Bag of Bones CHAPTER NINE

Bag of Bones CHAPTER NINE

At nine o’clock the following morning I filled a squeeze-bottle with grapefruit juice and set out for a good long walk south along The Street. The day was bright and already hot. It was also silent ?? the kind of silence you experience only after a Saturday holiday, I think, one composed of equal parts holiness and hangover. I could see two or three fishermen parked far out on the lake, but not a single power boat burred, not a single gaggle of kids shouted and splashed. I passed half a dozen cottages on the slope above me, and although all of them were likely inhabited at this time of year, the only signs of life I saw were bathing suits hung over the deck rail at the Passendales’ and a half-deflated fluorescent-green seahorse on the Batchelders’ stub of a dock.

But did the Passendales’ little gray cottage still belong to the Passendales? Did the Batchelders’ amusing circular summer-camp with its Cinerama picture-window pointing at the lake and the mountains beyond still belong to the Batchelders? No way of telling, of course. Four years can bring a lot of changes.

I walked and made no effort to think ?? an old trick from my writing days. Work your body, rest your mind, let the boys in the basement do their jobs. I made my way past camps where Jo and I had once had drinks and barbecues and attended the occasional card-party, I soaked up the silence like a sponge, I drank my juice, I armed sweat off my forehead, and I waited to see what thoughts might come.

The first was an odd realization: that the crying child in the night seemed somehow more real than the call from Max Devore. Had I actually been phoned by a rich and obviously bad-tempered techno-mogul on my first full evening back on the TR? Had said mogul actually called me a liar at one point? (I was, considering the tale I had told, but that was beside the point.) I knew it had happened, but it was actually easier to believe in The Ghost of Dark Score Lake, known around some campfires as The Mysterious Crying Kiddie.

My next thought ?? this was just before I finished my juice ?? was that I should call Mattie Devore and tell her what had happened. I decided it was a natural impulse but probably a bad idea. I was too old to believe in such simplicities as The Damsel in Distress Versus The Wicked Stepfather . . . or, in this case, Father-in-Law. I had my own fish to fry this summer, and I didn’t want to complicate my job by getting into a potentially ugly dispute between Mr. Computer and Ms. Doublewide. Devore had rubbed my fur the wrong way ?? and vigorously ?? but that probably wasn’t personal, only something he did as a matter of course. Hey, some guys snap bra-straps. Did I want to get in his face on this? No. I did not. I had saved Little Miss Red Sox, I had gotten myself an inadvertent feel of Mom’s small but pleasantly firm breast, I had learned that Kyra was Greek for ladylike. Any more than that would be gluttony, by God.

I stopped at that point, feet as well as brain, realizing I’d walked all the way to Warrington’s, a vast barnboard structure which locals sometimes called the country club. It was, sort of ?? there was a six-hole golf course, a stable and riding trails, a restaurant, a bar, and lodging for perhaps three dozen in the main building and the eight or nine satellite cabins. There was even a two-lane bowling alley, although you and your competition had to take turns setting up the pins. Warrington’s had been built around the beginning of World War I. That made it younger than Sara Laughs, but not by much.

A long dock led out to a smaller building called The Sunset Bar. It was there that Warrington’s summer guests would gather for drinks at the end of the day (and some for Bloody Marys at the beginning). And when I glanced out that way, I realized I was no longer alone. There was a woman standing on the porch to the left of the floating bar’s door, watching me.

She gave me a pretty good jump. My nerves weren’t in their best condition right then, and that probably had something to do with it . . . but I think she would have given me a jump in any case. Part of it was her stillness. Part was her extraordinary thinness. Most of it was her face. Have you ever seen that Edvard Munch drawing, The Cry? Well, if you imagine that screaming face at rest, mouth closed and eyes watchful, you’ll have a pretty good image of the woman standing at the end of the dock with one long-fingered hand resting on the rail. Although I must tell you that my first thought was not Edvard Munch but Mrs. Danvers.

