Authors: Patricia Highsmith
“Just how you think of it now,” a male voice said.
“Well, as I always said—it was a clear day. Peaceful, sunny. Fun. On that grandstand near the street. Till we climbed down.” Minderquist glanced at Florrie Lee who was looking straight at him, and he blinked. “When I heard the shots—” Minderquist’s mind went into a fog suddenly. Maybe he’d told the story too many times. Was that it? But the show had to go on. “I didn’t know what the shots were, you know? Could’ve been firecrackers or a car backfiring. Then when I saw Tom bend forward, grabbing for his leg, I somehow knew. I was standing so near the President—there was only one thing to do, so I did it,” Minderquist concluded with a chuckle, as if he had just related a funny story. He touched the dent in his left temple absently, as he watched the journalists scribbling, though some of them had tape recorders. He looked across the room at Julia, and saw her nod at him with a faint smile, meaning she thought he had said all that pretty well.
“You were talking about recreation, Mr. Minderquist,” said another male voice. “You play golf now?”
“Sure do. Fritz drives me over. Quite a few mermaids on the golf course, I must say!” Minderquist was thinking of the pretty teenaged girl golfers in their shorts and halters, flitting about like butterflies. Just kids, but they were decorative. Not so attractive as Florrie Lee though, who Minderquist realized was not only more approachable than the teenagers (one of whom had declined his offer of a soft drink at the clubhouse last week), but seemed to be inviting an approach from him this morning. Never had he seen her look at him like this, fixedly and with a subtle smile from her front-line position among the media in their chairs.
Someone laughed softly. Minderquist saw the laughter, a young man with dark-rimmed glasses, who had turned to the man beside him and was whispering something.
on the golf course?” asked a woman, smiling.
“Yes. I mean all the pretty girls.” Minderquist laughed. “Wish there
mermaids, all blonde with long hair and bare bosoms. Ha-ha! By the way, I know a mermaid joke.” Minderquist tugged the sides of his jacket together, but he knew the jacket wouldn’t button, and he didn’t try. “You all know the one about the Swedish mermaid who spoke only Swedish and got picked up by some English fishermen? They thought she was saying—”
!” came Julia’s voice clearly from Minderquist’s left. “Not that one.”
More laughter from the assembled.
“Let’s have it, Ken!” someone said.
And grinning, Minderquist would gladly have continued, but Julia was beside him, gripping his left arm, begging him to stop, but smiling also to put a good face on it. Minderquist folded his arms with husbandly resignation. “Okay, not that one, but it’s one of my best. Anything to please the ladies.”
“You and your wife play Scrabble, sir? I noticed a Scrabble set on the table over there,” said a man.
The word “Scrabble” was like a small bomb exploding in Minderquist’s mind or memory. He and Julia didn’t play any more. The fact was, Minderquist couldn’t concentrate or didn’t want to. “Oh-h, sometimes,” he said with a shrug.
Then Minderquist was aware of whispering again among a few people. He looked for Julia, and saw her taking someone’s glass to replenish it. Yes, at least six heads, including even Florrie Lee’s, were bent as people murmured, and Minderquist had the feeling they were picking at him, maybe saying he wasn’t his old self, just trying to act as if he were. Maybe they even suspected that he was impotent now (how long would that last?), and could they know this from the doctors to whom he had spoken? But doctors weren’t supposed to disclose information about their patients.
Steady improvement every day
, the newspapers had said during the coma days and after, during the days when the President had looked in to be photographed with him when he had been confined to his bed, and he was better and better up to this moment, in fact, if the newspapers took the trouble to print anything about him, and they did every couple of weeks . . .
sitting up in bed cracking jokes
. . . Sure, sometimes he felt like joking, and at other times he knew he was a changed man, made over into someone else almost, as changed as his abdomen, now bulging, or as his face, which looked bloated and sometimes a bit swimmy to him. Minderquist had heard about lobotomy, and suspected that this was what had happened to him with that bullet through his temple, but when he had asked his chief doctor, and the next doctor under him, both had emphatically denied it. “Phonys,” Minderquist murmured with a quick frown.
