Vince paused before he picked up the phone. It was midnight, and calls at midnight never bring good news.
“Professor Salinger?” said a man’s voice.
“Assistant Professor,” Vince replied by reflex. “Yes, who is it?”
There was a silence, followed by close breathing.
“I have a story to tell you,” said the man on the other end, with an amputated chuckle. “You know, before it hits the papers tomorrow.”
Vince squeezed his eyes shut and pressed the phone to his ear. Right then he knew. This was it. The past, catching up. Unable to hang up, he listened as the caller spoke in tones cool as mercury, dredging up things from the muck of memory.
Half an hour later he sat with one elbow on his desk, toying with an open switchblade. As the blade reflected rings of lamplight his thoughts drifted—to the dim desk lamp, the hoop in the backyard, his car licence. Facts, objects, dues. Then back to the phone conversation.
“Juicy, eh?” the man had said at the end, as if it wasn’t him he was talking about. Vince had hung up then.
Fuck him, he thought, now, stoking an anger that wouldn’t burn.
He laid the switchblade on the blotter, lowered his fingers like porcelain bones to the edge of the wood, and regarded his hands. Those damning, condemned hands, white as an invalid’s. Vince caressed the maple top, like a blind man learning a face. He ran his hands over the quilted wood, feeling for bumps and valleys, over the polished marquetry at both ends, over the flared golden handles of the drawer cabinet. Then over the books, stacked squarely on top of each other, his two volumes on ethics, which he must have riffled through a thousand times.
He’d forgotten. In the hollow between spine and page block he’d hidden that letter from Austin. How he had forgotten. That letter would explain things to Jen if nothing else could. He plucked out the silky paper and uncreased it, skimmed its contents. The bile in its words still bit, still made his throat clench with fear. Then his eyes caught on the closing sentences:
Yours won’t be long coming. Wasn’t it your beloved Aquinas who’d said that the best part of heaven is the window looking down on the torments of the damned? Rest assured, old friend, I will be there, watching.
With trembling hands Vince folded the letter and left it on the maple top. He lifted his eyes and gazed into the darkness beyond the pool of lamplight.
No, there was no absolution, no penance cruel enough for what he’d done. He knew it as well as he knew that his life was forfeit and that his soul hung in the balance. Yet now there welled within him an anguish, distinct from fear or self-pity, an anguish flecked with rage at that toneless voice inside his head that whispered, You could have chosen otherwise, because he was certain, in his heart, that he couldn’t have, not after what had happened, not after his father. But nobody would understand, would they, not the police, not his wife, not his son and daughter, especially not them. So be it. How he wished that he, his father, wherever he was, could see what he’d wrought. The monster he’d become. Hey Dad, he’d say, this is the toy you broke, see what despicable acts I’m capable of. Are you proud of me now? Are you?
He wiped his tears and listened to the unspeaking silence, broken only by the faint hum of the desk lamp. Upstairs, he knew, Jen and the kids would be asleep. Good.
Vince touched the switchblade, hefted it, brushed his thumb absently along its blade; the same switchblade that he had cradled to his heaving stomach while his father beat him to within an inch of his life, years ago on the linoleum floor of their old house. Go on, use it, his father had taunted him between bootfalls. You little shit, use it if you got the balls.
So now it had come to this. Mouthing a strangled apology to the empty room, Vince slit his wrist over the wastebasket. Pain blossomed like fire, spreading up his armpit and stiffening muscles all the way to his neck. He dropped his wrist to the side and as thick blood collected in black circles on the parquet, he wiped the blade on his shirt, snapped it shut and put it back on the blotter. Even in death, he liked his affairs neat and to the point. In time his head grew heavy, and the hum in his ears rose to a roar, devouring the silence, the sickly lamp light blurred and peppered with grain like a slowly detuning television set, and then, when he was too weak to hold his head straight and the heat had nearly melted off his wrist, Vince heard the bedroom telephone ring, once, twice, thrice. Then silence until, gradually, his dying ears filled with the babble of rising voices and he saw what seemed to him a circus of souls, terrible to behold, all looking down at him, jeering, leering, and finally it sank in that there was no saving, this time, but only damnation. Only laughter and damnation.