She looked about seventy and was wearing black shorts over a black tank bathing suit. The combination looked strangely formal, a variation on the ever-popular little black cocktail dress. Her skin was cream-white, except above her nearly flat bosom and along her bony shoulders. There it swam with large brown age-spots. Her face was a wedge featuring prominent skull-like cheekbones and an unlined lamp of brow. Beneath that bulge, her eyes were lost in sockets of shadow. White hair hung scant and lank around her ears and down to the prominent shelf of her jaw.

God, she’s thin, I thought. She’s nothing but a bag of ??

A shudder twisted through me at that. It was a strong one, as if someone were spinning a wire in my flesh. I didn’t want her to notice it ?? what a way to start a summer day, by revolting a guy so badly that he stood there shaking and grimacing in front of you ?? so I raised my hand and waved. I tried to smile, as well. Hello there, lady standing out by the floating bar. Hello there, you old bag of bones, you scared the living shit out of me but it doesn’t take much these days and I forgive you. How the fuck ya doin? I wondered if my smile looked as much like a grimace to her as it felt to me.

She didn’t wave back.

Feeling quite a bit like a fool ?? THERE’S NO VILLAGE IDIOT HERE, WE ALL TAKE TURNS ?? I ended my wave in a kind of half-assed salute and headed back the way I’d come. Five steps and I had to look over my shoulder; the sensation of her watching me was so strong it was like a hand pressing between my shoulderblades.

The dock where she’d been was completely deserted. I squinted my eyes, at first sure she must have just retreated deeper into the shadow thrown by the little boozehaus, but she was gone. As if she had been a ghost herself.

She stepped into the bar, hon, Jo said. You know that, don’t you? I mean . . . you do know it, right?

‘Right, right,’ I murmured, setting off north along The Street toward home. ‘Of course I do. Where else?’ Except it didn’t seem to me that there had been time; it didn’t seem to me that she could have stepped in, even in her bare feet, without me hearing her. Not on such a quiet morning.

Jo again: Perhaps she’s stealthy.

‘Yes,’ I murmured. I did a lot of talking out loud before that summer was over. ‘Yes, perhaps she is. Perhaps she’s stealthy.’ Sure. Like Mrs. Danvers.

I stopped again and looked back, but the right-of-way path had followed the lake around a little bit of curve, and I could no longer see either Warrington’s or The Sunset Bar. And really, I thought, that was just as well.

On my way back, I tried to list the oddities which had preceded and then surrounded my return to Sara Laughs: the repeating dreams; the sunflowers; the radio-station sticker; the weeping in the night. I supposed that my encounter with Mattie and Kyra, plus the follow-up phone-call from Mr. Pixel Easel, also qualified as passing strange . . . but not in the same way as a child you heard sobbing in the night.

And what about the fact that we had been in Derry instead of on Dark Score when Johanna died? Did that qualify for the list? I didn’t know. I couldn’t even remember why that was. In the fall and winter of 1993 I’d been fiddling with a screenplay for The Red-Shirt Man. In February of ’94 I got going on All the Way from the Top, and that absorbed most of my attention. Besides, deciding to go west to the TR, west to Sara . . .

‘That was Jo’s job,’ I told the day, and as soon as I heard the words I understood how true they were. We’d both loved the old girl, but saying ‘Hey Irish, let’s get our asses over to the TR for a few days’ had been Jo’s job. She might say it any time . . . except in the year before her death she hadn’t said it once. And I had never thought to say it for her. Had somehow forgotten all about Sara Laughs, it seemed, even when summer came around. Was it possible to be that absorbed in a writing project? It didn’t seem likely . . . but what other explanation was there?

Something was very wrong with this picture, but I didn’t know what it was. Not from nothin.

That made me think of Sara Tidwell, and the lyrics to one of her songs. She had never been recorded, but I owned the Blind Lemon Jefferson version of this particular tune. One verse went:

It ain’t nuthin but a barn-dance sugar

It ain’t nuthin but a round-and-round

Let me kiss you on your sweet lips sugar

You the good thing that I found.

