“What’s wrong, Lois?”
She looked up at him, and the first thought to cross Ralph’s mind see at the was actually a memory: a play he had taken Carolyn to Penobscot Theater in Bangor eight or nine years ago. Some of the characters in it had supposedly been dead, and their makeup had consisted of clown-white greasepaint with dark circles around the eyes to give the impression of huge empty sockets.
His second thought was much simpler: Raccoon.
She either saw some of his thoughts on his face or simply realized how she must look, because she turned away, fumbled briefly at the clasp of her purse, then simply raised her hands and used them to shield her face from his view.
“Go away, Ralph, would you?” she asked in a thick, choked voice.
“I don’t feel very well today.”
Under ordinary circumstances, Ralph would have done as she asked, hurrying away without looking back, feeling nothing but a vague shame at having come across her with her mascara smeared and her defenses down. But these weren’t ordinary circumstances, and Ralph decided he wasn’t leaving-not yet, anyway. He still retained some of that strange lightness, and still felt that other world, that other Derry, was very close. And there was something else, something perfectly simple and straightforward. He hated to see Lois, whose happy nature he had never even questioned, sitting here by herself and bawling her eyes out.
“What’s the matter, Lois?”
“I just don’t feel well!” she cried. “Can’t you leave me alone?”
Lois buried her face in her gloved hands. Her back shook, the sleeves of her blue coat trembled, and Ralph thought of how Rosalie had looked when the bald doctor had been yelling at her to get her ass across the street: miserable, scared to death.
Ralph sat down next to Lois on the bench, slipped an arm around her, and pulled her to him. She came, but stiffly… as if her body were full of wires.
“Don’t you look at me! “she cried in that same wild voice.
“Don’t you dare My makeup’s a mess! I put it on special for my son and daughter-in-law… they came for breakfast… we were going to spend the morning… ’We’ll have a nice time, Ma,” Harold said. but the reason they came… you see, the real reason-” Communication broke down in a fresh spate of weeping. Ralph groped in his back pocket, came up with a handkerchief which was wrinkled but clean, and put it in one of Lois’s hands. She took it without looking at him.
“Go on,” he said, “Scrub up a little if you want, although you don’t look bad, Lois; honest you don’t.”
A little raccoon all, he thought. He began to smile, and then the smile died. He remembered the day in September when he had set off for the Rite Aid to check out the over-the-counter sleep aids the p h e n and had encountered Bill and Lois standing outside the park, talking about the doll-throwing demonstration which Ed had orchestrated at WomanCare. She had been clearly distressed that day-Ralph ing that she looked tired in spite of her excitement remembered think and concern-but she had also been close to beautiful: her considerable bosom heaving, her eyes flashing, her cheeks flushed with a maid’s high color. That all but irresistible beauty was hardly more than a memory today; in her melting mascara Lois Chasse looked like a sad and elderly clown, and Ralph felt a quick hot spark of fury for whatever or whoever had wrought the change.
“I,” Lois said, applying Ralph’s handkerchief vigorously look horrible.
“No, ma’am. Just a little smeary.
Lois at last turned to face him. It clearly took a lot of effort with her rouge and eye makeup now mostly on Ralph’s handkerchief.
“How bad am I?” she breathed. “Tell the truth, Ralph Roberts, or I’ll cross your eyes He bent forward and kissed one moist cheek. “Only lovely, Lois.
You’ll have to save ethereal for another day, I guess.”
She gave him an uncertain smile, and the upward movement of her face caused two fresh tears to spill from her eyes. Ralph took the crumpled handkerchief from her and gently wiped them away.
“I’m so glad it was you who came along and not Bill,” she told len “I would have died of shame if Bill had seen me crying in. public,” Ralph looked around. He saw Rosalie, safe and sound at the bottom of the hill-she was lying between the two Portosans that stood down there, her muzzle resting on one paw-but otherwise this part of the park was empty. “I think we’ve got the place pretty much to ourselves, at least for now,” he said.
“Thank God for small favors.” Lois took the handkerchief back and went to work on her makeup again, this time in a rather more businesslike manner. “Speaking of Bill, I stopped into the Red Apple on my way down here-that was before I got feeling sorry for myself and started to bawl my silly head off-and Sue said you two had a big argument just a little while ago. Yelling and everything, right out in your front yard.”
“Nah, not that big,” Ralph said, smiling uneasily, “Can I be nosy and ask what it was about?”
“Chess,” Ralph said. It was the first thing to pop into his mind.
“The Runway 3 Tournament Faye Chapin has every year. Only ’ really wasn’t about anything. You know how it is-sometimes people get out of bed on the wrong side and just grab the first excuse.”
“I wish that was all it was with me,” Lois said. She opened her purse, managing the clasp effortlessly this time, and took out her compact. Then she sighed and stuffed it back into the bag again without opening it. “I can’t. I know I’m being a baby, but I just can’t.”
Ralph darted his hand into her purse before she could close it, removed the compact, opened it, and held the mirror up in front of her.
“See? That’s not so bad, is it?”
She averted her face like a vampire turning away from a crucifix.
“Ugh,” she said. “Put it away.”
“If You promise to tell me what happened.”
“Anything, just Put it away.”
He did. For a little while Lois said nothing but only sat and watched her hands fiddle restlessly with the clasp of her purse. He was about to prod her when she looked up at him with a pitiful expression of defiance.
“ “it just so happens you’re not the only one who can’t get a decent night’s sleep, Ralph,”
“What are you talking ab-”
she snapped. “I go to sleep at about the same time I always did, but I don’t sleep through anymore.
And it’s worse than that. I wake up earlier every morning, it seems.”
