How should I tell you about my seven weeks in Derry? How to explain the way I came to hate and fear it?
It wasn’t because it kept secrets (although it did), and it wasn’t because terrible crimes, some of them still unsolved, had happened there (although they had). All that’s over, the girl named Beverly had said, the boy named Richie had agreed, and I came to believe that, too. . although I also came to believe the shadow never completely left that city with its odd sunken downtown.
It was a sense of impending failure that made me hate it. And that feeling of being in a prison with elastic walls. If I wanted to leave, it would let me go (willingly!), but if I stayed, it would squeeze me tighter. It would squeeze me until I couldn’t breathe. And — here’s the bad part — leaving wasn’t an option, because now I had seen Harry before the limp and before the trusting but slightly dazed smile. I had seen him before he became Hoptoad Harry, hoppin down the av-a-new.
I had seen his sister, too. Now she was more than just a name in a painstakingly written essay, a faceless little girl who loved to pick flowers and put them in vases. Sometimes I lay awake thinking of how she planned to go trick-or-treating as Princess Summerfall Winterspring. Unless I did something, that was never going to happen. There was a coffin waiting for her after a long and fruitless struggle for life. There was a coffin waiting for her mother, whose first name I still didn’t know. And for Troy. And for Arthur, known as Tugga.
If I let that happen, I didn’t see how I could live with myself. So I stayed, but it wasn’t easy. And every time I thought of putting myself through this again, in Dallas, my mind threatened to freeze up. At least, I told myself, Dallas wouldn’t be like Derry. Because no place on earth could be like Derry.
How should I tell you, then?
In my life as a teacher, I used to hammer away at the idea of simplicity. In both fiction and nonfiction, there’s only one question and one answer. What happened? the reader asks. This is what happened, the writer responds. This. . and this. . and this, too. Keep it simple. It’s the only sure way home.
So I’ll try, although you must always keep in mind that in Derry, reality is a thin skim of ice over a deep lake of dark water. But still:
This happened. And this. And this, too.
On Friday, my second full day in Derry, I went down to the Center Street Market. I waited until five in the afternoon, because I thought that was when the place would be busiest — Friday’s payday, after all, and for a lot of people (by which I mean wives; one of the rules of life in 1958 is Men Don’t Buy Groceries) that meant shopping day. Lots of shoppers would make it easier for me to blend in. To help in that regard, I went to W. T. Grant’s and supplemented my wardrobe with some chinos and blue workshirts. Remembering No Suspenders and his buddies outside the Sleepy Silver Dollar, I also bought a pair of Wolverine workboots. On my way to the market, I kicked them repeatedly against the curbing until the toes were scuffed.
The place was every bit as busy as I’d hoped, with a line at all three cash registers and the aisles full of women pushing shopping carts. The few men I saw only had baskets, so that was what I took. I put a bag of apples in mine (dirt cheap), and a bag of oranges (almost as expensive as 2011 oranges). Beneath my feet, the oiled wooden floor creaked.
What exactly did Mr. Dunning do in the Center Street Market? Bevvie-on-the-levee hadn’t said. He wasn’t the manager; a glance into the glassed-in booth just beyond the produce section showed a white-haired gentleman who could have claimed Ellen Dunning as a granddaughter, perhaps, but not as a daughter. And the sign on his desk said MR. CURRIE.
As I walked along the back of the store, past the dairy case (I was amused by a sign reading HAVE YOU TRIED “YOGHURT?” IF NOT YOU WILL LOVE IT WHEN YOU DO), I began to hear laughter. Female laughter of the immediately identifiable oh-you-rascal variety. I turned into the far aisle and saw a covey of women, dressed in much the same style as the ladies in the Kennebec Fruit, clustered around the meat counter. THE BUTCHERY, read the handmade wooden sign hanging down on decorative chrome chains. HOME-STYLE CUTS. And, at the bottom: FRANK DUNNING, HEAD BUTCHER.
Sometimes life coughs up coincidences no writer of fiction would dare copy.
It was Frank Dunning who was making the ladies laugh. The resemblance to the janitor who had taken my GED English course was close enough to be eerie. He was Harry to the life, except this version’s hair was almost completely black instead of almost all gray, and the sweet, slightly puzzled smile had been replaced by a raffish, razzle-dazzle grin. It was no wonder the ladies were all aflutter. Even Bevvie-on-the-levee thought he was the cat’s meow, and why not? She might only be twelve or thirteen, but she was female, and Frank Dunning was a charmer. He knew it, too. There had to be reasons for the flowers of Derry womanhood to spend their husbands’ paychecks at the downtown market instead of at the slightly cheaper A&P, and one of them was right here. Mr. Dunning was handsome, Mr. Dunning wore spandy-clean clean whites (slightly bloodstained at the cuffs, but he was a butcher, after all), Mr. Dunning wore a stylish white hat that looked like a cross between a chef’s toque and an artist’s beret. It hung down to just above one eyebrow. A fashion statement, by God.
All in all, Mr. Frank Dunning, with his rosy, clean-shaven cheeks and his immaculately barbered black hair, was God’s gift to the Little Woman. As I strolled toward him, he tied off a package of meat with a length of string drawn from a roll on a spindle beside his scale and wrote the price on it with a flourish of his black marker. He handed it to a lady of about fifty summers who was wearing a housedress with big pink roses blooming on it, seamed nylons, and a schoolgirl blush.
