Nancy Underhill’s death had been unexpected, abrupt — a death like a slap in the face. Tim, her husband’s older brother, knew nothing more. He could scarcely be said really to have known Nancy. On examination, Timothy Underhill’s memories of his sister-in-law shrank into a tiny collection of snapshots. Here was Nancy’s dark, fragile smile as she knelt beside her two-year-old son, Mark, in 1990; here she was, in another moment from that same visit, snatching up little Mark, both of them in tears, from his baby seat and rushing from the dim unadorned dining room. Philip, whose morose carping had driven his wife from the room, sat glaring at the dried-out pot roast, deliberately ignoring his brother’s presence. When at last he looked up, Philip said, “What?”

Ah Philip, you were ever a wonder. The kid can’t help being a turd, Pop said once. It seems to be one of the few things that make him feel good. One more of cruel memory’s snapshots, this from an odd, eventful visit Tim had paid to Millhaven in 1993, when he flew the two and a half hours from La Guardia on the same carrier, and from all available evidence also the same craft, as this day: Nancy seen through the screen door of the little house on Superior Street, beaming as she hurried Tim-ward down the unlighted hallway, her face alight with the surprise and pleasure given her by the unexpected arrival on her doorstep of her brother-in-law (“famous” brother-in-law, she would have said). She had, simply, liked him, Nancy had, to an extent he’d understood only at that moment.

That quietly stressed out little woman, often (Tim thought) made wretched by her husband and sewn into her marriage by what seemed determination more than love, as if the preparation of many thousands of daily meals and a succession of household “projects” provided most of the satisfaction she needed to keep her in place. Of course Mark must have been essential; and maybe her marriage had been happier than Tim imagined. For both their sakes, he hoped it had been.

Philip’s behavior over the next few days would give him all the answers he was likely to get. And with Philip, interpretation was always necessary. Philip Underhill had cultivated an attitude of discontent ever since he had concluded that his older brother, whose flaws shone with a lurid radiance, had apparently seized from birth most of the advantages available to a member of the Underhill clan. From early in his life, nothing Philip could get or achieve was quite as good as it would have been but for the mocking, superior presence of his older brother. (In all honesty, Tim did not doubt that he had tended to lord it over his little brother. Was there ever an older brother who did not?) During all of Philip’s adult life, his grudging discontent had been like a role perfectly inhabited by an actor with a gift for the part: somewhere inside, Tim wanted to believe, the real Philip must have lived on, capable of joy, warmth, generosity, selflessness. It was this inner, more genuine self that was going to be needed in the wake of Nancy’s mysterious death. Philip would need it for his own sake if he were to face his grief head-on, as grief had to be faced; but more than that, he would need it for his son. It would be terrible for Mark if his father somehow tried to treat his mother’s death as yet another typical inconvenience different from the rest only by means of its severity.

From what Tim had seen on his infrequent returns to Millhaven, Mark seemed a bit troubled, though he did not wish to think of his nephew in the terms suggested by the word “troubled.” Unhappy, yes; restless; unfocused; afflicted with both a budding arrogance and what Tim had perceived was a good and tender heart. A combination so conflicted lent itself naturally to restlessness and lack of focus. So, as far as Tim remembered, did being fifteen years old. The boy was trim and compact, physically more like his mother than his father: dark-haired and dark-eyed-though presently his hair was clipped so short its color was merely some indeterminate shade of darkness-with a broad forehead and a narrow, decisive chin. Two steel rings rode the outer ridges of his right ear. He slopped around in big T-shirts and oversized jeans, alternately grimacing and grinning at the music earphoned into his head from an improbably tiny device, an iPod or an MP3 player. Mark was devoted to a strange cross section of contemporary music: Wilco, the Magnetic Fields, the White Stripes, the Strokes, Yo La Tengo, Spiritualized, and the Shins, but also Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy LaFave, and Eminem, whom he seemed to appreciate in an ironic spirit. His “pin-up girl,” he had informed his uncle in an e-mail, was Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

In the past sixteen months, Mark had e-mailed his uncle four times, not so briefly as to conceal a tone Tim found refreshing for being sidelong, sweet, and free of rhetorical overkill. Mark’s first and longest e-mail used the excuse of a request for advice, Tim thought, as a way to open communications between them.

 

From: munderhill697@aol.com
To: tunderhill@nyc.rr.com
Sent: Sunday, February 3, 2002 4:06 PM
Subject: speak, o wise one

hi de ho

this is your nephew mark in case u couldn’t decipher the from line. so I was having this lil disagreement with my father, and I wanted 2 ask your advice. after all u managed 2 get out of this burg & travel around & u write books & u live in nyc & all that means u shd have a pretty open mind.
I hope it does.
bcuz u & u alone will decide what i do next. my dad sez he will go along with u no matter what. I dunno maybe he doesn’t want 2 have 2 decide. (mom sez, quote, don’t ask me, I don’t want to hear abt it, unquote. that’s what mom sez.)
i turn 14 next month and 2 celebrate my bday I’d like 2 get a tongue piercing. 1 of my friends has a pierced tongue and he sez it isn’t 2 painful at all and its over in a jiff. I’d really like 2 do this. don’t u think 14 is the rite age 2 go out and do something dumb, provided u do think it is dumb to pierce your tongue, which I obviously do not? in a year or 2 I’ll take it out & go back 2 being boring & normal. or what d’you say, move up 2 a cool tat?
waiting 2 hear from the famous unk
m

 

From: tunderhill@nyc.rr.com
To: munderhill697@aol.com
Sent: Sunday, February 3, 2002 6:32 PM
Subject: Re: speak, o wise one

Dear Mark,

First of all, it is wonderful to hear from you! Let’s do this more often. I like the idea of our being in touch.

