The Beginning of A PHOTOGRAPHIC DEATH . . .
“Are you comfortable, Jane?”
Karl Lundy looks at my daughter with the smile of a chef about to garnish his favorite piglet. It makes me want to grab her wrist and head for the door.
Yet Jane looks comfortable enough, her hair golden against the navy worsted fabric of the chair, her mouth slightly open in anticipation. Dr. Lundy seems excited too. His gray eyes keep blinking behind gold-rimmed glasses. His hand plays with a paperweight on his desk, a rose trapped under glass.
When I approached him last week and told him what we wanted, he explained that he rarely did one-offs, that he hypnotized people over the course of months for therapeutic reasons. But he didn’t refuse. Jane must be an interesting change from people trying to stop smoking or lose forty pounds.
“You need to understand that hypnosis is serious business, Ms. Laine.”
“Call me Delhi. And I’m happy to hear you say that.”
Yet I’m still uneasy, shunted off to one side on a straight chair like a husband in a dress shop. Is it too late to say we have another appointment and walk out? What if Jane is about to be traumatized for life? Whatever we learn is going be a shock, I know that. We will find out either that my youngest daughter, Caitlin, may still be alive, or that Jane stood on the river bank and watched her drown nineteen years ago. The lady or the tiger. Dear God, don’t let it be the tiger crouching behind the unopened door.
Restless, I search the room for clues as to what’s going to happen, but it is a typical doctor’s office that gives nothing away. The vanilla scent is meant to be calming, as are the paintings on the walls—country scenes of red barns and golden haystacks, mountains reflected in turquoise lakes. I wonder if someone Dr. Lundy knows painted them. The bookcases hold the kind of academic volumes that I, as a book dealer, have little interest in. I would not rescue them in case of fire.
“Jane, I’m going to put you in the light trance I told you about, and we’ll gradually regress you to the age of four. You’ll be back in the park in England on the last day you visited there.” He looks to me for confirmation and I nod. “Is there anything else you’d like to work on in your life?”
She laughs. “You mean like getting up early and going to the gym every day? Or not spending so much time in clubs?”
“Any area of your life you’d like to improve.”
“You can tell me not to buy any more expensive purses and shoes. Seriously,” she adds, seeing his expression.
“All right. Now sit back and get as comfortable as possible.”
Dr. Lundy has been standing behind his desk all this time. Now he moves to the chair on Jane’s left. They can glance at each other, but don’t have to. He is as bland and comforting as the vanilla cookie scent of his office, from his gray-and-sky-blue argyle sweater to his solid gold wedding ring. His soft Midwestern voice reminds me of Garrison Keillor telling a story.
In the pre-hypnosis interview, he gave me the facts meant to reassure me: That Jane would not be unconscious or asleep. She would be alert and attentive, able to bring material from the past into awareness. He promised he would not cross-examine her or make any suggestions he knew would be contrary to her wishes. If she became uncomfortable, she could raise her index finger and he would move away from what was upsetting her. He managed to make hypnosis sound as interesting as watching water boil.
It was what an apprehensive mother needed to hear.
“Do you want me to close my eyes?” Jane asks.
“If that makes you feel relaxed, certainly.”
“Okay.” She does, pressing deeper into the chair.
“You’re becoming very relaxed,” Dr. Lundy drones. “When you’re completely relaxed, your right arm will feel as light as air. The lightness will start in the fingers and spread up through your wrist toward your elbow. The arm will become so light that it will lift into the air on its own.”
Oh, sure, I think. And for two or three minutes nothing happens. But then her arm eerily starts to rise, the gold bracelet sliding back against the cuff of her sweater. My stomach jumps. What have I gotten us into?
Her arm floats in space until Dr. Lundy says, “As you go deeper and deeper, your arm will gradually lower back to the chair rest. When that happens you will be fully in a trance state, ready to explore the things that have happened to you in the past.”
He continues to make the same suggestions, stating them in slightly different ways. My own lids start to droop and I have to fight not to sink into the past with Jane. Both she and my other daughter, Hannah, have the ability to close their eyes and be immediately asleep, napping until a change in the atmosphere startles them. I used to be the same way.
Then, I am jerked awake, as surely as if Dr. Lundy had slapped me. Before my eyes, Jane is turning into a little girl. It’s in the way she twists in the chair, mouth slightly open in wonder. Her eyes are open now too, but they are not seeing the room we are in.
“Where are you now, Jane?” Dr. Lundy wants to know. “Are you in the park?”
“In the park,” she confirms. “We brought bread to feed the ducks. They ate all of it!”
“Who is in the park with you?”
“Mommy. And the twins. And the new baby. But we can’t see her yet.”
Dr. Lundy tenses. “Why not?”
