Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Matryoshka

Here's a short story I wrote earlier this year. I haven't shopped it around yet. Hope you like it.

---------------------------------

It was a dark and stormy... well, you know.

The rain poured down like a cow pissing on a flat rock. Thunder rolled and lightning flashed, illuminating the empty parking lot of the Kingston Truck Stop.

Ben and Eric sat in a booth, staring out the window at the apocalyptic weather. It was the end of Spring Break, and they had been on their way back to school when the storm had hit.

They were the only customers in the diner. An old woman sat behind the register, reading yesterday’s paper. Occasionally she’d waddle over to top off their coffee without a word.

“You sure you don’t want anything to eat?” Ben asked Eric. He took a huge bite out of his club sandwich and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “It’s pretty good.”

“Pass,” Eric said.

“You know what they say. Truckers eat at the best places.”

“Bullshit. Truckers eat where they can park.” Eric waved a hand at the window. “Besides, they don’t seem to be lining up to get in here, do they?”

They were both suddenly bathed in headlights as an 18-wheeler pulled into the parking lot. As it turned and parked, another flash of lightning illuminated the trailer. The words PETERSON PORK PRODUCTS were emblazoned across the side, across a trio of dancing pigs. And underneath was the proud motto, “You can’t BEAT our MEAT!”

The trucker bolted across the parking lot through the rain. The cowbell on the door jangled as he shoved it open and stepped into the diner. He was just over six foot tall, with a pot belly that hung over his enormous belt buckle. His blue jeans and American flag t-shirt were soaked through to his skin, and his cowboy boots squished with each step. His face was wide and tan, and stubble covered his cheeks and chin.

Eric muttered, “I says, Pigpen, this here’s the Rubber Duck, and I’m about to put the hammer down.” Ben gave him a dirty look to shush him.

The trucker glanced over at them, and grinned. He turned back to the woman behind the register.

“Hey, Edna. Looks like business is picking up, huh?”

“Go to hell, Duke,” the woman said, not even looking up from her paper. “You want a menu?”

“Nah. Gimme a diablo sandwich and a Dr. Pepper.” With a sigh, Edna got up and went back into the kitchen.

Duke ambled across the empty diner, trailing water behind on the dirty tile floor. He pulled off his John Deere gimme cap and ran his fingers through his damp, blonde hair.

“Evening, boys,” he said in a pleasant drawl. “Mind if’n I join you? I hate to eat alone.”

Eric rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath. But Ben, obviously the affable of the two, slid over to make room. Duke slipped into the booth next to him, his belly pressed against the edge of the table.

“Much obliged,” he said. “Where you boys headed on a night like tonight?”

“Lubbock,” Ben said. “On our way back to school.”

“You know what they say,” Duke said with a wink. “If you wanna find Lubbock, you just go west ‘til you smell it and north ‘til you step in it.”

“Is that what they say?” Eric said.

Duke chuckled. “Sounds like someone jerked a knot in your friend’s tail,” he said to Ben.

“He’s just in a pissy mood,” Ben said apologetically. “We’ve been here for about two hours now, waiting for the rain to let up.”

“No TV. No radio. Not even a jukebox in this place!” Eric shook his head. “What kind of truck stop doesn’t have a jukebox?”

“Well now,” Duke said, “as long as we’re stuck here, we might as well pass the time pleasant-like. You boys amenable to a story?”

“Sure,” Ben said.

“Why not,” Eric sighed.

“All righty then. Just sit back and listen up, ‘cause ol’ Duke’s got a tale to tell. There was this Scoutmaster who took his troop camping one night...”

* * *

The day’s hiking was done, and the scouts had pitched camp for the night. Now they were gathered around the campfire, roasting marshmallows and listening to Scoutmaster Bill tell his ghost stories.

“...and when she looked down,” Bill said dramatically, “hanging from the car door handle was... a hook!”

The kids stared at him blankly.

“A hook!” Bill repeated. “There was a hook hanging from the door handle!”

