Inside the Camaro Saloon, Arno got caught up in an uneasy game of poker with a scroungy bunch of other cowmen. He sat at the round table topped with worn, green felt and a pile of chips in the center of it. His back was to the window, the scurrying of the mud street behind him. His eyes scanned the semicircle of faces studying their hands. He was already down a few bucks.
“So, where are you from anyhow?” one of the others asked him, looking up at him with suspicion. “I’ve never seen you in town before.” The man looked like a haggard leprechaun dressed like an overworked rancher.
Arno’s answer was simple and to the point. “Up north.”
“Up north is a mighty big place, stranger,” another player said just as he folded his hand. He was a young, studious looking man with glasses and wearing a clean, white shirt.
“That it is,” Arno answered, but he was more focused on his cards. He laid down a full house. “Now, that’s what I’m talking about,” he said, laughing, and he cupped his rough hand around the small pile of chips in the center of the table and pulled them to him. He smiled at the others over his win.
“Damn it all to hell!” the one that looked like a haggard leprechaun said. “I’m done.” He got up and walked over to the bar. A couple of the others did the same leaving only the young man and Arno at the table.
“Thought I saw you ride in with another fellow. Where’s he at?” the young man asked.
Arno glared at him. “You sure seem to have a healthy curiosity about me, us. What gives?”
“Nothing. I just like to know who’s coming into my town. I’m the sheriff.” The man pulled on a vest that revealed his badge. “Sheriff Payne’s the name.”
“Is pain your game?” Arno said with a mocking chuckle.
“I don’t find that funny, mister.”
Arno adjusted his manner. “Sorry… But I gotta say, you’re awful young to be sheriff.”
“I may be young, sir. But I’m full of spirit when it comes to upholding the law. I take my job seriously.”
“Congratulations on all your success then,” Arno said, and he started to get up. He extended his hand across the table and the sheriff got up as well and returned the gesture.
Arno introduced himself. “Arno Pyle,” he said. “I suppose I should go round up my partner. Any suggestions on a good place to stay for the night?”
The sheriff nodded out the window and across the street. “The Saint James is about the best you’ll get,” he said. The sheriff fastened a hat to his head and began to walk toward the exit. He turned. “Enjoy your stay in Sudan, sir. I hope we don’t meet again.” He walked out into the nearly dying light of day.
Hosea politely sat at the table in the kitchen as she prepared him a lemonade. The room smelled like fruit in a cool cellar. He looked around at the warm comfort of the place. It was neat, clean, orderly. “Do you live in this big place all by yourself?” he asked her.
Sadie turned for a moment. She was well put together, soft features, bright. “It was my father’s. I took it on after he passed. But yes, it’s all mine and just mine,” Sadie said.
“Don’t you ever get scared,” Hosea asked.
“You know, of being alone in the house. Especially at night. I mean, I would be. I don’t like to be all alone in big, dark places.”
She brought a pitcher and a glass to the table and set them down before him. “Help yourself. Care for a scone?”
“What the hell’s a scone?” Hosea wanted to know as he poured himself a glass of the lemonade.
“She laughed at his question. “It’s sort of like a thick cookie.”
“Sure… But like I was wondering. You don’t get scared all alone in a place like this?”
“You sure seem interested in my tolerance for fear, Mr. Hosea.”
“It’s just Hosea.”
“I’m used to the big house. I feel at peace here. I don’t feel any fear.” She came back to the table with a small white plate and a scone sitting atop it. “Here you go. It’s cranberry.”
“Thank you, mam. So, there’s really no one else that lives here?”
“No,” Sadie said. “You seem very surprised that a woman could take on such a task as living in a big house by herself and keeping peacocks and making scones and lemonade. I’m quite capable of it all, Hosea.”
“Well, then you’re a stronger person than me. I suppose I just have a nervous constitution. I carry a lot of fear and doubt with me. The way the world is turning these days, faster and faster, it’s hard to find someone or something to trust, to believe in.”
Sadie came to the table and sat with him. She nodded her head. “I suppose that can be true… If you focus on it. I try not to. I try to focus on my life here and my peacocks and just trying to be a good person.”
“And no fear, huh? Not even in your dreams?”
“I can never remember my dreams,” she said. “So, they don’t really affect me.”
“I always dream about being inside one of those big fancy factories they’re starting up these days for the manufacturing. I’m always just wandering around inside, and the machines are making noise and the tired and oily people are working and no one ever looks at me or talks to me. It’s like I’m invisible but I’m not. I always see the big windows that let in light, but you can’t see through. Block glass is what I think they call it… There’s light but nothing is clear. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“I can’t say I do.”
“Anyways… I always end up in an office or something like that in the upstairs part where the big shots run the show, and I’m all by myself and there’s this weird contraption on a desk that looks like a typewriter, but it isn’t a typewriter because it lights up and shows me pictures when I tap the keys…”
Sadie was entranced as he talked. He was such an odd man, she thought. “What kinds of pictures?”
Hosea flashed her a little grin. “Pictures of peacocks.”
She jerked back in surprise. “That’s strange. Very strange.”
“It is strange,” Hosea agreed. “And that’s why I wanted to know if you ever feal fear.”
She stared at him for a moment. Hosea’s face had lost its innocent and trustworthy look. “I think I’m afraid now,” she whispered.
Hosea’s right hand suddenly shot forward and grasped her by the neck. He stood and forced more pressure down upon her throat. He squeezed and squeezed. She struggled to try and pull his hand away, but it was useless. He was too strong. Her face was contorted, she gasped, her skin turned color, she went limp, and then he released her to the floor.
His heart beat wildly in his chest as he looked down upon her. A clock ticked away on a shelf and then struck the high five hour. He quickly moved about the house to find and pocket things of value before vanishing from the house to return to Arno.
It was a sunny Sunday morning in Berlin, Wyoming and Steel Brandenburg III was sitting in a modern honey-colored pew inside The Carbon Copy of Christ Church on Alameda Avenue.
Up in front of him on an elevated stage with big displays of fresh flowers at each end and a large bodiless cross that hung high behind as the centerpiece, a man paced as he preached. He was wiry and energetic. He held a Bible and wore a white suit with a yellow tie tacked to a blue shirt, and his thin hair looked greasy, but maybe it was just a manly grooming product. The dyed black hair was slicked back, and along with his pencil-thin moustache, it made him come off as a homemade dungeon in the basement kind of creep.
