Misery

Page 14

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"Cliff-hangers, they called them," he ventured.

She frowned at him. "I know that, Mister Smart Guy. Gosh, sometimes I think you must believe I'm awful stupid!"

"I don't, Annie, really." She waved a hand at him impatiently, and he understood it would be better - today, at least - not to interrupt her. "It was fun to try and think how he would get out of it. Sometimes I could, sometimes I couldn't. I didn't really care, as long as they played fair. The people who made the story." She looked at him sharply to make sure he was taking the point. Paul thought he could hardly have missed it.

"Like when he was unconscious in the airplane. He woke up, and there was a parachute under his seat. He put it on and jumped out of the plane and that was fair enough." Thousands of English-comp teachers would disagree with you; my dear, Paul thought. What you're talking about is called a deus ex machina, the God from the machine, first used in Greek amphitheaters. When the playwright got his hero into an impossible jam, this chair decked with flowers came down from overhead. The hero sat down in it and was drawn up and out of harm's way. Even the stupidest swain could grasp the symbolism - the hero had been saved by God. But the deus ex machina - sometimes known in the technical jargon as "the old parachute-under-the-airplane-seat trick", finally went out of vogue around the year 1700. Except, of course, for such arcana as the Rocket Man serials and the Nancy Drew books. I guess you missed the news, Annie.

For one gruesome, never-to-be-forgotten moment, Paul thought he was going to have a laughing fit. Given her mood this morning, that would almost surely have resulted in some unpleasant and painful punishment. He raised a hand quickly to his mouth, pasting it over the smile trying to be born there, and manufactured a coughing fit.

She thumped him on the back hard enough to hurt.

"Better?"

"Yes, thanks."

"Can I go on now, Paul, or were you planning to have a sneezing fit? Should I get the bucket? Do you feel as if you might have to vomit a few times?"

"No, Annie. Please go on. What you're saying is fascinating." She looked a little mollified - not much, but a little. "When he found that parachute under the seat, it was fair. Maybe not all that realistic, but fair." He thought about this, startled - her occasional sharp insights never failed to startle him - and decided it was true. Fair and realistic might be synonyms in the best of all possible worlds, but if so, this was not that world.

"But you take another episode," she said, "and this is exactly what's wrong with what you wrote yesterday, Paul, so listen to me."

"I'm all ears." She looked at him sharply to see if he was joking. His face, however, was pale and serious - very much the face of a conscientious student. The urge to laugh had dissipated when he realized that Annie might know everything about the deus ex machina except the name.

"All right," she said. "This was a no-brakes chapter. The bad guys put Rocket Man - only it was Rocket Man in his secret identity - into a car that didn't have any brakes, and then they welded all the doors shut, and then they started the car rolling down this twisty-turny mountain road. I was

on the edge of my seat that day, I can tell you." She was sitting on the edge of his bed - Paul was sitting across the room in the wheelchair. It had been five days since his expedition into the bathroom and the parlor, and he had recuperated from that experience faster than he would ever have believed. Just not being caught, it seemed, was a marvellous restorative.

She looked vaguely at the calendar, where the smiling boy rode his sled through an endless February.

"So there was poor old Rocket Man, stuck in that car without his rocket pack or even his special helmet with the one-way eyes, trying to steer and stop the car and open the side door, all at the same time. He was busier than a one-armed paperhanger, I can tell you!" Yes, Paul could suddenly see it - and in an instinctive way he understood exactly how such a scene, absurdly melodramatic as it might be, could be milked for suspense. The scenery, all of it canted at an alarming downhill angle, rushing by. Cut to the brake-pedal, which sinks bonelessly to the mat when the man's foot (he saw the foot clearly, clad in a 1940s-style airtip shoe) stomps on it. Cut to his shoulder, hitting the door. Cut to the outside reverse, showing us an irregular bead of solder where the door has been sealed shut Stupid, sure - not a bit literary - but you could do thing, with it. You could speed up pulses with it. No Chivas Regal here; this was the fictional equivalent of backwoods popskull.

