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Dolores Claiborne

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Dolores Claiborne

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Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Horror
Sub-Genre Tags: Psychological
Ghosts
Psychic Abilities
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Film & Television Adaptations

Dolores Claiborne

Dolores Claiborne

Castle Rock Entertainment
3/24/1995

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Synopsis

Dolores Claiborne has a story to tell.

But not quite what the police had expected.

Dolores Claiborne has a confession to make...

She will take her time. Won't be hurried. Will do it her way, sparing neither details nor feelings. Hers or anyone else's.

This is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Truth that takes you to the edge of darkness.

Dolores Claiborne has a story to tell and you'd better pay attention--or else.


Excerpt

What did you ask, Andy Bissette? Do I "understand these rights as you've explained em to me"?

Gorry! What makes some men so numb?

No, you never mind--still your jawin and listen to me for awhile. I got an idear you're gonna be listenin to me most of the night, so you might as well get used to it. Coss I understand what you read to me! Do I look like I lost all m'brains since I seen you down to the market? That was just Monday afternoon, in case you lost track. I told you your wife would give you merry hell about buying that day-old bread--penny wise and pound foolish, the old saying is--and I bet I was right, wasn't I?

I understand my rights just fine, Andy; my mother never raised no fools. I understand my responsibilities too, God help me.

Anything I say might be used against me in a court of law, you say? Well will wonders never cease! And you can just get that smirk off your face, Frank Proulx. You may be a hot-shot town cop these days, but it hasn't been too long since I seen you runnin around in a saggy diaper with that same foolish grin on your face. I'll give you a little piece of advice--when you get around an old biddy like me, you just want to save that grin. I c'n read you easier'n an underwear ad in the Sears catalogue.

All right, we've had our fun; might as well get down to it. I'm gonna tell you three a hell of a lot startin right about now, and a hell of a lot of it prob'ly could be used against me in a court of law, if anyone wanted to at this late date. The joke of it is, folks on the island know most of it already, and I'm just about half-past give-a-shit, as old Neely Robichaud used to say when he was in his cups. Which was most of the time, as anyone who knew him will tell you.

I do give a shit about one thing, though, and that's why I come down here on my own hook. I didn't kill that bitch Vera Donovan, and no matter what you think now, I intend to make you believe that. I didn't push her down that frigging staircase. It's fine if you want to lock me up for the other, but I don't have none of that bitch's blood on my hands. And I think you will believe that by the time I'm finished, Andy. You was always a good enough boy, as boys go--fair-minded, is what I mean--and you've turned into a decent man. Don't let it go to your head, though; you grew up same as any other man, with some woman to warsh your clothes and wipe your nose and turn you around when you got y'self pointed in the wrong direction.

One other thing before we get started--I know you, Andy, and Frank, accourse, but who's this woman with the tape-recorder?

Oh Christ, Andy, I know she's a stenographer! Didn't I just tell you my Mamma didn't raise any fools? I may be sixty-six come this November, but I still got all my marbles. I know a woman with a tape-recorder and a shorthand pad's a stenographer. I watch all those courtroom shows, even that L.A. Law where nobody can seem to keep their clothes on for fifteen minutes at a time.

What's your name, honey?

Uh-huh... and whereabouts do you hail from?

Oh, quit it, Andy! What else you got to do tonight? Was you plannin to go over to the shingle and see if you could catch a few fellas diggin quahogs without a license? That'd prob'ly be more excitement than your heart could take, wouldn't it? Ha!

There. That's better. You're Nancy Bannister from Kennebunk, and I'm Dolores Claiborne from right here on Little Tall Island. Now I already said I'm going to do a country-fair job of talking before we're done in here, and you're going to find I wasn't lyin a bit. So if you need me to speak up or to slow down, just say so. You needn't be shy with me. I want you to get every goddam word, startin with this: twenty-nine years ago, when Police Chief Bissette here was in the first grade and still eatin the paste off the back of his pitchers, I killed my husband, Joe St. George.

I feel a draft in here, Andy. Might go away if you shutcha goddam trap. I don't know what you're lookin so surprised about, anyway. You know I killed Joe. Everybody on Little Tall knows it, and probably half the people across the reach in Jonesport know it, too. It's just that nobody could prove it. And I wouldn't be here now, admittin it in front of Frank Proulx and Nancy Bannister from Kennebunk if it hadn't been for that stupid bitch Vera, gettin up to more of her nasty old tricks.

Well, she'll never get up to any more of em, will she? There's that for consolation, at least.

Shift that recorder a little closer to me, Nancy, dear--if this is going to get done, it'll get done right, I'll be bound. Don't those Japanese just make the most cunning little things? Yes indeed... but I guess we both know that what's going on the tape inside that little cutie-pie could put me in the Women's Correctional for the rest of my life. Still, I don't have no choice. I swear before heaven I always knew that Vera Donovan'd just about be the death of me--I knew it from the first time I saw her. And look what she's done--just look what that goddamned old bitch has done to me. This time she's really stuck her gum in my gears. But that's rich people for you; if they can't kick you to death, they're apt to kiss you to death with kindness.

What?

