Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Chapter 33

In the gay town of Lepingville I bought her four books of comics, a box of candy, a box of sanitary pads, two cokes, a manicure set, a travel clock with a luminous dial, a ring with a real topaz, a tennis racket, roller skates with white high shoes, field glasses, a portable radio set, chewing gum, a transparent raincoat, sunglasses, some more garments--swooners, shorts, all kinds of summer frocks. At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she woke me, sobbing, and I knew then I had been right. Telling her all at once had been better. As the grief pamphlets say: Now the healing could begin.

** End of Part One **

Chapter 32

We ate flavorless mealy bananas, bruised peaches and very palatable potato chips, and the girl continued to go on about her summer romance. I think it gave her a thrill to be able to be so candid with a parent in this way, as her mother had always been jealous of even the smallest of her daughter’s pleasures. Her voluble but disjointed account was accompanied by many a droll grimace. As I think I have already observed, I especially remember one wry face on an "ugh!" basis: jelly-mouth distended sideways and eyes rolled up in a routine blend of comic disgust.

Her astounding tale started with an introductory mention of her tent-mate of the previous summer, at another camp, a "very select" one as she put it. That tent-mate ("quite a derelict character," "half-crazy," but a "swell kid") instructed her in various male manipulations.

"Some of my school bunch, they’re pretty bad, but not as bad as this girl, Elizabeth Talbot. She goes now to a swanky private school, her father is an executive."

I recalled with a funny pang the frequency with which poor Charlotte used to introduce into party chat such elegant tidbits as "when my daughter was out hiking last year with the Talbot girl."

I wanted to know if either mother learned how bad the Talbot girl really was?

"Gosh no," exhaled limp Lo mimicking dread and relief, pressing a falsely fluttering hand to her chest.

I was more interested, however, in breakfast. Still, she continued.

Barbara Burke, a sturdy blond, two years older than Lo and by far the camp's best swimmer, had a very special canoe which she shared with Lo "because I was the only other girl who could make Willow Island" (some swimming test, I imagine). Through July, every morning Barbara and Lo would be helped to carry the boat to Onyx or Eryx (two small lakes in the wood) by Charlie Holmes, the camp mistress' son, aged thirteen--and the only human male for a couple of miles around (excepting an old meek stone-deaf handyman, and a farmer in an old Ford who sometimes sold the campers eggs as farmers will); every morning the three children would take a short cut through the beautiful innocent forest brimming with all the emblems of youth, dew, birdsongs, and at one point, among the luxuriant undergrowth, Lo would be left as sentinel, while Barbara and the boy kissed and groped behind a bush.

At first, Lo had refused "to try what it was like," but curiosity and camaraderie prevailed, and soon she and Barbara were kissing by turns with the silent, coarse and surly Charlie. Although conceding it was "sort of fun" and "fine for the ego," Lolita held Charlie's mind and manners in the greatest contempt.

By that time it was close to ten. With an ashen sense of awfulness, abetted by the realistic drabness of a gray neuralgic day, crept over me and hummed within my temples. We changed and packed. From the corridor came the cooing voices of maids at work, and presently there was a mild attempt to open the door of our room. I had Lo go to the bathroom and take a much-needed soap shower. The bed was a frightful mess with overtones of potato chips. She tried on a number of outfits. When she was ready at last, I gave her a lovely new purse of simulated calf (in which I had slipped quite a few pennies and two mint-bright dimes) and told her to buy herself a magazine in the lobby.

"I'll be down in a minute," I said. "And if I were you, my dear, I would not talk to strangers."

Except for my poor little gifts, there was not much to pack; I finished dressing and had the bellboy come up for the bags.

Everything was fine. There, in the lobby, she sat, deep in an overstuffed blood-red armchair, deep in a lurid movie magazine. A fellow of my age in tweeds (the genre of the place had changed overnight to a spurious country-squire atmosphere) was staring at my Lolita over his dead cigar and stale newspaper. There she sat, skimming along the lines with every now and then a blink: Bill's wife had worshipped him from afar long before they ever met: in fact, she used to secretly admire the famous young actor as he ate sundaes in Schwab's drugstore, etc. Nothing could have been more childish than her choice in magazines; nothing could be more harmless than to read about Jill, an energetic starlet who made her own clothes and was a student of serious literature; all was as it should be--But with what sickening longing the lecherous fellow whoever he was--come to think of it, he resembled a little my Swiss uncle Gustave—gazed at my daughter. I could have shot him then and there.

