Bag of Bones, by King, Stephen
- ISBN: 9781439106211 | 1439106215
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 10/21/2008
On a very hot day in August of 1994, my wife told me she was going down to the Derry Rite Aid to pick up a refill on her sinus medicine prescription -- this is stuff you can buy over the counter these days, I believe. I'd finished my writing for the day and offered to pick it up for her. She said thanks, but she wanted to get a piece of fish at the supermarket next door anyway; two birds with one stone and all of that. She blew a kiss at me off the palm of her hand and went out. The next time I saw her, she was on TV. That's how you identify the dead here in Derry -- no walking down a subterranean corridor with green tiles on the walls and long fluorescent bars overhead, no naked body rolling out of a chilly drawer on casters; you just go into an office marked PRIVATE and look at a TV screen and say yep or nope.
The Rite Aid and the Shopwell are less than a mile from our house, in a little neighborhood strip mall which also supports a video store, a used-book store named Spread It Around (they do a very brisk business in my old paperbacks), a Radio Shack, and a Fast Foto. It's on Up-Mile Hill, at the intersection of Witcham and Jackson.
She parked in front of Blockbuster Video, went into the drugstore,and did business with Mr. Joe Wyzer, who was the druggist in those days; he has since moved on to the Rite Aid in Bangor. At the checkout she picked up one of those little chocolates with marshmallow inside, this one in the shape of a mouse. I found it later, in her purse. I unwrapped it and ate it myself, sitting at the kitchen table with the contents of her red handbag spread out in front of me, and it was like taking Communion. When it was gone except for the taste of chocolate on my tongue and in my throat, I burst into tears. I sat there in the litter of her Kleenex and makeup and keys and half-finished rolls of Certs and cried with my hands over my eyes, the way a kid cries.
The sinus inhaler was in a Rite Aid bag. It had cost twelve dollars and eighteen cents. There was something else in the bag, too -- an item which had cost twenty-two-fifty. I looked at this other item for a long time, seeing it but not understanding it. I was surprised, maybe even stunned, but the idea that Johanna Arlen Noonan might have been leading another life, one I knew nothing about, never crossed my mind. Not then.
Jo left the register, walked out into the bright, hammering sun again, swapping her regular glasses for her prescription sunglasses as she did, and just as she stepped from beneath the drugstore's slight overhang (I am imagining a little here, I suppose, crossing over into the country of the novelist a little, but not by much; only by inches, and you can trust me on that), there was that shrewish howl of locked tires on pavement that means there's going to be either an accident or a very close call.
This time it happened -- the sort of accident which happened at that stupid X-shaped intersection at least once a week, it seemed. A 1989 Toyota was pulling out of the shopping-center parking lot and turning left onto Jackson Street. Behind the wheel was Mrs. Esther Easterling of Barrett's Orchards. She was accompanied by her friend Mrs. Irene Deorsey, also of Barrett's Orchards, who had shopped the video store without finding anything she wanted to rent. Too much violence, Irene said. Both women were cigarette widows.
Esther could hardly have missed the orange Public Works dump truck coming down the hill; although she denied this to the police, to the newspaper, and to me when I talked to her some two months later, I think it likely that she just forgot to look. As my own mother (another cigarette widow) used to say, "The two most common ailments of the elderly are arthritis and forgetfulness. They can be held responsible for neither."
Driving the Public Works truck was William Fraker, of Old Cape. Mr. Fraker was thirty-eight years old on the day of my wife's death, driving with his shirt off and thinking how badly he wanted a cool shower and a cold beer, not necessarily in that order. He and three other men had spent eight hours putting down asphalt patch out on the Harris Avenue Extension near the airport, a hot job on a hot day, and Bill Fraker said yeah, he might have been going a little too fast -- maybe forty in a thirty-mile-an-hour zone. He was eager to get back to the garage, sign off on the truck, and get behind the wheel of his own F-150, which had air conditioning. Also, the dump truck's brakes, while good enough to pass inspection, were a long way from tip-top condition. Fraker hit them as soon as he saw the Toyota pull out in front of him (he hit his horn, as well), but it was too late. He heard screaming tires -- his own, and Esther's as she belatedly realized her danger -- and saw her face for just a moment.
"That was the worst part, somehow," he told me as we sat on his porch, drinking beers -- it was October by then, and although the sun was warm on our faces, we were both wearing sweaters. "You know how high up you sit in one of those dump trucks?"
"Well, she was looking up to see me --craningup, you'd say -- and the sun was full in her face. I could see how old she was. I remember thinking, 'Holy shit, she's gonna break like glass if I can't stop.' But old people are tough, more often than not. They can surprise you. I mean, look at how it turned out, both those old biddies still alive, and your wife..."
He stopped then, bright red color dashing into his cheeks, making him look like a boy who has been laughed at in the schoolyard by girls who have noticed his fly is unzipped. It was comical, but if I'd smiled, it only would have confused him.
"Mr. Noonan, I'm sorry. My mouth just sort of ran away with me."
"It's all right," I told him. "I'm over the worst of it, anyway." That was a lie, but it put us back on track.
