Read The Talisman Page 2

  His father was dead, Uncle Tommy was dead, his mother might be dying. He felt death here, too, at Arcadia Beach, where it spoke through telephones in Uncle Morgan's voice. It was nothing as cheap or obvious as the melancholy feel of a resort in the off-season, where one kept stumbling over the Ghosts of Summers Past; it seemed to be in the texture of things, a smell on the ocean breeze. He was scared . . . and he had been scared for a long time. Being here, where it was so quiet, had only helped him to realize it--had helped him to realize that maybe Death had driven all the way up I-95 from New York, squinting out through cigarette smoke and asking him to find some bop on the car radio.

  He could remember--vaguely--his father telling him that he was born with an old head, but his head didn't feel old now. Right now, his head felt very young. Scared, he thought. I'm pretty damn scared. This is where the world ends, right?

  Seagulls coursed the gray air overhead. The silence was as gray as the air--as deadly as the growing circles under her eyes.


  When he had wandered into Funworld and met Lester Speedy Parker after he did not quite know how many days of numbly drifting through time, that passive feeling of being on hold had somehow left him. Lester Parker was a black man with crinkly gray hair and heavy lines cutting through his cheeks. He was utterly unremarkable now despite whatever he had accomplished in his earlier life as a travelling blues musician. Nor had he said anything particularly remarkable. Yet as soon as Jack had walked aimlessly into Funworld's game arcade and met Speedy's pale eyes he felt all the fuzziness leave him. He had become himself again. It was as if a magical current had passed directly from the old man into Jack. Speedy had smiled at him and said, "Well, it looks like I got me some company. Little travellin man just walked in."

  It was true, he was not on hold anymore: just an instant before, he had seemed to be wrapped in wet wool and cotton candy, and now he was set free. A silvery nimbus seemed to play about the old man for an instant, a little aureole of light which disappeared as soon as Jack blinked. For the first time Jack saw that the man was holding the handle of a wide heavy push-broom.

  "You okay, son?" The handyman put one hand in the small of his back, and stretched backward. "The world just get worse, or did she get better?"

  "Uh, better," Jack said.

  "Then you come to the right place, I'd say. What do they call you?"

  Little travellin man, Speedy had said that first day, ole Travellin Jack. He had leaned his tall angular body against the Skee-Ball machine and wrapped his arms around the broom-handle as though it were a girl at a dance. The man you see here is Lester Speedy Parker, formerly a travellin man hisself, son, hee hee--oh yeah, Speedy knew the road, he knew all the roads, way back in the old days. Had me a band, Travellin Jack, played the blues. Git-tar blues. Made me a few records, too, but I won't shame you by asking if you ever heard em. Every syllable had its own rhythmic lilt, every phrase its rimshot and backbeat; Speedy Parker carried a broom instead of a guitar, but he was still a musician. Within the first five seconds of talking to Speedy, Jack had known that his jazz-loving father would have relished this man's company.

  He had tagged along behind Speedy for the better part of three or four days, watching him work and helping out when he could. Speedy let him bang in nails, sand down a picket or two that needed paint; these simple tasks done under Speedy's instructions were the only schooling he was getting, but they made him feel better. Jack now saw his first days in Arcadia Beach as a period of unrelieved wretchedness from which his new friend had rescued him. For Speedy Parker was a friend, that was certain--so certain, in fact, that in it was a quantity of mystery. In the few days since Jack had shaken off his daze (or since Speedy had shaken it off for him by dispelling it with one glance of his light-colored eyes), Speedy Parker had become closer to him than any other friend, with the possible exception of Richard Sloat, whom Jack had known approximately since the cradle. And now, counteracting his terror at losing Uncle Tommy and his fear that his mother was actually dying, he felt the tug of Speedy's warm wise presence from just down the street.

  Again, and uncomfortably, Jack had his old sense of being directed, of being manipulated: as if a long invisible wire had pulled himself and his mother up to this abandoned place by the sea.

  They wanted him here, whoever they were.

  Or was that just crazy? In his inner vision he saw a bent old man, clearly out of his mind, muttering to himself as he pushed an empty shopping cart down the sidewalk.

