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Excerpt
The following is an excerpt from the book The Night Journal:
A Novel
by Elizabeth Crook
Published by Viking; February 2006; $24.95US/$35.00CAN; 0-670-03477-0
Copyright © 2006
Mary Elizabeth Crook

One

Claudia Bass's house stood on the high part of a sloping acre under a large oak tree that had cast its shadows long before the house was built beneath it. It was a 1920s white frame bungalow with layers of old paint snaking off the exterior, and the only maintenance in recent years had been Claudia Bass stomping through the yard whacking weeds with her black cane. The place had an unkempt look, pebbled and weedy, and was starkly shadowed on this bright October afternoon.

Meg Mabry drove up in her pickup truck, parked at the weedy curb, pulled the keys from the ignition and stared at the house. Seizing a package of office paper from the seat beside her, she slung her purse strap over her shoulder, slammed the door as she got out, and stalked up the cracked walkway with the package under her arm, noting her grandmother's rusty Pontiac parked in the center of the uphill drive, the wheels at a different slant from what they had been yesterday. She climbed the porch steps, pounded on the screen door, then peered in through the window to see her grandmother, whom she had always known by the ill-fitting name of Bassie, at the rolltop desk, talking on the telephone in a puddle of sallow lamplight, her shoulders jutting as sharply as wings under her nylon robe and her skull showing in patches where the hairpins tacked her braid down flat. Bassie did not turn to look at Meg, though Meg was certain she had heard the knock. The coils of a space heater glowed a lurid red against Bassie's mule-toed slippers, emitting a buzzing sound loud enough for Meg to hear clearly through the windowpanes.

Meg rummaged through her purse, found a key, and let herself in, as Bassie swiveled in her chair to glare at her, still pressing the phone receiver to her ear. Bassie had fought harder, in Meg's opinion, against old age than she should have done: her hair was dyed a harsh, unnatural black, her lipstick was a gaudy red, her parted lips revealed the gleam of over-whitened dentures. Her glasses magnified her eyes so they looked as if they floated in a fishbowl, the black rims casting errant shadows on her sagging cheeks. Nothing flickered in the eyes themselves, however. The stiff hairs of her eyebrows were painted into dome-like arches, though the brow itself was fiercely level. She had not accommodated age; she had painted a new face on the old one. She clenched her lacquered lips with intimidating fixedness and growled into the telephone, "Well, Jim, I like dead ones. I don't give a rat's ass what Phil Barker says; this isn't just about the dogs. It's about the hill. I don't have many memories of my mother, but I remember her digging those dog graves on that hill. If Phil is going to build on that hill, he can give me the bones. I'll bury them somewhere else."

Meg dropped the package of office paper on the sofa in the center of the room. The sofa was an ugly 1970s orange plastic affair, hovering low to the floor on short chrome legs, ridiculously at odds with the Victorian furniture around it. It had belonged to Meg in college; she had bought it at a thrift shop and later tried to sell it, but Bassie disapproved of getting rid of things and made a point of laying claim to it. Since then it had remained here, squatting in the center of the overfurnished room, like a garish monument to every bad choice Meg had ever made. She could remember mornings from her college years when she awakened on this sofa, in her efficiency apartment, her face sticking to the plastic.

"You've been driving," she told Bassie. "Mrs. Chen just called me."

Bassie waved her off, turning in her swivel chair to face the desk, and continued snapping her demands at the person on the phone.

Meg made her way down the hallway between stacks of papers and moldy books piled along the baseboards, passing a room filled with boxes and the same assortment of old file cabinets that had been there since her childhood. She had lived in the house with Bassie from the age of nine until eighteen, and this room had been her bedroom, called the file room even then; she had slept here stored away at night with the other detritus of Bassie's life. The bed was now reduced to a dusty mattress on box springs. The blinds were closed; the room smelled like stale paper. It was no wonder, Meg thought, passing the room -- it was no wonder she had wanted to empty her life to such an extent that now this clutter shocked her every time she came here, annoying her at some deep inner level.

At the end of the hall she went into the bathroom and began searching for a rubber band to secure her hair. She looked under the sink in an old revolving caddy filled with hairpins and cosmetics but found nothing resembling a rubber band. The lead soldering of the water pipes under the sink bothered her, not for the first time, with the thought of how much lead she inevitably had consumed from these pipes when she had lived here.

Closing the cabinets, she tugged at the handle of a drawer beside them. The drawer stuck, then gave way suddenly, plopping out onto the warped floor and revealing, bunched inside like a nest of spiders, an expanding, grotesque mound of Bassie's black hair which she had been storing away in case someday she should lose her hair and need to have a wig made. Synthetic wigs, Bassie always said, were absurd.

