Excerpted from the novel SLAP NOIR (lettersat3ampress.org)
The King lived. The Beatles ruled. Wires tethered telephones to walls. Dials changed channels. DNA and HIV were random groups of letters. Most automobiles were American. None had CD players or car alarms. Computers were huge and impersonal. The moon remained earthling-proof. A war between the United States and the Republic of Viet Nam was dangerously hot. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dead, Lyndon Baines Johnson was bewildered, and Richard Milhous Nixon was lurking. The year may have marked a jumping off point from the comfortably familiar into the remarkably uneasy. But for many folks in the West Texas town of Achilles, 1966 would be remembered, not for its politics, culture, or science, but for a chain of events that began during the darkest hours of a Sunday morning.
2:59 A.M. JULY 31st 1966
John “Monkey” Gibbons waved his apron in the air with reckless abandon. He opened the doors and windows of The Dixie Maid Spudnut Shop. The smoke quickly cleared. Monkey could not believe that on the last shift of his six-month employment as the overnight manager, he had burned his first batch of spudnuts. The six-foot-two, thin as a rail, twenty-year- old had been thinking ahead to this afternoon’s drive to Austin. Tomorrow he would pre-enroll at the University of Texas. His work in the oppressive heat of the oil patch and the kitchen of The Dixie Maid inspired Monkey to seek a higher education. That, and the need for a draft deferment.
Six blocks away, the blurry sepia tone of the former Mrs. Blackstock’s face corresponded with Police Chief Brady Blackstock’s mood. Chief Blackstock created the effect by staring through a glass of amber liquid at the last known photo of the long gone woman. Willing his bulk up from his couch, he wadded the photo into a ball and walked through the kitchen. Insects working the night shift lurked in the backyard just beyond the screen door. He opened it anyway. The photo came to rest in a pile of scrap metal surrounded by sticker-burrs. Blackstock entertained one thought only: It’s time!
Halfway across town, Big Jack Bateman failed to identify the sound of his own head colliding with the bottom of the Texaco sign. He was more concerned with the impossible hugeness of his fingers as he struggled to insert the key into the door of his pick-up. The set of keys, along with the two items clutched awkwardly in his left hand, fell into darkness. His unlit cigar remained in his mouth. He spotted the keys in a pool of liquid dimly reflecting the sign, still swaying from its encounter with his cranium. The slick liquid made no attempt to support his foot. When he fell, his butt initiated a minor tsunami, spreading the pool across the asphalt driveway. A squadron of beetles took flight. With considerable effort, he crawled under the old Chevy. Only twice did he bang his head. Splotches of gasoline joined the dark liquid on the front of his shirt. When he managed to return to an upright position, he had the two items, but not his keys. Can’t open door, probably can’t drive. As if on command, a taxi appeared from out of nowhere.
Nearby, a small figure moved cautiously from one hiding place to another. From a block away, the headlights of the slow-moving taxi stretched the shadow of eighth grader Rachel Hull across a yellowish-brown lawn. She ran toward darkness. Reaching out from nowhere, the tentacle of a rose bush entangled her backpack. Panic! Only momentarily. A thorn pricked her hand. Then she was free. I wish Scrappy would stop barking his fool head off. Mr. Green will wake up and look out his window. Would he see what people around town called “the definition of cute?” Right now the auburn-haired teen was the definition of terrified. Even with the temperature at ninety degrees, Rachel shivered. She took no notice of the trickle from the rose-wound as it brought new life to the stains on her hands. Her only thought was to get back to her house.
Leon Guthrie slowed his cab. He liked what he saw...wide, flat, empty roads….except for a tumbling tumbleweed. At 3:06 on this dusty Sunday morning, a thought caught him off-guard. I’m damn proud to be a Texan and not some kind’a communist or other foreigner.
Quick as a snake’s tongue, a hunting knife appeared from a makeshift holster in his boot. Leon parted his lips to reveal stalactites and stalagmites of black and yellow, punctuated by random vacancies where even decay was a forgotten interloper.