  A gull screamed in the air, and Jack promised himself that he would make himself talk about some of his feelings with Speedy Parker. Even if Speedy thought he was nuts; even if he laughed at Jack. He would not laugh, Jack secretly knew. They were old friends because one of the things Jack understood about the old custodian was that he could say almost anything to him.

  But he was not ready for all that yet. It was all too crazy, and he did not understand it yet himself. Almost reluctantly Jack turned his back on Funworld and trudged across the sand toward the hotel.


  The Funnel Opens


  It was a day later, but Jack Sawyer was no wiser. He had, however, had one of the greatest nightmares of all time last night. In it, some terrible creature had been coming for his mother--a dwarfish monstrosity with misplaced eyes and rotting, cheesy skin. "Your mother's almost dead, Jack, can you say hallelujah?" this monstrosity had croaked, and Jack knew--the way you knew things in dreams--that it was radioactive, and that if it touched him, he would die, too. He had awakened with his body drenched in sweat, on the edge of a bitter scream. It took the steady pounding of the surf to reacquaint him with where he was, and it was hours before he could go back to sleep.

  He had meant to tell his mother about the dream this morning, but Lily had been sour and uncommunicative, hiding in a cloud of cigarette smoke. It was only as he started out of the hotel coffee shop on some trumped-up errand that she smiled at him a little.

  "Think about what you want to eat tonight."


  "Yeah. Anything but fast food. I did not come all the way from L.A. to New Hampshire in order to poison myself with hotdogs."

  "Let's try one of those seafood places in Hampton Beach," Jack said.

  "Fine. Go on and play."

  Go on and play, Jack thought with a bitterness utterly unlike him. Oh yeah, Mom, way to go. Too cool. Go on and play. With who? Mom, why are you here? Why are we here? How sick are you? How come you won't talk to me about Uncle Tommy? What's Uncle Morgan up to? What--

  Questions, questions. And not one of them worth a darned thing, because there was no one to answer them.

  Unless Speedy--

  But that was ridiculous; how could one old black man he'd just met solve any of his problems?

  Still, the thought of Speedy Parker danced at the edge of his mind as Jack ambled across the boardwalk and down to the depressingly empty beach.


  This is where the world ends, right? Jack thought again.

  Seagulls coursed the gray air overhead. The calendar said it was still summer, but summer ended here at Arcadia Beach on Labor Day. The silence was gray as the air.

  He looked down at his sneakers and saw that there was some sort of tarry goo on them. Beach crud, he thought. Some kind of pollution. He had no idea where he had picked it up and he stepped back from the edge of the water, uneasy.

  The gulls in the air, swooping and crying. One of them screamed overhead and he heard a flat cracking that was almost metallic. He turned in time to see it come in for a fluttering, awkward landing on a hump of rock. The gull turned its head in rapid, almost robotic movements, as if to verify it was alone, and then it hopped down to where the clam it had dropped lay on the smooth, hard-packed sand. The clam had cracked open like an egg and Jack saw raw meat inside, still twitching . . . or perhaps that was his imagination.

  Don't want to see this.

  But before he could turn away, the gull's yellow,
hooked beak was pulling at the meat, stretching it like a rubber band, and he felt his stomach knot into a slick fist. In his mind he could hear that stretched tissue screaming--nothing coherent, only stupid flesh crying out in pain.

  He tried to look away from the seagull again and he couldn't. The gull's beak opened, giving him a brief glimpse of dirty pink gullet. The clam snapped back into its cracked shell and for a moment the gull was looking at him, its eyes a deadly black, confirming every horrible truth: fathers die, mothers die, uncles die even if they went to Yale and look as solid as bank walls in their three-piece Savile Row suits. Kids die too, maybe . . . and at the end all there may be is the stupid, unthinking scream of living tissue.

  "Hey," Jack said aloud, not aware he was doing anything but thinking inside his own head. "Hey, give me a break."

  The gull sat over its catch, regarding him with its beady black eyes. Then it began to dig at the meat again. Want some, Jack? It's still twitching! By God, it's so fresh it hardly knows it's dead!

  The strong yellow beak hooked into the meat again and pulled. Strettttchhhhhh--

  It snapped. The gull's head went up toward the gray September sky and its throat worked. And again it seemed to be looking at him, the way the eyes in some pictures seemed always to look at you no matter where you went in the room. And the eyes . . . he knew those eyes.

