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Herman Wouk Is Still Alive

Stephen King

  Herman Wouk Is Still Alive

  Stephen King

  New fiction 6,500-word story from Stephen King.

  Brenda should be happy. The kids are quiet, the road stretches ahead of her like an airport runway, she's behind the wheel of a brand-new van. The speedometer reads 70. Nonetheless, that grayness has begun to creep over her again. The van isn't hers, after all. She'll have to give it back. A foolish expense, really, because what's at the far end of this trip, up in Mars Hill? She looks at her old friend. Jasmine is looking back at her. The van, now doing almost a hundred miles an hour, begins to drift. Jasmine gives a small nod. Brenda nods back. Then she pushes down harder with her foot, trying to find the van's carpeted floor.


  by Stephen King


  Instead of going out for a bottle of Orange Driver to celebrate with, she pays off the MasterCard, which has been maxed like forever. Then calls Hertz and asks a question. Then calls her friend Jasmine, who lives in North Berwick, and tells her about the Pick-4. Jasmine screams and says, “Girl, you’re rich!”

  If only. Brenda explains how she paid off the credit card so she can rent a Chevy Express if she wants to. It’s a van that seats nine, that’s what the Hertz girl told her. “We could get all the kids in there and drive up to Mars Hill. See your folks and mine. Show off the grandchildren. Squeeze ’em for a little more dough. What do you think?”

  Jasmine is dubious. The glorified shack her folks call home doesn’t have room, and she wouldn’t want to stay with them even if it did. She hates those two. With good reason, Brenda knows; her own father broke Jasmine in at fifteen. Her mother knew what was going on and did nothing. When Jasmine went to her in tears, her ma said, “You got nothing to worry about, he’s had his nuts cut.”

  Jas married Mitch Robicheau to get away from them, and now, three men, four kids, and eight years later, she’s on her own. And on welfare, although she gets sixteen hours a week at the Roll Around, handing out skates and making change for the video arcade, where the machines take only special tokens. They let her bring her two youngest. Delight sleeps in the office and Truth, her three-year-old, wanders around in the arcade hitching at his diapers. He doesn’t get into too much trouble, although last year he got head lice and the two women had to shave all his hair off. How he howled.

  “There’s six hundred left over after I paid off the credit balance,” Brenda says. “Well, four hundred if you count the rental, only I don’t, because I can put that on MasterCard. We could stay at the Red Roof, watch Home Box. It’s free. We can get takeout from downstreet and the kids can swim in the pool. What do you say?”

  From behind her comes yelling. Brenda raises her voice and screams, “Freddy, you stop teasing your sister and give that back!” Then, oh goody, their squabbling wakes up the baby. Either that or Freedom has messed in her diapers and awakened herself. Freedom always messes in her diapers. To Brenda it seems like Free is making poop her life’s work. Takes after her father that way.

  “I suppose …” Jasmine says, drawing suppose out to four syllables. Maybe five.

  “Come on, girl! Road trip! Get with the program! We take the bus down to the Jetport and rent the van. Three hundred miles, we can be there in four hours. The girl says they can watch DVDs.The Little Mermaid and all that good stuff.”

  “Maybe I could get some of that government money from my ma before it’s all gone,” Jasmine says thoughtfully. Her brother Tommy died the year before, in Afghanistan. IED. Her ma and dad got eighty thousand out of it. Her ma has promised her some, although not when the old man is in hearing distance of the phone. Of course it may be gone already. Probably is. She knows Mr. Romance bought a Yamaha rice rocket, although what he wants with a thing like that at his age, Jasmine has no idea. And she knows things like government money are mostly a mirage. This is something they both know. Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never colorfast.

  “Come on,” Brenda says. She has fallen in love with the idea of loading up the van with kids and her best (her only) friend from high school, who ended up living just one town over. Both of them on their own, seven kids between them, too many lousy men in the rearview, but sometimes they still have a little fun.

  She hears a thunk sound. Freddy starts to scream. Glory has whopped him in the eye with an action figure.

  “Glory you stop that or I’ll tear you a new one!” Brenda screams.