Oh, gorry! I'm gettin to it, Andy, if you'll just give me a little peace! I'm just tryin to decide if I should tell it back to front or front to back. I don't s'pose I could have a little drink, could I?

Oh, frig ya coffee! Take the whole pot and shove it up your kazoo. Just gimme a glass of water if you're too cheap to part with a swallow of the Beam you keep in your desk drawer. I ain't--

What do you mean, how do I know that? Why, Andy Bissette, someone who didn't know better'd think you just toddled out of a Saltines box yesterday. Do you think me killin my husband is the only thing the folks on this island have got to talk about? Hell, that's old news. You, now--you still got some juice left in you.

Thank you, Frank. You was always a pretty good boy, too, although you was kinda hard to look at in church until your mother got you cured of the booger-hookin habit. Gorry, there were times when you had that finger so far up y'nose it was a wonder you didn't poke your brains out. And what the hell are you blushin for? Was never a kid alive who didn't mine a little green gold outta their old pump every now and again. At least you knew enough to keep your hands outta your pants and off your nuts, at least in church, and there's a lot of boys who never--

Yes, Andy, yes--I am gonna tell it. Jeezly-crow, you ain't never shook the ants out of your pants, have you?

Tell you what: I'm gonna compromise. Instead of telling her front to back or back to front, I'm gonna start in the middle and just kinda work both ways. And if you don't like it, Andy Bissette, you can write it up on your T.S. list and mail it to the chaplain.

Me and Joe had three kids, and when he died in the summer of '63, Selena was fifteen, Joe Junior was thirteen, and Little Pete was just nine. Well, Joe didn't leave me a pot to piss in and hardly a window to throw it out of--

I guess you'll have to fix this up some, Nancy, won't you? I'm just an old woman with a foul temper and a fouler mouth, but that's what happens, more often than not, when you've had a foul life.

Now, where was I? I ain't lost my place already, have I?

Oh--yes. Thank you, honeybunch.

What Joe left me with was that shacky little place out by the East Head and six acres of land, most of it blackberry tangles and the kind of trashwood that grows back after a clear-cut operation. What else? Lemme see. Three trucks that didn't run--two pickups and a pulp-hauler--four cord of wood, a bill at the grocery, a bill at the hardware, a bill with the oil company, a bill with the funeral home... and do you want the icing on the goddam cake? He wa'ant a week in the ground before that rumpot Harry Doucette come over with a friggin IOU that said Joe owed him twenty dollars on a baseball bet!

He left me all that, but do you think he left me any goddam insurance money? Nossir! Although that might have been a blessin in disguise, the way things turned out. I guess I'll get to that part before I'm done, but all I'm trying to say now is that Joe St. George really wa'ant a man at all; he was a goddam millstone I wore around my neck. Worse, really, because a millstone don't get drunk and then come home smellin of beer and wantin to throw a fuck into you at one in the morning. Wasn't none of that the reason why I killed the sonofawhore, but I guess it's as good a place as any to start.

An island's not a good place to kill anybody, I can tell you that. Seems like there's always someone around, itching to get his nose into your business just when you can least afford it. That's why I did it when I did, and I'll get to that, too. For now suffice it to say that I did it just about three years after Vera Donovan's husband died in a motor accident outside of Baltimore, which was where they lived when they wasn't summerin on Little Tall. Back in those days, most of Vera's screws were still nice and tight.

With Joe out of the pitcher and no money coming in, I was in a fix, I can tell you--I got an idear there's no one in the whole world feels as desperate as a woman on her own with kids dependin on her. I'd 'bout decided I'd better cross the reach and see if I couldn't get a job in Jonesport, checkin out groceries at the Shop n Save or waitressin in a restaurant, when that numb pussy all of a sudden decided she was gonna live on the island all year round. Most everyone thought she'd blown a fuse, but I wasn't all that surprised--by then she was spendin a lot of time up here, anyway.

The fella who worked for her in those days--I don't remember his name, but you know who I mean, Andy, that dumb hunky that always wore his pants tight enough to show the world he had balls as big as Mason jars--called me up and said The Missus (that's what he always called her, The Missus; my, wasn't he dumb) wanted to know if I'd come to work for her full-time as her housekeeper. Well, I'd done it summers for the family since 1950, and I s'pose it was natural enough for her to call me before she called anyone else, but at the time it seemed like the answer to all my prayers. I said yes right on the spot, and I worked for her right up until yest'y forenoon, when she went down the front stairs on her stupid empty head.

What was it her husband did, Andy? Made airplanes, didn't he?

Oh. Ayuh, I guess I did hear that, but you know how people on the island talk. All I know for sure is that they was well-fixed, mighty well-fixed, and she got it all when he died. Except for what the government took, accourse, and I doubt if it got anywhere near as much as it was probably owed. Michael Donovan was sharp as a tack. Sly, too. And although nobody would believe it from the way she was over the last ten years, Vera was as sly as he was... and she had her sly days right up until she died. I wonder if she knew what kind of a jam she'd be leavin me in if she did anything besides die in bed of a nice quiet heart-attack? I been down by East Head most of the day, sittin on those rickety stairs and thinkin about that... that and a few hundred other things. First I'd think no, a bowl of oatmeal has more brains than Vera Donovan had at the end, and then I'd remember how she was about the vacuum cleaner and I'd think maybe... yes, maybe...

