Storyville


He couldn’t sleep. The message light was blinking rapidly at almost strobe light speed with a red F for full. He jabbed the Delete button and the large white box made a lengthy squeak as the messages were discarded into that cosmic void where old electronic communications go to die. He didn’t know why he even bothered with this device. It wasn’t as if he listened to the messages with any urgency, if at all. As quickly as the messages were deleted, there was a long fluttering noise like playing cards shuffling as the device reloaded the next wave of messages and the red F flashed again as rapidly as before. He sighed and forced himself to walk away from the device. He could spend forever stuck in the endless loop of discarded and reloaded messages.

He was in one of those funks again. He hated feeling like this – when he started to question life and his own place in the world. He moped around his almost colorless loft high above it all, but still not high enough to distance himself from all of the troubles below. He hoped the mood would pass. He wasn’t really in a position to confide in anyone and talk through his feelings, so he had to work it out on his own.

Unfortunately, he was unable to shake the mood that hung heavily over him like a layer of Mt. St. Helens volcanic soot. He found himself in front of the huge wall-sized screen which served as his window to the world and gave his loft a tiny hint of blue color, rescuing the décor from full blown drab. Maybe a little mind candy would cheer him up and lift his spirits so he could go about his daily activity of running things. He had every channel in the world but he rarely could stay focused on one too long. There was never anything original.

The images on the screen flipped effortlessly and soundlessly from channel to channel as he watched.

Flip…A ginger-haired evangelist in a sky blue suit was blubbering in a glazed spectacle of tears, perspiration, and mucous, confessing his sins of the flesh, asking for his congregation’s forgiveness, and pleading for this media revelation of his indiscretions not to interrupt the generous pipeline of donations that had built his wonderful faith-based empire.

This had become an all too familiar occurrence on the large flickering screen. He thought he had blocked all of these channels, but apparently he had missed this one. One day there would be a 24 hour cable network devoted to tearful confessions of public figures that had been exposed.Flip…A politician stood cornered outside of his office by a ravenous press. He was apologizing and spinning his arrest in a gay prostitution sting, as a preposterous misunderstanding, and a case of entrapment, with a solemn, stone-like expression, not realizing the contradiction that his apology and his spin presented. He was professing his love for his wife and his family and adamantly denying that he was gay. He asked that he could put this nonsense behind him and do what the people had sent him here to do. He took no questions and made his way back to the chamber to argue against same sex marriage.

Flip…The image on the screen was grittier – it had the look of an undercover surveillance video. The priest, away from the trusting gaze of the congregation in his private quarters removed his silver framed glasses exposing his gentle brown eyes, and then removed his robe to expose even more. He loomed above the trembling blond young boy, who knew all too well what would happen next – something he couldn’t speak of – he had been warned of the fires of Hell and the angry hand of God by the man that was confidently approaching him…

Flip…
A portly media pundit with deceptive, bright blue eyes buried in a pudgy pale face was fanning the fires of fear throughout his audience. He was working himself into a frenzy of spittle and high-pitched octaves to punctuate his message of doom. He was demonizing his perceived enemy – the non-Christian segment of society and claiming his monopoly on God in this battle for the souls of his audience.

Nothing betrayed a false profit quicker than the pronunciation of God as a two-syllable word, he thought.

Flip…A large church service was in progress, organ music played, baskets were passed around and filled to capacity with currency and checks from the bulging congregation – their down payment on salvation – or so they had been led to believe – the priest scanned the congregation, his gentle brown eyes busy behind his silver framed glasses as he watched the wave of baskets lap along the pews gobbling up the generous offerings.

Flip…Another screaming media talking head, ironically with a receding hairline. He was a spoiled little bully in an aging man’s body and skin. He barely hid a perpetual smirk underneath the surface of his sad clown face which subtly sneered at anyone not as fortunate as himself. His voice was raised even when he spoke in normal conversation, as if by making more noise he could drive away his fears and personal demons. He was preaching from his bully pulpit to his mindless choir of regular viewers about the War on Christmas that was raging and how it would end civilized society as we knew it. He cited an example of a department store greeter being asked to say “Happy Holidays” by management instead of “Merry Christmas.” This was the extent of his proof of the culture war that had been waged against Christianity but that was all he needed because he was talking loudly and enunciating with an authoritative voice deep from within his chest.