Was Mr. Swoon absolutely sure my wife had not telephoned? He was. If she did, would he tell her we had gone on to Aunt Clare's place? He would, indeedie. I settled the bill and bid Lo from her chair. She read to the car.

Still reading, she was driven to a so-called coffee shop a few blocks south. Oh, she ate all right. She even laid aside her magazine to eat, but a queer dullness had replaced her usual cheerfulness. I knew little Lo could be very nasty, so I braced myself and grinned, and waited for a squall. I was unbathed, unshaven. My nerves were a-jangle. Her mother was dead and she didn’t know it. Already, I began to suspect the error of my “break it to her slowly” plan, but I pressed on. I tried--unsuccessfully, no matter how I smacked my lips--to interest her in the road map. Our destination was, let me remind my patient reader whose meek temper Lo ought to have copied, the gay town of Lepingville, somewhere near a hypothetical hospital. That destination was in itself a perfectly arbitrary one (as, alas, so many were to be), and I shook in my shoes as I wondered how to keep the whole arrangement plausible, and what other plausible objectives to invent after we had taken in all the movies in Lepingville. More and more uncomfortable did Humbert feel.

As she was in the act of getting back into the car, an expression of pain flitted across Lo's face. It flitted again, more meaningfully, as she settled down beside me. No doubt, she reproduced it that second time for my benefit. I asked her what was the matter. "Nothing, you brute," she replied. "Are you worried for your mother?" I asked. She was silent. Leaving Briceland. Loquacious Lo was silent. Cold spiders of panic crawled down my back. This was an orphan. Whether or not the realization of a lifelong goal surpassed expectation, it felt like quite the dishonest start. I had been careless, stupid, and ignoble. And let me be quite frank: somewhere at the bottom of that dark turmoil I felt I might never tell her of her mother’s death and somehow put it off forever. In other words, poor Humbert Humbert was dreadfully unhappy, and while steadily and inanely driving toward Lepingville, he kept racking his brains for some quip, under the bright wing of which he might dare turn to his seatmate. It was she, however, who broke the silence:

"Oh, a squashed squirrel," she said. "What a shame."

"Yes, isn't it?"

"Let us stop at the next gas station," Lo continued. "I want to go to the washroom."

"We shall stop wherever you want," I said. Another poor precedent.

I glanced at her. Thank God, the child was smiling.

"You chump," she said, sweetly smiling at me. "You revolting creature. I ought to call the police and tell them you kidnapped me."

Was she joking? An ominous hysterical note rang through her silly words. Some claptrap filled my head, the mystic bonds between mother and daughter, “a daughter just knows,” grasping at straws. The sweat rolled down my neck, and we almost ran over some little animal or other that was crossing the road with tail erect, and again my vile-tempered companion called me an ugly name. When we stopped at the filling station, she scrambled out without a word and was a long time away. Slowly, lovingly, an elderly friend with a broken nose wiped my windshield--they do it differently at every place, from chamois cloth to soapy brush, this fellow used a pink sponge. She appeared at last. "Look," she said in that neutral voice that hurt me so, "give me some dimes and nickels. I want to call mother in that hospital. What's the number?"

"Get in," I said. "You can't call that number."


"Get in and slam the door."

She got in and slammed the door. The old garage man beamed at her. I swung onto the highway. I couldn’t keep it in any longer. She had to know.

"Why can't I call my mother if I want to?"

"Because," I answered, "your mother is dead."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Chapter 31

I am trying to describe these things not only to relive them in my present boundless misery, but to parse out the lessons I have learned and hope you, kind readers, may learn through me. The beastly (the grieving, the lies, the murder) and beautiful (fatherhood) merged at one point, and it is that borderline I would like to fix, and I feel I fail to do so utterly. Why?

The stipulation of the law, according to which a man may not murder another, was set forth long ago, and is still preserved, rather tacitly, in the United States. At eighteen, one is tried, rather harshly, as an adult. There is nothing wrong, say both hemispheres, when a brute, blessed by the law, sheds his civility to kill in self-defense against a kidnapper, pedophile, and general ne’er-do-well. And yet when a number of years have passed between crime and punishment, and yet when the word premeditated enters the equation, and yet when the fiend is a beloved cultural figure, and yet, and yet, and yet.

I have but followed nature. I am a lion defending his cub. Why then this horror that I cannot shake off?

Chapter 30

I have to tread carefully. I have to speak in a whisper. Oh you, veteran crime reporter, you grave old usher, you once popular policeman, now in solitary confinement, having to put up with the ravings of a murderer! Please do not silence this overexcited fool, for I fear my days on this earth are numbered.

