The Martyrdom of Magoo
The toad is the least pretentious of all earth creatures; it is ugly and it knows it. It inspires fear and superstition through no fault of its own, yet does so with a green, shit-eating grin. It revels in its God-given grotesqueness. It marvels at its hold over the human imagination.
When black cats couldn’t make the gig, toads flew as familiars on the broomsticks of witches. Toads were the most poisonous of ingredients in the vilest of potions; a caldron without a toad was like a punchbowl without the 151. Few little girls will touch a toad. Little boys will deal vicious injustices to a toad, where they wouldn’t think of doing so to a dog, or even a hamster.
Western man has come to distrust the toad. It is bad enough to be a frog, but a toad…
While certain human bog strollers couldn’t seem to shake the idea of toads as the evil couriers of Beelzebub, many cultures saw the amphibian as symbols of re-creation, or as keepers of the secrets of transformations.
Imagine the affect on the psyche of the ancient Egyptian as millions of frogs and toads magically bubbled up from the mud left by the receding Nile. The water goddess Heket appeared with the head of a frog. Egyptian women wore amulets of the fecund critters to enlist the favors of Heqit, goddess of conception and birth.
Ancient Asian legends saw the toad as trickster and magician, a master of escapes, knowledgeable of magic spells and the secret powers of herbs. The horrifically homely wise man Liu Hai wandered China with his three-legged toad buddy Ch’an Chu, who revealed to his human companion the secrets of eternal life. In Japan – same hunchbacked, warty-faced smart dude, same enlightened toad – different names. Other oriental tales refer to a fungus growing from the toad’s head that could somehow reveal the secrets of immortality.
From the East we return to the shamanic traditions of the West, where hallucinogenic compounds were milked from glands in the toad’s head. Remember the princess who kissed the toad (assumedly on the head), who then magically transformed into the handsome prince? Stranger things have been seen while splashing about the psychic swamp.
The toad sings a song of crude, guttural belches and otherworldly hiccups that has enchanted the human psyche since the beginning. And now, the eternal toad’s gargled melody accompanies yet another tale…
Rick Robinson, sole cop and city maintenance man for the sleepy hamlet of Tamp Iron Falls, pulled off Highway 31 near the old jeep road to Lost Lake, just a few miles south of the Canadian border. He stuck his head out the window and looked back, the smoke from his cigarette drifting over his freshly-shaven face and squinted eyes.
"Alright, guys! Last stop for big lunkers."
His preteen son, Bobby, and Bobby's best friend, Jack, patted the blue light on top of the cab and jumped from the back of the pick-up. They grabbed their fishing poles and backpacks and were halfway into the woods when Rick saw them through the passenger door window.
"Hey, thanks for the ride, officer," Rick hollered after them.
The two boys turned and waved, yelling, "Yeah, thanks Dad," and "Thanks, Mr. Robinson," before disappearing in the brush.
"Don't forget. You boys be back at the cafe by four o'clock or I'll send out the Guard." There was no answer. Rick stomped the pedal and pulled out onto the road, gravel flying and tires squealing as they met the pavement. He honked the horn and left the morning sun, beginning the long winding descent into town, still dark in the shadows of the mountains, and enshrouded by brackish, low lying clouds.
The two boys stopped once they were well out of sight of the road. They looked at one another and shook their heads affirmatively, grinning sinisterly. Bobby dropped his pole and slipped the pack from his shoulders. He pulled out a wrapped jelly sandwich, a rusted fishing lure, a brown-dotted banana and a crumpled pack of cigarettes. Retrieving two bent smokes, he offered one to his friend. They each tore off the filters and flicked them at one another as they settled into the tall grass. Bobby lit his then held the match for Jack, who cupped his hands over the flame, even though there was no wind.
"Hey, hold it still, would ya?" Jack looked up. Bobby was looking directly behind him, his eyes growing larger and larger, his lips twitching as if about to blast out a blood curdling scream. Jack swung around and saw nothing but trees and blue sky.
"Asshole!" Jack said. Bobby laughed and fell back into the grass.
They finished their cigarettes and continued up the road, so overgrown that it was now only passable on foot. As they walked, branches and brush reached overhead and blocked out much of the sky, forming a cool, green tunnel through the woods. The sun filtered through the thicket and fell upon the spongy forest floor in broken patterns of flickering yellow light.
The boys walked in silence for twenty minutes or so when Bobby stopped suddenly and held out his arm. "Shhh," he said, "listen!" and then froze.
"Blow me!" Jack said, and continued walking, passing up Bobby, who didn't budge. Jack went on for about twenty yards, then turned and was about to speak when he heard as well: the moving of brush, the snapping of branches, the sound of something large moving through the forest.
"Deer," said Bobby.
"Bear," said Jack, moving backwards toward his friend.
"Come on, let's keep going," said Bobby, lowering his voice. "Dad thought he saw a moose up here last fall. That's probably it. Besides, we're over halfway to the lake now."
They could still hear the ominous noise, but it was farther away. And then it was gone, leaving only the caw of a distant raven, and the occasional chatter of chipmunks.
They walked on, their senses heightened. The overhanging thicket grew darker and the trail became less defined. Underneath the high branches of the virgin pines grew another thick forest of sun-starved seedlings, a mat of discolored life waist-high to the boys. Indications of animal trails branched throughout.
Bobby's pace quickened and his steps grew long, anticipating an exit from the shadows. Jack had fallen quite a ways behind when he finally stopped, bent over and puffed loudly.
"Wait!" he called out. "Let's have a smoke."
"C'mon, ya pussy, we're almost there. Wait'll we get to the lake."
Suddenly Jack's breathing stopped in mid-huff. Bobby's eyes grew wide, this time with genuine fear. The stomping clearly came from somewhere in the brush directly behind them, growing closer. Bobby shouted and sprinted toward an unfamiliar clearing a hundred yards ahead, with Jack close behind. The stomping was right on their heels when they finally reached the sunlit circle of yellow grass that grew at the base of a truck-sized outcrop of granite. They fell with their backs to the wall-like face of the stone, hoping that whatever dreaded creature that pursued them might flee from the light of the sun.