Flip…One of those “reality” shows – A corporate CEO had infiltrated the workers of his company in an undercover capacity and was playing the part of a new employee so as to fit in as a mere wage earner. A few of his unsuspecting underlings were not being very accepting of the big man. His performance thus far had been poor, they told him and he was not learning the ropes fast enough for the veteran wage earners. The CEO stood silently stone faced as his clueless minions berated him instead of teaching him. A subtle smirk flashed momentarily on the CEO’s face, as he quietly contemplated his handling of these wage earners when he returned to his boss position.

He felt the volcanic soot of his mood begin to dissipate. He was inspired. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? He guessed, maybe he did, depending upon where one came down on the notion of divine intervention and muses. He was most likely involved in the creation of the idea in some form. Regardless, the “reality” show that was on the huge screen convinced him that the way out of his funk was to pay a visit to the people. A road trip; wasn’t that always the answer to most of life’s problems? It got you out of your rut for a while and gave you a new perspective and a new set of eyes by mingling with people you didn’t normally interact with directly. He watched the undercover CEO on the screen immersing himself in his new role as one of the common men. He could do that – piece of cake. He just had to find the right look. He didn’t want to overdo it so as to call attention to his true self, or hold back and give himself away.

He came to the people as a stranger. His lengthy light brown hair, combed by the warm breeze hung in wisps around his pale weather hardened face and complemented the slightly darker shadow of stubble along his jawline and chin. He wore the no frills greenish brown polyester uniform shirt of a laborer punctuated only above his right chest pocket by a white name patch with embroidered cursive black letters spelling J-E-S-U-S. His shirt tail was untucked and flowed past his waist, stopping a few inches above the knees of the matching uniform pants. One pant leg was tucked into his worn brown boot, a detail of his disguise for which he had been quite proud.

He scanned the church parking lot as the people began to arrive in their oversized, overpriced cars and trucks adorned with messages and emblems serving as advertisements and testaments to their faith:

Jesus Saves, Keep the Christ in Christmas, there were Jesus fishes on license plate frames, crosses and crucifixes hanging from rearview mirrors, and plastic Jesuses and Virgin Marys, on dashboards.

The people slowly flocked from their vehicles, as if on cue. They filed into the church in an unthinking mass of designer clothes, garish jewelry, and pasted on smiles. Each of them wore disguises of their own ready to play their parts as well.

The stranger crossed beneath the shadow of the giant monstrosity of the lighted sign in the parking lot of the church with its bright neon letters displaying empty promises, and lifeless Bible verses in all of its blinking glory. Glowing quips interspersed with administrative information scrolled horizontally across the rectangular marquee of light and color:

Jesus is the answer…Sunday Morning Service 9:30 & 10:55…You become what you worship… Kids for Christ signup ends this Sunday…For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God Romans 3:23…When did I agree to play Vegas?” The stranger mumbled. “I’ll show them Vegas.”

He entered the church after everyone else. He was met by a cold rush of air and a chorus of cold stares as the collective gaze of the congregation swept across the room as if reacting for one creature and fixed upon him. He saw their appalled faces as they gazed at this stranger under dressed in his work clothes and obviously not a member, who had intruded into their church. He took a seat on the aisle of the last pew, isolated from the people but with an adequate vantage point of the spectacle before him.

He scanned the congregation. His head reverberated with their collective whispers of prayers. Most were requests for favors, let me win the lottery this weekend, heal my sick mother, let my child make the varsity team, and pleas for forgiveness for acts that had been committed the previous week, and would most likely be committed the following week and the week after that. The whispers quickly morphed into the familiar fluttering playing card shuffling sound that he knew all too well.

He glanced toward the elderly woman in the light blue floral dress hunched over the church organ keys as if worshipping the organ itself. She was obediently playing the obligatory church organ mood music with complete conviction. The priest in his garish robe draped loosely over his gangly frame, towered from his podium at the front of the congregation. He spoke without emotion into the microphone clipped to his chest while behind him a giant video monitor flashed bullet points of his sermon, driving home the key points of his message.

