After the Curfew

         Billy Boy, bring me my Luckies, Grandma screeches from the sofa. I know you’re smoking ‘em in the john. Just reading your dirties and smoking ‘em silly.

         There is no sound from the hallway; not that clumsy shuffling, when Billy Boy stashes his contraband beneath the loose tile in the bathroom; nor that sad creaking, when Billy Boy closes the bathroom door behind him, stuffs his cotton T-shirt into his tighty-whities, and sneaks back into his bedroom down the hall, like nothing has happened. There is not even the stink of blue cigarette smoke, slithering down the hall from beneath the bathroom door, and then hissing into the Mamie Eisenhower pink sofa in the living room. Indeed, everything is so still down there that Grandma wonders if Billy Boy is not back from high school yet.

         But that can’t be the case. The Zenith is on, and they’re singing the song that always begins Your Hit Parade. It’s like Swiss clockwork that opening song.

Be Happy, Go Lucky,

Be Happy, Go Lucky Strike!

Be Happy, Go Lucky,

Go Lucky Strike Today!

         Goddamn Billy Boy must be up to no good. So adept at sneaking not even his Grandma can tell for sure; and she’s always been able to tell in the past his comings and his goings, since notwithstanding the oxygen mask on her nose and the shake in her bones, she still has another set of eyes and ears in the back of her head that work just fine. No doubt, if she can’t pick anything up, then that goddamn Billy Boy must be much better at masking his tracks than ever before.

         Grandma shifts the weight on her butterball butt, so that she can stretch her wrinkled prune head just enough to look down the hall behind her. She has to wipe her witchy white hair out of her eyes, which is not easy for her to do as a result of the stabbing pain in her clackety-clack knuckles. She sure wishes the Ben-Gay had been left on the sofa cushion beside her. Bet that silly shit’s been sneaking around with that too. Lots of sick things any boy can do with Ben-Gay, and she wouldn’t put it past her Billy Boy to do the vilest activities imaginable.

         Billy Boy, bring me my goddamn Luckies ‘fore I skin your ass and serve it on a silver platter, Grandma roars in a cigarette stained voice meant to conceal her growing fears. Boy, I’m going to count to ten, then fetch my wooden spoon.

         There is still nothing down there. Perhaps Billy Boy choked his chicken in his bedroom so much he’s just laying in there blind, deaf, and dumb; just a sick vegetable with a fistful of dried up goo inside his briefs and a loopy smile on his face; no more able to fetch her Luckies than to drool over those Mad Magazines he has hidden beneath his pillow. Grandma should be so lucky as to imagine her Billy Boy has been reduced by his very own debauchery into a comatose mouse. More likely he’s as stealthy as a spook stealing canned beans from a KKK picnic.

         Grandma forgets to count to ten. Somewhere in the back of her sick and demented mind, where rational thought is able to crawl out from the ooze now and then, she probably recognizes that, even if she counted to ten, she is in no condition to slide off of the sofa and to roll that oxygen tank into the kitchen in order to fetch her wooden spoon. Her arthritis gets really bad after sunset, and her lungs are not what they used to be. She’ll just have to stay calm, watch her favorite show, and wring his neck when finally he wanders into the living room.

         Oh shit, they’ve got Snooky Lanson and Dorothy Collins singing a hit from a goddamned race record. Sure, they’re keeping it sugar sweet; but Grandma is not fooled. The kiddies watching at home are shaking their white hips this very moment to the beat of something Fats Domino or Little Richard must have sung in a whorehouse originally. Now, where’s the decency on the Zenith nowadays?

         Grandma growls at the Zenith; and, for a while, she drops Billy Boy from her mind. She pantomimes wiping her butt and tossing the paper at the screen.

         It is just as well that Grandma forgets Billy Boy, because the pimply, red headed, comic book addict will not be fetching her Luckies any time soon. It is not that he is a bad boy, contrary to Grandma’s growing paranoia about his soft and stealthy movement about the house. Nor is he a comatose mouse resting in a pool of his own man love. He just happens to be a schoolboy in love; okay, an insufferable case of puppy love, the truth be told; but for a sensitive bookworm just finishing his junior year who has yet to make it to first base with a real life girl, the very fact that Charlotte Peabody agreed to ride with him tonight is the same as love. She had not even hesitated. She had blushed, smiled, and nodded in the affirmative. And she had done this in front of two other cheerleaders the other day; the other two girls draped in their respective boyfriends’ blue block sweaters; Charlotte wearing a simple white blouse above her pink, box pleated skirt, because she is no longer going steady with that bullnecked, varsity tackle and all around bully, Spike Dufresne, and because she really likes him after all.

         And so schoolboy in love that he is, Billy Boy is in the garage out back; a giddy smile on his virginal lips; an anxious heartbeat in his scrawny chest; and a rag in his right hand with which he is polishing the 1958 white Chevy Impala his older brother loaned him from the repo yard where he works part time. He has added another coat of leather wax to the seats, and replaced the windows with tinted glass. His brother even gave him a rubber; and he has hidden this icon of manhood beneath the loose Kleenex inside his glove compartment, just in case.

         Billy Boy looks up at the only light bulb. It is swaying at the end of a thin electrical wire and emitting a smoky blue light, an almost fragrant light, like an aura from a cheerleader’s sugar sweet shampoo, that calls to mind the dreamy, even otherworldly, character of Charlotte’s eyes. He imagines that they will be swaying in sync with his hips, when he leads her across the dance floor and into his heart. Oh, he can see how her beautiful eyes will be lost in his forevermore.

         He pulls the car keys out of his pocket and slips onto his smooth seat. He turns on the ignition; the tiger roar of his Chevy Impala making the skin hairs in his trousers bristle; the smooth rumble of the idling engine etching a cocky grin on his face; and he turns on the car radio. He is a lovesick schoolboy, snatching a ride on the wings of a butterfly, and feeling his cock bulge against his zipper, as The Platters caress his silly heart with their tender Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.

         And he would have stayed there forever, listening to the last refrain just echo in his mind long after the disc jockey changes records, remaining inside of this gushy womb of innocence, but for a sudden hard knock on the garage door.

         Coming, Grandma, Billy Boy blurts out, as he grabs for the radio dial and accidentally turns up the volume to a deafening scream; his heart bursting, like he’s been caught with a stag; his sweaty legs and butt squeaking upon the seat.

         There are several more hard knocks, swaying the light bulb like a line on a sailboat in a windstorm, and startling the breath out of his chest. He can feel his fingers transform into buttery sticks of goo, as he fumbles stupidly over that radio dial, and finally turns off the damn thing by just switching off the engine.

         He stumbles out of the car. He pees in his pants. His face lights up like a red cherry bomb, his freckles burning on his cheeks, his fevered blush arising to his hairline. His humiliation has the effect of stiffening his limbs, so that at the very least he ceases to be a sad misfit of slipshod parts unable to stand upright.

         But that is not much better. Whatever sturdiness he still may have in his torso and limbs has been undercut by his sheer fright. That persistent knocking, really, more like a wife beater mistaking his garage door for the sassy lips in his kitchen, is just too strong to be his Grandma, no matter how pissed off she can get sometimes. Only a block headed muscle boy in a crew cut could be so damn firm; and he has every right to be given that Billy Boy is moving in on his sweet, wholesome, All American cheerleader with a Chevy Impala and a cocksure grin.

         Coming, Spike; Billy Boy says with as much ease as he can fake, which in the end is so little he sounds like a scared cat. I’ll be right out there. I promise.

         Get out here, Freckles; Spike slurs as a result of all the Schlitz bottles he has consumed already. Get out here. I want to see you straight in the eyeholes.

         Billy Boy slides open the garage door just enough to poke his chicken shit face outside. He stares straight into the heaving chest of a blue block sweater; and as he looks up, he beholds the tense, blushing moon face of an evil cherub.

         Spike grabs him by the collar and pulls the rest of him out of the garage.

         Billy Boy sees that Spike has brought some of his closest football buddies along for the show. There are four of them in the background, each as beef big and stupid as their gang leader, each with identical clueless looks in their eyes.

         But, mostly, Billy Boy looks up at the crazy bully he is convinced is going to pummel him into the mud. He just looks into his moon face and starts to cry. 

         Quit bawlin’ like a little girl, Spike scolds him. I’ve got no beef with you.

         His four companions snicker, and he shoots his pissed off glance at them.

         Billy Boy tries to stop himself, but the best he can do is to sniffle loudly.

         Good, Spike says, putting his heavy left arm around Billy Boy’s shoulders, and moving him away from the four buffoons. I’ve got to talk to you. That’s all.

         Billy Boy shifts on his feet nervously. He feels pee sloshing down his legs.

         Tommy Tubbs tells me you heard the news, Spike remarks confidentially.

         Billy Boy imagines Spike cornering poor, fat, stuttering Tommy Tubbs for no other reason than shits and giggles. Rumor has it that Tommy is a Polack on loan from the steel mills across the tracks and that his real name is Tubbalooski or Tubbaloodek or something anyway that would trump even the most sissified, four-eyed, spelling bee nerd. That sad sack of shit cannot have any real friends in an all American high school. At best, he can hope that some people will treat him a little better than others; and Billy Boy happens to be one of those few in the school who will give him the time of day, when no one important is looking.

         And in return that fat fart gives him away, when Spike is breathing down his neck, and clutching his hairy balls with his bandaged right hand. He looks up at that evil cherub and stutters something so incomprehensible through his sick drool that even Spike laughs alongside his four buffoons. And that’s not good in the end, because whenever Spike laughs he responds even more aggressively to the victim in his crosshairs. So when Spike responds by twisting his balls so hard the fat fart’s stutter turns into a falsetto vibrato, he coughs out the one phrase he can manage in all that pain: ‘Billy Boy knows. I swear; he knows everything.’

         Spike lets up on the Polack, because he hears a door slam shut down the hall. He blows his victim a kiss and nudges his posse to follow him. He has a big hard on in his jock strap and frankly would have loved to finish off that fat fart from the wrong side, but he’s satisfied to gather some information. Finding out who knows and what they know is as good as gold in any high school; and so the bullnecked, varsity tackle with a beefcake nude photo stashed beneath his own bathroom tile sets his mind on catching up with Billy Boy, and finding out more.

         And here’s Billy Boy, sniffling girly girl tears, and shuffling his small feet.

         I’m not gonna hurt you, Freckles; Spike whispers with an insincere smile.

         Billy Boy knows the grin is fake; but since it’s the only bit of empathy he is going to get from the enormous, half-blitzed bully beside him, he tries to tell himself that Spike has no beef with him. It is all he can do not to pee yet again.

         You’re not gonna hurt me, Billy Boy stammers. You’re just gonna kill me.

         Spike snickers out loud. That is never a good sign, and Billy Boy knows it.

         Billy Boy braces himself for a knuckle sandwich, but instead Spike smiles coyly and squeezes Billy Boy’s shoulders. Billy Boy is in too much pain to let out a cry. He can do nothing, but squirm as if a soapy noodle trapped in a bear hug.

         Just tell me all you know; Spike says when he is bored with his bear hug.

         Obviously, the news has to do with Charlotte Peabody throwing him back his sweetheart ring from the bleachers, because the bullnecked, varsity tackle, gentleman that he is, has been paying too much attention lately to a fast girl in a knee-high plaid skirt named Lorna. Even the clueless freshmen at the back of the cafeteria line know that Lorna “Love Lips” Hallinan has a reputation. She is even rumored to be able to do special tricks with the wad of gum she smacks in her big mouth all the time. And so what’s a good girl to do when her man lends his heart to that Irish hussy, but give him his ring back in front of the glee club?

         I know that Charlotte must have lost her marbles; Billy Boy coughs out in a fit of fear and desperation. Girls can do that, you know. I’ve seen a couple of them in Home Economics look down their own skirts and just scream Holy Jesus before they hurry out of the room. It’s as if their brains are bleeding out their…

         Wait a sec, Spike says, catching up with him. You’re in Home Economics?

         Billy Boy blushes crimson red. Grandma had insisted that he sign up for it as an elective; said that he needed to learn to take care of himself, because no girl is going to be there to replace her when she is taken up to the pearly gates one of these days; even threatened to take his comic books away, if he did not.

         I’m not learning there, Billy Boy insists. It’s in one ear and out the other.

         ‘Cept you’re learnin’ that girls lose their marbles sometimes, Spike says.

         Hell, yes, Billy Boy blurts ecstatically, as he’s happy to change the topic.

         And maybe Charlotte’s been bleeding her brains out her you know what…

         Well, like I said, girls can do that, Billy Boy offers. Even the good ones…

         Especially the good ones, Spike interrupts. You’ll never see the fast girls screamin’ Holy Jesus and leavin’ a trail of blood behind them. That’s what guys like about fast girls. They’re as easy in the head as between the legs. So what’s a guy to do when he finds out his sweetheart is way more good than she is fast?

         I don’t know, Billy Boy blurts anxiously, as he truly does not have a clue.

         Spike laughs out loud. Again, that is not a good sign; and so he slaps Billy Boy several times in the back of his head and knocks him into a mud puddle. He looks down at those freckles, grins coyly at him, and hauls him back to his feet.

         You give her a hand, Spike continues. That’s what you do. Just knock her marbles out of her head, ‘till there’s nothing in there to make her scream Holy Jesus and run out of the classroom. Inside every good girl is a fast one, bitchin’ and scratchin’ to get the hell out of all that silly lace and to join the party, just waitin’ for a big man to knock her ‘round her head like her old man used to do.

         Billy Boy imagines leading Charlotte around the dance floor; her eyes all sweet and sugar blue; the skin around both her eyes much darker, nearly black, and swollen tight; her loving tears causing her to squirm in pain, whenever they pass over her raccoon circles and slide down her puffy cheeks. She loves his big hand on the bottom of her back. It feels like how her old man used to hold her; the hand that slugged the marbles out of her; the fist that freed her to be fast.

         And just as quickly Billy Boy shuts that thought out of his head. He wants to puppy love her beneath a soft and graceful moon. He does not want to think that there must be something painful, even deadly, with their sweetheart love.

         I’ve always liked you, Freckles; Spike layers on the insincerity, like thick globs of paint sloshed this way and that on a canvas. You give a man his due. So I’m gonna give you a chance to do me a favor. I want you to keep your eyes out for my sweetheart. And when you find her I want you to hunt down my Rod and tell me. Don’t matter how late ‘cause I’m bitchin’ to knock out all her marbles.

         Spike gestures toward his Rod. It is a 1932 Ford Coupe Hot Rod, crimson, hell red with black flames on the doors, steel glistening in the moonlight beside the garage so that it is a beast awakening just now to the promise of this night.

         Sure, Billy Boy blurts excitedly. I can do that. Bitch won’t see it coming.

         And if she’s with some guy, I wanna know that too, ‘cause he’s gonna be sorry he ever laid a hand on my sweetheart; Spike snarls, while jacking off with his right fist, and staring into a mad dream only he can observe in the distance.

         Uh, you bet, Billy Boy swallows. I’ll let you know when I see the bastard.

         That comment breaks Spike out of his reverie. He looks down at his little friend and gives him another bear hug. He is careful not to smile in front of his gang, but in his eyes he is as smug as a bug in a rug. He just loves the feeling in between his legs when a freckled or four-eyed loser submits without a struggle.

         Spike returns to his gang. They are bored, even crestfallen; because they had been assured a fierce bloodletting, but had been given a few bear hugs and head smacks. They wonder in silence if perhaps their big man is losing his edge.

         The night is young, Spike roars to his men. Let’s go round up some dates.

         Spike says dates, but he sounds like he is saying bitches. There is a gross telepathy among the men; a kind of visceral grunt that reaches back to the old and timeless Goths; and so the men leave the scene with all the charm of ugly, stooped, mallet wielding grunts setting out to rape and to ravish the innocents.

         Spike squeezes into his Rod. His posse follows him in a 1955 black Chevy; their engine roaring spitfire to keep up with the Rod; their exhaust lingering as an unctuous, blue, smoke cloud long after they have escaped to the moonlight, so that their gross bravado remains on the scene as if the aftereffect of a rape.

         Billy Boy kicks a rusted can down his driveway. He shoves his sweaty and scared shitless hands into his pants pockets. He wants to curl up and to cry out the remainder of this dreadful time, leaving Charlotte to wait for him all night, and hoping that Spike and the Boys find some other loser to do what they want.

         But, of course, that is not going to happen, now is it? Charlotte will wait only so long; and then she’ll hook up with her cheerleader girlfriends at the old soda fountain on Keeble Street. And before the night is done, each of them will be snuggling up to the right arm of a lucky senior driving his hot rod down Main.

         And Spike isn’t going to recruit some other fellow. He’ll expect Billy Boy to do what he had promised. And if Billy Boy is AWOL what is a good man to do?

         So, no, Billy Boy is not going to curl up in his bed and cry out his sorrows all night. He is going to check in on Grandma, sneak his Chevy Impala out of his Grandma’s garage, and pick up his sweetheart. He will master this sordid night.

         Billy Boy opens the back door that leads into the kitchen. Snooky Lanson and Dorothy Collins are singing something sugar sweet on Your Hit Parade; and, knowing his Grandma’s routine, he expects her to be snoring loudly through her oxygen mask and nodding her head back and forth on the squeaky sofa cushion.

         But the sick hag is wild eyed awake; her white hair falling over her face, like she has stepped out of the dryer; her arthritic, right, index finger pointing at the Zenith with all the conviction of a juror at a Salem witch trial. She wants to say something irate; her lips are snarling just right to piss out the venom and to knock away anything that may come back from the screen; but it seems that she cannot find the words. She is as frustrated by that as she is by the program.

         Grandma eyes Billy Boy. For a moment, she is confused. Did the freckled rascal arrive home from high school early? If so, then how come the show is on?

         And then she remembers that she hasn’t had a smoke in ages, at least, a half hour, maybe forty-five minutes. She wants him to fetch her Luckies. Truth be told, she wants him to give them back since no doubt he’s hiding them now, the sly shit head, just hiding them, so he can smoke them in secret in the john.

         But before she can demand her Luckies, she observes how Dorothy grins, as Dorothy and Snooky finish A Teenager in Love. The damned harlot even grins like a darky. A big-mouthed whore, that’s all she is, and the kids just eat it up.

         She glances then at the framed black and white on the fireplace mantle. Duane is up there; her only son; Billy Boy’s father; and he’s forever standing up tall and proud in his army garrison cap and jacket. He’s still stateside when the photograph is snapped; four months away from the Red China bullet that slings his head off of his spine and drops the rest of him into a snow filled ravine; one year away from his identification confirmed; one year and four months from his military honors. Duane hates the chinks, especially after they drop him into the snow filled ravine; and he hates how the reds are infiltrating our kids with their race records and hip thrusts. Duane wants his mother to do something about it.

         The Zenith is going to the dogs, Grandma mumbles through her mask. No decency ‘cause the good folks are not standing up to the filth and the mayhem.

         Billy Boy looks at the television screen. He has had a crush on Dorothy as long as he can remember. She could be Charlotte’s twin sister; and, for a brief, but ecstatic moment, he imagines reclining on the Mamie Eisenhower pink sofa with Dorothy under his right arm and Charlotte under his left; the two girls just cooing and nuzzling into his sides; the living room swimming in the dreamy blue smoke that he is exhaling ever so smartly from his cigarette. He loves this sugar sweet dream, but he also feels the immediate effect that it is having inside his crotch. And so he shuts this image out of his mind, before Grandma observes it.

         Ah, I finished my homework, Billy Boy stammers nervously. Can I see Bob Milhous at the soda? Mrs. Milhous is going to be there to keep us out of trouble.

         This is a lie, of course. Bob Milhous will not be near the soda fountain, as he has been grounded for toilet papering Old Myrtle Bloom’s haunted olive tree the other day. And as for Mrs. Milhous, she’ll be on the party line ‘till midnight, since her old man is on a business trip with the third grade teacher, Miss Laura.

         Apparently, in a small town, the grown ups value information as much as the kids, since the exploits of Mr. Milhous and Miss Laura feature prominently in the gossip. Mrs. Milhous, no doubt, has learned the sad details, some real, most fabricated from whole cloth, just by remaining silent in the dark on her rotary; and it is a testament to her kind and womanly nature that she has not spoken a word to her old man about his overnight business trips and two martini lunches.

         Billy Boy is too young to know that still water runs deep. He is simply not able to imagine the sound and the fury, the blood slithering out from the bullet wound in the forehead, the gun smoke coughing out from the purple hole in the right breast, when Mrs. Milhous decides to visit Mr. Milhous and Miss Laura later that same night in the dirty motel room that they are sharing across the tracks.

         He just knows that Grandma has been too sick of late to keep up with all the gossip and that in general she has a good opinion of Mrs. Milhous. Indeed, in his opinion, Mrs. Milhous is about the only grown up in town Grandma likes; and he recalls that on one occasion, Grandma even invited her over for a cigarette.

         Grandma studies him wearily. She fumbles the oxygen mask off her nose, presumably so that she will not be obstructed when next she speaks to him, but nevertheless she keeps her eyes focused on that Sneaky Pete beside the Zenith.

         Mrs. Milhous is going to be at the soda, Grandma whispers. Are you sure?

         Billy Boy is not sure what she had said. He shifts his feet and looks down.

         I said Mrs. Milhous is going to be at the soda fountain, Grandma screams.

         Whenever Grandma is this tired and is not wearing her oxygen mask, she really cannot handle anything more strenuous than her throaty whisper; and so, sure enough, she is overtaken by a fit of haggard coughs. She slams the mask to her nose and manages after a while to regain her former composure; but, even then, she is so tired and miserable, she appears on the verge of a fainting spell.

         She gestures for Billy Boy to stand close to her, and he complies at once.

         I said Mrs. Milhous is going to be at the soda fountain, Grandma repeats. How can you be so sure? What if she isn’t there? What are you going to do then?

         I’ll leave at once, Billy Boy responds. I won’t even stay for a milkshake. I don’t want to be there, unless Mrs. Milhous is there to keep me out of trouble…

         Billy Boy shuts his mouth, and blushes. He went too far with that one. No child wants to be kept out of trouble, after all, so what he just said must sound like the lie that it is. If this is the case, then everything else he uttered is a lie; bald-faced; faked sincerity; the kind of mischief that will not be undone, unless he bites down on a bar of soap and sniffles in his bedroom the rest of the night.

         Grandma smiles. The boy is full of mischief, no doubt, but she can catch him still in his silly untruths and prevarications. Not all is bad in this bad world.

         Go to the soda, Grandma snarls, so as to hide how giddy she is feeling at that moment. See if I care one bit. Just be sure you get back home before ten. Be sure. No telling what may happen, if you’re out there still after the curfew. No telling, because the night keeps her secrets, even from old witches like me.

         Grandma laughs. She seems to like the image of herself as the old witch, listening to the messages carried in the night, and discerning their secret word.

         Billy Boy does not find anything at all funny about what she has said. For him, it is nothing but ominous foreboding. He again wants to curl up in his bed, turn out the lights, and just dream the silly missives of a boy in love with a girl, a boy with a comic book under his pillows, a boy with a hard-on in his pajamas.

         There you go again, Billy Boy thinks. Just throwing in the towel, because you’re afraid to go ahead with your plans for the night. And since when are you afraid of the boogeyman, or the curfew, or anything else Grandma may cook up in that sick mind of hers? Just ignore her, go out there, and be a stand up man.

         But it is not that simple. The fact is Billy Boy is more than a little scared about the night before him. He has never dragged the main, at least not in any vehicle with more horsepower than his Schwinn, and certainly never with a girl at his side. And let’s face it. There is something creepy about staying out after the curfew. It is just so totally defiant. It is like embracing the life of a beatnik and going on the road with Jack Kerouac and ending up naked in San Francisco.

         Not that Billy Boy knows anything about the life of a beatnik. Okay, best to say that he should not know and that he knows that he should not know. The indiscretions read and re-read by the light of a flashlight seem to surface when a mind comes face to face with its fears. It is as if the terrified mind must also acknowledge at that moment that it is a mind that has indulged its share of sin and that, as such, it deserves to be afraid just then. What is scary must be evil.

