I didn't see them at first, which wasn't surprising; it seemed that half of Castle Rock was on the town common as that sultry Saturday afternoon edged on toward evening. The air was bright with hazy midsummer light, and in it kids swarmed over the playground equipment, a number of old men in bright red vests ¡ª some sort of club, I assumed ¡ª played chess, and a group of young people lay on the grass listening to a teenager in a headband playing the guitar and singing one I remembered from an old Ian and Sylvia record, a cheery tune that went
'Ella Speed was havin her lovin fun,
John Martin shot Ella with a Colt forty-one . . . '
I saw no joggers, and no dogs chasing Frisbees. It was just too goddam hot.
I was turning to look at the bandshell, where an eight-man combo called The Castle Rockers was setting up (I had an idea 'In the Mood' was about as close as they got to rock and roll), when a small person hit me from behind, grabbing me just above the knees and almost dumping me on the grass.
'Gotcha!' the small person cried gleefully.
'Kyra Devore!' Mattie called, sounding both amused and irritated. 'You'll knock him down!'
I turned, dropped the grease-spotted McDonald's bag I had been carrying, and lifted the kid up. It felt natural, and it felt wonderful. You don't realize the weight of a healthy child until you hold one, nor do you fully comprehend the life that runs through them like a bright wire. I didn't get choked up ('Don't go all corny on me, Mike,' Siddy would sometimes whisper when we were kids at the movies and I got wet-eyed at a sad part), but I thought of Jo, yes. And the child she had been carrying when she fell down in that stupid parking lot, yes to that, too.
Ki was squealing and laughing, her arms outspread and her hair hanging down in two amusing clumps accented by Raggedy Ann and Andy barrettes.
'Don't tackle your own quarterback!' I yelled, grinning, and to my delight she yelled it right back at me: 'Don't taggle yer own quartermack! Don't taggle yer own quartermack!'
I set her on her feet, both of us laughing. Ki took a step backward, tripped herself, and sat down on the grass, laughing harder than ever. I had a mean thought, then, brief but oh so clear: if only the old lizard could see how much he was missed. How sad we were at his passing.
Mattie walked over, and tonight she looked as I'd half-imagined her when I first met her ¡ª like one of those lovely children of privilege you see at the country club, either goofing with their friends or sitting seriously at dinner with their parents. She was in a white sleeveless dress and low heels, her hair falling loose around her shoulders, a touch of lipstick on her mouth. Her eyes had a brilliance in them that hadn't been there before. When she hugged me I could smell her perfume and feel the press of her firm little breasts.
I kissed her cheek; she kissed me high up on the jaw, making a smack in my ear that I felt all the way down my back. 'Say things are going to be better now,' she whispered, still holding me.
'Lots better now,' I said, and she hugged me again, tight. Then she stepped away 'You better have brought plenty food, big boy, because we plenty hungry womens. Right, Kyra?'
'I taggled my own quartermack,' Ki said, then leaned back on her elbows, giggling deliciously at the bright and hazy sky.
'Come on,' I said, and grabbed her by the middle I toted her that way to a nearby picnic table, Ki kicking her legs and waving her arms and laughing I set her down on the bench; she slid off it and beneath the table, boneless as an eel and still laughing.
'All right, Kyra Elizabeth,' Mattie said. 'Sit up and show the other side'
'Good girl, good girl,' she said, clambering up beside me. 'That's the other side to me, Mike'
'I'm sure,' I said. Inside the bag there were Big Macs and fries for Mattie and me. For Ki there was a colorful box upon which Ronald McDonald and his unindicted co-conspirators capered.
'Mattie, I got a Happy Meal! Mike got me a Happy Meal! They have toys!'
'Well see what yours is.'
Kyra opened the box, poked around, then smiled It lit up her whole face She brought out something that I at first thought was a big dust-ball For one horrible second I was back in my dream, the one of Jo under the bed with the book over her face Give me that, she had snarled It's my dust-catcher. And something else, too ¡ª some other association, perhaps from some other dream I couldn't get hold of it.
'Mike?' Mattie asked. Curiosity in her voice, and maybe borderline concern.
'It's a doggy!' Ki said 'I won a doggy in my Happy Meal!'
Yes; of course A dog. A little stuffed dog. And it was gray, not black . . . although why I'd care about the color either way I didn't know.
'That's a pretty good prize,' I said, taking it. It was soft, which was good, and it was gray, which was better Being gray made it all right, somehow Crazy but true I handed it back to her and smiled.
'What's his name?' Ki asked, jumping the little dog back and forth across her Happy Meal box. 'What doggy's name, Mike?'
And, without thinking, I said, 'Strickland.'
I thought she'd look puzzled, but she didn't. She looked delighted. 'Stricken!' she said, bouncing the dog back and forth in ever-higher leaps over the box. 'Stricken! Stricken! My dog Stricken!'
'Who's this guy Strickland?' Mattie asked, smiling a little. She had begun to unwrap her hamburger.
'A character in a book I read once,' I said, watching Ki play with the little puffball dog. 'No one real.'
'My grampa died,' she said five minutes later.
We were still at the picnic table but the food was mostly gone. Strickland the stuffed puffball had been set to guard the remaining french fries. I had been scanning the ebb and flow of people, wondering who was here from the TR observing our tryst and simply burning to carry the news back home. I saw no one I knew, but that didn't mean a whole tot, considering how long I'd been away from this part of the world.