The stranger shook his head in disbelief. This was a clear case of technology compensating for a charismatic deficiency.The stranger observed the congregation. There was bowing and kneeling, and cross signing, splashes of special water and clasped hands all around him. There were chants of faith and worship and displays of religious symbols and icons and complete, unquestioning acceptance of the entire ritual. Everyone played their part. It had become so ingrained, passed down through the generations; they could do it in their sleep.

How could the people ruin something like this so badly? How could they turn worship into a Monty Python skit? At least, Monty Python played it for laughs. But these people were serious. If they could only see themselves as he saw them, they would have to realize how silly they looked, right? Probably not… The people weren’t as bright as he had originally planned.It was time to go to work. The stranger rose silently unnoticed and was up the aisle past the priest and behind Agnes Sweetwater, the elderly organ player in the blue floral dress. She didn’t rise from her crouch over the organ’s keys or even acknowledge the stranger that approached her. The lifeless church organ music ended abruptly and segued into a slow, creeping build up of individual notes that converged in a climax of emotion that this congregation desperately needed.

This quickly caught the attention of the priest and his congregation. Their heads swept simultaneously toward Agnes Sweetwater and the stranger standing before her conducting her play in cartoonish gestures. There were collective gasps and a growing murmur from the gawking collective face of the congregation at this intrusion. Could they do anything on their own, or did they always act as a group? The stranger wondered as he conducted Agnes’ musical performance.

A hiss of unintelligible whispers rolled across the congregation as they stared blankly at this disruption.

The stranger leapt effortlessly up to the top of the organ landing in a standing position, his back to Agnes who unconsciously played the slow rhythmic organ music the stranger was conducting. He bellowed out the words to accompany this peculiar musical score while he had the attention of the congregation:


“Cancel my subscription to the resurrection.
Send my credentials to the house of detention.
I got some friends inside.”
*

On the front row, Janis Trickle in her shiny, black clinging dress gasped in revulsion at this intrusion into her sanctuary. She punctuated her displeasure by bringing her hand with its glossy diamond ring to her mouth but it only made the stranger kick up his musical conducting and performance a few notches.

This was the same Mrs. Trickle who was cheating on Mr. Trickle and utilizing positions that the unsuspecting Mr. Trickle would never have dreamt of suggesting to the wholesome Mrs. Trickle. So naturally, Mr. Trickle was practicing said positions with Mandy Powers, a rather adventurous and limber neighbor, and soccer mom, he had come to know in the most intimate sense after spending many Saturdays on the sideline at his daughter’s soccer games.

Out of nowhere the stranger brandished a laser pointer and aimed it at Mrs. Trickle. The beam struck her between the eyes. She reflexively batted at it like it was a bothersome gnat. The video monitor image above and behind the priest flipped from the words of the sermon to a clear video of Mrs. Trickle naked and entwined with someone who obviously was not Mr. Trickle – Her face, a mosaic smear of ecstasy and emotion was reflected in rather revealing ceiling mirrors above her and her partner…

The stranger sang along accompanying the video and the continuous creep of organ music dutifully played by Agnes:

“The face in the mirror won’t stop…”*Agnes unconsciously jabbed two successive organ notes to punctuate the stranger’s words adding emphasis to the revelation he shared with the congregation.

The priest stood frozen, his mouth hanging open, unable to process the video image behind him, and the chaos occurring all around him.

Mr. Trickle sprang to his feet hoping just this mediocre show of force would bring an end to this commotion created by the stranger.

This gesture only intensified the rock and roll edge to the stranger’s voice as he belted out the song with more energy, and sped up the aged hands of Agnes Sweetwater as she banged her bony fingers down hard on the keys with more force than her frail body seemed to possess. The stranger cackled gleefully admiring his orchestration. Agnes Sweetwater’s rendition of this classic tune was so accurate you would have thought she had been replaced by Ray Manzarek in drag.

