Master storyteller Stephen King presents the classic #1 New York Times bestseller about a housekeeper with a long-hidden secret from her past...one that tests her own will to survive.
When Vera Donovan, one of the wealthiest and most ill-natured residents of Maine's Little Tall Island, dies suddenly in her home, suspicion is immediately cast on her housekeeper and caretaker, Dolores Claiborne. Dolores herself is no stranger to such mistrust, thanks to the local chatter and mysterious circumstances surrounding her abusive husband's death twenty-nine years earlier. But if this is truly to be the day of Dolores Claiborne's reckoning, she has a few things of her own that she'd like to get off her chest...and begins to confess a spirited, intimate, and harrowing tale of the darkest secrest hidden within her hardscrabble existence, revealing above all one woman's unwavering determination to weather the storm of her life with grace and protect the one she loves, no matter what the cost....
About the Author
Date of Birth:September 21, 1947
Place of Birth:Portland, Maine
Education:B.S., University of Maine at Orono, 1970
Read an Excerpt
She was just like me when I was her age, in other words, n look how I turned out—just another cleanin-witch with a permanent stoop in her walk and a bottle of pain-pills in the medicine cabinet for my back. Selena didn’t see nothing wrong with that, but she’d just turned fifteen, and at fifteen a girl don’t know what the hell she’s seein even when she’s lookin spang at it. I read that note over n over and I thought, Frig it—she ain’t gonna end up like me, old n damn near used up at thirty-five. She ain’t gonna do that even if I have to die to keep her from it. But you know something, Andy? I didn’t think things’d have to go that far. I thought maybe Joe was gonna do all the dyin that needed to be done around our place.
I put her note back on the table, did up the snaps on my slicker again, and pulled on my gumrubber boots. Then I walked around back n stood by the big white stone where me’n Selena sat the night I told her she didn’t have to be afraid of Joe anymore, that he’d promised to let her alone. The rain’d stopped, but I could still hear the water drippin deep in the blackberry tangle behind the house, and see drops of water hangin off the bare branches. They looked like Vera Donovan’s diamond-drop earrings, only not so big.
That patch covered better’n half an acre, and by the time I’d pushed my way in, I was damned glad I had on my slicker and tall boots. The wet was the least of it; those thorns were murder. In the late forties, that patch had been flowers and fieldgrass, with the wellhead sittin on the shed side of it, but about six years after me n Joe were married and moved onto the place—which his Uncle Freddy left him when he died—the well went dry. Joe got Peter Doyon to come over and dowse us a new one, on the west side of the house. We’ve never had a spot of water-trouble since.
Once we stopped usin the old well, the half-acre behind the shed grew up in those chest-high snarls of scrub blackberry, and the thorns tore and pulled at my slicker as I walked back n forth, lookin for the board cap on the old well. After my hands got cut in three or four places, I pulled the sleeves down over em.
In the end, I almost found the damned thing by fallin into it. I took a step onto somethin that was both loose and kinda spongy, there was a cracklin noise under my foot, and I drew back just before the board I’d stepped on gave way. If I’d been unlucky, I’d’ve fallen forward, and the whole cap would most likely have collapsed. Ding-dong-bell, pussy’s in the well.
I got down on my knees, keepin one hand up in front of my face so the blackberry thorns wouldn’t scratch my cheeks or maybe put out one of my eyes, and took a good close look.
The cap was about four feet wide n five feet long; the boards were all white n warped n rotted. I pushed on one of em with my hand, and it was like pushin down on a licorice stick. The board I’d put my foot on was all bowed down, and I could see fresh splinters stickin up from it. I woulda fallen in, all right, and in those days I went about one-twenty. Joe weighed at least fifty pounds more’n that.
I had a handkerchief in my pocket. I tied it around the top of a bush on the shed side of the cap so I could find it again in a hurry. Then I went back into the house. That night I slept like a lamb, and I had no bad dreams for the first time since I’d found out from Selena what her Prince Charmin of a Dad had been up to with her.
That was in late November, and I didn’t intend to do anythin more for quite awhile. I doubt if I need to tell you why, but I will, anyway: if anythin happened to him too soon after our talk on the ferry, Selena’s eyes might turn to me. I didn’t want that to happen, because there was a part of her that still loved him and prob’ly always would, and because I was afraid of how she’d feel if she even suspected what happened. Of how she’d feel about me, accourse—I guess that goes without sayin—but I was even more afraid of how she might feel about herself. As to how that turned out . . . well, never mind now. I’ll get there, I guess.
So I let time go by, although that’s always been the hardest thing for me to do once I’ve made up my mind about a thing. Still, the days piled up into weeks, like they always do. Every now n then I’d ask Selena about him. “Is your Dad bein good?” is what I asked, and we both understood what I was really askin. She always said yes, which was a relief, because if Joe started up again, I’d have to get rid of him right away, and damn the risks. Or the consequences.
I had other things to worry about as Christmas passed and 1963 got started. One was the money—every day I’d wake up thinkin that this might be the day he’d start spendin it. Why wouldn’t I worry about that? He’d got through the first three hundred right smart, and I had no way of keepin him from pissin away the rest while I was waitin for time to take time, as they like to say in his A.A. meetins. I can’t tell you how many times I hunted for the goddam savins passbook they had to have given him when he opened his own account with that dough, but I never found it. So all I could do was watch for him to come home with a new chainsaw or an expensive watch on his wrist, and hope he hadn’t already lost some of it or even all of it in one of the high-stakes poker games he claimed went on every weekend in Ellsworth n Bangor. I never felt s’helpless in my whole life.
Then there was the questions of when and how I was gonna do it . . . if I ended up havin the nerve to do it at all, that was. The idear of usin the old well as a pit-trap was all right as far as it went; the trouble was, it didn’t go anywheres near far enough. If he died neat n clean, like people do on TV, everythin would be fine. But even thirty years ago I’d seen enough of life to know that things hardly ever go the way they do on TV.
Suppose he fell down in there and started screamin, for instance? The island wasn’t built up then the way it is now, but we still had three neighbors along that stretch of East Lane—the Carons, the Langills, and the Jolanders. They might not hear screams comin from the blackberry patch behind our house, but then again they might . . . especially if the wind was high and blowin the right way. Nor was that all. Runnin between the village and the Head like it does, East Lane could be pretty busy. There was trucks n cars goin past our place all the time, not as many of them back then, either, but enough to worry a woman who was thinkin about what I was thinkin about.
I’d about decided I couldn’t use the well to settle his hash after all, that it was just too risky, when the answer came. It was Vera who gave it to me that time, too, although I don’t think she knew it.
She was fascinated by the eclipse, you see. She was on the island most of that season, and as winter started to wear thin, there’d be a new clippin about it pinned to the kitchen bulletin board every week. When spring began with the usual high winds n cold slops, she was here even more, and those clippins showed up just about every other day. There were pieces from the local papers, from away papers like the Globe and the New York Times, and from magazines like Scientific American.
She was excited because she was sure the eclipse would finally lure Donald n Helga back to Pinewood—she told me that again n again—but she was excited on her own account, too. By the middle of May, when the weather finally started to warm up, she had pretty well settled in completely—she never even talked about Baltimore. That friggin eclipse was the only thing she talked about. She had four cameras—I ain’t talkin about Brownie Starflashes, either—in the entry closet, three of em already mounted on tripods. She had eight or nine pairs of special sunglasses, specially made open boxes she called “eclipse-viewers,” periscopes with special tinted mirrors inside em, and I dunno what else.
Then, near the end of May, I came in and saw the article pinned to the bulletin board was from our own little paper—The Weekly Tide. HARBORSIDE TO BE “ECLIPSE CENTRAL” FOR RESIDENTS, SUMMER VISITORS, the headline said. The picture showed Jimmy Gagnon and Harley Fox doin some sort of carpentry on the hotel roof, which was as flat n broad then as it is now. And do you know what? I felt somethin turn over in me again, just like I’d felt when I saw that first article about the eclipse pinned up in the very same place.
The story said that the owners of The Harborside were plannin to turn the roof into a kind of open-air observatory on the day of the eclipse . . . except it sounded like the same old business-as-usual with a brand-new label on it to me. They said the roof was bein “specially renovated” for the occasion (the idear of Jimmy Gagnon n Harley Fox renovatin anythin is pretty funny, when you stop to think of it), and they expected to sell three hundred n fifty special “eclipse tickets.” Summer residents would get the first pick, then year-round residents. The price was actually pretty reasonable—two bucks a throw—but accourse they were plannin on servin food n havin a bar, and those are the places where hotels have always clipped folks. Especially the bar.
I was still readin the article when Vera come in. I didn’t hear her, and when she spoke I went just about two feet into the air.
“Well, Dolores,” she says, “which’ll it be? The roof of The Harborside or the Island Princess?”
“What about the Island Princess?” I asked her.
“I’ve chartered it for the afternoon of the eclipse,” she says.
“You never!” I says, but I knew the second after it was out of my mouth that she had; Vera had no use for idle talk, nor idle boastin, neither. Still, the thought of her charterin a ferry as big as the Princess kinda took my breath away.
“I did,” she said. “It’s costing me an arm and a leg, Dolores, most of it for the replacement ferry that will run the Princess’s regular routes that day, but I certainly did do it. And if you come on my excursion, you’ll ride free with all drinks on the house.” Then, kinda peekin at me from underneath her eyelids, she says, “That last part should appeal to your husband, wouldn’t you agree?”
“My God,” I says, “why’d you charter the damned ferry, Vera?” Her first name still sounded strange to me every time it came out of my mouth, but by then she’d made it clear she hadn’t been jokin—she didn’t mean to let me go back to Mrs. Donovan even if I wanted to, which I sometimes did. “I mean, I know you’re excited about the eclipse and all, but you coulda got an excursion boat almost as big down to Vinalhaven, and prob’ly at half the expense.”
She gave a little shrug and shook her long hair back at the same time—it was her Kiss-My-Back-Cheeks look if I ever seen it. “I chartered it because I love that tubby old whore,” she says. “Little Tall Island is my favorite place in all the world, Dolores—do you know that?”
As a matter of fact I did know it, so I nodded my head.
“Of course you do. And it’s the Princess which has almost always brought me here—the funny, fat, waddling old Princess. I’m told it will hold four hundred comfortably and safely, fifty more than the roof of the hotel, and I’m going to take anyone who wants to go with me and the kids.” Then she grinned, and that grin was all right; it was the grin of a girl who’s glad just to be alive. “And do you know something else, Dolores?” she asked me.
“Nope,” I says. “I’m flummoxed.”
“You won’t need to bow and scrape to anyone if you—” Then she stopped, and give me the queerest look. “Dolores? Are you all right?”
But I couldn’t say anything. The most awful, most wonderful pitcher had filled my mind. In it I seen the big flat roof of The Harborside Hotel filled with people standin around with their necks craned back, and I seen the Princess stopped dead in the middle of the reach between the mainland and the island, her decks also chockablock with people lookin up, and above it all hung a big black circle surrounded by fire in a sky filled with daytime stars. It was a spooky pitcher, enough to raise the hackles on a dead man, but that wasn’t what had gut-punched me. It was thinkin about the rest of the island that done that.
“Dolores?” she ast, and put a hand on my shoulder. “Do you have a cramp? Feel faint? Come over and sit down at the table, I’ll get you a glass of water.”
I didn’t have a cramp, but all at once I did feel a little faint, so I went where she wanted and sat down . . . except my knees were so rubbery I almost fell into the chair. I watched her gettin me the water and thought about somethin she’d said the last November—that even a mathematical dunderhead like her could add n subtract. Well, even one like me could add three hundred and fifty on the hotel roof and four hundred more on the Island Princess and come out with seven hundred and fifty. That wasn’t everybody that’d be on the island in the middle of July, but it was an almighty slug of em, by the Jesus. I had a good idear that the rest would either be out haulin their traps or watchin the eclipse from the shingle and the town docks.
Vera brought me the water and I drank it down all at once. She sat down across from me, lookin concerned. “Are you all right, Dolores?” she ast. “Do you need to lie down?”
“No,” I says, “I just come over funny for a few seconds there.”
I had, too. All at once knowin what day you plan to kill your husband on, I guess that’d be apt to bring anyone over funny.
Three hours or so later, with the warsh done and the marketin done and the groceries put away and the carpets vacuumed and a tiny casserole put away in the refrigerator for her solitary supper (she mighta shared her bed with the hunky from time to time, but I never saw her share her dinner-table with him), I was gatherin up my things to leave. Vera was sittin at the kitchen table, doin the newspaper crossword puzzle.
“Think about coming with us on the boat July twentieth, Dolores,” she says. “It will be ever so much more pleasant out on the reach than on that hot roof, believe me.”
“Thank you, Vera,” I says, “but if I’ve got that day off, I doubt I’ll go either place—I’ll probably just stay home.”
“Would you be offended if I said that sounds very dull?” she ast, lookin up at me.
When did you ever worry about offendin me or anyone else, you snooty bitch? I thought, but accourse I didn’t say it. And besides, she really did look concerned when she thought I might be gonna faint, although that coulda been because she was afraid I’d go down on my nose n bleed all over her kitchen floor, which I’d waxed just the day before.
“Nope,” I says. “That’s me, Vera—dull as dishwater.”
She gave me a funny look then. “Are you?” she says back. “Sometimes I think so . . . and sometimes I wonder.”
I said goodbye n went on home, turnin the idear I’d had over n over as I went, lookin for holes. I didn’t find none—only maybes, and maybes are a part of life, ain’t they? Bad luck can always happen, but if people worried about that too much, nothin would ever get done. Besides, I thought, if things go wrong, I c’n always cry it off. I c’n do that almost right up to the very end.
May passed, Memorial Day came n went, and school vacation rolled around. I got all ready to hold Selena off if she came pesterin about workin at The Harborside, but before we even had our first argument about it, the most wonderful thing happened. Reverend Huff, who was the Methodist minister back then, came around to talk to me n Joe. He said that the Methodist Church Camp in Winthrop had openins for two girl counsellors who had advanced-swimmin qualifications. Well, both Selena and Tanya Caron could swim like fish, Huffy knew it, and to make a long story at least a little shorter, me n Melissa Caron saw our daughters off on the ferry the week after school let out, them wavin from the boat and us wavin from the dock and all four of us crying like fools. Selena was dressed in a pretty pink suit for the trip, and it was the first time I got a clear look at the woman she was gonna be. It almost broke my heart, and does still. Does one of you happen to have a tissue?
Thank you, Nancy. So much. Now where was I?
Selena was taken care of; that left the boys. I got Joe to call his sister in New Gloucester and ask if she and her husband would mind havin em for the last three weeks or so of July and the first week of August, as we’d had their two little hellions for a month or so in the summer a couple of times when they were younger. I thought Joe might balk at sendin Little Pete away, but he didn’t—I s’pose he thought of how quiet the place’d be with all three gone and liked the idear.
Alicia Forbert—that was his sister’s married name—said they’d be glad to have the boys. I got an idear Jack Forbert was prob’ly a little less glad than she was, but Alicia wagged the tail on that dog, so there wasn’t no problem—at least not there.
The problem was that neither Joe Junior nor Little Pete much wanted to go. I didn’t really blame em; the Forbert boys were both teenagers, and wouldn’t have so much as the time of day for a couple of squirts like them. I wasn’t about to let that stop me, though—I couldn’t let it stop me. In the end I just put down my head n bulldozed em into it. Of the two, Joe Junior turned out to be the tougher nut. Finally I took him aside and said, “Just think of it as a vacation from your father.” That convinced him where nothin else would, and that’s a pretty sad thing when you think about it, wouldn’t you say?
Once I had the boys’ midsummer trip settled, there was nothin to do but wait for em to be gone, and I think that in the end they were glad enough to go. Joe’d been drinkin a lot ever since the Fourth of July, and I don’t think even Little Pete found him very pleasant to be around.
His drinkin wasn’t no surprise to me; I’d been helpin him do it. The first time he opened the cupboard under the sink and saw a brand-new fifth of whiskey sittin in there, it struck him as odd—I remember him askin me if I’d fallen on my head or somethin. After that, though, he didn’t ask any questions. Why would he? From the Fourth til the day he died, Joe St. George was all in the bag some of the time and half in the bag most of the time, and a man in that condition don’t take long to start seein his good fortune as one of his Constitutional rights . . . especially a man like Joe.
That was fine as paint with me, but the time after the Fourth—the week before the boys left and the week or so after—wasn’t exactly pleasant, just the same. I’d go off to Vera’s at seven with him layin in bed beside me like a lump of sour cheese, snorin away with his hair all stickin up n wild. I’d come home at two or three and he’d be plunked down out on the porch (he’d dragged that nasty old rocker of his out there), with his American in one hand and his second or third drink of the day in the other. He never had any comp’ny to help him with his whiskey; my Joe didn’t have what you’d call a sharin heart.
There was a story about the eclipse on the front page of the American just about every day that July, but I think that, for all his newspaper-readin, Joe had only the fuzziest idear anything out of the ordinary was gonna happen later in the month. He didn’t care squat about such things, you see. What Joe cared about were the Commies and the freedom-riders (only he called em “the Greyhound niggers”) and that goddam Catholic kike-lover in the White House. If he’d known what was gonna happen to Kennedy four months later, I think he almost coulda died happy, that’s how nasty he was.
I’d sit beside him just the same, though, and listen to him rant about whatever he’d found in that day’s paper to put his fur up. I wanted him to get used to me bein around him when I come home, but if I was to tell you the work was easy, I’d be a goddamned liar. I wouldn’t have minded his drinkin half as much, you know, if he’d had a more cheerful disposition when he did it. Some men do, I know, but Joe wasn’t one of em. Drinkin brought out the woman in him, and for the woman in Joe, it was always about two days before one godawful gusher of a period.
As the big day drew closer, though, leavin Vera’s started to be a relief even though it was only a drunk smelly husband I was goin home to. She’d spent all of June bustlin around, jabberin away about this n that, checkin and recheckin her eclipse-gear, and callin people on the phone—she must have called the comp’ny caterin her ferry expedition at least twice a day durin the last week of June, and they was just one stop on her daily list.
I had six girls workin under me in June and eight after the Fourth of July; it was the most help Vera ever had, either before or after her husband died. The house was scrubbed from top to bottom—scrubbed until it shone—and every bed was made up. Hell, we added temporary beds in the solarium and on the second-floor porch as well. She was expectin at least a dozen overnight guests on the weekend of the eclipse, and maybe as many as twenty. There wasn’t enough hours in the day for her and she went racin around like Moses on a motorcycle, but she was happy.
Then, right around the time I packed the boys off to their Aunt Alicia and Uncle Jack’s—around the tenth or eleventh of July, that would be, and still over a week before the eclipse—her good mood collapsed.
Collapsed? Frig, no. That ain’t right. It popped, like a balloon that’s been stuck with a pin. One day she was zoomin like a jet plane; the next she was steppin on the corners of her mouth and her eyes had taken on the mean, haunted look I’d seen a lot since she started spendin so much time on the island alone. She fired two girls that day, one for standin on a hassock to warsh the windows in the parlor, and the other for laughin in the kitchen with one of the caterers. That second one was especially nasty, cause the girl started to cry. She told Vera she’d known the young man in high school n hadn’t seen him since n wanted to catch up a little on old times. She said she was sorry and begged not to be let go—she said her mother would be madder than a wet hen if that happened.
It didn’t cut no ice with Vera. “Look on the bright side, dear,” she says in her bitchiest voice. “Your mother may be angry, but you’ll have so much time to talk about all the fun you had at good old Jonesport High.”
The girl—it was Sandra Mulcahey—went down the driveway with her head dropped, sobbin like her heart was gonna break. Vera stood in the hall, bent over a little so she could watch her out the window by the front door. My foot itched to kick her ass when I seen her standin that way . . . but I felt a little sad for her, too. It wasn’t hard to figure out what had changed her mood, and before much longer I knew for sure. Her kids weren’t comin to watch the eclipse with her after all, chartered ferry or no chartered ferry. Maybe it was just that they’d made other plans, as kids will do with never a thought for any feelins their parents might have, but my guess was that whatever had gone wrong between her and them was still wrong.
Vera’s mood improved as the first of her other guests started to show up on the sixteenth n seventeenth, but I was still glad to get away each day, and on Thursday the eighteenth she fired another girl—Karen Jolander, that one was. Her big crime was droppin a plate that had been cracked to begin with. Karen wasn’t cryin when she went down the driveway, but you could tell she was just holdin on until she was over the first hill to let loose.
Well, I went and did somethin stupid—but you have to remember I was pretty strung-up myself by then. I managed to wait until Karen was out of sight, at least, but then I went lookin for Vera. I found her in the back garden. She’d yanked her straw sunhat on so hard the brim touched her ears, and she was takin such snaps with those garden-shears of hers that you’d’a thought she was Madam Dufarge choppin off heads instead of Vera Donovan cuttin roses for the parlor n dinin room.
I walked right up to her and said, “That was a boogery thing you done, firin that girl like that.”
She stood up and give me her haughtiest lady-of-the-manor look. “Do you think so? I’m so glad to have your opinion, Dolores. I crave it, you know; each night when I go to bed, I lie there in the dark, reviewing the day and asking the same question as each event passes before my eyes: ‘What would Dolores St. George have done?’?”
Well, that made me madder’n ever. “I’ll tell you one thing Dolores Claiborne don’t do,” I says, “and that’s take it out on someone else when she’s pissed off and disappointed about somethin. I guess I ain’t enough of a high-riding bitch to do that.”
Her mouth dropped open like somebody’d pulled the bolts that held her jaw shut. I’m pretty sure that was the first time I really surprised her, and I marched away in a hurry, before she could see how scared I was. My legs were shakin so bad by the time I got into the kitchen that I had to sit down and I thought, You’re crazy, Dolores, tweakin her tail like that. I stood up enough to peek out the window over the sink, but her back was to me and she was workin her shears again for all she was worth; roses were fallin into her basket like dead soldiers with bloody heads.
I was gettin ready to go home that afternoon when she come up behind me and told me to wait a minute, she wanted to talk to me. I felt my heart sink all the way into my shoes. I hadn’t no doubt at all that my time’d come—she’d tell me my services wouldn’t be required anymore, give me one last Kiss-My-Back-Cheeks stare, and then down the road I’d go, this time for good. You’d think it’d been a relief to get shut of her, and I s’pose in some ways it woulda been, but I felt a pain around my heart just the same. I was thirty-six, I’d been workin hard since I was sixteen, and hadn’t never been fired from a job. Just the same, there’s some kinds of buggery-bullshit a person has to stand up to, and I was tryin with all my might to get ready to do that when I turned around to look at her.
When I saw her face, though, I knew it wasn’t firin she’d come to do. All the makeup she’d had on that mornin was scrubbed off, and the way her eyelids were swole up gave me the idear she’d either been takin a nap or cryin in her room. She had a brown paper grocery sack in her arms, and she kinda shoved it at me. “Here,” she says.
“What’s this?” I ast her.
“Two eclipse-viewers and two reflector-boxes,” she says. “I thought you and Joe might like them. I happened to have—” She stopped then, and coughed into her curled-up fist before lookin me square in the eye again. One thing I admired about her, Andy—no matter what she was sayin or how hard it was for her, she’d look at you when she said it. “I happened to have two extras of each,” she said.
“Oh?” I says. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
She waved it away like it was a fly, then ast me if I’d changed my mind about goin on the ferry with her n her comp’ny.
“No,” I says, “I guess I’ll put up m’dogs on my own porch rail n watch it with Joe from there. Or, if he’s actin out the Tartar, I’ll go down to East Head.”
“Speaking of acting out the Tartar,” she says, still lookin right at me, “I want to apologize for this morning . . . and ask if you’d call Mabel Jolander and tell her I’ve changed my mind.”
It took a lot of guts for her to say that, Andy—you didn’t know her the way I did, so I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it, but it took an awful lot of guts. When it came to apologizin, Vera Donovan was pretty much of a teetotaler.
“Sure I will,” I said, speakin kind of gentle. I almost reached out n touched her hand, but in the end I didn’t. “Only it’s Karen, not Mabel. Mabel worked here six or seven years ago. She’s in New Hampshire these days, her mother says—workin for the telephone comp’ny and doin real well.”
“Karen, then,” she says. “Ask her back. Just say I’ve changed my mind, Dolores, not one word more than that. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I says. “And thanks for the eclipse-things. They’ll come in handy, I’m sure.”
“You’re very welcome,” she says. I opened the door to go out and she says, “Dolores?”
I looked back over my shoulder, and she give me a funny little nod, as if she knew things she had no business knowin.
“Sometimes you have to be a high-riding bitch to survive,” she says. “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto.” And then she closed the door in my face . . . but gentle. She didn’t slam it.
All right; here comes the day of the eclipse, and if I’m going to tell you what happened—everything that happened—I ain’t going to do it dry. I been talkin for damn near two hours straight by my watch, long enough to burn the oil offa anyone’s bearins, and I’m still a long way from bein done. So I tell you what, Andy—either you part with an inch of the Jim Beam you got in your desk drawer, or we hang it up for tonight. What do you say?
There—thank you. Boy, don’t that just hit the spot! No; put it away. One’s enough to prime the pump; two might not do anythin but clog the pipes.
All right—here we go again.
