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Authors: Stephen King

Christine (5 page)

BOOK: Christine
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Arnie drew all of his in cash.

"Here," he said, holding out a ten-spot

"No," I said. "You hang onto it, man. You'll need penny of it before you're through with that clunk."

"Take it," he said. "I pay my debts, Dennis."

"Keep it. Really."

"Take it." He held the money out inexorably.

I took it. But I made him take out the dollar he had coming back.
He
didn't want to do that.

Driving across town to LeBay's tract house, Arnie got more jittery, playing the radio too loud, beating boogie riffs first on his thighs and then on the dashboard. Foreigner came on, singing "Dirty White Boy."

"Story of my life, Arnie my man," I said, and he laughed too loud and too long.

He was acting like a man waiting for his wife to have a baby. At last I guessed he was scared LeBay had sold the car out from under him.

"Arnie," I said, "stay cool. It'll be there."

"I'm cool, I'm cool," he said, and offered me a large, glowing, false smile. His complexion that day was the worst I ever saw it, and I wondered (not for the first time, or the last) what it must be like to be Arnie Cunningham, trapped behind that oozing face from second to second and minute to minute and…

"Well, just stop sweating. You act like you're going to make lemonade in your pants before we get there."

"I'm not," he said, and beat another quick, nervous riff on the dashboard just to show me how nervous he wasn't. "Dirty White Boy" by Foreigner gave way to "Jukebox Heroes" by Foreigner. It was Friday afternoon, and the Block Party Weekend had started on FM-104. When I look back on that year, my senior year, it seems to me that I could measure it out in blocks of rock… and an escalating, dreamlike sense of terror.

"What exactly is it?" I asked. "What is it about this car?"

He sat looking out at Libertyville Avenue without saying anything for a long time, and then he turned off the radio with a quick snap, cutting off Foreigner in mid-flight.

"I don't know exactly," he said. "Maybe it's because for the first time since I was eleven and started getting pimples, I've seen something even uglier than I am. Is that what you want me to say? Does that let you put it in a neat little category?"

"Hey, Arnie, come on," I said. "This is Dennis here remember me?"

"I remember," he said. "And we're still friends, right?"

"Sure, last time I checked. But what has that got to do with—"

"And that means we don't have to lie to each other, or at least I think that's what it's supposed to mean. So I got to tell you, maybe it's not all jive. I know what I am. I'm ugly. I don't make friends easily. I… alienate people somehow. I don't mean to do it, but somehow I do. You know?"

I nodded with some reluctance. As he said, we were friends, and that meant keeping the bullshit to a bare minimum.

He nodded back, matter-of-factly. "Other people—" he said, and then added carefully, "you, for instance, Dennis don't always understand what that means. It changes how you look at the world when you're ugly and people laugh at you. It makes it hard to keep your sense of humor. It plugs up your sinuses. Sometimes it makes it a little hard to stay sane."

"Well, I can dig that. But—"

"No," he said quietly. "You can't dig it. You might think you can, but you can't. Not really. But you like me, Dennis—"

"I love you, man," I said. "You know that."

"Maybe you do," he said. "And I appreciate it. if you do you know it's because there's something else—something underneath the zits and my stupid face—"

"Your face isn't stupid," Arnie," I said. "Queer-looking, maybe, but not " stupid."

"Fuck you," he said, smiling.

"And de Cayuse you rode in on, Range Rider."

"Anyway, that car's like that. There's something underneath. Something else. Something better. I see it, that's all."

"Do you?"

"Yeah, Dennis," he said quietly. "I do."

I turned onto Main Street. We were getting close to LeBay's now. And suddenly I had a truly nasty idea. Suppose Arnie's father had gotten one of his friends or students to beat his feet over to LeBay's house and buy that car out from under his son? A touch Machiavellian, you might say, but Michael Cunningham's mind was more than a little devious. His specialty was military history.

"I saw that car—and I felt such an
attraction
to it… I can't explain it very well even to myself. But "

He trailed off, those gray eyes looking dreamily ahead.

"But I saw I could make her better," he said.

"Fix it up, you mean?"

"Yeah… well, no. That's too impersonal. You fix tables, chairs, stuff like that. The lawnmower when it won't start. And ordinary cars."

