The mother opened the door but was not able to speak, not right away.
It took her a long moment to become accustomed to the idea of a town official in her home, or on the threshold of her home. Maybe the idea was gradually starting to appeal to her, to warm her sense of importance, to give her a more functional role in the community and environment she had begun to see as unchanging, but when the time came for someone to say hello, it was Kramer who stumbled forward and said hello, who kind of elbowed to the front and said hello again, breathing harder than should have been necessary for a man who had only crossed from the living room.
Kramer made a scattering of small talk, welcoming Patty, the town official, to come in and have a drink or something, or—Kramer checked his watch—why not join them in watching Palm Motel?
Kramer knew immediately that he had made a mistake. He had spoken from a desperate need to welcome, to offer something, anything. He should never have invited a town official to watch a show like Palm Motel, but really it was too late to take back the invitation.
Kramer, breaking off all eye contact, led Patty to a comfortable chair centered before the TV set. This was the chair Kramer himself usually occupied, and he told him so. Tonight it would be Patty’s chair.
Reluctantly Patty sat, crossed his legs, and announced, not quite casually, that he had another appointment at the top of the hour.
“I knew it would be like that,” Kramer said apologetically, “that you’d have other things to do, bills to sign. You’re responsible for the upkeep of this town. I don’t know what got into me.”
“We like the show a lot,” the mother offered, embarrassed that this was the only excuse she could think of.
Kramer said, “Great show, great show,” a few times under his breath, but all the enthusiasm had bled from his tone.
Nobody moved, and as the opening credits of Palm Motel were nearing conclusion, Kramer, seeking to illustrate some larger point, motioned at the screen to indicate a woman emerging from the side exit of an unmarked nightclub; she was so surprised by how aggressively the camera swooped and panned in on her that she jerked backward a little, and pressed against the wall, raised the shield of one arm, and with the other reached defensively into her purse.
Sensing, here, that Kramer was struggling to find something else to say, to conclude his story with some measure of insight, the mother jumped in to save him. She explained how that woman, the one who had just filled the screen, had been a good girl for twenty-five years, had focused only on maintaining her status as a good girl, until, one morning, instead of waking at her alarm, she slept on.
She did not hit the snooze button. The alarm kept blaring. Morning changed to night and the alarm kept on. It was a hideous noise. “They have special-effects people,” Kramer added, “who can make such noises far worse than they are in real life.”
When she finally woke, the mother continued, her eyes were red. “I mean, red-red,” the mother emphasized. “I don’t know how to explain it to you. Not without pulling the skin of my own eyes downward.”
“The special-effects people earned their money that episode,” Kramer added with a pained laugh, still too uncomfortable to regain full control of the conversation.
The woman on Palm Motel, the mother continued, had slept so long that she lost her job and friends and those who had depended on her. She outslept all of her dependents and responsibilities.
She was supposed to watch someone’s kid that night, Kramer added, and because someone less qualified watched the kid, he put some stuff in his hair that he wasn’t supposed—
“We’re still waiting to find out if it is going to be a permanent effect,” the mother explained, slightly irritated by how Kramer kept jumping in. “Anyway,” she continued, “the woman soon met someone. A man. A gentleman. A sort of town official.”
Now Patty was intrigued. He sat up straight. “There are town officials on Palm Motel?” he asked.
“Maybe,” the mother said teasingly. She was in her element now, and probably would have touched his leg if Kramer and her son were not in the room. “Anyhow,” she went on, “the woman’s eyes, at this point, are less red now, but still bad. Membraneously red, not acid red. It looks like she has been crying a lot, but the tissues grabbed were not tissues at all, but whatever coarse fabric happened to be nearest at hand. Then the gentleman approaches. The sort of town official. He is persuasive in his offer.”
“Naturally,” Patty mused. “This man has connections. He surely sets everything aright.”
Without waiting for the rest of their explanation, Patty rose and nodded curtly to the mother and Kramer, and asked if the boy would see him out.
When the boy did not move, Patty told the boy to follow him.
The boy looked questioningly at his mother. Her expression meant that he should do what men like Patty tell him to do.
On the cold walkway, beneath a post, caught in the footprint of a high-intensity lamp, Patty finally revealed the purpose of this visit. He brought up the fliers, how the boy had been putting fliers everywhere, on surfaces that the boy had no right to occupy. The town was borderline infested with fliers about the missing dog. Patty of course felt bad about his loss, being as warm-blooded as the next fellow, but he could not compromise the standards of the town based on the suffering of a sole child.
“Our conversation is finished,” Patty explained patiently to the boy, “warnings have been made, and clear ones—but you’re still here. Standing in front of me when I have an appointment to get to.”
The boy remained where he was. Stiff.
“Excuse me,” Patty said.
Now there was no doubt that he was doing this—standing where he was, stiff as a plank—intentionally. The boy had just waylaid a town official.
“Your parents should have taught you better,” Patty said. “I’m late for that appointment. Your parents should have taught you what I am empowered to do—perfectly legally—to those who stand in my way.”
