The Old Dude’s Ticker
In the two years after I was married (1971–1972), I sold nearly a dozen stories to various men’s magazines. Most were purchased by Nye Willden, the fiction editor at Cavalier. Those stories were important supplements to the meager income I was earning in my two day jobs, one as a high school English teacher and the other as an employee of The New Franklin Laundry, where I washed motel sheets. Those were not good times for short horror fiction (there have really been no good times for genre fiction in America since the pulps died), but I sold an almost uninterrupted run of mine—no mean feat for an unknown, unagented scribbler from Maine, and at least I had the sense to be grateful.
Two of them, however, did not sell. Both were pastiches. The first was a modern-day revision of Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Ring” (my version was called “The Spear,” I think). That one is lost. The second was the one that follows, a crazed revisionist telling of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I thought the idea was a natural: crazed Vietnam vet kills elderly benefactor as a result of post-traumatic stress syndrome. I’m not sure what Nye’s problem with it might have been; I loved it, but he shot it back at me with a terse “not for us” note. I gave it a final sad look, then put it in a desk drawer and went on to something else. It stayed in said drawer until rescued by Marsha DeFilippo, who found it in a pile of old manuscripts consigned to a collection of my stuff in the Raymond H. Fogler Library at the University of Maine.
I was tempted to tinker with it—the seventies slang is pretty out-of-date—but resisted the impulse, deciding to let it be what it was then: partly satire and partly affectionate homage. This is its first publication, and no better place than Necon, which has been the best horror convention since its inception, folksy, laid-back, and an all-around good time. If you have half as much fun reading it as I had writing it, we’ll both be well off, I think. I hope some of Poe’s feverish intensity comes through here . . . and I hope the master isn’t rolling in his grave too much.
Yeah, spooked, I’m pretty f***in’ spooked. I been that way ever since I came back from Nam. You dig it? But I’m no section eight. What happened over there, it didn’t screw up my head. I came back from Nam with my head on straight for the first time in my life. Dig it. My ears are like radar. I’ve always had good hearing, but since Nam . . . I hear everything. I hear the angels in heaven. I hear the devils in the deepest pits of hell. So how can you say I’m some kind of f***in’ psycho case? Listen, I’ll tell you the whole story. Think I’m crazy? Just listen to how cooled out I am.
I can’t tell you how I got the idea, but once it was there, I couldn’t shoot it down. I thought about it day and night. There was really nothing to pin it on. I had no case against the old dude. I dug him. He never short-dicked me or ranked me out. Yeah, he had bucks, but I’m not into that. Not since Nam. I think it might have been his . . . yeah, his eye. Jesus, like a vulture’s eye. Pale blue, with a cataract in it. And it bulged. You dig what I’m saying? When he looked at me, my blood ran cold. That’s how bad it freaked me. So little by little, I made up my mind to waste him and get rid of the eye forever.
Okay, now dig this. You think I’m nuts, okay? And crazy people don’t know anything. Run around with drool slobbering out of their mouths, stabbing wetbacks like that guy Corona, stuff like that. But you should have dug me. You should have seen how cool I was. I was always one step ahead, man. I had that old dude jacked up nine miles. I was super-kind to him the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the knob of his door and opened it. Quiet? You better believe it! And when it was just wide enough for me to stick my head in, I put in this penlite with the glass all taped up except for one little place in the middle. You follow? Then I poked my head in. You would have cracked up to see how careful I was, poking my head in. I moved it real slow, so I wouldn’t roust the old dude. It took me an hour, I guess, to get my head in far enough so I could see him lying there on his rack. So tell me . . . you think any section eight would have been able to carry that off? Huh? But dig this! When my head was in the room, I turned on the penlite. It put out one single ray, and I put it four-oh on that vulture eye. I did that seven nights in a row, man, seven nights! Can you dig that action? I did it every night at midnight, but the eye was always closed and I couldn’t get it on. Because it was the eye. And every morning I went right into his bedroom and clapped him on the back and asked him how he slept. All that good bullshit. So I guess you see he would have to have been some heavy dude to guess that every night I was checkin’ him out while he was asleep. So dig it.
The eighth night I was even more cooled out. The minute hand on my watch was trucking along faster than mine was. And I felt . . . sharp.
You know? Ready. Like in Nam, when it was our turn for night patrol. I was like a cat. I felt ace-high. There I was, opening the door, little by little, and he’s lying there, probably dreaming he’s balling his granddaughter. I mean, he didn’t even know! Funny? Shit, sometimes I laugh until I scream, just thinking of it. I started to laugh at the idea.
Maybe he heard me, because he started to move around. Probably think I split out of there, right? No way. His room was black as a cat’s asshole—he always drew the shutters because he was afraid of junkies—and I knew he couldn’t see through the door, so I kept pushing it open, a little at a time.
I had my head in and I was getting ready to turn on the old penlite when it knocked against the side of the door. The old guy sits up in bed, yelling, “Who’s there?”
I stayed still and kept my mouth shut. You dig it? For a whole hour I didn’t move. But I didn’t hear him lie down, either. He was sitting up in bed, scared shitless, just listening. The way I used to get sometimes in Nam. A lot of guys used to get that way, thinking those guys in the black pajamas were coming, creeping through the jungle, through the dark.
I heard him groan, just a little one, but I knew how scared he was.
It wasn’t the way you groan when you just hurt yourself, or the way old folks sometimes groan at funerals. Uh-uh.
It was the sound you make when your head is totally f***ed up and you’re starting to blow your circuits. I knew that sound. In Nam, at night, I used to get that way sometimes. Nothing wrong with that, a lot of guys did. Nothing section eight about it. It would come up from your guts like acid, getting worse in your throat, scaring you so bad that you had to put your hand in your mouth and chew it like a chicken drumstick to keep from screaming. Yeah, I knew the sound. I knew how that old dude was feeling and I felt sorry for him, but I was laughing, too, inside. I knew he’d been awake since the first sound. He’d been getting more and more scared. He was trying to, you know, blow them down, but he couldn’t do it. He was saying to himself, It was the wind around the eaves. Or maybe a mouse. Or a cricket. Yeah, it was a cricket. You dig? He was trying to cool himself out with all kinds of shit. But no good. Because Death was in the room with him. Me! Death was sniffing right up his old man’s nightdress. Me! He was feeling that. He didn’t see me or hear me, but he dug me.
Copyright © 2000 by Stephen King. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.