Once, long ago, before money had been invented, a certain male beaver named Cadbury lived within a meager dam which he had constructed with his own teeth and feet, earning his living by gnawing down shrubs, trees and other growth in exchange for poker chips of several colors. The blue chips he liked best, but they came rarely, generally only due in payment for some uniquely huge gnawing-assignment. In all the passing years of work he had owned only three such chips, but he knew by inference that more must exist, and every now and then during the day's gnawing he paused a moment, fixed a cup of instant coffee, and meditated on chips of all hues, the blues included.
His wife Hilda offered unasked-for advice whenever the opportunity presented itself. "Look at you," she customarily would declare. "You really ought to see a psychiatrist. Your stack of white chips is only approximately half that of Ralf, Peter, Tom, Bob, Jack and Earl, all who live and gnaw around here, because you're so busy woolgathering about your goddam blue chips which you'll never get anyhow because frankly if the blunt truth were known you lack the talent, energy and drive."
"Energy and drive," Cadbury would moodily retort, "mean the same thing." But nevertheless he perceived how right she was. This constituted his wife's main fault: she invariably had truth on her side, whereas he had nothing but hot air. And truth, when pitted against hot air in the arena of life, generally carries the day.
Since Hilda was right, Cadbury dug up eight white chips from his secret chip-concealing place -- a shallow depression under a minor rock -- and walked two and three-quarters miles to the nearest psychiatrist, a mellow, do-nothing rabbit shaped like a bowling pin who, according to his wife, made fifteen thousand a year and so what about it.
"Clever sort of day," Dr. Drat said amiably, unrolling two Tums for his tummy and leaning back in his extra-heavily padded swivel chair.
"Not so very darn clever," Cadbury answered, "when you know you don't have it in you ever to catch sight of a blue chip again, even though you work your ass off day in and day out, and what for? She spends it faster than I make it. Even if I did get my teeth in a blue chip it'd be gone overnight for something expensive and useless on the installment plan, such as for instance a twelve million candle-power self-recharging flashlight. With a lifetime guarantee."
"Those are darn clever," Dr. Drat said, "those what you said there, those self-recharging flashlights."
"The only reason I came to you," Cadbury said, "is because my wife made me. She can get me to do anything. If she said, 'Swim out into the middle of the creek and drown,' do you know what I'd do?"
"You'd rebel," Dr. Drat said in his amiable voice, his hoppers up on the surface of his burled walnut desk.
"I'd kick in her fucking face," Cadbury said. "I'd gnaw her to bits; I'd gnaw her right in half, right through the middle. You're damn right. I mean, I'm not kidding; it's a fact. I hate her."
"How much," Dr. Drat asked, "is your wife like your mother?"
"I never had a mother," Cadbury said in a grumpy way -- a way which he adopted from time to time: a regular characteristic with him, as Hilda had pointed out. "I was found floating in the Napa Slough in a shoebox with a handwritten note reading 'FINDERS KEEPERS.' "
"What was your last dream?" Dr. Drat inquired.
"My last dream," Cadbury said, "is -- was -- the same as all the others. I always dream I buy a two-cent mint at the drugstore, one of the flat chocolate-covered mints wrapped in green foil, and when I remove the foil it isn't a mint. You know what it is?"
"Suppose you tell me what it is," Dr. Drat said, in a voice suggesting that he really knew but no one was paying him to say it.
Cadbury said fiercely, "It's a blue chip. Or rather it looks like a blue chip. It's blue and it's flat and round and the same size. But in the dream I always say 'Maybe it's just a blue mint.' I mean, there must be such a thing as blue mints. I'd hate like to hell to store it in my secret chip-concealing place -- a shallow depression under an ordinary-looking rock -- and then there'd be this hot day, see, and afterwards when I went to get my blue chip -- or rather supposed blue chip -- I found it all melted because it really was a mint after all and not a blue chip. And who'd I sue? The manufacturer? Christ; he never claimed it was a blue chip; it clearly said, in my dream, on the green foil wrapper --"
"I think," Dr. Drat broke in mildly, "that our time is up for today. We might well do some exploring of this aspect of your inner psyche next week because it appears to be leading us somewhere."
Rising to his feet, Cadbury said, "What's the matter with me, Dr. Drat? I want an answer; be frank -- I can take it. Am I psychotic?"