         Okay, I’ll be King Solomon, Billy Boy thinks. I’ll split the difference. I am going to go out tonight, but I’m also going to be back before the curfew, just as I have been every other time. And if Charlotte thinks I’m a wimp because I take her home before ten, then so be it. That’s just the way it’s going to be tonight.

         I’ll be back before the curfew; Billy Boy reassures Grandma, and himself.

         Good, Grandma barks. Now fetch my Luckies. I know you’re hiding them.

         Billy Boy smiles. He’ll sneak two Luckies from the pack; one for himself, one for his sweetheart; and he’ll return the rest of the pack before he departs. He is a very good boy, after all, and that’s the least he can do for his Grandma.

         No more than five minutes later, when he returns with the pack, he sees that Grandma is asleep. She must have had another go around with that Zenith, since she is snoring into her own sweaty chest while still pointing at the screen.

         He puts the pack on the cushion beside her. He skulks out the back door.

         Billy Boy walks confidently to the Chevy Impala; even whistling a sweet, innocent love song and skipping several of his steps along the way; but when he arrives at the driver side door, he is overwhelmed by a panic attack that nearly drops him to the garage floor. He clutches his heart, and grabs the door handle to keep from landing in an oil stain beneath his feet. He counts to ten and tries to tell himself that he is not doing anything most other high school juniors have not done already, but sound logic does not do much to still a scampering heart.

         Only time tolls an erratic heart; and so a minute or two later, when he is once more able to think clearly enough to stand on his own two feet and to grin at his own fear, he slides into the car. He turns the ignition, which immediately blasts the radio at high volume and nearly propels him out the driver’s window.

         He flaps his right hand at the volume dial, like a duck attempting to take flight from a pond. He bats the dial enough times that the volume eventually is much lower. Johnny Mathis’ Chances Are calms his nerves; the enchanted, even melancholic, romance that sways through the ghostly notes calls to his mind an endless slow dance, Charlotte looking in his eyes and holding him tightly, loving sweetness endearing their hearts so close together that the rest of the students in the dance hall seem to be carried away by the ethereal melody until there is no one else alive but the two of them; and finally, the song sliding gracefully to its subtle, almost whispered, end, he is able to drive out of the garage and into the night. He is once more his confident self when he pulls out of the driveway.

         Billy Boy is really ridiculous behind his steering wheel. He resembles one of the freckled munchkins; indeed, a charter member of the silly lollipop guild; in contrast to the oversized wheel and enormous, leather bench seat. But in his mind he is John Wayne on a pony; a big, strong, lumbering man on a saddle too small for all his masculinity; and so he rolls down his side window and hangs his left elbow outside, like his cabin space is far too cramped to contain all of him.

         He passes one tract home after another, as he winds his way through the suburban nightmare in which he has been living his whole life. He dreams he is a mouse in a maze of identical, single story, flat tops; each of them topped by a television antenna that looks like a wiry robot from a scary, alien world; each of them fronted by a manicured lawn that looks plastic enough to be capable of surviving a thermonuclear strike. The living room light is on in every one of the houses; the parents sitting around the Zenith watching Your Hit Parade, singing along with the happy straight arrows, or bemoaning how the Negroes appear to be taking over the music industry one hit at a time; the teenagers promising to be back on time; the little ones sleeping on the rug beside their coloring books.

         On the outside, everything has been manufactured to be so comfortably, mind numbingly, sterile that the grown ups and the children alike can pretend, at least for a while, that indeed Father Knows Bestaccurately reflects the lives of most Americans. But behind the veneer there are the parents who drink just a bit too much after dinner every night; the fathers who sneak away on weekly business trips with young and beautiful grammar school teachers; the mothers, smoking their cigarettes in the dark, clutching at their pink panties as they are listening in on the party line, who try to pretend that their husbands are not at all doing what is patently obvious; the squares who are picking up their creepy, somehow indecent, John Birch Society tracts and salivating over them like they are the latest editions of Playboy magazine; the bohemians who are introducing their curious wives to the lava lamps and the party girls who will be featured in the swinging culture still to be developed; and everywhere the fear that, by all means, they need to keep up their decent appearance and keep out those reds, beatniks, and coloreds who will sell us out to the Ruskies if given half a chance.

         For the most part, the teenagers are not a part of this sterile culture. Oh sure, they are mired in it; their crew cuts, collared shirts, trousers or skirts, as depending upon their sex, Schwinn bicycles, polite and deferential behavior on the whole in front of their elders, all of these outward characteristics suggest a widespread conformity to the mores of their parents; but behind shut bedroom doors, and especially while dragging the main, they are rebelling as much as all those face men and flappers did in the Jazz Age. They are sugar sweet on those chaperoned dance floors, but hipsters beneath the bleachers; earnest, smiling, Sunday school graduates, as boys carry girls’ books to school, but little devils at night, as those same boys try to nuzzle and to coax more than a chaste kiss out from the girls in their hot rods; able to play their parts in Father Knows Best as circumstances may demand, but intuitively aware that there is something false and even fraudulent about that saccharine exterior that their parents and their younger siblings perpetuate. And so they flock to the Friday and Saturday night subculture that they have fashioned for themselves; their slow joyrides up and down Main Street; their coca cola and milkshake stops at the old soda fountain on Keeble Street; their cigarette smokes, and if the smiling crew cuts are lucky their make-out sessions, at the Curly Q Drive-In; only one patrol car upon those roads to remind them that there is still an adult authority on the periphery, but otherwise nothing to restrain them from testing their innocence. They are their own society; big bullies in hot rods enforcing their unwritten codes and pecking orders; squirrely nerds in oversized sedans pushing the envelopes of their weak and pathetic anonymity on campus; scared, pubescent girls testing their sexual power and worth behind a veneer of pink poodle skirts and high stockings. Like all sub-cultures, theirs either will prepare them well for the adult world just on the horizon; a world that is going to blow many of the boys to bits in the sweat swamps of Vietnam; a world that is going to bury many of the girls underneath an avalanche of soiled diapers, before widowhood or divorce forces them to be as much cogs in the corporate world as their male counterparts; or it will open their young eyes just enough to the inherent falseness of their parents’ culture, the evil lurking in Ward Cleaver’s smiling eyes, the putrid blood dripping inside of Harriet Nelson’s panties, that they are never able to go to their tract homes, and to climb back into their beds, without sensing pure evil in their floorboards and behind their walls. This is why it is so treacherous to go out at night. There is no telling what they may bring back with them when later they return home.

         Billy Boy turns onto Sweet Maple Drive. Outwardly, it is as sterile as the others; but his heart skips a beat, because Charlotte is waiting forlornly for him at the end of this block. He imagines her wringing her hands, even tearing up a bit, as she trembles at the thought that he is not going to pick her up. He is not sure if he should be giddy or sad at the thought that she is so anxious just then.

         He parks at the curb in front of 69 Sweet Maple. As usual, the light is on in the living room; but he had expected the light to be on in the driveway so as to guide his path to the front door. It is not on, and so he nearly stumbles over a Radio Flyer wagon that had been left on the short path between the driveway and the front door. He has to grab at a thorny rose bush, in order to prevent his fall, and he has to wipe his bloodied palms on his collared shirt in exasperation.

         He straightens the creases in his pants, inhales deeply, and knocks three times on the door. He is startled to see that he has left a slight blood smear on the door, and he tries to wipe it off with the sleeve of his jacket. All he does is smear it around more so that it looks like a mad blood snake on a white canvas.

         Mrs. Peabody answers the door. She is an old woman; like maybe forty or something; a hippy, buxom woman with a huge bouffant wig that sinks down to her sleepy seductive eyes; a wanton grin on the right side of her cherry red lips that says that her tricks and her treats are much the same. She exhales a long, silky stream of cigarette smoke, as the front door creaks open to reveal all her unwholesomeness in one glaring impression. She dangles her Lucky Strike in her fingers in such a way as to suggest that the very act of smoking is an obscenity.

         And yet when she sees that there is an innocent boy standing before her, she flutters her June Cleaver pearl necklace, and straightens the creases in her floral nightgown, with the demure attention to detail of a television mom. Billy Boy half expects to see her old man reclining on the sofa behind her, puffing a perfect cloud out from his big pipe, and reading the paper in his jacket and tie.

         But of course the old man is not back there. He had flown the coup some time ago. He had put on his jacket and tie; kissed his wife, his girl, and his boy on their heads; and not returned from his office. Sometimes Father Knows Best means that father knows that it is best not to go home anymore. The television shows would never suggest anything of the sort, but the teenagers dragging the main, ordering their sodas, and making out with their sweethearts know better.

         Can Charlotte come out to play? Billy Boy asks lamely, and then blushes.

         Mrs. Peabody busts out a hoarse laugh. She drags again on her cigarette.

         Char, your little boy is here, Mrs. Peabody calls to the back of the house.

         There is an awkward silence, while the two of them wait for Charlotte to make her grand appearance at the end of the hall. Nothing happens, and so the hippy seductress with the tired eyes and the smoky face turns back to Billy Boy.

         Seems she’s not ready. Probably just a ‘girl problem.’ Now, you know all about that, don’t you? She asks confidentially, and winks for him to step inside.

         Billy Boy does not know what to say. He is just a tangle of twitchy nerves and hot flashes. He shuffles before the doorway, and stares lamely at his shoes.

         Mrs. Peabody reaches out and guides him into her living room. She is like a madam calming the spastic nerves of a boy who has arrived for his first time.

         Would you like some nuts? Mrs. Peabody inquires with a coy smile, while patting Billy Boy on the top of his hair in such a way as to urge him to sit down.

         There is a certain playfulness in her coarse innuendo and sexual swagger that immediately puts him at ease. She is not a mother so much as a big sister. Maybe she is everybody’s big sister; but what matters is that she is his big sister right here and now. Even more so, she is the cool big sister; the one who comes home from college to impart special wisdom to that little brother who remains so mired in high school that he barely can conceive the world beyond its fence; the one who gives him a special cigarette when Grandma is sleeping in front of the Zenith; and, most of all, the one who is as much in on the joke as the other hipsters and spastics still searching for themselves while dragging the main. He does not really have a big sister; but he can dream, and Mrs. Peabody gives him license to dream all he wants, as she crosses her legs across from him so tightly she calls attention to what is in between her thighs, and as she blows one long, twisted smoke snake after another towards the ceiling. He can see that she is a beautifully elaborate game; a bedeviled joker in her big bouffant and her silky, blue eyes; a murderous, but a charmer before she inserts the knife, and twists.

         Oh, yes, ma’am, Billy Boy blurts out with all the enthusiasm of a starved and shriveled runt who has never had his chance to nibble on much of anything.

         Mrs. Peabody eyes him knowingly. She slides a dirty ashtray full of salted peanuts across the coffee table with her right heel. She has to open her legs so as to perform this feat; and as a result, Billy Boy sees that she is wearing sheer pink panties. She does not seem to mind one bit that he sneaks a peek in there.

         Don’t call me ma’am; she playfully scolds him. I am nobody’s grandma. I am only accidentally somebody’s mama. A ma’am embraces her role; loves how she can turn her man on his heels with her meatloaf and sweet potato pie; sees the smudge on his tie and makes a point of reminding him how he needs to be a lot more careful during his lunch break; but I couldn’t cook a meatloaf, or bake a sweet potato pie, if James Beard himself took my hand to the stove. And with regard to that smudge on his tie, let me put it this way: I am much more likely to be the cause of that smudge than the solution, if you catch my drift. And by the look in your eyes, I can see that you catch my drift. Oh, insipid, little child!

         Mrs. Peabody laughs. She takes another drag from her cigarette, watches how the smoke dances in the air above her bouffant, and returns her interested gaze to the happy boy across from her. She considers him in silence for a while.

         You can call me Cora, Mrs. Peabody whispers confidentially. I am named after the maiden queen of the underworld, or so I read in a book of names. The deeper we dig the more we find out how much we have in common with all the creepy, little devils out there. Really makes you wonder how we haven’t blown ourselves already to kingdom come with all those A-bombs at our beck and call.

         For a moment, there is a troubled expression on her face; but she is very quick to mask that fear behind her devilish grin and her slithering smoke snake.

         Billy Boy senses that sin is born as much from fear as from evil intent. He imagines a blustery Spike Dufresne taunting and pummeling a shadow victim on the edge of a cliff; the bully insisting that there’s no way he’s going to free fall down the abyss less than an inch behind his heels; the bully turning crimson red in anger and fright when the dirt beneath his feet gives way to the severe drop.

         So what are your intentions with my daughter? She inquires of him out of the blue. And don’t tell me you just want to share a milkshake, ‘cause I wasn’t born yesterday. Maybe you want to take her to the Curly Q. Share a short and a feature beneath a warm blanket. Accidentally rub your hand against her breast when you think she’s absorbed with what’s on the screen. Testing the waters in order to see how far you can go tonight. Come on, now, you can confide in me, like brother and sister when the lights are turned off and the shades are drawn.

         Billy Boy once more is totally uncomfortable. He realizes Mrs. Peabody is playing with him; truth be told, more like pulling his strings for no other reason than her own shits and giggles; but he just does not want to think that being so close to Charlotte, touching her accidentally, kissing her in the stillness of that moonlight that will be forever theirs alone, is going to be anything like a game.

         Being with Charlotte matters. Indeed, love may be the only thing that is ever going to matter in this Mamie Eisenhower plastic pink world into which he has fallen; and he’s not going to throw away that first and final hope of his just so as to be able to smirk knowingly in front of a beautifully debauched woman. He expects Mrs. Peabody to laugh at his innocence. He is quite willing to take a slight, if only in return he is able to believe still that there is love in this world.

         But Mrs. Peabody does not laugh at him. She can read his anxiety; and in a moment of absolute truthfulness, she allows herself to pity the poor, freckled mess of a boy. She really wants to deflower him right now; just shove him onto her living room floor and ride his virginal cock; corrupt his morals enough so he can have a fighting chance among all the creepy, little devils out there; but, in the end, while she may not be anybody’s ma’am, there is just enough restraint in her character that she will not permit this to be anything more than a game.

         Go ahead and see what’s special tonight, she reflects after a while. Just take it all in: the way the moonlight strikes her hair, the feeling inspired by the love song on the radio, the taste of her lips against yours, soft and sweet candy lips that turn sweaty and hot when you lower her head to the seat cushion. You have a right to believe. You’re still young and fresh, just out of the dryer, and I suspect you will not be much longer. So go ahead and see what’s special, when the moment is right, and the time is yours. Just be a good boy and make sure it is as special for my Charlotte as it is for you. That’s all I’m going to ask of you…

         She does not finish her last sentence so much as she just lets it linger in the air. It is more than dramatic effect. There is something else that she would like to ask of him. But she would rather not acknowledge that particular fear in front of a boy that she is pretty sure could not rise to the occasion anyway; and so she leaves it alone, as she is inclined to do with anything else that is just too terrible to be turned into a game. She tells herself that Charlotte can survive in the end, as she has survived, and that there are worse fates than what befalls a girl left to fend for herself. There are worse packs than a sisterhood of whores, single or divorced mothers in the glaring eyes of good neighbors, babies born or raised without the strong hand of their fathers to beat them into righteousness.

         The tension is broken by the sound of socked feet stomping angrily down the hall; and Mrs. Peabody and Billy Boy look back to see Charlotte fuming like a rocket about to be launched, her fists pumping into her sides, her feet pitter-pattering into the floor. Her eyes seem to be glazing over in brilliant flashes of whiteness, so that she is more a convulsing wreck of passions in a white blouse, pink poodle skirt, and white socks than a teenager in love. Or maybe, Billy Boy thinks, all that terrible piss and vinegar is much the same as a teenager in love.

         Peggy Sue says that Spike always had the eye for Lorna. Says she nabbed him looking at Lorna at the Goddess of the Sea Dance last year. Says he walked away with a tear in his eye and kept whispering: Lorna, Lorna, Lorna. Says even Four-Eyed Becky could see he had love all over his face. Oh, Cora, what am I to do? Charlotte wails with all the abandon of a three year old denied her lollipop.

         Billy Boy is taken aback by the fact that Charlotte refers to her mama by her first name. He imagines a mother-daughter pair of witches, or maybe even a couple of reds, and he wishes he had crept into his bed with his comic books, where his dreams are not going to be turned upside-down by a perverse reality.

         Come on, Honey Bunny; let’s find your Oxfords; Mrs. Peabody smiles and rolls her eyes, as she walks over to her petulant daughter. Looky, your next boy is here, and he wants to show you a goody, goody time tonight inside his Chevy.

         I’m the next boy, Billy thinks agitatedly. And I’m gonna do what tonight?

         Charlotte looks blankly over at Billy Boy. She has no idea then who he is.

         My Spike never said, Charlotte, Charlotte, Charlotte; Charlotte bemoans.

         Oh, Honey Bunny, I bet he said it when you weren’t there, Mrs. Peabody reasons. Boys say all sorts of things when they think their girls can’t hear them.

         Oh, Cora what am I to do? Charlotte repeats. Even Four-Eyed Becky saw.

         Let’s find your Oxfords before your next boy grows some facial hair; Mrs. Peabody holds her daughter close to her bosom. He’s a nice boy, and he’ll show you a nice time, if you give him a tenth of the chance you gave Spike. Just look at his face and pretend to see what you want to see, when he goes for the kiss.

         Billy Boy blushes. He does not want to be nice. He knows where the nice guys finish; and it is not making out with Miss Charlotte beneath the still moon, that is for sure. He wants to stand and to strut a manly pose; but he only sulks; his eyes staring down at his bony knees; his fingers twitching stupidly in his lap.

         Charlotte eyes him again, but this time she looks at him contemptuously.

         Mrs. Peabody nudges Charlotte down the hall. Billy Boy is entirely alone.

         He twiddles his thumbs for a while; shifts uneasily on his seat; and then, overwhelmed by nervousness, stands up and prepares to return to his car. He is just about to open the big front door, when Mrs. Peabody and Charlotte return.

         Ta-Dah, Mrs. Peabody cheers as she opens her arms to present Charlotte.

         Charlotte steps forward. She is dressed as before, except of course she is now wearing her Oxfords, and she has smeared most of the tears from her face.

         But she is still not smiling. She folds her arms angrily and studies the tips of her shoes. She looks as if she could explode at just the slightest provocation.

         Mrs. Peabody tries to ignore Charlotte’s attitude. She takes another drag from her smoke, and steps forward to bring the two lovebirds’ fingers together.

         You two are going to have a wonderful time together, she gushes. I wish I could be a third, but of course we all have our limitations, don’t we? Yes, as a matter of fact, we do; moral limitations; religiousconstraints; that pesky little voice that tells us not to go too far or to stay too late. So just remember, okay?

         Yes, mother; Charlotte rolls her eyes in response to the warning Billy Boy suspects she has heard too many times before from her mother. We’ll be good.

         Nothing’s going to happen, Billy Boy offers, looking his date up and down and wishing even more so that he was back in bed with his best comic books in one hand and his cock in the other. I’ll bring her back home before ten o’clock.

         Ten o’clock? Charlotte looks at him incredulously. What are you? A frosh?

         Oh, no, I’m a junior, an upperclassman, Billy Boy stammers. But I have a curfew, that’s all. My Grandma’s dying, and she really needs me…well, sort of…

         That’s the best; Mrs. Peabody pinches his right cheek. A dying grandma…

         There is an awkward pause. Charlotte breaks it by taking Billy Boy by his right arm and then leading him out the door. She stomps her shoes on the path.

         Goodbye, Mrs. Peabody, Billy Boy offers, while looking back, and waving.

         Mrs. Peabody fills the entire doorway with her voluptuous body. There is a debauched allure in her eyes; a look that says, come back, kid, if you desire a real education before the night is done; and a smoke snake slithering out of her nose. She grins in response to his wimpy wave, steps back, and closes the door.

         Charlotte takes her place in the Chevy Impala. She shuts her door before Billy Boy can do so. She huddles by the tinted window and looks glumly outside.

         Billy Boy drives out of the tract home park and turns onto Main Street. In no time he is in a line of muscle cars, Fords and Chevys most of them, rumbling slowly down the street, and then revving their engines dramatically when a red light turns green. There is a definite social order in dragging the main; a clear, unspoken hierarchy from the meanest hot rod at the top to the weakest granny car at the bottom; the weaker cars pulling to the side, when a stronger hot rod decides at once to rev forward; only those monsters near the top of their social pyramid ever engaging in drag races, since of course there is no real sport in an ugly beast emasculating a nerd or a virgin. Only girls without dates walk on the sidewalks; their eyes brightening, when a driver slams against a curb, and rolls his passenger window open to see if one or more of them may be game to take a spin; their eyes narrowing, when they determine that the car simply does not measure up. Cars driving slowly side-by-side are in conversation, sometimes, so as to trade dates, more often, so as to spread gossip. Cars idling by themselves down dark alleyways are up to no good, either making a move on the girl in the passenger seat, or indulging in cheap liquor that a grown up bought for them at American Hops and Spirits. The issue is what the cars are doing, because all the windows are tinted, and only the kids who have been dragging the main a while know who are behind which set of windows. The lone police car intervenes only when a drag race gets out of hand, or the cop is bored with his girly magazines.

         And everywhere there is the music of the time; innocent rock ‘n roll that the grown ups nonetheless fear is too colored for moral restraint; and, indeed, while tame in comparison to the music that will follow, there is already the air of real rebellion in Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Bill Haley and the Comets. Everyone listens to the same music, since there is only one rock ‘n roll station; and, at times, when enough windows are rolled open, the whole drag is flooded with the bubble gum beat of a teenager in love. The cars actually seem to float up and down the drag on the sweetheart melodies, as pimply boys sit back and inch their right arms around their sweethearts, and as blushing girls ponder just how far they are going to go tonight. And, indeed, that is the dramatic tension, the sting that adds a dangerous undertone to the love songs, because every one of those cars will stop somewhere along the way for a moment of real decision.

         Billy Boy turns on the radio. Sonny Till and the Orioles are now revolving on that great and unseen phonograph in the starry night, breaking young hearts with their rendition of Crying in the Chapel, and yet in the final verse inspiring every unsure, acned driver out there on the drag that he will surely find a way.

         Don’t be fooled by my wheels. It’s got a Borg-Warner T-10; Billy Boy lies.

         Charlotte is unfazed. She digs through her small, pink, princess purse for a stick of bubble gum. She pops it into her mouth and returns her gaze outside.

         I could beat every beast out here, even Spike’s Rod, but I don’t, ‘cause I don’t really wanna brag; Billy Boy gloats, while stretching back into his leather. 

         Charlotte tears up at the mention of Spike. Billy Boy could maul himself.

         Well, not Spike, Billy Boy tries to correct himself. His Rod is too bitchin’.

         Charlotte wipes her tears off of her cheeks. She squirms on her soft seat.

         But I could give him a run for his money; Billy Boy corrects himself again.

         Billy Boy looks at his sweetheart. He can only view the back of her head.

         Anyway, I’ve broken half the hearts out there; Billy Boy continues, while pointing toward the sidewalk beyond the passenger window. The girls wanna go the distance, but I’m saving myself for my sweetheart. Um, I believe in love for keeps; you know, that special feeling that’s like birds singing; and, um, flowers blooming; and so, for me, it’s gotta be special. Um, I’m just sensitive that way.

         Charlotte reacts to this one by blowing and popping a huge, pink bubble.

         Um, I think it’s good we’re taking it slow, Billy Boy continues. It’s just so admirable. I don’t think anything should happen, ‘till I truly see it in your eyes.

         Can you see my eyes? Charlotte asks, while she is staring away from him.

         No, Billy Boy croaks lamely, since he does not know what she’ll say next.

         Then I guess nothing’s going to happen, Charlotte continues with a sniff.

