The Pick-Me-Up Truck
By Denise Dietz
Denise "Deni" Dietz is the best-selling author of several novels, including†Eye of Newt†and Footprints in the Butter. Her sister Eileen, who played The Demon in "The Exorcist," was the inspiration for Deni's Hollywood noir, Fifty Cents For Your Soul.†Using the pen-name Beatrice Brooks, Deni wrote the critically-acclaimed paranormal erotica, James Dean and the Moonlight Madness Sale.†Deni's latest novel,†Chain a Lamb Chop to the Bed†- an Ellie Bernstein/Lt. Peter Miller Mystery - is the third book in her†"diet club" series. Denise/Bea lives on Vancouver Island. You can find them both at: http://www.denisedietz.com
When I was eleven-going-on-twelve, I told Mike I wanted to be a professional baseball player, maybe even play for the Chicago Cubs.
He said, "In your dreams, Cissy."
Last night I dreamed about Mike. And Lilyville.
I never dream about Lilyville. Never even think about it unless I have to. When someone asks me where Iím originally from, I say, "Oh, Denver." And Iím not lying. Not really. Because Lilyvilleís less than one mountain away.
In last nightís dream, Mike handed me his baseball bat and said, ďOkay, Cissy, letís see you hit a home run.Ē
I hit a triple and woke up.
Bolted upright, actually, sweat streaming down my face. My Chicago Cubs T-shirt was glued to my back and breasts, and I couldn't stop laughing. I chortled madly through my electric toothbrush, my shower, my first mug of coffee. The coffee burned the roof of my mouth, but it didn't curb my laughter. To tell the God's honest truth, I sounded like a middle-aged, gray-haired, blue-eyed, mechanical fun-house recording.
Outside my Chicago apartment window, sirens screech with the regularity of a broken alarm clock and car horns honk like pissed-off geese. The loudest night-music in Lilyville was the whoosh of heavy snow or the plop of a coin hitting the water in Stu Jackson's wishing well. Or the yowl of a cat in heat.
Once a year the carnival visited Lilyville. Carny workers wore Humprey Bogart undershirts under overalls. As if choreographed by Disney, the animated troupe would put up a rickety Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round (anguished horses chomping at empty air; swans landlocked), a miniature roller coaster, and some sort of puke-your-dinner whirly thing. Then they'd construct a fun house, topped by a fat lady who couldn't stop laughingeven though her mouth never moved.
During carnival week, the nights reverberated with kid-screams that sounded like horror film soundtracks.
Everything smelled of sugar, as if an artist had painted a canvas and coated it with fructose rather than shellac. Breezes carried the scent of spun cotton candy, caramel apples, and undiluted Coca-Cola. The cherry, grape, and root beer-flavored sno-cones looked like snow-capped mountains filtered through a rainbow.
And the vacant lot was filled with magic.
The lot, a rectangular piece of land between two motels, was bordered on both sides and across the back by horizontal planks of rotting wood. Clumps of knee-high weeds battled peppergrass and wildflowers. An April storm had scabbed the south side of a crabapple tree, eliminating its foliage. A sad, weathered sign that spelled out: LILYVILLE REALTY was nailed to the tree. Every so often, in a spurt of civic pride, the Kiwanis club mowed the weeds.
To the left of the vacant lot stood a pretentious "motor inn." Its symmetrical units were interrupted by a cute bear, clad in a nightshirt, perched on top of a pole. From the highway, the bear could be seen sleepwalking through stars.
Our other motel, The Rip Van Winkle, sported simulated wood cabins. A ten-foot Rip statue protected overnight guests with his rusty musket. Of course, Rip became the target for ice-packed snowballs. We kids honestly believed that the motel's owner, Stu Jackson, made a freaking fortune from the coins that dotted his shallow wishing well.
Lilyville didn't have an animal shelter, so cats roamed at will. The Kiwanis club might have rounded them up (civic pride and all that) if Mrs. Bubba Johnson hadnít screamed bloody murder. She fed the cats, named some of themwe never knew, exactly, how many there wereand swore they slept in her backyard shed. Her husband, Bubba, who looked like Jackie Gleason, was the richest man in town. He owned our only grocery store, Johnsonís Mart, so you didnít want to piss off Mrs. Bubba. You might suddenly find that food prices had risen or that Johnsonís Mart had dropped your favorite brand.
Next to Johnsonís Mart was Fast Eddie's Eats. Only three of the neon-sign letters worked. When the sun set and darkness descended, the marquee read: DIE.
