All the flowers are dyin.., p.8
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       All the Flowers Are Dying, p.8

         Part #16 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 8

 

  Antonia, they called her. “We wanted to name her for Mom,” Michael told me, “but neither of us really liked the name Anita, and Antonia has all the same letters, plus an O and an extra N. June says that means Anita is living on. ”

  “Your mother would like that,” I said, wondering if it was true. I’d left the woman thirty years ago, and even then I had never been too clear on what she would or wouldn’t like.

  “We were sort of hoping for a boy. To keep the name going, you know? But to tell you the truth we were both a little relieved when the sonogram indicated we were going to have a girl. And Melanie, well, she was very clear on the subject. She wanted a baby sister, period, end of story. A brother would not be an acceptable substitute. ”

  “They might have another, you know,” Elaine said on the flight home. “To continue the Scudder name. ”

  “It’s not that uncommon a name,” I told her. “Last time I looked, there were hundreds scattered all over the country. Maybe thousands, for all I know, plus a whole family of mutual funds. ”

  “You don’t mind not having a grandson?”

  “Not at all, and I’ve got to say I think Antonia goes a lot better with Scudder than Antonio would. ”

  “Well,” she said, “I’ve got to agree with you there. ”

  The point is that there’s a distance between me and my sons, and geography is only a part of it. I didn’t really get to watch them become the men they are today, and I can only view their continuing evolution as from across a great divide. All of which makes TJ’s company especially gratifying. For all that I don’t know about him—like his last name, and what, if anything, the T and the J stand for—I get to see him up close and watch at point-blank range his continuing self-realization.

  A few years ago he started hanging out on the Columbia campus, apparently having mastered the art of flimflamming the campus security forces. He audited classes over a whole range of subjects, did almost all of the assigned reading, and probably got more from the enterprise than ninety percent of the kids who were taking the same courses for credit. Now and then he wrote a paper, just for the hell of it, and, when the instructor struck him as sufficiently sympathetic, he’d hand it in. One professor in the history department was desperate to have him enroll and was sure he could put together an aid package that would give TJ an Ivy League education at virtually no cost. TJ pointed out that he was already getting just that, plus he got to pick his courses. When Elaine suggested that a Columbia diploma could open a lot of doors, he countered that they led to rooms he didn’t want to go into.

  “Besides,” he’d say, popping his eyes, “I’s a detective, I’s already gots a career. ”

  More recently he’d sampled some classes at the business school. He dressed the part, and left the hip-hop patter behind when he got off the train at 116th Street, but I suspect at least some of the professors knew he didn’t belong there. If so, they would have to realize that they were dealing with someone who actually wanted to attend their lectures without the goal of a Columbia MBA. Why on earth would they want to discourage him?

  I don’t think their program focuses much on the stock market, but he got interested, and found books and magazines to read, and by the time classes broke for the summer he was set up in his room at the Northwestern as a day trader, with CNBC running all day on the little television set and his computer—a high-powered successor to the one we’d given him for Christmas some years ago—all set up for online trading. He had an Ameritrade account, though I can’t imagine he had much capital to fund it with, but it was enough to get him started, and he evidently managed to keep his head above water.

  “He’ll probably go broke,” Elaine said, “but so what if he does? If you’re gonna go broke, that’s the right age to be when it happens. And who knows? He could turn out to be a genius at it. ”

  He didn’t talk much about his wins or losses, so it was hard to tell how he was doing. He wasn’t driving a BMW or wearing bespoke suits, and neither was he missing any meals. I figured he’d do it until he didn’t want to do it anymore, and that he’d get something out of it, one way or the other. He always does.

  6

  There’s a Red Roof Inn just outside of Jarratt, at the exit off I-95, but on reflection he decides that’s closer than he wants to be. Twenty miles to the south is the North Carolina state line, and he drives across it and a few miles beyond, to the exit for the town of Roanoke Rapids, where he has several motels to choose among. He picks a Days Inn, gets a room. He registers as Arne Bodinson and gives the clerk a Visa card in that name, telling her he’ll be checking out Friday morning.

  His room’s in the rear and on the top floor, as he’d requested. He parks in back and carries his briefcase and his blue canvas duffel bag up to his room. He unpacks, puts his clothes away, sets his laptop on the desk and the bottle of Scotch on the bedside table. Packing for this trip, he remembered that the South is a curious region, with unfathomable liquor laws that change every time you cross a county line. In some places you can only get beer, in others you can’t get anything at all, and liquor stores, if they even exist, are apt to keep strange and limited hours. In order to drink at a bar, you might be required to purchase a nominal membership in what calls itself a private club. For a one-time charge of five or ten dollars, you are entitled to all the rights and privileges of membership, which is to say you can buy drinks there for as long as your money lasts.

