Tales From Mephitis. Chapter 15: Eat or be Eaten
"Beat or be beaten,
Eat or be eaten, Be killed or kill,
Choose as you will."
By the first week in October it was getting colder. It was now pitch black for the entire ride in and he had to rely entirely on the headlamp. It was effective for only about a dozen feet in front of him, but that was better than nothing. At this time in the morning now there was nothing to look at other than the starry sky. The killing frost came on October sixth as the flocks of geese gathering to migrate grew larger and larger. Though he tried to keep his lips pursed, the cold wind made his tooth sing, especially on the downhills.
In the mirror that morning he pulled back his lip and shone a flashlight on that upper molar. The gum was swollen and fiery red, and there was a white head sitting atop the mass. He couldn’t bear to chew on that side anymore and it throbbed constantly. He said nothing to anyone about it and as usual no one noticed anything different about him. But the damp cold of Mephitis caused the ache to grow.
Finally, the pain enraged him. He went into the bathroom and cleaned his hands with bottled water. He reached in and grabbed the tooth between two fingers and began to work it back and forth as hard as he could while pulling down. The pain reared the rage higher and made him attack the tooth like an enemy. It was loose and moving so much he thought he stood a good chance of yanking it. The pain didn’t stop him; the futility of it finally did. Loose it may be, but it wasn’t giving way. Now he had to endure the pain without putting his rage into his fingers. But by the next morning he realized it felt better; strange, but better. It was still loose, but the pain was gone. The abscess must have burst as a result of his working it.
He and Melissa were just beginning to feel like they saw some light ahead of them, so when he got called in on Wednesday he was thankful. He was sent downstairs to “do aluminum”. A mindless job, so he was soon lost in thought. A bellow from above him broke into his reverie.
Looking up, he saw “Tim from Genoa” on the catwalk above. He had grown a full white beard since Frank last saw him.
“Hey, Timmer. You look like Santa Claus with that beard.” “Santa Claus from the asylum.”
“Yessir! I’m gonna play Santy Claus fer the Elks.”
“Working today?” “My God. He’s going to have little kids sitting on his lap.”
“Nah. Just came in ta get my check, ya know what I’m tryin ta say? Get ready. Gonna be a cold winter. Real cold. Bad, real bad. Yessir! Them Wooly Bears is all black. That’s a bad, real bad sign, ya know what I’m tryin ta say?”
“Yeah, well. What can you do?” “Merry Christmas to you too. Great. Now not only has NOAA predicted a cold, very snowy winter like last year’s, now the Wooly Bears are confirming it, eh? ”
“S’long boss! Gotta go!”
“Right. Later Timmer.”
The foreman from Milan was working there at Mephitis that day. Jack Douglas was Frank’s age and a lifelong Milan denizen. He was about six feet tall, with a heavy torso and withered thin arms and legs. His uniform shirt was always out of his pants. Like all the others, he wore a ball cap over his salt and pepper hair.
He had a big grin, with deep smile lines around his eyes and mouth, but the grin didn’t reach his eagle-like blue eyes very deeply. A non-stop, hyper talker, he spouted a torrent rapidly, loudly, and over everyone else. He knew it all and said it all. And he ate sandwiches barehanded while running the garbage baler, putting them down on a baggy between bites.
His favorite past-time was to be a girls’ varsity basketball voyeur, sitting right at courtside and ogling the girls. Curiously, he also collected old high school yearbooks, from any school, and trivia about the old TV shows. He impressed Frank with some very good common sense ideas he had on how to improve the operation. For instance, he suggested the drivers pull full loads both ways, and to set up the runs so that the drivers aren’t wasting roadtime by going back and forth. He couldn’t believe they weren’t doing that already.
Frank was standing near the door by the trays later, just about to go out and help a car that had arrived, when Jack rushed past him. He burst through the door and confronted the customer crouched over, violently pantomiming masturbating like a monkey.
“You old f**ker! How you doin? What you doin here?” the man greeted Jack.
“So you know him then? I thought it was how you always greet customers.” Frank observed.
“A fool saith in his heart there is no God.” “Yes; I’m the one who home-school’s her children.” The bumper stickers proclaimed on the mini-van’s back door in case you were wondering. “Oh, hi! Oh, I’m so glad some one is here. Do you think you could help me with something?” the driver said with evident relief.
“Of course.” Frank replied.
He had recognized her instantly, and prayed she didn’t him. She had become more lined since he saw her last six years ago, but she was still an attractive woman, albeit with a somewhat pained, apologetic smile.
He and Mel used to buy all their organic groceries from a large co-op in Pennsylvania once a year. In 2000, the new owners abruptly canceled out that option, forcing them to join a local buyers’ club from a list they provided.
The closest one to them was run by a certain Rosie Moore, the woman who had just arrived. She didn’t really want to accept any members into her club. She explained that she just did this to keep getting the organic groceries. But she agreed, reluctantly, to take them on.
At the time she had three children, a girl of about ten, and two younger boys. Neither of the boys seemed alive. They didn’t speak, just stared straight ahead and remained motionless unless directed to do a specific task. The little girl, though, was lively and vivacious; a real sweetie.
Rosie and her husband ran a trailer park, and she was a very, very devout born-again Christian who Home-Schooled her children to protect them from the ungodly culture and insidious teachings of the secular public schools.
Frank and Mel didn’t know how well she was teaching her kids, but hoped it was better than how she handled the Buyers’ Club. She was simply the ditziest person imaginable; she couldn’t seem to get anything straight or follow through on anything. They didn’t remain a member for very long.