         Oh, good, Billy Boy blurts. I mean it’s good that it doesn’t happen at all ‘till it’s right. Um, you know, as special as a bird blossoming…I mean a flower…

         Pull over, Charlotte urges without eyeing him. There’s Rhonda and Ruby.

         Her fellow cheerleaders, Rhonda and Ruby, almost identical bitch blonds who tape their pleated hems an inch higher, so that they can give the face boys more leg to ogle. They would never be caught dead in public without a smoke; a Lucky Strike smoldering in between their right index and middle fingers like a well used cock to be discarded when they’ve had their last puff; and as a result usually their lips are puckered and their chins are tilted upward to blow. Cheap and fast, they fit quite high in the girls’ social order and know the latest gossip like they are reading it in the pillars of smoke hanging over their bouffant wigs.

         Charlotte rolls down her window, before Billy Boy comes to a stop. She is at once all smiles; her eyelids fluttering gaily; her fingers reaching out to them like she is endeavoring to pull a fruit off of a tree that is just beyond her reach.

         Hi, sisters, Charlotte proclaims. And what are you hearing on the street?

         Boy, she sure cuts to the chase, Billy Boy thinks, as he attempts to strike a pose that will interest the gabby girls but manages only to squeak his leather.

         Rachel Spunmason left Tommy Dover at Wardy and Main; Ruby glimmers.

         Ran from his Ford with tears in her eyes, Rhonda gloats and takes a drag.

         David Hornhoggs wants her to be his sweetheart, Charlotte adds joyfully.

         We know, Rhonda and Ruby say together. It’s the talk of the senior year.

         And now Rachel is walking the drag looking for David’s Chevy, Ruby says.

         And just refuses anyone else who curbs alongside her, Rhonda continues.

         Oh, my God, the three girls chime together, and break out into laughter.

         Billy Boy clears his throat. He nods his head in emulation of John Wayne.

         Charlotte looks back at him with disgust. She returns to her two friends.

         I’m kind of on a date, Charlotte explains. Would you like to ride with us?

         Rhonda and Ruby giggle. They slide into the backseat without so much as acknowledging Billy Boy. They drag simultaneously, and fill the car with smoke.

         How about we go to the soda? Billy Boy asks, as he returns to the main. I hear they’ve got a new cookie with the root beer float. Really bitchin’ cookie…

         The girls do not pay any attention. They are a trio of giggling goons, and they nearly wet their panties as Charlotte imitates Rachel’s drama queen tears.

         ‘Course I’m not big on cookies, Billy Boy offers. Only kids are big on ‘em.

         Again, no response, and Billy Boy taps his wheel anxiously. He is not able to draw their attention, and so he rolls down his window and studies the scene.

         Not much to see; a few pink poodle skirts smoking on the sidewalk; a fat four-eyes on a Schwinn even lamer than he is; a James Dean making out with a Doris Day on the leather seat of his parked Triumph T-110; and then it hits him.

         Davy Crockett’s Magic & Novelties is still open; the neon man with a big, coonskin hat in the window urging children of all ages to saddle on in for a good time; and there is bound to be something inside there that will excite the girls.

         He pulls over to the side of the road opposite the pandemonium of neon.

         He does not even bother to tell them he’s leaving. The girls seem totally unaware that he has idled the Chevy Impala and is leaving them unchaperoned.

         He hides his face as he crosses Main, since only junior high school kiddies and occasional high school freshman would be caught dead inside Davy’s. It is a spastic place; bright, flashing colors overhead; creepy dry ice puffing out of the bottom of the front door; automaton cowboys and caped crusaders firing blanks at Indians and space aliens; and an automaton Mexican in a ridiculous sombrero blowing steam out of its ears, nose, and mouth, because it bit into their special A-Bomb Bubble Gum. The sign reads: Paco the Taco can’t chew it. But can you?

         Billy Boy skulks into the showroom. He is quite sure that no one from his junior class will be in there, but he still feels like he’s breaking a sacred taboo.

         The owner is a bespectacled, pudgy, middle-aged worm of a man with a dyed Hitler mustache. He always wears a white shirt, sweat stained and lacking a few buttons, a clown tie, and naturally the traditional Davy Crockett coonskin hat. His eyes wander, and a rumor has it that one of them had been shanghaied and replaced with a sliver of glass. Whenever he grins, which is about all of the time, he looks like he’s just done something really naughty in his stock room; a queer affectation that creeps out the tiniest crumb crunchers but that turns on those twelve and thirteen year olds who are just starting to learn that it’s kind of cool to have a dark and hidden side. Kids come here without their parents at all the wiser, or so they believe; and, invariably, after they’ve handed him two or three weeks’ worth of their allowance in return for a gizmo that they simply must have, they sneak it into their homes, and hide it under their beds, as if it is some sort of red contraband. For most of these kids, the real treat is not the gizmo, which usually stops operating after about a week, but the fact that they did something naughty in procuring it. And so spastic Mr. Harvey may not be all that Joe Cool in the eyes of the upperclassmen rumbling by his storefront every Friday and Saturday night; but he is part of the reason they are out there then; each of them at one point learning a little something about how far they could go just by dropping into his shop; each of them still touched by his black magic.

         What’ll it be, pumpernickel? Mr. Harvey always says to the next freckled mess to step into his store. You want a wizard, a warlock, a wimp, or a weasel?

         Um, I want a girl, Billy Boy blurts out. Actually, I’ve got the girl. I simply want to keep her, not like kidnapped, or anything, but interested in me ‘till my curfew. Maybe something odd that’s like sugar, and space, and everything nice.

         I’ve got plenty of odd in stock; Mr. Harvey twitches his nose and smiles. I cannot understand why you only want to keep her interested until your curfew, and not afterwards. The real fun always happens afteryou’re supposed to be a tyke in bed. And as for something sugar, and space, and everything nice, that’s a waste of time, my boy. Ever heard of cock envy? Girls like what they don’t do or have. So I recommend something made of frogs, snails, and puppy-dogs tails.

         She’s not that kind of girl, Billy Boy insists. She loves kisses in moonlight.

         They all do, my boy, Mr. Harvey chuckles. But first you gotta scare ‘em a bit; even gross ‘em out; let ‘em know that you’re an untamed tiger let loose on the drag. Otherwise, you’re a square; a nice guy; and we know about nice guys, and where they end up when the date is over. So you know what I think? I think that among the wizard, the warlock, the wimp, and the weasel, you need right now an extra helping of the weasel. Now, that’s an expert assessment, my boy.

         Billy Boy smiles. He loves how Mr. Harvey knows exactly what he is going to need tonight. It’s like this fat Hitler is the oracle for every teenager’s angst; the pimple cream and the soul relaxer all in one; and so a buoy cast to the sea.

         So tell me what’s got your girl distracted right now; Mr. Harvey leans in.

         Billy Boy relates the story of Rachel Spunmason, her face smudged by all her melancholic tears, searching the drag for David Hornhoggs’ Chevy. This is a big story for the girls, apparently, and it will not rest until somehow Billy Boy is able to snap them out of it. And if that means grossness, then so be it, since all is truly fair in love and war, or so he read in the Reader’s Digest sometime ago.

         Now, could you identify David’s Chevy? Mr. Harvey asks conspiratorially, while massaging his Hitler mustache with the unctuous fingers of his right hand.

         Sure, Billy Boy answers awkwardly, since he’s not certain yet where this question is headed. I’ve seen his Chevy many times on the drag. It’s all muscle; sunshine yellow with red flames on the sides; and always growling like a lion on the hunt. ‘Course my wheels are just as good, even better, but I’m not a brag…

         Sure, my boy, Mr. Harvey cuts him off. Sure, you’re not a brag. So you’re certain then that if this sunshine yellow Chevy smashed into my store you could finger him to the cops. You’d be certain it wasn’t some other cock on the drag.

         Yes, Billy Boys says. I’d be as sure as the back of my hand, or something.

         Then I’ve got the perfect weasel weapon for you, Mr. Harvey sparkles. It is no more than a practical joke, but it’s sure to grab those girls by the hair and to turn their eyes toward you. It’s the way of life. A guy’s gotta fall for another to rise. And no one actually knows that hard fact of life better than the weasel.

         Mr. Harvey explains the practical joke to Billy Boy. He then sells him the trick items and gives him a pat on the butt, as he steps out with his brown bag.

         Billy Boy steps more confidently across the street; his head held high; his brown bag clutched against his chest; and, indeed, he almost does not care if a fellow classmate identifies him walking away from the flashing neon storefront, since now he has a plan in mind and a weasel weapon of war to accomplish that plan. For the first time, he feels how a man must feel carrying a loaded pistol; and though he has nothing so deadly, he can sense his firm balls about to burst.

         He slides back into his Chevy Impala and scrunches the brown bag under his seat. This catches the attention of the girls, and they look at him in silence.

         So are you gonna tell us what ya got there? Charlotte breaks the silence.

         Billy Boy looks back at her. He strikes a mysterious pose within the neon light; a devilish glint in his eye that alternates from crimson red to aqua blue in the brief span of a second; a knowing grin incongruently set on his pimply face.

         You’ll see when I show you, Billy Boy responds mysteriously. Only then….

         The three girls break out into unrestrained giggles, though now there is a nervous energy underlying the cacophony of sound. And, more critically in Billy Boy’s mind, they now no longer ignore him, but instead keep an anxious eye on him, while trying still to veil their emotions behind gales of girly goon laughter.

         Billy Boy pulls away from the curb. He remains in his spot in the drag, of course, but he is consciously looking everywhere for the target of attack. He is studying the cars in his rearview mirror and up ahead; a constant moving of his eyes that adds another layer of strangeness to him; and Charlotte starts to feel the very first stir of interest for her scrawny, acned date a few feet beside her.

         Billy Boy can feel her watching him; and, boy, does that make the little, unremarkable hairs on his arms and legs stand at attention. He feels at least an entire foot taller; heavy rock solid; able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; and in a sudden flash of imagination, he suddenly sees himself lifting off of the drag; the girls now just scaredy cats clawing nervously at their seats; the Chevy Impala tires skimming off of the tops of the other cars and hot rods on the slow drag; and his red cape fluttering out his driver’s side window in that moonlight that adds an ethereal glow to everything. He is a demented Superman; his grin too wide and too twitchy to be anything but a source of horror for cheerleaders in pleated skirts; his X-ray vision able to see what’s beneath their pink panties; his cocksure swagger luring them in like fish to a bloated carcass. And then, as the image of the bloated carcass fills his mind, the dream shatters completely; even his red cape snapping off of his neck and flying away; and he is once more just a scrawny, acned boy with a trick up his sleeve and a giggly girl at his side.

         It does not take very long to find David’s 1959 Chevy El Camino low rider turning from Castle onto Main. The red flames on its driver’s side door seem to crackle against the sunshine yellow. It is so closely hugging the asphalt that for a moment it looks like a fire streaking through the center of the road; its filthy exhaust the smoke from the flames; its engine roar the scream of a maelstrom.

         He even makes out David’s crew cut and Rachel’s blond bouffant, though like most everybody they’re riding behind tinted windows. She is saddling up to her date; so close and personal with her left check resting on his right shoulder and their bodies rumbling with the engine; a kind of kiss before the kiss that, if not restrained, will lead to a shotgun marriage before nine months have passed from this very night. The moonlight seems to glisten specially on them, like the two have been marked by the high fates for a first encounter with mature love.

         Billy Boy swerves around the slow pick-up in front of him. He needs to be side by side with that El Camino before it turns left on King and meanders up to the old kissing bridge beyond the town line. He’ll never catch up with David, if David has nothing but a windy, country road between himself and his conquest.

         The girls scream. Ruby drops her cigarette on the car floor, and she tries to find it in the smoke cloud that is now everywhere. Rhonda clutches her own, left breast, while trying to find her heart. Charlotte is a scared, bug eyed frog, staring at the hazy profile of her date in the smoke, and feeling suddenly a hot wave of sexual longing that is still so new to her body it frightens her into jelly.

         He can sense their excited fear in his periphery; but, right now, the girls are of secondary importance. For the first time in his life, he really feels like a man; a man on the hunt; and there is just one more car to pass to find his prey.

         He accelerates around a hot rod that normally he would never have been able to catch, let alone to pass; but as he has the element of total surprise now on his side, he discovers that he can do a lot more than even he had indulged in his wildest dreams. And so all restraints cast to the wind, he leaves the fire red hot rod in such a cloud of flaming exhaust that it just brakes cold and uncertain in the center of the road, creating a bottleneck of horns and catcalls behind it, and clearing the path for Billy Boy to jump ahead to his target without reserve.

         David’s Chevy is idling in the left turn lane. It is waiting for the red light to turn green. Its occupants are oblivious to the confusion in its rearview mirror on account of the sweaty soft steam when Rachel nuzzles David’s right earlobe.

         Billy Boy slams to a stop beside David’s Chevy. The force is so great that he nearly stumbles into his own steering wheel; but there is too much hot, raw adrenaline pumping in his veins for him to take notice. He just grabs the brown bag out from beneath his seat, turns up his car radio to the max so that he will be able to hear Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode outside, and kicks open his door like a bronco bucking from its stall. He just catches a glimpse of the girls’ frigid stares, as he leaps from his car with his weasel weapons held close to his chest.

         He rips the brown bag away to reveal two cans of white spray paint; one held in each of his hands like a pair of fine six shooters; the plastic tops clicked off with the lift of his thumbs and ready to go before he even reaches the prey.

         He jumps onto the hood of the low rider and squats like a catcher ready to receive a pitch. He can observe the absolute terror in their eyes; two sets of white, soulless eyes, unblinking, uncomprehending; the little love dance inside of that warm and cozy cabin stopped suddenly by a break in the music. He is all smiles; white and soulless eyes as well, except that his are the very expression of demented madness instead of fright; and a hot blush that causes his freckles to seem like squirming gnats on a dead psycho face. He is an evil clown playing a practical joke that is not particularly funny but is getting the girls’ attention.

         He unleashes both cans simultaneously; white swirls everywhere; a white Valentine’s heart painted on the roof; the smell of paint fumes with the smoke from the idling exhaust. He prances up and down from the low rider like a tiger in heat, looking fast to make sure not one inch has been spared the savagery of his white paint artillery, and catching a glimpse through the rear window of the usually unflappable David Hornhoggs cowering beneath his own steering wheel, while Rachel Spunmason is yelling at him to do something and striking his head with her pink princess purse. That is the very last thing he sees in there, before he covers up the rear window with the rest of his paint and leaps off the trunk.

         He digs for the Swiss Army knife in his pants’ pocket and slashes both of the rear tires for good measure. That had not been a part of Mr. Harvey’s plan; but it seems like the right way to finish off the corpse; the sword left in a dead chest as a memento of the conquest; the cherry on the top of a root beer float.

         He stashes the empty cans beneath his seat, slams his door, and hits his accelerator. The light is not yet green, but he does not feel much obligation at that time to abide by the traffic laws passed and enforced by the town fathers.

         The girls are frozen, stunned, open mouths and buggy eyes sifting in and out of the smoke; and then, all at once, they break out into a fit of mad hyena giggles. They are pretty poodles peeing in their pretty pink panties. They are so surprised, not just at what Billy Boy has done, but in how Billy Boy has changed in their eyes, that they cannot even fashion coherent words on their tongues. It is as if they have regressed to babbling babes, a new reality that is at once very frightening and sexually exhilarating, a tension barely masked in their laughter.

         Oh, my God, that’s David and Rachel, Rhonda and Ruby scream together.

         I told you my date is awesome, Charlotte gloats, as she clings to his arm.

         Just one of my many surprises, Billy Boy says smugly, as he burns rubber while right turning onto Keeble. I say we check out the new cookie at the soda.

         Oh, yes, that’s a bitchin’ idea, Charlotte whispers dreamily into his side.

         The parking lot is full, and so he finds a spot on the curb two storefronts down from the soda. Rhonda and Ruby blow out of the backseat before he even puts on the brake. They rub the wrinkles out of their pleated skirts, take a drag from their smokes, and strike a pose. They are well practiced and therefore do a good job; but up close Billy Boy can see in how their cigarettes shake that the two bitch blonds are still nervous. They need a real beer, not a root beer float.

         Charlotte waits in her seat. She is on a date now and so expects her man to walk around and to open her door. She coifs her hair in a little vanity mirror.

         Billy Boy steps from his Chevy Impala and rounds his hood. He is about to open the passenger side door when he eyes Spike’s 1932 Ford Coupe Hot Rod in the parking lot. The 1955 black Chevy is parked alongside it. Spike and his gang are milling about their idling beasts, shoving passersby, and swigging root beer floats that they have spiked with Schlitz. Spike and his gang look like they’re as much as begging for a fight. Seeing Billy Boy with Charlotte would be the spark.

         Billy Boy drops the door handle and scampers back to his side. All of that smug machismo that he had discovered in himself on the roof of David’s Chevy, that strength in his spine, that firmness between his thighs, all of that is swept away the moment he lays eyes on the bully tackle. He is a freckled mess again, and he has no other desire than to get away before he can be discovered there.

         Scaredy-Cat, Rhonda berates Billy Boy, as he shoulders passed her to get back into his car. I knew you never had it in you. I never fell for your silly joke.

         Loser, Ruby says, holding up her non-smoking hand in the shape of an L, and dangling her smoke in her other hand so nervously ashes fly into her cheek.

         What’s happening? Charlotte tears up. Aren’t we going to have a cookie?

         Billy Boy stares at her. He is so anxious at first he cannot remember who she is or why she is there; and then, when his mind starts to return, he tries in vain to figure out a pose and a word that would reaffirm in her eyes anyway his superhero status. Still, he cannot stop himself from blushing and sweating stink drops like a mischievous boy found all of a sudden with his hand in a cookie jar.

         Um, I just remembered, Billy Boy blathers. The cookie isn’t so good after all. Why don’t we just burn off, or get a Fat Man with Fries over at Enola Gay’s?

         I was really hoping for a cookie; Charlotte clings to his arm, and sniffles.

         Billy Boy starts the ignition and pulls away from the curb. He is so scared he clips the back fender of the car parked in front of him. He is a shower of old and stinky sweat now, and he imagines himself becoming a puddle on the floor.

         Spike and the gang must have observed him, as they soon bolt out of the parking lot and saddle up next to him on Keeble; the 1932 Ford Coupe Hot Rod roaring beside Billy Boy’s driver side window; the 1955 black Chevy then doing the same beside his passenger side window. The three cars side-by-side just fill the width of the street, so that the occasional pedestrian or bicyclist not safely on the sidewalk already has to skip there in the nick of them as they approach; and by the grace of God no one is actually parked along the curb, because if so then Spike would have clipped them rather than lose his grip on his new friend.

         Billy Boy grasps Charlotte by the hair and shoves her face into his crotch.

         I want to tell him off, Charlotte screams into his pants. I want to let him know he’s going to catch something from Lorna “Love Lips” Hallinan; a disease worse than a VD that shrivels up his cock; a case of a reputation as bad as hers.

         I don’t think now is a good time to tell him; Billy Boy pleads, holding her face in his pants, and yet at the same time trying to look calm above his waist. Um, maybe you can just pass him a note in school…like a Valentine’s Day card…

         No, Charlotte cries out like a crazed banshee. I want to tell him off now. 

         Spike reaches over and rolls down his passenger side window. He offers a grin that looks more like a maniacal and drunken scrawl than a genuine gesture of affection. He speaks loudly just then so as to be heard over Billy Boy’s radio. 

         Hey, Freckles, Spike taunts him. Good to catch up with you on the road.

         No luck, Spike, Billy Boy responds as nonchalantly as possible. The bitch must be making out with some dude in the dark somewhere, ‘cause she’s not in any of the hot rods I’ve passed. Maybe she ran off with the dude or something…

         He’s looking for Lorna, Charlotte says. Hah! Serves him right she ran off.

         No, Spike interrupts Billy Boy. I know she’s out there. It’s like in the big game, when I can smell who has the leather skin before they can break the line of scrimmage. No running back’s ever gotten passed me. I’ll be damned if a girl does. So just keep looking. Trust your gut. Win this one for the coach. And be a good friend and tell me the minute you see her face inside some dude’s crotch.

         I’ll be sure to tell you, Billy Boy says confidently. You can depend on me.

         Spike hears the confidence in Billy Boy’s voice, but he views fear written all over his face. The contrast makes him laugh; and when Spike laughs, even a little bit, that is never a good thing for whichever prey happens to be near him.

         Spike slams his fist into his steering wheel and deliberately swerves right to clip the side of Billy Boy’s Chevy Impala. The goons in the 1955 black Chevy, every one of them as sauced as their leader and yet still totally attentive to his every move, then swerve left to inflict the same damage on his other side. This pincer movement crushes the hood, so that there is a peaked hill right smack in the middle. Damage inflicted, Spike and his gang hoot and holler like the horde after a rape, and then they leave the Chevy Impala in a cloud of filthy exhaust.

         Billy Boy takes his hand off Charlotte. She sits up crazed and teary-eyed.

         Hah! Serves him right she ran off, Charlotte repeats. Serves him…Wait a minute. How come you’re now helping Spike find Lorna? Are you trying to keep my Spike and Lorna together, so my Spike doesn’t get back with me? Is that the game you’re playing? ‘Cause if it is, then you’re a meanie playing a girl’s heart, and there’s nothing a meanie like you deserves more than a knuckle sandwich. And when we’re together again, I’m gonna have my Spike hand you a fresh one.

         Oh, no, it’s nothing like that, Billy Boy pleads. Um, Spike and I, um, well we’re just playing a game, that’s all. It’s a scavenger hunt. But a make believe one. He gives me the make believe girl to find, and I make believe I find her. It is a lot of fun, ‘cause you see you can never fail to find what you’re looking for in the end. Unless you make believe you did not find her, but that’s against the rules. We guys call this the Wishful Thinking Game, and we play it all the time.

         So you’re not helping Spike find Lorna? Charlotte asks him after a while.

         No, of course not, Billy Boy blurts out. I’m on the lookout all tonight for a make believe space alien who is disguised as a blond girl on the drag. It’s like something in the comic books. Later, I’m gonna tell Spike that I just found her, maybe at the soda or the Curly Q. I’ve not decided yet what the details will be.

         Then that means that Spike and Lorna are still together, Charlotte cries.

         Oh, well, I don’t know anything about that, Billy Boy backpedals lamely.

         Billy Boy sees the Enola Gay up ahead. There is a big, plastic statue of a cherub faced fat boy revolving on top of a pole. Its eyes are glowing, red, neon lights. Its apron features a radioactive triangle image also in glowing, red neon.

         Beyond the pole is a parking lot full of muscle cars. The burger joint is a space age building that looks as if it has been copied entirely from The Jetsons.

         Billy Boy views Spike and the gang swerve abruptly into that parking lot.

         I don’t think we should stop for the Fat Man with Fries after all, Billy Boy then comments. Too many chilies…hard to digest…rumored to cause blindness…

         Wait a minute; Charlotte pouts, while slapping him on his right shoulder. I was really hoping for a Fat Man with Fries. I’ve had my heart set on it. I think you’re a meanie to dangle it in front of me so long, and then to snatch it away.

         For so long? Billy Boy is incredulous. I just mentioned it two minutes ago.

         It doesn’t matter, Charlotte snarls back. You knew what you were doing.

         Charlotte folds her arms and stares at the Enola Gay passing through her window. She plants her nose against her window and exhales a cloud all over it.

         I’m just trying to protect you, Billy Boy reasons. A good girl shouldn’t go blind; not if she can help it; and that’s what happens whenever a good girl puts a Fat Man in her mouth. So let’s do something else. Maybe ride down the drag…

         Charlotte turns abruptly. She is very beautiful whenever she is consumed by one of her epiphanies, and this is one of those times. Her face brightens and relaxes, like a girl opening a Christmas gift who figures out that she is obtaining what she wants before she actually sees it. Her eyes seem to glow as every one of the puzzle pieces falls into place, because in the end she is only really alive, when she is obtaining what she desires, on her own terms, and in her own time.

         You’re going to take me to the King Kamehameha dance, Charlotte says.

