The Fire-Dwellers (5 page)

Gosh, Mac, thanks a million. It’ll be a lifesaver it’ll be absolutely terrific shopping taking the kids to the beach all the hundreds of

That’s okay. I’m glad you’re pleased.

Then Stacey realizes why he looks different and why she has been puzzling about it at the edges of her mind. He has a crew cut. His dark auburn hair is like a soft brush. Crew cut, fashion of his college days. He sees her looking and he reaches up a hand and touches his head.

Think it looks all right?

I
wondered
why you looked different. It looks great. Really great.

  — How many times has he protected me from the sight of myself?
Sure, Stacey, you look really good in that dress
, he said when I bought the green and gold last month. It was only later I knew it was Katie’s dress, although wrong size for her. Mac, you’re only forty-three. Last time I thought that, I meant how relatively young. Now I mean how relatively not-young.

The evening they go to see Thorlakson, both Mac and Stacey are edgy. Stacey in their bedroom tussles with her hair, while Mac repeatedly clears his throat.

Hem hem hem hem

  — Stop it, for heaven’s sake, Mac, can’t you? It’s getting worse, and that awful cough at the end of the throat-clearing –
Whoop! Whoop!
The rosy-fingered dawn in this house sounds like it’s playing bongo drums. But he keeps on smoking nonstop and gets mad as blazes if I say anything. It worries me, but it revolts me, too, to hear him hoicking up phlegm from his inner recesses. It disgusts him that I pluck out handfuls of my eyebrows with my fingers without knowing it. No one ought to have repulsive mannerisms. We all ought to be physically perfect. I need a state of unblemishment more as the years go by, but I have it less.

Do I look all right, Mac?

Stacey is wearing her black sheath dress, supposedly slenderizing. She tugs at the waist, trying to straighten the wrinkles in the material, but her hips are against her. Mac is looking at his watch and does not glance in her direction.

Fine fine fine you look fine. Aren’t you ready
yet?

Right this minute. C’mon then.
Katie! No
later than ten for you, and don’t forget to put Jen before you go to bed, eh? Ian – Duncan – you’re to go to bed when Katie tells you, you hear? And no fighting.

A chorus of
Yeh, yeh, okay
comes from various corners of the house.

For Christ’s sake, Stacey, they’re all
right
. Can’t you just leave them?

Sorry sorry sorry

  — He’s right. I fuss. Mother-hen type. All a load of nonsense. All unnecessary. Another nervous tic. How can I break habits I’ve acquired so gradually I’m not even aware of them until I see they drive Mac out of his mind?

Timber Lake, sixteen years ago, had hardly any cottages. Jungles of blackberry bushes and salmonberry. Spruce trees darkly still in the sun, and the water so unsullied that you could see the grey-gold minnows flickering. You know something, Mac?
What?
I like everything about you.
That’s good, honey. I like everything about you, too
.

  — Why should I think it unbalanced to want to mourn? Why shouldn’t I wail like the widows of Ashur if I feel like it? I have cause. Come, come, Stacey. Act your age. That’s precisely what I’m doing, God, if you really want to know. Too much mental baggage. Too damn much, at this point. More more more than I want. Things keep spilling out of the suitcases, taking me by surprise, bewildering me as I stand on the platform.

Whatever else you do, Stacey, for God’s sake don’t get into an argument, will you?

I won’t I won’t do you have to tell me?

I’m only thinking of the time you told Crimpton you
were going to join the Redeemer’s Advocates – that’s all I’m thinking of.

Well, I
was
considering it, Mac. Serenity, I thought. I was going to give it a whirl. But I couldn’t. Maybe it was the thought of your dad that stopped me even from going to a meeting. You know, having been a United Church minister and that. I thought he’d have a fit.

He wouldn’t have been the only one. C’mon, we’re here.

Thor’s apartment is in one of the high-risers near the bay. There is a mirror in the elevator, and Stacey spends the up-flight in patting distractedly at her hair. Down a thickly carpeted hall, and then at the gentle bell buzz the door opens and a massive figure fills the doorway.

Hel
lo
there. Great to see you, Mac. And this

Thor turns to Stacey, gazes down at her, sizes her up, frowns a trace, then gives her an oblique and uninterpretable smile. Mac steps in.