  Suddenly he wanted his mother--her dark blue eyes. He could not remember wanting her with such desperation since he had been very, very small. La-la, he heard her sing inside his head, and her voice was the wind's voice, here for now, somewhere else all too soon. La-la, sleep now, Jacky, baby-bunting, daddy's gone a-hunting. And all that jazz. Memories of being rocked, his mother smoking one Herbert Tareyton after another, maybe looking at a script--blue pages, she called them, he remembered that: blue pages. La-la, Jacky, all is cool. I love you, Jacky. Shhh . . . sleep. La-la.

  The gull was looking at him.

  With sudden horror that engorged his throat like hot salt water he saw it really was looking at him. Those black eyes (whose?) were seeing him. And he knew that look.

  A raw strand of flesh still dangled from the gull's beak. As he looked, the gull sucked it in. Its beak opened in a weird but unmistakable grin.

  He turned then and ran, head down, eyes shut against the hot salt tears, sneakers digging against the sand, and if there was a way to go up, go up and up, up to some gull's-eye view, one would have seen only him, only his tracks, in all that gray day; Jack Sawyer, twelve and alone, running back toward the inn, Speedy Parker forgotten, his voice nearly lost in tears and wind, crying the negative over and over again: no and no and no.


  He paused at the top of the beach, out of breath. A hot stitch ran up his left side from the middle of his ribs to the deepest part of his armpit. He sat down on one of the benches the town put out for old people and pushed his hair out of his eyes.

  Got to get control of yourself. If Sergeant Fury goes Section Eight, who's gonna lead the Howling Commandos?

  He smiled and actually did feel a little better. From up here, fifty feet from the water, things looked a little better. Maybe it was the change in barometric pressure, or something. What had happened to Uncle Tommy was horrible, but he supposed he would get over it, learn to accept. That was what his mother said, anyway. Uncle Morgan had been unusually pesty just lately, but then, Uncle Morgan had always been sort of a pest.

  As for his mother . . . well, that was the big one, wasn't it?

  Actually, he thought, sitting on the bench and digging at the verge of the sand beyond the boardwalk with one toe, actually his mother might still be all right. She could be all right; it was certainly possible. After all, no one had come right out and said it was the big C, had they? No. If she had cancer, she wouldn't have brought him here, would she? More likely they'd be in Switzerland, with his mother taking cold mineral baths and scoffing goat-glands, or something. And she would do it, too.

  So maybe--

  A low, dry whispering sound intruded on his consciousness. He looked down and his eyes widened. The sand had begun to move by the instep of his left sneaker. The fine white grains were sliding around in a small circle perhaps a finger's length in diameter. The sand in the middle of this circle suddenly collapsed, so that now there was a dimple in the sand. It was maybe two inches deep. The sides of this dimple were also in motion: around and around, moving in rapid counterclockwise circuits.

  Not real, he told himself immediately, but his heart began to speed up again. His breathing also began to come faster. Not real, it's one of the Daydreams, that's all, or maybe it's a crab or something . . .

  But it wasn't a crab and it wasn't one of the Daydreams--this was not the other place, the one he dreamed about when things were boring or maybe a little scary, and it sure as hell wasn't any crab.

  The sand spun faster, the sound arid and dry, making him think of static electricity, of an experiment they had done in science last year with a Leyden jar. But more than either of these, the minute sound was like a long lunatic gasp, the final breath of a dying man.

  More sand collapsed inward and began to spin. Now it was not a dimple; it was a funnel in the sand, a kind of reverse dust-devil. The bright yellow of a gum wrapper was revealed, covered, revealed, covered, revealed again--each time it showed up again. Jack could read more of it as the funnel grew: JU, then JUI, then JUICY F. The funnel grew and the sand was jerked away from the gum wrapper again. It was as quick and rude as an unfriendly hand jerking down the covers on a made bed. JUICY FRUIT, he read, and then the wrapper flapped upward.

  The sand turned faster and faster, in a hissing fury. Hhhhhhaaaaahhhhhhhh was the sound the sand made. Jack stared at it, fascinated at first, and then horrified. The sand was opening like a large dark eye: it was the eye of the gull that had dropped the clam on the rock and then pulled the living meat out of it like a rubber band.