"Well, you have illusions," Dr. Drat said, after a meditative pause. "No, you're not psychotic; you don't hear the voice of Christ or anything like that telling you to go out and rape people. No, it's illusions. About yourself, your work, your wife. There may be more. Goodbye." He rose, too, hippity-hopped to the door of his office and politely but firmly opened it, exposing the tunnel out.
For some reason Cadbury felt cheated; he felt that he had only just begun to talk, and here it was, time to go. "I bet," he said, "you headshrinkers make a hell of a lot of blue chips. I should have gone to college and become a psychiatrist and then I wouldn't have any problems any more. Except for Hilda; I guess I'd still have her."
Since Dr. Drat had nothing by way of comment to that, Cadbury moodily walked the four miles back north to his current gnawing-assignment, a large poplar growing at the edge of Papermill Creek, and sank his teeth furiously into the base of the poplar, imagining to himself that the tree was a syzygy of Dr. Drat and Hilda both together.
At almost precisely that moment a nattily-attired fowl came soaring through the grove of cypress trees nearby and alit on a branch of the swaying, being-gnawed-on poplar. "Your mail for today," the fowl informed him, and dropped a letter which sailed to the ground at Cadbury's rear feet. "Air mail, too. Looks interesting. I held it up to the light and it's handwritten, not typed. Looks like a woman's hand."
With his gnawing tooth, Cadbury ripped the envelope open. Sure enough, the mail bird had perceived accurately: here was a handwritten letter clearly the product of the mind of some unknown woman. The letter, very short, consisted of this:
Dear Mr. Cadbury,
I love you.
Never in his life had Cadbury heard of such a person. He turned the letter over, saw no more writing, sniffed, smelling -- or imagined that he smelled -- a faint, subtle, smoky perfume. However, on the back of the envelope he located further words in Jane Feckless Foundfully's (was she Miss or Mrs.?) hand: her return address.
This excited his senses no end.
"Was I right?" the mail bird asked, from its branch above him.
"No, it's a bill," Cadbury lied. "Made to look like a personal letter." He then pretended to return to his work of gnawing, and after a pause the mail bird, deceived, flapped off and disappeared.
At once Cadbury ceased gnawing, seated himself on a rise of turf, got out his turtle-shell snuff box, took a deep, thoughtful pinch of his preferred mixture, Mrs. Siddon's No. 3 & 4, and contemplated in the most profound and keen manner possible whether (a) he ought to reply to Jane Feckless Foundfully's letter at all or simply forget that he had ever received it, or (b) answer it, and if (b) then answer it (b sub one) in a bantering fashion or (b sub two) with possibly a meaningful poem from his Undermeyer's anthology of World Poetry plus several suggestive-of-a-sensitive-nature added notations of his own invention, or possibly even (b sub three) come right out and say something such as:
Dear Miss (Mrs.?) Foundfully,
In answer to your letter, the fact is that I love you, too, and am unhappy in my marital relationship with a woman I do not now and actually never really did love, and also am quite dispirited and pessimistic and dissatisfied by my employment and am consulting Dr. Drat, who in all honesty doesn't seem able to help me a bit, although in all probability it's not his fault but rather due to the severity of my emotional disturbance. Perhaps you and I could get together in the near future and discuss both your situation and mine, and make some progress.
The problem, however, he realized, consisted in the obvious fact that Hilda would get wind of this and do something dreadful -- he had no idea what, only a recognition, melancholy indeed, of its severity. And in addition -- but second in order as a problem -- how did he know he would like or love, whichever, Miss (or Mrs.) Foundfully in return? Obviously she either knew him directly in some manner which he could not account for or had perhaps heard about him through a mutual friend; in any case she seemed certain of her own emotions and intentions toward him, and that mainly was what mattered.
The situation depressed him. Because how could he tell if this was a way out of his misery or on the contrary a worsening of that same misery in a new direction?
Still seated and taking pinch after pinch of snuff, he pondered many alternatives, including doing away with himself, which seemed in accord with the dramatic nature of Miss Foundfully's letter.
That night, after he arrived home weary and discouraged from his gnawing, had eaten dinner and then retired into his locked study away from Hilda where she probably did not know what he was up to, he got out his Hermes portable typewriter, inserted a page, reflected long and soul-searchingly, and then wrote an answer to Miss Foundfully.
While he lay supine, engrossed in this task, his wife Hilda burst into his locked study. Bits of lock, door and hinges, as well as several screws, flew in all directions.
