Wednesday, December 12, 2007

They’re All Mad - Jon Bassoff

They’re All Mad

My father lived in a ramshackle bungalow on the outskirts of town. Nobody lived within two miles of him except the cat lady, and she always left him alone. He always said that he liked people okay, but he didn’t have much use for them. And when Mom died, well, that was about it for him. His body was still there, but it was just a jalopy filled with broken parts.

I barely ever visited him, so it’s hard to say why I decided to on that particular night. Maybe I sensed that something was wrong, or maybe I just wanted someone to talk to. It doesn’t matter. In any case, I got into my car and drove, the lonely county line road surrounded by invisible cornfields, the radio playing nothing but ghostly static. The night was dark, and the moon was missing.

When I got to his house, all the lights were off, but the front door was open. That wasn’t terribly unusual. He often went to bed early, and he could have forgotten to close the door. Still, my throat tightened and dread oozed through my veins. I parked my car in the dirt driveway behind his ancient Ford truck. I turned off the engine and sat in the car, thinking. My head started aching. They’d prescribed medication, but I didn’t like taking it. It gave me the shakes. I pulled my greasy hair back with my hand and sighed. Misery was breathing down my neck.

I opened the car door and pulled my body outside. A soft breeze was blowing, and sleepy leaves were falling to the ground. They crunched beneath my feet as I made my way across the grass, stepping over rusted car parts and busted lawn chairs. As soon as I reached the front door, the wind stopped blowing and the whole world was quiet. Except my brain. It kept right on roaring.

I knocked on the door a few times and called out his name. There was no answer. I pushed open the screen door and let it slam shut behind me. I fumbled around for a few moments before I found a light switch. I turned it on and glanced around the living room. Everything looked okay, everything was in its place. His shoes were lined neatly against the wall, and his jacket was folded and lying on the couch. Today’s newspaper was open on the coffee table. In the corner of the room, a grandfather clock was ticking methodically, confidently. The windows were open, and the white curtains were swaying. I took a few steps, the hardwood floor groaning softly. I called out his name again and, upon hearing no response, laughed nervously to myself.

The door to his bedroom was closed. I knocked, waited a few moments, then knocked again. My goddamn head was killing me. I opened the door slowly. The room was dark. I turned on the light. I didn’t scream, but my legs gave way and I collapsed to the floor. My father was in the middle of the room, wearing only an A-frame undershirt and a pair of polka-dot boxers. His eyes were open. A rope was tied to the light fixture on one end and to his neck on the other end. His feet dangled six or seven inches above the floor. Everything smelled like death and despair. I didn’t know what to do, so I pulled out a cigarette and lit it. The smoke filled up my lungs and burned like a son-of-a-bitch.

On the morning of the funeral, the clouds looked like they were ready to burst, but the rain never came. Instead, there was only thunder rolling across the plains, sounding like furniture being dragged across the sky. There weren’t many people there, and most of the people that were there I had never seen before. They shook their heads and said “It’s a real shame,” and asked me how I was doing, and it surprised them when I told them that I was doing just fine. People worry about me too much.

At the graveyard, the wind started blowing pretty hard, kicking up dust, and when the priest spoke his words were muffled and hard to hear. At one point he asked everybody to bow their heads and say a prayer for my father, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Then the priest gave me a shovel. I dug some dirt from the ground and tossed it into the hole. The moment the soil scattered across the coffin, somebody released a cry. Maybe it was me. My father was gone.

Everybody left, and I thought I was alone. I was sitting on the ground smoking a cigarette, thinking about everything and nothing at all. I heard somebody breathing. I turned around and saw a man that I had never seen before in my life. He was a burly fellow with a pockmarked face, a flattened nose, green eyes, and a cruel mouth. He wore a porkpie hat, a long leather jacket, and smelled like cheap aftershave. “They’re calling it a suicide, huh?” he said in a raspy voice.

“Who are you?” I asked.

He grinned revealing a set of rotting teeth. “I’m a friend,” he said. “That is, I was a friend of your father.”

“He didn’t have any friends.”

“Not many, no. But he had his share of enemies.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

He grunted and pulled out a crooked cigarette from his shirt pocket. He inhaled deeply, his humorless eyes narrowing into slits. “There’s a lot you don’t know about your father.”

I got to my feet. The man was an inch or two smaller than me, but probably outweighed me by a couple of quarters. “And I suppose you’re gonna tell me,” I said.

He grinned thinly. “You’re father was not what he appeared to be. He had a second life. He spent it stealing from other people.”

