From Doctor Sleep by Madison Smartt Belll
Copyright Madison Smartt Bell 1991
Penguin Contemporary American Fiction Series 1992
Oh Lord my God, Creator of the Universe, once again you caused me to remain awake the whole night through. Toward dawn I think I managed to forget myself a little, but you couldn't really have called it sleep. More like floating from layer to layer of not-sleeping, from shade to shade of white, if there was any such distinction. On the wall beyond the foot of the bed, first light was spreading like a stain. I lay on my back and watched it grow, thinking for no good reason of the story of the shaikh, how he, who had once firmly grasped the thread of faith, fell from the way, entrapped himself in every form of error and apostasy, and was lost.
For an instant when I sat up I thought for sure I was going to cry, just a physical pulse like nausea, throwing up tears, but I swallowed it back. Nora was sleeping on her side with her face turned away from me, her long bright hair running down her back; it covered her like a miracle. I picked up a loose tail of it, held it a moment, curled in my palm, brought the ends of it to my mouth and sucked them into a little point. She mumbled a little, but didn't wake. I put the hair back where I'd found it and watched it flow back into the current of the rest. Then, bone by careful bone, I reached the floor with a foot and in one long step was at the door.
There was no milk and only three or four spoons of coffee, enough for a couple of cups, but I'd need more. I had a new client at eight in the morning, a woman, a career woman undoubtedly, but I couldn't remember much else about her. Better go out and grab a few things, and also we needed ourselves a mouse. I flipped up the wall calendar and had a look but I'd scrawled down the appointment so hastily I couldn't make out what her trouble was supposed to be. Behind me, the coffee pot chugged on its short ration. Somehow I got stuck facing the kitchen table, one hand glued to the back of a chair, staring down at a little black clock in the middle of Nora's place mat. There was something I needed to do about that but I didn't have any idea what it was. It was the latest sort of gadget -- you could turn off the alarm by shouting at it, even. The second hand moved in galvanic jerks, and the other two said it was almost seven. I kept on looking down at the thing, bound up in one of those states of brutal stupidity that a long insomnia jag can engender, until I heard the coffee pot come to a conclusion and shut off.
That flipped the switch, and I remembered: Nora had set the alarm on the clock as usual, to wake her up to run, but sometime in the course of the night I must have removed it from the room so I wouldn't be annoyed by its tick. A somewhat implausible motive, of course, since the clock, being battery-powered, doesn't actually tick at all. Nora and I have had some arguments on this topic. She has reason and proof with her, while what's with me is...problematic. I hear the bastard tick, that's what. It's experientially justified.
So I picked it up and took it into the bedroom and set it down on her nightstand. There was a folded handkerchief there and I put it on that so it wouldn't make a noise, not that it would have awakened her. Her mouth had parted slightly on the pillow, she fogged the linen with her breath. My god but she was a champion sleeper. I got my shoes and my wallet and keys and went softly into the front room, which truth to tell is really in the back. The bones in my hips and shoulders were starting to grind each other down, at least that's what it felt like. Maybe just a little stiff.... I sat on the sofa to pull on my shoes and then leaned back to admire the swirling golden motes the effort of bending over had produced. Some birds were twittering in the back garden and when my head had cleared I screwed it around to look. There's a sort of great gorse bush growing partway over the window and the birds always like to congregate there. Now and then you'll see a finch, something multicolored and unusual, but there were only a couple of sparrows today. I heaved myself onto my feet and went out.
Going in and out of the usual shops, I bought the milk and the coffee. Along the street it was busier than normal, with everyone beginning to set up for Carnival. At the Ladbroke Grove tube stop I bought one of the London tabs without particularly meaning to. It appeared that another little girl had been murdered the night before and her picture was smeared across the front page of the paper: Heather Jolley, blonde and wispy, four years old and smiling for the camera. Now dead as Queen Anne, deader even. Nothing I could do about that, of course. I didn't want to read about it. But I bought the paper just the same and tucked it under my arm. A bit further on was a bakery and I stopped there for a baguette and also got a couple of pastries to treat Nora with later on. Then I went across the tracks and turned into Oxford Gardens.
In the window left of Mr. Waltham's door, a couple of guppies were eddying about in the big tank and that was all. The surface of the water was all dotted over with algae, in long-standing need of a serious skim. In the other window a couple of Lab puppies were snoozing in a pile of dirty shavings on their cage floor. One opened an eye when I started yanking at the bell-pull but that was the extent of his excitement at my arrival. It was dark inside and Waltham took a good five minutes answering, but I kept on ringing and knocking anyway. The old man lived behind the shop, and I knew he was always up at the crack and knew he'd open to me in time.