         What? What do you mean? That’s a frosh dance, Billy Boy moans. No one from our class is supposed to be there unless they’re volunteer dance monitors.

         Charlotte reaches into her pink bra. She smiles coyly. Billy Boy blushes a deep burgundy red and tries to stare instead at the traffic that is ahead of him.

         She pulls out two pairs of generic dog tags. One is painted pink for girls.

         Kathy Gumm gave them to me, Charlotte explains. She said to use them in an emergency, like when all the other attractions on the drag do not seem to be working out, or my date has not a clue what to do. I believe that’s the case.

         What do you mean I don’t know what to do? Billy Boy fumes. You have to admit I knew what to do to David Hornhoggs’ Chevy. You have to admit to that.

         You had your moment, Charlotte grins. But past is past. We’ve got a long time before your precious curfew. Much too long a time to do totally nothing

         Billy Boy is replaying in his mind his close call with Spike and the gang. It just takes one volunteer monitor at the dance to see the two of them together, and then to get a message out to Spike, for this night to take a serious turn for the worse. He imagines what it must feel like to be pummeled into the ground; one fist after another to the top of his head; first his legs, then his waist, then his torso, then his chest into the cold and dank earth beneath him; and the last thing he ever observes is that evil cherub face contorted into a stupid, sad grin.

         But it’s a frosh dance? Billy Boy moans. I mean really how uncool is that?

         And there’s another thing; Charlotte presses forward with a broad smile.

         Yeah? What’s that? Billy Boy barely manages to utter in his nervous lips.

         I want people to see us together; Charlotte gleams. I want it to get back to Spike that he’s lost me to a respectable boy, while he’s stuck with his trash.

         Charlotte twiddles with the dog tags. She looks longingly into the night.

         And, then, he’ll want me, she dreams aloud. Oh, boy, will he want me…

         I don’t know, Billy Boy mumbles pathetically. I just don’t know anymore.

         It’s very simple; Charlotte turns back to him. Either you take me to King Kamehameha, or you take me home. It’s your choice. You’re behind the wheel.

         As much as he fears the Wrath of Spike, he fears even more losing a real chance to love Charlotte in the glow of the silver moon. This is his chance; and, no doubt, this will turn out to have been his only chance, if he gives up tonight.

         I’d love to take you to the King Kamehameha dance, Billy Boy smiles. All night long I’ve been thinking to myself: How can I get Charlotte into the dance?

         Guess you’re lucky I’m a friend of Kathy Gumm’s; Charlotte holds up the dog tags and grins coyly. Otherwise, you’d be home with just your comic books.

         You bet; Billy Boy says. You know we make a truly great team, you and I.

         But Charlotte does not respond to that comment. She returns her eyes to the night beyond her window and dreamily twiddles the dog tags in her fingers.

         Billy Boy turns off of Keeble. He takes Mudd Road to their high school on the outskirts of town. He prays the whole time that no one sees them inside his Chevy Impala together; and, indeed, it is fortuitous that he is headed toward a frosh dance tonight, since the frosh do not drive, and their parents do not care.

         Billy Boy turns into the parking lot. There are plenty of lights nearer the school buildings, and empty spaces there too, but he takes a far off space close to the gate that is shrouded in darkness. He skulks from his car and stoops over to the passenger side door, looking behind his shoulder repeatedly, and getting himself psyched for the possibility that someone here may be a friend of Spike.

         Charlotte holds her right hand out for him. He takes it, but not kindly or gingerly. Instead, he practically yanks her from her seat and into his side, like a man saving a damsel in distress from a fire, though the anxious expression upon his face, and the slight irritation on hers, calls to question at once who really is the damsel in distress between the two of them. Recognizing that perhaps he is making a fool of himself, Billy Boy tries to force the anxiety off of his own face; a ridiculous effort than involves forcing his nervous lips into a huge, fake smile, and puffing out his chest, like a pompous rooster inspecting his hens on parade.

         She avoids his expression. It’s frankly a bit too creepy. But of course the show must go on, if she is going to send a message to Spike; and so she grasps a hold of his left arm and wraps it around her shoulders. She nuzzles into his side like the two of them have been going steady together since Adam and Eve. She holds her chin high, and she smiles in the expectation that someone will notice.

         They walk up the steps from the parking lot. Billy Boy opens the big door at the very top, looks anxiously in every direction, and ushers her into the hall. 

         The hall is a long extension of shadows in dim, blue light. There is a soft, ghostly flutter in this light; but the two lovebirds know from experience that in fact these night spirits are no more than clouds of tobacco smoke slithering out from the boys’ and the girls’ restrooms. Mostly, these are frosh learning how to smoke, as may be discerned by the near constant raspy coughs echoing through the shadows; but some of them, no doubt, are the volunteer monitors stealing a moment for themselves. Even the Phys. Ed. Teacher, the portly geezer who is barely able to walk anymore and who insists that his students drop the “Mr.” in front of his name and just call him by his surname Greep, even that strange old bird has been known to languish in the stalls on dance nights and to steal away smokes from upperclassmen who are huddling beside their one operable urinal.

         There is the echo of Oxfords scampering down the hall towards them; an eerie laugh that reverberates off of the walls and the floor and crescendos into an ear piercing screech; and, finally, a frosh girl emerging from the shadows up ahead. She is a black bouffant in a pink poodle. There is even a poodle stitched into her skirt, as if she’s not cute enough with all her pink ribbons, her cheeky, angelic face, and her virtually nonexistent breasts. She is waving her fingers by her face as if trying to get rid of flies, though there are no flies anywhere near, and all the time laughing and smiling as gaily as a horse set free to the horizon.

         A boy leaps out of the same shadow. He runs several paces behind her; a baby faced lad with a part in his black hair like Alfalfa from The Little Rascals; a devilish glint in his eyes; and yet, concurrently, an innocence in his mirth. He tosses a water balloon at the girl and snags her in her derriere, leaving a round, dark water stain that everyone will be able to see, and earning a point for that male horde with which every adolescent boy is a conscripted soldier in training.

         Billy Boy covers his face, as they run passed them. Then, he realizes that they are just frosh, and he drops his hands and pretends never to have been all that fazed. He even looks at Charlotte and nods condescendingly, as if to say to her that they’re just kids and so no skin off his back. He urges her to respond in kind; but she just looks at him with disgusted eyes, as if to say to him then that she knows well enough he had been scared. And so he gives up and looks away.

         They turn a bend in the hall. The double doors to the gymnasium are up ahead. Those doors have been draped with hula skirts; the normal door handles replaced with coconut shells; and the walls on both sides decorated with movie posters, one a Mexican movie named Aventuras de Robinson Crusoe which stars Dan O’Herlihy, and the other an American classic named The African Queen. No Hawaiian posters specifically; but since these vaguely cover jungle themes, the school administrators presume that they’re much the same as what would pass for civilization among the indigenous Hawaiians. Above the doorframe, so as to top off all the other decorations, there is a benevolent tiki god, just like one of those wooden faces that laughs and sings in Walt Disney’s Tiki Room. There is a big sandwich board before the entrance: King Kamehameha’s Swinging Tonight.

         Billy Boy hesitates before the double doors. He pretends to be looking at his watch; and when Charlotte sees he’s not wearing a watch, and looks at him as if to yell what the hell, he pretends to have a terrible itch in his lower back.

         She grabs a hold of his left hand and pulls him through the double doors.

         The gymnasium is full of kids; uncertain, acned, gangly, crew cut boys in black jackets, white dress shirts, and black pants; uncertain, rosy cheeked, flat chested, bouffant girls in white blouses and pink poodles. Everywhere the same black loafers and Oxfords tapping rhythmically into the hardwood floor; a soft, restrained, clapping sound in keeping with the pitter-patter of young hearts too innocent yet really to blossom into those passions that will mark their lives two or three years later; and so a kind of ritualized courtship that is formal, even a bit subdued, as if frightened to unearth those emotions that will bring them all together, and tear them all apart, before they have had a chance even to add a solitary wrinkle to their soft brows. There are a few parents here and there; an occasional upperclassman monitor as well (most of the monitors already having left for the smoke and the make out sessions in the shadows of the labyrinthine hallways about the campus); but, for the most part, the kids hold themselves in check. They are learning what it is like to hold the opposite sex; even for brief periods of time to look them straight in the eye; and they really do not want to venture too far beyond that at this early moment in their high school lives. The Dean of Students seems to recognize this ingrained reticence, because he stays back at the punch bowl the whole time, fiddling with his faded wedding ring in nervous spurts, and talking it up with his cute secretary. If this were a dance of upperclassmen, then he would be out there on the floor, separating those boys and girls who have been too close for too long, and breaking up immoral dance steps. And finally, on the big stage across the room from the Dean of Students, the four man band keeps the tempo of the evening; their moves stiff and slow, even when they play a song such as Rock around the Clock or Dance to the Bop; their style entirely clean cut and harmless. They’ve pretty much rooted out all the sex and rebellion from rock ‘n roll, which is probably why the administrator in charge of their school dances has chosen them year after year for these gigs.

         There is nothing Hawaiian in this dance hall, except for the beloved and eccentric drama teacher, Mr. Smalley. He wears a floral lei, a hula skirt, and a pair of sandals. Only his white, collared shirt is regulation; and even that one is suspect. Many of the upperclassmen think that Mr. Smalley is a bit strange; and the Dean of Students avoids eye contact with the man as much as possible; but, for the most part, students and teachers love the fact that he is very willing to toss a bit of hot spice into a stew that would be otherwise as tasteless as gruel.

         Apart from Mr. Smalley’s homage to King Kamehameha, this dance hall is as white bread Americana as motherhood and apple pie. The elder deacons and church mice who sit on the Morals Board would be quite happy to observe what little actually happens at such frosh dances, that is if they could remain awake passed the six o’clock news. As if to reaffirm just how square they can be, even with the specter of rock ‘n roll hanging over their innocence like a guillotine on a white baby’s exposed neck, the band launches into The Diamonds’ The Stroll.

         The kids form two lines; the boys on one side; the girls on the other; and as the slow harmony progresses, the kids face each other and cross their legs in time. The boy and the girl at the top of the lines meet in the middle, take one another’s hands, and promenade in between these lines to the other end. They do the very same dance step as the line dancers, except of course that they go forward, while the line dancers stay in place. Everything about the stroll dance is slow, stilted, and meticulous; not a smile twitching on the lips; not a solitary shoulder stooped; so that a man with a mind for science fiction might presume a room full of automatons learning how to keep time through a humorless, and repetitive, kind of line dance. He would never presume that these same people would be mothering babies and blowing up gooks within a decade of this quiet, subdued ritual of early adolescence. He could not infer the passion to be found and then indulged in the swing and the free style dances to be performed later.

         Come on, Charlotte nudges Billy Boy. Let’s stroll with the frosh. It’s fun.

         What a way to be noticed, Billy Boy thinks. Promenading in between the entire freshman class. I’m gonna get my nuts torn off, if I go through with this…

         But he does not resist as Charlotte pulls him to his line. He just gives up.

         Billy Boy steps to the bottom of the boys’ line. A few freshmen glance at him with a measure of awe and disgust, since they cannot quite figure out what to make of an upperclassman joining their ranks; but he disregards them. None of them are going to be passing on a secret message to Spike later this evening; and while one of the volunteer monitors may do so, he has made his plunge and can do nothing to reverse course now. There is no point in regarding any one of the other boys and girls, no matter the heads turning, or the mouths gaping, or the eyes widening, as he takes his place in a line of soft and acned adolescents.  

         Instead, he just stares at his own loafers. He knows the dance steps. His whole life is a case of one foot over another, while remaining in place; careful, measured, pointless; staying in line; only venturing out of the line to an extent necessary to stroll from the top back down to the bottom. His place in the loop has been set for him; and he had been a fool ever to dream that he could break out from his own innocence and actually enjoy what it is like to be a strong and composed man. He will do well enough just to keep in time with the repetitive beat and the simple harmony beneath the stroll; going through the motion; just biding time until the curfew demands that he take her home and call it a night.

         And yet the moment he lifts his eyes from his shoes, and catches how his date looks back at him from the girls’ line, he is much too smitten to cast down his gaze. She is beautiful, because she is victorious. She just has him where she wants him, and as a result there is a soft and lazy composure to her face that is irresistible. She is a lady at that moment; and he is putty in her painted hands, molded to conform to her whims; stored in her heart like one of her keepsakes.

         Oh, yes, he will be the man in their love dance together. He will lead, so that the stars align as they should; but much deeper, somewhere down there in and among those secrets that lovebirds dare share only with one another, she is going to be the one playing, and he is going to be the one played. And while he cannot understand rationally why this is the reality beneath the pose, he knows intuitively that that power reversal is what gives love its decadence and charm.

         No, he will not just bide his time. He will enjoy the provocative dance so thinly veiled by this slow and measured stroll. He will relish in this strange, but alluring, rebellion that is just beneath the surface of the line dance of colorless automatons into which he has been placed. And if he loses his nuts when all has been said and done tonight, then at least he will have had a pair to be torn off.

         By the time he reaches the top of his line, and meets Charlotte between the two lines, he is standing tall and smiling broadly. He takes her firmly by her hand and promenades her with all the pride of a champion exhibiting his trophy before the envious glare of the commoners. He keeps the overall restraint that the stroll demands; not the slightest grin twitching at the corner of his lips; but beneath the surface, there is a definite swagger to his step that promises more passion to come. And when he returns her to the bottom of her line, he relishes how she trembles a single moment before casting her wide eyes to her Oxfords.

         The four-man band next performs Danny and the Juniors’ At the Hop. All the freshmen spread out to clap in time to the up-tempo melody. By next year, they will be swinging happily to the bubble gum beat; but, for now, it is enough for them that they smile and clap. As a result, only Billy Boy and Charlotte take the dance floor as swingers; their fast steps in near perfect rhythm to the beat; their hips swaying to a music all their own and likely to catch the eye of a Dean of Students who has nothing much to do otherwise at this silly freshman dance.

         But before the Dean of Students steps away from his flirty secretary near the punch bowl, someone else takes note of how Billy Boy and Charlotte appear to be a glow in each other’s eyes. And that someone else is a four-eyed fatso in a white blouse and a pink poodle skirt two sizes too small for her big linebacker frame. Her name is Patty; but everyone knows her as “Patty Pie,” since she has a bad habit of overstuffing her cafeteria tray with a third or a fourth helping of whatever happens to be the pie of the day. At least no one can remark that she wastes food, since every one of those pie pieces eventually makes it into one of the folds beneath her blouse. And no one messes with her, because her brother is one of the four football goons who hangs out with Spike; and, frankly, she is such a red cheeked and scabbed bruiser in her own right that everyone assumes that she could do a number on virtually any boy or girl who gets in her face. All the kiddies smile, sometimes nod, but mostly just stay the heck away – except, that is, for Charlotte. Perhaps because of her past relationship with Spike, she has felt freer than virtually anyone else to tell the fat bitch off several times in the past month. And so when Patty Pie returns from her smoke break, and sees how the lovebirds are swinging together, she just grins like a jack o’ lantern for the longest time. Patty Pie is savoring the moment, as the lovebirds are going to be a pair of squished flesh patties before the night is done; and she wants to remember how they had looked just as she left to inform Spike and the gang of Charlotte’s unfaithfulness. She wants to hold the image in her mind, like a big, apple pie before it is devoured, and then she wants to do her part to inflict the worst pain possible on the cheerleader bitch and the scrawny silly date of hers.         

         Junior, this is a freshman dance, the Dean of Students snaps at Billy Boy midway through the song. Unless you’ve got a really good explanation right this instant, I shall be expecting you and your sweet girl in my office next Saturday.

         Um, we’re volunteer monitors, Billy Boy says. Just dancing beside all the frosh to keep our eye close on them, so they don’t do anything we wouldn’t do.

         Yes, that’s right; Charlotte reaches for their dog tags. Here’s our passes. 

         She hands them to the Dean of Students. He looks at them in his hand as if they’re clumps of dog shit. He twitches his nose, tosses the dog tags onto the hardwood floor, and walks back to the punch bowl. He fiddles his ring en route.

         Billy Boy and Charlotte look at each other. They break out into laughter, take each other by the hands, and resume their fast and free swing At the Hop.

         The bandleader gestures toward them, and this invites the frosh to turn their attention away from the stage a moment and toward the two juniors who are swinging wildly on the dance floor. They urge the juniors like jungle natives cheering the sacrificial lamb tossed to the flames; a kind of indigenous vibrancy beneath their white bread sobriety; a perverse lust for the ease with which the two upperclassmen are dancing, as if somehow vicariously the frosh too may be able to enjoy just a taste of the fruit for which their hearts remains too tender.

         Billy Boy senses that they are at the center of attention. He could be too frightened to continue with this wild swing, as he has no doubt in his mind that one of the volunteer monitors by now has taken on the role of Judas Iscariot. It is all going to catch up with him, and maybe that insight is his very first inkling of manhood. Regardless, he chooses not to be scared. He chooses instead to be indulgent in the moment, to smile broadly at the frosh who are urging them on, and to dream that he too shall be able to sport a pompadour as cool as the one worn now by the bandleader. And, who knows, maybe he can figure out how to go the distance this moonlit night and to save his nuts from the Wrath of Spike.

         The song ends. Charlotte wraps her fingers behind Billy Boy’s neck, looks lovingly into his eyes, and smiles coyly. She lets her smile linger before talking; and, as a result, it is as if she had been talking already in her seductive silence.

         We’ve given them something to talk about, Charlotte gloats. Sure, Spike has his “Love Lips,” but I’ve got mine, and the drag’s going to talk about mine. And so what if my Spike comes for you? You’ll take him like you took out David.

         You bet, Billy Boy says without confidence, but at the same time without wanting to break her soft illusions. I’ll take him with my spray can six shooters.

         But, of course, Billy Boy does not have any more spray paint on him; and Davy Crockett’s Magic and Novelties is no longer open. His only six shooter is in between his legs, and he is not sure when push comes to shove that he is going to have down there what it takes to face the dummy tackle with the black soul. 

         Patty Pie cannot hear them; but she presumes from how near they stand to one another, and how they look into each other’s eyes, that they are sharing the kind of puppy love talk that makes her want to retch. Oh, boy, she’s going to love hearing their squeals when she and her brother and Spike tear them up.        

         Billy Boy and Charlotte start to walk off the dance floor. Patty Pie skulks through the double doors and down the hall before the lovebirds can sense her.

         Billy Boy leads Charlotte back to his Chevy Impala. He opens her door so chivalrously she gushes. He walks to his door, catches his breath, and slides his bony derriere onto the squeaky leather. He is inserting his key into the ignition, like James Dean on his muscle motorcycle, when she nuzzles into his right side.

         Let’s go to the Curly Q, Charlotte whispers. And foggy up your windows…

         Billy Boy drops the key. He blushes beet red and spits inside his trousers.

         Contented with his reaction, Charlotte slides off, and smiles innocently.

         The Curly Q is a drive-in theater on the edge of town that serves also as a nuclear fallout shelter. The town fathers had demanded the dual use previous to issuing the construction permits; and the theater owner, a diminutive, portly Holocaust survivor named Mr. Katz, decided to make lemonade from lemons by embracing the dual use as a marketing tool. He plastered the town with posters advertising “radiation free cinema,” handed out magnifying glasses to the male drivers with the suggestion that they could use them to search for the Commies under their car seats, burned an effigy of Eugene V. Debs every May Day before starting the first reel of the evening, and more recently renamed the restrooms Khrushchev’s Krappers. The town fathers denounced the Krappers as “prurient” and forced him to hang a black veil over the second word in the sign; but, as he had expected, the veil just called more attention to the word and turned every trip to the restroom into an adolescent poop joke. They dropped their demand, and once more “Krappers” infests the mind of every young boy and girl walking from their parked car to respond to Nature’s Call. Some conspiratorial souls are of the mind the Mr. Katz is actually a closeted red; that he is masquerading his redness behind a veil of over the top Americanism; that, in fact, he is using the technique that English professors and other intellectual elites refer to as satire; but most of the town fathers, and all of the kids, love Mr. Katz in the same way the younger kids love Mr. Harvey. He provides an escape. Yes, the bright yellow radiation warning signs, the blood red arrows pointing to the several entrances to the underground fallout shelters, the sirens scattered about the vast parking area, and the tall prison tower and searchlight at every one of the four corners of the barbed wired fence remind even the most casual theatergoer that he is a citizen of the nuclear age. But Mr. Katz uses various gels to alternate the colors of the searchlights, so that the night sky is much more reminiscent of Fantasia than of Hiroshima. He sells premium seats in the prison towers, so that the kids can get out of their cars and make out like the gods and the goddesses do from atop Mount Olympus. There is only a inkling of what Mr. Katz will become later, when he converts his drive-in theater into a Woodstock before Woodstock, and he makes a bundle selling special brownies to the bearded boys coming back in droves from their draft deferment colleges to check out the Grateful Dead. For now, he is just harmless, irreverent, little Mr. Katz. Really, only Mr. Harvey and his fellow John Birchers have a problem with him; and their beef is that he has the sheer audacity to be a Jewish Jew in a “good, wholesome American town.”

         Billy Boy drives up to the gate. His headlights flash on the poster for this night’s film. It features a skeleton in a Count Dracula cape. It pulls its big cape open at its chest to reveal a beautiful prostitute bathed in smoky light. It looks back at the viewer and grins sinisterly, because of course that prostitute is now and forever trapped inside of death. It is Roger Corman’s The Undead, a movie first released two years earlier, and yet a cinematic splash of terror as relevant on the edge of the 1960s as at any other time. Billy Boy remembers watching it when it first hit the screens. He does not realize he’ll be watching it, again and again, for the remainder of his life no matter where he will run or hide tonight.

         Charlotte shivers from fright. She nuzzles upon Billy Boy’s right side, and she wraps her hands about his arm. She closes her eyes but in her mind still can see the hideous skeleton and the trapped prostitute; and, in reaction, she then sheds a single tear that drops off of her chin and pinprick stains her left breast. And, yes, the insipid, little stain will remain with her the remainder of her life, no matter if hers lasts another hour or another century beneath the silky moon.

         Billy Boy finds a spot in the middle of the lot. He rolls down his window, and he shakes the voice box on the top of the pole beside his window so that a halfway decent sound emerges from out of the static. The first thing they hear; loud, clear, and momentarily frightening them both out of their skin; is the cry of a werewolf. They both eye the screen in time to see the tail end of a creepy werewolf movie preview. Thankfully, the next preview is a run of the mill take on A-Bomb Aliens chasing girls in white blouses and pink poodles on the beach; and for a moment at least, they can catch their breaths and even chuckle a bit. 

         I’m going to get us a bag of Curly Qs, Billy Boy states after a short while.

         Charlotte says nothing to him. She just looks at him wide-eyed and grins. 

         Billy Boy walks toward the concession stand. He thinks about the curfew. They can stay for half the movie, and then he needs to drive her directly home.

         There is a long line of acned and gangly boys at the concession. They are all wearing identical white, collared shirts and black trousers; and from behind their crew cuts look as if they have been mass produced from the same military barber’s electric razor. In a flash of insight, Billy Boy sees every one of the tall, stooped, anxious boys strapped to a silent conveyor belt that just rolls through the concession and drops them into a swamp full of reds and gooks. All the hot, sweltering mud sticks to their starched shirts and pants and pulls them to their graves far below the earth. Their dates remain in their muscle cars. They are a bored, even petulant, bunch of bouffants; their noses upturned, as none of the boys have returned with a bag of Curly Qs; their cheeks warm and crimson red, as they ponder just how far they’re going to go before the closing credits. They just stay in these muscle cars, as the boys long ago and far away decompose in spurts of methane excretions back into the sludge from which they had crawled into the world less than eighteen years before. And, indeed, they will remain in these muscle cars, long after the rusted steel has been swept aside for the mud and mayhem concerts several years later, indeed even after their children have flown from the nest. They will return to dust then in their blouses and poodles.