"Anyway," he said, "we hit. There was a loud bang, and a crumping sound when the driver's side of the car caved in. Breaking glass, too. I was thrown against the wheel hard enough so I couldn't draw a breath without it hurting for a week or more, and I had a big bruise right here." He drew an arc on his chest just below the collarbones. "I banged my head on the windshield hard enough to crack the glass, but all I got up there was a little purple knob...no bleeding, not even a headache. My wife says I've just got a naturally thick skull. I saw the woman driving the Toyota, Mrs. Easterling, thrown across the console between the front bucket seats. Then we were finally stopped, all tangled together in the middle of the street, and I got out to see how bad they were. I tell you, I expected to find them both dead."
Neither of them was dead, neither of them was even unconscious, although Mrs. Easterling had three broken ribs and a dislocated hip. Mrs. Deorsey, who had been a seat away from the impact, suffered a concussion when she rapped her head on her window. That was all; she was "treated and released at Home Hospital," as theDerry Newsalways puts it in such cases.
My wife, the former Johanna Arlen of Malden, Massachusetts, saw it all from where she stood outside the drugstore, with her purse slung over her shoulder and her prescription bag in one hand. Like Bill Fraker, she must have thought the occupants of the Toyota were either dead or seriously hurt. The sound of the collision had been a hollow, authoritative bang which rolled through the hot afternoon air like a bowling ball down an alley. The sound of breaking glass edged it like jagged lace. The two vehicles were tangled violently together in the middle of Jackson Street, the dirty orange truck looming over the pale-blue import like a bullying parent over a cowering child.
Johanna began to sprint across the parking lot toward the street. Others were doing the same all around her. One of them, Miss Jill Dunbarry, had been window-shopping at Radio Shack when the accident occurred. She said she thought she remembered running past Johanna -- at least she was pretty sure she remembered someone in yellow slacks -- but she couldn't be sure. By then, Mrs. Easterling was screaming that she was hurt, they were both hurt, wouldn't somebody help her and her friend Irene.
Halfway across the parking lot, near a little cluster of newspaper dispensers, my wife fell down. Her purse-strap stayed over her shoulder, but her prescription bag slipped from her hand, and the sinus inhaler slid halfway out. The other item stayed put.
No one noticed her lying there by the newspaper dispensers; everyone was focused on the tangled vehicles, the screaming women, the spreading puddle of water and antifreeze from the Public Works truck's ruptured radiator. ("That's gas!" the clerk from Fast Foto shouted to anyone who would listen. "That's gas, watch out she don't blow, fellas!") I suppose one or two of the would-be rescuers might have jumped right over her, perhaps thinking she had fainted. To assume such a thing on a day when the temperature was pushing ninety-five degrees would not have been unreasonable.
Roughly two dozen people from the shopping center clustered around the accident; another four dozen or so came running over from Strawford Park, where a baseball game had been going on. I imagine that all the things you would expect to hear in such situations were said, many of them more than once. Milling around. Someone reaching through the misshapen hole which had been the driver's-side window to pat Esther's trembling old hand. People immediately giving way for Joe Wyzer; at such moments anyone in a white coat automatically becomes the belle of the ball. In the distance, the warble of an ambulance siren rising like shaky air over an incinerator.
All during this, lying unnoticed in the parking lot, was my wife with her purse still over her shoulder (inside, still wrapped in foil, her uneaten chocolate-marshmallow mouse) and her white prescription bag near one outstretched hand. It was Joe Wyzer, hurrying back to the pharmacy to get a compress for Irene Deorsey's head, who spotted her. He recognized her even though she was lying face-down. He recognized her by her red hair, white blouse, and yellow slacks. He recognized her because he had waited on her not fifteen minutes before.
"Mrs. Noonan?" he asked, forgetting all about the compress for the dazed but apparently not too badly hurt Irene Deorsey. "Mrs. Noonan, are you all right?" Knowing already (or so I suspect; perhaps I am wrong) that she was not.
He turned her over. It took both hands to do it, and even then he had to work hard, kneeling and pushing and lifting there in the parking lot with the heat baking down from above and then bouncing back up from the asphalt. Dead people put on weight, it seems to me; both in their flesh and in our minds, they put on weight.
There were red marks on her face. When I identified her I could see them clearly even on the video monitor. I started to ask the assistant medical examiner what they were, but then I knew. Late August, hot pavement, elementary, my dear Watson. My wife died getting a sunburn.
Wyzer got up, saw that the ambulance had arrived, and ran toward it. He pushed his way through the crowd and grabbed one of the attendants as he got out from behind the wheel. "There's a woman over there," Wyzer said, pointing toward the parking lot.
"Guy, we've got two women right here, and a man as well," the attendant said. He tried to pull away, but Wyzer held on.
"Never mind them right now," he said. "They're basically okay. The woman over there isn't."
The woman over there was dead, and I'm pretty sure Joe Wyzer knew it...but he had his priorities straight. Give him that. And he was convincing enough to get both paramedics moving away from the tangle of truck and Toyota, in spite of Esther Easterling's cries of pain and the rumbles of protest from the Greek chorus.
When they got to my wife, one of the paramedics was quick to confirm what Joe Wyzer had already suspected. "Holy shit," the other one said. "What happened to her?"
"Heart, most likely," the first one said. "She got excited and it just blew out on her."
But it wasn't her heart. The autopsy revealed a brain aneurysm which she might have been living with, all unknown, for as long as five years. As she sprinted across the parking lot toward the accident, that weak vessel in her cerebral cortex had blown like a tire, drowning her control-centers in blood and killing her. Death had probably not been instantaneous, the assistant medical examiner told me, but it had still come swiftly enough...and she wouldn't have suffered. Just one big black nova, all sensation and thought gone even before she hit the pavement.
