Old men ought to be explorers.
–T. S. Eliot
The Derry of the Old Crocks was not the only secret city existing quietly within the place Ralph Roberts had always thought of as home; as a boy growing up in Mary Mead, where the various Old Cape housing developments stood today, Ralph had discovered there was, in addition to the Derry that belonged to the grownups, one that belonged strictly to the children. There were the abandoned hobo jungles near the railroad depot on Neibolt Street, where one could sometimes find tomato soup cans half-full of mulligatawny stew and bottles with a swallow or two of beer left in them; there was the alley behind the Aladdin Theater, where Bull Durham cigarettes were smoked and Black Cat firecrackers sometimes set off; there was the big old elm which overhung the river, where scores of boys and girls had learned to dive; there were the hundred (or perhaps it was closer to two hundred) tangled trails winding through the Barrens, an overgrown valley which slashed through the center of town like a badly healed scar.
These secret streets and highways in hiding were all below the adults’ plane of vision and were consequently overlooked by them… although there had been exceptions. One of them had been a cop named Aloysius Nell-Mr. Nell to generations of Derry children walked up toward the picnic area near and it was only now, as he the place where Harris Avenue became the Harris Avenue Extension, that it occurred to Ralph that Chris Nell was probably old Mr. Nell’s son… except that couldn’t be quite right, because the cop Ralph had first seen in the company of John Leydecker wasn’t old enough to be old Mr. Nell’s son. Grandson, more like it.
Ralph had become aware of a second secret city-one that belonged to the old folks-around the time he retired, but he hadn’t fully realized that he himself was a citizen of it until after Carol’s death.
What he had discovered then was a submerged geography eerily similar to the one he had known as a child, a place largely ignored by the hurry-to-work, hurry-to-play world which thumped and hustled all around it. The Derry of the Old Crocks overlapped yet a third secret city: the Derry of the Damned, a terrible place inhabited mostly by winos, runaways, and lunatics who could not be keptlocked up.
It was in the picnic area that Lafayette Chapin ha Ralph to one of life’s most important considerations… once you’d become a bona ride Old Crock, that was. This consideration had to do with one’s “real life.” The subject had come up while the two men were just getting to know one another. Ralph had asked Faye what he had done before he started coming out to the picnic area.
“Well, in my real life I was a carpenter n fancy cabinetmaker,” Chapin had replied, exposing his remaining teeth in a wide grin, “but all that ended almost ten year ago.” As if, Ralph remembered thinking, retirement was something like a vampire’s kiss, pulling those ’ who survived it into the world of the undead. And when you got right down to cases, was that really so far off the mark?
Now, with McGovern safely behind him (at least he hoped so), Ralph stepped through the screen of mixed oak and maple which shielded the picnic area from the Extension. He saw that eight or nine people had drifted in since his earlier walk, most with bag lunches or Coffee Pot sandwiches. The Eberlys and Zells were play I ing hearts with the greasy deck of Top Hole cards which was kept stashed in a knothole of a nearby oak; Faye and Doc Mulhare, a retired vet, were playing chess; a couple of kibbitzers wandered back and forth between the two games.
Games were what the picnic area was about-what most of the places in the
Derry of the Old Crocks were about-but Ralph thought the games were really just framework. What people actually came here for was to touch base, to report in, to confirm (if only to themselves) that they were still living some kind of life, real or otherwise.
Ralph sat on an empty bench near the Cyclone fence and traced one finger absently over the engraved carvings-names, initials, lots Of FUCK You’s-as he watched planes land at orderly two-minute intervals: a Cessna, a Piper, an Apache, a Twin Bonanza, the elevenforty-five Air Express out of Boston. He kept one ear cocked to the ebb and flow of conversation behind him. May Locher’s name was mentioned more than once. She had been known by several of these people, and the general opinion seemed to be Mrs. Perrine’s-that God had finally shown mercy and ended her suffering. Most of the talk today, however, concerned the impending visit of Susan Day.