But it don't matter now. The only thing that matters now is that I have flopped out of the frying pan and into the fire, and I'd dearly love to drag myself clear before my ass gets burned any worse. If I still can.

I started off as Vera Donovan's housekeeper, and I ended up bein something they call a "paid companion." It didn't take me too long to figure out the difference. As Vera's housekeeper, I had to eat shit eight hours a day, five days a week. As her paid companion, I had to eat it around the clock.

She had her first stroke in the summer of 1968, while she was watchin the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on her television. That was just a little one, and she used to blame it on Hubert Humphrey. "I finally looked at that happy asshole one too many times," she said, "and I popped a goddam blood-vessel. I should have known it was gonna happen, and it could just as easily have been Nixon."

She had a bigger one in 1975, and that time she didn't have no politicians to blame it on. Dr. Freneau told her she better quit smokin and drinkin, but he could have saved his breath--no highsteppin kitty like Vera Kiss-My-Back-Cheeks Donovan was going to listen to a plain old country doctor like Chip Freneau. "I'll bury him," she used to say, "and have a Scotch and soda sitting on his headstone."

For awhile it seemed like maybe she would do just that--he kept scoldin her, and she kept sailin along like the Queen Mary. Then, in 1981, she had her first whopper, and the hunky got killed in a car-wreck over on the mainland the very next year. That was when I moved in with her--October of 1982.

Did I have to? I dunno. I guess not. I had my Sociable Security, as old Hattie McLeod used to call it. It wasn't much, but the kids were long gone by then--Little Pete right off the face of the earth, poor little lost lamb--and I had managed to put a few dollars away, too. Living on the island has always been cheap, and while it ain't what it once was, it's still a whale of a lot cheaper than livin on the mainland. So I guess I didn't have to go live with Vera, no.

But by then her and me was used to each other. It's hard to explain to a man. I 'spect Nancy there with her pads n pens n tape-recorder understands, but I don't think she's s'posed to talk. We was used to each other in the way I s'pose two old bats can get used to hangin upside-down next to each other in the same cave, even though they're a long way from what you'd call the best of friends. And it wasn't really no big change. Hanging my Sunday clothes in the closet next to my housedresses was really the biggest part of it, because by the fall of '82 I was there all day every day and most nights as well. The money was a little better, but not so good I'd made the downpayment on my first Cadillac, if you know what I mean. Ha!

I guess I did it mostly because there wasn't nobody else. She had a business manager down in New York, a man named Greenbush, but Greenbush wa'ant going to come up to Little Tall so she could scream down at him from her bedroom window to be sure and hang those sheets with six pins, not four, nor was he gonna move into the guestroom and change her diapers and wipe the shit off her fat old can while she accused him of stealin the dimes out of her goddam china pig and told him how she was gonna see him in jail for it. Greenbush cut the checks; I cleaned up her shit and listened to her rave on about the sheets and the dust bunnies and her goddam china pig.

And what of it? I don't expect no medal for it, not even a Purple Heart. I've wiped up a lot of shit in my time, listened to even more of it (I was married to Joe St. George for sixteen years, remember), and none of it ever gave me the rickets. I guess in the end I stuck with her because she didn't have nobody else; it was either me or the nursin home. Her kids never came to see her, and that was one thing I felt sorry for her about. I didn't expect them to pitch in, don't get that idear, but I didn't see why they couldn't mend their old quarrel, whatever it was, and come once in awhile to spend the day or maybe a weekend with her. She was a miserable bitch, no doubt about it, but she was their Ma. And by then she was old. Accourse I know a lot more now than I did then, but--

What?

Yes, it's true. If I'm lyin, I'm dyin, as my grandsons like to say. You just call that fella Greenbush if you don't believe me. I expect when the news gets out--and it will, it always does--there'll be one of those soppy articles in the Bangor Daily News about how wonderful it all is. Well, I got news for you--it ain't wonderful. A friggin nightmare is what it is. No matter what happens in here, folks are gonna say I brainwarshed her into doin what she done n then killed her. I know it, Andy, n so do you. There ain't no power in heaven or on earth that can stop people from thinkin the worst when they want to.

Well, not one goddam word of it's true. I didn't force her to do nothing, and she sure didn't do what she did because she loved me, or even liked me. I suppose she might have done it because she thought she owed me--in her own peculiar way she could have thought she owed me plenty, and t'wouldn't have been her way to say anything. Could even be what she done was her way of thankin me... not for changin her shitty diapers but for bein there on all the nights when the wires came out of the corners or the dust bunnies came out from under the bed.

You don't understand that, I know, but you will. Before you open that door and walk out of this room, I promise you'll understand everything.

She had three ways of bein a bitch. I've known women who had more, but three's good for a senile old lady mostly stuck in a wheelchair or in bed. Three's damn good for a woman like that.

The first way was when she was a bitch because she couldn't help it. You remember what I said about the clothespins, how you had to use six of em to hang the sheets, never just four? Well, that was just one example.

