“The picture in your mind. It won’t go away, but it’ll fade, and that’s enough.”

“Keller, I’m a big girl. I can live with it.”

“I know, but you can live without it, too. It’ll fade, believe me, and you can make it fade faster. There’s an exercise you can do.”

“I just hope it’s not deep knee bends.”

“No, it’s all mental. Close your eyes. I’m serious, Dot. Close your eyes.”

“So?”

“Now let the picture come into your mind. Louise in her overstuffed chair-“

“Looking overstuffed herself.”

“No, don’t make jokes. Just let yourself picture the scene.”

“All right.”

“And you’re seeing it from up close, and in color.”

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“I didn’t have much choice, Keller. I was there, I wasn’t watching it on a black-and-white TV set.”

“Let the color fade.”

“Huh?”

“Let the color drain out of the picture in your mind. Like you’re dialing down the color knob on a TV.”

“How do I-“

“Just do it.”

“Like the shoe ads.”

“Is the color gone?”

“Not completely. But it’s muted. Ooops-it came back.”

“Fade it again.”

“Okay.”

“Closer to gray this time, right?”

“A little bit.”

“Good,” he said. “Now back off.”

“Huh?”

“Like a zoom shot,” he said, “except it’s more of a reverse zoom shot, because the picture in your mind is getting smaller. Back off twenty yards or so.”

“There’s a wall behind me.”

“No there’s not. You’ve got all the room in the world, and the picture’s getting smaller and smaller, with less and less color in it.”

They were both silent for a moment, and then she opened her eyes. “That was weird,” she said.

“Whenever the picture comes into your mind,” he said, “just take a minute or two and do what you just did. You’ll reach a point where, when you try to picture that scene, it’ll be in black and white. You won’t be able to see it in color, or up close.”

“And that takes the sting out of it, huh?”

“Pretty much.”

“That what you do, Keller?”

“It’s what I used to do,” he said. “Early on.”

“What happened? It stopped working?”

He shook his head. “I got so I didn’t need to do it anymore.”

“You toughened up, huh?”

“I don’t know if that was it,” he said. “I think it’s more a matter of getting used to it, or maybe the exercise had long-term effects. Whatever it was, it got so the pictures didn’t bother me much. And they tended to fade all by themselves. The color would wash out, and they would get smaller and smaller, until you couldn’t make out the details.”

The other loose end turned out to be Maggie.

He’d pretty much figured that out by himself. There was a moment, when Dot was recounting her visit to Louise’s apartment, that it struck him that he, Keller, was the loose end, the string which if tugged would lead back to the big house in White Plains. He was reaching for his glass of iced tea when the thought came to him, and he put the glass down, as if it might hold the same substance as Louise’s final piece of chocolate.

But that was ridiculous, he’d already drunk half the tea in his glass, and they were both drinking from the same pitcher. Besides, the whole notion was senseless. If Dot wanted to get rid of him she wouldn’t do it in her own house, and she wouldn’t preface it with a conversation anything like this one.

No, he knew who the other loose end had to be.

“But she doesn’t know anything,” he told Dot. “She’s convinced I’m a corporate guy, retired now, working once in a while on a freelance basis. She thinks I fly off to Silicon Valley now and then and help them crunch numbers.”

“She’s the one who sent you to the star lady.”

“Yes, but-“

“In fact, she’s the one who told you about your murderous thumb.”

“But we stopped seeing each other. She’s not in my life anymore.”

“When’s the last time you talked with her?”

“The time before last,” he said, “was months ago, and-“

“That’s not what I asked you, Keller.”

“Yesterday,” he said, “but that’s because I called her. Because I was trying to find Louise, and I thought Maggie might know if she’d moved.”

“But she didn’t.”

“She told me I didn’t need an astrologer to know which way the stars were falling.”

“What was that supposed to mean?”

“I think all it meant was she was angry with me. She broke up with me, and she was angry that I hadn’t called her.”

“Makes sense.”

“There was a call two months ago,” he remembered. “I picked it up and said hello a couple of times, and the person hung up.”

“Wrong number, most likely.”

“It didn’t feel like a wrong number,” he said, “so I hit Star-six-nine, and she picked up the phone and said hello a couple of times, and this time I didn’t answer.”

“Gave her a taste of her own medicine.”

