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You Know They Got a Hell of a Band

Stephen King

  You Know They Got a Hell of a Band

  by Stephen King

  When Mary woke up, they were lost. She knew it, and Clark knew it, too, although he didn't want to admit it at first; he was wearing his I'm Pissed So Don't Fuck with Me look, where his mouth kept getting smaller and smaller until you thought it might disappear altogether. And "lost" wasn't how Clark would put it; Clark would say they had "taken a wrong turn somewhere," and it would just about kill him to go even that far.

  They'd set off from Portland the day before. Clark worked for a computer company -- one of the giants -- and it had been his idea that they should see something of the Oregon, which lay outside the pleasant, but humdrum upper-middle-class suburb of Portland where they lived -- an area that was known to its inhabitants as Software City. "They say it's beautiful out there in the boonies," he had told her. "You want to go take a look? I've got a week, and the transfer rumors have already started. If we don't see some of the real Oregon, I think the last sixteen months are going to be nothing but a black hole in my memory."

  She had agreed willingly enough (school had let out ten days before and she had no summer classes to teach), enjoying the pleasantly haphazard, catch-as-catch-can feel of the trip, forgetting that spur-of-the-moment vacations often ended up just like this, with the vacationers lost along some back road which blundered its way up the overgrown butt-crack of nowhere. It was an adventure, she supposed -- at least you could look at it that way if you wanted -- but she had turned thirty-two in January, and she thought thirty-two was maybe just a little too old for adventures. These days her idea of a really nice vacation was a motel with a clean pool, bathrobes on the beds, and a hair-dryer that worked in the bathroom.

  Yesterday had been fine, though, the countryside so gorgeous that even Clark had several times been awed to an unaccustomed silence. They had spent the night at a nice country inn just west of Eugene, had made love not once but twice (something she was most definitely not too old to enjoy), and this morning had headed south, meaning to spend the night in Klamath Falls. They had begun the day on Oregon State Highway 58, and that was all right, but then, over lunch in the town of Oakridge, Clark had suggested they get off the main highway, which was pretty well clogged with RVs and logging trucks.

  "Well, I don't know..." Mary spoke with the dubiousness of a woman who has heard many such proposals from her man, and endured the consequences of a few. "I'd hate to get lost out there, Clark. It looks pretty empty." She had tapped one neatly shaped nail on a spot of green marked Boulder Creek Wilderness Area. "That word is wilderness, as in no gas stations, no rest rooms, and no motels."

  "Aw, come on," he said, pushing aside the remains of his chicken-fried steak. On the juke, Steve Earle and the Dukes were singing "Six Days on the Road," and outside the dirt-streaked windows, a bunch of bored-looking kids were doing turns and pop-outs on their skateboards. They looked as if they were just marking time out there, waiting to be old enough to blow this town for good, and Mary knew exactly how they felt. “Nothing to it, babe. We take 58 a few more miles east... then turn south on State Road 42... see it?"

  "Uh huh." She also saw that, while Highway 58 was a fat red line, State Road 42 was only a squiggle of black thread. But she'd been full of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and hadn't wanted to argue with Clark's pioneering instinct while she felt like a boa constrictor that has just swallowed a goat. What she'd wanted, in fact, was to tilt back the passenger seat of their lovely old Mercedes 'and take a snooze.

  "Then," he pushed on, "there's this road here. It's not numbered, so it's probably only a county road, but it goes right down to Toketee Falls. And from there it's only a hop and a jump over to U.S. 97. So -- what do you think?"

  "That you'll probably get us lost," she'd said -- a wisecrack she rather regretted later. "But I guess we'll be all right as long as you can find a place wide enough to turn the Princess around in."

  "Sold American!" he said, beaming, and pulled his chicken-fried steak back in front of him. He began to eat again, congealed gravy and all.

  "Uck-a-doo," she said, holding one hand up in front of her face and wincing. "How can you?"

  "It's good," Clark said in tones so muffled only a wife could have understood him. "Besides, when one is traveling, one should eat the native dishes."

