The telephone was ringing. I climbed toward it from a drowning dream where I couldn't catch my breath, rising into early sunlight, wincing at the pain in the back of my head as I swung my feet out of bed. The phone would quit before I got to it, they almost always do in such situations, and then I'd lie back down and spend a fruitless ten minutes wondering who it had been before getting up for good.
Ringgg . . . ringgg . . . ringgg . . .
Was that ten? A dozen? I'd lost count. Someone was really dedicated. I hoped it wasn't trouble, but in my experience people don't try that hard when the news is good. I touched my fingers gingerly to the back of my head. It hurt plenty, but that deep, sick ache seemed to be gone. And there was no blood on my fingers when I looked at them.
I padded down the hall and picked up the phone. 'Hello?'
'Well, you won't have to worry about testifyin at the kid's custody hearin anymore, at least.'
'How did you know . . . ' I leaned around the corner and peered at the waggy, annoying cat-clock. Twenty minutes past seven and already sweltering. Hotter'n a bugger, as us TR Martians like to say. 'How do you know he decided ¡ª '
'I don't know nothing about his business one way or t'other.' Bill sounded touchy. 'He never called to ask my advice, and I never called to give him any.'
'What's happened? What's going on?'
'You haven't had the TV on yet?'
'I don't even have the coffee on yet.'
No apology from Bill; he was a fellow who believed that people who didn't get up until after six A.M. deserved whatever they got. I was awake now, though. And had a pretty good idea of what was coming.
'Devore killed himself last night, Mike. Got into a tub of warm water and pulled a plastic bag over his head. Mustn't have taken long, with his lungs the way they were.'
No, I thought, probably not long. In spite of the humid summer heat that already lay on the house, I shivered.
'Who found him? The woman?'
'''Shortly before midnight,"' they said on the Channel 6 news.'
Right around the time I had awakened on the couch and taken myself stiffly off to bed, in other words.
'Is she implicated?'
'Did she play Kevorkian, you mean? The news report I saw didn't say nothin about that. The gossip-mill down to the Lakeview General will be turnin brisk by now, but I ain't been down yet for my share of the grain. If she helped him, I don't think she'll ever see trouble for it, do you? He was eighty-five and not well.'
'Do you know if he'll be buried on the TR?'
'California. She said there'd be services in Palm Springs on Tuesday.'
A sense of surpassing oddness swept over me as I realized the source of Mattie's problems might be lying in a chapel filled with flowers at the same time The Friends of Kyra Devore were digesting their lunches and getting ready to start throwing the Frisbee around. It's going to be a celebration, I thought wonderingly. I don't know how they're going to handle it in The Little Chapel of the Microchips in Palm Springs, but on Wasp Hill Road they're going to be dancing and throwing their arms in the sky and hollering Yes, lawd.
I'd never been glad to hear of anyone's death before in my life, but I was glad to hear of Devore's. I was sorry to feel that way, but I did. The old bastard had dumped me in the lake . . . but before the night was over, he was the one who had drowned. Inside a plastic bag he had drowned, sitting in a tub of tepid water.
'Any idea how the TV guys got onto it so fast?' It wasn't superfast, not with seven hours between the discovery of the body and the seven o'clock news, but TV news people have a tendency to be lazy.
'Whitmore called em. Had a press conference right there in Warrington's parlor at two o'clock this morning. Took questions settin on that big maroon plush sofa, the one Jo always used to say should be in a saloon oil paintin with a naked woman lyin on it. Remember?'
'I saw a coupla County deputies walkin around in the background, plus a fella I reckonized from Jaquard's Funeral Home in Motton.'
'That's bizarre,' I said. 'Ayuh, body still upstairs, most likely, while Whitmore was runnin her gums . . . but she claimed she was just followin the boss's orders. Said he left a tape sayin he'd done it on Friday night so as not to affect the cump'ny stock price and wanted Rogette to call in the press right off and assure folks that the cump'ny was solid, that between his son and the Board of Directors, everythin was going to be just acey-deucey. Then she told about the services in Palm Springs.'
'He commits suicide, then holds a two A.M. press conference by proxy to soothe the stockholders.'
'Ayuh. And it sounds just like him.'
A silence fell between us on the line. I tried to think and couldn't. All I knew was that I wanted to go upstairs and work, aching head or no aching head. I wanted to rejoin Andy Drake, John Shackleford, and Shackleford's childhood friend, the awful Ray Garraty. There was madness in my story, but it was a madness I understood.
'Bill,' I said at last, 'are we still friends?'
'Christ, yes,' he said promptly. 'But if there's people around who seem a little stand-offy to you, you'll know why, won't you?'
