Bag of Bones CHAPTER FOUR

Bag of Bones CHAPTER FOUR

The phone was ringing when I walked in my front door. It was Frank asking me if I’d like to join him for Christmas. Join them, as matter of fact; all of his brothers and their families were coming.

I opened my mouth to say no ?? the last thing on earth I needed was a Irish Christmas with everybody drinking whiskey and waxing sentimental about Jo while perhaps two dozen snotcaked rugrats crawled around the floor ?? and heard myself saying I’d come.

Frank sounded as surprised as I felt, but honestly delighted. ‘Fantastic!’ He cried. ‘When can you get here?’

I was in the hall, my galoshes dripping on the tile, and from where I standing I could look through the arch and into the living room. There was no Christmas tree; I hadn’t bothered with one since Jo died. The room looked both ghastly and much too big to me . . . a roller rink furnished in Early American.

‘I’ve been out running errands,’ I said. ‘How about I throw some in a bag, get back into the car, and come south while the still blowing warm air?’

‘Tremendous,’ Frank said without a moment’s hesitation. ‘We can have us a sane bachelor evening before the Sons and Daughters of East Malden start arriving. I’m pouring you a drink as soon as I get off the telephone.’

‘Then I guess I better get rolling,’ I said.

That was hands down the best holiday since Johanna died. The only good holiday, I guess. For four days I was an honorary Arlen. I drank too much, toasted Johanna’s memory too many times . . . and knew, somehow, that she’d be pleased to know I was doing it. Two babies spit up on me, one dog got into bed with me in the middle of the night, and Nicky Arlen’s sister-in-law made a bleary pass at me on the night after Christmas, when she caught me alone in the kitchen making a turkey sandwich. I kissed her because she clearly wanted to be kissed, and an adventurous (or perhaps ‘mischievous’ is the word I want) hand groped me for a moment in a place where no one other than myself had groped in almost three and a half years. It was a shock, but not an entirely unpleasant one.

It went no further ?? in a houseful of Arlens and with Susy Donahue not quite officially divorced yet (like me, she was an honorary Arlen that Christmas), it hardly could have done ?? but I decided it was time to leave . . . unless, that was, I wanted to go driving at high speed down a narrow street that most likely ended in a brick wall. I left on the twenty-seventh, very glad that I had come, and I gave Frank a fierce goodbye hug as we stood by my car. For four days I hadn’t thought at all about how there was now only dust in my safe-deposit box at Fidelity Union, and for four nights I had slept straight through until eight in the morning, sometimes waking up with a sour stomach and a hangover headache, but never once in the middle of the night with the thought Manderley, I have dreamt again of Manderley going through my mind. I got back to Derry feeling refreshed and renewed.

The first day of 1998 dawned clear and cold and still and beautiful. I got up, showered, then stood at the bedroom window, drinking coffee. It suddenly occurred to me ?? with all the simple, powerful reality of ideas like up is over your head and down is under your feet ?? that I could write now. It was a new year, something had changed, and I could write now if I wanted to. The rock had rolled away.

I went into the study, sat down at the computer, and turned it on. My heart was beating normally, there was no sweat on my forehead or the back of my neck, and my hands were warm. I pulled down the main menu, the one you get when you click on the apple, and there was my Word Six. I clicked on it. The pen-and-parchment logo came up, and when it did I suddenly couldn’t breathe. It was as if iron bands had clamped around my chest. I pushed back from the desk, gagging and clawing at the round neck of the sweatshirt I was wearing. The wheels of my office chair caught on little throw rug ?? one of Jo’s finds in the last year of her life ?? and I tipped right over backward. My head banged the floor and I saw a fountain of bright sparks go whizzing across my field of vision. I suppose I was lucky to black out, but I think my real luck on New Year’s Morning of 1998 was that I tipped over the way I did. If I’d only pushed back from the desk so that I was still looking at the logo ?? and at the hideous blank screen followed it ?? I think I might have choked to death.

‘When I staggered to my feet, I was at least able to breathe. My throat the size of a straw, and each inhale made a weird screaming sound, but I was breathing. I lurched into the bathroom and threw up in the basin with such force that vomit splashed the mirror. I grayed out and my knees buckled. This time it was my brow I struck, thunking it against the lip of the basin, and although the back of my head didn’t bleed there was a very respectable lump there by noon, though), my forehead did, a little. This latter bump also left a purple mark, which I of course lied about, telling folks who asked that I’d run into the bathroom door in the middle of the night, silly me, that’ll teach a fella to get up at two A.M. without turning on a lamp.

