Read an Excerpt
The Dead Zone
The two things Sarah remembered about that night later were his run of luck at the Wheel of Fortune and the mask. But as time passed, years of it, it was the mask she thought about—when she could bring herself to think about that horrible night at all.
He lived in an apartment house in Cleaves Mills. Sarah got there at quarter to eight, parking around the corner, and buzzing up to be let in. They were taking her car tonight because Johnny’s was laid up at Tibbets’ Garage in Hampden with a frozen wheel-bearing or something like that. Something expensive, Johnny had told her over the phone, and then he had laughed a typical Johnny Smith laugh. Sarah would have been in tears if it had been her car—her pocketbook.
Sarah went through the foyer to the stairs, past the bulletin board that hung there. It was dotted with file cards advertising motorbikes, stereo components, typing services, and appeals from people who needed rides to Kansas or California, people who were driving to Florida and needed riders to share the driving and help pay for the gas. But tonight the board was dominated by a large placard showing a clenched fist against an angry red background suggesting fire. The one word on the poster was STRIKE! It was late October of 1970.
Johnny had the front apartment on the second floor—the penthouse, he called it—where you could stand in your tux like Ramon Navarro, a big slug of Ripple wine in a balloon glass, and look down upon the vast, beating heart of Cleaves Mills: its hurrying after-show crowds, its bustling taxis, its neon signs. There are almost seven thousand stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.
Actually Cleaves Mills was mostly a main street with a stop-and-go light at the intersection (it turned into a blinker after 6 P.M.), about two dozen stores, and a small moccasin factory. Like most of the towns surrounding Orono, where the University of Maine was, its real industry was supplying the things students consumed—beer, wine, gas, rock ’n’ roll music, fast food, dope, groceries, housing, movies. The movie house was The Shade. It showed art films and ’40’s nostalgia flicks when school was in. In the summertime it reverted to Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns.
Johnny and Sarah were both out of school a year, and both were teaching at Cleaves Mills High, one of the few high schools in the area that had not consolidated into a three- or four-town district. University faculty and administration as well as university students used Cleaves as their bedroom, and the town had an enviable tax base. It also had a fine high school with a brand-new media wing. The townies might bitch about the university crowd with their smart talk and their Commie marches to end the war and their meddling in town politics, but they had never said no to the tax dollars that were paid annually on the gracious faculty homes and the apartment buildings in the area some students called Fudgey Acres and others called Sleaze Alley.
Sarah rapped on his door and Johnny’s voice, oddly muffled, called, “It’s open, Sarah!”
Frowning a little, she pushed the door open. Johnny’s apartment was in total darkness except for the fitful yellow glow of the blinker half a block up the street. The furniture was so many humped black shadows.
“Johnny . . . ?”
Wondering if a fuse had blown or something, she took a tentative step forward—and then the face appeared before her, floating in the darkness, a horrible face out of a nightmare. It glowed a spectral, rotting green. One eye was wide open, seeming to stare at her in wounded fear. The other was squeezed shut in a sinister leer. The left half of the face, the half with the open eye, appeared to be normal. But the right half was the face of a monster, drawn and inhuman, the thick lips drawn back to reveal snaggle teeth that were also glowing.
Sarah uttered a strangled little shriek and took a stumble-step backward. Then the lights came on and it was just Johnny’s apartment again instead of some black limbo, Nixon on the wall trying to sell used cars, the braided rug Johnny’s mother had made on the floor, the wine bottles made into candle bases. The face stopped glowing and she saw it was a dime-store Halloween mask, nothing more. Johnny’s blue eye was twinkling out of the open eyehole at her.
He stripped it off and stood smiling amiably at her, dressed in faded jeans and a brown sweater.
“Happy Halloween, Sarah,” he said.
Her heart was still racing. He had really frightened her. “Very funny,” she said, and turned to go. She didn’t like being scared like that.
He caught her in the doorway. “Hey . . . I’m sorry.”
“Well you ought to be.” She looked at him coldly—or tried to. Her anger was already melting away. You just couldn’t stay mad at Johnny, that was the thing. Whether she loved him or not—a thing she was still trying to puzzle out—it was impossible to be unhappy with him for very long, or to harbor a feeling of resentment. She wondered if anyone had ever succeeded in harboring a grudge against Johnny Smith, and the thought was so ridiculous she just had to smile.
“There, that’s better. Man, I thought you were going to walk out on me.”
“I’m not a man.”
He cast his eyes upon her. “So I’ve noticed.”
She was wearing a bulky fur coat—imitation raccoon or something vulgar like that—and his innocent lechery made her smile again. “In this thing you couldn’t tell.”
“Oh, yeah, I can tell,” he said. He put an arm around her and kissed her. At first she wasn’t going to kiss back, but of course she did.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” he said, and rubbed her nose companionably with his own before letting her go. He held up the mask. “I thought you’d get a kick out of it. I’m gonna wear it in homeroom Friday.”
“Oh, Johnny, that won’t be very good for discipline.”
“I’ll muddle through somehow,” he said with a grin. And the hell of it was, he would.
She came to school every day wearing big, schoolmarmish glasses, her hair drawn back into a bun so severe it seemed on the verge of a scream. She wore her skirts just above the knee in a season when most of the girls wore them just below the edges of their underpants (and my legs are better than any of theirs, Sarah thought resentfully). She maintained alphabetical seating charts which, by the law of averages, at least, should have kept the troublemakers away from each other, and she resolutely sent unruly pupils to the assistant principal, her reasoning being that he was getting an extra five hundred a year to act as ramrod and she wasn’t. And still her days were a constant struggle with that freshman teacher demon. Discipline. More disturbing, she had begun to sense that there was a collective, unspoken jury—a kind of school consciousness, maybe—that went into deliberations over every new teacher, and that the verdict being returned on her was not so good.
Johnny, on the face of it, appeared to be the antithesis of everything a good teacher should be. He ambled from class to class in an agreeable sort of daze, often showing up tardy because he had stopped to chat with someone between bells. He let the kids sit where they wanted to so that the same face was never in the same seat from day to day (and the class thugs invariably gravitated to the back of the room). Sarah would not have been able to learn their names that way until March, but Johnny seemed to have them down pat already.
He was a tall man who had a tendency to slouch, and the kids called him Frankenstein. Johnny seemed amused rather than outraged by this. And yet his classes were mostly quiet and well-behaved, there were few skippers (Sarah had a constant problem with kids cutting class), and that same jury seemed to be coming back in his favor. He was the sort of teacher who, in another ten years, would have the school yearbook dedicated to him. She just wasn’t. And sometimes wondering why drove her crazy.
“You want a beer before we go? Glass of wine? Anything?”
“No, but I hope you’re going well-heeled,” she said, taking his arm and deciding not to be mad anymore. “I always eat at least three hot dogs. Especially when it’s the last county fair of the year.” They were going to Esty, twenty miles north of Cleaves Mills, a town whose only dubious claim to fame was that it held ABSOLUTELY THE LAST AGRICULTURAL FAIR OF THE YEAR IN NEW ENGLAND. The fair would close Friday night, on Halloween.