Bobby gasped and Jack emitted a mouse-like squeak as a skinny, completely naked, sun and filth-darkened man with a thick black beard and long, matted, black hair stumbled from the brush, his eyes wide and wild, his cheeks puffed out and his mouth dripping a substance like a coagulated blood milkshake. The beast grunted loudly and ran directly for the boys who screamed and pulled their knees to their chests and covered their heads with their forearms.
The man-creature stormed over between them, slapped his hand upon the rock, and with a moaning howl spit the contents of his mouth upon his hand and spread fingers. He stepped back and watched the crudely splattered handprint abstract oddly as the putrescent goo oozed down the stone. He gazed at his coated hand with dumbstruck wonderment.
"I'll be goddamned," he mumbled.
The horrified children ran off into the woods.
The huge oak doors of the Crowded Fire Theater rattled and slowly swung open. Carl Baxter emerged from the mouth of the great edifice and stepped from beneath the overhanging marquee, and out into the dark, deserted, gently sloping street that bisected downtown Tamp Iron Falls. He ran his fingers up into his hair and rubbed his temples with his palms. His eyes finally focused.
Just minutes ago he had awakened from a particularly vivid and troubling dream. Yet how strangely similar the two mental states currently seemed to him. Was he truly awake? No? Yes… Yes?
He looked down at his stocking feet. A barely perceptible bluish mist moved in gentle swirls over the gray surface of the road. He closed his eyes and saw the same scene he saw with his eyes open, only now the dream fog was much thicker, growing darker as it slowly rose. It soon obscured his feet, his knees, and ultimately reached his waist.
He turned as quickly as his slumber would allow. At the near end of town, across from the city park, fog oozed through the knotholes and boarded windows of the roofless Silver Strand Hotel. Fog slithered beneath the fence that hides the vacant lot between the cafe and the barbershop, gushed through the narrows between the mercantile and the hardware store and the unused shop next to the store. Fog flowed from the side streets and alleyways like tributaries of a phantasmic river, gathering and bubbling and swirling magically as it flowed slowly down the street.
Only Old Frency's beaten-up, blue sedan influenced the flow. It was parked crookedly in front of Teckla's Bar and Good Food, one wheel up on the curb, the dented fender touching and tipping an overstuffed trash barrel. An empty beer glass clung miraculously to the curved edge at the front of the car's hood, barely teetering with the easy movements of the atmosphere.
Carl opened his eyes. Reality check. There was no fog. Even the mist at his feet was gone.
In the distance, a muffled roar of spinning mills and high-compression machinery filtered through the town, an ever-present dirge hoarsely hummed by the Bacon and de Peter Portland Cement Company that dominated the southern half of town. For more than one hundred years the enormous gray plant had vibrated the footsteps of the locals. Four towering smoke stacks perpetually puffed clouds of powdery waste that snowed down upon the town and its folks day and night, season upon season, clogging their noses and covering their cars and clotheslines with layer upon layer of fine, powdered cement that would harden with the morning dew, and set like stone with the next rain.
A light came on in the kitchen of the Hardy Miner Cafe, next to Teckla's bar. Carl could see the enormous figure of Diane shuffling about in her flapping, plastic thong slippers and tent-like dress, preparing for the morning rush. Soon the tiny eatery – one long counter, three small booths – would be filled with heavy-smoking, hard-cussing, day shift factory workers. With sleepy eyes, they'll chomp down Diane's runny eggs and greasy hash browns, and suck down cup after cup of strong black coffee, all the while rehashing, altering and outright fabricating local who's-sleeping-with-who myths and big-bear-damn-near-got-me legends.
Minutes after the last of the day shifters staggered off to work, the first of those getting off the graveyard shift would stagger in. They were fewer in number than the first group, a much more subdued bunch. Working while others slept, sleeping in houses with taped-up windows and hushed-up children, these men were known as the midnight men, tired always these men, talking in low tones, monosyllabic in answer to any inquiry, always gazing into their cups, or toward their own image in the mirror across from the counter.
It was Carl's intention to sit through both shifts, as was his habit, listening halfheartedly to the gossip while he read the morning news and sipped his coffee. Rarely did he contribute verbally to these morning sessions, and because of his silence and his unusual lifestyle, he was generally thought of as somewhat of an oddball by the day shifters – a potential threat to their daughters who worked for him in the theater's box office and concession stand, a possible pusher of drugs or dangerous ideas to their sons.
Carl turned and looked at his home, the theater, the largest non-factory building in town. It was built at the same time – and with much of the same material – as the cement plant, back during the days when the mines were still operating and Tamp Iron Falls boasted three taverns and a house of gambling and prostitution. The theater now had more seats than the town had people. With the exception of the abandoned hotel, it alone occupied the north side of the street; all other shops and stores faced it. Even the fire of '55 that destroyed half the town was unable to conquer its sheet metal and cinderblock construction. Its once charred black sides had long ago been covered beneath the many years of cement coatings.
Carl first set foot in town last winter, during the worst snowstorm in the recorded history of the county. People still talk about the sight of the forty-year-old, bright red milk truck with the words “Primordial Ooze Productions” crudely printed on the side, sliding into town and nearly taking out downtown’s one and only fire hydrant.
He had come to town with the intention of shooting a short documentary about a secretive religious cult located a few miles out of town, near the Canadian border. Carl had achieved some success with his first and last film, “Paloma,” which examined the life of a young Denny’s waitress by day, exotic dancer by night. Making the West Coast art house circuit, it was publicly denounced by a handful of religious group and even praised by a few critics, with short clips of Paloma espousing her raucous, hedonistic philosophy on local news channels from Vancouver, B.C. to San Diego.
Carl fell in love with Paloma, and even set aside his art for her. They moved into a cheap apartment in downtown Spokane where he joined her at the restaurant, taking a job as dishwasher to pay the rent, and to support Paloma’s burgeoning methamphetamine addiction. What followed was two whirlwind years of sex, drugs and rock and roll. And then one day, she was gone, leaving Carl with a crushed heart, a dusty 16mm camera, and a mailbox stuffed with bills.
