The book was big, okay? The book was major.
I was afraid to change rooms, let alone pack up the typewriter and my slim just-begun manuscript and take it back to Derry. That would be as dangerous as taking an infant out in a windstorm. So I stayed, always reserving the right to move out if things got too weird (the way smokers reserve the right to quit if their coughs get too heavy), and a week passed. Things happened during that week, but until I met Max Devore on The Street the following Friday ¡ª the seventeenth of July, it would have been ¡ª the most important thing was that I continued to work on a novel which would, if finished, be called My Childhood Friend. Perhaps we always think what was lost was the best . . . or would have been the best. I don't know for sure. What I do know is that my real life that week had mostly to do with Andy Drake, John Shackleford, and a shadowy figure standing in the deep background. Raymond Garraty, John Shackle-ford's childhood friend. A man who sometimes wore a baseball cap.
During that week, the manifestations in the house continued, but at a lower level ¡ª there was nothing like that bloodcurdling scream. Sometimes Bunter's bell rang, and sometimes the fruit and vegetable magnets would re-form themselves into a circle . . . never with words in the middle, though; not that week. One morning I got up and the sugar cannister was overturned, making me think of Mattie's story about the flour. Nothing was written in the spill, but there was a squiggle ¡ª
¡ª as though something had tried to write and failed. If so, I sympathized. I knew what that was like.
My depo before the redoubtable Elmer Durgin was on Friday the tenth. On the following Tuesday I took The Street down to Warrington's softball field, hoping for my own peek at Max Devore. It was going on six o'clock when I got within hearing range of the shouts, cheers, and batted balls. A path marked with rustic signs (curlicued W's burned into oak arrows) led past an abandoned boathouse, a couple of sheds, and a gazebo half-buried in blackberry creepers. I eventually came out in deep center field. A litter of potato-chip bags, candy-wrappers, and beer cans suggested that others sometimes watched the games from this vantage-point. I couldn't help thinking about Jo and her mysterious friend, the guy in the old brown sportcoat, the burly guy who had slipped an arm around her waist and led her away from the game, laughing, back toward The Street. Twice over the weekend I'd come close to calling Bonnie Amudson, seeing if maybe I could chase that guy down, put a name on him, and both times I had backed off. Sleeping dogs, I told myself each time. Sleeping dogs, Michael.
I had the area beyond deep center to myself that evening, and it felt like the right distance from home plate, considering the man who usually parked his wheelchair behind the backstop had called me a liar and I had invited him to store my telephone number where the sunshine grows dim.
I needn't have worried in any case. Devore wasn't in attendance, nor was the lovely Rogette.
I did spot Mattie behind the casually maintained chickenwire barrier on the first-base line. John Storrow was beside her, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, his red hair mostly corralled by a Mets cap. They stood watching the game and chatting like old friends for two innings before they saw me ¡ª more than enough time for me to feel envious of John's position, and a little jealous as well.
Finally someone lofted a long fly to center, where the edge of the woods served as the only fence. The center fielder backed up, but it was going to be far over his head. It was hit to my depth, off to my right. I moved in that direction without thinking, high-footing through the shrubs that formed a zone between the mown outfield and the trees, hoping I wasn't running through poison ivy. I caught the softball in my outstretched left hand, and laughed when some of the spectators cheered. The center fielder applauded me by tapping his bare right hand into the pocket of his glove. The batter, meanwhile, circled the bases serenely, knowing he had hit a ground-rule home run.
I tossed the ball to the fielder and as I returned to my original post among the candy-wrappers and beer cans, I looked back in and saw Mattie and John looking at me.
If anything confirms the idea that we're just another species of animal, one with a slightly bigger brain and a much bigger idea of our own importance in the scheme of things, it's how much we can convey by gesture when we absolutely have to. Mattie clasped her hands to her chest, tilted her head to the left, raised her eyebrows ¡ª My hero. I held my hands to my shoulders and flipped the palms skyward Shucks, ma'am, 't'warn't nothin. John lowered his head and put his fingers to his brow, as if something there hurt ¡ª You lucky sonofabitch.
With those comments out of the way, I pointed at the backstop and shrugged a question. Both Mattie and John shrugged back. An inning later a little boy who looked like one giant exploding freckle ran out to where I was, his oversized Michael Jordan jersey churning around his shins like a dress.
'Guy down there gimme fifty cent to say you should call im later on at his hotel over in the Rock,' he said, pointing at John. 'He say you gimme another fifty cent if there was an answer.'
'Tell him I'll call him around nine-thirty,' I said. 'I don't have any change, though. Can you take a buck?'
'Hey, yeah, swank.' He snatched it, turned away, then turned back. He grinned, revealing a set of teeth caught between Act I and Act II. With the softball players in the background, he looked like a Norman Rockwell archetype. 'Guy also say tell you that was a bullshit catch.'
'Tell him people used to say the same thing about Willie Mays all the time.'
Ah, youth. Ah, mores. 'Just tell him, son. He'll know.'
I stayed another inning, but by then the game was getting drunk, Devore still hadn't shown, and I went back home the way I had come. I met one fisherman standing out on a rock and two young people strolling along The Street toward Warrington's, their hands linked. They said hi and I hi'd them back. I felt lonely and content at the same time. I believe that is a rare kind of happiness.
