Tuesday, March 30, 2010

NYUCK, NYUCK (part two)

The steeds trampled the earth beneath them. Their snorting sent violent clouds of haze into their wake. Each was larger than horses should be allowed to grow – more like Babe, Paul Bunyon’s big, blue ox. The sheer size of the beasts made their riders, at a distance, appear to be nothing more than dwarfs.

William watched through the cracks of the barn wall, his feet sizzling on the scorched earth beneath him. They were beginning to smell like bacon. Still, he couldn’t pull his eyes away from the scene unfolding in the streets. He bit into his lower lip, hard enough to draw blood, and kept his attention.

Out on the streets none of the residents of Bethlehem could be seen. Surely there were other residents here beside Burl Ives. The riders hadn’t reached the main strip that ran through the town, and already the landscape looked like chaotic vomit: a horse trough bubbled and boiled under the sun’s heat, several windows shattered as poorly aimed bullets burst through them, and piles of horse manure ignited, courtesy of the heated soil.

It was like every version of Armageddon William had ever heard of.

The horses rampaged into the main strip of Bethlehem; a hefty tumbleweed of fog ensconced them. As the dust settled, William caught glimpse of the men. They were odd and seemed out of place – though everything seemed out of place in this Sartre hell.

Both men were about the same height and each wore matching outfits – white button-up shirts that had yellowed over the years, turd-brown pants, and red suspenders. Neither man wore hats, but each wore a hefty belt that prominently featured two holstered pistols.

One of the men was grayer than he other, his skin thick and ashy. His hair was fashioned in an odd sort of way, as if someone had placed a bowl on his head and cut everything that hung past the rim. He also had a Hitler-like fashioned mustache that quivered in the warm breeze.
The other had a peachier complexion, like blood still flowed beneath his skin. His hair was auburn and stuck upright in crazed tendrils. One of William’s friends In New York had referred to a similar hairstyle as a “Jew-fro”.

A third man rode with them. Well, not so much rode as he was dragged. Two thick ropes were attached to the coffin that dragged behind the men. Inside the box, William could barely see, was a fellow that looked vaguely similar to the Hitler wannabe, sans mustache. The corpse had been dead for a bit – the eyes had been devoured by crows and the cheeks sunken in like fleshy craters. Looking at the corpse, William felt an odd connection, like he had been responsible for the man’s death.

That’s impossible, he thought. I was with Jack and Allen. That guy’s not a beat.

“Burroughs!” shouted the Hitler look-a-like. “Get your ass out here!”

“We ain’t got nobody named Burroughs here,” said a voice. William couldn’t see the owner, but instantly knew it was Burl. “Now you boys get on out of here. I ain’t lookin’ for no trouble.”

“Big Daddy, we don’t want no trouble from you. We just want Burroughs.”

“And, I b’lieve I just said, I they ain’t nobody named Burroughs here in town. Don’t try to muscle me around, Moe.”

The chills of withdrawal washed over William’s body. He felt thousands, nay millions, of spiders running across his skin. He felt the cool sweat rushing down his head. He looked down at his hands and saw them tremble. At that moment, William realized these were not symptoms of his withdrawal. Rather they were signs of pure terror. What were the odds that there was another person named Burroughs in this town? Even if it was spelled Burrows.

William returned his gaze to the cracks in the barn wall. Burl Ives came into view, approaching the two riders as if he was immune to fear and threats.

Jew-fro leapt off his horse and jabbed the hefty undertaker in the chest. “Lookee here, see. We know there’s a knucklehead named Burroughs here somewhere. We followed tracks that went this way.”

“Those tracks could have been made by anybody,” Burl said.

“They could’ve been made by anyone,” the man named Moe said, “but we know they came from Burroughs. Who do you think you’re talking to, Big Daddy? Do you really think Howard, Fine, and Howard are a bunch of maroons.”

Burl swallowed back a verbal jab. He’d always considered them stooges more so than maroons.

“And what do ya want with this guy Burroughs? What’d he do?” asked the undertaker.

“What’d he do?” asked Moe. He turned to his comrade. “Larry, the guy wonders what Burroughs did.”

“If he don’t know,” said Larry, “then he must be blind.”

Moe sauntered over to Burl. “You blind, Big Daddy?”

“Not last I checked. No sir.”

With deft, speed-of-light moves, Larry brought his index finger and middle finger, like a frog gig, and jabbed them into Burl’s eyes. The action wasn’t strong enough to gouge out the eyeballs, but Burl did drop to his knees and rubbed his eyes furiously.

“He’s blind now, Moe,” cackled Larry. “Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.”

“Well since he’s blind,” said Moe to Larry, “I guess I better describe the scene. Y’see, this kid, Burroughs, he decides to up and shoot ol’ Shemp back here. He’s the one wearing the wooden kimono back there.”

Burl spoke, but his tone had turned somber. “I’m sorry for your loss. But they ain’t no Burroughs here.”

“You play your games, Big Daddy, and we’ll keep playing ours. Nobody happens upon Bethlehem my accident. This is the place you go to die. For this Burroughs fellow, we’re hoping to expedite that a bit. You be sure to let him know that. We’re going to bury brother Shemp and then we’ll be back.”