"What are you doing?" Hilda demanded. "All hunched over your Hermes typewriter like some sort of bug. You look like a horrid little dried-up spider, the way you always do this time of evening."
"I'm writing to the main branch of the library," Cadbury said, in icy dignity, "about a book I returned which they claim I didn't."
"You liar," his wife Hilda said in a frenzy of rage, having now looked over his shoulder and seen the beginning part of his letter. "Who is this Miss Foundfully? Why are you writing her?"
"Miss Foundfully," Cadbury said artfully, "is the librarian who has been assigned to my case."
"Well, I happen to know you're lying," his wife said. "Because /wrote that perfumed fake letter to you to test you. And I was right. You are answering it; I knew it the minute I heard you begin peck-pecking away at the disgusting cheap common typewriter you love so dearly." She then snatched up the typewriter, letter and all, and hurled it through the window of Cadbury's study, into the night darkness.
"My assumption, then," Cadbury managed to say after a time, "is that there is no Miss Foundfully, so there is no point in my getting the flashlight and looking around outside for my Hermes - if it still exists - to finish the letter. Am I correct?"
With a jeering expression, but without lowering herself by answering, his wife stalked from his study, leaving him alone with his assumptions and his tin of Boswell's Best, a snuff mixture far too mild for such an occasion.
Well, Cadbury thought to himself, I guess then I'll never be able to get away from Hilda. And he thought, I wonder what Miss Foundfully would have been like had she really existed. And then he thought, Maybe even though my wife made her up there might be somewhere in the world a real person who would be like I imagine Miss Foundfully -- or rather like I imagined before I found out -- to be. If you follow me, he thought to himself broodingly. I mean, my wife Hilda can't be all the Miss Foundfullys in the entire world.
The next day at work, alone with the half-gnawed poplar tree, he produced a small note-pad and short pencil, envelope and stamp which he had managed to smuggle out of the house without Hilda noticing. Seated on a slight rise of earth, snuffing meditatively small pinches of Bezoar Fine Grind, he wrote a short note, printed so as to be easily read.
TO WHOMEVER READS THIS!
My name is Bob Cadbury and I am a young, fairly healthy beaver with a broad background in political science and theology, although largely self-taught, and I would like to talk with you about God and The Purpose of Existence and other topics of like ilk. Or we could play chess.
And he thereupon signed his name. For a time he pondered, sniffed an extra large pinch of Bezoar Fine Grind, and then he added:
P.S. Are you a girl? If you are I'll bet you're pretty.
Folding the note up he placed it in a nearly-empty snuff tin, sealed the tin painstakingly with Scotch Tape, and then floated it off down the creek in a direction which he calculated to be somewhat northwest.
Several days passed before he saw, with excitement and glee, a second snuff tin -- not the one which he had launched -- slowly floating up the creek in a direction which he calculated as southeast.
Dear Mr. Cadbury (the folded-up note within the snuff tin began). My sister and brother are the only non-fud friends I have, and if you're not a fud, the way everyone has been since I got back from Madrid, I'd sure like to meet you. meet you.
There was also a P.S.
P.S. You sound real keen and neat and I'll bet you know a lot about Zen Buddhism.
The letter was signed in a way difficult to read, but at last he made it out as Carol Stickyfoot.
He at once dispatched this note in answer:
Dear Miss (Mrs.?) Stickyfoot,
Are you real or are you somebody made up by my wife? It is essential that I know at once, as I have in the past been tricked and now have to be constantly wary.
Off went the note, floating within its snuff tin in a northwest direction. The answer, when it arrived the following day floating in a southeast direction in a Cameleopard No. 5 snuff tin, read briefly:
Mr. Cadbury, if you think I am a figment of your wife's distorted mind, then you are going to miss out on life.
Well, that's certainly sound advice, Cadbury said to himself as he read and reread the letter. On the other hand, he said to himself, this is almost precisely what I would expect a figment of my wife Hilda's distorted mind to come up with. So what is proved?
Dear Miss Stickyfoot (he wrote back),
I love you and believe in you. But just to be on the safe side -- from my point of view, I mean -- could you remit under separate cover -- C.O.D. if you wish -- some item or object or artifact which would prove beyond a reasonable doubt who and what you are, if that's not asking too much. Try and understand my position. I dare not make a second mistake such as in the Foundfully disaster. This time I would go out the window along with the Hermes.
