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Bag Of Bones By Stephen King 



 

 
 
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Slide 2: Stephen KING BAG OF BONES Hodder & Stoughton
Slide 3: Grateful acknowledgement is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following copyrighted material: 'All She Wants to Do Is Dance' by Danny Kortchmar. Copyright © 1984 WB Music Corp. All rights reserved. Used by permission. WARNER BROS. PUBLICATIONS U.S. INC., Miami, FL. 33014 'As Time Goes By' by Herman Hupfeld. Copyright © 1931 (Renewed) Warner Bros. Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission. WARNER BROS. PUBLICATIONS U.S. INC., Miami, FL. 33014 'Don't Worry Baby' by Brian Wilson, Roger Christian, Jay Siegel, Philip Margo, Henry Medress, Mitchell Margo. Copyright © 1964 Irving Music, Inc. Renewed, Assigned to Irving Music, Inc, and Careers-BMG Music Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission. WARNER BROS. PUBLICATIONS U.S. INC., Miami, FL. 33014 Seferis, George; Collected Poems. Copyright © 1967 by Princeton University Press, 1980 by Edmund Keetey and Philip Sherrard Greek M. Seferiades 1972, 1976. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press. 'Welcome to the Jungle' words and music by W. Axl Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin', Duff McKagen & Steven Adler. Copyright © 1987 Guns N' Roses Music (ASCAP) International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Cherry Lane Music Company. Copyright © 2001 by Stephen King First published in Great Britain in 1998 by Hodder and Stoughton A division of Hodder Headline PLC The right of Stephen King to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. 10 9 8 7 6 54 3 2 1 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental. A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library ISBN 0 340 71819 6 Designed by Peter Ward Typeset by Palimpsest Book Production Limited, Polmont, Stirlngshire Printed and bound in Great Britain by Mackays of Chatham PLC Hodder and Stoughton A division of Hodder Headline PLC 338 Euston Road London NW1 3BH
Slide 4: This is for Naomi. Still.
Slide 5: AUTHOR'S NOTE To an extent, this novel deals with the legal aspects of child custody in the State of Maine. I asked for help in understanding this subject from my friend Warren Silver, who is a fine attorney. Warren guided me carefully, and along the way he also told me about a quaint old device called the Stenomask, which I immediately appropriated for my own fell purposes. If I've made procedural mistakes in the story which follows, blame me, not my legal resource. Warren also asked me-rather plaintively — if I could maybe put a 'good' lawyer in my book. All I can say is that I did my best in that regard. Thanks to my son Owen for technical support in Woodstock, New York, and to my friend (and fellow Rock Bottom Remainder) Ridley Pearson for technical support in Ketchum, Idaho. Thanks to Pam Dorman for her sympathetic and perceptive reading of the first draft. Thanks to Chuck Verrill for a monumental editing job--your personal best, Chuck. Thanks to Susan Moldow, Nan Graham, Jack Roman s, and Carolyn Reidy at Scribner for care and feeding. And thanks to Tabby, who was there for me again when things got hard. I love you, hon. S.K.
Slide 6: Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and noiseless as any of these old chairs; in short, I never feel so private as when I know you are here. 'Bartleby' HERMAN MELVILLE Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . . As I stood there, hushed and still, I could swear that the house was not an empty shell but lived and breathed as it had lived before. Rebecca DAPHNE DU MAURIER Mars is heaven. RAY BRADBURY
Slide 7: BAG OF BONES
Slide 8: CHAPTER ONE On a very hot day in August of 1994, my wife told me she was going down to the Derry Rite Aid to pick up a refill on her sinus medicine prescription — this is stuff you can buy over the counter these days, I believe. I'd finished my writing for the day and offered to pick it up for her. She said thanks, but she wanted to get a piece of fish at the supermarket next door anyway; two birds with one stone and all of that. She blew a kiss at me off the palm of her hand and went out. The next time I saw her, she was on TV. That's how you identify the dead here in Derry — no walking down a subterranean corridor with green tiles on the walls and long fluorescent bars overhead, no naked body rolling out of a chilly drawer on casters; you just go into an office marked PRIVATE and look at a TV screen and say yep or nope. The Rite Aid and the Shopwell are less than a mile from our house, in a little neighborhood strip mall which also supports a video store, a used-book store named Spread It Around (they do a very brisk business in my old paperbacks), a Radio Shack, and a Fast Foto. It's on Up-Mile Hill, at the intersection of Witcham and Jackson. She parked in front of Blockbuster Video, went into the drugstore, and did business with Mr. Joe Wyzer, who was the druggist in those days; he has since moved on to the Rite Aid in Bangor. At the checkout she picked up one of those little chocolates with marshmallow inside, this one in the shape of a mouse. I found it later, in her purse. I unwrapped it and ate it myself, sitting at the kitchen table with the contents of her red handbag spread out in front of me, and it was like taking Communion. When it was gone except for the taste of chocolate on my tongue and in my throat, I burst into tears. I sat there in the litter of her Kleenex and makeup and keys and half-finished rolls of Certs and cried with my hands over my eyes, the way a kid cries. The sinus inhaler was in a Rite Aid bag. It had cost twelve dollars and eighteen cents. There was something else in the bag, too — an item which had cost twenty-two-fifty. I looked at this other item for a long time, seeing it but not understanding it. I was surprised, maybe even stunned, but the idea that Johanna Arlen Noonan might have been leading another life, one I knew nothing about, never crossed my mind. Not then. Jo left the register, walked out into the bright, hammering sun again, swapping her regular glasses for her prescription sunglasses as she did, and just as she stepped from beneath the drugstore's slight overhang (I am imagining a little here, I suppose, crossing over into the country of the novelist a little, but not by much; only by inches, and you can trust me on that), there was that shrewish howl of locked tires on pavement that means there's going to be either an accident or a very close call. This time it happened — the sort of accident which happened at that stupid X-shaped intersection at least once a week, it seemed. A 1989 Toyota was pulling out of the shopping-center parking lot and turning left onto Jackson Street. Behind the wheel was Mrs. Esther Easterling of Barrett's Orchards. She was accompanied by her friend Mrs Irene Deorsey, also of Barrett's Orchards, who had shopped the video store without finding anything she wanted to rent. Too much violence, Irene said. Both women were cigarette widows. Esther could hardly have missed the orange Public Works dump truck coming down the hill; although she denied this to the police, to
Slide 9: the newspaper, and to me when I talked to her some two months later, I think it likely that she just forgot to look. As my own mother (another cigarette widow) used to say, 'The two most common ailments of the elderly are arthritis and forgetfulness. They can't be held responsible for neither.' Driving the Public Works truck was William Fraker, of Old Cape. Mr. Fraker was thirty-eight years old on the day of my wife's death, driving with his shirt off and thinking how badly he wanted a cool shower and a cold beer, not necessarily in that order. He and three other men had spent eight hours putting down asphalt patch out on the Harris Avenue Extension near the airport, a hot job on a hot day, and Bill Fraker said yeah, he might have been going a little too fast — maybe forty in a thirty-mile-an-hour zone. He was eager to get back to the garage, sign off on the truck, and get behind the wheel of his own F-150, which had air conditioning. Also, the dump truck's brakes, while good enough to pass inspection, were a long way from tip-top condition. Fraker hit them as soon as he saw the Toyota pull out in front of him (he hit his horn, as well), but it was too late. He heard screaming tires — his own, and Esther's as she belatedly realized her danger — and saw her face for just a moment. 'That was the worst part, somehow,' he told me as we sat on his porch, drinking beers — it was October by then, and although the sun was warm on our faces, we were both wearing sweaters. 'You know how high up you sit in one of those dump trucks? ' I nodded. 'Well, she was looking up to see me — craning up, you'd say — and the sun was full in her face. I could see how old she was. I remember thinking, 'Holy shit, she's gonna break like glass if I can't stop.' But old people are tough, more often than not. They can surprise you. I mean, look at how it turned out, both those old biddies still alive, and your wife . . . ' He stopped then, bright red color dashing into his cheeks, making him look like a boy who has been laughed at in the schoolyard by girls who have noticed his fly is unzipped. It was comical, but if I'd smiled, it only would have confused him. 'Mr. Noonan, I'm sorry. My mouth just sort of ran away with me.' 'It's all right,' I told him. 'I'm over the worst of it, anyway.' That was a lie, but it put us back on track. 'Anyway,' he said, 'we hit. There was a loud bang, and a crumping sound when the driver's side of the car caved in. Breaking glass, too. I was thrown against the wheel hard enough so I couldn't draw a breath without it hurting for a week or more, and I had a big bruise right here.' He drew an arc on his chest just below the collarbones. 'I banged my head on the windshield hard enough to crack the glass, but all I got up there was a little purple knob . . . no bleeding, not even a headache. My wife says I've just got a naturally thick skull. I saw the woman driving the Toyota, Mrs. Easterling, thrown across the console between the front bucket seats. Then we were finally stopped, all tangled together in the middle of the street, and I got out to see how bad they were. I tell you, I expected to find them both dead.' Neither of them was dead, neither of them was even unconscious, although Mrs. Easterling had three broken ribs and a dislocated hip. Mrs. Deorsey, who had been a seat away from the impact, suffered a concussion when she rapped her head on her window. That was all; she was 'treated and released at Home Hospital,' as the Derry News always puts it in such cases. My wife, the former Johanna Arlen of Malden, Massachusetts, saw it all from where she stood outside the drugstore, with her purse slung over her shoulder and her prescription bag in one hand. Like Bill Fraker, she must have thought the occupants of the Toyota were either dead or seriously hurt. The sound of the collision had been a hollow, authoritative bang which rolled through the hot afternoon air like a bowling ball down an alley. The sound of breaking glass edged it like jagged
Slide 10: lace. The two vehicles were tangled violently together in the middle of Jackson Street, the dirty orange truck looming over the pale-blue import like a bullying parent over a cowering child. Johanna began to sprint across the parking lot t ward the street. Others were doing the same all o around her. One of them, Miss Jill Dunbarry, had been window-shopping at Radio Shack when the accident occurred. She said she thought she remembered running past Johanna — at least she was pretty sure she remembered someone in yellow slacks — but she couldn't be sure. By then, Mrs. Easterling was screaming that she was hurt, they were both hurt, wouldn't somebody help her and her friend Irene. Halfway across the parking lot, near a little cluster of newspaper dispensers, my wife fell down. Her purse-strap stayed over her shoulder, but her prescription bag slipped from her hand, and the sinus inhaler slid halfway out. The other item stayed put. No one noticed her lying there by the newspaper dispensers; everyone was focused on the tangled vehicles, the screaming women, the spreading puddle of water and antifreeze from the Public Works truck's ruptured radiator. ('That's gas!' the clerk from Fast Foto shouted to anyone who would listen. 'That's gas, watch out she don't blow, fellas!') I suppose one or two of the wouldbe rescuers might have jumped right over her, perhaps thinking she had fainted. To assume such a thing on a day when the temperature was pushing ninety-five degrees would not have been unreasonable. Roughly two dozen people from the shopping center clustered around the accident; another four dozen or so came running over from Strawford Park, where a baseball game had been going on. I imagine that all the things you would expect to hear in such situations were said, many of them more than once. Milling around. Someone reaching through the misshapen hole which had been the driver's-side window to pat Esther's trembling old hand. People immediately giving way for Joe Wyzer; at such moments anyone in a white coat automatically becomes the belle of the ball. In the distance, the warble of an ambulance siren rising like shaky air over an incinerator. All during this, lying unnoticed in the parking lot, was my wife with her purse still over her shoulder (inside, still wrapped in foil, her uneaten chocolate-marshmallow mouse) and her white prescription bag near one outstretched hand. It was Joe Wyzer, hurrying back to the pharmacy to get a compression bandage for Irene Deorsey's head, who spotted her. He recognized her even though she was lying face-down. He recognized her by her red hair, white blouse, and yellow slacks. He recognized her because he had waited on her not fifteen minutes before. 'Mrs. Noonan?' he asked, forgetting all about the compression bandage for the dazed but apparently not too badly hurt Irene Deorsey. 'Mrs. Noonan, are you all right?' Knowing already (or so I suspect; perhaps I am wrong) that she was not. He turned her over. It took both hands to do it, and even then he had to work hard, kneeling and pushing and lifting there in the parking lot with the heat baking down from above and then bouncing back up from the asphalt. Dead people put on weight, it seems to me; both in their flesh and in our minds, they put on weight. There were red marks on her face. When I identified her I could see them clearly even on the video monitor. I started to ask the assistant medical examiner what they were, but then I knew. Late August, hot pavement, elementary, my dear Watson. My wife died getting a sunburn. Wyzer got up, saw that the ambulance had arrived, and ran toward it. He pushed his way through the crowd and grabbed one of the attendants as he got out from behind the wheel. 'There's a woman over there,' Wyzer said, pointing toward the parking lot. 'Guy, we've got two women right here, and a man as well,' the attendant said. He tried to pull away, but Wyzer held on.
Slide 11: 'Never mind them right now,' he said. 'They're basically okay. The woman over there isn't.' The woman over there was dead, and I'm pretty sure Joe Wyzer knew it . . . but he had his priorities straight. Give him that. And he was convincing enough to get both paramedics moving away from the tangle of truck and Toyota, in spite of Esther Easterling's cries of pain and the rumbles of protest from the Greek chorus. When they got to my wife, one of the paramedics was quick to confirm what Joe Wyzer had already suspected. 'Holy shit,' the other one said. 'What happened to her?' 'Heart, most likely,' the first one said. 'She got excited and it just blew out on her.' But it wasn't her heart. The autopsy revealed a brain aneurysm which she might have been living with, all unknown, for as long as five years. As she sprinted across the parking lot toward the accident, that weak vessel in her cerebral cortex had blown like a tire, drowning her control-centers in blood and killing her. Death had probably not been instantaneous, the assistant medical examiner told me, but it had still come swiftly enough . . . and she wouldn't have suffered. Just one big black nova, all sensation and thought gone even before she hit the pavement. 'Can I help you in any way, Mr. Noonan?' the assistant ME asked, turning me gently away from the still face and closed eyes on the video monitor. 'Do you have questions? I'll answer them if I can.' 'Just one,' I said. I told him what she'd purchased in the drugstore just before she died. Then I asked my question. The days leading up to the funeral and the funeral itself are dreamlike in my memory — the clearest memory I have is of eating Jo's chocolate mouse and crying . . . crying mostly, I think, because I knew how soon the taste of it would be gone. I had one other crying fit a few days after we buried her, and I will tell you about that one shortly. I was glad for the arrival of Jo's family, and particularly for the arrival of her oldest brother, Frank. It was Frank Arlen — fifty, red-cheeked, portly, and with a head of lush dark hair — who organized the arrangements . . . who wound up actually dickering with the funeral director. 'I can't believe you did that,' I said later, as we sat in a booth at Jack's Pub, drinking beers. 'He was trying to stick it to you, Mikey,' he said. 'I hate guys like that.' He reached into his back pocket, brought out a handkerchief, and wiped absently at his cheeks with it. He hadn't broken down — none of the Arlens broke down, at least not when I was with them — but Frank had leaked steadily all day; he looked like a man suffering from severe conjunctivitis. There had been six Arlen sibs in all, Jo the youngest and the only girl. She had been the pet of her big brothers. I suspect that if I'd had anything to do with her death, the five of them would have torn me apart with their bare hands. As it was, they formed a protective shield around me instead, and that was good. I suppose I might have muddled through without them, but I don't know how. I was thirty-six, remember. You don't expect to have to bury your wife when you're thirty-six and she herself is two years younger. Death was the last thing on our minds. 'If a guy gets caught taking your stereo out of your car, they call it theft and put him in jail,' Frank said. The Arlens had come from Massachusetts, and I could still hear Malden in Frank's voice — caught was coowat, car was cah, call was caul. 'If the same guy is trying to sell a grieving husband a three-thousand-dollar casket for forty-five hundred dollars, they call it business and ask him to speak at the Rotary Club luncheon. Greedy asshole, I fed him his lunch, didn't I?' 'Yes. You did.' 'You okay, Mikey?' 'I'm okay.'
Slide 12: 'Sincerely okay?' 'How the fuck should I know?' I asked him, loud enough to turn some heads in a nearby booth. And then: 'She was pregnant.' His face grew very still. 'What?' I struggled to keep my voice down. 'Pregnant. Six or seven weeks, according to the . . . you know, the autopsy. Did you know? Did she tell you?' 'No! Christ, no!' But there was a funny l ok on his face, as if she had told him something. 'I knew o you were trying, of course . . . she said you had a low sperm count and it might take a little while, but the doctor thought you guys'd probably . . . sooner or later you'd probably . . . ' He trailed off, looking down at his hands. 'They can tell that, huh? They check for that?' 'They can tell. As for checking, I don't know if they do it automatically or not. I asked.' 'Why?' 'She didn't just buy sinus medicine before she died. She also bought one of those home pregnancy-testing kits.' 'You had no idea? No clue?' I shook my head. He reached across the table and squeezed my shoulder. 'She wanted to be sure, that's all. You know that, don't you?' A refill on my sinus medicine and a piece of fish, she'd said. Looking like always. A woman off to run a couple of errands. We had been trying to have a kid for eight years, but she had looked just like always. 'Sure,' I said, patting Frank's hand. 'Sure, big guy. I know.' It was t e Arlens — led by Frank who handled Johanna's send off. As the writer of the family, I h was assigned the obituary. My brother came up from Virginia with my mom and my aunt and was allowed to tend the guest-book at the viewings. My mother — almost completely ga-ga at the age of sixty-six, although the doctors refused to call it Alzheimer's — lived in Memphis with her sister, two years younger and only slightly less wonky. They were in charge of cutting the cake and the pies at the funeral reception. Everything else was arranged by the Arlens, from the viewing hours to the components of the funeral ceremony. Frank and Victor, the second-youngest brother, spoke brief tributes. Jo's dad offered a prayer for his daughter's soul. And at the end, Pete Breedlove, the boy who cut our grass in the summer and raked our yard in the fall, brought everyone to tears by singing 'Blessed Assurance,' which Frank said had been Jo's favorite hymn as a girl. How Frank found Pete and persuaded him to sing at the funeral is something I never found out. We got through it — the afternoon and evening viewings on Tuesday, the funeral service on Wednesday morning, then the little pray-over at Fairlawn Cemetery. What I remember most was thinking how hot it was, how lost I felt without having Jo to talk to, and that I wished I had bought a new pair of shoes. Jo would have pestered me to death about the ones I was wearing, if she had been there. Later on I talked to my brother, Sid, told him we had to do something about our mother and Aunt Francine before the two of them disappeared completely into the Twilight Zone. They were too young for a nursing home; what did Sid advise? He advised something, but I'll be damned if I know what it was. I agreed to it, I remember that, but not what it was. Later that day, Siddy, our mom, and our aunt climbed back into Siddy's rental car for the drive to Boston, where they would spend the night and then grab the Southern Crescent
Slide 13: the following day. My brother is happy enough to chaperone the old folks, but he doesn't fly, even if the tickets are on me. He claims there are no breakdown lanes in the sky if the engine quits. Most of the Arlens left the next day. Once more it was dog-hot, the sun glaring out of a whitehaze sky and lying on everything like melted brass. They stood in front of our house — which had become solely my house' by then — with three taxis lined up at the curb behind them, big galoots hugging one another amid the litter of tote-bags and saying their goodbyes in those foggy Massachusetts accents. Frank stayed another day. We picked a big bunch of flowers behind the house — not those ghastly-smelling hothouse things whose aroma I always associate with death and organ-music but real flowers, the kind Jo liked best — and stuck them in a couple of coffee cans I found in the back pantry. We went out to Fairlawn and put them on the new grave. Then we just sat there for awhile under the beating sun. 'She was always just the sweetest thing in my life,' Frank said at last n a strange, muffled voice. i 'We took care of Jo when we were kids. Us guys. No one messed with Jo, I'll tell you. Anyone tried, we'd feed em their lunch.' 'She told me a lot of stories.' 'Good ones?' 'Yeah, real good.' 'I'm going to miss her so much.' 'Me, too,' I said. 'Frank . . . listen . . . I know you were her favorite brother. She never called you, maybe just to say that she missed a period or was feeling whoopsy in the morning? You can tell me. I won't be pissed.' 'But she didn't. Honest to God. Was she whoopsy in the morning?' 'Not that I saw.' And that was just it. I hadn't seen anything. Of course I'd been writing, and when I write I pretty much trance out. But she knew where I went in those trances. She could have found me and shaken me fully awake. Why hadn't she? Why would she hide good news? Not wanting to tell me until she was sure was plausible . . . but it somehow wasn't Jo. 'Was it a boy or a girl?' he asked. 'A girl.' We'd had names picked out and waiting for most of our marriage. A boy would have been Andrew. Our daughter would have been Kia. Kia Jane Noonan. Frank, divorced six years and on his own, had been staying with me. On our way back to the house he said, 'I worry about you, Mikey. You haven't got much family to fall back on at a time like this, and what you do have is far away.' 'I'll be all right,' I said. He nodded. 'That's what we say, anyway, isn't it?' 'We?' 'Guys. I'll be all right.' And if we're not, we try to make sure no one knows it.' He looked at me, eyes still leaking, handkerchief in one big sunburned hand. 'If you're not all right, Mikey, and you don't want to call your brother — I saw the way you looked at him — let me be your brother. For Jo's sake if not your own.' 'Okay,' I said, respecting and appreciating the offer, also knowing I would do no such thing. I don't call people for help. It's not because of the way I was raised, at least I don't think so; it's the way I was made. Johanna once said that if I was drowning at Dark Score Lake, where we have a
Slide 14: summer home, I would die silently fifty feet out from the public beach rather than yell for help. It's not a question of love or affection. I can give those and I can take them. I feel pain like anyone else. I need to touch and be touched. But if someone asks me, 'Are you all right?' I can't answer no. I can't say help me. A couple of hours later Frank left for the southern end of the state. When he opened the car door, I was touched to see that the taped book he was listening to was one of mine. He hugged me, then surprised me with a kiss on the mouth, a good hard smack. 'If you need to talk, call,' he said. 'And if you need to be with someone, just come.' I nodded. 'And be careful.' That startled me. The combination of heat and grief had made me feel as if I had been living in a dream for the last few days, but that got through. 'Careful of what?' 'I don't know,' he said. 'I don't know, Mikey.' Then he got into his car — he was so big and it was so little that he looked as if he were wearing it — and drove away. The sun was going down by then. Do you know how the sun looks at the end of a hot day in August, all orange and somehow squashed, as if an invisible hand were pushing down on the top of it and at any moment it might just pop like an overfilled mosquito and splatter all over the horizon? It was like that. In the east, where it was already dark, thunder was rumbling. But there was no rain that night, only a dark that came down as thick and stifling as a blanket. All the same, I slipped in front of the word processor and wrote for an hour or so. It went pretty well, as I remember. And you know, even when it doesn't, it passes the time. My second crying fit came three or four days after the funeral. That sense of being in a dream persisted — I walked, I talked, I answered the phone, I worked on my book, which had been about eighty percent complete when Jo died — but all the time there was this clear sense of disconnection, a feeling that everything was going on at a distance from the real me, that I was more or less phoning it in. Denise Breedlove, Pete's mother, called and asked if I wouldn't like her to bring a couple of her friends over one day the following week and give the big old Edwardian pile I now lived in alone — rolling around in it like the last pea in a restaurant-sized can — a good stem-to-stern cleaning. They would do it, she said, for a hundred dollars split even among the three of them, and mostly because it wasn't good for me to go on without it. There had to be a scrubbing after a death, she said, even if the death didn't happen in the house itself. I told her it was a fine idea, but I would pay her and the women she brought a hundred dollars each for six hours' work. At the end of the six hours, I wanted the job done. And if it wasn't, I told her, it would be done, anyway. 'Mr. Noonan, that's far too much,' she said. 'Maybe and maybe not, but it's what I'm paying,' I said. 'Will you do it?' She said she would, of course she would. Perhaps predictably, I found myself going through the house on the evening before they came, doing a pre-cleaning inspection. I guess I didn't want the women (two of whom would be complete strangers to me) finding anything that would embarrass them or me: a pair of Johanna's silk panties stuffed down behind the sofa cushions, perhaps ('We are often overcome on the sofa, Michael,' she said to me once, 'have you noticed?'), or beer cans under the loveseat on the sunporch, maybe even an unflushed toilet. In truth, I can't tell you any one thing I was looking for; that sense of operating
Slide 15: in a dream still held firm control over my mind. The clearest thoughts I had during those days were either about the end of the novel I was writing (the psychotic killer had lured my heroine to a highrise building and meant to push her off the roof) or about the Norco Home Pregnancy Test Jo had bought on the day she died. Sinus prescription, she had said. Piece of fish for supper, she h said. ad And her eyes had shown me nothing else I needed to look at twice. Near the end of my 'pre-cleaning,' I looked under our bed and saw an open paperback on Jo's side. She hadn't been dead long, but few household lands are so dusty as the Kingdom of Underbed, and the light-gray coating I saw on the book when I brought it out made me think of Johanna's face and hands in her coffin — Jo in the Kingdom of Underground. Did it get dusty inside a coffin? Surely not, but — I pushed the thought away. It pretended to go, but all day long it kept creeping back, like Tolstoy's white bear. Johanna and I had both been English majors at the University of Maine, and like many others, I reckon, we fell in love to the sound of Shakespeare and the Tilbury Town cynicism of Edwin Arlington Robinson. Yet the writer who had bound us closest together was no college-friendly poet or essayist but W. Somerset Maugham, that elderly globetrotting novelist-playwright with the reptile's face (always obscured by cigarette smoke in his photographs, it seems) and the romantic's heart. So it did not surprise me much to find that the book under the bed was The Moon and Sixpence. I had read it myself as a late teenager, not once but twice, identifying passionately with the character of Charles Strickland. (It was writing I wanted to do in the South Seas, of course, not painting.) She had been using a playing card from some defunct deck as her place-marker, and as I opened the book, I thought of something she had said when I w first getting to know her. In Twentiethas Century British Lit, this had been, probably in 1980. Johanna Arlen had been a fiery little sophomore. I was a senior, picking up the Twentieth-Century Brits simply because I had time on my hands that last semester. 'A hundred years from now,' she had said, 'the shame of the midtwentieth-century literary critics will be that they embraced Lawrence and ignored Maugham.' This was greeted with contemptuously good-natured laughter (they all knew Women in Love was one of the greatest damn books ever written), but I didn't laugh. I fell in love. The playing card marked pages 102 and 103 — Dirk Stroeve has just discovered that his wife has left him for Strickland, Maugham's version of Paul Gauguin. The narrator tries to buck Stroeve up. My dear fellow, don't be unhappy. She'll come back . . . 'Easy for you to say,' I murmured to the room which now belonged just to me. I turned the page and read this: Strickland's injurious calm robbed Stroeve of his self-control Blind rage seized him, and without knowing what he was doing he flung himself on Strickland. Strickland was taken by surprise and he staggered, but he was very strong, even after his illness, and in a moment, he did not exactly know how, Stroeve found himself on the floor. 'You funny little man,' said Strickland. It occurred to me that Jo was never going to turn the page and hear Strickland call the pathetic Stroeve a funny little man. In a moment of brilliant epiphany I have never forgotten — how could I? it was one of the worst moments of my life — I understood it wasn't a mistake that would be rectified, or a dream from which I would awaken. Johanna was dead. My strength was robbed by grief. If the bed hadn't been there, I would have fallen to the floor. We weep from our eyes, it's all we can do, but on that evening I felt as if every pore of my body were weeping, every crack and cranny. I sat there on her side of the bed, with her dusty paperback copy of The Moon and Sixpence in my hand, and I wailed. I think it was surprise as much as pain;
Slide 16: in spite of the corpse I had seen and identified on a high-resolution video monitor, in spite of the funeral and Pete Breedlove singing 'Blessed Assurance' in his high, sweet tenor voice, in spite of the graveside service with its ashes to ashes and dust to dust, I hadn't really believed it. The Penguin paperback did for me what the big gray coffin had not: it insisted she was dead. You funny little man, said Strickland. I lay back on our bed, crossed my forearms over my face, and cried myself to sleep that way as children do when they're unhappy. I had an awful dream. In it I woke up, saw the paperback of The Moon and Sixpence still lying on the coverlet beside me, and decided to put it back under the bed where I had found it. You know how confused dreams are — logic like Dalí clocks gone so soft they lie over the branches of trees like throw-rugs. I put the playing-card bookmark back between pages 102 and 103 — a turn of the index finger away from You funny little man, said Strickland now and forever — and rolled onto my side, hanging my head over the edge of the bed, meaning to put the book back exactly where I had found it. Jo was lying there amid the dust-kitties. A strand of cobweb hung down from the bottom of the box spring and caressed her cheek like a feather. Her red hair looked dull, but her eyes were dark and alert and baleful in her white face. And when she spoke, I knew that death had driven her insane. 'Give me that,' she hissed. 'It's my dust-catcher.' She snatched it out of my hand before I could offer it to her. For a moment our fingers touched, and hers were as cold as twigs after a frost. She opened the book to her place, the playing card fluttering out, and placed S omerset Maugham over her face — a shroud of words. As she crossed her hands on her bosom and lay still, I realized she was wearing the blue dress I had buried her in. She had come out of her grave to hide under our bed. I awoke with a muffled cry and a painful jerk that almost tumbled me off the side of the bed. I hadn't been asleep long — the tears were still damp on my cheeks, and my eyelids had that funny stretched feel they get after a bout of weeping. The dream had been so vivid that I had to roll on my side, hang my head down, and peer under the bed, sure she would be there with the book over her face, that she would reach out with her cold fingers to touch me. There was nothing there, of course — dreams are just dreams. Nevertheless, I spent t e rest of h the night on the couch in my study. It was the right choice, I guess, because there were no more dreams that night. Only the nothingness of good sleep.
Slide 17: CHAPTER TWO I never suffered from writer's block during the ten years of my marriage, and did not suffer it immediately after Johanna's death. I was in fact so unfamiliar with the condition that it had pretty well set in before I knew anything out of the ordinary was going on. I think this was because in my heart I believed that such conditions only affected 'literary'' types of the sort who are discussed, deconstructed, and sometimes dismissed in the New York Review of Books. My writing career and my marriage covered almost exactly the same span. I finished the first draft of my first novel, Being Two, not long after Jo and I became officially engaged (I popped an opal ring on the third finger of her left hand, a hundred and ten bucks at Day's Jewellers, and quite a bit more than I could afford at the time . . . but Johanna seemed utterly t rilled with it), and I h finished my last novel, All the Way from the Top, about a month after she was declared dead. This was the one about the psychotic killer with the love of high places. It was published in the fall of 1995. I have published other novels since then — a paradox I can explain — but I don't think there'll be a Michael Noonan novel on any list in the foreseeable future. I know what writer's block is now, all right. I know more about it than I ever wanted to. When I hesitantly showed Jo the first draft of Being Two, she read it in one evening, curled up in her favorite chair, wearing nothing but panties and a tee-shirt with the Maine black bear on the front, drinking glass after glass of iced tea. I went out to the garage (we were renting a house in Bangor with another couple on as shaky financial ground as we were. . and no, Jo and I weren't quite married at that point, although as far as I know, that opal ring never left her finger) and puttered aimlessly, feeling like a guy in a New Yorker cartoon one of those about funny fellows in the delivery waiting room. As I remember, I fucked up a so-simple-a-child-can-do-it birdhouse kit and almost cut off the index finger of my left hand. Every twenty minutes or so I'd go back inside and peek at Jo. If she noticed, she gave no sign. I took that as hopeful. I was sitting on the back stoop, looking up at the stars and smoking, when she came out, sat down beside me, and put her hand on the back of my neck. 'Well?' I said. 'It's good,' she said. 'Now why don't you come inside and do me?' And before I could answer, the panties she had been wearing dropped in my lap in a little whisper of nylon. Afterward, lying in bed and eating oranges (a vice we later outgrew), I asked her: 'Good as in publishable?' 'Well,' she said, 'I don't know anything about the glamorous world of publishing, but I've been reading for pleasure all my life — Curious George was my first love, if you want to know — ' 'I don't.' She leaned over and popped an orange segment into my mouth, her breast warm and provocative against my arm. ' — and I read this with great pleasure. My prediction is that your career as a reporter for the Derry News is never going to survive its rookie stage. I think I'm going to be a novelist's wife.' Her words thrilled me — actually brought goosebumps out on my arms. No, she didn't know anything about the glamorous world of publishing, but if she believed, I believed . . . and belief
Slide 18: turned out to be the right course. I got an agent through my old creative-writing teacher (who read my novel and damned it with faint praise, seeing its commercial qualities as a kind of heresy, I think), and the agent sold Being Two to Random House, the first publisher to see it. Jo was right about my career as a reporter, as well. I spent four months covering flower shows, drag races, and bean suppers at about a hundred a week before my first check from Random House came in — $27,000, after the agent's commission had been deducted. I wasn't in the newsroom long enough to get even that first minor bump in salary, but they had a going-away party for me just the same. At Jack's Pub, this was, now that I think of it. There was a banner hung over the tables in the back room which said GOOD LUCK MIKE — WRITE ON! Later, when we got home, Johanna said that if envy was acid, there would have been nothing left of me but my belt-buckle and three teeth. Later, in bed with the lights out — the last orange eaten and the last cigarette shared — I said, 'No one's ever going to confuse it with Look Homeward, Angel, are they?' My book, I meant. She knew it, just as she knew I had been fairly depressed by my old creative-writing teacher's response to Two. 'You aren't going to pull a lot of frustrated-artist crap on me, are you?' she asked, getting up on one elbow. 'If you are, I wish you'd tell me now, so I can pick up one of those do-it-yourself divorce kits first thing in the morning.' I was amused, but also a little hurt. 'Did you see that first press release from Random House?' I knew she had. 'They're just about calling me V. C. Andrews with a prick, for God's sake.' 'Well,' she said, lightly grabbing the object in question, 'you do have a prick. As far as what they're calling you . . . Mike, when I was in third grade, Patty Banning used to call me a boogerhooker. But I wasn't.' 'Perception is everything.' 'Bullshit.' She was still holding my dick and now gave it a formidable squeeze that hurt a little and felt absolutely wonderful at the same time. That crazy old trouser mouse never really cared what it got in those days, as long as there was a lot of it. Happiness is everything. Are you happy ' when you write, Mike?' 'Sure.' It was what she knew, anyway. 'And does your conscience bother you when you write?' 'When I write, there's nothing I'd rather do except this,' I said, and rolled on top of her. 'Oh dear,' she said in that prissy little voice that always cracked me up. 'There's a penis between us.' And as we made love, I realized a wonderful thing or two: that she had meant it when she said she really liked my book (hell, I'd known she liked it just from the way she sat in the wing chair reading it, with a lock of hair falling over her brow and her bare legs tucked beneath her), and that I didn't need to be ashamed of what I had written . . . not in her eyes, at least. And one other wonderful thing: her perception, joined with my own to make the true binocular vision nothing but marriage allows, was the only perception that mattered. Thank God she was a Maugham fan. I was V. C. Andrews with a prick for ten years . . . fourteen, if you add in the post-Johanna years. The first five were with Random; then my agent got a huge offer from Putnam and I jumped. You've seen my name on a lot of bestseller lists . . . if, that is, your Sunday paper carries a list that goes up to fifteen instead of just listing the top ten. I was never a Clancy, Ludlum, or Grisham, but I moved a fair number of hardcovers (V. C. Andrews never did, Harold Oblowski, my agent, told me once; the lady was pretty much a paperback phenomenon) and once got as high as number
Slide 19: five on the Times list . . . that was with my second book, The Red-Shirt Man. Ironically, one of the books that kept me from going higher was Steel Machine, by Thad Beaumont (writing as George Stark). The Beaumonts had a summer place in Castle Rock back in those days, not even fifty miles south of our place on Dark Score Lake. Thad's dead now. Suicide. I don't know if it had anything to do with writer's block or not. I stood just outside the magic circle of the mega-bestsellers, but I never minded that. We owned two homes by the time I was thirty-one: the lovely old Edwardian in Derry and, in western Maine, a lakeside log home almost big e nough to be called a lodge — that was Sara Laughs, so called by the locals for nearly a century. And we owned both places free and clear at a time of life when many couples consider themselves lucky just to have fought their way to mortgage approval on a s tarter home. We were healthy, faithful, and with our fun-bones still fully attached. I wasn't Thomas Wolfe (not even Tom Wolfe or Tobias Wolff), but I was being paid to do what I loved, and there's no gig on earth better than that; it's like a license to steal. I was what midlist fiction used to be in the forties: critically ignored, genre-oriented (in my case the genre was Lovely Young Woman on Her Own Meets Fascinating Stranger), but well compensated and with the kind of shabby acceptance accorded to state-sanctioned whorehouses in Nevada, the feeling seeming to be that some outlet for the baser instincts should be provided and someone had to do That Sort of Thing. I did That Sort of Thing enthusiastically (and sometimes with Jo's enthusiastic connivance, if I came to a particularly problematic plot crossroads), and at some point around the time of George Bush's election, our accountant told us we were millionaires. We weren't rich enough to own a jet (Grisham) or a pro football team (Clancy), but by the standards of Derry, Maine, we were quite rolling in it. We made love thousands of times, saw thousands of movies, read thousands of books (Jo storing hers under her side of the bed at the end of the day, more often than not). And perhaps the greatest blessing was that we never knew how short the time was. More than once I wondered if breaking the ritual is what led to the writer's block. In the daytime, I could dismiss this as supernatural twaddle but at night that was harder to do. At night your thoughts have an unpleasant way of slipping their collars and running free. And if you've spent most of your adult life making fictions, I'm sure those collars are even looser and the dogs less eager to wear them. Was it Shaw or Oscar Wilde who said a writer was a man who had taught his mind to misbehave? And is it really so far-fetched to think that breaking the ritual might have played a part in my sudden and unexpected (unexpected by me, at least) silence? When you make your daily bread in the land of make-believe, the line between what is and what seems to be is much finer. Painters sometimes refuse to paint without wearing a certain hat, and baseball players who are hitting well won't change their socks. The ritual started with the second book, which was the only one I remember being nervous about — I suppose I'd absorbed a fair amount of that sophomore-jinx stuff; the idea that one hit might only be a fluke. I remember an American Lit lecturer's once saying that of modern American writers, only Harper Lee had found a foolproof way of avoiding the second-book blues. When I reached the end of The Red-Shirt Man, I stopped just short of finishing. The Edwardian on Benton Street in Derry was still two years in the future at that point, but we had purchased Sara Laughs, the place on Dark Score (not anywhere near as furnished as it later became, and Jo's studio not yet built, but nice), and that's where we were.
Slide 20: I pushed back from my typewriter — I was still clinging to my old IBM Selectric in those days — and went into the kitchen. It was mid-September, most of the summer people were gone, and the crying of the loons on the lake sounded inexpressibly lovely. The sun was going down, and the lake itself had become a still and heatless plate of fire. T is one of the most vivid memories I have, so his clear I sometimes feel I could step right into it and live it all again. What things, if any, would I do differently? I sometimes wonder about that. Early that evening I had put a bottle of Taittinger and two flutes in the fridge. Now I took them out, put them on a tin tray that was usually employed to transport pitchers of iced tea or Kool-Aid from the kitchen to the deck, and carried it before me into the living room. Johanna was deep in her ratty old easy chair, reading a book (not Maugham that night but William Denbrough, one of her contemporary favorites). 'Ooo,' she said, looking up and marking her place. 'Champagne, what's the occasion?' As if, you understand, she didn't know. 'I'm done,' I said. 'Mon livre est tout fini.' 'Well,' she said, smiling and taking one of the flutes as I bent down to her with the tray, 'then that's all right, isn't it?' I realize now that the essence of the ritual — the part that was alive and powerful, like the one true magic word in a mouthful of gibberish — was that phrase. We almost always had champagne, and she almost always came into the office with me afterward for the other thing, but not always. Once, five years or so before she died, she was in Ireland, vacationing with a girlfriend, when I finished a book. I drank the champagne by myself that time, and entered the last line by myself as well (by then I was using a Macintosh which did a billion different things and which I used for only one) and never lost a minute's sleep over it. But I called her at the inn where she and her friend Bryn were staying; I told her I had finished, and listened as she said the words I'd called to hear — words that slipped into an Irish telephone line, travelled to a microwave transmitter, rose like a prayer to some satellite, and then came back down to my ear: 'Well, then that's all right, isn't it?' This custom began, as I say, after the second book. When we'd each had a glass of champagne and a refill, I took her into the office, where a single sheet of paper still stuck out of my forestgreen Selectric. On the lake, one last loon cried down dark, that call that always sounds to me like something rusty turning slowly in the wind. 'I thought you said you were done,' she said. 'Everything but the last line,' I said. 'The book, such as it is, is dedicated to you, and I want you to put down the last bit.' She didn't laugh or protest or get gushy, just looked at me to see if I really meant it. I nodded that I did, and she sat in my chair. She had been swimming earlier, and her hair was pulled back and threaded through a white elastic thing. It was wet, and two shades darker red than usual. I touched it. It was like touching damp silk. 'Paragraph indent?' she asked, as seriously as a girl from the steno pool about to take dictation from the big boss. 'No,' I said, 'this continues.' And then I spoke the line I'd been holding in my head ever since I got up to pour the champagne.'"He slipped the chain over her head, and then the two of them walked down the steps to where the car was parked.''' She typed it, then looked around and up at me expectantly. 'That's it,' I said. 'You can write The End, I guess.' Jo hit the RETURN button twice, centered the c arriage, and typed The End under the last line of prose, the IBM's Courier type ball (my favorite) spinning out the letters in their obedient dance. 'What's the chain he slips over her head?' she asked me. 'You'll have to read the book to find out.'
Slide 21: With her sitting in my desk chair and me standing beside her, she was in perfect position to put her face where she did. When she spoke, her lips moved against the most sensitive part of me. There were a pair of cotton shorts between us and that was all. 'Ve haff vays off making you talk,' she said. 'I'll just bet you do,' I said. I at least made a stab at the ritual on the day I finished All the Way from the Top. It felt hollow, form from which the magical substance had departed, but I'd expected that. I didn't do it out of superstition but out of respect and love. A kind of memorial, if you will. Or, if you will, Johanna's real funeral service, finally taking place a month after she was in the ground. It was the last third of September, and still hot — the hottest late summer I can remember. All during that final sad push on the book, I kept thinking how much I missed her . . . but that never slowed me down. And here's something else: hot as it was in Derry, so hot I usually worked in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, I never once thought of going to our place at the lake. It was as if my memory of Sara Laughs had been entirely wiped from my mind. Perhaps that was because by the time I finished Top, that truth was finally sinking in. She wasn't just in Ireland this time. My office at the lake is tiny, but has a view. The office in Derry is long, book-lined, and windowless. On this particular evening, the overhead fans — there are three of them — were on and paddling at the soupy air. I came in dressed in shorts, a tee-shirt, and rubber thong sandals, carrying a tin Coke tray with the bottle of champagne and the two chilled glasses on it. At the far end of that railroad-car room, under an eave so steep I'd had to almost crouch so as not to bang my head when I got up (over the years I'd also had to withstand Jo's protests that I'd picked the absolute worst place in the room for a workstation), the screen of my Macintosh glowed with words. I thought I was probably inviting another storm of grief — -maybe the worst storm — but I went ahead anyway . . . and our emotions always surprise us, don't they? There was no weeping and wailing that night; I guess all that was out of my system. Instead there was a deep and wretched sense of loss — the empty chair where she used to like to sit and read, the empty table where she would always set her glass too close to the edge. I poured a glass of champagne, let the foam settle, then picked it up. 'I'm done, Jo,' I said as I sat there beneath the paddling fans. 'So that's all right, isn't it?' There was no response. In light of all that came later, I think that's worth repeating — there was no response. I didn't sense, as I later did, that I was not alone in a room which appeared empty. I drank the champagne, put the glass back on the Coke tray, then filled the other one. I took it over to the Mac and sat down where Johanna would have been sitting, if not for everyone's favorite loving God. No weeping and wailing, but my eyes prickled with tears. The words on the screen were these: today wasn't so bad, she supposed. She crossed the grass to her car, and laughed when she saw the white square of paper under the windshield. Cam Delancey, who refused to be discouraged, or to take no for an answer, had invited her to another of his Thursday-night wine-tasting parties. She took the paper, started to tear it up, then changed her mind and stuck it in the hip pocket of her jeans, instead. 'No paragraph indent,' I said, 'this continues.' Then I keyboarded the line I'd been holding in my head ever since I got up to get the champagne.
Slide 22: There was a whole world out there; Cam Delancey's wine-tasting was as good a place to start as any. I stopped, looking at the little flashing cursor. The tears were still prickling at the corners of my eyes, but I repeat that there were no cold drafts around my ankles, no spectral fingers at the nape of my neck. I hit RETURN twice. I clicked on CENTER. I typed The End below the last line of prose, and then I toasted the screen with what should have been Jo's glass of champagne. 'Here's to you, babe,' I said. 'I wish you were here. I miss you like hell.' My voice wavered a little on that last word, but didn't break. I drank the Taittinger, saved my final line of copy, transferred the whole works to floppy disks, then backed them up. And except for notes, grocery lists, and checks, that was the last writing I did for four years.
Slide 23: CHAPTER THREE My publisher didn't know, my editor Debra Weinstock didn't know, my agent Harold Oblowski didn't know. Frank Arlen didn't know, either, although on more than one occasion I had been tempted to tell him. Let me be your brother. For Jo's sake if not your own, he told me on the day he went back to his printing business and mostly solitary life in the southern Maine town of Sanford. I had never expected to take him up on that, and didn't — not in the elemental cry-for-help way he might have been thinking about — but I phoned him every couple of weeks or so. Guy-talk, you know — How's it going, Not too bad, cold as a witch's tit, Yeah, here, too, You want to go down to Boston if I can get Bruins tickets, Maybe next year, pretty busy right now, Yeah, I know how that is, seeya, Mikey, Okay, Frank, keep your wee-wee in the teepee. Guy-talk. I'm pretty sure that once or twice he asked me if I was working on a new book, and I think I said — Oh, fuck it — that's a lie, okay? One so ingrown that now I'm even telling it to myself. He asked, all right, and I always said yeah, I was working on a new book, it was going good, real good. I was tempted more than once to tell him I can't write two paragraphs without going into total mental and physical doglock — my heartbeat doubles, then triples, I get short of breath and then start to pant, my eyes feel like they're going to pop out of my head and hang there on my cheeks. I'm like a claustrophobe in a sinking submarine. That's how it's going, thanks for asking, but I never did. I don't call for help. I can't call for help. I think I told you that. From my admittedly prejudiced standpoint, successful novelists — even modestly successful novelists — have got the best gig in the creative arts. It's true that people buy more CDS than books, go to more movies, and watch a lot more TV. But the arc of productivity is longer for novelists, perhaps because readers are a little brighter than fans of the non-written arts, and thus have marginally longer memories. David Soul of Starsky and Hutch is God knows where, same with that peculiar white rapper Vanilla Ice, but in 1994, Herman Wouk, James Michener, and Norman Mailer were all still around; talk about when dinosaurs walked the earth. Arthur Hailey was writing a new book (that was the rumor, anyway, and it turned out to be true), Thomas Harris could take seven years between Lecters and still produce bestsellers, and although not heard from in almost forty years, J. D. Salinger was still a hot topic in English classes and informal coffee-house literary groups. Readers have a loyalty that cannot b matched anywhere else e in the creative arts, which explains why so many writers who have run out of gas can keep coasting anyway, propelled onto the bestseller lists by the magic words AUTHOR OF on the covers of their books. What the publisher wants in return, especially from an author who can be counted on to sell 500,000 or so copies of each novel in hardcover and a million more in paperback, is perfectly simple: a book a year. That, the wallahs in New York have determined, is the optimum. Three hundred and eighty pages bound by string or glue every twelve months, a beginning, a middle, and an end, continuing main character like Kinsey Millhone or Kay Scarpetta optional but very much preferred. Readers love continuing characters; it's like coming back to family.
