Part 1, Chapter 9 Summary
The middle school in Blacksmith stays evacuated all week as both students and teachers are experiencing physical reactions to something. Men in Mylex suits with respirator masks sweep the building looking for hazardous materials. The offending material could be the ventilating system, paint, varnish, foam insulation, electrical insulation, rays emitted from computers, asbestos, adhesive on shipping containers, the cafeteria food, or something virtually undetectable. Denise and Steffie stay home all week.
Gladney and his family run into Siskind at the supermarket, the fourth or fifth time Gladney has seen him there and about the same number of times he has run into Siskind on campus. He works his way around Babette, seeming to smell her hair, as he commends her for the meal she prepared.
Wilder sits in the cart and tries to grab things off the shelf. Gladney thinks the boy is too old to be sitting in a shopping cart and wonders why Wilder’s vocabulary seems to be “stalled at twenty-five words.” Siskind says everything seems clearer to him here as he finds it easier to think about and observe things.
Gladney realizes how noisy the store is and how dramatically colorful, overly bright, and oddly in season all the fruit is. Steffie thinks Denise is strange; for example, she constantly reads the Physicians’ Desk Reference. Gladney is just glad she is reading something, but Steffie explains she reads it because she is trying to find out the effects of the substances Babette is using. This is news to Gladney.
Siskind still follows Babette, helping her push the cart and randomly smelling the groceries in it. He explains his theory that the grocery store is a place full of concealed symbolism that helps restore some of the divinity all humans lost at birth. It is bright and “full of psychic data.” The numbers, colors, energy waves, and codes only require deciphering and rearranging to help one prepare for death: people walking through the sliding glass doors into a timeless eternity of white light.
Siskind has always done his shopping in small, noisy, rather unpleasant delicatessens. In the city where no one notices the slow deaths, everyone is dying. Death is a “quality of the air,” and people know only a few useless facts about those who die. Gladney is interested in Siskind’s philosophic ramblings.
Steffie holds her father’s hand in a reassuring way, sensing that one of his melancholy moods is hovering near him. As Siskind moves to the express checkout lane, he invites the Gladneys to dinner a week from Saturday. Babette readily accepts the invitation, although he assures her she can call and cancel any time. If this date does not work for them, Siskind says he will be here next semester (he has been asked to teach a seminar on “the cinema of car crashes”).
The Gladneys learn that one of the inspectors died while working in one of the second-story classrooms at the school.