Jerome Bixby (1923 – 1998) was an American short story and script writer who wrote four Star Trek episodes and helped write the story that became the classic sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage (1966). He is most famous for the “It’s a Good Life” (1953), also made into a Twilight Zone episode and included in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). The Science Fiction Writers of America named “It’s a Good Life” one of the twenty finest science fiction stories ever written. References to the story have appeared in the Cartoon Network’s Johnny Bravo, Fox’s The Simpsons, and a Junot Diaz novel, among others.
Of all the stories included in our The Weird compendium, the classic “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby may be the scariest, an accomplishment all the more impressive because the story has so thoroughly permeated the pop culture zeitgeist. We previously ran this story back in December of 2011 to complement Leah Thomas’s then-latest episode of “Reading the Weird,” which ingeniously incorporates elements of this story. – Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Aunt Amy was out on the front porch, rocking back and forth in the highbacked chair and fanning herself, when Bill Soames rode his bicycle up the road and stopped in front of the house. Perspiring under the afternoon ‘sun,’ Bill lifted the box of groceries out of the big basket over the front wheel of the bike, and came up the front walk.
Little Anthony was sitting on the lawn, playing with a rat. He had caught the rat down in the basement – he had made it think that it smelled cheese, the most rich-smelling and crumbly-delicious cheese a rat had ever thought it smelled, and it had come out of its hole, and now Anthony had hold of it with his mind and was making it do tricks.
When the rat saw Bill Soames coming, it tried to run, but Anthony thought at it, and it turned a flip-flop on the grass, and lay trembling, its eyes gleaming in small black terror.
Bill Soames hurried past Anthony and reached the front steps, mumbling. He always mumbled when he came to the Fremont house, or passed by it, or even thought of it. Everybody did. They thought about silly things, things that didn’t mean very much, like two-and-two-is-four-and-twice-is-eight and so on; they tried to jumble up their thoughts to keep them skipping back and forth, so Anthony couldn’t read their minds. The mumbling helped. Because if Anthony got anything strong out of your thoughts, he might take a notion to do something about it – like curing your wife’s sick headaches or your kid’s mumps, or getting your old milk cow back on schedule, or fixing the privy. And while Anthony mightn’t actually mean any harm, he couldn’t be expected to have much notion of what was the right thing to do in such cases.
That was if he liked you. He might try to help you, in his way. And that could be pretty horrible.
If he didn’t like you… well, that could be worse.
Bill Soames set the box of groceries on the porch railing and stopped his mumbling long enough to say, ‘Everythin’ you wanted, Miss Amy.’
‘Oh, fine, William,’ Amy Fremont said lightly. ‘My, ain’t it terrible hot today?’
Bill Soames almost cringed. His eyes pleaded with her. He shook his head violently no, and then interrupted his mumbling again, though obviously he didn’t want to: ‘Oh, don’t say that, Miss Amy… it’s fine, just fine. A real good day!’
Amy Fremont got up from the rocking chair, and came across the porch. She was a tall woman, thin, a smiling vacancy in her eyes. About a year ago, Anthony had gotten mad at her, because she’d told him he shouldn’t have turned the cat into a cat-rug, and although he had always obeyed her more than anyone else, which was hardly at all, this time he’d snapped at her. With his mind. And that had been the end of Amy Fremont’s bright eyes, and the end of Amy Fremont as everyone had known her. And that was when word got around in Peaksville (population: 46) that even the members of Anthony’s own family weren’t safe. After that, everyone was twice as careful.
Someday Anthony might undo what he’d done to Aunt Amy. Anthony’s Mom and Pop hoped he would. When he was older, and maybe sorry. If it was possible, that is. Because Aunt Amy had changed a lot, and besides, now Anthony wouldn’t obey anyone.
‘Land alive, William,’ Aunt Amy said, ‘you don’t have to mumble like that. Anthony wouldn’t hurt you. My goodness, Anthony likes you!’ She raised her voice and called to Anthony, who had tired of the rat and was making it eat itself. ‘Don’t you, dear? Don’t you like Mr. Soames?’
Anthony looked across the lawn at the grocery man – a bright, wet, purple gaze. He didn’t say anything. Bill Soames tried to smile at him. After a second Anthony returned his attention to the rat. It had already devoured its tail, or at least chewed it off – for Anthony had made it bite faster than it could swallow, and little pink and red furry pieces lay around it on the green grass. Now the rat was having trouble reaching its hindquarters.
