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Fiction

His Artist Wife

You’re far more likely to have heard of my artist wife Lucille Hrade than of me. Her paintings have a way of communicating directly to people. They’re realistic—you can see the subjects of her portraits breathe, feel the heat of her sun-baked landscapes—but at the same time, like Andrew Wyeth’s work, they have just enough of what I call the askew in them to make you think you’re daringly enjoying experimental art. They’re ideal for feeding the pseudointellectual pretensions of the readers of color magazines, too, which is the main reason you’d be bound to recognize her work, even if her name doesn’t immediately mean anything to you.

It sounds as if I’m denigrating her art, but I’m not. Unlike many of the other painters whose stuff fills the mags you find in dentists’ waiting rooms, she’s good. There are paintings of hers not just in the Museum of Modern Art but in the Met. London’s Tate Gallery has a couple, and there’s one in the National Portrait Gallery there. Three in the Louvre, and so on. She’s a truly gifted artist.

Was.

The odd thing, though, is that, if you weren’t looking at one of her pictures while waiting your turn at the dentist, you might just possibly, at least until a few years ago, have been reading a paperback by me. Not that I’d expect you to recognize my name. I used it on a few short stories and one or two of my early novels, back in the mid-1960s, but as soon as my pace really picked up I had to start using pseudonyms. From 1964 until recently, over thirty years later, I hardly ever published less than a book a month, and some months saw two or even three appear. All paperbacks, of course—almost all, anyway; in the beginning there was a small spattering of hardcovers before my publishers realized where my true talents lay. I’ve written romances. I’ve written Westerns. I’ve written “adult” novels. I’ve written thrillers and mysteries and discreet erotica for ladies—some gay erotica, too, although I find that more difficult because I’m not gay. I’ve written fantasy and science fiction; I’ve picked up a couple of minor awards in those fields. My series of cozy detective stories featuring Fenella Reade was particularly successful; every now and then I think of adding to it. And then there are the books I’ve ghostwritten . . .

I was probably the last great King of the Pulps, and my reign was a long one.

Now that the mass market paperback’s popularity is ebbing, my output’s doing likewise. No problem. Even leaving aside Lucy’s earnings, I’ve managed to put aside enough money to keep me in comfort indefinitely. For the first time since I was nineteen, excited by the appearance of my debut novel—with my name on it, my real name—I can sit back and take my time, no agent on my neck to insist that everything be done with an eye to selling-points. I can write the novels I dreamed of writing when I started off along this helterskelter road my life has been.

That’s the hope, at least.

In practice, it’s proving a little more difficult than I’d expected.

• • • •

Lucy was killed by a dagger through her heart. They found her body in the old St. Petrock cemetery, draped across the gravestone of one Harmony G. Wright, who died in 1799. For some time the cops tried to find if there was any significance in the choice of tomb—was Harmony G. Wright an ancestor of Lucy’s perhaps?—but that line of investigation led them nowhere.

Well, obviously it wouldn’t.

As soon as the decencies allowed after Lucy’s death, I moved my computer and my books in here, to the room that served as her studio for so many years and which I think will, long after all of us have been forgotten, retain a whiff of paint and turps and linseed oil; the smell has saturated the walls. There’s the scent of remembered Lucy in the air, too, equally permanent but perhaps detectable only by me; a scent of sun and olives and red wine.

Before moving in here, I used to work in a far smaller room at the back of the house. It has smaller windows, too, although that’s no great suffering since there’s nothing to see in that direction except, in the distance, the back wall of what used to be a tire factory. Here, in what I still call Lucy’s studio, whenever inspiration flags I can look out across fields where cows amble. The contours of the land make it impossible to see the sea from here, but on the hottest days the layers of haze create the illusion of distant gray-blue water. It’s a far better place to write in than my old workroom; even so, there was never any question of its not being Lucy’s studio while she was alive. The light in here is a painter’s dream almost all the year round.

Now it’s a writer’s dream.

I don’t in fact possess copies of all of my books. Some got lost over the years. Some were lent to friends who never returned them. A few times, the publisher forgot to send me my gratis copies. But I do have most of them, including the first. The garish red spine has faded a little over the years, and is fading even faster now that it sees more sunlight, but my name is still perfectly legible there. It’s a reassurance to me that, despite the countless other names on the covers of my books, I have my own identity.

• • • •

A few days after I’d started working in here, I looked up from the screen and saw, just where the sunlight best strikes the wall by the window on a May morning, what I took at first to be a crack—a thin, crooked dark line.

The house is old. Once in an increasingly frequent while, we—I—discover some new repair that needs to be made. So finding a new crack hardly surprised me.

I returned to my work. The CD player was as usual gently playing Derek Schanner’s Lament—that devastating work of grief he composed in the wake of his wife’s vanishing during their wedding night, never to be seen again. Her name was Molly Corlen, and as the springboard for the novel I’m writing I’ve taken that fateful night when, as her brand-new husband slept, she rose from their bed of supposed bliss and set the house afire, then escaped to . . . well, what with all the flashbacks to their courtship and his earlier life, I haven’t yet got to the part where I need to know where Molly went. Why did she do it? Nobody knows. That’s why I feel free to write a novel about it—changing all the names, naturally. Whatever the truth, the Lament is one of those few musical works that readily move people to tears. It used to be on all of the classical music stations all of the time, and even on some of the rock channels. It’s less aired now, but there are few people who’d fail to recognize it within a bar or two. I play it for inspiration. I’m hoping that somehow the crushing sense of tragedy it manages to convey will survive the passage through me and into the words I write.

I have the CD player programmed to repeat the piece endlessly. This is, I guess, how we turn masterpieces into something you hear in elevators.

