Max Wyman woke raving with the chuck horrors. There was somebody there to hand him candy bars, sweet lemonade, lump sugar. There was somebody to shove him easily back into the pallet of rags when he tried to stumble forth in a hunt for booze. On the second day he realized that it was an old man whose face looked gray and paralyzed. His name was T. G. Pendelton, he said.
After a week, he let Max Wyman take little walks about their part of Riverside--but not by night. “We’ve got some savage people here,” he said. “They’d murder you for a pint. The women are worse. If one calls to you, don’t go. You’ll wind up dumped through a manhole into the Hudson. Poor folk.”
“You’re sorry for them?” Wyman asked, startled. It was a new idea to him. Since Buffalo, he had never been sorry for anybody. Something awful had happened there, some terrible betrayal ... he passed his bony hand across his forehead. He didn’t want to think about it.
“Would I live here if I weren’t?” T. G. asked him. “Sometimes I can help them. There’s nobody else to help them. They’re old and sick and they don’t fit anywhere. That’s why they’re savage. You’re young--the only young man I’ve ever seen in Riveredge. There’s so much outside for the young. But when you get old it sometimes throws you.”
“The Goddammed Syndic,” Wyman snarled, full of hate.
T. G. shrugged. “Maybe it’s too easy for sick old people to get booze. They lose somebody they spent a life with and it throws them. People harden into a pattern. They always had fun, they think they always will. Then half of the pattern’s gone and they can’t stand it, some of them. You got it early. What was the ringing bell?”
Wyman collapsed into the bay of the I-beam as if he’d been kicked in the stomach. A wave of intolerable memory swept over him. A ringing bell, a wobbling pendulum, a flashing light, the fair face of his betrayer, the hateful one of Hogan, stirred together in a hell brew. “Nothing,” he said hoarsely, thinking that he’d give his life for enough booze to black him out. “Nothing.”
“You kept talking about it,” T. G. said. “Was it real?”
“It couldn’t have been,” Wyman muttered. “There aren’t such things. No. There was her and that Syndic and that louse Hogan. I don’t want to talk about it.”
He did talk about it later, curiously clouded though it was. The years in Buffalo. The violent love affair with Inge. The catastrophic scene when he found her with Regan, king-pin mobster. The way he felt turned inside-out, the lifetime of faith in the Syndic behind him and the lifetime of a faith in Inge ahead of him, both wrecked, the booze, the flight from Buffalo to Erie, to Pittsburgh, to Tampa, to New York. And somehow, insistently, the ringing bell, the wobbling pendulum and the flashing light that kept intruding between episodes of reality.
T. G. listened patiently, fed him, hid him when infrequent patrols went by. T. G. never told him his own story, but a bloated woman who lived with a yellow-toothed man in an abandoned storage tank did one day, her voice echoing from the curving, windowless walls of corrugated plastic. She said T. G. had been an alky chemist, reasonably prosperous, reasonably happy, reasonably married. His wife was the faithful kind and he was not. With unbelievable slyness she had dulled the pain for years with booze and he had never suspected. They say she had killed herself after one frightful week-long debauche in Riveredge. T. G. came down to Riveredge for the body and returned after giving it burial and drawing his savings from the bank. He had never left Riveredge since.
“Worsh’p the grun’ that man walks on,” the bloated woman mumbled. “Nev’ gets mad, nev’ calls you hard names. Give y’a bottle if y’ need it. Talk to y’ if y’ blue. Worsh’p that man.”
Max Wyman walked from the storage tank, sickened. T. G.’s charity covered that creature and him.
It was the day he told T. G.: “I’m getting out of here.”
The gray, paralyzed-looking face almost smiled. “See a man first?”
“Friend of yours?”
“Somebody who heard about you. Maybe he can do something for you. He feels the way you do about the Syndic.”
Wyman clenched his teeth. The pain still came at the thought. Syndic, Hogan, Inge and betrayal. God, to be able to hit back at them!
The red ride ebbed. Suddenly he stared at T. G. and demanded: “Why? Why should you put me in touch? What is this?”
T. G. shrugged. “I don’t worry about the Syndic. I worry about people. I’ve been worrying about you. You’re a little insane, Max, like all of us here.”
“God damn you!”
Max Wyman paused a long time and said: “Go on, will you?” He realized that anybody else would have apologized. But he couldn’t and he knew that T. G. knew he couldn’t.
The old man said: “A little insane. Bottled-up hatred. It’s better out of you than in. It’s better to sock the man you hate and stand a chance of having him sock you back than it is just to hate him and let the hate gnaw you like a grave-worm.”
“What’ve you got against the Syndic?”
“Nothing, Max. Nothing against it and nothing for it. What I’m for is people. The Syndic is people. You’re people. Slug ‘em if you want and they’ll have a chance to slug you back. Maybe you’ll pull down the Syndic like Samson in the temple; more likely it’ll crush you. But you’ll be doing something about it. That’s the great thing. That’s the thing people have to learn--or they wind up in Riveredge.”
“I told you I was, or I wouldn’t be here.”