They had been predicting a norther all week and along about Thursday we got it, a real screamer that piled up eight inches by four in the afternoon and showed no signs of slowing down. The usual five or six were gathered around the Reliable in Henry's Nite-Owl, which is the only little store on this side of Bangor that stays open right around the clock.
Henry don't do a huge business - mostly, it amounts to selling the college kids their beer and wine - but he gets by and it's a place for us old duffers on Social Security to get together and talk about who's died lately and how the world's going to hell.
This afternoon Henry was at the counter; Bill Pelham, Bertie Connors, Carl Littlefield, and me was tipped up by the stove. Outside, not a car was moving on Ohio Street, and the ploughs was having hard going. The wind was socking drifts across that looked like the backbone on a dinosaur.
Henry'd only had three customers all afternoon - that is, if you want to count in blind Eddie. Eddie's about seventy, and he ain't completely blind. Runs into things, mostly. He comes in once or twice a week and sticks a loaf of bread under his coat and walks out with an expression on his face like: there, you stupid sonsabitches, fooled you again.
Bertie once asked Henry why he never put a stop to it.
'I'll tell you,' Henry said. 'A few years back the Air Force wanted twenty million dollars to rig up a flyin' model of an airplane they had planned out. Well, it cost them seventy-five million and then the damn thing wouldn't fly. That happened ten years ago, when blind Eddie and myself were considerable younger, and I voted for the woman who sponsored that bill. Blind Eddie voted against her. And -since then I've been buyin' his bread.'
Bertie didn't look like he quite followed all of that, but he sat back to muse over it.
Now the door opened again, letting in a blast of the cold grey air outside, and a young kid came in, stamping snow off his boots. I placed him after a second. He was Richie Grenadine's kid, and he looked like he'd just kissed the wrong end of the baby. His Adam's apple was going up and down and his face was the colour of old oilcloth.
'Mr Parmalee,' he says to Henry, his eyeballs rolling -around in his head like ball bearings, 'you got to come. You got to take him his beer and come. I can't stand to go back there. I'm scared.'
'Now slow down,' Henry says, taking off his white butcher's apron and coming around the counter. 'What's the matter? Your dad been on a drunk?'
I realized when he said that that Richie hadn't been in for quite some time. Usually he'd be by once a day to pick up a -case of whatever beer was going cheapest at that time, a big --fat man with jowls like pork butts and ham-hock arms. Richie always was a pig about his beer, but he handled it okay when he was working at the sawmill out in Clifton. Then something happened - a pulper piled a bad load, or maybe Richie just made it out that way - and Richie was off work, free an' easy, with the sawmill company paying him compensation. Something in his back. Anyway, he got awful fat. He hadn't been in lately, although once in a while I'd seen his boy come in for Richie's nightly case. Nice enough boy Henry sold him the beer, for he knew it was only the boy doing as his father said.
'He's been on a drunk,' the boy was saying now, 'but that ain't the trouble. It's . . . it's . . . oh Lord, it's awful!'
Henry saw he was going to bawl, so he says real quick:
'Carl, will you watch things for a minute?'
'Now, Timmy, you come back into the stockroom and tell me what's what.'
He led the boy away, and Carl went around behind the counter and sat on Henry's stool. No one said anything for quite a while. We could hear 'em back there, Henry's deep, slow voice and then Timmy Grenadine's high one, speaking very fast. Then the boy commenced to cry, and Bill Pelham cleared his throat and started filling up his pipe.
'I ain't seen Richie for a couple of months,' I said.
Bull grunted. 'No loss.'
'He was in . . . oh, near the end of October,' Carl said. 'Near Halloween. Bought a case of Schlitz beer. He was gettin' awful meaty.'
There wasn't much more to say. The boy was still crying, but he was talking at the same time. Outside the wind kept on whooping and yowling and the radio said we'd have another six inches or so by morning. It was mid-January and it made me wonder if anyone had seen Richie since October - besides his boy, that is.
The talking went on for quite a while, but finally Henry and the boy came out. The boy had taken his coat off, but Henry had put his on. The boy was kinda hitching in his chest the way you do when the worst is past, but his eyes was red and when he glanced at you, he'd look down at the floor.
