You Know They Got a Hell of a Band, Page 2Stephen King
For a moment his mouth seemed to disappear entirely and she braced for an explosion of righteous male wrath. Then his shoulders sagged and he only shook his head. In that moment she saw what he was going to look like thirty years from now, and that frightened her a lot more than getting caught on a back road in the middle of nowhere.
"No," he said. "1 guess I've given up on Toketee Falls. One of the great rules of travel in America is that roads without electrical lines running along at least one side of them don't go anywhere."
So he had noticed, too.
"Come on," he said, getting back in. "I'm going to try like hell to get us out of this. And next time I'll listen to you."
Yeah, yeah, Mary thought with a mixture of amusement and tired resentment. I've heard that one before. But before he could pull the transmission stick on the console down from park to drive, she put her hand over his. "I know you will," she said, turning what he'd said into a promise. "Now get us out of this mess."
"Count on it," Clark said.
"And be careful."
"You can count on that, too." He gave her a small smile that made her feel a little better, then engaged the Princess's transmission. The big gray Mercedes, looking very out of place in these deep woods, began to creep down the shadowy track again.
They drove another mile by the odometer and nothing changed but the width of the cart-track they were on: it grew narrower still. Mary thought the scruffy firs now looked not like hungry guests at a banquet but morbidly curious spectators at the site of a nasty accident. If the track got any narrower, they would begin to hear the squall of branches along the sides of the car. The ground under the trees, meanwhile, had gone from mucky to swampy; Mary could see patches of standing water, dusty with pollen and fallen pine needles, in some of the dips. Her heart was beating much too fast, and twice she had caught herself gnawing at her nails, a habit she thought she had given up for good the year before she married Clark. She had begun to realize that if they got stuck now, they would almost certainly spend the night camped out in the Princess. And there were animals in these woods -- she had heard them crashing around out there. Some of them sounded big enough to be bears. The thought of meeting a bear while they stood looking at their hopelessly mired Mercedes made her swallow something that felt and tasted like a large lint ball.
"Clark, I think we'd better give it up and try backing. It's already past three o'clock and -- "
"Look," he said, pointing ahead. "Is it a sign?"
She squinted. Ahead, the lane rose toward the crest of a deeply wooded hill. There was a bright blue oblong standing near the top. "Yes," she said. "It's a sign, all right."
"Great! Can you read it?"
"Uh-huh -- it says if you came this far, you really fucked up."
He shot her a complex look of amusement and irritation. "Very funny, Mare."
"Thank you, Clark. I try."
"We'll go to the top of the hill, read the sign, and see what's over the crest. If we don't see anything hopeful, we'll try backing. Agreed?''
He patted her leg, then drove cautiously on. The Mercedes was moving so slowly now that they could hear the soft sound of the weeds on the crown of the road whickering against the undercarriage. Mary really could make out the words on the sign now, but at first she rejected them, thinking she had to be mistaken -- it was just too crazy. But they drew closer still, and the words didn't change.
"Does it say what I think it does?" Clark asked her.
Mary gave a short, bewildered laugh. "Sure... but it must be someone's idea of a joke. Don't you think?"
"I've given up thinking -- it keeps getting me into trouble. But I see something that isn't a joke. Look, Mary!"
Twenty or thirty feet beyond the sign -- just before the crest of the hill -- the road widened dramatically and was once more both paved and lined. Mary felt worry roll off her heart like a boulder. Clark was grinning. "Isn't that beautiful?" She nodded happily, grinning herself. They reached the sign and Clark stopped. They read it again:
Welcome to Rock and Roll Heaven, Ore.
WE COOK WITH GAS! SO WILL YOU!
Jaycees • Chamber of Commerce • Lions • Elks
"It's got to be a joke," she repeated.
"A town called Rock and Roll Heaven? Puh-leeze, Clark."
"Why not? There's Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Dry Shark, Nevada, and a town in Pennsylvania called Intercourse. So why not a Rock and Roll Heaven in Oregon?"
