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Needful Things(6)
Author: Stephen King

"Are you familiar with the story of Noah and the Ark?" Mr. Gaunt inquired.

Brian frowned. He was pretty sure it was a Bible story, but he had a tendency to zone out during Sunday sermons and Thursday night Bible classes. "Was that like a boat that went around the world in eighty days?" he asked.

Mr. Gaunt grinned again. "Something like that, Brian. Something very like that. Well, that splinter is supposed to be from Noah's Ark.

Of course I can't say it is from Noah's Ark, because people would think I was the most outrageous sort of fake. There must be four thousand people in the world today trying to sell pieces of wood which they claim to be from Noah's Ark-and probably four hundred thousand trying to peddle pieces of the One True Cross-but I can say it's over two thousand years old, because it's been carbon-dated, and I can say it came from the Holy Land, although it was found not on Mount Ararat, but on Mount Boram."

Most of this was lost on Brian, but the most salient fact was not.

"Two thousand years," he breathed. "Wow! You're really sure?"

"I am indeed," Mr. Gaunt said. "I have a certificate from M.I.T where it was carbon-dated, and that goes with the item, of course.

But, you know, I really believe it might be from the Ark." He looked at the splinter speculatively for a moment, and then raised his dazzling blue eyes to Brian's hazel ones. Brian was again transfixed by that gaze. "After all, Mount Boram is less than thirty kilometers, as the crow flies, from Mount Ararat, and greater mistakes than the final resting place of a boat, even a big one, have been made in the many histories of the world, especially when stories are handed down from mouth to ear for generations before they are finally committed to paper. Am I right?"

"Yeah," Brian said. "Sounds logical."

"And, besides-it produces an odd sensation when it's held.

Wouldn't you say so?"

"I guess!"

Mr. Gaunt smiled and ruffled the boy's hair, breaking the spell.

"I like you, Brian. I wish all my customers could be as full of wonder as you are. Life would be much easier for a humble tradesman such as myself if that were the way of the world."

"How much... how much would you sell something like that for?"

Brian asked. He pointed toward the splinter with a finger which was not quite steady. He was only now beginning to realize how deeply the experience had affected him. It had been like holding a conch shell to your ear and hearing the sound of the ocean... only in 3-D and Sensurround. He dearly wished Mr. Gaunt would let him hold it again, perhaps even a little longer, but he didn't know how to ask and Mr.

Gaunt did not offer.

"Oh now," Mr. Gaunt said, steepling his fingers below his chin and looking at Brian roguishly. "With an item like that-and with most of the good things I sell, the really interesting things-that would depend on the buyer. What the buyer would be willing to pay. What would you be willing to pay, Brian?"

"I don't know," Brian said, thinking of the ninety-one cents in his pocket, and then gulped: "A lot!"

Mr. Gaunt threw back his head and laughed heartily. Brian noticed when he did that he'd made a mistake about the man. When he first came in, he had thought Mr. Gaunt's hair was gray. Now he saw that it was only silver at the temples. He must have been standing in one of the spotlights, Brian thought.

"Well, this has been terribly interesting, Brian, but I really do have a lot of work ahead of me before ten tomorrow, and so-"

"Sure," Bran said, startled back into a consideration of good manners. "I have to go, too. Sorry to have kept you so long-"

"No, no, no! You misunderstand me!" Mr. Gaunt laid one of his long hands on Brian's arm. Brian pulled his arm away. He hoped the gesture didn't seem impolite, but he couldn't help it even if it did.

Mr. Gaunt's hand was hard and dry and somehow unpleasant.

It did not feel that different, in fact, from the chunk of petrified wood that was supposed to be from Nora's Ark, or whatever it was.

But Mr. Gaunt was too much in earnest to notice Brian's instinctive shrinking away. He acted as if he, not Brian, had committed a breach of etiquette. "I just thought we should get down to business. There's no sense, really, in your looking at the few other things I've managed to unpack; there aren't very many of them, and you've seen the most interesting of those which are out. Yet I have a pretty good knowledge of my own stock, even without an inventory sheet in my hand, and I might have something that you'd fancy, Brian. What would you fancy?"

"Jeepers," Brian said. There were a thousand things he would fancy, and that was part of the problem-when the question was put as baldly as that, he couldn't say just which of the thousand he would fancy the most.

"It's best not to think too deeply about these things," Mr. Gaunt said. He spoke idly, but there was nothing idle about his eyes, which were studying Brian's face closely. "When I say, 'Brian Rusk, what do you want more than anything else in the world at this moment?' what is your response? Quick!"

