THE DOCTOR woke up afraid. He had been dreaming of the old house in New Orleans again. He had seen the woman in the rocker. He'd seen the man with the brown eyes.
And even now in this quiet hotel room above New York City he felt the old alarming disorientation. He'd been talking again with the brown-eyed man. Yes, help her. No, this is just a dream. I want to get out of it.
The doctor sat up in bed. No sound but the faint roar of the air conditioner. Why was he thinking about it tonight in a hotel room in the Parker Meridien? For a moment he couldn't shake the feeling of the old house. He saw the woman again -her bent head, her vacant stare. He could almost hear the hum of the insects against the screens of the old porch. And the brown-eyed man was speaking without moving his lips. A waxen dummy infused with life
No. Stop it.
He got out of bed and padded silently across the carpeted floor until he stood in front of the sheer white curtains, peering out at black sooty rooftops and dim neon signs flickering against brick walls. The early morning light showed behind the clouds above the dull concrete facade opposite. No debilitating heat here. No drowsing scent of roses, of gardenias.
Gradually his head cleared.
He thought of the Englishman at the bar in the lobby again. That's what had brought it all back - the Englishman remarking to the bartender that he'd just come from New Orleans, and that certainly was a haunted city. The Englishman, an affable man, a true Old World gentleman it seemed, in a narrow seersucker suit with a gold watch chain fixed to his vest pocket. Where did one see that kind of man these days? - a man with the sharp melodious inflection of a British stage actor, and brilliant, ageless blue eyes.
The doctor had turned to him and said: 'Yes, you're right about New Orleans, you certainly are. I saw a ghost myself in New Orleans, and not very long ago -' Then he had stopped, embarrassed. He had stared at the melted bourbon before him, the sharp refraction of light in the base of the crystal glass.
Hum of flies in summer; smell of medicine. That much Thorazine? Could there be some mistake?
But the Englishman had been respectfully curious. He'd invited the doctor to join him for dinner, said he collected such tales. For a moment, the doctor had been tempted. There was a lull in the convention, and he liked this man, felt an immediate trust in him. And the lobby of the Parker Meridien was a nice cheerful place, full of light, movement, people. So far away from that gloomy New Orleans corner, from the sad old city festering with secrets in its perpetual Caribbean heat.
But the doctor could not tell that story.
'If ever you change your mind, do call me,' the Englishman had said. 'My name is Aaron Lightner.' He'd given the doctor a card with the name of an organization inscribed on it: 'You might say we collect ghost stories - true ones, that is.'
And we are always here.
It was a curious motto.
Yes, that was what had brought it all back. The Englishman and the peculiar calling card with the European phone numbers, the Englishman who was leaving for the coast tomorrow to see a California man who had lately drowned and been brought back to life. The doctor had read of that case in the New York papers - one of those characters who suffers clinical death and returns from having seen 'the light.'
They had talked about the drowned man together, he and the Englishman. 'He claims now to have psychic powers, you see,' said the Englishman, 'and that interests us, of course. Seems he sees images when he touches things with his bare hands. We call it psychometry.'
The doctor had been intrigued. He had heard of a few such patients himself, cardiac victims if he rightly recalled, who had come back, one claiming to have seen the future. 'Near Death Experience.' One saw more and more articles about the phenomenon in the journals.
'Yes,' Lightner had said, the best research on the subject has been done by doctors - by cardiologists.'
'Wasn't there a film a few years back,' the doctor had asked, 'about a woman who returned with the power to heal? Strangely affecting.'
'You're open-minded on the subject,' the Englishman had said with a delighted smile. 'Are you sure you won't tell me about your ghost? I'd so love to hear it. I'm not flying out till tomorrow, some time before noon. What I wouldn't give to hear your story!'
No, not that story. Not ever.
Alone now in the shadowy hotel room, the doctor felt fear again. The clock ticked in the long dusty hallway in New Orleans. He heard the shuffle of his patient's feet as the nurse 'walked' her. He smelled that smell again of a New Orleans house in summer, heat and old wood. The man was talking to him...