Some people check their phone answering machines when they get home; that summer I always checked the front of the fridge. Eenie-meenie-chili-beanie, as Bullwinkle Moose used to say, the spirits are about to speak. That night they hadn't, although the fruit and vegetable magnets had re-formed into a sinuous shape like a snake or perhaps the letter S taking a nap:
A little later I called John and asked him where Devore had been, and he repeated in words what he had already told me, and much more economically, by gesture. 'It's the first game he's missed since he came back,' he said. 'Mattie tried asking a few people if he was okay, and the consensus seemed to be that he was . . . at least as far as anyone knew.'
'What do you mean she tried asking a few people?'
'I mean that several wouldn't even talk to her. "Cut her dead," my parents' generation would have said.' Watch it, buddy, I thought but didn't say, that's only half a step from my generation. 'One of her old girlfriends spoke to her finally, but there's a general attitude about Mattie Devore. That man Osgood may be a shitty salesman, but as Devore's Mr. Moneyguy he's doing a wonderful job of separating Mattie from the other folks in the town. Is it a town, Mike? I don't quite get that part.'
'It's just the TR,' I said absently. 'There's no real way to explain it.
Do you actually believe Devore's bribing everyone? That doesn't say much for the old Wordsworthian idea of pastoral innocence and goodness, does it?'
'He's spreading money and using Osgood ¡ª maybe Footman, too ¡ª to spread stories. And the folks around here seem at least as honest as honest politicians.'
'The ones who stay bought?'
'Yeah. Oh, and I saw one of Devore's potential star witnesses in the Case of the Runaway Child. Royce Merrill. He was over by the equipment shed with some of his cronies. Did you happen to notice him?'
I said I had not.
'Guy must be a hundred and thirty,' John said. 'He's got a cane with a gold head the size of an elephant's asshole.'
'That's a Boston Post cane. The oldest person in the area gets to keep it.'
'And I have no doubt he came by it honestly. If Devore's lawyers put him on the stand, I'll debone him.' There was something chilling in John's gleeful confidence.
'I'm sure,' I said. 'How did Mattie take getting cut dead by her old friends?' I was thinking of her saying that she hated Tuesday nights, hated to think of the softball games going on as they always had at the field where she had met her late husband.
'She did okay,' John said. 'I think she's given most of them up as a lost cause, anyway.' I had my doubts about that ¡ª I seem to remember that at twenty-one lost causes are sort of a specialty ¡ª but I didn't say anything. 'She's hanging in. She's been lonely and scared, I think that in her own mind she might already have begun the process of giving Kyra up, but she's got her confidence back now. Mostly thanks to meeting you. Talk about your fantastically lucky breaks.'
Well, maybe. I flashed on Jo's. brother Frank once saying to me that he didn't think there was any such thing as luck, only fate and inspired choices. And then I remembered that image of the TR criss-crossed with invisible cables, connections that were unseen but as strong as steel.
'John, I forgot to ask the most important question of all the other day, after I gave my depo. This custody case we're all so concerned about . . . has it even been scheduled?'
'Good question. I've checked three ways to Sunday, and Bissonette has, too. Unless Devore and his people have pulled something really slippery, like filing in another court district, I don't think it has been.'
'Could they do that? File in another district?'
'Maybe. But probably not without us finding out.'
'So what does it mean?'
'That Devore's on the verge of giving up,' John said promptly. 'As of now I see no other way of explaining it. I'm going back to New York first thing tomorrow, but I'll stay in touch. If anything comes up here, you do the same.'
I said I would and went to bed. No female visitors came to share my dreams. That was sort of a relief.
When I came downstairs to recharge my iced-tea glass late Wednesday morning, Brenda Meserve had erected the laundry whirligig on the back stoop and was hanging out my clothes. This she did as her mother had no doubt taught her, with pants and shirts on the outside and undies on the inside, where any passing nosyparkers couldn't see what you chose to wear closest to your skin.
'You can take these in around four o'clock,' Mrs. M. said as she prepared to leave. She looked at me with the bright and cynical eye of a woman who has been 'doing for' well-off men her entire life. 'Don't you forget and leave em out all night ¡ª dewy clothes don't ever feel fresh until they're warshed again.'
I told her most humbly that I would remember to take in my clothes. I then asked her ¡ª feeling like a spy working an embassy party for information ¡ª if the house felt all right to her.
'All right how?' she asked, cocking one wild eyebrow at me.
'Well, I've heard funny noises a couple of times. In the night.'
She sniffed. 'It's a log house, ennit? Built in relays, so to speak. It settles, one wing against t'other. That's what you hear, most likely.'
'No ghosts, huh?' I said, as if disappointed.
'Not that I've ever seen,' she said, matter-of-fact as an accountant, 'but my ma said there's plenty down here. She said this whole lake is haunted. By the Micmacs that lived here until they was driven out by General Wing, by all the men who went away to the Civil War and died there ¡ª over six hundred went from this part of the world, Mr. Noonan, and less than a hundred and fifty came back . . . at least in their bodies. Ma said this side of Dark Score's also haunted by the ghost of that Negro boy who died here, poor tyke. He belonged to one of the Red-Tops, you know.'
'No ¡ª I know about Sara and the Red-Tops, but not this.' I paused. 'Did he drown?'
'Nawp, caught in an animal trap. Struggled there for most of a whole day, screaming for help. Finally they found him. They saved the foot, but they shouldn't have. Blood-poisoning set in, and the boy died. Summer of ought-one, that was. It's why they left, I guess ¡ª it was too sad to stay. But my ma used to claim the little fella, he stayed. She used to say that he's still on the TR.'