Across the street, challenging Eddie's, was Robert's Roost, also known as Robber's Roost. The Roost served wine imported from California, thick-marbled steaks, frozen lobster tails, and waitresses with big boobs.
Next to The Roost was a seasonal clothing store, then a lingerie shop; every Lilyville pre-pubescent girl bought her first double-A padded bra there. Next to the underwear shop was The Bookworm, where Nancy Drew shared shelf space with Jacqueline Susann.
Catty-corner to The Bookworm, the King Arthur Lounge looked like a skinny sand castle. Upstairs were pool table and dart boards. It was rumored that Frankie Avalon had once sung there. Because of that, rather than legendary connotations, we kids called the lounge the Avalon.
From the business district of Washington and Franklin, the town spread like the splayed fingers on one hand. Five residential streets all led to the base of a mountain range. Tract homes, built after World War II, filled the thumb and first finger. The middle finger boasted Victorian houses, constructed during a brief turn-of-the-century gold rush. The ring finger and pinkie included summer rental cottages, traversed by a winding stream where, long ago, miners had filled their sluice boxes. No one knew, for sure, where the town got its name. Some said it was named for the Sego Lilies that dotted its open slopes. Some said it was named for Lillian Russell.
Men who lived on Jackson, Cleveland, Lincoln, Madison, and Kennedy (once called Grant), earned their weekly wages by commuting to a larger municipality. In those days, before computers, very few people worked at home.
Mr. Malachi did. He lived on Lincoln, at the end of the middle finger. Every Halloween, heíd carve a scary Jack-oí-lantern. Greeting kids at the door, heíd chuckle at our costumes, pretend he didnít know us, and hold out a bowl filled with nickels, dimes and pennies. Weíd keep all the coins one hand could scoop. If we dropped a coin, we couldnít pick it up. "A fool and his money are soon parted," Mr. Malachi liked to say. "The rest of us wait till we reach Johnsonís Mart."
I saw Mrs. Malachi once. She sat on her porch, rocking back and forth. She looked like Snow White, only older. Mike said that crystal prisms hung from her bedroom ceiling and that Mr. Malachi brought her meals on a tray and that breakfast consisted of tea, toast, and a single red rose.
Walking past Mr. Malachiís lovely Victorian house, you'd have to stop and sniff the fresh sawdust and varnish. A carpenter, he built beautiful furniture. He wore trousers-with-a-crease and plaid flannel shirts. His wispy silver hair fell neatly to the left of a side part, and his Kirk-Douglas-jaw proclaimed the daily use of razor and strop. He drove a Chevy "pick-me-up" truck and blasted his horn every time he saw a cat. He didnít like cats, called them "claws with feline fur."
Mike worked for Mr. Malachi. Mike learned how to sculpt furniture, but his dream was to leave Lilyville and become a doctor or lawyer. Or President of the United States. Secretly, I wanted to be Mike's First (and only) Lady.
School had just begun, ending a summer break so uneventful that even Stephen King couldn't have found anything of interest to write about, and Mike showed all the kids his new bat.
"Carved it myself," he bragged, displaying the stallion heíd etched into the solid piece of wood. He hesitated, then said, "Mr. Malachi helped."
Awed, I said, "Can I touch it, Mike?"
"Youíre only eleven, youíll get it sticky," he replied with twelve-year-old wisdom.
I held up my scrubbed hands, having made the identical gesture for my mom's early-morning inspection.
We stood across the street from the brick building that housed first to eighth grades. High school students were bussed to the next town. In the distance, blaring from somebody's radio, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood sang the number one song of the week, "Somethin' Stupid." Letters on the Lilyville movie marquee read: BONNIE AND CLYDE.
Slicked down by spit, Mike's mutinous red hair matched the color of the autumn leaves. He studied my hands, probed my face with his green eyes, then said, "You've got oatmeal at the corner of your mouth, Cissy."
"Cream of Wheat," I said, flicking my tongue like a lizard until I'd licked away the offending splotch.
Grudgingly, Mike let me caress his bat until the school bell summoned us.
The next day Mrs. Malachi died.
After Mrs. Malachiís funeral, Mr. Malachi's hair lost its part. His stubbly chin hid his Kirk-Douglas-cleft, and he spent lots of time at the Avalon. More often than not, Mike would drive Mr. Malachi home, clean his vomit, change his soiled clothes, and put him to bed.
It snowed on Halloween. Mr. Malachiís pumpkin looked scarier than usual, and he cussed us out when we knocked on his door. His breath smelled like beer.
Mike stopped working for Mr. Malachi. Mike wouldnít say why, but I heard my father say that the old man was a mean drunk.