  Hhhhhhaaaahhhhh, the sand-spout mocked in its dead, dry voice. That was not a mind-voice. No matter how much Jack wished it were only in his head, that voice was real. His false teeth flew, Jack, when the old WILD CHILD hit him, out they went, rattledy-bang! Yale or no Yale, when the old WILD CHILD van comes and knocks your false teeth out, Jacky, you got to go. And your mother--

  Then he was running again, blindly, not looking back, his hair blown off his forehead, his eyes wide and terrified.


  Jack walked as quickly as he could through the dim lobby of the hotel. All the atmosphere of the place forbade running: it was as quiet as a library, and the gray light which fell through the tall mullioned windows softened and blurred the already faded carpets. Jack broke into a trot as he passed the desk, and the stooped ashen-skinned day-clerk chose that second to emerge through an arched wooden passage. The clerk said nothing, but his permanent scowl dragged the corners of his mouth another centimeter downward. It was like being caught running in church. Jack wiped his sleeve across his forehead, made himself walk the rest of the way to the elevators. He punched the button, feeling the desk clerk's frown burning between his shoulder blades. The only time this week that Jack had seen the desk clerk smile had been when the man had recognized his mother. The smile had met only the minimum standards for graciousness.

  "I suppose that's how old you have to be to remember Lily Cavanaugh," she had said to Jack as soon as they were alone in their rooms. There had been a time, and not so long ago, when being identified, recognized from any one of the fifty movies she had made during the fifties and sixties ("Queen of the Bs," they called her; her own comment: "Darling of the Drive-ins")--whether by a cabdriver, waiter, or the lady selling blouses at the Wilshire Boulevard Saks--perked her mood for hours. Now even that simple pleasure had gone dry for her.

  Jack jigged before the unmoving elevator doors, hearing an impossible and familiar voice lifting to him from a whirling funnel of sand. For a second he saw Thomas Woodbine, solid comfortable Uncle Tommy Woodbine, who was supposed to have been one of his guardians--a s
trong wall against trouble and confusion--crumpled and dead on La Cienega Boulevard, his teeth like popcorn twenty feet away in the gutter. He stabbed the button again.

  Hurry up!

  Then he saw something worse--his mother hauled into a waiting car by two impassive men. Suddenly Jack had to urinate. He flattened his palm against the button, and the bent gray man behind the desk uttered a phlegmy sound of disapproval. Jack pressed the edge of his other hand into that magic place just beneath his stomach which lessened the pressure on his bladder. Now he could hear the slow whir of the descending elevator. He closed his eyes, squeezed his legs together. His mother looked uncertain, lost and confused, and the men forced her into the car as easily as they would a weary collie dog. But that was not really happening, he knew; it was a memory--part of it must have been one of the Daydreams--and it had happened not to his mother but to him.

  As the mahogany doors of the elevator slid away to reveal a shadowy interior from which his own face met him in a foxed and peeling mirror, that scene from his seventh year wrapped around him once again, and he saw one man's eyes turn to yellow, felt the other's hand alter into something clawlike, hard and inhuman . . . he jumped into the elevator as if he had been jabbed with a fork.

  Not possible: the Daydreams were not possible, he had not seen a man's eyes turning from blue to yellow, and his mother was fine and dandy, there was nothing to be scared of, nobody was dying, and danger was what a seagull meant to a clam. He closed his eyes and the elevator toiled upward.

  That thing in the sand had laughed at him.

  Jack squeezed through the opening as soon as the doors began to part. He trotted past the closed mouths of the other elevators, turned right into the panelled corridor and ran past the sconces and paintings toward their rooms. Here running seemed less a sacrilege. They had 407 and 408, consisting of two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a living room with a view of the long smooth beach and the vastness of the ocean. His mother had appropriated flowers from somewhere, arranged them in vases, and set her little array of framed photographs beside them. Jack at five, Jack at eleven, Jack as an infant in the arms of his father. His father, Philip Sawyer, at the wheel of the old DeSoto he and Morgan Sloat had driven to California in the unimaginable days when they had been so poor they had often slept in the car.