"Can I help you in any way, Mr. Noonan?" the assistant ME asked, turning me gently away from the still face and closed eyes on the video monitor. "Do you have questions? I'll answer them if I can."
"Just one," I said. I told him what she'd purchased in the drugstore just before she died. Then I asked my question.
The days leading up to the funeral and the funeral itself are dreamlike in my memory -- the clearest memory I have is of eating Jo's chocolate mouse and crying...crying mostly, I think, because I knew how soon the taste of it would be gone. I had one other crying fit a few days after we buried her, and I will tell you about that one shortly.
I was glad for the arrival of Jo's family, and particularly for the arrival of her oldest brother, Frank. It was Frank Arlen -- fifty, red-cheeked, portly, and with a head of lush dark hair -- who organized the arrangements...who wound up actuallydickeringwith the funeral director.
"I can't believe you did that," I said later, as we sat in a booth at Jack's Pub, drinking beers.
"He was trying to stick it to you, Mikey," he said. "I hate guys like that." He reached into his back pocket, brought out a handkerchief, and wiped absently at his cheeks with it. He hadn't broken down -- none of the Arlens broke down, at least not when I was with them -- but Frank had leaked steadily all day; he looked like a man suffering from severe conjunctivitis.
There had been six Arlen sibs in all, Jo the youngest and the only girl. She had been the pet of her big brothers. I suspect that if I'd had anything to do with her death, the five of them would have torn me apart with their bare hands. As it was, they formed a protective shield around me instead, and that was good. I suppose I might have muddled through without them, but I don't know how. I was thirty-six, remember. You don't expect to have to bury your wife when you're thirty-six and she herself is two years younger. Death was the last thing on our minds.
"If a guy gets caught taking your stereo out of your car, they call it theft and put him in jail," Frank said. The Arlens had come from Massachusetts, and I could still hear Malden in Frank's voice --caughtwascoowat, carwascah, callwascaul."If the same guy is trying to sell a grieving husband a three-thousand-dollar casket for forty-five hundred dollars, they call it business and ask him to speak at the Rotary Club luncheon. Greedy asshole, I fed him his lunch, didn't I?"
"Yes. You did."
"You okay, Mikey?"
"How the fuck should I know?" I asked him, loud enough to turn some heads in a nearby booth. And then: "She was pregnant."
His face grew very still. "What?"
I struggled to keep my voice down. "Pregnant. Six or seven weeks, according to the...you know, the autopsy. Did you know? Did she tell you?"
"No! Christ, no!" But there was a funny look on his face, as if she had told himsomething."I knew you were trying, of course...she said you had a low sperm count and it might take a little while, but the doctor thought you guys'd probably...sooner or later you'd probably..." He trailed off, looking down at his hands. "They can tell that, huh? They check for that?"
"They can tell. As for checking, I don't know if they do it automatically or not. I asked."
"She didn't just buy sinus medicine before she died. She also bought one of those home pregnancy-testing kits."
"You had no idea? No clue?"
I shook my head.
He reached across the table and squeezed my shoulder. "She wanted to be sure, that's all. You know that, don't you?"
A refill on my sinus medicine and a piece of fish,she'd said. Looking like always. A woman off to run a couple of errands. We had been trying to have a kid for eight years, but she had looked just like always.
"Sure," I said, patting Frank's hand. "Sure, big guy. I know."
It was the Arlens -- led by Frank -- who handled Johanna's sendoff. As the writer of the family, I was assigned the obituary. My brother came upfrom Virginia with my mom and my aunt and was allowed to tend the guest-book at the viewings. My mother -- almost completely ga-ga at the age of sixty-six, although the doctors refused to call it Alzheimer's -- lived in Memphis with her sister, two years younger and only slightly less wonky. They were in charge of cutting the cake and the pies at the funeral reception.
Everything else was arranged by the Arlens, from the viewing hours to the components of the funeral ceremony. Frank and Victor, the second-youngest brother, spoke brief tributes. Jo's dad offered a prayer for his daughter's soul. And at the end, Pete Breedlove, the boy who cut our grass in the summer and raked our yard in the fall, brought everyone to tears by singing "Blessed Assurance," which Frank said had been Jo's favorite hymn as a girl. How Frank found Pete and persuaded him to sing at the funeral is something I never found out.
We got through it -- the afternoon and evening viewings on Tuesday, the funeral service on Wednesday morning, then the little pray-over at Fairlawn Cemetery. What I remember most was thinking how hot it was, how lost I felt without having Jo to talk to, and that I wished I had bought a new pair of shoes. Jo would have pestered me to death about the ones I was wearing, if she had been there.
Later on I talked to my brother, Sid, told him wehadto do something about our mother and Aunt Francine before the two of them disappeared completely into the Twilight Zone. They were too young for a nursing home; what did Sid advise?
He advised something, but I'll be damned if I know what it was. I agreed to it, I remember that, but not what it was. Later that day, Siddy, our mom, and our aunt climbed back into Siddy's rental car for the drive to Boston, where they would spend the night and then grab the Southern Crescent the following day. My brother is happy enough to chaperone the old folks, but he doesn't fly, even if the tickets are on me. He claims there are no breakdown lanes in the sky if the engine quits.
Most of the Arlens left the next day. Once more it was dog-hot, the sun glaring out of a white-haze sky and lying on everything like melted brass. They stood in front of our house -- which had become solely my house by then -- with three taxis lined up at the curb behind them, big galoots hugging one another amid the litter of tote-bags and saying their goodbyes in those foggy Massachusetts accents.
