Granpop’s dinosaur of a Buick station wagon creeps along the dirt road at twenty miles an hour. Frank Brown is driving with his eyes slitted and his mouth compressed to a fine white line. Corinne, his missus, is riding shotgun with her iPad open in her lap, and when Frank asks her if she’s sure this is right, she tells him everything is fine, steady as she goes, they’ll rejoin the main road in another six miles, eight at most, and from there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to the turnpike. She doesn’t want to say that the blinking blue dot marking their location disappeared five minutes ago and the map is frozen in place. They’ve been married fourteen years and Corinne knows the mouth her husband is currently wearing. It means he’s close to blowing his stack.
In the spacious backseat, Billy Brown and Mary Brown sit flanking Granpop, who has his big old black shoes planted on either side of the driveshaft hump. Billy is eleven. Mary is nine. Granpop is seventy-five, a giant pain in the ass as far as his son is concerned, and too old to have such young grandchildren, but there they are. When they set out from Falmouth to see Granpop’s dying sister up in Derry, Granpop talked nonstop, mostly about the zipper bag in the backseat. It contains Nan’s baseball souvenirs. Mad about baseball she was, he tells them. There are baseball cards that he says are worth a fortune (Frank Brown fucking doubts this), her college softball glove signed by Dom DiMaggio, and the prize of all prizes, a Louisville Slugger signed by Ted Williams. She won it in a Jimmy Fund charity raffle the year before the Splendid Splinter called it quits. “Teddy Ballgame flew in Korea, you know,” Granpop tells the kids. “Bombed hell out of the gooks.”
“Not a word the children need to know,” Corinne says from the front seat—but without much thought of success. Her father-in-law grew up in a politically incorrect age, and he’s carried it with him. She also thought of asking him what a dying, semi-comatose octogenarian was supposed to do with a bat and glove, but kept still on that point. Donald Brown has never had much to say about his sister, good or bad, but he must feel something for her or he wouldn’t have insisted they make this trip. He insisted on his old Buick, too. Because it’s roomy, and because he said he knew a shortcut that might be a little rough. He’s right on both counts.
He also tucked a pile of his old comic books into the bag. “Reading material for the youngsters on the trip,” he said. Billy doesn’t give shit one for old comic books—he’s playing a game on his phone—but Mary got on her knees, reached into the cargo compartment, unzipped Granpop’s bag, and grabbed a stack. Most are cruddy, but some are pretty good. In the one she’s reading now, Betty and Veronica are fighting over Archie, pulling each other’s hair and such.
“You know what, back in the old days you could go down to Fenway on three dollars’ gas,” Granpop says. “And you could go to the game, snag a hot dog and a beer. . . .”
“And still get change back from a five-spot,” Frank mutters from behind the wheel.
“That’s right!” Granpop crows. “Damn straight you could! First game I ever saw with my sis, Ellis Kinder was pitching and Hoot Evers was in center field. My, that boy could hit! He knocked one over the right-field fence and Nan spilled her popcorn she was cheering so hard!”
Billy Brown could give shit one about baseball. “Granpop, why do you like to sit in the middle like that? You have to spread your legs.”
“I’m giving my balls an airing,” Granpop says.
“What balls?” Mary asks, and frowns when Billy sniggers.
Corinne looks back over her shoulder. “That’s enough of that, Granpop,” she says. “We’re taking you to see your sister and we’re going in your old car as you requested, so—”
“And it gobbles gas like you wouldn’t believe,” Frank says.
Corinne ignores this; she has her eyes on the prize. “It’s a favor. So do me one and keep the nasty talk to yourself.”
Granpop says he will, sorry, then bares his dentures at her in a leer that says he’ll do just about whatever the fuck he wants.
“What balls?” Mary persists.
“Baseballs,” Billy says. “Granpop’s got baseball on the brain. Just read your funny book and shut up. Don’t distract me. I’ve made it to level five.”
“If Nan had been born with balls, she could have played pro,” Granpop says. “That bitch was good.”
“Donald!” Corinne Brown nearly shouts. “Enough!”
“Well, she was,” the old man says sulkily. “Played varsity on the University of Maine team that went to the Women’s World Series. All the way to Oklahoma City, and almost got sucked up by a tornado!”
