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Authors: Peter Straub

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The Throat

BOOK: The Throat
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THE THROAT
by PETER STRAUB

A being can only be touched where it yields. For a woman, this is
under her dress; and for a god it's on the throat of the animal being
sacrificed.

—George Bataille,
Guilty

I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper,
the open window… Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever
change, nobody will ever die.

—Vladimir Nabokov,
Speak, Memory

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I owe thanks to all who helped by contributing their insight,
intelligence, advice, stories, and support: Charles Bernstein; Tom
Noli; Hap Beasley; Scott Hamilton; Warren Vache; Lila Kalinich; Joe
Haldeman; Eda Rak; my brother, John Straub; and my wondrous editor,
Laurie Bernstein.

PART ONE
TIM UNDERHILL
1

AN alcoholic homicide detective in my hometown of Millhaven,
Illinois, William Damrosch, died to ensure, you might say, that this
book would never be written. But you write what comes back to you, and
then afterward it comes back to you all over again.

I once wrote a novel called
The
Divided Man
about the Blue Rose
murders, and in that book I called Damrosch Hal Esterhaz. I never
alluded to my own connections to the Blue Rose murders, but those
connections were why I wrote the book. (There was one other reason,
too.) I wanted to explain things to myself—to see if I could slice
through to the truth with that old, old weapon, the battered old sword,
of story telling.

I wrote
The Divided Ma
n
after I was processed out of the army and
had settled into a little room near Bang Luk, the central flower market
in Bangkok. In Vietnam I had killed several people at long distance and
one close up, so close that his face was right before me. In Bangkok,
that face kept coming back to me while I was writing. And with it came,
attached like an enormous barnacle to a tiny boat, the other Vietnam,
the Vietnam before Vietnam, of childhood. When my childhood began
coming back to me, I went off the rails for a bit. I became what you
could charitably call "colorful." After a year or so of disgrace, I
remembered that I was thirty-odd years old, no longer a child, that I
had a calling of a kind, and I began to heal. Either childhood is a lot
more painful the second time around, or it's just less bearable. None
of us are as strong or as brave as the children we used to be.

About a year after I straightened out, I came back to America and
wound up writing a couple of books with a novelist named Peter Straub.
These were called
Koko
and
Mystery,
and maybe you read them.
It's okay
if you didn't. Peter's a nice enough kind of guy, and he lives in a big
gray Victorian house in Connecticut, just off Long Island Sound. He has
a wife and two kids, and he doesn't get out much. Peter's office on the
third floor of his house was the size of my whole loft on Grand Street,
and his air conditioning and his sound system always worked.

Peter liked listening to my descriptions of Millhaven. He was
fascinated with the place. He understood exactly how I felt about it.
"In Millhaven, snow falls in the middle of summer," I'd say, "sometimes
in Millhaven, flights of angels blot out the whole sky," and he'd beam
at me for about a minute and a half. Here are some other things I told
him about Millhaven: once, on the near south side of town, a band of
children killed a stranger, dismembered him, and buried the pieces of
his body beneath a juniper tree, and later the divided and buried parts
of the body began to call out to each other; once a rich old man raped
his daughter and kept her imprisoned in a room where she raved and
drank, raved and drank, without ever remembering what had happened to
her; once the pieces of the murdered man buried beneath the juniper
tree called out and caused the children to bring them together; once a
dead man was wrongly accused of terrible crimes. And once, when the
parts of the dismembered man were brought together at the foot of the
tree, the whole man rose and spoke, alive again, restored.

For we were writing about a mistake committed by the Millhaven
police and endorsed by everyone else in town. The more I learned, the
worse it got: along with everyone else, I had assumed that William
Damrosch had finally killed himself to stop himself from murdering
people, or had committed suicide out of guilt and terror over the
murders he had already done. Damrosch had left a note with the words
blue rose on the desk in front of him.

But this was an error of interpretation—of imagination. What most of
us call intelligence is really imagination—sympathetic imagination. The
Millhaven police were wrong, and I was wrong. For obvious reasons, the
police wanted to put the case to rest; I wanted to put it to rest for
reasons of my own.

I've been living in New York for six years now. Every couple of
months I take the New Haven Line from Grand Central, get off at the
Greens Farms stop, and stay up late at night drinking and talking with
Peter. He drinks twenty-five-year-old malt whiskey, because he's that
kind of guy, and I drink club soda. His wife and his kids are asleep
and the house is quiet. I can see stars through his office skylight,
and I'm aware of the black bowl of night over our heads, the huge
darkness that covers half the planet. Now and then a car swishes down
the street, going to Burying Hill Beach and Southport.

Koko
described certain
things that happened to members of my old
platoon in and after the war, and
Mystery
was about the long-delayed
aftermath of an old murder in a Wisconsin resort. Because we liked the
idea, we set the novel on a Caribbean island, but the main character,
Tom Pasmore—who will turn up later in these pages—was someone I knew
back in Millhaven. He was intimately connected with the Blue Rose
murders blamed on William Damrosch, and a big part of
Mystery
is his
discovery of this connection.

After
Mystery
I thought I
was done with Damrosch, with Millhaven,
and with the Blue Rose murders. Then I got a call from John Ransom,
another old Millhaven acquaintance, and because much in his life had
changed, my life changed too. John Ransom still lived in Millhaven. His
wife had been attacked and beaten into a coma, and her attacker had
scrawled the words blue rose on the wall above her body.