There were certain ways things had to be done if you worked for Mrs. Kiss-My-Back-Cheeks Vera Donovan, and you didn't want to forget a single one of them. She told you how things were going to go right up front, and I'm here to tell you that's how things went. If you forgot something once, you got the rough side of her tongue. If you forgot twice, you got docked on payday. If you forgot three times, that was it--you were down the road, and no excuses listened to. That was Vera's rule, and it sat all right with me. I thought it was hard, but I thought it was fair. If you was told twice which racks she wanted the bakin put on after it came out of the oven, and not ever to stick it on the kitchen windowsills to cool like shanty Irish would do, and if you still couldn't remember, the chances were good you wasn't never going to remember.

Three strikes and you're out was the rule, there was absolutely no exceptions to it, and I worked with a lot of different people in that house over the years because of it. I heard it said more'n once in the old days that workin for the Donovans was like steppin into one of those revolvin doors. You might get one spin, or two, and some folks went around as many as ten times or a dozen, but you always got spat out onto the sidewalk in the end. So when I went to work for her in the first place--this was in 1949--I went like you'd go into a dragon's cave. But she wasn't as bad as people liked to make out. If you kept your ears open, you could stay. I did, and the hunky did, too. But you had to stay on your toes all the time, because she was sharp, because she always knew more of what was going on with the island folk than any of the other summer people did... and because she could be mean. Even back then, before all her other troubles befell her, she could be mean. It was like a hobby with her.

"What are you doing here?" she says to me on that first day. "Shouldn't you be home minding that new baby of yours and making nice big dinners for the light of your life?"

"Mrs. Cullum's happy to watch Selena four hours a day," I said. "Part-time is all I can take, ma'am."

"Part-time is all I need, as I believe my advertisement in the local excuse for a newspaper said," she comes right back--just showin me the edge of that sharp tongue of hers, not actually cuttin me with it like she would so many times later. She was knittin that day, as I remember. That woman could knit like a flash--a whole pair of socks in a single day was no problem for her, even if she started as late as ten o'clock. But she said she had to be in the mood.

"Yessum," I said. "It did."

"My name isn't Yessum," she said, putting her knitting down. "It's Vera Donovan. If I hire you, you'll call me Missus Donovan--at least until we know each other well enough to make a change--and I'll call you Dolores. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Missus Donovan," I said.

"All right, we're off to a good start. Now answer my question. What are you doing here when you've got a house of your own to keep, Dolores?"

"I want to earn a little extra money for Christmas," I said. I'd already decided on my way over I'd say that if she asked. "And if I'm satisfactory until then--and if I like working for you, of course--maybe I'll stay on a little longer."

"If you like working for me," she repeats back, then rolls her eyes like it was the silliest thing she'd ever heard--how could anybody not like working for the great Vera Donovan? Then she repeats back, "Christmas money." She takes a pause, lookin at me the whole time, then says it again, even more sarcastic. "Kuh-riss-mas money!"

Like she suspected I was really there because I barely had the rice shook out of my hair and was havin marriage troubles already, and she only wanted to see me blush and drop my eyes to know for sure. So I didn't blush and I didn't drop my eyes, although I was only twenty-two and it was a near thing. Nor would I have admitted to a single soul that I was already havin trouble--wild hosses wouldn't have dragged it out of me. Christmas money was good enough for Vera, no matter how sarcastic she might say it, and all I'd allow to myself was that the house-money was a little tight that summer. It was only years later that I could admit the real reason why I went up to face the dragon in her den that day: I had to find a way to put back some of the money Joe was drinking up through the week and losin in the Friday-night poker games at Fudgy's Tavern over on the mainland. In those days I still believed the love of a man for a woman and a woman for a man was stronger than the love of drinkin and hell-raisin--that love would eventually rise to the top like cream in a bottle of milk. I learned better over the next ten years. The world's a sorry schoolroom sometimes, ain't it?

"Well," Vera said, "we'll give each other a try, Dolores St. George... although even if you work out, I imagine you'll be pregnant again in a year or so, and that's the last I'll see of you."

The fact was I was two months pregnant right then, but wild hosses wouldn't have dragged that outta me, either. I wanted the ten dollars a week the job paid, and I got it, and you better believe me when I say I earned every red cent of it. I worked my tail off that summer, and when Labor Day rolled around, Vera ast me if I wanted to keep on after they went back to Baltimore--someone has to keep a big place like that up to snuff all the year round, you know--and I said fine.

I kep at it until a month before Joe Junior was born, and I was back at it even before he was off the titty. In the summer I left him with Arlene Cullum--Vera wouldn't have a crying baby in the house, not her--but when she and her husband were gone, I'd bring both him and Selena in with me. Selena could be mostly left alone--even at two going on three she could be trusted most of the time. Joe Junior I carted with me on my daily rounds. He took his first steps in the master bedroom, although you can believe Vera never heard of it.

She called me a week after I delivered (I almost didn't send her a birth announcement, then decided if she thought I was lookin for a fancy present that was her problem), congratulated me on givin birth to a son, and then said what I think she really called to say--that she was holdin my place for me. I think she intended me to be flattered, and I was. It was about the highest compliment a woman like Vera can pay, and it meant a lot more to me than the twenty-five-dollar bonus check I got in the mail from her in December of that year.

