Because the crucial plot-twist of Fast Cars concerned Tony Bonasaro's near-fatal crack-up in his last desperate effort to escape the police (and this led to the epilogue, which consisted of the bruising interrogation conducted by the late Lieutenant Gray's partner in Tony's hospital room), Paul had interviewed a number of crash victims. He had heard the same thing time and time again. It came in different wrappers, but it always boiled down to the same thing: I remember getting into the car, and I remember waking up here. Everything else is a blank.
Why couldn't that have happened to him Because writers remember everything, Paul. Especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he'll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones you get novels, not amnesia. A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is that ability to remember the story of every scar.
Art consists of the persistence of memory.
Who had said that? Thomas Szasz? William Faulkner? Cyndi Lauper?
But that last name brought its own association, a painful and unhappy one under these circumstances: a memory of Cyndi Lauper hiccuping her way cheerfully through "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" that was so clear it was almost auditory: Oh daddy dear, you're still number one / But girls, they wanna have fuh-un / Oh when the workin day is done / Girls just wanna have fun.
Suddenly he wanted a hit of rock and roll worse than he had ever wanted a cigarette. It didn't have to be Cyndi Lauper. Anyone would do. Jesus Christ, Ted Nugent would be just fine.
The axe coming down.
The whisper of the axe.
Don't think about it.
But that was stupid. He kept telling himself not to think about it, knowing all the while that it was there, like a bone in his throat. Was he going to let it stay there, or was he going to be a man and sick the fucking thing up?
Another memory came then; it seemed like this was an All Request Oldies day for Paul Sheldon. This one was of Oliver Reed as the mad but silkily persuasive scientist in David Cronenberg's movie, The Brood. Reed urging his patients at The Institute of Psychoplasmatics (a name Paul had found deliciously funny) to "go through it! Go all the way through it!" Well... maybe sometimes that wasn't such bad advice.
I went through it once. That was enough.
Bullshit was what that was. If going through things once was enough, he would have been a fucking vacuum-cleaner salesman, like his father.
Go through it, then. Go all the way through it, Paul. Start with Misery.
Paul leaned back, put his hand over his eyes, and, like it or not, he began to go through it.
All the way through it.
He hadn't died, hadn't slept, but for awhile after Annie hobbled him the pain went away. He had only drifted, feeling untethered from his body, a balloon of pure thought rising away from its string.
Oh shit, why was he bothering? She had done it, and all the time between then and now had been pain and boredom and occasional bouts of work on his stupidly melodramatic book to escape the former two. The whole thing was meaningless.
Oh, but it's not - there is a theme here, Paul. It's the thread that runs through everything. The thread that runs so true. Can't you see it?
Misery, of course. That was the thread that ran through everything, but, true thread or false, it was so goddam silly.
As a common noun it meant pain, usually lengthy and often pointless; as a proper one it meant a character and a plot, the latter most assuredly lengthy and pointless, but on which would nonetheless end very soon. Misery ran through the last four (or maybe it was five) months of his life, all right, plenty of Misery, Misery day in and Misery day out but surely that was too simple, surely - Oh no, Paul. Nothing is simple about Misery. Except that you owe her your life, such as that may be... because you turned out to be Scheherazade after all, didn't you?
Again he tried to turn aside from these thoughts, but found himself unable. The persistence of memory and all that. Hacks just want to have fun. Then an unexpected idea came, a new one which opened a whole new avenue of thought.
What you keep overlooking, because it's so obvious, is that you were - are - also Scheherazade to yourself.
He blinked, lowering his head and staring stupidly out into the summer he had never expected he would see. Annie's shadow passed and then disappeared again.
Was that true?
Scheherazade to myself he thought again. If so, then he was faced with an idiocy that was utterly colossal: he owed his survival to the fact that he wanted to finish the piece of shit Annie had coerced him into writing. He should have died... but couldn't. Not until he knew how it all came out.
Oh you're fucking crazy.
No. He was no longer sure. Not about anything.
With one exception: his whole life had hinged and continued to hinge on Misery.
He let his mind drift.
The cloud, he thought. Begin with the cloud.
