f we play-fight different sides?"
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This book is for some of the people who built my house: Mary Shelley Bram Stoker H. P. Lovecraft Clark Ashton Smith Donald Wandrei Fritz Leiber August Derleth Shirley Jackson Robert Bloch Peter Straub And ARTHUR MACHEN, whose short novel The Great God Pan has haunted me all my life.
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons, even death may die.
--H. P. Lovecraft
Fifth Business. Skull Mountain. Peaceable Lake.
In one way, at least, our lives really are like movies. The main cast consists of your family and friends. The supporting cast is made up of neighbors, co-workers, teachers, and daily acquaintances. There are also bit players: the supermarket checkout girl with the pretty smile, the friendly bartender at the local watering hole, the guys you work out with at the gym three days a week. And there are thousands of extras--those people who flow through every life like water through a sieve, seen once and never again. The teenager browsing graphic novels at Barnes & Noble, the one you had to slip past (murmuring "Excuse me") in order to get to the magazines. The woman in the next lane at a stoplight, taking a moment to freshen her lipstick. The mother wiping ice cream off her toddler's face in a roadside restaurant where you stopped for a quick bite. The vendor who sold you a bag of peanuts at a baseball game.
But sometimes a person who fits none of these categories comes into your life. This is the joker who pops out of the deck at odd intervals over the years, often during a moment of crisis. In the movies this sort of character is known as the fifth business, or the change agent. When he turns up in a film, you know he's there because the screenwriter put him there. But who is screenwriting our lives? Fate or coincidence? I want to believe it's the latter. I want that with all my heart and soul. When I think of Charles Jacobs--my fifth business, my change agent, my nemesis--I can't bear to believe his presence in my life had anything to do with fate. It would mean that all these terrible things--these horrors--were meant to happen. If that is so, then there is no such thing as light, and our belief in it is a foolish illusion. If that is so, we live in darkness like animals in a burrow, or ants deep in their hill.
And not alone.
Claire gave me an army for my sixth birthday, and on a Saturday in October of 1962 I was gearing up for a major battle.
I came from a big family--four boys, one girl--and as the youngest I always got lots of presents. Claire always gave the best ones. I don't know if it was because she was the eldest, because she was the only girl, or both. But of all the awesome presents she gave me over the years, that army was by far the best. There were two hundred green plastic soldiers, some with rifles, some with machine guns, a dozen welded to tubelike gadgets she said were mortars. There were also eight trucks and twelve jeeps. Perhaps the coolest thing about the army was the box it came in, a cardboard footlocker in camouflage shades of green and brown, with PROPERTY OF U.S. ARMY stenciled on the front. Below this, Claire had added her own stenciling: JAMIE MORTON, COMMANDER.
That was me.
"I saw an ad for them in the back of one of Terry's comic books," she said when I was done screaming with delight. "He didn't want me to cut it out because he's a booger--"
"That's right," Terry said. He was eight. "I'm a big brother booger." He made a fork with his first two fingers and plugged his nostrils with them.
"Stop it," our mother said. "No sibling rivalry on birthdays, please and thank you. Terry, take your fingers out of your nose."
"Anyway," Claire said, "I copied the coupon and sent it in. I was afraid it might not come in time, but it did. I'm glad you like it." And she kissed me on the temple. She always kissed me there. All these years later, I can still feel those soft kisses.
"I love it!" I said, holding the footlocker against my chest. "I'll love it forever!"
This was after breakfast, which had been blueberry pancakes and bacon, my favorite. We all got our favorite meals on our birthdays, and the presents always came after breakfast, there in the kitchen with its woodstove and long table and our hulk of a washing machine, which was always breaking down.
"Forever for Jamie is, like, five days," Con said. He was ten, slender (although he bulked up later), and of a scientific bent, even then.
"Nice one, Conrad," our father said. He was dressed for work in a clean coverall with his name--RICHARD--stitched in gold thread on the left breast pocket. On the right breast it said MORTON FUEL OIL. "I'm impressed."