Maybe he saw my eyebrows go up. He laughed, anyway—a little defensive laugh.

"Yeah, I know how that sounds," he said. "I don't even like to say it, because I know how it sounds. But you're a friend, Dennis. And that means a minimum of bullshit. I don't think she's any ordinary car. I don't know why I think that but I do."

I opened my mouth to say something I might later have regretted, something about trying to keep things in perspective or maybe even about avoiding obsessive behavior. But just then we swung around the corner and onto LeBay's street.

Arnie pulled air into his lungs in a harsh, hurt gasp.

There was a rectangle of grass on LeBay's lawn that was even yellower, balder, and uglier than the rest of his lawn. Near one end of that patch there was a diseased-looking oil-spill that had sunk into the ground and killed everything that had once grown there. That rectangular piece of ground was so fucking gross I almost believe that if you looked at it for too long you'd go blind.

It was where the '58 Plymouth had been standing yesterday.

The ground was still there but the Plymouth was gone.

"Arnie," I said as I swung my car in to the curb, "take it easy. Don't go off half-cocked, for Christ's sake."

He paid not a bit of attention. I doubt if he had even heard me. His face had gone pale. The blemishes covering it stood out in purplish, glaring relief. He had the passenger door of my Duster open and was lunging out of the car even before it had stopped moving.

"Arnie—"

"It's my father," he said in anger and dismay. "I smell that bastard all
over
this."

And he was gone, running across the lawn to LeBay's door.

I got out and hurried after him, thinking that this crazy shit was never going to end. I could hardly believe I had just heard Arnie Cunningham call Michael a bastard.

Arnie was raising his fist to hammer on the door when it opened. There stood Roland D. LeBay himself. Today he was wearing a shirt over his back brace. He looked at Arnie's furious face with a benignly avaricious smile.

"Hello, son," he said.

"Where is she?" Arnie raged. "We had a deal! Dammit we had a deal! I've got a receipt!"

"Simmer down," LeBay said. He saw me, standing on the bottom step with my hands shoved down in my pockets. "What's wrong with your friend, son?"

"The car's gone," I said. "That's what's wrong with him."

"Who bought it?" Arnie shouted. I'd never seen him so mad. If he had had a gun right then, I believe he would have put it to LeBay's temple. I was fascinated in spite of myself. It was as if a rabbit had suddenly turned carnivore. God help me, I even wondered fleetingly if he might not have a brain tumor.

"Who bought it?" LeBay repeated mildly. "Why nobody has yet", son. But you got a lien on her. I backed her into the garage, that's all. I put on the spare and changed the oil." He preened and then offered us both an absurdly magnanimous smile.

"You're a real sport," I said.

Arnie stared at him uncertainly, then turned his head creakily to took at the closed door of the modest one-car garage that was attached to the house by a breezeway. The breezeway, like everything else around LeBay's place, had seen better days.

"Besides, I didn't want to leave her out once you'd laid some money down on her," he said. "I've had some trouble with one or two of the folks on this street. One night some kid threw a rock at my car. Oh yeah, I got some neighbors straight out of the old AB."

"What's that?" I asked.

"The Asshole Brigade, son."

He swept the far side of the street with a baleful sniper's glance, taking in the neat, gas-thrifty commuters cars now home from work, the children playing tag and jumprope, the people sitting out on their porches and having drinks in the first of the evening cool.

"I'd like to know who it was threw that rock," he said softly. "Yessir, I'd surely like to know who it was."

Arnie cleared his throat. "I'm sorry I gave you a hard time."

"Don't worry," LeBay said briskly. "Like to see a fellow stand up for what's his… or what's almost his. You bring the money, kid?"

"Yes, I have it."

"Well, come on in the house. You and your friend both. I'll sign her over to you, and we'll have a glass of beer to celebrate."

"No thanks," I said. "I'll stay out here, if that's okay."

"Suit yourself, son," LeBay said… and winked. To this day I have no idea exactly what that wink was supposed to mean. They went in, and the door banged shut behind them. The fish had been netted and was about to be cleaned.

Feeling depressed, I walked through the breezeway to the garage and tried the door. It ran up easily and exhaled the same odors I had smelled when I opened the Plymouth's door yesterday—oil, old upholstery, the accumulated heat of a long summer.