Sure I'd know. Many would blame the old man's death on me. It was crazy, given his physical condition, and it would by no means be a majority opinion, but the idea would gain a certain amount of credence, at least in the short run ¡ª I knew that as well as I knew the truth about John Shackleford's childhood friend.
Kiddies, once upon a time there was a goose that flew back to the little unincorporated township where it had lived as a downy gosling. It began laying lovely golden eggs, and the townsfolk all gathered around to marvel and receive their share. Now, however, that goose was cooked and someone had to take the heat. I'd get some, but Mattie's kitchen might get a few degrees toastier than mine; she'd had the temerity to fight for her child instead of silently handing Ki over.
'Keep your head down the next few weeks,' Bill said. 'That'd be my idea. In fact, if you had business that took you right out of the TR until all this settles down, that might be for the best.'
'I appreciate the sense of what you're saying, but I can't. I'm writing a book. If I pick up my shit and move, it's apt to die on me. It's happened before, and I don't want it to happen this time.'
'Pretty good yarn, is it?'
'Not bad, but that's not the important thing. It's . . . well, let's just say this one's important to me for other reasons.'
'Wouldn't it travel as far as Derry?'
'Are you trying to get rid of me, William?'
'I'm tryin to keep an eye out, that's all ¡ª caretakin's my job, y'know. And don't say you weren't warned: the hive's gonna buzz. There's two stories going around about you, Mike. One is that you're shacking with Mattie Devore. The other is that you came back to write a hatchet-job on the TR. Pull out all the old skeletons you can find.'
'Finish what Jo started, in other words. Who's been spreading that story, Bill?'
Silence from Bill. We were back on earthquake ground again, and this time that ground felt shakier than ever.
'The book I'm working on is a novel,' I said. 'Set in Florida.'
'Oh, ayuh?' You wouldn't think three little syllables could have so much relief in them.
'Think you could kind of pass that around?'
'I think I could,' he said. 'If you tell Brenda Meserve, it'd get around even faster and go even farther.'
'Okay, I will. As far as Mattie goes ¡ª '
'Mike, you don't have to'
'I'm not shacking with her. That was never the deal. The deal was like walking down the street, turning the corner, and seeing a big guy beating up a little guy.' I paused. 'She and her lawyer are planning a barbecue at her place Tuesday noon. I'm planning to join them. Are people from town going to think we're dancing on Devore's grave?'
'Some will. Royce Merrill will. Dickie Brooks will. Old ladies in pants, Yvette calls em.'
'Well fuck them,' I said. 'Every last one.'
'I understand how you feel, but tell her not to shove it in folks' faces,' he almost pleaded. 'Do that much, Mike. It wouldn't kill her to drag her grill around back of her trailer, would it? At least with it there, folks lookin out from the store or the garage wouldn't see nothing but the smoke.'
'I'll pass on the message. And if I make the party, I'll put the barbecue around back myself.'
'You'd do well to stay away from that girl and her child,' Bill said. 'You can tell me it's none of my business, but I'm talkin to you like a Dutch uncle, tellin you for your own good.'
I had a flash of my dream then. The slick, exquisite tightness as I slipped inside her. The little breasts with their hard nipples. Her voice in the darkness, telling me to do what I wanted. My body responded almost instantly. 'I know you are,' I said.
'All right.' He sounded relieved that I wasn't going to scold him ¡ª take him to school, he would have said. 'I'll let you go n have your breakfast.'
'I appreciate you calling.'
'Almost didn't. Yvette talked me into it. She said, "You always liked Mike and Jo Noonan best of all the ones you did for. Don't you get in bad with him now that he's back home.''
'Tell her I appreciate it,' I said.
I hung up the phone and looked at it thoughtfully. We seemed to be on good terms again . . . but I didn't think we were exactly friends. Certainly not the way we had been. That had changed when I realized Bill was lying to me about some things and holding back about others; it had also changed when I realized what he had almost called Sara and the Red-Tops.
You can't condemn a manor what may only be a figment of your own imagination.
True, and I'd try not to do it . . . but I knew what I knew.
I went into the living room, snapped on the TV, then snapped it off again. My satellite dish got fifty or sixty different channels, and not a one of them local. There was a portable TV in the kitchen, however, and if I dipped its rabbit-ears toward the lake I'd be able to get WMTW, the ABC affiliate in western Maine.
I snatched up Rogette's note, went into the kitchen, and turned on the little Sony tucked under the cabinets with the coffee-maker. Good Morning America was on, but they would be breaking for the local news soon. In the meantime I scanned the note, this time concentrating on the mode of expression rather than the message, which had taken all of my attention the night before.
