Duma Key: A Novel, Page 2Stephen King
My shirt was off. My right arm ended three and a half inches below the shoulder. I twitched it at her—a twitch was the best I could do with the muscle that was left. “This is me,” I said, “giving you the finger. Get out of here if that’s how you feel. Get out, you quitting birch.”
The first tears had started rolling down her face, but she tried to smile. It was a pretty ghastly effort. “Bitch, Edgar,” she said. “The word is bitch.”
“The word is what I say it is,” I said, and began to do crunches again. It’s harder than hell to do them with an arm gone; your body wants to pull and corkscrew to that side. “I wouldn’t have left you, that’s the point. I wouldn’t have left you. I would have gone on through the mud and the blood and the piss and the spilled beer.”
“It’s different,” she said. She made no effort to wipe her face. “It’s different and you know it. I couldn’t break you in two if I got into a rage.”
“I’d have a hell of a job breaking you in two with only one amp,” I said, doing crunches faster.
“You stuck me with a knife.” As if that were the point. It wasn’t, and we both knew it.
“A plastic rudder knife is what it was, I was half out of my mind, and it’ll be your last words on your fucking beth-dead, ‘Eddie staffed me with a plastic fife, goodbye cruel world.’ “
“You choked me,” she said in a voice I could barely hear.
I stopped doing crunches and gaped at her. The clock-shop started up in my head; bang-a-gong, get it on. “What are you saying, I choked you? I never choked you!”
“I know you don’t remember, but you did. And you’re not the same.”
“Oh, quit it. Save the New Age bullshit for the … for the guy … your …” I knew the word and I could see the man it stood for, but it wouldn’t come. “For that bald fuck you see in his office.”
“My therapist,” she said, and of course that made me angrier: she had the word and I didn’t. Because her brain hadn’t been shaken like Jell-O.
“You want a divorce, you can have a divorce. Throw it all away, why not? Only go do the alligator somewhere else. Get out of here.”
She went up the stairs and closed the door without looking back. And it wasn’t until she was gone that I realized I’d meant to say crocodile tears. Go cry your crocodile tears somewhere else.
Oh, well. Close enough for rock and roll. That’s what Wireman says.
And I was the one who ended up getting out.
Except for Pam, I never had a partner in my other life. Edgar Freemantle’s Four Rules for Success (feel free to take notes) were: never borrow more than your IQ times a hundred, never borrow from a man who calls you by your first name on first acquaintance, never take a drink while the sun’s still up, and never take a partner you wouldn’t be willing to embrace naked on a waterbed.
I did have an accountant I trusted, however, and it was Tom Riley who helped me move the few things I needed from Mendota Heights to our smaller place on Lake Phalen. Tom, a sad two-time loser in the marriage game, worried at me all the way out. “You don’t give up the house in a situation like this,” he said. “Not unless the judge kicks you out. It’s like giving up home field advantage in a playoff game.”
I didn’t care about home field advantage; I only wanted him to watch his driving. I winced every time a car coming the other way looked a little too close to the centerline. Sometimes I stiffened and pumped the invisible passenger brake. As for getting behind the wheel again myself, I thought never sounded about right. Of course, God loves surprises. That’s what Wireman says.
Kathi Green the Rehab Queen had only been divorced once, but she and Tom were on the same wavelength. I remember her sitting cross-legged in her leotard, holding my feet and looking at me with grim outrage.
“Here you are, just out of Death’s Motel and short an arm, and she wants to call it off. Because you poked her with a plastic hospital knife when you could barely remember your own name? Fuck me til I cry! Doesn’t she understand that mood-swings and short-term memory loss following accident trauma are common?”
“She understands that she’s scared of me,” I said.
“Yeah? Well, listen to your Mama, Sunny Jim: if you’ve got a good lawyer, you can make her pay for being such a wimp.” Some hair had escaped from her Rehab Gestapo ponytail and she blew it back from her forehead. “She ought to pay for it. Read my lips: None of this is your fault.”
“She says I tried to choke her.”
“And if so, being choked by a one-armed invalid must have been a pants-wetting experience. Come on, Eddie, make her pay. I’m sure I’m stepping way out of my place, but I don’t care. She should not be doing what she’s doing.”
“I think there’s more to it than the choking thing and the butter-knife thing.”
“I can’t remember.”
“What does she say?”
“She doesn’t.” But Pam and I had been together a long time, and even if love had run out into a delta of passive acceptance, I thought I still knew her well enough to know that yes—there had been something else, there was still something else, and that was what she wanted to get away from.
Not long after I relocated to the place on Lake Phalen, the girls came to see me—the young women. They brought a picnic hamper. We sat on the piney-smelling lakeporch, looked out at the lake, and nibbled sandwiches. It was past Labor Day by then, most of the floating toys put away for another year. There was also a bottle of wine in the hamper, but I only drank a little. On top of the pain medication, alcohol hit me hard; a single beer could turn me into a slurring drunk. The girls—the young women—finished the rest between them, and it loosened them up. Melinda, back from France for the second time since my argument with the crane and not happy about it, asked me if all adults in their fifties had these unpleasant regressive interludes, did she have that to look forward to. Ilse, the younger, began to cry, leaned against me, and asked why it couldn’t be like it was, why couldn’t we—meaning her mother and me—be like we were. Lin told her this wasn’t the time for Illy’s patented Baby Act, and Illy gave her the finger. I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Then we all laughed.