"Your silver tongue wins you the opportunity to help your mother clean up breakfast."
"It's Andy's turn!"
"It was Andy's turn," Dad said, pouring syrup on the last pancake. "Grab a dishtowel, Silver Tongue. And try not to break anything."
"You spoil him rotten," Con said, but he grabbed a dishtowel.
Connie wasn't entirely wrong about my concept of forever. Five days later, the Operation game Andy gave me was gathering dust bunnies under my bed (some of the body parts were missing, anyway; Andy got it at the Eureka Grange rummage sale for a quarter). So were the jigsaw puzzles Terry gave me. Con himself gave me a ViewMaster, and that lasted a little longer, but it eventually wound up in my closet, never to be seen again.
From Mom and Dad I got clothes, because my birthday falls near the end of August, and that year I was going into first grade. I found new pants and shirts about as exciting as a TV test pattern, but tried to say thanks with enthusiasm. I imagine they saw through that with no trouble; false enthusiasm does not come easily to six-year-olds . . . although, sad to say, it's a skill most of us learn fairly rapidly. In any case, the clothes were washed in the hulk, hung on the clothesline in the side yard, and finally folded away in my bureau drawers. Where, it's probably needless to add, they were out of sight and mind until September came and it was time to put them on. I remember there was a sweater that was actually pretty cool--it was brown with yellow stripes. When I wore it I pretended I was a superhero called the Human Wasp: evildoers, beware my sting!
But Con was wrong about the footlocker with the army inside. I played with those guys day in and day out, usually at the edge of the front yard, where there was a dirt strip between our lawn and Methodist Road, which was itself dirt in those days. With the exception of Route 9 and the two-lane leading to Goat Mountain, where there was a resort for rich people, all the roads in Harlow were dirt back then. I can remember my mother on several occasions weeping about all the dust that got into the house on dry summer days.
Billy Paquette and Al Knowles--my two best friends--played army with me on many afternoons, but on the day Charles Jacobs appeared in my life for the first time, I was on my own. I don't remember why Billy and Al weren't with me, but I do remember I was happy to be by myself for a change. For one thing, there was no need to split the army into three divisions. For another--this was more important--I didn't have to argue with them about whose turn it was to win. In truth, it seemed unfair to me that I should ever have to lose, because they were my soldiers and it was my footlocker.
When I advanced this idea to my mother one hot late-summer day shortly after my birthday, she took me by the shoulders and looked into my eyes, a sure sign that I was about to receive another Lesson in Life. "That it's-mine business is half the trouble with the world, Jamie. When you play with your friends, the soldiers belong to all of you."
"Even if. When Billy and Al go home for their dinner and you pack the soldiers back into the box--"
"It's a footlocker!"
"Right, the footlocker. When you pack them away, they're yours again. People have many ways to be lousy to one another, as you'll find out when you're older, but I think that all bad behavior stems from plain old selfishness. Promise me you'll never be selfish, kiddo."
I promised, but I still didn't like it when Billy and Al won.
On that day in October of 1962, with the fate of the world dangling by a thread over a small tropical spit of land called Cuba, I was fighting both sides of the battle, which meant I was bound to come out on top. The town grader had been by earlier on Methodist Road ("Moving the rocks around," my dad always grumbled), and there was plenty of loose dirt. I scraped enough together to make first a hill, then a big hill, and then a very big hill, one that came up almost to my knees. At first I thought of calling it Goat Mountain, but that seemed both unoriginal (the real Goat Mountain was only twelve miles away, after all) and boring. After consideration, I decided to call it Skull Mountain. I even tried to poke a couple of eye-like caves in it with my fingers, but the dirt was dry and the holes kept caving in.
"Oh, well," I told the plastic soldiers tumbled in their footlocker. "The world is hard and you can't have everything." This was one of my father's favorite sayings, and with five kids to support, I'm sure he had reason to believe it. "They'll be pretend caves."
