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Grey Matter

Stephen King


  They had been predicting a norther all week and along about Thursday we got it,

  a real screamer that piled up eight inches by four in the afternoon and showed

  no signs of slowing down. The usual five or six were gathered around the

  Reliable in Henry's Nite-Owl, which is the only little store on this side of

  Bangor that stays open right around the clock.

  Henry don't do a huge business - mostly, it amounts to selling the college kids

  their beer and wine - but he gets by and it's a place for us old duffers on

  Social Security to get together and talk about who's died lately and how the

  world's going to hell.

  This afternoon Henry was at the counter; Bill Pelham, Bertie Connors, Carl

  Littlefield, and me was tipped up by the stove. Outside, not a car was moving on

  Ohio Street, and the ploughs was having hard going. The wind was socking drifts

  across that looked like the backbone on a dinosaur.

  Henry'd only had three customers all afternoon - that is, if you want to count

  in blind Eddie. Eddie's about seventy, and he ain't completely blind. Runs into

  things, mostly. He comes in once or twice a week and sticks a loaf of bread

  under his coat and walks out with an expression on his face like: there, you

  stupid sonsabitches, fooled you again.

  Bertie once asked Henry why he never put a stop to it.

  'I'll tell you,' Henry said. 'A few years back the Air Force wanted twenty

  million dollars to rig up a flyin' model of an airplane they had planned out.

  Well, it cost them seventy-five million and then the damn thing wouldn't fly.

  That happened ten years ago, when blind Eddie and myself were considerable

  younger, and I voted for the woman who sponsored that bill. Blind Eddie voted

  against her. And -since then I've been buyin' his bread.'

  Bertie didn't look like he quite followed all of that, but he sat back to muse

  over it.

  Now the door opened again, letting in a blast of the cold grey air outside, and

  a young kid came in, stamping snow off his boots. I placed him after a second.

  He was Richie Grenadine's kid, and he looked like he'd just kissed the wrong end

  of the baby. His Adam's apple was going up and down and his face was the colour

  of old oilcloth.

  'Mr Parmalee,' he says to Henry, his eyeballs rolling -around in his head like

  ball bearings, 'you got to come. You got to take him his beer and come. I can't

  stand to go back there. I'm scared.'

  'Now slow down,' Henry says, taking off his white butcher's apron and coming

  around the counter. 'What's the matter? Your dad been on a drunk?'

  I realized when he said that that Richie hadn't been in for quite some time.

  Usually he'd be by once a day to pick up a -case of whatever beer was going

  cheapest at that time, a big --fat man with jowls like pork butts and ham-hock

  arms. Richie always was a pig about his beer, but he handled it okay when he was

  working at the sawmill out in Clifton. Then something happened - a pulper piled

  a bad load, or maybe Richie just made it out that way - and Richie was off work,

  free an' easy, with the sawmill company paying him compensation. Something in

  his back. Anyway, he got awful fat. He hadn't been in lately, although once in a

  while I'd seen his boy come in for Richie's nightly case. Nice enough boy Henry

  sold him the beer, for he knew it was only the boy doing as his father said.

  'He's been on a drunk,' the boy was saying now, 'but that ain't the trouble.

  It's . . . it's . . . oh Lord, it's awful!'

  Henry saw he was going to bawl, so he says real quick:

  'Carl, will you watch things for a minute?'


  'Now, Timmy, you come back into the stockroom and tell me what's what.'

  He led the boy away, and Carl went around behind the counter and sat on Henry's

  stool. No one said anything for quite a while. We could hear 'em back there,

  Henry's deep, slow voice and then Timmy Grenadine's high one, speaking very

  fast. Then the boy commenced to cry, and Bill Pelham cleared his throat and

  started filling up his pipe.

  'I ain't seen Richie for a couple of months,' I said.

  Bull grunted. 'No loss.'

  'He was in . . . oh, near the end of October,' Carl said. 'Near Halloween.

  Bought a case of Schlitz beer. He was gettin' awful meaty.'

  There wasn't much more to say. The boy was still crying, but he was talking at

  the same time. Outside the wind kept on whooping and yowling and the radio said

  we'd have another six inches or so by morning. It was mid-January and it made me

  wonder if anyone had seen Richie since October - besides his boy, that is.

  The talking went on for quite a while, but finally Henry and the boy came out.

  The boy had taken his coat off, but Henry had put his on. The boy was kinda

  hitching in his chest the way you do when the worst is past, but his eyes was

  red and when he glanced at you, he'd look down at the floor.

  Henry looked worried. 'I thought I'd send Timmy here upstairs an' have my wife

  cook him up a toasted cheese or somethin'. Maybe a couple of you fellas'd like

  to go around to Richie's place with me. Timmy says he wants some beer. He gave

  me the money.' He tried to smile, but it was a pretty sick affair and he soon

  gave up.

  'Sure,' Bertie says. 'What kind of beer? I'll go fetch her.'

  'Get Harrow's Supreme,' Henry said. 'We got some cut-down boxes back there.'

  I got up, too. It would have to be Bertie and me. Carl's arthritis gets

  something awful on days like this, and Billy Pelham don't have much use of his

  right arm any more.

  Bertie got four six-packs of Harrow's and I packed them into a box while Henry

  took the boy upstairs to th~ apartment, overhead.

  Well, he straightened that out with his missus and came back down, looking over

  his shoulder once to make sure the upstairs door was closed. Billy spoke up,

  fairly busting:

  'What's up? Has Richie been workin' the kid over?'

  'No,' Henry said. 'I'd just as soon not say anything just yet. It'd sound crazy.

  I will show you somethin-', though. The money Timmy had to pay for the beer

  with.' He shed four dollar bills out of his pocket, holding them by the corner,

  and I don't blame him. They was all covered with a grey, slimy stuff that looked

  like the scum on top of bad preserves. He laid them down on the counter with a

  funny smile and said to Carl: 'Don't let anybody touch 'em. Not if what the kid

  says is even half right!'

  And he went around to the sink by the meat counter and washed his hands.

  I got up, put on my pea coat and scarf and buttoned up. It was no good taking a

  car; Richie lived in an apartment building down on Curve Street, which is as

  close to straight up and down as the law allows, and it's the last place the

  ploughs touch.

  As we were going out, Bill Pelham called after us: 'Watch out, now.'

  Henry just nodded and put the case of Harrow's on the little handcart he keeps

  by the door, and out we trundled.

  The wind hit us
like a sawblade, and right away I pulled my scarf up over my

  ears. We paused in the doorway just for a second while Bertie pulled on his

  gloves. He had a pained sort of a wince on his face, and I knew how he felt.

  It's all well for younger fellows to go out skiing all day and running those

  goddam waspwing snowmobiles half the night, but when you get up over seventy

  without an oil change, you feel that north-east wind around your heart.

  'I don't want to scare you boys,' Henry said, with that queer, sort of revolted

  smile still on his mouth, 'but I'm goin' to show you this all the same. And I'm

  goin' to tell you what the boy told me while we walk up there. . . because I

  want you to know, you see!'

  And he pulled a .45-calibre hogleg out of his coat pocket - the pistol he'd kept

  loaded and ready under the counter ever since he went to twenty-four hours a day

  back in 1958. I don't know where he got it, but I do know the one time he

  flashed it at a stickup guy, the fella just turned around and bolted right out

  the door. Henry was a cool one, all right. I saw him throw out a college kid

  that came in one time and gave him a hard time about cashing a cheque. That kid

  walked away like his ass was on sideways and he had to crap.

  Well, I only tell you that because Henry wanted Bertie and me to know he meant

  business, and we did, too.

  So we set out, bent into the wind like washerwomen, Henry trundling that cart

  and telling us what the boy had said. The wind was trying to rip the words away

  before we could hear 'em, but we got most of it - more'n we wanted to. I was

  damn glad Henry had his Frenchman's pecker stowed away in his coat pocket.

  The kid said it must have been the beer - you know how you can get a bad can

  every now and again. Flat or smelly or green as the peestains in an Irishman's

  underwear. A fella once told me that all it takes is a tiny hole to let in

  bacteria that'll do some damn strange things. The hole can be so small that the

  beer won't hardly dribble out, but the bacteria can get in. And beer's good food

  for some of those bugs.

  Anyway, the kid said Richie brought back a case of Golden Light just like always

  that night in October and sat down to polish it off while Timmy did his


  Timmy was just about ready for bed when he hears Richie say, 'Christ Jesus, that

  ain't right.'

  And Timmy says, 'What's that, Pop?'

  'That beer,' Richie says. 'God, that's the worst taste I ever had in my mouth.'

  Most people would wonder why in the name of God he drank it if it tasted so bad,

  but then, most people have never seen Richie Grenadine go to his beer. I was

  down in Wally's Spa one afternoon, and I saw him win the goddamndest bet. He bet

  a fella he could drink twenty two-bit glasses of beer in one minute. Nobody

  local would take him up, but this salesman from Montpelier laid down a

  twenty-dollar Bill and Richie covered him. He drank all twenty with seven

  seconds to spare - although when he walked out he was more'n three sails into

  the wind. So I expect Richie had most of that bad can in his gut before his

  brain could warn him.

  'I'm gonna puke,' Richie say. 'Look out!'

  But by the time he got to the head it had passed off, and that was the end of

  it. The boy said he smelt the can, and it smeltlike something crawled in there

  and died. There was a little grey dribble around the top, too.

  Two days later the boy comes home from school and there's Richie sitting in

  front of the TV and watching the afternoon tearjerkers with every goddamn shade

  in the place pulled down.

  'What's up?' Timmy asks, for Richie don't hardly ever roll in before nine.

  'I'm watchin' the TV,' Richie says. 'I didn't seem to want to go out today.'

  Timmy turned on the light over the sink, and Richie yelled at him: 'And turn off

  that friggin' light!'

  So Timmy did, not asking how he's gonna do his homework in the dark. When

  Richie's in that mood, you don't ask him nothing.

  'An' go out an' get me a case,' Richie says. 'Money's on the table.'

  When the kid gets back, his dad's still sitting in the dark, only now it's dark

  outside, too. And the TV's off. The kid starts getting the creeps well, who

  wouldn't? Nothing but a dark flat and your daddy setting in the corner like a

  big lump.

  So he puts the beer on the table, knowing that Richie don't like it so cold it

  spikes his forehead, and when he gets close to his old man he starts to notice a

  kind of rotten smell, like an old cheese someone left standing on the counter

  over the weekend. He don't say shit or go blind, though, as the old man was

  never what you'd call a cleanly soul. Instead he goes into his room and shuts

  the door and does his homework, and after a while he hears the TV start to go

  and Richie's popping the top in his first of the evening.

  And for two weeks or so, that's the way things went. The kid got up in the

  morning and went to school an' when he got home Richie'd be in front of the

  television, and beer money on the table.

  The flat was smelling ranker and ranker, too. Richie wouldn't have the shades up

  at all, and about the middle of November he made Timmy stop studying in his

  room. Said he couldn't abide the light under the door. So Timmy started going

  down the block to a friend's house after getting his dad the beer.

  Then one day when Timmy came home from school - it was four o'clock and pretty

  near dark already - Richie says, 'Turn on the light.'

  The kid turned on the light over the sink, and damn if Richie ain't all wrapped

  up in a blanket.

  'Look,' Richie says, and one hand creeps out from under the blanket. Only it

  ain't a hand at all. Something grey, is all the kid could tell Henry. Didn't

  look like a hand at all. Just a grey lump.

  Well, Timmy Grenadine was scared bad. He says, 'Pop, what's happening to you?'

  And Richie says, 'I dunno. But it don't hurt. It feels. . kinda nice.'

  So, Timmy says, 'I'm gonna call Dr Westphail.'

  And the blanket starts to tremble all over, like something awful was shaking -

  all over- under there. And Richie says, 'Don't you dare. If you do I'll touch ya

  and you'll end up just like this.' And he slides the blanket down over his face

  for just a minute.

  By then we were up to the corner of Harlow arid Curve Street, and I was even

  colder than the temperature had been on Henry's Orange Crush thermometer when we

  came out. A person doesn't hardly want to believe such things, and yet there's

  still strange things in the world.

  I once knew a fella named George Kelso, who worked for the Bangor Public Works

  Department. He spent fifteen years fixing water mains and mending electricity

  cables and all that, an' then one day he just up an' quit, not two years before

  his retirement. Frankie Haldeman, who knew him, said George went down into a

  sewer pipe on Essex laughing and joking just like always and came up fifteen

  minutes later with his hair just as white as snow and his eyes staring like he

  just looked through a window into hell. He walked straight down to the BPW

  garage and punched his clock and went down to Wally's Spa and started drinking.

  It killed him two years l
ater. Frankie said he tried to talk to him about it and

  George said something one time, and that was when he was pretty well blotto.

  Turned around on his stool, George did, an' asked Frankie Haldeman if he'd ever

  seen a spider as big as a good-sized dog setting in a web full of kitties an'

  such all wrapped up in silk thread. Well, what could he say to that? I'm not

  saying there's truth in it, but I am saying that there's things in the corners

  of the world that would drive a man insane to look 'em right in the face.

  So we just stood on the corner a minute, in spite of the wind that was whooping

  up the street.

  'What'd he see?' Bertie asked.

  'He said he could still see his dad,' Henry answered, 'but he said it was like

  he was buried in grey jelly. . . and it was all kinda mashed together. He said

  his clothes were all stickin' in and out of his skin, like they was melted to

  his body.'

  'Holy Jesus,' Bertie said.

  'Then he covered right up again and started screaming at the kid to turn off the


  'Like he was a fungus,' I said.

  'Yes,' Henry said. 'Sorta like that.'

  'You keep that pistol handy,' Bertie said.

  'Yes, I think I will.' And with that, we started to trundle up Curve Street.

  The apartment house where Richie Grenadine had his flat was almost at the top of

  the hill, one of those big Victorian monsters that were built by the pulp an'

  paper barons at the turn of the century. They've just about all been turned into

  apartment houses now. When Bertie got his breath he told us Richie lived on the

  third floor under that top gable that jutted out like an eyebrow. I took the

  chance to ask Henry what happened to the kid after that.

  Along about the third week in November the kid came back one afternoon to find

  Richie had gone one further than just pulling the shades down. He'd taken and

  nailed blankets across every window in the place. It was starting to stink

  worse, too - kind of a mushy stink, the way fruit gets when it goes to ferment

  with yeast.

  A week or so after that, Richie got the kid to start heating his beer on the

  stove. Can you feature that? The kid all by himself in that apartment with his

  dad turning into, well, into something . . . an' heating his beer and then

  having to listen to him - it - drinking it with awful thick slurping sounds, the

  way an old man eats his chowder: Can you imagine it?