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Sneakers, Page 2

Stephen King

  He and Paul were having a drink or two at one of the back tables in McManus's Pub, talking about the mix, the biz, the Mets, whatever, when all of a sudden Janning's right hand was under the table and gently squeezing Tell's crotch.

  Tell moved away so violently that the candle in the center of the table fell over and Janning's glass of wine spilled. A waiter came over and righted the candle before it could scorch the tablecloth. Then he left. Tell stared at Janning, his eyes wide and shocked.

  "I'm sorry," Janning said, and he did look sorry ... but he also looked unperturbed.

  "Jesus Christ, Paul!" It was all he could think of to say, and it sounded hopelessly inadequate.

  "I thought you were ready, that's all," Janning said. "If I hadn't, I suppose I would have been more subtle. It's just that I've wanted you for quite a while now."

  "Ready?" Tell repeated. "Ready? What do you mean? Ready for what?"

  "To come out. To admit it to yourself and come out."

  "I'm not that way," Tell said, but his heart was pounding very fast. Part of it was outrage, part was fear of the implacable certainty he saw in Janning's eyes, most of it was dismay. What Janning had done shut him out. It also shut his mouth, but for the time being that was very much secondary.

  "Let's let it go, shall we? Let's just order and make up our minds that it never happened." Until you want it to, those implacable eyes added.

  Oh it happened, all right, Tell wanted to say, but that hand-the one that had been there all his life-was across his mouth. Don't say what you shouldn't say, this is a job, a good job, you need that Daltrey tape in your portfolio even more than you need the next two weeks' salary. Be careful, John.

  But that wasn't all of it. That was the small of it. The fact was that his mouth closed. It always had. It snapped shut like a bear-trap, a bear-trap with rusty implacable jaws, with all his heart below those interlocked teeth and all his head above. That was the tall of it.

  "All right," he said, "it never happened."

  Tell slept badly that night, and what sleep he did get was haunted by bad dreams: one of Janning groping him in McManus's was followed by one of the sneakers under the stall door, only in this one Tell opened it and saw Paul Janning sitting there, a corpse with a huge peeling hard-on sticking up from the thatch of his pubic hair like an exclamation point. The mouth of this corpse dropped open with an audible creak. "That's right; I knew you were ready," it said on a puff of greenly rotten air, and Tell woke himself up by tumbling onto the floor in a tangle of coverlet. It was four in the morning. The first touches of light were just creeping through the chinks between the buildings outside his window. He dressed and sat smoking one cigarette after another until it was time to go to work.

  Around eleven o'clock on that Saturday-they were working six-day weeks to make Daltrey's deadline-Tell went into the third floor bathroom to urinate. He stood just inside the door, rubbing his temples, and then looked around at the stalls.

  He couldn't see. The angle was wrong.

  Then never mind! Fuck it! Take your piss and get out of here!

  He walked slowly over to one of the urinals and unzipped.

  It took a long time to get going.

  On his way out he paused again, head cocked, and then walked slowly around into the stall area just far enough so he could see under the door of the first stall.

  The dirty white sneakers were still there. The building which used to be known as Music City was almost completely empty, Saturday morning empty, but the sneakers were still there.

  Tell's eyes fixed upon a fly just outside the stall. He watched with an empty sort of avidity as it crawled beneath the stall door and onto one of the sneakers. There it stopped, and simply fell dead. It tumbled into the growing pile around the sneakers. Tell saw with no surprise at all (none that he felt, anyway) that among the flies was a large cockroach, lying on its back like a turtle.

  He left in large painless strides, and his progress back to the studios seemed most peculiar; it was as if, instead of walking, the building was flowing past him, around him, like river-rapids around a rock.

  When I get back I'll tell Paul I don't feel well and take the rest of the day off, he thought, but he wouldn't. Paul had been in an erratic, unpleasant mood all morning, and Tell knew he was part (or maybe all) of the reason why. Might Paul fire him out of spite? A week ago he would have laughed at such an idea. But a week ago he had still believed what he had come to believe in his growing-up: friends were real and ghosts were makebelieve. Did he think the sneakers in the men's room belonged to a ghost? Well, as a matter of fact he did. Which, when taken along with the events of the night before meant he had everything backwards: friends were Make-believe and ghosts were real.