I loved that song, and had always wondered how it would have sounded coming out of a woman’s mouth instead of from that whiskey-voiced old troubadour. Out of Sara Tidwell’s mouth. I bet she sang sweet. And boy, I bet she could swing it.

I had gotten back to my own place again. I looked around, saw no one in the immediate vicinity (although I could now hear the day’s first ski-boat burring away downwater), stripped to my underpants, and swam out to the float. I didn’t climb it, only lay beside it holding onto the ladder with one hand and lazily kicking my feet. It was nice enough, but what was I going to do with the rest of the day?

I decided to spend it cleaning my work area on the second floor. When that was done, maybe I’d go out and look around in Jo’s studio. If I didn’t lose my courage, that was.

I swam back, kicking easily along, raising my head in and out of water which flowed along my body like cool silk. I felt like an otter. I was most of the way to the shore when I raised my dripping face and saw a woman standing on The Street, watching me. She was as thin as the one I’d seen down at Warrington’s . . . but this one was green. Green and pointing north along the path like a dryad in some old legend.

I gasped, swallowed water, coughed it back out. I stood up in chest-deep water and wiped my streaming eyes. Then I laughed (albeit a little doubtfully). The woman was green because she was a birch growing a little to the north of where my set of railroad-tie steps ended at The Street. And even with my eyes clear of water, there was something creepy about how the leaves around the ivory-streaked-with-black trunk almost made a peering face. The air was perfectly still and so the face was perfectly still (as still as the face of the woman in the black shorts and bathing suit had been), but on a breezy day it would seem to smile or frown . . . or perhaps to laugh. Behind it there grew a sickly pine. One bare branch jutted off to the north. It was this I had mistaken for a skinny arm and a bony, pointing hand.

It wasn’t the first time I’d spooked myself like that. I see things, that’s all. Write enough stories and every shadow on the floor looks like a footprint, every line in the dirt like a secret message. Which did not, of course, ease the task of deciding what was really peculiar at Sara Laughs and what was peculiar only because my mind was peculiar.

I glanced around, saw I still had this part of the lake to myself (although not for much longer; the bee-buzz of the first power boat had been joined by a second and third), and stripped off my soggy underpants. I wrung them out, put them on top of my shorts and tee-shirt, and walked naked up the railroad-tie steps with my clothes held against my chest. I pretended I was Bunter, bringing breakfast and the morning paper to Lord Peter Wimsey. By the time I got back inside the house I was grinning like a fool.

The second floor was stifling in spite of the open windows, and I saw why as soon as I got to the top of the stairs. Jo and I had shared space up here, she on the left (only a little room, really just a cubby, which was all she needed with the studio north of the house), me on the right. At the far end of the hall was the grilled snout of the monster air-conditioning unit we’d bought the year after we bought the lodge. Looking at it, I realized I had missed its characteristic hum without even being aware of it. There was a sign taped to it which said, Mr. Noonan: Broken. Blows hot air when you turn it on & sounds full of broken glass. Dean says the part it needs is promised from Western Auto in Castle Rock. I’ll believe it when I see it. B. Meserve.

I grinned at that last ?? -it was Mrs. M. right down to the ground ?? and then I tried the switch. Machinery often responds favorably when it senses a penis-equipped human in the vicinity, Jo used to claim, but not this time. I listened to the air conditioner grind for five seconds or so, then snapped it off. ‘Damn thing shit the bed,’ as TR folks like to say. And until it was fixed, I wouldn’t even be doing crossword puzzles up here.

I looked in my office just the same, as curious about what I might feel as about what I might find. The answer was next to nothing. There was the desk where I had finished The Red-Shirt Man, thus proving to myself that the first time wasn’t a fluke; there was the photo of Richard Nixon, arms raised, flashing the double V-for-Victory sign, with the caption WOULD YOU BUY A USED CAR FROM THIS MAN? running beneath; there was the rag rug Jo had hooked for me a winter or two before she had discovered the wonderful world of afghans and pretty much gave up hooking.

