The Road Virus Heads North

BOOK: The Road Virus Heads North
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The Road Virus Heads North

Page 1 of 12

Stephen King

THE ROAD VIRUS

HEADS NORTH

Richard Kinnell wasn't frightened when he first saw the picture at the yard sale in Rosewood.

He was fascinated by it, and he felt he'd had the good luck to find something which might be very special, but fright? No. It didn't

occur to him until later ("not until it was too late," as he might have written in one of his own numbingly successful novels) that he

had felt much the same way about certain illegal drugs as a young man.

He had gone down to Boston to participate in a PEN/New England conference tided "The Threat of Popularity." You could count on

PEN to come up with such subjects, Kinnell had found; it was actually sort of comforting. He drove the two hundred and sixty miles

from Derry rather than flying because he'd come to a plot impasse on his latest book and wanted some quiet time to try to work it out.

At the conference, he sat on a panel where people who should have known better asked him where he got his ideas and if he ever

scared himself. He left the city by way of the Tobin Bridge, then got on Route 1. He never took the turnpike when he was trying to

work out problems; the turnpike lulled him into a state that was like dreamless, waking sleep. It was restful, but not very creative. The

stop-and-go traffic on the coast road, however, acted like grit inside an oyster-it created a fair amount of mental activity ... and

sometimes even a pearl.

Not, he supposed, that his critics would use that word. In an issue of Esquire last year, Bradley Simons had begun his review of

Nightmare City this way: "Richard Kinnell, who writes like Jeffery Dahmer cooks, has suffered a fresh bout of projectile vomiting. He

has tided this most recent mass of ejecta Nightmare City."

Route 1 took him through Revere, Malden, Everett, and up the coast to Newburyport. Beyond Newburyport and just south of the

Massachusetts-New Hampshire border was the tidy little town of Rosewood. A mile or so beyond the town center, he saw an array of

cheap-looking goods spread out on the lawn of a two-story Cape. Propped against an avocado-colored electric stove was a sign

reading YARD SALE. Cars were parked on both sides of the road, creating one of those bottlenecks which travelers unaffected by the

yard sale mystique curse their way through. Kinnell liked yard sales, particularly the boxes of old books you sometimes found at them.

He drove through the bottleneck, parked his Audi at the head of the line of cars pointed toward Maine and New Hampshire, then

walked back.

A dozen or so people were circulating on the littered front lawn of the blue-and-gray Cape Cod. A large television stood to the left of

the cement walk, its feet planted on four paper ashtrays that were doing absolutely nothing to protect the lawn. On top was a sign

reading MAKE AN OFFER-YOU MIGHT BE SURPRISED. An electrical cord, augmented by an extension, mailed back from the

TV and through the open front door. A fat woman sat in a lawn chair before it, shaded by an umbrella with CINZANO printed on the

colorful scalloped flaps. There was a card table beside her with a cigar box, a pad of paper, and another handlettered sign on it. This

sign read ALL SALES CASH, ALL SALES FINAL. The TV was on, turned to an afternoon soap opera where two beautiful young

people looked on the verge of having deeply unsafe sex. The fat

woman glanced at Kinnell, then back at the TV. She looked at it for a moment, then looked back at him again. This time her mouth

was slightly sprung.

Ah, Kinnell thought, looking around for the liquor box fined with paperbacks that was sure to be here someplace, a fan.

He didn't see any paperbacks, but he saw the picture, leaning against an ironing board and held in place by a couple of plastic laundry

baskets, and his breath stopped in his throat. He wanted it at once.

He walked over with a casualness that felt exaggerated and dropped to one knee in front of it. The painting was a watercolor, and

technically very good. Kinnell didn't care about that; technique didn't interest him (a fact the critics of his own work had duly noted).

What he liked in works of art was content, and the more unsettling the better. This picture scored high in that department. He knelt

between the two laundry baskets, which had been filled with a jumble of small appliances, and let his fingers slip over the glass facing

of the picture. He glanced around briefly, looking for others like it, and saw none - only the usual yard sale art collection of Little Bo

Peeps, praying hands, and gambling dogs.

He looked back at the framed watercolor, and in his mind he was already moving his suitcase into the backseat of the Audi so he could

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The Road Virus Heads North

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slip the picture comfortably into the trunk.

It showed a young man behind the wheel of a muscle car-maybe a Grand Am, maybe a GTX, something with a T-top, anyway -

crossing the Tobin Bridge at sunset. The T-top was off, turning the black car into a half-assed convertible. The young man's left arm.

was cocked on the door, his right wrist was draped casually over the wheel. Behind him, the sky was a bruise-colored mass of yellows

and grays, streaked with veins of pink. The young man had lank blond hair that spilled over his low forehead. He was grinning, and

his parted lips revealed teeth which were not teeth at all but fangs.

Or maybe they're filed to points, Kinnell thought. Maybe he's supposed to be a cannibal.

He liked that; liked the idea of a cannibal crossing the Tobin Bridge at sunset. In a Grand Am. He knew what most of the audience at

the PEN panel discussion would have thought - Oh, yes, great picture for Rich Kinnell he probably wants it for inspiration, a feather to

tickle his tired old gorge into one more fit of projectile vomiting-but most of those folks were ignoramuses, at least as far as his work

went, and what was more, they treasured their ignorance, cossetted it the way some people inexplicably treasured and cossetted those

stupid, mean-spirited little dogs that yapped at visitors and sometimes bit the paperboy's ankles. He hadn't been attracted to this

painting because he wrote horror stories; he wrote horror stories because he was attracted to things like this painting. His fans sent him

stuff - pictures, mostly - and he threw most of them away, not because they were bad art but because they were tiresome and

predictable. One fan from Omaha had sent him a little ceramic sculpture of a screaming, horrified monkey's head poking out of a

refrigerator door, however, and that one he had kept. It was unskillfully executed, but there was an unexpected juxtaposition there that

lit UP his dials. This painting had some of the same quality, but it was even better. Much better.