On the night of the nineteenth I went to bed so worried I was almost sick to my stomach with it, because the radio said there was a good chance it was gonna rain. I’d been so goddam busy plannin what I was gonna do and workin my nerve up to do it that the thought of rain’d never even crossed my mind. I’m gonna toss n turn all night, I thought as I laid down, and then I thought, No you ain’t, Dolores, and I’ll tell you why—you can’t do a damn thing about the weather, and it don’t matter, anyway. You know you mean to do for him even if it rains like a bastard all day long. You’ve gone too far to back out now. And I did know that, so I closed my eyes n went out like a light.
Saturday—the twentieth of July, 1963—come up hot n muggy n cloudy. The radio said there most likely wouldn’t be any rain after all, unless it was just a few thundershowers late in the evenin, but the clouds were gonna hang around most of the day, and chances of the coastal communities actually seein the eclipse were no better’n fifty-fifty.
It felt like a big weight had slipped off my shoulders just the same, and when I went off to Vera’s to help serve the big brunch buffet she had planned, my mind was calm and my worries behind me. It didn’t matter that it was cloudy, you see; it wouldn’t even matter if it showered off n on. As long as it didn’t pour, the hotel-people would be up on the roof and Vera’s people would be out on the reach, all of em hopin there’d be just enough of a break in the cloud-cover to let em get a look at what wasn’t gonna happen again in their lifetimes . . . not in Maine, anyhow. Hope’s a powerful force in human nature, you know—no one knows that better’n me.
As I remember, Vera ended up havin eighteen houseguests that Friday night, but there were even more at the Saturday-mornin buffet—thirty or forty, I’d say. The rest of the people who’d be goin with her on the boat (and they were island folk for the most part, not from away) would start gatherin at the town dock around one o’clock, and the old Princess was due to set out around two. By the time the eclipse actually began—four-thirty or so—the first two or three kegs of beer’d probably be empty.
I expected to find Vera all nerved up and ready to fly out of her own skin, but I sometimes think she made a damn career outta surprisin me. She was wearin a billowy red-n-white thing that looked more like a cape than a dress—a caftan, I think they’re called—and she’d pulled her hair back in a simple hosstail that was a long way from the fifty-buck hairdos she usually sported in those days.
She went around and around the long buffet table that was set up on the back lawn near the rose garden, visitin and laughin with all her friends—most of em from Baltimore, judgin by the look n sound—but she was different that day than she had been durin the week leadin up to the eclipse. Remember me tellin you how she went zoomin back n forth like a jet plane? On the day of the eclipse, she was more like a butterfly visitin among a lot of plants, and her laugh wasn’t so shrill or loud.
She seen me bringin out a tray of scrambled eggs n hurried over to give me some instructions, but she didn’t walk like she had been walkin the last few days—like she really wanted to be runnin—and the smile stayed on her face. I thought, She’s happy—that’s all it is. She’s accepted that her kids aren’t comin and has decided she can be happy just the same. And that was all . . . unless you knew her, and knew how rare a thing it was for Vera Donovan to be happy. Tell you somethin, Andy—I knew her another thirty years, almost, but I don’t think I ever saw her really happy again. Content, yes, and resigned, but happy? Radiant n happy, like a butterfly wanderin a field of flowers on a hot summer afternoon? I don’t think so.
“Dolores!” she says. “Dolores Claiborne!” It never occurred to me until a lot later that she’d called me by my maiden name, even though Joe was still alive n well that morning, and she never had before. When it did occur to me I shivered all over, the way you’re s’posed to do when a goose walks acrost the place where you’ll be buried someday.
“Mornin, Vera,” I said back. “I’m sorry the day’s so gray.”
She glanced up at the sky, which was hung with low, humid summer clouds, then smiled. “The sun will be out by three o’clock,” she says.
“You make it sound like you put in a work-order for it,” I says.
I was only teasin, accourse, but she gave me a serious little nod and said, “Yes—that’s just what I did. Now run into the kitchen, Dolores, and see why that stupid caterer hasn’t brought out a fresh pot of coffee yet.”
I set out to do as she ast, but before I got more’n four steps toward the kitchen door, she called after me just like she’d done two days before, when she told me that sometimes a woman has to be a bitch to survive. I turned around with the idear in my head that she was gonna tell me that same thing all over again. She didn’t though. She was standin there in her pretty red-n-white tent-dress, with her hands on her lips n that hosstail lyin over one shoulder, lookin not a year over twenty-one in that white mornin light.
“Sunshine by three, Dolores!” she says. “See if I’m not right!”
The buffet was over by eleven, and me n the girls had the kitchen to ourselves by noon, the caterer and his people havin moved on down to the Island Princess to start gettin ready for Act Two. Vera herself left fairly late, around twelve-fifteen, drivin the last three or four of her comp’ny down to the dock herself in the old Ford Ranch Wagon she kep on the island. I stuck with the warshinup until one o’clock or so, then told Gail Lavesque, who was more or less my second in command that day, that I felt a little headachey n sick to my stomach, and I was gonna go on home now that the worst of the mess was ridded up. On my way out, Karen Jolander gave me a hug and thanked me. She was cryin again, too. I swan to goodness, that girl never stopped leakin around the eyes all the years I knew her.
“I don’t know who’s been talkin to you, Karen,” I said, “but you don’t have nothing to thank me for—I didn’t do a single solitary thing.”
“No one’s said a word to me,” she says, “but I know it was you, Missus St. George. No one else’d dare speak up to the old dragon.”
I gave her a kiss on the cheek n told her I thought she wouldn’t have nothing to worry about as long as she didn’t drop any more plates. Then I set out for home.
I remember everythin that happened, Andy—everythin—but from the time I stepped off Vera’s driveway and onto Center Drive, it’s like rememberin things that’ve happened in the brightest, most real-seemin dream you’ve ever had in your life. I kep thinkin “I’m goin home to kill my husband, I’m goin home to kill my husband,” like I could pound it into my head the way you’d pound a nail into some thick wood like teak or mahogany, if I only kept at it long enough. But lookin back on it, I guess it was in my head all the time. It was my heart that couldn’t understand.
Although it was only one-fifteen or so when I got to the village and the start of the eclipse still over three hours away, the streets were so empty it was spooky. It made me think of that little town down in the southern part of the state where they say no one lives. Then I looked up at the roof of The Harborside, and that was spookier still. There must’ve been a hundred people or more up there already, strollin around n checkin the sky like farmers at plantin time. I looked downhill to the dock and seen the Princess there, her gangplank down and the auto deck full of people instead of cars. They was walkin around with drinks in their hands, havin themselves a big open-air cocktail-party. The dock itself was crammed with people, and there musta been five hundred small boats—more’n I’d ever seen out there at one time anyway—on the reach already, anchored and waitin. And it seemed like everyone you saw, whether they was on the hotel roof or the town dock or the Princess, was wearin dark glasses and holdin either a smoked-glass eclipse-viewer or a reflector-box. There’s never been a day like it on the island before or since, and even if I hadn’t had in mind what I did have in mind, I think it woulda felt like a dream to me.
The greenfront was open, eclipse or no eclipse—I expect that booger’ll be doin business as usual even on Apocalypse Morn. I stopped in, bought a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, then walked on out East Lane to the house. I gave the bottle to Joe first thing—didn’t make any bones about it, just plopped it into his lap. Then I walked into the house n got the bag Vera had given me, the one with the eclipse-viewers and reflector-boxes in it. When I came out on the back porch again, he was holdin that bottle of Scotch up so he could see the color.
“Are you gonna drink it or just admire it?” I ast him.
He give me a look, kinda suspicious, and says, “Just what the hell is this, Dolores?”
“It’s a present to celebrate the eclipse,” I said. “If you don’t want it, I c’n always pour it down the sink.”
I made as if to reach for it n he yanked it back real quick.
“You been givin me one helluva lot of presents just lately,” he says. “We can’t afford stuff like this, eclipse or no eclipse.” That didn’t stop him from gettin out his pocket-knife and slittin the seal, though; didn’t even seem to slow him down.
“Well, to tell you the truth, it’s not just the eclipse,” I says. “I’ve just been feelin so good and so relieved that I wanted to share some of my happiness. And since I’ve noticed that most of what seems to make you happy comes out of a bottle . . .”
I watched him take the cap off n pour himself a knock. His hand was shakin a little bit, and I wasn’t sorry to see it. The raggeder he was, the better my chances would be.
“What have you got to feel good about?” he asks. “Did somebody invent a pill to cure ugly?”
“That’s a pretty mean thing to say to someone who just bought you a bottle of premium Scotch,” I said. “Maybe I really should take it back.” I reached for it again and he pulled it back again.
“Fat chance,” he says.
“Then be nice,” I told him. “What happened to all that gratitude you were s’posed to be learnin in your A.A.?”
He never minded that, just went on lookin at me like a store-clerk tryin to decide if someone’d passed him a phony ten. “What’s got you feelin so goddam good?” he asks again. “It’s the brats, isn’t it? Havin em outta the house.”
“Nope, I miss em already,” I said, and it was the truth, too.
“Yeah, you would,” he says, n drinks his drink. “So what is it?”
“I’ll tell you later,” I says, n starts gettin up.
He grabbed my arm and said, “Tell me now, Dolores. You know I don’t like it when you’re fresh.”
I looked down at him and says, “You better take your hand off me, or that expensive bottle of hooch might end up gettin broke over your head. I don’t want to fight with you, Joe, especially not today. I’ve got some nice salami, some Swiss cheese, and some water-biscuits.”
“Water-biscuits!” he says. “Jesus wept, wo-man!”
“Never mind,” I says. “I’m gonna make us a tray of hors d’oeuvres every bit as nice as the ones Vera’s guests are gonna have out on the ferry.”
“Fancy food like that gives me the shits,” he says. “Never mind any hosses’ ovaries; just make me a sandwich.”
“All right,” I agreed. “I will.”
He was lookin toward the reach by then—probably me mentionin the ferry’d put him in mind of it—with his lower lip poochin out in that ugly way it had. There were more boats out there than ever, and it looked to me like the sky over em had lightened up a little bit. “Lookit em!” he says in that sneerin way of his—the one his youngest son was tryin so goddam hard to copy. “Ain’t nothin gonna happen that’s any more’n a thunderhead goin across the sun, and they’re all just about shootin off in their pants. I hope it rains! I hope it comes down s’hard it drowns that snooty cunt you work for, and the rest of em, too!”
“That’s my Joe,” I says. “Always cheery, always charitable.”
He looked around at me, still holdin that bottle of Scotch curled against his chest like a bear with a chunk of honeycomb. “What in the name of Christ are you runnin on about, woman?”
“Nothin,” I says. “I’m going inside to fix the food—a sandwich for you and some hors d’oeuvres for me. Then we’ll sit n have a couple of drinks n watch the eclipse—Vera sent down a viewer and a reflector-box thingamajig for each of us—and when it’s over, I’ll tell you what’s got me feeling so happy. It’s a surprise.”
“I don’t like fucking surprises,” he says.
“I know you don’t,” I told him. “But you’ll get a kick out of this one, Joe. You’d never guess it in a thousand years.” Then I went into the kitchen so he could really get started on that bottle I’d bought him at the greenfront. I wanted him to enjoy it—I really did. After all, it was the last liquor he was ever gonna drink. He wouldn’t need A.A. to keep him off the sauce, either. Not where he was goin.
That was the longest afternoon of my life, and the strangest, too. There he was, sittin on the porch in his rocker, holdin the paper in one hand and a drink in the other, bitchin in the open kitchen window at me about somethin the Democrats were tryin to do down in Augusta. He’d forgot all about tryin to find out what I was happy about, and all about the eclipse, as well. I was in the kitchen, makin him a sandwich, hummin a tune, and thinkin, “Make it good, Dolores—put on some of that red onion he likes and just enough mustard to make it tangy. Make it good, cause it’s the last thing he’s ever gonna eat.”
From where I was standin, I could look out along the line of the woodshed and see the white rock and the edge of the blackberry tangle. The handkerchief I’d tied to the top of one of the bushes was still there; I could see that, too. It went noddin back n forth in the breeze. Every time it did, I thought of that spongy wellcap right under it.
I remember how the birds sang that afternoon, and how I could hear some of the people out on the reach yellin back and forth to each other, their voices all tiny and far—they sounded like voices on the radio. I can even remember what I was hummin: “Amazin Grace, how sweet the sound.” I went on hummin it while I made my crackers n cheese (I didn’t want em any more’n a hen wants a flag, but I didn’t want Joe wonderin why I wasn’t eatin, either).
It must have been quarter past two or so when I went back out on the porch with the tray of food balanced on one hand like a waitress and the bag Vera’d give me in the other. The sky was still overcast, but you could see it really had gotten quite a bit lighter.
That was a good little feed, as things turned out. Joe wasn’t much for compliments, but I could see from the way he put down his paper n looked at his sandwich while he was eatin that he liked it. I thought of somethin I’d read in some book or saw in some movie: “The condemned man ate a hearty meal.” Once I’d got that in my head, I couldn’t get rid of the damned thing.
It didn’t stop me from diggin into my own kip, though; once I got started, I kept goin until every one of those cheese-n-cracker things were gone, and I drank a whole bottle of Pepsi as well. Once or twice I found myself wonderin if most executioners have good appetites on the days when they have to do their job. It’s funny what a person’s mind will get up to when that person’s nervin herself up to do somethin, isn’t it?
The sun broke through the clouds just as we were finishin up. I thought of what Vera’d told me that mornin, looked down at my watch, and smiled. It was three o’clock, right on the button. About that same time, Dave Pelletier—he delivered mail on the island back in those days—drove back toward town, hell bent for election and pullin a long rooster-tail of dust behind him. I didn’t see another car on East Lane until long after dark.
I put the plates and my empty soda bottle on the tray, scoochin down to do it, n before I could stand up, Joe done somethin he hadn’t done in years: put one of his hands on the back of my neck n give me a kiss. I’ve had better; his breath was all booze n onion n salami and he hadn’t shaved, but it was a kiss just the same, and nothing mean or half-assed or peckish about it. It was just a nice kiss, n I couldn’t remember the last time he’d give me one. I closed my eyes n let him do it. I remember that—closin my eyes and feelin his lips on mine and the sun on my forehead. One was as warm n nice as the other.
“That wa’ant half-bad, Dolores,” he said—high praise, comin from him.
I had a second there when I kinda wavered—I ain’t gonna sit here and say different. It was a second when it wasn’t Joe puttin his hands all over Selena that I saw, but the way his forehead looked in study-hall back in 1945—how I saw that and wanted him to kiss me just the way he was kissin me now; how I thought, “If he kissed me I’d reach up and touch the skin there on his brow while he did it . . . see if it’s as smooth as it looks.”
I reached out my hand n touched it then, just like I’d dreamed of doin all those years before, when I’d been nothin but a green girl, and the minute I did, that inside eye opened wider’n ever. What it saw was how he’d go on if I let him go on—not just gettin what he wanted from Selena, or spendin the money he’d robbed out of his kids’ bank accounts, but workin on em; belittlin Joe Junior for his good grades n his love of history; clappin Little Pete on the back whenever Pete called somebody a sheeny or said one of his classmates was lazy as a nigger; workin on em; always workin on em. He’d go on until they were broke or spoiled, if I let him, and in the end he’d die n leave us with nothin but bills and a hole to bury him in.
Well, I had a hole for him, one thirty feet deep instead of just six, and lined with chunks of fieldstone instead of dirt. You bet I had a hole for him, and one kiss after three years or maybe even five wasn’t gonna change it. Neither was touchin his forehead, which had been a lot more the cause of all my trouble than his pulin little dingus ever was . . . but I touched it again, just the same; traced one finger over it and thought about how he kissed me on the patio of The Samoset Inn while the band inside played “Moonlight Cocktail,” and how I’d been able to smell his father’s cologne on his cheeks when he did.
Then I hardened my heart.
“I’m glad,” I said, n picked up the tray again. “Why don’t you see what you can make of those viewers and the reflector-boxes while I do up these few dishes?”
“I don’t give a fuck about anything that rich cunt gave you,” he says, “and I don’t give a fuck about the goddam eclipse, either. I’ve seen dark before. It happens every goddam night.”
“All right,” I says. “Suit yourself.”
I got as far’s the door and he says, “Maybe you n me can get up to dickens later on. What would you think about that, Dee?”
“Maybe,” I says, all the time thinkin there was gonna be plenty of dickens, all right. Before it got dark for the second time that day, Joe St. George was gonna get more dickens than he’d ever dreamed of.
I kept my good weather eye on him while I was standin at the sink and doin up our few dishes. He hadn’t done anything in bed but sleep, snore, n fart for years, and I think he knew as well’s I did that the booze had as much to do with that as my ugly face . . . prob’ly more. I was scared that maybe the idear of gettin his ashes hauled later on would cause him to put the cap back on that bottle of Johnnie Walker, but no such bad luck. For Joe, fuckin (pardon my language, Nancy) was just a fancy, like kissin me had been. The bottle was a lot realer to him. The bottle was right there where he could touch it. He’d gotten one of the eclipse-viewers out of the bag and was holdin it up by the handle, turnin it this way n that, squintin at the sun through it. He reminded me of a thing I saw on TV once—a chimpanzee tryin to tune a radio. Then he put it down and poured himself another drink.
When I came back out on the porch with my sewin basket, I saw he was already getting that owly, red-around-the-eyes look he had when he was on his way from moderately tickled to thoroughly tanked. He looked at me pretty sharp just the same, no doubt wonderin if I was gonna bitch at him.
“Don’t mind me,” I says, sweet as sugar-pie, “I’m just gonna sit here and do a little mendin and wait for the eclipse to start. It’s nice that the sun came out, isn’t it?”
“Christ, Dolores, you must think this is my birthday,” he says. His voice had started to get thick and furry.
“Well—somethin like it, maybe,” I says, and began sewin up a rip in a pair of Little Pete’s jeans.
The next hour and a half passed slower’n any time had since I was a little girl, and my Aunt Cloris promised to come n take me to my first movie down in Ellsworth. I finished Little Pete’s jeans, sewed patches on two pairs of Joe Junior’s chinos (even back then that boy would absolutely not wear jeans—I think part of him’d already decided he was gonna be a politician when he grew up), and hemmed two of Selena’s skirts. The last thing I did was sew a new fly in one of Joe’s two or three pairs of good slacks. They were old but not entirely worn out. I remember thinkin they would do to bury him in.
Then, just when I thought it was never gonna happen, I noticed the light on my hands seemed a little dimmer.
“Dolores?” Joe says. “I think this is what you n all the rest of the fools’ve been waitin for.”
“Ayuh,” I says. “I guess.” The light in the dooryard had gone from that strong afternoon yellow it has in July to a kind of faded rose, and the shadow of the house layin across the driveway had taken on a funny thin kind of look I’d never seen before and never have since.
I took one of the reflector-boxes from the bag, held it out the way Vera’d showed me about a hundred times in the last week or so, and when I did I had the funniest thought: that little girl is doin this, too, I thought. The one who’s sittin on her father’s lap. She’s doin this very same thing.
I didn’t know what that thought meant then, Andy, and I don’t really know now, but I’m tellin you anyway—because I made up my mind I’d tell you everythin, and because I thought of her again later. Except in the next second or two I wasn’t just thinkin of her; I was seein her, the way you see people in dreams, or the way I guess the Old Testament prophets must have seen things in their visions: a little girl maybe ten years old, with her own reflector-box in her hands. She was wearin a short dress with red n yellow stripes—a kind of sundress with straps instead of sleeves, you know—and lipstick the color of peppermint candy. Her hair was blonde, and put up in the back, like she wanted to look older’n she really was. I saw somethin else, as well, somethin that made me think of Joe: her Daddy’s hand was on her leg, way up high. Higher’n it ought to’ve been, maybe. Then it was gone.
“Dolores?” Joe ast me. “You all right?”
“What do you mean?” I asks back. “Course I am.”
“You looked funny there for a minute.”
“It’s just the eclipse,” I says, and I really think that’s what it was, Andy, but I also think that little girl I saw then n again later was a real little girl, and that she was sittin with her father somewhere else along the path of the eclipse at the same time I was sittin on the back porch with Joe.
I looked down in the box and seen a little tiny white sun, so bright it was like lookin at a fifty-cent piece on fire, with a dark curve bit into one side of it. I looked at it for a little while, then at Joe. He was holdin up one of the viewers, peerin into it.
“Goddam,” he says. “She’s disappearin, all right.”
The crickets started to sing in the grass right about then; I guess they’d decided sundown was comin early that day, and it was time for em to crank up. I looked out on the reach at all the boats, and saw the water they were floatin on looked a darker blue now—there was somethin about them that was creepy n wonderful at the same time. My brain kept tryin to believe that all those boats sittin there under that funny dark summer sky were just a hallucination.
I glanced at my watch and saw it was goin on ten til five. That meant for the next hour or so everyone on the island would be thinkin about nothin else and watchin nothin else. East Lane was dead empty, our neighbors were either on the Island Princess or the hotel roof, and if I really meant to do him, the time’d come. My guts felt like they were all wound into one big spring and I couldn’t quite get that thing I’d seen—the little girl sittin on her Daddy’s lap—out of my mind, but I couldn’t let either of those things stop me or even distract me, not for a single minute. I knew if I didn’t do it right then, I wouldn’t never.
I put the reflector-box down beside my sewin and said, “Joe.”
“What?” he ast me. He’d pooh-poohed the eclipse before, but now that it’d actually started, it seemed like he couldn’t take his eyes off it. His head was tipped back and the eclipse-viewer he was lookin through cast one of those funny, faded shadows on his face.
“It’s time for the surprise,” I said.
“What surprise?” he ast, and when he lowered the eclipse-viewer, which was just this double layer of special polarized glass in a frame, to look at me, I saw it wasn’t fascination with the eclipse after all, or not completely. He was halfway to bein shit-faced, and so groggy I got a little scared. If he didn’t understand what I was sayin, my plan was buggered before it even got started. And what was I gonna do then? I didn’t know. The only thing I did know scared the hell outta me: I wasn’t gonna turn back. No matter how wrong things went or what happened later, I wasn’t gonna turn back.
Then he reached out a hand, grabbed me by the shoulder, and shook me. “What in God’s name’re you talkin about, woman?” he says.
“You know the money in the kids’ bank accounts?” I asks him.
His eyes narrowed a little, and I saw he wasn’t anywhere near as drunk as I’d first thought. I understood something else, too—that one kiss didn’t change a thing. Anyone can give a kiss, after all; a kiss was how Judas Iscariot showed the Romans which one was Jesus.
“What about it?” he says.
“You took it.”
“Oh yes,” I says. “After I found out you’d been foolin with Selena, I went to the bank. I meant to withdraw the money, then take the kids and get them away from you.”
His mouth dropped open and for a few seconds he just gaped at me. Then he started to laugh—just leaned back in his rocker and let fly while the day went on gettin darker all around him. “Well, you got fooled, didn’t you?” he says. Then he helped himself to a little more Scotch and looked up at the sky through the eclipse-viewer again. This time I couldn’t hardly see the shadow on his face. “Half gone, Dolores!” he says. “Half gone now, maybe a little more!”
I looked down into my reflector-box and seen he was right; only half of that fifty-cent piece was left, and more was goin all the time. “Ayuh,” I says. “Half gone, so it is. As to the money, Joe—”
“You just forget that,” he told me. “Don’t trouble your pointy little head about it. That money’s just about fine.”
“Oh, I’m not worried about it,” I says. “Not a bit. The way you fooled me, though—that weighs on my mind.”
He nodded, kinda solemn n thoughtful, as if to show me he understood n even sympathized, but he couldn’t hold onto the expression. Pretty soon he busted out laughin again, like a little kid who’s gettin scolded by a teacher he ain’t in the least afraid of. He laughed so hard he sprayed a little silver cloud of spit into the air in front of his mouth.
“I’m sorry, Dolores,” he says when he was able to talk again, “I don’t mean to laugh, but I did steal a march on you, didn’t I?”
“Oh, ayuh,” I agreed. It wasn’t nothing but the truth, after all.
“Fooled you right and proper,” he says, laughin and shakin his head the way you do when someone tells a real knee-slapper.
“Ayuh,” I agreed along with him, “but you know what they say.”
“Nope,” he says. He dropped the eclipse-viewer into his lap n turned to look at me. He’d laughed s’hard there were tears standin in his piggy little bloodshot eyes. “You’re the one with a sayin for every occasion, Dolores. What do they say about husbands who finally put one over on their meddling busybody wives?”
“?‘Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,’?” I says. “You fooled me about Selena, and then you fooled me about the money, but I guess I finally caught up to you.”
“Well maybe you did and maybe you didn’t,” he says, “but if you’re worried about it bein spent, you can just stop, because—”
I broke in there. “I ain’t worried,” I says. “I told you that already. I ain’t a bit worried.”
He give me a hard look then, Andy, his smile dryin up little by little. “You got that smart look on your face again,” he says, “the one I don’t much care for.”
“Tough titty,” I says.
He looked at me for a long time, tryin to figure out what was goin on inside my head, but I guess it was as much a mystery to him then as ever. He pooched his lip out again n sighed so hard he blew back the lock of hair that’d fallen on his forehead.