Slide 24: Less than a book a year and you're screwing up the publisher's investment in you, hampering your business manager's ability to continue floating all of your credit cards, and jeopardizing your agent's ability to pay his shrink on time. Also, there's always some fan attrition when you take too long. Can't be helped. Just as, if you publish too much, there are readers who'll say, 'Phew, I've had enough of this guy for awhile, it's all starting to taste like beans.' I tell you all this so you'll understand how I could spend four years using my computer as the world's most expensive Scrabble board, and no one ever suspected. Writer's block? What writer's block? We don't got no steenkin writer's block. How could anyone think such a thing when there was a new Michael Noonan suspense novel appearing each fall just like clockwork, perfect for your late-summer pleasure reading, folks, and by the way, don't forget that the holidays are coming and that all your relatives would also probably enjoy the new Noonan, which can he had at Borders at a thirty percent discount, oy vay, such a deal. The secret is simple, and I am not the only popular novelist in America who knows it — if the rumors are correct, Danielle Steel (to name just one) has been using the Noonan Formula for decades. You see, although I have published a book a year starting with Being Two in 1984, I wrote two books in four of those ten years, publishing one and ratholing the other. I don't remember ever talking about this with Jo, and since she never asked, I always assumed she understood what I was doing: saving up nuts. It wasn't writer's block I was thinking of, though. Shit, I was just having fun. By February of 1995, after crashing and burning with at least two good ideas (that particular function — the Eureka! thing — has never stopped, which creates its own special version of hell), I could no longer deny the obvious: I was in the worst sort of trouble a writer can get into, barring Alzheimer's or a cataclysmic stroke. Still, I had four cardboard manuscript boxes in the big safedeposit box I keep up at Fidelity Union. They were marked Promise, Threat, Darcy, and Top. Around Valentine's Day, my agent called, moderately nervous — I usually delivered my latest masterpiece to him by January, and here it was already half-past February. They would have to crash production to get this year's Mike Noonan out in time for the annual Christmas buying orgy. Was everything all right? This was my first chance to say things were a country mile from all but Mr. Harold Oblowski of 225 Park Avenue wasn't the sort of man you said such things to. He was a fine agent, both liked and loathed in publishing circles (sometimes by the same people at the same time), but he didn't adapt well to bad news from the dark and oil.treaked levels where the goods were actually produced. He would have freaked and been on the next plane to Derry, ready to give me creative mouth-to-mouth, adamant in his resolve not to leave until he had yanked me out of my fugue. No, I liked Harold right where he was, in his thirty-eighth-floor office with its kickass view of the East Side. I told him what a coincidence, Harold, you calling on the very day I finished the new one, gosharooty, how 'bout that, I'll send it out FedEx, you'll have it tomorrow. Harold assured me solemnly that there was no coincidence about it, that where his writers were concerned, he was telepathic. Then he congratulated me and hung up. Two hours later I received his bouquet-every bit as fulsome and silky as one of his Jimmy Hollywood ascots. After putting the flowers in the dining room, where I rarely went since Jo died, I went down to Fidelity Union. I used my key, the bank manager used his, and soon enough I was on my way to FedEx with the manuscript of All the Way from the Top. I took the most recent book because it was the one closest to the front of the box, that's all. In November it was published just in time for the Christmas rush. I dedicated it to the memory of my late, beloved wife, Johanna. It went to number
Slide 25: eleven on the Times bestseller list, and everyone went home happy. Even me. Because things would get better, wouldn't they? No one had terminal writer's block, did they (well, with the possible exception of Harper Lee)? All I h to do was relax, as the chorus girl said to the archbishop. And ad thank God I'd been a good squirrel and saved up my nuts. I was still optimistic the following year when I drove down to the Federal Express office with Threatening Behavior. That one was written in the fall of 1991, and had been one of Jo's favorites. Optimism had faded quite a little bit by March of 1997, when I drove through a wet snowstorm with Darcy's Admirer, although when people asked me how it was going ('Writing any good books lately?' is the existential way most seem to phrase the question), I still answered good, fine, yeah, writing lots of good books lately, they're pouring out of me like shit out of a cow's ass. After Harold had read Darcy and pronounced it my best ever, a best-seller which was also serious, I hesitantly broached the idea of taking a year off. He responded immediately with the question I detest above all others: was I all right? Sure, I told him, fine as freckles, just thinking about easing off a little. There followed one of those patented Harold Oblowski silences, which were meant to convey that you were being a terrific asshole, but because Harold liked you so much, he was trying to think of the gentlest possible way of telling you so. This is a wonderful trick, but one I saw through about six years ago. Actually, it was Jo who saw through it. 'He's only pretending compassion,' she said. 'Actually, he's like a cop in one of those old film noir movies, keeping his mouth shut so you'll blunder ahead and end up confessing to everything.' This time I kept my mouth shut — just switched the phone from my right ear to my left, and rocked back a little further in my office chair. When I did, my eye fell on the framed photograph over my computer — Sara Laughs, our place on Dark Score Lake. I hadn't been there in eons, and for a moment I consciously wondered why. Then Harold's voice — cautious, comforting, the voice of a sane man trying to talk a lunatic out of what he hopes will be no more than a passing delusion — was back in my ear. 'That might not be a good idea, Mike — not at this stage of your career.' 'This isn't a stage,' I said. 'I peaked in 1991 — since then, my sales haven't really gone up or down. This is a plateau, Harold.' 'Yes,' he said, 'and writers who've reached that steady state really only have two choices in terms of sales — they can continue as they are, or they can go down.' So I go down, I thought of saying . . . but didn't. I didn't want Harold to know exactly how deep this went, or how shaky the ground under me was. I didn't want him to know that I was now having heart palpitations-yes, I mean this literally — almost every time I opened the Word Six program on my computer and looked at the blank screen and flashing cursor. 'Yeah,' I said. 'Okay. Message received.' 'You're sure you're all right?' 'Does the book read like I'm wrong, Harold?' 'Hell, no — it's a helluva yarn. Your personal best, I told you. A great read but also fucking serious shit. If Saul Bellow wrote romantic suspense fiction, this is what he'd write. But . . . you're not having any trouble with :the next one, are you? I know you're still missing Jo, hell, we all are —' 'No,' I said. 'No trouble at all.' Another of those long silences ensued. I endured it. At last Harold said, 'Grisham could afford to take a year off. Clancy could. Thomas Harris, the long silences are a part of his mystique. But where you are, life is even tougher than at the very top, Mike. There are five writers for every one of those spots down on the list, and you know who they are — hell,
Slide 26: they're your neighbors three months a year. Some are going up, the way Patricia Cornwell went up with her last two books, some are going down, and some are staying steady, like you. If Tom Clancy were to go on hiatus for five years and then bring Jack Ryan back, he'd come back strong, no argument. If you go on hiatus for five years, maybe you don't come back at all. My advice is — ' 'Make hay while the sun shines.' 'Took the words right out of my mouth.' We talked a little more, then said our goodbyes. I leaned back further in my office chair — not all the way to the tip over point but close — and looked at the photo of our western Maine retreat. Sara Laughs, sort of like the title of that hoary old Hall and Oates ballad. Jo had loved it more, true enough, but only by a little, so why had I been staying away? Bill Dean, the caretaker, took down the storm shutters every spring and put them back up every fall, drained the pipes in the fall and made sure the pump was running in the spring, checked the generator and took care to see that all the maintenance tags were current, anchored the swimming float fifty yards or so off our little lick of beach after each Memorial Day. Bill had the chimney cleaned in the early summer of '96, although there hadn't been a fire in the fireplace for two years or more. I paid him quarterly, as is the custom with caretakers in that part of the world; Bill Dean, old Yankee from a long line of them, cashed my checks and didn't ask why I never used my place anymore. I'd only been down two or three times since Jo died, and not a single overnight. Good thing Bill didn't ask, because I don't know what answer I would have given him. I hadn't even really thought about Sara Laughs until my conversation with Harold. Thinking of Harold, I looked away from the photo and back at the phone. Imagined saying to him, So I go down, so what? The world comes to an end? Please. It isn't as if I had a wife and family to support — the wife died in a drugstore parking lot, if you please (or even if you don't please), and the kid we wanted so badly and tried for so long went with her, I don't crave the fame, either — if writers who fill the lower slots on the Times bestseller list can be said to be famous — and I don't fall asleep dreaming of book club sales. So why? Why does it even bother me? But that last one I could answer. Because it felt like giving up. Because without my wife and my work, I was a superfluous man living alone in a big house that was all paid for, doing nothing but the newspaper crossword over lunch. I pushed on with what passed for my life. I forgot about Sara Laughs (or some part of me that didn't want to go there buried the idea) and spent another sweltering, miserable summer in Derry. I put a cruciverbalist program on my Powerbook and began making my own crossword puzzles. I took an interim appointment on the local YMCA's board of directors and judged the Summer Arts Competition in Waterville. I did a series of TV ads for the local homeless shelter, which was staggering toward bankruptcy, then served on that board for awhile. (At one public meeting of this latter board a woman called me a friend of degenerates, to which I replied, 'Thanks! I needed that.' This resulted in a loud outburst of applause which I still don't understand.) I tried some one-on-one counselling and gave it up after five appointments, deciding that the counsellor's problems were far worse than mine. I sponsored an Asian child and bowled with a league. Sometimes I tried to write, and every time I did, I locked up. Once, when I tried to force a sentence or two (any sentence or two, just as long as they came fresh-baked out of my own head), I had to grab the wastebasket and vomit into it. I vomited until I thought it was going to kill me . . . and I did have to literally crawl away from the desk and the computer, pulling myself across the deep-pile rug on my hands and knees. By the time I got to the other side of the room, it was better. I
Slide 27: could even look back over my shoulder at the VDT screen. I just couldn't get near it. Later that day, I approached it with my eyes shut and turned it off. More and more often during those late-summer days I thought of Dennison Carville, the creative-writing teacher who'd helped me connect with Harold and who had damned Being Two with such faint praise. Camille once said something I never forgot, attributing it to Thomas Hardy, the Victorian novelist and poet. Perhaps Hardy did say i, but I've never found it repeated, not in t Bartlett's, not in the Hardy biography I read between the publications of All the Way from the Top and Threatening Behavior. I have an idea Carville may have made it up himself and then attributed it to Hardy in order to give it more weight. It's a ploy I have used myself from time to time, I'm ashamed to say. In any case, I thought about this quote more and more as I struggled with the panic in my body and the frozen feeling in my head, that awful locked-up feeling. It seemed to sum up my despair and my growing certainty that I would never be able to write again (what a tragedy, V. C. Andrews with a prick felled by writer's block). It was this quote that suggested any effort I made to better my situation might be meaningless even if it succeeded. According to gloomy old Dennison Carville, the aspiring novelist should understand from the outset that fiction's goals were forever beyond his reach, that the job was an exercise in futility. 'Compared to the dullest human being actually walking about on the face of the earth and casting his shadow there,' Hardy supposedly said, 'the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones.' I understood because that was what I felt like in those interminable, dissembling days: a bag of bones. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. If there is any more beautiful and haunting first line in English fiction, I've never read it. And it was a line I had cause to think of a lot during the fall of 1997 and the winter of 1998. I didn't dream of Manderley, of course, but of Sara Laughs, which Jo sometimes called 'the hideout.' A fair enough description, I guess, for a place so far up in the western Maine woods that it's not really even in a town at all, but in an unincorporated area designated on state maps as RR-90. The last of these dreams was a nightmare, but until that one they had a kind of surreal simplicity. They were dreams I'd awake from wanting to turn on the bedroom light so I could reconfirm my place in reality before going back to sleep. You know how the air feels before a thunderstorm, how everything gets still and colors seem to stand out with the brilliance of things seen during a high fever? My winter dreams of Sara Laughs were like that, each leaving me with a feeling that was not quite sickness. I've dreamt again of Manderley, I would think sometimes, and sometimes I would lie in bed with the light on, listening to the wind outside, looking into the bedroom's shadowy corners, and thinking that Rebecca de Winter hadn't drowned in a bay but in Dark Score Lake. That she had gone down, gurgling and flailing, her strange black eyes full of water, while the loons cried out indifferently in the twilight. Sometimes I would get up and drink a g of water. Sometimes I lass just turned off the light after I was once more sure of where I was, rolled over on my side again, and went back to sleep. In the daytime I rarely thought of Sara Laughs at all, and it was only much later that I realized something is badly out of whack when there is such a dichotomy between a person's waking and sleeping lives. I think that Harold Oblowski's call in October of 1997 was what kicked off the dreams. Harold's ostensible reason for calling was to congratulate me on the impending release of Darcy's Admirer, which was entertaining as hell and which also contained some extremely thoughtprovoking shit. I suspected he had at least one other item on his agenda — Harold usually does —
Slide 28: and I was right. He'd had lunch with Debra Weinstock, my editor, the day before, and they had gotten talking about the fall of 1998. 'Looks crowded,' he said, meaning the fall lists, meaning specifically the fiction half of the fall lists. 'And there are some surprise additions. Dean Koontz — ' 'I thought he usually published in January,' I said. 'He does, but Debra hears this one may be delayed. He wants to add a section, or something. Also there's a Harold Robbins, The Predators — ' 'Big deal.' 'Robbins still has his fans, Mike, still has his fans. As you yourself have pointed out on more than one occasion, fiction writers have a long arc.' 'Uh-huh.' I switched the telephone to the other ear and leaned back in my chair. I caught a glimpse of the framed Sara Laughs photo over my desk when I did. I would be visiting it at greater length and proximity that night in my dreams, although I didn't know that then; all I knew then was that I wished like almighty fuck that Harold Oblowski would hurry up and get to the point. 'I sense impatience, Michael my boy,' Harold said. 'Did I catch you at your desk? Are you writing?' 'Just finished for the day,' I said. 'I am thinking about lunch, however.' 'I'll be quick,' he promised, 'but hang with me, this is important. There may be as many as five other writers that we didn't expect publishing next fall: Ken Follett . . . it's supposed to be his best since Eye of the Needle . . . Belva Plain . . . John Jakes . . . ' 'None of those guys plays tennis on my court,' I said, although I knew that was not exactly Harold's point; Harold's point was that there are only fifteen slots on the Times list. 'How about Jean Auel, finally publishing the next of her sex-among-the-cave-people epics?' I sat up. 'Jean Auel? Really?' 'Well . . . not a hundred percent, but it looks good. Last but not least is a new Mary Higgins Clark. I know what tennis court she plays on, and so do you.' If I'd gotten that sort of news six or seven years earlier, when I'd felt I had a great deal more to protect, I would have been frothing; Mary Higgins Clark did play on the same court, shared exactly the same audience, and so far our publishing schedules had been arranged to keep us out of each other's way . . . which was to my benefit rather than hers, let me assure you. Going nose to nose, she would cream me. As the late Jim Croce so wisely observed, you don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, you don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger, and you don't mess around with Mary Higgins Clark. Not if you're Michael Noonan, anyway. 'How did this happen?' I asked. I don't think my tone was particularly ominous, but Harold replied in the nervous, stumbling-all-over-his-own-words fashion of a man who suspects he may be fired or even beheaded for bearing evil tidings. 'I don't know. She just happened to get an extra idea this year, I guess. That does happen, I've been told.' As a fellow who had taken his share of double-dips I knew it did, so I simply asked Harold what he wanted. It seemed the quickest and easiest way to get him to relinquish the phone. The answer was no surprise; what he and Debra both wanted — not to mention all the rest of my Putnam pals — was a book they could publish in late summer of '98, thus getting in front of Ms. Clark and the rest of the competition by a couple of months. Then, in November, the Putnam sales reps would give the novel a healthy second push, with the Christmas season in mind.
Slide 29: 'So they say,' I replied. Like most novelists (and in this regard the successful are no different from the unsuccessful, indicating there might be some merit to the idea as well as the usual freefloating paranoia), I never trusted publishers' promises. 'I think you can believe them on this, Mike — Darcy's Admirer was the last book of your old contract, remember.' Harold sounded almost sprightly at the thought of forthcoming contract negotiations with Debra Weinstock and Phyllis Grann at Putnam. 'The big thing is they still like you. They'd like you even more, I think, if they saw pages with your name on them before Thanksgiving.' 'They want me to give them the next book in November? Next month?' I injected what I hoped was the right note of incredulity into my voice, just as if I hadn't had Helen's Promise in a safedeposit box for almost eleven years. It had been the first nut I had stored; it was now the only nut I had left. 'No, no, you could have until January fifteenth, at least,' he said, trying to sound magnanimous. I found myself wondering where he and Debra had gotten their lunch. Some fly place, I would have bet my life on that. Maybe Four Seasons. Johanna always used to call that place Valli and the Four Seasons. 'It means they'd have to crash production, seriously crash it, but they're willing to do that. The real question is whether or not you could crash production.' 'I think I could, but it'll cost em,' I said. 'Tell them to think of it as being like same-day service on your dry-cleaning.' 'Oh what a rotten shame for them!' Harold sounded as if he were maybe jacking off and had reached the point where Old Faithful splurts and everybody snaps their Instamatics. 'How much do you think — ' 'A surcharge tacked on to the advance is probably the way to go,' he said. 'They'll get pouty of course, claim that the move is in your interest, too. Primarily in your interest, even. But based on the extra-work argument . . . the midnight oil you'll have to burn . . . ' 'The mental agony of creation . . . the pangs of premature birth . . . ' 'Right . . . right . . . I think a ten percent surcharge sounds about right.' He spoke judiciously, like a man trying to be just as damned fair as he possibly could. Myself, I was wondering how many women would induce birth a month or so early if they got paid two or three hundred grand extra for doing so. Probably some questions are best left unanswered. And in my case, what difference did it make? The goddam thing was written, wasn't it? 'Well, see if you can make the deal,' I said. 'Yes, but I don't think we want to be talking about just a single book here, okay? I think — ' 'Harold, what I want right now is to eat some lunch.' 'You sound a little tense, Michael. Is everything — ' 'Everything is fine. Talk to them about just one book, with a sweetener for speeding up production at my end. Okay?' 'Okay,' he said after one of his most significant pauses. 'But I hope this doesn't mean that you won't entertain a three- or four-book contract later on. Make hay while the sun s hines, remember. It's the motto Of champions.' 'Cross each bridge when you come to it is the motto of champions,' I said, and that night I dreamt I went to Sara Laughs again. In that dream — in all the dreams I had that fall and winter — I am walking up the lane to the lodge. The lane is a two-mile loop through the woods with ends opening onto Route 68. It has a number at either end (Lane Forty-two, if it matters) in case you have to call in a fire, but no name.
Slide 30: Nor did Jo and I ever give it one, not e ven between ourselves. It is narrow, really just a double rut with timothy and witchgrass growing on the crown. When you drive in, you can hear that grass whispering like low voices against the undercarriage of your car or truck. I don't drive in the dream, though. I never drive. In these dreams I walk. The trees huddle in close on either side of the lane. The darkening sky overhead is little more than a slot. Soon I will be able to see the first peeping stars. Sunset is past. Crickets chirr. Loons cry on the lake. Small things — chipmunks, probably, or the occasional squirrel — rustle in the woods. Now I come to a dirt driveway sloping down the hill on my right. It is our driveway, marked with a little wooden sign which reads SARA LAUGHS. I stand at the head of it, but I don't go down. Below is the lodge. It's all logs and added-on wings, with a deck jutting out behind. Fourteen rooms in all, a ridiculous number of rooms. It should look ugly and awkward, but somehow it does not. There is a brave-dowager quality to Sara, the look of a lady pressing resolutely on toward her hundredth year, still taking pretty good strides in spite of her arthritic hips and gimpy old knees. The central section is the oldest, dating back to 1900 or so. Other sections were added in the thirties, forties, and sixties. Once it was a hunting lodge; for a brief period in the early seventies it was home to a small commune of transcendental hippies. These were lease or rental deals; the owners from the late forties until 1984 were the Hingermans, Darren and Marie . . . then Marie alone when Darren died in 1971. The only visible addition from our period of ownership is the tiny DSS dish mounted on the central roofpeak. That was Johanna's idea, and she never really got a chance to enjoy it. Beyond the house, the lake glimmers in the afterglow of sunset. The driveway, I see, is carpeted with brown pine needles and littered with fallen branches. The bushes which grow on either side of it have run wild, reaching out to one another like lovers across the narrowed gap which separates them. If you brought a car down here, the branches would scrape and unpleasantly against its sides. Below, I see, there's moss growing logs of the main house, and three large sunflowers with faces like have grown up through the boards of the little driveway-side. The overall feeling is not neglect, exactly, but forgottenness. There is a breath of breeze, and its coldness on my skin makes me that I have been sweating. I can smell pine — a smell which is sour and clean at the same time — and the faint but somehow smell of the lake. Dark Score is one of the cleanest, deepest in Maine. It was bigger until the late thirties, Marie Hingerman us; that was when Western Maine Electric, working hand in hand the mills and paper operations around Rumford, had gotten state to dam the Gessa River. Marie also showed us some charming photographs of white-frocked ladies and vested gentlemen in canoes — snaps were from the time of the First World War, she said, and to one of the young women, frozen forever on the rim of the with a dripping paddle upraised. 'That's my mother,' she said, the man she's threatening with the paddle is my father.' Loons crying, their voices like loss. Now I can see Venus in the dark-sky. Star light, star bright, wish I may, wish I might . . . in these I always wish for Johanna. With my wish made, I try to walk down the driveway. Of course I do. It’s my house, isn't it? Where else would I go but my house, now that dark and now that the stealthy rustling in the woods seems closer and somehow more purposeful? Where else can I go? It's dark, and it will be frightening to go into that dark place alone (suppose been left so long alone? suppose she's angry?), but I must. If the electricity's off, I'll light one of the hurricane lamps we keep in a kitchen cabinet. I can't go down. My legs won't move. It's as if my body knows something about the house down there that my brain does not. The breeze rises again, chilling gooseflesh out onto my skin, and I
Slide 31: wonder what I have done to get myself all sweaty like this. Have I been running? And if so, what have I been running toward? Or from? My hair is sweaty, too; it lies on my brow in an unpleasantly heavy clump. I raise my hand to brush it away and see there is a shallow cut, fairly recent, running across the back, just beyond the knuckles. Sometimes this cut is on my right hand, sometimes it's on the left. I think, If this is a dream, the details are good. Always that same thought: If this is a dream, the details are good. It's the absolute truth. They are a novelist's details . . . but in dreams, perhaps everyone is a novelist. How is one to know? Now Sara Laughs is only a dark hulk down below, and I realize I don't want to go down there, anyway. I am a man who has trained his mind to misbehave, and I can imagine too many things waiting for me inside. A rabid raccoon crouched in a corner of the kitchen. Bats in the bath-room — if disturbed they'll crowd the air around my cringing face, squeaking and fluttering against my cheeks with their dusty wings. Even one of William Denbrough's famous Creatures from Beyond the Universe, now hiding under the porch and watching me approach with glittering, pus-rimmed eyes. 'Well, I can't stay up h ere,' I say, but my legs won't move, and it seems I will be staying up here, where the driveway meets the lane; that I will be staying up here, like it or not. Now the rustling in the woods behind me sounds not like small animals (most of them would by then be nested or burrowed for the night, anyway) but approaching footsteps. I try to turn and see, but I can't even do that . . . . . . and that was where I usually woke up. The first thing I always did was to turn over, establishing my return to reality by demonstrating to myself that my body would once more obey my mind. Sometimes — most times, actually — I would find myself thinking Manderley, I have dreamt again of Manderley. There was something creepy about this (there's something creepy about any repeating dream, I think, about knowing your subconscious is digging obsessively at some object that won't be dislodged), but I would be lying if I didn't add that some part of me enjoyed the breathless summer calm in which the dream always wrapped me, and that part also enjoyed the sadness and foreboding I felt when I awoke. There was an exotic strangeness to the dream that was missing from my waking life, now that the road leading out of my imagination was so effectively blocked. The only time I remember being really frightened (and I must tell I don't completely trust any of these memories, because for so long they didn't seem to exist at all) was when I awoke one night speaking clearly into the dark of my bedroom: 'Something's behind me, don't let it get me, something in the woods, please don't let it get me.' wasn't the words themselves that frightened me so much as the tone in which they were spoken. It was the voice of a man on the raw edge of panic, and hardly seemed like my own voice at all. Two days before Christmas of 1997, I once more drove down to Fidelity where once more the bank manager escorted me to my safe-box in the fluorescent-lit catacombs. As we walked down the stairs he assured me (for the dozenth time, at least) that his wife was a huge fan of my work, she'd read all my books, couldn't get enough. For the dozenth time (at least) I replied that now I must get him in my clutches. He responded with his usual chuckle. I thought of this oft-repeated exchange as Banker's Communion. Mr. Quinlan inserted his key in Slot A and turned it. Then, as discreetly as a pimp who has conveyed a customer to a whore's crib, he left. I inserted my own key in Slot B, turned it, and opened the drawer. It very vast now. The one remaining manuscript box seemed almost to quail in
Slide 32: the far corner, like an abandoned puppy who somehow knows his sibs have been taken off and gassed. Promise was scrawled across the top in fat black letters. I could barely remember what the goddam story was about. I snatched that time-traveller from the eighties and slammed the box shut. Nothing left in there now but dust. Give me that, Jo had hissed in my dream — it was the first time I'd thought of that one in years. Give me that, it's my dust-catcher. Mr Quinlan, I'm finished,' I called. My voice sounded rough and unsteady to my own ears, but Quinlan seemed to sense nothing wrong . . . or perhaps he was just being discreet. I can't have been the only customer after all, who found his or her visits to this financial version of Forest Lawn emotionally distressful. 'I'm really going to read one of your books,' he said, dropping an involuntary little glance at the box I was holding (I suppose I could have brought a briefcase to put it in, but on those expeditions I never did). 'In fact, I think I'll put it on my list of New Year's resolutions.' 'You do that,' I said. 'You just do that, Mr. Quinlan.' 'Mark,' he said. 'Please.' He'd said this before, too. I had composed two letters, which I slipped into the manuscript box before setting out for Federal Express. Both had been written on my computer, which my body would let me use as long as I chose the Note Pad function. It was only opening Word Six that caused the storms to start. I never tried to compose a novel using the Note Pad function, understanding that if I did, I'd likely lose that option, too . . . not to mention my ability to play Scrabble and do crosswords on the machine. I had tried a couple of times to compose longhand, with spectacular lack of success. The problem wasn't what I had once heard described as 'screen shyness'; I had proved that to myself. One of the notes was to Harold, the other to Debra Weinstock, and both said pretty much the same thing: here's the new book, Helen's Promise, hope you like it as much as I do, if it seems a little rough it's because I had to work a lot of extra hours to finish it this soon, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Erin Go Bragh, trick or treat, hope someone gives you a fucking pony. I stood for almost an hour in a line of shuffling, bitter-eyed late mailers (Christmas is such a carefree, low-pressure time — that's one of the things I love about it), with Helen's Promise under my left arm and a paperback copy of Nelson DeMille's The Charm School in my right hand. I read almost fifty pages before entrusting my final unpublished novel to a harried-looking clerk. When I wished her a Merry Christmas she shuddered and said nothing.
Slide 33: CHAPTER FOUR The phone was ringing when I walked in my front door. It was Frank asking me if I'd like to join him for Christmas. Join them, as matter of fact; all of his brothers and their families were coming. I opened my mouth to say no — the last thing on earth I needed was a Irish Christmas with everybody drinking whiskey and waxing sentimental about Jo while perhaps two dozen snotcaked rugrats crawled around the floor — and heard myself saying I'd come. Frank sounded as surprised as I felt, but honestly delighted. 'Fantastic!' He cried. 'When can you get here?' I was in the hall, my galoshes dripping on the tile, and from where I standing I could look through the arch and into the living room. There was no Christmas tree; I hadn't bothered with one since Jo died. The room looked both ghastly and much too big to me . . . a roller rink furnished in Early American. 'I've been out running errands,' I said. 'How about I throw some in a bag, get back into the car, and come south while the still blowing warm air?' 'Tremendous,' Frank said without a moment's hesitation. 'We can have us a sane bachelor evening before the Sons and Daughters of East Malden start arriving. I'm pouring you a drink as soon as I get off the telephone.' 'Then I guess I better get rolling,' I said. That was hands down the best holiday since Johanna died. The only good holiday, I guess. For four days I was an honorary Arlen. I drank too much, toasted Johanna's memory too many times . . . and knew, somehow, that she'd be pleased to know I was doing it. Two babies spit up on me, one dog got i to bed with me in the middle of the night, and Nicky Arlen's sister-in-law made a bleary pass n at me on the night after Christmas, when she caught me alone in the kitchen making a turkey sandwich. I kissed her because she clearly wanted to be kissed, and an adventurous (or perhaps 'mischievous' is the word I want) hand groped me for a moment in a place where no one other than myself had groped in almost three and a half years. It was a shock, but not an entirely unpleasant one. It went no further — in a houseful of Arlens and with Susy Donahue not quite officially divorced yet (like me, she was an honorary Arlen that Christmas), it hardly could have done — but I decided it was time to leave . . . unless, that was, I wanted to go driving at high speed down a narrow street that most likely ended in a brick wall. I left on the twenty-seventh, very glad that I had come, and I gave Frank a fierce goodbye hug as we stood by my car. For four days I hadn't thought at all about how there was now only dust in my safe-deposit box at Fidelity Union, and for four nights I had slept straight through until eight in the morning, sometimes waking up with a sour stomach and a hangover headache, but never once in the middle of the night with the thought Manderley, I have dreamt again of Manderley going through my mind. I got back to Derry feeling refreshed and renewed. The first day of 1998 dawned clear and cold and still and beautiful. I got up, showered, then stood at the bedroom window, drinking coffee. It suddenly occurred to me — with all the simple, powerful reality of ideas like up is over your head and down is under your feet — that I could write
Slide 34: now. It was a new year, something had changed, and I could write now if I wanted to. The rock had rolled away. I went into the study, sat down at the computer, and turned it on. My heart was beating normally, there was no sweat on my forehead or the back of my neck, and my hands were warm. I pulled down the main menu, the one you get when you click on the apple, and there was my Word Six. I clicked on it. The pen-and-parchment logo came up, and when it did I suddenly couldn't breathe. It was as if iron bands had clamped around my chest. I pushed back from the desk, gagging and clawing at the round neck of the sweatshirt I was wearing. The wheels of my office chair caught on little throw rug — one of Jo's finds in the last year of her life — and I tipped right over backward. My head banged the floor and I saw a fountain of bright sparks go whizzing across my field of vision. I suppose I was lucky to black out, but I think my real luck on New Year's Morning of 1998 was that I tipped over the way I did. If I'd only pushed back from the desk so that I was still looking at the logo — and at the hideous blank screen followed it — I think I might have choked to death. 'When I staggered to my feet, I was at least able to breathe. My throat the size of a straw, and each inhale made a weird screaming sound, but I was breathing. I lurched into the bathroom and threw up in the basin with such force that vomit splashed the mirror. I grayed out and my knees buckled. This time it was my brow I struck, thunking it against the lip of the basin, and although the back of my head didn't bleed there was a very respectable lump there by noon, though), my forehead did, a little. This latter bump also left a purple mark, which I of course lied about, telling folks who asked that I'd run into the bathroom door in the middle of the night, silly me, that'll teach a fella to get up at two A.M. without turning on a lamp. ,'When I regained complete consciousness (if there is such a state), I was curled up on the floor. I got up, disinfected the cut on my forehead, and sat on the lip of the tub with my head lowered to my knees until I felt confident enough to stand up. I sat there for fifteen minutes, I guess, and in that space of time I decided that barring some miracle, my career was over. Harold would scream in pain and Debra would moan in disbelief, but what could they do? Send out the Publication Police? me with the Book-of-the-Month-Club Gestapo? Even if they could, what difference would it make? You couldn't get sap out of a brick or blood out of a stone. Barring some miraculous recovery, my life as a writer was over. And if it is? I asked myself. What's on for the back forty, Mike? You can play a lot of Scrabble in forty years, go on a lot of Crossword Cruises, drink a lot of whiskey. But is that enough? What else are you going to put on your back forty? I didn't want to think about that, not then. The next forty years could take care of themselves; I would be happy just to get through New Year's Day of 1998. When I felt I had myself under control, I went back into my study, shuffled to the computer with my eyes resolutely on my feet, felt around for the right button, and turned off the machine. You can damage the program shutting down like that without putting it away, but under the circumstances, I hardly thought it mattered. That night I once again dreamed I was walking at twilight on Lane Forty-two, which leads to Sara Laughs; once more I wished on the evening star as the loons cried on the lake, and once more I sensed something in the woods behind me, edging ever closer. It seemed my Christmas holiday was over. That was a hard, cold winter, lots of snow and in February a flu epidemic that did for an awful lot of Derry's old folks. It took them the way a hard wind will take old trees after an ice storm. It missed me completely. I hadn't so much as a case of the sniffles that winter.
Slide 35: In March, I flew to Providence and took part in Will Weng's New England Crossword Challenge. I placed fourth and won fifty bucks. I framed the uncashed check and hung it in the living room. Once upon a time, most of my framed Certificates of Triumph (Jo's phrase; all the good phrases are Jo's phrases, it seems to me) went up on my office walls, but by March of 1998, I wasn't going in there very much. When I wanted to play Scrabble against the computer or do a tourney-level crossword puzzle, I used the Powerbook and sat at the kitchen table. I remember sitting there one day, opening the Powerbook's main menu, going down to the crossword puzzles, then dropping the cursor two or three items further, until it had highlighted my old pal, Word Six. What swept over me then wasn't frustration or impotent, balked fury (I'd experienced a lot of both since finishing All the Way from the Top), but sadness and simple longing. Looking at the Word Six icon was suddenly like looking at the pictures of Jo I kept in my wallet. Studying those, I'd sometimes think that I would sell my immortal soul in order have her back again . . . and on that day in March, I thought I would sell my soul to be able to write a story again. Go on and try it, then, a voice whispered. Maybe things have changed. Except that nothing had changed, and I knew it. So instead of opening Word Six, I moved it across to the trash barrel in the lower righthand corner of the screen, and dropped it in. Goodbye, old pal. Weinstock called a lot that winter, mostly with good news. Early in March she reported that Helen's Promise had been picked as one half of the Literary Guild's main selection for August, the other half a legal thriller by Steve Martini, another veteran of the eight-to-fifteen segment of the Times bestseller list. And my British publisher, Debra, loved Helen, was sure it would be my 'breakthrough book.' (My British sales had always lagged.) 'Promise is sort of a new direction for you,' Debra said. 'Wouldn't you say?' 'I kind of thought it was,' I confessed, and wondered how Debbie respond if I told her my newdirection book had been written a dozen years ago. 'It's got . . . I don't know . . . a kind of maturity.' 'Thanks.' 'Mike? I think the connection's going. You sound muffled.' Sure I did. I was biting down on the side of my hand to keep from howling with laughter. Now, cautiously, I took it out of my mouth and examined the bite-marks. 'Better?' 'Yes, lots. So what's the new one about? Give me a hint.' 'You know the answer to that one, kiddo.' Debra laughed. ''You'll have to read the book to find out, Josephine,'' she said. 'Right?' 'Yessum.' 'Well, keep it coming. Your pals at Putnam are crazy about the way you're taking it to the next level.' I said goodbye, I hung up the telephone, and then I laughed wildly for about ten minutes. Laughed until I was crying. That's me, though. Always taking it to the next level. During this period I also agreed to do a phone interview w a Newsweek writer who was putting ith together a piece on The New American Gothic (whatever that was, other than a phrase which might sell a few magazines), and to sit for a Publishers Weekly interview which would appear just before publication of Helen's Promise. I agreed to these because they both sounded softball, the sort of interviews you could do over the phone while you read your mail. And Debra was delighted because I ordinarily say no to all the publicity. I hate that part of the job and always have,
Slide 36: especially the hell of the live TV chat-show, where nobody's ever read your goddam book and the first question is always 'Where in the world do you get those wacky ideas?' The publicity process is like going to a sushi bar where you're the sushi, and it was great to get past it this time with the feeling that I'd been able to give Debra some good news she could take to her bosses. 'Yes,' she could say, 'he's still being a booger about publicity, but I got him to do a couple of things.' All through this my dreams of Sara Laughs were going on — not every night but every second or third night, with me never thinking of them in the daytime. I did my crosswords, I bought myself an acoustic steel guitar and started learning how to play it (I was never going to be invited to tour with Patty Loveless or Alan Jackson, however), I scanned each day's bloated obituaries in the Derry News for names that I knew. I was pretty much dozing on my feet, in other words. What brought all this to an end was a call from Harold Oblowski not more than three days after Debra's book-club call. It was storming out-side — a vicious snow-changing-over-to-sleet event that proved to be the last and biggest blast of the winter. By mid-evening the power would be off all over Derry, but when Harold called at five P.M., things were just getting cranked up. 'I just had a very good conversation with your editor,' Harold said. 'A very enlightening, very energizing conversation. Just got off the in fact.' 'Oh?' 'Oh indeed. There's a feeling at Putnam, Michael, that this latest of yours may have a positive effect on your sales position in the market. It's very strong.' 'Yes,' I said, 'I'm taking it to the next level.' 'Huh?' 'I'm just blabbing, Harold. Go on.' 'Well . . . Helen Nearing's a great lead character, and Skate is your best villain ever.' I said nothing. 'Debra raised the possibility of making Helen's Promise the opener of a three-book contract. A very lucrative three-book contract. All without prompting from me. Three is one more than any publisher has wanted to commit to 'til now. I mentioned nine million dollars, three per book, in other words, expecting her to laugh . . . but an agent has to start somewhere, and I always choose the highest ground I can find. I think I must have Roman military officers somewhere back in my family tree.' Ethiopian rug-merchants, more like it, I thought, but didn't say. I felt the way you do when the dentist has gone a little heavy on the Novocain and flooded your lips and tongue as well as your bad tooth and the patch of gum surrounding it. If I tried to talk, I'd probably only flap and spread spit. Harold was almost purring. A three-book contract for the new mature Michael Noonan. Tall tickets, baby. This time I didn't feel like laughing. This time I felt like screaming. Harold went on, happy and oblivious. Harold didn't know the bookberry-tree had died. Harold didn't know the new Mike Noonan had cataclysmic shortness of breath and projectile-vomiting fits every time he tried to write. 'You want to hear how she came back to me, Michael?' 'Lay it on me.' 'Well, nine's obviously high, but it's as good a place to start as any. We feel this new book is a big step forward for him.' This is extraordinary. Extraordinary. Now, I haven't given anything away, wanted to talk to you first, of course, but I think we're looking at seven-point-five, minimum. In fact — ' 'No.'
Slide 37: He paused a moment. Long enough for me to realize I was gripping the phone so h it hurt my ard hand. I had to make a conscious effort to relax my grip. 'Mike, if you'll just hear me out — ' 'I don't need to hear you out. I don't want to talk about a new contract.' 'Pardon me for disagreeing, but there'll never be a better time. Think about it, for Christ's sake. We're talking top dollar here. If you wait until after Helen's Promise is published, I can't guarantee that the same offer — ' 'I know you can't,' I said. 'I don't want guarantees, I don't want offers, I don't want to talk contract.' 'You don't need to shout, Mike, I can hear you.' Had I been shouting? Yes, I suppose I had been. 'Are you dissatisfied with Putnam's? I think Debra would be very distressed to hear that. I also think Phyllis Grann would do damned near anything to address any concerns you might have.' Are you sleeping with Debra, Harold? I thought, and all at once it seemed like the most logical idea in the world — that dumpy, fiftyish, balding little Harold Oblowski was making it with my blonde, aristocratic, Smith-educated editor. Are you sleeping with her, do you talk about my future while you're lying in bed together in a room at the Plaza? Are the pair of you trying to figure how many golden eggs you can get out of this tired old goose before you finally wring its neck and turn it into pâté? Is that what you're up to? 'Harold, I can't talk about this now, and I won't talk about this now.' 'What's wrong? Why are you so upset? I thought you'd be pleased. Hell, I thought you'd be over the fucking moon.' 'There's nothing wrong. It's just a bad time for me to talk long-term contract. You'll have to pardon me, Harold. I have something coming out of the oven.' 'Can we at least discuss this next w — ' 'No,' I said, and hung up. I think it was the first time in my adult life I'd hung up on someone who wasn't a telephone salesman. I had nothing coming out of the oven, of course, and I was too upset to think about putting something in. I went into the living room instead, poured myself a short whiskey, and sat down in front of the TV I sat there for almost four hours, looking at everything and seeing nothing. Outside, the storm continued cranking up. Tomorrow there would be trees down all over Derry and the world would look like an ice sculpture. At quarter past nine the power went out, came back on for thirty seconds or so, then went out and stayed out. I took this as a suggestion to stop thinking about Harold's useless contract and how Jo would have chortled the idea of nine million dollars. I got up, unplugged the blacked-out TV so it wouldn't come blaring on at two in the morning (I needn't have worried; the power was off in Derry for nearly two days), and went upstairs. I dropped my clothes at the foot of the bed, crawled in without even bothering to brush my teeth, and was asleep in less than five minutes. I don't how long after that it was that the nightmare came. It was the last dream I had in what I now think of as my 'Manderley series,' the culminating dream. It was made even worse, I suppose, by unrelievable blackness to which I awoke. It started like the others. I'm walking up the lane, listening to the crickets and the loons, looking mostly at the darkening slot of sky overhead. I reach the driveway, and here something has changed; someone has put a little sticker on the SARA LAUGHS sign. I lean closer and see it's a radio station sticker. WBLM, it says. 102.9, PORTLAND'S ROCK AND ROLL BLIMP.
Slide 38: From the sticker I look back up into the sky, and there is Venus. I wish her as I always do, I wish for Johanna with the dank and vaguely smell of the lake in my nose. Something lumbers in the woods, rattling old leaves and breaking a branch. It sounds big. Better get down there, a voice in my head tells me. Something has taken out a contract on you, Michael. A three-book contract, and that's the worst kind. I can never move, I can only stand here. I've got walker's block. But that's just talk. I can walk. This time I can walk. I am delighted. I have had a major breakthrough. In the dream I think This changes everything! This changes everything! Down the driveway I walk, deeper and deeper into the clean but sour smell of pine, stepping over some of the fallen branches, kicking others out of the way. I raise my hand to brush the damp hair off my forehead and see the little scratch running across the back of it. I stop to look at it, curious. No time for that, the dream-voice says. Get down there. You've got a book to write. I can't write, I reply. That part's over. I'm on the back forty now. No, the voice says. There is something relentless about it that scares me. You had writer's walk, not writer's block, and as you can see, it's gone. Now hurry up and get down there. I'm afraid, I tell the voice. Afraid of what? Well . . . what if Mrs. Danvers is down there? The voice doesn't answer. It knows I'm not afraid of Rebecca de Winter's housekeeper, she's just a character in an old book, nothing but a bag of bones. So I begin walking again. I have no choice, it seems, but at every step my terror increases, and by the time I'm halfway down to the shadowy sprawling bulk of the log house, fear has sunk into my bones like fever. Something is wrong here, something is all twisted up. I'll run away, I think. I'll run back the way I came, like the gingerbread man I'll run, run all the way back to Derry, if that's what it takes, and I'll never come here anymore. Except I can hear slobbering breath behind me in the growing gloom, and padding footsteps. The thing in the woods is now the thing in the driveway. It's right behind me. If I turn around the sight of it will knock the sanity out of my head in a single roundhouse slap. Something with red eyes, something slumped and hungry. The house is my only hope of safety. I walk on. The crowding bushes clutch like hands. In the light of a rising moon (the moon has never risen before in this dream, but I have never stayed in it this long before), the rustling leaves look like sardonic faces. I see winking eyes and smiling mouths. Below me are the black windows of the house and I know that there will be no power when I get inside, the storm has knocked the power out, I will flick the lightswitch up and down, up and down, until something reaches out and takes my wrist and pulls me like a lover deeper into the dark. I am three quarters of the way down the driveway now. I can see the railroad-tie steps leading down to the lake, and I can see the float out there on the water, a black square in a track of moonlight. Bill Dean has put it out. I can also see an oblong something lying at the place where driveway ends at the stoop. There has never been such an object before. What can it be? Another two or three steps, and I know. It's a coffin, the one Frank Arlen dickered for . . . because, he said, the mortician was trying to stick it to me. It's Jo's coffin, and lying on its side with the top partway open, enough for me to see it's empty. I think I want to scream. I think I mean to t rn around and run back up the driveway — I will u take my chances with the thing behind me. But before I can, the back door of Sara Laughs opens, and a terrible figure darting out into the growing darkness. It is human, this figure, and yet it's not.
Slide 39: It is a crumpled white thing with baggy arms upraised. There is no face where its face should be, and yet it is shrieking in a glottal, loonlike voice. It must be Johanna. She was able to escape her coffin, her winding shroud. She is all tangled up in it. How hideously speedy this creature is! It doesn't drift as one imagines ghosts drifting, but races across the stoop toward the driveway. It has been waiting down here during all the dreams when I had been frozen, and now that I have finally been able to walk down, it means to have me. I'll scream when it wraps me in its silk arms, and I will scream when I smell its rotting, bug-raddled flesh and see its dark staring eyes through the fine weave of the cloth. I will scream as the sanity leaves my mind forever. I will scream . . . but there is no one out here to hear me. Only the loons will hear me. I have come again to Manderley, and this time I will never leave. The shrieking white thing reached for me and I woke up on the floor of crying out in a cracked, horrified voice and slamming my head repeatedly against something. How long before I finally realized I was no longer asleep, that I wasn't at Sara Laughs? How long before I realized that I had fallen out of bed at some point and had crawled across the room in my sleep, that I was on my hands and knees in a corner, butting my head against the place where the walls came together, doing it over and over again like a lunatic in an asylum? I didn't know, couldn't with the power out and the bedside clock dead. I know that at first I couldn't move out of the corner because it felt safer than the wider room would have done, and I know that for a long time the dream's force held me even after I woke up (mostly, I imagine, because I couldn't turn on a light and dispel its power). I was afraid that if I crawled out of my corner, the white thing would burst out of my bathroom, shrieking its dead shriek, eager to finish what it had started. I know I was shivering all over, and that I was cold and wet from the waist down, because my bladder had let go. I stayed there in the corner, gasping and wet, staring into the darkness, wondering if you could have a nightmare powerful enough in its imagery to drive you insane. I thought then (and think now) that I almost found out on that night in March. Finally I felt able to leave the corner. Halfway across the floor I pulled off my wet pajama pants, and when I did that, I got disoriented. What followed was a miserable and surreal five minutes in which I crawled aimlessly back and forth in my familiar bedroom, bumping into stuff and moaning each time I hit something with a blind, flailing hand. Each thing I touched at first seemed like that awful white thing. Nothing I touched felt like anything I knew. With the reassuring green numerals of the bedside clock gone and my sense of direction temporarily lost, I could have been crawling around a mosque in Addis Ababa. At last I ran shoulder-first into the bed. I stood up, yanked the pillowcase off the extra pillow, and wiped my groin and upper legs with it. Then I crawled back into bed, pulled the blankets up, and lay there shivering, listening to the steady tick of sleet on the windows. There was no sleep for me the rest of that night, and the dream didn't fade as dreams usually do upon waking. I lay on my side, the shivers slowly subsiding, thinking of her coffin there in the driveway, thinking that it made a kind of mad sense — Jo had loved Sara, and if she were haunt anyplace, it would be there. But why would she want to hurt me? Why would my Jo ever want to hurt me? I could think of no reason. Somehow the time passed, and there came a moment when I realized the air had turned a dark shade of gray; the shapes of the furniture in it like sentinels in fog. That was a little better. That was more it. I would light the kitchen woodstove, I decided, and make strong coffee. Begin the work of getting this behind me.
Slide 40: I swung my legs out of bed and raised my hand to brush my sweat-hair off my forehead. I froze with the hand in front of my eyes. I must have scraped it while I was crawling, disoriented, in the dark and to find my way back to bed. There was a shallow, clotted cut across the back, just below the knuckles.
Slide 41: CHAPTER FIVE Once, when I was sixteen, a plane went supersonic directly over my head. I was walking in the woods when it happened, thinking of some story I was going to write, perhaps, or how great it would be if Doreen Fournier weakened some Friday night and let me take off her panties while we were parked at the end of Cushman Road. In any case I was travelling far roads in my own mind, and when that boom went off, I was caught totally by surprise. I went flat on the leafy ground with my hands over my head and my heart drumming crazily, sure I'd reached the end of my life (and while I was still a virgin). In my forty years, that was the only thing which equalled the final dream of the 'Manderley series' for utter terror. I lay on the ground, waiting for the hammer to fall, and when thirty seconds or so passed and no hammer did fall, I began to realize it had just been some jet-jockey from the Brunswick Naval Air Station, too eager to wait until he was out over the Atlantic before going to Mach 1. But, holy shit, who ever could have guessed that it would be so loud? I got slowly to my feet and as I stood there with my heart finally slowing down, I realized I wasn't the only thing that had been scared witless by that sudden clear-sky boom. For the first time in my memory, the little patch of woods behind our house in Prout's Neck was entirely silent. I stood there in a dusty bar of sunlight, crumbled leaves all over my tee-shirt and jeans, holding my breath, listening. I had never heard a silence like it. Even on a cold day in January, the woods would have been full of conversation. At last a finch sang. There were two or three seconds of silence, and then a jay replied. Another two or three seconds went by, and then a crow added his two cents' worth. A woodpecker began to hammer for grubs. A chipmunk bumbled through some underbrush on my left. A minute after I had stood up, the woods were fully alive with little noises again; it was back to business as usual, and I continued with my own. I never forgot that unexpected boom, though, or the deathly silence which followed it. I thought of that June day often in the wake of the nightmare, and there was nothing so remarkable in that. Things had changed, somehow, or could change . . . but first comes silence while we assure ourselves that we are still unhurt and that the danger — if there was danger — is gone. Derry was shut down for most of the following week, anyway. Ice and high winds caused a great deal of damage during the storm, and a sudden twenty-degree plunge in the temperature afterward made the digging out hard and the cleanup slow. Added to that, the atmosphere after a March storm is always dour and pessimistic; we get them up this way every year (and two or three in April for good measure, if we're not lucky), but we never seem to expect them. Every time we get clouted, we take it personally. On a day toward the end of that week, the weather finally started to break. I took advantage, going out for a cup of coffee and a mid-morning pastry at the little restaurant three doors down from the Rite Aid where Johanna did her last errand. I was sipping and chewing and working the newspaper crossword when someone asked, 'Could I share your booth, Mr. Noonan? It's pretty crowded in here today.'
Slide 42: I looked up and saw an old man that I knew but couldn't quite place. 'Ralph Roberts,' he said. 'I volunteer down at the Red Cross. Me and my wife, Lois.' 'Oh, okay, sure,' I said. I give blood at the Red Cross every six weeks or so. Ralph Roberts was one of the old parties who passed out juice and cookies afterward, telling you not to get up or make any sudden movements if you felt woozy. 'Please, sit down.' He looked at my paper, folded open to the crossword and lying in a patch of sun, as he slid into the booth. 'Don't you find that doing the crossword in the Derry News is sort of like striking out the pitcher in a baseball game?' he asked. I laughed and nodded. 'I do it for the same reason folks climb Mount Everest, Mr. Roberts . . . because it's there. Only with the News crossword, no one ever falls off.' 'Call me Ralph. Please.' 'Okay. And I'm Mike.' 'Good.' He grinned, revealing teeth that were crooked and a little yellow, but all his own. 'I like getting to the first names. It's like being able to take off your tie. Was quite a little cap of wind we had, wasn't it?' 'Yes,' I said, 'but it's warming up nicely now.' The thermometer had made one of its nimble March leaps, climbing from twenty-five degrees the night before to fifty that morning. Better than the rise in air-temperature, the sun was warm again on your face. It was that warmth that had coaxed me out of the house. 'Spring'll get here, I guess. Some years it gets a little lost, but it always seems to find its way back home.' He sipped his coffee, then set the cup down. 'Haven't seen you at the Red Cross lately.' 'I'm recycling,' I said, but that was a fib; I'd come eligible to give another pint two weeks ago. The reminder card was up on the refrigerator. It had just slipped my mind. 'Next week, for sure.' 'I only mention it because I know you're an A, and we can always use that.' 'Save me a couch.' 'Count on it. Everything going all right? I only ask because you look tired. If it's insomnia, I can sympathize, believe me.' He did have the look of an insomniac, I thought — too wide around the eyes, somehow. But he was also a man in his mid- to late seventies, and I don't think anyone gets that far without showing it. Stick around a little while, and life maybe only jabs at your cheeks and eyes. Stick around a long while and you end up looking like Jake La Motta after a hard fifteen. I opened my mouth to say what I always do when someone asks me if I'm all right, then wondered why I always felt I had to pull that tiresome Marlboro Man shit, just who I was trying to fool. What did I think would happen if I told the guy who gave me a chocolate-chip cookie down at the Red Cross after the nurse took the needle out of my arm that I wasn't feeling a hundred percent? Earthquakes? Fire and flood? Shit. 'No,' I said, 'I really haven't been feeling so great, Ralph.' 'Flu? It's been going around.' 'Nah. The flu missed me this time, actually. And I've been sleeping all right.' Which was true — there had been no recurrence of the Sara Laughs dream in either the normal or the high-octane version. 'I think I've just got the blues.' 'Well, you ought to take a vacation,' he said, then sipped his coffee. When he looked up at me again, he frowned and set his cup down. 'What? Is something wrong?' No, I thought of saying. You were just the first bird to sing into the silence, Ralph, that's all. 'No, nothing wrong,' I said, and then, because I sort of wanted to see how the words tasted coming out of my own mouth, I repeated them. 'A vacation.' 'Ayuh,' he said, smiling. 'People do it all the time.'
