|Vernal Equinox 2001|
Lester Thees has worked as a welder, driving instructor, office manager, truck driver, private investigator, and house painter. He spent a year in college, a year in a Catholic Seminary, and many years in the Land of the Lotus Eaters. He began writing after a friend cornered him in a dark parking lot and forced him to admit what he really wanted to do with his life.
He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Ellen, and their cat, Rita. His fiction has appeared in over two dozen print and online publications, including CEMETERY SONATA VOLUME II, NOT ONE OF US, NIGHT TERRORS, OUTER DARKNESS, and VAMPIRE DAN's STORY EMPORIUM, SHADOW FEAST, GATHERING DARKNESS, CRIMSON, and GENRE ZONE. He will have a story in the upcoming anthology, NEW TRADITIONS IN TERROR, edited by Bill Purcell, and his story FLASH, which first appeared in MINDMARES MAGAZINE, was given honorable mention in the thirteenth annual edition of YEAR’S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.
What I'm getting at is that chance and circumstance play such a large part in our lives, that sometimes I get the feeling that any control we think we have over anything is just illusion. That what happened that summer night while the bazaar was in full swing was the result of thousands of years of prologue. Or maybe just because Eddy McCoy was an asshole.
Abraham Lincoln's brains got blown all over his private box at Ford's Theater, ninety years to the day that I came into this world. Okay, maybe I stretch that interdependence thing a little tight.
That Saturday night, St. Anthony's bazaar was the biggest thing going in town. It may have been the Summer of Love out in San Francisco, but to the vast majority of us in Warwick, a hunk of fried dough and a couple cans of Narragansett was partying. Marijuana was something for the drugged-out freaks of Haight- Ashbury or the hookah sucking heathens of Marrakech, and Beach Boys LPs was the closest we came to Rock N Roll. Naturally, all sorts of illicit activities went on in the backseats of Ramblers and behind drawn drapes, but if nobody talked about it out loud, it wasn't really happening. So the bazaar was the place to be, and the place to be seen.
Vinny Anndriolli and I got dropped off there by his father at around eight PM, which was fashionably late in our circle. Ten or twelve game tents were set up to form a half-assed arcade in the parking lot, and we strolled down the center, trying to look bored. The usual bunch of Men's Club guys manned the booths, the competition hot and heavy for the worst carnival barker spiel.
We stopped at the tent where Al DelVeccio was working and slapped our dimes down on our lucky numbers. Mr. D. spun the big white wooden wheel, spouting the ritual patter, while Vinny and I turned our backs to make faces and mouth along with him: Round 'n round she goes, etcetera, etcetera. The wheel clicked to a stop, and Mr. D. sang out, "A Weeener, folks! Yes, we got a weeener!"
I glanced back and saw that the rubber pointer was stuck between the two silver nails bracketing number seven. My number. I nearly lost my head and skyrocketed right out of my P. F. Flyers, but caught myself in time to flash the kind of smile I hoped would convey a tired cynicism. As if I'd won and lost fortunes with Frank and Dino at the Vegas tables, and could barely be bothered picking out a crummy church game prize. My eyes traveled the shelves, and it was all I could do to keep myself from climbing onto the number board for a closer look at what I figured for thousands of dollars worth of treasures. I'd narrowed the field down to two items - a four band portable radio and a Dick Webber autographed bowling ball - when Mr. Delveccio leaned over the counter and said, "C'mon, Matt choose something, people are waiting to play. A ten cent winner gets you anything on the bottom shelf."
Bottom shelf! That's where they kept all the crap! Of course I didn't say that; Al Delveccio had a big mouth and would be sure to tell my mother what an embarrassment her kid was. He worked at the same factory that my father had, was standing right next to him the day the milling machine with the disconnected safety bar pulled my dad in and ground him into something resembling raw hamburger meat. And during the three years following my father's death, Mr. D. had gotten into the habit of keeping an eye on me. Which wouldn't have been so bad if his nose didn't have a tendency to follow his eye into my business.
