THE LARRY CHRONICLES

Written by Kris Klingensmith and Jeff Wickstrom 

Jump to: Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5

 

PART 1   (published December 24, 1998)

He was dying.

He just knew it.

His heart was on the verge of flipping him off once and for all and that would be it. Or maybe it was cancer, he thought miserably, and imagined a hidden tumor the size of a baseball lodged deep within his young chest, ready to burst at any moment and spew deadly tumor juice throughout his body. Grim-faced doctors would soon be meeting with him and his family, giving it to him straight that he has two months left; three at the outside, if he's lucky.

Mom would cry. Dad might even cry too, although he doubted it.

He, of course, would take it like a man.

The way things had been going lately, for all he knew he might already be dead, and this is hell.

He looked out across the patio to the back yard where his mother was hanging laundry out to dry.

"I wonder when Dad is going to get off of his fat ass and fix the dryer," he rumbled sourly to nobody. The sight of his mother putting out laundry embarrassed him. The competitive demonstration of wealth meant a lot in this neighborhood; this type of shameful public display might take years to overcome. Far worse would to be caught actually helping his mother with the laundry, so he didn't offer.

It was a perfect summer's day in hell, chest pains and all. The clean, brightly colored clothing swaying in the nice breeze reminded him of the United Nations building in New York City, where the flags of all the countries on earth fly side by side in a moving but meaningless symbol of unity. Death and hell faded for a moment as he stared numbly at the flags of the world, a couple of bras, and his father's gigantic underwear billowing proudly like the spinnaker of a great racing yacht.

One or two more chest pains shot through him, and he mercifully, and loudly, discovered that he wasn't dying after all.

"Larry, you're disgusting!" his older sister yelled from the living room. "You sound like Bert!"

"Hey, it's natural," he replied, as always. But she was right; he was disgusting. He moved to another room.

Bert was one of Larry's best friends, of which he only had two, and somewhat of a legend among his peers. It never occurred to Bert to hold them in, ever, like a bird never thinks about "going to the bathroom." When it's time, they just let it go without a thought. Bert's whole family was like that, even his mom, and Larry sometimes wondered if perhaps it was genetic -- an inherited propensity he had no control over. Whatever the cause, in a way Larry admired him for it, to be so at ease with himself that he could fart in public and not be embarrassed.

Not like Monica LaCess, who once uncorked a monster in Mr. Luther's biology class and then tried to blame it on Larry, who was standing innocently nearby.

Monica was gorgeous; an Untouchable princess-goddess light years beyond Larry's wildest hopes, and that fart so mortified her that Larry thought she might drop dead right there on her partially dissected bullfrog. The whole class just lost it, and even Mr. Luther's old face cracked a little, but poor Monica looked so pitiful as she pointed lamely at Larry and tried to laugh with everybody else that in a spasm of lemming-like chivalry Larry hung his head, shrugged his shoulders, and with an award-winning demonstration of phony discomfiture said

"Hey, it's natural."

He took a lot of crap for that decision, for weeks, but it was worth it because Monica was so grateful. She never said anything about it, but he knew, and he knew she knew he knew. But more than that, in Larry's mind they had been intimate; at least, as intimate as he had ever been with a girl. After all, even though it hadn't been much, it was still a bodily function.

Larry's other best friend was Gerald Allen Potts, but nobody ever called him that. To everybody who knew him, friend, foe, relatives, even his teachers, even his own father, Gerald Allen Potts was known simply as Zit.

And no wonder. Zit, like Bert, was also a legend among his colleagues. His young face was the scene of a fierce metabolic struggle which he was forever losing, and at one point his condition became so severe it elevated him to a sort of celebrity status. Nationwide even, thanks to his doctor who sent a series of photographs of Zit's tortured mug to the "Journal of the American Medical Association," some of which were published in an article about skin eruptions.

Since that debut Zit's face has appeared in several medical publications, and once he actually was paid to appear in an advertisement for yet another brand of acne medicine. He was the "Before" picture. The advertising agency had originally planned on using Zit for both the Before and After photos as a testimony to the effectiveness of the product, but the stuff only made his face look worse. Airbrushing was suggested, but the ad agency lawyer advised against it, so they found another young man to pose for the After photograph. He was a pretty good looking kid, and he and Zit looked enough alike to give anybody who cared a rough idea of what Gerald Allen Potts would look like if he had no reason to be known as Zit.

From then on, what tattered shreds of hope Zit gleaned by peering into his unimportant future sprouted from the possibility that maybe one day this would all be behind him, and he would no longer be thought of as just a Before picture.

The phone rang, startling the hell out of Larry and causing him to forget his almost-brush with death.

It was, oddly enough, Zit himself.

"Hello?"

"Hello, is Larry there?"

"This IS Larry, you moron."

"Oh, hi Larry. What are you doing?" Zit had long ago grown impervious to insults.

"Nothing. What are you doing?"

"Oh, nothing much... Want to go eat? At Gomers?"

"I don't have any money."

"That's okay," Zit said. "My mom and dad are about to start fighting again so my mom gave me some money and told me to leave for awhile. I have ten dollars..."

 


PART 2 (published February 5, 1999)

The town of Dunston Oklahoma slips by a lot of people, mainly because they’re too busy worrying about where they’re going. That’s a damn shame, some say, because Dunston isn’t such a bad place, once you finally get used to it.

There’s a bit of history here; that’s for sure. As with most old towns in the midwest, Dunston can claim a small number of celebrities who visited, lived, died, hid out, or were hanged here. Prohibition, America’s most famous bad idea (not counting Vietnam), has also salted the town’s history, spawning wild tales of a hidden network of subterranean tunnels leading to and from Dunston’s shameful, long-forgotten Gomorrah of dank gin mills and sweaty, disease-ridden brothels. Pretty heady stuff for a funky little town in Central Oklahoma, and some of it is actually true. But the truth is that your average Dunstonian is more likely to take an interest in the newer stars that glimmer in the Dunston galaxy, including a respectable number of bass fishing records, a bowling title or two, and a fair share of runner-ups in some pretty important rodeos.

Dunston’s biggest problem is that it’s rarely a destination for anyone who didn’t start here earlier the same day, which is just about everybody on the planet. Those lonely long-haul truckers rumble on by without even a sideways glance, unless they need a tire or something, and the swarming herd of proto-yuppies infesting I-35 point their leased SUVs right past Dunston, aiming for the mythical greener pastures to The North. The southbounders who know better are most likely headed for Texas, Oklahoma City, or Edmond, Dunston’s younger, richer, prettier brat sister.

For guys like Larry and Zit, teenage gnats captured in the Venus Flytrap of this wheezy old town, Dunston is nothing but home, probably forever. There is simply nowhere for them to go, and even if there were, no means exists within their conception to get them there. Even the odious bonfire of global politics refuses to flicker in their favor. Unlike many of their fathers who were more than willing to heed the murderous siren song of the local draft board just to get out of town for awhile, guys like Larry and Zit have no wars or rumors of wars offering any hope of conscripted escape. College is as likely for them as a flight to Venus – at least, that’s what they think – so like it or not, this is it. But that’s ok, because Dunston isn’t such a bad place, once you finally get used to it.

Mother Nature and a dead French architect saw to it that Dunston would forever appear intriguing and vital, long after this was no longer the case. Most of Dunston’s original Victorian style buildings are still standing, forcing an odd counterpoint onto the scruffy red expanse of the Oklahoma wilderness. In somewhat the same way, Gomer’s Hamburger Hut squats queerly in the shadow of the monstrous, creepy old Masonic Temple on historic Capital Street. The Capital Street Temple represents the final dying gasps of Dunston’s withering past, and for the dwindling corps of blue-blooded geezers that can still remember the tail end of Dunston’s glory days, the sight of a horrid little restaurant elbowing in on this grand old landmark is simply too much to take. The truth is that Gomer’s would have been driven to extinction long ago were it not for the dual facts that, 1: the meandering dribble of tourists that wander in and out of the Temple need a cheap place to eat after viewing the clutch of questionable Egyptian relics displayed within, and, 2: Gomer – his honest to goodness real name – is the not-so-secret illegitimate hatchling of a high ranking Dunston Shriner who also sits on the Town Council.

In a town like Dunston, nepotism is wielded like a hammer and sickle. End of story. Welcome to Gomer’s Hamburger Hut.

To hell with history anyway. Gomer’s rules.

At least, so says most of the student body of Jefferson Williams High School. For them, "Gomer’s Hole" is a godsend. Besides, there’s no place left in Dunston for them to hang out. Until a couple of weeks ago the Youth Center of Blessed Judgement Assembly of God Church stayed open on summer nights until nine-thirty, but not any more. BJ’s wasn’t much; a couple of billiard tables and a warped old Ping-Pong outfit, but it was better than nothing. But since that Sunday morning when Pastor Deeter stood in the pulpit with a black eye and preached that weird sermon on tolerance, the Youth Center has been closed until further notice.

This was all to the great relief of Evangeline Potts, Zit’s mom. The carryings on at Blessed Judgement make her nervous, and she’s never been comfortable with her son hanging around there. She has been a white-knuckle Catholic all of her life, and nowadays one of her many secret fears is that someday Zit will come home speaking in tongues. When the muscle-men for Jesus came to Edmond last year, Evangeline was so afraid Zit would be sucked into their spell that she promised Our Lady a full year of sacrificial service if She would please protect young Gerald from these dreadful, loud-mouthed Protestant barbarians. As it turned out, the Blessed Judgement church bus ran over a cow on the Broadway Extension that night and never made it to the Muscles for Jesus Show. Zit was on that bus, and since this miraculous answer to her prayers Evangeline Potts has been lovingly tending a robust vegetable garden, in honor of the Blessed Virgin.

As for Zit, he misses BJ’s Youth Center, but his reasons aren’t exactly religious. The truth is that Gomer’s frightens him a little, and he has never really felt safe there. More than anywhere else, at Gomer’s, Zit is often used as a verbal punching bag. Time and again during the past few years he has faced the mean reality of the old "sticks and stones" nursery rhyme, but now that he has turned seventeen his world is changing, as are the ever-present bullies and morons who feel compelled to torment him. This is a dangerous time for him, and he knows it.

Gomer was manning the counter when Larry and Zit wandered in.

"Howdy boys; what’s it gonna be today? Hey Zit, how about some pizza! Haw haw haw!"

"Not today," Zit managed. He felt his face flush, knowing nobody could possibly detect it. "Can I get a number two with cheese, and a coke?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Gomer said. He aimed a greasy eye at Larry. "What about you, stud?"

"I’ll have the same," Larry said. And you go to hell, you fat piece of crap, Larry added on the inside.