Who knows how many times more the fourteen-minutes-and-twenty-one-seconds Lament played through before next I looked up in the direction of the window and saw that, already, the crack had broadened and widened. I made a mental note that in the morning I must call our—my—regular handyman, Bill Klavier, to get him to come and have a look at it. Then I returned to Derek and Molly, who were by now freshly wedded but had yet to reach his “cottage” in the Hamptons for the intended consummation of their marriage.

Hunger dragged me from my tale.

It was early afternoon. The brightest of the sunlight had moved to the other wall, but the crack was much more obvious than it had been the last time I looked.

So was the fact that it wasn’t a crack.

What the wall bore was the top left-hand corner of a drawing, a drawing done in fine line. I recognized the style as Lucy’s. Some of her finest non-painting work was done in scraperboard. She’d illustrated a string of Rachel Peebles’s children’s books this way, and also the Folio Society reprint edition of the autobiography of some nineteenth-century African explorer whose name I forget. Some of her Christmas-card illustrations were done using the same technique; you’ve probably seen them, even if you don’t do Christmas.

The picture that seemed slowly to be developing on the wall by the window was in the same style, but the lines were in black on white rather than white on black. So far, the artist had completed just enough to indicate that a white and slightly under-full moon was looking down from an inky sky.

I should have been frightened, I suppose, and more recently I’ve become so—very frightened. Back then, I just sort of accepted what was happening. Most of the years I spent with Lucy were times of near-unremitting joy, but the last eighteen months or so, as the betrayal ate into us both, became a hell of pain. What right had I to expect this might end simply because she was dead?

I went downstairs to fix myself a peanut butter sandwich and a bottle of beer.

There was far more of the picture by the time I got back, maybe twenty minutes later. The dead Lucy—it never occurred to me it could be anyone else—was speeding up as she went along. Now it was confirmed that, yes, the white blob at the top left was a faceless moon, seemingly poised to fall from an off-kilter sky full of childishly Van Gogh-style stars. This was classic Lucy Hrade work—at the one time both seemingly unsophisticated and yet full of a dry, self-mocking wit.

“Hello, Lucy,” I said, half-expecting a reply.

Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t one. After what I’d done to her, she owed me nothing, least of all a response.

It seems incredible now, but my response to the silence was to get back to work. It’s very easy for writers to save energy by putting people they know into their stories rather than creating new characters, and I did exactly this innumerable times throughout my career; but now that I’m writing something I intend to be revered by posterity—sorta thing—I’m working very hard not to let Molly Corlen become a thinly disguised version of Lucille Hrade. There were some physical resemblances. Lucy was a leafy blonde with hair so long she could sit on it; sometimes as we made love, I could feel it tickling my balls. She was shorter than I was, but only just. For the record, both Molly Corlen and Lucy were quite unlike Rachel. Rachel barely comes up to my shoulder and has a chubby face and curly red hair; where Lucy’s face looked sculpted, Rachel’s looks hastily molded from clay.

Over the next hour or two, as the day deepened, I attempted to paint in words the pain my version of Molly Corlen felt as, having been browbeaten by Schanner into marrying him, she realized what must inevitably happen.

By the time I looked up, Lucy had finished creating her faux-scraperboard drawing on the wall by the window. I could now see what the squidgy moon and the equally squidgy stars were directing their agonized light towards.

Draped across the tomb of Harmony G. Wright was the stabbed corpse of my wife Lucy, the arc of her hair, as fine as silk, shining almost as bright as the moonlight, her mouth wide in her final agony, her legs awry like those of a stomped insect.

I knew the scene, of course.

• • • •

Lucy was killed by being beaten over the head repeatedly with a blunt instrument—in point of fact, one of those heavy-headed hammers you can get in Sears to use for splitting logs. I know this was the weapon because I was the one who went to Sears and bought it. I used cash for the purpose because, despite outward appearance, I’m not a complete idiot. It was weeks before a man out walking his dog discovered Lucy’s body; the dog led him to the thirty-foot disused well into which the corpse had been dropped, and the walker chanced to have a flashlight with him to shine down the shaft.

Most marriages are strong enough to survive the partners’ infidelities; it’s just that there are different strategies for doing so.

I met Rachel Peebles at a signing session she and Lucy were conducting for their first book together at the Barnes & Noble up near Lincoln Center in Manhattan. At first I hardly noticed her, didn’t really know who this stocky woman with the short red hair was, but then she came and sat beside me on a blue plastic chair and told me she was so glad at last to meet the husband of her illustrator.

“Her illustrator”?

So far as I and just about the whole of the rest of the world were concerned at the time, her book existed solely because of the Lucy Hrade illustrations. Lucy could have illustrated a Customs form and it’d have sold. Rachel was just the support act.

It was Rachel who recently, years later, helped me move all of my stuff through here into Lucy’s studio. She spent a whole morning at the bookshelves on the far wall from the windows, arranging my novels in date order, from the very first, Song of the Lonely Bullet (1964), with what was then its still passably bright red spine, through to It Was a Stark and Horny Night (1998), one of my better erotic efforts and a fitting conclusion to my pulp career. Then we had a light salad lunch together, which I prepared, and then she left. The whole time, we hardly said a word to each other.

• • • •

I find it very difficult to remember how exactly it was that Lucy died. I think this is because I’m a mass murderer—not in any literal sense, but through the number of characters I’ve dispatched, one way or another, in the books I’ve written. How many hundreds of them have I killed? I’ve no idea, and little inclination to count. There must be at least a handful in each of the mysteries and thrillers I’ve written, and far more than that in the dozen or so war novels. The body count in the spy adventures can run pretty high, too. I remember them all now, on the rare occasions that I do, as a sort of blur of carnage, as gray as the paper on which they’re printed. I think Lucy’s death is already getting lost in that haze—just one more lump in the porridge, as it were.

