“There’s a man coming into my library who scares me,” Molly said.
They were watching wasps gutting a pear one of the kids had dropped in the dust under Molly’s big maple in the backyard, during a hot evening with the shadows lying horizontal and cicadas somewhere in the wilderness of Arlington, Massachusetts, grinding their warning: there won’t be much more of this, folks.
Fred shifted carefully in his aluminum folding chair. He’d broken one already this fall. “They’re too flimsy,” Fred said.
“You’re too large,” Molly said.
“Scares you how?” Fred asked her. He was paying attention to the wasps. If they were ants, you’d say it was industry; but the wasps were having fun doing what they were doing. They treated the pear as if it were an elephant they had killed.
“It’s the books he wants to read,” Molly said. “And even without that, he’s the kind of person that if he’s in the elevator when the doors open, you take the stairs; if you’re in it when he gets on, you suddenly want to get off.”
Molly was drinking cheap red wine, and the wasps were interested in that too, so she had to keep an eye on her glass and shoo them away. She was pink and pretty, with short brown curls that caught the glancing evening light. Molly Riley did not look like the mother of two children: a twelve-year-old boy, Sam, and his younger sister, Terry. Molly was still wearing her work clothes, a blue linen dress today.
“He really scares you,” Fred said.
Molly stood up, threw her face into a goonish, vacant stare, and gulped, almost slavered, while she moved her feet up and down in place, as if uncomfortable on the earth.
“God, Molly,” Fred said.
“It’s what he does,” Molly said.
“What does this guy want in the Cambridge Public Library?” “He only reads there,” Molly said. “I can’t find out who he is.
If he took books out, I’d have his library card and he’d be on the computer, his name and address and the rest of it.”
Molly worked at the reference desk. She knew everything, usually; or she could find out.
“Ask him his name,” Fred said. “Unless—is he one of the homeless that gather around there? A lot of them are vets. Maybe I…”
Molly sat down again, shooed wasps out of her wineglass, and took a sip. They had finished supper late, and Molly had sent the kids to start their homework at the kitchen table.
“He scares me, and I’d rather not talk to him,” Molly said. “Though I have to answer questions. I don’t want him to think I’m eager to converse, you know?”
“What does he ask about?”
“Serial killers,” Molly said. “Mass murderers, ax murderers, poisoners, Bluebeards, and such.”
Fred put his cup on the sparse gravel next to his chair, catching the flavor of her alarm.
“He wants to talk about these things with you?”
“He wants me to find him material,” Molly said. She batted a wasp and sipped at her wine. “It’s all he reads about, and it feels like an obsession; it seems—he seems—unbalanced.”
Her heavy brows were drawn together.
“It’s like having a pornographer around, except the prurience fixes on death, not sex.”
“I’ll follow him,” Fred said. “I’ll talk to him or see where he goes. At least I can find out who he is.”
Molly stood, poured the remains of her wine onto the grass next to the bristling pear, and turned toward the stairs to the kitchen.
“I’m making conversation, Fred. Don’t feel you have to move into the active mode just because the little woman voices a concern. Drink your coffee, why don’t you?”
It had been like that for a couple of weeks, ever since construction started on the new bathroom upstairs, off Molly’s bedroom. Fred would say something and Molly would go after him.
As Fred put it to himself, a family is an act of nature that consists of a female and her young. The adult male is an odd thing looming into it. This was especially true in Molly’s house, because in this case the children were not Fred’s.
It was as if this new bathroom he was giving her—gorgeous and generous, and which he had meant to be a testament and promise to her, an extension of the turf carved out by their mutual intimacy—as if that were an assault.
He’d had a windfall, and had dropped it immediately into Molly’s house—with her eager cooperation. Now the mess and havoc of this promise, which for the time being condemned Molly’s bedroom and forced them to camp downstairs on her foldout sofa, was making Fred feel like the Mongol hordes arriving in Isfahan. “You can’t own anything, can you?” Molly had spluttered at him one night while the two of them were not sleeping on her sofa.
That was true. Fred’s bargain with the world included an unspoken vow of poverty. It was the only way he knew to keep wanting to live.
“I work for a man who wants things,” Fred said. “Let Clayton Reed collect art, as if art is in the things we find and buy. I want their life; their beauty and their history and their wild spirit. I won’t keep a fucking zoo.” He sat up, trembling. He did not own pajamas. Here, in Molly’s living room, where the kids might stumble through, he slept in his shorts and T-shirt. “What am I supposed to buy? A butterfly? And nail it to the wall?”
Molly, almost asleep in one of his white shirts, mumbled, “I’m glad to have the bathroom. You know that. Thank you. But maybe you need a new car, Fred. For yourself. One that isn’t brown?”
She slipped into sleep in the blue dusk of her frilly living room, leaving Fred wide awake, confused, and mortified—a talent she had.