Frank doesn’t contribute to the conversation, only peers ahead at the road he never should have gone down and thanks God he didn’t overrule his father and take the Volvo. Is the road getting narrower? He believes it is. Is it getting rougher? He knows it is. Even the name strikes Frank as ominous. Who calls a road, even a piece of shit like this one, Slide Inn Road? Granpop said it was a shortcut to Highway 196, and Corinne agreed after consulting her iPad, and although Frank is no fan of shortcuts (as a banker he knows they always lead to trouble), he is initially seduced by the smooth black tar. Soon enough, however, tar gives way to dirt, and a mile or two later the dirt gives way to rutted hardpan lined on both sides by high weeds, goldenrod, and staring sunflowers. They go over a washboard that causes the Buick to shake like a dog after a bath. He wouldn’t care if the high-mileage, gas-guzzling, overweening piece of Detroit stupidity shook itself to death, were it not for the possibility of being broken down out here in East Jesus. And now, dear God, a plugged culvert has washed out half the road, and Mr. Brown has to creep around it on the left, the tires on his side barely skirting the ditch. If there had been room to turn around he would have said the hell with this and gone back, but there is no room.
They make it. Barely.
“How far now?” he asks Corinne.
“About five miles.” With MapQuest frozen she has no idea, but she has a hopeful heart. Which is a good thing. She discovered years ago that marriage to Frank and motherhood to Billy and Mary weren’t what she had expected, and now, as a shitty bonus, they have this unpleasant old man living with them because they can’t afford to put him in a retirement home. Hope is getting her through.
They are going to see an old lady dying of cancer, but Corinne Brown hopes someday to go on a Carnival cruise and drink something with a paper umbrella in it. She hopes to have a richer, fuller life when the kids finally grow up and go out on their own. She would also like to fuck a lifeguard with muscles, a tan, and a dazzling grin full of white teeth, but understands the difference between hope and fantasy.
“Granpop,” Mary says, “why do they call it the Slide In Road? Who slid in?”
“It’s Inn with two n’s,” Granpop says. “There used to be a fine one out here, even had a golf course, but it burned flat. Road’s gotten bad since the last time I drove it. Used to be as smooth as a baby’s bottom.”
“When was that, Dad?” Frank asks. “When Ted Williams was still playing for the Red Sox? Because it sure isn’t up to much now.” They hit a big pothole. The Buick jounces. Frank grits his teeth.
“Whoops-my-dear!” Granpop cries, and when Billy asks him what that means, Granpop tells him it’s what you say when you go over a bump like that. “Isn’t it, Frank? We used to say that all the time, didn’t we?”
Mr. Brown doesn’t answer.
Frank doesn’t answer. His knuckles are white on the steering wheel.
“Didn’t we?” “Yeah, Dad. Whoops my fucking dear.”
“Frank,” Corinne says in a chiding tone.
Mary giggles. Billy snickers. Granpop bares his dentures in another leer.
We’re having such fun, Frank thinks. Gee, if this trip could only last longer. If only it could last forever.
The trouble with the old bastard, Corinne thinks, is that he still gets a kick out of life, and people who get a kick out of life take a long time kicking the bucket. They like that old bucket.
Billy returns back to his game. He’s reached level six. He has yet to make it to level seven.
“Billy,” Frank says, “have you got bars on your phone?”
Billy pauses the game and checks. “One, but it keeps flickering on and off.”
Another washboard shivers through the Buick and Frank slows to fifteen. He wonders if he could change his name, ditch his family, and get a job at some little bank in an Australian town. Learn to call people mate.
“Lookit, kids!” Granpop bawls.
He’s leaning forward, and from this position is able to overload both his son’s right ear and his daughter-in-law’s left. They wince away in opposite directions, not just from the noise but from his breath. It smells like a small animal died in his mouth, shitting as it expired. He starts most mornings burping up bile and smacking his lips afterward, as if it’s tasty. Whatever’s going on inside him can’t be good and yet he exudes that horrible vitality. Sometimes, Corinne thinks, I believe I could kill him. I really do. Only I think the kids love him. Christ knows why, but they do.
“Lookit there, right over there!” One arthritis-bunched finger stabs out between Mr. and Mrs. Brown. The horny talon at the tip almost rips into Mrs. Brown’s cheek. “That’s the old Slide Inn, what’s left of it! Right there! I been there once, you know. Me and my sister Nan and our folks. We had breakfast in our rooms!”
The kids look dutifully at what remains of the Slide Inn: a few charred beams and a cellar hole. Mrs. Brown sees an old panel truck up there, parked in the weeds and sunflowers. It looks even older than Granpop’s Buick, the sides caked with rust.
“Cool, Granpop,” Billy says, and once more returns to his game.
“Cool, Granpop,” Mary says, and goes back to her funny book.
The ruin of the hotel slips behind them. Frank wonders if perhaps the owners burned it down on purpose. For the insurance money. Because, really, who would want to come out here to spend a weekend or, God forbid, a honeymoon? Maine has plenty of beauty spots, but this isn’t one of them. This isn’t even a place you go through to get to somewhere else unless you can’t avoid it. And they could have. That’s the hair across his ass.
