Friday, October 31, 2008

Gone fishing...

Officially, the blog is on semi-hiatus, pending the completion of National Novel Writer's month.

Halloween Project 4

(This is the last of the October special. There is no more of the business with the flies --at least not at the moment. I haven't decided whether that little device has evolved itself out. All the usual warnings apply, including my continuous complaints about blogger. It was fun. Thanks to those of you who stuck it out and read my stories.)

Part 4: Country roads

On the drive from Beckley, I asked the old guy, “Does Cartersville have a problem with snakes?”

Mr. Walker, the old guy, sent by my aunt to pick me up in Beckley, looked over and laughed.

“That’s a funny thing to ask.”

I laughed with him, but it wasn’t really funny. My aunt had a problem with snakes: a big problem. Two weeks ago, they started showing up in her kitchen, in her car and squirming out of the drawers of her desk at work. They were everywhere, and there could be no doubt, they weren’t getting in on their own.

If not for my aunt, I'd have never come back to Cartersville. The place was poison. Alice was the only family I'd had. After what happened with my brother, Albert, ten years ago and my mother, she took me in. She’d practically raised me. I’d grown up in Nebraska, where she’d lived since before I was born. She used to tell me leaving Cartersville was the smartest thing she ever did.

"Nothing but heartache and hunger back there," she used to say. "Nobody should stay."

Last winter, after Christmas, she did the inexplicable. Alice moved back. She bought a big house on the side of a hill. She cashed out her company stock and opened up a little office, selling insurance. Everything was fine. She called me every week and told me everything was fine. She was catching up with all the people she hadn’t seen since high school, including a couple of old boyfriends. It wasn't so bad.

"You ought to come home for a visit," she said. "I'd love to see you."

But I was at school in California. Coming home to Cartersville was as difficult as it was unappealing.

I told her I might try to fly out around Christmas. I didn’t promise anything, but I knew I was lying then she called me about the snakes.

“At first, I thought it was nothing,” she sputtered. “I found a couple of black snakes in my kitchen."

Alice said she bolted from the house, used a neighbor's phone and called the sheriff. The snakes were caught and dropped off far down the road. Black snakes, at least the kind found in West Virginia, usually aren’t poisonous, but it wasn’t unheard of for one or even two to sneak inside someone’s house through a hidden crack or hole. She said she had someone come out and look at the house.

"But Randal, my house was fine," she said. "I spent two hundred dollars on a full inspection. There wasn't anything."

She found the snake in her car a couple of days later, coiled and sleeping in the front seat. There could be no doubt about how it got in. Snakes do not, as a rule, break into motor vehicles.

“The sheriff asked me who I’d pissed off," she said. “Damned if I know.”

They opened an investigation. Meanwhile, the plague of black snakes continued. At lunch, she watched them slither across the parking lot of the Tastee Freeze. Another turned up in the frozen food aisle of the Cartersville IGA where she did her grocery shopping. A stock boy was given the unenviable task of trapping the reptile in a box, then disposing of it. Everyone was talking about it. People in town stayed away from her. It had gotten so bad, she said, she had to get her bills and letters from the postmaster. The mail carrier wouldn't stop any more. He was afraid to open the box.

Aunt Alice was a nervous wreck.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I hate to ask, but can you come home, just for a little while?”

Of course, I could. I’d never say no to her, not for something like this, and I had a way with snakes. For lack of a better description, I had a “gift” with snakes. It was a family thing. My father used to collect snakes for the local Pentecostal churches. It was yet another way to make money in the hills and something he did before he went off to Vietnam. My brother and I tried our hand at it, too. We were all perfectly safe.

I don’t know what killed my father. Government reports on the sort of ways men die in far off places can be a bit vague, but I know what killed my brother. It wasn’t a snake, though I was there when the copperhead bit him. I watched him die.

Because of what happened to my brother and because I was from a place where people took up the serpent and played chicken with God, I’d always been fascinated by the animals. I had more than a passing interest. After I graduated from high school, I went to UCLA to study zoology with the intention of specializing in reptiles. I had a part-time job at the L.A. zoo feeding rats and bugs to the lizards, dragons, turtles and to lots and lots of snakes.

“You and your damned snakes,” my aunt laughed when I told her. "I don't know how you can stand to touch the things."

Now, she was counting on me to be an expert, to help her get rid of the snakes. Of course, the snakes weren’t the problem. The problem was who was leaving them out for her. She didn't need a junior year Herpetologist. She didn't even need an exterminator. What she needed was a strapping twenty year-old willing to swing a baseball bat at the first person to come creeping through the back door with a sack full of reptiles.

I was glad to oblige.

It was late when I got to Beckley. I called Alice from the Waffle House. She sounded both frantic and relieved to hear I was so close. I'd taken a bus from Cleveland to get to Beckley. I told her I didn’t want to be out hitchhiking after dark, especially to Lee County, so I was going to get a motel room. I’d call her in the morning and she could come pick me up.

“You just wait there. I’ll get someone out to pick you up.”

It was all the same to me. I sat at a booth, read the local paper and ate a chicken salad sandwich. I read it again, smoked cigarettes and drank cup after cup of industrial strength trucker’s coffee while avoiding the baleful glance of the fifty-something waitress with the bleached blond hair. An hour later, around ten o'clock, Mr. Walker showed up in his rust bucket pickup truck.

“You, Randal?” He asked.

There weren’t a lot of other choices. The Waffle House was practically empty.

"Here," he said. "I should get your things."

He introduced himself as Robert Walker. He was overly polite and had to be in the vicinity of sixty years old, though he moved like a man half that, which was something for a man of his size. He was big. I wondered if he was an old boyfriend of my aunt's or just a widowed neighbor. I didn't see a wedding band. It seemed to me asking another to make a drive out to the next county after dark was only the kind of imposition reserved for someone who might have intentions of a sort.

He grinned. He wanted me to like him. He collected my duffle bag then led me out to the truck, which seemed looked like it had been on its last legs ten years ago.

“Don’t mind the body.” He tossed the duffle bag into the bed. “It’s what’s inside that counts. It runs just fine.”

The engine started up on the first try.

He seemed a nice enough guy, though he wasn't much of a driver. On our way out of town, he ran two stop signs and barreled through a yellow light.

"What's the hurry?" I asked.

He shrugged and I tried to get comfortable with the scenery. Even dark, the road was familiar. My parents had driven this way a couple of times, usually late in the summer. We came to Beckley to buy school clothes. We passed through on our way to the State Fair. We drove to Bluefield once to watch a circus. I couldn't see much, but I remembered the curve of the road. I knew what was hiding under the shadow of night. Here and there, I saw lights in the hills that belonged to houses. There were a few more than I remembered, but it had been a long time.

Mr. Walker seemed content to let me drowse or dose, if that was what I wanted to do. He said nothing until I did.

“Did my aunt tell you anything about her snake problem?” I asked.

“No, she didn’t, but I know about it. Most of the county knows about it, I expect. They’ve kept it out of the local paper.” He laughed. “Which isn’t saying much.”

The Cartersville Gazette was little more than a weekly church newsletter. People read it for the rec league softball standings, the school lunch menu and to find out what the Senior Citizens groups were up to. The peace of mind that came from living in a place like Cartersville came from feigning obliviousness. They could get all the fear and fright they wanted by reading the Beckley or Charleston papers. It was purely optional.

“Nobody else is having the same problem,” he said. “I can tell you that much.”

I nodded. I had my suspicions.

The summer before I left Cartersville for good, my brother Albert and I were hired by a local minister to collect snakes for a tent revival. We were supposed to get him a hundred snakes and he was going to pay us two hundred dollars if we delivered, but he cheated us. He left a snake in the bag, rather than pay what we’d earned. My brother was bitten and he died.