I’ve been thinking about your question. To begin with, I’m flattered that you thought to ask my opinion on such a personal matter. I’m also flattered that your father placed the decision in my hands, but I suppose he really did not want to think about his son having his tongue pierced! If I had a son, I wouldn’t want to think about it, either.

bcuz, as u wld say, the idea of tongue piercings makes me feel a bit queasy. I like your earrings and I think they look good on you, but whenever I see some young person with a metal ball riding on top of his/her tongue, I begin to fret about the discomfort of such an arrangement.

Doesn’t it complicate the whole eating business? I almost hate to admit this to you, but to me tongue piercings really do seem like weird self-mutilation. So you are far ahead of me in this regard. This is not the answer you were expecting, I’m sure. I’m sorry to stand in the way of you getting what you want, but you asked and I had to answer you truthfully. I’d rather think of you without a metal ball in your mouth than with one. Sorry, kiddo, but I love you anyhow.

Is there anything special you’d like me to get for your birthday? Maybe I can make up for being so boring and middle-class.

Uncle Tim

 

The next day two messages from his family turned up in his Inbox.

 

From: munderhill697@aol.com
To: tunderhill@nyc.rr.com
Sent: Monday, February 4, 2002 7:32 AM
Subject: Re: speak, o wise one

TYim, this is nme Philip using Mark’s computyer. Hje showed me what you wrote him. I hadf the feeling you’d do the right thing for once. So, well, thanks. IO hate that crap too.

 

From: munderhill697@aol.com
To: tunderhill@nyc.rr.com
Sent: Monday, February 4, 2002 5:31 PM
Subject: Re: speak, o wise one

>Is there anything special you’d like me to get for your birthday? now that you mention it, yep. ordnance. :)
m

 

For once, as his brother would put it, Tim was grateful for the Internet’s assumption that its users were incapable of perceiving a joke unaccompanied by a nudge in the ribs. Philip’s error-riddled message contained a different kind of reassurance-that of its having been sent at all. During Pop’s life, the brothers had come together-meaning that Tim flew to Millhaven from New York-once or twice a year; in the five years since his death, they had scarcely spoken. Pop had come to New York once, as a widower of two years in his late seventies, saying that he wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and he had stayed in Tim’s loft at 55 Grand Street, which he had found awkward and discomforting. His knees made the trek up and down three flights of stairs difficult, and Tim had overheard him complain to dear Michael Poole, who lived one floor up with the amazing and equally dear Maggie Lah, that he had imagined his son was at least rich enough to put in an elevator. (“I used to run an elevator, you know,” he told Michael. “At the famous St. Alwyn Hotel, right there in Pigtown. All the big musicians stayed there, niggers included.”) The next day, at an informal little get-together Tim put together with Maggie Lah, Michael Poole, and Vinh Tran, who with Maggie owned and operated Saigon, the Vietnamese restaurant on the ground floor of 55 Grand Street, Pop turned to Michael and said, “You know something, Doctor? As far as I’m concerned, the whole world can blow up right soon’s I die, and I wouldn’t give a damn. Why should I?”

“Doesn’t Tim’s brother have a son?” Michael asked. “Don’t you care what happens to your grandchild?”

“Not a hell of a lot.”

“You a tough ol’ coot, aren’t you?” Maggie said.

Pop grinned at her. Vodka had loosened him up to the point where he supposed this stunning Chinese woman could see through the cobwebby disguise of old age to the seductive rascal he was at heart. “I’m glad someone down here in New York City is smart enough to understand me,” he said.

Tim realized he had read through three pages of the new George Pelecanos novel without registering anything more than individual words. He looked up the aisle to discover that the flight attendants handing out the wrapped lunches were only two rows in front of him. On Midwest Air, a one-class airline noted for its wide seats and attentive service, the approach of the in-flight meal could still arouse some interest.

A blond woman with a Smithsonian-quality Millhaven accent handed him a wrapped chicken Caesar salad, more than acceptable by airline standards, and a minute later her twin sister filled his Midwest Air wine glass a quarter of an inch above the line with a decent cabernet, and when he had taken a sip and let it slide down his throat, it came to Tim Underhill that for the past twenty minutes, when he was supposed to be enjoying George Pelecanos as a kind of palate cleanser before making notes for his new and highly uncharacteristic project, he had been engaged in the fruitless task of obsessing about his brother.