“What if great-aunt Nan dies before we get there, Granpop?” Mary asks. She’s finished her comic book. The next one is Little Lulu, and she has no interest. Little Lulu looks like a turd in a dress.
“Well, then we’ll turn around and go back,” Granpop says. “After the funeral, accourse.”
The funeral. Oh God, the funeral. Frank hasn’t even thought about how she could be dead already. She might even pop off while they’re visiting, and then they would have to stay for the old bird’s funeral. He’s only brought a single change of clothes, and—
“Look out!” Corinne shouts. “Stop!”
He does, and just in time. There’s another plugged culvert and another washout at the top of the hill. Only this one goes all the way across. The crevasse looks at least three feet wide. God knows how deep it is.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” Billy asks, pausing his game again.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” Mary asks, stopping her search for another Archie funny book.
“What’s wrong, Frankie?” Granpop asks.
For a moment Frank Brown only sits with his hands at ten and two on the Buick’s big steering wheel, staring over the Buick’s long hood. They knew how to make ’em back in the old days, his father sometimes likes to opine. Those, of course, being the same old days when a self- respecting woman wouldn’t go shopping without first cinching on a girdle and hooking up her stockings to a garter belt, the days when gay people went in fear of their lives and there was a penny candy called nigger babies available at every five-and-dime. Nothing like the old days, yessir!
“Well, fuck your fucking shortcut,” he says. “You see where it’s gotten us.”
“Frank,” Corinne starts, but he gets out before she can finish and stands staring at the place where the road has cracked open.
Billy leans over Granpop’s lap to whisper in his sister’s ear: “Fuck your fucking shortcut.” She puts her hands over her mouth and snickers. That’s good. Granpop chuckles, which is even better. There are reasons why they love him.
Corinne gets out and joins her husband in front of the Buick’s sneery grille. She looks into the crack in the road and sees nothing good. “What do you think we should do?”
The kids join them, Mary on her mother’s side and Billy on his father’s. Then Granpop comes shuffling along in his big black shoes, looking cheerful.
“I don’t know,” Frank says, “but we’re sure not going this way.” “Got to back up,” Granpop says. “Back all the way down to the old Slide Inn. You can turn around in the driveway. No chain.”
“Jesus,” Frank says, and runs his hands through his thinning hair. “All right. When we get to the main road, we can decide whether to keep going to Derry or just head home.”
Granpop looks outraged at the idea of retreat, but after scanning his son’s face—especially the red spots on his cheeks and dashed across his forehead—he keeps his trap shut.
“Everybody back in,” Frank says, “but this time you sit on one side or the other, Dad. So I can see where I’m going without your head in the way.”
If we had the Volvo, he thinks, I could use the backup camera. Instead we’ve got this oversized piece of stupidity.
“I’ll walk,” Granpop says. “It’s not but two hundred yards.”
“Me too,” Mary says, and Billy seconds that.
“Fine,” Frank says. “Try not to fall down and break your leg, Dad. That would be the final touch to an absolutely wonderful day.”
Granpop and the kids start back down the hill to the burned-out inn’s driveway, Mary and Billy holding the old man’s hands. Frank thinks it could be a Norman Rockwell painting: “And an Old Bastard Shall Lead Them.”
He gets behind the Buick’s steering wheel. Corinne gets in the passenger seat. She puts a hand on his arm and gives him her sweetest smile, the one that says, I love you, you big strong man. Frank isn’t big, he’s not particularly strong, and there’s not much bloom left on the rose of their marriage (a bit wilted, that rose, petals going brown at the edges), but she needs to soothe him out of the red zone, and long experience has taught her how to do it.
He sighs and puts the Buick in reverse.
“Try not to run them down,” she says, looking back over her shoulder. “Don’t tempt me,” Frank says, and begins to creep the Buick backward. The ditches are deep on either side of this narrow track, and if he drops the rear end into one of them, they will be Katie bar the door.
Granpop and the kids reach the driveway before Frank is even halfway down the hill. The old man can see tracks pressed into the weeds. That panel truck looks like it’s been there for years, but Granpop guesses that’s not the case. Maybe someone decided to camp for a few days. It’s the only thing he can think of. There sure can’t be anything up there left to scavenge—any fool could see that.
Donald Brown loves his son, and there are many things Frankie can do well (although Granpop can’t think of any right off the top of his head), but when it comes to backing up that Buick Estate wagon, he isn’t worth a dry popcorn fart. The rear end is wagging from side to side like the tail of an old tired dog. He almost dumps it in the left ditch, overcorrects, almost dumps it in the right one, and overcorrects again.