The stranger spun around on top of the organ and with a sweeping flourish zapped the laser pointer beam at Mr. Trickle, the pinpoint of light zeroed in on his crotch. Mr. Trickle instinctively dropped his clasped hands in a futile attempt to cover the red point of light, which elicited scattered giggles from the congregation. The video screen flipped to a new image – through her bedroom window you could see Mandy Power’s bare back and shoulders as she knelt down before a bare chested Mr. Trickle his eyes closed in a goofy expression of gratification.

The stranger sang along with the video image and the continuous pulse of the organ beneath him…

“The girl in the window won’t drop.
A feast of friends alive she cried,
waiting for me outside …”
*

The priest finally broke out of his frozen trance of disbelief. He turned and took a small step in the direction of Agnes and the stranger strutting and spinning on top of the church organ.

The stranger spun around and made a gesture with the palm of his hand as if pressing down the air in front of him. Agnes reacted by bringing the pulsing music down several notches, yet still audible to the congregation. The stranger whirled back around to face the congregation.

The priest’s jaw clenched tightly as he tucked his chin in toward his chest and barked into the microphone clipped on his robe. He pushed his silver framed glasses up the bridge of his nose closer to his delicate brown eyes as he squinted at the stranger.

“Excuse me, young man, is it Hay Seuss?

The organ music played a low, steady rhythm – a backbeat pulse to the interchange, giving it added weight.

The stranger chuckled.

“Do I look Hispanic to you Dude?” His voice carried easily throughout the congregation without the aid of a microphone.

“You can call me Father, thank you very much,” the priest said in a shaky voice made more obvious by his microphone.

The stranger leapt gracefully off the organ onto the stage and stepped slowly and casually toward the priest and the congregation. Agnes continued to bow over the organ, tapping the keys softly, repeatedly with conviction.

The priest took a clumsy step backward.

“Dude, you aren’t my father,” the stranger said.

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave; this type of behavior in God’s house is not acceptable” The priest’s voice cracked nervously, inadvertently breaking the word “God” into two syllables.

“Acceptable behavior. What is that exactly?” The stranger nodded to the video screen above the priest.

The video screen flipped to a grainy video of the priest in his private quarters as he removed his robe to expose his pale, wrinkled flesh to an anonymous blond haired boy. The priest loomed above the trembling young boy as he approached him with authority and a look of bliss on his face.

The rhythmic organ pulse continued contributing to the seediness of the video.

The stranger swept his hand through the air, twirling the laser point between his fingers like rock and roll drummer. The red beam hit the hem of the priest’s robe. He flicked his hand in a quick flipping motion and the priest’s robe billowed upward and flew up over the priest’s head plastering itself tightly to his face and exposing his naked body below.

His pale, shriveled, uncovered body flailed uncontrollably trying to wrestle the robe back into place and regain his vision and his dignity. His microphone still on, amplified his helpless whimpering and muffled panting and broadcast it to the entire congregation. He lost his footing and stumbled backward crashing to the floor on his back with an audible grunt. His lower body still exposed, he writhed around on the floor, his arms now tangled up in the wire of his microphone, unable to break free.

There were shrieks and gasps, and there was fainting throughout the congregation caused by both the video and the real time exposure of the priest. Amid the confusion, several, hands dipped into the collection baskets having second thoughts about the generous offerings they had made shortly before. Mr. and Mrs. Trickle took this opportunity as their cue to slip separately out of the church unnoticed and duck into permanent hiding to nurse their shame and think about whether this church was really for them.

The stranger descended the stairs and advanced toward the chaotic congregation. The church members were still erupting in a collective frenzy of emotions; their rigid truths practiced for generations had been yanked out from under them like a tablecloth in a magician’s trick. Women were crying mascara tears, grown men were blubbering, slobbering messes, as they tried to reconcile what they had witnessed.

The stranger addressed the congregation.

“Our paths will probably cross again. I suggest you all behave until then. You’ll probably want to be on my good side. Right Dude?” The stranger said over his shoulder to the priest still floundering on his back trying to escape his entanglement. “I hope we all learned something here today.”

The stranger approached the young boy with the look of shame on his face cowering beside his mother in one of the center pews. The boy feared exposure but the stranger had been careful not to betray his identity. He patted the boy on his head tousling his blond hair and then casually made his way down the aisle and silently exited the church in a whisper of warm air.