  None of it makes any sense to him, but that’s not the point. It’s the way things work, and what he has to do—what he always has to do—is determine how things work and act accordingly.

  He takes the plastic bucket the hotel provided and goes down the hall for ice cubes, then frowns at the disposable plastic tumbler. You’d think they could give you a proper glass for what they charged, but they hadn’t, so you do what you always do. You deal with what life deals you.

  He makes himself a drink, takes a sip. It would taste better out of a glass container, but there’s no point in dwelling on that fact. It will only get in the way of his enjoyment of the Scotch, and it is in fact very good Scotch indeed, full-bodied and smoky and bracing. He’s had an arduous day, and it’s a long hard road that has no drink at the end of it.

  He takes his time with the drink, savoring it, sitting in a chair with the plastic tumbler in his hand. He closes his eyes and regulates his breathing, matching the exhale to the inhale, tuning in to the rhythms of his body. He lets himself feel the effects of the drink, of the alcohol in his bloodstream, and he chooses to imagine it as the equivalent for the human body and spirit of one of those space-age polymers you add to the engine of an old car, so that it can fill all the scrapes and pits in tired old metal, coating the inner surfaces, eliminating friction, increasing efficiency, smoothing out and cushioning the ride.

  When he opens his eyes he reaches for his cell phone and makes a call. His party answers on the third ring. He says, “Hey, Bill. It’s me. Oh, nothing much, just thought I’d give a ring and check in with you. I got a deskful of work in front of me and I don’t know when I’m gonna get out of here. Well, I thought I’d see you tonight but it doesn’t look like it. No, I’m fine, just busy as a one-armed paperhanger with the hives. Well, you too, my friend. Take care. ”

  He rings off, sits down at the desk, hooks up his laptop and gets online to check his e-mail. When he’s done, he makes another phone call, then fixes himself another drink.

  It’s midmorning when he gets back to Greensville. Applewhite seems surprised to see him, but genuinely pleased. They shake hands, and assume their places, Applewhite on the bed, he in the white plastic chair. The conversation, tentative at first, starts with the weather and moves to the previous Super Bowl, then subsides into an awkward stillness.

  Applewhite says, “I didn’t think I’d see you today. ”

  “I said I’d come. ”

  “I know. And I believed you meant it, but I thought you’d change your mind aft
er you left. You’d want to get home to your wife and kids. ”

  “No wife. No kids either, as far as I know. ”

  “As far as you know. ”

  “Well, who’s to say what fruit might have been borne of a youthful indiscretion? But there weren’t so many of those, and I think I’d have been informed if I’d been the cause of any abdominal swellings. In any event, nothing to draw me home. ”

  “Where’s home, Arne? I don’t think you told me. ”

  “New Haven. I did my doctoral work at Yale and never managed to get away from the place. ”

  Which leads them to college reminiscences, always a useful topic for men who have nothing of substance to say to one another. It serves now as it served yesterday, with the warden. He talks about Charlottesville—one might as well be consistent. Applewhite is a graduate of Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, and that leads them into a discussion of country music. It’s not what it used to be, they agree. It’s too commercial, too polished, too Top Forty.

  There’s something that goes unmentioned, and it’s a matter of time before someone brings it up, and a question as to who it will be. He comes close to raising the subject himself, but waits, and finally it is Applewhite who sighs and announces, “Today’s Tuesday. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “Tomorrow and tomorrow,” he intones, “and tomorrow. Macbeth’s soliloquy. ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / creeps in this petty pace from day to day / to the last syllable of recorded time. ’ Except that the petty pace runs out on the third tomorrow. ”

  “Do you want to talk about death, Preston?”

  “What’s there to talk about?” He considers his own question, shakes his head. “I think about it all the time. I could probably find things to say about it. ”

  “Oh?”

  “There are days when I almost look forward to it. To get it over with, you know? To get on to the next thing. Except, of course, that in this case there’s not going to be a next thing. ”

  “Are you sure of that?”

  The man’s eyes narrow, and his expression turns guarded. “Arne,” he says, “I appreciate the friendship you’ve offered, but there’s something I have to know. You’re not here to save my fucking soul, are you?”

  “I’m afraid salvation’s a little out of my line. ”

  “Because if you’re here selling fear of hell or hope of heaven, I’m not in the market. There’ve been a couple of clergymen who’ve tried to get in to see me. Fortunately the state gives a man a certain amount of control over things to compensate for the fact that they’re planning to take his life. I don’t have to see anyone I don’t want to see, and I’ve been able to keep the gentlemen of the cloth out of this cell. ”

  “I swear I’m not a priest, minister, or rabbi,” he says, smiling gently. “I’m not even a religious member of the laity. I might be concerned with saving your soul if I were more nearly convinced that you have one, and that souls can be saved, or need saving. ”

 
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