On a very hot day in August of 1994, my wife told me she was going down to the Derry Rite Aid to pick up a refill on her sinus medicine prescription -- this is stuff you can buy over the counter these days, I believe. I'd finished my writing for the day and offered to pick it up for her. She said thanks, but she wanted to get a piece of fish at the supermarket next door anyway; two birds with one stone and all of that. She blew a kiss at me off the palm of her hand and went out. The next time I saw her, she was on TV. That's how you identify the dead here in Derry -- no walking down a subterranean corridor with green tiles on the walls and long fluorescent bars overhead, no naked body rolling out of a chilly drawer on casters; you just go into an office marked PRIVATE and look at a TV screen and say yep or nope.
The Rite Aid and the Shopwell are less than a mile from our house, in a little neighborhood strip mall which also supports a video store, a used-book store named Spread It Around (they do a very brisk business in my old paperbacks), a Radio Shack, and a Fast Foto. It's on Up-Mile Hill, at the intersection of Witcham and Jackson.
She parked in front of Blockbuster Video, went into the drugstore, and did business with Mr. Joe Wyzer, who was the druggist in those days; he has since moved on to the Rite Aid in Bangor. At the checkout she picked up one of those little chocolates with marshmallow inside, this one in the shape of a mouse. I found it later, in her purse. I unwrapped it and ate it myself, sitting at the kitchen table with the contents of her red handbag spread out in front of me, and it was like taking Communion. When it was gone except for the taste of chocolate on my tongue and in my throat, I burst into tears. I sat there in the litter of her Kleenex and makeup and keys and half-finished rolls of Certs and cried with my hands over my eyes, the way a kid cries.
The sinus inhaler was in a Rite Aid bag. It had cost twelve dollars and eighteen cents. There was something else in the bag, too -- an item which had cost twenty-two-fifty. I looked at this other item for a long time, seeing it but not understanding it. I was surprised, maybe even stunned, but the idea that Johanna Arlen Noonan might have been leading another life, one I knew nothing about, never crossed my mind. Not then.
Jo left the register, walked out into the bright, hammering sun again, swapping her regular glasses for her prescription sunglasses as she did, and just as she stepped from beneath the drugstore's slight overhang (I am imagining a little here, I suppose, crossing over into the country of the novelist a little, but not by much; only by inches, and you can trust me on that), there was that shrewish howl of locked tires on pavement that means there's going to be either an accident or a very close call.
This time it happened -- the sort of accident which happened at that stupid X-shaped intersection at least once a week, it seemed. A 1989 Toyota was pulling out of the shopping-center parking lot and turning left onto Jackson Street. Behind the wheel was Mrs. Esther Easterling of Barrett's Orchards. She was accompanied by her friend Mrs. Irene Deorsey, also of Barrett's Orchards, who had shopped the video store without finding anything she wanted to rent. Too much violence, Irene said. Both women were cigarette widows.
Esther could hardly have missed the orange Public Works dump truck coming down the hill; although she denied this to the police, to the newspaper, and to me when I talked to her some two months later, I think it likely that she just forgot to look. As my own mother (another cigarette widow) used to say, "The two most common ailments of the elderly are arthritis and forgetfulness. They can be held responsible for neither."
Driving the Public Works truck was William Fraker, of Old Cape. Mr. Fraker was thirty-eight years old on the day of my wife's death, driving with his shirt off and thinking how badly he wanted a cool shower and a cold beer, not necessarily in that order. He and three other men had spent eight hours putting down asphalt patch out on the Harris Avenue Extension near the airport, a hot job on a hot day, and Bill Fraker said yeah, he might have been going a little too fast -- maybe forty in a thirty-mile-an-hour zone. He was eager to get back to the garage, sign off on the truck, and get behind the wheel of his own F-150, which had air conditioning. Also, the dump truck's brakes, while good enough to pass inspection, were a long way from tip-top condition. Fraker hit them as soon as he saw the Toyota pull out in front of him (he hit his horn, as well), but it was too late. He heard screaming tires -- his own, and Esther's as she belatedly realized her danger -- and saw her face for just a moment.
"That was the worst part, somehow," he told me as we sat on his porch, drinking beers -- it was October by then, and although the sun was warm on our faces, we were both wearing sweaters. "You know how high up you sit in one of those dump trucks?"