  "The prodigal returns," Janning said without looking around as Tell opened the second of the studio's two doors-the one that was called the "dead air" door. "I thought you died in there, Johnny."

  "No," Tell said. "Not me."

  It was a ghost; Tell found out whose a day before the Daltrey mix-and his association with Paul Janningended, but before that happened a great many other things did. Except they were all the same thing, just little mile-markers, like the ones on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, announcing John Tell's steady progress toward a nervous breakdown. He knew this was happening, understood why it was happening, and still could not help it from happening. It seemed he was not driving this particular road but being chauffeured.

  At first his course of action had seemed clear-cut and simple: avoid that men's room, and avoid all questions about the sneakers. Stop thinking about it.

  But he couldn't stop thinking about it. It crept up on him at odd moments and pounced like an old grief. He would be sitting home, some stupid game-show on the tube, and think about the flies, or about janitors replacing the toilet paper, and then he would look at the clock and see an hour had passed. Or he would think it was all a malevolent practical joke.

  Paul's in on it, and probably that thin guy from Janus Music I see him talking to every now and then, and probably the receptionist, him with his Camels and his dead skeptical eyes. Not George, he couldn't keep it from me even if Paul shouted him into going along, but anyone else is possible. Shit, maybe even Roger Daltrey himself took a turn wearing those sneakers!

  He recognized these thoughts as paranoid fantasies, but the worst thing was that recognition did not lead to dispersion. The thoughts lived their own lives inside his brain. He would tell them to go away, there was no cabal led by Paul Janning out to get him, and his mind would say Yeah, okay, makes sense to me, and five hours later or maybe only twenty minutes-he would see a bunch of them sitting around Desmond's Steak House two blocks downtown: Paul, the receptionist who smoked the Camels, maybe even the fat guy from Snappy Kards, all of them eating shrimp cocktails and drinking. And laughing, of course. Laughing at him, while the dirty white sneakers they took turns wearing sat under the table in a crumpled brown bag.

  Tell could see that brown bag. That was how bad it had gotten.

  But the worst was just this: the third-floor men's room had acquired a pull. It was as if there was a powerful magnet in there and his pockets were full of iron filings. If someone had told him something like that he would have laughed (maybe just inside, if the person making the metaphor seemed very much in earnest), but it was really there, a feeling like a swerve every time he passed the men's on his way to the studios or back to the elevators. It was a terrible feeling, like being pulled toward an open window sixty stories up or watching helplessly, as if from outside yourself, as you raised a pistol to your mouth and sucked the barrel.

  He wanted to look again. He realized that one more look was about all it would take to finish him off, but it made no difference. He wanted to look again.

  Each time he passed, that mental swerve.

  In his dreams he opened that door again and again. just to get a look.

  To get a really good look.

  He couldn't get it out. That was the worst of it.
He understood if he could get it out, pour it into someone else's ear, it would change its shape, perhaps even grow a handle with which he could hold it. Twice he went into bars and managed to strike up conversations with the men next to him. Because bars, he thought, were the places where talk was at its absolute cheapest. Bargain basement rates.

  He had no more than opened his mouth on the first occasion when the man he had picked began to sermonize on the subject of the Yankees, Billy Martin, and that asshole George Steinbrunner. Steinbrunner in particular seemed to get under this man's skin. It was impossible to get a word in edgeways and Tell soon gave up trying.

  The second time, he managed to work up a fairly casual conversation with a man who looked like a construction worker. They talked about the weather, and baseball (but this man, like Janning, was a Mets fan, and not at all nutty on the subject), progressed to jobs, and so on. Tell was sweating. He felt as if he was doing some heavy piece of manual labor - pushing a wheelbarrow filled with cement up a slight grade, maybe-but he also felt as if he wasn't doing too badly.