But the stuff down there was junk: plastic banana pens, stuffed dice, those troll dolls with the long purple hair that even grammar school girls considered passé. I was about to settle for one of those fake spy glasses that gave you a 3D view of the Grand Canyon or Hoover Dam, when Vinny started tugging on my tee shirt like he was trying to rip it off my back.
"Cigars," he whispered loud enough for the dart throwers popping balloons at the next booth to hear. "They got cigars over at the end. Get one of them."
Vinny was that kind of guy. He kibitzed at cards, pointed out what you should get in the lunch line, authored everybody's Christmas list, and had strong opinions on the wisest way to spend the Ski-ball coupons at Riverside Amusement Park. It was pretty annoying, but I figured it had something to do with the fact that his old man hadn't kept a job for more than a month since I'd known him. Which probably had something to do with the pint of Old Mr. Boston his father had snuggled between his legs when he drove us to the bazaar that night.
I could tell Mr. Delveccio was getting antsy - he'd obviously heard Vinny and must've been worried what to do if I insisted on the cigars - and a crowd of eager gamblers was forming behind us, coins clinking in their hands, waiting to play. Like my dad, Mr. D. was more at home dealing with a milling machine, than a milling mass of customers, and tiny beads of perspiration began running along the creases of his brow. It occurred to me that I might be blamed if Al had a stroke, and my forehead started production on its own sympathetic sweat. Things were getting pretty tense, considering such paltry stakes, when Sergeant Opyzinski of Warwick's Finest waddled over to put Mr. D. out of his misery.
"It's okay, Al," the cop said. "He won fair and square, so give the man his cigar. Matter of fact, let his buddy have one, too. Teach 'em both a lesson." Opyzinski had the same gleeful look on his big, round face that he had the time he caught Vinny and me skipping school. It seemed to give him a real thrill to make people squirm.
Now, back in those more innocent, ignorant times, adults weren't exactly serving stogies with the breakfast Tang, but it was considered healthy for kids to get deathly ill from tobacco experimentation. It didn't take a genius to figure out what was bouncing around inside the Sergeant's otherwise empty head: it would make his night to know we were puking in the bushes behind the church. The truth was, I didn't even want the dirty thing, but my good pal Vinny had backed the whole bunch of us into a corner. The only thing I could do was mutter a thank you as I grabbed the cigar from Mr. Delveccio's outstretched hand, and hope like hell my mother didn't get too mad when Mr. D. told her. Which was like wishing she wouldn't mind if I dropped my pants and mooned Al Delveccio, the cop, and the whole curious crowd. Vinny took his vicariously- won prize like he was accepting the Academy Award, and I hustled him out of there before he started taking curtain-calls.
We made our way around the side of the church where the food tents were situated. I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting Opyzinski to change his mind and book us for underage possession of tobacco with intent to smoke. Vinny sauntered along like King Farouk with the cellophane wrapped cylinder sticking out of his mouth. I was too agitated to consider eating anything - the greasy scent of Italian sausage and sugary vapors from the cotton candy turning my stomach - so I led the way to the grassy area behind the church where the rides were set up. There was something about seeing the expression of abject terror on the rider's faces that made me glad that I was too chicken to go on anything but the merry-go-round.
It was the familiar collection of spinning, twirling, gut-churning machinery that's snuck into town in the middle of the night and assembled before dawn. The workmen preferred to perform their labors away from the prying eyes of those foolish enough to allow themselves to be strapped onto the rusted-out juggernauts. And of course there was the regular rabble of roustabouts running the rides, guys who probably worked as extras in prison movies in the off season. Vinny headed straight for the ticket booth. I tagged along to talk him out of going on anything that actually had parts flying off. It was while we were in line that Eddy Buttcheeks McCoy showed up, and another one of those cosmic connections occurred.
