“I’m going to die,” the invitation from Karen Mae’s father had read.
“And you’re invited!
Fun! Gifts! Balloons!
Be there! Be Square!
7:00 pm Sharp!
Log Palace on Mystery Island
Why bother to RSVP? I could be dead by then!
“If you think this is a joke, Daughter, you are sadly mistaken,” had read a note in her father’s shaky old handwriting scrawled across the invitation. She looked at it again, for the millionth time. Tonight was the night. Now was the time. She had to go. It was late. It was hopefully too late. Still, she had to go. She’d better go. She was going.
Once on Mystery Island, she headed first up the spiny hill that was the island’s backbone, not going to her own little beachhouse but continuing all the way down to the turnoff to her father’s house. She hadn’t been there in years and she barely remembered how to get in. Little gravel roads through the dense forest. The huge clumps of ferns, the pools of water, the blue- grey clay slick on her tires, the high bluff where the log fortress of her father perched.
She had bought five plastic bowls and a sack and some cans of dog food at the Mark-It Market in Beaverteeth after she left the police station and now she fed the five of them in the dark and loaded them back into the camper. She again thought through why she hadn’t told the Beaverteeth police about the strange man in the woods with Annie Bob. She went in through the vaulted kitchen, under the hand-crafted copper roofs and careful cedar woodwork and said hi to the woman who had cooked for Old Man Petersunn for years. She edged herself out into the main room, crowded with noise and conversation. She felt suddenly underdressed, severely underdressed. It was late, but they were all still there, her stupid father’s stupid friends. She didnít see the great man anywhere and heads turned when she entered. Nothing had changed.
The whole huge edifice of her stupid father’s foolish house was stuffed full of miniature track and miniature railroads and scenery and crossing gates and cars and stations and little buildings, the sort of thing that had always given her the living creeps. The giant room was filled with winding miniature tracks and trestles. The house, over its years, had become a huge model train set. Nothing had changed, she thought, not really.
Suddenly, the entire gigantic room went dark. Karen Mae stopped in place. Little lights began to flicker on and off and she could hear the hushed voices of the partygoers questioning. Little yellow windows from a miniature station house gleamed. One tiny train came out of a tunnel and then another and another, the whole cavernous room was tricked out with hidden tunnels and tracks and sound effects. A hundred little trains began to move in the dark and an old voice floated out of speakers:
“Now arriving on track 12, the train bringing the dead man’s only child into the station …”
One little steam train, smoke billowing from its stack, pulled into the lit station and its brakes squealed and hissed and steam billowed out and to the gasps of humans in the party crowd a tiny figure that was obviously meant to be Karen Mae swung out. The entire party had been waiting for her, she realized. From the locomotive issued her stupid father’s stupid voice.
“Hello, Karen Mae. Come here, I’ve got something for you.”
“Hello, you stupid old man,” she said back to it, in spite of herself.
Now all the little locomotives began to speak the names of people at the party.
“Hello Martha Sigurdson. Come here, Iíve got something for you.”
“Hello, Wendell Rassmusson. Come here, Iíve got something for you.”
“Hola, Miguel Fernandez. Come here, I’ve got something for you.”
The forty or so people at the party began to laugh delightedly at this antic stunt of the old man. It was easier to see now with more little headlamps and glowing buildings alight and each partier moved to intercept the engine calling its name. The kitchen and domestic staff’s names were called, the old man’s chaffeur and his various lawyers, many people she didn’t really know, but recognized as working for Old Man Petersunn in one way or another.
She should just turn and walk away, she thought, but instead she leaned over and took an envelope that appeared in a little car behind the engine calling her name. But she didnít look at it and she didnít open it. She knew her father too well. All around the room, as the main lights began to come on and rounds of drinks were served, and a little band began to play hits from the eighties of the last lamented century, she could see the faces of the recipients of similar envelopes from similar trains change from delight to uncertainty as they unfolded and read the messages inside. Obviously there were mixed blessings contained therin.
