Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Knapsack Man

Look, I’ll tell you right off the bat: you aren’t going to get a villain here. Just a bunch of angry, sad, and tired people. Myself included.

There isn’t a whole lot to me. We were poor growing up, and I’m slightly less poor now. The only difference between me and my folks is that I’d never dream of bringing a kid into this life, much less two. My sister was over ten years my senior, so much older that it just became unreal. She wasn’t like a sister, she was another, harsher grown-up in a house that couldn’t afford much patience. Mama worked two jobs, daddy worked one that took up all his daylight hours. Sister worked part-time at a shop, but she hated being home with me. She hated me. One of my first memories is my sister screaming in the other room, begging, pleading not to have to stay in the same bedroom as me, and mama calmly and quietly cutting her short. She had to. She had to stay with me. It was her duty.

Man, nothing like staying with someone who hates your guts.

I didn’t hate my sister.

I was scared of her.

I’d be doing nothing and she’d take two long, candy-red nails and pinch a part of my arm until the skin burned icy-hot. Whenever I cried, which was often, whatever parent was home would immediately turn on her. That was probably part of why she hated me so much.

As she grew older, graduated high school(or flunked out, I was too small to know which) she started chafing at the collar. Wanting to move out. Our parents wouldn’t let her. They made her turn over every cent she earned, even checked with her boss to make sure she wasn’t squirreling any money away. They’d give a little back to her in an allowance, but they held onto most of it. She wasn’t responsible, they said. She had to learn.

God, I was a mess. That much tension in a house could turn even the Dalai Lama into a headcase. I was crying all the time, scared of my own shadow. My sister just made it worse. She couldn’t hit me and get away with it, but she would do other things. She’d tell me scary stories she’d ripped off horror movies I couldn’t watch, tell me something was lurking just outside our bedroom window. She never let me sleep with the light on, and she’d whisper scary things in the dark.

It got to the point where I internalized everything she said to me. It was so horrible having to watch me, I had to be a bad person. I stopped calling for mama when she hurt me. I never repeated the scary things she told me. It didn’t make her ease off, instead she just got worse. And the very worst night was also the last time I saw her.

Mama was off on job #2 and daddy was still at the yard, so me and sis were on the couch watching tv. I remember how it started. She gave me a sidelong glance and changed the channel to a scary movie. Not that I was going to complain. I couldn’t. So she turned the volume up way too loud. I just kept reading my school book. She knocked it out of my hands and told me to pay attention, it was important. On the tv, some kind of monster-man was torturing a woman with his claws. It was probably tame enough to be shown on network television, but to my six-year-old mind it was a view of hell. I begged her to turn it off. She turned up the volume full blast.

I told her to stop it or I would tell mama.

She turned off the tv. Then she turned off the lights. Whatever had been on the tv, this was suddenly worse.

All I could see was her long, scraggly hair and the shine of her eyes in the little light that leaked in off the streetlight. She asked me if I had ever heard of the knapsack man. Of course I hadn’t, it was something she had just made up, but she acted like she was shocked at my ignorance.

The knapsack man lurked outside houses, she said in a whisper, he looked for real bad little kids.

For some pretty bad kids, he took their pets and drowned them.

For some worse kids, he took their hands and feet so they had to hobble like the guy on a dolly near the train station.

For the very worst kids, though, he took their entire family so they were all alone.

When I finally found my voice again, I asked her which one I was.

She said I was the worst kind of kid, and that it was my fault everyone had to work all the time. Just by being alive, I made everyone unhappy. And she herself had called the knapsack man to take us all away, just to be rid of me.

And then she ran to the bedroom and slammed the door.

I didn’t start screaming then, not until I saw the silhouette of someone on the front curtains with a lumpy shape on its back, and then I feel like I never stopped. Daddy got home past eleven, he had to duck my head under the faucet to get me calm. I clung to him like a bear trap. In the middle of all my ramblings, he heard my sister’s name and his face stormed over. He opened the door to our shared bedroom. My sister wasn’t in there, the curtains were drifting out the open window. I’ll never forget his first words to mama when she got home: “she’s got away from us.”