,’When I regained complete consciousness (if there is such a state), I was curled up on the floor. I got up, disinfected the cut on my forehead, and sat on the lip of the tub with my head lowered to my knees until I felt confident enough to stand up. I sat there for fifteen minutes, I guess, and in that space of time I decided that barring some miracle, my career was over. Harold would scream in pain and Debra would moan in disbelief, but what could they do? Send out the Publication Police? me with the Book-of-the-Month-Club Gestapo? Even if they could, what difference would it make? You couldn’t get sap out of a brick or blood out of a stone. Barring some miraculous recovery, my life as a writer was over.

And if it is? I asked myself. What’s on for the back forty, Mike? You can play a lot of Scrabble in forty years, go on a lot of Crossword Cruises, drink a lot of whiskey. But is that enough? What else are you going to put on your back forty?

I didn’t want to think about that, not then. The next forty years could take care of themselves; I would be happy just to get through New Year’s Day of 1998.

When I felt I had myself under control, I went back into my study, shuffled to the computer with my eyes resolutely on my feet, felt around for the right button, and turned off the machine. You can damage the program shutting down like that without putting it away, but under the circumstances, I hardly thought it mattered.

That night I once again dreamed I was walking at twilight on Lane Forty-two, which leads to Sara Laughs; once more I wished on the evening star as the loons cried on the lake, and once more I sensed something in the woods behind me, edging ever closer. It seemed my Christmas holiday was over.

That was a hard, cold winter, lots of snow and in February a flu epidemic that did for an awful lot of Derry’s old folks. It took them the way a hard wind will take old trees after an ice storm. It missed me completely. I hadn’t so much as a case of the sniffles that winter.

In March, I flew to Providence and took part in Will Weng’s New England Crossword Challenge. I placed fourth and won fifty bucks. I framed the uncashed check and hung it in the living room. Once upon a time, most of my framed Certificates of Triumph (Jo’s phrase; all the good phrases are Jo’s phrases, it seems to me) went up on my office walls, but by March of 1998, I wasn’t going in there very much. When I wanted to play Scrabble against the computer or do a tourney-level crossword puzzle, I used the Powerbook and sat at the kitchen table.

I remember sitting there one day, opening the Powerbook’s main menu, going down to the crossword puzzles, then dropping the cursor two or three items further, until it had highlighted my old pal, Word Six.

What swept over me then wasn’t frustration or impotent, balked fury (I’d experienced a lot of both since finishing All the Way from the Top), but sadness and simple longing. Looking at the Word Six icon was suddenly like looking at the pictures of Jo I kept in my wallet. Studying those, I’d sometimes think that I would sell my immortal soul in order have her back again . . . and on that day in March, I thought I would sell my soul to be able to write a story again.

Go on and try it, then, a voice whispered. Maybe things have changed.

Except that nothing had changed, and I knew it. So instead of opening Word Six, I moved it across to the trash barrel in the lower righthand corner of the screen, and dropped it in. Goodbye, old pal.

Weinstock called a lot that winter, mostly with good news. Early in March she reported that Helen’s Promise had been picked as one half of the Literary Guild’s main selection for August, the other half a legal thriller by Steve Martini, another veteran of the eight-to-fifteen segment of the Times bestseller list. And my British publisher, Debra, loved Helen, was sure it would be my ‘breakthrough book.’ (My British sales had always lagged.)

‘Promise is sort of a new direction for you,’ Debra said. ‘Wouldn’t you say?’

‘I kind of thought it was,’ I confessed, and wondered how Debbie respond if I told her my new-direction book had been written a dozen years ago.

‘It’s got . . . I don’t know . . . a kind of maturity.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Mike? I think the connection’s going. You sound muffled.’

Sure I did. I was biting down on the side of my hand to keep from howling with laughter. Now, cautiously, I took it out of my mouth and examined the bite-marks. ‘Better?’

‘Yes, lots. So what’s the new one about? Give me a hint.’

‘You know the answer to that one, kiddo.’

Debra laughed. ”You’ll have to read the book to find out, Josephine,” she said. ‘Right?’

‘Yessum.’

‘Well, keep it coming. Your pals at Putnam are crazy about the way you’re taking it to the next level.’

I said goodbye, I hung up the telephone, and then I laughed wildly for about ten minutes. Laughed until I was crying. That’s me, though. Always taking it to the next level.

