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Uncle Otto's Truck, Page 2

Stephen King

  Castle Rock's selectmen were flabbergasted. So was everyone else. Most everyone in the Rock had gone to such a one-room school (or thought they had, which comes down to almost the same thing). But all of the one-room schools were gone from Castle Rock by 1965. The very last of them, the Castle Ridge School, had closed the year before. It's now Steve's Pizzaville out on Route 117. By then the town had a glass-and-cinderblock grammar school on the far side of the common and a fine new high school on Carbine Street. As a result of his eccentric offer, Uncle Otto made it all the way from "odd" to "damn peculiar" in one jump.

  The selectmen sent him a letter (not one of them quite dared to go see him in person) thanking him kindly, and hoping he would remember the town in the future, but declining the little schoolhouse on the grounds that the educational needs of the town's children were already well provided for. Uncle Otto flew into a towering rage. Remember the town in the future? he stormed to my father. He would remember them, all right, but not the way they wanted. He hadn't fallen off a hay truck yesterday. He knew a hawk from a handsaw. And if they wanted to get into a pissing contest with him, he said, they were going to find he could piss like a polecat that had just drunk a keg of beer.

  "So what now?" my father asked him. They were sitting at the kitchen table in our house. My mother had taken her sewing upstairs. She said she didn't like Uncle Otto; she said he smelled like a man who took a bath once a month, whether he needed one or not -- "and him a rich man," she would always add with a sniff. I think his smell really did offend her but I also think she was frightened of him. By 1965, Uncie Otto had begun to look damn peculiar as well as act that way. He went around dressed in green workman's pants held up by suspenders, a thermal underwear shirt, and big yellow workshoes. His eyes had begun to roll in strange directions as he spoke.


  "What are you going to do with the place now?"

  "Live in the son of a bitch," Uncle Otto snapped, and that's what he did.

  The story of his later years doesn't need much telling. He suffered the dreary sort of madness that one often sees written up in cheap tabloid newspapers. Millionaire Dies of Malnutrition in Tenement Apartment. Bag Lady Was Rich, Bank Records Reveal. Forgotten Bank Tycoon Dies in Seclusion.

  He moved into the little red house -- in later years it faded to a dull, washed-out pink -- the very next week. Nothing my father said could talk him out of it. A year afterward, he sold the business I believe he had murdered to keep. His eccentricities had multiplied, but his business sense had not deserted him, and he realized a handsome profit -- staggering might actually be a better word.

  So mere was my Uncle Otto, worth perhaps as much as seven millions of dollars, living in that tiny little house on the Black Henry Road. His town house was locked up and shuttered. He had by then progressed beyond "damned peculiar" to "crazy as a shithouse rat." The next progression is expressed in a flatter, less colorful, but more ominous phrase: "dangerous, maybe." That one is often followed by committal.

  In his own way, Uncle Otto became as much a fixture as the truck across the road, although I doubt if any tourists ever wanted to take his picture. He had grown a beard, which came more yellow than white, as if infected by the nicotine of his cigarettes. He had gotten very fat. His jowls sagged down into wrinkly dewlaps creased with dirt. Folks often saw him standing in the doorway of his peculiar little house, just standing there motionlessly, looking out at the road, and across it.

  Looking at the truck -- his truck.

  When Uncle Otto stopped coming to town, it was my father who made sure that he didn't starve to death. He brought him groceries every week, and paid for them out of his own pocket, because Uncle Otto never paid him back -- never thought of it, I suppose. Dad died two years before Uncle Otto, whose money ended up going to the University of Maine Forestry Department. I understand they were delighted. Considering the amount, they should have been.

  After I got my driver's license in 1972, I often took the weekly groceries out. At first Uncle Otto regarded me with narrow suspicion, but after a while he began to thaw. It was three years later, in 1975, when he told me for the first time that the truck was creeping toward the house.