To the traumatized congregation, the stranger’s last gesture toward the boy was merely a pat on the head, a gentle form of encouragement – from an adult to a child. To the young boy, it was much more, the secret he had been burdened with and any of its collateral baggage was permanently erased from the boy’s memory and mind. For the boy, it was as if it had never happened. The boy’s mother grabbed her son and pulled him close to her, a sour milk expression on her face. She cringed at the thought of the stranger laying his hands on her child.

Outside, on his way back home, the stranger crossed below, the church marquee, the scrolling electric neon letters on its screen bled into gibberish, and then shuffled forming a new series of messages which scrolled horizontally across the marquee in an electric explosion of colors:

People see God every day; they just don’t recognize HimGod specializes in happy endingsDon’t make me come down there

He had an endless supply of them.

He wandered into the church parking lot crammed with its rolling billboards of faith and disappeared, leaving the people to their own devices for the time being.

Back at home in his loft, he wisely chose not to turn on the huge video screen. He cleared the messages on the white device and heard the inevitable shuffling of them filling up again. His trip had cured the funk he had been in, a least for now. He just wanted to get some well deserved sleep. And that is what he did.

by Bob Langham

If you like this,  read more.

Sources: * When the Music’s Over – The Doors, Elektra Records 1967

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All of the works of fiction on this blog are the property of Bobman and may only be used with my permission.

Author’s Note: I wrote this sometime back in the mid ‘80s. It is a result of the few Christmases I had already spent in retail at that time. If you take the person with the most Christmas spirit and have that person work in the retail sector for a year or two including the Christmas season (and the Christmas return nightmare after Christmas has passed) that person’s holiday spirit will be broken beyond repair. There is nothing like the hordes of mindless materialistic zombies trashing your workplace like they are participating in the LA riots in their pursuit to celebrate what they believe to be a Christian holiday based on a symbolic figure that doesn’t even exist. Even though I might not have been consciously thinking it at the time of the original writing, this was also a way for me to explore the bigger picture of other symbolic icons our elders brought us up to believe in out of fear – you better watch out… if you are not good, you will get coal in your Christmas stocking, or you will end up burning in the eternal flames of damnation.  It’s all basically the same result. With a few minor tweaks, this is the story this thought process led to:

scary_santa  santa_motor1 santa_boots2 man with gun1

 