Slide 43: People do it all the time. He was right about that; even people who couldn't strictly afford to went on vacation. When they got tired. When they got all balled up in their own shit. When the world was too much with them, getting and spending. I could certainly afford a vacation, and I could certainly take the time off from work — what work, ha-ha? — and yet I'd needed the Red Cross cookie-man to point out what should have been self-evident to a college-educated guy like me: that I hadn't been on an actual vacation since Jo and I had gone to Bermuda, the winter before she died. My particular grindstone was no longer turning, but I had kept my nose to it all the same. It wasn't until that summer, when I read Ralph Roberts's obituary in the News (he was struck by a car), that I fully realized how much I owed him. That advice was better than any glass of orange juice I ever got after giving blood, let me tell you. When I left the restaurant, I didn't go home but tramped over half of the damned town, the section of newspaper with the partly completed crossword puzzle in it clamped under one arm. I walked until I was chilled in spite of the warming temperatures. I didn't think about anything, and yet I thought about everything. It was a special kind of thinking, the sort I'd always done when I was getting close to writing a book, and although I hadn't thought that way in years, I fell into it easily and naturally, as if I had never been away. It's like some guys with a big truck have pulled up in your driveway and are moving things into your basement. I can't explain it any better than that. You can't see what these things are because they're all wrapped up in padded quilts, but you don't need to see them. It's furniture, everything you need to make your house a home, make it just right, just the way you wanted it. When the guys have hopped back into their truck and driven away, you go down to the basement and walk around (the way I went walking around Derry that late morning, slopping up hill and down dale in my old galoshes), touching a padded curve here, a padded angle there. Is this one a sofa? Is that' one a dresser? It doesn't matter. Everything is here, the movers didn't forget a thing, and although you'll have to get it all upstairs yourself (straining your poor old back in the process, more often than not), that's okay. The important thing is that the delivery was complete. This time I thought — hoped — the delivery truck had brought t e stuff I needed for the back h forty: the years I might have to spend in a No Writing Zone. To the cellar door they had come, and they had knocked politely, and when after several months there was still no answer, they had finally fetched a battering ram. HEY BUDDY, HOPE THE NOISE DIDN'T SCARE YOU TOO BAD, SORRY ABOUT THE DOOR! I didn't care about the door; I cared about the furniture. Any pieces broken or missing? I didn't think so. I thought all I had to do was get it upstairs, pull off the furniture pads, and put it where it belonged. On my way back home, I passed The Shade, Derry's charming little revival movie house, which has prospered in spite of (or perhaps because of) the video revolution. This month they were showing classic SF from the fifties, but April was dedicated to Humphrey Bogart, Jo's all-time favorite. I stood under the marquee for several moments, studying one of the Coming Attractions posters. Then I went home, picked a travel agent pretty much at random from the phone book, and told the guy I wanted to go to Key Largo. Key West, you mean, the guy said. No, I told him, I mean Key Largo, just like in the movie with Bogie and Bacall. Three weeks. Then I rethought that. I was wealthy, I was on my own, and I was retired. What was this 'three weeks' shit? Make it six, I said. Find me a cottage or something. Going to be expensive, he said. I told him I didn't care. When I came back to Derry, it would be spring. In the meantime, I had some furniture to unwrap.
Slide 44: I was enchanted with Key Largo for the first month and bored out of my mind for the last two weeks. I stayed, though, because boredom is good. People with a high tolerance for boredom can get a lot of thinking done. I ate about a billion shrimp, drank about a thousand margaritas, and read twenty-three John D. MacDonald novels by actual count. I burned, peeled, and finally tanned. I bought a long-billed cap with PARROTHEAD printed on it in bright green thread. I walked the same stretch of beach until I knew everybody by first name. And I unwrapped furniture. A lot of it I didn't like, but there was no doubt that it all fit the house. I thought about Jo and our life together. I thought about saying to her that no one was ever going to confuse Being Two with Look Homeward, Angel. 'You aren't going to pull a lot of frustratedartist crap on me, are you, Noonan?' she had replied . . . and during my time on Key Largo, those words kept coming back, always in Jo's voice: crap, frustrated-artist crap, all that fucking schoolboy frustrated-artist crap. I thought about her long red woods apron, coming to me with a hatful of black trumpet mushrooms, laughing and triumphant: 'Nobody on the TR eats better than the Noonans tonight!' she'd cried. I thought of her painting her toenails, bent over between her own thighs in the way only women doing that particular piece of business can manage. I thought of her throwing a book at me because I laughed at some new haircut. I thought of her trying to learn how to play a breakdown on her banjo and of how she looked braless in a thin sweater. I thought of her crying and laughing and angry. I thought of her telling me it was crap, all that frustrated-artist crap. And I thought about the dreams, especially the culminating dream. I could do that easily, because it never faded as the more ordinary ones do. The final Sara Laughs dream and my very first wet dream (coming upon a girl lying naked in a hammock and eating a plum) are the only two that remain perfectly clear to me, year after year; the rest are either hazy fragments or completely forgotten. There were a great many clear details to the Sara dreams — the loons, the crickets, the evening star and my wish upon it, just to name a few — but I thought most of those things were just verisimilitude. Scene-setting, if you will. As such, they could be dismissed from my considerations. That left three major elements, three large pieces of furniture to be unwrapped. As I sat on the beach, watching the sun go down between my sandy toes, I didn't think you had to be a shrink to see how those three things went together. In the Sara dreams, the major elements were the woods behind me, the house below me, and Michael Noonan himself, frozen in the middle. It's getting dark and there's danger in the woods. It will be frightening to go to the house below, perhaps because it's been empty so long, but I never doubt I must go there; scary or not, it's the only shelter I have. Except I can't do it. I can't move. I've got writer's walk. In the nightmare I am fnally able to go toward shelter, only the shelter proves false. Proves more i dangerous than I had ever expected in my . . . well, yes, in my wildest dreams. My dead wife rushes out, screaming and still tangled in her shroud, to attack me. Even five weeks ater and almost three l thousand miles from Derry, remembering that speedy white thing with its baggy arms would make me shiver and look back over my shoulder. But was it Johanna? I didn't really know, did I? The thing was all wrapped up. The coffin looked like the one in which she had been buried, true, but that might just be misdirection. Writer's walk, writer's block. I can't write, I told the voice in the dream. The voice says I can. The voice says the writer's block is gone, and I believe it because the writer's walk is gone, I'm finally headed down the driveway,
Slide 45: going to shelter. I'm afraid, though. Even before the shapeless white thing makes its appearance, I'm terrified. I say it's Mrs. Danvers I'm afraid of, but that's just my dreaming mind getting Sara Laughs and Manderley all mixed up. I'm afraid of — 'I'm afraid of writing,' I heard myself saying out loud. 'I'm afraid to even try.' This was the night before I finally flew back to Maine, and I was half-past sober, going on drunk. By the end of my vacation, I was drinking a lot of evenings. 'It's not the block that scares me, it's undoing the block. I'm really fucked, boys and girls. I'm fucked big-time.' Fucked or not, I had an idea I'd finally reached the heart of the matter. I was afraid of undoing the block, maybe afraid of picking up the strands of my life and going on without Jo. Yet some deep part of my mind believed I must do it; that's what the menacing noises behind me in the woods were about. And belief counts for a lot. Too much, maybe, especially if you're imaginative. When an imaginative person gets into mental trouble, the line between seeming and being has a way of disappearing. Things in the woods, yes, sir. I had one of them right there in my hand as I was thinking these things. I lifted my drink, holding it toward the western sky so that the setting sun seemed to be burning in the glass. I was drinking a lot, and maybe that was okay on Key Largo — hell, people were supposed to drink a lot on vacation, it was almost the law — but I'd been drinking too much even before I left. The kind of drinking that could get out of hand in no time at all. The kind that could get a man in trouble. Things in the woods, and the potentially safe place guarded by a scary bugbear that was not my wife, but perhaps my wife's memory. It made sense, because Sara Laughs had always been Jo's favorite place on earth. That thought led to another, one that made me swing my legs over the side of the chaise I'd been reclining on and sit up in excitement. Sara Laughs had also been the place where the ritual had begun . . . champagne, last line, and the all-important benediction: Well, then, that's all right, isn't it? Did I want things to be all right again? Did I truly want that? A month or a year before I mightn't have been sure, but now I was. The answer was yes. I wanted to move on — let go of my dead wife, rehab my heart, move on. But to do that, I'd have to go back. Back to the log house. Back to Sara Laughs. 'Yeah,' I said, and my body broke out in gooseflesh. 'Yeah, you got it.' So why not? The question made me feel as stupid as Ralph Roberts's observation that I needed a vacation. If I needed to go back to Sara Laughs now that my vacation was over, indeed why not? It might be a little scary the first night or two, a hangover from my final dream, but just being there might dissolve the dream faster. And (this last thought I allowed in only one humble corner of my conscious mind) something might happen with my writing. It wasn't likely . . . but it wasn't impossible, either. Barring a miracle, hadn't that been my thought on New Year's Day as I sat on the rim of the tub, holding a damp washcloth to the cut on my forehead? Yes. Barring a miracle. Sometimes blind people fall down, knock their heads, and regain their sight. Sometimes maybe cripples are able to throw their crutches away when they get to the top of the church steps. I had eight or nine months before Harold and Debra started really bugging me for the next novel. I decided to spend the time at Sara Laughs. It would take me a little while to tie things up in Derry, and awhile for Bill Dean to get the house on the lake ready for a year-round resident, but I could be down there by the Fourth of July, easily. I decided that was a good date to shoot for, not just the birthday of our country, but pretty much the end of bug season in western Maine.
Slide 46: By the day I packed up my vacation gear (the John D. MacDonald paperbacks I left for the cabin's next inhabitant), shaved a week's worth of stubble off a face so tanned it no longer looked like my own to me, and flew back to Maine, I was decided: I'd go back to the place my subconscious mind had identified as shelter against the deepening dark; I'd go back even though my mind had also suggested that doing so would not be without risks. I would not go back expecting Sara to be Lourdes . . . but I would allow myself to hope, and when I saw the evening star peeping out over the lake for the first time, I would allow myself to wish on it. Only one thing didn't fit into my neat deconstruction of the Sara dreams, and because I couldn't explain it, I tried to ignore it. I didn't have much luck, though; part of me was still a writer, I guess, and a writer is a man who has taught his mind to misbehave. It was the cut on the back of my hand. That cut had been in all the dreams, I would swear it had . . . and then it had actually appeared. You didn't get that sort of shit in the works of Dr. Freud; stuff like that was strictly for the Psychic Friends hotline. It was a coincidence, that's all, I thought as my plane started its descent. I was in seat A (the -2 nice thing about flying up front is that if the plane goes down, you're first to the crash site) and looking at pine forests as we slipped along the glidepath toward Bangor International Airport. The snow was gone for another year; I had vacationed it to death. Only coincidence. How many times have you cut your hands? I mean, they're always out front, aren't they, waving themselves around? Practically begging for it. All that should have rung true, and yet somehow it didn't, quite. It should have, but . . . well . . . It was the boys in the basement. They were the ones who didn't buy it. The boys in the basement didn't buy it at all. At that point there was a thump as the 737 touched down, and I put the whole line of thought out of my mind. One afternoon shortly after arriving back home, I rummaged the closets until I found the shoeboxes containing Jo's old photographs. I sorted them, then studied my way through the ones of Dark Score Lake. There were a staggering number of these, but because Johanna was the shutterbug, there weren't many with her in them. I found one, though, that I remembered taking in 1990 or '91. Sometimes even an untalented photographer can take a good picture — — if seven hundred monkeys spent seven hundred years bashing away at seven hundred typewriters, and all that — and this was good. In it Jo was standing on the float with the sun going down red-gold behind her. She was just out of the water, dripping wet, wearing a two-piece swimming suit, gray with red piping. I had caught her laughing and brushing her soaked hair back from her forehead and temples. Her nipples were very prominent against the cups of her halter. She looked like an actress on a movie poster for one of those guilty-pleasure B-pictures about monsters at Party Beach or a serial killer stalking the campus. I was sucker-punched by a sudden powerful lust for her. I wanted her upstairs just as she was in that photograph, with strands of her hair pasted to her cheeks and that wet bathing suit clinging to her. I wanted to suck her nipples through the halter top, taste the cloth and feel their hardness through it. I wanted to suck water out of the cotton like milk, then yank the bottom of her suit off and fuck her until we both exploded. Hands shaking a little, I put the photograph aside, with some others I liked (although there were no others I liked in quite that same way). I had a huge hard-on, one of those ones that feel like stone covered with skin. Get one of those and until it goes away you are good for nothing.
Slide 47: The quickest way to solve a problem like that when there's no woman around willing to help you solve it is to masturbate, but that time the idea never even crossed my mind. Instead I walked restlessly through the upstairs rooms of my house with my fists opening and closing and what looked like a hood ornament stuffed down the front of my jeans. Anger may be a normal stage of the grieving process — I've read that it is — but I was never angry at Johanna in the wake of her death until the day I found that picture. Then, wow. There I was, walking around with a boner that just wouldn't quit, furious with her. Stupid bitch, why had she been running on one of the hottest days of the year? Stupid, inconsiderate bitch to leave me alone like this, not even able to work. I sat down on the stairs and wondered what I should do. A drink was what I should do, I decided, and then maybe another drink to scratch the first one's back. I actually got up before deciding that wasn't a very good idea at all. I went into my office instead, turned on the computer, and did a crossword puzzle. That night when I went to bed, I thought of looking at the picture of Jo in her bathing suit again. I decided that was almost as bad an idea as a few drinks when I was feeling angry and depressed. But I'll have the dream tonight, I thought as I turned off the light. I'll have the dream for sure. I didn't, though. My dreams of Sara Laughs seemed to be finished. A week's thought made the idea of at least summering at the lake seem better than ever. So, on a Saturday afternoon in early May when I calculated that any self-respecting Maine caretaker would be home watching the Red Sox, I called Bill Dean and told him I'd be at my lake place from the Fourth of July or so . . . and that if things went as I hoped, I'd be spending the fall and winter there as well. 'Well, that's good,' h said. 'That's real good news. A lot of folks down here've missed you, Mike. e Quite a few that want to condole with you about your wife, don't you know.' Was there the faintest note of reproach in his voice, or was that just my imagination? Certainly Jo and I had cast a shadow in the area; we had made significant contributions to the little library which served the Motton-Kashwakamak-Castle View area, and Jo had headed the successful fund drive to get an area bookmobile up and running. In addition to t at, she had been part of a ladies' h sewing circle (afghans were her specialty), and a member in good standing of the Castle County Crafts Co-op. Visits to the sick . . . helping out with the annual volunteer fire department blood drive . . . womaning a booth during Summerfest in Castle Rock . . . and stuff like that was only where she had started. She didn't do it in any ostentatious Lady Bountiful way, either, but unobtrusively and humbly, with her head lowered (often to hide a rather sharp smile, I should add — my Jo had a Biercean sense of humor). Christ, I thought, maybe old Bill had a right to sound reproachful. 'People miss her,' I said. 'Ayuh, they do.' 'I still miss her a lot myself. I think that's why I've stayed away from the lake. That's where a lot of our good times were.' 'I s'pose so. But it'll be damned good to see you down this way. I'll get busy. The place is all right — you could move into it this afternoon, if you was a mind — but when a house has stood empty the way Sara has, it gets stale.' 'I know.' 'I'll get Brenda Meserve to clean the whole shebang from top to bottom. Same gal you always had, don't you know.'
Slide 48: 'Brenda's a little old for comprehensive spring cleaning, isn't she?' The lady in question was about sixty-five, stout, kind, and gleefully vulgar. She was especially fond of jokes about the travelling salesman who spent the night like a rabbit, jumping from hole to hole. No Mrs. Danvers she. 'Ladies like Brenda Meserve never get too old to oversee the festivities,' Bill said. 'She'll get two or three girls to do the vacuuming and heavy lifting. Set you back maybe three hundred dollars. Sound all right?' 'Like a bargain.' 'The well needs to be tested, and the gennie, too, although I'm sure both of em's okay. I seen a hornet's nest by Jo's old studio that I want to smoke before the woods get dry. Oh, and the roof of the old house — you know, the middle piece — needs to be reshingled. I shoulda talked to you about that last year, but with you not using the place, I let her slide. You stand good for that, too?' 'Yes, up to ten grand. Beyond that, call me.' 'If we have to go over ten, I'll smile and kiss a pig.' 'Try to have it all done before I get down there, okay?' 'Coss. You'll want your privacy, I know that . . . just so long's you know you won't get any right away. We was shocked when she went so young; all of us were. Shocked and sad. She was a dear.' From a Yankee mouth, that word rhymes with Leah. 'Thank you, Bill.' I felt tears prickle my eyes. Grief is like a drunken house guest, always coming back for one more goodbye hug. 'Thanks for saying.' 'You'll get your share of carrot-cakes, chummy.' He laughed, but a little doubtfully, as if afraid he was committing an impropriety. 'I can eat a lot of carrot-cake,' I said, 'and if folks overdo it, well, hasn't Kenny Auster still got that big Irish wolfhound?' 'Yuh, that thing'd eat cake til he busted!' Bill cried in high good humor. He cackled until he was coughing. I waited, smiling a little myself. 'Blueberry, he calls that dog, damned if I know why. Ain't he the gormiest thing!' I assumed he meant the dog and not the dog's master. Kenny Auster, not much more than five feet tall and neatly made, was the opposite of g ormy, that peculiar Maine adjective that means clumsy, awkward, and clay-footed. I suddenly realized that I missed these people — Bill and Brenda and Buddy Jellison and Kenny Auster and all the others who lived year-round at the lake. I even missed Blueberry, the Irish wolfhound, who trotted everywhere with his head up just as if he had half a brain in it and long strands of saliva depending from his jaws. 'I've also got to get down there and clean up the winter blowdown,' Bill said. He sounded embarrassed. 'It ain't bad this year — that last big storm was all snow over our way, thank God — but there's still a fair amount of happy crappy I ain't got to yet. I shoulda put it behind me long before now. You not using the place ain't an excuse. I been cashing your checks.' There was something amusing about listening to the grizzled old fart beating his breast; Jo would have kicked her feet and giggled, I'm quite sure. 'If everything's right and running by July Fourth, Bill, I'll be happy.' 'You'll be happy as a clam in a mudflat, then. That's a promise.' Bill sounded as happy as a clam in a mudflat himself, and I was glad. 'Goingter come down and write a book by the water? Like in the old days? Not that the last couple ain't been fine, my wife couldn't put that last one down, but —' 'I don't know,' I said, which was the truth. And then an idea struck me. 'Bill, would you do me a favor before you clean up the driveway and turn Brenda Meserve loose?' 'Happy to if I can,' he said, so I told him what I wanted.
Slide 49: Four days later, I got a little package with this laconic return address: DEAN/GEN DELIV/TR-90 (DARK SCORE). I opened it and shook out twenty photographs which had been taken with one of those little cameras you use once and then throw away. Bill had filled out the roll with various views of the house, most conveying that subtle air of neglect a place gets when it's not used enough . . . even a place that's caretook (to use Bill's word) gets that neglected feel after awhile. I barely glanced at these. The first four were the ones I wanted, and I lined them up on the kitchen table, where the strong sunlight would fall directly on them. Bill had taken these from the top of the driveway, pointing the disposable camera down at the sprawl of Sara Laughs. I could see the moss which had grown not only on south wings, as well. I could see the litter of fallen branches and the drifts of pine needles on the driveway. Bill must have been tempted to clear all that away before taking his snaps, b he hadn't. I'd told him exactly what I wanted — 'warts and all' was the ut phrase I had used — and Bill had given it to me. The bushes on either side of the driveway had thickened a lot since Jo and I had spent any significant amount of time at the lake; they hadn't exactly run wild, but yes, some of the longer branches did seem to yearn toward each other across the asphalt like separated lovers. Yet what my eye came back to again and again was the stoop at the foot of the driveway. The other resemblances between the photographs and my dreams of Sara Laughs might only be coincidental (or the writer's often surprisingly practical imagination at work), but I could explain the sunflowers growing out through the boards of the stoop no more than I had been able to explain the cut on the back of my hand. I turned one of the photos over. On the back, in a spidery script, Bill had written: These fellows are way early . . . and trespassing! I flipped back to the picture side. Three sunflowers, growing up through the boards of the stoop. Not two, not four, but three large sunflowers with faces like searchlights. Just like the ones in my dream.
Slide 50: CHAPTER SIX On July 3rd of 1998, I threw two suitcases and my Powerbook in the trunk of my mid-sized Chevrolet, started to back down the driveway, then stopped and went into the house again. It felt empty and somehow forlorn, like a faithful lover who has been dropped and cannot understand why. The furniture wasn't covered and the power was still on (I understood that The Great Lake Experiment might turn out to be a swift and total failure), but 14 Benton Street felt deserted, all the same. Rooms too full of furniture to echo still did when I walked through them, and everywhere there seemed to be too much dusty light. In my study, the VDT was hooded like an executioner against the dust. I knelt before it and opened one of the desk drawers. Inside were four reams of paper. I took one, started away with it under my arm, then had a second thought and turned back. I had put that provocative photo of Jo in her swimsuit in the wide center drawer. Now I took it, tore the paper wrapping from the end of the ream of paper, and slid the photo halfway in, like a bookmark. If I did perchance begin to write again, and if the writing marched, I would meet Johanna right around page two hundred and fifty. I left the house, locked the back door, got into my car, and drove away. I have never been back. I'd been tempted to go down to the lake and check out the work — which turned out to be quite a bit more extensive than Bill Dean had originally expected — on several occasions. What kept me away was a feeling, never quite articulated by my conscious mind but still very powerful, that I wasn't supposed to do it that way; that when I next came to Sara, it should be to unpack and stay. Bill hired out Kenny Auster to shingle the roof, and got Kenny's cousin, Timmy Larribee, to 'scrape the old girl down,' a cleansing process akin to pot-scrubbing that is sometimes employed with log homes. Bill also had a plumber in to check out the pipes, and got my okay to replace some of the older plumbing and the well-pump. Bill fussed about all these expenses over the telephone; I let him. When it comes to fifth- or sixth-generation Yankees and the expenditure of money, you might as well just stand back and let them get it out of their systems. Laying out the green just seems wrong to a Yankee, somehow, like petting in public. As for myself, I didn't mind the outgo a bit. I live frugally, for the most part, not out of any moral code but because my imagination, very lively in most other respects, doesn't work very well on the subject of money. My idea of a spree is three days in Boston, a Red Sox game, a trip to Tower Records and Video, plus a visit to the Wordsworth bookstore in Cambridge. Living like that doesn't make much of a dent in the interest, let alone the principal; I had a good money manager down in Waterville, and on the day I locked the door of the Derry house and headed west to TR-90, I was worth slightly over five million dollars. Not much compared to Bill Gates, but big numbers for this area, and I could afford to be cheerful about the high cost of house repairs. That was a strange late spring and early summer for me. What I did mostly was wait, close up my town affairs, talk to Bill Dean when he called with the latest round of problems, and try not to think. I did the Publishers Weekly interview, and when the interviewer asked me if I'd had any trouble getting back to work 'in the wake of my bereavement,' I said no with an absolutely straight face. Why not? It was true. My troubles hadn't started until I'd finished All the Way from the Top; until then, I had been going on like gangbusters.
Slide 51: In mid-June, I met Frank Arlen for lunch at the Starlite Cafe. The Starlite is in Lewiston, which is the geographical midpoint between his town and mine. Over dessert (the Starlite's famous strawberry shortcake), Frank asked if I was seeing anyone. I looked at him with surprise. 'What are you gaping at?' he asked, his face registering one of the nine hundred unnamed emotions — this one of those somewhere between amusement and irritation. 'I certainly wouldn't think of it as two-timing Jo. She'll have been dead four years come August.' 'No,' I said. 'I'm not seeing anybody.' He looked at me silently. I looked back for a few seconds, then started fiddling my spoon through the whipped cream on top of my shortcake. The biscuits were still warm from the oven, and the cream was melting. It made me think of that silly old song about how someone left the cake out in the rain. 'Have you seen anybody, Mike?' 'I'm not sure that's any business of yours.' 'Oh for Christ's sake. On your vacation? Did you — ' I made myself look up from the melting whipped cream. 'No,' I said. 'I did not.' He was silent for another moment or two. I thought he was getting ready to move on to another topic. That would have been fine with me. Instead, he came right out and asked me if I had been laid at all since Johanna died. He would have accepted a lie on that subject even if he didn't entirely believe it — men lie about sex all the time. But I told the truth . . . and with a certain perverse pleasure. 'No.' 'Not a single time?' 'Not a single time.' 'What about a massage parlor? You know, to at least get a — ' 'No.' He sat there tapping his spoon against the rim of the bowl with his dessert in it. He hadn't taken a single bite. He was looking at me as though I were some new and oogy specimen of bug. I didn't like it much, but I suppose I understood it. I had been close to what is these days called 'a relationship' on two occasions, neither of them on Key Largo, where I had observed roughly two thousand pretty women walking around dressed in only a stitch and a promise. Once it had been a red-haired waitress, Kelli, at a restaurant out on the Extension where I often had lunch. After awhile we got talking, joking around, and then there started to be some of that eye-contact, you know the kind I'm talking about, looks that go on just a little too long. I started to notice her legs, and the way her uniform pulled against her hip when she turned, and she noticed me noticing. And there was a woman at Nu You, the place where I used to work out. A tall woman who favored pink jog-bras and black bike shorts. Quite yummy. Also, I liked the stuff she brought to read while she pedalled one of the stationary bikes on those endless aerobic trips to nowhere — not Mademoiselle or Cosmo, but novels by people like John Irving and Ellen Gilchrist. I like people who read actual books, and not just because I once wrote them myself. Book-readers are just as willing as anyone else to start out with the weather, but as a general rule they can actually go on from there. The name of the blonde in the pink tops and black shorts was Adria Bundy. We started talking about books as we pedalled side by side ever deeper into nowhere, and there came a point where I was spotting her one or two mornings a week in the weight room. There's something oddly intimate about spotting. The prone position of the lifter is part of it, I suppose (especially when the lifter is a
Slide 52: woman), but not all or even most of it. Mostly it's the dependence factor. Although it hardly ever comes to that point, the lifter is trusting the spotter with his or her life. And, at some point in the winter of 1996, those looks started as she lay on the bench and I stood over her, looking into her upside-down face. The ones that go on just a little too long. Kelli was around thirty, Adria perhaps a little younger. Kelli was divorced, Adria never married. In neither case would I have been robbing the cradle, and I think either would have been happy to go to bed with me on a provisional basis. Kind of a honey-bump test-drive. Yet what I did in Kelli's case was to find a different restaurant to eat my lunch at, and when the YMCA sent me a free exercise-tryout offer, I took them up on it and just never went back to Nu You. I remember walking past Adria Bundy one day on the street six months or so after I made the change, and although I said hi, I made sure not to see her puzzled, slightly hurt gaze. In a purely physical way I wanted them both (in fact, I seem to remember a dream i which I had n them both, in the same bed and at the same time), and yet I wanted neither. Part of it was my inability to write — my life was quite fucked up enough, thank you, without adding any additional complications. Part of it was the work involved in making sure that the woman who is returning your glances is interested in you and not your rather extravagant bank account. Most of it, I think, was that there was just too much Jo still in my head and heart. There was no room for anyone else, even after four years. It was sorrow like cholesterol, and if you think that's funny or weird, be grateful. 'What about friends?' Frank asked, at last beginning to eat his strawberry shortcake. 'You've got friends you see, don't you?' 'Yes,' I said. 'Plenty of friends.' Which was a lie, but I did have lots of crosswords to do, lots of books to read, and lots of movies to watch on my VCR at night; I could practically recite the FBI warning about unlawful copying by heart. When it came to real live people, t e only ones I called h when I got ready to leave Derry were my doctor and my dentist, and most of the mail I sent out that June consisted of change-of address cards to magazines like Harper's and National Geographic. 'Frank,' I said, 'you sound like a Jewish mother.' 'Sometimes when I'm with you feel like a Jewish mother,' he said. 'One who believes in the curative powers of baked potatoes instead of matzo balls. You look better than you have in a long time, finally put on some weight, I think — ' 'Too much.' 'Bullshit, you looked like Ichabod Crane when you came for Christmas. Also, you've got some sun on your face and arms.' 'I've been walking a lot.' 'So you look better . . . except for your eyes. Sometimes you get this look in your eyes, and I worry about you every time I see it. I think Jo would be glad someone's worrying.' 'What look is that?' I asked. 'Your basic thousand-yard stare. Want the truth? You look like someone who's caught on something and can't get loose.' I left Derry at three-thirty, stopped in Rumford for supper, then drove slowly on through the rising hills of western Maine as the sun lowered. I had planned my times of departure and arrival carefully, if not quite consciously, and as I passed out of Motton and into the unincorporated township of TR-90, I became aware of the heavy way my heart was beating. There was sweat on my face and arms in spite of the car's air conditioning. Nothing on the radio sounded right, all the music like screaming, and I turned it off.
Slide 53: I was scared, and had good reason to be. Even setting aside the peculiar cross-pollination between the dreams and things in the real world (as I was able to do quite easily, dismissing the cut on my hand and the sunflowers growing through the boards of the back stoop as either coincidence or so much psychic fluff), I had reason to be scared. Because they hadn't been ordinary dreams, and my decision to go back to the lake after all this time hadn't been an ordinary decision. I didn't feel like a modern fin-de-millénaire man on a spiritual quest to face his fears (I'm okay, you're okay, let's all have an emotional circle-jerk while William Ackerman plays softly in the background); I felt more like some crazy Old Testament prophet going out into the desert to live on locusts and alkali water because God had summoned him in a dream. I was in trouble, my life was a moderate-going-on-severe mess, and not being able to write was only part of it. I wasn't raping kids or running around Times Square preaching conspiracy theories through a bullhorn, but I was in trouble just the same. I had lost my place in things and couldn't find it again. No surprise there; after all, life's not a book. What I was engaging in on that hot July evening was self-induced shock therapy, and give me at least this much credit — I knew it. You come to Dark Score this way: 1-95 from Derry to Newport; Route 2 from Newport to Bethel (with a stop in Rumford, which used to stink like hell's front porch until the paper-driven economy pretty much ground to a halt during Reagan's second term); Route 5 from Bethel to Waterford. Then you take Route 68, the old County Road, across Castle View, through Motton (where downtown consists of a converted barn which sells videos, beer, and second-hand rifles), and then past the sign which reads TR-90 and the one reading GAME WARDEN IS BEST ASSISTANCE IN EMERGENCY, DIAL 1-800-555-GAME OR * 72 ON CELLULAR PHONE. To this, in spray paint, someone has added FUCK THE EAGLES. Five miles past that sign, you come to a narrow lane on the right, marked only by a square of tin with the faded number 42 on it. Above this, like umlauts, are a couple of. 22 holes. I turned into this lane just about when I had expected to — it was 7:16 P.M., EDT, by the clock on the Chevrolet's dashboard. And the feeling was coming home. I drove in two tenths of a mile by the odometer, listening to the grass which crowned the lane whickering against the undercarriage of my car, listening to the occasional branch which scraped across the roof or knocked on the passenger side like a fist. At last I parked and turned the engine off. I got out, walked to the rear of the car, lay down on my belly, and began pulling all of the grass which touched the Chevy's hot exhaust system. It had been a dry summer, and it was best to take precautions. I had come at this exact hour in order to replicate my dreams, hoping for some further insight into them or for an idea of what to do next. What I had not come to do was start a forest fire. Once this was done I stood up and looked around. The crickets sang, as they had in my dreams, and the trees huddled close on either side of the lane, as they always did in my dreams. Overhead, the sky was a fading strip of blue. I set off, walking up the right hand wheelrut. Jo and I had had one neighbor at this end of the road, old Lars Washburn, but now Lars's driveway was overgrown with juniper bushes and blocked by a rusty length of chain. Nailed to a tree on the left of the chain was NO TRESPASSING. Nailed to one on the right was NEXT CENTURY REAL ESTATE, and a local number. The words were faded and hard to read in the growing gloom.
Slide 54: I walked on, once more conscious of my heavily beating heart and of the way the mosquitoes were buzzing around my face and arms. Their peak season was past, but I was sweating a lot, and that's a smell they like. It must remind them of blood. Just how scared was I as I approached Sara Laughs? I don't remember. I suspect that fright, like pain, is one of those things that slip our minds once they have passed. What I do remember is a feeling I'd had before when I was down here, especially when I was walking this road by myself. It was a sense that reality was thin. I think it is thin, you know, thin as ake ice after a thaw, and we l fill our lives with noise and light and motion to hide that thinness from ourselves. But in places like Lane Forty-two, you find that all the smoke and mirrors have been removed. What's left is the sound of crickets and the sight of green leaves darkening toward black; branches that make shapes like faces; the sound of your heart in your chest, the beat of the blood against the backs of your eyes, and the look of the sky as the day's blue blood runs out of its cheek. What comes in when daylight leaves is a kind of certainty: that beneath the skin there is a secret, some mystery both black and bright. You feel this mystery in every breath, you see it in every shadow, you expect to plunge into it at every turn of a step. It is here; you slip across it on a kind of breathless curve like a skater turning for home. I stopped for a moment about half a mile south of where I'd left the car, and still half a mile north of the driveway. Here the road curves sharply, and on the right is an open field which slants steeply down toward the lake. Tidwell's Meadow is what the locals call it, or sometimes the Old Camp. It was here that Sara Tidwell and her curious tribe built their cabins, at least according to Marie Hingerman (and once, when I asked Bill Dean, he agreed this was the place . . . although he didn't seem interested in continuing the conversation, which struck me at the time as a bit odd). I stood there for a moment, looking down at the north end of Dark Score. The water was glassy and calm, still candy-colored in the afterglow of sunset, without a single ripple or a single small craft to be seen. The boat-people would all be down at the marina or at Warrington's Sunset Bar by now, I guessed, eating lobster rolls and drinking big mixed drinks. Later a few of them, buzzed on speed and martinis, would go bolting up and down the lake by moonlight. I wondered if I would be around to hear them. I thought there was a fair chance that by then I'd be on my way back to Derry, either terrified by what I'd found or disillusioned because I had found nothing at all. 'You funny little man, said Strickland.' I didn't know I was going to speak until the words were out of my mouth, and why those words in particular I had no idea. I remembered my dream of Jo under the bed and shuddered. A mosquito whined in my ear. I slapped it and walked on. In the end, my arrival at the head of the driveway was almost too perfectly timed, the sense of having re-entered my dream almost too complete. Even the balloons tied to the SARA LAUGHS sign (one white and one blue, both with WELCOME BACK MIKE! carefully printed on them in black ink) and floating against the ever-darkening backdrop of the trees seemed to intensify the déjà vu I had quite deliberately induced, for no two dreams are exactly the same, are they? Things conceived by minds and made by hands can never be quite the same, even when they try their best to be identical, because we're never the same from day to day or even moment to moment. I walked to the sign, feeling the mystery of this place at twilight. I squeezed down on the board, feeling its rough reality, and then I ran the ball of my thumb over the letters, daring the splinters and reading with my skin like a blind man reading braille: S and A and R and A; L and A and U and G and H and S. The driveway had been cleared of fallen needles and blown-down branches, but Dark Score glimmered a fading rose just as it had in my dreams, and the sprawled hulk of the house was the
Slide 55: same. Bill had thoughtfully left the light over the back stoop burning, and the sunflowers growing through the boards had long since been cut down, but everything else was the same. I looked overhead, at the slot of sky over the lane. Nothing . . . I waited . . . and nothing . . . waiting still . . . and then there it was, right where the center of my gaze had been trained. At one moment there was only the fading sky (with indigo just starting to rise up from the edges like an infusion of ink), and at the next Venus was glowing there, bright and steady. People talk about watching the stars come out, and I suppose some people do, but I think that was the only time in my life that I actually saw one appear. I wished on it, too, but this time it was real time, and I did not wish for Jo. 'Help me,' I said, looking at the star. I would have said more, but I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what kind of help I needed. That's enough, a voice in my mind said uneasily. That's enough, now. Go on back and get your car. Except that wasn't the plan. The plan was to go down the driveway, just as I had in the final dream, the nightmare. The plan was to prove to myself that there was no shroud-wrapped monster lurking in the shadows of the big old log house down there. The plan was pretty much based on that bit of New Age wisdom which says the word 'fear' stands for Face Everything And Recover. But, as I stood there and looked down at that spark of porch light (it looked very small in the growing darkness), it occurred to me that there's another bit of wisdom, one not quite so good-morningstarshine, which suggests fear is actually an acronym for Fuck Everything And Run. Standing there by myself in the woods as the light left the sky, that seemed like the smarter interpretation, no two ways about it. I looked down and was a little amused to see that I had taken one of the balloons — untied it without even noticing as I thought things over. It floated serenely up from my hand at the end of its string, the words printed on it now impossible to read in the growing dark. Maybe it's all moot, anyway; maybe I won't be able to move. Maybe that old devil writer's walk has got hold of me again, and I'll just stand here like a statue until someone comes along and hauls me away. But this was real time in the real world, and in the real world there was no such thing as writer's walk. I opened my hand. As the string I'd been holding floated free, I walked under the rising balloon and started down the driveway. Foot followed foot, pretty much as they had ever since I'd first learned this trick back in 1959. I went deeper and deeper into the clean but sour smell of pine, and once I caught myself taking an extra-big step, avoiding a fallen branch that had been in the dream but wasn't here in reality. My heart was still thudding hard, and sweat was still pouring out of me, oiling my skin and drawing mosquitoes. I raised a hand to brush the hair off my brow, then stopped, holding it splayfingered out in front of my eyes. I put the other one next to it. Neither was marked; there wasn't even a shadow of scar from the cut I'd given myself while crawling around my bedroom during the ice storm. 'I'm all right,' I said. 'I'm all right.' You funny little man, said Strickland, a voice answered. It wasn't mine, wasn't Jo's; it was the UFO voice that had narrated my nightmare, the one which had driven me on even when I wanted to stop. The voice of some outsider. I started walking again. I was better than halfway down the driveway now. I had reached the point where, in the dream, I told the voice that I was afraid of Mrs. Danvers.
Slide 56: 'I'm afraid of Mrs. D.,' I said, trying the words aloud in the growing dark. 'What if the bad old housekeeper's down there?' A loon cried on the lake, but the voice didn't answer. I suppose it didn't have to. There was no Mrs. Danvers, she was only a bag of bones in an old book, and the voice knew it. I began walking again. I passed the big pine that Jo had once banged into in our Jeep, trying to back up the driveway. How she had sworn! Like a sailor! I had managed to keep a straight face until she got to 'Fuck a duck,' and then I'd lost it, leaning against the side of the Jeep with the heels of my hands pressed against my temples, howling until tears rolled down my cheeks, and Jo glaring hot blue sparks at me the whole time. I could see the mark about three feet up on the trunk of the tree, the white seeming to float above the dark bark in the gloom. It was just here that the unease w hich pervaded the other dreams had skewed into something far worse. Even before the shrouded thing had come bursting out of the house, I had felt something was all wrong, all twisted up; I had felt that somehow the house itself had gone insane. It was at t is point, passing the old scarred pine, that I had wanted to run like the h gingerbread man. I didn't feel that now. I was afraid, yes, but not in terror. There was nothing behind me, for one thing, no sound of slobbering breath. The worst thing a man was likely to come upon in these woods was an irritated moose. Or, I supposed, if he was really unlucky, a pissed-off bear. In the dream there had been a moon at least three quarters full, but there was no moon in the sky above me that night. Nor would there be; in glancing over the weather page in that morning's Derry News, I had noticed that the moon was new. Even the most powerful déjà vu is fragile, and at the thought of that moonless sky, mine broke. The sensation of reliving my nightmare departed so abruptly that I even wondered why I had done this, what I had hoped to prove or accomplish. Now I'd have to go all the way back down the dark lane to retrieve my car. All right, but I'd do it with a flashlight from the house. One of them would surely still be just inside the — A series of jagged explosions ran themselves off on the far side of the lake, the last loud enough to echo against the hills. I stopped, drawing in a quick breath. Moments before, those unexpected bangs probably would have sent me running back up the driveway in a panic, but now I had only that brief, startled moment. It was firecrackers, of course, the last one — the loudest one — maybe an M-80. Tomorrow was the Fourth of July, and across the lake kids were celebrating early, as kids are wont to do. I walked on. The bushes still reached like hands, but they had been pruned back and their reach wasn't very threatening. I didn't have to worry about the power being out, either; I was now close enough to the back stoop to see moths fluttering around the light Bill Dean had left on for me. Even if the power had been out (in the western part of the state a lot of the lines are still above ground, and it goes out a lot), the gennie would have kicked in automatically. Yet I was awed by how much of my dream was actually here, even with the powerful sense of repetition — of reliving — departed. Jo's planters were where they'd always been, flanking the path which leads down to Sara's little lick of beach; I suppose Brenda Meserve had found them stacked in the cellar and had had one of her crew set them out again. Nothing was growing in them yet, but I suspected that stuff would be soon. And even without the moon of my dream, I could see the black square on the water, standing about fifty yards offshore. The swimming float.
Slide 57: No oblong shape lying overturned in front of the stoop, though; no coffin. Still, my heart was beating hard again, and I think if more firecrackers had gone off on the Kashwakamak side of the lake just then, I might have screamed. You funny little man, said Strickland. Give me that, it's my dust-catcher. What if death drives us insane? What if we survive, but it drives us insane? What then? I had reached the point where, in my nightmare, the door banged open and that white shape came hurtling out with its wrapped arms upraised. I took one more step and then stopped, hearing the harsh sound of my respiration as I drew each breath down my throat and then pushed it back out over the dry floor of my tongue. There was no sense of déjà vu, but for a moment I thought the shape would appear anyway — here in the real world, in real time. I stood waiting for it with my sweaty hands clenched. I drew in another dry breath, and this time I held it. The soft lap of water against the shore. A breeze that patted my face and rattled the bushes. A loon cried out on the lake; moths battered the stoop light. No shroud-monster threw open the door, and through the big windows to the left and right of the door, I could see nothing moving, white or otherwise. There was a note above the knob, probably from Bill, and that was it. I let out my breath in a rush and walked the rest of the way down the driveway to Sara Laughs. The note was indeed from Bill Dean. It said that Brenda had done some shopping for me; the supermarket receipt was on the kitchen table, and I would find the pantry well stocked with canned goods. She'd gone easy with the perishables, but there was milk, butter, half-and-half, and hamburger, that staple of single-guy cuisine. I will see you next Mon., Bill had written. If I had my druthers I'd be here to say hello in person but the good wife says it's our turn to do the holiday trotting and so we are going down to Virginia (hot!!) to spend the 4th with her sister. If you need anything or run into problems . . . He had jotted his sister-in-law's phone number in Virginia as well as Butch Wiggins's number in town, which locals just call 'the TR,' as in 'Me and mother got tired of Bethel and moved our trailer over to the TR.' There were other numbers, as well — the plumber, the electrician, Brenda Meserve, even the TV guy over in Harrison who had repositioned the DSS dish for maximum reception. Bill was taking no chances. I turned the note over, imagining a final P.S.: Say, Mike, if nuclear war should break out before me and Yvette get back from Virginia — Something moved behind me. I whirled on my heels, the note dropping from my hand. It fluttered to the boards of the back stoop like a larger, whiter version of the moths banging the bulb overhead. In that instant I was sure it would be the shroud-thing, an insane revenant in my wife's decaying body, Give me my dustcatcher, give it to me, how dare you come down here and disturb my rest, how dam you come to Manderley again, and now that you're here, how will you ever get away? Into the mystery with you, you silly little man. Into the mystery with you. Nothing there. It had just been the breeze again, stirring the bushes around a little . . . except I had felt no breeze against my sweaty skin, not that time. 'Well it must have been, there's nothing there,' I said. The sound of your voice when you're alone can be either scary or reassuring. That time it was the latter. I bent over, picked up Bill's note, and stuffed it into my back pocket. Then I rummaged out my keyring. I stood under the stoop light in the big, swooping shadows of the light-struck moths,
Slide 58: picking through my keys until I found the one I wanted. It had a funny disused look, and as I rubbed my thumb along its serrated edge, I wondered again why I hadn't come down here — except for a couple of quick broad daylight errands — in all the months and years since Jo had died. Surely if she had been alive, she would have insisted — But then a peculiar realization came to me: it wasn't just a matter of since Jo died. It was easy to think of it that way — never once during my six weeks on Key Largo had I thought of it any other way — but now, actually standing here in the shadows of the dancing moths (it was like standing under some weird organic disco ball) and listening to the loons out on the lake, I remembered that although Johanna had died in August of 1994, she had died in Derry. It had been miserably hot in the city . . . so why had we been there? Why hadn't we been sitting out on our shady deck on the lake side of the house, drinking iced tea in our bathing suits, watching the boats go back and forth and commenting on the form of the various water-skiers? What had she been doing in that damned Rite Aid parking lot to begin with, when during any other August we would have been miles from there? Nor was that all. We usually stayed at Sara until the end of September — it was a peaceful, pretty time, as warm as summer. But in '93 we'd left with August only a week gone. I knew, because I could remember Johanna going to New York with me later that month, some kind of publishing deal and the usual attendant publicity crap. It had been dog-hot in Manhattan, the hydrants spraying in the East Village and the uptown streets sizzling. On one night of that trip we'd seen The Phantom of the Opera. Near the end Jo had leaned over to me and whispered, 'Oh fuck! The Phantom is snivelling again!' I had spent the rest of the s how trying to keep from bursting into wild peals of laughter. Jo could be evil that way. Why had she come with me that August? Jo didn't like New York even in April or October, when it's sort of pretty. I didn't know. I couldn't remember. All I was sure of was' that she had never been back to Sara Laughs after early August of 1993 . . . and before long I wasn't even sure of that. I slipped the key into the lock and turned it. I'd go inside, flip on the kitchen overheads, grab a flashlight, and go back for the car. If I didn't, some drunk guy with a cottage at the far south end of the lane would come in too fast, rear-end my Chevy, and sue me for a billion dollars. The house had been aired out and didn't smell a bit musty; instead of still, stale air, there was a faint and pleasing aroma of pine. I reached for the light inside the door, and then, somewhere in the blackness of the house, a child began to sob. My hand froze where it was and my flesh went cold. I didn't panic, exactly, but all rational thought left my mind. It was weeping, a child's weeping, but I hadn't a clue as to where it was coming from. Then it began to fade. Not to grow softer but to fade, as if someone had picked that kid up and was carrying it away down some long corridor. . . not that any such corridor existed in Sara Laughs. Even the one running through the middle of the house, connecting the central section to the two wings, isn't really long. Fading . . . faded . . . almost gone. I stood in the dark with my cold skin crawling and my hand on the lightswitch. Part of me wanted to boogie, to just go flying out of there as fast as my little legs could carry me, running like the gingerbread man. Another part, however — the rational part — was already reasserting itself. I flicked the switch, the part that wanted to run saying forget it, it won't work, it's the dream, stupid, it's your dream coming true. But it did work. The foyer light came on in a shadow-dispelling rush, revealing Jo's lumpy little pottery collection to the left and the bookcase to the right, stuff I hadn't looked at in four years or more, but still here and still the same. On a middle shelf of the
Slide 59: bookcase I could see the three early Elmore Leonard novels — Swag, The Big Bounce, and Mr. Majestyk — that I had put aside against a spell of rainy weather; you have to be ready for rain when you're at camp. Without a good book, even two days of rain in the woods can be enough to drive you bonkers. There was a final whisper of weeping, then silence. In it, I could hear ticking from the kitchen. The clock by the stove, one of Jo's rare lapses into bad taste, is Felix the Cat with big eyes that shift from side to side as his pendulum tail flicks back and forth. I think it's been in every cheap horror movie ever made. 'Who's here?' I called. I took a step toward the kitchen, just a dim space floating beyond the foyer, then stopped. In the dark the house was a cavern. The sound of the weeping could have come from anywhere. Including my own imagination. 'Is someone here?' No answer . . . but I didn't think the sound had been in my head. If it had been, writer's block was the least of my worries. Standing on the bookcase to the left of the Elmore Leonards was a long-barrelled flashlight, the kind that holds eight D-cells and will temporarily blind you if someone shines it directly into your eyes. I grasped it, and until it nearly slipped through my hand I hadn't really realized how heavily I was sweating, or how scared I was. I juggled it, heart beating hard, half-expecting that creepy sobbing to begin again, half-expecting the shroud-thing to come floating out of the black living room with its shapeless arms raised; some old hack of a politician back from the grave and ready to give it another shot. Vote the straight Resurrection ticket, brethren, and you will be saved. I got control of the light and turned it on. It shot a bright straight beam into the living room, picking out the moosehead over the fieldstone fireplace; it shone in the head's glass eyes like two lights burning under water. I saw the old cane-and-bamboo chairs; the old couch; the scarred dining-room table you had to balance by shimming one leg with a folded playing card or a couple of beer coasters; I saw no ghosts; I decided this w a seriously fucked-up carnival just the same. In as the words of the immortal Cole Porter, let's call the whole thing off. If I headed east as soon as I got back to my car, I could be in Derry by midnight. Sleeping in my own bed. I turned out the foyer light and stood with the flash drawing its line across the dark. I listened to the tick of that stupid cat-clock, which Bill must have set going, and to the familiar chugging cycle of the refrigerator. As I listened to them, I realized that I had never expected to hear either sound again. As for the crying . . . Had there been crying? Had there really? Yes. Crying or something. Just what now seemed moot. What seemed germane was that coming here had been a dangerous idea and a stupid course of action for a man who has taught his mind to misbehave. As I stood in the foyer with no light but the flash and the glow falling in the windows from the bulb over the back stoop, I realized that the line between what I knew was real and what I knew was only my imagination had pretty much disappeared. I left the house, checked to make sure the door was locked, and walked back up the driveway, swinging the flashlight beam from side to side like a pendulum — like the tail of old Felix the Krazy Kat in the kitchen. It occurred to me, as I struck north along the lane, that I would have to make up some sort of story for Bill Dean. It wouldn't do to say, 'Well, Bill, I got down there and heard a kid bawling in my locked house, and it scared me so bad I turned into the gingerbread man and ran back to Derry. I'll send you the flashlight I took; put it back on the shelf next to the paperbacks, would you?' That wasn't 'any good because the story would get around and people would say, 'Not surprised. Wrote too many books, probably. Work like that has got to soften a man's head. Now he's scared of his own shadow. Occupational hazard.'