         This is Billy Boy’s daydream, as he finally steps up to the concession and places his order. He does not look directly at the lanky, Jewish boy who shovels Curly Qs into a bag. The boy’s gaunt face and bony smile looks too much like an image from the ruins of Auschwitz; a black and white ghost behind barbed wire who has no more life in him than to haunt the imagination of his rescuer; a sad, sick expression of the evil lurking beneath the surface of so much colorful glitz.

         Billy Boy is full of the creeps. He just wants to get back to his Charlotte.

         He stumbles into the chest of a football player; a Nordic fat face with an angry scowl plastered permanently beneath his snout; not one of Spike’s goons, specifically, but always happy to give his heart and his soul to the varsity team.

         Nordy looks down at the scrawny freckles. He takes a gigantic handful of the silly loser’s Curly Qs. They taste salty, and so they bring a smile to his face.

         Watch where you’re going, Nordy growls, even though there is still a big, goofy smile upon his face. You’re walking forward like a slant-eyed swamp girl.

         Sorry, Billy Boy grovels stupidly. Um, would you like some more Curly Qs?

         Nordy stares into the bag. The Curly Qs sure look salty. He grabs the bag and chomps them down like they’re the final munchies he’s ever going to have; the snack before the big buzzer; the chew before coach calls them to the field.

         Nordy is preoccupied, and so Billy Boy sees his opportunity to step away.

         Spike’s looking for you, Nordy recalls. Guess he wants your Curly Qs too.

         Nordy must think that is too funny, because he doubles over in chuckles.

         Billy Boy tries to laugh alongside him. He wipes scared tears off his face.

         I’ll buy him a bag when I see him; Billy Boy manages to say after a while.

         Either Nordy does not hear him, or he does not care. He just wanders off like a mindless zombie lured by the strong scent of fresh meat somewhere else. He drops the empty bag of Curly Qs by his side and slugs into the dark shadows.

         Billy Boy could go to the back of the line and buy another bag, but when he looks over there he sees a bunch of white collared skeletons. He really must have been more affected by that movie poster than he had imagined at first, as he seems to see those damned skeletons all over the place now. They’re all the same: creepy, teenaged crew cuts on flayed skulls; buttoned down shirts on old and brittle bones; black trousers flapping in the wind like moth eaten flags on a pair of thin poles; clueless smiles meant to veil just how much they have lost to the flesh eating maggots. They’re the dead marked for a mass grave in a jungle somewhere; what is left of the greasy pompadours and the bubble gum pop; all the white bread innocence burned away by a nuclear wind in the dead of night.

         Billy Boy hurries back to his Chevy Impala. He has a difficult time finding it amidst all the trunk fins glistening in the silver moonlight. For a moment, his eyes searching every which way frantically, he almost feels as if he is drowning in a sea of parked muscle cars. He can smell the waves of anxious adolescence, quivering kisses, wet panties, soiled stockings, splashing over his freckled head.

         He finally finds his buoy in the turbulent sea. He catches his breath, falls into his seat, and tries to wipe the sweat from his brow inconspicuously. He is a mad collection of gangly limbs and blushing cheeks; a total mess of freckles; an ugly, little boy very far removed from the manly dreams that brought him here.

         Charlotte could have smashed him entirely at this moment; and, indeed, she is tempted. But from somewhere in the back of her heart she feels a subtle wave of empathy flow over her. She smiles softly, and takes his hand into hers; no pressure; no eyes searching over one another; just a boy and a girl sitting in a parked Chevy Impala, and allowing the passage of time to tell what may pass.

         I decided not to get any Curly Qs after all; Billy Boy lies unconvincingly. I think they’re overrated, too salty, just not grown up food, if you think about it.

         So you desire to be all grown up? Charlotte whispers. Just like that, huh?

         Billy Boy remembers the two Lucky Strikes he stole this evening from his Grandma’s pack. They’re in his shirt pocket. They feel like hard cocks in there.

         He puts one in his lips. He puts the other one in his girl’s lips. He finds a match inside his glove compartment; careful not to uncover the soft rubber he had put in there just in case; and strikes it against his thigh like a hard smoker. He recoils from a burn pain on his thigh, but he tries not to show it on his face, lest this James Dean moment be totally lost once and for all the times to come.

         The match flares brilliantly in front of his face; and, for a moment, he is a scaled devil with a pair of sleepy eyes in his old and mutilated skull. He is the beast lurking beneath his innocence. He is the death just waiting for the proper time then to crawl out from inside his freckled skin and to rape his sweetheart.

         He lights her cigarette first; chivalrous little devil that he is; and then he lights his own. He has not had too many of these; and, at once, he wants to put his head out his window and to puke. He struggles to strike a fine pose, leaning his head back slowly, and blowing out a long and slithery snake of white smoke.

         She is more experienced, but she is kind enough to stifle her laugh when she sees just how ridiculous he is with a cigarette. She really desires something to come from this moment; something more than just beating Spike at his own, despicable game; something that she may be able to treasure in her little girl’s heart, even if by the light of dawn she decides that she really cannot remain by the side of a boy so much beneath her. She is beautiful, and he is damned; and perhaps this will be the only time that they can share something real, a longing touch, a tender kiss, before they return to their separate stations in this world.

         She tilts her Lucky Strike off to the side, looks straight into his eyes, and smiles coyly. She exhales a calm sea of smoke that mixes with his slithery snake and buries both of them inside a translucent fog. Inside this fog they are both a pair of ghosts reflecting back the brilliant colors of the searchlight flashing into their front seat. They are more real at that moment than they have ever been, and that very fact suddenly frightens and exhilarates them to the same degree.

         Do you want to touch me? Charlotte whispers. You can now, if you want.

         Billy Boy looks away. He is vaguely aware of the movie in front of him. It is a monster flick about a scandalous woman trapped within her own death; the characters all zombies in varying degrees of decomposition; the newborn really as much a zombie as the old fart, just better able to hide its stench beneath its healthy cheeks and unblemished skin. But, really, what he sees is the futility of it all; the beautiful and the damned sharing a moment that cannot last; a final loss of innocence that is not quite balanced out by scalping a beautiful bouffant trophy and becoming a real man. He is going to go through with it; maybe even get to use his rubber before all is finished; but he will be all alone, and vaguely disappointed, when the first ray of sunlight awakens him from his boyhood bed.

         I want to kiss you, Billy Boy remarks with all the affect of a matinee idol on the silver screen. You’re my only sweetheart tonight, and I want to kiss you.

         That didn’t sound quite right, Billy Boy thinks almost aloud. Actually, not right at all. You’re my onlysweetheart tonight. What the heck does that mean?

         He struggles to knock that self-criticism out of his mind. He may muff up his words; even insert his foot so far into his mouth that he can taste his ankle; but this is his moment. Right now, this is his time. And he’s not going to lose it.

         Before she can respond, he grabs a hold of her waist with his smoke free hand and pulls her into his face. He smacks his smoky lips so hard into hers that their teeth crack together. He blushes beet red, but he doesn’t let that destroy the moment. Heck, a mushroom cloud overhead could not destroy the moment.

         Charlotte flutters her fingers on both sides of her face. She nearly drops her cigarette. But she does not even try to push back from his forced embrace; and while she is not very comfortable, she tells herself that at least this is real.

         I kissed you, Billy Boy gushes. I truly kissed you. And on your mouth too…

         Yes you did, Charlotte blushes. I have to say it. You were just wonderful.

         Billy Boy leans back and takes a deep drag on his cigarette. He launches into a coughing fit; his face beet red; his eyes swimming in tears; but even that cannot wipe the hopeless love grin off of his face. He is no longer the strike out artist stuck at home plate; and though his front teeth continue to hurt, he feels that it was better than he had ever dreamt all those hours alone in his bed. He imagines now that rounding first base and returning home will be anti-climatic.

         Charlotte takes another drag from hers. The sooty cloud that she exhales lingers just over her body like the aura of a crazed, old witch. She remains just as beautiful, but now she is as damned as her date; a witch kissed by a devil on the very edge of the night that they are sharing with one another; a seductress, and yet as much played as she presumes to play. That is the nature of evil. It is confused, and then it is gone in the total and irrevocable suddenness of a death that is premature, inexplicable, even perverse. And so what consolation can be found in the final moments of a game that is about to be swept from the table?

         This melancholic insight sweeps through her mind, and then it is as gone from her conscious mind as before she had entertained it. She keeps nothing of it now, but that sinking feeling that something will be very wrong before dawn.

         She leans into his side and watches the movie. She puffs anxiously on her cigarette. She is just a little girl now, tired, nervous, recalling with sadness the only doll that her father had given her before he left for his work the last time.

         He is not thinking about a doll, or a toy, or even his favorite comic book. He is envisioning himself in a soldier’s uniform, firing a pistol at a Commie who is hidden in a jungle, knowing in his cock that with every dead splat of Commie blood he is rounding the bases and sliding into home plate. He is far from every commitment, every promise, and in that loneliness he is finally a real man, not freckled, not even scrawny, but a grown up man, helmeted and turned loose to rape and to plunder. That too is the nature of evil. It is puffed, and then it is as gone in the total and irrevocable suddenness of the same death that afflicts all those confused and melancholic souls out there. And so what macho virility can be preserved from that same game that has been swept from the table? In what does the man profit, when he too loses everything heroic in the blink of an eye?

         Time passes, and Billy Boy is vaguely aware that he has passed a point of no return. They have watched more than half the movie, and he has not turned the ignition of his Chevy Impala. They will be here still when the curfew comes and goes like a ghost car passing in the night and glimpsed in a rearview mirror.

         The voice box outside his window sputters. It is much more static than it is cinema sound, and so he knocks it from its pole and rolls up his dark window.

         Charlotte does not seem to notice or to care. Perhaps she is asleep; just a little girl cooing on his right side; her silly drool slithering into his white shirt.

         Billy Boy takes another drag from his cigarette. There is not really much of a burn left, and so he manages to bury the smoke deep into his lungs without unleashing another lame coughing fit. He exhales a long and beautiful serpent; his best one yet; a snake that thrusts against his windshield and then returns to his own face. He can feel his own smoke digging into his eyes and laying a claim to his dreams, like it is a serpent squatter from hell laying a claim to what tiny bit of heaven he has left. He is violated; but he is also keenly aware that he no longer has any trace of his boyhood innocence; and for that he smiles savagely, darkly, indigenously, his smile the clownish grin petrified into his skull’s visage.

         The curfew passes. This is now his very first moment after the curfew; a moment he had never really thought possible; a moment lingering into his new, terrifying eternity as a reminder that, indeed, he has sown what he has reaped.

         The cigarette smoke in the car dissipates until it is no more than a tired and melancholic haze. It is spent. It no longer mixes in and out of the brilliant, flashing searchlight to induce those surreal impressions that had so scared and thrilled the two of them earlier. It no longer does much of anything really, but simply linger on the periphery like the bare scent of a ghost enfeebled by time.

         The movie must have finished, as there is nothing on the screen. That is very strange, as he frankly does not remember observing the roll of the credits, or even that ubiquitous The End. It is as if there never had been a movie on the screen, as it appears now to be as cold and as dark as an untouched, dead wall. 

         He glances out his window. The muscle cars to his left are dark, lifeless, no more than bulky shadows that seem as substantial as the backdrops within a movie set. He glances out the opposite window; much more cautiously, as he is now expecting to see what in fact he sees; and, sure enough, those muscle cars are as dark, lifeless, and insubstantial. He senses that he is in the middle of the creepiest ghost drive-in ever to wreak havoc on the imagination of a young boy; and, all at once, he tosses out that confidence that had come with being a real man. He is just a squeamish, pathetic boy who wants to return to his Grandma.

         He pushes his door open. It seems to weigh a ton. Even the air outside is heavier, slower, like a wind winding down to the moment everything just stops.

         He walks away from his Chevy Impala and glances back at the concession stand. It is as cold and as dark as the screen. No one is in line; no one is adding a shake of salt to the Curly Qs; no one, it seems, has ever visited the backdrop. The same may be said of Khrushchev’s Krappers, or the old ticket booth by the gate, or the prison towers that now stand tall and empty at the four corners of this graveyard. There are no searchlights, no feet shuffling in the shadows, not even the sound of a nervous sigh or chuckle from within one of the muscle cars.

         Only the silver moonlight moves across the roofs of the muscle cars. It is a demon stalking the remains of adolescence. Everything over which this silver moonlight flows seems rusted, dented, what has been lost to a distant junkyard when time presses forward. But even creepier is the silence that is everywhere at once; a deafening silence; an audible pressure in the mind that appears then to be the sound of the silver moonlight crossing over that wreckage after hours.

         Billy Boy is alone, completely alone in his own wrongdoing, forevermore removed from his promise to return home by the curfew. He cannot see or hear anyone; and yet, inexplicably, he does not fear that they are gone. Rather, in a part of his mind that is not quite rational, but that relates much more so to the strange turn of events, he realizes that they are an indelible part of the rusted, dented wreckage. It is as if the people themselves are winding down to a final, existential stop and that, therefore, there is not enough of them left for him to see or to hear. And so the end is stillness, silence, and just absolute loneliness. 

         Except, of course, he is not alone. Charlotte is in his Chevy Impala. Most likely she is asleep, since he cannot recall the last time he heard a peep out of her. Or perhaps she is just being contemplative of the puppy love that they had shared earlier tonight. Regardless, she can be awakened into his corner of hell; his perspective foisted onto her; his fears and weaknesses seared into her eyes.

         Billy Boy opens his door. He cannot see anything at first. It is so cold and dark in there not even her oversized bouffant can be seen against the shadows; or, perhaps, it is better to say that everything about the darkness reminds him, not consciously, but viscerally, of her oversized bouffant, her pinkish blush, her pleated skirt, her Oxfords, even the coy smile with which she has seduced him. She is that coldness, that darkness, that absolute stillness beneath a starry sky.

         And then, at once, the silver moonlight flows across his windshield, and it exposes Charlotte’s corpse beside his seat. She is beautifully serene; indeed, the same expression on her face as when she had persuaded him to take her to the frosh dance and to go along with her agenda; her nimble fingers folded into the classical gesture for prayer; her lovely face downcast on stooped shoulders.

         He steps back and tries to stifle a terrified scream. He sounds like a girl.

         She turns her head to face him directly. Her left eye pops open to reveal a bloodshot cavity full of pus dribbling out from her tear ducts. She grins coyly; the expression of a woman who has conquered in bed; the face of a clown that wants to toy with her victim a little while longer; and, most peculiar of all, the sadness of a girl who wants to mask her loss of innocence behind her seduction.

         Do you want to touch me? Charlotte whispers. You can now, if you want.

         Billy Boy screams again. He stumbles back and falls on his bony derriere.

         Charlotte crawls out the open door like a cat on the prowl. Outside, her face is as waxen white as a corpse; and both her eyes are open sores, vomiting out streams of pus, and yet incongruously staring straight into his soul with two pupils that are not physically there, but rather felt in the intensity of her glare.

         Billy Boy scoots back on his elbows, as she attempts to grab at his hands.

         I thought you wanted to touch me, Charlotte whispers. You can now, if…

         Billy Boy kicks dirt into her face. But she and her evil smile are unfazed.

         I thought you wanted to touch me in the silver moonlight, Charlotte says in the soft and throaty manner of an experienced woman of the night. You can now, if you want. We can remain right here and wallow in the silver moonlight; just wallow like grown ups who do not have to answer to any silly, old curfews; just do what we want for as long as we want. Isn’t that what you want tonight, tomorrow night, every night that follows? Isn’t that what it means to be manly?

         Billy Boy is so mesmerized by her seductive voice, his sweetheart turning into a well endowed woman right before his eyes, his little girl turning into the kind of debauched temptress that haunts and titillates the dreams of any small, adolescent boy who has dared ever to consider what it is like to be in love, that he is not even aware that she is climbing on top of him, until it is much too late to shove her aside. Or perhaps he does not want to shove her aside. Perhaps, in a way he cannot understand rationally, he really likeshaving her slither on top of him like a snake in a pleated skirt. He surely feels hot and hard down there…

         The warm pus glugs out from the bloodshot cavities where her beautiful eyes used to be. It plops onto his face and oozes down his neck. There seems to be an infinite amount of warm pus in that head of hers, because no matter how much glugs out from inside her skull her head is not caving inward. If anything, then her head seems to be larger now than before, a bloated ball of ooze, a big balloon inflating along its surface and pushing her silly bouffant toward the sky.

         And yet Billy Boy remains mesmerized; frozen in fear; but even more so, frozen in those secret lusts that are about to be realized. Sure, he had wanted to kiss her in the silver moonlight; but only the deepest and the darkest corners of his soul had toyed with the image that she would be on top of him just then. No, that image had been beyond respectablethat image had been the kind to knock Ozzie and Harriet off their feet and into their premature graves; and, to be honest, that image had not even been intimated in the comic books he loves and hides. It is only when the devil drags the main, and the old witch casts her spell; sometime after the curfew; always beyond the fence; only just then does that image sizzle out from the perverse mind to take on a queer life of its own.

         Charlotte looks down at him. She smiles and then slides her lips onto his. 

         She kisses him, while vomiting warm pus out from her bloodshot cavities and down his quivering cheeks. She holds him closely, while rubbing her breasts against his chest. She hisses through her clenched teeth and into his dry mouth; her saliva tingling the inside of his throat; her snake sizzling a hole in his heart.

         He does not resist her. Everything about this experience is wrong, but he would not have it any other way, no matter if he must die in the ravages of sin.

         Charlotte pushes up from his face, but her glossy lips continue to smooch with his. A girl’s lips have a mind of their own, they do. And so there is nothing beneath her nose, but a loose shred of skin and the bottom half of a skull face; death unveiled where the word is spoken and the passion is unleashed; nothing, but death and decay where once there had been the sweet taste of puppy love.

         And that breaks Billy Boy out from his lust. Real death has a terrible way of just shattering dreams, especially the debauched and pornographic ones that we entertain when we think even our own conscience is fast asleep for the rest of the night; and so Billy Boy screams like a banshee, and shoves her off of him.

         He scrambles to his feet. She crawls up to him, so that her bloodied half face is on the same level as his crotch. She claws ravenously for his dirty hands.

         Oh, darling, make me forget my Spike, will you? Charlotte teases him, as she nudges her skull mouth and chin against his zipper. So are you man enough?

         Billy Boy falls onto the hood of the muscle car next to him. He views two corpses inside just starting to stir. Their eyeballs pop out of their sockets, so as to make way for the warm pus that then vomits out from inside their teenaged skulls and drips down their snow white cheeks. They growl at him like rabid and starving dogs. They leap for him, but manage only to knock themselves against the inside of their windshield. They crack the glass and leave behind a sizzling, oily blood splat that slithers down the inside of their windshield and then glugs over their dashboard. They seem dazed about what in the hell got in their way.

         Charlotte crawls onto the hood. She faces the other two corpses, growls, and then pounds her two fists into the windshield. She widens the bloody crack and finally manages to shatter the glass. She claws at their lumpy, dumb faces.

         He’s my Next Spike, Charlotte screams. He’s all mine. And I don’t share.

         Billy Boy slides off the hood. He is delirious in fear; unable to make even the slightest sense of what is now happening; and so everything about him is an anxious and irrational series of impressions; glass shattering here or there, as a teenaged corpse manages to launch his or her head through a windshield; doors creaking here or there, as a teenaged corpse figures out how to open the driver side door and to begin the long and pointless task of wandering aimlessly about a drive-in junkyard; bones snapping here or there, as teenaged corpses stagger into one another and then proceed to snap each other’s twitchy limbs from the rancid shreds of decaying flesh that pass for human bodies after the curfew. All of this mayhem is hidden in the dark shadows of an endless night, until the soft and silent moon happens to pass overhead. Then, there is just a passing, vague, ghost-like glimpse of teenaged corpses in their block sweaters or pleated skirts, mauling one another in the front seats of their muscle cars, or dropping chunks of dead flesh off to the side as they wander blindly into the rusted hazards that are just about everywhere. They do not speak. They growl, or they vomit warm pus, or they pee blood down their shredded legs. But, mostly, they just wail for the innocence they have squandered and the morbid life they have inherited in its place; a hell born from their rebellion; a despair killing off whatever simple, adolescent gaiety they had known once in their lusts. Their wail sounds like the guttural wind that inspires hellish nightmares even in the souls of the innocent.

         Someone turns on the searchlights. There is a mad chuckle in the distant breeze that reverberates out from each of the prison towers at once. The gross levity is inhuman in origin; earthy; psychotic; perhaps reminiscent of the chaos, before the spirit flew over the primordial seas and devised order out of chance. 

         Billy Boy has no idea about such Biblical intimations. He only knows that, as a result of this mad chuckle, he has been able to focus his thoughts now in a way that brings some semblance of conscious order out of the surreal craziness.

         The searchlights sweep their flashing colors over the drive-in junkyard in such a way as to turn the teenaged corpses and the rusted heaps into the queer and otherworldly monsters that had populated Fantasia. As a result, the drive-in junkyard is too cartoonish to be terrifying. No doubt, it is very creepy, but it is the kind of soft creepiness that plays imperceptibly on the subconscious mind until suddenly the victim is mired in the throes of a terrible, psychotic response for which he had had no particular warning. He discards whatever had occurred on that fateful night as just a bit of lunacy; perhaps the rush to his young brain from finally having rounded first base; perhaps some chemical that had been in his Lucky Strike; and then, sometime later, he is hit by the kind of debilitating, mindless horror that the old timers refer to as delayed shell shock. And then at that moment those creepy Fantasia colors are no longer particularly laughable.

         Someone turns on the movie projector. It is the same demonic psycho in the shadows that had turned on the brilliant searchlights, because once more a mad chuckle reverberates out from every direction at once. Whatever it is, it is reading Billy Boy’s thoughts, because The Undead does not appear on the silver screen, notwithstanding the poster at the front gate. Instead, there is the large and magical FantasiaMickey Mouse, wielding his wand, and smiling wildly at all the strange beasts he conjures from his spells. And yet, notwithstanding a clear surface similarity, this is not Walt Disney’s Fantasia, since Walt Disney’s family friendly version did not include strange beasts giving each other the finger, and tearing out each other’s hearts, and pulling down Minnie Mouse and raping her.

         Blood splatters on the silver screen, as several teenaged corpses up front commence a bar brawl that launches limbs, organs, and decapitated heads into the howling winds. Some of these lunatic corpses are so shredded that they are no more than twitching and stumbling skeletons; bones crackling into the silver screen; spurts of ossified dust swirling briefly into the air and then disappearing altogether. All of this mayhem beneath the silver screen fits in very nicely with the pornographic gore on the same screen, so that the line between reality and fantasy breaks down entirely. The only common denominator that seems to be making sense of all this cruelty is that mad chuckle in the distant breeze. It is a queer devil, no doubt; and it is what passes for law and order after the curfew.

         Billy Boy runs back to his Chevy Impala. He slams his door shut and hunts frantically for his key in his pocket. He sees finally that it is still in the ignition, but he’s so anxious then that he cannot recall what he’s supposed to do with it.

         Charlotte stumbles out from the shadows and pounds her left fist against his driver side window. She cannot use both fists, since her right arm had been torn off. Indeed, at this point, she is mostly a skeleton, though she continues to sport her bouffant, her left breast, and a few skin shreds hanging from her ribs.

         You’re supposed to make me forget my Spike, Charlotte screams with an acrid voice that sounds more like a squealing rat than a pouty girl. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Are you telling me now you’re not man enough to do it, just when things started getting good? ‘Cause if that’s the case, then I’m gonna turn my Spike against you. I’m gonna order him to give you a knuckle sandwich.

         Charlotte shatters the driver side window. She claws for his chicken neck with her one remaining skeleton hand. She strikes her left kneecap repeatedly against his door and seems to laugh demonically at all the ruckus she is making.

