I woke in the early hours of the following morning convinced that there was someone in the north bedroom with me. I sat up against the pillows, rubbed my eyes, and saw a dark, shouldery shape standing between me and the window.
'Who are you?' I asked, thinking that it wouldn't reply in words; it would, instead, thump on the wall. Once for yes, twice for no ¡ª what's on your mind, Houdini? But the figure standing by the window made no reply at all. I groped up, found the string hanging from the light over the bed, and yanked it. My mouth was turned down in a grimace, my midsection tensed so tight it felt as if bullets would have bounced off.
'Oh shit,' I said. 'Fuck me til I cry.'
Dangling from a hanger I'd hooked over the curtain rod was my old suede jacket. I'd parked it there while unpacking and had then forgotten to store it away in the closet. I tried to laugh and couldn't. At three in the morning it just didn't seem that funny. I turned off the light and lay back down with my eyes open, waiting for Bunter's bell to ring or the childish sobbing to start. I was still listening when I fell asleep.
Seven hours or so later, as I was getting ready to go out to Jo's studio and see if the plastic owls were in the storage area, where I hadn't checked the day before, a late-model Ford rolled down my driveway and stopped nose to nose with my Chevy. I had gotten as far as the short path between the house and the studio, but now I came back. The day was hot and breathless, and I was wearing nothing but a pair of cut-off jeans and plastic flip-flops on my feet.
Jo always claimed that the Cleveland style of dressing divided itself naturally into two subgenres: Full Cleveland and Cleveland Casual. My visitor that Tuesday morning was wearing Cleveland Casual ¡ª you had your Hawaiian shirt with pineapples and monkeys, your tan slacks from Banana Republic, your white loafers. Socks are optional, but white footgear is a necessary part of the Cleveland look, as is at least one piece of gaudy gold jewelry. This fellow was totally okay in the latter department: he had a Rolex on one wrist and a gold-link chain around his neck. The tail of his shirt was out, and there was a suspicious lump at the back. It was either a gun or a beeper and looked too big to be a beeper. I glanced at the car again. Blackwall tires. And on the dashboard, oh look at this, a covered blue bubble. The better to creep up on you unsuspected, Gramma.
'Michael Noonan?' He was handsome in a way that would be attractive to certain women ¡ª the kind who cringe when anybody in their immediate vicinity raises his voice, the kind who rarely call the police when things go wrong at home because, on some miserable secret level, they believe they deserve things to go wrong at home. Wrong things that result in black eyes, dislocated elbows, the occasional cigarette burn on the booby. These are women who more often than not call their husbands or lovers daddy, as in 'Can I bring you a beer, daddy?' or 'Did you have a hard day at work, daddy?'
'Yes, I'm Michael Noonan. How can I help you?'
This version of daddy turned, bent, and grabbed something from the litter of paperwork on the passenger side of the front seat. Beneath the dash, a two-way radio squawked once, briefly, and fell silent. He turned back to me with a long, buff-colored folder in one hand. Held it out. 'This is yours.'
When I didn't take it, he stepped forward and tried to poke it into one of my palms, which would presumably cause me to close my fingers in a kind of reflex. Instead I raised both hands to shoulder-level, as if he had just told me to put em up, Muggsy.
He looked at me patiently, his face as Irish as the Arlen brothers' but without the Arlen look of kindness, openness, and curiosity. What was there in place of those things was a species of sour amusement, as if he'd seen all of the world's pissier behavior, most of it twice. One of his eyebrows had been split open a long time ago, and his cheeks had that reddish windburned look that indicates either ruddy good health or a deep interest in grain-alcohol products. He looked like he could knock you into the gutter and then sit on you to keep you there. I been good, daddy, get off me, don't be mean.
'Don't make this tough. You're gonna take service of this and we both know it, so don't make this tough.'
'Show me some ID first.'
He sighed, rolled his eyes, then reached into one of his shirt pockets. He brought out a leather folder and flipped it open. There was a badge and a photo ID. My new friend was George Footman, Deputy Sheriff, Castle County. The photo was flat and shadowless, like something an assault victim would see in a mugbook.
