Strange Highways Page 2

In spite of his weariness, Joey didn't want to sleep. Half a bottle of Jack Daniel's had failed to quiet his nerves or to diminish his apprehension. He felt vulnerable. Asleep, he'd be defenseless.

Nevertheless, he had to try to get some rest. In little more than twelve hours, he would bury his dad, and he needed to build up strength for the funeral, which wasn't going to be easy on him.

He carried the straight-backed chair to the hall door, tilted and wedged it under the knob: a simple but effective barricade.

His room was on the second floor. No intruder could easily reach the window from outside. Besides, it was locked.

Now, even if he was sound asleep, no one could get into the room without making enough noise to alert him. No one. Nothing.

In bed again, he listened for a while to the relentless roar of the rain on the roof. If someone was prowling the house at that very moment, Joey couldn't have heard him, for the gray noise of the storm provided perfect cover.

"Shannon," he mumbled, "you're getting weird in middle age."

Like the solemn drums of a funeral cortege, the rain marked Joey's procession into deeper darkness.

In his dream, he shared his bed with a dead woman who wore a strange transparent garment smeared with blood. Though lifeless, she suddenly became animated by demonic energy, and she pressed one pale hand to his face. Do you want to make love to me? she asked. No one will ever know. Even I couldn't be a witness against you. I'm not just dead but blind. Then she turned her face toward him, and he saw that her eyes were gone. In her empty sockets was the deepest darkness he had ever known. I'm yours, Joey. I'm all yours.

He woke not with a scream but with a cry of sheer misery. He sat on the edge of the bed, his face in his hands, sobbing softly.

Even dizzy and half nauseated from too much booze, he knew that his reaction to the nightmare was peculiar. Although his heart raced with fear, his grief was greater than his terror. Yet the dead woman was no one he had ever known, merely a hobgoblin born of too little sleep and too much Jack Daniel's. The previous night, still shaken by the news of his dad's death and dreading the trip to Asherville, he had dozed only fitfully. Now, because of weariness and whiskey, his dreams were bound to be populated with monsters. She was nothing more than the grotesque denizen of a nightmare. Nevertheless, the memory of that eyeless woman left him half crushed by an inexplicable sense of loss as heavy as the world itself.

According to the radiant dial of his watch, it was three-thirty in the morning. He had been asleep less than three hours.

Darkness still pressed against the window, and endless skeins of rain unraveled through the night.

He got up from the bed and went to the corner desk where he had left the half-finished bottle of Jack Daniel's. One more nip wouldn't hurt. He needed something to make it through to the dawn.

As Joey uncapped the whiskey, he was gripped by a peculiar urge to go to the window. He felt drawn as if by a magnetic force, but he resisted. Crazily, he was afraid that he might see the dead woman on the far side of the rain-washed glass, levitating one story above the ground: blond hair tangled and wet, empty eye sockets darker than the night, in a transparent gown, arms extended, wordlessly imploring him to fling up the window and plunge into the storm with her.

He became convinced that she was floating out there like a ghost. He dared not even glance toward the window or risk catching sight of it from the corner of his eye. If he saw her peripherally, even that minimal eye contact would be an invitation for her to come into his room. Like a vampire, she could tap at the window and plead to be let in, but she could not cross his threshold unless invited.

Edging back to the bed with the bottle in his hand, he kept his face averted from that framed rectangle of night.

He wondered if he was just unusually drunk or if he might be losing his mind.

To his surprise, he screwed the cap back on the bottle without taking a drink.



Joey didn't have a hangover. He knew how to pace his drinking to minimize the painful results. And every day he took a megadose of vitamin-B complex to replace what had been destroyed by alcohol; extreme vitamin-B deficiency was the primary cause of hangovers. He knew all the tricks. His drinking was methodical and well organized; he approached it as though it were his profession.

He found the makings of breakfast in the kitchen: a piece of stale coffee cake, half a glass of orange juice.

After showering, he put on his only suit, a white shirt, and a dark red tie. He hadn't worn the suit in five years, and it hung loosely on him. The collar of the shirt was a size too large. He looked like a fifteen-year-old boy dressed in his father's clothes.

Perhaps because the endless intake of booze accelerated his metabolism, Joey burned off all that he ate and drank, and invariably he closed each December a pound lighter than he'd begun the previous January. In another hundred and sixty years, he would finally waste away into thin air.

