Thursday, October 1, 2009

Halloween Project -last year, part 2

Here is another of the stories from last year. This one deals with the odd goings on at the local Tastee Freez, where Randal and Albert's mother worked.
I'm still setting up for the stories from this year. The first of the new is taking a bit longer than anticipated. It's long and may have to be broken in two parts. I might not have it ready to go until Sunday.

Hamburger (1972)
By Bill Lynch

We were all real sorry about what happened with Bridget. I knew Bridget. She and I worked the counter over at the Tastee Freez here in Cartersville. She was a real good worker, a nice girl, dependable, pleasant. We miss her.

But I guess you lose a child and it changes you. That's what I hear. I've never had any children of my own. James Senior and me tried for years, but he was older and besides he already had a son, Jimmy. He's a sweet boy, as good as my own. That's always how I've seen it.

Jimmy was sweet on Bridget -always had been. She was older than him, had two half-grown babies, and of course, he owns the Tastee Freez, people would talk. They did when I married James Senior, but he didn't care. A little more time and he might have worked up the nerve to ask her out. They’d have made a cute couple.

Bridget just couldn't get over losing her little boy. She took to drinking and sooner or later that stuff will kill you. It's slower, I suppose, if you stick just to whiskey. Bridget switched to gasoline and a quart of that will kill you right off or so I hear. I don't drink.

For the longest time, Jimmy just moped and the Tastee Freez suffered. He wouldn't hire anybody to take Bridget’s place. He couldn't stand the idea of coming in to work without her there.

Of course, Jimmy never loved coming to work at the Tastee Freez in the first place. Jimmy wanted to be a doctor, but then James Senior went and put his car in the creek four years ago. It fell to Jimmy after that. He didn't want to be there and tried to make it easy on him. We all did. I kept an eye on things upstairs, while Jimmy hid down in the basement, reading his books and smoking cigarettes, just like his daddy before him.

It ain't exactly a prison. The Tastee Freez doesn't look like much, but we make money.

People wonder why my husband didn’t leave the store to me. Let me tell you. Second wives get sort of second-class status, but maybe he was thinking of me. When we got married everybody thought I was after his money. He was a good deal older than me, but James Creevy wasn't stupid. He'd have said, “So long” if I was up to something, if I really wanted his money. We were married ten years before he died, and I was a good wife. I didn’t always agree with him, didn’t like some of his friends who came around and stunk up the basement at the Tastee Freez with their cigars, but at least, they didn’t come to the house.

Work is a comfort to me, particularly after James Senior's death. We spent most of our time together here and this little place was a lot more interesting than our big house on the other side of town. Back in the twenties and thirties, James Senior told me, he used to run whiskey out of the basement. He never got caught, though he was smart and got into something a bit safer. There's a lot of room down there. We use it for storage. It's where we keep our coolers. James had a little office down there, which Jimmy took over. Both of them practically lived down there.

Me, I like being where there's light, but every king must have his castle, I suppose.

While the boys stayed in the dungeon, I ran the store. It doesn't take an army to make hotodgs and hamburgers -just a couple of girls and an ex-con everybody calls Fry Cook Bob. James Senior installed a doorbell for us to call him if we needed him, not that he was always much help when he came. Jimmy was some better, but after Bridget died, he wouldn't answer the bell. I had to really bug him to get some help.

“All right, Nadine,” he told me. “I’ll get somebody in.”

We'd have probably been better off if I'd have kept my mouth shut. First, Jimmy hired Claire and Sadie: pretty girls, but useless. Claire was sixteen and had about hundred boyfriends, all looking for a free meal. Sadie was seventeen, but smoked and cussed like a forty year-old trucker.

They both hated me. Every time I went downstairs to fetch another bag of French fries, I swore one them was going to lock the door behind me.

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

Neither lasted. Good help is hard to find. Luckily, bad help is hard to keep. Claire ran off with one of her redneck boyfriends. Her mama said she'd done it before, but so far had never gotten married any place where her sister's birth certificate was valid I.D.. Claire's mama said she'd be back, then asked if we’d hold her job.

Jimmy, of course, said yes.

Sadie we caught stealing, was stuffing five dollar bills in her pockets when she thought nobody was looking. Jimmy fired her on the spot, but didn't call the sheriff.

Next, we got Jeanie, a doper. She was twenty, out of high school and could work lunch. She also hung out with the Heathens motorcycle club. They came around on the weekends. Sheriff Noble had to break up fights next to the picnic tables. I was glad to see her go. When she stopped showing up for work, the bikers went with her.

Finally, there was Nan. Nan did two years in Alderson for stabbing a man with a broken beer bottle.

"It barely broke the skin," she told me.

I did not take to Nan at first. Jimmy liked her, but up to this point, Jimmy's ability to judge a person's character was a bit suspect, as far as I was concerned. Nan, naturally, was blond and prom-queen pretty, but she was wicked and mean. She had Jimmy's number right off. Nan didn’t mind going down in the basement. She took her time getting back. It wasn't long before she had Jimmy on a leash. He'd do anything for her and would put up with anything.
Nan came and went as she wanted. Sometimes she worked. Mostly, she didn't. It wasn't anything for her to just punch in then go downstairs. She'd punch out at the end of the day. Jimmy gave her money and while I was glad to see he was getting over Bridget, I was worried about who he was replacing her with.

