Author’s Notes: The following is an excerpt my novel, Three Seconds. Jon Brunner and his son, Ross, are visiting Wallace Henderson, who befriended Brunner after they met in a group therapy session. In group, Henderson relished telling stories of his past, some so fantastic that they bordered on unbelievable. At their last session, Henderson announced his marriage to his long-time companion, Willadean.
The following Saturday Ross pushed his father up the sidewalk to the front door of Wallace Henderson’s house.
“This should be interesting,” Brunner said as he rang the doorbell.
The door opened and there to greet them was a woman in a fashionable black and white dress. She was nothing like Brunner had imagined. Nothing like he thought Henderson’s wife would look like. He half expected Henderson himself to answer the door, then offer some transparent excuse for his wife’s absence, confirming Brunner’s suspicion that Henderson had made up the story about getting married just before Christmas, thus lending credence to Brunner’s theory that all of his stories were fabrications of his imagination. But there she was.
She seemed taller than average, but Brunner’s perspective from his wheelchair may have skewed his judgment. She had lovely, almond-shaped eyes and hair to her shoulder, streaked lightly with gray which she seemed to wear with a sense of pride. She extended her hand to greet Brunner and he noticed that despite the obvious signs of age, her nails were painted a soft red and her hands were smooth and silky.
“Welcome, Jon. I’m Willadean. It’s so good to finally meet you. This is your son?” she asked.
“My youngest. Ross.”
They followed her into the living room. “Wallace is in the kitchen. I’ll let him know you’re here.”
“Oh my word,” Brunner said as he looked around the living room.
“This is incredible,” Ross said.
Wallace Henderson’s home was a very old house in a very old neighborhood. The living room should have been tiny, but the wall between an adjacent former bedroom had been removed. The result was an excessively wide room that opened up into a dining area. Bookcases ran to the ceiling at the end walls and short bookcases ran along the long walls and under the windows. Where there were no bookcases there were paintings – oils, watercolors, charcoal sketches – in museum-quality frames. In the middle of the room were display cases full of an eclectic collection of art, pottery, and archaeological artifacts. At the end of the room that used to be a bedroom were two leather chairs, with a table and a lamp between them. In front of the chairs was another display case with an old survey instrument on top. Brunner wheeled himself down to take a look. Ross followed him.
“What is that?” he asked.
“That, my dear boy, is me,” Wallace Henderson said.
“It’s a sextant,” Brunner said. “I’ll tell you the story sometime.”
Henderson introduced himself to Ross, then invited them into the kitchen.
“I’ve just put the bread in the oven,” he said. “We should be dining in a few minutes. Willadean and I have prepared a chicken tarragon entrée, with assorted steam vegetables on the side.”
“Don’t let him fool you,” Willadean said. “He’s the master. I’m his sous-chef.”
“A glass of Chardonnay?” He was pouring glasses before anyone could answer.
“Just water for me,” Ross said.
“Let’s sit at the dining room table,” he said. “I’m afraid the relics of my various interests have taken over the traditional social areas of my home. I rarely have guests – usually just Willadean, and she’s now my permanent companion in habitation. We so enjoy reading together, but it leaves little room for other friends.”
“That’s fine, Wallace,” Brunner said. “I appreciate the hospitality. I find it difficult to sit in the house all day. At least in the hospital the nurses were always sticking me with something or sending my down the hall for imaging.”
“I hope that my invitation didn’t come too soon.”
Brunner laughed. “It almost came too late.”
“Yes. We shall talk about that in due course.”
It was an ominous tone to which Brunner had no idea how to react. Before he could say anything, Henderson turned his attention to Ross.
“I’ve heard you have the soul of an artist, young man. Please, tell me, what medium are you most interested in? What periods of art do you appreciate?”
Ross wasn’t expecting the questions and he hesitated, not knowing if Henderson’s inquiries were sincere or simply polite entreaties. He decided to give him a straight answer.
