The whole idea behind my "punishment" at the hands of George R. R. Martin for losing our NFL wager is to give exposure to authors who don't necessarily get as much publicity as they should. And since I really enjoyed Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place, the folks at Tachyon Publications were kind enough to provide this excerpt from Beagle's latest, the collection of short stories titled We Never Talk About My Brother (Canada, USA, Europe).
I used to watch him on the TV, my brother Esau, telling us what’s really doing in Afghanistan, in Somalia, in France, in D.C., and I’d look at his eyes, and I’d wonder if he ever even thought about poor nasty Donnie Schmidt. And I’d wonder how he found out he could do it, how’d he discover his talent, his knack, whatever you want to call it. I mean, how does a little boy, schoolyard-age boy - how does he deal with a thing like that? How does he even practice it, predicting something he wants to happen - and then, like that, it’s true, and it’s always been true, it’s just a plain fact, like gravity or something, with nobody knowing any better for sure but me? Town like this, there’s not a lot of people you can talk to about that kind of thing. Must of made him feel even more alone, you know?
The visit. Whoo. Yeah, well - all right. All right.
It wasn’t hardly a real visit, first off. See, he’d already been the anchorman on that big news program for at least ten, twelve years when they got the notion to do a show on his return to the old home town. So they sent a whole crowd along with him - a camera crew, and a couple of producers, the way they do, and there was a writer, and some publicity people, and some other folks I can’t recall. Anyway, I’ll tell you, it was for sure the biggest thing to hit this place since Ruth and Gehrig barnstormed through here back in the Twenties. They were here a whole week, that gang, and they spent a lot of money, and made all the businesses happy. Can’t beat that with a stick, can you?
And Esau walked through it all like a king - just like a king, no other word for it. They filmed him greeting old friends, talking with his old teachers, stopping in at all his old hangouts, even reading to kids at the library. Mind you, I don’t remember him ever having any hangouts, and the teachers didn’t seem to remember him much at all. As for the old friends. . .look, if Esau had any friends when we were all kids, I swear I don’t recall them. I mean, there they were in this documentary thing, shaking his hand, slapping his back, having a beer with him in Henry’s - been there fifty, sixty years, that place - but I’d never seen any of them with him as a kid, ’ceptin maybe a few of them were pounding on him, back before Donnie. Thing is, I don’t imagine Esau was trying very hard to get the details right. Wouldn’t have hardly thought we was worth the trouble. Willa thought she recognized one or two, and remembered this and that, but even she wasn’t sure.
Oh, yeah, her and me, we were both in it. They paid for Willa to come from Florida - flew little Ben and Carol-Ann, too, but not her husband Jerry, cause they just wanted to show Esau being an uncle. They’d have put her and the kids up at the Laurel Inn with the crew, but she wanted to stay here at the old house, which was fine with me. Don’t get to be around children much.
We didn’t see much of Esau even after Willa got here, but a day or two before they wrapped up the film, he dropped over to the house for dinner, which meant that the whole crew dropped over too. We were the only ones eating, and it was the strangest meal I’ve ever had in my life, what with all those electricians setting up lights, and the sound people running cables every which way, and a director, for God’s sake, a director telling us when to start eating - they sent out to Horshach’s for prime rib - and where to look when the camera was on us, and what Willa should say to the kids when they asked for seconds. Carol-Ann got so nervous, she actually threw up her creamed corn. And Willa got so mad at the lighting guy, because Ben’s got eye trouble, and the lights were so bright and hot. . . well, it was a real mess, that’s all. Just a real mess.
But Esau, he just sat through it all like it was just another broadcast, which I guess to him it was. Never got upset about all the retakes - lord, that dinner must have taken three hours, one thing another - never looked sweaty or tired, always found something new and funny to say to the camera when it started rolling again. But that’s who he was talking to, all through that show - not us, for sure. He never once looked straight at any of us, Willa or the kids or me, if the camera wasn’t on him.
He was a stranger in this house, the house where we’d all grown up - more of a stranger than all those cameramen, those producers. He could just as well have been from another country, where everybody’s great-looking, but they don’t speak any language you ever heard of. With all the craziness and confusion, the lights and the reflectors, and the microphones swinging around on pole-things, I probably studied on my brother longer and harder than I’d ever done in my life before. There at that table, having that fake dinner, I studied on him, and I thought a few new things.