Henry looked worried. 'I thought I'd send Timmy here upstairs an' have my wife cook him up a toasted cheese or somethin'. Maybe a couple of you fellas'd like to go around to Richie's place with me. Timmy says he wants some beer. He gave me the money.' He tried to smile, but it was a pretty sick affair and he soon gave up.
'Sure,' Bertie says. 'What kind of beer? I'll go fetch her.'
'Get Harrow's Supreme,' Henry said. 'We got some cut-down boxes back there.'
I got up, too. It would have to be Bertie and me. Carl's arthritis gets something awful on days like this, and Billy Pelham don't have much use of his right arm any more.
Bertie got four six-packs of Harrow's and I packed them into a box while Henry took the boy upstairs to th~ apartment, overhead.
Well, he straightened that out with his missus and came back down, looking over his shoulder once to make sure the upstairs door was closed. Billy spoke up, fairly busting:
'What's up? Has Richie been workin' the kid over?'
'No,' Henry said. 'I'd just as soon not say anything just yet. It'd sound crazy. I will show you somethin-', though. The money Timmy had to pay for the beer with.' He shed four dollar bills out of his pocket, holding them by the corner, and I don't blame him. They was all covered with a grey, slimy stuff that looked like the scum on top of bad preserves. He laid them down on the counter with a funny smile and said to Carl: 'Don't let anybody touch 'em. Not if what the kid says is even half right!'
And he went around to the sink by the meat counter and washed his hands.
I got up, put on my pea coat and scarf and buttoned up. It was no good taking a car; Richie lived in an apartment building down on Curve Street, which is as close to straight up and down as the law allows, and it's the last place the ploughs touch.
As we were going out, Bill Pelham called after us: 'Watch out, now.'
Henry just nodded and put the case of Harrow's on the little handcart he keeps by the door, and out we trundled.
The wind hit us like a sawblade, and right away I pulled my scarf up over my ears. We paused in the doorway just for a second while Bertie pulled on his gloves. He had a pained sort of a wince on his face, and I knew how he felt. It's all well for younger fellows to go out skiing all day and running those goddam waspwing snowmobiles half the night, but when you get up over seventy without an oil change, you feel that north-east wind around your heart.
'I don't want to scare you boys,' Henry said, with that queer, sort of revolted smile still on his mouth, 'but I'm goin' to show you this all the same. And I'm goin' to tell you what the boy told me while we walk up there. . . because I want you to know, you see!'
And he pulled a .45-calibre hogleg out of his coat pocket - the pistol he'd kept loaded and ready under the counter ever since he went to twenty-four hours a day back in 1958. I don't know where he got it, but I do know the one time he flashed it at a stickup guy, the fella just turned around and bolted right out the door. Henry was a cool one, all right. I saw him throw out a college kid that came in one time and gave him a hard time about cashing a cheque. That kid walked away like his ass was on sideways and he had to crap.
Well, I only tell you that because Henry wanted Bertie and me to know he meant business, and we did, too.
So we set out, bent into the wind like washerwomen, Henry trundling that cart and telling us what the boy had said. The wind was trying to rip the words away before we could hear 'em, but we got most of it - more'n we wanted to. I was damn glad Henry had his Frenchman's pecker stowed away in his coat pocket.
The kid said it must have been the beer - you know how you can get a bad can every now and again. Flat or smelly or green as the peestains in an Irishman's underwear. A fella once told me that all it takes is a tiny hole to let in bacteria that'll do some damn strange things. The hole can be so small that the beer won't hardly dribble out, but the bacteria can get in. And beer's good food for some of those bugs.
Anyway, the kid said Richie brought back a case of Golden Light just like always that night in October and sat down to polish it off while Timmy did his homework.
Timmy was just about ready for bed when he hears Richie say, 'Christ Jesus, that ain't right.'
And Timmy says, 'What's that, Pop?'
'That beer,' Richie says. 'God, that's the worst taste I ever had in my mouth.'
Most people would wonder why in the name of God he drank it if it tasted so bad, but then, most people have never seen Richie Grenadine go to his beer. I was down in Wally's Spa one afternoon, and I saw him win the goddamndest bet. He bet a fella he could drink twenty two-bit glasses of beer in one minute. Nobody local would take him up, but this salesman from Montpelier laid down a twenty-dollar Bill and Richie covered him. He drank all twenty with seven seconds to spare - although when he walked out he was more'n three sails into the wind. So I expect Richie had most of that bad can in his gut before his brain could warn him.