“What? How’s that, Mr. Minderquist?”
“Nothing.” Minderquist shook his head at a plate of canapés that Fritz extended.
“Sit down for a while, Ken,” said Julia who was beside him again.
“Going okay?” he whispered.
“Just fine,” she whispered back. “Don’t worry about anything. It’s nearly over.” She went away.
“Delicious liverwurst, Kenneth. Have one.” It was Florrie Lee at his side now, holding a round plate with little round liverwurst canapés on it.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Minderquist took one and shoved it into his mouth.
“You did well, Ken,” Florrie said. “And you’re looking well, too.”
He was aware of her nearness, her scent that suggested a caress, and he wanted to seize her and carry her away somewhere. Impulsively, he took her free hand. “C’mon, let’s go out in the sun,” he said, nodding towards the wide open doors on the lawn and the swimming pool.
“Could we possibly see your study, Mr. Minderquist? Maybe take a picture there?”
Damn the lot of ’em
, Minderquist thought, but he said, “Sure. Got a nice one here. It’s this way.” He led the way, smiling a small but real smile, because Florrie had given him a mischievous look, as if she knew he hated to turn loose of her hand. He glanced behind him and saw that Florrie was coming too, along with God knew how many others.
His study or office was book-lined, the books being all from the Kentucky house, and the square room looked orderly to say the least. His new desk had a green blotter, a letter-opener, a pen-and-pencil set, a brown leather folder (what was that for?), a heavy glass ashtray, and no papers at all on it. The wastebasket was empty. Minderquist obligingly leaned against his desk, hands gripping its edge.
Flash! Click! Click! Done!
“When do the doctors say you can go back to Washington, Ken?”
Minderquist kept his smile. “Well—ask the doctors. Maybe next week. I dunno why not.”
Minderquist left his study as the others did, feeling relief because it was after twelve noon, the media would be thinking about lunch, and taking off. So was Minderquist thinking about lunch, and he meant to invite Florrie Lee out somewhere. Fritz could drive them anywhere. There were charming hostelries in the area, old taverns with cozy nooks and tables. And then? With Florrie, he wouldn’t have any problems, he was sure.
“’Bye, Mr. Minderquist. Many thanks!”
“Keep well, sir!”
Cars were taking off.
Minderquist’s eyes met Florrie’s once more as he poured himself a scotch on the rocks at the buffet table. He deserved this one drink. He took a sip, then set the glass down. Florrie had that come-hither look again: she liked him. Minderquist moved towards her, with the intention of bowing, and proposing that he and she have lunch together somewhere.
But Florrie turned quickly away.
Minderquist grabbed her hand. She undid his grasp with a twisting movement, and walked towards the big open doors, Minderquist behind her. “Florrie?”
“Take . . .” The rest of what Florrie said was lost.
But Florrie wasn’t gone. In the sunshine, her light dress and her hair seemed all golden, like the sun itself. Minderquist followed her along the border of the pool, where Penny had run a few minutes ago.
“Ken, stop it!” Florrie called, laughing now, and she stepped behind a round table, which she plainly intended to circle if he came any closer.
Minderquist darted, choosing the left side of the table. “Florrie—just for
Had that been his wife’s voice? Grinning, trotting, loping, Minderquist chased Florrie down the other side of the pool, the long side, Florrie turned the corner, her little high heels flying, Minderquist leapt the corner, and fell short. His foot struck the blue-tiled edge, and suddenly he was falling sideways, towards the water.
A thud of water in Minderquist’s ears blocked yelps of laughter which for a few seconds he had heard. Minderquist gulped and inhaled water, then his head poked above the surface, barely. Hands reached for him from the edge of the pool.
“You okay, Ken?”
“Good diving there! Ha-ha!”
Minderquist struggled to get up to the rim of the pool. People pulled at his arms, his belt. Someone produced a towel. Where was Florrie? Even when Minderquist had wiped his eyes, he couldn’t see her anywhere, and she was all that mattered.