If he actually did intend to accomplish any work during this trip, which in spite of everything he hoped he might, he was going to have to stop brooding about his brother and dedicate at least some of his attention to a surprisingly little known figure in American life, Dr. Herman Mudgett, a.k.a. H. H. Holmes. Probably the country’s first serial killer and undoubtedly one of its most prolific, Mudgett had adopted the surname of a famous fictional detective and constructed in Chicago a monstrous murder palace in the form of a hotel just in time to siphon off young women in town to attend the 1893 Columbian Exposition. In his vast hotel, he killed almost every woman who became involved with him to a degree greater than serving him breakfast in a local restaurant or selling him collars and cravats at the haberdashery. LD Bechtel, a young musician of Tim’s acquaintance, had suggested that they collaborate on a chamber opera about Holmes, and for the past two months this project had occupied a portion of his thoughts.

He knew when he had first begun to see his own access into it. The moment had been the result of various unrelated objects producing a small but vital electrical pulse when accidentally joined together. He had gone out to loaf through the St. Mark’s Bookshop and pick up a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and the first element of his inspiration had been an odd slogan stenciled atop a high, rounded Spring Street gutter passed on his eastward trek. The stencil had just been applied, and the ink glistened. It consisted of four words, all lowercase: lost boy lost girl. Downtown indie-rock bands sometimes advertised themselves by stenciling their names on sidewalks, and Tim had known of a couple of small presses that did the same with titles of books they did not have the money otherwise to promote.

He supposed that somewhere, someone had done it with a movie title. Whatever it was, he liked the phrase and hoped he would remember to notice where it might crop up again.

In St. Mark’s Bookshop, he cruised the New Fiction tables and pulled a copy of John Ashbery’s Chinese Whispers from a poetry shelf. Any new book by John Ashbery was an automatic purchase. At a big table stacked with oversized art books, he picked up a jumbo-sized collection of Magritte paintings, opened it at random, and found himself looking for maybe the hundredth time at a painting called Not to Be Reproduced, in which a young man with a fine head of hair stands, his back to the painter and the viewer, looking into a mirror that reproduces, instead of his face, the back of his head. He is looking at an image of himself that looks away from him. Because his face is not visible, the young man has no face.

Then it happened: Tim felt the unmistakable tingle of the little electrical pulse and told himself that he was looking at a portrait of H. H. Holmes. His access, his way in, was a kind of feel, a kind of tone-the feeling aroused in him by the Magritte painting. As a painting, it was a virtual Chinese whisper, or could be seen that way, always leaning toward a further misprision. It was one of the creepiest of all surrealist paintings, and the feelings it awakened in him had all to do with dread. Tim could see their H. H. Holmes, his and LD’s, before the furnace in which he had incinerated his victims, his back to the audience, singing his lungs out and posed more like an icon than a man. The image contained a kind of splendor that all but brought its music into audibility. With his inner ear, Tim could hear their little orchestra hammering and beating away, and it sounded gorgeous. We’re going to do this, he said to himself.

When he passed Spring Street on his way home, he looked down to see the enigmatic lost boy lost girl, but the slogan had disappeared, as though the fresh ink had melted into the smooth concrete of the curb. Impossible, he thought, I’m on the wrong corner. It was not the wrong corner, he knew, but for three or four blocks he kept looking at the curb, and abandoned the search only when he began to feel foolish.

Now it came to him that he was going back to a city perfectly attuned to his project. Millhaven had struck him as essentially surreal ever since he had left it for the first time. Nancy Underhill would have had no appetite for the surreal. She had been required to stand up to Philip for the decade and a half when they had skulked from neighborhood to neighborhood until returning to within two blocks of the house on Auer Avenue where Timothy and Philip were born to Mom and Pop Underhill. Had something in the scruffy old part of the city once known as Pigtown, with its two-story houses burdened with dark, suspicious-looking porches, its tiny sloping lawns and narrow alleyways, the ugly rows of liquor stores, diners, and cheap clothing outlets on its avenues, reached out for funny little Nancy Underhill and taken her life? Had some person from that world killed her? His next thought shamed Tim even as it formed itself into coherence: his brother’s wife had seemed almost too self-effacing, you could say too unimportant, to get murdered.

Forty minutes before the plane set down, the rich, delicious smell of chocolate-chip cookies baking golden brown filled the cabin. Midwest Air served freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies on every flight long enough to include a meal. Ten minutes later, the flight attendant leaned toward him and, winking, handed over a paper napkin holding three warm cookies, one more than the usual ration. She smiled at him.

“Do you know who was in your seat on yesterday’s flight?”

He shook his head.

“That actor who was in Family Ties.”

“Michael J. Fox?”

“No, the one who played his father.” She looked away for a second. “He must be really old by now. He still looks pretty good, though.”

Tim raised the first cookie to his mouth. Its wonderful fragrance seemed to move directly into the center of his head, making him ravenous. What was the name of that actor, anyhow? Michael somebody: he’d had a nice quality, like Alan Alda without the smarm. The cryptic phrase stenciled on a Spring Street curb came back to him. lost boy lost girl.

How on earth, he wondered, had Nancy died?