Eddy looked a lot like a squirrel with a mouth full of acorns. Or a chipmunk carrying a winter's worth of food in his face. Perhaps a bullfrog inflating his skin-sack for a colossal croak. But it was the discharge that flowed constantly from the hole between those big, round cheeks of his that had earned him his nickname.
"Hey, assholes," he greeted us, "How's it hangin' ?"
I gave him a nod and the best smile I could force. Vinny took it as a serious question and gave the requisite answer, "A little to the left", and hawked up what he considered a manly laugh. I studied Eddy, trying to figure out what he wanted. He was two years older and treated us like uninteresting scenery, except on the rare occasions he deigned to notice we needed a good ass-kicking. Which he'd administer while calling us every foul name known to man, and a couple he must've made up. I still carry a small scar above my left eyebrow from one of those beatings.
"So what the fuck's that thing in yer mouth?" he asked Vinny. "Looks like a goddamn dog turd."
Vinny squared his shoulders and said, "It's a cigar. Matt has one too. He won them."
Buttcheeks shook his head disgustedly. "I know it's a fuckin' cigar, you dumb shit. My brother smoked 'em all the time. What I wanna know is are you gonna stoke up the sonofabitch, or are you just a pair of pussies?"
It was then that I understood what Eddy was after. His brother, Ralph, became a war hero when a prostitute stabbed him to death in a Saigon brothel, and Buttcheeks had gotten it into his head that his brother had been the model of American Manhood. So, if Ralph had smoked cigars, Eddy would naturally follow suit. Every Saturday morning you could find Buttcheeks McCoy hanging around the army recruiting office on Main Street. If Warwick had any whorehouses, you'd probably find him hanging around those on Saturday night.
"Well, you little peckerheads?" Eddy demanded. "Which is it, light up or punk out?" He had a voice like a rusty hacksaw ripping through steel, and people were stopping to stare. Sergeant Opyzinski, drawn to the concession stands like a Cape Buffalo to a watering hole, was eyeing the three of us with professional interest. I started praying for the Ferris Wheel to jump its frame and roll over Buttcheeks. "Yea we're gonna smoke 'em," Vinny said. "Just as soon as we get some matches."
I amended my prayer to include Vinny.
"Well, c'mon then," Buttcheeks shouted. "I got a lighter." He grabbed a hand-full of Vinny's shirt and hauled him down the grassy slope toward the woods behind St. Anthony's. Vinny called out to me, his voice panicky at the prospect of being alone in the woods with Buttcheeks McCoy, but I just stood there watching. I knew Eddy would just take the cigar from Vinny, slap him around some by way of thanks, and send him on his way. And Vinny should have known it too and kept his mouth shut. Maybe then Buttcheeks would've just snatched the silly thing from his mouth and gone off alone to savor it. But Vinny had a way of not seeing what was obvious to everybody else. Every time his old man was about to crack him one, he telegraphed it so even I knew what was coming, but Vinny never did. Or maybe he didn't want to know. In any case, I figured Vinny had made his bed and now he and Eddy could lie in it together, smoking. They got halfway to the trees when the Ferris Wheel broke free.
There was a loud wrenching metallic noise, and thirty-five feet of steel wheel lumbered down the lawn. It picked up speed on the gentle grade, the seats tearing up ground like the studs of a gigantic snow tire. The riders, trapped by their safety bars, were at the mercy of the runaway wheel. Their wildly waving arms and legs reminded me of the quivering cilia of those pond water creatures that teachers love to make kids look at through a microscope. Metal struts creaking, passenger's screaming, the noise from the other rides, all blending to fill the night with charnel carnival sounds.
Sergeant Opyzinski, who was by this time too busy trying to choke down a foot-long hot dog in one bite to notice much of anything, backed into the side of the spinning disk. His Sam Browne Belt hooked on a protruding bolt, and the cop was yanked off his feet and carried skyward. He completed two rotations, kicking and waving his arms, finally wriggling free just as he reached the highest point of the circuit. He landed, chest first, on the sharp rim of a fifty-five gallon drum that had been cut open to use as trash can.
