Full Read the Online Chapter 3 — The Lot(1) of the Salems Lot Book by Stephen Kings PDF for free.
Read Salems Lot Online Chapter 3 — The Lot (I)
The town is not slow to wake—chores won’t wait. Even while the edge of the sun lies below the horizon and darkness is on the land, activity has begun.
The Griffen boys—Hal, eighteen, and Jack, fourteen—and the two hired hands had begun the milking. The barn was a marvel of cleanliness, whitewashed and gleaming. Down the center, between the spotless runways which fronted the stalls on both sides, a cement drinking trough ran. Hal turned on the water at the far end by flicking a switch and opening a valve.
The electric pump that pulled water up from one of the two artesian wells that served the place hummed into smooth operation. He was a sullen boy, not bright, and especially irked on this day. He and his father had had it out the night before. Hal wanted to quit school. He hated school. He hated its boredom, its insistence that you sit still for great fifty-minute chunks of time, and he hated all his subjects with the exceptions of Woodshop and Graphic Arts. English was maddening, history was stupid, business math was incomprehensible.
And none of it mattered, that was the hell of it. Cows didn’t care if you said ain’t or mixed your tenses, they didn’t care who was the Commander in Chief of the goddamn Army of the Potomac during the goddamn Civil War, and as for math, his own for a chrissakes father couldn’t add two-fifths and one half if it meant the firing squad. That’s why he had an accountant. And look at that guy! College-educated and still working for a dummy like his old man.
His father had told him many times that book learning wasn’t the secret of running a successful business (and dairy farming was a business like any other); knowing people was the secret of that. His father was a great one to sling all that bullshit about the wonders of education, him and his sixth-grade education. He never read anything but Reader’s Digest and the farm was making $16,000 a year. Know people. Be able to shake their hands and ask after their wives by name. Well, Hal knew people. There were two kinds: those you could push around and those you couldn’t. The former outnumbered the latter ten to one.
Unfortunately, his father was a one.
He looked over his shoulder at Jack, who was forking hay slowly and dreamily into the first four stalls from a broken bale. There was the bookworm, Daddy’s pet. The miserable little shit.
“Come on!” he shouted. “Fork that hay!”
He opened the storage lockers and pulled out the first of their four milking machines. He trundled it down the aisle, frowning fiercely over the glittering stainless-steel top.
School. Fucking for chrissakes school.
The next nine months stretched ahead of him like an endless tomb.
The fruits of yesterday’s late milking had been processed and were now on their way back to the Lot, this time in cartons rather than galvanized steel milk cans, under the colorful label of Slewfoot Hill Dairy. Charles Griffen’s father had marketed his own milk, but that was no longer practical. The conglomerates had eaten up the last of the independents.
The Slewfoot Hill milkman in west Salem was Irwin Purinton, and he began his run along Brock Street (which was known in the country as the Brock Road or That Christless Washboard). Later he would cover the center of town and then work back out of town along the Brooks Road.
Win had turned sixty-one in August, and for the first time his coming retirement seemed real and possible. His wife, a hateful old bitch named Elsie, had died in the fall of 1973 (predeceasing him was the one considerate thing she had done in twenty-seven years of marriage), and when his retirement finally came he was going to pack up his dog, a half-cocker mongrel named Doc, and move down to Pemaquid Point. He planned to sleep until nine o’clock every day and never look at another sunrise.
He pulled over in front of the Norton house, and filled his carry rack with their order: orange juice, two quarts of milk, a dozen eggs. Climbing out of the cab, his knee gave a twinge, but only a faint one. It was going to be a fine day.
There was an addition to Mrs Norton’s usual order in Susan’s round, Palmer- method script: “Please leave one small sour cream, Win. Thanx.”
Purinton went back for it, thinking it was going to be one of those days when everyone wanted something special. Sour cream! He had tasted it once and liked to puke.
The sky was beginning to lighten in the east, and on the fields between here and town, heavy dew sparkled like a king’s ransom of diamonds.
Eva Miller had been up for twenty minutes, dressed in a rag of a housedress and a pair of floppy pink slippers. She was cooking her breakfast—four scrambled eggs, eight rashers of bacon, a skillet of home fries. She would add two slices of bread and jam, a ten-ounce glass of orange juice, and two cups of coffee with cream to this simple meal as garnish. Although she was large in stature, she wasn’t particularly overweight since she worked too hard to maintain her appearance. The curves of her body were heroic, Rabelaisian. Watching her in motion at her eight-burner electric stove was like watching the restless movements of the tide, or the migration of sand dunes.
She liked to eat her morning meal in this utter solitude, planning the work ahead of her for the day. There was a lot of it: Wednesday was the day she changed the linen. She had nine boarders at present, counting the new one, Mr Mears. The house had three stories and seventeen rooms and there were also floors to wash, the stairs to be scrubbed, the banister to be waxed, and the rug to be turned in the central common room. She would get Weasel Craig to help her with some of it, unless he was sleeping off a bad drunk.
The back door opened just as she was sitting down to the table. “Hi, Win. How are you doing?”
“Passable. Knee’s kickin’ a bit.”
“Sorry to hear it. You want to leave an extra quart of milk and a gallon of that lemonade?”
“Sure,” he said, resigned. “I knew it was gonna be that kind of day.”
She dug into her eggs, dismissing the comment. Win Purinton could always find something to complain about, although God knew he should have been the happiest man alive since that hellcat he had hooked up with fell down the cellar stairs and broke her neck.
At quarter of six, just as she was finishing up her second cup of coffee and smoking a Chesterfield, the Press-Herald thumped against the side of the house and dropped into the rosebushes. The third time this week; the Kilby kid was batting a thousand. Probably delivering the papers wrecked out of his mind. Well, let it sit there awhile. The earliest sunshine, thin and precious gold, was slanting in through the east windows. It was the best time of her day, and she would not disturb its moveless peace for anything.
Her boarders had the use of the stove and the refrigerator—that, like the weekly change of linen, came with their rent—and shortly the peace would be broken as Grover Verrill and Mickey Sylvester came down to slop up their cereal before leaving for the textile mill over in Gates Falls where they both worked.
As if her thought had summoned a messenger of their coming, the toilet on the second floor flushed and she heard Sylvester’s heavy work boots on the stairs.
She heaved herself up and went to rescue the paper.
The baby’s thin wails pierced Sandy McDougall’s thin morning sleep and she got up to check the baby with her eyes still bleared shut. She barked her shin on the nightstand and said, “Kukka!”
The baby, hearing her, screamed louder. “Shut up!” she yelled. “I’m coming!”
She walked down the narrow trailer corridor to the kitchen, a slender girl who was losing whatever marginal prettiness she might once have had. She got Randy’s bottle out of the refrigerator, thought about warming it, then thought to hell with it. If you want it so bad, buster, you can just drink it cold.
She went down to his bedroom and looked at him coldly. He was ten months old, but sickly and puling for his age. He had only started crawling last month. Maybe he had polio or something. Now there was something on his hands, and on the wall, too. She pushed forward, wondering what in Mary’s name he had been into.
She was seventeen years old and she and her husband had celebrated their first wedding anniversary in July. At the time she had married Royce McDougall, six months’ pregnant and looking like the Goodyear blimp, marriage had seemed every bit as blessed as Father Callahan said it was—a blessed escape hatch. Now it just seemed like a pile of kukka.
Which was, she saw with dismay, exactly what Randy had smeared all over his hands, on the wall, and in his hair.
She stood looking at him dully, holding the cold bottle in one hand.
This was what she had given up high school for, her friends for, her hopes of becoming a model for. For this crummy trailer stuck out in the Bend, Formica already peeling off the counters in strips, for a husband that worked all day at the mill and went off drinking or playing poker with his no-good gas-station buddies at night. For a kid who looked just like his no-good old man and smeared kukka all over everything.
He was screaming at the top of his lungs.
“You shut up!” she screamed back suddenly, and threw the plastic bottle at him. It struck his forehead and he toppled on his back in the crib, wailing and thrashing his arms. There was a red circle just below the hairline, and she felt a horrid surge of gratification, pity, and hate in her throat. She plucked him out of the crib like a rag.
“Be quiet! Speak up! “Be quiet!” She had punched him twice before she could stop herself and Randy’s screams of pain had become too great for sound. He lay gasping in his crib, his face purple.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I’m sorry. You okay, Randy? Just a minute, Momma’s going to clean you up.”
By the time she came back with a wet rag, both of Randy’s eyes had swelled shut and were discoloring. But he took the bottle and when she began to wipe his face with a damp rag, he smiled toothlessly at her.
