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11/22/63

11/22/63

11 22 14


  Because, you see, I had met Christy at a swing-dancing class in Lewiston, and this was one of the tunes we had learned to. Later--in our best year, six months before the marriage and six months after--we had danced in competitions, once taking fourth prize (also known as "first also-ran," according to Christy) in the New England Swing-Dancing Competition. Our tune was a slightly slowed-down dance-mix version of KC and the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Shoes."

  This isn't a coincidence, I thought, watching them. The boy was wearing blue jeans and a crew-neck shirt; she had on a white blouse with the tails hanging down over faded red clamdiggers. That amazing hair was pulled back in the same impudently cute ponytail Christy had always worn when we danced competitively. Along with her bobby sox and vintage poodle skirt, of course.

  This cannot be a coincidence.

  They were doing a Lindy variation I knew as the Hellzapoppin. It's supposed to be a fast dance--lightning-fast, if you have the physical stamina and grace to bring it off--but they were dancing it slow because they were still learning their steps. I could see inside every move. I knew them all, although I hadn't actually danced any of them in five years or more. Come together, both hands clasped. He stoops a little and kicks with his left foot while she does the same, both of them twisting at the waist so that they appear to be going in opposite directions. Move apart, hands still clasped, then she twirls, first to the left and then to the right--

  But they goofed up the return spin and she went sprawling on the grass. "Jesus, Richie, you never get that right! Gah, you're hopeless!" She was laughing, though. She flopped on her back and stared up at the sky.

  "I'se sorry, Miss Scawlett!" the boy cried in a screechy pickaninny voice that would have gone over like a lead balloon in the politically correct twenty-first century. "I'se just a clodhoppin country boy, but I intends to learn dis-yere dance if it kills me!"

  "I'm the one it's likely to kill," she said. "Start the record again before I lose my--" Then they both saw me.

  It was a strange moment. There was a veil in Derry--I came to know that veil so well I could almost see it. The locals were on one side; people from away (like Fred Toomey, like me) were on the other. Sometimes the locals came out from behind it, as Mrs. Starrett the librarian had when expressing her irritation about the misplaced census records, but if you asked too many questions--and certainly if you startled them--they retreated behind it again.

  Yet I had startled these kids, and they didn't retreat behind the veil. Instead of closing up, their faces remained wide open, full of curiosity and interest.

  "Sorry, sorry," I said. "Didn't mean to surprise you. I heard the music and then I saw you lindy-hopping."

  "Trying to lindy-hop, is what you mean," the boy said. He helped the girl to her feet. He made a bow. "Richie Tozier, at your service. My friends all say 'Richie-Richie, he live in a ditchie,' but what do they know?"

  "Nice to meet you," I said. "George Amberson." And then--it just popped out--"My friends all say 'Georgie-Georgie, he wash his clothes in a Norgie,' but they don't know anything, either."

  The girl collapsed on one of the picnic table benches, giggling. The boy raised his hands in the air and bugled: "Strange grown-up gets off a good one! Wacka-wacka-wacka! Dee-lightful! Ed McMahon, what have we got for this wonderful fella? Well, Johnny, today's prizes on Who Do You Trust are a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica and an Electrolux vacuum cleaner to suck em up wi--"

  "Beep-beep, Richie," the girl said. She was wiping the corners of her eyes.

  This caused an unfortunate reversion to the screeching pickaninny voice. "I'se sorry, Miss Scawlett, don't be whuppin on me! I'se still got scabs from de las' time!"

  "Who are you, Miss?" I asked.

  "Bevvie-Bevvie, I live on the levee," she said, and started giggling again. "Sorry--Richie's a fool, but I have no excuse. Beverly Marsh. You're not from around here, are you?"

  A thing everybody seemed to know immediately. "Nope, and you two don't seem like you are, either. You're the first two Derry-ites I've met who don't seem . . . grumpy."

  "Yowza, it's a grumpy-ass town," Richie said, and took the tone arm off the record. It had been bumping on the final groove over and over.

  "I understand folks're particularly worried about the children," I said. "Notice I'm keeping my distance. You guys on grass, me on sidewalk."

  "They weren't all that worried when the murders were going on," Richie grumbled. "You know about the murders?"