I remember how sick I felt watching it happen. There wasn’t anything I could have done and nobody would listen. It was word of a ten year old against that of a preacher. So as best as I could, I got even. On the night of the revival, I stuck a bag of black snakes in the backseat of the man’s car. I knew they wouldn't kill him, but they might scare him. It is one thing to willingly take up the serpent for the sake of God. It is another to have a dozen creep up from under your seat. In the dark, he wouldn't have known if they were deadly or not.

I got what I wanted, I guess. The snakes shook him up good. He left his church over it, left town not long before I did. Of course, he might have come back eventually.

“You mind if I smoke?” I asked.

Mr. Walker shrugged indifferently. I fished the package of cigarettes out of my shirt pocket and predictably, in a dark car, fumbled with the lighter and dropped it. It bounced somewhere on the floor, but I couldn’t see it.

“Is the Holy Assembly of the Believer church still around?” I asked.

“No, they haven’t been around in years. Did you used to go there?”

“No,” I told him and looked for the lighter. “I’ve never been much of a churchgoer. You?”

Mr. Walker sighed and drummed his rough fingers uncomfortably on the steering wheel.

“I should go,” he agreed. “I really should. A man my age should be going in that direction, right? You got to get right, right?" He looked at me, pleading. "But my job. It’s hard to get away. I work a lot of Sundays.”

I nodded. Light from a street lamp caught the smooth silver of the Zippo.

“You find it yet?” He asked.

The sign by the side of the of the road read, “thirty-five miles to Cartersville.”

“It’s here someplace,” I said. “So, what do you do?”

“Oh, I do a lot of things," he said. "Mostly, I just work at the Tastee Freeze."

“That’s still there?” I said surprised. I don't know what the lifespan of a hamburger stand is, but only McDonalds or Burger King seemed eternal. “My Mom used to work there. Her name was Bridget.”

“You’re Bridget’s boy?”

“Yeah,” I said. "That was me."

Cigarette in one hand, I reached to the floor under the dash for my lighter.

“Ain’t that something,” Walker muttered.

“Does Mr. Creevy still run it?” I asked, then from the corner of my eye, saw a dark, but familiar and dangerous shape shift on it’s own. I couldn’t tell for certain, but I think it was looking right at me.

Walker droned on, oblivious of the animal curled under his seat.

“Mr. Creevy died years ago. Real bad accident. His wife, Nan, took over. She’s still there. So, is his stepmother. Do you remember Nadine, blonde lady, looks like she stepped out of the pages of a Sears Catalog?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I remember,” but I wasn’t listening.

“She's still the same," he said. "Maybe the grease is good for the skin.”

Moving slowly, cautiously, I leaned back.

“Mr. Walker,” I said. “You might want to go ahead and pull over.”

“Why? Is there something wrong?”

“Not really,” I said. “I just want to check on my stuff. I think I hear my shaving cream rolling around in back.”

“Oh sure.” He nodded and brought the truck over to the shoulder.

When the truck was still, I told him.

“It’s under your seat,” I said. “I saw it move. I can’t tell what it is without the right light. It might be another black snake.”

He nodded, then put the truck in gear and drove.

“What are you doing?”

“What I have to,” he said solemnly. “Ain’t none of this my idea, kid --none of it. It would have been better for the both of us, if you’d never come back.”

I looked out the window and wondered about my aunt.

"You got no place to go," he said. "If you tried to jump, you'd likely break your neck, but you might just get off with a broken leg. Either way, I'd have to come back and collect you. You're wanted alive, but dead will do, if that's all there is."

"Who wants me?" I asked. There could be but one man, Mr. Pulaski, but Bob couldn't bring himself to speak his name.

"The devil, himself," he said.

"Where's my aunt?"

He looked away. I didn't want to know.

I grabbed for the wheel. He batted me casually away, flung me hard against the rugged metal door then he reached over, grabbed me by my hair and pulled me close to him. My fists were dandelions tossed at the limbs of an oak tree.

He swallowed hard and held my head close. His eyes were watery. His face was tortured and grieving.

"I didn't want to do this. I really didn't. I don't want to do any of this. I don't want to be here. I don't like driving at night --a man my age? I need my sleep. My eyes ain't so good, and,” he stuttered. “I got to be at work in the morning."

Suddenly, I knew this man by a different name. He wasn’t Robert Walker, the possible neighbor or potential boyfriend of my aunt.

“Bob,” I said. “They used to call you Fry Cook Bob, didn’t they?”

“They still do,” he whispered.

It wasn’t the only name they called him. Behind his back, he was Convict Bob or Killer Bob. He was supposed to be Cartersville's town's greatest hero and greatest failure. He was a marine, fought in World War II, and won a bunch of medals. After the war, with a parade and the mayor waiting at home to give him the key to the city, Bob stopped off at a bar. He got into a fight and killed the man with his bare hands.

The parade was cancelled. The key to the city was put back wherever such things are kept. Instead he spent fifteen years in prison. He got out when Kennedy was president.

My mom told us not to worry. Bob, she said, was harmless, just a nice guy who did a really bad thing a long time ago. He didn’t seem particularly harmless now.

He turned loose and pushed me back into my seat.

"Don't try that again. Don't make it worse than it already is."

There was no point. Things were at their worst. I was locked in a truck with a convicted killer and a snake, driving along a nearly deserted country road.

"What’s this about Mr. Walker?”

"This ain’t about me," he said. "I’m just doing what I’m told."

"Alright," I said. "What does Mr. Pulaski want?"

Bob was stricken. The name was like a curse.

"He hates you," Bob whispered. "He hates you more than anything and that's a lot. He hates everything."

"So, he hired you to," I wouldn't say it. I didn’t know if my aunt was sitting at her house waiting for me. I didn’t know if she was lying in her bathtub, just a couple of inches from fresh air. I needed to keep my head. So, I asked him, "So, he hired you to come get me? You work for him?"

Bob shook his head. No, not that. Nothing like that.

"Belong," he groaned miserably. "I belong to him. He owns me and I have to do what he says."

"You don't have to do anything you don't want to," I tried.

He shook his head. He raked a big hand through his thick, gray hair.

"You don’t know," he moaned. "You don’t know," he sobbed. "When the man calls, I have to listen.” He glared at me and hissed. “He sent one of his snakes to be sure, to make sure I obeyed.”

Crazy, I thought. I wasn’t riding with just a convicted killer and a snake. I was riding with a maniac and a snake.

"Everybody has a choice," I said.

He turned to me shaking.

“No, they don’t. Not me. I got to do what I’m told.”

"You supposed to kill me? Is that it?"

"No, that’s not what I’ve been told to do. I only hurt you if I have to. I'm just supposed to come get you, help you carry your things. I was told to be polite, be friendly and only talk if you wanted to. If you asked, I was supposed to tell you I met your aunt in church."

I’d have never believed that.

“What’s with the snake?” I asked.

“It’s one of his,” he said. “You know.” He rolled his eyes unhappily. “I do what he says, exactly what he says, but he doesn’t trust me. The snake will tell him if I fail. It will tell him if I try to disobey.”

Bob sounded impossibly honest and improbably sober. Whatever else, he believed the snake under his seat was watching him. He believed he was bound to do the will of another. It was insane, but there were rules to be followed. In his own bizarre way, he had given them to me.

We passed a deserted gas station. It was deserted ten years ago, when I left the county: only twenty-two more miles to go by the road markers. Cartersville was now closer than to turn around and go back to Beckley.

“I don’t have no choice,” he said, though I don’t believe that to be true.

“Try it,” I said and lit my cigarette.

“Try what?”

"Can you turn on the radio? Did anyone say if you could do that?"

