Authors: Barbara Bell
SIMON & SCHUSTER
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2000 by Barbara Bell
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
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Into the mine field.
Both Ingrid Sato and Barbara Shoup must be mentioned first as they provided me with means and direction, enabling me to place this manuscript into the hands of a wonderful agent, Alice Martell. Alice could have been a fire marshall as she has put out many conflagrations and deserves a medal.
My editor, Michael Korda, has been patient and quite supportive of me in this, my initiation to the world of publishing. Michael’s belief in my abilities has gone a long way toward helping me compensate for my terminal lack of cheerfulness and optimism. Chuck Adams and countless others at Simon & Schuster have worked hard on behalf of myself and
Stacking in Rivertown
. Many thanks.
My two most dedicated readers, Carolyn and Toni, have kept me writing during the long wait. Stephanie first helped me set out this way. Sarah carries the scars to prove her long-suffering support of my delusional activities.
Many others have knowingly and unknowingly aided me in this endeavor.
My thanks to everyone.
Stacking in Rivertown
Weekend Number One
Wish You the Best
Stacking in Rivertown
Ten Chits. That was what Mama called me ever since the day I came home bloody in the mouth from having kicked Gedders’ ass.
“His hands don’t go by me,” was all I’d tell her, and she called me Ten Chits. I guess because ten was the highest she ever learned to count, and a chit was just a something to her.
Anything could be a chit. Mostly I was the chit. You’re just a chit, she’d say. Sometimes, my big brother Vin was the chit. Or maybe she called that whip-tailed hound dog from down the street a chit when she had another bag of “groceries,” having come up from town, and “that chit of a mongrel” growled at her, smelling the steak bones, I guess, with some of the meat still on, but dainty bites sawed away, or healthy man-sized cuts knifed out. She brought home baked potato skins hollowed and still wrapped in foil, and wilted green stuff too slimy to swallow.
The river there bent near in half right around our two-room, as Daddy called it, and a long patch of grass went right down to the bank. In the summer the water shrank down, leaving a mucky rock-strewn mess that Vin, me, and Mandy squished into barefoot.
“Bag of twigs coming down the road,” was what Daddy said whenever he saw Mandy skipping down the lane She looked all sticks and hands with a head, and lived in a trailer with her mama down near where the titi and the pop ash grew too thick to wiggle through.
Mandy, me, and Vin spent our time digging out crawdads and sneaking up on bullfrogs that sat fat on the edges of puddles left flat, full of waterboatmen and striders skimming.
Swarms of mosquitoes and gnats danced over in the afternoons, and the brown water gone lazy carried a film on top that curved and caught cottonwood seeds floating down. Damselflies screwed all the time, floating by tail to tail, and the lacewing and mayfly all broke out fine in their time.
But now I’m off my story and the chits. I’ve begun to think of the chits as pieces of evidence, like in a detective novel, to be numbered, catalogued, and put in order. I never counted them up that year, the year the chits fell so heavy, but maybe there were ten altogether. Most people collect evidence to solve puzzles outside their lives. I need it to solve my own life. I appear to have a problem with memory.
I know now that none of what happened was Jeremy’s fault, even if he was a screwball. It’s just that I wasn’t meant for marriage, especially to someone like Jeremy,or living that kind of life. The life where you write your books in a studio in the afternoons after a morning jog and a trip to the spa. Eating dinner for two in a house meant for twenty. Or sleeping at night and getting up before his alarm goes off just to have him smile that inane smile when he comes in the kitchen, adjusting his tie, maybe whistling a horrible cheerful tune.
But I do blame him. It was his fault that I sold the novel. I completed it under Jeremy’s constant insistence, his gentle pressure on “your talent,” as he said to me. He was the one that prepared queries, synopses, and outlines, printed out and stuffed into envelopes sent off to small presses, large presses, literary journals, agents, anyone at all who might show an interest.
“We’ll keep trying,” he said after every rejection, his confidence a disease that weakened me, kept me worrying about the upholstery, a need for new carpeting or a more tasteful tile for the shower.
Jeremy liked my stories. That’s what drew him to me. Jeremy was seemingly blind to my other “talents,” as Ben would say. Where most men I’d met thought my mouth had a better use, for Jeremy it was the stories.