“Most women don’t understand the first thing about money, Dolores,” he says, “n you’re no exception to the rule. I put it all together in one account, that’s all . . . so it’d draw more interest. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to listen to a lot of your ignorant bullshit. Well, I’ve had to listen to some anyway, like I just about always do, but enough’s enough.” Then he raised up the eclipse-viewer again to show me the subject was closed.
“One account in your own name,” I says.
“So what?” he ast. By then it was like we was sittin in a deep twilight, and the trees had begun fadin against the horizon. I could hear a whippoorwill singin from behind the house, and a nightjar from somewhere else. It felt like the temperature had begun to drop, too. It all gave me the strangest feelin . . . like livin in a dream that’s somehow turned real. “Why shouldn’t it be in my name? I’m their father, ain’t I?”
“Well, your blood is in em. If that makes you a father, I guess you are one.”
I could see him tryin to figure out if that one was worth pickin up and yankin on awhile, and decidin it wa’ant. “You don’t want to talk about this anymore, Dolores,” he says. “I’m warnin you.”
“Well, maybe just a little more,” I says back, smiling. “You forgot all about the surprise, you see.”
He looked at me, suspicious again. “What the fuck’re you babblin on about, Dolores?”
“Well, I went to see the man in charge of the savins department at Coastal Northern in Jonesport,” I says. “A nice man named Mr. Pease. I explained what happened, and he was awful upset. Especially when I showed him the original savins books weren’t missin, like you told him they were.”
That was when Joe lost what little int’rest in the eclipse he’d had. He just sat there in that shitty old rocker of his, starin at me with his eyes wide open. There was thunder on his brow n his lips were pressed down into a thin white line like a scar. He’d dropped the eclipse-viewer back into his lap and his hands were openin and closin, real slow.
“It turned out you weren’t supposed to do that,” I told him. “Mr. Pease checked to see if the money was still in the bank. When he found out it was, we both heaved a big sigh of relief. He ast me if I wanted him to call the cops n tell em what happened. I could see from his face he was hopin like hell I’d say no. I ast if he could issue that money over to me. He looked it up in a book n said he could. So I said, ‘That’s what we’ll do, then.’ And he did it. So that’s why I ain’t worried about the kids’ money anymore, Joe—I’ve got it now instead of you. Ain’t that a corker of a surprise?”
“You lie!” Joe shouted at me, n stood up so fast his rocker almost fell over. The eclipse-viewer fell out of his lap n broke to pieces when it hit the porch floor. I wish I had a pitcher of the way he looked just then; I’d stuck it to him, all right—and it went in all the way to the hilt. The expression on the dirty sonofawhore’s face was purt-near worth everythin I’d been through since that day on the ferry with Selena. “They can’t do that!” he yells. “You can’t touch a cent of that dough, can’t even look at the fuckin passbook—”
“Oh no?” I says. “Then how come I know you already spent three hundred of it? I’m thankful it wasn’t more, but it still makes me mad as hell every time I think of it. You’re nothing but a thief, Joe St. George—one so low he’d even steal from his own children!”
His face was as white as a corpse’s in the gloom. Only his eyes was alive, and they were burnin with hate. His hands was held out in front of him, openin and closin. I glanced down for just a second and saw the sun—less’n half by then, just a fat crescent—reflected over n over in the shattered pieces of smoked glass layin around his feet. Then I looked back at him again. It wouldn’t do to take my eyes off him for long, not with the mood he was in.
“What did you spend that three hundred on, Joe? Whores? Poker? Some of both? I know it wa’ant another junker, because there ain’t any new ones out back.”
He didn’t say nothin, just stood there with his hands openin and closin, and behind him I could see the first lightnin bugs stitchin their lights across the dooryard. The boats out on the reach were just ghosts by then, and I thought of Vera. I figured if she wasn’t in seventh heaven already, she was prob’ly in the vestibule. Not that I had any business thinkin about Vera; it was Joe I had to keep my mind on. I wanted to get him movin, and I judged one more good push’d do it.
“I guess I don’t care what you spent it on, anyway,” I says. “I got the rest, and that’s good enough for me. You can just go fuck yourself . . . if you can get your old limp noodle to stand up, that is.”
He stumbled across the porch, crunchin the pieces of the eclipse-viewer under his shoes, and grabbed me by the arms. I could have gotten away from him, but I didn’t want to. Not just then.
“You want to watch your fresh mouth,” he whispered, blowin Scotch fumes down into my face. “If you don’t, I’m apt to.”
“Mr. Pease wanted me to put the money back in the bank, but I wouldn’t—I figured if you were able to get it out of the kids’ accounts, you might find a way to get it out of mine, too. Then he wanted to give me a check, but I was afraid that if you found out what I was up to before I wanted you to find out, you might stop payment on it. So I told Mr. Pease to give it to me in cash. He didn’t like it, but in the end he did it, and now I have it, every cent, and I’ve put it in a place where it’s safe.”
He grabbed me by the throat then. I was pretty sure he would, and I was scared, but I wanted it, too—it’d make him believe the last thing I had to say that much more when I finally said it. But even that wa’ant the most important thing. Havin him grab me by the throat like that made it seem more like self-defense, somehow—that was the most important thing. And it was self-defense, no matter what the law might say about it; I know, because I was there and the law wasn’t. In the end I was defendin myself, and I was defendin my children.
He cut off my wind and throttled me back n forth, yellin. I don’t remember all of it; I think he must have knocked my head against one of the porch posts once or twice. I was a goddam bitch, he said, he’d kill me if I didn’t give that money back, that money was his—foolishness like that. I began to be afraid he really would kill me before I could tell him what he wanted to hear. The dooryard had gotten a lot darker, and it seemed full of those little stitchin lights, as if the hundred or two hundred fireflies I’d seen before had been joined by ten thousand or so more. And his voice sounded so far away that I thought it had all gone wrong, somehow—that I’d fallen down the well instead of him.
Finally he let me go. I tried to stay on my feet but my legs wouldn’t hold me. I tried to fall back into the chair I’d been sittin in, but he’d yanked me too far away from it and my ass just clipped the edge of the seat on my way down. I landed on the porch floor next to the litter of broken glass that was all that was left of his eclipse-viewer. There was one big piece left, with a crescent of sun shinin in it like a jewel. I started to reach for it, then didn’t. I wasn’t going to cut him, even if he gave me the chance. I couldn’t cut him. A cut like that—a glass-cut—might not look right later. So you see how I was thinkin . . . not much doubt anyplace along the line about whether or not it was first-degree, is there, Andy? Instead of the glass, I grabbed hold of my reflector-box, which was made of some heavy wood. I could say I was thinkin it would do to bash him with if it came to that, but it wouldn’t be true. Right then I really wasn’t thinkin much at all.
I was coughin, though—coughin so damned hard it seemed a wonder to me that I wasn’t sprayin blood as well as spit. My throat felt like it was on fire.
He pulled me back onto my feet so hard one of my slip straps broke, then caught the nape of my neck in the crook of his arm and yanked me toward him until we was close enough to kiss—not that he was in a kissin mood anymore.
“I told you what’d happen if you didn’t leave off bein so fresh with me,” he says. His eyes were all wet n funny, like he’d been cryin, but what scared me about em was the way they seemed to be lookin right through me, as if I wasn’t really there for him anymore. “I told you a million times. Do you believe me now, Dolores?”
“Yes,” I said. He’d hurt my throat s’bad I sounded like I was talkin through a throatful of mud. “Yes, I do.”
“Say it again!” he says. He still had my neck caught in the crook of his elbow and now he squeezed so hard it pinched one of the nerves in there. I screamed. I couldn’t help it; it hurt dreadful. That made him grin. “Say it like you mean it!” he told me.
“I do!” I screamed. “I do mean it!” I’d planned on actin frightened, but Joe saved me the trouble; I didn’t have to do no actin that day, after all.
“Good,” he says, “I’m glad to hear it. Now tell me where the money is, and every red cent better be there.”
“It’s out back of the woodshed,” I says. I didn’t sound like I was talkin through a mouthful of mud anymore; by then I sounded like Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life. Which sort of fit the situation, if you see what I mean. Then I told him I put the money in a jar and hid the jar in the blackberry bushes.
“Just like a woman!” he sneers, and then give me a shove toward the porch steps. “Well, come on. Let’s go get it.”
I walked down the porch steps and along the side of the house with Joe right behind me. By then it was almost as dark as it gets at night, and when we reached the shed, I saw somethin so strange it made me forget everythin else for a few seconds. I stopped n pointed up into the sky over the blackberry tangle. “Look, Joe!” I says. “Stars!”
And there were—I could see the Big Dipper as clear as I ever saw it on a winter’s night. It gave me goosebumps all over my body, but it wasn’t nothing to Joe. He gave me a shove so hard I almost fell over. “Stars?” he says. “You’ll see plenty of em if you don’t quit stallin, woman—I guarantee you that.”
I started walkin again. Our shadows had completely disappeared, and the big white rock where me n Selena had sat that evenin the year before stood out almost as bright as a spotlight, like I’ve noticed it does when there’s a full moon. The light wasn’t like moonlight, Andy—I can’t describe what it was like, how gloomy n weird it was—but it’ll have to do. I know that the distances between things had gotten hard to judge, like they do in moonlight, and that you couldn’t pick out any single blackberry bush anymore—they were all just one big smear with those fireflies dancing back n forth in front of em.
Vera’d told me time n time again that it was dangerous to look straight at the eclipse; she said it could burn your retinas or even blind you. Still, I couldn’t no more resist turnin my head n takin one quick glance up over my shoulder than Lot’s wife could resist takin one last glance back at the city of Sodom. What I saw has stayed in my memory ever since. Weeks, sometimes whole months go by without me thinkin about Joe, but hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of what I saw that afternoon when I looked up over my shoulder and into the sky. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt because she couldn’t keep her eyes front n her mind on her business, and I’ve sometimes thought it’s a wonder I didn’t have to pay the same price.
The eclipse wasn’t total yet, but it was close. The sky itself was a deep royal purple, and what I saw hangin in it above the reach looked like a big black pupil with a gauzy veil of fire spread out most of the way around it. On one side there was a thin crescent of sun still left, like beads of molten gold in a blast furnace. I had no business lookin at such a sight and I knew it, but once I had, it seemed like I couldn’t look away. It was like . . . well, you might laugh, but I’m gonna say it anyway. It was like that inside eye had gotten free of me somehow, that it had floated up into the sky and was lookin down to see how I was gonna make out. But it was so much bigger than I’d ever imagined! So much blacker!
I probably woulda looked at it until I went stone blind, except Joe gave me another shove and bashed me into the shed wall. That kinda woke me up n I started walkin again. There was a great big blue spot, the kind you see after someone takes a flash pitcher, hangin in front of me, and I thought, “If you burned your retinas and have to look at that for the rest of your life, it’ll serve you right, Dolores—it wouldn’t be no more than the mark Cain had to bear.”
We walked past the white rock, Joe right behind me n holdin onto the neck of my dress. I could feel my slip slidin down on one side, where the strap had broken. What with the dark and that big blue spot hangin in the middle of things, everythin looked off-kilter and out of place. The end of the shed wa’ant nothing but a dark shape, like someone’d taken a pair of shears and cut a roof-shaped hole in the sky.
He pushed me toward the edge of the blackberry patch, and when the first thorn prinked my calf, I remembered that this time I’d forgot to put on my jeans. It made me wonder what else I might have forgot, but accourse it was too late to change anything then; I could see that little scrap of cloth flutterin in the last of the light, and had just time to remember how the wellcap lay beneath it. Then I tore out of his fist and pelted into the brambles, hellbent for election.
“No you don’t, you bitch!” he bawls at me, n I could hear the bushes breakin as he trampled in after me. I felt his hand grab for the neck of my dress again and almost catch. I jerked loose and kep on goin. It was hard to run because my slip was fallin down and kep hookin on the brambles. In the end they unravelled a great long strip of it, and took plenty of meat off my legs, as well. I was bloody from knees to ankles, but I never noticed until I got back into the house, n that was a long time after.
“Come back here!” he bellowed, n this time I felt his hand on my arm. I yanked it free n so he grabbed at my slip, which was floatin out behind me like a bridal train by then. If it’d held, he mighta reeled me in like a big fish, but it was old n tired from bein warshed two or three hundred times. I felt the strip he’d got hold of tear away n heard him curse, kinda high n outta breath. I could hear the sound of the brambles breakin n snappin n whippin in the air, but couldn’t see hardly anything; once we was in the blackberry tangle, it was darker’n a woodchuck’s asshole, and in the end that hankie I tied up wasn’t any help. I saw the edge of the wellcap instead—no more’n a glimmer of white in the darkness just ahead of me—and I jumped with all my might. I just cleared it, and because I was facin away from him, I didn’t actually see him step onto it. There was a big crrr-aack! sound, and then he hollered—
No, that ain’t right.
He didn’t holler, n I guess you know it as well’s I do. He screamed like a rabbit with its foot caught in a slipwire. I turned around and seen a big hole in the middle of the cap. Joe’s head was stickin out of it, and he was holdin onto one of those smashed boards with all his might. His hands were bleedin, and there was a little thread of blood runnin down his chin from the corner of his mouth. His eyes were the size of doorknobs.
“Oh Christ, Dolores,” he says. “It’s the old well. Help me out, quick, before I fall all the way in.”
I just stood there, and after a few seconds his eyes changed. I seen the understandin of what it had all been about come into em. I was never so scared as I was then, standin there on the far side of the wellcap n starin at him with that black sun hangin in the sky to the west of us. I had forgot my jeans, and he hadn’t fallen right in like he was s’posed to. To me it seemed like everything had started goin wrong.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, you bitch.” Then he started to claw n wriggle his way up.
I told myself I had to run, but my legs wouldn’t move. Where was there to run to, anyway, if he got out? One thing I found out on the day of the eclipse: if you live on an island and you try to kill someone, you better do a good job. If you don’t, there’s nowhere to run n nowhere to hide.
I could hear his fingernails scratchin up splinters in that old board as he worked at pullin himself out, hand over hand. That sound is like what I saw when I looked up at the eclipse—somethin that’s always been a lot closer to me than I ever wanted it to be. Sometimes I even hear it in my dreams, only in the dreams he gets out n comes after me again, and that ain’t what really happened. What happened was the board he was clawin his way along all of a sudden snapped under his weight and he dropped. It happened so fast it was almost like he’d never been there in the first place; all at once there was nothin there but a saggy gray square of wood with a ragged black hole in the middle of it and fireflies zippin back n forth over it.
He screamed again goin down. It echoed off the sides of the well. That was somethin else I hadn’t figured on—him screamin when he fell. Then there was a thud and he stopped. Just flat stopped. The way a lamp stops shinin if someone yanks the plug outta the wall.
I knelt on the ground n hugged my arms acrost my middle n waited to see if there was gonna be any more. Some time went by, I don’t know how much or how long, but the last of the light went out of the day. The total eclipse had come and it was dark as night. There still wasn’t any sound comin from the well, but there was a little breeze comin from it toward me, and I realized I could smell it—you know that smell you sometimes get in water that comes from shallow wells? It’s a coppery smell, dank n not very nice. I could smell that, and it made me shiver.
I saw my slip was hangin down almost to the top of my left shoe. It was all torn n full of rips. I reached under the neck of my dress on the right side n popped that strap, too. Then I pulled the slip down n off. I was bundlin it into a ball beside me n tryin to see the best way to get around the wellcap when all at once I thought of that little girl again, the one I told you about before, and all at once I saw her just as clear as day. She was down on her knees, too, lookin under her bed, and I thought, “She’s so unhappy, and she smells that same smell. The one that’s like pennies and oysters. Only it didn’t come from the well; it has something to do with her father.”
And then, all at once, it was like she looked around at me, Andy . . . I think she saw me. And when she did, I understood why she was so unhappy: her father’d been at her somehow, and she was tryin to cover it up. On top of that, she’d all at once realized someone was lookin at her, that a woman God knows how many miles away but still in the path of the eclipse—a woman who’d just killed her husband—was lookin at her.
She spoke to me, although I didn’t hear her voice with my ears; it came from deep in the middle of my head. “Who are you?” she ast.
I don’t know if I would have answered her or not, but before I even had a chance to, a long, waverin scream came out of the well: “Duh-lorrrrrissss . . .”
It felt like my blood froze solid inside me, and I know my heart stopped for a second, because when it started again, it had to catch up with three or four beats all crammed together. I’d picked the slip up, but my fingers relaxed when I heard that scream and it fell out of my hand n caught on one of those blackberry bushes.
“It’s just your imagination workin overtime, Dolores,” I told myself. “That little girl lookin under the bed for her clothes and Joe screamin like that . . . you imagined em both. One was a hallucination that somehow come of catchin a whiff of stale air from the well, and the other was no more’n your own guilty conscience. Joe’s layin at the bottom of that well with his head bashed in. He’s dead, and he ain’t gonna bother either you or the kids ever again.”
I didn’t believe it at first, but more time went by and there was no more sound, except for an owl callin somewhere off in a field. I remember thinkin it sounded like he was askin how come his shift was gettin started so early today. A little breeze ran through the blackberry bushes, makin em rattle. I looked up at the stars shinin in the daytime sky, then down at the wellcap again. It almost seemed to float in the dark, and the hole in the middle he’d fallen through looked like an eye to me. July 20th, 1963, was my day for seein eyes everywhere.
Then his voice come driftin outta the well again. “Help me Duh-lorrrrr-isss . . .”
I groaned n put my hands over my face. It wa’ant any good tryin to tell myself that was just my imagination or my guilty conscience or anythin else except what it was: Joe. To me he sounded like he was cryin.
“Help meeeee pleeease . . . PLEEEEEEEASE . . .” he moaned.
I stumbled my way around the wellcap and went runnin back along the path we’d beat in the brambles. I wasn’t in a panic, not quite, and I’ll tell you how I know that: I stopped long enough to pick up the reflector-box I’d had in my hand when we started out toward the blackberry-patch. I couldn’t remember droppin it as I ran, but when I saw it hangin off one of those branches, I grabbed it. Prob’ly a damned good thing, too, considerin how things went with that damned Dr. McAuliffe . . . but that’s still a turn or two away from where I am now. I did stop to pick it up, that’s the point, and to me that says I was still in possession of my wits. I could feel the panic trying to reach underneath em, though, the way a cat’ll try to get its paw under the lid of a box, if it’s hungry and it can smell food inside.
I thought about Selena, and that helped keep the panic away. I could imagine her standin on the beach of Lake Winthrop along with Tanya and forty or fifty little campers, each camper with his or her own reflector-box that they’d made in the Handicrafts Cabin, and the girls showin em exactly how to see the eclipse in em. It wasn’t as clear as the vision I’d had out by the well, the one of the little girl lookin under the bed for her shorts n shirt, but it was clear enough for me to hear Selena talkin to the little ones in that slow, kind voice of hers, soothin the ones who were afraid. I thought about that, and about how I had to be here for her and her brothers when they got back . . . only if I gave in to the panic, I probably wouldn’t be. I’d gone too far and done too much, and there wasn’t nobody left I could count on except myself.
I went into the shed and found Joe’s big six-cell flashlight on his worktable. I turned it on, but nothin happened; he’d let the batt’ries go flat, which was just like him. I keep the bottom drawer of his table stocked with fresh ones, though, because we lose the power so often in the winter. I got half a dozen and tried to fill the flashlight up again. My hands were tremblin so bad the first time that I dropped D-cells all over the floor and had to scramble for em. The second time I got em in, but I musta put one or two in bass-ackwards in my hurry, because the light wouldn’t come on. I thought about just leavin it; the sun’d be comin out again pretty soon, after all. Except it’d be dark at the bottom of the well even after it did come out, and besides, there was a voice in the very back of my mind tellin me to keep on fiddlin and diddlin just as long’s I wanted—that maybe if I took long enough, I’d find he’d finally given up the ghost when I did get back out there.
At last I got the flash to work. It made a fine bright light, and at least I was able to find my way back to the wellcap without scratchin my legs any worse’n they already were. I don’t have the slightest idear how much time’d gone by, but it was still gloomy and there was still stars showin in the sky, so I guess it wasn’t yet six and the sun still mostly covered.
I knew he wasn’t dead before I was halfway back—I could hear him groanin and callin my name, beggin me to help him get out. I don’t know if the Jolanders or the Langills or the Carons would’ve heard him if they’d been home or not. I decided it was best not to wonder; I had plenty of problems without takin that on. I had to figure out what to do with him, that was the biggest thing, but I couldn’t seem to get far. Every time I tried to think of an answer, this voice inside started howlin at me. “It ain’t fair,” that voice yelled, “this wa’ant in the deal, he’s supposed to be dead, goddammit, dead!”
“Helllp, Duh-lorrrr-isss!” his voice come driftin up. It had a flat, echoey sound, as if he was yellin inside a cave. I turned on the light n tried to look down, but I couldn’t. The hole in the wellcap was too far out in the middle, and all the flashlight showed me was the top of the shaft—big granite rocks with moss growin all over em. The moss looked black and poisonous in the flashlight beam.
Joe seen the light. “Dolores?” he calls up. “For God’s sake, help me! I’m all broken!”
Now he was the one who sounded like he was talkin through a throatful of mud. I wouldn’t answer him. I felt like if I had to talk to him, I’d go crazy for sure. Instead, I put the flashlight aside, reached out as far as I could, and managed to get hold of one of the boards he’d broken through. I pulled on it and it snapped off as easy as a rotted tooth.
“Dolores!” he yelled when he heard that. “Oh God! Oh God be thanked!”
I didn’t answer, just broke off another board, and another, and another. By then I could see that the day had started to brighten again, and birds were singin the way they do in the summer when the sun comes up. Yet the sky was still a lot darker’n it had any business bein at that hour. The stars had gone in again, but the flicker-flies were still circlin around. Meantime, I went on breakin off boards, workin my way toward the side of the well I was kneelin on.
“Dolores!” his voice come driftin up. “You can have the money! All of it! And I’ll never touch Selena again, I swear before God Almighty and all the angels I won’t! Please, honey, just help me get outta this hole!”
I got up the last board—I had to yank it outta the blackberry creepers to get it loose—and tossed it behind me. Then I shone the light down into the well.
The first thing the beam struck was his upturned face, n I screamed. It was a little white circle with two big black holes in it. For a second or two I thought he’d pushed stones into his eyes for some reason. Then he blinked and it was just his eyes, after all, starin up at me. I thought of what they must have been seein—nothin but the dark shape of a woman’s head behind a bright circle of light.
He was on his knees, and there was blood all over his chin and neck and the front of his shirt. When he opened his mouth n screamed my name, more blood came pourin out. He’d broke most of his ribs when he fell, and they musta been stickin into his lungs on both sides like porcupine quills.
I didn’t know what to do. I kinda crouched there, feelin the heat come back into the day, on my neck n arms n legs I could feel it, and shinin the light down on him. Then he raised his arms n kinda waved em, like he was drowndin, and I couldn’t stand it. I snapped off the light and drew back. I sat there on the edge of the well, all huddled up in a little ball, holdin my bloody knees and shiverin.
“Please!” he called up; “Please!” n “Pleeease” n finally “Pleeeeeeeeeeze, Duh-lorrr-issss!”
Oh, it was awful, more awful than anyone could imagine, and it went on like that for a long time. It went on until I thought it would drive me mad. The eclipse ended and the birds stopped singin their good-mornin songs and the flicker-flies stopped circlin (or maybe it was just that I couldn’t see em anymore) and out on the reach I could hear boats tootin at each other like they do sometimes, shave n a haircut, two-bits, mostly, and still he wouldn’t quit. Sometimes he’d beg and call me honeybunch; he’d tell me all the things he was gonna do if I let him outta there, how he was gonna change, how he was gonna build us a new house and buy me the Buick he thought I’d always wanted. Then he’d curse me and tell me he was gonna tie me to the wall n stick a hot poker up my snatch n watch me wiggle on it before he finally killed me.
Once he ast if I’d throw down that bottle of Scotch. Can you believe that? He wanted his goddam bottle, and he cursed me and called me a dirty old used-up cunt when he seen I wasn’t gonna give it to him.
At last it began to get dark again—really dark—so it must have been at least eight-thirty, maybe even nine o’clock. I’d started listenin for cars along East Lane again, but so far there was nothin. That was good, but I knew I couldn’t expect my luck to hold forever.
I snapped my head up off my chest some time later and realized I’d dozed off. It couldn’t have been for long because there was still a little afterglow in the sky, but the fireflies were back, doin business as usual, and the owl had started its hootin again. It sounded a little more comfortable about it the second time around.
I shifted my spot a little and had to grit my teeth at the pins n needles that started pokin as soon’s I moved; I’d been kneelin so long I was asleep from the knees down. I couldn’t hear nothing from the well, though, and I started to hope that he was finally dead—that he’d slipped away while I’d been dozin. Then I heard little shufflin noises, and groans, and the sound of him cryin. That was the worst, hearin him cry because movin around gave him so much pain.
I braced m’self on my left hand and shone the light down into the well again. It was hard as hell to make myself do that, especially now that it was almost completely dark. He’d managed to get to his feet somehow, and I could see the flashlight beam reflectin back at me from three or four wet spots around the workboots he was wearin. It made me think of the way I’d seen the eclipse in those busted pieces of tinted glass after he got tired of chokin me and I fell on the porch.
