Nick wants us written up in one of those books about rural Vermont's haunted houses. There's a regular here, a guy named Joe, who writes such books, and he sits at the bar and downs Guinness while Nick lies about our ghosts. Nick thinks if we get written up it will help business. And the Ice House is haunted, too, it's just that our ghosts are rather dull and subtle creatures. The house dates back two hundred years and was built by the local Grand Master of the Freemasons. (Originally the house had a spiral staircase, chessboard floors, and Palladian windows--all Masonic telltales.) Upstairs is a chandeliered ballroom we book for wedding parties; downstairs we have two dining rooms with lake views. The barroom used to be a stable, though I've yet to hear the ghost horse Nick claims kicks open doors on thundery nights. Hung on the walls are wooden skis, double-handled saws, compasses, and squares. The bar is lacquered mahogany, scarred and reddening. Its chairs, medieval iron swivelers with red leather seats.
My name is Tom Slaughter and I tend bar. For this I have the prerequisite beard, a golden ropy brown, housing a distinct rust-colored handlebar mustache. Used to be I could recite to you a whole Rolodex worth of drinks--I'd even set them on fire for you. But here on Grand Isle we get very little exotic. We get manhattans, martinis, the odd margarita. (Now, if someone yells out so much as seabreeze, I go blank.) I am sober these days, too, and sober, I am a poor storyteller, but there is one story, itself very sobering, that Nick makes me tell whenever there's a turnover in staff and the new waitresses figure to have me pegged as this loping bartender from down south who doesn't hit on them and isn't much fun to work with. Then, after hours, Nick will cross his feet up on the bar and announce: "Hey saps--you know Tommy-tom here once got bit by a real-life vampire? Listen up. Tell your story, Tom."
And I do. I tell my story.
My story begins in an Episcopal seminary in New Orleans, where once upon a time I shared cramped quarters with a flock of young, would-be men of God. It is said that where you find four Episcopalians you will find a fifth, and sure enough the pub where I then bartended (to pay tuition) made its share of revenue off my fellow seminary students. One such student was Paul. A Yankee. Ex-hockey player. Rich family. Paul had roached hair, blond, though mostly colorless, and a thin nose and yet thinner mouth, but he was a big guy with giant hands that lent him an authority his mind did not altogether deserve on those late nights when wine turns to whiskey. Paul proved brimstone at heart, and the more he drank the more he slurred and stumbled through the infinite midnight graveyard of hell and Revelations. His only real expertise: vampires. He collected old movie posters and even read the latest trash novels. It was the one thing about him I found noteworthy. Other than his fiancée.
Her name, Lucinda. Long, dusty brown hair. Long fine-featured face. Eyes like turned earth. And the damndest accent. Vermont.
The poet-saint Vivekenanda once staggered the streets of Calcutta an entire week unable to distinguish God from oncoming traffic; me, I have never beheld God once but for the emptiness of bottles and the nakedness of women. Back then I was the resident drunk gnostic: Saint Thomas, Valentinus, John of the Cross, Meister Eckehart. And the more I drank (what with being Irish) the more eloquent and condescending I became. I was a lady-killer, too. Sharp cheekbones, dimples, a ridiculous Prince Valiant haircut. On the night Lucinda broke off her engagement to Paul, she found me (where else?) tending at the local and commenced to down Absolut kamikazes and tell me how Paul slaps her, pulls out her hair, and how this whole vampire thing is getting out of hand.
A week later, in her newly rented cottage, Lucinda is straddling me on a waterbed, its assembly instructions leafed on the floor. Her neck is arched, her chin and breasts jutted forward. She is wearing faded red panties. A yellow drip candle in a basketed wine bottle sputters on the bedside table, its light glossing her breasts, which are just gaining a circular momentum when the window behind us explodes.
Wind snuffs our candle. Lucinda claws my wrist, whispers, "It's Paul. He's got his gun!" Darkness. Silence. The abdication of time. Then, from the yard below, a strangled voice, and a promise to kill us both. Another window explodes, at which point Lucinda commands me to call 911. These might be my last words, my epitaph. I tell her, "You call 911, sugar, I'm putting on my damn pants."
The front door has a frosted-glass inlay that Paul shatters with his fist, the same way he has shattered both windows. (He does not have a gun, but we don't know this yet.) Lucinda dials 911, then drops the receiver as Paul barrels into the bedroom. I brace myself to be shot, but Paul skates past me to check Lucinda into the wall. Meanwhile, 911 is now recording the assault and broadcasting it to every squad car in the parish.