'Okay?' he asked. I took the buff-backed document when he held it out again. He stood there, broadcasting that sense of curdled amusement as I scanned it. I had been subpoenaed to appear in the Castle Rock office of Elmer Durgin, Attorney-at-Law, at ten o'clock on the morning of July 10, 1998 ¡ª Friday, in other words. Said Elmer Durgin had been appointed guardian ad litem of Kyra Elizabeth Devore, a minor child. He would take a deposition from me concerning any knowledge I might have of Kyra Elizabeth Devore in regard to her well-being. This deposition would be taken on behalf of Castle County Superior Court and Judge Noble Rancourt. A stenographer would be present. I was assured that this was the court's depo, and nothing to do with either Plaintiff or Defendant.
Footman said, 'It's my job to remind you of the penalties should you fail ¡ª '
'Thanks, but let's just assume you told me all about those, okay? I'll be there.' I made shooing gestures at his car. I felt deeply disgusted . . . and I felt interfered with. I had never been served with a process before, and I didn't care for it.
He went back to his car, started to swing in, then stopped with one hairy arm hung over the top of the open door. His Rolex gleamed in the hazy sunlight.
'Let me give you a piece of advice,' he said, and that was enough to tell me anything else I needed to know about the guy. 'Don't fuck with Mr. Devore.'
'Or he'll squash me like a bug,' I said.
'Your actual lines are, 'Let me give you a piece of advice ¡ª don't fuck with Mr. Devore or he'll squash you like a bug.''
I could see by his expression ¡ª half past perplexed, going on angry ¡ª that he had meant to say something very much like that. Obviously we'd seen the same movies, including all those in which Robert De Niro plays a psycho. Then his face cleared.
'Oh sure, you're the writer,' he said.
'That's what they tell me.'
'You can say stuff like that 'cause you're a writer.'
'Well, it's a free country, isn't it?'
'Ain't you a smartass, now.'
'How long have you been working for Max Devore, Deputy? And does the County Sheriffs office know you're moonlighting?'
'They know. It's not a problem. You're the one that might have the problem, Mr. Smartass Writer.'
I decided it was time to quit this before we descended to the kaka-poopie stage of name-calling.
'Get out of my driveway, please, Deputy.'
He looked at me a moment longer, obviously searching for that perfect capper line and not finding it. He needed a Mr. Smartass Writer to help him, that was all. 'I'll be looking for you on Friday,' he said.
'Does that mean you're going to buy me lunch? Don't worry, I'm a fairly cheap date.'
His reddish cheeks darkened a degree further, and I could see what they were going to look like when he was sixty, if he didn't lay off the firewater in the meantime. He got back into his Ford and reversed up my driveway hard enough to make his tires holler. I stood where I was, watching him go. Once he was headed back out Lane Forty-two to the highway, I went into the house. It occurred to me that Deputy Footman's extracurricular job must pay well, if he could afford a Rolex. On the other hand, maybe it was a knockoff.
Settle down, Michael, Jo's voice advised. The red rag is gone now, no one's waving anything in front of you, so just settle ¡ª
I shut her voice out. I didn't want to settle down; I wanted to settle up. I had been interfered with.
I walked over to the hall desk where Jo and I had always kept our pending documents (and our desk calendars, now that I thought about it), and tacked the summons to the bulletin board by one corner of its buff-colored jacket. With that much accomplished, I raised my fist in front of my eyes, looked at the wedding ring on it for a moment, then slammed it against the wall beside the bookcase. I did it hard enough to make an entire row of paperbacks jump. I thought about Mattie Devore's baggy shorts and Kmart smock, then about her father-in-law paying four and a quarter million dollars for Warrington's. Writing a personal goddamned check. I thought about Bill Dean saying that one way or another, that little girl was going to grow up in California.
