- Drummond [the first installment of what might turn into a serial]
In the snug bar of the Pynchon, Drummond was warming to his subject. His fourth brandy accelerated the process. “It’s one of those ‘back-of-beyond’ places you hear tales about at the Explorer’s Club,” he said.
“I don’t belong to the Explorer’s Club,” I said, “I’m not even sure there IS such a club anymore. Certainly not in this town. Maybe the public library?”
Drummond scowled. “I’m telling a tale here, Enderby. Give me some room, will you?”
“Tell on, old man, tell on.” I smiled. Ever since our school days at Bywater Acad, I couldn’t resist Drummond’s tall tales, nor the opportunity to poke a hole or two in them from time to time. I must admit I’ve used more than one of them as grist for my own potboilers.
Drummond waved at George behind the bar, and hoisted his snifter. George nodded and reached for another snifter and the bottle of Old Gloucester Abbey ’97. “So it was all hell-and-gone in the williwaws, past the boonies if you know what I mean.”
Blandings spoke up: “We know what you mean Drummond. This place you’re talking about was somewhere beyond Robin Hood’s Barn on the way to Hell’s Breakfast. You might want to get beyond the John Buchan-era clichés and move into your actual narrative.” He looked at his wristwatch and shook his head slowly from side to side. Kinchner and Hawkker smiled slightly at each other, then resumed studying their whiskies.
Drummond scowled an even fouler scowl. “You bastards haven’t the slightest idea what I’m talking about, have you? Not really. None of you ever been further than the park at the end of the trolley line.” He gulped the remaining two fingers in his snifter and swapped it for the fresh one George had just set down on the bar, and downed that in one go. “Ahh,” he exhaled. Then he turned briskly, though with ever so slight a wobble, toward the cloakroom and thence toward the door. In a moment had disappeared out the street door, waggling his fat walking stick like a drum major. His exit decreased the ambient mumble in the little bar.
“So,” said Blandings, “is it my imagination or is Drummond getting wackier by the minute?”
“Oh he’s harmless,” I said. “Sometimes I think there might actually be something behind his bluster.”
“Something besides brandy and lunacy?” said Blandings. “I doubt it.” Kinchner and Hawkker smiled into their whiskies again. Hawkker said something inaudible and Kinchner nodded. Blandings began nattering something about his portfolio or about Malvolio, I couldn’t really tell, as the thrum and dirge of a dozen other conversations in the bar overtook me, along with my third whisky which I was carefully nursing. Soon (I think) I looked up in response to a sharp “Enderby! Are you with us man?” from Blandings, who somehow had managed to get into his coat without me noticing. Hawkker and Kinchner were standing slightly behind him, just off his left shoulder, also in their coats and hats, smiling expectantly at me.
“What? Oh, sorry I was lost in thought, I suppose. No, go on without me, I don’t think I’m ready for anything but home and bed; been a long day.”
Blandings snorted slightly; Hawkker and Kinchner raised their hats in unison and the three of them trooped out in a sort of close order drill, headed for god knows where. I finished my whisky and put the glass on the bar and made the “put it on my bill” sign to George, who nodded and gave me the “good night” sign. In a few seconds I was out the door and trudging up Essex Street parallel to the River, my thoughts wandering to the back of beyond, wondering what Drummond’s story might have been about.
I turned up Federal away from the River, grateful that it was only another two blocks to home. It had in fact been a long day, in a long series of long days. I felt myself slowing down as I trudged up the slope of Federal. Then as I passed the alleyway just before the intersection of Spring Street, I heard a low moaning sound, very faintly. I wondered if I might be imagining it; I stopped in my tracks and listened. I heard it again. I turned 180 degrees and moved back toward the mouth of the alley, stopped and listened. The moan repeated. I poked my head into the little space between the houses that formed the entrance to the alley.
“Hello?” I said. “anyone here? Are you alright?”
“Enderby?” It was Drummond’s voice, plain but very weak. I stepped into the alley and nearly tripped over him. He was sprawled out across the pavement, face down. “Good Lord!” I said involuntarily as I reached down to get hold of him.
“Drummond, what on earth happened? Are you alright?” He took my arm and sat upright, unsteady and puffing from the effort. As I helped him to his feet, my own balance was nearly destroyed by his stick, as it rolled out from under him. In my haste to attend to Drummond, I let it roll to the edge of the alley and out of my consciousness.
“Are they gone?” he said.
“Who? Are who gone? There’s no one here.” I put my arms under his and lifted, and he was soon on his feet. We shuffled out of the alley and onto the sidewalk of Federal; as we entered the cone of the streetlamp’s light, I could see that Drummond’s face was much the worse for wear and not just from the brandies he’d consumed at the Pynchon Bar. He was bruised and bloodied, his coat was torn, his hat bashed. He’d been significantly bested in some sort of scuffle.
“Drummond, what happened? Who beat you up?”
“Beat me up? Don’t be ridiculous;” he belched, “was a little tipsy, fell down, that’s all.”
“Then why were you asking me if ‘they’ were gone?”
“Confused is all. Well thanks for dusting me off Old Man. I can navigate from here.” And he headed off up the street in a semi-stagger, in the same direction as I’d been headed, so I followed along at a few paces distance. When we reached his door, just beyond the intersection with State Street, he stumbled up the stairs and fumbled briefly with his key in the lock, and without so much as a wave or a nod of thanks or other acknowledgement, he was out of my sight, safe in his own home. I walked the remaining couple hundred yards to my own door and closed out my evening as well.
I spent the next three days prowling among some little towns in Vermont, along the border, researching an article for Dark Journeys. The editor there had picked up a cockamamie notion about a tribe of sorcerers or something, hiding in the woods between the upper Connecticut and Sherbrooke. I poked in local libraries, read god-knows-how-many back numbers of The Island Pond Gazette, visited a dozen little roadside graveyards, and came up with essentially nothing. Which meant that I’d have to hand the editor a piece of complete fiction, not for the first time. I took the train back south, eager to settle myself around a glass at the Pynchon.