“Well, I couldn’t think what to say. I just hung up, and the phone rang-“

“Her turn, I guess.”

“-and I let it ring, and that was the end of it. But she couldn’t have been referring to that. It was something more recent, and messages she’d left for me, except she didn’t.”

“Except she did, Keller.”

“Huh?”

“Well, this is embarrassing,” she said. “When you go out of town, sometimes I check your messages.”

“What?”

“Only since Roger came into our lives. I was worried about you, Keller. I have these protective Mother Hen instincts. So one evening when there was nothing good on television I called your number.”

“And I wasn’t there.”

“Of course not, you were in Albuquerque or something. The machine picked up and I heard your recorded voice.”

“And you got all misty-eyed.”

“Yeah, right. I left a message, something about hoping you were having a good time, and then I decided it was stupid to be leaving messages for you. So I called back and erased it.”

“How?”

“How? I called back, and the machine picked up, and I punched in the code, and when I heard my own message I pressed three and erased it.”

“How’d you know the code?”

“When you buy the machine,” she said, “the code is five-five-five, and they tell you how you can change it.”

“And I did.”

“To four-four-four, Keller.”

“Well,” he said.

“It wasn’t the first one I tried,” she said, “but it didn’t take me long to get to it. I erased the message I’d left, and while I was at it I erased a message from some jerk who wanted to sell you a time-share in the Bahamas.” She shrugged. “What can I say? I got in the habit of invading your privacy. When you were out of town, I checked your messages for you.”

“One time I checked,” he remembered, “and there was some kind of nuisance message, not a time-share but about as inviting, and I didn’t bother to erase it. And then when I got home it wasn’t there.”

“It must have been one of the ones I erased. I figured I’d spare you the aggravation.”

“And there were messages from Maggie?”

“ ‘Hi, it’s me. I was just thinking of you. Don’t bother to call back.’ If you weren’t supposed to call back, what did you need to hear it for?” She reached for her glass of tea. “That was the first one. And there were one or two others in the same vein over the months. Then when you were in Baltimore she left three or four messages, including one along the lines of ‘I know you’re there and you’re not answering the phone and please don’t pick up now because it would just make it obvious what a neurotic bastard you are.’ Then a long pause, during which I guess you were supposed to pick it up, and then she called you a name and hung up.”

“What kind of a name?”

“All I remember is it wasn’t a compliment. Then an apology, and a request that you call. And another saying ignore the preceding message. I figured you’d better ignore them all, and I made them go away.”

“And this was when I was in Baltimore.”

“And while you were on jury duty.”

“You called during the day, while I was on jury duty.”

“A couple of times.”

“Just a couple of times?”

“Well, daily, actually. At this point I was just checking for messages from her, and most of the time there weren’t any, but I didn’t want you hearing from her, or talking to her.”

“You’d already decided she was a loose end.”

“Well, it was getting obvious, Keller.”

“Bait,” he said.

“We’d have to take her out anyway, you know. I don’t think it’s something you want to do yourself, or am I wrong?”

“I went to bed with the woman,” he said.

“And sent her flowers, if I remember correctly.”

“I liked her, Dot. She had an interesting way of seeing things.”

“The ones you pick,” she said, “always have an interesting way of seeing things.”

“The ones I pick?”

“This one,” she said, “and the dog walker one with all the earrings. Call me judgmental, but I think we’d be safe classing them both as kooks.”

“Maybe.”

“ ‘Let’s keep this superficial, so don’t send me any more flowers, and we’ll just meet a couple of times a month and go to bed.’ “

“ ‘And by the way, you’ve got a murderer’s thumb.’ “

“Any more superficial, Keller, and she’d have had you stay home altogether and just send her a monthly teaspoon of sperm. I have to say she did you a favor, keeping you at a distance. It might be harder on you otherwise, closing the account.”

“Bait,” he said.

“The word seems to bother you. Call it sushi, if you like that better. It amounts to the same thing.”

“I guess I’ll get used to the idea.”

“Or look at it this way,” she said. “She’s the lemon fate handed you. And what you’re doing, you’re making lemonade.”

Back at his apartment, the first thing Keller did was check his answering machine. He pressed the Play button, and the robotic voice said, “You. Have. No. Messages.”

And what did that mean? That no one had left a message? Or that, while he was on his way home, Dot had called and wiped the machine clean?