If you thought that after publishing his massive, decades-in-the-making novel Under the Dome, Stephen King might take it easy, then you don’t know the man. Two years, a novella, and a short-story collection later, the ever-prolific horror-meister is back with another heavy, and heavy-themed, tome. 11/22/63 tells the tale of Jake Epping, a high school English teacher who time-travels back to 1958 through a portal in a diner, tasked with preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As with Under the Dome, King came up with the idea for the story back in the ’70s, but he never finished it until now. 11/22/63 doesn’t hit stores until 11/08/11 — but here’s a thrilling excerpt to whet your appetite.
I TOOK ANOTHER step forward and went down another step. My eyes still told me I was standing on the floor in the pantry of Al’s Diner, but I was standing straight and the top of my head no longer scraped the roof of the pantry. Which was of course impossible. My stomach lurched unhappily in response to my sensory confusion, and I could feel the egg salad sandwich and the piece of apple pie I’d eaten for lunch preparing to push the ejection button.
From behind me — yet a little distant, as if he were standing fifteen yards away instead of only five feet — Al said, ”Close your eyes, buddy, it’s easier that way.”
When I did it, the sensory confusion disappeared at once. It was like uncrossing your eyes. Or putting on the special glasses in a 3-D movie, that might be closer. I moved my right foot and went down another step. It was steps; with my vision shut off, my body had no doubt about that.
”Two more, then open em,” Al said. He sounded farther away than ever. At the other end of the diner instead of standing in the pantry door.
I went down with my left foot. Went down with my right foot again, and all at once there was a pop inside my head, exactly like the kind you hear when you’re in an airplane and the pressure changes suddenly. The dark field inside my eyelids turned red, and there was warmth on my skin. It was sunlight. No question about it. And that faint sulphurous smell had grown thicker, moving up the sensory scale from barely there to actively unpleasant. There was no question about that, either.
I opened my eyes.
I was no longer in the pantry. I was no longer in Al’s Diner, either. Although there was no door from the pantry to the outside world, I was outside. I was in the courtyard. But it was no longer brick, and there were no outlet stores surrounding it. I was standing on crumbling, dirty cement. Several huge metal receptacles stood against the blank white wall where Your Maine Snuggery should have been. They were piled high with something and covered with sail-sized sheets of rough brown burlap cloth.
I turned around to look at the big silver trailer which housed Al’s Diner, but the diner was gone.
WHERE IT SHOULD have been was the vast Dickensian bulk of Worumbo Mills & Weaving, and it was in full operation. I could hear the thunder of the dyers and driers, the shat-HOOSH, shat-HOOSH of the huge weaving flats that had once filled the second floor (I had seen pictures of these machines, tended by women who wore kerchiefs and coveralls, in the tiny Lisbon Historical Society building on upper Main Street). Whitish-gray smoke poured from three tall stacks that had come down during a big windstorm in the eighties.
I was standing beside a large, green-painted cube of a building — the drying shed, I assumed. It filled half the courtyard and rose to a height of about twenty feet. I had come down a flight of stairs, but now there were no stairs. No way back. I felt a surge of panic.
”Jake?” It was Al’s voice, but very faint. It seemed to arrive in my ears by a mere trick of acoustics, like a voice winding for miles down a long, narrow canyon. ”You can come back the same way you got there. Feel for the steps.”
I lifted my left foot, put it down, and felt a step. My panic eased.
”Go on.” Faint. A voice seemingly powered by its own echoes. ”Look around a little, then come back.”
I didn’t go anywhere at first, just stood still, wiping my mouth with the palm of my hand. My eyes felt like they were bugging out of their sockets. My scalp and a narrow strip of skin all the way down the middle of my back was crawling. I was scared — almost terrified — but balancing that off and keeping panic at bay (for the moment) was a powerful curiosity. I could see my shadow on the concrete, as clear as something cut from black cloth. I could see flakes of rust on the chain that closed the drying shed off from the rest of the courtyard. I could smell the powerful effluent pouring from the triple stacks, strong enough to make my eyes sting. An EPA inspector would have taken one sniff of that s— and shut the whole operation down in a New England minute. Except…I didn’t think there were any EPA inspectors in the vicinity. I wasn’t even sure the EPA had been invented yet. I knew where I was; Lisbon Falls, Maine, deep in the heart of Androscoggin County.
The real question was when I was.
