Here is another excerpt from Dover Beach. It’s early in the story, and our narrator is accompanying two of his friends on a trip to New Hampshire to do some business. It’s nighttime, and it’s snowing out, and they’re far from what’s left of “civilization.” Not a good combination in the world of this novel.
Our narrator, we are beginning to discover, has an odd literary bent.
The road barely existed anymore. Hunched over the wheel, Mickey stared out through the snow and swerved constantly to miss the rocks and potholes and assorted debris. A broken axle up here would not be a good idea.
Bobby was nervous. When he’s nervous, he talks too much. “So she says, ‘Oh, it’s so hod to pot with all this. It’s been in the family for generations, you know. We godded it all through the Frenzy and now things are settling down, but what am I to do? One must eat, mustn’t one?’
” ‘Oh, certainly one must,’ I says. Jesus, they all make you feel like they’re doin’ you a favor, handing over their firstborn or something. But I’m not the one that’s starving. You know what I’m saying? Jesus, this snow’s a bitch.” Bobby leaned forward and peered out at an abandoned house. He doesn’t see very well. “I hate bein’ outside the city. I mean, the city is dangerous, but at least you know what’s goin’ on. There are rules, sort of. Who the fuck knows what’s goin’ on up here?”
Bobby sat in the middle, between Mickey and me. A shotgun rested between my legs. I held its smooth barrel in my right hand. The van’s heater was turned up full blast, and it felt great. I wished Bobby weren’t so nervous. He was making me nervous too.
We were off the highway now, passing by cold white fields and scrawny trees and rocks. Bobby was right: we didn’t belong here. Still, something stirred inside me—wisps of memories that were better left unremembered. “How much further, Mickey?” I asked.
“Not far,” he said. Mickey was about as talkative as Gwen.
Bobby drummed his fingers on his thighs. “This guy is so fuckin’ weird, Wally, you won’t believe it. It’s being stuck up here in the boonies, if you ask me. You got no human interaction, you know what I’m sayin’?”
“He has you. And O’Malley’s people.”
“O’Malley’s people. Shit. Talking to one of them’s like talking to a tree. This guy is so weird. Christ, I wish I could see something.”
Mickey was going even slower now. Eventually there was a light in the distance. “That’s it,” he said. We aimed for the light, and came to a stop in front of a large gate. The light shone down at us from behind the gate like a beacon from heaven. A dog was barking. I don’t like dogs.
“Get out with your hands up,” an amplified voice ordered. It sounded like God.
I looked at Bobby. “So fuckin’ weird,” he said, shaking his head. He motioned to me to get out. I left the shotgun behind and climbed down into the snow with my hands over my head. Bobby and Mickey did the same.
The gate swung open, and two figures appeared out of a shack. One stayed behind and trained a shotgun on us. The other moved forward. He had a revolver in one hand, a Doberman on a leash in the other; the Doberman was about the size of the van. The figure was wearing a knitted cap and a homemade sheepskin coat. He was about twelve.
He searched us. The Doberman growled when it was my turn. Good doggie. I kept my hands up. The boy found my Smith and Wesson and pocketed it. He found the shotgun in the van and gave it, and the Doberman, to the figure waiting by the gate.
The boy returned to us. “Okay,” he said. We all got into the van. The boy kept the revolver trained on Mickey, who drove slowly through the open gate. We passed the other figure, standing by the shack and restraining the Doberman. It was a girl, maybe a little younger than the boy. The Doberman kept barking. The gate clanged shut behind us. I felt as if I had crossed a border.
Here is a survival skill I have learned. Generally, when you come upon an isolated farm surrounded by barbed wire, with searchlights and Dobermans and shotguns in evidence, it is a good idea to move on. Quickly. Not tonight, however.
“So how do you like this snow?” Bobby asked the boy.
The boy didn’t reply.
“I don’t think there was this much snow in the old days,” Bobby went on. “Of course, they say that about a lot of things. But I think maybe they’re right about the snow. A lot more snow than there used to be.”