Hopes to return to California by private jet very soon, she had written.
Has business which can be put off no longer, she had written.
If you promise to let him rest in peace, she had written.
It was a goddam suicide note.
'You knew,' I said, rubbing my thumb over the raised letters of her name. 'You knew when you wrote this, and probably when you were chucking rocks at me. But why?'
Custody has its responsibilities, she had written. Don't forget he said so.
But the custody business was over, right? Not even a judge that was bought and paid for could award custody to a dead man.
GMA finally gave way to the local report, where Max Devore's suicide was the leader. The TV picture was snowy, but I could see the maroon sofa Bill had mentioned, and Rogette Whitmore sitting on it with her hands folded composedly in her lap. I thought one of the deputies in the background was George Footman, although the snow was too heavy for me to be completely sure.
Mr. Devore had spoken frequently over the last eight months of ending his life, Whitmore said. He had been very unwell. He had asked her to come out with him the previous evening, and she realized now that he had wanted to look at one final sunset. It had been a glorious one, too, she added. I could have corroborated that; I remembered the sunset very well, having almost drowned by its light.
Rogette was reading Devore's statement when my phone rang again. It was Mattie, and she was crying in hard gusts.
'The news,' she said, 'Mike, did you see . . . do you know . . . '
At first that was all she could manage that was coherent. I told her I did know, Bill Dean had called me and then I'd caught some of it on the local news. She tried to reply and couldn't speak. Guilt, relief, horror, even hilarity ¡ª I heard all those things in her crying. I asked where Ki was. I could sympathize with how Mattie felt ¡ª until turning on the news this morning she'd believed old Max Devore was her bitterest enemy ¡ª but I didn't like the idea of a three-year-old girl watching her mom fall apart.
'Out back,' she managed. 'She's had her breakfast. Now she's having a d-doll p-p-p . . . doll pi-p-pic ¡ª '
'Doll picnic. Yes. Good. Let it go, then. All of it.
Let it out.' She cried for two minutes at least, maybe longer. I stood with the telephone pressed to my ear, sweating in the July heat, trying to be patient.
I'm going to give you one chance to save your soul, Devore had told me, but this morning he was dead and his soul was wherever it was. He was dead, Mattie was free, I was writing. Life should have felt wonderful, but it didn't.
At last she began to get her control back. 'I'm sorry. I haven't cried like that ¡ª really, really cried ¡ª since Lance died.'
'It's understandable and you're allowed.'
'Come to lunch,' she said. 'Come to lunch please, Mike. Ki's going to spend the afternoon with a friend she met at Vacation Bible School, and we can talk. I need to talk to someone . . . God, my head is spinning. Please say you'll come.'
'I'd love to, but it's a bad idea. Especially with Ki gone.'
I gave her an edited version of my conversation with Bill Dean. She listened carefully. I thought there might be an angry outburst when I finished, but I'd forgotten one simple fact: Mattie Stanchfield Devore had lived around here all her life. She knew how things worked.
'I understand that things will heal quicker if I keep my eyes down, my mouth shut, and my knees together,' she said, 'and I'll do my best to go along, but diplomacy only stretches so far. That old man was trying to take my daughter away, don't they realize that down at the goddam general store?'
'I realize it.'
'I know. That's why I wanted to talk to you.'
'What if we had an early supper on the Castle Rock common? Same place as Friday? Say five-ish?'
'I'd have to bring Ki ¡ª '
'Fine,' I said.
'Bring her. Tell her I know "Hansel and Gretel" by heart and am willing to share. Will you call John in Philly? Give him the details?'
'Yes. I'll wait another hour or so. God, I'm so happy. I know that's wrong, but I'm so happy I could burst!'
'That makes two of us.' There was a pause on the other end. I heard a long, watery intake of breath. 'Mattie? All right?'
'Yes, but how do you tell a three-year-old her grandfather died?'
Tell her the old fuck slipped and fell headfirst into a Glad Bag, I thought, then pressed the back of my hand against my mouth to stifle a spate of lunatic cackles.
'I don't know, but you'll have to do it as soon as she comes in.'
'I will? Why?'
'Because she's going to see you. She's going to see your face.'
I lasted exactly two hours in the upstairs study, and then the heat drove me out ¡ª the thermometer on the stoop read ninety-five degrees at ten o'clock. I guessed it might be five degrees warmer on the second floor.
