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Needful Things(8)
Author: Stephen King

The second rule is that the investigating shoppers display a politeness so complete that it verges on iciness. The third is that no one must ask (on the first visit, at least) for the new shopkeeper's history or bona fides. The fourth is that no one should bring a welcome-to-town present, especially one as tacky as a home-made cake or a pie. The last rule is as immutable as the first: one must not depart last

This stately gavotte-which might be called The Dance of Female Investigation-lasts anywhere from two weeks to two months, and does not apply when someone from town opens a business

That sort of opening is apt to be like an Old Home Week church supper-informal, cheery, and quite dull. But when the new tradesman is From Away (it is always said that way, so one can hear the capital letters), The Dance of Female Investigation is as sure as the fact of death and the force of gravity. When the trial period is over (no one takes out an ad in the paper to say that it is, but somehow everyone knows), one of two things happens: either the flow of trade becomes more normal and satisfied customers bring in belated welcome gifts and invitations to Come and Visit, or the new business fails. In towns like Castle Rock, small businesses are sometimes spoken of as "broke down" weeks or even months before the hapless owners discover the fact for themselves

There was at least one woman in Castle Rock who did not play by the accepted rules, immutable as they might seem to others

This was Polly Chalmers, who ran You Sew and Sew. Ordinary behavior was not expected of her by most; Polly Chalmers was considered by the ladies of Castle Rock (and many of the gentlemen) to be Eccentric

Polly presented all sorts of problems for the self-appointed social arbiters of Castle Rock. For one thing, no one could quite decide on the most basic fact of all: was Polly From Town, or was she From Away? She had been born and mostly raised in Castle Rock, true enough, but she had left with Duke Sheehan's bun in her oven at the age of eighteen. That had been in 1970, and she had only returned once before moving back for good in 1987

That brief return call had begun in late 1975, when her father had been dying from cancer of the bowel. Following his death, Lorraine Chalmers had suffered a heart attack, and Polly had stayed on to nurse her mother. Lorraine had suffered a second heart attack-this one fatal-in the early spring of 1976, and after her mother had been buried away in Homeland, Polly (who had by then attained a genuine Air of Mystery, as far as the ladies of the town were concerned) had left again

Gone for good this time had been the general consensus, and when the last remaining Chalmers, old Aunt Evvie, died in 1981 and Polly did not attend the funeral, the consensus seemed a proven fact. Yet four years ago she had returned, and had opened her sewing shop. Although no one knew for certain, it seemed likely that she had used Aunt Evvie Chalmers's money to fund the new venture. Who else would that crazy old rip have left it to?

The town's more avid followers of la comidie humaine (this was most of them) felt sure that, if Polly made a success of her little business and stuck around, most of the things they were curious about would be revealed to them in the fullness of time. But in Polly's case, many matters remained dark. It was really quite exasperating

She had spent some of the intervening years in San Francisco, that much was known, but little more-Lorraine Chalmers had been as close as the devil about her wayward daughter. Had Polly gone to school there, or somewhere? She ran her business as if she had taken business courses, and learned a right smart from them, too, but no one could say for sure. She was single when she returned, but had she ever been married, either in San Francisco or in one of those places where she might (or might not) have spent some of her time between Then and Now?

No one knew that, either, only that she had never married the Sheehan boy-he had joined the Marines, had done a few turns there, and was now selling real estate someplace in New Hampshire. And why had she come back here to stay after all the years?

Most of all they wondered what had become of the baby. Had pretty Polly gotten an abortion? Had she given it up for adoption?

Had she kept it? If so, had it died? Was it (maddening pronoun, that) alive now, at school somewhere, and writing the occasional letter home to its mother? No one knew these things, either, and in many ways the unanswered questions about "it" were the most galling. The girl who had left on a Greyhound with a bun in her oven was now a woman of almost forty and had been back, living and doing business in town, for four years, and no one even knew the sex of the child that had caused her to leave. just lately Polly Chalmers had given the town a fresh demonstration of her eccentricity, if one was needed: she had been keeping company with Alan Pangborn, Castle County's Sheriff, and Sheriff Pangborn had buried his wife and younger son only a year and a half ago. This behavior was not quite a Scandal, but it was certainly Eccentric, and so no one was really surprised to see Polly Chalmers go marching down the sidewalk of Main Street from her door to that of Needful Things at two minutes past ten on the morning of October 9th

They were not even surprised at what she was carrying in her gloved hands: a Tupperware container which could only contain a cake

It was, the locals said when discussing it later, just like her.