Gomer poked at the cash register for awhile, and plopped out a sausage-like hand. "Ok, that’ll be eight and a quarter" he said. "Fork it up, stud."

Larry handed over Zit’s ten-dollar bill, and snatched up the dollar-fifty in change without counting it. The house wins again.

"Hey Bunny, gimme two twos with fat! Here’s your drinks, stud." Bunny, Gomer’s mountainous wife who is forever sweating over the griddle and deep-fat fryer, sighed, slid the hair away from her bloated pretty face with the back of her hand, and got busy.

As Larry was walking over to the table Zit had chosen, he caught a heart-flapping glimpse of Monica LaCess coming out of the women’s restroom. Instinctively he put his head down and pretended not to notice, while keeping a watchful eye on her every move. She made her elegant way across Gomer’s neglected linoleum and sat down at a table with Luke Ratlin.

Luke is the only son of Wic Ratlin, one of a few feral ranchers who lurk Neandertal-like on the scabby outskirts of Dunston. Luke is an aspiring bull rider, which speaks volumes to those who know anything about that particular line of work. Luke is also a student at Jefferson Williams, but that’s irrelevant. Just ask him.

Wic Ratlin raised Luke as he does all his animals, particularly the pit bulls, and he is damned proud of his boy. Luke can track, stalk, kill and field-dress a deer, and he knows how to turn a wrench on any piece of farm equipment or junk car you can imagine. Luke can drink whiskey, cuss, and kick the snot out of anybody, almost as good as his old man used to do when he was a young asshole himself. And Luke can ride those bulls. He’s already been to the National Finals, which ain’t bad for a twenty-year old high school senior.

Larry wasn’t too surprised to see Monica with Luke. Big tough guys like Luke always take whatever they want. A few months ago in Mr. Luther’s biology class Larry saw a video detailing the animal antics at a Serengeti waterhole, and watching Luke and Monica, it struck Larry that what the zebras, hyenas and all the rest go through in Africa is exactly what happens right here in Dunston. When those horny female gazelles start wiggling their cute little white-striped butts in the air, the male gazelles start trying to kill each other. Only the baddest of the bad get the prize. Well, there you have it, right here. Luke and Monica; Natural Selection at work. Mr. Luther should forget about the video and just bring the class to Gomer’s.

Larry sat down across from Zit, and handed him his drink. Zit could hardly wait to speak.

"Hey Larry, did you see that? Monica’s over there, with Luke Ratlin! I wonder if she’s gonna fart!"

Most of Larry’s first sip went up his nose with that one. Zit was one of the precious few who knew the truth.

"If she does, she’s on her own this time," Larry choked.

"Hey guys, here’s your number twos!" Bunny shouted. "Come and get’em!"

"I’ll get it," Zit said. He walked over to the counter and picked up the tray. At about the same time, Luke stood up and started towards the counter, probably to place his and Monica’s order. Zit, preoccupied with balancing the plates and stuff on his tray, was looking down and not paying attention to where he was headed. He turned from the counter and smacked right into Luke Ratlin, king of the waterhole. One of the cheeseburgers plopped open on Luke’s enormous silver belt buckle, smearing it with melted cheese, mustard, and God knows what else.

"You goddam stupid little freak," Luke growled. "You should’ve watched where you were going."

Zit was still clutching the offending tray as Luke grabbed him by his collar and hurled him violently backwards. He slammed into a table occupied by an elderly couple and collapsed to the floor like a marionette, hamburgers, drinks and plates crashing around him in slow motion, like a terrible dream.

Larry watched this unfold with that strange mix of horror and denial that always follows a disaster. He knew he had to do something, but what? He was powerless, and he knew it. But since it looked like his best friend was about to be stomped to death, Larry stood up and walked over to the counter. Luke was towering over Zit like a peckerwood gladiator.

"C’mon man, leave him alone. It was an accident."

Luke was on a roll now. This was showtime. He looked down at Larry, eyes like boiling blood.

"Well, look at this! You’re next, fart boy. I’m gonna kick your little faggot ass right here."

Great, Larry thought. There’s that fart again. What a way to get famous.

Two million years of hominid evolution had made the warning signs of the violent event to come instinctively obvious to Larry. The problem here was that his seventeen years of quiet, civilized upbringing had failed to provide him with the skills and resources necessary to prevail in this type of thing. Before he was even able to form his two meaningless little fists, Larry found himself sitting beside Zit, dazed, with a smashed, bleeding lip.

"Stop it, Luke!" Monica yelped. "They didn’t do anything to you! Stop it! Stop it!" She had rushed over to Larry and Zit after they hit the deck, and she knelt in the ruined hamburgers, broken plates and spilled drinks, holding a napkin to Larry’s wrecked mouth. "God, Luke; you are such a jerk!"

"Shut up, Monica. Let’s go." The thrill of conquest was still upon Luke, but it was fading fast. He grabbed Monica by the shoulder. "I said, let’s GO."

Monica twisted away from him. "You go," Monica said. "Just get out of here."

Luke stood motionless for a few seconds. "Ok. I’ll call you later. God dammit. Stupid little faggots..."

Luke grabbed Larry by the hair and jerked his face up. "See you around, fart boy. I’ll be looking for you," Luke said, and loped out of Gomer’s into the sunset doing his best John Wayne, until he knew he was well out of sight.

Larry’s lip was bleeding pretty badly as Monica helped him to his feet. "Are you ok?" she asked tenderly, brushing a spot of mustard from his forehead. "Do you want me to call your parents to come pick you up?"

"No, I’m ok," Larry replied through the napkin. Christ, this was embarrassing enough. The last thing he needed was a ride home with his mommy.

"Ok then," Monica said. She grabbed a pen from the counter and wrote on a take-out menu. "Listen, here’s my phone number. Call me when you get home, ok? I want to be sure that you’re all right. Are you sure you don’t want me to call anybody? What about Zit’s parents?"

"Don’t call them!" Zit bleated. We’re ok, right Larry?" Bunny had come from around the counter to tend to Zit, who had escaped this attack relatively unscathed. "Please don’t call my parents. Please."

Gomer had been out back smoking a joint, and had missed the whole show. When he waddled back in he went directly into his act: "What the hell is going on here? You damn kids, who the hell is gonna pay for this mess? I’m not, that’s for sure! Get the hell out of here, you rotten punks! Dammit, I’m calling the cops right now!"

All of this was too much for Zit. His eyes started to burn as he thought of where the events of the last five minutes might force him to go. All he had wanted to do was have a hamburger with Larry, and now they’ve been beaten up, and might wind up in jail. Zit knew this was all his fault. He remembered his parents were at home arguing about him right this minute, and now this. His bony little shoulders started to shake, and he began to cry.

This was too much for Bunny, too. She absorbed Zit in a fleshy, sweaty, french-fry scented hug, and kissed him on his forehead. "Don’t you worry about nothin’, you little dude. We all saw what happened. You just go on home. I’ll clean this up, and Gomer won’t say nothin’ to no cops. You just go on home, baby."

Bunny gave Zit a good squeeze, and pressed her cheek against his for a few moments. "C’mon, get up now" she said, and helped him from the floor.

"My glasses. I’ve lost my glasses" Zit gasped as he regained his footing. "Can you see my glasses?"

Bunny looked around. "Here you go," she said, reaching down into the hell of wasted burgers and broken plates. "They’re covered with ketchup! Wait a minute." She wiped them off with her blouse and placed them on Zit’s face. "How’s that?"

"Thank you," Zit croaked

Larry’s mouth was throbbing, and he felt sick. Gomer was still huffing and puffing, and Larry could sense the penetrating stares of the other customers. It was time to go. He promised Monica he would call her when he got home, and apologized to Bunny for the trouble. He took Zit by the arm, and the two of them stepped over the wreckage and walked out into the warm Oklahoma night.

Neither had much to say as they made their way home. Larry was busy with his split lip, and Zit was lost in a weird, dreamy wonderland. As horrible and scary as this night had been for him, he nevertheless felt deliciously alive, and wildly emotional.

Zit had fallen in love, hopelessly and forever. With Bunny.

The two friends split up at the north end of Capital Street. Zit headed home to dream the night madly away, while Larry headed for the pay phone at the bus stop. He fished the blood stained take-out menu from his pocket, dropped the coins, and dialed the number Monica had written down for him. He figured Monica wouldn’t be home yet, and that’s the way he wanted it. Her answering machine was good enough for now.

Two rings, then, "Hi, this is Monica! I can’t talk right now, but please don’t hang up. Leave a message, and I’ll call you back!" Click; peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, click click:

Larry cleared his throat. "Hi, Monica; it’s Larry. I just wanted to let you know that everythi—"

Click.

"What the hell are you doing, calling this number? You’re dead, you little maggot!"

Larry’s blood froze. He hung up the phone and prepared to die. It was Luke. Luke Ratlin.


PART 3  (published April 5, 1999)

Another summer morning radiates across the dusty red plains of the Central Oklahoma Serengeti...

"Bert. Bert!"

Nothing.

"Bert! Wake up. Wake UP!"

Bert felt the kick, and woke up. He smashed his head against the stainless steel toilet bowl, then laid it back down again, tenderly. His cracked, sticky lips had glued themselves to the bathroom floor while he was unconscious, and when he jerked his head up, a fair section of those lips stayed on the floor.

"C’mon, stupid; you’ve got to be in class in half an hour."

Bert blathered something unintelligible, and silently begged God for a painless, instant death. As usual, God ignored him, and then he threw up. Little by little, the events of last night drifted towards him like hideous, stupid ghosts emerging from a nauseating yellow fog.

+ + +

 

"How was your coffee, Mr. Luther?"

"Tepid as usual, thank you."

Mister Luther hated everybody, himself mostly. As he rose to leave his regular table at Gomer’s, he made the usual dissatisfied snorts and sighs, making sure Bunny was close enough to take notice. She was. She always was, which is why a morning never went by without Bunny thoughtfully picking her nose before stirring Mr. Luther’s tepid coffee with her finger.

+ + +

"Good morning, Larry! Oh my God, what happened to your mouth?"

"Morning, mom. Nothing happened. Me and Zit were just fooling around last night. It was an accident."

+ + +

"Hello?"

"Good morning. Am I speaking to the Reverend Deeter of Blessed Judgement Church in Dunston?"

"Yes; this is Pastor Deeter..."

"Ok. Reverend Deeter, my name is Christian Sparkes. I represent the District Attorney’s office for Bliss County, Oklahoma. I believe we’ve met once or twice before. Reverend Deeter, so far this is strictly routine, but would you mind answering a few questions regarding certain events pertaining to a July 4th picnic at your church? Your name has come up in a case we’re investigating, and any information you might be able to share with us would be appreciated. We would be grateful if you could come downtown and help us with this right away.

