Read The Town Online

Authors: Bentley Little

The Town (5 page)

BOOK: The Town
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“Are you married?” he asked.
Paul nodded.
“Anyone I know?”
Gregory was shocked. “Deanna Exley?”
“She lost a lot of weight her last two years of high school,” Paul said defensively.
Gregory laughed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.” “That’s okay.” Paul grinned wryly. “What’s my life for if not to serve as the butt of jokes for my buddies?”
“Just like old times.” Gregory looked around. “So where is she?”
“Visiting her mom in Phoenix. Me and the old broad don’t exactly get along, so I drop Deanna off, she stays a week or so, then I go back and pick her up. Everyone’s happy.”
“I can’t believe it.” Gregory shook his head. “Deanna.”
“So what brings you back here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Getting back to your roots, huh?”
He smiled. “Yeah. I guess.”
“There aren’t a lot of jobs around,” Paul warned. “It’s gonna be tough finding work.”
“I’m okay.”
The other man’s eyebrows shot up. “Don’t tell me you’re independently wealthy?”
“I won the California lottery.”
“No shit?”
Gregory laughed. “It’s not quite as exciting as it sounds. There were three winners, and it’s paid off over twenty years, so I only get, like, eighty thousand a year.”
“Eighty thousand a year? I’ve never cleared that in my life.”
Gregory felt suddenly embarrassed. “Well, it’s not that much in California. The standard of living’s quite a bit higher there, and . . .” He trailed off, not sure what to say.
“Well, it’s quite a bit back here. You’re going to be one of our most important and respectable citizens.”
“I’d rather not broadcast it,” Gregory said.
“Wise decision.” Paul whistled. “The lottery. Eighty thousand a year.”
Gregory cleared his throat. “So, what are you doing these days?”
“I own Mocha Joe’s.” He pointed up the street to a small café sandwiched between a beauty parlor and a pharmacy in a block of connected buildings. “We serve bagels, cappuccino, that kind of thing.”
Gregory shook his head, smiling. “A coffeehouse? I thought I’d left all that back in California.” He looked quickly at his old friend. “No offense.”
Paul chuckled. “None taken.” He smiled ruefully. “There’s a lot of them out there, huh?”
“On every damn corner.”
“I’m the only one in McGuane, and I still can’t make a living.”
Gregory looked up the street, toward the restaurant. All of the sidewalk tables were filled, and there was a line of people standing outside the door. “Looks like you’re doing all right.”
“Yeah. This weekend. But I can’t live for a whole year off the profits of three days. The rest of the year this place is dead. McGuane is not exactly a mocha java town, if you know what I mean.”
Gregory laughed. “I do know what you mean.”
They talked for a few minutes more, then Gregory said he’d better catch up to his wife.
“I’m in the phone book,” Paul said. “Call me.”
“I will,” Gregory promised. “Nice to see you again.”
Adam and Teo came running up. Sasha following them slowly and coolly, and Gregory introduced them to his old friend.
Adam gave Paul a cursory nod hello before turning back toward Gregory. “It wasn’t even scary!” he said. “It sucked!”
“It was a little scary,” Teo amended, although Gregory could tell she’d thought it was much more than that.
“The stunt show’s going to start in twenty minutes,” Adam announced. “We have to go now if we’re going to get a good seat.”
“Let’s find Mom first.” Gregory waved good-bye to Paul and led the kids through the crowd. They found Julia at the Molokan booth, and here were even more faces that he recognized, but he did not feel like talking to anybody, and he used Adam’s Wild West Show as an excuse to drag Julia away from the Molokans and across the park to the grandstands.