The blood rushed to my head, and I clenched my fists, feeling a sudden hatred for this porkpie-wearing stranger. “You’re a goddamn liar.”

“Believe what you want to believe, son. I speak the truth. He was two-bit crook, stealing from old ladies and senile men. But once upon a time he took too much money from the wrong people. They came after him, and your father split. Did you ever wonder why you ended up in this Podunk town?”

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” I said. “And so did my dad. And his dad. And—”

“He was sparing you from the truth. He spent his whole life glancing over his shoulder, looking in his rearview mirror, just waiting for the guillotine to drop. And it finally did.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Fair warning,” he said. “Because even after they killed him, those sons-of-bitches couldn’t find the money. They might think that you’ve got it. And that means that they’re gonna be coming for you next.”

“You’re crazy,” I said.

He dropped his cigarette to the grass and crushed it out with his foot. “Just do yourself a favor, son, and keep your eyes open,” he growled. “And best not open your front door for awhile.”

And then, two days later, the letter came, slipped under my door by a silent messenger while I sat on my couch drinking poison and staring at the wall. I took a chug of vodka and wiped my mouth with my sleeve. Then I got to my feet and walked toward the door. The manila envelope was blank, blank except for a scarlet substance near the corner that might have been blood or wine. With trembling hands, I opened up the envelope and stared at the letter inside. It was written in my father’s shaky handwriting. I felt my stomach tighten. I leaned against the wall and read, while off in the distance a train whistle blew, sounding like a foghorn calling the ships to shore.

“James,” the letter read. “Tell them I’m sorry, sorry for all I’ve done. I didn’t mean to hurt nobody. Tell them to stay away from you, that they got no business messing with you. I’m a bad person, but you ain’t. I hid the money, James. Mom’s keeping it safe. Get it from her.”

And that was all. The letter wasn’t signed. I pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Then I pictured my Dad’s face and grinned. A goddamn crook. I don’t know why it surprised me. We all spend our lives doing exactly what he did: imitating, imitating, acting like something we aren’t, striving to become a caricature of something others want us to be—the faithful husband, the caring father, the loving son. Meanwhile, when nobody is looking we’re smearing ourselves with deceit, violence, and ruthlessness and laughing all the while.

I read the letter a few more times. Mom was keeping it safe, he’d written. What did he mean by that? Mom was six feet under. Buried right next to the old man. I turned it over in my head a few times. Then it dawned on me. The old bastard had buried the blood money with his corpse bride. I refolded the letter and stuffed it back into the envelope. I grabbed an unread King James Bible off the bookshelf and stuck the envelope inside. Then I crushed out my cigarette and sucked down the last of the vodka.

Later that night they arrived. Faceless men, hiding in the shadows, lurking in the alleys, crawling through my brain. I turned out all the lights in the apartment so they wouldn’t be able to watch me. Every so often I would peak out the window, and I could see them, odd shapes floating through the darkness. As best as I could tell, there were two of them, although there might have been more. They weren’t trying very hard to keep hidden. They wanted me to know that they were out there, wanted me to feel the fear of their presence.

My head was throbbing and it was hard to focus. Still, with the help of a few more shots, I was able to think about the situation at hand with some semblance of rationality. The men were obviously scoping out my apartment, waiting for the right moment to enter and begin their interrogation. And even if I gave them the information they needed, these sadistic men wouldn’t leave any loose ends. They’d execute me just like they had my father. Waiting for the inevitable would do me no good. I needed to find a way to slip out of my apartment unseen. Then I could make my way to the graveyard where the blood money lay buried. But how? There was only one way out of the apartment building, and they certainly wouldn’t leave that door unguarded, even for a moment.

For several minutes I was paralyzed by this problem. I paced through the hallways, muttering to myself, biting down on my lower lip until it bled, cursing the devil-god, feeling like my head would explode at any moment. Then an idea flashed through my brain, a radical idea that had no chance of working. But desperation and prudence rarely mix, and I was desperate to live another day. I proceeded.

I ventured to the hall closet and located a shovel and a can of unopened lighter fluid. I dropped the shovel by the doorway. Then, heart pounding, I twisted off the cap and turned the can upside-down. While slowly backing through the apartment, I squirted the liquid in a zigzag pattern on the filthy gray carpet. I made it all the way to the middle of the living room before the can was emptied and my legs gave way from fear or excitement. I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out a book of matches. I tried lighting several, but my hands were shaking too much and they wouldn’t take. Finally, down to my last two matches, one lit. Afraid that it would extinguish, I quickly tossed the match on the carpet. Instantaneously, the tiny flame exploded into a great fire, racing down the hallway in an uncontained rage. Within a minute, the fire devoured the hallway and began snaking its way throughout the apartment. The alarm rang, sounding like the devil screaming from his throne.

