CHAPTER 11

As I drove south on the Mile-A-Minute Highway, I tried to convince myself that I needn’t bother with Carolyn Poulin. I told myself she was Al Templeton’s experiment, not mine, and his experiment, like his life, was now over. I reminded myself that the Poulin girl’s case was very different from that of Doris, Troy, Tugga, and Ellen. Yes, Carolyn was going to be paralyzed from the waist down, and yes, that was a terrible thing. But being paralyzed by a bullet is not the same as being beaten to death with a sledgehammer. In a wheelchair or out of it, Carolyn Poulin was going to live a full and fruitful life. I told myself it would be crazy to risk my real mission by yet again daring the obdurate past to reach out, grab me, and chew me up.

None of it would wash.

I had meant to spend my first night on the road in Boston, but the image of Dunning on his father’s grave, with the crushed basket of flowers beneath him, kept recurring. He had deserved to die — hell, needed to — but on October 5 he had as yet done nothing to his family. Not to his second one, anyway. I could tell myself (and did!) that he’d done plenty to his first one, that on October 13 of 1958 he was already a murderer twice over, one of his victims little more than an infant, but I had only Bill Turcotte’s word for that.

I guess in the end, I wanted to balance something that felt bad, no matter how necessary, with something that felt good. So instead of driving to Boston, I got off the turnpike at Auburn and drove west into Maine’s lakes region. I checked into the cabins where Al had stayed, just before nightfall. I got the largest of the four waterside accommodations at a ridiculous off-season rate.

Those five weeks may have been the best of my life. I saw no one but the couple who ran the local store, where I bought a few simple groceries twice a week, and Mr. Winchell, who owned the cabins. He stopped in on Sundays to make sure I was okay and having a good time. Every time he asked, I told him I was, and it was no lie. He gave me a key to the equipment shed, and I took a canoe out every morning and evening when the water was calm. I remember watching the full moon rise silently over the trees on one of those evenings, and how it beat a silver avenue across the water while the reflection of my canoe hung below me like a drowned twin. A loon cried somewhere, and was answered by a pal or a mate. Soon others joined the conversation. I shipped my paddle and just sat there three hundred yards out from shore, watching the moon and listening to the loons converse. I remember thinking if there was a heaven somewhere and it wasn’t like this, then I didn’t want to go.

The fall colors began to bloom — first timid yellow, then orange, then blazing, strumpet red as autumn burned away another Maine summer. There were cardboard boxes filled with coverless paperbacks at the market, and I must have read three dozen or more: mysteries by Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald, Chester Himes, and Richard S. Prather; steamy melodramas like Peyton Place and A Stone for Danny Fisher ; westerns by the score; and one science-fiction novel called The Lincoln Hunters, which concerned time-travelers trying to record a “forgotten” speech by Abraham Lincoln.

When I wasn’t reading or canoeing, I was walking in the woods. Long autumn afternoons, most hazy and warm. Dusty gilded light slanting down through the trees. At night, a quiet so vast it seemed almost to reverberate. Few cars passed on Route 114, and after ten o’clock or so there were none at all. After ten, the part of the world where I had come to rest belonged only to the loons and the wind in the fir trees. Little by little, the image of Frank Dunning lying on his father’s grave began to fade, and I found myself less likely to recall at odd moments how I had dropped the souvenir pillow, still smoldering, over his staring eyes in the Tracker mausoleum.

By the end of October, as the last of the leaves were swirling down from the trees and the nighttime temperatures began to dip into the thirties, I started driving into Durham, getting the lay of the land around Bowie Hill, where a shooting was going to occur in another two weeks. The Friends’ Meeting House Al had mentioned made a convenient landmark. Not far past it, a dead tree was leaning toward the road, probably the one Al had been struggling with when Andrew Cullum came along, already wearing his orange hunting vest. I also made it a point to locate the accidental shooter’s home, and to trace his probable course from there to Bowie Hill.