This time the cloud had been darker, denser, somehow smoother. There was a sensation not of floating but of sliding. Sometimes thoughts came, and sometimes there was pain, and sometimes, dimly, he heard Annie's voice, sounding the way it had when the burning manuscript in the barbecue had threatened to get out of control: "Drink this, Paul... you've got to!" Sliding?
That was not quite the right verb. The right verb was sinking. He remembered a telephone call which had come at three in the morning - this was when he was in college. Sleepy fourth-floor dorm proctor hammering on his door, telling him to come on and answer the fucking phone. His mother. Come home as quick as you can, Paulie. Your father has had a bad stroke. He's sinking. And he had come as fast as he could, pushing his old Ford wagon to seventy in spite of the front-end shimmy that developed at speeds over fifty, but in the end it had all been for nothing. When he got there, his father was no longer sinking but sunk.
How close had he himself come to sinking on the night of the axe? He didn't know, but the fact that he had felt almost no pain during the week following the amputation was a pretty clear indicator of just how close, perhaps. That, and the panic in her voice.
He had lain in a semi-coma, barely breathing because of the respiratory-depressant side-effects of the medication, the glucose drips back in his arms again. And what brought him out of it was the beat of drums and the drone of bees.
Color bleeding slowly and relentlessly into a land and a tribe that never were beyond the margins of the paper on which he wrote.
A dream of the goddess, the face of the goddess, looming black over the jungle green, brooding and eroded. Dark goddess, dark continent, a stone head full of bees. Overlying even all this was a picture, which grew clearer and clearer (as if a giant slide had been projected against the cloud in which he lay) as time passed. It was a picture of a clearing in which one old eucalyptus tree stood. Hanging from the lowest branch of this tree was an old-fashioned pair of blued steel handcuffs. Bees were crawling over them. The cuffs were empty. They were empty because Misery had - - escaped? She had, hadn't she? Wasn't that how the story was supposed to go?
It had been - but now he wasn't so sure. Was that what those empty handcuffs meant? Or had she been taken away? Taken into the idol? Taken to the queen bee, the Big Babe of the Bourkas?
You were also Scheherazade to yourself.
Who are you telling this story for, Paul? Who are you telling it to? To Annie?
Of course not. He did not look through that hole in the paper to see Annie, or please Annie... he looked through it to get away from Annie.
The pain had started. And the itch. The cloud began to lighten again, and rift apart. He began to glimpse the room, which was bad, and Annie, which was even worse. Still, he had decided to live. Some part of him that was as addicted to the chapter-plays as Annie had been as a child had decided he could not die until he saw how it all came out.
Had she escaped, with the help of Ian and Geoffrey? Or had she been taken into the head of the goddess. It was ridiculous, but these stupid questions actually seemed to need answering.
She didn't want to let him go back to work - not at first. He could see in her skittery eyes how frightened she had been and still was. How close he had come. She was taking extravagant care of him, changing the bandages on his weeping stump every eight hours (and at first, she had informed him with the air of one who knows she will never get a medal for what she has done - although she deserves one - she had done it every four hours), giving him sponge baths and alcohol rubs - as if to deny what she had done. Work, she said, would hurt him. It would put you back, Paul. I wouldn't say it if it weren't so - believe me. At least you know what's ahead - I'm dying to find out what happens next. It turned out she had read everything he had written - all his pre-surgery work, you might say - while he lingered near death... better than three hundred manuscript pages. He hadn't filled in the n's in the last forty or so; Annie had done that. She showed him these with an uneasily defiant sort of pride. Her n's were textbook neat, a striking comparison with his own, which had degenerated into a humpbacked scrawl.
Although Annie never said so, he believed she had filled in the n's either as another evidence of her solicitude - How can you say I was cruel to you, Paul, when you see all the n's I have filled in? - or as an act of atonement, or possibly even as a quasi-superstitious rite: enough bandage-changes, enough sponge baths, enough n's filled in, and Paul would live. Bourka bee-woman work powful mojo-magic, Bwana, fill in all dese hoodaddy n's an" all be well again.
That was how she had begun... but then the gotta set in. Paul knew all the symptoms. When she said she was dying to find out what happened next, she wasn't kidding.
Because you went on living to find out what happened next, isn't that what you're really saying?
Crazy as it was - shameful, even, in its absurdity - he thought it was.