+ + +

Evangeline Potts had been up since 4 am. The Lord was giving her another poem, and she was too excited to sleep. Although this was not the first time she had felt the Hand of the Lord speaking through her pencil, Evangeline thought it the most significant, in that this latest work will most certainly be their greatest collaboration. Sweeping in scope and vision, beautiful in passion and detail, this will be more than a mere poem. Rather, it will be as a lamp: to inspire, educate and challenge young men and women to abandon the folly of secular humanism in favor of the blessed pursuit of religious Truth. Towards that end, Evangeline Potts felt obliged to include virtually every topic imaginable.

Regarding missions:

Lend a hand / As they walk the land / To share God’s Plan / With the heathen man.

 

On Christian courage and vigilance:

Don’t be scared / Just say a prayer / And be prepared / Lest ye be a tare.

Chastity:

God’s children must / Never yield to lust / Give Jesus your trust / Or your bowels will rust.

 

She was starting on her thirty-seventh verse when Zit wandered into the kitchen. As was his way, most of the unpleasant events from last night’s adventure were quietly fading from his resilient mind. All he chose to remember was the feeling of Bunny scooping him up from the mess on Gomer’s floor and kissing him, a scene he had already replayed a thousand times. Zit was now a young man floating in the warm vanilla of a newborn, first love. One look at her son, and Evangeline knew something was up.

"Good morning, Gerry, how are you today? Your father and I heard you come in last night. Is everything ok? Did you and Larry have fun? You two were certainly out later than your father and I expected. Did you go someplace else after Gomer’s?

"Hi mom. Fine, yes, yes, no."

"What?"

"I’m fine, yes everything is ok, yes we had fun, no we didn’t go anywhere else."

"Oh. Ok. Gerry, your father and I were talking last night, and he has decided you should get a job for the rest of the summer. The manure harvest has started at the Ratlin Ranch, and your father thinks that he can probably get you in there if he talks to the right people. It’s time you started taking on some responsibility for yourself. You’re not a child anymore, you know. Are you sure you’re ok? Were you and Larry drinking beer last night? Come over here and let me smell your breath."

Zit walked over to his mom and breathed on her. Case dismissed.

The thought of shoveling cow crap for the Ratlins didn’t exactly fit into Zit’s plans, and not only because Luke Ratlin had all but tried to kill Larry and him last night. The truth is that Zit had a better idea.

 

For the past year or two, a faded, scribbled sign had hung in the window at Gomer’s:

HELP WANTD

PART TIME

Gomer wrote it all by himself, with a bowling pencil. The sign never came down because nobody could stand to work there for more than a month, no matter how desperate for money they were. It had occurred to Zit late last night that he might be able to get that job, and work side by side with his beloved Bunny.

"I don’t want to work way out at the Ratlin’s," he whined. "Gomer’s is always hiring; let me work there instead. It’s closer."

Evangeline looked up at him. "Gomers? I don’t know, Gerry. Think about your face."

"I always think about my face, mom"

Bull’s eye. Evangeline stood up and hugged her son. "Oh, honey, I didn’t mean -- it’s just that – well, I just don’t know. Standing over that greasy griddle all day might make you worse. And what will your father say? Gomer’s is such a horrible place sometimes..."

They stood there in the kitchen for a few moments, Evangeline awash in the sea of her conflicted emotions. "Oh, my poor little baby boy," she sighed.

Another bullet successfully dodged. In no time at all, Zit was looking good and headed for his very first job interview, at Gomer’s Hamburger Hut.

+ + +

Peter Deeter, pastor of Blessed Judgement Assembly of God Church in Dunston, Oklahoma, hung up the phone, and silently begged God for a painless, instant death. As usual, God ignored him, and then he threw up. Little by little, the events of last week drifted towards him like hideous, stupid devils emerging from a black, sulphurous furnace. He could hear his daughter rattling around in the kitchen, then moving towards him.

"Daddy, who was that on the phone? Oh my God, are you alright?"

"Yes, yes" he spluttered. "Oh, God, I don’t feel so good. Oh, sweet Jesus."

His daughter ran to the bathroom to fetch him a towel. Pastor Deeter stumbled to the kitchen sink and poured himself a glass of water, which he couldn’t drink. His daughter returned, and he took the towel.

He wiped his face, and tried the water again. "Wow. Well. I must be coming down with something."

"Do you want me to drive you to the doctor?" This kid was always looking for an opportunity to use her learner’s permit.

"No, no; I’ll be ok." Pastor Deeter struggled, and reclaimed his composure. "Honey, I need to make a phone call. I’ll be ok. This must just be the flu or something."

"Ok, daddy." She turned to go, and then stopped. "Daddy, who was that on the phone a minute ago?"

"Oh, just Daisy from the choir," he lied. "You know how the choir is..." He forced a bogus smile, and closed the door on his daughter.

+ + +

"I can’t do it. I can’t do it."

"Listen Bert, if you don’t pass this damn test, you can kiss football goodbye forever. Suck up your guts and stand up, you ignorant jackass."

He took another kick in the ribs. "Cut it out!" he yelped. "For cryin’ out loud, mom!"

"Cut it out, my fat butt! Get UP!" His mother grabbed Bert by the ear, and pulled him from the floor. She yanked a handful of blue paper towels from the dispenser and hurled them at her quivering, giant son. "Clean your stupid self up, and get your DUMB ASS to summer school. And DON’T forget you’ve got three oil changes this afternoon! And you better pass that test!" With that, Bert’s mom turned on her heel, farted, and waddled out of the restroom, slamming the door behind her.

Bert flopped down on the toilet and tried to think, something he could barely do even on a good day. Dammit, why should he have to pass some stupid science test just to play football? Who gives a crap about Mendel’s peas and all that other dopey science stuff? Who cares about that? Bert can catch and kill quarterbacks, and that’s good enough for him, and everybody else in Dunston.

Everybody except old Mr. Luther, the closest Dunston will ever come to a bona fide scholar. Unlike the other teachers at Jefferson Williams High School, Mr. Luther stoutly refuses to capitulate to the local rabid passion for high school football. Once again, the satanic rule known as "No Pass, No Play" has reared its dreaded, insidious head, thanks to Mr. Luther’s demanding biology class. Not only was Bert’s senior season in jeopardy, his entire football career was on the line as well. O.U. had already recruited him, and he was ready to go, but he had to graduate from high school first. If Bert failed summer school biology, he would be a junior again, for the third time. The NCAA would have none of this, so it all comes down to today’s final exam. Bert was so nervous last night he holed up at the family gas station and drank two pints of Jack Daniel’s.

"Bert! BERT! Hurry up! Hurry UP!"

His mom swung mightily at the metal restroom door with an old rusted driveshaft. The sound was like a bomb going off in Bert’s tortured brain.

 

Like a bomb going off. Wait a minute.

+ + +

Bunny looked up from behind the counter. "Well, hello there, little friend! Are you doing ok today?"

God, she’s so beautiful. Zit was ready to die in her arms.

"Hi. I’m fine, ma’am. I’d like to apply for a job here. Do you think that would be ok?"

Bunny paused, and then smiled at him. "You sweet little dude. Of course that will be ok. Are you sure you want to do this? Gomer can be kind of a jerk sometimes." Bunny said that at least a dozen times a day.

"My parents told me I have to get a job this summer," Zit shrugged. My dad wanted me to work out at the Ratlin ranch."

Bunny laughed. "You don’t want to go out there, little darlin’. Not for awhile, at least. Here, let me see if I can find you an application. Gomer keeps them somewhere down here, I think."

Bunny bent over to rummage around under the counter, and Zit looked down her blouse, because that’s what guys always do. He spied a delicate little red and green rose tattoo on her massive left breast.

"I love you," he mumbled. She didn’t hear him.

"Damn, where are those things?" Bunny stood up and pushed the hair away from her face. "You know what, babycakes? Never mind that application. Gomer is over to his daddy’s office getting a parking ticket fixed. When he comes back I’ll tell him I hired you. Can you start later today?"

"Yes," Zit squeaked. "Do I need to bring anything?"

"No, baby. You just come back around lunch time." Bunny reached out with one hand and mussed Zit’s hair. "I’ll teach you everything you need to know."

 

+ + +

"Excuse me; Father Blevis? Pastor Deeter is on the phone for you. Do you want to speak with him?"

Nathaniel Blevis peered up from behind his ancient, failing mixing board. "Thanks, Angel. I’ll take it in my study. Hey Angel, would you please call Buster and see if he can come over and fix this stupid thing again?"

I wonder what the hell Deeter wants, Father Blevis thought to himself as he strode across the sanctuary. This was turning out to be a weird morning. First, the PA blew up during the seven o’clock mass, then Evangeline Potts called to read him her god awful, endless poem, and now this. He closed the door behind him, sat down behind his desk, lit a cigar, and reached for the phone.

"This is Father Blevis..."

"Nate, this is Pete. I’m in trouble, Nate. I’m in big trouble."

+ + +

"I’m going now, mom. Wish me luck."

"Luck, shmuck." Bert’s mother didn’t even look up.

Which was a good thing, because Bert had no intention of walking towards Jefferson Williams High School. Instead, he rounded the corner and snuck back to the pay phone behind the gas station. He fluttered through the raggedy-ass old phone book hanging there, found the number he was looking for, dropped the dimes, and dialed. With his hand over the mouthpiece, voice disguised as best he could, Bert began to speak.

 


PART 4   (published September 12, 1999)

Larry didn’t look up when his father entered the kitchen. He kept his head down, nervously flipping through the morning newspaper. His sister sat across the kitchen table, patiently relishing the inevitable.

"Good morning, everybody! Another beautiful day!" Larry’s dad always said that, even when the weather sucked. He poured a cup of coffee, then walked over to the table and stood directly behind Larry’s chair.

"Well, Larry; did you have fun last night? Mother told me about your lip. What the heck happened? Let me see, son."

Larry turned around and looked up, taking care to avoid any direct eye contact with his father. "Nothing happened," Larry said. "Me and Zit were just fooling around, that’s all."

Larry’s sister couldn’t control herself. "ZIT did that? Zit punched you in the mouth? No way!"

"No, he didn’t punch me in the mouth, you jerk-off." Larry could feel his face going red. He knew he was caught in a lie, and he hated it. "I fell down, that’s all. He pushed me, and I fell. It was an accident! We were just fooling around! Jeez; why is everybody making such a big deal about this?"

Larry’s dad took a long look at his son. He knew a fat lip when he saw one. Something had happened last night; there was no doubt about that. But he was kind enough – and wise enough – not to push it right now. He knew Larry, and he knew Dunston; whatever happened last night will be out in the open in no time.

"It’s ok, Larry; no big deal. We know you would never lie to us. But that’s an ugly-looking lip you’ve got there; you should be more careful. I’d hate for all that money we spent on your braces to go to waste."