Bob shook his head. No, he wasn't given that instruction. He reached over and turned the radio on. It crackled and hummed. There was nothing for it to pick up, at least nothing worth picking up right now.

He turned it off.

"Can you roll the windows down?"

Bob rolled his window down. I did the same. We propped our elbows on the edge, hung them out the door. With a hard jerk, the fry cook pulled me back entirely inside the cab. He glared at me murderously. His eyes bulged. Spit hung from his lower lip.

"You stay in the truck," he growled.

I nodded and put my arm down. Bob's elbow dangled over the edge.

“You were told to keep me inside the truck, to not let me loose until you got to your destination. That’s why you ran the stop signs. It’s why you’re driving like you are.”

He said nothing.

“You don’t have to do this.”

“Of course, I do,” he said.

“No, Mr. Walker, think it out. You only have to do what you’ve been told. Pick me up, drive me someplace, keep me in the truck, but there’s a hell of lot he didn't tell you to do.” I took a drag from my cigarette. “And he made a mistake.”

Walker nodded. He knew.

“It’s all equal to you,” I said. “Every part of the instruction. It’s just a list. The commands are not ordered by importance.”

Bobs eyes smiled. I understood. He’d been trying to tell me.

“Mr. Walker,” I said. “I think I still hear that shaving cream can banging around in back. I need to get that secured. Would you mind pulling over?”

“Don’t try leaving the truck,” he warned.

I knew. If I tried he’d come down on me like a sledgehammer. There was really only one way for this to play out and just the one chance.

He pulled off onto the shoulder, but didn’t turn off the engine. I only had a moment to act. He opened his door, stepped out onto the road and closed the door behind him. I pinched my cigarette between my fingers, crushed the coal then dropped it on the floor in front of the snake. The snake lunged at the warm shape, which was roughly the size and shape of a bug. I caught it behind its head. It squirmed, but the reptile’s fangs never came close to sticking me. I tossed it out the open window. I mashed the clutch, swung the car in gear and drove.

I left him there, holding my duffle bag, and keeping company with a rattlesnake. Maybe someone came by and picked him up. Maybe he walked the rest of the way to Cartersville, where undoubtedly he would have some explaining to do. I drove the truck all the way to Charleston then left in a parking lot. I locked the door and tossed the keys in the river. I bought a bus ticket and went back to California. I called my aunt from the road. She never picked up, which only confirmed my worst fears.

It took two days to get home. Two calls from the Cartersville Sheriff’s office were waiting for me on my answering machine. They wanted me to call them.

It could only be bad news. They regretted to inform me, but my aunt was dead, apparently from heart failure. He told me she’d been sick for some time, had shut her office down for a couple of weeks while she tried to get better. None of her neighbors, he said, suspected she was so sick. If they’d known, somebody would have taken her to the hospital.

I asked him about the snakes. The sheriff didn’t know anything about that. It was the first he’d heard.

Arrangements for her funeral were already taken care of: one of the advantages to my aunt being an insurance agent. Details had been worked out long before. They were paid for. There wasn’t anything for me to do except to talk to a few people on the phone, which was as close as I wanted to get to Cartersville. I didn’t attend the ceremony, didn’t go when a lawyer called about a reading of her will.

I’d been given the closest thing to a warning as I was going to get.

I couldn’t be sure that Fry Cook Bob, Mr. Pulaski or someone else related to them might track me down. I suppose they could have if they wanted to, but they never came. After the school year was over, I volunteered for a program to look for evidence of snakes in Alaska. There were rumors people had seen garter snakes, but never anything poisonous. Prevailing opinion was they were probably animals that had been transported to Alaska: escaped pets or stowaways with produce from down south. Still, the native tribes had a few legends of serpents. There may have been snakes in the north at one time. It was a fool’s errand, but there was grant money. I was offered class credit and the chance to participate in writing a paper on the subject.

I was ready for a season without snakes. One day, I'd have to go back to Cartersville, but not yet. I wasn't ready but they were.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

eyes to the wasteland

Well, I voted today. I voted my conscience. I believe Sarah Palin anywhere near the Oval office is bad. She bothers me. What I know about her suggests the worst aspects of both Nixon, Clinton and Bush II all wrapped up in a perky little package that makes the evangelical boys pant with lust. I believe so strongly in the wrongness of her being so close to the highest office in the nation I decided not to vote of Ralph Nader. I could not accept the possibility of contributing to the possibility of giving her a legitimate shot at the presidency. The best way to do do that was to vote with the herd.

Ralph is right when he says I'm politically enslaved if I don't get to vote for the candidate of my choice.

I'm a slave. I'm a 21st Century American slave, a well-fed slave, but a slave nonetheless. There is no happiness here, just an endless, tiring pursuit.

I don't believe in Obama, but I voted for him.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Nose to the grindstone 3

Here is my list of people I'm currently bugging about my novel...

Charlotte Gusay (she likes pursuing stuff that could translate into movies. As I have often said, I'd love for their to be a movie about my life, starring Samuel L. Jackson as me)

Kimberly Cameron

Moses Cordona (The dude is into comics. I'm taking that as a sign)

Julia Lord

Stephanie Lee (She likes Gen-X related stuff and 'Click' is very definitely a Gen-X flavored sort of thing, though I don't obsess about video games, cartoons or breakfast cereal)

Kristin Nelson

From the two previous batches, I haven't received anything back. Obviously, the best case scenario is someone bites and they ask to see the manuscript. This is what I want next, a new level of disappointment and pain. Hopefully, what I'm doing now will eventually lead to the sort of self-destructive behavior that is only the product of wild success. Meanwhile, I'm expecting half of my queries to return responses.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Burn notice

Thanks to some kind of weird glitch in the Child Support Enforcement Bureau's program for collecting child support, I found out late last week they were going to collect double what I'm supposed to contribute. I have two jobs, so their computers, magical accounting gnomes or whoever, were going to draw money from both jobs.

Given that I live hand to mouth, pay everybody late and sweat the aftermath of every single dollar I spend like it's a beating waiting to happen, the imminent loss of over three hundred dollars from my monthly budget is horrifying. Good-bye hamburger. Hello roadkill.

So, I called Child Support... after the third call, second message and a collective waiting time that would have got me through the first act of Wagner's Ring Cycle, I spoke to a nice lady who explained that their fucking me wasn't personal. It wasn't even meant as being unfriendly. It was accidental, but mostly my fault. I should have mentioned that I'd gotten a second job. I explained to her I've had the second job for approximately 16 months longer than I've been a client of theirs.

They said they'd send a cancellation order. I explained I wasn't overly concerned about their end of things. I was willing to believe, but I was a little iffy about who they were dealing with on the other end. WVPBS and I have a tortured history concerning my pay and benefits. The discussions never really go anywhere and they tend to pass the buck fast.

So, then I contacted WVPBS and asked about the check. They don't handle it and aren't responsible for that sort of thing. It was all a big mystery. That's all taken care of through the State Auditor. Of course, once I asked the person I'd been told was in charge of checks about whether there was a deduction or not, it didn't take them long to find out how much was being deducted and by who.

I said this seemed all wrong. The newspaper told me before they started deducting money from my check this was going to happen. Shouldn't they have done the same thing? Shouldn't someone have mentioned it? They said, sure, but they didn't know who that someone was. They were pretty sure it wasn't them. Besides, they couldn't be expected to keep track of every outside deduction from an employees check, could they? WVPBS has about a hundred people working for them. That's a pretty big payroll.

This could even be seen as my fault since I didn't tell them... even though I didn't know this was going to happen until last week... when I got the notice from the Child Support Enforcement division.