“Fifty thousand dollars?” muttered a man near her to his wife.”Oh, my God! You’re kidding! He’s giving you fifty thousand dollars?” the wife blurted out.
“Uh, oh,” said the man in a whisper as he read more. “Uh, oh.” Karen Mae smiled to herself and went looking for her father. The sooner she at least said hello, the sooner she could get out of there. She grabbed a martini from a tray and went looking. She grabbed a canape from another tray and ate it as she looked. She grabbed another martini. She knew there would be some central control for the trains and she guessed it would be high up. She found rustic stairs twisting upward in a far corner of the great room and climbed upward. She could hear his ancient voice.
“Now, listen to me, you stupid girl. Remember what I was saying?”
“What were you saying, sweetie?”
“In my mind I am building what I think of as a Memory Terminal – like a railroad terminal …”
“A train station, you mean.”
“Shut up. And you see, I am filling each room with the symbols of my interpretations of all I have seen in life and these symbols, secret as they are, are again coded so that no one but I will ever know the truths of their meaning. The trains of my memory come and go. The boxcars and tank cars are filled with my memories. The nails and bolts and the timbers and wheels and wallpapers and couplings and joists and cabinets and rollingstock and footings and ballast and moldings and newell posts and paintings and furniture and timetables and rugs and screws and spikes and nails and rails of my creation exist for me and me alone in a sequence only I can decipher, you see?”
Karen Mae poked her head carefully around a little corner and sure enough there was her ancient father. He was addressing a rowdily beautiful young woman dressed in jeans and cowboy boots with high, cut-back ridingheels and a stetson hat with corny feathers all over it and a top of garish cowgirlshirt stitched western-style with buttons unbuttoned so burgeoning breasts might be displayed to best advantage.
Old Man Petersunn, for all his involvement with sports, had been a proudly unathletic person his entire life. Now, he was an old white man in a sagging yellowed linen suit that must have been tailored in the fifties of the last lamented century. He looked like an elderly writer with a small trust fund and a taste for morphine. He had a yellow face but a still youthful step and he was slavering – that was the word that popped unbidden into Karen Mae’s head – over this bimbo.
“My dear, listen to me. It is imaginary, yes, but it is a real railroad all the same…?” He stopped then when he finally saw Karen Mae and addressed her in his annoyingly boozy and courtly way.
“Ah, hello, child of mine. You sure as hell kept everyone waiting.” He seemed to have some great chortling secret to impart. “You gals better get along. Karen Mae, honey, this is Trigger Rabbit, although now her name’s Petersunn because we just got married. Hold your tongue, you stupid woman,” and he waggled his yellowed finger at his own daughter as if he thought he were cute.
Karen Mae thought for a moment about shaking the bimbo’s (her step-mother’s?) hand but then realized that this bimbo was of the old school in which bimbos do not shake hands with each other.
“Trigger Rabbit,” smiled Karen Mae obliviously. “What a charming name. Or should I just call you ‘Mommy?'” The bimbo’s vapid expression barely cracked. She couldn’t have seen forty yet.
“Listen, I’m not all there,” said the bimbo, in a confidential manner, as if they were old friends, “as I’m sure you can tell.” It was an odd remark, Karen Mae was to think later, but at the time she was immensely glad just to smile and nod and try to get away from having to talk to her crazy father. For all she knew, he was serious and had married the bimbo. It had happened before, after all, several times.
“Well, why should I care? You kids have fun,” Karen Mae said. “There’s only two or three hundred times you get married in your life and I want you to have your special time together before the clock ticks down too far.”
“Don’t be so sarcastic, child. I have something to tell you and it’s one of those things that come up in life. It’s a matter of betrayal.”
“Who is betrayed?”
“You are, you stupid bint! Betrayed on the literary front as well. You’re so Hollywood now, aren’t you?”
“I’m not proud of it. It’s almost over.”
“You know that Mitchell Honeyacre’s agents had been calling me over the last year? That they tried to get my approval of some stupid movie he’s doing based on your great-grandfather’s immortal classic. Fuck them, I said. Then they hired you. Get it?”
