An amazing pictorial of the USA & Iran during the Pahlavi years and the early days of the revolution.
An amazing pictorial of the USA & Iran during the Pahlavi years and the early days of the revolution.
“The Colonel” by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is a dark, demanding and shattering account of the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The story plays out as nightmare/fable/hallucination pitting historic Iranian ideals of pride and social justice against the crushing reality of each new regime’s ruthless quest for power. At its core this is a novel about betrayal and the madness it brings to all sides. For those not acquainted with Iranian history, this may be a maddening read too as you try to sort out all the characters, their allegiance’s and how they relate to Iran’s history.
The story unfolds in flashbacks, internal dialogs and nightmarish visions as the protagonist, “the Colonel” attempts to retrieve the body of his youngest daughter who has been tortured then hung for passing out leaflets against the regime. This is but a small tip of the iceberg of the horrors visited upon the Colonel and all five of his children. The novel switches views between the Colonel and his eldest son, Amir, who fought as a communist in the revolution, only to see his friends and comrades purged as the Islamists consolidated power leaving Amir guilt-ridden and on the brink of suicide.
The title “The Colonel” refers not only to the protagonist, who was an officer in the Shah’s army (and a bit of a madman who murders his wife in a drunken rage), but also to a painting of the protagonist’s hero, Colonel Mahhamad-Taqi Khan Pesayn, a famous Iranian nationalist from the early 20th century, and yet another victim of another Iranian regime. The protagonist ‘colonel’ (always lowercase) has many conversations and confessions with “The Colonel” hanging on his wall. This can be a bit confusing at times, but again, this is a story of madness so confusion comes with the territory.
“The Colonel” is full of references to Persian heritage and the English translator, Tom Patterdale, does a good job of footnoting them to give English readers a deeper sense of the story. This is a powerful novel in English, but I’m sure it is even more so in the original Persian, and I say ‘Persian’ as Mr. Dowlatabadi shuns Arabic words and phrases much as Ferdowsi did in Iran’s epic national poem, “The Shahnameh”. We’re told that the author also writes in a more common ‘street’ vernacular, which would bring shades of meaning to his fellow countrymen, but are lost in this translation - another reason why this novel must be published in its original language.
The author’s own history cannot be ignored when reading “The Colonel”. Mr. Dowlatabadi was imprisoned under the Shah’s reign by the notorious secret police, SAVAK, in a Kafkaesque circumstance of having no charges brought against him except that his novels where often found in the homes of subversives, therefore, he must be guilty of something.
Mr. Dowlatabadi was released from prison in 1976 where he began writing again in secret. “The Colonel” was written in 1980 as the author watched the revolution turn into a bloodbath of brutal reprisals and summary executions coupled with the beginning of the Iran/Iraq war, which decimated a generation of young Iranian men. When the author finished “The Colonel” he hid it way for decades fearing the consequences of having his name attached to such a horrific account of the ‘glorious’ revolution. In 2012, the novel was published in English, but has yet to be published in its original language though it has been submitted to the IRI regime for approval, which is unlikely.
This is a very dark, non-linear, novel full of nothing but despair, but written in a style that illustrates the author’s masterful story telling skills. It’s certainly not for everyone, but if you have an interest in Iran at one of its most pivotal and heart wrenching moments, this is an incredible read.
Mark Knopfler narrates the story of The Everly Brothers for their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu - Oct. 30, 2013:
The debate over marriage equality in Hawaii has created much tension and division in our communities. It is time for Hawaiians who have been silent for so long on this issue to raise our voices against the parasitic capitalization of our culture,…
Here’s a little Halloween fun, a Big Island short story of mine titled ‘Skin Rope’. SKIN ROPE No one had slept in the sheep station’s bunkhouse in over 50 years. When the old-timer’s were forced to go up there, they did so only during the daylight hours and always with a little salt wrapped in ti leaves tucked away in their pockets. If asked the reason for such precautions, they would mumble, ‘Be safe’ if they bothered to answer at all. The less talk and time spent around the old bunkhouse the better, and no one ever went up there after dark. Charlie Boy Cardozo didn’t care much for the old-timers or their silly superstitions. Besides scolding the younger cowboys whenever they could, the kupuna were about as scary as a bunch of old hens. According to them, there wasn’t a square inch of the ranch that didn’t have an evil spirit lurking about due to lost love, murder or vengeful gods. Charlie was a fifth generation cowboy who’d ridden the ranch from one end to the other and had yet to see anything beyond dirt and cattle. Cowboy life was hard but he enjoyed the solitude. The fact was, he didn’t like people much and that included his own family, friends, ex-wives, and sometimes even his children. They all talked about nothing and bitched about everything. He preferred spending his days alone, riding fence, checking pipelines, or moving cattle from one pasture to another. He always volunteered for the most remote jobs. The farther out he could ride for the brand, the better. When the opportunity came for double pay plus overtime to babysit the old abandoned sheep station, Charlie jumped at the chance. Hansen Bennett was the ranch’s cowboss and about as hard as they come. He was a gnarled old cowboy who knew how to squeeze a nickel and berate anyone who complained about low pay until he had them begging for their job. Charlie hated Hansen Bennett but maybe less than he hated most other people. At least the old haole didn’t carry on about evil spirits, Night Marchers or haunted trails. It was all dollars and cents to Hansen. Charlie met the cowboss just before sunrise on Saturday morning. Hansen Bennett was to drive him up Mauna Kea to the sheep station where Charlie would stay for the weekend until a work crew arrived on Monday to start the demolition project. Mauna Kea was over 13,000 feet high and it took the better part of the morning to reach the station. Part of the delay was due to the spotty terrain where heavy rains had swept away the gravel from the old dirt road leaving jagged stones and lava rock in their path. For most of the ride the two men remained silent and listened to the radio. As they began the steep climb up the last leg, the radio started cutting in and out prompting Hansen to reach over and snap it off. The trees in the upper reaches of the mountain were much taller and thicker than in the valley below and the wind had a mind of its own, blowing from gentle breeze to howling gale in an instant. The cooler elevation brought ropes of fog that slipped through the trees and often shrouded the mountain, creating a tricky situation for a cowboy on a horse or an old man driving a four-wheel drive, pick-up truck. Commenting on the change of landscape, Hansen said, ‘Not much has changed up here since the time when your people were beating each other to death with shark-toothed clubs and mine were spreading around the good book and venereal disease.’ Charlie took the bait for lack of anything better to do, ‘I’m mostly Portuguese, boss. My people were playing guitar and drinking wine back in those days.’ ‘And that ain’t changed much either, eh Charlie Boy?’ teased Hansen, ‘but I thought your mother was Hawaiian.’ Charlie shrugged, ‘Mom was some Hawaiian. Little bit this, little bit that. My grandmother was more.’ ‘Yeah, me too. Heinz 57 mutt. I may look haole, but the Bennetts have been on this rock for seven generations and the family tree has intertwined with more than a few Hawaiian royals along the way.’ ‘So you in line for succession, boss? Gonna be da new Ali’i moi?’ Hansen snorted, ‘Not hardly, though this was all the King’s land before the ranch got ahold of it. Kamehameha himself ruled the roost up here and it was hard won. A learned professor told me that the ground here is soaked in the blood of thousands of warriors. Colorful phrase to explain intricacies of ancient land ownership.’ ‘Well, it ain’t the King’s land no more,’ said Charlie. ‘No, I suppose not,” said the old cowboss, ‘but some say the King’s warriors still walk these trails. Your Dad believed that. I remember your father busting into my office swearing that the Night Marchers were hot on his heels. That was his excuse, anyway, for not being on the job. Did he ever tell you about that? His Night Marchers?’ ‘Yeah, he talked about da Night Marchers, but my Dad liked his okolehau. You see all sorts of stuff, you drink that.’ The old cowboss laughed then turned his attention back to the road. When they arrived at the sheep station Charlie saw backhoes and earthmovers parked off to the side of the compound. Next to the equipment were large stacks of wood under heavy protective plastic sheeting. He’d been up here as a child with his father and outside of the equipment and supplies, it was much as he remembered it, busted-out and falling down. Hansen pulled in and brought the truck to a stop in the middle of the compound, killed the engine and the two men climbed out. ‘That’s what you’re here for, Charlie Boy,’ said Hansen pointing over to the building materials. ‘We sold this broken-down plot for a fortune to some 20 year-old gadzillionaire. Says he wants to build a nature retreat,’ the cowboss snorted as if that was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard, ‘and since young Mr. Moneybags is footing the bill, I promised him around the clock security, which is you, Charlie Boy.’ Charlie nodded to his boss and took a look around the property. Fifty-foot tall pines encircled the compound creating a much needed windbreak from the gales that whipped down the peaks of Mauna Kea. Up a small rise from where they stood was an old bunkhouse, a faded shack with a little black chimney pipe sticking up through the roof. About 50 yards from the bunkhouse was the dilapidated manager’s home, and just beyond that was the processing station, once the centerpiece of the operation, longer than a football field and surrounded by large iron sheep pens long overgrown by decades of weeds. The roof had collapsed toward the middle of the old building, and Charlie thought that a strong wind could bring the rest of it down too. The old cowboss spit the morning’s dust out of his mouth then said, ‘Quite an operation in its day. Over 40,000 sheep across the valley, a fortune of wool shipped off to mainland and Europe. Some of it even went as far as China. Made the ranch a pretty penny. Wish we had some of those pennies now so we didn’t have to sell out.’ Charlie looked at the weathered and decrepit buildings but wasn’t impressed. ‘No matter to me who owns it.’ ‘And that’s another reason you’re here, Charlie boy,’ said the cowboss, ‘I asked Kalani and Israel, but they turned me down flat. They’re too Hawaiian to be a part of selling off parts of the King’s land, but I knew a man like you wouldn’t care.’ Charlie shrugged, then asked, ‘What happened here, boss? Why’d they shut it all down?’ The cowboss looked at Charlie deciding whether he wanted to converse further or follow his intuition to get back in the truck and head down the mountain. As the ride was long and his back was stiff, he decided that a longer stretch of his legs wouldn’t kill him. ‘Capitalism happened, my boy. Somebody somewhere started doing it cheaper. Our market dried up and we were out of the sheep shearing business.’ ‘So all these stories about bad mana, evil spirits, Night Marchers… all junk, yeah?’ Hansen chuckled and smiled at Charlie Boy, ‘You’re not gonna turn chicken on me now that I drove you all the way up here, are you? I thought you were one of the brave few who didn’t believe in all those chicken-skin stories.’ Charlie stared back at his boss, ‘Just wondering about da kine. Ain’t nothing up here but junk buildings and weeds. Why da old-timers so scared of this place?’ The boss shrugged his shoulders, ‘Cowboys tell stories to pass the time. Some idiot sheers off his fingers by not paying attention to the job and by the time the news reaches town it’s the ghost of Kamehameha who chopped the fool’s head off. The coconut wireless tends to amplify even over short distances.’ ‘What about da kine?’ said Charlie pointing up the hill to the bunkhouse. ‘Dad said a man hung himself up there.’ The cowboss looked up the hill to the bunkhouse and stared at it for a while before answering, ‘Charlie, when I was a young man, hardly more than a boy, they were telling that same story. We were in full operation back then and the shearing crew needed an extra set of hands. Being the youngest cowhand on the crew, I got drafted and sent up here.’ ‘And you slept in that bunkhouse?’ ‘I did, for a night anyway, though I didn’t sleep much.’ ‘Why? ‘Cause you scared?’ The old man turned and looked hard at his hired hand. ‘Yeah, I was scared, but let me tell you, I didn’t see nor hear a damn thing except the wind in the trees. The older cowboys filled my head with such nonsense that I was as jumpy as a cat on a hot griddle. Didn’t sleep a wink that night and I didn’t see any Night Marchers either.’ ‘No reason I shouldn’t sleep up there then, eh boss?’ Tired of the conversation, Hansen motioned back to the truck. ‘Charlie Boy, there’s a sleeping bag, a tent and enough food to last until I get back on Monday. Sleep wherever you damn well please. Your job is to babysit that lumber and those heavy movers. Do NOT leave the premises. Think you can handle that without getting all spooky on me?’ Charlie narrowed his eyes and answered with a twinge of anger in his voice. ‘Your lumber’s safe with me, boss man, and I’ll sleep like a baby tonight. I ain’t scary… like some.’ The old man snorted at the jab, then climbed back into his truck. He stared at Charlie through the open window and looked like he was about to speak, but didn’t. He gave a quick nod to the cowboy then cranked the ignition, backed the truck around and sped off down the dirt road before disappearing into the grey mountain mists. Charlie watched the truck fade into the fog, then reached down and peered into the provisions bag the old man had left him; a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jelly, a bag of teriyaki beef jerky, a can of coffee, a pack of smokes and a bottle of vodka. Charlie muttered under his breath, ‘Cheap haole bastard’ then dropped the bag and decided to have a look around while the sun was still up. He hiked the short distance down to the sheep station and half-wondered if it was safe enough to enter. ‘Still standing, probably be OK for another 10 minutes.’ Hopping an iron fence, he waded through the chest high weeds until he arrived at two large doors permanently stuck open by rust and decay. Charlie entered the cavernous station to the sound of dozens of birds taking flight and just as many rats scurrying off into the shadows. Muted sunlight fell through a gaping hole in the roof. The light trickled through a shattered forest of broken timbers that had long ago fallen upon the concrete floor. The ceiling rafters that were still in place were covered with bird droppings and it looked like the station had already become the nature retreat its new owner envisioned. Charlie threaded his way around the fallen timbers until he reached the old loading bay. He looked out the bay doors and saw a break in the sheep pens where wagons, and then later trucks, had backed up to the dock to pick-up their loads. Off to the side of the loading bay was a huge set of scales rigged with pulleys and large iron weights. The massive contraption should have been in a museum, not rotting away on a lonely Hawaiian mountainside. Next to the scales was a wall covered in childish writing. As Charlie got closer he could see that the scrawl was actually dates next to handprints. The prints were black as if someone had dipped their hand in ink then slapped it up against the wall. ‘Must be shipping dates…’ Charlie looked over his head to where the writing began and started to count…’1892, 1893,1894, 1895, 1896…’. The numbers and handprints continued down the wall until they reached the year 1959, where instead of a black handprint there was a curious red smear. Upon closer inspection, Charlie thought it was a handprint too but different… there was a thumb… and that was a little finger… but the other three fingers were missing. Charlie laughed, ‘Hey, Bennett. I found da fool with chopped off fingers. No worker’s comp for dis braddah, eh boss?’ Suddenly the ground began to move beneath Charlie’s feet, slowly at first then thrashing like a wild bull. Panic hit him as the old building shuddered giving off a low and grinding howl, but 30 seconds later it was all over. The large wooden beams clattered a bit as the earthquake died away, then everything settled back into place and all was quiet again. ‘Just a little shake, das all,’ thought Charlie, letting his heart settle before looking up at the roof. Nothing had changed above him, except that perched upon the highest timber was a pueo, a Hawaiian owl. Charlie smiled at the beautiful bird and spoke to it, ‘My grandmother said that you was a sign of good luck. Eh pueo, you bringing me good luck today or what?’ The owl cocked its head then screeched and flew out through the hole in the roof. Leaving the station, Charlie went back to where he had left the provisions. The wind had picked up and he had no desire to try and pitch a tent. Sleeping in the processing station was out unless he wanted to get covered in bird crap or have the building collapse on top of him. He looked over to the manager’s house but it was even more dilapidated than the processing station. Up the hill was the bunkhouse, and the longer he stared at it, the better it looked. The roof was weathered but intact, the lanai looked solid and all of the glass was still in place in the windows. Why was he hesitating? What better place to stay than a warm and dry bunkhouse? ‘Charlie Boy, don’t be an old woman,’ he said to himself, then kicking the tent aside he grabbed the sleeping bag and provisions and headed up the hill. When he came to the bunkhouse steps he saw they were worn but looked solid. He placed his boot carefully on the first step and applied his full weight with not so much as a creak. ‘Whoa, dis buggah built to last.’ Charlie trotted up the steps and onto the lanai. The boards beneath his feet were sturdy with no give. There was even an old rocking chair sitting next to the door. Charlie dropped his belongings by the chair then slid into it. It easily held his weight and showed no sign of collapsing. Charlie rocked back and forth looking out over the compound and across the valley. The late afternoon sunlight spread across the open landscape, its glowing warmth chasing all the spooks and haunted tales from his mind. He reached into the provisions bag for the smokes and the bottle of vodka and decided to have a little pau hana. Taking the wrapper off the pack, he pulled a cigarette out and placed it to his lips. He rummaged through the bag again and then cursed his boss, ‘You one cheap ol’ haole man. Where da matches at?’ Just then he remembered the chimney pipe and decided to go inside and look for matches. He planned to sleep in there anyway and where there’s a chimney there’s usually fire and that means matches. Charlie got up and tried the door handle. It opened with ease and he cautiously walked in. Unlike the collapsing processing station, the bunkhouse was in good condition. Off to his left was a small kitchen area with an old wood burning stove and several rough hewn cabinets that held tin cups, plates, bowls, utensils and some canned goods. In the center of the room was a potbellied stove with a cord of firewood stacked next to it. About five feet from the stove and running to the wall was a large wooden table with sturdy oaken chairs all around. Along the walls were twin beds with blankets providing a place to sit during the day and sleeping bunks at night. A deck of cards sat on the table along with a couple of empty tin cups and a large glass ashtray. Next to the ashtray was a box of stick matches. Charlie smiled at his good luck and snatched them up. ‘Shoots!’ said Charlie pleased with his weekend retreat, ‘Ain’t no way this place been abandoned for 50 years! Must be hunters using it, for sure.’ The matches were dry and with his cigarette lit, Charlie explored the house. The cans in the kitchen cupboards turned out to be a bonanza; lychee in syrup, pears, green beans, corn and boiled potatoes, and behind them was the mother load, tins of corned beef hash, spam and Vienna sausages. Even if Hansen hadn’t left him any food, this would have been more than enough to last him through the weekend. Charlie looked over to the sink. A thin draw curtain made of two old pillowcases covered the area underneath it. Charlie leaned down, pulled one of the pillowcases back and was blessed again. Lined up in the dark coolness of the sink were six mason jars filled with a clear liquid. ‘Whoa brah! Okolehao!’ He had no doubt now that the bunkhouse was being used as a hunting retreat. Nobody in their right mind leaves all this food behind and abandons six quarts of primo Hawaiian moonshine. Charlie was so delighted that he decided to check out the rest of the house for what other treasures it might hold. Off of the kitchen were three small bedrooms, each of their walls lined with bunk beds. Both of the end rooms had broken windows, which had left them musty and damp, but the middle room was windowless and bone dry. Charlie looked around the middle room and saw that people had been sleeping there. The bunks had clean sheets, blankets and pillows, and there were wire hangers in the small open closet. ‘Why are the old-timers so scared of this place? Buncha old hens!’ On the floor of the closet were two kerosene lanterns and a gallon can of kerosene. Charlie checked the can and found it was 3/4 full. He reached down, grabbed one of the lanterns and headed back to the main room. A hour later Charlie was finishing off a hot meal of corned beef hash and boiled potatoes washed down with a tin cup of the fire-breathing okolehau. The stove had been easy to start. The firewood was clean and dry and lit up like newspaper. Charlie had another cigarette then decided to eat a can of lychee in sweet syrup for his dessert. After devouring the sweet and sticky fruit he went out on the lanai for another cup okolehau and to enjoy the twinkling night sky. He dropped into the rocking chair feeling a little woozy as the okolehau took hold, and then saw the sleeping bag and the provisions Hansen had left him. In disgust, he kicked them off the porch. ‘No need, I’ll sleep in a warm bed tonight and that damn luna can shove his peanut butter and jelly up his stinking okole.’ Charlie laughed at the thought and took a long pull on his cigarette. The night was perfect and the gentle rustling of the branches in the trees was peaceful and soothing. The occasional creak and moan from the old buildings reminded Charlie of lowing cattle. He pulled his boots off and eased back into the rocking chair. It was the end of a good day and he was totally relaxed. He took one last drag on the cigarette then snubbed it out on the arm of the chair before letting the butt fall to the floor. Within a few minutes his chin had had dropped to his chest and Charlie was fast asleep. The cowboy awoke with a chill and a cramp in his back. After a few seconds of drunken disorientation, he realized that he’d fallen asleep on the lanai. He grabbed the arms of the old rocker to help gain his balance then pushed himself up and stumbled back into the bunkhouse. The kerosene lantern was still burning bright on the table next to his dirty plate and empty tin cup. His throat was dry but another cup of okolehau was not the answer. He grabbed the tin cup off the table and headed over to the sink. Much to his delight, ice-cold water flowed out of the spigot when he turned the tap. The water tasted sweet and fresh and it was so cold that it made his teeth numb. After two cups, Charlie turned from the sink, grabbed the lantern from the table and headed off to his bunk to get some sleep. Entering the middle room he sat the lantern down on the floor, snatched a blanket off the top bunk and fell like a big sack of rice into the bottom one. As soon as he stretched out he knew something was wrong. There was something coiled up beneath him. His drunken mind flashed SNAKE but he knew that couldn’t be true. ‘There ain’t no snakes in Hawaii nei.’ Charlie pulled himself up and swung his legs off the side of the bunk. He reached over and pulled back the blankets, and there, coiled up in the middle of the bed, was an old rawhide rope, what the old-timers called a kaula ‘ili and what the young cowboys called a ‘skin rope’. It was a hand-made lariat from back in the days when a cowboy had to make his own. Charlie picked up the skin rope and admired its strength and softness. ‘I don’t know what fool left you here but you’re mine now.’ Charlie set the rope down on the floor next to the kerosene lantern, then turned the lantern off and lay back in his bunk and closed his eyes. Outside in one of the tall pines behind the bunkhouse sat an old pueo patiently watching the compound below. The owl remained focused and quiet, its large eyes searching the night for any sign of life. A slight rustling at the edge of the weeds caused the bird to cock its head toward the sound. A small shape scurried onto the road and the owl dropped from its perch and glided silently toward it. Just before the mouse made it safely to the other side the owl’s talons pierced its body and snapped its spine. As the tiny rodent faded into the black realm of death it saw the ground drop away as it ascended into the darkness. Charlie was dreaming that he had to shi-shi. The pain is his bladder was intense and even in his dream state, he wondered if he might not pea his pants. The pressure grew to the point where the growing need demanded that he wake. As the cobwebs of sleep cleared, he felt the course blankets above and below him and knew that he was in his bunk. He needed to get up and go outside to relieve himself but he couldn’t. Something was holding him down! His mind was fully alert now. He tried to raise his arms but couldn’t. There was a heavy weight all down his body as if a large man had climbed on top of him and was pinning his shoulders to the bunk. HAD SOMEONE SNUCK INTO THE BUNKHOUSE? Charlie thrashed back and forth trying to throw the intruder off. The pressure bore down even harder and now Charlie was truly panicked. I CAN’T BREATHE! GET OFF OF ME! I CAN’T BREATHE! Charlie tried desperately to break free from the weight that crushed down on his chest. His fought the pressure to the point of madness, and then, in an instant, whatever it was, was gone and Charlie tumbled on to the hard wooden floor, his face smashing against the coiled skin rope. His heart raced and his mind scrambled for reasons to the madness. Lantern and matches. The lantern is here. The matches are on the table. Pulling himself to his knees, he grabbed the lantern, got to his feet and stumbled off into the main room. It was dark and he hit the table hard. Fumbling around blindly, he found the boxes of matches and lit one half expecting to see the intruder standing right in front of him… but there was nothing but the bunkhouse. He lit the lantern and adjusted the mantle. The warm light came gave him strength and calmed his nerves. Charlie took the lantern and walked cautiously back into the middle room. There was nothing but an empty bunk beds. He checked the closet and then both of the two end rooms, but there was no