"Ok! Don’t worry about it. Jeez; it’s no big deal," Larry grumped.

But it was a big deal. His mouth hurt like hell and his front teeth were loose, but what was really bothering Larry was Luke Ratlin’s death threat. Great God Almighty; of all the trash-talking peckerwoods in Dunston, Luke Ratlin was the last one you’d ever want to piss off. Larry and everybody else at Jefferson Williams High School had heard the rumors about Luke; how he beat the crap out of some unlucky sophomore at a football game and put him in the hospital for a few days. Nobody saw it happen, and the poor kid was too frightened to identify his attacker, but it was really no secret who did it. The kid and his family moved to Cushing shortly after it happened, and they haven’t been seen since.

His mother’s voice yanked Larry back into the present moment. "I spoke with Zit’s mom this morning, Larry. Did you know he’s trying to get a job at Gomer’s? She said he’s down there right now, applying. I hope you’re not planning on working there too..."

This struck Larry like another punch in the mouth. "What? That’s impossible! Zit’s mom is nuts! There’s no way he’d get a job at Gomer’s!" At least, not after last night, he thought to himself.

"No, it’s true alright" she said as she gathered up plates and walked them to the sink. "She said they wanted him to get a job out at the Ratlin ranch, but he wanted to try Gomer’s instead. His mother is very upset about this. She asked me if you might try to talk him out of it."

Larry’s head was spinning. "When did she call?" he asked.

"Oh, a half hour ago, maybe. You were in the shower, I think."

Larry’s father looked up from his paper and piped in cheerfully. "I think young Zit should be congratulated! You know, Larry; you really should be thinking about a job yourself. Summer’s half over and you still – "

"I know I know. I’m workin’ on it." Larry stood up. "I gotta go. I’m going to see if I can find Zit."

Without thinking, Larry took a swig of his sister’s grapefruit juice as he was headed for the back door. The citric acid hit his freshly torn lip like a swarm of fire ants.

"Ow! Shi—"

"Larry!" His mother was outraged. Dad played along: "Now son, there’s no excuse for thi—"

"I’m sorry! I’ll see you later!"

*+*+*+

Mr. Luther loathes children, and hates teenagers. Larvae and pupae fascinate him; the developmental forms of Homo Sapiens repulse him, and the fact that he had once been one of these repugnant little life forms is irrelevant and has not even occurred to him in decades. For Mr. Luther, children are far and away the nastiest of Mother Nature’s cruel jokes she foists on dimwitted humans from time to time. How foolish these parents are, he always says, to willingly accept a lifetime of sacrifice, misery and heartbreak because of one momentary spasm of glandular ecstasy. How pathetic they are. And infants; infants are the worst! Helpless, hideous, snot-bubbling little creatures with breath like the inside of an empty milk carton festering in a sun drenched dumpster. Were it not for the fact that he was a biology teacher at Jefferson Williams High School, Mr. Luther would never have any dealings with young people. They were simply the stupidest part of a stupid job, and he couldn’t care less about them.

He steps out of Gomer’s onto Capital Street and squints into the dazzling Oklahoma sky. The brilliant blue backdrop of another blazing summer morning causes the old gray Masonic Temple to shrivel up a little, sort of like a skunk does a few days after he’s been struck dead on hot asphalt. One of these days there won’t be anything left of that Dirty Old Monster, Mr. Luther reminds himself. He heads south on Capital Street, hangs a left on Sixth, and walks the three remaining blocks to Jefferson Williams.

Thank god today is a test day, Mr. Luther says to himself in his head. He enters the faculty lounge, nods at the other teachers like he doesn’t give a damn, and enters the faculty restroom. The cool porcelain feels good on his butt. Might as well kill two birds with one stone, he says to himself in his head. It’s not as if I’m addicted. Besides, this is a test day. He rummages around in his briefcase for a moment, rolls up his sleeve, and finds a vein.

*+*+*+

Father Blevis tapped his cigar, and waited. Pete Deeter was sobbing into the telephone.

"It was an accident," he gasped. "An ACCIDENT! My God, this is all a mistake! A horrible, satanic MISTAKE! I’m a good man, Nate. You know this. I’ve built Blessed Judgement up from nothing, and now THIS has happened! Jesus, Nate; what am I going to do? You’ve got to help me. PLEASE tell me you’ll help me get out of this!"

Nathaniel Blevis crushed out his cigar. It was making him sick. "Pete. Listen to me. Calm down and listen to me for a minute. Pete, shut up and listen. LISTEN!! Thank you! Pete, do you have a lawyer? What? Ok, you don’t have a lawyer. Listen to me Pete. Shut your mouth, and don’t say anything about this to anybody until you’ve at least spoken with a lawyer. Pete, shut your mouth for ONCE in your damn life and just LISTEN. Let me make a few phone calls. I know some people who might be able to help you. Just keep quiet and try to act normal. How’s the family -- what do they know about this? Oh, yeah; the black eye... Well, you just hang in there, and I’ll see what I can do. You screwed up, amigo. You better get ready for a real nightmare. I’ll call you as soon as I know anything. Yes, I promise I’ll pray for you. Goodbye."

Father Blevis lit another cigar, then punched a button on his Flintstone-era intercom. "Angel, I’ve got to leave the office for awhile. When Buster comes, tell him to do whatever it takes to get that damn sound system working. If he can’t fix it, tell him to find us a new one before Saturday. If he gets weird, tell him I’ll take up a special offering. Tell him anything. I’ll see you later."

*+*+*+

"Zit! What the hell are you doing?"

"Oh, hi Larry! I just got hired at Gomer’s! I gotta go back at lunchtime."

"Are you crazy? Luke Ratlin wants to kill us because of last night! You shouldn’t even be going anywhere NEAR Gomer’s, and now you want to work there? What the hell is the matter with you?"

"C’mon, Larry; don’t worry. Luke is mean to everybody. He’s probably already forgotten about last night."

"No he hasn’t! I called Monica last night after all that stuff happened, and Luke answered! He’s gonna tear my head off! Man, why did she give me her number if she knew Luke was gonna be there? That really sucks."

"Well, why don’t you just go ask her? She’s right over there at Delaney’s. Hey, did you hear all those sirens a little while ago? There was a bomb threat or something at the high school. Bert’s taking his big test today. I hope he’s ok..."

*+*+*+

Mr. Luther sits back and relaxes. The chemical has her way with him, and life is decent again. Thank god I took organic chemistry in the ‘60s; he chuckles to himself in his head. Twelve seconds later, the petite little pipe bomb duct-taped under the seat says hello, and within minutes Mr. Luther is laying naked on his stomach at Dunston General Hospital while two of his former students dig shards of blasted toilet seat from his grouchy white ass.

*+*+*+

Larry looked across Capital Street just in time to see Monica LaCess walk out of Delaney’s Feed and Seed. She must be getting something for her stupid horse, he thought to himself. Normally he would be too nervous to speak to her, but not this time. He left Zit standing there, and trotted across the street. "Hey Monica, wait up!" he chirped.

Monica turned, and smiled. "Oh, hi Larry! What are you doing here? How’s your mouth?"

"It’s fine. Hey, how come you told me to call you last night when you knew Luke was gonna be there? What are you trying to do, get me killed?"

Monica blinked, then reached out and touched Larry’s arm. "Oh God, Larry; I’m so sorry about that. Luke came over last night to pick up some stuff he loaned me. Some horse stuff. I was out in the barn gathering it up when you called. He told me you called, but he didn’t tell me what you guys talked about. What did he say?"

"He said what he always says! He’s gonna kick my ass! This guy’s a total jerk, Monica. I don’t need this. I don’t want anything to do with Luke Ratlin."

"I know," Monica said. "I don’t either. Not anymore." She paused, then took Larry’s arm. "Walk me to my car, would you please, Larry?"

"Sure. No problem, Monica." This is getting interesting, Larry said to himself. His heart began to thump a little bit harder, and every brain cell in his head went on full alert. Heck, this might actually end up being worth a good ass kicking.

"Luke’s gone," Monica said as they walked. "He and his dad left this morning for a rodeo up in Kansas City. They won’t be home for a week or so. When Luke gets back, I’m going to break up with him."

"Wow," was all Larry could manage at first. His heart was really pounding now, and the excitement was making him walk funny. "Wow. What do you think he’s gonna do when you tell him?"

Monica sighed. "He’ll be a creep, as always. I don’t care though. I’ve had enough of him. He threw a saddle at me once, you know."

"Wow," Larry said. They stopped at Monica’s car. She was still holding Larry’s arm.

"Hey Larry," she said, "my mom and dad are driving to Tulsa tonight, and they won’t be back until late tomorrow. My dad is speaking at some sort of conference or something. Why don’t you come over later? Do you want to do that?"

WOW. "S-sure," he stammered. "That would be great! Uh, what are we gonna do?"

Monica laughed, and playfully grabbed his face. It made his lip hurt, but he wasn’t paying attention. "Whatever we want," she laughed. "Maybe we can ride horses. Don’t worry; I’m sure we’ll think of something…"

Larry hated horses. They scared him. "I love horses!" he said. "This is gonna be great! What time should I come over?"

"Whenever you want," Monica said as she slid behind the wheel. "How about nine o’clock?"

"Ok! Sounds good to me. See you then, Monica." He pushed her car door shut, and waved as she drove away. He turned and wobbled across Capital Street toward Zit, who was still standing there, mouth wide open.

 

*+*+*+

(Later…)

Funny how things can change overnight, Larry said to himself. Last night – almost to the hour – I was getting my butt kicked by the biggest baddest jackass in Dunston, and here I am now, driving over to his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend’s house while her parents are out of town. Thank you God. And screw you, Luke Ratlin. I hope a bull sits on your face.

Tonight had so far proven to be a double-barreled blessing for Larry. Not only was he heading out to meet up with Monica LaCess, he was actually behind the wheel of the family car, alone, at night. Both events were unlikely to the point of impossible in Larry’s universe -- especially the date with Monica – yet believe it or not, here he was. Somehow, miraculously, Larry’s mother and father had surrendered the car keys to him with a minimum of questions and warnings. Maybe they’re glad I finally got a date with a real girl, Larry thought to himself. Or maybe they just feel sorry for me. They should.

Monica LaCess lived out to the west of town, where the semi-affluent Dunstonians gathered. It was about a fifteen-minute drive from Larry’s house, and as he made his final approach, he began to wonder if he might be way out of his league. Of course I’m out of my league, he concluded. I don’t even have a league. What the hell am I gonna say to her? What are we gonna talk about? What if she wants to ride those rotten horses? I don’t even know how to get up on a horse. What am I DOING here? Maybe I should just go home. He started looking for a place to turn around.

