By John L. Campbell
Merrill Travis dropped his two-hundred-fifty pounds into a brown easy chair, cracking the framework again. He threw his weight against the back, and the footrest squealed in protest as it snapped up. Merrill propped his feet up, wiggling one toe through the hole in his right sock, grabbed the remote with one hand and reached for his discount beer with the other.
It was a hot one today, and humid. His yellowing undershirt clung to his body like a second, dirty skin, and he could smell his own odor rising from his armpits. The windows were open, but the curtains hung lifeless in the unmoving August air, and a dirty plastic fan rattling in the corner did little to tame the heat. Sweat crept from his hairline and down his meaty face to dampen his collar. Merrill slurped the beer and turned up the volume, filling the living room with the roar of the Tampa-Yankees game.
A beer commercial came on, showing cool evergreen forests and icy streams. Merrill Travis wished he was there instead of this seedy, lower-middle-class Queens neighborhood. Hell, anywhere would be better than here. As a union loader for the Biles-Bigelow Import/Export Company in Brooklyn, he made thirty-seven-thousand per year, called in sick as often as he could get away with it, and pocketed whatever little pieces of imported Taiwanese crap from the warehouse he knew the owners would never miss. Divorced, no high school diploma, forever on the edge of losing his job, union or no, at fifty-three he knew he had gone as far in life as he ever would.
The sixth inning was starting when the Yard Apes came.
There was a distant call at first, a single, high-pitched cry down the block. He tensed in his chair. Another yell from across the street, opposite his tract house. Merrill clenched his teeth. They were coming.
He heaved himself out of the chair and lumbered to the windows, hesitating at the curtains, not daring to look outside. Maybe they would go away. Maybe the Yard Apes would pass him by today. Then he heard the laughter close by, and the sound of running feet. He clenched his fists, then peeked out the curtains.
There were four of them, all gathered together at the entrance to the park across the street. Two had bicycles, and another carried a ball bat and mitt. Their laughter and high voices punched through the heavy air, hitting Merrill between the eyes and starting the headache, that terrible thrumming in his temples which would soon build to a blinding whiteness of pain. He watched, squinting, as three more appeared, running up the block to join the others. They were no more than ten years old, two of them wearing pink and blue ribbons in their hair. The flash of color was a painful taunt, their cried greetings the screech of falcons.
Merrill stood at the window, sweating heavily, the ball game forgotten. Now there was only the headache, an intense, rhythmic pounding in the center of his forehead, a sledgehammer driving a railroad spike of ice right into the center of his brain. He moaned and squeezed his eyes shut.
The Yard Apes moved into the park to began their assault on Merrill Travis. Three went to the swings and started singing a song over and over. The rest played catch by the backstop, shrieking at one another. Minutes later there was a rumbling from down the street, a gritty, thunderous roar that drowned out the ball game and set the white strobes flashing in Merrill’s head. The roaring grew louder as the Yard Ape appeared, perhaps five or six, his Big Wheel’s plastic tire rolling over the cement sidewalk like an approaching Apocalypse.
Merrill moaned and hissed. Why him? Why did they pick him? Screams came from the park as one of the Yard Apes chased another with a full water balloon. Merrill stumbled away from the window, colliding with the coffee table next to his broken chair and spilling the beer. The roar of the crowd at Yankee Stadium crashed from the television, but it was nothing compared to the metallic engine now pounding in his head, fueled by the cries from across the street. He made it to the kitchen and yanked open a cupboard door, crying, “Oh-God-Oh-God-Oh-God-Oh-God!” through clenched teeth. He was squinting so hard he could barely see, and his big hands fumbled over a shelf, searching, until they found a small, black lacquered bowl with a round lid. Merrill snatched it from the cupboard and collapsed into a kitchen chair.
PING! PING! PING! His head was going to split open, but even over the crash of the sledge and spike, he could hear the Yard Apes as they stepped up their assault. A dog barked in high, excited yips from the park. They had brought a puppy! He hunched over the bowl and pawed off the lid, digging a pair of thick fingers inside and pulling out a lump of yellowish clay.
He had found the bowl in a shipment of incense one day, as he and Manny Brown dug through a straw-filled crate looking for anything of value. When Manny saw the bowl with the ball of clay – the ball had been much bigger then – Merrill saw by his friend’s reaction that it was valuable. Manny pronounced it opium, though Merrill doubted his co-worker would know opium from Spam, and immediately pocketed the bowl, not even offering to share any with Merrill.
