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From a Buick 8, Page 3

Stephen King

  The only time he came close to panic was a day or two later, when a guy taken before the Statler County magistrate suddenly went nuts and started running all over the place, pulling off his clothes and yelling about Jesus Penis. That's what the guy called him; I've got it in a report somewhere. About four different Troopers called in, a couple that were on-scene, a couple who were busting ass to get there. While Ned was trying to figure out how to deal with this, a Trooper from Butler called in, saying he was out on 99, in high-speed pursuit of . . . blurk! Transmission ceased. Ned presumed the guy had rolled his cruiser, and he presumed right (the Butler Troop, a rookie, came out all right, but his ride was totaled and the suspect he was chasing got away clean). Ned bawled for Shirley, backing away from the computer, the phones, and the mike as if they had suddenly gotten hot. She took over fast, but still took time to give him a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek before slipping into the seat he had vacated. Nobody was killed or even hurt badly, and Mr. Jesus Penis went to Statler Memorial for observation. It was the only time I saw Ned flustered, but he shook it off. And learned from it.

  On the whole, I was impressed.

  Shirley loved teaching him, too. That was no real surprise; she'd already demonstrated a willingness to risk her job by doing it without official sanction. She did know--we all did--that Ned had no intention of making police work his career, he never gave us so much as a hint of that, but it made no difference to Shirley. And he liked being around. We knew that, too. He liked the pressure and the tension, fed on it. There was that one lapse, true, but I was actually glad to see it. It was good to know it wasn't just a computer-game to him; he understood that he was moving real people around on his electronic chessboard. And if Pitt didn't work out, who knew? He was already better than Matt Babicki, Shirley's predecessor.

  In early July--it could have been a year to the day since his father had been killed, for all I know--the kid came to me about Shed B. There was a rap on the side of my door, which I mostly leave open, and when I looked up he was standing there in a sleeveless Steelers T-shirt and old bluejeans, a cleaning rag dangling out of each rear pocket. I knew what it was about right away. Maybe it was the rags, or maybe it was something in his eyes.

  "Thought it was your day off, Ned."

  "Yeah," he said, then shrugged. "There were just some chores I'd been meaning to do. And . . . well . . . when you come out for a smoke, there's something I want to ask you about." Pretty excited, by the sound of him.

  "No time like the present," I said, getting up.

  "You sure? I mean, if you're busy--"

  "I'm not busy," I said, though I was. "Let's go."

  It was early afternoon on the sort of day that's common enough in the Short Hills Amish country during midsummer: overcast and hot, the heat magnified by a syrupy humidity that hazed the horizon and made our part of the world, which usually looks big and generous to me, appear small and faded instead, like an old snapshot that's lost most of its color. From the west came the sound of unfocused thunders. By suppertime there might be more storms--we'd been having them three days a week since the middle of June, it seemed--but now there was only the heat and the humidity, wringing the sweat from you as soon as you stepped out of the air conditioning.

  Two rubber pails stood in front of the Shed B door, a bucket of suds and a bucket of rinse. Sticking out of one was the handle of a squeegee. Curt's boy was a neat worker. Shirley and Phil Candleton were currently sitting on the smokers" bench, and they gave me a wise shared glance as we passed them and walked across the parking lot.

  "I was doing the barracks windows," Ned was explaining, "and when I finished, I took the buckets over there to dump." He pointed at the waste ground between Shed B and Shed C, where there were a couple of rusting plow blades, a couple of old tractor tires, and a lot of weeds. "Then I decided what the heck, I'll give those shed windows a quick once-over before I toss the water. The ones on Shed C were filthy, but the ones on B were actually pretty clean."

  That didn't surprise me. The small windows running across the front of Shed B had been looked through by two (perhaps even three) generations of Troopers, from Jackie O'Hara to Eddie Jacubois. I could remember guys standing at those roll-up doors like kids at some scary sideshow exhibit. Shirley had taken her turns, as had her predecessor, Matt Babicki; come close, darlings, and see the living crocodile. Observe his teeth, how they shine.