Mumbling silently, thinking of nothing in particular as hard as he could, Bill Soames went stiff-legged down the walk, mounted his bicycle and pedaled off.
‘We’ll see you tonight, William,’ Aunt Amy called after him.
As Bill Soames pumped the pedals, he was wishing deep down that he could pump twice as fast, to get away from Anthony all the faster, and away from Aunt Amy, who sometimes just forgot how careful you had to be. And he shouldn’t have thought that. Because Anthony caught it. He caught the desire to get away from the Fremont house as if it was something bad, and his purple gaze blinked and he snapped a small, sulky thought after Bill Soames – just a small one, because he was in a good mood today, and besides, he liked Bill Soames, or at least didn’t dislike him, at least today. Bill Soames wanted to go away – so, petulantly, Anthony helped him.
Pedaling with superhuman speed – or rather, appearing to, because in reality the bicycle was pedaling him – Bill Soames vanished down the road in a cloud of dust, his thin, terrified wail drifting back across the heat.
Anthony looked at the rat. It had devoured half its belly, and had died from pain. He thought it into a grave out deep in the cornfield – his father had once said, smiling, that he might do that with the things he killed – and went around the house, casting his odd shadow in the hot, brassy light from above.
In the kitchen, Aunt Amy was unpacking the groceries. She put the Mason-jarred goods on the shelves, and the meat and milk in the icebox, and the beet sugar and coarse flour in the big cans under the sink. She put the cardboard box in the corner, by the door, for Mr. Soames to pick up next time he came. It was stained and battered and torn and worn fuzzy, but it was one of the few left in Peaksville. In faded red letters it said Campbell’s Soup. The last can of soup, or of anything else, had been eaten long ago, except for a small communal hoard which the villagers dipped into for special occasions – but the box lingered on, like a coffin, and when it and the other boxes were gone, the men would have to make some out of wood.
Aunt Amy went out in back, where Anthony’s Mom – Aunt Amy’s sister – sat in the shade of the house, shelling peas. The peas, every time Mom ran a finger along the pod, went lollop-lollop-lollop into the pan in her lap.
‘William brought the groceries,’ Aunt Amy said. She sat down wearily in the straightbacked chair beside Mom, and began fanning herself again. She wasn’t really old, but ever since Anthony had snapped at her with his mind, something had been wrong with her body as well as her mind, and she was tired all the time.
‘Oh, good,’ said Mom. Lollop went the fat peas in the pan.
Everybody in Peaksville always said ‘Oh, fine,’ or ‘Good,’ or ‘Say, that’s swell,’ when almost everything happened or was mentioned – even unhappy things like accidents or even deaths. They’d always say ‘Good,’ because if they didn’t try to cover up how they really felt, Anthony might overhear with his mind, and then nobody knew what might happen. Like the time Mrs. Kent’s husband, Sam, had come walking back from the graveyard because Anthony liked Mrs. Kent and had heard her mourning.
‘Tonight’s television night,’ said Aunt Amy. ‘I’m glad I look forward to it so much every week. I wonder what we’ll see tonight?’
‘Did Bill bring the meat?’ asked Mom.
‘Yes.’ Aunt Amy fanned herself, looking up at the featureless brassy glare of the sky. ‘Goodness, it’s so hot. I wish Anthony would make it just a little cooler–’
‘Oh!’ Mom’s sharp tone had penetrated, where Bill Soames’s agonized expression had failed. Aunt Amy put one thin hand to her mouth in exaggerated alarm. ‘Oh… I’m sorry, dear.’ Her pale blue eyes shuttled around, right and left, to see if Anthony was in sight. Not that it would make any difference if he was or wasn’t – he didn’t have to be near you to know what you were thinking. Usually, though, unless he had his attention on somebody, he would be occupied with thoughts of his own.
But some things attracted his attention – you could never be sure just what.
‘This weather’s just fine,’ Mom said.
‘Oh, yes,’ Aunt Amy said. ‘It’s a wonderful day. I wouldn’t want it changed for the world!’
‘What time is it?’ Mom asked.
Aunt Amy was sitting where she could see through the kitchen window to the alarm clock on the shelf above the stove. ‘Four-thirty,’ she said.
‘I want tonight to be something special,’ Mom said. ‘Did Bill bring a good lean roast?’
‘Good and lean, dear. They butchered just today, you know, and sent us over the best piece.’