When Frank began selling organic vegetables, he saw her pretty often, and she sometimes bought produce from him. He became quite fond of the little girl, who was showing promise of becoming quite beautiful. Frank wondered how the child was going to handle puberty and its pressures in that overly protective, strictly controlled household Rosie ran so haphazardly. She seemed so happily innocent then. Frank hoped she’d stay so; but he had a foreboding.
That sense was prescient. The two boys had grown into tall, pinch-faced, whip-thin teens that still were silent and emotionless as they sorted their assigned boxes of recyclables. A tall, lovely blonde young woman came out of the van and silently took up a box herself: The little girl had become a willowy woman with a set expression. She too showed no sign of recognizing Frank.
“Some tenants moved out of one of the trailers we own and left a mess. My husband and a friend got these bags into the car, but I can’t get them out. Do you have anyone that can help you with these? They’re very heavy I’m afraid.”
Frank glanced around. No sign of Toad, and Rod had found a victim to tell his tales of woe to. “I think I can manage.”
“Are you sure? They’re awfully heavy.” She bent closer to look him in the eyes with a worried and apologetic look.
“Well, let’s see.” He bent low over the first bag, stretching his arms wide to reach either end of the huge black plastic bag. It was an awkward lift because there was no way he could use his legs, he had to rely on his back alone. With a soft grunt, the bag rose out of the compartment. He strode over to the hopper and tossed it in.
“That’s amazing! Thank you so much! You’re our White Knight!”
“You’re welcome.” He said as he carried the other bag off. The young woman was now staring at him, smiling. Did she recognize him? He didn’t think so. He watched them all reenter the van. The set expression had reasserted itself over the girl’s face as she stared ahead. Just before they drove off, she turned slightly and smiled warmly at him before looking down at her lap.
“She is not happy. That’s what that expression said. It was bitter, disappointed, maybe restrained anger.” He thought ruefully, sighing. “Can’t any of these zealots see how unhappy their children are? I’ve never seen any of them look healthy or happy. Maybe because for them it’s like being imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.”
The cool morning wind whipped across his eyes as he sailed down the hill toward the next farm later that month. A skunk ambled out of the tall dead weeds by the guardrail a dozen feet away right into his path.
“Shit!” he hissed and swerved hard to the left and pumped for all he was worth, hoping to move fast enough to outdistance the animal’s pungent response. Luckily the skunk was taken completely by surprise and instead of wheeling around and unloading his batteries, he dashed back into the weeds.
“Whoooooh.” He exhaled, glancing back over his shoulder with relief. He settled into a steady pace on the flat curves, enjoying the now subtle hint of the pre-dawn and the autumn colors of the hills and fields around him.
He was passing the old well driller’s place and just turning his attention back to the road for the upcoming downhill stretch when a throaty roar whipped his head around to the left.
The huge Saint Bernard was bellowing as it charged across the road in the murky light; and he wasn’t kidding around. Frank swore and his nostrils flared. He had no weapon, the animal was ten feet away and the bike was traveling thirty miles an hour. No question as to what to do.
“RRROOOGGHH!!....Knock it off!” he roared at the dog, lunging his head toward the beast, eyes blazing. “STOP!! Or I’ll kick your f**king ASS!....STOP!!”
The dog wasn’t expecting to be met with ferocity like that and stopped on a dime, almost sitting on his haunches in the middle of the road. His ears came back up and he looked hurt and puzzled. Frank pursued his advantage as he sped by.
“Go on! Get back to the house! GO ON!” As he disappeared down the hill, over his shoulder he saw the dog trotting back to the house, looking over his own shoulder at him.
A skinny, pretty college girl with buck teeth came in the afternoon. She explained she was working on a college project: She wanted to construct a solar oven from locally scavenged materials. Frank was intrigued, alternative energy being an interest of his and delighted that here was a young person still pursuing, apparently not alone, sustainable ecological ideas. He told her to get together a list of what she needed, and leave her phone number and they’d keep an eye out.
The workers took an interest in helping her, and actively sought out materials. Once they had put together a portion of what she wanted, he called her. The next week she came by and started putting around, looking through the stuff. She had decided to use a chest freezer as the main component of her oven, so they had set one aside for her. She began to fill it with the stuff she thought she could use from what the men had found.
Hoppin’ John was particularly taken with her and followed her around silently like a puppy dog. Toad wasn’t though, and didn’t like her around for some reason. He started making noise about her “crap” being in the way after a couple of weeks. Frank smelled trouble. He called her and told her to get over there with a truck and some help and get what she wanted out of here, that the bosses were getting annoyed. A couple of weeks passed with no sign of her. He called her again and told her again.
Finally, she showed up one Friday. She went out back to where she had been accumulating her parts, and returned in a few minutes.
“Excuse me. Where’d my stuff go?”
“It’s not there?” Frank was puzzled. “It was there Saturday when I worked last.”
“I’ m pretty sure it was there on Wednesday.” Rod told her. “Yeah. I’m sure I saw it.”
Toad appeared on the bridge, mincing toward them. He stopped when he saw her and headed back the way he came. Rod went over and asked him what happened to the girl’s things.
Toad expressed ‘surprise.’ “Oh, I had Tom bring over the loader Wednesday and he loaded up all the appliances and baled them up.”
“I told you that hers was one of them.” Rodney told him.
“I didn’t know that.”
“I told you she was saving that stuff.”
“It’s not my fault. It shouldn’t have been hanging around.”
Later Frank asked Little Tom about it, and he said that he and Toad saw it was all full of stuff, and he wondered about it, but Toad told him to just get it out of there.