Chapter 29

The door of the lighted bathroom stood ajar; in addition to that, a skeleton glow came though the Venetian blind from the outside arclights; these intercrossed rays penetrated the darkness of the bedroom.

Clothed in one of her old nightgowns, Lo lay on her side with her back to me, in the middle of the bed. Her lightly veiled body and bare limbs formed a Z. She had put both pillows under her dark tousled head; a band of pale light crossed her top vertebrae.

I changed into pajamas and wondered what to do next.

Now this was something the intruder had not expected. I was as quiet as could be, yet here she was staring at me, and thickly calling me "Barbara." It took me a moment to realize she was talking in her sleep. Softly, with a hopeless sigh, Dolly turned away, resuming her initial position. For at least two minutes I waited on the brink: I was resigned to sleeping on the floor, but there was no chance I was going to surrender my pillow to her. Her faint breathing had the rhythm of sleep. Finally I heaved myself onto a narrow margin of bed, stealthily pulled at the pillow further from her head, and Lolita lifted her head and gaped at me, displeased. I took the pillow anyway.

Slowly her head turned away and dropped onto her single pillow. I settled down at the foot of the bed and lay cold and still on my narrow strip of carpet. Some time passed, nothing changed, and I decided I might risk pulling the blanket a little closer to me, so that it might fall on my shivering side and, if only slightly, warm me. But hardly had I moved it an inch than her breathing was suspended, and I had the odious feeling that little Dolores was wide awake and would explode in screams if I moved her blanket a bit more. Please, reader, laugh all you want: at least smile a little. After all, there is no harm in smiling.

There is nothing louder than an American hotel; and, mind you, this was supposed to be a quiet, cozy, old-fashioned, homey place--"gracious living" and all that stuff. The clatter of the elevator's gate--some twenty yards northeast of my head but as clearly perceived as if it were inside my left temple--alternated with the banging and booming of the machine's various evolutions and lasted well beyond midnight. Every now and then, immediately east of my left ear, the corridor would brim with cheerful, resonant and inept exclamations ending in a volley of good-nights. When that stopped, a toilet immediately north of my cerebellum took over. It was a manly, energetic, deep-throated toilet, and it was used many times. Its gurgle and gush and long afterflow shook the wall behind me. Then someone in a southern direction was extravagantly sick, almost coughing out his life with his liquor, and his toilet descended like a veritable Niagara, immediately beyond our bathroom. And when finally all the waterfalls had stopped, and the enchanted hunters were sound asleep, the avenue under the window of my insomnia, to the west of my wake--a staid, eminently residential, dignified alley of huge trees--degenerated into the despicable haunt of gigantic trucks roaring through the wet and windy night.

Just as I was beginning to nod off, Lo made a trip to the bathroom for a draft of water. She took the resilient and cold paper cup in her shadowy hand and gulped down its contents gratefully, her long eyelashes pointing cupward, and then, with an infantile gesture, little Lolita wiped her lips against my shoulder. She fell back on her pillow and was instantly asleep again.

My pillow smelled of hair. Time and again my consciousness folded, my shuffling body entered the sphere of sleep, shuffled out again, never for long. If I dwell at some length on the tremors and groupings of that distant night, it is to underscore the extent to which I was out of my element, and to allude to a far more insomnia-inducing element: that my child’s kidnapper was in that very hotel, himself surely not sleeping but scheming. And I had spoken with him, the louse.

In the first antemeridian hours there was a lull in the restless hotel night. Then around four the corridor toilet cascaded and its door banged. A little after five a reverberating monologue began to arrive, in several installments, from some courtyard or parking place. It was not really a monologue, since the speaker stopped every few seconds to listen (presumably) to another fellow, but that other voice did not reach me, and so no real meaning could be derived from the part heard. Its matter-of-fact intonations, however, helped to bring in the dawn, and the room was already suffused with lilac gray, when several industrious toilets went to work, one after the other, and the clattering and whining elevator began to rise and take down early risers and downers, and for some minutes I miserably dozed, and Charlotte was a mermaid in a greenish tank, and somewhere in the passage Dr. Boyd said "Good morning to you" in a fruity voice, and birds were busy in the trees, and then Lolita yawned.

By six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen she had dragged me down to breakfast. Sleep or no, I was up.

Between that time, she had already unburdened herself of her dark camp secret: she had met a boy. She went into the affair with a candid detail (open-mouthed kisses and the like) that I tried, in vain, to avoid. Soon, she was probing into my own awful adolescence.

"You mean," she persisted, now kneeling above me, "you never had a girlfriend when you were a kid?"