I wondered what Mrs. M. would say if I told her that the little fella had very likely been here to greet me when I arrived from Derry, and had been back on several occasions since.
'Then there was Kenny Auster's father, Normal,' she said. 'You know that story, don't you? Oh, that's a terrible story.' She looked rather pleased ¡ª either at knowing such a terrible story or at having the chance to tell it.
'No,' I said. 'I know Kenny, though. He's the one with the wolfhound. Blueberry.'
'Ayuh. He carpenters a tad and caretakes a tad, just like his father before him. His dad caretook many of these places, you know, and back just after the Second World War was over, Normal Auster drownded Kenny's little brother in his back yard. This was when they lived on Wasp Hill, down where the road splits, one side going to the old boat-landin and the other to the marina. He didn't drown the tyke in the lake, though. He put him on the ground under the pump and just held him there until the baby was full of water and dead.'
I stood there looking at her, the clothes behind us snapping on their whirligig. I thought of my mouth and nose and throat full of that cold mineral taste that could have been well-water as well as lakewater; down here all of it comes from the same deep aquifers. I thought of the message on the refrigerator: help im drown.
'He left the baby laying right under the pump. He had a new Chevrolet, and he drove it down here to Lane Forty-two. Took his shotgun, too.'
'You aren't going to tell me Kenny Auster's dad committed suicide in my house, are you, Mrs. Meserve?'
She shook her head. 'Nawp. He did it on the Brickers' lakeside deck. Sat down on their porch glider and blew his damned baby-murdering head off.'
'The Brickers? I don't ¡ª '
'You wouldn't. Hasn't been any Brickers on the lake since the sixties. They were from Delaware. Quality folks. You'd think of it as the Warshburn place, I guess, although they're gone, now, too. Place is empty. Every now and then that stark naturalborn fool Osgood brings someone down and shows it off, but he'll never sell it at the price he's asking. Mark my words.'
The Washburns I had known ¡ª had played bridge with them a time or two. Nice enough people, although probably not what Mrs. M., with her queer backcountry snobbishness, would have called 'quality.' Their place was maybe an eighth of a mile north of mine along The Street. Past that point, there's nothing much ¡ª the drop to the lake gets steep, and the woods are massed tangles of second growth and blackberry bushes. The Street goes on to the tip of Halo Bay at the far north end of Dark Score, but once Lane Forty-two curves back to the highway, the path is for the most part used only by berry-picking expeditions in the summer and hunters in the fall.
Normal, I thought. Hell of a name for a guy who had drowned his infant son under the backyard pump.
'Did he leave a note? Any explanation?'
'Nawp. But you'll hear folks say he haunts the lake, too. Little towns are most likely full of haunts, but I couldn't say aye, no, or maybe myself; I ain't the sensitive type. All I know about your place, Mr. Noonan, is that it smells damp no matter how much I try to get it aired out. I 'magine that's logs. Log buildins don't go well with lakes. The damp gets into the wood.'
She had set her purse down between her Reeboks; now she bent and picked it up. It was a countrywoman's purse, black, styleless (except for the gold grommets holding the handles on), and utilitarian. She could have carried a good selection of kitchen appliances in there if she had wanted to.
'I can't stand here natterin all day long, though, much as I might like to. I got one more place to go before I can call it quits. Summer's ha'vest time in this part of the world, you know. Now remember to take those clothes in before dark, Mr. Noonan. Don't let em get all dewy.'
'I won't.' And I didn't. But when I went out to take them in, dressed in my bathing trunks and coated with sweat from the oven I'd been working in (I had to get the air conditioner fixed, just had to), I saw that something had altered Mrs. M.'s arrangements. My jeans and shirts now hung around the pole. The underwear and socks, which had been decorously hidden when Mrs. M. drove up the driveway in her old Ford, were now on the outside. It was as if my unseen guest ¡ª one of my unseen guests ¡ª was saying ha ha ha.
I went to the library the next day, and made renewing my library card my first order of business. Lindy Briggs herself took my four bucks and entered me into the computer, first telling me how sorry she had been to hear about Jo's death. And, as with Bill, I sensed a certain reproach in her tone, as if I were to blame for such improperly delayed condolences. I supposed I was.
'Lindy, do you have a town history?' I asked when we had finished the proprieties concerning my wife.
'We have two,' she said, then leaned toward me over the desk, a little woman in a violently patterned sleeveless dress, her hair a gray puffball around her head, her bright eyes swimming behind her bifocals. In a confidential voice she added, 'Neither is much good.'
'Which one is better?' I asked, matching her tone.
'Probably the one by Edward Osteen. He was a summer resident until the mid-fifties and lived here full-time when he retired. He wrote Dark Score Days in 1965 or '66. He had it privately published because he couldn't find a commercial house that would take it. Even the regional publishers passed.' She sighed. 'The locals bought it, but that's not many books, is it?'
'No, I suppose not,' I said.
'He just wasn't much of a writer. Not much of a photographer, either ¡ª those little black-and-white snaps of his make my eyes hurt. Still, he tells some good stories. The Micmac Drive, General Wing's trick horse, the twister in the eighteen-eighties, the fires in the nine-teen-thirties . . . '
'Anything about Sara and the Red-Tops?'