“They hired me to get to you ?” She laughed.
“They’re as stupid as one expects, aren’t they, down there? Have you opened the goddamn envelope?”
“I have not.”
She dropped the envelope on the floor and smiled what she hoped was archly and walked down the stairway as if she really had to get on talking to old people about, for God’s sake, Chief Smoattle and his attendant spiritual idiocies. She couldn’t believe her father. What an asshole, she thought. Vengeful and spiteful. The next thing she knew, he’d be trying to give her something. He probably had. She hadnít opened the envelope. She was still true to herself.
She was briefly surprised at how most of the addled old people at this now gloomy gathering seemed to have been quite seduced by the bizarre rantings of Chief Smoattle and Shirley Anne Honeyacre, all of which seemed to be the chief feature of half the conversations she interrupted. Sheíd gone to high school with Shirley Anne Peterson, she remembered, and she had hated her even then. She was a little hooker, that one; she remembered her as a kind of cheerleading whore, selling off her massive chest to the highest scorer on any spotlighted athletic team.
When Karen Mae was gone away from him, annoying him, Old Man Petersunn glared at his new wife. “Now, listen to me, you stupid girl. Remember what I was saying?”
“What were you saying, sweetie?” said Trigger Rabbit Petersunn, in as neutral a manner as she could.
“The trains run on schedule, do you see that?”
“Like a real railroad?”
“Exactly. It is the imaginations of others that must make of it Art, not mine. I have no imaginations. My quest is only to remember. Memory is mystery enough for me, you see?”
Trigger Rabbit looked at him carefully and did not reply.
“But then, complexity is simply simplicity redundant,” he smiled, congratulating himself once again on something that he’d said quite often.
“You don’t say,” said Trigger Rabbit, sipping her drink. She never drank beer,particularly at a party. She always had the same thing; vodka and grapefruit juice. She would never call it a “Greyhound,” either. When a bartender or some other smart-ass tried to correct her by telling her it was a Greyhound she would give him a withering look and not bother to reply. She didn’t like the word greyhound, it sounded effete to her or like a bus. Naming drinks seemed effete to her anyway. Bartenders seemed effete to her. Busses were for poor people. She stared at the old man over the edge of the plastic glass.
“So, you’re like so, you know, old, that’s it, isn’t it, Willy?” she asked, kindly enough. “You old guys really can get lost in your lives because you’ve just plain lived so long. And you, you’re rich my brother says, rich literally beyond belief, so you must have more in your mind to get lost in and act crazy about as you get older unless you get Altzheimer’s or something and can forget – which would, I suppose, be a kind of blessed relief for an old guy like you.”
He stared at her. “I’ll give you five hundred thousand bucks to forget this conversation,” he said. She paused for a second only.
“That’s nothing these days,” she said in a decidedly sexy manner.
“Well, for half a million, my dearest, you can have this very conversation, you will have purchased it, you see? All you have to do is forget that, in it, I’m telling you about the IP&MI RR. All I want is for you to forget it when my biographer, the cunning bastard, comes calling like a funeral director at a trainwreck. He’ll be trying to find out about the IP&MI RR, but you’re not going to tell him. You’re not going to tell him about the Memory Terminal, see?”
“Five hundred k doesn’t seem like a lot for all that.”
“Now, listen to me, you stupid woman. There’s going to be a number of them – biographers, that is, of various sexes – and they’re going to be fighting with each other over things that you only dimly know as well as things so specific that I’ve mentioned them to you in this very conversation. You see, you will therefore become a part of the history of my passing, but the bastard or bastards will not know that in this case I bought off your knowledge, that you know what you’re doing and what you’re leaving out. And even if you double-deal me and tell them what your garbled memory retains inside your pea-brain under your lovely tresses, then they have to wonder what else you’re withholding and how much I paid you and they won’t even be able to trust whatever you have told them. In the considerable biographical industry that will grow up after the sad event Chief Smoattle has predicted – my demise – you will have a place of your own choosing, depending on whether you keep this deal with me. Being my seventh wife won’t get you much in the legend.”