As a rule, Politics wasn’t much of a conversational draw with the Old Crocks, who preferred a good bowel-cancer or stroke any day, but even out here the abortion issue exercised its singular ability to engage, inflame, and divide.
“She picked a bad town to come to, and the hell of it is, I doubt she knows it,” Doc Mulhare said, watching the chessboard with glum concentration as Faye Chapin blitzkrieged his king’s remaining defenders. “Things have a way of happening here. Remember the fire at the Black Spot, Faye?”
Faye grunted and captured the Doc’s remaining bishop.
“What I don’t understand is these cootie-bugs,” Lisa Zell said, picking up the front section of the News from the picnic table and slapping the photograph of the hooded figures marching in front of WomanCare. “It’s like they want to go back to the days when women gave themselves abortions with coathangers.”
“That’s what they do want,” Georgina Eberly said. “They figure if a woman’s scared enough of dying, she’ll have the baby. It never seems to cross their minds that a woman can be more scared of having a kid than using a coathanger to get rid of it.”
“What does being afraid have to do with it?” one of the kibbitzers-a shovel-faced oldster named Pedersen-asked truculently.
“Murder is murder whether the baby’s inside or outside, that’s the way I look at it. Even when they’re so small you need a microscope to see em, it’s still murder. Because they’d be kids if you let em alone.
“I guess that just about makes you Adolf Eichmann every time you jerk off,” Faye said, and moved his queen. “Check.”
“La-fayette Cha-pin!” Lisa Zell cried.
“Playin with yourself ain’t the same at all, Pedersen said, glowering.
“Oh no? Wasn’t there some guy in the Bible got cursed by God for hammerin the old haddock?” the other kibbitzer asked.
“You’re probably thinking of Onan,” said a voice from behind Ralph. He turned, startled, and saw Old Dor standing there. In one hand he held a paperback with a large number 5 on the cover. Where the hell did you come from? Ralph wondered. He could almost have sworn there had been no one standing behind him a minute or so before.
“Onan, Shmonan,” Pedersen said. “Those sperms aren’t the same as a baby-”
“No?” Faye asked. “Then why ain’t the Catholic Church sellin rubbers at Bingo games? Tell me that.”
“That’s just ignorant,” Pedersen said. “And if you don’t see-”
“But it wasn’t masturbation Onan was punished for,” Dorrance said in his high, penetrating old man’s voice. “He was punished for refusing to impregnate his brother’s widow, so his brother’s line could continue. There’s a poem, by Allen Ginsberg, I think-”
“Shut up, you old fool!” Pedersen yelled, and then glowered at Faye Chapin. “And if you don’t see that there’s a big difference between a man beating his meat and a woman flushing the baby God put in her belly down the toilet, you’re as big a fool as he is.”
“This is a disgusting conversation,” Lisa Zell said, sounding more fascinated than disgusted. Ralph looked over her shoulder and saw a section of chainlink fencing had been torn loose from its post and bent backward, probably by the kids who took this place over at night. That solved one mystery, anyway. He hadn’t noticed Dorrance because the old man hadn’t been in the picnic area at all; he’d been wandering around the airport grounds.
It occurred to Ralph that this was his chance to grab Dorrance and maybe get some answers out of him… except that Ralph would likely end up more confused than ever. Old Dor was too much like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland-more smile than substance.
“Big difference, huh?” Faye was asking Pedersen.
“Yeah!” Red patches glowered in Pedersen’s chapped cheeks.
Doc Mulhare shifted uneasily on his seat.
“Look, let’s just forget it and finish the game, Faye, all right?”
Faye took no notice; his attention was still fixed on Pedersen.
“Maybe you ought to think again about all the little spermies that died in the palm of your hand every time you sat on the toilet seat thinking about how nice it’d be to have Marilyn Monroe cop your-” Pedersen reached out and slapped the remaining chess-pieces off the board. Doc Mulhare winced backward, mouth trembling, eyes wide and frightened behind pink-rimmed glasses which had been mended in two places with electrical tape.
“Yeah, good! “Faye shouted. “That’s a very reasonable fuckin argument, you geek! “Pedersen raised his fists in an exaggerated John
L. Sullivan pose.
“Want to do something about it?” he asked. “Come on, let’s go!”