Today Lucy has chosen to illustrate her bludgeoning death. The view that slowly develops on the wall is as of someone looking up the shaft of the well toward a ragged circle of light that seems pitifully distant. I think it unlikely she could still have been even slightly alive by the time she was tossed down the well. My guess is that Lucy’s using artistic license to try to convey to her audience—me—the full loneliness of the dank subterranean place where she might have lain in perpetuity but for the chance discovery. For a while the ploy works on me and my heart goes out to the broken body, but then I recognize the emotional trick for what it is, a trick, and thereafter I ignore Lucy’s continuing work on the picture.

Another thing I find very hard to remember, aside from the precise manner of Lucy’s death, is how it was that Rachel Peebles moved in on our lives. We had a couple of drinks with her after that signing session. Later, on the way back to the hotel, we talked about her.

“She seems nice enough,” I said.

Lucy grinned. “She’s all right, as authors go.”

“You married one, didn’t you?”

“That’s what I mean.”

We snuggled closer together as the wind howled down Amsterdam Avenue. It was a fine night to be out together, but piercingly cold.

“You think she has any talent?” I said.

I felt her shrug. “I guess so. When I was going through her book I wasn’t really thinking about it as a reader should. I was just looking for good scenes to illustrate. I suppose I ought to sit down and read it again. The publisher wants me to do the sequel, too.”

And then we were talking of other things. I supposed I might or might not see Rachel at another signing session, or some such. I wasn’t greatly concerned, either way.

Yet somehow, by the end of the next few months, Rachel Peebles had become an integral part of our life. I’d emerge from my little study at the end of a day’s work to find Rachel was to have supper with us, that she’d been consulting in the studio with Lucy during the afternoon about the new book, or maybe serving as a model—not that Lucy ever had much use for models. I wasn’t particularly averse to the woman’s presence—I’d decided she was pleasant enough—but I was unsettled by the way that we, who had always been two, seemed now to be sharing ourselves with a third. I told myself things would go back to normal after Lucy completed the new set of illustrations, but it didn’t happen like that.

Years, and more books, went by. More books by me, too, but who was counting those?

When Lucy suggested Rachel could move into the house, taking over the attic, which it would be easy enough to partition off as a semi-autonomous apartment, I drew the line.

“It’s not that I don’t like her,” I explained. “You know I do. We have a lot of fun when she’s around. But what we have, what we are, just the two of us, I think that’s something valuable enough to fight to preserve.”

Lucy held my gaze for a long moment and I thought we were going to have one of our rare but remarkably stormy arguments. However, she let the matter drop. That was the last I heard of it.

• • • •

The novel I’m writing about Derek Schanner and his wife-for-a-few-hours Molly Corlen is surely not the truth of what went on between them, surely not the solution to their mystery. As I said, I’m changing the names and I’m just using what I’ve read in the papers as a launchpad for my own imagining of what might have been.

Rather in the same way that I first met Rachel at a public event, a book-signing session, in my story Derek first sees Molly across a crowded room at the party after the premiere of his second viola concerto, conducted by the composer. The difference is that, while I barely registered Rachel at the time, Derek is instantly smitten by the tall woman with the elfin face, her head to one side as she politely listens to someone he vaguely recognizes—one of the clarinets, perhaps. Derek knows nothing about her or who she might have arrived with tonight; he doesn’t care; all he knows is that he must have her. He’s a man accustomed to having the women he wants, is Derek Schanner. In his mid-forties by now, a powerful presence, he exudes an aura of power that makes him attractive to many women. Even those who’re not at first drawn by him find their reluctance melting in the face of the air of inevitability he brings to his seductions. His prematurely white shock of hair is famous around the world, his heavy, clumsy-seeming features and the pronounced aquiline nose as immediately identifiable as my Lucy’s artworks. The great man anticipates little resistance as he pushes his way through the admiring throngs towards her.

Initially she seems open to his advances. For the rest of the evening he feeds her a steady stream of glasses of champagne, all of which she quietly discards untasted when she thinks he’s not looking. He never did discover why she was at the party that night, or who invited her. When he offers to escort her home, she agrees. He tells his driver Henry to take them to the address in the Village that Molly reels off. When they get there, Derek tells the driver to go home . . . which proves a mistake, because Molly doesn’t invite him in. Three minutes later, he finds himself standing alone on a cold drizzly night on the sidewalk of some godforsaken street in the Village that he doesn’t recognize, wondering if a taxi will ever come along.

At least she gave him her phone number.

For the next days and weeks, Derek Schanner woos this ethereal creature with all the charms at his disposal. He wines her and dines her—not that she ever eats or drinks anything—and they visit the theater a couple of times, embarking on carriage rides in the park afterwards. But at the end of each evening, he discovers himself going home alone, his lips unkissed. At no point does she ever seem to reject him, he doesn’t feel the sting of a rebuff, yet the result’s the same as if she had. And the strangeness of this experience is a part of what enchants him about her. Even when he’s letting off a little steam with one of the groupies who habitually cluster around him, all he can think of is Molly Corlen: her eyes, her smile, the shadow of her hair on her cheek, the way she moves her fingers as she speaks to emphasize each point . . .

It finally dawns on him that the only way he’s ever going to be able to carnally possess her is by marrying her. Well, if that’s what’s required, it’s the price he’ll have to pay. He has never really contemplated marriage before, but, as far as he can understand, it shouldn’t make too much difference to his lifestyle. (He never dreams she might refuse him.) He assumes she’s the modern kind of woman who’ll let him carry on playing the field as he’s always done, and it wouldn’t really upset him if she followed the same rulebook. So, that night in the Oyster Bar when he asks for her hand, he has it all settled in his mind how things will pan out.

But she turns him down flat.

At first he’s too busy signing autographs for the waiters to hear her aright. When he finally understands what she’s telling him, he can’t believe it.

So he asks her again.