‘Dan Hollis will be so surprised when he finds out that tonight’s television party is a birthday party for him too!’
‘Oh I think he will! Are you sure nobody’s told him?’
‘Everybody swore they wouldn’t.’
‘That’ll be real nice,’ Aunt Amy nodded, looking off across the cornfield. ‘A birthday party.’
‘Well–’ Mom put the pan of peas down beside her, stood up and brushed her apron. ‘I’d better get the roast on. Then we can set the table.’ She picked up the peas.
Anthony came around the corner of the house. He didn’t look at them, but continued on down through the carefully kept garden – all the gardens in Peaksville were carefully kept, very carefully kept – and went past the rusting, useless hulk that had been the Fremont family car, and went smoothly over the fence and out into the cornfield.
‘Isn’t this a lovely day!’ said Mom, a little loudly, as they went toward the back door.
Aunt Amy fanned herself. ‘A beautiful day, dear. Just fine!’
Out in the cornfield, Anthony walked between the tall, rustling rows of green stalks. He liked to smell the corn. The alive corn overhead, and the old dead corn underfoot. Rich Ohio earth, thick with weeds and brown, dry-rotting ears of corn, pressed between his bare toes with every step – he had made it rain last night so everything would smell and feel nice today.
He walked clear to the edge of the cornfield, and over to where a grove of shadowy green trees covered cool, moist, dark ground, and lots of leafy undergrowth, and jumbled moss-covered rocks, and a small spring that made a clear, clean pool. Here Anthony liked to rest and watch the birds and insects and small animals that rustled and scampered and chirped about. He liked to lie on the cool ground and look up through the moving greenness overhead, and watch the insects flit in the hazy soft sunbeams that stood like slanting, glowing bars between ground and treetops. Somehow, he liked the thoughts of the little creatures in this place better than the thoughts outside; and while the thoughts he picked up here weren’t very strong or very clear, he could get enough out of them to know what the little creatures liked and wanted, and he spent a lot of time making the grove more like what they wanted it to be. The spring hadn’t always been here; but one time he had found thirst in one small furry mind, and had brought subterranean water to the surface in a clear cold flow, and had watched blinking as the creature drank, feeling its pleasure. Later he had made the pool, when he found a small urge to swim.
He had made rocks and trees and bushes and caves, and sunlight here and shadows there, because he had felt in all the tiny minds around him the desire – or the instinctive want – for this kind of resting place, and that kind of mating place, and this kind of place to play, and that kind of home.
And somehow the creatures from all the fields and pastures around the grove had seemed to know that this was a good place, for there were always more of them coming in – every time Anthony came out here there were more creatures than the last time, and more desires and needs to be tended to. Every time there would be some kind of creature he had never seen before, and he would find its mind, and see what it wanted, and then give it to it.
He liked to help them. He liked to feel their simple gratification.
Today, he rested beneath a thick elm, and lifted his purple gaze to a red and black bird that had just come to the grove. It twittered on a branch over his head, and hopped back and forth, and thought its tiny thoughts, and Anthony made a big, soft nest for it, and pretty soon it hopped in.
A long, brown, sleek-furred animal was drinking at the pool. Anthony found its mind next. The animal was thinking about a smaller creature that was scurrying along the ground on the other side of the pool, grubbing for insects. The little creature didn’t know that it was in danger. The long, brown animal finished drinking and tensed its legs to leap, and Anthony thought it into a grave in the cornfield.
He didn’t like those kinds of thoughts. They reminded him of the thoughts outside the grove. A long time ago some of the people outside had thought that way about him, and one night they’d hidden and waited for him to come back from the grove – and he’d just thought them all into the cornfield. Since then, the rest of the people hadn’t thought that way – at least, very clearly. Now their thoughts were all mixed up and confusing whenever they thought about him or near him, so he didn’t pay much attention.
He liked to help them too, sometimes – but it wasn’t simple, or very gratifying either. They never thought happy thoughts when he did – just the jumble. So he spent more time out here.
He watched all the birds and insects and furry creatures for a while, and played with a bird, making it soar and dip and streak madly around tree trunks until, accidentally, when another bird caught his attention for a moment, he ran it into a rock. Petulantly, he thought the rock into a grave in the cornfield; but he couldn’t do anything more with the bird. Not because it was dead, though it was; but because it had a broken wing. So he went back to the house. He didn’t feel like walking back through the cornfield, so he just went to the house, right down into the basement.