I’ll tell Roy he fell off the changing table, she thought. He’ll believe that. Oh God, let him believe that.
Most of the blue-collar population of ’salem’s Lot was on its way to work. Mike Ryerson was one of the few who worked in town. In the annual town report he was listed as a groundskeeper, but he was actually in charge of maintaining the town’s three cemeteries. In the summer this was almost a full-time job, but even in the winter it was no walk, as some folks, such as that prissy George Middler down at the hardware store, seemed to think. He worked part-time for Carl Foreman, the Lot’s undertaker, and most of the old folks seemed to poop off in the winter.
Now he was on his way out to the Burns Road in his pickup truck, which was loaded down with clippers, a battery-driven hedge-trimmer, a box of flag stands, a crowbar for lifting gravestones that might have fallen over, a ten-gallon gas can, and two Briggs & Stratton lawn mowers.
He would mow the grass at Harmony Hill this morning, and do any maintenance on the stones and the rock wall that was necessary, and this afternoon he would cross town to the Schoolyard Hill Cemetery, where schoolteachers sometimes came to do rubbings, on account of an extinct colony of Shakers who had once buried their dead there. But he liked Harmony Hill best of all three. It was not as old as the Schoolyard Hill boneyard, but it was pleasant and shady. He hoped that someday he could be buried there himself—in a hundred years or so.
In the course of a pretty rocky career, he was twenty-seven and had completed three years of college. One day, he wanted to return and complete. He was attractive in a friendly, approachable way, and he had no problem interacting with single women on Saturday evenings in Portland or at Dell’s. Some of them were turned off by his job, and Mike found this honestly hard to understand. It was pleasant work, there was no boss always looking over your shoulder, and the work was in the open air, under God’s sky; and so what if he dug a few graves or on occasion drove Carl Foreman’s funeral hack? Somebody had to do it. To his way of thinking, the only thing more natural than death was sex.
Humming, he turned off onto the Burns Road and shifted to second going up the hill. Dry dust spumed out behind him. Through the choked summer greenery on both sides of the road he could see the skeletal, leafless trunks of the trees that had burned in the big fire of ’51, like old and moldering bones. There were deadfalls back in there, he knew, where a man could break his leg if he wasn’t careful. Even after twenty-five years, the scar of that great burning was there. Well, that was just it. In the midst of life, we are in death.
The cemetery was at the crest of the hill, and Mike turned in the drive, ready to get out and unlock the gate…and then braked the truck to a shuddering stop.
The body of a dog hung head-down from the wrought-iron gate, and the ground beneath was muddy with its blood.
Mike got out of the truck and hurried over to it. He pulled his work gloves out of his back pockets and lifted the dog’s head with one hand. It came up with horrible, boneless ease, and he was staring into the blank, glazed eyes of Win Purinton’s mongrel cocker, Doc. The dog had been hung on one of the gate’s high spikes like a slab of beef on a meat hook. Flies, slow with the coolness of early morning, were already crawling sluggishly over the body.
Mike struggled and yanked and finally pulled it off, feeling sick to his stomach at the wet sounds that accompanied his efforts. Graveyard vandalism was an old story to him, especially around Halloween, but that was still a month and a half away and he had never seen anything like this. Usually they contented themselves with knocking over a few gravestones, scrawling a few obscenities, or hanging a paper skeleton from the gate. But if this slaughter was the work of kids, then they were real bastards. Win was going to be heartbroken.
He debated taking the dog directly back to town and showing it to Parkins Gillespie, and decided it wouldn’t gain anything. He could take poor old Doc back to town when he went in to eat his lunch—not that he was going to have much appetite today.
He unlocked the gate and looked at his gloves, which were smeared with blood. The iron bars of the gate would have to be scrubbed, and it looked like he wouldn’t be getting over to Schoolyard Hill this afternoon after all. He drove inside and parked, no longer humming. The zest had gone out of the day.
The lumbering yellow school buses were making their appointed rounds, picking up the children who stood out by their mailboxes, holding their lunch buckets and skylarking. Charlie Rhodes was driving one of these buses, and his pickup route covered the Taggart Stream Road in east ’salem and the upper half of Jointner Avenue.
The kids who rode Charlie’s bus were the best behaved in town—in the entire school district, for that matter. There was no yelling or horseplay or pulling pigtails on Bus 6. They goddamn well sat still and minded their manners, or they could walk the two miles to Stanley Street Elementary and explain why in the office.
He knew what they thought of him, and he had a good idea of what they called him behind his back. But that was all right. He was not going to have a lot of foolishness and shit-slinging on his bus. Let them save that for their spineless teachers.
The principal at Stanley Street had had the nerve to ask him if he hadn’t acted “impulsively” when he put the Durham boy off three days’ running for just talking a little too loud. Charlie had just stared at him, and eventually the principal, a wet-eared little pipsqueak who had only been out of college four years, had looked away. The man in charge of the S.A.D. 21 motor pool, Dave Felsen, was an old buddy; they went all the way back to Korea together. They understood each other. They understood what was going on in the country. They understood how the kid who had been “just talking a little too loud” on the school bus in 1958 was the kid who had been out pissing on the flag in 1968.
He glanced into the wide overhead mirror and saw Mary Kate Griegson passing a note to her little chum Brent Tenney. Little chum, yeah, right. They were banging each other by the sixth grade these days.
He pulled over, switching on his Stop flashers. Mary Kate and Brent looked up, dismayed.
“Got a lot to talk about?” he asked into the mirror. “Good. You better get started.”
He threw open the folding doors and waited for them to get the hell off his bus.
Weasel Craig rolled out of bed—literally. The sunshine coming in his second- floor window was blinding. His head thumped queasily. Upstairs that writer fella was already pecking away. Christ, a man would have to be nuttier than a squirrel to tap-tap-tap away like that, day in and day out.
He got up and went over to the calendar in his skivvies to see if this was the day he picked up his unemployment. No. This was Wednesday.
His hangover wasn’t as bad as it had been on occasion. He had been out at Dell’s until it closed at one, but he had only had two dollars and hadn’t been able to cadge many beers after that was gone. Losing my touch, he thought, and scrubbed the side of his face with one hand.
He pulled on the thermal undershirt that he wore winter and summer, pulled on his green work pants, and then opened his closet and got breakfast—a bottle of warm beer for up here and a box of government-donated-commodities oatmeal for downstairs. He hated oatmeal, but he had promised the widow he would help her turn that rug, and she would probably have some other chores lined up.
He didn’t mind—not really—but it was a comedown from the days when he had shared Eva Miller’s bed. Her husband had died in a sawmill accident in 1959, and it was kind of funny in a way, if you could call any such horrible accident funny. In those days the sawmill had employed sixty or seventy men, and Ralph Miller had been in line for the mill’s presidency.
What had happened to him was sort of funny because Ralph Miller hadn’t touched a bit of machinery since 1952, seven years before, when he stepped up from foreman to the front office. That was executive gratitude for you, sure enough, and Weasel supposed that Ralph had earned it. When the big fire had swept out of the Marshes and jumped Jointner Avenue under the urging of a twenty-five-mile-an-hour east wind, it had seemed that the sawmill was certain to go.
The fire departments of six neighboring townships had enough on their hands trying to save the town without sparing men for such a pissant operation as the Jerusalem’s Lot Sawmill. Ralph Miller had organized the whole second shift into a fire-fighting force, and under his direction they wetted the roof and did what the entire combined fire-fighting force had been unable to do west of Jointner Avenue—he had constructed a firebreak that stopped the fire and turned it south, where it was fully contained.
Seven years later he had fallen into a shredding machine while he was talking to some visiting brass from a Massachusetts company. He had been taking them around the plant, hoping to convince them to buy in. His foot slipped in a puddle of water and son of a bitch, right into the shredder before their very eyes. Needless to say, any possibility of a deal went right down the chute with Ralph Miller. The sawmill that he had saved in 1951 closed for good in February of 1960.
Weasel looked in his water-spotted mirror and combed his white hair, which was shaggy, beautiful, and still sexy at sixty-seven. It was the only part of him that seemed to thrive on alcohol. Then he pulled on his khaki work shirt, took his oatmeal box, and went downstairs.
And here he was, almost sixteen years after all of that had happened, hiring out as a frigging housekeeper to a woman he had once bedded—and a woman he still regarded as damned attractive.
The widow fell on him like a vulture as soon as he stepped into the sunny kitchen.
“Say, would you like to wax that front banister for me after you have your breakfast, Weasel? You got time?” They both preserved the gentle fiction that he did these things as favors, and not as pay for his fourteen-dollar-a-week upstairs room.