She nodded, smiling. 'Finally got around to looking up the history of your own place, did you? I'm glad to hear it. He found an old photo of them, and it's in there. He thought it was taken at the Fryeburg Fair in 1900. Ed used to say he'd give a lot to hear a record made by that bunch.'
'So would I, but none were ever made.' A haiku by the Greek poet George Seferis suddenly occurred to me: Are these the voices of our dead friends / or just the gramophone? 'What happened to Mr. Osteen? I don't recall the name.'
'Died not a year or two before you and Jo bought your place on the lake,' she said. 'Cancer.'
'You said there were two histories?'
'The other one you probably know ¡ª A History of Castle County and Castle Rock. Done for the county centennial, and dry as dust. Eddie Osteen's book isn't very well written, but he wasn't dry. You have to give him that much. You should find them both over there.' She pointed to shelves with a sign over them which read of OF MAINE INTEREST. 'They don't circulate.' Then she brightened. 'Although we will happily take any nickels you should feel moved to feed into our photocopy machine.'
Mattie was sitting in the far corner next to a boy in a turned-around baseball cap, showing him how to use the microfilm reader. She looked up at me, smiled, and mouthed the words Nice catch. Referring to my lucky grab at Warrington's, presumably. I gave a modest little shrug before turning to the OF MAINE INTEREST shelves. But she was right ¡ª lucky or not, it had been a nice catch.
'What are you looking for?'
I was so deep into the two histories I'd found that Mattie's voice made me jump. I turned around and smiled, first aware that she was wearing some light and pleasant perfume, second that Lindy Briggs was watching us from the main desk, her welcoming smile put away.
'Background on the area where I live,' I said. 'Old stories. My housekeeper got me interested.' Then, in a lower voice: 'Teacher's watching. Don't look around.'
Mattie looked startled ¡ª and, I thought, a little worried. As it turned out, she was right to be worried. In a voice that was low-pitched yet still designed to carry at least as far as the desk, she asked if she could reshelve either book for me. I gave her both. As she picked them up she said in what was almost a con's whisper: 'That lawyer who represented you last Friday got John a private detective. He says they may have found something interesting about the guardian ad litem.'
I walked over to the OF MAINE INTEREST shelves with her, hoping I wasn't getting her in trouble, and asked if she knew what the something interesting might be. She shook her head, gave me a professional little librarian's smile, and I went away.
On the ride back to the house, I tried to think about what I'd read, but there wasn't much. Osteen was a bad writer who had taken bad pictures, and while his stories were colorful, they were also pretty thin on the ground. He mentioned Sara and the Red-Tops, all right, but he referred to them as a 'Dixie-Land octet,' and even I knew that wasn't right. The Red-Tops might have played some Dixieland, but they had primarily been a blues group (Friday and Saturday nights) and a gospel group (Sunday mornings). Osteen's two-page summary of the Red-Tops' stay on the TR made it clear that he had heard no one else's covers of Sara's tunes.
He confirmed that a child had died of blood-poisoning caused by a traphold wound, a story which sounded like Brenda Meserve's . . . but why wouldn't it? Osteen had likely heard it from Mrs. M.'s father or grandfather. He also said that the boy was Son Tidwell's only child, and that the guitar-player's real name was Reginald. The Tidwells had supposedly drifted north from the whorehouse district of New Orleans ¡ª the fabled crib-and-club streets which had been known around the turn of the century as Storyville.
There was no mention of Sara and the Red-Tops in the more formal history of Castle County, and no mention of Kenny Auster's drownded little brother in either book. Not long before Mattie came over to speak to me, I'd had a wild idea: that Son Tidwell and Sara Tidwell were man and wife, and that the little boy (not named by Osteen) had been their son. I found the picture Lindy had mentioned and studied it closely. It showed at least a dozen black people standing in a stiff group in front of what looked like a cattle exhibition. There was an old-fashioned Ferris wheel in the background. It could well have been taken at the Fryeburg Fair, and as old and faded as it was, it had a simple, elemental power that all Osteen's own photos put together could not match. You have seen photographs of western and Depression-era bandidos that have that same look of eerie truth ¡ª stern faces above tight ties and collars, eyes not quite lost in the shadows of antique hatbrims.
Sara stood front and center, wearing a black dress and her guitar. She was not outright smiling in this picture, but there seemed to be a smile in her eyes, and I thought they were like the eyes in some paintings, the ones that seem to follow you wherever you move in the room. I studied the photo and thought of her almost spiteful voice in my dream: What do you want to know, sugar? I suppose I wanted to know about her and the others ¡ª who they had been, what they were to each other when they weren't singing and playing, why they'd left, where they'd gone.
Both of her hands were clearly visible, one posed on the strings of her guitar, the other on the frets, where she had been making a G-chord on an October Fair-day in the year 1900. Her fingers were long, artistic, bare of rings. That didn't necessarily mean that she and Son Tidwell weren't married, of course, and even if they hadn't been, the little boy who'd been caught in the trap could have been born on the wrong side of the blanket. Except the same ghost of a smile lurked in Son Tidwell's eyes. The resemblance was remarkable. I had an idea that the two of them had been brother and sister, not man and wife.
I thought about these things on my way home, and I thought about cables that were felt rather than seen . . . but mostly I found myself thinking about Lindy Briggs ¡ª the way she had smiled at me, the way, a little later on, she had not smiled at her bright young librarian with the high-school certification. That worried me.