Slide 60: Even if I never came down here again in my life, I didn't want to leave people on the TR with that opinion of me, that half-contemptuous, see-what-you-get-for-thinking-too-much attitude. It's one a lot of folks seem to have about people who live by their imaginations. I'd tell Bill I got sick. In a way it was true. Or no . . . better to tell him someone else got sick . . . a friend . . . someone in Derry I'd been seeing . . . a lady-friend, perhaps. 'Bill, this friend of mine, this lady-friend of mine got sick, you see, and so . . . ' I stopped suddenly, the light shining on the front of my car. I had walked the mile in the dark without noticing many of the sounds in the woods, and dismissing even the bigger of them as deer settling down for the night. I hadn't turned around to see if the shroud-thing (or maybe some spectral crying child) was following me. I had gotten involved in making up a story and then embellishing it, doing it in my head instead of on paper this time but going down all the same wellknown paths. I had gotten so involved that I had neglected to be afraid. My heartbeat was back to normal, the sweat was drying on my skin, and the mosquitoes had stopped whining in my ears. And as I stood there, a thought occurred to me. It was as if my mind had been waiting patiently for me to calm down enough so it could remind me of some essential fact. The pipes. Bill had gotten my go-ahead to replace most of the old stuff, and the plumber had done so. Very recently he'd done so. 'Air in the pipes,' I said, running the beam of the eight-cell flashlight over the grille of my Chevrolet. 'That's what I heard.' I waited to see if the deeper part of my mind would call this a stupid, rationalizing lie. It didn't . . . because, I suppose, it realized it could be true. Airy pipes can sound like people talking, dogs barking, or children crying. Perhaps the plumber had bled them and the sound had been something else . . . but perhaps he hadn't. The question was whether or not I was going to jump in my car, back two tenths of a mile to the highway, and then return to Derry, all on the basis of a sound I had heard for ten seconds (maybe only five), and while in an excited, stressful state of mind. I decided the answer was no. It might take only one more peculiar thing to turn me around — probably gibbering like a character on Tales from the Crypt — but the sound I'd heard in the foyer wasn't enough. Not when making a go of it at Sara Laughs might mean so much. I hear voices in my head, and have for as long as I can remember. I don't know if that's part of the necessary equipment for being a writer or not; I've never asked another one. I never felt the need to, because I know all the voices I hear are versions of me. Still, they often seem like very real versions of other people, and none is more real to me-or more familiar — than Jo's voice. Now that voice came, sounding interested, amused in an ironic but gentle way . . . and approving. Going to fight, Mike? 'Yeah,' I said, standing there in the dark and picking out gleams of chrome with my flashlight. 'Think so, babe.' Well, then — that's all right, isn't it? Yes. It was. I got into my car, started it up, and drove slowly down the lane. And when I got to the driveway, I turned in. There was no crying the second time I entered the house. I walked slowly through the downstairs, keeping the flashlight in my hand until I had turned on every light I could find; if there were people still boating on the north end of the lake, old Sara probably looked like some weird Spielbergian flying saucer hovering above them. I think houses live their own lives along a time-stream that's different from the ones upon which their owners float, one that's slower. In a house, especially an old one, the past is closer. In my life
Slide 61: Johanna had been dead nearly four years, but to Sara, she was much nearer than that. It wasn't until I was actually inside, with all the lights on and the flash returned to its spot on the bookshelf, that I realized how much I had been dreading my arrival. Of having my grief reawakened by signs of Johanna's interrupted life. A book with a corner turned down on the table at one end of the sofa, where Jo had liked to recline in her nightgown, reading and eating plums; the cardboard cannister of Quaker Oats, which was all she ever wanted for breakfast, on a shelf in the pantry; her old green robe hung on the back of the bathroom door in the south wing, which Bill Dean still called 'the new wing,' although it had been built before we ever saw Sara Laughs. Brenda Meserve had done a good job — a humane job-of removing these signs and signals, but she couldn't get them all. Jo's hardcover set of Sayers's Peter Wimsey novels still held pride of place at the center of the living-room bookcase. Jo had always called the moosehead over the fireplace Bunter, and once, for no reason I could remember (certainly it seemed a very unBunterlike accessory), she had hung a bell around the moose's hairy neck. It hung there still, on a red velvet ribbon. Mrs. Meserve might have puzzled over that bell, wondering whether to leave it up or take it down, not knowing that when Jo and I made love on the living-room couch (and yes, we were often overcome there), we referred to the act as 'ringing Bunter's bell.' Brenda Meserve had done her best, but any good marriage is secret territory, a necessary white space on society's map. What others don't know about it is what makes it yours. I walked around, touching things, looking at things, seeing them new. Jo seemed everywhere to me, and after a little while I dropped into one of the old cane chairs in front of the TV. The cushion wheezed under me, and I could hear Jo saying, 'Well excuse yourself, Michael!' I put my face in my hands and cried. I suppose it was the last of my mourning, but that made it no easier to bear. I cried until I thought something inside me would break if I didn't stop. When it finally let me go, my face was drenched, I had the hiccups, and I thought I had never felt so tired in my life. I felt strained all over my body — partly from the walking I'd done, I suppose, but mostly just from the tension of getting here . . . and deciding to stay here. To fight. That weird phantom crying I'd heard when I first stepped into the place, although it seemed very distant now, hadn't helped. I washed my face at the kitchen sink, rubbing away the tears with the heels of my hands and clearing my clogged nose. Then I carried my suitcases down to the guest bedroom in the north wing. I had no intention of sleeping in the south wing, in the master bedroom where I had last slept with Jo. That was a choice Brenda Meserve had foreseen. There was a bouquet of fresh wildflowers on the bureau, and a card: WELCOME BACK, MR. NOONAN. If I hadn't been emotionally exhausted, I suppose looking at that message, in Mrs. Meserve's spiky copperplate handwriting, would have brought on another fit of the weeps. I put my face in the flowers and breathed deeply. They smelled good, like sunshine. Then I took off my clothes, leaving them where they dropped, and turned back the coverlet on the bed. Fresh sheets, fresh pillowcases; same old Noonan sliding between the former and dropping his head onto the latter. I lay there with the bedside lamp on, looking up at the shadows on the ceiling, almost unable to believe I was in this place and this bed. There had been no shroud-thing to greet me, of course . . . but I had an idea it might well find me in my dreams. Sometimes — for me, at least — there's a transitional bump between waking and sleeping. Not that night. I slipped away without knowing it, and woke the next morning with sunlight shining in through the window and the bedside lamp still on. There had been no dreams that I could
Slide 62: remember, only a vague sensation that I had awakened sometime briefly in the night and heard a bell ringing, very thin and far away.
Slide 63: CHAPTER SEVEN The little girl — actually she wasn't much more than a baby-came walking up the middle of Route 68, dressed in a red bathing suit, yellow plastic flip-flops, and a Boston Red Sox baseball cap turned around backward. I had just driven past the Lakeview General Store and Dickie Brooks's All-Purpose Garage, and the speed limit there drops from fifty-five to thirty-five. Thank God I was obeying it that day, otherwise I might have killed her. It was my first day back. I'd gotten up late and spent most of the morning walking in the woods which run along the lakeshore, seeing what was the same and what had changed. The water looked a little lower and there were fewer boats than I would have expected, especially on summer's biggest holiday, but otherwise I might never have been away. I even seemed to be slapping at the same bugs. Around eleven my stomach alerted me to the fact that I'd skipped breakfast. I decided a trip to the Village Cafe was in order. The restaurant at Warrington's was trendier by far, but I'd be stared at there. The Village Cafe would be better — if it was still doing business. Buddy Jellison was an ill-tempered fuck, but he had always been the best fry-cook in western Maine and what my stomach wanted was a big greasy Villageburger. Now this little girl, walking straight up the white line and looking like a majorette leading an invisible parade. At thirty-five miles per hour I saw her in plenty of time, but this road was busy in the summer, and very few people bothered creeping through the reduced-speed zone. There were only a dozen Castle County police cruisers, after all, and not many of them bothered with the TR unless they were specifically called there. I pulled over to the shoulder, put the Chevy in PARK, and was out before the dust had even begun to settle. The day was muggy and close and still, the clouds seeming low enough to touch. The kid — a little blondie with a snub nose and scabbed knees — stood on the white line as if it were a tightrope and watched me approach with no more fear than a fawn. 'Hi,' she said. 'I go beach. Mummy 'on't take me and I'm mad as hell.' She stamped her foot to show she knew as well as anybody what mad as hell was all about. Three or four was my guess. Well-spoken in her fashion and cute as hell, but still no more than three or four. 'Well, the beach is a good place to go on the Fourth, all right,' I said, 'but — ' 'Fourth of July and fireworks too,' she agreed, making 'too' sound exotic and sweet, like a word in Vietnamese. ' — but if you try to walk there on the highway, you're more apt to wind up in Castle Rock Hospital.' I decided I wasn't going to stand there playing Mister Rogers with her in the middle of Route 68, not with a curve only fifty yards to the south and a car apt to come wheeling around it at sixty miles an hour at any time. I could hear a motor, actually, and it was revving hard. I picked the kid up and carried her over to where my car was idling, and although she seemed perfectly content to be carried and not frightened a bit, I felt like Chester the Molester the second I had my arm locked under her bottom. I was very aware that anyone sitting around in the combined office and waiting room of Brooksie's Garage could look out and see me. This is one of the strange
Slide 64: midlife realities of my generation: we can't touch a child who isn't our own without fearing others will see something lecherous in our touching . . . or without thinking, way down deep in the sewers of our psyches, that there probably is something lecherous in it. I got her out of the road, though. I did that much. Let the Marching Mothers of Western Maine come after me and do their worst. 'You take me beach?' the little girl asked. She was bright-eyed, smiling. I figured that she'd probably be pregnant by the time she was twelve, especially given the cool way she was wearing her baseball cap. 'Got your suitie?' 'Actually I think I left my suitie at home. Don't you hate that? Honey, where's your mom?' As if in direct answer to my question, the car I'd heard came busting out of a road on the near side of the curve. It was a Jeep Scout with mud splashed high up on both sides. The motor was growling like something up a tree and pissed off about it. A woman's head was poked out the side window. Little curie's mom must have been too scared to sit down; she was driving in a mad crouch, and if a car had been coming around that particular curve in Route 68 when she pulled out, my friend in the red bathing suit would likely have become an orphan on the spot. The Scout fishtailed, the head dropped back down inside the cab, and there was a grinding as the driver upshifted, trying to take her old heap from zero to sixty in maybe nine seconds. If pure terror could have done the job, I'm sure she would have succeeded. 'That's Mattie,' the girl in the bathing suit said. 'I'm mad at her. I'm running away to have a Fourth at the beach. If she's mad I go to my white nana.' I had no idea what she was talking about, but it did cross my mind that Miss Bosox of 1998 could have her Fourth at the beach; I would settle for a fifth of something whole-grain at home. Meanwhile, I was waving the arm not under the kid's butt back and forth over my head, and hard enough to blow around wisps of the girl's fine blonde hair. 'Hey!' I shouted. 'Hey, lady! I got her!' The Scout sped by, still accelerating and still sounding pissed off about it. The exhaust was blowing clouds of blue smoke. There was a further hideous grinding from the Scout's old transmission. It was like some crazy version of Let's Make a Deal.' 'Mattie, you've succeeded in getting into second gear — would you like to quit and take the Maytag washer, or do you want to try for third?' I did the only thing I could think of, which was to step out onto the road, turn toward the Jeep, which was now speeding away from me (the smell of the oil was thick and acrid), and hold the kid up high over my head, hoping Mattie would see us in her rearview mirror. I no longer felt like Chester the Molester; now I felt ike a cruel auctioneer in a Disney cartoon, offering the cutest li'l l piglet in the litter to the highest bidder. It worked, though. The Scout's mudcaked taillights came on and there was a demonic howling as the badly used brakes locked. Right in front of B rooksie's, this was. If there were any old-timers in for a good Fourth of July gossip, they would now have plenty to gossip about. I thought they would especially enjoy the part where Mom screamed at me to unhand her baby. When you return to your summer home after a long absence, it's always nice to get off on the right foot. The backup lights flared and the Jeep began reversing down the road at a good twenty miles an hour. Now the transmission sounded not pissed off but panicky — please, it was saying, please stop, you're killing me. The Scout's rear end wagged from side to side like the tail of a happy dog. I watched it coming at me, hypnotized — now in the northbound lane, now across the white line and into the southbound lane, now overcorrecting so that the left-hand tires spumed dust off the shoulder.
Slide 65: 'Mattie go fast,' my new girlfriend said in a conversational, isn't-this-interesting voice. She had one arm slung around my neck; we were chums, by God. But what the kid said woke me up. Mattie go fast, all right, too fast. Mattie would, more likely than not, clean out the rear end of my Chevrolet. And if I just stood here, Baby Snooks and I were apt to end up as toothpaste between the two vehicles. I backed the length of my car, keeping my eyes fixed on the Jeep and yelling, 'Slow down, Mattie! Slow down!' Cutie-pie liked that. 'S'yo down!' she yelled, starting to laugh. 'S'yo down, you old Mattie, s'yo down!' The brakes screamed in fresh agony. The Jeep took one last walloping, unhappy jerk backward as Mattie stopped without benefit of the clutch. That final lunge took the Scout's rear bumper so close to the rear bumper of my Chevy that you could have bridged the gap with a cigarette. The smell of oil in the air was huge and furry. The kid was waving a hand in front of her face and coughing theatrically. The driver's door flew open; Mattie Devore flew out like a circus acrobat shot from a cannon, if you can imagine a circus acrobat dressed in old paisley shorts and a cotton smock top. My first thought was that the little girl's big sister had been babysitting her, that Mattie and Mummy were two different people. I knew that little kids often spend a period of their development calling their parents by their first names, but this pale-cheeked blonde girl looked all of twelve, fourteen at the outside. I decided her mad handling of the Scout hadn't been terror for her child (or not just terror) but total automotive inexperience. There was something else, too, okay? Another assumption that I made. The muddy four-wheeldrive, the baggy paisley shorts, the smock that all but screamed Kmart, the long yellow hair held back with those little red elastics, and most of all the inattention that allows the three-year-old in your care to go wandering off in the first place . . . all those things said trailer-trash to me. I know how that sounds, but I had some basis for it. Also, I'm Irish, goddammit. My ancestors were trailertrash when the trailers were still horse-drawn caravans. 'Stinky-phew!' the little girl said, still waving a pudgy hand at the air in front of her face. 'Scoutie stink!' Where Scoutie's bathing suitie? I thought, and then my new girlfriend was snatched out of my arms. Now that she was closer, my idea that Mattie was the bathing beauty's sister took a hit. Mattie wouldn't be middle-aged until well into the next century, but she wasn't twelve or fourteen, either. I now guessed twenty, maybe a year younger. When she snatched the baby away, I saw the wedding ring on her left hand. I also saw the dark circles under her eyes, gray skin dusting to purple. She was young, but I thought it was a mother's terror and exhaustion I was looking at. I expected her to swat the tot, because that's how trailer-trash moms react to being tired and scared. When she did, I would stop her, one way or another distract her into turning her anger on me, if that was what it took. There was nothing very noble in this, I should add; all I really wanted to do was to postpone the fanny-whacking, shoulder-shaking, and in-your-face shouting to a time and place where I wouldn't have to watch it. It was my first day back in town; I didn't want to spend any of it watching an inattentive slut abuse her child. Instead of shaking her and shouting 'Where did you think you were going, you little bitch?' Mattie first hugged the child (who hugged back enthusiastically, showing absolutely no sign of fear) and then covered her face with kisses. 'Why did you do that?' she cried. 'What was in your head? When I couldn't find you, I died.'
Slide 66: Mattie burst into tears. The child in the bathing suit looked at her with an expression of surprise so big and complete it would have been comical under other circumstances. Then her own face crumpled up. I stood back, watched them crying and hugging, and felt ashamed of my preconceptions. A car went by and slowed down. An elderly couple — Ma and Pa Kettle on their way to the store for that holiday box of Grape-Nuts — gawked out. I gave them an impatient wave with both hands, the kind that says what are you staring at, go on, put an egg in your shoe and beat it. They sped up, but I didn't see an out-of-state license plate, as I'd hoped I might. This version of Ma and Pa were locals, and the story would be fleeting its rounds soon enough: Mattie the teenage bride and her little bundle of joy (said bundle undoubtedly conceived in the back seat of a car or the bed of a pickup truck some months before the legitimizing ceremony), bawling their eyes out at the side of the road. With a stranger. No, not exactly a stranger. Mike Noonan, the writer fella from upstate. 'I wanted to go to the beach and suh-suh-swim!' the little girl wept, and now it was 'swim' that sounded exotic — the Vietnamese word for 'ecstasy,' perhaps. 'I said I'd take you this afternoon.' Mattie was still sniffing, but getting herself under control. 'Don't do that again, little guy, please don't you ever do that again, Mommy was so scared.' 'I won't,' the kid said 'I really won't.' Still crying, s hugged the older girl tight, laying her head he against the side of Mattie's neck. Her baseball cap fell off. I picked it up, beginning to feel very much like an outsider here. I poked the blue-and-red cap at Mattie's hand until her fingers closed on it. I decided I also felt pretty good about the way things had turned out, and maybe I had a right to. I've presented the incident as if it was amusing, and it was, but it was the sort of amusing you never see until later. When it was happening, it was terrifying. Suppose there had been a truck coming from the other direction? Coming around that curve, and coming too fast? A vehicle did come around it, a pickup of the type no tourist ever drives. Two more locals gawked their way by. 'Ma'am?' I said. 'Mattie? I think I'd better get going. Glad your little girl is all right.' The minute it was out, I felt an almost irresistible urge to laugh. I could picture me drawling this speech to Mattie (a name that belonged in a movie like Unforgiven or True Grit if any name ever did) with my thumbs hooked into the belt of my chaps and my Stetson pushed back to reveal my noble brow. I felt an insane urge to add, 'You're right purty, ma'am, ain't you the new schoolteacher?' She turned to me and I saw that she was right purty. Even with circles under her eyes and her blonde hair sticking off in gobs to either side of her head. And I thought she was doing okay for a girl probably not yet old enough to buy a drink in a bar. At least she hadn't belted the baby. 'Thank you so much,' she said. 'Was she right in the road?' Say she wasn't, her eyes begged. At least say she was walking along the shoulder. 'Well — ' 'I walked on the line,' the girl said, pointing. 'It's like the cross-mock.' Her voice took on a faintly righteous tone. 'Crossmock is safe.' Mattie's cheeks, already white, turned whiter. I didn't like seeing her that way, and didn't like to think of her driving home that way, especially with a kid. 'Where do you live, Mrs. — ?' 'Devore,' she said. 'I'm Mattie Devore.' She shifted the child and put out her hand. I shook it. The morning was warm, and it was going to be hot by mid-afternoon — beach weather for sure — but the fingers I touched were icy. 'We live just there.'
Slide 67: She pointed to the intersection the Scout had shot out of, and I could see — surprise, surprise — a doublewide trailer set off in a grove of pines about two hundred feet up the little feeder road. Wasp Hill Road, I recalled. It ran about half a mile from Route 68 to the water — what was known as the Middle Bay. Ah yes, doc, it's all coming back to me now. I'm once more riding the Dark Score range. Saving little kids is my specialty. Still, I was relieved to see that she lived close by — less than a quarter of a mile from the place where our respective vehicles were parked with their tails almost touching — and when I thought about it, it stood to reason. A child as young as the bathing beauty couldn't have walked far . . . although this one had already demonstrated a fair degree of determination. I thought Mother's haggard look was even more suggestive of the daughter's will. I was glad I was too old to be one of her future boyfriends; she would have them jumping through hoops all through high school and college. Hoops of fire, likely. Well, the high-school part, anyway. Girls from the doublewide side of town did not, as a general rule, go to college unless there was a juco or a voke-tech handy. And she would only have them jumping until the right boy (or more likely the wrong one) came sweeping around the Great Curve of Life and ran her down in the highway, her all the while unaware that the white line and the crossmock were two different things. Then the whole cycle would repeat itself. Christ almighty, Noonan, quit it, I told myself. She's three years old and you've already got her with three kids of her own, two with ringworm and one retarded. 'Thank you so much,' Mattie repeated. 'That's okay,' I said, and snubbed the little girl's nose. Although her cheeks were still wet with tears, she grinned at me sunnily enough in response. 'This is a very verbal little girl.' 'Very verbal, and very willful.' Now Mattie did give her child a little shake, but the kid showed no fear, no sign that shaking or hitting was the order of most days. On the contrary, her smile widened. Her mother smiled back. And yes — once you got past the slopped-together look of her, she was most extraordinarily pretty. Put her in a tennis dress at the Castle Rock Country Club (where she'd likely never go in her life, except maybe as a maid or a waitress), and she would maybe be more than pretty. A young Grace Kelly, perhaps. Then she looked back at me, her eyes very wide and grave. 'Mr. Noonan, I'm not a bad mother,' she said. I felt a start at my name coming from her mouth, but it was only momentary. She was the right age, after all, and my books were probably better for her than spending her afternoons in front of General Hospital and One Life to Live. A little, anyway. 'We had an argument about when we were going to the beach. I wanted to hang out the clothes, have lunch, and go this afternoon. Kyra wanted — ' She broke off. 'What? What did I say?' 'Her name is Kia? Did — ' Before I could say anything else, the most extraordinary thing happened: my mouth was full of water. So full I felt a moment's panic, like someone who is swimming in the ocean and swallows a wave-wash. Only this wasn't a salt taste; it was cold and fresh, with a faint metal tang like blood. I turned my head aside and spat. I expected a gush of liquid to pour out of my mouth — the sort of gush you sometimes get when commencing artificial respiration on a near-drowning victim. What came out instead was what usually comes out when you spit on a hot day: a little white pellet. And that sensation was gone even before the little white pellet struck the dirt of the shoulder. In an instant, as if it had never been there. 'That man spirted,' the girl said matter-of-factly.
Slide 68: 'Sorry,' I said. I w also bewildered. What in God's name had that been about? 'I guess I had a as little delayed reaction.' Mattie looked concerned, as though I were eighty instead of forty. I thought that maybe to a girl her age, forty is eighty. 'Do you want to come up to the house? I'll give you a glass of water.' 'No, I'm fine now.' 'All right. Mr. Noonan . . . all I mean is that nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I was hanging sheets . . . she was inside watching a Mighty Mouse cartoon on the VCR . . . then, when I went in to get more pins . . . ' She looked at the girl, who was no longer smiling. It was starting to get through to her now. Her eyes were big, and ready to fill with tears. 'She was gone. I thought for a minute I'd die of fear.' Now the kid's mouth began to tremble, and her eyes filled up right on schedule. She began to weep. Mattie stroked her hair, soothing the small head until it lay against the Kmart smock top. 'That's all right, Ki,' she said. 'It turned out okay this time, but you can't go out in the road. It's dangerous. Little things get run over in the road, and you're a little thing. The most precious little thing in the world.' She cried harder. It was the exhausted sound of a child who needed a nap before any more adventures, to the beach or anywhere else. 'Kia bad, Kia bad,' she sobbed against her mother's neck. 'No, honey, only three,' Mattie said, and if I had harbored any further thoughts about her being a bad mother, they melted away then. Or perhaps they'd already gone — after all, the kid was round, comely, well-kept, and unbruised. On one level, those things registered. On another I was trying to cope with the strange thing that had just happened, and the equally strange thing I thought I was h earing — that the little girl I had carried off the white line had the name we had planned to give our child, if our child turned out to be a girl. 'Kia,' I said. Marvelled, really. As if my touch might break her, I tentatively stroked the back of her head. Her hair was sun-warm and fine. 'No,' Mattie said. 'That's the best she can say it now. Kyra, not Kia. It's from the Greek. It means ladylike.' She shifted, a little self-conscious. 'I picked it out of a baby-name book. While I was pregnant, I kind of went Oprah. Better than going postal, I guess.' 'It's a lovely name,' I said. 'And I don't think you're a bad mom.' What went through my mind right then was a story Frank Arlen had told over a meal at Christmas — it had been about Petie, the youngest brother, and Frank had had the whole table in stitches. Even Petie, who claimed not to remember a bit of the incident, laughed until tears streamed down his cheeks. One Easter, Frank said, when Petie was about five, their folks had gotten them up for an Easteregg hunt. The two parents had hidden over a hundred colored hard-boiled eggs around the house the evening before, after getting the kids over to their grandparents'. A high old Easter morning was had by all, at least until Johanna looked up from the patio, where she was counting her share of the spoils, and shrieked. There was Petie, crawling gaily around on the second-floor overhang at the back of the house, not six feet from the drop to the concrete patio. Mr. Arlen had rescued Petie while the rest of the family stood below, holding hands, frozen with horror and fascination. Mrs. Arlen had repeated the Hail Mary over and over ('so fast she sounded like one of the Chipmunks on that old 'Witch Doctor' record,' Frank had said, laughing h arder than ever) until her husband had disappeared back into the open bedroom window with Petie in his
Slide 69: arms. Then she had swooned to the pavement, breaking her nose. When asked for an explanation, Petie had told them he'd wanted to check the rain-gutter for eggs. I suppose every family has at least one story like that; the survival of the world's Peties and Kyras is a convincing argument — in the minds of parents, anyway for the existence of God. 'I was so scared,' Mattie said, now looking fourteen again. Fifteen at most. 'But it's over,' I said. 'And Kyra's not going to go walking in the road anymore. Are you, Kyra?' She shook her head against her mother's shoulder without raising it. I had an idea she'd probably be asleep before Mattie got her back to the good old doublewide. 'You don't know how bizarre this is for me,' Mattie said. 'One of my favorite writers comes out of nowhere and saves my kid. I knew you had a place on the TR, that big old log house everyone calls Sara Laughs, but folks say you don't come here anymore since your wife died.' 'For a long time I didn't,' I said. 'If Sara was a marriage instead of a house, you'd call this a trial reconciliation.' She smiled fleetingly, then looked grave again. 'I want to ask you for something. A favor.' 'Ask away.' 'Don't talk about this. It's not a good time for Ki and me.' 'Why not?' She bit her lip and seemed to consider answering the question — -one I might not have asked, given an extra moment to consider — and then shook her head. 'It's just not. And I'd be so grateful if you didn't talk about what just happened in town. More grateful than you'll ever know.' 'No problem.' 'You mean it?' 'Sure. I'm basically a summer person who hasn't been around for awhile . . . which means I don't have many folks to talk to, anyway.' There was Bill Dean, of course, but I could keep quiet around him. Not that he wouldn't know. If this little lady thought the locals weren't going to find out about her daughter's attempt to get to the beach by shank's mare, she was fooling herself. 'I think we've been noticed already, though. Take a look up at Brooksie's Garage. Peek, don't stare.' She did, and sighed. Two old men were standing on the tarmac where there had been gas pumps once upon a time. One was very likely Brooksie himself; I thought I could see the remnants of the flyaway red hair which had always made him look like a downeast version of Bozo the Clown. The other, old enough to make Brooksie look like a wee slip of a lad, was leaning on a gold-headed cane in a way that was queerly vulpine. 'I can't do anything about them,' she said, sounding depressed. 'Nobody can do anything about them. I guess I should count myself lucky it's a holiday and there's only two of them.' 'Besides,' I added, 'they probably didn't see much.' Which ignored two things: first, that half a dozen cars and pick-em-ups had gone by while we had been standing here, and second, that whatever Brooksie and his elderly friend hadn't seen, they would be more than happy to make up. On Mattie's shoulder, Kyra gave a ladylike snore. Mattie glanced at her and gave her a smile full of rue and love. 'I'm sorry we had to meet under circumstances that make me look like such a dope, because I really am a big fan. They say at the bookstore in Castle Rock that you've got a new one coming out this summer.' I nodded. 'It's called Helen's Promise.' She grinned. 'Good title.' 'Thanks. You better get your buddy back home before she breaks your arm.' 'Yeah.'
Slide 70: There are people in this world who have a knack for asking embarrassing, awkward questions without meaning to — it's like a talent for walking into doors. I am one of that tribe, and as I walked with her toward the passenger side of the Scout, I found a good one. And yet it was hard to blame myself too enthusiastically. I had seen the wedding ring on her hand, after all. 'Will you tell your husband?' Her smile stayed on, but it paled somehow. And tightened. If it were possible to delete a spoken question the way you can delete a line of type when you're writing a story, I would have done it. 'He died last August.' 'Mattie, I'm sorry. Open mouth, insert foot.' 'You couldn't know. A girl my age isn't even supposed to be married, is she? And if she is, her husband's supposed to be in the army, or something.' There was a pink baby-seat — also Kmart, I guessed — on the passenger side of the Scout. Mattie tried to boost Kyra in, but I could see she was struggling. I stepped forward to help her, and for just a moment, as I reached past her to grab a plump leg, the back of my hand brushed her breast. She couldn't step back unless she wanted to risk Kyra's slithering out of the seat and onto the floor, but I could feel her recording the touch. My husband's dead, not a threat, so the big-deal writer thinks it's okay to cop a little feel on a hot summer morning. And what can I say? Mr. Big Deal came along and hauled my kid out of the road, maybe saved her life. No, Mattie, I may be forty going on a hundred, but I was not copping a feel. Except I couldn't say that; it would only make things worse. I felt my cheeks flush a little. 'How old are you?' I asked, when we had the baby squared away and were back at a safe distance. She gave me a look. Tired or not, she had it together again. 'Old enough to know the situation I'm in.' She held out her hand. 'Thanks again, Mr. Noonan. God sent you along at the right time.' 'Nah, God just told me I needed a hamburger at the Village Cafe,' I said. 'Or maybe it was His opposite number. Please say Buddy's still doing business at the same old stand.' She smiled. It warmed her face back up again, and I was happy to see it. 'He'll still be there when Ki's kids are old enough t try buying beer with fake IDS. Unless someone wanders in off the road o and asks for something like shrimp tetrazzini. If that happened he'd probably drop dead of a heart attack.' 'Yeah. Well, when I get copies of the new book, I'll drop one off.' The smile continued to hang in there, but now it shaded toward caution. 'You don't need to do that, Mr. Noonan.' 'No, but I will. My agent gets me fifty comps. I find that as I get older, they go further.' Perhaps she heard more in my voice than I had meant to put there — people do sometimes, I guess. 'All right. I'll look forward to it.' I took another look at the baby, sleeping in that queerly casual way they have — her head tilted over on her shoulder, her lovely little lips pursed and blowing a bubble. Their skin is what kills me — so fine and perfect there seem to be no pores at all. Her Sox hat was askew. Mattie watched me reach in and readjust it so the visor's shade fell across her closed eyes. 'Kyra,' I said. Mattie nodded. 'Ladylike.' 'Kia is an African name,' I said. 'It means 'season's beginning.'' I left her then, giving her a little wave as I headed back to the driver's side of the Chevy. I could feel her curious eyes on me, and I had the oddest feeling that I was going to cry.
Slide 71: That feeling stayed with me long after the two of them were out of sight; was still with me when I got to the Village Cafe. I pulled into the dirt parking lot to the left of the off-brand gas pumps and just sat there for a little while, thinking about Jo and about a home pregnancy-testing kit which had cost twenty-two-fifty. A little secret she'd wanted to keep until she was absolutely sure. That must have been it; what else could it have been? 'Kia,' I said. 'Season's beginning.' But that made me feel like crying again, so I got out of the car and slammed the door hard behind me, as if I could keep the sadness inside that way.
Slide 72: CHAPTER EIGHT Buddy Jellison was just the same, all right — same dirty cooks' whites and splotchy white apron, same flyaway gray hair under a paper cap stained with either beef-blood or strawberry juice. Even, from the look, the same oatmeal-cookie crumbs caught in his ragged mustache. He was maybe fifty-five and maybe seventy, which in some genetically favored men seems to be still within the farthest borders of middle age. He was huge and shambly — probably six-four, three hundred pounds — and just as full of grace, wit, and joie de vivre as he had been four years before. 'You want a menu or do you remember?' he grunted, as if I'd last been in yesterday. 'You still make the Villageburger Deluxe?' 'Does a crow still shit in the pine tops?' Pale eyes regarding me. No condolences, which was fine by me. 'Most likely. I'll have one with everything — a Villageburger, not a crow — plus a chocolate frappe. Good to see you again.' I offered my hand. He looked surprised but touched it with his own. Unlike the whites, the apron, and the hat, the hand was clean. Even the nails were clean. 'Yuh,' he said, then turned to the sallow woman chopping onions beside the grill. 'Villageburger, Audrey,' he said. 'Drag it through the garden.' I'm ordinarily a sit-at-the-counter kind of guy, but that day I took a booth near the cooler and waited for Buddy to yell that it was ready — Audrey short-orders, but she doesn't waitress. I wanted to think, and Buddy's was a good place to do it. There were a couple of locals eating sandwiches and drinking sodas straight from the can, but that was about it; people with summer cottages would have to be starving to eat at the Village Cafe, and even then you'd likely have to haul them through the door kicking and screaming. The floor was faded green linoleum with a rolling topography of hills and valleys. Like Buddy's uniform, it was none too clean (the summer people who came in probably failed to notice his hands). The woodwork was greasy and dark. Above it, where the plaster started, there were a number of bumper-stickers — Buddy's idea of decoration. HORN BROKEN — WATCH FOR FINGER. WIFE AND DOG MISSING. REWARD FOR DOG. THERE'S NO TOWN DRUNK HERE, WE ALL TAKE TURNS. Humor is almost always anger with its makeup on, I think, but in little towns the makeup tends to be thin. Three overhead fans paddled apathetically at the hot air, and to the left of the soft-drink cooler were two dangling strips of flypaper, both liberally stippled with wildlife, some of it still struggling feebly. If you could look at those and still eat, your digestion was probably doing okay. I thought about a similarity of names which was surely, had to be, a coincidence. I thought about a young, pretty girl who had become a mother at sixteen or seventeen and a widow at nineteen or twenty. I thought about inadvertently touching her breast, and how the world judged men in their
Slide 73: forties who suddenly discovered the fascinating world of young women and their accessories. Most of all I thought of the queer thing that had happened to me when Mattie had told me the kid's name — that sense that my mouth and throat were suddenly flooded with cold, mineral-tangy water. That rush. When my burger was ready, Buddy had to call twice. When I went over to get it, he said: 'You back to stay or to clear out?' 'Why?' I asked. 'Did you miss me, Buddy?' 'Nup,' h said, 'but at least you're from in-state. Did you know that 'Massachusetts' is Piscataqua e for 'asshole'?' 'You're as funny as ever,' I said. 'Yuh. I'm going on fuckin Letterman. Explain to him why God gave seagulls wings.' 'Why was that, Buddy?' 'So they could beat the fuckin Frenchmen to the dump.' I got a newspaper from the rack and a straw for my frappe. Then I detoured to the pay phone and, tucking my paper under my arm, opened the phone book. You could actually walk around with it if you wanted; it wasn't tethered to the phone. Who, after all, would want to steal a Castle County telephone directory? There were over twenty Devores, which didn't surprise me very much — it's one of those names, like Pelkey or Bowie or Toothaker, t at you kept coming across if you lived down here. I imagine h it's the same everywhere — some families breed more and travel less, that's all. There was a Devore listing for 'RD Wsp HI1 Rd,' but it wasn't for a Mattie, Mathilda, Martha, or M. It was for Lance. I looked at the front of the phone book and saw it was a 1997 model, printed and mailed while Mattie's husband was still in the land of the living. Okay . . . but there was something else about that name. Devore, Devore, let us now praise famous Devores; wherefore art thou Devore? But it wouldn't come, whatever it was. I ate my burger, drank my liquefied ice cream, and tried not to look at what was caught on the flypaper. While I was waiting for the sallow, silent Audrey to give me my change (you could still eat all week in the Village Cafe for fifty dollars . . . if your blood-vessels could stand it, that was), I read the sticker pasted to the cash register. It was another Buddy Jellison special: CYBERSPACE SCARED ME SO BAD I DOWNLOADED IN MY PANTS. This didn't exactly convulse me with mirth, but it did provide the key for solving one of the day's mysteries: why the name Devore had seemed not just familiar but evocative. I was financially well off, rich by the standards of many. There was at least one person with ties to the TR, however, who was rich by the standards of everybody, and filthy rich by the standards of most year-round residents of the lakes region. If, that was, he was still eating, breathing, and walking around. 'Audrey, is Max Devore still alive?' She gave me a little smile. 'Oh, ayuh. But we don't see him in here too often.' That got the laugh out of me that all of Buddy's joke stickers hadn't been able to elicit. Audrey, who had always been yellowish and who now looked like a candidate for a liver transplant, snickered herself. Buddy gave us a librarian's prim glare from the far end of the counter, where he was reading a flyer about the holiday NASCAR race at Oxford Plains. I drove back the way I had come. A big hamburger is a bad meal to eat in the middle of a hot day; it leaves you feeling sleepy and heavy-witted. All I wanted was to go home (I'd been there less
Slide 74: than twenty-four hours and was already thinking of it as home), flop on the bed in the north bedroom under the revolving fan, and sleep for a couple of hours. When I passed Wasp Hill Road, I slowed down. The laundry was hanging listlessly on the lines, and there was a scatter of toys in the front yard, but the Scout was gone. Mattie and Kyra had donned their suities, I imagined, and headed on down to the public beachie. I'd liked them both, and quite a lot. Mattie's short-lived marriage had probably hooked her somehow to Max Devore . . . but looking at the rusty doublewide trailer with its dirt driveway and balding front yard, remembering Mattie's baggy shorts and Kmart smock top, I had to doubt that the hook was a strong one. Before retiring to Palm Springs in the late eighties, Maxwell William Devore had been a driving force in the computer revolution. It's primarily a young people's revolution, but Devore did okay for a golden oldie — knew the playing-field and understood the rules. He started when memory was stored on magnetic tape instead of in computer chips and a warehouse-sized cruncher called UNIVAC was state-of-the-art. He was fluent in COBOL and spoke FORTRAN like a native. As the field expanded beyond his ability to keep up, expanded to the point where it began to define the world, he bought the talent he needed to keep growing. His company, Visions, had created scanning programs which could upload hard copy onto floppy disks almost instantaneously; it created graphic-imaging programs which had become the industry standard; it created Pixel Easel, which allowed laptop users to mouse-paint . . . to actually fingerpaint, if their gadget came equipped with what Jo had called 'the clitoral cursor.' Devore had invented none of this later stuff, but he'd understood that it could be invented and had hired people to do it. He held dozens of patents and co-held hundreds more. He was supposedly worth something like six hundred million dollars, depending on how technology stocks were doing on any given day. On the TR he was reputed to be crusty and unpleasant. No surprise there; to a Nazarene, can any good thing come out of Nazareth? And folks said he was eccentric, of course. Listen to the oldtimers who remember the rich and successful in their salad days (and all the old-timers claim they do), and you'll hear that they ate the wallpaper, fucked the dog, and showed up at church suppers wearing nothing but their pee-stained BVDS. Even if all that was true in Devore's case, and even if he was Scrooge McDuck in the bargain, I doubted that he'd allow two of his closer relatives to live in a doublewide trailer. I drove up the lane above the lake, then paused at the head of my driveway, looking at the sign there: SARA LAUGHS burned into a length of varnished board nailed to a handy tree. It's the way they do things down here. Looking at it brought back the last dream of the Manderley series. In that dream someone had slapped a radio-station sticker on the sign, the way you're always seeing stickers slapped on turnpike toll-collection baskets in the exact-change lanes. I got out of my car, went to the sign, and studied it. No sticker. The sunflowers had been down there, growing out of the stoop — I had a photo in my suitcase that proved it — but there was no radio-station sticker on the house sign. Proving exactly what? Come on, Noonan, get a grip. I started back to the car — the door was open, the Beach Boys spilling out of the speakers — then changed my mind and went back to the sign again. In the dream, the sticker had been pasted just above the RA of SARA and the LAU of LAUGHS. I touched my fingers to that spot and thought they came away feeling slightly sticky. Of course that could have been the feel of varnish on a hot day. Or my imagination. I drove down to the house, parked, set the emergency brake (on the slopes around Dark Score and the dozen or so other lakes in western Maine, you always set your brake), and listened to the rest of 'Don't Worry, Baby,' which I've always thought was the best of the Beach Boys' songs, great
Slide 75: not in spite of the sappy lyrics but because of them. If y knew how much I love you, baby, Brian ou Wilson sings, nothing could go wrong with you. And oh folks, wouldn't that be a world. I sat there listening and looked at the cabinet set against the right side of the stoop. We kept our garbage in there to foil the neighborhood raccoons. Even cans with snap-down lids won't always do that; if the coons are hungry enough, they somehow manage the lids with their clever little hands. You're not going to do what you're thinking of doing, I told myself. I mean . . . are you? It seemed I was — or that I was at least going to have a go. When the Beach Boys gave way to Rare Earth, I got out of the car, opened the storage cabinet, and pulled out two plastic garbage cans. There was a guy named Stan Proulx who came down to yank the trash twice a week (or there was four years ago, I reminded myself), one of Bill Dean's farflung network of part-timers working for cash off the books, but I didn't think Stan would have been down to collect the current accumulation of swill because of the holiday, and I was right. There were two plastic garbage bags in each can. I hauled them out (cursing myself for a fool even while I was doing it) and untwisted the yellow ties. I really don't think I was so obsessed that I would have dumped a bunch of wet garbage out on my stoop if it had come to that (of course I'll never know for sure, and maybe that's for the best), but it didn't. No one had lived in the house for four years, remember, and it's occupancy that produces garbage — everything from coffee-grounds to used sanitary napkins. The stuff in these bags was dry trash swept together and carted out by Brenda Meserve's cleaning crew. There were nine vacuum-cleaner disposal bags containing forty-eight months of dust, dirt, and dead flies. There were wads of paper towels, some smelling of aromatic furniture polish and others of the sharper but still pleasant aroma of Windex. There was a moldy mattress pad and a silk jacket which had that unmistakable dined-upon-by-moths look. The jacket certainly caused me no regrets; a mistake of my young manhood, it looked like something from the Beatles' 'I Am the Walrus' era. Goo-goo-joob, baby. There was a box filled with broken glass . . . another filled with unrecognizable (and presumably out-of-date) plumbing fixtures . . . a torn and filthy square of carpet . . . done-to-death dishtowels, faded and ragged . . . the old oven-gloves I'd used when cooking burgers and chicken on the barbecue . . . The sticker was in a twist at the bottom of the second bag. I'd known I would find it — from the moment I'd felt that faintly tacky patch on the sign, I'd known — but I'd needed to see it for myself. The same way old Doubting Thomas had needed to get the blood under his fingernails, I suppose. I placed my find on a board of the sunwarmed stoop and smoothed it out with my hand. It was shredded around the edges. I guessed Bill had probably used a putty-knife to scrape it off. He hadn't wanted Mr. Noonan to come back to the lake after four years and discover some beered-up kid had slapped a radio-station sticker on his driveway sign. Gorry, no, 't'wouldn't be proper, deah. So off it had come and into the trash it had gone and here it was again, another piece of my nightmare unearthed and not much the worse for wear. I ran my fingers over it. WBLM, 102.9, PORTLAND'S ROCK AND ROLL BLIMP. I told myself didn't have to be afraid. That it meant nothing, just as all the rest of it meant nothing. Then I got the broom out of the cabinet, swept all the trash together, and dumped it back in the plastic bags. The sticker went in with the rest. I went inside meaning to shower the dust and grime away, then spied my own bathing suitie, still lying in one of my open suitcases, and decided to go swimming instead. The suit was a jolly number, covered with spouting whales, that I had purchased in Key Largo. I thought my pal in the
Slide 76: Bosox cap would have approved. I checked my watch and saw that I had finished my Villageburger forty-five minutes ago. Close enough for government work, Kemo sabe, especially after engaging in an energetic game of Trash-Bag Treasure Hunt. I pulled on my suit and walked down the railroad-tie steps which lead from Sara to the water. My flip-flops snapped and flapped. A few late mosquitoes hummed. The lake gleamed in front of me, still and inviting under that low humid sky. Running north and south along its edge, bordering the entire east side of the lake, was a right-of-way path (it's called 'common property' in the deeds) which folks on the TR simply call The Street. If one were to turn left onto The Street at the foot of my steps, one could walk all the way down to the Dark Score Marina, passing Warrington's and Buddy Jellison's scuzzy little eatery on the way . . . not to mention four dozen summer cottages, discreetly tucked into sloping groves of spruce and pine. Turn right and you could walk to Halo Bay, although it would take you a day to do it with The Street overgrown the way it is now. I stood there for a moment on the path, then ran forward and leaped into the water. Even as I flew through the air with the greatest of ease, it occurred to me that the last time I had jumped in like this, I had been holding my wife's hand. Touching down was almost a catastrophe. The water was cold enough to remind me that I was forty, not fourteen, and for a moment my heart stopped dead in my chest. As Dark Score Lake closed over my head, I felt quite sure that I wasn't going to come up alive. I'd be found drifting facedown between the swimming float and my little stretch of The Street, a victim of cold water and a greasy Villageburger. They'd carve Your Mother Always Said To Wait At Least An Hour on my tombstone. Then my feet landed in the stones and slimy weedstuff growing along the bottom, my heart kickstarted, and I shoved upward like a guy planning to slam-dunk home the last score of a close basketball game. As I returned to the air, I gasped. Water went in my mouth and I coughed it back out, patting one hand against my chest in an effort to encourage my heart — come on, baby, keep going, you can do it. I came back down standing waist-deep in the lake and with my mouth full of that cold taste — lakewater with an undertinge of minerals, the kind you'd have to correct for when you washed your clothes. It was exactly what I had tasted while standing on the shoulder of Route 68. It was what I had tasted when Mattie Devore told me her daughter's name. I made a psychological connection, that's all. From the similarity of the names to my dead wife to this lake. Which — 'Which I have tasted a time or two before,' I said out loud. As if to underline the fact, I scooped up a palmful of water — some of the cleanest and clearest in the state, according to the analysis reports I and all the other members of the so-called Western Lakes Association get each year — and drank it down. There was no revelation, no sudden weird flashes in my head. It was just Dark Score, first in my mouth and then in my stomach. I swam out to the float, climbed the three-rung ladder on the side, and flopped on the hot boards, feeling suddenly very glad I had come. In spite of everything. Tomorrow I would start putting together some sort of life down here . . . trying to, anyway. For now it was enough to be l ing with y my head in the crook of one arm, on the verge of a doze, confident that the day's adventures were over. As it happened, that was not quite true. During our first summer on the TR, Jo and I discovered it was possible to see the Castle Rock fireworks show from the deck overlooking the lake. I remembered this just as it was drawing down
Slide 77: toward dark, and thought that this year I would spend that time in the living room, watching a movie on the video player. Reliving all the Fourth of July twilights we had spent out there, drinking beer and laughing as the big ones went off, would be a bad idea. I was lonely enough without that, lonely in a way of which I had not been conscious in Derry. Then I wondered what I had come down here for, if not to finally face Johanna's memory — all of it — and put it to loving rest. Certainly the possibility of writing again had never seemed more distant than it did that night. There was no beer — I'd forgotten to get a sixpack either at the General Store or at the Village Cafe — but there was soda, courtesy of Brenda Meserve. I got a can of Pepsi and settled in to watch the lightshow, hoping it wouldn't hurt too much. Hoping, I supposed, that I wouldn't cry. Not that I was kidding myself; there were more tears here, all right. I'd just have to get through them. The first explosion of the night had just gone off a spangly burst of blue with the bang travelling far behind — when the phone rang. It made me jump as the faint explosion from Castle Rock had not. I decided it was probably Bill Dean, calling long-distance to see if I was settling in all right. In the summer before Jo died, we'd gotten a wireless phone so we could prowl the downstairs while we talked, a thing we both liked to do. I went through the sliding glass door into the living room, punched the pickup button, and said, 'Hello, this is Mike,' as I went back to my deck-chair and sat down. Far across the lake, exploding below the low clouds hanging over Castle View, were green and yellow starbursts, followed by soundless flashes that would eventually reach me as noise. For a moment there was nothing from the phone, and then a man's raspy voice — an elderly voice but not Bill Dean's — said, 'Noonan? Mr. Noonan?' 'Yes?' A huge spangle of gold lt up the west, shivering the low clouds with brief filigree. It made i me think of the award shows you see on television, all those beautiful women in shining dresses. 'Devore.' 'Yes?' I said again, cautiously. 'Max Devore.' We don't see him in here too often, Audrey had said. I had taken that for Yankee wit, but apparently she'd been serious. Wonders never ceased. Okay, what next? I was at a total loss for conversational gambits. I thought of asking him how he'd gotten my number, which was unlisted, but what would be the point? When you were worth over half a billion dollars — if this really was the Max Devore I was talking to — you could get any old unlisted number you wanted. I settled for saying yes again, this time without the little uptilt at the end. Another silence followed. When I broke it and began asking questions, he would be in charge of the conversation . . . if we could be said to be having a conversation at that point. A good gambit, but I had the advantage of my long association with Harold Oblowski to fall back on — Harold, master of the pregnant pause. I sat tight, cunning little cordless phone to my ear, and watched the show in the west. Red bursting into blue, green into gold; unseen women walked the clouds in glowing award-show evening dresses. 'I understand you met my daughter-in-law today,' he said at last. He sounded annoyed. 'I may have done,' I said, trying not to sound surprised. 'May I ask why you're calling, Mr. Devore?' 'I understand there was an incident.' White lights danced in the sky — they could have been exploding spacecraft. Then, trailing after, the bangs. I've discovered the secret of time travel, I thought. It's an auditory phenomenon.
Slide 78: My hand was holding the phone far too tightly, and I made it relax. Maxwell Devore. Half a billion dollars. Not in Palm Springs, as I had supposed, but close — right here on the TR, if the characteristic under-hum on the line could be trusted. 'I'm concerned for my granddaughter.' His voice was raspier than ever. He was angry, and it showed — this was a man who hadn't had to conceal his emotions in a lot of years. 'I understand my daughter-in-law's attention wandered again. It wanders often.' Now half a dozen colored starbursts lit the night, blooming like flowers in an old Disney nature film. I could imagine the crowds gathered on Castle View sitting cross-legged on their blankets, eating ice cream cones and drinking beer and all going Oooooh at the same time. That's what makes any successful work of art, I think-everybody goes Oooooh at the same time. 'You're scared of this guy, aren't you? Jo asked. Okay, maybe you're right to be scared. A man who feels he can be angry whenever he wants to at whoever he wants to . . . that's a man who can be dangerous. Then Mattie's voice: Mr. Noonan, I'm not a bad mother. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. Of course that's what most bad mothers say in such circumstances, I imagined . . . but I had believed her. Also, goddammit, my number was unlisted. I had been sitting here with a soda, watching the fireworks, bothering nobody, and this guy had — 'Mr. Devore, I don't have any idea what — ' 'Don't give me that, with all due respect don't give me that, Mr. Noonan, you were seen talking to them.' He sounded as I imagine Joe Mccarthy sounded to those poor schmucks who ended up being branded dirty commies when they came before his committee. Be careful, Mike, Jo said. Beware of Maxwell's silver hammer. 'I did see and speak to a woman and a little girl this morning,' I said. 'I presume they're the ones you're talking about.' 'No, you saw a toddler walking on the road alone,' he said. 'And then you saw a woman chasing after her. My daughter-in-law, in that old thing she drives. The child could have been run down. Why are you protecting that young woman, Mr. Noonan? Did she promise you something? You're certainly doing the child no favors, I can tell you that much.' She promised to take me back to her trailer and then take me around the world, I thought of saying. She promised to keep her mouth open the whole time if I'd keep mine shut — is that what you want to hear? Yes, Jo said. Very likely that is what he wants to hear. Very likely what he wants to believe. Don't let him provoke you into a burst of your sophomore sarcasm, Mike — you could regret it. Why was I bothering to protect Mattie Devore, anyway? I didn't know. Didn't have the slightest idea of what I might be getting into here, for that matter. I only knew that she had looked tired, and the child hadn't been bruised or frightened or sullen. 'There was a car. An old Jeep.' 'That's more like it.' Satisfaction. And sharp interest. Greed, almost. 'What did — ' 'I guess I assumed they came in the car together,' I said. There was a certain giddy pleasure in discovering my capacity for invention had not deserted me — I felt like a pitcher who can no longer do it in front of a crowd, but who can still throw a pretty good slider in the old b yard. ack 'The little girl might have had some daisies.' All the careful qualifications, as if I were testifying in court instead of sitting on my deck. Harold would have been proud. Well, no. Harold would have been horrified that I was having such a conversation at all.