“Sure would, Eva.”
“And that rug in the front room—”
“—has got to be turned. Yeah, I remember.”
“How’s your head this morning?” She asked the question in a businesslike way, allowing no pity to enter her tone…but he sensed its existence beneath the surface.
“Head’s fine,” he said touchily, putting water on to boil for the oatmeal. “You were out late, is why I asked.”
“You got a line on me, is that right?” He cocked a humorous eyebrow at her and was gratified to see that she could still blush like a schoolgirl, even though they had left off any funny stuff almost nine years ago.
She was the only one who still called him that. To everyone else in the Lot he was just Weasel. Well, that was all right. Let them call him any old thing they wanted. The bear had caught him, sure enough.
“Never mind,” he said gruffly. “I got up on the wrong side of the bed.”
“Fell out of it, by the sound.” She spoke more quickly than she had intended, but Weasel only grunted. He cooked and ate his hateful oatmeal, then took the can of furniture wax and rags without looking back.
Upstairs, the tap-tap of that guy’s typewriter went on and on. Vinnie Upshaw, who had the room upstairs across from him, said he started in every morning at nine, went till noon, started in again at three, went until six, started in again at nine and went right through until midnight. Weasel couldn’t imagine having that many words in your mind.
Still, he seemed a nice enough sort, and he might be good for a few beers out to Dell’s some night. He had heard most of those writers drank like fish.
He began to polish the banister methodically, and fell to thinking about the widow again. She had turned this place into a boardinghouse with her husband’s insurance money, and had done quite well. Why shouldn’t she? She worked like a dray horse. But she must have been used to getting it regular from her husband, and after the grief had washed out of her, that need had remained. God, she had liked to do it!
In those days, ’61 and ’62, people had still been calling him Ed instead of Weasel, and he had still been holding the bottle instead of the other way around. He had a good job on the B&M, and one night in January of 1962 it had happened.
He paused in the steady waxing movements and looked thoughtfully out of the narrow Judas window on the second-floor landing. It was filled with the last bright foolishly golden light of summer, a light that laughed at the cold, rattling autumn and the colder winter that would follow it.
It had been part her and part him that night, and after it had happened and they were lying together in the darkness of her bedroom, she began to weep and tell him that what they had done was wrong. He told her it had been right, not knowing if it had been right or not and not caring, and there had been a norther whooping and coughing and screaming around the eaves and her room had been warm and safe and at last they had slept together like spoons in a silverware drawer.
Ah God and sonny Jesus, time was like a river and he wondered if that writer fella knew that.
He began to polish the banister again with long, sweeping strokes.
It was recess time at Stanley Street Elementary School, which was the Lot’s newest and proudest school building. It was a low, glassine four-classroom building that the school district was still paying for, as new and bright and modern as the Brock Street Elementary School was old and dark.
Richie Boddin, who was the school bully and proud of it, stepped out onto the playground grandly, eyes searching for that smart-ass new kid who knew all the answers in math. No new kid came waltzing into his school without knowing who was boss. Especially some four-eyes queer-boy teacher’s pet like this one.
Richie was eleven years old and weighed 140 pounds. All his life his mother had been calling on people to see what a huge young man her son was. And so he knew he was big. Sometimes he fancied that he could feel the ground tremble underneath his feet when he walked. And when he grew up he was going to smoke Camels, just like his old man.
The fourth-and fifth-graders were terrified of him, and the smaller kids regarded him as a schoolyard totem. When he moved on to the seventh grade at Brock Street School, their pantheon would be empty of its devil. All this pleased him immensely.
And there was the Petrie kid, waiting to be chosen up for the recess touch football game.
“Hey!” Richie yelled.
Everyone looked around except Petrie. Every eye had a glassy sheen on it, and every pair of eyes showed relief when they saw that Richie’s rested elsewhere.
“Hey you! Four-eyes!”
Mark Petrie turned and looked at Richie. His steel-rimmed glasses flashed in the morning sun. He was as tall as Richie, which meant he towered over most of his classmates, but he was slender and his face looked defenseless and bookish.
“Are you speaking to me?”
“‘Are you speaking to me?’” Richie mimicked, his voice a high falsetto. “You sound like a queer, four-eyes. You know that?”
“No, I didn’t know that,” Mark Petrie said.
Richie took a step forward. “I bet you suck, you know that, four-eyes? I bet you suck the old hairy root.”
“Really?” His polite tone was infuriating.
“Yeah, I heard you really suck it. Not just Thursdays for you. You can’t wait.
Every day for you.”
Kids began to drift over to watch Richie stomp the new boy. Miss Holcomb, who was playground monitor this week, was out front watching the little kids on the swings and seesaws.
“What’s your racket?” Mark Petrie asked. He was looking at Richie as if he had discovered an interesting new beetle.
“‘What’s your racket?’” Richie mimicked falsetto. “I ain’t got no racket. I just heard you were a big fat queer, that’s all.”
“Is that right?” Mark asked, still polite. “I heard that you were a big clumsy stupid turd, that’s what I heard.”
Utter silence. The other boys gaped (but it was an interested gape; none of them had ever seen a fellow sign his own death warrant before). Richie was caught entirely by surprise and gaped with the rest.
Mark took off his glasses and handed them to the boy next to him. “Hold these, would you?” The boy took them and goggled at Mark silently.
Richie charged. It was a slow, lumbering charge, with not a bit of grace or finesse in it. The ground trembled under his feet. He was filled with confidence and the clear, joyous urge to stomp and break. He swung his haymaker right, which would catch ole four-eyes queer-boy right in the mouth and send his teeth flying like piano keys. Get ready for the dentist, queer-boy. Here I come.
Mark Petrie ducked and sidestepped at the same instant. The haymaker went over his head. Richie was pulled halfway around by the force of his own blow, and Mark had only to stick out a foot. Richie Boddin thumped to the ground. He grunted. The crowd of watching children went “Aaaah.”
Mark knew perfectly well that if the big, clumsy boy on the ground regained the advantage, he would be beaten up badly. Mark was agile, but agility could not stand up for long in a schoolyard brawl. In a street situation this would have been the time to run, to outdistance his slower pursuer, then turn and thumb his nose. But this wasn’t the street or the city, and he knew perfectly well that if he didn’t whip this big ugly turd now the harassment would never stop.
These thoughts went through his mind in a fifth of a second. He jumped on Richie Boddin’s back.
Richie grunted. The crowd went “Aaaah” again. Mark grabbed Richie’s arm, careful to get it above the shirt cuff so he couldn’t sweat out of his grip, and twisted it behind Richie’s back. Richie screamed in pain.
“Say uncle,” Mark told him.
Richie’s reply would have pleased a twenty-year Navy man.
Mark yanked Richie’s arm up to his shoulder blades, and Richie screamed again. He was filled with indignation, fright, and puzzlement. This had never happened to him before. It couldn’t be happening now. Surely no four-eyes queer-boy could be sitting on his back and twisting his arm and making him scream before his subjects.
“Say uncle,” Mark repeated.
Richie heaved himself to his knees; Mark squeezed his own knees into Richie’s sides, like a man riding a horse bareback, and stayed on. They were both covered with dust, but Richie was much the worse for wear. His face was red and straining, his eyes bulged, and there was a scratch on his cheek.
He tried to dump Mark over his shoulders, and Mark yanked upward on the arm again. This time Richie didn’t scream. He wailed.
“Say uncle, or so help me God I’ll break it.”
Richie’s shirt had pulled out of his pants. His belly felt hot and scratched. He began to sob and wrench his shoulders from side to side. Yet the hateful four-eyed queer-boy stayed on. His forearm was ice, his shoulder fire.
“Get off me, you son of a whore! You don’t fight fair!” An explosion of pain.
“Say, uncle.” “No!”
He overbalanced on his knees and went facedown in the dust. The pain in his arm was paralyzing. He was eating dirt. There was dirt in his eyes. He thrashed his legs helplessly. He had forgotten about being huge. He had forgotten about how the ground trembled under his feet when he walked. He had forgotten that he was going to smoke Camels, just like his old man, when he grew up.
“Uncle! Uncle! Uncle!” Richie screamed. He felt that he could go on screaming uncle for hours, for days, if it would get his arm back.
“Say: ‘I’m a big ugly turd.’”
“I’m a big ugly turd!” Richie screamed into the dirt. “Good enough.”
Mark Petrie got off him and stepped back warily out of reach as Richie got up. His thighs hurt from squeezing them together. He hoped that all the fight was out of Richie. If not, he was going to get creamed.