She laughed giddily. The sense of relief was really incredible. "You made that up."
"I didn't. Ralph Ginzberg once tried to send a magazine called Eros from there. For the postmark. The Feds wouldn't let him. Swear. And who knows? Maybe the town was founded by a bunch of communal back-to-the-land hippies in the sixties. They went establishment -- Lions, Elks, Jaycees -- but the original name stayed." He was quite taken with the idea; he found it both funny and oddly sweet. "Besides, I don't think it matters. What matters is we found some honest-to-God pavement again, honey. The stuff you drive on."
She nodded. "So drive on it... but be careful."
"You bet." The Princess nosed up onto the pavement, which was not asphalt but a smooth composition surface without a patch or expansion-joint to be seen. "Careful's my middle n -- "
Then they reached the crest of the hill and the last word died in his mouth. He stamped on the brake-pedal so hard that their seatbelts locked, then jammed the transmission lever back into park.
"Holy wow!" Clark said.
They sat in the idling Mercedes, open-mouthed, looking down at the town below.
It was a perfect jewel of a town nestled in a small, shallow valley like a dimple. Its resemblance to the paintings of Norman Rockwell and the small-town illustrations of Currier & Ives was, to Mary, at least, inescapable. She tried to tell herself it was just the geography; the way the road wound down into the valley, the way the town was surrounded by deep green-black forest -- leagues of old, thick firs growing in unbroken profusion beyond the outlying fields -- but it was more than the geography, and she supposed Clark knew it as well as she did. There was something too sweetly balanced about the church steeples, for instance -- one on the north end of the town common and the other on the south end. The barn-red building off to the east had to be the school-house, and the big white one off to the west, the one with the bell-tower on top and the satellite dish to one side, had to be the town hall. The homes all looked impossibly neat and cozy, the sorts of domiciles you saw in the house-beautiful ads of pre-World War II magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and American Mercury.
There should be smoke curling from a chimney or two, Mary thought, and after a little examination, she saw that there was. She suddenly found herself remembering a story from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. "Mars Is Heaven," it had been called, and in it the Martians had cleverly disguised the slaughterhouse so it had looked like everybody's fondest hometown dream.
"Turn around," she said abruptly. "It's wide enough here, if you're careful."
He turned slowly to look at her, and she didn't care much for the expression on his face. He was eyeing her as if he thought she had gone crazy. "Honey, what are you -- "
"I don't like it, that's all." She could feel her face growing warm, but she pushed on in spite of the heat. "It makes me think of a scary story I read when I was a teenager." She paused. "It also makes me think of the candy-house in 'Hansel and Gretel."
He went on giving her that patented I Just Don't Believe It stare of his, and she realized he meant to go down there -- it was just another part of the same wretched testosterone blast that gotten them off the main road in the first place. He wanted to explore, by Christ. And he wanted a souvenir, of course. A tee-shirt bought in the local drugstore would do, one that said something cute like
I'VE BEEN TO ROCK AND ROLL HEAVEN
AND YOU KNOW THE
Y GOT A HELL OF A BAND.
"Honey -- " It was the soft, tender voice he used when he intended to jolly her into something or die trying.
"Oh, stop. If you want to do something nice for me, turn us around and drive us back to Highway 58. If you do that, you can have some more sugar tonight. Another double helping, even, if you're up to it."
He fetched a deep sigh, hands on the steering wheel, eyes straight ahead. At last, not looking at her, he said: "Look across the valley, Mary. Do you see the road going up the hill on the far side?"
"Yes, I do."
"Do you see how wide it is? How smooth? How nicely paved?"
"Clark, that is hardly -- "
"Look! I believe I even see an honest-to-God bus on it." He pointed at a yellow bug trundling along the road toward town, its metal hide glittering hotly in the afternoon sunlight. "That's one more vehicle than we've seen on this side of the world."