And again she tells him that, if ever she were to marry anyone, he would figure pretty high up on the list of her possible choices. However, it is impossible for her to marry, or even to take a lover. She’s sorry if she’s led him to expect otherwise, if he feels he’s wasted his time and money and emotions, but that’s just the way it has to be. She wants him to be assured that she’s really very, very fond of him. If only . . .

And she shakes that heavenly head of hers, her sapphire eyes damp with regret.

For a whole week and a half, the great man resists contacting her—although he sees her everywhere he goes, in reflections from windows, in rain puddles on Lexington Avenue, in the eyes of the women he bangs in a failed attempt to forget how the course of his life, which until recently he could quite clearly see stretching out ahead of him, has suddenly taken this dire wrong turn.

A week and a half he lasts, and then he’s on the phone to her, like a boy plucking up courage to invite the school belle to the prom.

Oh, yes, how she’d love to see him again. These ten days of estrangement have been as hard on her as they have on him.

They walk around Battery Park together for an hour and a half one warm spring morning, and then on a whim they catch the Staten Island Ferry. At some point on the way back he asks her to marry him again, and this time she tells him that, yes, if it’s so important to him to make her his wife, then she’ll concede. She’ll be, she adds, his wife in the sense of loving companion and every other way he might ask, except one.

Needless to say, the one exception is the aspect of marital life that the maestro’s most interested in. Still, he tells himself, surely after they’re hitched she’ll mellow on that prohibition, too.

So they set the day, and the invitations go out, and the cheaper tabloids show other people’s rear ends and claim this is Molly Corlen’s secret cellulite. It’s rumored there are fistfights as the competition heats up for those treasured invitations.

And the day comes, and it’s all as you’d have thought it would be—at least during the ceremony and the party afterwards. Finally Henry arrives with the limo. Surely enough, the wags have already got to it, or perhaps it was Henry himself. There’s JUST MARRIED painted in psychedelic pink lipstick all over the back window of what should be a stately vehicle, and tin cans and dildos are tied to the fender. Everyone knows the closely kept secret that the loving couple are going to spend their first night of wedded bliss at Derek’s “cottage” in the Hamptons before heading off to a Caribbean island where they’ll be spared any sight of the local poverty.

That night, with Henry firmly banished to the coach house and the housekeeper vacationing with her sister, Derek Schanner picks up his new bride in his arms and carries her with ease up the spiral staircase to where the master bedroom awaits them. All that’s needed is a thunderstorm and you could make an old movie out of this. While she sits on the side of the bed looking strangely more nervous than even a maidenly bride should look, he goes around the room lighting candles and scented pots. For the first time in his memory he, too, is a tad nervous, as if her uncertainty is infecting him.

But the time comes when he gives her a broad smile, strides across the room to her and, as she leans forward in acquiescence, starts unzipping her dress.

A minute later she’s entirely revealed to him, even though they’ve not yet so much as kissed.

Poor Derek Schanner stands aghast at the filthy trick Fate has played on him.

In a sense, Molly Corlen’s form is as beautiful as he’s imagined it would be—twice as beautiful, three times. She’s the color of gold—not a tan but a dusky version of the metal’s color. And this isn’t a woman’s body; it’s entirely featureless, like that of a mannequin. She has neither nipples nor navel. At her crotch and between the cheeks of her firm small rear is just smooth skin.

To another man, the horror would be that his new bride wasn’t human. To Derek Schanner the horror is that he can’t screw her.

“I tried to tell you,” she says as he sits down on the bed beside her and starts to weep. “I tried to tell you my people can’t make love. We’re not like you. We don’t eat, we don’t excrete. We don’t bear offspring. We live forever and we don’t age. No one knows how we came into being, no one knows where we’ll end, if ever we will.”

But this is Derek Schanner she’s speaking to, the idol of millions, the man who’s never encountered a denial he couldn’t somehow trample underfoot. These past few weeks he’s managed, uncharacteristically, to keep his passions for her in check. He’s not going to be denied now. He doesn’t care if she’s one of the goddam Sidhe—his most likely hypothesis—or an alien from the planet 61 Cygni C, or whatever she is.

He leaps from the bed, stands before her rampant, and pulls her towards his loins . . .

As the chronicler of this fiction, I know what has happened by a few minutes later—he’s lying in a satiated stupor in the bed, unknowing that all around him the flames are spreading through the room. What I don’t know is how my story crosses the small gap between those two points. By the time the fire’s started, Molly Corlen has gone, but whether she’s fled, leaving Schanner’s candles and scent pots to immolate him for her, or whether she deliberately set the blaze, or whether it was she herself who, in the midst of a passion she was never intended to experience, became the source of the conflagration . . . As I say, I don’t know. I’ve written it one way, and then another, and it has never quite worked for me.

One of the reasons I play the Lament so interminably is in hopes that Schanner built into that piece an explanation of what actually happened on his wedding night.

• • • •

Lucy was found at the bottom of the East River with her feet in a bucket of concrete, her hands tied behind her back and a gag wound so tightly around her mouth that two of her front teeth broke. Alternatively, she blew her own brains out with a sawn-off shotgun just before casting herself over the edge of the Palisades to die a hundred feet below. Or she was thrown into the caldera of an active volcano to serve as a ritual fertility sacrifice; only when the gods didn’t intervene on their behalf did the people who’d thrown her there realize she had perhaps not been, after all, a virgin. In adjacent realities, she was found hanging beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, her garments weighted with stones and her tongue a black knot; she was the victim of a hit-and-run, the driver of the car responsible looking much as if (according to the drunken drifter who was the sole witness) he might be a distinguished conductor and composer; or she fell dead at a distinguished reception at the Guggenheim when her neck was pierced by a curare-tipped dart.

All of these deaths of hers actually happened, I’m sure. I just can’t remember which one of them was, you know, the death.