As he was reaching for it, wanting to pick it up right now, this second, wanting to tuck it under his arm and proclaim his intentions, a

voice spoke up behind him: "Aren't you Richard Kinnell?"

He jumped, then turned. The fat woman was standing directly behind him, blotting out most of the immediate landscape. She had put

on fresh lipstick before approaching, and now her mouth had been transformed into a bleeding grin.

"Yes, I am," he said, smiling back.

Her eyes dropped to the picture. "I should have known you'd go right to that," she said, simpering. "It's so You."

"It is, isn't it?" he said, and smiled his best celebrity smile. "How much would you need for it?"

"Forty-five dollars," she said. "I'll be honest with you, I started it at seventy, but nobody likes it, so now it's marked down. If you come

back tomorrow, you can probably have it for thirty." The simper had grown to frightening proportions. Kinnell could see little gray

spit-buds in the dimples at the comers of her stretched mouth.

"I don't think I want to take that chance," he said. "I'll write you a check right now."

The simper continued to stretch; the woman now looked like some grotesque John Waters parody. Divine does Shirley Temple. "I'm

really not supposed to take checks, but all right," she said, her tone that of a teenage girl finally consenting to have sex with her

boyfriend. "Only while you have your pen out, could you write an autograph for my daughter? Her name is Michela?"

"What a beautiful name," Kinnell said automatically. He took the picture and followed the fat woman back to the card table. On the

TV next to it, the lustful young people had been temporarily displaced by an elderly woman gobbling bran flakes.

" Michela reads all your books," the fat woman said. "Where in the world do you get all those crazy ideas?"

"I don't know," Kinnell said, smiling more widely than ever. "They just come to me. Isn't that amazing?. "

The yard sale minder's name was Judy Diment, and she lived in the house next door. When Kinnell asked her if she knew who the

artist happened to be, she said she certainly did; Bobby Hastings had done it, and Bobby Hastings was the reason she was selling off

the Hastings' things. "That's the only painting he didn't bum," she said. "Poor Iris! She's the one I really feel sorry for. I don't think

George cared much, really. And I know he didn't understand why she wants to sell the house." She rolled her eyes in her large, sweaty

face - the old can-you-imagine-that look. She took Kinnell's check when he tore it off, then gave him the pad where she had written

down all the items she'd sold and the prices she'd obtained for them. "Just make it out to Michela," she said. "Pretty please with sugar

on it?" The simper reappeared, like an old acquaintance you'd hoped was dead.

"Uh-huh," Kinnell said, and wrote his standard thanks-for-being-a-fan message. He didn't have to watch his hands or even think about

it anymore, not after twenty-five years of writing autographs. "Tell me about the picture, and the Hastingses."

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The Road Virus Heads North

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Judy Diment folded her pudgy hands in the manner of a woman about to recite a favorite story.

"Bobby was just twenty-three when he killed himself this spring. Can you believe that? He was the tortured genius type, you know,

but still living at home." Her eyes rolled, again asking Kinnell if he could imagine it. "He must have had seventy, eighty paintings,

plus all his sketchbooks. Down in the basement, they were." She pointed her chin at the Cape Cod, then looked at the picture of the

fiendish young man driving across the Tobin Bridge at sunset. "Iris-that's Bobby's mother - said most of them were real bad, lots

worse'n this. Stuff that'd curl your hair." She lowered her voice to a whisper, glancing at a woman who was looking at the Hastings'

mismatched silverware and a pretty good collection of old McDonald's plastic glasses in a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids motif. "Most of

them had sex stuff in them."

"Oh no," Kinnell said.

"He did the worst ones after he got on drugs," Judy Diment continued. "After he was dead-he hung himself down in the basement,

where he used to paint-they found over a hundred of those little bottles they sell crack cocaine in. Aren't drugs awful, Mr. Kinnell?"

"They sure are."

"Anyway, I guess he finally just got to the end of his rope, no pun intended. He took all of his sketches and paintings out into the back

yard-except for that one, I guess - and burned them. Then he hung himself down in the basement. He pinned a note to his shirt. It said,

'I can't stand what's happening to me.' Isn't that awful, Mr. Kinnell? Isn't that just the awfulest thing you ever heard?"

'Yes," Kinnell said, sincerely enough. "It just about is."

'Like I say, I think George would go right on living in the house if he had his druthers, " Judy Diment said. She took the sheet of paper

with Michela's autograph on it, held it up next to Kinnell's check, and shook her head, as if the similarity of the signatures amazed her.

"But men are different."

"Are they?"

"Oh, yes, much less sensitive. By the end of his life, Bobby Hastings was just skin and bone, dirty all the time-you could smell him -

and he wore the same T-shirt, day in and day out. It had a picture of the Led Zeppelins on it. His eyes were red, he had a scraggle on

his cheeks that you couldn't quite call a beard, and his pimples were coming back, like he was a teenager again. But she loved him,

because a mother's love sees past all those things."

The woman who had been looking at the silverware and the glasses came over with a set of Star Wars placemats. Mrs. Diment took

BOOK: The Road Virus Heads North
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