It wasn’t quite the office of a stranger, but every item (most of all, the weirdly empty surface of the desk) said that it was the work-space of an earlier-generation Mike Noonan. Men’s lives, I had read once, are usually defined by two primary forces: work and marriage. In my life the marriage was over and the career on what appeared to be permanent hiatus. Given that, it didn’t seem strange to me that now the space where I’d spent so many days, usually in a state of real happiness as I made up various imaginary lives, seemed to mean nothing. It was like looking at the office of an employee who had been fired . . . or who had died suddenly.

I started to leave, then had an idea. The filing cabinet in the corner was crammed with papers ?? bank statements (most eight or ten years out of date), correspondence (mostly never answered), a few story fragments-but I didn’t find what I was looking for. I moved on to the closet, where the temperature had to be at least a hundred and ten degrees, and in a cardboard box which Mrs. M. had marked GADGETS, I unearthed it ?? a Sanyo Memo-Scriber Debra Weinstock gave me at the conclusion of our work on the first of the Putnam books. It could be set to turn itself on when you started to talk; it dropped into its PAUSE mode when you stopped to think.

I never asked Debra if the thing just caught her eye and she thought, ‘Why, I’ll bet any self-respecting popular novelist would enjoy owning one of these babies,’ or if it was something a little more specific . . . some sort of hint, perhaps? Verbalize those little faxes from your subconscious while they’re still fresh, Noonan? I hadn’t known then and didn’t now. But I had it, a genuine pro-quality dictating-machine, and there were at least a dozen cassette tapes in my car, home dubs I’d made to listen to while driving. I would insert one in the Memo-Scriber tonight, slide the volume control as high as it would go, and put the machine in its DICTATE mode. Then, if the noise I’d heard at least twice now repeated itself, I would have it on tape. I could play it for Bill Dean and ask him what he thought it was.

What if I hear the sobbing child tonight and the machine never kicks on?

‘Well then, I’ll know something else,’ I told the empty, sunlit office. I was standing there in the doorway with the Memo-Scriber under my arm, looking at the empty desk and sweating like a pig. ‘Or at least suspect it.’

Jo’s nook across the hall made my office seem crowded and homey by comparison. Never overfull, it was now nothing but a square room-shaped space. The rug was gone, her photos were gone, even the desk was gone. This looked like a do-it-yourself project which had been abandoned after ninety percent of the work had been done. Jo had been scrubbed out of it ?? scraped out of it ?? and I felt a moment’s unreasonable anger at Brenda Meserve. I thought of what my mother usually said when I’d done something on my own initiative of which she disapproved: ‘You took a little too much on y’self, didn’t you?’ That was my feeling about Jo’s little bit of office: that in emptying it to the walls this way, Mrs. Meserve had taken a little too much on herself.

Maybe it wasn’t Mrs. M. who cleaned it out, the UFO voice said. Maybe Jo did it herself. Ever think of that, sport?

‘That’s stupid,’ I said. ‘Why would she? I hardly think she had a premonition of her own death. Considering she’d just bought ?? ‘

But I didn’t want to say it. Not out loud. It seemed like a bad idea somehow.

I turned to leave the room, and a sudden sigh of cool air, amazing in that heat, rushed past the sides of my face. Not my body; just my face. It was the most extraordinary sensation, like hands patting briefly but gently at my cheeks and forehead. At the same time there was a sighing in my ears . . . except that’s not quite right. It was a susurrus that went past my ears, like a whispered message spoken in a hurry.

I turned, expecting to see the curtains over the room’s window in motion . . . but they hung perfectly straight.

‘Jo?’ I said, and hearing her name made me shiver so violently that I almost dropped the Memo-Scriber. ‘Jo, was that you?’

Nothing. No phantom hands patting my skin, no motion from the curtains . . . which there certainly would have been if there had been an actual draft. All was quiet. There was only a tall man with a sweaty face and a tape-recorder under his arm standing in the doorway of a bare room . . . but that was when I first began to really believe that I wasn’t alone in Sara Laughs.

So what? I asked myself. Even if it should be true, so what? Ghosts can’t hurt anyone.

That’s what I thought then.