Finished, Julia turned off the vacuum cleaner, started wrapping up the cord. They’d been here for more than two weeks, almost unpacked for the past three days, and by now they were pretty familiar with the house, with its boundaries and dimensions and idiosyncrasies, but it seemed . . . different now than it had been when she and Gregory had gone through it with the real estate agent. Less hospitable. It was always dark, and while no one else appeared to notice that fact, she almost certainly did. She knew the reason: the house lay at the bottom of a steep outcropping of hill, which protected it from the morning sun, and there were two few windows facing west, making it gloomy even in the afternoon. She even understood why the house had been built this way: it was old, constructed before the advent of air-conditioning, and its owners had attempted to shield it from the desert sun as much as possible. But the end result was that their new home seemed odd and uncomfortable to her.
It was a child’s word, and she didn’t know why she’d thought of it, but it described perfectly the atmosphere of this house. She had not been alone much the past couple of weeks, but the few times she had, she’d found herself listening for noises, peeking carefully around corners, being startled by shadows. There was an air of unease about their new home that seemed almost tangible to her, although it was apparently imperceptible to everyone else.
She wheeled the vacuum cleaner back to the hall closet. Of course, it was probably nothing, probably just stress. It was a shock to her system, moving from metropolitan Southern California to rural Arizona, and she was having a difficult time adjusting and this was just the way it was coming out.
But she was already wondering if they’d made a big mistake coming here—and that was not a good way to start a new life.
Julia went to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of sun tea from the pitcher in the refrigerator. With the vacuum off, the house was silent, and she popped a Rippingtons tape into the cassette player on the counter just to hear some noise. Sasha was upstairs in her room, brooding as usual, feeling sorry for herself, and Gregory’s mother was in her room, taking a short nap. Gregory had taken Adam and Teo to check out the video store and see if they could find something to watch tonight. Their cable was still not hooked up, and antenna reception here was little more than wishful thinking. She’d always been one of those parents who decried the evils of television, but the fact was, now that they were deprived of TV, the kids weren’t spending their time any more wisely. If anything, they were engaged in even more frivolous pursuits: Teo dressing and undressing and redressing her Barbie dolls; Adam reading superhero comic books; Sasha lying on her bed listening to the same bad rap songs over and over again. None of their children, she realized, ever read the newspaper, and with no television, what little exposure to current events they had was cut off.
She’d be glad when the cable was connected.
She walked back out to the living room. Her mother-in-law’s crocheting project—a granny-square afghan—was lying over an arm of the couch, trailing onto the floor. Several skeins of yarn were piled on the coffee table.
As much as she hated to admit it, Gregory’s mother was starting to get on her nerves. The old woman had already chided Julia for shopping at the Copper City Market when the Fresh Buy grocery store had a Russian butcher, and she’d insisted that Gregory buy gas for the van at Mohov’s—even though it was five cents higher there than anywhere else—because the station was owned by a Russian.
“The Molokan Mafia,” Gregory called it, and while Julia had always thought the idea rather humorous, she understood now why Gregory had never laughed. It was a particularly annoying form of cultural myopia, a prejudice that actually affected day-to-day life rather than merely an abstract belief with no real-world applications. Her own parents had been Molokan, but they hadn’t been quite as strict, hadn’t tried to so thoroughly purge all American influences from their lives, hadn’t so circumscribed the borders of their existence that they lived in a completely Russian world.
But her parents had been born and raised in L.A. Gregory’s family came from a more insular community, and their fear of the outside culture was greater. There was also a certain element of racism, a sense of superiority. Russians were better than Outsiders, and somehow businessmen and merchants who were of the same religion were regarded as more trustworthy.
Gregory had tried to explain to his mother that gasoline was not more holy because it was dispensed by a Molokan, and that the free-market principles that applied to every other aspect of life still applied here. “I buy gas wherever it’s cheapest,” he said. “If Mohov is cheapest, I’ll buy from him.”
His mother hadn’t liked that, and her face had registered her harsh disapproval. She’d been uncooperative ever since, polite but obviously angry, and the atmosphere at home had been tense.
Julia sighed. She and Gregory had made a conscious decision to try and get along with his mother, to give in if need be during arguments, to put aside disagreements and differences with her in order to maintain harmony in the household, and Julia had not expected there to be a problem. She had always gotten along fine with her mother-in-law, and she’d actually looked forward to having another female voice of authority in the house. But seeing someone on weekends and talking occasionally on the phone, she discovered, was quite a bit different than living together twenty-four hours a day.