Faye got slowly to his feet. He stood easily a foot taller than the shovel-faced Pedersen and outweighed him by at least sixty pounds.
Ralph could hardly believe what he was seeing. And if the poison had seeped this far, what about the rest of the city? It seemed to him that Doc Mulhare was right; Susan Day must not have the slightest idea of how bad an idea bringing her act to Derry really was. In some ways-in a lot of ways, actually-Derry wasn’t like other places.
He was moving before he was consciously aware of what he meant to do, and he was relieved to see Stan Eberly doing the same thing.
They exchanged a glance as they approached the two men standing nose to nose, and Stan nodded slightly. Ralph slipped an arm around Faye’s shoulders a bare second before Stan gripped Pedersen’s upper left arm.
“You ain’t doing none of that,” Stan said, speaking directly into one of Pedersen’s tufted ears. “We’ll end up taking the both of you over to Derry Home with heart-attacks, and you don’t need another one of those, Harley-you had two already. Or is it three?”
“I ain’t letting him make jokes about wimmin murderin babies!”
Pedersen said, and Ralph saw there were tears rolling down the man’s cheeks. “My wife died having our second daughter! Sepsis carried her off back in ’46! So I ain’t having that talk about murderin babies!
“Christ,” Faye said in a different voice. “I didn’t know that, Harley. I’m sorry-”
“Ah, fuck your sorry!” Pedersen cried, and ripped his arm out of Stan Eberly’s grip. He lunged toward Faye, who raised his fists and then lowered them again as Pedersen went blundering past without looking at him. He took the path through the trees which led back out to the Extension and was gone. What followed his departure was thirty seconds of pure shocked silence, broken only by the waspwhine of an incoming Piper Cub, 3
“Jesus,” Faye said at last. “You see a guy every few days over five, ten years, and you start to think you know everything. Christ, Ralphie, I didn’t know how his wife died. I feel like a fool.”
“Don’t let it get you down,” Stan said. “He’s prob’ly just having his monthlies.”
“Shut up,” Georgina said. “We’ve had enough dirty talk for one morning.”
“I’ll be glad when that Day woman comes n goes n things can get back to normal,” Fred Zell said.
Doc Mulhare was down on his hands and knees, collecting chesspieces. “Do you want to finish, Faye?” he asked. “I think I remember where they all were.”
“No,” Faye said. His voice, which had remained steady during the confrontation with Pedersen, now sounded trembly. “Think I’ve had enough for awhile. Maybe Ralph’ll give you a little tourney prelim.”
“Think I’m going to pass,” Ralph said. He was looking around for Dorrance, and at last spotted him. He had gone back through the hole in the fence. He was standing in knee-high grass at the edge of the service road over there, bending his book back and forth in his hands as he watched the Piper Cub taxi toward the Genera Aviation terminal.
Ralph found himself remembering how Ed had come tearing along that service road in his old brown Datsun, and how he had sworn
(Hurry up! Hurry up and lick shit.)
at the slowness of the gate. For the first time in over a year he found himself wondering what Ed had been doing in there to begin with. than you did.”
“Huh?” He made an effort and focused on Faye again.
“I said you must be sleepin again, because you look a hell of a lot better than you did. But now your hearin’s going to hell, I guess.”
“I guess so,” Ralph said, and tried a little smile. “Think I’ll go grab myself a little lunch. You want to come, Faye? My treat.”
“Nah, I already had a Coffee Pot,” Faye said. “It’s sittin in my gut like a piece of lead right now, to tell you the truth. Cheer, Ralph, the old fart was crying, did you see that?”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t make it into a big deal if I were you,” Ralph said. He started walking toward the Extension, and Faye ambled along beside him. With his broad shoulders slumped and his head lowered, Faye looked quite a lot like a trained bear in a man-suit.
“Guys our age cry over just about anything. You know that.”
“I spose.” He gave Ralph a grateful smile. “Anyway, thanks for stoppin me before I could make it worse. You know how I am, sometimes.”