The girl was on the brink of tears when she found out. She wanted to know how this could happen, and wasn’t satisfied with Rodney’s explanation. She wanted to know who ordered it. He told her Toad. She went to see him and Rod said he was extremely curt and rude to her. Real brave man, making a girl cry: He dropped very low in Frank’s esteem. He went to find her. She was frustratedly talking to someone on her cell.
“Listen; I’m sorry.” Frank told her. “This shouldn’t have happened, and you deserve an apology. I didn’t do it, but I’m apologizing to you for the County. I’m very sorry. I know this meant a lot to you” Her brown eyes welled with tears. “If you’d like, perhaps we can try again.”
“Thank you for that.” She told him.
She got in her car and left and never came back.
“What are you gonna do when it gets colder?" Toad asked Frank at the end of the month. "Ya can’t ride a bike in the winter. Not 20 f*ckin miles a day.”
“Whatever I have to.” Came the quiet answer in a tone that precluded discussion.
“I’ll try to get more hours for ya.”
Frank knew it was bullsh*t, that Toad was trying to suck up, but he appreciated the thought, though now he was ambivalent about working more hours. Working three days a week and riding back and forth all October had nearly wiped him.
And of course, it continued to get colder. The temperature was now sometimes in the low teens when he set out. Luckily the snow had held off so far. The wind on the downhills was so bitter it made his eyes tear, making a hazardous ride even worse.
Oncoming cars never thought to dim their brights for a bike rider either; he had to dip the visor of his cap low enough to shield his eyes against the blinding glare, forcing him to be able to see only a couple of feet ahead. Not good at the speeds he was hitting.
As the holidays approached, Hoppin’ John became more talkative. Frank was amazed at all the TV he watched, especially the strange shows, like “Big Rig Bounty Hunters”, a series about men who search for stolen tractor trailers. He was a big fan of “Housewives of New Jersey, New York, California, etc, etc.”; whatever the hell they were.
He had attained local fame for having seen almost every movie made. But he particularly loved the “Jackass” movies. From what Frank could gather they were composed of young men doing asinine stunts; like one fellow pretending to be a goal post and having a pro player kick a football at him, striking him squarely in the face, causing him to collapse screaming in pain. John became almost hysterically animated describing the grotesqueries, laughing delightedly.
“That’s why he laughed when I slipped getting out of the skidsteer: He finds people getting hurt funny.” Frank thought.
When he was alone, Hoppin’ John either cursed at objects as if they were alive, or if he happened to be in a good mood, he sang in a falsetto incoherent sounds, or made strange R2D2 type noises and laughed maniacally in a high pitch, and yelped “Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!”
With the onset of autumn, the mice began invading Mephitis, and as it grew colder the influx quickened. Normally when there are rats present there will be no mice. However here there was room and food for all. As the number of mice grew, so did their boldness. The desks, tables, and shelves soon were sprinkled liberally with their feces. They invaded the small refrigerator chewing through the rubber gasket around the door, devouring whatever was left overnight. Even during the daytime, it grew to be commonplace to see one scurrying along the table as someone was sitting there eating.
On the first day of Deer Hunting Season in November, as he pedaled silently through the darkness, Frank saw a group of trucks clustered together in a driveway, all the headlights aimed at a group of burly men in Camo bristling with rifles and ammo belts. They became aware of his headlamp approaching and fell silent as he flowed past. He stared at them and they stared at him.
“How much faith do you have in human nature?” he asked himself as he left them behind. His back itched at the idea of all those rifles, and that it was only some remnant sense of civility that kept them from opening up on him for the hell of it. He was totally at the mercy of the extent of their morality. He didn’t much care for the idea.
The conversation among the ‘boys’ later that morning turned to hunting in addition to the usual penile banter. Rod was animated in expressing his opinion that hunting was a bad thing. The others, seeing an opening, pounced in with stories of gory slaughters of defenseless deer, rabbits, or waterfowl.
“You know, Little Tom? I’m thinking that those pigeons around here would be good to sharpen up my shooting eye with for the season.”
“Yer right, Toad. Nobody’s gonna miss a few of those head-sh*tters except Rod.”
“Oh no ya don’t! Not on my watch! I’ll call 911!”
“I hear pigeons good eating.” Hoppin’ John noted with a quiver of life in his eyes. “If ya get any let me know. I’ve gotta get in shape for Thanksgiving.”
“Whattya mean’ Get in shape’?”
“The old lady puts on a big spread, and I gotta work out so’s I can handle it.” He was eating progressively larger and larger meals, stretching out his stomach.
Frank couldn’t believe what he heard, John already put to shame his own prodigious appetite.
“What does she make?” he asked Hoppin.
“A twenty five pound Turkey, two baked hams, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, two stuffings, turnips, squash, beans, corn, pumpkin pie mincemeat pie, and donuts.”
“Jesus. For how many people?”
“My son and his wife come over, sometimes my other one and his girlfriend. This year I wanna have a ‘Chidurkey’, but it’s hard to find them.”
“What the hell is that?”
“A turkey stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a duck.”
“My God. Rabelais would be thrilled or aghast; he thought he was being over-the-top.”
Little Tom kept after Rod about the pigeons as they all wandered out to begin the day. He was doing the white truck run, and as Frank went out to the trays he heard Tom telling him that on Rod’s day off, he was going to take care of the pigeons.
“Yessir, Big Rod. When ya get back in Tuesday there’s gonna be blood an feathers everywhere.” He dead-panned, expansively waving his arm across a broad arc to indicate the extent of the carnage.
‘IIII don’t think so!”
“You wait.” Tom smugly warned him as he clambered up into the truck’s cab.
Around 9:30, Rod had just said goodbye to Dave, the kindly-faced old Irish gentleman cowboy who always brought him a coffee. The two of them conversed among themselves, oblivious to anyone else, usually about politics; Dave being a Tea Party member of good standing.