A SIGN I COULDN’T read hung from the chain — the message was facing the wrong way. I started toward it, then turned around. I closed my eyes and shuffled forward, reminding myself to take baby steps. When my left foot clunked against the bottom step that went back up to the pantry of Al’s Diner (or so I devoutly hoped), I felt in my back pocket and brought out a folded sheet of paper: my exalted department head’s ”Have a nice summer and don’t forget the July in-service day” memo. I briefly wondered how he’d feel about Jake Epping teaching a six-week block called The Literature of Time Travel next year. Then I tore a strip from the top, crumpled it, and dropped it on the first step of the invisible stairway. It landed on the ground, of course, but either way it marked the spot. It was a warm, still afternoon and I didn’t think it would blow away, but I found a little chunk of concrete and used it as a paperweight, just to be sure. It landed on the step, but it also landed on the scrap of memo. Because there was no step. A snatch of some old pop song drifted through my head: First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
Look around a little, Al had said, and I decided that was what I’d do. I figured if I hadn’t lost my mind already, I was probably going to be okay for a while longer. Unless I saw a parade of pink elephants or a UFO hovering over John Crafts Auto, that was. I tried to tell myself this wasn’t happening, couldn’t be happening, but it wouldn’t wash. Philosophers and psychologists may argue over what’s real and what isn’t, but most of us living ordinary lives know and accept the texture of the world around us. This was happening. All else aside, it was too goddam stinky to be a hallucination.
I walked to the chain, which hung at thigh level, and ducked beneath it. Stenciled in black paint on the other side was NO ADMITTANCE BEYOND THIS POINT UNTIL SEWER PIPE IS REPAIRED. I looked back again, saw no indication that repairs were in the immediate offing, walked around the corner of the drying shed, and almost stumbled over the man sunning himself there. Not that he could expect to get much of a tan. He was wearing an old black overcoat that puddled around him like an amorphous shadow. There were dried crackles of snot on both sleeves. The body inside the coat was scrawny to the point of emaciation. His iron-gray hair hung in snaggles around his beard-scruffy cheeks. He was a wino if ever a wino there was.
Cocked back on his head was a filthy fedora that looked straight out a nineteen-fifties film noir, the kind where all the women have big bazonkas and all the men talk fast around the cigarettes stuck in the corners of their mouths. And yep, poking up from the fedora’s hatband, like an old-fashioned reporter’s press pass, was a yellow card. Once it had probably been a bright yellow, but much handling by grimy fingers had turned it bleary.
When my shadow fell across his lap, the Yellow Card Man turned and surveyed me with bleary eyes.
”Who the f—‘re you?” he asked, only it came out Hoo-a f— -a you?
Al hadn’t given me detailed instructions on how to answer questions, so I said what seemed safest. ”None of your f—ing business.”
”Well, f— you, too.”
”Fine,” I said. ”We are in accord.”
”Have a nice day.” I started toward the gate, which stood open on a steel track. Beyond it, to the left, was a parking lot that had never been there before. It was full of cars, most of them battered and all of them old enough to belong in a car museum. There were Buicks with portholes and Fords with torpedo noses. Those belong to actual millworkers, I thought. Actual millworkers who are inside now, working for hourly wages.
”I got a yellow card from the greenfront,” the wino said. He sounded both truculent and troubled. ”So gimme a buck because today’s double-money day.”
I held the fifty-cent piece out to him. Then, feeling like an actor who only has one line in the play, I said: ”I can’t spare a buck, but here’s half a rock.”
Then you give it to him, Al had said, but I didn’t need to. The Yellow Card Man snatched it from me and held it close to his face. For a moment I thought he was actually going to bite into it, but he just closed his long-fingered hand around it in a fist, making it disappear. He peered at me again, his face almost comic with distrust.
”Who are you? What are you doing here?”
”I’ll be damned if I know,” I said, and turned back to the gate. I expected him to hurl more questions after me, but there was only silence. I went out through the gate.
THE NEWEST CAR in the lot was a Plymouth Fury from — I think — the mid or late fifties. The plate on it looked like an impossibly antique version of the one on the back of my Subaru; that plate came, at my ex-wife’s request, with a pink breast cancer ribbon. The one I was looking at now did say VACATIONLAND, but it was orange instead of white. As in most states, Maine plates now come with letters — the one on my Subaru is 23383 IY — but the one on the back of the almost-new white-over-red Fury was 90-811. No letters.
I touched the trunk. It was hard and warm from the sun. It was real.
Cross the tracks and you’ll be at the intersection of Main and Lisbon. After that, buddy, the world is yours.