"Never," I answered quite truthfully.

However, I shall not bore my learned readers with a detailed account of Lolita's presumption. Suffice it to say that in this beautiful hardly formed young girl whom modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth had tried to utterly and hopelessly deprave, was less corruption than she herself suspected.

Chapter 28

Gentlewomen of the jury! Bear with me! Allow me to take just a tiny bit of your precious time. I had left Lolita still sitting on the edge of the abysmal bed, drowsily raising her foot, fumbling at the shoelaces, and I was, despite the dreadful circumstances, happy to have a daughter. I felt I was doing well so far. Perhaps a bit overindulgent, but well nonetheless. I only hoped I could keep it up. Despite my having dabbled in psychiatry and social work, I really knew very little about children. After all, Lolita was only twelve, and no matter what concessions I made to time and place, I still knew that the divide between us was enormous.

Yet divide or no, was my daughter now. I needed a drink; but there was no barroom in that venerable place full of perspiring philistines and period objects.

I drifted to the Men's Room. There, a person in the clerical black--a "hearty party" as they say--checking with the assistance of Vienna, if it was still there, inquired of me how I had liked Dr. Boyd's talk, and looked puzzled when I said Boyd was quite a boy. Upon which, I neatly chucked the tissue paper I had been wiping my sensitive finger tips with into the receptacle provided for it, and sallied lobbyward. Comfortably resting my elbows on the counter, I asked Mr. Potts was he quite sure my wife had not telephoned, and what about that cot? He answered she had not (she was dead, of course) and the cot would be installed tomorrow if we decided to stay on. This displeased me. I was aware that this first night would set the tone for the rest of our trip, and I wanted to maintain as many of those oft-shattering boundaries I could.

From a big crowded place called The Hunters' Hall came a sound of many voices discussing horticulture or eternity. Another room, called The Raspberry Room, all bathed in light, with bright little tables and a large one with "refreshments," was still empty except for a hostess (that type of worn woman with a glassy smile and Charlotte's manner of speaking); she floated up to me to ask if I was Mr. Braddock, because if so, Miss Beard had been looking for me. "What a name for a woman," I said and strolled away. Going back to the lobby, I found there a change: a number of people in floral dresses or black cloth had formed little groups here and there.

I left the loud lobby and stood outside, on the white steps, looking at the hundreds of powdered bugs wheeling around the lamps in the soggy black night. Suddenly I was aware that in the darkness next to me there was somebody sitting in a chair on the pillared porch. I could not really see him but what gave him away was the rasp of a screwing off, then a discreet gurgle, then the final note of a placid screwing on. I was about to move away when his voice addressed me:

"Where the devil did you get her?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"I said: the weather is getting better."

"Seems so."

"Who's the lassie?"

"My daughter."

"You lie--she's not."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I said: July was hot. Where's her mother?"


"I see. Sorry. By the way, why don't you two lunch with me tomorrow. That dreadful crowd will be gone by then."

"We'll be gone too. Good night."

"Sorry. I'm pretty drunk. Good night. That child of yours needs a lot of sleep. Sleep is a rose, as the Persians say. Smoke?"

"Not now."

He struck a light, but because he was drunk, or because the wind was, the flame illumined not him but another person, a very old man, one of those permanent guests of old hotels--and his white rocker. Nobody said anything and the darkness returned to its initial place. Then I heard the old-timer cough and deliver himself of some sepulchral mucus.

I left the porch. At least half an hour in all had elapsed. I ought to have asked for a sip. The strain was beginning to tell, the weariness of a long day of travel and the first day of fatherhood. I made my way through a constellation of fixed people in one corner of the lobby. A twittering group hadgathered near the elevator. I again chose the stairs, for exercise.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Chapter 27.2

The miracle I hankered for did happen after all. A man and a girl, more or less conjoined in a dark car under dripping trees, told us we were in the heart of The Park, but had only to turn left at the next traffic light and there we would be. We did not see any next traffic light--in fact, The Park was black--but soon after falling under the smooth spell of a nicely graded curve, the travelers became aware of a diamond glow through the mist, then a gleam of lakewater appeared--and there it was, marvelously and inexorably, under spectral trees, at the top of a graveled drive--the pale palace of The Enchanted Hunters.

A row of parked cars, like pigs at a trough, seemed at first sight to forbid access; but then, by magic, a formidable convertible, resplendent, rubious in the lighted rain, came into motion--was energetically backed out by a broad-shouldered driver--and we gratefully slipped into the gap it had left. I immediately regretted my haste for I noticed that my predecessor had now taken advantage of a garage-like shelter nearby where there was ample space for another car; but I was too impatient to follow his example.

