck, his face snug in her cleavage, and there they go together, stumbling off the deck and toppling into the herb garden, and there they lie, thrashing among bushes and low trees, bruised in thyme and sage and bay. "That's what I call a bouquet garni," Simon's boyfriend Todd says.
It's then that Danny sees it. Flames have erupted suddenly from the barbecue, hot fat crackles and spits, and Danny has turned away from the commotion, away from the house. As he rakes the embers and banks down the fire, it's then that Danny sees it, through the smoke, through the apple trees, through the wrought iron bars of the old garden gate that leads to the Arboretum, the unmistakeable figure of Death. The Angel of Death in his black cowl, faceless and strange, scythe in one hand, the other hand raised in greeting, or admonition, and then lowered to try the handle of the gate. For a split-second, through the smoke, through the trees, Danny thinks it is Death, come to claim him. Then he sees the letter P scrawled on Death's chest, P for Pestilence, P for Plague, and he realises it must be one of his old friends: Dave Ricks, or Gene Peterson, or Ralph Cowley. The Four Horsemen, that's what they were, or at least, that's what they became, the Halloween they were eleven years old, the Halloween that changed everything. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
It's then that Danny leaves the party and walks down past the apple trees to the gate, to his old friend, unseen, he thinks, by everyone. He's only gone a couple of steps when he stops and turns back to the fire. Through the haze he sees his wife, Claire, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes as Simon struggles vainly to free himself from Karen's horizontal attentions, and Barbara, pulling cartoon faces to indicate her embarrassment and disbelief, but unable quite to hide her excitement, and eight year-old Irene, who is making her own fun, rolling around on the lawn with Mr Smith, the Brogans' springer spaniel. He sees his family. This is what is at stake, he thinks, this is what he could not bear to lose, and he stows the eight-inch Sabatier chef knife he uses to carve the meat deep in the pocket of his butcher's apron. He turns and walks down through the drifting smoke, through the falling light, beneath the aching branches of the apple trees to the old gate, unobserved, or so he thinks, and out into the Arboretum to meet the Angel of Death, who knows everything Danny wishes he could forget.
A Cottage For Sale
The cab driver has long gray hair in a plait and silver sleeper rings in both ears, a classic Willy Street sixties survivor, or casualty, take your pick. He's already asked for extra directions, as if Madison is some sprawling metropolis and not a city of under a quarter million people, and he's made his ritual little dig about the upscale West Side, as if it's all Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive over here and not the American Midwest 101. Although Claire doesn't exactly live in the 101 tract, but on an otherwise uninhabited tree-lined road in the heart of the UW Arboretum. The car pulls up outside the black iron gates of the old house. Claire doesn't have her remote with her, so she gets out of the car to open them by hand. The driver gets out too.
"There's a chain around it," he says.
The approach light clicks on. She's never seen the heavy link chain before. A haunted house game the girls were playing, maybe. There's no padlock, and it's easily removed. She can see the lights of the house up the drive. The night air is crisp and refreshing after a day of hotels and flights and taxis, and the walk will do her good. She pays the driver and he gets her bag out of the trunk, then looks up and down the narrow, deserted road, the inky darkness almost glossy, like paint, a fragment of moon glowing dull, as if behind a veil.
"You sure about this?" he says.
"Sure about what? You think I don't know where I live?" Claire says. She points up the drive. "Look, the house lights are on."
"I didn't know there were houses out here."
"Just little old us."
The driver shrugs and smiles.
"Well, you know where you're going. No need to worry."
"That's right," Claire says, smiling herself, suddenly glad to be safe home. And as she walks up the drive towards the welcoming lights of her hundred year-old Queen Anne house, her fairytale house with its turrets and towers, she shakes her head a couple of times and actually says "No!" out loud, followed by "Nothing!" and "No problem!" and "Fine, thank you," not at the prospect before her but to banish what has just been, whatever it was, whatever Paul put in that damn card. It's like she slipped and fell in the street and found her feet immediately and and is marching on undaunted, daring anyone to question or commiserate, trying hard not to stumble again. Whatever happened in Chicago, stays in Chicago. That's the official version now. Happiness? Jesus. She's not a teenager any more. So she feels guilty. That's her problem, don't make it Danny's, let alone the girls'. She's nothing to feel guilty about anyway, not really. Not really. No problem, no problem!