"So then you saw that the road just ended at this cliff," she said, "and everyone in the theater knew that if Rocket Main didn't get out of that old Hudson before it got to the cliff he was a gone goose. Oh boy! And here came the car, with Rocket Man still trying to put on the brakes or bash the door open, and then... over it went! It flew out into space and then it went down. It hit the side of the cliff about halfway down and burst into flames, and then it went into the ocean, and then this ending message came up on the screen that said NEXT WEEK CHAPTER II, THE DRAGON FLIES." She sat on the edge of his bed, hands tightly clasped together, her large bosom rising and falling rapidly.

"Well" she said, not looking at him, only at the wall, "after that I hardly saw the movie. I didn't just think about Rocket Man once in awhile that next week; I thought about him all the time. How could he have gotten out of it? I couldn't even guess.

"Next Saturday, I was standing in front of the theater at noon, although the box office didn't open until one-fifteen and the movie didn't start until two. But, Paul... what happened... well, you'll never guess!" Paul said nothing, but he could guess. He understood how she could like what he had written and still know it was not right - know it and say it not with an editor's sometimes untrustworthy literary sophistication but with Constant Reader's flat and uncontradictable certainty. He understood, and was amazed to find he was ashamed of himself. She was right. He had written a cheat.

"The new episode always started with the ending of the last one. They showed him going down the hill, they showed the cliff, they showed him banging on the car door, trying to open it. Then, just before the car got to the edge, the door banged open and out he flew onto the road! The car went over the cliff, and all the kids in the theater were cheering because Rocket Man got out, but I wasn't cheering, Paul. I was mad! I started yelling, "That isn't what happened last week! That isn't what happened last week!"" Annie jumped up and began to walk rapidly back and forth in the room, her head down, her hair failing in a frizzy cowl about her face, smacking one fist steadily into her other palm, eyes blazing.

"My brother tried to make me stop and when I wouldn't, he tried to put his hand over my mouth to shut me up and I bit it and went on yelling "That isn't what happened last week! Are you all too stupid to remember? Did you all get amnesia?" And my brother said "You're crazy, Annie," but I knew I wasn't. And the manager came and said if I didn't shut up I'd have to leave and I said "You bet I'm going to leave because that was a dirty cheat, that wasn't what happened last week!"" She looked at him and Paul saw clear murder in her eyes.

"He didn't get out of the cockadoodie car! It went over the edge and he was still inside it! Do you understand that?"

"Yes," Paul said.

"DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?" She suddenly leaped at him with that limber ferocity, and although he felt certain she meant to hurt him as she had before, possibly because she couldn't get at the dirty birdie of a scriptwriter who had cheated Rocket Man out of the Hudson before it went over the cliff, he did not move at all - he could see the seeds of her current instability in the window of past she had just opened for him, but he was also awed by it - the injustice she felt was, in spite of its childishness, completely, inarguably real.

She didn't hit him; she seized the front of the robe he was wearing and dragged him forward until their faces were nearly touching.

"DO YOU?"

"Yes, Annie, yes." She stared at him, that furious black gaze, and must have seen the truth in his face, because after a moment she slung him contemptuously back in the chair.

He grimaced against the thick, grinding pain, and after a while it began to subside.


"Then you know what is wrong," she said.

"I suppose I do." Although I'll be goddamned if I know how I'm going to fix it.

And that other voice returned at once: I don't know if you'll be damned by God or saved by him, Paulie, but one thing I do know: if you don't find a way to bring Misery back to life a way she can believe - she's going to kill you.

"Then do it," she said curtly, and left the room.

3

Paul looked at the typewriter. The typewriter was there. N's! He had never realized how many n's there were in an average line of type.

I thought you were supposed to be good, the typewriter said - his mind had invested it with a sneering and yet callow voice- the voice of a teen-age gunslinger in a Hollywood western, a kid intent on making a fast reputation here in Deadwood. You're not so good. Hell, you can't even please one crazy overweight ex-nurse. Maybe you broke your writing bone in that crash, too... only that bone isn't healing.

He leaned back as far as the wheelchair would allow and closed his eyes. Her rejection of what he had written would be easier to bear if he could blame it on the pain, but the truth was that the pain had finally begun to subside a little.

The stolen pills were safely tucked away between the mattress and the box spring. He had taken none of them - knowing he had them put aside, a form of Annie-insurance, was enough. She would find them if she took it into her head to turn the mattress, he supposed, but that was a chance he was prepared to take.