Creep. Jarrod Creep. Steel was sickened that he was suddenly reminded of his horrible boss at the Berlin Daily Times. And that’s when, like a nudge from the Holy Spirit herself, he slowly turned his head to the left and saw Jarrod Creep sitting with his wife in a pew across the aisle. He was sternly returning the look. He waved. His eyes were investigative slits. His wife turned her head, too. She tried to smile but she gave off the impression that her life was hell.
Did Mr. Creep really attend The Carbon Copy of Christ Church? Steel wondered to himself. It was possible. Highly likely even. But on the other end of the stick, Steel considered he was there to just spy on him to make sure he was living up to his end of the bargain when it came to Carrie Gould and the disastrous outcome for all if she decided to walk and talk.
Carrie Gould. And there she was sitting to Steel’s right. The right hand of the priesthood holder, she probably thought. Her body was pressed up tight to him and she was holding his hand within both of hers. It felt like a hand-hold cage to him, and he couldn’t break free. The skin of her hands was soft, warm, moist, puffy. He could feel the cholesterol pumping through her veins.
She was wearing a white dress with a pattern of common garden flowers flung about by a madman. She had curled her golden hair with one of those curling iron things. Steel caught the faint scent of burning hair. Her lips were doused with a much too heavy slick of red gloss. Her eyelashes were grossly plump. The rouge on her cheeks nearly resembled the blood on a deeply pink carnation after a Mafia shootout.
Carrie’s attention was fully on the preacher up front, and she smiled when he said something funny or nodded her head gently when he said something very aggregable to her. Whenever he touched on the subjects of love or marriage or relationships between men and women, she would squeeze Steel’s hand and look over at him with bewildering eyes of adore.
On the other side of Carrie, sat her mother, Melba Gould. She was an exact duplicate of her daughter, just 25 years older and with less body mass. She fanned herself with the paper church bulletin as the preacher ranted and raved about sin and purpose and the laws of spiritual physics. Occasionally she would glance past her daughter and look directly at Steel. She was sizing him up, perhaps uncertain of the new relationship he was beginning with her only and fragile child. When Steel caught her studying him, she would give him a sour smile and quickly turn away.
After the service, people filed out of the church and Pastor Craig Stikk shook hands and chatted at the exit. When Carrie Gould reached the doorway, the pastor licked at his sickly worm-like lips and grinned. He too had a thing for fetching fat girls. And especially one named Carrie Gould.
“Carrie, Carrie, Carrie,” he repeated with joy as he clutched her hand with one of his own and gripped her arm with the other. “It’s so good to see you back in the pews.” He leaned in to awkwardly hug her. Carrie squirmed. He had a sour body odor. “What did you think of today’s message?” His breath smelled like deli salami.
“I thought it was very inspiring, pastor. Very inspiring.”
Carrie’s mother squeezed forward and reached out to shake the pastor’s hand as well. “As did I,” she sneaked in.
“My, my, Melba,” Pastor Stikk said. “I can certainly see where Carrie gets her delicious beauty from. My God, if you were an ice cream cone, I’d lick you all over.” His laugh that followed was boisterous and sickly.
“Well, thank you, pastor… I think.” She giggled. “But I give all the glory to God. For he made me.”
“Indeed, he did,” the pastor agreed. “And he did a very good job… On both of you.”
Steel tried to keep walking on through, but Carrie stopped him. “Steel, please introduce yourself to the pastor. Don’t be rude and just run off.”
“I wasn’t running off.”
“And… Who is this fine young man?” Pastor Stikk wanted to know; a fog of suspicion veiled his eyes.
“This my boyfriend, Steel Brandenburg,” Carrie noted with an air of pride.
“The third,” Steel added to correct her omission.
The pastor reluctantly reached out and gripped Steel’s hand. “I’m Pastor Craig Stikk. I’m glad you could attend our service today.” It seemed to Steel that the holy man wanted to crush his bones, being that his hold was so pressurized. He looked Steel dead in the eyes. “The boyfriend, huh?”
“So I’ve been told,” Steel said. Carrie scowled at him and slapped at his arm. Steel cleared his throat and reworked his words. “Right. I’m the boyfriend.”
The pastor seemed puzzled. “I had no idea,” he said, his head moving from one to the other. “How long have you two been an item?”
“Just a little while,” Steel answered. “But it seems like forever.” He chuckled but no one else found it funny. “I mean, as in I feel like I’ve known her forever. Like I have always known that she’s the one for me. Since… The beginning of time.”
Carrie melted inside. “Awww,” she purred. “That’s so sweet, baby.”
The pastor scoffed and started to turn away to attend to other worshippers.
“Pastor Stikk?” Melba Gould called out to reel him back in.
He turned. “Yes…”
“We’re having a sort of ‘welcome to the family’ dinner for Steel at the house. We would be honored if you would join us. It would be wonderful if you could sprinkle your blessings over the two lovebirds… And the pot roast.” She laughed at herself.
The pastor searched his mind for an excuse not to attend but he came up empty. But then again, he felt he needed to do something to intervene. This young cock blocking fool Steel Brandenburg III was moving in on his territory. His very large territory. He felt threatened. “I would love to,” Pastor Craig Stikk relented. “Sounds absolutely wonderful.”
Maggie Barrymore stood in the center of the main room of Truman Humboldt’s modest home in Neptune, Nebraska. Her head slowly moved as she looked around at the odd curiosity that was his life. It was one of the strangest places she had ever seen, she thought to herself. In essence, it was more of a lobster museum than a home. She sniffed the air, and the smell wasn’t unpleasant, just different. It smelled like the cold, hard sea, and she could almost taste the salt on her tongue. How was that possible?
“You sure do have a lot of lobster stuff,” she said. “You really love lobsters.”
“Well, yes, I suppose I do,” Truman answered as he worked his way around the room clicking on lobster lamps and trying to tidy up without her noticing too much. He hadn’t been expecting such beautiful company and he didn’t want her to get grossed out. He kicked a pair of lobster underwear under a sitting chair.
Truman paused for a moment and looked at Maggie as she stood inside his home. She had a glow about her that resembled magical gold inside a pirate’s sea chest. He had a woman inside his home, Truman thought, and he could barely believe it. The only way it could get any better, he imagined, is if she turned into a mermaid. He envisioned her poised on a jagged rock being whipped by the sea. She had clam shells covering her intelligent breasts and her yellow hair flowed behind her like a war banner.