Frank stayed another day. We picked a big bunch of flowers behind the house -- not those ghastly-smelling hothouse things whose aroma I always associate with death and organ-music but real flowers, the kind Jo liked best -- and stuck them in a couple of coffee cans I found in the back pantry. We went out to Fairlawn and put them on the new grave. Then we just sat there for awhile under the beating sun.
"She was always just the sweetest thing in my life," Frank said at last in a strange, muffled voice. "We took care of Jo when we were kids. Us guys. No one messed with Jo, I'll tell you. Anyone tried, we'd feed em their lunch."
"She told me a lot of stories."
"Yeah, real good."
"I'm going to miss her so much."
"Me, too," I said. "Frank...listen...I know you were her favorite brother. She never called you, maybe just to say that she missed a period or was feeling whoopsy in the morning? You can tell me. I won't be pissed."
"But she didn't. Honest to God.Wasshe whoopsy in the morning?"
"Not that I saw." And that was just it. I hadn't seenanything.Of course I'd been writing, and when I write I pretty much trance out. But she knew where I went in those trances. She could have found me and shaken me fully awake. Why hadn't she? Why would she hide good news? Not wanting to tell me until she was sure was plausible...but it somehow wasn't Jo.
"Was it a boy or a girl?" he asked.
We'd had names picked out and waiting for most of our marriage. A boy would have been Andrew. Our daughter would have been Kia. Kia Jane Noonan.
Frank, divorced six years and on his own, had been staying with me. On our way back to the house he said, "I worry about you, Mikey. You haven't got much family to fall back on at a time like this, and what you do have is far away."
"I'll be all right," I said.
He nodded. "That's what we say, anyway, isn't it?"
"Guys. 'I'll be all right.' And if we're not, we try to make sure no one knows it." He looked at me, eyes still leaking, handkerchief in one big sunburned hand. "If you're not all right, Mikey, and you don't want to call your brother -- I saw the way you looked at him -- let me be your brother. For Jo's sake if not your own."
"Okay," I said, respecting and appreciating the offer, also knowing I would do no such thing. I don't call people for help. It's not because of the way I was raised, at least I don't think so; it's the way I was made. Johanna once said that if I was drowning at Dark Score Lake, where we have a summer home, I would die silently fifty feet out from the public beach rather than yell for help. It's not a question of love or affection. I can give those and I can take them. I feel pain like anyone else. I need to touch and be touched. But if someone asks me, "Are you all right?" I can't answer no. I can't say help me.
A couple of hours later Frank left for the southern end of the state. When he opened the car door, I was touched to see that the taped book he was listening to was one of mine. He hugged me, then surprised me with a kiss on the mouth, a good hard smack. "If you need to talk, call," he said. "And if you need to be with someone, just come."
"And be careful."
That startled me. The combination of heat and grief had made me feel as if I had been living in a dream for the last few days, but that got through.
"Careful of what?"
"I don't know," he said. "I don't know, Mikey." Then he got into his car -- he was so big and it was so little that he looked as if he were wearing it -- and drove away. The sun was going down by then. Do you know how the sun looks at the end of a hot day in August, all orange and somehowsquashed,as if an invisible hand were pushing down on the top of it and at any moment it might just pop like an overfilled mosquito and splatter all over the horizon? It was like that. In the east, where it was already dark, thunder was rumbling. But there was no rain that night, only a dark that came down as thick and stifling as a blanket. All the same, I slipped in front of the word processor and wrote for an hour or so. It went pretty well, as I remember. And you know, even when it doesn't, it passes the time.
My second crying fit came three or four days after the funeral. That sense of being in a dream persisted -- I walked, I talked, I answered the phone, I worked on my book, which had been about eighty per cent complete when Jo died -- but all the time there was this clear sense of disconnection, a feeling that everything was going on at a distance from the real me, that I was more or less phoning it in.
Denise Breedlove, Pete's mother, called and asked if I wouldn't like her to bring a couple of her friends over one day the following week and give the big old Edwardian pile I now lived in alone -- rolling around in it like the last pea in a restaurant-sized can -- a good stem-to-stern cleaning. They would do it, she said, for a hundred dollars split even among the three of them, and mostly because it wasn't good for me to go on without it. There had to be a scrubbing after a death, she said, even if the death didn't happen in the house itself.
I told her it was a fine idea, but I would pay her and the women she brought a hundred dollars each for six hours' work. At the end of the six hours, I wanted the job done. And if it wasn't, I told her, it would be done, anyway.
"Mr. Noonan, that's far too much," she said.
"Maybe and maybe not, but it's what I'm paying," I said. "Will you do it?"
She said she would, of course she would.
Perhaps predictably, I found myself going through the house on the evening before they came, doing a pre-cleaning inspection. I guess I didn't want the women (two of whom would be complete strangers to me) finding anything that would embarrass them or me: a pair of Johanna's silk panties stuffed down behind the sofa cushions, perhaps ("We are often overcome on the sofa, Michael," she said to me once, "have you noticed?"), or beer cans under the loveseat on the sunporch, maybe even an unflushed toilet. In truth, I can't tell you any one thing I was looking for; that sense of operating in a dream still held firm control over my mind. The clearest thoughts I had during those days were either about the end of the novel I was writing (the psychotic killer had lured my heroine to a high-rise building and meant to push her off the roof) or about the Norco Home Pregnancy Test Jo had bought on the day she died. Sinus prescription, she had said. Piece of fish for supper, she had said. And her eyes had shown me nothing else I needed to look at twice.