When I visited Jo’s studio (her air-conditioned studio) after lunch, I felt quite a lot better about Brenda Meserve ?? she hadn’t taken too much on herself after all. The few items I especially remembered from Jo’s little office ?? the framed square of her first afghan, the green rag rug, her framed poster depicting the wildflowers of Maine ?? had been put out here, along with almost everything else I remembered. It was as if Mrs. M. had sent a message ?? I can’t ease your pain or shorten your sadness, and I can’t prevent the wounds that coming back here may re-open, but I can put all the stuff that may hurt you in one place, so you won’t be stumbling over it unexpected or unprepared. I can do that much.

Out here were no bare walls; out here the walls jostled with my wife’s spirit and creativity. There were knitted things (some serious, many whimsical), batik squares, rag dolls popping out of what she called ‘my baby collages,’ an abstract desert painting made from strips of yellow, black, and orange silk, her flower photographs, even, on top of her bookshelf, what appeared to be a construction-in-progress, a head of Sara Laughs herself. It was made out of toothpicks and lollipop sticks.

In one corner was her little loom and a wooden cabinet with a sign reading JO’S KNITTING STUFF! NO TRESPASSING! hung over the pull-knob. In another was the banjo she had tried to learn and then given up on, saying it hurt her fingers too much. In a third was a kayak paddle and a pair of Rollerblades with scuffed toes and little purple pompoms on the tips of the laces.

The thing which caught and held my eye was sitting on the old roll-top desk in the center of the room. During the many good summers, falls, and winter weekends we had spent here, that desktop would have been littered with spools of thread, skeins of yarn, pincushions, sketches, maybe a book about the Spanish Civil War or famous American dogs. Johanna could be aggravating, at least to me, because she imposed no real system or order on what she did. She could also be daunting, even overwhelming at times. She was a brilliant scatterbrain, and her desk had always reflected that.

But not now. It was possible to think that Mrs. M. had cleared the litter from the top of it and plunked down what was now there, but impossible to believe. Why would she? It made no sense.

The object was covered with a gray plastic hood. I reached out to touch it, and my hand faltered an inch or two short as a memory of an old dream

(give me that it’s my dust-catcher)

slipped across my mind much as that queer draft ad slipped across my face. Then it was gone, and I pulled the plastic, over off. Underneath it was my old green IBM Selectric, which I hadn’t seen or thought of in years. I leaned closer, knowing that the typewriter ball would be Courier ?? my old favorite ?? even before I saw it.

What in God’s name was my old typewriter doing out here?

Johanna painted (although not very well), she took photographs (very good ones indeed) and sometimes sold them, she knitted, she crocheted, she wove and dyed cloth, she could play eight or ten basic chords on the guitar. She could write, of course; most English majors can, which is why they become English majors. Did she demonstrate any blazing degree of literary creativity? No. After a few experiments with poetry as an undergrad, she gave up that particular branch of the arts as a bad job. You write for both of us, Mike, she had said once. That’s all yours; I’ll just take a little taste of everything else. Given the quality of her poems as opposed to the quality of her silks, photographs, and knitted art, I thought that was probably wise.

But here was my old IBM. Why?

‘Letters,’ I said. ‘She found it down cellar or something, and rescued it to write letters on.’

Except that wasn’t Jo. She showed me most of her letters, often urging me to write little postscripts of my own, guilt-tripping me with that old saying about how the shoemaker’s kids always go barefoot (‘and the writer’s friends would never hear from him if it weren’t for Alexander Graham Bell,’ she was apt to add). I hadn’t seen a typed personal letter from my wife in all the time we’d been married ?? if nothing else, she would have considered it shitty etiquette. She could type, producing mistake-free business letters slowly yet methodically, but she always used my desktop computer or her own Powerbook for those chores.

‘What were you up to, hon?’ I asked, then began to investigate her desk drawers.