  The guy who looked like a construction worker was drinking Black Russians. Tell stuck to beer. It felt as if he was sweating it out as fast as he put it in, but after he had bought the guy a couple of drinks and the guy had bought Tell a couple of schooners, he nerved himself to begin.

  "You want to hear something really strange?" he said. "You queer?" the guy who looked like a construction worker asked him before Tell could get any further. He turned on his stool and looked at Tell with amiable curiosity. "I mean, it's nothin' to me whether y'are or not, but I just thought I'd tell you I don't go for that stuff. Have it up front, you know?"

  "I'm not queer," Tell said.

  "Oh. What's really strange?"


  "You said something was really strange."

  "Oh, it really wasn't that strange," Tell said, then glanced at his watch and said it was getting late.

  Three days before the end of the mix, Tell left Studio F to urinate. He now used the bathroom on the sixth floor for this purpose. He had first used the one on four, then the one on five, but these were stacked directly above the one on three, and he had begun to feel the owner of the sneakers radiating silently up through the floors, seeming to suck at him. But the men's room on six was on the other side of the building, and that seemed to solve the problem.

  He passed the reception desk on his way to the elevators, blinked, and suddenly he was in the thirdfloor bathroom with the door whoozing softly shut behind him instead of in the elevator car. He had never been so afraid. Part of it was the sneakers, but most of it was knowing he had just dropped three to six seconds of consciousness. For the first time in his life his mind had simply shorted out.

  He had no idea how long he might have stood there if the door hadn't suddenly opened behind him, cracking him painfully in the back. It was Paul Janning. "Excuse me, Johnny," he said. "I had no idea you came in here to meditate."

  He passed Tell without waiting for a response (he wouldn't have got one in any case, Tell thought later; he was completely incapable of speech, his tongue frozen to the roof of his mouth), and headed for the stalls. Tell was able to walk over to the first urinal and unzip his fly, doing these things only because he thought Paul would really enjoy it if he freaked out. Paul had seemed to take Tell's horrified rejection in stride at the time. But times changed.

  Tell flushed the urinal and zipped his fly again (he hadn't even bothered to take his penis, which felt as if it had shrunk to roughly the size of a peanut, from inside his Underwear). He started out ... then stopped. He turned around, took two steps, bent, and looked under the door of the first stall.

  The sneakers were there, now surrounded by mounds of dead flies.

  So were Paul Janning's Gucci loafers.

  What Tell was seeing looked like a double exposure, or one of the hokey ghost effects from the Topper TV program. First he would be seeing Paul's loafers through the sneakers. then the sneakers would seem to solidify and he would be seeing them through the loafers, as if Paul were the ghost. Except, even when he was seeing through them, Paul's loafers made little shifts and movements, while the sneakers remained as immobile as always.

  Tell left. For the first time in two weeks he felt calm.

  The next day he did what he probably should have done at once: he took Georgie Ronkler out to lunch and asked him if he had ever heard anything strange about the building which used to be called Music City. Why he hadn't thought of doing this earlier was a puzzle to him. He only knew that what happened yesterday seemed to have cleared his mind somehow, like a brisk slap or a dashing of cold water. Georgie might not know anything, but he might; he had been working with Paul for at least seven years, and a lot of that work had been done at Music City.

  "Oh, the ghost, you mean?" Georgie asked, and laughed. They were in Cartin's, a deli-restaurant on 6th Avenue, and the place was noon-noisy. He bit into his corned beef sandwich, chewed, swallowed, and sipped some of his cream soda through the two straws poked into the bottle. "Who told you 'bout that, Johnny?"

  "Some janitor," Tell said. His voice was perfectly calm.

  "You sure you didn't see him?" Georgie asked, and winked. This was as close as Georgie could get to teasing.

  "Nope." He hadn't. Not really. just some sneakers. Sneakers and dead flies.

  "Yeah, well, everybody used to talk about it," Georgie said, "how the guy's ghost was haunting the place. He got it right up there on the third floor, you know. In the john. "

  "Yes," Tell said. "That's what I heard. But the janitor wouldn't tell me anymore, or maybe he didn't know anymore. He just laughed and walked away."