Gradually I learned to calm down. I made friends in school, graduated with mostly B’s from the same place my sister had gone. My parents had managed to put a little money by in their long hours, so I went to the local community college, got myself an AA in Business. When I walked for graduation, mama was there for me. Daddy had suffered a stroke while I was matriculating, she had a neighbor watch him while she was out.

I remember thinking how old she really looked, the weight of all those years whitening her hair and twisting her back. I marveled at the people who thought to bring not one, but two children into such a hard life, just to push them for something better.

Mama gave me a peck on the cheek and told me she was proud of me. She also gave me a white envelope that she told me to open later. I was expecting money, such a humble woman would probably be shy about a gift like that. Instead it was a letter.

“I ain’t your mama,” the very first sentence said in her never-finished-sixth-grade scrawl.

The letter said, in short, that she and daddy weren’t my parents, and my sister wasn’t my sister. My sister had done something stupid, and they were determined to make her own up to her mistake. Even if she was too young to be a mother then, they would make sure she knew the weight of what she’d done. The letter closed by pleading with me to make something of myself, because they’d put so much into me.

That letter is still haunting me. I have it in a box somewhere, beneath bank statements and certificates and other papers important but not worth reliving over and over. Yeah, I’m something now, I guess. Maybe I could take care of kids if I had them, but I don’t plan on it. After what I went through, I feel cursed. I know firsthand how someone with the best intentions can still screw something up royally. I wonder about my parents, my grandparents, doing the only thing their limited, overworked minds could think of. I wonder about my mother, whether she ever got to be an adult, or is she still dragging her feet in teenage stubbornness. I wonder what she looks like, who she’s with, if she ever had any other kids and if she did, did she treat them any better than she treated me. I wonder if they would ever have had a chance to be a nice family if I never had been born.

Sometimes I wish there was a knapsack man, something sharp and shadowy that had made off with my family because I was so bad. Because all I’m left with is a whole lot of loose ends and that’s what keeps me up at night.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

The Plainview Fiasco

April 1, 1991. Hundreds descend onto Plainview, Nebraska for a musical show that would rival Woodstock. Indie acts like Moxy Fruvous, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur jr. would take the stage alongside classic favorites The Misfits and Neil Young. The venue was a hog farm 20 miles from the center of town. Rather than a stage, the performance area was marked out on bare ground. People trampled over fields and cut across fences to swarm the stage.

The projected start of the concert was high noon. At two o’clock, the crowd became restless. A nervous young roadie came to the microphone set up in the middle of the field to reassure the crowd that the first act had hit traffic and would be a while longer. Three pm came and went. Beach balls were passed around atop the concert-goers heads. What scarce shade existed became monopolized. The young man took the microphone a third and fourth time to reassure the crowd that the first act was not long for the wait. Four o’clock came.

…and nothing happened.

The Plainview fiasco was the brainchild of Brett “Boomer” Howard and Todd Bauer, the DJ’s behind Lincoln’s“Boomer and Bauer Flower Power Hour.” Despondent over the state of current music, the DJs began a running joke of what the worst concert ever would be. The acts were comprised of everything they hated in modern music, peppered with the sacred cows of yesteryear. The venue would be worse than Woodstock. No food or water vendors. No public bathrooms. No law enforcement. And, most importantly, no musical acts.

Despite several police investigations, authorities were never able to determine who lit the first flare. As five o’clock ticked on, the bored crowd became restless. The backstage area, which was basically a series of sheets hung on a frame, showed no sign of movement. There were grumblings in the crowd about setting fire to the sheets, to hurry out the musicians. Someone produced flares from an automobile emergency kit and lit one.

An important thing to remember about farming any kind of livestock is that it produces vast amounts of waste product that is difficult to dispose of sanitarily. As was common at the time, hog waste on the farm was stored in a “lagoon,” a plastic-lined structure over two stories tall that could hold thousands of gallons of waste.

An important thing to remember about storing pig waste is that it tends to produce pockets of highly flammable methane.

The first flare was tossed onto the stage. A roadie(really one of the crew members of the Boomer and Bauer show) hastily retrieved it before it could set the sheets on fire. As a more senior member of staff took stage to appease the crowd, a second flare whizzed over his head. The crowd began rioting in earnest. Those who brought chairs threw them, those who had lighters lit them. And somewhere during the melee a third lit flare made its way into the lagoon.