Santa Claus

by Bob Langham

 It was Christmas Eve. The Christmas tree lights were blinking – creating living patterns on the wall. The glow from the tree peered through the frosted windows. A red smear of motion appeared outside the window. It was Santa. His lazy Christmas stocking cap hung crookedly off of his head. His face was crunched into an ugly grin as he pressed it against the outside of the window. His eyes, as dark as the night at his back, canvassed the Goodman’s living room, but from outside he could only see shadows. His damp beard was littered with an assortment of trinkets which he had accumulated during his travels on this frigid night – blades of frozen grass, slivers of broken candy canes, which had gotten stranded on the way to his mouth, cookie crumbs that poked their tiny heads out of the dingy white tuft of hair, and at the tip, the beard was damp where Santa had gotten careless with his thermos of coffee. His wrinkled undershirt peeked out of his red coat in yellowing hints of soiled cotton. His black belt overlapped his belt loops and hung awkwardly below his waist.
     Santa could see no movement behind the window. He reached down and yanked his red pants up a few inches. Then he leaned over and pulled a silver object from his boot. It had jagged teeth, not unlike his own and a pearl handle. Santa examined it closely in the glow of the blinking lights. The blade came alive in the moving light. Santa squinted and pulled a smoke from behind his ear and shoved it unlit in the corner of his crooked mouth and went to work.
      As easily as if he were carving a tender Christmas turkey, Santa removed the pane of glass and laid it down gently at his feet. He stared at the blade as if to thank it silently for another job well done.  He bent over and slid it back into his shiny black boot.  He stood up and threw a quick glance over his shoulder, yanked his pants up again and stuck his hand through the opening he had created. His pale, meaty hand searched blindly for the lock, and like all of the other times, it was easy. He found it, flipped the latch and was in the house in a matter of seconds.
      He reached through the open window and pulled in his oversized, bulging Christmas sack of loot. It was dingy and yellowing and peppered with cigarette burns. He laid it at his feet. The wind started to howl fiercely outside the open window.  Santa inched across the room. The wooden floor creaked with every tiny step.
      The framed photograph of Mrs. Goodman hanging on the wall caught Santa’s eye. It captured her in her younger days. The blinking Christmas tree made Mrs. Goodman appear to smile down on Santa in the darkness. The children’s photographs, also caught in their younger days, snuggled beside Mrs. Goodman’s smiling image.
     It was the picture of Elaine Goodman, the oldest daughter that caught Santa’s attention. He raised his colorless hand and traced the outline of her face – his nicotine stained fingers smudged the glass that protected her. His nails scraped the glass, causing a high-pitched squeak. He yanked the framed picture from the wall and tucked it under his arm.
      Santa skillfully disconnected the wires to the VCR and slipped it into his Christmas sack of loot. He placed Elaine’s picture safely on top. He was turning to grab the compact disk player when in his peripheral vision he detected the silhouette standing in the doorway to the room. Santa rotated his head slowly, with a slightly audible creak. The Christmas tree lit up the shadow’s face. It belonged to a young man – an older more mature version of one of the boys in the flock of children that nestled around Mrs. Goodman’s picture on the wall.
     The young man’s face was filled with disbelief – not so much that he was being robbed, but more of an expression that said; I thought Santa Claus wasn’t real.
 The young man stared into Santa’s eyes. Even in the limited light he could see that they were dark and deep and red around the corners. Santa straightened up, his joints cracking to break the silence. The young man shot a quick glance down at Santa’s boots to escape the dark heavy gaze of Santa’s eyes. The boots were shiny black with silver studs on each ankle. He saw the blade sticking out of the top of Santa’s boot. That was all it took for reality to win him back over. Santa had followed the young man’s gaze down to his boots and recognized the new awakening on his face.
     Santa finally spoke in a low guttural voice.
      “What’s wrong man? Don’t you believe in me? Forget what your parents told you. I really do exist. Just not quite the way they told you though.” Santa’s eyes began to glitter.  
     Seeing this, the young man took several steps backward, stumbling. It was then that he remembered he hadn’t come into the room empty handed. He felt the steel, an added weight, as his arms flailed wildly and he fell backward hitting the floor hard.
     Santa yanked the compact disk player up and placed it with the VCR and photo of Elaine. He snatched up the sack of loot and leapt gracefully through the open window.
     The young man scrambled to his feet and gave chase. Even over the howling wind he heard Santa’s boots clicking rapidly down the street. He sprinted after him. When he thought he was as close to him as he was going to be able to get, the young man raised the gun and jerked the trigger twice. Santa’s red coat ripped in two places as the bullets penetrated the red material. Santa didn’t even break his stride. He slung the oversized sack over his shoulder and cackled loudly.
     The young man came to a halt – not believing what he had just seen. Santa hurdled over a six-foot wooden fence. The toe of one of his boots snagged on the top of the fence and ripped one of the planks off the foundation completely. The board cartwheeled through the chilly air following Santa over the fence.
     The young man stopped and stared in disbelief.  His rapid breaths floated around his head in gray puffs. He was dressed only in thin pajamas, and barefooted but too stunned to notice. The wooden fence, now a crooked grin concealed Santa.
     An engine quickly roared into life and tires squealed angrily in the thin air. The fence explode as Santa plowed through it atop a shiny red motorcycle, with the bulging sack of loot strapped snugly to his back.
 The motorcycle engine growled into higher gear as the front tire lifted gradually off of the ground. Santa cackled loudly over the roar of the engine, his eyes glowing red and his Christmas hat still obediently in place.
     The young man raised the gun, but slowly dropped it to his side. Santa shot past him in a streak of red, leaving a trail of laughter behind. The young man’s mouth hung open, billows of steam shooting out in short bursts of breath, as the back tire of the motorcycle lifted slowly from the pavement also. The motorcycle was quickly flying through the winter night high above the street. The motorcycle cleared the Goodman’s roof by only inches. Santa giggled loudly as the bike roared and shot off into the night.
     The young man noticed an object lying at his feet. He bent over slowly and picked it up and examined it closely. It had a pearl handle and a jagged blade. At the base of the handle, there was a red monogrammed SC. He glanced over and beyond the roof of his house into the empty darkness and shook his head as a light snow began to fall silently.
    He realized he was dressed only in his pajamas. He quickly ran back to his house on cold numb feet as the wind began to howl louder and the snowfall became heavier.
 