My plan was no plan at all, really; I’d just follow the trail Al had already blazed. I’d drive to Durham early in the day, park near the fallen tree, struggle with it, then pretend to have a heart attack when Cullum came along and pitched in. But after locating Cullum’s house, I happened to stop for a cold drink at Brownie’s Store half a mile away, and saw a poster in the window that gave me an idea. It was crazy, but sort of interesting.

The poster was headed ANDROSCOGGIN COUNTY CRIBBAGE TOURNAMENT RESULTS. There followed a list of about fifty names. The tourney winner, from West Minot, had scored ten thousand “pegs,” whatever they were. The runner-up had scored ninety-five hundred. In third place, with 8,722 pegs — the name had been circled in red, which was what drew my attention in the first place — was Andy Cullum.

Coincidences happen, but I’ve come to believe they are actually quite rare. Something is at work, okay? Somewhere in the universe (or behind it), a great machine is ticking and turning its fabulous gears.

The next day, I drove back to Cullum’s house just shy of five in the afternoon. I parked behind his Ford woody station wagon and went to the door.

A pleasant-faced woman wearing a ruffled apron and holding a baby in the crook of her arm opened to my knock, and I knew just looking at her that I was doing the right thing. Because Carolyn Poulin wasn’t going to be the only victim on the fifteenth of November, just the one who’d end up in a wheelchair.

“Yes?”

“My name’s George Amberson, ma’am.” I tipped my hat to her. “I wonder if I could speak to your husband.”

Sure I could. He’d already come up behind her and put an arm around her shoulders. A young guy, not yet thirty, now wearing an expression of pleasant inquiry. His baby reached for his face, and when Cullum kissed the kid’s fingers, she laughed. Cullum extended his hand to me, and I shook it.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Amberson?”

I held up the cribbage board. “I noticed at Brownie’s that you’re quite the player. So I have a proposal for you.”

Mrs. Cullum looked alarmed. “My husband and I are Methodists, Mr. Amberson. The tournaments are just for fun. He won a trophy, and I’m happy to polish it for him so it looks good on the mantel, but if you want to play cards for money, you’ve come to the wrong household.” She smiled. I could see it cost her an effort, but it was still a good one. I liked her. I liked both of them.

“She’s right.” Cullum sounded regretful but firm. “I used to play penny-a-peg back when I was working in the woods, but that was before I met Marnie.”

“I’d be crazy to play you for money,” I said, “because I don’t play at all. But I want to learn.”

“In that case, come on in,” he said. “I’ll be happy to teach you. Won’t take but fifteen minutes, and it’s an hour yet before we eat our dinner. Shoot a pickle, if you can add to fifteen and count to thirty-one, you can play cribbage.”

“I’m sure there’s more to it than a little counting and adding, or you wouldn’t have placed third in the Androscoggin Tournament,” I said. “And I actually want a little more than to just learn the rules. I want to buy a day of your time. November the fifteenth, to be exact. From ten in the morning until four in the afternoon, let’s say.”

Now his wife began to look scared. She was holding the baby close to her chest.

“For those six hours of your time, I’ll pay you two hundred dollars.”

Cullum frowned. “What’s your game, mister?”

“I’m hoping to make it cribbage.” That, however, wasn’t going to be enough. I saw it on their faces. “Look, I’m not going to try and kid you that there isn’t more to it, but if I tried to explain, you’d think I was crazy.”

“I think that already,” Marnie Cullum said. “Send him on his way, Andy.”

I turned to her. “It’s nothing bad, it’s nothing illegal, it’s not a scam, and it’s not dangerous. I take my oath on it.” But I was starting to think it wasn’t going to work, oath or no oath. It had been a bad idea. Cullum would be doubly suspicious when he met me near the Friends’ Meeting House on the afternoon of the fifteenth.

But I kept pushing. It was a thing I’d learned to do in Derry.

“It’s just cribbage, ” I said. “You teach me the game, we play for a few hours, I give you two hundred bucks, and we all part friends. What do you say?”

“Where are you from, Mr. Amberson?”

“Upstate in Derry, most recently. I’m in commercial real estate. Right now I’m vacationing on Sebago Lake before heading back down south. Do you want some names? References, so to speak?” I smiled. “People who’ll tell you I’m not nuts?”