Meg irritably wrestled the drawer back into its slot, stuffing the hair down in it, and then returned to the living room. "You tell Phil he'll regret it," Bassie was snarling into the phone. "I'll come out there. I'll tell the press I've come to get the bones. And isn't that going to look pathetic to the public. An old woman collecting little tibias and fibulas of her mother's dogs." She sucked volubly on her dentures, listening to the reply, her computer screen glowing with a large-print section of text on the extinct language of a Pueblo Indian tribe. The rolltop desk predated by a century the equipment on its writing space -- the computer and printer and fax machine, with electrical cords festooned from the top and knotted in a tangle of extension cords that trailed down near the window. "I don't give a ripe fig about that, Jim," Bassie snapped. "I don't care if Phil ends up with every Native American in the entire state demanding ancestral bones. Either he can call off the project, or you can figure out where the graves are, and let me have what's left of my mother's dogs . . . No, I don't know the exact location of the graves; how would I remember that? They're on the hill. You can find them. I was three years old, for crying out loud. And don't you cite that museum law to me. I wrote that law. Now, I'll be out there tomorrow unless I hear from Phil. I'll call you from the airport. Here. Talk to my granddaughter. She can make the arrangements."

Bassie shoved the phone at Meg and began to sift through papers on her desk. Meg put her hand over the receiver. "Who is this?" she asked Bassie.

"Jim Layton," Bassie said. "At Pecos. Work things out. Call him back if you have to."

"What am I supposed to work out?"

"Just talk to him."

"I don't want to."

"Talk to him."

"Hi. This is Meg," she said reluctantly into the phone.

"Hello, Meg. Jim Layton. Did she tell you the situation?"

"No."

Bassie was taking hold of her walking cane, jamming it into the floor and dragging her bony weight up against it. She began making her way to the kitchen. Her nylon robe clung to her underwear with static and was cinched with a patent leather belt. She apparently had lost the sash.

"We've been given money to add a room onto the visitors' center," Jim Layton said. "And the only logical place to build is on the hill beside the center. Which is where your great-grandmother buried her dogs. So Bassie wants us to find the graves and excavate them."

"How hard would that be?" Meg asked, attempting to keep the impatience out of her voice.

"It's just two graves, and I have ideas where to look, so I can probably find them. But getting our superintendent to let her have the bones is going to be a problem. This is federal property, so the bones would legally belong to the government. Not that the government wants them. But Phil's prickly about this sort of thing. You know Bassie's going to want you to come with her."

"That's not going to happen."

"I've met you once," he said.

"Sorry. I don't remember."

"There's no reason why you would. I don't think you were even in high school yet. I was lecturing at U.T. and stayed at Bassie's house."

"Oh. She probably gave you my bed. That's what she usually did when somebody came."

"She tried to," he said, with an undercurrent of amusement. "I want you to know I didn't take it."

Meg actually thought she remembered the incident now. She vaguely recalled an unremarkable-looking young man stoically resisting Bassie's mandate that he take over Meg's bed, and insisting he would sleep in the living room.

"So you owe me one," he was saying. "I need you to come out with her and run interference."

"Can't," she told him.

"Is she there listening?"

"No. But she'll be back in a minute."

"Then hear me out. She's got a reason to be upset. She has some strong memories associated with that hill, and we're basically going to have to dynamite and flatten it so we can build the room. She's going to need you out here. More to the point, I'm going to need you out here."

"She hasn't invited me."

"Offer."

Bassie was returning from the kitchen, a ballpoint pen stuck behind her ear and a yellow pad under her arm. "I'll see what I can do," Meg said.

But she had no intention of going to New Mexico with Bassie. As she hung up the phone, she looked at her, standing at the desk rifling through a stack of papers. "You've been driving" she said. "Mrs. Chen called and told me."

Bassie snapped her dentures with her tongue. "Yes, I have been driving. I'm not surprised I got found out. The only time that slanty-eyed spy ever speaks is to tell on me. She lived over there for fifteen years before I knew that she could talk. And now she reports everything I do. Perfectly mute, until this urge to tattle."

"She's always talked, Bassie. just not to you. You terrify her."

"Not enough, I don't. Now don't bother me about any of that." She continued her search through the pages.

"I brought the paper you needed," Meg said, retrieving the package of office paper from the sofa and tossing it onto Bassie's desk.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Night Journal by Elizabeth Crook.

Copyright © 2006 by Mary Elizabeth Crook