Andrew Vachss uses storytelling to teach, to protect, and to make the world a better place. This week, we celebrate the publication of his new novel, The Weight, with an original story and much more to come.
Alfred Hitchcock is dead. He’s lying there dead, and I don’t know what to do about it.
I wasn’t surprised when I found him dead on the ground. The woods behind our house are wild—-a country where Darwin makes the rules. I’m no philosopher to be saying that; it’s just that I’ve been in places like that myself, so I know how they work.
Alfred Hitchcock was one of those crow-raven hybrids you see around this piece of the coast all the time–too big for a crow, but without that classic thick raven’s beak. You couldn’t miss him, even at a distance. He had a white streak along one side of his head, like the fire-scar a bullet leaves when it just kisses you on the cheek as it goes by.
He hadn’t shown up for a few days, but that didn’t worry Dolly. She loves all her animals, but she doesn’t regard them as pets. “They have their own ways,” is what she always says.
It was Dolly who named him Alfred Hitchcock. “Look how he walks,” she said to me one day, pointing out behind the house. “See how dignified he is? Not raucous like the others. You never hear a peep out of him. He just paces back and forth, like he’s deep in thought.”
I realized he did kind of look like that famous profile of Alfred Hitchcock, especially the way his head wobbled when he walked. Dolly had names for all the creatures who came to visit, and you could tell she thought about each and every one before she finally decided what to call them.
Take Winston. He’s a chipmunk, but not one of those little things they have back east; this one’s damn near the size of a squirrel. Dolly named him because he had a stance like a bulldog. And he was fearless, too. When he saw Dolly on the back deck, he’d rush right up and take a peanut out of her hand. Then he’d just sit on his haunches and strip away the shell casing, the way you’d sit and share a beer with a pal.
Winston had a mate–Dolly called her Mrs. Churchill–and a whole family of little ones. They all lived under one of the sheds in the backyard. The entrance to their den was marked by two jagged pieces of granite I put there, leaving just enough room between them to form a portal. It looked like they’d hired an architect to build it that way.
Dolly also had herself a whole flock of jays. They were a lot bigger than what I’d grown up with in West Virginia. Out here, they’re called Stellar’s jays–big-bodied thugs with black heads and high crests. If Dolly doesn’t get out there quick enough in the morning, they hammer on the door with their beaks like a mob of crazed woodpeckers. Dolly goes out with a little bucket of peanuts and just flings the whole thing into the yard. “Slopping the jays” is what she calls it, and that’s pretty much on the money; they do act like a gang of hogs. No manners at all, wings flailing, shrieking loud enough to empty a cemetery.
Dolly doesn’t care how much noise they make, but she won’t let them fight. I know it doesn’t make sense, but the birds actually seem to mind her. Once, I saw a couple of the jays really get into it over a big fat peanut, leaping into the air and ripping at each other like spurred gamecocks. Dolly yelled, “You two just stop that!” and they did. Even looked a little ashamed of themselves, too.
Sometimes, one of the bolder chipmunks will charge right into the middle of a mob of jays and try and swipe a peanut for himself. But mostly they hang around by their portal, standing straight up like prairie dogs, until I wind up and throw long-distance over the jays’ heads. The peanuts bounce off the shed, and the jays don’t even pay attention.
The roof of the shed is where Alfred Hitchcock always waited. He had his own spot all to himself, and he seemed content to just watch all the ranting and raving without getting involved.
And something was always going on back there. Like a couple of hummingbirds duking it out over one particular spot. Those little guys are as territorial as wolverines, and they buzz-bomb each other almost too fast for the eye to follow.
Or maybe a neighbor’s cat from down the way would come visiting. Big mistake. The misbegotten mutt Dolly had rescued from the shelter lived out there too, in this little house I built for him. And any cat that walked into the yard would launch Rascal out of his doghouse door like a mortar round.
. . .
I think that’s why we have so many birds around all the time–Rascal is hell-bent on turning the whole place into a cat-free zone. A dog is like a person–he needs a job and a family to be what he’s meant to be. Rascal always came inside for supper, and he’d stay inside until daybreak. He slept on this sheepskin mat I cut for him. First I put it by the door, but Rascal dragged it over until it was just outside our bedroom, and we left it there.
