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Chapter Three

And behold, there came a great wind
from the wilderness, and smote the
 four corners of the house, and it fell
 upon the young men, and they are dead;
 and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

—The Book of Job, Chapter 1, Verse 19

When Job was nearly ten years old, four bad things happened within a few months. They were all consequences of a single badness, but it was years before he realized that.

The first came one misty September day, when Nurse Calder arrived at Cloak House for a final and tearful meeting. "They've closed the hospital, Job." She hugged him to her. "No more funding, not for babies, not for emergencies, not for anything. I've got to find another position. I know I can't do it in the city. I have to leave. Goodbye, little love. Look after yourself."

Job knew that she was very sad, but she only came to see him every few months, anyway, and at the time he did not understand the finality of this visit.

Much worse than Nurse Calder's leaving, and a shock that overturned his whole universe, was the second bad thing: the loss of Mister Bones.

Father Bonifant populated Job's earliest memories; he was the bedrock on which the boy's whole life rested, the one constant element of a changing world. He had sat with Job at one year old, when wheezing attacks turned breathing into agony; six months later he had prayed and bathed the little body with cold water through one endless night when fever had thrown Job's frail limbs into muscle-tearing convulsions.

When Job was six, Father Bonifant had given him the assignment that transformed the boy's life. The high point of Job's week became Saturday morning, when he accompanied Mister Bones on shopping expeditions, wandering from the richer western suburbs to the worst parts of the eastern ghettoes, searching for anything that was being given away, thrown out, or available for tiny amounts of ready cash. Job soon realized why he had been singled out from two hundred children for this privilege. Father Bonifant had struggled for years with chachara-calle, the gabble of the stteet people, and never mastered it. Job, don't ask him how, had found that it came to him as easily as breathing—more easily, what with the bad air and his weak lungs. He became the interpreter, learning in the process how to find his way around the city, how to negotiate, and how to crack the jokes against himself and Mister Bones that made him acceptable to the ghetto-dwellers. And when he returned to Cloak House, he relived each of those exciting Saturday mornings for Laga. She was now English-speaking, but still shy and much smaller than she should have been. Job had appointed himself her special friend and protector.

It was during those street expeditions that Job first heard the phrase, Quiebra Grande. The street language had no words to describe the concept of global economic decline and depression, and so the "Great Crash" suggested to Job not a financial failure, but the collapse of some real but far-off structure of unimaginable size. It seemed totally unrelated to anything that might happen to Job or to anyone he knew.

Those Saturday rambles of the city also revealed another side of Father Bonifant, a seldom-seen man who hid behind the stern disciplinarian and guardian of Cloak House morality.

"You might say we have something in common, you and I." It was a sweltering summer morning, and Mister Bones was sweating a metal-wheeled hand-cart through a narrow alley, while Job sat on it and enjoyed—or endured—a bumpy free ride. "I'm referring to our boniness."

And then, when Job showed no sign of understanding what he meant, "You were named for a great general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Old Boney, his enemies used to call him. And I, of course, am known as Mister Bones."

Job was shocked to silence. No one at Cloak House would dream of saying "Mister Bones" anywhere within a mile of Father Bonifant—yet he knew the nickname. And he was making a joke about it!

"But do not let Napoleon Bonaparte become your hero, even though you are his namesake." If Father Bonifant had seen Job's reaction, he did not let it show. "Napoleon was a great general, one of the most famous in history. But a general becomes famous by killing. Remember this, Job Salk: your friend, Nurse Calder, is more of a hero and a greater person than Napoleon."

"How do I tell who is a great person?"

"That is a very difficult question. A complete answer now would confuse you. Remember, an easy question can have an easy answer. But a hard question must have a hard answer. And for the hardest questions of all, there may be no answer—except faith. I tell you this: one day you will know how to tell who is a great person."

Job had puzzled over that statement for the rest of the day, as he haggled for a great heap of old furniture and persuaded himself that none of it was stolen. (The latter at Father Bonifant's insistence; Job had sadly turned away over the months a score of wonderful deals for hot property.) This time he finally came to an agreement and they loaded the cart. Back at Cloak House the goods would be carefully sorted, the seats of ancient armchairs examined (a sure source of lost coins), and the springs and iron frames removed for sale as scrap metal.

The load when it was in position was too much for Father Bonifant. Job had to go off and find a couple of basura, the "street garbage" homeless who lived in one of the alleys, and persuade them to help to push.

"What did you offer them?" asked Father Bonifant, as Job rode in grandeur on the topmost armchair. "Not food, I hope. This is a very bad month."