Brenda Meserve had made an effort with these, but Jo’s fundamental nature had defeated her. Surface order (spools of thread segregated by color, for instance) quickly gave way to Jo’s old dear jumble. I found enough of her in those drawers to hurt my heart with a hundred unexpected memories, but I found no paperwork which had been typed on my old IBM, with or without the Courier ball. Not so much as a single page.

When I was finished with my hunt, I leaned back in my chair (her chair) and looked at the little framed photo on her desk, one I couldn’t remember ever having seen before. Jo had most likely printed it herself (the original might have come out of some local’s attic) and then hand-tinted the result. The final product looked like a wanted poster colorized by Ted Turner.

I picked it up and ran the ball of my thumb over the glass facing, bemused. Sara Tidwell, the turn-of-the-century blues shouter whose last known port of call had been right here in TR-90. When she and her folks ?? some of them friends, most of them relatives ?? had left the TR, they had gone on to Castle Rock for a little while . . . then had simply disappeared, like a cloud over the horizon or mist on a summer morning.

She was smiling just a little in the picture, but the smile was hard to read. Her eyes were half-closed. The string of her guitar ?? not a strap but a string ?? was visible over one shoulder. In the background I could see a black man wearing a derby at a killer angle (one thing about musicians: they really know how to wear hats) and standing beside what appeared to be a washtub bass.

Jo had tinted Sara’s skin to a caf?¦-au-lait shade, maybe based on other pictures she’d seen (there are quite a few knocking around, most showing Sara with her head thrown back and her hair hanging almost to her waist as she bellows out her famous carefree yell of a laugh), although none would have been in color. Not at the turn of the century. Sara Tidwell hadn’t just left her mark in old photographs, either. I recalled Dickie Brooks, owner of the All-Purpose Garage, once telling me that his father claimed to have won a teddybear at the Castle County Fair’s shooting-pitch, and to have given it to Sara Tidwell. She had rewarded him, Dickie said, with a kiss. According to Dickie the old man never forgot it, said it was the best kiss of his life . . . although I doubt if he said it in his wife’s hearing.

In this photo she was only smiling. Sara Tidwell, known as Sara Laughs. Never recorded, but her songs had lived just the same. One of them, ‘Walk Me Baby,’ bears a remarkable resemblance to ‘Walk This Way,’ by Aerosmith. Today the lady would be known as an African-American. In 1984, when Johanna and I bought the lodge and consequently got interested in her, she would have been known as a Black. In her own time she would have been called a Negress or a darkie or possibly an octoroon. And a nigger, of course. There would have been plenty of folks free with that one. And did I believe that she had kissed Dickie Brooks’s father ?? a white man ?? in front of half of Castle County? No, I did not. Still, who could say for sure? No one. That was the entrancing thing about the past.

‘It ain’t nuthin but a barn-dance sugar,’ I sang, putting the picture back on the desk. ‘It ain’t nuthin but a round-and-round.’

I picked up the typewriter cover, then decided to leave it off. As I stood, my eyes went back to Sara, standing there with her eyes closed and the string which served her as a guitar strap visible over one shoulder. Something in her face and smile had always struck me as familiar, and suddenly it came to me. She looked oddly like Robert Johnson, whose primitive licks hid behind the chords of almost every Led Zeppelin and Yardbirds song ever recorded. Who, according to the legend, had gone down to the crossroads and sold his soul to Satan for seven years of fast living, high-tension liquor, and streetlife babies. And for a jukejoint brand of immortality, of course. Which he had gotten. Robert Johnson, supposedly poisoned over a woman.

In the late afternoon I went down to the store and saw a good-looking piece of flounder in the cold-case. It looked like supper to me. I bought a bottle of white wine to go with it, and while I was waiting my turn at the cash register, a trembling old man’s voice spoke up behind me. ‘See you made a new friend yes’ty.’ The Yankee accent was so thick that it sounded almost like a joke . . . except the accent itself is only part of it; mostly, I’ve come to believe, it’s that singsong tone ?? real Mainers all sound like auctioneers.