one lurking in the shadows. He walked back into the dining room and saw the open door and the blackness beyond it. I left the door open and somebody come in and tried to rob me… has to be… has to be! But Charlie wasn’t sure. He looked down to his hand and saw that he was carrying the skin rope. He must have picked it up when he went back into the bunk room. He’d always been good with a rope and if there was someone prowling around, having a good rope was better than having nothing at all. With a good rope he could bring down anything from wild goats to raging bulls. He could bring down a man too, and a hard lash across the face with a skin rope was as good as a bullwhip in the right hands. A yowling shriek broke the silence sending a jolt of fear through him. There was something in the compound with him and it was right outside. The scream came again but this time it sounded like a wounded child. Must be a feral cat or dog. Maybe a wild pig caught in something? He waited for the scream to come again but outside the night was deathly still. Try as he could, all he heard was the low moaning of the wind and the rattling of loose boards. Charlie gathered his courage and stepped out into the darkness. The moon was halfway across the valley and Charlie could just make out the manager’s house through the grey veils of mist that drifted across the compound. He looked down at the rocking chair and saw there were still a few swallows of okolehau in the open mason jar. Half convinced that the moonshine might be the reason for his delirium; he decided to drink it anyway to buck up his courage. He threw back the burning alcohol then sat down in the rocker to wait out the night. All of his hopes were tied to the dawn. Things that scared you to death at night turned out to be nothing in the light of day. Charlie shivered as he rocked back and forth and peered out into the darkness. He was almost asleep again when something caught his eye. Out beyond the sheep station there was movement in the valley. Pale lights winked in and out, so distant that he wasn’t sure if they were real or if his eyes were playing tricks on him. He reached over and turned down the lantern to get a better view through the rolling fog. Yes, there was something out there. Miles from where he sat a long line of pale lights twinkled in unison. Charlie strained to make the lights come into focus but they remained a mystery, and then the scream came again hitting his spine like an electric cattle prod. This time he not only heard it but saw where it was coming from. Over in the weeds by the old manager’s house something was moving through the high grass. He heard the sound of breaking glass and then the shriek came again, but more pained and strangled this time. Whatever it was, it was hurt. Charlie pulled on his boots, picked up the rope and lantern, and headed off toward whatever was hiding in the night. The front half of the manager’s home was completely collapsed but the back was still standing. Charlie made his way through the weeds and up the back door. The first room he entered was the back lanai, a small porch area where one could clean up before entering the house. There was dust on the floorboards but no sign of human or animal tracks. Charlie sat the skin rope down on a moldy thatched-bottom chair and stepped up to the closed back door. He listened for movement inside the house and hearing none, he reached down to turn the knob but it spun uselessly in his hand. There was something else too; the knob was sticky and wet. Charlie raised the lantern and saw that it was coated in red. He raised the lantern higher and cried out in fear. Right at his exact eye level was a bloody hand print just like the old one he saw in the sheep station, except this print was fresh and still dripping. A howling scream came from directly behind him. He whipped around, eyes searching wildly in every direction, but there was nothing there. The scream came again like it was right on top of him. He heard the sound of branches scrapping against the roof and knew that whatever it was, it was outside in the trees. He grabbed his rope and ran toward the sound. If it was a wild animal, he was going to rope it, drag it, and kill it, even if that meant strangling it to death with his own bare hands. Outside he raised the lantern and searched the lower branches. There, about fifteen feet above him was a large dark shape quivering in the dim moonlight. He raised the lantern even higher and saw the reflection of two red eyes glaring down at him. What the hell is it? It was big, at least the size of a man, but horribly deformed. Was it a wild boar? How could a 400-pound boar climb a tree? The branches around the thing were dripping liquid onto the ground. Was that blood? The thing inched forward giving Charlie a better view of its deformity. The creature’s skin was slick and wet but beneath the sheen was something crusty and scarred. It looked like a man that had been skinned alive and then horribly burned. Charlie stepped cautiously forward for a better position to rope the hideous thing. It must have sensed his plan for it leapt from its perch to a smaller branch right above Charlie’s head. Trying to rope it was out of the question now. It was right above him and ready to pounce, but before it could jump, the smaller branch creaked beneath the creature’s weight and forced it to scramble to retain its balance. Its bloody stumps lashed out at the branches around it trying desperately to find a grip. Charlie and the thing locked eyes for a brief moment and he could see the creature’s utter desperation. It cried out and convulsed as if stabbed with searing hot knives, and then it exploded like a rotten fruit raining down its putrid essence onto the frightened cowboy’s head. Charlie stood trembling in the dark. The creature’s downpour had doused the lantern and left him coated in wet, sticky blood, or was it pus? The smell was awful and he could taste its rot on his lips and tongue. The cold mist whipped around him and mingled the creature’s noxious fluids and Charlie’s cold sweat. It was the okolehau… that rotgut poison… He was sick… alcohol poisoned… it had poisoned his brain something wicked…. he wasn’t thinking straight… this can’t be real! Charlie closed his eyes and tried to breathe. The rhythm of his heart slowed and his tightened muscles began to unclench. He took deep breaths, in and out, in and out. When he opened his eyes again, the fog had crept away and the moon had broken through the clouds casting dark shades of grey and blue over the compound. There was no sound on the mountain but that of his own breathing and the drip, drip, drip of the creature’s remains as they fell upon Charlie’s head and shoulders. He loosened his grip on the skin rope and lantern and allowed his mind to work again. The lantern was drenched and useless so he threw it away. Besides there was another one in the bunkhouse closet. Yes, in the closet in the bunk room… if he could only get to it… if there wasn’t something waiting for him in that room. Charlie felt the skin rope in his other hand and considered tossing it too, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. A good rope is a cowboy’s best friend and right now it was his only friend. Yeah, that’s what his Daddy used to say when he was teaching him how to rope, but Daddy was scared of this place and now Charlie was scared too. ‘I AIN’T SCARED!’ Charlie shouted to the darkness, ‘I AIN’T NO OLD HEN!’ There was no reply, just the drip, drip, drip from the branches above. All he wanted was to see the dawn. To see the sun break over the horizon and to be forever rid of this place. He needed to go back to the bunkhouse. There was nothing in the bunk room and that thing - that creature - it was just some hurt animal… or bad okolehau. It wasn’t real. But you saw its eyes, Charlie. Nothing but pain and fear, and its blood is all over you. You looked into its eyes and is saw you. Charlie drew another breath and tried to drive the fear from his mind. He wiped the muck from his face as best he could before heading back toward the bunkhouse. There was enough moonlight to make his way up the hill but his boots were slick from creature’s blood and twice he slipped as he made his way up the little rise. Reaching the bunkhouse, he walked up the stairs and sat down in the old rocking chair. He rocked back and forth and looked out into the darkness trying not to think, trying not to do anything but wait for the night to end. He kept the skin rope in his lap, his fingers running over its delicate weave. It was his talisman to keep these evil spirits at bay. A skin rope is a cowboy’s best friend. Beyond the sheep station Charlie saw the lights. This time they were much closer and so clear that he could count them. Thirteen, yes, thirteen orange lights coming across the valley. There was nothing to do. They were coming for him. Maybe it was campers or teenagers pulling tricks? Or maybe it was the other cowboys? Yes, that’s it. Hansen had set this up! He knew about Dad’s stories of the Night Marchers and the old buzzard was trying to throw a scare in him. But what about the thing in the tree? That wasn’t Hansen. No, that was the okolehau. I was poisoned. It’s just the old cowboys with torches trying to scare the hell out of me, but I’m not scared. I’m not scary like some. I ain’t no old hen. Charlie held tight to the skin rope and watched the lights advance up the old road toward the sheep station. Ha, ha, ha. As soon as they get close enough I’ll raise a glass to them and laugh in their stupid faces. The lights reached the entry to the compound and turned in, and then they turned up toward the bunkhouse. Under the flickering torchlight Charlie could see them and they were NOT the old cowboys. These were large and powerful men, and they were naked. They walked silently in single file and each carried something in their free hand. Something large, like a stick. LIKE A CLUB! LIKE A SHARK-TOOTHED WAR CLUB! The Night Marchers had come. They saw him sitting in the rocking chair and began to sprint up the hill, chanting as they ran. They were coming for him. Coming to kill him. Coming to skin him and burn him alive. Charlie bolted out of the rocking chair and dashed into the bunkhouse. He threw the skin rope on to the table and grabbed a wooden chair and propped it up against the door. The chanting grew louder and then broke apart as the harsh voices surrounded the bunkhouse. Thirteen voices chanted in the ancient Hawaiian tongue and sang out their hate and lust for vengeance and his blood. Their voices grew louder and the chant more fierce. It built to a climax and then in a single shout - it ended. Silence again… and then a scraping sound, and then two scraping sounds, and then more. Charlie knew the sound and it frightened him. It was the sound of shark’s teeth being dragged across raw wood. He needed the lantern. They were the Night Marchers and they had come for him, but maybe the light would keep them away. His mind flashed to the extra lantern sitting in the closet of the bunkroom. But there was something in there, wasn’t there? The thing that had pinned him to the bed, it was in there and it was waiting for him. That didn’t matter now. He had to get the lantern. Charlie ran into the windowless bunkroom, his hands stretched out in front of him feeling his way through the darkness. As he touched the back wall he felt the scraping from outside jump through the wall and into his fingers. Violent images burst inside his mind, the cutting of shark’s teeth against the wood, the violent ripping of razors against moist flesh, the sawing of jagged pearl against shattered bone. He drew back his hand as if the wall was on fire, then dropped to his knees and frantically searched for the lantern. Here, here it is in the closet! Now I need the matches. Where are the matches? I was drinking and smoking cigarettes. Where did I leave them? Did I bring them into the bedroom before I went to sleep? Charlie scuttled around the floor, one hand dragging the lantern and the other searching frantically for the box of matches. Was it here? It has to be here! And then his hand hit something in the darkness. THE MATCHES! He let go of the lantern and reached out to grab the matchbox, but as he did something grabbed him. It clenched around his wrist and pinned his hand to the floor. Charlie tried to break free but couldn’t. The scratching on the walls turned to pounding and the air around him grew thick and musty. It was hard to breath and the pounding of the war clubs on the bunkhouse was hurting his ears. The chanting began again. The pressure on his wrist was so great that he was sure his bones would splinter into a thousand shards at any moment. The pounding reached a maniacal pace, like a thunderous rain all around him. And then it stopped… and the pressure on his wrist fell away. There was no pounding. No scraping. No chanting. Nothing but the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. Charlie sat and waited. The darkness in the room gave way to a soft white light. Looking out to main room he saw a small ball of light roll across the floor moving slowly toward him. When it reached the entry to the bunkroom, it stopped. It hummed like a swarm of bees, glowing and hovering just a few inches off the ground. Charlie scooted away from it as it advanced into the room. His back hit the wall but the light kept coming. As it drew near he tried to kick it away. When his boot hit the floating ball it surged in brightness and bolts of electricity stabbed through his boot like icy nails. Charlie jumped to his feet, hopped over the floating ball and dashed into the main room. As he did the front door burst open and another ball appeared, gliding and crackling into the room. Off to his left a war club bashed in the window above the kitchen sink and another ball of white fire glided in, falling into the sink then hopping down on to the floor. Charlie looked behind him and the ball in the bunkroom was creeping back toward him. All three balls were tracking him. In two steps Charlie was on a chair then standing on the table. The fireballs hovered around the floor searching for him, and then one broke away and hopped onto a chair next to the table. Then the second did the same and then the third. He knew that their next move would be to jump on to the table and then they would have him. Charlie looked down at his feet and saw the skin rope. He snatched it up and looked to the celling. Heavy wooden cross beams supported the roof, and unlike the processing station, these beams were sturdy and strong. Charlie whipped the skin rope over the top beam and grabbed the looped honda as it came down. The first fireball made an attempt to jump on to the table, but hit the edge and bounced back down to the floor. Charlie drove the end of the rope through the honda and pulled it tight. The second ball hopped up and landed on the table. It buzzed loudly and inched toward him, sensing that its prey was near. Charlie pulled himself up the rope and swung away from the table just as another ball landed right where he stood a second ago. All three balls were on the table now, bouncing up and down eagerly looking for the skin rope. Wisps of smoke rose up to him as the smell of scorched rawhide filled the air. In the corner of his eye he saw movement at the door and swung around to face it. A massive black shape filled the doorframe and a pair of red glowing eyes stared into his. The next sound he heard was his own scream. Hansen Bennett pulled into the sheep station on Monday morning with a convoy of pick-up trucks loaded with cowboys, construction workers and supplies. He was pleased to see the earth movers in place and the stacks of lumber safely stowed beneath their plastic sheeting. The trucks parked in the middle of the compound and the crews got out and started unloading for the demolition. Hansen scanned the grounds for Charlie but the cowboy was nowhere in sight. The old cowboss brought up two fingers to his mouth and fired off a piercing whistle. ‘Charlie Cardoza! Charlie Boy! Get your okole out here. You got company.’ With no reply Hansen headed up toward the bunkhouse. About half-way there he found the sleeping bag laid out in a patch of stomped-down weeds. Next to the bag was an empty bottle of vodka. The cowboss shook his head and muttered, ‘A little drunken stargazing, eh Charlie?’ At the bottom of the stairs he found the provisions bag. Looking inside he wasn’t at all surprised to see everything accounted for except for the bottle of vodka and the pack of cigarettes. Hansen dropped the bag and made his way up the steps. It was a bit tricky navigating the stairs as they were full of rot and forced the old man to choose his steps wisely. Once on the lanai he found an old rocker covered in bird droppings and cobwebs. Hansen tried the door but the knob spun uselessly in his hand. He banged on the door three times then shouted, ‘Charlie, get your okole out here! Party time is over!’ Hansen tried the door again then gave it a slight shoulder. With the crumbling of termite-ridden wood, the door swung wide and Hansen was hit with the smell of mold and decay… and then he saw Charlie Cardoza. Charlie Boy was hanging from the crossbeams with a skin rope cutting deep into his neck. His tongue was purple and swollen and his eyes were wide-open and bulging out of their sockets. Hansen shook his head and looked to the ground in remorse for the dead cowboy. ‘Ah hell, kid,’ said the old cowboss taking off his hat. Hansen closed his eyes long enough to say a few words, then opened them again to assess the situation. The bunkhouse was a mess. The mold on the wall was so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Rat droppings were everywhere and there were gaping holes in the floorboards. The chairs around the table were little more than kindling, and the table itself looked so rickety that Hansen wondered how Charlie could have possibly used it to hang himself. ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way,’ muttered the old man. He turned to leave then stopped. All ranchers are gamblers by necessity and the good ones learn to trust their gut instincts. Hansen’s gut was screaming that something was wrong. It wasn’t just the rickety table and Charlie’s swinging body. Everything in the room was coated in dust and then there was poor Charlie, dead with his boots on and not so much as a scuffmark on floor beneath him. The old man searched for clues in the cowboy’s dead eyes but all he saw was pain and fear. Chicken skin began to rise on the old man’s arms. He thought of that night 50 years ago when he lay trembling in his bunk convinced that he was not alone, that something cruel and hungry was lurking in the shadows. He had that feeling again and knew that the old-timers were right; the less time spent up here the better. The cowboss walked across the lanai and back down the rotting steps. As he hit the last one it gave way beneath his weight. To keep his balance he reached out and grabbed the handrail. ‘Son of a-,’ Hansen jerked his hand back from the rail and saw that it was bleeding. ‘Great’, he thought to himself, ‘on top of poor dead Charlie I’ll have to get a tetanus shot too.’ He looked back to the handrail for the offensive nail that had just skewered him and saw something sticking out the wood but it wasn’t a nail. The old man reached down and worked it loose then brought it up to his face for a closer look. ‘Well, I’ll be damned.’ Shining in the bright sunlight was a pearly white shark’s tooth.
“And he shall bring upon them their own iniquity,
And he shall cut them off in their wickedness.”
It started over a cup of coffee and the touch of her delicate hand. They met at Gracie’s Diner to discuss the Vacation Bible School program, but the conversation drifted from the inspired curriculum to their own childhoods, the small victories of youth, and the greater disappointments of life. Talk died for a moment and in that silence their eyes met. Her radiance opened a door to the Reverend Gary Fowler’s heart, and when she reached across the table and laid her tiny hand on top of his, it was as if angels fluttered around him, ready to lift him up to the heavens for blissful eternity.
No words were spoken in that brief moment, but her soft and childlike hand stirred the good reverend’s spirit in ways that the vows of holy matrimony had long since abandoned. She was a deacon’s wife and half his age and he was a married minister, but each knew that sin was inevitable for such is the power of Satan and the lure of fornication.
Denberg, Texas, was a small town — far too small for a preacher’s adulterous affair to go unnoticed. As the weeks passed, they continued with church business while their desires grew with each cup of coffee. The reverend knew it was wrong, but the lust he felt in his heart for Mrs. Darcy Jenkins was too strong to be denied. He found himself taking long drives in the country just to call her — two lost souls reaching out across a sea of loneliness, both lost in the need for each other’s earthly comforts. That such a love could exist was certainly a sin, yet such an act was born of passion and love, and surely the Lord was nothing if not forgiving when it came to loving thy neighbor, or thy neighbor’s wife.
The consummation of their lust required careful planning. The reverend’s wife, Mattie, was a stay-at-home mother even though their children had long left the nest. Young Mrs. Darcy Jenkins, besides being his Sunday school teacher, also worked as a teller for the First National Bank of Denberg. They knew there was not a place within fifty miles of town where they would not be recognized. Over several surreptitious phone calls it was decided that the only way they could be together was to travel beyond their world and into the wilds where sin was commonplace and the acts of consenting adults went unnoticed. They decided to meet in Dallas.
Darcy volunteered to attend the Southwest Regional Bankers Conference on Terrorism and Monetary Safety, which coincided with an early morning medical test the reverend would undergo at Southern Baptist Hospital. His doctor assured him that the procedure would take less than thirty minutes and after a short nap he would be fit as a fiddle, which sounded great to the reverend as he intended to rosin his bow with much vigor against his willing young love.
The reverend’s wife hated going to Dallas as much as she hated hospitals and was relieved when Gary told her he could manage the trip on his own. Under his doctor’s advice he would take a taxi from the hospital to a local motel, recuperate that evening, and be back in Denberg the following day. Mattie suspected nothing, wished her husband well, and promised to call him after the procedure.
The bankers’ anti-terrorism conference was a two-day affair, and Darcy didn’t know a single person in attendance. At the end of the first day, she would check into the Wayward Traveler’s Inn, call her husband back in Denberg, and then meet Reverend Gary in his room for an intimate dinner. Both she and the reverend could hardly contain their joy at the rapture that was sure to follow.
The days passed slowly until it was THE day. Reverend Gary rose early, kissed his wife good-bye, and assured her he would be fine. There was no need to call—besides the doctor said he’d be very drowsy after the procedure. With a good night’s rest he’d be right as rain and back in Denberg the following morning. His wife promised to say a prayer for him at 10:00 a.m. (the time of the procedure), and he promised to call her the minute he was safely tucked away beneath the covers of his hotel bed.
The drive to Dallas was uneventful except for the many heated visions that clouded the reverend’s mind. His admittance to the hospital was routine, and soon he found himself in a backless gown, lying on his side, listening to the instructions of the big-city doctor.
“Good morning, Reverend Fowler, are you ready for us to take a little peek up your backside?”
The reverend laughed nervously and replied, “I suppose so, Doctor, but it’s not the part of my day that I’m most looking forward to.”
“I don’t suppose it is, Hoss,” said the doctor, “but rest assured, my good reverend, there’s nothing to worry about. A colonoscopy is a routine procedure these days. I’ve done thousands of them with nary a complaint. We’ll be inserting a very small tube into your colon with a camera that’s smaller than your fingernail. I guarantee that you won’t feel a thing, and if I see anything, like a polyp, a cyst, or a car key, maybe a parakeet—well, I’ll just take it out right then and there—git ‘er done, yessiree. Not to worry, Reverend, you’re in good hands.”
“We are all in good hands, Doctor. The Lord watches over us all.”
“No doubt, Rev, now you’ll be in twilight sleep, so I doubt you’ll remember any of my corny jokes, which is probably just as well, and you certainly won’t be in any pain during the procedure or after.”
Just to confirm, the reverend asked, “Doctor, I have a prayer meeting tonight. Will I be recovered enough to make that?”
“I don’t see why not. The procedure takes about thirty minutes, then you’ll rest for another thirty. You should be on your way and into your hotel by 1:00 p.m. Give yourself a few hours to sleep off the anesthesia, and you’ll be ready to battle all manner of devils.”
“That’s sounds just wonderful.”
“And Reverend, I’m sure the man upstairs is watching over us today. Yessir, mighty good hands. We’re gonna start the anesthesia now. I want you to count down from ten to one.”
“Ten, nine, eight, seven, … six ….”
Two hours later Reverend Fowler was on his way to the Wayward Traveler’s Inn. Outside of feeling a little queasy and light-headed, he felt pretty good. There was no pain from his backside, and with a few hours’ rest, he was certain that he’d be in good spirits for his rendezvous with the enchanting Mrs. Darcy Jenkins.
His keys were waiting for him at the Express Check-in desk, and ten minutes later he was snug in his king-size bed, drifting off to sleep with visions of a daisy-print summer dress falling away from a young woman’s milky-white body.
The reverend awoke to a great spasm of pain tearing down his spine. Reflex drew his legs up to his chest, and he drew a deep and panicked breath. He was feverish and his hair was soaked in sweat. Something was terribly wrong! The pain came again like a convulsion of nausea, but instead of vomit, he blew out an enormous amount of gas and liquid from his backside.
“Oh Sweet Jesus!” exclaimed the man of God.
Another blast trumpeted forth and twinkling stars dashed before his eyes. He felt faint and in desperate need of the toilet. He threw back the bedcovers and was disgusted and amazed by the amount of swampy, thick liquid that coated his sheets and undergarments. Another wave rolled over him, and he threw himself off the bed and stumbled toward the bathroom, leaving an eruption of slime in his wake.
He pulled down his soiled pajamas and plopped onto the commode. Wave after wave of gassy cramps tore through his innards before blasting their way to freedom. This kind of gut-wrenching torture was unprecedented in Reverend Fowler’s existence, and he was certain that his medical procedure had been botched. Did that philistine of a doctor nick something inside of him? Did he use some experimental dye or cleansing agent that demanded to depart his body? It was impossible for one man to produce such a backlog of gas, and yet the trumpet continued to sound as the flood of odious waters poured from his body. There was nothing to do but hold on and let nature take its course. He sat on the commode and prayed for deliverance.
After what seemed like an eternity in hell (but was really only about fifteen minutes) the eruptions ebbed away and the reverend attempted to clean himself. He tended to his toilet areas first and then began pulling off long rolls of tissue paper to wipe the splattered filth from his legs and feet.
With the basics taken care of, the reverend looked into the mirror and saw a ghostly old man staring back at him. He grabbed a hand towel off the counter and mopped his weary brow. His fever had broken and he was weak, but he felt strong enough to stand. He flushed the toilet, regained his composure, and went out to assess the horror left in the bedroom.
