Elsewhere Page 2

The slow, easy waves lapped against the low rock formation on which he and his daughter sat, and the gentle surf foamed on the beach in a chorus of murmurs, as if the sea were sharing secrets with the shore.

“What if Mom comes home someday? Will you marry her again?”

Having lived with this loss so long, they dwelt in neither sorrow nor resentment. For Michelle, they shared a sweet melancholy salted with nostalgia not about what had been but about what might have been. Indeed, time healed. The scar would always be tender, but touching it no longer hurt enough to pinch off their breath.

“I don’t think your mom would want to marry me again, scout. I wasn’t what she needed.”

“Well, she was wrong about you.”

“Maybe not. She and I were dreamers, but with a difference. She dreamed of things that were possible—being a songwriter, recording her own songs, having a successful career. Me . . . I dream of living in the 1930s, seeing Benny Goodman playing live in the Manhattan Room of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. Or of worlds that never were and never can be, Tolkien to Heinlein. I’m all about big bands and hobbits, just a consumer of wonder. But your mom . . . she created wonder, beautiful music. I could appreciate her work, I loved it, but she needed a bigger audience than me.”

“She was wrong about you,” Amity insisted, not with anger but with disarming conviction.

What Michelle had been wrong about was that she could take a leave of absence from her daughter and find a greater meaning. Raising Amity provided sufficient meaning to make any life worth living. He didn’t say as much to Amity, because he knew her and knew himself well enough to foresee the consequence. They didn’t need to spoil the memory of a fine dinner and blur the stars and fade the sea with tears.

“Show me the Big Dipper,” she said.

“Otherwise known as Ursa Major.” He put an arm around her and searched the sky and found the handle of the Dipper and focused her attention and drew the constellation for her. “It’s been hanging there ever since it was used to scoop the other stars out of a starpool and scatter them across the sky.”

Minutes later, they waded ashore and sat on a rock and put on their shoes.

A half-hour walk would take them home. The night was young and warm, and for part of the way there were shop windows—some of them at art galleries—with contents at which to marvel. As a man who felt that he had been born too late, Jeffy was often amazed at what passed for high art in this low age.

The first of seven houses on Shadow Canyon Lane, which branched off Oak Hollow Road, was a wedding-cake Victorian with two turrets and steep roofs and dormer windows, exuberantly decorated with millwork, flanked by proud oaks. It belonged to Marty and Doris Bonner, who were nice people, not a fraction as fussy as their residence. They were on vacation, having left a key with Jeffy.

His and Amity’s place was a single-story house. Slate roof. Local sandstone walls. Jeffy had done the masonry, taught by his mason father. Amber bulbs in the crackle-glass lamps cast a warm, vaguely patterned light across the porch, and the gentle breeze whispered in the moon-kissed crowns of the tall palm trees.

One of the two rocking chairs on the porch was occupied.

Amity said, “It’s Mr. Spooky.”


The man whom Amity called Mr. Spooky referred to himself as Ed and never mentioned a surname. He was one of the homeless who lived in isolated encampments deeper in the canyon, well beyond where the blacktop lane dead-ended. Having been in the vicinity for about a year, he came to visit at least twice a month, uninvited.

Jeffy wasn’t afraid of Ed. For one thing, Jeffy was thirty-four years old, six feet two, lean and fit, while Ed was perhaps thirty years older and six inches shorter, as out of shape as a moldering squash. The old man was eccentric, although not outright crazy, and he never exhibited the slightest tendency to aggression.

Nevertheless, after saying, “Good evening, Ed,” Jeffy let Amity into the house, and he waited until she locked the door and turned on some lights before he settled in one of the rocking chairs on the porch, which their visitor had rearranged to face each other more directly. These days, Jeffy never left Amity home alone, and they went everywhere together, not just because—in fact, not at all because—of Ed.