“Considering Friday’s payday, I’m doing good. I got eight bucks.”
“Oh . . . my . . . God,” Sarah said, rolling her eyes. “I always knew if I kept myself pure I’d meet a sugar daddy someday.”
He smiled and nodded. “Us pimps make biiig money, baby. Just let me get my coat and we’re off.”
She looked after him with exasperated affection, and the voice that had been surfacing in her mind more and more often—in the shower, while she was reading a book or prepping a class or making her supper for one—came up again, like one of those thirty-second public-service spots on TV. He’s a very nice man and all that, easy to get along with, fun, he never makes you cry. But is that love? I mean, is that all there is to it? Even when you learned to ride your two-wheeler, you had to fall off a few times and scrape both knees. Call it a rite of passage. And that was just a little thing.
“Gonna use the bathroom,” he called to her.
“Uh-huh.” She smiled a little. Johnny was one of those people who invariably mentioned their nature calls—God knew why.
She went over to the window and looked out on Main Street. Kids were pulling into the parking lot next to O’Mike’s, the local pizza-and-beer hangout. She suddenly wished she were back with them, one of them, with this confusing stuff behind her—or still ahead of her. The university was safe. It was a kind of never-never land where everybody, even the teachers, could be a part of Peter Pan’s band and never grow up. And there would always be a Nixon or an Agnew to play Captain Hook.
She had met Johnny when they started teaching in September, but she had known his face from the Ed courses they had shared. She had been pinned to a Delta Tau Delta, and none of the judgments that applied to Johnny had applied to Dan. He had been almost flawlessly handsome, witty in a sharp and restless way that always made her a trifle uncomfortable, a heavy drinker, a passionate lover. Sometimes when he drank he turned mean. She remembered a night in Bangor’s Brass Rail when that had happened. The man in the next booth had taken joking issue with something Dan had been saying about the UMO football team, and Dan had asked him if he would like to go home with his head on backward. The man had apologized, but Dan hadn’t wanted an apology; he had wanted a fight. He began to make personal remarks about the woman with the other man. Sarah had put her hand on Dan’s arm and asked him to stop. Dan had shaken her hand off and had looked at her with a queer flat light in his grayish eyes that made any other words she might have spoken dry up in her throat. Eventually, Dan and the other guy went outside and Dan beat him up. Dan had beaten him until the other man, who was in his late thirties and getting a belly, had screamed. Sarah had never heard a man scream before—she never wanted to hear it again. They had to leave quickly because the bartender saw how it was going and called the police. She would have gone home alone that night (Oh? are you sure? her mind asked nastily), but it was twelve miles back to the campus and the buses had stopped running at six and she was afraid to hitch.
Dan didn’t talk on the way back. He had a scratch on one cheek. Just one scratch. When they got back to Hart Hall, her dorm, she told him she didn’t want to see him anymore. “Any way you want it, babe,” he said with an indifference that had chilled her—and the second time he called after the Brass Rail incident she had gone out with him. Part of her had hated herself for that.
It had continued all that fall semester of her senior year. He had frightened and attracted her at the same time. He was her first real lover, and even now, two days shy of Halloween 1970, he had been her only real lover. She and Johnny had not been to bed.
Dan had been very good. He had used her, but he had been very good. He would not take any precautions and so she had been forced to go to the university infirmary, where she talked fumblingly about painful menstruation and got the pill. Sexually, Dan had dominated her all along. She did not have many orgasms with him, but his very roughness brought her some, and in the weeks before it had ended she had begun to feel a mature woman’s greediness for good sex, a desire that was bewilderingly intermixed with other feelings: dislike for both Dan and herself, a feeling that no sex that depended so much on humiliation and domination could really be called “good sex,” and self-contempt for her own inability to call a halt to a relationship that seemed based on destructive feelings.
It had ended swiftly, early this year. He flunked out. “Where will you be going?” she asked him timidly, sitting on his roomie’s bed as he threw things into two suitcases. She had wanted to ask other, more personal questions. Will you be near here? Will you take a job? Take night classes? Is there a place for me in your plans? That question, above all others, she had not been able to ask. Because she wasn’t prepared for any answer. The answer he gave to her one neutral question was shocking enough.
“Vietnam, I guess.”
He reached onto a shelf, thumbed briefly through the papers there, and tossed her a letter. It was from the induction center in Bangor: an order to report for his physical exam.
“Can’t you get out of it?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know.” He lit a cigarette. “I don’t think I even want to try.” She had stared at him, shocked.
“I’m tired of this scene. College and get a job and find a little wifey. You’ve been applying for the little wifey spot, I guess. And don’t think I haven’t thought it over. It wouldn’t work. You know it wouldn’t and so do I. We don’t fit, Sarah.”
She had fled then, all her questions answered, and she never saw him again. She saw his roommate a few times. He got three letters from Dan between January and June. He was inducted and sent down south somewhere for basic training. And that was the last the roommate had heard. It was the last Sarah Bracknell heard, too.
At first she thought she was going to be okay. All those sad, torchy songs, the ones you always seem to hear on the car radio after midnight, they didn’t apply to her. Or the clichés about the end of the affair or the crying jags. She didn’t pick up a guy on the rebound or start doing the bars. Most evenings that spring she spent studying quietly in her dorm room. It was a relief. It wasn’t messy.
It was only after she met Johnny—at a freshman mixer dance last month; they were both chaperoning, purely by luck of the draw—that she realized what a horror her last semester at school had been. It was the kind of thing you couldn’t see when you were in it, it was too much a part of you. Two donkeys meet at a hitching rail in a western town. One of them is a town donkey with nothing on his back but a saddle. The other is a prospector’s donkey, loaded down with packs, camping and cooking gear, and four fifty-pound sacks of ore. His back is bent into a concertina shape from the weight. The town donkey says, That’s quite a load you got there. And the prospector’s donkey says, What load?
In retrospect it was the emptiness that horrified her, it had been five months of Cheyne-Stokes respiration. Eight months if you counted this summer, when she took a small apartment on Flagg Street in Veazie and did nothing but apply for teaching jobs and read paperback novels. She got up, ate breakfast, went out to class or to whatever job interviews she had scheduled, came home, ate, took a nap (the naps were sometimes four hours long), ate again, read until eleven-thirty or so, watched Cavett until she got sleepy, went to bed. She could not remember thinking during that period. Life was routine. Sometimes there was a vague sort of ache in her loins, an unfulfilled ache, she believed the lady novelists sometimes called it, and for this she would either take a cold shower or a douche. After a while the douches grew painful, and this gave her a bitter, absent sort of satisfaction.
During this period she would congratulate herself from time to time on how adult she was being about the whole thing. She hardly ever thought about Dan—Dan Who, ha-ha. Later she realized that for eight months she had thought of nothing or no one else. The whole country had gone through a spasm of shudders during those eight months, but she had hardly noticed. The marches, the cops in their crash helmets and gas masks, the mounting attacks on the press by Agnew, the Kent State shootings, the summer of violence as blacks and radical groups took to the streets—those things might have happened on some TV late show. Sarah was totally wrapped up in how wonderfully she had gotten over Dan, how well she was adjusting, and how relieved she was to find that everything was just fine. What load?