The adrenaline was shooting through my veins. I took a deep breath, covered my mouth with the crook of my arm, and dodged my way toward the front door. The flames had just reached the door, but they were still shallow enough that I was able to kick it open with my foot. Grabbing the shovel with one hand, I lowered my head and bulled through the door as the fiery arms flailed at my body.

In the vestibule, dazed looking tenants wearing bathrobes and nightgowns and boxers were moving toward the exit, unsure if they were awake or in the midst of a horrific nightmare. I too began to doubt my own wakefulness as I fought my way outside, stepping over an elderly Hispanic woman who had fallen to the ground and was praying in Spanish. Outside, the night was filled with screams and shouts and tears. A young woman grabbed my arm and said, “My dog’s still in there. I didn’t have time to grab her!” I just shook my head. I didn’t mean to hurt any dogs. Sometimes things just happen.

I didn’t watch the pyrotechnics for long. I knew my tormenters would soon be swimming through the smoke and chaos to locate me. I raised my collar, stuck the shovel beneath my arm, and started walking, a mean wind blowing in my face. As I crossed the railroad tracks, I stopped and looked back. The apartment building shone like a beacon, all jack-o-lantern orange and chimney red.

I made my way to Main Street. Nobody was out on the sidewalks tonight except for a couple of drunken factory workers. A day-old newspaper tiptoed down the gutter, and I kicked it on its way. Off in the distance ghostly sirens wailed. Every few seconds, I glanced behind me. As far as I could tell, nobody was following me. Still, an uneasy feeling was crawling through my intestines, and my head felt like it was about to explode. I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out a couple of little white pills. I stared at them for a moment then threw them to the ground, crushed them with my boot. The last thing I needed right now was to get the shakes. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples, but it did no good.

The cemetery was on the edge of town, surrounded by a bunch of spooky cottonwoods The steel gate was locked for the night. I threw the shovel over then began climbing. On the way down, my shirt caught on the edge of the fence, and I toppled clumsily to the ground. I got to my feet, dusted myself off, and looked around. Row upon row of gravestones glowed in the moonlight. I had a vague recollection of where my parents were buried, but in the darkness I felt disoriented. I started walking, the gravel crunching beneath my boots.

I had just finished circling the periphery when I heard a sound behind me, maybe a twig breaking. My body tensed and my heart rate quickened. I turned around, holding my breath without meaning to. For several moments I stood very still, my eyes darting across the grounds, looking for some movement. Nothing. Chalking it up to my frayed nerves, I continued walking through the labyrinth of death, searching desperately for my mother’s bones.

An hour passed, maybe more, before I found my parents’ twin plots, situated directly behind a giant statue of an angel. Exhausted, I sat down on the wet grass. I looked up at the sky. The moon had disappeared behind a cloud.

I thought about the task ahead of me and felt overwhelmed. Armed with only a single shovel, I needed to dig away six feet of earth before daylight or my killers arrived. Grinning bitterly, I bent my knees, jammed the shovel into the earth, and began digging away the dirt that encased my mother’s coffin.

I didn’t notice them until they were standing directly in front of me. Two pairs of identical black dress shoes. Slowly, I looked up. Standing before me were two men, the same men that had been skulking outside of my apartment. This was the first time that I’d seen them up close. One of them was an older man, probably in his seventies at least. He had a gaunt face, tight white skin, and thin lips. His eyes were grey, almost translucent. The other man was much younger, thirty five maybe. He was as ugly as an ape, with his protruding forehead, square jaw, and acne-scarred skin. His arms were folded over a barrel chest. I knew right away that he was the muscle of this operation, a goon who was ready to make me pay for my father’s transgressions.

“We finally get to meet,” the old man said, his lips stretching into a fearsome smile. “That was a nice touch back at the apartment.”

I didn’t say anything, just jerked my head in a dismissive nod.

“You’re father was a coward,” he said. “He pissed and shat his pants when we visited him.”

I cleared my throat and spoke, my own voice sounding strange and faraway. “He was no coward,” I said. “He never told you where he’d hidden the money.”

The old man laughed. “This is true. But he did tell us that you knew where it was. He ratted out his own son.”