Suddenly, captured in his headlights and sitting absolutely motionless in the middle of the road was a terrified little rabbit. Larry saw it at the very last instant as he came barreling over a bump; no time to swerve, no time to do anything but grip the wheel with clenched teeth and clamped eyes and hope for the best. Mercifully, the best happened – meaning nothing, as is so often the case – and Larry roared right over the rabbit without touching it. Looking up into his rearview mirror, Larry caught a vanishing glimpse of the tiny creature huddled in the lonely red glow of his taillights, unharmed but too terrified to escape. He also saw a pair of headlights off in the distance behind him, bearing down fast.

Maybe it was his current state of vulnerability; perhaps it was just the tenderness of his young dopey heart, but whatever the reason Larry took a vital interest in that little rabbit. Saving the rabbit was a big deal to him, and he began to pray:

Dear Jesus, I beg You. Please let the little rabbit live.

Please let me get back in time to save it.

Jesus, please don’t let the rabbit die. C’mon, Lord.

Over and over Larry prayed his frenzied prayers, all the while frantically searching for a place to turn the car around. After an eternity of moments lumbered by, Larry whirled the wheel to his left and went careening through a Sonic drive-thru parking lot, knocking over a trash can and almost flattening a cute young waitress balancing a fully loaded tray of burgers and fries. Larry recognized her terrified little white face as he raced by. If she saw me, I’m dead, he thought. Tough. He floored it and hauled ass back toward the doomed rabbit, hoping against hope that he would get back in enough time to shoo it off the road or something. He really didn’t know what he was going to do. But a few seconds later a big green Cadillac rumbled past him in the opposite direction, and Larry’s heart sank. He was too late.

A delicate little rope of rabbit guts twisted humbly across the double yellow line. The rest of the shattered creature was strewn nonchalantly about the highway, dead eyes glowing in Larry’s headlights as he rolled past, one ear sticking up in a grotesque salute like some punk’s middle finger.

"God damn it!" Larry screamed into the windshield. "God DAMN IT!!" "Jesus, why did You do that to me? Christ Almighty, if You wanted that rabbit dead so bad that’s Your business, but why did You wait for me to come along and beg You to save it seconds before You KILLED it? What are You doing? What are You DOING? WHY wouldn’t You move a dinky little rabbit to the side of the road? WHY? Maybe You’re not so big and bad after all! That’s what I think!"

Larry knew he was on thin ice -- yelling at God like this -- but he couldn’t help it. The fact that God ignored his prayers was no big deal; he was used to that by now. What bothered him was that this time the worthlessness of his prayers resulted in the death of an innocent animal. Larry took this tragedy personally, convinced that had he not been on the scene, God might very well have spared the rabbit. The rabbit had to die because God wished to demonstrate His contempt for Larry. At least, that’s the way Larry chose to see it, and by the time he pulled up beside the green Cadillac at a traffic signal, he had poisoned himself with his own noxious emotions.

"Hey, you fat miserable pig!" Larry screamed at the Cadillac driver, middle fingers blazing. "Drop dead, you rotten damn bag of crap!"

The bag of crap looked directly at Larry, eyes wide open but stupid, cigar sticking straight out of a fat, mud-like mouth. The light changed, the bag of crap chuckled at Larry’s antics, and the two cars went their separate ways into the dark night.

*+*+*+

Larry was still pretty shook up when he knocked on Monica’s door. He knocked and waited, and knocked and waited again. The lights were on inside, but there were no cars in the driveway, and no signs of life emanating from inside. He could hear horse sounds coming from behind the house where the barn was located, but decided against walking back there and investigating. He stood there for a few more minutes, then knocked and waited again.

More minutes passed. She’s not even home, Larry said to himself. I drove all the way out here for nothing. That’s just great. I should’ve known. He was just turning to go when the door opened and Monica peeked out.

"Hi Larry! How long have you been standing out here? I was back with the horses."

"Oh, hi Monica. I just got here a couple of seconds ago. How are you?"

"I’m fine. Come on in." Monica opened the door for him, and he stepped in.

"Just make yourself at home," Monica said over her shoulder as she walked away. "I’ll be back in a couple of minutes. Do you want a drink? Help yourself to whatever you want! My dad keeps his liquor in that cabinet behind the bar. I’ll be right back!" Monica disappeared into the kitchen and out the back door.

Do I want a drink? Nobody has ever said that to me before, Larry thought to himself. He liked the way it sounded. For a moment or two he felt smashingly grown up and sophisticated, almost James Bondish. Maybe I will have a drink, he thought. He walked around the bar and peered into the liquor cabinet. It looked like a bottle museum in there, and Larry had no idea what any of this stuff was. The Jack Daniel’s label was a dead ringer for the cover of his favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd album; might as well try some of that. He wasn’t sure what type of glass to use, so after checking to make sure Monica was still out of the room, he took a healthy swig directly from the bottle.

Larry felt his face instantly pinch itself up into a tight little ball of muscle, and he clamped the back of his tongue against his gullet to keep from throwing up. He felt his mouth stretch into an involuntary maniacal leer, the same face a dog gets when you rub his stomach and his leg wiggles. For a few amazing seconds Larry’s body was locked up in a wild form of suspended animation, and when he finally regained partial control of his breathing, he let his breath escape in a weird hiss that sounded like a wounded, dying reptile.

"Whoa, that stuff is strong!" Larry gasped to the room. "Wow!" He reached into the cabinet and grabbed a glass and poured another one. He had barely wiped the tears from his eyes when Monica came back into the room.

"Well, well; so you’re a J.D. man!" she exclaimed. "That’s some pretty serious stuff!"

"It’s my favorite," Larry squeaked. "I drink it all the time! Do you want some?"

"No thanks! Not for me. But I’ll take a little Kamchatka on ice, bartender…"

Oh, no, Larry thought to himself. "Coming right up," he laughed nervously. "I like that one too." He turned and gazed into the bottle museum. They all looked the same to him. What did she call it? Kam-something. Please God, he prayed hurriedly, show me the right bottle so I don’t look like a jerk. In Jesus’ Name, amen. Miraculously, his eyes fell on a half empty bottle of clear stuff with a long k-word on the label. Thank you Lord.

"Here it is!" Larry said, relieved. "Where do you keep your ice, Monica? He could feel the whiskey moving in on him.

"It’s in the kitchen," Monica answered. "I’ll get it." She leaned over the bar and gave him a little kiss. "You’re so cute," she said, and disappeared into the kitchen again.

She thinks I’m cute! Can this really be happening? Wow, that Lynyrd Skynyrd stuff is strong! He finished his second shot, and cast himself into the winds of fate, or something like that. By the time Monica came back with her glass of ice, Larry felt like he had been dipped in a sea of warm goo.

"Hey, baby; you’re looking pretty good tonight," Larry heard himself say to Monica. Did I really say that just now, or did I just think it, he asked himself. His eyes were having some difficulty focusing. "Let me pour you a drink," he said, and tipped the vodka bottle towards Monica’s glass. He overshot the mark a little, and most of her drink went on the bar.

"You are so cute!" Monica said. She walked around to his side of the bar and started fooling with the buttons on his shirt. "What do you want to do?" she asked innocently.

"Well, you mentioned something about horses," Larry rasped. "Maybe we could –"

Monica didn’t wait for Larry’s answer. Instead, she grabbed him by his shirt collar, clamped her mouth on his, and went to work. "I can taste the whiskey on your tongue," she said breathlessly. "Ooh Larry, it turns me on."

"Thank you," Larry replied.

Her squirming tongue felt, well, funny. It reminded Larry of a sea slug he once saw in a tide pool exhibit at Sea World when he and his family were on vacation in San Diego. Larry had actually picked the thing up and held it in his sister’s face, who screamed and dropped her snow cone in a tank of turtles. But this was no sea slug. This was the tongue of Monica the Untouchable, and right now it was all his.

So now what?

If Monica drooled into a paper cup and offered it to him, he certainly wouldn’t drink it, yet here he was now, freely exchanging saliva with a girl he really didn’t know that much about. He remembered what Bert said about syphilis (or was it gonorrhea? What’s the difference?), how it clogs up your wiener and they have to stick a tiny rooter-thing up in there and scrape it out. Could that happen from this type of kiss? Larry didn’t think so, but he couldn’t be sure. He imagined himself at the doctor’s office having his wiener unplugged:

"You young people today never listen," the doctor would say. "Weren’t you warned about this?" He would then go to work with an evil looking instrument that sounded like a dentist’s drill, shreds of tissue flying as the battered, diseased organ was repaired. "Of course, you’ll need these treatments twice a week for the rest of your life," the doctor would say.

Still, for all the risks, this felt pretty good – split lip and all. Besides, this was IT. After waiting for about forever, Larry was finally kissing a girl he wasn’t related to. He raised his hand up slowly from Monica’s waist and ever so gently touched her breast. So that’s what a breast feels like! His excitement leapt ahead uncontrollably, blazing a trail for him as he wondered where all of this might lead. Would he actually Do It tonight? After all these years of thinking about It almost constantly, Larry realized that he really didn’t know that much about It. He wondered about Monica. For all Larry knew, she might Do It every night with football players and astronauts. How would he measure up?

He thought about his wiener again. It sported a little goatee of flaming red hair, like Bozo the Clown’s might if you ever happened to catch him with his pants down. Would Monica laugh at it? What about size? Larry wasn’t sure what was normal, but he was certain that his was less than whatever normal is. Sometimes after swimming he’d go in to pee and it would look like it belonged on a five-year-old kid. That can’t be normal, can it?

From that moment on Larry felt increasingly small and dumb, and so obsessed with his feelings of inferiority that he lost sight of the fact that Monica was actually enjoying him. The excellence of his situation began to fade amidst his stormclouds of self doubt, as did the wonderful, sparkling desire that blazed so brilliantly within him only moments before. Nevertheless, deep within his confused psyche a mutinous libido thrashed about valiantly like a mighty game fish, vanquished and with all hope abandoned but not yet willing to surrender. And in a fit of Adamic rebellion, Larry’s unshackled glands hurled the gauntlet of fleshly enchantment at the feet of his quivering, pussy whipped spirit.

As always, his spirit hesitated. His flesh, of course, took off like a bat out of church, allowing him to continue.

They were really going now, like two suckerfish. Monica’s hands were destroying Larry’s new haircut, ruining what took him over an hour in front of the mirror to create. Larry, still not able to believe he actually had his hand on a breast, was unwilling to move it. His other hand was in his pocket. Unlike Larry, Monica LaCess was obviously not burdened by the spiritual ramifications of lust, and continued to up the stakes as she wriggled out of her clothing. As for Larry, his loins partied on while his guts fretted over the tab.