See, I couldn’t believe it was just Esau. What I could believe is there’s no such thing as history, not the way they teach it to you in school. Wars, revolutions, all those big inventions, all those big discoveries. . .if there’s been a bunch of people like Esau right through time - or even a few, a handful - then the history books don’t signify, you understand what I’m saying? Then it’s all just been what any one of them wanted, decided on, right at this moment or that, and no great, you know, patterns to the way things happen. Just Esau, and whatever Others, and you got run over. Like that. That’s what I came to think.
And I know I’m right. Because Susie Harkin was in that film.
Yeah, yeah, I know what I told you about the plane crash, the rest of it, I’m telling you this now. She walked in by herself, bright as you please, just before they finally got around to putting real food on the table, and sat right down across from Esau, between me and little Ben. The TV people looked at the director for orders, and I guess he figured she was family, no point fussing about it, and let her stay. He was too busy yelling at the crew about the lights, anyway.
Esau was good. I am here to tell you, Esau was good. There was just that one moment when he saw her. . .and even then, you might have had to be me or Willa, and watching close, before you noticed the twist of blank panic in his eyes. After that he never looked straight at her, and he sure never said her name, but you couldn’t have told one thing from his expression. Susie didn’t waste no time on him, neither; she was busy helping little Ben with his food, cutting his meat up small for him, and making faces to make him laugh. Ma had said "Esau makes people into ghosts," but I don’t guess you’d find a ghost cutting up a boy’s prime rib for him, do you? Not any kind of ghost I ever heard about.
When she’d finished helping Ben, she looked right up at me, and she winked.
As long as she’d been gone, Susie Harkin didn’t look a day different. I don’t suppose you’d ever have called her a beauty, best day she ever saw. Face too thin, forehead a shade low, nose maybe a bit beaky - but she had real nice brown eyes, and when she smiled you didn’t see a thing but that smile. I’d liked her a good bit when she was going out with Esau, and I was real sorry when she died in that plane crash. So was Willa. And now here Susie was again, sitting at our old dinner table with all these people around, winking at me like the two of us had a secret together. And we did, because I knew she’d been dead, and now she wasn’t, and she knew I knew, and she knew why I knew besides. So, yeah, you could say we had our secret.
Esau didn’t do much more looking at me during the dinner than he did at Susie, but that was the one time he did. I saw him when I turned to say something to Willa. It wasn’t any special kind of a look he gave me, not in particular; it was maybe more like the first time I really looked at him, when he did what he did to Donnie Schmidt. As though he hadn’t ever seen me either, until that glance, that wink, passed between Susie Harkin and me.
Anyway, by and by the little ones fell asleep, and Willa took them off to bed, and the crew packed up and went back to the Laurel Inn, and Susie right away vanished into the kitchen with all the dirty dishes - "No, I insist, you boys just stay and talk." You don’t hear women say that much anymore.
So there we were, me and Esau, everything gotten quiet now - always more quiet after a lot of noise, you notice? - and him still not really looking at me, and me too tired and fussed and befuddled not to come straight at him. But the first thing I asked was about as dumb as it could be. "Squirrels still chasing you?"
Whatever he was or wasn’t expecting from me, that sure as hell wasn’t it. He practically laughed, or maybe it was more like he grunted in a laugh sort of way, and he said, "Not so much these days." Close to, he looked exactly like he looked on the TV - exactly, right down to the one curl off to the left on his forehead, and the inlaid belt buckle, and that steepling thing he did with his fingers. Really was like talking to the screen.
"Susie’s looking fine, don’t you think?" I asked him. "I mean, for having been dead and all."
Oh, that reached him. That got his attention. He looked at me then, all right, and he answered, real slow and cold and careful, "I don’t know what you’re talking about. What are you talking about?"
"Come on, Esau," I said. "Tomorrow I might wake up remembering mostly whatever you want me to remember, the way you do people, but right now, tonight, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to sit here and talk to me -"
"Or what?" Those two words cracked out of him just like a whip does - there’s the forward throw, almost gentle, like you’re fly-fishing, and then the way you bring it back, that’s what makes that sound. He didn’t say anything more, but the color had drained right out of his eyes, same way it happened with Donnie Schmidt. Didn’t look much like the TV now.
I asked him, "You planning to make me a ghost too? Kill me off in a plane crash a few weeks ago? I ought to tell you, I hate flying, and everybody knows it, so you might want to try something different. Me, I always wanted to get shot by a jealous husband at ninety-five or so, but it’s your business, I wouldn’t presume." I don’t know, something just took me over and I didn’t care what I said right then.