Thor, I’d like you to meet my wife, Stacey.

Now Thor’s smile broadens and widens, grows relaxed, genuine, sincere.

Well,
hi
there, Stacey. I’ve really been looking forward to meeting you.

Mutter mutter me too

Well, come on
in
.

Thor Thorlakson is not actually taller than Mac, but he carries himself carefully straight as though he practices every morning in front of a full-length mirror. His suit is a costly blue-grey, giving the impression of a luminous uniform, a doorman in heaven or perhaps a mace bearer behind the celestial throne. His features have clearly been sculptured by an expert, and his hair is silver. Above the out-jutting jaw and the
young face, the silver hair forestedly flourishes, a lion’s share of it which he tosses imperially back as they walk along a slippery hall.

  — How do you like that? How has he achieved that crowning glory? No peroxide in the kitchen sink for him, you can be quite sure. No damn crew cut, either. He looks vaguely familiar. I think I must’ve seen him in a magazine or newspaper. It would be funny if he’d ever been a male model. He looks as though he just stepped out of
The Venusian Warlock
, that SF movie I rushed off and saw once when everything got too much. I thought warlock was something like deadlock, but no, and when I saw the movie I thought brother things have come to a fine pass if I can learn from a piece of garbage like this. Thor’s the wizard.

Thor motions Stacey to a royal blue canvas-looking chair shaped like an upside-down tent. She sinks down nervously. On the floor, a black-and-white fur rug looks as though it had been made from the skins of stillborn monkeys, softly eerie. The coffee table top is grey-veined marble. Voluminous white drapes are like the heavy fine linens of ancient Rome. On the walls, two abstract paintings in selected shades of orange, black and white. On a sideboard, a sharply orange vessel like a misshapen triangle in thin glass. The place is both ascetic and voluptuous.

I’ve gone off booze ha-ha. Never was a heavy drinker but used to enjoy a martini before dinner. That was in the B.R. days – before Richalife. Same with caffeine and nicotine – you could say the shackles have been lifted. Once upon a time I could barely face the morning without three cups of coffee and as many cigarettes. Then I started reaching for a Richalife instead. I think we’ve all got to remember that we’re not just selling vitamin pills – we’re selling ourselves. I mean ha-ha that
sounded a little ambiguous but what I was meaning to say was we stand as living examples. What program you got the family on, Mac?

Well, I haven’t quite had time to get it worked out for all of them yet, but I plan to start them the beginning of the week.

  — You do, eh? Over my dead body.

Mac, you never said

Then Stacey’s jaw clamps shut as her brain receives the signal from Mac’s red-flare-sending eyes. His voice goes on without a pause.

I’m on 35-
ADDB
myself, Thor.

  — Another unknown. What has he been doing? Slogging down pills secretly in the bathroom? Now he won’t look at me.

Oh yes – let’s see now - 35-
ADDB
– that’s age thirty-five to forty, height medium to tall, temperament fair to medium calm, slight tendency to anxiety. Right?

Right. Can you remember them all, Thor?

Most of them. I couldn’t have, at one time, of course, but I find now my memory potential was hardly being tapped at all, before. Alertness-wise, the change has been really gratifying. I always had a good memory, mind you, but not what you would call really excellent. Now I think I can honestly and truthfully say it’s reached the excellent mark. Have you noticed much change in yourself, Mac?

I sleep better I think

  — He
sleeps
better? Better than what? Mac, who’s never lain awake one single night in his life that I know of? Has he suffered insomnia in country motels I never knew? Counting cockroaches marching in procession across the floor or patterned petunias parading across the wallpaper?

That’s splendid. Takes a little time for the changes in depth, you know. Even Richalife can’t reach the deep cells of
the mind instantly. I’m on 25-Triple A myself, that’s twenty-five to thirty, height tall, temperament outgoing, slight tendency to variable depression. I remember when I began, just over a year ago now, it took – oh, I should say about three or four weeks, approximately, before the depth changes were really well established. These very slight depression feelings I used to get – they were alleviated almost right straight off, definitely alleviated, but it must have been more or less a month or so before they totally disappeared. Cut down any on smoking?