Then she had started at Cleaves Mills High, and that had been a personal upheaval, being on the other side of the desk after sixteen years as a professional student. Meeting Johnny Smith at that mixer (and with an absurd name like John Smith, could he be completely for real?). Coming out of herself enough to see the way he was looking at her, not lecherously, but with a good healthy appreciation for the way she looked in the light-gray knitted dress she had worn.
He had asked her out to a movie—Citizen Kane was playing at The Shade—and she said okay. They had a good time and she was thinking to herself, No fireworks. She had enjoyed his kiss goodnight and had thought, He’s sure no Errol Flynn. He had kept her smiling with his line of patter, which was outrageous, and she had thought, He wants to be Henny Youngman when he grows up.
Later that evening, sitting in the bedroom of her apartment and watching Bette Davis play a bitchy career woman on the late movie, some of these thoughts had come back to her and she paused with her teeth sunk into an apple, rather shocked at her own unfairness.
And a voice that had been silent for the best part of a year—not so much the voice of conscience as that of perspective—spoke up abruptly. What you mean is, he sure isn’t Dan. Isn’t that it?
No! she assured herself, not just rather shocked now. I don’t think about Dan at all anymore. That . . . was a long time ago.
Diapers, the voice replied, that was a long time ago. Dan left yesterday.
She suddenly realized she was sitting in an apartment by herself late at night, eating an apple and watching a movie on TV that she cared nothing about, and doing it all because it was easier than thinking, thinking was so boring really, when all you had to think about was yourself and your lost love.
Very shocked now.
She had burst into tears.
She had gone out with Johnny the second and third time he asked, too, and that was also a revelation of exactly what she had become. She couldn’t very well say that she had another date because it wasn’t so. She was a smart, pretty girl, and she had been asked out a lot after the affair with Dan ended, but the only dates she had accepted were hamburger dates at the Den with Dan’s roomie, and she realized now (her disgust tempered with rueful humor) that she had only gone on those completely innocuous dates in order to pump the poor guy about Dan. What load?
Most of her college girl friends had dropped over the horizon after graduation. Bettye Hackman was with the Peace Corps in Africa, to the utter dismay of her wealthy old-line-Bangor parents, and sometimes Sarah wondered what the Ugandans must make of Bettye with her white, impossible-to-tan skin and ash-blonde hair and cool, sorority good looks. Deenie Stubbs was at grad school in Houston. Rachel Jurgens had married her fella and was currently gestating somewhere in the wilds of western Massachusetts.
Slightly dazed, Sarah had been forced to the conclusion that Johnny Smith was the first new friend she had made in a long, long time—and she had been her senior high school class’s Miss Popularity. She had accepted dates from a couple of the other Cleaves teachers, just to keep things in perspective. One of them was Gene Sedecki, the new math man—but obviously a veteran bore. The other, George Rounds, had immediately tried to make her. She had slapped his face—and the next day he’d had the gall to wink at her as they passed in the hall.
But Johnny was fun, easy to be with. And he did attract her sexually—just how strongly she couldn’t honestly say, at least not yet. A week ago, after the Friday they’d had off for the October teachers’ convention in Waterville, he had invited her back to his apartment for a home-cooked spaghetti dinner. While the sauce simmered, he had dashed around the corner to get some wine and had come back with two bottles of Apple Zapple. Like announcing his bathroom calls, it was somehow Johnny’s style.
After the meal they had watched TV and that had turned to necking and God knew what that might have turned into if a couple of his friends, instructors from the university, hadn’t turned up with a faculty position paper on academic freedom. They wanted Johnny to look it over and see what he thought. He had done so, but with noticeably less good will than was usual with him. She had noticed that with a warm, secret delight, and the ache in her own loins—the unfulfilled ache—had also delighted her, and that night she hadn’t killed it with a douche.
She turned away from the window and walked over to the sofa where Johnny had left the mask.
“Happy Halloween,” she snorted, and laughed a little.
“What?” Johnny called out.
“I said if you don’t come pretty quick I’m going without you.”
“Be right out.”
She ran a finger over the Jekyll-and-Hyde mask, kindly Dr. Jekyll the left half, ferocious, subhuman Hyde the right half. Where will we be by Thanksgiving? she wondered. Or by Christmas?
The thought sent a funny, excited little thrill shooting through her.
She liked him. He was a perfectly ordinary, sweet man.
She looked down at the mask again, horrible Hyde growing out of Jekyll’s face like a lumpy carcinoma. It had been treated with fluorescent paint so it would glow in the dark.
What’s ordinary? Nothing, nobody. Not really. If he was so ordinary, how could he be planning to wear something like that into his homeroom and still be confident of keeping order? And how can the kids call him Frankenstein and still respect and like him? What’s ordinary?
Johnny came out, brushing through the beaded curtain that divided the bedroom and bathroom off from the living room.
If he wants me to go to bed with him tonight, I think I’m going to say okay.
And it was a warm thought, like coming home.
“What are you grinning about?”
“Nothing,” she said, tossing the mask back to the sofa.
“No, really. Was it something good?”
“Johnny,” she said, putting a hand on his chest and standing on tiptoe to kiss him lightly, “some things will never be told. Come on, let’s go.”
They paused downstairs in the foyer while he buttoned his denim jacket, and she found her eyes drawn again to the STRIKE! poster with its clenched fist and flaming background.
“There’ll be another student strike this year,” he said, following her eyes.
“That’s only going to be part of it this time. Vietnam and the fight over ROTC and Kent State have activated more students than ever before. I doubt if there’s ever been a time when there were so few grunts taking up space at the university.”
“What do you mean, grunts?”
“Kids just studying to make grades, with no interest in the system except that it provides them with a ten-thousand-dollar-a-year job when they get out. A grunt is a student who gives a shit about nothing except his sheepskin. That’s over. Most of them are awake. There are going to be some big changes.”
“Is that important to you? Even though you’re out?”
He drew himself up. “Madam, I am an alumnus. Smith, class of ’70. Fill the steins to dear old Maine.”
She smiled. “Come on, let’s go. I want a ride on the whip before they shut it down for the night.”
“Very good,” he said, taking her arm. “I just happen to have your car parked around the corner.”
“And eight dollars. The evening fairly glitters before us.”
The night was overcast but not rainy, mild for late October. Overhead, a quarter moon was struggling to make it through the cloud cover. Johnny slipped an arm around her and she moved closer to him.
“You know, I think an awful lot of you, Sarah.” His tone was almost offhand, but only almost. Her heart slowed a little and then made speed for a dozen beats or so.
“I guess this Dan guy, he hurt you, didn’t he?”
“I don’t know what he did to me,” she said truthfully. The yellow blinker, a block behind them now, made their shadows appear and disappear on the concrete in front of them.