When things got quiet enough to suit him, Alfred Hitchcock would kind of float on down to the yard. He’d go right into his back-and-forth pacing until Dolly called his name. Then it would be my job to lob a peanut close enough for him to pick it up without acting all undignified, but not so close that he thought I was trying to hit him. I got real good at it.
One day, I was out on the deck by myself, testing some new optics I was putting together, when Alfred showed up. He watched me from his perch on the shed for a long time before he finally dropped into the yard and started his walk.
“Alfred!” I called to him, but he just ignored me.
When Dolly came out later, I told her what happened. “I guess he only likes you,” I said.
“It’s not that, honey. It’s what you said to him.”
“I said the same thing you do. Called his name.”
“His name is Alfred Hitchcock,” Dolly said. “Not Alfred. He’s a very dignified bird.”
When he came back a few days later, we were both outside. “You try it,” Dolly insisted.
“Alfred Hitchcock!” I called.
And damned if the bird didn’t stop his walk and cock his head, like he was waiting. I tossed him a peanut. He slowly strolled over, picked it up, very dignified, and lofted himself back to the shed. Dolly and I watched him eat the peanut.
It was a fine moment.
Now Alfred Hitchcock is dead, deep back in the woods. If it had been a bobcat that had nailed him, I would have been okay with it. Maybe a little sad, but not all that worked up about it. Dolly doesn’t feed the night-hunters, and they have to look out for themselves.
But I know a human kill when I see one. No animal could have wrapped one of Alfred Hitchcock’s legs with a strand of wire. No animal uses gasoline. Or matches.
And no animal kills for fun.
If it had been a natural predator that killed Alfred Hitchcock, I wouldn’t have said a word to Dolly. I would have just given him a proper burial, and let her think he’d moved on. Maybe found himself a girl bird that wanted a dignified mate.
But I knew better than to bury him. I couldn’t let whoever had tortured Alfred Hitchcock to death know anybody had seen their work. So I just slipped back the way I’d come.
I didn’t leave tracks. I learned that the same place I learned that you don’t always get to bury your dead.
When I finally got back to the house that day, it was full of kids, like it always is in the afternoons during the week. Teenagers. Dolly’s just a magnet for them. Mostly girls, but anytime you’ve got that many girls, there’s going to be some boys, too.
She knows how to have fun, my Dolly. Dolly used to be a Rockette, and she can tell some stories, believe me. But what she’s best at is listening. I know that for a fact. I’ve told Dolly things I never told anyone else. I had to do that before I asked her to marry me–she had a right to know what she was getting if she said yes.
But there’s a lot of stuff I never told Dolly, not out loud. Not because I wanted to keep them a secret. Dolly’s got this . . . I don’t know the word for it, exactly, but she feels things inside her that other people are feeling. I wouldn’t ever want Dolly to have some of the feelings I have.
Maybe that’s why those kids are always talking to her. Not like some guidance counselor, like she’s the kind of aunt you trust, the kind who’d never rat you out to your folks, no matter what you told her.
She’s always teaching those kids something, like how to stitch up those crazy costumes they’re wearing out in public today. And they’re always teaching her stuff, too. Like how to work her cell phone with her thumbs to send messages. She showed me one of those messages one time–it was like it was in a different language. When she tried to explain it to me, I told her I didn’t care about stuff like that.
I don’t . . . well, I don’t dislike kids, exactly, but I don’t have anything to say to them. And I’m not interested in anything they’ve got to say, either. What could they know at their age?
The kids are used to me staying in my workshop in the basement, and they never bother me when I’m down there. Dolly doesn’t have a lot of rules in her house, but the ones she has, you better follow, or you’re eighty-sixed. Like bringing drugs or booze into her house. First time, it’s two weeks. If there’s a next time, it’s your last.
I’ve actually got two places of my own. The basement, and what Dolly calls my den. She fixed it up real fine. It’s got a big dark red leather easy chair, and a flat-screen TV with earphones, so I can watch the news without the racket from all those kids bothering me. One wall is nothing but bookshelves. The others have my terrain maps, from different places I’ve been. And a big porthole window, so I can see right out into the yard.
Some days, I’d be sitting there and Alfred Hitchcock would pace right past that window.
Every once in a while, a couple of the boys will wander back to the den. If my door’s open, they know they can just walk right in. Sometimes, girls come in there, too.