I only wish someone had been there when Bill got zito ZI, Ralph thought. Out loud he said, “NO problem. It’s me t hat should be thanking you, actually. It’s something else to Put on my resume when I apply for that high-paying job at the U.N.”
Faye laughed, delighted, and clapped Ralph on the shoulder.
Yeah, Secretary-General! Peacemaker Number One! You could do it, Ralph, no shit!”
“No question about it. Take care of yourself, Faye.
He started to turn away and Faye touched his arm. “You’re still up for the tournament next week, aren’t you? The Runway 3 Classic?”
It took a moment for Ralph to figure out what he was talking about, although it had been the retired carpenter’s main topic of conversation ever since the leaves had begun to show color. Faye had been putting on the chess tournament he called The Runway 3 Classic ever since the end of his “real life” in 1984. The trophy was an oversized chrome hubcap with a fancy crown and scepter engraved on it. Faye, easily the best player among the Old Crocks on the west side of town, at least), had awarded the trophy to himself on six of the nine occasions it had been given out, and Ralph had a suspicion that he had gone in the tank the other three times, just to keep the rest of the tourney participants interested. Ralph hadn’t thought much about chess this fall; he’d had other things on his mind.
“Sure,” he said, “I guess I’ll be playing.”
Faye grinned. “Good. We should have had it last weekend-that was the schedule-but I was hopin that if I put it off, jimmy V. would be able to play. He’s still in the hospital, though, and if I put it off much longer it’ll be too cold to play outdoor and we’ll end up in the back of Dully Sprague’s barber shop, like we did in ’90.”
“What’s wrong with Jimmy V.?”
“Cancer come back on him again,” Faye said, then added in a lower tone: “I don’t think he’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of beating it this time.”
Ralph felt a sudden and surprisingly sharp pang of sorrow at this news. He and jimmy Vandermeer had known each other well during their own “real lives.” Both had been on the road back then, jimmy in candy and greeting cards, Ralph in printing supplies and paper products, and the two of them had gotten on well enough to team up on several New England tours, splitting the driving and sharing rather more luxurious accommodations than either could have afforded alone.
They had also shared the lonely, unremarkable secrets of travelling men. Jimmy told Ralph about the whore who’d stolen his wallet in 1958, and how he’d lied to his wife about it, telling her that a hitchhiker had robbed him. Ralph told jimmy about his realization, at the age of forty-three, that he had become a terpin hydrate junkie, and about his painful, ultimately successful struggle to kick the habit.
He had no more told Carolyn about his bizarre cough-syrup addiction than jimmy V. had told his wife about his last B-girl.
A lot of trips; a lot of changed tires; a lot of jokes about the travelling salesman and the farmer’s beautiful daughter; a lot of late night talks that had gone on till all hours of the morning.
Sometimes it was God they had talked about, sometimes the IRS.
All in all, jimmy Vandermeer had been a damned good pal. Then Ralph had gotten his desk-job with the printing company and fallen out of touch with jimmy. He’d only begun to reconnect out here, and at a few of the other dim landmarks which dotted the Derry of the Old Crocks-the library, the pool-hall, the back room of Dully Sprague’s barber shop, four or five others. When jimmy told him hortly after Carolyn’s death that he had come through a bout with cancer a lung shy but otherwise okay, what Ralph had remembered was the man talking baseball or fishing as he fed smoldering Camel stubs into the slipstream rushing by the wing-window of the car, one after another.
I got lucky was what he had said. Me and the Duke, we both got it neither of them had stayed lucky, it seemed. Not that
“Oh, man,” Ralph said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“He’s been in Derry Home almost three weeks now,” Faye said.
“Havin those radiation treatments and getting injects of poison that’s supposed to kill the cancer while it’s half-killing you. I’m surprised you didn’t know, Ralph.”
I suppose you are, but I’m not. The insomnia keeps swallowing stuff, you see. One day it’s the last Cup-A-Soup envelope you lose track of,next day it’s your sense of time,-the day after that it’s your old
???? Faye shook his head. “Fucking cancer. It’s spooky, how it waits.”