  I nodded. "I'm staying at the Town House. Someone who works there told me."

  "Yeah, now that they're over, people are all concerned about the kids." He sat down next to Bevvie who lived on the levee. "But when they were going on, you didn't hear jack spit."

  "Richie," she said. "Beep-beep."

  This time the boy tried on a really atrocious Humphrey Bogart imitation. "Well it's true, schweetheart. And you know it's true."

  "All that's over," Bevvie told me. She was as earnest as a Chamber of Commerce booster. "They just don't know it yet."

  "They meaning the townspeople or just grown-ups in general?"

  She shrugged as if to say what's the difference.

  "But you do know."

  "As a matter of fact, we do," Richie said. He looked at me challengingly, but behind his mended glasses, that glint of maniacal humor was still in his eyes. I had an idea it never completely left them.

  I stepped onto the grass. Neither child fled, screaming. In fact, Beverly shoved over on the bench (elbowing Richie so he would do the same) and made room for me. They were either very brave or very stupid, and they didn't look stupid.

  Then the girl said something that flabbergasted me. "Do I know you? Do we know you?"

  Before I could answer, Richie spoke up. "No, it's not that. It's . . . I dunno. Do you want something, Mr. Amberson? Is that it?"

  "Actually, I do. Some information. But how did you know that? And how do you know I'm not dangerous?"

  They looked at each other, and something passed between them. It was impossible to know just what, yet I felt sure of two things: they had sensed an otherness about me that went way beyond just being a stranger in town . . . but, unlike the Yellow Card Man, they weren't afraid of it. Quite the opposite; they were fascinated by it. I thought those two attractive, fearless kids could have told some stories if they wanted to. I've always remained curious about what those stories might have been.

  "You're just not," Richie said, and when he looked to the girl, she nodded agreement.

  "And you're sure that the . . . the bad times . . . are over?"

  "Mostly," Beverly said. "Things'll get better. In Derry I think the bad times are over, Mr. Amberson--it's a hard place in a lot of ways."

  "Suppose I told you--just hypothetically--that there was one more bad thing on the horizon? Something like what happened to a little boy named Dorsey Corcoran."

  They winced as if I had pinched a place where the nerves lay close to the surface. Beverly turned to Richie and whispered in his ear. I'm not positive about what she said, it was quick and low, but it might have been That wasn't the clown. Then she looked back at me.

  "What bad thing? Like when Dorsey's father--"

  "Never mind. You don't have to know." It was time to jump. These were the ones. I didn't know how I knew it, but I did. "Do you know some kids named Dunning?" I ticked them off on my fingers. "Troy, Arthur, Harry, and Ellen. Only Arthur's also called--"

  "Tugga," Beverly said matter-of-factly. "Sure we know him, he goes to our school. We're practicing the Lindy for the school talent show, it's just before Thanksgiving--"

  "Miss Scawlett, she b'leeve in gittin an early start on de practicin," Richie said.

  Beverly Marsh took no notice. "Tugga's signed up for the show, too. He's going to lip-synch to 'Splish Splash.'" She rolled her eyes. She was good at that.

  "Where does he live? Do you know?"

  They knew, all right, but neither of them said. And if I didn't give them a little more, they w
ouldn't. I could see that in their faces.

  "Suppose I told you there's a good chance Tugga's never going to be in the talent show unless somebody watches out for him? His brothers and his sister, too? Would you believe a thing like that?"

  The kids looked at each other again, conversing with their eyes. It went on a long time--ten seconds, maybe. It was the sort of long gaze that lovers indulge in, but these tweenagers couldn't be lovers. Friends, though, for sure. Close friends who'd been through something together.

  "Tugga and his family live on Cossut Street," Richie said finally. That's what it sounded like, anyway.

  "Cossut?"

  "That's how people around here say it," Beverly told me. "K-O-S-S-U-T-H. Cossut."

  "Got it." Now the only question was how much these kids were going to blab about our weird conversation on the edge of the Barrens.

  Beverly was looking at me with earnest, troubled eyes. "But Mr. Amberson, I've met Tugga's dad. He works at the Center Street Market. He's a nice man. Always smiling. He--"

  "The nice man doesn't live at home anymore," Richie interrupted. "His wife kicked im out."