Then I got back to the house, and all I worried about was my story and the people in it ¡ª bags of bones which were putting on flesh daily.
Michael Noonan, Max Devore, and Rogette Whitmore played out their horrible little comedy scene Friday evening. Two other things which bear narrating happened before that.
The first was a call from John Storrow on Thursday night. I was sitting in front of the TV with a baseball game running soundlessly in front of me (the MUTE button with which most remote controls come equipped may be the twentieth century's finest invention). I was thinking about Sara Tidwell and Son Tidwell and Son Tidwell's little boy. I was thinking about Storyville, a name any writer just had to love. And in the back of my mind I was thinking about my wife, who had died pregnant.
'Hello?' I said.
'Mike, I have some wonderful news,' John said. He sounded near to bursting. 'Romeo Bissonette may be a weird name, but there's nothing weird about the detective-guy he found for me. His name is George Kennedy, like the actor. He's good, and he's fast. This guy could work in New York.'
'If that's the highest compliment you can think of, you need to get out of the city more.'
He went on as if he hadn't heard. 'Kennedy's real job is with a security firm ¡ª the other stuff is strictly in the moonlight. Which is a great loss, believe me. He got most of this on the phone. I can't believe it.'
'What specifically can't you believe?'
'Jackpot, baby.' Again he spoke in that tone of greedy satisfaction which I found both troubling and reassuring. 'Elmer Durgin has done the following things since late May: paid off his car; paid off his camp in Rangely Lakes; caught up on about ninety years of child support ¡ª '
'Nobody pays child support for ninety years,' I said, but I was just running my mouth to hear it go . . . to let off some of my own building excitement, in truth. ''T'ain't possible, Mcgee.'
'It is if you have seven kids,' John said, and began howling with laughter.
I thought of the pudgy self-satisfied face, the cupid-bow mouth, the nails that looked polished and prissy. 'He don't,' I said.
'He do,' John said, still laughing. He sounded like a complete lunatic ¡ª manic, hold the depressive. 'He really do! Ranging in ages from f-fourteen to th-th-three! What a b-busy p-p-potent little prick he must have!' More helpless howls. And by now I was howling right along with him ¡ª I'd caught it like the mumps. 'Kennedy is going to f-f-fax me p-pictures of the whole . . . fam' . . . damily!' We broke up completely, laughing together long-distance. I could picture John Stor-row sitting alone in his Park Avenue office, bellowing like a lunatic and scaring the cleaning ladies.
'That doesn't matter, though,' he said when he could talk coherently again. 'You see what matters, don't you?'
'Yes,' I said. 'How could he be so stupid?' Meaning Durgin, but also meaning Devore. John understood, I think, that we were talking about both he's at the same time.
'Elmer Durgin's a little lawyer from a little township tucked away in the big woods of western Maine, that's all. How could he know that some guardian angel would come along with the resources to smoke him out? He also bought a boat, by the way. Two weeks ago. It's a twin outboard. A big 'un. It's over, Mike. The home team scores nine runs in the bottom of the ninth and the fucking pennant is ours.'
'If you say so.' But my hand went off on its own expedition, made a loose fist, and knocked on the good solid wood of the coffee-table.
'And hey, the softball game wasn't a total loss.' John was still talking between little giggling outbursts like helium balloons.
'I'm taken with her.'
'Mattie,' he said patiently. 'Mattie Devore.' A pause, then: 'Mike? Are you there?'
'Yeah,' I said. 'Phone slipped. Sorry.' The phone hadn't slipped as much as an inch, but it came out sounding natural enough, I thought. And if it hadn't, so what? When it came to Mattie, I would be ¡ª in John's mind, at least ¡ª below suspicion. Like the country-house staff in an Agatha Christie. He was twenty-eight, maybe thirty. The idea that a man twelve years older might be sexually attracted to Mattie had probably never crossed his mind . . . or maybe just for a second or two there on the common, before he dismissed it as ludicrous. The way Mattie herself had dismissed the idea of Jo and the man in the brown sportcoat.
'I can't do my courtship dance while I'm representing her,' he said, 'wouldn't be ethical. Wouldn't be safe, either. Later, though . . . you can never tell.'
'No,' I said, hearing my voice as you sometimes do in moments when you are caught completely fiat-footed, hearing it as though it were coming from someone else. Someone on the radio or the record-player, maybe. Are these the voices of our dead friends, or just the gramophone? I thought of his hands, the fingers long and slender and without a ring on any of them. Like Sara's hands in that old photo. 'No, you can never tell.'
We said goodbye, and I sat watching the muted baseball game. I thought about getting up to get a beer, but it seemed too far to the refrigerator ¡ª a safari, in fact. What I felt was a kind of dull hurt, followed by a better emotion: rueful relief, I guess you'd call it. Was he too old for her? No, I didn't think so. Just about right. Prince Charming No. 2, this time in a three-piece suit. Mattie's luck with men might finally be changing, and if so I should be glad. I would be glad. And relieved. Because I had a book to write, and never mind the look of white sneakers flashing below a red sundress in the deepening gloom, or the ember of her cigarette dancing in the dark.
Still, I felt really lonely for the first time since I saw Kyra marching up the white line of Route 68 in her bathing suit and flip-flops.
