Sandy Stern woke up to the faraway honking of wild geese, but dimly sensed that they were not the cause of his awakening. The cause, he soon perceived, was a dull ache deep in a back tooth on the right side of his jaw. The ache pulsated with the beating of his heart until it was indistinguishable from the heartbeat itself. Then, in rapid succession it came to him that he didn’t have any money to pay the rent; that his landlord, Roy Greenleaf, had sworn to evict him the next time Sandy fell so much as a day in arrears; that he had said terrible things the night before, while drunk, to the girl he loved; and that it was Halloween morning, his thirtieth birthday.
In a little while, the cries of the geese faded down the Atlantic flyway and were replaced by a series of muffled hammerblows. Sandy imagined Roy Greenleaf, armed with writs of eviction, pounding on the door three stories below. But even hungover, his brain skewed, Sandy realized that the rent was not yet overdue. No, the noise below was coming from men at work. This signaled fresh concern to Sandy, for the lower two floors of the Victorian house had been vacant for six months since a quartet of college kids moved out after practically trashing the place. Sandy knew that Roy Greenleaf wanted to chop up the house into smaller apartment units, including the third floor garret that was Sandy's studio. His lease ran six more months, through next April, but all Roy Greenleaf needed was an excuse to declare it broken. Sandy lived in terror of losing his studio.
A glinting yellow blur on the wooden floor caught his eye. Sandy reached for it and, lacking his eyeglasses, held it very close for inspection. The object turned out to be a gold earring in the design of a seashell. He did not recognize it as belonging to his girlfriend, Robin Holmes. It was possible, he tried to reason, that he was less than completely familiar with her entire earring collection or she had recently bought a new pair. But Robin had not slept over in more than a week. Moreover, Sandy was a very tidy person, and he doubted that an object so golden-bright on the floor would have escaped his attention that long. What really worried him was the thought that he had drunkenly brought another girl home with him the night before.
With considerable effort, physical and mental, he rolled over a quarter turn onto his back affirming that he was the sole occupant of his mattress on the floor. If there had been any girl–and he simply could not remember–then she was gone now. He groped beside a wine-jug lamp for his eyeglasses and put them on, carefully tucking the wire cables around each ear. The objects in the large room surged into focus with a sharpness that frightened him. His head pounded, accentuating the ache in his tooth.
The large room comprised the entire third floor of the Victorian house: a classic garret. Big dormers on three sides each held an arched window ten feet tall that filled the garret with light. In the hundred years since the house was built, the garret had never been finished in the carpentry sense. It was still all rough. There was no ceiling, for instance, and on stormy nights the rain resounded on the slate roof like bird shot.
At the near end of the garret was a kitchen area with a salvaged sink, refrigerator that noisily hummed, and an ancient electric stove. A battered Formica-topped table held a red telephone, a green glass jar full of pens and pencils, sketchpads, and a paint-splattered backpack.
To the left of the kitchen area, cordoned off only by a folding wooden screen upon which Sandy had painted an arcadian idyll, lay a bathroom area that was not the last word in privacy. In the beginning Sandy had ideas about framing it in with two-by-fours and sheetrock, like a real bathroom, but he had lacked the funds for such a building project.
"Please don't listen," Robin Holmes said the first time he'd made supper for her at his place and she had to use the toilet. It bothered Sandy, too, and at first he couldn't pee with her around unless he turned the shower on.
The far half of the room was Sandy's painting studio. At this time of year and hour of the day a great glowing blade of amber October light slanted in from the east dormer window. In the path of this swordstroke of sunlight stood a heavy-duty wooden easel, upon which was Sandy's latest painting.
Like the room, the painting also was large in scale, eight feet by five. It depicted a recognizable scene in nature, a boisterous stream of water veering off into woodland and sky. The woods were dark and hinted of mystery, the sky troubled. It was in many ways not a thing of this century. Sandy now gazed across the room at it in dismay, worrying about his future and marveling at how difficult it was to capture the soul of living water in oil paint.
He also wondered, as he gazed, how on earth he was going to raise $250 in twenty-four hours to pay the rent. Behind him he heard a familiar thump followed by many quick, light footsteps. Clementine, his gray and black tiger-striped cat, crept up the dark blue unzipped sleeping bag that served as a quilt and settled on Sandy's chest. She tucked her paws beneath herself and, enjoying the warmth from his body, began to purr. Sandy drew his right arm out from under the covers and rubbed her head. She nuzzled his hand with a cold pink nose outlined in black. He knew this visit meant that she wanted her breakfast.
"'Oh, my darling, oh, my darling, oh, my darling Clementine . . .'" He began singing to her softly but then stopped. "Whatever are we going to do?"
The cat only purred in reply. Sandy noticed that the persistent ache in his tooth was not going away. He was extremely thirsty and wanted to take some aspirin, which required setting himself in motion upward. To do so, he lifted the cat off his chest as he prepared to get out of bed. "God Almighty but you're getting heavy," he observed, and before the words even left his mouth, he realized that Clementine was pregnant.
Excerpted from The Halloween Ball by James Howard Kunstler. Copyright © 1987 by James Howard Kunstler. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.