Hoping I wasn't making a mistake, I unplugged the IBM and carried it downstairs. I was working without a shirt, and as I crossed the living room, the back of the typewriter slipped in the sweat coating my midriff and I almost dropped the outdated sonofabitch on my toes. That made me think of my ankle, the one I'd hurt when I fell into the lake, and I set the typewriter aside to look at it. It was colorful, black and purple and reddish at the edges, but not terribly inflated. I guessed my immersion in the cool water had helped keep the swelling down.
I put the typewriter on the deck table, rummaged out an extension cord, plugged in beneath Bunter's watchful eye, and sat down facing the hazy blue-gray surface of the lake. I waited for one of my old anxiety attacks to hit ¡ª the clenched stomach, the throbbing eyes, and, worst of all, that sensation of invisible steel bands clamped around my chest, making it impossible to breathe. Nothing like that happened. The words flowed as easily down here as they had upstairs, and my naked upper body was loving the little breeze that puffed in off the lake every now and again. I forgot about Max Devore, Mattie Devore, Kyra Devore. I forgot about Jo Noonan and Sara Tidwell. I forgot about myself. For two hours I was back in Florida. John Shackleford's execution was nearing. Andy Drake was racing the clock.
It was the telephone that brought me back, and for once I didn't resent interruption. If undisturbed, I might have gone on writing until I simply melted into a sweaty pile of goo on the deck.
It was my brother. We talked about Mom ¡ª in Siddy's opinion she was now short an entire roof instead of just a few shingles ¡ª and her sister, Francine, who had broken her hip in June. Sid wanted to know how I was doing, and I told him I was doing all right, I'd had some problems getting going on a new book but now seemed to be back on track (in my family, the only permissible time to discuss trouble is when it's over). And how was the Sidster? Kickin, he said, which I assumed meant just fine ¡ª Siddy has a twelve-year-old, and consequently his slang is always up-to-date. The new accounting business was starting to take hold, although he'd been scared for awhile (first I knew of it, of course). He could never thank me enough for the bridge loan I'd made him last November. I replied that it was the least I could do, which was the absolute truth, especially when I considered how much more time ¡ª both in person and on the phone ¡ª he spent with our mother than I did.
'Well, I'll let you go,' Siddy told me after a few more pleasantries ¡ª he never says goodbye or so long when he's on the phone, it's always well, I'll let you go, as if he's been holding you hostage. 'You want to keep cool up there, Mike ¡ª Weather Channel says it's going to be hotter than hell in New England all weekend.'
'There's always the lake if things get too bad. Hey Sid?'
'Hey what?' Like I'll let you go, Hey what went back to childhood. It was sort of comforting; it was also sort of spooky.
'Our folks all came from Prout's Neck, right? I mean on Daddy's side.' Mom came from another world entirely ¡ª one where the men wear Lacoste polo shirts, the women always wear full slips under their dresses, and everyone knows the second verse of 'Dixie' by heart. She had met my dad in Portland while competing in a college cheerleading event. Materfamilias came from Memphis quality, darling, and didn't let you forget it.
'I guess so,' he said. 'Yeah. But don't go asking me a lot of family-tree questions, Mike ¡ª I'm still not sure what the difference is between a nephew and a cousin, and I told Jo the same thing.'
'Did you?' Everything inside me had gone very still . . . but I can't say I was surprised. Not by then.
'Uh-huh, you bet.'
'What did she want to know?'
'Everything I knew. Which isn't much. I could have told her all about Ma's great-great-grandfather, the one who got killed by the Indians, but Jo didn't seem to care about any of Ma's folks.'
'When would this have been?'
'Does it matter?'
'Okay, let's see. I think it was around the time Patrick had his appendectomy. Yeah, I'm sure it was. February of '94. It might have been March, but I'm pretty sure it was February.'
Six months from the Rite Aid parking lot. Jo moving into the shadow of her own death like a woman stepping beneath the shade of an awning. Not pregnant, though, not yet. Jo making day-trips to the TR. Jo asking questions, some of the sort that made people feel bad, according to Bill Dean . . . but she'd gone on asking just the same. Yeah. Because once she got onto something, Jo was like a terrier with a rag in its jaws. Had she been asking questions of the man in the brown sportcoat? Who was the man in the brown sportcoat?
'Pat was in the hospital, sure. Dr. Alpert said he was doing fine, but when the phone rang I jumped for it ¡ª I half-expected it to be him, Alpert, saying Pat had had a relapse or something.'
'Where in God's name did you get this sense of impending doom, Sid?'
'I dunno, buddy, but it's there. Anyway, it's not Alpert, it's Johanna. She wants to know if we had any ancestors ¡ª three, maybe even four generations back who lived there where you are, or in one of the surrounding towns. I told her I didn't know, but you might. Know, I mean. She said she didn't want to ask you because it was a surprise. Was it a surprise?'