Rod turned and glanced down the entrance road at the battered pick-up fast approaching. It weaved somewhat as it approached.
“Ooooooh! Hey Toad! It’s ‘Ginger Brandy!” Rod called over his shoulder. ”I’m outta here!”
Toad took one look and headed for the office.
“Hey, wait a minute.” Frank called out to Rod. “What’s the problem?”
“This guy comes in once an awhile. His truck’s full of brandy bottles and he’s always looking for trouble. He’s drunk all the time. He hit someone here with his truck. I’m scared of him and so’s Toad.” He indicated the direction Toad took.
Frank shrugged, turned and walked out to the truck. A thick-set man was pulling a case of empty Ginger brandy bottles from the back of the truck. It was hard to gauge the age of that ravaged, swollen face, but Frank pegged him for no more than fifty. His hair was in a Mohawk dyed dark orange and he wore a rat-tail of a braid about four inches long at the back of his shaven head. His jeans fought to stay on his hips under the shadow of a huge gut. He looked formidable and he sounded awful as he barked and growled unintelligible orders to a dull-looking younger man that was helping him.
“Hiya doin? Need a hand?” Frank asked civilly. He coolly sized up the man, scanning his bare arms, his girth, and noting the awful skin color. “ No arms or shoulders. His weight is all fat. Face looks thick; like an old, beat-up boxer’s, but that comes with years of heavy drink too. Stiff in the back, and his knees hurt. There’s no threat here.”
“Arghya batz crenya set.” The man gruffly replied, nodding briefly.
Frank took a case and dumped them on the tray, trying to figure out if he heard English or a foreign language. He decided it must have been English because the fellow obviously understood Frank and replied directly to him.
He looked the man in the eyes when he went back for another box, looking for any sign of hostility. He saw absolutely none. There was no smell of liquor on him.
“That’s it. Have a nice day.”
“Rankz. Breechy ate rarelp.” He lifted a hand in a brief salutation and heaved his mass behind the wheel.
“Ginger Brandy” was an exception to the rule that all the empty wine or liquor bottles always have been drunk by either the none-present spouse or another family member; never by the one dropping them off. He made no pretense of their not being his.
As Frank helped the next car he mused “He scares people by his looks and because they can’t understand him. He’s no monster, though he ain’t no Angel either by the looks of him.”
“How come you don’t hunt, Rod?” Toad asked him later, hungering to get something going.
“Cause I can’t stand to see animals hurt.”
“How about farm animals?”
“So you don’t eat them?’
“You don’t eat meat? That’s bullshit, Rod!” Toad pounced. “You don’t eat hamburgers or hot dogs? C’mon, I know you do!”
“I eat them. But I don’t eat animals!’
“Where the f**k do ya think hotdogs an hamburgers come from?!...You know old man Perkins?” Toad asked him. “You know, the old guy with the farm just outside town on route eight.”
“Yeah, so?” Rod was getting angry. He wasn’t at all scared of Toad.
“Every fall he slaughters his beef cows right there alongside the road, right where everyone driving past can see. Now, what would you do if you saw that?”
“I’d call 911!”
“Hey, a**hole! You eat McDonalds, I know you do. And every day you have a Jimmy Dean’s sausage and egg cup, and hot dogs for lunch. Where do you think they came from? Somebody killed them.”
“I don’t care. It’s not the same thing. And I think it’s not nice to kill Turkeys either.”
“You hunt Frank?” Toad swung to face him.
“I wouldn’t call it so much ‘hunting’ as killing for meat.”
“See Rod? There’s an honest answer.” Toad pointed at Frank. “That’s the way I was brought up too. We ate whatever meat we could shoot. No game meant no meat. There was no grocery store meat in our house. We ate snake, rabbit, squirrel and ground hog besides deer, turkey, geese and ducks.”
“You’re sick.” Rod sneered. Then a strange far-away look crossed his strange yellowish eyes. “I killed a ground hog once.”
“I was thirteen. I was working on my uncle’s farm and it got caught in a trap. My uncle told me to kill it so I hit it over the head with a hammer.”
“You killed it with a hammer?”
“Uh huh. I had to hit it about a hundred times. It wouldn’t die, so I kept hitting it.”
“And you call me sick?”
Rod laughed delightedly, somehow unsettlingly strangely, like he had been given a pleasurable stroking. They were interrupted by a flurry of cars.
“What are you having for Thanksgiving?” Frank asked him after they had dealt with the people.
“We always have a turkey…”
Toad burst into delighted laughter. “A turkey!? I don’t believe this!” He headed for the office, “Heh, heh, heh”ing all the way.
A little while later during another lull, Frank decided to pursue this a little further.
“I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving myself. And afterwards there’s that great Turkey soup…”
“I can’t stand soup.”
“Nope. I can’t stand soup and Della can’t stand noodles on account she had to eat them so much when she was little.”
“So you just throw out the bones?”
“Yeah and the rest of it.”
“The rest of it? What do you mean?”
“We only eat the white meat.”
“You only eat the breast meat and throw out all the rest?”
“Uh huh. I can’t wait to get out of here.”
“It’s Veterans’ Day.”
“You a vet?”
“Uh-huh. I was in the National Guard so’s I wouldn’t haveta go to Viet Kong.”
“You’re kidding? How old are you?”
“Did you know somebody?”
“I mean everybody wanted to get into the Guard during the war. You had to know somebody high up, like Bush did, or bribe somebody to get in.”
“Nope. I just got in. I didn’t like it. But my buddy did.”