"Wow! Looks swank," remarked my vulgar daughter squinting at the stucco as she crept out into the audible drizzle. Under the arclights enlarged replicas of chestnut leaves plunged and played on white pillars. I unlocked the trunk compartment. A hunchbacked and hoary attendant in a uniform of sorts took our bags and wheeled them slowly into the lobby. It was full of old ladies and clergy men. Lolita sank down on her haunches to caress a pale-faced, blue-freckled, black-eared cocker spaniel swooning on the floral carpet under her hand while I cleared my throat through the throng to the desk. There a bald porcine old man--everybody was old in that old hotel--examined my features with a polite smile, then leisurely produced my (garbled) telegram, wrestled with some dark doubts, turned his head to look at the clock, and finally said he was very sorry, he had held the room with the twin beds till half past six, and now it was gone. A religious convention, he said, had clashed with a flower show in Briceland, and--"The name," I said coldly, "is not Humberg and not Humbug, but Herbert, I mean Humbert, and any room will do, just put in a cot for my little daughter. She is ten and very tired."

The pink old fellow peered good-naturedly at Lo. Whatever doubts the fellow had, they were dispelled by that blossom-like vision. He said, he might still have a room, had one, in fact--with a double bed. As to the cot--

"Mr. Potts, do we have any cots left?" Potts, also pink and bald, with white hairs growing out of his ears and other holes, would see what could be done. He came and spoke while I unscrewed my fountain pen, everything muted by the screams of my bladder.

"Our double beds are really triple," Potts cozily said tucking me and my kid in. "One crowded night we had three ladies and a child like yours sleep together. However--would there be a spare cot in 49, Mr. Swine?

"I think it went to the Swoons," said Swine, the initial old clown.

"We'll manage somehow," I said. "My wife may join us later--but even then, I suppose, we'll manage."

The two pink pigs were now among my best friends. In the slow clear hand of crime I wrote: Dr. Edgar H. Humbert and daughter, 342 Lawn Street, Ramsdale. A key (342!) was half-shown to me (magician showing object he is about to palm)--and handed over to the attendant. Lo, leaving the dog as she would leave me some day, rose from her haunches; a handsome young woman slipped open the elevator door, and the child went in followed by her throat-clearing father and the attendant with the bags.

"Say, it's our house number," said cheerful Lo.

There was a double bed, a mirror, a double bed in the mirror, a closet door with mirror, a bathroom door ditto, a blue-dark window, a reflected bed there, the same in the closet mirror, two chairs, a glass-topped table, two bedtables, a double bed: a big panel bed, to be exact, with a Tuscan rose chenille spread, and two frilled, pink-shaded nightlamps, left and right.

I was tempted to place a five-dollar bill in that sepia palm, but thought the largesse might be misconstrued, so I placed a quarter. Added another. He withdrew. Click. Alone at last. I departed to the restroom without a word, relieved to have made it without incident.

"Are we going to sleep in one room?" said Lo on my return.

"Now look here," I said, sitting down, while she stood, a few feet away from me, and stared at herself contentedly, not unpleasantly surprised at her own appearance, filling with her own vain sunshine the surprised and pleased closet-door mirror. “Let's settle this once for all. For all practical purposes I am your father. I have a feeling of great affection for you. In your mother's absence I am responsible for your welfare. We are not rich, and while we travel, we shall be thrown a good deal together. I've asked them to put in a cot. Which I'll use."

"You are crazy," said Lo.


"Because, those cots are tiny. You’d never fit!”

Lo walked into the closet, walked out again with a young golden giggle, opened the adjoining door, and after carefully peering inside with her strange smoky eyes lest she make another mistake, retired to the bathroom.

I opened the window, tore off my sweat-drenched shirt, changed.

She said: "Look, let's get something to eat."

It was then that I sprang my surprise.

Oh, what a happy child (or at least, what a talented actress)! She walked up to the open suitcase as if stalking it from afar, at a kind of slow-motion walk, peering at that distant treasure box on the luggage support. She stepped up to it, lifting her rather high-heeled feet rather high, and bending her boy-knees while she walked through dilating space with the slowness of one walking under water or in a flight dream. Then she raised by the armlets a copper-colored, charming and quite expensive vest, very slowly stretching it between her silent hands. Then she pulled out the slow snake of a brilliant belt and tried it on. I was pleased she was pleased. She hugged me and we left for dinner.

