A Face in the CrowdStephen King
A Face in the Crowd
The writing team that delivered the bestselling Faithful, about the 2004 Red Sox championship season, takes readers to the ballpark again, and to a world beyond, in an eBook original to be published on August 21, 2012.
Dean Evers, an elderly widower, sits in front of the television with nothing better to do than waste his leftover evenings watching baseball. It’s Rays/Mariners, and David Price is breezing through the line-up. Suddenly, in a seat a few rows up beyond the batter, Evers sees the face of someone from decades past, someone who shouldn’t be at the ballgame, shouldn’t be on the planet. And so begins a parade of people from Evers’s past, all of them occupying that seat behind home plate. Until one day Dean Evers sees someone even eerier…
Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan
A FACE IN THE CROWD
The summer after his wife died, Dean Evers started watching a lot of baseball. Like so many snowbirds from New England, he was a Red Sox fan who’d fled the nor’easters for the Gulf Coast of Florida and magnanimously adopted the Devil Rays, then perennial punching bags, as his second team. While he’d coached Little League, he’d never been a big fan—never obsessed, the way his son Pat was—but, night after night, as the gaudy sunset colored the West, he found himself turning on the Rays game to fill his empty condo.
He knew it was just a way of passing time. He and Ellie had been married forty-six years, through the good and the bad, and now he had no one who remembered any of it. She was the one who’d lobbied him to move to St. Pete, and then, not five years after they packed up the house, she had her stroke. The terrible thing was that she was in great shape. They’d just played a bracing set of tennis at the club. She’d beat him again, meaning he bought the drinks. They were sitting under an umbrella, sipping chilled gin-and-tonics, when she winced and pressed a hand over one eye.
“Brain freeze?” he asked.
She didn’t move, sat there stuck, her other eye fixed, staring far beyond him.
“El,” he said, reaching to touch her bare shoulder. Later, though the doctor said it was impossible, he would remember her skin being cold.
She folded face first onto the table, scattering their glasses, bringing the waiters and the manager and the lifeguard from the pool, who gently laid her head on a folded towel and knelt beside her, monitoring her pulse until the EMTs arrived. She lost everything on her right side, but she was alive, that was what mattered, except, quickly, not a month after she finished her PT and came home from the rehab, she had a second, fatal stroke while he was giving her a shower, a scene which replayed in his mind so often that he decided he had to move to a new place, which brought him here, to a bayside high-rise where he knew no one, and anything that helped pass the time was welcome.
He ate while he watched the game. He made his own dinner now, having tired of eating alone in restaurants and ordering expensive takeout. He was still learning the basics. He could make pasta and grill a steak, cut up a red pepper to crown a bag salad. He had no finesse, and too often was discouraged at the results, taking little pleasure in them. Tonight was a pre seasoned pork chop he’d picked up at the Publix. Just stick it in a hot pan and go, except he could never tell when meat was done. He got the chop crackling, threw a salad together, and set a place at the coffee table, facing the TV. The fat at the bottom of the pan was beginning to char. He poked the meat with a finger, testing for squishiness, but couldn’t be sure. He took a knife and cut into it, revealing a pocket of blood. The pan was going to be hell to clean.
And then, when he finally sat down and took his first bite, the chop was tough. “Terrible,” he heckled himself. “Chef Ramsay you ain’t.”
The Rays were playing the Mariners, meaning the stands were empty. When the Sox or Yanks were in town, the Trop was packed, otherwise the place was deserted. In the bad old days it made sense, but now the club was a serious contender. As David Price breezed through the lineup, Evers noted with dismay several fans in the padded captain’s chairs behind the plate talking on their cell phones. Inevitably, one teenager began waving like a castaway, presumably to the person on the other end, watching at home.
“Look at me,” Evers said. “I’m on TV, therefore I exist.”
The kid waved for several pitches. He was right over the umpire’s shoulder, and when Price dropped in a backdoor curve, the replay zoomed on the Met Life strike zone, magnifying the kid’s idiotic grin as he waved in slow motion. Two rows behind him, sitting alone in his white sanitary smock with his thin, pomaded hair slicked back, solid and stoic as a tiki god, was Evers’s old dentist from Shrewsbury, Dr. Young.