  “It looks like someone sneezed a mouthful of snuff onto a very old hamburger," she said. "I repeat: uck-a-doo."

  They left Oakridge in good spirits, and at first all had gone swimmingly. Trouble hadn't set in until they turned off S.R. 42 and onto the unmarked road, the one Clark had been so sure was going to breeze them right into Toketee Falls. It hadn't seemed like trouble at first; county road or not, the new way had been a lot better than Highway 42, which had been potholed and frost-heaved, even in summer. They had gone along famously, in fact, taking turns plugging tapes into the dashboard player. Clark was into people like Wilson Pickett, Al Green, and Pop Staples. Mary's taste lay in entirely different directions.

  "What do you see in all these white boys?" he asked as she plugged in her current favorite -- Lou Reed's New York.

  "Married one, didn't I?" she asked, and that made him laugh.

  The first sign of trouble came fifteen minutes later, when they came to a fork in the road. Both forks looked equally promising.

  "Holy crap," Clark said, pulling up and popping the glove compartment open so he could get at the map. He looked at it for a long time. "That isn't on the map."

  "Oh boy, here we go," Mary said. She had been on the edge of a doze when Clark pulled up at the unexpected fork, and she was feeling a little irritated with him. "Want my advice?"

  "No," he said, sounding a little irritated himself, "but I suppose I'll get it. And I hate it when you roll your eyes at me that way, in case you didn't know."

  "What way is that, Clark?"

  "Like I was an old dog that just farted under the dinner table. Go on, tell me what you think. Lay it on me. It's your nickel."

  "Go back while there's still time. That's my advice."

  "Uh-huh. Now if you only had a sign that said REPENT."

  "Is that supposed to be funny?"

  "I don't know, Mare," he said in a glum tone of voice, and then just sat there, alternating looks through the bug-splattered windshield with a close examination of the map. They had been married for almost fifteen years, and Mary knew him well enough to believe he would almost certainly insist on pushing on... not in spite of the unexpected fork in the road, but because of it.

  When Clark Willingham 's balls are on the line, he doesn't back down, she thought, and then put a hand over her mouth to hide the grin that had surfaced there.

  She was not quite quick enough. Clark glanced at her, one eyebrow raised, and she had a sudden discomfiting thought: if she could read him as easily as a child's storybook after all this time, then maybe he could do the same with her. "Something?" he asked, and his voice was just a little too thin. It was at that moment -- even before she had fallen asleep, she now realized -- that his mouth had started to get smaller. "Want to share, sweetheart?''

  She shook her head. "Just clearing my throat."

  He nodded, pushed his glasses up on his ever-expanding forehead, and brought the map up until it was almost touching the tip of his nose. "Well," he said, "it's got to be the left-hand fork, because that's the one that goes south, toward Toketee Falls. The other one heads east. It's probably a ranch road, or something."

  "A ranch road with a yellow line running down the middle of it?"

  Clark's mouth grew a little smaller. "You'd be surprised how well-off some of these ranchers are," he said.

  She thought of pointing out to him that the days
of the scouts and pioneers were long gone, that his testicles were not actually on the line, and then decided she wanted a little doze-off in the afternoon sun a lot more than she wanted to squabble with her husband, especially after the lovely double feature last night. And, after all, they were bound to come out somewhere, weren't they?

  With that comforting thought in her mind and Lou Reed in her ears, singing about the last great American whale, Mary Willingham dozed off. By the time the road Clark had picked began to deteriorate, she was sleeping shallowly and dreaming that they were back in the Oakridge cafe where they had eaten lunch. She was trying to put a quarter in the jukebox, but the coin-slot was plugged with something that looked like flesh. One of the kids who had been outside in the parking lot walked past her with his skateboard under his arm and his Trailblazers hat turned around on his head.

  What's the matter with this thing? Mary asked him.