“I don’t get it,” said Sheldon. The others murmured in agreement.

“It was a hook! The serial killer’s hook! Remember? I told you the serial killer was missing a hand?”

“No you didn’t,” Clifton said. “You said he was missing a foot.”

“Oh.” Bill sighed. “Well, he was missing a hand, okay? And had a hook instead. And that’s what she saw hanging from the car door handle. Okay?”

“That story sucked,” Preston whined. Sheldon, Clifton, and the rest joined in. “Yeah, that wasn’t scary at all!”

Bill placed another marshmallow on the tip of his stick, and held it over the flame. “So, you boys wanna hear a really scary story?”

“Yeah!” The boys wriggled excitedly, scooting closer to the fire.

“All right, then. But just remember, you asked for it.” Ben looked at their eager faces and nodded. “This guy was out driving one snowy night, and he saw a hitchhiker by the side of the road...”

* * *

The hitchhiker stood ankle deep in the snow, dressed in a tattered green jacket with a stuffed duffle bag slung over his shoulder. His damp hair and beard were freckled with snowflakes, and his breath snaked from his nostrils in steamy tendrils.

Albert wondered how long the man had been standing out there, waiting for a sympathetic driver. Most people would have simply written the poor guy off as a hippie or an axe murderer and driven on by. But Albert had always made it a rule to stop for hitchhikers.

“Thanks, man,” the hitchhiker said as he climbed into the passenger seat of Albert’s Escalade. He tossed his bag into the back, then turned the heater vent directly on his face. He sniffled a couple of times, then finally sighed with relief.

“Where you headed?” Albert asked.

“Wherever you are, I guess,” the hitchhiker said. He placed his hands in front of the vent, rubbing feeling back into his numb fingers.

“You’re lucky I came by,” Albert said. “Not a lot of folks on the road tonight.”

“I don’t suppose you got nothing warm to drink?” the hitchhiker asked.

Albert pointed to the thermos in the floorboard. “Help yourself to some hot chocolate.”

The hitchhiker took a swig straight from the mouth of the thermos. He smacked his lips, then took another drink.

“I ain’t got no money,” the hitchhiker said. “I mean, I ain’t no freeloader or nothing. I’m just kinda tapped right now.”

“It’s okay,” Albert said. “Cocoa’s on me.”

“Nah, I feel like you oughta get something for your trouble.” The hitchhiker stared out the window for a few seconds, then turned back to Albert. “I know! How about I tell you a story?”

Albert shrugged. “Sure.”

“All right, man.” The hitchhiker leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “There was this crazy old lady, right? And she lived with her son...”

* * *

Harv knew he’d screwed up bad. Wednesday nights he was supposed to come straight home from work so he could eat dinner and watch Deal or No Deal with Momma. But last night, he’d decided to go out for drinks with that girl Nina who worked in the mail room. It had been after midnight when he got home, and Momma had gone to bed. So he had gone on up to his room figuring he’d settle things with her in the morning.

It was now mid-afternoon, and Harv was chained to a wall in the basement. Momma, in her worn pink bathrobe and slippers, had been ignoring his pleas all morning as she labored away.

She was building a brick wall.

“Momma, please! You don’t have to do this!”

She slathered another layer of mortar with her trowel, then laid another brick in place. A cigarette, mostly ash, hung from her lips.

“You’re a bad boy, Harv. And you know what happens to bad boys.” She plopped another brick down. “Next time Momma tells you not to mess around indecent with slutty women, maybe you’ll listen.”

“Okay, I’m sorry!” Harv’s voice was hoarse from crying and pleading. “I promise, it won’t ever happen again! Just let me out of here, and we can go back upstairs and watch General Hospital.”

Momma considered it for a second. She took the cigarette from her mouth and tapped off the ashes. Then she shrugged and put down another layer of mortar.

“Momma! Stop, okay? Just stop!”