It was nice down here. Nice and dark and damp and sort of fragrant, because once Mom had been making preserves in a rack along the far wall, and then she’d stopped coming down ever since Anthony had started spending time here, and the preserves had spoiled and leaked down and spread over the dirt floor, and Anthony liked the smell.
He caught another rat, making it smell cheese, and after he played with it, he thought it into a grave right beside the long animal he’d killed in the grove. Aunt Amy hated rats, and so he killed a lot of them, because he liked Aunt Amy most of all and sometimes did things that Aunt Amy wanted. Her mind was more like the little furry minds out in the grove. She hadn’t thought anything bad at all about him for a long time.
After the rat, he played with a big black spider in the corner under the stairs, making it run back and forth until its web shook and shimmered in the light from the cellar window like a reflection in silvery water. Then he drove fruit flies into the web until the spider was frantic trying to wind them all up. The spider liked flies, and its thoughts were stronger than theirs, so he did it. There was something bad in the way it liked flies, but it wasn’t clear – and besides, Aunt Amy hated flies too.
He heard footsteps overhead – Mom moving around in the kitchen. He blinked his purple gaze, and almost decided to make her hold still – but instead he went up to the attic, and, after looking out the circular window at the front end of the long X-roofed room for a while at the front lawn and the dusty road and Henderson’s tip-waving wheatfield beyond, he curled into an unlikely shape and went partly to sleep.
Soon people would be coming for television, he heard Mom think.
He went more to sleep. He liked television night. Aunt Amy had always liked television a lot, so one time he had thought some for her, and a few other people had been there at the time, and Aunt Amy had felt disappointed when they wanted to leave. He’d done something to them for that – and now everybody came to television.
He liked all the attention he got when they did.
Anthony’s father came home around six-thirty, looking tired and dirty and bloody. He’d been over in Dunn’s pasture with the other men, helping pick out the cow to be slaughtered this month and doing the job, and then butchering the meat and salting it away in Soames’s icehouse. Not a job he cared for, but every man had his turn. Yesterday, he had helped scythe down old McIntyre’s wheat. Tomorrow, they would start threshing. By hand. Everything in Peaksville had to be done by hand.
He kissed his wife on the cheek and sat down at the kitchen table. He smiled and said, ‘Where’s Anthony?’
‘Around someplace,’ Mom said.
Aunt Amy was over at the wood-burning stove, stirring the big pot of peas. Mom went back to the oven and opened it and basted the roast.
‘Well, it’s been a good day,’ Dad said. By rote. Then he looked at the mixing bowl and breadboard on the table. He sniffed at the dough. ‘M’m,’ he said. ‘I could eat a loaf all by myself, I’m so hungry.’
‘No one told Dan Hollis about its being a birthday party, did they?’ his wife asked.
‘Nope. We kept as quiet as mummies.’
‘We’ve fixed up such a lovely surprise!’
‘Well… you know how much Dan likes music. Well, last week Thelma Dunn found a record in her attic!’
‘Yes! And we had Ethel sort of ask you know, without really asking – if he had that one. And he said no. Isn’t that a wonderful surprise?’
‘Well, now, it sure is. A record, imagine! That’s a real nice thing to find! What record is it?’
‘Perry Como, singing You Are My Sunshine.’
‘Well, I’ll be darned. I always liked that tune.’ Some raw carrots were lying on the table. Dad picked up a small one, scrubbed it on his chest, and took a bite. ‘How did Thelma happen to find it?’
‘Oh, you know just looking around for new things.’
‘M’m.’ Dad chewed the carrot. ‘Say, who has that picture we found a while back? I kind of liked it – that old clipper sailing along–’
‘The Smiths. Next week the Sipichs get it, and they give the Smiths old McIntyre’s music-box, and we give the Sipichs–’ and she went down the tentative order of things that would change hands among the women at church this Sunday.
He nodded. ‘Looks like we can’t have the picture for a while, I guess. Look, honey, you might try to get that detective book back from the Reillys. I was so busy the week we had it, I never got to finish all the stories–’
‘I’ll try,’ his wife said doubtfully. ‘But I hear the van Husens have a stereoscope they found in the cellar.’ Her voice was just a little accusing. ‘They had it two whole months before they told anybody about it–’
‘Say,’ Dad said, looking interested. ‘That’d be nice, too. Lots of pictures?’
