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 ¡ª 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 was there, but before I could, a woman's voice said 'Hello?' She 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 ¡ª 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.'
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 before 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 no. You could argue that fate dragged me into it, or coincidence, or God. I wasn't 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?'
'That's wonderful. We have to eat early, though, so my little guy doesn't fall asleep in her dessert. Is six okay?'
'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 ¡ª 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.'
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 ¡ª not much local demand for it, maybe, but the tourists probably bought a fair quantity ¡ª 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 deepened, Kyra sat on my lap in the trailer's living room, listening carefully ¡ª if with growing wooziness ¡ª as I read her the ever-enthralling 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 ¡ª that one of a lonely lunch counter late at night ¡ª 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?'
'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 ¡ª ''
'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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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 her nose. I almost thought better of it, then did it anyway. When I left, Mattie was smiling, so I guess it was okay.
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 ¡ª it's a good enough story ¡ª 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 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 ¡ª the bats and bases and catcher's mask ¡ª -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 ¡ª Lindy's brother-in-law.'
'Oh ayuh ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª slide into home with their feet up, jump into the puckerbrush for the flyballs, curse each other when they do something wrong ¡ª 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 ¡ª shit, really just us girls, Barney Therriault's wife, Cindy, was only sixteen ¡ª we'd stand behind the backstop on the first-base side, smoking cigarettes or waving 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 half-loaded 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 Lattimore, who was Lance's best friend ¡ª 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 ¡ª to shove John Storrow down her throat, if that was what it took ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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 for the rest of my life. I'm no good at boats in bottles, and 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 ¡ª '
'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 ¡ª like a headache, only in your nerves ¡ª and sometimes I think I can hear whispering, or crying. I made a cake one night ¡ª about two weeks ago, this was ¡ª 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 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 ¡ª '
'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 child-custody 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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª not to mention sympathetic witnesses, with Richard Osgood running around the TR and spreading Devore's dough ¡ª 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 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?'
'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. Not 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?'
'You know what people in town will say, don't you?'
'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 ¡ª 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.'
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 ¡ª ' 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 ¡ª and Rogette by association, of course ¡ª quite often. Once or twice a week, and sometimes for an overnight. She likes her "Whita poppa" ¡ª at least she did at first ¡ª 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.'
'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.'
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 ¡ª and from Lance ¡ª until at least April twentieth, 2016.'
'The year Ki turns twenty-one.'
'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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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 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 meaning 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 ¡ª deep in that wrinkled old prune which served him as a heart, Max Devore thought he was going to live forever.
In the end, he hadn't been able to restrain himself. There was the sled he wanted, the sled he just 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 ¡ª which I didn't expect ¡ª 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 ¡ª not as tall as you, Mike, but tall ¡ª 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 to take his arm and help him climb the three or 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.'
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 wide-eyed at the rich old man ¡ª 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 ¡ª the oddest thing ¡ª 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?'
'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 box-dots. 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 hadn'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 ¡ª there was a little air-bottle attached to it on an elastic ¡ª 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 ¡ª '
'The Cry? The one by Munch?'
'I'm pretty sure that's the one.' She dropped her cigarette ¡ª she'd smoked it all the way down to the filter ¡ª 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 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 ¡ª 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 that George Footman had been in to check 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.'
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 ¡ª woof-woof, good dog, I always used to think ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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 to bring her back. This time she's going to . . . '''
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.'
'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 was to relent and let me 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?'
'He cruises by once in awhile. Lets me know he's watching. He hasn't called or stopped in. You asked about physical threats ¡ª 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?'
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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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 on something. Some memory connected to what she was saying. Perhaps if I slept on it, it would come back to me.
'Could he have been talking about someone in your wife's family?'
There are Arlens in Maine ¡ª they're a big family ¡ª 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 even then I suppose I knew he wasn't. He might have gotten some part of the story wrong ¡ª even the sharpest guys begin to lose the edge of their recollection by the time they turn eighty-five ¡ª 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 ¡ª -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 give more than just a summary of the 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 ¡ª that it's right there in front of me.'
That made me think of the cables again ¡ª 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?'
'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.
'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 ¡ª in the dark version ¡ª 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 increasing 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.'
'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.
'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 TR-90 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 have bet the house and lot on it ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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?'
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 ¡ª there was that feeling about him, maybe just because he was wearing a jacket on a hot summer evening ¡ª 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 ¡ª '
'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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª as horrible and unexpected as severe air turbulence on a previously calm airline flight ¡ª 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 ¡ª 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 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:
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 'Uh-huh, 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 ¡ª 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 ¡ª perhaps another student from the photography seminar she'd attended at Bates in 1991 ¡ª 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.
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.