I walked back and forth through the house, still simmering, and finally ended up in front of the fridge. The circle of magnets was the same, but the letters inside had changed. Instead of
they now read
'Helper?' I said, and as soon as I heard the word out loud, I understood. The letters on the fridge consisted of only a single alphabet (no, not even that, I saw; g and x had been lost someplace), and I'd have to get more. If the front of my Kenmore was going to become a Ouija board, I'd need a good supply of letters. Especially vowels. In the meantime, I moved the h and the e in front of the r. Now the message read
I scattered the circle of fruit and vegetable magnets with my palm, spread the letters, and resumed pacing. I had made a decision not to get between Devore and his daughter-in-law, but I'd wound up between them anyway. A deputy in Cleveland clothing had shown up in my driveway, complicating a life that already had its problems . . . and scaring me a little in the bargain. But at least it was a fear of something I could see and understand. All at once I decided I wanted to do more with the summer than worry about ghosts, crying kids, and what my wife had been up to four or five years ago . . . if, in fact, she had been up to anything. I couldn't write books, but that didn't mean I had to pick scabs.
I decided I would at least try.
'Harold Oblowski Literary Agency.'
'Come to Belize with me, Nola,' I said. 'I need you. We'll make beautiful love at midnight, when the full moon turns the beach to a bone.'
'Hello, Mr. Noonan,' she said. No sense of humor had Nola. No sense of romance, either. In some ways that made her perfect for the Oblowski Agency. 'Would you like to speak to Harold?'
'If he's in.'
'He is. Please hold.'
One nice thing about being a best selling author ¡ª even one whose books only appear, as a general rule, on lists that go to fifteen ¡ª is that your agent almost always happens to be in. Another is if he's vacationing on Nantucket, he'll be in to you there. A third is that the time you spend on hold is usually quite short.
'Mike!' he cried. 'How's the lake? I thought about you all weekend!'
Yeah, I thought, and pigs will whistle.
'Things are fine in general but shitty in one particular, Harold. I need to talk to a lawyer. I thought first about calling Ward Hankins for a recommendation, but then I decided I wanted somebody a little more high-powered than Ward was likely to know. Someone with filed teeth and a taste for human flesh would be nice.'
This time Harold didn't bother with the long-pause routine. 'What's up, Mike? Are you in trouble?'
Thump once for yes, twice for no, I thought, and for one wild moment thought of actually doing just that. I remembered finishing Christy Brown's memoir, Down All the Days, and wondering what it would be like to write an entire book with the pen grasped between the toes of your left foot. Now I wondered what it would be like to go through eternity with no way to communicate but rapping on the cellar wall. And even then only certain people would be able to hear and understand you . . . and only those certain people at certain times.
Jo, was it you? And if it was, why did you answer both ways?
'Mike? Are you there?'
'Yes. This isn't really my trouble, Harold, so cool your jets. I do have a problem, though. Your main guy is Goldacre, right?'
'Right. I'll call him right aw ¡ª '
'But he deals primarily with contracts law.' I was thinking out loud now, and when I paused, Harold didn't fill it. Sometimes he's an all-right guy. Most times, really. 'Call him for me anyway, would you? Tell him I need to talk to an attorney with a good working knowledge of child-custody law. Have him put me in touch with the best one who's free to take a case immediately. One who can be in court with me Friday, if that's necessary.'
'Is it paternity?' he asked, sounding both respectful and afraid.
'No, custody.' I thought about telling him to get the whole story from the Lawyer to Be Named Later, but Harold deserved better . . . and would demand to hear my version sooner or later anyway, no matter what the lawyer told him. I gave him an account of my Fourth of July morning and its aftermath. I stuck with the Devores, mentioning nothing about voices, crying children, or thumps in the dark. Harold only interrupted once, and that was when he realized who the villain of the piece was.
'You're asking for trouble,' he said. 'You know that, don't you?'
'I'm in for a certain measure of it in any case,' I said. 'I've decided I want to dish out a little as well, that's all.'
'You will not have the peace and quiet that a writer needs to do his best work,' Harold said in an amusingly prim voice. I wondered what the reaction would be if I said that was okay, I hadn't written anything more riveting than a grocery list since Jo died, and maybe this would stir me up a little. But I didn't. Never let em see you sweat, the Noonan clan's motto. Someone should carve DON'T WORRY I'M FINE on the door of the family crypt.
