The interior of the shed was not as clean and featureless as it had been when I first ascended to it in that other realm. Enough storm light found its way inside to reveal abandoned spiderworks tattering in the corners of the ceiling, a generous layer of dust on the shelves, and a litter of paper scraps and broken glass across the floor. On the shelves stood a few oddly shaped cans so old and rusted that their labels could not be read.
The air was redolent of wood rot and a lacquerlike smell that came from something that for weeks or months had been oozing from one of the rusty containers. I realized that in the other-world version of this building, there had been no odors, either foul or sweet, just as there had been no sounds except those that I made.
When I opened the creaking door at the head of the single flight of narrow stairs, I smelled mold and dust. The shaft was dark except for watery light below, where the lower door hung open and askew on two of three hinges.
In the third-floor hallway, I discovered the source of that vague illumination: three skylights. The hollow rataplan of rain on the slanted panes unnerved me because it masked other sounds that I might need to hear, and I hurried to the west stairwell.
By the time that I made my way down to the garage on the ground floor of this crumbling structure, I reached the conclusion that the other version of the building, the one without dust or odors or fine details, was not a part of the black wasteland with the distant lakes of fire. It possessed a character different from both this world and that one, as though it must be in some kind of borderland between realities, a sort of way station.
The garage contained no vehicle. The white van once stored there had been driven away earlier by the would-be burner of children or perhaps by his hard-faced stocky friend in the black-leather jacket. The fancy ProStar+ was secreted in the other garage, the one in the borderland building, to be retrieved when its owner had need of it.
Evidently, the rhinestone cowboy not only knew of these way stations but also seemed able, unlike me, to come and go from them at will.
I tucked the pistol in my waistband, under my sodden sweatshirt, glanced at the high latticed windows to be sure that the lightless wasteland had not again closed around the building, and left by the man-size door.
I stepped into the storms, the one that is merely weather, and the other that is the story of humanity.
THE SLIGHTLY CONCAVE PAVEMENT IN THE ALLEYWAY channeled a rush of rainwater that carried with it crisp golden ficus leaves like fairy boats, stiff-legged dead beetles, cigarette butts, an empty foil condom packet, tiny purple petals that the wind might have shaken down from the limbs of early-blooming jacarandas, and all manner of flotsam, every scrap of it familiar yet somehow ominous.
I felt a little bit as if I were debris, too, swept along by the cataracts of falling rain. When at the end of the alleyway I turned right on the sidewalk, the runoff swelled deeper in the gutter, and among the trash borne on that tide was the hollow rubber head of a Kewpie doll. Although I hurried, the head kept pace with me, and though it bobbled back and forth in the current, its painted blue eyes seemed always to fix upon me.
As I approached the street drain capped by the iron grate with the stylized lightning bolt, the flow in the gutter quickened, and the doll’s head swept away from me. The cascading water washed the myriad bits of refuse between the bars of the grating—except for the severed pate of the doll, which was too wide to pass and which came to rest upright, its ragged neck in one of the gaps between the lightning bolt and the ring that encircled it, its stare still turned on me.
I halted. Stood there. Waiting, watching.
The rain silvered the day, and for a moment it seemed that the only color was the blue of the doll’s eyes.
Not everything that happens during the day is an omen portending a good or evil development in the future, but everything has meaning to one degree or another, for the world is an ever-weaving tapestry from which no thread can be pulled without destroying the integrity of the cloth. The breadth of Creation makes it impossible for us to step back far enough to see the story that the tapestry tells; the intricacy of it, from the macro to the micro to the subatomic, makes it impossible for us to comprehend the megatrillions of connections between the threads in just one small fragment of the whole.
Yet there are uncanny moments when each of us recognizes that the surface of events is just what the word denotes, a surface under which lie layers beyond counting, that what’s really happening is always more than what appears to be happening, that the apparent meaning of an event is only the smallest part of its fullest meaning. In such moments, most people—wise or foolish, simple or smart—truly feel the wonder of the world and perceive poignantly but briefly that at the heart of our existence lie mysteries so supremely grand in character that we cannot comprehend them in this life. The tendency then is to treat this revelation as an aberration, to react with fear or pride, or both, and to attribute the experience to mere confusion, stress, one glass of wine too many, one glass of wine too few, or any of innumerable unlikely causes.