Looking through a Budweiser blur at a nearby dive, he caught the end of a news story about what the newscaster called, “the silent cult,” which followed a mythological hermit who supposedly lived in the surrounding mountains. The next day, Carl sold everything except the camera and the van, purchased a few thousand feet of film and a tank full of gas, and found himself impaled on a fire hydrant in sleepy, snowed-in Tamp Iron Falls.
Later that night, Carl met the manager of the Crowded Fire Theater in Teckla's bar. He introduced himself as Robert, but said that for some reason, of which he claimed to have no knowledge, everyone called him Space. Carl quickly understood the nickname when Space nonchalantly lit up a joint in the bar. No one seemed to notice, and if they did, they didn’t care.
Looking more like an aged hippie than the manager of a business, Space mesmerized Carl with vivid accounts of his world travels, of his drug deals in the labyrinthine alleyways of Marrakech, of his dream-like meanderings through the Spanish countryside. In the space of a few drunken hours, Space had recited some of the more bizarre passages from Dante’s “Inferno,” endless bawdy pirate songs, as well as the entire spoken part of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” He revered the early surrealists and their antics and told with much emotion and wild gesticulation the tale of Louis Aragon who, after reading a favorable review of his book in a well-known newspaper, stormed into the office of the editor, beat him silly with a cane and tossed his typewriter through the window.
Space talked continually, and when he laughed, he bellowed, coughing and gasping between bursts, holding his chest as if to contain his heart. Often he would follow the outburst with a short but intense moment of introspection, whereupon he would again begin speaking, first to himself, then slowly including the rest of the room, eventually dominating it once again with his deep, gravelly voice and his intense eye contact, and always, as his intensity grew, the right eye pronouncedly larger than the left.
Carl was nearly convinced of Space’s genius, until, that is, Space tried to explain his curious endeavor of recording “What Owl Said.” Space would experiment with different ways of putting himself into a trance-like state, via yoga techniques and/or strange combinations of herbs and/or drugs, whereupon he would descend into the basement of an imaginary house to encounter Owl – an actual owl (albeit a dream owl), named Owl – who would utter some nearly nonsensical prophecy, which Space would dutifully scribble down in his notebook.
Space told Carl that he wanted to “get out of show biz,” to retire to his shack in the hills beyond the falls and devote full time to writing his book: a voluminous, eclectic collection of hippie folklore and philosophy, herbal remedies and guidelines for the proper use of hallucinogens – as well as, of course, the dubious wisdom of Owl. Asking only for friendship and a lifetime free movie pass, Space offered the position of “show house manager” to Carl, who reluctantly accepted.
The cult story went nowhere. Except for a few delivery drivers, no one gained entrance to their compound. Even the drivers Carl interviewed claimed they had never seen a soul on the property. Many people in Tamp Iron Falls were unaware of the cult’s existence.
So, every Friday night, and all day Saturday and Sunday, Carl showed old cartoons and second-run movies to the easy-to-please town’s folk, swept up their spilled popcorn, and kept the restrooms free of scum. For his efforts, he was allowed the use of the cell-like apartment in the basement, and a monthly salary of four hundred dollars a month, mailed to him from a man he had never met.
He had come to enjoy the job, despite the bleak environs of the town. He liked having the mysterious theater to himself, and had cleverly perpetrated a rumor that the place was haunted. Monday through Thursday he would escape gray Tamp Iron Falls, favoring the surrounding mountains, backpacking the high ridges, stalking and filming the big horn sheep and elusive black bear, compiling a kaleidoscopic documentary which he was almost sure would never be commercially shown.
The dining room lights came on in the cafe. Diane unlocked the front door and turned the hanging CLOSED sign to OPEN. She didn't see Carl, even though he stood less than forty feet away, and the sky had become considerably lighter. Slowly she shuffled over to the kitchen end of the counter, hoisted her massive form atop a stool, and lit a cigarette.
A truck turned onto the bridge from the other side of the river. There was that certain hollow, lonely whine caused by heavy wheels on the ancient structure, echoing out over the River Galena. Carl stepped back into the shadow of the marquee as another vehicle surprised him from behind. Two old pick-up trucks rounded the corners at opposite ends of town and, upon seeing one another, stopped abruptly. Then, like stalking animals, they slowly crept toward each another, engines only idling, but getting closer and closer until, just before they met, each gently swerved into the other's lane, missing one another by inches as they passed silently, then eased back to their own proper side of the street.
They slowly turned the corners at either end of town and disappeared, the putt-putting of their engines consumed by the distant rumble of the cement plant.
By the time his wind-up alarm went off, Space was already licking and twisting the first smoke of the day. He carefully balanced the perfectly rolled joint upright at the tips of his forefinger and thumb and admired the workmanship. He ran it beneath his nose and breathed in deeply the skunky aroma, then stuck it between his lips.
"Barney!" he hollered from the joint-less side of his mouth. From his lap he lifted the magazine that caught the excess weed, and dumped it into the exaggerated open nose of a small, inverted glass pig, half-filled with his own special blend of tobaccos and highly potent, imported cannabis, as well as a half of an apple, and a handful or two of wrinkled, brownish-red berries mixed throughout.
"Where's my stick?" he shouted.
A sleepy yelp came from outside the shack. Space heard paws scampering across packed earth, an insincere, whimpering cry, then a scratching, then a pounding at the kitchen door that rattled the loosely fitted windows.
"You know you ain't comin' in here without my stick, dog."
Space reached down between his feet and struck a wooden match at the base of the makeshift bed. He lit the end of the joint and sucked the sweet smoke deep into his lungs, closed his eyes and savored the warm inner glow. Then, accompanied by a deep, contented moan, a great cloud burst from his throat, billowing out into the stale atmosphere that smelled of damp wood, burnt coffee and dirty socks.
The first rays of sunlight filtered through the dusty kitchen windows and pierced the swirling blue smoke, projecting four distorted rectangles along the full length of the shack's smooth wooden floor, ending at Space’s toes. He stood and threw the burnt matchstick to the base of the potbelly stove.
As he stepped across the room, morning light moved up the worn legs of his dirty long johns, up to his bulging forty-year-old belly and dangling sun-spotted arms, to his long, unkempt beard. Peeking through wild hair, his large inquisitive eyes squinted and shifted, the whites of which speckled red from broken blood vessels. He held the side of the sink and bathed his face in the morning light.
