By Jim Thompson
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But in a town filled with the likes of an amoral tabloid reporter known only as The Captain, a district attorney who’ll do anything for a confession, and Bob’s parents, who care as little for Bob as they do for each other, guilt and innocence are little more than a matter of perspective.
In a masterfully woven tapestry of multiple points of view, The Criminal explores the nature of guilt and responsibility in a psychological thriller of an entire town under the spell of an act of brutal violence. Jim Thompson unlike you’re ever read him before.
It had been a pretty good day in many ways, so I might have known it would turn out bad. If you've read any papers lately I guess you know that it did. It's always that way with me, it seems like. I've never known it to fail. I'll wake up feeling rested and be able to eat breakfast for a change, and maybe I'll even get a seat on the 8:05 into the city. And it'll go on like that all day—no trouble, everything rocking along fine. My kidneys won't bother me. I won't get those crazy headaches up over my eyes. Then, I'll come home, and somehow or another, between the time I get there and the time I go to bed, something will happen to spoil it all. Always. Anyway, it seems like always. There'll be a dun from the Kenton Hills Sewer District or a gopher will have eaten up what blamed little lawn we have left or Martha will break her glasses. Or something.
Take the night before last, for example. I'd had a pretty good day that day—as good as any day can be, now. Then, after dinner, I sit down to read the paper, and—bingo!—I hop right back up again. Martha's glasses were in the chair, or, rather, what was left of 'em. Both lenses were broken.
"Oh, my goodness," she said, fluttering around and picking up the pieces. "Now, how in the world did that happen?"
"How did it happen?" I said. "How did it happen? You leave your glasses in my chair, and then you wonder how it happens when they get broken."
"I must have left them on the arm of the chair," she said. "You must have brushed them into the seat when you sat down. Oh, well, I needed some new ones anyway."
I looked at her, taking it all so calm and casual, and something seemed to snap inside my head. I wanted to hurt her, to hurt someone and she was the nearest thing at hand.
"So you needed some new ones," I said. "That's all you've got to say. You throw fifteen dollars down the drain, and it doesn't make any difference to you, does it? You'll never change, will you? If you weren't so scatter-brained, if you'd kept an eye on Bob instead of letting him run wild and do as he pleased he wouldn't have—"
Her face went white, then red. "And what about you? What kind of a father are you to—to—" Her hand went up to her mouth, pushing back the words. "D-Don't," she whispered. "I—I d-don't need any glasses. I can't read any more, anyway. I can't—all I can think about is…Oh, Al! Al!"
I put my arms around her, and she tried to pull away—but not very hard—and then she buried her face against my shirtfront, and she cried and cried. I didn't try to stop her. I wished I could have cried myself. I stood holding her, patting her on the head now and then; noticing how gray she had gotten. It was funny, strange I mean. You hear about someone turning gray almost overnight, and you think, oh, that's a lot of nonsense. It couldn't really happen, not to normal people anyway. And then it does happen, right to your own wife, and I don't imagine they come more normal than Martha.
It's like it is with Bob. With Bob's trouble. You hear about some fifteen-year-old boy killing a neighbor's girl—raping and strangling her, and you think, well, I'm pretty well off after all. My boy may be a little wild but…but Bob was never really wild; he was just all boy, I guess, just about average…but my boy would never do a thing like that. That could never happen in our family. He—
Your wife couldn't turn gray overnight, and your fifteen-year-old couldn't do what that other fifteen-year-old did. The idea is so crazy that—well, you just laugh when you think about it. And then…
"Al," Martha whispered. "Let's move away from here!"
"You bet," I said. "We'll go to work on it tomorrow. We'll move way off somewhere, clear to the other side of the country."
I was just talking, of course, and she knew it. I couldn't start in all over at my age, get a job that would support us. We don't have any money to move on. I had to borrow against the house to pay that lawyer. All the equity we've got in it now you could stuff in your ear.
Anyway, moving wouldn't do much good. Because it isn't the other people so much, the way they talk and act and the way we imagine they talk and act: it's not them so much as it is ourselves. Wondering about it, and not being sure. Sure like you've got to be about a thing like that.
"Al," Martha whispered, "h-he—he didn't do it, did he?"
"Of course, he didn't," I said. "It's too ridiculous to think about."
"I know he didn't do it, Al!"
"I do, too. We both know it."
"Why, he just couldn't! I mean, why—why—how could he, Al?"