Slide 79: 'I think I assumed they were picking wildflowers. My memory of the incident isn't all that clear, unfortunately. I'm a writer, Mr. Devore, and when I'm driving I often drift off into my own private —' 'You're lying.' The anger was right out in the open now, bright and pulsing like a boil. As I had suspected, it hadn't taken much effort to escort this guy past the social niceties. 'Mr. Devore. The computer Devore, I assume?' 'You assume correctly.' Jo always grew cooler i tone and expression as her not inconsiderable temper grew hotter. Now n I heard myself emulating her in a way that was frankly eerie. 'Mr. Devore, I'm not accustomed to being called in the evening by men I don't know, nor do I intend to prolong the conversation when a man who does so calls me a liar. Good evening, sir.' 'If everything was fine, then why did you stop?' 'I've been away from the TR for some time, and I wanted to know if the Village Cafe was still open. Oh, by the way — I don't know where you got my telephone number, but I know where you can put it. Good night.' I broke the connection with my thumb and then just looked at the phone, as if I had never seen such a gadget in my life. The hand holding it was trembling. My heart was beating hard; I could feel it in my neck and wrists as well as my chest. I wondered if I could have told Devore to stick my phone number up his ass if I hadn't had a few million rattling around in the bank myself. The Battle of the Titans, dear, Jo said in her cool voice. And all over a teenage girl in a trailer. She didn't even have any breasts to speak of. I laughed out loud. War of the Titans? Hardly. Some old robber baron from the turn of the century had said, 'These days a man with a million dollars thinks he's rich.' Devore would likely have the same opinion of me, and in the wider scheme of things he would be right. Now the western sky was alight with unnatural, pulsing color. It was the finale. 'What was that all about?' I asked. No answer; only a loon calling across the lake. Protesting all the unaccustomed noise in the sky, as likely as not. I got up, went inside, and put the phone back in its charging cradle, realizing as I did that I was expecting it to ring again, expecting Devore to start spouting movie cliches: If you get in my way I'll and I'm warning you, friend, not to and Let me give you a piece of good advice before you. The phone didn't ring. I poured the rest of my soda down my gullet, which was understandably dry, and decided to go to bed. At least there hadn't been any weeping and wailing out there on the deck; Devore had pulled me out of myself. In a weird way, I was grateful to him. I went into the north bedroom, undressed, and lay down. I thought about the lttle girl, Kyra, and i the mother who could have been her older sister. Devore was pissed at Mattie, that much was clear, and if I was a financial nonentity to the guy, what must she be to him? And what kind of resources would she have if he had taken against her? That was a pretty nasty thought, actually, and it was the one I fell asleep on. I got up three hours later to eliminate the can of soda I had unwisely downed before retiring, and as I stood before the bowl, pissing with one eye open, I heard the sobbing again. A child somewhere in the dark, lost and frightened . . . or perhaps just pretending to be lost and frightened. 'Don't,' I said. I was standing naked before the toilet bowl, my back alive with gooseflesh. 'Please don't start up with this shit, it's scary.' The crying dwindled as it had before, seeming to diminish like something carried down a tunnel. I went back to bed, turned on my side, and closed my eyes.
Slide 80: 'It was a dream,' I said. 'Just another Manderley dream.' I knew better, but I also knew I was going back to sleep, and right then that seemed like the important thing. As I drifted off, I thought in a voice that was purely my own: She is alive. Sara is alive. And I understood something, too: she belonged to me. I had reclaimed her. For good or ill, I had come home.
Slide 81: CHAPTER NINE At nine o'clock the following morning I filled a squeeze-bottle with grapefruit juice and set out for a good long walk south along The Street. The day was bright and already hot. It was also silent — the kind of silence you experience only after a Saturday holiday, I think, one composed of equal parts holiness and hangover. I could see two or three fishermen parked far out on the lake, but not a single power boat burred, not a single gaggle of kids shouted and splashed. I passed half a dozen cottages on the slope above me, and although all of them were likely inhabited at this time of year, the only signs of life I saw were bathing suits hung over the deck rail at the Passendales' and a halfdeflated fluorescent-green seahorse on the Batchelders' stub of a dock. But did the Passendales' little gray cottage still belong to the Passendales? Did the Batchelders' amusing circular summer-camp with its Cinerama picture-window pointing at the lake and the mountains beyond still belong to the Batchelders? No way of telling, of course. Four years can bring a lot of changes. I walked and made no effort to think — an old trick from my writing days. Work your body, rest your mind, let the boys in t e basement do their jobs. I made my way past camps where Jo and I h had once had drinks and barbecues and attended the occasional card-party, I soaked up the silence like a sponge, I drank my juice, I armed sweat off my forehead, and I waited to see what thoughts might come. The first was an odd realization: that the crying child in the night seemed somehow more real than the call from Max Devore. Had I actually been phoned by a rich and obviously bad-tempered techno-mogul on my first full evening back o the TR? Had said mogul actually called me a liar at n one point? (I was, considering the tale I had told, but that was beside the point.) I knew it had happened, but it was actually easier to believe in The Ghost of Dark Score Lake, known around some campfires as The Mysterious Crying Kiddie. My next thought — this was just before I finished my juice — was that I should call Mattie Devore and tell her what had happened. I decided it was a natural impulse but probably a bad idea. I was too old to believe in such simplicities as The Damsel in Distress Versus The Wicked Stepfather . . . or, in this case, Father-in-Law. I had my own fish to fry this summer, and I didn't want to complicate my job by getting into a potentially ugly dispute between Mr. Computer and Ms. Doublewide. Devore had rubbed my fur the wrong way — and vigorously — but that probably wasn't personal, only something he did as a matter of course. Hey, some guys snap bra-straps. Did I want to get in his face on this? No. I did not. I had saved Little Miss Red Sox, I had gotten myself an inadvertent feel of Mom's small but pleasantly firm breast, I had learned that Kyra was Greek for ladylike. Any more than that would be gluttony, by God. I stopped at that point, feet as well as brain, realizing I'd walked all the way to Warrington's, a vast barnboard structure which locals sometimes called the country club. It was, sort of — there was a six-hole golf course, a stable and riding trails, a restaurant, a bar, and lodging for perhaps three dozen in the main building and the eight or nine satellite cabins. There was even a two-lane bowling alley, although you and your competition had to take turns setting up the pins. Warrington's had been built around the beginning of World War I. That made it younger than Sara Laughs, but not by much.
Slide 82: A long dock led out to a smaller building called The Sunset Bar. It was there that Warrington's summer guests would gather for drinks at the end of the day (and some for Bloody Marys at the beginning). And when I glanced out that way, I realized I was no longer alone. There was a woman standing on the porch to the left of the floating bar's door, watching me. She gave me a pretty good jump. My nerves weren't in their best condition right then, and that probably had something to do with it . . . but I think she would have given me a jump in any case. Part of it was her stillness. Part was her extraordinary thinness. Most of it was her face. Have you ever seen that Edvard Munch drawing, The Cry? Well, if you imagine that screaming face at rest, mouth closed and eyes watchful, you'll have a pretty good image of the woman standing at the end of the dock with one long-fingered hand resting on the rail. Although I must tell you that my first thought was not Edvard Munch but Mrs. Danvers. She looked about seventy and was wearing black shorts over a black tank bathing suit. The combination looked strangely formal, a variation on the ever-popular little black cocktail dress. Her skin was cream-white, except above her nearly flat bosom and along her bony shoulders. There it swam with large brown age-spots. Her face was a wedge featuring prominent skull-like cheekbones and an unlined lamp of brow. Beneath that bulge, her eyes were lost in sockets of shadow. White hair hung scant and lank around her ears and down to the prominent shelf of her jaw. God, she's thin, I thought. She's nothing but a bag of — A shudder twisted through me at that. It was a strong one, as if someone were spinning a wire in my flesh. I didn't want her to notice it — what a way to start a summer day, by revolting a guy so badly that he stood there shaking and grimacing in front of you — so I raised my hand and waved. I tried to smile, as well. Hello there, lady standing out by the floating bar. Hello there, you old bag of bones, you scared the living shit out of me but it doesn't take much these days and I forgive you. How the fuck ya doin? I wondered if my smile looked as much like a grimace to her as it felt to me. She didn't wave back. Feeling quite a bit like a fool — THERE'S NO VILLAGE IDIOT HERE, WE ALL TAKE TURNS — I ended my wave in a kind of half-assed salute and headed back the way I'd come. Five steps and I had to look over my shoulder; the sensation of her watching me was s strong it was like a hand pressing o between my shoulderblades. The dock where she'd been was completely deserted. I squinted my eyes, at first sure she must have just retreated deeper into the shadow thrown by the little boozehaus, but she was gone. A if s she had been a ghost herself. She stepped into the bar, hon, Jo said. You know that, don't you? I mean . . . you do know it, right? 'Right, right,' I murmured, setting off north along The Street toward home. 'Of course I do. Where else?' Except it didn't seem to me that there had been time; it didn't seem to me that she could have stepped in, even in her bare feet, without me hearing her. Not on such a quiet morning. Jo again: Perhaps she's stealthy. 'Yes,' I murmured. I did a lot of talking out loud before that summer was over. 'Yes, perhaps she is. Perhaps she's stealthy.' Sure. Like Mrs. Danvers. I stopped again and looked back, but the right-of-way path had followed the lake around a little bit of curve, and I could no longer see either Warrington's or The Sunset Bar. And really, I thought, that was just as well. On my way back, I tried to list the oddities which had preceded and then surrounded my return to Sara Laughs: the repeating dreams; the sunflowers; the radio-station sticker; the weeping in the
Slide 83: night. I supposed that my encounter with Mattie and Kyra, plus the follow-up phone-call from Mr. Pixel Easel, also qualified as passing strange . . . but not in the same way as a child you heard sobbing in the night. And what about the fact that we had been in Derry instead of on Dark Score when Johanna died? Did that qualify for the list? I didn't know. I couldn't even remember why that was. In the fall and winter of 1993 I'd been fiddling with a screenplay for The Red-Shirt Man. In February of '94 I got going on All the Way from the Top, and that absorbed most of my attention. Besides, deciding to go west to the TR, west to Sara . . . 'That was Jo's job,' I told the day, and as soon as I heard the words I understood how true they were. We'd both loved the old girl, but saying 'Hey Irish, let's get our asses over to the TR for a few days' had been Jo's job. She might say it any time . . . except in the year before her death she hadn't said it once. And I had never thought to say it for her. Had somehow forgotten all about Sara Laughs, it seemed, even when summer came around. Was it possible to be that absorbed in a writing project? It didn't seem likely . . . but what other explanation was there? Something was very wrong with this picture, but I didn't know what it was. Not from nothin. That made me think of Sara Tidwell, and the lyrics to one of her songs. She had never been recorded, but I owned the Blind Lemon Jefferson version of this particular tune. One verse went: It ain't nuthin but a barn-dance sugar It ain't nuthin but a round-and-round Let me kiss you on your sweet lips sugar You the good thing that I found. I loved that song, and had always wondered how it would have sounded coming out of a woman's mouth instead of from that whiskey-voiced old troubadour. Out of Sara Tidwell's mouth. I bet she sang sweet. And boy, I bet she could swing it. I had gotten back to my own place again. I looked around, saw no one in the immediate vicinity (although I could now hear the day's first ski-boat burring away downwater), stripped to my underpants, and swam out to the float. I didn't climb it, only lay beside it holding onto the ladder with one hand and lazily kicking my feet. It was nice enough, but what was I g oing to do with the rest of the day? I decided to spend it cleaning my work area on the second floor. When that was done, maybe I'd go out and look around in Jo's studio. If I didn't lose my courage, that was. I swam back, kicking easily along, raising my head in and out of water which flowed along my body like cool silk. I felt like an otter. I was most of the way to the shore when I raised my dripping face and saw a woman standing on The Street, watching me. She was as thin as the one I'd seen down at Warrington's . . . but this one was green. Green and pointing north along the path like a dryad in some old legend. I gasped, swallowed water, coughed it back out. I stood up in chest-deep water and wiped my streaming eyes. Then I laughed (albeit a little doubtfully). The woman was green because she was a birch growing a little to the north of where my set of railroad-tie steps ended at The Street. And even with my eyes clear of water, there was something creepy about how the leaves around the ivory-streaked-with-black trunk almost made a peering face. The air was perfectly still and so the face was perfectly still (as still as the face of the woman in the black shorts and bathing suit had been), but on a breezy day it would seem to smile or frown . . . or perhaps to laugh. Behind it there
Slide 84: grew a sickly pine. One bare branch jutted off to the north. It was this I had mistaken for a skinny arm and a bony, pointing hand. It wasn't the first time I'd spooked myself like that. I see things, that's all. Write enough stories and every shadow on the floor looks like a footprint, every line in the dirt like a secret message. Which did not, of course, ease the task of deciding what was really peculiar at Sara Laughs and what was peculiar only because my mind was peculiar. I glanced around, saw I still had this part of the lake to myself (although not for much longer; the bee-buzz of the first power boat had been joined by a second and third), and stripped off my soggy underpants. I wrung them out, put t em on top of my shorts and tee-shirt, and walked naked up the h railroad-tie steps with my clothes held against my chest. I pretended I was Bunter, bringing breakfast and the morning paper to Lord Peter Wimsey. By the time I got back inside the house I was grinning like a fool. The second floor was stifling in spite of the open windows, and I saw why as soon as I got to the top of the stairs. Jo and I had shared space up here, she on the left (only a little room, really just a cubby, which was all she needed with the studio north of the house), me on the right. At the far end of the hall was the grilled snout of the monster air-conditioning unit we'd bought the year after we bought the lodge. Looking at it, I realized I had missed its characteristic hum without even being aware of it. There was a sign taped to it which said, Mr. Noonan: Broken. Blows hot air when you turn it on & sounds full of broken glass. Dean says the part it needs is promised from Western Auto in Castle Rock. I'll believe it when I see it. B. Meserve. I grinned at that last — -it was Mrs. M. right down to the ground — and then I tried the switch. Machinery often responds favorably when it senses a penis-equipped human in the vicinity, Jo used to claim, but not this time. I listened to the air conditioner grind for five seconds or so, then snapped it off. 'Damn thing shit the bed,' as TR folks like to say. And until it was fixed, I wouldn't even be doing crossword puzzles up here. I looked in my office just the same, as curious about what I might feel as about what I might find. The answer was next to nothing. There was the desk where I had finished The Red-Shirt Man, thus proving to myself that the first time wasn't a fluke; there was the photo of Richard Nixon, arms raised, flashing the double V-for-Victory sign, with the caption WOULD YOU BUY A USED CAR FROM THIS MAN? running beneath; there was the rag rug Jo had hooked for me a winter or two before she had discovered the wonderful world of afghans and pretty much gave up hooking. It wasn't quite the office of a stranger, but every item (most of all, the weirdly empty surface of the desk) said that it was the work-space of an earlier-generation Mike Noonan. Men's lives, I had read once, are usually defined by two primary forces: work and marriage. In my life the marriage was over and the career on what appeared to be permanent hiatus. Given that, it didn't seem strange to me that now the space where I'd spent so many days, usually in a state of real happiness as I made up various imaginary lives, seemed to mean nothing. It was like looking at the office of an employee who had been fired . . . or who had died suddenly. I started to leave, then had an idea. The filing cabinet in the corner was crammed with papers — bank statements (most eight or ten years out of date), correspondence (mostly never answered), a few story fragments-but I didn't find what I was looking for. I moved on to the closet, where the temperature had to be at least a hundred and ten degrees, and in a cardboard box which Mrs. M. had marked GADGETS, I unearthed it — a Sanyo Memo-Scriber Debra Weinstock gave me at the conclusion of our work on the first of the Putnam books. It could be set to turn itself on when you started to talk; it dropped into its PAUSE mode when you stopped to think.
Slide 85: I never asked Debra if the thing just caught her eye and she thought, 'Why, I'll bet any selfrespecting popular novelist would enjoy owning one of these babies,' or if it was something a little more specific . . . some sort of hint, perhaps? Verbalize those little faxes from your subconscious while they're still fresh, Noonan? I hadn't known then and didn't now. But I had it, a genuine proquality dictating-machine, and there were at least a dozen cassette tapes in my car, home dubs I'd made to listen to while driving. I would insert one in the Memo-Scriber tonight, slide the volume control as high as it would go, and put the machine in its DICTATE mode. Then, if the noise I'd heard at least twice now repeated itself, I would have it on tape. I could play it for Bill Dean and ask him what he thought it was. What if I hear the sobbing child tonight and the machine never kicks on? 'Well then, I'll know something else,' I told the empty, sunlit office. I was standing there in the doorway with the Memo-Scriber under my arm, looking at the empty desk and sweating like a pig. 'Or at least suspect it.' Jo's nook across the hall made my office seem crowded and homey by comparison. Never overfull, it was now nothing but a s quare room-shaped space. The rug was gone, her photos were gone, even the desk was gone. This looked like a do-it-yourself project which had been abandoned after ninety percent of the work had been done. Jo had been scrubbed out of it — scraped out of it — and I felt a moment's unreasonable anger at Brenda Meserve. I thought of what my mother usually said when I'd done something on my own initiative of which she disapproved: 'You took a little too much on y'self, didn't you?' That was my feeling about Jo's little bit of office: that in emptying it to the walls this way, Mrs. Meserve had taken a little too much on herself. Maybe it wasn't Mrs. M. who cleaned it out, the UFO voice said. Maybe Jo did it herself. Ever think of that, sport? 'That's stupid,' I said. 'Why would she? I hardly think she had a premonition of her own death. Considering she'd just bought — ' But I didn't want to say it. Not out loud. It seemed like a bad idea somehow. I turned to leave the room, and a sudden sigh of cool air, amazing in that heat, rushed past the sides of my face. Not my body; just my face. It was the most extraordinary sensation, like hands patting briefly but gently at my cheeks and forehead. At the same time there was a sighing in my ears . . . except t at's not quite right. It was a susurrus that went past my ears, like a whispered h message spoken in a hurry. I turned, expecting to see the curtains over the room's window in motion . . . but they hung perfectly straight. 'Jo?' I said, and hearing her name made me shiver so violently that I almost dropped the MemoScriber. 'Jo, was that you?' Nothing. No phantom hands patting my skin, no motion from the curtains . . . which there certainly would have been if there had been an actual draft. All was quiet. There was only a tall man with a sweaty face and a tape-recorder under his arm standing in the doorway of a bare room . . . but that was when I first began to really believe that I wasn't alone in Sara Laughs. So what? I asked myself. Even if it should be true, so what? Ghosts can't hurt anyone. That's what I thought then. When I visited Jo's studio (her air-conditioned studio) after lunch, I felt quite a lot better about Brenda Meserve — she hadn't taken too much on herself after all. The few items I especially remembered from Jo's little office — the framed square of her first afghan, the green rag rug, her framed poster depicting the wildflowers of Maine — had been put out here, along with almost
Slide 86: everything else I remembered. It was as if Mrs. M. had sent a message — I can't ease your pain or shorten your sadness, and I can't prevent the wounds that coming back here may re-open, but I can put all the stuff that may hurt you in one place, so you won't be stumbling over it unexpected or unprepared. I can do that much. Out here were no bare walls; out here the walls jostled with my wife's spirit and creativity. There were knitted things (some serious, many whimsical), batik squares, rag dolls popping out of what she called 'my baby collages,' an abstract desert painting made from strips of yellow, black, and orange silk, her flower photographs, even, on top of her bookshelf, what appeared to be a construction-in-progress, a head of Sara Laughs herself. It was made out of toothpicks and lollipop sticks. In one corner was her little loom and a wooden cabinet with a sign reading JO'S KNITTING STUFF! NO TRESPASSING! hung over the pull-knob. In another was the banjo she had tried to learn and then given up on, saying it hurt her fingers too much. In a third was a kayak paddle and a pair of Rollerblades with scuffed toes and little purple pompoms on the tips of the laces. The thing which caught and held my eye was sitting on the old roll-top desk in the center of the room. During the many good summers, falls, and winter weekends we had spent here, that desktop would have been littered with spools of thread, skeins of yarn, pincushions, sketches, maybe a book about the Spanish Civil War or famous American dogs. Johanna could be aggravating, at least to me, because she imposed no real system or order on what she did. She could also be daunting, even overwhelming at times. She was a brilliant scatterbrain, and her desk had always reflected that. But not now. It was possible to think that M M. had cleared the litter from the top of it and rs. plunked down what was now there, but impossible to believe. Why would she? It made no sense. The object was covered with a gray plastic hood. I reached out to touch it, and my hand faltered an inch or two short as a memory of an old dream (give me that it's my dust-catcher) slipped across my mind much as that queer draft ad slipped across my face. Then it was gone, and I pulled the plastic, over off. Underneath it was my old green IBM Selectric, which I hadn't seen or thought of in years. I leaned closer, knowing that the typewriter ball would be Courier — my old favorite — even before I saw it. What in God's name was my old typewriter doing out here? Johanna painted (although not very well), she took photographs (very good ones indeed) and sometimes sold them, she knitted, she crocheted, she wove and dyed cloth, she could play eight or ten basic chords on the guitar. She could write, of course; most English majors can, which is why they become English majors. Did she demonstrate any blazing degree of literary creativity? No. After a few experiments with poetry as an undergrad, she gave up that particular branch of the arts as a bad job. You write for both of us, Mike, she had said once. That's all yours; I'll just take a little taste of everything else. Given the quality of her poems as opposed to the quality of her silks, photographs, and knitted art, I thought that was probably wise. But here was my old IBM. Why? 'Letters,' I said. 'She found it down cellar or something, and rescued it to write letters on.' Except that wasn't Jo. She showed me most of her letters, often urging me to write little postscripts of my own, guilt-tripping me with that old saying about how the shoemaker's kids always go barefoot ('and the writer's friends would never hear from him if it weren't for Alexander Graham Bell,' she was apt to add). I hadn't seen a typed personal letter from my wife in all the time we'd been married — if nothing else, she would have considered it shitty etiquette. She could type,
Slide 87: producing mistake-free business letters slowly yet methodically, but she always used my desktop computer or her own Powerbook for those chores. 'What were you up to, hon?' I asked, then began to investigate her desk drawers. Brenda Meserve had made an effort with these, but Jo's fundamental nature had defeated her. Surface order (spools of thread segregated by color, for instance) quickly gave way to Jo's old dear jumble. I found enough of her in those drawers to hurt my heart with a hundred unexpected memories, but I found no paperwork which had been typed on my old IBM, with or without the Courier ball. Not so much as a single page. When I was finished with my hunt, I leaned back in my chair (her chair) and looked at the little framed photo on her desk, one I couldn't remember ever having seen before. Jo had most likely printed it herself (the original might have come out of some local's attic) and then hand-tinted the result. The final product looked like a wanted poster colorized by Ted Turner. I picked it up and ran the ball of my thumb over the glass facing, bemused. Sara Tidwell, the turn-of-the-century blues shouter whose last known port of call had been right here in TR-90. When she and her folks — some of them friends, most of them relatives — had left the TR, they had gone on to Castle Rock for a little while . . . then had simply disappeared, like a cloud over the horizon or mist on a summer morning. She was smiling just a little in the picture, but the smile was hard to read. Her eyes were halfclosed. The string of her guitar — not a strap but a string — was visible over one shoulder. In the background I could see a black man wearing a derby at a killer angle (one thing about musicians: they really know how to wear hats) and standing beside what appeared to be a washtub bass. Jo had tinted Sara's skin to a café-au-lait shade, maybe based on other pictures she'd seen (there are quite a few knocking around, most showing Sara with her head thrown back and her hair hanging almost to her waist as she bellows out her famous carefree yell of a laugh), although none would have been in color. Not at the turn of the century. Sara Tidwell hadn't just left her mark in old photographs, either. I recalled Dickie Brooks, owner of the All-Purpose Garage, once telling me that his father claimed to have won a teddybear at the Castle County Fair's shooting-pitch, and to have given it to Sara Tidwell. She had rewarded him, Dickie said, with a kiss. According to Dickie the old man never forgot it, said it was the best kiss of his life . . . although I doubt if he said it in his wife's hearing. In this photo she was only smiling. Sara Tidwell, known as Sara Laughs. Never recorded, but her songs had lived just the same. One of them, 'Walk Me Baby,' bears a remarkable resemblance to 'Walk This Way,' by Aerosmith. Today the lady would be known as an African-American. In 1984, when Johanna and I bought the lodge and consequently got interested in her, she would have been known as a Black. In her own time she would have been called a Negress or a darkie or possibly an octoroon. And a nigger, of course. There would have been plenty of folks free with that one. And did I believe that she had kissed Dickie Brooks's father — a white man — in front of half of Castle County? No, I did not. Still, who could say for sure? No one. That was the entrancing thing about the past. 'It ain't nuthin but a barn-dance sugar,' I sang, putting the picture back on the desk. 'It ain't nuthin but a round-and-round.' I picked up the typewriter cover, then decided to leave it off. As I stood, my eyes went back to Sara, standing there with her eyes closed and the string which served her as a guitar strap visible over one shoulder. Something in her face and smile had always struck me as familiar, and suddenly it came to me. She looked oddly like Robert Johnson, whose primitive licks hid behind the chords of almost every Led Zeppelin and Yardbirds song ever recorded. Who, according to the legend, had
Slide 88: gone down to the crossroads and sold his soul to Satan for seven years of fast living, high-tension liquor, and streetlife babies. And for a jukejoint brand of immortality, of course. Which he had gotten. Robert Johnson, supposedly poisoned over a woman. In the late afternoon I went down to the store and saw a good-looking piece of flounder in the coldcase. It looked like supper to me. I bought a bottle of white wine to go with it, and while I was waiting my turn at the cash register, a trembling old man's voice spoke up behind me. 'See you made a new friend yes'ty.' The Yankee accent was so thick that it sounded almost like a joke . . . except the accent itself is only part of it; mostly, I've come to believe, it's that singsong tone — real Mainers all sound like auctioneers. I turned and saw the geezer who had been standing out on the garage tarmac the day before, watching along with Dickie Brooks as I got to know Kyra, Mattie, and Scoutie. He still had the gold-headed cane, and I now recognized it. Sometime in the 1950s, the Boston Post had donated one of those canes to every county in the New England states. They were given to the oldest residents and passed along from old fart to old fart. And the joke of it was that the Post had gone toes-up years ago. 'Actually two new friends,' I replied, trying to dredge up his name. I couldn't, but I remembered him from when Jo had been alive, holding down one of the overstuffed chairs in Dickie's waiting room, discussing weather and politics, politics and weather, as the hammers whanged and the aircompressor chugged. A regular. And if something happened out there on Highway 68, eye-God, he was there to see it. 'I hear Mattie Devore can be quite a dear,' he said heah, Devoah, deeah — and one of his crusty eyelids drooped. I have seen a fair number of salacious winks in my time, but none that was a patch on the one tipped me by that old man with the gold-headed cane. I felt a strong urge to knock his waxy beak of a nose off. The sound of it parting company from his face would be like the crack of a dead branch broken over a bent knee. 'Do you hear a lot, old-timer?' I asked. 'Oh, ayuh!' he said. His lips — dark as strips of liver — parted in a grin. His gums swarmed with white patches. He had a couple of yellow teeth still planted in the top one, and a couple more on the bottom. 'And she gut that little one — cunnin, she is! Ayuh!' 'Cunnin as a cat a-runnin,' I agreed. He blinked at me, a little surprised to hear such an old one out of my presumably newfangled mouth, and then that reprehensible grin widened. 'Her don't mind her, though,' he said. 'Baby gut the run of the place, don'tcha know.' I became aware — better belated than never — that half a dozen people were watching and listening to us. 'That wasn't my impression,' I said, raising my voice a bit. 'No, that wasn't my impression at all.' He only grinned . . . that old man's grin that says Oh, ayuh, deah; I know one worth two of that. I left the store feeling worried for Mattie Devore. Too many people were minding her business, it seemed to me. When I got home, I took my bottle of wine into the kitchen — it could chill while I got the barbecue going out on the deck. I reached for the fridge door, then paused. Perhaps as many as four dozen little magnets had been scattered randomly across the front — vegetables, fruits, plastic letters and numbers, even a good selection of the California Raisins — but they weren't random anymore. Now they formed a circle on the front of the refrigerator. Someone had been in here. Someone had come in and . . .
Slide 89: Rearranged the magnets on the fridge? If so, that was a burglar who needed to do some heavy remedial work. I touched one of them — gingerly, with just the tip of my finger. Then, suddenly angry with myself, I reached out and spread them again, doing it with enough force to knock a couple to the floor. I didn't pick them up. That night, before going to bed, I placed the Memo-Scriber on the table beneath Bunter the Great Stuffed Moose, turning it on and putting it in the DICTATE mode. Then I slipped in one of my old home-dubbed cassettes, zeroed the counter, and went to bed, where I slept without dreams or other interruption for eight hours. The next morning, Monday, was the sort of day the tourists come to Maine for — the air so sunnyclean that the hills across the lake seemed to be under subtle magnification. Mount Washington, New England's highest, floated in the farthest distance. I put on the coffee, then went into the living room, whistling. All my imaginings of the last few days seemed silly this morning. Then the whistle died away. The Memo-Scriber's counter, set to 000 when I went to bed, was now at 012. I rewound it, hesitated with my finger over the PLAY button, told myself (in Jo's voice) not to be a fool, and pushed it. 'Oh Mike,' a voice whispered — mourned, almost-on the tape, and I found myself having to press the heel of one hand to my mouth to hold back a scream. It was what I had heard in Jo's office when the draft rushed past the sides of my face . . . only now the words were slowed down just enough for me to understand them. 'Oh Mike,' it said again. There was a faint click. The machine had shut down for some length of time. And then, once more, spoken in the living room as I had slept in the north wing: 'Oh Mike.' Then it was gone.
Slide 90: CHAPTER TEN Around nine o'clock, a pickup came down the driveway and parked behind my Chevrolet. The truck was new — a Dodge Ram so clean and chrome-shiny it looked as if the ten-day plates had just come off that morning — but it was the same shade of off-white as the last one and the sign on the driver's door was the one I remembered: WILLIAM 'BILL' DEAN CAMP CHECKING C ARETAKING LIGHT CARPENTRY, plus his telephone number. I went out on the back stoop to meet him, coffee cup in my hand. 'Mike!' Bill cried, climbing down from behind the wheel. Yankee men don't hug — that's a truism you can put right up there with tough guys don't d ance and real men don't eat quiche — but Bill pumped my hand almost hard enough to slop coffee from a cup that was three-quarters empty, and gave me a hearty clap on the back. His grin revealed a splendidly blatant set of false teeth — the kind which used to be called Roebuckers, because you got them from the catalogue. It occurred to me in passing that my ancient interlocutor from the Lakeview General Store could have used a pair. It certainly would have improved mealtimes for the nosy old fuck. 'Mike, you're a sight for sore eyes!' 'Good to see you, too,' I said, grinning. Nor was it a false grin; I felt all right. Things with the power to scare the living shit out of you on a thundery midnight in most cases seem only interesting in the bright light of a summer morning. 'You're looking well, my friend.' It was true. Bill was four years older and a little grayer around the edges, but otherwise the same. Sixty-five? Seventy? It didn't matter. There was no waxy look of ill health about him, and none of the falling-away in the face, principally around the eyes and in the cheeks, that I associate with encroaching infirmity. 'So're you,' he said, letting go of my hand. 'We was all so sorry about Jo, Mike. Folks in town thought the world of her. It was a shock, with her so young. My wife asked if I'd give you her condolences special. Jo made her an afghan the year she had the pneumonia, and Yvette ain't never forgot it.' 'Thanks,' I said, and my voice wasn't quite my own for a moment or two. It seemed that on the TR my wife was hardly dead at all. 'And thank Yvette, too.' 'Yuh. Everythin okay with the house? Other'n the air conditioner, I mean. Buggardly thing! Them at the Western Auto promised me that part last week, and now they're saying maybe not until August first.' 'It's okay. I've got my Powerbook. If I want to use it, the kitchen table will do fine for a desk.' And I would want to use it — so many crosswords, so little time. 'Got your hot water okay?' 'All that's fine, but there is one problem.' I stopped. How did you tell your caretaker you thought your house was haunted? Probably there was no good way; probably the best thing to do was to go at it head-on. I had questions, but I didn't want just to nibble around the edges o the subject and be coy. For one thing, Bill would sense it. f He might have bought his false teeth out of a catalogue, but he wasn't stupid. 'What's on your mind, Mike? Shoot.' 'I don't know how you're going to take this, but — '
Slide 91: He smiled in t e way of a man who suddenly understands and held up his hand. 'Guess maybe I h know already.' 'You do?' I felt an enormous sense of relief and I could hardly wait to find out what he had experienced in Sara, perhaps while checking for dead lightbulbs or making sure the roof was holding the snow all right. 'What did you hear?' 'Mostly what Royce Merrill and Dickie Brooks have been telling,' he said. 'Beyond that, I don't know much. Me and mother's been in Virginia, remember. Only got back last night around eight o'clock. Still, it's the big topic down to the store.' For a moment I remained so fixed on Sara Laughs that I had no idea what he was talking about. All I could think was that folks were gossiping about the strange noises in my house. Then the name Royce Merrill clicked and everything else clicked with it. Merrill was the elderly possum with the gold-headed cane and the salacious wink. Old Four-Teeth. My caretaker wasn't talking about ghostly noises; he was talking about Mattie Devore. 'Let's get you a cup of coffee,' I said. 'I need you to tell me what I'm stepping in here.' When we were seated on the deck, me with fresh coffee and Bill with a cup of tea ('Coffee burns me at both ends these days,' he said), I asked him first to tell me the Royce Merrill-Dickie Brooks version of my encounter with Mattie and Kyra. It turned out to be better than I had expected. Both old men had seen me standing at the side of the road with the little girl in my arms, and they had observed my Chevy parked halfway into the ditch with the driver's-side door open, but apparently neither of them had seen Kyra using the white line of Route 68 as a tightrope. As if to compensate for this, however, Royce claimed that Mattie had given me a big my hero hug and a kiss on the mouth. 'Did he get the part about how I grabbed her by the ass and slipped her some tongue?' I asked. Bill grinned. 'Royce's imagination ain't stretched that far since he was fifty or so, and that was forty or more year ago.' 'I never touched her.' Well . . . there had been that moment when the back of my hand went sliding along the curve of her breast, but that had been inadvertent, whatever the young lady herself might think about it. 'Shite, you don't need to tell me that,' he said. 'But . . . ' He said that but the way my mother always had, letting it trail off on its own, like the tail of some ill-omened kite. 'But what?' 'You'd do well to keep your distance from her,' he said. 'She's nice enough — almost a town g irl, don't you know — but she's trouble.' He paused. 'No, that ain't quite fair to her. She's in trouble.' 'The old man wants custody of the baby, doesn't he?' Bill set his teacup down on the deck rail and looked at me with his eyebrows raised. Reflections from the lake ran up his cheek in ripples, giving him an exotic look. 'How'd you know?' 'Guesswork, but of the educated variety. Her father-in-law called me Saturday night during the fireworks. And while he never came right out and stated his purpose, I doubt if Max Devore came all the way back to TR-90 in western Maine to repo his daughter-in-law's Jeep and trailer. So what's the story, Bill?' For several moments he only looked at me. It was almost the look of a man who knows you have contracted a serious disease and isn't sure how much he ought to tell you. Being looked at that way made me profoundly uneasy. It also made me feel that I might be putting Bill Dean on the spot. Devore had roots here, after all. And, as much as Bill might like me, I didn't. Jo and I were from
Slide 92: away. It could have been worse — it could have been Massachusetts or New York — but Derry, although in Maine, was still away. 'Bill? I could use a little navigational help if you — ' 'You want to stay out of his way,' he said. His easy smile was gone. 'The man's mad.' For a moment I thought Bill only meant Devore was pissed off at me, and then I took another look at his face. No, I decided, he didn't mean pissed off; he had used the word 'mad' in the most literal way. 'Mad how?' I asked. 'Mad like Charles Manson? Like Hannibal Lecter? How?' 'Say like Howard Hughes,' he said. 'Ever read any of the stories about him? The lengths he'd go to to get the things he wanted? It didn't matter if it was a special kind of hot dog they only sold in L.A. or an airplane designer he wanted to steal from Lockheed or Mcdonnell-Douglas, he had to have what he wanted, and he wouldn't rest until it was under his hand. Devore is the same way. He always was — even as a boy he was willful, according to the stories you hear in town. 'My own dad had one he used to tell. He said little Max Devore broke into Scant Larribee's tackshed one winter because he wanted the Flexible Flyer Scant give his boy Scooter for Christmas. Back around 1923, this would have been. Devore cut both his hands on broken glass, Dad said, but he got the sled. They found him near midnight, sliding down Sugar Maple Hill, holding his hands up to his chest when he went down. He'd bled all over his mittens and his snowsuit. There's other stories you'll hear about Maxie Devore as a kid — if you ask you'll hear fifty different ones — and some may even be true. That one about the sled is true, though. I'd bet the farm on it. Because my father didn't lie. It was against his religion.' 'Baptist?' 'Nosir, Yankee.' '1923 was many moons ago, Bill. Sometimes people change.' 'Ayuh, but mostly they don't. I haven't seen Devore since he come back and moved into Warrington's, so I can't say for sure, but I've heard things that make me think that if he has changed, it's for the worse. He didn't come all the way across the country 'cause he wanted a vacation. He wants the kid. To him she's just another version of Scooter Larribee's Flexible Flyer. And my strong advice to you is that you don't want to be the window-glass between him and her.' I sipped my coffee and looked out at the lake. Bill gave me time to think, scraping one of his workboots across a splatter of birdshit on the boards while I did it. Crowshit, I reckoned; only crows crap in such long and exuberant splatters. One thing seemed absolutely sure: Mattie Devore was roughly nine miles up Shit Creek with no paddle. I'm not the cynic I was at twenty — is anyone? — but I wasn't naive enough or idealistic enough to believe the law would protect Ms. Doublewide against Mr. Computer . . . not if Mr. Computer decided to play dirty. As a boy he'd taken the sled he wanted and gone sliding by himself at midnight, bleeding hands not a concern. And as a man? An old man who had been getting every sled he wanted for the last forty years or so? 'What's the story with Mattie, Bill? Tell me.' It didn't take him long. Country stories are, by and large, simple stories. Which isn't to say they're not often interesting. Mattie Devore had started life as Mattie Stanchfield, not quite from the TR but from just over the line in Motton. Her father had been a logger, her mother a home beautician (which made it, in a ghastly way, the perfect country marriage). There were three kids. When Dave Stanch-field missed a curve over in Lovell and drove a fully loaded pulptruck into Kewadin Pond, his widow 'kinda lost
Slide 93: heart,' as they say. She died soon after. There had been no insurance, other than what Stanchfield had been obliged to carry on his Jimmy and his skidder. Talk about your Brothers Grimm, huh? Subtract the Fisher-Price toys behind the house, the two pole hairdryers in the basement beauty salon, the old rustbucket Toyota in the driveway, and you were right there: Once upon a time there lived a poor widow and her three children. Mattie is the princess of the piece — poor but beautiful (that she was beautiful I could personally testify). Now enter the prince. In this case he's a gangly stuttering redhead named Lance Devore. The child of Max Devore's sunset years. When Lance met Mattie, he was twenty-one. She had just turned seventeen. The meeting took place at Warrington's, where Mattie had landed a summer job as a waitress. Lance Devore was staying across the lake on the Upper Bay, but on Tuesday nights there were pickup softball games at Warrington's, the townies against the summer folks, and he usually canoed across to play. Softball is a great thing for the Lance Devores of the world; when you're standing at the plate with a bat in your hands, it doesn't matter if you're gangly. And it sure doesn't matter if you stutter. 'He confused em quite considerable over to Warrington's,' Bill said. 'They didn't know which team he belonged on — the Locals or the Aways. Lance didn't care; either side was fine with him. Some weeks he'd play for one, some weeks t'other. Either one was more than happy to have him, too, as he could hit a ton and field like an angel. They'd put him at first base a lot because he was tall, but he was really wasted there. At second or shortstop . . . my! He'd jump and twirl around like that guy Noriega.' 'You might mean Nureyev,' I said. He shrugged. 'Point is, he was somethin to see. And folks liked him. He fit in. It's mostly young folks that play, you know, and to them it's how you do, not who you are. Besides, a lot of em don't know Max Devore from a hole in the ground.' 'Unless they read The Wall Street Journal and the computer magazines,'' I said. 'In those, you run across the name Devore about as often as you run across the name of God in the Bible.' 'No foolin?' 'Well, I guess that in the computer magazines God is more often spelled Gates, but you know what I mean.' 'I s'pose. But even so, it's been sixty-five years since Max Devore spent any real time on the TR. You know what happened when he left, don't you?' 'No, why would I?' He looked at me, surprised. Then a kind of veil seemed to fall over his eyes. He blinked and it cleared. 'Tell you another time — it ain't no secret — but I need to be over to the Harrimans' by eleven to check their sump-pump. Don't want to get sidetracked. Point I was tryin to make is just this: Lance Devore was accepted as a nice young fella who could hit a softball three hundred and fifty feet into the trees if he struck it just right. There was no one old enough to hold his old man against him — not at Warrington's on Tuesday nights, there wasn't — and no one held it against him that his family had dough, either. Hell, there are lots of wealthy people here in the summer. You know that. None worth as much as Max Devore, but being rich is only a matter of degree.' That wasn't true, and I had just enough money to know it. Wealth is like the Richter scale-once you pass a certain point, the jumps from one level to the next aren't double or triple but some amazing and ruinous multiple you don't even want to think about. Fitzgerald had it straight, although I guess he didn't believe his own insight: the very rich are different from you and me. I thought of telling Bill that, and decided to keep my mouth shut. He had a sump-pump to fix.
Slide 94: Kyra's parents met over a keg of beer stuck in a mudhole. Mattie was running the usual Tuesdaynight keg out to the softball field from the main b uilding on a handcart. She'd gotten it most of the way from the restaurant wing with no trouble, but there had been heavy rain earlier in the week, and the cart finally bogged down in a soft spot. Lance's team was up, and Lance was sitting at the end of the bench, waiting his turn to hit. He saw the girl in the white shorts and blue Warrington's polo shirt struggling with the bogged handcart, and got up to help her. Three weeks later they were inseparable and Mattie was pregnant; ten weeks later they were m arried; thirty-seven months later, Lance Devore was in a coffin, done with softball and cold beer on a summer evening, done with what he called 'woodsing,' done with fatherhood, done with love for the beautiful princess. Just another early finish, hold the happily-ever-after. Bill Dean didn't describe their meeting in any detail; he only said, 'They met at the field — she was runnin out the beer and he helped her out of a boghole when she got her handcart stuck.' Mattie never said much about that part of it, so I don't know much. Except I do . . . and although some of the details might be wrong, I'd bet you a dollar to a hundred 1 got most of them right. That was my summer for knowing things I had no business knowing. It's hot, for one thing — '94 is the hottest summer of the decade and July is the hottest month of the summer. President Clinton is being upstaged by Newt and the Republicans. Folks are saying old Slick Willie may not even run for a second term. Boris Yeltsin is reputed to be either dying of heart disease or in a dry-out clinic. The Red Sox are looking better than they have any right to. In Derry, Johanna Arlen Noonan is maybe starting to feel a little whoopsy in the morning. If so, she does not speak of it to her husband. I see Mattie in her blue polo shirt with her name sewn in white script above her left breast. Her white shorts make a pleasing contrast to her tanned legs. I also see her wearing a blue gimme cap with the red W for Warrington's above the long bill. Her pretty dark-blonde hair is pulled through the hole at the back of the cap and falls to the collar of her shirt. I see her trying to yank the handcart out of the mud without upsetting the keg of beer. Her head is down; the shadow thrown by the bill of the cap obscures all of her face but her mouth and small set chin. 'Luh-let m-me h-h-help,' Lance says, and she looks up. The shadow cast by the cap's bill falls away, he sees her big blue eyes — the ones she'll pass on to their daughter. One look into those eyes and the war is over without a single shot fired; he belongs to her as surely as any young man ever belonged to any young woman. The rest, as they say around here, was just courtin. The old man had three children, but Lance was the only one he seemed to care about. ('Daughter's crazier'n a shithouse mouse,' Bill said matter-of-factly. 'In some laughin academy in California. Think I heard she caught her a cancer, too.') The fact that Lance had no interest in computers and software actually seemed to please his father. He had another son who was capable of running the business. In another way, however, Lance Devore's older half-brother wasn't capable at all: there would be no grandchildren from that one. 'Rump-wrangler,' Bill said. 'Understand there's a lot of that going around out there in California.' There was a fair amount of it going around on the TR, too, I imagined, but thought it not my place to offer sexual instruction to my caretaker. Lance Devore had been attending Reed College in Oregon, majoring in forestry — the kind of guy who falls in love with green flannel pants, red suspenders, and the sight of condors at dawn. A Brothers Grimm woodcutter, in fact, once you got past the academic jargon. In the summer between his junior and senior years, his father had summoned him to the family compound in Palm
Slide 95: Springs, and had presented him with a boxy lawyer's suitcase crammed with maps, aerial photos, and legal papers. These had little order that Lance could see, but I doubt that he cared. Imagine a comic-book collector given a crate crammed with rare old copies of Donald Duck. Imagine a movie collector given the rough cut of a never-released film starring Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe. Then imagine this avid young forester realizing that his father owned not just acres or square miles in the vast unincorporated forests of western Maine, but entire realms. Although Max Devore had left the TR in 1933, he'd kept a lively interest in the area where he'd grown up, subscribing to area newspapers and getting magazines such as Down East and the Maine Times. In the early eighties, he had begun to buy long columns of land just east of the Maine-New Hampshire border. God knew there had been plenty for sale; the paper companies which owned most of it had fallen into a recessionary pit, and many had become convinced that their New England holdings and operations would be the best place to begin retrenching. So this land, stolen from the Indians and clear-cut ruthlessly in the twenties and fifties, c ame into Max Devore's hands. He might have bought it just because it was there, a good bargain he could afford to take advantage of. He might have bought it as a way of demonstrating to himself that he had really survived his childhood; had, in point of fact, triumphed over it. Or he might have bought it as a toy for his beloved younger son. In the years when Devore was making his major land purchases in western Maine, Lance would have been just a kid . . . but old enough for a perceptive father to see where his interests were tending. Devore asked Lance to spend the summer of 1994 surveying purchases which were, for the most part, already ten years old. He wanted the boy to put the paperwork in order, but he wanted more than that — he wanted Lance t make sense of it. It wasn't a land-use recommendation he was o looking for, exactly, although I guess he would have listened if Lance had wanted to make one; he simply wanted a sense of what he had purchased. Would Lance take a summer in western Maine trying to find out what his sense of it was? At a salary of two or three thousand dollars a month? I imagine Lance's reply was a more polite version of Buddy Jellison's 'Does a crow shit in the pine tops?' The kid arrived in June of 1994 and set up shop in a tent on the far side of Dark Score Lake. He was due back at Reed in late August. Instead, though, he decided to take a year's leave of absence. His father wasn't pleased. His father smelled what he called 'girl trouble.' 'Yeah, but it's a damned long sniff from California to Maine,' Bill Dean said, leaning against the driver's door of his truck with his sunburned arms folded. 'He had someone a lot closer than Palm Springs doin his sniffin for him.' 'What are you talking about?' I asked. ''Bout talk. People do it for free, and most are willing to do even more if they're paid.' 'People like Royce Merrill?' 'Royce might be one,' he agreed, 'but he wouldn't be the only one. Times around here don't go between bad and good; if you're a l cal, they mostly go between bad and worse. So when a guy like o Max Devore sends a guy out with a supply of fifty- and hundred-dollar bills . . . ' 'Was it someone local? A lawyer?' Not a lawyer; a real-estate broker named Richard Osgood ('a greasy kind of fella' was Bill Dean's judgment of him) who denned and did business in Motton. Eventually Osgood had hired a lawyer from Castle Rock. The greasy fella's initial job, when the summer of '94 ended and Lance Devore remained on the TR, was to find out what the hell was going on and put a stop to it. 'And then?' I asked.