"Nothing. I just asked them if they were bored stiff and wanted something to do. They called me chico feo—little ugly—but they said they were."

All that had happened only one month before Nurse Calder came to see Job for the last time, and just two months before the dreadful, world-shattering day when Father Bonifant called a meeting in the big assembly room, to tell them that he was leaving.

"Tomorrow will be my last day at Cloak House," he began. As the babble started, he glared around him. He was still Mister Bones, and the incipient hubbub died to an awful silence. "I have been here for seventeen years, seventeen happy and fulfilling years. It is only fair to tell you that I will leave unwillingly. I love Cloak House, and I love all of you. Although I do not expect most of you to understand what I am about to say, I hope that you will remember it and reflect on it when you are older.

"For some years I have found it necessary to speak out against the actions of our own government. Within the Mall Compound there has been an increasing callousness towards the less fortunate of our country by the most fortunate. I have seen a widening gulf between rich and poor, between have and have-not, between our Congress and the people whom they are supposed to serve. I saw that gulf clearly. I denounced it.

"In the past few months, sure that no one was listening, I became more outspoken and specific. I named individuals in the Congress who are the worst offenders. Now I find that I was mistaken. My words were being followed, more closely than I dreamed. They were far from acceptable.

"Yesterday I was summoned to appear before the trustees of Cloak House, which operates under congressional control. I was told that the stewardship of this institute must be nonpolitical, and that in view of my 'intemperate, not to say treasonous' words I would be relieved of my position, and reassigned.

"Word of my reassignment came this morning. It will be far from here. I will serve as a spiritual guide to those who dwell within the Nebraska Tandy."

Tandy. A ripple of horror ran around the room at that dread word. Father Bonifant ignored it.

"The Nebraska Tandy was the first disposal site in this country, and has become one of the biggest. My guess is that more than a hundred thousand people now live within the restricted area. Thus assignment to the Nebraska Tandy carries a great responsibility, and I choose to regard it as an equally great honor. But it is unlikely that I will return here, or that we will ever meet again."

He took a long, stern look around him at the wide-eyed faces.

"That is all I have to say, except to tell you again that I love you all very much. Now let us pray together; for each other, for our great country, and for its wonderful people."

Mister Bones vanished from Cloak House that night. He never returned.

* * *

For Job, that was the second bad thing. The third bad thing was the arrival of Colonel della Porta, the new Chief Steward of Cloak House.

At first the children thought he was a very good thing. He was a fat, comfortable-looking man, triple-chinned and always smiling, and he did not have Mister Bones's addiction to discipline. Lights-out became a random event, and people stayed up as long as they liked. Colonel della Porta also abandoned the weekly inspections of hair and teeth, which had been seen by the kids as nothing but a nuisance. Best of all, with his advent the food at Cloak House, always scarce under Mister Bones, became more plentiful. It sometimes tasted funny, and the colonel ate his own meals in his private suite of rooms rather than with the children, but who cared, if there was plenty for everyone?

Only Laga was wary. "He smiles, even when there's nothing to smile at," she said to Job. "And he looks funny at some of the big girls."

Job dismissed her comments. His own view of the dark side of the colonel did not come until the new chief had been running Cloak House for three weeks. One afternoon Job was called downstairs for a meeting. There had been no foraging expeditions since Father Bonifant left, so Job assumed that was the reason for the call.

He was summoned at once into the big room, where Colonel della Porta and a visitor were sitting in new and plushy armchairs. After a nod to show that he had registered Job's arrival, the colonel went on with his business. Job was left standing for the next hour and a half, marvelling at the plates of fruit, cakes, and savories that covered the long sideboard.

The long wait was designed to make Job uncomfortable, and it would have succeeded if the conversation between the two men had been in English, Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, or chachara-calle. But della Porta and his visitor spoke a tongue new to Job, a smooth, liquid voice that often suggested Spanish but differed from it in both sounds and words. Job listened hard. By the time the visitor was given his marching orders and made ready to leave, Job was identifying cognates, picking up cadences and speech rhythms, and making guesses at some phrases. The two had been talking about food and cooking—no, food and food supplies, because they mentioned trucks and deliveries. Job wanted to hear more and learn more. He was disappointed more than worried when the man left, and he was at last alone with della Porta.

"You know who I am?" The fat man eased himself up from the armchair and came to tower over Job.

"Yes, sir."

"You will call my assistants sir. I am to be addressed always as 'Colonel,' or as 'Colonel della Porta.'"

