During the next eleven weeks I once more lived two lives. There was the one I hardly knew about — the outside life — and the one I knew all too well. That was the one inside, where I often dreamed of the Yellow Card Man.
In the outside life, the walker-lady (Alberta Hitchinson; Sadie sought her out and brought her a bouquet of flowers) stood over me on the sidewalk and hollered until a neighbor came out, saw the situation, and called the ambulance that took me to Parkland. The doctor who treated me there was Malcolm Perry, who would later treat both John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald as they lay dying. With me he had better luck, although it was a close thing.
I had sustained broken teeth, a broken nose, a broken cheekbone, a fractured left knee, a broken left arm, dislocated fingers, and abdominal injuries. I had also suffered a brain injury, which was what concerned Perry the most.
I was told I woke up and howled when my belly was palpated, but I have no memory of it. I was catheterized and immediately began pissing what boxing announcers would have called “the claret.” My vitals were at first stable, then began sliding. I was typed, cross-matched, and given four units of whole blood. . which, Sadie told me later, the residents of Jodie made up a hundred times over at a community blood drive in late September. She had to tell me several times, because I kept forgetting. I was prepped for abdominal surgery, but first a neurology consult and a spinal tap — there’s no such thing as CT scans or MRIs in the Land of Ago.
I’m also told I had a conversation with two of the nurses prepping me for the tap. I told them that my wife had a drinking problem. One of them said that was too bad and asked me what her name was. I told them she was a fish called Wanda and laughed quite heartily. Then I passed out again.
My spleen was trashed. They removed it.
While I was still conked out and my spleen was going wherever no longer useful but not absolutely vital organs go, I was turned over to Orthopedics. There my broken arm was put in a splint and my broken leg in a plaster cast. Many people signed it over the following weeks. Sometimes I knew the names; usually I didn’t.
I was kept sedated with my head stabilized and my bed raised to exactly thirty degrees. The phenobarbital wasn’t because I was conscious (although sometimes I muttered, Sadie said) but because they were afraid I might suddenly come around and damage myself further. Basically, Perry and the other docs (Ellerton also came in regularly to monitor my progress) were treating my battered chump like an unexploded bomb.
To this day I’m not entirely sure what hematocrit and hemoglobin are, but mine started to come back up and that pleased everybody. I had another spinal tap three days later. This one showed signs of old blood, and when it comes to spinal taps, old is better than new. It indicated that I had sustained significant brain trauma, but they could forgo drilling a burr-hole in my skull, a risky procedure given all the battles my body was fighting on other fronts.
But the past is obdurate and protects itself against change. Five days after I was admitted, the flesh around the splenectomy incision began to turn red and warm. The following day the incision reopened and I spiked a fever. My condition, which had been downgraded from critical to serious after the second spinal tap, zipped back up to critical. According to my chart, I was “sedated as per Dr. Perry and neurologically minimally responsive.”
On September seventh, I woke up briefly. Or so I’m told. A woman, pretty despite her scarred face, and an old man with a cowboy hat in his lap were sitting by my bed.
“Do you know your name?” the woman asked.
“Puddentane,” I said. “Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same.”
Mr. Jake George Puddentane Epping-Amberson spent seven weeks in Parkland before being moved to a rehab center — a little housing complex for sick people — on the north side of Dallas. During those seven weeks I was on IV antibiotics for the infection that had set up shop where my spleen used to be. The splint on my broken arm was replaced with a long cast, which also filled up with names I didn’t know. Shortly before moving to Eden Fallows, the rehab center, I graduated to a short cast on my arm. Around that same time, a physical therapist began to torture my knee back to something resembling mobility. I was told I screamed a lot, but I don’t remember.
Malcolm Perry and the rest of the Parkland staff saved my life, I have no doubt about that. They also gave me an unintended and unwelcome gift that lasted well into my time at Eden Fallows. This was a secondary infection caused by the antibiotics being pumped into my system to beat the primary one. I have hazy memories of vomiting and of spending what seemed like whole days with my ass on a bedpan. I remember thinking at one point I have to go to the Derry Drug and see Mr. Keene. I need Kaopectate. But who was Mr. Keene, and where was Derry?