And so to the elevator, daughter swinging her old white purse, father walking in front. As we stood waiting to be taken down, she threw back her head, yawned without restraint and shook her curls.

"When did they make you get up at that camp?"

"Half-past--" she stifled another yawn--"six"--yawn in full with a shiver of all her frame. "Half-past," she repeated, her throat filling up again. The movie wasn’t happening.

The dining room met us with a smell of fried fat and a faded smile. It was a spacious and pretentious place with maudlin murals depicting enchanted hunters in various postures and states of enchantment amid a medley of pallid animals, dryads and trees. A few scattered old ladies, two clergymen, and a man in a sports coat were finishing their meals in silence. The dining room closed at nine, and the green-clad, poker-faced serving girls were, happily, in a desperate hurry to get rid of us.

"Does not he look exactly, but exactly, like Quilty?" said Lo in a soft voice, her sharp brown elbow not pointing, but visibly burning to point, at the lone diner in the loud checks, in the far corner of the room.

"Like our fat Ramsdale dentist?"

Lo arrested the mouthful of water she had just taken, and put down her dancing glass.

"Course not," she said with a splutter of mirth. "I meant the writer fellow in the Dromes ad."

I didn’t yet know to curse his name.

After dinner, the dessert was plunked down--a huge wedge of cherry pie for the young lady and vanilla ice cream her protector, most of which she expeditiously added to her pie.

She had had a long long day, she had gone rowing in the morning with Barbara whose sister was Waterfront Director, as she now started to tell me in between suppressed palate-humping yawns, growing in volume. The movie that had vaguely loomed in her mind was, of course, by the time we watertreaded out of the dining room, forgotten. As we stood in the elevator, she leaned against me, faintly smiling. "Sleepy, huh?" said the attendant who was bringing up the quiet Franco-Irish gentleman and his daughter as well as two withered women, experts in roses. They looked with sympathy at my frail, tanned daughter. I had almost to carry her into our room. There, she sat down on the edge of the bed, swaying a little, speaking in dove-dull, long-drawn tones.

"If I tell you--if I tell you, will you promise [sleepy, so sleepy--head lolling, eyes going out], promise you won't make complaints?"

"Your secret? Later, Lo. Now go to bed. I'll leave you here, and you go to bed. Give you ten minutes."

I pocketed the key and walked downstairs, beginning to suspect that whatever secret she had to tell me was absolutely none of my business. So you see, I was already learning one of those lessons they don’t tell you—didn’t tell me—about parenthood: the complete invasion of all the boundaries you spent your whole life cultivating.

Chapter 27.1

Still in Parkington. Finally, I did achieve an hour's slumber--from which I was woken by gratuitous and horribly exhausting congress with a small hairy hermaphrodite, a total stranger. By then it was six in the morning, and it suddenly occurred to me it might be a good thing to arrive at the camp earlier than I had said. From Parkington I had still a hundred miles to go, and there would be more than that to the Hazy Hills and Briceland. If I had said I would come for Dolly in the afternoon, it was only because my fancy insisted on merciful night falling as soon as possible upon my impatience. But now I foresaw all kinds of misunderstandings and was all a-jitter lest delay might give her the opportunity of some idle telephone call to Ramsdale. However, when at 9.30 a.m. I attempted to start, I was confronted by a dead battery, and noon was nigh when at last I left Parkington.

I reached my destination around half past two; parked my car in a pine grove where a green-shirted, redheaded impish lad stood throwing horseshoes in sullen solitude; was laconically directed by him to an office in a stucco cottage; in a dying state, had to endure for several minutes the inquisitive commiseration of the camp mistress, a worn out female with rusty hair. Dolly she said was all packed and ready to go. She knew her mother was sick but not critically. Would Mr. Haze, I mean, Mr. Humbert, care to meet the camp counselors? Or look at the cabins where the girls live? Each dedicated to a Disney creature? Or visit the Lodge? Or should Charlie be sent over to fetch her? The girls were just finishing fixing the Dining Room for a dance. (And perhaps afterwards she would say to somebody or other: "The poor guy looked like his own ghost.")

Let me retain for a moment that scene in all its trivial and fateful detail: hag Holmes writing out a receipt, scratching her head, pulling a drawer out of her desk, pouring change into my impatient palm, then neatly spreading a banknote over it with a bright ". . . and five!"; photographs of girl-children; some gaudy moth or butterfly, still alive, safely pinned to the wall ("nature study"); the framed diploma of the camp's dietitian; a card produced by efficient Holmes with a report of Dolly Haze's behavior for July ("fair to good; keen on swimming and boating"); a sound of trees and birds . . . I was standing with my back to the open door, and then I felt the blood rush to my head as I heard her voice behind me, unsure of how much I would have to console, offer hope, and thus, lie to the child. She arrived dragging and bumping her heavy suitcase. "Hi!" she said, and stood still, looking at me with sly, glad eyes, her soft lips parted in a slightly foolish but wonderfully endearing smile.