At last the buzzer fired and I pushed in. Probably he'd had his finger hovering over the button from the instant I'd come up his steps. The buzzer was his sole concession to modernity; everything else was prewar, even the animals, I sometimes thought. There was a rank fusty smell to the whole place, since he wasn't over swift with the cleaning, and it was very dim. I made my usual pro forma circuit of the tanks and cages. A few more sickly looking fish, a tub of painted turtles. One spider monkey shuddering in a cage too small for it. Some hamsters and gerbils, burrowed in. Only the white mice seemed active, chittering and chasing each other and running on their wheels. At the end of their row the mildewed green parrot was chained to a high perch by one ankle. "Push off, you berk," the parrot said as I went by him toward the counter. Rude creature, but then it was the only line he knew and I suppose he might have meant it kindly.
Waltham was hoisted on a high stool beside the ancient cash desk, studiously not noticing me as I came up. Except he did lay his papery hand across the breasts of the Page Three lass he'd been admiring. Then made a ring of his thumb and forefinger and adjusted his frail rimless glasses to peep back in again. I waited a moment more, then rapped a knuckle on the counter, with a certain care for the splinters rising from the old tired wood. Mr. Waltham raised his head a little, still not looking my way, and pursed up his lips like a rectum.
"Good morning," I said.
Mr. Waltham sniffed.
"Here for my usual," I said.
Mr. Waltham pulled his glasses down the ramp of his boney nose and gave me an imperious look across the top of them.
"How may I assist you?" he said in the familiarly frigid tone.
"I'll have one white mouse," I said, a trifle wearily. Same old drill he put me through every two weeks....
"Push off, you berk," said the parrot. Mr. Waltham screwed up his lips a little further, then relaxed them slightly, to speak.
"I know what's going to happen to that 'ittle mouse," he said.
"You could always refuse to sell it to me," I said. Because I was getting a bit tired of the game, and besides I knew it was safe enough. He wasn't making such a go of the shop to afford that sort of delicacy. He got down from the stool then, a bit rickety on his skinny pins, and came around the end of the counter. The funny thing about Waltham is that he moves like a fat man even though he's not. He walks with a waddle and allows himself the room that someone five times his girth might require. He picked up his catch net and one of the cardboard cartons and shambled over to the mouse cage.
"Which do you prefer?" he said.
"Oh, just pick me out a likely one," I said.
Waltham shriveled his lips some more and said, "The gentleman must make his own selection."
"All right, all right then," I said. Same old drill. I pointed to a fat sluggish mouse, hulking in a corner of the cage. Waltham had a nice speedy wrist movement and he got it in one go. But the mouse didn't want to drop off into the box; it kept clinging to the netting with its little claws and Waltham needed several hard shakes to make it let go. It appeared to me that his hand continued to shake after he'd shut the carton's lid, as if he was developing a tremor. Of course I was a little dizzy myself so it might only have been my eyes. Again I felt the ghostly urge to weep but this time it passed more quickly. I followed Waltam to the cash desk. As I drew near he flipped the paper shut; it was a different tab from the one I'd bought, with a different picture of Heather Jolley I could easily recognize upside down. I gave him a stubbed pound coin from my pocket and he pushed back a couple of shillings change.
"I know what's coming to that 'ittle mouse," he said, and slid his thumb between the leaves of the paper, straight back to Page Three, I was certain. "Oh yes, I know very well."
"Right," said I. "You know, I've been considering getting an osprey. Give those guppies something to think about, eh? You wouldn't care to order me an osprey?" But Mr. Waltham had leaned his head back toward the paper, and I sensed the audience had terminated.
"Push off, you berk," the parrot said. There was a bell nailed to the door that jangled when I went out.
It was loud all along Westbourne Park Road, the rude boys all tinkering with their sound systems. A constant electric vibration in the air, and every now and then a sudden blast of music, brief and astonishing as an exploding shell. The noise tapered off as I went back along Ledbury Road and down toward Chepstow Crescent. The sky had cleared and the sun was up, mounting its low southern arc, and I thought of Nora; she'd be running through Hyde Park just now, crossing the long shadows of the trees and the yellow pools of light between them.