Johnny appeared to think this over. “I wouldn’t want to do that,” he said finally.
“No, I know that. But Johnny . . . give it time.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Time. We’ve got that, I guess.”
And that would come back to her, awake and even more strongly in her dreams, in tones of inexpressible bitterness and loss.
They went around the corner and Johnny opened the passenger door for her. He went around and got in behind the wheel. “You cold?”
“No,” she said. “It’s a great night for it.”
“It is,” he agreed, and pulled away from the curb. Her thoughts went back to that ridiculous mask. Half Jekyll with Johnny’s blue eye visible behind the widened-O eyesocket of the surprised doctor—Say, that’s some cocktail I invented last night, but I don’t think they’ll be able to move it in the bars—and that side was all right because you could see a bit of Johnny inside. It was the Hyde part that had scared her silly, because that eye was closed down to a slit. It could have been anybody. Anybody at all. Dan, for instance.
But by the time they reached the Esty fairgrounds, where the naked bulbs of the midway twinkled in the darkness and the long spokes of the Ferris wheel neon revolved up and down, she had forgotten the mask. She was with her guy, and they were going to have a good time.
They walked up the midway hand in hand, not talking much, and Sarah found herself reliving the county fairs of her youth. She had grown up in South Paris, a paper town in western Maine, and the big fair had been the one in Fryeburg. For Johnny, a Pownal boy, it probably would have been Topsham. But they were all the same, really, and they hadn’t changed much over the years. You parked your car in a dirt parking lot and paid your two bucks at the gate, and when you were barely inside the fairgrounds you could smell hot dogs, frying peppers and onions, bacon, cotton candy, sawdust, and sweet, aromatic horseshit. You heard the heavy, chain-driven rumble of the baby roller coaster, the one they called The Wild Mouse. You heard the popping of .22s in the shooting galleries, the tinny blare of the Bingo caller from the PA system strung around the big tent filled with long tables and folding chairs from the local mortuary. Rock ’n’ roll music vied with the calliope for supremacy. You heard the steady cry of the barkers—two shots for two bits, win one of these stuffed doggies for your baby, hey-hey-over-here, pitch till you win. It didn’t change. It turned you into a kid again, willing and eager to be suckered.
“Here!” she said, stopping him. “The whip! The whip!”
“Of course,” Johnny said comfortingly. He passed the woman in the ticket cage a dollar bill, and she pushed back two red tickets and two dimes with barely a glance up from her Photoplay.
“What do you mean, ‘of course’? Why are you ‘of coursing’ me in that tone of voice?”
He shrugged. His face was much too innocent.
“It wasn’t what you said, John Smith. It was how you said it.”
The ride had stopped. Passengers were getting off and streaming past them, mostly teenagers in blue melton CPO shirts or open parkas. Johnny led her up the wooden ramp and surrendered their tickets to the whip’s starter, who looked like the most bored sentient creature in the universe.
“Nothing,” he said as the starter settled them into one of the little round shells and snapped the safety bar into place. “It’s just that these cars are on little circular tracks, right?”
“And the little circular tracks are embedded on a large circular dish that spins around and around, right?”
“Well, when this ride is going full steam, the little car we’re sitting in whips around on its little circular track and sometimes develops up to seven g, which is only five less than the astronauts get when they lift off from Cape Kennedy. And I knew this kid . . .” Johnny was leaning solemnly over her now.
“Oh, here comes one of your big lies,” Sarah said uneasily.
“When this kid was five he fell down the front steps and put a tiny hairline fracture in his spine at the top of his neck. Then—ten years later—he went on the whip at Topsham Fair . . . and . . .” He shrugged and then patted her hand sympathetically. “But you’ll probably be okay, Sarah.”
“Ohhh . . . I want to get offfff . . .”
And the whip whirled them away, slamming the fair and the midway into a tilted blur of lights and faces, and she shrieked and laughed and began to pummel him.
“Hairline fracture!” She shouted at him. “I’ll give you a hairline fracture when we get off this, you liar!”
“Do you feel anything giving in your neck yet?” he inquired sweetly.
“Oh, you liar!”
They whirled around, faster and faster, and as they snapped past the ride starter for the—tenth? fifteenth?—time, he leaned over and kissed her, and the car whistled around on its track, pressing their lips together in something that was hot and exciting and skintight. Then the ride was slowing down, their car clacked around on its track more reluctantly, and finally came to a swaying, swinging stop.
They got out, and Sarah squeezed his neck. “Hairline fracture, you ass!” she whispered.
A fat lady in blue slacks and penny loafers was passing them. Johnny spoke to her, jerking a thumb back toward Sarah. “That girl is bothering me, ma’am. If you see a policeman would you tell him?”
“You young people think you’re smart,” the fat lady said disdainfully. She waddled away toward the bingo tent, holding her purse more tightly under her arm. Sarah was giggling helplessly.
“I’ll come to a bad end,” Johnny agreed. “My mother always said so.”
They walked up the midway side by side again, waiting for the world to stop making unstable motions before their eyes and under their feet.
“She’s pretty religious, your mom, isn’t she?” Sarah asked.
“She’s as Baptist as you can get,” Johnny agreed. “But she’s okay. She keeps it under control. She can’t resist passing me a few tracts when I’m at home, but that’s her thing. Daddy and I put up with it. I used to try to get on her case about it—I’d ask her who the heck was in Nod for Cain to go live with if his dad and mom were the first people on earth, stuff like that—but I decided it was sort of mean and quit it. Two years ago I thought Eugene McCarthy could save the world, and at least the Baptists don’t have Jesus running for president.”
“Your father’s not religious?”
Johnny laughed. “I don’t know about that, but he’s sure no Baptist.” After a moment’s thought he added, “Dad’s a carpenter,” as if that explained it. She smiled.
“What would our mother think if she knew you were seeing a lapsed Catholic?”
“Ask me to bring you home,” Johnny said promptly, “so she could slip you a few tracts.”
She stopped, still holding his hand. “Would you like to bring me to your house?” she asked, looking at him closely.
Johnny’s long, pleasant face became serious. “Yeah,” he said. “I’d like you to meet them . . . and vice-versa.”
“Don’t you know why?” he asked her gently, and suddenly her throat closed and her head throbbed as if she might cry and she squeezed his hand tightly.
“Oh Johnny, I do like you.”
“I like you even more than that,” he said seriously.
“Take me on the Ferris wheel,” she demanded suddenly, smiling. No more talk like this until she had a chance to consider it, to think where it might be leading. “I want to go up high where we can see everything.”
“Can I kiss you at the top?”
“Twice, if you’re quick.”
He allowed her to lead him to the ticket booth, where he surrendered another dollar bill. As he paid he told her, “When I was in high school, I knew this kid who worked at the fair, and he said most of the guys who put these rides together are dead drunk and they leave off all sorts of . . .”
“Go to hell,” she said merrily, “nobody lives forever.”
“But everybody tries, you ever notice that?” he said, following her into one of the swaying gondolas.