"Yes, Colonel."

"And you are Job Napoleon Salk, whom the others call Fish-face." The colonel walked slowly around the standing boy. "With good reason. What happened to your jaw, to make it recede like that?"

"Nothing, sir—Colonel. I was born this way."

"And you are the boy who has been described to me as Father Bonifant's favorite. Well, certainly not for the reason that I suspected. Tell me, Salk, is it true that you accompanied Bonifant when he went and bought food?"

"Yes, Colonel. Food, and other things, too."

"Indeed." Della Porta wandered over to the sideboard and helped himself to a handful of chocolates. "Describe those trips to me."

"Yes, Colonel." Job's mouth was watering, but he did his best to tell everything, about buying, bargaining, scrounging, wandering through the whole city (except the proscribed zone of the Mall Compound), sometimes to return with a laden cart, sometimes—though rarely—empty-handed. When he explained his own role in obtaining the junky furniture and old food that were their usual prizes, he saw della Porta's expression change.

"You are telling me," said the colonel when Job was done, "that you—an uneducated and ugly runt of a nine-year-old—were permitted to serve as Father Bonifant's chief negotiator?"

"Yes, sir . . . Colonel."

"Then Bonifant was an even bigger fool—or you are a bigger liar—than I thought. Anyway, that nonsense is finished. You will receive other assignments. Do you admire Father Bonifant, and what he did?"

"Yes, Colonel." Job sensed a trap, but what could he say?

"Then since you are so great an admirer of my predecessor, I will allow your work to be judged and rewarded as I understand that he rewarded it."

Job didn't know what that meant. But he was dismissed and sent back upstairs. The next day he learned that he had a special assignment at Cloak House. He was to work in Colonel della Porta's own suite of rooms, cleaning and dusting.

"Light duties, compared with other work," said della Porta's assistant. But he was grinning to himself.

At first it seemed easy to Job, too. When the colonel had a meeting, Job was not allowed to do any work. He made himself inconspicuous, said nothing, and listened hard. The language that Colonel della Porta spoke for most of his meetings, Job learned, was called Italian. In less than a month he could follow the conversations, and he mouthed phrases and then whole sentences to himself as he worked.

By the end of that month he knew two other things. First, he understood the source of Cloak House's food supplies. A visitor had spoken of a shipment that was ready for delivery. That night, long after official lights-out, Job stood at a second floor window and watched as a truck backed up to Cloak House's rear entrance. A dozen of the older boys unloaded bale after bale and box after unmarked box.

Second, Job learned that his assignment to Colonel della Porta's quarters was no favor. When the colonel was in meetings, Job was not allowed to do any cleaning. And no matter how well Job cleaned and dusted and polished in the limited time that was left, the colonel would find fault.

Job learned of that at dinnertime, when he and he alone was denied a meal. Every other night he went to bed famished. Within the month he realized that the colonel was starving him deliberately. Della Porta made a point of eating the delicacies on his sideboard and offering them to visitors while Job was watching.

"No, he gets more than enough food already," the colonel said, when one man commented on Job's longing look. He laughed. "He's a greedy little devil, you know, he'd eat all day if I let him."

It could not go on. Job was losing weight. He found it hard to think of anything but food. But it was forced starvation that saved him, when the fourth bad thing happened.

The bread at Cloak House under Father Bonifant's rule was always two or more days old, and often so stale that it had to be toasted to make it edible. Mister Bones had done an economic analysis, and found that even if he bought flour in bulk, fresh bread was more expensive than old bread, and more than Cloak House could afford. Under Colonel della Porta, all that had changed. Great sacks of flour were delivered to Cloak House late at night, and bread was fresh-baked for the day's needs in the kitchens. It was made by the older children. Since the colonel's arrival they were no longer taught "useless and seditious" mathematics and science, so there was plenty of time for the government-approved "domestic sciences" of cooking and cleaning. After a few failed experiments, which the colonel seemed to consider amusing rather than annoying (though the children went without bread for a day or two when it happened), the level of competence rapidly increased. New bread, once an unknown luxury, soon began to be taken for granted.

One Friday afternoon, Colonel della Porta found or imagined a smear on a sideboard that Job had polished. He declared that Job's attention needed to be sharpened, and ordered that his evening meal be withheld.

Baking had just finished. The aroma of piping-hot loaves was percolating through every room of Cloak House. Job, ravenous and salivating, fled for escape to the roof. It was unnaturally warm for the end of November. He stayed on the rooftop for a long time, gazing out at the sprawl of the city, and only ventured down long after dinner was over.