“Well, I don’t know now,” she said cutely. “Only half a million? That doesn’t seem like a whole lot of money, given the responsiblilities involved.”
He was both surprised and pleased that she understood the tremendous responsibilities involved. She was as smart as she did not look, he thought. He was suddenly glad that he had married her.
“Six hundred thousand,” he said.
“A million and a nice blow job.” She smiled sweetly at him. His heart beat too hard for a man of eighty-something.
“Seven fifty and two hundred blow jobs.”
“Done. Willy, you kill me. You’re as crazy as everyone says you are. I guess thatís why I love you so much.” She stood on tiptoes and kissed him, aware that if anyone were watching that theyíd be shocked by his ancient hands finding her breasts. He was excited by sex talk with her but at the same time, something inside him was aching. It never stops hurting, having a woman say you’re crazy, no matter how old you get, he thought to himself. And it never stops hurting that your penis isn’t actually hard even when you’re holding a young slut’s tits in your hands. And, as well, this slut was so fetching, her tits were so bountiful, she was so much of what he was losing in his long life that it hurt all the more. Also, he was not sure but what he had seen his last erection and so might be getting gypped on at least the blow job part of the deal. And so, suddenly, he was pissed off.
“Why not just be stupid, since that’s the direction you’re already headed in, Mrs. Fucking Stupid Rabbit?” he said evilly. She looked at him as if she hoped to wither him, unaware that she had already, and deliberately buttoned her shirt by one button. Her big eyes found Karen Mae down below in the great room.
“Fuck you, Willy,” she whispered. “I’m going to go make friends with your daughter because although she’s old enough to be my mother she’s the only person here that isn’t one step away from their fucking Eternal Rest.”
She stalked away from him the way a horsewoman walks. He didn’t try to stop her because he had decided to stop talking to her, his only possible retaliation. If she didn’t want to learn anything then let her bask in ignorance. He would stop telling her about his model, about his life’s passion, that would fix her fucking wagon. And forget the money. The blow jobs were an implied part of the marriage contract anyway and he was the fiddler and he’d damn well call his own tune and the tune he called was the Blow Job Waltz.
She was a woman and she had called him crazy. It occurred to him somewhere that if she never came back he did not have anything to remember her by. Even swamped in his pain, her leaving him, he noticed her proud figure and the maddening slim curve of her firm back in her all-too tailored western shirt. He noticed the heist of her jeans up into the crotch of her secret self, he noticed the great height of her boots, he noticed the leather, he remembered her lovely smell. He nearly fainted and then he remembered that he was something past eighty years old and, after quickly sorting through the rush of thoughts attendant, saw that fainting over a woman at this age would surely be a mistake.
“I won’t remember you, that’s for sure,” he said aloud, but she had gone away, had this wife, this Trigger (Rabbit) Petersunn, heir to as little of his fortune as he could get away with. The marriage deal he had made with her had a couple of legal twists to it that she didn’t know about. He sat himself carefully down, almost ninety years worth of bones shakily held together by the mere memories of ligaments. He was just another victim, just another body slain on the littered battlefield of Love, he thought. How embarrassing. His wrinkled skin was covered with dark blotches. His chest was like a cage of old chicken wire.
