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Author: Stephen King


This is for Chuck Verrill: Editor, agent, and most of all, friend.


Thanks, Chuck.



“Sometimes the universe throws you a rope.”

—Bill Hodges



October 17, 2012



It’s an old city, and no longer in very good shape, nor is the lake beside which it has been built, but there are parts of it that are still pretty nice. Longtime residents would probably agree that the nicest section is Sugar Heights, and the nicest street running through it is Ridge Road, which makes a gentle downhill curve from Bell College of Arts and Sciences to Deerfield Park, two miles below. On its way, Ridge Road passes many fine houses, some of which belong to college faculty and some to the city’s more successful businesspeople—doctors, lawyers, bankers, and top-of-the-pyramid business executives. Most of these homes are Victorians, with impeccable paintjobs, bow windows, and lots of gingerbread trim.

The park where Ridge Road terminates isn’t as big as the one that sits splat in the middle of Manhattan, but close. Deerfield is the city’s pride, and a platoon of gardeners keep it looking fabulous. Oh, there’s the unkempt west side near Red Bank Avenue, known as the Thickets, where those seeking or selling drugs can sometimes be found after dark, and where there’s the occasional mugging, but the Thickets is only three acres of 740. The rest are grassy, flowery, and threaded with paths where lovers stroll and benches where old men read newspapers (more and more often on electronic devices these days) and women chat, sometimes while rocking their babies back and forth in expensive prams. There are two ponds, and sometimes you’ll see men or boys sailing remote-controlled boats on one of them. In the other, swans and ducks glide back and forth. There’s a playground for the kiddies, too. Everything, in fact, except a public pool; every now and then the city council discusses the idea, but it keeps getting tabled. The expense, you know.

This night in October is warm for the time of year, but a fine drizzle has kept all but a single dedicated runner inside. That would be Jorge Castro, who has a gig teaching creative writing and Latin American Lit at the college. Despite his specialty, he’s American born and bred; Jorge likes to tell people he’s as American as pie de manzana.

He turned forty in July and can no longer kid himself that he is still the young lion who had momentary bestseller success with his first novel. Forty is when you have to stop kidding yourself that you’re still a young anything. If you don’t—if you subscribe to such self-actualizing bullshit as “forty is the new twenty-five”—you’re going to find yourself starting to slide. Just a little at first, but then a little more, and all at once you’re fifty with a belly poking out your belt buckle and cholesterol-busters in the medicine cabinet. At twenty, the body forgives. At forty, forgiveness is provisional at best. Jorge Castro doesn’t want to turn fifty and discover he’s become just another American manslob.

You have to start taking care of yourself when you’re forty. You have to maintain the machinery, because there’s no trade-in option. So Jorge drinks orange juice in the morning (potassium) followed most days by oatmeal (antioxidants), and keeps red meat to once a week. When he wants a snack, he’s apt to open a can of sardines. They’re rich in Omega 3s. (Also tasty!) He does simple exercises in the morning and runs in the evening, not overdoing it but aerating those forty-year-old lungs and giving his forty-year-old heart a chance to strut its stuff (resting heart rate: 63). Jorge wants to look and feel forty when he gets to fifty, but fate is a joker. Jorge Castro isn’t even going to see forty-one.




His routine, which holds even on a night of fine drizzle, is to run from the house he shares with Freddy (theirs, at least, for as long as the writer-in-residence gig lasts), half a mile down from the college, to the park. There he’ll stretch his back, drink some of the Vitaminwater stored in his fanny pack, and jog back home. The drizzle is actually invigorating, and there are no other runners, walkers, or bicyclists to weave his way through. The bicyclists are the worst, with their insistence that they have every right to ride on the sidewalk instead of in the street, even though there’s a bike lane. This evening he has the sidewalk all to himself. He doesn’t even have to wave to people who might be taking the night air on their grand old shaded porches; the weather has kept them inside.

All but one: the old poet. She’s bundled up in a parka even though it’s still in the mid-fifties at eight o’clock, because she’s down to a hundred and ten pounds (her doctor routinely scolds her about her weight) and she feels the cold. Even more than the cold, she feels the damp. Yet she stays, because there’s a poem to be had tonight, if she can just get her fingers under its lid and open it up. She hasn’t written one since midsummer and she needs to get something going before the rust sets in. She needs to represent, as her students sometimes say. More importantly, this could be a good poem. Maybe even a necessary poem.

It needs to begin with the way the mist revolves around the streetlights across from her and then progress to what she thinks of as the mystery. Which is everything. The mist makes slowly moving halos, silvery and beautiful. She doesn’t want to use halos, because that’s the expected word, the lazy word. Almost a cliché. Silvery, though… or maybe just silver…

Her train of thought derails long enough to observe a young man (at eighty-nine, forty seems very young) go slap-slapping by on the other side of the road. She knows who he is; the resident writer who thinks Gabriel García Márquez hung the moon. With his long dark hair and little pussy-tickler of a mustache, he reminds the old poet of a charming character in The Princess Bride: “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.” He’s wearing a yellow jacket with a reflective stripe running down the back and ridiculously tight running pants. He’s going like a house afire, the old poet’s mother might have said. Or like the clappers.

Clappers makes her think of bells, and her gaze returns to the streetlight directly across from her. She thinks, The runner doesn’t hear silver above him / These bells don’t ring.

It’s wrong because it’s prosy, but it’s a start. She has managed to get her fingers under the lid of the poem. She needs to go inside, get her notebook, and start scratching. She sits a few moments longer, though, watching the silver circles revolve around the streetlights. Halos, she thinks. I can’t use that word, but that’s what they look like, goddammit.

There is a final glimpse of the runner’s yellow jacket, then he’s gone into the dark. The old poet struggles to her feet, wincing at the pain in her hips, and shuffles into her house.




Jorge Castro kicks it up a bit. He’s got his second wind now, lungs taking in more air, endorphins lit up. Just ahead is the park, scattered with old-fashioned lamps that give off a mystic yellow glow. There’s a small parking lot in front of the deserted playground, now empty except for a passenger van with its side door open and a ramp sticking out onto the wet asphalt. Near its foot is an elderly man in a wheelchair and an elderly woman down on one knee, fussing with it.

Jorge pulls up for a moment, bending over, hands grasping his legs just above the knees, getting his breath back and checking out the van. The blue and white license plate on the back has a wheelchair logo on it.

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