“For my paying job, everything is computer-generated. But at home, I like to watercolor. And I experiment with mixed-media quite a bit.”
“And the subject matter you paint?”
And so the conversation went, at first Henderson asking questions, Ross answering, but after a few minutes, they were exchanging opinions on a wide range of artistic subjects. Willadean and Brunner quietly chatted about chicken tarragon, then exchanged information about their favorite authors, but their conversation had lost steam ten minutes before Henderson and Ross were interrupted by the beeping of the oven, telling Henderson that the bread was ready.
“Time to eat,” he said. He and Willadean gathered the food and brought it to the table. When all was ready, Henderson extended his hands, as did Willadean, and said grace with hands joined and heads bowed.
“The bread smells amazing,” Brunner said.
“It’s his specialty,” Willadean said. “He loves baking bread.”
“Dad says you two just got married. How did you meet?”
“Willadean and I have known each other for a number of years. She worked at Taylor Books, an independent bookstore in Wheeling, where I lived for a while. You can see we both have an affection for books and that’s where we first met. At that time I was still trying to determine who I was.
“I had moved back to Wheeling after my time at Howard House when I was in my thirties. By that time my grandmother had passed away and I was her only living relative so I inherited her home. This was her table,” he said as he ran his hand over the smooth oak. “It reminds me of Artemus.”
“Who is Artemus?” Brunner asked.
“My friend from high school. We were known as the Odd Couple, and not affectionately, I must say. We were different. I was interested in cerebral pursuits and relished any teacher or class that would challenge me. If I had limited my enthusiasm to the sciences or math, I may have flown under the proverbial radar as just another nerd. But I was also interested in the arts, both visual and performing. I loved the theater. So I became an easy target.”
“I can relate,” Ross said.
“Artemus was likewise bright, and interested in all manner of things. His love of science drew him to biology, specifically, plant life. He had a garden and worked after school at a nursery. He was also a gifted writer. Unfortunately for him, his writing was somewhat unconventional. He loved the fantasy genre, you know, hobbits and monsters and the like.
“In our senior year, we did everything we could to schedule classes together. Of course that didn’t help with the torment we went through at the hands of the other students. That’s when I learned I was a homosexual.”
The revelation caught Brunner and Ross off guard.
“Artemus?” Ross said.
“Dear Artemus. Of course, I did not love him in the carnal sense. I simply loved him as a kind, warm, caring person.”
“But, if…” Ross said, thinking out loud. His thought was interrupted by Willadean, who was passing around the plate of bread. It gave him enough time to realize that to pursue his question further would be insensitive. “Thanks, Mr. Henderson,” he said instead.
“Enough of Mr. Henderson. Please call me Wallace.”
“So what happened to Artemus?” Brunner asked.
“Yes, Artemus. Not his real name, of course. Arthur Cook. Art was what he used when I first met him. Artemus is much more interesting. After high school we both went away for university studies. I went up to Carnegie Mellon to study design and Artemus accepted a scholarship to William and Mary to study literature. As it turned out, neither one of us finished.
“It was my junior year that I took a sailing trip down the Monongahela in the middle of winter.”
“What? Sailing down the Mon in the winter?” Ross asked.
“Your father can tell you all about that.”
“No way,” Brunner said. “I couldn’t do it justice.”
“Another time, perhaps. Artemus had always been something of a free-thinker, given to indulging the whims of his ever-expanding imagination. The rigidity of formality of the classes he was taking never really suited his personality. He left William and Mary after only three semesters, I think it was.”
“College isn’t for everyone,” Brunner said.
“Indeed. Artemus and I kept in touch through all of our ups and downs. This was before electronic communications so we actually wrote letters. The letters Artemus wrote were magna opera. Such a delight to receive. Correspondence that you could read time and time again, and with each reading, relish in his magnificent command of language and his delicious turn of a phrase.
“I tried to respond in kind but after a bit, I knew that it was more valorous to allow him the full glory of his words. I vowed to not compete.”
