This Shoal of Space:
Zoë Calla & the Dark Starship
(World's First E-BookPublished On the Web in 1996 For Digital Download)
a Dark SF novel originally titled Heartbreaker
by John Argo
Part I-Chapter 2
Part II-Chapter 66
The sunken marble garden of St. Andrew's looked melancholy, drowned in rain as children trooped out and were whisked away leaving only a lonely echoing emptiness. Like my heart always was, ZoŽ thought, as the children clambered in. She realized how much it would hurt if she lost Roger now.
Dinner was over. The kids were in the den, chins in hands, elbows on their thick blanket, watching a Disney movie. Roger rolled in late. He looked wrung out. He took ZoŽ in his arms and squeezed with an extra dimension of nervous energy. "I was right," he said. "We found the poor guy underneath. Had to bring in an industrial crane to lift the boulder. Johnny Gep, crushed flatit was unbelievable. Some incredible force lifted that rock and turned it over. Fifty tons. Turned it like a pebble." She sat with him while he ate in the kitchen. "We have one dead rhino. The rest of Wallace's body was found in the tanks under the Pagoda. Workers had hell digging through all that white stuff. He'd been mauled by birds. And there was a dead owl near Wallace, not that it's proof of anything. Still, Vic Lara may have something about his alien theory."
Jules and Patricia stopped over on Friday evening.
ZoŽ welcomed them at the threshold, feeling a sense of family. The house had the smell of the Chatfields, a mix of dog and kid and laundry-once-a-week. But also of fireplace and dinner table and popcorn in the den. I never had any of that, the little girl inside said wistfully. Max, Elisa, and Rudy were playing Monopoly near the fireplace while cartoons spun unwatched on the nearby TV.
Roger and Jules sat in the kitchen drinking serious whiskey. Old Woofenhoof, or some similar horrid, manly liquid brown as an old table leg. Jules looked shriveled and unshaven. ZoŽ almost felt like giving him a bath, he looked so much like a muddy sheepdog. He seemed to be drinking lately. Woofer and Tweeter were barking and pawing for her attention. An older blonde woman, still tall and attractive though the hair color must be rinse, stood behind Jules. Roger introduced her: "Patricia Burtongale Loomis, Jules' wife." Jules was flushed and unshaven. He raised his glass, pushing aside Patricia's objecting hand. "I drink to the great Mart Willow," Jules said. "The son'f'bitch." Down went the whiskey, and Jules had a coughing spasm.
"You are making a scene," Patricia said primly. She took Jules' drink away and replaced it with coffee.
"It's about time," Jules said. "Somebody needs to."
The kids were put to bed. Jules looked like a freight train had hit him, but he dropped sugar cubes in his coffee and stirred and seemed determined to hang in there. "You two belong together," Jules said. Patricia tried to sshh him, but he made a face and she backed off. "Patricia, you Burtongales are always so correct and reserved," he said, "but sometimes, honey, you just have to open your fly and let it all hang out. There, now don't look shocked, I'm just being figurative."
She crossed her arms. "You know damn well I don't agree with much my family says or does. That's why I've stuck with you all these years, and that's why we never get invited to anything. I've been on your side for thirty-five years, so don't go giving me any lectures now, do you hear?"
"Aw, honey, I'm sorry." He hugged her sloppily and she patted his back. "I'm upset because once again the old barra-, I mean lady has stuck it to a couple of mortals and here we are. This poor kid over there's got a crippled son"(ZoŽ felt her cheeks flush)"and a mouthy mother and Christ all who knows what else to contend with, and it bothers me. ZoŽ, I love you, do you hear? I mean like a daughter. My darling and I tried and tried, you know, bless her soul, but we just never had any children. Ain't that the pits? I'd be mighty proud to have a girl like you as a daughter. You're pretty, you've got spunk, you're sharp as a tack, and you've got that fresh, honest approach. Oh what a fool Willow is. What fools the Burtongales are. You'd make a great reporter. I'd'a let Perry take you out there and whup you around and slap you into shape and we could'a sent you to the big time and been proud'a ya. So what do we get instead? Coverups! Hush hush! I tried to blow the lid off, Roger, but I couldn't make it to first base past the old battle axe. Your mother, Patricia, pardon me. ZoŽ, I just wanted you to know a few things. S'not fair."
"Snot," Roger agreed. He cleared his throat. "We're marry-ins, aren't we?"
"Where to begin?" Jules rubbed his hands together, took a deep breath, slapped his hands together. "When you marry into the Burtongale family, the rules of the game quickly become clear. Miss Polly runs the show. Everyone jumps when Miss Polly says jump. They ask how high on the way up. My dear, I'm going to ask you to forgive me for anything I say that may hurt your feelings."
