“You’ll change after you eat?” Houghton asks. “And you’ve packed your things?”
Sam eats one spoonful after another until the porridge is gone.
The light from the room paints a yellow square on the yard. The sky is gray where it starts, almost blue. Tree branches decorate the horizon like thorns.
Houghton reaches for Sam’s bowl. When he moves back from the table the chair scrapes the floor, wood on wood. He carries the bowls to the sink and runs water from the spigot. In the window’s reflection, Sam watches Houghton bent over the sink, working a washcloth into the pan.
The Mississippi River is brown and wide as a lake. The water looks dead. It is not like the Chicago River, narrow and quick beneath steel bridges.
The house has the warmth of people living there, but when Sam checks the closets and the bureaus he does not find any clothes. There are no names written in the books in the study. Nor do the rooms smell like anything personal, just furniture polish and mothballs. But there is a white vase with bright red flowers on the dining room table, food in the pantries and the icebox, a bundle of chopped wood beside the fireplace in the parlor.
“Price and them made it up nice for us,” Houghton says. “It’s our house now.”
Sam wants to see the Mississippi River at night. He has heard of Tom Sawyer and he looks for him in the faces of boys they pass.
They walk downtown like a man and his grandson. Houghton guides him through the crowds, his hands heavy on Sam’s shoulders. It is the middle of November and everyone is wearing long coats and scarves and caps. Sam breathes in the musk of the Mississippi River underneath the odor of decaying leaves. There are other smells too, city smells that he had forgotten about all that time away in the country: beer and urine and salted peanuts roasting. He shuts his eyes and walks blindly along, thinking of Chicago. When he opens his eyes three women in fur coats are coming towards him laughing and smoking cigarettes. One of them is wearing white gloves.
Sam wants to see the Mississippi River at night. He has heard of Tom Sawyer and he looks for him in the faces of boys they pass, but the few boys he sees have dough-soft faces and hair that is perfectly oiled and combed. He turns down a cobbled street heading east, Houghton’s hands still firm on his shoulders, and as they near the river the air turns to rot—rank outhouse air, disease and death. The river is just ahead, behind a row of houses. Sam can hear the quiet slap of water on the muddy bank. Houghton takes his handkerchief from his coat pocket and clutches it to his nose, blocking out the stink. He grips Sam’s shoulder and steers him back down the cobbled street towards the new house.
“Nice to have fresh bread again,” Houghton says. “Oh, Lord Jesus, I missed you.” He cuts into his eggs and lets the yolk run, then soaks it up with a piece of toast. Sam’s eggs are overcooked. He separates the crisp brown edges of the egg white with his fork. By the time they finish eating, a yolk stain shows on a corner of Houghton’s mustache.
Houghton takes their plates to the kitchen. When Sam comes in he cuts the water, dries his hands, and smiles. The smile is in the creases around his eyes, the slight rise of his mustache. His teeth do not show. Houghton crouches, beckons Sam, pats his cheek. It is cold from the water and smells of lavender.
“I’m leaving for the day,” he says. “There’s more food here than even your pop could’ve eaten. You’re a clever boy. You’ll find something.”
Sam stands in the hallway watching him go. Houghton turns back, smiling beneath his mustache, then shuts the door gently behind him.
It was the smallest house Sam had ever been in. Upstairs were the two bedrooms and downstairs was the kitchen. Yellow-white calk between the wooden boards of the walls. An outhouse with a door that did not close. At night, when Sam had to go, he used a tarnished silver chamber pot he kept under his bed. If he could he snuck out early, before Houghton woke up, to empty it in the outhouse. Even though it was dark and he could barely see his own hand in front of his face, Sam still turned away when he poured his slop down the hole in the wood. To clean it there was the garden hose, a can of powder, and a rag.
Houghton taught Sam how to chop wood—to hold the handle of the ax far apart and to bring his hands together as he brought it down. It felt good to split the wood with a single hard chop. On cold nights they fed splintered logs into the stove. They left the little door opened and sat with their feet perched together on a chair near the flames. The smell of smoke lived in his clothes and hair. It was a taste in his mouth, a coating of chalk in his throat.
He fluffed his pillow, tucked his quilts under the mattress, and stood on a chair to wipe dust out of the ceiling corners. He washed his dirty clothes with the washboard in the sink. Habits he took from his nursemaid, a Negro named Ella Foster. He and Houghton played bridge and pinochle, blackjack and poker, hearts and spades and gin rummy. When they dealt, the cards got caught on splinters of wood that stuck out from the tabletop. Sam peeled them off like mouse tails and gathered them in a little pile at the edge of the table, then tossed them in the flames.
After dinner they walked together: down the long driveway of crushed white rocks, out along the paved road, straight for miles and miles, nothing but long empty fields on either side, a dark fringe of woods in the distance, their heels tacking hollow on the blacktop. One point if you saw a squirrel, two for a jackrabbit, three for a deer. Once Sam saw a fox cut across the road far ahead, a quick flash of orange, but he pointed and it was gone.
Sam never saw the papers, only the comics, which Price clipped out and set aside for him. After Houghton read the papers he threw everything into the fire, where the pages hissed and curled and sent up black smoke through the chimney pipe.
Every two weeks the gravel driveway crunched beneath the wheels of a Packard. Houghton walked calmly to the door and waited for three evenly spaced knocks, then Price appeared smiling, as handsome as Errol Flynn. He brought paper sacks stuffed with groceries and the Chicago tabloids and newspapers and a corked jug of corn whiskey. Sometimes he gave Sam a nip from his flask; it tasted like bad medicine. Sam never saw the papers, only the comics, which Price clipped out and set aside for him. After Houghton read the papers he threw everything into the fire, where the pages hissed and curled and sent up black smoke through the chimney pipe.