It was something he had been irritated to find he could generate in the Misery books almost at will but in his mainstream fiction erratically or not at all. You didn't know exactly where to find the gotta, but you always knew when you did. It made the needle of some internal Geiger counter swing all the way over to the end of the dial. Even sitting in front of the typewriter slightly hung-over, drinking cups of black coffee and crunching a Rolaid or two every couple of hours (knowing he should give up the fucking cigarettes, at least in the morning, but unable to bring himself to the sticking point), months from finishing and light-years from publication, you knew the gotta when you got it. Having it always made him feel slightly ashamed - manipulative. But it also made him feel vindicated in his labor. Christ, days went by and the hole in the paper was small, the light was dim, the overheard conversations witless. You pushed on because that was all you could do. Confucius say if man want to grow one row of corn, first must shovel one ton of shit. And then one day the hole widened to VistaVision width and the light shone through like a sunray in a Cecil B. De Mille epic and you knew you had the gotta, alive and kicking.
The gotta, as in: "I think I'll stay up another fifteen-twenty minutes, honey, I gotta see how this chapter comes out." Even though the guy who says it spent the day at work thinking about getting laid and knows the odds are good his wife is going to be asleep when he finally gets up to the bedroom.
The gotta, as in: "I know I should be starting supper now - he'll be mad if it's TV dinners again - but I gotta see how this ends." I gotta know will she live.
I gotta know will he catch the shitheel who killed his father.
I gotta know if she finds out her best friend's screwing her husband.
The gotta. Nasty as a hand-job in a sleazy bar, fine as a fuck from the world's most talented call-girl. Oh boy it was bad and oh boy it was good and oh boy in the end it didn't matter how rude it was or how crude it was because in the end it was just like the Jacksons said on that record - don't stop til you get enough.
You were also Scheherazade to yourself.
That was not an idea he was able to articulate or even understand, not then; he had been in too much pain. But he had known just the same, hadn't he?
Not you, The guys in the sweatshop. They knew.
Yes. That had the ring of the right.
The sound of the riding mower swelled louder. Annie came into view for a moment. She looked at him, saw him looking back, and raised a hand to him. He raised one of his own - the one with the thumb still on it - in return. She passed from sight again. Good deal.
He was finally able to convince her that returning to work would put him forward, not back... He was haunted by the specificity of those images which had lured him out of the cloud, and haunted was exactly the right word: until the3 were written down they were shades which would remain unlaid.
And while she hadn't believed him - not then - she had allowed him to go back to work just the same. Not because he had convinced her but because of the gotta.
At first he had been able to work only in painfully short bursts - fifteen minutes, maybe half an hour if the story really demanded it of him. Even short bursts were agony. A shift in position caused the stump to come brightly alive, the way a smouldering brand will burst into flame when fanned by a breeze. It hurt furiously while he wrote, but that was not the worst - the worst was the hour or two afterward, when the healing stump would madden him with a droney itch, like swarming, sleepy bees.
He had been right, not her. He never became really well - probably could not do in such a situation - but his health did improve and some of his strength came back. He was aware that the horizons of his interest had shrunk, but he accepted this as the price of survival. It was a genuine wonder he had survived at all.
Sitting here in front of this typewriter with its increasingly bad teeth, looking back over a period which had consisted of work rather than events, Paul nodded. Yes, he supposed he had been his own Scheherazade, just as he was his own dream-woman when he grabbed hold of himself and jacked off to the feverish beat of his fantasies. He didn't need a psychiatrist to point out that writing had its autoerotic side - you beat a typewriter instead of your meat, but both acts depended largely on quick wits, fast hands and a heartfelt commitment to the art of the farfetched.
But hadn't there also been some sort of fuck, even if of the driest variety? Because once he started again... well she wouldn't interrupt him while he was working, but she" would take each day's output as soon as he was done, ostensibly to fill in the missing letters, but actually - he knew this by now, just as sexually acute men know which dates will put out at the end of the evening and which ones will not - to get her fix. To get her gotta.
The chapter-plays. Yes. Back to that. Only for the last few months she's been going every day instead of just on Saturday afternoons, and the Paul who takes her is her pet writer instead of her older brother.