‘I suppose so. I’ll see on Sunday. I’d like to have it but we still owe the van Husens for their canary. I don’t know why that bird had to pick our house to die… it must have been sick when we got it. Now there’s just no satisfying Betty van Husen – she even hinted she’d like our piano for a while!’
‘Well, honey, you try for the stereoscope or just anything you think we’ll like.’ At last he swallowed the carrot. It had been a little young and tough. Anthony’s whims about the weather made it so that people never knew what crops would come up, or what shape they’d be in if they did. All they could do was plant a lot; and always enough of something came up any one season to live on. Just once there had been a grain surplus; tons of it had been hauled to the edge of Peaksville and dumped off into the nothingness. Otherwise, nobody could have breathed, when it started to spoil.
‘You know,’ Dad went on. ‘It’s nice to have the new things around. It’s nice to think that there’s probably still a lot of stuff nobody’s found yet, in cellars and attics and barns and down behind things. They help, somehow. As much as anything can help.’
‘Sh-h!’ Mom glanced nervously around.
‘Oh,’ Dad said, smiling hastily. ‘It’s all right! The new things are good! It’s nice to be able to have something around you’ve never seen before, and know that something you’ve given somebody else is making them happy… that’s a real good thing.’
‘A good thing,’ his wife echoed.
‘Pretty soon,’ Aunt Amy said, from the stove, ‘there won’t be any more new things. We’ll have found everything there is to find. Goodness, that’ll be too bad.’
‘Well–’ her pale eyes were shallow and fixed, a sign of her recurrent vagueness. ‘It will be kind of a shame – no new things–’
‘Don’t talk like that,’ Mom said, trembling. ‘Amy, be quiet!’
‘It’s good,’ said Dad, in the loud, familiar, wanting-to-be-overheard tone of voice. ‘Such talk is good. It’s okay, honey don’t you see? It’s good for Amy to talk any way she wants. It’s good for her to feel bad. Everything’s good. Everything has to be good… ’
Anthony’s mother was pale. And so was Aunt Amy – the peril of the moment had suddenly penetrated the clouds surrounding her mind. Sometimes it was difficult to handle words so that they might not prove disastrous. You just never knew. There were so many things it was wise not to say, or even think – but remonstration for saying or thinking them might be just as bad, if Anthony heard and decided to do anything about it. You could just never tell what Anthony was liable to do.
Everything had to be good. Had to be fine just as it was, even if it wasn’t. Always. Because any changes might be worse. So terribly much worse.
‘Oh, my goodness, yes, of course it’s good,’ Mom said. ‘You talk any way you want to, Amy, and it’s just fine. Of course, you want to remember that some ways are better than others…’
Aunt Amy stirred the peas, fright in her pale eyes.
‘Oh, yes,’ she said. ‘But I don’t feel like talking right now. It… it’s good that I don’t feel like talking.’
Dad said tiredly, smiling, ‘I’m going out and wash up.’
They started arriving around eight o clock. By that time, Mom and Aunt Amy had the big table in the dining room set, and two more tables off to the side. The candles were burning, and the chairs situated, and Dad had a big fire going in the fireplace.
The first to arrive were the Sipichs, John and Mary. John wore his best suit, and was well-scrubbed and pink-faced after his day in McIntyre’s pasture. The suit was neatly pressed, but getting threadbare at elbows and cuffs. Old McIntyre was working on a loom, designing it out of schoolbooks, but so far it was slow going. McIntyre was a capable man with wood and tools, but a loom was a big order when you couldn’t get metal parts. McIntyre had been one of the ones who, at first, had wanted to try to get Anthony to make things the villagers needed, like clothes and canned goods and medical supplies and gasoline. Since then, he felt that what had happened to the whole Terrance family and Joe Kinney was his fault, and he worked hard trying to make it up to the rest of them. And since then, no one had tried to get Anthony to do anything.
Mary Sipich was a small, cheerful woman in a simple dress. She immediately set about helping Mom and Aunt Amy put the finishing touches on the dinner.
The next arrivals were the Smiths and the Dunns, who lived right next to each other down the road, only a few yards from the nothingness. They drove up in the Smiths’ wagon, drawn by their old horse.