"Well, she was looking up to see me -- craning up, you'd say -- and the sun was full in her face. I could see how old she was. I remember thinking, 'Holy shit, she's gonna break like glass if I can't stop.' But old people are tough, more often than not. They can surprise you. I mean, look at how it turned out, both those old biddies still alive, and your wife..."
He stopped then, bright red color dashing into his cheeks, making him look like a boy who has been laughed at in the schoolyard by girls who have noticed his fly is unzipped. It was comical, but if I'd smiled, it only would have confused him.
"Mr. Noonan, I'm sorry. My mouth just sort of ran away with me."
"It's all right," I told him. "I'm over the worst of it, anyway." That was a lie, but it put us back on track.
"Anyway," he said, "we hit. There was a loud bang, and a crumping sound when the driver's side of the car caved in. Breaking glass, too. I was thrown against the wheel hard enough so I couldn't draw a breath without it hurting for a week or more, and I had a big bruise right here." He drew an arc on his chest just below the collarbones. "I banged my head on the windshield hard enough to crack the glass, but all I got up there was a little purple knob...no bleeding, not even a headache. My wife says I've just got a naturally thick skull. I saw the woman driving the Toyota, Mrs. Easterling, thrown across the console between the front bucket seats. Then we were finally stopped, all tangled together in the middle of the street, and I got out to see how bad they were. I tell you, I expected to find them both dead."
Neither of them was dead, neither of them was even unconscious, although Mrs. Easterling had three broken ribs and a dislocated hip. Mrs. Deorsey, who had been a seat away from the impact, suffered a concussion when she rapped her head on her window. That was all; she was "treated and released at Home Hospital," as the Derry News always puts it in such cases.
My wife, the former Johanna Arlen of Malden, Massachusetts, saw it all from where she stood outside the drugstore, with her purse slung over her shoulder and her prescription bag in one hand. Like Bill Fraker, she must have thought the occupants of the Toyota were either dead or seriously hurt. The sound of the collision had been a hollow, authoritative bang which rolled through the hot afternoon air like a bowling ball down an alley. The sound of breaking glass edged it like jagged lace. The two vehicles were tangled violently together in the middle of Jackson Street, the dirty orange truck looming over the pale-blue import like a bullying parent over a cowering child.
Johanna began to sprint across the parking lot toward the street. Others were doing the same all around her. One of them, Miss Jill Dunbarry, had been window-shopping at Radio Shack when the accident occurred. She said she thought she remembered running past Johanna -- at least she was pretty sure she remembered someone in yellow slacks -- but she couldn't be sure. By then, Mrs. Easterling was screaming that she was hurt, they were both hurt, wouldn't somebody help her and her friend Irene.
Halfway across the parking lot, near a little cluster of newspaper dispensers, my wife fell down. Her purse-strap stayed over her shoulder, but her prescription bag slipped from her hand, and the sinus inhaler slid halfway out. The other item stayed put.
No one noticed her lying there by the newspaper dispensers; everyone was focused on the tangled vehicles, the screaming women, the spreading puddle of water and antifreeze from the Public Works truck's ruptured radiator. ("That's gas!" the clerk from Fast Foto shouted to anyone who would listen. "That's gas, watch out she don't blow, fellas!") I suppose one or two of the would-be rescuers might have jumped right over her, perhaps thinking she had fainted. To assume such a thing on a day when the temperature was pushing ninety-five degrees would not have been unreasonable.
Roughly two dozen people from the shopping center clustered around the accident; another four dozen or so came running over from Strawford Park, where a baseball game had been going on. I imagine that all the things you would expect to hear in such situations were said, many of them more than once. Milling around. Someone reaching through the misshapen hole which had been the driver's-side window to pat Esther's trembling old hand. People immediately giving way for Joe Wyzer; at such moments anyone in a white coat automatically becomes the belle of the ball. In the distance, the warble of an ambulance siren rising like shaky air over an incinerator.
All during this, lying unnoticed in the parking lot, was my wife with her purse still over her shoulder (inside, still wrapped in foil, her uneaten chocolate-marshmallow mouse) and her white prescription bag near one outstretched hand. It was Joe Wyzer, hurrying back to the pharmacy to get a compress for Irene Deorsey's head, who spotted her. He recognized her even though she was lying face-down. He recognized her by her red hair, white blouse, and yellow slacks. He recognized her because he had waited on her not fifteen minutes before.