I got to my feet. My head wasn’t aching anymore. They’d picked the wrong man to mess with. Don’t you know you can’t scare a ghost?

With only a moment’s hesitation, I spit in the old man’s face. I got him right below the eye, and the saliva oozed down his cheek. His left eye twitching, he wiped away the spit with the back of his hand. The goon took a step forward, but his boss stuck out his hand and stopped him. “Don’t make this unpleasant,” he said, his empty eyes glaring through my skull. “We could kill you right now. It would make it mighty easy on the undertaker.”

“So why don’t you?”

“Insurance policy. If the money’s not down there I’m confident that you’ll be able to assist us in our continued search.”

“And if the money is down there?”

He shrugged. “Then maybe I’ll be in a charitable mood. Maybe I’ll let you suck on your miserable life for a while longer.”

The goon bent down and picked up the shovel and shoved it against my chest. I grabbed it, eyeing the ugly ape warily. “Start digging boy,” he said in a surprisingly feminine voice.

They didn’t offer any assistance. Despite the cool weather, sweat was soon dripping from my forehead, stinging my eyes. An hour passed, maybe two, before I hit something solid. The two men, who had been sitting on the ground pulling grass and not talking to each other, both got up simultaneously and walked over to the gaping hole. I looked up and nodded.

“Open it up,” the old man said, a devilish gleam in his eye.

At this point, I was actually standing on top of the wooden casket. Playing the fool, I tried yanking open the wooden box, but physics would not permit such an endeavor. “I need your help,” I said.

“Stand behind the casket,” the old man said. “There’s some room there.”

I took a couple of steps before theatrically slipping. I fell to the side of the casket and pretended that I was trapped. “I sprained my fucking ankle,” I called out, grimacing in pretend pain.

The old man looked at his meathead assistant and pointed toward me. “Get him out of there,” he ordered. “We don’t have much time.”

Reluctantly, the thug walked to the edge of the hole and peered down. He steadied his legs and stuck out his beefy hand. Seeing my opportunity, I rose to my knees, grabbed his arm with both hands and pulled as hard as I could. Like a gymnast on balance beam, he waved his free arm trying to regain his balance, but it was no use. I released my grip, and he came crashing down, face first, on top of the coffin.

Quickly, I grabbed the shovel and raised it high over my head. In what seemed like an eternity, the metal blade descended toward the goon’s skull. It connected, and his body jerked. With the devil screaming in my ear, I came down again and again, battering his cranium. Pretty soon his nose was smashed inside his skull, and his face was so bloody it didn’t look like a face at all. I kept pounding and pounding until the son-of-a-bitch was nothing more than a gory mass of twitches. Then I pounded him some more.

I sat down on the coffin Indian-style and bit my nails. “Nicely done, Wyatt, nicely done.” I looked up and saw the old man sitting at the edge of the hole, his skinny legs dangling over the side. An evil grin was spread on his sallow face. In his right hand he held a snub-nose .38 special. “You killed him, a shame, a shame.”

“I had no choice.”

“No,” he said. “You’re right, Wyatt. We never have a choice, do we?”

“What are you gonna do?”

“The man you just killed was named Johnny, Johnny Bridges, and he was a mean, angry, son-of-a-bitch. Not a person in the world is going to miss him. Nobody but me. See, Johnny Bridges was my son.”

The old man cocked the gun and aimed it in my direction. My jaw tightened and my hands clenched into fists. So this was the end, and what did I have to show for it? A body that had been stomped and spit on. A soul that had been humiliated and brutalized. A heart that had been torn and devoured. I shook my head and smiled, not a bitter smile, but a genuine smile, the first genuine smile I’d had in years. Because it was funny, it really was funny, and I had never gotten the joke until now.

How long did the old man sit on that ledge with the gun pointed at my poor head? I don’t know. I just sat on my mother’s coffin laughing and laughing, immortal, finally immortal. But the old man didn’t get the joke. Or maybe he did and thought it was terribly sad. He turned the gun around and pressed it against his temple. Then he squeezed the trigger. There was a loud explosion, and I watched in awe as the primordial fiend came hurtling into the hole, crashing on top of his massacred son, both very much dead. I sat there for awhile, paralyzed. Eventually, I got to my knees, then my feet. My old man’s money was still in the coffin. All I had to do was shove their bodies away and open it up. I thought about it for a moment. Then I climbed out of the hole and collapsed on the wet grass. I slept like a dead man.
I heard voices. Faraway voices like I was still dreaming. I opened my eyes. They stung. Everything was blurry and white. White walls. White ceilings. White uniforms. I tried sitting up, but I couldn’t move. I blinked a few times. A woman’s face came into focus. She was a nurse. Where was I? A hospital? No, nothing hurt. Back in that house of mirrors? They couldn’t keep me here. They had no right to. Nobody owned me. Nobody…owned…me. “How are you feeling, Wyatt?” the nurse said. She had orange hair and a million freckles.