I put half of my army on top of Skull Mountain, where they made a formidable crew. I especially liked the way the mortar guys looked up there. These were the Krauts. The American army I arranged at the edge of the lawn. They got all the jeeps and trucks, because they would look so groovy charging up the steep slope of the mountain. Some would turn over, I was sure, but at least a few of them would make it to the top. And run over the mortar guys, who would scream for mercy. They wouldn't get it.
"To the death," I said, setting up the last few of the heroic Americans. "Hitsmer, you are next!"
I was starting them forward, rank by rank--and making comic-book-style machine-gun noises--when a shadow fell over the battlefield. I looked up and saw a guy standing there. He was blocking the afternoon sun, a silhouette surrounded by golden light--a human eclipse.
There was stuff going on; at our house on Saturday afternoons, there always was. Andy and Con were in our long backyard, playing three-flies-six-grounders with a bunch of their friends, shouting and laughing. Claire was up in her room with a couple of her friends, playing records on her Imperial Party-Time turntable: "The Loco-Motion," "Soldier Boy," "Palisades Park." There was hammering from the garage, too, as Terry and our dad worked on the old '51 Ford Dad called the Road Rocket. Or the Project. Once I heard him call it a piece of shit, a phrase I treasured then and still use now. When you want to feel better, call something a piece of shit. It usually works.
Plenty going on, but at that moment everything seemed to fall still. I know it's only the sort of illusion caused by a faulty memory (not to mention a suitcase loaded with dark associations), but the recollection is very strong. All of a sudden there were no kids yelling in the backyard, no records playing upstairs, no banging from the garage. Not a single bird singing.
Then the man bent down and the westering sun glared over his shoulder, momentarily blinding me. I raised a hand to shield my eyes.
"Sorry, sorry," he said, and moved enough so I could look at him without also having to look into the sun. On top he was wearing a black for-church jacket and a black shirt with a notched collar; on the bottom blue jeans and scuffed loafers. It was like he wanted to be two different people at the same time. At the age of six, I put adults into three categories: young grownups, grownups, and old people. This guy was a young grownup. He had his hands on his knees so he could look at the opposing armies.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Charles Jacobs." The name was vaguely familiar. He stuck out his hand. I shook it right away, because even at six, I had my manners. All of us did. Mom and Dad saw to that.
"Why are you wearing that collar with the hole in it?"
"Because I'm a minister. When you go to church on Sundays from now on, I'll be there. And if you go to Thursday-night MYF, I'll be there, too."
"Mr. Latoure used to be our minister," I said, "but he died."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"It's okay, though, because Mom said he didn't suffer, only went straight to heaven. He didn't wear a collar like that, though."
"Because Bill Latoure was a lay preacher. That means he was sort of a volunteer. He kept the church open when there was no one else to do it. That was very good of him."
"I think my dad knows about you," I said. "He's one of the deacons in the church. He gets to take up the collection. He has to take turns with the other deacons, though."
"Sharing is good," Jacobs said, and got down on his knees beside me.
"Are you going to pray?" The idea was sort of alarming. Praying was for church and Methodist Youth Fellowship, which my brothers and sister called Thursday Night School. When Mr. Jacobs started it up again, this would be my first year, just like it was my first year at regular school. "If you want to talk with my dad, he's in the garage with Terry. They're putting a new clutch in the Road Rocket. Well, my dad is. Terry mostly hands him the tools and watches. He's eight. I'm six. I think my mom might be on the back porch, watching some guys play three-flies-six-grounders."
"Which we used to call rollie-bat when I was a kid," he said, and smiled. It was a nice smile. I liked him right away.
"Uh-huh, because you had to hit the bat with the ball after you caught it. What's your name, son?"
"Jamie Morton. I'm six."
"So you said."
"I don't think anyone ever prayed in our front yard."
"I'm not going to, either. What I want is a closer look at your armies. Which are the Russians and which are the Americans?"
"Well, these ones on the ground are Americans, sure, but the ones on Skull Mountain are Krauts. The Americans have to take the mountain."