The first thing to hit him was the stench: an intense profanity of chlorine and brimstone. It smelled of perdition and pine solvent. His bed was completely soiled. The ruined linens where he had planned to lay his young lover now took on a neon-green glow. What in God’s precious Earth had that idiot quack put inside him?
He looked at his watch. It was 5:00 p.m. He still had an hour to make things right. He would open the windows and air out the room, then call room service and have them strip the bed, or better yet, he could change rooms. All he had to do was call Darcy at 6:00 p.m. and give her his new room number.
And then he felt something cold tickling his feet.
WATER! Standing in nothing but his soiled undershirt, he whipped around to see a lake of greenish-yellow water flowing out from the bathroom. Wads of toilet tissue were sailing across the tile as the noxious waters spread out and reached for the carpet’s shore. Thinking fast, the minister scooped up his soiled bed sheets and threw them down to create a barrier to stay the flood. He quickly arranged the sheets as a makeshift levee then waded back into the bathroom.
The toilet was overflowing. Water cascaded down in a steady stream, spreading under the sink, across the floor, and out the door. He watched the water roll into the closet and saw a piece of fouled toilet paper attach itself to the mini safe sitting there on the floor.
Gary dashed over to the toilet and jiggled the handle. Cursing his own stupidity he muttered, “Oh, good Lord, Gary—don’t be an idiot!”
He reached down to the valve next to the toilet and turned it until the flowing stopped.
He would certainly have to call the manager now for a new room. He looked around and tried to calculate the standing water.
“It must be gallons.”
A vision crossed his mind of water seeping through the floor and dropping like tainted raindrops onto the guests below. That would be a big problem and one that could bring his evening to a screeching halt. He needed to clean the water up fast! Looking around the bathroom, he saw two large bath towels, two medium towels, two wash cloths, and in the closet he spotted two terry-cloth bathrobes. The reverend snatched the towels off the wire rack and flung them at the fetid waters. He went to the closet and did the same with the robes and watched as they all began to pull away at the deluge.
“It’s not pretty but it’s workable.”
He looked at his watch. 5:10.
“I just have to mop up all this water and wring it out in the tub. It shouldn’t take me more than ten to fifteen minutes. Then I can call the manager and get another room. Praise the Lord. I’m not sunk yet.”
But first, Gary thought, I need to put on a clean pair of underwear and quit walking around with my dillywhacker danglin’ down.
The reverend went to his suitcase and took out his only clean pair of underwear, pulled them on, and then dropped down to his hands and knees. He said a quick prayer to ask for strength then began swirling the towels around in the spoiled waters. Once fully saturated, he took them to the bathtub, wrung them out, and then debased himself again.
After several trips, the waters were indeed receding, and though the reverend was feeling a little taxed and tired, the situation was under control. A couple more rounds with the towels and the floor would be clean.
As he flipped a towel over to soak up just a bit more water, Gary was startled by a knock at the door.
Was he not fast enough? Had the ceiling started leaking below him?
The knocks came again, followed by a squeaky little voice, “Gary? Are you in there? It’s Darcy. Darcy Jenkins.”
His mind raced. “DARCY! She’s early. I need to get cleaned up. I need a new room!”
“Gary, honey, are you in there? Hellooo?”
The reverend couldn’t just let her walk away.
“Uh … hello, Darcy. Yes, I’m in here.”
“Well, open the door Silly Billy. Don’t you wanna see me?”
“Of course I do, but there’s been a bit of an accident.”
“What kind of accident? Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m fine. It’s just the toilet. It overflowed and I’m having to mop it up. I was getting ready to call the manager and get us another room and …”
“C’mon, Gary, let me in. Don’t make me stand out in the hall.”
The reverend bolted up and opened the door a crack to see his lovely Sunday school teacher smiling at him, and she was wearing the daisy-covered sun dress he admired so much.
“It’s kind of embarrassing, Darcy. I’m in my underwear. You see, I had to take off my pants to clean up the mess and well …”
Mrs. Darcy Jenkins leaned toward the crack in the door and whispered, “It’s okay, Reverend. When you sneak off to meet a married man in his hotel room—seeing him in his underwear is part of the program.”
Gary opened the door wide enough to let his young love in. Darcy stepped into the room and immediately waved her hand in front of her nose. “Good Lord above, what is that smell?”
“Oh, it’s a long story but—”
“And why are all the sheets off the bed? Was there—” Darcy stepped forward to survey the bedroom and slipped on a piece of soggy toilet paper, sending her crashing to the tile floor. Before the reverend could reach out to catch her, she had splashed down onto a pile of soaked and soiled towels.
“Oh my God, what is this stuff?” cried Darcy as the reverend helped her back to her feet. Her dressed was now soaked and neon green, and there were bits of toilet paper stuck all up and down her front.
She looked down at her once-pretty dress, and Gary saw the tears well up in her lovely blue eyes. “Oh Gary, am I covered in doodoo? Is this your doodoo from the toilet?”
The reverend reached out and pulled her into his loving arms.
“I’m sorry, Darling. This is not how I intended our fellowship to go. Let’s get you out of that dress and we can clean it up in the sink, and then I’ll call down to room service and order up a couple more bathrobes. After that, maybe we can pack it in and head to your room. How does that sound, Sweetheart? Does that sound all right, Sugar Pop?”
Darcy looked up at the reverend and made a cute little pouty face. “Okay, Mr. Care Gare. If you help me out of this little ol’ dress then I guess we can take it from there.”
Gary eagerly reached around and unzipped the back of her dress then started pulling it up and over her head.
“Be careful now,” giggled Darcy. “I think you’re getting a little overzealous there, Reverend.”
Gary pulled the dress off and threw it across the room then grabbed Darcy and kissed her hard on the lips, then on her cheek, then buried his mouth in her neck.
“Oh, Reverend, I think you better slow down, honey, and save a little for when we get back to my room.”
Gary looked down at her bountiful breasts and imagined them bursting forth from her lacy brassiere. He flung her onto the despoiled bed and jumped down beside her.
“Ewww, the bed is wet and gooey!” exclaimed Darcy.
Gary quickly pulled her on top of him and thrust his eager hands under her extra-support wireframe bra.
From across the room a loud metallic click came from the door as the tumbler flipped into the unlocked position. A second later, Mrs. Mattie Fowler entered the room.
The Reverend’s wife saw her husband lying on the bed with the Sunday school teacher straddled on top of him.
She saw his hands shoved up under her bra, clutching at her large ponderous breasts.
She saw a heavily soiled mattress with no sheets.
She saw two bathrobes lying in soggy heaps on the floor, looking like they were covered in poop and pee.
And then there was the overpowering smell.
It was almost too much for her to process, but her eyes went back to her old goat of a husband with his hands on the Sunday school teacher’s enormous bazooms.
“Mr. Gary Fowler, twenty-six years of marriage and four children and here you are with this porky little tramp. And to think, I was worried and drove all the way to Dallas to check on you.”
The Reverend struggled to untangle himself from the clutches of Darcy’s taut and binding brassiere, “Mattie, I’m sorry. This isn’t what is seems. You see, I was sick, real sick, and Darcy here, I mean, Mrs. Jenkins was trying to help me out and things just kinda—”
Mrs. Fowler raised her finger to her husband. “Hold that thought, Gary. I gotta go out to my car and get my gun!”
And with that, the Reverend Mrs. Fowler turned on her heel and was gone.
Darcy pulled herself away from the preacher’s grasp, grabbed her ruined sundress and pulled it on quickly. As she headed out the door, she paused then turned back and spoke, “I’m sorry, Gary, I really gotta go now. Call me … okay?” And then blew him a kiss and was gone too.
Reverend Gary Fowler sat up and looked to the ceiling.
“My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Then the rumbling in his guts returned and he bolted for the bathroom.
Officer Miguel Alvarez sat in his cruiser at 3:30 a.m. finishing up his lunch at Texas Rest Area Number #79. His wife, Maria, had made his tuna fish sandwich just the way he liked it: light on the mayo and heavy on the crunchy pickles. With a hot cup of coffee or two, he’d be good for the next four hours. Some of his fellow officers hated pulling night patrol, but Miguel didn’t mind. It was a nice break from writing speeding tickets in the hot Texas sun, and outside of dealing with the occasional belligerent drunk, there wasn’t a lot happening on State Highway 163 in the middle of the night.
Miguel had been a police officer for five years and married to Maria for the last two. When they were dating, she informed him that the last thing on Earth she wanted to do was marry a cop. When he proposed, she asked him to quit, but in the next breath she took it back. She was like that. She’d speak her mind then follow up with a kindness. It was one of the many traits he loved about her.
His father, Big Ernie Alvarez, was a highway patrol legend and the first president of the West Texas Latino Patrolmen’s Association. The image Miguel kept of his papa was one of strength and composure. Big Ernie stayed in shape; he did his Marine Corps PT every morning and always kept his uniform pressed and immaculate. His father was a fair man but tolerated no rude behavior from anyone. If you stepped on the wrong side of Ernie Alvarez, you were on the wrong side of life.
Miguel idolized his father and wanted nothing more than to be like him. As a teenager he didn’t dream of being a rock star—he wanted a crew cut and a badge. As he pursued his criminal justice degree, he had visions of going on patrols with his father, traveling the long Texas highways as a fellow officer and keeping the roads safe for all.
It was Miguel’s dream, but like Maria, his father didn’t share it.
“My son, the days when people respected the badge are dead’r than Elvis Presley. You go become a lawyer, or even a bail bondsman, but don’t put on the uniform. The badge is nothing but a target these days.”
Ernesto Alvarez died of a sudden heart attack a semester before Miguel graduated and joined the Texas Highway Patrol.
Rest Area #79 was built in the 1950s during an era of highway expansion, back when gas was cheap and the cities were far between. These welcome stops were a great convenience for a traveling nation and essential for a state as large as Texas. Number 79 had picnic tables, men’s and women’s facilities, and a few vending machines for sodas and snacks. At 3:30 a.m. it was deserted except for an old Lincoln Town Car parked at the far end of the driveway, about twenty empty stalls away from Miguel’s cruiser. The Lincoln sat mostly in darkness as the closest street lamp had a short that caused it to wink in and out. Every few minutes he saw the Lincoln emerge from the shadows as the lamp twitched from off to on.
There was nothing wrong with a parked car at a rest stop at night. That’s what rest stops were for—rest. Smart drivers took advantage of their tax dollars while others tried to push it when they shouldn’t. Those were the ones Miguel found off the road and in a world of hurt.
He poured himself a cup of coffee from his thermos and glanced in the direction of the Lincoln. He’d seen no lights or movement inside the vehicle since he pulled in for his lunch break and felt no compelling reason to disturb the driver’s night’s sleep. As soon as he finished his coffee, he’d roll out quietly and leave this traveler to catch what rest they could.
The coffee was good and the night was quiet except for the occasional chirp of crickets and the hum of the compressor in the vending machine. Miguel had taken the last swig from his plastic cup when a young woman walked out of the ladies restroom and stopped midway down the sidewalk. She looked to be in her early twenties and was wearing some sort of black overcoat, or maybe it was a raincoat. She stood perfectly still then swatted the air several times as if shooing a fly. She then placed her hands over her eyes and leaned her head back. She stood on the sidewalk like that, still as a statue, long enough for Miguel to wonder if something was wrong. He was about to flash his headlights at her when she dropped her hands and took off running in the direction of the Lincoln. In the darkness he heard a door slam, an engine roar to life, and then the Lincoln backed up several feet and stopped. The car idled for a moment and then the engine died and the lights went out.
It was all a bit on the peculiar side, but tired people did peculiar things. Maybe she decided she needed a little shut-eye after all. It wasn’t against the law to back up three feet and stop. He poured another cup of coffee from his thermos and enjoyed the cool night air and the warmth of his French roast. Occasionally the light above the vehicle flickered to life for a second then snapped out again. In the brief illumination Miguel saw the dark shadow of the woman sitting at the wheel. During one moment of illumination, Miguel thought he saw her swatting at flies.