So, then off to the state auditor's office and a brief conversation with a nervous sounding clerk who couldn't do a thing for me, except offer to switch me over to direct deposit. After declining, I was sent me to the voice mail of someone who may or may not be able to help me. In the meantime, I know I'm losing 53 dollars out of the check I should receive this week -not as bad as it could have been. Of course, I don't know if the auditor's office has received the cancellation order or if the remaining 270 dollars of the 320 I typically pay in support will come out in a couple of weeks.

At this point, I have to wait for a callback from the State Auditor's office, which may lead me all the way back to the Child Support Enforcement division for another round. I'm sort of counting on a second round --possibly a third. God, this shit seems endless.

To sort of close this, my wife sent me a note about a public information specialist position for a state agency. We talk a lot about money and our lack of funds. Both of us are having to consider new lines of work. The listing looked like it could be significantly more than I make talking to bass players for the Gazette. I've thought about it. The deadline is today. The application is still in my desk. The answer to not being able to beat them, may not be to join them.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Bleak November

Okay, I did this last year. I'm going to do it again this year. November 1 through the end of the month, I'm going to cut blogging to work on another novel. This year, I'll stop in on Wednesdays, give word counts and a quick bullet points of whatever it is I want to unload.

November is National Novel Writing Month. The basic idea is to hit 50,000 words in roughly 30 days. It sounds both easier and harder than it actually is.

Thanks to the Halloween project I now have an idea that interests me enough to hold my attention and I have a plan, which is even better.

For some, me taking a break is overdue. People who read this thing tend to fall into different camps. A few like almost everything. Others like the fiction or the occasional references to what I do with the paper. Most people, however, come for the train wreck. They like to hear about me running out of groceries, falling asleep next to a drug addict on the bus or otherwise feeling like a kicked dog because of my family, financial status or whatever. As one guy put it, "I like checking in to make sure you haven't offed yourself. It's kind of a surprise that you haven't."

I have the bestest fans.

But a break is good every now and again. Hell, and I might even finally switch over to wordpress by December 1.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Halloween project 3

(As promised, here is part 3. It's a bit rough. I had a harder time getting to the end. Blogger also isn't cooperating on format. What else is new? But I'm still completely digging the project. At some point, I may expand this some. Some of the characters of these little stories are starting to introduce themselves. I can see them much clearer. Anyway, enough of the chatter. Thanks for reading.)

part 3: The tale of Fry Cook Bob -scene 1

It's the same dream every night now...

Fry Cook Bob is running for his life. Down the hill and through the woods, tripping and stumbling like the fat oaf he is, Bob needs to get to the road. He needs to get help. The green branches scourge his skin. He feels the pain and the overwhelming dread of what's behind him, what's chasing him off the side of a mountain.

He's slow and fat from too many hamburgers, too many foot-long hotdogs with extra chili and onions. They don't call him Fry Cook Bob for nothing. Stupid old man. Can’t run fast enough. Can't run far enough. Can't run long enough.

He breaks through the trees and sees the road. There's a woman standing on the white line, cradling a baby in her arms. She looks so sad, like she wants to forgive him, but she just can't.

This is the dream that will be with him for the rest of his life.

The dreams started a couple of weeks after Jimmy Creevy, the owner of the Tastee Freeze and Bob's employer, snapped his neck on the basement stairs. After, the hamburger stand fell into the hands of Jimmy's wife, Nan, and her mother-in-law, Nadine. Nan and Nadine were great gals, great pals, but they were grieving over a husband and a son. It was a wonder the store was even open. Then their luck turned sour. Don Cooper, at Cooper’s Farms, their beef supplier for years, decided to raise his rates.

"Everything is going up," he said. "I can't be giving it away."

Nobody believed it. It was nothing but greed. He thought he could take advantage of two women. Nadine, who seldom had a bad word for anybody, told Cooper he could go take his hamburger and go to hell.

"We're going to have to get it somewhere," Bob told Nan.

"Well, of course. I know that," she said.

So, they went through Jimmy's notebook full of phone numbers; the same book his father had used. In a pinch, there had to be back-up suppliers. Such shortfalls were known to happen even in the best of times, which these weren't. In the book, they found Frank Pulaski.

"Frank?" Bob asked Nadine. "He any kin to Tom, the preacher? The one over at Holy Assembly?"

Early last summer, the preacher at Holy Assembly of the Believer, a snake handling church, had been bitten after a tent revival and taken ill. It was a terrible scandal. Pulaski quit and nobody had seen him since. It was a small town mystery.

"Now Bob,” Nadine asked, “how would I know something like that? I'm a Methodist."

Bob shrugged. He wasn’t much of regular churchgoer himself. He was just curious.

They phoned Frank. After introductions and explanations, Frank said yes, he and James Creevy did some business back fifteen years or so. There was some kind of falling out, though Pulaski was at a loss to explain why. Nadine didn't seem to care. Pulaski owned a small farm on the other side of the county, but was still closer than Cooper's Farm. He raised cattle and he was pleased to do business. Don Cooper's loss was his gain.

"Ask him if he's any relation to Tom," Bob whispered.

Nadine covered the mouthpiece and told him she would do no such thing.

"You send me up an agreement and a schedule," he said. "And you can take a look at my animals, if you like."

"I'll have somebody up tomorrow morning." She looked at Bob. "Well, I guess it's up to you."

"Me?" He asked.

Nadine rolled her eyes.

"You were the one who wanted to know about whether he was kin to Tom Pulaski," she said. "You can ask yourself. All I need you to do is look around. If something looks funny, just come on back. I trust you."

"Nadine," he said. "I don't have a car."

"You can borrow Jimmy’s truck," she said.

Jimmy’s truck was an old heap Nadine’s stepson kept parked out back of the store. He’d spent his free time, and there wasn't much, tinkering with. It was less reliable than a politician and twice as ugly. Even the upholstery was coming apart. Jimmy kept a ratty blanket over the seat to hide the bare stuffing. Bob couldn't remember the last time Jimmy had started it up.

"Nadine, I don't have a driver's license."

As a paroled convict, Bob was forbidden from leaving the state without all kinds of permission. Getting a license just seemed like a waste of time.

She handed him the keys.

"I won't tell if you won't."

The next morning, on his way to the Pulaski farm, the truck, predictably, stalled out. After piddling with the engine for over an hour, and trying out half the tools in the toolbox under the seat, it miraculously returned to life. He had no idea what he did. It seemed to just make up its mind to go, not that it helped. On his way across the county, he got lost and spent another hour and a half looking for the wrong mailbox on the wrong road. By the time he got to the farm, it was afternoon. Nobody was home. There wasn't so much as a stray cat sleeping on the porch.

"Well, now what?"

Bob parked the truck in the road, between the small, one story house and the barn fifty feet away. The edge of a fenced field was further up the mountain. He didn’t see any cattle. Well, there was the barn. He figured he could at least take a look at the cows and get an idea of what he had. If they looked okay, he could just leave the agreement on the porch.

He strolled over to the barn. Nothing was locked down so he slid the bar from the latch and eased the door open. The last thing he wanted to do was have to go chase after cows.

What he saw stopped his breath. In the center of the room, a young, bruised and very pregnant woman squatted on the floor. She was collared, like a dog, and chained to a post. She hid behind bound hands and cowered from the light behind him. There was a gag in her mouth. She looked up at him fearfully, helplessly, expecting the worst.

"Hey, Miss,” he said. “Wait a second. I'm." He looked away, stunned by what was before him. He'd seen some ugly things in his time. He'd done some ugly things, but he'd never laid eyes on anything like this. He shook his head, then asked, "Can I help you?"

She seemed doubtful, distrustful, but didn't run when he approached. There was nowhere to go. The chain only gave her a few feet in any direction.