In case she did not come back to him, he began to think of how he might remember her best and to do this he needed to pull the mollusk-shell of himself around his other selves and concentrate upon his passion. He had this way, he had this thing, this much he knew. He possessed something that no one would ever even know he possessed. It was his imagining. It was the entire Interior, Personal and Mystery Island Railroad. He could see it, the railroad, running around the inside of his head, everything in it of meaning only to himself. He rested that head back against a wall and closed its eyes and he looked deeply within himself and for what would turn out to be the last time, he found again this magic thing that he had saved up and hidden so secretly over the entire course of his long and secret life. He stepped up the broad granite steps of the grand terminal of the IP&MI RR, his Memory Station. He gazed up at its beautiful old mottled green copper dome, he walked into its arched porticos, up its broad brick steps, into its marbled cool and bustling interior. Out the great leaded windows he saw the black steam trains come and go. Here comes the train, he thought for the millionth time in his long life; those magic words of childhood – here comes the train – the vibrations of the tracks and the glint of silver in the waves of heat into which the tracks finally disappear, the light glancing off those tracks, the faroff whistle and the appearance of the great black steam beast, its smoke, its noise, the great medallions and words on the boxes it pulls behind, the vibrant colors, the size, the sheer power, the clouds of steam, the churning wheels, the men dropping off, the double tracks so little now and exactly flush with the bricks upon which humans step, upon which baggage rolls and wing-tips tread. He heard the moanings of his rememberances in the whistles. Inside the Memory Terminal, as he strode along the wood-worked halls, peering intently at all the symbols of the things he knew to have meaning (should he care to open a certain old safe in the Stationmaster’s Office and get the elaborate code of cross-correspondences that fit the puzzle truly together) he searched his mind for a mundane form with which he might quickly represent this seventh rude wife, something which would always at least lead him straight back to what he thought of her and the peculiar pain of her knife in his heart, the exquisite torture – in short – of what she had just said and done to him. It had occurred to him long before this time that he sadly did not have a cowgirl in his Memory Terminal so he now, carefully and surely, knowing what he was doing, decided that Trigger Rabbit Petersunn was to be this missing cowgirl and he imagined first a large chainsaw-crafted sculpture of her on horseback and placed it in a spot on the upper mezzanine landing overlooking the grand waiting room and then he replaced that horse with a cow, and then he enlarged the girl’s breasts and covered them with a handsome western shirt and gave her a big Montana-style hat and then he replaced the cow on which she rode with a Pawnee paint war horse and he made sure that her butt was carved in perfect relief and in her one hand she twirled a brass rope and in the other she held a bloody knife and in her third hand upon her third arm she held his very own severed head by hair that had once grown there and in her fourth hand – when he saw it perfectly – he placed his own broken heart, like the broken shell of a bird’s powder-blue little egg.
He would remember her forever up on the mezzanine of his Memory Terminal where the trains of the Interior, Personal and Mystery Island Railroad came and went still on a real schedule of his own imagining. Then he put his head back against the log wall and took a shallow breath of satisfaction and died right then and there.
Across the room, Trigger Petersunn and Karen Mae Petersunn were talking away to beat the band, although it was late enough that the real band was packing up their amps and drums and leaving. Karen Mae couldn’t believe that the bimbo wanted to talk to her about dinosaurs.
“Willy says you’re a paleontologist,” said Trigger, finishing off a drink and waving in another and one for Karen Mae like a flagger waving in an airplane. “So is my brother Jack, a paleontologist. Not an official one, I mean he didn’t go to college or nothin’, but that doesn’t mean shit when you work with dinosaurs, right?.”
“Let me get this straight. His name is Jack Rabbit?”
“Of course it is. It’s cute, isn’t it? He owns the City of Dinosaurs down in California, so you can see what I mean. He’s big in dinosaurs. Willy – I mean, your dad – is buying up the whole operation to keep it from going bankrupt and he’s moving it up here and Jack’s going to run it and the whole thing is to make me happy. It’s so neat.”
Oh, my God, moaned Karen Mae to herself. She had to think for a minute. Of all Old Man Petersunn’s seven wives, and her mother had been two of them, this was the only one she’d ever heard call the old man “Willy.”
“The City of Dinosaurs is a cheap tourist attraction that has nothing to do with science, sweetheart. Let’s you and me cut the crap,” said Karen Mae. “How much money do you think you’re going to get out of my father after all three living wives have picked over his corpse?” She said this pleasantly enough. Trigger(Rabbit) Petersunn stared up at her evenly. She was a lot shorter than Karen Mae, but then, she noted with satisfaction, a whole lot younger.