A mouse whisker was tickling my palm and I shifted my grip to avoid it. The box was something like a Chinese take-away carton, right down to the little wire handle -- well, perhaps that wasn't the happiest thought. There were air holes of course and that was how the whiskers got to me. I began to walk a little faster. Something was making me feel quite weak and giddy, possibly four or five nights of no sleep. I'd forgotten to drink any of the coffee I'd made; a taste of that might perk me up, and there was time, still fifteen minutes. Supposing Nora had left me a cup. But when I came in sight of the house I saw that there was someone already waiting on the steps.
Had to be that woman come early, Miss What'shername. She was wearing a dark suit and had a flat soft leather portfolio clamped to her side, under her purse. The suit was tailored, though her shoes looked cheap. The peculiar thing was that she had turned completely into the entryway instead of facing the street like most people would if they had a longish wait on a doorstep. In fact she looked like she was trying to cram herself completely into the join of the bricks and the door jamb. Her nose was almost touching the brass nameplate Nora gave me my last birthday, and when I came up the steps I saw she'd squeezed her fingers into the mortices so tight they were ready to start bleeding. A grip like that, I almost believed she could have gone straight up the wall like a lizard if she'd cared to.
"Miss?" I said.
She turned around and pressed her back into the wall. Her face was chalk white and her lips were blue, I swear to God I could see it even under the lipstick. Hair done in very early Princess Di and a Sloane Ranger pearl string around her neck. Under the pearls her throat was pulsing like a frog's gullet.
"Is it Doctor Strother?" she asked me. Pound note accent, I could hear it clearly behind the panic. Maybe I'd been wrong about the shoes. Agoraphobia, that was it, and I remembered her name now too. "Ah, you must be Miss Peavey," I said. Let the doctor business go for now. "You're a bit early. But do come in."
The bakery package fell out of my hands when I reached around her to unlock the front door. From the corner of my eye I saw her try and fail to pick if up for me, something like watching someone grab at a valuable object she'd just dropped off an immensely high cliff.
"Come in, come in," I said, and not a minute too soon either. I scooped up the bag and followed her into the hall. No windows here, only a skylight four floors up, and her breathing eased a little once I'd shut the door behind us. Our flat opened straight to the left of the hall door; I opened that and ushered her in. Now what? I hadn't looked for her to come early and I needed to settle the mouse business out of her sight. It's an upsetting sort of a thing for the average client, and she was already in a state. Best get her installed in the crooked room.
"Now then, this way, Miss Peavey...." I opened the door to the spiral stair. "Best let me lead, it's a little narrow." And I started down ahead of her. The stair is a metal corkscrew set in a sort of shaft, like a closet, dark and tight and no good for claustrophobics, but for this lady I thought it might even be comforting. She came along after me, one hand trailing along the wall as she followed the turns. I had carpeted the stairs over a thick rubber pad to stop them ringing, but they still made a dim booming sound with each step. At the bottom I stepped aside from the door and waved her toward the fat leather chair, just where the room made its twist and turn.
"Now make yourself comfortable, please, Miss-- oh, may I call you Eleanor?" She had to swallow a time or two over that one. A dose of your bloody presumptious American excessive familiarity for the little miss.
"Yes, yes of course," she said eventually. And she sat primly down on the edge of the chair with her knees together and her feet together and her hands folded parallel over the rim of her portfolio, like a rodent's paws. I saw she didn't wear any rings.
"Just put your things anywhere you like," I said. "Make yourself comfortable, I won't be a moment." And I went back up the stairs.
On the kitchen table there was an envelope with my name scrawled on it, I saw from the corner of my eye, but there was no time to look at it just then. I noticed Nora hadn't touched the coffee, sometimes she didn't drink any before she ran. I splashed two thirds of it into a mug and took a tremendous belt. Ah.... The pastries, buttery little bow ties, were still faintly warm in the white bag and I thought about eating one of them then and there, but on no sleep the effort of digesting anything would have stolen too much blood from my brain. So I set them out on a plate and covered them with a scrap of foil.
I went to the waist-high tank by the window, opened the lid and lifted out the snake. He wrapped his brown and red-gold patterns around my forearm, the muscle of him cool and snug against my skin. He was a little sluggish, though, for a hungry snake. I fed him every two weeks and the last few days beforehand he'd normally be lashing like a whip whenever I picked him up. I held him till his body temperature had warmed to match my own and then I set him back. He slid behind a biggish rock and lurked, remaining perfectly still when I opened the carton and dumped the mouse in with him. The mouse made a few tentative steps over the tank floor and stopped to look out toward the lint on the carpet, beyond the glass wall. I covered the tank with a piece of sheet that Nora had rehemmed for this purpose. Snakes like a little privacy while they're eating, or anyway my snake does.