  “He won’t give back my Powerpuff!” Glory shrieks, and she starts to cry. Now they’re all crying—Freddy, Glory, and Freedom—and for a moment grayness creeps over Brenda’s vision. She’s seen a lot of that grayness lately. Here they are in a three-room third-floor apartment, no guy in the picture (Tim, the latest in her life, took off six months ago), living pretty much on noodles and Pepsi and that cheap ice cream they sell at Walmart, no air-conditioning, no cable TV, she had a job at the Quik-Flash store but the company went busted and now the store’s an On the Run and the manager hired some Taco Paco to do her job because Taco Paco can work twelve or fourteen hours a day. Taco Paco wears a do-rag on his head and a nasty little mustache on his upper lip and he’s never been pregnant. Taco Paco’s job is to get girls pregnant. They fall for that little mustache and then boom, the line in the little drugstore testing gadget turns blue and here comes another one, just like the other one.

  Brenda has personal experience; she tells people she knows who Freddy’s father is, but she really doesn’t, she had a few drunk nights when they all looked good, and really, come on, how is she supposed to look for a job anyway? She’s got these kids. What’s she supposed to do, leave Freddy to mind Glory and take Freedom to the goddamn job interviews? Sure, that’ll work. And what is there, besides drive-up-window girl at Mickey D’s or the Booger King? Portland has a couple of strip clubs, but wide loads like her don’t get that kind of work, and everyone else is broke.

  She reminds herself she hit the lottery. She reminds herself they could be in a couple of air-conditioned rooms tonight at the Red Roof—three, even! Why not? Things are turning around!

  “Brennie?” Her friend sounds more doubtful than ever. “Are you still there?”

  “Yeah,” she says. “Come on, girl, I’m approved. The Hertz chick says the van is red.” She lowers her voice and adds: “Your lucky color.”

  “Did you pay off the credit card online? How’d you do that?” Jasmine knows what happened to Brenda’s laptop. Freddy and Glory got fighting last month and knocked Brenda’s laptop off the bed. It fell on the floor and broke.

  “I used the one at the library.” She says it the way she grew up in Mars Hill saying it: liberry. “I had to wait awhile to get on, but it’s worth it. It’s free. So what do you say?”

  “Maybe we could get a bottle of Allen’s,” her friend says. Jasmine loves that Allen’s Coffee Brandy, when she can get it. In truth, Jasmine loves anything when she can get it.

  “Apple-solutely,” Brenda says. “And a bottle of Driver for me. But I won’t drink while I’m behind the wheel, Jas. You can, but I’ll wait. I have to keep my license. It’s about all I got left.”

  “Can you really get any money out of your folks, do you think?”

  Brenda tells herself that once they see the kids—assuming the kids can be bribed (or intimidated) into good behavior—she can. “But not a word about the lottery,” she says.

  “No way,” Jasmine says. “I was born at night but it wasn’t last night.”

  They yuk at this one, an oldie but a goodie.

  “So what do you think?”

  “I’ll have to take Eddie and Rosellen out of sc
hool …”

  “BFD,” Brenda says. “So what do you think, girl?”

  After a long pause on the other end, Jasmine says, “Road trip!”

  “Road trip!” Brenda hollers back.

  Then they are chanting it while the three kids bawl in Brenda’s Sanford apartment and at least one (maybe two) is bawling in Jasmine’s North Berwick apartment. These are the fat women nobody wants to see when they’re on the streets, the ones no guy wants to pick up in the bars unless the hour is late and the mood is drunk and there’s nobody better in sight. What men think when they’re drunk—Brenda and Jasmine both know this—is that thunder thighs are better than no thighs at all. They went to high school together in Mars Hill and now they’re downstate and they help each other when they can. They are the fat women nobody wants to see, they have a litter of children between them, and they are chanting Road trip, road trip like a couple of cheerleading fools. On a September morning, already hot at eight-thirty, this is the way things happen. It’s never been any different.