???? Ralph nodded, now thinking of Carolyn. “What room’s Jimmy in, do you
???? know? Maybe I’ll go visit him.”
“Just so happens I do. 315. Think you can remember it?” Ralph grinned. “For awhile, anyway.”
“Go see him if you can, sure-they got him pretty doped up, but he still knows who comes in, and I bet he’d love to see you. Him and you had a lot of high old times together, he told me once.”
“Well, you know,” Ralph said. “Couple of guys on the road, that’s all. If we flipped for the check in some diner, jimmy V. always called tails.” Suddenly he felt like crying.
“Lousy, isn’t it?” Faye said quietly. “Yes.”
“Well, you go see him. He’ll be glad, and you’ll feel better. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. And don’t you go and forget the damn chess tournament!” Faye finished, straightening up and making a heroic effort to look and sound cheerful. “If you step out now, you’ll fuck up the seedings.”
“I’ll do my best.”
lucky. Except anyone did, in the end.
“Yeah, I know you will.” He made a fist and punched Ralph’s upper arm lightly. “And thanks again for stopping me before I could do something I’d, you know, feel bad about later.”
“Sure. Peacemaker Number One, that’s me.” Ralph started down the path which led to the Extension, then turned back. “You see that service road over there? The one that goes from General Aviation out to the street?” He pointed. A catering truck was currently driving away from the private terminal, its windshield reflecting bright darts of sunlight into their eyes. The truck stopped just short of the gate, breaking the electric-eye beam. The gate began to trundle open.
“Sure I do,” Faye said.
“Last summer I saw Ed Deepneau using that road, which means he had a key-card to the gate. Any idea how he would have come by a thing like that?”
“You mean The Friends of Life guy? Lab scientist who did a little research in wife-beating last summer?”
Ralph nodded. “But it’s the summer of ’92 I’m talking about. He was driving an old brown Datsun.”
Faye laughed. “I wouldn’t know a Datsun from a Toyota from a Honda, Ralph-I stopped being able to tell cars apart around the time Chevrolet gave up the gullwing tailfins. But I can tell you who mostly uses that road: caterers, mechanics, pilots, crew, and flightcontrollers. Some passengers have key-cards, I think, if they fly private a lot. The only scientists over there are the ones who work at the air-testing station. Is that the kind of scientist he is?”
“Nope, a chemist. He worked at Hawking Labs until just a little while ago.”
“Played with the white rats, did he? Well there aren’t any rats over at the airport-that I know of, anyway-but now that I think of it, there is one other bunch of people who use that gate.”
Faye pointed at a prefab building with a corrugated-tin roof standing about seventy yards from the General Aviation terminal. “See that building? That’s SoloTech.”
“A school,” Faye said. “They teach people to fly.”
Ralph walked back down Harris Avenue With his big hands stuffed into his pockets and his head lowered so he did not see much more than the cracks in the sidewalk passing beneath his sneakers. His mind was fixed on Ed Deepneau again… and on SoloTech. He had no way of knowing if SoloTech was the reason Ed had been out at the airport on the day he had run into Mr. West Side Gardeners, but all of a sudden that was a question to which Ralph very much wanted an answer. He was also curious as to just where Ed was living these days. He wondered if John Leydecker might share his curiosity on these two points, and decided to find out.
He was passing the unpretentious double storefront which housed George Lyford, C.P.A on one side and Maritime jewelry (WE BUY YOUR OLD GOLD AT TOP PRICES on the other, when he was pulled out of his thoughts by a short, strangled bark. He looked up and saw Rosalie sitting on the sidewalk just outside the upper entrance to Strawford Park. The old dog was panting rapidly; saliva drizzled off her lolling tongue, building up a dark puddle on the concrete between her paws.
Her fur was stuck together in dark clumps, as if she had been running, and the faded blue bandanna around her neck seemed to shiver with her rapid respiration. As Ralph looked at her, she gave another bark, this one closer to a yelp.