Of this cowardice, I am no less guilty than anyone. Because my life has always been rich in strangeness, I am pretty sure that I choose to see less than I should in the weave of every day. I feel pressed to the limits of my capacity to cope, or at least that is my excuse for sometimes failing to allow an even greater sense of mystery to inspire me.
There in the rain-swept street, however, at the lightning-bolt grating, as the trapped and tilted head of the doll gazed up at me, I could not fail to recognize the mystical in the moment. And as I stood transfixed, as the water with its freight of trash and litter poured between the bars, I glimpsed three fluttery pulses of orange light traveling right to left through the culvert below, followed by three more, the same Halloween light I’d seen in another drain under a similar grating in Magic Beach more than a month earlier.
On that night, in that coastal town, the heavens had been too dry to wring out any rain, but the sea had given up a thick fog that billowed lazily through the streets. Sound had risen from that drain, at first a susurration like many voices whispering, but then what might have been the shuffling of innumerable feet, as if some lost battalion were compelled by Fate to search wearily for the war in which its every member had been meant to die.
If this drain offered such a sound, it was masked by the sizzle of falling rain, by the slish-slish-slish of tires on wet pavement, and by the runoff splashing through the grate. The fluttering light came again in three distinct throbs. Something seized the neck of the Kewpie doll from below, the hollow rubber head deformed, and the face folded in upon itself as it was yanked down and away.
Maybe one other detail that I thought I saw was a product of my ever-active imagination or some kind of psychological projection, but I will always believe that it was real. As the doll’s head was pulled between the bars, as its features squinched, its face became my face, and the snatching away of it seemed to be a promise that before long I would be taken, too, not merely by Death but also by a determined collector in some dark power’s employ.
I didn’t linger at the grating but hurried on through the wind and rain. When I turned the corner and saw the enormous limousine parked where I’d gotten out of it, I was inexpressibly grateful to Mrs. Fischer for ignoring my plea that she get on with her life and leave me to deal with my troubles alone. I didn’t want to have to hitch a ride with a stranger, who would most likely turn out to be a psychopathic cannibal, and I wasn’t likely to stumble upon a second crop of bank robbers whose getaway vehicle I could steal with a clear conscience.
As I approached the black Mercedes, my attention was drawn to my right, to the pair of glass doors at the entrance of the Salvation Army thrift shop. Standing inside, gazing out, were Mr. Hitchcock, Annamaria, and my dog Boo.
Being the spirit of a man who had not died by any kind of violence, the director wasn’t doomed to haunt one location to the exclusion of all others, although as an honest and trenchant critic of his own films, he might have felt obligated to roam forever the sound stage on which he shot most of The Paradine Case, one of his few turkeys. Now that he had come to me for help, he was able to materialize wherever I went.
Earlier, when I mentioned our two dogs, the golden retriever Raphael and the white German shepherd Boo, I neglected to say that the former is a living dog and the latter is a ghost, the only spirit dog that I have ever seen, Rin Tin Tin of the afterlife, who had been with me since my stay at St. Bartholomew’s Abbey in the California mountains.
Dog and film director could go wherever they chose without need of transportation, but Annamaria, my pregnant traveling companion of recent days, made of flesh and bone like me, was limited to walking or riding some conveyance. That she had gotten here so close on my heels, that she had been able to find me at all, defied belief.
She was aware of my ability to see spirits, but as far as I knew, she could not see them herself and could not know that two ghosts stood with her.
Beyond the glass doors, Mr. Hitchcock waved at me. Boo wagged his tail. Annamaria merely stood there in her sneakers, gray khaki pants, and baggy pale-pink sweater, smiling enigmatically.
She is at all times enigmatic. And though some might say that she has her secrets, I would go so far as to say that perhaps she has no secrets, which require a conscious act of withholding, but instead has her mysteries, which I am invited to understand if I possess the intelligence and the patience and the faith to unravel them.
Skeins of silver rain unspooled ceaselessly around and over me, and after a moment of paralysis, I started toward the doors of the thrift shop.
Lightning ripped the sky, so near that the accompanying crash of thunder shuddered the air even as the flash was at its brightest. After the events of this day, I felt targeted, and I juked as though to dodge that flaming lance, turned, looked up, and saw the black clouds throbbing with inner light, as if another bolt was being fashioned in the factory of the storm.