On her occasional visits, Rachel tells me I shouldn’t be worrying about little details like this. This morning she was here again, bringing provisions to stock the fridge, checking I hadn’t run out of paper for the john, putting new sheets on the bed and sticking the old, soiled ones into the washing machine. She’s become my minder—I suppose out of duty, perhaps out of guilt over what we did to Lucy.

She didn’t seem to notice the scraperboard illustration growing on the wall by the window. Today Lucy has illustrated her death by hanging. We, her audience, are looking down on silver-tipped black waters. There’s a mass in the lower part of the picture that at first it’s hard to identify; then we realize we’re looking at foreshortened knees and bound feet.

Was Lucy really as calm as this as she died, however it was that she did die? Did she really keep observing the world around her until the very last, recording everything she saw? And why has she never chosen, in these accusatory illustrations of hers, to depict her killer? I keep looking for my own face, but I’m never there. Is this her final rejection of me—not even to acknowledge my role in her demise?

• • • •

The novel is, I think, going well. I’ve padded out a little the sequence in which Derek Schanner finds himself in the Village with no immediately discernible transport home. I’ve also added some sex scenes between him and his floozies, which didn’t take me very long; I simply chose at random from a few of my romantica titles and, not to put too fine a point upon it, set to work with the scanner and OCR. I’ll probably take them out again, and certainly rewrite them if I don’t, but it entertained me to spice up the narrative a little. I’m not sure this is how art is supposed to be done, but it was the way Lucy sometimes did it. She incorporated what she called objets trouvés into her work: a faucet here, a toothbrush there, sometimes an antique theater program or a crushed, decades-old foil top from a milk bottle.

And, I grow increasingly to think, me.

It was some years after Rachel appeared on our scene that I began to wonder if Lucy thought of our marriage, and of me, as just some artwork under construction.

• • • •

No one else ever comes here any more, except Rachel, as if Lucy’s death has cast some kind of blight over the house and its surrounding area, a poisonous miasma (good pulp word!) drifting and curling like the one I always imagine encircling the House of Usher. Since I almost never go out, I’m reliant on Rachel’s generosity to bring me food and other supplies. I try not to think of what would happen if she stopped coming. I also try not to think of why she keeps returning. It’s a three-hour drive each way from New York, so each visit costs her a day of time. Does she feel obligated to me in some way because of all that’s passed between us?

About three weeks ago, Lucy’s daily scraperboard illustration took a new tack. Always, before, her depictions were of her own manner of death, intended, I assume, to point the finger of guilt at me, to fill me with remorse. It so far hadn’t worked. I appreciated the art, sometimes I found it facile, sometimes I was moved by it, initially I was rather unnerved by the fact that it was there at all, but it didn’t really threaten me.

On this particular day, though, something drew my attention to the growing patch on the wall long before there was anything recognizable there to see. Rachel had been here the day before, and there’d been some more thawing of the difficult tension between us. Today I was still feeling warmed in the aftermath of it, almost in the way that, years ago, I’d have felt the day after a good night out with Lucy. We’d even had what might have passed for a normal conversation—about the weather, mostly. She left behind a copy of the New York Times for me, and I looked at it with as much interest as I could muster for stories about people of whom I’d never heard doing things that made no sense to me.

By mid-morning of the day after Rachel’s visit, Lucy had completed perhaps a quarter of her new picture. Usually she worked from the top-left corner across and down, finishing at the bottom right. This time, however, she was scraping over the full width as she worked downward. There was a bar of blackness at the top, merging at either side into black triangles that cut off the corners of the rectangular area. I’d just made my mid-morning java when I recognized what she’d drawn so far as part of a stylized coffin, open to reveal the person lying within. Already I could see the forehead of the corpse, and part of one eyebrow.

Fascinated, I stayed there watching for the next half hour or so as the illustration silently expanded: the other eyebrow, the bridge of the nose. Lucy’s treatment of the hair was puzzling. In life she wore her hair long, tied back in a bunch while she was working but otherwise falling free down her back. It was fine enough that it moved with the least draft, its tips never still. Yet here she was drawing it as quite short—not short and curly like Rachel’s, but untidy and receding from the brow like . . .

Like mine.

My java almost forgotten in my hand, I perched on the edge of my desk. Years ago we had a television set in the house; finally it broke down and we hauled it to the local recycling center. Since neither of us had ever watched it much, there was no great incentive to replace it, and in fact we never did. The last six months or so of its residence here, it sometimes worked enough that you could watch the picture all right, but whatever you did, the soundtrack stayed mute. The few occasions that we tried to follow discussion programs or news broadcasts were especially frustrating. There were enough clues on the screen to give us a general idea of what was going on, but that was about it.

I was experiencing the same frustration now, only more so because everything was happening in the slowest of motions. I couldn’t but assume that Lucy must be entirely aware of the irritation the situation was causing me. Had she wanted to convey her message more immediately, she could always just have scribbled words on the wall for me to read.

After a time, I wrenched myself away. By now it was clear this was indeed my face that Lucy was drawing. We’d always told each other in life that, however bad things between us might one day become through circumstances we couldn’t foresee—and even when they did become that bad because of Rachel Peebles—at least we’d never hate each other. Had Lucy finally discovered we were wrong? Killing someone isn’t necessarily an act of hatred, and sometimes can be born from the deepest love. Her new picture, on the other hand, seemed motivated entirely by hatred.

I took this thought back with me to my novel. It’s hard to know if the emotion Derek Schanner felt toward Molly Corlen was actually love, and in my novel I’m not giving him the benefit of the doubt. My fictional version of him desired Molly only because of a mixture of lust and the imperative to demonstrate to the cosmos or maybe to his own dark god that, if ever Derek Schanner wants something, he’ll achieve it no matter the obstacles; he broke down Molly’s resolve mainly just to prove that he could, in other words. But what of Molly’s feelings toward him? She must have known from the very outset that any attempt they made to become man and wife was doomed to deep catastrophe, and yet she finally let herself be persuaded into it. Surely she must have been profoundly in love with the man, so strongly that she permitted her love to convince her they could somehow escape the inevitable.