  Phil Henreid is seventy-eight now, and Pauline Enslin is seventy-five. They’re both skinny. They both wear spectacles. Their hair, white and thin, blows in the breeze. They’ve paused at a rest area on I-95 near Fairfield, which is about twenty miles north of Augusta. The rest-area building is barnboard, and the adjacent bathrooms are brick. They’re good-looking bathrooms. Modest bathrooms. There’s no odor. Phil, who lives in Maine and knows this rest area well, would never have proposed a picnic here in the summertime. When the traffic on the interstate swells with out-of-state vacationers, the Turnpike Authority brings in a line of plastic Port-O-Sans, and this pleasant grassy area stinks like hell on New Year’s Eve. But now the Port-O-Sans are in storage somewhere, and the rest area is nice.

  Pauline puts a checked cloth on the initial-scarred picnic table standing in the shade of an old oak, and anchors it with a wicker picnic basket against a slight warm breeze. From the basket she takes sandwiches, potato salad, melon wedges, and two slices of coconut-custard pie. She also has a large glass bottle of red tea. Ice cubes clink cheerfully inside.

  “If we were in Paris, we’d have wine,” Phil says.

  “In Paris, we never had another sixty miles to drive on the turnpike,” she replies. “That tea is cold and it’s fresh. You’ll have to make do.”

  “I wasn’t carping,” he says, and lays an arthritis-swollen hand over hers (which is also swollen, although marginally less so). “This is a feast, my dear.”

  They smile into each other’s used faces. Although Phil has been married three times (and has scattered five children behind him like confetti) and Pauline has been married twice (no children, but lovers of both sexes in the dozens), they still have quite a lot between them. Much more than a spark. Phil is both surprised and not surprised. At his age—late, but not quite yet last call—you take what you can and are happy to get it. They are on their way to a poetry festival at the University of Maine’s Orono campus, and while the compensation for their joint appearance isn’t huge, it’s perfectly adequate. Since he has an expense account, Phil has splurged and rented a Cadillac from Hertz at the Portland Jetport, where he met her plane. Pauline jeered at this, said she always knew he was a plastic hippie, but she does it gently. He wasn’t a hippie, but he was a genuine whatever-he-was, and she knows it. As he knows that her osteoporotic bones have enjoyed the ride.

  Now, a picnic. Tonight they’ll have a catered meal, but the food will be a lukewarm, sauce-covered mess o’ mystery supplied by the cafeteria in one of the college commons. “Beige food” is what Pauline calls it. Visiting-poet food is always beige, and in any case it won’t be served until eight o’clock. With some cheap yellowish-white wine seemingly created to saw at the guts of semi-retired alcohol abusers such as themselves. This meal is nicer, and iced tea is fine. Phil even indulges the fantasy of leading her by the hand to the high grass behind the bathrooms once they have finished eating, like in that old Van Morrison song, and—

  Ah, but no. Elderly poets whose sex drives are now permanently stuck in first gear should not chance such a potentially ludicrous site of assignation. Especially poets of long, rich, and varied experience, who now know that each time is apt to be largely unsatisfactory, and each time may well be the last time. Besides, Phil thinks, I have already had two heart attacks. Who knows what’s up with her?

  Pauline thinks, Not after sandwiches and potato salad, not to mention custard pie. But perhaps tonight. It is not out of the question. She smiles at him and takes the last item from the hamper. It is a New York Times, bought at the same Augusta convenience store where she got the rest of the picnic things, checked cloth and iced-tea bottle included. As in the old days, they flip for the Arts section. In the old days, Phil—who won the National Book Award for Burning Elephants in 1970—always called tails and won far more times than the odds said he should. Today he calls heads … and wins again.

  “Why, you snot!” she cries, and hands it over.

  They eat. They read the divided paper. At one point she looks at him over a forkful of potato salad and says, “I still love you, you old fraud.”

  Phil smiles. The wind blows the gone-to-seed dandelion puff of his hair. His scalp shines gauzily through. He’s not the young man who once came roistering out of Brooklyn, broad-shouldered as a longshoreman (and just as foulmouthed), but Pauline can still see the shadow of that man, who was so full of anger, despair, and hilarity.

  “Why, I love you, too, Paulie,” he says.

  “We’re a couple of old crocks,” she says, and bursts into laughter. Once she had sex with a king and a movie star at pretty much the same time on a balcony while “Maggie May” played on the gramophone, Rod Stewart singing in French. Now the woman The New York Times once called America’s greatest living female poet lives in a walk-up in Queens. “Doing poetry readings in tank towns for dishonorable honorariums and eating alfresco in rest areas.”

  “We’re not old,” he says, “we’re young, ma bébé.”

  “What in the world are you talking about?”

  “Look at this,” he says, and holds out the first page of the Arts section. She takes it and sees a photograph. It’s a dried-up string of a man wearing a straw hat and a smile.

  Nonagenarian Wouk to Publish New Book

  By Motoko Rich

  By the time they reach the age of 94—if they do—most writers have retired long ago. Not Herman Wouk, author of such famous novels as The Caine Mutiny (1951) and Marjorie Morningstar (1955). Many of those who remember the TV miniseries presentations of his exhaustive World War II novels, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), are now drawing Social Security themselves. It’s a retirement premium Wouk became eligible for in 1980.

  Wouk, however, is not done. He published a well-reviewed surprise novel, A Hole in Texas, a year shy of his 90th birthday, and expects to publish a book-length essay called “The Language God Talks” next year. Is it his final word?

  “I’m not prepared to speak on that subject, one way or the other,” Wouk said with a smile. “The ideas don’t stop just because one is old. The body weakens, but the words never do.” When asked about his

  Continued on Page 19

  As she looks at that old, seamed face beneath the rakishly tilted straw hat, Pauline feels the sudden sting of tears. “The body weakens but the words never do,” she says. “That’s lovely.”

  “Have you ever read him?” Phil asks.

  “Marjorie Morningstar, in my youth. It’s an annoying hymn to virginity, but I was swept away in spite of myself. Have you?”

  “I tried Youngblood Hawke, but couldn’t finish it. Still … he’s in there pitching. And he’s old enough to be our father.” He folds the paper and puts it into the picnic basket. Below them, light traffic on the turnpike runs beneath a high September sky full of fair-weather clouds. “Before we get back on the road, do you
want to do swapsies? Like in the old days?”

  She thinks about it, then nods. Many years have passed since she listened to someone else read one of her poems, and the experience is always a little dismaying—like having an out-of-body experience—but why not? They have the rest area to themselves. “In honor of Herman Wouk, who’s still in there pitching. My work folder’s in the front pocket of my carrybag.”

  “You trust me to go through your things?”

  She gives him her old slanted smile, then stretches into the sun with her eyes closed. Relishing the heat. Soon the days will turn cold, but now there is heat. “You can go through my things all you want, Philip.” She opens one eye in a reverse wink that is amusingly seductive. “Explore to your heart’s content.”

  “I’ll keep that in mind,” he says, and goes back to the Cadillac he has rented for them.

  Poets in a Cadillac, she thinks. The very definition of absurdity. For a moment she watches the cars rush by. Then she picks up the Arts section and looks again at the narrow, smiling face of the old scribbler. Still alive. Perhaps at this very moment looking up at the high blue September sky, with his notebook open on a patio table and a glass of Perrier (or wine, if his stomach will still stand it) near to hand.

  If there is a God, Paulie Enslin thinks, she can occasionally be very generous.

  She waits for Phil to come back with her work folder and one of the steno pads he favors for composition. They will play swapsies. Tonight they may play other games. Once again she tells herself, It is not out of the question.


  Everything is digital. There’s a satellite radio with a GPS screen above it. When she backs up, the GPS turns into a TV monitor, so you can see what’s behind you. Everything on the dashboard shines, that new-car smell fills the interior, and why not, with only seven hundred and fifty miles on the odometer? She has never in her life been behind the wheel of a motor vehicle with such low mileage. You can push buttons on the control-stalk to show you your average speed, how many miles per gallon you’re getting, and how many gallons you’ve got left. The engine makes hardly any noise at all. The seats up front are twin buckets, upholstered in bone-white material that looks like leather. The shocks are like butter.