He looked now around her garden, with the darkness of late summer closing over it, and unnecessary clatter coming from the kitchen, and picked up his cup. The coffee left in it held no interest for the wasps.
Fred dropped the subject Molly had raised and then warned him off: the man who scared her. He and Clayton Reed were concentrating on a project that would take Fred to Paris. Clay was looking at a couple of fifteenth-century miniatures coming up for auction there, and Fred had to work to understand the paintings’ history and their proper value. This let him root contentedly in libraries and museums, persuading live information from inanimate objects.
Then, in October, Fred was out of the country on the business of the miniatures. When he returned, the bathroom was finished, in purple tile of Molly’s choosing, and they moved back into her bedroom, now a “master bedroom,” Molly said.
The first snow fell—unusually early—late in November, and Fred went out the morning after to stretch his legs. He stopped dead at the foot of the short walk from Molly’s house to the sidewalk, where two footprints splayed out side by side into large obsessive man-tracks that faced the front door. It was six-thirty. There was not much light; barely enough to see the tracks. They were blurred, as if they had been made over some time.
The tracks brought back immediately to Fred’s mind Molly doing that shuffle of discomfort, acting the part of the man who made her nervous. Fred went inside and woke Molly.
Molly sat up when he touched her shoulder. He’d gotten covered with cold air and she was warm in bed. “You remember the man you told me about?” Fred asked. “The one you said comes into your library, and scared you? What happened to him?”
“I haven’t seen him again,” Molly said. She wasn’t wearing clothes and she was slightly creased from the sheets. She shivered, got up, and put a red terry-cloth robe on. “He stopped coming. Just stopped. I never did find out who he was. Did you make coffee?”
“I put it on before I left the house.” Fred’s instincts were rippling with alarm. Those tracks proved this house, like any other, a trap.
“What’s the matter?” Molly asked, catching Fred’s concern. “Nothing, maybe,” Fred said. “Footprints outside in the snow reminded me of what you said that evening in the yard, with the wasps.”
They went downstairs and sat in the kitchen. Molly hadn’t seen the old man since September, before Fred had gone to Europe.
Fred made her describe him. He was sixty-five or seventy, she said. Maybe older. He was thin. He bent when he stood. No, he looked vigorous; the only thing about him that was sick was the way he acted. He looked frayed, but he wasn’t a derelict. It was more as if he had no one to care about him, to tell him he’d left a big patch of shaving soap on his face.
“Snow!” Terry yelled, coming into the kitchen in her Red Sox pajamas, top and bottoms worn backward, with her thin brown hair in a tangle. “No school, right?”
“Wrong, Monster,” Molly told her. “Dream on.”
“It could snow more,” she protested, looking out the window at a sky rapidly clearing to a blue that would melt the snow within the hour.
Molly sent her to get dressed, and to bounce on her older brother Sam until he acknowledged the new day.
“Don’t get me worried,” Molly said. “OK?”
“The tracks looked as if a man was there for a while, watching the house,” Fred said. “During the night or very early morning.” He didn’t add, and this is the first time I could know about it, on account of the snow.
They got the kids off to their buses, and Molly left for the library. Her shift had gone to a regular nine-to-five, weekdays, which was better for everyone. Molly was touched by Fred’s concern, but not interested. She’d had a look at the marks in the snow, but really, Fred, there are plenty of marks in the snow.
Fred called Clayton Reed’s place, on Mountjoy Street on Beacon Hill, and told him, “Don’t expect me.” They didn’t have anything special stirring right now, and what there was could wait. The two of them, in fact, were getting on each other’s nerves, because they hadn’t a current project to work on, and idle hands, as Molly’s mother frequently remarked, are the devil’s toothpick.
Fred waited until midmorning, then drove into Cambridge and parked on Broadway, in a spot from which he could see the library’s front entrance. He walked past the desk into the bright and almost vacant reading room and found Molly at her post at the reference desk.
“Is he here today?”
“Who? Oh, him. I told you, not for months,” Molly said, touched and irritated with him. “And, Fred, don’t circle the wagons around me, all right? I can’t see the landscape. Or the enemy.”
Fred went outside and sat in the car, waiting, watching the entrance. The snow ran away into the gutters. The sun shone.
In the evening, and until they went to bed, Fred looked out the front windows from time to time. After that it was harder, because Molly’s bedroom was in the back of the house, overlooking the backyard, with its now-dormant wasps and lilacs hunkered down waiting for spring. The kids had their bedrooms in the front and he would disturb Terry or Sam by going in after they were supposed to be asleep.
Fred made himself wake up at three-thirty, roamed through the dark house, and looked out the windows of the living room. The street was dark and empty. He went out to the sidewalk and looked up and down the quiet, mildly prosperous street of single-family houses with small yards showing black grass and shaped bushes.