Mattie put down her burger and looked at Ki with some anxiety, but I thought the kid was okay ¡ª she had been giving news, not expressing grief.
'I know he did,' I said.
'Grampa was awful old.' Ki pinched a couple of french fries between her pudgy little fingers. They rose to her mouth, then gloop, all gone. 'He's with Lord Jesus now. We had all about Lord Jesus in VBS.'
Yes, Ki, I thought, right now Grampy's probably teaching Lord Jesus how to use Pixel Easel and asking if there might be a whore handy.
'Lord Jesus walked on water and also changed the wine into macaroni.'
'Yes, something like that,' I said. 'It's sad when people die, isn't it?'
'It would be sad if Mattie died, and it would be sad if you died, but Grampy was old.' She said it as though I hadn't quite grasped this concept the first time. 'In heaven he'll get all fixed up.'
'That's a good way to look at it, hon,' I said.
Mattie did maintenance on Ki's drooping barrettes, working carefully and with a kind of absent love. I thought she glowed in the summer light, her skin in smooth, tanned contrast to the white dress she had probably bought at one of the discount stores, and I understood that I loved her. Maybe that was all right.
'I miss the white nana, though,' Ki said, and this time she did look sad. She picked up the stuffed dog, tried to feed him a french fry, then put him down again. Her small, pretty face looked pensive now, and I could see a whisper of her grandfather in it. It was far back but it was there, perceptible, another ghost. 'Mom says white nana went back to California with Grampy's early remains.'
'Earthly remains, Ki-bird,' Mattie said. 'That means his body.'
'Will white nana come back and see me, Mike?'
'I don't know.'
'We had a game. It was all rhymes.' She looked more pensive than ever.
'Your mom told me about that game,' I said.
'She won't be back,' Ki said, answering her own question. One very large tear rolled down her right cheek. She picked up 'Stricken,' stood him on his back legs for a second, then put him back on guard-duty. Mattie slipped an arm around her, but Ki didn't seem to notice. 'White nana didn't really like me. She was just pretending to like me. That was her job.'
Mattie and I exchanged a glance.
'What makes you say that?' I asked.
'Don't know,' Ki said. Over by where the kid was playing the guitar, a juggler in whiteface had started up, working with half a dozen colored balls. Kyra brightened a little. 'Mommy-bommy, may I go watch that funny white man?'
'Are you done eating?'
'Yeah, I'm full.'
'Don't taggle yer own quartermack,' she said, then laughed kindly to show she was just pulling my leg. 'Thanks, Mike.'
'Not a problem,' I said, and then, because that sounded a little old-fashioned: 'Kickin.'
'You can go as far as that tree, but no farther,' Mattie said. 'And you know why.'
'So you can see me. I will.'
She grabbed Strickland and started to run off, then stopped and looked over her shoulder at me. 'I guess it was the fridgeafator people,' she said, then corrected herself very carefully and seriously. 'The ree fridge-a-rator people.' My heart took a hard double beat in my chest.
'It was the refrigerator people what, Ki?' I asked.
'That said white nana didn't really like me.' Then she ran off toward the juggler, oblivious to the heat.
Mattie watched her go, then turned back to me. 'I haven't talked to anybody about Ki's fridgeafator people. Neither has she, until now. Not that there are any real people, but the letters seem to move around by themselves. It's like a Ouija board.'
'Do they spell things?'
For a long time she said nothing. Then she nodded. 'Not always, but sometimes.' Another pause. 'Most times, actually. Ki calls it mail from the people in the refrigerator.' She smiled, but her eyes were a little scared. 'Are they special magnetic letters, do you think? Or have we got a poltergeist working the lakefront?'
'I don't know. I'm sorry I brought them, if they're a problem.'
'Don't be silly. You gave them to her, and you're a tremendously big deal to her right now. She talks about you all the time. She was much more interested in picking out something pretty to wear for you tonight than she was in her grandfather's death. I was supposed to wear something pretty, too, Kyra insisted. She's not that way about people, usually ¡ª she takes them when they're there and leaves them when they're gone. That's not such a bad way for a little girl to grow up, I sometimes think.'
'You both dressed pretty,' I said. 'That much I'm sure of.'
'Thanks.' She looked fondly at Ki, who stood by the tree watching the juggler. He had put his rubber balls aside and moved on to Indian clubs. Then she looked back at me. 'Are we done eating?'
I nodded, and Mattie began to pick up the trash and stuff it back into the take-out bag. I helped, and when our fingers touched, she gripped my hand and squeezed. 'Thank you,' she said. 'For everything you've done. Thank you so damn much.'
I squeezed back, then let go.
'You know,' she said, 'it's crossed my mind that Kyra's moving the letters around herself. Mentally.'
'I guess that's the technical term. Only Ki can't spell much more than "dog" and "cat.''
'What's showing up on the fridge?'
'Names, mostly. Once it was yours. Once it was your wife's.'
'The whole thing ¡ª JOANNA. And NANA. Rogette, I presume. JARED shows up sometimes, and BRIDGET. Once there was KITO.' She spelled it.