The resulting explosion deafened anyone within a 20-meter range. The explosion did not kill anybody. However, it did set the waste on fire. And as the concert-goers rioted, gallons of burning pig offal rained down on the people below.

When discussing concerts in disaster terms, Altamont, Woodstock ‘99, and Riverport are often held up as the epitome of misfortune. However, all of these are examples of very human error. The Plainview riot stands apart for the sheer bizarre nature of its disaster.

Second- and third-degree burns along with inhalation of waste fumes comprised the bulk of the medical emergencies from the concert. The fumes from stored pig waste are so noxious that many a fallen itinerant worker has survived drowning only to be overcome by the mixture of methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide lingering at surface height. Strains of Bifidobacterium found in the pig waste complicated even the most mundane of injuries. Once rioting in disappointment, now the concert goers fled to escape the fiery waste raining down on them.

Perhaps the biggest key players in the fiasco, Boomer and Bauer, were in scarce supply that day. The crew confirmed their presence backstage, giggling at every new disappointment. Bauer had been drafting a new announcement that the bathrooms were indefinitely closed when the explosion occurred. The security staff attempted to get them to safety, only to lose them in the melee. Whether they were recognized as the authors of all the misfortune or just unfortunate victims of circumstance, we can say definitively that the radio show hosts were present for at least the first half of the riot. A crew member-cum-roadie recalls seeing Boomer swallowed up by the mass of panicking people. As the waste silo burned, the spell broke and the attendees scattered, trampling the farm in all directions in a bid for freedom. A few found the road and sought medical attention. Some found the feeder pond and attempted to wash off the fecal matter, leading the EPA to condemn the water as undrinkable. A third faction ran deeper into the farm, towards the facilities.

Numerous theories, of course, abound concerning the whereabouts of Brett Howard and Todd Bauer. Most revolve around their wish not to be sued for the prank. Stripping off their clothes and fleeing with the concert-goers may have been a logical choice. And, in the panicked dark, they might have broken contact with each other and gotten lost.

What were they thinking, stranded amidst the chaos they had caused? Were they still laughing? Or were they silent with the fear that they might be recognized? When they could not locate the radio station’s vehicles in the dark, did they flee sensibly to the road? Or were they packed into the throng headed to the farm’s interior?

The facts as they stand: the crowd that blundered further into the farm split into two crowds. One followed the retaining fence and found the barn where 234 fully grown American Yorkshire pigs slept. The other went away, to another waste silo. There was a mass of trampled footprints on the ground around one, and a single, muddy step on the maintenance ladder. That’s all.

The town of Plainview has tried its best to forget the concert. The emergence of Woodstock ‘94 three years later helped bury the unflattering memory. Swinton’s hog farm, where the concert almost took place, has since been zoned for residential housing. And Brett Howard and Todd Bauer have not been seen in public since that night.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Loretto

Four essays, three professors, over three or four months, and Jerome was beginning to think it really was a conspiracy.

Mrs. Langdon was this week’s’ opponent. She was young, and probably pretty in another life. In this one she sat across the desk from him with a mouth like she’d been chewing the essays she was supposed to grade.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Hawkins.” She had a millefiori glass paperweight on her desk, she fondled it while she spoke. “The rubric was very clear. If you don’t do the work, you can’t expect the grade.”

Jerome bit back a smile. It was really just too absurd. “Ma’am, I think you’ll find I followed the rubric to the letter. If it’s about content—”

“I said content wasn’t a factor, didn’t I? Your citations weren’t in order.”

“My citations?” Was it really going to be this easy? Garner had been careful not to give him anything concrete. “Which citations are in the wrong, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“You didn’t use the correct ones.” Langdon found a pen to tap while she looked on her desk for something.

“Which? I have parenthetical, I have the bibliography, it’s even in alphabetical order.”

“You chose the wrong style guide, Mr. Hawkins.” Now Langdon rolled the pen in her fingers, looking discomfited. She should. If she had said the sources were improperly cited, he would have had a much harder time disproving it. Now it was all Jerome could do to keep from smiling.

“Which style? I used AMA.”

“I’m afraid I called for Chicago style on this assignment, Mr. Hawkins.”

Jerome slid the rubric from his backpack and folded it to the right page. He’d highlighted the sentence calling for AMA citation.