  I was attending the University of Maine myself by then, but I was home for the summer and had fallen into my old habit of taking Uncle Otto his weekly groceries. He sat at his table, smoking, watching me put the canned goods away and listening to me chatter. I thought he might have forgotten who I was; sometimes he did that... or pretended to. And once he had turned my blood cold by calling "That you, George?" out the window as I walked up to the house.

  On that particular day in July of 1975, he broke into whatever trivial conversation I was making to ask with harsh abruptness: "What do you make of yonder truck, Quentin?"

  That abruptness startled an honest answer out of me; "I wet my pants in the cab of that truck when I was five," I said. "I think if I got up in it now I'd wet them again."

  Uncle Otto laughed long and loud. I turned and gazed at him with wonder. I could not remember ever hearing him laugh before. It ended in a long coughing fit that turned his cheeks a bright red. Then he looked at me, his eyes glittering.

  "Gettin closer, Quent," he said.

  "What, Uncle Otto?" I asked. I thought he had made one of his puzzling leaps from one subject to another -- maybe he meant Christmas was getting closer, or the Millennium, or the return of Christ the King.

  "That buggardly truck," he said, looking at me in a still, narrow, confidential way that I didn't much like. "Gettin closer every year."

  "It is?" I asked cautiously, thinking that here was a new and particularly unpleasant idea. I glanced out at the Cresswell, standing across the road with hay all around it and the White Mountains behind it... and for one crazy minute it actually did seem closer. Then I blinked and the illusion went away. The truck was right where it had always been, of course.

  "Oh, ayuh," he said. "Gets a little closer every year."

  "Gee, maybe you need glasses. I can't see any difference at all, Uncle Otto."

  " 'Course you can't!" he snapped. "Can't see the hour hand move on your wristwatch, either, can you? Buggardly thing moves too slow to see... unless you watch it all the time. Just the way I watch that truck." He winked at me, and I shivered.

  "Why would it move?" I asked.

  "It wants me, that's why," he said. "Got me in mind all the while, that truck does. One day it'll bust right in here, and that'll be the end. It'll run me down just like it did Mac, and that'll be the end."

  This scared me quite badly -- his reasonable tone was what scared me the most, I think. And the way the young commonly respond to fright is to crack wise or become flippant. "Ought to move back to your house in town if it bothers you, Uncle Otto," I said, and you never would have known from my tone that my back was ridged with gooseflesh.

  He looked at me... and then at the truck across the road. "Can't, Quentin," he said. "Sometimes a man just has to stay in one place and wait for it to come to him."

  "Wait for what, Uncle Otto?" I asked, although I thought he must mean the truck.

  "Fate," he said, and winked again... but he looked frightened.

  My father fell ill in 1979 with the kidney disease which seemed to be improving just days before it finally killed him. Over a number of hospital visits in the fall of that year, my father and I talked about Uncle Otto. My dad had some suspicions about what might really have happened in 1955 -- mild ones that became the foundation of my more serious ones. My father had no idea how serious or how deep Uncle Otto's obsession with the truck had become. I did. He stood in his doorway almost all day long, looking at it. Looking at it like a man watching his watch to see the hour hand move.

  By 1981 Uncle Otto had lost his few remaining marbles. A poorer man would have been put away years before, but millions in the bank can forgive a lot of craziness in a small town -- particularly if enough people think there might be something in the crazy fellow's will for the municipality.
Even so, by 1981 people had begun talking seriously about having Uncle Otto put away for his own good. That flat, deadly phrase, "dangerous, maybe," had begun to supersede "crazy as a shithouse rat." He had taken to wandering out to urinate by the side of the road instead of walking back into the woods where his privy was. Sometimes he shook his fist at the Cresswell while he relieved himself, and more than one person passing in his or her car thought Uncle Otto was shaking his fist at them.

  The truck with the scenic White Mountains in the background was one thing; Uncle Otto pissing by the side of the road with his suspenders hanging down by his knees was something else entirely. That was no tourist attraction.