“He got famous cause one time he came back to base really, really drunk an it was morning already so he couldn’t get in, so he sat down on the curb an a stray dog came over and she had really big tits. So he started suckin them. People stopped their cars and took pictures of him and everything.” He smirked nastily.
“Christ. He’s getting off on that.” “I meant; why didn’t you like it?”
“They kept telling me to do stuff. Like one day the sergeant guy tells me I did sumthin wrong, so’s he wanted me ta pick up all the cigarette butts on the grounds. I told him ‘I don’t smoke. Why should I haveta pick up somebody else’s butts. No way.’”
Frank smiled, picturing it. “What did he say?”
“’Give me twenty push-ups!’ I told him ‘You do twenty first’.”
“How long were you in?”
“Couple months...I think. They kicked me out. I didn’t care. It was my turn to drive this thing, and I told him ‘If you make me drive this I’ll drive it right into the first tree I see and kill us all.’”
“I see. So why are you looking forward to getting out today?”
“It’s Veterans’ day so all vets gets free carwashs at places and at Appleby’s vets eat free. So I get my car washed, then Della’s, then the truck, then my son’s car washed. And we’re gonna eat at Appleby’s in Wings Falls, then in Utica…”
“You’re going to eat two dinners?”
“Sure. Why not? Sometimes I eats three. They’re free.”
“How can they tell if you’re a vet?”
“I show them my dog tags. I still gottem.”
The wind whipped gustily across the tarmac, blowing grit into their eyes. Rodney winced and pulled his hood tighter around his head.
“Ooooooh, I hate this weather. I hate it when it’s cold. Makes my head cold an I got chronic brancheeitis.”
“Do you have a hat?”
“I can’t wear hats.”
“Oh. That’s right. What do you do about the Bronchitis?”
“Doctor gives me pills. Della never gets it cause when she gets stuffed up, before she goes ta bed she puts Vap-O-Rub all over the bottoms of her feet and then puts wool socks on.”
“Does it work?”
“She says it does. She learned it on-line. She also says duck tape pulls off planted warts off your feet.” He stopped briefly to accept a tray of hot dogs and coffee from the stove up man about their age that he saved fishing rods for. “Thannnnk yoooooou.” He mewed.
Turning back to Frank, he added “He fixes up the fishing poles for kids. You wanna hot dog?”
“How about a coffee? I already got two today from people and I can’t drink more than two or I puke. I can only eat two hot dogs too or I’ll puke. Donuts too. Cause I got acid reflex.”
“I like hot dogs.” He mumbled as he toothlessly pulled off a part of one and began masticating it between his gums. “The manager of the Dog Shack used ta come in here lookin for old stuff ta sell. I used ta save stuff for him an he’d give me free hot dogs when I went there.”
“Used to? Not any more?”
“Yeah. One day I told someone from here he could go there and tell them at the Dog Shack that I sent him and to give him free hot dogs. The manager heard about it and got all pissed off!” He fumed indignantly. “I mean; what da frigg!? What was his problem? He wouldn’t do it no more after that. So’s I told him ’Fine. Then don’t come around here no more either!”
“Where’d you go Sunday, Richard?” Toad asked as he rejoined them. “I drove past the trailer park and your car was gone.”
“We took a trip to Buffalo cause they had all the wings you could eat there at this place. Took us five hours. Then when we gets there, we find out it was a dollar a wing and five dollars each for admission! What da frig?!”
“Didn’t you check before you went, as*hole?” Toad smirked.
“Noooo, we didn’t, smarty!”
“What do you talk about when you’re on a long trip like that?” Frank asked, curious as to what sort of conversation would transpire.
“You don’t talk at all?”
“Nope. Della always drives. She says I don’t drive right. Me an Nathan watch movies. We each have our own headset. I don’t think you should kill chickens.”
“You told Anton you were gonna kill chickens.”
“That’s what I do every year in November. We raise the chickens we eat.”
“That ain’t right.”
“Wait a minute. You just drove to Buffalo for ‘all the wings you can eat’. Where do you think those wings came from? You think the chickens donated them?”
“I don’t like wings so I ate pepperoni four cheese pizza; at three dollars a slice!”
“You don’t eat chicken at all?” Toad pressed.
“No. I eats chicken. Just not wings, cause I don’t like them so spicy.”
“You realize you’re not making any sense.”
“Forget it. What else did you do in Buffalo?”
“Went to a Taylor Swift concert. The tickets cost us sixty dollars each! But I won a free T-shirt give-away. The woman was just about to hand it to me and Della says ‘You already got two of them!’ The woman hears that, and gives it to someone else instead! I was so mad! Cause a guy in the back was yelling he had ‘big money’ he was willing to pay for one! I was pissed because I could have sold it to the guy, and those shirts were going for up to 1500 dollars!”
As Rod never ran the garbage baler, and Toad was usually not around, Frank was getting a lot of practice.
Even though it’s against the law for carcasses to be thrown in with the garbage, there was really no way to know what was in any of those black bags that were tossed in. Deer hides, bones and scraps joined the chicken guts from local farmers.
While carting off the garbage bales to the roll-off, it was not uncommon to see a deer’s head blankly staring out at one from a bale, and the baling chamber floor often ran red. The pigeons feasted delicately on the blood-soaked scraps.
While he was baling he learned more of the tricks Rod liked to pull. Once when the baler suddenly stopped, he looked up and there was his loony toothless grin leering down at him through the fencing: He’d pushed in the Emergency Stop button upstairs.
Frank knew there was no way to stop him from doing it again and again except to not react. If he found out it bothered him he’d keep it up until Frank would have to threaten him again. He laughed like a child and pulled out the button, allowing the baler to be run again.
