AT THE FUNERAL OF JOHN BOWIE
Harrows, situated at the northernmost point of the Trail, savored its distance from the meat of the rabid road. It was easily the most affluent town in both counties; the homes of Harrows were larger, often constructed of stately stone, some with as many as ten bedrooms. The garden yards were as wide as the fabled Trail itself, some roofs as high as the willows. Even better: Harrows enjoyed more sunlight than the other towns, as the shadows cast by the arching of those willows concluded where the wheat fields began, just south of the border. Sunny and secluded, remote and rich, Harrows was a very desirable place to live.
But that didn’t preclude its citizens from dying.
John Bowie found this out the bad way.
“One of a kind,” Carol Evers said, standing beside her husband, Dwight, looking into the open grave of her friend John Bowie. The tears in her eyes reflected the unboxed man below.
One of Harrows’s most likable men, Bowie was a very funny thinking-man who added to every affair he attended. His lively eyes often smiled behind his thick glasses, and his ceaseless appetite was welcomed by all who had spent an afternoon cooking for a party.
John Bowie was a good man.
John Bowie was a fun man.
John Bowie was also a homosexual who posed no threat to Dwight Evers, Bowie being the closest friend Carol had.
For this, Bowie was the only person outside her husband whom Carol had told of her lifelong condition.
It wasn’t an easy thing for her to reveal.
And yet it had come out of her, so easily, one clear evening on the back porch of her and Dwight’s home. John had been discussing books and magic tricks, two of his most profound interests, when Carol suddenly rose from the bench and told him.
I’ve died before, John. Many times.
Though famous for a healthy sense of humor, John wasn’t one to take such a statement lightly. And Carol’s green eyes often betrayed when she was serious.
Tell me, he’d said, his boots resting upon a wooden stool, his body hunched in a wicker chair. It was Carol’s favorite posture he assumed. Perhaps that was what loosened her lips. Tell me about every single time.
And Carol did tell John Bowie about every time she’d died, every time she could remember. The doctors, she said, had no name for her condition. But she’d come up with one of her own many years ago.
Howltown, she’d said. That’s what I started calling it around age eight. I guess I was influenced by the names of the Trail-towns. The only places I knew of. And it is something of a town. To me. No sheriff, of course. No boardwalk, no bank, no booze. No nothing. But it’s a place, here on the Trail, all the same. Even if I’m the only one who visits. She’d paused. John noticed an odd combination of expressions on her face; Carol was both recalling her youth, when she named her coma, and despairing that it still existed. To someone outside the coma, she continued, I appear . . . dead. Hardly a heartbeat. Far from fogging a mirror. And a pulse as slow as a slug. There’s no light in there, John. I can hear the world around me, but I can’t move. And the wind in there . . . it howls. So . . . Howltown. Pretty neat, huh?
She told John how afraid she once was of the isolation of the coma. How her mother Hattie’s constant tinkering in the workroom acted as an anchor to reality. Without Hattie, I’d have broken in there. Gone mad.
She told him of the hoarse breathing that acted as music in Howltown. And how Hattie said it must be Carol’s own. She told John about the falling sensation, too.
From the second it starts, I’m falling. I fall into the coma and I don’t touch ground until I wake.
John could see the relief in the face of his brilliant friend as she spoke. Carol, John knew, hadn’t told anybody but Dwight. She was embarrassed over it, he surmised, convinced that her condition would be considered a burden and send most running. Carol had intimated that someone had run from her before. John listened closely and had ideas of his own. And as he spoke Carol realized why she had suddenly decided to confide in someone other than her husband. It wasn’t only for safety’s sake, though that played a major part, for what if Dwight were to die while Carol was inside the coma? Who would know that she still lived?
But telling John Bowie had just as much to do with Carol’s desire to hear what he thought of it.
John had many things to say. John was as bright as Howltown was dark.
And now John Bowie was dead.
Lying barefoot in a gray suit on the bumpy dirt six feet beneath Carol’s yellow shoes, John had been taken by the Illness, knew his death was afoot, and had asked for no box. Carol herself had seen to it that her naturalist friend, Harrows’s resident pantheist, would decay the way he wanted to.
Directly into the dirt.
“He looks a bit like he . . . fell right into the hole,” Dwight whispered to Carol, the couple shoulder-to-shoulder. Carol’s yellow dress flapped in a breeze that didn’t seem to reach her husband’s black suit.
“It’s what he wanted,” Carol whispered. And her voice sounded much older than the thirty-eight years she was.
The funeral director Robert Manders stood at a podium at the head of Bowie’s grave, telling the grievers what they already knew. “A brilliant mind, an enthusiast, a thirst for knowledge in all subjects . . .”
Carol thought of John performing simple magic tricks at parties. Making olives vanish. Pulling plums from the ears of drunk women. She tried to smile but couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“In the end,” Dwight whispered, “no magic trick can save you.”
“It’s sad,” Dwight said. “That’s all.”
You two have as much in common as I do with a ladies’ man, John once told Carol. You know he married you for your money, right?
But Carol hadn’t liked that joke and told him as much.
