Had he known ahead of time what the day in Railsford, PA held in store for him, Harry might never have boarded the train in Philadelphia. He might instead have remained in his seat until the conductor announced the end of the line.
As it turned out, the end of one line and the beginning of another is what Harry Felton faced after his final appearance as an obscure author of out-of-print books.
John Piercehall’s used-book store, Yellowed Pages, looked like a stage set arranged with antique images that defied the modern, fiber-optic world that Harry feared and so avoided as much as possible. An old, comfortable, cool and shadowed shop. Mahogany bookshelves upstairs and down. A winding staircase that Harry found difficult to negotiate because of his weight and width and an ever-tightening sensation that began somewhere under his armpits, raced up into the back of his neck and settled deep inside the fat of his jowls.
The shop’s owner, who called down to Harry when the bell above the doorjamb jingled, sat behind a cluttered desk in an alcove on the second floor. He was a short, skinny man, dressed in a collarless pinstriped shirt tucked into creased flannel slacks held floating on his frame by a pair of narrow suspenders. When he glanced up from the book into which he’d been jotting notes, Harry noticed a fog of greasy fingerprints on the thick lenses of the man’s wire-framed eyeglasses.
“Name’s Harry Felton. Just got in on the 8:43 from Philadelphia. We spoke on the phone a couple of times. I’m here to talk about my books. You have a place ready for me? Somewhere I can lay down my stuff? Maybe a bathroom where I can wash off the dust before the audience arrives?” Harry spoke through the handkerchief that he’d pulled from his pocket and held up to his mouth. Piercehall cocked his head sideways and hesitated. Harry realized that his voice must have sounded muffled, so he repeated what he’d said.
“First of all, welcome to Railford, Mr. Felton. I hope your trip here wasn’t too tiring. You can sit down and relax a while if you want. There’s plenty of time between now and your presentation.”
“Plenty of time? Maybe for you.” Harry watched a pair of wrinkles twitching paths along the flesh of Piercehall’s forehead. “I’m sorry, Mr. Piercehall. Force of habit, I guess. Just speaking my characters’ parts out loud. I do that a lot when I’m alone. Didn’t mean to be abrupt. But you were about to tell me where to put my books and papers, yes?”
“Well . . . maybe I didn’t make it clear in my letter, but you’ll be delivering your talk at Gloria Lakeland’s home. Not enough room here in the shop to contain the fine ladies of the Railford Readers Association. Miss Gloria’s our township’s librarian, the president of our local historical association and the last heir apparent to the Lakeland family fortune. The restroom is downstairs. Pass through the middle stacks and then turn off to your right till you reach the far back corner. Maybe you’ll share a drink with me before we make our way to Miss Gloria’s?” Piercehall opened a desk drawer and pulled out a crystal flask with a silver cap.
Harry thought, “This guy’s all phony affectation,” but what Harry said was, “I don’t drink, not anymore. Doctor’s orders. I’ve reached the time of life when doctors become a writer’s best and worst source of inspiration.” Harry tried to force a smile, although he realized that his strained attempt to seem lighthearted about the medical profession had most likely failed. Harry despised the fact that he needed continually to visit doctors’ offices. Hospitals, he thought, were these days designed to look like ridiculous blends of luxury hotels and art museums. Not good places for a writer to surrender his pen to the ultimate bard.
“Oh, yes, yes, of course . . . I see your point about taking good care of one’s health. . . yes . . . okay. I’ll just pull down the shades and close the shutters while you’re washing up. My car’s parked round back. Shout out whenever you’re ready.”
The restroom, as Piercehall had named it, was a closet. Rust stains around the sink’s drain. One frosted window at ceiling level, closed tight so as to keep the stink of urine hanging humid, heavy and ripe inside. Harry felt the now familiar trickle of blood running from his nostrils and onto his upper lip, where he caught it with a flick of his tongue and then swallowed. His physicians had tried to explain to him in greater detail than he wanted to comprehend such terms as coagulation, fibrinogen, low platelet count and clotting factor. All Harry knew was that the years of guzzling liquor were catching up to him. Simply put, his nose bled easily and often; and Harry did his best to hide the truth of his condition from himself and from his readers.
The only person with whom he’d been open and honest regarding the subject of what he knew to be the inevitable end of his life was his agent Gertrude Benton. He’d known Gertie for almost half a century, and secrets cannot hide that long flying through the air between two friends. Of course, she nagged him. Gertie had a way of nagging with a squint of her eyes and a snap of her ever-present pencil that made her words seem like afterthoughts.