“Boy, he’s not doing that very good,” Billy says.
“Hush up,” Granpop says. “He’s doing fine.”
“Can me and Mary go up and look at the old Slip Inn?”
“Slide Inn,” Granpop says. “Sure, go on up for a minute. Run, and be ready to come back down. Your dad’s not in a very good temper.”
The kids run up the overgrown drive.
“Don’t fall in the cellar hole!” Granpop bawls after them, and is about to add that they should stay in sight, but before he can do it there’s a crunch, an abbreviated honk of the horn, and then his son cursing a blue streak. There. That’s one of the things he’s good at.
Granpop turns from the scampering kids to see that, after managing to back all the way down the hill without going off the road, Frank’s ditched the wagon while trying to make a three-point turn.
“Shut up, Frankie!” Granpop shouts. “Quit that cussing and turn off the motor before you stall it out!” He’s probably torn off half the tailpipe anyway, but there’s no point telling him that.
Frank shuts off the motor and gets out. Corinne gets out too, but it’s a struggle. She tears an arc of weeds ahead of the door and finally manages. The car’s rear end is bumper-deep on the right side and the front is angled upward on the left.
Frank walks to his father. “The ground gave way while I was turning!”
“You cut it too tight,” the old man says. “That’s why only your right-side back wheel went in.”
“The ground gave way, I’m telling you!”
“Cut it too tight.”
“It gave way, goddammit!”
Standing side by side as they are, Corinne sees how much they look alike, and although she’s seen the resemblance many times before, on this beshitted summer morning it comes as a revelation. She realizes that her husband is on time’s conveyor belt, and before it dumps him off into the boneyard, he will actually become his father, only without Granpop’s sour but occasionally engaging sense of humor. Sometimes she gets so tired. Of Frank, yes, but also of herself. Because is she any better? Of course not.
She looks around where Billy and Mary were, then at Granpop. “Donald? Where are the kids?”
The kids are inspecting the panel truck at the top of the hill, close to where the Slide Inn once stood. The tire on the driver’s side is flat. While Mary goes around the front to look at the license plate (she’s always on the lookout for new ones, a game Granpop taught her), Billy walks to the edge of the long hole in the ground where the Inn once stood. He looks down and sees it’s full of dark water. Charred beams stick up. And a woman’s leg. The foot is clad in a bright blue sneaker. He stares, at first frozen, then backs away.
“Billy!” Mary calls. “It’s a Delaware! My first Delaware!” “That’s right, Sweetie,” someone says. “Delaware it is.”
Billy looks up. Two men are walking around the far end of the foundation hole. They are young. One is tall, with red hair that’s all oily and clumpy. He has a lot of pimples. The other one is short and fat. He’s got a bag in one hand that looks like Granpop’s old bowling bag, the one with rolling thunder on the side in fading blue letters. This one has no writing on it. Both men are smiling.
Billy tries to smile back. He doesn’t know if it really looks like a smile or more like a kid trying not to scream, but he hopes it’s a smile. He doesn’t want these two men to know he was looking into the cellar hole.
Mary comes around the side of the little white truck with its flat shoe. Her smile looks completely natural. Sure, why not? She’s a little girl, and as far as she knows, everybody likes little girls.
“Hi,” she says. “I’m Mary. That’s my brother Billy. Our car went in the ditch.” She points down the hill, at where her father and Granpop are looking at the back end of the Buick and her mother is looking up at them.
“Well, hi there, Mary,” says the redhead. “Good to meet you.”
“You too, Billy.” The fat young man drops a hand on Billy’s shoulder. The touch is startling, but Billy is too scared to jump. He holds on to his smile with all his might.
“Yup, little problem there,” the fat young man says, peering down, and when Corinne raises one hand—tentatively—the fat one raises his in return. “Think we could help, Galen?”
“I bet we could,” says the redhead. “We’ve got our own problem, as you see.” And he points to the flat tire. “No spare.” He bends down to Billy. His eyes are bright blue. There doesn’t seem to be anything in them. “Did you check out that hole, Billy? Mighty big one.”
“No,” Billy says. He’s trying to sound natural, unconcerned by the question, but doesn’t know if he’s getting that in his voice or not. He thinks he might faint. He wishes, God he wishes, that he’d never looked down there. Blue sneaker. “I was afraid I might fall in.”
“Smart kid,” Galen says. “Isn’t he, Pete?”
“Smart,” the fat one agrees, and tosses Corinne another wave. Granpop is now looking up the hill, too. Frank is still staring at the Buick’s ditched rear end, shoulders slumped.
“That skinny one your dad?” redheaded Galen asks Mary.