Dwight nodded across the grave to his colleague Lafayette. Carol caught the gesture. Of all the people Dwight associated with, the woman Lafayette was perhaps the least likable. Her gut hung proudly over her black belt and tested the silver buttons of her white wool shirt. A cemetery wind toyed with her long ponytail, sending it flapping across the deep wrinkles in her face. She’d always looked something like a witch to Carol, and Carol couldn’t imagine a single sentence that might’ve been exchanged between the pompous, dubious prig and the amazing man John Bowie who lay barefoot in his gray suit on his back below.
Perhaps self-conscious of the unboxed man, conservative Manders concluded his eulogy more quickly than Carol expected. Then again, Bowie’s entire life had concluded more quickly than Carol expected. The Illness, she knew, was something to be scared of. Yet for a woman who had died many times, Carol was perhaps less afraid than most.
“Hell’s heaven,” Dwight said. “I can hardly stomach this.”
Carol brought her lips close to her husband’s ear. “Dwight. Shut up.”
It was no secret Dwight had as little in common with John as did the witch Lafayette. Normally this bothered Carol deeply. How was it she’d married a man who didn’t see the shine in her brilliant, favorite friend? How was it John couldn’t make Dwight laugh? How was it—
But today was no day to be upset with Dwight.
And yet the couple were on hard times indeed.
It’s because he doesn’t ask questions like I do, John once said. Carol could almost hear his voice now. He’s more bull than man, and that’s coming from a friend with a lot of turkey in him.
John was always making jokes. But more important, always making Carol laugh.
She looked to his lips just as the gravediggers Lucas and Hank shoveled dirt upon his chest and chin. Then, with her mind’s ear, Carol heard him say something he had never actually said while living. Something he would probably say now if he could.
Who else are you gonna tell now? Someone needs to know. What if you slipped into the coma right now and Dwight somehow died while you were in there? You need a safety valve, Carol. Security. I’m gone now. Do my ghost and the ghost of your mother a favor: Tell someone else.
“We need to tell someone else,” Carol suddenly whispered. Dwight turned to face her.
“Tell someone else what?”
As Manders closed his book of notes, as Lucas and Hank covered Bowie’s head completely, Carol closed her eyes and repeated herself. “We need to tell someone else.”
“Come on, dear,” Dwight said, tugging her elbow as the other grievers started to move from the graveside. “Let’s discuss this at home.”
But did Dwight know what she meant? She couldn’t be sure. And why not? Her mother, Hattie, would’ve known. Hattie would already be sawing the pieces for her plan B. John would’ve known, too.
Dwight nodded a good day to Lafayette and led Carol to the cemetery grass. “What is it?” he asked.
Carol began walking toward their coach.
“What is it?” he repeated.
“What is it? A good friend has died. That’s what it is.”
“My heart is as heavy as yours,” Dwight said, catching up.
Though Carol hated to hear it, John was often right about Dwight. And recently Dwight had changed. Ten, five, even three years ago he would be holding her hand, an arm draped over her shoulders, discussing the very topic she wanted him to address.
John Bowie was dead. Someone else needed to know about Howltown.
And yet talking about her condition was one of the hardest things for Carol Evers to do.
She had been spurned before.
Inside the coach she spoke her mind. And the argument began.
“Now nobody knows,” she said, juggling the sorrow of losing John and the fear of being vulnerable once more.
“Knows what, dear?” Dwight looked as lost as a wolf cub with no pack.
“I’m talking about my condition.”
Dwight nodded. But Carol couldn’t tell what the nod meant.
“And now nobody knows,” he said.
“Someone other than you needs to. If not . . . there’s a very real risk of my being mishandled.”
Carol, stunned, sat up straighter. “Why are you laughing?”
“What are the chances, Carol? What are the chances that you’d slip into a coma right now, and that I would then drop dead while you were inside?”
The way he said it, Carol felt a little embarrassed for being so angry. And yet . . .
“If there’s one thing Hattie taught me, it was not to waste a second when it comes to this. We need to tell someone. A doctor can’t even detect a pulse when I’m in there. And hell’s heaven, Dwight, you should have brought this up yourself.”
“I’m sorry, Carol. Who do you want to tell?”
Carol heard the distant echo of hoarse breathing. Or perhaps it was the actual horses taking them home.
“The maid girl?”
“I don’t think I agree. You tell her and everybody’s going to know.”
“Well, it’s you who keeps it secret. I’m just thinking of you, dear.”
But he wasn’t. Carol could tell.
“Farrah is perfect,” Carol said. “She’s bright. She’s kind. And she’s close.”
“Her husband, Clyde, is a drunk. Loose lips.”
“Well then, that’s how it will be. And everybody will know.”
“Are you . . . are you sure?”
“Yes.” She thought of John Bowie. Whereas Hattie thought it wise to keep it a secret (they’ll take advantage of you, Carol, men from the Trail), John encouraged her to let everyone in: In the end, people are kinder than you think, Carol. Even the ones you thought were not. “Yes. I’m absolutely sure.”
But Dwight could tell she wasn’t. Carol had suggested others before.
As the coach rolled rocky over stones in the road, Dwight adopted a more serious posture. He placed a hand upon hers.
“Do you . . . feel it coming on?”
Some of the steam of the argument was released. Dwight sounded concerned after all.
“I don’t know.”
They rode in silence with this between them: the knowledge that Dwight believed her comas were caused by stress. Her many adamant refutations that they were not.
She’d gone under when Hattie died, yes, but she’d also gone many times when, it appeared, life was fine.
Copyright © 2018 by Josh Malerman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.