The interruption from Batwings and Strangers continues!
MPK, a friend I’ve known for nearly forty years gave me feedback in the early days of Just Plain Stupid. “Your posts are too damn long,” she said.
Not exactly high praise. She was right, and since then I’ve done shorter posts – until today. This post will be long. If MPK reads this post, she’ll be saying to herself (or a passing dog/cat/child/husband, “this paragraph doesn’t need to be here. Why is he wasting our time with this?”
I’m writing this really long post for a few reasons.
First, pissing off MPK is always fun.
Second, because I haven’t written a post over 800 words in a while.
Third, because it’s Halloween, and things should be different on Halloween.
Fourth, because Bethlehem Writer’s Group is releasing their new book this Week, Once Around the Sun (with some added subtitle.)
Once Around the Sun (with or without its subtitle,) includes two things I wrote, (and I’m hoping for lots of money out of the deal.) One item is an article that I wrote for the now defunct Winston-Salem Magazine entitled A Spouse’s Guide to March Madness. I’ll post that here later. The other item is a short story called Mortified. I’d tell you about Mortified, but as it’s attached to this really long post that would even be stupider than Just Plain Stupid.
So settle in a comfortable chair, make sure you have plenty of battery life on your web device, and stick out your tongue at MPK, as JPS presents…
by Headley Hauser
I remember it started the Halloween my frat brothers hauled a keg out to Woodland Cemetery. While I’m as brave as the next guy – or at least some of the next guys, I spent the night in front of the tube. Why go to a graveyard on the one night of the year when the dead are supposed to rise?
The next morning I felt like a coward. Why was I shy about graveyards? I couldn’t still be worried about, ghosts, zombies, vampires. I was a grad student, not a child anymore. It was time to do something stupid.
After all, All Saints Day follows Halloween. That’s some kind of undead-free holiday -- right?
That night Woodland didn’t look very spooky, though it wasn’t exactly tidy. Toilet paper hung limply from a marble Jesus, as it did from a massive oak tree. Beer cans leaned against William A. Mayberry’s (1870-1921) stone. That had to be high school kids. Even the dead won’t drink Coors Light.
Suddenly someone was there, standing straight but not stiff. It gave me a start. His clothes were perfect without looking metrosexual. Even the wind didn’t bother his natural-looking perfect hair.
Of course, I hated him immediately. He extended a manicured hand and flashed a cold smile.
“Stan Plotz,” I said, shaking his cold hand and feeling inferior. It reminded me of shaking the priest’s hand after mass. “You’re very nicely dressed for graveyard walking,” I said.
I was just saying something to make noise. What did I know about graveyard-walking attire? Was there a uniform, maybe from a business fashion magazine? What would that be, Graveyard Quarterly?
“First impressions are important, Stanley,” Godfrey answered. “People judge you by your outward appearance. They’ll never take the time to appreciate your finer points if your presentation shows a lack of self-respect.” Pausing, he took in my flannel shirt, grass-stained blue jeans, Demon Deacon jacket, and three-year-old Nikes. So much for my “presentation.” “You’re a grad student?” he asked.
“That would be MBA or law school?”
I’d been turned down for both, so I lied. “No, I decided not to go the money route. I’m getting my MSW at Wake.”
“Master of Social Work.” Godfrey frowned. “Yes, I suppose it’s important to have qualified people in every field.”
I felt vindicated. Why, I didn’t know.
“As long as you’re striving,” said Godfrey, “to be the best you can be each and every day.”
One never knows what to say when encountering a Dale Carnegie cultie. I hated him more, but I sucked in my gut and straightened my jacket. Then, rebelliously, I unstraightened, earning another frown from Godfrey. I’ll be damned if I’ll change my appearance to earn the approval of some upper crust Ken doll.
“So, Mr. Hamilton,” I said in what I hoped was a superior tone, “why is it so important to give a good first impression to perfect strangers one meets in a graveyard?”
Godfrey showed no sign of irritation. “Well, Mr. Plotz, in some cases, hardly important at all.” He gave me a glance that made it clear I fell in that category. “However, once in a while you’ll run across a more formidable type. It’s important to keep them off balance so you can do this.”
A mix of sensations and emotions flooded me. Incredibly powerful hands grabbed me by head and shoulder. I felt a sharp, two-pointed stab in my neck. Racing through my head was fear, anger, embarrassment, and the feeling that this all would be a lot better for my self-esteem if Godfrey had been a hot woman.
Everything went black.