  I was by then wearing a business suit more often than the blue jeans that had seen me through college when I took Uncle Otto his weekly groceries -- but I still took them. I also tried to persuade him that he had to stop doing his duty by the side of the road, at least in the summertime, when anyone from Michigan, Missouri, or Florida who just happened to be happening by could see him.

  I never got through to him. He couldn't be concerned with such minor things when he had the truck to worry about. His concern with the Cresswell had become a mania. He now claimed it was on his side of the road -- right in his yard, as a matter of fact.

  "I woke up last night around three and there it was, right outside the window, Quentin," he said. "I seen it there, moonlight shinin off the windshield, not six feet from where I was layin, and my heart almost stopped. It almost stopped, Quentin."

  I took him outside and pointed out that the Cresswell was right where it had always been, across the road in the field where McCutcheon had planned to build. It did no good.

  "That's just what you see, boy," he said with a wild and infinite contempt, a cigarette shaking in one hand, his eyeballs rolling. "That's just what you see."

  "Uncle Otto," I said, attempting a witticism, "what you see is-what you get."

  It was as if he hadn't heard.

  "Bugger almost got me," he whispered. I felt a chill. He didn't look crazy. Miserable, yes, and terrified, certainly... but not crazy. For a moment I remembered my father boosting me into the cab of that track. I remembered smelling oil and leather... and blood. "It almost got me," he repeated.

  And three weeks later, it did.

  I was the one who found him. It was Wednesday night, and I had gone out with two bags of groceries in the back seat, as I did almost every Wednesday night. It was a hot, muggy evening. Every now and then thunder rumbled distantly. I remember feeling nervous as I rolled up the Black Henry Road in my Pontiac, somehow sure something was going to happen, but trying to convince myself it was just low barometric pressure.

  I came around the last corner, and just as my uncle's little house came into view, I had the oddest hallucination -- for a moment I thought that damned truck really was in his door-yard, big and hulking with its red paint and its rotten stake sides. I went for the brake pedal, but before my foot ever came down on it I blinked and the illusion was gone. But I knew that Uncle Otto was dead. No trumpets, no flashing lights; just that simple knowledge, like knowing where the furniture is in a familiar room.

  I pulled into his dooryard in a hurry and got out, heading for the house without bothering to get the groceries.

  The door was open -- he never locked it. I asked him about that once and he explained to me, patiently, the way you would explain a patently obvious fact to a simpleton, that locking the door would not keep the Cresswell out.

  He was lying on his bed, which was to the left of the one room -- his kitchen area being to the right. He lay there in his green pants and his thermal underwear shirt, his eyes open and glassy. I don't believe he had been dead more than two hours. There were no flies and no smell, although it had been a brutally hot day.

  "Uncle Otto?" I spoke quietly, not expecting an answer -- you don't lie on your bed with your eyes open and bugging out like that just for the hell of it. If I felt anything, it was relief. It was over.

  "Uncle Otto?" I approached him. "Uncle -- "

  I stopped, seeing for the first time how strangely misshapen his lower face looked -- how swelled and twisted. Seeing for the first time how his eyes were not just staring but actually glaring from their sockets. But they were not looking toward the doorway or at the ceiling. They were twisted toward the little window above his bed.

  I woke up last night around three and there it was, right outside my window, Quentin. It almost got me.

  Squot him like a pumpkin, I heard one of the barbershop sages saying as I sat pretending to read a Life magazine and smelling the aromas of Vitalis and Wildroot Creme Oil.

  Almost got me, Quentin.

  There was a smell in here -- not barbershop, and not just the stink of a dirty old man.

  It smelled oily, like a garage.

  "Uncle Otto?" I whispered, and as I walked toward the bed where he lay I seemed to feel myself shrinking, not just in size but in years... becoming twenty again, fifteen, ten, eight, six... and finally five. I saw my trembling small hand stretch out toward his swelled face. As my hand touched him, cupping his face, I looked up, and the window was filled with the glaring windshield of the Cresswell -- and although it was only for a moment, I would swear on a Bible that was no hallucination. The Cresswell was there, in the window, less than six feet from me.