But that’s a simplistic reading. In the story I’m telling, Molly Corlen is something other than human. What sort of being is she? Like poor Derek on his wedding night, I can’t even guess if she’s a creature out of legend—if all those tales of Fairyland are true—or something stranger yet than that. For a time, I thought it was essential to my novel that I should be clear on this; then I discovered it was unnecessary. I’d decided long ago, soon after I started work on the book, that my narrator—my viewpoint character—should be Molly’s sister, who has come to New York to seek revenge for Molly’s fate. Since the sister knows entirely what kind of beings she and Molly are, there’s no need for me—or the reader—to do so.

But all this is an aside. What I’m trying to say is that Molly’s actions seem to have been born from a powerful love for the maestro, but, if she wasn’t human, we cannot know what emotions she experienced. We cannot know if her kind are capable of anything remotely similar to what we’d call love.

I spent much of the afternoon wrestling with this familiar problem, and almost forgot Lucy’s latest communiqué. It was only when the shadows of the day had lengthened enough for me to have to switch on my desk lamp that I remembered.

There was still plenty of light at the window for me to see what she’d drawn there.

I’d been right to deduce it was a head-and-shoulders portrait of me in my coffin. But Lucy had taken the trouble to detail how I’d gotten there.

My throat was slashed wide open in a blow so forceful you could see a quill of splintered vertebra at the back. The knife was still in this ghastly wound. The blood had pooled and coagulated on the coffin velvet all around my neck. Maggots had populated one eye but the other looked still almost alive.

And Lucy had included one of those little fantasticated touches that always made her art so appealing to the public.

Coiled in the blood just above my left shoulder there was a small snake, no more than four inches long and proportioned to match. It was staring straight out of the wall, straight out at me.

Somehow she’d managed to add a couple of small spots of color.

The eyes through which the snake was staring at me were a bright, malevolent scarlet, like tiny rubies stuck to the wall.

Only I daren’t reach out to touch them.

• • • •

Since Lucy and I both worked at home—out here miles from anywhere except an abandoned tire factory, more of which falls down each winter, and a couple of similarly dilapidated cottages that lurk hairily by the roadside like some evolutionary ancestor of the sheep—we weren’t apart very often. The nearest population center, Dogged Creek, twenty minutes away by car, has perhaps two hundred souls. When she had to attend exhibition previews or book launches, I tried to engineer it that I went with her—deadlines permitting, which most often they didn’t. There were never, of course, any book launches for me; the publishers of my novels, at least in this country, were releasing batches of four and six books in each genre a month, sometimes more, and my titles were lost in there somewhere. Often the books I ghosted for celebrities had lavish launch parties, but naturally I was never invited to them in case it became obvious who I was.

It didn’t cross my mind that any predatory lover might choose to take advantage of those separations. But then I didn’t until too late recognize Rachel Peebles as the threat to our marriage she eventually became.

How did she persuade Lucy it would be a good idea for Rachel to come live with us? Did she think we could settle down to some sort of amiable ménage à trois?

Their affair must have been going on for a couple of years by then. Even when Lucy floated the idea of Rachel’s coming to live in the house, I saw nothing more sinister than a friendship that had become perhaps too intense, the way friendships can. It was only months afterwards that I began to put two and two together, and asked Lucy outright if, during those times she was away from the house on professional engagements, Rachel was going with her, was sharing her hotel beds.

“Yes,” said Lucy. “I thought you knew.”

It was the strangest reply imaginable.

“Don’t you think I’d have said something about it if I had?”

“I thought your silence was acceptance, that you loved me enough to know there was another side to me.”

“You mean Rachel wasn’t the first?”

“Of course she was!” We were standing downstairs in the kitchen. Sunlight from the bay window was reflecting brightly off polished pots and pans and making the blue-checked tablecloth seem like a young woman’s summery frock. Outside, some songbird was having a really bad day. “Until she came along,” said Lucy, “I’d never even thought of another woman as a possible lover. I’ll not lie, Eric. There’ve been times I’ve been tempted by men—and there’ve been plenty who’ve made it pretty plain they were available if ever I should feel the need—but women? Hey, never. And then there was Rachel, and all my perspectives became different.”

“But why? She’s no raging beauty. She’s clever and she tells a good joke, but—”

“Why did I fall in love with you, Eric?”

Despite the tenseness of the moment, I chuckled. “It’s always puzzled me. I’ve tried never to think about it too hard in case you come to your senses and dump me. Which I suppose, now, you have.”

She stepped forward and took my face between her hands. “Don’t be such an idiot. How could I ever stop loving you?”

“You’ve just told me you’re in love with Rachel.”

“Yes?”

“Doesn’t that mean that—?”

“No. Where did this myth come from that we can only ever love one person at a time? My love for Rachel, the love she has for me, they don’t reduce in the slightest how much I love you.”

Already by then I was writing the early stages of my novel about Molly Corlen and the man whose desire for her took over complete control of his being. As Lucy stood there in front of me with the sun catching her hair, I began to realize how many points of physical resemblance there were between her and the fictional Molly Corlen. Had I, despite all of my intentions, used Lucy subconsciously as my model for Molly? Or was the resemblance genuine? I tried to bring back to mind all those photographs there’d been in the papers around the time of the Schanners’ grand society wedding, both before and after, but the only face among the gray columns was Lucy’s.

“It’s hard to take in,” I said inadequately.

She threw her arms around me, held me close. “Don’t let it be. If you love me as much as I love you, you’ll realize it’s just a new aspect of me, something extra that makes my life more complete than I ever thought it could be.”