'A big one,' I said. 'Daddy was a lobsterman ¡ª '
'Bite your tongue, he was an artist ¡ª 'a seacoast primitive.' Ma still calls him that.' Siddy wasn't quite laughing.
'Shit, he sold lobster-pot coffee-tables and lawn-puffins to the tourists when he got too rheumatic to go out on the bay and haul traps.'
'I know that, but Ma's got her marriage edited like a movie for television.'
How true. Our own version of Blanche Du Bois. 'Dad was a lobster-man in Prout's Neck. He ¡ª '
Siddy interrupted, singing the first verse of 'Papa Was a Rollin' Stone' in a horrible off key tenor.
'Come on, this is serious. He had his first boat from his father, right?'
'That's the story,' Sid agreed. 'Jack Noonan's Lazy Betty, original owner Paul Noonan. Also of Prout's. Boat took a hell of a pasting in Hurricane Donna, back in 1960. I think it was Donna.'
Two years after I was born. 'And Daddy put it up for sale in '63.'
'Yep. I don't know whatever became of it, but it was Grampy Paul's to begin with, all right. Do you remember all the lobster stew we ate when we were kids, Mikey?'
'Seacoast meatloaf,' I said, hardly thinking about it. Like most kids raised on the coast of Maine, I can't imagine ordering lobster in a restaurant ¡ª that's for flatlanders. I was thinking about Grampy Paul, who had been born in the 1890s. Paul Noonan begat Jack Noonan, Jack Noonan begat Mike and Sid Noonan, and that was really all I knew, except the Noonans had all grown up a long way from where I now stood sweating my brains out.
They shit in the same pit.
Devore had gotten it wrong, that was all ¡ª when we Noonans weren't wearing polo shirts and being Memphis quality, we were Prout's Neckers. It was unlikely that Devore's great-grandfather and my own would have had anything to do with each other in any case; the old rip had been twice my age, and that meant the generations didn't match up.
But if he had been totally wrong, what had Jo been on about?
'Mike?' Sid asked. 'Are you there?'
'Are you okay? You don't sound so great, I have to tell you.'
'It's the heat,' I said. 'Not to mention your sense of impending doom. Thanks for calling, Siddy.'
'Thanks for being there, brother.'
'Kickin,' I said.
I went out to the kitchen to get a glass of cold water. As I was filling it, I heard the magnets on the fridge begin sliding around. I whirled, spilling some of the water on my bare feet and hardly noticing. I was as excited as a kid who thinks he may glimpse Santa Claus before he shoots back up the chimney.
I was barely in time to see nine plastic letters drawn into the circle from all points of the compass. CARLADEAN, they spelled . . . but only for a second. Some presence, tremendous but unseen, shot past me. Not a hair on my head stirred, but there was still a strong sense of being buffeted, the way you're buffeted by the air of a passing express train if you're standing near the platform yellow-line when the train bolts through. I cried out in surprise and groped my glass of water back onto the counter, spilling it. I no longer felt in need of cold water, because the temperature in the kitchen of Sara Laughs had dropped off the table.
I blew out my breath and saw vapor, as you do on a cold day in January. One puff, maybe two, and it was gone ¡ª but it had been there, all right, and for perhaps five seconds the film of sweat on my body turned to what felt like a slime of ice.
CARLADEAN exploded outward in all directions ¡ª it was like watching an atom being smashed in a cartoon. Magnetized letters, fruits, and vegetables flew off the front of the refrigerator and scattered across the kitchen. For a moment the fury which fuelled that scattering was something I could almost taste, like gunpowder.
And something gave way before it, going with a sighing, rueful whisper I had heard before: 'Oh Mike. Oh Mike.' It was the voice I'd caught on the Memo-Scriber tape, and although I hadn't been sure then, I was now ¡ª it was Jo's voice.
But who was the other one? Why had it scattered the letters?
Carla Dean. Not Bill's wife; that was Yvette. His mother? His grandmother?
I walked slowly through the kitchen, collecting fridge-magnets like prizes in a scavenger hunt and sticking them back on the Kenmore by the handful. Nothing snatched them out of my hands; nothing froze the sweat on the back of my neck; Bunter's bell didn't ring. Still, I wasn't alone, and I knew it.
CARLADEAN: Jo had wanted me to know.
Something else hadn't. Something else had shot past me like the Wabash Cannonball, trying to scatter the letters before I could read them.
Jo was here; a boy who wept in the night was here, too.
And what else?
What else was sharing my house with me?