One day when the strapper was malfunctioning, Frank couldn’t find the problem. Rod called down to him, and walked him through a fix for it. Frank smiled to himself.
“That sonofabitch knows Goddamn well how to run that baler. He screws up deliberately so he doesn’t have to do it.”
Rodney was beside himself with excitement when he came in the next Friday. He had entered a drawing from Bell Motor Sales for a free, brand new pick up truck. It was a promotion by a new Country Western Radio Station. He made his wife fill out an entry too.
“You ain’t gonna win no truck, Big Rod! You know how many people enter those things?” Farina snorted. “Those things are all rigged. They pick some one’s name who just so happens not to be there, and poof! Game’s over!”
“Oh, no! I read the rules. It says that entries will keep being drawn until someone in the room wins!”
The others burst into hooting at him.
“You f**king idiot!”
“What an a*s!”
“Keep dreaming, Big Rod!”
“Just wait, you’ll see! You’ll be laughin out the other side of your back when I win!”
Thanksgiving Day Frank and Melissa spent relaxing, cooking, and eating. They had splurged and bought a fresh young natural turkey. It was the first one they’d had since 2009.
After the dinner dishes were washed and dried, they laughed together over Brandies about their last turkey. They hadn’t had money for a turkey for three years. One day in October on their daily walk, Melissa had winsomely wished for one for Thanksgiving.
They both sighed and promptly forgot about it: Until about three days later. They were just getting lunch together when Mel urgently whispered to him.
He followed her gaze out the dining room window. There in the front yard, not four feet from the house was a young turkey, about the size of a chicken.
“Too bad it’s so small.” He thought. Melissa turned toward him quickly.
“Get the gun!” she hissed.
“What the hell.” He thought. “Small or not; it’s a turkey.”
He pulled the shotgun down, chambered a round and quietly opened the back door. He eased himself out until he could see the driveway. He figured the little bird was heading that way and should be in firing range once there.
To his surprise, there was a whole flock of about a dozen mature turkeys in the driveway. They spotted him. Instantly he raised and fired at the head of a good-sized gobbler at the front of the flock. The bird began flopping all around spasmodically. The rest of them vanished before he could chamber another round.
Quickly, he sprinted out to the bird, and seizing it by a leg, carried it off flapping vigorously to the back of the barn to where he butchered the chickens. It was the work of only a half an hour to pluck and dress the bird.
The feathers came off easily, but he could see that if the bird had a chance to stiffen up, it would be a hot water bath job to loosen those quills. The crop was full of apple seeds and quack grass seed heads. The tendons on the bird were like iron, and the body fat was a bright orange.
They decided to split it in half and have one half at Thanksgiving and the other at Christmas. It weighed out at about fourteen pounds dressed out, making for two good meals and sandwiches off each half, as well as a wonderful Turkey soup.
They agreed that it wasn’t just the absence that made it taste more delicious; this was the most delicious turkey they’d ever had.
It had seemed to be an answered prayer that Thanksgiving, and Frank wondered why only that one was answered. Melissa reminded him about the deer last year. In almost exactly the same way, she had just wished they had some meat, saying how much she missed beef in the spaghetti sauces.
That was in early June, and a day later Frank spotted a yearling buck feeding on the sumac about fifty yards from the house. He knew he had to hit it where it would go down immediately. This was out of season and he didn’t relish the indignity of getting fined for that. He always used the “Poacher’s Shot”anyway: He aimed at the head. That way it was either a quick painless death or a complete miss.
He leveled the brass front bead on the young buck’s head as it placidly chewed. It went down like he’d been sledge-hammered; never knew what hit him. For the first time in a couple of years they had meat in their spaghetti again, as well as steaks, and venison for stir-frying.
When that meat was almost gone in mid-October; the same thing happened again. This time it was a young doe at about seventy yards, which was about as far as Frank felt accurate with his old open-sighted Marlin 30-30 carbine.
Was it just chance that those wishes seemed to be answered? Were they really answered? If so: Why them and why not others? Was it like the Rolling Stones sang: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”?
It came back to that same question that nagged Frank: Why does it seem that any and all “cosmic connections” do work at times, but then when you try and rely on them they stop?
“Remember that year George and Mattie raised Turkeys?” she asked him. The two began to laugh together over the memory.
Those six turkeys had gotten loose from the neighbors’ pen near Thanksgiving, and came waddling up the road. Mel had seen them and called Mattie to let her know.
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about them stupid birds! I’m f*ckin sick and tired of them f*uckers getting out and me havin ta f*ckin chase em!” was the sum total of her feelings on the subject.
Not long after Mel hung up the phone, she heard a pick-up come roaring up the hill. There was a thump, and the truck screeched to a halt. A bearded young man in coveralls and a cap got out, looked quickly and furtively in both directions, bent down for an instant and came back up with a turkey. He tossed it in the back of the truck, and took off with squealing tires.
As he walked the bike to the top of the hill overlooking the valley the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Frank gazed out over the frosty sight.
“This winter is my last push. It’s going to require all the strength I have left. Soon I’ll no longer be able to ride the bike to work; I’ll be walking two hours each way. If I can make it to May, I’ll have saved enough to buy a cheap car...barring accidents, of course. With a car, I can do this job with one hand. And; I’ll be able to apply for other jobs.…But first I’ve got to get through this winter. It is a matter of endurance now, not brilliance.”
“I believes the earth’s hollow and there are dinosaurs in there, cause I saw a movie about that, and it made sense to me.” Rod confided to Frank while they were between cars.
Frank looked at him. He seemed serious.