She kept laying the bricks, oblivious to his begging. He could no longer feel his arms, which he supposed was a blessing. His wrists were raw and bleeding from the manacles.

Desperately, Harv cried out, “If you stop, I’ll tell you a story!”

Momma set the trowel down and took another drag on her cigarette. “I’m listening,” she said.

Elated, Harv launched into his tale. “Once upon a time, there was this dog who was notorious for mauling cats...”

* * *

His owners had once called him Cocoa, but amongst the Feline Nation he was known as the Butcher. He was a pit bull/dachshund mix with short, chocolate brown fur and a narrow scissor snout full of strong, sharp teeth.

He had vague memories of living in a backyard, but that had been so long ago. His owners had moved away, and he’d found himself prowling the streets and alleys, eating from dumpsters and avoiding the men in uniforms that sometimes tried to catch him.

And chasing cats. He loved to chase cats.

He couldn’t explain why, any more than he could explain his desire to sniff other dogs’ butts or pee on things he liked. But there was something about their smug, smartass cat faces that set his teeth on edge.

But he was still a good dog. Yes he was!

The word had been out for some time, and the cats had become quite masterful at avoiding him. Occasionally, he’d get their scent, but he never seemed to catch more than a fleeting glimpse as they scampered over a fence or up a tree.

So he was elated when he saw the fat mackerel tabby glaring at him from the mouth of an alley. Its tail was low and twitching, and its ears were flat. Not scared. Not threatened. Just aggressive.

He walked slowly towards the cat, hoping to close the distance before startling it. When he was near enough to see the yellow of its eyes, the cat turned and bolted into the dark alley. He let out a short, angry bark and leapt into the shadows after it. The alley came to an abrupt dead end. A stack of rotted wooden warehouse pallets lay at the end, towering above him. And resting atop the stack was the cat. It gave a yowl that made his fur itch. Several dozen yowls were offered up in response.

Nervously, he turned to see the cats filing into the alley. Most were scrawny and matted, some were missing eyes, ears, and tails. Black, brown, striped, spotted... he’d never seen so many cats in one place before. It had never occurred to him there were this many cats in the world.

They approached en masse, jumping down from fire escapes and leaping out from behind trash cans. They hissed and caterwauled as they came towards him, and he knew he was in trouble.

“Well, well, well,” said the fat tabby from up above him. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to go hunting without your pack?”

He said nothing. He simply turned to face the cats as they advanced on him. He felt the hair on his back and neck bristle as he let loose with his most threatening growl.

“Enough!” the tabby yowled. It turned its gaze down to him and said, “You stand accused of heinous crimes against the Feline Nation. What say you, Butcher? Do you have anything to offer up in your defense before we pass judgment?”

He pondered for a moment. Then he told them a story about a man in Scotland who made a deal with the Devil...

* * *

A Scotsman had bargained with nefarious powers, offering up his soul in exchange for wealth and fame. True to his word, the Devil had granted respect and prosperity to the Scotsman. But he had then struck the poor man down with scarlet fever in the prime of his life.

So now he lay on his deathbed, wracked with scarlatina. His daughter, a handsome lass, sat by his bedside, keeping vigil and providing what comfort she could. She mopped his feverish brow, gave him cool water to drink, and read to him from his Bible.

“Be strong, Faither,” she told him, clutching his hand. “Be brave. And should the De’il come here tonight, I winna let him take ye without a fight.”

“Indeed?” A man stepped from the shadows, dark-dressed and soft-spoken. He smiled, showing plentiful white teeth. His was a face that was unearthly in its beauty, but oh, so cold and hateful his eyes!

The daughter leapt to her feet, still holding her Bible in her arms. She eyed the stranger warily, taking note of the silver cane he held in one hand, and of his oddly-shaped boots that might conceal cloven hooves. And she named him thus, “Auld Cloots!”

The pronouncement of his name was met by a tremendous crash of thunder, and the howling of hounds on the moors.

“At your service,” he said with a bow. “I’ve business with your father.