Slide 96: Bill glanced at his watch, glanced at the sky, then centered his gaze on me. He gave a funny little shrug, as if to say, 'We're both men of the world, in a quiet and settled sort of way — you don't need to ask a silly question like that.' 'Then Lance Devore and Mattie Stanchfield got married in the Grace Baptist Church right up there on Highway 68. There were tales made the rounds about what Osgood might've done to keep it from comin off — I heard he even tried to bribe Reverend Gooch into refusin to hitch em, but I think that's stupid, they just would have gone someplace else. 'Sides, I don't see much sense in repeating what I don't know for sure.' Bill unfolded an arm and began to tick items off on the leathery fingers of his right hand. 'They got married in the middle of September, 1994, I know that.' Out popped the thumb. 'People looked around with some curiosity to see if the groom's father would put in an appearance, but he never did.' Out popped the forefinger. Added to the thumb, it made a pistol. 'Mattie had a baby in April of '95, making the kiddie a dight premature . . . but not enough to matter. I seen it in the store with my own eyes when it wasn't a week old, and it was just the right size.' Out with the second finger. 'I don't know that Lance Devore's old man absolutely refused to help em financially, but I do know they were living in that trailer down below Dickie's Garage, and that makes me think they were havin a pretty hard skate.' 'Devore put on the choke-chain,' I said. 'It's what a guy used to getting his own way would do . . . but if he loved the boy the way you seem to think, he might have come around.' 'Maybe, maybe not.' He glanced at his w atch again. 'Let me finish up quick and get out of your sunshine . . . but you ought to hear one more little story, because it really shows how the land lies. 'In July of last year, less'n a month before he died, Lance Devore shows up at the post-office counter in the Lakeview General. He's got a manila envelope he wants to send, but first he needs to show Carla DeCinces what's inside. She said he was all fluffed out, like daddies sometimes get over their kids when they're small.' I nodded, amused at the idea of skinny, stuttery Lance Devore all fluffed out. But I could see it in my mind's eye, and the image was also sort of sweet. 'It was a studio pitcher they'd gotten taken over in the Rock. Showed the kid . . . what's her name? Kayla?' 'Kyra.' 'Ayuh, they call em anything these days, don't they? It showed Kyra sittin in a big leather chair, with a pair of joke spectacles on her little snub of a nose, lookin at one of the aerial photos of the woods over across the lake in TR-100 or TR-110 — part of what the old man had picked up, anyway. Carla said the baby had a surprised look on her face, as if she hadn't suspected there could be so much woods in the whole world. Said it was awful cunnin, she did.' 'Cunnin as a cat a-runnin,' I murmured. 'And the envelope — Registered, Express Mail was addressed to Maxwell Devore, in Palm Springs, California.' 'Leading you to deduce that the old man either thawed enough to ask for a picture of his only grandchild, or that Lance Devore thought a picture might thaw him.' Bill nodded, looking as pleased as a parent whose child has managed a difficult sum. 'Don't know if it did,' he said. 'Wasn't enough time to tell, one way or the other. Lance had bought one of those little satellite dishes, like what you've got here. There was a bad storm the day he put it up — hail, high wind, blowdowns along the lakeshore, lots of lightnin. That was along toward evening. Lance put his dish up in the afternoon, all done and safe, except around the time the storm
Slide 97: commenced he remembered he'd left his socket wrench on the trailer roof. He went up to get it so it wouldn't get all wet n rusty — ' 'He was struck by lightning? Jesus, Bill!' 'Lightnin struck, all right, but it hit across the way. You go past the place where Wasp Hill Road runs into 68 and you'll see the stump of the tree that stroke knocked over. Lance was comin down the ladder with his socket wrench when it hit. If you've never had a lightnin bolt tear right over your head, you don't know how scary it is — it's like havin a drunk driver veer across into your lane, headed right for you, and then swing back onto his own side just in time. Close lightnin makes your hair stand up — makes your damned prick stand up. It's apt to play the radio on y steel our fillins, it makes your ears hum, and it makes the air taste roasted. Lance fell off the ladder. If he had time to think anything before he hit the ground, I bet he thought he was electrocuted. Poor boy. He loved the TR, but it wasn't lucky for him.' 'Broke his neck?' 'Ayuh. With all the thunder, Mattie never heard him fall or yell or anything. She looked out a minute or two later when it started to hail and he still wasn't in. And there he was, layin on the ground and lookin up into the friggin hail with his eyes open.' Bill looked at his watch one final time, then swung open the door to his truck. 'The old man wouldn't come for their weddin, but he came for his son's funeral and he's been here ever since. He didn't want nawthin to do with the young woman — ' 'But he wants the kid,' I said. It was no more than what I already knew, but I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach just the same. Don't talk about this, Mattie had asked me on the morning of the Fourth. It's not a good time for Ki and me. 'How far along in the process has he gotten?' 'On the third turn and headin into the home stretch, I sh'd say. There'll be a hearin in Castle County Superior Court, maybe later this month, maybe next. The judge could rule then to hand the girl over, or put it off until fall. I don't think it matters which, because the one thing that's never going to happen on God's green earth is a rulin in favor of the mother. One way or another, that little girl is going to grow up in California.'' Put that way, it gave me a very nasty little chill. Bill slid behind the wheel of his truck. 'Stay out of it, Mike,' he said. 'Stay away from Mattie Devore and her daughter. And if you get called to court on account of seem the two of em on Saturday, smile a lot and say as little as you can.' 'Max Devore's charging that she's unfit to raise the child.' 'Ayuh.' 'Bill, I saw the child, and she's fine.' He grinned again, but this time there was no amusement in it. ''Magine she is. But that's not the point. Stay clear of their business, old boy. It's my job to tell you that; with Jo gone, I guess I'm the only caretaker you got.' He slammed the door of his Ram, started the engine, reached for the gearshift, then dropped his hand again as something else occurred to him. 'If you get a chance, you ought to look for the owls.' 'What owls?' 'There's a couple of plastic owls around here someplace. They might be in y'basement or out in Jo's studio. They come in by mail-order the fall before she passed on.' 'The fall of 1993?' 'Ayuh.' 'That can't be right.' We hadn't used Sara in the fall of 1993.
Slide 98: ''Tis, though. I was down here puttin on the storm doors when Jo showed up. We had us a natter, and then the UPS truck come. I lugged the box into the entry and had a coffee — I was still drinkin it then — while she took the owls out of the carton and showed em off to me. Gorry, but they looked real! She left not ten minutes after. It was like she'd come down to do that errand special, although why anyone'd drive all the way from Derry to take delivery of a couple of plastic owls I don't know.' 'When in the fall was it, Bill? Do you remember?' 'Second week of November,' he said promptly. 'Me n the wife went up to Lewiston later that afternoon, to 'Vette's sister's. It was her birthday. On our way back we stopped at the Castle Rock Agway so 'Vette could get her Thanksgiving turkey.' He looked at me curiously. 'You really didn't know about them owls?' 'No.' 'That's a touch peculiar, wouldn't you say?' 'Maybe she told me and I forgot,' I said. 'I guess it doesn't matter much now in any case.' Yet it seemed to matter. It was a small thing, but it seemed to matter. 'Why would Jo want a couple of plastic owls to begin with?' 'To keep the crows from shittin up the woodwork, like they're doing out on your deck. Crows see those plastic owls, they veer off.' I burst out laughing in spite of my puzzlement . . . or perhaps because of it. 'Yeah? That really works?' 'Ayuh, long's you move em every now and then so the crows don't get suspicious. Crows are just about the smartest birds going, you know. You look for those owls, save yourself a lot of mess.' 'I will,' I said. Plastic owls to scare the crows away — it was exactly the sort of knowledge Jo would come by (she was like a crow herself in that way, picking up glittery pieces of information that happened to catch her interest) and act upon without bothering to tell me. All at once I was lonely for her again — missing her like hell. 'Good. Some day when I've got more time, we'll walk the place all the way around. Woods too, if you want. I think you'll be satisfied.' 'I'm sure I will. Where's Devore staying?' The bushy eyebrows went up. 'Warrington's. Him and you's practically neighbors. I thought you must know.' I remembered the woman I'd seen — black bathing-suit and black shorts somehow combining to give her an exotic cocktail-party look — and nodded. 'I met his wife.' Bill laughed heartily enough at that to feel in need of his handkerchief. He fished it off the dashboard (a blue paisley thing the size of a football pennant) and wiped his eyes. 'What's so funny?' I asked. 'Skinny woman? White hair? Face sort of like a kid's Halloween mask?' It was my turn to laugh. 'That's her.' 'She ain't his wife, she's his whatdoyoucallit, personal assistant. Rogette Whitmore is her name.' He pronounced it ro-GET, with a hard G. 'Devore's wives're all dead. The last one twenty years.' 'What kind of name is Rogette? French?' 'California,' he said, and shrugged as if that one word explained everything. 'There's people in town scared of her.' 'Is that so?' 'Ayuh.' Bill hesitated, then added with one of those smiles we put on when we want others to know that we know we're saying something silly: 'Brenda Meserve says she's a witch.'
Slide 99: 'And the two of them have been staying at Warrington's almost a year?' 'Ayuh. The Whitmore woman comes n goes, but mostly she's been here. Thinkin in town is that they'll stay until the custody case is finished off, then all go back to California on Devore's private jet. Leave Osgood to sell Warrington's, and — ' 'Sell it? What do you mean, sell it?' 'I thought you must know,' Bill said, dropping his gearshift into drive. 'When old Hugh Emerson told Devore they closed the lodge after Thanksgiving, Devore told him he had no intention of moving. Said he was comfortable right where he was and meant to stay put.' 'He bought the place.' I had been by turns surprised, amused, and angered over the last twenty minutes, but never exactly dumbfounded. Now I was. 'He bought Warrington's Lodge so he wouldn't have to move to Lookout Rock Hotel over in Castle View, or rent a house.' 'Ayuh, so he did. Nine buildins, includin the main lodge and The Sunset Bar; twelve acres of woods, a six-hole golf course, and five hundred feet of shorefront on The Street. Plus a two-lane bowlin alley and a softball field. Four and a quarter million. His friend Osgood did the deal and Devore paid with a personal check. I wonder how he found room for all those zeros. See you, Mike.' With that he backed up the driveway, leaving me to stand on the stoop, looking after him with my mouth open. Plastic owls. Bill had told me roughly two dozen interesting things in between peeks at his watch, but the one which stayed on top of the pile was the fact (and I did accept it as a fact; he had been too positive for me not to) that Jo had come down here to take delivery on a couple of plastic goddam owls. Had she told me? She might have. I didn't remember her doing so, and it seemed to me that I would have, but Jo used to claim that when I got in the zone it was no good to tell me anything; stuff went in one ear and out the other. Sometimes she'd pin little notes — errands to run, calls to make — to my shirt, as if I were a first-grader. But wouldn't I recall if she'd said 'I'm going down to Sara, hon, UPS is delivering something I want to receive personally, interested in keeping a lady company?' Hell wouldn't I have gone? I always liked an excuse to go to the TR. Except I'd been working on that screenplay . . . and maybe pushing it a little . . . notes pinned to the sleeve of my shirt . . . If you go out when you're finished, we need milk and orange juice . . . I inspected what little was left of Jo's vegetable garden with the July sun beating down on my neck and thought about owls, the plastic god-dam owls. Suppose Jo had told me she was coming down here to Sara Laughs? Suppose I had declined almost without hearing the offer because I was in the writing zone? Even if you granted those things, there was another question: why had she felt the need to come down here personally when she could have just called someone and asked them to meet the delivery truck? Kenny Auster would have been happy to do it, ditto Mrs. M. And Bill Dean, our caretaker, had actually been here. This led to other questions — one was why she hadn't just had UPS deliver the damned things to Derry — and finally I decided I couldn't live without actually seeing a bona fide plastic owl for myself. Maybe, I thought, going back to the house, I'd put one on the roof of my Chew when it was parked in the driveway. Forestall future bombing runs. I paused in the entry, struck by a sudden idea, and called Ward Hankins, the guy in Waterville who handles my taxes and my few non-writing-related business affairs. 'Mike,' he said heartily. 'How's the lake?'
Slide 100: 'The lake's cool and the weather's hot, just the way we like it,' I said. 'Ward, you keep all the records we send you for five years, don't you? Just in case IRS decides to give us some grief?' 'Five is accepted practice,' he said, 'but I hold your stuff for seven — in the eyes of the tax boys, you're a mighty fat pigeon.' Better a fat pigeon than a plastic owl, I thought but didn't say. What I said was 'That includes desk calendars, right? Mine and. Jo's, up until she died?' 'You bet. Since neither of you kept diaries, it was the best way to cross-reference receipts and claimed expenses with — ' 'Could you find Jo's desk calendar for 1993 and see what she had going in the second week of November?' 'Td be happy to. What in particular are you looking for?' For a moment I saw myself sitting at my kitchen table in Derry on my first night as a widower, holding up a box with the words Norco Home Pregnancy Test printed on the side. Exactly what was I looking for at this late date? Considering that I had loved the lady and she was almost four years in her grave, what was I looking for? Besides trouble, that was? 'I'm looking for two plastic owls,' I said. Ward probably thought I was talking to him, but I'm not sure I was. 'I know that sounds weird, but it's what I'm doing. Can you call me back?' 'Within the hour.' 'Good man,' I said, and hung up. Now for the actual owls themselves. Where was the most likely spot to store two such interesting artifacts? My eyes went to the cellar door. Elementary, my dear Watson. The cellar stairs were dark and mildly dank. As I stood on the landing groping for the lightswitch, the door banged shut behind me with such force that I cried out in surprise. There was no breeze, no draft, the day was perfectly still, but the door banged shut just the same. Or was sucked shut. I stood in the dark at the top of the stairs, feeling for the lightswitch, smelling that oozy smell that even good concrete foundations get after awhile if there is no proper airing-out. It was cold, much colder than it had been on the other side of the door. I wasn't alone and I knew it. I was afraid, I'd be a liar to say I wasn't . . . but I was also fascinated. Something was with me. Something was in here with me. I dropped my hand away from the wall where the switch was and just stood with my arms at my sides. Some time passed. I don't know how much. My heart was beating furiously in my chest; I could feel it in my temples. It was cold. 'Hello?' I asked. Nothing in response. I could hear the faint, irregular drip of water as condensation fell from one of the pipes down below, I could hear my own breathing, and faintly — far away, in another world where the sun was out — I could hear the triumphant caw of a crow. Perhaps it had just dropped a load on the hood of my car. I really need an owl, I thought. In fact, I don't know how I ever got along without one. 'Hello?' I asked again. 'Can you talk?' Nothing. I wet my lips. I should have felt silly, perhaps, standing there in the dark and calling to the ghosts. But I didn't. Not a bit. The damp had been replaced by a coldness I could feel, and I had company. Oh, yes. 'Can you tap, then? If you can shut the door, you must be able to tap.' I stood there and listened to the soft, isolated drips from the pipes. There was nothing else. I was reaching out for the lightswitch again when there was a soft thud from not far below me. The cellar
Slide 101: of Sara Laughs is high, and the upper three feet of the concrete — the part which lies against the ground's frost-belt — had been insulated with big silver-backed panels of Insu-Gard. The sound that I heard was, I am quite sure, a fist striking against one of these. Just a fist hitting a square of insulation, but every gut and muscle of my body seemed to come unwound. My hair stood up. My eyesockets seemed to be expanding and my eyeballs contracting, as if my head were trying to turn into a skull. Every inch of my skin broke out in gooseflesh. Something was in here with me. Very likely something dead. I could no longer have turned on the light if I'd wanted to. I no longer had the strength to raise my arm. I tried to talk, and at last, in a husky whisper I hardly recognized, I said: 'Are you really there?' Thud. 'Who are you?' I could still do no better than that husky whisper, the voice of a man giving last instructions to his family as he lies on his deathbed. This time there was nothing from below. I tried to think, and what came to my struggling mind was Tony Curtis as Harry Houdini in some old movie. According to the film, Houdini had been the Diogenes of the Ouija board circuit, a guy who spent his spare time just looking for an honest medium. He'd attended one s éance where the dead communicated by — 'Tap once for yes, twice for no,' I said. 'Can you do that?' Thud. It was on the stairs below me . . . but not too far below. Five steps down, six or seven at most. Not quite close enough to touch if I should reach out and wave my hand in the black basement air . . . a thing I could imagine, but not actually imagine doing. 'Are you . . . ' My voice trailed off. There was simply no strength in my diaphragm. Chilly air lay on my chest like a flatiron. I gathered all my will and tried again. 'Are you Jo?' Thud. That soft fist on the insulation. A pause, and then: Thud-thud. Yes and no. Then, with no idea why I was asking such an inane question: 'Are the owls down here?' Thud-thud. 'Do you know where they are?' Thud. 'Should I look for them?' Thud! Very hard. Why did she want them? I could ask, but the thing on the stairs had no way to an Hot fingers touched my eyes and I almost screamed before realizing it was sweat. I raised my hands in the dark and wiped the heels of them up my face to the hairline. They skidded as if on oil. Cold or not, I was all but bathing in my own sweat. 'Are you Lance Devore?' Thud-thud, at once. 'Is it safe for me at Sara? Am I safe?' Thud. A pause. And I knew it was a pause, that the thing on the stairs wasn't finished. Then: Thud-thud. Yes, I was safe. No, I wasn't safe. I had regained marginal control of my arm. I reached out, felt along the wall, and found the lightswitch. I settled my fingers on it. Now the sweat on my face felt as if it were turning to ice. 'Are you the person who cries in the night?' I asked. Thud-thud from below me, and between the two thuds, I flicked the switch. The cellar globes came on. So did a brilliant hanging bulb at least a hundred and twenty-five watts — over the landing. There was no time for anyone to hide, let alone get away, and no one there to try, either.
Slide 102: Also, Mrs. Meserve — admirable in so many ways — had neglected to sweep the cellar stairs. When I went down to where I estimated the thudding sounds had been coming from, I left tracks in the light dust. But mine were the only ones. I blew out breath in front of me and could see it. So it had been cold, still was cold . . . but it was warming up fast. I blew out another breath and could see just a hint of fog. A third exhale and there was nothing. I ran my palm over one of the insulated squares. Smooth. I pushed a finger at it, and although I didn't push with any real force, my finger left a dimple in the silvery surface. Easy as pie. If someone had been thumping a fist down here, this stuff should be pitted, the thin silver skin perhaps even broken to reveal the pink fill underneath. But all the squares were smooth. 'Are you still there?' I asked. No response, and yet I had a sense that my visitor was still there. Somewhere. 'I hope I didn't offend you by turning on the light,' I said, and now I did feel slightly odd, standing on my cellar stairs and talking out loud, sermonizing to the spiders. 'I wanted to see you if I could.' I had no idea if that was true or not. Suddenly — so suddenly I almost lost my balance and tumbled down the stairs — I whirled around, convinced the shroud-creature was behind me, that it had been the thing knocking, it, no polite M. R. James ghost but a horror from around the rim of the universe. There was nothing. I turned around again, took two or three deep, steadying breaths, and then went the rest of the way down the cellar stairs. Beneath them was a perfectly serviceable canoe, complete with paddle. In the corner was the gas stove we'd replaced after buying the place; also the claw-foot tub Jo had wanted (over my objections) to turn into a planter. I found a trunk filled with vaguely recalled table-linen, a box of mildewy cassette tapes (groups like the Delfonics, Funkadelic, and. 38 Special), several cartons of old dishes. There was a life down here, but ultimately not a very interesting one. Unlike the life I'd sensed in Jo's studio, this one hadn't been cut short but evolved out of, shed like old skin, and that was all right. Was, in fact, the natural order of things. There was a photo album on a shelf of knickknacks and I took it down, both curious and wary. No bombshells this time, however; nearly all the pix were landscape shots of Sara Laughs as it had been when we bought it. I found a picture of Jo in bellbottoms, though (her hair parted in the middle and white lipstick on her mouth), and one of Michael Noonan wearing a flowered shirt and muttonchop sideburns that made me cringe (the bachelor Mike in the photo was a Barry White kind of guy I didn't want to recognize and yet did). I found Jo's old broken treadmill, a rake I'd want if I was still around here come fall, a snowblower I'd want even more if I was around come winter, and several cans of paint. What I didn't find was any plastic owls. My insulation-thumping friend had been right. Upstairs the telephone started ringing. I hurried to answer it, going out through the cellar door and then reaching back in to flick off the lightswitch. This amused me and at the same time seemed like perfectly normal behavior . . . just as being careful not to step on sidewalk cracks had seemed like perfectly normal behavior to me when I was a kid. And even if it wasn't normal, what did it matter? I'd only b back at Sara for three een days, but already I'd postulated Noonan's First Law of Eccentricity: when you're on your own, strange behavior really doesn't seem strange at all. I snagged the cordless. 'Hello?' 'Hi, Mike. It's Ward.' 'That was quick.'
Slide 103: 'The file-room's just a short walk down the hall,' he said. 'Easy as pie. There's only one thing on Jo's calendar for the second week of November in 1993. It says 'S-Ks of Maine, Freep, 11 A.M.' That's on Tuesday the sixteenth. Does it help?' 'Yes,' I said. 'Thank you, Ward. It helps a lot.' I broke the connection and put the phone back in its cradle. Yes, it helped. S -Ks of Maine was Soup Kitchens of Maine. Jo had been on their board of directors from 1992 until her death. Freep was Freeport. It must have been a board meeting. They had probably discussed plans for feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving . . . and then Jo had driven the seventy or so miles to the TR in order to take delivery of two plastic owls. It didn't answer all the questions, but aren't there always questions in the wake of a loved one's death? And no statute of limitations on when they come up. The UFO voice spoke up then. While you're right here by the phone, it said, why not call Bonnie Amudson? Say hi, see how she's doing? Jo had been on four different boards during the nineties, all of them doing charitable work. Her friend Bonnie had persuaded her onto the Soup Kitchens board when a seat fell vacant. They had gone to a lot of the meetings together. Not the one i November of 1993, presumably, and Bonnie n could hardly be expected to remember that one particular meeting almost five years later . . . but if she'd saved her old minutes-of-the-meeting sheets . . . Exactly what the fuck was I thinking of? Calling Bonnie, making nice, then asking her to check her December 1993 minutes? Was I going to ask her if the attendance report had my wife absent from the November meeting? Was I going to ask if maybe Jo had seemed different that last year of her life? And when Bonnie asked me why I wanted to know, what would I say? Give me that, Jo had snarled in my dream of her. In the dream she hadn't looked like Jo at all, she'd looked like some other woman, maybe like the one in the Book of Proverbs, the strange woman whose lips were as honey but whose heart was full of gall and wormwood. A strange woman with fingers as cold as twigs after a frost. Give me that, it's my dust-catcher. I went to the cellar door and touched the knob. I turned it . . . then let it go. I didn't want to look down there into the dark, didn't want to risk the chance that something might start thumping again. It was better to leave that door shut. What I wanted was something cold to drink. I went into the kitchen, reached for the fridge door, then stopped. The magnets were back in a circle again, but this time four letters and one number had been pulled into the center and lined up there. They spelled a single lower-case word: hello There was something here. Even back in broad daylight I had no doubt of that. I'd asked if it was safe for me to be here and had received a mixed message . . . but that didn't matter. If I left Sara now, there was nowhere to go. I had a key to the house in Derry, but matters had to be resolved here. I knew that, too. 'Hello,' I said, and opened the fridge to get a soda. 'Whoever or whatever you are, hello.'
Slide 104: CHAPTER ELEVEN I woke in the early hours of the following morning convinced that there was someone in the north bedroom with me. I sat up against the pillows, rubbed my eyes, and saw a dark, shouldery shape standing between me and the window. 'Who are you?' I asked, thinking that it wouldn't reply in words; it would, instead, thump on the wall. Once for yes, twice for no — what's on your mind, Houdini? But the figure standing by the window made no reply at all. I groped up, found the string hanging from the light over the bed, and yanked it. My mouth was turned down in a grimace, my midsection tensed so tight it felt as if bullets would have bounced off. 'Oh shit,' I said. 'Fuck me til I cry.' Dangling from a hanger I'd hooked over the curtain rod was my old suede jacket. I'd parked it there while unpacking and had then forgotten to store it away in the closet. I tried to laugh and couldn't. At three in the morning it just didn't seem that funny. I turned off the light and lay back down with my eyes open, waiting for Bunter's bell to ring or the childish sobbing to start. I was still listening when I fell asleep. Seven hours or so later, as I was getting ready to go out to Jo's studio and see if the plastic owls were in the storage area, where I hadn't checked the day before, a late-model Ford rolled down my driveway and stopped nose to nose with my Chevy. I had gotten as far as the short path between the house and the studio, but now I came back. The day was hot and breathless, and I was wearing nothing but a pair of cut-off jeans and plastic flip-flops on my feet. Jo always claimed that the Cleveland style of dressing divided itself naturally into two subgenres: Full Cleveland and Cleveland Casual. My visitor that Tuesday morning was wearing Cleveland Casual — you had your Hawaiian shirt with pineapples and monkeys, your tan slacks from Banana Republic, your white loafers. Socks are optional, but white footgear is a necessary part of the Cleveland look, as is at least one piece of gaudy gold jewelry. This fellow was totally okay in the latter department: he had a Rolex on one wrist and a gold-link chain around his neck. The tail of his shirt was out, and there was a suspicious lump at the back. It was either a gun or a beeper and looked too big to be a beeper. I glanced at the car again. Blackwall tires. And on the dashboard, oh look at this, a covered blue bubble. The better to creep up on you unsuspected, Gramma. 'Michael Noonan?' He was handsome in a way that would be attractive to certain women — the kind who cringe when anybody in their immediate vicinity raises his voice, the kind who rarely call the police when things go wrong at home because, on some miserable secret level, they believe they deserve things to go wrong at home. Wrong things that result in black eyes, dislocated elbows, the occasional cigarette burn on the booby. These are women who more often than not call their husbands or lovers daddy, as in 'Can I bring you a beer, daddy?' or 'Did you have a hard day at work, daddy?' 'Yes, I'm Michael Noonan. How can I help you?' This version of daddy turned, bent, and grabbed something from the litter of paperwork on the passenger side of the front seat. Beneath the dash, a two-way radio squawked once, briefly, and fell
Slide 105: silent. He turned back to me with a long, buff-colored folder in one hand. Held it out. 'This is yours.' When I didn't take it, he stepped forward and tried to poke it into one of my palms, which would presumably cause me to close my fingers in a kind of reflex. Instead I raised both hands to shoulder-level, as if he had just told me to put em up, Muggsy. He looked at me patiently, his face as Irish as the Arlen brothers' but without the Arlen look of kindness, openness, and curiosity. What was there in place of those things was a species of sour amusement, as if he'd seen all of the world's pissier behavior, most of it twice. One of his eyebrows had been split open a long time ago, and his cheeks had that reddish windburned look that indicates either ruddy good health or a deep interest in grain-alcohol products. He looked like he could knock you into the gutter and then sit on you to keep you there. I been good, daddy, get off me, don't be mean. 'Don't make this tough. You're gonna take service of this and we both know it, so don't make this tough.' 'Show me some ID first.' He sighed, rolled his eyes, then reached into one of his shirt pockets. He brought out a leather folder and flipped it open. There was a badge and a photo ID. My new friend was George Footman, Deputy Sheriff, Castle County. The photo was flat and shadowless, like something an assault victim would see in a mugbook. 'Okay?' he asked. I took the buff-backed document when he held it out again. He stood there, broadcasting that sense of curdled amusement as I scanned it. I had been subpoenaed to appear in the Castle Rock office of Elmer Durgin, Attorney-at-Law, at ten o'clock on the morning of July 10, 1998 — Friday, in other words. Said Elmer Durgin had been appointed guardian ad litem of Kyra Elizabeth Devore, a minor child. He would take a deposition from me concerning any knowledge I might have of Kyra Elizabeth Devore in regard to her well-being. This deposition would be taken on behalf of Castle County Superior Court and Judge Noble Rancourt. A stenographer would be present. I was assured that this was the court's depo, and nothing to do with either Plaintiff or Defendant. Footman said, 'It's my job to remind you of the penalties should you fail — ' 'Thanks, but let's just assume you told me all about those, okay? I'll be there.' I made shooing gestures at his car. I felt deeply disgusted . . . and I felt interfered with. I had never been served with a process before, and I didn't care for it. He went back to his car, started to swing in, then stopped with one hairy arm hung over the top of the open door. His Rolex gleamed in the hazy sunlight. 'Let me give you a piece of advice,' he said, and that was enough to tell me anything else I needed to know about the guy. 'Don't fuck with Mr. Devore.' 'Or he'll squash me like a bug,' I said. 'Huh?' 'Your actual lines are, 'Let me give you a piece of advice — don't fuck with Mr. Devore or he'll squash you like a bug.'' I could see by his expression — half past perplexed, going on angry — that he had meant to say something very much like that. Obviously we'd seen the same movies, including all those in which Robert De Niro plays a psycho. Then his face cleared. 'Oh sure, you're the writer,' he said. 'That's what they tell me.' 'You can say stuff like that 'cause you're a writer.'
Slide 106: 'Well, it's a free country, isn't it?' 'Ain't you a smartass, now.' 'How long have you been working for Max Devore, Deputy? And does the County Sheriffs office know you're moonlighting?' 'They know. It's not a problem. You're the one that might have the problem, Mr. Smartass Writer.' I decided it was time to quit this before we descended to the kaka-poopie stage of name-calling. 'Get out of my driveway, please, Deputy.' He looked at me a moment longer, obviously searching for that perfect capper line and not finding it. He needed a Mr. Smartass Writer to help him, that was all. 'I'll be looking for you on Friday,' he said. 'Does that mean you're going to buy me lunch? Don't worry, I'm a fairly cheap date.' His reddish cheeks darkened a degree further, and I could see what they were going to look like when he was sixty, if he didn't lay off the firewater in the meantime. He got back into his Ford and reversed up my driveway hard enough to make his tires holler. I stood where I was, watching him go. Once he was headed back out Lane Forty-two to the highway, I went into the house. It occurred to me that Deputy Footman's extracurricular job must pay well, if he could afford a Rolex. On the other hand, maybe it was a knockoff. Settle down, Michael, Jo's voice advised. The red rag is gone now, no one's waving anything in front of you, so just settle — I shut her voice out. I didn't want to settle down; I wanted to settle up. I had been interfered with. I walked over to the hall desk where Jo and I had always kept our pending documents (and our desk calendars, now that I thought about it), and tacked the summons to the bulletin board by one corner of its buff-colored jacket. With that much accomplished, I raised my fist in front of my eyes, looked at the wedding ring on it for a moment, then slammed it against the wall beside the bookcase. I did it hard enough to make an entire row of paperbacks jump. I thought about Mattie Devore's baggy shorts and Kmart smock, then about her father-in-law paying four and a quarter million dollars for Warrington's. Writing a personal goddamned check. I thought about Bill Dean saying that one way or another, that little girl was going to grow up in California. I walked back and forth through the house, still simmering, and finally ended up in front of the fridge. The circle of magnets was the same, but the letters inside had changed. Instead of hello they now read help r 'Helper?' I said, and as soon as I heard the word out loud, I understood. The letters on the fridge consisted of only a single alphabet (no, not even that, I saw; g and x had been lost someplace), and I'd have to get more. If the front of my Kenmore was going to become a Ouija board, I'd need a good supply of letters. Especially vowels. In the meantime, I moved the h and the e in front of the r. Now the message read lp her
Slide 107: I scattered the circle of fruit and vegetable magnets with my palm, spread the letters, and resumed pacing. I had made a decision not to get between Devore and his daughter-in-law, but I'd wound up between them anyway. A deputy in Cleveland clothing had shown up in my driveway, complicating a life that already had its problems . . . and scaring me a little in the bargain. But at least it was a fear of something I could see and understand. All at o nce I decided I wanted to do more with the summer than worry about ghosts, crying kids, and what my wife had been up to four or five years ago . . . if, in fact, she had been up to anything. I couldn't write books, but that didn't mean I had to pick scabs. Help her. I decided I would at least try. 'Harold Oblowski Literary Agency.' 'Come to Belize with me, Nola,' I said. 'I need you. We'll make beautiful love at midnight, when the full moon turns the beach to a bone.' 'Hello, Mr. Noonan,' s said. No sense of humor had Nola. No sense of romance, either. In he some ways that made her perfect for the Oblowski Agency. 'Would you like to speak to Harold?' 'If he's in.' 'He is. Please hold.' One nice thing about being a best selling author — even one whose books only appear, as a general rule, on lists that go to fifteen — is that your agent almost always happens to be in. Another is if he's vacationing on Nantucket, he'll be in to you there. A third is that the time you spend on hold is usually quite short. 'Mike!' he cried. 'How's the lake? I thought about you all weekend!' Yeah, I thought, and pigs will whistle. 'Things are fine in general but shitty in one particular, Harold. I need to talk to a lawyer. I thought first about calling Ward Hankins for a recommendation, but then I decided I wanted somebody a little more high-powered than Ward was likely to know. Someone with filed teeth and a taste for human flesh would be nice.' This time Harold didn't bother with the long-pause routine. 'What's up, Mike? Are you in trouble?' Thump once for yes, twice for no, I thought, and for one wild moment thought of actually doing just that. I remembered finishing Christy Brown's memoir, Down All the Days, and wondering what it would be like to write an entire book with the pen grasped between the toes of your left foot. Now I wondered what it would be like to go through eternity with no way to communicate but rapping on the cellar wall. And even then only certain people would be able to hear and understand you . . . and only those certain people at certain times. Jo, was it you? And if it was, why did you answer both ways? 'Mike? Are you there?' 'Yes. This isn't really my trouble, Harold, so cool your jets. I do have a problem, though. Your main guy is Goldacre, right?' 'Right. I'll call him right aw — ' 'But he deals primarily with contracts law.' I was thinking out loud now, and when I paused, Harold didn't fill it. Sometimes he's an all-right guy. Most times, really. 'Call him for me anyway, would you? Tell him I need to talk to an attorney with a good working knowledge of child-custody
Slide 108: law. Have him put me in touch with the best one who's free to take a case immediately. One who can be in court with me Friday, if that's necessary.' 'Is it paternity?' he asked, sounding both respectful and afraid. 'No, custody.' I thought about telling him to get the whole story from the Lawyer to Be Named Later, but Harold deserved better . . . and would demand to hear my version sooner or later anyway, no matter what the lawyer told him. I gave him an account of my Fourth of July morning and its aftermath. I stuck with the Devores, mentioning nothing about voices, crying children, or thumps in the dark. Harold only interrupted once, and that was when he realized who the villain of the piece was. 'You're asking for trouble,' he said. 'You know that, don't you?' 'I'm in for a certain measure of it in any case,' I said. 'I've decided I want to dish out a little as well, that's all.' 'You will not have the peace and quiet that a writer needs to do his best work,' Harold said in an amusingly prim voice. I wondered what the reaction would be if I said that was okay, I hadn't written anything more riveting than a grocery list since Jo died, and maybe this would stir me up a little. But I didn't. Never let em see you sweat, the Noonan clan's motto. Someone should carve DON'T WORRY I'M FINE on the door of the family crypt. Then I thought: help r. 'That young woman needs a friend,' I said, 'and Jo would have wanted me to be one to her. Jo didn't like it when the little folks got stepped on.' 'You think?' 'Yeah.' 'Okay, I'll see who I can find. And Mike . . . do you want me to come up on Friday for this depo?' 'No.' It came out sounding needlessly abrupt and was followed by a silence that seemed not calculated but hurt. 'Listen, Harold, my caretaker said the actual custody hearing is scheduled soon. If it happens and you still want to come up, I'll give you a call. I can always use your moral support — you know that.' 'In my case it's immoral support,' he replied, but he sounded cheery again. We said goodbye. I walked back to the fridge and looked at the magnets. They were still scattered hell to breakfast, and that was sort of a relief. Even the spirits must have to rest sometimes. I took the cordless phone, went out onto the deck, and plonked down in the chair where I'd been on the night of the Fourth, when Devore called. Even after my visit from 'daddy,' I could still hardly believe that conversation. Devore had called me a liar; I had told him to stick my telephone number up his ass. We were off to a great start as neighbors. I pulled the chair a little closer to the edge of the deck, which dropped a giddy forty feet or so to the slope between Sara's backside and the lake. I looked for the green woman I'd seen while swimming, telling myself not to be a dope — things like that you can see only from one angle, stand even ten feet off to one side or the other and there's nothing to look at. But this was apparently a case of the exception's proving the rule. I was both amused and a little uneasy to realize that the birch down there by The Street looked like a woman from the land side as well as from the lake. Some of it was due to the pine just behind it — that bare branch jutting off to the north like a bony pointing arm — but not all of it. From back here the birch's white limbs and narrow leaves still made a woman's shape, and when the wind shook the lower levels of the tree, the green and silver swirled like long skirts.
Slide 109: I had said no to Harold's well-meant offer to come up almost before it was fully articulated, and as I looked at the tree-woman, rather ghostly in her own right, I knew why: Harold was loud, Harold was insensitive to nuance, Harold might frighten off whatever was here. I didn't want that. I was scared, yes — standing on those dark cellar stairs and listening to the thumps from just below me, I had been fucking terrified — but I had also felt fully alive for the first time in years. I was touching something in Sara that was entirely beyond my experience, and it fascinated me. The cordless phone rang in my lap, making me jump. I grabbed it, expecting Max Devore or perhaps Footman, his overgolded minion. It turned out to be a lawyer named John Storrow, who sounded as if he might have graduated from law school fairly recently — like last week. Still, he worked for the firm of Avery, McLain, and Bernstein on Park Avenue, and Park Avenue is a pretty good address for a lawyer, even one who still has a few of his milk-teeth. If Henry Goldacre said Storrow was good, he probably was. And his specialty was custody law. 'Now tell me what's happening up there,' he said when the introductions were over and the background had been sketched in. I did my best, feeling my spirits rise a little as the tale wound on. There's something oddly comforting about talking to a legal guy once the billable-hours clock has started running; you have passed the magical point at which a lawyer becomes your lawyer. Your lawyer is warm, your lawyer is sympathetic, your lawyer makes notes on a yellow pad and nods in all the right places. Most of the questions your lawyer asks are questions you can answer. And if you can't, your lawyer will help you find a way to do so, by God. Your lawyer is always on your side. Your enemies are his enemies. To him you are never shit but always Shinola. When I had finished, John Storrow said: 'Wow. I'm surprised the papers haven't gotten hold of this.' 'That never occurred to me.' But I could see his point. The Devore family saga wasn't for the New York Times or Boston Globe, probably not even for the Derry News, but in weekly supermarket tabs like The National Enquirer or Inside View, it would fit like a glove — instead of the girl, King Kong decides to snatch the girl's innocent child and carry it with him to the top of the Empire State Building. Oh, eek, unhand that baby, you brute. It wasn't front-page stuff, no blood or celebrity morgue shots, but as a page nine shouter it would do nicely. In my mind I composed a headline blaring over side-by-side pix of Warrington's Lodge and Mattie's rusty doublewide: COMPUKING LIVES IN SPLENDOR AS HE TRIES TO TAKE YOUNG BEAUTY'S ONLY CHILD. Probably too long, I decided. I wasn't writing anymore and still I needed an editor. That was pretty sad when you stopped to think about it. 'Perhaps at some point we'll see that they do get the story,' Storrow said in a musing tone. I realized that this was a man I could grow attached to, at least in my present angry mood. He grew brisker. 'Who'm I representing here, Mr. Noonan? You or the young lady? I vote for the young lady.' 'The young lady doesn't even know I've called you. She may think I've taken a bit too much on myself. She may, in fact, give me the rough side of her tongue.' 'Why would she do that?' 'Because she's a Yankee — a Maine Yankee, the worst kind. On a given day, they can make the Irish look logical.' 'Perhaps, but she's the one with the target pinned to her shirt. I suggest that you call and tell her that.'
Slide 110: I promised I would. It wasn't a hard promise to make, either. I'd known I'd have to be in touch with her ever since I had accepted the summons from Deputy Footman. 'And who stands for Michael Noonan come Friday morning?' Storrow laughed dryly. 'I'll find someone local to do that. He'll go into this Durgin's office with you, sit quietly with his briefcase on his lap, and listen. I may be in town by that point — I won't know until I talk to Ms. Devore — but I won't be in Durgin's office. When the custody hearing comes around, though, you'll see my face in the place.' 'All right, good. Call me with the name of my new lawyer. My other new lawyer.' 'Uh-huh. In the meantime, talk to the young lady. Get me a job.' 'I'll try.' 'Also try to stay visible if you're with her,' he said. 'If we give the bad guys room to get nasty, they'll get nasty. There's nothing like that between you, is there? Nothing nasty? Sorry to have to ask, but I do have to ask.' 'No,' I said. 'It's been quite some time since I've been up to anything nasty with anyone.' 'I'm tempted to commiserate, Mr. Noonan, but under the circumstances — ' 'Mike. Make it Mike.' 'Good. I like that. And I'm John. People are going to talk about your involvement anyway. You know that, don't you?' 'Sure. People know I can afford you. They'll speculate about how she can afford me. Pretty young widow, middle-aged widower. Sex would seem the most likely.' 'You're a realist.' 'I don't really think I am, but I know a hawk from a handsaw.' 'I hope you do, because the ride could get rough. This is an extremely rich man we're going up against.' Yet he didn't sound scared. He sounded almost . . . greedy. He sounded the way part of me had felt when I saw that the magnets on the fridge were back in a circle. 'I know he is.' 'In court that won't matter a whole helluva lot, because there's a certain amount of money on the other side. Also, the judge is going to be very aware that this one is a powderkeg. That can be useful.' 'What's the best thing we've got going for us?' I asked this thinking of Kyra's rosy, unmarked face and her complete lack of fear in the presence of her mother. I asked it thinking John would reply that the charges were clearly unfounded. I thought wrong. 'The best thing? Devore's age. He's got to be older than God.' 'Based on what I've heard over the weekend, I think he must be eighty-five. That would make God older.' 'Yeah, but as a potential dad he makes Tony Randall look like a teenager,' John said, and now he sounded positively gloating. 'Think of it, Michael — the kid graduates from high school the year Gramps turns one hundred. Also there's a chance the old man's overreached himself. Do you know what a guardian ad litem is?' 'No.' 'Essentially it's a lawyer the court appoints to protect the interests of the child. A fee for the service comes out of c ourt costs, but it's a pittance. Most people who agree to serve as guardian ad litem have strictly altruistic motives . . . but not all of them. In any case, the ad litem puts his own spin on the case. Judges don't have to take the guy's advice, but they almost always do. It makes a
Slide 111: judge look stupid to reject the advice of his own appointee, and the thing a judge hates above all others is looking stupid.' 'Devore will have his own lawyer?' John laughed. 'How about half a dozen at the actual custody hearing?' 'Are you serious?' 'The guy is eighty-five. That's too old for Ferraris, too old for bungee jumping in Tibet, and too old for whores unless he's a mighty man. What does that leave for him to spend his money on?' 'Lawyers,' I said bleakly. 'Yep.' 'And Mattie Devore? What does she get?' 'Thanks to you, she gets me,' John Storrow said. 'It's like a John Grisham novel, isn't it? Pure gold. Meantime, I'm interested in Durgin, the ad litem. If Devore hasn't been expecting any real trouble, he may have been unwise enough to put temptation in Durgin's way. And Durgin may have been stupid enough to succumb. Hey, who knows what we might find?' But I was a turn back. 'She gets you,' I said. 'Thanks to me. And if I wasn't here to stick in my oar? What would she get then?' 'Bubkes. That's Yiddish. It means — ' 'I know what it means,' I said. 'That's incredible.' 'Nope, just American justice. You know the lady with the scales? The one who stands outside most city courthouses?' 'Uh-huh.' 'Slap some handcuffs on that broad's wrists and some tape over her mouth to go along with the blindfold, rape her and roll her in the mud. You like that image? I don't, but it's a fair representation of how the law works in custody cases where the plaintiff is rich and the defendant is poor. And sexual equality has actually made it worse, because while mothers still tend to be poor, they are no longer seen as the automatic choice for custody.' 'Mattie Devore's got to have you, doesn't she?' 'Yes,' John said simply. 'Call me tomorrow and tell me that she will.' 'I hope I can do that.' 'So do I. And listen — there's one more thing.' 'What?' 'You lied to Devore on the telephone.' 'Bullshit!' 'Nope, nope, I hate to contradict my sister's favorite author, but you did and you know it. You told Devore that mother and child were out together, the kid was picking flowers, everything was fine. You put everything in there except Bambi and Thumper.' I was sitting up straight in my deck-chair now. I felt sandbagged. I also felt that my own cleverness had been overlooked. 'Hey, no, think again. I never came out and said anything. I told him I assumed. I used the word more than once. I remember that very clearly.' 'Uh-huh, and if he was taping your conversation, you'll get a chance to actually count how many times you used it.' At first I didn't answer. I was thinking back to the conversation I'd had with him, remembering the underhum on the phone line, the characteristic underhum I remembered from all my previous summers at Sara Laughs. Had that steady low mmmmm been even more noticeable on Saturday night? 'I guess maybe there could be a tape,' I said reluctantly. 'Uh-huh. And if Devore's lawyer gets it to the ad litem, how do you think you'll sound?'
Slide 112: 'Careful,' I said. 'Maybe like a man with something to hide.' 'Or a man spinning yarns. And you're good at that, aren't you? After all, it's what you do for a living. At the custody hearing, Devore's lawyer is apt to mention that. If he then produces one of the people who passed you shortly after Mattie arrived on the scene . . . a person who testifies that the young lady seemed upset and flustered . . . how do you think you'll sound then?' 'Like a liar,' I said, and then: 'Ah, fuck.' 'Fear not, Mike. Be of good cheer.' 'What should I do?' 'Spike their guns before they can fire them. Tell Durgin exactly what happened. Get it in the depo. Emphasize the fact that the little girl thought she was walking safely. Make sure you get in that 'crossmock' thing. I love that.' 'Then if they have a tape they'll play it and I'll look like a story-changing schmuck.' 'I don't think so. You weren't a sworn witness when you talked to Devore, were you? There you were, sitting out on your deck and minding your own business, watching the fireworks show. Out of the blue this grouchy old asshole calls you. Starts ranting. Didn't even give him your number, did you?' 'No.' 'Your unlisted number.' 'No.' 'And while he said he was Maxwell Devore, he could have been anyone, right?' 'Right.' 'He could have been the Shah of Iran.' 'No, the Shah's dead.' 'The Shah's out, then. But he could have been a nosy neighbor . . . or a prankster.' 'Yes.' 'And you said what you said with all those possibilities in mind. But now that you're part of an official court proceeding, you're telling the whole truth and nothing but.' 'You bet.' That good my-lawyer feeling had deserted me for a bit, but it was back full-force now. 'You can't do better than the truth, Mike,' he said solemnly. 'Except maybe in a few cases, and this isn't one. Are we clear on that?' 'Yes.' 'All right, we're done. I want to hear from either you or Mattie Devore around elevenish tomorrow. It ought to be her.' 'I'll try.' 'If she really balks, you know what to do, don't you?' 'I think so. Thanks, John.' 'One way or another, we'll talk very soon,' he said, and hung up. I sat where I was for awhile. Once I pushed the button which opened the line on the cordless phone, then pushed it again to close it. I had to talk to Mattie, but I wasn't quite ready yet. I decided to take a walk instead. If she really balks, you know what to do, don't you? Of course. Remind her that she couldn't afford to be proud. That she couldn't afford to go all Yankee, refusing charity from Michael Noonan, author of Being Two, The Red-Shirt Man, and the soon-tobe-published Helen's Promise. Remind her that she could have her pride or her daughter, but likely not both.
Slide 113: Hey, Mattie, pick one. I walked almost to the end of the lane, stopping at Tidwell's Meadow with its pretty view down to the cup of the lake and across to the White Mountains. The water dreamed under a hazy sky, looking gray when you tipped your head one way, blue when you tipped it the other. That sense of mystery was very much with me. That sense of Manderley. Over forty black people had settled here at the turn of the century — lit here for awhile, anyway — according to Marie Hingerman (also according to A History of Castle County and Castle Rock, a weighty tome published in 1977, the county's bicentennial year). Pretty special black people, too: most of them related, most of them talented, most of them part of a musical group which had first been called The Red-Top Boys and then Sara Tidwell and the Red-Top Boys. They had bought the meadow and a good-sized tract of lakeside land from a man named Douglas Day. The money had been saved up over a period of ten years, according to Sonny Tidwell, who did the dickering (as a Red-Top, Son Tidwell had played what was then known as 'chickenscratch guitar'). There had been a vast uproar about it in town, and even a meeting to protest 'the advent of these darkies, which come in a Horde.' Things had settled down and turned out okay, as things have a way of doing, more often than not. The shanty town most locals had expected on Day's Hill (for so Tidwell's Meadow was called in 1900, when Son Tidwell bought the land on behalf of his extensive clan) had never appeared. Instead, a number of neat white cabins sprang up, surrounding a larger building that might have been intended as a group meeting place, a rehearsal area, or perhaps, at some point, a performance hall. Sara and the Red-Top Boys (sometimes there was a Red-Top Girl in there, as well; membership in the band was fluid, changing with every performance) played around western Maine for over a year, maybe closer to two years. In towns all up and down the Western Line — Farmington, Skowhegan, Bridgton, Gates Falls, Castle Rock, Morton, Fryeburg — you'll still come across their old show-posters at barn bazaars and junkatoriums. Sara and the Red-Tops were great favorites on the circuit, and they got along all right at home on the TR, too, which never surprised me. At the end of the day Robert Frost — that utilitarian and often unpleasant poet — was right: in the northeastern three we really do believe that good fences make good neighbors. We squawk and then keep a miserly peace, the kind with gimlet eyes and a tucked-down mouth. 'They pay their bills,' we say. 'I ain't never had to shoot one a their dogs,' we say. 'They keep themselves to themselves,' we say, as if isolation were a virtue. And, of course, the defining virtue: 'They don't take charity.' And at some point, Sara Tidwell became Sara Laughs. In the end, though, TR-90 mustn't have been what they wanted, because after playing a county fair or two in the late summer of 1901, the clan moved on. Their neat little cabins provided summer-rental income for the Day family until 1933, when they burned in the summer fires which charred the east and north sides of the lake. End of story. Except for her music, that was. Her music had lived. I got up from the rock I had been sitting on, stretched my arms and my back, and walked back down the lane, singing one of her songs as I went.
Slide 114: CHAPTER TWELVE During my hike back down the lane to the house, I tried to think about nothing at all. My first editor used to say that eighty-five percent of what goes on in a novelist's head is none of his business, a sentiment I've never believed should be restricted to just writers. So-called higher thought is, by and large, highly overrated. When trouble comes and steps have to be taken, I find it's generally better to just stand aside and let the boys in the basement do their work. That's blue-collar labor down there, non-union guys with lots of muscles and tattoos. Instinct is their specialty, and they refer problems upstairs for actual cogitation only as a last resort. When I tried to call Mattie Devore, an extremely peculiar thing happened — one that had nothing at all ro do with spooks, as far as I could tell. Instead of an open-hum line when I pushed the cordless's on button, I got silence. Then, just as I was thinking I must have left the phone in the north bedroom off the hook, I realized it wasn't complete silence. Distant as a radio transmission from deep space, cheerful and quacky as an animated duck, some guy with a fair amount of Brooklyn in his voice was singing: 'He followed her to school one day, school one day, school one day. Followed her to school one day, which was against the rule . . . ' I opened my mouth to ask who w there, but before I could, a woman's voice said 'Hello?' She as sounded perplexed and doubtful. 'Mattie?' In my confusion it never occurred to me to call her something more formal, like Ms. or Mrs. Devore. Nor did it seem odd that I should know who it was, based on a single word, even though our only previous conversation had been relatively brief. Maybe the guys in the basement recognized the background music and made the connection to Kyra. 'Mr. Noonan?' She sounded more bewildered than ever. 'The phone never even rang!' 'I must have picked mine up just as your call was going through,' I said. 'That happens from time to time.' But how many times, I wondered, did it happen when the person calling you was the one you yourself had been planning to call? Maybe quite often, actually. Telepathy or coincidence? Live or Memorex? Either way, it seemed almost magical. I looked across the long, low living room, into the glassy eyes of Bunter the moose, and thought: Yes, but maybe this is a magic place now. 'I suppose,' she said doubtfully. 'I apologize about calling in the first place — it's a presumption. Your number's unlisted, I know.' Oh, don't worry about that, I thought. Everyone's got this old number by now. In fact, I'm thinking about putting it in the Yellow Pages. 'I got it from your file at the library,' she went on, sounding embarrassed. 'That's where I work.' In the background, 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' had given way to 'The Farmer in the Dell.' 'It's quite all right,' I said. 'Especially since you're the person I was picking up the phone to call.' 'Me? Why?' 'Ladies first.'