As a matter of fact he got to kiss her several times at the top, with the October wind ruffling their hair and the midway spread out below them like a glowing clockface in the dark.
After the Ferris wheel they did the carousel, even though he told her quite honestly that he felt like a horse’s ass. His legs were so long that he could have stood astride one of the plaster horses. She told him maliciously that she had known a girl in high school who had had a weak heart, except nobody knew she had a weak heart and she had gotten on the carousel with her boyfriend and . . .
“Someday you’ll be sorry,” he told her with quiet sincerity. “A relationship based on lies is no good, Sarah.”
She gave him a very moist raspberry.
After the carousel came the mirror maze, a very good mirror maze as a matter of fact, it made her think of the one in Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, where the little-old-lady schoolteacher almost got lost forever. She could see Johnny in another part of it, fumbling around, waving to her. Dozens of Johnnies, dozens of Sarahs. They bypassed each other, flickered around non-Euclidian angles, and seemed to disappear. She made left turns, right turns, bumped her nose on panes of clear glass, and got giggling helplessly, partly in a nervous claustrophobic reaction. One of the mirrors turned her into a squat Tolkien dwarf. Another created the apotheosis of teenage gangliness with shins a quarter of a mile long.
At last they escaped and he got them a couple of fried hot dogs and a Dixie cup filled with greasy french fries that tasted the way french fries hardly ever do once you’ve gotten past your fifteenth year.
They passed a kooch joint. Three girls stood out front in sequined skirts and bras. They were shimmying to an old Jerry Lee Lewis tune while the barker hawked them through a microphone. “Come on over baby,” Jerry Lee blared, his piano boogying frankly across the sawdust-sprinkled arcades. “Come on over baby, baby got the bull by the horns . . . we ain’t fakin . . . whole lotta shakin goin on . . .”
“Club Playboy,” Johnny marveled, and laughed. “There used to be a place like this down at Harrison Beach. The barker used to swear the girls could take the glasses right off your nose with their hands tied behind their backs.”
“It sounds like an interesting way to get a social disease,” Sarah said, and Johnny roared with laughter.
Behind them the barker’s amplified voice grew hollow with distance, counterpointed by Jerry Lee’s pumping piano, music like some mad, dented hot rod that was too tough to die, rumbling out of the dead and silent fifties like an omen. “Come on, men, come on over, don’t be shy because these girls sure aren’t, not in the least little bit! It’s all on the inside . . . your education isn’t complete until you’ve seen the Club Playboy show . . .”
“Don’t you want to go on back and finish your education?” she asked.
He smiled. “I finished my basic course work on that subject some time ago. I guess I can wait a while to get my Ph.D.”
She glanced at her watch. “Hey, it’s getting late, Johnny. And tomorrow’s a school day.”
“Yeah. But at least it’s Friday.”
She sighed, thinking of her fifth-period study hall and her seventh-period New Fiction class, both of them impossibly rowdy.
They had worked their way back to the main part of the midway. The crowd was thinning. The Tilt-A-Whirl had shut down for the evening. Two workmen with unfiltered cigarettes jutting from the corners of their mouths were covering the Wild Mouse with a tarpaulin. The man in the Pitch-Til-U-Win was turning off his lights.
“You doing anything Saturday?” he asked, suddenly diffident. “I know it’s short notice, but . . .”
“I have plans,” she said.
And she couldn’t bear his crestfallen expression, it was really too mean to tease him about that. “I’m doing something with you.”
“You are? . . . Oh, you are. Say, that’s good.” He grinned at her and she grinned back. The voice in her mind, which was sometimes as real to her as the voice of another human being, suddenly spoke up.
You’re feeling good again, Sarah. Feeling happy. Isn’t it fine?
“Yes, it is,” she said. She went up on tiptoe and kissed him quickly. She made herself go on before she could chicken out. “It gets pretty lonely down there in Veazie sometimes, you know. Maybe I could . . . sort of spend the night with you.”
He looked at her with warm thoughtfulness, and with a speculation that made her tingle deep inside. “Would that be what you want, Sarah?”
She nodded. “Very much what I want.”
“All right,” he said, and put an arm around her.
“Are you sure?” Sarah asked a little shyly.
“I’m just afraid you’ll change your mind.”
“I won’t, Johnny.”
He hugged her tighter against him. “Then it’s my lucky night.”
They were passing the Wheel of Fortune as he said it, and Sarah would later remember that it was the only booth still open on that side of the midway for thirty yards in either direction. The man behind the counter had just finished sweeping the packed dirt inside for any spare dimes that might have fallen from the playing board during the night’s action. Probably his last chore before closing up, she thought. Behind him was his large spoked wheel, outlined by tiny electric bulbs. He must have heard Johnny’s remark, because he went into his pitch more or less automatically, his eyes still searching the dirt floor of his booth for the gleam of silver.
“Hey-hey-hey, if you feel lucky, mister, spin the Wheel of Fortune, turn dimes into dollars. It’s all in the Wheel, try your luck, one thin dime sets this Wheel of Fortune in motion.”
Johnny swung back toward the sound of his voice.
“I feel lucky, just like the man said.” He smiled down at her. “Unless you mind . . .?”
“No, go ahead. Just don’t take too long.”
He looked at her again in that frankly speculative way that made her feel a little weak, wondering how it would be with him. Her stomach did a slow roll-over that made her feel a bit nauseated with sudden sexual longing.
“No, not long.” He looked at the pitchman. The midway behind them was almost completely empty now, and as the overcast had melted off above them it had turned chilly. The three of them were puffing white vapor as they breathed.
“Try your luck, young man?”
He had switched all his cash to his front pocket when they arrived at the fair, and now he pulled out the remains of his eight dollars. It came to a dollar eighty-five.
The playing board was a strip of yellow plastic with numbers and odds painted on it in squares. It looked a bit like a roulette board, but Johnny saw immediately that the odds here would have turned a Las Vegas roulette player gray. A trip combination paid off at only two to one. There were two house numbers, zero and double zero. He pointed this out to the pitchman who only shrugged.
“You want Vegas, go to Vegas. What can I say?”
But Johnny’s good humor tonight was unshakable. Things had gotten off to a poor start with that mask, but it had been all upbeat from there. In fact, it was the best night he could remember in years, maybe the best night ever. He looked at Sarah. Her color was high, her eyes sparkling. “What do you say, Sarah?”
She shook her head. “It’s Greek to me. What do you do?”
“Play a number. Or red/black. Or odd/even. Or a ten-number series. They all pay differently.” He gazed at the pitchman, who gazed back blandly. “At least, they should.”
“Play black,” she said. “It is sort of exciting, isn’t it?”
“Black,” he said and dropped his odd dime on the black square.
The pitchman stared at the single dime on his expanse of playboard and sighed. “Heavy plunger.” He turned to the Wheel.
Johnny’s hand wandered absently to his forehead and touched it. “Wait,” he said abruptly. He pushed one of his quarters onto the square reading 11-20.
“Sure,” Johnny said.