Richie got up. He looked around. No one met his eyes. They turned away and went back to whatever they had been doing. That stinking Glick kid was standing next to the queer-boy and looking at him as though he were some kind of God.
Richie stood by himself, hardly able to believe how quickly his ruination had come. His face was dusty except where it had been streaked clean with his tears of rage and shame. He considered launching himself at Mark Petrie. Yet his shame and fear, new and shining and huge, would not allow it. Not yet. His arm ached like a rotted tooth. Son of a whoring dirty fighter. If I ever land on you and get you down—
But not today. He turned away and walked off and the ground didn’t tremble a bit. He looked at the ground so he wouldn’t have to look anyone in the face.
Someone on the girls’ side laughed—a high, mocking sound that carried with cruel clarity on the morning air.
He didn’t look up to see who was laughing at him.
The Jerusalem’s Lot Town Dump had been a plain old gravel pit until it struck clay and paid out in 1945. It was at the end of a spur that led off from the Burns Road two miles beyond Harmony Hill Cemetery.
Dud Rogers could hear the faint putter and cough of Mike Ryerson’s lawn mower down the road. But that sound would soon be blotted out by the crackle of flames.
Dud had been the dump custodian since 1956, and his reappointment each year at town meeting was routine and by acclamation. He lived at the dump in a neat tarpaper lean-to with a sign reading “Dump Custodian” on the skew-hung door. He had wangled a space heater out of that skinflint board of selectmen three years ago, and had given up his apartment in town for good.
He was a hunchback with a curious cocked head that made him look as if God had given him a final petulant wrench before allowing him out into the world. His arms, which dangled apelike almost to his knees, were amazingly strong. It had taken four men to load the old hardware store floor safe into their panel truck to bring it out here when the store got its new wall job. The tires of the truck had settled appreciably when they put it in. But Dud Rogers had taken it off himself, cords standing out on his neck, veins bulging on his forehead and forearms and biceps like blue cables. He had pushed it over the east edge himself.
Dud liked the dump. He liked running off the kids who came here to bust bottles, and he liked directing traffic to wherever the day’s dumping was going on. He liked dump-picking, which was his privilege as custodian. He supposed they sneered at him, walking across the mountains of trash in his hip waders and leather gloves, with his pistol in his holster, a sack over his shoulder, and his pocketknife in his hand. Let them sneer.
There was copper core wire and sometimes whole motors with their copper wrappings intact, and copper fetched a good price in Portland. There were busted-out bureaus and chairs and sofas, things that could be fixed up and sold to the antique dealers on Route 1. Dud rooked the dealers and the dealers turned around and rooked the summer people, and wasn’t it just fine the way the world went round and round. He’d found a splintered spool bed with a busted frame two years back and had sold it to a faggot from Wells for two hundred bucks. The faggot had gone into ecstasies about the New England authenticity of that bed, never knowing how carefully Dud had sanded off the Made in Grand Rapids on the back of the headboard.
At the far end of the dump were the junked cars, Buicks and Fords and Chevies and you name it, and my God the parts people left on their machines when they were through with them. Radiators were best, but a good four-barrel carb would fetch seven dollars after it had been soaked in gasoline. Not to mention fan belts, taillights, distributor caps, windshields, steering wheels, and floor mats.
Yes, the dump was fine. The dump was Disneyland and Shangri-la all rolled up into one. But not even the money tucked away in the black box buried in the dirt below his easy chair was the best part.
The best part was the fires—and the rats.
Dud set parts of his dump on fire on Sunday and Wednesday mornings, and on Monday and Friday evenings. Evening fires were the prettiest. He loved the dusky, roseate glow that bloomed out of the green plastic bags of crap and all the newspapers and boxes. But morning fires were better for rats.
Now, sitting in his easy chair and watching the fire catch and begin to send its greasy black smoke into the air, sending the gulls aloft, Dud held his .22 target pistol loosely in his hand and waited for the rats to come out.
When they came, they came in battalions. They were big, dirty gray, pink- eyed. Small fleas and ticks jumped on their hides. Their tails dragged after them like thick pink wires. Dud loved to shoot rats.
“You buy a powerful slug o’ shells, Dud,” George Middler down at the hardware store would say in his fruity voice, pushing the boxes of Remingtons across. “Town pay for ’em?” This was an old joke. Some years back, Dud had put in a purchase order for two thousand rounds of hollow-point .22 cartridges, and Bill Norton had grimly sent him packing.
“Now,” Dud would say, “you know this is purely a public service, George.”
There. That big fat one with the gimpy back leg was George Middler. Had something in his mouth that looked like a shredded piece of chicken liver.
“Here you go, George. Here y’are,” Dud said, and squeezed off. The .22’s report was flat and undramatic, but the rat tumbled over twice and lay twitching. Hollow points, that was the ticket. Someday he was going to get a large-bore .45 or a .357 Magnum and see what that did to the little cock-knockers.
That next one now, that was that slutty little Ruthie Crockett, the one who didn’t wear no bra to school and was always elbowing her chums and sniggering when Dud passed on the street. Bang. Good-by, Ruthie.
The rats scurried madly for the protection of the dump’s far side, but before they were gone Dud had gotten six of them—a good morning’s kill. If he went out there and looked at them, the ticks would be running off the cooling bodies like…like…why, like rats deserting a sinking ship.
This struck him as deliciously funny and he threw back his queerly cocked head and rocked back on his hump and laughed in great long gusts as the fire crept through the trash with its grasping orange fingers.
Life surely was grand.
The town whistle went off with a great twelve-second blast, ushering in lunch hour at all three schools and welcoming the afternoon. Lawrence Crockett, the Lot’s second selectman and proprietor of Crockett’s Southern Maine Insurance and Realty, put away the book he had been reading (Satan’s Sex Slaves) and set his watch by the whistle. He went to the door and hung the “Back at One O’clock” sign from the shade pull. His routine was unvarying. He would walk up to the Excellent Café, have two cheeseburgers with the works and a cup of coffee, and watch Pauline’s legs while he smoked a William Penn.
He rattled the doorknob once to make sure the lock had caught and moved off down Jointner Avenue. He paused on the corner and glanced up at the Marsten House. There was a car in the driveway. He could just make it out, twinkling and shining. It caused a thread of disquiet somewhere in his chest. He had sold the Marsten House and the long-defunct Village Washtub in a package deal over a year ago. It had been the strangest deal of his life—and he had made some strange ones in his time. The owner of the car up there was, in all probability, a man named Straker. R.T. Straker. And just this morning he had received something in the mail from this Straker.
The fellow in question had driven up to Crockett’s office on a shimmering July afternoon just over a year ago. He got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk for a moment before coming inside, a tall man dressed in a sober three- piece suit in spite of the day’s heat. He was as bald as a cueball and as sweatless as same. His eyebrows were a straight black slash, and the eye sockets shelved away below them to dark holes that might have been carved into the angular surface of his face with drill bits. He carried a slim black briefcase in one hand. Larry was alone in his office when Straker came in; his part-time secretary, a Falmouth girl with the most delectable set of jahoobies you ever clapped an eye to, worked for a Gates Falls lawyer on her afternoons.
The bald man sat down in the client’s chair, put his briefcase in his lap, and stared at Larry Crockett. It was impossible to read the expression in his eyes, and that bothered Larry. He liked to be able to read a man’s wants in his baby blues or browns before the man even opened his mouth. This man had not paused to look at the pictures of local properties that were tacked up on the bulletin board, had not offered to shake hands and introduce himself, had not even said hello.
“How can I help you?” Larry asked.
“I have been sent to buy a residence and a business establishment in your so- fair town,” the bald man said. He spoke with a flat, uninflected tonelessness that made Larry think of the recorded announcements you got when you dialed the weather.
“Well, hey, wonderful,” Larry said. “We have several very nice properties that might—”
“There is no need,” the bald man said, and held up his hand to stop Larry’s words. Larry noted with fascination that his fingers were amazingly long—the middle finger looked four or five inches from base to tip. “The business establishment is a block beyond the Town Office Building. It fronts on the park.”
“Yeah, I can deal with you on that. Used to be a Laundromat. Went broke a year ago. That’d be a real good location if you—”
“The residence,” the bald man overrode him, “is the one referred to in town as the Marsten House.”
Larry had been in the business too long to show his thunderstruck feelings on his face. “Is that so?”
“Yes. My name is Straker. Richard Throckett Straker. All papers will be in my name.”
“Very good,” Larry said. The man meant business, that much seemed clear enough. “The asking price on the Marsten House is fourteen thousand, although I think my clients could be persuaded to take a little less. On the old washateria —”
“That is no accord. I have been authorized to pay one dollar.”