'Kito,' I said, and thought: Kyra, Kia, Kito. What is this? 'A boy's name, do you think?'
'I know it is. It's Swahili, and means precious child. I looked it up in my baby-name book.' She glanced toward her own precious child as we walked across the grass to the nearest trash barrel.
'Any others that you can remember?'
She thought. 'REG has showed up a couple of times. And once there was CARLA. You understand that Ki can't even read these names as a rule, don't you? She has to ask me what they say.'
'Has it occurred to you that Kyra might be copying them out of a book or a magazine? That she's learning to write using the magnetic letters on the fridge instead of paper and pencil?'
'I suppose that's possible . . . ' She didn't look as if she believed it, though. Not surprising. I didn't believe it myself.
'I mean, you've never actually seen the letters moving around by themselves on the front of the fridge, have you?' I hoped I sounded as unconcerned asking this question as I wanted to.
She laughed a bit nervously. 'God, no!'
'Sometimes the fridgeafator people leave messages like HI and BYE and GOOD GIRL. There was one yesterday that I wrote down to show you. Kyra asked me to. It's really weird.'
'What is it?'
'I'd rather show you, but I left it in the glove compartment of the Scout. Remind me when we go.'
Yes. I would.
'This is some spooky shit, se?or,' she said. 'Like the writing in the flour that time.'
I thought about telling her I had my own fridgeafator people, then didn't. She had enough to worry about without that . . . or so I told myself.
We stood side-by-side on the grass, watching Ki watch the juggler. 'Did you call John?' I asked.
She turned to me, laughing with her eyes. 'He actually sang a verse of "Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead.''
'Wrong sex, right sentiment.'
She nodded, her eyes going back to Kyra. I thought again how beautiful she looked, her body slim in the white dress, her features clean and perfectly made.
'Was he pissed at me inviting myself to lunch?' I asked.
'Nope, he loved the idea of having a party.'
A party. He loved the idea. I began to feel rather small.
'He even suggested we invite your lawyer from last Friday. Mr. Bissonette? Plus the private detective John hired on Mr. Bissonette's recommendation. Is that okay with you?'
'Fine. How about you, Mattie? Doing okay?'
'Doing okay,' she agreed, turning to me. 'I did have several more calls than usual today. I'm suddenly quite popular.'
'Most were hangups, but one gentleman took time enough to call me a cunt, and there was a lady with a very strong Yankee accent who said, 'Theah, you bitch, you've killed him. Aaa you satisfied?' She hung up before I could tell her yes, very satisfied, thanks.' But Mattie didn't look satisfied; she looked unhappy and guilty, as if she had literally wished him dead.
'It's okay. Really. Kyra and I have been alone for a long time, and I've been scared for most of it. Now I've made a couple of friends. If a few anonymous phone calls are the price I have to pay, I'll pay it.'
She was very close, looking up at me, and I couldn't stop myself. I put the blame on summer, her perfume, and four years without a woman. In that order, i slipped my arms around her waist, and remember perfectly the texture of her dress beneath my hands; the slight pucker at the back where the zipper hid in its sleeve. I remember the sensation of the cloth moving against the bare skin beneath. Then I was kissing her, very gently but very thoroughly ¡ª anything worth doing is worth doing right ¡ª and she was kissing me back in exactly the same spirit, her mouth curious but not afraid. Her lips were warm and smooth and held some faint sweet taste. Peaches, I think.
We stopped at the same time and pulled back a little from each other. Her hands were still on my shoulders. Mine were on the sides of her waist, just above her hips. Her face was composed enough, but her eyes were more brilliant than ever, and there were slants of color in her cheeks, rising along the cheekbones.
'Oh boy,' she said. 'I really wanted that. Ever since Ki tackled you and you picked her up I've wanted it.'
'John wouldn't think much of us kissing in public,' I said. My voice wasn't quite even, and my heart was racing. Seven seconds, one kiss, and every system in my body was red-lining. 'In fact, John wouldn't think much of us kissing at all. He fancies you, you know.'
'I know, but I fancy you.' She turned to check on Ki, who was still standing obediently by the tree, watching the juggler. Who might be watching us? Someone who had come over from the TR on a hot summer evening to get ice cream at Frank's Tas-T-Freeze and enjoy a little music and society on the common? Someone who traded for fresh vegetables and fresh gossip at the Lakeview General? A regular at the All-Purpose Garage? This was insanity, and it stayed insanity no matter how you cut it. I dropped my hands from her waist.
'Mattie, they could put our picture next to "indiscreet" in the dictionary.'
She took her hands off my shoulders and stepped back a pace, but her brilliant eyes never left mine. 'I know that. I'm young but not entirely stupid.'
'I didn't mean ¡ª '
She held up a hand to stop me. 'Ki goes to bed around nine ¡ª she can't seem to sleep until it's mostly dark. I stay up later. Come and visit me, if you want to. You can park around back.' She smiled a little. It was a sweet smile; it was also incredibly sexy. 'Once the moon's down, that's an area of discretion.'
'Mattie, you're young enough to be my daughter.'
'Maybe, but I'm not. And sometimes people can be too discreet for their own good.'