“Ye’ll nae take him,” said the daughter defiantly.

“Well, I beg to differ,” said the interloper. He held out his hand, and a yellowed document appeared with a puff of smoke. Her father’s name was signed in red in the lower corner.

“Signed, stamped, and notarized,” he said. “Twenty years ago this very night, your father did prick his thumb with a silver pin and sign his name. Upon his death, his soul will be remanded into my custody for eternity.”

The daughter leaned in to read the fine print, squinting as she ran a finger along the infernal clauses. “It says here that ye must collect my faither’s soul within twenty years of signing, or he goes free.”

“Yes,” sighed the stranger. “Your father proved to be more hale and hardy than I’d originally thought, which is why I had to smite him with the scarlet fever.” He pulled a silver watch from his pocket and consulted it. “Shouldn’t be long now.”

“I’ve a proposition for ye,” said the daughter. “A wager.”

The stranger placed the watch back in his pocket. “You don’t say.”

“I ken ye’re familiar with the Good Book,” she said, holding up the Bible.

“I’ve browsed through it,” he said. “Never read the whole thing. Those damned begats put me right to sleep.”

“I wager I can tell ye a story out of this Bible that ye’ve ne’er heard. If I win, ye tear up that contract and give my faither some peace.”

“And if you lose?”

The daughter regarded the stranger, meeting his evil gaze with an icy stare of her own. “If I lose, then ye can take me down to yer black pit as well.”

He considered her offer, then smiled his evil smile. “Done, and done,” spake he. “Whenever you’re ready.”

She gazed over at her ailing father, and hugged the Bible to her bosom for comfort. Then she took a deep breath and began her tale. “Now it came to pass on a certain day, that Jesus said unto his disciples, Let us go over unto the other side of the lake...”

* * *

22 One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over unto the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out.

23 As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so the boat was being swamped and they were in great danger.

24 The disciples argued among themselves about the proper course of action. Peter spoke unto the others, saying, “A prudent fisherman would head for shore to escape the storm. But to do so might also be seen as a lack of faith.

25 “Verily, I say we should alter our course and head into the squall, thus demonstrating to our master that our belief is beyond reproach.”

26 But Philip rebuked him, saying, “Salvation will come about through our own actions, not through foolhardy gestures.

27 “For it is written that God helps those whom help themselves.”

28 “Actually, it isn’t,” said Jesus, shaking his head. “But that’s okay. Lots of people make that mistake.”

29 And the disciples rejoiced to see that their master had awakened and joined them, and they beseeched him for guidance, asking “What would Jesus do?”

30 And Jesus told them this parable: “There was once an emperor who had seven sons...”

* * *

The Jade Emperor called forth his seven sons, who knelt before him. “My time will soon be at an end,” he told them, “and I must decide which of you is most worthy to rule in my stead. As a good ruler must willingly provide for his people, so will you demonstrate your capacity for giving to me.

“Each of you will bestow upon me the greatest gift you can. And he that gives the finest gift of all shall inherit my empire.”

The first son, Sun Yi, presented his father with a large urn filled with flawless diamonds. The second, Sun Er, brought in dozens of royal robes, all crafted from the finest silk. His third son, Sun San, unveiled an exquisite, golden statue of a belly dancer, while the fourth, Sun Si, presented him with a cask of potent spirits. From his fifth son, Sun Wu, he received a massive tapestry depicting his many military victories. And from his sixth, Sun Liu, he received a dozen beautiful Ukrainian horses.

But the seventh son, Sun Qi, approached the throne empty handed, and the emperor was puzzled. “Where, then,” he said, “is your gift for me?”

“Material possessions are fleeting, Father,” said the seventh son. “I bring you a gift more enduring than any other. I bring you a story.”

His brothers laughed amongst themselves until the emperor silenced them with an upraised hand. “A story? Very well. Give me your story, my son.”

The seventh son bowed and took a seat on the steps, at the feet of his father. “There is a cave deep beneath the world...”