“One—?” Larry tilted his head forward the way a man will when he has failed to hear something correctly.
“Yes. Attend, please.”
Straker’s long fingers undid the clasps on his briefcase, opened it, and took out a number of papers bound in a blue transparent folder.
Larry Crockett looked at him, frowning. “Read, please. That will save time.”
Larry thumbed back the folder’s plastic cover and glanced down at the first sheet with the air of a man humoring a fool. His eyes moved from left to right randomly for a moment, then riveted on something.
Straker smiled thinly. He reached inside his suit coat, produced a flat gold cigarette case, and selected a cigarette. He tamped it and then lit it with a wooden match. The harsh aroma of a Turkish blend filled the office and was eddied around by the fan.
There had been silence in the office for the next ten minutes, broken only by the hum of the fan and the muted passage of traffic on the street outside. Straker smoked his cigarette down to a shred, crushed the glowing ash between his fingers, and lit another.
Larry looked up, his face pale and shaken. “This is a joke. Who put you up to it? John Kelly?”
“I know no John Kelly. I don’t joke.”
“These papers…quit-claim deed…land title search…my God, man, don’t you know that piece of land is worth one and a half million dollars?”
“You piker,” Straker said coldly. “It is worth four million. Soon to be worth more, when the shopping center is built.”
“What do you want?” Larry asked. His voice was hoarse.
“I have told you what I want. My partner and I plan to open a business in this town. We plan to live in the Marsten House.”
“What sort of business? Murder Incorporated?”
Straker smiled coldly. “A perfectly ordinary furniture business, I am afraid. With a line of rather special antiques for collectors. My partner is something of an expert in that field.”
“Shit,” Larry said crudely. “The Marsten House you could have for eight and a half grand, the shop for sixteen. Your partner must know that. And you both must know that this town can’t support a fancy furniture and antique place.”
“My partner is extremely knowledgeable on any subject in which he becomes interested,” Straker said. “He knows that your town is on a highway which serves tourists and summer residents. These are the people with whom we expect to do the bulk of our business. However, that is no accord to you. Do you find the papers in order?”
Larry tapped his desk with the blue folder. “They seem to be. But I’m not going to be horse-traded, no matter what you say you want.”
“No, of course not.” Straker’s voice was edged with well-bred contempt. “You have a lawyer in Boston, I believe. One Francis Walsh.”
“How do you know that?” Larry barked.
“It doesn’t matter. Take the papers to him. He will confirm their validity. The land where this shopping center is to be built will be yours, on fulfillment of three conditions.”
“Ah,” Larry said, and looked relieved. “Conditions.” He leaned back and selected a William Penn from the ceramic cigar box on his desk. He scratched a match on shoe leather and puffed. “Now we’re getting down to the bone. Fire away.”
“Number one. You will sell me the Marsten House and the business establishment for one dollar. Your client in the matter of the house is a land corporation in Bangor. The business establishment now belongs to a Portland bank. I am sure both parties will be agreeable if you make up the difference to the lowest acceptable prices. Minus your commission, of course.”
“Where do you get your information?”
“That is not for you to know, Mr Crockett. Condition two. You will say nothing of our transaction here today. Nothing. If the question ever comes up, all you know is what I have told you—we are two partners beginning a business aimed at tourists and summer people. This is very important.”
“I don’t blab.”
“Nonetheless, I want to impress on you the seriousness of the condition. A time may come, Mr Crockett, when you will want to tell someone of the wonderful deal you made on this day. If you do so, I will find out. I will ruin you. Do you understand?”
“You sound like one of those cheap spy movies,” Larry said. He sounded unruffled, but underneath he felt a nasty tremor of fear. The words I will ruin you had come out as flatly as How are you today. It gave the statement an unpleasant ring of truth. And how in hell did this joker know about Frank Walsh? Not even his wife knew about Frank Walsh.
“Do you understand me, Mr Crockett?”
“Yes,” Larry said. “I’m used to playing them close to the vest.”
Straker offered his thin smile again. “Of course. That is why I am doing business with you.”
“The third condition?”
“The house will need certain renovations.” “That’s one way of puttin’ it,” Larry said dryly.
“My partner plans to carry this task out himself. But you will be his agent. From time to time there will be requests. From time to time I will require the services of whatever laborers you employ to bring certain things either to the house or to the shop. You will not speak of such services. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I understand. But you don’t come from these parts, do you?” “Does that have bearing?” Straker raised his eyebrows.
“Sure it does. This isn’t Boston or New York. It’s not going to be just a matter of me keepin’ my lip buttoned. People are going to talk. Why, there’s an old biddy over on Railroad Street, name of Mabel Werts, who spends all day with a pair of binoculars—”
“I don’t care about the townspeople. My partner doesn’t care about the townspeople. The townspeople always talk. They are no different from the magpies on the telephone wires. Soon they will accept us.”
Larry shrugged. “It’s your party.”
“As you say,” Straker agreed. “You will pay for all services and keep all invoices and bills. You will be reimbursed. Do you agree?”
Larry was, as he had told Straker, used to playing them close to the vest, and he had a reputation as one of the best poker players in Cumberland County. And although he had maintained his outward calm through all of this, he was on fire inside. The deal this crazyman was offering him was the kind of thing that came along once, if ever. Perhaps the guy’s boss was one of those nutty billionaire recluses who—
“Mr Crockett? I am waiting.”
“There are two conditions of my own,” Larry said. “Ah?” Straker looked politely interested.
He rattled the blue folder. “First, these papers have to check out.” “Of course.”
“Second, if you’re doing anything illegal up there, I don’t want to know about it. By that I mean—”
But he was interrupted. Straker threw his head back and gave vent to a singularly cold and emotionless laugh.
“Did I say somethin’ funny?” Larry asked, without a trace of a smile. “Oh…ah…of course not, Mr Crockett. You must pardon my outburst. I found
your comment amusing for reasons of my own. What were you about to add?”
“These renovations. I’m not going to get you anything that would leave my ass out to the wind. If you’re fixing up to make moonshine or LSD or explosives for some hippie radical outfit, that’s your own lookout.”
“Agreed,” Straker said. The smile was gone from his face. “Have we a deal?”
And with an odd feeling of reluctance, Larry had said, “If these papers check out, I guess we do at that. Although it seems like you did all the dealin’ and I did all the money-makin’.”
“This is Monday,” Straker said. “Shall I stop by Thursday afternoon?” “Better make it Friday.”
“So it is. Very well.” He stood. “Good day, Mr Crockett.”
The papers had checked out. Larry’s Boston lawyer said the land where the Portland shopping center was to be built had been purchased by an outfit called Continental Land and Realty, which was a dummy company with office space in the Chemical Bank Building in New York. There was nothing in Continental’s offices but a few empty filing cabinets and a lot of dust.
Straker had come back that Friday and Larry signed the necessary title papers. He did so with a strong taste of doubt in the back of his mouth. He had overthrown his own personal maxim for the first time: You don’t shit where you eat. And although the inducement had been high, he realized as Straker put the ownership papers to the Marsten House and erstwhile Village Washtub into his briefcase that he had put himself at this man’s beck and call. And the same went for his partner, the absent Mr Barlow.
As last August had passed, and as summer had slipped into fall and then fall into winter, he had begun to feel an indefinable sense of relief. By this spring he had almost managed to forget the deal he had made to get the papers which now resided in his Portland safe-deposit box.
Then things began to happen.
That writer, Mears, had come in a week and a half ago, asking if the Marsten House was available for rental, and he had given Larry a peculiar look when he told him it was sold.
Yesterday there had been a long tube in his post office box and a letter from Straker. A note, really. It had been brief: “Kindly have the poster which you will be receiving mounted in the window of the shop—R.T. Straker.” The poster itself was common enough, and more subdued than some. It only said: “Opening in one week. Barlow and Straker. Fine furnishings. Selected antiques. Browsers welcome.” He had gotten Royal Snow to put it right up.
And now there was a car up there at the Marsten House. He was still looking at it when someone said at his elbow: “Fallin’ asleep, Larry?”
He jumped and looked around at Parkins Gillespie, who was standing on the corner next to him and lighting a Pall Mall.
“No,” he said, and laughed nervously. “Just thinking.”
Parkins glanced up at the Marsten House, where the sun twinkled on chrome and metal in the driveway, then down at the old laundry with its new sign in the window. “And you’re not the only one, I guess. Always good to get new folks in town. You’ve met ’em, ain’t you?”