“There you are, Mrs. Levesque, one pound of German bologna, sliced thin.” He leaned confidentially over the counter, close enough so that Mrs. Levesque (and the other ladies) would be able to whiff on the entrancing aroma of his cologne. Was it Aqua Velva, Fred Toomey’s brand? I thought not. I thought a fascinator like Frank Dunning would go for something a little more expensive. “Do you know the problem with German bologna?”
“No,” she said, dragging it out a little so it became Noo-oo. The other ladies twittered in anticipation.
Dunning’s eyes flicked briefly to me and saw nothing to interest him. When he looked back at Mrs. Levesque, they once more picked up their patented twinkle.
“An hour after you eat some, you’re hungry for power.”
I’m not sure all the ladies got it, but they all shrieked with appreciation. Dunning sent Mrs. Levesque happily on her way, and as I passed out of hearing, he was turning his attention to a Mrs. Bowie. Who would, I was sure, be equally happy to receive it.
He’s a nice man. Always joking around and stuff.
But the nice man had cold eyes. When interacting with his fascinated lady-harem, they had been blue. But when he turned his attention to me — however briefly — I could have sworn that they turned gray, the color of water beneath a sky from which snow will soon fall.
The market closed at 6:00 P.M., and when I left with my few items, it was only twenty past five. There was a U-Needa-Lunch on Witcham Street, just around the corner. I ordered a hamburger, a fountain Coke, and a piece of chocolate pie. The pie was excellent — real chocolate, real cream. It filled my mouth the way Frank Anicetti’s root beer had. I dawdled as long as I could, then strolled down to the canal, where there were some benches. There was also a sightline — narrow but adequate — to the Center Street Market. I was full but ate one of my oranges anyway, casting bits of peel over the cement embankment and watching the water carry them away.
Promptly at six, the lights in the market’s big front windows went out. By quarter past, the last of the ladies had exited, toting their carry-alls either up Up-Mile Hill or clustering at one of those phone poles with the painted white stripe. A bus marked ROUNDABOUT ONE FARE came along and scooped them up. At quarter to seven, the market employees began leaving. The last two to exit were Mr. Currie, the manager, and Dunning. They shook hands and parted, Currie going up the alley between the market and the shoe store next to it, probably to get his car, and Dunning to the bus stop.
By then there were only two other people there and I didn’t want to join them. Thanks to the one-way traffic pattern in the Low Town, I didn’t have to. I walked to another white-painted pole, this one handy to The Strand (where the current double feature was Machine-Gun Kelly and Reform School Girl ; the marquee promised BLAZING ACTION), and waited with some working joes who were talking about possible World Series matchups. I could have told them plenty about that, but kept my mouth shut.
A city bus came along and stopped across from the Center Street Market. Dunning got on. It came the rest of the way down the hill and pulled up at the movie-theater stop. I let the working joes go ahead of me, so I could watch how much money they put in the pole-mounted coin receptacle next to the driver’s seat. I felt like an alien in a science fiction movie, one who’s trying to masquerade as an earthling. It was stupid — I wanted to ride the city bus, not blow up the White House with a death-ray — but that didn’t change the feeling.
One of the guys who got on ahead of me flashed a canary-colored bus pass that made me think fleetingly of the Yellow Card Man. The others put fifteen cents into the coin receptacle, which clicked and dinged. I did the same, although it took me a bit longer because my dime was stuck to my sweaty palm. I thought I could feel every eye on me, but when I looked up, everyone was either reading the newspaper or staring vacantly out the windows. The interior of the bus was a fug of blue-gray smoke.
Frank Dunning was halfway down on the right, now wearing tailored gray slacks, a white shirt, and a dark blue tie. Natty. He was busy lighting a cigarette and didn’t look at me as I passed him and took a seat near the back. The bus groaned its way around the circuit of Low Town one-way streets, then mounted Up-Mile Hill on Witcham. Once we were in the west side residential area, riders began to get off. They were all men; presumably the women were back at home putting away their groceries or getting supper on the table. As the bus emptied and Frank Dunning went on sitting where he was, smoking his cigarette, I wondered if we were going to end up being the last two riders.
I needn’t have worried. When the bus angled toward the stop at the corner of Witcham Street and Charity Avenue (Derry also had Faith and Hope Avenues, I later learned), Dunning dropped his cigarette on the floor, crushed it with his shoe, and rose from his seat. He walked easily up the aisle, not using the grab-handles but swaying with the movements of the slowing bus. Some men don’t lose the physical graces of their adolescence until relatively late in life. Dunning appeared to be one of them. He would have made an excellent swing-dancer.
He clapped the bus driver on the shoulder and started telling him a joke. It was short, and most of it was lost in the chuff of the airbrakes, but I caught the phrase three jigs stuck in an elevator and decided it wasn’t one he’d have told to his Housedress Harem. The driver exploded with laughter, then yanked the long chrome lever that opened the front doors. “See you Monday, Frank,” he said.
“If the creek don’t rise,” Dunning responded, then ran down the two steps and jumped across the grass verge to the sidewalk. I could see muscles ripple under his shirt. What chance would a woman and four children have against him? Not much was my first thought on the subject, but that was wrong. The correct answer was none.