'You funny little man, said Strickland,' I told the empty room. It came out before I knew I was going to say anything, and when it did, the channel on the TV changed. It went from baseball to a rerun of All in the Family and then to Ren & Stimpy. I glanced down at the remote control. It was still on the coffee-table where I'd left it. The TV channel changed again, and this time I was looking at Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. There was an airplane in the background, and I didn't need to pick up the remote and turn on the sound to know that Humphrey was telling Ingrid that she was getting on that plane. My wife's all-time favorite movie. She bawled at the end without fail.
'Jo?' I asked. 'Are you here?'
Bunter's bell rang once. Very faintly. There had been several presences in the house, I was sure of it . . . but tonight, for the first time, I was positive it was Jo who was with me.
'Who was he, hon?' I asked. 'The guy at the softball field, who was he?'
Bunter's bell hung still and quiet. She was in the room, though. I sensed her, something like a held breath.
I remembered the ugly, gibing little message on the refrigerator after my dinner with Mattie and Ki: blue rose liar ha ha.
'Who was he?' My voice was unsteady, sounding on the verge of tears. 'What were you doing down here with some guy? Were you . . . ' But I couldn't bring myself to ask if she had been lying to me, cheating on me. I couldn't ask even though the presence I felt might be, let's face it, only in my own head.
The TV switched away from Casablanca and here was everybody's favorite lawyer, Perry Mason, on Nick at Nite. Perry's nemesis, Hamilton Burger, was questioning a distraught-looking woman, and all at once the sound blared on, making me jump.
'I am not a liar!' some long-ago TV actress cried. For a moment she looked right out at me, and I was stunned breathless to see Jo's eyes in that black-and-white fifties face. 'I never lied, Mr. Burger, never!'
'I submit that you did!' Burger responded. He moved in on her, leering like a vampire. 'I submit that you ¡ª '
The TV suddenly went off. Bunter's bell gave a single brisk shake, and then whatever had been here was gone. But I felt better. I am not a liar . . . I never lied, never.
I could believe that if I chose to.
If I chose.
I went to bed, and there were no dreams.
I had taken to starting work early, before the heat could really get a hold on the study. I'd drink some juice, gobble some toast, then sit behind the IBM until almost noon, watching the Courier ball dance and twirl as the pages floated through the machine and came out with writing on them. That old magic, so strange and wonderful. It never really felt like work to me, although I called it that; it felt like some weird kind of mental trampoline I bounced on. Those were springs that took away all the weight of the world for awhile.
At noon I'd break, drive down to Buddy Jellison's greaseatorium for something nasty, then return and work for another hour or so. After that I would swim and take a long dreamless nap in the north bedroom. I had barely poked my head into the master bedroom at the south end of the house, and if Mrs. M. thought this was odd, she kept it to herself.
On Friday the seventeenth, I stopped at the Lakeview General on my way back to the house to gas up my Chevrolet. There are pumps at the All-Purpose Garage, and the go-juice was a penny or two cheaper, but I didn't like the vibe. Today, as I stood in front of the store with the pump on automatic feed, looking off toward the mountains, Bill Dean's Dodge Ram pulled in on the other side of the island. He climbed down and gave me a smile. 'How's it going, Mike?'
'Brenda says you're writin up a storm.'
'I am,' I said, and it was on the tip of my tongue to ask for an update on the broken second-floor air conditioner. The tip of my tongue was where it stayed. I was still too nervous about my rediscovered ability to want to change anything about the environment in which I was doing it. Stupid, maybe, but sometimes things work just because you think they work. It's as good a definition of faith as any.
'Well, I'm glad to hear it. Very glad.' I thought he was sincere enough, but he somehow didn't sound like Bill. Not the one who had greeted me back, anyway.
'I've been looking up some old stuff about my side of the lake,' I said. 'Sara and the Red-Tops? You always were sort ofint'rested in them, I remember.'
'Them, yes, but not just them. Lots of history. I was talking to Mrs. M., and she told me about Normal Auster. Kenny's father.'
Bill's smile stayed on, and he only paused a moment in the act of unscrewing the cap on his gas tank, but I still had a sense, quite clear, that he had frozen inside. 'You wouldn't write about a thing like that, would you, Mike? Because there's a lot of people around here that'd feel it bad and take it wrong. I told Jo the same thing.'
'Jo?' I felt an urge to step between the two pumps and over the island so I could grab him by the arm. 'What's Jo got to do with this?'
He looked at me cautiously and long. 'She didn't tell you?'
'What are you talking about?'
'She thought she might write something about Sara and the Red-Tops for one of the local papers.' Bill was picking his words very slowly. I have a clear memory of that, and of how hot the sun was, beating down on my neck, and the sharpness of our shadows on the asphalt. He began to pump his gas, and the sound of the pump's motor was also very sharp. 'I think she even mentioned Yankee magazine. I c'd be wrong about that, but I don't think I am.'
I was speechless. Why would she have kept quiet about the idea to try her hand at a little local history? Because she might have thought she was poaching on my territory? That was ridiculous. She had known me better than that . . . hadn't she?
'When did you have this conversation, Bill? Do you remember?'
'Coss I do,' he said. 'Same day she come down to take delivery of those plastic owls. Only I raised the subject, because folks had told me she was asking around.'
'I didn't say that,' he said stiffly, 'you did.'
True, but I thought prying was what he meant. 'Go on.'
