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Authors: Charles Baxter

Gryphon

BOOK: Gryphon
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ALSO BY CHARLES BAXTER

FICTION
The Soul Thief
Saul and Patsy
The Feast of Love
Believers
Shadow Play
A Relative Stranger
First Light
Through the Safety Net
Harmony of the World

POETRY
Imaginary Paintings and Other Poems

PROSE
The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot
Burning Down the House

AS EDITOR
A William Maxwell Portrait
(with Edward Hirsch and Michael Collier)
The Business of Memory: The Art of Remembering in an Age of Forgetting
Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life
(with Peter Turchi)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental
.

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Baxter

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Owing to limitations of space, all acknowledgments for permission to reprint previously published material may be found at the end of the volume.

The following stories originally appeared in book form: “Harmony of the World,” “Horace and Margaret’s Fifty-second,” and “The Would-be Father” in
Harmony of the World
(University of Missouri Press, 1984, and subsequently published by Vintage Books in 1997); “The Eleventh Floor,” “Gryphon,” “Surprised by Joy,” and “Winter Journey” in
Through the Safety Net
(Viking, 1985, and subsequently published by Vintage Books in 1998); and “The Cures for Love,” “Flood Show,” “Kiss Away,” and “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” in
Believers
(Pantheon Books, 1997).

Some stories were previously published in the following: “The Old Murderer” and “Royal Blue” in
The American Scholar;
“Poor Devil” in
The Atlantic;
“Ghosts” and “Mr. Scary” in
Ploughshares;
and “The Cousins” and “The Winner” in
Tin House
.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Baxter, Charles, [date]
Gryphon : new and selected stories / Charles Baxter.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-37956-6
I. Title.
PS
3552.A854G79 2011    813′.54—dc22    2010013785

www.pantheonbooks.com

Jacket photograph: Hartwig House, Truro, 1976, © Joel Meyerowitz, Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, N.Y.

Jacket design by Carol Devine Carson

v3.1

FOR DAN FRANK
AND IN MEMORY OF MICHAEL STEINBERG

The Would-be Father

WIPING OFF THE
kitchen counter after dinner, Burrage happened to glance at the window over the sink and saw a woman’s face outside, peering in. The face had an inquisitive but friendly expression. It belonged to Mrs. Schultz from across the street, who tended to wander around the Heritage Condominium complex in the early evening while under the influence of powerful medications prescribed for her after-dinner and bedtime pains.

“Hi, Mrs. Schultz,” Burrage said, waving a sponge. “Are you all right? Do you know where you are?”

“I think so,” she said, waving back. Her gray hair was bundled at the top of her head, and the lines around her mouth rose when she smiled. “I think I know where I am, if I’m across the street and if you are who I think you are. I wanted to see that boy of yours. Also, I’m thirsty. Can you pass a glass of water to me through this window?”

“I can’t, Mrs. Schultz,” Burrage said. Looking boyish and preoccupied, as was usual for him, he pointed at the window. “Screens. And Gregory’s already in his pajamas. See how late it’s getting?” Mrs. Schultz glanced up, but it was still too early for stars. All the same, she nodded. “Let me take you home.” He dried his hands, poured a glass of water, and glanced down the hall. Gregory’s door was closed, but Burrage could hear him singing. He carried the water outside to where the old lady stood near the arborvitae, slowly moving her left hand back and forth in the air. Burrage realized that she was trying to brush away gnats. “Here,” he said, putting the glass in her other hand. She sipped it, thanked him, and gave it back. Then she took his arm, and together they crossed the street. It was spring: he could hear children playing softball in the distance.

“You said it was late,” she said, “but I don’t see any stars.”

They walked up the sidewalk to her front door, which was wide open, and Burrage turned her around so that they faced his house. He could
smell onions, or something acidic, coming from the inside of her condominium, a permanent smell and a sign that she had lost the knack of effective housekeeping.

“The days are longer now, Mrs. Schultz. Daylight savings time. Look over the roof of my garage at the sky. What do you see? Do you see anything?”

“I see a dot,” she said.

“That’s Mars,” Burrage told her, letting out a breath with the word. “The red planet. So you see? It
is
getting dark. I’m leaving you here, okay? You should do yourself a favor and go inside now. Try to get some rest. Will you be all right?” Mrs. Schultz stared at his shirt buttons. “You should try to be all right,” he said.