"Sandy Koufax," Brian responded promptly. He had not been aware that his palm was open to receive the splinter from Nora's Ark until he had seen it resting there, and he hadn't been aware of what he was going to say in response to Mr. Gaunt's question until he heard the words tumbling from his mouth. But the moment he heard them he knew they were exactly and completely right.

5

"Sandy Koufax," Mr. Gaunt said thoughtfully. "How interesting."

"Well, not Sandy Koufax himself," Brian said, "but his baseball card. "Topps or Fleers?" Mr. Gaunt asked.

Brian hadn't believed the afternoon could get any better, but suddenly it had. Mr. Gaunt knew about baseball cards as well as splinters and geodes. It was amazing, really amazing.

"Topps."

"I suppose it's his rookie card you'd be interested in," Mr. Gaunt said regretfully. "I don't think I could help you there, but-"

"No," Brian said. "Not 1954. '56. That's the one I'd like to have.

I've got a collection of 1956 baseball cards. My dad got me going on it. It's fun, and there are only a few of them that are really expensive AlKaline, Mel Parnell, Roy Campanella, guys like that.

I've got over fifty already. Including AlKaline. He was thirty-eight bucks. I mowed a lot of lawns to get Al."

"I bet you did," Mr. Gaunt said with a smile.

"Well, like I say, most '56 cards aren't really expensive-they cost five dollars, seven dollars, sometimes ten. But a Sandy Koufax in good condition costs ninety or even a hundred bucks. He wasn't a big star that year, but of course he turned out to be great, and that was when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Everybody called them Da Burns back then. That's what my dad says, at least."

"Your dad is two hundred per cent correct," said Mr. Gaunt.

"I believe I have something that's going to make you very happy, Brian. Wait right here."

He brushed back through the curtained doorway and left Brian standing by the case with the splinter and the Polaroid and the picture of The King in it. Brian was almost dancing from one foot to the other in hope and anticipation. He told himself to stop being such a wuss; even if Mr. Gaunt did have a Sandy Koufax card, and even if it was a Topps card from the fifties, it would probably turn out to be a '55 or a '57. And suppose it really was a '56? What good was that going to do him, with less than a buck in his pocket?

Well, I can look at it, can't I? Brian thought. It doesn't cost anything to look, does it? This was also another of his mother's favorite sayings.

From the room behind the curtain there came the sounds of boxes being shifted and mild thuds as they were set on the floor.

"Just a minute, Brian," Mr. Gaunt called. He sounded a little out of breath. "I'm sure there's a shoebox here someplace..."

"Don't go to any trouble on my account, Mr. Gaunt!" Brian called back, hoping like mad that Mr. Gaunt would go to as much trouble as was necessary.

"Maybe that box is in one of the shipments still en route," Mr.

Gaunt said dubiously.

Brian's heart sank.

Then: "But I was sure... wait! Here it is! Right here!"

Brian's heart rose-did more than rise. it soared and did a backover flip.

Mr. Gaunt came back through the curtain. His hair was a trifle disarrayed, and there was a smudge of dust on one lapel of his smoking jacket. In his hands he held a box which had once contained a pair of Air Jordan sneakers. He set it on the counter and took off the top.

Brian stood by his left arm, looking in. The box was full of baseball cards, each inserted in its own plastic envelope, just like the ones Brian sometimes bought at The Baseball Card Shop in North Conway, New Hampshire.

"I thought there might be an inventory sheet in here, but no such luck," Mr. Gaunt said. "Still, I have a pretty good idea of what I have in stock, as I told you-it's the key to running a business where you sell a little bit of everything-and I'm quite sure I saw..."

He trailed off and began flipping rapidly through the cards.

Brian watched the cards flash by, speechless with astonishment.

The guy who ran The Baseball Card Shop had what his dad called "a pretty country-fair" selection of old cards, but the contents of the whole store couldn't hold a candle to the treasures tucked away in this one sneaker box. There were chewing-tobacco cards with pictures of Ty Cobb and Pie Traynor on them. There were cigarette cards with pictures of Babe Ruth and Dom DiMaggio and Big George Keller and even Hiram Dissen, the one-armed pitcher who had chucked for the White Sox during the forties. LUCKY STRIKE GREEN HAS GONE TO WAR! many of the cigarette cards proclaimed. And there, just glimpsed, a broad, solemn face above a Pittsburgh uniform shirt"My God, wasn't that Bonus

 

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