  Ned's dad had once gone inside with a rope around his waist. I'd been in there. Huddie, of course, and Tony Schoondist, the old Sergeant Commanding. Tony, whose last name no one could spell on account of the strange way it was pronounced ( Shane -dinks), was four years in an "assisted living" institution by the time Ned officially came to work at the barracks. A lot of us had been in Shed B. Not because we wanted to but because from time to time we had to. Curtis Wilcox and Tony Schoondist became scholars (Roadmaster instead of Rhodes), and it was Curt who hung the round thermometer with the big numbers you could read from outside. To see it, all you had to do was lean your brow against one of the glass panes which ran along the roll-up door at a height of about five and a half feet, then cup your hands to the sides of your face to cut the glare. That was the only cleaning those windows would have gotten before Curt's boy showed up; the occasional polishing by the foreheads of those who had come to see the living crocodile. Or, if you want to be literal, the shrouded shape of something that almost looked like a Buick 8-cylinder. It was shrouded because we threw a tarpaulin over it, like a sheet over the body of a corpse. Only every now and then the tarp would slide off. There was no reason for that to happen, but from time to time it did. That was no corpse in there.

  "Look at it!" Ned said when we got there. He ran the words all together, like an enthusiastic little kid. "What a neat old car, huh? Even better than my Dad's Bel Aire! It's a Buick, I can tell that much by the portholes and the grille. Must be from the mid-fifties, wouldn't you say?"

  Actually it was a '54, according to Tony Schoondist, Curtis Wilcox, and Ennis Rafferty. Sort of a '54. When you got right down to it, it wasn't a 1954 at all. Or a Buick. Or even a car. It was something else, as we used to say in the days of my misspent youth.

  Meanwhile, Ned was going on, almost babbling.

  "But it's in cherry condition, you can see that from here. It was so weird, Sandy! I looked in and at first all I saw was this hump. Because the tarp was on it. I started to wash the windows . . ." Only what he actually said was warsh the windas, because that's how we say it in this part of the world, where the Giant Eagle supermarket becomes Jaunt Iggle. ". . . and there was this sound, or two sounds, really, a wisssshh and then a thump. The tarp slid off the car while I was washing the windows! Like it wanted me to see it, or something! Now is that weird or is that weird?"

  "That's pretty weird, all right," I said. I leaned my forehead against the glass (as I had done many times before) and cupped my hands to the sides of my face, eliminating what reflection there was on this dirty day. Yes, it looked like an old Buick, all right, old but almost cherry, just as the kid had said. That distinctive fifties Buick grille, which looked to me like the mouth of a chrome crocodile. Whitewall tires. Fenderskirts in the back--yow, baby, we used to say, too cool for school. Looking into the gloom of Shed B, you probably would have called it black. It was actually midnight blue.

  Buick did make a 1954 Roadmaster in midnight blue--Schoondist checked--but never one of that particular type. The paint had a kind of textured flaky look, like a kid's duded-up streetrod.

  That's earthquake country in there, Curtis Wilcox said.

  I jumped back. Dead a year or not, he spoke directly into my left ear. Or something did.

  "What's wrong?" Ned asked. "You look like you saw a ghost."

  Heard one, I almost said. What I did say was "Nothing."

  "You sure? You jumped."

  "Goose walked over my grave, I guess. I'm okay."

  "So what's the story on the car? Who owns it?"

  What a question that was. "I d
on't know," I said.

  "Well, what's it doing just sitting there in the dark? Man, if I had a nice-looking street-custom like that--and vintage!--I'd never keep it sitting in a dirty old shed." Then an idea hit him. "Is it, like, some criminal's car? Evidence in a case?"

  "Call it a repo, if you want. Theft of services." It's what we'd called it. Not much, but as Curtis himself had once said, you only need one nail to hang your hat on.

  "What services?"

  "Eleven dollars" worth of gas." I couldn't quite bring myself to tell him who had pumped it.

  "Eleven dollars? That's all?"

  "Well," I said, "you only need one nail to hang your hat on."

  He looked at me, puzzled. I looked back at him, saying nothing.

  "Can we go in?" he asked finally. "Take a closer look?"

  I put my forehead back against the glass and read the thermometer hanging from the beam, as round and bland as the face of the moon. Tony Schoondist had bought it at the Tru-Value in Statler, paying for it out of his own pocket instead of Troop D petty cash. And Ned's father had hung it from the beam. Like a hat on a nail.