Near the end of my "pre-cleaning," I looked under our bed and saw an open paperback on Jo's side. She hadn't been dead long, but few household lands are so dusty as the Kingdom of Underbed, and the lightgray coating I saw on the book when I brought it out made me think of Johanna's face and hands in her coffin -- Jo in the Kingdom of Underground. Did it get dusty inside a coffin? Surely not, but --
I pushed the thought away. It pretended to go, but all day long it kept creeping back, like Tolstoy's white bear.
Johanna and I had both been English majors at the University of Maine, and like many others, I reckon, we fell in love to the sound of Shakespeare and the Tilbury Town cynicism of Edwin Arlington Robinson. Yet the writer who had bound us closest together was no college-friendly poet or essayist but W. Somerset Maugham, that elderly globetrotting novelist-playwright with the reptile's face (always obscured by cigarette smoke in his photographs, it seems) and the romantic's heart. So it did not surprise me much to find that the book under the bed wasThe Moon and Sixpence.I had read it myself as a late teenager, not once but twice, identifying passionately with the character of Charles Strickland. (It was writing I wanted to do in the South Seas, of course, not painting.)
She had been using a playing card from some defunct deck as her place-marker, and as I opened the book, I thought of something she had said when I was first getting to know her. In Twentieth-Century British Lit, this had been, probably in 1980. Johanna Arlen had been a fiery little sophomore. I was a senior, picking up the Twentieth-Century Brits simply because I had time on my hands that last semester. "A hundred years from now," she had said, "the shame of the mid-twentieth-century literary critics will be that they embraced Lawrence and ignored Maugham." This was greeted with contemptuously good-natured laughter (they all knewWomen in Lovewas one of the greatest damn books ever written), but I didn't laugh. I fell in love.
The playing card marked pages 102 and 103 -- Dirk Stroeve has just discovered that his wife has left him for Strickland, Maugham's version of Paul Gauguin. The narrator tries to buck Stroeve up.My dear fellow, don't be unhappy. She'll come back...
"Easy for you to say," I murmured to the room which now belonged just to me.
I turned the page and read this:Strickland's injurious calm robbed Stroeve of his self-control. Blind rage seized him, and without knowing what he was doing he flung himself on Strickland. Strickland was taken by surprise and he staggered, but he was very strong, even after his illness, and in a moment, he did not exactly know how, Stroeve found himself on the floor.
"You funny little man, " said Strickland.
It occurred to me that Jo was never going to turn the page and hear Strickland call the pathetic Stroeve a funny little man. In a moment of brilliant epiphany I have never forgotten -- how could I? it was one of the worst moments of my life -- I understood it wasn't a mistake that would be rectified, or a dream from which I would awaken. Johanna was dead.
My strength was robbed by grief. If the bed hadn't been there, I would have fallen to the floor. We weep from our eyes, it's all we can do, but on that evening I felt as if every pore of my body were weeping, every crack and cranny. I sat there on her side of the bed, with her dusty paperback copy ofThe Moon and Sixpencein my hand, and I wailed. I think it was surprise as much as pain; in spite of the corpse I had seen and identified on a high-resolution video monitor, in spite of the funeral and Pete Breedlove singing "Blessed Assurance" in his high, sweet tenor voice, in spite of the graveside service with its ashes to ashes and dust to dust, I hadn't really believed it. The Penguin paperback did for me what the big gray coffin had not: it insisted she was dead.
You funny little man, said Strickland.
I lay back on our bed, crossed my forearms over my face, and cried myself to sleep that way as children do when they're unhappy. I had an awful dream. In it I woke up, saw the paperback ofThe Moon and Sixpencestill lying on the coverlet beside me, and decided to put it back under the bed where I had found it. You know how confused dreams are -- logic like Dalí clocks gone so soft they lie over the branches of trees like throw-rugs.
I put the playing-card bookmark back between pages 102 and 103 -- turn of the index finger away fromYou funny little man, said Stricklandnow and forever -- and rolled onto my side, hanging my head over the edge of the bed, meaning to put the book back exactly where I had found it.
Jo was lying there amid the dust-kitties. A strand of cobweb hung down from the bottom of the box spring and caressed her cheek like a feather. Her red hair looked dull, but her eyes were dark and alert and baleful in her white face. And when she spoke, I knew that death had driven her insane.
"Give me that," she hissed. "It's my dust-catcher." She snatched it out of my hand before I could offer it to her. For a moment our fingers touched, and hers were as cold as twigs after a frost. She opened the book to her place, the playing card fluttering out, and placed Somerset Maugham over her face -- a shroud of words. As she crossed her hands on her bosom and lay still, I realized she was wearing the blue dress I had buried her in. She had come out of her grave to hide under our bed.
I awoke with a muffled cry and a painful jerk that almost tumbled me off the side of the bed. I hadn't been asleep long -- the tears were still damp on my cheeks, and my eyelids had that funny stretched feel they get after a bout of weeping. The dream had been so vivid that I had to roll on my side, hang my head down, and peer under the bed, sure she would be there with the book over her face, that she would reach out with her cold fingers to touch me.
