Generally speaking, I do not romanticize inanimate objects unless they can be eaten. The Dodge was a rare exception.
Arriving downtown, thus far having been spared from a head-on collision with an ironic speeding hearse, I passed several minutes in a search for the perfect parking spot.
Much of Alpine Avenue, our main street, features angle-to-the-curb parking, which I avoided in those days. The doors of flanking vehicles, if opened carelessly, could dent my Shelby Z and chip its paint. I took its every injury as a personal wound.
I much preferred to parallel park, and found a suitable place across the street from Center Square Park, which is in fact square and in the center of town. We Rocky Mountain types sometimes are as plainspoken as our magnificent scenery is ornate.
I curbed the Shelby Z behind a yellow panel van, in front of the
Snow Mansion, a landmark open to the public eleven months of the year but closed here in September, which falls between the two main tourist seasons.
Ordinarily, of course, I would have stepped from the car on the driver's side. As I was about to exit, a pickup truck exploded past, dangerously close and at twice the posted speed. Had I opened the door seconds sooner and started to get out, I would have spent the autumn hospitalized and would have met the winter with fewer limbs.
On any other day, I might have muttered to myself about the driver's recklessness and then opened the door in his wake. Not this time.
Being cautious-but I hoped not too cautious-I slid over the console into the passenger's seat and got out on the curb side. At once I looked up. No falling safe. So far, so good. Founded in 1872 with gold-mining and railroad money, much of Snow Village is an alfresco museum of Victorian architecture, especially on the town square, where an active preservation society has been most successful. Brick and limestone were the favored building materials in the four blocks surrounding the park, with carved or molded pediments over doors and windows, and ornate iron railings.
Here the street trees are larches: tall, conical, and old. They had not yet traded their green summer wardrobe for autumn gold.
I had business at the dry cleaner's, at the bank, and at the library. None of those establishments was on the side of the park where I'd found a suitable place for my car.
Of the three, the bank most concerned me. Occasionally people robbed banks. Bystanders were sometimes shot.
Prudence suggested that I wait until the following day to do my banking.
On the other hand, though no dry cleaner has ever been charged with causing a catastrophe in the course of Martinzing a three-piece wool suit, I was pretty sure they used caustic, toxic, perhaps even explosive chemicals.
Likewise, with all the narrow aisles between wooden shelves packed full of highly combustible books, libraries are potential firetraps.
Halted by indecision, I stood on the sidewalk, dappled with larch shadows and sunlight.
Because Grandpa Josef's predictions of five terrible days lacked specificity, I had not been able to plan defensively for any of them. All my life, however, I had been preparing psychologically.
Yet all that preparation afforded me no comfort. My imagination had hatched a crawling dread that crept down my spine and into every extremity.
As long as I had not ventured out of the house, the comfort of home and the courage of family had insulated me from fear. Now I felt exposed, vulnerable, targeted.
Paranoia may be an occupational hazard of spies, politicians, drug dealers, and big-city cops, but bakers rarely suffer from it. Weevils in the flour and a shortage of bitter chocolate in the pantry do not at once strike us as evidence of cunning adversaries and vast conspiracies.
Having led a fortunate, cozy, and-after the night of my birth-happily uneventful life, I had made no enemies of whom I was aware. Yet I surveyed the second- and third-story windows overlooking the town square, convinced I would spot a sniper drawing a bead on me.
Until that moment, my assumption had always been that whatever misfortune befell me on the five days would be impersonal, an act of nature: lightning strike, snakebite, cerebral thrombosis, incoming meteorite. Or otherwise it might be an accident resulting from the fallibility of my fellow human beings: a runaway concrete truck, a runaway train, a faultily constructed propane tank.
Even stumbling into the middle of a bank robbery and being shot would be a kind of accident, considering that I could have delayed my banking errand by taking a walk in the park, feeding squirrels, getting bitten, and contracting rabies.
Now I was paralyzed by the possibility of intent, by the realization
that an unknown person might consciously select me as the object upon which to visit mayhem and misery.
He didn't have to be anyone I knew. Most likely he would be a crazed loner. Some homicidal stranger with a grudge against life, a rifle, plenty of hollow-point ammunition, and a supply of tasty high-protein power bars to keep him alert during a long standoff with the police.