“Well, that’s not what most scientists think. But it wasn’t too long ago that many of them did believe that might be true. Now they feel the earth’s core is molten metal. Me; I’ve never been there, so I don’t know for sure. Nobody has. So, I guess you’re free to believe what you want.”
He seemed pleased at that response.
The snows were late so far this year, and what ones there were came on his days off or were light.
Each time Frank appeared out of the darkness with snow encrusted tires it was a big joke for Ray to say “So; what are those? Snow Tires!?” followed by his braying laugh “Haw! Haw!”
On the eleventh of December a heavy wet snow of five inches had fallen overnight. Over Mel’s protests he set off on foot down the road at 4:30 in the morning, everything was glowing dimly with a white covering in the inky blackness.Coyotes set up their banshee chorus somewhere nearby.
He got there a half an hour late for work, which he cursed himself for; that was five dollars less he’d make. As he baled cardboard he ran over his situation in his mind.
“That clinches it. It took me two and a half hours to walk to work this morning: Too long. The hike itself was pleasant and not too damaging. Nobody will give you a lift. If I get ski goggles, a light for the bike, and maybe a rearview mirror, I should be able to handle riding the bike here right down to zero degrees. I’ve done it often already in the ‘teens.
But I can’t handle snow. Not more than an inch or two. Bike just isn’t stable or safe. I’ll have to use a taxi. That’s $20 each way. That means out of the $110 I make each day I take a cab, I’ll only really make $70. Shit. Oh, well. That’ll be $70 more than I’d have if I wasn’t working.”
The County had been forced legally to post the civil service exam for Ray’s job. So in the beginning of December, Jack, Dougie, and Anton took it too, to challenge him for it. Jack scored an impressive 95 on the exam, Ray and others all got 75. But Ray kept the job. Jack was gracious about it. He said nothing, but took all his remaining time off and retired then and there.
Frank turned around to face the questioner and found himself confronting possibly the most repulsively ugly woman of unknown age he’d ever seen looking up at him. Her face was broad and flat with goggling eyes, a wide mouth and a coarse, oily complexion. Her brown hair was unwashed and hung in lank clumps across her broad shoulders. Her breasts were enormous, as was her stomach under the baggy, filthy sweatshirt. From under her gut thin legs encased in dirty jeans ended in splayed feet. The whole impression was of a giant toad.
“Hi, Bridget. He called off.”
“Awwww; I brought him his coffee.” She looked downcast, then she brightened. “You want it? I made it the way he wants it; lot of cream and four sugars”
“Thanks, but I drink it black.”
“Black.” She repeated to fix it in her mind. “Okay. Next Friday I’ll bring you a black coffee.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“No, I know, but Rodney lets me poke around for stuff here, and a cup of coffee is my way of showing I appreciate it.” She turned around and her eyes quickly scanned the items piled up here and there. “Mind if I look around? You sure you don’t want the coffee? What am I gonna do with it?”
“No thanks, really. Maybe Toad or John would like it. Sure; help yourself.”
“Thanks.” Her huge mouth widened into an immense smile. It was actually a nice smile. Then she frowned. “Who’s ‘Toad’?”
“He’s the boss. He’s taking Anton’s place while he’s going to school.”
“Rodney said he was goin ta school. You sure ‘Toad’ won’t mind me takin some stuff?”
“I doubt it; as long as you don’t take any brass, copper, or aluminum”
“I wouldn’t do that. Rodney told me about that.” The smile beamed again. “Okay, thanks. I’ll go look around. See ya…What’s your name?”
“Frank. Black coffee. Okay; see ya Frank!”
Rod had taken the day off so he and Della could be there for the new car drawing. Frank was working the trays by himself because Toad said he couldn’t stand the cold. Just after lunch the phone rang and he picked it up.
“Florence, Toad.” He listened for a minute, a look of puzzlement on his face. “I can’t hear ya. Who’s yellin like that?...You’re bullshitting me…No shit?” He looked over at Frank. “Rod said he just won a truck.” He listened again. “No, Della just won a brand new Subaru Pickup truck.”
The snow had pretty much melted off by sundown, and he figured the walk back should be easier. About a half hour before quitting time Hoppin’ John surprised the hell out of him.
“I’m heading your way after work tonight, want a ride?”
“You sure? I’m alright, I can walk.”
“I’ll give ya a ride. My buddy runs an archery shop up your way. I was going up there anyway.”
“In that case: Sure. Thanks.”
“Appreciate the ride.” Frank told him as they sped up the highway in the dark
“Don’t thank me; thank the old lady. She told me: ’Don’t you dare let that man walk home in the dark, somebody’ll hit him and he’ll die out there. Don’t you come home if you don’t.”
“Well, how about that; a 'Guardian Angel'. Tell her thanks for me.”
“I gotta drive her to Syracuse again tomorrow to get her eyes lasered.”
“Once a week she’s gotta go to Syracuse for lasering. She’s got Diabetes and she’s going blind. Sometimes she can’t see at all. She used to have a job as a comptroller. Now she’s making dick while she’s waiting to see if she’ll qualify for SSI. Sixty grand to zero in one year.”
His lifeless eyes never left the road ahead.
“See if that don’t change the way you live. Just got cable and long distance back. We own two houses. We bought one three years ago, now we can’t make payments on both, and nobody’ buyin out there. Stopped makin payments on the bigger one and moved back into the smaller one. Let the bank take the other one.”
“I’m sorry.” Frank was sobered and thought quietly for a minute. “What do they do with the laser?”
“They stop the bleeding behind her eyes. The way she explained it to me was that there’s these tiny veins in the back of your eye and cause she’s got sugar they break open.”
“So the laser cauterizes them.”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“Does the treatment hurt?”