I bolted the rest of the coffee standing in the kitchen, and went back down to the crooked room. No good taking the mug in with me, that fresh-perked aroma is counterproductive. Wake up and smell the coffee, all that.... I shut the door on its oiled hinges and sat in my desk chair and flipped on the yellow light under the shelf. With the dimmer switch on the desk panel I shut down the light next to Eleanor Peavey until I could just see the slightest glow in the filament. She'd put down her gear and sat back a little, just barely permitting her shoulders to graze the leather of the chair. Still strung taut as a wire, that was plain. She was peering up at the microphones curving out on their gooseneck booms from the bookcases, one over her chair, one over mine. A lot of them tend to worry over that. So I pulled out the drawer with the recorder and explained its intentions and usefulness and made my customary promise not to tape her without her knowledge and consent. Then picked up the clipboard and took a short impressionistic medical history, which turned up the usual childhood illnesses and not much more. She was twenty-six, university degree from Exeter, single, lived with another young woman in a three-room flat near Regent's Park, and had worked for about the last four years as some kind of keypuncher for British Telecom.
"In that whacking great tower, you mean?" I said. When she nodded I started to ask her what floor, but then decided to hold off. The British Telecom tower, so, that bulb-headed phallic atrocity against the London skyline; I don't know just how tall it is but if you're on the upper stories you might as well be on a satellite.
"Enjoy your work?" I asked her.
"Oh yes," she said with a watery smile. "Oh yes, it suits very well." By which I believed she meant to say that she hated it with a perfect passion. You get a lot of that sort of mixed signal from that sort of young gentlewoman nowadays. But I was starting to feel encouraged all the same; it might be a simpler job than I'd thought, supposing she was an adequate subject.
"Well then," I said. "If you'll just turn yourself this way..." And I got up from the chair and crossed the carpet to show her what I meant. I'm not so tall, maybe not even taller than she, but with the light behind me I would have seemed to loom, a sudden shadow. That's on purpose. She frowned and blinked as it crossed her face. I took hold of the plump brown leather padding and rotated the chair on its swivel to face the little end of the area. All the walls of the crooked room are just slightly uneven, and just where the client's chair is placed, the whole room takes a forty-five degree veer to the left and tapers off into a queer sort of corner about eight feet deep, terminated by a three-foot wall. At the top of this is a window-well, sidewalk level if you're on the street, but normally I keep it covered with a heavy black velvet curtain of the sort that photographers use in darkrooms. Below the curtain hangs a small white bulletin board, empty except for a lot of colored pushpins outlining a cross inscribed in a diamond. I pulled a couple of levers on the side of the chair to pop up the footrest and recline the chair-back far enough that she had to give up her weight to it now. The tilt brought her eyes to the level of the black pushpin at the join of the cross arms, the center of the diamond.
I never actually touched her though. None of your mesmeric stroking here, thank you ever so much.
Lightly I went back to my chair and sat down, all in perfect silence, which comes naturally to me but irritates Nora considerably, for some reason. She sometimes says she'd like to make me wear a bell, and I'm not sure she's kidding. But never mind that now. The record button made a dampered click when I pushed it, and that was all.
"Well," I said. "At the top of the bulletin board on the wall, you see a yellow pushpin at the top of the cross and the peak of the diamond. Yes? You are looking at the yellow pushpin against the white bulletin board, just there at the diamond's point. And now your eyes lower and you are looking a little below the yellow pushpin, where you see the red pushpin against the white background; you are looking at the red pushpin now. And now you lower your eyes again to see the dark blue pushpin, you see the dark blue pushpin very clearly outlined against the white fabric and your eyes are little tired and slightly blurring and you lower your eyes to the black pushpin, you are looking at the black pushpin at the center of the diamond, you see nothing at all but the black pushpin on the white background, your eyes are very heavy, your eyelids are sinking, you can scarcely keep them open, your cannot keep your eyes open any longer, your eyes are closing, now your eyes are closed. Good. Good. Good. Now your breathing becomes slower, deeper, more regular and easy, the little muscles around your eyes are relaxing, you feel the muscles of your face becoming soft and pliable, you feel every muscle in your body beginning to let go, and now there is a warm tingling feeling in the center of your body, feel how it spreads into your arms and legs, until this warm tingling feeling of relaxation has reached the ends of your fingers and toes, and you are perfectly calm now, Eleanor, you have never been so calm as this, your mind is entirely empty, you are thinking of nothing, nothing at all. But in your mind's eye you still see the black pushpin, just a black circle on a white, white background, growing slightly larger now, and now you are counting slowly backwards from twenty-five, twenty-four, watch the black circle, twenty-three...."
