The gunslinger began to eat steadily, not seeming to taste, merely chopping the meat apart and forking it into his mouth, trying not to think of what the cow this had come from must have looked like. Threaded stock, she had said. Yes, quite likely! And pigs would dance the commala in the light of the Peddler’s Moon.
He was almost through, ready to call for another beer and roll a smoke, when the hand fell on his shoulder.
He suddenly became aware that the room had once more gone silent, and he tasted tension in the air. He turned around and stared into the face of the man who had been asleep by the door when he entered. It was a terrible face. The odor of the devil-grass was a rank miasma. The eyes were damned, the staring, glaring eyes of one who sees but does not see, eyes ever turned inward to the sterile hell of dreams beyond control, dreams unleashed, risen out of the stinking swamps of the unconscious.
The woman behind the bar made a small moaning sound.
The cracked lips writhed, lifted, revealing the green, mossy teeth, and the gunslinger thought: He’s not even smoking it anymore. He’s chewing it. He’s really chewing it.
And on the heels of that: He’s a dead man. He should have been dead a year ago.
And on the heels of that: The man in black did this.
They stared at each other, the gunslinger and the man who had gone around the rim of madness.
He spoke, and the gunslinger, dumbfounded, heard himself addressed in the High Speech of Gilead.
“The gold for a favor, gunslinger-sai. Just one? For a pretty.”
The High Speech. For a moment his mind refused to track it. It had been years—God!—centuries, millenniums; there was no more High Speech; he was the last, the last gunslinger. The others were all . . .
Numbed, he reached into his breast pocket and produced a gold piece. The split, scabbed, gangrenous hand reached for it, fondled it, held it up to reflect the greasy glare of the kerosene lamps. It threw off its proud civilized glow; golden, reddish, bloody.
“Ahhhhhh . . .” An inarticulate sound of pleasure. The old man did a weaving turn and began moving back to his table, holding the coin at eye level, turning it, flashing it.
The room was emptying rapidly, the batwings shuttling madly back and forth. The piano player closed the lid of his instrument with a bang and exited after the others in long, comic-opera strides.
“Sheb!” the woman screamed after him, her voice an odd mixture of fear and shrewishness, “Sheb, you come back here! Goddammit!” Was that a name the gunslinger had heard before? He thought yes, but there was no time to reflect upon it now, or to cast his mind back.
The old man, meanwhile, had gone back to his table. He spun the gold piece on the gouged wood, and the dead-alive eyes followed it with empty fascination. He spun it a second time, a third, and his eyelids drooped. The fourth time, and his head settled to the wood before the coin stopped.
“There,” she said softly, furiously. “You’ve driven out my trade. Are you satisfied?”
“They’ll be back,” the gunslinger said.
“Not tonight they won’t.”
“Who is he?” He gestured at the weed-eater.
“Go fuck yourself. Sai.”
“I have to know,” the gunslinger said patiently. “He—”
“He talked to you funny,” she said. “Nort never talked like that in his life.”
“I’m looking for a man. You would know him.”
She stared at him, the anger dying. It was replaced with speculation, then with a high, wet gleam he had seen before. The rickety building ticked thoughtfully to itself. A dog barked brayingly, far away. The gunslinger waited. She saw his knowledge and the gleam was replaced by hopelessness, by a dumb need that had no mouth.
“I guess maybe you know my price,” she said. “I got an itch I used to be able to take care of, but now I can’t.”
He looked at her steadily. The scar would not show in the dark. Her body was lean enough so the desert and grit and grind hadn’t been able to sag everything. And she’d once been pretty, maybe even beautiful. Not that it mattered. It would not have mattered if the grave-beetles had nested in the arid blackness of her womb. It had all been written. Somewhere some hand had put it all down in ka’s book.
Her hands came up to her face and there was still some juice left in her—enough to weep.
“Don’t look! You don’t have to look at me so mean!”
“I’m sorry,” the gunslinger said. “I didn’t mean to be mean.”
“None of you mean it!” she cried at him.
“Close the place up and put out the lights.”
She wept, hands at her face. He was glad she had her hands at her face. Not because of the scar but because it gave her back her maidenhood, if not her maidenhead. The pin that held the strap of her dress glittered in the greasy light.
“Will he steal anything? I’ll put him out if he will.”
“No,” she whispered. “Nort don’t steal.”
“Then put out the lights.”
She would not remove her hands until she was behind him and she doused the lamps one by one, turning down the wicks and breathing the flames into extinction. Then she took his hand in the dark and it was warm. She led him upstairs. There was no light to hide their act. He made cigarettes in the dark, then lit them and passed one to her. The room held her scent, fresh lilac, pathetic. The smell of the desert had overlaid it. He realized he was afraid of the desert ahead.
“His name is Nort,” she said. No harshness had been worn out of her voice. “Just Nort. He died.”
The gunslinger waited.
“He was touched by God.”
The gunslinger said, “I have never seen Him.”
“He was here ever since I can remember—Nort, I mean, not God.” She laughed jaggedly into the dark. “He had a honeywagon for a while. Started to drink. Started to smell the grass. Then to smoke it. The kids started to follow him around and sic their dogs onto him. He wore old green pants that stank. Do you understand?”
“He started to chew it. At the last he just sat in there and didn’t eat anything. He might have been a king, in his mind. The children might have been his jesters, and the dogs his princes.”
“He died right in front of this place,” she said. “Came clumping down the boardwalk—his boots wouldn’t wear out, they were engineer boots he found in the old train-yard—with the children and dogs behind him. He looked like wire clothes hangers all wrapped and twirled together. You could see all the lights of hell in his eyes, but he was grinning, just like the grins the children carve into their sharproots and pumpkins, come Reap. You could smell the dirt and the rot and the weed. It was running down from the corners of his mouth like green blood. I think he meant to come in and listen to Sheb play the piano. And right in front, he stopped and cocked his head. I could see him, and I thought he heard a coach, although there was none due. Then he puked, and it was black and full of blood. It went right through that grin like sewer water through a grate. The stink was enough to make you want to run mad. He raised up his arms and just threw over. That was all. He died in his own vomit with that grin on his face.”
“A nice story.”
“Oh yes, thankee-sai. This be a nice place.”
She was trembling beside him. Outside, the wind kept up its steady whine, and somewhere far away a door was banging, like a sound heard in a dream. Mice ran in the walls. The gunslinger thought in the back of his mind that it was probably the only place in town prosperous enough to support mice. He put a hand on her belly and she started violently, then relaxed.
“The man in black,” he said.
“You have to have it, don’t you? You couldn’t just throw me a fuck and go to sleep.”
“I have to have it.”
“All right. I’ll tell you.” She grasped his hand in both of hers and told him.