From the corner of an eye he saw Barney's shadow dart across the trail and into the thicket. The shimmering brush and flinging dew showed the hound's progress up the hillside. Space stomped over and threw open the door.
"You think you wanna go to town with me, asswipe, you get me my stick!"
He stepped out on the porch and slipped off his underwear. Walking naked to "the shithole," he could hear the dog slipping on the rocks at the base of the cliffs up above. Space stepped into the brush and strattled an old television stand, set over a trench. He thumbed through a wet magazine, farted violently, and leisurely finished his smoke.
The land didn't look much different then it did the day he bought it three years ago. He did notice however that the shack had taken on a subtle but ominous twist. The base of the upright side-planks remained stable, but it seemed that the roof had inched slightly clockwise, giving it the first sign of the arthritic contortions that befalls such structures after sixty or seventy years of wind and snow and rain.
Rusted parts of enigmatic machinery and stacks of rotted lumber littered the small clearing. The garden had become overgrown with weeds, but still yielded an occasional handful of woody carrots, a head or two of earwig-infested broccoli, and a few green tomatoes with rotted bottoms. The brush at the edge of the garden had grown enough so that you could no longer see down into town, although you could still see parts of the cement plant and a small stretch of the river.
He finished his morning duties and shoveled some dirt into the hole with a piece of bark. As he walked back, he cleaned his feet on the matted, damp grass, all dotted with giant yellow dandelions. He stuck his head in the door and was startled by a growl and a loud bellowing bark. The large, ruddy hound bounced on the tattered couch, his tongue flinging saliva, his tail whipping frantically about. With a yelp, he bound from the couch and zipped by Space, upsetting his herb-affected balance.
"That's it, you goddamn donkey! I better get my stick before I get to the falls – I'll skin your mangy ass!"
Space walked over to the desk, all covered with stacks of papers and open books that nearly obscured an old black iron typewriter. He opened the bottom drawer and retrieved the cleanest dirty T-shirt, then grabbed his pants that were hanging by the suspenders on a nail. Counting out enough money for breakfast, dinner, and a couple of beers after the show, he stuffed the bills in his pocket and threw the rest into the open drawer, then grabbed his hat and pack and slammed the door behind him.
"You seem to have forgotten," Space hollered to the unseen dog. "Tonight's show night. And if I don't get my stick, Carl won't let you watch cartoons in the balcony, and Tom won't feed you buttered popcorn and chocolate bits so you can drizzly shit all over my humble abode." His voice lowered as he mumbled on. Soon he was talking to himself.
As unlikely as it might seem, it was a local guy, Tom Walker, who was responsible for Space being in Tamp Iron Falls. Tom was “a ‘Falls boy, born and raised,” having never been further than a 100 mile radius of town, until the night after his high school graduation when, as he if fond of saying, “I first learned how to spell L.S.D.” Spending the next four years “in search of the eternal buzz,” his next truly lucid moment came in the oil fields of Texas, when an odd, hippie-like, company chemist informed him of the death of his father.
Space, weary of “working for the man,” surprised Tom by offering to drive him the 1,800 miles home. It was a trip of revelation for each. Tom had never encountered a person of such intellect; and Space – whose amorous adventures were exciting, but few – had never taken such interest in the recollections of one like Tom, who, devastatingly handsome, and with a down home, country flair for story telling, could speak endlessly of the maintenance of his “heat and moisture seeking missile.”
Tom, Space and Carl – a most unlikely trio – nevertheless became quite good friends.
"And you know what else, egg suck?" Space said to the thick brush that clung to the steep hillside. "Our man Thomas may well have hunted down the White Toad last night. And you know how generous Tom is when he's a’huffin’ on the Toad."
Space began the long walk off of the mountain and into town. Few knew of the trail between the shack and the falls. Space and Barney, along with a few rodents and brown rabbits, used the half-mile passage around the rugged granite cliffs that contained the boiling white waters of Pass Creek. Once or twice a year, a group of curious tourists would find the head of the trail, hidden beyond the field behind the Historical Information sign near the falls. Never did anyone venture further than the narrows, located halfway up the trail. Carl and Tom occasionally undertook the journey to sample some of Space's special blend and sit out at the edge of the garden to watch the distant smoke stacks of the cement plant pollute the valley with gritty waste that never seemed to make it quite as far as Space’s shack, except on particularly windy days.
The soft soil trail turned to pebbles, which turned to rocks, which became larger rocks -- the trail all but disappearing at the narrows. Here Space was forced to traverse on hands and knees for twenty yards or so along the massive outcrop of truck-sized stones. He stopped and scooted out over to the edge, and listened to the churning creek below.
"I don't see any wet dog prints on these rocks, dick breath. You flat fucked up this time. You may have beat me to the falls every time, every day of your lower mammalian life, but my superior, more highly evolved brain will ultimately defeat your flea-infested brawn. And when that day comes, poodle, you’ll wish you’d be a bucket of warm cow piss than the swollen tick on my ass you are."
He took another joint from his pocket and lit it, capturing the smoke through his nose as it slipped from his lips. The surroundings blurred as his thoughts grew deep. Ideas and inspirations crackled and popped like a handful of Tinkerbelle's shaken up in a Mason jar. His eyes closed and his mouth went agape as the insights gravitated one to another until the ghostly collection supernovaed and Space’s eyes sprang open. He took his notebook from his pack and hastily recorded the revelations.
His brainstorm concerned the fact that next month, Tamp Iron Falls would celebrate its annual Founder's Daze, when the townfolk and those who live in the environs downriver would gather beneath parachute-like tents to sell and swap painted plywood lawn animals and little wind-powered woodchoppers, fresh vegetables and cheap homemade jewelry. As night comes they will collectively get drunk and take turns making fools of themselves with a rented Karaoke machine on a temporary stage set up in the park, get in fistfights, hit on each other's spouse, then stagger home to vomit and sleep it off.