“Don’t let him fool you,” Willadean said. “Wallace is quite a writer.”
“Perhaps I am above average, but not in the same realm as dear Artemus. And those times I was incapacitated due to my various psychological maladies, he continued to fill my life with joy. As I believe I mentioned, after my stay at Howard House I moved back to the old neighborhood.”
“Another story he needs to tell you sometime, Ross,” Brunner said.
“Artemus had returned after he declined further educational opportunities from William and Mary. He lived at home with his mother. We got together quite often and had grand times, usually dining together, sometimes sharing coffee at my house. Willadean began to join us as well. I think Artemus fancied Willadean in those days. I can’t say that I blamed him. She’s always been a rare beauty.”
“You make me blush, Wallace.”
“I always regretted not finishing my education. I would have loved to have been a designer, maybe even an architect. But had I finished, my life would have taken a different course and I likely would not have met Willadean. Artemus, however, seemed to be thriving, despite the lack of a degree. What he started in his epistles, he developed into a vast collection of short stories and poetry. He started to get published, at first in small, regional publications, and then in national literary journals. He seemed to be on the verge of great things.
“And then, for reasons I never fully understood, he became withdrawn. His mother had passed away a couple of years prior and I have my suspicions that he never really adapted to life without her. We saw him less frequently. When we did, he was the same convivial, wonderfully odd Artemus. But eventually we would only get together a few times a year. He told us he was working laboriously on a novel, that it consumed much of his energy and concentration. We were pleased at his discipline and was certain that it would be worth the sacrifice. After a year or so, he told us he had finished and was negotiating with publishers. A few months later, he announced his manuscript had been optioned by Wallingford Press.”
“I know Wallingford,” Brunner said. “They publish the best.”
“Indeed. More months went by and Artemus told us the book was being delayed for one reason or another, but it was still in the works. After a couple of years of the same story, Willadean and I quit asking about it. We surmised that for whatever reason, Artemus had made up the whole story. Of course we never challenged him; we were, after all, his friends. Who among us hasn’t engaged in a little overly optimistic wishful thinking?
“As time went on, he seemed to have given up on writing. He started working at various office supply outlets, who took advantage of his superior analytical mind to advise consumers in their computer purchases. He quit coming around and the only time we would see him was when we stopped by the store. Of course we would stop by his house but he was never home. In reality, I think he was, but he would never answer the door.
“One day, Willadean received a call from his employer, whom she knew as a customer of the book store. Artemus had not shown up for work for a week. He feared the worst, as did we.
“We went to his house. Rang the bell. Knocked loudly. No one answered. Then Willadean tried the door. It was unlocked. I wish it had not been. We were completely unprepared for what we saw.
“We were immediately assaulted by the foulest stench you could imagine. Poor Willadean became sick immediately and had to leave. I somehow managed to withstand the repugnant odor, most likely because my other senses were overwhelmed, leaving me feeling catatonic.
“In the living room were all manner of trash and debris piled as high as a person could reach. Newspapers, magazines, pipes, automobile tires, pizza boxes, just plain trash. Oh, it was appalling. Feces. Rotting food. I made it as far as the first bedroom and looked inside and saw Artemus, dead and rotting, lying on the floor beside his bed. I left and called the authorities. I later learned that it was even worse than I had seen. No electricity. No running water. Drug paraphernalia. Just a horrid existence.”
“And we never knew,” Willadean said.
“When we saw him, he was always Artemus. Just more withdrawn. Could we have seen the signs? Should we have seen the signs? It’s easy to look back and say yes, but at the time…”
Everyone was quiet. Wallace wiped a tear from his eye.
“Artemus,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Brunner said.
“I tell you this for a reason, Mr. Brunner.” He turned and faced him. “I have suffered much in this life. And I am blessed for it. Without it, I would not have the appreciation for my dear Willadean. You see, suffering has a way of clarifying what’s important in life. He took Willadean’s hand in his. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sin.”