My body knew so emphatically what it wanted. If we had been in her trailer at that moment it would have been no contest. It was almost no contest anyway. Then something recurred to me, something I'd thought about Devore's ancestors and my own: the generations didn't match up. Wasn't the same thing true here? And I don't believe that people automatically have a right to what they want, no matter how badly they want it. Not every thirst should be slaked. Some things are just wrong ¡ª I guess that's what I'm trying to say. But I wasn't sure this was one of them, and I wanted her, all right. So much. I kept thinking about how her dress had slid when I put my arms around her waist, the warm feel of her skin just beneath. And no, she wasn't my daughter.
'You said your thanks,' I told her in a dry voice. 'And that's enough. Really.'
'You think this is gratitude?' She voiced a low, tense laugh. 'You're forty, Mike, not eighty. You're not Harrison Ford, but you're a good-looking man. Talented and interesting, too. And I like you such an awful lot. I want you to be with me. Do you want me to say please? Fine. Please be with me.'
Yes, this was about more than gratitude ¡ª I suppose I'd known that even when I was using the word. I'd known she was wearing white shorts and a halter top when she called on the phone the day I went back to work. Had she also known what I was wearing? Had she dreamed she was in bed with me, the two of us screwing our brains out while the party lights shone and Sara Tidwell played her version of the white nana rhyming game, all that crazy Manderley-sanderley-canderley stuff?. Had Mattie dreamed of telling me to do what she wanted?
And there were the fridgeafator people. They were another kind of sharing, an even spookier kind. I hadn't quite had nerve enough to tell Mattie about mine, but she might know anyway. Down low in her mind. Down below in her mind, where the blue-collar guys moved around in the zone. Her guys and my guys, all part of the same strange labor union. And maybe it wasn't an issue of morality per se at all. Some thing about it ¡ª about us ¡ª just felt dangerous.
And oh so attractive.
'I need time to think,' I said.
'This isn't about what you think. What do you feel for me?'
'So much it scares me.'
Before I could say anything else, my ears caught a familiar series of chord-changes. I turned toward the kid with the guitar. He had been working through a repertoire of early Dylan, but now he swung into something chuggy and up-tempo, something that made you want to grin and pat your hands together.
'Do you want to go fishin
here in my fishin hole?
Said do you want to fish some, honey,
here in my fishin hole?
You want to fish in my pond, baby,
you better have a big long pole.'
'Fishin Blues.' Written by Sara Tidwell, originally performed by Sara and the Red-Top Boys, covered by everyone from Ma Rainey to the Lovin' Spoonful. The raunchy ones had been her specialty, double-entendre so thin you could read a newspaper through it . . . although reading hadn't been Sara's main interest, judging by her lyrics.
Before the kid could go on to the next verse, something about how you got to wiggle when you wobble and get that big one way down deep, The Castle Rockers ran off a brass flourish that said 'Shut up, everybody, we're comin atcha.' The kid quit playing his guitar; the juggler began catching his Indian clubs and dropping them swiftly onto the grass in a line. The Rockers launched themselves into an extremely evil Sousa march, music to commit serial murders by, and Kyra came running back to us.
'The jugster's done. Will you tell me the story, Mike? Hansel and Panzel?'
'It's Hansel and Gretel,' I said, 'and I'll be happy to. But let's go where it's a little quieter, okay? The band is giving me a headache.'
'Music hurt your headie?'
'A little bit.'
'We'll go by Mattie's car, then.'
Kyra ran ahead to stake out a bench on the edge of the common. Mattie gave me a long warm look, then her hand. I took it. Our fingers folded together as if they had been doing it for years. I thought, I'd like it to be slow, both of us hardly moving at all. At first, anyway. And would I bring my nicest, longest pole? I think you could count on that. And then, afterward, we'd talk. Maybe until we could see the furniture in the first early light. When you're in bed with someone you love, particularly for the first time, five o'clock seems almost holy.
'You need a vacation from your own thoughts,' Mattie said. 'I bet most writers do from time to time.'
'That's probably true.'
'I wish we were home,' she said, and I couldn't tell if her fierceness was real or pretend. 'I'd kiss you until this whole conversation became irrelevant. And if there were second thoughts, at least you'd be having them in my bed.'
I turned my face into the red light of the westering sun. 'Here or there, at this hour Ki would still be up.'
'True,' she said, sounding uncharacteristically glum. 'True.'
Kyra reached a bench near the sign reading TOWN COMMON PARKING and climbed up on it, holding the little stuffed dog from Mickey D's in one hand. I tried to pull my hand away as we approached her and Mattie held it firm. 'It's all right, Mike. At VBS they hold hands with their friends everywhere they go. It's big people who make it into a big deal.'
She stopped, looked at me.
'I want you to know something. Maybe it won't matter to you, but it does to me. There wasn't anyone before Lance and no one after. If you come to me, you'll be my second. I'm not going to talk with you about this again, either. Saying please is all right, but I won't beg.'
'I don't ¡ª '
'There's a pot with tomato plants in it by the trailer steps. I'll leave a key under it. Don't think. Just come.'
'Not tonight, Mattie. I can't.'
'You can,' she replied.
'Hurry up, slowpokes!' Kyra cried, bouncing on the bench.
'He's the slow one!' Mattie called back, and poked me in the ribs. Then, in a much lower voice: 'You are, too.' She unwound her hand from mine and ran toward her daughter, her brown legs scissoring below the hem of the white dress.