"I don't know," I said. "I—it doesn't matter. He didn't, so there's no sense wondering about it. We've got to stop it, Martha. We've got to stop wondering and talking and—and—"
"Of course, dear," she said. "We won't say another word. We both know he didn't, that he couldn't have. Why, my goodness, Al! How could our Bob…?"
"SHUT UP!" I said. "Stop it!"
It ended as it usually ends. We kept telling each other that he hadn't done it, and it was crazy even to think he had. Finally, we went to bed, and all night long, whenever I woke up, I heard her mumbling and tossing. And in the morning I caught her looking at me worriedly, and she asked me if I'd slept well. So I guess I must have been doing some mumbling and tossing myself.
I guess there's no right place to begin this. A thing like this, it probably starts a long way back, before you were ever married probably and ever had a son named Bob. And maybe you didn't have too much to do with it yourself; you didn't have too much control over it. You just rock along, doing the things you have to, and you get kind of startled sometimes when you stand off and look at yourself. You think, my God, that isn't me. How did I ever get like that? But you go right ahead, startled or not, hating it or not, because you don't actually have much to say about it. You're not moving so much as you are being moved.
Maybe I'm making excuses, but what I'm trying to say is that it might have begun with another person. Or other people. My parents, say. Or their parents. Or people I'd never met in my life. It…I don't know. I couldn't say. There's no way of telling, and one beginning place is probably as good as another. So maybe I'd better lead off with the start I had.
Maybe I'd better go back to the day it happened. The day that had been a pretty good one until it did happen. If I start right in with the beginning of the day and follow it on through, maybe…maybe I'll spot something.
I do that down at the office sometimes, down at the Henley Terrazzo & Tile Company. I mean, the books will be off a few cents when I try to strike a balance, so I'll take a new set of transcript sheets and recopy my figures, checking them off item by item. And sooner or later I'll find the error. It'll pop up at me. Providing, of course, that it's in that day's work.
Well, I've told you I'd had a good night's sleep and a pretty good breakfast. Bob and I ate together that day, and I kind of joked with him a little, like I don't often have the time nor the inclination for, and afterwards he walked part of the way to the station with me on his way to school.
It had been a long time since he'd done that. In fact, I couldn't remember when the last time was he'd done it, It used to be, back when he was in the grades, we'd walk together almost every morning, It put him to school earlier than he had to be, but he insisted on doing it, He'd actually get upset if Martha let him sleep and I'd go off without him.
Well, though, as I say, that had been a couple years ago, Or even longer I guess. Back in those days, up until the time, say, he was about in the sixth grade, he not only walked with me in the morning but he'd be at the train to meet me in the evening. It seemed he'd rather be with me than he would kids his own age. Quite a few people commented on it. I remember Martha's mother was visiting us one spring, and she couldn't get over it. She said she'd never seen anyone that was such a Daddy's boy.
A very fine woman, Martha's mother. She passed on—let's see—sixteen months ago, next June. No, fifteen months ago. The way I remember the date is that I had the undertaker spread his bill through twelve equal installments, and…But we don't need to go into that. She was a very fine old lady, and I was glad to do what I could.
Well, as I was saying, that was the way Bob had used to be. Back during the war when there was more terrazzo and tile work than you could shake a stick at, and your only problem was priorities. I'll tell you: things were a lot different in those days. I didn't draw any more salary than I do now, but the bonuses almost doubled it. I didn't work half so hard and I made almost twice as much as I do these days. If I wanted to take an afternoon off, I took it. Not very often, but Henley never let out a peep when I did.
One time I took a whole day off, a Friday. I had Martha and Bob meet me in town Thursday night, and we stayed the whole weekend—Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Three days and four nights. I got us a couple of connecting rooms at a pretty good hotel, but we weren't in 'em much except to sleep. At least, Bob and I weren't. Martha would say, "You men, I just can't keep up with you." So we'd leave her at the hotel to catch up on her rest, and we'd go out on the town by ourselves.
Saturday morning we went out by ourselves; we went out for breakfast together. I bet Bob that I could eat more hotcakes than he could, and we had three stacks apiece—a tie—before we called it quits. Nine hotcakes apiece, mind you, not to mention the butter and syrup. If I did that now, it would kill me.
After breakfast, we went to a penny arcade and I bought five dollars worth of change. It was noon before we'd spent it all, so we had a big feed at an Italian restaurant, and then we strolled around and finally wound up in a shooting gallery. I kind of went hog wild in there. Bob and I were shooting a contest with each other, and the first thing I knew I'd spent twenty dollars. It was quite a bit of money even for good times, and Bob was a little scared when I told him about it. "Gosh," he said, sort of shakily, "I'll bet Mom will be mad."