“And with Shemp out of the picture,” said Larry, “he’ll be dealing with brother Curly! Big Daddy, you want to make damn sure you’re out of the way when we get back.”

Not Curly, thought William, though he was unsure why. How did he know these people.

The stooges – or maroons – mounted their horses and exited the town in a thunderous rumbling.

Wiping the grit from his eyes, Burl headed back towards the barn. The childlike energy that he’d had minutes ago had all but faded. Now, he maintained a solemn and somber stance like every undertaker William had ever known (which wasn’t many).

With the action ended, William turned his attention to other things. Like his feet. The things hurt like a sumbitch (as that rat bastard, Ginsey, would have said). They smelled of bacon fat sizzling in a skillet and felt like a thousand scorpion stings. How he’d not noticed the severity prior was beyond him. This cursed scorched earth was literally cooking him. He could hear the hiss of searing flesh.

He leapt away from the barn wall and climbed onto the cot he’d found himself on when he slipped back into consciousness. The reprieve was temporary. He heard a spring door slap a door frame.

“William!” boomed Burl’s voice.

William did not answer, but his heart actually stopped a beat.

“William! Get on out here now.”

As well meaning as Burl seemed, William knew he should heed the request. The large man was capable of hammering steer horns into a man’s head (granted the task would have been much more difficult if the man had been alive), surely he’d have no trouble crushing him like the proverbial bug.

The first step was painful as the earth bit his feet. He jumped from shadowy spot to shadowy spot, all the while singing a frantic chorus of “fucks”.

“Is your name Burroughs?” Burl asked, not waiting for William to reach him.

This was a clustered mess. Should he say “no”, which he was inclined to do, then what would it mean for Burl? Would those boys actually return and gouge out his eyes like melon balls? Could he live with that?

Of course, answering “yes” was certain to deter his little breathing habit.

He opted to avoid the question completely and just offered a shrug.

“You are Burroughs, ain’t ye?”

“I suppose I am,” William said.

“Look, besides shooting Shemp, which was the dumbest of the dumb ideas a person could have, I don’t know what you did to piss them boys off. You gotta leave, mister. I can’t get involved with the likes of them…or you. Heckfire and tarnation is what’s comin’.”

William felt a sinking sensation inside, like his bowels were made of quicksand. He’d managed to somehow piss off his two best friends, who’d fed him to this hellhole. Now, the first person he’d met he’d managed to piss off. More impressively, he’s managed to piss him off without doing a goddamn thing.

“Here’s the thing, Mr. Ives. I don’t know what I did. There’s a vague familiarity when I noticed them out there, but I can’t remember them. I certainly feel I would be incapable of killing someone. Seems, I’d maintain a certain recall of that.”

“You talk real fancy,” said Burl. It was the first time William could make out actual spite. “Since you’re kind of fancy smart, answer me this: how’s a person do something and not remember it? You got that amnesty?”

“I believe it’s called amnesia,” answered William. “And to answer your question, well as smart as I am, I’m only capable of utilizing thirty percent of my brain function. The other seventy percent is a muddled mess, I’m afraid. You see, Mr. Ives, I’m an experimenter. Those experiments have left craters in my brain, and those craters are filled with lakes of absinthe, rapids of laudanum, and fog clouds of ether.”

He knew it would sound impressive to the undertaker. Hell, it sounded impressive to him. Still, he knew he was no goddamn “experimenter”. He was a fucking junkie and he knew it. Just the mention of the word “ether” caused him to salivate and twitch. Damn, he needed a fix, stat!

Screw Jack and Allen, he thought. Those two beats were probably neck deep in fresh sticky buds down Mexico way.

“I don’t understand much of that,” said Burl. “I ain’t never heard of ‘loud anum’ or ‘absent’. You talk fancy, but use made-up words. Earlier I remember you askin’ for some benzy dream. Regardless, I don’t want to get messed up with them Fine boys. Nor do I want to get messed up with you and your strange addictions. Now, get on, boy.”

Great, William thought, I’ve been downgraded from mister to boy.

“Where am I supposed to go?”

“Far the hell away, I’d reckon.”

“And how am I to get far the hell anywhere? You said there are no horses.”

“Those two things growin’ out your hips ain’t celery stalks boy.”

“Well then may I at least beg you for a pair of shoes or boots? My feet are frying as it is.”

“That damned star does play hell on the soil here. We can’t grow nothin’ in it,” said Burl matter-of-factly. “Shines all night and all day. The ground’ll scorch the skin right off you, if ye ain’t careful. Sadly, I ain’t got no shoes I can spare. Just the boots I’m wearin’ and the nice ones I wear to church.”

“That will make walking all the more difficult,” muttered William.

“You could try runnin’. I reckon the faster you move the less time your feet’ll be on the ground. Now I must bid you good day. I wish I could do more for ye, but I can’t.”

Burl seized William with his two massive paws and tossed him out into the streets of Bethlehem. So much for thinking of him as the Good Samaritan. As he hit the street his cheek sizzled from the heat.

“That smarts,” he said, not really to anyone.

Taking Burl’s advice, he broke into a sprint and raced towards the wastelands that lay just outside of town. He figured there really wasn’t any other choice.

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