"I still -- "
He grabbed the map which had been lying on the console, and when he turned to her with it, Mary realized with dismay that the jolly, coaxing voice had temporarily concealed the fact that he was seriously pissed at her. "Listen, Mare, and pay attention, because there may be questions later. Maybe I can turn around here and maybe I can't -- it's wider, but I'm not as sure as you are that it's wide enough. And the ground still looks pretty squelchy to me."
"Clark, please don't yell at me. I'm getting a headache."
He made an effort and moderated his voice. "If we do get turned around, it's twelve miles back to Highway 58, over the same shitty road we just traveled -- "
"Twelve miles isn't so much." She tried to sound firm, if only to herself, but she could feel herself weakening. She hated herself for it, but that didn't change it. She had a horrid suspicion that this was how men almost always got their way: not by being right but by being relentless. They argued like they played football, and if you hung in there, you almost always finished the discussion with cleat-marks all over your psyche.
"No, twelve miles isn't so much," he was saying in his most sweetly reasonable I-am-trying-not-to-strangle-you-Mary voice, "but what about the fifty or so we'll have to tack on going around this patch of woods once we get back on 58?"
"You make it sound as if we had a train to catch, Clark!"
"It just pisses me off, that's all. You take one look down at a nice little town with a cute little name and say it reminds you of Friday the 13th, Part XX or some damn thing and you want to go back. And that road over there" -- he pointed across the valley -- "heads due south. It's probably less than half an hour from here to Toketee Falls by that road."
"That's about what you said back in Oakridge -- before we started off on the Magical Mystery Tour segment of our trip."
He looked at her a moment longer, his mouth tucked in on itself like a cramp, then grabbed the transmission lever. "Fuck it," he snarled. "We'll go back. But if we meet one car on the way, Mary, just one, we'll end up backing into Rock and Roll Heaven. So -- "
She put her hand over his before he could disengage the transmission for the second time that day.
"Go on," she said. "You're probably right and I'm probably being silly." Rolling over like this has got to be bred in the goddam bone, she thought. Either that, or I'm just too tired to fight.
She took her hand away, but he paused a moment longer, looking at her. "Only if you're sure," he said.
And that was really the most ludicrous thing of all, wasn't it? Winning wasn't enough for a man like Clark; the vote also had to be unanimous. She had voiced that unanimity many times when she didn't feel very unanimous in her heart, but she discovered that she just wasn't capable of it this time.
"But I'm not sure," she said. "If you'd been listening to me instead of just putting up with me, you'd know that. Probably you're right and probably I'm just being silly -- your take on it makes more sense than mine does, I admit that much, at least, and I'm willing to soldier along -- but that doesn't change the way I feel. So you'll just have to excuse me if I decline to put on my little cheerleader's skirt and lead the Go Clark Go cheer this time."
"Jesus!" he said. His face was wearing an uncertain expression that made him look uncharacteristically -- and somehow hate fully -- boyish. "You're in some mood, aren't you, honey-bunch?"
"I guess I am," she said, hoping he couldn't see how much that particular term of endearment grated on her. She was thirty-two, after all, and he was almost forty-one. She felt a little too old to be anyone's honeybunch and thought Clark was a little too old to need one.
Then the troubled look on his face cleared and the Clark she liked -- the one she really believed she could spend the second half of her life with -- was back. "You'd look cute in a cheerleader's skirt, though," he said, and appeared to measure the length of her thigh. "You would."
"You're a fool, Clark," she said, and then found herself smiling at him almost in spite of herself.
"That's correct, ma'am," he said, and put the Princess in gear.
The town had no outskirts, unless the few fields, which surrounded it, counted. At one moment they were driving down a gloomy, tree-shaded lane; at the next there were broad tan fields on either side of the car; at the next they were passing neat little houses.
The town was quiet but far from deserted. A few cars moved lazily back and forth on the four or five intersecting streets that made up downtown, and a handful of pedestrians strolled the sidewalks. Clark lifted a hand in salute to a bare-chested, potbellied man who was simultaneously watering his lawn and drinking a can of Olympia. The potbellied man, whose dirty hair straggled to his shoulders, watched them go by but did not raise his own hand in return.