“He goes out in the woods on Saturdays during hunting season,” Mrs. Cullum said. “It’s the only chance he gets, because he works all week and when he gets home it’s so close to dark it doesn’t even pay to load a gun.”

She still looked mistrustful, but now I saw something else on her face that gave me hope. When you’re young and have a kid, when your husband works manual labor — which his chapped, callused hands said he did — two hundred bucks can mean a lot of groceries. Or, in 1958, two and a half house payments.

“I could miss an afternoon in the woods,” Cullum said. “Town’s pretty well hunted out, anyway. The only place left where you can get a damn deer is Bowie Hill.”

“Watch your language around the baby, Mr. Cullum,” she said. Her tone was sharp, but she smiled when he kissed her cheek.

“Mr. Amberson, I need to talk to m’wife,” Cullum said. “Do you mind standing on the stoop for a minute or two?”

“I’ll do better than that,” I said. “I’ll go down to Brownie’s and get myself a dope.” That was what most Derryites called sodas. “Can I bring either of you back a cold drink?”

They declined with thanks, and then Marnie Cullum closed the door in my face. I drove to Brownie’s, where I bought an Orange Crush for myself and a licorice whip I thought the baby might like, if she was old enough to have such things. The Cullums were going to turn me down, I thought. With thanks, but firmly. I was a strange man with a strange proposal. I had hoped that changing the past might be easier this time, because Al had already changed it twice. Apparently that wasn’t going to be the case.

But I got a surprise. Cullum said yes, and his wife allowed me to give the licorice to the little girl, who received it with a gleeful chortle, sucked on it, then ran it through her hair like a comb. They even invited me to stay for the evening meal, which I declined. I offered Andy Cullum a fifty-dollar retainer, which he declined. . until his wife insisted that he take it.

I went back to Sebago feeling exultant, but as I drove back to Durham on the morning of November fifteenth (the fields white with a frost so thick that the orange-clad hunters, who were already out in force, left tracks), my mood had changed. He will have called the State Police or the local constable, I thought. And while they’re questioning me in the nearest police station, trying to find out what kind of loony I am, Cullum will be off hunting in the Bowie Hill woods.

But there was no police car in the driveway, just Andy Cullum’s Ford woody. I took my new cribbage board and went to the door. He opened it and said, “Ready for your lesson, Mr. Amberson?”

I smiled. “Yes, sir, I am.”

He took me out to the back porch; I don’t think the missus wanted me in the house with her and the baby. The rules were simple. Pegs were points, and a game was two laps around the board. I learned about the right jack, double runs, being stuck in the mudhole, and what Andy called “mystic nineteen”—the so-called impossible hand. Then we played. I kept track of the score to begin with, but quit once Cullum pulled four hundred points ahead. Every now and then some hunter would bang off a distant round, and Cullum would look toward the woods beyond his small backyard.

“Next Saturday,” I said on one of these occasions. “You’ll be out there next Saturday, for sure.”

“It’ll probably rain,” he said, then laughed. “I should complain, huh? I’m having fun and making money. And you’re getting better, George.”

Marnie gave us lunch at noon — big tuna sandwiches and bowls of homemade tomato soup. We ate in the kitchen, and when we were done, she suggested we bring our game inside. She had decided I wasn’t dangerous, after all. That made me happy. They were nice people, the Cullums. A nice couple with a nice baby. I thought of them sometimes when I heard Lee and Marina Oswald screaming at each other in their low-end apartments. . or saw them, on at least one occasion, carry their animus out onto the street. The past harmonizes; it also tries to balance, and mostly succeeds. The Cullums were at one end of the seesaw; the Oswalds were at the other.

And Jake Epping, also known as George Amberson? He was the tipping point.

Toward the end of our marathon session, I won my first game. Three games later, at just a few minutes past four, I actually skunked him, and laughed with delight. Baby Jenna laughed right along with me, then leaned forward from her highchair and gave my hair a companionable tug.