Ralph tried to remember if he had told Lois about that aspect of his own problem. He didn’t think he had.
“Why are you looking so surprised?” Lois asked. “You didn’t really think you were the only person in the world to ever have a sleepless night, did you?”
“Of course not!” Ralph responded with some indignation but had it it often felt as if he were the only person in the world to have n that particular kind of sleepless night? Standing helplessly by as his good sleep-time was eroded minute by minute and quarter hour by quarter hour? It was like a weird variant of the Chinese water-torture.
“When did yours start?” he asked.
“A month or two before Carol died.”
How much sleep are you getting?”
“Barely an hour a night since the start of October.” Her voice was calm, but Ralph heard a tremor which might have been panic just below the surface. “The way things are going, I’ll have entirely quit sleeping by Christmas, and if that really happens, I don’t know how I’ll survive it, I’m barely surviving now.”
Ralph struggled for speech and asked the first question to come into his mind: “How come I’ve never seen your light?”
“For the same reason I hardly ever see yours, I imagine,” she said.
“I’ve been living in the same place for thirty-five years, and I don’t need to turn on the lights to find my way around. Also, I like to keep my troubles to myself. You keep turning on the lights at two in the morning and sooner or later someone sees them. It gets around, and then the nosybirds start asking questions. I don’t like nosybird questions, and I’m not one of those people who feel like they have to take an ad out in the paper every time they have a little constipation.”
Ralph burst out laughing. Lois looked at him in round-eyed perplexity for a moment, then Joined in. His arm was still around her? (or had it crept back on its own after he had taken it away Rap I didn’t know and didn’t really care), and he hugged her tightly. This time she pressed against him easily; those stiff little wires had gone out of her body. Ralph was glad.
“You’re not laughing at me, are you, Ralph?”
“Nope. Absolutely not.”
She nodded, still smiling, “That’s all right, then. You never even saw me moving ing around in my living room, did you?”
“That’s because there’s no streetlamp in front of my house. But there’s one in front of yours. I’ve seen you in that ratty old wing chair of yours many times, sitting and looking out and drinking tea,” I always assumed I was the only one, he thought, and suddenly a question-both comic and embarrassing-popped into his head.
How many times had she seen him sitting there and picking his nose? Or picking at his crotch?
Either reading his mind or the color in his cheeks, Lois said, “I really couldn’t make out much more than your shape, you know, and you were always wearing your robe, perfectly decent. So you don’t have to worry about that. Also, I hope you know that if you’d ever started doing anything you wouldn’t want people to see you doing, I wouldn’t have looked. I wasn’t exactly raised in a barn, you know.” He smiled and patted her hand. “I do know that, Lois. it’s just…
“I was sitting there and you know, it was a surprise. To find out that while I was watching the street, somebody was watching me.”
She fixed him with an enigmatic smile that might have said, Don’t worry, Ralph-you were just another part of the scenery to me.
He considered this smile for a moment, then groped his way back to the main point. “So what happened, Lois? Why were you sitting here and crying? JUST sleeplessness? If that’s what it was, I certainly sympathize. There’s really no just about it, is there?”
Her smile slipped away. Her gloved hands folded together again in her lap and she looked somberly down at them. “There are worse things than insomnia. Betrayal, for instance. Especially when the people doing the betraying are the people you love.”
She fell quiet. Ralph didn’t prompt her. He was looking down the hill at Rosalie, who appeared to be looking up at him. At both of them, maybe.
“Did you know we share the same doctor as well as the same problem, Ralph?”
“You go to Litchfield, too?”
“Used to go to Litchfield. He was Carolyn’s recommendation.
I’ll never go to him again, though. He and I are quits.” Her upper lip drew back. “Double-crossing son of a bitch!”
“I went along for the best part of a year, waiting for things to get better by themselves-for nature to take her course, as they say.
Not that I didn’t try to help nature along every now and then. We probably tried a lot of the same things.”
“Honeycomb?” Ralph asked, smiling again. He couldn’t help it.
What ’ an amazing day this has been, he thought. What a perfectly amazing day… and it’s not even one in the afternoon yet.
“Honeycomb? What about it? Does that help?”
“No,” Ralph said, grinning more widely than ever, “doesn’t help a bit, but it tastes wonderful.”
She laughed and squeezed his bare left hand in both of her gloved ones. Ralph squeezed back.
“You never went to see Dr. Litchfield about it, did you, Ralph?
“Nope. Made an appointment once, but cancelled it.”
“Did you put it off because you didn’t trust him? Because you felt he missed the boat on Carolyn?”
Ralph looked at her, surprised.
“Never mind,” Lois said. “I had no right to ask that.”
“No, it’s okay. I guess I’m just surprised to hear the idea from someone else. That he… you know… that he might have misdiagnosed her.”
“Huh!” Lois’s pretty eyes flashed. “It crossed all our minds!
Bill used to say he couldn’t believe you didn’t have that fumble-fingered bastard in district court the day after Carolyn’s funeral. Of course back then I was on the other side of the fence, defending Litchfield like mad. Did you ever think of suing him?”
“No. I’m seventy, and I don’t want to spend whatever time I have left flogging a malpractice suit. Besides-would it bring Carol back?”
She shook her head.
Ralph said, “What happened to Carolyn was the reason I didn’t go see him, though. I guess it was, at least. I just couldn’t seem to trust him, or maybe… I don’t know…”
No, he didn’t really know, that was the devil of it. All he knew for sure was that he had cancelled the appointment with Dr. Litchfield, as he had cancelled his appointment with James Roy Hong, known in some quarters as the pin-sticker man. That latter appointment had been scratched on the advice of a ninety-two or -three-year-old man who could probably no longer remember his own middle name. His mind slipped to the book Old Dor had given him, and to the poem Old Dor had quoted from-“Pursuit,” it had been the p h e n called, and Ralph couldn’t seem to get it out of his head… especially the part where the poet talked about all the things he saw falling away behind him: the unread books, the untold jokes, the trips that would never be taken.