There was nothing there, of course -- dreams are just dreams. Nevertheless, I spent the rest of the night on the couch in my study. It was the right choice, I guess, because there were no more dreams that night. Only the nothingness of good sleep.
Copyright © 1998 by Stephen King
I never suffered from writer's block during the ten years of my marriage, and did not suffer it immediately after Johanna's death. I was in fact so unfamiliar with the condition that it had pretty well set in before I knew anything out of the ordinary was going on. I think this was because in my heart I believed that such conditions only affected "literary" types of the sort who are discussed, deconstructed, and sometimes dismissed in theNew York Review of Books.
My writing career and my marriage covered almost exactly the same span. I finished the first draft of my first novel,Being Two,not long after Jo and I became officially engaged (I popped an opal ring on the third finger of her left hand, a hundred and ten bucks at Day's jewellers, and quite a bit more than I could afford at the time...but Johanna seemed utterly thrilled with it), and I finished my last novel,All the Way from the Top,about a month after she was declared dead. This was the one about the psychotic killer with the love of high places. It was published in the fall of 1995. I have published other novels since then -- a paradox I can explain -- but I don't think there'll be a Michael Noonan novel on any list in the foreseeable future. I know what writer's block is now, all right. I know more about it than I ever wanted to.
When I hesitantly showed Jo the first draft ofBeing Two,she read it in one evening, curled up in her favorite chair, wearing nothing but panties and a tee-shirt with the Maine black bear on the front, drinking glass after glass of iced tea. I went out to the garage (we were renting a house in Bangor with another couple on as shaky financial ground as we were...and no, Jo and I weren't quite married at that point, although as far as I know, that opal ring never left her finger) and puttered aimlessly, feeling like a guy in a New Yorker cartoon -- one of those about funny fellows in the delivery waiting room. As I remember, I fucked up a so-simple-a-child-can-do-it birdhouse kit and almost cut off the index finger of my left hand. Every twenty minutes or so I'd go back inside and peek at Jo. If she noticed, she gave no sign. I took that as hopeful.
I was sitting on the back stoop, looking up at the stars and smoking, when she came out, sat down beside me, and put her hand on the back of my neck.
"Well?" I said.
"It's good," she said. "Now why don't you come inside and do me?" And before I could answer, the panties she had been wearing dropped in my lap in a little whisper of nylon.
Afterward, lying in bed and eating oranges (a vice we later outgrew), I asked her: "Good as in publishable?"
"Well," she said, "I don't know anything about the glamorous world of publishing, but I've been reading for pleasure all my life --Curious Georgewas my first love, if you want to know --"
She leaned over and popped an orange segment into my mouth, her breast warm and provocative against my arm. "-- and I read this with great pleasure. My prediction is that your career as a reporter for theDerry Newsis never going to survive its rookie stage. I think I'm going to be a novelist's wife."
Her words thrilled me -- actually brought goosebumps out on my arms. No, she didn't know anything about the glamorous world of publishing, but if she believed, I believed...and belief turned out to be the right course. I got an agent through my old creative-writing teacher (who read my novel and damned it with faint praise, seeing its commercial qualities as a kind of heresy, I think), and the agent soldBeing Twoto Random House, the first publisher to see it.
Jo was right about my career as a reporter, as well. I spent four months covering flower shows, drag races, and bean suppers at about a hundred a week before my first check from Random House came in -- $27,000, after the agent's commission had been deducted. I wasn't in the newsroom long enough to get even that first minor bump in salary, but they had a going-away party for me just the same. At Jack's Pub, this was, now that I think of it. There was a banner hung over the tables in the back room which said GOOD LUCK MIKE -- WRITE ON! Later, when we got home, Johanna said that if envy was acid, there would have been nothing left of me but my belt-buckle and three teeth.
Later, in bed with the lights out -- the last orange eaten and the last cigarette shared -- I said, "No one's ever going to confuse it withLook Homeward, Angel,are they?" My book, I meant. She knew it, just as she knew I had been fairly depressed by my old creative-writing teacher's response toTwo.
"You aren't going to pull a lot of frustrated-artist crap on me, are you?" she asked, getting up on one elbow. "If you are, I wish you'd tell me now, so I can pick up one of those do-it-yourself divorce kits first thing in the morning."
I was amused, but also a little hurt. "Did you see that first press release from Random House?" I knew she had. "They're just about calling me V. C. Andrews with a prick, for God's sake."
"Well," she said, lightly grabbing the object in question, "youdohave a prick. As far as what they're calling you...Mike, when I was in third grade, Patty Banning used to call me a boogerhooker. But I wasn't."
"Perception is everything."
"Bullshit." She was still holding my dick and now gave it a formidable squeeze that hurt a little and felt absolutely wonderful at the same time. That crazy old trouser mouse never really cared what it got in those days, as long as there was a lot of it. "Happinessis everything. Are you happy when you write, Mike?"
"Sure." It was what she knew, anyway.
"And does your conscience bother you when you write?"
"When I write, there's nothing I'd rather do except this," I said, and rolled on top of her.
"Oh dear," she said in that prissy little voice that always cracked me up. "There's a penis between us."
And as we made love, I realized a wonderful thing or two: that she had meant it when she said she really liked my book (hell, I'd known she liked it just from the way she sat in the wing chair reading it, with a lock of hair falling over her brow and her bare legs tucked beneath her), and that I didn't need to be ashamed of what I had written...not in her eyes, at least. And one other wonderful thing: her perception, joined with my own to make the true binocular vision nothing but marriage allows, was the only perception that mattered.