Reflex made me want to return her embrace, but I found my arms were still by my side.

“This is going to take some getting used to,” I said. “I’ll try, I’ll try, I’ll try. But I never want to see a hair of Rachel Peebles ever again.”

“You sound so full of hatred,” murmured Lucy against my neck.

“I’ll try to . . . dilute that,” I said.

Naturally, we ended up in bed. Later, wishing I hadn’t given up smoking twenty years ago, I said, “But I still never want to see Rachel again.”

And I never did, until the funeral.

• • • •

It’s been a while since Lucy last drew an illustration of my corpse, and I’ve been working away unrelentingly. I seem to have spent longer on this novel than on any dozen of my previous ones. I think this is because it has somehow become a map of my own life, and that if I ever get to the ending then I’ll immediately become that mutilated and maggot-raddled coffin-bound dead ’un of Lucy’s portrait. It’s not that I’m putting off the evil moment, though—don’t get that impression. It’s more that I’m trying to make my map as perfect as it can be. Once I believe I’ve succeeded in that, then I’ll have no reluctance to type THE END the way I have to so many novels before.

Today it’s been difficult to work, though.

The first thing that became visible at the scraperboard drawing’s top-left corner was a crossbar with a hand nailed to it. Surely I couldn’t have killed Lucy like this? Surely she couldn’t have killed me like this! It wasn’t within either of us to be so cruel. On the other hand, I’d never have thought Lucy would have had the cruelty in her to paint that little scarlet-eyed snake.

I was disturbed enough even by the beginnings of the crucifixion picture that I had to abandon work for a while and go outside for a walk. It must have been weeks since last I left the house. The garden always looked dreadful because Lucy and I could never be bothered to do much about it and the gardener we hired from Dogged Creek seemed content just to turn up every week and do virtually nothing except collect his pay. A few weeks after we’d fired him, I found his marijuana plantation down behind the toolshed and, as Lucy and I smoked the product, we made increasingly confused calculations as to whether or not we’d got our money’s worth from him. Thereafter, Lucy did some desultory weeding from time to time, just to keep things under control. I haven’t even done that. If anyone ever wants cuttings of poison ivy or wisteria, here’s the place to apply.

I looked out from the garden towards where you can’t, in fact, see the sea from here. Today is yet another fine day, and already the warmth of the sunshine was building up. Aside from the birds and insects, there wasn’t the slightest sound, not even the rustle of leaves. I slowly closed my eyes until they were almost shut, creating the illusion that I was leaching color from the scene.

I’d stepped into Lucy’s scraperboard world.

I looked down at the ragged grass under my feet.

A small viper looked back up at me with scarlet eyes.

This, I at once recalled, was why I never go outside any more if I can help it.

• • • •

I’m trying to convince myself that I’m not waiting to see the completion of Lucy’s crucifixion picture. I throw myself into my newest revision of Chapter Eight.

Molly Corlen’s sister, who is far less acclimatized to the busy human world than Molly ever was, is combing Manhattan for the selfish maestro who brought about her sibling’s disappearance. She has fewer clues than you might expect because, unlike Molly, she can’t understand human speech—in fact, she lacks the ability to hear, and sees only in the ultraviolet. She doesn’t have the urge that Molly had to present herself as beautiful to the world; since most people can’t see her, this is barely important, but dogs and cats flee from her as from the fiends of hell, and infants scream themselves into dangerous red-faced fits. Too, Molly’s sister hasn’t given herself a name; I toyed with inventing one for her, but soon abandoned the notion. No, she’s just Molly’s Sister, who, like Grendel’s Mother, namelessly and far more awfully hunts to avenge a lesser monster.

It struck me after I came back inside that every one of us has a Molly Corlen, the person whom we desire beyond all reason but whom we should never, ever attain. Derek Schanner, as we’ve seen, violated this universal principle and paid the price for it in terms of a lifetime of grief; after the Lament, which immortalized his pain, he never wrote anything else of value. He’s probably still in circulation—in Hollywood, maybe, doing soundtracks for minor sequels, or on the cocktail circuit somewhere, decorating rich people’s soirées—but the important part of his existence is over. I’m wondering as I work if perhaps Lucy was my own Molly Corlen but that it took me decades to realize it.

I start weaving some thoughts like these into my narrative.

I become utterly absorbed. From time to time, searching for the right word, I look toward the window for a moment and see that Lucy’s working far faster than usual today; and, by the time I’m thinking of taking a break for lunch, the space she allots herself for the daily illustration is already full.

Wearily, I pick myself up from my desk and take the few steps to the window area.

Some of her pictures of her own death and mine have disturbed me, some have been very painful for me, and increasingly they’ve started to frighten me, but today’s is the first to truly terrify me.

What I thought was a crossbar is the back of a chair. The hand resting on it isn’t nailed; it just has a great big liver spot in the center of the palm. The hand is mine. I’m sprawled on the chair like a sack someone has dumped there. What’s so scary is that it’s evident I’m alive, but there’s no light of understanding in the eyes of that scraperboard face. My open mouth drools. I’m wearing a bathrobe and pajamas and slippers; one of my slippers is resting in a small pool of liquid, and it’s all too easy to guess what the liquid is. There are other people visible in the room behind me, all of them likewise lolling in armchairs, most of them facing toward the bulky block of a television set.

The sense of reality is astonishing, adding to my terror. This has always been Lucy’s great talent, making reality somehow more real than you’ve ever known it. Me, by contrast, even if you take all my hundreds of pulp novels together, the best I’ve ever achieved is a sort of imitation of that, a false life. The drawing convinces me that this is my real future, that rather than be inventively murdered—the way it seems to me I must have murdered Lucy when her relationship with Rachel became intolerable to me—rather than be murdered, I’m going to have to endure my final days suffering interminable miseries of soul and unable to express or even understand them.