When I turned back toward the thrift shop, the dog and the director and Annamaria were no longer watching me through the doors. I had not imagined them, and although Boo and Mr. Hitchcock could dematerialize at will, the pregnant lady with eyes as dark as espresso could not evaporate like a spirit.
I stepped out of the rain, into the warmth of the store, seeking Annamaria, and found something I could never have anticipated.
THE SPACIOUS STORE OFFERED AISLES OF WELL-MENDED secondhand clothing, paintings and an array of decorative items for the home, costume jewelry, an entertainment aisle with CDs and DVDs, shelves of used books, old toys fully restored, and much more.
Among the expected merchandise were fanciful items that were intriguing or puzzling, and which might have been amusing if I had not been cold, wet, and freaked out by recent events. A pair of five-foot carved-wood hand-painted blue heron had been adapted as lamps and held lightbulbs in their fierce beaks. A pygmy hippopotamus as large as a Shetland pony, preserved by an expert taxidermist, stood on a stone base that bore an engraved silver plaque with the words PEACHES/BELOVED COMPANION/IN MY HEART FOREVER.
Shoes squishing, dripping and splashing, making more of a mess than Peaches had probably ever done, I prowled the aisles, looking for Mr. Hitchcock and Boo but primarily for Annamaria. The customers, who had arrived under the protection of umbrellas, regarded me mostly with sympathy. But perhaps my eyes were wild and my demeanor fevered, because a few seemed to see in me a waterlogged lout, and they were quick to get out of my way, grimacing with disdain. Others went pale with fear as if I were the equivalent of Jacob Marley, from A Christmas Carol, back from the dead, wrapped not in symbolic chains but in the waters of some river in which I had drowned.
Because I had not come here to shop but instead to find two ghosts and a pregnant enigma, my hurried passage from department to department and my befuddled look caught the attention of a clerk in a Salvation Army uniform. She approached me with evident concern and a buoyant manner in excess of what I had seen in employees of other stores. Judging by the look of me, perhaps she might have expected that, in addition to directing me to recycled kitchen utensils or manufacturer’s-surplus dental-care products, she would also have a chance to save my soul.
In her early forties, with hair the color of brandied cherries, skin as pale as powdered sugar and as smooth as buttercream, freckles the precise shade of cinnamon, and a smile as winning as that of a ponytailed little girl in a current TV commercial for ice cream, she looked sweet, and she was. “Oh, dear, dear, dear, the day hasn’t been good to you, has it? You look chilled to the bone. How can I help?”
There was no point in asking if she’d seen the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock or a ghost dog, and it seemed inappropriate to stagger into a Salvation Army facility and boldly announce that I was looking for a girl.
And so with my usual aplomb, I said, “Well, through the window, I thought I saw an old friend. I don’t mean really old like elderly. I have an elderly friend in the car outside. She’s eighty-six, but she doesn’t look it, though she screams when she looks in a mirror. The friend in the car, I mean, not the friend I thought I saw in here. The friend I thought I saw, Annamaria, she’s a girl. Not a little girl. Like eighteen. Dark eyes and hair, petite, with this smile that makes you feel everything will be all right even on the worst day. Don’t get the wrong idea, ma’am. I’m not stalking her. She didn’t jilt me. She’s not my ex-girlfriend or girlfriend or anything. I only have one girlfriend, and she’s forever. I don’t mean Mrs. Fischer, the elderly lady in the car. Mrs. Fischer’s just a friend. She thinks she’s my employer. But I’m not a chauffeur. I’m a fry cook. Although not recently, what with one crazy thing after the other.”
When I finally wound down, the clerk said, “You must be Thomas.”
For a moment, I seemed to have exhausted my supply of words, and then I found a few. “Yes, ma’am. How did you know?”
“Your sister purchased some things for you.”
“She said you’d be along in a while. She’s a very self-possessed young woman. Very impressive. With such a graceful and kind way about her.”
“Yes, ma’am, that’s her, all right. What did she purchase?”
“Just what she knew you’d need. Come with me.”
As she led me toward the back of the store, I said, “Did she purchase Peaches, the stuffed pygmy hippo?”
The clerk’s laugh was musical. “You’re teasing me.”
“No. Of course not.”
“Good. I couldn’t fit it in the car. I’d have to put wheels on Peaches and ride her home.”
“You have your sister’s sense of humor.”
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