There had been no trouble between them since the blowup over the typewriter paper. His medication came regularly, and he took it. He wondered if she knew he was hooked on the stuff.

Hey, come on now, Paul, that's a bit of a dramatization, isn't it?

No, it wasn't. Three nights ago, when he was sure she was upstairs, he had sneaked one of the sample boxes out and had read everything on the label, although he supposed he had read everything he needed when he saw what Novril's principal ingredient was. Maybe you spelled relief R-0-L-A-I-D-S, but you spelled Novril C-O-D-E-I-N-E.

The fact is, you're healing up, Paul. Below the knees your legs look like a four-year-old's stick-drawing, but yau are healing up. You could get by on aspirin or Empirin now. It's not you that needs the Novril; you're feeding it to the monkey.

He would have to cut down, have to duck some of the caps. Until he could do that, she would have him on a chain as well as in a wheelchair - a chain of Novril capsules.

Okay. I'll duck one of the two capsules she gives me every other time she brings them. I'll put it under my tongue when I swallow the other one, then stick it under my mattress with the other pills when she takes the drinking glass out. Only not today. I don't feel ready to start today. I'll start tomorrow.

Now in his mind he heard the voice of the Red Queen lecturing Alice: Down here we got our act clean yesterday, and we plan to start getting our act clean tomorrow, but we never clean up our act today.

Ho-ho, Paulie, you're a real riot, the typewriter said in the tough gunsel's voice he had made up for it.

"Us dirty birdies are never all that funny, but we never stop trying - you have to give us that," he muttered.

Well, you better start thinking about all the dope you are taking, Paul. You better start thinking about it very seriously.

He decided suddenly, on the spur of the moment, that he would start dodging some of the medication as soon as he got a first chapter that Annie liked on paper - a chapter which Annie decided wasn't a cheat.

Part of him - the part that listened to even the best, fairest editorial suggestions with ill-grace - protested that the woman was crazy, that there was no way to tell what she might or might not accept; that anything he tried would be only a crapshoot.

But another part - a far more sensible part - disagreed. He would know the real stuff when he found it. The real stuff would make the crap he had given Annie to read last night, the crap it had taken him three days and false starts without number to write, look like a dog turd sitting next to a silver dollar. Hadn't he known it was all wrong? It wasn't like him to labor so painfully, nor to half-fill a wastebasket with random jottings or half-pages which ended with lines like "Misery turned to him, eyes shining, lips murmuring the magic words Oh you numb shithead THIS ISN'T WORKING AT ALL!!!" He had chalked it off to the pain and to being in a situation where he was not just writing for his supper but for his life. Those ideas had been nothing but plausible lies. The fact was, things had gone badly because he was cheating and he had known it himself.

Well, she saw through you, shit-for-brains, the typewriter said in its nasty, insolent voice. Didn't she? So what are you going to do now?

He didn't know, but he supposed he would have to do something, and in a hurry. He hadn't cared for her mood this morning. He supposed he should count himself lucky that she hadn't re-broken his legs with a baseball bat or given him a battery-acid manicure or something similar to indicate her displeasure with the way he had begun her book - such critical responses were always possible, given Annie's unique view of the world. If he got out of this alive, he thought he might drop Christopher Hale a note. Hale reviewed books for the New York Times. The note would say: "Whenever my editor called me up and told me you were planning to review one of my books in the daily Times, my knees used to knock together - you gave me some good ones, Chris old buddy, but you also torpedoed me more than once, as you well know. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you to go ahead and do your worst - I've discovered a whole new critical mode, my friend. We might call it the Colorado Barbecue and Floor-Bucket school of thought. It makes the stuff you guys do look about as scary as a ride on the Central Park carousel." This is all very amusing, Paul, writing critics little billets-doux in one's head is always good for a giggle, but you really ought to find yourself a pot and get it boiling, don't you think?

Yes. Yes indeed.

The typewriter sat there, smirking at him.

"I hate you," Paul said morosely, and looked out the window.

4

The snow-storm to which Paul had awakened the day after his expedition to the bathroom had gone on for two days - there had been at least eighteen inches of new fall, and heavy drifting. By the time the sun finally peered through the clouds again, Annie's Cherokee was nothing but a vague hump in the driveway.

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