There were no railroad tracks passing in front of the old mill — not in my time, there weren’t — but they were here, all right. Not just leftover artifacts, either. They were polished, gleaming. And somewhere in the distance I could hear the wuff-chuff of an actual train. When was the last time trains had passed through Lisbon Falls? Probably not since the mill closed and U.S. Gypsum (known to the locals as U.S. Gyp ‘Em) was running round the clock.
Except it is running round the clock, I thought. I’d bet money on it. And so is the mill. Because this is no longer the second decade of the twenty-first century.
I had started walking again without even realizing it — walking like a man in a dream. Now I stood on the corner of Main Street and Route 196, also known as the Old Lewiston Road. Only now there was nothing old about it. And diagonally across the intersection, on the opposite corner —
It was the Kennebec Fruit Company, which was certainly a grandiose name for a store that had been tottering on the edge of oblivion — or so it seemed to me — for the ten years I’d been teaching at LHS. Its unlikely raison d’être and only means of survival was Moxie, that weirdest of soft drinks. The proprietor of the Fruit Company, an elderly sweet-natured man named Frank Ancietti, had once told me the world’s population divided naturally (and probably by genetic inheritance) into two groups: the tiny but blessed elect who prized Moxie above all other potables…and everybody else. Frank called everybody else ”the unfortunately handicapped majority.”
The Kennebec Fruit Company of my time was a faded yellow-and-green box with a dirty show window barren of goods… unless the cat that sometimes sleeps there is for sale. The roof is swaybacked from many snowy winters. There’s little on offer inside except for Moxie souvenirs: bright orange tee-shirts reading I’VE GOT MOXIE!, bright orange hats, vintage calendars, tin signs that looked vintage but were probably made last year in China. For most of the year the place is devoid of customers, most of the shelves denuded of goods…although you can still get a few sugary snack foods or a bag of potato chips (if you like the salt-and-vinegar kind, that is). The soft-drink cooler is stocked with nothing but Moxie. The beer cooler is empty.
Each July, Lisbon Falls hosts the Maine Moxie Festival. There are bands, fireworks, and a parade featuring — I swear this is true — Moxie floats and local beauty queens dressed in Moxie-colored tank bathing suits, which means an orange so bright it can cause retinal burns. The Parade Marshal is always dressed as the Moxie Doc, which means a white coat, a stethoscope, and one of those funky mirrors on a headband. Two years ago the Marshal was LHS principal Stella Langley, and she’ll never live it down.
During the Festival, the Kennebec Fruit Company comes alive and does excellent business, mostly provided by bemused tourists on their way to the western Maine resort areas. The rest of the year it is little more than a husk haunted by the faint odor of Moxie, a smell that has always reminded me — probably because I belong to the unfortunately handicapped majority — of Musterole, the fabulously stinky stuff my mother insisted on rubbing into my throat and chest when I had a cold.
What I was looking at now from the far side of the Old Lewiston Road was a thriving business in the prime of life. The sign hung over the door (FRESH UP WITH 7-UP on top, WELCOME TO THE KENNEBEC FRUIT CO. below) was bright enough to throw arrows of sun at my eyes. The paint was fresh, the roof unbowed by the weather. People were going in and coming out. And in the show window, instead of a cat…
Oranges, by God. The Kennebec Fruit Company once sold actual fruit. Who knew?
I started across the street, then pulled back as an intercity bus snored toward me. The route sign above the divided windshield read LEWISTON EXPRESS. When the bus braked to a stop at the railroad crossing, I saw that most of the passengers were smoking. The atmosphere in there must have been roughly akin to the atmosphere of Saturn.
Once the bus had gone on its way (leaving behind a smell of half-cooked diesel to mix with the rotten-egg stench belching from the Worumbo’s stacks), I crossed the street, wondering briefly what would happen if I were hit by a car. Would I blink out of existence? Wake up lying on the floor of Al’s pantry? Probably neither. Probably I would just die here, in a past for which a lot of people probably felt nostalgic. Possibly because they had forgotten how bad the past smelled, or because they had never considered that aspect of the Nifty Fifties in the first place.
A kid was standing outside the Fruit Company with one black-booted foot cocked back against the wood siding. The collar of his shirt was turned up at the nape of his neck, and his hair was combed in a style I recognized (from old movies, mostly) as Early Elvis. Unlike the boys I was used to seeing in my classes, he sported no goatee, not even a flavor patch below the chin. I realized that in the world I was now visiting (I hoped I was only visiting), he’d be kicked out of LHS for showing up with even a single strand of facial hair. Instantly.
I nodded to him. James Dean nodded back and said, ”Hi-ho, Daddy-O.”