Lookin down there, I finally understood what’d happened—how he’d managed to fall thirty or thirty-five feet and only get bunged up bad instead of bein killed outright. The well wasn’t completely dry anymore, you see. It hadn’t filled up again—if it’d done that I guess he woulda drowned like a rat in a rainbarrel—but the bottom was all wet n swampy. It had cushioned his fall a little, n it prob’ly didn’t hurt that he was drunk, either.
He stood with his head down, swayin from side to side with his hands pressed against the rock walls so he wouldn’t fall over again. Then he looked up and saw me and grinned. That grin struck a chill all the way through me, Andy, because it was the grin of a dead man—a dead man with blood all over his face n shirt, a dead man with what looked like stones pushed into his eyes.
Then he started to climb the wall.
I was lookin right at it n still I couldn’t believe it. He jammed his fingers in between two of the big rocks stickin out of the side and yanked himself up until he could get one of his feet wedged in between two more. He rested there a minute, and then I seen one of his hands go gropin up n over his head again. It looked like a fat white bug. He found another rock to hold onto, set his grip, and brought his other hand up to join it. Then he pulled himself up again. When he stopped to rest the next time, he turned his bloody face up into the beam of my light, and I saw little bits of moss from the rock he was holdin onto crumble down onto his cheeks n shoulders.
He was still grinnin.
Can I have another drink, Andy? No, not the Beam—no more of that tonight. Just water’ll do me fine from here on out.
Thanks. Thanks very much.
Anyway, he was feelin around for his next hold when his feet slipped n he fell. There was a muddy squelchin sound when he landed on his ass. He screamed n grabbed at his chest like they do on TV when they’re supposed to be havin heart-attacks, and then his head fell forward on his chest.
I couldn’t stand any more. I stumbled my way outta the blackberry creepers n ran back to the house. I went into the bathroom n puked my guts. Then I went into the bedroom n laid down. I was shakin all over, and I kep thinkin, What if he still ain’t dead? What if he stays alive all night, what if he stays alive for days, drinkin the seep comin out from between the rocks or up through the mud? What if he keeps screamin for help until one of the Carons or Langills or Jolanders hears him and calls Garrett Thibodeau? Or what if someone comes to the house tomorrow—one of his drinkin buddies, or someone wantin him to crew on their boat or fix an engine—and hears screams comin outta the blackberry patch? What then, Dolores?
There was another voice that answered all those questions. I suppose it belonged to the inside eye, but to me it sounded a lot more like Vera Donovan than it did Dolores Clairborne; it sounded bright n dry n kiss-my-back-cheeks-if-you-don’t-like-it. “Of course he’s dead,” that voice said, “and even if he isn’t, he soon will be. He’ll die of shock and exposure and punctured lungs. There are probably people who wouldn’t believe a man could die of exposure on a July night, but they’d be people who’ve never spent a few hours thirty feet under the ground, sitting right on top of the dank island bedrock. I know none of that is pleasant to think of, Dolores, but at least it means you can quit your worrying. Sleep for awhile, and when you go back out there, you’ll see.”
I didn’t know if that voice was makin sense or not, but it seemed to be makin sense, and I did try to go to sleep. I couldn’t, though. Each time I’d drift a little, I’d think I could hear Joe stumblin his way up the side of the shed toward the back door, and every time the house creaked, I jumped.
At last I couldn’t stand it anymore. I took off my dress, put on a pair of jeans n a sweater (lockin the barn door after the hoss has been stolen, I guess you’d say), and grabbed the flashlight off the bathroom floor from beside the commode, where I’d dropped it when I knelt down to vomit. Then I went back out.
It was darker’n ever. I don’t know if there was any kind of moon that night, but it wouldn’t’ve mattered even if there was, because the clouds had rolled back in again. The closer I got to the blackberry tangle behind the shed, the heavier my feet got. By the time I could see the wellcap again in the flashlight beam, it seemed like I couldn’t hardly lift em at all.
I did, though—I made myself walk right up to it. I stood there listenin for almost five minutes and there wasn’t a sound but the crickets and the wind rattlin through the blackberry bushes and an owl hooty-hooin someplace . . . prob’ly the exact same one I’d heard before. Oh, and far off to the east I could hear the waves strikin the headland, only that’s a sound you get so used to on the island you don’t hardly hear it at all. I stood there with Joe’s flashlight in my hand, the beam aimed at the hole in the wellcap, feelin greasy, sticky sweat creepin down all over my body, stingin in the cuts n digs the blackberry thorns had made, and I told myself to kneel down and look in the well. After all, wa’ant that what I’d come out there to do?
It was, but once I was actually out there, I couldn’t do it. All I could do was tremble n make a high moanin sound in my throat. My heart wasn’t really beatin, either, but only flutterin in my chest like a humminbird’s wings.
And then a white hand all streaked with dirt n blood n moss snaked right outta that well n grabbed my ankle.
I dropped the flashlight. It fell in the bushes right at the edge of the well, which was lucky for me; if it’d fallen into the well, I’d’ve been in deep shit indeed. But I wasn’t thinkin about the flashlight or my good luck, because the shit I was in right then was plenty deep enough, and the only thing I was thinkin about was the hand on my ankle, the hand that was draggin me toward the hole. That, and a line from the Bible. It clanged in my head like a big iron bell: I have digged a pit for mine enemies, and am fallen into it myself.
I screamed n tried to pull away, but Joe had me so tight it felt like his hand’d been dipped in cement. My eyes had adjusted to the dark enough so I could see him even with the flashlight beam shinin off in the wrong direction. He’d almost managed to climb outta the well, after all. God knows how many times he musta fallen back, but in the end he got almost to the top. I think he prob’ly would’ve made it all the way out if I hadn’t come back when I did.
His head was no more’n two feet below what was left of the board cap. He was still grinnin. His lower plate was stuck out of his mouth a little—I can still see that as clear as I see you sittin acrost from me right now, Andy—and it looked like a hoss’s teeth when it grins at you. Some of em looked black with the blood that was on em.
“Duh-lorrrr-isss,” he panted, and kep pullin me. I screamed n fell down on my backside n went slidin toward that damned hole in the ground. I could hear the blackberry thorns tickin n snickin as my jeans went slidin past em and over em. “Duh-lorrr-issss you biiiitch,” he says, but by then it was more like he was singin to me. I remember thinkin, “Pretty soon he’ll start in on ‘Moonlight Cocktail.’?”
I grabbed at the bushes n got my hands full of stickers n fresh blood. I kicked at his head with the foot he didn’t have ahold of, but it was just a little too low to hit; I parted his hair with the heel of my sneaker a couple of times, but that was just about all.
“Come on Duh-lorrrr-issss,” he said, like he wanted to take me out for an ice cream soda or maybe dancin to the country n western over at Fudgy’s.
My ass fetched up against one of the boards still left on the side of the well, and I knew if I didn’t do somethin right away, we was gonna go tumblin down together, and there we’d stay, prob’ly wrapped in each other’s arms. And when we was found, there’d be people—ninnies like Yvette Anderson, for the most part—who’d say it just went to show how much we loved each other.
That did it. I found a little extra strength and give one last tug backwards. He almost held on, but then his hand slipped off. My sneaker musta hit him in the face. He screamed, his hand beat at the end of my foot a couple of times, and then it was gone for good. I waited to hear him go tumblin to the bottom, but he didn’t. The son of a bitch never gave up; if he’d lived the same way he died, I don’t know that we’d ever’ve had any problems, him n me.
I got up on my knees n saw him go swayin backwards over the hole . . . but somehow he held on. He looked up at me, shook a bloody clump of hair outta his eyes, and grinned. Then his hand come up outta the well again n grabbed onto the ground.
“Dul-OOH-russ,” he kinda groaned. “Dul-OOOH-russ, Dul-OOOH-russ, Dul-OOOOOHHH-russs!” And then he started to climb out.
“Brain him, you ninny,” Vera Donovan said then. Not in my head, like the voice of the little girl I seen earlier. Do you understand what I’m sayin? I heard that voice just like you three are hearin me now, and if Nancy Bannister’s tape-recorder had been out there, you could’ve played that voice back over n over n over again. I know that as well’s I know my own name.
Anyway, I grabbed one of the stones set into the ground at the edge of the well. He kinda clutched at my wrist, but I pulled the stone free before he could set his grip. It was a big stone, all crusted with dry moss. I raised it over my head. He looked up at it. His head was outta the hole by then, and it looked like his eyes was standin out on stalks. I brought the rock down on him with all my strength. I heard that lower plate of his bust. It sounded like when you drop a china plate on a brick hearth. And then he was gone, tumblin back down the well, and the rock went with him.
I fainted then. I don’t remember faintin, just layin back and lookin up at the sky. There was nothin to see because of the clouds, so I closed my eyes . . . only when I opened em, the sky was full of stars again. It took me a little while to realize what’d happened, that I’d fainted and the clouds had blown away while I was passed out.
The flashlight was still layin in the brambles beside the well, and the beam was still nice n bright. I picked it up and shone it down into the well. Joe was layin at the bottom, his head cocked over on one shoulder, his hands in his lap, and his legs splayed out. The rock I’d brained him with was layin between em.
I held the light on him for five minutes, waitin to see if he’d move, but he never. Then I got up n made my way back to the house. I had to stop twice when the world went foggy on me, but I finally made it. I walked into the bedroom, takin off my clothes as I went n leavin em just wherever they fell. I got into the shower n only stood there under spray as hot as I could take it for the next ten minutes or so, not soapin myself, not warshin my hair, not doin nothin but standin with my face up so the water’d hit all over it. I think I mighta fallen asleep right there in the shower, except the water started to cool off. I warshed my hair quick, before it could go all the way to stone cold, and got out. My arms n legs were all scratched up and my throat still hurt like hell, but I didn’t think I was gonna die from none of that. It never occurred to me what somebody might make of all those scratches, not to mention the bruises on my throat, after Joe was found down the well. Not then, at least.
I pulled my nightgown on n fell on the bed n went fast asleep with the light on. I woke up screamin less’n an hour later with Joe’s hand on my ankle. I had a moment of relief when I realized it was only a dream, but then I thought, “What if he’s climbin the side of the well again?” I knew he wasn’t—I’d finished him for good when I hit him with that rock and he fell down the second time—but part of me was sure he was, and that he’d be out in another minute or so. Once he was, he’d come for me.
I tried to lie there n wait it out, but I couldn’t—that pitcher of him climbin up the side of the well just kept gettin clearer n clearer, and my heart was beatin so hard it felt like it might explode. Finally I put on my sneakers, grabbed the flashlight again, and went runnin out there in my nightgown. I crawled to the edge of the well that time; I couldn’t make myself walk, not for nothing. I was too afraid of his white hand snakin up outta the dark n grabbin onto me.
At last I shone the light down. He was layin there just the same as he had been, with his hands in his lap n his head cocked to one side. The rock was still layin in the same place, between his spread legs. I looked for a long time, and when I went back to the house that time, I’d begun to know he was really dead.
I crawled into bed, turned off the lamp, and pretty soon I corked off to sleep. The last thing I remember thinkin was “I’ll be all right now,” but I wasn’t. I woke up a couple of hours later, sure I could hear someone in the kitchen. Sure I could hear Joe in the kitchen. I tried to jump outta bed and my feet tangled in the blankets and I fell on the floor. I got up n started feelin around for the switch on the lamp, sure I’d feel his hands slide around my throat before I could find it.
That didn’t happen, accourse. I turned on the light n went through the whole house. It was empty. Then I put on my sneakers n grabbed the flashlight n ran back out to the well.
Joe was still layin on the bottom with his hands in his lap n his head on his shoulder. I had to look at him a long time, though, before I could convince myself it was layin on the same shoulder. And once I thought I saw his foot move, although that was most likely just a shadow movin. There were lots of those, because the hand holdin the flashlight wasn’t none too steady, let me tell you.
As I crouched there with my hair tied back and prob’ly lookin like the lady on the White Rock labels, the funniest urge come over me—I felt like just lettin myself lean forward on my knees until I tumbled into the well. They’d find me with him—not the ideal way to finish up, s’far’s I was concerned—but at least I wouldn’t be found with his arms wrapped around me . . . n I wouldn’t have to keep wakin up with the idear he was in the room with me, or feelin I had to run back out with the light to check n make sure he was still dead.
Then Vera’s voice spoke up again, only this time it was in my head. I know that, just like I know that it spoke right into my ear the first time. “The only place you’re going to tumble into is your own bed,” that voice told me. “Get some sleep, and when you wake up, the eclipse really will be over. You’ll be surprised how much better things will look with the sun out.”
That sounded like good advice, and I set out to follow it. I locked both doors to the outside, though, and before I actually got into bed, I did somethin I ain’t never done before or since: propped a chair underneath the doorknob. I’m ashamed to admit that—my cheeks feel all hot, so I guess I’m blushin—but it musta helped, because I was asleep the second my head hit the pillow. When I opened my eyes the next time, full daylight was streamin in through the window. Vera had told me to take the day off—she said Gail Lavesque and a few of the other girls could oversee puttin the house to rights after the big party she’d been plannin for the night of the twentieth—and I was some glad.
I got up n took another shower n then got dressed. It took me half an hour to do all those things because I was so lamed up. It was my back, mostly; it’s been my weak point ever since the night Joe hit me in the kidneys with that stovelength, and I’m pretty sure I strained it again first pullin that rock I clouted him with free of the earth, then h’istin it up over my head the way I did. Whatever it was, I can tell you it hurt a bitch.
Once I finally had my clothes on, I sat down at the kitchen table in the bright sunshine and drank a cup of black coffee n thought of the things I ought to do. There wasn’t many, even though nothing had gone just the way I’d meant for it to go, but they’d have to be done right; if I forgot somethin or overlooked somethin, I’d go to prison. Joe St. George wa’ant much loved on Little Tall, and there weren’t many who’d’ve blamed me for what I did, but they don’t pin a medal on you n give you a parade for killin a man, no matter if he was a worthless piece of shit.
I poured myself a fresh slug of mud and went out on the back porch to drink it . . . and to cast my eye around. Both reflector-boxes and one of the viewers were back in the grocery sack Vera’d given me. The pieces of the other viewer were layin right where they’d been since Joe jumped up sudden and it slid out of his lap n broke on the porch boards. I thought for quite awhile about those pieces of glass. Finally I went inside, got the broom n the dustpan, and swep em up. I decided that, bein the way I am and so many folks on the island knowin the way I am, it’d be more suspicious if I left em layin.
I’d started off with the idear of sayin I’d never seen Joe at all that afternoon. I thought I’d tell folks he’d been gone when I got home from Vera’s, without s’much as a note left behind to say where he’d taken his country butt off to, and that I’d poured that bottle of expensive Scotch whiskey out on the ground because I was mad at him. If they did tests that showed he was drunk when he fell into the well, it wouldn’t bother me none; Joe could have gotten booze lots of places, includin under our own kitchen sink.
One look into the mirror convinced me that wouldn’t do—if Joe hadn’t been home to put those bruises on my neck, then they’d want to know who had put em there, and what was I gonna say? Santy Claus did it? Luckily, I’d left myself an out—I’d told Vera that if Joe started actin out the Tartar, prob’ly I’d leave him to stew in his own sauce n watch the eclipse from East Head. I hadn’t had any plan in mind when I said those words, but I blessed em now.
East Head itself wouldn’t do—there’d been people there, and they’d know I hadn’t been with em—but Russian Meadow’s on the way to East Head, it’s got a good western view, and there hadn’t been nobody at all there. I’d seen that for myself from my seat on the porch, and again while I was warshin up our dishes. The only real question—
No, I wa’ant worried a bit about his truck bein at the house. He had a string of three or four DWIs right close together back in ’59, you see, and finally lost his driver’s license for a month. Edgar Sherrick, who was our constable back then, came around n told him that he could drink until the cows came home, if that was what he wanted, but the next time he got caught drinkin and drivin, Edgar’d hoe him into district court n try to get his driver’s license lifted for a year. Edgar n his wife lost a little girl to a drunk driver back in 1948 or ’49, and although he was an easygoin man about other things, he was death on drunks behind the wheel. Joe knew it, and he quit drivin if he’d had more’n two drinks right after him n Edgar had their little chat on our porch. No, when I came back from Russian Meadow and found Joe gone, I thought one of his friends must’ve come by n taken him someplace to celebrate Eclipse Day—that was the story I meant to tell.
What I started to say was the only real question I had was what to do about the whiskey bottle. People knew I’d been buyin him his drink just lately, but that was all right; I knew they thought I’d been doin it so he’d lay off hittin me. But where would that bottle have ended up if the story I was makin up had been a true story? It might not matter, but then again it might. When you’ve done a murder, you never know what may come back to haunt you later on. It’s the best reason I know not to do it. I put myself in Joe’s place—it wa’ant as hard to do as you might think—and knew right off that Joe wouldn’t have gone nowhere with no one if there’d been so much as a sip of whiskey left in that bottle. It had to go down the well with him, and that’s where it did go . . . all but the cap, that was. That I dropped into the swill on top of the little pile of broken tinted glass.
I walked out to the well with the last of the Scotch swishin in the bottle, thinkin, “He put the old booze to him and that was all right, that was no more’n what I expected, but then he kinda mistook my neck for a pump-handle, and that wa’ant all right, so I took my reflector-box and went up to Russian Meadow by m’self, cursin the impulse that made me stop n buy him that bottle of Johnnie Walker in the first place. When I got back, he was gone. I didn’t know where or who with, n I didn’t care. I just cleared up his mess and hoped he’d be in a better frame of mind when he got back.” I thought that sounded meek enough, and that it’d pass muster.
I guess what I mostly disliked about that goddam bottle was gettin rid of it meant goin back out there and lookin at Joe again. Still, my likes n dislikes didn’t make a whole lot of difference by then.
I was worried about the state the blackberry bushes might be in, but they wasn’t trampled down as bad as I’d been afraid they might be, and some were springin back already. I figured they’d look pretty much like always by the time I reported Joe missin.
I’d hoped the well wouldn’t look quite so scary in broad daylight, but it did. The hole in the middle of the cap looked even creepier. It didn’t look s’much like an eye with some of the boards pulled back, but not even that helped. Instead of an eye, it looked like an empty socket where somethin had finally rotted so bad it’d fallen completely out. And I could smell that dank, coppery smell. It made me think of the girl I’d glimpsed in my mind, and I wondered how she was doin on the mornin after.
I wanted to turn around n go back to the house, but I marched right up to the well instead, without so much as a single dragged foot. I wanted to get the next part behind me as soon as I could . . . n not look back. What I had to do from then on out, Andy, was to think about my kids and keep faced front no matter what.
I scooched down n looked in. Joe was still layin there with his hands in his lap and his head cocked over on one shoulder. There was bugs runnin around on his face, and it was seein those that made me know once n for good that he really was dead. I held the bottle out with a hanky wrapped around the neck—it wa’ant a question of fingerprints, I just didn’t want to touch it—and dropped it. It landed in the mud beside him but didn’t break. The bugs scattered, though; they ran down his neck and into the collar of his shirt. I never forgot that.
I was gettin up to leave—the sight of those bugs divin for cover had left me feelin pukey again—when my eye fixed on the jumble of boards I’d pulled up so I could get a look at him that first time. It wasn’t no good leavin em there; they’d raise all sorts of questions if I did.
I thought about em for a little while, and then, when I realized the mornin was slippin away on me and somebody might drop by anytime to talk about either the eclipse or Vera’s big doins, I said to hell with it n threw em down the well. Then I went back to the house. Worked my way back to the house, I should say, because there were pieces of my dress n slip hangin from a good many thorns, and I picked off as many as I could. Later on that day I went back and picked off the three or four I missed the first time. There were little bits of fluff from Joe’s flannel shirt, too, but I left those. “Let Garrett Thibodeau make anything of em he can,” I thought. “Let anyone make anything of em they can. It’s gonna look like he got drunk n fell down the well no matter what, and with the reputation Joe’s got around here, whatever they decide on’ll most likely go in my favor.”
Those little pieces of cloth didn’t go in the swill with the broken glass and the Johnnie Walker cap, though; those I threw in the ocean later on that day. I was across the dooryard and gettin ready to climb the porch steps when a thought hit me. Joe had grabbed onto the piece of my slip that’d been trailin out behind me—suppose he still had a piece of it? Suppose it was clutched in one of the hands that was layin curled up in his lap at the bottom of the well?
That stopped me cold . . . and cold’s just what I mean. I stood there in the dooryard under that hot July sun, my back all prickles and feelin zero at the bone, as some poime I read in high school said. Then Vera spoke up inside my mind again. “Since you can’t do anything about it, Dolores,” she says, “I’d advise you to let it go.” It seemed like pretty good advice, so I went on up the steps and back inside.
I spent most of the mornin walkin around the house n out on the porch, lookin for . . . well, I dunno. I dunno what I was lookin for, exactly. Maybe I was expectin that inside eye to happen on somethin else that needed to be done or taken care of, the way it had happened on that little pile of boards. If so, I didn’t see anything.
Around eleven o’clock I took the next step, which was callin Gail Lavesque up at Pinewood. I ast her what she thought of the eclipse n all, then ast how things was goin over at Her Nibs’.
“Well,” she says, “I can’t complain since I haven’t seen nobody but that older fella with the bald head and the toothbrush mustache—do you know the one I mean?”
I said I did.
“He come downstairs about nine-thirty, went out back in the garden, walkin slow and kinda holdin his head, but at least up, which is more than you c’n say for the rest of em. When Karen Jolander asked him if he’d like a glass of fresh-squeezed orange-juice, he ran over to the edge of the porch n puked in the petunias. You shoulda heard him, Dolores—Bleeeeee-ahhh!”
I laughed until I almost cried, and no laughter ever felt better to me.
“They must have had quite a party when they got back from the ferry,” Gail says. “If I had a nickel for every cigarette butt I’ve dumped this mornin—just a nickel, mindja—I could buy a brand-new Chevrolet. But I’ll have the place spick n spiffy by the time Missus Donovan drags her hangover down the front stairs, you can count on that.”
“I know you will,” I says, “and if you need any help, you know who to call, don’t you?”
Gail give a laugh at that. “Never mind,” she says. “You worked your fingers to the bone over the last week—and Missus Donovan knows it as well as I do. She don’t want to see you before tomorrow mornin, and neither do I.”
“All right,” I says, and then I took a little pause. She’d be expectin me to say goodbye, and when I said somethin else instead, she’d pay particular mind to it . . . which was what I wanted. “You haven’t seen Joe over there, have you?” I ast her.
“Joe?” she says. “Your Joe?”
“No—I’ve never seen him up here. Why do you ask?”
“He didn’t come home last night.”
“Oh, Dolores!” she says, soundin horrified n int’rested at the same time. “Drinkin?”
“Coss,” I says. “Not that I’m really worried—this ain’t the first time he’s stayed out all night howlin at the moon. He’ll turn up; bad pennies always do.”
Then I hung up, feelin I’d done a pretty fair job plantin the first seed.
I made myself a toasted cheese sandwich for lunch, then couldn’t eat it. The smell of the cheese n fried bread made my stomach feel all hot n sweaty. I took two asp’rins instead n laid down. I didn’t think I’d fall asleep, but I did. When I woke up it was almost four o’clock n time to plant a few more seeds. I called Joe’s friends—those few that had phones, that is—and asked each one if they’d seen him. He hadn’t come home last night, I said, he still wa’ant home, and I was startin to get worried. They all told me no, accourse, and every one of em wanted to hear all the gory details, but the only one I said anything to was Tommy Anderson—prob’ly because I knew Joe’d bragged to Tommy before about how he kep his woman in line, and poor simple Tommy’d swallowed it. Even there I was careful not to overdo it; I just said me n Joe’d had an argument and Joe’d most likely gone off mad. I made a few more calls that evenin, includin a few to people I’d already called, and was happy to find that stories were already startin to spread.
I didn’t sleep very well that night; I had terrible dreams. One was about Joe. He was standin at the bottom of the well, lookin up at me with his white face and those dark circles above his nose that made him look like he’d pushed lumps of coal into his eyes. He said he was lonely, and kep beggin me to jump down into the well with him n keep him company.
The other one was worse, because it was about Selena. She was about four years old, n wearin the pink dress her Gramma Trisha bought her just before she died. Selena come up to me in the dooryard, I saw she had my sewin scissors in her hand. I put out my hand for em, but she just shook her head. “It’s my fault and I’m the one who has to pay,” she said. Then she raised the scissors to her face and cut off her own nose with em—snip. It fell into the dirt between her little black patent-leather shoes n I woke up screamin. It was only four o’clock, but I was all done sleepin that night, and not too stupid to know it.
At seven I called Vera’s again. This time Kenopensky answered. I told him I knew Vera was expectin me that mornin, but I couldn’t come in, at least not til I found out where my husband was. I said he’d gone missin two nights, and one night out drunk had always been his limit before.
Near the end of our talk, Vera herself picked up on the extension and ast me what was goin on. “I seem to’ve misplaced my husband,” I said.
She didn’t say nothing for a few seconds, and I would’ve given a pie to know what she was thinkin of. Then she spoke up n said that if she’d been in my place, misplacin Joe St. George wouldn’t have bothered her at all.
