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Books & Such

Tucking Myself in With Stephen King 

I spent several weeks this fall on the road pulling a small camper behind my pickup. While traveling this way, I sometimes visit state parks and commercial RV campsites that provide electric and water hookups, ice and firewood, and occasionally, a decent Wi-Fi signal. More often, I tend to prefer remote and undeveloped sites that offer only quiet and solitude. A solar panel, propane for the fridge and water heater, and a water tank make it possible to spend multiple days “off the grid” while sacrificing little in the way of creature comforts.

Fortunately for those like me, the Bureau of Land Management has designated hundreds of spots around the Southwest typically accessible for those willing to follow an unpaved road for a few miles and whose appointment calendar facilitates a leisurely pace.

There’s something about going for two or three days and not seeing or talking to another person although I must admit that it can be lonely at times. On previous trips I enjoyed the company of Bodie the Dog (actual AKC name) but decided the agenda on this recent and more dedicated trip would not favor his interests: swimming and fetching, mainly.

It was late September and October so, on several occasions, I found myself quite alone under star-filled skies, tucked under warm covers on cool nights, eminently free to ponder the nature of human existence without any interference from other humans; introvert-heaven for those who understand these things.

As it turns out, this particular road trip took place as Hurricane Ian slammed into the Gulf coast of Florida. The news on Day One as I rolled along the highway listening to NPR was filled with the early indication that places like Fort Myers, and Sanibel and Captiva islands in the Gulf of Mexico were likely going to suffer the wrath of this ferocious storm.

While meandering from northwestern Colorado into Utah via US Highway 40 on Day Two, tired of Hurricane Ian stories and a second run-through of my musical playlist, I cued up the first of several short stories from an audio book collection by Stephen King, Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales. In classic King fashion, it begins with the confused narrator being wheeled into “Autopsy Room Four.”

The sun was shining bright and the air was a warm 70 degrees while trembling aspens along the way were giving up their green in deference to the impending hues of autumn; a vibrant rainbow of yellow, red, and orange. It was a safe space to quiver at the universal fear of being thought dead by others while not actually being dead. Premature burial has haunted me since I was a child, introduced long ago to me by Edgar Allen Poe, pondering now the power of the stories we are told when young. I cannot recall the title of this particular Poe story, but the recollection of that particular fear—planted deeply—never fails to turn my mind’s eye toward the image of bloodied fingernails defeated by the tattered and stained silky underside of a coffin top.

That night, somewhere in a remote part of central Utah, I set up my camp. I had traveled several miles off the highway in time to enjoy the waning hours of a beautiful clear day, not another soul in sight, and had that feeling that comes from experiencing the world in all of its glorious silence.

As I tucked myself into bed—lost to the world, as if the world were concerned about finding me—I somehow decided that Stephen King should read me a bedtime story. I sleepily took in traces of King’s other Dark Tales as the audio played through the night: 

A 1930s gangster bleeding onto his white shirt; a New York Times reporter being interrogated in a South American jail; an avocado-colored stove at a yard sale; hotel room 1408, which is on the thirteenth floor no matter the tricks we all play with elevator numbers; a knife-wielding waiter speaking gibberish, grinding up dollar bills in the garbage disposal…

I awoke with the feeling I had been at the movies rather than bundled up in Utah where no one on the planet had any idea where I was. The stillness of the morning and a brilliant blue sky encouraged me to hold this lovely camp for another night. The radio news was still tracking Hurricane Ian and I decided to give it a rest. I read and wrote during the morning, refilled water bottles from the small tanks I had stowed away, took a walk that afternoon, read some more throughout the day and then settled in for another quiet evening.