She was thinner and taller, and for a second it seemed to me her face was less pretty than the mental imprint I had: her cheeks looked hollowed and too much tan camouflaged her rosy rustic features. But no matter, I reasoned: all widower Humbert had to do, wanted to do, or would do, was to give this wan-looking though sun-colored little orphan with shadowy eye-circles a sound education, a healthy and happy girlhood, a clean home, nice girl-friends of her age. And yet "in a wink," as the Germans say, I saw past her new height and color, and she was my daughter again--in fact, more of my daughter than ever. I let my hand rest on her head and took up her bag. She was all rose and honey, dressed in her brightest gingham, and because of her childish gait, her saddle oxfords looked somehow too large and too high-heeled for her. Good-bye, Camp Q, merry Camp Q. Good-bye, plain unwholesome food.

In the hot car she settled down beside me, slapped a prompt fly on her knee; then, her mouth working violently on a piece of chewing gum, she rapidly cranked down the window on her side and settled back again. We sped through the striped and speckled forest.

"How's Mother?" she asked dutifully.

“Fair to good,” I told her. I said the doctors did not quite know yet what the trouble was. Anyway, something abdominal. Abominable? No, abdominal. We would have to hang around for a while. The hospital was in the country, near the gay town of Lepingville, where a great poet had resided in the early nineteenth century and where we would take in all the shows. She thought it a peachy idea and wondered if we could make Lepingville before nine p.m.

"We should be at Briceland by dinner time," I said, "and tomorrow we'll visit Lepingville. How was the hike? Did you have a marvelous time at the camp?"


"Sorry to leave?"


"Talk, Lo--don't grunt. Tell me something."

"What thing, Dad?" She used the word without my asking her to. I beamed at her.

"Any old thing."

"Okay, if I call you that?"

"More than okay."

"When did you fall for my mummy?"

"Some day, Lo, you will understand many emotions and situations, such as for example the harmony, the beauty of spiritual relationship."

"Bah!" said the girl, cynically.

Shallow lull in the dialogue, filled with some landscape.

"Look, Lo, at all those cows on that hillside."

"I think I'll vomit if I look at a cow again."

"You know, we missed you terribly, Lo.” A white lie for her spiteful mummy. “The house wasn’t the same without you.”

"I doubt it. You two forgot all about me, I bet. You drive much faster than my mummy, mister."

I slowed down from a blind seventy to a purblind fifty.

"Why do you think we have ceased caring for you, Lo?"

"She didn’t send me a thing, and all you sent was candy."

A highway patrol car pulled me over. Florid and beetle-browed, its driver stared at me:

“Happen to see a blue sedan, same make as yours, pass you before the junction?"

"Why, no."

"We didn't," said Lo, eagerly leaning across me, "but are you sure it was blue, because--"

The cop (what shadow of us was he after?) gave the little colleen his best smile and went into a U-turn.

We drove on.

"The fruithead!" remarked Lo. "He should have nabbed you."

"Why me for heaven's sake?"

"Well, the speed in this bum state is fifty. No, don't slow down, you, dull bulb. He's gone now." Only minutes away from camp, and the abuse had begun.

"We have still quite a stretch," I said, "and I want to get there before dark. So be a good girl."

"That light was red,” said Lo comfortably. “I've never seen such driving."

We rolled silently through a silent townlet.

"Say, wouldn't Mother be absolutely mad if she found out you let me have all the dessert I wanted?"

"What makes you think I’ll let you?” I said. “Remember, I’m no longer just your tenant.”

"But you will let me, won’t you?"

"Not all you want. Some, within reason, if you behave. I think we are going to have some more rain. Don't you want to tell me of those little pranks of yours in camp?"

"You talk like a book, Dad."

"What have you been up to?"

"Are you easily shocked?"

"Would I have reason to be?”

"Well--I joined in all the activities that were offered."


"I was taught to live happily and richly with others and to develop a wholesome personality. Be a cake, in fact."

I wondered if she already suspected there was more wrong with her mother than I was telling her, if her sarcasm was a coping mechanism.

"Yes. I saw something of the sort in the booklet."