During this period I also agreed to do a phone interview with a Newsweek writer who was putting together a piece on The New American Gothic (whatever that was, other than a phrase which might sell a few magazines), and to sit for a Publishers Weekly interview which would appear just before publication of Helen’s Promise. I agreed to these because they both sounded softball, the sort of interviews you could do over the phone while you read your mail. And Debra was delighted because I ordinarily say no to all the publicity. I hate that part of the job and always have, especially the hell of the live TV chat-show, where nobody’s ever read your goddam book and the first question is always ‘Where in the world do you get those wacky ideas?’ The publicity process is like going to a sushi bar where you’re the sushi, and it was great to get past it this time with the feeling that I’d been able to give Debra some good news she could take to her bosses. ‘Yes,’ she could say, ‘he’s still being a booger about publicity, but I got him to do a couple of things.’

All through this my dreams of Sara Laughs were going on ?? not every night but every second or third night, with me never thinking of them in the daytime. I did my crosswords, I bought myself an acoustic steel guitar and started learning how to play it (I was never going to be invited to tour with Patty Loveless or Alan Jackson, however), I scanned each day’s bloated obituaries in the Derry News for names that I knew. I was pretty much dozing on my feet, in other words.

What brought all this to an end was a call from Harold Oblowski not more than three days after Debra’s book-club call. It was storming out-side ?? a vicious snow-changing-over-to-sleet event that proved to be the last and biggest blast of the winter. By mid-evening the power would be off all over Derry, but when Harold called at five P.M., things were just getting cranked up.

‘I just had a very good conversation with your editor,’ Harold said. ‘A very enlightening, very energizing conversation. Just got off the in fact.’

‘Oh?’

‘Oh indeed. There’s a feeling at Putnam, Michael, that this latest of yours may have a positive effect on your sales position in the market. It’s very strong.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I’m taking it to the next level.’

‘Huh?’

‘I’m just blabbing, Harold. Go on.’

‘Well . . . Helen Nearing’s a great lead character, and Skate is your best villain ever.’

I said nothing.

‘Debra raised the possibility of making Helen’s Promise the opener of a three-book contract. A very lucrative three-book contract. All without prompting from me. Three is one more than any publisher has wanted to commit to ’til now. I mentioned nine million dollars, three per book, in other words, expecting her to laugh . . . but an agent has to start somewhere, and I always choose the highest ground I can find. I think I must have Roman military officers somewhere back in my family tree.’

Ethiopian rug-merchants, more like it, I thought, but didn’t say. I felt the way you do when the dentist has gone a little heavy on the Novocain and flooded your lips and tongue as well as your bad tooth and the patch of gum surrounding it. If I tried to talk, I’d probably only flap and spread spit. Harold was almost purring. A three-book contract for the new mature Michael Noonan. Tall tickets, baby.

This time I didn’t feel like laughing. This time I felt like screaming. Harold went on, happy and oblivious. Harold didn’t know the bookberry-tree had died. Harold didn’t know the new Mike Noonan had cataclysmic shortness of breath and projectile-vomiting fits every time he tried to write.

‘You want to hear how she came back to me, Michael?’

‘Lay it on me.’

‘Well, nine’s obviously high, but it’s as good a place to start as any. We feel this new book is a big step forward for him.’ This is extraordinary. Extraordinary. Now, I haven’t given anything away, wanted to talk to you first, of course, but I think we’re looking at seven-point-five, minimum. In fact ?? ‘

‘No.’

He paused a moment. Long enough for me to realize I was gripping the phone so hard it hurt my hand. I had to make a conscious effort to relax my grip. ‘Mike, if you’ll just hear me out ?? ‘

‘I don’t need to hear you out. I don’t want to talk about a new contract.’

‘Pardon me for disagreeing, but there’ll never be a better time. Think about it, for Christ’s sake. We’re talking top dollar here. If you wait until after Helen’s Promise is published, I can’t guarantee that the same offer ?? ‘

‘I know you can’t,’ I said. ‘I don’t want guarantees, I don’t want offers, I don’t want to talk contract.’

‘You don’t need to shout, Mike, I can hear you.’

Had I been shouting? Yes, I suppose I had been.

‘Are you dissatisfied with Putnam’s? I think Debra would be very distressed to hear that. I also think Phyllis Grann would do damned near anything to address any concerns you might have.’