April arrived, heralding showers, the Easter bunny, and baseball season.
The vacant lot became our field.
Big, blubbery Bubba Johnson, Jr. metamorphosed into the most popular kid in town. Bubba had a new ball. Mike, however, had his beautiful stallion-bat. I was the only girl on the team. My unruly curls fell into my eyes while running, so Mike hacked off my hair with garden sheers. My mom freaked out, gave me my first (and only) spanking. Feeling guilty, Mike let me use his bat during the last inning of a tied game. "Okay, Cissy," he said, "Letís see you hit a home run." I hit a triple. That brought Mike up to bat. He took a few practice swings and let the first pitch go by.
"Strike," said one of the Royer twins, who by virtue of a broken arm had been elected umpire.
Mike winked. "This one's for you, Cissy," he said, belting the next pitch with all his strength. It was a bad pitch, and the ball veered to the left, rebounded off Rip Van Winkle, then smashed the window of Mr. Malachi's pick-me-up truck.
Mr. Malachi, who had just left the Avalon, climbed into the passenger seat, scooped up the ball, walked around the Chevy, and threw the ball at the nightshirt-clad bear. The ball hit the bear's pole and we all applauded. Bubba Jr. waddled toward the ball while Mr. Malachi stomped toward Mike.
And suddenly I knew what my father meant by a mean drunk. Mr. Malachiís scowling mouth had spittle at the corners. It was hard to see his eyes, squinting above pouches that were almost as big as a kangarooís, but his nostrils flared and his face looked as white as the chickweed plants that lined our baseball field.
"Gosh, I'm sorry," Mike said. "I'll pay for your window."
We all gasped when Mr. Malachi grabbed Mike's bat and staggered back to the Chevy. Lowering its tailgate, he retrieved an ax, placed the bat against the curb, and swung. Splinters flew. Then Mr. Malachi tossed the ax back in his truck, closed its tailgate, climbed into the driver's seat, and drove away.
Baseball game forgotten, we all stared at Mike. His freckles stood out in his pale face. His eyes were dark jade and a small vein throbbed in his forehead.
Scooping up the broken bat, he cradled it in his arms and walked over to Stu Jackson's wishing well.
I'll never forget the sound of wood hitting shallow water.
Mike's father had once owned Lilyville Realty. Now he cooked burgers at DIE. Despite his Tom Sawyer appearance, Mike was the smartest boy in school, and we all knew he'd be a millionaire someday. The sculpted bat had been his first (and only) status symbol.
Instinctively, I realized that if I showed any outward sign of sympathy I'd ruin our friendship. Already, Mike's stricken expression had altered and his eyes looked a hundred years old.
Nodding toward the wishing well, I said, "What did you wish for?"
"Inspiration, Cissy," he replied. "I'm gonna think up the perfect get-back."
It took Mike a week to devise his plan. The carnival visited Lilyville and kids finished neglected chores. Some even cleaned garages and mowed lawns for slave wages. Mike washed dishes at the Roost. His hands cleaned plates, but his mind churned like a stern-wheeler navigating a muddy river.
His scheme was simple. And ingenious.
On Saturday Mike and I lined up at a carny machine that etched messages on round metal discs. Mike spent some of his Roost salary and I spent two weeksí worth of allowance, but we made 25 disks.
"What'll we do for collars?" I asked Mike. "We can't afford collars."
He ruffled my shorn hair, withdrew a bag of rubber bands from his jeans pocket, and we spent an hour threading the bands through the holes in the discs.
Around midnight, I climbed out of my bedroom window, navigated the latticework against my house, and met Mike in front of the Roost.
He handed me some thick gloves. "In case they scratch," he said.
Furtively, we sneaked into Bubba Jr.ís backyard.
Mike unlocked the gate-door that led to an alley. "Wait here, Cissy," he said. "Sit on the ground. Let them get used to your smell." He tossed me a doggie bag. "Leftovers from the Roost. Steak and lobster. But donít feed them yet."
I swallowed hard and whispered, "Hurry back."
The minutes seemed like hours. Eventually, I heard the chug of a motor. Mike drove down the alley, hunched behind the steering wheel of Mr. Malachi's pick-me-up truck. Strips of black masking tape crisscrossed the broken window.
Opening the truckís door, Mike slid from the seat to the ground. "Mr. Malachi's at the Avalon," he said. "Let's load the cats."
"You're crazy," I said, sudden fear surging through me.
"Are you going to fink out, Cissy?"
