by: Lewis H. Montaug
An offering of fiction exploring the power of a boisterous imagination and a handheld catapult….
My father pulled his faded blue Chevy into the darkened alleyway between Roy’s Taxidermy and The Last Drop Inn, the tracks of his all weather tires throwing up a billowing cloud of dust as he slid to a stop.
“You stay right here Danny,” he said firmly as he stepped down into the alley. “And no funny business. I’ll only be gone a minute.”
I watched in the cracked rear view mirror as my father made his way to the back of the truck and lowered the tailgate. The trucks flatbed was filled with an assortment of discarded objects, much like my father’s chaotic life, and he grunted heavily as he dug around.
Old beer cans, rusting spools of wire, cannibalized lawn mower engines, bits of rope, it all jostled about, the worthless detritus of my fathers life sounding out a hollow symphony within the alleyways narrow walls.
“Ha!” My father exclaimed in his rough my gravelly voice. He had found what he was looking for, buried under an oil stained tarp weighted down by a crumbling cinder block and a yard of rope.
My father grunted as he threw the object over his shoulder and made his way to the side door of the Last Drop Inn, the words Kitchen Staff Only stenciled upon it in peeling white paint.
As he swung the door open I could see the Inn’s proprietress Ms. Tully, a tall, pear-shaped, jovial sort of woman who reminded me of a vibrating bowl of pudding. She turned to greet him, her plentiful rolls rippling as she spoke.
“Mr. Hodgman! How lovely to see you again!” I heard her exclaim. She was a mountain in her kitchen, towering over a swarm of undocumented foreigners as they rushed to prepare breakfast for her guests. Bacon sizzled. Eggs fried. Pancakes flipped. My mouth watered.
“Mornin’ mam. Mornin’,” my father said before the door swung shut, severing my link with Ms. Tully’s animated world.
I glanced back down the alleyway, towards the next block where it ended at Meecer St. It was bathed in shades of darkness while daylight proliferated all around. The sun hung low in the morning sky, slanting inward on shallow angles and painting the shadows of the town’s buildings thickly all around me. A swirl of discarded rubbish danced across the alley as a stiff breeze arose.
At the end of the alleyway a pair of haggard highwaymen emerged from behind a pair of dented dumpsters, pulling their guns from worn holsters at their side. They sauntered down the dusty cobblestones towards me, each one taking a different side, lumbering like a pair of gorillas walking upright, snarling and gnashing their teeth as they strode.
I reached inside my jacket and pulled out my own six-shooter, kicked the windshield out with my boot heels and shot them dead on the spot. A bullet centered between each man’s eye. Nice try fellas, I said to myself. It ain’t that easy to rub out Dead-eye Danny.
A sudden swoosh to my left caught my attention. The bodies of the two highwaymen quickly dissolved into the cobblestones as I investigated the novel sound. Roy Condon, the owner and sole employee of Roy’s Taxidermy, had just opened the side window of his shop and was now sitting behind his desk.
There was a stuffed tabby cat before him that looked a lot like Mrs. Jenkins old cat Roxy, and as I watched, Mr. Condon carefully brushed its fur, running a silver-handled brush in long, delicate strokes down its back.
The chime of Mr. Condon’s door opening drifted out on the open window. I watched as he stood from his desk, smoothed his tweed jacket with his hands and turned to greet his guest. “Ah Mrs. Jenkins. Right on time. I have Roxy all set for you. I was just now brushing her fur.”
“I must confess,” he continued, lifting Roxy gingerly from off his desk and placing it upon a dais for Mrs. Jenkins to behold, “Roxy has the softest fur I have ever had the pleasure of working with. It reminds me of my childhood and the winters I spent in Hertfordshire, where I would run my fingers effortlessly through the recently fallen snow.”