Patricia blinked. She said in a clear (was there however a tremble?) voice: "It's all been said a thousand times between us, so go aheadthere can't be any surprises."
"When I married into this family," Jules said, "I was a hot young journalism student just out of Columbia with everything going for me. That was when Kennedy was president and it seemed the sky had no limit. I worked on the New York Times for a year and met Patricia at a fancy dinner. One thing led to another and we came out here. At the time it seemed the best of all worldsin love with a beautiful woman and her family just happens to own a newspaper! I became city editor ten years later, and by gosh, here I am twenty-some years later, a retired city editor with a lot of war stories I can finally tell."
Patricia patted his hand.
"I'm okay, honey. Actually in a way it's a relief. Now I clearly see the biggest mistake of my life, and that was staying in this town. You and I should have packed up years ago and gone who the hell cares where, even a hick town and I could be a hick reporter. Finally I'm free. Polly has nothing left to hold over me. And that's probably why I'm going to blab it all tonight. And yes, my love, there are some things I have NOT told you. The Burtongale line is coming to an end. The Burtongales were a good institution in their time. They were vigorous people. Tough, ruthless. They built this town out of nothing but some pine trees overlooking the ocean. That was over a hundred fifty years ago. Now their blood is tired, and there aren't any strong ones left. Ever since people can remember, there's always been a Miss Polly and a Wallace Burtongale. There have been, to be exact, six Miss Pollys and six Wallaces. Isn't that odd though, a family pattern? A strong mother, a vigorous only son, and several beautiful daughters to rope in the best outside talent available. Sounds almost like some kind of genetic engineering. But the best engineering runs out. Goes flat. Goes bust. Just think for a moment. Patricia and I have no children. Janine and Mart have sons; no Miss Polly there. The late Wallace, who is sixty, and Margery, had only one son Gilbert. And guess what? Gilbert was a high school dropout, a druggie, and alcoholic with a history of arrests and violent behavior. There won't be another Wallace. End of the line. Why do you think Miss Polly is such a tyrant? She stays alive because she knows she is the last Burtongale matriarch. And her son Wallace was the last real Burtongale maneducated, powerful, intelligent, above vices like dope and booze. The two of them held the scene together. Do you know why Miss Polly brought in Mart Willow? Because this was the first generation in a hundred years when there wasn't a strong Burtongale man or woman to run the paper! Mart was a washout from a Midwestern rag where he angered everyone, but Miss Polly thought he was stronger than I, so she made him the master of the ship. Again, twenty years ago. I always figured he'd eventually move on up and out, but I've always been a terrible guesser. Mart has one quality. He kisses ass. No, he has two qualities. He would stab his own mother for a nickel. He had Miss Polly buffaloed and she worships the ground that pig walks on. And now to the sixty-four dollar question, ZoŽ. Why does he hate you so much? The answer is simple." Jules looked a mixture of surprised that she didn't already know.
His eyes told her he seemed to realize that of course she couldn't have guessed, and she waited for the revelation.
"He hates you because you're good at what you do, which he isn't; because you have that inner poise and springiness that he doesn't; because you have integrity, which he can't afford to have; and because you smile too much and must be happy, which he's never been. Get it? He's a miserable sycophant, caught in a position he can't handle, and he defends himself by getting rid of people who might one day be a threat."
ZoŽ laughed. "Me? One day?"
"Don't knock yourself. I could have been executive editor, and you could one day have become one of the first women city editors in this area. That story you wrote, that got us fired, was first rate. When quality is in charge, mediocrity can't get in the door. When mediocrity is in charge, it breeds only more mediocrity, and weeds out quality as if it were poison. Think of a yard. A well-kept yard is all flowers, nice grass, and good dirt you can enjoy holding in your hand, and enjoy smelling it as it runs between your fingers. A mediocre yard is full of weeds, and weeds only promote other weeds while the soil dies around them. That's the story of the last generation of Burtongales, and their pathetic editor and drunkard, Mart Willow."
Rain splattered against the windows. The oak tree bumped its branch against the eaves. The roof rattled and pattered with water.
Patricia slapped her knees. "Well, it's late and I'm getting tired. You've spoken the truth."
"May I add deferently," Jules said, "the last flickering candle of Burtongale strength, integrity, and nobility shines here beside me." Chairs scraped as people stood. Glasses were put in the sink. Coats were gotten. Umbrellas were popped open. ZoŽ gave Jules a peck on the cheek, and a long hug, as they left.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.