Downstream”, The Rainmakers 4
“My fault,” Anderson said. “I haven't been having the best day of my life.”
She finished her drink and sighed.
“You want another one, miss?”
I think I liked “purty lady” better, Anderson thought, and shook her head. “I'll take a glass of milk, though. Otherwise I'll have acid indigestion all afternoon.”
The bartender brought her the milk. Anderson sipped it and thought about what had happened at the vet's. The answer was quick and simple: she didn't know.
But I'll tell you what happened when you brought him in, she thought. Not a thing.
Her mind seized on this. The waiting room had been almost as crowded when she brought Peter in as it had been when she dragged him back out, only there had been no bedlam scene the first time. The place had not been quiet—animals of different types and species, many of them ancient and instinctive antagonists, do not make for a library atmosphere when brought together—but it had been normal. Now, with the booze working in her, she recalled the man in the mechanic's coverall leading the boxer in. The boxer had looked at Peter. Peter had looked mildly back. No big deal.
So drink your milk and get on home and forget it.
Okay. And what about that thing in the woods? Do I forget that, too?
Instead of an answer, her grandfather's voice came: By the way, Bobbi, what's that thing doing to you? Have you thought about that?
Now that she had, she was tempted to order another drink... except another, even a single, would make her drunk, and did she really want to be sitting in this huge barn in the early afternoon, getting drunk alone, waiting for the inevitable someone (maybe the bartender himself) to cruise up and ask what a pretty place like this was doing around a girl like her?
She left a five on the counter and the bartender saluted her. On her way out she saw a pay phone. The phone-box was dirty and dog-eared and smelled of used bourbon, but at least it was still there. Anderson deposited twenty cents, crooked the handset between shoulder and ear while she hunted through in the Yellow Pages, then called Etheridge's clinic. Mrs Alden sounded quite composed. In the background she could hear one dog barking. One.
“I didn't want you to think I stiffed you,” she said, “and I'll mail your leash back tomorrow.”
“Not at all, Ms Anderson,” she said. “After all the years you have done business with us, you're the last person we'd worry about when it comes to deadbeats. As for leashes, we've got a closetful.”
“Things seemed a little crazy there for a while.”
“Boy, were they ever! We had to call Medix for Mrs Perkins. I didn't think it was bad—she'll have needed stitches, of course, but lots of people who need stitches get to the doctor under their own power.” She lowered her voice a little, offering Anderson a confidence that she probably wouldn't have offered a man. “Thank God it was her own dog bit her. She's the sort of woman who starts shouting lawsuit at the drop of a hat.”
“Any idea what might have caused it?”
“No—neither does Dr Etheridge. The heat after the rain, maybe. Dr Etheridge said he heard of something like it once at a convention. A vet from California said that all the animals in her clinic had what she called “a savage spell” just before the last big quake out there.”
“Is that so?”
“There was an earthquake in Maine last year,” Mrs Alden said. “I hope there won't be another one. That nuclear plant at Wiscassett is too close for comfort.”
Just ask Gard, Bobbi thought. She said thanks again and hung up.
Anderson went back to the truck. Peter was sleeping. He opened his eyes when Anderson got in, then closed them again. His muzzle lay on his paws. The gray on his muzzle was fading away. No question about that; no question at all.
And by the way, Bobbi, what's that thing doing to you?
Shut up, Granddad.
She drove home. And after fortifying herself with a second Scotch—a weak one she went into the bathroom and stood close to the mirror, first examining her face and then running her fingers through her hair, lifting it and then letting it drop.
The gray was still there—all of it that had so far come in, as far as she could tell.
She never would have thought she would be glad to see gray hair, but she was. Sort of.
By early evening, dark clouds had begun to build up in the west, and by dark it had commenced thundering. The rains were going to return, it seemed, at least for a one-night stand. Anderson knew she wouldn't get Peter outside that night to do more than the most pressing doggy business; since his puppyhood, the beagle had been utterly terrified of thunderstorms.