“Yup, and that’s our granpop. He’s old.”
“No shit,” Pete says. His hand is still on Billy’s shoulder. Billy looks around at it and sees what might be blood under the nail of Pete’s second finger.
“Well, you know what?” Galen says—he’s leaning down, speaking to Mary, who’s smiling up at him. “I bet we could push that big old sumbitch right out of there. Then maybe your dad could give us a ride to someplace where there’s a garage. Get a new tire for our little truck.”
“Are you from Delaware?” Mary asks.
“Well, we been through there,” Pete says. Then he and Galen exchange a look and they laugh.
“Let’s take a look at that car of yours,” Galen says. “Want me to carry you down, Sweetie?”
“No, that’s okay,” Mary says, her smile growing slightly tentative. “I can walk.”
“Your bro don’t talk much, does he?” Pete says. His hand, the one not holding the bowling bag (if that’s what it is), is still on Billy’s shoulder.
“Usually you can’t keep him quiet,” Mary says. “His tongue is hung in the middle and runs at both ends, that’s what Granpop says.”
“Maybe he saw something that scared him quiet,” Galen says. “Woodchuck or fox. Or something else.”
“I didn’t see anything,” Billy says. He thinks he might start crying and tells himself he can’t, he can’t.
“Well, come on,” Galen says. He takes Mary’s hand—this she allows—and they start down the overgrown driveway. Pete walks beside Billy with his hand still on Billy’s shoulder. It’s not gripping, but Billy has an idea it would grip if he tried to run. He’s pretty sure the men saw him looking into that water-filled cellar hole. He has an idea they are in bad trouble here.
“Hey, guys! Hello, ma’am!” Galen sounds as cheerful as a day in May. “Looks like you got a little trouble here. Want a hand?”
“Oh, that would be wonderful,” Corinne says.
“Terrific,” Frank says. “Damn road went out from under the car while I was turning around.”
“Cut it too tight,” Granpop says.
Frank gives him an ugly look, then turns back to the newcomers and gins up a grin. “I bet with you two men, we could push it right out of there.”
“No doubt,” says Pete.
Frank holds out his hand. “Frank Brown. This is my wife, Corinne, and my father, Donald.” “Pete Smith,” says the fat young man.
“Galen Prentice,” says the redhead.
There are handshakes all around. Granpop mutters, “Meetcha,” but hardly gives them a glance. He’s looking at Billy.
“Ma’am,” Galen says, “why don’t you take the wheel? Me and Pete and your handsome hubby here can push while you steer.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Corinne says.
“I could do it,” Granpop says. “It’s my car. From back in the old days. They really knew how to make ’em back then.” He sounds sulky, and Billy’s heart, which had risen a little, now sinks. He thought Granpop might have an idea about these men, but he doesn’t.
“Gramps, I need you to do the heavy looking-on. I’m sure Frank’s missus can do the driving. Can’t you?”
“I suppose . . .” Corinne trails off.
Galen gives her a thumbs-up. “Sure you can! Kids, you stand aside with your gramps.”
“He’s Granpop,” Mary says. “Not Gramps.”
Galen grins. “Why sure,” he says. “Granpop it is. Granpop goes the weasel.”
Corinne gets behind the wheel of the Buick and adjusts the seat forward. Billy can’t stop thinking of that leg sticking up out of the murky water in the cellar hole. The blue sneaker.
Galen and Pete take spots on the left and right of the Buick’s canted rear deck. Frank is in the middle.
“Start her up, missus!” Galen calls, and when she does, the three men lean forward, brace their feet, and place their hands on the station wagon’s flat back. “Okay! Give it some gas! Not a lot, just easy!”
The motor revs. Granpop bends toward Billy. His breath is as sour as ever, but it’s Granpop’s breath and Billy doesn’t mind. “What’s wrong, kiddo?”
“Dead lady,” Billy whispers back, and now the tears come. “Dead lady in that hole up there.”
“Little more!” fat Pete yells. “Goose the bitch!”
Corinne gives it more gas and the men push. The Buick’s rear tires start to spin, then take hold. The Estate wagon comes up onto the road.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Galen shouts.
Billy has a sudden confused wish that his mother would just drive away and leave them, that she would go and be safe. But she stops, puts the Buick in park, and gets out, holding down the hem of her dress with the heel of her palm.
“Easy-peasy-Japaneezy!” Galen cries. “Back on the road and good as new! Only we’ve still got a little problem. Don’t we, Pete?”
“Sure do,” Pete says. “Flat tire on our truck and no spare. Picked up a nail when we druv up there, I guess.” He puffs out his stubbled cheeks, now shiny with sweat, and makes a flat-tire sound: Pwsshhh! He put his bag down to push, but now he picks it up. And unzips it.