They let me out of the hospital when I began to hold food down again, but I’d been at Eden Fallows almost two weeks before the diarrhea stopped. By then it was nearing the end of October. Sadie (usually I remembered her name; sometimes it slipped my mind) brought me a paper jack-o’-lantern. This memory is very clear, because I screamed when I saw it. They were the screams of someone who has forgotten something vitally important.
“What?” she asked me. “What is it, honey? What’s wrong? Is it Kennedy? Something about Kennedy?”
“He’s going to kill them all with a hammer!” I shouted at her. “On Halloween night! I have to stop him!”
“Who?” She took my waving hands, her face frightened. “Stop who?”
But I couldn’t remember, and I fell asleep. I slept a lot, and not just because of the slowly healing head injury. I was exhausted, little more than a ghost of my former self. On the day of the beating, I had weighed one hundred and eighty-five pounds. By the time I was released from the hospital and installed in Eden Fallows, I weighed a hundred and thirty-eight.
That was the outside life of Jake Epping, a man who had been beaten badly, then nearly died in the hospital. My inside life was blackness, voices, and flashes of understanding that were like lightning: they blinded me with their brilliance and were gone again before I could get more than glimpses of the landscape by their light. I was mostly lost, but every now and then I found myself.
Found myself hellishly hot, and a woman was feeding me ice chips that tasted heavenly cool. This was THE WOMAN WITH THE SCAR, who was sometimes Sadie.
Found myself on the commode in the corner of the room with no idea how I’d gotten there, unloosing what felt like gallons of watery burning shit, my side itching and throbbing, my knee bellowing. I remember wishing someone would kill me.
Found myself trying to get out of bed, because I had to do something terribly important. It seemed to me that the whole world was depending on me to do this thing. THE MAN WITH THE COWBOY HAT was there. He caught me and helped me back into bed before I fell on the floor. “Not yet, son,” he said. “You’re nowhere near strong enough.”
Found myself talking — or trying to talk — to a pair of uniformed policemen who had come to ask questions about the beating I’d taken. One of them had a name tag that said TIPPIT. I tried to tell him he was in danger. I tried to tell him to remember the fifth of November. It was the right month but the wrong day. I couldn’t remember the actual date and began to thump at my stupid head in frustration. The cops looked at each other, puzzled. NOT-TIPPIT called for a nurse. The nurse came with a doctor, the doctor gave me a shot, and I floated away.
Found myself listening to Sadie as she read to me, first Jude the Obscure, then Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I knew those stories, and listening to them again was comforting. At one point during Tess, I remembered something.
“I made Tessica Caltrop leave us alone.”
Sadie looked up. “Do you mean Jessica ? Jessica Caltrop? You did? How? Do you remember?”
But I didn’t. It was gone.
Found myself looking at Sadie as she stood at my little window, staring out at the rain and crying.
But mostly I was lost.
THE MAN WITH THE COWBOY HAT was Deke, but once I thought he was my grandfather, and that scared me very badly, because Grampy Epping was dead, and—
Epping, that was my name. Hold onto it, I told myself, but at first I couldn’t.
Several times AN ELDERLY WOMAN WITH RED LIPSTICK came to see me. Sometimes I thought her name was Miz Mimi; sometimes I thought it was Miz Ellie; once I was quite sure she was Irene Ryan, who played Granny Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies. I told her that I’d thrown my cell phone into a pond. “Now it sleeps with the fishes. I sure wish I had that sucker back.”
A YOUNG COUPLE came. Sadie said, “Look, it’s Mike and Bobbi Jill.”
I said, “Mike Coleslaw.”
THE YOUNG MAN said, “That’s close, Mr. A.” He smiled. A tear ran down his cheek when he did.
Later, when Sadie and Deke came to Eden Fallows, they would sit with me on the couch. Sadie would take my hand and ask, “What’s his name, Jake? You never told me his name. How can we stop him if we don’t know who he is or where he is going to be?”
I said, “I’m going to flop him.” I tried very hard. It made the back of my head hurt, but I tried even harder. “Stop him.”