“Enough to help the situation,” she said. “The City of Dinosaurs was about to go under when I met Willy in Reno. I thought there were five old wives when I married him.”
“Seven. He lies. And my mother was two of them.”
“I don’t kid about my mother. She died pretty recently.”
“Really? Willy didn’t mention it. Well, I’m sorry to hear that, Karen. I truly am.”
“No, you aren’t. The number of surviving wives being smaller means a lot more money to you when he dies. Do you think he’s dead yet? Want to go over and look? He hasn’t moved in awhile.”
“Listen, Karen …”
“The name is Karen Mae.”
“Karen Mae. You and I don’t have to be friends. Do you want me to share my money with you? I heard you were disinherited. We could, you know, make a deal, just between us gals.”
“Believe me, sweetheart, us gals aren’t going to make that deal. I don’t want anything with the name Petersunn on it and that includes you.”
As she was leaving the party, she thought of saying goodbye to her father. He still sat, seeming to laugh at some joke, headback against the wall. Several old people clustered around him.
“Those are surf scoters this time of year,” she said with some finality to a hearty, silver-haired woman she had known all her life.
“Oh, my dear,” said the old woman. “I’ve been thinking they were puffins.”
“No,” said Karen Mae. “You’re wrong, Mrs. Sigurdson. Puffins don’t get this far south, not that I’ve ever heard. Goodby now. It was wonderful seeing you again. Say hello to Rolf.”
She drove the five dogs over to her little beach place on the other side of the island and woke up Sally, who had been taking care of the place, fed the dogs, checked her voicemail, tried to go to bed, decided this was not the time to start smoking again, even though she knew that Sally had a pack of Camels in her room and answered the phone at three in the morning to hear the sobbing woman who worked for her father tell her that he was finally dead.
She got no sleep that night and for the second time in twenty-four hours, supervised the end and disposition of the finished body of an old person. Trigger (Rabbit) Petersunn all too quickly went back to bed, overcome, no doubt, with the weight of her impending inheritance. Karen Mae felt no emotion at her father’s death, not even when she learned that he had died sitting where she had left him and that his own household staff hadn’t noticed until the middle of the night that he was still there, head thrown back as if cackling with laughter over the demise of some enemy or other.
She didn’t like him and he didn’t like her. And that was the truth. She had told him she didn’t want anything from him ever and she thought she knew him well enough to know that he would, even in death, still try to make her take something from him. She cried briefly and privately at about ten the next morning and felt sorry for herself because both her parents were dead and she was getting old and neither of her parents had ever really loved her. She told Sally to take care of the dogs and to try not to give them any names until she could do it herself and that she would probably be home, finally, at the end of this week as soon as she could put an end to this stupid Hollywood job and the treacherous little bastard who’d hired her and she wouldn’t be at the funeral under any circumstances and she not only didn’t care what anyone thought, she was happy with the worst they could think. She said goodby to her five new dogs with a lot of slobber-facing and jumping up and down on their parts’ and then she drove her suddenly empty and lonely camper truck to the Sea-Tac airport and bought a week’s worth of parking for it. She could see that the Seattle newspapers on the stands were already full of her father’s death.
In fact, all across the country that day, most newspapers and cable channels reported that William Dean (“Old Man”) Petersunn, dead at the age of 89, owner of the Midden Ravens, black sheep of a great family, scorned author, eccentric, benefactor of Indians, etc. had left most of his remaining earthly fortune not to his only child, (his daughter, the noted paleomycologist, Dr. Karen Mae Petersunn, Ph.D., holder of the Andrew Honeyacre Chair of Paleontology at Beaverteeth University College, etc.) but had split a measly forty million among his surviving wives and had left the rest in a huge bequest to Chief Smoattle in care of the Vegetable Mental Foundation of Beaverteeth, Washington.
That is, he had left nearly everything – some two hundred million carefully hoarded American dollars – to Shirley Anne Honeyacre.