He glanced across the street to see what she was barking at and saw nothing but the Burry-Burry Laundromat. There were a few women moving around inside, but Ralph found it impossible to believe Rosalie was barking at them. No one at all was currently passing on the sidewalk in front of the coin-op laundry.
Ralph looked back and suddenly realized that Rosalie wasn’t just sitting on the sidewalk but crouching there… cowering there. She looked scared almost to death.
Until that moment, Ralph had never thought much about how eerily human the expressions and body language of dogs were: they grinned when they were happy, hung their heads when they were ashamed registered anxiety in their eyes and tension in the set of their shoulders-all things that people did. And, like people, they registered abject, total fear in every quivering line of the body.
He looked across the street again, at the spot where Rosalie’s attention seemed focused, and once again saw nothing but the laundry and the empty sidewalk in front of it. Then, suddenly, he remembered Natalie, the Exalted amp; Revered Baby, snatching at the grayblue contrails his fingers left behind as he reached out with them to wipe the milk from her chin. To anyone else she would have looked as if she were grabbing at nothing, the way babies always appeared to be grabbing at nothing… but Ralph had known better.
He had seen better.
Rosalie uttered a string of panicky yelps that grated on Ralph’s ear like the sound of unoiled hinges.
So far it’s only happened on its own but maybe I can make it happen. Maybe I can make myself seeSee what?
Well, the auras. Them, of course. And maybe whatever Rosalie (three-six-nine lion) was looking at, as well. Ralph already had a pretty good idea (the goose drank wine) of what it was, but he wanted to be sure. The question was how to do it.
How does a person see in the first place?
By looking, of course.
Ralph looked at Rosalie. Looked at her carefully, trying to see everything there was to see: the faded pattern on the blue bandanna which served as her collar, the dusty clumps and tangles in her uncared-for coat, the sprinkle of gray around her long muzzle, After a few moments of this she seemed to feel his gaze, for she turned, looked at him, and whined uneasily.
As she did, Ralph felt something turn over in his mind-it felt like the starter-motor of a car. There was a brief but very clear sense of being suddenly lighter, and then brightness flooded into the day.
He had found his way back into that more vivid, more deeply textured world. He saw a murky membrane-it made him think of spoiled eggwhite-swim into existence around Rosalie, and saw a dark gray balloon-string rising from her. Its point of origin wasn’t the skull, however, as had been the case in all the people Ralph had seen while in this heightened state of awareness; Rosalie’s balloon string rose from her muzzle.
Now you know the most essential difference between dogs and me, he thought. Their souls reside in different places.
“Doggy. Here, doggy, c’mere.”
Ralph winced and drew back from that voice, which was like chalk squeaking on a blackboard. The heels of his palms rose most of the way to his ears before he realized that wouldn’t help; he wasn’t really hearing it with his ears, and the part that the voice hurt the worst was deep inside his head, where his hands couldn’t reach.
[Hey, you fucking flea suitcase! You think I’ve got all day? Get your raggedy ass over here.”
Rosalie whined and switched her gaze from Ralph back toward whatever she had been looking at before. She started to get up, then shrank back down on her haunches again. The bandanna she wore was shaking harder than ever, and Ralph saw a dark crescent begill to spread around her left flank as her bladder let go.
He looked across the street and there was Doc #3, standing between the laundromat and the elderly apartment house next door, Doc #3 in his white smock (it was badly stained, Ralph noticed, as if he had been wearing it for a long time) and his midget-sized bluejeans.
He still had McGovern’s Panama on his head.
The hat now appeared to balance on the creature’s ears; it was so big for him that the top half of his head seemed submerged in it. He was grinning ferociously at the dog, and Ralph saw a double row of pointed white teeth-the teeth of a cannibal. In his left hand he was holding something which was either an old scalpel or a straight-razor.
Part of Ralph’s mind tried to convince him that it was blood he saw on the blade, but he was pretty sure it was just rust.
Doc #3 slipped the first two fingers of his right hand into the corners of his mouth and blew a piercing whistle that went through Ralph’s head like a drillbit. Down the sidewalk, Rosalie flinched backward and then voiced a brief howl.