At ten o'clock he went to the Devokowski Funeral Home on Main Street. It was closed, but he was admitted by Mr. Devokowski because he was expected.

Louis Devokowski had been Asherville's mortician for thirty-five years. He was not sallow and thin and stoop shouldered, as comic books and movies portrayed men of his trade, but stocky and ruddy faced, with dark hair untouched by gray—as though working with the dead was a prescription for long life and vitality.


"Mr. Devokowski."

"I'm so sorry."

"Me too."

"Half the town came to the viewing last night."

Joey said nothing.

"Everyone loved your father."

Joey didn't trust himself to speak.

Devokowski said, "I'll take you to him."

The front viewing room was a hushed space with burgundy carpet, burgundy drapes, beige walls, and subdued lighting. Arrangements of roses loomed in the shadows, and the air was sweet with their scent.

The casket was a handsome bronze model with polished-copper trim and handles. By phone, Joey had instructed Mr. Devokowski to provide the best. That was how P.J. would want it—and it would be his money paying for it.

Joey approached the bier with the hesitancy of a man in a dream who expects to peer into the coffin and see himself.

But it was Dan Shannon who rested in peace, in a dark-blue suit on a bed of cream-colored satin. The past twenty years had not been kind to him. He looked beaten by time, shrunken by care, and glad to be gone.

Mr. Devokowski had retreated from the room, leaving Joey alone with his dad.

"I'm sorry," he whispered to his father. "Sorry I never came back, never saw you or Mom again."

Hesitantly, he touched the old man's pale cheek. It was cold and dry.

He withdrew his hand, and now his whisper was shaky. "I just took the wrong road. A strange highway ... and somehow ... there was never any coming back. I can't say why, Dad. I don't understand it myself."

For a while he couldn't speak.

The scent of roses seemed to grow heavier.

Dan Shannon could have passed for a miner, though he had never worked the coal fields even as a boy. Broad, heavy features. Big shoulders. Strong, blunt-fingered hands cross-hatched with scars. He had been a car mechanic, a good one—although in a time and place that had never offered quite enough work.

"You deserved a loving son," Joey said at last. "Good thing you had two, huh?" He closed his eyes. "I'm sorry. Jesus, I'm so sorry."

His heart ached with remorse, as heavy as an iron anvil in his chest, but conversations with the dead couldn't provide absolution. Not even God could give him that now.

When Joey left the viewing room, Mr. Devokowski met him in the front hall of the mortuary. "Does P.J. know yet?"

Joey shook his head. "I haven't been able to track him down."

"How can you not be able to track him down? He's your brother," Devokowski said. For an instant before he regained the compassionate expression of a funeral director, his contempt was naked.

"He travels all over, Mr. Devokowski. You know about that. He's always traveling, on the move, researching. It's not my fault ... being out of touch with him."

Reluctantly, Devokowski nodded. "I saw the piece about him in People a few months ago."

P.J. Shannon was the quintessential writer of life on the road, the most famous literary Gypsy since Jack Kerouac.

"He should come home for a while," Devokowski said, "maybe write another book about Asherville. I still think that was his best. When he hears about your dad, poor P.J., he's going to be broken up real bad. P.J. really loved your dad."

So did I, Joey thought, but he didn't say it. Given his actions over the past twenty years, he wouldn't be believed. But he had loved Dan Shannon. God, yes. And he'd loved his mother, Kathleen—whose funeral he had avoided and to whose deathbed he had never gone.

"P.J. visited just in August. Stayed about a week. Your dad took him all over, showing him off. He was so proud, your dad."

Devokowski's assistant, an intense young man in a dark suit, entered the far end of the hallway. He spoke in a practiced hush: "Sir, it's time to transport the deceased to Our Lady."

Devokowski checked his watch. To Joey, he said, "You're going to the Mass?"

"Yes, of course."

The funeral director nodded and turned away, conveying by body language that this particular son of Dan Shannon had not earned the right to add "of course" to his answer.

Outside, the sky looked burnt out, all black char and thick gray ashes, but it was heavy with rain.

Joey hoped that the lull in the storm would last through the Mass and the graveside service.

On the street, as he was approaching his parked car from behind, heading for the driver's door, the trunk popped open by itself and the lid eased up a few inches. From the dark interior, a slender hand reached feebly toward him, as if in desperation, beseechingly. A woman's hand. The thumb was broken and hanging at a queer angle, and blood dripped from the torn fingernails.