As the bus drew away, I saw Dunning mount the steps of the first building down from the corner on Charity Avenue. There were eight or nine men and women sitting in rockers on the wide front porch. Several of them greeted the butcher, who started shaking hands like a visiting politician. The house was a three-story New England Victorian, with a sign hanging from the porch eave. I just had time to read it:
EDNA PRICE ROOMS
BY THE WEEK OR THE MONTH
EFFICIENCY KITCHENS AVAILABLE
Below this, hanging from the big sign on hooks, was a smaller orange sign reading NO VACANCY.
Two stops further down the line, I exited the bus. I thanked the driver, who uttered a surly grunt in return. This, I was discovering, was what passed for courteous discourse in Derry, Maine. Unless, of course, you happened to know a few jokes about jigs stuck in an elevator or maybe the Polish navy.
I walked slowly back toward town, jogging two blocks out of my way to keep clear of Edna Price’s establishment, where those in residence gathered on the porch after supper just like folks in one of those Ray Bradbury stories about bucolic Greentown, Illinois. And did not Frank Dunning resemble one of those good folks? He did, he did. But there had been hidden horrors in Bradbury’s Greentown, too.
The nice man doesn’t live at home anymore, Richie-from-the-ditchie had said, and he’d had the straight dope on that one. The nice man lived in a rooming house where everybody seemed to think he was the cat’s ass.
By my estimation, Price’s Rooms was no more than five blocks west of 379 Kossuth Street, and maybe closer. Did Frank Dunning sit in his rented room after the other tenants had gone to bed, facing east like one of the faithful turning toward Qiblah? If so, did he do it with his hey-great-to-see-you smile on his face? I thought no. And were his eyes blue, or did they turn that cold and thoughtful gray? How did he explain leaving his hearth and home to the folks taking the evening air on Edna Price’s porch? Did he have a story, one where his wife was either a little bit cracked or an outright villain? I thought yes. And did people believe it? The answer to that one was easy. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking 1958, 1985, or 2011. In America, where surface has always passed for substance, people always believe guys like Frank Dunning.
On the following Tuesday, I rented an apartment advertised in the Derry News as “semi-furnished, in a good neighborhood,” and on Wednesday the seventeenth of September, Mr. George Amberson moved in. Goodbye, Derry Town House, hello Harris Avenue. I had been living in 1958 for over a week, and was beginning to feel comfortable there, if not exactly a native.
The semi-furnishings consisted of a bed (which came with a slightly stained mattress but no linen), a sofa, a kitchen table with one leg that needed to be shimmed so it didn’t teeter, and a single chair with a yellow plastic seat that made a weird smook sound as it reluctantly released its grip on the seat of one’s pants. There was a stove and a clattery fridge. In the kitchen pantry, I discovered the apartment’s air-conditioning unit: a GE fan with a frayed plug that looked absolutely lethal.
I felt that the apartment, which was directly beneath the flight path of planes landing at Derry Airport, was a bit overpriced at sixty-five dollars a month, but agreed to it because Mrs. Joplin, the landlady, was willing to overlook Mr. Amberson’s lack of references. It helped that he could offer three months’ rent in cash. She nevertheless insisted on copying the information from my driver’s license. If she found it strange that a real estate freelancer from Wisconsin was carrying a Maine license, she didn’t say so.
I was glad Al had given me lots of cash. Cash is so soothing to strangers.
It goes a lot farther in ’58, too. For only three hundred dollars, I was able to turn my semi-furnished apartment into one that was fully furnished. Ninety of the three hundred went for a secondhand RCA table-model television. That night I watched The Steve Allen Show in beautiful black-and-white, then turned it off and sat at the kitchen table, listening to a plane settle earthward in a roar of propellers. From my back pocket I took a Blue Horse notebook I’d bought in the Low Town drugstore (the one where shoplifting was not a kick, groove, or gasser). I turned to the first page and clicked out the tip of my equally new Parker ballpoint. I sat that way for maybe fifteen minutes — long enough for another plane to clatter earthward, seemingly so close that I almost expected to feel a thump as the wheels scraped the roof.
The page remained blank. So did my mind. Every time I tried to throw it into gear, the only coherent thought I could manage was the past doesn’t want to be changed.
At last I got up, took the fan from its shelf in the pantry, and set it on the counter. I wasn’t sure it would work, but it did, and the hum of the motor was strangely soothing. Also, it masked the fridge’s annoying rumble.
When I sat down again, my mind was clearer, and this time a few words came.
- Tell police
- Anonymous call to butcher (Say “I’m watching you, mf, if you do something I’ll tell”)
- Frame butcher for something
- Incapacitate butcher somehow
I stopped there. The fridge clicked off. There were no descending planes and no traffic on Harris Avenue. For the time being it was just me and my fan and my incomplete list. At last I wrote the final item:
- Kill butcher
Then I crumpled it, opened the box of kitchen matches that sat beside the stove to light the burners and the oven, and scratched one. The fan promptly whiffed it out and I thought again how hard it was to change some things. I turned the fan off, lit another match, and touched it to the ball of notepaper. When it was blazing, I dropped it into the sink, waited for it to go out, then washed the ashes down the drain.
After that, Mr. George Amberson went to bed.
But he did not sleep for a long time.
When the last plane of the night skimmed over the rooftop at twelve-thirty, I was still awake and thinking of my list. Telling the police was out. It might work with Oswald, who would declare his undying love for Fidel Castro in both Dallas and New Orleans, but Dunning was a different matter. He was a well-liked and well-respected member of the community. Who was I? The new guy in a town that didn’t like outsiders. That afternoon, after coming out of the drugstore, I had once again seen No Suspenders and his crew outside the Sleepy Silver Dollar. I was wearing my workingman clothes, but they had given me that same flat-eyed who the fuck’re you look.