The doctor had never been inside an antebellum mansion until that spring in New Orleans. And the old house really did have white fluted columns on the front, though the paint was peeling away. Greek Revival style they called it - a long violet-gray town house on a dark shady corner in the Garden District, its front gate guarded it seemed by two enormous oaks. The iron lace railings were made in a rose pattern and much festooned with vines - purple wisteria, the yellow Virginia creeper, and bougainvillea of a dark, incandescent pink.
He liked to pause on the marble steps and look up at the Doric capitals, wreathed as they were by those drowsy fragrant blossoms. The sun came in thin dusty shafts through the twisting branches. Bees sang in the tangle of brilliant green leaves beneath the peeling cornices. Never mind that it was so sombre here, so damp.
Even the approach through the deserted streets seduced him. He walked slowly over cracked and uneven sidewalks of herringbone brick or gray flagstone, under an unbroken archway of oak branches, the light eternally dappled, the sky perpetually veiled in green. Always he paused at the largest tree that had lifted the iron fence with its bulbous roots. He could not have gotten his arms around the trunk of it. It reached all the way from the pavement to the house itself, twisted limbs clawing at the shuttered windows beyond the banisters, leaves enmeshed with the flowering vines.
But the decay here troubled him nevertheless. Spiders wove their tiny intricate webs over the iron lace roses. In places the iron had so rusted that it fell away to powder at the touch. And here and there near the railings, the wood of the porches was rotted right through.
Then there was the old swimming pool far beyond the garden - a great long octagon bounded by the flagstones, which had become a swamp unto itself with its black water and wild irises. The smell alone was frightful. Frogs lived there, frogs you could hear at dusk, singing their grinding, ugly song. Sad to see the little fountain jets up one side and down the other still sending their little arching streams into the muck. He longed to drain it, clean it, scrub the sides with his own hands if he had to. Longed to patch the broken balustrade, and rip the weeds from the overgrown urns.
Even the elderly aunts of his patient - Miss Carl, Miss Millie, and Miss Nancy - had an air of staleness and decay. It wasn't a matter of gray hair or wire-rimmed glasses. It was their manner, and the fragrance of camphor that clung to their clothes.
Once he had wandered into the library and taken a book down from the shelf. Tiny black beetles scurried out of the crevice. Alarmed he had put the book back.
If there had been air-conditioning in the place it might have been different. But the old house was too big for that - or so they had said back then. The ceilings soared fourteen feet overhead. And the sluggish breeze carried with it the scent of mold.
His patient was well cared for, however. That he had to admit. A sweet old black nurse named Viola brought his patient out on the screened porch in the morning and took her in at evening.
'She's no trouble at all, Doctor. Now, you come on, Miss Deirdre, walk for the doctor.' Viola would lift her out of the chair and push her patiently step by step.
'I've been with her seven years now, Doctor, she's my sweet girl.'
Seven years like that. No wonder the woman's feet had started to turn in at the ankles, and her arms to draw close to her chest if the nurse didn't force them down into her lap again.
Viola would walk her round and round the long double parlor, past the harp and the B?sendorfer grand layered with dust. Into the long broad dining room with its faded murals of moss-hung oaks and tilled fields.
Slippered feet shuffling on the worn Aubusson carpet. The woman was forty-one years old, yet she looked both ancient and young - a stooped and pale child, untouched by adult worry or passion. Deirdre, did you ever have a lover? Did you ever dance in that parlor?
On the library bookshelves were leather-bound ledgers with old dates marked on the spines in faded purple ink: 1756, 1757,1758... Each bore the family name of Mayfair in gold lettering.
Ah, these old southern families, how he envied them their heritage. It did not have to lead to this decay. And to think, he did not know the full names of his own great-grandparents or where they had been born.
Mayfair - a vintage colonial clan. There were old paintings on the walls of men and women in eighteenth-century dress, as well as daguerreotypes and tintypes and faded photographs. A yellowed map of Saint-Domingue - did they call it that still? -in a dirty frame in the hallway. And a darkening painting of a great plantation house.