The pitchman gave the Wheel a twist and it spun inside its circle of lights, red and black merging. Johnny absently rubbed at his forehead. The Wheel began to slow and now they could hear the metronomelike tick-tock of the small wooden clapper sliding past the pins that divided the numbers. It reached 8, 9, seemed about to stop on 10, and slipped into the 11 slot with a final click and came to rest.
“The lady loses, the gentleman wins,” the pitchman said.
“You won, Johnny?”
“Seems like it,” Johnny said as the pitchman added two quarters to his original one. Sarah gave a little squeal, barely noticing as the pitchman swept the dime away.
“Told you, my lucky night,” Johnny said.
“Twice is luck, once is just a fluke,” the pitchman remarked. “Hey-hey-hey.”
“Go again, Johnny,” she said.
“All right. Just as it is for me.”
“Let it ride?”
The pitchman spun the Wheel again, and as it slid around, Sarah murmured quietly to him, “Aren’t all these carnival wheels supposed to be fixed?”
“They used to be. Now the state inspects them and they just rely on their outrageous odds system.”
The Wheel had slowed to its final unwinding tick-tock. The pointer passed 10 and entered Johnny’s trip, still slowing.
“Come on, come on!” Sarah cried. A couple of teenagers on their way out paused to watch.
The wooden clapper, moving very slowly now, passed 16 and 17, then came to a stop on 18.
“Gentleman wins again.” The pitchman added six more quarters to Johnny’s pile.
“You’re rich!” Sarah gloated, and kissed him on the cheek.
“You’re streaking, fella,” the pitchman agreed enthusiastically. “Nobody quits a hot stick. Hey-hey-hey.”
“Should I go again?” Johnny asked her.
“Yeah, go ahead, man,” one of the teenagers said. A button on his jacket bore the face of Jimi Hendrix. “That guy took me for four bucks tonight. I love to see him take a beatin.”
“You too then,” Johnny told Sarah. He gave her the odd quarter off his stack of nine. After a moment’s hesitation she laid it down on 21. Single numbers paid off ten to one on a hit, the board announced.
“You’re riding the middle trip, right, fella?”
Johnny looked down at the eight quarters stacked on the board, and then he began to rub his forehead again, as if he felt the beginnings of a headache. Suddenly he swept the quarters off the board and jingled them in his two cupped hands.
“No. Spin for the lady. I’ll watch this one.”
She looked at him, puzzled. “Johnny?”
He shrugged. “Just a feeling.”
The pitchman rolled his eyes in a heaven-give-me-strength-to-bear-these-fools gesture and set his Wheel going again. It spun, slowed, and stopped. On double zero. “House numbah, house numbah,” the pitchman chanted, and Sarah’s quarter disappeared into his apron.
“Is that fair, Johnny?” Sarah asked, hurt.
“Zero and double zero only pay the house,” he said.
“Then you were smart to take your money off the board.”
“I guess I was.”
“You want me to spin this Wheel or go for coffee?” the pitchman asked.
“Spin it,” Johnny said, and put his quarters down in two stacks of four on the third trip.
As the Wheel buzzed around in its cage of lights, Sarah asked Johnny, never taking her eyes from the spin, “How much can a place like this take in on one night?”
The teenagers had been joined by a quartet of older people, two men and two women. A man with the build of a construction worker said, “Anywheres from five to seven hundred dollars.”
The pitchman rolled his eyes again. “Oh, man, I wish you was right,” he said.
“Hey, don’t give me that poor mouth,” the man who looked like a construction worker said. “I used to work this scam twenty years ago. Five to seven hundred a night, two grand on a Saturday, easy. And that’s running a straight Wheel.”
Johnny kept his eyes on the Wheel, which was now spinning slowly enough to read the individual numbers as they flashed past. It flashed past 0 and 00, through the first trip, slowing, through the second trip, still slowing.
“Too much legs, man,” one of the teenagers said.
“Wait,” Johnny said, in a peculiar tone of voice. Sarah glanced at him, and his long, pleasant face looked oddly strained, his blue eyes darker than usual, far away, distant.
The pointer stopped on 30 and came to rest.
“Hot stick, hot stick,” the pitchman chanted resignedly as the little crowd behind Johnny and Sarah uttered a cheer. The man who looked like a construction worker clapped Johnny on the back hard enough to make him stagger a bit. The pitchman reached into the Roi-Tan box under the counter and dropped four singles beside Johnny’s eight quarters.
“Enough?” Sarah asked.
“One more,” Johnny said. “If I win, this guy paid for our fair and your gas. If I lose, we’re out half a buck or so.”
“Hey-hey-hey,” the pitchman chanted. He was brightening up now, getting his rhythm back. “Get it down where you want it down. Step right up, you other folks. This ain’t no spectator sport. Round and round she’s gonna go and where she’s gonna stop ain’t nobody knows.”
The man who looked like a construction worker and the two teenagers stepped up beside Johnny and Sarah. After a moment’s consultation, the teenagers produced half a buck in change between them and dropped it on the middle trip. The man who looked like a construction worker, who introduced himself as Steve Bernhardt, put a dollar on the square marked EVEN.
“What about you, buddy?” the pitchman asked Johnny. “You gonna play it as it lays?”
“Yes,” Johnny said.
“Oh man,” one of the teenagers said, “that’s tempting fate.”
“I guess,” Johnny said, and Sarah smiled at him.
Bernhardt gave Johnny a speculative glance and suddenly switched his dollar to his third trip. “What the hell,” sighed the teenager who had told Johnny he was tempting fate. He switched the fifty cents he and his friend had come up with to the same trip.
“All the eggs in one basket,” the pitchman chanted. “That how you want it?”
The players stood silent and affirmative. A couple of roustabouts had drifted over to watch, one of them with a lady friend; there was now quite a respectable little knot of people in front of the Wheel of Fortune concession in the darkening arcade. The pitchman gave the Wheel a mighty spin. Twelve pairs of eyes watched it revolve. Sarah found herself looking at Johnny again, thinking how strange his face was in this bold yet somehow furtive lighting. She thought of the mask again—Jekyll and Hyde, odd and even. Her stomach turned over again, making her feel a little weak. The Wheel slowed, began to tick. The teenagers began to shout at it, urging it onward.
“Little more, baby,” Steve Bernhardt cajoled it. “Little more, honey.”
The Wheel ticked into the third trip and came to a stop on 24. A cheer went up from the crowd again.
“Johnny, you did it, you did it!” Sarah cried.
The pitchman whistled through his teeth in disgust and paid off. A dollar for the teenagers, two for Bernhardt, a ten and two ones for Johnny. He now had eighteen dollars in front of him on the board.
“Hot stick, hot stick, hey-hey-hey. One more, buddy? This Wheel’s your friend tonight.”
Johnny looked at Sarah.
“Up to you, Johnny.” But she felt suddenly uneasy.
“Go on, man,” the teenager with the Jimi Hendrix button urged. “I love to see this guy get a beatin.”
“Okay,” Johnny said, “last time.”
“Get it down where you want it down.”
