"Did either of those Johnson guys say anything about strangers?"
"Not that I recall, but here's something on the subject from the Bible: 'For I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner. Spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence...'" Ted trailed off for a moment. The fun had gone out of his face and he looked old again. Then his voice firmed and he finished. "'...before I go hence, and be no more.' Book of Psalms. I can't remember which one."
"Well," Bobby said, "I wouldn't kill or rob anyone, don't worry, but I'd sure like to earn some money."
"Let me think," Ted said. "Let me think a little."
"Sure. But if you've got chores or something, I'm your guy. Tell you that right now."
"Chores? Maybe. Although that's not the word I would have chosen." Ted clasped his bony arms around his even bonier knees and gazed across the lawn at Broad Street. It was growing dark now; Bobby's favorite part of the evening had arrived. The cars that passed had their parking lights on, and from somewhere on Asher Avenue Mrs. Sigsby was calling for her twins to come in and get their supper. At this time of day -- and at dawn, as he stood in the bathroom, urinating into the bowl with sunshine falling through the little window and into his half-open eyes -- Bobby felt like a dream in someone else's head.
"Where did you live before you came here, Mr....Ted?"
"A place that wasn't as nice," he said. "Nowhere near as nice. How long have you lived here, Bobby?"
"Long as I can remember. Since my dad died, when I was three."
"And you know everyone on the street? On this block of the street, anyway?"
"Pretty much, yeah."
"You'd know strangers. Sojourners. Faces of those unknown."
Bobby smiled and nodded. "Uh-huh, I think so."
He waited to see where this would lead next -- it was interesting -- but apparently this was as far as it went. Ted stood up, slowly and carefully. Bobby could hear little bones creak in his back when he put his hands around there and stretched, grimacing.
"Come on," he said. "It's getting chilly. I'll go in with you. Your key or mine?"
Bobby smiled. "You better start breaking in your own, don't you think?"
Ted -- it was getting easier to think of him as Ted -- pulled a keyring from his pocket. The only keys on it were the one which opened the big front door and the one to his room. Both were shiny and new, the color of bandit gold. Bobby's own two keys were scratched and dull. How old was Ted? he wondered again. Sixty, at least. A sixty-year-old man with only two keys in his pocket. That was weird.
Ted opened the front door and they went into the big dark foyer with its umbrella stand and its old painting of Lewis and Clark looking out across the American West. Bobby went to the door of the Garfield apartment and Ted went to the stairs. He paused there for a moment with his hand on the bannister. "The Simak book is a great story," he said
"Not such great writing, though. Not bad, I don't mean to say that, but take it from me, there is better."
"There are also books full of great writing that don't have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story, Bobby. Don't be like the book-snobs who won't do that. Read sometimes for the words -- the language. Don't be like the play-it-safers that won't do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book."
"Are there many of those, do you think?" Bobby asked.
"More than the book-snobs and play-it-safers think. Many more. Perhaps I'll give you one. A belated birthday present."
"You don't have to do that."
"No, but perhaps I will. And do have a happy birthday."
Copyright © 1999 by Stephen King
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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