"Mrs. Noonan?" he asked, forgetting all about the compress for the dazed but apparently not too badly hurt Irene Deorsey. "Mrs. Noonan, are you all right?" Knowing already (or so I suspect; perhaps I am wrong) that she was not.
He turned her over. It took both hands to do it, and even then he had to work hard, kneeling and pushing and lifting there in the parking lot with the heat baking down from above and then bouncing back up from the asphalt. Dead people put on weight, it seems to me; both in their flesh and in our minds, they put on weight.
There were red marks on her face. When I identified her I could see them clearly even on the video monitor. I started to ask the assistant medical examiner what they were, but then I knew. Late August, hot pavement, elementary, my dear Watson. My wife died getting a sunburn.
Wyzer got up, saw that the ambulance had arrived, and ran toward it. He pushed his way through the crowd and grabbed one of the attendants as he got out from behind the wheel. "There's a woman over there," Wyzer said, pointing toward the parking lot.
"Guy, we've got two women right here, and a man as well," the attendant said. He tried to pull away, but Wyzer held on.
"Never mind them right now," he said. "They're basically okay. The woman over there isn't."
The woman over there was dead, and I'm pretty sure Joe Wyzer knew it...but he had his priorities straight. Give him that. And he was convincing enough to get both paramedics moving away from the tangle of truck and Toyota, in spite of Esther Easterling's cries of pain and the rumbles of protest from the Greek chorus.
When they got to my wife, one of the paramedics was quick to confirm what Joe Wyzer had already suspected. "Holy shit," the other one said. "What happened to her?"
"Heart, most likely," the first one said. "She got excited and it just blew out on her."
But it wasn't her heart. The autopsy revealed a brain aneurysm which she might have been living with, all unknown, for as long as five years. As she sprinted across the parking lot toward the accident, that weak vessel in her cerebral cortex had blown like a tire, drowning her control-centers in blood and killing her. Death had probably not been instantaneous, the assistant medical examiner told me, but it had still come swiftly enough...and she wouldn't have suffered. Just one big black nova, all sensation and thought gone even before she hit the pavement.
"Can I help you in any way, Mr. Noonan?" the assistant ME asked, turning me gently away from the still face and closed eyes on the video monitor. "Do you have questions? I'll answer them if I can."
"Just one," I said. I told him what she'd purchased in the drugstore just before she died. Then I asked my question.
The days leading up to the funeral and the funeral itself are dreamlike in my memory -- the clearest memory I have is of eating Jo's chocolate mouse and crying...crying mostly, I think, because I knew how soon the taste of it would be gone. I had one other crying fit a few days after we buried her, and I will tell you about that one shortly.
I was glad for the arrival of Jo's family, and particularly for the arrival of her oldest brother, Frank. It was Frank Arlen -- fifty, red-cheeked, portly, and with a head of lush dark hair -- who organized the arrangements...who wound up actually dickering with the funeral director.
"I can't believe you did that," I said later, as we sat in a booth at Jack's Pub, drinking beers.
"He was trying to stick it to you, Mikey," he said. "I hate guys like that." He reached into his back pocket, brought out a handkerchief, and wiped absently at his cheeks with it. He hadn't broken down -- none of the Arlens broke down, at least not when I was with them -- but Frank had leaked steadily all day; he looked like a man suffering from severe conjunctivitis.
There had been six Arlen sibs in all, Jo the youngest and the only girl. She had been the pet of her big brothers. I suspect that if I'd had anything to do with her death, the five of them would have torn me apart with their bare hands. As it was, they formed a protective shield around me instead, and that was good. I suppose I might have muddled through without them, but I don't know how. I was thirty-six, remember. You don't expect to have to bury your wife when you're thirty-six and she herself is two years younger. Death was the last thing on our minds.
"If a guy gets caught taking your stereo out of your car, they call it theft and put him in jail," Frank said. The Arlens had come from Massachusetts, and I could still hear Malden in Frank's voice -- caught was coowat, car was cah, call was caul. "If the same guy is trying to sell a grieving husband a three-thousand-dollar casket for forty-five hundred dollars, they call it business and ask him to speak at the Rotary Club luncheon. Greedy asshole, I fed him his lunch, didn't I?"