Even if I’d been living in Derry for eight years instead of eight days, just what would I say to the police, anyway? That I’d had a vision of Frank Dunning killing his family on Halloween night? That would certainly go over well.
I liked the idea of placing an anonymous call to the butcher himself a little better, but it was a scary option. Once I called Frank Dunning — either at work or at Edna Price’s, where he would no doubt be summoned to the communal phone in the parlor — I would have changed events. Such a call might stop him from killing his family, but I thought it just as likely it would have the opposite effect, tipping him over the precarious edge of sanity he must be walking behind the affable George Clooney smile. Instead of preventing the murders, I might only succeed in making them happen sooner. As it was, I knew where and when. If I warned him, all bets were off.
Frame him for something? It might work in a spy novel, but I wasn’t a CIA agent; I was a goddam English teacher.
Incapacitate butcher was next on the list. Okay, but how? Smack him with the Sunliner, maybe as he walked from Charity Avenue to Kossuth Street with a hammer in his hand and murder on his mind? Unless I had amazing luck, I’d be caught and jailed. There was this, too. Incapacitated people usually get better. He might try again once he did. As I lay there in the dark, I found that scenario all too plausible. Because the past didn’t like to be changed. It was obdurate.
The only sure way was to follow him, wait until he was alone, and then kill him. Keep it simple, stupid.
But there were problems with this, too. The biggest was that I didn’t know if I could go through with it. I thought I could in hot blood — to protect myself or another — but in cold blood? Even if I knew that my potential victim was going to kill his own wife and children if he weren’t stopped?
And. . what if I did it and then got caught before I could escape to the future where I was Jake Epping instead of George Amberson? I’d be tried, found guilty, sent to Shawshank State Prison. And that was where I’d be on the day John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas.
Even that wasn’t the absolute bottom of the matter. I got up, paced through the kitchen to my phone booth of a bathroom, went to the toilet, then sat on the seat with my forehead propped on the heels of my palms. I had assumed Harry’s essay was the truth. Al had, too. It probably was, because Harry was two or three degrees on the dim side of normal, and people like that are less liable to try passing off fantasies like the murder of an entire family as reality. Still. .
Ninety-five percent probability isn’t a hundred, Al had said, and that was Oswald himself he’d been talking about. Just about the only person the killer could have been, once you set aside all the conspiracy babble, and yet Al still had those last lingering doubts.
It would have been easy to check out Harry’s story in the computer-friendly world of 2011, but I never had. And even if it was completely true, there might be crucial details he’d gotten wrong or not mentioned at all. Things that could trip me up. What if, instead of riding to the rescue like Sir Galahad, I only managed to get killed along with them? That would change the future in all sorts of interesting ways, but I wouldn’t be around to discover what they were.
A new idea popped into my head, one that was crazily attractive. I could station myself across from 379 Kossuth on Halloween night. . and just watch. To make sure it really happened, yes, but also to note all the details the only living witness — a traumatized child — might have missed. Then I could drive back to Lisbon Falls, go up through the rabbit-hole, and immediately return to September 9 at 11:58 in the morning. I’d buy the Sunliner again and go to Derry again, this time loaded with information. It was true I’d already spent a fair amount of Al’s currency, but there was enough left to get by on.
The idea ran well out of the gate but stumbled before it even got to the first turn. The whole purpose of this trip had been to find out what effect saving the janitor’s family would have on the future, and if I let Frank Dunning go through with the murders, I wouldn’t know. And I was already faced with having to do this again, because there would be one of those resets when—if —I went back through the rabbit-hole to stop Oswald. Once was bad. Twice would be worse. Three times was unthinkable.
And one other thing. Harry Dunning’s family had already died once. Was I going to condemn them to die a second time? Even if each time was a reset and they didn’t know? And who was to say that on some deep level they didn’t?
The pain. The blood. Li’l Carrot-Top lying on the floor under the rocker. Harry trying to scare the lunatic off with a Daisy air gun: “Leave me alone, Daddy, or I’ll shoot you.”
I shuffled back through the kitchen, pausing to look at the chair with the yellow plastic seat. “I hate you, chair,” I told it, then went to bed again.
That time I fell asleep almost immediately. When I woke up the next morning, a nine-o’clock sun was shining in my as-yet-curtainless bedroom window, birds were twittering self-importantly, and I thought I knew what I had to do. Keep it simple, stupid.
At noon I put on my tie, set my straw hat at the correct rakish angle, and took myself down to Machen’s Sporting Goods, where THE FALL GUN SALE was still going on. I told the clerk I was interested in buying a handgun, because I was in the real estate business and occasionally I had to carry quite large amounts of cash. He showed me several, including a Colt.38 Police Special revolver. The price was $9.99. That seemed absurdly low until I remembered that, according to Al’s notes, the Italian mail-order rifle Oswald had used to change history had cost less than twenty.
“This is a fine piece of protection,” the clerk said, rolling out the barrel and giving it a spin: clickclickclickclick. “Dead accurate up to fifteen yards, guaranteed, and anyone stupid enough to try mugging you out of your cash is going to be a lot closer than that.”
I braced for an examination of my scant paperwork, but had once again forgotten to take into account the relaxed and unterrified atmosphere of the America where I was now living. The way the deal worked was this: I paid my money and walked out with the gun. There was no paperwork and no waiting period. I didn’t even have to give my current address.