Truman shook himself out of the daydream and went to clear some things off the couch. “Sorry about the mess. Go ahead, have a seat,” he said to her, and he gestured with an arm.
She smiled at him and went to sit down. She nervously moved some of that golden hair behind an ear.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Truman asked her.
“I’ll take a Mr. Pibb if you have it.”
“You like Mr. Pibb? I like Mr. Pibb. I mean, I tried to find lobster soda of course, but nobody sells lobster soda.”
“Hmm. I wonder why,” Maggie smirked.
“Right. Do you like ice? Because I like ice in mine.”
Truman skipped off to the kitchen and Maggie heard him rummaging through cabinets, fumbling with glasses, and then filling them with ice. As he popped open one of the cans and began pouring the brown, bubbly liquid, the lobster ghost’s voice returned to Truman’s head in the most haunting way, like he was tapping on his mind with a little wooden hammer and repeating the words he had spoken in the car after their luncheon at Red Lobster — “Are you seriously going to just let her stomp on your heart such as she did without the slightest retaliation? Where’s your sense of personal pride and self-esteem? Where’s your sense of revenge?”
“Leave me alone!” Truman blurted out.
Maggie stiffened in the other room. “Everything okay in there?”
“Everything’s fine, Miss Maggie. Fine as Georgia peach pie.”
Truman held a hand to each side of his head and gritted his teeth as the lobster ghost continued to bully his brain into doing something his heart had no intention of doing. But the threatening voice was playing tricks on Truman and little by little was beginning to make perfect sense to him — “She doesn’t deserve to live. But you, my friend, you deserve a full life, a life unencumbered by the stinging pain of shattered love. You deserve all the success and happiness the world has to offer… But you’ll never have it as long as that stain in your life exists. Snuff it out, Truman. Make things right. Restore the balance. Blot her from this Earth.”
Truman clutched the edge of the kitchen counter with both hands. His heart was racing, his breathing quietly furious. Was he having a panic attack? he wondered.
“Truman?” Maggie called from the other room again. “Are you sure everything is okay?”
“Yes. I’ll be right there,” he answered. Then to the auditory hallucinations from the throat of the lobster ghost he cried, “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! I will not!”
When Truman returned to the living room, he set the glass of fizzing Mr. Pibb on the coffee table in front of her. “There you go.”
Maggie picked up the glass and looked in it. The ice cubes were shaped like lobsters. “Thanks.” She put the glass to her lips and took a drink. “You know, I’m really surprised you don’t have any live lobsters roaming around this place,” Maggie laughed.
Truman took a big gulp of his Mr. Pibb. He eyed her through the glass as it was tilted up against him. The picture of her was warbled. “Well, Miss Maggie,” he began. “That’s very interesting you should say that. I do happen to have some live lobsters. Would you like to come down to my basement and see them?”
Maggie looked up at him and she caught a sense that he had somehow changed in the past few minutes. There was something different about him, he wasn’t as naïve and wholesome anymore. “Your basement?”
“Well, I don’t let them just run around loose. They’d tear up the furniture. And they need water, and I can’t keep a lobster tank in my living room now can I,” Truman laughed, and then he took another drink of his Mr. Pibb and exaggerated his enjoyment of it. “That would be weird, Maggie, and I’m not that weird… Come on. Let’s go take a look.”
Truman moved toward the kitchen and beyond to where the door to the basement was. Maggie hesitated. “You’re not scared, are you?” Truman said, looking back. “They won’t hurt you. I promise. They’re beautiful and peaceful creatures…” He chuckled oddly like he often does. “And delicious.”
Maggie sat her glass down on the table and got up to follow him. “I’m not scared.”
The tank sat against a far wall in the mostly barren basement that smelled like a basement. The watery cage bubbled beneath a bank of soft lights. “Go ahead,” Truman said to her, placing a gentle hand on her back. “Introduce yourself.”
Maggie crept closer to the tank while Truman stayed behind her. Once more, the words of the lobster ghost invaded his mind of scrambled eggs — “You’ll regret not putting her in her proper place when you had the chance. You’ll be drowning in regret, and regret, my friend, is never a pleasant thing.”
Maggie felt him directly behind her as she bent a bit to look down into the tank where three lobsters sat huddled together in the water. Truman reached his hands up and they trembled as they moved toward the back of her head. And for a moment, Truman thought, that he might even come to enjoy hearing her struggle when he pushed her head down in the water and held it there. Maybe she would thrash about and kick at him, and he’d have to clamp a hand on her firm ass to settle her down. What a wonderful way to send her to the other side.
But right before he was nearly moved to do her in by some unseen, yet not unknown, force, something better came over his heart and he stopped himself. His arms dropped to his sides and then he moved like air and was standing right beside her, looking down at the lobsters with her, their elbows touching. “That’s Larry, Curly, and Moe,” he said softly. “You know, like the Three Stooges. They’re my friends.”
“Oh,” Maggie said, pretending to be interested. “That’s cute.”
“Lobsters aren’t cute, Maggie. They’re crustaceans. They’re ugly, but people still love them. I guess that’s why I love them so much. We’re not much different, the lobsters and I. We understand each other. They make me feel better about myself. They help me accept my place in this world and be okay with that.”
Maggie turned to look at him, the rhythmic reflection of the water in the lobster tank danced on Truman’s innocent but troubled face. She put a hand to his cheek, and he turned to lock eyes with her.
“I want to bathe you,” she said to him. “I want you to feel loved while in the water… Like how you love these lobsters.”
“Oh, Miss Maggie,” Truman said. “That’s the most wonderful thing anyone has ever said to me.” He looked down into the water of the lobster tank. “Do you hear that, guys? A woman wants to give me a bath.”
Maggie laughed. “You’re crazy.” She leaned in and kissed him. “Now,” she said in a breathy whisper. “Let’s get you clean so that we can get dirty.”
Truman stood while she released him completely from the confines of the tuxedo. She ran her hands all over his naked, pale body. He relished her sensual touch. He trembled.
“Are you nervous, Truman?” Maggie asked.
“A little.” Truman stuttered.