Anderson sat in her rocker by the window, and if someone had been there she supposed it would have looked like she was reading, but what she was really doing was grinding: grinding grimly away at the thesis, Range War and Civil War. It was as dry as dust, but she thought it was going to be extremely useful when she finally got around to the new one... which should be fairly soon now.
Each time the thunder rolled, Peter edged a little closer to the rocker and Anderson, seeming almost to grin shamefacedly. Yeah, it's not going to hurt me, I know, I know, but I'll just get a little closer to you, okay? And if there comes a real blast, I'll just about crowd you out of that fucking rocker, what do you say? You don't mind, do you, Bobbi?
The storm held off until nine o'clock, and by then Anderson was pretty sure they were going to have a good one—what Havenites called “a real Jeezer.” She went into the kitchen, rummaged in the walk-in closet that served as her pantry, and found her Coleman gas lantern on a high shelf. Peter followed directly behind her, tail between his legs, shamefaced grin on his face. Anderson almost fell over him coming out of the closet with the lantern.
“Do you mind, Peter?”
Peter gave a little ground... and then crowded up to Anderson's ankles again when thunder cannonaded hard enough to rattle the windows. As Anderson got back to her chair, lightning sheeted blue-white and the phone tinged. The wind began to rise, making the trees rustle and sigh.
Peter sat hard by the rocker, looking up at Anderson pleadingly.
“Okay,” she said with a sigh. “Come on up, jerk.”
Peter didn't have to be asked twice. He sprang into Anderson's lap, getting her crotch a pretty good one with one forepaw. He always seemed to whang her there or on one boob; he didn't aim—it was just one of those mysterious things, like the way elevators invariably stopped at every floor when you were in a hurry. If there was a defense, Bobbi Anderson had yet to find it.
Thunder tore across the sky. Peter crowded against her. His smell—Eau de Beagle—filled Anderson's nose.
“Why don't you just jump down my throat and have done with it, Pete?”
Peter grinned his shamefaced grin, as if to say I know it, I know it, don't rub it in.
The wind rose. The lights began to flicker, a sure sign that Roberta Anderson and Central Maine Power were about to bid each other a fond adieu... at least until three or four in the morning. Anderson laid the thesis aside and put her arm around her dog. She didn't really mind the occasional summer storm, or the winter blizzards, for that matter. She liked their big power. She liked the sight and sound of that power working on the land in its crude and blindly positive way. She sensed insensate compassion in the workings of such storms. She could feel this one working inside her—the hair on her arms and the nape of her neck would stir, and a particularly close shot of lightning left her feeling almost galvanized with energy.
She remembered an odd conversation she'd once had with Jim Gardener. Gard had a steel plate in his skull, a souvenir of a skiing accident that had almost killed him at the age of seventeen. Gardener had told her that once, while changing a light bulb, he had gotten a hell of a shock by inadvertently sticking his forefinger into the socket. This was hardly uncommon; the peculiar part was that, for the next week, he had heard music and announcers and newscasts in his head. He told Anderson he had really believed for a while he was going crazy. On the fourth day of this, Gard had even identified the call letters of the station he was receiving: WZON, one of Bangor's three AM radio stations. He had written down the names of three songs in a row and then called the station to see if they had indeed played those songs—plus ads for Sing's Polynesian Restaurant, Village Subaru, and the Bird Museum in Bar Harbor. They had.
On the fifth day, he said, the signal started to fade, and two days later it was gone entirely.
“It was that damned skull plate,” he had told her, rapping his fist gently on the scar by his left temple. “No doubt about it. I'm sure thousands would laugh, but in my mind I'm completely sure.”
If someone else had told her the story, Anderson would have believed she was having her leg pulled, but Jim hadn't been kidding—you looked in his eyes and you knew he wasn't.
Big storms had big power.
Lightning flared in a blue sheet, giving Anderson a shutter-click of what she had come to think of—as her neighbors did—as her dooryard. She saw the truck, with the first drops of rain on its windshield; the short dirt driveway; the mailbox with its flag down and tucked securely against its aluminum side; the writhing trees. Thunder exploded a bare moment later, and Peter jumped against her, whining. The lights went out. They didn't bother dimming or flickering or messing around; they went out all at once, completely. They went out with authority.
