“Fair Extension,” the shortest of these tales, is perhaps the nastiest and certainly the funniest. Making a deal with the devil - never a stranger from most people with something to lose - not only saves Dave Streeter from a fatal cancer but provides rich recompense for a lifetime of resentment.
Streeter only saw the sign because he had to pull over and puke. He puked a lot now, and there was very little warning—sometimes a flutter of nausea, sometimes a brassy taste in the back of his mouth, and sometimes nothing at all; just urk and out it came, howdy-do. It made driving a risky proposition, yet he also drove a lot now, partly because he wouldn’t be able to by late fall and partly because he had a lot to think about. He had always done his best thinking behind the wheel.
He was out on the Harris Avenue Extension, a broad thoroughfare that ran for two miles beside the Derry County Airport and the attendant businesses: mostly motels and warehouses. The Extension was busy during the daytime, because it connected Derry’s west and east sides as well as servicing the airport, but in the evening it was nearly deserted. Streeter pulled over into the bike lane, snatched one of his plastic barf-bags from the pile of them on the passenger seat, dropped his face into it, and let fly. Dinner made an encore appearance. Or would have, if he’d had his eyes open. He didn’t. Once you’d seen one bellyful of puke, you’d seen them all.
When the puking phase started, there hadn’t been pain. Dr. Henderson had warned him that would change, and over the last week, it had. Not agony as yet; just a quick lightning-stroke up from the gut and into the throat, like acid indigestion. It came, then faded. But it would get worse. Dr. Henderson had told him that, too.
He raised his head from the bag, opened the glove compartment, took out a wire bread-tie, and secured his dinner before the smell could permeate the car. He looked to his right and saw a providential litter basket with a cheerful lop-eared hound on the side and a stenciled message reading DERRY DAWG SEZ “PUT LITTER IN ITS PLACE!”
Streeter got out, went to the Dawg Basket, and disposed of the latest ejecta from his failing body. The summer sun was setting red over the airport’s flat (and currently deserted) acreage, and the shadow tacked to his heels was long and grotesquely thin. It was as if it were four months ahead of his body, and already fully ravaged by the cancer that would soon be eating him alive.
He turned back to his car and saw the sign across the road. At first—probably because his eyes were still watering—he thought it said HAIR EXTENSION. Then he blinked and saw it actually said FAIR EXTENSION. Below that, in smaller letters: fair price.
Fair extension, fair price. It sounded good, and almost made sense. There was a gravel area on the far side of the Extension, outside the Cyclone fence marking the county airport’s property. Lots of people set up roadside stands there during the busy hours of the day, because it was possible for customers to pull in without getting tailgated (if you were quick and remembered to use your blinker, that was). Streeter had lived his whole life in the little Maine city of Derry, and over the years he’d seen people selling fresh fiddleheads there in the spring, fresh berries and corn on the cob in the summer, and lobsters almost year-round. In mud season, a crazy old guy known as the Snowman took over the spot, selling scavenged knickknacks that had been lost in the winter and were revealed by the melting snow. Many years ago Streeter had bought a good-looking rag dolly from this man, intending to give it to his daughter May, who had been two or three back then. He made the mistake of telling Janet that he’d gotten it from the Snowman, and she made him throw it away. “Do you think we can boil a rag doll to kill the germs?” she asked. “Sometimes I wonder how a smart man can be so stupid.”
Well, cancer didn’t discriminate when it came to brains. Smart or stupid, he was about ready to leave the game and take off his uniform. There was a card table set up where the Snowman had once dis- played his wares. The pudgy man sitting behind it was shaded from the red rays of the lowering sun by a large yellow umbrella that was cocked at a rakish angle.
Streeter stood in front of his car for a minute, almost got in (the pudgy man had taken no notice of him; he appeared to be watching a small portable TV), and then curiosity got the better of him. He checked for traffic, saw none—the Extension was predictably dead at this hour, all the commuters at home eating dinner and taking their non-cancerous states for granted—and crossed the four empty lanes. His scrawny shadow, the Ghost of Streeter Yet to Come, trailed out behind him.
The pudgy man looked up. “Hello there,” he said. Before he turned the TV off, Streeter had time to see the guy was watching Inside Edition. “How are we tonight?”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been better,” Streeter said.
“Kind of late to be selling, isn’t it? Very little traffic out here after rush hour. It’s the backside of the airport, you know. Nothing but freight deliveries. Passengers go in on Witcham Street.”
“Yes,” the pudgy man said, “but unfortunately, the zoning goes against little roadside businesses like mine on the busy side of the airport.” He shook his head at the unfairness of the world. “I was going to close up and go home at seven, but I had a feeling one more prospect might come by.”
Streeter looked at the table, saw no items for sale (unless the TV was), and smiled. “I can’t really be a prospect, Mr.—?”