“You don’t have to be,” she breathed, and she proceeded to get down on the floor. She began gently kissing the tops of his feet, up his legs, and to where he was hard and jutting straight out at her face. She kissed him there, too, and he shuddered. Then she moved up across his stomach, his chest. She stood and kissed up and down each arm, his shoulders, and all over his neck, his chin, his face. Truman had never been smothered in kisses and he could barely breathe.
Maggie glanced over at the rumpled bed. “I like your lobster sheets,” she whispered in his ear. “Do you want to roll around in them with me after I bathe you?”
“Yes, Miss Maggie… I want to pound you with my lobster mallet.”
She giggled. “Oh, Truman. You’re being bad.”
Maggie took him by the hand and walked him to the bathroom. She bent over the edge of the tub and reached in to turn on the water. “How hot do you like it?”
“Very hot,” Truman answered. “If you look in the refrigerator, you’ll see a plate with a big hunk of butter, and some sliced up lemon on it. I like to have it in my bath water. It makes me feel like a lobster.”
She shook her head at him. “But you’re not a lobster, Truman. You’re a man. A real man. And you don’t need butter and lemon to prove that to me. Get in the water.”
Truman glanced once at the tub, the water now rising and steaming, and then back to Miss Maggie. He smiled shyly. “Okay.” He got into the water and slowly sank down to a sitting position. “Oh, that feels good, Miss Maggie.”
She glanced at a cake of soap shaped like a lobster that sat in a lobster-shaped soap dish in the corner of the tub. She grabbed it, dunked it in the water, and then lathered it up in her hands. She “accidentally” let it pop out of her grasp and it fell between Truman’s legs. “Oh, no,” she giggled, and she reached down and felt around in the water, making sure to touch his man parts in the process. “My, my, Truman. Your little sailor is standing at attention again.”
Truman leaned his head back and closed his eyes as she gripped him tightly. She retrieved the lobster soap with her free hand and started to rub it all over him, coating Truman in a pinkish, sudsy foam. She washed him everywhere, from his toes to his face.
She released her grip on him and leaned back and laughed. “You look so cute. But now it’s time to rinse. Come on, sink down.”
Truman smiled, held his nose, clamped his eyes tight and went under the water. Maggie looked at the very top of his head just breaking the surface, and that’s when her hands moved quickly, and she forcefully held him down.
Truman started jerking, then slapping at the water. Maggie let him come up for a breath of air for just a moment before holding him back down again. The next time he came up, Truman was spewing and gagging, and he screamed out as best he could, “Miss Maggie! What are you doing!?”
She gripped him tightly by the hair and spoke into his face. “I know you were at my house the other night, you slimy creep. I know you were watching me. Did you like it? Did you get off to it? Huh? You’re a peeping Truman. You’re sick.”
“No, Miss Maggie. No… It’s nothing like that. I… I just wanted to surprise you with a special visit. I just wanted to spend some time with you.”
She forced his head under the water once more and held him there for a few moments in a gesture of torture before pulling him back up. “You were going to tell on me, weren’t you?” she said. “You were going to make me out to be the town tramp. You wanted to ruin my reputation and get me fired, didn’t you?”
“I’m begging you, Miss Maggie. No. That was never my intention. I just wanted to love you. I wanted you to love me. Is that all so horrible!?”
“Love? What do you know about love… You lobster freak.” Once more, she forced him under the water. This time, she raised herself up so that she could put more weight down on him. She pushed and pushed and pushed. Truman’s struggling started to weaken and she released him, and he broke the surface one last time.
Truman was somewhat delirious, his head wobbled, his speech was soft and slurred. “I… I should have listened to him and done you in when I had the chance. But I just couldn’t Miss Maggie.” His eyes rolled in her direction. “I couldn’t do it… Because I love you. I still love you…”
She shoved him under the water once more and this time Truman did not struggle. He just let it be until he finally let go and returned to the eternal sea.
Once she knew it was done, Maggie jumped back and stood over the tub. She looked down at Truman as he slept dead in the water. She did nothing else except check her face in the mirror, turn off the light and walk out.
The next day, as Truman’s lifeless body soaked in the killing tub on the other side of the house, his telephone rang. It rang once, twice, three times, and each time it rang the sound punctuated the lonely dead air with even greater intensity. The voice on the other end eventually came across as a message on the answering machine following the insidious beep:
Hello, I’m calling for Truman Humboldt. Truman, this is Brian Brando. I’m the general manager at the Red Lobster in Lincoln and I’ve been looking over your job application and would very much like to speak to you about some open positions we have here at our fine establishment. So, if you could, please call me back at your earliest convenience so we can set up an interview. My number here is 402-446-8397. Again, this is Brian Brando, general manager. Thank you very much, Truman, and have a wonderful Red Lobster day. Goodbye.
A claw of the lobster ghost pushed down on a button and listened to the message again. He looked off through the walls and to where Truman was dead. He shook his head in great disappointment, great dismay.
The lobster ghost floated into the bathroom and drained the tub. He was greatly pained as he looked down at Truman the way he was. He pulled him out of the tub and carried him to his bed where he laid him atop the crinkled lobster sheets. He wrapped him up in them as best he could.
The lobster ghost then went out into the living room to think about things. He noticed the open Seinfeld DVD case. He hopped up on the couch and worked the remote controls of Truman’s home entertainment system. He sat back and watched The Hamptons episode, and he laughed out loud. “Ha! That’s great stuff.”
When it was over, he shut everything off and went back to the bedroom where Truman was wrapped up in the lobster sheets. He picked him up and carried him to the front door and out into the ghastly world. The lobster ghost smelled the air and started walking east, still holding Truman, and he did not waver or stop walking until he got all the way to the coast of Maine and the last bed of his friend’s dreams.
Aaron Echoes August
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Truman Humboldt glanced once in the rear-view mirror and the lobster ghost was gone. All he saw was the brown bowl where Lincoln, Nebraska sat in the distance like ripening fruit of varied shapes and shades, the orange and smoky image now growing ever smaller as the miles ticked off in the opposite direction.
Truman sighed deeply. He suddenly felt very free and uplifted. And although he was returning to the garbage town of Neptune and the awful job of breaking chicken necks at the processing plant, he looked beyond all that to a brighter future that he truly believed was within his grasp.