Rakes and a few old garden implements were ranked along one wall. On the other was a very old hose, a bicycle pump, and an ancient golf-bag filled with rusty clubs. In the center, nose outward, sat Arnie's car, Christine, looking a mile long in this day and age when even Cadillacs look squeezed together and boxy. The spiderweb snarl of cracks at the side of the windscreen caught the light and turned it to a dull quicksilver. Some kid with a rock, as LeBay had said—or maybe a little accident coming home from the VFW hall after a night of drinking boilermakers and telling stories about the Battle of the Bulge or Pork Chop Hill. The good old days, when a man could see Europe, the Pacific, and the mysterious East from behind the sight of a bazooka. Who knew… and what did it matter"? Either way, it was not going to be easy, finding a replacement for a big wrap windscreen like that.

Or cheap.

Oh, Arnie,
I thought.
Man, you are getting in so deep.

The flat LeBay had taken off rested against the wall. I got down on my hands and knees and peered under the car. A fresh oil-stain was starting to form there, black against the brownish ghost of an older, wider stain that had sunk into the concrete over a period of years. It did nothing to alleviate my depression. The block was cracked for sure.

I walked around to the driver's side and as I grasped the handle, I saw a wastecan at the far corner of the garage. A large plastic bottle was poking out of the top. The letters SAPPH were visible over the rim.

I groaned. Oh, he had changed the oil, all right. Big of him. He had run out the old—whatever was left of it—and had run in a few quarts of Sapphire Motor Oil. This is the stuff you can get for $3.50 per recycled five-gallon jug at the Mammoth Mart. Roland D. LeBay was a real prince, all right. Roland D. LeBay was all heart.

I opened the car door and slid in behind the wheel. Now the smell in the garage didn't seem quite so heavy, or so freighted with feelings of disuse and defeat. The car's wheel was wide and red—a confident wheel. I looked at that amazing speedometer again, that speedometer which was calibrated not to 70 or 80 but all the way up to 120 miles an hour. No kilometres in little red numbers underneath; when this babe had rolled off the assembly line, the idea of going metric had yet to occur to anyone in Washington. No big red 55 on the speedometer, either. Back then, gas went for 29.9 a gallon, maybe less if a price-war happened to be going on in your town. The Arab oil-embargoes and the double-nickel speed limit had still been fifteen years away.

The good old days,
I thought, and had to smile a little. I fumbled down to the left side of the seat and found the little button console that would move the seat back and forth and up and down (if it still worked, that was). More power to you, to coin a crappy little pun. There was air conditioning (that
certainly
wouldn't work), and cruise control, and a big pushbutton radio with lots of chrome—AM only, of course. In 1958, FM was mostly a blank wasteland.

I put my hands on the wheel and something happened.

Even now, after much thought, I'm not sure exactly what it was. A vision, maybe—but if it was, it sure wasn't any big deal. It was just that for a moment the torn upholstery seemed to be gone. The seat covers were whole and smelling pleasantly of vinyl… or maybe that smell was real leather. The worn places were gone from the steering wheel; the chrome winked pleasantly in the summer evening light falling through the garage door.

Let's go for a ride, big guy,
Christine seemed to whisper in the hot summer silence of LeBay's garage.
Let's cruise.

And for just a moment it seemed that
everything
changed. That ugly snarl of cracks in the windscreen was gone—or seemed to be. The little swatch of LeBay's lawn that I could see was not yellowed, balding, and crabgrassy but a dark, rich, newly cut green. The sidewalk beyond it was freshly cemented, not a crack in sight. I saw (or thought I did, or dreamed I did) a '57 Cadillac motor by out front. That GM high-stepper was a dark minty green, not a speck of rust on her, big gangster whitewall tires, and hubcaps as deeply reflective as mirrors. A Cadillac the size of a boat, and why not? Gas was almost as cheap as tap-water.

Let's go for a ride, big guy… let's cruise.

Sure, why not? I could pull out and turn toward downtown, toward the old high school that was still standing—it wouldn't burn down for another six years, not until 1964 and I could turn on the radio and catch Chuck Berry singing "Maybeliene" or the Everlys doing "Wake Up Little Susie" or maybe Robin Luke wailing "Susie Darling." And then I'd…

BOOK: Christine
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