Harry Felton was nobody if he wasn’t a writer. He wasn’t what most people would name a handsome man, what with his long, hooked nose, the tip of which almost touched his upper lip, the tangle of thinning curls the color of a walnut long ago dropped from the tree that graced his sweaty scalp, the rolls of fat that folded over the leather belt he wore for no more than decoration and the liquid look inside his tired eyes.
Still, he attracted small crowds of retired old ladies who were wheeled by their hopeless husbands or hired nurses up shaky ramps that led to side entrances and into the few dusty bookstores that still existed inside the undiscovered recesses of America’s past.
“You’ll see the end of war when you die, this I guarantee.” Harry read aloud from the tattered copy of his most popular book, A Tree Dies in South Philadelphia, that he carried inside his leather attache case from one town to another.
If at all possible, Harry Felton took a bus when he toured to pimp his books. His second choice was a train. He liked the pungent smell of smokey exhaust and bemoaned the day when the fruitcake-minded eco-fascistic Save The Earth fanatics prompted Trailways and Greyhound to move the coaches’ tailpipes from ground level to rooftop height, where the black dust joined the clouds sooner than before, though with just as much determination.
Trains, of course, featured a picture-window view of the passage of a lifetime. Harry liked to think that he wrote inside his head many of his finest works while riding a train. And it wasn’t only the fields of grain, nor simply the purple mountains’ majesty that inspired Harry Felton. The coal-dusted spur lines that traced pathways to repair shacks and lay strewn with greasy engine parts attracted Harry’s stare, as well. Inspiration, Harry told himself, came from sometimes dreary sources.
If pinched for time, Harry would hop an airplane in order to make a speaking engagement, although nowadays he hobbled more than hopped from one gate to another.
But automobiles were out of the question for Harry Felton. He feared steering along a highway, or God forbid, across a bridge, a box of metal set upon two axles and four wheels. The way Harry Felton figured things, when riding as a passenger in a bus or on a train, a man had to place trust in just one driver; but on a freeway that same man had to trust the witless judgment of a thousand inept individuals, tired of changing their children’s soiled diapers, gritting their teeth together as they pretended happy attitudes toward their jobs, or rocking to the sound of raucous tunes so as to obliterate the noise inside their heads.
Somewhere deep within his mind, Harry sensed the fault that wrecked his logical explanation for the path he’d chosen, but he considered consistency more important than self-analysis as he approached his own death.
“If ever a boy was deprived of childhood, then I am that kid, I kid you not.” Harry always paused after he read that line, as if to allow his audience to mull over the significance of the remark, which significance Harry Felton had forgotten many years ago. He grabbed for the dirty handkerchief that lived inside his tweed jacket pocket, rubbed it back and forth across the yanked curve of his vein-scarred nose, made as if to blow and cry at the same time, then tucked the wrinkled rag back into his pocket and stared hard toward the ceiling. He noticed a web of rust-colored leak lines that spread their way across the soundproof tiles.
Harry felt that he had one more book left in him, but his agent complained that the manuscript he’d just submitted to her wasn’t good enough.
“How else shall I say this to you, Harry?” said Gertrude Benton. “I’ve stood by your books for more than forty years now, but I tell you that this one will not sell.”
“Well, I guess you said it the only way you know how, Gertie, but I don’t care anymore about selling my work. I only want to hold a hardbound copy of the thing as I lie dying.”
“Always, Harry, always you’ve owned a flair for the melodramatic. But another writer already wrote that book, and he wrote it better than you could ever manage.” Gertrude flicked her ballpoint pen against the top of her desk as she spoke. Harry long ago became accustomed to the sound of this nervous tap dance rhythm; he knew it as the background chorus to Gertie’s solo performances.
“So sue me for my associations with the greats. So sue me. Go ahead, sue me.”
“For what amount? You haven’t earned more than a dollar and change for this house in so many years that we’ve both lost count.” The soft flesh of her upper arm swayed back and forth as she pointed her pen at Harry and shook it as if to emphasize the importance of the business end of the creative arts.