Oswald had wrapped his gun in a blanket and hidden it in the garage of the house where his wife was staying with a woman named Ruth Paine. But when I walked out of Machen’s with mine in my briefcase, I thought I knew how he must have felt: like a man with a powerful secret. A man who owned his own private tornado.
A guy who should have been at work in one of the mills was standing in the doorway of the Sleepy Silver Dollar, smoking a cigarette and reading the paper. Appearing to read the paper, at least. I couldn’t swear he was watching me, but then again I couldn’t swear he wasn’t.
It was No Suspenders.
That evening, I once more took up a position close to The Strand, where the marquee read OPENS TOMORROW! THUNDER ROAD (MITCHUM) & THE VIKINGS (DOUGLAS)! More BLAZING ACTION in the offing for Derry filmgoers.
Dunning once more crossed to the bus stop and climbed aboard. This time I didn’t follow. There was no need; I knew where he was going. I walked back to my new apartment, looking around every now and then for No Suspenders. There was no sign of him, and I told myself that seeing him across from the sporting goods store had just been a coincidence. Not a big one, either. The Sleepy was his joint of choice, after all. Because the Derry mills ran six days a week, the workers had rotating off-days. Thursday could have been one of this guy’s. Next week he might be hanging at the Sleepy on Friday. Or Tuesday.
The following evening I was once more at The Strand, pretending to study the poster for Thunder Road (Robert Mitchum Roars Down the Hottest Highway on Earth!), mostly because I had nowhere else to go; Halloween was still six weeks away, and I seemed to have entered the time-killing phase of our program. But this time instead of crossing to the bus stop, Frank Dunning walked down to the three-way intersection of Center, Kansas, and Witcham and stood there as if undecided. He was once more looking reet in dark slacks, white shirt, blue tie, and a sport coat in a light gray windowpane check. His hat was cocked back on his head. For a moment I thought he was going to head for the movies and check out the hottest highway on earth, in which case I would stroll casually away toward Canal Street. But he turned left, onto Witcham. I could hear him whistling. He was a good whistler.
There was no need to follow him; he wasn’t going to commit any hammer murders on the nineteenth of September. But I was curious, and I had nothing better to do. He went into a bar and grill called The Lamplighter, not as upper-crust as the one at the Town House, but nowhere near as grotty as the ones on Canal. In every small city there are one or two borderland joints where bluecollar and whitecollar workers meet as equals, and this looked like that kind of place. Usually the menu features some local delicacy that makes outsiders scratch their head in puzzlement. The Lamplighter’s specialty seemed to be something called Fried Lobster Pickin’s.
I passed the wide front windows, lounging rather than walking, and saw Dunning greet his way across the room. He shook hands; he patted cheeks; he took one man’s hat and scaled it to a guy standing at the Bowl Mor machine, who caught it deftly and to general hilarity. A nice man. Always joking around. Laugh-and-the-whole-world-laughs-with-you type of thing.
I saw him sit down at a table close to the Bowl Mor and almost walked on. But I was thirsty. A beer would go down fine just about now, and The Lamplighter’s bar was all the way across a crowded room from the large table where Dunning was sitting with the all-male group he had joined. He wouldn’t see me, but I could keep an eye on him in the mirror. Not that I was apt to see anything too startling.
Besides, if I was going to be here for another six weeks, it was time to start belonging here. So I turned around and entered the sounds of cheerful voices, slightly inebriated laughter, and Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore.” Waitresses circulated with steins of beer and heaped platters of what had to be Fried Lobster Pickin’s. And there were rising rafters of blue smoke, of course.
In 1958, there’s always smoke.
“See you glancin at that table back there,” a voice said at my elbow. I had been at The Lamplighter long enough to have ordered my second beer and a “junior platter” of Lobster Pickin’s. I figured if I didn’t at least try them, I’d always wonder.
I looked around and saw a small man with slicked-back hair, a round face, and lively black eyes. He looked like a cheerful chipmunk. He grinned at me and stuck out a child-sized hand. On his forearm, a bare-breasted mermaid flapped her flippy tail and winked one eye. “Charles Frati. But you can call me Chaz. Everyone does.”
I shook. “George Amberson, but you can call me George. Everyone does that, too.”
He laughed. So did I. It’s considered bad form to laugh at your own jokes (especially when they’re teensy ones), but some people are so engaging they never have to laugh alone. Chaz Frati was one of those. The waitress brought him a beer, and he raised it. “Here’s to you, George.”
“I’ll drink to that,” I said, and clicked the rim of my glass against his.
“Anybody you know?” he asked, looking at the big rear table in the backbar mirror.
“Nope.” I wiped foam from my upper lip. “They just seem to be having more fun than anybody else in the place, that’s all.”
Chaz smiled. “That’s Tony Tracker’s table. Might as well have his name engraved on it. Tony and his brother Phil own a freight-hauling company. They also own more acres in this town — and the towns around it — than Carter has liver pills. Phil don’t show up here much, he’s mostly on the road, but Tony don’t miss many Friday or Saturday nights. Has lots of friends, too. They always have a good time, but nobody makes a party go like Frankie Dunning. He’s the guy tellin jokes. Everybody likes old Tones, but they love Frankie.”
“You sound like you know them all.”
“For years. Know most of the people in Derry, but I don’t know you.”