“You couldn’t stop a cinchbug without our help,” Deke said.
But Sadie was too dear and Deke was too old. She shouldn’t have told him in the first place. Maybe that was all right, though, because he didn’t really believe it.
“The Yellow Card Man will stop you if you get involved,” I said. “I’m the only one he can’t stop.”
“Who is the Yellow Card Man?” Sadie asked, leaning forward and taking my hands.
“I don’t remember, but he can’t stop me because I don’t belong here.”
Only he was stopping me. Or something was. Dr. Perry said my amnesia was shallow and transient, and he was right. . but only up to a point. If I tried too hard to remember the things that mattered most, my head ached fiercely, my limping walk became a stumble, and my vision blurred. Worst of all was the tendency to suddenly fall asleep. Sadie asked Dr. Perry if it was narcolepsy. He said probably not, but I thought he looked worried.
“Does he wake when you call him or shake him?”
“Always,” Sadie said.
“Is it more likely to happen when he’s upset because he can’t remember something?”
Sadie agreed that it was.
“Then I’m quite sure it will pass, the way his amnesia is passing.”
At last — little by slowly — my inside world began to merge with the outside one. I was Jacob Epping, I was a teacher, and I had somehow traveled back in time to stop the assassination of President Kennedy. I tried to reject the idea at first, but I knew too much about the intervening years, and those things weren’t visions. They were memories. The Rolling Stones, the Clinton impeachment hearings, the World Trade Center in flames. Christy, my troubled and troublesome ex-wife.
One night while Sadie and I were watching Combat, I remembered what I had done to Frank Dunning.
“Sadie, I killed a man before I came to Texas. It was in a graveyard. I had to. He was going to murder his whole family.”
She looked at me, eyes wide and mouth open.
“Turn off the TV,” I said. “The guy who plays Sergeant Saunders — can’t remember his name — is going to be decapitated by a helicopter blade. Please, Sadie, turn it off.”
She did, then knelt before me.
“Who’s going to kill Kennedy? Where is he going to be when he does it?”
I tried my hardest, and I didn’t fall asleep, but I couldn’t remember. I had gone from Maine to Florida, I remembered that. In the Ford Sunliner, a great car. I had gone from Florida to New Orleans, and when I left New Orleans, I’d come to Texas. I remembered listening to “Earth Angel” on the radio as I crossed the state line, doing seventy miles per hour on Highway 20. I remembered a sign: TEXAS WELCOMES YOU . And a billboard advertising SONNY’S B-B-Q, 27 MI. After that, a hole in the film. On the other side were emerging memories of teaching and living in Jodie. Brighter memories of swing-dancing with Sadie and lying in bed with her at the Candlewood Bungalows. Sadie told me I’d also lived in Fort Worth and Dallas, but she didn’t know where; all she had were two phone numbers that no longer worked. I didn’t know where, either, although I thought one of the places might have been on Cadillac Street. She checked roadmaps and said there was no Cadillac Street in either city.
I could remember a lot of things now, but not the assassin’s name, or where he was going to be when he made his try. And why not? Because the past was keeping it from me. The obdurate past.
“The assassin has a child,” I said. “I think her name is April.”
“Jake, I’m going to ask you something. It might make you mad, but since a lot depends on this — the fate of the world, according to you — I need to.”
“Go ahead.” I couldn’t think of anything she might ask that would make me angry.
“Are you lying to me?”
“No,” I said. It was true. Then.
“I told Deke we needed to call the police. He showed me a piece in the Morning News that said there have already been two hundred death threats and tips about potential assassins. He says both the right-wingers from Dallas — Fort Worth and the left-wingers from San Antonio are trying to scare Kennedy out of Texas. He says the Dallas police are turning all the threats and tips over to the FBI and they’re doing nothing. He says the only person J. Edgar Hoover hates more than JFK is his brother Bobby.”
I didn’t much care who J. Edgar Hoover hated. “Do you believe me?”
“Yes,” she said, and sighed. “Is Vic Morrow really going to die?”
That was his name, sure. “He is.”
“Making Combat ?”
“No, a movie.”