“She’s still in Mommy’s tummy.” None of us knew then that the baby would turn out to be Jason.
Dr. Lundy smiles sheepishly, gets Jane to tell him where everyone is in the park, then summarizes for her: “So your sister, Hannah, is asleep and Mommy is taking photos of people in boats on the river, and you and Cate are playing. What happens next?”
“That lady comes.”
What lady? I don’t just tense, I pull back in the chair, galvanized, electricity running haywire through my body. I actually lean toward Jane before I remember that I am forbidden to interfere.
“Jane, I want you to look at this lady and tell me about her. What kind of clothes does she have on?”
“Her nurse clothes. She always wears her nurse clothes.”
What could she be talking about? Jane sounds as if she is used to seeing this woman in the park—how could I not have seen her, not even once?
“Does she have on a white dress like a nurse?” He waits for her to nod. “What color are her shoes?”
“Her shoes, her shoes," She actually seems to be looking down at someone’s feet. “Her shoes are brown like Daddy’s shoes. But she has on these funny stockings. With bumps.”
“Is she as old as Mommy?”
As old as Grandma? I want to demand. What kind of funny stockings? My hands are gripping the metal seat edge as if I am high on a ski lift with no restraints around me. He’s not asking her the right questions! I lift an urgent hand to catch his eye, but he is focused on Jane.
The smell of vanilla in the room is making me nauseous.
“Is the lady talking to you?”
“She says—she says, ‘Go pick that yellow flower for me and I’ll give you a toy from the carriage.’ ”
So the nightmare begins.
The beginning of AN ILLUSTRATED DEATH . . .
The dead man smiled up at me.
I stared back sadly. Then I read the newspaper clipping on my worktable one more time.
Illustrator, Granddaughter Drown in Family Pool
Tragedy struck an artistic dynasty in Springs yesterday morning when Nate Erikson, 67, and Morgan Marshall, 4, drowned in a swimming pool on the grounds of the family’s estate. The victims were rushed to Southampton Hospital, where efforts at resuscitation failed. A police spokesman stated that Mr. Erikson had been attempting to rescue his granddaughter, but succumbed himself.
Because I make my living selling used and rare books over the Internet, I spend a lot of time in the ancient barn behind my house, cataloging new finds and shipping them around the world. Dinnertime had come and gone but I worked on. I promised myself a spinach-goat cheese pizza and some Yellow Tail Chardonnay. Soon.
The story about Nate Erikson had lain next to my computer for the past three months.
There were the usual comparisons to N. C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, and Norman Rockwell and a list of some of the books Nate Erikson had illustrated: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Charles Dickens classics, and the better-known Shakespearean plays. Nate Erikson’s survivors included five children, his widow, Eve McGready Erikson, and several other grandchildren.
Whenever I read the clipping I felt the same emptiness I’d had when John Updike and Robert Parker died. My connection to Nate Erikson went back even further, to my childhood and Bible Stories for Good Children. I was not a good child, but my Methodist parents took the title at face value, never noticing the wry twists Nate gave to the illustrations. Instead of the cliché image of Noah leading pairs of docile animals onto the ark, the patriarch was shown about to lose his temper with two recalcitrant lion cubs. Isaac was pictured after the sacrifice attempt, looking at the knife in his father’s hand with disbelief.
Care for another walk up the mountain, son?
You’re kidding, right, Dad?.
My parents suspected nothing until they found my twin sister, Patience, and me trying to raise our little brother from the dead.
“Don’t breathe,” Patience commanded. “Don’t breathe until I say, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ ”
“Jon, I can see your stomach moving,” I accused.
Bible Stories for Good Children disappeared from the room we shared.
When I became a bookseller, the first thing I did was track down a replacement copy of Bible Stories. I was always on the lookout for Nate Erikson’s books and tomorrow I would have the chance to buy more at a sale that had almost slipped by me. Another book dealer had mentioned it when we were standing in line at an estate sale that morning waiting for the doors to open.
“Are you going to the sale at the Nate Erikson house tomorrow?”
"What sale? I didn’t see any ads,” I said.
“I hear they only sent invitations to bookstores.”
So what was I? Granted, I sold books over the Internet instead of owning a brick-and-mortar shop and I wasn’t listed in the yellow pages, but still …
The beginning of A Novel Death:
The day my life began to unravel--like the sweaters my mother tried to knit for us to save money--started much too early. By the time the first call came, shortly before seven A.M., I was on my third cup of espresso. I was sitting in the kitchen of the Victorian farmhouse owned by the university, a hodgepodge of wide-planked floorboards, the original scarred oak table, and Harvest Gold appliances--accented by an avocado-toned dishwasher that had died when we first moved in.