Slide 115: She gave a brief, nervous laugh. 'I wanted to invite you to dinner. That is, Ki and I want to invite you to dinner. I should have done it b efore now. You were awfully good to us the other day. Will you come?' 'Yes,' I said with no hesitation at all. 'With thanks. We've got some things to talk about, anyway.' There was a pause. In the background, the mouse was taking the cheese. As a kid I used to think all these things happened in a vast gray factory called The Hi-Ho Dairy-O. Mattie? Still there?' 'He's dragged you into it, hasn't he? That awful old man.' Now her voice sounded not nervous but somehow dead. 'Well, yes and n You could argue that fate dragged me into it, or coincidence, or God. I wasn't o. there that morning because of Max Devore; I was chasing the elusive Villageburger.' She didn't laugh, but her voice brightened a little, and I was glad. People who talk in that dead, affectless way are, by and large, frightened people. Sometimes people who have been outright terrorized. 'I'm still sorry for dragging you into my trouble.' I had an idea she might start to wonder who was dragging whom after I pitched her on John Storrow, and was glad it was a discussion I wouldn't have to have with her on the phone. 'In any case, I'd love to come to dinner. When?' 'Would this evening be too soon?' 'Absolutely not.' 'That's wonderful. We have to eat early, though, so my little guy doesn't fall asleep in her dessert. Is six okay?' 'Yes.' 'Ki will be excited. We don't have much company.' 'She hasn't been wandering again, has she?' I thought she might be offended. Instead, this time she did laugh. 'God, no. All the fuss on Saturday scared her. Now she comes in to tell me if she's switching from the swing in the side yard to the sandbox in back. She's talked about you a lot, though. She calls you 'that tall guy who carrot me.' I think she's worried you might be mad at her.' 'Tell her I'm not,' I said. 'No, check that. I'll tell her myself. Can I bring anything?' 'Bottle of wine?' she asked, a little doubtfully. 'Or maybe that's pretentious — I was only going to cook hamburgers on the grill and make potato salad.' 'I'll bring an unpretentious bottle.' 'Thank you,' she said. 'This is sort of exciting. We never have company.' I was horrified to find myself on the verge of saying that I thought it was sort of exciting, too, my first date in four years and all. 'Thanks so much for thinking of me.' As I hung up I remembered John Storrow advising me to try and stay visible with her, not to hand over any extra grist for the town gossip mill. If she was barbecuing, we'd probably be out where people could see we had our clothes on . . . for most of the evening, anyway. She-would, however, likely do the polite thing at some point and invite me inside. I would then do the polite thing and go. Admire her velvet Elvis painting on the wall, or her commemorative plates from the Franklin Mint, or whatever she had going in the way of trailer decoration; I'd let Kyra show me her bedroom and exclaim with wonder over her excellent assortment of stuffed animals and her favorite dolly, if that was required. There are all sorts of priorities in life. Some your lawyer can understand, but I suspect there are quite a few he can't. 'Am I handling this right, Bunter?' I asked the stuffed moose. 'Bellow once for yes, twice for no.'
Slide 116: I was halfway down the hall leading to the north wing, thinking of nothing but a cool shower, when from behind me, very soft, came a brief ring of the bell around Bunter's neck. I stopped, head cocked, my shirt held in one hand, waiting for the bell to ring again. It didn't. After a minute, I went the rest of the way to the bathroom and flipped on the shower. The Lakeview General had a pretty good selection of wines tucked away in one corner — not much local demand for it, maybe, but the tourists probably bought a fair quantity — and I selected a bottle of Mondavi red. It was probably a bit more expensive than Mattie had had in mind, but I could peel the price-sticker off and hope she wouldn't know the difference. There was a line at the checkout, mostly folks with damp tee-shirts pulled on over their bathing suits and sand from the public beach sticking to their legs. While I was waiting my turn, my eye happened on the impulse items which are always stocked near the counter. Among them were several plastic bags labeled MAGNABET, each bag showing a cartoon refrigerator with the message BACK SOON stuck to it. According to the written info, there were two sets of consonants in each Magnabet, PLUS EXTRA VOWELS. I grabbed two sets . . . then added a third, thinking that Mattie Devore's kid was probably just the right age for such an item. Kyra saw me pulling into the weedy dooryard, jumped off the slumpy little swingset beside the trailer, bolted to her mother, and hid behind her. When I approached the hibachi which had been set up beside the cinderblock front steps, the child who'd spoken to me so fearlessly on Saturday was just a peeking blue eye and a chubby hand grasping a fold of her mother's sundress below the hip. Two hours brought considerable changes, however. As twilight d eepened, Kyra sat on my lap in the trailer's living room, listening carefully — if with growing wooziness — as I read her the everenthralling story of Cinderella. The couch we were on was a shade of brown which can by law only be sold in discount stores, and extremely lumpy into the bargain, but I still felt ashamed of my casual preconceptions about what I would find inside this trailer. On the wall above and behind us there was an Edward Hopper print — that one of a lonely lunch counter late at night — and across the room, over the small Formica-topped table in the kitchen nook, was one of Vincent van Gogh's 'Sunflowers'. Even more than the Hopper, it looked at home in Mattie Devore's doublewide. I have no idea why that should have been true, but it was. 'Glass slipper will cut her footie,' Ki said in a muzzy, considering way. 'No way,' I said. 'Slipper-glass was specially made in the Kingdom of Grimoire. Smooth and unbreakable, as long as you didn't sing high C while wearing them.' 'I get a pair?' 'Sorry, Ki,' I said, 'no one knows how to make slipper-glass anymore. It's a lost art, like Toledo steel.' It was hot in the trailer and she was hot against my shirt, where her upper body lay, but I wouldn't have changed it. Having a kid on my lap was pretty great. Outside, her mother was singing and gathering up dishes from the card table we'd used for our picnic. Hearing her sing was also pretty great. 'Go on, go on,' Kyra said, pointing to the picture of Cinderella scrubbing the floor. The little girl peeking nervously around her mother's leg was gone; the angry I'm-going-to-the-damn-beach girl of Saturday morning was gone; here was only a sleepy kid who was pretty and bright and trusting. 'Before I can't hold it anymore.' 'Do you need to go pee-pee?'
Slide 117: 'No,' she said, looking at me with some disdain. 'Besides, that's you-rinating. Peas are what you eat with meatloaf, that's what Mattie says. And I already went. But if you don't go fast on the story, I'll fall to sleep.' 'You can't hurry stories with magic in them, Ki.' 'Well go as fast as you can.' 'Okay.' I turned the page. Here was Cinderella, trying to be a good sport, waving goodbye to her asshole sisters as they went off to the ball dressed like starlets at a disco.' 'No sooner had Cinderella said goodbye to Tammy Faye and Vanna — '' 'Those are the sisters' names?' 'The ones I made up for them, yes. Is that okay?' 'Sure.' She settled more comfortably on my lap and dropped her head against my chest again. ''No sooner had Cinderella said goodbye to Tammy Faye and Vanna than a bright light suddenly appeared in the corner of the kitchen. Stepping out of it was a beautiful lady in a silver gown. The jewels in her hair glowed like stars.'' 'Fairy godmother,' Kyra said matter-of-factly. 'Yes.' Mattie came in carrying the remaining half-bottle of Mondavi and the blackened barbecue implements. Her sundress was bright red. On her feet she wore low-topped sneakers so white that they seemed to flash in the gloom. Her hair was tied back and although she still wasn't the gorgeous country-club babe I had briefly envisioned, she was very pretty. Now she looked at Kyra, looked at me, raised her eyebrows, made a lifting gesture with her arms. I shook my head, sending back a message that neither of us was ready quite yet. I resumed reading while Mattie went to work scrubbing her few cooking tools. She was still humming. By the time she had finished with the spatula, Ki's body had taken on an additional relaxation which I recognized at once — she'd conked out, and hard. I closed the Little Golden Treasury of Fairy Tales and put it on the coffee-table beside a couple of other stacked books — whatever Mattie was reading, I presumed. I looked up, saw her looking back at me from the kitchen, and flicked her the V -for-Victory sign. 'Noonan, the winner by a technical knockout in the eighth round,' I said. Mattie dried her hands on a dishtowel and came over. 'Give her to me.' I stood up with Kyra in my arms instead. 'I'll carry. Where?' She pointed. 'On the left.' I carried the baby down the hallway, which was narrow enough so I had to be careful not to bump her feet on one side or the top of her head on the other. At the end of the hall was the bathroom, stringently clean. On the right was a closed door which led, I assumed, into the bedroom Mattie had once shared with Lance Devore and where she now slept alone. If there was a boyfriend who overnighted even some of the time, Mattie had done a good job of erasing his presence from the trailer. I slid carefully through the door on the left and looked at the little bed with its ruffled coverlet of cabbage roses, the table with the doll-house on it, the picture of the Emerald City on one wall, the sign (done in shiny stick-on letters) on another one that read CASA KYRA. Devore wanted to take her away from here, a place where nothing was wrong — where, to the contrary, everything was perfectly right. Casa Kyra was the room of a little girl who was growing up okay. 'Put her on the bed and then go pour yourself another glass of wine,' Mattie said. 'I'll zip her into her pj's and join you. I know we've got stuff to talk about.' 'Okay.' I put her down, then bent a little farther, meaning to plant a kiss on h nose. I almost er thought better of it, then did it anyway. When I left, Mattie was smiling, so I guess it was okay.
Slide 118: I poured myself a little more wine, walked back into the scrap of living room with it, and looked at the two books beside Ki's fairy-tale collection. I'm always curious about what people are reading; the only better insight into them is the contents of their medicine cabinets, and rummaging through your host's drugs and nostrums is frowned upon by the better class. The books were different enough to qualify as schizoid. One, with a playing-card bookmark about three quarters of the way through, was the paperback edition of Richard North Patterson's Silent Witness. I applauded her taste; Patterson and DeMille are probably the best of the current popular novelists. The other, a hardcover tome of some weight, was The Collected Short Works of Herman Melville. About as far from Richard North Patterson as you could get. According to the faded purple ink stamped on the thickness of the pages, this volume belonged to Four Lakes Community Library. That was a lovely little stone building about five miles south of Dark Score Lake, where Route 68 passes off the TR and into Motton. Where Mattie worked, presumably. I opened to her bookmark, another playing card, and saw she was reading 'Bartleby.' 'I don't understand that,' she said from behind me, startling me so badly that I almost dropped the books. 'I like it — it's a good enough story — but I haven't the slightest idea what it means. The other one, now, I've even figured out who did it.' 'It's a strange pair to read in tandem,' I said, putting them back down. 'The Patterson I'm reading for pleasure,' Mattie said. She went into the kitchen, looked briefly (and with some longing, I thought) at the bottle of wine, then opened the fridge and took out a pitcher of Kool-Aid. On the fridge door were words her daughter had already assembled from her Magnabet bag: KI and MATTIE and HOHO (Santa Claus, I presumed). 'Well, I'm reading them both for pleasure, I guess, but we're due to discuss 'Bartleby' in this little group I'm a part of. We meet Thursday nights at the library. I've still got about ten pages to go.' 'A readers' circle.' 'Uh-huh. Mrs. Briggs leads. She formed it long before I was born. She's the head librarian at Four Lakes, you know.' 'I do. Lindy Briggs is my caretaker's sister-in-law.' Mattie smiled. 'Small world, isn't it?' 'No, it's a big world but a small town.' She started to lean back against the counter with her glass of Kool-Aid, then thought better of it. 'Why don't we go outside and sit? That way anyone passing can see that we're still dressed and that we don't have anything on inside-out.' I looked at her, startled She looked back with a kind of cynical good humor. It wasn't an expression that looked particularly at home on her face. 'I may only be twenty-one, but I'm not stupid,' she said. 'He's watching me. I know it, and you probably do, too. On another night I might be tempted to say fuck him if he can't take a joke, but it's cooler out there and the smoke from the hibachi will keep the worst of the bugs away. Have I shocked you? If so, I'm sorry.' 'You haven't.' She had, a little. 'No need to apologize.' We carried our drinks down the not-quite-steady cinderblock steps and sat side-by-side in a couple of lawn-chairs. To the left of us the coals in the hibachi glowed soft rose in the growing gloom. Mattie leaned back, placed the cold curve of her glass briefly against her forehead, then drank most of what was left, the ice cubes sliding against her teeth with a click and a rattle. Crickets hummed in the woods behind the trailer and across the road. Farther up Highway 68, I could see the bright white fluorescents over the gas island at the Lakeview General. The seat of my
Slide 119: chair was a little baggy, the interwoven straps a little frayed, and the old girl canted pretty severely to the left, but there was still no place I'd rather have been sitting just then. This evening had turned out to be a quiet little miracle. . at least, so far. We still had John Storrow to get to. 'I'm glad you came on a Tuesday,' she said. 'Tuesday nights are hard for me. I'm always thinking of the ballgame down at Warrington's. The guys'll be picking up the gear by now — the bats and bases and catcher's mask — -and putting it back in the storage cabinet behind home plate. Drinking their last beers and smoking their last cigarettes. That's where I met my husband, you know. I'm sure you've been told all that by now.' I couldn't see her face clearly, but I could hear the faint tinge of bitterness which had crept into her voice, and guessed she was still wearing the cynical expression. It was too old for her, but I thought she'd come by it honestly enough. Although if she didn't watch out, it would take root and grow. 'I heard a version from Bill, yes — Lindy's brother-in-law.' 'Oh ayuh — our story's on retail. You can get it at the store, or the Village Cafe, or at that old blabbermouth's garage . . . which my father-in-law rescued from Western Savings, by the way. He stepped in just before the bank could foreclose. Now Dickie Brooks and his cronies think Max Devore is walking talking Jesus. I hope you got a fairer version from Mr. Dean than you'd get at the All-Purpose. You must've, or you wouldn't have risked eating hamburgers with Jezebel.' I wanted to get away from that, if I could — her anger was understandable but useless. Of course it was easier for me to see that; it wasn't my kid who had been turned into the handkerchief tied at the center of a tug-of-war rope. 'They still play softball at Warrington's? Even though Devore bought the place?' 'Yes indeed. He goes down to the field in his motorized wheelchair every Tuesday evening and watches. There are other things he's done since he came back here that are just attempts to buy the town's good opinion, but I think he genuinely loves the softball games. The Whit-more woman goes, too. Brings an extra oxygen tank along in a little red wheelbarrow with a whitewall tire on the front. She keeps a fielder's mitt in there, too, in case any foul pops come up over the backstop to where he sits. He caught one near the start of the season, I heard, and got a standing O from the players and the folks who come to watch.' 'Going to the games puts him in touch with his son, you think?' Mattie smiled grimly. 'I don't think Lance so much as crosses his mind, not when he's at the ballfield. They play hard at Warrington's — slide into home with their feet up, jump into the puckerbrush for the flyballs, curse each other when they do something wrong — and that's what old Max Devore enjoys, that's why he never misses a Tuesday evening game. He likes to watch them slide and get up bleeding.' 'Is that how Lance played? She thought about it carefully. 'He played hard, but he wasn't crazed. He was there just for the fun of it. We all were. We women — shit, really just us girls, Barney Therriault's wife, Cindy, was only sixteen — we'd stand behind the backstop on the frst-base side, smoking cigarettes or waving i punks to keep the bugs away, cheering our guys when they did something good, laughing when they did something stupid. We'd swap sodas or share a can of beer. I'd admire Helen Geary's twins and she'd kiss Ki under the chin until Ki giggled. Sometimes we'd go down to the Village Cafe afterward and Buddy'd make us pizzas, losers pay. All friends again, you know, a ter the game. We'd sit there laughing and yelling and blowing straw-wrappers around, some of the guys halfloaded but nobody mean. In those days they got all the mean out on the ballfield. And you know what? None of them come to see me. Not Helen Geary, who was my best friend. Not Richie
Slide 120: Lattimore, who was Lance's best friend — the two of them would talk about rocks and birds and the kinds of trees there were across the lake for hours on end. They came to the uneral, and for a little while after, and then . . . you know what it was like? When I was a kid, our well dried up. For awhile you'd get a trickle when you turned on the tap, but then there was just air. Just air.' The cynicism was gone and there was only hurt in her voice. 'I saw Helen at Christmas, and we promised to get together for the twins' birthday, but we never did. I think she's scared to come near me.' 'Because of the old man?' 'Who else? But that's okay, life goes on.' She sat up, drank the rest of her Kool-Aid, and set the glass aside. 'What about you, Mike? Did you come back to write a book? Are you going to name the TR?' This was a local bon mot that I remembered with an almost painful twinge of nostalgia. Locals with great plans were said to be bent on naming the TR. 'No,' I said, and then astonished myself by saying: 'I don't do that anymore. I think I expected her to leap to her feet, overturning her chair and uttering a sharp cry of horrified denial. All of which says a good deal about me, I suppose, and none of it flattering. 'You've retired?' she asked, sounding calm and remarkably unhorrified. 'Or is it writer's block?' 'Well, it's certainly not chosen retirement.' I realized the conversation had taken a rather amusing turn. I'd come primarily to sell her on John Storrow — to shove John Storrow down her throat, if that was what it took — and instead I was for the first time discussing my inability to work. For the first time with anyone. 'So it's a block.' 'I used to think so, but now I'm not so sure. I think novelists may come equipped with a certain number of stories to tell — they're built into the software. And when they're gone, they're gone.' 'I doubt that,' she said. 'Maybe you'll write now that you're down here. Maybe that's part of the reason you came back.' 'Maybe you're right.' 'Are you scared?' 'Sometimes. Mostly about what I'll do f r the rest of my life. I'm no good at boats in bottles, and o my wife was the one with the green thumb.' 'I'm scared, too,' she said. 'Scared a lot. All the time now, it seems like.' 'That he'll win his custody case? Mattie, that's what I — ' 'The custody case is only part of it,' she said. 'I'm scared just to be here, on the TR. It started early this summer, long after I knew Devore meant to get Ki away from me if he could. And it's getting worse. In a way it's like watching thunderheads gather over New Hampshire and then come piling across the lake. I can't put it any better than that, except . . . ' She shifted, crossing her legs and then bending forward to pull the skirt of her dress against the line of her shin, as if she were cold. 'Except that I've woken up several times lately, sure that I wasn't in the bedroom alone. Once when I was sure I wasn't in the bed alone. Sometimes it's just a feeling — like a headache, only in your nerves — and sometimes I think I can hear whispering, or crying. I made a cake one night — about two weeks ago, this was — and forgot to put the flour away. The next morning the cannister was overturned, and the flour was spilled on the counter. Someone had written 'hello' in it. I thought at first it was Ki, but she said she didn't do it. Besides, it wasn't her printing, hers is all straggly. I don't know if she could even write hello. Hi, maybe, but . . . Mike, you don't think he could be sending someone around to try and freak me out, do you? I mean that's just stupid, right?' 'I don't know,' I said. I thought of something thumping the insulation in the dark as I stood on the stairs. I thought of hello printed with magnets on my refrigerator door, and a child sobbing in the
Slide 121: dark. My skin felt more than cold; it felt numb. A headache in the nerves, that was good, that was exactly how you felt when something reached around the wall of the real world and touched you on the nape of the neck. 'Maybe it's ghosts,' she said, and smiled in an uncertain way that was more frightened than amused. I opened my mouth to tell her about what had been happening at Sara Laughs, then closed it again. There was a clear choice to be made here: either we could be sidetracked into a discussion of the paranormal, or we could come back to the visible world. The one where Max Devore was trying to steal himself a kid. 'Yeah,' I said. 'The spirits are about to speak.' 'I wish I could see your face better. There was something on it just then. What?' 'I don't know,' I said. 'But right now I think we'd better talk about Kyra. Okay?' 'Okay.' In the faint glow of the hibachi I could see her settling herself in her chair, as if to take a blow. 'I've been subpoenaed to give a deposition in Castle Rock on Friday. Before Elmer Durgin, who is Kyra's guardian ad litem — ' 'That pompous little toad isn't Ki's anything!' she burst out. 'He's in my father-in-law's hip pocket, just like Dickie Osgood, old Max's pet real-estate guy! Dickie and Elmer Durgin drink together down at The Mellow Tiger, or at least they did until this business really got going. Then someone probably told them it would look bad, and they stopped.' 'The papers were served by a deputy named George Footman.' 'Just one more of the usual suspects,' Mattie said in a thin voice. 'Dickie Osgood's a snake, but George Footman's a junkyard dog. He's been suspended off the cops twice. Once more and he can work for Max Devore full-time.' 'Well, he scared me. I tried not to show it, but he did. And people who scare me make me angry. I called my agent in New York and then hired a lawyer. One who makes a specialty of childcustody cases.' I tried to see how she was taking this and couldn't, although we were sitting fairly close together. But she still had that set look, like a woman who expects to take some hard blows. Or perhaps for Mattie the blows had already started to fall. Slowly, not allowing myself to rush, I went through my conversation with John Storrow. I emphasized what Storrow had said about sexual equality — that it was apt to be a negative force in her case, making it easier for Judge Rancourt to take Kyra away. I also came down hard on the fact that Devore could have all the lawyers he wanted — not to mention sympathetic witnesses, with Richard Osgood running around the TR and spreading Devore's dough — but that the court wasn't obligated to treat her to so much as an ice cream cone. I finished by telling her that John wanted to talk to one of us tomorrow at eleven, and that it should be her. Then I waited. The silence spun out, broken only by crickets and the faint revving of some kid's unmuffled truck. Up Route 68, the white fluorescents went out as the Lakeview Market finished another day of summer trade. I didn't like Mattie's quiet; it seemed like the prelude to an explosion. A Yankee explosion. I held my peace and waited for her to ask me what gave me the right to meddle in her business. When she finally spoke, her voice was low and defeated. It hurt to hear her sounding that way, but like the cynical look on her face earlier, it wasn't surprising. And I hardened myself against it as best I could. Hey, Mattie, tough old world. Pick one. 'Why would you do this?' she asked. 'Why would you hire an expensive New York lawyer to take my case? That is what you're offering, isn't it? It's got to be, because I sure can't hire him. I got
Slide 122: thirty thousand dollars' insurance money when Lance died, and was lucky to get that. It was a policy he bought from one of his Warrington's friends, almost as a joke, but without it I would have lost the trailer last winter. They may love Dickie Brooks at Western Savings, but they don't give a rat's ass for Mattie Stanchfield Devore. After taxes I make about a hundred a week at the library. So you're offering to pay. Right?' 'Right.' 'Why? You don't even know us.' 'Because . . . ' I trailed off. I seem to remember wanting Jo to step in at that point, asking my mind to supply her voice, which I could then pass on to Mattie in my own. But Jo didn't come. I was flying solo. 'Because now I do nothing that makes a difference,' I said at last, and once again the words astonished me. 'And I do know you. I've eaten your food, I've read Ki a story and had her fall asleep in my lap . . . and maybe I saved her life the other day when I grabbed her out of the road. We'll never know for sure, but maybe I did. You know what the Chinese say about something like that?' I didn't expect an answer, the question was more rhetorical than real, but she surprised me. N ot for the last time, either. 'That if you save someone's life, you're responsible for them.' 'Yes. It's also about what's fair and what's right, but I think mostly it's about wanting to be part of something where I make a difference. I look back on the four years since my wife died, and there's nothing there. Not even a book where Marjorie the shy typist meets a handsome stranger.' She sat thinking this over, watching as a fully loaded pulptruck snored past on the highway, its headlights glaring and its load of logs swaying from side to side like the hips of an overweight woman. 'Don't you root for us,' she said at last. She spoke in a low, unexpectedly fierce voice. 'Don't you root for us like he roots for his team-of-the-week down at the softball field. I need help and I know it, but I won't have that. I can't have it. We're not a game, Ki and me. You understand?' 'Perfectly.' 'You know what people in town will say, don't you?' 'Yes.' 'I'm a lucky girl, don't you think? First I marry the son of an extremely rich man, and after he dies, I fall under the protective wing of another rich guy. Next I'll probably move in with Donald Trump.' 'Cut it out.' 'I'd probably believe it myself, if I were on the other side. But I wonder if anyone notices that lucky Mattie is still living in a Modair trailer and can't afford health insurance. Or that her kid got most of her vaccinations from the County Nurse. My parents died when I was fifteen. I have a brother and a sister, but they're both a lot older and both out of state. My parents were drunks — not physically abusive, but there was plenty of the other kinds. It was like growing up in a . . . a roach motel. My dad was a pulper, my mom was a bourbon beautician whose one ambition was to own a Mary Kay pink Cadillac. He drowned in Kewadin Pond. She drowned in her own vomit about six months later. How do you like it so far?' 'Not very much. I'm sorry.' 'After Mom's funeral my brother, Hugh, offered to take me back to Rhode Island, but I could tell his wife wasn't exactly nuts about having a fifteen-year-old join the family, and I can't say that I blamed her. Also, I'd just made the jv cheering squad. That seems like supreme diddlyshit now, but it was a very big deal then.'
Slide 123: Of course it had been a big deal, especially to the child of alcoholics. The only one still living at home. Being that last child, watching as the disease really digs its claws in, can be one of the world's loneliest jobs. Last one out of the sacred ginmill please turn off the lights. 'I ended up going to live with my aunt Florence, just two miles down the road. It took us about three weeks to discover we didn't like each other very much, but we made it work for two years. Then, between my junior and senior years, I got a summer job at Warrington's and met Lance. When he asked me to marry him, Aunt Flo refused to give permission. When I told her I was pregnant, she emancipated me so I didn't need it.' 'You dropped out of school?' She grimaced, nodded. 'I didn't want to spend six months having people watch me swell up like a balloon. Lance supported me. He said I could take the equivalency test. I did last year. It was easy. And now Ki and I are on our own. Even if my aunt agreed to help me, what could she do? She works in the Castle Rock Gore-Tex factory and makes about sixteen thousand dollars a year.' I nodded again, thinking that my last check for French royalties had been about that. My last quarterly check. Then I remembered something Ki had told me on the day I met her. 'When I was carrying Kyra out of the road, she said that if you were mad, she'd go to her white nana. If your folks are dead, who did she — ' Except I didn't really have to ask; I only had to make one or two simple connections. 'Rogette Whitmore's the white nana? Devore's assistant? But that means . . . ' 'That Ki's been with them. Yes, you bet. Until late last month, I allowed her to visit her grandpa — and Rogette by association, of course — quite often. Once or twice a week, and sometimes for an overnight. She likes her "Whita poppa" — at least she did at first — and she absolutely adores that creepy woman.' I thought Mattie shivered in the gloom, although the night was still very warm. 'Devore called to say he was coming east for Lance's funeral and to ask if he could see his granddaughter while he was here. Nice as pie, he was, just as if he'd never tried to buy me off when Lance told him we were going to get married.' 'Did he?' 'Uh-huh. The first offer was a hundred thousand. That was in August of 1994, after Lance called him to say we were getting married in mid-September. I kept quiet about it. A week later, the offer went up to two hundred thousand.' 'For what, precisely?' 'To remove my bitch-hooks and relocate with no forwarding address. This time I did tell Lance, and he hit the roof. Called his old man and said we were going to be married whether he liked it or not. Told him that if he ever wanted to see his grandchild, he had better cut the shit and behave.' 'With another parent, I thought, that was probably the most reasonable response Lance Devore could have made. I respected him for it. The only problem was that he wasn't dealing with a reasonable man; he was dealing with the fellow who, as a child, had stolen Scooter Larribee's new sled. 'These offers were made by Devore himself, over the telephone. Both when Lance wasn't around. Then, about ten days before the wedding, I had a visit from Dickie Osgood. I was to make a call to a number in Delaware, and when I did . . . ' Mattie shook her head. 'You wouldn't believe it. It's like something out of one of your books.' 'May I guess?' 'If you want.' 'He tried to buy the child. He tried to buy Kyra.'
Slide 124: Her eyes widened. A scantling moon had come up and I could see that look of surprise well enough. 'How much?' I asked. 'I'm curious. How much for you to give birth, leave Devore's grandchild with Lance, then scat?' 'Two million dollars,' she whispered. 'Deposited in the bank of my choice, as long as it was west of the Mississippi and I signed an agreement to stay away from her — and from Lance — until at least April twentieth, 2016.' 'The year Ki turns twenty-one.' 'Yes.' 'And Osgood doesn't know any of the details, so Devore's skirts remain clean here in town.' 'Uh-huh. And the two million was only the start. There was to be an additional million on Ki's fifth, tenth, fifteenth, and twentieth birthdays.' She shook her head in a disbelieving way. 'The linoleum keeps bubbling up in the kitchen, the showerhead keeps falling into the tub, and the whole damn rig cants to the east these days, but I could have been the six-million-dollar woman.' Did you ever consider taking the off, Mattie? I wondered . . . but that was a question I'd never ask, a sign of curiosity so unseemly it deserved no satisfaction. 'Did you tell Lance?' 'I tried not to. He was already furious with his father, and I didn't want to make it worse. I didn't want that much hate at the start of our marriage, no matter how good the reasons for hating might be . . . and I didn't want Lance to . . . later on with me, you know . . . ' She raised her hands, then dropped them back on her thighs. The gesture was both weary and oddly endearing. 'You didn't want Lance turning on you ten years later and saying '"You came between me and my father, you bitch.''' 'Something like that. But in the end, I couldn't keep it to myself. I was just this kid from the sticks, didn't own a pair of pantyhose until I was eleven, wore my hair in nothing but braids or a ponytail until I was thirteen, thought the whole state of New York was New York City . . . and this guy . . . this phantom father . . . had offered me six million bucks. It terrified me. I had dreams about him coming in the night like a troll and stealing my baby out of her crib. He'd come wriggling through the window like a snake . . . ' 'Dragging his oxygen tank behind him, no doubt.' She smiled. 'I didn't know about the oxygen then. Or Rogette Whit-more, either. All I'm trying to say is that I was only seventeen and not good at keeping secrets.' I had to restrain my own smile at the way she said this — as if decades of experience now lay between that naive, frightened child and this mature woman with the mail-order diploma. 'Lance was angry.' 'So angry he replied to his father by e -mail instead of calling. He stuttered, you see, and the more upset he was, the worse his stutter became. A phone conversation would have been impossible.' Now, at last, I thought I had a clear picture. Lance Devore had written his father an unthinkable letter — unthinkable, that was, if you happened to be Max Devore. The letter said that Lance didn't want to hear from his father again, and Mattie didn't, either. He wouldn't be welcome in their home (the Modair trailer wasn't quite the humble woodcutter's cottage of a Brothers Grimm tale, but it was close enough for kissing). He wouldn't be welcome to visit following the birth of their baby, and if he had the gall to send the child a present then or later, it would be returned. Stay out of my life, Dad. This time you've gone too far to forgive. There are undoubtedly diplomatic ways of handling an offended child, some wise and some crafty . . . but ask yourself this: would a diplomatic father have gotten himself into such a situation
Slide 125: to begin with? Would a man with even minimal insight into human nature have offered his son's fiancee a bounty (one so enormous it probably had little real sense or m eaning to her) to give up her firstborn child? And he'd offered this devil's bargain to a girl-woman of seventeen, an age when the romantic view of life is at absolute high tide. If nothing else, Devore should have waited awhile before making his final offer. You could argue that he didn't know if he had awhile, but it wouldn't be a persuasive argument. I thought Mattie was right — deep in that wrinkled old prune which served him as a heart, Max Devore thought he was going to live forever. In the end, h hadn't been able to restrain himself. There was the sled he wanted, the sled he just e had to have, on the other side of the window. All he had to do was break the glass and take it. He'd been doing it all his life, and so he had reacted to his son's e-mail not craftily, as a man of his years and abilities should have done, but furiously, as the child would have done if the glass in the shed window had proved immune to his hammering fists. Lance didn't want him meddling? Fine! Lance could live with his backwoods Daisy Mae in a tent or a trailer or a goddamned cowbarn. He could give up the cushy surveying job, as well, and find real employment. See how the other half lived! In other words, you can't quit on me, son. You're fired. 'We didn't fall into each other's arms at the funeral,' Mattie said, 'don't get that idea. But he was decent to me — which I didn't expect — and I tried to be decent to him. He offered me a stipend, which I refused. I was afraid there might be legal ramifications.' 'I doubt it, but I like your caution. What happened when he saw Kyra for the first time, Mattie? Do you remember?' 'I'll never forget it.' She reached into the pocket of her dress, found a battered pack of cigarettes, and shook one out. She looked at it with a mixture of greed and disgust. 'I quit these because Lance said we couldn't really afford them, and I knew he was right. But the habit creeps back. I only smoke a pack a week, and I know damned well even that's too much, but sometimes I need the comfort. Do you want one?' I shook my head. She lit up, and in the momentary flare of the match, her face was way past pretty. What had the old man made of her? I wondered. 'He met his granddaughter for the first time beside a hearse,' Mattie said. 'We were at Dakin's Funeral Home in Motton. It was the "viewing." Do you know about that?' 'Oh yes,' I said, thinking of Jo. 'The casket was closed but they still call it a viewing. Weird. I came out to have a cigarette. I told Ki to sit on the funeral parlor steps so she wouldn't get the smoke, and I went a little way down the walk. This big gray limo pulled up. I'd never seen anything like it before, except on TV. I knew who it was right away. I put my cigarettes back in my purse and told Ki to come. She toddled down the walk and took hold of my hand. The limo door opened, and Rogette Whitmore got out. She had an oxygen mask in one hand, but he didn't need it, at least not then. He got out after her. A tall man — not as tall as you, Mike, but tall — wearing a gray suit and black shoes as shiny as mirrors.' She paused, thinking. Her cigarette rose briefly to her mouth, then went back down to the arm of her chair, a red firefly in the weak moonlight. 'At first he didn't say anything. The woman tried t take his arm and help him climb the three or o four steps from the road to the walk, but he shook her off. He got to where we were standing under his own power, although I could hear him wheezing way down deep in his chest. It was the sound a machine makes when it needs oil. I don't know how much he can walk now, but it's probably not much. Those few steps pretty well did him in, and that was almost a year ago. He looked at me for a second or two, then bent forward with his big, bony old hands on his knees. He looked at Kyra and she looked up at him.'
Slide 126: Yes. I could see it . . . except not in color, not in an image like a photograph. I saw it as a woodcut, just one more harsh illustration from Grimm's Fairy Tales. The little girl looks up wideeyed at the rich old man — once a boy who went triumphantly sliding on a stolen sled, now at the other end of his life and just one more bag of bones. 'In my imagining, Ki was wearing a hooded jacket and Devore's grandpa mask was slightly askew, allowing me to see the tufted wolf-pelt beneath. What big eyes you have, Grandpa, what a big nose you have, Grandpa, what big teeth you have, too. 'He picked her up. I don't know how much effort it cost him, but he did. And — the oddest thing — Ki let herself be picked up. He was a complete stranger to her, and old people always seem to scare little children, but she let him pick her up. 'Do you know who I am?' he asked her. She shook her head, but the way she was looking at him . . . it was as if she almost knew. Do you think that's possible?' 'Yes.' 'He said, "I'm your grandpa." And I almost grabbed her back, Mike, because I had this crazy idea . . . I don't know . . . ' 'That he was going to eat her up?' Her cigarette paused in front of her mouth. Her eyes were round. 'How do you know that? How can you know that?' 'Because in my mind's eye it looks like a fairy tale. Little Red Riding Hood and the Old Gray Wolf. What did he do then?' 'Ate her up with his eyes. Since then he's taught her to play checkers and Candyland and boxdots. She's only three, but he's taught her to add and subtract. She has her own room at Warrington's and her own little computer in it, and God knows what he's taught her to do with that . . . but that first time he only looked at her. It was the hungriest look I've ever seen in my life. 'And she looked back. It couldn't have been more than ten or twenty seconds, but it seemed like forever. Then he tried to hand her back to me. He'd used up all his strength, though, and if I h adn't been right there to take her, I think he would have dropped her on the cement walk. 'He staggered a little, and Rogette Whitmore put an arm around him. That was when he took the oxygen mask from her — there was a little air-bottle attached to it on an elastic — and put it over his mouth and nose. A couple of deep breaths and he seemed more or less all right again. He gave it back to Rogette and really seemed to see me for the first time. He said, "I've been a fool, haven't I?" I said, "Yes, sir, I think you have." He gave me a look, very black, when I said that. I think if he'd been even five years younger, he might have hit me for it.' 'But he wasn't and he didn't.' 'No. He said, 'I want to go inside. Will you help me do that?' I said I would. We went up the mortuary steps with Rogette on one side of him, me t sort of like a harem girl. It wasn't a very nice feeling. When we got into the vestibule, he sat down to catch his breath and take a little more oxygen. Rogette turned to Kyra. I think that woman's got a scary face, it reminds me of some painting or other — ' 'The Cry? The one by Munch?' 'I'm pretty sure that's the one.' She dropped her cigarette — she'd smoked it all the way down to the filter — and stepped on it, grinding it into the bony, rock-riddled ground with one white sneaker. 'But Ki wasn't scared of her a bit. Not then, not later. She bent down to Kyra and said, 'What rhymes with lady?' and Kyra said 'Shady!' right off. Even at two she loved rhymes. Rogette reached into her purse and brought out a Hershey's Kiss. Ki looked at me to see if she had
Slide 127: permission and I said, 'All right, but just one, and I don't want to see any of it on your dress.' Ki popped it into her mouth and smiled at Rogette as if they'd been friends since forever. 'By then Devore had his breath back, but he looked tired — the most tired man I've ever seen. He reminded me of something in the Bible, about how in the days of our old age we say we have no pleasure in them. My heart kind of broke for him. Maybe he saw it, because he reached for my hand. He said, "Don't shut me out." And at that moment I could see Lance in his face. I started to cry. I said, "I won't unless you make me."' I could see them there in the funeral home's foyer, him sitting, her standing, the little girl looking on in wide-eyed puzzlement as she sucked the sweet Hershey's Kiss. Canned organ music in the background. Poor old Max Devore had been crafty enough on the day of his son's viewing, I thought. Don't shut me out, indeed. I tried to buy you off and when that didn't work I upped the stakes and tried to buy the baby. When that also failed, I told my son that you and he and my grandchild could choke on the dirt of your own decision. In a way, I'm the reason he was where he was when fell and broke his neck, but don't shut me out, Mattie, I'm just a poor old geezer, so don't shut me out. 'I was stupid, wasn't I?' 'You expected him to be better than he was. If that makes you stupid, Mattie, the world could use more of it.' 'I did have my doubts,' she said. 'It's why I wouldn't take any of his money, and by last October he'd quit asking. But I let him see her. I suppose, yeah, part of it was the idea there might be something in it for Ki later on, but I honestly didn't think about that so much. Mostly it was him being her only blood link to her father. I wanted her to enjoy that the way any kid enjoys having a grandparent. What I didn't want was for her to be infected by all the crap that went on before Lance died. 'At first it seemed to be working. Then, little by little, things changed. I realized that Ki didn't like her 'white poppa' so much; for one thing. Her feelings about Rogette are the same, but Max Devore's started to make her nervous in some way I don't understand and she can't explain. I asked her once if he'd ever touched her anywhere that made her feel funny. I showed her the places I meant, and she said no. I believe her, but . . . he said something or did something. I'm almost sure of it.' 'Could be no more than the sound of his breathing getting worse,' I said. 'That alone might be enough to scare a child. Or maybe he had some kind of spell while she was there. What about you, Mattie?' 'Well . . . one day in February Lindy Briggs told me t at George Footman had been in to check h the fire extinguishers and the smoke detectors in the library. He also asked if Lindy had found any beer cans or liquor bottles in the trash lately. Or cigarette butts that were obviously homemade.' 'Roaches, in other words.' 'Uh-huh. And Dickie Osgood has been visiting my old friends, I hear. Chatting. Panning for gold. Digging the dirt.' 'Is there any to dig?' 'Not much, thank God.' I hoped she was right, and I hoped that if there was stuff she wasn't telling me, John Storrow would get it out of her. 'But through all this you let Ki go on seeing him.' 'What would pulling the plug on the visits have accomplished? And I thought that allowing them to go on would at least keep him from speeding up any plans he might have.'
Slide 128: That, I thought, made a lonely kind of sense. 'Then, in the spring, I started to get some extremely creepy, scary feelings.' 'Creepy how? Scary how?' 'I don't know.' She took out her cigarettes, looked at them, then stuffed the pack back in her pocket. 'It wasn't just that my father-in-law was looking for dirty laundry in my closets, either. It was Ki. I started to worry about ICI all the time she was with him . . . with them. Rogette would come in the BMW they'd bought or leased, and Ki would be sitting out on the steps waiting for her. With her bag of toys if it was a day-visit, with her little pink Minnie Mouse suitcase if it was an overnight. And she'd always come back with one more thing than she left with. My father-in-law's a great believer in presents. Before popping her into the car, Rogette would give me that cold little smile of hers and say, "Seven o'clock then, we'll give her supper" or "Eight o'clock then, and a nice hot breakfast before she leaves." I'd say okay, and then Rogette would reach into her bag and hold out a Hershey's Kiss to Ki just the way you'd hold a biscuit out to a dog to make it shake hands. She'd say a word and Kyra would rhyme it. Rogette would toss her her treat — woof-woof, good dog, I always used to think — and off they'd go. Come seven in the evening or eight in the morning, the BMW would pull in right where your car's parked now. You could set your clock by the woman. But I got worried.' 'That they might get tired of the legal process and just snatch her?' This seemed to me a reasonable concern — so reasonable I could hardly believe Mattie had ever let her little girl go to the old man in the first place. In custody cases, as in the rest of life, possession tends to be nine tenths of the law, and if Mattie was telling the truth about her past and present, a custody hearing was apt to turn into a tiresome production even for the rich Mr. Devore. Snatching might, in the end, look like a more efficient solution. 'Not exactly,' she said. 'I guess it's the logical thing, but that wasn't really it. I just got afraid. There was nothing I could put my finger on. It would get to be quarter past six in the evening and I'd think, "This time that white-haired bitch isn't going t bring her back. This time she's going to . . o . ''' I waited. When nothing came I said, 'Going to what?' 'I told you, I don't know,' she said. 'But I've been afraid for Ki since spring. By the time June came around, I couldn't stand it anymore, and I put a stop to the visits. Kyra's been off-and-on pissed at me ever since. I'm pretty sure that's most of what that Fourth of July escapade was about. She doesn't talk about her grandfather very much, but she's always popping out with "What do you think the white nana's doing now, Mattie?" or "Do you think the white nana would like my new dress?" Or she'll run up to me and say "Sing, ring, king, thing," and ask for a treat.' 'What was the reaction from Devore?' 'Complete fury. He called again and again, first asking what was wrong, then making threats.' 'Physical threats?' 'Custody threats. He was going to take her away, when he was finished with me I'd stand before the whole world as an unfit mother, I didn't have a chance, my only hope w to relent and let me as see my granddaughter, goddammit.' I nodded. '"Please don't shut me out" doesn't sound like the guy who called while I was watching the fireworks, but that does.' 'I've also gotten calls from Dickie Osgood, and a number of other locals,' she said. 'Including Lance's old friend Richie Lattimore. Richie said I wasn't being true to Lance's memory.' 'What about George Footman?'
Slide 129: 'He cruises by once in awhile. Lets me know he's watching. He hasn't called or stopped in. You asked about physical threats — just seeing Footman's cruiser on my road feels like a physical threat to me. He scares me. But these days it seems as if everything does.' 'Even though Kyra's visits have stopped.' 'Even though. It feels . . . thundery. Like something's going to happen. And every day that feeling seems to get stronger.' 'John Storrow's number,' I said. 'Do you want it?' She sat quietly, looking into her lap. Then she raised her head and nodded. 'Give it to me. And thank you. From the bottom of my heart.' I had the number on a pink memo-slip in my front pocket. She grasped it but did not immediately take it. Our fingers were touching, and she was looking at me with disconcerting steadiness. It was as if she knew more about my motives than I did myself. 'What can I do to repay you?' she asked, and there it was. 'Tell Storrow everything you've told me.' I let go of the pink slip and stood up. 'That'll do just fine. And now I have to get along. Will you call and tell me how you made out with him?' 'Of course.' We walked to my car. I turned to her when we got there. For a moment I thought she was going to put her arms around me and hug me, a thank-you gesture that might have led anywhere in our current mood — one so heightened it was almost melodramatic. But it was a melodramatic situation, a fairy-tale where there's good and bad and a lot of repressed sex running under both. Then headlights appeared over the brow of the hill where the market stood and swept past the All-Purpose Garage. They moved toward us, brightening. Mattie stood back and actually put her hands behind her, like a child who has been scolded. The car passed, leaving us in the dark again . . . but the moment had passed, too. If there had been a moment. 'Thanks for dinner,' I said. 'It was wonderful.' 'Thanks for the lawyer, I'm sure he'll be wonderful, too,' she said, and we both laughed. The electricity went out of the air. 'He spoke of you once, you know. Devore.' I looked at her in surprise. 'I'm amazed he even knew who I was. Before this, I mean.' 'He knows, all right. He spoke of you with what I think was genuine affection.' 'You're kidding. You must be.' 'I'm not. He said that your great-grandfather and his great-grandfather worked the same camps and were neighbors when they weren't in the woods — I think he said not far from where Boyd's Marina is now. 'They shit in the same pit,' is the way he put it. Charming, huh? He said he guessed that if a couple of loggers from the TR could produce millionaires, the system was working the way it was supposed to. "Even if it took three generations to do it," he said. At the time I took it as a veiled criticism of Lance.' 'It's ridiculous, however he meant it,' I said. 'My family is from the coast. Prout's Neck. Other side of the state. My dad was a fisherman and so was his father before him. My great-grandfather, too. They trapped lobsters and threw nets, they didn't cut trees.' All that was true, and yet my mind tried to fix o something. Some memory connected to what she was saying. Perhaps if I slept on it, n it would come back to me. 'Could he have been talking about someone in your wife's family?' 'Nope. There are Arlens in Maine — they're a big family — but most are still in Massachusetts. They do all sorts of things now, but if you go back to the eighteen-eighties, the majority would have been quarrymen and stonecutters in the Malden-Lynn area. Devore was pulling your leg, Mattie.' But
Slide 130: even then I suppose I knew he wasn't. He might have gotten some part of the story wrong — even the sharpest guys begin to lose the edge of their recollection by the time they turn eighty-five — but Max Devore wasn't much of a leg-puller. I had an image of unseen cables stretching beneath the surface of the earth here on the TR — -stretching in all directions, unseen but very powerful. My hand was resting on top of my car door, and now she touched it briefly. 'Can I ask you one other question before you go? It's stupid, I warn you.' 'Go ahead. Stupid questions are a specialty of mine.' 'Do you have any idea at all what that "Bartleby" story is about?' I wanted to laugh, but there was enough moonlight for me to see she was serious, and that I'd hurt her feelings if I did. She was a member of Lindy Briggs's readers' circle (where I had once spoken in the late eighties), probably the youngest by at least twenty years, and she was afraid of appearing stupid. 'I have to speak first next time,' she said, 'and I'd like to g more than just a summary of the ive story so they know I've read it. I've thought about it until my head aches, and I just don't see. I doubt if it's one of those stories where everything comes magically clear in the last few pages, either. And I feel like I should see — that it's right there in front of me.' That made me think of the cables again — cables running in every direction, a subcutaneous webwork connecting people and places. You couldn't see them, but you could feel them. Especially if you tried to get away. Meanwhile Mattie was waiting, looking at me with hope and anxiety. 'Okay, listen up, school's in session,' I said. 'I am. Believe me.' 'Most critics think Huckleberry Finn is the first modern American novel, and that's fair enough, but if "Bartleby" were a hundred pages longer, I think I'd put my money there. Do you know what a scrivener was?' 'A secretary?' 'That's too grand. A copyist. Sort of like Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol. Only Dickens gives Bob a past and a family life. Melville gives Bartleby neither. He's the first existential character in American fiction, a guy with no ties . . . no ties to, you know . . . ' A couple of loggers who could produce millionaires. They shit in the same pit. 'Mike?' 'What?' 'Are you okay?' 'Sure.' I focused my mind as best I could. 'Bartleby is tied to life only by work. In that way he's a twentieth-century American type, not much different from Sloan Wilson's Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, or — in the dark version — Michael Corleone in The Godfather. But then Bartleby begins to question even work, the god of middle-class American males.' She looked excited now, and I thought it was a shame she'd missed her last year of high school. For her and also for her teachers. 'That's why he starts saying "I prefer not to"?' 'Yes. Think of Bartleby as a . . . a hot-air balloon. Only one rope still tethers him to the earth, and that rope is his scrivening. We can measure the rot in that last rope by the steadily ncreasing i number of things Bartleby prefers not to do. Finally the rope breaks and Bartleby floats away. It's a goddam disturbing story, isn't it?' 'One night I dreamed about him,' she said. 'I opened the trailer door and there he was, sitting on the steps in his old black suit. Thin. Not much hair. I said, "Will you move, please? I have to go out and hang the clothes now." And he said, "I prefer not to." Yes, I guess you could call it disturbing.' 'Then it still works,' I said, and got into my car. 'Call me. Tell me how it goes with John Storrow.'
Slide 131: 'I will. And anything I can do to repay, just ask.' Just ask. How young did you have to be, how beautifully ignorant, to issue that kind of blank check? My window was open. I reached through it and squeezed her hand. She squeezed back, and hard. 'You miss your wife a lot, don't you?' she said. 'It shows?' 'Sometimes.' She was no longer squeezing, but she was still holding my hand. 'When you were reading to Ki, you looked both happy and sad at the same time. I only saw her once, your wife, but I thought she was very beautiful.' I had been thinking about the touch of our hands, concentrating on that. Now I forgot about it entirely. 'When did you see her? And where? Do you remember?' She smiled as if those were very silly questions. 'I remember. It was at the ballfield, on the night I met my husband.' Very slowly I withdrew my hand from hers. So far as I knew, neither Jo nor I had been near TR90 all that summer of '94 . . . but what I knew was apparently wrong. Jo had been down on a Tuesday in early July. She had even gone to the softball game. 'Are you sure it was Jo?' I asked. Mattie was looking off toward the road. It wasn't my wife she was thinking about; I would h ave bet the house and lot on it — either house, either lot. It was Lance. Maybe that was good. If she was thinking about him, she probably wouldn't look too closely at me, and I didn't think I had much control of my expression just then. She might have seen more on my face than I wanted to show. 'Yes,' she said. 'I was standing with Jenna McCoy and Helen Geary — this was after Lance helped me with a keg of beer I got stuck in the mud and then asked if I was going for pizza with the rest of them after the game — and Jenna said, "Look, it's Mrs. Noonan," and Helen said, "She's the writer's wife, Mattie, isn't that a cool blouse?" The blouse was all covered with blue roses.' I remembered it very well. Jo liked it because it was a joke — there are no blue roses, not in nature and not in cultivation. Once when she was wearing it she had thrown her arms extravagantly around my neck, swooned her hips forward against mine, and cried that she was my blue rose and I must stroke her until she turned pink. Remembering that hurt, and badly. 'She was over on the third-base side, behind the chickenwire screen,' Mattie said, 'with some guy who was wearing an old brown jacket with patches on the elbows. They were laughing together over something, and then she turned her head a little and looked right at me.' She was quiet for a moment, standing there beside my car in her red dress. She raised her hair off the back of her neck, held it, then let it drop again. 'Right at me. Really seeing me. And she had a look about her . . . she'd just been laughing but this look was sad, somehow. It was as if she knew me. Then the guy put his arm around her waist and they walked away.' Silence except for the crickets and the far-off drone of a truck. Mattie only stood there for a moment, as if dreaming with her eyes open, and then she felt something and looked back at me. 'Is something wrong?' 'No. Except who was this guy with his arm around my wife?' She laughed a little uncertainly. 'Well I doubt if he was her boyfriend, you know. He was quite a bit older. Fifty, at least.' So what? I thought. I myself was forty, but that didn't mean I had missed the way Mattie moved inside her dress, or lifted her hair from the nape of her neck. 'I mean . . . you're kidding, right?' 'I don't really know. There's a lot of things I don't know these days, it seems. But the lady's dead in any case, so how can it matter?'
