Balthazar – a serial novella Pt. 4
(In lieu of the book review, here’s part four. Parts one, two, and three available if you would like to play catch up. This is the last installment of the story that I had saved from prior writing sessions, so I have no more story from this point until I write more. Which is the intention. And the book review will be coming, but it’s going to be covering In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar. And, as always, comments welcomed/encouraged.)
When we got out of detention, Jimmy and I found a group of kids gathered out by the playground fence. They were mostly kids from our class, but there were a handful of younger kids, drawn by the suspense of something they knew they’d never attempt, and some fifth-graders who had probably boasted of handling such a dare, but had never actually done anything to back up their claims. All eyes were on me, as apparently, I wasn’t allowed to plan how or when I’d try to find Martin. The time was now.
“Let’s go meet your buddy,” Jimmy said.
The Balthazar estate sat on a hill not far from the school. Just a few blocks. But each step in that direction seemed like an hour had passed. In times of stress, the hope is that a painful, difficult or tense moment comes and goes as quickly as possible to limit the pressure. Wishful thinking never seems to work out. The faster I wanted to get this over with, the more I had to anticipate it. I felt like I was walking in place with an army stalking me, waiting for me to turn and run so they could tear me up. It’s not so much that the Balthazars were scary. But the unknown inspires fear and I was about to knock right on its door. For most of the assembled students, this would be their first (and possibly their only) glimpse of the Balthazars. This day could go down on their calendars with the story passed down to their children.
Two willow trees stood in front of the pillars of the Balthazar gate and their branches drooped so it seemed we were approaching through a tunnel. Or rather, I was approaching through a tunnel, since Jimmy and the other kids had stopped at the edge of the sidewalk. I looked through the gate’s gnarled wrought iron bars at a winding driveway. Tall grass lined both sides of the path, and from my angle, the mansion looked like a castle atop a hill, like the kind the evil king lives in on cartoons. With lightning and circling buzzards.
But this was broad daylight and there weren’t any buzzards in Vermont, so I took a breath and pressed a buzzer underneath a speaker near the gate. I waited a minute and after there was no response, I pressed the button again. Still, no response. I turned to look at the group behind me. Most of them were now looking at their feet, kicking around rocks, waiting. Jimmy looked victorious. He shrugged.
“Gee, I guess nobody’s home, Eddie.”
I turned back to the gate and pressed a final time on the button. Really leaned on it this time. I almost thought I heard something on the other side.
“Hello? Mr. Balthazar?”
“Is anybody there?”
Silence. I leaned against the gate, unsure of what to do next.
“We could walk to Canada,” Jimmy said. “If you want to say ‘hello.’”
The gate had a pattern of curls, and I stood up to use them as a foothold. About halfway up, I was able to grab a spire at the top of the gate and slowly, I swung my leg over the top and slipped to the other side. Jimmy looked around at the rest of the kids and their shifting wide eyes. Nobody spoke.
Having made it to the other side, there was no turning back. I started up the driveway. After my first few steps, I thought I heard a rustling in the brush to my left and I stopped. So did the commotion. I continued, realizing that for all the talk throughout Moundridge, the Balthazar place was pretty impressive with trees lining the pathway to the front door and fields of grass that, if it weren’t autumn, would create a sea of green with the house an island in the center, split off, connected only by the path that I walked atop at that moment.
Even in the chill of late afternoon, the estate wasn’t frightening or threatening like we’d guessed. It was quiet and peaceful. Almost like a park, if there had been benches and swings around. I stopped to look back one last time at the gate, at Jimmy and the kids craning their necks, waiting for me to finish my journey up the hill. I think they expected me to be in a hurry, but the atmosphere was unlike anything I’d experienced to that point. And mostly, unlike anybody else had seen as well. I enjoyed the unique situation and relished in it. Fact is, I wasn’t sure I’d want to leave, just to be there when the grass became green again and the leaves returned to what had to be the skeletons of topiaries. And before I’d realized it, just wandering up the path, I had made it to the door, a large cherry-stained entry with a heavy bronzed knocker hanging just out of my reach.
I took a moment to look at the building itself. Grey marble lined the doorframe, and off to the side, set inside the limestone surface of the house, lay a carving of the Balthazar coat of arms set within shiny obsidian. I looked up the expanse of their mansion, taking in the three stories of limestone brick, but oddly, very few windows. Other than a single four by six window on either side of the doorframe, I only saw stained glass at the corners of the top floors. I’m sure if it were possible, the Balthazars would have put up a dome to shut more of Moundridge out.
I jumped when I heard the door handle click and recoiled as it started to open. I wasn’t sure what would be on the other side. Maybe Martin was answering the door, maybe one of his parents; they probably had some sort of butler though.
She crept out of the shadows, grey hair twisted into a tight bun, large glasses dangling from a chain and a red dress melding with the color of the front door. She really wasn’t that much taller than me – maybe three inches or so – though she carried herself as if she stood above the world. She maintained a high-shouldered posture enabling her to scan the porch with her head tilted upwards, surveying her surroundings from an apparent perch on high. Her lips were pursed and she wore no makeup to hide the wrinkles. She seemed to present them as a well-earned trophy of aged, wealthy status.
“My, but we find very few visitors these days. What is your business with us today?”
I stared, speechless. This wasn’t a typical “Can Martin come out and play?” kind of conversation with a parent. I’d never snuck onto anybody’s property to find somebody. This was new territory.
“Excuse me? Your business with us here young man?” She raised an eyebrow.
“I, well, I was looking for Martin Balthazar. Is he home?”
She looked up at the corner of the doorframe, searching for an answer.
“Is he in Canada?”
