Part One THE MARSTEN HOUSE
Old friend, what are you looking for?
After those many years abroad you come
With images you tended
Under foreign skies
Far away from your own land
Almost everyone thought the man and the boy were father and son.
They crossed the country on a rambling southwest line in an old Citro?n sedan, keeping mostly to secondary roads, traveling in fits and starts. They stopped in three places along the way before reaching their final destination: first in Rhode Island, where the tall man with the black hair worked in a textile mill; then in Youngstown, Ohio, where he worked for three months on a tractor assembly line; and finally in a small California town near the Mexican border, where he pumped gas and worked at repairing small foreign cars with an amount of success that was, to him, surprising and gratifying.
Wherever they stopped, he got a Maine newspaper called the Portland Press-Herald and watched it for items concerning a small southern Maine town named Jerusa?lem's Lot and the surrounding area. There were such items from time to time.
He wrote an outline of a novel in motel rooms before they hit Central Falls, Rhode Island, and mailed it to his agent. He had been a mildly successful novelist a million years before, in a time when the darkness had not come over his life. The agent took the outline to his last pub?lisher, who expressed polite interest but no inclination to part with any advance money. 'Please' and 'thank you,' he told the boy as he tore the agent's letter up, were still free.
He said it without too much bitterness and set about the book anyway.
The boy did not speak much. His face retained a per?petual pinched look, and his eyes were dark - as if they always scanned some bleak inner horizon. In the diners and gas stations where they stopped along the way, he was polite and nothing more. He didn't seem to want the tall man out of his sight, and the boy seemed nervous even when the man left him to use the bathroom. He refused to talk about the town of Jerusalem's Lot, although the tall man tried to raise the topic from time to time, and he would not look at the Portland newspapers the man sometimes deliberately left around.
When the book was written, they were living in a beach cottage off the highway, and they both swam in the Pacific a great deal. It was warmer than the Atlantic, and friendlier. It held no memories. The boy began to get very brown,
Although they were living well enough to eat three square meals a day and keep a solid roof over their heads, the man had begun to feel depressed and doubtful about the life they were living. He was tutoring the boy, and he did not seem to be losing anything in the way of education (the boy was bright and easy about books, as the tall man had been himself), but he didn't think that blotting 'salem's Lot out was doing the boy any good. Sometimes at night he screamed in his sleep and thrashed the blankets onto the floor.
A letter came from New York. The tall man's agent said that Random House was offering $12,000 in advance, and a book club sale was almost certain. Was it okay?
The man quit his job at the gas station, and he and the boy crossed the border.
Los Zapatos, which means 'the shoes' (a name that secretly pleased the man to no end), was a small village not far from the ocean. It was fairly free of tourists. There was no good road, no ocean view (you had to go five miles further west to get that), and no historical points of interest. Also, the local cantina was infested with cockroaches and the only whore was a fifty-year-old grandmother.
With the States behind them, an almost unearthly quiet dropped over their lives. Few planes went overhead, there were no turnpikes, and no one owned a power lawn mower (or cared to have one) for a hundred miles. They had a radio, but even that was noise without meaning; the news broadcasts were all in Spanish, which the boy began to pick up but which remained - and always would - gibberish to the man. All the music seemed to consist of opera. At night they sometimes got a pop music station from Monterey made frantic with the accents of Wolfman Jack but it faded in and out. The only motor within hearing distance was a quaint old Rototiller owned by a local farmer. When the wind was right, its irregular burping noise would come to their ears faintly, like an uneasy spirit. They drew their water from the well by hand.
Once or twice a month (not always together) they at?tended mass at the small church in town. Neither of them understood the ceremony, but they went all the same. The man found himself sometimes drowsing in the suffocating heat to the steady, familiar rhythms and the voices which gave them tongue. One Sunday the boy came out onto the rickety back porch where the man had begun work on a new novel and told him hesitantly that he had spoken to the priest about being taken into the church. The man nodded and asked him if he had enough Spanish to take instruction. The boy said he didn't think it would be a problem.
The man made a forty-mile trip once a week to get the Portland, Maine, paper, which was always at least a week old and was sometimes yellowed with dog urine. Two weeks after the boy had told him of his intentions, he found a featured story about 'salem's Lot and a Vermont town called Momson. The tall man's name was mentioned in the course of the story.