         Billy Boy is way too frightened to look in her direction, but he can feel a bony hand scratching at his chin and clutching at the top of his throat. He turns the key in the ignition; more by happenstance than by conscious act; and then, yanking his head away from her hand, he has just enough mind left in him to be able to release the brake, to shift the engine into drive, and to step on the gas.

         He launches forward and nearly eviscerates a skeleton in a pleated, pink skirt and a pair of Oxfords that just happens to be staggering in front of him at that moment. Her skull bounces off of his windshield. The breeze takes the rest of her shattered bones and leaves in the dirt her cleaned and polished Oxfords.

         The sudden forward velocity rips the left arm from Charlotte’s shoulder, but that amputated left arm continues to clutch anxiously at Billy Boy’s throat. 

         Billy Boy slams on the brake. He uses both of his hands to yank that arm off of his throat. He heaves it outside his window, and again presses on the gas.

         Charlotte runs after him. For a brief moment, she is near enough to grab at his rear bumper; but without any arms dangling from her shoulders, the most she can do is to smash her skull face into his trunk in a final fit of exasperation.

         Billy Boy catches her in his rearview mirror. She glares at him a moment, and then she is overtaken by a beefy corpse in a block sweater that proceeds to tear her bones one by one. She gives herself to a tackle once more and is gone.

         Billy Boy turns toward the front gate. The gate swivels wildly in a strong wind that is blowing into the drive-in junkyard from the outside. It is as if there is a high-powered fan out there trying to flatten everything that is in here. It is the maintenance crew, employed by Old Father Time after hours, compensated well for its no nonsense efficiency, always there to clean up what has been left behind, when the teenagers discard their innocence, or no longer really believe their shattered dreams. It levels the debris, and salts the earth, before sunrise.

         Billy Boy understands all this at once; and then he discards it, because of course it does not make any rational sense. This is all a sick hallucination, truly nothing more than his hyperactive nerves, his mind punishing his willingness for once to stay out after the curfew. He will get home, sneak back into bed, read his comic books under his sheet by flashlight, and resume his old life tomorrow.

         What it very real is that swiveling gate, and that powerful headwind into which he is driving, and that pssh sound that tells him that he has blown a tire.

         The wind is so strong that his Chevy Impala shivers and groans. His tinted windshield cracks everywhere, so that it resembles a spider web shedding glass shards over his dashboard. His steering wheel is a serpent rattling in his fingers.

         In his rearview mirror he sees the wind gathering up the rusted car parts and the pissed off skeletons, shredding grimy metal and bones indiscriminately, and blending everything into several filthy tornadoes. The tornadoes just dance across the drive-in junkyard, fast steps and swirling arms, angry screams kicked up to the air, silent and smashed earth left underfoot. The flashing searchlights still bleed through the tornados, but the colors are now muted greys, so dreary as to be reminiscent of an old and worn out nightclub on the lonely outskirts of hell. Evil Fantasia is still on the silver screen; but inside the haze of the several tornados, it is a dingy ghost cartoon in sepia tones; more despondent than vile; what remains of real horror when time has cleansed its bite and faded its scars.

         Billy Boy ducks, as his windshield shatters inward. He loses his grip on his steering wheel. He tries to sit up again, but the wind blows too heavily through the open space where his windshield used to be. He just slides over his leather.

         The mighty wind lifts his front tires and knocks his car onto its right side.

         Billy Boy falls into the passenger door. He feels the door sliding across an uneven surface. He is fearful that the creaky Chevy Impala may cave in on him, and so he immediately looks through the shattered driver side window and tries to figure out how he can climb through it before he is buried alive in his wreck.

         And then he sees a bloodied and shredded half face snarling down at him through the driver side window. It is too far gone to be visually identifiable just then; but Billy Boy can tell from its dumb and overbearing snarl, and as well in how it is sniffing hungrily in the air with a nose that is mostly decomposed, that it is Nordy. It uses its right index and middle fingers, the index shredded to the bone, the middle still covered by rotting skin, to give him the eyeballs gesture.

         Spike’s looking for you, Nordy recalls. Guess he wants your Curly Qs too.

         Another gust, and Nordy’s lumbering head snaps off of his big shoulders.

         Billy Boy grabs his steering wheel. He pulls himself up and out of his car.

         And just in time, as no sooner does he land on the ground than he views the remains of his Chevy Impala slide into Khrushchev’s Krappers. The restroom roof falls onto the driver side door and smashes the repo car into a sardine can.

         Billy Boy braces himself. He expects to be blown into the maelstrom; but he unexpectedly discovers that, while the wind snaps fiercely against him, he is able to keep his two feet on the ground. He is more substantial than everything about him. Besides withstanding the wind, he is not decomposing, or at least so far as he can tell right now. He is not sure if this is any reason to be hopeful for his ultimate survival. He just knows that he can escape, and so he runs off with no mind for anything else but the thought of burrowing under his sheet tonight.

         As he approaches the front gate, he observes the hinges separating from the pole. He ducks, as the front gate spirals over his head and into one of those tornados behind him. He shields his eyes and presses through the swirling bones and dust, until finally he notices that he is running down the two-lane highway; his anxious heart feeling as if it is beating outside of his thin chest; his skin and his hair so covered in white soot that he looks like a ghost staggering in and out of the silver moonlight. He is now death running scared in the land of the dead.

         He is terrified. He has no idea where this nightmare is going to lead him.

         And yet he is aware enough of his surroundings that he hears the distinct roar of a 1956 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. It screeches around the tight curve before him, and it barrels toward him like a missile propelled from the night. It bathes him in its intense headlights, while he stumbles to his knees and braces himself for what he thinks is a sure collision. It manages to come to a stop inches away.

         Billy Boy stumbles back to his sore feet. He leans on the hood of the hot and sweaty car that almost flattened him. He stares down the silly man behind the steering wheel and racks his brain to try to figure out where he’s seen him.

         The driver honks. That breaks Billy Boy out of his spell, and he is able to identify the driver as the quirky Mr. Smalley. He also sees a couple in the back, no more than menacing shadows at this point, ghouls veiled by this bleak night.

         Mr. Smalley rolls down his window. He looks Billy Boy up and down for an uncomfortably long time. He finally grins and nods toward the empty passenger seat beside him. He licks his lips hungrily and glances at the couple behind him.

         Billy Boy observes everything. His rational mind tells him that he is a fool to be getting anywhere near the strange drama coach. But his survival instinct, now more pumped than at any previous moment in his lifetime, reminds him on the sly that the drama coach may be strange, but he is not really a stranger. It also tells him that if he does not get a ride, he is probably never going to make it back to bed. He grins back at the drama coach and hunkers down beside him. 

         You’re out passed your curfew; Mr. Smalley winks at him. A bit late, no?

         Billy Boy cannot say. He just leans into his leather seat and sheds a tear.

         No worry, my boy, Mr. Smalley says, while patting him on his left knee. I think a little rebellion is good for the soul. Certainly good for the stage, even in an ‘All-American’ school like ours. Be authentic, that is what I tell my students.

         Billy Boy looks at Mr. Smalley. The drama coach is still wearing his gaudy hula skirt, floral lei, and sandals; but he has added a shiny blond, bouffant wig.

         Someone snickers in the backseat. Billy Boy still cannot make them out, but he smells what he imagines is a breath accented by vomit and cheap liquor.

         Mr. Smalley restarts the Rocket 88. He turns around and heads back from where he had come. He checks out the couple in his rearview mirror, and grins.

         I think enough time has passed, Mr. Smalley surmises. By now, Mr. Gump has taken out the trash and locked up. He is a family man. He checks his time…

         Never more than five minutes passed his time, a drunk, old bastard jests from the backseat. Gotta get home to kiss the wife and to check on the squirts.

         The men laugh. A drunk as a skunk lady in the backseat interrupts them.

         I think that is peachy, she slurs. A family man…a God fearing American…

         Shut up, girly, the old bastard scolds. You’ll undermine the boy’s morals.

         The drunk as a skunk lady cackles. The old bastard licks his lips hungrily.

         Mr. Smalley sees the anxious look on Billy Boy’s face. He pats him again.

         Don’t worry, boy, Mr. Smalley whispers. You’re just in on a little secret.

         Billy Boy looks away from Mr. Smalley. The drama coach is far too creepy in that blond hairdo of his. He looks like a grinning she-devil with lips that have turned blood red from devouring a little child. He looks hungry for another boy.

         Mr. Smalley considers Billy Boy a while. He then snickers and looks away.

         Mr. Smalley turns into the high school parking lot. There is one flickering light just outside the gymnasium; but, otherwise, it is so dark, empty, and still that it feels as if it had been abandoned ages ago. There is no wind to cover up the sound of the Rocket 88 tires crunching over the loosened parking lot gravel.

         He parks in the spot nearest the principal’s office. The steamy Rocket 88 headlights beam upon a huge, red lettered sign: Dean of Students Parking Only!

         Mr. Smalley looks long and hard at the anxious boy. He winks and smiles.

         Do not forget, he whispers. Be authentic, that is what I tell my students.

         The old bastard and his woman stagger out of the backseat. One of them stumbles on the loosened gravel, and they respond with a sick bout of laughter.

         Mr. Smalley gestures for Billy Boy to follow him. He bolts out of his seat, and he helps whoever had fallen to the ground. He is not much more sober than his friends, and yet he seems to be in command of whatever is about to follow.

         Billy Boy reluctantly follows them. He senses that the grown ups are now decomposing right before his eyes, though not in the physical sense that he had witnessed among his fellow teenagers. It is as if they are decomposing morally, ethically, even spiritually, and losing whatever authority they had had to retain order in the world. It is like Ozzie and Harriet themselves are stark raving mad, debauched cretins clawing at a scab, blithering idiots falling over themselves in the pursuit of the lowest point in the earth. He imagines himself to be the only real adult among them, and that very thought fills him with excruciating dread.

         Mr. Smalley struts toward the office door. He is wiggling his derriere like a girl in high heels. His shiny blond bouffant wig glitters in the silver moonlight.

         Billy Boy still cannot make out the couple, even though he is only several paces behind them. They are a man and a woman, falling over themselves with drink and giddiness, slouching and twitching as if knocked from their own souls.

         Mr. Smalley opens the office door, switches on the desk lamp, and puts a record on the player in the far corner. He moves efficiently about the room; an old hand at setting up the scene; a lady secretary revealing herself as the boss, when most everyone else has left the scene, and the late night veils her secret.

         Billy Boy stands by the doorway. He feels like a voyeur. He wants to run to the restroom and to soap himself, and yet he just cannot take his eyes away.

         The old bastard is the Dean of Students, disheveled, tongue smacking, as much a troll as a man in a formal grey suit and red bowtie. He is looking around his own office as if he has never been there before and is deadly afraid of what may be lurking in the shadows. He dabs his forehead with a worn handkerchief.

         The drunk as a skunk lady is his cute secretary. She is still pretty; indeed even more alluring with her slobbery face and pouty lips; but whatever careful, taciturn, administrative mind she may have in business hours has been replaced by an annoying slur and a witchy cackle at odds with her beautiful body. She is following the Dean of Students around the office like a stupid puppy on a leash.

         Billy Boy recognizes the song on the record player. It is the oldie that his Grandma plays sometimes after hours. It is Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again.

         The Dean of Students and his cute secretary collapse on a couch next to the record player. They are as out of breath as if they had been running a race.

         Mr. Smalley sits at the desk. He pulls a rusted, old key out from beneath his hula skirt and tries to insert it into the upper desk drawer. It is either much too rusted, or the lock itself is out of whack, as he has a heck of a time with it.

         Mr. Smalley gives up. He slams the key on the desk and gestures for Billy Boy to step into the room. He grins cheekily but seems still to be totally pissed.

         Ah, the best laid plans, Mr. Smalley sighs. Be honest, boy. Have you ever wanted to do something truly naughty and then, as the moment came, realized you couldn’t unzip your trousers? Mind you, not because you were scared into a fit of morality all of a sudden, but for no other reason than that the zipper was stuck? Dreadful, I say. The devil himself unleashed, and then nothing happens…

         Billy Boy lingers at the doorway. He blushes and looks down at his shoes. 

         Come now, Mr. Smalley teases him. You cannot be surprised. Why do you think God created night? Was it not so that we could cover our sins in darkness?

         Oh, leave him alone, the cute secretary interrupts. I think he’s adorable.

         Breaking his curfew, the Dean of Students bellows. Crossing his blue line.

         Everyone looks at the Dean of Students, because for a moment he sounds like his normal, high handed, judgmental self; and then he breaks into laughter and leans the back of his head into his cute secretary’s lap. He stares up at his ceiling after a while and starts to count the little black holes in one of his tiles.

         They’re both right, you know, Mr. Smalley continues. You’ve crossed the line, and you’re adorable. Really, it’s not everyday that we get to visit with an individual who is so new to our side of the curfew. Usually, by the time we see that you’re a corrupt, hypocritical, little sneak, you’re already pretty far down the proverbial path. We can see your scars; your knowing eyes; but with you, it is still Howdy Doody naiveté. Well, boy, all I can say is welcome, and please sit down. Relax. Put up your feet. It will be a lot better for you, if you cooperate…

         Like a girly being raped, the Dead of Students observes, and then laughs.

         Mr. Smalley glares at the Dean of Students. He turns back to the boy and shrugs. He gestures again for the boy to take the seat opposite his at the desk, and he does not drop the gesture until he observes the boy step into that room.

         Mr. Smalley tries again with the key. He struggles. The Dean of Students and the cute secretary laugh at him, and he almost gives up and punches them.

         He finally opens the drawer. He pulls out a Jack Daniels and a shot glass.

         So start downing them, Mr. Smalley advises. You won’t scream as much.

         Mr. Smalley tries to keep a poker face as he stares down the boy in front of him. He only lasts about ten seconds, and then he breaks into the very same laughter that burdens his friends. He shoves the bottle and the shot glass aside.

         Let me explain, Mr. Smalley says after a while. Tonight you’ve graduated from childhood. You always thought you’d get some sort of diploma; a kiss from your favorite girl; maybe a feel. But, you see, that’s not the way it works. Your graduation memento is not a diploma. It’s a straightjacket, fitted especially for you, with a zipper that’s gonna remain stuck for the rest of your grown up life…

         Welcome to the Mad House, the Dean of Students cheers. Join the party.

         Dance with me, the cute secretary says prettily to the Dean of Students.

         The Dean of Students staggers back to his feet. He almost loses his shifty balance and looks like he’s going to vomit. He slaps some warm blood back into cheeks, faces his cute secretary, and pulls her sweltering breasts into his chest.

         They slow dance to Vera Lynn. They almost knock over the lamp, as they step about the cramped office and paw feverishly at each other’s sweaty limbs.

         You start at the frosh dance. You end up here, Mr. Smalley comments. In the end, you’re just as awkward as at the start. No difference but the mileage.

         Billy Boy eyes the bottle and the shot glass. Mr. Smalley notices at once.

         You can have a taste, Mr. Smalley smiles. Against every rule in the book, I know. But there’s no cop on the beat this late. No one to punish you, but your own conscience, and I know you’ll learn soon enough how to put a sock in that.

         Billy Boy grasps the shot glass, but he hesitates before taking the bottle.

         Mr. Smalley watches his indecision. He folds his arms and leans back; his face smug; his eyes searching the boy for any indication of which choice he will make. He finally nods his head in disapproval and slowly looks up at the ceiling.

         It could have been fun, if only you had cooperated, Mr. Smalley says. But instead it’s gonna be rough, painful, like giving birth to a baby without downing a shot of whiskey. And why do you resist? So you can hold onto some of that old innocence of yours? So you can remain a simple child on our side of the curfew?

         Billy Boy is terrified. He grabs the bottle, pours it into his shot glass, and downs the liquid gold. He clutches his throat. He wants to chuck his spleen out.

         Mr. Smalley laughs. He waves over the dancing couple and urges them to join in the frivolity. They are not so sure what is funny, but they laugh anyway; the Dean of Students resting his hands on Billy Boy’s shoulders and grinning like a silly clown; the cute secretary leaning against her boss and hiccupping loudly.

         Mr. Smalley leans over his desk. He pats Billy Boy on the head, and grins.

         Deadens the pain, boy, Mr. Smalley says. Deadens the pain. You’ll learn, as everyone does in time, that the life of a grown up is all about deadening the pain. It’s what the man does after hours that counts. Oh, don’t be fooled by all the rubbish you’ll hear when you graduated from this fine institution. Visionary prose, high minded sentiments, paeans to the classical gods, a call to action for your fellow American; all good theater, no doubt, but always beside the point…

         Point out your neighbor. Point out your friend. Point out the Commie. Oh look, it’s your mommy! The Dean of Students chortles green snot from his nose.

         Mr. Smalley glares at the buffoon. He returns his gaze to the scared boy.

         It’s all beside the point, Mr. Smalley continues, because, in the end, you do not take your accomplishments to the grave. Your moral righteousness is not going to breathe any new air into your tomb. At most, your goodness gives your eulogists something to talk about for a few minutes before the mad dash to the buffet line. But as soon as some other clammy, blue hand takes your spot in the obituary column, you’re goodness will be over and forgotten. Yesterday’s news, the worst, and yet the most honest, epitaph on a gravestone, that’s what you’ll be. No, you do not take your accomplishments to the grave. But you do manage to harbor your secrets; your lies; your indiscretions; those invisible scars you’ve had on your heart since the first time you donned a wig and belted a shrew. Oh but how the secrets ache; a gnawing, little worm in the belly; a ghostly scream that awakens you in the middle of the night; and so should we be surprised that the living and the dead alike go to such great lengths to deaden their pains? I’m not a religious man. I’m a dramatic man. And so I not only believe in the literal Resurrection of the Dead. I believe that when the tombs open, and the corpses crawl out from the earth, we’ll see that quite a few of those corpses have been all along clutching a Jack Daniels that a silly, little devil snuck into their grave.

         I’ll drink to that, the Dean of Students says while returning to his couch.

         Ah, you’re so funny bunny, his cute secretary intones by her boss’s side.

         Have you ever wondered why so many of the best actors are such slimy, reproachful, self-indulged drunks? Mr. Smalley asks, while he takes out another shot glass from the drawer and pours himself a stiff one. It’s because the actors on the stage, the faggots in drag, the beatnik poets coughing out their lungs in their bohemian dives, they’re the first wave of the Resurrection. They died, all of them, about the time their fathers first called them queers. They rose again about the time they learned how to charm a co-ed into their hard bunks just by quoting a few Wordsworth verses. They harbor their secrets. They deaden their pains. And as a result, they’re the only authentic creatures among us. Dreadful beasts, to be sure, but realin the same way that only the walking dead can be.

         Show me the walking dead; the cute secretary says to her boss, as she is clawing clumsily at his limp crotch. Please, kind sir, show me the walking dead.

         Mr. Smalley downs his poison. He pours a second shot, and he downs that one too. He bolts upright, like he has been kicked in his derriere, and he closes his eyes. He reopens them when the heat surge has passed; and while he has no clue what he had been babbling a moment ago, he senses that he is rather near now to closing the sale with this freckled boy in front of him. He moves on with his pitch, like a seasoned salesman who senses that the signed contract and the commission are no more than a few hard drinks and pitted olives ahead of him.

         Mr. Smalley holds out the bottle. He grins slyly at Billy Boy and waits for a response. One of the buffoons on the couch shrieks, but he is careful to keep his eyes on the sick, little boy, lest the moment be broken and the victory lost.

         Billy Boy looks down at his shoes. He is nauseas, and simply wants to cry.

         Mr. Smalley smiles. He pours another shot for Billy Boy and gently puts it in his right hand. He kneels beside him and looks tenderly at his downcast eyes.

         I know how disappointed you must feel, Mr. Smalley says empathetically. When I was a lad about your age, I wanted so much to be on the stage. Dramas, comedies, poetry readings, anything really that would bare my soul before the glaring and the indifferent alike. Back then, I thought that acting was all about holding onto my fantasies; indulging the fits and the fancies of my imagination; remaining a child, even as I started to know about the birds, and the bees, and the silly, little worms in between them. I did summer stock just before college; a company called Shakespeare in the Redwoods; and the fat faggot who ran the outfit cast me in Hamlet. Oh, how my fantasies took flight; all the prose pomp; all the costumes and sets; and though I had a small part, I could see myself just vexed and torn asunder by the question: To be or not to be? Well, Shakespeare in the Redwoods had been always a most authentic company; only boys playing on stage; the girls waiting backstage to entertain our winsome hearts when the curtains fell; but the fat faggot brought us all together and said that we had to be in sync with the times. And so he cast a girl among us; an interloper actress; even worse, the pouty daughter of a patron and thus altogether untouchable no matter our wounded pride. He cast her as Ophelia. Can you imagine a real girl, hymen and all, playing Ophelia? Well, I said to myself, at least she commits the most dreadful suicide on stage, a testament to her frailties, a keen reminder of her weaknesses. It is Opening Night. I am backstage awaiting my cue. That real girl is delivering her soliloquy. O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown…and in the middle somewhere she stumbles through a line, drops another, misplaces a third, and finally stops dead in her tracks, just a bunny frozen in her silly fears.

         Ah, you’re so funny bunny, the cute secretary sings to her boss’s crotch.

         For a brief moment, I felt kind of sorry for her, Mr. Smalley continues in a more conspiratorial tone. Later, I realized that that had been my last childish act; my final stab at putting quaint morality over authenticity; my stage bow to the chivalric fantasies that once had been able to move me to the most solemn tears. As soon as I let go of that empathy, I remembered that I hated the bitch. And then I chuckled, silently of course, but madly, deeply, all the way down to my bowels. That is the moment I rose from the dead; dropped my burial shroud to the side; tore off my bandages; and discovered that I too had been outfitted with a bottle and a shot glass. Oh, the jealous madness, my very first authentic feeling, my entrée to a life of actors, and poets, and perverts, and pimps; just a mad assortment of abusers and users; but all of them real; all of them cursed and damned. There is no imagination on the stage; no room for puppy love; not that soft moonlight in which to hold your sweetheart so near and dear; nothing, but a glaring spotlight, an understudy off stage hoping you experience just a bit of cardiac arrest, and an audience ready and willing to be disappointed. And so I say: Be authentic. Really hate the son of a bitch you’re going to sword fight in the last act. Really love the wench you’re going to bed. It’s never hard to hate. It’s hard to love, but we can substitute infatuation and sexual excess, as a line or a scene may demand. Manipulate, cheat, steal, murder, and carry the sordid secrets to your grave. Be home by your curfew, make your bed at dawn, turn in your homework on time, marry a pretty girl and remain faithful to her over the years, check the time clock at work every day at five o’clock sharp, and no one will write about your life when you’ve given your flesh to the worms. Now, it is time to be frank. I didn’t discover you on the highway, because you had obeyed Ozzie and Harriet and had returned to your bedroom by the curfew. I found you because you had not obeyed; because you had given Ozzie and Harriet a middle finger; because you had tossed aside any last bit of empathy and had made the decision to laugh at that stupid bitch on the stage. So drink, boy. Smile a little, when an authority figure leads you astray. You’ll feel sore in the morning, but I guarantee you that you’ll never again see the world through the eyes of a little child. The walking dead, you’ll be. The walking dead in a graveyard, stretching out in every direction as far as the eye can see, and bidding you to your death…

         Mr. Smalley strokes Billy Boy’s hair. He sniffs victory in the air and grins.

         The music stops abruptly. They look at the record player and observe an irate Dean of Students snatching a record away from the needle and throwing it at his cute secretary’s head. He is beet red pissed. She ducks, and then giggles.

         The Dean of Students flips through a pile of records. He apparently has a specific record in mind that he wants to smash on his cute secretary’s head just then. Not any old record will do. Love and War demand just the right bludgeon.

         Mr. Smalley leaves Billy Boy alone so as to restrain the Dean of Students.

         Billy Boy views the keys to the Rocket 88. He grabs them and sneaks out.

         He is roaring out of the parking lot, when the adults see that he has left.