This he floated off in a northwest direction, and at once set about waiting for a reply. Meanwhile, however, he had to visit Dr. Drat once more. Hilda insisted on it.
"And how's it been going, down by the creek?" Dr. Drat said in a jovial manner, his big fuzzy hoppers up on his desk.
The decision to be frank and honest with the psychiatrist stole over Cadbury. Surely there lay no harm in telling Drat everything; this was what he was being paid for: to hear the truth with all its details, both horrid and sublime.
"I've fallen in love with Carol Stickyfoot," he began. "But at the same time, although my love is absolute and eternal, I have this nagging angst that she's a figment of my wife's deranged imagination, concocted as was Miss Foundfully to lead me into revealing my true self to Hilda, which at all costs I need to conceal. Because if my true self came out I'd knock the frigging crap out of her and leave her flat."
"Hmm," Dr. Drat said.
"And out of you, too," Cadbury said, releasing all his hostilities in one grand basketful.
Dr. Drat said, "You trust no one, then? You're alienated from all mankind? You've lead a life-pattern that's drawn you insidiously into total isolation? Think before you answer; the answer may be yes, and this you may have trouble facing."
"I'm not isolated from Carol Stickyfoot," Cadbury said hotly. "In fact that's the whole point; I'm trying to terminate my isolation. When I was preoccupied with blue chips then I was isolated. Meeting and getting to know Miss Stickyfoot may mean the end of all that's wrong in my life, and if you have any insight into me you'd be damn glad I floated off that snuff tin that day. Damn glad." He glowered moodily at the long-eared doctor.
"It may interest you to know," Dr. Drat said, "that Miss Stickyfoot is a former patient of mine. She cracked up in Madrid and had to be flown back here in a suitcase. I'll admit she's quite attractive, but she's got a lot of emotional problems. And her left breast is larger than her right."
"But you admit she's real!" Cadbury shouted in excited discovery.
"Oh, she's real enough; I'll grant that. But you may find you have your hands full. After a while you may wish you were back with Hilda again. God only knows where Carol Stickyfoot may lead the two of you. I doubt if Carol herself knows."
It sounded pretty damn good to Cadbury, and he returned to his virtually gnawed-through poplar tree at the creek bank in high spirits. The time, according to his waterproof Rolex watch, came to only ten-thirty, and so he had more or less the entire day to plan out what he should do, now that he knew that Carol Stickyfoot really existed and was not merely another snare and delusion manufactured by his wife.
Several regions of the creek remained unmapped, and, because of the nature of his employment, he knew these places intimately. Six or seven hours lay ahead before he had to report home to Hilda; why not abandon the poplar project temporarily and begin hasty construction of an adequate little concealed shelter for himself and Carol, beyond the ability of the world at large to identify, locate or recognize? It had become action time; thinking time had passed.
Toward the latter part of the day, while he labored deeply engrossed in erecting the adequate little concealed shelter, a tin of Dean's Own came floating southeast down the creek. In a boiling wake of paddled water he rushed out to seize the snuff tin before it drifted by.
When he had removed the Scotch Tape and opened it he found a small package wrapped in tissue paper and a derisive note.
Here's your proof (the note read).
The package contained three blue chips.
For over an hour Cadbury could scarcely trust his teeth to gnaw properly, so great was the shock of Carol's token of authenticity, her pledge to him and all that he represented. In near madness he bit through branch after branch of an old oak tree, scattering boughs in every direction. A strange frenzy overcame him. He had actually found someone, had managed to escape Hilda -- the road lay ahead and he had only to travel it. . . or rather swim it.
Tying several empty snuff tins together with a length of twine he pushed off into the creek; the tins floated more or less northwest and Cadbury paddled after them, breathing heavily with anticipation. As he paddled, keeping the snuff tins perpetually in view, he composed a rhymed quatrain for the occasion of meeting Carol face to face.
He did not know exactly what "sooth" meant, but how many words rhymed with "truth"?
Meanwhile, the tied-together snuff tins led him nearer and nearer -- or so he hoped and believed -- to Miss Carol Stickyfoot. Bliss. But then, as he paddled along, he got to recalling the sly, carefully-casual remarks of Dr. Drat, the seeds of uncertainty planted in Drat's professional fashion. Did he (meaning himself, not Drat) have the courage, the power and integrity, the dedication of purpose, to cope with Carol if she had, as Drat declared, severe emotional problems? Suppose Drat turned out to be correct? Suppose Carol proved to be more difficult and destructive than even Hilda -- who threw his Hermes portable typewriter through the window and suchlike manifestations of psychopathic rage?