It was late afternoon when he finally returned the car to the rental office. He looked the vehicle over, smiled, and then patted the hood. “Thanks for the wonderful ride to Red Lobster,” he said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Truman slipped the keys and the official paperwork into the slot provided outside. He turned, put his hands on his hips and took a deep breath. “Ah,” he exhaled. “My future knows no bounds. No bounds whatsoever.”
Truman felt so good that he decided to take a stroll through the sad downtown and get himself an ice cream at Sundaes in Neptune, one of the few local places with life and one that was actually worth something. He felt he deserved a treat… Finally.
Once he got to the shop with the big glass windows full of colorful scenes depicting an ice cream and candy wonderland, he pulled the door open and a bell tinkled with welcoming, signaling that he indeed must be alive. The place smelled of sugar and chocolate and happy memories and Truman went to the counter where a blonde teeny bopper wearing a paper white hat and a bright glossy smile greeted him. He was still wearing his lobster-red tuxedo complete with top hat and walking cane and she seemed impressed, or maybe just puzzled.
“Hi! Welcome to Sundaes in Neptune,” she bubbled. “What’s your pleasure today?”
Truman’s eyes danced over the large menu above and behind her and its wide variety of choices. “Hmm,” Truman thought out loud. “Do you have any lobster ice cream?”
The girl laughed. “Lobster ice cream? Eww. No, sir. I’m afraid we don’t have any lobster ice cream… I don’t think I’ve ever seen lobster ice cream. Is that real… Or are you just fooling with me?” She was very electric and talkative. “That’s a great outfit by the way. Did you just come from a wedding?”
“No,” Truman said as he still perused the menu. “I had lunch at Red Lobster.”
“Oh,” the girl said, casting an awkward glance in his direction and then turning to look up at the menu board along with him. “Do you like peppermint? The peppermint is my favorite.”
“I want ice cream, not toothpaste. I think I’ll go with the cherry chocolate delight in a sugar cone please,” Truman decided.
“Oh. Yummy yum yum,” the girl said, and she grabbed a silver scooper and dug into the bucket of cherry chocolate delight and plopped it atop a crispy sugar cone wrapped in gentle pink paper around the bottom half. “Just one scoop?”
“This is a special occasion. Make it two scoops,” Truman beamed.
“You got it,” the girl said, and she piled two meaty balls of ice cream on the cone and held it while he got his money out. He paid her and she handed him his special treat. “Wow,” Truman said, smiling like a kid. “Awesome sauce… This looks great. Thanks.”
“Have a good rest of this beautiful day,” the girl said as Truman made his way toward the door. He turned and hoisted his cone as in a toast to the whole world. “It is a beautiful day!” he exclaimed with a broad smile, and he went back out into the grime and abandonment of the decaying downtown, but it did not soil his good mood. He focused on better days ahead as he walked, licking his ice cream slowly, relishing the present moment of peace and contentment.
It was becoming Sunday evening on the brim of the world, yet there was still light, as he made his way toward home. He stopped in front of the old movie house, The Neptune Theater, now dim and abandoned, irrelevant movie posters left behind, the glass of the ticket booth made opaque by time. He sucked the last of the ice cream from the bottom tip of the cone and looked into the building, past his own hazy reflection.
It had been left to rot, now a sea of soft dust floating about inside, ghosts of good times and laughter or maybe hot kissing in the back row floated through the lobby. Truman regretted never having someone to make out with at the movies. But then he thought, as he pushed the final piece of the cone into his mouth, so what… That was then, and this is now. He used his pointer finger to write something on the grimy glass: Be Here Now.
He stepped back and admired his proclamation for the world to relish in and hopefully live by; a proclamation that would eventually wash away but hold true forever, he thought. And he stuck his hands in the pockets of his lobster-red tuxedo pants and continued walking toward home.
Not long after Truman’s prophesizing at the old theater, a car came by and drove up slowly beside him as he walked. He turned to quickly look and then back again. He had no idea who it was or what they wanted. Maybe it was just someone lost and they wanted some directions, Truman thought. But then he realized the car looked somewhat familiar to him.
Then whoever was in the car honked the horn. Truman stopped. The passenger-side window slid down and a beautiful head leaned over and called out to him. “Hey, Truman! What are you doing?”
It was Maggie Barrymore.
Truman was shocked as he moved closer to the car and looked in. The smell of her perfumed, glossy life pleasantly assaulted his face.
“I’m walking home,” he nervously said. “I just got some ice cream.”
Then she laughed at him. “What’s with the wild tux?”
“I had a very important luncheon in Lincoln,” he said, and he straightened up with a sense of pride. He wanted to impress her. “At Red Lobster.”
Maggie Barrymore laughed at him again. “Red Lobster? You went all the way to Lincoln to eat at Red Lobster?”
“Yes,” Truman snapped, somewhat annoyed and not understanding why that seemed so ridiculous to her.
“Okay… I can give you a ride if you want.”
Truman’s eyes darted all around the interior of her nice car. It was clean. It smelled good. The stereo was playing some kind of poppy dance music that he didn’t know anything about. “You don’t mind?” he said. “I mean, you won’t get in trouble for hanging out with a co-worker. I wouldn’t want you to lose your job.”
“No.” She shrugged her smooth, bare shoulders. “It’s Sunday. It’s my day off. No one can tell me what I can or can’t do. Hop in.”
Truman pulled on the door and got in. That girlish smell of the car really got to him, and his heart started thumping. He was with a woman. A real woman. He looked over at her. She was wearing very short pants and he quickly glanced down at her long, lean legs as they worked the pedals. He had to turn away from her and glance out the window.
“You look different without your office clothes,” Truman told her.
“Yeah, I must look like a bum, but hey, it’s my day off, right? But I got to tell you… You look pretty sharp in that tux.”
“Thanks. I figured, hey, it’s Red Lobster. I got to look my best.”
She bit at her bottom lip as she looked over at him. “That’s cool. Were you with friends?”
“No, just by myself. Well, I was with a friend, but we had a disagreement and went our separate ways. The bottom line is, I don’t have any real friends. No one likes me.”
“Oh, Truman. I’m sure that’s not true.”
“I like you, and I could be your friend,” she said with a sultry tone almost, and she took her hand and moved it to his leg and gave it a gentle squeeze. “You can never have too many friends, right?”
“Aw, you’re just saying that because you feel sorry for me. And you didn’t want anything to do with me the other day.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Maggie said. “I’m sorry I acted like a jerk. I guess I was having a bad day. I do like you and I mean it when I say I want us to be friends.”