2

The display window of Needful Things had been cleansed of soap, and a dozen or so items had been set out there-clocks, a silver setting, a painting, a lovely triptych just waiting for someone to fill it with well-loved photographs. Polly glanced at these items with approval, then went to the door. The sign hanging there read OPEN. As she did what the sign suggested, a small bell jingled over her head-this had been installed since Brian Rusk's preview

The shop smelled of now carpeting and fresh paint. It was filled with sunshine, and as she stepped in, looking around with interest, a clear thought came to her: This is a success. Not a customer has stepped through the door yet-unless I'm one-and it's already a success

Remarkable. Such hasty judgments were not like her, and neither was her feeling of instant approval, but they were undeniable

A tall man was bending over one of the glass display cases. He looked up when the bell jingled and smiled at her. "Hello," he said

Polly was a practical woman who knew her own mind and generally liked what she found there, and so the instant of confusion which struck her when she first met this stranger's eyes was confusing in and of itself

I know him, was the first clear thought to come through that unexpected cloud. I've met this man before. Where?

She hadn't, though, and that knowledge-that surety-came a moment later. It was diji vu, she supposed, that sense of false recollection which strikes almost everyone from time to time, a feeling which is disorienting because it is at once so dreamy and so prosaic

She was put off her stride for a moment or two, and could only smile at him lamely. Then she moved her left hand to get a better grip on the cake container she held, and a harsh bolt of pain shot up the back of it and out toward the wrist in two bright spikes. The tines of a large chrome fork seemed to be planted deep in her flesh

It was arthritis, and it hurt like a son of a bitch, but at least it focused her attention again, and she spoke without a noticeable lag... only she thought that the man might have noticed, just the same

He had bright hazel eyes which looked as if they might notice a great deal

"Hi," she said. "My name is Polly Chalmers. I own the little dress and sewing shop two doors down from you. I thought that, since we're neighbors, I'd come over and welcome you to Castle Rock before the rush."

He smiled, and his entire face lit up. She felt an answering smile lift her own lips, even though her left hand was still hurting like a bastard. If I weren't already in love with Alan, she thought, I think I'd fall at this man's feet without a whimper. "Show me to the bedroom, Master, I will go quietly." With a quirk of amusement, she wondered how many of the ladies who would pop in here for a quick peek before the end of the day would go home with ravening crushes on him

She saw he was wearing no wedding band; more fuel to the fire

"I'm delighted to meet you, Ms. Charmers," he said, coming forward. "I'm Leland Gaunt." He put out his right hand as he approached her, then frowned slightly as she took a small step backward

"I'm sorry," she said, "I don't shake hands. Don't think me impolite, please. I have arthritis." She set the Tupperware container on the nearest glass case and raised her hands, which were encased in kid-leather gloves. There was nothing freakish about them, but they were clearly misshapen, the left a little more than the right

There were women in town who thought that Polly was actually proud of her disease; why else, they reasoned, would she be so quick to show it off? The truth was the exact opposite. Though not a vain woman, she was concerned enough about her looks that the ugliness of her hands embarrassed her. She showed them as quickly as she could, and the same thought surfaced briefly-so briefly it almost always went unrecognized-in her mind each time she did: There. That's over. Now we can get on with whatever else there is

People usually registered some discomposure or embarrassment of their own when she showed them her hands. Gaunt did not. He grasped her upper arm in hands that felt extraordinarily strong and shook that instead. it might have struck her as an inappropriately intimate thing to have done on first acquaintance, but it did not

The gesture was friendly, brief, even rather amusing. All the same, she was glad it was quick. His hands had a dry, unpleasant feel even through the light fall coat she was wearing

 

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