Young Dr. Young, his mother had called him, because even when Evers was a child, he’d been old. He’d been a Marine in the Pacific, had come back from Tarawa missing part of a leg and all of his hope. He’d spent the rest of his life exacting his revenge not on the Japanese but on the children of Shrewsbury, finding soft spots in their enamel with the pitiless point of his stainless steel hook and plunging needles into their gums.
Evers stopped chewing and leaned forward to be sure. The greased-back hair and Mount Rushmore forehead, the Coke-bottle bifocals and thin lips that went white when he bore down with the drill—yes, it was him, and not a day older than when Evers had last seen him, over fifty years ago.
It couldn’t be. He’d be at least ninety. But the humidor that was Florida was full of men his age, many of them well preserved, near mummified beneath their guayaberas and tans.
No, Evers thought, he’d smoked. It was another thing Evers hated about him, the stale reek of his breath and his clothes as he loomed in close over him, trying to get leverage. The red pack fit the pocket of his smock—Lucky Strikes, filterless, the true coffin nails. L.S.M.F.T., that was the old slogan: Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco. Perhaps it was a younger brother, or a son. Even Younger Dr. Young.
Price blew a fastball by the batter to end the inning and a commercial intervened, hauling Evers back to the present. His pork chop was tough as a catcher’s mitt. He tossed it in the trash and grabbed a beer. The first cold gulp sobered him. There was no way that was his Dr. Young, with his shaky morning-after hands and more than a hint of gin under his cigarette breath. Nowadays they’d call his condition PTSD, but to a kid at the mercy of his instruments, it didn’t matter. Evers had despised him, had surely at some point wished him, if not dead, then gone.
When the Rays came to bat, the teenager was waving again, but the rows behind him were vacant. Evers kept an eye out, expecting Dr. Young to come back with a beer and a hot dog, yet as the innings passed and Price’s strikeouts mounted, the seat remained empty. Nearby, a woman in a sparkly top was now waving to the folks at home.
He wished Ellie were there to tell, or that he could call his mother and ask whatever happened to Young Dr. Young, but, as with so much of his daily existence, there was no one to share it with. More likely than not, the man was just another old guy with nothing better to do than waste his leftover evenings watching baseball, only at the park instead of at home.
Late that night, around three, Evers could easily see why of all the possible punishments prisoners feared solitary confinement the most. At some point a beating had to stop, but a thought could go on and on, feeding and then feeding on insomnia. Why Dr. Young, who he hadn’t thought of in years? Was it a sign? An omen? Or was he—as he feared he might when they told him Ellie had died—gradually losing his grip on this world?
To prove those doubts wrong, he spent the next day running errands around town, chatting with the clerk at the post office, and the woman at the circulation desk of the library—just small talk, but still, a connection, something to
build on. Like every summer, Pat and his family had taken off for the Cape and Sue’s folks’ place. Evers called their machine anyway and left a message. When they came back they should really get together. He’d love to take them all out to dinner somewhere, their choice, or maybe a ballgame.
That evening he prepared his dinner as if nothing had happened, though now he was very aware of the time, and ended up rushing his grilled chicken so he could catch the first pitch. The Rays were playing the Mariners again, and again attendance was sparse, the upper deck a sea of blue. Evers settled in to watch, ignoring where the pitch was, focusing instead on the third row just to the left of the umpire. As if to answer his question with a cosmic Bronx cheer, Raymond, the team’s mascot, a creature with blue fur not found anywhere in the natural world, flopped across the seats, shaking his fist behind Ichiro’s back.
“You’re going shack whacky,” Evers said. “That’s all.”
The Mariners’ ace, Felix Hernandez, was going for them, and King Felix was on. The game was fast. By the time Evers cracked his nightly beer, it was the sixth and the M’s were up by a couple. It was then, just as King Felix caught Ben Zobrist looking, that Evers saw, three rows deep, in the same pinstripe suit he was buried in, his old business partner Leonard Wheeler.