“I ain’t gonna use it,” Manny said. “Can’t never tell what them damn Chi-wanese put in their opium. Gonna sell it.”
“What about me?” Merrill asked. “I found it too.”
Manny shook his head. “Lou’s on my ass. I needs some breathing room.”
Merrill didn’t give a damn about Manny’s problems with his bookie or his little, mean-looking collection guy, and was about to say so when a supervisor passed by, forcing an end to the conversation.
Now, elbows on the kitchen table, he pinched off a piece of the clay and shoved it into his mouth, his tongue working it up between his back gums and cheek. Almost at once the PING! PING! in his head subsided, the spike of pain softening.
No, Merrill Travis didn’t give a damn about selling Taiwanese opium or irritable bookies. What he did care about was escape. His life was a big pile of shit, he knew it, he accepted it, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t get away from it now and then. Manny wouldn’t share, though, and no amount of pleading or threatening could make him give it up.
He leaned back in the chair, eyes closed, as the yellow clay worked its magic. Already the pounding was almost gone.
Manny wouldn’t share. So Merrill made him share. He waited until just the right moment, when he and Manny were alone on the dock unloading a truck. Merrill was running the forklift, and when Manny looked away, Merrill stomped the pedal and drove one of the forks right into his back. There had been screaming and a lot of blood, and supervisors appeared from nowhere.
“I don’t know what happened,” he’d said. “He just stepped right in front of the lift!” Merrill had helped them carry Manny to the offices, concealing a smile. Manny was unconscious – and as fate would dictate paralyzed from mid-chest down – and no one noticed when Merrill slipped the black bowl out of Manny’s pocket and into his own.
He opened his eyes and took a deep breath, feeling better. Even in the drab kitchen, colors had become more intense, so vivid and sharp, like the big flat screen televisions he saw at Cosco but would never be able to afford. His thoughts were clear too, and his body felt young and strong again.
A Yard Ape screamed outside, and Merrill smiled. He had fought off their attack, and now that he had his defenses up, they wouldn’t be able to break him. He returned the black bowl to the cupboard and opened the refrigerator, removing a half-eaten hamburger wrapped in greasy foil. And then, in an uncharacteristic burst of agility, he bolted out the back door, across the dead grass which constituted his yard, and into the shadows of the narrow space between his house and his neighbor’s. The sun never reached here, and the ground was hard-packed dirt all the way up to the bushes at the front of the house. Moving slowly now, stealthily, he crept to the front, crouching to peek out between the branches of a dying bush. The little alleyway was hot and airless, but he didn’t notice.
There were more Yard Apes over there than before, and their puppy was near the entrance to the park, leaping around them, yipping and wagging a stubby tail. Not a single one was quiet, each of them laughing or shouting or screaming or bawling or singing, all at the same time. They were still trying to break him down. Well, he had something for them.
Merrill gave a low whistle, catching the puppy’s attention, then he made some smooching noises and rustled the bush. The puppy, a young lab, cocked its head, curious, then trotted across the street, stopping on the sidewalk in front of Merrill’s house. Smooch, smooch, rattle, rattle. The puppy sensed a game, and lowered its head, tail lashing back and forth as it bounded forward in that gangly, lab pup way, tongue lolling to one side, eyes bright and playful. As it reached the bush it started sniffing furiously, catching the scent of meat. Merrill was patient as the animal stuck its head into the bush, straining to get at the outstretched hamburger.
He grabbed the pup by the scruff of its neck, clamping his other hand around its snout. It fought as best it could, twisting and squealing, but Merrill was stronger. He trotted back to the kitchen door, pushing inside with his squirming bundle, his own eyes as bright as the pup’s had been as he took the dog down to his basement. He nudged the light switch up with a shoulder, then released the dog into the big, unfinished room.
The pup whimpered and scrambled to a corner, away from the big man, its body shuddering as it watched him. Merrill planted his hands on his hips and looked at the dog. “Apes thought they could use you to get at me, didn’t they? I’ll show ‘em something.”