"We loved the sings around the fire in the big stone fireplace or under the darned stars, where every girl merged her own spirit of happiness with the voice of the group."

"I know you’re joking, Lo, but you’ve an excellent singing voice, and I hope camp gave you an occasion to develop it.”

"The Girl Scout's motto," said Lo rhapsodically, "is also mine. I fill my life with worthwhile deeds such as--well, never mind what. My duty is--to be useful. I am a friend to animals. I obey orders. I am cheerful. That was another police car. I am thrifty and I am absolutely filthy in thought, word and deed."

"Now I do hope that's all, you witty child."

"Yep. That's all. No--wait a sec. We baked in a reflector oven. Isn't that terrific?"

"Well, that's better."

"We washed zillions of dishes. 'Zillions' you know is schoolmarm's slang for many-many-many-many. Oh yes, last but not least, as Mother says--Now let me see--what was it? I know we made shadowgraphs. Gee, what fun."

"Sounds like it.”

"And that’s it. Except for one little thing, something I simply can't tell you without blushing all over."

"Perhaps you’d better not, then."

"If you let me whisper, I will. Do you sleep in your old room or in a heap with Mother?"

"Heap, of course. Until recently, that is, what with her illness. Your mother may have to undergo a very serious operation, Lo."

"Stop at that candy bar, will you," said Lo.

In retrospect, then would have been an ideal time to assert my newfound fatherly authority and rattle off the names of any number of healthy alternatives she was welcome to enjoy. I did not. Sitting on a high stool, Lolita was served an elaborate ice-cream concoction topped with synthetic syrup. It was erected and brought her by a pimply brute of a boy in a greasy bow-tie who eyed my fragile child in her thin cotton frock with carnal deliberation. Fortunately she dispatched the stuff with her usual alacrity.

"How much cash do you have?" I asked.

"Not a cent," she said sadly, lifting her eyebrows, showing me the empty inside of her money purse.

"This is a matter that will be mended in due time," I said. "Are you coming?"

"Say, I wonder if they have a washroom."

"You are not going there," I said firmly. "It is sure to be a vile place. Do come on."

She was on the whole an obedient girl. We drove under a gloomy sky, up a winding road, then down again.

"Well, there are worse dads out there," said Lolita in a delayed soft voice, with a sort of sigh.

Dusk was beginning to saturate pretty little Briceland, its phony colonial architecture, curiosity sops and imported shade trees, when we drove through the weakly lighted streets. The air, despite a steady drizzle beading it, was warm and green, and a queue of people, mainly children and old men, had already formed before the box office of a movie house, dripping with jewel-fires.

"Oh, I want to see that picture. Let's go right after dinner. Oh, let's!"

"We might," chanted Humbert--knowing perfectly well that by nine, the child would be exhausted from travel.

"Easy!" cried Lo, lurching forward, as an accursed truck in front of us, its backside carbuncles pulsating, stopped at a crossing.

You see, by this point I had worked up a debilitating need to use the facilities, but was also unwilling to stop off anywhere but the most sanitary of public restrooms. If we did not get to the hotel soon, immediately, miraculously, in the very next block, I felt I would lose all control over the Haze jalopy with its ineffectual wipers and whimsical brakes; but the passers-by I applied to for directions were either strangers themselves or asked with a frown "Enchanted what?" as if I were a madman; or else they went into such complicated explanations, with geometrical gestures, geographical generalities and strictly local clues (. . . then bear south after you hit the court-house. . .) that I could not help losing my way in the maze of their well-meaning gibberish. Lo, whose lovely prismatic entrails had already digested the sweetmeat, was looking forward to a big meal and had begun to fidget. As to me, although I had long become used to a kind of secondary fate pettily interfering with the boss's generous magnificent plan--to grind and grope through the avenues of Briceland was perhaps the most exasperating ordeal I had yet faced.

In later months I could laugh at my inexperience when recalling the obstinate boyish way in which I had concentrated upon that particular inn with its fancy name; for all along our route countless motor courts proclaimed their vacancy in neon lights, ready to accommodate salesmen, escaped convicts, impotents, family groups, as well as the most corrupt and vigorous couples. Ah, gentle drivers gliding through summer's black nights, what frolics you might see from your impeccable highways if Kumfy Kabins were suddenly drained of their pigments and becameas transparent as boxes of glass!

Chapter 26

This daily headache in the opaque air of this tombal jail is disturbing, but I must persevere. Have written more than a hundred pages and not got anywhere yet. My calendar is getting confused. That must have been around August 15, 1947. Don't think I can go on. The pain is immense. Heart, head--everything.