[Get your fucking ass over, Rover Do it now.”
Rosalie got up, tail between her legs, and began to slink toward the street. She whined as she went, and her fear had worsened her limp to the point where she was barely able to stagger; her hindquarters threatened to slide out from under her at each reluctant, lurching step.
Ralph only realized that he had yelled when he saw the small blue cloud float up in front of his face. It was etched with gossamer silver lines that made it look like a snowflake.
The bald dwarf wheeled toward the sound of Ralph’s shout, instinctively raising the weapon he held as he did. His expression was one of snarling surprise. Rosalie had stopped with her front paws in looking at Ralph with wide, anxious brown eyes.
[What do you want, Shorts?] There was fury at being interrupted in that voice, fury at being challenged… but Ralph thought there were other emotions underneath. Fear? He wished he could believe it.
Perplexity and SLirprise seemed surer bets. Whatever this creature was, it wasn’t used to being seen by the likes of Ralph, let alone challenged.
[What’s the matter, Short-Time, cat got your tongue? Or have you already forgotten what you wanted?] [“I want you to leave that dog alone!”] Ralph heard himself in two different ways. He was fairly sure he was speaking aloud, but the sound of his actual voice was distant and tinny, like music drifting up from a pair of Walkman headphones which have been temporarily laid aside. Someone standing right beside him might have heard what he said, but Ralph knew the words would have sounded like a weak, out-of-breath gasptalk from a man who has just been gutpunched. Inside his head, however, he sounded as he hadn’t in years-young, strong, and confident.
Doc #3 must have heard it that second way, for he recoiled momentarily, again raising his weapon (Ralph was now almost certain it was a scalpel) for a moment, as if in self-defense. Then he seemed to regroup. He left the sidewalk and strode to the edge of Harris Avenue, standing on the leaf-drifted strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. He hitched at the waistband of his jeans, yanking it through the dirty smock, and stared grimly at Ralph for several moments. Then he raised the rusty scalpel in the air and made an unpleasantly suggestive sawing gesture with it.
[You can see me-big deal! Don’t poke your nose into what don’t concern you, Short-Time.” The mutt belongs to me!] The bald doc turned back to the cringing dog.
[I’m done fooling with you, Rover! Get over here! Right now.”
Rosalie gave Ralph a beseeching, despairing look and then began to cross the street.
I don’t mess in with long-time business, Old Dor had told him on the day he’d given him the book of Stephen Dobyns poems. I told you not to, either.
I Yes, he had, yes indeed, but Ralph had a feeling it was too late now. Even if it wasn’t, he had no intention of leaving Rosalie to the unpleasant little gnome standing in front of the coin-op laundry across the street. Not if he could help it, that was.
[“Rosalie.” Over here, girl! Heel!”] Rosalie gave a single bark and trotted over to where Ralph stood.
She placed herself behind his right leg and then sat down, panting and looking up at him. And here was another expression Ralph found he could read with ease: one part relief, two parts gratitude.
The face of Doc #3 was twisted into a grimace of hate so severe it was almost a cartoon.
[Better send her across, Shorts I’m warning you.”] [“No.
I’ll fuck you over, Shorts. I’ll fuck you over big-time. And I’ll fuck your friends over. Do you get me? Do you-] Ralph suddenly raised one hand to shoulder height with the palm turned inward toward the side of his head, as if he meant to administer a karate chop. He brought it down and watched, amazed, as a tight blue wedge of light flew off the tips of his fingers and sliced across the street like a thrown spear. Doc #3 ducked just in time, clapping one hand to McGovern’s Panama to keep it from flying off. The blue wedge skimmed two or three inches over that small, clutching hand and struck the front window of the Burry-Burry.
There it spread like some supernatural liquid, and for a moment the dusty glass became the brilliant, perfect blue of today’s sky. It faded after only a moment and Ralph could see the women inside the laundromat again, folding their clothes and loading their washers exactly as if nothing had happened.