Then I thought: help r.
'That young woman needs a friend,' I said, 'and Jo would have wanted me to be one to her. Jo didn't like it when the little folks got stepped on.'
'Okay, I'll see who I can find. And Mike . . . do you want me to come up on Friday for this depo?'
'No.' It came out sounding needlessly abrupt and was followed by a silence that seemed not calculated but hurt. 'Listen, Harold, my caretaker said the actual custody hearing is scheduled soon. If it happens and you still want to come up, I'll give you a call. I can always use your moral support ¡ª you know that.'
'In my case it's immoral support,' he replied, but he sounded cheery again.
We said goodbye. I walked back to the fridge and looked at the magnets. They were still scattered hell to breakfast, and that was sort of a relief. Even the spirits must have to rest sometimes.
I took the cordless phone, went out onto the deck, and plonked down in the chair where I'd been on the night of the Fourth, when Devore called. Even after my visit from 'daddy,' I could still hardly believe that conversation. Devore had called me a liar; I had told him to stick my telephone number up his ass. We were off to a great start as neighbors.
I pulled the chair a little closer to the edge of the deck, which dropped a giddy forty feet or so to the slope between Sara's backside and the lake. I looked for the green woman I'd seen while swimming, telling myself not to be a dope ¡ª things like that you can see only from one angle, stand even ten feet off to one side or the other and there's nothing to look at. But this was apparently a case of the exception's proving the rule. I was both amused and a little uneasy to realize that the birch down there by The Street looked like a woman from the land side as well as from the lake. Some of it was due to the pine just behind it ¡ª that bare branch jutting off to the north like a bony pointing arm ¡ª but not all of it. From back here the birch's white limbs and narrow leaves still made a woman's shape, and when the wind shook the lower levels of the tree, the green and silver swirled like long skirts.
I had said no to Harold's well-meant offer to come up almost before it was fully articulated, and as I looked at the tree-woman, rather ghostly in her own right, I knew why: Harold was loud, Harold was insensitive to nuance, Harold might frighten off whatever was here. I didn't want that. I was scared, yes ¡ª standing on those dark cellar stairs and listening to the thumps from just below me, I had been fucking terrified ¡ª but I had also felt fully alive for the first time in years. I was touching something in Sara that was entirely beyond my experience, and it fascinated me.
The cordless phone rang in my lap, making me jump. I grabbed it, expecting Max Devore or perhaps Footman, his overgolded minion. It turned out to be a lawyer named John Storrow, who sounded as if he might have graduated from law school fairly recently ¡ª like last week. Still, he worked for the firm of Avery, McLain, and Bernstein on Park Avenue, and Park Avenue is a pretty good address for a lawyer, even one who still has a few of his milk-teeth. If Henry Goldacre said Storrow was good, he probably was. And his specialty was custody law.
'Now tell me what's happening up there,' he said when the introductions were over and the background had been sketched in.
I did my best, feeling my spirits rise a little as the tale wound on. There's something oddly comforting about talking to a legal guy once the billable-hours clock has started running; you have passed the magical point at which a lawyer becomes your lawyer. Your lawyer is warm, your lawyer is sympathetic, your lawyer makes notes on a yellow pad and nods in all the right places. Most of the questions your lawyer asks are questions you can answer. And if you can't, your lawyer will help you find a way to do so, by God. Your lawyer is always on your side. Your enemies are his enemies. To him you are never shit but always Shinola.
When I had finished, John Storrow said: 'Wow. I'm surprised the papers haven't gotten hold of this.'