Coming awake for me had always been a prolonged blurry experience, requiring coffee, or a red bull. This time when I awoke, I was fully aware. It was that dark. The air was stuffy, and I had a disgusting flat taste in my mouth. I shifted to ease a lump in my back and bumped into walls to my right and left.
That’s when I heard an odd muffled sound, like someone else’s phone conversation bleeding through the line. It seemed to be a human voice or a number of human voices. It sounded far away and close at the same time. There was a musical quality to it like singing or, more accurately, chanting. I strained my ears to hear the words, but the harder I strained, the less distinct they became. Whatever I was hearing, I wasn’t hearing it with my ears.
Did I grow a new sensory organ? I touched my face expecting to feel a lump or mutant zit. There wasn’t anything there, but the chanting got louder. What do you do with a new sense? I had no recollection of using my eyes or ears for the first time. Maybe that’s why babies sometimes look so thoughtful.
Reaching up, I my fingers touched cushioned fabric. I was in a pretty tight space. Normally I’d be trembling with claustrophobia. I was never good with closets, elevators, or even small cars, but I felt fine, even comfortable. I pushed against the ceiling. I heard wood cracking and metal complaining as I pushed the roof several inches. Did I just do that? I’d never been particularly strong, as every bully in my middle school could tell you. Maybe the wood was rotten? Freshly turned soil and sand poured down on my face.
The voices were clearer now, and much louder. Working my way through dirt and debris, I got to my knees, then to a crouch. I reached up till I felt a breeze on my fingertips. The earth parted above me like water, but when my hands gripped the topsoil, the ground held.
I stretched to loosen tight muscles. It was a delicious sensation. I felt both light and strong. With one heave I not only cleared the surface, but sailed several feet into the air, landing majestically on a stone.
A grave stone.
My grave stone.
So this meant what, I was a vampire?
Some might have been horrified. Not me. I was now a lord of the night. No more fear of brawny troglodytes like those who had, a decade past, beaten me with my own violin case. I was now a creature to be feared. Gathered around me was my new brotherhood, fellow members of a mighty pack. I was secure in our mutual admiration. Why else would they be gathered to sing me out of my grave, imbue me with their mighty spirit, and… laugh?
Around me the dread fraternity of vampires rolled about, cackling like so many Shriners at a whoopee cushion trade show.
“Plotz,” Godfrey said, “you haven’t any pants on.”
It looked down. I wore my best shirt, tie, and suit coat, but with nothing but boxers below. I suppose I should have been grateful for the boxers, but I didn’t feel gratitude at that moment.
“Who did this!” I sputtered.
The vampires laughed even louder. Godfrey, however, only snickered. “Plotz,” he said, “you might want to check with your undertaker.”
“How do I do that?”
“The cemetery office. You’re newly buried; there’ll be a file.”
I disliked Godfrey Hamilton, even in my newly glorified state. I was also afraid of him, but I took his advice.
The file identified my undertaker as Mr. Feeley Nuzbetch, who ran his establishment in the West End. I knew the place – up the hill from Burke Street Pizza.
A light burned downstairs at the Feeley Nuzbetch Funeral Parlor. I didn’t have a watch on, maybe Feeley took that too, but it felt really late or, more likely, really early morning.
Going to the door, I silently broke the deadbolt. I planned to sneak in and spring on Nuzbetch. That’s what vampires do, right? I opened the door, but I couldn’t cross the threshold. I’d heard something about thresholds and vampires. Breaking into the cemetery office hadn’t been a problem, but no one lived there. Maybe this was Nuzbetch’s home.
That was sort of creepy. I tried to imagine living in a house with a continuous flow of dead bodies. Of course I was dead now, so I guess I had no reason to be judgmental.
I circled the building. Through a window I saw a pudgy man in his fifties or sixties. He was working on a body using a machine with tubes attached. The process fascinated me. It also made me hungry. Then I realized – the man was wearing my pants.
And they fit. Impossible. I couldn’t be as fat as he was. Maybe he had them tailored.
Something nagged at me. A clock inside read five-fifteen. What time did the sun come up?
I wondered if the government kept records of vampires’ mortality or re-mortality on their first dawn. Maybe you got a mulligan if the sun toasted you on your first night out.
If dawn meant certain death, or whatever it’s called when dead people expire, how much longer could I afford to stand by this window in my boxer shorts watching this pants-altering mortician? If I didn’t do something soon, Nuzbetch would find himself a matching jacket. But where could I go? I looked around me. There were plenty of homes I couldn’t get into. There were also shops and restaurants, but even if I could enter those, they might not appreciate a corpse resting the business day away. Even worse, they might move my body, and once outside…
So where to go? Saint Paul’s Episcopal?
