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Though it sounded biblical, the town of Bethlehem, Texas has strayed far from Christian ways long ago. The town was nothing more than spittle on a map and as time had progressed the town had faded from commonplace into the annals of folklore. It was as rough and tumble a town as you’d find in the western wasteland of Texas. Needless to say, nobody ever happened upon Bethlehem. It was the sort of place you went to if you never wanted to be found again. There were no immaculate conceptions, or innocent infants in mangers, or frankincense and myrrh (whatever the hell that was).
As unusual as it was for three men to search out the fabled town of Bethlehem, the wise guys’ attire was just as out-of-place. The two men working the horses to the bone wore matching outfits: black suits, thin neckties, and dusty bowler hats. One of them was heavyset, nearing two hundred and fifty pounds. The other was as slender as they came. The third wise guy lay slumped on the back of Skinny’s horse, his hands and feet bound with a heavy rope, and his bowler hat long gone.
The ponies tramped past the welcome sign of Bethlehem and into the dusty streets. The only light present was the overwhelming luminescence of the damn star that hovered above. No gas lamps glimmered, no candles flickered in windows. The town was dead.
The ponies came to a stop and the hefty man grabbed the bound form off his comrade’s horse. With one grunt and shove the third of their party landed in the dirty street.
“Another fine mess you’ve gotten us into,” said the skinny man.
The bound man came to, flickering his eyelids, shaking the shock from his system. His throat was dry from days in the desert, but he croaked a dry retort. “Jack? Please don’t do this. Ginsey?”
The heavy man said, “You know I never liked the name Ginsey, Bill. I’m fine with Allen, or Ginsberg, or Allen Ginsberg. But, calling me Ginsey when I’ve firmly asked you not to is insulting, Bill.”
“And you know I do not prefer the name Bill. It’s William,” said the man in the streets. He shot his glance over to the skinny man, Jack. “So what? You’re just going to leave me here in the streets?”
“You’ll like it, William,” said Jack. “It’s your kind of place. Meanwhile, we’ll be on the road.”
“I thought we were all heading to Mexico,” said William, tears welling.
“Kerouac and I are headed to Mexico,” said Ginsberg. “We don’t have much of a choice, thanks to you. We have to hide. You need to just disappear.”
“The fuck I do,” spit William. “We’re a team.”
The two men snatched their respective reins and began steering the horses back towards the desert. William, still with tied wrists and ankles, wriggled along the dusty street like a cocoon birthing a butterfly. He shouted, though it was nothing coherent.
Allen turned his pony around and held a finger to his mouth. “Shhhh! It’s not real polite to wake the neighbors, William. That’s not how you make first impressions.”
The other pony turned to face the struggling William. Jack said, “A word of advice, William: get off the shit. You get that stuff out of your system and never put any back in and you might have yourself a pleasant life.”
William watched as Jack and Allen rode away. He watched as their forms shrunk until they were nothing more than the size of ants. And he watched as the faded away. His stomach ached with anxiety. Pangs of stress raced through his system. And despite that his hands were bound, he could feel them violently tremble. Damn he needed a fix; that was the only way to deal with the current predicament.
As soon as the thought hit him, William passed out from exhaustion and the world dissolved around him.
He awoke in a cold sweat with the sensation of a million cockroaches running over his skin. He jolted upright and brought his hands to his face. He fingered his jaw line and realized he was in desperate need of a shave. He stopped. Shave, he thought. Holy shit! His hands were untied and he was…in a bed.
William took in the surroundings. He was positioned on a cot in what looked like a barn. Hay was strewn about and a miasma of manure and urine wafted past his nose. Sun streamed in through cracks and crevices. And there was an incessant banging in the background. Where the hell was he? Had it all just been a dream. Maybe, Jack and Ginsey were waiting with coffee and ganja.
He stood from the cot and examined himself. He was still wearing his black suit and narrow tie, but his shoes and socks had been removed. He stepped across the dirt-bottom barn floor and the heat from the ground sizzled his feet. He tiptoed to a shadowy spot and worked to hop-scotch across the barn in the shadows as he pursued the source of the banging.
As he leapfrogged through the shadows, he was oddly surprised that he found no animals in any of the stables. No cows, horses, chickens. That made the smells of feces and piddle all the more perplexing. William didn’t waste too much time on the oddity, primarily because he was hypnotized by the rhythmic banging. With each beat a vision became clearer. First it was a hammer. Then he saw the hammer smashing the contents of a prescription bottle. Then he saw a fist slapping the table and sliding the powder into an envelope. The thought made him salivate and gave him an erection.