I expected Mrs. Jenkins to burst into tears upon confronting her beloved housecat but instead, the bricks of Roy’s Taxidermy suddenly erupted into translucent red flames. I put my hand up to my eyes to shield myself from the heat of the burning stone. I sucked in my breath, inhaling the sulfurous odor of the flames, and watched as Mrs. Jenkins and Mr. Condon transformed into great crimson devils, a pair of leathery wings, black and tattered, sprouting from their shredded clothes and two coarse, blackened horns curling forth from their pockmarked temples. They took flight across the room, knocking stuffed badgers and pheasants and squirrels off of the ordered shelves, their black forked tongues flicking out between jagged fanged teeth. As they soared, their reptilian yellow eyes shimmered with a fiery sulfurous glow.
Mrs. Jenkins struck first, swooping in to pluck poor stuffed Roxy off the dais with one of her taloned feet. She circled the room once before coming about to face me, throwing Roxy at the open window with all her demonic might.
The stuffed cat burst into flame as it hurtled madly through the air, coming to life as it flew, its glass eyes burning like embers, its soft, snowy fur dissolving away to reveal metallic bones. The demon cat emitted an ear-splitting cry as it crossed the windowsill. I ducked my head to avoid its trajectory and shielded my face from the shattering of the trucks window glass. My hand went instantly to my recently holstered six-shooter.
“Danny!” My father’s voice suddenly boomed, interrupting my daydream. “Danny! What’s going on?”
“Noth…Nothing dad. I was just sitting here in the car,” I said to my father as he leaned in the trucks open passenger window.
“Well c’mon then, let’s go,” he said motioning for the street with his hand. “We have to go see Uncle Mikael real quick, he has something for me. Ms. Tully’ll let us park the truck here while we go over to his shop.”
I jumped down from the truck into the dry, cobbled alley, my feet crunching on the coarse pebbles and sand blown in from the surrounding Badlands. As we crossed out of the shadows and into the morning sun, I glanced through the storefront windows of Roy’s Taxidermy, to the inhabitants inside.
Mrs. Jenkins was sitting ladylike in an overstuffed leather chair, her head down and sobbing, the tears coming in great convulsing spasms. Mr. Condon, the store’s proprietor, was there behind her, offering his silk handkerchief, whispering heartfelt condolences into her ear as he patted her gently on back. The recently stuffed Roxy rested atop the dais before them; locked in her final, deliberate pose, and looking off into the distance with her newfound glassy eyes. To be concluded demons, I thought to myself.
“Why did you have to go see Ms. Tully again Dad?” I said, skipping playfully besides him as we strolled, being sure to avoid the numerous cracks within the sidewalk. I believed in the power of the rhyme and didn’t want to break my mothers back.
“Nothing for you to be concerned about big guy. C’mon now, your Uncle’s waiting.”
I followed my father through town, keeping a watchful eye out for any more highwaymen that might be after us. Like termites eating their way through the soft lumber of your home, when you saw one or two around, you could assume there would be more lurking in the shadows. My father didn’t seem to be worried about highwaymen, or anything at all really. But he sure seemed in a hurry to get to Uncle Mik’s.
The front of Uncle Mik’s shop was something straight out of a Western movie. It had two old saloon-style swinging doors that you walked through to enter. They were more for show during business hours than anything else as there was also a roll down metal gate that Uncle Mik would secure when he closed up shop. But while he was open, you could saunter through the doors like walking right into the type of bar Doc Holliday would be downing whiskey in while sitting at a poker table for hours. That was one of the many reasons I loved visiting the store. It was easy to pretend there and I loved pretending.
From outside the shop we could hear loud buzzing noises, which really wasn’t that unusual for ‘Nuts and Bolts’, the name Uncle Mik lovingly christened his store. He was always working on something. My father pushed through the protesting saloon doors first, and as he did I could make out carrot-orange sparks thrashing around the place as another of Uncle Mik’s project’s unfolded.
Once in the store, the grinding noise of Uncle Mik’s project grew deafening. I had my ears cupped to block out the sound but my father didn’t seem to mind. Uncle Mik was there behind the counter, at his cluttered workstation, and although he had his back to us, he somehow knew we were there, Soon, the glittering sparks began to dissipate, and the machine he was using slowly fell mute as it lost its speed. Without taking off his safety glasses, which always reminded me of the glasses aviators used to wear in old movies, with the leather sides enclosing the eyes, and with thick green lenses, he turned around and smiled at us. I always asked him if I could wear his glasses and he always replied the same way: “Someday kid, Someday.” I’ll believe it when I see it, was my thought.