“Didn’t hurt yourself, did you, Mr. Minderquist?” asked a young man.
“No, no, Chris’ sake!—What’s happened to Florrie?”
More laughter. One man even bent double for an instant.
“ ’Bye, Mr. Minderquist. We’re taking off.”
Minderquist strode towards the house, head high, wiping the back of his neck with the towel. He was still host in his house. He wanted to see if Florrie was all right. Minderquist looked around in the big living room, which was eerily empty. A car was pulling away down the driveway. Minderquist thought he heard his wife’s voice from the direction of the hall across the living room.
,” Julia said.
“But this is—This can be
,” said a man’s voice. “It’s harmless!”
Minderquist reached the threshold of his and his wife’s bedroom, whose door was open. Julia stood with a revolver in her hand, the gun that Minderquist knew lived in the top drawer of the chest of drawers to Julia’s left, and Julia was pointing it at a man whose back was to Minderquist.
“Drop that thing on the floor or I’ll shoot it to pieces,” Julia said in a shaking voice.
The man obediently pulled a strap over his head and let his camera sink to the carpet.
“Now get out,” Julia said.
“I wouldn’t mind having that camera back. I’m with the
“What the hell’s going on here?” Minderquist asked, walking into the room.
“I want those pictures. Simple as that,” Julia said.
“Just pictures of you and Florrie by the pool, sir!” the young man said. “Nothing wrong. A little action!”
“Of Florrie? I want them!” Minderquist said.
The young man smiled. “I understand, sir. Well, y-you’ve sure got the pictures and the camera too. Unless you want me to get ’em developed for you.”
“No!” Julia said.
“Why not? Might be quicker,” said Minderquist.
“Empty that camera now.” Julia pointed the gun at the young man.
Two men stood in the hall, gawking.
The photographer wound up the rest of his roll, opened the camera, and laid the roll on top of the chest of drawers.
“Thanks,” Minderquist said, and put the roll into his jacket pocket, realized that the pocket was sopping wet, and pulled the roll out and held it in his hand.
“’Bye, Mrs. Minderquist,” said one of the men in the hall. “And thank you both.”
“’Bye, and thanks for coming,” Julia said pleasantly, both hands behind her.
The photographer put his strap around his neck again. “Good-bye and good luck, Mr. Minderquist!” He stumbled a little getting out of the doorway.
“Let me have that roll, Ken,” Julia said quietly.
want it,” Minderquist said, knowing his wife would destroy the thing if she could, just because Florrie was on it.
“I’ll shoot you if you don’t.” She leveled the gun at him.
Minderquist pressed his thumb against one flat end of the roll in his hand. He’d have pictures of Florrie of his own, maybe a couple of good ones that he could have blown up. “You go ahead,” he replied.
Julia bent towards the chest of drawers, holding the gun in both hands as if it weighed a lot suddenly. She put the revolver back into the top drawer.
oland Markow bent over his worktable in the corner of his and his wife’s bedroom, and again tried to concentrate. Schultz had neglected to report his Time Deposit gains for the end of the year. Roland was now looking at Schultz’s December totals, and all Schultz’s papers were here, earnings and bills paid for the twelve months of the year, but did he have to go through all those to find Schultz’s Time Deposits and God knew what else—a few stocks, Roland knew—himself? Schultz was a freelance commercial artist, considered himself efficient and orderly, Roland knew, but that was far from the truth.
-kah!” came the mindless voice again, loudly, though two doors were shut between the voice and Roland.
,” said his wife’s voice more softly, and with a smile in it.
Sickening, Roland thought. One would think Jane was encouraging the idiot! The
, Roland corrected himself, and bent again over Schultz’s tax return.
It was a tough time of the year, late April, when Roland habitually took work home, as did his two colleagues. The Internal Revenue Service had its deadlines.