“Ralph? Are you there?”
“Yeah-just thinking about Litchfield. Wondering why I cancelled that appointment.”
She patted his hand. “Just be glad you did. I kept mine.”
Lois shrugged. “When it got so bad I felt I couldn’t stand it anymore, I went to him and told him everything. I thought he’d give me a prescription for sleeping pills, but he said he couldn’t even do that-I sometimes have an irregular heartbeat, and sleeping pills can make that worse.”
“When did you see him?”
“Early last week. Then, yesterday, my son Harold called me out of a clear blue sky and said he and Janet wanted to take me out to breakfast. Nonsense, I said. I can still get around the kitchen. If you’re coming all the way down from Bangor, I said, I’ll get up a nice little feed for you, and that’s the end of it. Then, after, if you want to take me out-I was thinking of the mall, because I always like to go out there-why, that would be fine. That’s just what I said.”
She turned to Ralph with a smile that was small and bitter and fierce.
“It never occurred to me to wonder why both of them were coming to see me on a weekday, when both of them have jobs-and they must really love those jobs, because they’re about all they ever talk about. I just thought how sweet of them it was… how thoghtful… and I put out a special effort to look nice and do everything right so Janet wouldn’t suspect I was having a problem. I think that rankles most of all. Silly old Lois, ’Our Lois,” as Bill always says… don’t look so surprised, Ralph! Of course I knew abol]t that; cild you think I fell off a stump just yesterday? And he’s right, I am foolish, I am silly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t hurt just like anybody. She was beginning to cry.
“Of course it doesn’t,” Ralph said, and patted her hand.
“You would have laughed if you’d seen me,” she said, “baking fresh squash muffins at four o’clock in the morning and slicing mushrooms for an Italian omelette at four-fifteen and starting in with the makeup at four-thirty just to be sure, absolutely sure that Jan wouldn’t get going with that ’Are you sure you feel all right, Mother Lois?” stuff, I hate it when she starts in with that crap. And do you know what, Ralph? She knew what was wrong with me all the time, They both did.
So I guess the laugh was on me, wasn’t it?”
Ralph thought he had been following closely, but apparently he had lost her on one of the turns. “Knew? How could they know?”
“Because Litchfield told them!” she shouted. Her face twisted again, but this time it was not hurt or sorrow Ralph saw there but a terrible rueful rage. “That tattling son of a bitch called my son on the telephone and TOLD him EVERYTHING!”
Ralph was dumbfounded.
“Lois, they can’t do that,” he said when he finally found his voice again. “The doctor-patient relationship is. -well, it’s privileged.
Your son would know all about it, because he’s a lawyer, and the same thing applies to them. Doctors can’t tell anyone what their patients tell them unless the patient-”
“Oh Jesus,” Lois said, rolling her eyes.
“Crippled wheelchair Jesus. What world are you living in, Ralph? Fellows like Litchfield do whatever they think is right. I guess I knew that all along, which makes me double-stupid for going to him at all, Carl Litchfield is a vain, arrogant man who cares more about how he looks in Ills suspenders and designer shirts than he does about his patients.”
else when I’m taken advantage of. again.
“That’s awfully cynical.”
“And awfully true, that’s the sad part. You know what? He’s thirty-five or thirty-six, and he’s somehow gotten the idea that when he hits forty, he’s just going to… stop. Stay forty for as long as he wants to. He’s got an idea that people are old once they get to be sixty, and that even the best of them are pretty much in their dotage by the age of sixty-eight or so, and that once you’re past eighty, it’d be a mercy if your relatives would turn you over to that Dr. Kevorkian. Children don’t have any rights of confidentiality from their parents, and as far as Litchfield is concerned, old poops like us don’t have any rights of confidentiality from our kids. It wouldn’t be in our best interests, you see.
“What Carl Litchfield did practically the minute I was out of his examining room was to phone Harold in Bangor. He said I wasn’t sleeping, that I was suffering from depression, and that I was having the sort of sensory problems that accompany a premature decline in cognition. And then he said, ’You have to remember that your mother is getting on in years, Mr. Chasse, and if I were you I’d think very seriously about her situation down here in Derry.”
Ralph cried, amazed and horrified. “I mean… did he?”
Lois was nodding grimly. “He said it to Harold and Harold said it to me and now I’m saying it to you. Silly old me, I didn’t even know what ’a premature decline in cognition’ meant, and neither of them wanted to tell me. I looked up ’cognition’ in the dictionary, and do you know what it means?”
“Thinking,” Ralph said. “Cognition is thinking.”
“Right. My doctor called my son to tell him I was going senile!
Lois laughed angrily and used Ralph’s handkerchief to wipe fresh tears off her cheeks.
“I can’t believe it,” Ralph said, but the hell of it was he could.
Ever since Carolyn’s death he had been aware that the naievety with which he had regarded the world up until the age of eighteen or so had apparently not departed forever when he crossed the threshold between childhood and manhood; that peculiar innocence seemed to be returning as he stepped over the threshold between manhood and old manhood. Things kept surprising him… except surprise was really too mild a word. What a lot of them did was knock him ass over teakettle.
The little bottles under the Kissing Bridge, for instance. He had taken a long walk out to Bassey Park one day in July and had gone under the bridge to rest out of the afternoon sun for awhile. He had barely gotten comfortable before noticing a little pile of broken glass in the weeds by the stream that trickled beneath the bridge. He had swept at the high grass with a length of broken branch and discovered six or eight small bottles. One had some crusty white stuff in the bottom.