They all looked at Johnny, who stood thoughtful for a moment, rubbing his forehead. His usually good-humored face was still and serious and composed. He was looking at the Wheel in its cage of lights and his fingers worked steadily at the smooth skin over his right eye.
“As is,” he said finally.
A little speculative murmur from the crowd.
“Oh man, that is really tempting it.”
“He’s hot,” Bernhardt said doubtfully. He glanced back at his wife, who shrugged to show her complete mystification. “I’ll tag along with you, long, tall, and ugly.”
The teenager with the button glanced at his friend, who shrugged and nodded. “Okay,” he said, turning back to the pitchman. “We’ll stick, too.”
The Wheel spun. Behind them Sarah heard one of the roustabouts bet the other five dollars against the third trip coming up again. Her stomach did another forward roll but this time it didn’t stop; it just went on somersaulting over and over and she became aware that she was getting sick. Cold sweat stood out on her face.
The Wheel began to slow in the first trip, and one of the teenagers flapped his hands in disgust. But he didn’t move away. It ticked past 11, 12, 13. The pitchman looked happy at last. Tick-tock-tick, 14, 15, 16.
“It’s going through,” Bernhardt said. There was awe in his voice. The pitchman looked at his Wheel as if he wished he could just reach out and stop it. It clicked past 20, 21, and settled to a stop in the slot marked 22.
There was another shout of triumph from the crowd, which had now grown almost to twenty. All the people left at the fair were gathered here, it seemed. Faintly, Sarah heard the roustabout who had lost his bet grumble something about “Shitass luck,” as he paid off. Her head thumped. Her legs felt suddenly, horribly unsteady, the muscles trembling and untrustworthy. She blinked her eyes rapidly several times and got only a nauseating instant of vertigo for her pains. The world seemed to tilt up at a skewed angle, as if they were still on the Whip, and then slowly settle back down.
I got a bad hot dog, she thought dismally. That’s what you get for trying your luck at the county fair, Sarah.
“Hey-hey-hey,” the pitchman said without much enthusiasm, and paid off. Two dollars for the teenagers, four for Steve Bernhardt, and then a bundle for Johnny—three tens, a five, and a one. The pitchman was not overjoyed, but he was sanguine. If the tall, skinny man with the good-looking blonde tried the third trip again, the pitchman would almost surely gather back in everything he had paid out. It wasn’t the skinny man’s money until it was off the board. And if he walked? Well, he had cleared a thousand dollars on the Wheel just today, he could afford to pay out a little tonight. The word would get around that Sol Drummore’s Wheel had been hit and tomorrow play would be heavier than ever. A winner was a good ad.
“Lay em down where you want em down,” he chanted. Several of the others had moved up to the board and were putting down dimes and quarters. But the pitchman looked only at his money player. “What do you say, fella? Want to shoot the moon?”
Johnny looked down at Sarah. “What do you . . . hey, are you all right? You’re white as a ghost.”
“My stomach,” she said, managing a smile. “I think it was my hot dog. Can we go home?”
“Sure. You bet.” He was gathering the wad of wrinkled bills up from the board when his eyes happened on the Wheel again. The warm concern for her that had been in them faded out. They seemed to darken again, become speculative in a cold way. He’s looking at that wheel the way a little boy would look at his own private ant colony, Sarah thought.
“Just a minute,” he said.
“All right,” Sarah answered. But she felt light-headed now as well as sick to her stomach. And there were rumblings in her lower belly that she didn’t like. Not the backdoor trots, Lord. Please.
She thought: He can’t be content until he’s lost it all back.
And then, with strange certainty: But he’s not going to lose.
“What do you say, buddy?” the pitchman asked. “On or off, in or out.”
“Shit or git,” one of the roustabouts said, and there was nervous laughter. Sarah’s head swam.
Johnny suddenly shoved bills and quarters up to the corner of the board.
“What are you doing?” the pitchman asked, genuinely shocked.
“The whole wad on 19,” Johnny said. Sarah wanted to moan and bit it back. The crowd murmured.
“Don’t push it,” Steve Bernhardt said in Johnny’s ear. Johnny didn’t answer. He was staring at the Wheel with something like indifference. His eyes seemed almost violet.
There was a sudden jingling sound that Sarah at first thought must be in her own ears. Then she saw that the others who had put money down were sweeping it back off the board again, leaving Johnny to make his play alone.
No! She found herself wanting to shout. Not like that, not alone, it isn’t fair . . .
She bit down on her lips. She was afraid that she might throw up if she opened her mouth. Her stomach was very bad now. Johnny’s pile of winnings sat alone under the naked lights. Fifty-four dollars, and the single-number payoff was ten for one.
The pitchman wet his lips. “Mister, the state says I’m not supposed to take any single number bets over two dollars.”
“Come on,” Bernhardt growled. “You aren’t supposed to take trip bets over ten and you just let the guy bet eighteen. What is it, your balls starting to sweat?”
“No, it’s just . . .”
“Come on,” Johnny said abruptly. “One way or the other. My girl’s sick.”
The pitchman sized up the crowd. The crowd looked back at him with hostile eyes. It was bad. They didn’t understand that the guy was just throwing his money away and he was trying to restrain him. Fuck it. The crowd wasn’t going to like it either way. Let the guy do his headstand and lose his money so he could shut down for the night.
“Well,” he said, “as long as none of youse is state inspectors . . .” He turned to his Wheel. “Round and round she’s gonna go, and where she’s gonna stop, ain’t nobody knows.”
He spun, sending the numbers into an immediate blur. For a time that seemed much longer than it actually could have been, there was no sound but the whirring of the Wheel of Fortune, the night wind rippling a swatch of canvas somewhere, and the sick thump in Sarah’s own head. In her mind she begged Johnny to put his arm around her but he only stood quietly with his hands on the playing board and his eyes on the Wheel, which seemed determined to spin forever.
At last it slowed enough for her to be able to read the numbers and she saw 19, the 1 and 9 painted bright red on a black background. Up and down, up and down. The Wheel’s smooth whirr broke into a steady ticka-ticka-ticka that was very loud in the stillness.
Now the numbers marched past the pointer with slowing deliberation.
One of the roustabouts called out in wonder: “By the Jesus, it’s gonna be close, anyway!”
Johnny stood calmly, watching the Wheel, and now it seemed to her (although it might have been the sickness, which was now rolling through her belly in gripping, peristaltic waves) that his eyes were almost black. Jekyll and Hyde, she thought, and was suddenly, senselessly, afraid of him.
The Wheel clicked into the second trip, passed 15 and 16, clicked over 17 and, after an instant’s hesitation, 18 as well. With a final tick! the pointer dropped into the 19 slot. The crowd held its breath. The Wheel revolved slowly, bringing the pointer up against the small pin between 19 and 20. For a quarter of a second it seemed that the pin could not hold the pointer in the 19 slot; that the last of its dying velocity would carry it over to 20. Then the Wheel rebounded, its force spent, and came to rest.
For a moment there was no sound from the crowd. No sound at all.
Then one of the teenagers, soft and awed: “Hey, man, you just won five hundred and forty dollars.”