“Damn,” Frank says. “No spare, huh?”
“Don’t that suck?” Galen says.
“What were you doing up there?” Corinne asks. She’s left the Buick running, the door open. She looks at her husband, who’s smiling his big banker’s smile, then at her two children. Her girl looks okay, but Billy’s face is white as wax.
“Campin’,” Pete says. His hand has disappeared into his bag that isn’t a bowling bag.
“Huh,” Frank says. “That’s . . .”
He doesn’t finish, maybe doesn’t know how to finish, and no one seems to know how to start the conversation going again. Birds sing in the trees. Crickets rub their reedy legs in the high weeds, which is the universe they know. The seven people stand in a loose circle behind the idling Buick. Frank and Corinne exchange a look that asks, What’s going on here?
Granpop knows. He saw men like these in Vietnam. Scavengers and skedaddlers. One he saw stood up against a board fence and shot by one of his own men after the Tet Offensive wound down, a clusterfuck the grandchildren he’s too old to have will probably never read about in their history books.
Frank, meanwhile, jerks to life like a wind-up toy. His your-loan-is-approved smile reappears. He takes his wallet from his back pocket. “I wish we could take you to a garage or something, but I’ve got a full car, as you see—” “Your missus could sit on my lap,” Pete says, and waggles his eyebrows.
Frank chooses to ignore this. “But tell you what, we’ll stop and send someone back first place we see. In the meantime, how does ten apiece sound? For helping us out.”
He opens the wallet. Very gently, Galen plucks it from his hand. Frank doesn’t try to stop him. He just stares at his hands, wide-eyed, as if the wallet is still there. As if he can still feel its weight but now it’s invisible.
“Why don’t I just take all of it?” Galen says.
“Give that back!” Corinne says. She feels Mary’s hand creep into hers and she folds her own fingers over it. “That’s not yours!”
“Is now.” His voice is as gentle as the hand that took the wallet. “Let’s see what we got here.”
He opens it. Frank takes a step forward. Pete takes his hand out of his not-a-bowling-bag. There’s a revolver in it. Looks like a .38 to Granpop.
“Stand back, Frankie-Wankie,” Pete says. “We’re doing business here.”
Galen removes a small sheaf of bills from the wallet. He folds them over, puts them in the pocket of his jeans, then tosses the wallet to Pete, who puts it in the bag. “Gramps, let’s have yours.”
“Outlaws,” Granpop says. “That’s all you are.”
“That’s right,” Galen agrees in his gentle voice. “And if you don’t want me to lash this boy upside his head, give me your wallet.”
That does it for Billy; his bladder lets go and his crotch gets warm. He starts to cry, partly out of shame and partly from fear.
Granpop digs his old scarred Lord Buxton from the front left pocket of his baggy pants and hands it over. It’s bulging, but mostly with cards, photos, and receipts going back five or more years. Galen pulls out a twenty and a few ones, stuffs them in his pocket, and tosses the Lord Buxton to Pete. Into the bag it goes.
“Ought to clean it out once in a while, Grampy,” Galen says. “That’s one slutty billfold.”
“Says the man who looks like he warshed his hair last Thanksgiving,” Granpop says, and quick as a snake striking out of a bush, Galen slaps him across the face. Mary bursts into tears and puts her face against her mother’s hip.
“Stop that!” Frank says, as if the thing is not already done and his father bleeding from lip and nostril. Then, in the same breath: “Shut up, Dad!”
“I don’t let folks sass me,” Galen says, “not even old men. Old men should especially know better. Now Corinne. Let’s get your purse out of the car. Your little girl can come with us.” He takes Mary by the arm, the pads of his fingers sinking into her scant flesh.
“Let her alone,” Corinne says.
“You’re not in charge here,” Galen says. Not sounding so gentle now. “Tell me what to do again and I’ll change your face. Pete, make Frank and his father stand together. Shoulders touching. And if either of them moves . . .”
Pete gestures with the revolver. Granpop shuffles next to his son. Frank is breathing through his nose in quick little snorts. Granpop wouldn’t be surprised if he passed out.
“You saw, didn’t you?” Pete asks Billy. “Fess up.”
“I didn’t see anything,” Billy says through his tears. Blubbing like a baby and can’t help it. Blue sneaker.
“Liar pants on fire,” Pete says. He laughs and ruffles the boy’s hair.
Galen comes back, folding more bills into his pocket. He’s let go of Mary. The girl is now clinging to her mother. Corinne looks dazed.