–Bobman

Author’s Note: I wrote this story back in the early ’80s. Stan is loosely based on the boss I had at that time at my first real job while in high school. This boss was a laid back, mild-mannered guy most of the time, until the stresses of life, and a nagging wife, coupled with the pressures of owning his own small business would build up in him until he just couldn’t bottle it up inside anymore. He would fly off into violent rampages, shouting at his wife at the top of his lungs, throwing tools and scraps of metal in all directions, and peeling out and skidding around the gravel parking lot of his business in his truck.  On one of  his mild-mannerd days, I was helping him load some parts it to his truck to deliver to a client and I noticed he had a rifle behind his seat. Naturally, my imagination did not have to work overtime to come up with this dark tale…

workplace4 workplace3 workplace workplace2

Answers

by Bob Langham

Stan stared at the certificate of achievement hanging proudly on his office wall. He could hear the roar of machinery outside his office door. He glanced toward the corner. His rifle was propped up against the metal file cabinet, the barrel aimed toward the sparkling white ceiling. The gun appeared to hold up the file cabinet, to support it and keep it from falling.

Pain shot through the bridge of Stan’s nose, causing him to pinch it between his thumb and forefinger and squeeze his eyes closed hard. He could not remember how long it had been since he had been home. Things were getting lost on that dark, slithering path, that others affectionately called Memory Lane.

He wanted to call Gina and tell her that he needed help, that his mind wasn’t right.But he opened his eyes and a memory shot through him. The phone was a mangled, distorted heap of metal, wires, and plastic fragments cowering in the corner. He had taken care of the phone this morning – it wouldn’t stop ringing.

He swiveled in his chair and opened the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. It was loaded with several boxes of shells for his rifle. One box showed signs of being rapidly ripped opened.  A few loose shells rolled around outside of the box.

Stan heard a polite gentle rap on his office door. He pulled himself out of his chair, limped to his office door and slowly pushed it open – no one.
    

He crept out into the shop. The belt sander was still running but Pete was not standing at it. Stan shook his head. If I’ve told them once, I’ve told them a thousand times, don’t leave the machinery unattended while it’s running.
Stan made his way over to the belt sander, unknowingly kicking a spent shell across the shop floor with his boot. Pete’s blood-soaked body cowered lifelessly underneath the sander. His face no longer existed. All that remained was a scarlet emptiness lathered with grains of sawdust.

Stan jabbed the Stop button, killing the sander. It moaned into quiet stillness, but not before letting loose with one last desperate creak.

Stan turned and dragged his feet over to the large bay door that faced the driveway. 
The tiny company delivery truck crouched silently. Its two front tires were flat, it hunched forward like a wounded animal. The windshield showed signs of implosion. The driver’s door was ajar. It beeped a rhythmic reminder that the keys were still in the ignition.

Andy’s rigid body was still inside the truck. One stiff hand clutched the wheel. The other rested lifelessly, palm up on the seat. The seat was littered with crumbled glass, glittering in the early morning sun, giving life to the scarlet puddle. Andy’s mouth hung open. His eyes stared blankly skyward, questioning silently.

Stan removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to erase the pain that was now shooting through his head. He stuffed his hand in his pocket and felt the crinkled scrap of paper. He pulled it out, eyeing it carefully. Stan had written it several months ago when the first terrible pain had stirred him out of a sound sleep. It had been the worst pain yet. It had been nearly 2 a.m. as he sat at the kitchen table, an overturned aspirin bottle in front of him. The words had begun to flow like blood from an open wound. It had written itself, coming from some dark, unfamiliar corner of his mind. Stan had scratched it down and had kept it with him ever since.