, Roland thought in regard to Schultz’s Time Deposit interest. He could estimate it in his head within a hundred dollars or so, but Roland Markow wasn’t that kind of man. By nature he was meticulous and honest. He was convinced that his tax clients came out better in the long run if he turned in meticulous and honest income tax return forms for them. He couldn’t phone Schultz and ask him to do it, because all Schultz’s papers were here in twelve envelopes, each labeled with the name of the month. He’d have to go through them himself. And it was almost midnight.
—kah!” screamed Bertie.
Roland could stand it no longer and leapt up, went to the door, crossed the little hall, and knocked perfunctorily before he opened the door to Bertie’s room halfway.
Jane was on the floor on her knees, sitting on her heels, smiling as if she were having a glorious time. Her eyes behind the black, round-rimmed glasses looked positively merry, and her hands on her thighs were relaxed.
Bertie sat in a roundish heap before her, swimmy-eyed, thick tongue hanging out. The child had not even looked Roland’s way when the door opened.
“How’s the work going, dear?” Jane asked. “Do you know it’s midnight?”
“I know, can’t be helped. Does he have to keep saying this ‘Guh-wurka’ all the time? What
Jane chuckled. “Nothing, dear. Just a game.—You’re tired, I know. Sorry if we were loud.”
. A crazy anger rose in Roland. Their child was a mongoloid, daft, hopelessly brainless. Did she have to say “we”? Roland tried to smile, pushed his straight dark hair back from his forehead, and felt a film of sweat, to his surprise. “Okay. Just sounded like Gurkha to me. You know, those Indian soldiers. Didn’t know what he was up to.”
“G’wah-h,” said Bertie, and collapsed sideways on to the carpet. He wasn’t smiling. Though his slant eyes seemed to meet Roland’s for an instant, Roland knew they did not. Epicanthal folds was the term for this minor aberration.
Roland knew all the terminology for children—organisms—who had Down’s syndrome. He had of course read up on it years ago, when Bertie had been born. The complicated information stuck, like some religious rote he had learned in childhood, and Roland hated all this information, because they could do nothing about Bertie, so what good was knowing the details?
“You are tired, Rollie,” said Jane. “Mightn’t it be better to go to bed now and maybe get up an hour earlier?”
Roland shook his head wearily. “Dunno. I’ll think about it.” He wanted to say, “Make him shut
!” but Roland knew Jane got a pleasure out of playing with Bertie in the evenings, and God knew it didn’t matter when Bertie got to sleep, because the longer he stayed up, the longer he might sleep and keep quiet the next morning. Bertie had his own room, this room, with a low bed, a couple of heavy chairs that he couldn’t tip over (he was amazingly strong), a low and heavy wooden table whose corners had been rounded and sanded by Roland, soft rubber toys on the floor, so that if Bertie threw them against the window, the glass wouldn’t break. Bertie had thin reddish hair, a small head that was flat on top and behind, a short flat nose, a mouth that was merely a pink hole, ever open, with his oversized tongue usually protruding. The tongue had ugly ridges down it. Bertie was always drooling, of course. The awful thing was that they were going to be stuck with him for the next ten or fifteen years, or however long he lived. Mongoloids often died of a heart condition in their teens or earlier, Roland had read, but their doctor, Dr. Reuben Blatt, had detected no weakness in Bertie’s heart. Oh no, Roland thought bitterly, they weren’t that lucky.
Roland pressed the ballpoint pen with the fingertips of his right hand, pressed it against his palm. The worst thing was that Jane had completely changed. He watched her now, bending forward, smiling and cooing at Bertie again, as if he weren’t still in the room. Jane had gained weight, she wore sloppy espadrilles around the house all the time, even to go shopping, if the weather permitted. They’d lost nearly all their friends over the past four or five years, all except the Drummonds, Evy and Peter, who Roland felt kept on seeing them out of morbid curiosity about Bertie. They never failed to ask “to see Bertie for a few minutes,” when they came for drinks or dinner, and they usually brought Bertie a little toy or some candy, to be sure, but their avid eyes as they looked at Bertie Roland could never forget. The Drummonds were fascinated by Bertie, as one might be fascinated by a horror film, something out of this world. And Roland always thought, out of this world, no, out of his own loins, as the Bible said, out of Jane’s womb. Something had gone wrong, one chance in seven hundred, according to statistics, providing the mother wasn’t over forty, which Jane had not been, she’d been twenty-seven. Well, they had hit that one in seven hundred. Roland remembered as vividly as if it had been yesterday or last week the expression on the obstetrician’s face as he had come out of the labor ward. The obstetrician (whose name Roland had forgotten) had been frowning, with his lips slightly parted as if he were mustering the right words, as indeed he had been. He had known that the nurse had already given the anxiously waiting Roland a fuzzy and rather alarming announcement.
