By Seija Rankin
April 21, 2020 at 08:00 AM EDT
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Stephen King
Credit: Illustration by Matthew Bourel

The following is an excerpt from If It Bleeds by Stephen King. The novella collection is comprised of four haunting stories — the below is from "Life of Chuck," in which a man named Marty becomes obsessed with a billboard that reads: "39 GREAT YEARS! THANKS, CHUCK!" In three acts, presented in reverse order, Marty tries to uncover the life of Chuck Krantz and why his retirement is being celebrated in these strange ads around town.

You can also listen to the excerpt below, courtesy of Simon & Schuster Audio, as read by the audiobook's narrators Steven Weber, Danny Burstein, and Will Patton. If It Bleeds is now available for purchase.

"Charles Krantz — Chuck, to his friends — makes his way along Boylston Street dressed in the armor of accountancy: gray suit, white shirt, blue tie. His black Samuel Windsor shoes are inexpensive but sturdy. His briefcase swings by his side. He takes no notice of the chattering after-work throngs eddying around him. He’s in Boston attending a week-long conference titled Banking in the Twenty-First Century. He has been sent by his bank, Midwest Trust, all expenses paid. Very nice, not least because he’s never visited Beantown before. The conference is being held at a hotel that is perfect for accountants, clean and fairly cheap. Chuck has enjoyed the speakers and the panels (he was on one panel and is scheduled to be on another before the conference ends at noon tomorrow), but had no wish to spend his off-duty hours in the company of 70 other accountants. He speaks their language, but likes to think he speaks others, as well. At least he did, although some of the vocabulary is now lost.

Now his sensible Samuel Windsor Oxfords are taking him for an afternoon walk. Not very exciting, but quite pleasant. Quite pleasant is enough these days. His life is narrower than the one he once hoped for, but he’s made his peace with that. He understands that narrowing is the natural order of things. There comes a time when you realize you’re never going to be the President of the United States and settle for being president of the Jaycees instead. And there’s a bright side. He has a wife to whom he is scrupulously faithful, and an intelligent, good-humored son in middle school. He also has only nine months to live, although he doesn’t know it yet. The seeds of his end — the place where life narrows to a final point — are planted deep, where no surgeon’s knife will ever go, and they have lately begun to awaken. Soon they will bear black fruit.

To those passing him — the college girls in their colorful skirts, the college boys with their Red Sox caps turned around, the impeccably dressed Asian Americans from Chinatown, the matrons with their shopping bags, the Vietnam vet holding out a huge ceramic cup with an American flag and the motto THESE COLORS DON’T RUN on its side — Chuck Krantz must surely look like white America personified, buttoned up and tucked in and all about chasing the dollar. He is those things, yes, the industrious ant trundling its preordained path through flocks of pleasure-seeking grasshoppers, but he’s other things as well. Or was.

He’s thinking about the little sister. Was her name Rachel or Regina? Reba? Renee? He can’t remember for sure, only that she was the lead guitarist’s little sister.

During his junior year in high school, long before he became an industrious ant working in that hill known as Midwest Trust, Chuck was the lead singer in a band called the Retros. They called themselves that because they played a lot of stuff from the sixties and seventies, heavy on British groups like the Stones and the Searchers and the Clash, because most of those tunes were simple. They steered clear of the Beatles, where the songs were full of weird chords like modified sevenths.

Chuck got to be the lead singer for two reasons: although he couldn’t play an instrument he could carry a tune, and his grandpa had an old SUV which he allowed Chuck to drive to gigs, as long as they weren’t too far. The Retros were bad to start with, and only mediocre when they broke up at the end of junior year, but they had, as the rhythm guitarist’s father once put it, “made that quantum leap to palatability.” And really, it was hard to do too much damage when you were playing stuff like “Bits and Pieces” (Dave Clark Five) and “Rockaway Beach” (Ramones).

Chuck’s tenor voice was pleasing enough in an unremarkable way, and he wasn’t afraid to scream or go falsetto when the occasion called for it, but what he really liked were the instrumental breaks, because then he could dance and strut his way across the stage like Jagger, sometimes wagging the mike stand between his legs in a way he considered suggestive. He could also moonwalk, which always drew applause.

The Retros were a garage band that sometimes practiced in an actual garage and sometimes in the lead guitarist’s downstairs rec room. On those latter occasions, the lead’s little sister (Ruth? Reagan?) usually came ditty-bopping down the stairs in her Bermuda shorts. She’d station herself between their two Fender amps, waggle her hips and butt in exaggerated fashion, put her fingers in her ears, and stick out her tongue. Once, when they were taking a break, she sidled up to Chuck and whispered, “Just between you and me, you sing like old people fuck.”

Charles Krantz, the future accountant, had whispered back, “Like you’d know, monkeybutt.”

Little sister ignored this. “I like to watch you dance, though. You do it like a white guy, but still.”

Little sister, also white, also liked to dance. Sometimes after practice she would put on one of her homemade cassettes and he’d dance with her while the other guys in the band hooted and made semi-smart remarks, the two of them doing their Michael Jackson moves and laughing like loons.

Chuck’s thinking about teaching little sister (Ramona?) how to moonwalk when he first hears the drums. Some guy is banging a basic rock beat that the Retros might have played back in the days of “Hang On Sloopy” and “Brand New Cadillac.” At first he thinks it’s all in his head, maybe even the start of one of the migraines that have plagued him lately, but then the crowd of pedestrians on the next block clears long enough for him to see a kid in a sleeveless tee, sitting on his little stool and beating out that tasty old-time rhythm.