Ralph had picked it up, and as he turned it curiously before his eyes, he realized he was looking at the remains of a crackparty. He had dropped the bottle as if it were hot. He could still remember the numbed shock he had felt, his unsuccessful attempt to convince himself that he was nuts, that it couldn’t be what he thought it was, not in this hick town two hundred and fifty miles north of Boston. It was that emerging naif which had been shocked, of course; that part of him seemed to believe (or had until he had discovered the little bottles under the Kissing Bridge) that all those news stories about the cocaine epidemic had just been make-believe, no more real than a TV crime show or a jean-Claude Van Damme movie.
He felt a similar sensation of shock now.
“Harold said they wanted to ’run me up to Bangor’ and show me the place,” Lois was saying. “He never takes me for rides these days; he just runs me places. Like I’m an errand. They had lots of brochures, and when Harold gave Janet the nod, she whipped them Out so fast-”
“Whoa, slow down. What place? What brochures?”
“I’m sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? It’s a place in Bangor called Riverview Estates.”
Ralph knew the name; had gotten a brochure himself, as a matter of fact. One of those mass-mailing things, this one targeted at people sixty-five and over. He and McGovern had shared a laugh about it… but the laugh had been just a touch uneasy-like kids whistling past the graveyard, “Shit, Lois-that’s a retirement home, isn’t it?”
“No, sir!” she said, widening her eyes innocently. “That’s what I said, but Harold and Janet set me straight. No, Ralph, Riverview Estates is a condominium development site for community-oriented senior citizens.” When Harold said that I said, ’Is that so? Well, let me tell you both something-you can put a fruit pie from McDonald’s in a sterling-silver chafing dish and call it a French tart, but it’s still just a fruit pie from McDonald’s, as far as I am concerned.”
“When I said that, Harold started to sputter and get red in the face, but Jan just gave me that sweet little smile of hers, the one she saves up for special occasions because she knows it drives me crazy.
She says, Well, why don’t we look at the brochures anyway, Mother Lois? You’ll do that much, won’t you, after we both took Personal Days from work and drove all the way down here to see you?”
“Like Derry was in the heart of Africa,” Ralph muttered.
Lois took his hand and said something that made him laugh. “Oh, to her it is!”
“Was this before or after you found out Litchfield had tattled?”
Ralph asked. He used the same word Lois had on purpose; it seemed to fit this situation better than a fancier word or phrase would have done.
“Committed a breach of confidentiality” was far too dignified for this nasty bit of work. Litchfield had run and tattled, simple as that.
“Before. I thought I might as well look at the brochures; after all, they’d come forty miles, and it wouldn’t exactly kill me. So I looked while they ate the food I’d fixed-there wasn’t any that had to be scraped into the swill later on, either-and drank coffee.
“That’s quite a place, that Riverview. They have their own medical staff on duty twenty-four hours a day, and their own kitchen.
When you move in they give you a complete physical and decide what you can have to eat. There’s a Red Diet Plan, a Blue Diet Plan, a Green Diet Plan, and a Yellow Diet Plan. There were three or four other colors as well. I can’t remember what all of them were, but Yellow is for diabetics and Blue is for fatties.”
Ralph thought of eating three scientifically balanced meals a day for the rest of his life-no more sausage pizzas from Gambino’s, no more Coffee Pot sandwiches, no more chiliburgers from Mexico Milt’s-and found the prospect almost unbearably grim.
“Also,” Lois said brightly, “they have a pneumatic-tube system that delivers your daily pills right to your kitchen. Isn’t that a marvelous idea, Ralph?”
“I guess so,” Ralph said.
“Oh, yes, it is. It’s marvelous, the wave of the future.
There’s a computer to oversee everything, and I bet it never has a decline in cognition. There’s a special bus that takes the Riverview people to places of scenic or cultural interest twice a week, and it also takes them shopping. You have to take the bus, because Riverview people aren’t allowed to have cars.”
“Good idea,” he said, giving her hand a little squeeze. “What are a few drunks on Saturday night compared to an old fogey with a slippery cognition on the loose in a Buick sedan?”
She didn’t smile, as he had hoped she would. “The pictures in those brochures turned my blood. Old ladies playing canasta. Old men throwing horseshoes. Both flavors together in this big pinepanelled room they call the River Hall, square-dancing. Although that is sort of a nice name, don’t you think? %ver Hall?”
“I guess it’s okay.”
“I think it sounds like the kind of room you’d find in an enchanted castle. But I’ve visited quite a few old friends in Strawberry Fieldsthat’s the geriatrics’ home in Skowhegan-and I know an old folks’ rec room when I see one. It doesn’t matter how pretty a name you give it, there’s still a cabinet full of board games in the corner and ix pieces missing from each one and the jigsaw puzzles with five or s’ TV’s always tuned to something like Family Feud and never to the kind of movies where good-looking young people take off their clothes and roll around on the floor together in front of the fireplace.
Those rooms always smell of paste… and piss… and the fiveand-dime watercolors that come in a long tin box… and despair.”
Lois looked at him with her dark eyes.
“I’m only sixty-eight, Ralph. I know that sixty-eight doesn’t seem like only anything to Dr. Fountain of Youth, but it does to me, because my mother was ninety-two when she died last year and my dad lived to be eighty-six. In my family, dying at eighty is dying young… and if I had to spend twelve years living in a place where they announce dinner over the loudspeaker, I’d go crazy.”
“I would, too.”