Many windowpanes blazed with orange reflections of the afternoon sun. Others were dark, at angles that didn't take the solar image; any of those might have been open, the gunman lurking in the shadows beyond.
In my paralysis I became convinced that I possessed the talent for precognition that Grandpa Josef had displayed on his deathbed. The sniper was not just a possibility; he was here, finger on the trigger. I had not imagined him, but had sensed him clairvoyantly, him and my bullet-riddled future.
I tried to continue forward and then attempted to retreat, but I couldn't move. I felt that a step in the wrong direction would take me into the path of a bullet.
Of course as long as I stood motionless, I made a perfect target. Rational argument, however, couldn't dispel the paralysis.
My gaze rose from windows to rooftops, which might provide an even more likely roost for a sniper.
So intense was my concentration that I heard but didn't respond to the question until he repeated it: "I said-are you all right?"
I lowered my attention from the search for a sniper to the young man standing on the sidewalk in front of me. Dark-haired, green-eyed, he was handsome enough to be a movie star.
For a moment I felt disoriented, as though I had briefly stepped outside the flow of time and now, stepping in again, could not adjust to the pace of life.
He glanced toward the rooftops that had concerned me, then fixed me with those remarkable eyes. "You don't look well."
My tongue felt thick. "I ... just... I thought I saw something over there."
This statement was peculiar enough to tweak an uncertain smile from him. "You mean something in the sky?"
I couldn't explain that my focus had been on rooftops, because it seemed this would lead me inexorably to the revelation that I had been mesmerized by the possibility of a sniper.
Instead, I said, "Yes, uh, in the sky, something ... odd," and at once realized that this statement made me seem no less peculiar than talk of a sniper would have done.
"UFO, you mean?" he asked, revealing a lopsided smile as winning as that of Tom Cruise at his most insouciant.
He might in fact have been a well-known actor, a rising star. Many entertainment figures vacationed in Snow Village.
Even if he had been famous, I wouldn't have recognized him. I didn't have that much interest in movies, being too busy with baking and family and life.
The only film I'd seen that year had been Forrest Gump. Now I supposed that I must appear to have the IQ of the title character.
Heat blossomed in my face, and I said with some embarrassment, "Maybe a UFO thing. Probably not. I don't know. It's gone now."
"Are you all right?" he repeated.
"Yeah, sure, I'm fine, just the sky thing, gone now," I said, embarrassed to hear myself babbling.
His amused scrutiny broke my paralysis. I wished him a good day, walked away, tripped on a fault in the sidewalk, and almost fell.
When I regained my balance, I didn't look back. I knew he would be watching me, his face alight with that million-dollar smile.
I couldn't understand how I had so completely given myself to an irrational fear. Being shot by a sniper was no more likely than being abducted by extraterrestrials.
Grimly determined to get a grip on myself, I went directly to the bank.
What would be would be. If a ruthless holdup gang crippled me with a shot to the spine, that might be preferable to being horribly disfigured in a library fire or to spending the rest of my life on an artificial-lung machine after inhaling toxic fumes in a catastrophic dry-cleaning accident.
The bank would be closing in minutes; consequently, there were few customers, but everyone looked suspicious to me. I tried not to turn my back on any of them.
I didn't even trust the eighty-year-old lady whose head bobbed with palsy. Some professional thieves were masters of disguise; the tremors might prove to be a brilliant bit of acting. But her chin wart sure looked real.
In the nineteenth century, they expected banks to be impressive. The lobby had a granite floor, granite walls, fluted columns, and a lot of bronze work.
When a bank employee, crossing the room, dropped a ledger book, the report, ricocheting off the walls, sounded quite like a gunshot. I twitched but didn't soil my pants.
After depositing a paycheck and taking back a little cash, I departed without incident. The revolving door felt confining, but it brought me safely into the warm afternoon.
I needed to pick up several garments at the dry cleaner's, so I left that task for last, and went to the library.
The Cornelius Rutherford Snow Library is much bigger than one would expect for a town as small as ours, a handsome limestone structure. Flanking the main entry are stone lions on plinths in the shape of books.
The lions are not frozen in a roar. Neither are they posed with heads raised and alert. Curiously, both are shown asleep, as if they have been reading a politician's autobiography and have been thus sedated.