Cloak House was oddly quiet on the upper floors. All the usual sounds of active children with minimal discipline were absent. Laga was not in her dormitory with smuggled scraps of food for him, nor was anyone else to be found there. He kept going, and on the fifth floor found half a dozen children lying on the floor, or leaning against the cement walls. They did not reply when he spoke to them. He heard the sound of retching from the toilets, and looked inside. Every stall was occupied, and other kids were throwing up in the sinks and on the tiled floor. Five children lay in their own spew, facedown and unmoving.

Job ran to the next floor. He found Laga there alone on the landing, feebly crawling towards the stairs.

"Laga!" At his call she turned her head. She lifted herself to her knees, but as he moved to her side she fell forward again and started to vomit, near-dry heaves that dribbled something like a handful of dark coffee-grounds from her mouth. He lifted her so that she was facedown on his knees. As he did so her stomach muscles knotted with a great convulsion. She whimpered in agony.

Stay with Laga, or try to get help? He was useless here. He laid her gently on the floor.

"I'll be back, Laga, as soon as I can."

She gave no sign of hearing. Job ran on down the stairs. Where were Colonel della Porta's assistants, the ones who were supposed to oversee Cloak House? And where was the colonel himself? Surely he must have heard the sounds from the floors above.

Job came to the colonel's quarters and ran in without knocking, something he would not have dreamed of doing normally. The colonel was standing by the long sideboard, and he was shiny-faced and sweating. Job could smell him from twenty feet away.

"Colonel, something awful's happening upstairs. Kids are real sick—some look dead."

Delia Porta took no notice. Job realized that the colonel was clutching the telephone in one hand, and with the other was cramming handfuls of bonbons into his mouth and convulsively swallowing them.

"Don't tell me that!" The colonel's mouth was so full of sweetmeats that his hysterical Italian roar into the telephone was hard for Job to follow. "I paid for stolen food. You bastards sent me condemned food!" He added a string of oaths, too fast and too unfamiliar for Job to catch. "Condemned and contaminated! A dozen dead, maybe scores more to come. How am I supposed to explain that?"

He fell silent, listening hard.

"Cheap!" His voice rose to a higher scream. "What the hell has that to do with it, when you sell me poison? I could have been killed myself. What do I care what it was contaminated with?"

The individual at the other end of the telephone made another long speech, loud and excited enough for Job to know that it was a man, and to catch the tone, if not the words. Colonel della Porta quieted considerably, and his face paled.

"All right, all right," he said at last. "Sure, so I pass it on. That's easy for you to say. Who the hell do I pass it on to? Some of the kids—some of the ones who've died, maybe?"

He took notice of Job for the first time, and switched to English. "What are you doing in here? Get the hell out, and back upstairs!" And then in Italian into the telephone, "No, no, it's just one of the dumb kids. He don't understand squat. Look, if I'm to do it your way I'll need a lot of help, here and over on the Hill. And if I don't get that, you better remember you're in as deep as I am."

Another torrent of words burst out of the telephone, but Job could wait no longer. He ran back upstairs at top speed. By the time he came to the fourth floor he was wheezing and his lungs were aflame.

Laga had hardly moved since he left. She was no longer retching, or convulsing. He lifted her and turned her head, hugging her to him. She was warm and quiet against his chest. It was many seconds before he realized that she was not breathing.

Even then he did not fully understand what had happened. There had been two deaths in Cloak House since Job had arrived there, but he had not seen either body. Laga was still warm, her skin was still soft, she lay just as though she were resting.

When the fact of her death at last sank in, it drained Job. He laid Laga on the floor and leaned back against the wall. He was overwhelmed with misery, but the empty feeling inside left no urge to cry. For five minutes he sat unmoving, ignoring the shouts now coming from below.

When half a dozen tough-looking men ran past him, heading for the fifth floor, Job at last stood up, gazed blankly at Laga's body for the last time, and went downstairs. He did not stop in his dormitory, or seek out any of his few possessions. He had no plan, no idea what he was going to do. When his steps led him to the front door of Cloak House, there was no sense of an action taken.

The door was open. Four empty cars stood in the alley outside, lights on and engines running.

Job stared incuriously into them, at their luxurious black upholstery, built-in communications systems, and tinted windows. Without slowing his step he went on past them, to the end of the alley where the street-lamp shone white; and on again, until he was swallowed up in the warm dark of the city's Indian summer night.

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