Then the Reillys showed up, from across the darkened wheatfield, and the evening really began. Pat Reilly sat down at the big upright in the front room, and began to play from the popular sheet music on the rack. He played softly, as expressively as he could – and nobody sang. Anthony liked piano playing a whole lot, but not singing; often he would come up from the basement, or down from the attic, or just come, and sit on top of the piano, nodding his head as Pat played Lover or Boulevard of Broken Dreams or Night and Day. He seemed to prefer ballads, sweet-sounding songs – but the one time somebody had started to sing, Anthony had looked over from the top of the piano and done something that made everybody afraid of singing from then on. Later, they’d decided that the piano was what Anthony had heard first, before anybody had ever tried to sing, and now anything else added to it didn’t sound right and distracted him from his pleasure.
So, every television night, Pat would play the piano, and that was the beginning of the evening. Wherever Anthony was, the music would make him happy, and put him in a good mood, and he would know that they were gathering for television and waiting for him.
By eight-thirty everybody had shown up, except for the seventeen children and Mrs. Soames, who was off watching them in the schoolhouse at the far end of town. The children of Peaksville were never, never allowed near the Fremont house – not since little Fred Smith had tried to play with Anthony on a dare. The younger children weren’t even told about Anthony. The others had mostly forgotten about him, or were told that he was a nice, nice goblin but they must never go near him.
Dan and Ethel Hollis came late, and Dan walked in not suspecting a thing. Pat Reilly had played the piano until his hands ached – he’d worked pretty hard with them today – and now he got up, and everybody gathered around to wish Dan Hollis a happy birthday.
‘Well, I’ll be darned,’ Dan grinned. ‘This is swell. I wasn’t expecting this at all… gosh, this is swell!’
They gave him his presents – mostly things they had made by hand, though some were things that people had possessed as their own and now gave him as his. John Sipich gave him a watch charm, hand-carved out of a piece of hickory wood. Dan’s watch had broken down a year or so ago, and there was nobody in the village who knew how to fix it, but he still carried it around because it had been his grandfather’s and was a fine old heavy thing of gold and silver. He attached the charm to the chain, while everybody laughed and said John had done a nice job of carving. Then Mary Sipich gave him a knitted necktie, which he put on, removing the one he’d worn.
The Reillys gave him a little box they had made, to keep things in. They didn’t say what things, but Dan said he’d keep his personal jewelry in it. The Reillys had made it out of a cigar box, carefully peeled of its paper and lined on the inside with velvet. The outside had been polished, and carefully if not expertly carved by Pat – but his carving got complimented too. Dan Hollis received many other gifts – a pipe, a pair of shoelaces, a tie pin, a knit pair of socks, some fudge, a pair of garters made from old suspenders.
He unwrapped each gift with vast pleasure, and wore as many of them as he could right there, even the garters. He lit up the pipe, and said he’d never had a better smoke; which wasn’t quite true, because the pipe wasn’t broken in yet. Pete Manners had had it lying around ever since he’d received it as a gift four years ago from an out-of-town relative who hadn’t known he’d stopped smoking.
Dan put the tobacco into the bowl very carefully. Tobacco was precious. It was only pure luck that Pat Reilly had decided to try to grow some in his backyard just before what had happened to Peaksville had happened. It didn’t grow very well, and then they had to cure it and shred it and all, and it was just precious stuff. Everybody in town used wooden holders old McIntyre had made, to save on butts.
Last of all, Thelma Dunn gave Dan Hollis the record she had found.
Dan’s eyes misted even before he opened the package. He knew it was a record.
‘Gosh,’ he said softly. ‘What one is it? I’m almost afraid to look… ’
‘You haven’t got it, darling,’ Ethel Hollis smiled. ‘Don’t you remember, I asked about You Are My Sunshine?’
‘Oh, gosh,’ Dan said again. Carefully he removed the wrapping and stood there fondling the record, running his big hands over the worn grooves with their tiny, dulling crosswise scratches. He looked around the room, eyes shining, and they all smiled back, knowing how delighted he was.
‘Happy birthday, darling!’ Ethel said, throwing her arms around him and kissing him.
He clutched the record in both hands, holding it off to one side as she pressed against him. ‘Hey,’ he laughed, pulling back his head. ‘Be careful… I’m holding a priceless object!’ He looked around again, over his wife’s arms, which were still around his neck. His eyes were hungry. ‘Look… do you think we could play it? Lord, what I’d give to hear some new music… just the first part, the orchestra part, before Como sings?’
Faces sobered. After a minute, John Sipich said, ‘I don’t think we’d better, Dan. After all, we don’t know just where the singer comes in – it’d be taking too much of a chance. Better wait till you get home.’