The pup, sensitive to tone of voice, peed on itself and the concrete, and Merrill’s face bloomed in rage. “You fucking little ape!” He ran for the dog, lashing out with his sock feet, and splashed into the warm puddle, slipping and crunching into a wall with the big toe sticking out of his sock. He shrieked as the lab skittered to another corner, yelping in panic as it searched for a way out. Merrill turned, his eyes dark with hate, his face crimson. He hobbled around behind the basement stairs, keeping his eyes on the fearful dog as he shoved through a stack of unused gardening tools, his hands closing on the handle of a long spade. Its blade made a metallic squeal on the cement as he dragged it out.
He came at the dog fast, anticipating its move this time. The shovel flashed down in a sharp jab, and the basement was filled with the screeching of a maimed animal. Another fierce jab silenced the terrible noise.
Merrill Travis stood over the small body for several minutes, his chest heaving, sweat streaming down his face. There was a sharp twinge in his forehead, and his lower lip quivered. Not so soon, please, not so soon! He ran for the stairs, and his dog-pee sock slipped on the bare wood, sending his leg out behind him, pitching him face first into a pine riser. He caught it on the bridge of his nose and there was a dull crack, a burst of blood, a bigger burst of pain.
Ping…ping…PING…PING! PING! PING! The hammer and ice spike were at work again, landing harder than before, and Merrill clamped a hand to his head like a man having a stroke, the other still clutching the bloody spade as he screamed. He crawled upwards, shovel bouncing off the steps behind him, and reached the kitchen. The ice spike reached a new depth. Using the shovel he managed to lever himself up to the counter and reach the black bowl in the cupboard again. His hand flailed and he knocked the bowl to the curling linoleum, where it shattered. Merrill dropped to his knees and plucked the lump of yellow clay from the fragments, shoving the entire thing into his mouth, biting down and crunching into bits of lacquered pottery.
He stayed on his knees, chewing even as blood spilled from his torn mouth. His eyes were glassy and the railroad spike drove deeper still, pushing to the center of his brain, and over the PING! of the spike he could hear them, the Yard Apes, singing as one voice. It was deafening, and it threatened to shatter his head like the lacquered pot.
He screamed, spitting blood across the floor. The clay wasn’t working!
His head was going to explode, and he knew that even that wouldn’t release him.
He clenched his teeth and snarled against the paralyzing force of the blows, gaining a precious instant of thought, realizing that he would have to stop the pain at the source. The clay needed him to do his part, to help it like it had helped him in the past. Merrill used the shovel to push his bulk off the floor, then stumbled through his house, bumping off walls and tipping the roaring television onto its back. The cries of the Yard Apes blasted through the open windows.
“RING AROUND THE ROSIES, POCKET FULL OF POSIES…”
Merrill Travis’s eyes bulged, and trickles of blood leaked from his tear ducts. The head of the railroad spike vanished into his gray matter, and still the PINGing went on. He fumbled with the front door knob.
“ASHES, ASHES, WE ALL FALL DOWN!”
He yanked it open, broke through the screen door like a bear at a cabin and crossed the porch, dragging the shovel across the peeling wood. The blade thumped down the porch steps behind him, and he lifted the spade, bringing the bloody end around and holding it like a spear. The Yard Apes had massed for a final assault. Each of them, big and small, was holding hands and dancing in a circle on the grass over in the park, laughing as they sang.
“RING AROUND THE ROSIES…”
Merrill lurched across his lawn, blood dribbling from his gashed nose, his lips, his eyes. “Sssstop youuuuu…” he muttered.
“POCKET FULL OF POSIES….”
He stumbled at the curb but kept moving, sock feet shuffling over the blacktop, gripping the spade tightly. He had turned Manny into a vegetable. He would do better with the Yard Apes.
His eyes filled with blood, blinding him, and he grinned as his feet crossed the dotted yellow line. He would make them be quiet, and the pain would end.
“WE ALL FALL DOWN!”
The ring of children dropped to the grass, laughing. Mary Klingman was half turned in the driver’s seat to yell at her two children when the grill of her Explorer plowed into Merrill Travis at just over forty miles per hour. His body buckled the hood and he was thrown forward onto the road. Mary screamed and locked up her brakes, succeeding in grinding the big Ford to a stop right on top of Merrill.
Flashing lights, radios and hurrying people arrived soon after, and the Yard Apes gathered at the edge of the park, staring until parents came to take them away.
The dance had ended.No tags for this post.