Chuck thinks, Where’s a little sister to dance with when you need one?

Jared has been on the job for ten minutes now and has nothing to show for it but that one sarcastic quarter flipped into Magic Hat by the skateboard kid. It makes no sense to him, on a pleasant Thursday afternoon like this with the weekend just around the bend, he should have at least five dollars in the hat by now. He doesn’t need the money to keep from starving, but man doesn’t live by food and rent alone. A man has to keep his self-image in order, and drumming here on Boylston is a big part of his. He is onstage. He is performing. Soloing, in fact. What’s in the hat is how he judges who is digging the performance and who is not.

He twirls his sticks between his fingertips, sets himself, and plays the intro to “My Sharona,” but it’s not right. Sounds canned. He sees a Mr. Businessman type coming toward him, briefcase swinging like a short pendulum, and something about him — God knows what — makes Jared want to announce his approach. He slips first into a reggae beat, then something slinkier, like a cross between “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Susie Q.”

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For the first time since running that quick paradiddle to gauge the sound of his kit, Jared feels a spark and understands why he wanted the cowbell today. He begins to whack it on the offbeat, and what he’s drumming morphs into something like that old joint by the Champs, “Tequila.” It’s pretty cool. The groove has arrived, and the groove is like a road you want to follow. He could speed the beat up, get some tom in there, but he’s watching Mr. Businessman, and that seems wrong for this dude. Jared has no idea why Mr. Businessman has become the groove’s focal point, and doesn’t care. Sometimes it just happens that way. The groove turns into a story. He imagines Mr. Businessman on vacation in one of those places where you get a little pink umbrella in your drink. Maybe he’s with his wife, or maybe it’s his personal assistant, an ash blond in a turquoise bikini. And this is what they’re hearing. This is the drummer warming up for the night’s gig, before the tiki torches are lit.

He believes Mr. Businessman will just go past on his way to his Mr. Businessman hotel, the chances that he’ll feed Magic Hat hovering somewhere between slim and none. When he’s gone, Jared will switch to something else, give the cowbell a rest, but for now this beat is the right one.

But instead of floating on by, Mr. Businessman stops. He’s smiling. Jared gives him a grin and nods to the tophat on the pavement, never missing a beat. Mr. Businessman doesn’t seem to notice him, and he doesn’t feed the hat. He drops his briefcase between his black Mr. Businessman shoes instead and begins moving his hips side to side with the beat. Just hips: everything else stays still. His face is poker. He seems to be looking at a spot directly over Jared’s head. “Go, man,” a young man remarks, and chinks some coins into the hat. For the gently jiving Mr. Businessman, not the beat, but that’s okay.

Jared begins working the hi‑hat in quick tender strokes, teasing it, almost caressing it. With his other hand he begins knocking the cowbell on the offbeat, using the kick-pedal to add a little bottom. It’s nice. The guy in the gray suit looks like a banker, but that hip-sway is something else. He raises a hand and begins ticking his forefinger to the beat. On the back of the hand is a small crescent-shaped scar.

Chuck hears the beat change, becoming a little more exotic, and for a moment he almost comes back to himself and walks away. Then he thinks, F--- it, no law against dancing a little on the sidewalk. He steps back from his briefcase so he won’t trip, then puts his hands on his moving hips and does a jivey clockwise turn like an about-face.

It’s how he used to do it back in the day, when the band was playing “Satisfaction” or “Walking the Dog.” Someone laughs, someone else applauds, and he goes back the other way with the tail of his coat flying. He’s thinking about dancing with little sister. Little sister was a booger with a dirty mouth, but she could sure get down on it.

Chuck himself hasn’t got down on it — that mystical, satisfying it — in years, but every move feels perfect. He lifts one leg and spins on the other heel. Then he clasps his hands behind his back like a schoolboy called on to recite and moonwalks in place on the pavement in front of his briefcase.

The drummer goes “Yow, daddy!” in surprise and delight. He picks up the pace, now going from the cowbell to the floor tom with his left hand, working the kick-pedal, never losing the metallic sighing from the hi‑hat. People are gathering. Money is pouring into Magic Hat: paper as well as metal. Something is happening here. Two young men in matching berets and Rainbow Coalition tees are at the front of the little crowd. One of them tosses what looks like a five into the hat and yells “Go, man, go!”

Chuck doesn’t need the encouragement. He’s into it now. Banking in the 21st century has slipped his mind. He frees the button on his suit coat, brushes the coat behind him with the backs of his hands, hooks his thumbs into his belt like a gunslinger, and does a modified split, out and back. He follows with a quick-step and turn. The drummer is laughing and nodding. “You the cheese,” he says. “You the cheese, daddy!”

The crowd is growing, the hat is filling, Chuck’s heart isn’t just beating in his chest but thrumming. Good way to have a heart attack, but he doesn’t care. If his wife saw him doing this she’d s--- a brick, and he doesn’t care. His son would be embarrassed, but his son isn’t here. He puts his right shoe on his left calf, spins again, and when he comes back front and center, he sees a pretty young woman standing next to the beret guys. She’s wearing a filmy pink blouse and a red wrap skirt. She’s staring at him with wide, fascinated eyes. Chuck holds his hands out to her, smiling, snapping his fingers.

“Come on,” he says. “Come on, little sister, dance.”

From IF IT BLEEDS by Stephen King. Copyright c 2020 by Stephen King. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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