"Because it's in the way," Jacobs said. "Beyond Skull Mountain lies the road to Germany."
"That's right! And the head Kraut! Hitsmer!"
"The author of so many evils," he said.
"Nothing. Do you mind if I just call the bad guys Germans? 'Krauts' seems kind of mean."
"No, that's great, Krauts are Germans, and Germans are Krauts. My dad was in the war. Just the last year, though. He fixed trucks in Texas. Were you in the war, Mr. Jacobs?"
"No, I was too young. For Korea, too. How are the Americans going to take that hill, General Morton?"
"Charge it!" I shouted. "Shoot their machine guns! Pow! Budda-budda-budda!" Then, going down way low in my throat: "Takka-takka-takka!"
"A direct attack on the high ground sounds risky, General. If I were you I'd split your troops . . . like so . . ." He moved half of the Americans to the left and half to the right. "That creates a pincers movement, see?" He brought his thumb and forefinger together. "Drive on the objective from both sides."
"Maybe," I said. I liked the idea of a head-on attack--lots of bloody action--but Mr. Jacobs's idea appealed to me, just the same. It was sneaky. Sneaky could be satisfying. "I tried to make some caves, but the dirt's too dry."
"So I see." He poked a finger into Skull Mountain and watched the dirt crumble and bury the hole. He stood up and brushed the knees of his jeans. "I've got a little boy who'd probably get a kick out of your soldiers in another year or two."
"He can play right now, if he wants to." I was trying not to be selfish. "Where is he?"
"Still in Boston, with his mother. There's lots of stuff to pack up. They'll be here Wednesday, I think. Thursday at the latest. But Morrie's still a little young for soldiers. He'd only pick them up and throw them around."
"How old is he?"
sp; "Just two."
"I bet he still pees his pants!" I yelled, and started laughing. It probably wasn't polite, but I couldn't help it. Kids peeing their pants was just so funny.
"He does, at that," Jacobs said, smiling, "but I'm sure he'll grow out of it. Your father's in the garage, you say?"
"Yeah." Now I remembered where I had heard the man's name before--Mom and Dad at the supper table, talking about the new minister that was coming from Boston. Isn't he awfully young? my mother had asked. Yes, and his salary will reflect that, my dad replied, and grinned. They talked about him some more, I think, but I didn't pay any attention. Andy was hogging the mashed potatoes. He always did.
"You try that enfilading maneuver," he said, starting away.
"Pincers," he said, tweezing his thumb and finger together again.
"Oh. Yeah. Great."
I tried it. It worked pretty good. The Krauts all died. The battle wasn't what I'd call spectacular, though, so I tried the frontal assault, with trucks and jeeps tumbling off the steep slope of Skull Mountain, plus Krauts tumbling off the back with deathcries of despair: "Yaaaahhh!"
Mom, Dad, and Mr. Jacobs sat on the front porch while the battle raged, drinking iced tea and talking about churchy things--in addition to my dad being a deacon, my mom was in the Ladies Auxiliary. Not the boss of it, but the next-to-boss. You should have seen all the fancy hats she had in those days. There must have been a dozen. We were happy then.
Mom called my brothers and sister, along with their friends, to meet the new minister. I started to come, too, but Mr. Jacobs waved me back, telling Mom we'd already met. "Battle on, General!" he called.
I battled on. Con, Andy, and their friends went out back again and played on. Claire and her friends went back upstairs and danced on (although my mother told her to turn the music down, please and thank you). Mr. and Mrs. Morton and the Reverend Jacobs talked on, and for quite awhile. I remember often being surprised at how much adults could yak. It was tiring.
I lost track of them because I was fighting the Battle of Skull Mountain over again in several different ways. In the most satisfying scenario--adapted from Mr. Jacobs's pincers movement--one part of the American army kept the Germans pinned down from the front while the rest looped around and ambushed the Germans from behind. "Vat is zis?" one of them cried, just before getting shot in the head.