The boys always want to talk about Vietnam. That was my mistake, I guess, but we never could have bought the house Dolly wanted if it wasn’t for me saying I was a vet, and showing them the papers to prove it. A town this size, especially nestled away in a cove of its own, word gets around.
“Did you ever kill anyone?” That’s their favorite question.
I always tell them the truth and lie at the same time. “Yes,” I would always tell them, “but that’s what war is. I never killed anyone who wasn’t trying to kill me at the same time.”
They think I was infantry. That’s what it says on my papers. No Special Forces, no Army Ranger, just your basic grunt.
That’s all a lie, too. I was in Vietnam, all right. And a lot of other places. But I never wore a uniform, and I never carried dog tags.
. . .
“Does it make you mad, when people say they’re against the war?” they’d want to know. They meant that mess in Afghanistan-the one that spilled back over from Iraq. Some of their relatives had told them stories, about how it hurt them to be fighting for their country and be hated for doing it.
“It doesn’t make me angry,” I always tell them. And that part’s the truth.
“My father says Jane Fonda was a traitor,” one of them said once. I could see he was trying to get me going.
“I can see where he’d think that,” I answered.
“But do you think that?” one of the girls asked. At that age, they’re a lot sharper than boys.
“It’s not people like me who matter,” I told them. “It’s people like you.”
“Because the only way anyone listens to someone like Jane Fonda is when people treat them like they’re important. You get famous enough, you start to think you’re special. If someone’s a big enough movie star, journalists ask them questions about stuff they don’t know anything about, because their fans want to know what a celebrity thinks.
“Jane Fonda was never a soldier. She wasn’t a political scientist, or a historian. And she sure was no expert on Southeast Asia. But if she calls a press conference, everybody shows up. That’s all that happened.”
“That’s true!” one of the other girls said, backing me up. A tough-looking little freckle-face with big owl glasses, she looked like she was used to standing her ground. “Once I saw Britney Spears on TV. They were asking her about global warming. I’ll bet her idea of global warming is when the air-conditioning breaks.”
I caught a glimpse of Dolly smiling at me over the girl’s shoulder. I treasure how that makes me feel.
The morning after the day I found Alfred Hitchcock, I told Dolly I was driving up to the city. There’s always some little things I need for my projects, and she knows I’d never buy anything over the Internet. I asked her if she wanted me to bring back anything for her and she said what she always does: “A surprise!”
I stopped at the nursery first, picked up a whole mess of stuff for Dolly. A couple of gay guys own the place. They’re nuts about Dolly. I’m not sure how they feel about me, but that doesn’t matter. Not to them; not to me.
I never ask for anything in particular; they just load up whatever they think Dolly might like. We’ve got Asian lilies growing in big tubs I made out of cut-down barrels. I put some PVC to work as a liner, drilled a few drainage holes, and Dolly did the rest. We’ve got purple and white lilacs, what Dolly calls a butterfly bush. Fuchsia for the hummingbirds. Even some black bamboo–thin, strange-looking stalks with green blades for leaves, not the sharp-edged kind I’d felt before.
This time, I got Dolly some new orchids, for inside the house. Those were my own idea. I know I should have left the nursery stop for last, to keep everything fresh. But I had to get Dolly’s surprise done first–I wasn’t sure how late I’d be out looking for what I needed. So I misted everything down real good, and covered it all with a dark mesh tarp.
As it turned out, I had to drive quite a distance until I found the place I wanted. They’ve got a lot of those places in a city about ninety miles away, and they all kind of look alike. Either the glass in the windows is all blacked out or there’s no windows at all.
The guy at the desk didn’t look up when I came in the door. That’s part of his job, same reason why they don’t have security cameras in those places.
I found what I was looking for easy enough–there was a big selection.
I paid for what I bought the same way I paid for Dolly’s plants. I don’t have any credit cards, and I don’t have a checking account.
Dolly didn’t say a word about how long I’d been gone. And she loved everything I brought back. I took the other stuff I’d bought down to my workshop.
Andrew Vachss has been a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social-services caseworker, and a labor organizer, and has directed a maximum-security prison for “aggressive-violent” youth. Now a lawyer in private practice, he represents children and youths exclusively. He is the author of two dozen novels, including The Weight, his latest. To read an excerpt from this crime-fiction novel about Sugar, an old-school professional thief, visit http://vachss.com/weight. The Weight goes on sale November 9.