A Few Questions About Friends

Have you ever been in the sights of a high-powered rifle?
And how did you feel
when a bullet wearing your name
sliced the air in front of you
with fragments of laugher following close behind?

And which blow was worse?
That of the bullet,
or the realization of the familiar face
grinning sadistically behind the scope?

It had scared him so much, that he couldn’t get back to sleep that night, even after the pain had temporarily subsided.

As he held the crinkled scrap of paper now, he stared down at it, hoping it would give him some answers to why the dark corners of his mind were taking charge – or why he was doing things that the Stan of a year ago would not have even thought of, without the burden of guilt riding him.

Stan realized that he could stare at the worn scrap of paper until he died and still come away without any answers to these questions. He stuffed the crinkled paper back into his pocket. He repositioned his glasses, as the pain became just a faint tingling in the bridge of his nose. He thought about calling home to talk to Gina. He could tell her that he needed help, but realization shadowed his face – he had taken care of her this morning. She wouldn’t stop. She wanted to know what was wrong. He had no answers, so he did what he thought was the next best thing. He ended the questions.

There would be others with questions, he reminded himself. People like Pete and Andy. Suddenly, Stan gasped, as if his air supply had been cut off. What about the kids? He let out his breath slowly, as he remembered. He had taken care of the children too.

Stan spun around quickly. He thought’d he heard someone whispering his name – but he was alone. He was alone when he heard the sirens wailing out their cries on the wind and ricocheting off the shop walls. Stan cocked his ear upward as a stranger’s grin overtook his face. They would have questions of their own, and they wouldn’t be verbal. They would be in the form they knew best.

Stan casually shut the door to the delivery truck and hurried back to his office and closed the door behind him.

The achievement award was the first thing to catch his eye. The bright glare from the office lights bounced of the glass and blurred the words underneath. He thought back to when he had received it for his efforts to work with the community. He had accepted it enthusiastically. Gina had worn her black dress and she had been so proud of him. That had been before the headaches – before the darkness had shrouded his mind. Stan looked down at his desk. There were no stray papers or writing utensils. Everything was in order.

He sat down behind his desk and reached into the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. He removed a box of shells and placed it neatly on his desk. He opened the box gently with trembling hands. The shells gleamed with authority under the fluorescent lights.

Stan searched his pocket and pulled out the wrinkled scrap of paper and placed it in front of him on the desk. He read it once again. Still, it offered no answers. He slowly swiveled in his chair and grabbed his rifle. His head was a hornet’s nest of pain. He shoved the shells into his rifle and then pulled out three more boxes of the gleaming shells. He swiveled back in his chair and lined them up orderly across his desk. He flipped open the lid to the next available box. The shells winked at Stan underneath the lights as if they shared a dark secret with him.

Beyond his office door, Stan heard the scraping of tires on gravel, and dying sirens abruptly squelched by authoritative hands. He heard the rapid opening and shutting of car doors, then the pounding of heavy feet on gravel – feet that meant business and did not mess around. Another car door opened and was followed  by a familiar rhythmic beeping which sounded like the helpless cry of a wounded animal. He heard someone throw up breakfast – a door slammed and the beeping stopped. He could hear the static babble of police radios.

Stan’s nose began to bleed on his upper lip – a byproduct of the pain that ricocheted in his head. Seeing his own blood, Stan panicked and jerked the trigger of his rifle. It sent his chair back several inches. His office door gave way and surrendered to the force of the bullet. Stan continued to jerk the trigger, until the dull click of emptiness reminded him to reload.

He ripped open a new box, and in the gleam of one of the shells, he saw an ugly distortion of himself. He glanced down at the wrinkled scrap of paper glaring up at him. Blunt realization struck him. The answers came. Why couldn’t they have come sooner?

He began to cry silently, as the truth came home.

The last thing Stan knew was the KAWOP of an police issued rifle and the dull thud he felt between his eyes. Black emptiness swallowed him whole, as the external pain competed with the internal pain and then overcame it.

– Bobman