Lin’s temper and Ilse’s tears weren’t pleasant, but they were honest, and as familiar to me as the mole on Ilse’s chin or the faint vertical frown-line, which in time would deepen into a groove, between Lin’s eyes.
Linnie wanted to know what I was going to do, and I told her I didn’t know. I’d come a long distance toward deciding to end my own life, but I knew that if I did it, it must absolutely look like an accident. I would not leave these two young women, just starting out in their lives, carrying the residual guilt of their father’s suicide. Nor would I leave a load of guilt behind for the woman with whom I had once shared a milkshake in bed, both of us naked and laughing and listening to the Plastic Ono Band on the stereo.
After they’d had a chance to vent—after a full and complete exchange of feelings, in Dr. Kamen–speak—my memory is that we had a pleasant afternoon, looking at old photo albums and reminiscing about the past. I think we even laughed some more, but not all memories of my other life are to be trusted. Wireman says when it comes to the past, we all stack the deck.
Ilse wanted us all to go out to dinner, but Lin had to meet someone at the Public Library before it closed, and I said I didn’t feel much like hobbling anywhere; I thought I’d read a few chapters of the latest John Sandford and then go to bed. They kissed me—all friends again—and then left.
Two minutes later, Ilse came back. “I told Linnie I forgot my keys,” she said.
“I take it you didn’t,” I said.
“No. Daddy, would you ever hurt Mom? I mean, now? On purpose?”
I shook my head, but that wasn’t good enough for her. I could tell by the way she just stood there, looking me in the eye. “No,” I said. “Never. I’d—”
“You’d what, Daddy?”
was going to say I’d cut my own arm off first, but all at once that seemed like a really bad idea. I’d never do it, Illy. Leave it at that.”
“Then why is she still afraid of you?”
“I think … because I’m maimed.”
She hurled herself into my arms so hard she almost knocked us both onto the sofa. “Oh, Daddy, I’m so sorry. All of this is just so sucky.”
I stroked her hair a little. “I know, but remember this—it’s as bad as it’s going to get.” That wasn’t the truth, but if I was careful, Ilse would never know it had been an outright lie.
A horn honked from the driveway.
“Go on,” I said, and kissed her wet cheek. “Your sister’s impatient.”
She wrinkled her nose. “So what else is new? You’re not overdoing the pain meds, are you?”
“Call if you need me, Daddy. I’ll catch the very next plane.”
She would, too. Which was why I wouldn’t.
“You bet.” I put a kiss on her other cheek. “Give that to your sister.”
She nodded and went out. I sat down on the couch and closed my eyes. Behind them, the clocks were striking and striking and striking.
My next visitor was Dr. Kamen, the psychologist who gave me Reba. I didn’t invite him. I had Kathi, my rehabilitation dominatrix, to thank for that.
Although surely no more than forty, Kamen walked like a much older man and wheezed even when he sat, peering at the world through enormous horn-rimmed spectacles and over an enormous pear of a belly. He was a very tall, very black black man, with features carved so large they seemed unreal. His great staring eyeballs, ship’s figurehead of a nose, and totemic lips were awe-inspiring. Xander Kamen looked like a minor god in a suit from Men’s Warehouse. He also looked like a prime candidate for a fatal heart attack or stroke before his fiftieth birthday.
He refused my offer of refreshment, said he couldn’t stay, then put his briefcase aside on the couch as if to contradict that. He sank full fathom five beside the couch’s armrest (and going deeper all the time—I feared for the thing’s springs), looking at me and wheezing benignly.
“What brings you out this way?” I asked him.
“Oh, Kathi tells me you’re planning to bump yourself off,” he said. It was the tone he might have used to say Kathi tells me you’re having a lawn party and there are fresh Krispy Kremes on offer. “Any truth to that rumor?”
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. Once, when I was ten and growing up in Eau Claire, I took a comic book from a drugstore spin-around, put it down the front of my jeans, then dropped my tee-shirt over it. As I was strolling out the door, feeling jacked up and very clever, a clerk grabbed me by the arm. She lifted my shirt with her other hand and exposed my ill-gotten treasure. “How did that get there?” she asked me. Not in the forty years since that day had I been so completely stuck for an answer to a simple question.
Finally—long after such a response could have any weight—I said, “That’s ridiculous. I don’t know where she could have gotten such an idea.”
“No. Sure you don’t want a Coke?”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
I got up and got a Coke from the kitchen fridge. I tucked the bottle firmly between my stump and my chest-wall—possible but painful, I don’t know what you may have seen in the movies, but broken ribs hurt for a long time—and spun off the cap with my left hand. I’m a southpaw. Caught a break there, muchacho, as Wireman says.