“One of them. Last year.” “Mr Barlow or Mr Straker?” “Straker.”
“Seem like a nice enough sort, did he?”
“Hard to tell,” Larry said, and found he wanted to lick his lips. He didn’t. “We only talked business. He seemed okay.”
“Good. That’s good. Come on. I’ll walk up to the Excellent with you.”
When they crossed the street, Lawrence Crockett was thinking about deals with the devil.
Susan Norton stepped into Babs’ Beauty Boutique, smiled at Babs Griffen (Hal and Jack’s eldest sister), and said, “Thank goodness you could take me on such short notice.”
“No problem in the middle of the week,” Babs said, turning on the fan. “My, ain’t it close? It’ll thunderstorm this afternoon.”
Susan looked at the sky, which was an unblemished blue. “Do you think so?” “Yeah. How do you want it, hon?”
“Natural,” Susan said, thinking of Ben Mears. “Like I hadn’t even been near this place.”
“Hon,” Babs said, closing in on her with a sigh, “that’s what they all say.”
The sigh wafted the odor of Juicy Fruit gum, and Babs asked Susan if she had seen that some folks were opening up a new furniture store in the old Village Washtub. Expensive stuff by the look of it, but wouldn’t it be nice if they had a nice little hurricane lamp to match the one she had in her apartment and getting away from home and living in town was the smartest move she’d ever made and hadn’t it been a nice summer? It seemed a shame it ever had to end.
Bonnie Sawyer was lying on the big double bed in her house on the Deep Cut Road. It was a regular house, no shanty trailer, and it had a foundation and a cellar. Her husband, Reg, made good money as a car mechanic at Jim Smith’s Pontiac in Buxton.
She was naked except for a pair of filmy blue panties, and she looked impatiently over at the clock on the nightstand: 3:02—where was he?
Almost as if the thought had summoned him, the bedroom door opened the tiniest bit, and Corey Bryant peered through.
“Is it okay?” he whispered. Corey was only twenty-two, had been working for the phone company two years, and this affair with a married woman—especially a knockout like Bonnie Sawyer, who had been Miss Cumberland County of 1973—left him feeling weak and nervous and horny.
Bonnie smiled at him with her lovely capped teeth. “If it wasn’t, honey,” she said, “you’d have a hole in you big enough to watch TV through.”
He came tiptoeing in, his utility lineman’s belt jingling ridiculously around his waist.
Bonnie giggled and opened her arms. “I really like you, Corey. You’re cute.”
Corey’s eyes happened on the dark shadow beneath the taut blue nylon, and he began to feel more horny than nervous. He forgot about tiptoeing and came to her, and as they joined, a cicada began to buzz somewhere in the woods.
Ben Mears pushed away from his desk, the afternoon’s writing done. He had forgone his walk in the park so he could go to dinner at the Nortons’ that night with a clear conscience, and had written for most of the day without a break.
He stood up and stretched, listening to the bones in his spine crackle. His torso was wet with sweat. He went to the cupboard at the head of the bed, pulled out a fresh towel, and went down to the bathroom to shower before everyone else got home from work and clogged the place.
He hung the towel over his shoulder, turned back to the door, and then went to the window, where something had caught his eye. Nothing in town; it was drowsing away the late afternoon under a sky that peculiar shade of deep blue that graces New England on fine late summer days.
He could look across the two-story buildings on Jointner Avenue, could see their flat, asphalted roofs, and across the park where the children now home from school lazed or biked or squabbled, and out to the northwest section of town where Brock Street disappeared behind the shoulder of that first wooded hill. His eyes traveled naturally up to the break in the woods where the Burns Road and the Brooks Road intersected in a T—and on up to where the Marsten House sat overlooking the town.
From here it was a perfect miniature, diminished to the size of a child’s dollhouse. And he liked it that way. From here the Marsten House was a size that could be coped with. You could hold up your hand and blot it out with your palm.
There was a car in the driveway.
He stood with the towel over his shoulder, looking out at it, not moving, feeling a crawl of terror in his belly that he did not try to analyze. Two of the fallen shutters had been replaced, too, giving the house a secretive, blind look that it had not possessed before.
His lips moved silently, as if forming words no one—even himself—could
Matthew Burke left the high school carrying his briefcase in his left hand and crossed the empty parking lot to where his old Chevy Biscayne sat, still on last year’s snow tires.
He was sixty-three, two years from mandatory retirement, and still carrying a full load of English classes and extracurricular activities. Fall’s activity was the school play, and he had just finished readings for a three-act farce called Charley’s Problem. He had gotten the usual glut of utter impossibles, perhaps a dozen usable warm bodies who would at least memorize their lines (and then deliver them in a deathly, trembling monotone), and three kids who showed flair. He would cast them on Friday and begin blocking next week.
They would pull together between then and October 30, which was the play date. It was Matt’s theory that a high school play should be like a bowl of Campbell’s Alphabet Soup: tasteless but not actively offensive. The relatives would come and love it. The theater critic from the Cumberland Ledger would come and go into polysyllabic ecstasies, as he was paid to do over any local play. The female lead (Ruthie Crockett this year, probably) would fall in love with some other cast member and quite possibly lose her virginity after the cast party. And then he would pick up the threads of the Debate Club.
At sixty-three, Matt Burke still enjoyed teaching. He was a lousy disciplinarian, thus forfeiting any chance he might once have had to step up to administration (he was a little too dreamy-eyed to ever serve effectively as an assistant principal), but his lack of discipline had never held him back. He had read the sonnets of Shakespeare in cold, pipe-clanking classrooms full of flying airplanes and spitballs, had sat down upon tacks and thrown them away absently as he told the class to turn to page 467 in their grammars, had opened drawers to get composition paper only to discover crickets, frogs, and once a seven-foot black snake.
He had ranged across the length and breadth of the English language like a solitary and oddly complacent Ancient Mariner: Steinbeck period one, Chaucer period two, the topic sentence period three, and the function of the gerund just before lunch. His fingers were permanently yellowed with chalk dust rather than nicotine, but it was still the residue of an addicting substance.
Children did not revere or love him; he was not a Mr Chips languishing away in a rustic corner of America and waiting for Ross Hunter to discover him, but many of his students did come to respect him, and a few learned from him that dedication, however eccentric or humble, can be a noteworthy thing. He liked his work.
Now he got into his car, pumped the accelerator too much and flooded it, waited, and started it again. He tuned the radio to a Portland rock ’n’ roll station and jacked the volume almost to the speaker’s distortion point. He thought rock ’n’ roll was fine music. He backed out of his parking slot, stalled, and started the car up again.
He had a small house out on the Taggart Stream Road, and had very few callers. He had never been married, had no family except for a brother in Texas who worked for an oil company and never wrote. He did not really miss the attachments. He was a solitary man, but solitude had in no way twisted him.
He paused at the blinking light at the intersection of Jointner Avenue and Brock Street, then turned toward home. The shadows were long now, and the daylight had taken on a curiously beautiful warmth—flat and golden, like something from a French Impressionist painting. He glanced over to his left, saw the Marsten House, and glanced again.
“The shutters,” he said aloud, against the driving beat from the radio. “Those shutters are back up.”
He glanced in the rearview mirror and saw that there was a car parked in the driveway. He had been teaching in ’salem’s Lot since 1952, and he had never seen a car parked in that driveway.
“Is someone living up there?” he asked no one in particular, and drove on.
Susan’s father, Bill Norton, the Lot’s first selectman, was surprised to find that he liked Ben Mears—liked him quite a lot. Bill was a big, tough man with black hair, built like a truck, and not fat even after fifty. He had left high school for the Navy in the eleventh grade with his father’s permission, and he had clawed his way up from there, picking up his diploma at the age of twenty-four on a high school equivalency test taken almost as an afterthought. He was not a blind, bullish anti-intellectual as some plain workingmen become when they are denied the level of learning that they may have been capable of, either through fate or their own doing, but he had no patience with “art farts,” as he termed some of the doe-eyed, long-haired boys Susan had brought home from school.
He didn’t mind their hair or their dress. What bothered him was that none of them seemed serious-minded. He didn’t share his wife’s liking for Floyd Tibbits, the boy that Susie had been going around with the most since she graduated, but he didn’t actively dislike him, either. Floyd had a pretty good job at the executive level in the Falmouth Grant’s, and Bill Norton considered him to be moderately serious- minded. And he was a hometown boy. But so was this Mears, in a manner of speaking.
“Now, you leave him alone about that art fart business,” Susan said, rising at the sound of the doorbell. She was wearing a light green summer dress, her new casual hairdo pulled back and tied loosely with a hank of oversized green yarn.