Busy ruminating, he failed to notice that the several tied-together snuff tins had coasted silently to shore. Reflexively, he paddled after them and up out of the creek onto land.
Ahead -- a modest apartment with handpainted window shades and a nonobjective mobile swinging lazily above the door. And there, on the front porch, sat Carol Stickyfoot, drying her hair with a large white fluffy towel.
"I love you," Cadbury said. He shook the creek-water from his pelt and fidgeted about in a dither of suppressed affect.
Glancing up, Carol Stickyfoot appraised him. She had lovely huge dark eyes and long heavy hair which shone in the fading sun. "I hope you brought the three blue chips back," she said. "Because, see, I borrowed them from the place I work and I have to return them." She added, "It was a gesture because you seemed to need assurance. The fuds have been getting to you, like that headshrinker Drat. He's a real fud of the worst sort. Would you like a cup of instant Yuban coffee?"
As he followed her into her modest apartment Cadbury said, "I guess you heard my opening remark. I have never been more serious in my whole life. I really do love you, and in the most serious manner. I'm not looking for something trivial or casual or temporary; I'm looking for the most durable and serious kind of relationship there is. I hope in God's name you're not just playing, because I never felt more serious and tense about anything in my life, even including blue chips. If this is just a way of amusing yourself or some such thing it would be merciful for you to end it now by plainly speaking out. Because the torture of leaving my wife and beginning a new life and then finding out --"
"Did Dr. Fud tell you I paint?" Carol Stickyfoot asked as she put a pan of water on the stove in her modest kitchen and lit the burner under it with an old-fashioned large wooden match.
"He told me only that you flipped your cork in Madrid," Cadbury said. He seated himself at the small wooden unpainted pine table opposite the stove and watched with love in his heart Miss Stickyfoot spooning instant coffee into two ceramic mugs which had pataphysical spirals baked into their glaze.
"Do you know anything about Zen?" Miss Stickyfoot asked.
"Only that you ask koans which are sort of riddles," he said. "And you give a sort of nonsense answer because the question is really idiotic in the first place, such as Why are we here on earth? and so forth." He hoped he had put it properly and she would think that he really did know something about Zen, as mentioned in her letter. And then he thought of a very good Zen answer to her question. "Zen," he said, "is a complete philosophic system which contains questions for every answer that exists in the universe. For instance, if you have the answer 'Yes,' then Zen is capable of propounding the exact query which is linked to it, such as 'Must we die in order to please the Creator, who likes his creations to perish?' Although actually, now that I think about it more deeply, the question which Zen would say goes with that answer is 'Are we here in this kitchen about to drink instant Yuban coffee?' Would you agree?" When she did not answer immediately, Cadbury said hurriedly, "In fact Zen would say that the answer 'Yes' is the answer to that question: 'Would you agree?' There you have one of the great values of Zen; it can propound a variety of exact questions for almost any given answer."
"You're full of shit," Miss Stickyfoot said disdainfully.
Cadbury said, "That proves I understand Zen. Do you see? Or perhaps the fact is that you don't actually understand Zen yourself." He felt a trifle nettled.
"Maybe you're right," Miss Stickyfoot said. "I mean about my not understanding Zen. The fact is I don't understand it at all."
"That's very Zen," Cadbury pointed out. "And I do. Which is also Zen. Do you see?"
"Here's your coffee," Miss Stickyfoot said; she placed the two full, steaming cups of coffee on the table and seated herself across from him. Then she smiled. It seemed to him a nice smile, full of light and gentleness, a funny little wrinkled shy smile, with a puzzled, questioning glow of wonder and concern in her eyes. They really were beautiful large dark eyes, just about the most beautiful he had ever seen in his entire life, and he in all truthfulness was in love with her; he had not merely been saying that.
"You realize I'm married," he said as he sipped his coffee. "But I'm separated from her. I've been constructing this hovel down along a part of the creek where no one ever goes. I say 'hovel' so as not to give you a false impression that it's a mansion or anything; actually it's very well put-together. I'm an expert artisan in my field. I'm not trying to impress you; this is simply God's truth. I know I can take care of both our needs. Or we can live here." He looked around Miss Stickyfoot's modest apartment. How ascetically and tastefully she had arranged it. He liked it here; he felt peace come to him, a dwindling away of his tensions. For the first time in years.