'I'm gonna puke,' Richie say. 'Look out!'
But by the time he got to the head it had passed off, and that was the end of it. The boy said he smelt the can, and it smeltlike something crawled in there and died. There was a little grey dribble around the top, too.
Two days later the boy comes home from school and there's Richie sitting in front of the TV and watching the afternoon tearjerkers with every goddamn shade in the place pulled down.
'What's up?' Timmy asks, for Richie don't hardly ever roll in before nine.
'I'm watchin' the TV,' Richie says. 'I didn't seem to want to go out today.'
Timmy turned on the light over the sink, and Richie yelled at him: 'And turn off that friggin' light!'
So Timmy did, not asking how he's gonna do his homework in the dark. When Richie's in that mood, you don't ask him nothing.
'An' go out an' get me a case,' Richie says. 'Money's on the table.'
When the kid gets back, his dad's still sitting in the dark, only now it's dark outside, too. And the TV's off. The kid starts getting the creeps well, who wouldn't? Nothing but a dark flat and your daddy setting in the corner like a big lump.
So he puts the beer on the table, knowing that Richie don't like it so cold it spikes his forehead, and when he gets close to his old man he starts to notice a kind of rotten smell, like an old cheese someone left standing on the counter over the weekend. He don't say shit or go blind, though, as the old man was never what you'd call a cleanly soul. Instead he goes into his room and shuts the door and does his homework, and after a while he hears the TV start to go and Richie's popping the top in his first of the evening.
And for two weeks or so, that's the way things went. The kid got up in the morning and went to school an' when he got home Richie'd be in front of the television, and beer money on the table.
The flat was smelling ranker and ranker, too. Richie wouldn't have the shades up at all, and about the middle of November he made Timmy stop studying in his room. Said he couldn't abide the light under the door. So Timmy started going down the block to a friend's house after getting his dad the beer.
Then one day when Timmy came home from school - it was four o'clock and pretty near dark already - Richie says, 'Turn on the light.'
The kid turned on the light over the sink, and damn if Richie ain't all wrapped up in a blanket.
'Look,' Richie says, and one hand creeps out from under the blanket. Only it ain't a hand at all. Something grey, is all the kid could tell Henry. Didn't look like a hand at all. Just a grey lump.
Well, Timmy Grenadine was scared bad. He says, 'Pop, what's happening to you?'
And Richie says, 'I dunno. But it don't hurt. It feels. . kinda nice.'
So, Timmy says, 'I'm gonna call Dr Westphail.'
And the blanket starts to tremble all over, like something awful was shaking - all over- under there. And Richie says, 'Don't you dare. If you do I'll touch ya and you'll end up just like this.' And he slides the blanket down over his face for just a minute.
By then we were up to the corner of Harlow arid Curve Street, and I was even colder than the temperature had been on Henry's Orange Crush thermometer when we came out. A person doesn't hardly want to believe such things, and yet there's still strange things in the world.
I once knew a fella named George Kelso, who worked for the Bangor Public Works Department. He spent fifteen years fixing water mains and mending electricity cables and all that, an' then one day he just up an' quit, not two years before his retirement. Frankie Haldeman, who knew him, said George went down into a sewer pipe on Essex laughing and joking just like always and came up fifteen minutes later with his hair just as white as snow and his eyes staring like he just looked through a window into hell. He walked straight down to the BPW garage and punched his clock and went down to Wally's Spa and started drinking. It killed him two years later. Frankie said he tried to talk to him about it and George said something one time, and that was when he was pretty well blotto. Turned around on his stool, George did, an' asked Frankie Haldeman if he'd ever seen a spider as big as a good-sized dog setting in a web full of kitties an' such all wrapped up in silk thread. Well, what could he say to that? I'm not saying there's truth in it, but I am saying that there's things in the corners of the world that would drive a man insane to look 'em right in the face.
So we just stood on the corner a minute, in spite of the wind that was whooping up the street.
'What'd he see?' Bertie asked.
'He said he could still see his dad,' Henry answered, 'but he said it was like he was buried in grey jelly. . . and it was all kinda mashed together. He said his clothes were all stickin' in and out of his skin, like they was melted to his body.'
'Holy Jesus,' Bertie said.