“That’s because I just got here. I’m in real estate.”
“Business real estate, I take it.”
“You take it right.” The waitress deposited my Lobster Pickin’s and hustled away. The heap on the platter looked like roadkill, but it smelled terrific and tasted better. Probably a billion grams of cholesterol in every bite, but in 1958, nobody worries about that, which is restful. “Help me with this,” I said.
“Nope, they’re all yours. You out of Boston? New York?”
I shrugged and he laughed.
“Playin it cagey, huh? Don’t blame you, cuz. Loose lips sink ships. But I have a pretty good idea what you’re up to.”
I paused with a forkful of Lobster Pickin’s halfway to my mouth. It was warm in The Lamplighter, but I felt suddenly chilly. “Is that so?”
He leaned close. I could smell Vitalis on his slicked-back hair and Sen-Sen on his breath. “If I said ‘possible mall site,’ would that be a bingo?”
I felt a gust of relief. The idea that I was in Derry looking for a place to put a shopping mall had never crossed my mind, but it was a good one. I dropped Chaz Frati a wink. “Can’t say.”
“No, no, course you couldn’t. Business is as business does, I always say. We’ll drop the subject. But if you’d ever consider letting one of the local yokels in on a good thing, I’d love to listen. And just to show you that my heart is in the right place, I’ll give you a little tip. If you haven’t checked out the old Kitchener Ironworks yet, you ought to. Perfect spot. And malls? Do you know what malls are, my son?”
“The wave of the future,” I said.
He pointed a finger at me like a gun and winked. I laughed again, just couldn’t help it. Part of it was the simple relief of finding out that not every grown-up in Derry had forgotten how to be friendly to a stranger. “Hole in one.”
“And who owns the land the old Kitchener Ironworks sits on, Chaz? The Tracker brothers, I suppose?”
“I said they own most of the land around here, not all of it.” He looked down at the mermaid. “Milly, should I tell George who owns that prime business-zoned real estate only two miles from the center of this metropolis?”
Milly wagged her scaly tail and jiggled her teacup breasts. Chaz Frati didn’t clench his hand into a fist to make this happen; the muscles in his forearm seemed to move on their own. It was a good trick. I wondered if he also pulled rabbits out of hats.
“All right, dear.” He looked up at me again. “Actually, that would be yours truly. I buy the best and let the Tracker brothers have the rest. Business is as business does. May I give you my card, George?”
He did. The card simply said CHARLES “CHAZ” FRATI BUY SELL TRADE. I tucked it into my shirt pocket.
“If you know all those people and they know you, why aren’t you over there instead of sitting at the bar with the new kid on the block?” I asked.
He looked surprised, then amused all over again. “Was you born in a trunk and then threw off a train, cuz?”
“Just new in town. Haven’t learned the ropes. Don’t hold it against me.”
“Never would. They do business with me because I own half this town’s motor courts, both downtown movie theaters and the drive-in, one of the banks, and all of the pawnshops in eastern and central Maine. But they don’t eat with me or drink with me or invite me into their homes or their country club because I’m a member of the Tribe.”
“You lost me.”
“I’m a Jew, cuz.”
He saw my expression and grinned. “You didn’t know. Even when I wouldn’t eat any of your lobster, you didn’t know. I’m touched.”
“I’m just trying to figure out why it should make a difference,” I said.
He laughed as though this were the best joke he’d heard all year. “Then you was born under a cabbage leaf instead of in a trunk.”
In the mirror, Frank Dunning was talking. Tony Tracker and his friends were listening with big grins on their faces. When they exploded into bull roars of laughter, I wondered if it had been the one about the three jigs stuck in the elevator or maybe something even more amusing and satiric — three Yids on a golf course, maybe.
Chaz saw me looking. “Frank knows how to make a party go, all right. You know where he works? No, you’re new in town, I forgot. Center Street Market. He’s the head butcher. Also half-owner, although he don’t advertise it. You know what? He’s half the reason that place stands up and makes a profit. Draws the ladies like bees to honey.”
“Does he, now?”
“Yep, and the men like him, too. That’s not always the case. Fellas don’t always like a ladies’ man.”
That made me think of my ex-wife’s fierce Johnny Depp fixation.
“But it’s not like the old days when he’d drink with em until closin, then play poker with em down at the freight depot until the crack of dawn. These days he’ll have one beer — maybe two — and then he’s out the door. You watch.”
It was a behavior pattern I knew about firsthand from Christy’s sporadic efforts to control her booze intake rather than stop altogether. It would work for awhile, but sooner or later she always went off the deep end.
“Drinking problem?” I asked.
“Don’t know about that, but he’s sure got a temper problem.” He looked down at the tattoo on his forearm. “Milly, you ever notice how many funny fellas have got a mean streak?”
Milly flipped her tail. Chaz looked at me solemnly. “See? The women always know.” He snuck a Lobster Pickin’ and shot his eyes comically from side to side. He was a very amusing fellow, and it never crossed my mind that he was anything other than what he claimed to be. But, as Chaz himself had implied, I was a bit on the naïve side. Certainly for Derry. “Don’t tell Rabbi Snoresalot.”
“Your secret’s safe with me.”
By the way the men at the Tracker table were leaning toward Frank, he had launched into another joke. He was the kind of man who talked a lot with his hands. They were big hands. It was easy to imagine one of them holding the haft of a Craftsman hammer.