“George Elvid,” the pudgy man said, standing and extending an equally pudgy hand.
Streeter shook with him. “Dave Streeter. And I can’t really be a prospect, because I have no idea what you’re selling. At first I thought the sign said hair extension.”
“Do you want a hair extension?” Elvid asked, giving him a critical once-over. “I ask because yours seems to be thinning.”
“And will soon be gone,” Streeter said. “I’m on chemo.”
“Oh my. Sorry.”
“Thanks. Although what the point of chemo can be . . .” He shrugged. He marveled at how easy it was to say these things to a stranger. He hadn’t even told his kids, although Janet knew, of course.
“Not much chance?” Elvid asked. There was simple sympathy in his voice—no more and no less—and Streeter felt his eyes fill with tears. Crying in front of Janet embarrassed him terribly, and he’d done it only twice. Here, with this stranger, it seemed all right. Nonetheless, he took his handkerchief from his back pocket and swiped his eyes with it. A small plane was coming in for a landing. Silhouetted against the red sun, it looked like a moving crucifix.
“No chance is what I’m hearing,” Streeter said. “So I guess the chemo is just . . . I don’t know . . .”
Streeter laughed. “That’s it exactly.”
“Maybe you ought to consider trading the chemo for extra painkillers. Or, you could do a little business with me.”
“As I started to say, I can’t really be a prospect until I know what you’re selling.”
“Oh, well, most people would call it snake-oil,” Elvid said, smiling and bouncing on the balls of his feet behind his table. Streeter noted with some fascination that, although George Elvid was pudgy, his shadow was as thin and sick-looking as Streeter’s own. He supposed everyone’s shadow started to look sick as sunset approached, especially in August, when the end of the day was long and lingering and somehow not quite pleasant.
“I don’t see the bottles,” Streeter said.
Elvid tented his fingers on the table and leaned over them, looking suddenly businesslike. “I sell extensions,” he said.
“Which makes the name of this particular road fortuitous.”
“Never thought of it that way, but I suppose you’re right. Although sometimes a cigar is just a smoke and a coincidence is just a coincidence. Everyone wants an extension, Mr. Streeter. If you were a young woman with a love of shopping, I’d offer you a credit extension. If you were a man with a small penis—genetics can be so cruel—I’d offer you a dick extension.”
Streeter was amazed and amused by the baldness of it. For the first time in a month—since the diagnosis—he forgot he was suffering from an aggressive and extremely fast-moving form of cancer. “You’re kidding.”
“Oh, I’m a great kidder, but I never joke about business. I’ve sold dozens of dick extensions in my time, and was for awhile known in Arizona as El Pene Grande. I’m being totally honest, but, fortunately for me, I neither require nor expect you to believe it. Short men frequently want a height extension. If you did want more hair, Mr. Streeter, I’d be happy to sell you a hair extension.”
“Could a man with a big nose—you know, like Jimmy Durante— get a smaller one?”
Elvid shook his head, smiling. “Now you’re the one who’s kidding. The answer is no. If you need a reduction, you have to go somewhere else. I specialize only in extensions, a very American product. I’ve sold love extensions, sometimes called potions, to the lovelorn, loan extensions to the cash-strapped—plenty of those in this economy— time extensions to those under some sort of deadline, and once an eye extension to a fellow who wanted to become an Air Force pilot and knew he couldn’t pass the vision test.”
Streeter was grinning, having fun. He would have said having fun was now out of reach, but life was full of surprises. Elvid was also grinning, as if they were sharing an excellent joke. “And once,” he said, “I swung a reality extension for a painter—very talented man—who was slipping into paranoid schizophrenia. That was expensive.”
“How much? Dare I ask?”
“One of the fellow’s paintings, which now graces my home. You’d know the name; famous in the Italian Renaissance. You probably studied him if you took an art appreciation course in college.”
Streeter continued to grin, but he took a step back, just to be on the safe side. He had accepted the fact that he was going to die, but that didn’t mean he wanted to do so today, at the hands of a possible escapee from the Juniper Hill asylum for the criminally insane in Augusta. “So what are we saying? That you’re kind of . . . I don’t know . . . immortal?”
Would you make a deal with the devil if you were sick enough? Desperate enough? Dave Streeter does just that in “Fair Extension”. Of course, we all know how deals with the devil turn out, don’t we? The Eternal Brimstone Cowboy welshes, and we end up in hell anyway. But what would happen if the devil played fair? That’s what I asked myself when I sat down to write this story about illness, friendship, and buried resentments. Sometimes, Dave Streeter discovers, the wages of sin are quite handsome. Why, there might even be a golden parachute! It’s a sick story about a sick man, but it does have its funny side. At least I thought so, but I’m a fairly sick puppy.