* * *

...and in this cave, the goddess Ramistoka sleeps and dreams the world into existence. There is a legend that a mortal can enter the cave, approach the goddess, and whisper his fondest wish into her ear. Upon hearing the wish, Ramistoka will dream it into being. Thus can a mortal achieve his heart’s desire.

Alamon is a miserable man who has led a passive life. Five years ago, his wife left him for a traveling merchant. Three years ago, his oxen perished of the blight. And last year, a fire destroyed his farm and home. And through it all, Alamon’s only response has been to shake his fists at the heavens and cry out, “Why me?”

But Alamon has decided he will be a plaything of the fates no more. Rather than sit back and wait for misfortune to fall upon him, he is going to take action and make things happen.

The road is hard and fraught with peril, but Alamon finally makes it to the Sacred Mountains. The climb is difficult, but he scales the cliffs and eventually reaches the narrow, winding path. He braves the snow and ice as he presses on, knowing true happiness lies at the end of the trail.

And then, at last, he finds himself in the massive cavern. Ramistoka, vast and beautiful, lies on her back atop an enormous stone dais. Her arms are crossed on her chest, and her gentle snores echo throughout the chamber.

Alamon approaches her reverently, wondering what he’ll wish for. He climbs to the top of the dais and walks the length of her body. Her skin is pale blue and flawless, and smells of jasmine.

His heart pounding, he approaches her head. He’s mulled it over, and he’s finally figured out his most fervent desire. He doesn’t care about his oxen, or his farm, or his home. He doesn’t even want his wife back.

There’s only one thing that can make him happy. He leans into Ramistoka’s ear, and he whispers, “Wake up.”

* * *

Sun Qi finished his story, and the throne room was silent.

“A bleak tale,” the Jade Emperor finally said, “but there is much wisdom in it. Your story is truly a worthy gift, my son.”

“I’m glad you are pleased, Father.”

“But I’ve decided that my successor shall be Sun San.”

There were some angry and surprised outcries from the others as the third son stepped up proudly to the throne.

“But why?” asked Sun Qi. “I thought you liked my story!”

The emperor shrugged. “It was okay. But I really liked this gold belly dancer statue your brother gave me. It has rubies where the nipples should be!”

* * *

39 And when Jesus completed his story, the disciples scratched their heads in puzzlement. None had understanding of the parable, but none wanted to admit to their ignorance.

40 It was Simon Peter who finally spoke, saying, “It was an interesting lesson, Master, but I think I prefer the one about the man leaving footprints on the beach.”

* * *

The daughter reached the end of her tale and regarded the stranger, who stared at her incredulously.

“Um, I don’t think that story is actually in the Bible,” he said.

“Yes, it is,” she insisted. “It’s, er, in Deuteronomy somewhere.”

The stranger sighed. “Fine. We’ll call it a draw. But I’m still taking your father’s soul.”

At this, the bedridden Scotsman suddenly sat up and proclaimed, “Ye’ll nae be taking no souls today, Auld Nick. For I am Sir Alexander Fleming, and I’ve recovered from the scarlet fever thanks to my recent invention of penicillin!”

The daughter clapped her hands with glee and ran over to hug her father. The stranger shook his head and muttered, “I knew I should have gone with a heart attack.” Then he vanished in a cloud of brimstone.

* * *

Harv wrapped up his story and smiled at Momma. “So, what did you think?”

“It’s the worst story I've ever heard,” said Momma. “I don’t even think Fleming had a daughter.”

Ignoring her son’s screams, Momma finished the wall. And when the last brick was in place, she went upstairs to watch her stories.

* * *

The hitchhiker pointed at a deserted house as they drove past it and said, “That was the house, man. Right there. And they say the ghost of that Harv dude wanders this very road, telling his tale to any who will listen.”

The hitchhiker drained the last of the hot cocoa from the thermos, then tossed it onto the floorboard.

“Was it you?” Albert asked.