Langdon colored unflatteringly. “I’m afraid I changed the style in a class you were absent for.”

Jerome said gently, because any other fashion would be accused of aggression, “that’s bullshit and you know it.”

Langdon let go of her pen.

“I’ve had perfect attendance, although you’ve probably overlooked me sometimes, right? By accident? Anyway, I talked to several of my classmates before this meeting. None of them mentioned a style change.”

Langdon’s mouth pressed into a dark line.

“It’s because I’m from Loretto, isn’t it?” Jerome asked casually.

This, finally, earned a direct reaction. Langdon flinched and gripped the arms of her chair.

“Mr Hawkins, I see no reason why you have to-to-politicize this—” Langdon blustered.

“It’s already politicized, ma’am.” Jerome held up a hand as he tucked his papers back in his bag. “And anyway, thank you. You’ve given me all I need to form my next step.”

Langdon looked bereft as he shouldered his bag and walked out, as if she’d been bluffed by a low hand.

 

Another Monday, another futile battle. Jerome would have sat this time, but the visitor’s chair had been removed in-between visits. If he asked, he was very sure he would a well thought out, rational answer. And it would be completely and patently false.

“I am sorry you feel deprived,” Langdon said icily. She was trying to compensate for last time’s failure by going on the attack. “But you cannot come to my office every time you feel dissatisfied with your low grade.”

Jerome gave her a warm smile.

“Actually, ma’am, I was coming to show you a little academic exercise I undertook. You’d find it fascinating, I’m sure.”

Langdon looked uneasy.

Jerome took his essay from his backpack. A large, red D- scarred the top of the first page. There were no other markings on the essay.

“You know I like feedback,” he said confidentially, “I want to improve, ma’am. I do. I need specific comments to do so.”

“There were no comments to give because there were no parts of the essay worth commenting on,” Langdon said, “however, you used the English language. That earns you a D instead of an F.”

Jerome laughed out loud. Langdon was unnerved now, he had her on the ropes.

“I wonder what you think of my colleague, Patrick McGillian? How did you find his essay?”

Langdon’s defenses were up now. “I cannot discuss such confidential information with another student, Mr. Hawkins.”

Jerome laughed again. “Understandable. But it’s not that confidential, Mrs. Langdon, I talked to Patrick after you handed the essays back. He got an A-. he would’ve gotten the whole A, but he fudged the bibliography a bit. Now, I have to tell you something in confidentiality.”

Jerome leaned forward. “His essay? It’s the same as mine. I don’t mean the same style or subject. I wrote both of them.”

Langdon turned almost puce. He’d never seen a human do that before. “That’s academic fraud.”

Jerome’s good cheer fell away. “No, ma’am. Fraud is marking a paper identical to another with a  different grade. You didn’t even look at the inside this time, did you?”

“I will not stand for these accusations in my own office—”

“But you’ll stand for them,” Jerome said softly, “somewhere, somehow, you’ll stand.”

He stacked the essay neatly with the rubric he hadn’t even had to use this time and shoved them in his bag.

“Where do you think you’re going, young man? We aren’t finished.”

Young man? She was five years his senior if she was a day.

Jerome looked at her. “Hey, how about a joke?”

She blinked.

“What’s the difference between a pancake and a person from Loretto?”

Langdon’s mouth fell open.

“The pancake’s done on both sides,” Jerome said as he opened the door with his heel. The horror on Langdon’s face was worth whatever would come afterwards.

 

“—we want to make sure that every student feels academically fulfilled,” Garner said. He’d been filibustering for ten minutes now. He spread his mass like cake batter all over the single desk chair. Langdon looked uncomfortable standing. Jerome would have preferred standing. They had brought back a chair, but it was an ADA chair and too short for him. He practically folded in half to fit in it.

“If there has been any hint of foul play, we want to remedy that. Riiiight?” Garner smiled.

He’d been doing this throughout the whole speech. Breaking off to make Jerome agree with him on some minor point, as if aggregating enough of those would negate his complaint.

Jerome nodded.

Garner smiled, showing the odd black setting of his dentures. “We take any student complaint very seriously, very, very seriously. Academic fulfillment is the chief goal of our department, more than even test numbers.”

Another tactic, reiterating the same points, only worded differently. If it had been a paper, Jerome would have marked it down for that.

