I’m watching Al’s fingers lift his chess knights in the day room of a maximum-security ward at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital for the criminally insane. Al’s an older patient just out of seclusion. Pasty white cheeks, grey stubble, slack mouth, intense brown eyes, with lids that drop unexpectedly, and flutter, and open once again. His fingers hold a castle’s head, then release it. He moves to a pawn, lifts its top.
You weren’t yourself, that night.
Usually, when you got back late, you went straight to bed. I’d wait for ten minutes or so, until you’d finished clattering about up there, then creep up the stairs and slip into bed beside you. And then lie awake, staring at the ceiling. Listening to the clock. Tick. Tock. Trying not to wonder where you’d been, and with whom, and what you might’ve got up to.
At an early age came discovery; left-handed it might have come, but it was discovery, the way a fairy tale casts sloganed light on a subject. Early on he’d earned his own laugh at “light without batteries.”
Freddie Pepperlyn got the idea looking at a travelogue on TV, three men and one woman in an oversized dugout canoe on a small river aiming for the Amazon, the water around them burgeoning with flesh eaters of all kinds. All kinds. Crocks or ‘gators or caiman, or whatever they had down there that grew tails long as houses, and then the piranha like an army of friggin’ fire ants. Bet they could get her to screw all day, he thought, if they threatened to throw her over the side, and her big enough, proud enough, all woman right down to her goddamn toes. In a pair of beat-up and ragged denim shorts she had hips that caught onto his eyes like his own personal clamps, as if they had his name on them: Freddie’s stuff, they said. Her secrets were fingers away. Oh, he could smell her, the bends in her, the dips, the fade-a-ways to you-know-what.
The room had always been dark. She noticed it the first day that they moved in. Looking back on it, John had been ill from day one. He felt heavy, as if the flu was working on him. The darkness was unsettling. The other two bedrooms faced the same direction and they were filled with sunlight. Not that room. John became sicker. The heaviness was always there and he said that it felt more and more intense. The doctor found nothing.
Tom Hemmings, a college dropout restless for adventure, had hired on as a guard at The Indiana Penal Farm—a medium security prison covering 20,000 pastoral acres, most of it farmland and sycamore forest. He had not expected the job to include a manhunt, but a month later he was deployed on one. Assigned to a two-man shotgun team, he was ordered to pursue a pair of escapees along a bounding stretch of whitewater while dog handlers kept pace on the opposite shore.
Watching every move about the campfire, studying each face lit up by the flickering flames, the fiddler Sam Plumbeck idly held onto his instrument, waiting for the proper moment. Time, he could feel, was pressing down on him; it had different parts that moved in different ways. The stars all the way to the horizon dip were many and miraculous, the horses silent for the most part even though a coyote cry filtered in now and then, and the darkness beyond wrapped them like a giant robe spread under those stars. He had ridden in, apparently aimlessly to all the trail hands, and joined up with them on their way back to their ranch, the promise of music being hailed by all the hands who had delivered the herd, were through with the drive. He alone, out of all these trail hands who had hit the jackpot, knew what was coming down on them. Nothing is supposed to be perfect or fair; at least this side of heaven, or the mass of a blue sky, or the dash of sunlight on a rainy day. And he, just a picker of strings, with not a coin of the gold in the lot having his name on it, could only wait it all out, hoping for the best and only seeing the worst coming up.