I turned and saw the geezer who had been standing out on the garage tarmac the day before, watching along with Dickie Brooks as I got to know Kyra, Mattie, and Scoutie. He still had the gold-headed cane, and I now recognized it. Sometime in the 1950s, the Boston Post had donated one of those canes to every county in the New England states. They were given to the oldest residents and passed along from old fart to old fart. And the joke of it was that the Post had gone toes-up years ago.

‘Actually two new friends,’ I replied, trying to dredge up his name. I couldn’t, but I remembered him from when Jo had been alive, holding down one of the overstuffed chairs in Dickie’s waiting room, discussing weather and politics, politics and weather, as the hammers whanged and the air-compressor chugged. A regular. And if something happened out there on Highway 68, eye-God, he was there to see it.

‘I hear Mattie Devore can be quite a dear,’ he said heah, Devoah, deeah ?? and one of his crusty eyelids drooped. I have seen a fair number of salacious winks in my time, but none that was a patch on the one tipped me by that old man with the gold-headed cane. I felt a strong urge to knock his waxy beak of a nose off. The sound of it parting company from his face would be like the crack of a dead branch broken over a bent knee.

‘Do you hear a lot, old-timer?’ I asked.

‘Oh, ayuh!’ he said. His lips ?? dark as strips of liver ?? parted in a grin. His gums swarmed with white patches. He had a couple of yellow teeth still planted in the top one, and a couple more on the bottom. ‘And she gut that little one ?? cunnin, she is! Ayuh!’

‘Cunnin as a cat a-runnin,’ I agreed.

He blinked at me, a little surprised to hear such an old one out of my presumably newfangled mouth, and then that reprehensible grin widened. ‘Her don’t mind her, though,’ he said. ‘Baby gut the run of the place, don’tcha know.’

I became aware ?? better belated than never ?? that half a dozen people were watching and listening to us. ‘That wasn’t my impression,’ I said, raising my voice a bit. ‘No, that wasn’t my impression at all.’

He only grinned . . . that old man’s grin that says Oh, ayuh, deah; I know one worth two of that.

I left the store feeling worried for Mattie Devore. Too many people were minding her business, it seemed to me.

When I got home, I took my bottle of wine into the kitchen ?? it could chill while I got the barbecue going out on the deck. I reached for the fridge door, then paused. Perhaps as many as four dozen little magnets had been scattered randomly across the front ?? vegetables, fruits, plastic letters and numbers, even a good selection of the California Raisins ?? but they weren’t random anymore. Now they formed a circle on the front of the refrigerator. Someone had been in here. Someone had come in and . . .

Rearranged the magnets on the fridge? If so, that was a burglar who needed to do some heavy remedial work. I touched one of them ?? gingerly, with just the tip of my finger. Then, suddenly angry with myself, I reached out and spread them again, doing it with enough force to knock a couple to the floor. I didn’t pick them up.

That night, before going to bed, I placed the Memo-Scriber on the table beneath Bunter the Great Stuffed Moose, turning it on and putting it in the DICTATE mode. Then I slipped in one of my old home-dubbed cassettes, zeroed the counter, and went to bed, where I slept without dreams or other interruption for eight hours.

The next morning, Monday, was the sort of day the tourists come to Maine for ?? the air so sunny-clean that the hills across the lake seemed to be under subtle magnification. Mount Washington, New England’s highest, floated in the farthest distance.

I put on the coffee, then went into the living room, whistling. All my imaginings of the last few days seemed silly this morning. Then the whistle died away. The Memo-Scriber’s counter, set to 000 when I went to bed, was now at 012.

I rewound it, hesitated with my finger over the PLAY button, told myself (in Jo’s voice) not to be a fool, and pushed it.

‘Oh Mike,’ a voice whispered ?? mourned, almost-on the tape, and I found myself having to press the heel of one hand to my mouth to hold back a scream. It was what I had heard in Jo’s office when the draft rushed past the sides of my face . . . only now the words were slowed down just enough for me to understand them. ‘Oh Mike,’ it said again. There was a faint click. The machine had shut down for some length of time. And then, once more, spoken in the living room as I had slept in the north wing: ‘Oh Mike.’

Then it was gone.