"It's me, Paul, me!" I shout while prying his fingers off her throat. When I finally pull him off her, we begin an arm-locked waltz across the glass-scattered floor, until my feet slip in their own blood and I topple backward onto the waterbed. Here Paul begins to strangle me, very rhythmically, using the squall motion of the bed to his benefit, like lovers do, his blood-slick hands producing a squeegee-like noise that grows inside my head as the room begins to dim. Lucinda, bless her heart, is now riding Paul's back and pulling out handfuls of colorless hair. She is also screaming, or rather stagger-screaming: "You're! Killing! Him!"
We have changed positions is all. A Kama Sutra of assault and battery.
The world we know is a ghost. This is a lesson dying teaches us. I am blinking up at Paul, whose eyes are white orbs, and I am agreeing rather dispassionately with Lucinda: yeah, she's right, you're killing me. Drowning peacefully, I hardly notice when Paul quits strangling me and instead hinges back his head and howls up at the ceiling, his mouth opened impossibly wide. As the howl subsides, he collapses upon me like a child bobbing for apples and buries his teeth into my chest, right above the heart.
The pain from the bite is so excruciating that I buck and wail and somehow manage to convulse Paul off of me. We resume our waltz, thudding off walls until we arrive in the living room, where the front-door frame has been left outlined with shards. Paul is backing me toward this shark's mouth, and the choice I have is becoming increasingly simple: either I go through the broken door or I once again topple backward, this time onto the pool of glass beneath the door. (My back still carries the scars. It resembles a giant palm, I am told.) Paul lands on top of me. His weight-shifts create great crunching sounds underneath me. Clutching a dagger of frosted glass in his red fist, he croaks, "Either leave now or I'm gunna cutch ya fucken throat!"
In a helium voice, an embarrassing voice (I've heard the 911 tape), I tell him I can't leave. Then, just as my throat is about to be slit, something unforeseen happens. A hoard of blue angels swarms the house, painting the walls, the mirrors, the windows, everything, blue. Caught in this spell, Paul turns blue, then dissolves. A moment later, blue Lucinda and I limp outside into a night of revolving turquoise, where shadowy cops lurk tethered to dogs. A spotlight illuminates us on the porch. Lucinda naked but for red panties. Me, swabbed in blood, glass shards clinging to my back, my arms, my jeans, my hair . . . a human ice storm.
After everybody else has returned to their lives, Nick and I remain at the bar. The Ice House is Nick's life. He lives upstairs with his wife and her son, and the marriage, his fifth, is not faring well. Invariably we talk sports and ex-wives, and invariably he pokes fun at my sex life, which has not much existed for three years now. Nick tops off his beer and declares an open bar, trying to lure me off the wagon. We are watching The Weather Channel (which is something, like board games, that people do in Vermont). A time-lapsed storm is approaching Grand Isle, a big nor'easter. Nick frets aloud about his morning flight to Hawaii, where his family is having a reunion, and while he worries he once again repeats his final instructions, everything from feeding the fish to counting the drawer. Tomorrow I become boss.
My little white pickup sits crystallized in ice. I scrape the windshield and bundle inside to wait out the defroster. Navigating the four-mile bridge home, I keep my chin to the wheel, my fists bloodless. The speedometer dwindles below 5 mph as I take the final hairpin, where just last week a family sedan punched through the flowering ice.
The drive back to work the next day is even more harrowing. I arrive ten minutes late to find a haiku of angry waitresses huddled in the snow. Chico, the cook, arrives at the same time as Sysco Inc., and I have Freddie haul in the frozen boxes. Freddie, our dishwasher/drug peddler, has straight black hair, a slew of black concert T's, and an American Indian profile broken up by attempts at chin whiskers. Because of the storm, we get no early tables. My one bar customer is Joe, the haunted-house writer. Joe is an islander with a Whitman beard and hands atremble. Tonight, bearlike in red suspenders, he starts into his fifth pint, then with a renewed determination pleads, "Just this once, Tom. As one Irishman to another."
Joe's big on being Irish, though there's little Irish about him save his last name. He's fond of me because, when I was four, my father fled Belfast for Louisiana the day after the church he ministered exploded. If Joe's had too much to drink, like now, he'll start speaking to strangers with a leprechaun brogue.