         Billy Boy swerves at breakneck speed around the tight curves of the two-lane highway. He is scared out of his wits; glancing repeatedly into his rearview mirror in the irrational fear that the adults may be on his heel; blushing hellfire red with confusion and shame. He does not see anything, but the writhing limbs of dead or dying trees along the side of the road, and occasionally a hitchhiking skeleton captured briefly in his headlights. He thinks he hears their teeth rattle when he passes by them, even though he knows rationally that that is not at all possible given the roar of his engine. And yet nothing after the curfew fits snug as a rug in his rational mind. It is all a misfit, like a big foot trying to cram into a small, glass slipper, and so the truth of what he sees and hears everywhere is only partially contained in his rational mind. Most of it spills into his nightmares and primordial fears, taking on the most hideous shapes, and rattling dry bones beside his ears. Everything is winding down, like a spent wind that is sputtering hot and lazy over the final horizon; his anxiety behind the wheel so palpable as to be suffocating the life out of him; but everything beyond his windows stupid, tired, and diseased, life in its last, dismal gasps, time ticking down to The End.

         He turns instinctively onto Keeble. He is roaring back into town; writhing tree limbs giving way to the shanty shacks that house Negroes on the very edge of an All American community; staggering skeletons no longer trying to thumb a ride, since they are now close enough to those friends of theirs that are waiting for them at Enola Gay’s. He is back where the teenagers rule; and so at once a strong, howling, filthy wind batters his windows and shoves him drunkenly from side to side. He looks into his rearview mirror and views a tornado whipping old and rusted mailboxes off of their posts. It is zigzagging across the road, and yet he is sure that it has been stalking him ever since he escaped from the drive-in.

         He had slowed down, so as to get more control over his erratic steering; but now he floors his gas to get away from that twister. He slams his chest with his left hand, as he fears that otherwise his heart literally will blast out of him; and, maybe as a result, he feels the old fire whiskey sliming back up his throat.

         He glances into his rearview mirror yet again. He sees a dented mailbox flying towards his rear window. Its mail door is flapping open and shut, like one of those annoying cheerleaders who had been in his backseat earlier that same night. Its red flag is spinning like a wheel. It resembles the house that had been caught up in the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, except that the splintering bones and the shriveling flesh splats swirling in the background do not suggest Kansas.

         He winces and ducks as the mailbox shatters his rear window and falls on the backseat. He looks up just in time to see that he is about to scratch against a fence. He swings back onto the road, and he exhales whatever air he has left.

         The tornado continues to snap at his heels, but he thinks that he will be able to outrun it. What frightens him more are the several tornadoes he sees in front of him; two coming in from his right side; three or four from his left side; and each of them at least twice the size of the twister yapping behind him. Far from his rational mind, but buried deep in his heart, he imagines that he is now the epicenter of a perfect storm that is converging in on itself from every side; the whole universe a pressure cooker; his whole life caught up in one, last wail.

         He hears a siren howling in the distance. He thinks that it is the monster cry of the winds bearing down on him, but then he happens to see a police car in his rearview mirror. It blasts through that tornado behind him, and it swoops down to his rear bumper like a maniacal night vulture coming in for the kill. Its tactical lights flicker blood red inside the Rocket 88; and, in a brief but terrible moment, he views the devil himself pulsing through his shattered rear window, sliding up the back of his seat, and curling scratchy, red claws about his throat.

         He wants to keep going fast and furious until he skids into his Grandma’s driveway; but his rational mind kicks in, and he realizes he will not outrun that cop. He sighs, pulls over to the side of the road, and waits for the speed ticket.

         The cop takes his time to stumble out from his car and to stagger his fat belly over to his driver side window. Billy Boy spends that time staring into the Enola Gay parking lot up ahead. Every lined space is occupied by a hot rod or a muscle car, which of course is not at all unusual at this time of the night. What is unusual is the number of decomposing corpses staggering stupidly across the asphalt; their eyes staring into eternity; their flayed fingers still holding onto a Fat Man or a Coca Cola that, if consumed, will slide through their stomachs and out their anuses whole. There is a skeleton closer to his windshield. It is a frosh obviously, because it is leaning on a Schwinn instead of slouching behind a fine, polished, steering wheel. Its skull face seems as clueless as its face would have been before the curfew. It is as if it is wondering now if perhaps decomposition is just a part of dragging the main that it had never anticipated before tonight.

         Billy Boy rolls down his driver side window. He is so full of nerves that he sheds a slimy, warm tear down his right cheek. He smears it off with his sleeve.

         The cop spreads his legs wide and fills the open window with his gurgling belly. He then slowly bends to one knee. His chubby moon face is so sweaty red that he looks like he is suffering the pangs of cardiac arrest; but this must be a normal condition for him, as he seems nonplussed, indeed even a tad bit bored.

         Son, do you know why I pulled you over? He asks, while wiping off sweat.

         I was speeding, Billy Boy responds, looking down nervously, and sniffling.

         You were qualifying, the cop says. And I’d say you just about did tonight.

         I’m sorry, sir, Billy Boy whispers. It won’t happen again. I really promise.

         The cop relaxes. There is a brief twitch of a smile on his face. He then is careful to reassert his old, tough guy face, even if he looks strained in so doing.

         Son, show me your license and registration, he says, wiping more sweat.

         Billy Boy is at a total loss. He must have dropped his license somewhere along the way; and as for the registration, he truly doubts his name is on there.

         Still, he starts fumbling through his pants pocket, like he expects to find it in there. He tries to act as confident as he can, even though he realizes that his face is twitching in every direction all at once. He feels his freckles burning into his face, and he wonders if, perhaps, he is starting to decompose just now. 

         He glances at the cop. The cop does not seem to see anything strange in him. Indeed, the cop does not seem to be all that interested, except in wiping sweat off of his chubby moon face every now and then; and so Billy Boy figures that he is not decomposing, at least not physically. That is not real consolation, because he envisions actually spending the night in a slammer instead of home.

         There is a strong gust that smashes into the frosh standing nearby. It just rips its pelvis off of its spine. Its legs go one way, its torso the other, and so the Schwinn falls to the sidewalk with a crash that grabs the cop’s attention. It also grabs Billy Boy’s attention. He stops fumbling for his license, and looks outside.

         Before they can see anything there, one of the tornados sweeps into the area. The cop ducks down and braces himself on the side mirror. He holds a fat hand over his eyes so as to protect himself from the filth swirling all about him. His deputy hat flies off of his head. He curly toupee rips off and follows his hat.

         Billy Boy holds onto the steering wheel. He looks at the parking lot. The fierce winds are tearing heads and limbs off of spastic corpses. A number of the dead teenagers are twitching in the winds, like they’re doing some sort of mad space age swing on the asphalt or on the hoods or the trunks of their rusted hot rods. Indeed, rusted is the operative word, because everything that had looked so polished and fresh only moments earlier now looks old, dingy, worn out, like tombstones in an abandoned graveyard. Even the futuristic Enola Gay looks like a cheap, run down bordello; its flashing lights muted by the filth; its plastic fat boy falling from the top of the pole and smashing into several pieces on the lot.

         Son, you’d better come with me, the cop yells. Something’s happening…

         Something’s happening? Billy Boy thinks. That’s sure an understatement.

         The cop tries to grab the boy out of the Rocket 88, but before he can do so he is swept into the air and down the sidewalk. His cop car flips up and back like a lid on a garbage can. The storm sweeps away any indication that that cop had been there. There is no protection then and, perhaps, never had been any.

         The Rocket 88 must weigh more, because the wind is tossing and turning it like a drink in a blender, but it is not able to flip it. Still, there is much cause to worry, as there is a crack on the windshield that is snaking out from a center spot and sprinkling glass onto the dashboard. It is going to shatter any moment.

         Billy Boy tries to turn the ignition. Maybe he can drive out of this wicked cauldron before the windshield smashes inward. There is still a small chance to return to his Grandma’s house and to scamper under his sheet before all is lost.

         It takes a while, but he manages to turn on the engine. He shifts to drive and is about to floor his gas, when he observes two sets of headlights switch on simultaneously: one a 1932 Ford Coupe Hot Rod, the other a 1955 Chevy. Golly!

         He roars away from the curb. He cannot see much of anything in front of him, but soot splattering through the crack in his windshield, and bone shavings swirling about his windows. He is not sure that he is even on Keeble, except for the fact that a barrier has not yet stopped his forward motion into the tornado.

         A skull propels out of nowhere and slams through his driver side window. 

         He sees it just in time, and he manages to duck before it slaps his cheek.

         The tornado wind howls through the Rocket 88. It blows upon the volume knob of the car radio. Billy Haley and His Comets’ rendition of Rock Around The Clock screams through the speakers as if it is the anthem to all of this madness.

         Billy Boy nearly slams on his brake. He cannot control his steering wheel.

         But then he sees the two sets of headlights saddle up next to him, one to his left, and the other to his right. He cannot make out the hot rods specifically except as hideous, stooped shadows screaming vitriol beside his driver side and passenger side doors; but he senses that, like before, the 1932 Ford Coupe is on his left side, and the 1955 Chevy is on his right. He also senses that this is not a friendly visit and that if he does not escape, it is all going to end badly for him.

         And so he slams on the gas. His aggressiveness must have surprised them just then, because for a moment he actually takes the lead in this drag race. It is a very temporary advantage, though, as the next thing he knows the pursuers take turns slamming into his sides and smashing inward the rest of his windows.

         He glimpses Spike in the hot rod to his left. He thinks that he observes a fat woman in Spike’s passenger seat, but he cannot be sure. He is more focused on Spike’s eyes. They seem to be glowing crimson red, like the eyes of a crazed devil flickering out from behind a veil of howling soot. They are glaring towards him with a viciousness that defies reason and can lead only to a horrible death.

         Just as soon as he sees them, the eyes are gone. In a strange way, this is even more frightening, because for a moment there is nothing out there but an unrelenting storm. The headlights have vanished. The engines cannot be heard.

         He still rumbles forward. There is nowhere else to go, and he senses that if he stops now the tornado gusts will lift him off the street and drop him in Oz.

         But while driving forward, he looks everywhere at once, like a pilot in an anxious dogfight. He catches a set of headlights barreling towards him from the left. The 1932 Ford Coupe is going to hit him at an angle that will knock him off Keeble entirely and propel him into one of the shadowy storefronts to his right; his last moment shattered glass piercing his flesh; his last screams unable to be heard through the awful noise of a roof and four walls collapsing onto his heap.

         No way that’s gonna happen, Billy Boy mutters, as he slams on his brake.

         But it does. He had intended for the 1932 Ford Coupe to pass by him just at the last second; but it clips the left side of his front bumper, and that slight impact is enough to spin his Rocket 88 clockwise. The tornado wind accelerates his rotation, and his car turns into a screeching knife spiraling into a storefront.

         He slams through the window of the Peking Laundry. There is a poster on that storefront glass that flutters onto his lap. It reads: No Tickee…No Washee

         He ducks in time, as most of the shattered glass flies over his head. He is quick enough to escape his Rocket 88 and to stumble out of the hot and steamy laundry, before the roof caves in on the debris and blows a plume of filthy dust into the tornado. He stands in this smoke, momentarily blind, deaf, and dazed, yet surprisingly uninjured but for a few cuts on his arms and a bloody forehead.

         The tornado wind snaps his hair and his clothes in every direction, yet he stands strong and defiant. His is surely a ridiculous pose, given his small frame, scrawny chest, and freckles; and yet he does not know what else he can do just then. It is like cowardice has been swept out of his heart by the sheer madness.

         The 1932 Ford Coupe and the 1955 Chevy have turned around on Keeble. They are driving back through the storm presumably to rubberneck the terrible wreck that they have caused. Their headlights manage to seep through the soot and the bone fragments like the glaring eyes of devil snakes in the foggy marsh.

         Billy Boy has plenty of time to hide, but he does not try. He remains as defiant; his heart beating a mile a minute; but his eyes and lips stoic. He is not sure why or how this sudden change. Perhaps it is a kind of war weariness, or a deep-seated anger that he can no longer mask behind the veneer of his childish fears and weaknesses; but, regardless, it is palpable, and may be even suicidal.

         The devil snakes get close enough that he just manages to make out the teenaged corpses steering or sitting inside the hissing beasts. First, he sees the occupants of the 1955 Chevy, which is uncharacteristically in front, as if it is an outer shield for the 1932 Ford Coupe. The football freaks in there have endured varying degrees of decomposition. One is a complete skeleton; freed forever by the tornado wind of the last vestiges of flesh and blood; bones cracking against each other; and jaw chattering in emulation of a silly girl’s nonstop chatterbox. The skeleton even seems to be a bit effeminate; its wrists twitching flippantly, like one of the boys, as Grandma would say; its skull slapping back and forth in apparent reaction to a slumber party pun repeated forevermore in its hollowed brain cavity. Two others are also predominantly skeletons, but for the fact that they have loose skin shreds hanging like soiled drapes from their ribs and a few organs bunched together in their pelvic inlets. Blood seeps out from the greying organs and dribbles down their femurs like pee inside of the trousers of cranky, little toddlers. And then there is the driver. He is the most substantial, perhaps because as the driver he still has something to do. His face droops like melted, rancid butter from his skull. His eyeballs have popped out of their sockets, and they are now slithering down his cheeks like oversized teardrops. Furthermore, there are several gaping holes in his limbs and torso, where grey skins and flesh have withered away to reveal bones. But, for the most part, he remains a fine, strapping lad in a block sweater; his lips still able to be twisted into a cocksure smile; his soft head still leaning into his leather headrest like he is dragging the main with an adorable bouffant by his side. He creaks his neck so as to face the defiant boy posing on the sidewalk. His teammates unthinkingly follow his lead.

         Next, Billy Boy sees the occupants of the 1932 Ford Coupe. He can make out the four-eyed fatso in the passenger seat now. She is the bully girl with the bad body odor, Patty Pie. Normally she would be bursting through her two sizes too small white blouse and pink poodle skirt; but due to her advanced decay, a diet that finally took hold with her, she now fits quite nicely in her clothes. She would be almost pretty, but for the piggy nose and the snarl on her half melted face. She is leaning against Spike like she is his sweetheart. This is her first and her last date, and she is going to make the most of it, before the tornado winds and the maggots rip the last bits of fat from her stocky bones and knock what is left of her into the blackest night. And then there is Spike; no more than a dark shadow behind the wheel, so that it is impossible to tell then to what extent he has decayed; but fully alive in his desire to rip to shreds the freckled geek who would presume to date his girl. His eyes radiate red in the maelstrom, like mad beacons in a storm, and they glare at the running back twerp with the football.

         Spike stops his hot rod momentarily beside Billy Boy. He looks at the soft boy and then gives him the same eyeballs gesture that Nordy had given him. He laughs like a drunk as a skunk devil boy; a high-pitched cackle not at all in sync with his beefy frame; the queer chuckle of a pedophile leering at his small boy.

         Ha! Ha! Think you could do it, Freckles; Spike chides him. I told ya never was a runner who could break my line, not on the field, not out here. So you’re playing up a bad girl. How ‘bout playing up a bad boy, and seeing who’s on top?

         Who’s on top? Patty Pie chortles. Freckled fudge boy, or my tackler man?

         Spike looks at her like she just unleashed the nastiest fart. He shoves her to the passenger door. She rests her elbows on her still considerable hips, looks him straight in the eyes, and clucks back at him like a mad hen. He turns away, disgusted, embarrassed, imagining what it would be like to knock her fatso butt (not so fat any more in reality, but the rear end of a well fed oinker in his mind just then) out of his hot rod once and for all time, no matter that her brother is his buddy, and no matter that she really may be able to tackle him just as well.

         You’re my tackler man tonight, Patty Pie insists. And don’t you forget it.

         You’re not my sweetheart, Spike snarls. Why don’t you make like a leaf… 

         It’s ‘make like a tree,’ Billy Boy cuts in either courageously or suicidally.

         Spike turns back to Freckles. He is at a loss of words, since he has never been interrupted before. He cannot figure out if he should hate or admire him. He decides to hate him even more, as that comes much more naturally to him; and in order to make it certain that that is his decision, he shakes a fist at him.

         You’re gonna eat my knuckle sandwich tonight; Spike berates his enemy.

         With lots of Kraft Mayonnaise on the knuckles, Patty Pie interjects again.

         Ha! You know all about mayonnaise, Spike chides her. Cafeteria Queen!

         I know my lips have gone where other girls don’t dare to go, she replies.

         Oh, sure, to the bottom of a pie dish, Spike laughs at his own higher wit.

         Patty Pie scoots up to Spike’s face and starts stabbing his unseen nostrils with her right index finger. She screams something that cannot be translated; a visceral cry; a wail of a woman scorned; and Spike counters with a hard smack to her face. They start to wrestle one another; and while there is considerable violence in the undertaking, Billy Boy suspects that they are enjoying this romp a lot more than they are hating it now. He also suspects it is his opportune time to make like a tree, since of course any such love scratches inevitably wear off.

         Billy Boy runs. The football freaks in the 1955 Chevy are paying attention to the wrestling match in the hot rod behind them, and so most of them do not even notice the great escape. Only the jaw chattering skeleton observes him at that moment (although, of course, with what eyes it can see just then only God knows). It shakes and rattles out of the car. It points its right index finger in an accusing manner and tries to scream loud enough to be heard over the tornado; but then a gust of wind snaps its skull off, and the rest of its bones stumbles off to that howling oblivion that awaits all of those teenagers out after the curfew.

         All of those teenagers, except Billy Boy, apparently. And so as Billy Boy, freckles and flesh still covering his bones, pushes through the screaming winds, he cannot help but wonder if he is still alive because the fates have something worse in store for him. With that morbid thought he feels a wave of nauseating fear splash out from his bowels and spread through his veins. He nearly stops in his tracks, defeated, hollowed. But then that strangely beautiful determination that had caught his soul the moment before he crashed into the Peking Laundry resurfaces from a place even deeper than his bowels; and he presses on with an anxious courage in his stride that, he considers, is a lot like a baby’s first steps.

         He would not have stopped until he made it back to his Grandma’s house safe and sound, but the gray soot in the tornado makes it almost impossible for him to breathe. He feels his knees stumbling away from his legs, and he sees an unwholesome posse of black dots galloping in front of him. He leans exhausted, out of breath, and desperately alone on the front window of the soda fountain; his lips gasping for any oxygen from the storefront; his eyes blinking erratically.

         He does not stay there very long. There is a loud crash against the inside of the window, and he looks up to see a partially decomposed teenager picking up skulls from the floor and pitching them against the window. The pitcher has no face of its own any more; but it has been careful enough to preserve its own eyes in his pants pocket. And the rest of its athletic frame is more or less intact and ready to be called out of the bullpen. That is, it is ready, until it launches a particularly wild pitch that separates its right arm from its right shoulder and turns that arm into a blood splat against the window. That pitcher will not save any innings tonight, and so it staggers toward the boys’ restroom in a mad huff.

         Billy Boy turns away from the bloodied storefront and stumbles into what little remains of Rhonda and Ruby, the cheerleaders he had picked up earlier in the evening. They are no more than skeletons in pleated skirts; the hems taped so high now that he can see their pelvises; the skirt fabric bunched about their waistlines as if bloated cummerbunds. They are sporting still their bitchy blond bouffants; always gratuitously large and cheap; but now, with their faces gone, and their skulls caved inward on account of their brains leaking away, the wigs seem gargantuan in comparison to their heads. They look like they’re top heavy hair beasts on spindly stick legs. In a way, it is as if they are really exaggerated versions of what they have been all along; death not transforming so much as it is making plain by tearing away the veil of flesh and bone; death freeing a mad and a joyous soul alike to reap what she had sown in the life years allotted her.

         And so, as in life, Rhonda and Ruby will not be caught in death without a Lucky Strike smoldering between their right index and middle fingers. Freed of their lungs, there is no air to cool the smoke that drags into their rib cages and snakes out their pelvic inlets; their skeletons bone shivering cauldrons of flame and soot; their skulls darkened charcoals with crackling red eye sockets. There is a monstrous sexuality in all of this fire and fury; a pair of Gorgons, masked at first in their own clouds of smoke, then revealed to be ravenous flames set out to devour whatever faggots and leaves may be in their way; a pair of fire devils in ridiculously provocative skirts whose tilted cigarettes and pouty dispositions (not so easily expressed on account of not having faces) may seem comical at a first glance, but which can and will burn asunder any heart that stays too near for too long. As such, they scare off what they entice; repulse with their flames what they seduce with their smoke; and so are fated to roam the streets of the damned as the exiles of exiles. There is a deep and abiding sadness in their cheap banality; an unheard cry beneath the crackle of their flames; and in that hideous and scorched fate of theirs, there is a reminder not to venture ever too far and too long with that fast crowd that trades smokes and boyfriends in dark shadows. Such is the lot of Rhonda and Ruby so many minutes after the curfew.

         Billy Boy realizes all of this at once, and then he loses that insight in the rough and tumble of trying to avoid these snickering ashtrays in front of him. In that moment, everything else seems to fall away; the tornado wind regarded as no more than a purr at the back of his neck; the flying bones and debris felt as minor pinpricks against his skin; because he cannot conceive of any obstacle of merit between himself and his bed than their crackling red eye sockets; Gorgon eyes, singing out to him with the voice of a smoky seductive Siren, and enticing him to join them for a cigarette that is never going to shrivel into a butt. He is tempted; and that is what scares him the most, since he is rational enough still to know that if he gives in to their temptation, he will smoke with them on this dark and windy sidewalk until the end of times. He will smoke with them, even after his own lungs have been shriveled into two charcoal nuggets, and his face has been burned crispy crunchy. And he will laugh the hard and raspy cackle of the damned, the exiles of the exiles, the fast girls that sizzle well passed night.

         Oh, my God, Rhonda chimes merrily. Brace yourself. You’re gonna laugh.

         What is it? Billy Boy asks, while trying to avoid their flaming eye sockets.

         You will not believe it, Ruby screams, after taking yet another long drag.

         No, you won’t, Rhonda exalts. It’s too good to be true. Except that it is…

         Is what? Billy Boy asks, while looking at his shoes and then back at them.

         True, Rhonda savors. It’s true. It’s too good to be true, and yet it’s true.

         So tell me what’s true, Billy Boy says when he cannot glance down again.

         We just saw Tig Runns, Rhonda boasts while prancing on her spindly legs.

         And he’s no longer running, ‘cause he lost his right foot, Ruby concludes.

         Just snapped off of his leg bone, Rhonda snickers, and then takes a drag.

         Rhonda and Ruby eye each other. They have the same mischief in mind, or what passes for a mind inside of an empty brain cavity filled with hot smoke.

         The toe bone connected to the heel bone, they sing slyly, while swinging their pelvises side to side. The heel bone connected to the foot bone. The foot bone connected to the leg bone…Not! Oh, my God! Not! It is so NOT connected.

         They break into gales of laughter. Ruby slaps Rhonda on her back; and as a result, her nonsmoking hand snaps off her wrist and shatters on the sidewalk. Neither one of them seems to notice, as their chuckle continues without pause.

         They probably would have continued laughing into eternity; two fired up witches finger pointing and chortling at the decomposing classmates swirling in the tornado wind; but then Rhonda eyes a partially decayed blond just walking down the middle of the street. Rhonda nudges Rudy. Billy Boy takes a look also.

         The blond is wearing still her sweetheart’s block sweater. She stoops her shoulders forward and crosses her arms before her chest so as to keep the wind from blowing it over her head and off of whatever remains of her body. She has much less concern for her pink poodle skirt. It is flapping, like a sail in a storm, and so it is exposing how her thighs are chipping off with every forward step. In every way, she is a sad little girl coming undone to the wild jeers of the crowd.

         And while Rhonda and Ruby bully her, the biggest torment is the tornado wind itself. It pulls and pushes at her; snaps her head back; shoves her bouffant wig over her eyes; and, finally, it rips both of her skeletal arms off of her bony thin shoulders with a horrid snapping sound that elicits a cheer from the crowd.