I went inside. A bell jingled above the door. Instead of dust and gently decaying wood, I smelled oranges, apples, coffee, and fragrant tobacco. To my right was a rack of comic books with their covers torn off — Archie, Batman, Captain Marvel, Plastic Man, Tales From the Crypt. The hand-printed sign above this trove, which would have sent any eBay aficionado into paroxysms, read COMIX 5c EA THREE FOR 10c NINE FOR A QUARTER PLEASE DON’T HANDLE UNLESS YOU INTEND TO BUY.
On the left was a rack of newspapers. No New York Times, but there were copies of the Portland Press-Herald and one leftover Boston Globe. The Globe‘s headline trumpeted, DULLES HINTS CONCESSIONS IF RED CHINA RENOUNCES USE OF FORCE IN FORMOSA. The dates on both were Tuesday, September 9, 1958.
I TOOK THE GLOBE, which sold for eight cents, and walked toward a marble-topped soda fountain that did not exist in my time. Standing behind it was Frank Ancietti. It was him all right, right down to the distinguished wings of gray above his ears. Only this version — call him Frank 1.0 — was thin instead of plump, and wearing rimless bifocals. He was also taller. Feeling like a stranger in my own body, I slid onto one of the stools.
He nodded at the paper. ”That going to do you, or can I get you something from the fountain?”
”Anything cold that’s not Moxie,” I heard myself say.
Frank 1.0 smiled at that. ”Don’t carry it, son. How about a root beer instead?”
”Sounds good.” And it did. My throat was dry and my head was hot. I felt like I was running a fever.
”Five or ten?”
”I beg your pardon?”
”Five or ten cent beer?” He said it the Maine way: beeyah.
”Oh. Ten, I guess.”
”Well, I think you guess right.” He opened an ice cream freezer and removed a frosty mug roughly the size of a lemonade pitcher. He filled it from a tap and I could smell the root beer, rich and strong. He scraped the foam off the top with the handle of a wooden spoon, then filled it all the way to the top and set it down on the counter. ”There you go. That and the paper’s eighteen cents. Plus a penny for the governor.”
I handed over one of Al’s vintage dollars, and Frank 1.0 change.
I sipped through the foam on top, and was amazed. It was…full. Tasty all the way through. I don’t know how to express it any better than that. This fifty-years-gone world smelled worse than I ever would have expected, but it tasted a whole hell of a lot better.
”This is wonderful,” I said.
”Ayuh? Glad you like it. Not from around here, are you?”
”Wisconsin,” I said. Not entirely a lie; my family lived in Madison until I was eleven, when my father got a job teaching English at the University of Southern Maine. I’d been knocking around the state ever since.
”Well, you picked the right time to come,” Ancietti said. ”Most of the summer people are gone, and as soon as that happens, prices go down. What you’re drinkin, for example. After Labor Day, a ten-cent root beer only costs a dime.”
The bell over the door jangled; the floorboards creaked. It was a companionable creak. The last time I’d ventured into the Kennebec Fruit, hoping for a roll of Tums (I was disappointed), they had groaned.
A boy who might have been seventeen slipped behind the counter. His dark hair was cropped close, not quite a crew cut. His resemblance to the man who had served me was unmistakable, and I realized that this was my Frank Ancietti. The guy who had lopped the head of foam off my root beer was his father. Frank 2.0 didn’t give me so much as a glance; to him I was just another customer.
”Titus has got the truck up on the lift,” he told his dad. ”Says it’ll be ready by five.”
”Well, that’s good,” Ancietti Senior said, and lit a cigarette. For the first time I noticed the marble top of the soda fountain was lined with small ceramic ashtrays. Written on the sides was WINSTON TASTES GOOD, LIKE A CIGARETTE SHOULD! He looked back at me and said, ”You want a scoop of vanilla in your beer? On the house. We like to treat tourists right, especially when they turn up late.”
”Thanks, but this is fine,” I said, and it was. Any more sweetness and I thought my head would explode. And it was strong — like drinking a carbonated espresso.
The kid gave me a grin that was as sweet as the stuff in the frosted mug — there was none of the amused disdain I’d felt emanating from the Elvis wannabe outside. ”We read a story in school,” he said, ”where the locals eat the tourists if they show up after the season’s over.”
”Frankie, that’s a hell of a thing to tell a visitor,” Mr. Ancietti said. But he was smiling when he said it.
”It’s okay,” I said. ”I’ve taught that story myself. Shirley Jackson, right? ‘The Summer People.”’