Anderson reached for the lantern—and then her hand stopped.
There was a green spot on the far wall, just to the right of Uncle Frank's Welsh dresser. It bobbed up two inches, moved left, then right. It disappeared for a moment and then came back. Anderson's dream recurred with all the eerie power of deja vu. She thought again of the lantern in Poe's story, but mixed in this time was another memory: The War of the Worlds. The Martian heat-ray, raining green death on Hammersmith.
She turned toward Peter, hearing the tendons in her neck creak like dirty doorhinges, knowing what she was going to seeThe light was coming from Peter's eye. His left eye. It glared with the witchy green light of St Elmo's fire drifting over a swamp after a still, muggy day.
No... not the eye. It was the cataract that was glowing... at least, what remained of the cataract. It had gone back noticeably even from that morning, at the vet's office. That side of Peter's face was lit with a lurid green light, making him look like a comic-book monstrosity.
Her first impulse was to get away from Peter, dive out of the chair and simply run...
...but this was Peter, after all. And Peter was scared to death already. If she deserted him, Peter would be terrified.
Thunder cracked in the black. This time both of them jumped. Then the rain came in a great sighing sheetlike rush. Anderson looked back at the wall across the room again, at the green splotch bobbing and weaving there. She was reminded of times she had lain in bed as a child, using the watchband of her Timex to play a similar spot off the wall by moving her wrist.
And by the way, what's it doing to you, Bobbi?
Green sunken fire in Peter's eye, taking away the cataract. Eating it. She looked again, and had to restrain herself from jerking back when Peter licked her hand.
That night Bobbi Anderson slept hardly at all.
The Dig, Continued
When Anderson finally woke up, it was almost ten A. M. and most of the lights in the place were on—Central Maine Power had gotten its shit together again, it seemed. She walked around the place in her socks, turning off lights, and then looked out the front window. Peter was on the porch. Anderson let him in and looked closely at his eye. She could remember her terror of the night before, but in this morning's bright summer daylight, terror had been supplanted by fascination. Anyone would have been scared, she thought, seeing something like that in the dark, with the power out, and a thunderstorm stomping the earth and the sky outside.
Why in hell didn't Etheridge see this?
But that was easy. The dials of radium watches glow in the day as well as in the dark; you just can't see the glow in bright light. She was a little surprised she had missed the green glow in Peter's eye on the previous nights, but hardly flabbergasted... after all, it had taken her a couple of days to even realize the cataract was shrinking. And yet... Etheridge had been close, hadn't he? Etheridge had been right in there with the old ophthalmoscope, looking into Peter's eye.
He had agreed with Anderson that the cataract was shrinking... but hadn't mentioned any glow, green or otherwise.
Maybe he saw it and decided to unsee it. The way he saw Peter was looking younger and decided he didn't see that. Because he didn't want to see that.
There was a part of her that didn't like the new vet a whole hell of a lot; she supposed it was because she had liked old Doc Daggett so much and had made that foolish (but apparently unavoidable) assumption that Daggett would be around as long as she and Peter were. But it was a silly reason to feel hostility toward the old man's replacement, and even if Etheridge had failed (or refused) to see Peter's apparent age regression, that didn't change the fact that he seemed a perfectly competent vet.
A cataract that glowed green... she didn't think he would have ignored something like that.
Which led her to the conclusion that the green glow hadn't been there for Etheridge to see.
At least, not right away.
There hadn't been any big hooraw right away, either, had there? Not when they came in. Not during the exam. Only when they were getting ready to go out.
Had Peter's eye started to glow then?