Here is what Space wrote in his notebook:
(1) shitcan theater cartoon festival – reconfigure stage & produce wildwooly show – like an all freak Prairie Home Companion – call Swordswallower Sammy – Tattooed Lloyd still alive? – Someone to recite Beaver Nick’s Tribute to Masturbation – that fat stripper from Coeur d’Alene -- Nancy Sue’s banana act? – Roger’s Ode to Patty Hearst – best of Owl Says
(2) Climax show with ultrafilm, I write script, Carl shoot, Tom act – Dali/Bunuel Andalusian/Pig-like – Time? – Cost? – cow eye (pig be easier)
Space adjusted his pack and resumed his hike -- rock to smaller rock to pebbles to soil which eventually became covered with a spongy layer of pine needles. Rounding the last corner before the long hill down to the falls and the road to town, there was Barney, standing in the middle of the trail, panting and whining. He rolled over in the damp earth, jumped up and shook himself off before running up into the hills, growling and gargling barks.
"How the--! Why you bug scum! You ain't even got my stick, dog."
Space started jogging down the slope, stomping and grunting. He could see the dog on the hills above, dodging trees and hurdling small boulders like a young wolf. Space broke into a trot.
"I see you, cat fuck! And I see the falls, too! You ain't gonna beat me this time, mule."
As he neared the bottom of the hill, he saw Barney race up the ridge toward a large rock that overlooked the falls. With the sun rising behind, the silhouette of the proud hound resolutely struggled to the top of the bluff. In his mouth, he clumsily held a thick staff, much longer than he.
"I got you, you shit eatin’ cur!" Space shouted, holding his hat to his head, his belly bouncing. "No way you'll make it now!”
Barney whined loudly and disappeared behind the rock.
Space finally made it to the bottom of the hill, where the path dissipated into tall grass. He high-stepped the field and stuck his head around the Historical Information sign. Barney sat in the mist that billowed over the footbridge that crossed the gorge at the falls. He dropped the stick from his mouth, whimpered and panted heavily. Space stepped into the mist, knelt down and picked up the stick. He stroked the top of the hound's sweaty head.
"Good puppy," he said.
In the late 1800's, those who assumed they
were the first to prospect in this area found this
primitively forged steel tamp iron (used to pack
dynamite into crevices and drill holes) firmly
wedged in the stone in the midst of these falling
waters. Who put it there, how they reached such a height
(the trail and foot bridge were built decades later), and why
they chose to prospect in this awkward location are
questions whose answers are obscured in the
mists of local prehistory.
The jukebox came on automatically, as it does every 22 minutes if nobody feeds it a buck. Carl closed his notebook, having remembered and sufficiently recorded his dream. He looked down the counter at Diane who was staring blankly at the morning newspaper, obviously not reading it. Carl cleared his throat and rattled the empty cup on the counter.
Diane set down the paper, puffed her cheeks and blew out an indignant nasal grown. She shuffled over and filled the cup from a steaming glass pot, some of the coffee splashing out onto the counter. "You have to sit clear at the other end of the goddamn room, don’t ya?" She rolled back her head to stretch her neck then wiped an eye on her shoulder sleeve.
"Just making you earn your money, Diane." Carl smiled. The first cup of coffee was still warm in his belly. He finally felt awake.
Diane walked away, complaining about the many hours she works, the soon-to-expire lease, the lazy, good-for-nothing, shit head son of hers. She filled her own cup and lit a cigarette. "So you gonna eat now," she said with a tired droll, "or you plan on waitin' ‘til everyone else orders?"
"Number seven," Carl said firmly. "Bacon instead of ham."
"Same goddamn difference," she said. "It's pig." She groaned and disappeared into the kitchen, grumbling.
Carl opened his notebook and read.
I am in a small house with a group of people I don't know. We sit on couches, everyone quite comfortable, everyone silent and introspective. Some are smoking, blowing wavering rings into the overhanging cloud of blue smoke.
On the wall opposite me is a large, faded, old-time photograph of a wrinkled man with long, gray hair and beard, staring back at me with dark, menacing eyes.
Suddenly, one of the women gasps loudly and points to the base of the couch where I sit. A large, green toad slowly inches out onto the floor, hops once and stops. Then another appears from the same spot. And then another, and another.
The woman jumps up and grabs a broom and tries to sweep them back under the couch. Soon, toads appear everywhere -- from the hallway, from behind the kitchen counter, gathering in the middle of the floor and making it impossible to exit the horrible scene without crushing hopping green toads. One emits a loud croak and soon all are bellowing.
I turn and pull open the curtains.
The entire landscape is green with toads.
Tom Walker watched his own shadow flicker on the wall and low ceiling as he made his way out of the clinker processing pit. A hardhat on his head, tool belts draped over his shoulders, and carrying a sledgehammer in one hand and a lunch bucket in the other, the wildly agitated shadow seemed to Tom a poor, broken-bodied, subhuman creature crawling from the Abyss. He maneuvered the beam of his headlamp across the malevolent image, exposing its insubstantial nature.
He had spent nearly eight hours below the number three kiln, repairing one of the screens that filtered red-hot pebbles and dust from any large foreign objects, before falling to conveyors that take it to the mill. He turned and took a last look at the dull golden light that flickered with eerie yellow flames like nervous, arthritic fingers through the billowing dust.
He dropped his pail and hammer at the top of the stairs and removed the bulky hearing protectors from his ears. He took off his safety glasses and broke the elastic strap that held the cotton dust filter to his face. The newly exposed skin was pink and beaded with sweat; the rest of his face coated with a cracked layer of perspiration-hardened dust.
He looked up at the cement-encrusted, empty light socket on the ceiling. He raised his arms and put a finger from each hand into the hole. With his eyes closed, he turned a slow circle, imagining his hands and then his forearms being screwed into the socket, nearly up to his elbows, his body dangling and suddenly twitching violently, the shadows of his bones showing through the glowing, thick, red protoplasm.
He lowered his arms and stepped out of the hellish pit, pushing shut the heavy metal door behind him. The first beams of morning light filtered through the vents at the top of the corrugated tin cathedral that encased the four giant kilns.