I answered the call quickly. Book buyers from Australia and Japan didn’t always get the time difference right. “Secondhand Prose.”
“ Secondhand huh--I thought this was a bookstore!”
What do you think prose is, buddy? “This is a bookstore,” I reassured him. A virtual bookshop, true, but the books were real boards and paper.
“ Yeah, well . . . I’ve got stuff to sell.”
“ Great. What kind of stuff?”
“ What kind? They aren’t a kind. They’re books! Old. Ver-ry old.” He stretched out the last two words seductively. “ One of them has this date in the front, 16-something?”
Be still, my heart. My breath caught, even as I reminded myself that books that old would would be copyrighted by Roman numerals. “Where did you get it?”
“ What--you think I stole it from some library? Nobody else asked me that!”
So he had been shopping his stuff around.
“They’re from this old house I’m cleaning out. The guy doesn’t care what I do with the stuff, he just wants everything out.”
Sadly, that sounded true. People threw incredible things into dumpsters. Of course, these books were probably mildewed, their covers hanging by threads. Even a week stored in kitty litter wouldn’t kill their smell. But I didn’t hang up. Because any book in any abandoned cellar has the potential to be the find of a lifetime. Tamerlane, Poe’s forty-page booklet of youthful poems, which recently sold at auction for $250,000, had been tossed in a bookshop sale bin because Poe had modestly designated himself only as “ A Bostonian.”
“ When can I see the books?”
“ I’ll let ya know. I’m just checking who’s interested. Then I’ll take bids.” And he hung up.
He hung up! He didn’t even give me his name! I punched in *69 to see if I could retrieve his information, but a scratchy recording let me know that“ the number of your last incoming call is private.”
Damn! I pressed the receiver to my chest, disbelieving. What did I say wrong? Should I have offered him money right away?
And then the phone rang again “ Yes, hello!”
He had realized his mistake. But there was only breathing.
“ This is Secondhand Prose,” I encouraged. Don’t be shy.
“ Delhi, it’s Margaret. Something terrible happened.” Her voice had the taut sound of someone using words that would not make her fall apart. “Lily passed away.”
“ What?” I understood “passed away,” but the Lily upended its meaning. Forty-five-year-old women, women my age, didn’t “pass away” like a calendar page being turned. An aneurysm? It had to be an aneurysm. A car accident. “What happened?”
“They aren’t sure.”
“The police.” Her voice veered dangerously.
I needed more coffee, fast.
“Can you come by the shop?”
“Of course!” But why would she open her bookstore today? “Do you need someone to--”
But Margaret had already hung up. I had not even had a chance to tell her how sorry I was about her sister.
Clicking the handset off, I picked up the small china cup and took an automatic sip before I remembered that it had gotten cold. Yuck. I clinked it back down quickly. Why would the police be involved? Did they investigate all sudden deaths?
Maybe it would be on the local cable station. I wasn’t a big TV viewer, but I knew how to turn it on. I switched it to Channel 12 and waited. At first there was a special about celebrating the Fourth of July on Sunday. Clips of last year’s fireworks at Jones Beach were shown, as well as several local parades with fire engines, Hibernian bands, and historical societies dressed up like Long Islanders of 200 years ago. I even recognized the tall ships that had visited Port Lewis, my home village, on their way to Huntington Harbor.
Come on, I willed the station, it’s time for the news. And then, at 8:00 A.M., the news began.
Lily Carlyle was actually the lead story, alternating feeds between a weary-looking news anchor and shots of the railroad tracks outside the Port Lewis Station. A photograph of Lily, perhaps supplied by the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she worked, kept flashing on. In it Lily was wearing a leaf-green caftan that made her eyes dark as jade, a hammered-gold pendant, and an enigmatic smile. Her dark hair crinkled in charming curls around her face.
According to the tired blonde reporter, Lily had lain down on the LIRR tracks in the wooded area 100 yards west of the the station and been decapitated by an engine that could not see her in time in the ten p.m. dusk.
I sat with my hand over my mouth. Why? Why would she do such a thing? The cliches kept coming. Lily had a wonderful life, everything to live for! I tried to blot out the image of her beautiful severed head rolling down from the track. That was even the train she sometimes came home from the city on!
I found I was clutching my upper arms and rocking slightly back and forth.
I’ll say it now. Lily and I never liked each other. I rarely saw her except at the annual Christmas extravaganzas the sisters gave. Last December she accepted my box of Godiva chocolates at the door as if they were something I had picked up at Seven-Eleven. It made me want to tell her how much they actually cost. But Lily took pride in never eating anything sweet; she was a tireless gym goer who rewarded herself with exotic massages and Armani scarves. She would die before she ate a cheeseburger or hot fudge sundae.
Bad choice of words. . .