"You have an odd aura," Miss Stickyfoot said. "Sort of soft and woolly and purple. I approve of it. But I've never seen one like it before. Do you build model trains? It sort of looks like the kind of aura that someone who builds model trains would have."
"I can build almost anything," Cadbury said. "With my teeth, my hands, my words. Listen; this is for you." He then recited his four-line poem. Miss Stickyfoot listened intently.
"That poem," she decided, when he had finished, "has wu. 'Wu' is a Japanese term -- or is it Chinese? -- meaning you know what." She gestured irritably. "Simplicity. Like some of Paul Klee's drawings." But then she added, "It's not very good, though. Otherwise."
"I composed it," he explained testily, "while paddling down the creek after my tied-together snuff tins. It was strictly spur-of-the-moment stuff; I can do better seated in isolation in my locked study at my Hermes. If Hilda isn't banging at the door. You can discern why I hate her. Because of her sadistic intrusions the only time I have for creative work is while paddling or eating my lunch. That one aspect alone of my marital life explains why I had to break away from it and seek you out. In relationship to a person of your sort I could create on a totally new level entirely. I'd have blue chips coming out my ears. In addition, I wouldn't have to spend myself into oblivion seeing Dr. Drat whom you correctly call a number one fud."
" 'Blue chips,' " Miss Stickyfoot echoed, screwing up her face with distaste. "Is that the level you mean? It seems to me you have the aspirations of a wholesale dried fruit dealer. Forget blue chips; don't leave your wife because of that: you're only carrying your old value-system with you. You've internalized what she's taught you, except that you're carrying it one step farther. Pursue a different course entirely and all will go well with you."
"Like Zen?" he asked.
"You only play with Zen. If you really understood it you never would have answered my note by coming here. There is no perfect person in the world, for you or anybody else. I can't make you feel any better than you do with your wife; you carry your troubles inside you."
"I agree with that up to a point," Cadbury agreed, up to a point. "But my wife makes them worse. Maybe with you they wouldn't entirely go away, but they wouldn't be so bad. Nothing could be so bad as it is now. At least you wouldn't throw my Hermes typewriter out the window whenever you got mad at me, and in addition maybe you wouldn't get mad at me every goddam minute of the day and night, as she does. Had you thought about that? Put that in your pipe and smoke it, as the expression goes."
His reasoning did not seem to go unnoticed by Miss Stickyfoot; she nodded in what appeared to be at least partial agreement. "All right," she said after a pause, and her large dark attractive eyes gleamed with sudden light. "Let's make the effort. If you can abandon your obsessive chatter for a moment -- for perhaps the first time in your life -- I'll do with you and for you, which you could never have done by yourself, what needs to be done. All right? Shall I lay it on you?"
"You have begun to articulate oddly," Cadbury said, with a mixture of alarm, surprise -- and a growing awe. Miss Stickyfoot, before his eyes, had begun to change in a palpable fashion. What had, up to now, appeared to him the ultimate in beauty evolved as he gazed fixedly; beauty, as he had known it, anticipated it, imagined it, dissolved and was carried away into the rivers of oblivion, of the past, of the limitations of his own mind: it was replaced, now, by something further, something that surpassed it, which he could never have conjured up from his own imagination. It far exceeded that.
Miss Stickyfoot had become several persons, each of them bound to the nature of reality, pretty but not illusive, attractive but within the confines of actuality. And these people, he saw, meant much more, were much more, because they were not manifestations fulfilling his wishes, products of his own mind. One, a semi-Oriental girl with long, shiny, dark hair, gazed at him with impassive, bright, intelligent eyes that sparkled with calm awareness; the perception of him, within them, lucid and correct, unimpaired by sentiment or even kindness, mercy or compassion -- yet her eyes held one kind of love: justice, without aversion or repudiation of him, as conscious as she was of his imperfections. It was a comradely love, a sharing of her cerebral, analytical evaluation of himself and of her own self, and the bonded-togetherness of the two of them by their mutual failings.
The next girl, smiling with forgiveness and tolerance, unaware of him as falling short in any way -- nothing he was or was not or could do or fail to do would disappoint her or lower her esteem for him -- glowed and smouldered darkly, with a kind of warm, sad, and at the same time eternally cheerful happiness: this, his mother, his eternal, never-disappearing, never going-away or leaving or forgetting mother who would never withdraw her protection of him, her sheltering cloak that concealed him, warmed him, breathed hope and the flicker of new life into him when pain and defeat and loneliness chilled him into near-ashes. . . the first girl, his equal: his sister, perhaps; this girl his gentle, strong mother who was at the same time frail and afraid but not showing either.