Slide 132: Mattie was looking distressed. 'If I put my foot in something, Mike, I'm sorry.' 'Who was the man? Do you know?' She shook her head. 'I thought he was a summer person — there was that feeling about him, maybe just because he was wearing a jacket on a hot summer evening — but if he was, he wasn't staying at Warrington's. I knew most of them.' 'And they walked off together?' 'Yes.' Sounding reluctant. 'Toward the parking lot?' 'Yes.' More reluctant still. And this time she was lying. I knew it with a queer certainty that went far beyond intuition; it was almost like mind-reading. I reached through the window and took her hand again. 'You said if I could think of anything you could do to repay me, to just ask. I'm asking. Tell me the truth, Mattie.' She bit her lip, looking down at my hand lying over hers. Then she looked up at my face. 'He was a burly guy. The old sportcoat made him look a little like a college professor, but he could have been a carpenter for all I know. His hair was black. He had a tan. They had a laugh together, a good one, and then she looked at me and the laugh went out of her face. After that he put an arm around her and they walked away.' She paused. 'Not toward the parking lot, though. Toward The Street.' The Street. From there they could have walked north along the edge of the lake until they came to Sara Laughs. And then? Who knew? 'She never told me she came down here that summer,' I said. Mattie seemed to try several responses and find none of them to her liking. I gave her her hand back. It was time for me to go. In fact I had started to wish I'd left five minutes sooner. 'Mike, I'm sure — ' 'No,' I said. 'You're not. Neither am I. But I loved her a lot and I'm going to try and let this go. It probably signifies nothing, and besides — what else can I do? Thanks for dinner.' 'You're welcome.' Mattie looked so much like crying that I picked her hand up again and kissed the back of it. 'I feel like a dope.' 'You're not a dope,' I said. I gave her hand another kiss, then drove away. And that was my date, the first one in four years. Driving home I thought of an old saying about how one person can never truly know another. It's easy to give that idea lip service, but it's a jolt — as horrible and unexpected as severe air turbulence on a previously calm airline flight — to discover it's a literal fact in one's own life. I kept remembering our visit to a fertility doc after we'd been trying to make a baby for almost two years with no success. The doctor had told us I had a low sperm count — not disastrously low, but down enough to account for Jo's failure to conceive. 'If you want a kid, you'll likely have one without any special help,' the doc had said. 'Both the odds and time are still on your side. It could happen tomorrow or it could happen four years from now. Will you ever fill the house with babies? Probably not. But you might have two, and you'll almost certainly have one if you keep doing the thing that makes them.' She had grinned. 'Remember, the pleasure is in the journey.' There had been a lot of pleasure, all right, many ringings of Bunter's bell, but there had been no baby. Then Johanna had died running across a shopping-center parking lot on a hot day, and one of the items in her bag had been a Norco Home Pregnancy Test which she had not told me she had
Slide 133: intended to buy. No more than she'd told me she had bought a couple of plastic owls to keep the crows from shitting on the lakeside deck. What else hadn't she told me? 'Stop,' I muttered. 'For Christ's sake stop thinking about it.' But I couldn't. When I got back to Sara, the fruit and vegetable magnets on the refrigerator were in a circle again. Three letters had been clustered in the middle: gd o I moved the o up to where I thought it belonged, making 'god' or maybe an abridged version of 'good.' Which meant exactly what? 'I could speculate about that, but I prefer not to,' I told the empty house. I looked at Bunter the moose, willing the bell around his moth-eaten neck to ring. When it didn't, I opened my two new Magnabet packages and stuck the letters on the fridge door, spreading them out. Then I went down to the north wing, undressed, and brushed my teeth. As I bared my fangs for the mirror in a sudsy cartoon scowl, I considered calling Ward Hankins again tomorrow morning. I could tell him that my search for the elusive plastic owls had progressed from November of 1993 to July of 1994. What meetings had Jo put on her calendar for that month? What excuses to be out of Derry? And once I had finished with Ward, I could tackle Jo's friend Bonnie Amudson, ask her if anything had been going on with Jo in the last summer of her life. Let her rest in peace, why don't you? It was the UFO voice. What good will it do you to do otherwise? Assume she popped over to the TR after one of her board meetings, maybe just on a whim, met an old friend, took him back to the house for a bite of dinner. Just dinner. And never told me? I asked the UFO voice, spitting out a mouthful of toothpaste and then rinsing. Never said a single word? How do you know she didn't? the voice returned, and that froze me in the act of putting my toothbrush back in the medicine cabinet. The UFO voice had a point. I had been deep into All the Way from the Top by July of '94. Jo could have come in and told me she'd seen Lon Chaney Junior dancing with the queen, doing the Werewolves of London, and I probably would have said 'Uhhuh, honey, that's nice' as I went on proofing copy. 'Bullshit,' I said to my reflection. 'That's just bullshit.' Except it wasn't. When I was really driving on a book I more or less fell out of the world; other than a quick scan of the sports pages, I didn't even read the newspaper. So yes — it was possible that Jo had told me she'd run over to the TR after a board meeting in Lewiston or Freeport, it was possible that she'd told me she'd run into an old friend — perhaps another student from the photography seminar she'd attended at Bates in 1991 — and it was possible she'd told me they'd had dinner together on our deck, eating black trumpet mushrooms she'd picked herself as the sun went down. It was possible she'd told me these things and I hadn't registered a word of what she was saying. And did I really think I'd get anything I could trust out of Bonnie Amudson? She'd been Jo's friend, not mine, and Bonnie might feel the statute of limitations hadn't run out on any secrets my wife had told her.
Slide 134: The bottom line was as simple as it was brutal: Jo was four years dead. Best to love her and let all troubling questions lapse. I took a final mouthful of water directly from the tap, swished it around in my mouth, and spat it out. When I returned to the kitchen to set the coffee-maker for seven A.M., I saw a new message in a new circle of magnets. It read blue rose liar ha ha I looked at it for a second or two, wondering what had put it there, and why. Wondering if it was true. I stretched out a hand and scattered all the letters far and wide. Then I went to bed.
Slide 135: CHAPTER THIRTEEN I caught the measles when I was eight, and I was very ill. 'I thought you were going to die,' my father told me once, and he was not a man given to exaggeration. He told me about how he and my mother had dunked me in a tub of cold water one night, both of them at least half-convinced the shock of it would stop my heart, but both of them completely convinced that I'd burn up before their eyes if they didn't do something. I had begun to speak in a loud, monotonously discursive voice about the bright figures I saw in the room — angels come to bear me away, my terrified mother was sure — and the last time my father took my temperature before the cold plunge, he said that the mercury on the old Johnson & Johnson rectal thermometer had stood at a hundred and six degrees. After that, he said, he didn't dare take it anymore. I don't remember any bright figures, but I remember a strange period of time that was like being in a funhouse corridor where several different movies were showing at once. The world grew elastic, bulging in places where it had never bulged before, wavering in places where it had always been solid. People — most of them seeming impossibly talldarted in and out of my room on scissoring, cartoonish legs. Their words all came out booming, with instant echoes. Someone shook a pair of baby-shoes in my face. I seem to remember my brother, Siddy, sticking his hand into his shirt and making repeated arm-fart noises. Continuity broke down. Everything came in segments, weird wieners on a poison string. In the years between then and the summer I returned to Sara Laughs, I had the usual sicknesses, infections, and insults to the body, but never anything like that feverish interlude when I was eight. I never expected to — believing, I suppose, that such experiences are unique to children, people with malaria, or maybe those suffering catastrophic mental breakdowns. But on the night of July seventh and the morning of July eighth, I lived through a period of time remarkably like that childhood delirium. Dreaming, waking, moving — they were all one. I'll tell you as best I can, but nothing I say can convey the strangeness of that experience. It was as if I had found a secret passage hidden just beyond the wall of the world and went crawling along it. First there was music. Not Dixieland, because there were no horns, but like Dixieland. A primitive, reeling kind of bebop. Three or four acoustic guitars, a harmonica, a stand-up bass (or maybe a pair). Behind all of this was a hard, happy drumming that didn't sound as if it was coming from a real drum; it sounded as if someone with a lot of percussive talent was whopping on a bunch of boxes. Then a woman's voice joined in — a contralto voice, not quite mannish, roughing over the high notes. It was laughing and urgent and ominous all at the same time, and I knew at once that I was hearing Sara Tidwell, who had never cut a record in her life. I was hearing Sara Laughs, and man, she was rocking. 'You know we're going back to MANderley, We're gonna dance on the SANderley, I'm gonna sing with the BANderley, We gonna ball all we CANderley — Ball me, baby, yeah!'
Slide 136: The basses — yes, there were two — broke out in a barnyard shuffle like the break in Elvis's version of 'Baby Let's Play House,' and then there was a guitar solo: Son Tidwell playing that chickenscratch thing. Lights gleamed in the dark, and I thought of a song from the fifties — Claudine Clark singing 'Party Lights.' And here they were, Japanese lanterns hung from the trees above the path of railroad-tie steps leading from the house to the water. Party lights casting mystic circles of radiance in the dark: red blue and green. Behind me, Sara was singing the bridge to her Manderley song — mama likes it nasty, mama likes it strong, mama likes to party all night long — but it was fading. Sara and the Red-Top Boys had set up their bandstand in the driveway by the sound, about where George Footman had parked when he came to serve me with Max Devore's subpoena. I was descending toward the lake through circles of radiance, past party lights surrounded by soft-winged moths. One had found its way inside a lamp and it cast a monstrous, batlike shadow against the ribbed paper. The flower-boxes Jo had put beside the steps were full of night-blooming roses. In the light of the Japanese lanterns they looked blue. Now the band was only a faint murmur; I could hear Sara shouting out the lyric, laughing her way through it as though it were the funniest thing she'd ever heard, all that Manderley-sanderleycanderley stuff, but I could no longer make out the individual words. Much c learer was the lap of the lake against the rocks at the foot of the steps, the hollow clunk of the cannisters under the swimming float, and the cry of a loon drifting out of the darkness. Someone was standing on The Street to my right, at the edge of the lake. I couldn't see his face, but I could see the brown sportcoat and the tee-shirt he was wearing beneath it. The lapels cut off some of the letters of the message, so it looked like this: ORMA ER OUN I knew what it said anyway — in dreams you almost always know, don't you? NORMAL SPERM a Village Cafe yuck-it-up special if ever there was one. I was in the north bedroom dreaming all this, and here I woke up enough to know I was dreaming . . . except it was like waking into another dream, because Bunter's bell was ringing madly and there was someone standing in the hall. Mr. Normal Sperm Count? No, not him. The shadow-shape falling on the door wasn't quite human. It was slumped, the arms indistinct. I sat up into the silver shaking of the bell, clutching a loose puddle of sheet against my naked waist, sure it was the shroud-thing out there — the shroud-thing had come out of its grave to get me. 'Please don't,' I said in a dry and trembling voice. 'Please don't, please.' The shadow on the door raised its arms. 'It ain't nuthin but a barn-dance sugar!' Sara Tidwell's laughing, furious voice sang. 'It ain't nuthin but a round-and-round!' I lay back down and pulled the sheet over my face in a childish act of denial . . . and there I stood on our little lick of beach, wearing just my undershorts. My feet were ankle-deep in the water. It was warm the way the lake gets by midsummer. My dim shadow was cast two ways, in one direction by the scantling moon which rode low above the water, in another by the Japanese lantern COUNT,
Slide 137: with the moth caught inside it. The man who'd been standing on the path was gone but he had left a plastic owl to mark his place. It stared at me with frozen, gold-ringed eyes. 'Hey Irish!' I looked out at the swimming float. Jo stood there. She must have just climbed out of the water, because she was still dripping and her hair was plastered against her cheeks. She was wearing the two-piece swimsuit from the photo I'd found, gray with red piping. 'It's been a long time, Irish — what do you say?' 'Say about what?' I called back, although I knew. 'About this!' She put her hands over her breasts and squeezed. Water ran out between her fingers and trickled across her knuckles. 'Come on, Irish,' she said from beside and above me, 'come on, you bastard, let's go.' I felt her strip down the sheet, pulling it easily out of my sleep-numbed fingers. I shut my eyes, but she took my hand and placed it between her legs. As I found that velvety seam and began to stroke it open, she began to rub the back of my neck with her fingers. 'You're not Jo,' I said. 'Who are you?' But no one was there to answer. I was in the woods. It was dark, and on the lake the loons were crying. I was walking the path to Jo's studio. It wasn't a dream; I could feel the cool air against my skin and the occasional bite of a rock into my bare sole or heel. A mosquito buzzed around my ear and I waved it away. I was wearing Jockey shorts, and at every step they pulled against a huge and throbbing erection. 'What the hell is this?' I asked as Jo's little barnboard studio loomed in the dark. I looked behind me and saw Sara on her hill, not the woman but the house, a long lodge jutting toward the nightbound lake. 'What's happening to me?' 'Everything's all right, Mike,' Jo said. She was standing on the float, watching as I swam toward her. She put her hands behind her neck like a calendar model, lifting her breasts more fully into the damp halter. As in the photo, I could see her nipples poking out the cloth. I was swimming in my underpants, and with the same huge erection. 'Everything's all right, Mike,' Mattie said in the north bedroom, and I opened my eyes. She was sitting beside me on the bed, smooth and naked in the weak glow of the nightlight. Her hair was down, hanging to her shoulders. Her breasts were tiny, the size of teacups, but the nipples were large and distended. Between her legs, where my hand still lingered, was a powderpuff of blonde hair, smooth as down. Her body was wrapped in shadows like moth-wings, like rose-petals. There was something desperately attractive about her as she sat there — she was like the prize you know you'll never win at the carny shooting gallery or the county fair ringtoss. The one they keep on the top shelf. She reached under the sheet and folded her fingers over the stretched material of my undershorts. Everything's all right, it ain't nuthin but a round-and-round, said the UFO voice as I climbed the steps to my wife's studio. I stooped, fished for the key from beneath the mat, and took it out. I climbed the ladder to the float, wet and dripping, preceded by my engorged sex — is there anything, I wonder, so unintentionally comic as a sexually aroused man? Jo stood on the boards in her wet bathing suit. I pulled Mattie into bed with me. I opened the door to Jo's studio. All of these things happened at the same time, weaving in and out of each other like strands of some exotic rope or belt. The thing with Jo felt the most like a dream, the thing in the studio, me crossing the floor and looking down at my old green IBM, the least. Mattie in the north bedroom was somewhere in between.
Slide 138: On the float Jo said, 'Do what you want.' In the north bedroom Mattie said, 'Do what you want.' In the studio, no one had to tell me anything. In there I knew exactly what I wanted. On the float I bent my head and put my mouth on one of Jo's breasts and sucked the clothcovered nipple into my mouth. I tasted damp fabric and dank lake. She reached for me where I stuck out and I slapped her hand away. If she touched me I would come at once. I sucked, drinking back trickles of cotton-water, groping with my own hands, first caressing her ass and then yanking down the bottom half of her suit. I got it off her and she dropped to her knees. I did too, finally getting rid of my wet, clinging underpants and tossing them on top of her bikini panty. We faced each other that way, me naked, her almost. 'Who was the guy at the game?' I panted. 'Who was he, Jo?' 'No one in particular, Irish. Just another bag of bones.' She laughed, then leaned back on her haunches and stared at me. Her navel was a tiny black cup. There was something queerly, attractively snakelike in her posture. 'Everything down there is death,' she said, and pressed her cold palms and white, pruney fingers to my cheeks. She turned my head and then bent it so I was looking into the lake. Under the water I saw decomposing bodies slipping by, pulled by some deep current. Their wet eyes stared. Their fish-nibbled noses gaped. Their tongues lolled between white lips like tendrils of waterweed. Some of the dead trailed pallid balloons of jellyfish guts; some were little more than bone. Yet not even the sight of this floating charnel parade could divert me from what I wanted. I shrugged my head free of her hands, pushed her down on the boards, and finally cooled what was so hard and contentious, sinking it deep. Her moon-silvered eyes stared up at me, through me, and I saw that one pupil was larger than the other. That was how her eyes had looked on the TV monitor when I had identified her in the Derry County Morgue. She was dead. My wife was dead and I was fucking her corpse. Nor could even that realization stop me. 'Who was he?' I cried at her, covering her cold flesh as it lay on the wet boards. 'Who was he, Jo, for Christ's sake tell me who he was!' In the north bedroom I pulled Mattie on top of me, relishing the feel of those small breasts against my chest and the length of her entwining legs. Then I rolled her over on the far side of the bed. I felt her hand reaching for me, and slapped it away — if she touched me where she meant to touch me, I would come in an instant. 'Spread your legs, hurry,' I said, and she did. I closed my eyes, shutting out all other sensory input in favor of this. I pressed forward, then stopped. I made one little adjustment, pushing at my engorged penis with the side of my hand, then rolled my hips and slipped into her like a finger in a silk-lined glove. She looked up at me, wide-eyed, then put a hand on my cheek and turned my head. 'Everything out there is death,' she said, as if only explaining the obvious. In the window I saw Fifth Avenue between Fiftieth and Sixtieth — all those trendy shops, Bijan and Bally, Tiffany and Bergdorf's and Steuben Glass. And here came Harold Oblowski, northbound and swinging his pigskin briefcase (the one Jo and I had given him for Christmas the year before she died). Beside him, carrying a Barnes and Noble bag by the handles, was the bountiful, beauteous Nola, his secretary. Except her bounty was gone. This was a grinning, yellow-jawed skeleton in a Donna Karan suit and alligator pumps; scrawny, beringed bones instead of fingers gripped the bag-handles. Harold's teeth jutted in his usual a gent's grin, now extended to the point of obscenity. His favorite suit, the doublebreasted charcoal-gray from Paul Stuart, flapped on him like a sail in a fresh breeze. All around them, on both sides of the street, walked the living dead — mommy mummies leading baby corpses by the hands or wheeling them in expensive prams, zombie doormen, reanimated skateboarders. Here a tall black man with a last few strips of flesh hanging from his face like cured deer-hide walked his skeletal Alsatian. The cabdrivers were rotting to raga music. The faces looking down from the passing buses were skulls,
Slide 139: each wearing its own version of Harold's grin — Hey, how are ya, how's the wife, how's the kids, writing any good books lately? The peanut vendors were putrefying. Yet none of it could quench me. I was on fire. I slipped my hands under her buttocks, lifting her, biting at the sheet (the pattern, I saw with no surprise, was blue roses) until I pulled it free of the mattress to keep from biting her on the neck, the shoulder, the breasts, anywhere my teeth could reach. 'Tell me who he was!' I shouted at her. 'You know, I know you do!' My voice was so muffled by my mouthful of bed-linen that I doubted if anyone but me could have understood it. 'Tell me, you bitch!' On the path between Jo's studio and the house I stood in the dark with the typewriter in my arms and that dream-spanning erection quivering below its metal bulk — all that ready and nothing willing. Except maybe for the night breeze. Then I became aware I was no longer alone. The shroud-thing was behind me, called like the moths to the party lights. It laughed-a brazen, smokebroken laugh that could belong to only one woman. I didn't see the hand that reached around my hip to grip me — the typewriter was in the way — but I didn't need to see it to know its color was brown. It squeezed, slowly tightening, the fingers wriggling. 'What do you want to know, sugar?' she asked from behind me. Still laughing. Still teasing. 'Do you really want to know at all? Do you want to know or do you want to feel?' 'Oh, you're killing me!' I cried. The typewriter — thirty or so pounds of IBM Selectric — was shaking back and forth in my arms. I could feel my muscles twanging like guitar strings. 'Do you want to know who he was, sugar? That nasty man?' 'Just do me, you bitch!' I screamed. She laughed again — that harsh laughter that was almost like a cough — and squeezed me where the squeezing was best. 'You hold still, now,' she said. 'You hold still, pretty boy, 'less you want me to take fright and yank this thing of yours right out by the . . . ' I lost the rest as the whole world exploded in an orgasm so deep and strong that I thought it would simply tear me apart. I snapped my head back like a man being hung and ejaculated looking up at the stars. I screamed — I had to — and on the lake, two loons screamed back. At the same time I was on the float. Jo was gone, but I could faintly hear the sound of the band — -Sara and Sonny and the Red-Top Boys tearing through Black Mountain Rag.' I sat up, dazed ' and spent, fucked hollow. I couldn't see the path leading up to the house, but I could discern its switchback course by the Japanese lanterns. My underpants lay beside me in a little wet heap. I picked them up and started to put them on, only because I didn't want to swim back to shore with them in my hand. I stopped with them stretched between my knees, looking at my fingers. They were slimed with decaying flesh. Puffing out from beneath several of the nails were clumps of tornout hair. Corpsehair. 'Oh Jesus,' I moaned. The strength went out of me. I flopped into wetness. I was in the northwing bedroom. What I had landed in was hot, and at first I thought it was come. The dim glow of the nightlight showed darker stuff, however. Mattie was gone and the bed was full of blood. Lying in the middle of that soaking pool was something I at first glance took to be a clump of flesh or a piece of organ. I looked more closely and saw it was a stuffed animal, a black-furred object matted red with blood. I lay on my side looking at it, wanting to bolt out of the bed and flee from the room but unable to do it. My muscles were in a dead swoon. Who had I really been having sex with in this bed? And what had I done to her? In God's name, what? 'I don't believe these lies,' I heard myself say, and as though it were an incantation, I was slapped back together. That isn't exactly what happened, bur it's the only way of saying that seems to come close to whatever did. There were three of me — one on the float, one in the north bedroom, one on the path — and each one felt that hard slap, as if the wind had grown a fist. There was rushing
Slide 140: blackness, and in it the steady silver shaking of Bunter's bell. Then it faded, and I faded with it. For a little while I was nowhere at all. I came back to the casual chatter of birds on summer vacation and to that peculiar red darkness that means the sun is shining through your closed eyelids. My neck was stiff, my head was canted at a weird angle, my legs were folded awkwardly beneath me, and I was hot. I lifted my head with a wince, knowing even as I opened my eyes that I was no longer in bed, no longer on the swimming float, no longer on the path between the house and the studio. It was floorboards under me, hard and uncompromising. The light was dazzling. I squinched my eyes closed again and groaned like a man with a hangover. I eased them back open behind my cupped hands, gave them time to adjust, then cautiously uncovered them, sat all the way up, and looked around. I was in the upstairs hall, lying under the broken air conditioner. Mrs. Meserve's note still hung from it. Sitting outside my office door was the green IBM with a piece of paper rolled into it. I looked down at my feet and saw that they were dirty. Pine needles were stuck to my soles, and one toe was scratched. I got up, staggered a little (my right leg had gone to sleep), then braced a hand against the wall and stood steady. I looked down at myself. I was wearing the Jockeys I'd gone to bed in, and I didn't look as if I'd had an accident in them. I pulled out the waistband and peeked inside. My cock looked as it usually did; small and soft, curled up and asleep in its thatch of hair. If Noonan's Folly had been adventuring in the night, there was no sign of it now. 'It sure felt like an adventure,' I croaked. I armed sweat off my forehead. It was stifling up here. 'Not the kind I ever read about in The Hardy Boys, though.' Then I remembered the blood-soaked sheet in the north bedroom, and the stuffed animal lying on its side in the middle of it. There was no sense of relief attached to the memory, that thank-God-itwas-only-a-dream feeling you get after a particularly nasty nightmare. It felt as real as any of the things I'd experienced in my measles fever-delirium . . . and all those things had been real, just distorted by my overheated brain. I staggered to the stairs and limped down them, holding tight to the bannister in case my tingling leg should buckle. At the foot I looked dazedly around the living room, as if seeing it for the first time, and then limped down the north-wing corridor. The bedroom door was ajar and for a moment I couldn't bring myself to push it all the way open and go in. I was very badly scared, and my mind kept trying to replay an old episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the one about the man who strangles his wife during an alcoholic blackout. He spends the whole half hour looking for her, and finally finds her in the pantry, bloated and openeyed. Kyra Devore was the only kid of stuffed-animal age I'd met recently, but she had been sleeping peacefully under her cabbage-rose coverlet when I left her mother and headed home. It was stupid to think I had driven all the way back to Wasp Hill Road, probably wearing nothing but my Jockeys, that I had — What? Raped the woman? Brought the child here? In my sleep? I got the typewriter, in my sleep, didn't I? It's sitting right upstairs in the goddam hallway. Big difference between going thirty yards through the woods and five miles down the road to — I wasn't going to stand out here listening to those quarrelling voices in my head. If I wasn't crazy — and I didn't think I was — listening to those contentious assholes would probably send me there, and by the express. I reached out and pushed the bedroom door open. For a moment I actually saw a spreading octopus-pattern of blood soaking into the sheet, that's how real and focused my terror was. Then I closed my eyes tight, opened them, and looked again.
Slide 141: The sheets were rumpled, the bottom one mostly pulled free. I could see the quilted satin hide of the mattress. One pillow lay on the far edge of the bed. The other was scrunched down at the foot. The throw rug — a piece of Jo's work — was askew, and my water-glass lay overturned on the nighttable. The bedroom looked as if it might have been the site of a brawl or an orgy, but not a murder. There was no blood and no little stuffed animal with black fur. I dropped to my knees and looked under the bed. Nothing there — not even dust-kitties, thanks to Brenda Meserve. I looked at the ground-sheet again, first passing a hand over its rumpled topography, then pulling it back down and resecuring the elasticized corners. Great invention, those sheets; if women gave out the Medal of Freedom instead of a bunch of white politicians who never made a bed or washed a load of clothes in their lives, the guy who thought up fitted sheets would undoubtedly have gotten a piece of that tin by now. In a Rose Garden ceremony. With the sheet pulled taut, I looked again. No blood, not a single drop. There was no stiffening patch of semen, either. The former I hadn't really expected (or so I was already telling myself), but what about the latter? At the very least, I'd had the world's most creative wet-dream — a triptych in which I had screwed two women and gotten a handjob from a third, all at the same time. I thought I had that morning-after feeling, too, the one you get when the previous night's sex has been of the headbusting variety. But if there had been fireworks, where was the burnt gunpowder? 'In Jo's studio, most likely,' I told the empty, sunny room. 'Or on the path between here and there. Just be glad you didn't leave it in Mattie Devore, bucko. An affair with a post-adolescent widow you don't need.' A part of me disagreed; a part of me thought Mattie Devore was exactly what I did need. But I hadn't had sex with her last night, any more than I had had sex with my dead wife out on the swimming float or gotten a handjob from Sara Tidwell. Now that I saw I hadn't killed a nice little kid either, my thoughts turned back to the typewriter. Why had I gotten it? Why bother? Oh man. What a silly question. My wife might have been keeping secrets fom me, maybe even r having an affair; there might be ghosts in the house; there might be a rich old man half a mile south who wanted to put a sharp stick into me and then break it off; there might be a few toys in my own humble attic, for that matter. But a I stood there in a bright shaft of sunlight, looking at my shadow s on the far wall, only one thought seemed to matter: I had gone out to my wife's studio and gotten my old typewriter, and there was only one reason to do something like that. I went into the bathroom, wanting to get rid of the sweat on my body and the dirt on my feet before doing anything else. I reached for the shower-handle, then stopped. The tub was full of water. Either I had for some reason filled it during my sleepwalk . . . or something else had. I reached for the drain-lever, then stopped again, remembering that moment on the shoulder of Route 68 when my mouth had filled up with the taste of cold water. I realized I was waiting for it to happen again. When it didn't, I opened the bathtub drain to let out the standing water and started the shower. I could have brought the Selectric downstairs, perhaps even lugged it out onto the deck where there was a little breeze coming over the surface of the lake, but I didn't. I had brought it all the way to the door of my office, and my office was where I'd work . . . if I could work. I'd work in there even if the temperature beneath the roofpeak built to a hundred and twenty degrees . . . which, by three in the afternoon, it just might. The paper rolled into the machine was an old pink-carbon receipt from Click!, the photo shop in Castle Rock where Jo had bought her supplies when we were down here. I'd put it in so that the
Slide 142: blank side faced the Courier type-ball. On it I had typed the names of my little harem, as if I had tried in some struggling way to report on my three-faceted dream even while it was going on: Jo Sara Mattie Jo Sara Mattie Mattie Mattie Sara Sara Jo Johanna Sara Jo MattieSaraJo. Below this, in lower case: normal sperm count sperm norm all's rosy I opened the office door, carried the typewriter in, and put it in its old place beneath the poster of Richard Nixon. I pulled the pink slip out of the roller, balled it up, and tossed it into the wastebasket. Then I picked up the Selectric's plug and stuck it in the baseboard socket. My heart was beating hard and fast, the way it had when I was thirteen and climbing the ladder to the high board at the Y -pool. I had climbed that ladder three times when I was twelve and then slunk back down it again; once I turned thirteen, there could be no chickening out — I really had to do it. I thought I'd seen a fan hiding in the far corner of the closet, behind the box marked GADGETS. I started in that direction, then turned around again with a ragged little laugh. I'd had moments of confidence before, hadn't I? Yes. And then the iron bands had clamped around my chest. It would be stupid to get out the fan and then discover I had no business in this room after all. 'Take it easy,' I said, 'take it easy.' But I couldn't, no more than that narrow-chested boy in the ridiculous purple bathing suit had been able to take it easy when he walked to the end of the diving board, the pool so green below him, the upraised faces of the boys and girls in it so small, so small. I bent to one of the drawers on the right side of the desk and pulled so hard it came all the way out. I got my bare foot out of its landing zone just in time and barked a gust of loud, humorless laughter. There was half a ream of paper in the drawer. The edges had that faintly crispy look paper gets when it's been sitting for a long time. I no more than saw it before remembering I had brought my own supply — stuff a good deal fresher than this. I left it where it was and put the drawer back in its hole. It took several tries to get it on its tracks; my hands were shaking. At last I sat down in my desk chair, hearing the same old creaks as it took my weight and the same old rumble of the casters as I rolled it f rward, snugging my legs into the kneehole. Then I sat o facing the keyboard, sweating hard, still remembering the high board at the Y, how springy it had been under my bare feet as I walked its length, remembering the echoing quality of the voices below me, remembering the smell of chlorine and the steady low throb of the air-exchangers: fwung-fwung-fwung-fwung, as if the water had its own secret heartbeat. I had stood at the end of the board wondering (and not for the first time!) if you could be paralyzed if you hit the water wrong. Probably not, but you could die of fear. There were documented cases of that in Ripley's Believe It or Not, which served me as science between the ages of eight and fourteen. Go on! Jo's voice cried. My version of her voice was usually calm and collected; this time it was shrill. Stop dithering and go on! I reached for the IBM's rocker-switch, now remembering the day I had dropped my Word Six program into the Powerbook's trash. Goodbye, old pal, I had thought. 'Please let this work,' I said. 'Please.' I lowered my hand and flicked the switch. The machine came on. The Courier ball did a preliminary twirl, like a ballet dancer standing in the wings, waiting to go on. I picked up a piece of paper, saw my sweaty fingers were leaving marks, and didn't care. I rolled it into the machine, centered it, then wrote
Slide 143: Chapter One and waited for the storm to break.
Slide 144: CHAPTER FOURTEEN The ringing of the phone — or, more accurately, the way I received the ringing of the phone — was as familiar as the creaks of my chair or the hum of the old IBM Selectric. It seemed to come from far away at first, then to approach like a whistling train coming down on a crossing. There was no extension in my office or Jo's; the upstairs phone, an old-fashioned rotary-dial, was on a table in the hall between them — in what Jo used to call 'no-man's-land.' The temperature out there must have been at least ninety degrees, but the air still felt cool on my skin after the office. I was so oiled with sweat that I looked like a slightly pot-bellied version of the muscle-boys I sometimes saw when I was working out. 'Hello?' 'Mike? Did I wake you? Were you sleeping?' It was Mattie, but a different one from last night. This one wasn't afraid or even tentative; this one sounded so happy she was almost bubbling over. It was almost certainly the Mattie who had attracted Lance Devore. 'Not sleeping,' I said. 'Writing a little.' 'Get out! I thought you were retired.' 'I thought so, too,' I said, 'but maybe I was a little hasty. What's going on? You sound over the moon.' 'I just got off the phone with John Storrow — ' Really? How long had I been on the second floor, anyway? I looked at my wrist and saw nothing but a pale circle. It was half-past freckles and skin o'clock, as we used to say when we were kids; my watch was downstairs in the north bedroom, probably lying in a puddle of water from my overturned night-glass. ' — his age, and that he can subpoena the other son!' 'Whoa,' I said. 'You lost me. Go back and slow down.' She did. Telling the hard news didn't take long (it rarely does): Storrow was coming up tomorrow. He would land at County Airport and stay at the Lookout Rock Hotel in Castle View. The two of them would spend most of Friday discussing the case. 'Oh, and he found a lawyer for you,' she said. 'To go with you to your deposition. I think he's from Lewiston.' It all sounded good, but what mattered a lot more than the bare facts was that Mattie had recovered her will to fight. Until this morning (if it was still morning; the light coming in the window above the broken air conditioner suggested that if it was, it wouldn't be much longer) I hadn't realized how gloomy the young woman in the red sundress and tidy white sneakers had been. How far down the road to believing she would lose her child. 'This is great. I'm so glad, Mattie.' 'And you did it. If you were here, I'd give you the biggest kiss you ever had.' 'He told you you could win, didn't he?' 'Yes.' 'And you believe him.' 'Yes!' Then her voice dropped a little. 'He wasn't exactly thrilled when I told him I'd had you over to dinner last night, though.' 'No,' I said. 'I didn't think he would be.'
Slide 145: 'I told him we ate in the y and he said we only had to be inside together for sixty seconds to ard start the gossip.' 'I'd say he's got an insultingly low opinion of Yankee lovin,' I said, 'but of course he's from New York.' She laughed harder than my little joke warranted, I thought. Out of semi-hysterical relief that she now had a couple of protectors? Because the whole subject of sex was a tender one for her just now? Best not to speculate. 'He didn't paddle me too hard about it, but he made it clear that he would if we did it again. When this is over, though, I'm having you for a real meal. We'll have everything you like, just the way you like it.' Everything you like, just the way you like it. And she was, by God and Sonny Jesus, completely unaware that what she was saying might have another meaning — I would have bet on it. I closed my eyes for a moment, smiling. Why not smile? Everything she was saying sounded absolutely great, especially once you cleared the confines of Michael Noonan's dirty mind. It sounded like we might have the expected fairy-tale ending, if we could keep our courage and hold our course. And if I could restrain myself from making a pass at a girl young enough to be my daughter . . . outside of my dreams, that was. If I couldn't, I probably deserved whatever I got. But Kyra wouldn't. She was the hood ornament in all this, doomed to go wherever the car took her. If I got any of the wrong ideas, I'd do well to remember that. 'If the judge sends Devore home empty-handed, I'll take you out to Renoir Nights in Portland and buy you nine courses of French chow,' I said. 'Storrow, too. I'll even spring for the legal beagle I'm dating on Friday. So who's better than me, huh?' 'No one I know,' she said, sounding serious. 'I'll pay you back for this, Mike. I'm down now, but I won't always be down. If it takes me the rest of my life, I'll pay you back.' 'Mattie, you don't have to — ' 'I do,' she said with quiet vehemence. 'I do. And I have to do something else today, too.' 'What's that?' I loved hearing her sound the way she did this morning — so happy and free, like a prisoner who has just been pardoned and let out of jail — but already I was looking longingly at the door to my office. I couldn't do much more today, I'd end up baked like a apple if I tried, but I n wanted another page or two, at least. Do what you want, both women had said in my dreams. Do what you want. 'I have to buy Kyra the big teddybear they have at the Castle Rock Wal-Mart,' she said. 'I'll tell her it's for being a good girl because I can't tell her it's for walking in the middle of the road when you were coming the other way.' 'Just not a black one,' I said. The words were out of my mouth before I knew they were even in my head. 'Huh?' Sounding startled and doubtful. 'I said bring me back one,' I said, the words once again out and down the wire before I even knew they were there. 'Maybe I will,' she said, sounding amused. Then her tone grew serious again. 'And if I said anything last night that made you unhappy, even for a minute, I'm sorry. I never for the world — ' 'Don't worry,' I said. 'I'm not unhappy. A little confused, that's all. In fact I'd pretty much forgotten about Jo's mystery date.' A lie, but in what seemed to me to be a good cause. 'That's probably for the best. I won't keep you — go on back to work. It's what you want to do, isn't it?' I was startled. 'What makes you say that?'
Slide 146: 'I don't know, I just . . . ' She stopped. And I suddenly knew two things: What she had been about to say, and that she wouldn't say it. I dreamed about you last night. I dreamed about us together. were going to make love and one of us said 'Do what you want.' Or maybe, I don't know, maybe we both said it. Perhaps sometimes ghosts were alive — minds and desires divorced from their bodies, unlocked impulses floating unseen. Ghosts from the id, spooks from low places. 'Mattie? Still there?' 'Sure, you bet. Do you want me to stay in touch? Or will you hear all you need from John Storrow?' 'If you don't stay in touch, I'll be pissed at you. Royally.' She laughed. 'I will, then. But not when you're working. Goodbye, Mike. And thanks again. So much.' I told her goodbye, then stood there for a moment looking at the old fashioned Bakelite phone handset after she had hung up. She'd call and keep me updated, but not when I was working. How would she know when that was? She just would. As I'd known last night that she was lying when she said Jo and the man with the elbow patches on the sleeves of his sportcoat had walked off toward the parking lot. Mattie had been wearing a pair of white shorts and a halter top when she called me, no dress or skirt required today because it was Wednesday and the library was closed on Wednesday. You don't know any of that. You're just making it up. But I wasn't. If I'd been making it up, I probably would have put her in something a little more suggestive — a Merry Widow from Victoria's Secret, perhaps. That thought called up another. Do what you want, they had said. Both of them. Do what you want. And that was a line I knew. While on Key Largo I'd read an Atlantic Monthly essay on pornography by some feminist. I wasn't sure which one, only that it hadn't been Naomi Wolf or Camille Paglia. This woman had been of the conservative stripe, and she had used that phrase. Sally Tisdale, maybe? Or was my mind just hearing echo-distortions of Sara Tidwell? Whoever it had been, she'd claimed that 'do what I want' was the basis of erotica which appealed to women and 'do what you want' was the basis of pornography which appealed to men. Women imagine speaking the former line in sexual situations; men imagine having the latter line spoken to them. And, the writer went on, when real-world sex goes bad — sometimes turning violent, sometimes shaming, sometimes just unsuccessful from the female partner's point of view — porn is often the unindicted co-conspirator. The man is apt to round on the woman angrily and cry, 'You wanted me to! Quit lying and admit it! You wanted me to!' The writer claimed it was what every man hoped to hear in the bedroom: Do what you want. Bite me, sodomize me, lick between my toes, drink wine out of my navel, give me a hairbrush and raise your ass for me to paddle, it doesn't matter. Do what you want. The door is closed and we are here, but really only you are here, I am just a willing extension of your fantasies and only you are here. I have no wants of my own, no needs of my own, no taboos. Do what you want to this shadow, this fantasy, this ghost. I'd thought the essayist at least fifty per cent full of shit; the assumption that a man can find real sexual pleasure only by turning a woman into a kind of jackoff accessory says more about the observer than the participants. This lady had had a lot of jargon and a fair amount of wit, but underneath she was only saying what Somerset Maugham, Jo's old favorite, had had Sadie Thompson say in 'Rain,' a story written eighty years before: men are pigs, filthy, dirty pigs, all of them. But we are not pigs, as a rule, not beasts, or at least not unless we are pushed to the final
Slide 147: extremity. And if we are pushed to it, the issue is rarely sex; it's usually territory. I've heard feminists argue that to men sex and territory are interchangeable, and that is very far from the truth. I padded back to the office, opened the door, and behind me the telephone rang again. And here was another familiar sensation, back for a return visit after four years: that anger at the telephone, the urge to simply rip it out of the wall and fire it across the room. Why did the whole world have to call while I was writing? Why couldn't they just . . . well. . let me do what I wanted? I gave a doubtful laugh and returned to the phone, seeing the wet handprint on it from my last call. 'Hello?' 'I said to stay visible while you were with her.' 'Good morning to you, too, Lawyer Storrow.' 'You must be in another time-zone up there, chum. I've got one-fifteen down here in New York.' 'I had dinner with her,' I said. 'Outside. It's true that I read the little kid a story and helped put her to bed, but — ' 'I imagine half the town thinks you're bopping each other's brains out by now, and the other half will think it if I have to show up for her in court.' But he didn't sound really angry; I thought he sounded as though he was having a happy-face day. 'Can they make you tell who's paying for your services?' I asked. 'At the custody hearing, I mean?' 'Nope.' 'At my deposition on Friday?' 'Christ, no. Durgin would lose all credibility as guardian ad litem if he went in that direction. Also, they have reasons to steer clear of the sex angle. Their focus is on Mattie as neglectful and perhaps abusive. Proving that Mom isn't a nun quit working around the time Kramer vs. Kramer came out in the movie theaters. Nor is that the only problem they have with the issue.' He now sounded positively gleeful. 'Tell me.' 'Max Devore is eighty-five and divorced. Twice divorced, in point of fact. Before awarding custody to a single man of his age, secondary custody has to be taken into consideration. It is, in fact, the single most important issue, other than the allegations of abuse and neglect levelled at the mother.' 'What are those allegations? Do you know?' 'No. Mattie doesn't either, because they're fabrications. She's a sweetie, by the way — ' 'Yeah, she is.' ' — and I think she's going to make a great witness. I can't wait to meet her in person. Meantime, don't sidetrack me. We're talking about secondary custody, right?' 'Right.' 'Devore has a daughter who has been declared mentally incompetent and lives in an institution somewhere in California — Modesto, I think. Not a good bet for custody.' 'It wouldn't seem so.' 'The son, Roger, is . . . ' I heard a faint fluttering of notebook pages. ' . . . fifty-four. So he's not exactly a spring chicken, either. Still, there are lots of guys who become daddies at that age nowadays; it's a brave new world. But Roger is a homosexual.' I thought of Bill Dean saying, Rump-wrangler. Understand there's a lot of that going around out them in California. 'I thought you said sex doesn't matter.'
Slide 148: 'Maybe I should have said hetero sex doesn't matter. In certain states — California is one of them homo sex doesn't matter, either . . . or not as much. But this case isn't going to be adjudicated in California. It's going to be adjudicated in Maine, where folks are less enlightened about how well two married men — married to each other, I mean — can raise a little girl.' 'Roger Devore is married?' Okay. I admit it. I now felt a certain horrified glee myself. I was ashamed of it — Roger Devore was just a guy living his life, and he might not have had much or anything to do with his elderly dad's current enterprise — but I felt it just the same. 'He and a software designer named Morris Ridding tied the knot in 1996,' John said. 'I found that on the first computer sweep. And if this does wind up in court, I intend to make as much of it as I possibly can. I don't know how much that will be — at this point it's impossible to predict — but if I get a chance to paint a picture of that bright-eyed, cheerful little girl growing up with two elderly gays who probably spend most of their lives in computer chat-rooms speculating about what Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock might have done after the lights were out in officers' country . . . well, if I get that chance, I'll take it.' 'It seems a little mean,' I said. I heard myself speaking in the tone of a man who wants to be dissuaded, perhaps even laughed at, but that didn't happen. 'Of course it's mean. It feels like swerving up onto the sidewalk to knock over a couple of innocent bystanders. Roger Devore and Morris Ridding don't d drugs, traffic in little boys, or rob eal old ladies. But this is custody, and custody does an even better job than divorce of turning human beings into insects. This one isn't as bad as it could be, but it's bad enough because it's so naked. Max Devore came up there to his old hometown for one reason and one reason only: to buy a kid. That makes me mad.' I grinned, imagining a lawyer who looked like Elmer Fudd standing outside of a rabbit-hole marked DEVORE with a shotgun. 'My message to Devore is going to be very simple: the price of the kid just went up. Probably to a figure higher than even he can afford.' 'If it goes to court — you've said that a couple of times now. Do you think there's a chance Devore might just drop it and go away?' 'A pretty good one, yeah. I'd say an excellent one if he wasn't old and used to getting his own way. There's also the question of whether or not he's still sharp enough to know where his best interest lies. I'll try for a meeting with him and his lawyer while I'm up there, but so far I haven't managed to get past his secretary.' 'Rogette Whitmore?' 'No, I think she's a step further up the ladder. I haven't talked to her yet, either. But I will.' 'Try either Richard Osgood or George Footman,' I said. 'Either of them may be able to put you in touch with Devore or Devore's chief counsel.' 'I'll want to talk to the Whitmore woman in any case. Men like Devore tend to grow more and more dependent on their close advisors as they grow older, and she could be a key to getting him to let this go. She could also be a headache for us. She might urge him to fight, possibly because she really thinks he can win and possibly because she wants to watch the fur fly. Also, she might marry him.' 'Marry him?' 'Why not? He could have her sign a pre-nup — I could no more' introduce that in court than his lawyers could go fishing for who hired Mattie's lawyer — and it would strengthen his chances.' 'John, I've seen the woman. She's got to be seventy herself.'
Slide 149: 'But she's a potential female player in a custody case involving a little girl, and she's a layer between old man Devore and the married gay couple. We just need to keep it in mind.' 'Okay.' I looked at the office door again, but not so longingly. There comes a point when you're done for the day whether you want to be or not, and I thought I had reached that point. Perhaps in the evening . . . 'The lawyer I got for you is named Romeo Bissonette.' He paused. 'Can that be a real name?' 'Is he from Lewiston?' 'Yes, how did you know?' 'Because in Maine, especially around Lewiston, that can be a real name. Am I supposed to go see him?' I didn't want to go see him. It was fifty miles to Lewiston over two-lane roads which would now be crawling with campers and Winnebagos. What I wanted was to go swimming and then take a long nap. A long dreamless nap. 'You don't need to. Call him and talk to him a little. He's only a safety net, really — he'll object if the questioning leaves the incident on the morning of July Fourth. About that incident you tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Got it?' 'Yes.' 'Talk to him before, then meet him on Friday at . . . wait . . . it's right here . . . ' The notebook pages fluttered again. 'Meet him at the Route 120 Diner at nine-fifteen. Coffee. Talk a little, get to know each other, maybe flip for the check. I'll be with Mattie, getting as much as I can. We may want to hire a private dick.' 'I love it when you talk dirty.' 'Uh-huh. I'm going to see that bills go to your guy Goldacre. He'll send them to your agent, and your agent can — ' 'No,' I said. 'Instruct Goldacre to send them directly here. Harold's a Jewish mother. How much is this going to cost me?' 'Seventy-five thousand dollars, minimum,' he said with no hesitation at all. With no apology in his voice, either. 'Don't tell Mattie.' 'All right. Are you having any fun yet, Mike?' 'You know, I sort of am,' I said thoughtfully. 'For seventy-five grand, you should.' We said our goodbyes and John hung up. As I put my own phone back into its cradle, it occurred to me that I had lived more in the last five days than I had in the last four years. This time the phone didn't ring and I made it all the way back into the office, but I knew I was definitely done for the day. I sat down at the IBM, hit the RETURN key a couple of times, and was beginning to write myself a next-note at the bottom of the page I'd been working on when the phone interrupted me. What a sour little doodad the telephone is, and what little good news we get from it! Today had been an exception, though, and I thought I could sign off with a grin. I was working, after all — working. Part of me still marvelled that I was sitting here at all, breathing easily, my heart beating steadily in my chest, and not even a glimmer of an anxiety attack on my personal event horizon. I wrote: [NEXT: Drake to Raiford. Stops on the way at vegetable stand to talk to the guy who runs it, old source, needs a good & colorful name. Straw hat. Disneyworld tee-shirt. They talk about Shackleford.]
Slide 150: I turned the roller until the IBM spat this page out, stuck it on top of the manuscript, and jotted a final note to myself: 'Call Ted Rosencrief about Raiford.' Rosencrief was a retired Navy man who lived in Derry. I had employed him as a research assistant on several books, using him on one project to find out how paper was made, what the migratory habits of certain common birds were for another, a little b about the architecture of pyramid burial rooms for a third. And it's always 'a it little bit' I want, never 'the whole damn thing.' As a writer, my motto has always been don't confuse me with the facts. The Arthur Hailey type of fiction is beyond me — I can't read it, let alone write it. I want to know just enough so I can lie colorfully. Rosie knew that, and we had always worked well together. This time I needed to know a little bit about Florida's Raiford Prison, and what the deathhouse down there is really like. I also needed a little bit on the psychology of serial killers. I thought Rosie would probably be glad to hear from me . . . almost as glad as I was to finally have something to call him about. I picked up the eight double-spaced pages I h written and fanned through them, still amazed at ad their existence. Had an old IBM typewriter and a Courier type-ball been the secret all along? That was certainly how it seemed. What had come out was also amazing. I'd had ideas during my four-year sabbatical; there had been no writer's block in that regard. One had been really great, the sort of thing which certainly would have become a novel if I'd still been able to write novels. Half a dozen to a dozen were of the sort I'd classify 'pretty good,' meaning they'd do in a pinch . . . or if they happened to unexpectedly grow tall and mysterious overnight, like Jack's beanstalk. Sometimes they do. Most were glimmers, little 'what-ifs' that came and went like shooting stars while I was driving or walking or just lying in bed at night and waiting to go to sleep. The Red-Shirt Man was a what-if. One day I saw a man in a bright red shirt washing the show windows of the JC Penney store in Derry — this was not long before Penney's moved out to the mall. A young man and woman walked under his ladder . . . very bad luck, according to the old superstition. These two didn't know where they were walking, though — they were holding hands, drinking deeply of each other's eyes, as completely in love as any two twenty-year-olds in the history of the world. The man was tall, and as I watched, the top of his head came within an ace of clipping the window-washer's feet. If that had happened, the whole works might have gone over. The entire incident was history in five seconds. Writing The Red-Shirt Man took five months. Except in truth, the entire book was done in a what-if second. I imagined a collision instead of a near-miss. Everything else followed from there. The writing was just secretarial. The idea I was currently working on wasn't one of Mike's Really Great Ideas (Jo's voice carefully made the capitals), but it wasn't a what-if, either. Nor was it much like my old gothic suspense yarns; V. C. Andrews with a prick was nowhere in sight this time. But it felt solid, like the real thing, and this morning it had come out as naturally as a breath. Andy Drake was a private investigator in Key Largo. He was forty years old, divorced, the father of a three-year-old girl. At the open he was in the Key West home of a woman named Regina Whiting. Mrs. Whiting also had a little girl, hers five years old. Mrs. Whiting was married to an extremely rich developer who did not know what Andy Drake knew: that until 1992, Regina Taylor Whiting had been Tiffany Taylor, a high-priced Miami call-girl. That much I had written before the phone started ringing. Here is what I knew beyond that point, the secretarial work I'd do over the next several weeks, assuming that my marvellously recovered ability to work held up:

   
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