She was hard but she was fair, and around that house of hers she was always the boss. Her husband wasn't there but one day in ten anyway, even in the summers when they were supposed to be livin there full-time, but when he was, you still knew who was in charge. Maybe he had two or three hundred executives who dropped their drawers every time he said shit, but Vera was boss of the shootin match on Little Tall Island, and when she told him to take his shoes off and stop trackin dirt on her nice clean carpet, he minded.

And like I say, she had her ways of doin things. Did she ever! I don't know where she got her idears, but I do know she was a prisoner of them. If things wasn't done a certain way, she'd get a headache or one in her gut. She spent so much of her day checkin up on things that I thought plenty of times she would have had more peace of mind if she'd just given over and kep that house herself.

All the tubs had to be scrubbed out with Spic n Span, that was one thing. No Lestoil, no Top Job, no Mr. Clean. Just Spic n Span. If she caught you scrubbin one of the tubs with anything else, God help you.

When it came to the ironin, you had to use a special spray-bottle of starch on the collars of the shirts and the blouses, and there was a piece of gauze you were supposed to put over the collar before you sprayed. Friggin gauze didn't do a goddam thing, so far as I could ever tell, and I must have ironed at least ten thousand shirts and blouses in that house, but if she came into the laundry room and saw you was doin shirts without that little piece of netting on a collar, or at least hung over the end of the ironin board, God help you.

If you didn't remember to turn on the exhaust fan in the kitchen when you were fryin somethin, God help you.

The garbage cans in the garage, that was another thing. There was six of em. Sonny Quist came once a week to pick up the swill, and either the housekeeper or one of the maids--whoever was most handy--was supposed to bring those cans back into the garage the minute, the very second, he was gone. And you couldn't just drag em into the corner and leave em; they had to be lined up two and two and two along the garage's east wall, with their covers turned upside-down on top of em. If you forgot to do it just that way, God help you.

Then there was the welcome mats. There were three of em--one for the front door, one for the patio door, and one for the back door, which had one of those snooty TRADESMAN'S ENTRANCE signs on it right up until last year, when I got tired of looking at it and took it down. Once a week I had to take those welcome mats and lay em on a big rock at the end of the back yard, oh, I'm gonna say about forty yards down from the swimmin pool, and beat the dirt out of em with a broom. Really had to make the dust fly. And if you lagged off, she was apt to catch you. She didn't watch every time you beat the welcome mats, but lots of times she would. She'd stand on the patio with a pair of her husband's binoculars. And the thing was, when you brought the mats back to the house, you had to make sure WELCOME was pointin the right way. The right way was so people walkin up to whichever door it was could read it. Put a welcome mat back on the stoop upside-down and God help you.

There must have been four dozen different things like that. In the old days, back when I started as a day-maid, you'd hear a lot of bitching about Vera Donovan down at the general store. The Donovans entertained a lot, all through the fifties they had a lot of house-help, and usually the one bitching loudest was some little girl who'd been hired for part-time and then got fired for forgetting one of the rules three times in a row. She'd be tellin anyone who wanted to listen that Vera Donovan was a mean, sharp-tongued old bat, and crazy as a loon in the bargain. Well, maybe she was crazy and maybe she wasn't, but I can tell you one thing--if you remembered, she didn't give you the heat. And my way of thinking is this: anyone who can remember who's sleepin with who on all those soap opera stories they show in the afternoon should be able to remember to use Spic n Span in the tubs and put the welcome mats back down facin the right way.

But the sheets, now. That was one thing you didn't ever want to get wrong. They had to be hung perfectly even over the lines--so the hems matched, you know--and you had to use six clothespins on each one. Never four; always six. And if you dragged one in the mud, you didn't have to worry about waitin to get something wrong three times. The lines have always been out in the side yard, which is right under her bedroom window. She'd go to that window, year in and year out, and yell at me: "Six pins, now, Dolores! You mind me, now! Six, not four! I'm counting, and my eyes are just as good now as they ever were!" She'd--

What, honey?

Oh bosh, Andy--let her alone. That's a fair enough question, and it's one no man would have brains enough to ask.

I'll tell you, Nancy Bannister from Kennebunk, Maine--yes, she did have a dryer, a nice big one, but we were forbidden to put the sheets in it unless there was five days' rain in the forecast. "The only sheet worth having on a decent person's bed is a sheet that's been dried out-of-doors," Vera'd say, "because they smell sweet. They catch a little bit of the wind that flapped them, and they hold it, and that smell sends you off to sweet dreams."

She was full of bull about a lot of things, but not about the smell of fresh air in the sheets; about that I thought she was dead right. Anyone can smell the difference between a sheet that was tumbled in a Maytag and one that was flapped by a good south wind. But there were plenty of winter mornins when it was just ten degrees and the wind was strong and damp and comin from the east, straight in off the Atlantic. On mornins like that I would have given up that sweet smell without a peep of argument. Hangin sheets in deep cold is a kind of torture. Nobody knows what it's like unless they've done it, and once you've done it, you never ever forget it.