Are you sleeping with Debra, Harold? I thought, and all at once it seemed like the most logical idea in the world ?? that dumpy, fiftyish, balding little Harold Oblowski was making it with my blonde, aristocratic, Smith-educated editor. Are you sleeping with her, do you talk about my future while you’re lying in bed together in a room at the Plaza? Are the pair of you trying to figure how many golden eggs you can get out of this tired old goose before you finally wring its neck and turn it into pat?¦? Is that what you’re up to?

‘Harold, I can’t talk about this now, and I won’t talk about this now.’

‘What’s wrong? Why are you so upset? I thought you’d be pleased. Hell, I thought you’d be over the fucking moon.’

‘There’s nothing wrong. It’s just a bad time for me to talk long-term contract. You’ll have to pardon me, Harold. I have something coming out of the oven.’

‘Can we at least discuss this next w ?? ‘

‘No,’ I said, and hung up. I think it was the first time in my adult life I’d hung up on someone who wasn’t a telephone salesman.

I had nothing coming out of the oven, of course, and I was too upset to think about putting something in. I went into the living room instead, poured myself a short whiskey, and sat down in front of the TV I sat there for almost four hours, looking at everything and seeing nothing. Outside, the storm continued cranking up. Tomorrow there would be trees down all over Derry and the world would look like an ice sculpture.

At quarter past nine the power went out, came back on for thirty seconds or so, then went out and stayed out. I took this as a suggestion to stop thinking about Harold’s useless contract and how Jo would have chortled the idea of nine million dollars. I got up, unplugged the blacked-out TV so it wouldn’t come blaring on at two in the morning (I needn’t have worried; the power was off in Derry for nearly two days), and went upstairs. I dropped my clothes at the foot of the bed, crawled in without even bothering to brush my teeth, and was asleep in less than five minutes. I don’t how long after that it was that the nightmare came.

It was the last dream I had in what I now think of as my ‘Manderley series,’ the culminating dream. It was made even worse, I suppose, by unrelievable blackness to which I awoke.

It started like the others. I’m walking up the lane, listening to the crickets and the loons, looking mostly at the darkening slot of sky overhead. I reach the driveway, and here something has changed; someone has put a little sticker on the SARA LAUGHS sign. I lean closer and see it’s a radio station sticker. WBLM, it says. 102.9, PORTLAND’S ROCK AND ROLL BLIMP.

From the sticker I look back up into the sky, and there is Venus. I wish her as I always do, I wish for Johanna with the dank and vaguely smell of the lake in my nose.

Something lumbers in the woods, rattling old leaves and breaking a branch. It sounds big.

Better get down there, a voice in my head tells me. Something has taken out a contract on you, Michael. A three-book contract, and that’s the worst kind.

I can never move, I can only stand here. I’ve got walker’s block.

But that’s just talk. I can walk. This time I can walk. I am delighted. I have had a major breakthrough. In the dream I think This changes everything! This changes everything!

Down the driveway I walk, deeper and deeper into the clean but sour smell of pine, stepping over some of the fallen branches, kicking others out of the way. I raise my hand to brush the damp hair off my forehead and see the little scratch running across the back of it. I stop to look at it, curious.

No time for that, the dream-voice says. Get down there. You’ve got a book to write.

I can’t write, I reply. That part’s over. I’m on the back forty now.

No, the voice says. There is something relentless about it that scares me. You had writer’s walk, not writer’s block, and as you can see, it’s gone. Now hurry up and get down there.

I’m afraid, I tell the voice.

Afraid of what?

Well . . . what if Mrs. Danvers is down there?

The voice doesn’t answer. It knows I’m not afraid of Rebecca de Winter’s housekeeper, she’s just a character in an old book, nothing but a bag of bones. So I begin walking again. I have no choice, it seems, but at every step my terror increases, and by the time I’m halfway down to the shadowy sprawling bulk of the log house, fear has sunk into my bones like fever. Something is wrong here, something is all twisted up.

I’ll run away, I think. I’ll run back the way I came, like the gingerbread man I’ll run, run all the way back to Derry, if that’s what it takes, and I’ll never come here anymore.

Except I can hear slobbering breath behind me in the growing gloom, and padding footsteps. The thing in the woods is now the thing in the driveway. It’s right behind me. If I turn around the sight of it will knock the sanity out of my head in a single roundhouse slap. Something with red eyes, something slumped and hungry.

The house is my only hope of safety.

I walk on. The crowding bushes clutch like hands. In the light of a rising moon (the moon has never risen before in this dream, but I have never stayed in it this long before), the rustling leaves look like sardonic faces. I see winking eyes and smiling mouths. Below me are the black windows of the house and I know that there will be no power when I get inside, the storm has knocked the power out, I will flick the lightswitch up and down, up and down, until something reaches out and takes my wrist and pulls me like a lover deeper into the dark.