  The kid came over, took a quick look, and shrugged. Aw, that ain't nothing, he said. That's just some guy's body, broken for you and for many. This is no rinky-dink operation we got here; we're talking mass culture, sugar-muffin.

  Then he reached up, gave the tip of her right breast a tweak -- not a very friendly one, either -- and walked away. When she looked back at the jukebox, she saw it had filled up with blood and shadowy floating things that looked suspiciously like human organs.

  Maybe you better give that Lou Reed album a rest, she thought, and within the pool of blood behind the glass, a record floated down onto the turntable -- as if at her thought -- and Lou began to sing "Busload of Faith."

  While Mary was having this steadily more unpleasant dream, the road continued to worsen, the patches spreading until it was really all patch. The Lou Reed album -- a long one -- came to an end, and began to recycle. Clark didn't notice. The pleasant look he had started the day with was entirely gone. His mouth had shrunk to the size of a rosebud. If Mary had been awake, she would have coaxed him into turning around miles back. He knew this, just as he knew how she would look at him if she woke up now and saw this narrow swatch of crumbling hot-top -- a road only if one thought in the most charitable of terms -- with piney woods pressing in close enough on both sides to keep the patched tar in constant shadow. They had not passed a car headed in the other direction since leaving S.R. 42.

  He knew he should turn around -- Mary hated it when he got into shit like this, always forgetting the many times he had found his way unerringly along strange roads to their planned destinations (Clark Willingham was one of those millions of American men who are firmly convinced they have a compass in their heads) -- but he continued to push on, at first stubbornly convinced that they must come out in Toketee Falls, then just hoping. Besides, there really was no place to turn around. If he tried to do it, he would mire the Princess to her hubcaps in one of the marshy ditches which bordered this miserable excuse for a road... and God knew how long it would take to get a tow-truck in here, or how far he'd have to walk just to call one.

  Then, at last, he did come to a place where he could have turned around -- another fork in the road -- and elected not to do so. The reason was simple: although the right fork was rutted gravel with grass growing up the middle, the leftward-tending branch was once again wide, well-paved, and divided by a bright stroke of yellow. According to the compass in Clark's head, this fork headed due south. He could all but smell Toketee Falls. Ten miles, maybe fifteen, twenty at the outside.

  He did at least consider turning back, however. When he told Mary so later, he saw doubt in her eyes, but it was true. He decided to go on because Mary was beginning to stir, and he was quite sure that the bumpy, potholed stretch of road he'd just driven would wake her up if he turned back... and then she would look at him with those wide, beautiful blue eyes of hers. Just look. That would be enough.

  Besides, why should he spend an hour and a half going back when Toketee Falls was just a spin and a promise away? Look at that road, he thought. You think a road like that is going to just peter out?

  He put the Princess back in gear, started down the left fork, and sure enough, the road petered out. Over the first hill, the yellow line disappeared again. Over the second, the paving gave out and they were on a rutted dirt track with the dark woods pressing even closer on either side and the sun -- Clark was aware of this for the first time -- now sliding down the wrong side of the sky.

  The pavement ended too suddenly for Clark to brake and baby the Princess onto the new surface, and there was a hard, spring-jarring thud that woke Mary. She sat up with a jerk and looked around with wide eyes. "Where -- " she began, and then, to make the afternoon utterly perfect and complete, the smoky voice of Lou Reed sped up until he was gabbling out the lyrics to "Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim" at the speed of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

  "Oh!" she said, and punched the eject button. The tape belched out, followed by an ugly brown afterbirth -- coils of shiny tape.

  The Princess hit a nearly bottomless pothole, lurched hard to the left, and then threw herself up and out like a clipper ship corkscrewing through a stormwave.


  "Don't say anything," he said through clenched teeth. "We're not lost. This will turn back to tar in just a minute or two -- probably over the next hill. We are not lost."

  Still upset by her dream (even though she could not quite remember what it had been), Mary held the ruined tape in her lap, mourning it. She supposed she could buy another one... but not out here. She looked at the brooding trees, which seemed to belly right up to the road like starving guests at a banquet and guessed it was a long way to the nearest Tower Records.