"No, Mike, but"
"Good," he said, and gave me my first-ever kiss. It was a dry kiss, a Cary Grant Deborah Kerr Affair-To-Remember kiss, but I saw stars explode.
We slipped rubber bands over the heads of twenty-three cats and loaded them onto the back of the truck. Then we loaded me. The cats began to meow. I took off my gloves and fed them lobster.
Slowly, without headlights, Mike drove to the vacant lot. Which, of course, wasnít vacant anymore. It wasnít magic anymore, either, since the carnival had closed down for the night.
Mike had said that the carny troupe slept at the Rip Van Winkle.
Eerie silence shrouded us, and the fun house door wasnít locked.
We unloaded the cats.
Mike then drove to the Avalon. Mr. Malachi was still there. We could hear him singing "Danny Boy" and we knew he'd never notice that his pick-me-up truck had been parked at a different spot, shielding a fire hydrant.
The next day was Sunday and the carnival didnít open until noon.
Mike had told the baseball team to meet him and me at the Baptist Church.
From inside the Church I heard sinners singing, "I once was lost but now Iím found." I hummed along as we all headed for Mr. Malachi's house and stood across the street.
In front of the house was a long line of carny people. Several crowded the steps that led to Mr. Malachi's porch. Each person held a struggling cat. Mr. Malachi slumped against his doorframe while the front of the line buzzed.
They sounded like angry hornets smoked from their hive.
Sneaking closer, I saw a woman built like a Sumo wrestler. She wore overalls and Popeye shoes. "You'd better pay up, Mister," she growled.
"That cat ain't mine," Mr. Malachi said, windmilling his hands at the Sumo woman.
"Then why'd you tag 'em?" The Sumo woman grasped a disc between her thumb and first finger. "Says here there's a fifty dollar reward, and I want my money."
"Me, too," said the man next to the woman, as he thrust a yellow tabby at Mr. Malachi.
Shoving the porch people aside, Mr. Malachi lowered his head and butted his way down the porch steps. "Them cats ainít mine!" he shouted, making a megaphone with his thumbs and fingers. "Go back to your freaking carnival!"
The end of the line pushed against the front of the line. Joined by the porch-people, they all surged forward. I heard Mr. Malachi's blood-curdling scream, just before he disappeared from view, smothered by angry people and angry cats.
The rest of the kids ran away, but I stood with Mike, rooted to the spot.
Need I tell you what Mr. Malachi looked like after the people and cats had finished with him?
Tell you this muchit wasnít shown on the news. In those days, cameramen didn't shoot naked, bloody bodies.
Mr. Malachi's back looked like a waffle grill, only someone had greased it with catsup rather than butter. His sagging buttocks sported red striped underpants, fashioned from red striped skin. But when the cops turned him over, it was worse. Mr. Malachi was missing his nose, his lips, and one eye. The other eye seemed to stare in my direction.
"The better to see you with, my dear," I told Mike, giggling hysterically, sounding like the carnival's fun house lady.
I continued laughing, even when the doctor's needle hovered above my arm. The needle brought blessed sleep, but I woke up laughing, and that's when my parents decided they'd send me to Chicago to live with my grandmother.
Eventually a novelist unearthed the story and wrote a best-selling horror book. Which is one of the reasons I donít tell people I was born in Lilyville
Outside my Chicago apartment window, thunder clashed like muted cymbals. My coffee had cooled, but hot tears scorched my cheeks.
Dialing Information, I gave the operator three names. Two didnít pan out, but Bubba Johnson, Jr. hadnít left Lilyville.
He told me that Mike still lives there, inside Mr. Malachi's Victorian house. After Mrs. Malachi died, before Mr. Malachi became a mean drunk, he scribbled a crude but legal will, leaving his house and pick-me-up truck to Mike.
When my questions became personal, Bubba put his wife on the phone.
She told me that Mike sculpts beautiful furniture. He wears trousers-with-a-crease and plaid flannel shirts, and he runs his business from his website. Every Halloween he carves a scary Jack-oí-lantern and hands out money rather than candy. Mike got the pick-me-up truck going again when he was old enough to (legally) drive it. And he still drives it. Usually he drives to the Avalon, where he plays darts and drinks soda. The truck would be a vintage, classic truck, she said, if only it didnít have that broken, taped-up window.
Before I thanked her and said goodbye, she told me Mike never married.
I wonder if his red hair is silver now. I wonder if itís still rebellious or parted neatly on the right. I wonder if he smells of sawdust and varnish.
They say you canít go home again but
I wonder if he dreams.
Denise Dietz ©2005
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