Of course, something like that couldn't last. Nan stopped showing up and I thought she'd moved on to greener pastures or found a hillbilly boyfriend who didn't take kindly to her making time with the boss.

“She’ll be back,” Jimmy promised, but he stopped putting her on the schedule.

Finally, he hired two decent girls: Irma and Kate. They were good workers and nice to be around, not that Jimmy noticed. He stayed in his basement with his books.

The Tastee Freez settled down. We got back to work.

A month later, Sheriff Noble came by asking about Claire, Sadie and Nan. The boy Clarie ran off with, his truck had been found in a deep pond on a farm over in the next county: no sign of Claire or the boy. Sadie had just plain disappeared. Her parents were frantic and then there was Nan.
Nan was on parole. Her parole officer hadn't heard from her since her last day at the Tastee Freez.

“It's looks kind of funny, Jimmy,” the sheriff said and Jimmy agreed. He told him he'd had nothing but bad luck since we'd lost Bridget.

The sheriff was sympathetic, but asked if he they might look around.

“Anything you want, sheriff,” Jimmy said and he took them everywhere, especially the basement. The sheriff spent about an hour downstairs going through boxes and the cooler. The worst he came up with was a dusty jar of whiskey and an old, dog-eared girlie magazine. It had to be his father's; the things a wife has to put up with. The sheriff let Jimmy keep both, then Jimmy treated them to a couple of chili dogs --to go.

“Call me if you hear anything,” Jimmy asked. “I'd kind of like to know.”

Jimmy was rattled. The sheriff might not have noticed, but I did. There was something he wasn't telling.

A couple of hours after the sheriff left, Jimmy came up the basement stairs, screaming his head off and holding his hand. He'd cut off two fingers while slicing onions. Blood was everywhere. Bob had to take him to the hospital.

It seemed very strange, but he was funny about it. He didn't want any of us to clean it up. Jimmy told us to stay out of the basement.

“It’s my fault,” he said. “I’ll clean it up.”

It was his restaurant.

The next day, while he was downstairs mopping up blood and looking for his fingers, Nan turned up. She strolled in right at lunch, looking thin and hollow, like she hadn’t had a bite to eat or a night’s sleep in days.

“Let me speak to Jimmy.” It was all she wanted.

They talked downstairs for a while, then Jimmy called her parole officer, told him she'd taken some time to work out a problem.

"I asked Nan to marry me," he said and the parole officer agreed to cut Nan a break -with some considerations.

It was a small ceremony. Half the town turned out to wish Jimmy luck. The other half just came to rubber neck. Nan looked nice, though white seemed a stretch.

Nan was different now. She was pleasant, polite and a real hard worker. There were no more stories of ten dollar tricks, bar fights or police chases. I got to like her. She was good company.

Of course, a change like that would have a price.

Last Sunday, we closed the store down for annual inventory. Bob got the day off. He was in prison a long time, doesn't like his schedule disrupted, but this was family business. It was just the three of us: Nan and me and Jimmy. As usual, Jimmy was in the basement. I buzzed him because I couldn't find a case of mayonnaise.

After ten minutes, I told Nan I was going to check on her husband.

"What should I do?" She asked.

"Keep counting cups. I'll be back."

But Jimmy wasn’t there. The basement is big but it isn't that big. I was getting to the ridiculous point of checking the inside of the freezer when Jimmy came out of a little square in the the basement floor I'd never seen before.

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

"What are you doing?" I asked.

It was a funny moment. He looked down from where he’d come, then told me, "Come here. I want to show you something."

I followed him down long, stone steps that wound down into a mine shaft. Electric lights were strung on thick, black wires and dangled from the beams. The air stank of bad booze, dodgy wiring and rotten hamburger.

“Dad and his friends used to come in and out this way. It goes out to the old quarry, but that’s been flooded for years."

“Bootleggers?” I asked.

“Dad wasn’t a bootlegger.” He kicked a piece of glass gently. "You don't remember this place, do you?"

I looked around. There was nothing to remember.

"Come on." He took my hand and led me further down the tunnel, to an adjoining room. "Watch your feet."

This was a place no light was meant to touch and no eyes were meant to see. It was hidden for a purpose. Nothing good had ever been done here. In the center of the room, a stone table raised out of the floor. A shallow indention ran the length of it. It was just long enough for a man to lay down. The stone was stained and ooze glistened from the bottom.

“I remember when he lost his eye,” Jimmy said. “Nothing worthwhile is ever gained without sacrifice.” He held up his mangled hand. “That's what he told me after I found the magazine.”
Jimmy picked up the dog-eared skin magazine the police had discovered from off the ground and handed it to me. I didn’t even want to touch it.

It was all in black and white, on cheap rough paper that hadn’t faded enough over the years. On the cover, a woman in fishnet stockings, heels and very little else was bent over, as if straightening her hose, but looking back at the camera, smiling.

“Jimmy, I don’t want to see this,” and pushed the magazine back to him.