“So sue me anyway. So sue me. Then get the damned book published. Leave me a pauper. I’ll even agree to let you write my obituary. Just see the book into print and hand me a copy when I’m resting in my deathbed. And pull the fucking tubes and needles out of me when I ask you to.” Harry reached for his handkerchief.
“You know what your problem is, Harry?”
“So tell me. Other than the fact that I’m old and dying and almost forgotten, what’s my problem? So tell me. Go ahead, tell me. I’m not afraid of you, Gertie.”
“You’re fixated on angst. And nowadays angst won’t sell. That and you’re stuck on literature.”
“So what’s literature? What is it? Tell me.”
“Look, when you and I started out, memoir wasn’t a word that most readers recognized. Back then they called them confessions. Women who stayed home after seeing their husbands off to work and their kids off to school tiptoed to the local deli’s magazine rack and snatched a few pages’ worth of titillation. But your titillating years are gone, Harry Felton. And these days confessions are played out on television screens and computer monitors.”
“So let me die a lonely man, then. Go ahead, let me die. And by the way, can you lend me a few bucks for a bus ticket to Railford, Pennsylvania? There’s a used-book store there called Yellowed Pages. Owner’s name is John, and he specializes in books written about angst by fixated depressives. He tells me his business is booming and he’d love to have me speak to his Tuesday morning readers club.”
“One-way or two?”
“Just the one way there. I might not return. Not unless I lose this cold and gather courage.”
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.
A necklace of sharp needles tightened, pierced, and then sank deep into his flesh. Next a scalpel’s blade slid between two upper vertebrae and severed his spinal cord, interrupting the initial blast of pain. A neat, clean, indifferent incision that ran from left to right beneath his hairline and then around and through his throat. He swallowed molten copper and listened to the echo of a gurgling wave that filled his lungs.
His body shot forward and joined a galaxy of sparkling diamonds. Each jewel reflected a separate aspect of his face. His mind reconstructed the torn flesh and shattered bone, pulled the puzzle pieces back together, until he saw himself. One eye swollen to the size and texture of an overripe plum, red-veined and leaking sticky tears. Hair ripped away from his scalp, leaving here and there a pond of purple blood and pus. Ear lobes, drooping with the weight of old age, now resembled sliced and trimmed cuts of meat upon a butcher’s block.
He choked on the odors of gasoline, urine and human feces. Gravity yanked him down into a ready grave. Black space closed in, blinded him and spun him fast, until dizziness dragged him toward unconsciousness.
Yet floating somewhere inside the unforgiving darkness he heard the familiar tap . . . tap . . . tapping of his keyboard. A repetitive and steady rhythm, perhaps too steady to suit the habitual hesitation of its master. Rather more like the staccato snap a pinwheel whispers when an unceasing wind whips it round in rapid circles. Or the incessant flutter of a hummingbird’s wings.
No matter that his ruined eyes squeezed tight against a sudden invasion of light, a harsh fluorescent beam insinuated and insisted, until the needle-studded necklace became a flexible but confining brace, and the clean incision revealed itself as a seeping wound. He realized that the odor, the blood and the shattered bone belonged to the stranger who was now trapped inside his mind, planning his escape, covered in a shroud and begging for absolution.
Gradually the whirring pinwheel came into focus as his friend’s familiar pencil. She held it laced between her fingers, waved it back and forth, struck an edgy drumbeat on her pad of paper with the pencil’s point.
“I’m here,” she said. “It’s been a while.”
“I’m . . . I’m . . . I’m not here. Where? This place? What is it? Gertie, what is this place? I can’t move my arms. Gertie, I’m paralyzed. I’m dying.”
“It’s all right, Harry.” She stood up and hovered over him. He noticed worry swimming in the water of her pale-blue eyes. “No, I take that back,” she said. “Truth is, you’re lying in a hospital bed. You’re busted up, but you’re alive. Your arms are clamped to the bed frame. Be quiet and look around. Focus on one object. That’s right. Just take it slow and gain your sense of balance.”
Harry glanced upward toward the plastic bags of liquid, some cloudy-white, others clear as water, then traced a tangle of plastic tubes that led back to his arms.
“I can’t feel . . . ” His words caught in his throat.