The first glimmer she has is, Mr Smith doesn't bark when she turns her key. Normally, he brings the house down at the merest hint of a visitor, not angrily but with excitement. He should have started when he heard her footfall on the porch, or when she started talking to herself. But there isn't a sound, not a scratch of his paws.
"Hey honey, I'm home!" she says, with sitcom brightness, as she pushes the door open. If she had known that nothing would ever be the same again in her life from this moment on, maybe she would have chosen her words with less irony. But change so often comes without warning, like the secret policeman's dawn knock, and we rarely have our faces fixed or our stories straight to greet it.
The extent of what has happened is not so apparent in the hall, perhaps, apart from the marks on the wallpaper where all the paintings have been removed, and the fact that the long red Ikea table that ran along one wall is gone. It's when she leaves her bag down and moves into the living room—she remembers later feeling as if she was on castors, so involuntarily, so inexorably was she drawn in search of what's no longer there. No battered old brown leather three-piece suite that they know is past its best but can't bear to get rid of for sentimental reasons, namely, too much information, both kids were conceived on the couch. No TV, no books, no bookshelves, no rugs on the floor, no art on the walls. Through to the dining room, and it's as bare: the heavy-legged mahogany Chippendale table and matching chairs Danny insisted on keeping from his grandfather's time are gone, as is everything else. Up the stairs, and yes, there it is, whatever it is, gone: the beds, the closets emptied, the girls' toys and books and games, the rugs, the linen, gone, all gone, the lampshades.
She's standing on the landing, empty rooms on either side of her, exposed gables above, the arched entrance to the tower ahead. She's never seen the house like this. When they moved in, Danny's sister had been living here; before that, it was the family home, back through Danny's grandfather. Sure, they—she—redecorated, stripped walls and polished floorboards and flung out dumpster loads of trash, but one room at a time. How hard she had fought to make their mark on it all, replacing heavy drapes with blinds, bulky old Victorian furniture with contemporary pieces, little by little working to open it up and modernise, to lay the ancestral ghosts and make it theirs, make it hers. Now it's bare all through, as if she has never lived here at all, as if no one has. In Chicago a day, mere hours ago, she found herself daring to wonder what it might be like to be free of all the held her. Now it feels as if she made a wish, and it's come true, and she is left with regret; her labor was in vain, and all she wants is what she has lost.
In the bathroom, the empty bathroom, she sits at the edge of the tub, breathing deeply, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus Christ, over and over again. Claire is a lapsed Catholic, which means she isn't really religious, or hasn't been for some time, but Jesus Christ Almighty, what the fuck is going on? She leans a hand on the mirrored door of a cabinet mounted above the bath, and it snaps open, and Claire almost cries with relief to see it full of stuff, their stuff, tins and tubs of talcum powder and Vaseline and Calamine lotion and athlete's foot spray, proof, precious proof that she hasn't been sucked into some parallel universe. And then, when she sees the Sponge Bob Band Aids and the Colgate Smiles toothpaste and the Sure Girl deodorant Barbara suddenly, urgently needed about six months ago when her body started to change, Claire does cry. Where is Danny? Where has he taken her girls? Why is the house cleaned out?
Minutes pass, she doesn't know how many. She wipes her eyes, mascara and eye shadow mackerel staining the backs of her hands. She's shivering. She needs to call someone, Danny, her friend Dee, the cops. She goes back into her bedroom. No phone. No phone downstairs in the hall either. They took the phones. Who would take the phones? They took the phones. That's a line from something. Don't think like that, not everything is a line from something. Back upstairs, she climbs to the study in the tower. Her cellphone charger should be in the desk drawer. Should be, and would be, if there was still a desk there, Jesus. She casts around the bare room, the floorboards dusted with dead bugs and plaster crumbs where cables were ripped from the wall, the walls seamed with bookcase shadows, the spiral staircase ascending to the upper level.