“Ah, yes—Mr. Markow?—Your child—It’s a boy. He’s not normal, I’m sorry to say. May as well tell you now.”
Down’s syndrome. Roland hadn’t at once connected this with mongolism, a term he was familiar with, but seconds later, he had understood. Roland recollected his puzzlement at the news, a stronger feeling than his disappointment. And was his wife all right? Yes, and she hadn’t seen the child.
Roland had seen the child an hour or so later, lying in a tiny metal box, one of thirty or so other metal boxes visible through a glass wall of the sterile and specially heated room where the newborns lay. No one had needed to point out his son to him: the miniature head with its flat top, the eyes that appeared slanted though they were closed when Roland had seen them first. Other babies stirred, clenched a little fist, opened their mouths to breathe, yawn. Bertie didn’t stir. But he was alive. Oh yes, very much alive.
Roland had read up on mongoloids, and had learned that they were singularly still in the womb. “No, he’s not kicking as yet!” Roland remembered Jane saying half a dozen times to well-meaning friends who had inquired during her pregnancy. “Maybe he’s reading books already,” Jane had sometimes added. (Jane was a great reader, and had been a scholarship student at Vassar, where she had majored in political science.) And how different Jane had looked then! Roland realized that he could hardly have recognized her as the same person, Jane five years ago and Jane now. Slender and graceful, with lovely ankles, straight brown hair cut short, an intelligent and pretty face with bright and friendly eyes. She still had the lovely ankles, but even her face had grown heavier, and she no longer moved with youthful lightness. She had concentrated herself, it seemed to Roland, upon Bertie. She had become a kind of monument, something mostly static, heavy, obsessed, concentrating on Bertie and on caring for him. No, she didn’t want any more children, didn’t want to take a second chance, she sometimes said cheerfully, though the chances were next to nil. Both Roland and Jane had had their blood cultures photographed for chromosome count. Usually the woman was “the carrier,” but Jane was not deficient of one chromosome, and neither was he. By no means had she a chromosome missing, which might have meant that one of the forty-five she did have carried the “D/G translocation chromosome” which resulted in a mongoloid offspring in one in three cases. So if he and Jane did have another child, they would be back to the one-in-seven-hundred odds again.
It had more than once crossed Roland’s mind to put Bertie down, as they said of dogs and cats who were hopelessly ill. Of course he’d never uttered this to Jane or to anyone, and now it was too late. He might have asked the doctor, just after Bertie’s birth, with Jane’s consent, of course. But now as Jane frequently reminded Roland, Bertie was a human being. Was he? Bertie’s I.Q. was probably 50, Roland knew. That was the mongoloid average, though Bertie’s I.Q. had never been tested.
“Rollie!” Smiling, Jane lay on her back now, propped on her elbows. “You do look exhausted, dear! How about a hot chocolate? Or coffee if you’ve really got to stay up?—Chocolate’s better for you.”
Roland mumbled something. He did have to work another hour at least, as there were two more returns to wind up after Schultz’s. Roland stared at his son’s—yes, his
toad-like body, on its back now: stubby legs, short arms with square and clumsy hands at their ends, hands that could do nothing, with thumbs like nubbins, mistakes, capable of holding nothing. What had he, Roland, done to deserve this? Bertie was of course wearing a diaper, rather an oversized diaper. At five, he looked indeed like an oversized baby. He had no neck. Roland was aware of a pat on his arm as his wife slipped past him on the way to the kitchen.