'That never occurred to me.' But I could see his point. The Devore family saga wasn't for the New York Times or Boston Globe, probably not even for the Derry News, but in weekly supermarket tabs like The National Enquirer or Inside View, it would fit like a glove ¡ª instead of the girl, King Kong decides to snatch the girl's innocent child and carry it with him to the top of the Empire State Building. Oh, eek, unhand that baby, you brute. It wasn't front-page stuff, no blood or celebrity morgue shots, but as a page nine shouter it would do nicely. In my mind I composed a headline blaring over side-by-side pix of Warrington's Lodge and Mattie's rusty doublewide: COMPU-KING LIVES IN SPLENDOR AS HE TRIES TO TAKE YOUNG BEAUTY'S ONLY CHILD. Probably too long, I decided. I wasn't writing anymore and still I needed an editor. That was pretty sad when you stopped to think about it.
'Perhaps at some point we'll see that they do get the story,' Storrow said in a musing tone. I realized that this was a man I could grow attached to, at least in my present angry mood. He grew brisker. 'Who'm I representing here, Mr. Noonan? You or the young lady? I vote for the young lady.'
'The young lady doesn't even know I've called you. She may think I've taken a bit too much on myself. She may, in fact, give me the rough side of her tongue.'
'Why would she do that?'
'Because she's a Yankee ¡ª a Maine Yankee, the worst kind. On a given day, they can make the Irish look logical.'
'Perhaps, but she's the one with the target pinned to her shirt. I suggest that you call and tell her that.'
I promised I would. It wasn't a hard promise to make, either. I'd known I'd have to be in touch with her ever since I had accepted the summons from Deputy Footman. 'And who stands for Michael Noonan come Friday morning?'
Storrow laughed dryly. 'I'll find someone local to do that. He'll go into this Durgin's office with you, sit quietly with his briefcase on his lap, and listen. I may be in town by that point ¡ª I won't know until I talk to Ms. Devore ¡ª but I won't be in Durgin's office. When the custody hearing comes around, though, you'll see my face in the place.'
'All right, good. Call me with the name of my new lawyer. My other new lawyer.'
'Uh-huh. In the meantime, talk to the young lady. Get me a job.'
'Also try to stay visible if you're with her,' he said. 'If we give the bad guys room to get nasty, they'll get nasty.
There's nothing like that between you, is there? Nothing nasty? Sorry to have to ask, but I do have to ask.'
'No,' I said. 'It's been quite some time since I've been up to anything nasty with anyone.'
'I'm tempted to commiserate, Mr. Noonan, but under the circumstances ¡ª '
'Mike. Make it Mike.'
'Good. I like that. And I'm John. People are going to talk about your involvement anyway. You know that, don't you?'
'Sure. People know I can afford you. They'll speculate about how she can afford me. Pretty young widow, middle-aged widower. Sex would seem the most likely.'
'You're a realist.'
'I don't really think I am, but I know a hawk from a handsaw.'
'I hope you do, because the ride could get rough. This is an extremely rich man we're going up against.' Yet he didn't sound scared. He sounded almost . . . greedy. He sounded the way part of me had felt when I saw that the magnets on the fridge were back in a circle.
'I know he is.'
'In court that won't matter a whole helluva lot, because there's a certain amount of money on the other side. Also, the judge is going to be very aware that this one is a powderkeg. That can be useful.'
'What's the best thing we've got going for us?' I asked this thinking of Kyra's rosy, unmarked face and her complete lack of fear in the presence of her mother. I asked it thinking John would reply that the charges were clearly unfounded. I thought wrong.
'The best thing? Devore's age. He's got to be older than God.'
'Based on what I've heard over the weekend, I think he must be eighty-five. That would make God older.'
'Yeah, but as a potential dad he makes Tony Randall look like a teenager,' John said, and now he sounded positively gloating. 'Think of it, Michael ¡ª the kid graduates from high school the year Gramps turns one hundred. Also there's a chance the old man's overreached himself. Do you know what a guardian ad litem is?'
'Essentially it's a lawyer the court appoints to protect the interests of the child. A fee for the service comes out of court costs, but it's a pittance. Most people who agree to serve as guardian ad litem have strictly altruistic motives . . . but not all of them. In any case, the ad litem puts his own spin on the case. Judges don't have to take the guy's advice, but they almost always do. It makes a judge look stupid to reject the advice of his own appointee, and the thing a judge hates above all others is looking stupid.'