You take the basket out to the lines, and the steam comes risin off the top, and the first sheet is warm, and maybe you think to y'self--if you ain't never done it before, that is--"Aw, this ain't so bad." But by the time you've got that first one up, and the edges even, and those six pins on, it's stopped steaming. It's still wet, but now it's cold, too. And your fingers are wet, and they're cold. But you go on to the next one, and the next, and the next, and your fingers turn red, and they slow up, and your shoulders ache, and your mouth is cramped from holdin pins in it so your hands are free to keep that befrigged sheet nice and even the whole while, but most of the misery is right there in your fingers. If they'd go numb, that'd be one thing. You almost wish they would. But they just get red, and if there are enough sheets they go beyond that to a pale purple color, like the edges of some lilies. By the time you finish, your hands are really just claws. The worst thing, though, is you know what's gonna happen when you finally get back inside with that empty laundry basket and the heat hits your hands. They start to tingle, and then they start to throb in the joints--only it's a feelin so deep it's really more like cryin than throbbin; I wish I could describe it to you so you'd know, Andy, but I can't. Nancy Bannister there looks like she knows, a little bit, anyway, but there is a world of difference between hangin out your warsh on the mainland in winter and hangin it out on the island. When your fingers start to warm up again, it feels like there's a hive of bugs in em. So you rub em all over with some kind of hand lotion and wait for the itch to go away, and you know it don't matter how much store lotion or plain old sheep-dip you rub into your hands; by the end of February the skin is still going to be cracked so bad that it'll break open and bleed if you clench a hard fist. And sometimes, even after you've gotten warm again and maybe even gone to bed, your hands will wake you up in the middle of the night, sobbin with the memory of that pain. You think I'm jokin? You can laugh if you want to, but I ain't, not a bit. You can almost hear em, like little children who can't find their mammas. It comes from deep inside, and you lie there and listen to it, knowin all the time that you'll be goin back outside again just the same, nothin can stop it, and it's all a part of woman's work no man knows about or wants to know about.

And while you were goin through that, hands numb, fingers purple, shoulders achin, snot leakin off the end of y'nose and freezin tight as a tick to your upper lip, she'd more often than not be standin or sittin there in her bedroom window, lookin out at you. Her forehead'd be furrowed and her lips drawed down and her hands workin on each other--all tensed up, she'd be, like it was some kind of complicated hospital operation instead of just hangin sheets out to dry in the winter wind. You could see her tryin to hold herself back, to keep her big trap shut this time, but after awhile she wouldn't be able to no more and she'd throw up the window and lean out so that cold east wind streamed her hair back, and she'd howl down, "Six pins! Remember to use six pins! Don't you let the wind blow my good sheets down to the corner of the yard! Mind me, now! You better, because I'm watching, and I'm counting!"

By the time March came, I'd be dreamin of gettin the hatchet me n the hunky used to chop up kindling for the kitchen stove (until he died, that is; after that I had the job all to myself, lucky me) and hittin that loudmouth bitch a good lick with it right between the eyes. Sometimes I could actually see myself doin it, that's how mad she made me, but I guess I always knew there was a part of her that hated yellin down that way as much as I hated hearin it.

That was the first way she had of bein a bitch--not bein able to help it. It was really worse for her than it was for me, specially after she'd had her bad strokes. There was a lot less warshin to hang out by then, but she was just as crazy on the subject as she'd been before most of the rooms in the house were shut off and most of the guest-beds stripped and the sheets wrapped in plastic and put away in the linen closet.

What made it hard for her was that by 1985 or so, her days of surprisin folks was through--she had to depend on me just to get around. If I wa'ant there to lift her out of bed and set her in her wheelchair, in bed she stayed. She'd porked up a lot, you see--went from a hundred and thirty or so in the early sixties to a hundred and ninety, and most of the gain was that yellowish, blubbery fat you see on some old people. It hung off her arms and legs and butt like bread-dough on a stick. Some people get thin as jerky in their sundown years, but not Vera Donovan. Dr. Freneau said it was because her kidneys weren't doin their job. I s'pose so, but I had plenty of days when I thought she put on that weight just to spite me.

The weight wasn't all, either; she was halfway to bein blind, as well. The strokes done that. What eyesight she had left came and went. Some days she could see a little bit out of her left eye and pretty damned good out of the right one, but most times she said it was like lookin through a heavy gray curtain. I guess you can understand why it drove her crazy, her that was such a one to always keep her eye on everythin. A few times she even cried over it, and you want to believe that it took a lot to make a hard baby like her to cry... and even after the years had beat her to her knees, she was still a hard baby.

What, Frank?

Senile?

I dunno for sure, and that's the truth. I don't think so. And if she was, it sure wasn't in the ordinary way old folks go senile. And I'm not just sayin that because if it turns out she was, the judge in charge of probatin her will's apt to use it to blow his nose with. He can wipe his ass with it, for all of me; all I want's to get outta this friggin mess she's landed me in. But I still gotta say she probably wa'ant completely vacant upstairs, not even at the end. A few rooms to rent, maybe, but not completely vacant.

The main reason I say so was she had days when she was almost as sharp as ever. They were usually the same days when she could see a little, and help you to sit her up in bed, or maybe even take those two steps from the bed to the wheelchair instead of having to be hoisted across like a bag of grain. I'd put her in the wheelchair so I could change her bed, and she wanted to be in it so she could go over to her window--the one that looked out on the side yard and the harbor view beyond that. She told me once that she'd go out of her mind for good if she had to lay in bed all day and all night, with nothing but the ceiling and the walls to look at, and I believed her.