Granpop doesn’t waste time looking at his people. He’s watching Galen rejoin Pete, needing to see what passes between them, and he sees pretty much what he expected and no sense pretending otherwise. They can take the Buick and leave the Brown family, or they can take the Buick and kill the Brown family. If caught, these two will get life in the Shank no matter what kind of score they run up.
“There’s more,” Granpop says.
“What’s that?” Galen asks. He’s the talker. His fellow outlaw seems to be the fat silent type.
“More money. Quite a bit. I’ll give it to you if you let us be. Just take the wagon and let us be.”
“How much more?” Galen asks.
“Can’t say for sure, but I put it around thirty-three hundred. It’s in my go-bag.”
“Why would an old fuck like you be driving around the williwags with three thousand and change?”
“Because of Nan. My sister. We were going up to Derry to see her before she passes away. Won’t be long, if it hasn’t happened already. She’s got the cancer. It’s all through her.” Pete has put his not-a-bowling-bag down again. Now he rubs two of his fingers together and says, “This is the world’s smallest violin playing ‘My Heart Pumps Purple Piss for You.’ ”
Granpop pays no attention. “I cashed out most of my Social Security to pay for the funeral. Nan hasn’t got squat, and they give you a discount if you pay cash.” He pats Billy’s shoulder. “This boy looked it all up for me on the Internet.”
Billy did no such thing, but except for another chest-hitching sob or two, he keeps quiet. He wishes he and Mary had never gone up to the Slide Inn, and when he looks at his father through blurry eyes, he feels a moment of bright hate. It’s your fault, Dad, he thinks. You ditched the car and these men stole our money and now they’re going to kill us. Granpop knows. I can see he does.
“Where’s your go-bag?” Galen asks.
“In back with the rest of the luggage.”
Granpop goes to the Buick, which is still idling. He gives a grunt as he raises the tailgate; that’s his back trying to cramp up. Back goes first, pecker goes last, everything else in between, his own father used to say.
The bag is just like Pete’s, with a zipper along the top, except it’s longer—more like a duffel bag than a bowling bag. He runs the zipper and spreads the bag open.
“No gun in there, Gramps, is there?” Galen asks.
“No, no, that’s for boys like you, but looka this.” Granpop brings out a battered old softball glove. “The sister I was telling you about? This was hers. I brought it for her to look at if she hasn’t passed on yet. Or in a coma. She wore it in the Women’s World Series, out in Okie City. Played shortstop. Before the Second World War, if you can believe it. And lookit this!” He turns the glove over.
“Gramps,” Galen says, “all due respect but I don’t give a chicken-fried fuck.”
“Yeah, but here on the back,” Granpop persists. “See it? Signed by Dom DiMaggio. Joltin’ Joe’s brother, you know.”
He tosses the glove aside and burrows into the bag again. “Got about two hundred baseball cards, some signed and worth money—”
Pete grabs Billy’s arm and twists it. Billy screams.
“Don’t!” Corinne screams back. “Don’t hurt my boy!”
“It’s your boy’s fault you’re in this mess,” Pete says. “Snoopy little brat.” Then, to Granpop: “We don’t want no fuckin’ baseball cards!”
Mary is crying, Corinne is crying, Billy sees his dad looking ready to pass out, and Granpop doesn’t seem to care about any of them. Granpop has retreated into his own world. “What about funny books?” he says. He brings out a handful and brandishes them. “The Archies and Caspers wouldn’t fetch nothing, but there’s a few old Supermans . . . and a Batman or two, one where he fights the Joker. . . .”
“I think I’m going to tell Pete to shoot your son if you don’t stop stalling,” Galen says. “Is the money there or not?”
“Yeah,” Granpop says, “down at the bottom, but I got something else that might interest you.”
“I’m all done being interested,” Galen says. He steps forward. “I’ll just get the money myself. If it’s there at all. Get out of my way.”
“Oh, wake up,” Granpop says. “This would fetch twice what I got for cash.” He brings out the Louisville Slugger. “Signed by Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter himself. Put it on eBay, it’d fetch seven thousand. Seven at least.”
“How’d your sis come by it?” Galen asks, interested at last. He can see the signature, faded but legible, on the barrel.
“Just gave him a smile and a wink when he came down Autograph Alley,” Granpop says, and swings the bat. It connects with Galen’s temple. His scalp pops open like a window shade. Blood flies up. His eyes squeeze shut in pain and surprise. He staggers, one hand out and flailing, trying to keep his balance.
“Get the other one, Frankie!” Granpop shouts. “Take him down!”
Frank doesn’t move, just stands there with his mouth open.
Pete stares at Galen, for a precious moment completely stunned, but the moment passes. He turns the gun toward Granpop. Billy springs at him.