2

I never knew John Ransom very well. He lived in a big house on the
east side and he went to Brooks-Lowood School. I lived in Pigtown, on
the fringes of the Valley, south of downtown Millhaven and a block from
the St. Alwyn Hotel, and I went to Holy Sepulchre. Yet I knew him
slightly because we were both tackles, and our football teams played
each other twice a year. Neither team was very good. Holy Sepulchre was
not a very big school, and Brooks-Lowood was tiny. We had about one
hundred students in each grade. Brooks-Lowood had about thirty.

John Ransom said, "Hi," the first time we faced each other in a
game. These preppies are a bunch of cupcakes, I thought. When play
started, he hit me like a bulldozer and pushed me back at least a foot.
The Brooks-Lowood quarterback, a flashy bit of blond arrogance named
Teddy Heppenstall, danced right past me. When we lined up for the next
play, I said, "Well, hi to you, too," and we butted shoulders and
forearms, utterly motionless, while Teddy Heppenstall romped down the
other side of the field. I was sore for a whole week after the game.

Every November, Holy Sepulchre sponsored a Christian Athletes'
Fellowship Dinner, which we called "the football supper." It was a
fundraiser held in the church basement. The administration invited
athletes from high schools all over Millhaven to spend ten dollars on
hamburgers, potato chips, baked beans, macaroni salad, Hawaiian Punch,
and a speech about Christ the Quarterback from Mr. Schoonhaven, our
football coach. Mr. Schoonhaven believed in what used to be called
muscular Christianity. He knew that if Jesus had ever been handed a
football, He would have demolished anyone who dared get between Him and
the endzone. This Jesus bore very little resemblance to Teddy
Heppenstall, and none at all to the soulful, rather stricken person who
cupped His hands beneath His own incandescent heart in the garish
portrait that hung just inside the church's heavy front doors.

Few athletes from other schools ever attended the football suppers,
although we were always joined by a handful of big crew-cut Polish boys
from St. Ignatius. The St. Ignatius boys ate hunched over their plates
as if they knew they had to hold in check until next football season
their collective need to beat up on someone. They liked to communicate
threat,
and they seemed
perfectly attuned to Mr. Schoonhaven's
pugnacious Jesus.

At the close of the season in which John Ransom had greeted me and
then flicked me out of Teddy Heppenstall's way, a tall, solidly built
boy came into the church basement near the end of the first, informal
part of the football supper. In a couple of seconds we would have to
snap into our seats and look reverential. The new boy was wearing a
tweed sports jacket, khaki pants, a white button-down shirt, and a
striped necktie. He collected a hamburger, shook his head at the beans
and macaroni salad, took a paper cup of punch, and slid into the seat
beside mine before I could recognize him.

Mr. Schoonhaven stood up to the microphone and coughed into his
fist. A report like a gunshot resounded through the basement. Even the
St. Ignatius delinquents sat up straight. "What is a Gospel?" Mr.
Schoonhaven bellowed, beginning as usual without preamble. "A Gospel is
something that may be believed." He glared at us and yelled, "And what
is football? It too is something that can be believed."

"Spoken like a true coach," the stranger whispered to me, and at
last I recognized John Ransom.

Father Vitale, our trigonometry teacher, frowned down the table. He
was merely distributing the frown he wished to bestow on Mr.
Schoonhaven, who was a Protestant and could not keep from sounding like
one on these occasions. "What are the Gospels about? Salvation.
Football is about salvation, too," said the coach. "Jesus never dropped
the ball. He won the big game. Each of us, in our own way, is asked to
do the same. What do we do when we're facing the goalposts?"

I took my pen out of my shirt pocket and wrote on a creased napkin,
What are you doing here?
Ransom
read my question, turned over the paper, and wrote,
I
thought
it would be interesting.
I raised my eyebrows.

Yes, it's interesting,
John
Ransom wrote on the napkin.

I felt a flash of anger at the thought that he was slumming. To all
the rest of us, even the St. Ignatius hoodlums, the cinder-block church
basement was as familiar as the cafeteria. In fact, our cafeteria was
almost identical to the church basement. I had heard that waiters and
waitresses served the Brooks-Lowood students at tables set with linen
tablecloths and silverware. Actual waiters. Actual silverware, made of
silver. Then something else occurred to me. I wrote,
Are you Catholic?
and nudged John
Ransom's elbow. He looked down, smiled, and shook his head.

Of course. He was a Protestant.

Well?
I wrote.

I'm waiting to find out
, he
wrote.

I stared at him, but he returned to Mr. Schoonhaven, who was telling
the multitude that the Christian athlete had a duty to go out there and
kill
for Jesus.
Stomp! Batter!
Because that was
what He wanted you to
do. Take no prisoners!

John Ransom leaned toward me and whispered, "I like this guy."

Again I felt a chill of indignation. John Ransom imagined that he
was better than us.

Of course, I thought that I was better than Mr. Schoonhaven, too. I
thought I was better than the church basement, not to mention Holy
Sepulchre and, by extension, the eight intersecting streets that
constituted our neighborhood. Most of my classmates would end up
working in the tanneries, can factories, breweries, and tire recapping
outfits that formed the boundary between ourselves and downtown
Millhaven. I knew that if I could get a scholarship I was going to
college; I planned to get out of our neighborhood as soon as possible.
I liked the place I came from, but a lot of what I liked about it was
that I had come from there.

That John Ransom had trespassed into my neighborhood and overheard
Mr. Schoonhaven's platitudes irritated me, and I was about to snarl
something at him when I noticed Father Vitale. He was getting ready to
push himself off his chair and smack me on the back of my head. Father
Vitale knew that man was sinful from the mother's womb and that
"Nature, which the first human being harmed, is miserable," as St.
Augustine says. I faced forward and clasped my hands in front of my
plate. John Ransom had also noticed the surly old priest gathering
himself to strike, and he too clasped his hands on the table. Father
Vitale settled back down.

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