“Do you remember my face?” she said suddenly.
“You do remember it, don’t you, because, God, just an hour ago this terrible, horrible thing happened, I couldn’t remember yours, or the color of your eyes, and I realized what a dumb fool I was not to bring your picture along, and it was all gone. That scares me, to think I could forget. You’ll never forget me, will you?”
I didn’t tell her I had forgotten the color of her eyes just the day before and how that had shaken me for an hour and that it was a kind of death but me not being able to figure who had died first, Peg or me.
“Does my voice help?”
“Am I there with you? Do you see my eyes?”
“For God’s sake, first thing you do when you hang up, mail me a picture. I don’t want to be afraid any more…”
“All I have is a lousy twenty-five-cent photo machine picture I…”
“I should never have come down here and left you alone up there, unprotected.”
“You make me sound like your kid.”
“What else are you?”
“I don’t know. Can love protect people, Peg?”
“It must. If it doesn’t protect you, I’ll never forgive God. Let’s keep talking. As long as we talk, love’s there and you’re okay.”
“I’m okay already. You’ve made me well. I was sick today, Peg. Nothing serious. Something I ate. But I’m right now.”
“I’m moving in with you when I get home, no matter what you say. If we get married, fine. You’ll just have to get used to my working while you finish the Great American Epic, and to hell with it, shut up. Someday, later on, you support me!”
“Are you ordering me around?”
“Sure, because I hate to hang up and I just want this to go on all day and I know it’s costing you a mint. Say some more, the things I want to hear.”
I said some more.
And she was gone, the telephone line humming and me left with a piece of wire cable two thousand miles long and a billion shadow whispers lingering there, heading toward me. I cut them off before they could reach my ear and slide inside my head.
I opened the door and stepped out to find Crumley waiting by the icebox, reaching in for sustenance.
“You look surprised?” He laughed. “Forget you were in my house, you were so busy yakking?”
“Forgot,” I said.
And took anything he handed me, out of the fridge, my nose running, my cold making me miserable.
“Grab some Kleenex, kid,” said Crumley. “Take the whole box.”
“And while you’re at it,” he added, “give me the rest of your list.”
“Our list,” I said.
He narrowed his eyes, wiped his balding head with a nervous hand, and nodded.
“Those who will die next, in order of execution.”
He shut his eyes, heavily burdened.
“Our list,” he said.
I did not immediately tell him about Cal.
“And while you’re at it,” Crumley sipped another beer, “Write down the name of the murderer.”
“It would have to be someone who knows everyone in Venice, California,” I said.
“That could be me,” said Crumley.
“Don’t say that.”
“Because,” I said, “it scares me.”
I made the list.
I made two lists.
And then suddenly discovered myself making three.
The first list was short and full of possible murderers, none of which I believed.
The second was Choose Your Victim, and went on at some length, on who would vanish in short order.
And in the middle of it I realized it had been some while since I trapped all the wandering people of Venice. So I did a page on Cal the barber before he fled out of my mind, and another on Shrank running down the street, and another on all those people on the rollercoaster with me plummeting into hell, and yet another on the big night steamboat theater crossing the Styx to ram the Isle of the Dead and (unthinkable!) sink Mr. Shapeshade!
I did a final sermon on Miss Birdsong, and a page about the glass eyes, and took all these pages and put them in my Talking Box. That was the box I kept by my typewriter where my ideas lay and spoke to me early mornings to tell me where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do. I lay half-asleep, listening, and then got up and went to help them, with my typewriter, to go where they most needed to go to do some special wild thing; so my stories got written. Sometimes it was a dog that needed to dig a graveyard. Sometimes it was a time machine that had to go backward. Sometimes it was a man with green wings who had to fly at night lest he be seen. Sometimes it was me, missing Peg in my tombstone bed.
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