“Well,” I says, “we’ve got three kids, and I’ve kind of got used to him. I’ll be in later on, if he turns up.”
“That’s fine,” she says, and then, “Are you still there, Ted?”
“Yes, Vera,” says he.
“Well, go do something manly,” she says. “Pound something in or push something over. I don’t care which.”
“Yes, Vera,” he repeats, and there was a little click on the line as he hung up.
Vera was quiet for a couple more seconds just the same. Then she says, “Maybe he’s had an accident, Dolores.”
“Yes,” I says, “it wouldn’t surprise me none. He’s been drinkin heavy the last few weeks, and when I tried to talk to him about the kids’ money on the day of the eclipse, he damned near choked the life outta me.”
“Oh—really?” she says. Another couple of seconds went by, and then she said, “Good luck, Dolores.”
“Thanks,” I says. “I may need it.”
“If there’s anything I can do, let me know.”
“That’s very kind,” I told her.
“Not at all,” she says back. “I’d simply hate to lose you. It’s hard to find help these days who don’t sweep the dirt under the carpets.”
Not to mention help that c’n remember to put the welcome mats back down pointin in the right direction, I thought but didn’t say. I only thanked her n hung up. I gave it another half hour, then I rang Garrett Thibodeau. Wasn’t nothin so fancy n modern as a police chief on Little Tall in those days; Garrett was the town constable. He took over the job when Edgar Sherrick had his stroke back in 1960.
I told him Joe hadn’t been home the last two nights, and I was gettin worried. Garrett sounded pretty muzzy—I don’t think he’d been up long enough to have gotten outside his first cup of coffee yet—but he said he’d contact the State Police on the mainland n check with a few people on the island. I knew they’d be all the same people I’d already called—twice, in some cases—but I didn’t say so. Garrett finished by sayin he was sure I’d see Joe by lunchtime. That’s right, you old fart, I thought, hangin up, and pigs’ll whistle. I guess that man did have brains enough to sing “Yankee Doodle” while he took a shit, but I doubt if he coulda remembered all the words.
It was a whole damned week before they found him, and I was half outta my mind before they did. Selena came back on Wednesday. I called her late Tuesday afternoon to say her father had gone missin and it was startin to look serious. I asked her if she wanted to come home n she said she did. Melissa Caron—Tanya’s mother, you know—went n fetched her. I left the boys right where they were—just dealin with Selena was enough for a start. She caught me out in my little vegetable garden on Thursday, still two days before they finally found Joe, and she says, “Mamma, tell me somethin.”
“All right, dear,” I says. I think I sounded calm enough, but I had a pretty good idear of what was comin—oh yes indeed.
“Did you do anything to him?” she asks.
All of a sudden my dream came back to me—Selena at four in her pretty pink dress, raisin up my sewin scissors and cuttin off her own nose. And I thought—prayed—“God, please help me lie to my daughter. Please, God. I’ll never ask You for nothing again if You’ll just help me lie to my daughter so she’ll believe me n never doubt.”
“No,” I says. I was wearin my gardenin gloves, but I took em off so I could put my bare hands on her shoulders. I looked her dead in the eye. “No, Selena,” I told her. “He was drunk n ugly n he choked me hard enough to leave these bruises on my neck, but I didn’t do nothing to him. All I did was leave, n I did that because I was scairt to stay. You can understand that, can’t you? Understand and not blame me? You know what it’s like, to be scairt of him. Don’t you?”
She nodded, but her eyes never left mine. They were a darker blue than I’ve ever seen em—the color of the ocean just ahead of a squall-line. In my mind’s eye I saw the blades of the scissors flashin, and her little button of a nose fallin plop into the dust. And I’ll tell you what I think—I think God granted half my prayer that day. It’s how He usually answers em, I’ve noticed. No lie I told about Joe later was any better’n the one I told Selena that hot July afternoon amongst the beans n cukes . . . but did she believe me? Believe me n never doubt? As much as I’d like to think the answer to that is yes, I can’t. It was doubt that made her eyes so dark, then n ever after.
“The worst I’m guilty of,” I says, “is buyin him a bottle of booze—of tryin to bribe him to be nice—when I shoulda known better.”
She looked at me a minute longer, then bent down n took hold of the bag of cucumbers I’d picked. “All right,” she said. “I’ll take these in the house for you.”
And that was all. We never spoke of it again, not before they found him n not after. She must have heard plenty of talk about me, both on the island and at school, but we never spoke of it again. That was when the coldness started to come in, though, that afternoon in the garden. And when the first crack in the wall families put between themselves n the rest of the world showed up between us. Since then it’s only gotten wider n wider. She calls and writes me just as regular as clockwork, she’s good about that, but we’re apart just the same. We’re estranged. What I did was mostly done for Selena, not for the boys or because of the money her Dad tried to steal. It was mostly for Selena that I led him on to his death, and all it cost me to protect her from him was the deepest part of her love for me. I once heard my own Dad say God pitched a bitch on the day He made the world, and over the years I’ve come to understand what he meant. And do you know the worst of it? Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s so funny you can’t help from laughin even while it’s all fallin apart around you.
Meantime, Garrett Thibodeau and his barbershop cronies kep busy not findin Joe. It’d gotten to the point where I thought I’d just have to stumble on him myself, as little as I liked the idear. If it hadn’t been for the dough, I’d’ve been happy to leave him down there until the Last Trump blew. But the money was over there in Jonesport, sittin in a bank account with his name on it, and I didn’t fancy waitin seven years to have him declared legally dead so I could get it back. Selena was gonna be startin college in just a little over two years, and she’d want some of that money to get herself goin.
The idear that Joe mighta taken his bottle into the woods behind the house n either stepped in a trap or taken a fall walkin home tipsy in the dark finally started to go the rounds. Garrett claimed it was his idear, but that’s awful hard for me to believe, havin gone to school with him like I did. No matter. He put a sign-up sheet on the door of the town hall Thursday afternoon, and on Sat’dy mornin—a week after the eclipse, this was—he fielded a search-party of forty or fifty men.
They formed up a line by the East Head end of Highgate Woods and worked their way toward the house, first through the woods n then across Russian Meadow. I seen em crossin the meadow in a long line around one o’clock, laughin and jokin, but the jokin stopped and the cursin begun when they crossed over onto our property n got into the blackberry tangle.
I stood in the entry door, watchin em come with my heart beatin way up in my throat. I remember thinkin that at least Selena wa’ant home—she’d gone over to see Laurie Langill—and that was a blessin. Then I started thinkin that all those brambles would cause em to just say frig it n break off the search before they got anywhere near the old well. But they kept on comin. All at once I heard Sonny Benoit scream: “Hey, Garrett! Over here! Git over here!” and I knew that, for better or worse, Joe had been found.
There was an autopsy, accourse. They did it the very day they found him, and I guess it might have still been goin on when Jack n Alicia Forbert brought the boys back around dusk. Pete was cryin, but he looked all confused—I don’t think he really understood what’d happened to his Dad. Joe Junior did, though, and when he drew me aside, I thought he was gonna ask me the same question Selena had ast, n I steeled myself to tell the same lie. But he ast me somethin entirely different.
“Ma,” he says, “if I was glad he was dead, would God send me to hell?”
“Joey, a person can’t much help his feelins, and I think God knows that,” I said.
Then he started to cry, and he said somethin that broke my heart. “I tried to love him” is what he told me. “I always tried, but he wouldn’t let me.”
I swep him into my arms n hugged him as hard as I could. I think that was about as close as I come to cryin in the whole business . . . but accourse you have to remember that I hadn’t been sleepin too well n still hadn’t the slightest idear of how things was going to play out.
There was to be an inquest on Tuesday, and Lucien Mercier, who ran the only mortuary on Little Tall back then, told me I’d finally be allowed to bury Joe in The Oaks on Wednesday. But on Monday, the day before the inquest, Garrett called me on the telephone n ast if I could come down to his office for a few minutes. It was the call I’d been expectin and dreadin, but there wasn’t nothing to do but go, so I ast Selena if she’d give the boys their lunch, and off I went. Garrett wasn’t alone. Dr. John McAuliffe was with him. I’d more or less expected that, too, but my heart still sank a little in my breast.
McAuliffe was the county medical examiner back then. He died three years later when a snow-plow hit his little Volkswagen Beetle. It was Henry Briarton took over the job when McAuliffe died. If Briarton had been the county man in ’63, I’d’ve felt a good deal easier in my mind about our little talk that day. Briarton’s smarter than poor old Garrett Thibodeau was, but only by a little. John McAuliffe, though . . . he had a mind like the lamp that shines outta Battiscan Light.
He was a genuine bottled-in-bond Scotsman who turned up in these parts right after World War II ended, hoot-mon burr n all. I guess he musta been an American citizen, since he was both doctorin and holdin a county position, but he sure didn’t sound much like folks from around here. Not that it mattered to me; I knew I’d have to face him down, no matter if he was an American or a Scotsman or a heathen Chinee.
He had snowy white hair even though he couldn’t have been more’n forty-five, and blue eyes so bright n sharp they looked like drillbits. When he looked at you, you felt like he was starin right into your head and puttin the thoughts he saw there into alphabetical order. As soon as I seen him sittin beside Garrett’s desk n heard the door to the rest of the Town Office Building click closed behind me, I knew that what happened the next day over on the mainland didn’t matter a tinker’s damn. The real inquest was gonna happen right there in that tiny town constable’s office, with a Weber Oil calendar hangin on one wall and a pitcher of Garrett’s mother hangin on another.
“I’m sorry to bother you in your time of grief, Dolores,” Garrett said. He was rubbin his hands together, kinda nervous, and he reminded me of Mr. Pease over at the bank. Garrett musta had a few more calluses on his hands, though, because the sound they made goin back n forth was like fine sandpaper rubbin along a dry board. “But Dr. McAuliffe here has a few questions he’d like to ask you.”
I seen by the puzzled way Garrett looked at the doc that he didn’t know what those questions might be, though, and that scared me even more. I didn’t like the idear of that canny Scotsman thinkin matters were serious enough for him to keep his own counsels n not give poor old Garrett Thibodeau any chance at all to frig up the works.
“Ma deepest sympathies, Mrs. St. George,” McAuliffe says in that thick Scots accent of his. He was a little man, but compact n well put together for all that. He had a neat little mustache, as white’s the hair on his head, he was wearin a three-piece wool suit, n he didn’t look no more like home folks than he sounded like em. Those blue eyes went drillin away at my forehead, and I seen he didn’t have a bit of sympathy for me, no matter what he was sayin. Prob’ly not for nobody else, either . . . includin himself. “I’m verra, verra sorry for your grief and misfortune.”
Sure, and if I believe that, you’ll tell me one more, I thought. The last time you was really sorry, doc, was the last time you needed to use the pay toilet and the string on your pet dime broke. But I made up my mind right then that I wasn’t goin to show him how scared I was. Maybe he had me n maybe he didn’t. You’ve got to remember that, for all I knew, he was gonna tell me that when they laid Joe on the table there in the basement of County Hospital n opened his hands, a little piece of white nylon fell outta one; a scrid of a lady’s slip. That could be, all right, but I still wasn’t gonna give him the satisfaction of squirmin under his eyes. And he was used to havin people squirm when he looked at em; he’d come to take it as his due, and he liked it.
“Thank you very much,” I said.
“Will ye sit doon, madam?” he asks, like it was his office instead of poor old confused Garrett’s.
I sat down and he ast me if I’d kindly give him permission to smoke. I told him the lamp was lit as far’s as I was concerned. He chuckled like I’d made a funny . . . but his eyes didn’t chuckle. He took a big old black pipe out of his coat pocket, a briar, and stoked it up. His eyes never left me while he was doin it, either. Even after he had it clamped between his teeth and the smoke was risin outta the bowl, he never took his eyes off me. They gave me the willies, peerin at me through the smoke like they did, and made me think of Battiscan Light again—they say that one shines out almost two mile even on a night when the fog’s thick enough to carve with your hands.
I started to squirm under that look of his in spite of all my good intentions, and then I thought of Vera Donovan sayin “Nonsense—husbands die every day, Dolores.” It occurred to me that McAuliffe could stare at Vera until his eyes fell out n never get her to so much as cross her legs the other way. Thinkin of that eased me a little, and I grew quiet again; just folded my hands on top of my handbag n waited him out.
At last, when he seen I wasn’t just gonna fall outta my chair onto the floor n confess to murderin my husband—through a rain of tears is how he would’ve liked it, I imagine—he took the pipe out of his mouth n said, “You told the constable ’twas your husband who put those bruises on your neck, Mrs. St. George.”
“Ayuh,” I says.
“That you and he had sat down on the porch to watch the eclipse, and there commenced an argument.”
“And what, may I ask, was the argument about?”
“Money on top,” I says, “booze underneath.”
“But you yourself bought him the liquor he got drunk on that day, Mrs. St. George! Isna that right?”
“Ayuh,” I says. I could feel myself wantin to say somethin more, to explain myself, but I didn’t, even though I could. That’s what McAuliffe wanted, you see—for me to go on rushin ahead. To explain myself right into a jail-cell someplace.
At last he give up waitin. He twiddled his fingers like he was annoyed, then fixed those lighthouse eyes of his on me again. “After the choking incident, you left your husband; you went up to Russian Meadow, on the way to East Head, to watch the eclipse by yourself.”
He leaned forward all of a sudden, his little hands on his little knees, and says, “Mrs. St. George, do you know what direction the wind was from that day?”
It was like the day in November of ’62, when I almost found the old well by fallin into it—I seemed to hear the same crackin noise, and I thought, “You be careful, Dolores Claiborne; you be oh so careful. There’s wells everywhere today, and this man knows where every goddam one of em is.”
“No,” I says, “I don’t. And when I don’t know where the wind’s quarterin from, that usually means the day’s calm.”
“Actually wasn’t much more than a breeze—” Garrett started to say, but McAuliffe raised his hand n cut him off like a knife-blade.
“It was out of the west,” he said. “A west wind, a west breeze, if you so prefer, seven to nine miles an hour, with gusts up to fifteen. It seems strange to me, Mrs. St. George, that that wind didna bring your husband’s cries to you as you stood in Russian Meadow, not half a mile away.”
I didn’t say anything for at least three seconds. I’d made up my mind that I’d count to three inside my head before I answered any of his questions. Doin that might keep me from movin too quick and payin for it by fallin into one of the pits he’d dug for me. But McAuliffe musta thought he had me confused from the word go, because he leaned forward in his chair, and I’ll declare and vow that for one or two seconds there, his eyes went from blue-hot to white-hot.
“It don’t surprise me,” I says. “For one thing, seven miles an hour ain’t much more’n a puff of air on a muggy day. For another, there were about a thousand boats out on the reach, all tootin to each other. And how do you know he called out at all? You sure as hell didn’t hear him.”
He sat back, lookin a little disappointed. “It’s a reasonable deduction to make,” he says. “We know the fall itself didna kill him, and the forensic evidence strongly suggests that he had at least one extended period of consciousness. Mrs. St. George, if you fell into a disused well and found yourself with a broken shin, a broken ankle, four broken ribs, and a sprained wrist, wouldn’t you call for aid and succor?”
I gave it three seconds with a my-pretty-pony between each one, n then said, “It wasn’t me who fell down the well, Dr. McAuliffe. It was Joe, and he’d been drinkin.”
“Yes,” Dr. McAuliffe comes back. “You bought him a bottle of Scotch whiskey, even though everyone I’ve spoken to says you hated it when he drank, even though he became unpleasant and argumentative when he drank; you bought him a bottle of Scotch, and he had not just been drinking, he was drunk. He was verra drunk. His mouth was also filled wi’ bluid, and his shirt was matted wi’ bluid all the way down to his belt-buckle. When you combine the fact o’ this bluid wi’ a knowledge of the broken ribs and the concomitant lung injuries he had sustained, do ye know what that suggests?”
One, my-pretty-pony . . . two, my-pretty-pony . . . three, my-pretty-pony. “Nope,” I says.
“Several of the fractured ribs had punctured his lungs. Such injuries always result in bleeding, but rarely bleeding this extensive. Bleeding of this sort was probably caused, I deduce, by the deceased crying repeatedly for riscue.” That was how he said it, Andy—riscue.
It wasn’t a question, but I counted three all the same before sayin, “You think he was down there callin for help. That’s what it all comes to, ain’t it?”
“No, madam,” he says. “I do na just think so; I have a moral sairtainty.”
This time I didn’t take no wait. “Dr. McAuliffe,” I says, “do you think I pushed my husband down into that well?”
That shook him up a little. Those lighthouse eyes of his not only blinked, for a few seconds there they dulled right over. He fiddled n diddled with his pipe some more, then stuck it back in his mouth n drew on it, all the time tryin to decide how he should handle that.
Before he could, Garrett spoke up. His face had gone as red as a radish. “Dolores,” he says, “I’m sure no one thinks . . . that is to say, that no one has even considered the idea that—”
“Aye,” McAuliffe breaks in. I’d put his train of thought off on a sidin for a few seconds, but I saw he’d got it back onto the main line without no real trouble. “I’ve considered it. Ye’ll understand, Mrs. St. George, that part of my job—”
“Oh, never mind no more Mrs. St. George,” I says. “If you’re gonna accuse me of first pushin my husband down the well n then standin over him while he screamed for help, you go right on ahead n call me Dolores.”
I wasn’t exactly tryin to plink him that time, Andy, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t do it, anyway—second time in as many minutes. I doubt if he’d been used that hard since medical school.
“Nobody is accusing you of anything, Mrs. St. George,” he says all stiff-like, and what I seen in his eyes was “Not yet, anyway.”
“Well, that’s good,” I says. “Because the idear of me pushin Joe down the well is just silly, you know. He outweighed me by at least fifty pounds—prob’ly a fairish bit more. He larded up considerable the last few years. Also, he wa’ant afraid to use his fists if somebody crossed him or got in his way. I’m tellin you that as his wife of sixteen years, and you’ll find plenty of people who’ll tell you the same thing.”
Accourse Joe hadn’t hit me in a long while, but I’d never tried to correct the general impression on the island that he made a pretty steady business of it, and right then, with McAuliffe’s blue eyes tryin to bore in through my forehead, I was damned glad of it.
“Nobody is saying you pushed him into the well,” the Scotsman said. He was backin up fast now. I could see by his face that he knew he was, but didn’t have no idear how it had happened. His face said that I was the one who was supposed to be backin up. “But he must have been crying out, you know. He must have done it for some time—hours, perhaps—and quite loudly, too.”
One, my-pretty-pony . . . two, my-pretty-pony . . . three. “Maybe I’m gettin you now,” I says. “Maybe you think he fell into the well by accident, and I heard him yellin n just turned a deaf ear. Is that what you been gettin at?”
I seen by his face that that was exactly what he’d been gettin at. I also seen he was mad things weren’t goin the way he’d expected em to go, the way they’d always gone before when he had these little interviews. A tiny ball of bright red color had showed up in each of his cheeks. I was glad to see em, because I wanted him mad. A man like McAuliffe is easier to handle when he’s mad, because men like him are used to keepin their composure while other people lose theirs.
“Mrs. St. George, it will be verra difficult to accomplish anything of value here if you keep responding to my questions with questions of your own.”
“Why, you didn’t ask a question, Dr. Mc-Auliffe,” I says, poppin my eyes wide n innocent. “You told me Joe must have been yellin—‘cryin out’ was what you actually said—so I just ast if—”
“All right, all right,” he says, and put his pipe down in Garrett’s brass ashtray hard enough to make it clang. Now his eyes were blazin, and he’d grown a red stripe acrost his forehead to go along with the balls of color in his cheeks. “Did you hear him calling for help, Mrs. St. George?”
One, my-pretty-pony . . . two, my-pretty-pony . . .
“John, I hardly think there’s any call to badger the woman,” Garrett broke in, soundin more uncomfortable than ever, and damn if it didn’t break that little bandbox Scotsman’s concentration again. I almost laughed right out loud. It woulda been bad for me if I had, I don’t doubt it, but it was a near thing, all the same.
McAuliffe whipped around and says to Garrett, “You agreed to let me handle this.”
Poor old Garrett jerked back in his chair s’fast he almost tipped it over, and I’m sure he gave himself a whiplash. “Okay, okay, no need to get hot under the collar,” he mumbles.
McAuliffe turned back to me, ready to repeat the question, but I didn’t bother lettin him. By then I’d had time to count to ten, pretty near.
“No,” I says. “I didn’t hear nothing but people out on the reach, tootin their boat-horns and yellin their fool heads off once they could see the eclipse had started to happen.”
He waited for me to say some more—his old trick of bein quiet and lettin people rush ahead into the puckerbrush—and the silence spun out between us. I just kep my hands folded on top of my handbag and let her spin. He looked at me and I looked back at him.
“You’re gonna talk to me, woman,” his eyes said. “You’re going to tell me everything I want to hear . . . twice, if that’s the way I want it.”
And my own eyes were sayin back, “No I ain’t, chummy. You can sit there drillin on me with those diamond-bit baby-blues of yours until hell’s a skatin rink and you won’t get another word outta me unless you open your mouth n ask for it.”
We went on that way for damned near a full minute, duellin with our eyes, y’might say, and toward the end of it I could feel myself weakenin, wantin to say somethin to him, even if it was only “Didn’t your Ma ever teach you it ain’t polite to stare?” Then Garrett spoke up—or rather his stomach did. It let out a long goiiiinnnnggg sound.
McAuliffe looked at him, disgusted as hell, and Garrett got out his pocket-knife and started to clean under his fingernails. McAuliffe pulled a notebook from the inside pocket of his wool coat (wool! in July!), looked at somethin in it, then put it back.
“He tried to climb out,” he says at last, as casual as a man might say “I’ve got a lunch appointment.”
It felt like somebody’d jabbed a meatfork into my lower back, where Joe hit me with the stovelength that time, but I tried not to show it. “Oh, ayuh?” I says.
“Yes,” McAuliffe says. “The shaft of the well is lined with large stones (only he said “stanes,” Andy, like they do), and we found bluidy handprints on several of them. It appears that he gained his feet, then slowly began to make his way up, hand over hand. It must have been a Herculean effort, made despite a pain more excruciating than I can imagine.”
“I’m sorry to hear he suffered,” I said. My voice was as calm as ever—at least I think it was—but I could feel the sweat startin to break in my armpits, and I remember bein scairt it’d spring out on my brow or in the little hollows of my temples where he could see it. “Poor old Joe.”
“Yes indaid,” McAuliffe says, his lighthouse eyes borin n flashin away. “Poor . . . auld . . . Joe. I think he might have actually gotten out on his own. He probably would have died soon after even if he had, but yes; I think he might have gotten out. Something prevented him from doing so, however.”
“What was it?” I ast.
“He suffered a fractured skull,” McAuliffe said. His eyes were as bright as ever, but his voice’d become as soft as a purrin cat. “We found a large rock between his legs. It was covered wi’ your husband’s bluid, Mrs. St. George. And in that bluid we found a small number of porcelain fragments. Do you know what I deduce from them?”
One . . . two . . . three.
“Sounds like that rock must have busted his false teeth as well’s his head,” I says. “Too bad—Joe was partial to em, and I don’t know how Lucien Mercier’s gonna make him look just right for the viewin without em.”
McAuliffe’s lips drew back when I said that n I got a good look at his teeth. No dentures there. I s’pose he meant it to look like a smile, but it didn’t. Not a bit.
“Yes,” he says, showin me both rows of his neat little teeth all the way to the gumline. “Yes, that’s my conclusion, as well—those porcelain shards are from his lower plate. Now, Mrs. St. George—do you have any idea of how that rock might have come to strike your husband just as he was on the verge of escaping the well?”
One . . . two . . . three.
“Nope,” I says. “Do you?”
“Yes,” he says. “I rather suspect someone pulled it out of the earth and smashed it cruelly and wi’ malice aforethought into his upturned, pleading face.”
Wasn’t nobody said anything after that. I wanted to, God knows; I wanted to jump in as quick as ever I could n say, “It wasn’t me. Maybe somebody did it, but it wasn’t me.” I couldn’t, though, because I was back in the blackberry tangles and this time there was friggin wells everyplace.
Instead of talkin I just sat there lookin at him, but I could feel the sweat tryin to break out on me again and I could feel my clasped hands wantin to lock down on each other. The fingernails’d turn white if they did that . . . and he’d notice. McAuliffe was a man built to notice such things; it’d be another chink to shine his version of the Battiscan Light into. I tried to think of Vera, and how she woulda looked at him—as if he was only a little dab of dogshit on one of her shoes—but with his eyes borin into me like they was just then, it didn’t seem to do any good. Before, it’d been like she was almost there in the room with me, but it wasn’t like that anymore. Now there was no one there but me n that neat little Scots doctor, who probably fancied himself just like the amateur detectives in the magazine stories (and whose testimony had already sent over a dozen people up n down the coast to jail, I found out later), and I could feel myself gettin closer n closer to openin my mouth n blurtin somethin out. And the hell of it was, Andy, I didn’t have the slightest idear what it’d be when it finally came. I could hear the clock on Garrett’s desk tickin—it had a big hollow sound.