'Nothing to go on about. I told her there were sore toes here and there on the TR, same as there are anyplace, and ast her not to tread on any corns if she could help it. She said she understood. Maybe she did, maybe she didn't. All I know is she kep' on asking questions. Listenin to stories from old fools with more time than sense.'
'When was this?'
'Fall of '93, winter and spring of '94. Went all around town, she did even over to Motton and Harlow ¡ª with her notebook and little tape-recorder. Anyway, that's all I know.'
I realized a stunning thing: Bill was lying. If you'd asked me before that day, I'd have laughed and told you Bill Dean didn't have a lie in him. And he must not have had many, because he did it badly.
I thought of calling him on it, but to what end? I needed to think, and I couldn't do it here ¡ª my mind was roaring. Given time, that roar might subside and I'd see it was really nothing, no big deal, but I needed that time. When you start finding out unexpected things about a loved one who's been dead awhile, it rocks you. Take it from me, it does.
Bill's eyes had shifted away from mine, but now they shifted back. He looked both earnest and ¡ª I could have sworn it ¡ª a little scared.
'She ast about little Kerry Auster, and that's a good example of what I mean about steppin on sore toes. That's not the stuff for a newspaper story or a magazine article. Normal just snapped. No one knows why. It was a terrible tragedy, senseless, and there's still people who could be hurt by it. In little towns things are kind of connected under the surface ¡ª '
Yes, like cables you couldn't quite see.
' ¡ª and the past dies slower. Sara and those others, that's a little different. They were just . . . just wanderers . . . from away. Jo could have stuck to those folks and it would've been all right. And say ¡ª for all I know, she did. Because I never saw a single word she ever wrote. If she did write.'
About that he was telling the truth, I felt. But I knew something else, knew it as surely as I'd known Mattie had been wearing white shorts when she called me on her day off. Sara and those others were just wanderers from away, Bill had said, but he hesitated in the middle of his thought, substituting wanderers for the word which had come naturally to mind. Niggers was the word he hadn't said. Sara and those others were just niggers from away.
All at once I found myself thinking of an old story by Ray Bradbury, 'Mars Is Heaven.' The first space travellers to Mars discover it's Green Town, Illinois, and all their well-loved friends and relatives are there. Only the friends and relatives are really alien monsters, and in the night, while the space travellers think they are sleeping in the beds of their long-dead kinfolk in a place that must be heaven, they are slaughtered to the last man.
'Bill, you're sure she was up here a few times in the off-season?'
'Ayuh. 'T'wasn't just a few times, either. Might have been a dozen times or more. Day-trips, don't you know.'
'Did you ever see a fellow with her? Burly guy, black hair?'
He thought about it. I tried not to hold my breath. At last he shook his head. 'Few times I saw her, she was alone. But I didn't see her every time she came. Sometimes I only heard she'd been on the TR after she 'us gone again. Saw her in June of '94, headed up toward Halo Bay in that little car a hers. She waved, I waved back. Went down to the house later that evenin to see if she needed anythin, but she'd gone. I didn't see her again. When she died later on that summer, me and 'Vette were so shocked.'
Whatever she was looking for, she must never have written any of it down. I would have found the manuscript.
Was that true, though? She had made many trips down here with no apparent attempts at concealment, on one of them she had even been accompanied by a strange man, and I had only found out about these visits by accident.
'This is hard to talk about,' Bill said, 'but since we've gotten started hard, we might as well go the rest of the way. Livin on the TR is like the way we used to sleep four or even five in a bed when it was January and true cold. If everyone rests easy, you do all right. But if one person gets restless, gets tossing and turning, no one can sleep. Right now you're the restless one. That's how people see it.'
He waited to see what I'd say. When almost twenty seconds passed without a word from me (Harold Oblowski would have been proud), he shuffled his feet and went on.
'There are people in town uneasy about the interest you've taken in Mattie Devore, for instance. Now I'm not sayin there's anythin going on between the two of you ¡ª although there's folks who do say it ¡ª but if you want to stay on the TR you're makin it tough on yourself.'
'Comes back to what I said a week and a half ago. She's trouble.'
'As I recall, Bill, you said she was in trouble. And she is. I'm trying to help her out of it. There's nothing going on between us but that.'
'I seem to recall telling you that Max Devore is nuts,' he said. 'If you make him mad, we all pay the price.' The pump clicked off and he racked it up. Then he sighed, raised his hands, dropped them. 'You think this is easy for me to say?'
'You think it's easy for me to listen to?'
'All right, ayuh, we're in the same skiff. But Mattie Devore isn't the only person on the TR livin hand-to-mouth, you know. There's others got their woes, as well. Can't you understand that?'
Maybe he saw that I understood too much and too well, because his shoulders slumped.
'If you're asking me to stand aside and let Devore take Mattie's baby without a fight, you can forget it,' I said. 'And I hope that's not it. Because I think I'd have to be quits with a man who'd ask another man to do something like that.'
'I wouldn't ask it now anywise,' he said, his accent thickening almost to the point of contempt. 'It'd be too late, wouldn't it?' And then, unexpectedly, he softened. 'Christ, man, I'm worried about you. Let the rest of it go hang, all right? Hang high where the crows can pick it.' He was lying again, but this time I didn't mind so much, because I thought he was lying to himself. 'But you need to have a care. When I said Devore was crazy, that was no figure of speech. Do you think he'll bother with court if court can't get him what he wants? Folks died in those summer fires back in 1933. Good people. One related to me. They burned over half the goddam county and Max Devore set em. That was his going-away present to the TR. It could never be proved, but he did it. Back then he was young and broke, not yet twenty and no law in his pocket. What do you think he'd do now?'