He used the blade to remove an offending morsel lodged between molars. For three months he had transported the late, lost, lonely and intoxicated to their destinations in this oil town of 100 Churches and 200 Honky Tonks. Thirsty work. Scooping up a pint of Old Crow from under the front seat, he prepared to take only his second, or maybe third, slug of the night. Instead, Leon hit the brakes. With wild, widening eyes he stared at something above the front of his cab.
When Leon pulled forward, he failed to see Big Jack Bateman holding items in each hand, waving for Leon to stop. The big man ran -- or rather, shuffled toward the cab. Too late. Still unaware of the man’s presence, Leon drove away, leaving Bateman stranded beneath the omen that caused Leon’s concern...a woman with a head the size of a Buick. She said, “Time for a Change.” At least, that’s what the five-foot letters on the billboard said. In this frozen moment of her existence, the baby powder she promoted kept her smiling, even while changing a diaper.
At 1307 West Tenth Street, Mayor Tommy Woods ran his hand through his wavy black hair as he peeked through the Venetian Blinds. The secretaries at City hall said he had the finest pompadour since James Dean’s.
Unable to read the hands on his watch, he moved near the standing lamp with the pineapple shaped shade: 3:09!
Damn that driver! Why doesn’t somebody shut up that yapping dog? Tommy tried to recall why he had allowed Linda Sanchez to lure him to her house. True, it had seemed like a great idea until he realized he had to get his car from the Red Rooster Inn and get home before his wife woke up.
Several thoughts battled for supremacy in the Mayor’s agitated brain. Here’s what won: I risked everything for a few hours with a body that transforms god-fearing men into mindless monkeys. Deja voodoo, deja-pure-delux-devil’s-voodoo. This kind of harmless dalliance being blown out of proportion is what ruined things in Amarillo. If I could just sell the damn dealership and move to Dallas in style, I could run with the big dogs. But if Sanchez causes a scandal...nasty divorce, alimony, the whole nine yards...Why do women always make life more complicated than it has to be?
Two houses down, Bob and Molly Green slept soundly in the bed they had shared for fifty years. The M1911 Colt .45 pistol under Bob’s pillow brought him pleasant dreams.
Leon decided to have one more little sip to steady his nerves. Something moved across a lawn. A little girl? A cat? Then Leon finally saw him – the big man waving frantically. The guns in his hands panicked Leon. He dropped his bottle. His cab hopped over the curb and slammed into a chinaberry tree. The dry, multicolored berries cascaded down on Leon’s windshield like a hailstorm from the mind of Walt Disney. The collision caused his radio to come on at full volume with Roger Miller singing:
“Man of means, by no means—King of the Road”
Under other circumstances, Leon would have loved to hear that song.
The racket brought the Mayor back to the window. Who the hell is the big man banging on Bob Green’s door? Oh, no! That can’t be.... Did he drop something? A gun! Why does everything bad always happen to me?
Molly Green couldn’t shake off the sleep. She felt the familiar touch of her husband’s hand. “Oh Bob, it’s late honey bear.” She knew she had put on some pounds, but Molly still saw herself as sexy, in a wholesome Christian sort of way, and she felt Bob did too. Then she saw Bob was merely getting his pistol. Is someone breaking into our house?
Bob flipped off the safety and hollered at his dog. “Quit, Scrappy!” What kind of madman turns up his radio when robbing a home? Well, this thug picked the wrong hombre to mess with. Bob opened the door and aimed his pistol. The big man on the porch stared at him wide-eyed, his shirt covered in blood. “All dead,” were the blood-covered man’s last words. When he raised his gun to point back where he had come from, Bob panicked and shot the big man in the head.
Leon got out of his cab and started to cross the street. He froze when the geezer in his pajamas shot the big man with the gun on his front porch. Almost immediately after the shot, the world exploded. Suddenly, this moved to number one on the list of scariest moments in Leon’s life. The excruciating light came in waves. He thought he saw smoke. Then nothing. Leon tried to think. Thinking, never his strength, was even tougher when blind and deaf.
The see-through nightgown revealing the eyeball-popping figure of Linda Sanchez may have been the only one in town. But Mayor Tommy Woods didn’t even notice it, or what it so slightly covered. Just as she walked into the living room, the black of night turned bright hot yellow.