A few minutes later, Jane set a steaming mug of hot chocolate by his elbow. Roland was back at work. He had found Schultz’s Time Deposit interest payments, which Schultz had duly noted in April and in October. Roland finished Schultz and reached for his next dossier, that of James P. Overland, manager of a restaurant in Long Island. Roland sipped the hot chocolate, thinking that it was soothing, pleasant, but
what he needed, as Jane had informed him. What he needed was a nice wife in bed, warm and loving, even sexy as Jane had used to be. What they both needed was a healthy son in the room across the hall, reading books now, maybe even sampling Robert Louis Stevenson by now, as both Roland and Jane had done at Bertie’s age, a kid who’d try to hide the light after lights-out time to sneak a few more pages of adventure. Bertie would never read a corn flakes box.
Jane had said she would sleep on the sofa tonight, so he could work at his table in the bedroom. She couldn’t sleep with a light on in the bedroom. She had often slept on the sofa before—they had a duvet which was simple to put on top of the sofa—and sometimes Roland slept there too, to spell Jane on the nights when Bertie appeared restless. Bertie sometimes woke up in the night and started walking around his room, butting his head against the door or one of his walls, and one or the other of them would have to go in and talk to him for a while, and usually change his diaper. The carpet would look a mess, Roland thought, except that its very dark blue color did not show the spots that must be on it. They had sedatives for Bertie from their doctor, but neither Roland nor Jane wanted Bertie to become addicted.
“Damn the bastard!” Roland muttered, meaning James P. Overland, whose face he scarcely remembered from the two interviews he had had with Overland months ago. Overland hadn’t prepared his expenses and income nearly as well as the commercial artist Schultz, and Roland’s colleague Greg MacGregor had dumped the mess on him! Of course Greg had his hands full now too, Roland thought, and was no doubt burning the midnight oil in his own apartment down on 23rd Street, but still—Greg was junior to Roland and should have done the tough work first. Roland’s job was to do the finishing touches, to think of every legitimate loophole and tax break that the IRS permitted, and Roland knew them all by heart. “I’ll settle Greg’s hash tomorrow,” Roland swore softly, though he knew he wouldn’t. The matter wasn’t that serious. He was just goddamned tired, angry, bitter.
Had he heard it, or was he imagining? What time was it?
Twenty past one! Roland got up, saw that the bedroom door was closed, then nervously opened the door a little. Jane was asleep on the sofa, he could just make out the paleness of the blue duvet and the darker spot which was Jane’s head, and she hadn’t wakened from Bertie’s cry. She was getting used to it, Roland thought. And why not, he supposed. Before “Goo
kah” it had been “Aaaaagh!” as in the horror films or the comic strips. And before that?
Roland was back at his worktable. Before that? He was staring down at the next tax return after Overland (to whom he had written a note to be read to Overland by telephone tomorrow if a secretary could reach him), and actually pondering what Bertie had used to utter before “Aaaaagh!” Was he losing his mind? He squirmed in his chair, straightened up, then bent again over the nearly completed form, ballpoint pen poised as he moved down a list of items. It was not making any sense. He could read the words, the figures, but they had no meaning. Roland got up quickly.
Take a short walk, he told himself. Maybe give it up for tonight, as Jane had suggested, try it early tomorrow morning, but now a walk, or he wouldn’t be able to sleep, he knew. He was wide awake and jumpy with nervous energy.
As he tiptoed through the dark living room towards the door, he heard a low, sleepy wail from Bertie’s room. That was a mewing sort of cry that meant, usually, that Bertie needed his diaper changed. Roland couldn’t face it. The mewing would eventually awaken Jane, he knew, and she could handle it. She wasn’t going to a job tomorrow. Jane had given up her job with a U.N. research group when Bertie had been born, though she wouldn’t have given it up, Roland found himself thinking for the hundredth time, if Bertie hadn’t had Down’s syndrome. She would have gone back to her job, as she had intended to do. But Jane had made an immediate decision: Bertie, her little darling, was going to be her full-time job.