She burst into tears. “Don’t you die, Jake — please. I only want you to get better.”
I had a lot of bad dreams. The locations varied — sometimes it was an empty street that looked like Main Street in Lisbon Falls, sometimes it was the graveyard where I’d shot Frank Dunning, sometimes it was the kitchen of Andy Cullum, the cribbage ace — but usually it was Al Templeton’s diner. We sat in a booth with the photos on his Town Wall of Celebrity looking down at us. Al was sick — dying — but his eyes were full of bright intensity.
“The Yellow Card Man’s the personification of the obdurate past,” Al said. “You know that, don’t you?”
Yes, I knew that.
“He thought you’d die from the beating, but you didn’t. He thought you’d die of the infections, but you didn’t. Now he’s walling off those memories — the vital ones — because he knows it’s his last hope of stopping you.”
“How can he? He’s dead.”
Al shook his head. “No, that’s me.”
“Who is he? What is he? And how can he come back to life? He cut his own throat and the card turned black! I saw it!”
“Dunno, buddy. All I know is that he can’t stop you if you refuse to stop. You have to get at those memories. ”
“Help me, then!” I shouted, and grabbed the hard claw of his hand. “Tell me the guy’s name! Is it Chapman? Manson? Both of those ring a bell, but neither one seems right. You got me into this, so help me! ”
At that point in the dream Al opens his mouth to do just that, but the Yellow Card Man intervenes. If we’re on Main Street, he comes out of the greenfront or the Kennebec Fruit. If it’s the cemetery, he rises from an open grave like a George Romero zombie. If in the diner, the door bursts open. The card he wears in the hatband of his fedora is so black it looks like a rectangular hole in the world. He’s dead and decomposing. His ancient overcoat is splotched with mold. His eye-sockets are writhing balls of worms.
“He can’t tell you nothing because it’s double-money day!” the Yellow Card Man who is now the Black Card Man screams.
I turn back to Al, only Al has become a skeleton with a cigarette clamped in its teeth, and I wake up, sweating. I reach for the memories but the memories aren’t there.
Deke brought me the newspaper stories about the impending Kennedy visit, hoping they would jog something loose. They didn’t. Once, while I was lying on the couch (I was just coming out of one of my sudden sleeps), I heard the two of them arguing yet again about calling the police. Deke said an anonymous tip would be disregarded and one that came with a name attached would get all of us in trouble.
“I don’t care!” Sadie shouted. “I know you think he’s nuts, but what if he’s right? How are you going to feel if Kennedy goes back to Washington from Dallas in a box ?”
“If you bring the police in, they’ll focus on Jake, sweetie. And according to you, he killed a man up in New England before he came here.”
Sadie, Sadie, I wish you hadn’t told him that.
She stopped arguing, but she didn’t give up. Sometimes she tried to surprise it out of me, the way you can supposedly surprise someone out of the hiccups. It didn’t work.
“What am I going to do with you?” she asked sadly.
“I don’t know.”
“Try to come at it some other way. Try to sneak up on it.”
“I have. I think the guy was in the Army or the Marines.” I rubbed at the back of my head, where the ache was starting again. “But it might have been the Navy. Shit, Christy, I don’t know.”
“Sadie, Jake. I’m Sadie.”
“Isn’t that what I said?”
She shook her head and tried to smile.
On the twelfth, the Tuesday after Veterans Day, the Morning News ran a long editorial about the impending Kennedy visit and what it meant for the city. “Most residents seem ready to welcome the young and inexperienced president with open arms,” the piece said. “Excitement is running high. Of course it doesn’t hurt that his pretty and charismatic wife will be along for the ride.”
“More dreams about the Yellow Card Man last night?” Sadie asked when she came in. She’d spent the holiday in Jodie, mostly to water her houseplants and to “show the flag,” as she put it.
I shook my head. “Honey, you’ve been here a lot more than you’ve been in Jodie. What’s the status of your job?”
“Miz Ellie put me on part-time. I’m getting by, and when I go with you. . if we go. . I guess I’ll just have to see what happens.”