  Although the temperature out where we were standing had to be at least eighty-five, and everyone knows heat builds up even higher in poorly ventilated sheds and barns, the thermometer's big red needle stood spang between the fives of 55.

  "Not just now," I said.

  "Why not?" And then, as if he realized that sounded impolite, perhaps even impudent: "What's wrong with it?"

  "Right now it's not safe."

  He studied me for several seconds. The interest and lively curiosity drained out of his face as he did, and he once more became the boy I had seen so often since he started coming by the barracks, the one I'd seen most clearly on the day he'd been accepted at Pitt. The boy sitting on the smokers" bench with tears rolling down his cheeks, wanting to know what every kid in history wants to know when someone they love is suddenly yanked off the stage: why does it happen, why did it happen to me, is there a reason or is it all just some crazy roulette wheel? If it means something, what do I do about it? And if it means nothing, how do I bear it?

  "Is this about my father?" he asked. "Was that my dad's car?"

  His intuition was scary. No, it hadn't been his father's car . . . how could it be, when it wasn't really a car at all? Yes, it had been his father's car. And mine . . . Huddie Royer's . . . Tony Schoondist's . . . Ennis Rafferty's. Ennis's most of all, maybe. Ennis's in a way the rest of us could never equal. Never wanted to equal. Ned had asked who the car belonged to, and I supposed the real answer was Troop D, Pennsylvania State Police. It belonged to all the Troopers, past and present, who had ever known what we were keeping out in Shed B. But for most of the years it had spent in our custody, the Buick had been the special property of Tony and Ned's dad. They were its curators, its Roadmaster Scholars.

  "Not exactly your dad's," I said, knowing I'd hesitated too long. "But he knew about it."

  "What's to know? And did my mom know, too?"

  "Nobody knows these days except for us," I said.

  "Troop D, you mean."

  "Yes. And that's how it's going to stay." There was a cigarette in my hand that I barely remembered lighting. I dropped it to the macadam and crushed it out. "It's our business."

  I took a deep breath.

  "But if you really want to know, I'll tell you. You're one of us now . . . close enough for government work, anyway." His father used to say that, too--all the time, and things like that have a way of sticking. "You can even go in there and look."


  "When the temperature goes up."

  "I don't get you. What's the temperature in there got to do with anything?"

  "I get off at three today," I said, and pointed at the bench. "Meet me there, if the rain holds off. If it doesn't, we'll go upstairs or down to the Country Way Diner, if you're hungry. I expect your father would want you to know."

  Was that true? I actually had no idea. Yet my impulse to tell him seemed strong enough to qualify as an intuition, maybe even a direct order from beyond. I'm not a religious man, but I sort of believe in such things. And I thought about the oldtimers saying kill or cure, saying give that curious cat a dose of satisfaction.

  Does knowing really satisfy? Rarely, in my experience. But I didn't want Ned leaving for Pitt in September the way he was in July, with his usual sunny nature flickering on and off like a lightbulb that isn't screwed all the way in. I thought he had a right to some answers. Sometimes there are none, I know that, but I felt like trying. Felt I had to try, in spite of the risks.

  Earthquake country, Curtis Wilcox said in my ear. That's earthquake country in there, so be careful.

  "Goose walk over your grave again, Sandy?" the boy asked me.

  "I guess it wasn't a goose, after all," I said. "But it was something."

  The rain held off. When I went out to join Ned on the bench which faces Shed B across the parking lot, Arky Arkanian was there, smoking a cigarette and talking Pirate baseball with the kid. Arky made as if to leave when I showed up, but I told him to stay put. "I'm going to tell Ned about the Buick we keep over there," I told Arky, nodding toward the ramshackle shed across the way. "If he decides to call for the men in the white coats because the Troop D Sergeant Commanding has lost his shit, you can back me up. After all, you were here."

  Arky's smile faded. His iron-gray hair fluffed around his head in the limp, hot breeze that had sprung up. "You sure dat a good idear, Sarge?"

  "Curiosity killed the cat," I said, "but--"

  "--satisfaction brought him back," Shirley finished from behind me. "A great big dose of it, is what Trooper Curtis Wilcox used to say. Can I join you? Or is this the Boys" Club today?"

  "No sex discrimination on the smokers" bench," I said. "Join us, please."