“You’re parched. Here, take this. And take your time.” Gertie placed an ice cube on Harry’s tongue. He swirled it around and let it melt.
“I can’t feel anything.”
“Fentanyl. The murky liquid inside this bag.” Gertie touched the plastic bag as if to confirm its presence. “You were in a lot of pain after the accident. Fentanyl’s a strong pain reliever and an anesthetic. You’re just now coming off the stuff.”
“Accident? You said accident. No. Someone tried to murder me. My neck . . . my throat. He cut my throat.” Harry heard his voice rising to the level of hysteria. His body shook and shivered. An army of people dressed in blue uniforms came running toward his bed. They surrounded him, leaned in close, grabbed him and held him down. His screaming grew louder. In place of words he howled the midnight melody of a desperate beast.
“Mr. Felton,” said an old man’s wrinkled face that almost touched his own. The old man’s breath, sour as it smelled, seemed fresh as new-cut springtime grass compared with the air Harry lately had been drawing in. “Mr. Felton, my name’s Dr. Webster. No one tried to murder you. That’s the medication talking. Sometimes Fentanyl causes hallucinations. We turned off the medication early this morning, and you’re waking up. Just try a deep breath or two.” Harry watched the doctor motion to the other blue uniforms. They let go of him and left the room.
Harry felt the doctor’s stethoscope laid flat and cold upon his chest. “That’s good,” said Dr. Webster. “Inhale. Hold it. Now exhale. Good, your heartbeat’s slowing down to normal.”
“I’m still alive? I drank my own blood and I’m alive?”
“You’re very much alive, Mr. Felton, but you need time to recuperate. Maybe a lot of time. I’ll be back soon to see you. I’ll tell the nurse who’s monitoring your vital signs to bring you something mild to relieve your anxiety once your blood pressure and heart rate stabilize. In the meantime, I’ll leave you to talk with your friend. You’re a lucky man, Mr. Felton. She’s been by your side since you were admitted.”
“She’s here to nag me. She always nags me.”
“That’s right, F. Scott Fitzfelton, you need me,” said Gertie.
Dr. Webster smiled, then clicked his heels on the tile floor as he walked out of the room.
“Gertie?” said Harry.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Gertie, you said accident. What did you mean?”
“The nurses call that milky goop they’ve been pumping into your veins Milk of Amnesia. Between that and the fact that you’re in shock, you probably don’t remember the details.”
“So remind me, why don’t you, go ahead, remind me.”
“You sure you want to hear this right now? Aren’t you tired? You look bone tired. Matter of fact, you look like shit.” Harry opened his mouth and tried to protest, but Gertie slipped another ice cube between his lips.
“Thanks for the compliment. If I can’t handle whatever you have to tell me, I’ll just ask Dr. Dictionary for another pill. So go ahead, remind me why don’t you. Go ahead.”
“You got behind the wheel of a car when maybe you should have known better. What the hell got into you, anyway? You hate driving. Must have been the drug convinced you otherwise.”
Harry turned his glance toward the ceiling and tried to turn a plaster patch into a map. On that map he identified a time and a place.
“The Packard. John’s Packard automobile. That the one?”
“Now you’re coming back home, Harry. You ran that baby right into a telephone pole. You flew through the windshield, and your passenger –”
“Piercehall. John Piercehall. Is he . . .”
“He’s a mess, but he’s alive and renting the Presidential Suite just down the hall.”
“Oh my God.”
“You can talk to God later, Harry. Next person you’ll talk to after me and the nurse will be a cop.”
“Harry struggled again to move his arms. The bed frame rattled and he began to growl.”
“You gotta calm down, show them that you’re calm and in control before they’ll remove the wrist clamps.”
“Are these damned things handcuffs, Gertie? Am I under arrest? You said cop. Did they arrest me? Tell me, please go ahead and tell me.”
“The doctor needed to stop you from digging at your wounds while you were under. Like I said, when you look more like your serene self, they’ll remove the clamps. Think you can act serene?”
“Cut to the chase. Did the cops arrest me?”