Her gaze shifted away from me and she busied herself lighting a cigarette. Watching her take too long tamping it on the coffee table and then fiddling with her matches, I realized a dispiriting thing: Sadie was also having her doubts. I’d predicted a peaceful end to the Missile Crisis, I had known Dick Tiger was going down in the fifth. . but she still had her doubts. And I didn’t blame her. If our positions had been reversed, I would have been having mine.
Then she brightened. “But I’ve got a heck of a good stand-in, and I bet you can guess who.”
I smiled. “Is it. .” I couldn’t get the name. I could see him — the weathered, suntanned face, the cowboy hat, the string tie — but that Tuesday morning I couldn’t even get close. My head started to ache in the back, where it had hit the baseboard — but what baseboard, in what house? It was so abysmally fucked up not to know.
Kennedy’s coming in ten days and I can’t even remember that old guy’s fucking name.
“I am, ” I said. “I am, Sadie!”
“Wait a sec. I’ve got an idea.”
She laid her smoldering cigarette in one of the ashtray grooves, got up, went out the front door, closed it behind her. Then she opened it and spoke in a voice that was comically gruff and deep, saying what the old guy said each time he came to visit: “How you doin today, son? Takin any nourishment?”
“Deke,” I said. “Deke Simmons. He was married to Miz Mimi, but she died in Mexico. We had a memorial assembly for her.”
The headache was gone. Just like that.
Sadie clapped her hands and ran to me. I got a long and lovely kiss.
“See?” she said when she drew back. “You can do this. It’s still not too late. What’s his name, Jake? What’s the crazy bugger’s name?”
But I couldn’t remember.
On November sixteenth, the Times Herald published the Kennedy motorcade route. It would start at Love Field and end at the Trade Mart, where he would speak to the Dallas Citizens Council and their invited guests. The nominal purpose of his speech was to salute the Graduate Research Center and congratulate Dallas on its economic progress over the last decade, but the Times Herald was happy to inform those who didn’t already know that the real reason was pure politics. Texas had gone for Kennedy in 1960, but ’64 was looking shaky in spite of having a good old Johnson City boy on the ticket. Cynics still called the vice president “Landslide Lyndon,” a reference to his 1948 Senate bid, a decidedly hinky affair he won by eighty-seven votes. That was ancient history, but the nickname’s longevity said a lot about the mixed feelings Texans had about him. Kennedy’s job — and Jackie’s, of course — was to help Landslide Lyndon and Texas governor John Connally fire up the faithful.
“Look at this,” Sadie said, tracing a fingertip along the route. “Blocks and blocks of Main Street. Then Houston Street. There are high buildings all along that part. Is the man going to be on Main Street? He just about has to be, don’t you think?”
I hardly listened, because I’d seen something else. “Look, Sadie, the motorcade’s going to go along Turtle Creek Boulevard!”
Her eyes blazed. “Is that where it’s going to happen?”
I shook my head doubtfully. Probably not, but I knew something about Turtle Creek Boulevard, and it had to do with the man I’d come to stop. As I considered this, something floated to the surface.
“He was going to hide the rifle and come back for it later.”
“Hide it where ?”
“It doesn’t matter, because that part already happened. That part’s the past.” I put my hands over my face because the light in the room was suddenly too bright.
“Stop thinking about it now,” she said, and snatched the newspaper story away. “Relax, or you’ll get one of your headaches and need one of those pills. They make you all sloppy.”
“Yes,” I said. “I know.”
“You need coffee. Strong coffee.”
She went into the kitchen to make it. When she came back, I was snoring. I slept for almost three hours, and might have remained in the Land of Nod even longer, but she shook me awake. “What’s the last thing you remember about coming to Dallas?”
“I don’t remember it.”
“Where did you stay? A hotel? A motor court? A rented room?”
For a moment I had a hazy memory of a courtyard and many windows. A doorman? Maybe. Then it was gone. The headache was cranking up again.
“I don’t know. All I remember is crossing the state line on Highway 20 and seeing a sign for barbecue. And that was miles from Dallas.”
“I know, but we don’t have to go that far, because if you were on 20, you stayed on 20.” She glanced at her watch. “It’s too late today, but tomorrow we’re going for a Sunday drive.”
