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Spirit Walker by Anthony Roberts

My review of “The Colonel” by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

“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.

SKIN ROPE. A Hawaiian 'Chicken Skin' Story by Anthony Roberts

The Trials of Gary: A Short Story (a ‘hump day’ tale of woe)

“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.

Dead’r Than Elvis: A Short Story

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.

MOVE IT.

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.

HELL NO!

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.

SNAKE.

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.

Trembling.

Sickness.

Head pounding.

Darkness coming.

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.”

Outlaw Moon

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

Two Scars by Anthony Roberts

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