She had her confused days, yes--days when she didn't know who I was, and hardly even who she was. On those days she was like a boat that's come loose from its moorins, except the ocean she was adrift on was time--she was apt to think it was 1947 in the mornin and 1974 in the afternoon. But she had good days, too. There were less of them as time went on and she kept havin those little strokes--shocks, the old folks call em--but she did have em. Her good days was often my bad ones, though, because she'd get up to all her old bitchery if I let her.

She'd get mean. That was the second way she had of bein a bitch. That woman could be as mean as cat-dirt when she wanted to. Even stuck in a bed most of the time, wearin diapers and rubber pants, she could be a real stinker. The messes she made on cleanin days is as good an example of what I mean as anything. She didn't make em every week, but by God I'll tell you that she made em on Thursdays too often for it to be just a coincidence.

Thursdays was cleanin day at the Donovans'. It's a huge house--you don't have any idear until you're actually wanderin around inside it--but most of it's closed off. The days when there might be half a dozen girls with their hair done up in kerchiefs, polishin here and warshin windows there and dustin cobwebs outta the ceiling corners somewhere else, are twenty years or more in the past. I have walked through those gloomy rooms sometimes, lookin at the furniture swaddled up in dustsheets, and thought of how the place used to look back in the fifties, when they had their summer parties--there was always different-colored Japanese lanterns on the lawn, how well I remember that!--and I get the funniest chill. In the end the bright colors always go out of life, have you ever noticed that? In the end things always look gray, like a dress that's been warshed too many times.

For the last four years, the open part of the house has been the kitchen, the main parlor, the dinin room, the sun-room that looks out on the pool and the patio, and four bedrooms upstairs--hers, mine, and the two guest-rooms. The guest-rooms weren't heated much in wintertime, but they were kept nice in case her children did come to spend some time.

Even in these last few years I always had two girls from town who helped me on cleanin days. There's always been a pretty lively turnover there, but since 1990 or so it's been Shawna Wyndham and Frank's sister Susy. I couldn't do it without em, but I still do a lot of it m'self, and by the time the girls go home at four on Thursday afternoons, I'm 'bout dead on my feet. There's still a lot to do, though--the last of the ironin, Friday's shoppin list to write out, and Her Nibs' supper to get, accourse. No rest for the wicked, as they say.

Only before any of those things, like as not, there'd be some of her bitchery to sort out.

She was regular about her calls of nature most of the time. I'd slip the bedpan under her every three hours, and she'd do a tinkle for me. And on most days there was apt to be a clinker in the pan along with the pee after the noon call.

Except on Thursdays, that is.

Not every Thursday, but on the Thursdays when she was bright, I could count on trouble more often than not... and on a backache that'd keep me awake until midnight. Even Anacin-3 wouldn't ease it at the end. I've been healthy as a horse most of my life and I'm still healthy as a horse, but sixty-five is sixty-five. You can't shake things off the way you once could.

On Thursday, instead of getting half a bedpan filled with pee at six in the morning, I'd get just a dribble. The same thing at nine. And at noon, instead of some pee and a clinker, there was apt to be nothing at all. I'd know then I might be in for it. The only times I absolutely knew I was in for it were the times when I hadn't gotten a clinker out of her Wednesday noon, either.

I see you tryin not to laugh, Andy, but that's all right--you let it out if you have to. It wasn't no laughing matter then, but it's over now, and what you're thinkin ain't nothin but the truth. The dirty old bag had her a shit savings account, and it was like some weeks she banked it in order to collect the interest... only I was the one who got all the withdrawals. I got em whether I wanted em or not.

I spent most of my Thursday afternoons runnin upstairs, tryin to catch her in time, and sometimes I even did. But whatever the state of her eyes might be, there was nothing wrong with her ears, and she knew I never let any of the town girls vacuum the Aubusson rug in the parlor. And when she heard the vacuum cleaner start up in there, she'd crank up her tired old fudge factory and that Shit Account of hers'd start payin dividends.

Then I thought up a way of catchin her. I'd yell to one of the girls that I guessed I'd vacuum the parlor next. I'd yell that even if they was both right next door in the dinin room. I'd turn on the vacuum, all right, but instead of usin it, I'd go to the foot of the stairs and stand there with one foot on the bottom step and my hand on the knob of the newel post, like one of those track fellows all hunkered down waitin for the starter to shoot off his gun and let them go.

Once or twice I went up too soon. That wa'ant no good. It was like a racer gettin disqualified for jumpin the gun. You had to get up there after she had her motor runnin too fast to shut down, but before she'd actually popped her clutch and dumped a load into those big old continence pants she wore. I got pretty good at it. You would, too, if you knew you'd end up hossin a hundred and ninety pounds of old lady around if you timed it wrong. It was like tryin to deal with a hand grenade loaded with shit instead of high explosives.