“It probably won’t work.” But I felt a flicker of hope, just the same.
She stayed the night, and the next morning we left Dallas on what residents called the Honeybee Highway, headed east toward Louisiana. Sadie was at the wheel of my Chevy, which was fine once the jimmied ignition switch had been replaced. Deke had taken care of that. She drove as far as Terrell, then pulled off 20 and turned around in the potholed dirt parking lot of a side-o’-the-road church. Blood of the Redeemer, according to the message board on the fading lawn. Below the name, there was message in white stick-on letters. It was supposed to say HAVE YOU READ THE WORD OF ALMIGHTY GOD TODAY, but some of the letters had fallen off, leaving AVE YOU REA THE WORD OF AL IGHTY GOD TOD Y.
She looked at me with some trepidation. “Can you drive back, honey?”
I was pretty sure I could. It was a straight shot, and the Chevy was an automatic. I wouldn’t need to use my stiff left leg at all. The only thing was. .
“Sadie?” I asked her as I settled behind the wheel for the first time since August and ran the seat as far back as it would go.
“If I fall asleep, grab the wheel and turn off the key.”
She smiled nervously. “Oh, believe me.”
I checked for traffic and pulled out. At first I didn’t dare go much above forty-five, but it was a Sunday noon, and we had the road pretty much to ourselves. I began to relax.
“Clear your mind, Jake. Don’t try to remember anything, just let it happen.”
“I wish I had my Sunliner,” I said.
“Make believe it is your Sunliner, then, and just let it go where it wants to go.”
“Okay, but. .”
“No buts. It’s a beautiful day. You’re coming into a new place, and you don’t have to worry about Kennedy being assassinated, because that’s a long time from now. Years.”
Yes, it was a nice day. And no, I didn’t fall asleep, although I was plenty tired — I hadn’t been out for this long since the beating. My mind kept returning to the little side-o’-the-road church. Very likely a black church. They probably swung the hymns in a way the white folks never would, and read THE WORD OF AL IGHTY GOD with lots of hallelujah and praise Jesus.
We were coming into Dallas now. I made lefts and rights — probably more rights, because my left arm was still weak and turning that way hurt, even with the power steering. Soon I was lost in the side streets.
I’m lost, all right, I thought. I need someone to give me directions the way that kid did in New Orleans. To the Hotel Moonstone.
Only it hadn’t been the Moonstone; it had been the Monteleone. And the hotel where I’d stayed when I came to Dallas was. . it was. .
For a moment I thought it was going to waft away, as even Sadie’s name sometimes still did. But then I saw the doorman, and all those glittering windows looking down on Commerce Street, and it clicked home.
I had stayed at the Adolphus Hotel. Yes. Because it was close to. .
It wouldn’t come. That part was still blocked off.
“Honey? All right?”
“Yes,” I said. “Why?”
“You kind of jumped.”
“It’s my leg. Cramping up a little.”
“None of this looks familiar?”
“No,” I said. “None of it.”
She sighed. “Another idea bites the dust. I guess we better go back. Want me to drive?”
“Maybe you better.” I limped around to the passenger seat, thinking Adolphus Hotel. Write that down when you get back to Eden Fallows. So you won’t forget.
When we were back in the little three-room efficiency with the ramps, the hospital bed, and the grab-handles on either side of the toilet, Sadie told me I ought to lie down for a little while. “And take one of your pills.”
I went into the bedroom, took off my shoes — a slow process — and lay down. I didn’t take a pill, though. I wanted to keep my mind clear. I had to keep it clear from now on. Kennedy and Dallas were just five days apart.
You stayed in the Adolphus Hotel because it was close to something. What?
Well, it was close to the motorcade route that had been published in the paper, which narrowed things down to. . gee, no more than two thousand buildings. Not to mention all the statues, monuments, and walls a putative sniper could hide behind. How many alleys along the route? Dozens. How many overpasses with clear fire lines down to passby-points on West Mockingbird Lane, Lemmon Avenue, Turtle Creek Boulevard? The motorcade was going to travel all of those. How many more on Main Street and Houston Street?
You need to remember either who he is or where he’s going to shoot from.