He left the paper around with no particular hope that the boy would pick it up. The article made him uneasy for a number of reasons. It was not over in 'salem's Lot yet, it seemed.
The boy came to him a day later with the paper in his hand, folded open to expose the headline: 'Ghost Town in Maine?'
'I'm scared,' he said.
'I am, too,' the tall man answered.
GHOST TOWN IN MAINE?
By John Lewis
Press-Herald Features Editor
JERUSALEM'S LOT - Jerusalem's Lot is a small town east of Cumberland and twenty miles north of Portland. It is not the first town in American history to just dry up and blow away, and will probably not be the last, but it is one of the strangest. Ghost towns are common in the American Southwest, where communities grew up almost overnight around rich gold and silver lodes and then disappeared almost as rapidly when the veins of ore played out, leaving empty stores and hotels and saloons to rot emptily in desert silence.
In New England the only counterpart to the mysterious emptying of Jerusalem's Lot, or 'salem's Lot as the natives often refer to it, seems to be a small town in Vermont called Momson. During the summer of 1923, Momson apparently just dried up and blew away, and all 312 resi?dents went with it. The houses and few small business buildings in the town's center still stand, but since that summer fifty-two years ago, they have been uninhabited. In some cases the furnishings had been removed, but in most the houses were still furnished, as if in the middle of daily life some great wind had blown all the people away. In one house the table had been set for the evening meal, complete with a centerpiece of long-wilted flowers. In another the covers had been turned down neatly in an upstairs bedroom as if for sleep. In the local mercantile store, a rotted bolt of cotton cloth was found on the counter and a price of $1.22 rung up on the cash register. Investigators found almost $50.00 in the cash drawer, untouched.
People in the area like to entertain tourists with the story and to hint that the town is haunted - that, they say, is why it has remained empty ever since. A more likely reason is that Momson is located in a forgotten corner of the state, far from any main road. There is nothing there that could not be duplicated in a hundred other towns ?except, of course, the Mary Celeste-like mystery of its sudden emptiness.
Much the same could be said for Jerusalem's Lot.
In the census of 1970, 'salem's Lot claimed 1,319 inhabi?tants - a gain of exactly 67 souls in the ten years since the previous census. It is a sprawling, comfortable township, familiarly called the Lot by its previous inhabitants, where little of any note ever took place. The only thing the oldsters who regularly gathered in the park and around the stove in Crossen's Agricultural Market had to talk about was the Fire of '51, when a carelessly tossed match started one of the largest forest fires in the state's history.
If a man wanted to spin out his retirement in a small country town where everyone minded his own business and the big event of any given week was apt to be the Ladies' Auxiliary Bake-off, then the Lot would have been a good choice. Demographically, the census of 1970 showed a pattern familiar both to rural sociologists and to the long-time resident of any small Maine town: a lot of old folks, quite a few poor folks, and a lot of young folks who leave the area with their diplomas under their arms, never to return again.
But a little over a year ago, something began to happen in Jerusalem's Lot that was not usual. People began to drop out of sight. The larger proportion of these, naturally, haven't disappeared in the real sense of the word at all.
The Lot's former constable, Parkins Gillespie, is living with his sister in Kittery. Charles James, owner of a gas station across from the drugstore, is now running a repair shop in neighboring Cumberland. Pauline Dickens has moved to Los Angeles, and Rhoda Curless is working with the St Matthew's Mission in Portland. The list of 'undisappearances' could go on and on.
What is mystifying about these found people is their unanimous unwillingness - or inability - to talk about Jerusalem's Lot and what, if anything, might have hap?pened there. Parkins Gillespie simply looked at this re?porter, lit a cigarette, and said, 'I just decided to leave.' Charles James claims he was forced to leave because his business dried up with the town. Pauline Dickens, who worked as a waitress in the Excellent Caf6 for years, never answered this reporter's letter of inquiry. And Miss Curless refuses to speak of 'salem's Lot at all.