'Devore will have his own lawyer?'
John laughed. 'How about half a dozen at the actual custody hearing?'
'Are you serious?'
'The guy is eighty-five. That's too old for Ferraris, too old for bungee jumping in Tibet, and too old for whores unless he's a mighty man. What does that leave for him to spend his money on?'
'Lawyers,' I said bleakly.
'And Mattie Devore? What does she get?'
'Thanks to you, she gets me,' John Storrow said. 'It's like a John Grisham novel, isn't it? Pure gold. Meantime, I'm interested in Durgin, the ad litem. If Devore hasn't been expecting any real trouble, he may have been unwise enough to put temptation in Durgin's way. And Durgin may have been stupid enough to succumb. Hey, who knows what we might find?'
But I was a turn back. 'She gets you,' I said. 'Thanks to me. And if I wasn't here to stick in my oar? What would she get then?'
'Bubkes. That's Yiddish. It means ¡ª '
'I know what it means,' I said. 'That's incredible.'
'Nope, just American justice. You know the lady with the scales? The one who stands outside most city courthouses?'
'Slap some handcuffs on that broad's wrists and some tape over her mouth to go along with the blindfold, rape her and roll her in the mud. You like that image? I don't, but it's a fair representation of how the law works in custody cases where the plaintiff is rich and the defendant is poor. And sexual equality has actually made it worse, because while mothers still tend to be poor, they are no longer seen as the automatic choice for custody.'
'Mattie Devore's got to have you, doesn't she?'
'Yes,' John said simply. 'Call me tomorrow and tell me that she will.'
'I hope I can do that.'
'So do I. And listen ¡ª there's one more thing.'
'You lied to Devore on the telephone.'
'Nope, nope, I hate to contradict my sister's favorite author, but you did and you know it. You told Devore that mother and child were out together, the kid was picking flowers, everything was fine. You put everything in there except Bambi and Thumper.'
I was sitting up straight in my deck-chair now. I felt sandbagged. I also felt that my own cleverness had been overlooked. 'Hey, no, think again. I never came out and said anything. I told him I assumed. I used the word more than once. I remember that very clearly.'
'Uh-huh, and if he was taping your conversation, you'll get a chance to actually count how many times you used it.'
At first I didn't answer. I was thinking back to the conversation I'd had with him, remembering the underhum on the phone line, the characteristic underhum I remembered from all my previous summers at Sara Laughs. Had that steady low mmmmm been even more noticeable on Saturday night? 'I guess maybe there could be a tape,' I said reluctantly.
'Uh-huh. And if Devore's lawyer gets it to the ad litem, how do you think you'll sound?'
'Careful,' I said. 'Maybe like a man with something to hide.'
'Or a man spinning yarns. And you're good at that, aren't you? After all, it's what you do for a living. At the custody hearing, Devore's lawyer is apt to mention that. If he then produces one of the people who passed you shortly after Mattie arrived on the scene . . . a person who testifies that the young lady seemed upset and flustered . . . how do you think you'll sound then?'
'Like a liar,' I said, and then: 'Ah, fuck.'
'Fear not, Mike. Be of good cheer.'
'What should I do?'
'Spike their guns before they can fire them. Tell Durgin exactly what happened. Get it in the depo. Emphasize the fact that the little girl thought she was walking safely. Make sure you get in that 'crossmock' thing. I love that.'
'Then if they have a tape they'll play it and I'll look like a story-changing schmuck.'
'I don't think so. You weren't a sworn witness when you talked to Devore, were you? There you were, sitting out on your deck and minding your own business, watching the fireworks show. Out of the blue this grouchy old asshole calls you. Starts ranting. Didn't even give him your number, did you?'
'Your unlisted number.'
'And while he said he was Maxwell Devore, he could have been anyone, right?'
'He could have been the Shah of Iran.'
'No, the Shah's dead.'
'The Shah's out, then. But he could have been a nosy neighbor . . . or a prankster.'