Leonard Wheeler—always Leonard, never Lennie—was eating a hot dog and washing it down with what ESPN’s Sports Center smartasses were pleased to call “an adult beverage.” For a moment, too startled for denial, Evers defaulted to the outrage the merest thought of Wheeler could call up from his gut even now. “You controlling son of a bitch!” he shouted, and dropped his own adult beverage, which he’d just been bringing to his lips. The can fell into the tray balanced on his lap and knocked it to the floor between his feet, where the chicken, instant mashed potatoes, and Birds Eye string beans (also of a color not found in the natural world) lay on the carpet in a foaming puddle of beer.
Evers didn’t notice, only stared at his new television, which was so state-of-the-art that he sometimes felt he could simply hoick up a leg, duck his head to keep from bumping the frame, and step right into the picture. It was Wheeler, all right: same gold-rimmed glasses, same jutting jaw and weirdly plump lips, same head of flamboyant snow-white hair that made him look like a soap opera star—the mature lead who plays either a saintly doctor or a tycoon cuckolded by his sleazy trophy wife. There was no mistaking the oversize flag pin in his lapel either. He’d always worn that damned thing like a jackleg congressman. Ellie once joked that Lennie (when it was just them, they always called him that) probably tucked it under his pillow before he went to sleep.
Then the denial rushed in, swarming over his initial shock the way white blood cells swarm into a fresh cut. Evers closed his eyes, counted to five, then popped them wide, sure he’d see someone who just looked like Wheeler, or—perhaps worse—no one at all.
The shot had changed. Instead of a new batter stepping in, the camera focused on the Mariners’ left fielder, who was doing a peculiar little dance.
“Never seen that one before,” one of the Rays’ announcers said. “What the heck is Wells up to, Dewayne?”
“Li’l crunk move, I ’spec,” Dewayne Staats vamped, and they both chuckled.
Enough with the sparkling repartee, Evers thought. He shuffled his feet and managed to step on his beer-soaked chicken breast. Go back to the damn home plate shot.
As if the producer in his gadget-loaded broadcast truck had heard him, the shot switched back, but only for a second. Luke Scott hit a bullet to the Mariners’ second baseman, and in the wink of an eye, the Trop was gone and Evers was left with the Aflac duck, who was plugging holes in a rowboat even as it plugged insurance.
Evers got halfway up before his knees gave way and he collapsed back into his chair. The cushion made a tired wooshing sound. He took a deep breath, let it out, and felt a little stronger. This time he made it to his feet and trundled into the kitchen. He got the carpet cleaner from under the sink and read the instructions. Ellie wouldn’t have needed to read them. Ellie would have simply made some half-irritated, half-amused comment (“You can dress him up, but you can’t take him out” was a favorite) and gone to work making the mess disappear.
“That was not Lennie Wheeler,” he told the empty living room as he came back. “No way it was.”
The duck was gone, replaced by a man and his wife smooching on a patio. Soon they would go upstairs and make Viagra-aided love, because this was the age of knowing how to get things done. Evers, who also knew how to get things done (he’d read the instructions on the can, after all), fell on his knees, returned his sopping dinner to the tray in a series of plops, then sprayed a small cloud of Resolve on the remaining crud, knowing there’d probably be a stain anyway.
“Lennie Wheeler is as dead as Jacob Marley. I went to his funeral.”
Indeed he had, and although his face had remained appropriately grave and regretful throughout, he’d enjoyed it. Laughter might be the best medicine, but Dean Evers believed outliving your enemies was the best revenge.
Evers and Wheeler had met in business school, and had started Speedy Truck Rental on a shoestring after Wheeler had found what he called “a gaping hole the size of the Sumner Tunnel” in the New England market. In those early days Evers hadn’t minded Wheeler’s overbearing manner, perfectly summed up by a plaque on the man’s office wall: WHEN I WANT MY OPINION, I’LL ASK YOU FOR IT. In those days, before Evers had begun to find his own way, he’d needed that kind of attitude. Wheeler, he sometimes thought, had been the steel in his spine. But young men grow up and develop their own ideas.