'Then he covered right up again and started screaming at the kid to turn off the light.'
'Like he was a fungus,' I said.
'Yes,' Henry said. 'Sorta like that.'
'You keep that pistol handy,' Bertie said.
'Yes, I think I will.' And with that, we started to trundle up Curve Street.
The apartment house where Richie Grenadine had his flat was almost at the top of the hill, one of those big Victorian monsters that were built by the pulp an' paper barons at the turn of the century. They've just about all been turned into apartment houses now. When Bertie got his breath he told us Richie lived on the third floor under that top gable that jutted out like an eyebrow. I took the chance to ask Henry what happened to the kid after that.
Along about the third week in November the kid came back one afternoon to find Richie had gone one further than just pulling the shades down. He'd taken and nailed blankets across every window in the place. It was starting to stink worse, too - kind of a mushy stink, the way fruit gets when it goes to ferment with yeast.
A week or so after that, Richie got the kid to start heating his beer on the stove. Can you feature that? The kid all by himself in that apartment with his dad turning into, well, into something . . . an' heating his beer and then having to listen to him - it - drinking it with awful thick slurping sounds, the way an old man eats his chowder: Can you imagine it?
And that's the way things went on until today, when the kid's school let out early because of the storm.
'The boy says he went right home,' Henry told us. 'There's no light in the upstairs hall at all - the boy claims his dad musta snuck out some night and broke it - so he had to sort of creep down to his door.
'Well, he heard somethin' moving around in there, and it suddenly pops into his mind that he don't know what Richie does all day through the week. He ain't seen his dad stir out of that chair for almost a month, and a man's got to sleep and go to the bathroom some time.
'There's a Judas hole in the middle of the door, and it's supposed to have a latch on the inside to fasten it shut, but it's been busted ever since they lived there. So the kid slides up to the door real easy and pushed it open a bit with his thumb and pokes his eye up to it.'
By now we were at the foot of the steps and the house was looming over us like a-high, ugly face, with those windows on the third floor for eyes. I looked up there and sure enough those two windows were just as black as pitch. Like somebody's put blankets over 'em or painted 'em up.
'It took him a minute to get his eye adjusted to the gloom. An' then he seen a great big grey lump, not like a man at all, slitherin' over the floor, leavin' a grey, slimy trail behind it. An' then it sort of snaked out an arm - or something like an arm - and pried a board off'n the wall. And took out a cat.' Henry stopped for a second. Bertie was beating his hands together and it was godawful cold out there on the street, but none of us was ready to go up just yet. 'A dead cat,' Henry recommenced, 'that had putrefacted. The boy said it looked all swole up stiff . . . and there was little white things crawlin' all over it .
'Stop,' Bertie said. 'For Christ's sake.'
'And then his dad ate it., I tried to swallow and something tasted greasy in my throat.
'That's when Timmy closed the peephole.' Henry finished softly. 'And ran.'
'I don't think I can go up there,' Bertie said.
Henry didn't say anything, just looked from Bertie to me and back again.
'I guess we better,' I said. 'We got Richie's beer.'
Bertie didn't say anything to that, so we went up the steps and in through the front hall door. I smelled it right off.
Do you know how a cider house smells in summer? You never get the smell of apples out, but in the fall it's all right because it smells tangy and sharp enough to ream your nose right out. But in the summer, it just smells mean, this smell was like that, but a little bit worse.
There was one light on in the lower hall, a mean yellow thing in a frosted glass that threw a glow as thin as buttermilk. And those stairs that went up into the shadows.
Henry bumped the cart to a stop, and while he was lifting out the case of beer, I thumbed the button at the foot of the stairs that controlled the second-floor-landing bulb. But it was busted, just as the boy said.
Bertie quavered: 'I'll lug the beer. You just take care of that pistol.'
Henry didn't argue. He handed it over and we started up, Henry first, then me, then Bertie with the case in his arms. By the time we had fetched the second-floor landing, the stink was just that much worse. Rotted apples, all fermented, and under that an even uglier stink.
When I lived out in Levant I had a dog one time - Rex, his name was - and he was a good mutt but not very wise about cars. He got hit a lick one afternoon while I was at work and he crawled under the house and died there. My Christ, what a stink. I finally had to go under and haul him out with a pole. That other stench was like that; flyblown and putrid and just as dirty as a borin' cob.