"Five bucks," I repeat, then wait until he spreads the five ones on the bar before I unbutton my red flannel shirt to reveal the vampire scar, each tooth minted perfectly around the heart.
Out the window the snow is rising, as if suctioned upward.
"Jay-sus," he says.
Of course Joe wants to hear the whole sad song now. I am tempted to embellish the story, but since I don't have that kind of imagination I just shrug and tell the truth. That the seminary divided into camps, the younger priests and the women rallying around me, the old-boy network siding with Paul. (After all, Paul had been engaged, and it was assumed I had caused the break up.) Also, it turned out, Paul was a legacy. Both his father and grandfather had attended the seminary in New Orleans. Paul's father was now a bishop.
"Ahhh," says Joe, waxing a bit more Irish. "A man of considerable pull, no doubt. That might explain why you're passing out pints now instead of the blood and the body." These last words sound odd to me, like from a foreign language. The blood and the body.
Joe guesses the obvious, that I was expelled, and I tell him yeah, expelled. But not Paul. He got probation. Joe's face clouds, and by way of consolation he asks, "But you got the girl, right?"
"Not for long, I didn't." I make the universal tippling motion and turn my back to him. "She herded me up here, after we got married, and we opened up a bookstore. But then, when she divorced me, she got the store, liquidated the inventory, then turned the finest bookstore in Vermont into a lingerie boutique."
In the copper bar back, I can see Joe scrawling away on a napkin, which he crumples into his shirt pocket as I turn around.
"Hey, you're not writing about this, are you?"
"Of course not," he replies, as if offended, but then he changes his tone to add, "Well, that depends." He leans forward and squints at me and after a moment he says, "Tom, show me your teeth."
"That," I explain, "will cost you another five."
At eight, I send everyone home except Kaba, Chico, and Freddie. Kaba's one table departs, but instead of locking up, I pause at the specials board to correct the spelling of shepard's pie. While I'm doing this, I see a red van, or the illusion of a red van, flash through the white window. A minute later the front door blows open, and in walk three priests. Old priest, middle priest, baby priest. They must have come across on the last ferry because the old man is wearing a name tag from the Adirondack Hilton. My legs turn to water, but I manage to ask "Smoking or no, gents?"Then I lead them to the porch, a secluded room with its own bay window usually revealing the lake but tonight made an hourglass of snow. I take their drink order, light the table candle. Kaba glowers at me as I emerge, but I tell her to go on home, I'll handle it.
Back behind the bar, I mix three perfect bourbon manhattans straight up before shooting a jigger of Bushmills.
"Hey, I thought you never touched the stuff?" Joe objects, but I pretend not to hear him. I tray up the drinks, reenter the porch.
"So what's up at the Hilton, gents?" I bray, feeling the warm whiskey slithering down my armpits. Both the bishop and Paul frown at my congeniality, but the eldest LaTulippe, who is entirely bald with cauliflower ears, and whose name is also Paul, joins his long fingers and smiles up at me as the bearer of good bourbon and announces they have just attended a meeting of the House of Bishops.
"Of course my son here is the only bona fide bishop in the clan. The rest of us were smuggled in. Quite illegally. And quite an honor. Some of the finest minds in the church--"
"In the world," the bishop interjects.
I look at them, at their rings and collars and cloaks, and the part of me not filled with hatred is humbled and heartbroken.
Playing it dumb, I ask, "You gentlemen Catholic?"
"Episcopal," the old man replies happily.
I nod and tell them the next round's on the house. "Used to be a Prod myself. Lapsed, I'm afraid." I recite the specials and ask how the roads are holding up. The old man separates his beak from the manhattan to state, "A pure nightmare. We'd planned on making Boston."
"We need to make Boston," insists Paul, whom I refuse to look at, even though I know he won't recognize me. It's not just my beard or the hair cropped short or the tiny octagonal spectacles I wear now . . . no, it's that I've had this dream too many times, and he never recognizes me until it's too late.
The bishop folds one eye shut and inquires if there is perhaps a reasonably priced inn on the island. He has a fleshed-out nose and dark wings beneath his eyes. Of the three, only he has a full head of hair, black and high-banged. He resembles Johnny Cash, even down to the black suit and quarterback hands. Turning my hand into a phone, I ask how many rooms they'll need.