Fry Cook Bob's fingers were thick, scarred and awkward. He'd burned them a thousand times by now, could barely feel the tips, but he made them nimble. He pulled and tugged and freed the girl's mouth.

She coughed then spat. Under the dirt, he guessed she might be eighteen, maybe not even that.

"Who are you?" He asked. "What are you doing here?"

Horror and agony welled up in her eyes, but no tears. There were none left by now. She opened her mouth wide and pointed. She only had her teeth --most of them, anyway.

"Who did this?"

The answer was behind him, in the modest house with green curtains. He was a fool for asking.

"Hang on a second. Let me get something to cut you loose."

In the toolbox, he found an old box cutter. The blade was rusted, but it was sharp enough to free her hands. The collar took more effort, but it came loose.

She grunted, pointed at herself then drew the name "Kathy" on the ground. She pointed at the house across the way, started to write something, then scratched it out. There wasn't enough dirt to explain.

"We're getting out of here now," he said.

He picked her up into his arms. Except for the swollen belly, she was all skin and bones; barely weighed anything at all. He carried out of the barn and pushed the door closed behind him. She didn't need to look in there ever again. He put her in the truck then gave her the blanket from over the cracked and split vinyl seat. She wouldn't complain about the smell. He climbed behind the wheel on the other side, but the engine remained silent.

Angry and panicked, she kicked the floor and hammered the dash with her grubby, raw palms. He didn’t try to calm her. Bob took a deep breath, then tried again, but the engine was dead. The young woman slumped in the seat, hopeless. He put his hand out to her and touched her shoulder to calm her, to soothe her. It was going to be alright. They were not sunk. This was going to turn out fine.

"He's got a phone. We'll call for help."

Kathy looked at him and managed a grotesque smile that for the sake of pity, he managed to return.

"Come on," he said.

She looked at the house then shook her head: no thanks. She’d already seen it and didn’t want to go back.

"Kathy," he said. "It’s easier for me to protect you, if you’re where I am."

This was a fact: Pulaski might come back. There wasn’t any choice.

"We're just going to use the phone,” he told her. “And look for a gun."

The front door wasn't even locked. With the nearest neighbor a couple of miles away, it wasn't really necessary. Burglary gets harder the farther away from people you get and the homeowners tend to keep guns. This was what Bob was counting on. They crept in softly while a grandfather clock tapped out the seconds, counting them one after the other. The whole place was very clean, but staged like a department store window. The furniture looked new. The pictures on the wall were Sunday School prints of handsome, smiling Jesus working miracles and talking to children. In this place, it was a mocking perversion.

He didn't see a phone, but there had to be one somewhere. Nadine called here just yesterday. He looked around, while Kathy stood motionless, afraid to go further than just inside the door. The phone was in the bedroom, sitting on the nightstand next to the bd. Beside of it, there was a framed picture of two men. Bob had never laid eyes on Frank Pulaski before, wouldn't even know his voice, but he recognized the other man. It was Tom Pulaski, the former preacher at Holy Assembly.

He picked up the receiver and dialed the Tastee Freeze. Nadine picked up on the fourth ring.

"Nadine," he said. "This is Bob. I'm up at the Pulaski place." Nadine started to talk, to complain. He was late for work, but he cut her off. "Call the sheriff. Get him over here as fast you can. Something bad is going on up here."

"Bob, what are you talking about?"

He thought about how she'd just lost her son. He couldn't bring himself to tell her.

"Please," he said. "Just call him. Get him up here now."

He hung up. There wasn't time to talk. Frank would be back. He wouldn't stay gone forever. Bob needed to find a gun.

It should have been easy. This far out, everybody kept at least a rifle. He checked through every closet, even looked under the bed, but didn't find anything. He pulled open dresser drawers, yanked out neatly folded clothes and old photographs. The closest thing he came to finding a weapon was a shoebox full of arrowheads and an old knife with a long iron blade and a bone handle.

"They're on their way," he called out. Nadine wouldn't let him down.

He took the knife; just in case.

He helped Kathy back into the truck, then tried the ignition again. Not a damned thing. He popped the hood. Maybe he'd get lucky again, but then standing out by the bumper, he heard the slow rumble of tires grinding gravel. The owners of the farm had come home. He had to stall them until the sheriff got here.

He looked over at Kathy then handed her the knife. He took a flat head screwdriver from the tool box, shoved it in between his belly and jeans, threw his shirt over it. He stepped out of the truck.

"Stay down," he told her. “Keep the blanket over you and don’t move.”

Frank Pulaski was a small, balding man in boots and stained overalls. He had big meaty hands used to hard work. His face was tanned and creased like old leather. The preacher stepped out from the other side of the truck. No one in the county had seen the man in over a year. Dressed now all in black, Tom Pulaski looked as if he’d aged thirty years. He was wiry thin, but not frail. His pale sheen was as if the sun’s rays refused to touch him. Frank’s mouth was a thick, dull line. Tom’s smile was broad and leering. He held out his hand, a greeting Bob was loathe to meet.

“Hello preacher, ” he said. “My name is Bob. I’m Nadine’s hired man.”

Tom Pulaski enjoyed the recognition.

“Have you been waiting long?” He asked.

“No,” Bob said. “No, not at all. I was late. The truck.” He pointed to the old heap behind him. “It’s on loan and not particularly reliable.”

Tom nodded. Of course. Frank simply stared.

“Have you had a chance to look around?” Tom asked.

Bob shook his head.

“No, I just got here and my engine died on me.”

The preacher walked over to the truck.

"Bad luck, that," he said. "If you need, Frank can give you a ride back into town. After he shows you the cows."

“Mr. Pulaski, can I be honest with you?”

Tom chuckled, amused.

“By all means.”

“Nadine.” He shrugged. “She’s a good lady, but with the troubles with Jimmy…”

“Ah, yes,” the preacher said thoughtfully. “It was a terrible tragedy. So young.”

“I think I’ve seen as much as I need to.” He retrieved the simple agreement from his back pocket, handed it over to Frank. It was all laid out. “You can look at it when you want, bring it with you after you drop off our first order.”

“Oh, no,” Tom said. “It’s a matter of faith –good faith. You have faith that my cousin can deliver what he says. It’s very admirable. We must return that trust. Frank, go fetch some of your cows.”

Frank shrugged then started off toward the field.

“While he brings you his stock,” the preacher said. “Can I show you something else?” He looked up in the sky, seemingly for inspiration. “I'll show you where we process everything. We do everything out back, in the cellar, but it's very clean."

These were very dangerous men. He knew that, but he was a good head taller than the preacher and easily a hundred pounds heavier. Frank was just an old farmer, but he plodded slow and stiffly. Bob wasn't a young man by any stretch of the imagination, but he could handle himself. He could do that even before he did fourteen years in Moundsville.

"I'd like to see that," he told him. "Cleanliness is next to Godliness. That's what they say, right?"

"Yes," the preacher beamed. "That's exactly what they say."

Anything to keep them from the house. Anything to keep them from the truck and from Kathy. Anything to keep them busy and waiting until the police arrived. If the crazy pastor tried anything, he'd stick him with the screwdriver.

He followed Tom around back. He led him down the steps, then pushed the door and ushered him in.

“Watch your step.”

Light streamed in from narrow, green glass windows, casting a murky glow. Weird symbols were painted on the panes, meaningless to him, but they inked bizarre shadows on the debris-strewn floor. The whole place smelled of rot and sickness.

Bob coughed from the stench and reached for the screwdriver.

“What have you got down here?”

“Just what the girl didn’t show you.” Tom said. "You forgot to put the bar back on the barn door."

Tom next to him, but waited. He wanted him to see this. It was a underground compost heap, a nest of broken furniture and garbage. Illuminated by the filtered light, covered in corruption and dirt, a pile of puzzling shapes he did not recognize. Among them, something small stared back through the hollow sockets of doll-sized skulls.