“I looked, though. I wanted to be polite. When I was finished, I made a neat little pile of them and handed them back to Jan. I said they were very interesting and thanked her. She nodded and smiled and put them back in her purse. I thought that was going to be the end of it and good riddance, but then Harold said, ’Put your coat on, Ma.”
“For a second I was so scared I couldn’t breathe. I thought they’d already signed me up! And I had an idea that if I said I wasn’t going, Harold would open the door and there would be two or three men in white coats outside, and one of them would smile and say, ’don’t worry, Mrs. Chasse; once you get that first handful of pills delivered direct to your kitchen, you’ll never want to live anywhere else.”
“I don’t tvant to put my coat on,” I told Harold, and I tried to sound the way I used to when he was only ten and always tracking mud into the kitchen, but my heart was beating so hard I could hear it tapping in my voice.
“I’ve changed my mind about going out. I forgot how much I had to do today.” And then Ian gave the laugh “Why, Mother I hate even more than her syrupy little smile and said, Lois, what would you have to do that’s so important you can’t go up to Bangor with us after we’ve taken time off to come down to Derry and see you?”
“That woman always gets my back hair up, and I guess I do the same to her. I must, because I’ve never in my life known one woman to smile that much at another without hating her guts. Anyway, I told her I had to wash the kitchen floor, to start with. ’Just look at it,” I said.
“dirty as the devil.”
“’Huh!” Harold says. ’I can’t believe you’re going to send us back to the city empty-handed after we came all the way down here, Ma Well I’m not moving into that place no matter how far you came,” I said back, ’so you can get that idea right out of your head.
I’ve been living in Derry for thirty-five years, half my life.
All my friends are here, and I’m not moving.”
“They looked at each other the way parents do when they’ve got a kid who’s stopped being cute and started being a pain in the tail.
Janet patted my shoulder and said, ’Now don’t get all upset, Mother Lois-we only want you to come and look.” Like it was the brochures again, and all I had to do was be polite. just the same, her saying it was just to set my mind at ease a little. I should have known they couldn’t make me live there, or even afford it on their own.
It’s Mr. Chasse’s money they’re counting on to swing it-his pension and the railroad insurance I got because he died on the job.
“It turned out they had an appointment all made for eleven o’clock, and a man lined up to show me around and give me the whole pitch. I was mostly over being scared by the time I got all that straight in my mind, but I was hurt by the high-handed way they were treating me, and mad at how every other thing out of Janet’s mouth was Personal Days this and Personal Days that. it was pretty clear that she could think of a lot better ways to spend a day off than coming to Derry to see her fat old bag of a mother-in-law.
“’stop fluttering and come on, Mother,” she says after a little more back-and-forth, like I was so pleased with the whole idea I couldn’t even decide which hat to wear. ’Hop into your coat. I’ll help you clean up the breakfast things when we get back.”
“’You didn’t hear me,” I said. ’I’m not going anywhere. Why waste a beautiful fall day like this touring a place I’ll never live in?
And what gives you the right to drive down here and give me this kind of bum’s rush in the first place? Why didn’t one of you at least call and say, “We have an idea, Mom, want to hear it?” Isn’t that how you would have treated one of your friends?”
“And when I said that, they traded another glance.
Lois sighed, wiped her eyes a final time, and gave back Ralph’s handkerchief, damper but otherwise none the worse for wear.
“Well, I knew from that look that we hadn’t reached bottom yet.
Mostly it was the way Harold looked-like he did when he’d just hooked a handful of chocolate bits out of the bag in the pantry. And Janet… she gave him back the expression I dislike most of all. Her bulldozer look, I call it. And then she asked him if he wanted to tell me what the doctor had said, or if she should do it.
“In the end they both told it, and by the time they were done I was so mad and scared that I felt like yanking my hair out by the roots. The thing I just couldn’t seem to get over no matter how hard I tried was the thought of Carl Litchfield telling Harold all the things I thought were private. just calling him up and telling him, like there was nothing in the world wrong with it.
“’so you think I’m senile?” I asked Harold. ’Is that what it comes down to? You and Jan think I’ve gone soft in the attic at the advanced age of sixty-eight?”
“Harold got red in the face and started shuffling his feet under his chair and muttering under his breath. Something about how he didn’t think any such thing, but he had to consider my safety, just like I’d always considered his when he was growing up.
And all the time Janet was sitting at the counter, nibbling a muffin and giving him a look I could have killed her for-as if she thought he was just a cockroach that had learned to talk like a lawyer.
Then she got up and asked if she could ’use the facility.” I told her to go ahead, and managed to keep from saying it would be a relief to have her out of the room for two minutes.
“’Thanks, Mother Lois,” she says. ’I won’t be long. Harry and I have to leave soon. If you feel you can’t come with us and keep your appointment, then I guess there’s nothing more to say.”
“What a peach,” Ralph said.
“Well, that was the end of it for me; I’d had enough. ’I keep my appointments, Janet Chasse,” I said, ’but only the ones I make for myself. I don’t give a fart in a high wind for the ones other people make for me.”
“She tossed up her hands like I was the most unreasonable woman who ever walked the face of the earth, and left me with Harold.
He was looking at me with those big brown eyes of his, like he expected me to apologize. I almost felt like I should apologize, too, if only to get that cocker spaniel look off his face, but I didn’t. I wouldn’t. I just looked back at him, and after awhile he couldn’t stand it anymore and told me I ought to stop being mad. He said he was)’List worried about me down here all by myself, that he was only trying to be a good son and Janet was only trying to be a cood daughter.
“I guess I understand that,” I said, ’but you should know that sneaking around behind a person’s back is no way to express love and concern.” He got all stiff then, and said he and Jan didn’t see it as sneaking around. He cut his eyes toward the bathroom for a second or two when he said it, and I pretty much got the idea that what he meant was Jan didn’t see it as sneaking around. Then he told me it wasn’t the way I was making it out to be-that Litchfield it had called him, not the other way around.
“’All right,” I said back, ’but what kept you from hanging up once you realized what he’d called to talk to you about? That was just plain wrong, Harry. What in God’s good name got into you?”
“He started to flutter and flap around-I think he might even have been starting to apologize-when Jan came back and the youknow-what really hit the fan.
She asked where my diamond earrings were, the ones they’d given me for Christmas. It was such a change of direction that at first I could only sputter, and I suppose I sounded like I was going senile. But finally I managed to say they were in the little china dish on my bedroom bureau, same as always.
I have a jewelry box, but I keep those earrings and two or three other nice pieces out because they are so pretty that looking at them always cheers me up. Besides, they’re only clusters of diamond chips-it’s not like anyone would want to break in just to steal those.
Same with my engagement ring and my ivory cameo, which are the other two pieces I keep in that dish.”
Lois gave Ralph an intense, pleading look. He squeezed her hand again.
She smiled and took a deep breath. “This is very hard for me.”
“If you want to stop-”
“No, I want to finish… except that, past a certain point, I can’t remember what happened, anyway. It was all so horrible. You see, Janet said she knew where I kept them, but they weren’t there. My engagement ring was, and the cameo, but not my Christmas earrings. I went in to check myself, and she was right. We turned the place upside down, looked everywhere, but we didn’t find them. They’re gone.”
Lois was now gripping Ralph’s hands in both of her own, and seemed to be talking mostly to the zipper of his jacket.
“We took all the clothes out of the bureau… Harold pulled the bureau itself out from the wall and looked behind it… under the bed and the sofa cushions… and it seemed like every time I
looked at Janet, she was looking back at me, giving me that sweet, wide-eyed look of hers. Sweet as melting butter, it is-except in the eyes, anyway-and she didn’t have to come right out and say what she was thinking, because I already knew. ’You see? You see how right Dr. Litchfield was to call us, and how right we were to make that appointment? And how pigheaded you’re being? Because you need to be in a place like Riverview Estates, and this just proves it. You’ve lost the lovely earrings we gave you for Christmas, you’re having a serious decline in cognition, and this just proves it. It won’t be long before you’re leaving the stove-burners on… or the bathroom heater…”
“She began to cry again, and these tears made Ralph’s heart hurt. They were the deep, scouring sobs of someone who has been shamed to the deepest level of her being. Lois hid her face against his jacket.
He tightened his arm around her. Lois, he thought. Our Lois.
But no; he didn’t like the sound of that anymore, if he ever had.
My Lois, he thought, and at that instant, as if some greater power had approved, the day began to fill with light again. Sounds took on a new resonance. He looked down at his hands and Lois’s, entwined on her lap, and saw a lovely blue-gray nimbus around them, the color of cigarette smoke, The auras had returned.
“You should have sent them away the minute you realized the earrings were gone,” he heard himself say, and each word was separate and gorgeously unique, like a crystal thunderclap. “The very second.”
“Oh, I know that now,” Lois said. “She was just waiting for me to stick my foot in my mouth, and of course I obliged. But I was so upset-first the argument about whether or not I was going to Bangor i Ri with them to look at verview Estates, then hearing my doctor had told them things he had no right to tell them, and on top of all that, finding out I’d lost one of my most treasured possessions. And do you know what the cherry on top was? Having her be the one to discover those earrings were gone! Do you blame me for not knowing what to do?”
“No,” he said, and lifted her gloved hands to his mouth. The sound of them passing through the air was like the hoarse whisper of a palm sliding down a wool blanket, and for a moment he clearly saw the shape of his lips on the back of her right glove, printed there in a blue kiss.
Lois smiled. “Thank you, Ralph.”
“I suppose you have a pretty good idea of how things turned out, don’t you? Jan said, ’You really should take better care, Mother Lois, only Dr. Litchfield says you’ve come to a time of life when you really can’t take better care, and that’s why we’ve been thinking about Riverview Estates. I’m sorry we ruffled your feathers, but it seemed important to move quickly. Now you see why.”
“Ralph looked up.
Overhead, the sky was a cataract of green-blue fire filled with clouds that looked like chrome airboats. He looked down the hill and saw Rosalie still lying between the Portosans. The dark gray balloon-string rose from her snout, wavering in the cool October breeze.
“I got really mad, then-” She broke off and smiled. Ralph thought it was the first smile he’d seen from her today which expressed real humor instead of some less pleasant and more complicated emotion.
“No-that’s not right. I did more than just get mad.
If my great-nephew had been there, he would have said ’Nana went nuclear.”
“Ralph laughed and Lois laughed with him, but her half sounded a trifle forced.
“What galls me is that Janet knew I would,” she said. “She wanied me to go nuclear, I think, because she knew how guilty I’d feel later on. And God knows I do. I screamed at them to get the hell out.
Harold looked like he wanted to sink right through the floorboards-shouting has always made him so embarrassed-but Jan just sat there with her hands folded in her lap, smiling and actually nodding her head, as if to say ’That’s right, Mother Lois, you go on and get all that nasty old poison out of your system, and when it’s gone, maybe you’ll be ready to hear sense.” Lois took a deep breath.
“Then something happened. I’m not sure just what. This wasn’t the first time, either, but it was the worst time. I’m afraid it was some kind of… well… some kind of seizure. Anyway, I started to see Janet in a really funny way… a really scary way. And I said something that finally got to her. I can’t remember what it was, and I’m not sure I want to know, but it certainly wiped that sweetysweety-sweet smile I hate so much off her face. In fact, she just about dragged Harold out. The last thing I remember her saying is that one of them would call me when I wasn’t so hysterical that I couldn’t help making ugly accusations about the people who loved me.