Bobby was nervous. I wished he would shut up.
The land extended flat and unbroken on both sides until it disappeared in the darkness. The road along which we were traveling was plowed and newly paved. We were headed for a sprawling house that blazed with light about a half mile in front of us. Several smaller buildings were scattered like seedlings around it. There was a large barn and a silo off to one side, and in the distance a windmill loomed like a creature from a fairytale.
“Stop,” the boy said when we had reached the house.
Mickey pulled up by the front porch.
Another figure stood by the door, holding another shotgun. The boy got out and waved, and the figure motioned for us to come in.
“Here goes,” Bobby muttered. We got out and crunched across the snow to the open door.
“Wipe your feet,” the figure commanded.
We wiped our feet and walked inside.
“Come with me.” The figure took off her cap—it was a girl with a misshapen face. We followed her while our senses reeled. Warmth: the house was warmer than the van, warmer than the Ritz; a month’s supply of logs blazed in a fireplace. Light: electric lights, shining out from chandeliers and sconces, reflecting off mirrors and polished mahogany furniture. Smells: the sharp sweet scent of burning birch, the rich aroma of something sweet being baked. Apple pie? Strudel?
Somewhere close by a piano was playing, children were laughing. I felt as if I had stepped into a storybook.
The deformed girl led us into a long dark room lit only by a coal fire. The room had a vaulted ceiling, tapestries on the wall, a Persian carpet on the floor. At the far end of an oak table sat a man with a gray beard and deep-set, glittering eyes. He was wearing a flowing white robe. Maybe I hadn’t stepped into a storybook; maybe I had stepped into the Bible. Maybe he was God.
“You may return to your post, Lavinia,” the man said in a deep, God-like voice.
The girl silently left the room. The man’s gaze turned to us: three travelers from a distant land, bearing gifts.
Not much to look at. Bobby is the only fat man I know—but it isn’t a healthy fat, a storybook fat. And his eyes are clouded, and his teeth are rotten. Mickey is short and has a shriveled arm. And I—well, I am reasonably normal, which means reasonably scrawny, reasonably scarred by life. I don’t think I look like a private eye.
“Please sit,” the man said.
“I trust your drive was uneventful.”
“Wasn’t bad, Mr. Fitch,” Bobby said. “But the snow didn’t help matters much.”
“Ah, yes, the snow.” Mr. Fitch paused. “‘When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul.'” He fell silent then, as if he had exhausted his supply of sociability, or forgotten the next line. He looked as if he didn’t have much need for sociability. He sat straight and stiff as a pine tree, his hands folded on the table in front of him. His skin was leathery, his mouth hard. He scared me.
“We brought some very good merchandise,” Bobby said. “You’d be surprised at how much is still out there, if you know the right people.”
Mr. Fitch nodded, unsurprised. “I’ll take a look.”
“Want us to bring it right in here?”
Mr. Fitch unfolded a hand and gestured at the empty table.
Bobby stood up. “Great. Come on, boys.”
Mickey and I followed him back out to the van. Lavinia kept a careful watch on us from the front porch. “What’d I tell you about that guy, huh?” Bobby asked as Mickey opened the doors and jumped inside. “He’s got maybe thirty kids and half a dozen wives and he goes around lookin’ like the goddamn Lord of the Universe. Watch that stuff, Mickey, okay? It’s fucking fragile.”
I did most of the lugging. Mickey couldn’t help much because of his arm, and Bobby preferred talking to lifting. After a few trips back and forth we had covered the table with our stuff, and Bobby started his sales pitch. “Look at this china, Mr. Fitch. Rose Medallion. Service for six, plus assorted other pieces—almost perfect condition. See this portrait? Look at the signature: John Singer Sargent. He was famous. Ever see his murals in the Boston Public Library? That tea set is sterling silver. And you said you liked books, right? A complete set of Dickens—leather bindings, acid-free paper. I don’t think anyone ever opened them. Isn’t that something?”