He was stuck. If he looked off to the side at all, he wasn’t serious about his school career. If he interrupted, he was aggressive and not prone to reason. If he got up at all, then the complaint was dead before it could reach any source that cared.

“And so I want to make sure, before we go any further, that this complaint is grounded in legitimate grievance and not just a misunderstanding. Right, riiight?”

Jerome said, “I want to know what your problem is with me.”

Langdon looked uneasy. Garner rushed for a breath to fill the gap, but Jerome filled it for him.

“What is it? Is it just that I come from Loretto? Do you think there’s something wrong with me? That I’m going to flip out and get violent? Do you think I’m just going to keel over and die? I mean, what the hell have I actually done?”

Garner wisely kept his mouth shut. He had one of Langdon’s pens in hand, now he was shuffling it through his crusty fingers. Langdon noticed and grimaced. Jerome liked her then, just a little.

“I don’t get it. At all. If you didn’t want me, why not just say ‘no?’ Why pretend like you’ll give me a chance? To look good? ‘Cause I guarantee, this thing gets out? You aren’t going to look too good at all.”

“Threats—”

“Have been lobbed at my back all semester,” Jerome continued. “You think I don’t see? Think you’re so fucking clever the way you go about things? You’re like a bunch of children forming a club. ‘No, Jerome, it’s not because we hate you, it’s because your name begins with J. Stay out of our clubhouse.’ That’s what I hear, every time you pull another excuse out of your ass.”

“If I may finish—” Garner pulled out the public speaking voice, all thunder and lightning.

“You’re never finished,” Jerome said quietly, calmly. “And you never get to the point. I bet you talk yourself to sleep at night.”

He stood up and shouldered his bag. He looked from one face to another.

“You think I’m scared of you?” he asked, “you think I even care? I was in Loretto, I was there when it went down. You only wish you could affect people like that.”

He opened the door. Neither professor rose or tried to call him back.

“Watch me now,” he said, “watch me walk down the hall. I’ll change, you see. I’ll turn into something horrible. I’ll be a real monster, then you can call that rent-a-cop from the south hall and he can call someone to blow my brains out. Are you watching?”

Jerome turned and walked down the hall, footsteps echoing in the empty. He didn’t change, he remained the same long after the door swung shut behind him.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Small Fish to Fry

I know Antony Vargas is innocent, and I know this because I was pulled in on the same charges.

47 murders. 49 by the time they snagged him for riding without a helmet. They’re good at that: pull you in for a little thing, tack on the big thing later.

I won’t pretend I’m 100% innocent. I was driving back from a wedding when I saw a derelict building too good to miss, and I just so happened to have my cans in the back. I was spraying the last layer on my tag when the gun cocked behind me. A friend of mine got capped by an overenthusiastic rent-a-cop back in ‘95, and as I have no desire to end up dead or wheelchair-bound, I put my hands up.

At no point in time did the officer arresting me mention murder. I was twenty minutes in that interrogation room, sweating and looking at my dumb face in the mirror. When the officer came in with a book and started talking casually about where I’d been that night, I instantly dropped the magic word: lawyer. He just went on about how I was a stranger around these parts, probably not a tourist seeing as it was past 10 at night and gee, I sure had a lot of equipment in the back of my jeep.

While he’s talking, he opens the book and shows me…Jesus, how to describe it? I’ve seen wartime photos, buddy of mine was in Afghanistan a few years back. These matched his snaps for the senseless level of violence. Think I threw up in my mouth a little. All the time this cop is talking, watching my reaction. Guess I blinked wrong because he slammed the book shut and left the room. The guy playing bad cop came in and that’s when I shot myself in the foot. In my sputtering about tagging, somehow they found enough to book me on suspicion of murder. A case made out of paper bricks, it wouldn’t hold up in any sane court. But this was Hogg county, and the judge they got looked a little too much like the sheriff for comfort. I’m only free to tell you this today because my lawyer, a beautiful, beautiful man, descended like an angry Santa Claus and delivered a legal smackdown that left their ears ringing. I didn’t understand most of the legalese, but he threatened to have the judge disbarred if this farce of a trial went forward.

Antony Vargas didn’t have all that. He had a mealy-mouthed public defender who told him to take a plea deal or they’d cut his mother’s benefits.