  She looked at Clark, noted his flushed cheeks and nearly nonexistent mouth, and decided it would be politic to keep her own mouth shut, at least for the time being. If she was quiet and non-accusatory, he would be more likely to come to his senses before this miserable excuse for a road petered out in a gravel pit or quicksand bog.

  "Besides, I can't very well turn around," he said, as if she had suggested that very thing.

  "I can see that," she replied neutrally.

  He glanced at her, perhaps wanting to fight, perhaps just feeling embarrassed and hoping to see she wasn't too pissed at him -- at least not yet -- and then looked back through the windshield. Now there were weeds and grass growing up the center of this road, too, and the way was so narrow that if they did happen to meet another car, one of them would have to back up. Nor was that the end of the fun. The ground beyond the wheel-ruts looked increasingly untrustworthy; the scrubby trees seemed to be jostling each other for position in the wet ground.

  There were no power-poles on either side of the road. She almost pointed this out to Clark, and then decided it might be smarter to hold her tongue about that, too. He drove on in silence until they came around a down-slanting curve. He was hoping against hope that they would see a change for the better on the far side, but the overgrown track only went on as it had before. It was, if anything, a little fainter and a little narrower, and had begun to remind Clark of roads in the fantasy epics he liked to read -- stories by people like Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, and, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien, the spiritual father of them all. In these tales, the characters (who usually had hairy feet and pointed ears) took these neglected roads in spite of their own gloomy intuitions, and usually ended up battling trolls or boggarts or mace-wielding skeletons.

  "Clark -- "

  "I know," he said, and hammered the wheel suddenly with his left hand -- a short, frustrated stroke that succeeded only in honking the horn. "I know." He stopped the Mercedes, which now straddled the entire road (road? hell, lane was now too grand a word for it), slammed the transmission into park, and got out. Mary got out on the other side, more slowly.

  The balsam smell of the trees was heavenly, and she thought there was something beautiful about the silence, unbroken as it was by the sound of any motor (even the far-off drone of an airplane) or human voice... but there was something spooky about it, as well. Even the sounds
she could hear -- the tu-whit! of a bird in the shadowy firs, the sough of the wind, the rough rumble of the Princess's diesel engine -- served to emphasize the wall of quiet encircling them.

  She looked across the Princess's gray roof at Clark, and it was not reproach or anger in her gaze but appeal: Get us out of this, all right? Please?

  "Sorry, hon," he said, and the worry she saw in his face did nothing to soothe her. "Really."

  She tried to speak, but at first no sound came out of her dry throat. She cleared it and tried again. “What do you think about backing up, Clark?"

  He considered it for several moments -- the tu-whit! bird had time to call again and be answered from somewhere deeper in the forest -- before shaking his head. "Only as a last resort. It's at least two miles back to the last fork in the road -- "

  "You mean there was another one?"

  He winced a little, dropped his eyes, and nodded. “Backing up... well, you see how narrow the road is, and how mucky the ditches are. If we went off..." He shook his head and sighed.

  "So we go on."

  "I think so. If the road goes entirely to hell, of course, I'll have to try it."

  "But by then we'll be in even deeper, won't we?" So far she was managing, and quite well, she thought, to keep a tone of accusation from creeping into her voice, but it was getting harder and harder to do. She was pissed at him, quite severely pissed, and pissed at herself, as well -- for letting him get them into this in the first place, and then for coddling him the way she was now.

  "Yes, but I like the odds on finding a wide place up ahead better than I like the odds on reversing for a couple of miles along this piece of crap. If it turns out we do have to back out, I'll take it in stages -- back up for five minutes, rest for ten, back up for five more." He smiled lamely. "It'll be an adventure."

  "Oh yes, it'll be that, all right," Mary said, thinking again that her definition for this sort of thing was not adventure but pain in the ass. “Are you sure you aren't pressing on because you believe in your heart that we're going to find Toketee Falls right over the next hill?"