“Well, look at what the cat dragged in!” Uncle Mik said while pulling off his glasses. “I didn’t expect you two for another couple of hours.”
Uncle Mik didn’t look like anyone I had seen before. His skin was mahogany-brown and had the texture of worn leather. His hair was grey and long and pulled back into a ponytail at all times. His worn face was covered in a salt-and-pepper scruff that seemed to stay the same length. He was forever clad in a weathered denim button-down shirt, dark jeans, and a stainless steel mesh apron that swished loudly with even the slightest of movements. On his feet were his massive “GI boots,” a pair of black lace-up combat boots with a two buckle attached extension. On the back heel of these relics he had the number “506” scraped into them. When I asked Uncle Mik one day about the number, he replied somberly, “That there’s for my brothers.”
“Plans changed. We were in the neighborhood,” my father replied, extending his hand palm-up and outward. Uncle Mikael breezed right by my father’s outstretched hand, ignoring the gesture, and scooped me up for a massive hug. He smelled of burnt metal, engine oil, and whiskey. “How’s my little man?” he boomed.
“I’m good.” I said, trying to not suffocate within his grasp.
He put me down and then embraced my father, their hands clasping at each others wrists, their eyes holding each other’s gaze for a moment before Uncle Mik laughed and began to lead my father, hand on his back, into a darkened side room. Before they disappeared completely, Uncle Mik stopped as if remembering something and came back to kneel besides me.
“If you don’t mind little man, I need to have a small chat with your father. We won’t be long. In the meantime, take a look at this.”
From a satchel on his side he handed me a hand-carved wooden slingshot. It was hewn from what looked like pine, and the handle depicted an eagle in incredible detail. The sling was made from rubber with a leather projectile pouch at the end.
“It’s Mayan, I was told, and it’s old, so take good care of it,” my uncle said. “And no shooting anything with it until your father shows you how. ”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Uncle Mik had bestowed upon me many trinkets and toys in the past, usually something every visit, but nothing like this. I slowly ran my hand down the chiseled handle, across the face of the eagle and over its feathered breast. An energy seemed to exude from the toy weapon and my fingertips felt overrun by an uncanny feeling of pins and needles. For a moment I grew a touch dizzy as I beheld the wondrous gift, and I began to feel slightly weak at the knees. I quickly recoiled my hand from the eagle’s chest, and took a moment to catch my breath. My heart was racing and there was a roaring in my ears. It took a second for me to recover and then it was time for a quick test run of the slingshot. I gripped the handle with all my might and pulled back hard on the rubber strap, releasing the leather held between my thumb and index finger with a loud Whhhhhhaaapppppp!
The rubber strap shot from my hand with the grace of an arrow leaving a bow. I felt a kinship immediately with this able weapon, this beautiful piece of work. I promised myself then and there to take the utmost care of my eagle friend, and in my mind, I imagined that she would do the very same for me. Just at that moment, I heard my father and Uncle Mik returning from the side room, speaking in low, yet audible tones and still very much in the midst of their conversation.
“Just remember what I told you. If this were somehow to fall into the wrong hands, I must know immediately. But it’s easy to use if you must, so don’t worry too much. I trust you.”
My father nodded to Uncle Mik and then patted me on my head, a sign that it was time for us to go. My father was carrying in his hand a rusted metal briefcase, which seemed oddly familiar. It had dents and marks on all sides, like it had fallen down a cliff, and you could tell it was important to my father by the intensity of the grip with which he held it.
My Uncle crouched down again to look me in the eye, and addressed me in a very serious tone.
“And you remember what I said as well. Let your father teach you how to use that slingshot. It’s dangerous, and it’s not a toy. And….be good to it. It certainly was good to me.”
“Thanks Uncle Mik. I will take care of it.”
“I know you will little man.”
My father was already making his way through the swinging saloon doors, so I hustled to catch up, cradling my slingshot in my arms like a baby.
To Be Continued……