And what The Lord was thinking about all of this? Like it or not, The Lord had been dragged into the thick of this, since He was in Larry’s heart, and Larry’s heart belonged to Monica at the moment. But what was He thinking? Whatever it was, Larry knew it couldn’t be good. He could hear The Lord speaking to him:

"This is very disappointing, Larry. I died for you, because of these sins. This hurts Me deeply, far more than those insults from earlier this evening."

"I know, Lord. Please forgive me. Have mercy, please help me, etc. etc. blah blah blah..."

But wait. What if Jesus comes back? Right now?

Oh Christ, this has always been Larry’s secret terror, like if the Rapture were to happen while he was masturbating. One minute you’re doing it with that magazine Zit pinched from his dad’s massive collection, then POOF! you’re standing before the Throne of God with your pants around your ankles, and you-know-what in your hand. In heaven! Oh, man... The great Cloud of Witnesses, your mother and father, apostles, martyrs, prophets priests and kings would all rise up against you in judgement for this unspeakable abomination, and you would be cast down like a leprous dog; forever in shame and torment, forever cut off from the land of the living because you couldn’t control your miserable fleshly desires. You and all the queers, drug addicts and politicians who boldly and inexcusably rejected the narrow way, down into bitter unending torture at the hands of unspeakably cruel monsters who smell like rotten eggs, only worse. And satan himself will be laughing his red ass off, knowing that you are his forever because you couldn’t keep your damn hands off your own stupid pecker.

And what about that Cloud of Witnesses? Who else was in this room besides Monica and him? Suddenly Larry could feel the living presence of all the Christian saints who had ever died and gone to heaven, and he could sense their offense and outrage at his lustful, wanton behavior. Angels were dispatched on a mission of damage control, demons gleefully hooted and howled at another job well done, while the very halls of heaven reverberated with the dreadful news that a young believer was preparing to boldly fornicate in the presence of the Blessed Trinity.

The brutal impact of this last vision was too much for Larry. His thrashed emotions caved in under this final cruel blast, and for the last time tonight passion and desire bailed out, and fear and the ever-willing need to escape rushed in like a plague of Old Testament locusts.

By now Monica had her pants completely off. Larry’s hand, a fountain of perspiration and trembling like the doomed rabbit, was still clutching that breast. The other hand, incredibly, was still in his pocket as unrelenting waves of guilt smashed harder and harder against his battered teenage soul. Condemnation slashed and scraped against his scorched conscience like jagged shards of dirty glass as he felt himself, already a whisker away from panic, caught up in the whirlwind of his beat to hell emotions. Finally, mercifully, as Monica sucked his tongue out by its very roots and his brain twitched and sparked in a frantic crescendo of sensory static, Larry saw his shadow grow clearer and sharper as God’s Green Cadillac hurtled toward him, and he knew he was dead. Like the doomed rabbit, transfixed by terror and utterly hopeless, Larry waited for the inevitable.

Nothing happened.

Nothing happened.

It was at that point that Larry realized Monica had bad breath. Real bad, like Uncle Hiram’s toothless old tomcat. He also noticed that she had coarse black hairs growing out of her ears. As he stood there, one hand still clutching that breast, the other hand still in his pocket, eyes wide open in the midst of what may have been a record setting kiss, Monica opened her eyes as well, because that’s what always happens.

Looking straight into Monica’s bloodshot eyes while holding on to her sweaty boob -- along with those hairy ears and that tomcat breath of hers -- was simply too much for Larry to handle. He couldn’t take it. The ridiculousness of his situation caused a great spasm of idiotic laughter to burst from him into Monica’s mouth. Her cheeks ballooned like two bullfrogs, and stuff shot out his nose onto her face and upper lip like birdsh*t on a windshield. He farted too, and for that grand instant Larry and Monica were one, joined cheek to nostril by a gossamer strand of snot. "Oh jeez, I’m sorry" is all he could manage as he lamely tried to wipe it away, but Monica turned her head and some of it went in her hair.

"Larry, you are SUCH a DORK!" Monica shrieked as she recoiled from him. "Oh my God, I can’t BELIEVE what just happened! Oh my GOD!!" Now it was Monica’s turn to lose it. She began flailing around for her clothes like a little kid who has just smacked open a piñata. "You’re not ready for ANY of this!" she yelped as she wiped her face with her blouse. "Get out of here, Larry! Just go, would you please?"

He didn’t need to be asked twice. "Okay Monica," he wheezed, backing towards the front door. "I’m sorry about this. I was just a little nervous, that’s all. Uh, I’ll see you around, ok?"

(Thank you Lord. Please forgive me. Have mercy; please help me, etc. etc. blah blah blah...)

*+*+*+

Well, I guess we’re even now, Larry thought as he drove away. As badly as things turned out, Larry actually felt pretty good. He was still a little pissed about the rabbit, but his failure with Monica was more of a relief than anything. Besides, she was right; He wasn’t ready for this. He wheeled the car onto Capital Street and steered towards Gomer’s. Maybe Zit is still there, he said to himself.

It was a few minutes after ten when Larry pulled up in front of Gomer’s. The lights were on, but the place looked pretty vacant. Larry could see Gomer behind the counter, busily scraping his griddle.

"We’re closed," Gomer squawked at Larry without looking up. Zit was nowhere in sight. Neither was Bunny. "It’s too late to order anythi—hey, what the hell are YOU doing in here?" Gomer stopped scraping and eyed Larry suspiciously. "I’m tired of you damn kids coming in here and causing trouble."

"I don’t want any trouble either. Last night wasn’t my fault. Is Gerry still here?"

"Gerry? Who the hell is Gerry?"

"Your new guy. The guy you hired today." God, this dude is dense, Larry said to himself.

Gomer loosened up a bit, and resumed his scraping. "Oh, you mean Ol’ Pizza Face? Haw haw haw! Hell, he left over an hour ago! My old lady drove him home. I wonder where the hell she is! Hey stud, what’s your name? You’re Larry, ain’tcha? Somebody called for you awhile ago. A gal."

Now what, Larry wondered. "What was her name?" Larry asked.

"How the hell should I know? Hold your horses." Gomer waddled over to a cluttered bulletin board and snatched off a scrap of grease-spotted paper. He handed it to Larry. There was no name, but Larry recognized the phone number immediately. It was his home.

"Hey, can I use your phone for a minute?"

Gomer stopped scraping again. "That’ll be fifty cents," he snorted. "This ain’t the damn phone company, you know."

"Fifty cents?!" What a jerk, Larry said on the inside. He fished around in his pockets. "I don’t have fifty cents," he said. "All I have is a dollar bill. My last one"

"Gimme it," Gomer said. "I’ll give you your change tomorrow. The cash register’s already locked up for the night."

Larry could have simply driven home at that point, but he didn’t want to walk into a mess without being prepared. Besides, he was still feeling the whiskey a little. He forked over the dollar, dialed, and his sister answered:

"Larry, where are you? You’ve got to come home right now! Something terrible has happened!"

"I’m at Gomer’s. I just got your message. What happened?

"We got a call from mom’s family in Missouri. Something really bad has happened up there. Mom is freaking out, and dad is losing it too. Larry, I’ve never seen them like this! Dad says he’s gonna need the car. You better come home right now!"

"Ok, ok! I’m on my way…"

+*+*+*

 

Unable to move and terrorized beyond hope of even the smallest sound, Jeremy Lang lay trembling in the darkness. His brain pumps feverishly in a futile attempt to process the horror so savagely jammed into it moments before, as his eyes, wide open and blinded by the flashes, burn from the gunsmoke drifting lazily around him. His nostrils, filled with this same acrid haze, take notice of another odor permeating his world, one he could never have known until right now, yet is still strangely familiar.

It is the scent of recent murder.

Four hundred miles away in a small midwestern town, a child sleeps, peacefully. Suddenly she stirs, moaning softly as an unwelcome visitor taps softly on the window of her subconscious. The window is unlocked and the intruder slips in, casting discomforting ripples through the quiet recesses of her slumbering soul; a harbinger of evil that travels only by night to dispatch a message which often remains hidden, forever entwined with dreams long forgotten.

A loved one is suffering. A loved one is dead.

Then, the intruder is gone. The message is delivered, and the messenger, ever hastening to another destination, vanishes as suddenly as it appeared, fading like a vapor into the sweltering summer night.

*+*+*+

The pre dawn gloom is dimly lit by a lone streetlight peering in through a partially shaded window. It illuminates a nightmarish landscape that had minutes before been known to Jeremy Lang simply as home. In time, his mind will force most of the images of this night to the backstreets of his consciousness, but right now he is aware of nothing else: the slam of the car door, heavy shoes on the porch, shattering glass, and the explosions. Then more explosions, terrible explosions, and the brightest flashes of light he had ever seen. Shoes on porch again, car door, and then silence.

Darkness and silence.

And the face. He will never forget the face.

Minutes or hours passed, nobody knows for sure. But eventually terror was replaced by desolation, and Jeremy Lang, surrounded by his murdered mother and father, Jeremy Lang, the new man of the house, stood up in his crib and began to cry.

 


PART 5   (published February 27, 2001)

written by Jeff WIckstrom

"This sure is strange," Larry said to himself, "seems like I've been here before. That gnarled old tree sure looks familiar."

But Larry couldn't quite put his finger on it. What was it about this place? Was it a place he frequented as a child? Only the tree stood out, amplified by the horizon, it's silhouette in a field beyond the woods, in the slim light of this strange forest.

"Man, it's getting dark fast," he noted, glancing towards a watch with only a second hand. "Blast it, that's weird," was all he could think.

An unseen draft pressed a branch of the tree downward, held it there for a moment, and released it, as if greeting Larry.

Unnerved, Larry let out a soft, somewhat self-conscious chuckle, which he ended up swallowing as he spun to the right and began walking out of the forest.

Suddenly, the thought hit him like a hot towel, "Which is the way out?"

Somewhat discombobulated, a word overused by his aunt Mildred, especially at dinnertime, which often looked like an all-u-can-eat affair, Larry felt the death-cold hand of fear slowly sliding down his throat, it's grasp still loose, but vibrating with the urge to tighten at any minute.

"Okay, don't panic," Larry thought, his brisk pace slowing somewhat, about 300 yards from where he last stood, still parallel to the dim field. And dang! On the horizon. Near the field. The same gangly tree.

A slight breeze pressed the top of the tree to one side, briefly, giving the tree the appearance of "peeking" at Larry.

"Stop it!" Larry screamed, almost audibly, but held back by the concern it would hear him. Larry shook himself, quickly of that odd-ball idea. "Man, how stupid can I get! I bet old Zit is going to pop out of nowhere and try to scare the willies out of me. Dadburnit, that lame Zit!" said Larry, his unease turning to anger. Well, almost anger, the anger more of an excuse not to be afraid. Heck, who was he fooling. The hand of fear now picking at his heart, trying to play a dread tune.