“I stayed in my house for a little while after they were gone, and then I came out to sit in the park. Sometimes just sitting in the sun makes a body feel better. I stopped in the Red Apple for a snack and that’s when I heard you and Bill had a fight. Are you and he’ really on the outs, do you think?”
Ralph shook his head. “Nah-we’ll make it up. I really like Bill, but-”
“-but you have to be careful what you say with him,” she rushed.
“Also, Ralph, may I add that you can’t take what he says back to YOu too seriously?”
This time it was Ralph who gave their linked hands a squeeze.
“That might be good advice for you, too, Lois-you shouldn’t take what happened this morning too seriously.”
She sighed. “Maybe, but it’s hard not to. I said some terrible things at the end, Ralph. Terrible. That awful smile of hers…”
A rainbow of understanding suddenly lit Ralph’s consciousness.
In its glow he saw a very large thing, so large it seemed both unquestionable and preordained. He fully faced Lois for the first time since the auras had returned to him… or since he had returned to them. She sat in a capsule of translucent gray light as bright as fog on a summer morning which is about to turn sunny. It transformed the woman Bill McGovern called “Our Lois” into a creature of great dignity… and almost unbearable beauty.
She looks like Eos, he thought. Goddess of the dawn.
Lois stirred uneasily on the bench. “Ralph? Why are you looking at me that way?”
Because you’re beautiful, and because I’ve fallen in love with you, Ralph thought, amazed. Right now I’m so in love with you that I feel as if I’m drowning, and the dying’s fine.
“Because you remember exactly what you said.”
She began to play nervously with the clasp of her purse again.
“Yes you do. You told your daughter-in-law that she took your earrings. She did it because she realized you were going to stick to your guns about not going with them, and not getting what she wants makes your daughter-in-law crazy… it makes her go nuclear. She did it because you pissed her off. Isn’t that about the size of it?”
Lois was looking at him with round, frightened eyes. “How do you know that, Ralph? How do you know that about her?”
“I know it because you know it, and you know it because you saw it.”
“Oh, no,” she whispered. “No, I didn’t see anything. I was in the kitchen with Harold the whole time.”
“Not then, not when she did it, but when she came back. You saw it in her and all around her.”
As he himself now saw Harold Chasse’s wife in Lois, as if the woman sitting beside him on the bench had become a lens. Janet Chasse was tall, fair-skinned, and long-waisted. Her cheeks were spattered with freckles she covered with makeup, and her hair was a vivid, gingery shade of red. This morning she had come to Derry with that fabulous hair lying over one shoulder in a bulky braid like a sheaf of copper wire. What else did he know about this woman he had never met?
She covers her freckles With pancake because she thinks they make her look childish. that people don’t take women with freckles seriously.
Her legs are beautiful and she knows it. She wears short skirts to work, but today when she came to see (the old bitch) Mother Lot’s, she was wearing a cardigan and an old pair of jeans.
Derry dress-downs. Her period I’s overdue. She’s reached that time Of life when it doesn’t come as regular as clockwork anymore, and during that uneasy two-or three-day pause she suffers through every month, a pause when the whole world seems made of glass and everyone in it seems either stupid or wicked, her behave. or and her moods have become erratic. That’s probably the real reason she did what she did.
Ralph saw her coming out of Lois’s tiny bathroom. Saw her shoot an intense, furious glance toward the kitchen door-there is no sign of the sweety-sweety-sweet smile on that narrow, intense face now and then scoop the earrings out of the china dish. Saw her cram them into the left front pocket of her jeans.
No, Lois had not actually witnessed this small, ugly theft, but it had changed the color of Jan Chasse’s aura from pale green to a complex, layered pattern of browns and reds which Lois had seen and understood at once, probably without the slightest idea of what was really happening to her.
“She took them, all right,” Ralph said. He could see a gray mist drifting dreamily across the pupils of Lois’s wide eyes. He could have looked at it for the rest of the day.
“If you’d agreed to keep the appointment at Riverview Estates after all, I bet you would have found them again after her next visit… or she would have found them, I guess that’s more likely. just a lucky accident-’Oh, Mother Lois, come see what I found!”
Under the bathroom sink, or in a closet, or lying in some dark corner.”
“Yes.” She was looking into his face now, fascinated, almost hypnotized. “She must feel terrible… and she won’t dare bring them back, will she? Not after the things I said. Ralph, how did you know?”
“The same way you did. How long have you been seeing the auras, Lois?”
“Auras? I don’t know what you mean.” Except she did.
“Litchfield told your son about the insomnia, but I doubt if that alone would have been enough to get even Litchfield to… you know, tattle. The other thing-what you said he called sensory problems-went right by me. I was too amazed by the idea of anyone thinking you could possibly be prematurely senile, I guess, even though I’ve been having my own sensory problems lately.”
“Yes ma’am. Then, just a little bit ago, you said something even more interesting. You said you started to see Janet in a really funny way. A really scary way. You couldn’t remember what you said just before the two of them walked out, but you knew exactly how you felt.
You’re seeing the other part of the world-the rest of the world.
Shapes around things, shapes inside things, sounds within sounds.
I call it the world of auras, and that’s what you’re experiencing.
Isn’t it, Lois?”
She looked at him silently for a moment, then put her hands over her face. “I thought I was losing my mind,” she said, and then said it again: “Oh Ralph, I thought I was losing my mind.”