I opened my own eyes which seemed to have got shut somehow and gave my head a solid shake. Oh, for one more gulp of coffee now...maybe I could just start packing the grounds under my lip, like snuff. Nearly put myself under, didn't I? but I was still awake and still counting down. Right to sleep I nearly went, though of course it would never worked if I'd been alone, in bed, not working -- just one more stupid self-defeating nuance of paradoxical intention. She looked fairly good to me so far, fingers uncurled and her palms flattening against the chair-arms, head lolling a little away from me. Couldn't tell for sure if she was really traveling or only trying to cooperate, though for the moment either would serve.
"...two, one, you see the black doorknob on the white door, zero, take hold of that doorknob, Eleanor, and now you have opened the door and you are going down the stairs, down a close dim warm spiral staircase, Eleanor, you turn as the stairs turn toward a point, you hear the muffled boom of your every step and now you have reached the door at the foot of the stairs. Open the door, Eleanor, and now you are in a round room with white walls covered with words of a foreign alphabet, see how the words are inscribed there in gold leaf. The room is quiet and very comfortable, there are carpets and cushions on the floor, and at the far end of the room a dark-haired woman is seated on a hassock; she wears a blue robe and she is reading aloud from a leather-bound book. Her voice is deep, rhythmic, resonant, and more and more you are relaxing, Eleanor, as you listen to the sound of this voice, you sit down on the carpet, you stretch on a long dark carpet, feel the weave of the wool on your bare arms, you lay your head on a soft cushion, your eyes close, there is a smell of fruit, of blossoms, you hear the sound of the voice reading, you listen to the voice, Eleanor, it doesn't really matter what it means."
I turned quietly in my chair and picked up the book at the top of the stack I like to use for these deepening rituals. The Conference of the Birds. I flipped it open to the first dog-ear.
"From a staff he produces a serpent; and by means of a staff he sends forth a torrent of water.
"He has placed in the firmament the orb of the proud, and binds it with iron when glowing red it wanes.
"He brought forth a camel from a rock, and made the golden calf to bellow.
"In winter he scatters the silver snow; in autumn, the gold of yellow leaves.
"He lays a cover on the thorn and tinges it with the color of blood.
"To the jasmine he gives four petals and on the head of the tulip he puts a red bonnet.
"He places a golden crown on the brow of the narcissus; and drops pearls of dew into her shrine.
"At the idea of God the mind is baffled, reason fails; because of God the heavens turn, the earth reels.
"From the back of the fish to the moon every atom is a witness to his being."
And when I reached the end of that line she rolled her head toward me again and I knew I had her, it was a real sleeper's, a dreamer's turn. Her face had gone all smooth, ten years smoothed away from her so that she looked almost a child again. Ever fall in love with someone you watch sleeping? though what was tantalizing me most at the moment was the simple idea of sleep itself.
"Yes," I said. "Yes, you are going deeper now, you are drifting, you are drifting very deep. Your body is warm, soft, limp, and heavy -- all but your left arm, which is getting very light. Your left arm is getting very light, your left arm is getting lighter, your left arm is filling up with helium--"
--but I didn't have to go any further than that, because with just the hint of the suggestion the arm lifted all by itself, rising softly, airily, leaving the slack hand hanging in midair like the basket of a hot-air balloon, shivering a little in the breeze. Then I saw her shudder all over; her face squinched up and then relaxed. I could guess well enough what she might be feeling. She'd surprised herself a bit, you see, she hadn't known till now she could let go of her control. But she was a good subject, I never would have guessed she'd be this talented, or would I? The controls were off. That hovering hand was full of autonomic twitches. There was something different strumming the harp of her nerves, unfamiliar but not really alien, some antediluvian energy drawn from the back-brain dinosaur or, if you prefer, the snake. And there's always a good strong visceral thrill at the moment it takes over. Her first time, and maybe it's never as good as the first time, but there's always a bit of a kick left in it, even, sometimes, for me.
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