Bill laughed. “I got to call ’em as I see ’em, Susie darlin’. I won’t embarrass you…never do, do I?”
She gave him a pensive, nervous smile and went to open the door.
The man who came back in with her was lanky and agile-looking, with finely drawn features and a thick, almost greasy shock of black hair that looked freshly washed despite its natural oiliness. He was dressed in a way that impressed Bill favorably: plain blue jeans, very new, and a white shirt rolled to the elbows.
“Ben, this is my dad and mom—Bill and Ann Norton. Mom, Dad, Ben Mears.”
“Hello. Nice to meet you.”
He smiled at Mrs Norton with a touch of reserve and she said, “Hello, Mr Mears. This is the first time we’ve seen a real live author up close. Susan has been awfully excited.”
“Don’t worry; I don’t quote from my own works.” He smiled again.
“H’lo,” Bill said, and heaved himself up out of his chair. He had worked himself up to the union position he now held on the Portland docks, and his grip was hard and strong. But Mears’s hand did not crimp and jellyfish like that of your ordinary, garden-variety art fart, and Bill was pleased. He imposed his second testing criterion.
“Like a beer? Got some on ice out yonder.” He gestured toward the back patio, which he had built himself. Art farts invariably said no; most of them were potheads and couldn’t waste their valuable consciousness juicing.
“Man, I’d love a beer,” Ben said, and the smile became a grin. “Two or three, even.”
Bill’s laughter boomed out. “Okay, you’re my man. Come on.”
At the sound of his laughter, an odd communication seemed to pass between the two women, who bore a strong resemblance to each other. Ann Norton’s brow contracted while Susan’s smoothed out—a load of worry seemed to have been transferred across the room by telepathy.
Ben followed Bill out onto the veranda. An ice chest sat on a stool in the corner, stuffed with ring-tab cans of Pabst. Bill pulled a can out of the cooler and tossed it to Ben, who caught it one-hand but lightly, so it wouldn’t fizz.
“Nice out here,” Ben said, looking toward the barbecue in the backyard. It was a low, businesslike construction of bricks, and a shimmer of heat hung over it.
“Built it myself,” Bill said. “Better be nice.”
Ben drank deeply and then belched, another sign in his favor. “Susie thinks you’re quite the fella,” Norton said.
“She’s a nice girl.”
“Good practical girl,” Norton added, and belched reflectively. “She says you’ve written three books. Published ’em, too.”
“Yes, that’s so.” “They do well?”
“The first did,” Ben said, and said no more. Bill Norton nodded slightly, in approval of a man who had enough marbles to keep his dollars-and-cents business to himself.
“You like to lend a hand with some burgers and hot dogs?” “Sure.”
“You got to cut the hot dogs to let the squidges out of ’em. You know about that?”
“Yeah.” He made diagonal slashes in the air with his right index finger, grinning slightly as he did so. The small slashes in natural casing franks kept them from blistering.
“You came from this neck of the woods, all right,” Bill Norton said. “Goddamn well told. Take that bag of briquettes over there and I’ll get the meat. Bring your beer.”
“You couldn’t part me from it.”
Bill hesitated on the verge of going in and cocked an eyebrow at Ben Mears. “You a serious-minded fella?” he asked.
Ben smiled, a trifle grimly. “That I am,” he said.
Bill nodded. “That’s good,” he said, and went inside.
Babs Griffen’s prediction of rain was a million miles wrong, and the backyard dinner went well. A light breeze sprang up, combining with the eddies of hickory smoke from the barbecue to keep the worst of the late-season mosquitoes away. The women cleared away the paper plates and condiments, then came back to drink a beer each and laugh as Bill, an old hand at playing the tricky wind currents, trimmed Ben 21–6 at badminton. Ben declined a rematch with real regret, pointing at his watch.
“I got a book on the fire,” he said. “I owe another six pages. If I get drunk, I won’t even be able to read what I wrote tomorrow morning.”
Susan saw him to the front gate—he had walked up from town. Bill nodded to himself as he damped the fire. He had said he was serious-minded, and Bill was ready to take him at his word. He had not come with a big case on to impress anyone, but any man who worked after dinner was out to make his mark on somebody’s tree, probably in big letters.
Ann Norton, however, never quite unthawed.
Floyd Tibbits pulled into the crushed-stone parking lot at Dell’s about ten minutes after Delbert Markey, owner and bartender, had turned on his new pink sign out front. The sign said dell’s in letters three feet high, and the apostrophe was a highball glass.
Outside, the sunlight had been leached from the sky by gathering purple twilight, and soon ground mist would begin to form in the low-lying pockets of land. The night’s regulars would begin to show up in another hour or so.
“Hi, Floyd,” Dell said, pulling a Michelob out of the cooler. “Good day?” “Fair,” Floyd said. “That beer looks good.”
He was a tall man with a well-trimmed sandy beard, now dressed in double- knit slacks and a casual sports jacket—his Grant’s working uniform. He was second in charge of credit, and liked his work in the absent kind of way that can cross the line into boredom almost overnight. He felt himself to be drifting, but
the sensation was not actively unpleasant. And there was Suze—a fine girl. She was going to come around before much longer, and then he supposed he would have to make something of himself.
He dropped a dollar bill on the bar, poured beer down the side of his glass, downed it thirstily, and refilled. The bar’s only other patron at present was a young fellow in phone-company coveralls—the Bryant kid, Floyd thought. He was drinking beer at a table and listening to a moody love song on the juke.
“So what’s new in town?” Floyd asked, knowing the answer already. Nothing new, not really. Someone might have showed up drunk at the high school, but he couldn’t think of anything else.
“Well, somebody killed your uncle’s dog. That’s new.”
Floyd paused with his glass halfway to his mouth. “What? Uncle Win’s dog, Doc?”
“Hit him with a car?”
“Not so you’d notice. Mike Ryerson found him. He was out to Harmony Hill to mow the grass and Doc was hangin’ off those spikes atop the cemetery gate. Ripped wide open.”
“Son of a bitch!” Floyd said, astounded.
Dell nodded gravely, pleased with the impression he had made. He knew something else that was a fairly hot item in town this evening—that Floyd’s girl had been seen with that writer who was staying at Eva’s. But let Floyd find that out for himself.
“Ryerson brung the co’pse in to Parkins Gillespie,” he told Floyd. “He was of the mind that maybe the dog was dead and a bunch of kids hung it up for a joke.”
“Gillespie doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.”
“Maybe not. I’ll tell you what I think.” Dell leaned forward on his thick forearms. “I think it’s kids, all right…hell, I know that. But it might be a smidge more serious than just a joke. Here, looka this.” He reached under the bar and slapped a newspaper down on it, turned to an inside page.
Floyd picked it up. The headline read satan worshippers desecrate fla. church. He skimmed through it. Apparently a bunch of kids had broken into a Catholic Church in Clewiston, Florida, some time after midnight and had held some sort of unholy rites there. The altar had been desecrated, obscene words had been scrawled on the pews, the confessionals, and the holy font, and splatters of blood had been found on steps leading to the nave. Laboratory analysis had confirmed that although some of the blood was animal (goat’s blood was suggested), most of it was human. The Clewiston police chief admitted there were no immediate leads.
Floyd put the paper down. “Devil worshippers in the Lot? Come on, Dell.
You’ve been into the cook’s pot.”
“The kids are going crazy,” Dell said stubbornly. “You see if that ain’t it. Next thing you know, they’ll be doing human sacrifices in Griffen’s pasture. Want a refill on that?”
“No thanks,” Floyd said, sliding off his stool. “I think I’ll go out and see how Uncle Win’s getting along. He loved that dog.”
“Give him my best,” Dell said, stowing his paper back under the bar—Exhibit A for later in the evening. “Awful sorry to hear about it.”
Floyd paused halfway to the door and spoke, seemingly to the air. “Hung him up on the spikes, did they? By Christ, I’d like to get hold of the kids who did that.”
“Devil worshippers,” Dell said. “Wouldn’t surprise me a bit. I don’t know what’s got into people these days.”
Floyd left. The Bryant kid put another dime in the juke, and Dick Curless began to sing “Bury the Bottle with Me.”
“You be home early,” Marjorie Glick said to her eldest son, Danny. “School tomorrow. I want your brother in bed by quarter past nine.”
Danny shuffled his feet. “I don’t see why I have to take him at all.”
“You don’t,” Marjorie said with dangerous pleasantness. “You can always stay home.”
She turned back to the counter, where she was freshening fish, and Ralphie stuck out his tongue. Danny made a fist and shook it, but his putrid little brother only smiled.