Sam wished it was Price, not Houghton, who lived with him here, but Houghton had been Pop’s oldest friend. When Sam and Houghton moved to the country house, Price left for St. Louis with Wiles and De Munn, Pop’s other friends from Chicago. It was St. Louis that Price and Houghton talked about when Sam went up to bed. He lay flat on the floor with his ear smashed into the wood, but the men spoke in whispers. It was like listening to a wind in which he sometimes caught the sound of a word.
That summer, the air came alive with the buzz of insects. At night, white moths drifted around the lamps. The hard-backed shells of beetles nicked the windowpanes.
In the kitchen he opens the door to the basement and stands looking down the dark stairs before descending. Though the basement is large it contains only cold air and red brick walls and a concrete floor. Sam claps once for the echo.
Upstairs, on the landing outside his room, he spots a cord dangling from the attic door. He jumps, reaches, snatches air. In Houghton’s room he drags the chair from behind the desk out into the hallway. He mounts it, grabs the cord, and yanks—a staircase slides out like magic. He bounds up two at a time but finds the attic cold and empty. The ceiling is a low lid above his head. He walks around and the floorboards creak like packed snow. There is nothing here but dust and cobwebs hanging in the corners.
That someone can live in a house and one day just disappear. He runs to his room and hides beneath the covers.
He carries the deck to the dining room and takes his time laying out the cards in perfect rows. His hunger, a cold hollow in his gut, becomes a challenge, something to outlast. He takes an apple from a bowl in the kitchen and leaves it in front of him on the table, ignoring it while he plays another game. When he finishes he allows himself one bite, and he makes sure it is shallow. He waits until the white flesh begins to brown before he takes another.
The light drains from the room. Sam decides not to go outside, but he opens the front door. He stands for a moment as though about to dive into water. Finally—big breath—he steps out. It is cold. He has no coat. He hugs himself. He starts slowly down the path of red brick that leads to the street, every breath visible. As he comes to the end of the path, a man springs out of a Packard parked across the street. He walks briskly towards Sam, the brim of his hat pulled over his eyes, his hands shoved deep in his coat pockets. Just feet away he looks up, his face bright with laughter. “Kid!” he says, stretching out his arms. It is Price, cheerful and handsome as ever.
Sam runs into the hug.
“Where’s your coat, kid? You must be freezing.”
Sam smiles up at Price.
“Now don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see you too, but you’ll catch pneumonia if you stand out here without a coat.”
Sam clings to him.
“Jesus! And I thought Chicago was cold.”
“Easy, kid! Easy. Let’s get you inside, huh? Houghton oughta be back soon and he’ll blow his wig if he finds you out here without a coat.”
Inside, Price slips his leather gloves off one finger at a time and stuffs them into his coat pockets. He hangs his hat and coat on the spoke beside the door and breathes into his hands. His cheeks are bright red.
“Jesus! And I thought Chicago was cold.” He bends down. “Go on, Sam. Break my ear off. It’s an icicle.”
Sam reaches out and touches the lobe with a finger.
“I wasn’t lying, was I? Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m starved half to death. Let’s see how much damage you and ol’ Houghton did so far.”
In the kitchen, Sam watches Price cut four thick slices of bread on the cutting board. He unscrews the cap from a jar of mustard and dunks a spoon in. “You like mustard?” he calls over his shoulder. “’Course you do. Houghton said you don’t eat like a kid, all picky and choosy.”
He spreads the mustard on the bread, adds thick cuts of smoked ham from the icebox, and lays white slices of Swiss on top. He carries the two plates into the dining room and sits where Houghton sat that morning. Before he takes a bite of his sandwich he looks around the room. “We cleaned the place up good, wouldn’tya say? Pop would be proud.”
When only crumbs remain on their plates, Price leans back in his seat and pats his stomach with both hands. “I think cleanup can wait till later. I could go for a game of cards myself. Houghton told me you’re a real maestro at spades, just like your old man. But if you want my honest opinion, kid, I think the old man let you win.”
Price grunts as he reaches forward to grab the playing cards. He scoots his plate aside and shuffles. The cards crack and whirr in his hands.
In bed, he rolls onto his stomach.
When they come to the kitchen, Houghton crouches in front of Sam while Price opens the basement door and looks down the stairs, a crease in his forehead. For the first time Sam sees how truly old Houghton is. It is more than the white mustache and the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth; it is something in the look of his eyes, as though someone has already lived an entire life in his body.
“We got him, Sam,” Houghton says, his breath toxic with whiskey.
Sam scratches a planet stitched over the ribs of his pajamas.
“Come on, kid,” Price says, as if leading a picnic, and they descend into the basement: Price, then Sam, then Houghton.
The room is lit by a bulb hanging from a wire. Price moves aside. The sound of Sam’s breath fills the silent room. The concrete floor is like ice under his feet. He places one foot atop the other and shivers trying to stay balanced. Against the far brick wall, at the edge of the circle of yellow light, sits the naked body of a man. Sam’s heart stops. For a moment, he thinks it is his father. But the body is too small, the arms and legs like sticks of broken furniture.
“He’s the one killed your pop,” Houghton says, squeezing his shoulder. “We got him. Go have a look, now. Go on.”
But Sam cannot move. What sits there does not look like a man at all. It is more like a raw, plucked bird. The head hangs loose, as if in prayer, the face obscured by shadow.