"Oh, Jesus," he whispered.

Something under the trash moved. He saw its sleek, iridescent flesh slither under the rags. Its painted scales flashed in the swamp light. He heard its belly scrape against the dirt and rustle amidst the refuse, then watched in terrible awe as the thing lifted its head to look at him.

"Behold, the wisdom of the serpent," Pulaski said.

Bob could not turn away. The great snake looked into him. It gazed, not like a hungry animal, but with inhuman contempt. Tom gripped the screwdriver and slipped it out.

“There, there,” Tom said and clapped a cold hand on Bob’s shoulder. “Don’t struggle. There is so much more to show you.”

The snake edged toward him, glaring, but the preacher’s grip held him firm. Bob could not move away. He swung at the preacher and felt the sharp point sink into flesh, but the man only laughed.

With a cold hiss, the snake raised up, bared its long fangs and plunged into Bob's shoulder. It was over quick, but the pain was exquisite. Oily, black poison oozed from the wound, taking with it all of his resistance. His fingers loosened. The screwdriver clanked to the cement floor. The room teetered and Bob fell to meet it.

He woke up a day later in Nadine’s house. The sheriff’s deputies, she said, found him lying drunk and passed out in Frank Pulaski’s yard. To celebrate the new business deal, Frank had cracked open a bottle of his best homebrew. There was nothing wrong with the spirit, Frank said. He’d had a glass himself, but Bob had shown no restraint. He’d swallowed half a bottle and gone crazy.

“You shouldn’t have been drinking,” Nadine told him. “You nearly scared me with that call. I didn’t know what to think.”

He was just drunk so the deputies brought him to Nadine. Nadine felt responsible for sending him up on the errand in the first place. She remembered Bob had tried to talk her out of it. She should have known better so she agreed to keep him until he sobered up.

“What about the girl?” Bob asked and winced. His head and neck hurt something fierce.

Nadine said there hadn’t been a girl. It had just been the two of them, unless he thought old Frank was a girl.

Bob could barely remember anything. The whole day seemed a blur, like a strange and frightening dream that clung to him.

Mr. Pulaski was very understanding about the whole thing. A small farmer had to take whatever business he could get.

“Lucky for us,” she said. “He’s got mouths to feed.”

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Chelsea Rule -part b

Consider this part b of music writing tip 15.

Sometimes someone who makes a living being funny can actually be funny without actually meaning to be funny. All they have to do is just forget they're talking to someone who is furiously scribbling things down (or perhaps recording...) and say something so entirely bizarre that it becomes funny.

I got an insight I didn't have. Why someone is funny maybe isn't about the things they say, why they say, but when they say them. It's not the jokes. It's how they're told and when. It's the timing. That's the nature of their ability.

I've heard for years about comic timing, but I didn't really understand it until I talked to a comedian who was trying not to be funny. She was irritable and bored. She was annoyed and combative, but there was something there, something I didn't catch the first time.

It was still a shitty interview, but I heard her fall into the pattern effortlessly. That's why she can do what she does. She just didn't want to do it when I needed her to.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Nose to the grindstone 2.

So far, I have not received any word back from the people I sent off my query letters to last week. It would be entirely surprising if I did. I did, however, get back a nicely worded e-mail from ENC publishing, which didn't have the metallic flavor of an internet form letter. The publisher declined, but was sweet about it. She tried to be supportive, without actually giving me what I wanted. I felt just like an awkward, crippled kid getting gently turned down by the prom queen.

"You can do great things with those hooks you have for hands. I just don't think you should touch my boobies."

So, I'm handling rejection much better.

Here is my list of new potential best friends for life...

Agnes Birnbaum
Steve Schwartz
Amy Tipton
Ellen Geiger
Matt Bailer
Paul Levine

Another list next week. I'll keep doing this until I've asked everyone at least twice.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Fat Monkey

I tend to volunteer a little more than I ought to. As part of the Book Festival at the civic center, my paper is involved with a children's parade of story characters. My duties were pretty simple: secure a couple of musicians to help lead the parade, blow up balloons and do whatever I could to help the kids have a good time.

The first two were relatively easy. I know plenty of musicians and was lucky enough to find two who were willing to help out. Blowing up balloons was no problem, though the helium made me light-headed after a while.

Things went pretty well, except the folks at Public Broadcasting didn't anyone to wear their character costumes. They had two: Curious George and some generic learning superhero who'd last about thirty seconds against any comic book character tougher than Archie.

"Do you think you could wear one of the suits?" They asked.

I looked around. Kids were coming in dressed as vampires and animals. I didn't see any adults.

"Yeah," I said. "Let me work out the stuff with the musicians first, but I'll wear one of the suits."

After I very quick rundown with my musical friends about what I needed for them to do, I went back to the Public Broadcasting table and said, "All right, let's do this. Give me the monkey suit."

The two women laughed, then one of them led me to the volunteers' lounge area. It was the closest place for me to slip on the costume away from the kids, who probably wouldn't believe a 5 foot ten cartoon monkey was real, but who probably wanted to believe nevertheless.

While I was crawling into the suit, one of the library volunteers looked over from the line of coffee pots and said snarkily, "Well, that's the fattest Curious George has ever been."

I looked up, a little startled. It's not often I get insulted while putting on over-sized monkey feet. There were a few people standing around. The woman helping me was mortified. Nobody was laughing.

Attempting to change the subject, another volunteer asked me if I was going to let the little kids hug me. The kids seemed to like to do that.

Looking back over at the coffee pots, I said, "Sure, if can get my fat little arms around them. I'd sign autographs, but with these fat fingers, it's hard enough to just hold a fork."

Nobody laughed at that either. It was just uncomfortable for everyone. I think I'd have flipped the lady off if I could have made the gloves hold the correct fingers down. That would have been something for her to tell her grandchildren: the day Curious George gave her the bird.

I got the head of the monkey suit on. Led like a mustard gas victim, I did the march through the exciting land of merchants and exhibits. I couldn't see a thing. I waved idiotically at everything and probably greeted the water fountain at some point. By the end, sweat was running down into my eyes. The helmet/head of the monkey heats up pretty quick.

After the parade, still mostly blind, I did another ten minutes or so hugging little kids and shaking hands. There were a lot of smiles. None of them seemed to mind that the little monkey from their storybooks was built more like a beer-guzzling gorilla. They were just glad to see Curious George. It was the best part of the gig.

The heckler and me didn't have much to say to each other after it was all done. I finished the day, but I've been fuming about it off and on for well over a week.

It's bothered me because in the juvenile cruelty of what she said there's truth. It wouldn't bug me if I disagreed. Wearily, I have to ratchet down my own self-loathing a little bit, try to address the problem and the cause. It's not as easy or as obvious as it sounds.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Halloween Project II

(Well, Blogger doesn't much like the format, but it'll work as far as this is concerned. This is part two, warts and all.)

The moments move through syrup. Caught within the humming and buzzing of the brotherhood of flies, I can not mark the minute or the hour. They watch over me as friends and as captors. They explore the miles of my sweaty skin. Their caress is both loving and obscene.

Squirming for entrance beneath the door, many more arrive to join the choking congress of filth. The battering of their frail wings roars in my ears. They are one voice.
“Note well,” they say, “and remember.”
I don’t what it is they want me to remember, but we have all night.

Part 2: Made to Order
We were all real sorry about what happened with Bridget, especially after her husband got killed overseas. You lose a husband and it changes you. James Senior and I were married for ten years. I don't think I could have gotten through it without Jimmy. That's what made the difference for me. Jimmy was there to tell me what to do, how to go on. I don't think anybody expected her to bounce back after she lost her boy, Albert. I don't think she could have. It was just more than any woman could bear. Bridget couldn’t work, wouldn’t speak and took to drink: first, cheap wine by the bottle, then finally, gasoline from a can.

For the sake of a Christian burial, everyone agreed it was a terrible accident. At least, it was quick, not like what happened to Mr. Pulaski. After Holy Assembly's tent revival, several black snakes got loose from the preacher’s trunk and made their way under his seat. Of course, a regular old black snakes ain't poisonous, but he’d been bitten dozens of times. It did something to him, took his faith and crippled him, but he didn't die. No one has seen him since.

With Bridget gone, Jimmy and me were short-handed at the Tastee Freeze. Jimmy was sweet on Bridget -always had been, even before she lost Mike. He let her work as much as she wanted: fifty or sixty hours every week. Jimmy didn't care about the overtime. He didn't care she was ten years older than him and had two half-grown babies.

A little more time and he might have worked up the nerve to ask her out. They might have made a cute couple.

Of course, Jimmy never loved the place, but he opens it up every day and locks it down every night. I come in with him, same as I did with his daddy, every day. Working at something you own is a lot of long hours, but I don't know anything else. I guess it keeps me young. That's what I tell people. Of course, I don't actually own it. Jimmy does. I do what I've always done. I keep an eye on things upstairs, while Jimmy hides down in the basement, just like his daddy did, reading his big, college books and wishing he was just about anywhere else.

Jimmy never meant to take over his daddy's business. Jimmy was going to go study at WVU, but then James went and put his old Cadillac in the river and drowned. The snapping turtles got him. It was the saddest day of my life.

People sometimes care less about how second wives feel. We get sort of second-class status.
I wasn't here when Jimmy was born. I wasn't even here when James Senior and his first wife, Peggy, started the place back in the forties. Back then it was called Jimmy's Hamburger Shack. After she died in 54, he bought franchise rights, got a soft-serve pump from some fellows in California and turned it into a Tastee Freeze.

I came along in 1956, never knew Peggy, but did my best to raise her boy right and keep the man we both loved happy.

The building has been in the family for years. It really was just a shack to begin with. Back in the twenties and thirties, moon-shiners used the basement to hide their whiskey. After James got the property, he cleared off the top, replaced the old boards with the current eyesore of cinderblock and glass eyesore, but kept the basement. Crowded with boxes, a couple of freezers and whatever won't fit in the garage back at the house, it's still bigger than the floor above.
James practically lived down there, same as Jimmy.

Every king has his castle, I suppose.

Most of the time, we only bothered either one of them when it got busy, when we needed an extra set of hands for the grill. It doesn't take an army to run a hamburger stand -just a couple of girls and sometimes an ex-con everybody calls Fry Cook Bob. We used to yell down the stairs for Jimmy's daddy, but James Senior didn’t always hear us so we got him to install a doorbell.

For awhile there, Jimmy wouldn't even answer the bell. After Bridget died, he hid down there, but at the end of the summer, with two weeks until football season, I reminded him we needed to hire some more help.

“All right, Nadine,” he said, sitting in his dark, little corner by the freezer. “I’ll get somebody in.”

“You’re going to need more than one.”

He nodded. He knew. He knew.

It didn't work out so well in the beginning. First, Jimmy hired Claire and Sadie. Claire was sixteen and had about hundred boyfriends. All of them came sniffing around for free food and other sundries. Sadie was seventeen, but smoked and cussed like a forty year-old trucker. When she wasn’t coughing on the hamburgers or giving me the evil eye, she spent the rest of her shift out back smoking.

Both of them hated me. Every time I went downstairs to fetch another bag of French fries, I swore I thought one them might lock the door behind me.

"Oh don’t worry about them,” Jimmy laughed. “I got the key.”

Neither stayed long. Claire ran off with one of her redneck boyfriends after six weeks. One night after work, she hopped in a pickup truck with some boy and sped off. Her parents weren’t concerned. She’d done this kind of thing before. So far, she’d never gotten married in any place where her sister's birth certificate was valid I.D..

Sadie got caught stealing. That happened right before Halloween. Fry Cook Bob caught her stuffing twenty dollar bills in her pocket, kind of "do-it-yourself trick-or-treating." Jimmy fired her on the spot, but didn't call the cops.

Jimmy just wouldn’t get good help.

Next was Jeanie. She was a doper, but at least, she was twenty and could work lunch. Of course, she was practically useless when she was high, which was most of the time. She also hung out with the Heathens motorcycle club. Some of them started coming around, especially on the weekends. The cops were called out twice to break up fights. Luckily, she moved on, just stopped showing up for work. She took the bikers with her.

Finally, there was Nan. Nan had done two years in Alderson and, improbably, was released early for good behavior. She’d been locked up twice for whoring, but got prison for stabbing a man with a broken beer bottle. She told me once she’d only poked him in the leg with it.

"It barely broke the skin," she said.

This seemed to make some difference in her mind.

Jimmy liked her. I don't know why or maybe I didn't want to know. Nan, on the other hand, took one look at Jimmy and knew she was dealing with a boy, not a man. She was prom-queen pretty and blonde, which probably helped with the whoring, but she mean all the way through. She paid a lot of attention to my stepson. When he was around upstairs, Nan always seemed to find a reason to move behind him, to brush up against him. He never complained, though she came close to burning him a couple of times. She didn’t mind going down in the basement either. Sometimes she took her time getting back.

“Jimmy,” I said. "This is your Tastee Freeze. It ain’t my place to say what you do...”

“Then don’t,” he said.

And that was that, but it only got worse. Nan came and went as she wanted. Sometimes, she just punched in then went downstairs. She'd punch out when she left at the end of the day.
It couldn’t last. Eventually, she got tired of the arrangement. Nan didn’t show up for work three times in a row. She just stopped coming.

“She’ll be back,” he promised, but I don't think he expected her to.

Jimmy didn’t put her on the schedule the following week or the week after. He hired two more girls, and they worked out fine. Jimmy, of course, continued to hide in the basement.

It was hard not to think the worst when Detective Sharp from the state police came by to talk about Claire. The boy she'd run off with and his truck had been found in a deep pond in some farmer's field over in the next county: no sign of Claire. Sadie's parents were also frantic. Nobody knew where she'd gotten off to. Both girls were officially missing, and wouldn't you know it: there was a parole officer in Beckley who said Nan hadn't showed up for an appointment in two weeks. I expected him to mention Jeanie, but thought better than to bring it up on my own.

“You’ve had a real problem finding good help, lately,” he said.

Jimmy said he couldn't argue. He'd had nothing but bad luck since he'd lost Bridget.

“We’d like to take a look around,” detective Sharp told him.

Jimmy shrugged. They could go where they want, but asked they be careful with the stuff in the cooler. He didn't want any trouble with the health department. The detective and his men spent a couple of hours going through boxes and bins downstairs. The worst they came up with was a dusty jar of whiskey and an old, dog-eared skin magazine. It was probably his father's. They let Jimmy keep both, then everybody got a hotdog and coke to go.

“Call us if you hear anything,” Sharp told him.

He promised he would, but I kind of doubted it. Jimmy had gotten awful quiet.

But then Nan turned up the next day. She strolled in right at lunch, looking a bit rattled. She wanted to speak to Jimmy. They talked in the back of the building for a little bit, then Jimmy called her parole officer. She was in a lot of trouble, but Jimmy did most of the talking.

"We're getting married," he told him.

He laid it on thick, then promised a little something to smooth things over. It's not the kind of thing people think about, but selling hotdogs and cokes ain't a bad way to make a living. You can get rich if you sell enough and keep your costs low. We always had.