  She turned to him, eyes wide. "Tug told you that?"

  "Nope. Ben Hanscom. Tug told him."

  "He's still a nice man," Beverly said in a small voice. "Always joking around and stuff but never touchy-grabby."

  "Clowns joke around a lot, too," I said. They both jumped, as if I had pinched that vulnerable bundle of nerves again. "That doesn't make them nice."

  "We know," Beverly whispered. She was looking at her hands. Then she raised her eyes to me. "Do you know about the Turtle?" She said turtle in a way that made it sound like a proper noun.

  I thought of saying I know about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and didn't. It was decades too early for Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo. So I just shook my head.

  She looked doubtfully at Richie. He looked at me, then back at her. "But he's good. I'm pretty sure he's good." She touched my wrist. Her fingers were cold. "Mr. Dunning's a nice man. And just because he doesn't live at home anymore doesn't mean he isn't."

  That hit home. My wife had left me, but not because I wasn't nice. "I know that." I stood up. "I'm going to be around Derry for a little while, and it would be good not to attract too much attention. Can you two keep quiet about this? I know it's a lot to ask, but--"

  They looked at each other and burst into laughter.

  When she could speak, Beverly said: "We can keep a secret."

  I nodded. "I'm sure you can. Kept a few this summer, I bet."

  They didn't reply to this.

  I cocked a thumb at the Barrens. "Ever play down there?"

  "Once," Richie said. "Not anymore." He stood up and brushed off the seat of his blue jeans. "It's been nice talking to you, Mr. Amberson. Don't take any wooden Indians." He hesitated. "And be careful in Derry. It's better now, but I don't think it's ever gonna be, you know, completely right."

  "Thanks. Thank you both. Maybe someday the Dunning family will have something to thank you for, too, but if things go the way I hope they will--"

  "--they'll never know a thing," Beverly finished for me.

  "Exactly." Then, remembering something Fred Toomey had said: "Right with Eversharp. You two take care of yourselves."

  "We will," Beverly said, then began to giggle again. "Keep washing those clothes in your Norgie, Georgie."

  I skimmed a salute off the brim of my new summer straw and started to walk away. Then I had an idea and turned back to them. "Does that phonograph play at thirty-three and a third?"

  "Like for LPs?" Richie asked. "Naw. Our hi-fi at home does, but Bevvie's is just a baby one that runs on batteries."

  "Watch what you call my record player, Tozier," Beverly said. "I saved up for it." Then, to me: "It just plays seventy-eights and forty-fives. Only I lost the plastic thingie for the hole in the forty-fives, so now it only plays seventy-eights."

  "Forty-five rpm should do," I said. "Start the record again, but play it at that speed." Slowing down the tempo while getting the hang of swing-dance steps was something Christy and I had learned in our classes.

  "Crazy, daddy," Richie said. He switched the speed-control lever beside the turntable and started the record again. This time it sounded like everyone in Glenn Miller's band had swallowed Quaaludes.

  "Okay." I held out my hands to Beverly. "You watch, Richie."

  She took my hands with complete trust, looking up at me with wide blue amused eyes. I wondered where she was and who she was in 2011. If she was even alive. Supposing she was, would she remember that a strange man who asked strange questions had once danced with her to a draggy version of "In the Mood" on a sunny September afternoon?

  I said, "You guys were doing it slow before, and this will slow you down even more, but you can still keep the beat. Plenty of time for each step."

  Time. Plenty of time. Start the record again but slow it down.

  I pulled her toward me by our clasped hands. Let her go back. We both bent like people under water, and kicked to the left while the Glenn Miller Orchestra played bahhhhh . . . dahhh . . . dahhhh

  . . . bahhhh . . . dahhhh . . . daaaa . . . deee . . . dummmmmm. At that same slow speed, like a windup toy that's almost unwound, she twirled to the left under my upraised hands.

  "Stop!" I said, and she froze with her back to me and our hands still linked. "Now squeeze my right hand to remind me what comes next."

  She squeezed, then rotated smoothly back and all the way around to the right.