Dan Hollis reluctantly put the record on the buffet with all his other presents. ‘It’s good,’ he said automatically, but disappointedly, ‘that I can’t play it here.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Sipich. ‘It’s good.’ To compensate for Dan’s disappointed tone, he repeated. ‘It’s good.’
They ate dinner, the candles lighting their smiling faces, and ate it all right down to the last delicious drop of gravy. They complimented Mom and Aunt Amy on the roast beef, and the peas and carrots, and the tender corn on the cob. The corn hadn’t come from the Fremont’s cornfield, naturally – everybody knew what was out there; and the field was going to weeds.
Then they polished off the dessert – homemade ice cream and cookies And then they sat back, in the flickering light of the candles, and chatted waiting for television.
There never was a lot of mumbling on television night – everybody came and had a good dinner at the Fremonts’, and that was nice, and afterwards there was television and nobody really thought much about that – it just had to be put up with. So it was a pleasant enough get-together, aside from your having to watch what you said just as carefully as you always did everyplace. If a dangerous thought came into your mind, you just started mumbling, even right in the middle of a sentence. When you did that, the others just ignored you until you felt happier again and stopped.
Anthony liked television night. He had done only two or three awful things on television night in the whole past year.
Mom had put a bottle of brandy on the table, and they each had a tiny glass of it. Liquor was even more precious than tobacco. The villagers could make wine, but the grapes weren’t right, and certainly the techniques weren’t, and it wasn’t very good wine. There were only a few bottles of real liquor left in the village – four rye, three Scotch, three brandy, nine real wine and half a bottle of Drambuie belonging to old McIntyre (only for marriages) – and when those were gone, that was it.
Afterward, everybody wished that the brandy hadn’t been brought out because Dan Hollis drank more of it than he should have, and mixed it with a lot of the homemade wine. Nobody thought anything about it at first, because he didn’t show it much outside, and it was his birthday party and a happy party, and Anthony liked these get-togethers and shouldn’t see any reason to do anything even if he was listening.
But Dan Hollis got high, and did a fool thing. If they’d seen it coming, they’d have taken him outside and walked him around.
The first thing they knew, Dan stopped laughing right in the middle of the story about how Thelma Dunn had found the Perry Como record and dropped it and it hadn’t broken because she’d moved faster than she ever had before in her life and caught it. He was fondling the record again, and looking longingly at the Fremonts’ gramophone over in the corner, and suddenly he stopped laughing and his face got slack, and then it got ugly, and he said, ‘Oh, Christ!’
Immediately the room was still. So still they could hear the whirring movement of the grandfather’s clock out in the hall. Pat Reilly had been playing the piano, softly. He stopped, his hands poised over the yellowed keys.
The candles on the dining-room table flickered in a cool breeze that blew through the lace curtains over the bay window.
‘Keep playing, Pat,’ Anthony’s father said softly.
Pat started again. He played Night and Day, but his eyes were sidewise on Dan Hollis, and he missed notes.
Dan stood in the middle of the room, holding the record. In his other hand he held a glass of brandy so hard his hand shook.
They were all looking at him.
‘Christ,’ he said again, and he made it sound like a dirty word. Reverend Younger, who had been talking with Mom and Aunt Amy by the dining-room door, said ‘Christ’ too – but he was using it in a prayer. His hands were clasped, and his eyes were closed.
John Sipich moved forward. ‘Now, Dan… it’s good for you to talk that way. But you don’t want to talk too much, you know.’
Dan shook off the hand Sipich put on his arm.
‘Can’t even play my record,’ he said loudly. He looked down at the record, and then around at their faces. ‘Oh, my God…’
He threw the glassful of brandy against the wall. It splattered and ran down the wallpaper in streaks.
Some of the women gasped.
‘Dan,’ Sipich said in a whisper. ‘Dan, cut it out–’
Pat Reilly was playing Night and Day louder, to cover up the sounds of the talk. It wouldn’t do any good, though, if Anthony was listening.
Dan Hollis went over to the piano and stood by Pat’s shoulder, swaying a little.
‘Pat,’ he said. ‘Don’t play that. Play this.’ And he began to sing. Softly, hoarsely, miserably: ‘Happy birthday to me… Happy birthday to me…’
‘Dan!’ Ethel Hollis screamed. She tried to run across the room to him. Mary Sipich grabbed her arm and held her back. ‘Dan.’ Ethel screamed again. ‘Stop–’
‘My God, be quiet!’ hissed Mary Sipich, and pushed her toward one of the men, who put his hand over her mouth and held her still.