In my version of 'Hansel and Gretel' the witch was named Depravia. Kyra stared at me with huge eyes when I got to the part where Depravia asks Hansel to poke out his finger so she can see how plump he's getting.
'Is it too scary?' I asked.
Ki shook her head emphatically. I glanced at Mattie to make sure. She nodded and waved a hand for me to go on, so I finished the story. Depravia went into the oven and Gretel found her secret stash of winning lottery tickets. The kids bought a Jet Ski and lived happily ever after on the eastern side of Dark Score Lake. By then The Castle Rockers were slaughtering Gershwin and sunset was nigh. I carried Kyra to Scoutie and strapped her in. I remembered the first time I'd helped put the kid into her car-seat, and the inadvertent press of Mattie's breast.
'I hope there isn't a bad dream for you in that story,' I said. Until I heard it coming out of my own mouth, I hadn't realized how fundamentally awful that one is.
'I won't have bad dreams,' Kyra said matter-of-factly. 'The fridgeafator people will keep them away.' Then, carefully, reminding herself: 'Ree-fridge-a-rator.' She turned to Mattie. 'Show him the crosspatch, Mommy-bommy.'
'Crossword. But thanks, I would've forgotten.' She thumbed open the glove compartment and took out a folded sheet of paper. 'It was on the fridge this morning. I copied it down because Ki said you'd know what it meant. She said you do crossword puzzles. Well, she said crosspatches, but I got the idea.'
Had I told Kyra that I did crosswords? Almost certainly not. Did it surprise me that she knew? Not at all. I took the sheet of paper, unfolded it, and looked at what was printed there:
'Is it a crosspatch puzzle, Mike?' Kyra asked.
'I guess so ¡ª a very simple one. But if it means something, I don't know what it is. May I keep this?'
'Yes,' Mattie said.
I walked her around to the driver's side of the Scout, reaching for her hand again as we went. 'Just give me a little time. I know that's supposed to be the girl's line, but ¡ª '
'Take the time,' she said. 'Just don't take too much.'
I didn't want to take any, which was just the problem. The sex would be great, I knew that. But after?
There might be an after, though. I knew it and she did, too. With Mattie, 'after' was a real possibility. The idea was a little scary, a little wonderful.
I kissed the corner of her mouth. She laughed and grabbed me by the earlobe. 'You can do better,' she said, then looked at Ki, who was sitting in her car-seat and gazing at us interestedly. 'But I'll let you off this time.'
'Kiss Ki!' Kyra called, holding out her arms, so I went around and kissed Ki. Driving home, wearing my dark glasses to cut the glare of the setting sun, it occurred to me that maybe I could be Kyra Devore's father. That seemed almost as attractive to me as going to bed with her mother, which was a measure of how deep I was in. And going deeper, maybe.
Sara Laughs seemed very empty after having Mattie in my arms ¡ª a sleeping head without dreams. I checked the letters on the fridge, saw nothing there but the normal scatter, and got a beer. I went out on the deck to drink it while I watched the last of the sunset. I tried to think about the refrigerator people and crosspatches that had appeared on both refrigerators: 'go down nineteen' on Lane Forty-two and 'go down ninety-two' on Wasp Hill Road. Different vectors from the land to the lake? Different spots on The Street? Shit, who knew?
I tried to think about John Storrow and how unhappy he was apt to be if he found out there was ¡ª to quote Sara Laughs, who got to the line long before John Mellencamp ¡ª another mule kicking in Mattie Devore's stall. But mostly what I thought about was holding her for the first time, kissing her for the first time. No human instinct is more powerful than the sex-drive when it is fully aroused, and its awakening images are emotional tattoos that never leave us. For me, it was feeling the soft bare skin of her waist just beneath her dress. The slippery feel of the fabric . . .
I turned abruptly and hurried through the house to the north wing, almost running and shedding clothes as I went. I turned the shower on to full cold and stood under it for five minutes, shivering. When I got out I felt a little more like an actual human being and a little less like a twitching bundle of nerve endings. And as I toweled dry, something else recurred to me. At some point I had thought of Jo's brother Frank, had thought that if anyone besides myself would be able to feel Jo's presence in Sara Laughs, it would be him. I hadn't gotten around to inviting him down yet, and now wasn't sure I wanted to. I had come to feel oddly possessive, almost jealous, about what was happening here. And yet if Jo had been writing something on the quiet, Frank might know. Of course she hadn't confided in him about the pregnancy, but ¡ª
I looked at my watch. Quarter past nine. In the trailer near the intersection of Wasp Hill Road and Route 68, Kyra was probably already asleep . . . and her mother might already have put her extra key under the pot near the steps. I thought of her in the white dress, the swell of her hips just below my hands and the smell of her perfume, then pushed the images away. I couldn't spend the whole night taking cold showers. Quarter past nine was still early enough to call Frank Arlen.
He picked up on the second ring, sounding both happy to hear from me and as if he'd gotten three or four cans further into the six-pack than I had so far done. We passed the usual pleasantries back and forth ¡ª most of my own almost entirely fictional, I was dismayed to find ¡ª and he mentioned that a famous neighbor of mine had kicked the bucket, according to the news. Had I met him? Yes, I said, remembering how Max Devore had run his wheelchair at me. Yes, I'd met him. Frank wanted to know what he was like. That was hard to say, I told him. Poor old guy was stuck in a wheelchair and suffering from emphysema.
