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."


moneytastesbad said...

Keep em coming, I am really enjoying this. Kinda like an old serial novel that you would read in a magazine or something.

BTW, just curious, do you know where this is going, or are you just writing on the fly.

primalscreamx said...

Sort of know where I'm going, but it's not set in stone.

And yeah, just like an old serial novel. That's the whole tamale. I remember the summer Stephen King did the Green Mile. While not his best work, it was a pretty cool experiment. I'm kind of going in that direction.