At bedtime, I bravely tucked myself in with Stephen King again. This time, however, I found the beginning of a story that had caught my ear the previous night, “That Feeling You Can Only Say What It Is in French.” I set the timer to play for only 30 minutes and curled up with my pillows. (Spoiler Alert ahead for “That Feeling You Can Only Say What It Is in French”)

As I recall, it went something like this:

She woke up on the Learjet headed to Florida for their second honeymoon; it was their twenty-fifth anniversary. The first honeymoon had also been in Florida; on the Atlantic coast while this time they headed for the quiet and stunningly white sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. There was no Learjet then, only the dilapidated room and cockroaches for company. They’d come a long way. She somehow knew they would be greeted on the tarmac by one of those fancy cars…

I fell asleep as the plane began its descent to Fort Myers.

I awakened in the chilly camper, no hint of early morning light yet; my mind was filled with images of a jet and its altimeter, a Crown Vic and its speedometer, a little girl and her doll, a Cat-5 hurricane destroying the causeway that led to the island where the beach house awaited.

As the sun finally found the horizon I emerged from my pile of blankets, pulled on my sweats, lit the flame for the kettle, poured some milk into the mug, and then turned on the radio.

Hurricane Ian continued to dominate the news and even though my only access to the devastation were radio reports, the “images’ were devastating. It became clear that Fort Myers had taken a direct hit and a major causeway leading out to a resort island had become impassable. Many were now stranded even as most of those in the path of the storm had wisely evacuated to higher ground.

By the time I had rinsed my face and brushed my teeth, the kettle whistled. I read all morning, an anthology of Elmore Leonard’s early westerns which was all the more enjoyable due to the western landscape all around me. After lunch, I made some minor repairs on the underside of the camper. Some wires had jostled loose and I re-attached them to the axle with duct tape. I took a walk that afternoon, read some more throughout the day and then settled in for another quiet evening.

At bedtime, I clicked on the bookmark of last night’s story, “That Feeling You Can Only Say What It Is in French.”

Her husband jostled her awake. At first a little disoriented, she realized she had dozed off on the Learjet, which he said was now preparing to land in Fort Myers. Their second honeymoon, on their twenty-fifth anniversary, brought them back to Florida, site of the first.

OK, I heard that last night… fast-forward a few minutes to find where I actually left off.

She knew the fancy car would be a Crown Victoria, what the goodfellas call a Crown Vic.

Heard that, too, fast forward some more. A little girl holding a tattered doll would be just up ahead…

Fast forward again…

Secretary flirting with my husband and he laughed that way he used to laugh for me…

Again…

I murdered a child for you…

Again…

As she looked at the speedometer on the Crown Vic, the display said they were at 5000 feet…

Again…

Oh the nuns and their forbidden rhymes, “Hey there Mary, what’s the story, save my ass from purgatory…”

Again…

God’s final parlor trick, we all go exactly where we think we’ll go…

Thoroughly confused and feeling that weird feeling I sometimes get—you know, like you’ve done that before,  I rewound until I heard the music that marked the beginning of the story. I propped up my pillows and sat up so I might digest the entire story before falling asleep. The images lined up something like this as I struggled to stay awake, thoroughly alone in Utah…

She awakens on a Learjet preparing to land in Fort Myers, a second honeymoon on their twenty-fifth anniversary. She reflects upon the poverty that defined their lives early-on, the dreadful decisions she was forced to make before her husband made his way to fame and fortune, the awkward knowingness of the type of car that would await them on the tarmac – a Crown Vic as the gangsters say – the defiance she felt as her parents railed against her husband’s religion, the hammering heat of the Fort Myers sunshine, the holy medallion her grandmother had given her and the warning that accompanied it about loose behavior, the secretary who had had her way with her husband and how  she had looked the other way because life had become so comfortable, the ride in the car to the beach house, knowing that a little girl holding a ratty doll by the leg would appear around the corner. She knew, too, that a billboard up ahead would have Mother Mary pleading assistance for the poor, then  a recollection of the stirrups, the long-ago decision to not tell her husband, and the inevitable realization, as her husband’s glasses melted into his face and one of his eyeballs popped out onto his cheek, that she would never reach that beach house where she and her husband planned to re-consecrate their vows.

She stirred awake as the smooth shifting rumble of the Learjet’s engines accompanied the pilot’s announcement that they had begun their descent into Fort Myers…

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