Anderson poured Gravy Train into Peter's dish and stood with her left hand under the tap, waiting for the water to come in warm so she could wet it down. The wait kept getting longer and longer. Her water heater was slow, balky, sadly out of date. Anderson had been meaning to have it replaced—would certainly have to do so before the cold weather—but the only plumber in either Haven or the rural towns to Haven's immediate north and south was a rather unpleasant fellow named Delbert Chiles, who always looked at her as if he knew exactly what she would look like with her clothes off (not much, his eyes said, but I guess it'd do in a pinch) and always wanted to know if Anderson was “writing any new books lately.” Chiles liked to tell her he could have been a damned good writer himself, but he had too much energy and,not enough glue on the seat of my pants, get me?” The last time she'd been forced to call him had been when the pipes burst in the minus-twenties cold snap, winter before last. After he set things to rights, he had asked her if she would like “to go steppin” sometime. Anderson declined politely, and Chiles tipped her a wink that aspired to worldly wisdom and made it almost to informed vacuity. “You don't know what you're missin”, sweetie,” he said. I'm pretty sure I do, which is why I said no had come to her lips, but she said nothing—as little as she liked him, she had known she might need Chiles again sometime. Why was it the really good zingers only came immediately to mind in real life when you didn't dare use them?
You could do something about that hot-water heater, Bobbi, a voice in her mind spoke up, one that she couldn't identify. A stranger's voice in her head? Oh golly, should she call the cops? But you could, the voice insisted. All you'd need to do would be
But then the water started to come in warm—tepid, anyway—and she forgot about the water heater. She stirred the Gravy Train, then set it down and watched Peter eat. He was showing a much better appetite these days.
Ought to check his teeth, she thought, maybe you can go back to Gaines Meal. A penny saved is a penny earned, and the American reading public is not exactly beating a path to your door, babe. And
And exactly when had the uproar in the clinic started?
Anderson thought about this carefully. She couldn't be completely sure, but the more she thought about it the more it seemed that it might have been—not for sure but might have been—right after Dr Etheridge finished examining Peter's cataract and put down the ophthalmoscope.
Attend, Watson, the voice of Sherlock Holmes suddenly spoke up in the quick, almost urgent speech rhythms of Basil Rathbone. The eye glows. No... not the eye; the cataract glows. But Anderson does not observe it, although she should. Etheridge does not observe it, and he definitely should. May we say that the animals at the veterinary clinic do not become upset until Peter's cataract begins to glow... until, we might further theorize, the healing process has resumed? Possibly. That the glow is seen only when being seen is safe? Ah” Watson, that is an assumption as frightening as it is unwarranted. Because that would indicate some sort of
—some sort of intelligence.
Anderson didn't like where this was leading and tried to choke it off with the old reliable advice: Let it go.
This time it worked.
For a while.
Anderson wanted to go out and dig some more.
Her forebrain didn't like that idea at all.
Her forebrain thought that idea sucked.
Leave it alone, Bobbi. It's dangerous.
And by the way, what's it doing to you?
Nothing she could see. But you couldn't see what cigarette smoke did to your lungs, either; that's why people went on smoking. It could be that her liver was rotting, that the chambers of her heart were silting up with cholesterol, or that she had rendered herself barren. For all she knew her bone marrow might be producing outlaw white cells like mad right this minute. Why settle for an early period when you could have something really interesting like leukemia, Bobbi?
But she wanted to dig it up just the same.
This urge, simple and elemental, had nothing to do with her forebrain. It came baking up from someplace deeper inside. It had all the earmarks of some physical craving—for salt, for some coke or heroin or cigarettes or coffee. Her forebrain supplied logic; this other part supplied an almost incoherent imperative: Dig on it, Bobbi, it's okay, dig on it, dig on it, shit, why not dig on it a while more, you know you want to know what it is, so dig on it till you see what it is, dig dig dig
She was able to turn the voice off by conscious effort and would then realize fifteen minutes later she had been listening to it again, as if to a Delphic oracle.
You've got to tell somebody what you've found.
Who? The police? Huh-uh. No way. Or —
She was in her garden, madly weeding... a junkie in withdrawal.
—or anyone in authority, her mind finished.