Mac, who has been reaching into his pocket for a cigarette, withdraws his hand.

Some

Well, I feel confident there’ll be a marked drop. Let me know how you’re getting on caffeine-wise, too, won’t you?

Oh certainly of course

Stacey leans forward as far as the chair shape permits.

How do you decide who’s to have which uh course of tablets?

Mac fixes her with a stone idol’s eye.

I explained to you, honey.
You
remember. It’s done by the Richalife Quiz.

  — Did he explain? He did a certain amount of yakking last night, and I was thinking all the time of how it could be that Duncan keeps getting such awful marks in arithmetic. I’m always wanting him to talk, and when he does, I’m absent. Sad defection of duty. Goddam, though, I’m not convinced that he
did
explain.

Oh sure. Yeh. I recall it now. It just slipped my mind for a second, there.

Thor smiles again and rises to his feet. Standing beside a grey-veined marble fireplace he looks almost as striking as he presumably intends.

Time your program was designed for you, Stacey. I’ll bet you make lists so you won’t forget things – come on, now, don’t you?

Stacey nods dumbly. Thor’s voice continues slow and dreamily, intimate.

Think of the moment when you can throw away your lists. That’ll be a red-letter day. Not to mention energy. Are you satisfied with your present level of energy?

Well

Mothers very often aren’t, I do know that. Kids can take a lot out of you, can’t they? I know. I’ll bet some days you feel just pretty beat and exhausted, don’t you? It’s certainly not a very pleasant feeling. I don’t know from personal experience – never having been a mother ha-ha – but I surely can sympathize.

  — Come on, little fish, there it is. Boy, if Mac ever came home one evening and said
Honey, I’ll bet you’re beat
, I’d fall into his arms. Well, nuts. I’m not rising to this. No dice.

Thor looks at Stacey, and she looks into his blue eyes, blue as the copper sulphate that used to be put in the near-shore water of Diamond Lake to clear it of the snails that caused itch. Still blue eyes without any gleam or flicker of themselves in them, no fathoming of them possible. Then he glances towards the hallway.

Well, it’s been just great talking to you two. I don’t mean to hustle you good people off, but Mickey Jameson’s bringing his wife in to meet me in another few minutes, and I’ve got Stewart Essex coming in after that with his fiancée. I think it’s always more personal if you talk to people by themselves. Of course I enjoy parties as well. We’re going to have to see about an office party soon. Small celebration. Because I just have this feeling that we’re going places together. I think the Head Office is really going to sit up and take notice of the
fact that in this province we’re
moving
and we’re not moving slow. Am I right?

Sure – you sure are.

Good-bye good-bye

So glad to have met you

Thanks so much

A pleasure

Blabber blabber

Click.

The Buick zooms lightly over the bridge, and Stacey, looking back, can see the lights of the city, rearing neons in lightning strokes of color, jagged scarlet, blue like the crested heart of a flame. She puts down the car window on her side, and can smell the sea, salt warmth and decaying seaweed, like the presence of some rank stinking turbulent primeval creature which has not yet realized the fact of its own passing.

What was that bit about the quiz, Mac?

Just answering some questions. There’s nothing to it.

What sort of questions?

Oh – about your personality, and what worries you, stuff like that.

I won’t.

Don’t be ridiculous, Stacey. Of course you will.

We’ll see about that.

Oh God, Stacey, why do you always have to make everything so difficult?

I don’t mean to

Well you
do

I’m sorry. I
mean
it. I’m sorry. What about the kids?

I can answer for them. That’s allowed.

Mac

What now for God’s sake

What do you think, I mean, in yourself?

What do you mean what do I think in myself?

Just what do you
think?

What do you
mean
, what do I think? Like what?

Well, I mean

Just what
do
you mean, Stacey?

I guess the product’s pretty good, eh?

I told you.

What about – I mean, what do you think of Thor?

I think he’s a guy with drive.

I think he’s bat-winged Mephistopheles.

You must be out of your mind.

Are you leveling with me, Mac?

For heaven’s sake. What is there to level
about?

Why don’t you say what you mean, just once? Why not? Look, I
know

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