I shook my head. “That’s her nest. I’ve tried to get her out to movies, to plays, even to operas. Forget it. She hasn’t been out on the street in over ten years. To take her away from the tenement, her big elephant boneyard, well…”
Constance Rattigan sighed and refilled my glass.
“It wouldn’t do any good anyway, would it?”
She was reading my profile. I was reading the dark surf out beyond the French windows where the tidal sands turned in their sleep, in their own good time.
“It’s always too late, isn’t it?” Constance Rattigan went on. “There’s no way to protect Fannie or anyone, not if someone wants to hurt or kill you.”
“Who said anything about killing?” I protested.
“You’ve got the kind of plain pink pumpkin face that shows everything. When I told fortunes it wasn’t tea leaves, it was obvious eyes and vulnerable mouths. Fannie’s spooked and that spooks me. For the first time in years, when I swim at night, I figure a big wave will take me so far out I’ll never make it back. Christ, I hate to have my one really big enjoyment spoiled like this.” Then she added, swiftly, “You wouldn’t be the spoiler, would you?”
Suddenly she sounded like Crumley, or Fannie telling me not to “bring anyone with.”
I must have looked so startled that she barked a laugh.
“Hell, no. You’re just one of those guys who kill people on paper so’s not to kill for real. Sorry.”
But I was on my feet now, bursting to say something, tell wild things, but I wasn’t sure what.
“Look,” I said. “It’s been a crazy month. I’m beginning to notice things maybe I never noticed before. I never read the obituaries, ever. Now I do. You ever have weeks or months when too many friends go mad, or go away, or drop dead?”
“At sixty,” Constance Rattigan laughed ironically, “there are whole years like that. I’m afraid to go down any flight of stairs; friend broke his neck that way. Afraid of eating; two friends choked. The ocean? Three friends drowned. Airplanes? Six friends smashed. Cars, twenty. Sleeping? Hell, yes. Ten friends died in their sleep, said what the hell and quit. Drinking? Fourteen friends with cirrhosis. List me some lists. It’s only begun for you. I’ve got a phone book here, look.”
She grabbed a small black book off the table near the door and tossed it to me.
“Book of the dead.”
I turned the pages, saw the names. There were little red crosses by fifty percent of the names on each page.
“That personal phone book is thirty-five years old. So half the people in it have been gone quite a while, and I don’t have the guts to finally erase or yank out the names. It would be like a final death. So I guess I’m the same sort of custard you are, son.”
She took the book of the dead back from me.
I felt a cold wind from the window and heard the beach sand stir as if a great and invisible beast had put a huge paw down on it.
“I didn’t spook Fannie,” I said, at last. “I’m not Typhoid Mary. I don’t carry the disease. If it’s anywhere tonight, or here, it’s on its own. My stomach’s been ruined for days. People are dying or running away, and there’s no connection, and I can’t prove anything. I’m around or near when it happens and I feel guilty I can’t see, know, tell, stop it. I have this god-awful feeling it’ll go on more days than I can bear. Everyone I look at, now, I think, I wonder if he or she is next, and know that if I wait long enough, of course, everyone goes. They just seem to be going faster this week. That’s all I’m going to say. Now I’ll shut up.”
She came and kissed the ends of her fingers and put the fingertips on my mouth. “I won’t rile you again. For a custard, you snap back. What now, another drink? Want to run films?
Midnight dip in my pool? Mercy sex with your film mother? None of the above?”
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