”That’s the one,” Frank agreed. ”I didn’t really get it, but I liked it.”
I took another pull on my root beer, and when I set it down (it made a satisfyingly thick chunk on the marble counter), I wasn’t exactly surprised to see it was almost gone. I could get addicted to these, I thought. It beats the living s— out of Moxie.
The elder Ancietti exhaled a plume of smoke toward the ceiling, where an overhead paddle fan pulled it into lazy blue rafters. ”Do you teach out in Wisconsin, Mr. — ?”
”Epping,” I said. I was too caught by surprise to even think of giving a fake name. ”I do, actually. But this is my sabbatical year.”
”That means he’s taking a year off,” Frank said.
”I know what it means,” Ancietti said. He was trying to sound irritated and doing a bad job of it. I decided I liked these two as much as I liked the root beer. I even liked the aspiring teenage hood outside, if only because he didn’t know he was already a cliché. There was a sense of safety here, a sense of — I don’t know — preordination. It was surely false, this world was as dangerous as any other, but I possessed one piece of knowledge I would before this afternoon have believed was reserved only for God: I knew that the smiling boy who had enjoyed the Shirley Jackson story (even though he didn’t ”get it”) was going to live through that day and over fifty years of days to come. He wasn’t going to be killed in a car crash, have a heart attack, or contract lung cancer from breathing his father’s secondhand smoke. Frank Ancietti was good to go.
I glanced at the clock on the wall (START YOUR DAY WITH A SMILE, the face said, DRINK CHEER-UP COFFEE). It read 12:22. That was nothing to me, but I pretended to be startled. I drank off the rest of my beeyah and stood up. ”Got to get moving if I’m going to meet my friends in Castle Rock on time.”
”Well, take it easy on Route 117,” Ancietti said. ”That road’s a bugger.” It came out buggah. I hadn’t heard such a thick Maine accent in years. Then I realized that was literally true, and I almost laughed out loud.
”I will,” I said. ”Thanks. And son? About that Shirley Jackson story.”
”Yes, sir?” Sir, yet. And nothing sarcastic about it. I was deciding that 1958 had been a pretty good year. Aside from the stench of the mill and the cigarette smoke, that was.
”There’s nothing to get.”
”No? That’s not what Mr. Marchant says.”
”With all due respect to Mr. Marchant, you tell him Jake Epping says that sometimes a cigar is just a smoke and a story’s just a story.”
He laughed. ”I will! Period Three tomorrow morning!”
”Good.” I nodded to the father, wishing I could tell him that, thanks to Moxie (which he didn’t carry…yet), his business was going to be standing on the corner of Main Street and the Old Lewiston Road long after he was gone. ”Thanks for the root beer.”
”Come back anytime, son. I’m thinking about lowering the price on the large.”
”To a dime?”
He grinned. Like his son’s, it was easy and open. ”Now you’re cooking with gas.”
The bell jingled. Three ladies came in. No slacks; they wore dresses with hemlines that dropped halfway down their shins. And hats! Two with little fluffs of white veil. They began rummaging through the open crates of fruit, looking for perfection. I started away from the soda fountain, then had a thought and turned back.
”Can you tell me what a greenfront is?”
The father and the son exchanged an amused glance that made me think of an old joke. Tourist from Chicago driving a fancy sports car pulls up to a farmhouse way out in the country. Old farmer’s sitting on the porch, smoking a corncob pipe. Tourist leans out of his Jaguar and asks, ”Say, old-timer, can you tell me how to get to East Machias?” Old farmer puffs thoughtfully on his pipe a time or two, then says, ”Don’tcha move a goddam inch.”
”You really are an out-of-stater, aren’t you?” Frank asked.
His accent wasn’t as thick as his father’s. Probably watches more TV, I thought. There’s nothing like TV when it comes to eroding a regional accent.
”I am,” I said.
”That’s funny, because I could swear I hear a little Yankee twang.”
”It’s a Yooper thing,” I said. ”You know, the Upper Peninsula?” Except — dang! — the UP was Michigan.
But neither of them seemed to realize it. In fact young Frank turned away and started doing dishes. By hand, I noticed.
”The greenfront’s the liquor store,” Ancietti said. ”Right across the street, if you’re wanting to pick up a pint of something.”
”I think the root beer’s good enough for me,” I said. ”I was just wondering. Have a nice day.”
”You too, my friend. Come back and see us.”
I passed the fruit-examining trio, murmuring ”Ladies” as I went by. And wishing I had a hat to tip. A fedora, maybe.
Like the ones you see in the old movies.