Through the intensely hot, wavering atmosphere, he saw a gathering of graveyard workers in the central kiln control area, even though there was still nearly an hour left to the shift. Tom watched them shuffle their steel-toed boots while trying to converse over the roar of the enormous gas torches at the ends of the kilns. Every few seconds each occasionally looked over their shoulders for any sign of the shift supervisor. When spoken to, each worker exposed the same strange smile, the same squint of the eye that suggested they were interested in what was being said, but couldn't quite hear over the clamor. Tom switched off the light on his hardhat and started over to join the group.
"Happy birthday, Stud!"
A hand grasped his shoulder from behind and gave it a firm but inhospitable shake. Tom turned and found the pink, pox marked face of Adrian Lawson, a former shift supervisor recently promoted to the office. He wore the brown pants, shirt and tie of the management, a clean, unscratched hardhat and a mock smile. The edges of his front teeth were lined with gold. His eyes were cloudy like brine.
Tom lowered his shoulder to remove Lawson’s hand. He noticed that the control room had suddenly emptied, except for the burner operator who scooted his lunch box under a bench, then proceeded to dust off some of the already dusted off dials on the control panel.
"So how'd you know it was my birthday?" Tom asked, trying to seem not too interested.
"Management knows everything, lover boy." He emitted his characteristic gull-like squawk of a laugh. "And that's not all management knows, neither. Picture this," he said, using his vein-bulged, tiny hands for emphasis. "A veeery handsome graveyard shifter. A certain wife of a certain worker working days. A car parked on Pecker's Point – and in the middle of the day! Ha! Ring any bells?"
Tom looked at him directly for the first time. "Listen, don't push me, Lawson," he said, poking him hard in the chest. Tom walked off in the opposite direction. He ducked and ran beneath the searing kiln, squeezing through a narrow doorway and out into the rising sun.
"Be a shame if the wrong person found out," Lawson shouted. He took a few steps after him and hollered, "Quitin' a bit early, aren't ya?" He mumbled something to himself and tugged at his oversized ears.
Tom secretly made his way along the cement-covered sheds and storage huts at the perimeter of the central yard, avoiding the permanent mud pit in the heart of the plant that was constantly fed by a broken, underground pipe. Snake-like tracks from dump trucks and giant-treaded, front-end loaders criss-crossed the pit, forming an enormous star pattern in the semi-dry edges that encircled the mucky midst.
He thought he heard one of the foremans’ tractors, but before he could duck behind one of the sheds, Karl Horton roared around the corner, lights flashing and horn blaring. The tractor splashed through the muddy pit and skidded to a stop.
"Karl," Tom said, nodding his head nonchalantly.
"Quitting a bit early, aren't ya?" Horton shouted over the rumble of the tractor. "There's a big spill in the raw section. You still got damn near an hour left. Get on!"
"Jesus, Karl, I just spent eight hours in the clinker pit, man. I'm toasted."
"Just work on it until the whistle blows. It's no big deal, kid. Ya have to at least look busy."
Though Tom was headed to the raw section anyway, he faked reluctance as he stepped onto the rear of the tractor between two enormous tires, and gripped the safety bars. Gears ground and they sped off across the pit, greenish-gray mud splashing out behind them as if from the wake of a boat.
Tom jumped off in front of the large door-less entryway to the raw processing building. Dust perpetually poured from every broken window, access way and ventilation crack in the massive structure. The rumble from within caused his teeth to clatter.
Taking one last breath of the relatively clean outside air, he strapped another dust mask to his face and squeezed the nose clip. He fitted the hearing protectors over his ears and stepped into the gritty fog.
The raw processing building was where the pre-crushed quartz – blasted off the side of Hall Mountain – was milled into fine powder before being mixed with the kiln-burnt clinker and other materials. The quartz was dumped into one end of the enormous rotating cylinders – the shape of oatmeal containers, the size of small houses, all half-filled with multi-sized steel cannon balls. The dust exited onto conveyor belts at the other end of the cylinders, a good percentage shooting up into the air. It was the dustiest area of the plant.
Tom took a piece of pipe – set there so it was easy to find again – and pounded three times on one of the iron ribs of the building, causing dust to fall in uniform lines from the rafters above. After a few moments, the knock returned like a belated echo.
In the small space between the first two of the thirteen rolling, roaring mills was the spill – a pile of pre-crushed rock, three or four feet high, that had fallen from somewhere above. Tom visually searched the overhead confusion of walkways and rafters, conveyor belts and pipelines, but could not see the origin of the spill.
It was then that he saw him—Byrd, Lenny Byrd, better know as Byrdman--a gray figure perfectly camouflaged with the gray surroundings. Byrdman slowly raised his palm. Tom raised his. Byrdman motioned for Tom to come up.
It was easy to get turned around in these upper regions, but this was Byrdman's domain, and he found Tom. Byrdman seemed normal enough to most people, though quiet and elusive. He would have looked like anyone else at the cement plant, had it not been for his octagonal, wire-framed glasses, and the fact that the should-be whites of his eyes were always red as blood.
He pulled of his dust mask so Tom could see his smile. Tom did the same. There was no use in attempting to speak; not even screams could be heard there forty feet above the row of churning mills. Byrdman revealed a small rectangle of paper and stuck it in Tom's pocket. Tom then exposed a wad of cash and stuck it in Byrdman’s pocket.
Byrdman reached into his pocket and retrieved a bowl of a brier pipe, minus the stem, all covered with aluminum foil. He struck a wooden match on the zipper of his pants and held it up to the bowl, sucking the blue smoke deep into his lungs. He then handed it to Tom and held up one finger, as if to warn him of its potency. Tom inhaled deeply then handed back the pipe, holding in the sweet smoke as long as possible. With his eyes half-closed, his shoulders went slack as he finally released the magic smoke in irregular puffs through his dust-clogged nostrils like a slumberous dragon.
When he opened his eyes again, Byrdman was on the walkway above him. He raised his hand and Tom raised his. Then Byrdman was gone. Tom noticed something written in the dust atop the flat top of the handrail: Hail the Purple Prince.
Tom pondered the words as he returned to the lower level. He took a flat-end shovel from the tool shed and walked over and slid it into the edge of the spill, then slapped it onto the nearby conveyor. That was one; he estimated that there must be several hundred shovelfuls remaining.