“He ripped and roared something terrible back in high school,” Chaz said. “You’re looking at a guy who knows, because I went to the old County Consolidated with him. But I mostly kept out of his way. Suspensions left and right. Always for fighting. He was supposed to go to the University of Maine, but he got a girl pregnant and ended up getting married instead. After a year or two of it, she collected the baby and scrammed. Probably a smart idea, the way he was then. Frankie was the kind of guy, fighting the Germans or the Japs probably would have been good for im — get all that mad out, you know. But he came up 4-F. I never heard why. Flat feet? Heart murmur? The high blood? No way of telling. But you probably don’t want to hear all this old gossip.”
“I do,” I said. “It’s interesting.” It sure was. I’d come into The Lamplighter to wet my whistle and had stumbled into a gold mine instead. “Have another Lobster Pickin’.”
“Twist my arm,” he said, and popped one into his mouth. He jerked a thumb at the mirror as he chewed. “And why shouldn’t I? Just look at those guys back there — half of em Catholics and still chowing up on burgers n BLTs n sausage subs. On Friday! Who can make sense of religion, cuz?”
“You got me,” I said. “I’m a lapsed Methodist. Guess Mr. Dunning never got that college education, huh?”
“Nope, by the time his first wife done her midnight flit, he was gettin a graduate degree in cuttin meat, and he was good at it. Got into some more trouble — and yeah, drinkin was somewhat involved from what I heard, people gossip terrible, y’know, and a man who owns pawnshops hears it all — so Mr. Vollander, him who owned the market back in those days, he sat down and had a Dutch uncle talk with ole Frankie.” Chaz shook his head and picked another Pickin’. “If Benny Vollander had ever known Frankie Dunning was gonna own half the place by the time that Korea shit was over, he probably would have had a brain hemorrhage. Good thing we can’t see the future, isn’t it?”
“That would complicate things, all right.”
Chaz was warming to his story, and when I told the waitress to bring another couple of beers, he didn’t tell her no.
“Benny Vollander said Frankie was the best ’prentice butcher he’d ever had, but if he got in any more trouble with the cops — fightin if anyone farted sideways, in other words — he’d have to let him go. A word to the wise is sufficient, they say, and Frankie straightened up. Divorced that first wife of his on grounds of desertion after she was gone a year or two, then remarried not long after. The war was goin full steam by then and he could have had his pick of the ladies — he has that charm, you know, and most of the competition was overseas, anyway — but he settled on Doris McKinney. Lovely girl she was.”
“And still is, I’m sure.”
“Absolutely, cuz. Pretty as a picture. They’ve got three or four kids. Nice family.” Chaz leaned close again. “But Frankie still loses his temper now and then, and he must have lost it at her last spring, because she turned up at church with bruises on her face and a week later he was out the door. He’s living in a rooming house as close as he could get to the old homestead. Hopin she’ll take him back, I imagine. And sooner or later, she will. He’s got that charming way of — whoops, lookie there, what’d I tell you? He’s a gone cat.”
Dunning was getting up. The other men were bellowing for him to sit back down, but he was shaking his head and pointing to his watch. He tipped the last swallow of his beer down his throat, then bent and kissed one man’s bald head. This brought a room-shaking roar of approval and Dunning surfed on it toward the door.
He slapped Chaz on the back as he went by and said, “Keep that nose clean, Chazzy — it’s too long to get dirty.”
Then he was gone. Chaz looked at me. He was giving me the cheerful chipmunk grin, but his eyes weren’t smiling. “Ain’t he a card?”
“Sure,” I said.
I’m one of those people who doesn’t really know what he thinks until he writes it down, so I spent most of that weekend making notes about what I’d seen in Derry, what I’d done, and what I planned to do. They expanded into an explanation of how I’d gotten to Derry in the first place, and by Sunday I realized that I’d started a job that was too big for a pocket notebook and ballpoint pen. On Monday I went out and bought a portable typewriter. My intention had been to go to the local business supply store, but then I saw Chaz Frati’s card on the kitchen table, and went there instead. It was on East Side Drive, a pawnshop almost as big as a department store. The three gold balls were over the door, as was traditional, but there was something else, as well: a plaster mermaid flapping her flippy tail and winking one eye. This one, being out in public, was wearing a bra top. Frati himself was not in evidence, but I got a terrific Smith-Corona for twelve dollars. I told the clerk to tell Mr. Frati that George the real estate guy had been in.
“Happy to do it, sir. Would you like to leave your card?”
Shit. I’d have to have some of those printed. . which meant a visit to Derry Business Supply after all. “Left them in my other suit coat,” I said, “but I think he’ll remember me. We had a drink at The Lamplighter.”
That afternoon I began expanding my notes.
I got used to the planes coming in for a landing directly over my head. I arranged for newspaper and milk delivery: thick glass bottles brought right to your doorstep. Like the root beer Frank Anicetti had served me on my first jaunt into 1958, the milk tasted incredibly full and rich. The cream was even better. I didn’t know if artificial creamers had been invented yet, and had no intention of finding out. Not with this stuff around.