After I was acquitted, or exonerated or whatever the proper term is, the cops acted all self-righteous, told me to never come back. I said I had no problem missing a shit-splat town like theirs in the future. The sheriff actually leapt across the table after me, can you believe it? I guess even Splatsville, U.S.A. has some measure of civic pride.

Anyway, I disobeyed almost immediately. Came back disguised as a photographer enamored by their collection of dilapidated barns. It worked because I’m a 43-year-old white guy with the ability to get a haircut. The camera was originally just cover, but it wound up being handy when I saw what was on the barns.

Above the first barn’s door was what looked like an eye in what was probably blood. Flies didn’t swarm over paint like that. All the barns had ‘em. Old, new, abandoned, inhabited, it was just out in the open for anyone to see.

Now, in a situation like this you’d expect the townsfolk to be a little on the taciturn side. And they were—right up until I told them I worked for Fortean Times. It’s amazing the things people will tell you if they think they’ll be bigfoot-famous. Like how they all knew that everyone the sheriff nabbed was innocent, they just couldn’t speak up. Or the fact that there were probably more than just the 49 murders, but those were the only bodies found. Or the fact that all the plants died at the crime scenes and never grew back.

It goes on.

The blood on the barns came from the biggest animal, be it bull or dog or horse, that they had. They’d bleed it every few weeks, never more than it could stand to lose, mix the blood with a little vinegar to keep it from coagulating and slop it on the barn. Presto. I couldn’t gather how they came up with these particular rules, just that it was how their grandaddy’s daddy did things.

Another thing I couldn’t get was a physical description. Normally, there’ll be at least an outline: ‘it looked like a shadow twice the height of a man,’ etc. Nothing. What I did get was that this sort of thing had happened before, when the town had been nothing but a collection of tarpaper shacks.

This latest rash of murders happened because a place they called the Water Shack burned down. I never got more detail than that. What kind of building, who owned it, why it would have an effect on the murders? Zilch.

I noticed a squad car circling like a shark on the horizon, so I beat feet at that point. Went to the next town over to use their library. Apparently what the townspeople had been unwittingly painting was the evil eye.

The next two murders were in bigger papers, so the cops were aching to have a suspect. Antony Vargas was tailor-made for the verdict: out-of-towner, young, ethnic, and defiant. It didn’t matter that he would’ve been thirteen when the murders started, or that he had clear alibis for nine of them. Once he confessed, no one was interested in looking closer.

I saw the photos of the murder scene in the Tribune, taken by a much better photographer. It was fucking grizzly. What was left of the poor bastard was threaded through a treetop. Which, to me, should’ve been an instant exoneration. How can I say this without getting hyperbolic? No human did that. They’d have to have a catapult to launch it that far.

The newspeople had better luck tracking details down. Of the 49 murders, all had been conducted in the dead of night. The victim had been snatched from somewhere else and brought to the murder scene, sometimes over ten miles. The murders were unusually savage, and the papers used those words they love to use in a time like this: “barbaric” “senseless,” “inhuman.”

I especially love that last one. It comes so close to the truth but shies away at the last moment. Because I don’t believe a human did that. I don’t believe Antony Vargas did it and I don’t believe any of the other poor schmoes they dragged in before him did it. But they need an answer, just like the town needs a scapegoat. I learned the town wasn’t just desperate, they were scared. They all dealt with it differently. The cops dealt by dragging in anyone who so much as dropped a gum wrapper within town limits. The townsfolk painted their buildings in blood. They both came to the same end, and they were both equally ineffective.

I visit Tony in jail. Nice guy, all things considered. His mom has been lobbying for his release since he got thrown in there, but I don’t like her chances. The only thing the justice system hates more than a wrongful conviction is overturning it.

There have been more murders. It’s not in the paper, but I visit town a lot. They like me, I’m the Fort guy. They’ve found maybe two more sites, two more murders that could set Antony Vargas free. So I stuck around to take pictures. They can’t keep it under wraps forever. They can’t continue with this false peace indefinitely.

I know this because when they pointed me to the site of the last murder, I watched the trees beyond it part. I saw them rock back and forth in the wake of something massive. And I realized that we all have much bigger things to worry about.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction