You sure you know what you’re doing? You can’t just wander the country your whole life.
Who says I can’t? I only ever seen a couple interesting alternatives. And those situations—well, either they don’t last or I don’t seem to harmonize with them. I’ll be all right, I guess. If I find something worth stoppin for, I’ll stop.
He shakes his head and smiles.
I might be inclined to go with you if it weren’t for the Grierson heritage that needs overseeing.
You got your mission and I got mine. There ain’t no use dreamin about romantical roadtrips.
Well, he says, pouring her a glass of bourbon and raising his own, you can drink with me anytime. It’s an honor.
Thanks, she says and drinks. Next time I’m through this way I’ll stop in and say hello to the family.
The estate, no doubt, will be intact.
To Granny Grierson, she says and raises her glass.
To Granny Grierson.
To Richard the gentle piano player!
They go on to toast his father and Johns and Maisie and the dummy and each other and anyone else they can think of, and they kiss once, he with an arm like a girder around her waist, and then they laugh and start all over again with the toasts, and by the time they are done she’s not exactly drunk but her thoughts are thick and soupy and once inside her room she feels like she could lie down and get an hour’s sleep, but she knows if she did she might not wake up till it’s too late, so she goes to the bathroom sink and splashes some water on her face and opens the window and walks around the room a few times and waits for time to speed back up to where it should be.
EXCEPT HALF an hour later when she’s getting ready to make her escape, there’s a knock on her door and it’s James Grierson, leaning against the jamb looking wretched and holding a highball in one hand and a revolver in the other.
Need a favor, he says, his words slurring together. You know what? I don’t think Sarah Mary Williams is your real name. Am I right? It doesn’t matter. You’ve got secrets—but it doesn’t matter. Will you do me a favor?
What you doin here, James? You oughta be layin down before the floor flies up and hits you in the face.
It doesn’t matter, he says again. The road is long. You’ll leave. The Griersons will hold sway over the valley and the mead.
Come on now, I ain’t feelin so hot myself. What you aiming to do with that gun?
He looks surprised to find the pistol in his hand. Then it comes back to him.
Oh, this is for you. I want you to kill my father.
She looks at him, tottering in the doorway, one hand grasping a glass of bourbon and the other lamely offering her the pistol.
Come on, she says, taking his arm and leading him back down the hall to the library, where she lets him fall back on the couch. She takes the bourbon and the pistol and sets them both on the end table.
You gotta get some sleep, she says.
You’re going to do it, aren’t you? he says. You have to do it. You’re the only one. It’s spite and shamefulness keeping him penned up like that. He was a good man . . . anyway, a decent man. It’s shamefulness. He doesn’t deserve it.
I don’t reckon he cares much either way, truth be told. But if you want to put him down so bad, why don’t you do it yourself?
He looks at her, his face contorted, his eyes blasted—they have witnessed the worst kind of ignominy. He tries to raise himself up, but sways and falls backward again.
He says finally, He’s my father.
She studies him. He despises the very family he will die to protect. A tattered flag on a gray morning, abject, glorious, inutile and perverse.
All right, she says. All right, dang you.
She stands, and he covers his face with his hands.
Thank you, he says. Thank you, thank you. Keep your secrets, Sarah Mary Williams. You are owed.
She’s almost out of the room when he stops her.
Wait, he says and points to the gun on the end table. Don’t forget this.
Never mind that, she says. I ain’t aimin to wake up the whole goddarn house.
IN THE basement, she pulls up a stool and sits at the cage door and exchanges a long gaze with Randolph Grierson, who sits slumped against the wall and lacks the energy to pull himself up. His eyes have all the red-rimmed sunkenness of an ancient animal.
I don’t know, Mr. Grierson, she says. I gotta say it don’t feel exactly right.
The fingers of his hand grasp weakly at the air, and for a moment he reminds her of another slow-moving, dream-witted man she is fond of.
It don’t seem right, she continues, the destruction of what a family loves—or even what a family hates for that matter. A household’s got its own spooks, and it ain’t for strangers to come bullying in to exorcise them.
She puts her fingers through the chicken wire, and he struggles to move a little in her direction.
Yeah, I know, she says. You don’t care one way or the other, do you? All you want is a little chum in your belly. I guess you’re lucky like that. You got a whole household can’t let go of you—one generation on either side that can’t bear either to look at you or forget you. That’s a lot of passion you got stirred up around here, Mr. Grierson. And you’re off beyond the pursuit of its meaning. I reckon there’s a kind of freedom to it.
She leans forward now, her elbows on her knees.
Beyond the pursuit of meaning and beyond good and evil too, she says. See, it’s a daily chore tryin to do the right thing. Not because the right thing is hard to do—it ain’t. It’s just cause the right thing—well, the right thing’s got a way of eluding you. You give me a compass that tells good from bad, and boy I’ll be a soldier of the righteous truth. But them two things are a slippery business, and tellin them apart might as well be a blind man’s guess.
She stands and undoes the latch on the cage and swings the door open. She advances two steps in and stands over the slow, grasping figure of Mr. Grierson and unsheathes the gurkha knife.
And sometimes, she says, sometimes you just get tired of pokin at the issue. Those are the times you just do something because you’re tired of thinkin on it. And that’s when the devil better get his pencil ready to tally up a score, cause the time for nuances is gone. And you think, that’s it for me on this world. You think, all right then, hell is my home.
And she raises the gurkha and brings it down.
ON THE way back upstairs, she goes into the parlor, where Moses Todd is still tied to the chair.
You thought better of killin me? he asks.