He sipped his coffee and kept his eyes focused on the dark end of the parking lot. It was unusual for a woman traveling alone to stop at a remote rest area. Most ladies would be scared to do that. And then there was all that weirdness with the fly swatting. She was young enough to be a druggie, not that you had to be young to partake. Maybe she was a meth head or just good old-fashioned crazy? The more he thought about her strange behavior the more he thought he should go down and check on her. If she was high or having some mental episode, she certainly didn’t need to be on the road.
Miguel put his thermos away and stepped out of the cruiser. His legs were stiff, but they loosened up as he walked down the sidewalk and toward the parked car. The light flickered again as he came along the driver’s side window. He could see the woman behind the wheel. Her eyes were closed and she took no notice of him. She looked like she was resting, but then she wrinkled her nose and swatted at the air in front of her face. He tapped lightly on the glass and said, “Good evening, Ma’am. Highway Patrol. Do you need any assistance tonight?”
The young woman’s eyes popped open and she jerked her head toward him. The electric window came down and the light buzzed off again. A few seconds later the light popped back on and Miguel saw her face clearly exposed in the orange glow. Her blank expression shot off an immediate flare in his mind. There was something smeared on her lip, and her eyes were hollow with pupils as large as saucers. Before he could ask for her license and registration, the gun came up and Miguel was blown away into the shadows.
He awoke not knowing where he was. It was dark, and he had a searing pain in his right side. As his vision cleared, he saw a long pole leading up to an orange lamp. The lamp buzzed on and off, throwing out light and then reeling it back in. His mind was fuzzy, and there was this terrible pain in his side. He was also very tired. He wanted to sleep and make the pain go away. If he could get comfortable and rest for a while, maybe he’d wake up in bed with Maria and …
DO NOT GO TO SLEEP.
Miguel snapped back to consciousness. He’d been shot. A crazy woman had shot him, and he was bleeding out in a deserted parking lot fifty-six miles from the nearest town. Miguel lifted his head to look around. A nail of pain pierced his forehead and forced him back down onto the asphalt. The Lincoln was gone. The crazy lady had left him to die.
WORK THE SITUATION. HOW BADLY ARE YOU INJURED?
Miguel reached across with his left arm and gently touched his right side. A wave of pain rolled up his spine. His hand came back sticky and wet. Not good. When the light buzzed on again, he looked at his hand. It was as if he had dipped it in motor oil. There was a cold fire on his right side, and the deadening chill was spreading. He reached over again to gauge the damage. The stickiness extended from his belt to his underarm.
Closing his eyes, he concentrated on his feet. Yes, he could move his toes. The bullet had missed his spine and probably torn straight through him. He wasn’t dead or paralyzed, which meant that he could move, but he didn’t have much time. A body could lose only so much blood. He had to get back to the cruiser and call for backup or Rest Area #79 would be his final resting place.
A loud crash broke through the night bringing Miguel up on his side. His vision blurred then cleared as he caught his breath. Was she still here? Had she just moved the car and then come back to finish him off? Another banging crash rang out, and this time he was sure it was coming from the restroom area. The Lincoln’s gone. Is somebody else up there? Miguel looked around. The lot was empty except for his cruiser.
He tried to call out for help, but his voice was weak. “Hello? Is there someone up there? My name is Officer Miguel Alvarez. I’ve been shot. Is there anybody there?”
There was no reply—just the sound of the crickets and the hum of the vending machines.
Propped up on his side, he considered his next move. There were only about twenty parking stalls between him and his cruiser. It was as simple as standing up and walking less than a minute to get to his vehicle and the radio. Simple, except that he couldn’t stand up. Just rolling over onto his side had set the world spinning. Maybe someone would drive in soon and find him. He could catch his breath and—
YOU CAN’T WAIT. NO ONE IS COMING.
No one is coming. I know that. Nobody stops here anymore. Just cops and loco ladies with guns.
GET UP AND GET A MOVE ON.
Miguel drug himself around to face the direction of the police cruiser. As his did, he cut his palm on a piece of broken glass. Looking toward the cruiser, he saw about half a dozen spots that twinkled—broken beer bottles.
The sidewalk is smoother and there’s no glass. Maybe I could be seen from the road?
PASSING BY AT SEVENTY-FIVE MILES AN HOUR WITH YOU LYING ON THE GROUND? HOW COULD THEY SEE YOU?
Miguel coughed, winced, and then shimmied up to the curb. Once there, he rolled himself onto the sidewalk. Consciousness sloshed around in his brain against a tidal wave of pain. He fought with all his might to stay awake and not give in to the demands that he lie still and never move again.
“Okay, Cadet Alvarez, just like PT,” he whispered to himself. “You’re going to belly crawl down to that cruiser and get on that radio. You’re not giving up. You’re going to make it home to Maria.”
In a jungle crawl Miguel humped his way forward. One, two, three—Okay that’s one stall done. Wait a minute. Breathe.
Four, five, six. Whoah, slow down. Don’t pass out. Take a deep breath. Let the oxygen feed the brain. Stay awake. I have to stay awake.
Miguel thought of Maria, dressed in black, accepting a folded flag at his gravesite. He saw his mother crying in the arms of a priest, flanked by fellow officers with rifles ready for the final salute.
Miguel rocked himself forward again, past another parking stall and then the next. A quick rest and then the next and the next and then BANG!
What the hell is that?
Miguel jerked his head toward the restrooms and saw two metal trashcans tipped over outside the men’s room. A large possum emerged from one of the cans with a paper sack flashing the Golden Arches.
“That stuff will kill you,” said Miguel to the large rodent.
The possum stared at him for a moment then scurried off into the darkness.
Miguel twisted his neck around to see how far he’d come. He’d made it about halfway to the cruiser, but in his wake was a large smear on the sidewalk that led right up to his boots. The smear looked brown under the sodium vapor lights, but Miguel knew it was bright red, the color of the devil’s paint brush.
That’s a lot of blood loss. What’s the body hold? Six liters? My thermos holds a liter. Spill it out on the sidewalk and … damn. How much blood can I lose before I pass out?
As if in reply a wave of nausea broke over him, and his vision telescoped to a small point of light then winked out.
The crickets chirped as the condenser rattled away in the soda machine.
Miguel opened his eyes and the world came slowly back into focus.
How long was I out?
He reached down and popped the catch off his holster. He pulled his sidearm and pushed off the safety. Rolling over onto his back, he fired a round into the air. The recoil sent the gun flying from his hand and clattering down the pavement. A wave of pain rolled down his arm, jumped over to his injured side, and sent him back into the blackness.
His surroundings emerged much slower this time. Not thinking straight. Too much blood loss. Firing the gun. Estupidio. Por favor, Dios me ayude.
GOD HELPS THOSE WHO MOVE THEIR ASSES.
Move my ass. Right …
RIGHT NOW, MIGUEL!
Wiggling side to side, pushing with his left and then his right foot, Miguel humped his way down the sidewalk. Past another parking stall, then another, and one more, then two more.
MOVE IT! MOVE IT! MOVE IT!
I have to catch my breath. Por favor, I can’t breathe. Just a few more … Madre de Dios, no! Stay awake! Just a little more, just a ...
Miguel awoke to a tickling sensation on his face. Something was in front of him … moving. A soft flicker touched his face again and then he saw it.
His face was turned toward the serpent. The snake looked at him and moved its head from side to side. There was no anger, nor fear or comprehension in its eyes. Something large was simply in its way. Its tongue darted out again. The reptile considered its options then slithered around him.
I guess I’m too big to swallow. Gracias Dios. I’ll be slithering on too.
One more stall, and then the last one. Catch a breath. Left and right and left and right.
Jesuchristo! It hurts so much.
Let it pass let it pass let it pass …
Maria … te quiero. I’m so sorry, mi corazon.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, I fly to you, I come to you …
STOP IT! BE A MAN, MIGUEL!
Miguel shook his head and pushed forward. In front of him was a shiny metal object just a few inches off the curb.
IT’S THE BUMPER. GRAB IT!
His hand was in front of his face now. It was blurry, one hand, now two, now three.
DON’T GIVE UP NOW! GRAB IT AND PULL!
With one hand on the bumper, Miguel pulled himself to his knees and vomited.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT THAT. SHAKE IT OFF!
His body couldn’t support his heavy, throbbing head, and he slumped down onto the hood of the cruiser.
BUENO. USE THE HOOD FOR SUPPORT AND SLIDE OVER TO THE DOOR.
10-4, slide over to the door and open it. That’s all there is to it.
Miguel pushed himself along the side of the patrol car, inch by bloody inch, down the vehicle and toward the door.
NOW STAND ON YOUR FEET AND OPEN THAT GODDAMN DOOR!
Don’t blaspheme. Not when I’m so close to our Heavenly Father …
YOUR HEAVENLY FATHER WANTS YOU TO OPEN THE GODDAMN DOOR!
Miguel grabbed the door handle and pulled. It swung open, knocking him backwards and back down to the asphalt. Lying on his back, he looked up into the light. It was as bright as the sun and burned his eyes. He couldn’t hear the crickets or the soda machine, or the snake or the possum. The piercing light burned through his eyes and danced like a skeleton inside his skull.
OFFICER MIGUEL ALVAREZ. YOUR WIFE IS WAITING FOR YOU AT HOME.
GET YOUR GOLD-BRICKING LAZY ASS UP.
Miguel gritted his teeth and flipped onto his stomach then elbowed his way forward. His head banged against the car frame. He pushed himself up and saw the front seat. With his left hand he reached up and found the wheel and with his right he grabbed a handful of the seatbelt. Gathering what strength he had left, he pulled with his arms and launched with his legs.
The radio was by his head. He grabbed the receiver as a blinding pain rolled down his right side. He spoke into the hand mic.
“Car 27. Officer down. Repeat Officer down.”
He waited a few seconds but there was no reply.
HOLD DOWN THE SEND BUTTON.
Miguel held down the send button and repeated, “Car 27. Officer Down. Repeat. Car 27. Officer down.”
There was a second of silence then, “This is Dispatch, Car 27. What is your location?”
“Rest stop on the highway. Young woman gone loco …”
“Car 27. Which rest stop? Officer Alvarez, what is the nature of your injury?”
“Rest Area #79. Shot bad. There’s a woman in a black Lincoln. Armed and—”
“Mike, let’s not worry about her right now. Where were you shot?”
“Woman with snake eyes … culebra loco …”
“The chopper is in the air, Mike. Star Flight is en route. Repeat—Star Flight is en route.”
“Lincoln Town Car with a black raincoat … snake eyes.”
“Roger that. We’ll find her. Hang on, Alvarez. The calvary is coming.”
GOOD WORK, MIGUEL. TE QUIERO HIJO.
“Te quiero mucho, Papá.”
“Stay with us, Mike. Help is on the way.”
It was 10:00 a.m. and Jesse was three beers into officially drunk. It was a little early for intoxication, but with his daddy dead and being back in Toweata, Texas, he felt justified. He’d sworn to never walk these streets again, and he’d have kept that promise if it weren’t for the badgering of his older brother. They were the James brothers, Frank and Jesse, their father’s one and only joke—naming his sons after the notorious outlaws. Even for a man of the cloth, the last name of “James” was too strong a temptation when it came to naming his two boys. Jesse sighed and shook his head. If his mother were still alive, she’d have planted the Good Reverend James, and Jesse wouldn’t be sitting at the undertaker’s waiting for his brother, but she was gone and now Daddy was too.
Gail Thorton, the receptionist for the Purvis Brothers Funeral Home, walked into the receiving room where Jesse James sat slumped in a chair next to the “Eternal Rest in Paradise” display, their top-selling and cheapest interment receptacle—the preferred term for the duded-up boxes sold to the grieving families of Toweata. Her boss and owner of the funeral home, Walter Purvis, was very particular in the language they used with the bereaved. Souls were interred in the earth—nobody ever got “laid out” or “planted” or even just “buried.” It seemed like a lot of nonsense to Gail, but that was the mortuary business, and now it was her business.