And I was gonna say somethin when the one person I’d forgot—Garrett Thibodeau—spoke up instead. He spoke in a worried, fast voice, and I realized he couldn’t stand no more of that silence, either—he musta thought it was gonna go on until somebody had to scream just to relieve the tension.
“Now John,” he says, “I thought we agreed that, if Joe pulled on that stone just right, it could have come out on its own and—”
“Mon, will ye not shut op!” McAuliffe yelled at him in a high, frustrated sort of voice, and I relaxed. It was all over. I knew it, and I believe that little Scotsman knew it, too. It was like the two us had been in a black room together, and him ticklin my face with what might have been a razor-blade . . . n then clumsy old Constable Thibodeau stubbed his toe, fell against the window, and the shade went up with a bang n a rattle, lettin in the daylight, and I seen it was only a feather he’d been touchin me with, after all.
Garrett muttered somethin about how there was no call for McAuliffe to talk to him that way, but the doc didn’t pay him no mind. He turned back to me and said “Well, Mrs. St. George?” in a hard way, like he had me in a corner, but by then we both knew better. All he could do was hope I’d make a mistake . . . but I had three kids to think about, and havin kids makes you careful.
“I’ve told you what I know,” I says. “He got drunk while we were waitin for the eclipse. I made him a sandwich, thinkin it might sober him up a little, but it didn’t. He got yellin, then he choked me n batted me around a little, so I went up to Russian Meadow. When I come back, he was gone. I thought he’d gone off with one of his friends, but he was down the well all the time. I s’pose he was tryin to take a short-cut out to the road. He might even have been lookin for me, wantin to apologize. That’s somethin I won’t never know . . . n maybe it’s just as well.” I give him a good hard look. “You might try a little of that medicine yourself, Dr. McAuliffe.”
“Never mind yer advice, madam,” McAuliffe says, and those spots of color in his cheeks was burnin higher n hotter’n ever. “Are ye glad he’s dead? Tell me that!”
“What in holy tarnal hell has that got to do with what happened to him?” I ast. “Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with you?”
He didn’t answer—just picked up his pipe in a hand that was shakin the tiniest little bit and went to work lightin it again. He never ast another question; the last question that was ast of me that day was ast by Garrett Thibodeau. McAuliffe didn’t ask it because it didn’t matter, at least not to him. It meant somethin to Garrett, though, and it meant even more to me, because nothing was going to end when I walked out of the Town Office Building that day; in some ways, me walkin out was gonna be just the beginning. That last question and the way I answered it mattered plenty, because it’s usually the things that wouldn’t mean squat in a courtroom that get whispered about the most over back fences while women hang out their warsh or out on the lobster-boats while men are sittin with their backs against the pilothouse n eatin their lunches. Those things may not send you to prison, but they can hang you in the eyes of the town.
“Why in God’s name did you buy him a bottle of liquor in the first place?” Garrett kinda bleated. “What got into you, Dolores?”
“I thought he’d leave me alone if he had somethin to drink,” I said. “I thought we could sit together in peace n watch the eclipse n he’d leave me alone.”
I didn’t cry, not really, but I felt one tear go rollin down my cheek. I sometimes think that’s the reason I was able to go on livin on Little Tall for the next thirty years—that one single tear. If not for that, they mighta driven me out with their whisperin and carpin and pointin at me from behind their hands—ayuh, in the end they mighta. I’m tough, but I don’t know if anyone’s tough enough to stand up to thirty years of gossip n little anonymous notes sayin things like “You got away with murder.” I did get a few of those—and I got a pretty good idear of who sent em, too, although that ain’t neither here nor there at this late date—but they stopped by the time school let back in that fall. And so I guess you could say that I owe all the rest of my life, includin this part here, to that single tear . . . and to Garrett puttin the word out that in the end I hadn’t been too stony-hearted to cry for Joe. There wasn’t nothing calculated about it, either, and don’t you go thinkin there was. I was thinkin about how sorry I was that Joe’d suffered the way the little bandbox Scotsman said he had. In spite of everything he’d done and how I’d come to hate him since I’d first found out what he was tryin to do to Selena, I’d never intended for him to suffer. I thought the fall’d kill him, Andy—I swear on the name of God I thought the fall’d kill him outright.
Poor old Garrett Thibodeau went as red’s a stop-sign. He fumbled a wad of Kleenex out of the box of em on his desk and kinda groped it out at me without lookin—I imagine he thought that first tear meant I was gonna go a gusher—and apologized for puttin me through “such a stressful interrogation.” I bet those were just about the biggest words he knew.
McAuliffe gave out a humph! sound at that, said somethin about how he’d be at the inquest to hear my statement taken, and then he left—stalked out, actually, n slammed the door behind him hard enough to rattle the glass. Garrett gave him time to clear out n then walked me to the door, holdin my arm but still not lookin at me (it was actually sorta comical) and mutterin all the time. I ain’t sure what he was mutterin about, but I s’pose that, whatever it was, it was really Garrett’s way of sayin he was sorry. That man had a tender heart and couldn’t stand to see someone unhappy, I’ll say that for him . . . and I’ll say somethin else for Little Tall: where else could a man like that not only be constable for almost twenty years but get a dinner in his honor complete with a standin ovation at the end of it when he finally retired? I’ll tell you what I think—a place where a tender-hearted man can succeed as an officer of the law ain’t such a bad place to spend your life. Not at all. Even so, I was never gladder to hear a door close behind me than I was when Garrett’s clicked shut that day.
So that was the bugger, and the inquest the next day wasn’t nothing compared to it. McAuliffe ast me many of the same questions, and they were hard questions, but they didn’t have no power over me anymore, and we both knew it. My one tear was all very well, but McAuliffe’s questions—plus the fact that everyone could see he was pissed like a bear at me—went a long way toward startin the talk which has run on the island ever since. Oh well; there would have been some talk no matter what, ain’t that right?
The verdict was death by misadventure. McAuliffe didn’t like it, and at the end he read his findins in a dead-level voice, without ever lookin up once, but what he said was official enough: Joe fell down the well while drunk, had prob’ly called for help for quite awhile without gettin an answer, then tried to climb out on his own hook. He got most of the way to the top, then put his weight on the wrong stone. It pulled free, bashed him in the head hard enough to fracture his skull (not to mention his dentures), and knocked him back down to the bottom again, where he died.
Maybe the biggest thing—and I never realized this until later—was they couldn’t find no motive to hang on me. Of course, the people in town (and Dr. McAuliffe too, I have no doubt) thought that if I had done it, I did it to get shut of him beatin me, but all by itself that didn’t carry enough weight. Only Selena and Mr. Pease knew how much motive I’d really had, and no one, not even smart old Dr. McAuliffe, thought of questionin Mr. Pease. He didn’t come forward on his own hook, either. If he had’ve, our little talk in The Chatty Buoy would’ve come out, and he’d most likely have been in trouble with the bank. I’d talked him into breakin the rules, after all.
As for Selena . . . well, I think Selena tried me in her own court. Every now n then I’d see her eyes on me, dark n squally, and in my mind I’d hear her askin, “Did you do anything to him? Did you, Mamma? Is it my fault? Am I the one who has to pay?”
I think she did pay—that’s the worst part. The little island girl who was never out of the state of Maine until she went to Boston for a swim-meet when she was eighteen has become a smart, successful career-woman in New York City—there was an article about her in the New York Times two years ago, did you know that? She writes for all those magazines and still finds time to write me once a week . . . but they feel like duty-letters, just like the phone-calls twice a month feel like duty-calls. I think the calls n the chatty little notes are the way she pays her heart to be quiet about how she don’t ever come back here, about how she’s cut her ties with me. Yes, I think she paid, all right; I think the one who was the most blameless of all paid the most, and that she’s payin still.
She’s forty-four years old, she’s never married, she’s too thin (I can see that in the pitchers she sometimes sends), and I think she drinks—I’ve heard it in her voice more’n once when she calls. I got an idear that might be one of the reasons she don’t come home anymore; she doesn’t want me to see her drinkin like her father drank. Or maybe because she’s afraid of what she might say if she had one too many while I was right handy. What she might ask.
But never mind; it’s all water over the dam now. I got away with it, that’s the important thing. If there’d been insurance, or if Pease hadn’t kep his mouth shut, I’m not sure I woulda. Of the two, a fat insurance policy prob’ly woulda been worse. The last thing in God’s round world I needed was some smart insurance investigator hookin up with that smart little Scots doctor who was already mad as hell at the idear of bein beaten by an ignorant island woman. Nope, if there’d been two of em, I think they might’ve got me.
So what happened? Why, what I imagine always happens in cases like that, when a murder’s been done and not found out. Life went on, that’s all. Nobody popped up with last-minute information, like in a movie, I didn’t try to kill nobody else, n God didn’t strike me dead with a lightnin-bolt. Maybe He felt hittin me with lightnin over the likes of Joe St. George woulda been a waste of electricity.
Life just went on. I went back to Pinewood n to Vera. Selena took up her old friendships when she went back to school that fall, and sometimes I heard her laughin on the phone. When the news finally sunk in, Little Pete took it hard . . . and so did Joe Junior. Joey took it harder’n I expected, actually. He lost some weight n had some nightmares, but by the next summer he seemed mostly all right again. The only thing that really changed durin the rest of 1963 was that I had Seth Reed come over n put a cement cap on the old well.
Six months after he died, Joe’s estate was settled in County Probate. I wa’ant even there. A week or so later I got a paper tellin me that everythin was mine—I could sell it or swap it or drop it in the deep blue sea. When I’d finished goin through what he’d left, I thought the last of those choices looked like the best one. One kinda surprisin thing I discovered, though: if your husband dies sudden, it can come in handy if all his friends were idiots, like Joe’s were. I sold the old shortwave radio he’d been tinkerin on for ten years to Norris Pinette for twenty-five dollars, and the three junk trucks settin in the back yard to Tommy Anderson. That fool was more’n glad to have em, and I used the money to buy a ’59 Chevy that had wheezy valves but ran good otherwise. I also had Joe’s savins passbook made over to me, and re-opened the kids’ college accounts.
Oh, and one other thing—in January of 1964, I started goin by my maiden name again. I didn’t make no particular fanfare about it, but I was damned if I was gonna drag St. George around behind me the rest of my life, like a can tied to a dog’s tail. I guess you could say I cut the string holdin the can . . . but I didn’t get rid of him as easy as I got rid of his name, I can tell you that.
Not that I expected to; I’m sixty-five, and I’ve known for at least fifty of those years that most of what bein human’s about is makin choices and payin the bills when they come due. Some of the choices are pretty goddam nasty, but that don’t give a person leave to just walk away from em—especially not if that person’s got others dependin on her to do for em what they can’t do for themselves. In a case like that, you just have to make the best choice you can n then pay the price. For me, the price was a lot of nights when I woke up in a cold sweat from bad dreams n even more when I never got to sleep at all; that and the sound the rock made when it hit him in the face, bustin his skull and his dentures—that sound like a china plate on a brick hearth. I’ve heard it for thirty years. Sometimes it’s what wakes me up, and sometimes it’s what keeps me outta sleep and sometimes it surprises me in broad daylight. I might be sweepin the porch at home or polishin the silver at Vera’s or sittin down to my lunch with the TV turned to the Oprah show and all at once I’ll hear it. That sound. Or the thud when he hit bottom. Or his voice, comin up outta the well: “Duh-lorrrr-issss . . .”
I don’t s’pose those sounds I sometimes hear are so different from whatever it was that Vera really saw when she screamed about the wires in the corners or the dust bunnies under the bed. There were times, especially after she really began to fail, when I’d crawl in bed with her n hold her n think of the sound the rock made, n then close my eyes n see a china plate strikin a brick hearth and shatterin all to bits. When I saw that I’d hug her like she was my sister, or like she was myself. We’d lie in that bed, each with her own fright, and finally we’d drowse off together—her with me to keep the dust bunnies away, and me with her to keep away the sound of the china plate—and sometimes before I went to sleep I’d think, “This is how. This is how you pay off bein a bitch. And it ain’t no use sayin if you hadn’t been a bitch you wouldn’t’ve had to pay, because sometimes the world makes you be a bitch. When it’s all doom n dark outside and only you inside to first make a light n then tend it, you have to be a bitch. But oh, the price. The terrible price.”
Andy, do you s’pose I could have one more tiny little nip from that bottle of yours? I’ll never tell a soul.
Thank you. And thank you, Nancy Bannister, for puttin up with such a long-winded old broad as me. How your fingers holdin out?
Are they? Good. Don’t lose your courage now; I’ve gone at it widdershins, I know, but I guess I’ve finally gotten around to the part you really want to hear about, just the same. That’s good, because it’s late and I’m tired. I’ve been workin my whole life, but I can’t remember ever bein as tired as I am right now.
I was out hanging laundry yest’y mornin—it seems like six years ago, but it was only yest’y—and Vera was havin one of her bright days. That’s why it was all so unexpected, and partly why I got so flustered. When she had her bright days she sometimes got bitchy, but that was the first n last time she got crazy.
So I was down below in the side yard and she was up above in her wheelchair, supervisin the operation the way she liked to do. Every now n then she’d holler down, “Six pins, Dolores! Six pins on every last one of those sheets! Don’t you try to get away with just four, because I’m watching!”
“Yeah,” I says, “I know, and I bet you only wish it was forty degrees colder and a twenty-knot gale blowin.”
“What?” she caws down at me. “What did you say, Dolores Claiborne?”
“I said someone must be spreadin manure in their garden,” I says, “because I smell a lot more bullshit around here than usual.”
“Are you being smart, Dolores?” she calls back in her cracked, wavery voice.
She sounded about like she did on any day when a few more sunbeams than usual was findin their way into her attic. I knew she might get up to mischief later on, but I didn’t much care—right then I was just glad to hear her makin as much sense as she was. To tell you the truth, it seemed like old times. She’d been number’n a pounded thumb for the last three or four months, and it was sorta nice to have her back . . . or as much of the old Vera as was ever gonna come back, if you see what I mean.
“No, Vera,” I called up to her. “If I’d been smart, I’d’ve gotten done workin for you a long time ago.”
I expected her to yell somethin else down at me then, but she never. So I went on hangin up her sheets n her diapers n her warshcloths n all the rest. Then, with half the basket still to do, I stopped. I had a bad feeling. I can’t say why, or even where it started. All at once it was just there. And for just a moment the strangest thought came to me: “That girl’s in trouble . . . the one I saw on the day of the eclipse, the one who saw me. She’s all grown up now, almost Selena’s age, but she’s in terrible trouble.”
I turned around n looked up, almost expectin to see the grownup version of that little girl in her bright striped dress n pink lipstick, but I didn’t see nobody, and that was wrong. It was wrong because Vera should have been there, just about hangin out onto the roof to make sure I used the right number of clothespins. But she was gone, and I didn’t understand how that could be, because I’d put her in her chair myself, and then set the brake once I had it by the window the way she liked.
Then I heard her scream.
Such a chill ran up my back when I heard that, Andy! It was like Joe had come back. For a moment I was just frozen to the spot. Then she screamed again, and that second time I recognized it was her.
“Duh-lorrr-isss! It’s dust bunnies! They’re everywhere! Oh-dear-God! Oh-dear-God! Duh-lorrr-iss, help! Help me!”
I turned to run for the house, tripped over the damned laundry-basket, and went sprawlin over it n into the sheets I’d just hung. I got tangled up in em somehow n had to fight my way out. For just a minute it was like the sheets had grown hands and were tryin to strangle me, or just hold me back. And all the while that was goin on, Vera kep screamin, and I thought of the dream I’d had that one time, the dream of the dust-head with all the long snaggly dust-teeth. Only what I saw in my mind’s eye was Joe’s face on that head, and the eyes were all dark n blank, like someone had pushed two lumps of coal into a cloud of dust, and there they hung n floated.
“Dolores, oh please come quick! Oh please come quick! The dust bunnies! THE DUST BUNNIES ARE EVERYWHERE!”
Then she just screamed. It was horrible. You’d never in your wildest dreams have thought a fat old bitch like Vera Donovan could scream that loud. It was like fire n flood n the end of the world all rolled up into one.
I fought my way clear of the sheets somehow, and as I got up I felt one of my slip-straps pop, just like on the day of the eclipse, when Joe almost killed me before I managed to get shut of him. And you know that feelin you get when it seems like you’ve been someplace before, and know all the things people are gonna say before they say em? That feelin came over me so strong it was like there were ghosts all around me, ticklin me with fingers I couldn’t quite see.
And you know somethin else? They felt like dusty ghosts.
I ran in the kitchen door n pelted up the back stairs as fast as my legs’d carry me, and all the time she was screamin, screamin, screamin. My slip started to slide down, and when I got to the back landin I looked around, sure I was gonna see Joe stumblin up right behind me n snatchin at the hem.
Then I looked back the other way, and I seen Vera. She was three-quarters of the way down the hall toward the front staircase, waddlin along with her back to me n screamin as she went. There was a big brown stain on the seat of her nightgown where she’d soiled herself—not out of meanness or bitchiness that last time, but out of plain cold fear.
Her wheelchair was stuck crosswise in her bedroom door. She must’ve released the brake when she saw whatever it was that had scared her so. Always before when she come down with a case of the horrors, the only thing she could do was sit or lay where she was n bawl for help, and there’ll be plenty of people who’ll tell you she couldn’t move under her own power, but she did yesterday; I swear she did. She released the brake on her chair, turned it, wheeled it across the room, then somehow got out of it when it got stuck in the doorway n went staggerin off down the hall.
I stood there, just frozen to the spot for the first second or two, watchin her lurch along and wonderin what she’d seen that was terrible enough to get her to do what she was doin, to walk after her days of walkin should have been over—what that thing was that she could only think to call the dust bunnies.
But I seen where she was headed—right for the front stairs.
“Vera!” I yelled at her. “Vera, you just stop this foolishness! You’re going to fall! Stop!”
Then I ran just as fast as I could. That feelin that all this was happenin for the second time rolled over me again, only this time it felt like I was Joe, that I was the one tryin to catch up n catch hold.
I don’t know if she didn’t hear me, or if she did n thought in her poor addled brain that I was in front of her instead of behind. All I know for sure is that she went on screamin—“Dolores, help! Help me, Dolores! The dust bunnies!”—and lurched on a little faster.
She’d just about used the hallway up. I raced past the door to her room n clipped my ankle a goddam good one on one of the wheelchair’s footrests—here, you can see the bruise. I ran as fast’s I could, shoutin, “Stop, Vera! Stop!” until my throat was raw.
She crossed the landin and stuck one foot out into space. I couldn’t’ve saved her then, no matter what—all I coulda done was pull myself over with her—but in a situation like that, you don’t have time to think or count the cost. I jumped for her just as that foot of hers come down on thin air and she started to tilt forward. I had one last little glimpse of her face. I don’t think she knew she was goin over; there wasn’t nothing there but bug-eyed panic. I’d seen the look before, although never that deep, and I can tell you it didn’t have nothing to do with fear of fallin. She was thinkin about what was behind her, not what was ahead.
I snatched at the air and didn’t get nothing but the littlest fold of her nightie between the second n third fingers of my left hand. It slipped through em like a whisper.
“Duh-lorrrrr—” she screamed, and then there was a solid, meaty thud. It turns my blood cold to remember that sound; it was just like the one Joe made when he hit the bottom of the well. I seen her do a cartwheel n then heard somethin snap. The sound was as clear n harsh as a stick of kindlin when you break it over your knee. I saw blood squirt out of the side of her head n that was all I wanted to see. I turned away so fast my feet tangled in each other and I went to my knees. I was starin back down the hallway toward her room, and what I saw made me scream. It was Joe. For a few seconds I saw him as clear as I see you now, Andy; I saw his dusty, grinnin face peekin out at me from under her wheelchair, lookin through the wire spokes of the wheel that had got caught in the door.
Then it was gone, and I heard her moanin and cryin.
I couldn’t believe she’d lived through that fall; can’t believe it still. Joe hadn’t been killed outright either, accourse, but he’d been a man in the prime of life, and she was a flabby old woman who’d had half a dozen small strokes n at least three big ones. Also, there wasn’t no mud n squelch to cushion her landin like there had been to cushion his.
I didn’t want to go down to her, didn’t want to see where she was broken and bleedin, but there wa’ant no question, accourse; I was the only one there, and that meant I was elected. When I got up (I had to haul on the newel post at the top of the bannister to do it, my knees were so watery-feelin), I stepped one foot on the hem of my own slip. The other strap popped, n I raised up my dress a little so I could pull it off . . . and that was just like before, too. I remember lookin down at my legs to see if they were scratched and bleedin from the thorns in the blackberry tangle, but accourse there wasn’t nothing like that.
I felt feverish. If you’ve ever been really sick n your temperature’s gone way, way up, you know what I mean; you don’t feel out of the world, exactly, but you sure as hell don’t feel in it, either. It’s like everythin was turned to glass, and there isn’t anything you can get a solid grip on anymore; everythin’s slippery. That’s how I felt as I stood there on the landin, holdin the top of the bannister in a death-grip and lookin at where she’d finished up.
She was layin a little over halfway down the staircase with both legs twisted so far under her you couldn’t hardly see em. Blood was runnin down one side of her poor old face. When I stumbled down to where she lay, still clingin onto the bannister for dear life as I went, one of her eyes rolled up in its socket to mark me. It was the look of an animal caught in a trap.
“Dolores,” she whispered. “That son of a bitch has been after me all these years.”
“Shh,” I said. “Don’t try to talk.”
“Yes he has,” she said, as if I’d contradicted her. “Oh, the bastard. The randy bastard.”
“I’m going downstairs,” I says. “I got to call the doctor.”
“No,” she says back. She reached up with one hand and took hold of my wrist. “No doctor. No hospital. The dust bunnies . . . even there. Everywhere.”
“You’ll be all right, Vera,” I says, pullin my hand free. “As long as you lie still n don’t move, you’ll be fine.”
“Dolores Claiborne says I’m going to be fine!” she says, and it was that dry, fierce voice she used to use before she had her strokes n got all muddled in her head. “What a relief it is to have a professional opinion!”
Hearin that voice after all the years it had been gone was like bein slapped. It shocked me right out of my panic, and I really looked into her face for the first time, the way you look at a person who knows exactly what they’re sayin n means every word.
“I’m as good as dead,” she says, “and you know it as well as I do. My back’s broken, I think.”
“You don’t know that, Vera,” I says, but I wasn’t wild to get to the telephone like I had been. I think I knew what was comin, and if she ast what I thought she was gonna ask, I didn’t see how I could refuse her. I had owed her a debt ever since that rainy fall day in 1962 when I sat on her bed n bawled my eyes out with my apron up over my face, and the Claibornes have always cleared their debts.
When she spoke to me again, she was as clear and as lucid as she’d been thirty years ago, back when Joe was alive and the kids were still at home. “I know there’s only one thing left worth deciding,” she says, “and that’s whether I’m going to die in my time or in some hospital’s. Their time would be too long. My time is now, Dolores. I’m tired of seeing my husband’s face in the corners when I’m weak and confused. I’m tired of seeing them winch that Corvette out of the quarry in the moonlight, how the water ran out of the open window on the passenger side—”
“Vera, I don’t know what you’re talkin about,” I says.
She lifted her hand n waved it at me in her old impatient way for a second or two; then it flopped back onto the stairs beside her. “I’m tired of pissing down my legs and forgetting who came to see me half an hour after they’re gone. I want to be done. Will you help me?”
I knelt beside her, picked up the hand that’d fallen on the stairs n held it against my bosom. I thought about the sound the rock made when it hit Joe in the face—that sound like a china plate breakin all to splinters on a brick hearth. I wondered if I could hear that sound again without losin my mind. And I knew it would sound the same, because she’d sounded like him when she was callin my name, she’d sounded like him when she fell and landed on the stairs, breakin herself all to pieces just like she’d always been afraid the maids’d break the delicate glassware she kept in the parlor, and my slip was layin on the upstairs landin in a little ball of white nylon with both straps busted, and that was just like before, too. If I did her, it’d sound the same as it had when I did him, and I knew it. Ayuh. I knew it as well’s I know that East Lane ends in those rickety old stairs goin down the side of East Head.
I held her hand n thought about how the world is—how sometimes bad men have accidents and good women turn into bitches. I looked at the awful, helpless way her eyes rolled so she could look up into my face, n I marked how the blood from the cut in her scalp ran down the deep wrinkles in her cheek, the way spring rain runs in plow furrows goin downhill.
I says, “If it’s what you want, Vera, I’ll help you.”
She started to cry then. It was the only time when she wasn’t all dim n foolish that I ever saw her do that. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, it is what I want. God bless you, Dolores.”
“Don’t you fret,” I says. I raised her old wrinkled hand to my lips n kissed it.
“Hurry, Dolores,” she says. “If you really want to help me, please hurry.”
“Before we both lose our courage” was what her eyes seemed to be sayin.
I kissed her hand again, then laid it on her stomach n stood up. I didn’t have no trouble that time; the strength’d come back into my legs. I went down the stairs n into the kitchen. I’d set out the bakin things before going out to hang the warsh; I had it in mind that it’d be a good day to make bread. She had a rollin pin, a great heavy thing made of gray marble veined with black. It was layin on the counter, next to the yellow plastic flour canister. I picked it up, still feelin as if I was in a dream or runnin a high fever, n walked back through the parlor toward the front hall. As I went through that room with all her nice old things in it, I thought about all the times I’d played that trick with the vacuum cleaner on her, and how she’d got back at me for awhile. In the end, she always wised up and got her own back . . . ain’t that why I’m here?