The bishop decides one room will do, but the old man says, "Make that two rooms. I've listened to these two bicker for the last hundred miles--I'll not listen to it all night. You'll be sick of us in no time. Mark my words."
Returning to the bar, I find Freddie perched on a stool and watching hockey. (Dishwashers are not allowed out front, much less allowed to change the TV channel to hockey.) Joe is gone but his keys and glasses are beside his pint. I glance at the men's room, then swivel Freddie around. At first he appears stricken, closer to frightened than I ever imagined seeing him, but by the time I've steepled my hands between us his face has recovered, stoic and annoyed. I whisper that I need to buy some LSD. "I'm not joking. Can you help me out or can you help me out?"
"One condition," he says, raising a finger.
I close my hand around the finger, squeeze it.
"You're outta here," I bribe him. "Don't even mop."
After shooting yet another jigger, I pour a sixteen count of Jack into a shaker, then drop in the six squares of LSD. "I am sorry, old man," I lament, "but the sins of the son . . ." I swirl the shaker around, nest it on ice . . . again I check the men's room door. I suspect Joe is in there scribbling my life story onto toilet paper, turning me into a vampire or a ghost or God only knows what . . .
"We cannot make the same mistake the Vatican made!" Paul trumpets from inside the porch. "We are not a goddess cult!"
I flip open my order pad just as Paul rests his monstrous hands on the table. Suddenly I can't breathe. It's the old man who notices and asks if I'm okay. I bulge my eyes, force a swallowing smile. "I apologize," I say. "Frog in my throat."
They all order prime rib, medium. "Another round, Bishop?" I inquire, and he makes a bored twirling motion with a ringed finger. I am turning to exit when Paul asks about the rooms.
"Lines are all haywire," I tell him. "But I'm still at it."
"Don't you let rooms here?" The old man removes his cherry and sets it on the cocktail napkin. "Your sign outside said 'inn.'"
"We used to, sir. Got a bit of the bad rep, I'm afraid." I turn my fingers into spiders. "What with our ghosts."
Each LaTulippe lifts an eyebrow, the left one, and the old man recalls, "Oh yes, the menu did mention something about ghosts, didn't it?"
"I'll take two ghosts, medium well," the bishop says.
"I like mine still bloody," quips Paul.
I allow myself a smirk and a quick glance at Paul. His receding hairline has accentuated the caveman forehead. Most men look smarter bald, not Paul. Meanwhile, the old man, hands clasped sideways, is asking what vintage of ghost we have here. With a wink, I suggest that if they're still interested then I'll tell them all about our ghosts after the meal. "Wouldn't want to spoil your appetites."
I return with the drinks and serve up the poison with a "Cheers, gents!"
En route to the kitchen, I change the temperatures on their primes from medium to rare. As I slap the duplicate under the heat lamp, Chico asks what took me so long.
"Hell is empty," I tell him. "And all the devils are here."
Their argument concerns a mural to be painted inside a new cathedral. Paul and the bishop bicker in theatrical voices while I bide my entrance holding a basket of rolls and three salads. When Paul caws, "We need the cross up there--Calvary!" I whisk into the room, the Bushmills creating an ice-skate effect, and serve out the salads and announce, "The Shroud of Turin!"
A shell-shocked pause, then Paul frowns and says, "Excuse me?"
"The Shroud of Turin," I repeat, faithfully. "How come you don't hang a big picture of that inside your church?"
They stare blinking and squinting up at me, as if I am something tremulously invoked. Finally the old man admits, "I'm not sure we . . . follow."
So I cross my arms and I ask them a simple question. I ask them which artist, in their learned opinion, has created our most haunting portrait of Christ.
Paul, torn between wanting to be rude and knowing the answer to a question, hesitates, then blurts out, "Michael Angelo, obviously."
"Michelangelo?" I say, letting my disgust show.
The bishop responds, "An Italian fellow. Painted a chapel once. Perhaps you've heard of him?"
"Aye, Mick Angelo." I pretend to bulk up my physique. "Christ as professional wrestler." I am about to further disparage Paul's choice when the bishop interjects, "Perhaps if in the depths of your scholarship you could locate us some freshly ground pepper?"
"Certainly." I fetch the tall wooden grinder, and, after slavishly rotating it over each salad, I ask can I bring them anything else.
