Bag of Bones
To an extent, this novel deals with the legal aspects of child custody in the State of Maine. I asked for help in understanding this subject from my friend Warren Silver, who is a fine attorney. Warren guided me carefully, and along the way he also told me about a quaint old device called the Stenomask, which I immediately appropriated for my own fell purposes. If I’ve made procedural mistakes in the story which follows, blame me, not my legal resource. Warren also asked me–
rather plaintively — if I could maybe put a ‘good’ lawyer in my book. All I can say is that I did my best in that regard.
Thanks to my son Owen for technical support in Woodstock, New York, and to my friend (and fellow Rock Bottom Remainder) Ridley Pearson for technical support in Ketchum, Idaho. Thanks to Pam Dorman for her sympathetic and perceptive reading of the first draft. Thanks to Chuck Verrill for a monumental editing job–your personal best, Chuck. Thanks to Susan Moldow, Nan Graham, Jack Roman s, and Carolyn Reidy at Scribner for care and feeding. And thanks to Tabby, who was there for me again when things got hard. I love you, hon.
Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and
noiseless as any of these old chairs; in short, I never feel so private as when I know you are here.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .
As I stood there, hushed and still, I could swear that
the house was not an empty shell but lived and breathed
as it had lived before.
DAPHNE DU MAURIER
Mars is heaven.
BAG OF BONES
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’t 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? ‘ I nodded. ‘Well, she was looking up to see me — craning up, 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.
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