I'd get up there and she'd be layin in that hospital bed of hers, face all red, her mouth all screwed up, her elbows diggin into the mattress and her hands balled up in fists, and she'd be goin "Unnh! Unnnnnhhhh! UNNNNNNNNNHHHH!" I tell you something--all she needed was a coupla rolls of flypaper danglin down from the ceilin and a Sears catalogue in her lap to look right at home.

Aw, Nancy, quit bitin the insides of y'cheeks--better to let it out n bear the shame than hold it in n bear the pain, as they say. Besides, it does have its funny side; shit always does. Ask any kid. I c'n even let it be a little funny to me now that it's over, and that's somethin, ain't it? No matter how big a jam I'm in, my time of dealin with Vera Donovan's Shit Thursdays is over.

She'd hear me come in, and mad? She'd be just as mad as a bear with one paw caught in a honeytree. "What are you doing up here?" she'd ask in that hoity-toity way of talking she'd use whenever you caught her gettin up to dickens, like she was still going to Vassar or Holy Oaks or whichever one of the Seven Sisters it was her folks sent her to. "This is cleaning day, Dolores! You go on about your business! I didn't ring for you and I don't need you!"

She didn't scare me none. "I think you do need me," I'd say. "That ain't Chanel Number Five I smell comin from the direction of your butt, is it?"

Sometimes she'd even try to slap at my hands when I pulled down the sheet and the blanket. She'd be glarin like she meant to turn me to stone if I didn't leave off and she'd have her lower lip all pooched out like a little kid who don't want to go to school. I never let any of that stop me, though. Not Patricia Claiborne's daughter Dolores. I'd get the sheet down in about three seconds, and it never took much more'n another five to drop her drawers and yank the tapes on those diapers she wore, whether she was slappin my hands or not. Most times she left off doin that after a couple of tries, anyway, because she was caught and we both knew it. Her equipment was so old that once she got it goin, things just had to run their course. I'd slide the bedpan under her just as neat as you please, and when I left to go back downstairs n really vacuum the parlor, she was apt to be swearin like a dock walloper--didn't sound a bit like a Vassar girl then, let me tell you! Because she knew that time she'd lost the game, you see, and there was nothing Vera hated worse'n that. Even in her dotage, she hated to lose somethin fierce.

Things went on that way for quite awhile, and I started to think I'd won the whole war instead of just a couple of battles. I should have known better.

There came a cleaning day--this was about a year and a half ago--when I was all set and ready to run my race upstairs and catch her again. I'd even got to like it, sort of; it made up for a lot of times in the past when I'd come off second best with her. And I figured she was plannin on a real shit tornado that time, if she could get away with it. All the signs were there, and then some. For one thing, she wasn't just havin a bright day, she'd been havin a bright week--she'd even asked me that Monday to put the board across the arms of her chair so she could have a few games of Big Clock solitaire, just like in the old days. And as far as her bowels went, she was havin one hell of a dry spell; she hadn't dropped nothing in the collection plate since the weekend. I figured that particular Thursday she was plannin on givin me her goddam Christmas Club as well as her savins account.

After I took the bedpan out from under her that cleaning day noon and saw it was as dry as a bone, I says to her, "Don't you think you could do something if you tried a little bit harder, Vera?"

"Oh Dolores," she says back, looking up at me with her filmy blue eyes just as innocent as Mary's little lamb, "I've already tried as hard as I can--I tried so hard it hurt me. I guess I am just constipated."

I agreed with her right off. "I guess you are, and if it doesn't clear up soon, dear, I'll just have to feed you a whole box of Ex-Lax to dynamite you loose."

"Oh, I think it'll take care of itself in time," she said, and give me one of her smiles. She didn't have any teeth by then, accourse, and she couldn't wear her lower plate unless she was sittin up in her chair, in case she might cough and pull it down her throat and choke on it. When she smiled, her face looked like an old piece of tree-trunk with a punky knothole in it. "You know me, Dolores--I believe in letting nature take her course."

"I know you, all right," I kind of muttered, turnin away.

"What did you say, dear?" she asks back, so sweet you'd've thought sugar wouldn't melt in her mouth.

"I said I can't just stand around here waitin for you to go number two," I said. "I got housework. It's cleaning day, you know."

"Oh, is it?" she says back, just as if she hadn't known what day it was from the first second she woke up that morning. "Then you go on, Dolores. If I feel the need to move my bowels, I'll call you."

I bet you will, I was thinkin, about five minutes after it happens. But I didn't say it; I just went on back downstairs.

I got the vacuum cleaner out of the kitchen closet, took it into the parlor, and plugged it in. I didn't start it up right away, though; I spent a few minutes dusting first. I had gotten so I could depend on my instincts by then, and I was waiting for somethin inside to tell me the time was right.

When that thing spoke up and said it was, I hollered to Susy and Shawna that I was going to vacuum the parlor. I yelled loud enough so I imagine half the people down in the village heard me right along with the Queen Mother upstairs. I started the Kirby, then went to the foot of the stairs. I didn't give it long that day; thirty or forty seconds was all. I figured she had to be hangin on by a thread. So up I went, two stairs at a time, and what do you think?

Nothin!

Not... one... thing.

Except.

Except the way she was lookin at me, that was. Just as calm and as sweet as you please.

Copyright © 1992 by Stephen King


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