And, with them, a peevish, pouting, irritable girl, immature, pretty in a marred way, with certain skin blemishes, wearing a too-frilly, too-satinish blouse, too-short skirt, with legs too thin; yet still attractive in an undeveloped way. She gazed at him with disappointment, as if he had let her down, had failed her, always would; and still she glared at him demandingly, still wanting more, still trying to call forth from him everything she needed and yearned for: the whole world, the sky, everything, but despising him because he could not give it to her. This, he realized, his future daughter, who would turn from him finally, as the two others would not, would desert him in resentful disappointment to seek fulfillment in another, younger man. He would have her only a short time. And he would never fully please her.
But all three loved him, and all three were his girls, his women, his wistful, hopeful, sad, frightened, trusting, suffering, laughing, sensual, protecting, warming, demanding female realities, his trinity of the objective world standing in opposition to him and at the same time completing him, adding to him what he was not and never would be, what he cherished and prized and respected and loved and needed more than anything else in existence. Miss Stickyfoot, as such, was gone. These three girls stood in her place. And they did not communicate to him remotely, across a break, by floating messages down Papermill Creek in empty snuff tins; they spoke directly, their intense eyes fixed on him unrelentingly, ceaselessly aware of him.
"I will live with you," the calm-eyed Asianish girl said. "As a neutral companion, off and on, as long as I'm alive and you're alive, which may not be forever. Life is transitory and often not worth being fucked over by. Sometimes I think the dead are better off. Maybe I'll join them today, maybe tomorrow. Maybe I'll kill you, send you to join them, or take you with me. Want to come? You can pay the travel-expenses, at least if you want me to accompany you. Otherwise I'll go by myself and travel free on a military transport 707; I get a regular government rebate the rest of my life, which I put in a secret bank account for semi-legal investment purposes of an undisclosed nature for purposes you better God damn never find out if you know what's best for you." She paused, still eyeing him impassively. "Well?"
"What was the question?" Cadbury said, lost.
"I said," she said fiercely, with impatient dismissal of his low mental powers, "I'll live with you for an unspecified period, with uncertain ultimate outcome, if you'll pay enough, and especially -- and this is mandatory -- if you keep the house functioning efficiently -- you know, pay bills, clean up, shop, fix meals -- in such a way that I'm not bothered. So I can do my own things, which matter."
"Okay," he said eagerly.
"I'll never live with you," the sad-eyed, warm, smoky-haired girl said, plump and pliant in her cuddly leather jacket with its tassles, and her brown cord slacks and boots, carrying her rabbit-skin purse. "But I'll look in on you now and then on my way to work in the morning and see if you've got a joint you can lay on me, and if you don't, and you're down, I'll supercharge you -- but not right now. Okay?" She smiled even more intensely, her lovely eyes rich with wisdom and the unstated complexity of herself and her love.
"Sure," he said. He wished for more, but knew that was all; she did not belong to him, did not exist for him: she was herself, and a product of and piece of the world.
"Rape," the third girl said, her over-red, too-lush lips twisting with malice, but at the same time twitching with amusement. "I'll never leave you, you dirty old man, because when I do, how the hell are you ever going to find anyone else willing to live with a child molester who's going to die of a coronary embolism or massive infarct any day now? After I'm gone it's all over for you, you dirty old man." Suddenly, briefly, her eyes moisted over with grief and compassion -- but only briefly and then it was over. "That will be the only happiness you'll ever have. So I can't go; I have to stay with you and delay my own life, even if it's forever." She lost, then, by degrees, her animation; a kind of resigned, mechanical, inert blackness settled over her garish, immature, attractive features. "If I get a better offer, though," she said stonily, "I'll take it. I'll have to shop around and see. Check out the action downtown."
"The hell you say," Cadbury said, hotly, with resentment. And experienced already, a dreadful sense of loss, as if she had gone away even now, even this soon; it had already happened -- this, the worst thing possible in all his life.
"Now," all three girls said at once, briskly, "let's get down to the nitty-gritty. How many blue token chips do you have?"
"W-what?" Cadbury stammered, startled.
