“I’ll do it myself, then.”
“Think what you just said. You got to eat sometime, or sleep. You can’t be here and you know it. The first time you run for a hotdog is when he, him, who, whomever, if he exists, will come in, make her sneeze, and she’s gone. There was never any man here. It was only an old hairball blowing by in the night. The old guy heard it first. Mrs. Canary hears it now.”
Crumley stared up the long, dark stairs toward the place of no birdsong, no springtime in the Rockies, no bad organist playing for his tiny yellow friends in some lost year.
“Give me time to think, kid,” he said.
“And let you be an accessory to murder?”
“There you go again!” Crumley yanked the door so it screamed on its hinges. “How come I spend half my time almost liking you and the rest being mad as hell?”
“Do I do that to you?” I said.
But he was gone.
Crumley did not call for twenty-four hours.
Grinding my teeth into a fine powder, I primed my Underwood and steamrollered Crumley into the platen.
“Speak!” I typed.
“How come,” Crumley responded, typing from somewhere inside my amazing machine, “I spend half my time almost liking you and the rest being mad as hell?”
Then the machine typed, “I’ll telephone you on the day the old canary lady dies.”
It’s obvious that years back I had pasted two gummed labels on my Underwood. One read: OFFICIAL OUIJA BOARD. The other, in large letters: DON’T THINK.
I didn’t. I just let the old Ouija board bang and clatter.
“How soon do we work together on this problem?”
“You,” responded Crumley in my fingertips, “are the problem!”
“Will you become a character in my novel?”
“I already am.”
“Then help me.”
I tore the page out of the machine.
Just then, my private phone rang.
It seemed it took me ten miles of running to get there, thinking,
All the women in my life have been librarians, teachers, writers, or booksellers. Peg was at least three of those, but she was far away now, and it terrified me.
She had been all summer in Mexico, finishing studies in Spanish literature, learning the language, traveling on trains with mean peons or busses with happy pigs, writing me love-scorched letters from Tamazunchale or bored ones from Acapulco where the sun was too bright and the gigolos not bright enough; not for her anyway, friend to Henry James and consultant to Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin. She carried a lunch-bucket full of books everywhere. I often thought she ate the brothers Goncourt like high tea sandwiches in the late afternoons.
Once a week she called from somewhere lost in the church-towns or big cities, just come up out of the mummy catacombs at Guanajuato or gasping after a climb down Teotihuacan, and we listened to each other’s heartbeats for three short minutes and said the same dumb things to each other over and over and over; the sort of litany that sounds fine no matter how long or often you say it.
Each week, when the call came, the sun blazed over the phone booth.
Each week, when the talk stopped, the sun died and the fog arose. I wanted to run pull the covers over my head. Instead, I punched my typewriter into bad poems, or wrote a tale about a Martian wife who, lovesick, dreams that an earthman drops from the sky to take her away, and gets shot for his trouble.
Some weeks, as poor as I was, we pulled the old telephone operator, calling from Mexico City, would ask for me.
“Who?” I would say, “What was that again? Operator,” would hear Peg sigh, far away. The more I talked nonsense, the longer I was on the line.
“Just a moment, operator, let me get that again. The operator repeated my name. “Wait, let me see if he’s here. Who’s calling? And Peg’s voice, swiftly, would respond from two thousand miles off. “Tell him it’s Peg! Peg.”
And I would pretend to go away and return. “He’s not here. Call back in an hour.” “An hour…” echoed Peg. And click, buzz, hum, she was gone.
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