I was wrong to think Lucy has no cruelty. She’s done something far crueler to me than exact a sentence of death. She has declared me superfluous to requirements, painted over her memories of me.

I’m still reeling when I hear the downstairs door open. It must be Rachel come to call again, so soon, and in a sense it is.

I peer from the shadowy top of the stairs as a young couple come into the house with a small child hand-in-hand between them and a scruffy dog dancing around their ankles. Behind them comes a woman with that kind of carefully nurtured brassy near-prettiness that shrieks realtor, and behind her there comes Rachel Peebles, dressed more formally than I’ve ever seen her before in a two-piece suit of some tasteful tweed.

Who are these people?

I soon discover most of their names, at least. The couple are Mike and Djera, and the child scampering upstairs and then down again while her parents are still examining the kitchen is Angie, who tells Rachel more than once that she’ll soon be ten.

“Come upstairs!” cries Angie. “There’s a room with a thousand books in it!”

Mike and Djera laugh, and obediently follow their offspring. They walk right past me as if they can’t see me. The mongrel stays in the kitchen.

When Mike sees the shelves of my novels the smile fades from his face, and I can see him calculating whether or not they might be worth anything.

“They’re all by the same author,” says Rachel. “I can have them hauled off to the dump or . . .”

“But they have lots of different names on them,” says Mike, by now close by the shelves.

“Lucille Hrade’s husband was very prolific,” says Rachel. “He used dozens of noms de plume. Did Mrs. McConnell”—a sharp glance at Brassy Woman—“not tell you the history of the house?”

“She told us it belonged to an artist,” says Djera. “But Lucille Hrade—wow! Did you hear that, Mike? We could be living in the house where Lucille Hrade once painted.”

“This was her studio for many years,” says Rachel.

“We could make this our bedroom!” cries Djera, gazing around her, her hands clasped, her pretty face glowing.

Angie has pulled out a book. Mike takes it from her, examines it, sees the cover picture and the title—Rod Studly: Master Spy (1977)—and hastily stuffs it back onto the shelf.

“These aren’t books for you,” he tells his daughter.

“And Lucille Hrade”—he turns to Rachel—“where is she now?”

“She decided a few years ago to live permanently in New York, where all the art business is. She and her husband, the writer . . . they drifted apart. After the divorce, he lived on here until age . . . got the better of him. He was much older than she was, you see.”

“He died here?” says Djera, her gleeful expression souring a little.

“No,” says Rachel. “We found him a home. They look after him very competently there.”

“‘We’?” says Mike.

Rachel nods at him. “I’ve been a family friend for many years. Rachel Peebles. I write for children. Angie may have read some of my books.”

It’s immediately obvious that Angie hasn’t.

“The break-up was very difficult for Lucy,” Rachel continues after an awkward pause. “When she came to New York, she stayed in my apartment until she could find somewhere of her own. As chance would have it, the apartment next door fell vacant just a couple of months later, so now we’re neighbors as well as good friends.”

She smiles. How nice. A story with a happy ending.

The child is looking straight at me but I realize that, like the rest of them—Rachel aside—she doesn’t know I’m here. She’s looking through me to the place on the wall by the window where Lucy’s drawings appear.

I turn. Today’s offering has disappeared, all but a sort of lingering patchwork of lines.

“There’s something on the wall,” says Angie.

Mike chuckles. “It’s all right, daughter o’ mine. Nothing to worry about.” He comes across and brushes the last of the drawing away. “Just a yucky old cobweb. I’m surprised there aren’t more of them around, the house being empty all this while.”

“You have Ms. Peebles to thank for that,” says the McConnell creature. “She’s been popping in from time to time to make sure everything’s shipshape.”

“I love the place,” says Djera firmly.

Angie concurs.

“We’ll need to have an appraiser go over the house,” says Mike. “But assuming he’s happy . . .” His gaze roams the room and its tall windows through which you feel as if you ought to be able to see the distant sea. “Assuming all that,” he says dreamily, “I think this is where we’re going to build our future together, we three.”

“I’d be so glad,” says Rachel. “This house had so many happy memories before it acquired . . . the sadder ones. It’ll be lovely to have a young family here to drive the sadness away.”

There’s more small talk, mainly between Mike and the realtor as they talk through the logistics of the appraisal and other matters, and then everyone is trooping down the stairs. The dog, whose name is Dibs, is put back on the leash in case he goes running away across the fields.

Rachel Peebles ushers the others out but hangs back a moment herself.

She looks up the stairs to where I’m standing, smiles, and winks one of her hard, knowing little blood-scarlet eyes at me.

Then the door closes and she’s gone.

• • • •

Despite all of these unwelcome distractions, I think my new novel is going rather well. I am, though, uncertain that I will finish it.

John Grant

John Grant

John Grant has written over 70 books. His fiction includes The World (1992), The Far-Enough Window (2002), The Dragons of Manhattan (2008) and Leaving Fortusa (2008), plus numerous short stories, some collected as Take No Prisoners (2004) and Tell No Lies (2014). With artist Bob Eggleton he created the two “illustrated fictions” Dragonhenge (2002) and The Stardragons (2005); the former brought a Hugo nomination.

His nonfiction includes The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (three editions (1987, 1993, 1998), The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997, with John Clute), The Chesley Awards (2003, with Elizabeth Humphrey and Pamela D. Scoville) and a series of books on the misuse/misunderstanding of science: Discarded Science (2006), Corrupted Science (2007), Bogus Science (2009) and Denying Science (2011), plus the YA books Debunk It! (2014) and Eureka! (2016). His A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir (2013) is the largest film noir encyclopedia in the English language. He has won two Hugo awards, a World Fantasy Award, and others.

May 2018 sees the publication of the new edition—nearly twice as long as the original and a decade in the making—of his critically acclaimed Corrupted Science.