Here were Tom’s thoughts as he shoveled:
1. The scattering of the lights of Tamp Iron Falls and the stars in the sky merge and become one. I am stroking Olivia's temples. Her head is in my lap. She has me in her mouth. I experience great pleasure.
Variation A: She completes the task and all is fine. I am all zipped up and driving back to town. Olivia is nearly asleep, her head on my shoulder. She is as satisfied as I.
Variation B: Just as I climax, I look up and see two young boys sitting on a tree limb, watching us. With one hand they hold onto an overhead branch; with the other hand they are masturbating ferociously.
Variation C: There is an explosive cracking sound as the point of a pickaxe smashes through the driver's window, missing my head by an inch. The door flies open and I am dragged to the ground and shot in the face with pepper spray. As I gasp and roll on the ground I can hear Olivia's screams of terror as the assailant duct tapes her to a tree and tortures her mercilessly with a Swiss Army knife like I got from Uncle Leo on my thirteenth birthday. Later, I am accused and eventually convicted of the crime. I am executed by a method that goes awry. Consequently, I suffer horribly for hours before I die.
2. Adrian Lawson is slowly overcoming the affects of the drug. But he will not be going anywhere. He is tied down to a metal table, equipped with a drain and running water. On my many different utility stands I have power drills and nail guns, assorted surgical instruments, rubber tubes and electrical devices. I run my hand under the faucet and drip some water into the chicken fryer. When it sizzles, I will know it is ready.
3. The burn of the White Toad is fresh in my nose and in my blood and pulsating through my head. I have also packed my pipe with herb so all is fine as I sit in my canoe and cast out the line. All of existence vibrates around me and I sense the presence of God though God doesn’t exist unless God exists in me. And then, I realize something magical at that very moment: I am God. I look out over my swirling creation.
Random Association A: "If God is love and love is blind and Ray Charles is blind does that mean that Ray Charles is God?" (What Space said one night and made me laugh.)
Random Association B: Carl and Space are talking about the existence of God but I am not hearing what they are saying because I am wishing they would just shut the fuck up and deal the cards.
Random Association C: “JOHN 3:16” – Written on a large piece of cardboard and held up by a stern-looking man for the cameras at a football game. A few rows above him, a man in a devil costume waves at the television audience like a high school princess on the city float.
4. Isn't mom's birthday coming up? I should just get the clock with the ladybugs at the hardware store and she'll be happy and I'll be done with it.
"Hey, Diane, what's this remind ya of?" Clayton Neumann held out a limp link sausage, slowly raising it upright. A burst of laughter sounded throughout the cafe, now full of customers, with the exception of the seat next to Diane's – unofficially reserved for Rick Roberson – and a few seats that separated Carl from the rest of the group.
"You ought'a know, Clay," said his cousin, Phil, whose physical resemblance to Clayton was uncanny. "Dinky little bastard must feel awful familiar." More laughter.
Diane slapped down a plate of hotcakes and went down the line filling cups until she got to Carl. "You're gonna float away someday," she said, filling his cup once again. She took away his empty plate and nodded toward the window. "Speakin' of floating away."
A pickup stopped in the middle of the street. The passenger door swung open and Space scooted off of the seat with his staff in hand. Barney jumped from the back and pranced around excitedly. The pickup honked its horn and sped off as Space waved the stick like Moses parting the Red Sea. He stepped to the sidewalk, instructed Barney to sit and stay, then set his stick next to the door of the café.
"Greeting, fellow mammals!" Space said loudly, swinging open the door. Mumbled, insincere hellos came from the crowd.
"Wise one," Carl said.
Space grasped Carl by the shoulder and proceeded to make eye contact with each person who would return it, with the exception of the Neumann cousins who openly detested the "Jew dope smoker." Space then sat next to Carl and slapped the surface of the counter. "Mud!" he demanded loudly.
He completed his odd ritual of smelling his coffee for a full minute before sipping, rather loudly. He leaned over to Carl, eyed him in the mirror, and covertly asked if Tom had been in yet.
"Not yet," Carl said. "You know he's working graveyard now, don't you?"
"Yeah, yeah," said Space. He picked up a menu, and just as quickly set it back down. "Just wondering – you suppose he met up with The Toad last night?"
"It's his birthday, Robert. What do you think?"
Space flashed a devious grin. "I propose we confer," he said.
Just then Rick Roberson pulled up in front of the cafe. He switched on the flashing blue light for a moment and briefly sounded the siren. He swaggered in the door, as if claiming command of the scene of a crime, his bottom lip out, one thumb stuck in his front pocket, his other hand stroking his sidearm. As he stepped down the row he nodded greetings in the mirror to each of the day shifters, then ducked behind the counter and poured himself a coffee. "What's a guy gotta do to get something to eat around here?" Diane stuck her head around the kitchen door, wielding a frown and a greasy spatula; then, seeing it was Rick, returned to the grill. Rick sat in his seat, separated a cigarette from its filter, and stuck it in his face.
Gossip, cigarette smoke, the smell of fresh coffee and rancid grease ruled the next half-hour. Carl listened to Space’s proposal to shoot their own movie for Founder’s Daze, but couldn’t seem to take it seriously. He read Space’s notes of What Owl Said and was as perplexed as always. He then discussed his odd dream with Space. Space, who had done some grad school research regarding dream states, took great interest as always, and was quick to offer an interpretation:
“A powerful and interesting dream – made even more so because of its vividness. My first impression, obviously, is that it’s one of ominous portent: the overhanging cloud; the menacing photo on the wall, symbolizing the stern and silent God; and the toads – an obvious reference to one of the plagues of Egypt. A ‘Big’ dream, I’d say. A ‘Power’ dream… Most primitive cultures believed that ‘power’ dreams were only dreamed by ‘power’ men – chiefs, shamans, magicians. But that bird don’t shit in my wig, my friend; all folks can dream ‘big,’ and if you don’t mind me saying so, it seems they most often do it when they find their mental or spiritual ass up skat creek without a Biggs and Stratton… So tell me, Carl. What’s your skinny white butt doin’ in these people’s pond?”