  I had placed my fingers on one of Uncle Otto's cheeks, my thumb on the other, wanting to investigate that strange swelling, I suppose. When I first saw the truck in the window, my hand tried to tighten into a fist, forgetting that it was cupped loosely around the corpse's lower face.

  In that instant the truck disappeared from the window like smoke -- or like the ghost I suppose it was. In the same instant I heard an awful squirting noise. Hot liquid filled my hand. I looked down, feeling not just yielding flesh and wetness but something hard and angled. I looked down, and saw, and that was when I began to scream. Oil was pouring out of Uncle Otto's mouth and nose. Oil was leaking from the corners of his eyes like tears. Diamond Gem Oil -- the recycled stuff you can buy in a five-gallon plastic container, the stuff McCutcheon had always run in the Cresswell.

  But it wasn't just oil; there was something sticking out of his mouth.

  I kept screaming but for a while I was unable to move, unable to take my oily hand from his face, unable to take my eyes from that big greasy thing sticking out of his mouth -- the thing that had so distorted the shape of his face.

  At last my paralysis broke and I fled from the house, still screaming. I ran across the dooryard to my Pontiac, flung myself in, and screamed out of there. The groceries meant for Uncle Otto tumbled off the back seat and onto the floor. The eggs broke.

  It was something of a wonder that I didn't kill myself in the first two miles -- I looked down at the speedometer and saw I was doing better than seventy. I pulled over and took deep breaths until I had myself under some kind of control. I began to realize that I simply could not leave Uncle Otto as I had found him; it would raise too many questions. I would have to go back.

  And, I must admit, a certain hellish curiosity had come over me. I wish now that it hadn't, or that I had withstood it; in fact, I wish now I had let them go ahead and ask their questions. But I did go back. I stood outside his door for some five minutes -- I stood in about the same place and in much the same position where he had stood so often and so long, looking at that truck. I stood there and came to this conclusion: the truck across the road had shifted position, ever so slightly.

  Then I went inside.

  The first few flies were circling and buzzing around his face. I could see oily prints on his cheeks: thumb on his left, three fingers on his right. I looked nervously at the window where I had seen the Cresswell looming... and then I walked over to his bed. I took out my handkerchief and wiped my fingerprints away. Then I reached forward and opened Uncle Otto's mouth.

  What fell out was a Champion spark plug -- one of the old Maxi-Duty kind, nearly as big as a circus strongman's fist.

/>   I took it with me. Now I wish I hadn't done that, but of course I was in shock. It would all have been more merciful if I didn't have the actual object here in my study where I can look at it, or pick it up and heft it if I should want to -- the 1920's-vintage spark plug that fell out of Uncle Otto's mouth.

  If it wasn't there, if I hadn't taken it away from his little one-room house when I fled from it the second time, I could perhaps begin the business of persuading myself that all of it -- not just coming around the turn and seeing the Cresswell pressed against the side of the little house like a huge red hound, but all of it -- was only an hallucination. But it is there; it catches the light. It is real. It has weight. The truck is getting closer every year, he said, and it seems now that he was right... but even Uncle Otto had no idea how close the Cresswell could get.

  The town verdict was that Uncle Otto had killed himself by swallowing oil, and it was a nine days' wonder in Castle Rock. Carl Durkin, the town undertaker and not the most closemouthed of men, said that when the docs opened him up to do the autopsy, they found more than three quarts of oil in him... and not just in his stomach, either. It had suffused his whole system. What everyone in town wanted to know was: what had he done with the plastic jug? For none was ever found.

  As I said, most of you reading this memoir won't believe it... at least, not unless something like it has happened to you. But the truck is still out there in its field... and for whatever it is worth, it all happened.