"Leonardo," reflects the old man. "His Last Supper."
I stare from him around the table.
"He begs to differ," the bishop anticipates, chewing. "The waiter disagrees with your selection, Father."
"Bartender," I correct, then I laugh a brayish laugh that makes everyone uncomfortable. "But it's an interesting choice. What with Leonardo being a heretic."
"Heretic?" the old man repeats. "Leonardo?"
So I explain that Leonardo belonged to an alchemist church, a church that agrees with the Dead Sea Scrolls in its conviction that John the Baptist, not Jesus, was the true Messiah. Tucking the pepper grinder under my arm, I add, "Which might explain why Leonardo painted himself into The Last Supper as Saint Thaddaus, the disciple bathed in light and most turned away from Christ."
Paul clears his throat. The bishop blows into his manhattan as if teasing a candle flame. But the old man, who obviously enjoys indulging me, observes, "Now let me get this straight, you're suggesting the Turin shroud is . . . ?"
"A work of art," I say. "Unparalleled."
"But the shroud is a fraud!" The bishop coughs into his napkin. "They carbon-dated it. It's from the fifteenth century."
"The Renaissance," I agree. "But it's not a true relic--and I think we all agree it isn't--then what else could it be but art?"
"An attempt to deceive," retorts the bishop.
"Disegno," I counter, albeit smugly, and wait.
The bishop smiles wearily before conceding, "I suppose we have to ask."
"Disegno, the illusion of three dimensions upon the one-dimensional plane. The task and foundation of all art, according to your friend Leonardo."
"Your point being?"
"Art is always an attempt to deceive."
"Nevertheless, the shroud is a hoax."
"No, sir," I tell the bishop. "The shroud is a photograph."
This revelation is met with a backfire of laughter, even the old man joins in. And so I begin to describe the camera obscura. My hands forming a series of angles, I detail how you build a large box, one that allows in no light whatsoever. Then you drag the box into bright sunlight, crawl inside it, and puncture one wall: instantly, an inverted image of the outside world is projected inside the box and onto the far wall. "The first movie theater, really. Invented during the Renaissance."
Paul is studying the space between my hands as if I have created a lasting structure there. (My first hint the LSD is taking effect.) But the bishop still sounds coherent enough as he points out, "Yes, but you can't take photographs with a camera obscura."
"No, sir, you couldn't do much of anything with a camera obscura. Because, as soon as it was invented, the church declared it satanic. Meaning its inventor had to work underground. First he plugged a lens into the hole, an obvious thing to do. Next he lacquered a canvas screen with lemon juice or egg white. Finally, after exposing an image, he simply heated the canvas over fire. Like a child does with invisible ink. Presto. The shroud." Saying this, I notice the table candle has gone out. I find my matches and relight it. Holding the lit match, I add, "The interesting question becomes not so much who invented the camera obscura--we know this for a fact--but whose photograph is it on the shroud that pilgrims have fallen down and worshipped for centuries now as the true face of God?"
I blow out the match--quite pleased with myself.
"And I suppose you feel it necessary to solve this riddle before we are to be served our supper?"
I grin, make a widening gesture. "A hint, Bishop. A self-portrait done by an artist accused by the church of necromancy."
Paul and the old man both reach for a roll. Their hands collide, and the old man's recoils. Resting his fingers in the wicker basket, Paul says, "Necromancy?"
"Black magic," replies the old man, grinning wildly at things indeterminate, a piece of lettuce stuck to his chin.
"Black magic using corpses," I specify, then rub my own chin until the old man's hand levitates to brush away the lettuce.
The bishop announces he can bring this discussion to a humane closure. "This mysterious inventor of yours, are we still discussing Leonardo?"
I flick at something under my nose until the bishop mimics the gesture, then I ask the bishop if he's ever seen a portrait of Leonardo. And I assure him, "The face on the shroud, they could be twins."
The bishop, appearing more bored than ever, takes his cherry by the stem and stirs his bourbon with it. He places the cherry in his mouth, sucks it dry, then returns it to the drink. Finally he complains, "Not to delay our food any longer, but have you ever asked yourself why da Vinci would care to accomplish such a thing?"
"Oldest motive in the world, sir. After all, the church had tried Leonardo twice, both times very publicly. First for necromancy, then for sodomy. What greater revenge than to transform yourself into the god of your enemy?"