“No!” Corinne shouts. “Billy, no!”
Billy grabs Pete’s arm, bringing it down, and when Pete fires the gun, the slug goes into the ground between his feet. Galen straightens, one hand clutching the station wagon’s raised tailgate. Granpop winds up, ignoring a howl of protest from his back, and hits the redhead in the ribs with 33 ounces of solid Kentucky ash. Galen’s knees buckle and his gasp—“Pete, shoot this fucker!”—is hardly more than a whisper. Granpop raises the bat. There’s another shot, but he’s not hit (at least he doesn’t think so), and he brings the bat down on Galen’s lowered head. Galen falls facefirst in one of the Buick wagon’s tire treads.
Pete tries to shake Billy off, but Billy holds on like a ferret, his eyes bulging and his teeth digging into his lower lip. The gun waves here and there and goes off a third time, sending a bullet into the sky.
“Now you, motherhump,” Granpop snarls.
Pete at last flings Billy away, but before he can raise the gun, Granpop brings the bat down on his wrist, breaking it. The gun drops onto the ground. Pete turns and runs, leaving his not-a-bowling-bag on the ground.
The two children fling themselves at Granpop, hugging him and almost knocking him over. He pushes them away. His old heart is hammering and if it just gave out, he wouldn’t be a bit surprised. “Billy, get the fat one’s bag. Our goods are in it and I don’t think I can bend over.”
The boy doesn’t, maybe the gunshots deafened him a little, but the girl does. She throws the bag into the back of the station wagon and then rubs her hands on the front of her unicorn tee.
“Frank,” Granpop says, “is that redhaired boy dead?”
Frank doesn’t move, but Corinne kneels next to Galen. After several seconds she looks up, her eyes very blue under her pale forehead. “He’s not breathing.”
“Well, that’s no great loss to the world,” Granpop says. “Billy, get that gun. Keep your hands away from the trigger.”
Billy picks up the fallen revolver. He holds it out to his father, but Frank only looks at it. Granpop takes it and puts it in the pocket where his wallet was. Frank just stands there, looking at Galen, lying facedown in the weeds with the top of his head stove in.
“Granpop, Granpop!” Billy says, tugging the old man’s arm. His mouth is trembling, tears are streaming down his cheeks, and snot lathers his upper lip. “What if the fat one has another gun in their little truck?”
“What if we just get the hell out of here?” Granpop says. “Corinne, you drive. I can’t. Kids, get in back.” He’s not even sure he can sit, he’s fucked up his back most righteously, but he’ll have to do it, no matter how much it hurts.
Corinne closes the tailgate. The kids take one more look up the overgrown driveway to see if Pete is coming back, then they run for the wagon.
Granpop goes to his son. “You had a chance and just stood there. You could have got me killed. Got all of us killed.” Granpop slaps Frank across the face just as he, Granpop, was slapped by the man who now lies dead at their feet. “Get in, son. Maybe you’re too old to help what you are, I don’t know.”
Frank walks to the front passenger side like a man in a dream and gets in. Granpop opens the door behind him and finds he can’t bend down. So he falls backward onto the seat, pulling his legs in after him with little whimpers of pain. Mary crawls over him to close the door and that hurts, too. It’s not just his back, feels like he’s busted his gut.
“Granpop, are you all right?” Corinne asks. She’s looking back. Frank is staring straight ahead through the windshield. His hands are on his knees.
“I’m all right,” Granpop says, although he isn’t. He’d like to have about six of the painkillers his sister no doubt has from her oncologist, but Nan is a hundred miles from here and he doesn’t think they’ll be seeing her today. No, not today. “Drive.”
“Did you really have that money, Granpop?” Billy asks as his mother starts back the way they came, going much faster than Frank dared to. Wanting to put the Slide Inn behind them. And the Slide Inn Road—that, too.
“Course not,” Granpop says. He wipes tears from his granddaughter’s face and hugs her against him. It hurts, but he does it.
“Granpop,” she says, “you left Aunt Nan’s special baseball bat.”
“That’s all right,” Granpop says, stroking her hair. It’s all sweaty and tangled. “Maybe we’ll get it later.”
Frank finally speaks. “We passed a Red Apple store on 196 just before we turned off. I’ll call the police from there.” He turns and looks at the old man. There’s a red mark on his cheek from the slap. “This is your fault, Dad. It’s all on you. We had to bring your fucking car, didn’t we? If we’d had the Volvo—”
“Shut up, Frank,” Corinne says. “Please. Just this once.”
And Frank does.
Thinking of Flannery O’Connor.
“On Old Slide Inn Road” by Stephen King. Copyright (c) 2020 by Stephen King. All rights reserved.