Her right-brain supplied Anne's sarcastic laughter, as she had known it would... but the laughter didn't have as much force as she had feared. Like a good many of her generation, Anderson didn't put a great deal of stock in “let the authorities handle it.” Her distrust in the way the authorities handled things had begun at the age of twelve, in Utica. She had been sitting on the sofa in their living room with Anne on one side and her mother on the other. She had been eating a hamburger and watching the Dallas police escort Lee Harvey Oswald across an underground parking garage. There were lots of Dallas police. So many, in fact, that the TV announcer was telling the country that someone had shot Oswald before all those police—all those people in authority—seemed to have the slightest inkling something had gone wrong. let alone what it was.
So far as she could tell, the Dallas police had done such a good job protecting John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald that they had been put in charge of the summer race-riots two years later, and then the war in Vietnam. Other assignments followed: handling the oil embargo ten years after the Kennedy assassination, the negotiations to secure the release of the American hostages at the embassy in Tehran, and, when it became clear that the wogs were not going to listen to the voice of reason and authority, Jimmy Carter had sent the Dallas police in to rescue those pore fellers—after all, authorities who had handled that Kent State business with such cool-headed aplomb could surely be counted upon to perform the sort of job those Mission: Impossible guys did every week. Well, the old Dallas police had had a spot of tough luck on that one, but by and large, they had the situation under control. All you had to do was look at how damned orderly the world situation had become in the years since a man in a strappy T-shirt with Vitalis on his thinning hair and fried-chicken grease under his fingernails had blown out a President's brains as he sat in the back seat of a Cadillac rolling down the street of a Texas cow-town.
I'll tell Jim Gardener. When he gets back. Gard'll know what to do, how to handle it. He'll have some ideas, anyway.
Anne's voice: You're going to ask a certified loony for advice. Great.
He's not a loony. Just a little bit weird.
Yeah, arrested at the last Seabrook demonstration with a loaded . 45 in his back-pack. That's weird, all right.
Anne, shut up.
She weeded. All that morning in the hot sun she weeded, the back of her T-shirt wet with sweat, last year's scarecrow wearing the hat she usually put on to keep the sun off.
After lunch she lay down to take a nap and couldn't sleep. Everything kept going through her mind, and that stranger's voice never shut up. Dig on it, Bobbi, it's okay, dig on it
Until at last she did get up, grabbed the crowbar, spade, and shovel, and set out for the woods. At the far end of her field she paused, forehead grooved in thought, and came back for her pickax. Peter was on the porch. He looked up briefly but made no move to come with Anderson.
Anderson was not really surprised.
So about twenty minutes later she stood above it, looking down the forested slope to the trench she had begun in the ground, freeing what she now believed was a very tiny section of an extraterrestrial spacecraft. Its gray hull was as solid as a wrench or a screwdriver, denying dreams and vapors and supposings; it was there. The dirt she had thrown to either side, moist and black and forest-secret, was now a dark brown—still damp from last night's rain.
Going down the slope, her foot crunched on something that sounded like newspaper. It wasn't newspaper; it was a dead sparrow. Twenty feet further down was a dead crow, feet pointed comically skyward like a dead bird in a cartoon. Anderson paused, looked around, and saw the bodies of three other birds—another crow, a bluejay, and a scarlet tanager. No marks. Just dead. And no flies around any of them.
She reached the trench and dropped her tools on the bank. The trench was muddy. She stepped in nevertheless, her workshoes squashing in the mud. She bent down and could see smooth gray metal going into the earth, a puddle standing on one side.
What are you?
She put her hand on it. That vibration sank into her skin and seemed for a moment to go all through her. Then it stopped.
Anderson turned and put her hand on her shovel, feeling its smooth wood, slightly warmed by the sun. She was vaguely aware that she could hear no forest noises, none at all... no birds singing, no animals crashing through the undergrowth and away from the smell of a human being. She was more sharply aware of the smells: peaty earth, pine needles, bark and sap.
A voice inside her—very deep inside, not coming from the right of her brain but perhaps from the very root of her mind—screamed in terror.
Something's happening, Bobbi, something is happening right NOW. Get out of here dead chuck dead birds Bobbi please please PLEASE
Her hand tightened on the shovel's handle and she saw it again as she had sketched it—the gray leading edge of something titanic in the earth.