And he believed in this weird notion called synchronicity. What with both of us having surgery in the same hospital on the same day and both recovering in blue gowns with wheelchairs and matching IVs, for him it was love at first sight. The synchronicity thing cinched it.
My appendectomy had been sudden, the obsolete fingerlike organ having burst without so much as a bleep in the symptom department. I had collapsed, Ben said (now there’s a chit; I hadn’t remembered that before), at the reception for the Senator. Fell right down the stairs in the black strapless (he added for my benefit), and had beat myself up pretty bad by the time I hit the last step.
Jeremy probably fell in love with my bruises, too.
He was always bringing home strays from Wall Street. He offered them scraps wrapped in napkins and saved from one more in a long line of power lunches.
Dogs loved Jeremy. They could tell he only had eyes for them. I think it would have pleased him immensely to be born a dog. He loved to adore, to press close excitedly. He was easily trained and loyal to a fault. So finding me all bruised and sick, after a minor gallstone removal on his part, was like finding the ultimate stray, the she-dog of his dreams. Except for Ben, I had no friends, no family.
Jeremy was in dog heaven.
Ben worried him. He’s admitted that. Just to have Ben in the room with you felt like hanging around a pissed grizzly.
But Ben only visited me once at the hospital, holding buttercups nearly mangled in his massive, squat hand. His other hand was fat in a big white bandage. He must have hurt it trying to stop me from falling, I decided, a fall that for the life of me I couldn’t remember, down those stairs in the ballroom.
Ben brought with him a shoebox and a small suitcase filled with my clothes. He gave me his card. “Call me when you’re ready,” he said. And I said I would, but then Jeremy wheeled by, measured Ben’s extraordinary height with his eyes, and got his first look at me dressed in bruises.
The woman of his dreams.
After his first eyeful, Jeremy spent every minute at my bedside, offering me water when I was thirsty and helping me up to take my five trembly steps to the john. He offered me grapes and slices of oranges his mother had brought to enhance his healing in place of hospital fare over which she clucked her tongue in dismay.
I wasn’t much on talking then, so he’d chatter away like a miniature schnauzer, pausing now and then to coax a few words out of me.
Jeremy asked me to marry him after a week. It was neither here nor there to me, but he could pester like a scotch terrier. And I was in some kind of shock, a shock that hung on like a leech for five years. I think I was lulled to sleep in suburbia, waking up like Rip Van Winkle and wondering where I’d been, and how I ended up married to such a clean-cut all-American guy as Jeremy.
No one gave me away at the wedding, which his mother has never been able to let be. And Jeremy’s confused to this day about my lack of friends and family, my absence of a past. He gave up interrogating me about it after a year or so, instead substituting any number of various and increasingly bizarre fairy tales about my past of his own devising. Most of these included some fantastical intervention by a dog as a crucial element in the story.
Maybe he should write a novel.
So I kept Jeremy mollified with stories about the river and the bend of the river, about Grady, wild-eyed and muttering like a rabid possum. Grady lived not a stone’s throw from our two-room in a shack, eating just about anything he could trap, spear, or grab bare-handed. Grady was quick, if nothing else.
But Jeremy could never get enough of me telling about the rise downriver where the oldest and the richest families in town deposited their dead, laid out in shelves, Mandy said, like dolls, but flat on their backs in boxes.
Stacking in Rivertown, we called it. Rivertown was me and Mandy’s name for the cemetery because it was like a little village all by itself with small white stone houses and here and there a carved angel with the face of a mother, or a stern man with a sword. Flags waved there on holidays, and flowers wilted down. The river below was wider like a lake, and dull, overhung with willow and poplar all tied up with spiders.
My stories are like that river, muddy, buzzed over by flies, and wilting down by midday. It was the stories about the river and then the novel that got me in trouble with the chits.
At first, the publisher was low-key about it, narrow distribution, limited printing. And the book was slow in the uptake. My agent was just telling Jeremy and me that it wasn’t even going to pay for its printing, when something started happening. An undercurrent, like the ones Mandy was always yammering about that pull you down and before you know it you’re drowned like Grady. They found him a mile and a half downstream. The rats had done some damage.
Anyway, it’s a muddy novel, as I said about my writing. “Dark,” the reviewers began calling it as it was brought to their attention by the perplexing appearance of the buying undercurrent.