The drafty swill of the occasional breeze now became a light wind, which was actually a bit refreshing. In fact, it felt good. The small, salty beads of sweat which a moment ago stung his eyes quickly evaporated as the refreshing wind caressed Larry's forehead. The air was mixed with cool and cold. A typical spring evening in Oklahoma. Or, at least, Larry attempted to convince himself of the normalcy of his surroundings, in spite of the fact there was nothing normal about them. The spectral question of "Where am I?" didn't remain buried long. Like the psychotic killer of slasher films who kept coming back, relentlessly, so did the troubling thought poke its moldy hand through the soil of Larry's mind.

"Ahhhh, some talking just over that ridge," Larry mused, noticing the orange hue of a campfire ebbing and waning about a quarter mile off, still parallel to the field. "sounds like some campers."
Not quite able to make out what the voices were saying, Larry did notice, mingled among the banter, children's voices. Voices of innocence. Laughing. Or crying? To far away to tell. Must get closer. Don't want to startle them. And so forth, Larry struggled in his mind, trying to make sense of the situation. He was desperate to talk to someone. Anyone. But he didn't feel at ease, thanks to the unknown.

"What if those men are torturing or have kidnapped the children," Larry questioned, his mind gravitating to the worst possible scenario. "What if they have guns, and why are they out here in the middle of nowhere?" Stop it! STOP IT!! "Probably just a father/son campout," Larry thought, realizing his fear was getting the best of him--again. The grip softened, almost unnoticeably. But it didn't warm any.

Larry, as quietly as possible, taking care not to snap any twigs underfoot, slowly trekked in the direction of the orange hue, which grew in intensity with each step. And the voices. The tree seeming to glide along with him, as the moon often did while driving along a country road. Of course, Larry thought, the moon never moved but only appeared to. Just an illusion. Like the "hot-dog" floating between Zit's fingers when Zit stared at his fingers too long. Man, that Zit sure can amuse himself. But the tree wasn't amusing, the steady breeze rocking it to and fro, causing an occasional clicking sound. Heck, kinda like Uncle Pervious' description of Mildred's post-nasal dripping, mouth agasp, at 3 AM in the morning. The drip-drop of which peels the myelin sheath right off of Uncle's "last nerve," as he puts it.

But this was eerily different. More like the blood dripping from a grizzly's fangs after a caribou kill. Come on, Larry. Not that bad!

Worse.

What seemed to be reality slapped him across his face as the voices became more discernible. He was now within earshot of what was formerly mixed burbling conversation. A trickling brook of memories peeling open an alcove of fear. Fear? Fear of what? A voice. A single pre-pubescent voice in particular.

His!

Yes, his own squirrely 9 year old voice at a Royal Rover campout, back in the days when Commander Arnie Coughlin told scary stories to keep the boys from sneaking off into the woods at night. Placing a cognizant restraint in the boys minds to prevent them from sabotaging other outposts. Like the cardboard and duct-tape boat races at a Camp Pow past. Outpost 523's boat blew like a whale a mere 10 yards after launch, a piece of Zit's gum splashing on top, loosed from the hole drilled in the bottom of the boat.

"But how can I be here, now, watching this as it happened years ago?" Larry questioned inwardly, feeling himself losing confidence in his mental faculties, the thought of this being merely a dream never even entering his mind. Strange how while one is dreaming one is not aware of it. One doesn't recognize it for what it is and simply end it declaring, "This isn't real!" Larry, unaware of such a concept at the present time, had experienced such times in the past. The fun and sometimes scary thing was "waking" into another dream, or waking up only to see the shimmering, shrouded dark form adrift in a hallway. Or munching on a strawberry mucada that would melt with each bite without flavor upon his taste buds. Or floating, knees bent, between the cottonwoods in his back yard. Or the face hovering millimeters above his own, eyes squinting, waiting for him to open his own dream eyes to find out he cannot wake up, for real, yet.

But this didn't feel at all like a dream. To real. The cold, drafty wind. The tree, snickering non-verbally to itself, mocking Larry. The decomposing leaves underfoot, spongy with each step. A light moldy smell in the air, stooping to tie an untied shoe, feeling the dampened laces, the moldy scent blowing from the direction of the tree.

The tree. Why that tree. That irritating, ever present, stupid tree! I'm among many trees in a forest full of trees. You've seen one tree you've seen them all. Another cracking noise. A cackle? Nah!! Must be a twig I stepped on.

Larry thought of something Pastor Deeter once said about one's "Looking Glass Self." Something to the effect of how you view other persons (or circumstances) the way you think they must view you! Like when Zit was walking his cousin's English Bulldog down the sidewalk of mainstreet Dunstan. A grunting, farting chunk of slobbering canine protoplasm named Floordrill. Zit saw a pretty girl he had a crush on for some time heading toward him, their paths invariably intended to intersect, silently praising God for such good fortune. She looked up, saw him, and pretending not to see him, crossed over to the other side. Zit lamented for weeks how she avoided him that day. He knew she had seen him and obviously crossed the street to avoid him. It was two months later she mentioned to Larry she was scared spitless over the dog.

His own youthful, somewhat whiny voice pulled Larry back to reality.
"Man, I really do sound as rotten in life as those Memorex recordings Dad was laughing at the other day," Larry thought. "Is it live, or is it Memorex?"

That question haunted Larry now: How could all this be happening?

Commander Arnie was in the middle of a scary story about a farm boy who had an unfortunate combine accident while playing in his father's field. A field not unlike the one beyond the tree, where a light, almost unnoticeable bluish haze was poking its fingers through the knee-high grass and seeping into the woods.

But that wasn't what troubled Larry at the moment.

It was the story.

It was the expression on his very own youthful face as viewed against the flames of the campfire, a fire now smoldering down to coals. The occasional flame licking the air as if gasping for life. This was the way Commander Arnie liked it: The shadows creeping in as the flames submitted to the overwhelming forest darkness. One boy whimpered a bit, his mainspring coiled and on hair trigger. He scooted in closer to the remaining light.

"Strange how light is a panacea to relieve fear. After all, everything is still the same with the lights on or off. Right?" Larry thought, seeking comfort and himself shifting closer to the fire, still out of sight and hunkered down behind some shrubs, straining to hear the deliberately softened voice of the Royal Rover Commander.

Larry's heart surged at a horrifying thought. A thought that until now, for some strange reason had evaded his mind.

"Did I die last night and go to Hell?" Larry feared, afraid he'd fallen through the rotten fabric of his life into his eternal reward. He recalled the evangelist at Pastor Deeter's yearly revival: How he'd tap the microphone with his fingers, expertly simulating an amplified human heart beat, suggesting "we are one heart beat away from eternity, not guaranteed another." Then he's stop, pause and transition into an altar call.

But wasn't Hell a lake of fire and brimstone? Larry didn't smell sulfur, nor was there fire. Heck, it was cold! And getting colder.

"Hell----no!" Larry exclaimed, attempting to put the brakes on his growing paranoia. "I've worried about that needlessly before," he recalled, reflecting upon his fear of standing before the All-Mighty, pants around ankles, Cloud of Witnesses and all. Dead of a heart attack or raptured with a heart full of worldly lust.

"Same as before and unfounded," Larry obsessed. "although somewhat different."

But the Bible mentioned outer darkness. This is out somewhere and dark. I see some flames. I see my life flashed before me. At least an episode of my short Dunstonian life.

The worst episode!

The lanky boy ground up and spit through the combine! Oh, what was his name? What was the story? Can't quite hear Arnie. Why does he get so quiet near the end of the story? Could he---or what looks like him---know I'm back here?

"Zeek Sleeman!"

The wind let up a bit, revealing no crickets or animal noises. The tree stood up, as if delighted by Larry's revelation. But it was just a lack of wind.

Or was it?

The story came flashing back into the front of Larry's mind: Zeek was the boy who's father, called "Pa," had a hillbilly farm in that field, just up the ridge from where he now stood. The legend was that back in the 1920's, Zeek's Pa combined hops for a private moonshine still in that field in the middle of the woods. Close to where "Roverland" now was, just north and west of Edmund, about an hours drive. And it was as Larry saw it in his past. In his young face, beyond the now extinct flames, backlit by dying, yellowing embers.

Rumor had it that Zeek could only say one legible phrase, "Huh-hmuh Pa." But even that sounded muddied and breathy by the most liberal boundaries of 1920's hillbilly dialect.

The wind hummed a short, indiscernible, medley.

Apparently, Zeek , a gangly, overgrown, awkward kid found simple pleasure in playing hide and seek or "peek-a-boo" in the field. With the dogs. Multiple dogs of questionable acquirement. Pa called them Roo-hounds and Butthounds, for no particular reason, except, possibly, their tendency to roll in the occasional "fresh one." Also due to there relentless baying, nightly, as the bluish mist rolled in at dusk.

Like it started to moments ago, Larry thought, strangely amused, but not laughing.

Unfortunately, Zeek's Pa noticed too late Zeek's teasing face as the Combine opened wide and made shish-ka-bob meat out of ol' Zeek. The last thing Pa heard was a "huh-hmuh, P…," literally cut off by the raking jaws of the gorging Combine.

Pa was heartbroken. His only son, Zeek, reduced to a stringy, gnarled, sickly twisted gut-pile of tendons and shreds. His only son. His baby boy, Zeek. So playful at heart. Taken away so tragically and horrifically. Pa dove into the bottle and never was the same.

Legend also notes that due to the fact town was miles away and it was late in the day---as evidenced by the strange blue mist nibbling at the tree-trunks---he had no choice but to set what was left of his beloved son behind the woodshed, and take the body into town in the morning.

Rumor has it that the dogs drug Zeek off.

The body never was found. Pa's heart hurt. Pa dove into the bottle and never was the same until his own mysterious death one year later. On the anniversary of Zeek's accident.

The combine sits at the far end of the field, to this day, a skeletal rusting hunk of abandoned machinery just out of view from Larry's current vantage point, where the mist now sighed at his ankles.

The fire was out and the voices silent.

Larry ran over to the spot where the outpost had been and no one was there, not even a trace of a fire, or its remains.

Larry thought he heard some mournful baying beyond the mist and the fog.

"My imagination is getting the best of me." Larry thought.

"Huh-Hmuh, Pa," the tree replied, as it took a step toward Larry.

Larry blinked and tried to "shake it off." Did he hear the wind or Zeek? Was he really in Hell? Was this the devil-or God's-way of tormenting the damned, by taking a childish story from youth and using it as Hell-fire to torture the lost? Madness!