Her period had started again, but that was all right; she had put a pad in the crotch of her panties even before she went out to weed the garden. A Maxi. And there were half a dozen more in her pack, weren't there? Or was it more like a dozen?
She didn't know, and it didn't matter. Not even discovering some part of her had known she would end up here in spite of whatever foolish conceptions of free will the rest of her mind might possess disturbed her. A shining sort of peace had filled her. Dead animals... periods that stopped and started again... arriving prepared even after you had assured yourself the decision had not yet been taken... these were small things, smaller than small, a whole lot of boolsheet. She would just dig for a while, dig on this sucker, see if there was anything but smooth metal skin to see. Because everything
“Everything's fine,” Bobbi Anderson said in the unnatural stillness, and then she began to dig.
Gardener Takes a Fall
While Bobbi Anderson was tracing a titanic shape with a compass and thinking the unthinkable with a brain more numbed with exhaustion than she knew, Jim Gardener was doing the only work he seemed capable of these days. This time he was doing it in Boston. The poetry reading on June 25th was at BU. That went all right. The 26th was an off-day. It was also the day that Gardener stumbled—only stumble didn't really describe what happened, unfortunately. It was no minor matter like snagging your foot under a root while you were walking in the woods. It was a fall that he took, one long fucking fall, like taking a no-expenses-paid bone-smasher of a tumble down a long flight of stairs. Stairs? Shit, he had almost fallen off the face of the earth.
The fall started in his hotel room; it ended on the breakwater at Arcadia Beach, New Hampshire, eight days later.
Bobbi wanted to dig (although she would be at least temporarily diverted by the odd things which were happening to her beagle's cataract); Gard woke up on the morning of the 26th wanting to drink.
He knew there was no such thing as a “partially arrested alcoholic.” You were either drinking or you weren't. He wasn't drinking now, and that was good, but there had always been long periods when he didn't even think about booze. Months, sometimes. He would drop into a meeting once in a while (if two weeks went by in which Gard didn't attend an AA meeting, he felt uneasy—the way he felt if he spilled the salt and didn't toss some over his shoulder) and stand up and say, “Hi, my name's Jim and I'm an alcoholic.” But when the urge was absent, it didn't feel like the truth. During these periods, he wasn't actually dry; he could and did drink drink, that was, as opposed to boozing. A couple of cocktails around five, if he was at a faculty function or a faculty dinner party. Just that and no more. Or he could call Bobbi Anderson and ask if she'd like to come over to go out for a couple of cold ones and it was fine. No sweat.
Then there would come a morning like this when he would wake up wanting all the booze in the world. This seemed to be an actual thirst, a physical thing—it made him think of those cartoons Virgil Partch used to do in the Saturday Evening Post, the ones where some funky old prospector is always crawling across the desert, his tongue hanging out, looking for a waterhole.
All he could do when the urge came on him was fight it off—stand it off, try to earn a draw. Sometimes it was actually better to be in a place like Boston when this happened, because you could go to a meeting every night—every four hours, if that was what it took. After three or four days, it would go away.
He would, he thought, just wait it out. Sit in his room and watch movies on cable TV and charge them to room service. He had spent the eight years since his divorce and separation from the University of Maine as a Full-Time Poet, which meant he had come to live in an odd little subsociety where barter was usually more important than money.
He had traded poems for food: on one occasion a birthday sonnet for a farmer's wife in exchange for three shopping bags of new potatoes. “Goddam thing better rhyme, too,” the farmer had said, fixing a stony eye upon Gardener. “Real poimes rhyme.”
Gardener, who could take a hint (especially when his stomach was concerned), composed a sonnet so filled with exuberant masculine rhymes that he burst into gales of laughter after scanning the second draft. He called Bobbi, read it to her, and they both howled. It was even better out loud. Out loud it sounded like a love-letter from Dr Seuss. But he hadn't needed Bobbi to point out to him that it was still an honest piece of work, jangly but not condescending.