And, with that, I skate for the kitchen.
The roads are out, the bridge a death trap. Chico, who lives on the island, tells me this and offers me a couch, but I assure him that I'll sleep upstairs. He slides the soggy primes under the lamp. Reentering the porch, I notice that their faces have lost muscle tension. Their pupils have dilated. They appear innocent. Years of suffering erased. Lambs.
"MEAT!" I bellow, dishing out the plates. "MOOOO!"
I leave them blinking down at the marbled primes pooled in blood. Pausing by the stairs, my hands plunging my beard, I wait ten minutes before doing a callback. "How's you moo-moo, gents?" Only the old man is chewing; his eyes gleam with a nuclear contentment. The other two steaks have been dissembled into jigsaws of meat. Under my scrutiny, the bishop pushes in a bite. Paul follows suit. There begins a strange musculature at work, as if they are chewing with the tops of their skulls.
"Another round?" I inquire, and all three flail a hand upward.
I am mixing the drinks when I remember Joe. I pick up his glasses and take them into the men's room, where Joe is slumped over the toilet, his beard disappearing between his thighs. In his hand is a pen, and scattered over his lap are a dozen bar napkins filled with scrawl. I test his wrist. No pulse, no nothing. Deader'n Elvis.
It's Chico who finds me braced against the bar and asks if I'm okay. I ignore him and initial his time card and tell him to lock the door on his way out.
"You're drunk," Chico ascertains. "Tommy-tom's drunk!"
As soon as he's gone, I drink another whiskey and tray up the drinks. The old man has finished eating and is eyeing the other plates, both glowingly filled with red cubes. Paul has hidden his one chewed mouthful under a roll. Seeing me, he takes another bite and holds the meat inside his mouth like hard candy. I grab the empty chair, spin it around. "About those ghosts." I roll up my sleeves. "Now do you gentlemen want the stories we're supposed to tell the customers or do you want the truth."
"The truth, of course," replies the old man.
Behind him snow fills the window. I crack the knuckles of my fist, almost a drumroll, as I regard my audience, children around a campfire.
"Okay, but it's only fair to warn you--it's not ghosts per se, it's more like . . . vampire ghosts."
"Vampire ghosts," Paul echoes in soft reverence.
"Aye." Paul and I lock eyes until the phone rings, then I excuse myself and make for the bar. It's Nick, sounding very drunk.
"Tommy-tom!" he yells. "How's it hanging?"
I tell him it's cold, and that there's a white-out, and I ask can I sleep upstairs. The pause lets me know he doesn't relish the idea, but then he says, "Yeah, just don't be trying on my wife's underwear."
"Too late," I tell him.
"Tom, you sound funny. You find my stash?"
"Yeah, it was in your wife's underwear drawer."
This is met with a clammy silence, then, "You drunk, Tom?"
I scratch my nails against the receiver and start saying, "Hello, hello?" Nick is reminding me to feed the fish when I sever the connection. I change the CD from Vivaldi to the Pogues. Then, back inside the men's room, I bunch up Joe's pants and grapple him to the dinner table, where I prop him on a chair beneath the window so that his head lags philosophically backwards. Crossing his arms over his beard, I explain to the priests, "A friend. Bit of a ghost-story enthusiast. I've agreed to let him sit in if he keeps quiet as a mouse." I find my chair. Smiling benevolently, I ask, where were we?
"Ahh, the vampire ghosts," I recall, winking at Joe. "Let's see now. About a hundred years ago, a young couple lived here. Priest and his wife, a very fetching lady." I belch horribly. "But one day she fell ill. Some degenerative illness, nobody knew what, but they treated it with opium. Laudanum, to be exact. And, of course, she wound up addicted. The husband, meanwhile, takes up with the local school marm and sticks the old wife upstairs, in a wheelchair. Supposedly some nights you can still hear her wheeling about, deranged on opium." I dangle my arms, swinging them from the elbows, and issue a long screech. We all stare at the ceiling. (Joe, his beard casting him as Rip Van Winkle, seems suddenly attentive.) Then I take off my tiny octagon-shaped spectacles, hardly bigger than my eyes, and polish them with my shirt. Whispering now, I continue, "She's trapped up there. All she's good for is reading. She reads one book over and over. Dracula. Reads it so much she goes a bit daft. Starts thinking her husband is a vampire, and that he's sucking her blood out slowly each night. That's why she's sick, she decides. And she writes all this down in her journal. They have it at the island library. Under glass. Page by page, in her bird scratch, she goes insane. Finally, one dark night, when there's a blizzard raging, a night like tonight, and her husband is passed out after a night's drinking, she takes needle and thread, and wheeling around the bed she sews the sheets tight over him. By the time he wakes up, it's too late, she's straddling him, and holding a wooden stake and a mallet. He can't move, he's paralyzed, trapped. All he can do is scream as she fits the stake to his heart." I clamp my left hand over my chest then hammer it three times. "But she's weak, almost too weak. It takes her hours to break through breastbone, and it takes all night before she has him pinned to the bed board."