"Yes. You did."
"You okay, Mikey?"
"How the fuck should I know?" I asked him, loud enough to turn some heads in a nearby booth. And then: "She was pregnant."
His face grew very still. "What?"
I struggled to keep my voice down. "Pregnant. Six or seven weeks, according to the...you know, the autopsy. Did you know? Did she tell you?"
"No! Christ, no!" But there was a funny look on his face, as if she had told him something. "I knew you were trying, of course...she said you had a low sperm count and it might take a little while, but the doctor thought you guys'd probably...sooner or later you'd probably..." He trailed off, looking down at his hands. "They can tell that, huh? They check for that?"
"They can tell. As for checking, I don't know if they do it automatically or not. I asked."
"She didn't just buy sinus medicine before she died. She also bought one of those home pregnancy-testing kits."
"You had no idea? No clue?"
I shook my head.
He reached across the table and squeezed my shoulder. "She wanted to be sure, that's all. You know that, don't you?"
A refill on my sinus medicine and a piece of fish, she'd said. Looking like always. A woman off to run a couple of errands. We had been trying to have a kid for eight years, but she had looked just like always.
"Sure," I said, patting Frank's hand. "Sure, big guy. I know."
It was the Arlens -- led by Frank -- who handled Johanna's sendoff. As the writer of the family, I was assigned the obituary. My brother came up from Virginia with my mom and my aunt and was allowed to tend the guest-book at the viewings. My mother -- almost completely ga-ga at the age of sixty-six, although the doctors refused to call it Alzheimer's -- lived in Memphis with her sister, two years younger and only slightly less wonky. They were in charge of cutting the cake and the pies at the funeral reception.
Everything else was arranged by the Arlens, from the viewing hours to the components of the funeral ceremony. Frank and Victor, the second-youngest brother, spoke brief tributes. Jo's dad offered a prayer for his daughter's soul. And at the end, Pete Breedlove, the boy who cut our grass in the summer and raked our yard in the fall, brought everyone to tears by singing "Blessed Assurance," which Frank said had been Jo's favorite hymn as a girl. How Frank found Pete and persuaded him to sing at the funeral is something I never found out.
We got through it -- the afternoon and evening viewings on Tuesday, the funeral service on Wednesday morning, then the little pray-over at Fairlawn Cemetery. What I remember most was thinking how hot it was, how lost I felt without having Jo to talk to, and that I wished I had bought a new pair of shoes. Jo would have pestered me to death about the ones I was wearing, if she had been there.
Later on I talked to my brother, Sid, told him we had to do something about our mother and Aunt Francine before the two of them disappeared completely into the Twilight Zone. They were too young for a nursing home; what did Sid advise?
He advised something, but I'll be damned if I know what it was. I agreed to it, I remember that, but not what it was. Later that day, Siddy, our mom, and our aunt climbed back into Siddy's rental car for the drive to Boston, where they would spend the night and then grab the Southern Crescent the following day. My brother is happy enough to chaperone the old folks, but he doesn't fly, even if the tickets are on me. He claims there are no breakdown lanes in the sky if the engine quits.
Most of the Arlens left the next day. Once more it was dog-hot, the sun glaring out of a white-haze sky and lying on everything like melted brass. They stood in front of our house -- which had become solely my house by then -- with three taxis lined up at the curb behind them, big galoots hugging one another amid the litter of tote-bags and saying their goodbyes in those foggy Massachusetts accents.
Frank stayed another day. We picked a big bunch of flowers behind the house -- not those ghastly-smelling hothouse things whose aroma I always associate with death and organ-music but real flowers, the kind Jo liked best -- and stuck them in a couple of coffee cans I found in the back pantry. We went out to Fairlawn and put them on the new grave. Then we just sat there for awhile under the beating sun.
"She was always just the sweetest thing in my life," Frank said at last in a strange, muffled voice. "We took care of Jo when we were kids. Us guys. No one messed with Jo, I'll tell you. Anyone tried, we'd feed em their lunch."
"She told me a lot of stories."
"Yeah, real good."