“Sometimes these things just happen,” my agent said, trying to help me feel better about it. She appeared cheerful. “Sometimes you throw the dice and you win.”
I was thinking that the last thing I needed right then was to win.
The novel began to have a “cult following.” I’m not sure how that’s different from having a reading audience, but it still sells books. Women were eating it up.
People became interested. The novel was called a “phenomenon.” My agent began to get calls wanting interviews. The publisher demanded book signings, speaking engagements at colleges. Readers were beginning to wonder who I was and ask questions about my past.
“I had an appendectomy,” I told my agent as we were constructing a bio for the book jacket. “It burst.”
“College?” she asked.
“I try not to think about that,” I replied, breaking into a cold sweat.
“Of course you think about it,” she said, her voice catching in my head like a set of trolling hooks.
“All I did was write a book. Lots of people do that.”
“They want to know about you, who you are, where you came from.”
“Seems silly,” I said. In fact, the whole thing was scaring the piss out of me.
After I arrived home from that enlightening conversation with my agent, I sat at my desk thinking about the fucking novel and my not-quite-right lifestyle. Jeremy’s Porsche barreled into the garage. We owned matching Porsches, his Republican blue, mine hellish red.
I prepared myself for what came next, assuming my tenuous wife pose, making over him after he bounded up the stairs in search of me. Before the hour was out, we sat down to dinner, me toying with my food as usual.
I don’t even remember when I lost my appetite. It just dried up and disappeared one day, like my memory, I guess.
Later that evening as I was busy avoiding Jeremy, pretending to clean out the closet in my studio, I found the shoebox. Ben’s shoebox. I picked it up, then stood frozen. I felt so strange, and was surprised when I realized that I was homesick. I hadn’t seen or talked to Ben since that last day in the hospital.
But it was more than that. I felt a vibration, a push behind, a thing that chased. This wasn’t a new feeling, but holding the box like that brought it on strong.
It was like my nightmares, the ones of the woman in green. I always woke up chilled, trying to scream. And the need to run, to get the hell out of there, swarmed my brain like blackfly.
“Come to bed now, honey,” Jeremy called from the bedroom.
Obedient to a fault, I turned to go. But first I dropped the shoebox in the back of my file cabinet.
After I joined Jeremy in bed, granted the mandatory goodnight kiss and squeeze of the hand, Jeremy dropped off like a trapjaw on a log. Biff, his cocker-mix stray, was dead asleep at his feet. Jeremy slept like a mastiff, curled tight and breathing heavy. So I did the same thing I’d done for a long time; I sneaked out of bed to write.
Night was when the stories got dark and rough, swishing and filled with undercurrents roving the bottom of the river. And tonight, for some reason, the ghosts came. They hounded. They crawled all over me. Maybe it was the shoebox and the vibrations. Maybe it was an incredible lack of food and sleep.
And for whatever combination of reasons—the buying undercurrent, my not-quite-right lifestyle, or maybe just synchronicity—it was at this point that I turned a corner. Not a real corner; a corner in my head.
I don’t like to admit this, but I think that up until that moment I had some kind of amnesia. As a matter of fact, I didn’t remember a lot of things for months. Oh sure, there were things I knew all along, things that I kept from Jeremy. But nothing was set end to end. It was like having some pieces of a broken vase. You hold them, remember the shape, but don’t want to force a thing together that will never be what it was before. I gave up on that kind of thing a long time ago.
But in that moment, pressured by the shoebox and the nightmares, I turned a corner.
Mama said, “Turn a corner, turn a cup.” And she’d turn over a cup, screeching bloody murder if it got knocked down before a week wore out. It was just a way Mama had of seeing things, of trying to make sure about the “dangers.” She was always talking about the dangers like they were alive and buzzing in the air over our heads. For some reason it wasn’t the dangers that bothered me. It was Gedders’ daddy up the lane.
He grew worms. We called his worm farm a wormtree, all those layers and layers with thousands of worms packed together in casings and stacked like the village we called Rivertown.
Gedders’ daddy was just Snuff to everybody there. He fished for all sorts of grubs and crawly things along the banks, and carted boxes of them up into town stacked on the back of a bike, where I guess he sold them to places where they put them in a cooler next to the meat.