Truman tried to swallow the lump in his throat. “I would really like that,” he said to her.
“All right then,” Maggie said with a playful bob of her head. “Let’s be friends.”
Truman suddenly got excited by an idea. “Hey. After you drop me off… Would you like to come in and watch some Seinfeld with me.” He was sure she would immediately reject the idea. But then she didn’t.
“Sounds like fun,” she said.
“Sure. I could use a few laughs… And some company.”
Truman noticed she suddenly looked a bit sad. “Is something wrong?”
She shook it off with a gentle smile. “No… Just some man trouble.”
Truman leaned back in his seat, somewhat dejected. “You have a boyfriend, huh? I guess that’s not surprising.”
“I wouldn’t say boyfriend. It’s more like recreation,” she said with a laugh. “But you know, relationships of any kind aren’t always easy.”
“Hmm,” Truman hummed. “I wouldn’t know anything about that. Not really.”
She proceeded cautiously with her next question. “You’ve never been in a relationship before?”
“No,” Truman answered. “Can’t say I have.”
Then she chuckled as if he was kidding. “You’ve never had a girlfriend?”
“No, Maggie. I’ve never had a girlfriend.”
“Your entire life?”
“Truman,” she said sympathetically. “That’s terrible.”
“Tell me about it.”
“So… Have you ever kissed anyone?”
Truman turned to look at her. He noticed her lips and thought how well-versed in love they must be. “No. Not in real life.”
Maggie put a hand to her stomach like she was hurting. “That’s so sad.”
“You can turn right at the next block, and then the second right and all the way to the end,” Truman said, and he emitted a soft laugh. “I live at the end of the road.”
When they pulled into the driveway, Maggie shut the car down and turned to look at Truman. “Wait,” she said, and she moved closer to him, held him by the back of the head and pulled him in for his first real kiss.
When their lips parted, Truman relished the cool wetness that lingered. “Damn, Miss Maggie,” he said. “I had no idea it would feel so wonderful. I think my heart is going to explode.”
She giggled and looked down between his legs. “I think something else is about to explode,” she said with a smile. “Let’s go inside.”
NOT YET THE END
Author’s Note: I had fully intended this to be the last installment of this story, but lo and behold, it is not. It has a life of its own. Thanks for reading and keep checking cerealaftersex.com for more on The Lobster Guy. I’ll wrap it up soon.
Momma and Eddie said goodbye to Magnolia and me in the driveway at the home of the Beasleys. I’m going to call them the Beasleys, like my daddy did, because they didn’t really seem like regular grandparents to me. I thought mom and Eddie would maybe at least stay for lunch, but they didn’t. He kept whining about having to get back to Chicago and I don’t think he liked the way old man Beasley was looking him over and being judgmental. I think deep down Eddie was a bit of a coward himself, but he just acted like he knew everything. I was glad to see him go but wished my mom would have just decided to stay and forget about him. But she didn’t. I wondered as they drove off if I’d ever see her again. I just got that feeling, that feeling of a forever goodbye, but unfortunately, it wasn’t.
Living at the home of the Beasleys was kind of like living at military camp. At least that’s how it felt to me even though I’d never been to military camp. Old man Beasley was especially picky about his library, that’s what he called it. The room kind of formed a corner of the house on the front and doors with little squares of glass opened into it from the den. It had a big wooden desk in there covered with papers and books and there were lots of shelves with more books and plants and framed pictures.
Up on one of the walls he displayed the front page of the newspaper when it was announced that he would be the new editor of the Blue Shore Gazette. I looked at it under the protective glass of a boastful frame and the article included a picture of old man Beasley smiling like I had never seen him smile and he was shaking another man’s hand. In the background of the photo, they had gathered the staff to be in the picture as well and they all looked sad and scared. I guess I could understand that.
He also had some pretty nice maps up on the wall all about the Great Lakes that I liked looking at. I could only look at them when he was around though, otherwise I wasn’t allowed to go in there. That kind of made me sad because it was a nice room with big windows that looked out onto the front yard and then the street. It was a quiet street in a quiet neighborhood almost in the country on the edge of town and I kind of liked that. There weren’t ever many cars that came by. People walked their dogs occasionally. I saw kids once in a while, too, but I don’t know where they came from. The houses were kind of far apart, but not like miles apart.
I would have liked to sit in that room by myself, behind the big desk, and just think about things because that’s one of my favorite things to do. But old man Beasley wouldn’t let me sit at the desk and think about things. He was always good at stifling a wandering imagination. There was a smaller chair against one of the walls and that’s where we had to sit, mostly when he was giving me or my sister a talking to about something we did wrong. It was like a boss towering over a shoddy employee.
He did let me spin the big globe of the Earth he had in there, but never too fast. I’d set it in motion and then I’d stop it with my finger and wherever it landed that’s where I was going to live someday. A lot of times it turned out I was destined to end up in the middle of the ocean. “Well, what did you expect?” he would say. “Don’t you know that 70 percent of the Earth is covered by oceans?” Then he’d wag a big finger at me and say, “You’re wasting your time with such foolish dreams.”
When we first moved in, old man Beasley gave me and Nola a tour of the house which was kind of stupid because we’d been there before. It was more of instructions on what we could do and what we couldn’t do and what we could touch and what we couldn’t touch. As you can probably guess, there was a lot more couldn’t than could.
When we got to his library, he bragged about how it was a momentous collection of his life’s work and all his accomplishments and that he did a lot of important thinking in that room that impacted a lot of people’s lives. It’s also where he kept his books and magazines about gardening because now that he was retired, he was really into studying about growing his own vegetables and flowers in the back yard. He said a man should never become idle and lazy even when he retires, and he looked straight at me and made a gesture with his bushy white eyebrows as if he was saying: “Don’t be like your daddy was.”
I guess I had it better than Magnolia as far as rooms went because I got put in the basement all by myself. It wasn’t a horrible basement like some could be. With the way the Beasleys were, everything was neat and tidy, and it was mostly like a regular part of the house, maybe just a little darker since there weren’t a lot of windows down there and they were small. Mine was a room that they had set up for guests that rarely ever came. It had a decent bed and some furniture and a desk with a lamp where I could sit and write things down in my notebooks like I do. I did a lot of reading too.