Linda wasn’t sure if she heard the two booms before or after the front window shattered. All she was certain about was the Mayor’s turning and looking at her with the eyes of a trapped rodent, and then throwing up all over her mother’s new carpet. Can I get it cleaned before Momma gets back? What was I thinking when I took this pompous pig home with me? Been drinking more than thinking.
Leon’s vision returned in tiny increments. He could make out his cab outlined by a murky cloud. Then he saw the big man sprawled across the geezer’s porch. Then came police cars racing through the smoke. His hearing kicked back in. The ringing in his ears competed with the shrieking of sirens.
Years of conditioning forced him to run. Three burly officers caught him in an alley and convinced him he had made the wrong move.
Tricia Polanski closed the back door as quietly as possible. She tiptoed through the house without disturbing her parents. The sudden flash of light made her jump. Then thunder? No, the unmistakable roar of heartbreak. The flow of her tears followed the ruts formed by the scars on her otherwise flawless face. She prayed no one had been hurt. Then, after scurrying to her bedroom and crawling between the sheets, she thought about Claude Hull for maybe the thousandth time that night.
Half blinded by the flash from the explosion, Bob Green shook his head to clear the ringing in his ears. Did I really shoot somebody? When Molly touched him from behind he fired his pistol wildly, barely missing his terrified wife. The shot hit the javelina head mounted on the wall, sending it crashing to the floor. Bob joined it there when the shock of almost killing Molly triggered a heart attack.
Twenty-year-old Cole Bateman, son of Big Jack Bateman, was parked a few blocks north of the fire at Hull’s Texaco. Even those who feared him agreed that Cole was handsome enough to be a movie star. At that moment, “zombie” was a more accurate description. He stared wide-eyed and trance-like, mesmerized by the reflection on the hood of his shiny new Corvette. Cole saw Pterodactyls escaping from their human captors to soar again, mocking the modern and proving that dinosaurs remained the most powerful creatures on the planet. What would it be like to hunt a Pterodactyl? Or would it be hunting me? Either way, what truth would be revealed in the eyes of the creature?
A hunk of red-hot metal launched from the inferno just missed his windshield, awakening him from his reverie. Cole pondered the word “Armageddon” and wondered if it could be appropriately applied to what was happening around him.
He slumped down in his car seat and watched a blue, late model Buick emerge from the smoke and speed past him.
Using both hands to tap a beat on his steering wheel, he joined the popping and the booming of the burning and the zooming as a rhythmical counterpoint to the screaming and the howling of the incessant sirens. Cole debated with himself whether the sounds were more jazz-like or rock ‘n’ roll. He glanced in his rearview to see if “official” vehicles were approaching. Instead, the last thing he expected to see appeared clearly the reflection. He moved the index finger of his right hand to the corner of his right eye and wiped away the solitary teardrop.
Rachel Hull covered her ears. With the explosion, some sort of disturbance over at the Green’s, and the crashed taxi in Mrs. Morgan’s front yard, nobody noticed Rachel running to her house next door. A side window was unlocked. Just as she started to climb in, two huge hands lifted her with ease. Before she could scream one of the hands covered her mouth. She looked wide-eyed at her big brother Claude. What’s he doing up this late? Fully dressed?
Staring at the little blue dress with the sunflowers made Claude Hull’s tired eyes grow sadder. He wished the dark smears were icing from a cake. He wished he could calm her quavering hands. He wondered why their father, Frank Hull, wasn’t home yet. Only after he set her down on the sofa with the gentleness reserved for a giant, did she allow herself to cry. Hugging her backpack like it—not she—was the frightened child, Rachel peered up into two tunnels emitting deep blue, unfathomable light. Riding on the soft glow from her brother’s eyes was a silent and ancient lullaby. She knew Claude wouldn’t say anything. He hadn’t in years.
SLAP NOIR is available through lettersat3ampress.org, Amazon and Book People in Austin
James BigBoy Medlin © 2016
James BigBoy Medlin is a writer who lives in Silver City, New Mexico.