“You’re not the youngest salmon in the stream anymore, Harry,” she told him just before he left her office three days before. “In fact, these days you look more and more like a pickled herring. If you don’t start taking care of yourself, and soon, it’ll be a lot more than your books that go out of print. How hard have you thought about that, Harry? Have you made a decision one way or another? Let me know if you’re going to yank yourself up by the balls or not, because I haven’t time to waste trying to sell a dead man’s manuscript. I’d rather spend what’s left of my life among the living.”
“Please, Gertie, lower your voice.”
“Afraid someone else will find out you’re a fool and a coward?”
Harry leaned over the dirty bookstore sink, held his breath, squeezed his eyes shut and splashed water onto his face. No towels hung on the rack, so he quick opened the door, buried his nose in his shirtsleeve, breathed again and wiped away most of the water, along with a smear of blood. He pulled his suit jacket back on and walked fast back through the aisles, dodging here and there a pile of books haphazardly stacked on the floor. He met Piercehall at the shop’s front door and followed him outside. They walked down a side alley to where an automobile from a earlier era sat parked on a patch of orange gravel.
“Do you fancy classic cars, Mr. Felton?”
“Harry will do just fine.”
“She’s a 1946 Packard. They called her a bathtub model. But her seats feel more like living-room couches,” said John Piercehall.
“I sometimes watch old black-and-white movies just to remember what the world looked like when I was a kid. No, I don’t know much, but I admire good craftsmanship of any kind.”
“Care to admire her from behind the wheel?”
“I’m not much of a driver, but thanks anyway.”
The ride down Interstate 80 lasted maybe fifteen minutes. John steered the Packard close in toward the curb, where a valet took charge of her. The party was in full swing.
It was only one drink. That’s what he told himself. That’s what he told himself the last time and the time before that, too. But Harry hadn’t yet taught himself how to handle stress a better way. Stress; he could feel the panic coming on, measure his level of discomfort by the pulse of blood behind his eyes and the taught grip of fear inside his throat.
This place. Miss Gloria Lakeland’s home. This place sickened him. One great hollow room cut into smaller chambers by curved archways. Hired help dressed in tuxedos, tapping their heels on polished hardwood floors, balancing trays of cocktails on their splayed fingertips. High ceilings holding captive air that seemed to spin in dizzy, rapid circles. The tinkle of crystal chandeliers holding flickered rainbows inside each prism. Here and there a framed splash of colors hanging in the center of an otherwise unadorned wall, the brushstroke patterns too abstract for Harry to comprehend. The peppered chatter of polite people mingling, whispering the hushed language that haunts a funeral parlor.
And then there was Miss Gloria. A weak impersonation of a worn out Southern Belle posing in the middle of Pennsylvania. Miss Gloria greeted him; this much he knew because he watched her lips moving and her smile lines crinkling near the corners of her mouth. But all he heard was the rattle of her bracelets. All he smelled was the stale, dead odor of her breath. All he felt was the pinch of her painted fingernails on his wrist. And afterward what he remembered most was the sadness settled deep inside her stare.
This place, so foreign to Harry that he lost his sense of balance, became his next reason, his next tired excuse. The wandering people who inhabited these rooms encircled him, pulled in close to him and then closer still, until he could no longer breathe. And so he said yes to the next empty tuxedo that passed close by him, and from that ancient soldier’s tray he snatched a goblet filled with liquid pain killer.
Harry heard the crowd’s voices, but he couldn’t make out their words. He watched tipsy women seat themselves on furniture made of chrome and glass. He inhaled the perfumed and powdered clouds that surrounded them. And he tasted the bile and the booze inside his mouth.
Later, as he lay strapped down to a bed, suddenly sober and listening to his heart beating fire, Harry imagined that he must have delivered his standard speech from behind the lectern. As well, he no doubt sprinkled his delivery with favorite quotations from his book. Perhaps he pretended to invite and answer a few vain questions about an author’s love affair with language. He figured that he must have done all of that and maybe more. Yet his only sure and vivid memory of the occasion was of walking beside John Piercehall as they returned to the Packard, there to meet the same valet who’d earlier welcomed them.
“Is that invitation to sit behind the wheel still on?” Harry heard himself say.
And Piercehall must have said yes, because when soon afterward Harry heard the cruel crack, crease and shriek of metal, he surrendered perforce to his slow but insistent reflexes and he jammed his foot down hard against the brake pedal. He felt the car’s front end dip forward and down. A sparkled cobweb grew before his eyes as the divided windshield splintered and reformed itself into knives, glass blades that sliced his flesh as his body flew forward past his mind. Lightning flashed in shades of blue and red and white. And at the last, an ear-splitting explosion filled his skull, and Harry felt and heard the long rush and hiss of air abandoning his lungs.