In its current decline, California was home to an ever-growing throng of the homeless, many of them severely disturbed and with addictions. The politicians governing the state cared only about ideology and power and graft, not about the citizenry. They spent billions on the problem, with no effect other than to greatly enrich their friends and create more homeless people.

When too many of these wounded souls pitched their camps in the same place, the authorities finally moved to evict them, for reasons of public health and safety. Consequently, those who lived in tents or in sleeping bags on the fringes of Suavidad Beach had recently taken to camping in the woods and brushland, each at a distance from the other, to draw less attention to themselves.

Although rumpled and unshaven, Ed was in fundamental ways much different from most single men in his circumstances. His teeth were white, and he smelled clean, perhaps because he walked into town daily to avail himself of the showers and other services offered by some public and church-operated facilities. Instead of shapeless exercise suits or baggy jeans and hoodies, he favored slacks with his shirt tucked in, a sport coat, and always a bow tie. This night, he wore a polka-dot tie with a bold plaid shirt, but he wasn’t likely to encounter people who, steeped in style, would arch their eyebrows and mock him surreptitiously.

According to Ed, no alcoholic beverages had ever passed his lips, other than fine cabernet sauvignon, and far less of that than he would have liked because he had a taste only for the best, which he’d not often been able to afford. He also said that he had never done drugs stronger than aspirin.

Jeffy believed Ed’s denial of those vices, largely because the old man never lamented his homelessness or made excuses for it—or explained it. His situation was simply his situation, as if he had been born a hobo, as caste bound as any Hindu from another century.

He visited from time to time, in part to discuss the creatures of nature that shared the wooded canyon. He had a deep knowledge of history, too, and liked to speculate about how the present-day world might have been if certain pivot points in human events had resulted in a different resolution from the one that occurred. He also had an interest in poetry, which he could quote at length, everything from Shakespeare to Poe to the Japanese masters of haiku. He never stayed long, certainly never overstayed his welcome, perhaps because his restless mind made him an impatient conversationalist—or because Jeffy was an uninspiring intellectual companion.

“How have you been, Ed?”

“I’ve been dying since I was born, just like you. And now I’m nearly out of time.”

A dour mood was as much a part of Ed as the furry tangles of bushy white eyebrows that he never trimmed.

“You seem fit enough,” Jeffy said. “I hope you’re not ill.”

“No, no, Jeffrey. Not ill, but hunted.”

A few teachers in elementary school had insisted on calling him Jeffrey, but no one since then, until Ed. In spite of Jeffy’s height and reasonably imposing physique, he possessed some curious quality that caused others to think of him as, in part, a perpetual boy, and thus as Jeffy, which was his mother’s pet name for him. He took no offense at this. He liked who he was well enough; and he could be no one different. If being called Jeffy was necessary for him to remain the man who he had always been, then “Jeffy” would suit him for his gravestone and for all the days between now and that final rest.

“Hunted? Hunted by whom?” Jeffy asked.

Ed’s scowl knitted his extravagant eyebrows into one long albino caterpillar, and his deep-set eyes receded into the shadows of their sockets. “Better you don’t know. It’s the incessant need to know more and more and yet still more, to know everything, that is the fast track to destruction. Knowledge is a good thing, Jeffrey, but the arrogance that so often comes with knowledge is ultimately our undoing. Don’t be undone, Jeffrey. Do not be undone by pride in your knowledge.”

“I don’t know all that much,” Jeffy assured him. “I’m more likely to be undone by ignorance.”

Saying nothing, Ed leaned forward in his chair, his grizzled head thrust out like that of a tortoise craning its neck from its shell, regarding his host as if Jeffy were an avant-garde sculpture, the meaning of which couldn’t be discerned.

Having undergone such intense scrutiny on other occasions, Jeffy knew that Ed would not engage in further conversation until he was ready to initiate it. This penetrating stare must be met with a smile and patience.

Filtered by distance and trees, the irregular susurration of the traffic on Oak Hollow Road was a mournful sound, like the exhalations of some noble leviathan slowly dying.

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