I am three quarters of the way down the driveway now. I can see the railroad-tie steps leading down to the lake, and I can see the float out there on the water, a black square in a track of moonlight. Bill Dean has put it out. I can also see an oblong something lying at the place where driveway ends at the stoop. There has never been such an object before. What can it be?

Another two or three steps, and I know. It’s a coffin, the one Frank Arlen dickered for . . . because, he said, the mortician was trying to stick it to me. It’s Jo’s coffin, and lying on its side with the top partway open, enough for me to see it’s empty.

I think I want to scream. I think I mean to turn around and run back up the driveway ?? I will take my chances with the thing behind me. But before I can, the back door of Sara Laughs opens, and a terrible figure darting out into the growing darkness. It is human, this figure, and yet it’s not. It is a crumpled white thing with baggy arms upraised. There is no face where its face should be, and yet it is shrieking in a glottal, loonlike voice. It must be Johanna. She was able to escape her coffin, her winding shroud. She is all tangled up in it.

How hideously speedy this creature is! It doesn’t drift as one imagines ghosts drifting, but races across the stoop toward the driveway. It has been waiting down here during all the dreams when I had been frozen, and now that I have finally been able to walk down, it means to have me. I’ll scream when it wraps me in its silk arms, and I will scream when I smell its rotting, bug-raddled flesh and see its dark staring eyes through the fine weave of the cloth. I will scream as the sanity leaves my mind forever. I will scream . . . but there is no one out here to hear me. Only the loons will hear me. I have come again to Manderley, and this time I will never leave.

The shrieking white thing reached for me and I woke up on the floor of crying out in a cracked, horrified voice and slamming my head repeatedly against something. How long before I finally realized I was no longer asleep, that I wasn’t at Sara Laughs? How long before I realized that I had fallen out of bed at some point and had crawled across the room in my sleep, that I was on my hands and knees in a corner, butting my head against the place where the walls came together, doing it over and over again like a lunatic in an asylum?

I didn’t know, couldn’t with the power out and the bedside clock dead. I know that at first I couldn’t move out of the corner because it felt safer than the wider room would have done, and I know that for a long time the dream’s force held me even after I woke up (mostly, I imagine, because I couldn’t turn on a light and dispel its power). I was afraid that if I crawled out of my corner, the white thing would burst out of my bathroom, shrieking its dead shriek, eager to finish what it had started. I know I was shivering all over, and that I was cold and wet from the waist down, because my bladder had let go.

I stayed there in the corner, gasping and wet, staring into the darkness, wondering if you could have a nightmare powerful enough in its imagery to drive you insane. I thought then (and think now) that I almost found out on that night in March.

Finally I felt able to leave the corner. Halfway across the floor I pulled off my wet pajama pants, and when I did that, I got disoriented. What followed was a miserable and surreal five minutes in which I crawled aimlessly back and forth in my familiar bedroom, bumping into stuff and moaning each time I hit something with a blind, flailing hand. Each thing I touched at first seemed like that awful white thing. Nothing I touched felt like anything I knew. With the reassuring green numerals of the bedside clock gone and my sense of direction temporarily lost, I could have been crawling around a mosque in Addis Ababa.

At last I ran shoulder-first into the bed. I stood up, yanked the pillowcase off the extra pillow, and wiped my groin and upper legs with it. Then I crawled back into bed, pulled the blankets up, and lay there shivering, listening to the steady tick of sleet on the windows.

There was no sleep for me the rest of that night, and the dream didn’t fade as dreams usually do upon waking. I lay on my side, the shivers slowly subsiding, thinking of her coffin there in the driveway, thinking that it made a kind of mad sense ?? Jo had loved Sara, and if she were haunt anyplace, it would be there. But why would she want to hurt me? Why would my Jo ever want to hurt me? I could think of no reason.

Somehow the time passed, and there came a moment when I realized the air had turned a dark shade of gray; the shapes of the furniture in it like sentinels in fog. That was a little better. That was more it. I would light the kitchen woodstove, I decided, and make strong coffee. Begin the work of getting this behind me.

I swung my legs out of bed and raised my hand to brush my sweat-hair off my forehead. I froze with the hand in front of my eyes. I must have scraped it while I was crawling, disoriented, in the dark and to find my way back to bed. There was a shallow, clotted cut across the back, just below the knuckles.