Gail looked at Jesse with a professional sadness that came with the job. As she did, she noticed a small mustard stain on his collar along with a few bread crumbs glued to the right corner of his mouth, and if she weren’t mistaken, she detected the faint smell of beer and cigarettes.
“Is there anything I can get for you, honey?”
Jesse looked up at the undertaker’s lady and tried to place her in the long list of local folks he couldn’t care less about. There was something familiar about her. He couldn’t quite place her face, but she did have a nice rack. It was worthy of a quick peek down her blouse as she leaned over to speak to him.
“Well, darling, you got any beer in this gyp joint?”
Gail snorted and replied, “You are an outlaw, Jesse James, but then you always were.” Noticing his roaming eyes, she straightened herself and placed her hands firmly on her hips. “Of course we don’t have any beer in a funeral home, but I can get you some fresh coffee. You look like you could use some.”
Jessie put on his best lady-killing smile and said, “No, thank you, Ma’am, but I appreciate your kind hospitality. Maybe we can get that beer a little later?” Where did he know her from?
Gail dodged the pass and switched back into her sincerity mode. “Jesse, I’d like to offer my condolences on the passing of your dear father. I didn’t know the reverend well, but I did know your sweet mother and how much she loved him. I talked to her many times down at the beauty parlor, and she was such a wonderful soul, so proud of you and your brother—your brother owning the lumber yard, and you, well, just doing all the interesting things that you do.”
“Oh yes, she was a great liar, my mother.” Miss Chatterbox’s rack was getting less impressive by the moment. He wished she’d just leave him and his hangover in peace.
“Shame on you!” said Gail. “I doubt your mother told a fib in her whole life. She took great pride in her boys and in her husband’s good works.”
“I suppose she did,” said Jesse. “Love will make you do crazy things.”
Gail contemplated Jesse in his three-day stubble and worn leather jacket. She’d known him in high school. He obviously didn’t remember her, even though he felt her up in the Genie movie theater back when they were juniors. He was still sexy in a broken-down fashion, but when a bad boy inches up on forty, all that sexy turns sour pretty quick. She reached out and touched him on his shoulder before departing. “Sugar, if you need anything—just holler. I’ll be right out in the foyer.”
Jesse nodded and watched Gail’s backside as she walked from the room. Her face didn’t look familiar, but her sway struck a chord. He wondered if she was that metal-mouthed girl that he’d felt up in the Genie theater back in high school.
Frank James pulled into the Purvis Brothers Funeral Home ten minutes late for the consultation. He hated being late, especially with Jesse waiting on him. Usually it was Frank who was waiting on his younger brother. Jesse, whose smart mouth caused a thousand dust-ups between them, was sure to notice their role reversal. Frank had grown out of all that childishness, but Jesse never would grow up.
Frank looked at the large Purvis Brothers sign planted in the front lawn and shook his head. Everyone knew that Walter Purvis was an only child. Vanity was all it was, or maybe the old man thought that “Purvis Brothers” sounded more substantial than just “Walter E. Purvis, Undertaker.” Frank didn’t know or care about the burying business; his job was running F. J. Lumber & Hardware, and with the new Super Low Depot opening up soon, his business was shaky at best. As ashamed as he was to admit it, Daddy’s death couldn’t have come at a better time. If they could sell his father’s house quick enough, the extra cash might hold him over until he could unload the store before the Big Box closed it for good.
As Frank came through the door, Gail dashed around the reception desk and gave him a quick hug before escorting him in to see his brother. After Gail watched the brothers nod at each other and Jesse tap his watch and wag his finger at Frank, she escorted the James brothers to the consultation room to meet with Walter Purvis. Perfunctory greetings and heartfelt condolences were exchanged, and Gail departed, leaving the three men to discuss the arrangements.
Walter Purvis was well over six feet tall, thin as a reed, and wore a bad toupee that contradicted his otherwise solemn demeanor. As they settled into their chairs, Walter dropped his countenance into a most serious gaze and began, “Boys, there’s a problem with your father’s contract, and I’m afraid it’s a substantial one.”
“Oh, here we go,” muttered Jesse, shooting a sideways glance at Frank. “Let the gouging begin.”
Frank shot his younger brother a stern look then addressed the mortician. “Walter, I understood that Daddy’s needs were all taken care of years ago by our mother. Is that not correct?”
“Well, yes and no,” said the spindly old man.
“Get to the ‘no’ part, grave digger,” said Jesse.
“There’s no need for that kind of rude talk, young man,” said the mortician. “Your mother did indeed take care of all the service requirements for interment. The problem lies with your father’s mortal remains. To be exact, with his size.”
“Is he too fat to fit in the casket?” asked Jesse.
“Shut up, Jesse! Show some respect!” snapped Frank.
The brothers glared at each other as Walter Purvis continued, “That’s an indelicate way of approaching the subject, but yes, the size of your father’s remains prohibit the use of the Blue Paradise model that your mother picked out for him, nor would he fit in an Eternal Rest, or even one of our oversized Golden Slumber units.”
“What about just cremating him? You don’t need a fancy box for that,” said Jesse.
“That is true. However, there remains the problem of your father’s … broadness. As you know, in the later years of his life, your father, well, he became much larger. We could barely fit him through the morgue’s double doors let alone through the span of the—”
“You can’t get him in the oven. Just say it.”
“Dammit, Jesse, that’s our father you’re talking about!”
“Frank, the Good Reverend Edward James is gone. What we’re talking about here is five hundred pounds of dead weight.”
“You’ve become a spiteful man, Jesse,” said Frank, “and a mean-hearted son of a bitch.”
Jesse looked at his older brother and decided to pass on the pissing contest. Turning back to Walter Purvis, he said, “All right, grave digger. What’s the bottom line for getting Daddy into the dirt?”
The mortician nodded, dashed a number down on a piece of paper, and then pushed the note across his desk to Frank and Jesse.
As the brothers contemplated the long line of zeros, Walter Purvis explained, “I can acquire a lovely receptacle appropriate for your father from an associate in Dallas who deals in these custom situations, but the cost of the receptacle alone is $48,000 before tax, shipping, and handling. Then we’ll need a crane at the gravesite to lower him into the earth. We’ll also need a flatbed truck for the procession and possibly a fork lift to assist with placing your father onto the vehicle. I assure you that all of this can be done tastefully and with the utmost respect for the departed, and that the number I’ve given you is a great discount on all the many costs I will incur. I hope you realize that I offer this in light of the good work your father did for this community. May God rest his soul.”
Frank stared at the yellow note and saw his inheritance vanish.
“I appreciate that, Walter, but I have a flatbed at the lumberyard and I’ll get us a crane from Bob Jones Construction. How much will that save us? You gotta understand that things are tight right now. We can’t go whole hog on this thing.”
“What if he wasn’t so big?” asked Jesse. “Could you cremate him then?”
The old mortician wrinkled his hawkish nose in distaste. “If you are suggesting a dismemberment, yes, it is a possibility, though I would need to discuss this with my attorney before agreeing to such a violation of the earthly remains.”
“Now wait just a damn minute, Jesse,” said Frank. “We are not going to butcher our father like some hog to slaughter.”
“Hog’s about right,” said Jesse right before his brother’s fist caught him on the jaw and sent him flying from his chair. Jesse came up off the floor, threw himself at his brother, and the two of them crashed around the consultation room, knocking flower vases to the floor. The old undertaker rose to his feet.
“Gentleman, please! Control yourselves! Show some respect! This furniture is new and any damages suffered today shall be included with my final bill!”
After their hurried departure from the Purvis Brothers, Frank and Jesse decided to let cooler heads prevail and meet up later for further discussions. Frank returned to the lumberyard and Jesse spent the afternoon at the Rack Em High Pool Hall. At 7:00 p.m. Jesse drove to the Red Barn liquor store and purchased a case of beer and two bottles of whiskey. He wasn’t about to spend the evening in his childhood home without plenty of alcohol.
Frank was waiting outside when Jessie pulled up. This time it was Frank tapping his watch and wagging his finger. The place was pretty much as the boys remembered it though it seemed smaller somehow. The grass was overgrown and the house needed a paint job, but Frank thought they could get decent money for it if they gave it a minimal touch up.
Inside the James residence, many of the household items were gone, taken by brazen relatives and self-proclaimed friends. Jesse had wanted none of it, nor did he care about selling the house. Frank could sell it, keep the money, or burn it to the ground—it made no difference to him. All Jesse wanted was to resolve his father’s burial plans and say good-bye to Toweata forever.
The brothers settled around the kitchen table, each taking the seat they occupied as boys. Jesse pulled the tab on a can of beer and passed it to his brother, then opened one for himself. Looking around, he could almost see their mother coming out of the kitchen with a meatloaf and a mountain of mashed potatoes.
“How’d Daddy get so fat, Frank? I mean, he was always big, but Jesus H. Christ, when I saw him at Mama’s funeral, I hardly recognized him.”
Frank took a pull on the whiskey bottle, then chased it with his beer before replying, “It was after you left and Mama died, that’s when things went south for Daddy. Mama had the cancer, but it destroyed them both. If you’d ever come around, you’d have seen that. I tried to talk to him, but I don’t think he wanted to live without Mama. Being a preacher, he wasn’t the type to kill himself, not in a sudden way, anyhow.”
“Something broke in him, I guess. Man proposes but God disposes. Happens to the best of us.”
“That’s right, little brother. And he was the best of us. More man than you or I will ever be, whatever his size.”
Jesse downed his beer and opened another. “Death by cheesecake, eh Frank? The preacher’s poison—you can’t drink or sin, so you double-up on the ala mode. We always had plenty of ice cream in this house.”
“We did, didn’t we? The James gang never suffered for Rocky Road, that’s for damn sure.” Frank took another shot and added, “Mama used to make the best peach cobbler in the world. Do you remember that?”
“Of course I do. We’d fight over who got the largest piece. You were always such a baby, Frank, always acting like you got slighted somehow. Half the time we didn’t get any ‘cause Daddy would send us to our rooms for fighting.”
Frank’s smile faded as he reached for the bottle again. “Mama always gave you the bigger piece, Jesse, because she favored you. God knows why, but it used to piss me off something fierce. Even when she was dying and you weren’t around, she’d talk about her little boy and her face would light up.”
Jesse looked at his brother with a drunk’s pity. “Maybe she did favor me, but she shouldn’t have. You were the one who took care of her and Daddy. I couldn’t wait to be rid of all of you. You earned their love and respect, not me. For what it’s worth, you have mine.”
Jesse opened another beer and handed it to his brother.
“Frank, what are we gonna do about Daddy?”
Frank took a couple large gulps and sat his beer down. “Well, here’s what’s not gonna happen. We’re not choppin’ up the Good Reverend James like so much firewood. We’re gonna give Daddy a decent burial like our mother intended. I don’t care what it costs or what we have to beg, borrow, or steal to do it.”
“You have that kind of money, Frank?”
Frank shook his head. “No, I don’t. And I was hoping to get a little something out of selling this house, but the way the market is … I guess we’ll have to get a loan and use the house as collateral. Maybe I can get Rodger down at the bank to mortgage the lumberyard again, if it’s still worth anything. Beth and I have a little retirement we can throw in and—”
Jesse cut his brother off. “What about an Indian burial? Daddy was always talking about being half Cherokee and how they used to bury their own. None of that embalming, casket bullshit. You and I—we do it, as brothers. We bury the old man with our own hands.”
“Do what? Like wrap him in a blanket and plant him under a tree somewhere? You can’t do that anymore. There are laws, Jesse, and old man Purvis ain’t gonna go for that. No, I’ll try and get something for—”
Jesse reached out and grabbed his brother’s arm. His eyes narrowed and his face hardened.