Cornelius, whose money built the library, didn't have a great deal of interest in books but thought that he should. Funding a handsome library was, to his way of reasoning, as broadening of the spirit and as edifying to the mind as actually having pored through hundreds of tomes. When the building was complete, he thereafter thought of himself as a well-read man.
Our town isn't named after the form in which most of its annual precipitation falls. It honors instead the railroad-and-mining magnate whose pre-income-tax fortune founded it: Cornelius Rutherford Snow.
Just inside the front doors of the library hangs a portrait of Cornelius. He is all steely eyes, mustache, muttonchops, and pride.
When I entered, no one sat at any of the reading tables. The only patron in sight was at the main desk, leaning casually against the high counter, in a hushed conversation with Lionel Davis, the head librarian.
As I drew near the elevated desk, I recognized the patron. His green eyes brightened at the sight of me, and his big-screen smile was friendly, not mocking, though he said to Lionel, "I think this gentleman will be wanting a book on flying saucers."
I'd known Lionel Davis forever. He'd made a life of books to the same extent that I had made a life of baking. He was warm-hearted, kind, with enthusiasms ranging from Egyptian history to hard-boiled detective novels.
He had the worn yet perpetually childlike countenance of a kindly blacksmith or a sincere vicar in a Dickens novel. I knew his face well, but I had never seen on it an expression quite like the one that currently occupied it.
His smile was broad but his eyes were narrow. A tic at the left corner of his mouth suggested that the eyes more truly revealed his state of mind than did the smile.
If I had recognized the warning in his face, I could not have done anything to save myself or him. The handsome fellow with the porcelain-white teeth had already decided on a course of action the moment I entered.
First, he shot Lionel Davis in the head.
he pistol made a hard flat noise not half as loud as I would have expected.
Crazily, I thought how in the movies they didn't fire real bullets, but blanks, so this sound would have to be enhanced in post-production.
I almost looked around for the cameras, the crew. The shooter was movie-star handsome, the gunshot didn't sound right, and no one would have any reason to kill a sweet man like Lionel Davis, which must mean that all this had been scripted and that the finished film would be in theaters nationwide next summer.
"How many flies do you swallow on the average day, standing around with your mouth hanging open?" asked the killer. "Is your mouth ever not hanging open?"
He appeared to be amused by me, to have already forgotten Lionel, as if killing the librarian had been an act of no more consequence than stepping on an ant.
I heard my voice turn hollow with stunned incomprehension, brittle with anger: "What did he ever do to you?"
Though you will think his perplexity must have been an act, tough-guy bravura meant to impress me with his cruelty, I assure you that it was not. I knew at once that he didn't relate my question to the man whom he had just murdered.
The word insane did not entirely describe him, but it was a good adjective with which to begin.
Surprised that fear remained absent from my voice even as more anger crowded into it, I said, "Lionel. He was a good man, gentle."
"Lionel Davis. He had a name, you know. He had a life, friends, he was somebody."
Genuinely puzzled, his smile turning uneasy, he said, "Wasn't he just a librarian?"
"You sick son of a bitch."
As the smile stiffened, his features grew pale, grew hard, as though flesh might transform into a plaster death mask. He raised the pistol, pointed it at my chest, and said with utmost seriousness, "Don't you dare insult my mother."
The offense he took at my language, so out of proportion to the indifference with which he committed murder, struck me as darkly funny. If a laugh, even one of shocked disbelief, had escaped me then, I'm sure he would have killed me.
Confronted by the muzzle of the handgun, I felt fear enter the halls of my mind, but I didn't give it the keys to every room.
Earlier in the street, the prospect of a sniper had paralyzed me with dread. I realized now that I'd not been afraid of a rifleman in some high concealment but that I'd been petrified because I did not know if the sniper was real or if instead the mortal threat might be any of a thousand other things. When danger can be sensed but not identified, then everyone and everything becomes a source of concern; the world from horizon to horizon seems hostile.
Fear of the unknown is the most purely distilled and potent terror.
Now I had identified my enemy. Although he might be a sociopath capable of any atrocity, I felt some relief because I knew his face. The uncountable threats in my imagination had evaporated, replaced by this one real danger.