The days slipped by. I read Al Templeton’s notes on Oswald until I could have quoted long passages by heart. I visited the library and read about the murders and the disappearances that had plagued Derry in 1957 and 1958. I looked for stories about Frank Dunning and his famous bad temper, but found none; if he had ever been arrested, the story hadn’t made it into the newspaper’s Police Beat column, which was good-sized on most days and usually expanded to a full page on Mondays, when it contained a full summary of the weekend’s didoes (most of which happened after the bars closed). The only story I found about the janitor’s father concerned a 1955 charity drive. The Center Street Market had contributed ten percent of their profits that fall to the Red Cross, to help out after hurricanes Connie and Diane slammed into the East Coast, killing two hundred and causing extensive flood damage in New England. There was a picture of Harry’s father handing an oversized check to the regional head of the Red Cross. Dunning was flashing that movie-star smile.
I made no more shopping trips to the Center Street Market, but on two weekends — the last in September and the first in October — I followed Derry’s favorite butcher after he finished his half-day Saturday stint behind the meat counter. I rented nondescript Hertz Chevrolets from the airport for this chore. The Sunliner, I felt, was a little too conspicuous for shadowing.
On the first Saturday afternoon, he went to a Brewer flea market in a Pontiac he kept in a downtown pay-by-the-month garage and rarely used during the workweek. On the following Sunday, he drove to his house on Kossuth Street, collected his kids, and took them to a Disney double feature at the Aladdin. Even at a distance, Troy, the eldest, looked bored out of his mind both going into the theater and coming out.
Dunning didn’t enter the house for either the pickup or the drop-off. He honked for the kids when he arrived and let them off at the curb when they came back, watching until all four were inside. He didn’t drive off immediately even then, only sat behind the wheel of the idling Bonneville, smoking a cigarette. Maybe hoping the lovely Doris might want to come out and talk. When he was sure she wouldn’t, he used a neighbor’s driveway to turn around in and sped off, squealing his tires hard enough to send up little splurts of blue smoke.
I slumped in the seat of my rental, but I needn’t have bothered. He never looked in my direction as he passed, and when he was a good distance down Witcham Street, I followed along after. He returned his car to the garage where he kept it, went to The Lamplighter for a single beer at the nearly deserted bar, then trudged back to Edna Price’s rooms on Charity Avenue with his head down.
The following Saturday, October fourth, he collected his kids and took them to the football game at the University of Maine in Orono, some thirty miles away. I parked on Stillwater Avenue and waited for the game to be over. On the way back they stopped at the Ninety-Fiver for dinner. I parked at the far end of the parking lot and waited for them to come out, reflecting that the life of a private eye must be a boring one, no matter what the movies would have us believe.
When Dunning delivered his children back home, dusk was creeping over Kossuth Street. Troy had clearly enjoyed football more than the adventures of Cinderella; he exited his father’s Pontiac grinning and waving a Black Bears pennant. Tugga and Harry also had pennants and also seemed energized. Ellen, not so much. She was fast asleep. Dunning carried her to the door of the house in his arms. This time Mrs. Dunning made a brief appearance — just long enough to take the little girl into her own arms.
Dunning said something to Doris. Her reply didn’t seem to please him. The distance was too great to read his expression, but he was wagging a finger at her as he spoke. She listened, shook her head, turned, and went inside. He stood there a moment or two, then took off his hat and slapped it against his leg.
All interesting — and instructive of the relationship — but no help otherwise. Not what I was looking for.
I got that the following day. I had decided to make only two reconnaissance passes that Sunday, feeling that, even in a dark brown rental unit that almost faded into the landscape, more would be risking notice. I saw nothing on the first one and figured he was probably in for the day, and why not? The weather had turned gray and drizzly. He was probably watching sports on TV with the rest of the boarders, all of them smoking up a storm in the parlor.
But I was wrong. Just as I turned onto Witcham for my second pass, I saw him walking toward downtown, today dressed in blue jeans, a windbreaker, and a wide-brimmed waterproof hat. I drove past him and parked on Main Street about a block up from the garage he used. Twenty minutes later I was following him out of town to the west. Traffic was light, and I kept well back.
His destination turned out to be Longview Cemetery, two miles past the Derry Drive-In. He stopped at a flower stand across from it, and as I drove by, I saw him buying two baskets of fall flowers from an old lady who held a big black umbrella over both of them during the transaction. I watched in my rearview mirror as he put the flowers on the passenger seat of his car, got back in, and drove up the cemetery’s access road.
I turned around and drove back to Longview. This was taking a risk, but I had to chance it, because this looked good. The parking lot was empty except for two pickups loaded with groundkeeping equipment under tarps and a dinged-up old payloader that looked like war surplus. No sign of Dunning’s Pontiac. I drove across the lot toward the gravel lane leading into the cemetery itself, which was huge, sprawling over as many as a dozen hilly acres.
In the cemetery proper, smaller lanes split off from the main one. Groundfog was rising up from the dips and valleys, and the drizzle was thickening into rain. Not a good day for visiting the dear departed, all in all, and Dunning had the place to himself. His Pontiac, parked halfway up a hill on one of the feeder lanes, was easy to spot. He was placing the flower baskets before two side-by-side graves. His parents’, I assumed, but I didn’t really care. I turned my car around and left him to it.
By the time I got back to my Harris Avenue apartment, that fall’s first hard rain was pounding the city. Downtown, the canal would be roaring, and the peculiar thrumming that came up through the concrete in the Low Town would be more noticeable than ever. Indian summer seemed to be over. I didn’t care about that, either. I opened my notebook, flipped almost to the end before I found a blank page, and wrote October 5 th, 3:45 PM, Dunning to Longview Cem, puts flowers on parents’ (?) graves. Rain.
I had what I wanted.