  "Cool!" she said. "Now I'm supposed to go under, then you bring me back. And I flip over. That's why we're doing it on the grass, so if I mess it up I don't break my neck."

  "I'll leave that part up to you," I said. "I'm too ancient to be flipping anything but hamburgers."

  Richie once more raised his hands to the sides of his face. "Wacka-wacka-wacka! Strange grown-up gets off another--"

  "Beep-beep, Richie," I said. That made him laugh. "Now you try it. And work out hand signals for any other moves that go beyond the jitterbug two-step they do in the local soda shop. That way even if you don't win the talent show contest, you'll look good."

  Richie took Beverly's hands and tried it. In and out, side to side, around to the left, around to the right. Perfect. She slipped feet-first between Richie's spread legs, supple as a fish, and then he brought her back. She finished with a showy flip that brought her to her feet again. Richie took her hands and they repeated the whole thing. It was even better the second time.

  "We lose the beat on the under-and-out," Richie complained.

  "You won't when the record's playing at normal speed. Trust me."

  "I like it," Beverly said. "It's like having the whole thing under glass." She did a little spin on the toes of her sneakers. "I feel like Loretta Young at the start of her show, when she comes in wearing a swirly dress."

  "They call me Arthur Murray, I'm from Miz-OOO-ri," Richie said. He also looked pleased.

  "I'm going to speed the record up," I said. "Remember your signals. And keep time. It's all about time."

  Glenn Miller played that old sweet song, and the kids danced. On the grass, their shadows danced beside them. Out . . . in . . . dip . . . kick . . . spin left . . . spin right . . . go under . . . pop out . . . and flip. They weren't perfect this time, and they'd screw up the steps many times before they nailed them (if they ever did), but they weren't bad.

  Oh, to hell with that. They were beautiful. For the first time since I'd topped that rise on Route 7 and saw Derry hulking on the west bank of the Kenduskeag, I was happy. That was a good feeling to go on, so I walked away from them, giving myself the old advice as I went: don't look back, never look back. How often do people tell themselves that after an experience that is exceptionally good (or exceptionally bad)? Often, I suppose. And the advice usually goes unheeded. Humans were built to look back; that's why we have that swivel joint in our necks.

  I went half a block, then turned aro
und, thinking they would be staring at me. But they weren't. They were still dancing. And that was good.

  8

  There was a Cities Service station a couple of blocks down on Kansas Street, and I went into the office to ask directions to Kossuth Street, pronounced Cossut. I could hear the whir of an air compressor and the tinny jangle of pop music from the garage bay, but the office was empty. That was fine with me, because I saw something useful next to the cash register: a wire stand filled with maps. The top pocket held a single city map that looked dirty and forgotten. On the front was a photo of an exceptionally ugly Paul Bunyan statue cast in plastic. Paul had his axe over his shoulder and was grinning up into the summer sun. Only Derry, I thought, would take a plastic statue of a mythical logger as its icon.

  There was a newspaper dispenser just beyond the gas pumps. I took a copy of the Daily News as a prop, and flipped a nickel on top of the pile of papers to join the other coins scattered there. I don't know if they're more honest in 1958, but they're a hell of a lot more trusting.

  According to the map, Kossuth Street was on the Kansas Street side of town, and turned out to be just a pleasant fifteen-minute stroll from the gas station. I walked under elm trees that had yet to be touched by the blight that would take almost all of them by the seventies, trees that were still as green as they had been in July. Kids tore past me on bikes or played jacks in driveways. Little clusters of adults gathered at corner bus stops, marked by white stripes on telephone poles. Derry went about its business and I went about mine--just a fellow in a nondescript sport coat with his summer straw pushed back a little on his head, a fellow with a folded newspaper in one hand. He might be looking for a yard or garage sale; he might be checking for plummy real estate. Certainly he looked like he belonged here.

  So I hoped.

  Kossuth was a hedge-lined street of old-fashioned New England saltbox houses. Sprinklers twirled on lawns. Two boys ran past me, tossing a football back and forth. A woman with her hair bound up in a kerchief (and the inevitable cigarette dangling from her lower lip) was washing the family car and occasionally spraying the family dog, who backed away, barking. Kossuth Street looked like an exterior scene from some old fuzzy sitcom.