"I'll bet she won't," I said. "Not unless she's a mind reader."
He looked up at me, a trifle puzzled. And I nodded and gave him the wink. Then I grinned, and after a minute he grinned. And that was the end of the matter. I didn't need to tell him to keep quiet about the money. He caught on right away. I maybe shouldn't say it, but they didn't make kids sharper than Bob.
Well, we had a fine time that weekend. Monday morning I took Bob and Martha to the station, and we had breakfast there before they caught their train. Martha asked me if I wasn't afraid I'd be late for work.
"So I'll be late," I said. "What of it?"
"But won't Mr. Henley say something?"
"I hope he does," I said. "He gives me a little trouble, and I'll tell him where to head in."
Bob's eyes got as big as saucers. He looked at me like I was John L. Sullivan, or someone like that.
I can't put my finger on the exact time when he began to change, but it was some time after the war. It wasn't much of a change at first—he'd just kind of avoid me, and not have much to say when I was around. And when I said something to him, he acted like I was picking on him. I couldn't say the smallest word to him about why he wasn't doing better in school, for Pete's sake, or why he couldn't comb his hair without being told sixteen times, without him getting sullen. Anything I said, it was that way.
He went on like that, getting a little more stubborn and mulish, it seemed, for every inch he grew, and then one day a couple years ago, just about the time he was thirteen and starting into high school, well…he changed completely. He really didn't seem like Bob after that.
On that day that Bob seemed to change, I'd had a pretty rough time of it. You probably think there's been plenty of building since the war ended, and there has been. But it's mostly residential stuff, and the money just isn't to be made in that kind of work. Oh, you make money, sure, but it's nothing like it was during the war. Even the commercial stuff you get now is darned far cry from the government-contract jobs. You go to a man now and say, Sure, I'll do such and such a job for you. Cost plus ten per cent. You say that to him, and then you'd better start running because he's liable to throw something at you.
Well, so business hadn't been anything like it was during the war—and it still isn't, believe me, not in tile and terrazzo anyway—and getting along with Henley was like trying to get along with a bear with a toothache. He was after me every day about something. If he wasn't riding me, he was watching me, looking for something to hop on me about. I'm not exaggerating. It was like that, and it still is.
I'd prepare the bid on a job, and possibly we'd be low by as little as four cents a square foot. Just barely low enough to get the job. But that wouldn't be good enough for Henley, I'd lost the company three and nine-tenth cents per, to hear him tell it; if I'd been on the beam I'd have made our bid only a tenth of a cent low. Well, the next job, of course, I'd shave it too fine, and maybe we'd be a nickel high. And I guess you know how he'd take that. I'd lost him a nice contract: if I'd had any sense, I'd have made the bid low enough to cinch the job.
So I'd been getting pretty jumpy and nervous. Not eating or sleeping much, and living mostly on coffee. I was about fit to be tied (and I still am). When he wasn't riding me, he was watching me, staring out into the outer office at the back of my neck. And I could just put up with it so long, and then my kidneys would start cutting up and I'd have to go back to the restroom. That's the way it always affects me when I get jumpy and nervous. I know it's just the opposite with some people—they get bound up, But, me, it gets my kidneys every time.
This day I'm telling you about, I'd been to the restroom three times in less than three hours. The third time I came back to my desk, Henley jerked his head at me. I went into his office, and maybe my knees weren't knocking together but they sure felt like it.
"What's the matter with you?" he said. Just like that.
"What do you mean, what's the matter?" I said. Honestly, I didn't know what to say, I was too rattled to think.
"What are you chasing all over the office for? Can't you stay out of that restroom for five minutes? How can you ever get any work done if you're never at your desk."
"I manage to get my work done," I said.
"I asked you a question." He scowled at me. "You must have been back to the toilet six times in the last half hour."
I knew there was no use correcting or arguing with him. I knew I'd better think of something fast or I'd be in big trouble. And it was just about the worst time possible for that kind of trouble. Mother—Martha's mother, that is—had been having some pretty hefty doctor bills, and it looked like Martha was going to need a new upper plate any day—it hadn't been much good since she'd got it mixed up with the garbage and put it in the incinerator—and Bob was just getting started in high school. Bob had gone right from the Kenton Hills Grammer School to Kenton Hills High School. He'd gone from grade to grade with the same kids, ever since he'd started to school, and I hated to think of how he'd feel if I lost my job and we had to move and he had to start into some strange school with a strange bunch of kids. He hadn't been doing too well in school lately, as it was. It might set him back seriously if he had to make a change now.