  Like me, Shirley had just finished her shift and Steff Colucci had taken her place at dispatch.

  She sat next to Ned, gave him a smile, and brought a pack of Parliaments out of her purse. It was two-double-oh-two, we all knew better, had for years, and we went right on killing ourselves. Amazing. Or maybe, considering we live in a world where drunks can crush State Troopers against the sides of eighteen-wheelers and where make-believe Buicks show up from time to time at real gas stations, not so amazing. Anyway, it was nothing to me right then.

  Right then I had a story to tell.


  In 1979, the Jenny station at the intersection of SR 32 and the Humboldt Road was still open, but it was staggering badly; OPEC took all the little 'uns out in the end. The mechanic and owner was Herbert "Hugh" Bossey, and on that particular day he was over in Lassburg, getting his teeth looked after--a bear for his Snickers bars and RC Colas was Hugh Bossey. NO MECH ON DUTY BECAUSE OF TOOTH-AKE, said the sign taped in the window of the garage bay. The pump-jockey was a high school dropout named Bradley Roach, barely out of his teens. This fellow, twenty-two years and untold thousands of beers later, would come along and kill the father of a boy who was not then born, crushing him against the side of a Freuhof box, turning him like a spindle, unrolling him like a noisemaker, spinning him almost skinless into the weeds and leaving his bloody clothes inside-out on the highway like a magic trick. But all that is in the yet-to-be. We are in the past now, in the magical land of Then.

  At around ten o'clock on a morning in July, Brad Roach was sitting in the office of the Jenny station with his feet up, reading Inside View. On the front was a picture of a flying saucer hovering ominously over the White House.

  The bell in the garage dinged as the tires of a vehicle rolled over the airhose on the tarmac. Brad looked up to see a car--the very one which would spend so many years in the darkness of Shed B--pull up to the second of the station's two pumps. That was the one labeled HI TEST. It was a beautiful midnight-blue Buick, old (it had the big chrome grille and the portholes running up the sides) but in mint condition. The paint sparkled, the windshield sparkled, the chrome bar sweeping along the side of the bo
dy sparkled, and even before the driver opened the door and got out, Bradley Roach knew there was something wrong with it. He just couldn't put his finger on what it was.

  He dropped his newspaper on the desk (he never would have been allowed to take it out of the desk drawer in the first place, if the boss hadn't been overtown paying for his sweet tooth) and got up just as the Roadmaster's driver opened his door on the far side of the pumps and got out.

  It had rained heavily the night before and the roads were still wet (hell, still underwater in some of the low places on the west side of Statler Township) but the sun had come out around eight o'clock and by ten the day was both bright and warm. Nevertheless, the man who got out of the car was dressed in a black trenchcoat and large black hat. "Looked like a spy in some old movie," Brad said to Ennis Rafferty an hour or so later, indulging in what was, for him, a flight of poetic fancy. The trenchcoat, in fact, was so long it nearly dragged on the puddly cement tarmac, and it billowed behind the Buick's driver as he strode toward the side of the station and the sound of Redfern Stream, which ran behind it. The sound of the stream was very loud that morning; it had swelled wonderfully in the previous night's showers.

  Brad, assuming that the man in the black coat and floppy black hat was headed for the seat of convenience, called: "Door's open, mister . . . how much of this jetfuel you want?"

  "Fill "er up," the customer said. He spoke in a voice Brad Roach didn't much like. What he told the responding officers later was that the guy sounded like he was talking through a mouthful of jelly. Brad was in a poetical mood for sure. Maybe Hugh being gone for the day had something to do with it.

  "Check the earl?" Brad asked. By this time his customer had reached the corner of the little white station. Judging by how fast he was moving, Brad figured he had to offload some freight in a hurry.

  The guy paused, though, and turned toward Brad a little. Just enough for Brad to see a pallid, almost waxy crescent of cheek, a dark, almond-shaped eye with no discernible white in it, and a curl of lank black hair falling beside one oddly made ear. Brad remembered the ear best, remembered it with great clarity. Something about it disturbed him deeply, perhaps even horrified him, but he couldn't explain just what it was. At this point, poesy failed him. Melted, kinda, like he'd been in a fire seemed to be the best he could do.