Finally her eye lands on something, on the mantelpiece and above it, two actual objects, watch closely now. The first thing is a picture, a photograph, of her and Danny in 1930's evening clothes in The Way of the World. They played the leads, Mirabell and Millamant, and the photo was taken during their love scene, when, having agreed to marry, they make promises to and demands of each other for the future. The second thing is a porcelain statuette of two lovers in old fashioned costume in some kind of pastoral setting, maybe a shepherd and shepherdess, they've never been sure, Danny got it made to resemble the one in The Palm Beach Story, one of their favorite movies. How it worked in the film was, Claudette Colbert, who is looking to snare a rich husband, tells Joel McCrea, the husband who she still loves but who can't seem to make enough money to keep them, that as long as the ornament stands intact on the mantlepiece, he'll have nothing to reproach her with. She won't have strayed. Everything will be as it was.
Claire slides down the wall and comes to rest on the dusty boards by a phone socket. They took the phones. Glengarry, Glen Ross, that's what it's from shut up Claire. Can't she for once feel a thing directly, without reference to anything else, especially not a quotation from a play? "Shakespeare is full of quotations." Shut up shut up shut up. She needs to think, needs to do something ... but she just sits there on the floor in the tower and stares at the porcelain lovers, and slowly, steadily, starts to feel calmer. Whatever has happened—and evidently it involves a removals firm packing the entire contents of their home up and taking them away, and her husband and daughters disappearing—Danny is letting her know it's all right. There's nothing to worry about. He's always been able to make her feel like this. She knows that's part of why she married him—because a life based on chance and uncertainty had spooked her, and she craved security, and she felt safe in Danny's arms. Danny is letting her know it's all right. But why in such a cryptic way? There must be something else, some kind of message. Her laptop. She remembers him saying, take your laptop, restaurant reservations, flights, the weather, but she didn't want to. I can do it all on my phone, she said. And then deliberately left her charger behind. She wanted to be out of reach. She wanted—didn't she—to be in situations where her husband simply couldn't get in touch. Now her phone is dead and her laptop is gone and she can't get in touch with her husband. How's that working out for her?
She lets her eyes follow the wood and steel spiral staircase up to where it disappears through the trapdoor. Up above, that's her nook, her refuge, her sanctuary, fast at the top of the tower. A room of her own. It's where she keeps all her treasures: old photos, letters from boyfriends past, theatre programmes, things. All The Things You Are. All the things she used to be? She doesn't feel ready to climb up now and find all those things gone.
She goes downstairs and out through the kitchen and crosses the yard to the garage, not even sure what she is looking for any more but in a hurry to find it. But the garage, at least, is untouched: tools still on the wall, screws and bolts in their airtight plastic containers, hose pipe and electrical cable in coils. More to the point, both cars, her bashed-up Chrysler Pacifica and Danny's old Karmann Ghia, are there. She has the keys to both, and pops each trunk just in case, nightmare images flashing through her mind, but no one has been stowed there. Nothing but spare wheels and Mr Smith's smelly old blankets. Did Mr Smith go with? Who else would take him? How did Danny travel anyway? On the plus side, there's a phone charger in the glove compartment of the Chrysler. That's at least one of the things she's looking for. She turns the engine on and sits in and plugs the lead in the cigarette lighter socket and waits for her phone to fire up sufficiently for her to use it to call her husband and ever so politely ask him where he's gone and what the fuck is going on.