Mr. Fitch examined everything while Bobby rattled on. He unwrapped every piece of china and stared at it. He took the painting out into the hall to study it in better light. I noticed he was wearing hiking boots under his biblical robe. Bobby was sweating. Mickey and I stood by the fire and waited.
“All right,” Mr. Fitch said eventually. “Come with me.” He strode outside and signaled to Lavinia, who fell in step behind us. We crossed to a long, narrow structure off to one side of the main house. He took out a key and opened the padlocked door, then went inside and flipped on an electric light. We followed him in.
It was a storage building—shelf after shelf of cartons jammed against the walls, a narrow aisle down the middle. Amazingly, the place was heated. We stood awkwardly in the aisle while Lavinia waited outside, her shotgun cradled in her arms.
“PC?” Mr. Fitch asked.
“Right,” Bobby said.
Mr. Fitch reached up and took down a small box. He opened it. The object inside was covered with bubbly plastic stuff. He unwrapped it.
It was not as beautiful as the china, but Bobby was not interested in beauty. He took it from Mr. Fitch and hefted it approvingly. It was a hard drive, I knew. Not that I cared. “How many?” he asked.
“I’ll give you twenty-five.”
“Are you crazy? I need fifty, or no deal.”
Mr. Fitch shrugged. “I haven’t got fifty.”
“Well, what else do you have? Got any ammo?”
Mr. Fitch stiffened. “I don’t deal in weaponry.”
“Okay, okay. How ‘bout software? And printers. How about them?”
Mr. Fitch and Bobby started dickering. I was impressed by how forceful Bobby was, considering that his entire future was on the line, and a girl stood ten feet away holding a shotgun she was clearly prepared to use. He obviously knew what he was doing, at any rate, because after a few tough minutes they had struck a deal, and I found myself lugging the precious equipment out to the van.
“Nice work,” I said to Bobby when he came to inspect.
“Thanks. He’s weird, but he’s a Yankee, and that means you can do business with him. Jesus, I could use a drink. Let’s go inside.”
I followed him back into the house, carefully wiping my feet before I entered.
Our merchandise had been cleared from the table. One of the Rose Medallion plates was piled high with pieces of cake. A solidly built woman with gray hair was pouring cups of tea, using the sterling silver tea set. I sat down next to Mickey, who was eyeing the cake with considerable interest.
“Can I get you anything else?” the woman asked when the tea had been poured.
Bobby cleared his throat. “I was wondering if there might be anything stronger than tea in the house. To celebrate our new business relationship, you understand.”
The woman looked at Mr. Fitch. He paused a moment, then banged his fist on the table. “‘What?'” he thundered. “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?'”
She smiled and left the room. In a moment she returned with a green bottle, which Bobby gazed at with something approaching religious ecstasy. She poured an inch of the amber liquid into a glass and gave it to Bobby, then did the same for Mr. Fitch. She offered the bottle to Mickey and me next, but we refused. We were tea people.
Bobby toasted Mr. Fitch. “Here’s to many more nights like this,” he said.
Mr. Fitch nodded his agreement.
The cake was delicious. Bobby drank half his whiskey. “You must come to Boston and let me return your hospitality,” he said.
Mr. Fitch’s face darkened. He set his glass down. “I will not go to Boston, Mr. Gallagher. I lost a child there once. Killed by the brigands who inhabit that place.”
“Well, it’s really a lot better than it used to be,” Bobby said, a little uneasily.
“‘Dost thou not perceive that it is a wilderness of tigers?'” Mr. Fitch roared. “Tigers must prey, and Boston offers no prey but me and mine.”
Tigers? Bobby scratched his head, for once at a loss for words. I reached for another piece of cake. “‘How happy are thou, then,'” I remarked, “‘from these devourers to be banished.'”
Mr. Fitch stared at me. “You know Titus Andronicus?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t everyone?”
He smiled and drank his whiskey. “Maybe this world has a future after all,” he murmured.
Bobby looked at me as if I had just caused the blind to see and the dumb to speak.
Mickey poured himself another cup of tea.