Steve Bernhardt: “I never seen a run like that. Never.”
Then the crowd cheered. Johnny was slapped on the back, pummeled. People brushed by Sarah to get at him, to touch him, and for the moment they were separated she felt miserable, raw panic. Strengthless, she was butted this way and that, her stomach rolling crazily. A dozen afterimages of the Wheel whirled blackly before her eyes.
A moment later Johnny was with her and she saw with weak gladness that it really was Johnny and not the composed, mannequinlike figure that had watched the Wheel on its last spin. He looked confused and concerned about her.
“Baby, I’m sorry,” he said, and she loved him for that.
“I’m okay,” she answered, not knowing if she was or not.
The pitchman cleared his throat. “The Wheel’s shut down,” he said. “The Wheel’s shut down.”
An accepting, ill-tempered rumble from the crowd.
The pitchman looked at Johnny. “I’ll have to give you a check, young gentleman. I don’t keep that much cash in the booth.”
“Sure, anything,” Johnny said. “Just make it quick. The lady here really is sick.”
“Sure, a check,” Steve Bernhardt said with infinite contempt. “He’ll give you a check that’ll bounce as high as the WGAN Tall Tower and he’ll be down in Florida for the winter.”
“My dear sir,” the pitchman began, “I assure you . . .”
“Oh, go assure your mother, maybe she’ll believe you,” Bernhardt said. He suddenly reached over the playing board and groped beneath the counter.
“Hey!” The pitchman yelped. “This is robbery!”
The crowd did not appear impressed with his claim.
“Please,” Sarah muttered. Her head was whirling.
“I don’t care about the money,” Johnny said suddenly. “Let us by, please. The lady’s sick.”
“Oh, man,” the teenager with the Jimi Hendrix button said, but he and his buddy drew reluctantly aside.
“No, Johnny,” Sarah said, although she was only holding back from vomiting by an act of will now. “Get your money.” Five hundred dollars was Johnny’s salary for three weeks.
“Pay off, you cheap tinhorn!” Bernhardt roared. He brought up the Roi-Tan cigar box from under the counter, pushed it aside without even looking inside it, groped again, and this time came up with a steel lockbox painted industrial green. He slammed it down on the play-board. “If there ain’t five hundred and forty bucks in there, I’ll eat my own shirt in front of all these people.” He dropped a hard, heavy hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “You just wait a minute, sonny. You’re gonna have your payday or my name’s not Steve Bernhardt.”
“Really, sir, I don’t have that much . . .”
“You pay,” Steve Bernhardt said, leaning over him, “or I’ll see you shut down. I mean that. I’m sincere about it.”
The pitchman sighed and fished inside his shirt. He produced a key on a fine-link chain. The crowd sighed. Sarah could stay no longer. Her stomach felt bloated and suddenly as still as death. Everything was going to come up, everything, and at express-train speed. She stumbled away from Johnny’s side and battered through the crowd.
“Honey, you all right?” a woman’s voice asked her, and Sarah shook her head blindly.
You just can’t hide . . . from Jekyll and Hyde, she thought incoherently. The fluorescent mask seemed to hang sickly before her eyes in the midway dark as she hurried past the merry-go-round. She struck a light pole with her shoulder, staggered, grabbed it, and threw up. It seemed to come all the way from her heels, convulsing her stomach like a sick, slick fist. She let herself go with it as much as she could.
Smells like cotton candy, she thought, and with a groan she did it again, then again. Spots danced in front of her eyes. The last heave had brought up little more than mucus and air.
“Oh, my,” she said weakly, and clung to the light pole to keep from falling over. Somewhere behind her Johnny was calling her name, but she couldn’t answer just yet, didn’t want to. Her stomach was settling back down a little and for just a moment she wanted to stand here in the dark and congratulate herself on being alive, on having survived her night at the fair.
She spat twice to clear her mouth a little.
“Over here, Johnny.”
He came around the carousel with its plaster horses frozen in midleap. She saw he was absently clutching a thick wad of greenbacks in one hand.
“Are you all right?”
“No, but better. I threw up.”
“Oh. Oh, Jesus. Let’s go home.” He took her arm gently.
“You got your money.”
He glanced down at the wad of bills and then tucked it absently into his pants pocket. “Yeah. Some of it or all of it, I don’t know. That burly guy counted it out.”
Sarah took a handkerchief from her purse and began rubbing her mouth with it. Drink of water, she thought. I’d sell my soul for a drink of water.
“You ought to care,” she said. “It’s a lot of money.”
“Found money brings bad luck,” he said darkly. “One of my mother’s sayings. She had a million of em. And she’s death on gambling.”
“Dyed-in-the-wool Baptist,” Sarah said, and then shuddered convulsively.
“You okay?” he asked, concerned.
“The chills,” she said. “When we get in the car I want the heater on full blast, and . . . oh, Lord, I’m going to do it again.”
She turned away from him and retched up spittle with a groaning sound. She staggered. He held her gently but firmly. “Can you get back to the car?”
“Yes. I’m all right now.” But her head ached and her mouth tasted foul and the muscles of her back and belly all felt sprung out of joint, strained and achey.
They walked slowly down the midway together, scuffing through the sawdust, passing tents that had been closed up and snugged down for the night. A shadow glided up behind them and Johnny glanced around sharply, perhaps aware of how much money he had in his pocket.
It was one of the teenagers—about fifteen years old. He smiled shyly at them. “I hope you feel better,” he said to Sarah. “It’s those hot dogs, I bet. You can get a bad one pretty easy.”
“Ag, don’t talk about it,” Sarah said.
“You need a hand getting her to the car?” he asked Johnny.
“No, thanks. We’re fine.”
“Okay. I gotta cut out anyway.” But he paused a moment longer, his shy smile widening into a grin. “I love to see that guy take a beatin.”
He trotted off into the dark.
Sarah’s small, white station wagon was the only car left in the dark parking lot; it crouched under a sodium light like a forlorn, forgotten pup. Johnny opened the passenger door for Sarah and she folded herself carefully in. He slipped in behind the wheel and started it up.
“It’ll take a few minutes for the heater,” he said.
“Never mind. I’m hot now.”
He looked at her and saw the sweat breaking on her face. “Maybe we ought to trundle you up to the emergency room at Eastern Maine Medical,” he said. “If it’s salmonella, it could be serious.”
“No, I’m okay. I just want to go home and go to sleep, I’m going to get up just long enough tomorrow morning to call in sick at school and then go back to sleep again.”
“Don’t even bother to get up that long. I’ll call you in, Sarah.”
She looked at him gratefully. “Would you?”
They were headed back to the main highway now.
“I’m sorry I can’t come back to your place with you,” Sarah said. “Really and truly.”
“Not your fault.”
“Sure it is. I ate the bad hot dog. Unlucky Sarah.”
“I love you, Sarah,” Johnny said. So it was out, it couldn’t be called back, it hung between them in the moving car waiting for someone to do something about it.
She did what she could. “Thank you, Johnny.”
They drove on in a comfortable silence.