The ringing of the phone ¡ª or, more accurately, the way I received the ringing of the phone ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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.
'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 ¡ª '
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.
' ¡ª 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?'
'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.'
'I told him we ate in the yard and he said we only had to be inside together for sixty seconds to 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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª '
'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 ¡ª so happy and free, like a prisoner who has just been pardoned and let out of jail ¡ª 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 an apple if I tried, but I 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 ¡ª '
'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 ¡ª go on back to work. It's what you want to do, isn't it?'
I was startled. 'What makes you say that?'
'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 ¡ª 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 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 ¡ª sometimes turning violent, sometimes shaming, sometimes just unsuccessful from the female partner's point of view ¡ª 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 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.
'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 ¡ª '
'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?'
'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.
'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 ¡ª '
'Yeah, she is.'
' ¡ª 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?'
'Devore has a daughter who has been declared mentally incompetent and lives in an institution somewhere in California ¡ª 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.'
'Maybe I should have said hetero sex doesn't matter. In certain states ¡ª 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 ¡ª married to each other, I mean ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª at this point it's impossible to predict ¡ª 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 deal drugs, traffic in little boys, or rob 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 ¡ª 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.'
'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.'
'Why not? He could have her sign a pre-nup ¡ª I could no more' introduce that in court than his lawyers could go fishing for who hired Mattie's lawyer ¡ª and it would strengthen his chances.'
'John, I've seen the woman. She's got to be seventy herself.'
'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 ¡ª 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?'
'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 ¡ª '
'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 ¡ª 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.]
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 bit about the architecture of pyramid burial rooms for a third. And it's always 'a 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 ¡ª 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 had written and fanned through them, still amazed at 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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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:
One day when Karen Whiting was three, the phone had rung while she and her mother were sitting in the patio hot tub. Regina thought of asking the yard-guy to answer it, then decided to get it herself-their regular man was out with the flu, and she didn't feel comfortable about asking a stranger for a favor. Cautioning her daughter to sit still, Regina hopped out to answer the phone. When Karen put up a hand to keep from being splashed as her mother left the tub, she dropped the doll she had been bathing. When she bent to pick it up, her hair became caught in one of the hot tub's powerful intakes. (It was reading of a fatal accident like this that had originally kicked the story off in my mind two or three years before.)
The yard-man, some no-name in a khaki shirt sent over by a day-labor outfit, saw what was happening. He raced across the lawn, dove headfirst into the tub, and yanked the child from the bottom, leaving hair and a good chunk of scalp clogging the jet when he did. He'd give her artificial respiration until she began to breathe again. (This would be a wonderful, suspenseful scene, and I couldn't wait to write it.) He would refuse all of the hysterical, relieved mother's offers of recompense, although he'd finally give her an address so that her husband could talk to him. Only both the address and his name, John Sanborn, would turn out to be a fake.
Two years later the ex-hooker with the respectable second life sees the man who saved her child on the front page of the Miami paper. His name is given as John Shackleford and he has been arrested for the rape-murder of a nine-year-old girl. And, the article goes on, he is suspected in over forty other murders, many of the victims children. 'Have you caught Baseball Cap?' one of the reporters would yell at the press conference. 'Is John Shackleford Baseball Cap?'
'Well,' I said, going downstairs, 'they sure think he is.'
I could hear too many boats out on the lake this afternoon to make nude bathing an option. I pulled on my suit, slung a towel over my shoulders, and started down the path ¡ª the one which had been lined with glowing paper lanterns in my dream ¡ª to wash off the sweat of my nightmares and my unexpected morning's labors.
There are twenty-three railroad-tie steps between Sara and the lake. I had gone down only four or five before the enormity of what had just happened hit me. My mouth began to tremble. The colors of the trees and the sky mixed together as my eyes teared up. A sound began to come out of me ¡ª a kind of muffled groaning. The strength ran out of my legs and I sat down hard on a railroad tie. For a moment I thought it was over, mostly just a false alarm, and then I began to cry. I stuffed one end of the towel in my mouth during the worst of it, afraid that if the boaters on the lake heard the sounds coming out of me, they'd think someone up here was being murdered.
I cried in grief for the empty years I had spent without Jo, without friends, and without my work. I cried in gratitude because those work-less years seemed to be over. It was too early to tell for sure ¡ª one swallow doesn't make a summer and eight pages of hard copy don't make a career resuscitation ¡ª but I thought it really might be so.
And I cried out of fear, as well, as we do when some awful experience is finally over or when some terrible accident has been narrowly averted. I cried because I suddenly realized that I had been walking a white line ever since Jo died, walking straight down the middle of the road. By some miracle, I had been carried out of harm's way. I had no idea who had done the carrying, but that was all right ¡ª it was a question that could wait for another day.
I cried it all out of me. Then I went on down to the lake and waded in. The cool water felt more than good on my overheated body; it felt like a resurrection.
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