‘ – Happy birthday, dear Danny,’ Dan sang. ‘Happy birthday to me!’ He stopped and looked down at Pat Reilly. ‘Play it, Pat. Play it, so I can sing right… you know I can’t carry a tune unless somebody plays it!’
Pat Reilly put his hand on the keys and began Lover – in a slow waltz tempo, the way Anthony liked it. Pat’s face was white. His hands fumbled.
Dan Hollis stared over at the dining-room door. At Anthony’s mother, and at Anthony’s father, who had gone to join her.
‘You had him,’ he said. Tears gleamed on his cheeks as the candlelight caught them. ‘You had to go and have him …’
He closed his eyes, and the tears squeezed out. He sang loudly, ‘You are my sunshine… my only sunshine… you make me happy… when I am blue…’
Anthony came into the room.
Pat stopped playing. He froze. Everybody froze. The breeze rippled the curtains. Ethel Hollis couldn’t even try to scream; she had fainted.
‘Please don’t take my sunshine… away…’ Dan’s voice faltered into silence. His eyes widened. He put both hands out in front of him, the empty glass in one, the record in the other. He hiccupped and said, ‘No–’
‘Bad man,’ Anthony said, and thought Dan Hollis into something like nothing anyone would have believed possible, and then he thought the thing into a grave deep, deep in the cornfield.
The glass and record thumped on the rug. Neither broke.
Anthony’s purple gaze went around the room.
Some of the people began mumbling. They all tried to smile. The sound of mumbling filled the room like a far-off approval. Out of the murmuring came one or two clear voices:
‘Oh, it’s a very good thing,’ said John Sipich.
‘A good thing,’ said Anthony’s father, smiling. He’d had more practice in smiling than most of them. ‘A wonderful thing.’
‘It’s swell, just swell,’ said Pat Reilly, tears leaking from eyes and nose, and he began to play the piano again, softly, his trembling hands feeling for Night and Day.
Anthony climbed up on top of the piano, and Pat played for two hours.
Afterward, they watched television. They all went into the front room, and lit just a few candles, and pulled up chairs around the set. It was a small-screen set, and they couldn’t all sit close enough to it to see, but that didn’t matter. They didn’t even turn the set on. It wouldn’t have worked anyway, there being no electricity in Peaksville.
They just sat silently, and watched the twisting, writhing shapes on the screen, and listened to the sounds that came out of the speaker, and none of them had any idea of what it was all about. They never did. It was always the same.
‘It’s real nice,’ Aunt Amy said once, her pale eyes on meaningless flickers and shadows. ‘But I liked it a little better when there were cities outside and we could get real–’
‘Why, Amy!’ said Mom. ‘It’s good for you to say such a thing. Very good. But how can you mean it? Why, this television is much better than anything we ever used to get!’
‘Yes,’ chimed in John Sipich. ‘It’s fine. It’s the best show we’ve ever seen!’
He sat on the couch, with two other men, holding Ethel Hollis flat against the cushions, holding her arms and legs and putting their hands over her mouth, so she couldn’t start screaming again.
‘It’s really good!’ he said again.
Mom looked out of the front window, across the darkened road, across Henderson’s darkened wheatfield to the vast, endless, gray nothingness in which the little village of Peaksville floated like a soul – the huge nothingness that was evident at night, when Anthony’s brassy day had gone.
It did no good to wonder where they were… no good at all. Peaksville was just someplace. Someplace away from the world. It was wherever it had been since that day three years ago when Anthony had crept from her womb and old Doc Bates – God rest him – had screamed and dropped him and tried to kill him, and Anthony had whined and done the thing. He had taken the village someplace. Or had destroyed the world and left only the village, nobody knew which.
It did no good to wonder about it. Nothing at all did any good – except to live as they must live. Must always, always live, if Anthony would let them.
These thoughts were dangerous, she thought.
She began to mumble. The others started mumbling too. They had all been thinking, evidently.
The men on the couch whispered and whispered to Ethel Hollis, and when they took their hands away, she mumbled too.
While Anthony sat on top of the set and made television, they sat around and mumbled and watched the meaningless, flickering shapes far into the night.
Next day it snowed, and killed off half the crops – but it was a good day.