And look at the jewels his patient wore. Heirlooms surely, with those antique settings. What did it mean that they put that kind of jewelry on a woman who hadn't spoken a word or moved of her own volition in over seven years?
The nurse said she never took off the chain with the emerald pendant, not even when she bathed Miss Deirdre.
'Let me tell you a little secret, Doctor, don't you ever touch that!'
'And why not?' he wanted to ask. But he had said nothing. He watched uneasily as the nurse put on the patient's ruby earrings, her diamond ring.
Like dressing a corpse, he thought. And out there the dark oaks wind their limbs towards the dusty window screens. And the garden shimmers in the dull heat.
'And look at her hair,' said the nurse lovingly. 'Have you ever seen such beautiful hair?'
It was black all right, and thick and curly and long. The nurse loved to brush it, watching the curls roll up as the brush released them. And the patient's eyes, for all their listless stare, were a clear blue. Yet now and then a thin silver line of saliva fell down from the side of her mouth, making a dark circle on the bosom of her white nightgown.
'It's a wonder somebody hasn't tried to steal those things,' he said half to himself. 'She's so helpless.'
The nurse had given him a superior, knowing smile.
'No one who's ever worked in this house would try that.'
'But she sits all alone on that side porch by the hour. You can see her from the street.'
'Don't worry about that, Doctor. No one around here is fool enough to come in that gate. Old Ronnie mows the lawn, but that's because he always did, done it for thirty years now, but then old Ronnie isn't exactly right in the head.'
'Nevertheless...' But he had stopped himself. What was he doing, talking like this right in front of the silent woman, whose eyes only now and then moved just a little, whose hands lay just where the nurse had placed them, whose feet rested limply on the bare floor. How easy it was to forget oneself, forget to respect this tragic creature. Nobody knew what the woman understood.
'Might get her out in the sun sometime,' the doctor said. 'Her skin is so white.'
But he knew the garden was impossible, even far away from the reek of the pool. The thorny bougainvillea burst in clumps from beneath the wild cherry laurel. Fat little cherubs, streaked with slime, peered out of overgrown lantana like ghosts.
Yet once children had played there.
Some boy or girl had carved the word Lasher into the thick trunk of the giant crepe myrtle that grew against the far fence. The deep gashes had weathered so that they gleamed white against the waxy bark. Strange word that. And a wooden swing was still hanging from the branch of the distant oak.
He'd walked back to that lonely tree, and sat down on the swing for a moment, felt the rusted chains creak, then move as he pushed his foot into the crushed grass.
The southern flank of the house looked mammoth and overwhelmingly beautiful to him from this perspective, the flowering vines climbing together all the way up past the green shuttered windows to the twin chimneys above the third floor. The dark bamboo rattled in the breeze against the plastered masonry. The glossy banana trees grew so high and dense they made a jungle clear back to the brick wall.
It was like his patient, this old place - beautiful yet forgotten by time, by urgency.
Her face might be pretty still if it were not so utterly lifeless. Did she see the delicate purple clusters of wisteria, shivering against the screens, the writhing tangle of other blooms? Could she see all the way through the trees to the white columned house across the street?
Once he had ridden upstairs with her and her nurse in the quaint yet powerful little elevator with its brass gate and worn carpet. No change in Deirdre's expression as the little car began to rise. It made him anxious to hear the churning machinery. He could not imagine the motor except as something blackened and sticky and ancient, coated with dust.
Of course he had questioned the old doctor at the sanitarium.
'I remember when I was your age,' said the old doctor. 'I was going to cure all of them. I was going to reason with the paranoiacs, and bring the schizophrenics back to reality, and make the catatonics wake up. You give her that shot every day, son. There's nothing there anymore. We just do our best to keep her from getting worked up now and then, you know, the agitation.'
Agitation? That was the reason for these powerful drugs? Even if the shots were stopped tomorrow it would be a month before the effects had fully worn off. And the levels used were so high they might have killed another patient. You had to build up to a dosage like that.