Up till then I 'had kept thinking that maybe it was some sort of joke, but I saw it wasn't. 'Lord, why don't the neighbours kick up, Harry?' I asked.
'What neighbours?' Henry asked, and he was smiling that queer smile again.
I looked around and saw that the hall had a sort of dusty, unused look and the door of all three second-floor apartments was closed and locked up.
'Who's the landlord, I wonder?' Bertie asked, resting the case on the newel post and getting his breath. 'Gaiteau? Surprised he don't kick 'im out.'
'Who'd go up there and evict him?' Henry asked. 'You?'
Bertie didn't say nothing.
Presently we started up the next flight, which was even narrower and steeper than the last. It was getting hotter, too. It sounded like every radiator in the place was clanking and hissing. The smell was awful, and I started to feel like someone was stirring my guts with a stick.
At the top was a short hall, and one door with a little Judas hole in the middle of it.
Bertie made a soft little cry an' whispered out: 'Look what we're walkin' in!'
I looked down and saw all this slimy stuff on the hall floor, in little puddles. It looked like there'd been a carpet once, but the grey stuff had eaten it all away.
Henry walked down to the door, and we went after him. I don't know about Bertie, but I was shaking in my shoes. Henry never hesitated, though; he raised up that gun and -beat on the door with the butt of it.
'Richie?' he called, and his voice didn't sound a bit scared, although his face was deadly pale. 'This is Henry -Parmalee from down at the Nite-Owl. I brought your beer.'
There wasn't any answer for p'raps a full minute, and then a voice said, 'Where's Timmy? Where's my boy?'
I almost ran right then. That voice wasn't human at all. It -was queer an' low an' bubbly, like someone talking through a mouthful of suet.
'He's at my store,' Henry said, 'havin' a decent meal. He's just as skinny as a slat cat, Richie.'
There wasn't nothing for a while, and then some horrible squishing noises, like a man in rubber boots walking through mud. Then that decayed voice spoke right through the other side of the door.
'Open the door an' shove that beer through,' it said. 'Only you got to pull all the ring tabs first. I can't.'
'In a minute,' Henry said. 'What kind of shape you in, Richie?'
'Never mind that,' the voice said, and it was horribly eager. 'Just push in the beer and go!'
'It ain't just dead cats anymore, is it?' Henry said, and he sounded sad. He wasn't holdin' the gun butt-up any more; now it was business end first.
And suddenly, in a flash of light, I made the mental connection Henry had already made, perhaps even as Timmy was telling his story. The smell of decay and rot seemed to double in my nostrils when I remembered. Two young girls and some old Salvation Army wino had disappeared in town during the last three weeks or so - all after dark.
'Send it in or I'll come out an' get it,' the voice said.
Henry gestured us back, and we went.
'I guess you better, Richie.' He cocked his piece.
There was nothing then, not for a long time. To tell the truth, I began to feel as if it was all over. Then that door burst open, so sudden and so hard that it actually bulged before slamming out against the wall. And out came Richie.
It was just a second, just a second before Bertie and me was down those stairs like schoolkids, four an' five at a time, and out the door into the snow, slippin an' sliding.
Going down we heard Henry fire three times, the reports loud as grenades in the closed hallways of that empty, cursed house.
What we saw in that one or two seconds will last me a lifetime - or whatever's left of it. It was like a huge grey wave of jelly, jelly that looked like a man, and leaving a trail of slime behind it.
But that wasn't the worst. Its eyes were flat and yellow and wild, with no human soul in 'em. Only there wasn't two. There were four, an' right down the centre of the thing, betwixt the two pairs of eyes, was a white, fibrous line with a kind of pulsing pink flesh showing through like a slit in a hog's belly.
It was dividing, you see. Dividing in two.
Bertie and I didn't say nothing to each other going back to the store. I don't know what was going through his mind, but I know well enough what was in mine: the multiplication table. Two times two is four, four times two is eight, eight times two is sixteen, sixteen-times two is -We got back. Carl and Bill Pelham jumped up and started asking questions right off. We wouldn't answer, neither of us. We just turned around and waited to see if Henry was gonna walk in outta the snow. I was up to 32,768 times two is the end of the human race and so we sat there cozied up to all that beer and waited to see which one was going to finally come back; and here we still sit.
I hope it's Henry. I surely do.