The bishop is glowering at me through splayed fingers. Both Paul and Joe continue to stare at the ceiling, Paul's shoulders rowing crowlike, Joe's mouth widening. The old man is holding the back of his right hand to the candle and studying the pink circle this creates inside his palm.
"She can't get off the bed, though," I inform them. "Because the wheelchair, it shot to the wall. It's deep winter. And she's starving to death. For food, for opium. Two weeks pass before a neighbor comes calling." I knock twice under the table. (The sound scares even me.) "And finds them there. On the bed. His neck devoured. Her mouth sutured with blood."
The room falls quiet. I sigh, then, winking at Paul, I observe that revenge can be a work of art, yes? . . . or it can be bloody stupid, depending. I stand up, brush my hands. "No appetite, eh gents?" Then I repeat the question using a warped slow-motion voice. The old man wads his fist, lets it unfurl. "Your friend?" he says, looking at Joe.
"Can't handle his liquor, I'm afraid."
Paul perches both hands above the table, like a pianist, then blurts out, "About those rooms?"
"All booked up." I beak my lips, shake my head. "Not a room on the whole island. I'm afraid you won't find one short of Burlington. But you'll never make it there alive." I draw two fingers across my throat. "The bridge."
"The bridge," repeats Paul, without emphasis. The bishop repeats it next, which startles the old man from the candle. "The bridge?" he inquires.
"Gentlemen, tell you what, we'll put you up here tonight. Upstairs. That is, if you don't mind bunking with Joe and me."
The house lights flutter. The Ice House blinks and goes dark.
"Snow on the lines," I say softly, and Paul echoes this, too.
It's the bishop, huddling closer to the candle, who decides, "We're going to risk it. We have to make . . . Boston."
"We have to make Boston," Paul hums, his cheeks fierce with tears.
I pick up the candle, hold it to my face. "You don't even have snows on your van. Listen to me, that bridge doesn't exist."
But the old man agrees, too--they have to make Boston. "I'll sleep in back," he adds, as if to reassure me. I nod solemnly. I tell them it's been a pleasure, and that the meal is on the house. "Goodnight, gentlemen. Fair play to you." I take the candle upstairs, leaving them in the pitch black with Joe.
Inside Nick's apartment, in his stepson's room, I sprinkle food into the candlelit aquarium and watch it sift down upon the grinning akimbo skeleton draped against its treasure chest. From downstairs I can hear bumpings, then the front door opens, shuts . . . a minute later a car starts, revs. I rummage through the boy's toy box until I find a set of Matchbox cars, then I drop a reddish van into my pocket and walk into the bathroom and stopper the candle to the soap dish. There is a large pair of scissors on the counter. The sink begins to fill with red-veined hair. When the scissors land noiselessly upon this cushion, I take up Nick's razor and finish the job. After the razor falls from my hand, I lift the candle, pushing it towards the mirror as if into the mouth of a cave. The flame reflects in both my eyes--this strangely androgynous creature, cherubic, orphan-eyed and seductive, culled from the dark.
Still stroking my cheeks, I wander into the kitchen and cup my hands to the window and see that the parking lot is now empty. I return to the aquarium and take the red Matchbox van from my pocket and hold it poised over the water. I start moving the toy around, dowsing it above the surface in a slow figure-eight pattern. While doing this, I sing snatches of old Irish lullabies. After about ten minutes, singing and dowsing, I feel it, a series of short tugs, like a fish nibbling a line. I release the red van, plunk, and it sinks down through the scattering fish and settles upon its side next to the skeleton.
My fingers slip under my spectacles and find my eyelids and shut them as gently as we do the eyes of the dead. We will haunt this house.