Thank God she was a Maugham fan.
I was V. C. Andrews with a prick for ten years...fourteen, if you add in the post-Johanna years. The first five were with Random; then my agent got a huge offer from Putnam and I jumped.
You've seen my name on a lot of bestseller lists...if, that is, your Sunday paper carries a list that goes up to fifteen instead of just listing the top ten. I was never a Clancy, Ludlum, or Grisham, but I moved a fair number of hardcovers (V. C. Andrews never did, Harold Oblowski, my agent, told me once; the lady was pretty much a paperback phenomenon) and once got as high as number five on theTimeslist...that was with my second book,The Red-Shirt Man.Ironically, one of the books that kept me from going higher wasSteel Machine,by Thad Beaumont (writing as George Stark). The Beaumonts had a summer place in Castle Rock back in those days, not even fifty miles south of our place on Dark Score Lake. Thad's dead now. Suicide. I don't know if it had anything to do with writer's block or not.
I stood just outside the magic circle of the mega-bestsellers, but I neverminded that. We owned two homes by the time I was thirty-one: the lovely old Edwardian in Derry and, in western Maine, a lakeside log home almost big enough to be called a lodge -- that was Sara Laughs, so called by the locals for nearly a century. And we owned both places free and clear at a time of life when many couples consider themselves lucky just to have fought their way to mortgage approval on a starter home. We were healthy, faithful, and with our fun-bones still fully attached. I wasn't Thomas Wolfe (not even Tom Wolfe or Tobias Wolff), but I was being paid to do what I loved, and there's no gig on earth better than that; it's like a license to steal.
I was what midlist fiction used to be in the forties: critically ignored, genre-oriented (in my case the genre was Lovely Young Woman on Her Own Meets Fascinating Stranger), but well compensated and with the kind of shabby acceptance accorded to state-sanctioned whorehouses in Nevada, the feeling seeming to be that some outlet for the baser instincts should be provided and someone had to do That Sort of Thing. I did That Sort of Thing enthusiastically (and sometimes with Jo's enthusiastic connivance, if I came to a particularly problematic plot crossroads), and at some point around the time of George Bush's election, our accountant told us we were millionaires.
We weren't rich enough to own a jet (Grisham) or a pro football team (Clancy), but by the standards of Derry, Maine, we were quite rolling in it. We made love thousands of times, saw thousands of movies, read thousands of books (Jo storing hers under her side of the bed at the end of the day, more often than not). And perhaps the greatest blessing was that we never knew how short the time was.
More than once I wondered if breaking the ritual is what led to the writer's block. In the daytime, I could dismiss this as supernatural twaddle but at night that was harder to do. At night your thoughts have an unpleasant way of slipping their collars and running free. And if you've spent most of your adult life making fictions, I'm sure those collars are even looser and the dogs less eager to wear them. Was it Shaw or Oscar Wilde who said a writer was a man who had taught his mind to misbehave?
And is it really so far-fetched to think that breaking the ritual might have played a part in my sudden and unexpected (unexpected by me, atleast) silence? When you make your daily bread in the land of makebelieve, the line between what is and what seems to be is much finer. Painters sometimes refuse to paint without wearing a certain hat, and baseball players who are hitting well won't change their socks.
The ritual started with the second book, which was the only one I remember being nervous about -- I suppose I'd absorbed a fair amount of that sophomore-jinx stuff; the idea that one hit might only be a fluke. I remember an American Lit lecturer's once saying that of modern American writers, only Harper Lee had found a foolproof way of avoiding the second-book blues.
When I reached the end ofThe Red-Shirt Man,I stopped just short of finishing. The Edwardian on Benton Street in Derry was still two years in the future at that point, but we had purchased Sara Laughs, the place on Dark Score (not anywhere near as furnished as it later became, and Jo's studio not yet built, but nice), and that's where we were.
I pushed back from my typewriter -- I was still clinging to my old IBM Selectric in those days -- and went into the kitchen. It was mid-September, most of the summer people were gone, and the crying of the loons on the lake sounded inexpressibly lovely. The sun was going down, and the lake itself had become a still and heatless plate of fire. This is one of the most vivid memories I have, so clear I sometimes feel I could step right into it and live it all again. What things, if any, would I do differently? I sometimes wonder about that.
Early that evening I had put a bottle of Taittinger and two flutes in the fridge. Now I took them out, put them on a tin tray that was usually employed to transport pitchers of iced tea or Kool-Aid from the kitchen to the deck, and carried it before me into the living room.
Johanna was deep in her ratty old easy chair, reading a book (not Maugham that night but William Denbrough, one of her contemporary favorites). "Ooo," she said, looking up and marking her place. "Champagne, what's the occasion?" As if, you understand, she didn't know.
"I'm done," I said. "Mon livre est tout fini."
"Well," she said, smiling and taking one of the flutes as I bent down to her with the tray, "thenthat'sall right, isn't it?"
I realize now that the essence of the ritual -- the part that was aliveand powerful, like the one true magic word in a mouthful of gibberish -- was that phrase. We almost always had champagne, and she almost always came into the office with me afterward for the other thing, but not always.