"That's the name of the game," the three girls chimed in unison, with bright-eyed asperity. All their combined faculties had been roused to existence by the topic; they were individually and collectively fully alert. "Let's see your checkbook. What's your balance?"
"What's your Gross Annual Product?" the Asian girl said. "I would never rip you off," the warm sentimental, patient, cherishing girl said, "but could you lend me two blue chips? I know you've got hundreds, an important and famous beaver like you."
"Go get some and buy me two quarts of chocolate milk and a carton of various assorted donuts and a Coke at the Speedy Mart," the peevish girl said. "Can I borrow your Porsche?" the cherishing girl asked. "If I put gas in it?"
"But you can't drive mine," the Asian girl said. "It'd increase the cost of my insurance, which my mother pays."
"Teach me how to drive," the peevish girl said, "so I can get one of my boyfriends to take me to the motor movies tomorrow night; it's only two bucks a carload. They're showing five skinflicks, and we can get a couple of dudes and a chick into the trunk."
"Better entrust your blue chips to my keeping," the cherishing girl said. "These other chicks'll rip you off."
"Fuck you," the peevish girl said roughly.
"If you listen to her or give her one single blue chip," the Asian girl said fiercely, "I'll tear out your fucking heart and eat it alive. And that low-class one, she's got the clap; if you sleep with her you'll be sterile the rest of your life."
"I don't have any blue chips," Cadbury said anxiously, fearing that, knowing this, all three girls would depart. "But I --"
"Sell your Hermes Rocket typewriter," the Asian girl said.
"I'll sell it for you," the cherishing, protective girl said in her gentle voice. "And give you --" She calculated, painstakingly, slowly, with effort. "I'll split it with you. Fairly. I'd never burn you." She smiled at him, and he knew it was true.
"My mother owns an electric IBM space-expander, ball-type office model," the peevish girl said haughtily, with near-contempt. "I'd get myself one and learn to type and get a good job, except that I get more by staying on welfare."
"Later in the year --" Cadbury began desperately.
"We'll see you later," the three girls who had formerly been Miss Stickyfoot, said. "Or you can mail the blue chips to us. Okay?" They began to recede, collectively; they wavered and became insubstantial. Or --
Was it Cadbury himself, the Beaver Who Lacked, who was becoming insubstantial? He had a sudden, despairing intuition that it was the latter. He was fading out; they remained. And yet that was good.
He could survive that. He could survive his own disappearance. But not theirs.
Already, in the short time he had known them, they meant more to him than he did to himself. And that was a relief.
Whether he had any blue chips for them or not -- and that seemed to be what mattered to them -- they would survive. If they could not coax, rip-off, borrow, or anyhow in one fashion or another get blue chips from him, they'd get them from somebody else. Or else go along happily anyhow without them. They did not really need them; they liked them. They could survive with or without them. But they, frankly, were not really interested in survival. They wanted to be, intended to be, and knew how to be, genuinely happy. They would not settle for mere survival; they wanted to live.
"I hope I see you again," Cadbury said. "Or rather, I hope you see me again. I mean, I hope I reappear, at least briefly, from time to time, in your lives. Just so I can see how you're doing."
"Stop scheming on us," all three said in unison, as Cadbury became virtually nonexistent; all that remained of him, now, was a wisp of gray smoke, lingering plaintively in the half-exhausted air that had once offered to sustain him.
"You'll be back," the cherishing, plump, leather-clad, warm-eyed girl said, with certitude, as if she knew instinctively that there could be no doubt. "We'll see you."
"I hope so," Cadbury said, but now even the sound of his gone-off voice had become faint; it flickered like a fading audio signal from some distant star that had, long ago, cooled into ash and darkness and inertness and silence.
"Let's go to the beach," the Asian girl said as the three of them strolled away, confident and assured and substantial and alive to the activity of the day. And off they went.
Cadbury -- or at least the ions that remained of him as a sort of vapor trail marking his one-time passage through life and out -- wondered if there were, at their beach, any nice trees to gnaw. And where their beach was. And if it was nice. And if it had a name.
Pausing briefly, glancing back, the compassionate, cherishing plump girl in leather and soft tassles said, "Would you like to come along? We could take you for a little while, maybe this one time. But not again. You know how it is."
There was no answer.
"I love you," she said softly, to herself. And smiled her moist-eyed, happy, sorrowful, understanding, remembering smile.
And went on. A little behind the other two. Lingering slightly, as if, without showing it, looking back.