“We’ll be back,” he muttered and turned to leave the kitchen, Ralphie in tow. “By nine.”
In the living room Tony Glick was sitting in front of the TV with his feet up, watching the Red Sox and the Yankees. “Where are you going, boys?”
“Over to see that new kid,” Danny said. “Mark Petrie.”
“Yeah,” Ralphie said. “We’re gonna look at his…electric trains.”
Danny cast a baleful eye on his brother, but their father noticed neither the pause nor the emphasis. Doug Griffen had just struck out. “Be home early,” he said absently.
Outside, afterlight still lingered in the sky, although sunset had passed. As they crossed the backyard Danny said, “I ought to beat the stuff out of you, punko.”
“I’ll tell,” Ralphie said smugly. “I’ll tell why you really wanted to go.” “You creep,” Danny said hopelessly.
At the back of the mowed yard, a beaten path led down the slope to the woods. The Glick house was on Brock Street, Mark Petrie’s on South Jointner Avenue. The path was a shortcut that saved considerable time if you were twelve and nine years old and willing to pick your way across the Crockett Brook stepping-stones. Pine needles and twigs crackled under their feet. Somewhere in the woods, a whippoorwill sang, and crickets chirred all around them.
Danny had made the mistake of telling his brother that Mark Petrie had the entire set of Aurora plastic monsters—wolfman, mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein, the mad doctor, and even the Chamber of Horrors. Their mother thought all that stuff was bad news, rotted your brains or something, and Danny’s brother had immediately turned blackmailer. He was putrid, all right.
“You’re putrid, you know that?” Danny said.
“I know,” Ralphie said proudly. “What’s putrid?” “It’s when you get green and squishy, like boogers.”
“Get bent,” Ralphie said. They were going down the bank of Crockett Brook, which gurgled leisurely over its gravel bed, holding a faint pearliness on its surface. Two miles east it joined Taggart Stream, which in turn joined the Royal River.
Danny started across the stepping-stones, squinting in the gathering gloom to see his footing.
“I’m gonna pushya!” Ralphie cried gleefully behind him. “Look out, Danny, I’m gonna pushya!”
“You push me and I’ll push you in the quicksand, ringmeat,” Danny said.
They reached the other bank. “There ain’t no quicksand around here,” Ralphie scoffed, moving closer to his brother nevertheless.
“Yeah?” Danny said ominously. “A kid got killed in the quicksand just a few years ago. I heard those old dudes that hang around the store talkin’ about it.”
“Really?” Ralphie asked. His eyes were wide.
“Yeah,” Danny said. “He went down screamin’ and hollerin’ and his mouth filled up with quicksand and that was it. Raaaacccccchhhh.”
“C’mon,” Ralphie said uneasily. It was close to full dark now, and the woods were full of moving shadows. “Let’s get out of here.”
They started up the other bank, slipping a little in the pine needles. The boy Danny had heard discussed in the store was a ten-year-old named Jerry Kingfield. He might have gone down in the quicksand screaming and hollering, but if he had, no one had heard him. He had simply disappeared in the Marshes six years ago while fishing. Some people thought quicksand, others held that a sex preevert had killed him. There were preeverts everywhere.
“They say his ghost still haunts these woods,” Danny said solemnly, neglecting to tell his little brother that the Marshes were three miles south.
“Don’t, Danny,” Ralphie said uneasily. “Not…not in the dark.”
The woods creaked secretively around them. The whippoorwill had ceased his cry. A branch snapped somewhere behind them, almost stealthily. The daylight was nearly gone from the sky.
“Every now and then,” Danny went on eerily, “when some ringmeat little kid comes out after dark, it comes flapping out of the trees, the face all putrid and covered with quicksand—”
“Danny, come on.”
His little brother’s voice held real pleading, and Danny stopped. He had almost scared himself. The trees were dark, bulking presences all around them, moving slowly in the night breeze, rubbing together, creaking in their joints.
Another branch snapped off to their left.
Danny suddenly wished they had gone by the road. Another branch snapped.
“Danny, I’m scared,” Ralphie whispered.
“Don’t be stupid,” Danny said. “Come on.”
They started to walk again. Their feet crackled in the pine needles. Danny told himself that he didn’t hear any branches snapping. He didn’t hear anything except them. Blood thudded in his temples. His hands were cold. Count steps, he told himself. We’ll be at Jointner Avenue in two hundred steps. And when we come back we’ll go by the road, so ringmeat won’t be scared. In just a minute we’ll see the streetlights and feel stupid but it will be good to feel stupid so count steps. One…two…three…
“I see it! I see the ghost! I SEE IT!”
Terror like hot iron leaped into Danny’s chest. Wires seemed to have run up his legs. He would have turned and run, but Ralphie was clutching him.
“Where?” he whispered, forgetting that he had invented the ghost. “Where?” He peered into the woods, half afraid of what he might see, and saw only blackness.
“It’s gone now—but I saw him…it. Eyes. I saw eyes. Oh, Danneee—” He was blubbering.
“There ain’t no ghosts, you fool. Come on.”
Danny held his brother’s hand and they began to walk. His legs felt as if they were made up of ten thousand pencil erasers. His knees were trembling. Ralphie was crowding against him, almost forcing him off the path.
“It’s watchin’ us,” Ralphie whispered. “Listen, I’m not gonna—”
“No, Danny. Really. Can’t you feel it?”
Danny stopped. And in the way of children, he did feel something and knew they were no longer alone. A great hush had fallen over the woods; but it was a malefic hush. Shadows, urged by the wind, twisted languorously around them.
And Danny smelled something savage, but not with his nose.
There were no ghosts, but there were preeverts. They stopped in black cars and offered you candy or hung around on street corners or…or they followed you into the woods…
Oh and then they… “Run,” he said harshly.
But Ralphie trembled beside him in a paralysis of fear. His grip on Danny’s hand was as tight as baling wire. His eyes stared into the woods, and then began to widen.
A branch snapped.
Danny turned and looked where his brother was looking. The darkness enfolded them.
Mabel Werts was a hugely fat woman, seventy-four on her last birthday, and her legs had become less and less reliable. She was a repository of town history and town gossip, and her memory stretched back over five decades of necrology, adultery, thievery, and insanity. She was a gossip but not a deliberately cruel one (although those whose stories she had sped on their back fence way might tend to disagree); she simply lived in and for the town.
In a way she was the town, a fat widow who now went out very little, and who spent most of her time by her window dressed in a tentlike silk camisole, her yellowish-ivory hair done up in a coronet of thick, braided cables, with the telephone on her right hand and her high-powered Japanese binoculars on the left. The combination of the two—plus the time to use them fully—made her a benevolent spider sitting in the center of a communications web that stretched from the Bend to east ’salem.
She had been watching the Marsten House for want of something better to watch when the shutters to the left of the porch were opened, letting out a golden square of light that was definitely not the steady glow of electricity. She had gotten just a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been a man’s head and shoulders silhouetted against the light. It gave her a queer thrill.
There had been no more movement from the house.
She thought: Now, what kind of people is it that only opens up when a body can’t catch a decent glimpse of them?
She put the glasses down and carefully picked up the telephone. Two voices— she quickly identified them as Harriet Durham and Glynis Mayberry—were talking about the Ryerson boy finding Irwin Purinton’s dog.
She sat quietly, breathing through her mouth, so as to give no sign of her presence on the line.
The day trembled on the edge of extinction. The houses slept in darkness. Downtown, night lights in the hardware store and the Foreman Funeral Home and the Excellent Café threw mild electric light onto the pavement. Some lay awake—George Boyer, who had just gotten home from the three-to-eleven shift at the Gates Mill, Win Purinton, sitting and playing solitaire and unable to sleep for thinking of his Doc, whose passing had affected him much more deeply than that of his wife—but most slept the sleep of the just and the hard-working.
In Harmony Hill Cemetery a dark figure stood meditatively inside the gate, waiting for the turn of time. When he spoke, the voice was soft and cultured.
“O my father, favor me now. Lord of Flies, favor me now. Now I bring you spoiled meat and reeking flesh. I have made sacrifice for your favor. With my left hand I bring it. Make a sign for me on this ground, consecrated in your name. I wait for a sign to begin your work.”
The voice died away. A wind had sprung up, gentle, bringing with it the sigh and whisper of leafy branches and grasses and a whiff of carrion from the dump up the road.
There was no sound but that brought on the breeze. The figure stood silent and thoughtful for a time. Then it stooped and stood with the figure of a child in his arms.
“I bring you this.”
It became unspeakable.
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