“What?”

“Were you the guy that got walled up in that basement? Are you his ghost?”

The hitchhiker snorted. “No way, man! But that would’ve been cool!” He held up his hands menacingly and let out a ghostly, “Oooooooooh!”

His goofy grin faded, and he suddenly clutched at his throat. “Cocoa...” he wheezed.

Albert nodded. “Yeah, it’s poisoned. You really shouldn’t hitchhike, you know? It’s dangerous.”

The hitchhiker was still gasping and thrashing weakly when Albert turned onto the dirt road and followed it into a snowy field. He got out of the car, grabbed the hitchhiker by his long hair, and dragged him into the snow. Then he took a shovel from his trunk and went to work, digging a new shallow grave next to the other sixteen...

* * *

“Because he was a serial killer,” Scoutmaster Bill finished up. “You see?”

The kids glared at him over the campfire, shaking their heads. “That’s so lame,” Preston said. “Your stories suck!”

“Yeah,” said Sheldon and Clifton and the others.

Bill felt himself getting flustered. “Well, that’s because I haven’t gotten to the scary part yet,” he said. “Um, because when Albert was burying the hitchhiker, he was suddenly attacked... by a VAMPIRE!”

There was no response from the kids. Bill looked over and saw they were all slumped over. Their hair was white and standing on end, and their eyes were wide with horror. His entire troop had died of fright.

“Well, I warned them it was scary,” Scoutmaster Bill murmured to himself. Nodding with approval, he roasted another marshmallow.

* * *

As Duke’s story came to a close, Eric glanced out the window and smiled for the first time that night.

“Dude,” he said, nudging Ben. “It stopped raining!”

As suddenly as it had come, the storm had blown over. A full moon lit the night sky and cast reflections in the puddles throughout the parking lot.

Duke polished off his sandwich and gulped down the rest of his Dr. Pepper. Then he slid his massive frame out of the booth and stood. He gave Ben and Eric a respectful salute and said, “Well boys, my work here is done. It’s time for me to be moving on.”

While he was paying for his meal, Ben timidly called his name. Duke turned, an enigmatic smile on his face.

“It... it was more than just a story,” Ben said. “Wasn’t it?”

“Maybe it was, boys. Maybe it was.” He gave them a wink, and walked outside. The cowbell on the door clanged behind him. Ben stared through the window, watching in awe as Duke climbed up into his cab and pulled his big rig onto the highway. He gave a tug on his horn, and then sped off into the night.

For several minutes, nobody said a word. There was no sound except for the rumble of distant thunder and the rustle of Edna’s newspaper. Ben couldn’t escape the feeling that something wondrous had happened here tonight. He wondered where Duke’s travels would take him next. And he wondered if he’d ever see the mysterious trucker again.

"Hey, wait a minute!" Eric shouted, slapping the tabletop. "What the hell happened to the dog?"

4 comments:

scarletvirago said...

I've heard of breaking the fourth wall, but I think what you've constructed here is closer to an octahedron! (Should I have included a nerd-alert before that statement? Sometimes I forget.)

Also, I thought I was the only person in the northern hemisphere to be familiar with the phrase "pissing like a cow on a flat rock!" Yet another reason for me to become your internet stalker! Except I'm too lazy. So, um, lucky you.

Farrago said...

Wait... When a cow pisses, doesn't it just sorta run down her legs? Shouldn't that be "like a bull pissing on a flat rock?"

But, wow! That was some effort! A story about stories with lame endings with an enigmatic ending of its own. COOL!

And, I kid you not, word verification: tinkles

Irb said...

Scarletvirago: Octahedron? I suspect somebody has a past that involves funny-shaped dice.

That's okay. I'm lazy as well and don't move around much, which means minimal stalking effort for you.

Farrago: Despite having grown up in Texas, I've had surprisingly little interaction with cows. Or bulls. I've never even been tipping!

Professor said...

Holy shit--- what a story! Nice work...!