Some of the missing can be accounted for by educated guesswork and a little research. Lawrence Crockett, a local real estate agent who has disappeared with his wife and daughter, has left a number of questionable business ven?tures and land deals behind him, including one piece of Portland land speculation where the Portland Mall and Shopping Center is now under construction. The Royce McDougalls, also among the missing, had lost their infant son earlier in the year and there was little to hold them in town. They might be anywhere. Others fit into the same category. According to State Police Chief Peter McFee, 'We've got tracers out on a great many people from Jerusalem's Lot - but that isn't the only Maine town where people have dropped out of sight. Royce McDougall, for instance, left owing money to one bank and two finance companies . . . in my judgment, he was just a fly-by-nighter who decided to get out from under. Someday this year or next, he'll use one of those credit cards he's got in his wallet and the repossession men will land on him with both feet. In America missing persons are as natural as cherry pie. We're living in an automobile-oriented society. People pick up stakes and move on every two or three years. Sometimes they forget to leave a forwarding address. Especially the deadbeats.'
Yet for all the hardheaded practicality of Captain McFee's words, there are unanswered questions in Jerusalem's Lot. Henry Petrie, and his wife and son are gone, and Mr Petrie, a Prudential Insurance Company executive, could hardly be called a deadbeat. The local mortician, the local librarian, and the local beautician are also in the dead-letter file. The list is of a disquieting length.
In the surrounding towns the whispering campaign that is the beginning of legend has already begun. 'Salem's Lot is reputed to be haunted. Sometimes colored lights are reported hovering over the Central Maine Power lines that bisect the township, and if you suggest that the inhabitants of the Lot have been carried off by UFOS, no one will laugh. There has been some talk of a 'dark coven' of young people who were practicing the black mass in town and, perhaps, brought the wrath of God Himself on the name?sake of the Holy Land's holiest city. Others, of a less supernatural bent, remember the young men who 'disap?peared' in the Houston, Texas, area some three years ago only to be discovered in grisly mass graves,
An actual visit to 'salem's Lot makes such talk seem less wild. There is not one business left open. The last one to go under was Spencer's Sundries and Pharmacy, which closed its doors in January. Crossen's Agricultural Store, the hardware store, Barlow and Straker's Furniture Shop, the Excellent Café, and even the Municipal Building are all boarded up. The new grammar school is empty, and so is the tri-town consolidated high school, built in the Lot in 1967. The school furnishings and the books have been moved to make-do facilities in Cumberland pending a referendum vote in the other towns of the school district, but it seems that no children from 'salem's Lot will be in attendance when a new school year begins. There are no children; only abandoned shops and stores, deserted houses, overgrown lawns, deserted streets, and back roads.
Some of the other people that the state police would like to locate or at least hear from include John Groggins, pastor of the Jerusalem's Lot Methodist Church; Father Donald Callahan, Parish priest of St Andrew's; Mabel Werts, a local widow who was prominent in 'salem's Lot church and social functions; Lester and Harriet Durham, a local couple who both worked at Gates Mill and Weaving; Eva Miller, who ran a local boardinghouse. . . .
Two months after the newspaper article, the boy was taken into the church. He made his first confession - and confessed everything.
The village priest was an old man with white hair and a face seamed into a net of wrinkles. His eyes peered out of his sun-beaten face with surprising life and avidity. They were blue eyes, very Irish. When the tall man arrived at his house, he was sitting on the porch and drinking tea. A man in a city suit stood beside him. The man's hair was parted in the middle and greased in a manner that reminded the tall man of photograph portraits from the 1890s.
The man said stiffly, 'I am Jesús de la rey Mu?oz. Father Gracon has asked me to interpret, as he has no English. Father Gracon has done my family a great service which I may not mention. My lips are likewise sealed in the matter he wishes to discuss. Is it agreeable to you?'
'Yes.' He shook Mu?oz's hand and then Gracon's. Gracon replied in Spanish and smiled. He had only five teeth left in his jaw, but the smile was sunny and glad.
'He asks, Would you like a cup of tea? It is green tea.
'That would be lovely.'
When the amenities had passed among them, the priest said, 'The boy is not your son.'
'He made a strange confession In fact I have never heard a stranger confession in all my days of the priesthood.'
'That does not surprise me.'
'He wept,' Father Gracon said, sipping his tea. 'It was a deep and terrible weeping. It came from the cellar of his soul. Must I ask the question this confession raises in my heart?'