Past the stables, William found a small work area. There was indeed a man working at a table. On the table was what looked like a large, wooden box. The burly man, twice the size of Allen Ginsberg, was hammering away. Cautiously William approached.
“Excuse me,” he said softly.
“Holy son of a honky,” the man screamed, spinning on William, his hammer raised above his head.
The two exchanged glances – William’s was pure terror, Mr. Burly’s was confusion.
“Well, hell friend,” the man said, with an overwhelming twang. “You cain’t sneak up on folks like that. I ain’t much for violence, but I coulda accidentally smashed your melon in with this here hammer. Don’t worry, I’d felt bad about it.”
William was still working to reclaim his breathing function. That Joan Vollmer bitch had given him a scare with that whole William Tell thing back in the day. He’d not breathed right for a year after that.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
The burly man tossed the hammer down to the table and wrapped William in a bear hug embrace. “Don’t you worry about it, friend. Ain’t nothin’ to be sorry for. I just don’t want to hurt you. Not too sure what brought you into Bethlehem. It’s usually not anything good. But, like everyone who stumbles into our town, you’re a friend.”
William’s head was swimming. In the most fantastical of trips, nothing he’d experienced had been quite like this.
“What’s your name, friend?”
“William,” he said, feeling the words exiting his maw outside his control.
“Well, William, most people ‘round here call me Mr. Ives. I think that’s so impersonal. You can call me Burl, got it?”
William, once again outside of his control, felt his head nod.
“Now I’ll fix you up some eggs and some bacon, if you like. You look like you could use a good meal. Right now, though, I gotta finish this job. I’m on a deadline.”
William inched towards the table and the box in order to catch a quick glimpse at what the man was working on. He instantly regretted it. In the box was a macabre vision that force bile to creep up William’s throat.
The box was a coffin that housed the corpse of a man, a fairly young and muscular lad. What Burl was hammering was much darker than the image of a corpse. The big man was hammering the horns of a mighty steer into the head of the dead man.
Now, William was sure he was most certainly, as the kids said, tripping balls.
Seeing that the stranger was about to vomit all over his masterpiece, Burl aided William to the ground.
“Breathe deep, friend. Ain’t nothin’ to be worried about! It was his last request.”
“Who requests something like that?”
“Well, we folks around here still got imagination. Seems the rest of the world has moved on.”
Seeing William’s confusion, Burl elaborated:
“See, when one of ours passes, we like to decorate the corpse. Makes it that much more festive. There was this ol’ boy who passed of cholera a while back. That fella was obsessed with these things called jackalopes. You know what a jackalope is, right? Rabbit with antlers. Well, he wanted antlers attached to his forehead when he passed. Bein’ the undertaker and all, who was I to say no?”
“And this fellow?” asked William, turning green.
“Well, this fella used to get razzed all the damn time. He used to travel into New Mexico and those boys there would joke on him for bein’ from Texas. They’d always say ‘they’s only two things from Texas – steers and queers, and we don’t see no goddamn horns.’ So he passes of typhoid and asks me to find some steer horns. Wants his body shipped into Santa Fe so he gets the last laugh.”
William nodded. As perverse as it was, it did make sense through a certain eye. “Where’s the rest of the steer?”
“Smothered and chunked, I s’pose. We try to use up ever last scrap ‘round here.”
“I see,” said William. A sense of ease settled like a fog around him. If he wasn’t tripping, then Jack and Alan had indeed left him to rot in this godforsaken town. He knew in that instant that he needed to make a run for it. “Mr. Ives – Burl – I’m grateful for all you’ve done. I appreciate the offer for bacon and eggs. It’s beyond generous. However, what I truly need is a horse. And some Benzydrine.”
“Ain’t never heard of bennzy-dream. And, sadly, I ain’t got no horse. One came through here yesterday. The thing just sort of wandered around town.”
“Well, where is it now?”
“Well, it’s in pieces back in the work shed. Ol’ man Gustefson always wanted be hung like a horse…”
Burl’s words repulsed William, but he was still intrigued and wanted to hear more. Unfortunately for his ears, the undertaker’s words were drowned out by the sound of hell riding in. Gunshots, yelling, and the thunderous sounds of giant horses drowned out all that was around.
“William,” said Burl, swapping the niceties for caution, “you’d better hide yourself. Sounds like Shemp’s boys are back.”