Jimmy and Nan's wedding was the event of the season, which isn't saying much in a town the size of Cartersville. Half the town turned out to wish Jimmy the best of luck. The other half turned out to see if he was serious. Nan looked very pretty in white. She smiled a lot. They both looked very happy.

There was no real honeymoon. They probably didn't even leave town, but went back to work at the Tastee Freeze. Jimmy had big plans. He wanted to expand. He'd already picked out the place he wanted to build over in Rock. There was a lot to do. After they got married, it seemed like the two of them never left. Every day, it was just the three of us.

Nan turned out not to be the girl I thought she was. She didn't talk about her past. No more stories of ten dollar tricks or bar fights. She was pleasant, gentle and always helpful. Nan seemed to have shrunk somehow from the scary beast of a woman she'd been down to almost a child. I got to like her. It was a little like having a daughter of my own.

Last Sunday, we closed the store down to do inventory. It's just something we do every six months: count bottles, buckets and hamburger buns. It was just the three of us. Nan and me was upstairs. Jimmy was in the basement. I buzzed him because I couldn't find a case of mayonnaise.

"Nan, I'm going to go check on Jimmy," I said.

"What should I do?" She asked.

"Keep counting cups," I told her. "I'll be back."

Just as I got to the bottom of the steps, I saw Jimmy come out of the basement floor, from a little square door I'd never seen before.

"Jesus, Nadine," he yelped. "You nearly scared me to death."

"What are you doing?" I asked.

He looked down and seemed to think about it.

"Come here," he said. "I'll show you."

I followed him down stone steps into a rough hole cut out of the earth. Electric lights on thick, rubber-sheathed wires dangled from wooden beams. Rotten crates were stacked against the wall. There was broken glass and the air stank of bad booze.

“The bootleggers used to bring the booze in this way, though a cave. It's all caves and tunnels down here. If you follow the tunnel over there." He pointed to the left. "It goes right out into an old mine. That’s how they used to get in." He looked in the other direction, at the other end of the room. "If you follow the other one, well... it goes someplace else.”

"What are you doing down here?"

"I come down here a lot. I have for years. Dad practically lived down here." He studied me. "You don't remember this place?"

I shook my head.

"Why would I remember this?"

"Come on." He picked up a flashlight near the crates and led me into a tunnel. "Watch your feet," he said and tried to explain. “When mom died, Dad got real sick. He was sick in his head. He was lonely. You don’t know how lonely.” He sighed. “Maybe it was the sickness, maybe it was something else.” The pale, yellow light danced on dry stone walls. "He came down here, maybe to get lost, maybe to think things through. I don't know, but he found something."

"What did he find?" I asked.

He held the light up to his face and smiled.

"Inspiration," he said.

He looked deranged. Right then I knew I'd made a mistake. Only Jimmy knew the way down. Only Jimmy knew the way up, and he had the only flashlight.

“Jimmy, what happened to those girls, to Claire, to Sadie and Jeannie?”

He sighed darkly.

"They weren't really cut out to work here."

"Jimmy," I said. "Where are they?"

He pointed up to the ceiling.

"They're upstairs," he said. "Nan."


He shrugged, then told me Nan wasn't the same Nan I'd trained last autumn. She was something else entirely. Something, he said, not someone.

"Come see."

We walked downward into the dark. I followed the light and the sound of his footsteps. At the end of the tunnel, he handed me the flashlight and jerked a lever downward. With a flash, a room filled with strange old machines was revealed under wavering light. To the side, there was a great, glass vat. The room smelled like boiled eggs, left too long to stew.

"I didn't think it would work --even after I read Dad's notes." He shook his head. "I mean, the man sold hotdogs and hamburgers. What would he know about engineering or medicine or religion or any of the dozen other things that make this machine possible?" Jimmy was still awestruck by it. "I don't know how he did it."

"What does it do?"

Jimmy laughed.

"Oh, it takes sugar and spice and everything nice," he said, proudly. "It can make a dream come true, if you know what to put in it."

I stepped up to the machine, looked in the tank. A brown, bloody crust skimmed the bottom. Tatters of blue fabric decorated with sunflowers poked out from under the scab.

Jimmy looked over my shoulder then grabbed a jug of bleach from off the floor.

"I'm sorry." He emptied the jug into the vat. "I haven't had time to clean up."

"What did you do?"

"Nothing my father didn't do before me," he said.

It just came back to me. I remembered waking up in this tank, gasping for breath. I remembered how James Senior covered me with a blanket and what he said to me.

"That which is made by my hand is my servant. You are bound to me as the soulless thing you are."

It was a pretty funny thing to say, but it was a long time ago. I probably wouldn't have married him if I'd remembered it sooner.

"You killed them?" I asked. "Those girls, you killed them for Nan?"

Jimmy shook his head.

"It wasn't like that." He kicked a stray pebble to the side. "Not exactly, anyway. I was going to make her look like Bridget, but then the police came around. I had to do something. So, I made her look like Nan."

I couldn't believe he'd done this.

"Jimmy, why?"

"I was tired of being alone," he said. "And I wanted someone I knew I could always count on, who'd never leave me, who'd always help me. Nadine, do you know? You can't die. I've known you for more than fifteen years and you look the same as you did when Dad brought you home. And didn't you ever wonder how you never seem to get tired while everybody else does? You only sleep because someone tells you to. And you're stronger than anybody I know. You could carry boxes up and down the basement stairs from now until doomsday and never break a sweat."

I have always prided myself on being a hard worker.

I looked at the machine. This was where I was born.

"Nadine?" He asked. "Are you alright?"

"Your daddy," I said. "He killed other women to make me?"

"Well, not exactly," Jimmy admitted. "The machine is powered by life, the divine spark the notes say, but it isn't picky. Dad must have collected every stray dog and cat in the county. I'd have done that, too, but I just could risk the scandal. We get a bad rep as it is just being a hamburger stand. A bunch of cats and dogs turn up missing and we'd never hear the end of it."

I marveled at how little he made of it all, how singularly unaffected he was by what he'd done. The poor boy.

"What happens now?"

"Nothing," he said. "You, me and Nan are a family. We got big plans." He looked at me. "I've been thinking. " He paused to consider. "And you don't have to answer right now, but once we get that other store up, how'd you feel about running it? You'd be the boss over there. You'd make all the decisions."

My own store. It was something to think about.

"We better get back," I said. "Nan will be wondering where we went."

He agreed, but added, "There's just one more thing. Don't tell Nan about this. One day, I promise, I'll tell her everything." He looked back at the machine. "Or almost everything, but not until she's ready. Can you do that for me, Nadine?"

Of course.

We walked back to the cavern beneath the Tastee Freeze. Jimmy led the way with the flashlight. I still couldn't see, but followed him back to the light. Underneath the Tastee Freeze, he let me go up the stairs first into the basement, then followed after me. When we were both clear, he pressed a brick in the wall and the trap door slid back into place. You couldn't even see where it had been.

Watching him do it, I remembered seeing his father do it. Funny.

"What'd you come down here for in the first place?" He asked.

"You know," I said. "I don't remember."

He laughed. It figured, then I hit him. I hit him as hard as I could, and he stopped laughing. I grabbed him by the collar, picked him up and carried him squirming to the top of the steps. I tossed him down to the bottom, then I marched back down and did it again. I did it until Jimmy stopped crying, until he stopped pleading, until he stopped breathing. I listened for his neck to snap, then calmly, I opened the door. Nan was still counting cups and writing down the numbers on a sheet of paper.

"You were gone a long time," she said.

I nodded.

"I have to call the police," I said.

She nodded.

"You're going to have to cry a lot," I told her. "We both will."

She looked at me innocently.

"Should I start now?" She asked.

"No," I said. "You can wait a while, at least until we get those cups counted."