Billy Summers sits in the hotel lobby, waiting for his ride. It’s Friday noon. Although he’s reading a digest-sized comic book called Archie’s Pals ’n’ Gals, he’s thinking about Émile Zola, and Zola’s third novel, his breakthrough, Thérèse Raquin. He’s thinking it’s very much a young man’s book. He’s thinking that Zola was just beginning to mine what would turn out to be a deep and fabulous vein of ore. He’s thinking that Zola was—is—the nightmare version of Charles Dickens. He’s thinking that would make a good thesis for an essay. Not that he’s ever written one.
At two minutes past twelve the door opens and two men come into the lobby. One is tall with black hair combed in a 50s pompadour. The other is short and bespectacled. Both are wearing suits. All of Nick’s men wear suits. Billy knows the tall one from out west. He’s been with Nick a long time. His name is Frank Macintosh. Because of the pomp, some of Nick’s men call him Frankie Elvis, or—now that he has a tiny bald spot in back—Solar Elvis. But not to his face. Billy doesn’t know the other one. He must be local.
Macintosh holds out his hand. Billy rises and shakes it.
“Hey, Billy, been a while. Good to see you.”
“Good to see you too, Frank.”
“This is Paulie Logan.”
“Hi, Paulie.” Billy shakes with the short one.
“Pleased to meet you, Billy.”
Macintosh takes the Archie digest from Billy’s hand. “Still reading the comics, I see.”
“Yeah,” Billy says. “Yeah. I like them quite a bit. The funny ones. Sometimes the superheroes but I don’t like them as much.”
Macintosh breezes through the pages and shows something to Paulie Logan. “Look at these chicks. Man, I could jack off to these.”
“Betty and Veronica,” Billy says, taking the comic back. “Veronica is Archie’s girlfriend and Betty wants to be.”
“You read books, too?” Logan asks.
“Some, if I’m going on a long trip. And magazines. But mostly comic books.”
“Good, good,” Logan says, and drops Macintosh a wink. Not very subtle, and Macintosh frowns, but Billy’s okay with it.
“You ready to take a ride?” Macintosh asks.
“Sure.” Billy tucks his digest into his back pocket. Archie and his bosomy gal pals. There’s an essay waiting to be written there, too. About the comfort of haircuts and attitudes that don’t change. About Riverdale, and how time stands still there.
“Then let’s go,” Macintosh says. “Nick’s waiting.”
Macintosh drives. Logan says he’ll sit in back because he’s short. Billy expects them to go west, because that’s where the fancy part of this town is, and Nick Majarian likes to live large whether home or away. And he doesn’t do hotels. But they go northeast instead.
Two miles from downtown they enter a neighborhood that looks lower middle-class to Billy. Three or four steps better than the trailer park he grew up in, but far from fancy. No big gated houses, not here. This is a neighborhood of ranch houses with lawn sprinklers twirling on small patches of grass. Most are one-story. Most are well maintained, but a few need paint and there’s crabgrass taking over some of the lawns. He sees one house with a piece of cardboard blocking a broken window. In front of another, a fat man in Bermuda shorts and a wifebeater sits in a lawn chair from Costco or Sam’s Club, drinking a beer and watching them go by. Times have been good in America for awhile now, but maybe that is going to change. Billy knows neighborhoods like this. They are a barometer, and this one has started to go down. The people who live here are working the kind of jobs where you punch a clock.
Macintosh pulls into the driveway of a two-story with a patchy lawn. It’s painted a subdued yellow. It’s okay, but doesn’t look like a place where Nick Majarian would choose to live, even for a few days. It looks like the kind of place a machinist or lower-echelon airport employee would live with his coupon-clipping wife and two kids, making mortgage payments every month and bowling in a beer league on Thursday nights.
Logan opens Billy’s door. Billy puts his Archie digest on the dashboard and gets out.
Macintosh leads the way up the porch steps. It’s hot outside but inside it’s air conditioned. Nick Majarian stands in the short hallway leading down to the kitchen. He’s wearing a suit that probably cost almost as much as a monthly mortgage payment on this house. His thinning hair is combed flat, no pompadour for him. His face is round and Vegas tanned. He’s heavyset, but when he pulls Billy into a hug, that protruding belly feels as hard as stone.
“Billy!” Nick exclaims, and kisses him on both cheeks. Big hearty smacks. He’s wearing a million-dollar grin. “Billy, Billy, man, it’s good to see you!”
“Good to see you, too, Nick.” He looks around. “You usually stay somewhere fancier than this.” He pauses. “If you don’t mind me saying.”
Nick laughs. He has a beautiful infectious laugh to go with the grin. Macintosh joins in and Logan smiles. “I got a place over on the West Side. Short-term. House-sitting, you could call it. There’s a fountain in the front yard. Got a naked little kid in the middle of it, there’s a word for that…”
Cherub, Billy thinks but doesn’t say. He just keeps smiling.
“Anyway, a little kid peeing water. You’ll see it, you’ll see it. No, this one isn’t mine, Billy. It’s yours. If you decide to take the job, that is.”