“Since when does Harry Felton use cliches like cut to the chase? No, not yet. Only one thing stopping them from locking you up. Well, maybe two things.”
“Please, fer chrissake, cut to the fucking chase.”
“So long as you floated in and out of consciousness, the police chose not to read you your rights. You have to show them you can understand what they’re saying to you first. Or not.”
“And the second thing?”
“The drug I mentioned.”
“I didn’t drink that much.”
“Not the booze. You were well below the legal limit. This time, that is. No, not the cocktail. Your blood test after the accident revealed the presence of another drug. Rohypnol.”
“A roofie, Harry. On the street they call it a roofie. It’s not legal, not even as a prescribed drug, not in this country. In the good ole USA kids use it to help them escape the prison cells we senile control commanders use as traps when we hunt them down.”
“I’m not a kid, Gertie. Look at me. I’m no kid. Please, go ahead and look at me.”
“That’s true. You’re no kid. You’re a foolish, self-pitying, old fart. And although you’re as banana yellow as the next alcoholic who lugs around a dead liver, I know you didn’t pop that roofie into your mouth. But someone fed it to you, someone you might know better than you’re letting on.”
“Look, Gertie, you were right to begin with. I can’t handle this bullshit. So just reopen the valve and let that milky medicine flow into me again. I don’t know what the fuck you’re saying to me.”
“You want more Milk of Amnesia? Tell Dr. Dictionary. But before you do, and before you have to talk to the cops, why don’t you tell me about Railford, Pennsylvania and the lovely lady Gloria Lakeland?”
“It was part of my book promotion tour. I delivered my standard speech.”
“Promotion tour, now that’s funny. That book you say you’re promoting, you published it several decades ago, and it’s been out of print for at least as long as the hair under my arms has been gray.
“But not that Railford, PA, Harry, and not the twenty-first-century model of Gloria Lakeland. The police detectives did some research while you were dreaming. The questions they asked me about Miss Lakeland and you left me puzzled and curious.”
“Questions? Why would the cops ask you? What questions?”
“Look, Harry, adorable as you are, you don’t have any next of kin. I had to beg the doctors and nurses to let me visit you in the ICU. I gave them the old ‘We have a long history’ line. I wasn’t lying, right? The cops became curious, so they tickled me for some information about you. Nothing formal, and nothing — so they told me — on the record.”
“You didn’t answer me.” Harry listened as his voice became a croak and then a gurgle. He began to cough up phlegm. His neck began to ache, and his thoughts traveled backward in time. Gertie grabbed a washcloth from the metal bedside tray, poured some water from a pitcher onto it and cleaned up his face. He leaned back against the pillows and tried to recapture the present moment.
“You want I should leave you alone for a while? Let you sleep? Maybe that’s best.” said Gertie.
“No. You got me all worked up and worried, and now you’re going to leave me here to suffer?”
“That’s right, Harry. Blame me for your sins against yourself. You must be feeling better.”
“Oh, shit. Why did I take that drink?”
“Quit the woe is me nonsense. I told you it wasn’t the booze. And if you don’t want me to leave, then tell me more about Gloria.”
“She’s a rich old lady with bad breath. She wears a lot of gaudy jewelry. Her house looks like a modern art museum.”
“Uh huh. Well, the detectives seem to think you knew gaudy Gloria back in the day when your testosterone level ran high. So now it’s your turn. You tell me, go ahead, tell me. Was it your memories of Gloria Lakeland that drew you back to Railford? Did she recommend you to John Piercehall, or did you recommend yourself?”
“You’re stepping in quicksand when you ask me these questions.”
“Yeah, well that’s pure poetry. But just why did you go back there? It was back there, wasn’t it? You bought a one-way ticket. Remember that? Was Gloria Lakeland the reason you returned? And who might have wanted you drugged and incapacitated?”
Harry stared, but not at Gertie. Gertie’s face he tried to avoid. Instead he returned his gaze to the map on the ceiling. And on that map, just a short distance from a certain bookshop, he watched a younger version of himself lying in a different bed, a different stranger snuggled up beside him, the aroma of her perfume and sex enticing him to float inside a galaxy of sparkling diamonds.