The town official removed his spectacles and polished the lenses with his sleeve before he put them back on and considered the boy even more witheringly. “Do you know what it feels like to be tripped,” he asked the boy, “or to have your arm twisted behind your back?”
The boy handed Patty a picture of his dog. The boy said that Patty could produce this picture if he needed an excuse for his lateness. That was what the boy did when his teachers wondered why he wasn’t in class. He had learned not to say anything, just to automatically produce another copy of this picture and hand it to them. While Patty was scowling at the picture, the boy was fumbling with his maps; he found the map that he needed and spread it awkwardly on the easel he was trying to make with his forearms, rushing to explain what all the red ink meant, the hurriedly-inked grid that passed across most of the town, knowing he had little time before Patty stormed off. Only three areas, the boy explained, had not been properly searched: town hall, the widow’s compound, and the forest.
“I work at town hall,” Patty said.
The boy nodded a little. He was quiet but looked ready to say something that was not easy to say.
“I’ve never taken anyone’s dog in my life,” Patty said.
He assumed control of the boy’s pen and crossed out town hall with a decisive red X.
Encouraged by the town official’s involvement, the boy showed Patty another page on which calculations had been performed, and according to these calculations, the only way to guarantee that the boy found his dog was to talk with everyone and search everywhere. His calculations proved that someone, somewhere, had to know something.
Patty seized the sheet of calculations. Frowning, he traced them with a stiff index finger. But Patty could brook no further delays. He folded the sheet and the picture of the boy’s dog, pocketed them, and left so easily that it became clear the boy was never a serious obstacle. Patty had waited around so long because he had chosen to.
Next morning’s lecturer was on the latter part of her journey, as white-haired and hollow-cheeked as the custodian, but she had never had a child, not a one, she announced right away, for she had long been solely and ultimately responsible for administration of the town reservoir, which is what she came to the school to talk about, motioning at the big letters on the projected screen behind her that read: RESERVOIR. Considering her duties to the reservoir, it would have been a mistake for her to have a child of her own. It was something that she really never dwelled on, the woman said. Her duties to the reservoir left her no time for that. Nor did she hide her lack of a child from anyone, she told them, and was always the first to bring it up in conversation, because she was so comfortable not being a mother.
The stage creaked as she hopped down from it. Moving on to business, she proceeded to walk past the boy and through the classroom between desks, on each finger ticking off items that were routinely thrown into the reservoir.
“More often than you might think,” the lecturer went on, “there will be notes inside the glass bottles that I just mentioned. But the notes one puts into a glass bottle and tosses into a reservoir are very different from the notes one puts into a glass bottle and tosses into the sea. With the sea you are praying that someone will read your confession. With the reservoir you are praying nobody ever will.”
The custodian was at the classroom window now, looking around in search of the boy. When the custodian found the desk that contained the boy, his head jerked subtly. He eyed the boy with more intensity, then his head jerked subtly again. He seemed to be indicating that the boy should rise, should get up and join him in the hall. The custodian mouthed something through the glass, the words obscured by the motley droop of his mustache.
“You said,” a student said to the lecturer, consulting her notes, “that there is a higher number of microorganisms living in the reservoir than there are people living in our town.”
The lecturer nodded, and said that was correct.
“So what you are saying in effect,” the student said, “is that we are outnumbered. My question is: by how much?”
The lecturer shrugged elaborately, guessing it was probably a billion to one.
The young students looked around, hoping someone in the room could offer a hint as to how they should react to this news, if they should question her estimate—ridiculous?—or pretend like they already knew, like everyone already knew.
The custodian took advantage of this confusion to peer through the window again until the boy finally slipped into the hall to find out what the custodian wanted.
Of all the thoughts running through the custodian’s mind late at night, the one that always seemed to outlast consciousness was the thought of the boy, particularly what the boy said previously about how he would do anything to find his dog. The custodian had thought about it last night, and the night before.
It was the sort of trouble that could swallow the boy whole.
“You’ve still got a mother, don’t you?” the custodian said. “You know that some boys don’t even have one of those, right?” The boy looked at his shoes, and his eyes flickered up at the custodian, then quickly back down to his shoes. “You ever watch $50,000 Pyramid?” the custodian asked. The boy nodded, as the show was a hit with Kramer. “Then you know,” the custodian said, “how sometimes the contestants will have won $5,000, but in order to get to $10,000 they have to risk the $5,000?” The boy nodded. “And so you know,” the custodian said, “that they sometimes have $0, and to get to just $1, they have to risk a secret—something they have spent years denying, or constructing artificial walls around? And then by the end of the show some contestants have won exactly nothing, but it has cost them all their secrets?” The boy nodded. “And they just lie there on stage,” the custodian said, “no better than husks, while some other lucky son of a biscuit is dancing in confetti with his check for $50,000?”
The custodian presented the boy with a map and asked the boy if he was ready to participate in the same sort of game.