“Frank, our Daddy was a preacher man who spoke the Word of God. He taught us that Adam raised Cain, and our Daddy, our good and decent father, raised Frank and Jesse James. Now, are we gonna sit here and talk about the law or are we gonna give our father the respect he deserves?”
Frank stared at his brother then chugged down the rest of his beer. By the time the beer was finished and the first whiskey bottle was empty, Frank and Jesse James had decided to rob the Purvis Brothers Funeral Home.
A large truck sporting an F.J. Lumber & Hardware decal weaved down the road, pulling a trailered Dozer Cat behind it. Fortunately, the streets were clear and the good people of Toweata, Texas, had long since gone to bed. Frank slammed on the brakes, throwing himself and his brother forward as they came to an abrupt stop in front of the funeral home.
“Nice driving, Dillweed,” said Jesse, looking down at his whiskey-soaked shirt.
His brother reached over, grabbed the bottle out of Jesse’s hand, and finished it off. “Well, I got us here, didn’t I? Now let’s get to it.”
The boys abandoned the vehicle and stumbled up the driveway toward Purvis Brothers. The full moon offered plenty of light to see by. It’s too bright out here, thought Frank, who would have preferred a darker night for this kind of undertaking.
Jesse bounded up the stairs and was about to bang on the door when his brother hissed at him, “Get your ass down here, Jesse. Don’t wake the old bastard! We’ll go around to the side—to the morgue entrance.” Frank belched and stumbled off toward the back of the property. Jesse wavered for a moment, considered ringing the bell and running, then thought better of it and turned to follow his brother.
On the backside of the building, the brothers found a loading area and two large double doors.
“This must be where they bring in the stiffs,” said Jesse. “The White Zone is for Baptists and Evangelicals only. All you Catholics and Hebrews leave your bodies out back. Y’all are going to hell anyway.”
Frank shoved his brother and said, “Be serious, Jesse. You’re gonna wake the whole damn neighborhood with your foolishness.”
“I doubt I’ll be waking anyone around here, hoss.”
Jesse tried the door and found it predictably locked.
“Looks like we’re gonna have to shoulder it. C’mere, big boy, and give me a hand. Sure hope there’s no alarm.”
Frank joined his brother and on the third try the doors popped open.
“That was easy. Now, let’s find Daddy. But first let’s find the damn light switch.”
Jesse fumbled around the doorframe, looking for the switch. Not finding it, he remembered his cell phone and the flashlight app that helped guide his key to the door after many long nights spent imbibing. The men crept through the cold morgue using the cell phone’s light until they found their father at the back of the room, stretched across two gurneys. Jesse waved the phone over his dead daddy, and, to his horror, he noticed that the sheets around him were moving ever so slightly.
“There’s something weird, Frank. He’s moving, man. I swear to God I just saw him move!”
Frank took a closer look and reassured his brother that no paranormal activities were taking place. “They got a box fan on him, dumb ass, plus, they loaded him down with ice bags. Trying to keep him cool. Probably couldn’t get him in the refer, being so big and all.” Frank hiccupped and let out a large belch.
Jesse waved at the air. “Damn Frank, what’ve you been eating, skunk butt?”
“Cut the crap, Jesse. Let’s get Daddy and get out of here.”
The boys got on each end of the gurneys and began pushing and pulling, trying to swing their father around and point him toward the door.
“Good Lord, he can’t weigh this much! Why won’t he move?”
“I dunno. Maybe there’s something with these tables … wait, what was that?”
“What? What was what?” whispered Jesse.
“I thought I heard something. Just be quiet and listen.”
Jesse and Frank stood in the dark, the body of their dead father between them, and listened. Out of the silence came a low groaning like a strangled cat or a drowning baby.
“What the hell is that?” asked Jesse. “I don’t need that kind of crap—not in here.”
“Be quiet and listen,” said Frank. “And don’t be such a wuss.”
The groaning came again, this time sounding like the mournful cry of the damned. More silence, and then it came again, and again, and slowly the wailing took on an unmistakable rhythm that had nothing to do with the whispers of the occult.
“If that’s a ghost, it must be Saturday night in the cemetery,” said Jesse. “Frank, somebody’s gettin’ laid up there.”
“Must be old Purvis ploughing a field. Probably got some blue-haired widow lady with him. That’s a break for us—she’ll keep him occupied until we can figure out this damn contraption.”
The moaning continued as the boys crawled around the floor, inspecting the wheels on the gurneys. Frank noticed the locks first and pointed them out to his brother. Within minutes they unlocked all eight wheels and were finally on the move. As they approached the loading entrance, Jesse bumped into a tool cart and sent stainless steel instruments flying to the floor, creating a cacophony within the morgue.
The moaning stopped and Frank hissed at his brother, “Don’t move! Just be quiet and wait.”
The brothers stood deathly still for what seemed like an eternity until a light snapped on revealing Old Man Purvis in “hot stuff”boxer shorts, his toupee on backwards, and wielding a sawed-off shotgun. Huddled next to him was his receptionist, Gail Thornton, dressed in sexy black lingerie and clutching tightly to Purvis’ side.
The James brothers looked like two drunken deer caught in the headlights. Jesse broke the silence and said, “Gail? Gail Thorton? I remember you now. From the Genie theater. Are you screwing that old goat?”
Walter Purvis pointed his shotgun at Jesse and demanded, “Never mind about her. Just what is going on here? Are you boys trying to remove your father from this facility?”
Frank stepped forward and said, “That’s exactly what we’re doing, Walter. We don’t have the money for all your double-wide, silken-rest, eternal bullshit. We can’t afford it and my daddy wouldn’t want it. We’re gonna bury him ourselves, Indian style, and that’s all there is to it.”
Purvis took a step closer to Frank and addressed them both. “Breaking and entering. Body snatching. Damage to my property. You’ll do nothing but answer to the law for this and I’ll be calling them directly.”
Jesse waited for the old man to shuffle a little closer then quick as a rattlesnake, he reached out and snatched the shotgun from the mortician’s hands. Turning the gun back on the old man, he said, “Well hello there, Grave Digger. I don’t think you’ll be making that phone call. Haven’t you heard? We’re the James boys and we got no use for the law.”
Gail stepped between Jesse and Walter Purvis and scolded her former classmate and one-time, consensual groper.
“Put that shotgun down right now, Jesse James! You’re not an outlaw and you’re not about to shoot Walter or me. I don’t think you two should be taking your poor father anywhere. You’re both drunk and this is a big mistake. Now just give me the gun and we’ll all sit down and work this out like adults.”
Jesse lowered the shotgun a bit, gave Gail the once over, and said, “Gail, you are one fine-looking woman. Are you really sleeping with that old man? You can do a lot better.”
Gail rolled her eyes and answered, “It’s complicated, Jesse. Walter’s a nice man and ever since my divorce things have been hard.”
“Now listen here,” said Old Man Purvis, “you boys are trespassing on my property and, and, you just can’t do this! There are laws for civilized society. You are not certified to transport human remains or remove a person from this facility. You need to put aside all this foolishness—”
Frank cut him off. “Walter, I’m sorry, but we’re taking my daddy. You can help us, or you can stay behind. That goes for you too, Gail.”
“I’ll have no part in this,” said the old man.
Jesse smiled devilishly at Gail and asked, “You got any duct tape, sweetheart?”
Gail reached out and took the shotgun from Jesse’s hands, then said, “There’s some in the utility cabinet by the sink. Just be sure he can breathe properly.”
The Texas countryside was bathed in a soft purple light and the air was warm and sweet. The Dozer Cat crept slowly across the field, making its way toward a ridge that overlooked a small creek. Resting inside the shovel of the Dozer was a five-hundred-pound preacher, his head gently cradled in the lap of his oldest son. Driving the Cat was the youngest son who laughed and held tight to the half-naked woman riding beside him. At the top of the ridge stood a live oak tree where a mother and father had once sat and watched their boys run wild. There was an outlaw moon in the sky and no law in sight.
Anthony Roberts c.2013, “Dead’r Than Elvis: Tall Tales of Texas Bullsh*t http://amzn.to/19nzpEc
It was 35 years ago that I left Tehran, Iran. I’m not sure of the exact day but it was after Black Friday, which was after the fire in Abadan that incinerated hundreds of innocent souls. Tanks were in the streets, the national mood was turning ugly and my parents had decided to divorce. I’d just started my senior year in High School and everything was perfect except for the growing violence, my penchant for bad habits and my imploding family, but other than those trivial matters, everything was copacetic. My mother was taking my sister back to the States and my father was staying behind in Iran with his girlfriend. I was 17 years old and given a choice. I’m standing there right now as my mother sits on the sofa and holds my sister, rocking her back and forth. They are both crying. My father is nervous as hell, which is very unlike him. He’s pacing back and forth and chain smoking. They are all waiting for me to make my decision. It’s my choice, after all, I’m 17 and can make up my own mind. Everyone in the room has a broken heart except for me. My heart is on fire. I want my mother to leave and I want to stay, but I have a problem and it’s a big one - I want to murder my father. It’s all his fault and I want nothing more than to beat him senseless. I know my mother isn’t innocent in their failed marriage, but she isn’t the one making my decision so difficult. It’s him. I want to stay, but if I do, I have to stay with him and there’s nothing worse than that. My sister is crying and looking up at me for something to make sense of her pain. I have no answers or comfort for her, but her tears tip the balance. ‘I’m getting the hell out of here,’ I spit before leaving them all to their misery. I march back to my boy cave with my rock’n’roll posters and my hidden hash pipe and I slam the door. I half expect my father to storm down the hall and lay into me, and I’m ready for that - I WANT that… but his heavy footsteps never come. I turn the key in the lock and grab my headphones and flop onto my bed. I had no idea what I’m listening to but it’s loud. Two days later my mother, my sister and I land in Wichita, Kansas, too jet-lagged to feel anything but exhausted. The knife has just begun to carve the scars that we will wear, and like all scars, it will take time for them to heal, and afterwards, there will always be a mark. That was 35 years ago, more or less. Scar number one. Scar number two was between the nation of Iran and the USA. Like my parents, I love and hated them both. I hated that I had to leave and I hated the people who once loved me and had now become my enemies. I hated my countrymen who didn’t understand the first thing about the beauty of Persia or how I loved a country that hated them. I hated myself because I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t understand the pain of living under a dictatorship, or the loss of a revolution stolen by a new set of dictators. I didn’t understand military coups, the CIA, Mossad, SAKAK, Imperialism, Communism, Ayatollahs, hostages, Shiites, Sunnis, Sharia or the Pasdaran or Hezbollah or the MEK or any of the ugliness of men. All I understood was my pain and that pain was selfish and ignorant. The years rolled by and life slowly rebooted. You always get a second chance if you can get past the pain. The beauty of what can be returns as it always does. It’s a great universal truth that nothing can stand still. I write this today on the eve of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani’s trip to the UN. A sense of change is in the air. The Iranian people picked the most moderate candidate they were allowed. The bitterness of 1953 and 1979 is pushed aside for a moment and we are given a glimpse of hope. The Iranians have serious issues with their leadership and many have paid in the streets with their blood and lives, and to say that the Americans have problems with their government is an understatement of gigantic proportions. Never has the American government, from both the left and the right, been so unaccountable, so distrusted and so disdained. So where do we place our faith when our leaders have failed us? Don’t we all want the same things…. to love our families, to feel safe and not to worry about the next paycheck, or the next missile strike or suicide bomber or useless war? I’ve lived in America and I’ve lived in Iran and I have loved and hated them both like family. If Iran and America go to war it will be against the wishes of the majorities of both peoples. So here we are again, listening to the sanitized media regurgitate every imagined thought and partisan projection, and yet we see that small opening, that glimmer of hope that we are capable of so much more than our shortcomings. Give peace a chance? It needs more than a chance, it needs a bloody miracle. It doesn’t come easy and it doesn’t come without effort, but it always comes. Despite the ugliness, it comes. It comes because there is beauty in this world and because scars do heal.
Persian style cannot be stamped out.