“She claims it don’t, but I wouldn’t want no one sticking a needle in my eyes.”
“Yeah. Before they can laser her they gotta do that. I forget why.”
“Christ, that’s too bad.”
“Yeah. But she makes it worse.”
“What do you mean?”
“I tell her ‘Stop eating all those f**kin donuts and chocolate’, and she sez she’d rather die and go see her Lord rather than give ‘em up. She eats all the worst things. She loves noodles cooked in milk, and pastries’, and candies, and brownies, and chocolate candy. I tell her ‘Well, you’re gonna go see your Lord real quick, you keep this up.’”
“Christ, yeah. Goes to church or prayer meetings seven days a week. All she watches is Christian TV shows, Christian music, and all she reads is those Christian books. Only she can’t read books no more because of her eyes.”
When they got to his house, Frank extended his hand to John. “Thanks again. You got a friend.”
John beamed a surprisingly wide, boyish smile and shook his hand.
When Frank told Melissa what Hoppin’ John had told him about Tina no longer being able to read, she was quiet for awhile.
“That must be awful to lose your sight like that. I wonder if one of those Kindles would work for her? I heard you can adjust the size of the print and the brightness. Maybe she can keep reading longer.”
“Excellent idea. I’ll mention it.”
Which he did the next Friday morning when only the two of them were in yet.
“Hey, John. I told my wife what you told me about Tina’s eyesight. She suggested something. How about one of those tablets, the ‘Kindle’? I hear you can adjust the size of the print and the brightness.”
They got the full story when Rod came in. He was higher than a kite as he told them about his calculations that won him the truck.
He had figured not many people would bother filling out an entry, because they would figure they wouldn’t win anyway. Then, by making his wife fill one out, he figured he doubled his odds right there. Then when he saw it was snowing hard the day of the drawing, he knew even less people would be there, so his odds just increased again.
Sure enough, the first three entries drawn were for people not there: Then, Della’s name was read out.
“She screamed! You shoulda heard her! She starts jumping up and down so much that everyone moved away from her. She wouldn’t stop screamin.”
“I know. I heard her over the phone. So, what did you win?” Toad asked.
“A brand new $30,000 Subaru Equator! Free! All we gotta do is do a commercial for them, thanking them. So's I’m gonna be on TV too!”
“Well, congratulations. I guess you proved the other guys wrong. Where is it?” Frank asked, looking out at the parking lot.
“We gotta pick it up after the commercial next week.”
“So are you, or is Della, going to use it?”
“She don’t like trucks, she’s scared to drive it.”
“So you’re going to use it?”
“No, I don’t like driving trucks.”
For the entire next week, every customer Rod knew heard about it in the exact same way.
“How’s your day going?..That’s nice…I just won a brand new truck…”
He wouldn’t hear of selling the truck and pocketing the cash like people suggested, even though both he and his wife had a late model car. Oh no: He was going to keep his trophy, and even order some extras for it; $7,000 worth.
He was so proud of his savviness that he became manically irrepressible. He bragged to Frank about how he was always good at figuring out how to beat these promotions.
“Like the one they had at PriceChopper’s where they said it was ‘one free to a customer’. Okay, so what I did was, I bought one, went out the exit and came back in again. Now I’m a new customer, right? So I get another one. I did that a couple times before they wouldn’t let me do it anymore. Said they was gonna call the cops if I didn’t shut up and get out. So I went to another PriceChopper’s and did it there.”
“How’d that work out?”
“They threw me out of there too and banned me from any of their stores. That wasn’t fair.” He pouted with a wounded air.
After a breath he launched into another of his schemes. It seemed another car dealership had a promotion where they set up a phone booth with air jets shooting up from the bottom. The idea was that when your turn came, you got in, they shut the door and turned on the jets and somehow injected a lot of one dollar bills.
“So I made Della get in there. She didn’t wanna, cause she thinks she’s fat, but that was good, because the money had less places to go. And I told her to grab the money that got stuck between her and the booth, and stick it up under her blouse, not down it, this way the air might blow more money up there.”
“How’d that one work out?’
“Not too good. She got mad at everyone laughing at her every time she pulled up her blouse to stuff money up there.” He looked hurt and aggrieved again, like a small child. “She yelled at me in front of everybody when she got out and threw a chair at me. I told her why was she so mad? She got $23 dollars out of them. She just yelled more.”
Later he told of another scheme. The Civic Center had a free tickets giveaway contest. He stuffed the box and won twenty free tickets.
“So I had Della drive me to the Civic Center, park on a side street and wait for me. I stood outside the doors and started selling the tickets for ten dollars each. Then the woman that ran the place got called and she come out and started yelling at me. I told her to get lost, these were my tickets an I could do what I wanted with them. She says: ‘We’ll see about that!’ and she calls Security.”
“What did you do?”
“When I saw them I told them: “Yah, Yah! Try an catch me!’, and took off running. They chased me all over, but I was too fast for them. I passed Della and told her to meet me on Oak Street, they were too close for me to stop. She started yelling at me: ‘You didn’t tell me it was against the law!’ Finally they gave up, and I got away.”
By the next week the bloom was coming off the rose for him. He was highly indignant when he found out that before they could take delivery of the Truck they had to come up with $8,000 more for the taxes and fees.
He figured the radio station probably got it for half price, so why should he pay the full tax? By the time all was said and done, he’d gotten a ‘free’ truck for $15,000. They had to take out another loan to cover it, despite being deeply in debt already, and they had a hard time finding a bank to lend to them. They wound up having to put the truck itself up for collateral. He pestered the people so much at the radio station to at least fake the documents for him so he wouldn’t have to pay the full tax, that no one at the station would take his calls or return his messages.