Once, five years or so before she died, she was in Ireland, vacationing with a girlfriend, when I finished a book. I drank the champagne by myself that time, and entered the last line by myself as well (by then I was using a Macintosh which did a billion different things and which I used for only one) and never lost a minute's sleep over it. But I called her at the inn where she and her friend Bryn were staying; I told her I had finished, and listened as she said the words I'd called to hear -- words that slipped into an Irish telephone line, travelled to a microwave transmitter, rose like a prayer to some satellite, and then came back down to my ear: "Well, thenthat'sall right, isn't it?"
This custom began, as I say, after the second book. When we'd each had a glass of champagne and a refill, I took her into the office, where a single sheet of paper still stuck out of my forest-green Selectric. On the lake, one last loon cried down dark, that call that always sounds to me like something rusty turning slowly in the wind.
"I thought you said you were done," she said.
"Everything but the last line," I said. "The book, such as it is, is dedicated to you, and I want you to put down the last bit."
She didn't laugh or protest or get gushy, just looked at me to see if I really meant it. I nodded that I did, and she sat in my chair. She had been swimming earlier, and her hair was pulled back and threaded through a white elastic thing. It was wet, and two shades darker red than usual. I touched it. It was like touching damp silk.
"Paragraph indent?" she asked, as seriously as a girl from the steno pool about to take dictation from the big boss.
"No," I said, "this continues." And then I spoke the line I'd been holding in my head ever since I got up to pour the champagne. "'He slipped the chain over her head, and then the two of them walked down the steps to where the car was parked.'"
She typed it, then looked around and up at me expectantly. "That's it," I said. "You can write The End, I guess."
Jo hit the RETURN button twice, centered the carriage, and typed The End under the last line of prose, the IBM's Courier type ball (my favorite) spinning out the letters in their obedient dance.
"What's the chain he slips over her head?" she asked me.
"You'll have to read the book to find out."
With her sitting in my desk chair and me standing beside her, she was in perfect position to put her face where she did. When she spoke, her lips moved against the most sensitive part of me. There were a pair of cotton shorts between us and that was all.
"Ve haff vays off making you talk," she said.
"I'll just bet you do," I said.
I at least made a stab at the ritual on the day I finishedAll the Way from the Top.It felt hollow, form from which the magical substance had departed, but I'd expected that. I didn't do it out of superstition but out of respect and love. A kind of memorial, if you will. Or, if you will, Johanna's real funeral service, finally taking place a month after she was in the ground.
It was the last third of September, and still hot -- the hottest late summer I can remember. All during that final sad push on the book, I kept thinking how much I missed her...but that never slowed me down. And here's something else: hot as it was in Derry, so hot I usually worked in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, I never once thought of going to our place at the lake. It was as if my memory of Sara Laughs had been entirely wiped from my mind. Perhaps that was because by the time I finishedTop,that truth was finally sinking in. She wasn't just in Ireland this time.
My office at the lake is tiny, but has a view. The office in Derry is long, book-lined, and windowless. On this particular evening, the overhead fans -- there are three of them -- were on and paddling at the soupy air. I came in dressed in shorts, a tee-shirt, and rubber thong sandals, carrying a tin Coke tray with the bottle of champagne and the two chilled glasses on it. At the far end of that railroad-car room, under an eave so steep I'd had to almost crouch so as not to bang my head when I got up (over the years I'd also had to withstand Jo's protests that I'd picked the absolute worst place in the room for a workstation), the screen of my Macintosh glowed with words.
I thought I was probably inviting another storm of grief -- maybe the worst storm -- but I went ahead anyway...and our emotions always surprise us, don't they? There was no weeping and wailing that night; I guess all that was out of my system. Instead there was a deep and wretched sense of loss -- the empty chair where she used to like to sit and read, the empty table where she would always set her glass too close to the edge.
I poured a glass of champagne, let the foam settle, then picked it up. "I'm done, Jo," I said as I sat there beneath the paddling fans. "Sothat'sall right, isn't it?"
There was no response. In light of all that came later, I think that's worth repeating -- there was no response. I didn't sense, as I later did, that I was not alone in a room which appeared empty.
I drank the champagne, put the glass back on the Coke tray, then filled the other one. I took it over to the Mac and sat down where Johanna would have been sitting, if not for everyone's favorite loving God. No weeping and wailing, but my eyes prickled with tears. The words on the screen were these:
today wasn't so bad, she supposed. She crossed the grass to her car, and laughed when she saw the white square of paper under the windshield. Cam Delancey, who refused to be discouraged, or to take no for an answer, had invited her to another of his Thursday-night wine-tasting parties. She took the paper, started to tear it up, then changed her mind and stuck it in the hip pocket of her jeans, instead.
"No paragraph indent," I said, "this continues." Then I keyboarded the line I'd been holding in my head ever since I got up to get the champagne.There was a whole world out there; Cam Delancey's wine-tasting was as good a place to start as any.
I stopped, looking at the little flashing cursor. The tears were still prickling at the corners of my eyes, but I repeat that there were no cold drafts around my ankles, no spectral fingers at the nape of my neck. I hit RETURN twice. I clicked on CENTER. I typed The End below the last line of prose, and then I toasted the screen with what should have been Jo's glass of champagne.
"Here's to you, babe," I said. "I wish you were here. I miss you like hell." My voice wavered a little on that last word, but didn't break. I drank the Taittinger, saved my final line of copy, transferred the whole works to floppy disks, then backed them up. And except for notes, grocery lists, and checks, that was the last writing I did for four years.
Copyright © 1998 by Stephen King
Excerpted from Bag of Bones: 10th Anniversary Edition by Stephen King
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.