She closed her eyes and smiled. Leaning down, she patted me on the cheek.
“Silly boy, we shouldn’t believe everything we hear,” she said. “Why don’t you come in and sit for a moment?”
I still wasn’t sure if I was in trouble, or if she had been shut out from the normal world long enough, and found it quaint to speak to somebody wearing sneakers and blue jeans rather than pinstripes and wingtips.
Numerous photos lined the walls of the narrow foyer. In one, a middle-aged man leaned at the rail of a fishing boat, soaking wet and a broken rod in his hands. He smiled, but portrayed embarrassment regardless. Surrounding him were similarly dressed (but dry) men sharing a laugh at his expense. Another showed a large gathering underneath a canopy – a lawn party attended by women with big hair and men with thick-rimmed glasses. A banner hanging between trees read “Congratulations Harold and Jeanette! Welcome Martin!” I looked closer and saw a bassinet at the edge of the frame. Mrs. Balthazar grabbed my arm and led me into a corner room lined with bookshelves and a wide rolltop desk against the wall.
“This was our Martin’s study,” she said twirling within the room. “Do you happen to enjoy books as much as our Martin did? They’re lovely things, so much knowledge. The minds of the world. Did you know that Martin could read at age two?”
She spoke as if I weren’t in the room, yet she continued to look at me. I found myself entranced.
“Goodness, have a seat. Are you hungry? Would you like a beverage? Oh, Liza makes the finest orangeade you could find. You really ought to have something. Sit, sit.”
“Okay.” Really, what else was there for me to say?
I sat. She left. I waited.
I looked around the small room from a corner table and noticed six bookshelves full of leather-bound volumes. I recognized a few – Don Quixote, On the Origin of Species and Shakespeare – but the rest of the spines described physics, mathematics, chemistry. Things I really had no idea where to start thinking about, outside of two plus two and long division. I guess when you don’t talk to anybody, you have a lot of time to do times tables.
Mrs. Balthazar returned carrying a platter with a pitcher of lemonade and a single crystal glass filled with square ice cubes.
“I’d forgotten that Liza only arrived during the weekends, so I found you some lemonade instead. I’ll admit, it’s from a mix,” she said. “But that’s no matter. It’s just as tasty as any you’d find within three states.”
“Well I’m sorry to have bothered you. Thank you for the lemonade, but I really should go get home. I was just trying to find Martin.”
“Oh it’s been ages since Martin had a playdate. Do you know the name Drummond?”
I told her I hadn’t, and it was the truth. She sighed and looked at the ceiling, clutching her chest, smiling.
“A sweet young man named Mikey Drummond came to see Martin one day. Mikey was the son of my good dear friend Mildred and her husband Phillip. He had the same dark hair that you do, now that I think about it. The same mischievous spirit – though Mikey entered through the gate, instead of over it,” she said, winking at me. “But that’s no matter. I know that town, and I know how the stories go. It was the same way with the Drummonds. They’d resisted sending Mikey to see us, but Phillip was a psychologist and thought it would be a nice experience for our Martin and his Mikey. Interaction is said to help their condition. You see, Mikey had the same. . .”
She’d paused, looking ahead, through the walls, staring at nothing. Remembering. Her look indicated burden as the story froze passing from her mind to my ears.
“The same affliction. They had something to share, and it seemed like such a good idea. Seemed. But nothing came of it. Neither boy even saw the other. Boys their age should have been out in tree forts or playing hockey on the pond, but they were silent. I’d have given anything to have to tell them ‘Quiet down’ but I remember I sat in my study and cried for hours. I’d placed hope in the Drummonds. Martin never had another visitor.”
She thumbed through a book with a different language on the front cover; I couldn’t tell which one it was.
“His only real friends were in these pages, in this room. He’d never read any place else. We gave him a picture book and he didn’t even notice it until we put it inside this room. It was the most unusual thing, but we’d learned to deal with unusual by that time.”
I realized that I’d drank through half the pitcher listening to her. I didn’t even care that it was only water she’d brought me.
She led me into the main living room. Two things stood out to me at my first glance. First, the Balthazars had a fireplace wide enough to park a small car. The mantle stood just out of Mrs. Balthazar’s reach, it was so tall. I almost felt like I was walking within a dollhouse, where proportion seems not to matter. I had to admire the huge, sturdy maple structure, but noticed no ash, no embers inside. Such a huge feature of the home, and they didn’t seem to even use it. Nonetheless, it impressed me.
I found the second surprising aspect of the house in the furniture. It had feet. I saw a sofa and three chairs, all with the same blue velvet surface, which wasn’t any big deal, but like I said, the furniture had feet. The same maple supported the frame of the pieces, and at the bottom, had been carved into the shape of feet. Grandpa would have spit at their decorative oddities.
Above us hung a chandelier, nothing special. But on two sides of it two opened umbrellas hung upside down. Red and blue. Everything else within the room made sense.
“We had to do that so that Martin would come enjoy evenings in this room with us. He wouldn’t set a single toenail inside if he didn’t see them,” she said. I looked at her and she gestured up at the umbrellas; she seemed to be studying my intrigue.
I opened my mouth to ask her a question. But it never came. She interrupted me.
“You don’t even have to ask. We don’t know why he needed the umbrellas. We learned not to ask why about the minor things. And there are quite a lot of minor things a person finds in their everyday lives. I don’t know why you’re here. I don’t know why people are looking for Martin. I’ll know when everyone else knows.”
It was five o’clock according to three different clocks. A large grandfather clock in the corner, my wristwatch, and a cuckoo clock that sounded like it came from a room towards the back. I bit my tongue to stifle a laugh. A cuckoo clock. Of course. I should have figured to expect that.