Around him, Asherville seemed to fall under a dark enchantment. The wind died. The clouds, which had been moving ceaselessly out of the northwest, were suddenly as unchanging as the vaulted ceiling of Hell. All was lifeless. Silence reigned. Joey was frozen by shock and cold fear. Only the hand moved, only the hand was alive, and only the hand's pathetic groping for salvation had any meaning or importance in a world turned to stone.

Joey couldn't bear the sight of the dangling thumb, the torn nails, the slow drip-drip of blood—but he felt powerfully compelled to stare. He knew that it was the woman in the transparent gown, come out of his dream from the night before, into the waking world, though such a thing was not possible.

Reaching out from the shadow of the trunk lid, the hand slowly turned palm up. In the center was a spot of blood and a puncture wound that might have been made by a nail.

Strangely, when Joey closed his eyes against the horror before him, he could see the sanctuary of Our Lady of Sorrows as clearly as if he were standing upon the altar platform at that very moment. A silvery ringing of sacred bells broke the silence, but it was not a real sound in that October afternoon; they rang out of his memory, from morning Masses in the distant past. Through my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault. He saw the chalice gleaming with the reflections of candle flames. The wafer of the host was held high in the priest's hands. Joey strained hard to detect the moment of transubstantiation. The moment when hope was fulfilled, faith rewarded. The split instant of perfect mystery: wine into blood. Is there hope for the world, for lost men like me?

The images in his mind became as unbearable as the sight of the blood-smeared hand, and he opened his eyes. The hand was gone. The trunk lid was closed. The wind was blowing again, and the dark clouds rolled out of the northwest, and in the distance a dog barked.

The trunk had never actually popped open, and the hand had never reached toward him. Hallucination.

He raised his own hands and gazed at them as though they were the hands of a stranger. They were trembling badly.

Delirium tremens. The shakes. Visions of things crawling out of the walls. In this case, out of a car trunk. All drunks had them from time to time—especially when they tried to give up the bottle.

In the car, he withdrew a flask from an inside pocket of his suit jacket. He stared at it for a long time. Finally he unscrewed the cap, took a whiff of the whiskey, and brought it to his lips.

Either he had stood half mesmerized by the car trunk far longer than he'd realized or he had sat for an awfully long time with the flask, struggling against the urge to open it, because the funeral-home hearse pulled out of the driveway and turned right, heading across town toward Our Lady of Sorrows. Enough time had passed for his father's casket to be transferred from the viewing room.

Joey wanted to be sober for the funeral Mass. He wanted that more than he had wanted anything in a long time.

Without taking a drink, he screwed the cap back onto the flask and returned the flask to his pocket.

He started the car, caught up with the hearse, and followed it to the church.

More than once during the drive, he imagined that he heard something moving in the trunk of the car. A muffled thump. A tapping. A faint, cold, hollow cry.


OUR LADY OF SORROWS WAS AS HE REMEMBERED IT: DARK WOOD lovingly polished to a satiny sheen; stained-glass windows waiting only for the appearance of the sun to paint bright images of compassion and salvation across the pews in the nave; groin vaults receding into blue shadows above; the air woven through with a tapestry of odors—lemon-oil furniture polish, incense, hot candle wax.

Joey sat in the last pew, hoping that no one would recognize him. He had no friends in Asherville any more. And without a long drink from his flask of whiskey, he wasn't prepared to endure the looks of scorn and disdain that he was sure to receive and that, in fact, he deserved.

More than two hundred people attended the service, and to Joey the mood seemed even more somber than could be expected at a funeral. Dan Shannon had been well and widely liked, and he would be missed.

Many of the women blotted their eyes with handkerchiefs, but the men were all dry eyed. In Asherville, the men never wept publicly and rarely in private. Although none had worked the mines in more than twenty years, they came from generations of miners who had lived in constant expectation of tragedy, of friends and loved ones lost to cave-ins and explosions and early-onset black-lung disease. Theirs was a culture that not only valued stoicism but could never have existed without it.

Keep your feelings to yourself. Don't burden your friends and family with your own fear and anguish. Endure. That was the creed of Asherville, a guiding morality stronger even than that which was taught by the rector of Our Lady and the two-thousand-year-old faith that he served.

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