“That’s it!” I cried, laughing. The three Cullums were laughing right along with me. “That’s the one I stop on!” I took out my wallet and laid three fifties down on the red-and-white checked oilcloth covering the kitchen table. “And worth every cent!”

Andy pushed it back to my side. “Put it in your billfold where it belongs, George. I had too much fun to take your money.”

I nodded as if I agreed, then pushed the bills to Marnie, who snatched them up. “Thank you, Mr. Amberson.” She looked reproachfully at her husband, then back at me. “We can really use this.”

“Good.” I got up and stretched, hearing my spine crackle. Somewhere — five miles from here, maybe seven — Carolyn Poulin and her father were getting back into a pickemup with POULIN CONSTRUCTION AND CARPENTRY painted on the door. Maybe they’d gotten a deer, maybe not. Either way, I was sure they’d had a nice afternoon in the woods, talking about whatever fathers and daughters talk about, and good for them.

“Stay for supper, George,” Marnie said. “I’ve got beans and hot-dogs.”

So I stayed, and afterward we watched the news on the Cullums’ little table-model TV. There had been a hunting accident in New Hampshire, but none in Maine. I allowed myself to be talked into a second dish of Marnie’s apple cobbler, although I was full to bursting, then stood and thanked them very much for their hospitality.

Andy Cullum put out his hand. “Next time we play for free, all right?”

“You bet.” There was going to be no next time, and I think he knew that.

His wife did, too, it turned out. She caught up to me just before I got into my car. She had swaddled a blanket around the baby and put a little hat on her head, but Marnie had no coat on herself. I could see her breath, and she was shivering.

“Mrs. Cullum, you should go in before you catch your death of c—”

“What did you save him from?”

“I beg pardon?”

“I know that’s why you came. I prayed on it while you and Andy were out there on the porch. God sent me an answer, but not the whole answer. What did you save him from?”

I put my hands on her shivering shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Marnie. . if God had wanted you to know that part, He would have told you.”

Abruptly she put her arms around me and hugged me. Surprised, I hugged her back. Baby Jenna, caught in between, goggled up at us.

“Whatever it was, thank you,” Marnie whispered in my ear. Her warm breath gave me goosebumps.

“Go inside, hon. Before you freeze.”

The front door opened. Andy was standing there, holding a can of beer. “Marnie? Marn?”

She stepped back. Her eyes were wide and dark. “God brought us a guardian angel,” she said. “I won’t speak of this, but I’ll hold it. And ponder it in my heart.” Then she hurried up the walk to where her husband was waiting.

Angel. It was the second time I’d heard that, and I pondered the word in my own heart, both that night while I lay in my cabin, waiting for sleep, and the next day as I drifted my canoe across still Sunday waters under a cold blue tilting-to-winter sky.

Guardian angel.

On Monday the seventeenth of November, I saw the first whirling flurries of snow, and took them as a sign. I packed up, drove down to Sebago Village, and found Mr. Winchell drinking coffee and eating doughnuts at the Lakeside Restaurant (in 1958, folks eat a lot of doughnuts). I gave him my keys and told him I’d had a wonderful, restorative time. His face lit up.

“That’s good, Mr. Amberson. That’s just how it’s s’posed to be. You’re paid until the end of the month. Give me an address where I can send you a refund for your last two weeks, and I’ll put a check in the mail.”

“I won’t be entirely sure where I’m going until the brass in the home office makes up its corporate mind,” I said, “but I’ll be sure to write you.” Time-travelers lie a lot.

He held out his hand. “Been a pleasure having you.”

I shook it. “The pleasure was all mine.”

I got in my car and drove south. That night I registered at Boston’s Parker House, and checked out the infamous Combat Zone. After the weeks of peace on Sebago, the neon jangled my eyes and the surging crowds of night prowlers — mostly young, mostly male, many wearing uniforms — made me feel both agoraphobic and homesick for those peaceful nights in western Maine, when the few stores closed at six and traffic dried up at ten.

I spent the following night at the Hotel Harrington, in D.C. Three days later I was on the west coast of Florida.

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