by Frank Darabont
“Yes? May I help you?”
Howard froze in the open doorway, letting the wind howl through the long, narrow shop like a wounded beast. The scabrous old man behind the counter was grinning — not smiling, but grinning and rubbing his hands together with a predacious glee like John Carradine in a bad movie. He was positively ancient, a bald fossil in green tweed, sporting a pink roadmap of eczema on his scalp. He reminded Howard of a praying mantis.
A rumble of thunder rolled down Hollywood Boulevard and rattled the windows in their frames. Howard stepped inside and closed the door, shutting out the gale. It wasn’t a dark and stormy night, not yet, but it was getting there in a big, ugly way.
“May I help you?” the proprietor persisted.
“Uh, yes, I hope so.” Howard hefted the battered black typewriter case onto the counter and opened it to reveal the equally battered and black IBM Selectric II within. “I’m afraid my typewriter broke down this morning.”
Broke down, hell. It had self-destructed with an oily belch of smoke and a prolonged, wheezing death-rattle. The sound it made as it expired was that of an old dog farting.
Howard saw no point in relating all the sorry details. “I’m not really sure what the trouble is.”
“How tragic,” murmured the old man, and leaned over the carcass of the machine with a look of overwhelming sadness. Then his grin returned, so sudden and unexpected that Howard took a nervous step back. “You’re a writer,” he croaked. It wasn’t a question so much as the accusation of a hooded Inquisitor.
“Well, yes,” Howard admitted.
“I spotted it right off, didn’t I? I am Cyril Pratt. And you are…?”
“Howard. Howard Walpuski.”
“Feel free to browse around, Mr. Walpuski. See what strikes your fancy. Will you be using the dearly departed,” he nodded at Howard’s IBM with the solicitous air of an undertaker, “as a trade-in?”
Howard shrugged, non-committal. The truth of the matter was he had the sum of his wordly wealth riding around in his wallet in the form of five wrinkled dollar bills and an RTD bus pass. He noticed the faded REPAIRS MADE ON CREDIT sign mounted on the wall and gestured vaguely in its direction. “Actually, I wondered if you might be able to—”
“Affect repairs?” spat the old man. Again, it sounded like an accusation: Zoo, you vant your typewriter repaired, schweinhunt? Und on credit, no doubt! Hmmm…you haff relatives in Argentina, perhaps? Howard felt his face redden, suddenly sure that Pratt knew he had only five bucks to his name, knew about the phone company threatening to disconnect him for non-payment, knew about the nasty letters his bank was sending him with the words INSUFFICIENT FUNDS and OVERDRAWN screaming at him from every paragraph, knew…well, everything.
“Yes,” Howard stammered. “Affect repairs.”
“Well, we’ll just have to see about that, won’t we? We’ll just have to see if repairs are in order.”
Pratt removed the carriage housing cover and poked his nose into the IBM, prodding around with his index finger, whistling and grunting softly under his breath.
Howard turned away and pretended to browse the typewriters that lurked in the shadows on musty shelves and pedestal displays, hating himself for letting the old man make him feel ashamed and small, praying that the Selectric could be mickey-moused into functioning again. He had a deadline to meet, rent to pay.
He’d been to damn near every typewriter shop in the city, lugging the beastly black IBM till the muscles in his neck and shoulders sang arias about muscular aches and pains. Most of the repairmen had simply smiled as politely as possible, shaken their heads, and shown him the door. One guy had actually laughed in his face and said, what’d you do, buddy, use this sucker to barbecue? Howard had resisted a blinding urge to remove all the man’s teeth with one mighty swing of the typewriter; he’d simply thanked him and left, the back of his neck flushed and hot.
There was no reason to hope that Pratt would be any different, none at all.
Howard glanced at the counter and was shocked to find the old man staring at him. He was suddenly sure Pratt had been watching him all along, studying him instead of the typewriter. He pictured himself lying on the counter in the IBM’s place, the top of his head removed like a carriage housing cover, Pratt peering inside his skull and poking his finger around, making those soft sounds under his breath.
“Yes,” said Pratt, “I think repairs are called for. Much needed repairs.”
Howard’s face lit up. For a brief moment he even found himself liking the old guy. “Great! How long do you think it’ll take?”
“Major repairs,” continued Pratt, ignoring the question. “Beyond just the obvious. The typewriter is the least of it.”
Howard blinked. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“Answer me this. If you had an infinite number of monkeys randomly hitting the keys of an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time, do you know what you’d get?”
Of course Howard knew; this had been standard in every philosophy course he’d ever taken in college. “You would eventually get all the great works of literature?”
“YOU’D GET BULLSHIT, THAT’S WHAT YOU’D GET!” screamed Pratt, causing Howard to jump several feet in the air. “And do you know why you’d get bullshit?”
“Why?” blurted Howard.
“Because monkeys can’t write!” Pratt unfurled a long, gnarled finger and jabbed it in Howard’s direction. “You, Mr. Walpuski, are like one of those monkeys. You just keep hitting the keys, and all you keep producing is bullshit.”
Howard’s mouth dropped open like a trapdoor. “Now wait just a damn minute…”
“Yes, I will affect repairs. On credit, of course. You need pay only a small deposit now, say perhaps . . . five wrinkled dollar bills?”
This stopped Howard cold. He had just been working himself into a good rage, too — had, in fact, promised himself to grab the nasty old codger by the frayed lapels and shake him till his head fell off — but this brought him up short like a bucket of water between the eyes.
“Fuh-fuh-fuh-five . . . ?”
“Wrinkled dollar bills, yes. The remainder of my fee will be 10% of all your earnings from the three novels.”
“Yes, of course,” said Pratt, waggling three fingers impatiently in front of Howard’s nose. “My work is guaranteed, you know. For three novels.”
Before Howard could respond, Cyril Pratt tucked the big IBM effortlessly under his arm, case and all. He strode to a door near the back of the shop and threw it open, revealing rickety wooden steps leading down into darkness. He spared a glance over his shoulder. “Well? Come, come! I haven’t got all night, you know!”
The old man plunged into darkness.