Maybe he followed me to Chicago, Claire thinks, flushing in fast-acting hangover panic, heat sparking on her scalp, a sharp ache of anxiety creasing her belly. If he went through her computer ... had she said anything in an email to Dee? No, she wouldn't be that stupid, or indiscreet. Besides, she hadn't had any plans in that direction, or at least, none that she had admitted, even to herself, let alone to other people. On the other hand ... Dee. God, Dee and her dirty mind. Dee checks out every guy they see when they're out together, flirts compulsively with the waiter, the bartender, the cabdriver for God's sake. Had Dee speculated on what Claire might get up to in Chicago? Had she put it in an email? She could well have; it's got so Claire screens out most of what Dee says; it's all talk anyway. At least, she thinks it is. Still. Maybe Danny was uneasy after being out of touch, or simply decided he wanted to surprise her, do something romantic and spontaneous, just like she complains he never does any more, and parked the girls for a sleepover with his sister and arrived at the Allegro and ... No, no, no. He had left the signs deliberately, the photo and the statuette of the lovers, to reassure her. Hadn't he?
Her phone should have enough juice now. She pops the switch and waits and up flashes the screen saver photo of the girls among the apple trees, taken two years back but still her favorite. When they're grown and have kids of their own, this is still the image she'll keep in her mind's eye. These are her girls. Stop, stop, the tears are welling again. Keep moving Claire, that's the trick, don't sit still. She grabs the phone and steps out and slams the car door and locks the garage and heads down through the back yard towards the trees. The sensor light doesn't come on. Maybe it's broken. There's a faint spill from the half moon now, the veil blown aside. She's wearing flat white rhinestone studded sandals, the grass damp between her toes. The wet grass, beneath the apple trees.
Her phone chimes out its message alert. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. Three voice mails, two from drama students who can't make it to class this week and one from Dee checking to see if she's home yet and demanding chapter and verse on what she got up to. Seven text messages, four from students, two from teachers at the school, one from Dee. Nothing from Danny. Nothing from the girls, even, they sometimes leave messages when she's away for longer than they expected. Why is there no message? What has Danny done? She thinks of those newspaper reports where some guy is going bankrupt, or finds his wife is cheating, and kills the entire family. That's crazy talk, Danny would never raise a hand against her, or the girls. But isn't that the profile those guys have too? The quiet, ordered family man who suddenly explodes? No, not her husband. She calls his cell, but it goes straight to message.
"Danny, I'm home, where is everyone? You, and the girls? Where's all our stuff? Where are you?"
She swallows, more a gulp than a swallow. Finding she can't continue to speak, she ends the call. Where are you?
She feels a mounting panic now, her breath coming in short gasps. Her feet are wetter than they should be, as if she's stepped in muddy ground, or apples that have started to rot. She moves her feet, and one of her sandals comes loose, and her bare feet plunges into something marshy, sticky even, not apples, not grass. Twigs there, maybe, twigs and straw, and something thicker, like resin, like sap. She looks down, using the face of her phone for light. First she sees red, on her foot, on the ground, not flashes behind her eyes, red stains, and not on the ground: she's standing on fur, on flesh; she's standing on the torn apart carcass of a dog, a springer spaniel, her springer spaniel, her beautiful Mr Smith. His body has been gutted, eviscerated, spatchcocked, his poor head half severed but still attached, still intact. Make it not be, make it not be, make it not be, she prays, the prayer that is never answered. Claire falls to her knees and holds the dog's heavy head in her hands, his wide snout, his beautiful, beseeching eyes staring into nothing. She opens her mouth to howl, to scream, but nothing comes except a high pitched keening sound, and then the tears, a child's brimming, boiling tears, tears overflowing until she can barely breathe, wracking sobs that convulse her until she can cry no more, and then a whimpering sound not unlike the sound Mr Smith used to make when he wanted a treat, or a walk, or to nestle in her arms. She brings her wet face down to Mr Smith's head, still warm, her fingers chucking his chin, her lips, her nose, deep in his hair, just as she had every single day of his life, and breathes in his precious musky scent for as long as she can bear.
The Wrong Kind of Blood (2006)