  "It happened before I started to work with Paul. Paul was the one who told me about it."

  "He never saw the ghost himself?" Tell asked, knowing the answer. Yesterday Paul had been sitting in it. Shitting in it, to be perfectly vulgarly truthful.

  "No, he used to laugh about it." Georgie put his sandwich down. "You know how he can be sometimes. Just a little m-mean." If forced to say something even slightly negative about someone, Georgie developed a mild stutter.

  "I know. But never mind Paul; who was this ghost? What happened to him?"

  "Oh, he was just some dope pusher," Georgie said. "This was back in 1972 or '73, I guess. Before the Slump."

  Tell nodded. From 1975 until 1980 or so, the rock industry lay becalmed in the horse latitudes. Kids spent their money on video games instead of records. For perhaps the fiftieth time since 1955, the pundits announced the death of rock and roll. And, as on other occasions, it proved to be a lively corpse. Video games topped out; MTV checked in; a fresh wave of stars arrived from England; Bruce Springsteen suddenly became all the things the newsmagazines had said he was ten years before.

  "Before the slump, record company execs used to deliver coke backstage in their briefcases before big shows," Georgie said. "I was concert-mixing back then, and I saw it happen. There was one guy-I don't want to say his n-name because he's dead, dead since 1978, but you'd know it-who used to get a jar of olives from his label before every gig. The jar would come wrapped up in pretty paper with bows and ribbon and everything. Only instead of water, the olives came packed in cocaine. He used to put them in his drinks. Called them b-b-blast-off martinis."

  "I bet they were, too," Tell murmured.

  "Well, back then everybody thought coke was a good clean high. It didn't hook you like heroin or f-fuck you over so you couldn't work. And this building, man, this building was a regular snowstorm. Pills and pot and hash too, but mainly it was cocaine. It was the big fashion drug. And this guy-"

  "What was his name?"

  Georgie shrugged and worked on his sandwich. "I don't know. But he was like one of the deli delivery boys you see going up and down in the elevators with coffee and doughnuts and b-bagels. Only instead of delivering coffee-and, this guy delivered dope. You'd see him this is what I heard, anyway - two or three times a week, riding all the way up and then
working his way down. He'd have a topcoat slung over his arm and an alligatorskin briefcase in that hand. He kept the overcoat over his arm even when it was hot. That was so people wouldn't see the cuff. But I guess sometimes they did a-a-anyway."

  "The what?"

  "C-C-Cuff' Georgie said, spraying out bits of bread and corned beef and immediately going crimson. "Gee, Johnny, I'm sorry."

  "No problem. You want another cream soda?"

  "Yes, thanks," Georgie said gratefully.

  Tell signalled the waitress.

  "So he was a delivery-boy," he said, mostly to put Georgie at his ease again - Georgie was still patting his lips with his napkin.

  "That's right." The fresh cream soda arrived and Georgie drank some. "When he got off the elevator on the eighth floor, that briefcase chained to his wrist would be full of dope. When he got off it on the ground floor again, it would be full of money."

  "Best trick since lead into gold," Tell said.


  "Nothing. Go on."

  "Not much to tell. One day he only made it down to the third floor. He made his deliveries, went into the men's room, and someone o-offed him."

  "Shot him?" Tell asked, thinking dubiously of silencers-in the movies they made a sound very like that of the pneumatic elbow-joint on the men's room door.

  "What I heard," Georgie said, "was that someone opened the door of the stall where he was s-sitting and stuck a pencil in his eye."

  For just a moment Tell saw it as vividly as he had seen the crumpled bag under the conspirators' restaurant table: a yellow Eberhard Faber #2, sharpened to an exquisite black point, sliding forward through the air and then shearing into the startled black well of pupil. He winced.

  Georgie nodded. "It's probably not true. I mean, not that part. Probably someone just, you know, stuck him."


  "But whoever it was sure had something sharp with him, all right," Georgie said.