There was a bathroom right across the hall and a room to do the laundry right next to that. There was another room lady Beasley used as sort of a pantry for extra canned goods and food and storing things. The main part of the downstairs was one big room lady Beasley used as her art studio and for sewing and crafts she sometimes did. There were a lot of paintings lying around, mostly of people and flowers and bowls of fruit, and countless tubes of paint and brushes and rags and sketches on paper tacked to the walls. One time I asked her if I could try painting because I thought it might be something I’d be interested in doing because I’m creative. She looked at me like I was stupid and just said, “I’ll think about it,” but I don’t think she ever did because she never let me paint anything.
The best part of being in the basement was that I could go up the steps and then there was a door right there at the top that went out into the back yard. I started slipping out at night after the Beasleys went to bed which was usually before 10. I just had to be quiet. I found a little can of household oil in the garage and oiled up all the hinges on the doors I used because they would whine horribly. More often than not, I’d steal one or two of lady Beasley’s cigarettes and some matches from where she kept them by her sitting chair in the den or from the cabinet by the dining room table. I don’t think she ever noticed because she smoked a lot and probably didn’t really keep close track. She bought them by the carton. I’d walk down into the back yard to the edge of the woods and smoke them while I looked up at the stars and try to communicate with the universe. I worried about what the Beasleys would have done to me if they ever caught me. I was always looking back over my shoulder imagining Grandpa Roman trudging toward me with a flashlight in his hand and yelling. That took some of the enjoyment out of it.
I was also worried lady Beasley might smell it on my clothes when she did the laundry but then I figured she was probably so soaked in it herself she wouldn’t even notice. If she ever did say something about it to me, I planned to just answer back, “No grandma, not me. Can’t you tell the whole house smells that way?” And it did which was kind of funny to me since she was so fussy about everything. She kept windows open a lot when it wasn’t too cold. Old man Beasley didn’t care nothing about it because he puffed a tobacco pipe, and it made him look like Popeye covered in snow because of his white hair.
Magnolia was confined on the main floor of the house where the bedrooms were clustered together in a hallway on one end. Her room was in the corner, next to the old man’s and right across from lady Beasley. The Beasleys didn’t sleep together in the same room anymore because lady Beasley had the shaky legs. I heard once through the family grapevine that old man Beasley threatened to crack her legs in two if she didn’t quit all that jittering around. I believe it. I can see him cracking somebody’s legs in two, clear as day. Honestly, I think it was more than just lady Beasley’s shaky legs. I think they just didn’t like each other anymore. I never once saw them act like they were in love. Never. They snapped at each other a lot though. I also noticed they spent a lot of time just off by themselves. Seems the only time they were together was at the supper table or when they were sitting in the den watching the TV or reading, and even then, they didn’t really talk much.
So, poor Magnolia was stuck between them two and she said she was scared half-to-death about breathing too loud or if she had to get up and go to the bathroom. One time she couldn’t hold it anymore and she did get up and she snuck down the hall to where the bathroom was and went inside and closed the door real slow because it made a noise. Well, after she was done and flushed and washed her hands, she opened the door and there was old man Beasley standing there with his big arms crossed in front of his big chest, and he beamed down at her and wanted to know why she was disturbing the whole house in the middle of the night.
She told him she had to go to the bathroom, and he told her that she was supposed to make sure she used the bathroom right before bed so she wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night and wake everyone else up. Magnolia told me she said she was sorry to him, but he grabbed her by the arm and kind of dragged her down the hall to her room and flung her inside. He told her to stay in bed and go to sleep, then he went away. It scared her bad she told me. A kid shouldn’t be scared about having to go to the bathroom.
My name is Magnolia Shakes, and I was born on July 28, 1970. Exactly eight years later my daddy died in an act of self-killing out on the interstate near where we lived. I don’t know why he picked my birthday to do what he did. People tried to tell me he wasn’t feeling right and didn’t pick that day on purpose. I knew better because he left me a present that I found after. It was a doll inside a box that you could see through. She had blonde hair and wore a pink dress with yellow dots on it. I never did open it and just sat her on a shelf in my room and I would look at her once in a while. I wanted to play with her, but I just couldn’t. He had a little note with it too that just said: Happy Birthday always, my Magnolia. Love, Daddy. On all my birthdays after that, I made myself believe he picked it so I would never forget and always remember him, but not in a bad way. Thinking otherwise would have crushed me to dust.
The accident was awful, and they had to shut down the highway and reroute people through town. There was a story about it in the newspaper the next day, but momma wouldn’t let me look at it. She folded it up and hid it away somewhere. I found it later and my brother clipped it to keep. They had to take the driver of the truck to the hospital and sedate him because he was so traumatized. There were about half a dozen cars that wrecked, too. No one else was killed but I think some people had some bad gashes and broken bones. The highway patrolmen that came to the house warned us not to go down there. Later, if we had to go on the highway, I would close my eyes at that particular stretch and try not to think about it, to push it away. It wore me out, in almost anything I did, having to do all that pushing of bad memories away. They just kept coming back, like I was constantly building a dam and it just kept breaking.
My mother’s name was Helen Shakes and I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She had long, bouncy blonde hair that she loved tossing around with her hands. Her eyes were a smooth green with a dot of sparkle that looked like the Emerald City from that Wizard of Oz movie. I thought she looked like a real-life princess, but other people said she was a little rough around the edges in both looks and actions. I don’t think she was, not until what happened to daddy. She kind of just let herself go after that. She started to drink more than usual, too. She was never mean to me, just a bit neglectful at times, especially when that Eddie Dallas started coming around more and more. My older brother Dylan and I didn’t like him at all. I thought he was arrogant and rude and disrespectful to our mother. I don’t know what she saw in him. He was a small, red-headed man with a smooth and youthful face dotted with freckles. If you didn’t know the real Eddie Dallas you would have thought he was a sweet, nice guy just by looking at him. But he wasn’t. He had a mean streak running through him all the way. I don’t know how my momma could feel any comfort looking into those demon eyes or being held in those scrawny arms. She acted like she did. But I knew better. It was sort of like I could see her insides, past her skin and into her soul, and what was on the inside was different than what was on the outside. I’ve always been able to do that, with most anybody. The only one I really couldn’t do it with was Dylan, and I think that was because he could do it too.
