"Who's Ben Jonson?"
"An Englishman, dead these many years," Mr. Brautigan said. "Self-centered and foolish about money, by all accounts; prone to flatulence as well. But -- "
"What's that? Flatulence?"
Ted stuck his tongue between his lips and made a brief but very realistic farting sound. Bobby put his hands to his mouth and giggled into his cupped fingers.
"Kids think farts are funny," Ted Brautigan said, nodding. "Yeah. To a man my age, though, they're just part of life's increasingly strange business. Ben Jonson said a good many wise things between farts, by the way. Not so many as Dr. Johnson -- Samuel Johnson, that would be -- but still a good many."
"Pasternak. A Russian," Mr. Brautigan said dismissively. "Of no account, I think. May I see your books?"
Bobby handed them over. Mr. Brautigan (Ted, he reminded himself, you're supposed to call him Ted) passed the Perry Mason back after a cursory glance at the title. The Clifford Simak novel he held longer, at first squinting at the cover through the curls of cigarette smoke that rose past his eyes, then paging through it. He nodded as he did so.
"I have read this one," he said. "I had a lot of time to read previous to coming here."
"Yeah?" Bobby kindled. "Is it good?"
"One of his best," Mr. Brautigan -- Ted -- replied. He looked sideways at Bobby, one eye open, the other still squinted shut against the smoke. It gave him a look that was at once wise and mysterious, like a not-quite-trustworthy character in a detective movie. "But are you sure you can read this? You can't be much more than twelve."
"I'm eleven," Bobby said. He was delighted that Ted thought he might be as old as twelve. "Eleven today. I can read it. I won't be able to understand it all, but if it's a good story, I'll like it."
"Your birthday!" Ted said, looking impressed. He took a final drag on his cigarette, then flicked it away. It hit the cement walk and fountained sparks. "Happy birthday dear Robert, happy birthday to you!"
"Thanks. Only I like Bobby a lot better."
"Bobby, then. Are you going out to celebrate?"
"Nah, my mom's got to work late."
"Would you like to come up to my little place? I don't have much, but I know how to open a can. Also, I might have a pastry -- "
"Thanks, but Mom left me some stuff. I should eat that."
"I understand." And, wonder of wonders, he looked as if he actually did. Ted returned Bobby's copy of Ring Around the Sun. "In this book," he said, "Mr. Simak postulates the idea that there are a number of worlds like ours. Not other planets but other Earths, parallel Earths, in a kind of ring around the sun. A fascinating idea."
"Yeah," Bobby said. He knew about parallel worlds from other books. From the comics, as well.
Ted Brautigan was now looking at him in a thoughtful, speculative way.
"What?" Bobby asked, feeling suddenly self-conscious. See something green? his mother might have said.
For a moment he thought Ted wasn't going to answer -- he seemed to have fallen into some deep and dazing train of thought. Then he gave himself a little shake and sat up straighter. "Nothing," he said. "I have a little idea. Perhaps you'd like to earn some extra money? Not that I have much, but -- "
"Yeah! Cripes, yeah!" There's this bike, he almost went on, then stopped himself. Best keep yourself to yourself was yet another of his mom's sayings. "I'd do just about anything you wanted!"
Ted Brautigan looked simultaneously alarmed and amused. It seemed to open a door to a different face, somehow, and Bobby could see that, yeah, the old guy had once been a young guy. One with a little sass to him, maybe. "That's a bad thing to tell a stranger," he said, "and although we've progressed to Bobby and Ted -- a good start -- we're still really strangers to each other."
Copyright © 1999 by Stephen King
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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