'Pretty frail, huh?' Frank asked sympathetically.
'Yeah,' I said. 'Listen, Frank, I called about Jo. I was out in her studio looking around, and I found my typewriter. Since then I've kind of gotten the idea she was writing something. It might have started as a little piece about our house, then widened. The place is named after Sara Tidwell, you know. The blues singer.'
A long pause. Then Frank said, 'I know.' His voice sounded heavy, grave.
'What else do you know, Frank?'
'That she was scared. I think she found out something that scared her. I think that mostly because ¡ª '
That was when the light finally broke. I probably should have known from Mattie's description, would have known if I hadn't been so upset. 'You were down here with her, weren't you? In July of 1994. You went to the softball game, then you went back up The Street to the house.'
'How do you know that?' he almost barked.
'Someone saw you. A friend of mine.' I was trying not to sound mad and not succeeding. I was mad, but it was a relieved anger, the kind you feel when your kid comes dragging into the house with a shamefaced grin just as you're getting ready to call the cops.
'I almost told you a day or two before we buried her. We were in that pub, do you remember?'
Jack's Pub, right after Frank had beaten the funeral director down on the price of Jo's coffin. Sure I remembered. I even remembered the look in his eyes when I'd told him Jo had been pregnant when she died.
He must have felt the silence spinning out, because he came back sounding anxious. 'Mike, I hope you didn't get any ¡ª '
'What? Wrong ideas? I thought maybe she was having an affair, how's that for a wrong idea? You can call that ignoble if you want, but I had my reasons. There was a lot she wasn't telling me. What did she tell you?'
'Next to nothing.'
'Did you know she quit all her boards and committees? Quit and never said a word to me?'
'No.' I didn't think he was lying. Why would he, at this late date? 'Jesus, Mike, if I'd known that ¡ª '
'What happened the day you came down here? Tell me.'
'I was at the printshop in Sanford. Jo called me from . . . I don't remember, I think a rest area on the turnpike.'
'Between Derry and the TR?'
'Yeah. She was on her way to Sara Laughs and wanted me to meet her there. She told me to park in the driveway if I got there first, not to go in the house . . . which I could have; I know where you keep the spare key.'
Sure he did, in a Sucrets tin under the deck. I had shown him myself. 'Did she say why she didn't want you to go inside?'
'It'll sound crazy.'
'No it won't. Believe me.'
'She said the house was dangerous.'
For a moment the words just hung there. Then I asked, 'Did you get here first?'
'And waited outside?'
'Did you see or sense anything dangerous?'
There was a long pause. At last he said, 'There were lots of people out on the lake ¡ª speedboaters, water-skiers, you know how it is ¡ª but all the engine-noise and the laughter seemed to kind of . . . stop dead when it got near the house. Have you ever noticed that it seems quiet there even when it's not?'
Of course I had; Sara seemed to exist in its own zone of silence. 'Did it feel dangerous, though?'
'No,' he said, almost reluctantly. 'Not to me, anyway. But it didn't feel exactly empty, either. I felt . . . fuck, I felt watched. I sat on one of those railroad-tie steps and waited for my sis. Finally she came. She parked behind my car and hugged me . . . but she never took her eyes off the house. I asked her what she was up to and she said she couldn't tell me, and that I couldn't tell you we'd been there. She said something like, "If he finds out on his own, then it's meant to be. I'll have to tell him sooner or later, anyway. But I can't now, because I need his whole attention. I can't get that while he's working."'
I felt a flush crawl across my skin. 'She said that, huh?'
'Yeah. Then she said she had to go in the house and do something. She wanted me to wait outside. She said if she called, I should come on the run. Otherwise I should just stay where I was.'
'She wanted someone there in case she got in trouble.'
'Yeah, but it had to be someone who wouldn't ask a lot of questions she didn't want to answer. That was me. I guess that was always me.'
'She went inside. I sat on the hood of my car, smoking cigarettes. I was still smoking then. And you know, I did start to feel something then that wasn't right. As if there might be someone in the house who'd been waiting for her, someone who didn't like her. Maybe someone who wanted to hurt her. Probably I just picked that up from Jo ¡ª the way her nerves seemed all strung up, the way she kept looking over my shoulder at the house even while she was hugging me ¡ª but it seemed like something else. Like a . . . I don't know . . . '
'Like a vibe.'
'Yes!' he almost shouted. 'A vibration. But not a good vibration, like in the Beach Boys song. A bad vibration.'
'I sat and waited. I only smoked two cigarettes so I don't guess it could have been longer than twenty minutes or half an hour, but it seemed longer. I kept noticing how the sounds from the lake seemed to make it most of the way up the hill and then just kind of . . . quit. And how there didn't seem to be any birds, except far off in the distance.
'Once, she came out. I heard the deck door bang, and then her footsteps on the stairs over on that side. I called to her, asked if she was okay, and she said fine. She said for me to stay where I was. She sounded a little short of breath, as if she was carrying something or had been doing some chore.'
'Did she go to her studio or down to the lake?'