One day Eddie and my mom sat me and my sister down in the living room after supper to tell us something important. Eddie said he had gotten a promotion and that he was being sent to work in Chicago. I didn’t know why the hell anyone would want to promote Eddie, but they did. At first, I was fine with it because I thought it meant he wouldn’t be around much anymore. But then my mom said she was going to go with him and help him settle in and things like that, but that it was just going to be a small apartment so my sister and I would have to go live with our grandparents, “them damn Beasleys” as my daddy called them, up in the Badger Sate, that’s Wisconsin, for a while.
Eddie went on and on about how it would be best for everyone while he makes his way at the new job and makes a good impression. He didn’t need too many distractions. Then he talked about how the big city was no place for us kids and that we would come later when they were officially married and had a house set up in the suburbs and then my mom stuck out her hand and wiggled her fingers in the air and there was a new ring on it. It wasn’t the ring my daddy gave her. She probably threw that one away. They said we were going to be a new, happy family. They acted like they were excited, and they wanted my sister and I to be excited, but I wasn’t very excited, but then why would I be?
In the summer of 1979, Eddie helped momma sell the house and he got it packed up. He sent most off to a storage place in Illinois. A lot of it was stuff that belonged to my sister and me. A lot of it belonged to my daddy, too, and that made me mad as hell. Magnolia and I were only allowed to take a few things with promises that everything would be back to normal once we were all reunited in Chicago. I didn’t believe Eddie and part of me was hoping he was making it all up anyway.
My Grandma Mavis and my Grandpa Roman were my mom’s parents. I think she kept them disappointed much of her life. They never really liked my daddy too much either. They thought he wasn’t motivated enough and wasn’t giving us a good enough life. I don’t think it affected them too much when he died even though they acted like it did.
They lived in a nice house near Lake Michigan in a small town called Blue Shore and it was full of blue people and cold people but there were streaks of sunlight, too. And it was the sort of light that made your guts jump a bit with lonely happiness if that makes any sense. It was the sort of light that made its way through the trees and filtered through the autumn leaves set to fall and it cast color like loaded dice. It was September light, October light, and it would come in on an angle through the trees like I said, and it would hit against a neighborhood of neat little houses of white and yellow and pink and sweet ocean blue all lined up in Americana serenity and the echoes of life there called down to the fallen bodies of yesteryear in triplicate. I had been to Blue Shore a few times or so, Nola some too, and I liked it. I would have liked it more if the adults around me had just left me alone.
Them damn Beasleys would come and visit us in Arkansas once in a while, but they didn’t like the heat or the food or our living conditions. Not that they were terrible, just not up to their standards. Grandma Mavis would spend most of the time trying to clean and organize our house and Grandpa Roman would get to lecturing my daddy at the kitchen table on how to be a better man. My daddy would just nod his head up and down and say real seriously “I know, sir. I know.” I say daddy did the best he could. He worked odd jobs. Mostly construction and electrical and fixing things and we always had something to eat and had the lights on. I never understood what was so bad about that. There were a lot of other men in the world who did a whole lot worse.
My Grandpa Roman was an overly stern man, and he was pushy, too. He worked at the newspaper in Blue Shore for more than half his life. Worked himself up all the way to editor. He was opinionated and he was always pressing people to be better than what he thought they were, but not in a good way. He was arrogant and critical. He didn’t like laziness or mistakes. He didn’t like unruly kids either, and so he’d get on my momma for that if Magnolia and I made too much noise or ran around too much. He’d tell her that we weren’t disciplined enough because we were acting like animals and that we’d end up just like my daddy if she didn’t lay down the law. I thought he was a mean and heartless man, and I don’t see why he seemed to be so proud of that fact.
Grandma Mavis kind of followed in his ways. She was a fussy lady. Their house was clean and neat, and it looked like no one even lived there, like it was always up for sale or something. Grandma Mavis always kept herself polished, too. Seemed like she even dressed up to clean the house. The only time I ever saw her in something else was when she was riding the mower around in the yard cutting the lawn. She steered that thing with authority and in straight lines. I wanted to ride on it one time, but she wouldn’t let me.
She had worked for Lake County for a long time. She oversaw the running of the museum and historical places like that. She had something to do with the art center, too. I guess she was kind of important because she had to go to town meetings sometimes and talk. She could be a very pointed and serious woman at times, and I always thought she would have made a good guard at a jail.
I don’t think either one of them were ever very fun. Maybe at Christmas. That’s one time we would usually visit if the weather wasn’t too bad. There’d be other people there too, like uncles and aunts and cousins from different places. Some we hardly knew. We got a lot of presents, though. Nola and I would play outside with the cousins while the grownups stayed in the house drinking cocktails and gossiping loudly about family members that weren’t even there. Believe me, my daddy wasn’t much for cocktails and talking and so he’d usually end up coming outside to watch us run around. Grandpa Roman took it as an insult and thought daddy couldn’t stand on his own with the adults.
Grandma and Grandpa Beasley had about seven acres of land and where the yard ended in the back there was a wooded area with some walking paths worn into the earth and a trickle of a creek. The trees were thick in places. Magnolia liked to call it the “100-acre wood” like in Winnie-The-Pooh, but I don’t think it was a hundred acres, but maybe to her it felt like it. I guess it could have been.
One time after a Christmas lunch I was out there with my cousin Angela from Oshkosh, and we were just walking around hitting sticks against trees and not really talking much. Maybe some stuff about school. It was winter but the sun was shining, and it was even kind of warm and I had to unzip my coat.
She was a year older than me and just out of the blue she asked me if I had ever kissed anyone. I said no, which was true. She said she hadn’t either and wanted to know if we should try it with each other. She was pretty decent for a cousin, so I said yes. Then she kind of backed me up to a tree. She was a bit bigger than me, and I remember her face was really close to mine and she smelled like the bubblegum she just spit out. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure what to do. I just closed my eyes, held my breath, and waited. Then I felt what must have been her lips on me and it lasted for about 10 seconds and then she was done. Her mouth was soft and felt warm and cold at the same time. I think she lied about never doing it before because she seemed pretty well versed in it. I was suddenly worried I had to deal with a cousin for a girlfriend, and that I’d have to write letters or call her up on the phone every day. But it was stupid for me to worry because I never had to do any of that because she just shrugged her shoulders and looked at me like it was nothing special. We went back to walking around and she never said anything more about it or wanted to try kissing ever again. I was relieved and grateful.
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