Buttcheeks turned just before the Ferris Wheel caught him, his mouth working fast to spit out one last piece of filth. Vinny never knew what hit him as the ride churned over his back, flattening his body into a fleshy sack of smashed organs and pulverized bone. The wheel kept on rolling, into the woods, leveling bushes and brush in a ten foot wide path.
Brad Johnson and Shorty Vitalli, both volunteer firemen working one of the food booths, were the only ones who didn't panic. They trotted along in the wake of the wheel, looking like hunters following the trail of deep ruts left by some huge beast. Their grim expressions made it clear that they would pursue the amusement monster into the next county if there was any chance of finding someone left alive in the swinging seats.
Everybody else was running to save their own skin, even though the danger was past, and I found myself dashing around the side of the building, up the front steps and into the church. I automatically slowed to a walk as I entered the darkened nave; all those catechism classes had instilled respect for the sanctity of the church right down to the soles of my feet. Creeping quietly down the center aisle, past the shadowy pews, I made my way to the altar and knelt before the rail.
The stained-glass windows looked gray without the sun shining through them, the only light coming from two metal stands of candles next to the altar rail and the vigil light over the tabernacle. I wasn't even sure why I was in the church - maybe to pray for Vinny's soul, maybe to hide out until things calmed down outside - my legs had just taken me there. I did know I was half-crazy with fear and revulsion, and I had the feeling that the night's horrors weren't finished. My lips were forming the words to the Hail Mary when I heard the heavy church doors swing shut.
I looked over my shoulder and saw a tall figure coming down the aisle. As it drew closer, I began to recognize the shape of the broad chest and crew-cut topped head of Al Delveccio. He stopped next to me at the altar rail and rested a hand on my shoulder. I looked up at him, trying to read his expression in the candlelight, but the flickering flames made weird patterns across his features.
"Matt, I saw you run in here," he said. "Are you all right?" His voice had the same hushed tone as the doctors in the hospital when they told my mother and me that my dad was dead. The same concerned sound the funeral director made explaining the necessity for a closed casket.
Kneeling there with his hand on me, I started thinking about the times I'd come home from school to find good old Al drinking coffee, sitting across from my mother at the kitchen table. I remembered the way they'd be laughing together, as if they shared some private joke, the way mom's face would be flushed like it gets when she's just hauled a heavy load of laundry up from the basement. And I started thinking about the time school let out early when an electrical storm knocked out the power, and I had to let myself in with my key. My mother rushing into the room to offer me a snack, her blouse buttoned wrong, the front door slamming all by itself.
All that stuff was running through my head when one of the candles flared up like someone threw gasoline on it. The fire caught the edge of Mr. D's polo shirt, and the synthetic fabric burst into flame. I can still hear him shrieking, still see him staggering blindly toward the altar, crashing through the gate in the rail, stumbling up the steps to the tabernacle like a screeching human torch. When he slammed into the altar table, the linen cloth caught fire, the flames traveling up the ornately carved altarpiece. In seconds, that whole section of the sanctuary was an inferno. In minutes, the entire church was ablaze. I'd taken off as soon as the big wooden cross caught and didn't even get scorched.
It had been a big night for the little town of Warwick and, looking back, I can see those connections that made it all possible. My winning number, Buttcheeks McCoy's cigar fixation, the careless assembly of the Ferris Wheel, the terrible accident that drove me into the church where Mr. Delveccio came to comfort me and made the mistake of standing too close to the candles.
All of those so-called coincidences had conspired to alter the course of our lives. And we had no more control of them than I had over the milling machine that chewed up my father. Sometimes I wonder what connections were made on the day he was killed, but I guess I'll never know. The only clear memories I have of that Thursday are arguing with my dad about something or other that morning, wishing he would never yell at me again, and my mother taking me out of school that afternoon.
© 2000 Lester Thees, all rights reserved
Vernal Equinox 2001 Issue, Updated March 21, 2001
BLOOD ROSE is Copyright © M. W. Worthen.