Inside Feeley shut down the machine and pulled a large plastic bucket from beneath the bench. He headed toward the back of the building. Silently I moved with him. Should I cross my fingers? Crossing anything was probably not a good idea for a vampire.
Before the door opened I smelled blood in the bucket Nuzbetch was carrying. I could also smell the mortician’s blood. His was more appetizing, like an order of prime rib holding a bucket of chipped beef. I waited for Feeley to clear the door then I slammed it behind him. He spun around, sloshing blood from the bucket onto his pants -- no -- my pants.
“Who are yo--?” He never finished the question, maybe because he recognized me. I could smell his fear, but that didn’t keep him from laughing.
I wanted to kill him, I wanted to drain the blood from his body, but most of all I wanted to scare the hell out of him. I knew I couldn’t do that partially dressed.
“First of all, give me back my pants.” I tried to sound scary and mysterious, and I guess I succeeded, because he wasted no time stripping down to his green and orange boxers.
Instead of getting fancy, I put my pants on one leg at a time. With my new undead abilities I could probably jump ten feet up in the air, have my shoes off, pants on, shirt tucked in, and shoes back on and tied before I hit the ground, but I didn’t want to give Nuzbetch a chance to escape. I sure didn’t want to botch it and start him laughing again.
I zipped up; the pants fit. It had to be a vampire thing. No way was I as fat as Nuzbetch.
The mortician shot glances at the door and at me. I made a point of pulling the belt in an extra notch as I casually stepped between him and the door. The move might have appeared more ominous if I hadn’t burned my hands on the silver belt buckle. Wasn’t it supposed to be werewolves that hated silver?
“You know, it’ll be dawn soon.” Feeley sputtered. “You can’t enter my house, so you’ll be nothing but a pile of dust unless I help you.”
The man knew his vampire lore -- certainly better than I did. Probably came with mortician training. Still, how certain could he be about everything? “It’s very simple, Feeley,” I told him. “After I kill you, your home will be as open to me as any other abandoned building.”
I leaned in and smelled the rising terror in his blood. The scent was intoxicating. No wonder vampires didn’t just bonk people over the head and drag them off to feed.
I was glad I got my pants back before I scared him. A yellow stream ran down Feeley’s leg, forming a puddle by his right foot.
The smell of urine, while unpleasant, did nothing to stem my appetite. The urge to kill and feed was strong, but another force rose inside me.
I never liked my great aunt Agnes. When I was a child, she used to hector me about proper behavior and table etiquette. As much as I wanted to ignore her, I always buckled to her irresistible will. I was the only kid in summer camp who ate his hot dog with a fork.
Here she was again, nothing but a dead woman’s voice ensconced in my supposedly demonic, undead brain. “Don’t slay your food,” she said.
What did that even mean? Ridiculous, how could I survive if I didn’t slay?
From Nuzbetch’s perspective my inner battle must have looked ominous. The man knelt before me, his bare bony knees in mud and urine, shaking and blubbering for mercy.
“Don’t kill me!” he cried. “I can help you. I’ll do anything. Please, don’t kill me!”
He was a pathetic mess. He stole my pants. But I needed his help.
I waited, feigning uncertainty. The sky glowed pink in the east. As much as I enjoyed the groveling, I needed to get under cover. I grabbed the mortician by the chin and forced him to look me in the eye.
“Invite me inside, Nuzbetch.”
I suppose things could be worse. Nuzbetch’s basement is dry and blocks the sunlight during the day. He set me up in a lovely coffin and asked if I wanted it lined with Transylvanian dirt. I declined; it seemed more messy than exotic. The funeral business keeps me well supplied with blood. Dead blood makes for a bland diet, but it keeps Great Aunt Agnes quiet.
I went back to school, taking only night classes. People were pretty surprised to see me, but it raised less fuss than you’d think. My frat brothers thought it added prestige to the house. They try not to eat too much garlic when I’m around.
I make money for tuition and death’s little extras as a night watchman. The black uniform suits me. Feeley packs me a thermos each night.
I do get tired of dead blood all the time.
Maybe someone will show up and make trouble.
Great Aunt Agnes would never defend a troublemaker.
So… Back to Batwings and Strangers on Monday? Yeah, I think I’m ready. Get your guesses in for the Nine Missing Words, and win a Trouble in Taos coffee mug.