I come out of the parlor into the hall, then climbed the stairs toward her, holdin that rollin pin by one of the wooden handles. When I got to where she lay, with her head pointed down and her legs twisted under her, I didn’t mean to take no pause; I knew if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to do it at all. There wasn’t going to be any more talk. When I got to her, I meant to drop on one knee n brain her with that marble rollin pin just as hard as I could and as fast as I could. Maybe it’d look like somethin that’d happened to her when she fell and maybe it wouldn’t, but I meant to do it either way.
When I knelt beside her, I saw there was no need; she’d done it on her own after all, like she done most things in her life. While I was in the kitchen gettin the rollin pin, or maybe while I was comin back through the parlor, she’d just closed her eyes n slipped off.
I sat down beside her, put the rollin pin on the stairs, picked up her hand n held it in my lap. There are some times in a person’s life that don’t have no real minutes in em, so you can’t count em up. All I know is that I sat n visited with her awhile. I dunno if I said anything or not. I think I did—I think I thanked her for lettin go, for lettin me go, for not makin me have to go through all of it again—but maybe I only thought those things. I remember puttin her hand against my cheek, then turnin it over and kissin the palm. I remember lookin at it and thinkin how pink n clean it was. The lines had mostly faded from it, and it looked like a baby’s hand. I knew I ought to get up and telephone someone, tell em what happened, but I was weary—so weary. It seemed easier to just sit there n hold her hand.
Then the doorbell rang. If it hadn’t, I would have set there quite awhile longer, I think. But you know how it is with bells—you feel you have to answer em, no matter what. I got up and went down the stairs one at a time, like a woman ten years older’n I am (the truth is, I felt ten years older), clingin to the bannister the whole way. I remember thinkin the world still felt as if it was made of glass, and I had to be damned careful not to slip on it n cut myself when I had to let go of the bannister n cross the entry to the door.
It was Sammy Marchant, with his mailman’s hat cocked back on his head in that silly way he does—he prob’ly thinks wearin his hat that way makes him look like a rock star. He had the regular mail in one hand and one of those padded envelopes that come registered mail just about every week from New York—news of what was happenin with her financial affairs, accourse—in the other. It was a fella named Greenbush took care of her money, did I tell you that?
I did? All right—thanks. There’s been so much globber I can hardly remember what I’ve told you and what I haven’t.
Sometimes there were papers in those registered mail envelopes that had to be signed, and most times Vera could do that if I helped hold her arm steady, but there were a few times, when she was fogged out, that I signed her name on em myself. There wasn’t nothing to it, and never a single question later about any of the ones I did. In the last three or four years, her signature wa’ant nothin but a scrawl, anyway. So that’s somethin else you c’n get me for, if you really want to: forgery.
Sammy’d started holdin out the padded envelope as soon as the door opened—wantin me to sign for it, like I always did with the registered—but when he got a good look at me, his eyes widened n he took a step backward on the stoop. It was actually more of a jerk than a step—and considerin it was Sammy Marchant doin it, that seems like just the right word. “Dolores!” he says. “Are you all right? There’s blood on you!”
“It’s not mine,” I says, and my voice was as calm as it woulda been if he’d ast me what I was watchin on TV and I told him. “It’s Vera’s. She fell down the stairs. She’s dead.”
“Holy Christ,” he says, then ran past me into the house with his mailbag floppin against one hip. It never crossed my mind to try n keep him out, and ask y’self this: what good would it have done if I had?
I followed him slow. That glassy feelin was goin away, but it seemed like my shoes had grown themselves lead soles. When I got to the foot of the stairs Sammy was halfway up em, kneelin beside Vera. He’d taken off his mailbag before he knelt, and it’d fallen most of the way back down the stairs, spillin letters n Bangor Hydro bills n L. L. Bean catalogues from hell to breakfast.
I climbed up to him, draggin my feet from one stair to the next. I ain’t ever felt s’tired. Not even after I killed Joe did I feel as tired as I felt yest’y mornin.
“She’s dead, all right,” he says, lookin around.
“Ayuh,” I says back. “Told you she was.”
“I thought she couldn’t walk,” he says. “You always told me she couldn’t walk, Dolores.”
“Well,” I says, “I guess I was wrong.” I felt stupid sayin a thing like that with her layin there like she was, but what the hell else was there to say? In some ways it was easier talkin to John McAuliffe than to poor dumb Sammy Marchant, because I’d done pretty much what McAuliffe suspected I’d done. The trouble with bein innocent is you’re more or less stuck with the truth.
“What’s this?” he asks then, n pointed at the rollin pin. I’d left it sittin on the stair when the doorbell rang.
“What do you think it is?” I ast him right back. “A birdcage?”
“Looks like a rollin pin,” he says.
“That’s pretty good,” I says. It seemed like I was hearin my own voice comin from far away, as if it was in one place n the rest of me was someplace else. “You may surprise em all n turn out to be college material after all, Sammy.”
“Yeah, but what’s a rollin pin doin on the stairs?” he ast, and all at once I saw the way he was lookin at me. Sammy ain’t a day over twenty-five, but his Dad was in the search-party that found Joe, and I all at once realized that Duke Marchant’d probably raised Sammy and all the rest of his not-too-brights on the notion that Dolores Claiborne St. George had done away with her old man. You remember me sayin that when you’re innocent you’re more or less stuck with the truth? Well, when I seen the way Sammy was lookin at me, I all at once decided this might be a time when less’d be quite a bit safer’n more.
“I was in the kitchen gettin ready to make bread when she fell,” I said. Another thing about bein innocent—any lies you do decide to tell are mostly unplanned lies; innocent folks don’t spend hours workin out their stories, like I worked out mine about how I went up to Russian Meadow to watch the eclipse and never seen my husband again until I saw him in the Mercier Funeral Home. The minute that lie about makin bread was out of my mouth I knew it was apt to kick back on me, but if you’d seen the look in his eyes, Andy—dark n suspicious n scared, all at once—you might’ve lied, too.
He got to his feet, started to turn around, then stopped right where he was, lookin up. I followed his gaze. What I seen was my slip, crumpled up in a ball on the landin.
“I guess she took her slip off before she fell,” he said, lookin back at me again. “Or jumped. Or whatever the hell it was she did. Do you think so, Dolores?”
“No,” I says, “that’s mine.”
“If you were makin bread in the kitchen,” he says, talkin real slow, like a kid who ain’t too bright tryin to work out a math problem at the blackboard, “then what’s your underwear doin up on the landin?”
I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Sammy took one step back down the stairs n then another, movin as slow’s he talked, holdin the bannister, never takin his eyes off me, and all at once I understood what he was doin: makin space between us. Doin it because he was afraid I might take it into my head to push him like he thought I’d pushed her. It was right then that I knew I’d be sittin here where I’m sittin before too much time passed, and tellin what I’m tellin. His eyes might as well have been speakin right out loud, sayin, “You got away with it once, Dolores Claiborne, and considerin the kind of man my Dad says Joe St. George was, maybe that was all right. But what did this woman ever do to you besides feed you n keep a roof over your head n pay you a decent livin wage?” And what his eyes said more’n anything else was that a woman who pushes once and gets away with it might push twice; that given the right situation, she will push twice. And if the push ain’t enough to do what she set out to do, she won’t have to think very hard before decidin to finish the job some other way. With a marble rollin pin, for instance.
“This is none of your affair, Sam Marchant,” I says. “You better just go about your business. I have to call the island ambulance. Just make sure you pick up your mail before you go, or there’s gonna be a lot of credit card companies chewin on your ass.”
“Mrs. Donovan don’t need an ambulance,” he says, goin down another two steps n keepin his eyes on me the whole time, “and I’m not goin anywhere just yet. I think instead of the ambulance, you better make your first call to Andy Bissette.”
Which, as you know, I did. Sammy Marchant stood right there n watched me do it. After I’d hung up the phone, he picked up the mail he’d spilled (takin a quick look over his shoulder every now n then, prob’ly to make sure I wasn’t creepin up behind him with that rollin pin in my hand) and then just stood at the foot of the stairs, like a guard dog that’s cornered a burglar. He didn’t talk, and I didn’t, neither. It crossed my mind that I could go through the dinin room and the kitchen to the back stairs n get my slip. But what good would that have done? He’d seen it, hadn’t he? And the rollin pin was still settin there on the stairs, wa’ant it?
Pretty soon you came, Andy, along with Frank, and a little later I went down to our nice new police station n made a statement. That was just yest’y forenoon, so I guess there’s no need to reheat that hash, is there? You know I didn’t say anything about the slip, n when you ast me about the rollin pin, I said I wasn’t really sure how it’d gotten there. It was all I could think to say, at least until someone come along n took the OUT OF ORDER sign offa my brains.
After I signed the statement I got in my car n drove home. It was all so quick n quiet—givin the statement and all, I mean—that I almost persuaded myself I didn’t have nothing to worry about. After all, I hadn’t killed her; she really did fall. I kept tellin myself that, n by the time I turned into my own driveway, I’d come a long way to bein convinced that everything was gonna be all right.
That feelin only lasted as long’s it took me to get from the car to my back door. There was a note thumbtacked to it. Just a plain sheet of notebook paper. It had a smear of grease on it, like it’d been torn from a book some man’d been carryin around in his hip pocket. YOU WILL NOT GET AWAY WITH IT AGAIN, the note said. That was all. Hell, it was enough, wouldn’t you say?
I went inside n cracked open the kitchen windows to let out the musty smell. I hate that smell, n the house always seems to have it these days, no matter if I air it out or not. It’s not just because I mostly live at Vera’s now—or did, at least—although accourse that’s part of it; mostly it’s because the house is dead . . . as dead as Joe n Little Pete.
Houses do have their own life that they take from the people who live in em; I really believe that. Our little one-storey place lived past Joe’s dyin and the two older kids goin away to school, Selena to Vassar on a full scholarship (her share of that college money I was so concerned about when to buy clothes n textbooks), and Joe Junior just up the road to the University of Maine in Orono. It even survived the news that Little Pete had been killed in a barracks explosion in Saigon. It happened just after he got there, and less’n two months before the whole shebang was over. I watched the last of the helicopters pull away from the embassy roof on the TV in Vera’s livin room and just cried n cried. I could let myself do that without fear of what she might say, because she’d gone down to Boston on a shoppin binge.
It was after Little Pete’s funeral that the life went out of the house; after the last of the company had left and the three of us—me, Selena, Joe Junior—was left there with each other. Joe Junior’d been talkin about politics. He’d just gotten the City Manager job in Machias, not bad for a kid with the ink still wet on his college degree, and was thinkin about runnin for the State Legislature in a year or two.
Selena talked a little bit about the courses she was teachin at Albany Junior College—this was before she moved down to New York City and started writin full time—and then she went quiet. She n I were riddin up the dishes, and all at once I felt somethin. I turned around quick n saw her lookin at me with those dark eyes of hers. I could tell you I read her mind—parents can do that with their kids sometimes, you know—but the fact is I didn’t need to; I knew what she was thinkin about, I knew that it never entirely left her mind. I saw the same questions in her eyes then as had been there twelve years before, when she came up to me in the garden, amongst the beans n the cukes: “Did you do anything to him?” and “Is it my fault?” and “How long do I have to pay?”
I went to her, Andy, n hugged her. She hugged me back, but her body was stiff against mine—stiff’s a poker—and that’s when I felt the life go out of the house. It went like the last breath of a dyin man. I think Selena felt it, too. Not Joe Junior; he puts the pitcher of the house on the front of some of his campaign fliers—it makes him look like home-folks and the voters like that, I’ve noticed—but he never felt it when it died because he never really loved it in the first place. Why would he, for Christ’s sake? To Joe Junior, that house was just the place where he came after school, the place where his father ragged him n called him a book-readin sissy. Cumberland Hall, the dorm he lived in up to the University, was more home to Joe Junior than the house on East Lane ever was.
It was home to me, though, and it was home to Selena. I think my good girl went on livin here long after she’d shaken the dust of Little Tall Island off her feet; I think she lived here in her memories . . . in her heart . . . in her dreams. Her nightmares.
That musty smell—you c’n never get rid of it once it really settles in.
I sat by one of the open windows to get a noseful of the fresh sea-breeze for awhile, then I got feelin funny and decided I ought to lock the doors. The front door was easy, but the thumb-bolt on the back one was so balky I couldn’t budge it until I put a charge of Three in One in there. Finally it turned, and when it did I realized why it was so stubborn: simple rust. I sometimes spent five n six days at a stretch up to Vera’s, but I still couldn’t remember the last time I’d bothered to lock up the house.
Thinkin about that just seemed to take all the guts outta me. I went into the bedroom n laid down n put my pillow over my head like I used to do when I was a little girl n got sent to bed early for bein bad. I cried n cried n cried. I would never have believed I had so many tears in me. I cried for Vera and Selena and Little Pete; I guess I even cried for Joe. But mostly I cried for myself. I cried until my nose was plugged up and I had cramps in my belly. Finally I fell asleep.
When I woke up it was dark and the telephone was ringin. I got up n felt my way into the living room to answer it. As soon as I said hello, someone—some woman—said, “You can’t murder her. I hope you know that. If the law doesn’t get you, we will. You aren’t as smart as you think you are. We don’t have to live with murderers here, Dolores Claiborne; not as long as there’s still some decent Christians left on the island to keep it from happenin.”
My head was so muzzy that at first I thought I was havin a dream. By the time I figured out I was really awake, she’d hung up. I started for the kitchen, meanin to put on the coffee-pot or maybe grab a beer out of the fridge, when the phone rang again. It was a woman that time, too, but not the same one. Filth started to stream out of her mouth n I hung up quick. The urge to cry come over me again, but I was damned if I’d do it. I pulled the telephone plug outta the wall instead. I went into the kitchen n got a beer, but it didn’t taste good to me n I ended up pourin most of it down the sink. I think what I really wanted was a little Scotch, but I haven’t had a drop of hard liquor in the house since Joe died.
I drew a glass of water n found I couldn’t abide the smell of it—it smelled like pennies that’ve been carried around all day in some kid’s sweaty fist. It made me remember that night in the blackberry tangles—how that same smell came to me on a little puff of breeze—n that made me think of the girl in the pink lipstick n the striped dress. I thought of how it’d crossed my mind that the woman she’d grown into was in trouble. I wondered how she was n where she was, but I never once wondered if she was, if you see what I mean; I knew she was. Is. I have never doubted it.
But that don’t matter; my mind’s wanderin again n my mouth’s followin right along behind, like Mary’s little lamb. All I started to say was that the water from my kitchen sink didn’t use me any better than Mr. Budweiser’s finest had—even a couple of ice-cubes wouldn’t take away that coppery smell—and I ended up watchin some stupid comedy show and drinkin one of the Hawaiian Punches I keep in the back of the fridge for Joe Junior’s twin boys. I made myself a frozen dinner but didn’t have no appetite for it once it was ready n ended up scrapin it into the swill. I settled for another Hawaiian Punch instead—took it back into the livin room n just sat there in front of the TV. One comedy’d give way to another, but I didn’t see a dime’s worth of difference. I s’pose it was because I wa’ant payin much attention.
I didn’t try to figure out what I was gonna do; there’s some figurin you’re wiser not to try at night, because that’s the time your mind’s most apt to go bad on you. Whatever you figure out after sundown, nine times outta ten you got it all to do over again in the mornin. So I just sat, and some time after the local news had ended and the Tonight show had come on, I fell asleep again.
I had a dream. It was about me n Vera, only Vera was the way she was when I first knew her, back when Joe was still alive and all our kids, hers as well as mine, were still around n underfoot most of the time. In my dream we were doin the dishes—her warshin n me wipin. Only we weren’t doin em in the kitchen; we were standin in front of the little Franklin stove in the livin room of my house. And that was funny, because Vera wasn’t ever in my house—not once in her whole life.
She was there in this dream, though. She had the dishes in a plastic basin on top of the stove—not my old stuff but her good Spode china. She’d warsh a plate n then hand it to me, and each one of em’d slip outta my hands and break on the bricks the Franklin stands on. Vera’d say, “You have to be more careful than that, Dolores; when accidents happen and you’re not careful, there’s always a hell of a mess.”
I’d promise her to be careful, and I’d try, but the next plate’d slip through my fingers, n the next, n the next, n the next.
“This is no good at all,” Vera said at last. “Just look at the mess you’re making!”
I looked down, but instead of pieces of broken plates, the bricks were littered with little pieces of Joe’s dentures n broken stone. “Don’t you hand me no more, Vera,” I said, startin to cry. “I guess I ain’t up to doing no dishes. Maybe I’ve got too old, I dunno, but I don’t want to break the whole job lot of em, I know that.”
She kep on handin em to me just the same, though, and I kep droppin em, and the sound they made when they hit the bricks kep gettin louder n deeper, until it was more a boomin sound than the brittle crash china makes when it hits somethin hard n busts. All at once I knew I was havin a dream n those booms weren’t part of it. I snapped awake s’hard I almost fell outta the chair n onto the floor. There was another of those booms, and this time I knew it for what it was—a shotgun.
I got up n went over to the window. Two pickup trucks went by on the road. There were people in the backs, one in the bed of the first n two—I think—in the bed of the second. It looked like all of em had shotguns, and every couple of seconds one of em’d trigger off a round into the sky. There’d be a bright muzzle-flash, then another loud boom. From the way the men (I guess they were men, although I can’t say for sure) were swayin back n forth—and from the way the trucks were weavin back n forth—I’d say the whole crew was pissyass drunk. I recognized one of the trucks, too.
No, I ain’t gonna tell you—I’m in enough trouble myself. I don’t plan to drag nobody else in with me over a little drunk night-shootin. I guess maybe I didn’t recognize that truck after all.
Anyway, I threw up the window when I seen they wasn’t puttin holes in nothin but a few low-lyin clouds. I thought they’d use the wide spot at the bottom of our hill to turn around, and they did. One of em goddam near got stuck, too, and wouldn’t that have been a laugh.
They come back up, hootin and tootin and yellin their heads off. I cupped m’hands around m’mouth n screamed “Get outta here! Some folks’re tryin t’sleep!” just as loud’s I could. One of the trucks swerved a little wider n almost run into the ditch, so I guess I threw a startle into em, all right. The fella standin in the back of that truck (it was the one I thought I recognized until a few seconds ago) went ass-over-dashboard. I got a good set of lungs on me, if I do say so m’self, n I can holler with the best of em when I want to.
“Get offa Little Tall Island, you goddam murderin cunt!” one of em yelled back, n triggered a few more shots off into the air. But that was just in the way of showin me what big balls they had, I think, because they didn’t make another pass. I could hear em roarin off toward town—and that goddam bar that opened there year before last, I’ll bet a cookie—with their mufflers blattin and their tailpipes chamberin backfires as they did all their fancy downshifts. You know how men are when they’re drunk n drivin pick-em-ups.
Well, it broke the worst of my mood. I wa’ant scared anymore and I sure as shit didn’t feel weepy anymore. I was good n pissed off, but not s’mad I couldn’t think, or understand why folks were doin the things they were doin. When my anger tried to take me past that place, I stopped it happenin by thinkin of Sammy Marchant, how his eyes had looked as he knelt there on the stairs lookin first at that rollin pin and then up at me—as dark as the ocean just ahead of a squall-line, they were, like Selena’s had been that day in the garden.
I already knew I was gonna have to come back down here, Andy, but it was only after those men left that I quit kiddin myself that I could still pick n choose what I was gonna tell or hold back. I saw I was gonna have to make a clean breast of everything. I went back to bed n slept peaceful until quarter of nine in the morning. It’s the latest I’ve slep since before I was married. I guess I was gettin rested up so I could talk the whole friggin night.
Once I was up, I meant to do it just as soon’s I could—bitter medicine is best taken right away—but somethin put me off my track before I could get out of the house, or I would’ve ended up tellin you all this a lot sooner.
I took a bath, and before I got dressed I put the telephone plug back in the wall. It wasn’t night anymore, and I wasn’t half in n half out of some dream anymore. I figured if someone wanted to phone up and call me names, I’d dish out a few names of my own, startin with “yellowbelly” n “dirty no-name sneak.” Sure enough, I hadn’t done more’n roll on my stockings before it did ring. I picked it up, ready to give whoever was on the other end a good dose of what-for, when this woman’s voice said, “Hello? May I speak to Miz Dolores Claiborne?”
I knew right away it was long distance, n not just because of the little echo we get out here when the call’s from away. I knew because nobody on the island calls women Miz. You might be a Miss n you might be a Missus, but Miz still ain’t made it across the reach, except once a month on the magazine rack down to the drugstore.
“Speakin,” I says.
“This is Alan Greenbush calling,” she says.
“Funny,” I says, pert’s you please, “you don’t sound like an Alan Greenbush.”
“It’s his office calling,” she says, like I was about the dumbest thing she ever heard of. “Will you hold for Mr. Greenbush?”
She caught me so by surprise the name didn’t sink in at first—I knew I’d heard it before, but I didn’t know where.
“What’s it concernin?” I ast.
There was a pause, like she wasn’t really s’posed to let that sort of information out, and then she said, “I believe it concerns Mrs. Vera Donovan. Will you hold, Miz Claiborne?”
Then it clicked in—Greenbush, who sent her all the padded envelopes registered mail.
“Ayuh,” I says.
“Pardon me?” she says.
“I’ll hold,” I says.
“Thank you,” she says back. There was a click n I was left for a little while standin there in my underwear, waitin. It wasn’t long but it seemed long. Just before he came on the line, it occurred to me that it must be about the times I’d signed Vera’s name—they’d caught me. It seemed likely enough; ain’t you ever noticed how when one thing goes wrong, everythin else seems to go wrong right behind it?
Then he come on the line. “Miz Claiborne?” he says.
“Yes, this is Dolores Claiborne,” I told him.
“The local law enforcement official on Little Tall Island called me yesterday afternoon and informed me that Vera Donovan had passed away,” he said. “It was quite late when I received the call, and so I decided to wait until this morning to telephone you.”
I thought of tellin him there was folks on the island not so particular about what time they called me, but accourse I didn’t.
He cleared his throat, then said, “I had a letter from Mrs. Donovan five years ago, specifically instructing me to give you certain information concerning her estate within twenty-four hours of her passing.” He cleared his throat again n said, “Although I have spoken to her on the phone frequently since then, that was the last actual letter I received from her.” He had a dry, fussy kind of voice. The kind of voice that when it tells you somethin, you can’t not hear it.
“What are you talkin about, man?” I ast. “Quit all this backin and fillin and tell me!”
He says, “I’m pleased to inform you that, aside from a small bequest to The New England Home for Little Wanderers, you are the sole beneficiary of Mrs. Donovan’s will.”
My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and all I could think of was how she’d caught onto the vacuum cleaner trick after awhile.
“You’ll receive a confirming telegram later today,” he says, “but I’m very glad to have spoken to you well before its arrival—Mrs. Donovan was very emphatic about her desires in this matter.”
“Ayuh,” I says, “she could be emphatic, all right.”
“I’m sure you’re grieved at Mrs. Donovan’s passing—we all are—but I want you to know that you are going to be a very wealthy woman, and if I can do anything at all to assist you in your new circumstances, I would be as happy to do so as I was to assist Mrs. Donovan. Of course I’ll be calling to give you updates on the progress of the will through probate, but I really don’t expect any problems or delays. In fact—”
“Whoa on, chummy,” I says, n it came out in a kind of croak. Sounded quite a bit like a frog in a dry pond. “How much money are you talkin about?”
Accourse I knew she was well off, Andy; the fact that in the last few years she didn’t wear nothing but flannel nighties n lived on a steady diet of Campbell’s soup and Gerber’s baby-food didn’t change that. I saw the house, I saw the cars, n I sometimes looked at a wee bit more of the papers that came in those padded envelopes than just the signature line. Some were stock transfer forms, n I know that when you’re sellin two thousand shares of Upjohn and buyin four thousand of Mississippi Valley Light n Power, you ain’t exactly totterin down the road to the poorhouse.
I wa’ant askin so I could start applyin for credit cards n orderin things from the Sears catalogue, either—don’t go gettin that idear. I had a better reason than that. I knew that the number of people who thought I’d murdered her would most likely go up with every dollar she left me, n I wanted to know how bad I was gonna get hurt. I thought it might be as much as sixty or seventy thousand dollars . . . although he had said she left some money to an orphanage, and I figured that’d take it down some.
There was somethin else bitin me, too—bitin the way a June deerfly does when it settles on the back of your neck. Somethin way wrong about the whole proposition. I couldn’t put m’finger on it, though—no more’n I’d been able to put m’finger on exactly who Greenbush was when his secretary first said his name.
He said somethin I couldn’t quite make out. It sounded like blub-dub-a-gub-area-of-thirty-million-dollars.
“What did you say, sir?” I ast.
“That after probate, legal fees, and a few other small deductions, the total should be in the area of thirty million dollars.”
My hand on the telephone had started to feel the way it does when I wake up n realize I slep most of the night on it . . . numb through the middle n all tingly around the edges. My feet were tinglin, too, n all at once the world felt like it was made of glass again.