After twenty years Speedy had become the biggest independent truck rental outfit in New England, one of the few untainted by either organized crime or IRS problems. That was when Leonard Wheeler—never Lennie except when Evers and his wife were safely tucked into bed and giggling like a couple of kids—decided it was time to go national. Evers finally stood up on his hind legs and demurred. Not gently, as in previous disagreements, but firmly. Loudly, even. Everyone in the office had heard them, he had no doubt, even with the door closed.
The game came back on while he was waiting for the Resolve to set. Hellickson was still dealing for the Rays, and he was sharp. Not as sharp as Hernandez, though, and on any other night Evers would have been sending him brain-wave encouragement. Not tonight. Tonight he sat back on his heels at the base of his chair with his bony knees on either side of the stain he was trying to clean up, peering at the stands behind home plate.
There was Wheeler, still right there, now drinking a beer with one hand and holding a cell phone in the other. Just the sight of the phone filled Evers with outrage. Not because cell phones should be outlawed in ballparks like smoking, but because Wheeler had died of a heart attack long before such things were in general use. He had no right to it!
“Oh-oh, that’s a loo-oong drive!” Dewayne Staats was bellowing. “Justin Smoak smoked aaa-alll of that one!”
The camera followed the ball into the nearly deserted stands, and lingered to watch two boys fighting over it. One emerged victorious and waved it at the camera, pumping his hips in a singularly obscene manner as he did so.
“Fuck you!” Evers shouted. “You’re on TV, so what?”
He hardly ever used such language, but had he not said that very same thing to his partner during the argument over the expansion? Yes. Nor had it just been Fuck you. It had been Fuck you, Lennie.
“And what I did, you deserved it.” He was dismayed to discover he was on the verge of tears. “You wouldn’t take your foot off my neck, Leonard. I did what I had to do.”
Now the camera returned to where it belonged, which was showing Smoak doing his home run trot, and pointing at the sky—well, dome—as he crossed home plate to the apathetic applause of the two dozen or so Mariner fans in attendance.
Kyle Seager stood in. Behind him, in the third row, the seat where Wheeler had been was empty.
It wasn’t him, Evers thought, scrubbi
ng the stain (that barbecue sauce was simply not going to come up). It was just someone who looked like him.
That hadn’t worked very well with Young Doctor Young, and it didn’t work at all now.
Evers turned off the TV and decided he’d go to bed early.
Useless. Sleep didn’t come at ten or at midnight. At two o’clock he took one of Ellie’s Ambiens, hoping it wouldn’t kill him—it was eighteen months past the expiration date. It didn’t, but it didn’t put him to sleep either. He took another half a tablet and lay in bed thinking of a plaque he’d kept in his own office. It said GIVE ME A LEVER LONG ENOUGH, A FULCRUM STRONG ENOUGH, AND I’LL MOVE THE WORLD. Far less arrogant than Wheeler’s plaque, but perhaps more useful.
When Wheeler refused to let him out of the partnership agreement Evers had foolishly signed when he’d been young and humble, he’d needed that kind of lever to shift his partner. As it so happened, he had one. Leonard Wheeler had a taste for the occasional young boy. Oh, not young young, not jailbait, but college age. Wheeler’s personal assistant, Martha, had confided to Evers one rum-soaked night at a convention in Denver that Wheeler was partial to the lifeguard type. Later, sober and remorseful, she’d begged him never to say a word to anyone. Wheeler was a good boss, she said, hard but good, and his wife was a dream. The same was true of his son and daughter.
Evers kept mum, even keeping this nugget from Ellie. If she’d known he intended to use any such scurrilous information to break the partnership agreement, she would have been horrified. It’s surely not necessary to stoop to that, she would have said, and she would have believed it. El thought she understood the bind he was in, but she didn’t. The most important thing she didn’t understand was that it was their bind—hers and little Patrick’s as well as his own. If Speedy went nationwide now, they’d be crushed by the giants within a year. Two at the outside. Evers was dead certain of it, and had the numbers to back it up. All they’d worked for would be washed away, and he had no intention of drowning in the sea of Lennie Wheeler’s ambitions. It could not be allowed.