In a strange twist of plans-not that he had one-Larry ran toward the tree intending to tackle it, thinking in vain that if he was in Hell he would fight it with everything within him!

"This is nuts!" Larry screamed, audibly, sobering to the situation.

The "tree," now walking confidently toward Larry, bobbed and peeked, a sinister wrinkle forming where the mouth should have been, curling ever so slightly into a wry smile: "Huh-Hmuh, Pa!!!"

Loudly, "H U H - H M U H, P AAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!"

Larry ran faster than he ever imagined he could. "This can't be a dream," he said, realizing the possibility for the first time, "my legs are not heavy as lead!"

With a sigh of relief, Larry realized he had lost ol' Zeek somewhere between the field and the pond he now was walking around.

A twig snapped. Or was it a subdued chortle?

Larry dashed into the woods opposite the pond, a frog jumping off the bank in symphony with his heart pounding against the roof of his mouth.

He had to hide. Let that dumb old Zeek run past him or something. So Larry sprinted as fast as he could, until he thought his lungs would explode, across another field, past an old rusted Combine, and darted behind a gangly old tree.

His relief was short-lived.

Didn't "feel" like a dream!

In the distance, from the direction of the hulking combine, Pa's fiddle mournfully wept out "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

The "tree" turned out to be Zeek!

It pushed Larry to the ground and placed a moldy hand against his chest as if trying to pop his heart open like a puss-filled zit! If this was my imagination, how could this hand feel so real, the pressure on my heart so intense! "Could something beyond my imagination-God or the devil-account for this?!!" Larry thought, his mind agasp as his dream hands passed helplessly through Zeek's arm in an attempt to escape.

*****************************************************************************

"Zit, you rotten little sh….eeeeee," was all he could say as that wonderful, blessed quirky little pockmark-faced friend of his pressed on Larry's chest-shaking gently-to wake him up.
"Man, you're sweating like Elvis!" Zit marveled, eyeing his friend over, "You been having one of those 'wet dreams' again?!!"

"Shut up, man," Larry retorted, popping Zit with a smelly pillow, visual pun intended, then sitting up in bed. "Nah, I had the worst nightmare, ever. Remember ol' Zeek in that story Commander Arnie used to freak us play-doh minded kids out with?!"

"Yeah. You mean you were scared of that crappie old story?" Zit inquired, breaking into raucous laughter, then he grabbed the pillow and swatted back at Larry.

"What are you doing here, anyway?" Larry asked, privately thankful for the timing.

Then he remembered.

Last night.

Mom's phone call.

The note on the table-last night-asking him to get some sleep, that he'd need it, Mom and Dad nowhere to be found.

Zit responded, "Just thought you'd like to go down to Gomer's Hamburger Hut, I work there now and can make your burger to order."

"I'm not feeling well," said Larry honestly, "I'm gonna pass, but thanks, man. Maybe later this evening."

"But you've been sleeping all morning and now it's going on 1:30 in the afternoon…."

"I know, but like I said: I'm just not up to it, yet. Anyhow, you've been hanging out there way too much. I mean, it's just a job…why spend all your free time there?"

"I take pride in my work!" Zit grinned, appreciating the double meaning which may someday become applicable. "Besides, Bunny appreciates the extra hours I put in. And if Bunny's happy, Gomer's happy."

"Gomer's been 'happy'?" Larry questioned, screwing up his face for effect. "The closest he gets to 'happy' is hollering at us for Luke's shenanigans! You know the routine. Besides, Gomer must not be getting any at home, as crotchety as he's been. Could be her weight problem."

"Bunny carries it well, Larry," Zit blurted, recalling the tattoo, then extinguished a small grin before it formed, fearing his friend would read meaning into it. They knew each other so well that a 'look' could speak volumes. "C'mon, man, stop second-guessing Gomer's quirks. He's been a hot-headed joker as long as we've known him."

"Oh, I give up! Have it your way and vegetate all stinkin' day," Zit proclaimed, heading toward the door, "I guess I'll see yaw later."

Larry could hear Zit burst through the door (another visual pun), and Larry momentarily flopped back onto his bed, forgetting about his nightmarish rendezvous with Zeek Sleeman of Royal Rover lore.

****************************************************************************

Larry had a lustful thought.

As usual, he beat himself up for it, depressed that like several thoughts preceding this one exceeded-surely-more than "seventy times seven." He wondered what the real extent of God's forgiveness was.

How his flesh dreaded his personal idea of "carrying his cross daily."

That dreaded tree!

At times, Larry was absolutely convinced that the anal sphincter of life had dealt him a rank one. And no matter how much he wiped at it with his good intentions, there remained an eternal smudge arrogantly reminding him of his lack of mental paper.

"Why does crap like this happen to me?" Larry mused discontentedly, tiring of the routine, and allowing his developing case of emotional ulcerative colitis to ball up it's ugly fist, painfully. "Luke doesn't seem to dwell on his 'shortcomings' or show remorse for his bullying of others. "
He pondered for a moment the Christian life, the song "Joy Unspeakable," and pastor Deeter's annual week-long revival meetings featuring Evangelist Bernhard Flabbengasper. They'd set up a tent in the church parking lot, where, nightly, the saints were reminded of how bad they were, scolded for sins real or imagined, then were challenged to bring sinners to be "revived" as well, and finally walking out like whipped puppies, tails between their legs, having been "revived." Pastor Deeter would remind the people they were the salt of the earth and that the town needed "times of refreshing" like they were experiencing. Of course the revival was about 5 months off and Pastor Deeter was acting strange lately. But who knows.

On his way to the bathroom, Larry glanced over at his unpleasantly rotund begetter of life, presently processing nasal lumber in a grimacing Lazy Boy rocker, snoozing well past 1:30 PM. "Perhaps genetics play a role in my frequent brain flatulence," Larry thought, rubbing his chin while viewing the disgusting image of his father spread generously across the chair, sickeningly amused by the toilet-tissue thin underwear tank-tops he could read Dad's abdominal geography through.
Thinking back on his Junior High days, Larry recalled his third cousin, since moved to Tulsa, "Slats" Bamberger. Everyone in the school considered Slats the most likely to donate a brain cell to science. Yes. One brain cell. One rancid cell out of a tangled ganglion of sputtering nerve cells he confidently considered the posh home of his "IQ." Larry had always guessed that Slat's brain as a whole-if mental energy could be isolated and infused into another-would cause nothing more than a dirty thought followed by a headache.

One thing ol' Slats had going, however, was the "intimidation factor." No one messed with him, much like Luke, and no one dared. Even if he did something demonstrating serious lack of taste, no one acknowledged it. Again, no one dared. With little effort he would educate his subjects that they were merely the custodian of his lunch money-lovingly tucked into their pockets, for him, by their mothers.
He would "educate" with merely a "look." The "look" and the occasional words, "Hey, you!" were all it took to extract you from the hallway into the dark corner he emanated from, mindlessly sucking you into the black hole of obligation.

Heck, upon retrospect, all he did was sit there and say, "hey, you!"

No.

Maybe it was the toothpick, twirling slowly. Deliberately. Beckoning. A wispy, non-verbal, wooden piece of "whoop-a##" insisting compliance.

That's the "good" part.

When the confident twirl picked up its pace, Slat's lips tightened, and every prominent vein in his face pressurized to the point that mosquitoes in the next county exploded, your number was almost up.

God forbid, if your sprint wasn't fast enough or he forgot he already collected your lunch money, you had it!!

Slat's blue-steel eyes would narrow to icy slits, his lips would turn blue, the toothpick would scream, paint would peel, and you'd pay. Brother-YOU'D PAY!!

Strange, though. His body NEVER flinched. He never budged. But you'd comply!

Once a geeky kid by the name of Johnny Papoofnick-a kid too tall for his age with pipe cleaner arms and erector set elbows and knees, not to mention the ever-present pendulous blobs of sinus overflow-crossed the line with Slats.

You already know Slat's "MO," so put it this way: At the point in the routine where the toothpick should have transitioned from "fast twirl" to "scream," with uncanny synchronicity, Johnny's blobs swung together, caught the toothpick--gagging it's scream, and with great demonstration of the force of gravity snatched it from Slat's incredulous lips, then with slingshot action impaled it into the foam-board ceiling in the corner where it remains to this day. Parents new to the school admire the creative way the fly tape was strung from the ceiling with the toothpick. They also admired its effectiveness and hue, but couldn't figure out what brand. The flies seemed so attracted to it!
Johnny's eyes became glaucomic-simply paralyzed with fear.

Slats just sat there, not budging. With one cool, perfectly timed, cat-like fluid motion, he flicked a spare toothpick from behind his ear with such slight of hand that it almost materialized in his mouth.
Enough on old Slats. The point is: Some guys seem to not have a care in the world and yet, I, a "Christian," can't seem to hold it together. Even the fact that He is "faithful and just and will forgive my sin" seems to just be part of the insult called my walk with God.
But me, I just fail and repent, fail and repent. Find some brief reprieve, only to fail and repent again, lamented Larry to himself. A viscous cycle. Seventy times seven over and over again! Time out, time in, confused, frustrated, angry, ashamed, frightened, depressed, hopeful, lonely, anxious, overwhelmed and often disgusted with myself and God's seeming inability to keep me from screwing up. Was this a rock too big for Him to lift? One multifaceted ball of emotions that doesn't roll straight? A spiritual wilderness of despair and reminders of reasons to despair.

Monica.

The youth center.

Zit's new job.

Luke.

Gomer's.

Wonder where Mom is?

"Hmmmmm…a Nacho Salad sounds good. I think there's a Taco Bueno in Edmond," Larry thought, momentarily setting his emotional regress on hold. "Hope they don't gip me on the Con-Queso or forget the onions."

Dad mumbled incoherently, drunken with sleep.

"Good thing Dad's sleeping. Besides, I'm not in the mood for a 'Zit burger!'"

The breathing, excreting, protuberance of humanity! "Don't want to think of the gross things he does," Larry muttered to himself, conjuring up horrendous mental images. Like the time I saw the Slug drag a moldering fuzz wad outta some crevice in the proximity of his navel with the overgrown pinky nail he uses to pick his nose! Yuck! How with a bemused look he'd examine it prior to jamming it betwixt his cheek and gum and almost with post-orgasmic afterglow sucked-yeah, that word, sucked-the salty and festering juices out of it only to spit it behind one of the many strained TV trays into a Folgers can on the floor. Then he'd cough into the same hand, plunge it into his can of dry roasted peanuts and offer you some.

"Man, that ruins it! Con Queso or not. I think I'll go see what Zit is up to."

"On second thought, I'll just go back to bed. I wonder when Dad's going to trim that gangly old tree in the back yard? I cannot seem to remember it looking so awful!"


***The End. For Now.***