Read Contrary Pleasure Online

Authors: John D. MacDonald

Contrary Pleasure

John D. MacDonald

Contrary Pleasure

 

 

“There are
goods so opposed that we cannot seize both, but, by too much prudence, may pass
between them at too great a distance to reach either. This is often the fate of
long consideration; he does nothing who
endeavours
to
do more than is allowed to humanity. Flatter not yourself with contrarieties of
pleasure. Of the blessings set before you, make your choice and be content. No
man can taste the fruits of autumn while he is delighting his scent with the
flowers of the spring; no man can, at the same time, fill his cup from the
source and from the mouth of the Nile.”

 

—THE
PRINCESS
NAKAYAH

RASSELAS
by Dr. Samuel Johnson

 

 

Chapter One

 

This was a time of day he was
most apt to like. A June evening, and a silence along the office halls after
the twittering departures of the secretaries, young tamping of heels on the
steel stair treads worn to silver, the last typewriter tilted back into its
desk with decisive thump, the whirl and rattle and subsonic resonances of the
mill itself stilled, the last cars leaving the lot.

He sat quite still at his desk, breathing the silence. He heard the
sounds of the girl in the outer office, a stealthy sliding of desk drawer and the
small, bright snap of purse, then her steps on the rug as she came to the
doorway.

“Will there be anything else, Mr. Delevan?”

“No. You can go now, Miss Daley.”

“Good night, sir.”

He treated this one with controlled patience and was amused at himself because
the net, to her, was perhaps an impression of kindliness. Whereas the bitterly
efficient Miss Meyer, now on her annual vacation, was often target for
unwarranted irritation. Meyer was his right hand, comrade in many battles, she
of stone routines, of
razored
loyalties. The only one
who seemed even less than he to have a life outside the worn and ugly walls.
Together now in this place for twenty-five years. And this was the year that it
was half his life. He had thought about that a great deal lately. As though the
very figures had some symbolic meaning. Last year more of his life had been
spent outside the Stockton Knitting Company, Incorporated, than in it. And next
year the outside life would become the minor fraction. It added a haunting
significance to this year, like the echo of a sound that cannot be identified.
When, he thought, had he passed the midpoint of the years he would be here? A
prisoner can compute his term. One who will be pensioned can estimate
retirement. But a man who works to keep a thing alive cannot guess how long he
will be successful.

He wondered if Meyer ever thought in this way. You could not get close to
her, ever. They had come here at almost the same time. It was difficult to
think of her outside the offices and more difficult to imagine her on vacation.
Once, on a Saturday, he had been walking along one of the downtown streets and
had seen her in a shoe store, salesman talking earnestly up at her, her lips
pursed as she studied the shoe she was considering. It was strange to think of
her as a person who must buy shoes, wash her face, think of the future, talk
with friends. If she bought the wrong size, her feet would hurt. That was a
shocking concept. And oddly heartbreaking.

This was the time of silence. It was a healing time of transition from
the life inside to the life outside. On those days when his younger brother,
Quinn Delevan, waited to ride home with him, the healing process was flawed. He
was then too aware of Quinn down the hall, glancing at his watch, aimlessly handling
papers.

Benjamin Delevan stood up and pushed his chair forward again,
socketing
it neatly into the kneehole of the desk. He
closed his windows and closed his office door behind him. There was nothing at
all on top of the secretarial desk in the outer office. Perhaps Meyer had
explained, in her cool voice, “Mr. Delevan likes it that way.”

He stood for a moment. The corner in its airlessness seemed faintly
perfumed by the girl who had sat there these past few days. He shut the outer
door of the office behind him and walked down the corridor, walked stolidly
down the steps of steel and rubber to the tile of the ground floor. The
watchman gave him his nightly surly nod and performed the ritual of leaning in
over the switchboard and pulling the night plug from his phone. He always
yanked it free with more emphasis than necessary. Benjamin Delevan suspected
that it was an evening routine which obscurely comforted them both.

His car was in the small ell of the parking lot reserved for the
executive personnel, nosed against the brick on which was affixed the small
wooden signs of reservation. B. DELEVAN. The car had been shaded from the late
sun, but the steering wheel was still warmer than his hands. He drove out of
the lot and down the narrowness of Hickman Street with its sidings and
warehouses on either side, caught the green light at the end and turned out
onto the six-lane asphalt of Vaunt Boulevard, into the tapering flow of the
evening rush, up over the sleek hump of City Bridge, and out the long glossy
blue river of the boulevard with its bright new yellow traffic-lane markings,
its synchronized lights, past showrooms and used-car lots, angular new shopping
centers and, further out, the drive-ins, the outdoor movies, an anachronistic
and spanking new miniature golf course. For many years he had had to fight and
inch his way through the narrow old streets of the city of Stockton, cursing
the delivery trucks, the suicidal pedestrians, the uncoordinated fights. All
the cities of the Mohawk Valley had been like that. Strangled spasms of evening
traffic. Rome and Troy, Syracuse and Albany, Utica and Rochester. But now Mr.
Dewey’s Thruway was taking away the congestion of the cross-state traffic, and
the cities themselves were building these hushed black rivers to drain the
twisted stone swamps of the old parts of the cities.