Main Street had that same Norman Rockwell ambience, and here it was so strong that it was almost a feeling of deja vu. Robust, mature oaks shaded the walks, and that was somehow just right. You didn't have to see the town's only watering hole to know that it would be called The Dew Drop Inn and that there would be a lighted clock displaying the Budweiser Clydesdales over the bar. The parking spaces were the slanting type; there was a red-white-and-blue barber pole turning outside The Cutting Edge; a mortar and pestle hung over the door of the local pharmacy, which was called The Tuneful Druggist. The pet shop (with a sign in the window saying we have siamese if you please) was called White Rabbit. Everything was so right you could just shit. Most right of all was the town common at the center of town.
There was a sign hung on a guy-wire above the bandshell, and Mary could read it easily, although they were a hundred yards away. concert tonight, it said.
She suddenly realized that she knew this town -- had seen it many times on late-night TV. Never mind Ray Bradbury's hellish vision of Mars or the candy-house in "Hansel and Gretel"; what this place resembled more than either was The Peculiar Little Town people kept stumbling into in various episodes of The Twilight Zone.
She leaned toward her husband and said in a low, ominous voice: "We're traveling not through a dimension of sight and sound, Clark, but of mind. Look!" She pointed at nothing in particular, but a woman standing outside the town's Western Auto saw the gesture and gave her a narrow, mistrustful glance.
"Look at what?" he asked. He sounded irritated again, and she guessed that this time it was because he knew exactly what she was talking about.
"There's a signpost up ahead! We're entering -- "
"Oh, cut it out, Mare," he said, and abruptly swung into an empty parking slot halfway down Main Street.
"Clark!" she nearly screamed. "What are you doing?"
He pointed through the windshield at an establishment with the somehow not-cute name of The Rock-a-Boogie Restaurant.
"I'm thirsty. I'm going in there and getting a great big Pepsi to go. You don't have to come. You can sit right here. Lock all the doors, if you want." So saying, he opened his own door. Before he could swing his legs out, she grabbed his shoulder.
"Clark, please don't."
He looked back at her, and she saw at once that she should have ca
nned the crack about The Twilight Zone -- not because it was wrong but because it was right. It was that macho thing again. He wasn't stopping because he was thirsty, not really; he was stopping because this freaky little burg had scared him, too. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, she didn't know that, but she did know that he had no intention of going on until he had convinced himself he wasn't afraid, not one little bit.
"I won't be a minute. Do you want a ginger ale, or something?"
She pushed the button that unlocked her seatbelt. “What I want is not to be left alone."
He gave her an indulgent, I-knew-you'd-come look that made her feel like tearing out a couple of swatches of his hair.
"And what I also want is to kick your ass for getting us into this situation in the first place," she finished, and was pleased to see the indulgent expression turn to one of wounded surprise. She opened her own door. "Come on. Piddle on the nearest hydrant, Clark, and then we'll get out of here."
"Piddle... ? Mary, what in the hell are you talking about?"
"Sodas!" she nearly screamed, all the while thinking that it was really amazing how fast a good trip with a good man could turn bad. She glanced across the street and saw a couple of longhaired young guys standing there. They were also drinking Oily and checking out the strangers in town. One was wearing a battered top-hat. The plastic daisy stuck in the band nodded back and forth in the breeze. His companion's arms crawled with faded blue tattoos. To Mary they looked like the sort of fellows who dropped out of high school their third time through the tenth grade in order to spend more time meditating on the joys of drive-train linkages and date rape.
Oddly enough, they also looked somehow familiar to her.
They saw her looking. Top-Hat solemnly raised his hand and twiddled his fingers at her. Mary looked away hurriedly and turned to Clark. "Let's get our cold drinks and get the hell out of here."
"Sure," he said. "And you didn't need to shout at me, Mary. I mean, I was right beside you, and -- "
"Clark, do you see those two guys across the street?"