“I’m surprised you’d take her seriously in any case,” I said as I came back in. “Kathi’s a hell of a physical therapist, but a headshrinker she’s not.” I paused before sitting down. “Neither are you, actually. In the technical sense.”
Kamen cupped an enormous hand behind an ear that looked roughly the size of a desk drawer. “Do I hear … a ratcheting noise? I believe I do!”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s the charmingly medieval sound a person’s defenses make when they go up.” He tried an ironic wink, but the size of the man’s face made irony impossible; he could only manage burlesque. Still, I took the point. “As for Kathi Green, you’re right, what does she know? All she does is work with paraplegics, quadriplegics, accident-related amps like you, and people recovering from traumatic head injuries—again, like you. For fifteen years Kathi’s done this work, she’s had the opportunity to watch a thousand maimed patients reflect on how not even a single second of time can ever be called back, so how could she possibly recognize the signs of pre-suicidal depression?”
I sat in the lumpy easy chair across from the couch and stared at him sullenly. Here was trouble. And Kathi Green was more.
He leaned forward … although, given his girth, a few inches was all he could manage. “You have to wait,” he said.
I gaped at him.
He nodded. “You’re surprised. Yes. But I’m not a Christian, let alone a Catholic, and on the subject of suicide my mind is open. Yet I’m a believer in responsibilities, I know that you are, too, and I tell you this: if you kill yourself now … even six months from now … your wife and daughters will know. No matter how cleverly you do it, they’ll know.”
He raised his hand. “And the company that insures your life—for a very large sum, I’m sure—they’ll know, too. They may not be able to prove it … but they’ll try very hard. The rumors they start will hurt your girls, no matter how well-armored against such things you may think they are.”
Melinda was well-armored. Ilse, however, was a different story. When Melinda was mad at her, she called Illy a case of arrested development, but I didn’t think that was true. I thought Illy was just tender.
“And in the end, they may prove it.” Kamen shrugged his enormous shoulders. “How much of a death-duty that might entail I couldn’t guess, but I’m sure it would erase a great deal of your life’s treasure.”
I wasn’t thinking about the money. I was thinking about a team of insurance investigators sniffing around whatever I set up. And all at once I began to laugh.
Kamen sat with his huge dark brown hands on his doorstop knees, looking at me with his little I’ve-seen-everything smile. Except on his face nothing was little. He let my laughter run its course and then asked me what was so funny.
“You’re telling me I’m too rich to kill myself,” I said.
“I’m telling you not now, Edgar, and that’s all I’m telling you. I’m also going to make a suggestion that goes against a good deal of my own practical experience. But I have a very strong intuition in your case—the same sort of intuition that caused me to give you the doll. I propose you try a geographical.”
“It’s a form of recovery often attempted by late-stage alcoholics. They hope that a change of location will give them a fresh start. Turn things around.”
I felt a flicker of something. I won’t say it was hope, but it was something.
“It rarely works,” Kamen said. “The old-timers in Alcoholics Anonymous, who have an answer for everything—it’s their curse as well as their blessing, although very few ever realize it—like to say, ‘Put an asshole on a plane in Boston, an asshole gets off in Seattle.’ ”
“So where does that leave me?” I asked.
“Right now it leaves you in suburban St. Paul. What I’m suggesting is that you pick someplace far from here and go there. You’re in a unique position to do so, given your financial situation and marital status.”
“For how long?”
“At least a year.” He looked at me inscrutably. His large face was made for such an expression; etched on King Tut’s tomb, I believe it might have made even Howard Carter consider. “And if you do anything at the end of that year, Edgar, for God’s sake—no, for your daughters’ sake—make it look good.”
He had nearly disappeared into the old sofa; now he began to struggle up again. I stepped forward to help h
im and he waved me away. He made it to his feet at last, wheezing more loudly than ever, and took up his briefcase. He looked down at me from his height of six and a half feet, those staring eyeballs with their yellowish corneas made even larger by his glasses, which had very thick lenses.
“Edgar, does anything make you happy?”
I considered the surface of this question (the only part that seemed safe) and said, “I used to sketch.” It had actually been a little more than just sketching, but that was long ago. Since then, other things had intervened. Marriage, a career. Both of which were now going or gone.
“As a kid.”
I thought of telling him I’d once dreamed of art school—had even bought the occasional book of reproductions when I could afford to—and then didn’t. In the last thirty years, my contribution to the world of art had consisted of little more than doodles while taking telephone calls, and it had probably been ten years since I’d bought the sort of picture-book that belongs on a coffee table where it can impress your friends.
I considered lying—didn’t want to seem like a complete fixated drudge—but stuck to the truth. One-armed men should tell the truth whenever possible. Wireman doesn’t say that; I do. “No.”
“Take it up again,” Kamen advised. “You need hedges.”
“Hedges,” I said, bemused.
“Yes, Edgar.” He looked surprised and a little disappointed, as if I had failed to understand a very simple concept. “Hedges against the night.”
A week or so later, Tom Riley came to see me again. By then the leaves had started to turn color, and I remember the clerks putting up Halloween posters in the Wal-Mart where I bought my first sketchpads since college … hell, maybe since high school.