Henley was waiting for me to say something. He was hoping I'd tangle myself up, give him an excuse to fire me. I think he was, anyway.
"Well," he said, "how about it? For God's sake, are you deaf and dumb?"
And all of a sudden I had an inspiration.
"No, I'm not deaf and dumb," I said, looking him straight in the eye, "and I'm not blind either."
"Huh?" he grunted. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that restroom was getting to be a kind of play room," I said. "People have been hanging around back there, smoking and swapping jokes, when they should be out here working. I'm putting a stop to it."
"Well, say, now." He leaned back in his chair. "That's all right, Al! Been giving 'em hell, huh?"
"They get out fast," I said, "when they see me coming."
"Who were they, Al, some of the worst offenders? Give me their names."
"Well…" I hesitated. And I thought about Jeff Winter and Harry Ainslee and some of the others that had tried to knife me every time I turned my back. One of their favorite tricks was to loaf along until they saw I was tied up on something, then spring some deal that had to be settled right away. You know, trying to make it look like I was slowing down. Like I was a bottleneck and they couldn't get their jobs done on account of me.
But I wasn't going to be lowdown just because they were. I wouldn't be like them for any amount of money.
"I think one's been about as bad as another," I said. "I wouldn't want to name anyone in particular."
"Mmmm. Uh-huh," he nodded. "Well, I'll tell you what you'd better do, Al. You lock the place up, and keep the key at your desk. Make 'em come to you for it whenever they want to go."
So that's what I did. That's how I squeezed out of one of the tightest places I'd ever been in. And there wasn't anything wrong with it, was there? After all, I was supposed to be in charge of the outer office. The men should get permission from me before leaving their work.
Henley didn't ride me about a thing for the rest of the day, and he stopped watching me. Then that night, as I was getting ready to leave, he called me into his office again.
"Been thinking about you, Al," he said. "Looks like you're more on the ball than I thought you were. You keep it up, and maybe we can boost you to three-fifty."
"Why, that's—that's fine!" I said. My salary was three twenty-seven-fifty a month (and it still is). "I'll certainly do all I can to deserve it."
"Three-fifty," he said, his eyes veiled, smiling in a way I didn't understand. "That's pretty good money for a man your age, isn't it?"
"Well" I laughed. "I'm not exactly a Methuselah, Mr. Henley. I won't be forty-nine until next—"
"Yeah? You don't think it is good money?"
"Yes, sir. I mean—I was just going to say that.…Yes, sir," I said.
"You agree you'd be damned lucky to get it, a man your age?"
"I'd be…be darned lucky to get it," I said. "A man my age."
I went on home, not feeling too good although there wasn't any reason why I shouldn't have. I'd done the right thing, the only thing I could have done. I hadn't hurt anyone and it looked like I might have got myself a raise, so everything was all right. But I guess I kind of wanted someone to tell me it was.
We had pickled beets, peas, and sweet potatoes for dinner that night. It seemed that Martha had taken the labels off the cans to make some candlestick shades, and she didn't know what was in them until she opened them up.
I said it was a dandy dinner, the very things I liked. Sometimes I forget myself and scold her, but I try not to. She can't help it, you see, according to the doctors. She's been a little giddy ever since she started going through the change of life. Maybe even before.
Well, so we all started eating, and I brought up the matter of the raise in an offhand way. I mentioned that first, and then I just sort of dragged in the other things, the restroom and so on.
Martha said it was wonderful; she carried on for a minute or two about how smart I was. "I guess you showed them," she said. "They have to get up pretty early in the morning to get ahead of my Al."
Bob looked down at his plate, He didn't eat anything.
"Didn't you hear your father?" Martha frowned at him. "All those people have been picking on him, and now he's got them in hot water. And maybe he'll get a raise besides!"
"I'll bet he don't," said Bob.
"Well, now," I said. "I really didn't get the boys in any trouble. Nothing like it. I simply…What makes you think I won't, Bob?"
"Nothing," he mumbled. "I'm not hungry."
"You see?" I laughed. "You can't tell me, can you? If you don't have a reason for a statement, you shouldn't make it."
" 'Scuse me," he said. "I don't want anything more to eat."
He pushed back his chair, and started to get up.
- On Sale
- Aug 5, 2014
- Page Count
- 176 pages
- Mulholland Books