Though now it was much easier to commute—he could make the trip from the
plant to Clayton Village in twenty minutes of restful driving rather than fifty
minutes of nerve fray—he often had the feeling that something had been lost.
The cars had jammed up where carriages had once rolled. Some elms survived
there, and stone quarried long ago, and scrollwork on the Victorian cornices.
There were curbs dished by many years, and ornate iron on the lamp standards,
and the prehistoric bulge of old trolley tracks under the skin of patched
asphalt. When the main street made an entirely unnecessary turn, you could
think of some stolid farmer of long ago who made his neighbors go the long way
around his property and perhaps stood in the evening and leaned on the fence
rail and gave them uncompromising stares, sound in his belief in ownership.

But now the sleek highway, through condemnation proceedings, implemented
by bond issue, symbol of sterile union of slide rule and high-compression
ratio, had flattened a swath through the most ancient slums, riding smoothly on
rough fill that had once been buildings of old stone, bursting out into the
flatlands beside the river where once there had been only marsh and discarded
bedsprings and snaky adventures for small boys. It had simplified flow,
enriched the farsighted, and spawned those bordering strips of plastic and
glass brick, fluorescence and floodlight, where the Deal of the Day turned
slowly under candy-striped canopy, where every orange was precisely the same
size, and sapphire from Ceylon tipped the juke needles.

Sometimes on the drive home he would imagine a civilization where this
delicately engineered river of asphalt had become too cramped, too slow, too
dangerous. Then it would become secondary and the bright plastic would fade and
the light tubes fail and fabrics with catchy chemical names would flap in the
night wind off the marsh. It would die then, but without grace. Not the way the
old city had died. The old city died in the way a forgotten doll is found up
there behind trunks with rounded tops, wooden legs carved with care. And this
would die like a tin toy, stamped into the ground and rusting.

When he thought that way, he could see the little indications of the
decay. Streaks rusted down from the air conditioning units. Balled napkins
hurrying along, enclosing mustard. A big window labeled with paint that had
run. This stuff would not last bravely, with dignity. There was no stubborn
persistence in it. It too quickly acknowledged defeat. There were no lost
causes for it.

Ten miles from the city he turned right, a gentle diagonal right down an
incline to the octagonal yellow of the stop sign, and then turned left again,
through the tunnel under the highway he had just left, leaving it to hurry on
westward while he turned south along the winding two-lane farm road that had
led to the village square.

Off to his right as he neared the village was a new suburban development
that had grown up in the past few years, was still growing. It had its own
shops, primary school, playgrounds, park, social clubs. The houses had been put
up in wholesale lots, with three and sometimes four variations of the basic
design. This variation, plus the alterations in color, plus variations in
plantings, plus subtle changes in the way the houses were placed on their lots,
partially destroyed the flavor of sameness.

Once he had read in the newspaper, with a certain amount of wonderment,
that each house in Amity Park contained: electric stove, refrigerator, washer,
dryer, dishwasher, and disposal; attic room that could be finished off at
owner’s option; tile shower; breezeway; radiant-panel heat; concrete slab
foundation with utility room; television corner;
heatolater
fireplace. And, knowing that, he would drive by, as on this June evening, by
the streets with their new names—Three Brooks Lane, Dell Road, Grindstone Road,
Persimmon Lane—and see the sprinklers turning and the bikes racing and the bent
backs over the new plantings and the cars being washed and diapers drying—and
it would suddenly look most odd and fearful. As though all these people had
come from some alien place beyond the sun and through their very pronounced and
exaggerated conformity sought to deceive us who were born here. The street
scenes were too suburban, the young wives too consciously harassed and pretty,
the young husbands too solemn and jolly, the children entirely too childlike.
Where did they come from? Certainly not from the city. They had never lived anywhere
else on this planet. Only here, at Amity Park, the alien eyes cold and
waitful
, aware of the times that were coming.

One day in the hallway at the office one of the young men in Accounting
had come up to him and said, a bit too brashly because of his shyness, “Moved
out your way last week, Mr. Delevan. Out to Amity Park. Ellen said it would be
a lot better for the kids.” Delevan said what was expected of him and then
remembered that the man’s name was
Fister
, and it
pleased him to be able to use the man’s name so easily. But he was disappointed
to have the game he played compromised in this fashion. It was better when he
had not known any of them. Then he could have maintained some of the variations
of the game. Such as all the young men climbing into their Fords and Plymouths
and
Chevvies
after kissing their young wives and
setting out toward the city, but, of course, never going there, flickering off,
instead, into some obscure dimension from which they would emerge, putting on
their man-faces, at five.

Perhaps, he thought, it is just because you cannot understand that way of
life. It is in some obscure attunement with the new boulevard, with too much
electronics. Or maybe, Benjamin, you are merely a snob.

The village square looked changed and naked and for a few moments, as he
waited for the light to change, he was puzzled. Then he noticed the raw stumps
and realized that they had taken down more of the elms. He wondered if they had
been standing when he had driven through the town that morning on his way to
the city. Maybe they had been gone for days. Or weeks. And he had not noticed.
Dutch elm disease was bad this year. At least there wasn’t any of it up on the
hill yet. But there might be. He decided to ask Sam about sprays. If one tree
went, it cost a fortune to get it felled and removed.

The light changed and he turned right onto Oilman Street, accelerating
for the steepness of Oilman Hill, wondering if he could get all the way up
without that robot under the hood shifting him back to a lower gear. It was a
daily contest with the robot, and it never failed to annoy him. Yet he was
unable to stop playing that particular game. It seemed an infringement on his
dignity, a continual persecution by servo-mechanism, even when he won. In the
winter he seldom won. He wished they would make this same car with a manual
shift. Every day they took more decisions away from you.

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