Of course, some problems were to be expected. They were all feeling their way, trying to determine the parameters of their new lifestyle and subsequently changed relationships, and it would be a while before all the kinks were worked out.
She herself felt somewhat lost, at loose ends, and while she had originally told Gregory after quitting her job at the Downey Public Library that she would like to write a children’s book, she seemed to be completely unable to translate that dream into reality, to take the concrete steps necessary to accomplish the goal. At this point she was not even sure if that really
what she wanted to do.
This was all turning out to be a lot harder than she’d thought it would be.
Maybe she should volunteer at the McGuane library. Or at the elementary school, once summer ended.
The phone rang, and she answered it immediately. It was Debbie, and Julia found herself smiling as she heard her friend’s familiar voice. “Jules!”
She was so grateful to have someone from the real world to talk to and Julia suddenly realized how much she regretted moving to Arizona.
Debbie was going to see a sneak preview of a new Steven Spielberg movie that night. She’d been walking through Lakewood Mall on Saturday, had answered a few questions from a canvasser, had obviously fit the desired demographic profile, and had been given two free tickets to an unnamed sneak. When she’d called the phone number to confirm, she’d been told that it was Spielberg’s new film.
“I wish you were here,” she said. “I don’t have anyone to go with. John refuses to come with me. I’m going to have to forfeit the other ticket.”
“I wish I was there, too,” Julia said.
They talked for another fifteen or twenty minutes before Debbie said she had to go and pick up Therese from kindergarten.
Julia hung up reluctantly. The house seemed even darker after she finished talking to her friend, and though both Gregory’s mother and Sasha were in their bedrooms, the house felt deserted. A lone shaft of faded sunlight fell on the half-finished afghan, and for some reason the sight made the skin prickle on her arms.
Outside, she thought she saw a small shadow dart past the front window. Teo, probably. Gregory and the kids must be home. Grateful that the others had returned, she walked to the window and looked out, but the drive was still empty and there was no sign of the van out on the street.
In the kitchen, the Rippingtons tape was playing, but the house still seemed far too quiet, and she considered going upstairs and waking Sasha to tell her that she had to help with some of the housework, had to help clean up.
She didn’t want to be alone.
Stupid. She was being stupid again. The unease she felt had nothing to do with the house itself; it was just a by-product of culture shock, a perfectly ordinary psychological response. There was nothing scary here, nothing frightening, nothing out of the ordinary.
But she could not assuage her fears with logic. They were feelings more than thoughts, not subject to the arguments of rationality, and she wished that her mother-in-law would wake up or that Sasha would come downstairs.
She thought of that small shadow passing by the window.
Jedushka Di Muvedushka.
As embarrassed as she was to admit it, her mother-in-law’s consternation over not inviting the Owner of the House had also affected her. It was ignorant, Julia knew, and she shouldn’t let herself get sucked back up into that sort of superstitious claptrap, but as logical and modern and freethinking as she tried to be, somewhere deep within her she still retained a seed of belief. She wasn’t that familiar with this particular legend, but she knew that Jedushka Di Muvedushka was supposed to protect them. He was the guardian of the family against whatever supernatural entities might want to infiltrate and interfere with their lives.
Gregory’s mother had been visibly upset ever since she’d discovered they had not invited the Owner of the House, and that might also account for some of her irritability. Ever since they’d come to McGuane, she’d been praying and discussing God even more than usual, and while she no doubt found such talk reassuring, to Julia it was annoying and slightly disconcerting. All this emphasis on the unseen world, on the supernatural, the religious, made her uncomfortable. It also kept such thoughts in the forefront of her mind, and, as ludicrous as it might be, she had to admit that she would be feeling better if they
invited the Owner of the House, if they had some built-in protection against ghosts and demons and . . . whatever was out there.
BOOK: The Town
12.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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