'I don't know. She was gone another fifteen minutes or so ¡ª time enough for me to smoke another butt ¡ª and then she came back out the front door. She checked to make sure it was locked, and then she came up to me. She looked a lot better. Relieved. The way people look when they do some dirty job they've been putting off, finally get it behind them. She suggested we walk down that path she called The Street to the resort that's down there ¡ª '
'Right, right. She said she'd buy me a beer and a sandwich. Which she did, out at the end of this long floating dock.'
The Sunset Bar, where I had first glimpsed Rogette.
'Then you went to have a look at the softball game.'
'That was Jo's idea. She had three beers to my one, and she insisted. Said someone was going to hit a longshot homer into the trees, she just knew it.'
Now I had a clear picture of the part Mattie had seen and told me about. Whatever Jo had done, it had left her almost giddy with relief. She had ventured into the house, for one thing. Had dared the spirits in order to do her business and survived. She'd had three beers to celebrate and her discretion had slipped . . . not that she had behaved with any great stealth on her previous trips down to the TR. Frank remembered her saying if I found out on my own then it was meant to be ¡ª que ser¨¢, ser¨¢. It wasn't the attitude of someone hiding an affair, and I realized now that all her behavior suggested a woman keeping a short-term secret. She would have told me when I finished my stupid book, if she had lived. If.
'You watched the game for awhile, then went back to the house along The Street.'
'Yes,' he said.
'Did either of you go in?'
'No. By the time we got there, her buzz had worn off and I trusted her to drive. She was laughing while we were at the softball game, but she wasn't laughing by the time we got back to the house. She looked at it and said, "I'm done with her. I'll never go through that door again, Frank."'
My skin first chilled, then prickled.
'I asked her what was wrong, what she'd found out. I knew she was writing something, she'd told me that much ¡ª '
'She told everyone but me,' I said . . . but without much bitterness. I knew who the man in the brown sportcoat had been, and any bitterness or anger ¡ª anger at Jo, anger at myself ¡ª paled before the relief of that. I hadn't realized how much that fellow had been on my mind until now.
'She must have had her reasons,' Frank said. 'You know that, don't you?'
'But she didn't tell you what they were.'
'All I know is that it started ¡ª whatever it was ¡ª with her doing research for an article. It was a lark, Jo playing Nancy Drew. I'm pretty sure that at first not telling you was just to keep it a surprise. She read books but mostly she talked to people ¡ª listened to their stories of the old days and teased them into looking for old letters . . . diaries . . . she was good at that part of it, I think. Damned good. You don't know any of this?'
'No,' I said heavily. Jo hadn't been having an affair, but she could have had one, if she'd wanted. She could have had an. affair with Tom Selleck and been written up in Inside View and I would have gone on tapping away at the keys of my Powerbook, blissfully unaware.
'Whatever she found out,' Frank said, 'I think she just stumbled over it.'
'And you never told me. Four years and you never told me any of it.'
'That was the last time I was with her,' Frank said, and now he didn't sound apologetic or embarrassed at all. 'And the last thing she asked of me was that I not tell you we'd been to the lake house. She said she'd tell you everything when she was ready, but then she died. After that I didn't think it mattered. Mike, she was my sister. She was my sister and I promised.'
'All right. I understand.' And I did ¡ª just not enough. What had Jo discovered? That Normal Auster had drowned his infant son under a handpump? That back around the turn of the century an animal trap had been left in a place where a young Negro boy would be apt to come along and step into it? That another boy, perhaps the incestuous child of Son and Sara Tidwell, had been drowned by his mother in the lake, she maybe laughing that smoke-broken, lunatic laugh as she held him down? You gotta wiggle when you wobble, honey, and hold that young 'un way down deep.
'If you need me to apologize, Mike, consider it done.'
'I don't. Frank, do you remember anything else she might have said that night? Anything at all?'
'She said she knew how you found the house.'
'She said what?'
'She said that when it wanted you, it called you.'
At first I couldn't reply, because Frank Arlen had completely demolished one of the assumptions I'd made about my married life ¡ª one of the biggies, one of those that seem so basic you don't even think about questioning them. Gravity holds you down. Light allows you to see. The compass needle points north. Stuff like that.
This assumption was that Jo was the one who had wanted to buy Sara Laughs back when we saw the first real money from my writing career, because Jo was the 'house person' in our marriage, just as I was the 'car person.' Jo was the one who had picked our apartments when apartments were all we could afford, Jo who hung a picture here and asked me to put up a shelf there. Jo was the one who had fallen in love with the Derry house and had finally worn down my resistance to the idea that it was too big, too busy, and too broken to take on. Jo had been the nest-builder.
She said that when it wanted you, it called you.
And it was probably true. No, I could do better than that, if I was willing to set aside the lazy thinking and selective remembering. It was certainly true. I was the one who had first broached the idea of a place in western Maine. I was the one who collected stacks of real-estate brochures and hauled them home. I'd started buying regional magazines like Down East and always began at the back, where the real-estate ads were. It was I who had first seen a picture of Sara Laughs in a glossy handout called Maine Retreats, and it was I who had made the call first to the agent named in the ad, and then to Marie Hingerman after badgering Marie's name out of the Realtor.
Johanna had also been charmed by Sara Laughs ¡ª I think anyone would have been charmed by it, seeing it for the first time in autumn sunshine with the trees blazing all around it and drifts of colored leaves blowing up The Street ¡ª but it was I who had actively sought the place out.