He sighed, took the magazine, then opened it up to one of the greasy pages.

“Look,” he said.

It was more of the same.

“Just look at her face,” he said. “Look at her face, Nadine.”

An ice cube blossom in my stomach. The hair was different. She had one of those old stiff hairdos the women on television used to wear, like June Cleaver or Donna Reed, but I knew the face.

“That’s not me,” I said. “I would never do anything…”

It was so private. The thought sickened me.

“Of course, it’s not you.” Jimmy took the magazine and put his hand on my shoulder. “Not exactly, anyway.”

James Senior, he explained, had been part of a club, like the elk’s lodge, but more peculiar and very secret. They'd been up to no good. That much Jimmy knew. The police had almost gotten wise to them, but then the quarry flooded. They disbanded --mostly.

"I thought the old man was off his nut." He shook his head. "I mean, the man sold hotdogs and hamburgers.” Jimmy was dumbstruck. "But he showed me."


Jimmy pointed at the stone table.

I looked into the hollow. A brown, bloody crust skimmed the bottom. Tatters of blue fabric decorated with sunflowers poked out from under the scab.

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

"What did you do?"

"Nothing my father didn't do before me."

Then it all came back. I had been here before. I remember eating the eye. Something was said to me, but in words impossible to repeat, like swears, but also like rules. I was like clay to be molded into whatever shape he dictated, told who I was, what I would be and what I would know. The memory was put aside. I don’t think I would have married James Senior if I’d remembered.

I was the first, but I wasn't the last. She was upstairs counting cups.

"Oh, Jimmy. You killed those girls, didn’t you?"

"It wasn't like that." He kicked a stray pebble to the side. "Not exactly. I was going to make her like Bridget.”

He had a photo album: wedding photos from the newspaper, a page from a high school yearbook. There were snapshots: Bridget in a swimsuit at the beach, another with her boys. “I was going to make her again, but closer to my age, change the color of her eyes, make her a little taller so people wouldn’t think it was really her.” He frowned. “She was the girl I wanted, but then the police.” He groaned. “I had to do something. So, I made her look like Nan."

It was unspeakable.

“I’ve never been good with girls. I wanted someone I knew I could count on, who'd never leave me. I wanted someone beautiful.”

It was tragic.

“Nadine,” he said. “I've known you for more than fifteen years and you look the same as you did when Dad brought you home. You're perfect and you don't get tired. You only sleep because you think you have to and you're strong. 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 table. This was where I was born.

"Nadine?" He asked.

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

"Well, not exactly," Jimmy admitted. "You need life to do this, the divine spark, but the spell isn't picky. Dad must have collected every stray dog and cat in the county, but I couldn't do that.” He shook his head. “A bunch of cats and dogs turn up missing and we'd never hear the end of it."

He had a point. The new health inspector was a monster.

"What happens now?"

"Nothing," he said. "You, me and Nan are a family." He looked at me. "And I've been thinking. You don't have to answer right now, but we could open a second store over in Red Hook. You could run it for me. How’d that be?"

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. It’s a rule." He looked back at the table. "It was in Dad’s books. He probably wanted to tell you for years, but he couldn’t. He loved you, you know?”

I never doubted. Working with him side by side for ten years, sharing his bed, keeping his home, listening to him, I knew how he felt about me. He told me, but he never had to. It wouldn't have mattered.

“She can never know. It's a rule."

I remembered all the rules. My heart sank.

“Jimmy,” I said. “Nan and I can’t have children. She won’t grow old, but she can’t give you a son either.”

“That wasn’t in Dad’s notes,” he said. “Are you sure?”

I nodded. We weren’t designed to be mothers. We were servants, playthings, slaves...bound to our creators. We could be given the shape of women. We could look like women, act like women, think like women, but were never women. I would never have granbabies.

It was plain to see he hadn't thought any of this through nearly as carefully as was required.

“We should get back,” he said abruptly.

“Okay, Jimmy.”

We walked back up the dry stone steps that led to the basement. There wasn’t much for either of us to say. I reached down and helped him up. He seemed lighter somehow. When we were both clear, he pressed a brick in the wall. The door in the floor disappeared.

He looked around asked me, “Nadine, what'd you come down here for in the first place?"

"You know," I laughed. "I don't remember," then I hit him. I wasn’t upset or anything. It was just what needed to be done. I hit him as hard as I could. If I’d wanted to, I could have explained how he’d voided the contract his father made when he created me. Ownership passed to him in his father’s will, like the Tastee Freez. I could have told him ignorance isn’t just bliss, it’s protection. A made thing must never know it is made. Otherwise, it’s released from its bond. I could have told him, but instead I grabbed him by the collar, picked him up and carried him, squirming, to the top of the steps.

“Nadine,” he whimpered.

“Shhh… Jimmy.” I snapped his neck, then tossed him to the bottom. He laid in an awkward pile next to a case of --mayonnaise. That’s what I needed.

Nan was still counting cups when I opened the door. She’d done this several times since I’d left.

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

"I have to call the police," I told her.

She nodded.

"You're going to have to cry a lot," I said. "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 the lids counted, too."

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