"I'm going to miss her so much."
"Me, too," I said. "Frank...listen...I know you were her favorite brother. She never called you, maybe just to say that she missed a period or was feeling whoopsy in the morning? You can tell me. I won't be pissed."
"But she didn't. Honest to God. Was she whoopsy in the morning?"
"Not that I saw." And that was just it. I hadn't seen anything. Of course I'd been writing, and when I write I pretty much trance out. But she knew where I went in those trances. She could have found me and shaken me fully awake. Why hadn't she? Why would she hide good news? Not wanting to tell me until she was sure was plausible...but it somehow wasn't Jo.
"Was it a boy or a girl?" he asked.
We'd had names picked out and waiting for most of our marriage. A boy would have been Andrew. Our daughter would have been Kia. Kia Jane Noonan.
Frank, divorced six years and on his own, had been staying with me. On our way back to the house he said, "I worry about you, Mikey. You haven't got much family to fall back on at a time like this, and what you do have is far away."
"I'll be all right," I said.
He nodded. "That's what we say, anyway, isn't it?"
"Guys. 'I'll be all right.' And if we're not, we try to make sure no one knows it." He looked at me, eyes still leaking, handkerchief in one big sunburned hand. "If you're not all right, Mikey, and you don't want to call your brother -- I saw the way you looked at him -- let me be your brother. For Jo's sake if not your own."
"Okay," I said, respecting and appreciating the offer, also knowing I would do no such thing. I don't call people for help. It's not because of the way I was raised, at least I don't think so; it's the way I was made. Johanna once said that if I was drowning at Dark Score Lake, where we have a summer home, I would die silently fifty feet out from the public beach rather than yell for help. It's not a question of love or affection. I can give those and I can take them. I feel pain like anyone else. I need to touch and be touched. But if someone asks me, "Are you all right?" I can't answer no. I can't say help me.
A couple of hours later Frank left for the southern end of the state. When he opened the car door, I was touched to see that the taped book he was listening to was one of mine. He hugged me, then surprised me with a kiss on the mouth, a good hard smack. "If you need to talk, call," he said. "And if you need to be with someone, just come."
"And be careful."
That startled me. The combination of heat and grief had made me feel as if I had been living in a dream for the last few days, but that got through.
"Careful of what?"
"I don't know," he said. "I don't know, Mikey." Then he got into his car -- he was so big and it was so little that he looked as if he were wearing it -- and drove away. The sun was going down by then. Do you know how the sun looks at the end of a hot day in August, all orange and somehow squashed, as if an invisible hand were pushing down on the top of it and at any moment it might just pop like an overfilled mosquito and splatter all over the horizon? It was like that. In the east, where it was already dark, thunder was rumbling. But there was no rain that night, only a dark that came down as thick and stifling as a blanket. All the same, I slipped in front of the word processor and wrote for an hour or so. It went pretty well, as I remember. And you know, even when it doesn't, it passes the time.
My second crying fit came three or four days after the funeral. That sense of being in a dream persisted -- I walked, I talked, I answered the phone, I worked on my book, which had been about eighty per cent complete when Jo died -- but all the time there was this clear sense of disconnection, a feeling that everything was going on at a distance from the real me, that I was more or less phoning it in.
Denise Breedlove, Pete's mother, called and asked if I wouldn't like her to bring a couple of her friends over one day the following week and give the big old Edwardian pile I now lived in alone -- rolling around in it like the last pea in a restaurant-sized can -- a good stem-to-stern cleaning. They would do it, she said, for a hundred dollars split even among the three of them, and mostly because it wasn't good for me to go on without it. There had to be a scrubbing after a death, she said, even if the death didn't happen in the house itself.
I told her it was a fine idea, but I would pay her and the women she brought a hundred dollars each for six hours' work. At the end of the six hours, I wanted the job done. And if it wasn't, I told her, it would be done, anyway.
"Mr. Noonan, that's far too much," she said.
"Maybe and maybe not, but it's what I'm paying," I said. "Will you do it?"
She said she would, of course she would.