Carl noticed that their conversation had drawn the attention of the others, their faces dominated by assorted smirks and twisted brows. Clayton Neumann mumbled something that was obviously directed to Space and Carl. Space leaned forward and looked down the row. "Excuse me, Mr. Neumann," he said in a contrived English accent. "But should the covert utterance be considered a reference to me and my sexually repressed but obviously heterosexual friend?"
"Yeah," Neumann said, starting to rise. "I said you're a couple of snivelin', shit eatin’, fairy bastards." Rick grabbed Clayton's shoulder and returned him to his seat.
"Oh," Space said. "I thought it was something bad."
The day shifters eventually had their fill and filed out without any further incident. The seven o'clock whistle sounded, leaving only Space and Carl at one end of the counter, Diane and Rick at the other.
"You ready to eat, Robert?" Diane asked Space. Space gave her the thumbs up. Diane started for the kitchen then stopped and scraped something from the counter with her finger. "You know why those Clayton boys dislike you so much?"
Space breathed in and exhaled deeply. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "I guess it's because I'm a bit different."
"A lot different," Rick said.
"No," Diane said. "It's because you're free."
"Jum-ping Christ," said Rick, shaking his head.
The night shifters eventually began wandering in, tired and dirty, most of them not taking advantage of the company showers. They were sipping coffee and reading the paper when Carl noticed that they were passing around an article, shaking their heads and commenting among themselves. Carl pointed it out to Space, who immediately investigated.
"What's the big mystery?" he asked.
Walter, the lead millwright, handed the article down to Space. Space looked at it at various distances, then read aloud for all to hear. It concerned the tentative plans of a research facility in Denver to import a baby whale by helicopter from the Canadian coast, sometime next month. It would be carried in a specially designed sling, with hydrating water that would trickle over the beast, the water to be blessed by a priest. The proposed route would take it directly over Pend Oreille County and possibly near Tamp Iron Falls.
Space began a nearly incoherent monologue on the follies of Man when Tom tossed open the door. "Phoenix from the ashes!" Space said theatrically.
"Thomas, happy birthday," Carl said.
"Conference!" Tom immediately declared, his eyes squinted, an illegal smile smeared all over his face.
What Owl Said – #664
“If you attempt to cross the bridge you must do so by traversing from within and not atop for within souls will be gathered and great fear observed and the obstruction of the wide eyed and ratty-haired one will be torn asunder by one and the same’s nonsensical yodeling and images obscene.”
Old Frenchy, puffing and sucking the dirty morning air, finally made it up the hill at the end of town and collapsed on the park bench. He barely recognized the blurred form of his car, though he couldn't remember why it was parked there. He couldn't remember the last time he drove it. It was obvious from the covering of cement dust that it had been quite some time.
His eyes focused further and he could make out the housewives and unemployed men doing their shopping and checking their mail. He rose and walked down to the tavern, tipping his felt hat to the folks his failing eyesight nevertheless recognized.
Teckla, her eyes squinted and her silver hair tangled, was unlocking the front door of the tavern. Frenchy took out his pocket watch to assure himself that it was eight o'clock.
"Mornin' old fart," Teckla said matter-of-factly with a heavy German accent.
"Well, yes, yessir," he said, lifting his hat and scratching his arched brow. He pulled at his swollen red nose, staggered over to the bar and climbed upon his end stool. Teckla stepped around the bar, cussing Bob, the night bartender, known to all as Bob the Bartender, who closed the night before. She took a beer glass from the cooler and filled it to the brim with cheap red wine.
"Jeezachrist, you stink," she said, taking his money from the counter.
"Well, yes, yessir," he mumbled, chuckling absently. His eyes were red and cloudy, fixed on nothing. He put his head down and sipped from the glass. A great grumbling noise erupted within his gut, something between a belch and a stomach growl. He took his pipe from his pocket and bit the stem as he climbed off the stool, stepped and sidestepped his way to the bathroom, bracing himself on chairs and tabletops as he walked.
"Smelly rotten bastard," Teckla said. She poured tomato juice into a glass already half-filled with vodka and swirled it around with her finger. She took a sip and stuck it under the counter.
Frenchy closed the bathroom door and dropped his pants. He stood for a moment and glanced at the surrounding dirty, graffiti-covered walls, then promptly slapped his large red ass upon the seat and relieved the pressure of his bowels in a brief but powerful, splattering explosion.
Leaning forward and resting his great belly on his thighs, he fumbled in his pockets for a match. For a moment, he blacked out, coming to once again with visions of dark birds and hard-shelled beetles, which startled him and caused him to call out. He sat up and found his pipe stuck between his knees. He struck a match and held it up as it flared. His head bobbed again. With crossed eyes and half-closed lids, the burning stick seemed a distant sun, barely illuminating a distant gloomy landscape where black birds dive for burrowing bugs.
The sun slowly went over the horizon.
"I don't give a rat's ass how tired you were!" Teckla screamed into the phone. "You mop the son's-a-bitchin' floors every night or keep the hell out of my tavern!" She slammed down the phone and reached for her drink.
Gulping down the last of the mix, she suddenly froze. She smelled something, something so strong she could taste it. And suddenly a memory came to her: she is at Grandmamma’s feet, and Grandmamma is telling of the beautiful German countryside and her beautiful garden and how the sickly sweet smoke from the distant factory is good for the beautiful Fatherland though it causes Grandpapa who works there to have horrible dreams and –
Teckla dropped her glass and it shattered on the cement floor.
Frenchy shuffled from the doorway of the bathroom, his pants at his feet, a miserably shrunken penis peeking out from beneath his belly. There was a look of disbelief on his swollen face as he watched his hand glisten with oily smoke, then erupt with bubbling golden blisters and slithering, devouring worm-like flames that dripped in burning globs of flesh like melted plastic to the floor.
Teckla ran screaming from the tavern, smashing into Rick’s son Bobby and his best friend Jack, holding hands like little girls, their eyes unblinking, emotionless, their skin white as snow.
Frenchy staggered out after her, looked at the two boys, then looked at the smoldering stub of charred forearm bone and sizzling ends of fried, twitching ligaments.
"I'll be goddamned," he said. "Yessir."