'And you said what you said with all those possibilities in mind. But now that you're part of an official court proceeding, you're telling the whole truth and nothing but.'
'You bet.' That good my-lawyer feeling had deserted me for a bit, but it was back full-force now. 'You can't do better than the truth, Mike,' he said solemnly. 'Except maybe in a few cases, and this isn't one. Are we clear on that?'
'All right, we're done. I want to hear from either you or Mattie Devore around elevenish tomorrow. It ought to be her.'
'If she really balks, you know what to do, don't you?'
'I think so. Thanks, John.'
'One way or another, we'll talk very soon,' he said, and hung up.
I sat where I was for awhile. Once I pushed the button which opened the line on the cordless phone, then pushed it again to close it. I had to talk to Mattie, but I wasn't quite ready yet. I decided to take a walk instead.
If she really balks, you know what to do, don't you?
Remind her that she couldn't afford to be proud. That she couldn't afford to go all Yankee, refusing charity from Michael Noonan, author of Being Two, The Red-Shirt Man, and the soon-to-be-published Helen's Promise. Remind her that she could have her pride or her daughter, but likely not both.
Hey, Mattie, pick one.
I walked almost to the end of the lane, stopping at Tidwell's Meadow with its pretty view down to the cup of the lake and across to the White Mountains. The water dreamed under a hazy sky, looking gray when you tipped your head one way, blue when you tipped it the other. That sense of mystery was very much with me. That sense of Manderley.
Over forty black people had settled here at the turn of the century ¡ª lit here for awhile, anyway ¡ª according to Marie Hingerman (also according to A History of Castle County and Castle Rock, a weighty tome published in 1977, the county's bicentennial year). Pretty special black people, too:
most of them related, most of them talented, most of them part of a musical group which had first been called The Red-Top Boys and then Sara Tidwell and the Red-Top Boys. They had bought the meadow and a good-sized tract of lakeside land from a man named Douglas Day. The money had been saved up over a period of ten years, according to Sonny Tidwell, who did the dickering (as a Red-Top, Son Tidwell had played what was then known as 'chickenscratch guitar').
There had been a vast uproar about it in town, and even a meeting to protest 'the advent of these darkies, which come in a Horde.' Things had settled down and turned out okay, as things have a way of doing, more often than not. The shanty town most locals had expected on Day's Hill (for so Tidwell's Meadow was called in 1900, when Son Tidwell bought the land on behalf of his extensive clan) had never appeared. Instead, a number of neat white cabins sprang up, surrounding a larger building that might have been intended as a group meeting place, a rehearsal area, or perhaps, at some point, a performance hall.
Sara and the Red-Top Boys (sometimes there was a Red-Top Girl in there, as well; membership in the band was fluid, changing with every performance) played around western Maine for over a year, maybe closer to two years. In towns all up and down the Western Line ¡ª Farmington, Skowhegan, Bridgton, Gates Falls, Castle Rock, Morton, Fryeburg ¡ª you'll still come across their old show-posters at barn bazaars and junkatoriums. Sara and the Red-Tops were great favorites on the circuit, and they got along all right at home on the TR, too, which never surprised me. At the end of the day Robert Frost ¡ª that utilitarian and often unpleasant poet ¡ª was right: in the northeastern three we really do believe that good fences make good neighbors. We squawk and then keep a miserly peace, the kind with gimlet eyes and a tucked-down mouth. 'They pay their bills,' we say. 'I ain't never had to shoot one a their dogs,' we say. 'They keep themselves to themselves,' we say, as if isolation were a virtue. And, of course, the defining virtue: 'They don't take charity.'
And at some point, Sara Tidwell became Sara Laughs.
In the end, though, TR-90 mustn't have been what they wanted, because after playing a county fair or two in the late summer of 1901, the clan moved on. Their neat little cabins provided summer-rental income for the Day family until 1933, when they burned in the summer fires which charred the east and north sides of the lake. End of story.
Except for her music, that was. Her music had lived.
I got up from the rock I had been sitting on, stretched my arms and my back, and walked back down the lane, singing one of her songs as I went.