Perhaps predictably, I found myself going through the house on the evening before they came, doing a pre-cleaning inspection. I guess I didn't want the women (two of whom would be complete strangers to me) finding anything that would embarrass them or me: a pair of Johanna's silk panties stuffed down behind the sofa cushions, perhaps ("We are often overcome on the sofa, Michael," she said to me once, "have you noticed?"), or beer cans under the loveseat on the sunporch, maybe even an unflushed toilet. In truth, I can't tell you any one thing I was looking for; that sense of operating in a dream still held firm control over my mind. The clearest thoughts I had during those days were either about the end of the novel I was writing (the psychotic killer had lured my heroine to a high-rise building and meant to push her off the roof) or about the Norco Home Pregnancy Test Jo had bought on the day she died. Sinus prescription, she had said. Piece of fish for supper, she had said. And her eyes had shown me nothing else I needed to look at twice.
Near the end of my "pre-cleaning," I looked under our bed and saw an open paperback on Jo's side. She hadn't been dead long, but few household lands are so dusty as the Kingdom of Underbed, and the lightgray coating I saw on the book when I brought it out made me think of Johanna's face and hands in her coffin -- Jo in the Kingdom of Underground. Did it get dusty inside a coffin? Surely not, but -- I pushed the thought away. It pretended to go, but all day long it kept creeping back, like Tolstoy's white bear.
Johanna and I had both been English majors at the University of Maine, and like many others, I reckon, we fell in love to the sound of Shakespeare and the Tilbury Town cynicism of Edwin Arlington Robinson. Yet the writer who had bound us closest together was no college-friendly poet or essayist but W. Somerset Maugham, that elderly globetrotting novelist-playwright with the reptile's face (always obscured by cigarette smoke in his photographs, it seems) and the romantic's heart. So it did not surprise me much to find that the book under the bed was The Moon and Sixpence. I had read it myself as a late teenager, not once but twice, identifying passionately with the character of Charles Strickland. (It was writing I wanted to do in the South Seas, of course, not painting.)
She had been using a playing card from some defunct deck as her place-marker, and as I opened the book, I thought of something she had said when I was first getting to know her. In Twentieth-Century British Lit, this had been, probably in 1980. Johanna Arlen had been a fiery little sophomore. I was a senior, picking up the Twentieth-Century Brits simply because I had time on my hands that last semester. "A hundred years from now," she had said, "the shame of the mid-twentieth-century literary critics will be that they embraced Lawrence and ignored Maugham." This was greeted with contemptuously good-natured laughter (they all knew Women in Love was one of the greatest damn books ever written), but I didn't laugh. I fell in love.
The playing card marked pages 102 and 103 -- Dirk Stroeve has just discovered that his wife has left him for Strickland, Maugham's version of Paul Gauguin. The narrator tries to buck Stroeve up. My dear fellow, don't be unhappy. She'll come back...
"Easy for you to say," I murmured to the room which now belonged just to me.
I turned the page and read this: Strickland's injurious calm robbed Stroeve of his self-control. Blind rage seized him, and without knowing what he was doing he flung himself on Strickland. Strickland was taken by surprise and he staggered, but he was very strong, even after his illness, and in a moment, he did not exactly know how, Stroeve found himself on the floor.
"You funny little man, " said Strickland.
It occurred to me that Jo was never going to turn the page and hear Strickland call the pathetic Stroeve a funny little man. In a moment of brilliant epiphany I have never forgotten -- how could I? it was one of the worst moments of my life -- I understood it wasn't a mistake that would be rectified, or a dream from which I would awaken. Johanna was dead.
My strength was robbed by grief. If the bed hadn't been there, I would have fallen to the floor. We weep from our eyes, it's all we can do, but on that evening I felt as if every pore of my body were weeping, every crack and cranny. I sat there on her side of the bed, with her dusty paperback copy of The Moon and Sixpence in my hand, and I wailed. I think it was surprise as much as pain; in spite of the corpse I had seen and identified on a high-resolution video monitor, in spite of the funeral and Pete Breedlove singing "Blessed Assurance" in his high, sweet tenor voice, in spite of the graveside service with its ashes to ashes and dust to dust, I hadn't really believed it. The Penguin paperback did for me what the big gray coffin had not: it insisted she was dead.
You funny little man, said Strickland.
Excerpted from BAG OF BONES © Copyright 1998 by Stephen King. Reprinted with permission by Pocket Books . All rights reserved.