Except that was more lazy thinking and selective remembering. Wasn't it? Sara had sought me out.
Then how could I not have known it until now? And how was I led here in the first place, full of unknowing happy ignorance?
The answer to both questions was the same. It was also the answer to the question of how Jo could have discovered something distressing about the house, the lake, maybe the whole TR, and then gotten away with not telling me. I'd been gone, that's all. I'd been zoning, tranced out, writing one of my stupid little books. I'd been hypnotized by the fantasies going on in my head, and a hypnotized man is easy to lead.
'Mike? Are you still there?'
'I'm here, Frank. But I'll be goddamned if I know what could have scared her so.'
'She mentioned one other name I remember: Royce Merrill. She said he was the one who remembered the most, because he was so old. And she said, "I don't want Mike to talk to him. I'm afraid that old man might let the cat out of the bag and tell him more than he should know." Any idea what she meant?'
'Well . . . it's been suggested that a splinter from the old family tree wound up here, but my mother's people are from Memphis. The Noonans are from Maine, but not from this part.' Yet I no longer entirely believed this.
'Mike, you sound almost sick.'
'I'm okay. Better than I was, actually.'
'And you understand why I didn't tell you any of this until now? I mean, if I'd known the ideas you were getting . . . if I'd had any clue . . . '
'I think I understand. The ideas didn't belong in my head to begin with, but once that shit starts to creep in . . . '
'When I got back to Sanford that night and it was over, I guess I thought it was just more of Jo's "Oh fuck, there's a shadow on the moon, nobody go out until tomorrow." She was always the superstitious one, you know ¡ª knocking on wood, tossing a pinch of salt over her shoulder if she spilled some, those four-leaf-clover earrings she used to have . . . '
'Or the way she wouldn't wear a pullover if she put it on backward by mistake,' I said. 'She claimed doing that would turn around your whole day.'
'Well? Doesn't it?' Frank asked, and I could hear a little smile in his voice.
All at once I remembered Jo completely, right down to the small gold flecks in her left eye, and wanted nobody else. Nobody else would do.
'She thought there was something bad about the house,' Frank said. 'That much I do know.'
I drew a piece of paper to me and jotted Kia on it. 'Yes. And by then she may have suspected she was pregnant. She might have been afraid of . . . influences.' There were influences here, all right. 'You think she got most of this from Royce Merrill?'
'No, that was just a name she mentioned. She probably talked to dozens of people. Do you know a guy named Kloster? Gloster? Something like that?'
'Skuster,' I said. Below Kia my pencil was making a series of fat loops that might have been cursive letter l's or hair ribbons. 'Kenny Auster. Was that it?'
'It sounds right. In any case, you know how she was once she really got going on a thing.'
Yes. Like a terrier after rats.
'Mike? Should I come up there?'
No. Now I was sure. Not Harold Oblowski, not Frank, either. There was a process going on in Sara, something as delicate and as organic as rising bread in a warm room. Frank might interrupt that process . . . or be hurt by it.
'No, I just wanted to get it cleared up. Besides, I'm writing. It's hard for me to have people around when I'm writing.'
'Will you call if I can help?'
'You bet,' I said.
I hung up the telephone, thumbed through the book, and found a listing for R. MERRILL on the Deep Bay Road. I called the number, listened to it ring a dozen times, then hung up. No newfangled answering machine for Royce. I wondered idly where he was. Ninety-five seemed a little too old to go dancing at the Country Barn in Harrison, especially on a close night like this one.
I looked at the paper with Kia written on it. Below the fat l-shapes I wrote Kyra, and remembered how, the first time I'd heard Ki say her name, I'd thought it was 'Kia' she was saying. Below Kyra I wrote Kito, hesitated, then wrote Carla. I put these names in a box. Beside them I jotted Johanna, Bridget, and Jared. The fridgeafator people. Folks who wanted me to go down nineteen and go down ninety-two.
'Go down, Moses, you bound for the Promised Land,' I told the empty house. I looked around. Just me and Bunter and the waggy clock . . . except it wasn't.
When it wanted you, it called you.
I got up to get another beer. The fruits and vegetables were in a circle again. In the middle, the letters now spelled:
As on some old tombstones ¡ª God grant she lye stille. I looked at these letters for a long time. Then I remembered the IBM was still out on the deck. I brought it in, plonked it on the dining-room table, and began to work on my current stupid little book. Fifteen minutes and I was lost, only faintly aware of thunder someplace over the lake, only faintly aware of Bunter's bell shivering from time to time. When I went back to the fridge an hour or so later for another beer and saw that the words in the circle now said
ony lye stille
I hardly noticed. At that moment I didn't care if they lay stille or danced the hucklebuck by the light of the silvery moon. John Shackleford had begun to remember his past, and the child whose only friend he, John, had been. Little neglected Ray Garraty.
I wrote until midnight came. By then the thunder had faded away but the heat held on, as oppressive as a blanket. I turned off the IBM and went to bed . . . thinking, so far as I can remember, nothing at all ¡ª not even about Mattie, lying in her own bed not so many miles away. The writing had burned off all thoughts of the real world, at least temporarily. I think that, in the end, that's what it's for. Good or bad, it passes the time.