“Oh, it’s you I’m worried about, not me,” she said. “What a man in your position does, after all. And that dot, Mars. It’s right over your house, isn’t it? It’s not over my house.” She looked at him with her I’m-not-so-dumb face. “Thank you anyway. I’ll go in now. Say good night to that little boy of yours.”

“I will.”

She turned once more and went in. Burrage watched her trudge down the hall toward the living-room chair in front of the perpetually blaring television set. He reached inside her door to make sure the lock was set and then closed it before going back.

Gregory was kneeling at the side of his bed, his arms stretched out over the patchwork quilt, his fingers clasped tightly together. The only illumination in the room came from the Scotty dog night-light, which cast a pale glow on the bed and dresser and made them look like toy furniture used in a circus act. Gregory, who was five years old, was praying to Santa Claus. With his face buried in the quilt, his words broke out with difficulty, a mumble of wishes.

On the opposite side of the room was a narrow rocking chair, next to a low table on which was placed a windup double-decker bus and an ashtray. Above them was a wall poster of Paddington Bear, a poster the boy had outgrown. Burrage’s routine was to go into the room, kiss Gregory good night, light up a cigar, and turn on the boy’s cassette recorder, which would play the same selection of tunes as always, Glenn Miller’s greatest hits, starting with “Moonlight Serenade.” When Burrage had
been a boy himself, suffering from asthma and unable to sleep, his mother would play Glenn Miller on the phonograph. In this way he became accustomed to falling asleep to the big-band sound.

His prayers finished, the boy climbed into bed and waited for Burrage to tuck him in. He was used to Burrage’s cigars and now liked the smell at bedtime. After Burrage entered, he kissed Gregory and, as usual, sat down to be close to the ashtray, before tapping the button on the recorder.

“Where were you?” Gregory asked.

“Mrs. Schultz was over here. I had to help her back across the street.” He waited a moment. “Did you say your prayers?”

“Yeah,” the boy said. He picked up his stuffed dragon and made a sound.

“Was that a roar,” Burrage asked, “or a yawn?”

“He’s sleepy,” the boy said. “Tell me a story. Tell me a story with me in it. Tell me my horoscope.” As always, he tripped over the word. “What’s happening tomorrow?”

“Don’t you want to hear a bunny story or something?”

“No. My horoscope.”

“Okay.” Burrage took a deep breath. “The planets are in a good position for you tomorrow, especially Mercury and Venus. They’ll take good care of you, just like today. The stars are really interested in what will happen to you at school tomorrow, and they want to know how you’re doing. They want to know if you’ve learned the alphabet and if you’re getting along better with Rosemary.”

“I don’t like her,” the boy said. “She kicks people and steals cookies from my lunch.”

“The stars will take care of you,” Burrage said softly. “When you see Rosemary, just get out of her way and do something else. She just acts funny sometimes. I know from your horoscope that you’ll find plenty of crayons and clay to play with.”

“A train,” the boy said sleepily.

“You will find a train,” Burrage said, blowing out cigar smoke, “and you can play with the train if you share it. Rosemary won’t bother you. Anyhow, it’ll be a fine day. The planets and the stars have decided that it’ll be sunny tomorrow morning, and you’ll also be playing outside in the sandbox or on the jungle gym. You’ll laugh a lot and there’s a good chance you’ll play hide-and-seek. I have a feeling that there’ll be peanut-butter
sandwiches in your lunchbox tomorrow. Now go to sleep. Sleep tight.” Half asleep, the boy made roaring-dragon sounds. Burrage leaned back in the rocking chair to finish his cigar and listen to Glenn Miller.

Burrage is Gregory’s uncle, in actual fact. Burrage’s brother Cecil, Gregory’s father, and Cecil’s wife, Virginia, were on their way back from seeing a movie when they were hit head-on in a residential area of Ann Arbor by a kid who was testing the potential of his father’s Corvette. At the time, Burrage was living with a red-haired woman named Leslie who was about to move out anyway: her company had relocated her in Seattle. Very little of what happened to Burrage in this period of his life entered his permanent memory. The phone rang all the time, and he had to talk to lawyers whose names he could never remember. He had to go to the Hall of Justice by himself and sign documents. Cecil and Virginia’s will said quite explicitly that Burrage was to be the guardian of Gregory should anything happen to them; Burrage had known about this will but had thought it would never be unlocked from the safety deposit box where it had been stored against the day.

BOOK: Gryphon
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