“I need to go,” I said. “I have some business, some very important business to attend to.”

The nurse smiled. Her teeth were as white as her freshly bleached uniform. “Dr. Thompson will see you momentarily.”

She disappeared out of a door that wasn’t there. Once again, I tried sitting up. It was no use. My legs were strapped down. So were my arms. I stared up at the florescent lights on the ceiling. I began humming a song that I had never heard. How did it go? “He’ll be waiting at the bottom of the hill. He’ll be waiting at the bottom of the hill. My dreams he’ll take, and my soul he’ll kill.”

A year passed, maybe more, before Dr. Thompson finally appeared. By this point, my muscles had deteriorated, and my heart was failing. He looked different from the last time I’d seen him. He’d had a beard before, that’s what it was. Now he was clean shaven. But his eyes were the same. Grey and deadly. “Do you remember me, Wyatt?” he said, his voice creeping through my ear canal like a spider.

“Yeah,” I said. “I remember.”

“You stopped taking your medication, didn’t you?”

“I did. It gave me the shakes.”

He shook his head. “And now look at what you’ve done. Just look at what you’ve done.”

I clenched my fists and sucked the tears back into my eyes. “They would have killed me doc, you’ve got to believe me.”

He took a couple of steps forward, his looming figure filling my line of sight. “Who would have killed you, Wyatt?”

“There were two of them. A father and a son. The younger one’s name was Johnny Bridges. I don’t know the father’s name.”

Dr. Thompson nodded. He didn’t seem angry. That was a good sign. “And why did they want to kill you?”

“For money,” I said. “My dad stole some money from them. They came looking. He didn’t tell them where it was hidden. They killed him. Made it look like suicide. Then they came for me.”

“You burned down your apartment complex,” he said. “Then you dug up your mother’s grave. The undertaker found you passed out next to the hole.”

“That’s where my old man hid the money,” I said. “Inside her casket. I had to kill them, don’t you see?”

Dr. Thompson placed his hand on my shoulder. I felt like screaming. “There was another man involved, wasn’t there?”

“No,” I said. “Just the two of them. Like I said before, a father and a son.”

“But somebody else told you about them. Somebody else told you about the stolen money. I’ve got the description right here.” He pulled out a piece of paper from behind his ear. “A burly fellow with a pockmarked face, a flattened nose, and a cruel mouth.”

“Yes,” I said. “But how did you—”

“A porkpie hat, right Wyatt? A long leather jacket. Cheap aftershave. Rotting teeth.”

“He was a friend of my dad’s,” I said. “He was trying to protect me.”

Dr. Thompson shook his head and frowned as if he were deeply disappointed. “It’s the same old story, Wyatt. Every single time. It’s the same old story.”

“Doc, please. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The man with the porkpie hat. The father and son. Each time a different variation, but always ending with you in the same place. You shouldn’t have stopped taking your medication.”

“It’s real,” I said. “I killed ‘em. I killed ‘em both.”

“No,” Dr. Thompson said. “You didn’t kill anybody.”

“Please,” I said. My voice was just a whisper.

Dr. Thompson took another step forward. He pulled something out of his white jacket pocket. A syringe needle. “Your father was lonely,” he said in a monotone voice. “He committed suicide. He hung himself. There’s no man in the porkpie hat. There’s no stolen money. There’s no crazed father and son duo. There’s only you. A very sick you.”

My mouth opened and I tried screaming, but there was no sound. The doctor reached his hand back and jammed the needle into my shoulder. I struggled for a moment, but it was no use. They’re all mad here, I thought. Then I closed my eyes.


Jon Bassoff lives in Colorado with his wife, two children, and a warped sense of reality. He teaches high school English, much to the chagrin of educators everywhere. He has had several short stories published in such crime magazines as Crime Spree, Thuglit, and Hardluck Stories. He recently completed a novel called The Disassembled Man which is being considered by various publishers. He can be reached at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love all of Jon's stories. I can't wait to see the Disassembled Man published!