“I’m sorry,” I says. I could hear my mouth talkin perfectly well n perfectly clear, but I didn’t seem to be attached to any of the words that were comin out of it. It was just flappin, like a shutter in a high wind. “The connection here isn’t very good. I thought you said somethin with the word million in it.” Then I laughed, just to show how silly I knew that was, but part of me must’ve thought it wa’ant silly at all, because that was the fakest-soundin laugh I ever heard come outta me—Yar-yar-yar, it sounded like.
“I did say million,” he said. “In fact, I said thirty million.” And do you know, I think he woulda chuckled if it hadn’t been Vera Donovan’s dead body I was gettin that money over. I think he was excited—that underneath that dry, prissy voice he was excited as hell. I s’pose he felt like John Bearsford Tipton, the rich fella who used to give away a million bucks at a crack on that old TV show. He wanted my business, accourse that was part of it—I got a feelin that money’s like electric trains to fellas like him n he didn’t want to see such an almighty big set as Vera’s taken away from him—but I think most of the fun of it for him was just hearin me flub-dubbin around like I was doin.
“I don’t get it,” I says, and now my voice was so weak I could hardly hear it myself.
“I think I understand how you feel,” he says. “It’s a very large sum, and of course it will take a little getting used to.”
“How much is it really?” I ast him, and that time he did chuckle. If he’d been where I coulda got to him, Andy, I believe I woulda booted him in the seat of the pants.
He told me again, thirty million dollars, n I kep thinkin that if my hand got any stupider, I was gonna drop the phone. And I started to feel panicky. It was like someone was inside my head, swingin a steel cable around n around. I’d think thirty million dollars, but those were just words. When I tried to see what they meant, the only pitcher I could make inside my head was like the ones in the Scrooge McDuck comic books Joe Junior used to read Little Pete when Pete was four or five. I saw a great big vault fulla coins n bills, only instead of Scrooge McDuck paddlin around in all that dough with the spats on his flippers n those little round spectacles perched on his beak, I’d see me doin it in my bedroom slippers. Then that pitcher’d slip away and I’d think of how Sammy Marchant’s eyes had looked when they moved from the rollin pin to me n then back to the rollin pin again. They looked like Selena’s had looked that day in the garden, all dark n full of questions. Then I thought of the woman who called on the phone n said there were still decent Christians on the island who didn’t have to live with murderers. I wondered what that woman n her friends were gonna think when they found out Vera’s death had left me thirty million dollars to the good . . . and the thought of that came close to puttin me into a panic.
“You can’t do it!” I says, kinda wild. “Do you hear me? You can’t make me take it!”
Then it was his turn to say he couldn’t quite hear—that the connection must be loose someplace along the line. I ain’t a bit surprised, either. When a man like Greenbush hears someone sayin they don’t want a thirty-million-dollar lump of cash, they figure the equipment must be frigged up. I opened my mouth to tell him again that he’d have to take it back, that he could give every cent of it to The New England Home for Little Wanderers, when I suddenly understood what was wrong with all this. It didn’t just hit me; it come down on my head like a dropped load of bricks.
“Donald n Helga!” I says. I musta sounded like a TV game-show contestant comin up with the right answer in the last second or two of the bonus round.
“I beg pardon?” he asks, kinda cautious.
“Her kids!” I says. “Her son and her daughter! That money belongs to them, not me! They’re kin! I ain’t nothing but a jumped-up housekeeper!”
There was such a long pause then that I felt sure we musta been disconnected, and I wa’ant a bit sorry. I felt faint, to tell you the truth. I was about to hang up when he says in this flat, funny voice, “You don’t know.”
“Don’t know what?” I shouted at him. “I know she’s got a son named Donald and a daughter named Helga! I know they was too damned good to come n visit her up here, although she always kep space for em, but I guess they won’t be too good to divide up a pile like the one you’re talkin about now that she’s dead!”
“You don’t know,” he said again. And then, as if he was askin questions to himself instead of to me, he says, “Could you not know, after all the time you worked for her? Could you? Wouldn’t Kenopensky have told you?” N before I could get a word in edgeways, he started answerin his own damned questions. “Of course it’s possible. Except for a squib on an inside page of the local paper the day after, she kept the whole thing under wraps—you could do that thirty years ago, if you were willing to pay for the privilege. I’m not sure there were even obituaries.” He stopped, then says, like a man will when he’s just discoverin somethin new—somethin huge—about someone he’s known all his life: “She talked about them as if they were alive, didn’t she. All these years!”
“What are you globberin about?” I shouted at him. It felt like an elevator was goin down in my stomach, and all at once all sorts of things—little things—started fittin together in my mind. I didn’t want em to, but it went on happenin, just the same. “Accourse she talked about em like they were alive! They are alive! He’s got a real estate company in Arizona—Golden West Associates! She designs dresses in San Francisco . . . Gaylord Fashions!”
Except she’d always read these big paperback historical novels with women in low-cut dresses kissin men without their shirts on, and the trade name for those books was Golden West—it said so on a little foil strip at the top of every one. And it all at once occurred to me that she’d been born in a little town called Gaylord, Missouri. I wanted to think it was somethin else—Galen, or maybe Galesburg—but I knew it wasn’t. Still, her daughter mighta named her dress business after the town her mother’d been born in . . . or so I told myself.
“Miz Claiborne,” Greenbush says, talkin in a low, sorta anxious voice, “Mrs. Donovan’s husband was killed in an unfortunate accident when Donald was fifteen and Helga was thirteen—”
“I know that!” I says, like I wanted him to believe that if I knew that I must know everything.
“—and there was consequently a great deal of bad feeling between Mrs. Donovan and the children.”
I’d known that, too. I remembered people remarkin on how quiet the kids had been when they showed up on Memorial Day in 1961 for their usual summer on the island, and how several people’d mentioned that you didn’t ever seem to see the three of em together anymore, which was especially strange, considerin Mr. Donovan’s sudden death the year before; usually somethin like that draws people closer . . . although I s’pose city folks may be a little different about such things. And then I remembered somethin else, somethin Jimmy DeWitt told me in the fall of that year.
“They had a wowser of an argument in a restaurant just after the Fourth of July in ’61,” I says. “The boy n girl left the next day. I remember the hunky—Kenopensky, I mean—takin em across to the mainland in the big motor launch they had back then.”
“Yes,” Greenbush said. “It so happens that I knew from Ted Kenopensky what that argument was about. Donald had gotten his driver’s license that spring, and Mrs. Donovan had gotten him a car for his birthday. The girl, Helga, said she wanted a car, too. Vera—Mrs. Donovan—apparently tried to explain to the girl that the idea was silly, a car would be useless to her without a driver’s license and she couldn’t get one of those until she was fifteen. Helga said that might be true in Maryland, but it wasn’t the case in Maine—that she could get one there at fourteen . . . which she was. Could that have been true, Miz Claiborne, or was it just an adolescent fantasy?”
“It was true back then,” I says, “although I think you have to be at least fifteen now. Mr. Greenbush, the car she got her boy for his birthday . . . was it a Corvette?”
“Yes,” he says, “it was. How did you know that, Miz Claiborne?”
“I musta seen a pitcher of it sometime,” I said, but I hardly heard my own voice. The voice I heard was Vera’s. “I’m tired of seeing them winch that Corvette out of the quarry in the moonlight,” she told me as she lay dyin on the stairs. “Tired of seein how the water ran out of the open window on the passenger side.”
“I’m surprised she kept a picture of it around,” Greenbush said. “Donald and Helga Donovan died in that car, you see. It happened in October of 1961, almost a year to the day after their father died. It seemed the girl was driving.”
He went on talkin, but I hardly heard him, Andy—I was too busy fillin in the blanks for myself, and doin it so fast that I guess I musta known they were dead . . . somewhere way down deep I musta known it all along. Greenbush said they’d been drinkin and pushin that Corvette along at better’n a hundred miles an hour when the girl missed a turn and went into the quarry; he said both of em were prob’ly dead long before that fancy two-seater sank to the bottom.
He said it was an accident, too, but maybe I knew a little more about accidents than he did.
Maybe Vera did, too, and maybe she’d always known that the argument they had that summer didn’t have Jack Shit to do with whether or not Helga was gonna get a State of Maine driver’s license; that was just the handiest bone they had to pick. When McAuliffe ast me what Joe and I argued about before he got chokin me, I told him it was money on top n booze underneath. The tops of people’s arguments are mostly quite a lot different from what’s on the bottom, I’ve noticed, and it could be that what they were really arguin about that summer was what had happened to Michael Donovan the year before.
She and the hunky killed the man, Andy—she did everything but come out n tell me so. She never got caught, either, but sometimes there’s people inside of families who’ve got pieces of the jigsaw puzzle the law never sees. People like Selena, for instance . . . n maybe people like Donald n Helga Donovan, too. I wonder how they looked at her that summer, before they had that argument in The Harborside Restaurant n left Little Tall for the last time. I’ve tried n tried to remember how their eyes were when they looked at her, if they were like Selena’s when she looked at me, n I just can’t do it. P’raps I will in time, but that ain’t nothing I’m really lookin forward to, if you catch my meanin.
I do know that sixteen was young for a little hellion like Don Donovan to have a driver’s license—too damned young—and when you add in that hot car, why, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Vera was smart enough to know that, and she must have been scared sick; she might have hated the father, but she loved the son like life itself. I know she did. She gave it to him just the same, though. Tough as she was, she put that rocket in his pocket, n Helga’s, too, as it turned out, when he wasn’t but a junior in high school n prob’ly just startin to shave. I think it was guilt, Andy. And maybe I want to think it was just that because I don’t like to think there was fear mixed in with it, that maybe a couple of rich kids like them could blackmail their mother for the things they wanted over the death of their father. I don’t really think it . . . but it’s possible, you know; it is possible. In a world where a man can spend months tryin to take his own daughter to bed, I believe anything is possible.
“They’re dead,” I said to Greenbush. “That’s what you’re telling me.”
“Yes,” he says.
“They’ve been dead, thirty years n more,” I says.
“Yes,” he says again.
“And everything she told me about em,” I says, “it was a lie.”
He cleared his throat again—that man’s one of the world’s greatest throat-clearers, if my talk with him today’s any example—and when he spoke up, he sounded damned near human. “What did she tell you about them, Miz Claiborne?” he ast.
And when I thought about it, Andy, I realized she’d told me a hell of a lot, startin in the summer of ’62, when she showed up lookin ten years older n twenty pounds lighter’n the year before. I remember her tellin me that Donald n Helga might be spendin August at the house n for me to check n make sure we had enough Quaker Rolled Oats, which was all they’d eat for breakfast. I remember her comin back up in October—that was the fall when Kennedy n Khrushchev were decidin whether or not they was gonna blow up the whole shootin match—and tellin me I’d be seein a lot more of her in the future. “I hope you’ll be seein the kids, too,” she’d said, but there was somethin in her voice, Andy . . . and in her eyes . . .
Mostly it was her eyes I thought of as I stood there with the phone in my hand. She told me all sorts of things with her mouth over the years, about where they went to school, what they were doin, who they were seein (Donald got married n had two kids, accordin to Vera; Helga got married n divorced), but I realized that ever since the summer of 1962, her eyes’d been tellin me just one thing, over n over again: they were dead. Ayuh . . . but maybe not completely dead. Not as long as there was one scrawny, plain-faced housekeeper on an island off the coast of Maine who still believed they were alive.
From there my mind jumped forward to the summer of 1963—the summer I killed Joe, the summer of the eclipse. She’d been fascinated by the eclipse, but not just because it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Nossir. She was in love with it because she thought it was the thing that’d bring Donald n Helga back to Pinewood. She told me so again n again n again. And that thing in her eyes, the thing that knew they were dead, went away for awhile in the spring n early summer of that year.
You know what I think? I think that between March or April of 1963 and the middle of July, Vera Donovan was crazy; I think for those few months she really did believe they were alive. She wiped the sight of that Corvette comin outta the quarry where it’d fetched up from her memory; she believed em back to life by sheer force of will. Believed em back to life? Nope, that ain’t quite right. She eclipsed em back to life.
She went crazy n I believe she wanted to stay crazy—maybe so she could have em back, maybe to punish herself, maybe both at the same time—but in the end, there was too much bedrock sanity in her n she couldn’t do it. In the last week or ten days before the eclipse, it all started to break down. I remember that time, when us who worked for her was gettin ready for that Christless eclipse expedition n the party to follow, like it was yesterday. She’d been in a good mood all through June and early July, but around the time I sent my kids off, everythin just went to hell. That was when Vera started actin like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, yellin at people if they s’much as looked at her crosseyed, n firin house-help left n right. I think that was when her last try at wishin em back to life fell apart. She knew they were dead then and ever after, but she went ahead with the party she’d planned, just the same. Can you imagine the courage that took? The flat-out coarse-grained down-in-your-belly guts?
I remembered somethin she said, too—this was after I’d stood up to her about firin the Jolander girl. When Vera come up to me later, I thought sure she was gonna fire me. Instead she give me a bagful of eclipse-watchin stuff n made what was—to Vera Donovan, at least—an apology. She said that sometimes a woman had to be a high-ridin bitch. “Sometimes,” she told me, “being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto.”
Ayuh, I thought. When there’s nothin else left, there’s that. There’s always that.
“Miz Claiborne?” a voice said in my ear, and that’s when I remembered he was still on the line; I’d gone away from him completely. “Miz Claiborne, are you still there?”
“Still here,” I sez. He’d ast me what she told me about em, n that was all it took to set me off thinkin about those sad old times . . . but I didn’t see how I could tell him all that, not some man from New York who didn’t know nothin about how we live up here on Little Tall. How she lived up on Little Tall. Puttin it another way, he knew an almighty lot about Upjohn and Mississippi Valley Light n Power, but not bugger-all about the wires in the corners.
Or the dust bunnies.
He starts off, “I asked what she told you—”
“She told me to keep their beds made up n plenty of Quaker Rolled Oats in the pantry,” I says. “She said she wanted to be ready because they might decide to come back anytime.” And that was close enough to the truth of how it was, Andy—close enough for Greenbush, anyway.
“Why, that’s amazing!” he said, and it was like listenin to some fancy doctor say, “Why, that’s a brain tumor!”
We talked some more after that, but I don’t have much idear what things we said. I think I told him again that I didn’t want it, not so much as one red penny, and I know from the way he talked to me—kind n pleasant n sorta jollyin me along—that when he talked to you, Andy, you must not’ve passed along any of the news flashes Sammy Marchant prob’ly gave you n anyone else on Little Tall that’d listen. I s’pose you figured it wa’ant none of his business, at least not yet.
I remember tellin him to give it all to the Little Wanderers, and him sayin he couldn’t do that. He said I could, once the will had cleared through probate (although the biggest ijit in the world coulda told he didn’t think I’d do any such thing once I finally understood what’d happened), but he couldn’t do doodly-squat with it.
Finally I promised I’d call him back when I felt “a little clearer in my mind,” as he put it, n then hung up. I just stood there for a long time—must’ve been fifteen minutes or more. I felt . . . creepy. I felt like that money was all over me, stuck to me like bugs used to stick to the flypaper my Dad hung in our outhouse every summer back when I was little. I felt afraid it’d just stick to me tighter n tighter once I started movin around, that it’d wrap me up until I didn’t have no chance in hell of ever gettin it off again.
By the time I did start movin, I’d forgot all about comin down to the police station to see you, Andy. To tell the truth, I almost forgot to get dressed. In the end I pulled on an old pair of jeans n a sweater, although the dress I’d meant to wear was laid out neat on the bed (and still is, unless somebody’s broke in and took out on the dress what they would’ve liked to’ve taken out on the person who b’longed inside of it). I added my old galoshes n called it good.
I skirted around the big white rock between the shed n the blackberry tangle, stoppin for a little bit to look into it n listen to the wind rattlin in all those thorny branches. I could just see the white of the concrete wellcap. Lookin at it made me feel shivery, like a person does when they’re comin down with a bad cold or the flu. I took the shortcut across Russian Meadow and then walked down to where the Lane ends at East Head. I stood there a little while, lettin the ocean wind push back my hair n warsh me clean, like it always does, and then I went down the stairs.
Oh, don’t look so worried, Frank—the rope acrost the top of em n that warnin sign are both still there; it’s just that I wa’ant much worried about that set of rickety stairs after all I had to go through.
I walked all the way down, switchin back n forth, until I come to the rocks at the bottom. The old town dock—what the oldtimers used to call Simmons Dock—was there, you know, but there’s nothin left of it now but a few posts n two big iron rings pounded into the granite, all rusty n scaly. They look like what I imagine the eye-sockets in a dragon’s skull would look like, if there really were such things. I fished off that dock many a time when I was little, Andy, and I guess I thought it’d always be there, but in the end the sea takes everything.
I sat on the bottom step, danglin my galoshes over, and there I stayed for the next seven hours. I watched the tide go out n I watched it come most of the way in again before I was done with the place.
At first I tried to think about the money, but I couldn’t get my mind around it. Maybe people who’ve had that much all their lives can, but I couldn’t. Every time I tried, I just saw Sammy Marchant first lookin at the rollin pin . . . n then up at me. That’s all the money meant to me then, Andy, and it’s all it means to me now—Sammy Marchant lookin up at me with that dark glare n sayin, “I thought she couldn’t walk. You always told me she couldn’t walk, Dolores.”
Then I thought about Donald n Helga. “Fool me once, shame on you,” I says to no one at all as I sat there with my feet danglin so close over the incomers that they sometimes got splattered with curds of foam. “Fool me twice, shame on me.” Except she never really fooled me . . . her eyes never fooled me.
I remembered wakin up to the fact—one day in the late sixties, this musta been—that I had never seen em, not even once, since I’d seen the hunky takin em back to the mainland that July day in 1961. And that so distressed me that I broke a long-standin rule of mine not to talk about em at all, ever, unless Vera spoke of em first. “How are the kids doin, Vera?” I ast her—the words jumped outta my mouth before I knew they were comin—with God’s my witness, that’s just what they did. “How are they really doin?”
I remember she was sittin in the parlor at the time, knittin in the chair by the bow windows, and when I ast her that she stopped what she was doin and looked up at me. The sun was strong that day, it struck across her face in a bright, hard stripe, and there was somethin so scary about the way she looked that for a second or two I came close to screamin. It wasn’t until the urge’d passed that I realized it was her eyes. They were deep-set eyes, black circles in that stripe of sun where everythin else was bright. They were like his eyes when he looked up at me from the bottom of the well . . . like little black stones or lumps of coal pushed into white dough. For that second or two it was like seein a ghost. Then she moved her head a little and it was just Vera again, sittin there n lookin like she’d had too much to drink the night before. It wouldn’t’ve been the first time if she had.
“I don’t really know, Dolores,” she said. “We are estranged.” That was all she said, n it was all she needed to say. All the stories she told me about their lives—made-up stories, I know now—didn’t say as much as those three words: “We are estranged.” A lot of the time I spent today down by Simmons Dock I spent thinkin about what an awful word that is. Estranged. Just the sound of it makes me shiver.
I sat there n picked over those old bones one last time, n then I put em aside and got up from where I’d spent most of the day. I decided that I didn’t much care what you or anyone else believed. It’s all over, you see—for Joe, for Vera, for Michael Donovan, for Donald n Helga . . . and for Dolores Claiborne, too. One way or another, all the bridges between that time n this one have been burned. Time’s a reach, too, you know, just like the one that lies between the islands and the mainland, but the only ferry that can cross it is memory, and that’s like a ghost-ship—if you want it to disappear, after awhile it will.
But all that aside, it’s still funny how things turned out, ain’t it? I remember what went through my mind as I got up n turned back to them rickety stairs—the same thing that went through it when Joe snaked his arm outta the well n almost pulled me in with him: I have digged a pit for mine enemies, and am fallen into it myself. It seemed to me, as I laid hold of that old splintery bannister n got set to climb back up all those stairs (always assumin they’d hold me a second time, accourse), that it’d finally happened, n that I’d always known it would. It just took me awhile longer to fall into mine than it took Joe to fall into his.
Vera had a pit to fall into, too—and if I’ve got anything to be grateful for, it’s that I haven’t had to dream my children back to life like she did . . . although sometimes, when I’m talkin to Selena on the phone and hear her slur her words, I wonder if there’s any escape for any of us from the pain n the sorrow of our lives. I couldn’t fool her, Andy—shame on me.
Still, I’ll take what I can take n grit my teeth so it looks like a grin, just like I always have. I try to keep in mind that two of my three children live still, that they are successful beyond what anyone on Little Tall would’ve expected when they were babies, and successful beyond what they maybe could’ve been if their no-good of a father hadn’t had himself an accident on the afternoon of July 20th, 1963. Life ain’t an either-or proposition, you see, and if I ever forget to be thankful my girl n one of my boys lived while Vera’s boy n girl died, I’ll have to explain the sin of ingratitude when I get before the throne of the Almighty. I don’t want to do that. I got enough on my conscience—and prob’ly on my soul, too—already. But listen to me, all three of you, n hear this if you don’t hear nothing else: everything I did, I did for love . . . the love a natural mother feels for her children. That’s the strongest love there is in the world, and it’s the deadliest. There’s no bitch on earth like a mother frightened for her kids.
I thought of my dream as I reached the top of the steps again, n stood on the landin just inside that guard-rope, lookin out to sea—the dream of how Vera kept handin me plates and I kep droppin em. I thought of the sound the rock made when it struck him in the face, and how the two sounds were the same sound.
But mostly I thought about Vera and me—two bitches livin on a little chunk of rock off the Maine coast, livin together most of the time in the last years. I thought about how them two bitches slep together when the older one was scared, n how they passed the years in that big house, two bitches who ended up spendin most of their time bitchin at each other. I thought of how she’d fool me, n how I’d go’n fool her right back, and how happy each of us was when we won a round. I thought about how she was when the dust bunnies ganged up on her, how she’d scream n how she trembled like an animal that’s been backed into a corner by a bigger creature that means to tear it to pieces. I remember how I’d climb into the bed with her, n put my arms around her, n feel her tremblin that way, like a delicate glass that someone’s tapped with the handle of a knife. I’d feel her tears on my neck, and I’d brush her thin, dry hair n say, “Shhh, dear . . . shhh. Those pesky dust bunnies are all gone. You’re safe. Safe with me.”
But if I’ve found out anything, Andy, it’s that they ain’t never gone, not really. You think you’re shut of em, that you neatened em all away and there ain’t a dust bunny anyplace, n then they come back, they look like faces, they always look like faces, and the faces they look like are always the ones you never wanted to see again, awake or in your dreams.
I thought of her layin there on the stairs, too, and sayin she was tired, she wanted to be done. And as I stood there on that rickety landin in my wet galoshes, I knew well enough why I’d chosen to be on those stairs that are so rotted not even the hellions will play on em after school lets out, or on the days when they play hookey. I was tired, too. I’ve lived my life as best I could by my own lights. I never shirked a job, nor cried off from the things I had to do, even when those things were terrible. Vera was right when she said that sometimes a woman has to be a bitch to survive, but bein a bitch is hard work, I’ll tell the world it is, n I was so tired. I wanted to have done, and it occurred to me that it wasn’t too late to go back down those stairs, n that I didn’t have to stop at the bottom this time, neither . . . not if I didn’t want to.
Then I heard her again—Vera. I heard her like I did that night beside the well, not just in my head but my ear. It was a lot spookier this time, I c’n tell you; back in ’63 she’d at least been alive.
“What can you be thinking about, Dolores?” she ast in that haughty Kiss-My-Back-Cheeks voice of hers. “I paid a higher price than you did; I paid a higher price than anyone will ever know, but I lived with the bargain I made just the same. I did more than that. When the dust bunnies and the dreams of what could have been were all I had left, I took the dreams and made them my own. The dust bunnies? Well, they might have gotten me in the end, but I lived with them for a lot of years before they did. Now you’ve got a bunch of your own to deal with, but if you’ve lost the guts you had on the day when you told me that firing the Jolander girl was a boogery thing to do, go on. Go on and jump. Because without your guts, Dolores Claiborne, you’re just another stupid old woman.”
I drew back n looked around, but there was only East Head, dark n wet with that spray that travels in the air on windy days. There wasn’t a soul in sight. I stood there awhile longer, lookin at the way the clouds ran across the sky—I like to watch em, they’re so high n free n silent as they go their courses up there—and then I turned away n started back home. I had to stop n rest two or three times on the way, because that long time sittin in the damp air at the bottom of the steps put an awful misery in my back. But I made it. When I got back to the house I took three asp’rin, got into my car, n drove straight here.
And that’s it.
Nancy, I see you’ve piled up purt-near a dozen of those little tiny tapes, n your cunning little recorder must be just about wore out. So’m I, but I come here to have my say, and I’ve had it—every damn word of it, and every word is true. You do what you need to do to me, Andy; I’ve done my part, n I feel at peace with myself. That’s all that matters, I guess; that, n knowin exactly who you are. I know who I am: Dolores Claiborne, two months shy of my sixty-sixth birthday, registered Democrat, lifelong resident of Little Tall Island.
I guess I want to say two more things, Nancy, before you hit the STOP button on that rig of yours. In the end, it’s the bitches of the world who abide . . . and as for the dust bunnies: frig ya!