If I got one of those things, I’d get the other. I knew this. But what my mind kept returning to was that church on Route 20 where we’d turned around. Blood of the Redeemer on the Honeybee Highway. Many people saw Kennedy as a redeemer. Certainly Al Templeton had. He—
My eyes widened and I stopped breathing.
In the other room the telephone rang and I heard Sadie answer, keeping her voice pitched low because she thought I was asleep.
THE WORD OF AL IGHTY GOD.
I remembered the day I had seen Sadie’s full name with part of it blocked out, so all I could read was “Doris Dun.” This was a harmonic of that magnitude. I closed my eyes and visualized the church signboard. Then I visualized putting my hand over IGHTY GOD.
What I was left with was THE WORD OF AL.
Al’s notes. I had his notebook!
But where? Where was it?
The bedroom door opened. Sadie looked in. “Jake? Are you asleep?”
“No,” I said. “Just lying quiet.”
“Did you remember anything?”
“No,” I said. “Sorry.”
“There’s still time.”
“Yes. New things are coming back to me every day.”
“Honey, that was Deke. There’s a bug going around school and he’s caught a good case of it. He asked if I could come in tomorrow and Tuesday. Maybe Wednesday, too.”
“Go in,” I said. “If you don’t, he’ll try to do it himself. And he’s not a young guy anymore.” In my mind, four words flashed on and off like bar neon: THE WORD OF AL, THE WORD OF AL, THE WORD OF AL.
She sat down next to me on the bed. “Are you sure?”
“I’ll be fine. Plenty of company, too. DAVIN comes in tomorrow, remember.” DAVIN was Dallas Area Visiting Nurses. Their main job in my case was to make sure I wasn’t raving, which might indicate that my brain was bleeding after all.
“Right. Nine o’clock. It’s on the calendar, in case you forget. And Dr. Ellerton—”
“Coming for lunch. I remember.”
“Good, Jake. That’s good. ”
“He said he’d bring sandwiches. And milkshakes. Wants to fatten me up.”
“You need fattening up.”
“Plus therapy on Wednesday. Leg-torture in the morning, arm-torture in the afternoon.”
“I don’t like leaving you so close to. . you know.”
“If something occurs to me, I’ll call you, Sadie.”
She took my hand and bent close enough so I could smell her perfume and the faint aroma of tobacco on her breath. “Do you promise?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“I’ll be back on Wednesday night at the latest. If Deke can’t come in on Thursday, the library will just have to stay closed.”
“I’ll be fine.”
She kissed me lightly, started out of the room, then turned back. “I almost hope Deke’s right and this whole thing is a delusion. I can’t bear the idea that we know and still might not be able to stop it. That we might just be sitting in the living room and watching on television when somebody—”
“I’ll remember,” I said.
“Will you, Jake?”
“I have to.”
She nodded, but even with the shades drawn, I could read the doubt on her face. “We can still have supper before I go. You close your eyes and let that pill do its work. Get some sleep.”
I closed my eyes, sure I wouldn’t sleep. And that was okay, because I needed to think about the Word of Al. After a little while I could smell something cooking. It smelled good. When I’d first come out of the hospital, still puking or shitting every ten minutes, all smells had revolted me. Now things were better.
I began to drift. I could see Al sitting across from me in one of the diner booths, his paper cap tilted over his left eyebrow. Photos of smalltown bigwigs looked down at us, but Harry Dunning was no longer on the wall. I had saved him. Perhaps the second time I’d saved him from Vietnam, as well. There was no way to be sure.
Still holding you back, isn’t he, buddy? Al asked.
Yes. He still is.
But you’re close now.
Not close enough. I have no idea where I put that goddam notebook of yours.
You put it someplace safe. Does that narrow it down any?
I started to say no, then thought: The Word of Al is safe. Safe. Because—
I opened my eyes, and for the first time in what felt like weeks, a big smile creased my face.
It was in a safe deposit box.
The door opened. “Are you hungry? I kept it warm.”
“Jake, you’ve been asleep for over two hours.”
I sat up and swung my legs onto the floor. “Then let’s eat.”