He looked at me searchingly. I said nothing.
Bill nodded as if I had spoken. 'Think about it. And you remember this, Mike: no man who didn't care for you would ever talk to you straight as I have.'
'How straight was that, Bill?' I was faintly aware of some tourist walking from his Volvo to the store and looking at us curiously, and when I replayed the scene in my mind later on, I realized we must have looked like guys on the verge of a fistfight. I remember that I felt like crying out of sadness and bewilderment and an incompletely defined sense of betrayal, but I also remember being furious with this lanky old man ¡ª him in his shining-clean cotton undershirt and his mouthful of false teeth. So maybe we were close to fighting, and I just didn't know it at the time.
'Straight as I could be,' he said, and turned away to go inside and pay for his gas.
'My house is haunted,' I said.
He stopped, back to me, shoulders hunched as if to absorb a blow. Then, slowly, he turned back. 'Sara Laughs has always been haunted, Mike. You've stirred em up. P'raps you should go back to Derry and let em settle. That might be the best thing.' He paused, as if replaying this last to see if he agreed with it, then nodded. He nodded as slowly as he had turned. 'Ayuh, that might be best all around.'
When I got back to Sara I called Ward Hankins. Then I finally made that call to Bonnie Amudson. Part of me was rooting for her not to be in at the travel agency in Augusta she co-owned, but she was. Halfway through my talk with her, the fax began to print out xeroxed pages from Jo's appointment calendars. On the first one Ward had scrawled, 'Hope this helps.'
I didn't rehearse what I was going to say to Bonnie; I felt that to do so would be a recipe for disaster. I told her that Jo had been writing something ¡ª maybe an article, maybe a series of them ¡ª about the township where our summerhouse was located, and that some of the locals had apparently been cheesed off by her curiosity. Some still were. Had she talked to Bonnie? Perhaps showed her an early draft?
'No, huh-uh.' Bonnie sounded honestly surprised. 'She used to show me her photos, and more herb samples than I honestly cared to see, but she never showed me anything she was writing. In fact, I remember her once saying that she'd decided to leave the writing to you and just ¡ª '
' ¡ª take a little taste of everything else, right?'
I thought this was a good place to end the conversation, but the guys in the basement seemed to have other ideas. 'Was she seeing anyone, Bonnie?'
Silence from the other end. With a hand that seemed at least four miles down my arm, I plucked the fax sheets out of the basket. Ten of them ¡ª November of 1993 to August of 1994. Jottings everywhere in Jo's neat hand. Had we even had a fax before she died? I couldn't remember. There was so fucking much I couldn't remember.
'Bonnie? If you know something, please tell me. Jo's dead, but I'm not. I can forgive her if I have to, but I can't forgive what I don't underst ¡ª '
'I'm sorry,' she said, and gave a nervous little laugh. 'It's just that I didn't understand at first. "Seeing anyone," that was just so . . . so foreign to Jo . . . the Jo I knew . . . that I couldn't figure out what you were talking about. I thought maybe you meant a shrink, but you didn't, did you? You meant seeing someone like seeing a guy. A boyfriend.'
'That's what I meant.' Thumbing through the faxed calendar sheets now, my hand not quite back to its proper distance from my eyes but getting there, getting there. I felt relief at the honest bewilderment in Bonnie's voice, but not as much as I'd expected. Because I'd known. I hadn't even needed the woman in the old Perry Mason episode to put in her two cents, not really. It was Jo we were talking about, after all. Jo.
'Mike,' Bonnie was saying, very softly, as if I might be crazy, 'she loved you. She loved you.
'Yes. I suppose she did.' The calendar pages showed how busy my wife had been. How productive. S-Ks of Maine . . . the soup kitchens. WomShel, a county-to-county network of shelters for battered women. TeenShel. Friends of Me. Libes. She had been at two or three meetings a month ¡ª two or three a week at some points ¡ª and I'd barely noticed. I had been too busy with my women in jeopardy. 'I loved her too, Bonnie, but she was up to something in the last ten months of her life. She didn't give you any hint of what it might have been when you were riding to meetings of the Soup Kitchens board or the Friends of Maine Libraries?'
Silence from the other end.
I took the phone away from my ear to see if the red LOW BATTERY light was on, and it squawked my name. I put it back.
'Bonnie, what is it?'
'There were no long drives those last nine or ten months. We talked on the phone and I remember once we had lunch in Waterville, but there were no long drives. She quit.'
I thumbed through the fax-sheets again. Meetings noted everywhere in Jo's neat hand, Soup Kitchens of Maine among them.
'I don't understand. She quit the Soup Kitchens board?'
Another moment of silence. Then, speaking carefully: 'No, Mike. She quit all of them. She finished with Woman Shelters and Teen Shelters at the end of '93 ¡ª her term was up then. The other two, Soup Kitchens and Friends of Maine Libraries . . . she resigned in October or November of 1993.'
Meetings noted on all the sheets Ward had sent me. Dozens of them. Meetings in 1993, meetings in 1994. Meetings of boards to which she'd no longer belonged. She had been down here. On all those supposed meeting-days, Jo had been on the TR. I would have bet my life on it.
P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com