The bald dwarf straightened, rolled his hands into fists, and shook them at Ralph. Then he snatched McGovern’s hat off his head, stuck the brim in his mouth, and tore a bite out of it. As he performed this bizarre equivalent of a child’s tantrum, the sun struck splinters of fire from the lobes of his small, neatly made ears. He spat out the chunk of splintery straw and then clapped the hat back on his head.
[That dog was mine, Shorts! I was gonna play with her. I guess maybe I’ll have to play with You instead, huh? You and your asshole friends.”
[“Get out of here.”)] [Cuntlicker! Fucked your mother and licked her cunt!] Ralph knew where he had heard that charming sentiment before: Ed
Deepneau, out at the airport, in the summer of ’92. It wasn’t the sort of thing you forgot, and all at once he was terrified.
What in God’s name had he stumbled into?
Ralph lifted his hand to the side of his head again, but something inside had changed. He could bring it down in that chopping gesture again, but he was almost Positive that this time no bright blue flying wedge would result.
The doc apparently didn’t know he was being threatened with an empty gun, however. He shrank back, raising the hand holding the scalpel in a shielding gesture. The grotesquely bitten hat slipped down over his eyes, and for a moment he looked like asta cmelodrama version of Jack the Ripper… one who might have been working out pathologic inadequacies caused by extreme shortness.
[Gonna get you for this, Shorts You wait. You]. just wait! No Short-Timer runs the game on me.
But for the time being, the little bald doctor had had enough. He wheeled around and ran into the weedy lane between the laundromat and the apartment house with his dirty, too-long smock flapping and snapping at the legs of his jeans. The brightness slipped out of the day with him. Ralph marked its passage to a large extent with senses he had never before even suspected. He felt totally awake, totally energized, and almost exploding with delighted excitement.
I drove it off, by God! I drove the little sonofawhore off! He had no idea what the creature in the white smock really was, but he knew he had saved Rosalie from it, and for now that was enough.
Nagging questions about his sanity might creep back in tomorrow morning, as he sat in the wing-chair looking down at the deserted street below… but for the time being, he felt like a million bucks.
“You saw him, didn’t you, Rosalie? You saw the nasty little-” He looked down, saw that Rosalie was no longer sitting by his heel, and looked up in time to see her limping into the park, head down, right leg slueing stiffly off to the side with every pained stride.
“Rosalie!” he shouted. “Hey, girl!” And, without really knowing why-except that they had just gone through something extraordinary together-Ralph started after her, first just jogging, then running, finally sprinting all out.
He didn’t sprint for long. A stitch that felt like a hot chrome needle buried itself in his left side, then spread rapidly across the left half of his chest wall. He stopped just inside the park, standing bent over at the intersection of two paths, hands clamped on his legs just above the knees. Sweat ran into his eyes and stung like tears.
He panted harshly, wondering if it was just the ordinary sort of stitch he remembered from the last lap of the mile run in highschool track, or if this was how the onset of a fatal heart-attack felt.
After thirty or forty seconds the pain began to abate, so maybe it had just been a stitch, after all. Still, it went a good piece toward supporting McGovern’s thesis, didn’t it? Let me tell you something, Ralph-at our age, mental illness is common.” At our age it’s common as hell.” Ralph didn’t know if that was true or not, but he did know that the year he had made All-State Track was now more than half a century in the past, and sprinting after Rosalie the way he’d done was stupid and probably dangerous. If his heart had seized up, he supposed he wouldn’t have been the first old guy to be punished with a coronary thrombosis for getting excited and forgetting that when eighteen went, it went forever.
The pain was almost gone and he was getting his wind back, but his legs still felt untrustworthy, as if they might unlock at the knees and spill him onto the gravel path without the slightest warning.
Ralph lifted his head, looking for the nearest park bench, and saw something that made him forget stray dogs, shaky legs, even possible heart-attacks. The nearest bench was forty feet farther along the left hand path, at the top of a gentle, sloping hill. Lois Chasse was sitting on that bench in her good blue fall coat. Her gloved hands were folded together in her lap, and she was sobbing as if her heart would break.