“Aren’t you afraid of the candle left burning like that?” Elihu Wingate asks his mother.

“I was about to say the same thing.”

Today Elihu Wingate’s house is even less empty than usual. His daughters are in the kitchen with his parents.

At first Elihu Wingate is confused. It’s not a weekend yet. Is it a school vacation? Was he supposed to pick them up? Or has something terrible happened to their mother? He can’t ask them—the school might have sent them here without telling them anything. And they might be emotionally scarred for life if he seems alarmed to see them here in his kitchen—

“It’s OK, Daddy,” Orchid says. “We’ve moved back in.”

“We have to take care of this old guy,” Iris says. “Can’t let him go wandering off.”

Elihu Wingate’s father fakes an old-man tremor, says to her in a trembly voice, “Which one are you?”

“The smart one.”

“Oh,” he whines. “You’re the mean one. Where’s the nice one?”

“You see?” she says to Elihu Wingate.

The Virgins are amassing in alarming numbers on the mantelpiece and the breakfront. Still, Elihu Wingate feels bad that he complained to his mother about them. While they’re sitting by the pool he suggests that perhaps one of the taller statues might look okay outdoors, and she hurries to bring out a three-foot-high plaster Virgin wearing a cloak exactly the same shade as the pool water. “She’ll keep us safe while we swim,” his mother says happily.

Elihu Wingate swims a few laps. When he surfaces at the edge he sees that the large pool-Virgin has been joined by a much smaller one. His mother glances up from her magazine and nods approvingly.

“You can never have too many,” she says.

Define too many, he wants to say. The question occurs to him again late that night after everyone has gone to bed and he is sitting down at his computer to check his e-mail. He reaches over for the mouse and there next to it is a tiny silver Virgin.

Elihu Wingate is starting to worry. It might be more than a quirk, this sudden surge of Virgin interest. There might be a serious mental health issue here. Humoring his parents might be doing more harm than good.

But Elihu Wingate knows he won’t confront them. He has been Elihu Wingate for forty-three years now, and he’s come to terms with certain facts about himself. A confrontation simply will not happen.

He finds a small cardboard box, nests some bubble wrap in it, and quietly goes through the sleeping house, weeding out Virgins. He takes several from the mantelpiece, plucks a couple from the kitchen counters, one from the shelf above the toilet. The candle in front of the large Virgin in the living room has been left burning again. He blows it out, but leaves the Virgin where she is. Her absence would be too obvious.

He takes the box up to the attic, places it carefully next to the kids’ Christmas and Halloween decorations.

Back in his room Elihu Wingate sits down at his computer and realizes he forgot to pack away the tiny silver Virgin. He puts her on the bookshelf above the computer, where he notices another tiny Virgin, this one carved out of green soapstone.

“You’re going in the next sweep, both of you,” he says.

He checks his e-mail. Scylla has written to him.

So tell me about the anomalous answers. Those people who didn’t spew out that dutiful pablum about marriage and kids and All That Matters in Life Is Spending Time with the People You Love.

What would you like to know? Elihu Wingate writes back. The next ten minutes is a flurry of e-mails back and forth.

Did anyone say that what they regret most is participating in a massacre?

I guess we didn’t recruit any war criminals for our study, he writes. He presses Send, then feels bad. He doesn’t want to sound snide. Why is he so defensive?

Maybe you should try asking the question in Bosnia or Rwanda.

I didn’t mean to make light of your question. You’re probably right. These surveys would yield very different answers under different circumstances.

He hopes she’ll invite him to do instant messaging instead of e-mailing. He doesn’t dare be the one to suggest it first.

OK, she writes, forget about massacres. What about abusing a child? Did anyone say they regretted that? It happens all the time, so at some point you’re going to land a child molester among your respondents. What about rape? Beating up a girlfriend? Cooking the books so employees lose pensions while the guys at the top make millions?

I admit there may be a problem in our methodology.

Damn right. The thing is, dude, those surveys and focus groups and whatnot can never really get at the truth. No one’s going to answer truthfully until you wrestle him to the top of a cliff, drag him to the edge, grab the guy’s collar, and say, “You’re about to die. What do you regret?” That, my friend, is how you get your answer.

“What do you regret?” Elihu Wingate asks Dan Keegan. They’re eating lunch in the conference room while they look over some focus group notes from their assistants.

“I regret you didn’t order me a roast beef sandwich,” Dan Keegan says. “But you made a good choice, sport, what is this, mushrooms in a grilled sandwich—”

“It’s a panini,” Elihu Wingate says. “Grilled portobello mushrooms, provolone cheese, roasted peppers.”

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