He hugged her, then let her go and tilted her chin up. “No more tears,” he said. “I didn’t bring a spare hanky.”
“No more tears,” she agreed, but her eyes were already brimming again. “Ralph, if you only knew how awful it’s been-”
“I do know.”
She smiled radiantly. “Yes… you do, don’t you?”
“What made that idiot Litchfield decide you were slipping into senility-except Alzheimer’s is probably what he had in mindwasn’t just Insomnia but insomnia accompanied by something else… something he decided were hallucinations. Right?”
“I guess, but he didn’t say anything like that at the time. When I told him about the things I’d been seeing-the colors and all-he seemed very understanding.”
“Uh-huh, and the minute you were out the door he called your son and told him to get the hell down to Derry and do something about old Mom, who’s started seeing people walking around in colored envelopes with long balloon-strings floating up from their heads.”
“You see those, too? Ralph, you see those, too?”
“Me too,” he said, and laughed. It sounded a bit loonlike, and he wasn’t surprised. There were a hundred things he wanted to ask her; wasn’t he felt crazed with impatience. And there was something else, something so unexpected he hadn’t even been able to identify it at first: he was horny. Not just interested; actually horny.
Lois was crying again. Her tears were the color of mist on a still lake, and they smoked a little as they slipped down her cheeks.
Ralph knew they would taste dark and mossy, like fiddleheads in spring.
“Ralph… this… this is… oh my!”
“Bigger than Michael Jackson at the Super Bowl, isn’t it?” She laughed weakly. “Well, just… you know, just a little.”
“There’s a name for what’s happening to us, Lois, and it’s not insomnia or senility or Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s hyper-reality.”
“Hyper-reality,” she murmured. “God, what an exotic word!”
“Yes, it is. A pharmacist down the street at Rite Aid, Joe Wyzer, told it to me. Only there’s a lot more to it than he knew. More than anyone in their right minds would guess.”
“Yes, like telepathy… if it’s really happening, that is. Ralph, are we in our right minds?”
“Did your daughter-in-law take your earrings?”
“I… she… yes.” Lois straightened. “Yes, she did.”
“Then you’ve answered your own question. We’re sane, all right… but I think you’re wrong about the telepathy part. It isn’t minds we read, but auras. Listen, Lois, there’s all sorts of things I want to ask you, but I have an idea that right now there’s only one thing I really have to know. Have you seen-” He stopped abruptly, wondering if he really wanted to say what was on the tip of his tongue.
“Have I seen what?”
“Okay. This is going to sound crazier than anything you’ve told me, but I’m not crazy. Do you believe that? I’m not. “I believe you,” she said simply, and Ralph felt a vast weight slip from his heart. She was telling the truth. There was no question about it;
her belief shone all around her. “Okay, listen. Since this started happening to you, have you seen certain people who don’t look like they belong on Harris Avenue-?
People who don’t look like they belong anywhere in the ordinary world?” Lois was looking at him with puzzled incomprehension. “They’re bald, they’re very short, they wear white smock tops, and what they look like more than anything are the drawings of space aliens they sometimes have on the front pages of those tabloid newspapers they sell in the Red Apple. You haven’t seen anyone like that when you’ve been having one of these hyper-reality attacks?”
“No, no one.”
He banged a fist on his leg in frustration, thought for a moment, then looked up again. “Monday morning,” he said. “Before the cops showed up at Mrs. Locher’s… did you see me?”
Very slowly, Lois nodded her head. Her aura had darkened slightly, and spirals of scarlet, thin as threads, began to twist slowly up through it on a diagonal.
“I imagine you have a pretty good idea of who called the police, then,” Ralph said. “Don’t you?”
“Oh, I know it was you,” Lois said in a small voice. “I suspected before, but I wasn’t sure until just now. Until I saw it… you know, in your colors.”
In my colors, he thought. It was what Ed had called them, too.
“But you didn’t see two pint-sized versions of Mr. Clean come out of her house?”
“No,” she said, “but that doesn’t -mean anything. I can’t even see Mrs. Locher’s house from my bedroom window. The Red Apple’s roof is in the way.”
Ralph laced his hands together on top of his head. Of course it was, and he should have known it.
“The reason I thought you called the police is that just before I went to take a shower, I saw you looking at something through a pair of binoculars. I never saw you do that before, but I thought maybe you just wanted a better look at the stray dog who raids the garbage cans on Thursday mornings.” She pointed down the hill. “Him.” Ralph grinned. “That’s no him, that’s the gorgeous Rosalie.”
“Oh. Anyway, I was in the shower a long time, because there’s a special rinse I put in my hair. Not color,” she said sharply, as if he had accused her of this, “just proteins and things that are supposed to keep it looking a little thicker. When I came out, the police were flocking all around. I looked over your way once, but I couldn’t see you anymore. You’d either gone into a different room or kind of scrunched back in your chair. You do that, sometimes.”
Ralph shook his head as if to clear it. He hadn’t been in an empty theater on all those nights, after all; someone else had been there, too. They had just been in separate boxes.
“Lois, the fight Bill and I had wasn’t really about chess. It-” Down the hill, Rosalie voiced a rusty bark and began struggling to her feet.
Ralph looked in that direction and felt an icicle slip into his belly.
Although the two of them had been sitting here for going on half an hour and no one had even come near the comfort stations at the bottom of the hill, the pressed plastic door of the Portosan marked MEN was now slowly opening.
Doc #3 emerged from it. McGovern’s hat, the Panama with the crescent bitten in the brim, was cocked back on his head, making him look weirdly as McGovern had on the day Ralph had first seen him in his brown fedora-like an enquiring newshawk in a forties crime drama.
Upraised in one hand the bald stranger held the rusty scalpel.