         The tornado wind snaps her wig off of her partially decayed head. Before she even knows what has happened, it follows suit by pulling her block sweater over her head. It exposes her breasts to be no more than mushy sacks, hanging from loose skin threads, and swinging in the wind like the pendulum of a cranky grandfather clock. One of the sacks falls to the asphalt as she staggers forward.

         Ha! Ha! There goes ‘One Breast Betty,’ Rhonda taunts the girl to no end.

         Watch out, Ruby chimes in. Soon you’re gonna be the ‘Breast-less Babe.’

         Guess from now on your name is ‘Betty Boob,’ Rhonda offers with gusto.

         Another round of laughter; and this time it is Rhonda who slaps the back of Ruby and loses her hand in the process. Again, neither one of them sees this.

         Billy Boy manages to break free from their eye sockets. To be sure, he is still much tempted by the Siren’s song, but even more so he is afraid of the big and treacherous rocks against which he will smash, if he does not flee from the perverse hold that they have over him now. And so as soon as he is able to look away, he dashes onto the street, and fights through the gales to the other side.

         Hey, where do you think you’re going? Rhonda screams, while pointing at him with her fiery cigarette. You’re with us smoke heads now. You understand?

         What’s a smoke head? Ruby asks Rhonda, as she takes another long drag.

         We are, Rhonda lashes out. And he’ll be too, when we’re done with him.

         Rhonda and Ruby had been protected to some extent by an overhang on the sidewalk. Their rattling bones really take a beating when they start to cross the street. Nevertheless, apart from a few ribs detaching from their spines, the smoke heads do not suffer any further deterioration. It is as if their focus keeps them stronger than the teenagers who are literally being ripped apart all about them. They are fire-breathing dragons pursuing the last innocent boy out there.

         Billy Boy looks behind his shoulder. He is flabbergasted to see how strong they are in the tornado wind. He is again drawn into their eye sockets; the heat from those crackling red embers puncturing his heart and reeling his mind back towards them; the radiated glare blasting through the final vestiges of his prior innocence, like some sort of space age laser beam in one of his comic books. In that moment, he learns that rape is the essence of fear; the sense a person has that he is being violated; the loss of innocence when the good surrender chaste and virtuous life to the lures of fast girls in skimpy skirts and over the top wigs.

         Billy Boy stumbles over a redheaded skull. He falls to one knee. Because he is not pressing forward then, he cannot withstand the wind and so falls onto his back. He hits the back of his head against an old trashcan rolling on its side.

         He must have lost consciousness, because the next thing he knows those two smoke heads are standing over him; their grand wigs now disheveled, blond hair strands that resemble the snakes atop the head of Medusa; their cigarettes tilted off to the side in the coquettish manner of an experienced courtesan. He studies their charred skull faces. Without anything inside their eye sockets, but those crackling red embers, their eye sockets seem unnaturally wide, as if the face had been stretched sideways above the nose. As for their mouths, the two smoke heads must have been dragging on a cigarette when death snagged them in front of the soda fountain, because their mouths are forever puckered. Quite hideous, to be sure; but nothing in comparison to the dark smoke sifting out of their bones. They are burning from within themselves. They want to grasp Billy Boy and to drag him into the hellfire that is now crackling out from their death.

         So where do you think you’re going? Rhonda chides him. Leaving us alone in this terrible storm, after you picked us off the street and took us for a drive. Seems to me that you are the man. You have to stay with us until we get home.

         That’s right, Ruby agrees. A real man does not abandon his sweethearts.

         What are you talking about? Billy Boy mumbles, while still coming out of the fog. I’m with Charlotte. I was with Charlotte, when there was a Charlotte…

         Forget Charlotte, Rhonda interrupts. She is just ash inside of the toaster.

         No more than a dark stain, Ruby continues. Nothing you can kiss tonight.

         Billy Boy can hardly inhale on account of the thickness of the smoke that is now billowing out from their bones. Nevertheless, even though he is now out of breath, he scoots back on his elbows to get away from a couple of shrews on the verge of combusting altogether. He cannot see them anymore in all of that smoke, but he fears that they are bending down to give him a foul smooch with their nicotine stained skull mouths. He really can smell the tar in their breaths.

         So you want to be a man? Rhonda teases. Then, you’d better pucker up…

         And kiss us in the fire, Ruby continues. There’s no time like the present.

         Billy Boy covers his lips with his hands. He tries to turn away from them.

         Flames burst out from their bones. The wind carries their ashen screams and scatters what remains of their twiggy black bones. And then they are gone.

         Billy Boy staggers back to his feet. He is sick from inhaling so much black lung smoke; his skin lubricated by a sticky, hot sweat that smells like sulfur; his cracked tongue hanging from his mouth like he is a beaten dog wandering alone in search of his grave; his eyes sizzling from the hellfire heat that lingers where the smoke heads had last touched the earth. He easily could drop onto his knee and vomit the wretched bile that is crawling up and down his esophagus, but he knows that if he does not move forward he’ll remain here into eternity. He had forgotten almost the tornado wind, when he had returned to consciousness and had beheld the lost skull faces staring back down at him. But now the wind just slaps him silly, and he senses that there is a conscious mind behind the howling mayhem that wants to remind him what it can and will do to those adolescents who presume to stay out after their curfews. He almost can hear the very same mad chuckle that had been reverberating out from the old prison towers at the Curly Q. It is echoing off of the shaking storefront windows on both sides of the street, bleeding through the high howls of the tornado wind, and slithering into in ears in such a way as to sound like rattling bones or chattering teeth. Yes, it is the devil, but it is also death, decomposing devil scales, withered devil flesh on the sharp ends of a pitchfork, frenzied devil laughter meant to veil just how frightened the devil is of its own impending demise. It is one thing to lord over the dead. It is quite another to be the Grim Reaper one moment, haughty in its long, black robe and heavy boots, strong in how it swings its scythe in the glare of an impassioned moon, and then no more than a collection of enfeebled bone fragments and shriveled skin shreds the next; the Grim Reaper now discarding a foot or a finger along the way; the Grim Reaper forced to stoop its shoulders on account of the excruciating weight of the scythe that it drags through the soot.

         The devil too is winding down, but it means to take as many into the pit as it can before the black stillness takes over. And so it is everywhere, working overtime in a frenzy of demonic excess, snapping off spindly bones, blowing off bouffant wigs, and screeching horrible omens into the ears of those able still to hear. The devil’s voice is the wind, but it is also a portion of a rock ‘n roll song heard through the cracked window of an abandoned hot rod, or it is the snappy taunt of a teenaged corpse making fun of the poor and dejected appearance of some other teenaged corpse, or it is the silly laugh of a bully cornering his prey in an alleyway off to the side. Essentially, it is the sound of civilization, always precarious in a high school yard or while dragging the main, falling away totally to reveal the jungle that had been lurking beneath the veil all along. Innocents know it as the sound of the boogeyman; teenagers as the sound of the big bully or the haughty fast girl; adults as the sound of the barroom brawl after the last bell, or the unfaithful wife’s orgasm back at home; old people as the incessant, approaching tick-tock of the grandfather clock in a home totally abandoned by the younger generations; and, finally, corpses as the creaky hinges of the coffin door being shut and the first intimations of crackling hellfire deep in the earth.

         And so when the devil is winding down, it may be everywhere, echoes in a chamber, discordant cries in the darkness, but it is coming for you. Oh yes, it is promiscuous in its affairs, but single minded in its devotion; and its devotion, indeed its sultry passion, is to take out you, just you, the freckled boy with big dreams who let down his sweetheart, her friends, and his Grandma back home. And so you had better run, Freckles. Put one foot in front of the other, piss fast without any other care in the world, never looking behind your shoulders to see the decomposing devil face grimacing at your heels, because the devil’s breath is hot, and its touch cold, if and when it snags you from the winds at your back.

         Billy Boy turns off of Keeble. He runs into a graveyard of rusted, dented, dirt coated hot rods and muscle cars parked on Main. A few of the automobiles managed to stop as the drivers gave up their ghosts and transformed into dumb teenaged corpses, but most of them rear ended whatever had been in front, or swerved blindly into storefront windows. Most of the windows have been totally smashed, either by corpses busting their way out from their leather seats, or by corpses busting their way in to tear apart the dumb bunnies still inside. Most of the car radios remain on. The Spaniels’ Goodnight, Well it’s Time to Go can be heard echoing off of the twisted metal and the cracked storefront windows like an anthem for the unseen ghosts who are swirling in and around the old debris; spooky vibrato voices telling anyone else who may be alive still to go home and to turn out the lights, since of course this graveyard is theirs now; soft doo-wop chorus lulling any courage that may remain in a resisting heart, so that there is nothing in the end but a kind of tired acceptance of this graveyard everywhere.

         The tornado wind is not as strong yet on Main. But Billy Boy knows that it is coming, because the shattered glass is beginning to lift off of the asphalt and to twirl like sparkling diamonds in the silver moonlight. He looks down, so as to keep the glass out of his eyes, and he keeps running in between the old wrecks.

         And then he has the same insight that he had had back at the Curly Q. In his rational mind, he knows that all of this happened a short while ago; and yet everything looks as beaten down and wasted as if dead for years. He had never thought about it before, but the truth of the matter is clear enough: dead for a minute is the same as dead for a millennium. Dead is dead. It is just waiting for the wind to rumble through and for the maggots to eat it from sight; and when that is done, it is just waiting for time to pale the ghosts that remain from loud and obnoxious howls to soft sniffles in a breeze. It is just waiting, just waiting…

         Billy Boy stumbles upon a heap of skeletons angrily beating and elbowing one another to get to whatever is hidden beneath them. Some of the skeletons are sporting still a half or a quarter of a face; and as a result, it is possible then to make out the mad snarl beneath their shredded noses. But most of them are just rattling bones; their anger manifest not in their expressions so much as the spastic manner in which they are tearing at one another; their skulls and bones meshing into one another so tightly as to make it all but impossible to separate one pissed off skeleton from his opponent. The dead are rats eating themselves raw, scampering to the bottom of the pile, and squealing venom into the night.

         Billy Boy is careful not to get to near to them. He observes how the soft, silent, silver moonlight sifts in and out of their spastic bones. It casts them in a sepia tone that imparts a timeless quality to their struggle. It is as if their fight with one another started prior to time and will continue long after time ceases.

         It takes a while, but he finally sees that they are fighting over a car. It is not any automobile. It is that sunshine yellow Chevy owned by David Hornhoggs that he had immobilized earlier the same evening. It is his greatest of victories.

         But, now, it is nothing more than a wreck smashed into the asphalt by an untold number of irate skeletons. There is neither sign of David Hornhoggs, nor of Rachel Spunmason; indeed no indications that he had ever had the intestinal fortitude to storm out from his Chevy Impala and to spray paint this muscle car without mercy; nothing, but the subtle smell of paint and the occasional, white smear on the sunshine yellow paint. His triumph had been always small; really, just an admission of his own futility; and the fact that it now has been overrun by death and decay is a telltale sign. His heart sinks into his bowels as he cries.

         He continues down Main, but he no longer bothers to run along the path of shattered glass and defeated hot rods before him. He just walks; meanders, really; his eyes downcast; his shoulders stooped; his hands secured inside of his pants pockets. All is futile, he thinks in silence, even the very worst of our sins.

         He would have continued in that manner until he had reached home, but then he is surprised to see that Davy Crockett’s Magic & Novelties remains open so late. True, the neon man in the window has been unplugged; the silly lights, flashing overhead, and inspiring migraines in the more impressionable girls who happen to pass by, have been turned off; even the dry ice, billowing up and out from beneath the front door, and calling to mind a ghost unchained from inside a dark and cramped jail cell, has been disengaged for the rest of the night. The store looks pitch black, even abandoned, but for the fact that the front door on Main is ajar and a ray of blood red light spreads out from within that blackness.

         Mr. Harvey is in there, Billy Boy thinks. Doing something nasty, no doubt.

         Under normal circumstances, and after making sure that nobody else can see him, he would poke in his head to find out what Mr. Harvey is doing so late.

         But there is nothing normal about this night, and he desires to get home.

         He is about to press forward again, when he hears worn tires screeching behind him. He looks over his left shoulder. The 1932 Ford Coupe and the 1955 Chevy have turned onto Main. They are held back by the melee of stationary or crashed vehicles; a rubberneckers wet dream on any normal night; but it is not going to take Spike that long to figure out that he can make progress by driving down the sidewalk. It is only a matter of time before they roar up to him there.

         Billy Boy glances once more at the front door. This time he has to shield his eyes from the blood red light, since someone has opened the front door just enough to bathe him in the eerie radiation. He figures that that someone is Mr. Harvey; but he is not sure, because the light blinds him temporarily to the man crouching nervously in the doorway. He runs toward the door anyway, since the alternative scenario is for his maniacal pursuer in time to run over him on Main.

         Still, he hesitates a few steps in front of the door. His intuition is yelling at him, and he is wondering if perhaps there is yet another way to evade Spike.

         The crouching man reaches for him. He yanks him in, and locks the door.

         The blood red light disorients Billy Boy. It pulses through him like a slow, steady, menacing pressure, and he wonders if this is what it would be like then to walk on the floor of an ocean that is dark red on account of all the sacrificial blood ever to be shed. He barely sees the automatons in front of him. They too have been turned off for the night, and yet they seem to dance in the shivering waves of light passing through them. Everything here is dead; no more than the wood or plastic shell of wires and gears that had been switched off a while ago; and yet everything dances to the spastic rhythms of teenaged corpses let loose.

         The crouching man notices Billy Boy’s confusion. He snickers in response.

         Played a little prank, Mr. Harvey says. Oh, I heard the news in the winds.

         For a moment, Billy Boy cannot remember what in the heck he had done earlier that evening. It all seems like a lifetime ago. He grins sheepishly, stares down at his shoes, and waits for the unseen Mr. Harvey to continue his thought.

         Mr. Harvey obliges; but first, he leans his arm about the boy’s shoulders, and he pulls him aside as if delivering a message in confidence. While Billy Boy still cannot see much of anything, he senses then that Mr. Harvey is stroking his Hitler mustache with his free hand; a slow and repetitive gesture that Billy Boy regards as vaguely masturbatory; an oily smell identified in his sick imagination with pedophile sex. He only wants to get away, but he feels powerless to do so.

         Children come here, because they want to unleash their fantasies; really experience them in the gadgets and gizmos I sell; maybe, when the old hag has tucked them into bed and turned off their lights, take a side trip into the Never Never Land they had only vaguely conceived in their dreams. Ah, but when the tykes get older, they recognize that all along I had been selling them first class tickets, not gadgets and gizmos. And those first class tickets really did not open the iron gates to their fantasies, contrary to their awe and wonder at the time. Rather, those first class tickets gave them access to that narrow side road that leads to reality. Oh, the skullduggery of my trade. I market fantasies, but I sell reality; and by the time those little shits are wise to my wares, they are too far down the path to repent. Tis the way of the world after hours, Mr. Harvey says.

         Billy Boy recalls what he had purchased earlier this evening; and in spite of his abject shame, he can see himself vandalizing David Hornhoggs’ Chevy for no other reason than to tickle his own ego. He had earned nothing from the sin, not even the lasting admiration of the pretty girls in his charge, but he had lost everything. The wage of sin is death; humbling, pathetic gasps at the very end, when there is nothing to show for it, but a pair of dried gums on a waxen face; apologies unheeded; mercies withheld; cries swallowed by those heavenly gales that sweep down from on high. He had broken that curfew the very moment he had taken the brown paper bag from Mr. Harvey’s gross hands; indeed, the very moment he had stolen two Lucky Strikes from his Grandma’s cigarette pack and had snuck out the back door; and in the back of his mind he is beginning to see that, for all intent and purposes, he had broken that curfew when he was born.

         Mr. Harvey studies Billy Boy up close. In the glaring, red light, the two of them are ghostly silhouettes to one another; but to the extent they cannot see one another’s physical bodies, they can read one another’s minds. At this time, there is nothing definitive to read in Billy Boy’s confusion but fear; and there is nothing definitive to read in Mr. Harvey’s calculation but charming opportunism writ fanciful and large. They are both garish caricatures; the scared, little boy; the cocksure, fat villain; and in Davy Crockett’s Magic & Novelties, especially in the darkest hours after the large sign out front has been switched from OPEN to CLOSED, the caricatures are more real than the authentic thoughts and actions of a soul still trying to make her way in the world. And that is because, in those darkest hours, souls do not make their way. They just play out their parts in an old and sordid nightmare first conceived in the minds of the gods on high. What else is there, but fate crushing free will, and mad chuckles frightening innocent hearts, when young corpses roam the streets and winds carry off their remains?

         Cheer up; Mr. Harvey chuckles, while patting the boy on his back. You’re a man now; wise to the world; a heartbreaker, instead of a heartbroken; ready to learn those lessons that can be taught only after hours and then, in your own time and manner, ready to impose those same lessons upon the pitiful saps who show themselves to be weaker than yourself. Now, may I presume that you saw David Hornhoggs’ Chevy several blocks up the road? After all, a man is as much inclined to return to the place of his greatest triumph, as he is to return to the place of his greatest defeat. It is like the highs and the lows are much the same in the mind after some time has passed; the sound of leaves fluttering in a soft wind; the melancholic realization that both of them have been lost to the past. And, believe me, a lot of time has passed, since I handed you the war weapons; a couple of hours on the clock; but a lifetime in your soul. So again, may I be so clearly presumptuous as to say that you rubbernecked what is left of his Chevy?

         I saw part of it, Billy Boy says softly. Pissed skeletons covered most of it.

         Mr. Harvey laughs aloud. He stops Billy Boy, and he whispers into his ear.

         The dead have no shame, Mr. Harvey reflects. But, of course, neither do merchants and politicians. Watch the dead closely, and you’ll learn how to turn a nickel into a dime in this mad world of ours. Watch the living, and you end up writing sappy poetry on postcards. Adolf Hitler spent some of his time watching the living, and he had nothing to show for it but a failed stint as a street artist; but then he started watching the dead, and he lifted his nation off of its knees.

         Mr. Harvey continues to lead the boy toward the back of his store. There is a mad glint in his eyes, as he takes on the pose and the voice of a great sage.

         So what did you notice about David Hornhoggs’ Chevy, beyond the fact it is in desperate need of a tune-up and a new paint job? Mr. Harvey asks the boy.

         Billy Boy does not know what to say. He has a headache now, and he has no doubt in his mind that the glaring, red light is the cause. The light is passing through his flesh and snatching from it whatever bits of energy he had had left.

         I don’t know, Billy Boy mumbles lamely, when the two of them stop for a moment before a doorway that is draped by pink strings of glittering confetti. I don’t know what to say about anything. Everything is so upside down out there.

         Mr. Harvey sighs. He rolls his eyes, leans both of his arms over the boy’s shoulders, and stares petulantly into the boy’s disoriented pupils. He is so near his Hitler mustache tickles the boy’s nose, and yet they are still maudlin ghosts to one another. He is the long dead, imparting words of wisdom to the recently deceased, and grinning boyishly in anticipation of the hellfire awaiting his timid charge. He is not sure which is more fun: molding the boy or ripping him apart.

         What you noticed, surely, is that David and his sweetheart were nowhere to be found, Mr. Harvey imparts. Unless they were among the pissed skeletons, as you referred to them. But, of course, we know that that is not the case. We know that, if David and his sweetheart had been in that pitiful bone heap, then you would have identified them, perhaps not visually, but surely intuitively. No man can deny the single-minded glare of the man who hates him. So often, we ignore the ones who love us; but we never ignore the ones who want to slash us in our sleep. It is our basic survival instinct, and it is most pronounced when we toss our reason to the wind and howl at the silver moon well after our bedtime.

         Billy Boy looks away. He senses deep down inside that Mr. Harvey is right about David Hornhoggs and Rachel Spunmason. He can feel David’s madness all about him. It is a rabid passion for cold revenge, not unlike that blood red light that is now tearing his conscious mind from his subconscious instinct. It is going to catch up with him before the night is done, just as the tornados have caught up with him. It is going to make him balance the ledger, before he goes to bed.

         David and his sweetheart survived to fight another hour; Mr. Harvey goes on to explain. And so we have our lesson: If you attack the king, then be totally sure that you kill him, because a maimed king is a rabid dog on the prowl. He is a beast; indeed, a deranged devil; and he has no hunger but for the flesh of his attacker. Surely, you could have done more with the weapons I had given you…

         It was only a prank, Billy Boy protests. I never intended to murder them.

         Yes, you did, Mr. Harvey laughs. You murdered them in your black heart.

         Mr. Harvey shoves Billy Boy through the doorway. He rubs his thick hands together like a starving chef who is contemplating the pastry that he has baked for himself. He pulls the glittering confetti to the side and steps into his private office with the high chin and the expanded chest of General Patton in a review.

         At once, Billy Boy feels cramped in this dark room. It is as if he has been shoved into a crypt beneath the ocean floor; the file cabinets perceived as old, withered tombstones; the desk as a cold slab of marble on an altar; everything, imagined and real alike, cast in the grey death color of a flickering candlestick clenched in the flayed fist of the shadow standing at attention behind the desk.

         Apart from the finger bones rattling nervously at the base of the melting candlestick, nothing else about this man is visible, but for his maniacal grin and facial decomposition. His skin is peeling back in shreds from his bony scalp, like a rotten onion about to be added into a witch’s cauldron. His eyes still glow hot red in sockets that have widened an inch in both directions. They are glaring at him; all the hatred in the universe contained in a death stare; and yet they are also sliding side to side in their oversized sockets. It is only a matter of minutes or seconds before they just slide out from their sockets and plop onto the floor.

         There is a girl standing behind this man. Billy Boy cannot see anything in detail but her oversized bouffant. She is holding onto this man’s right arm, not so much in the amorous way to be expected of sweethearts, but so as to retain whatever balance she still has on her legs. She is stooping forward like a crone.

         Mr. Harvey passes Billy Boy. He switches on his desk lamp. The illusion of being inside a cramped crypt falls away; but it is replaced with a scarier reality that claws into a boy’s chest, rattles his heart, and squeezes air from his lungs.

         The private office is a mad assortment of smiling devil masks, pitchforks, rusted manacles, bullwhips, and a topless male mannequin with lipstick red lips beneath a Hitler mustache. There are stacks of John Birch Society pamphlets in the open file cabinets and a half finished model flying saucer on the large desk.

         Billy Boy identifies the man with the candlestick as David Hornhoggs. His companion is Rachel Spunmason. They have not moved an inch since Mr. Harvey switched on his desk lamp. It is possible to think that they are automatons that have been made to look like they are decomposing, but Billy Boy knowsbetter. He has a debt to pay the real David Hornhoggs, and the real David Hornhoggs is going to collect. Such is an unavoidable fact, when all innocence has been lost.

         Mr. Harvey walks up to David Hornhoggs. He snaps in his ghoulish face as if a magician readying his sidekick for the next trick. Indeed, for all of the mad devil paraphernalia, there is something strangely playful about this secret back room and the people who have been assembled here; and in spite of the vexing fear that is strangling every part of his body, Billy Boy nearly smiles in response to the creepy magic show atmospherics and the exaggerated comic book styles.

         But he does not smile, because he knows that something terrible is going to happen very soon. It is always painful to balance the scales. It is even worse, when the debtor has passed that point where he can write everything off as an odd dream or a fit of the imagination. The adult world can be surreal, but it is a very real world; and there is no escaping it in the torn pages of a comic book.

         Wake up before the buzzards get you, Mr. Harvey scolds David. The devil will claim you soon enough; but first we need to finish our business, do we not?

         David blinks at his master. He is dazed, even scared, and Billy Boy thinks that perhaps David is experiencing the same memory lapse that he experienced when he first stepped into the showroom. Is it not hell to be at that moment of ultimate revenge and then to forget the very reason for being there? Does that not rob the fine creditor of his brief joy in hearing the shekel fall into his plate?

         You must understand, Mr. Harvey says to Billy Boy. I am a merchant, not a partisan. I play no favorites with my wares. I sold you yours. I sold him his. No matter to me, if you squander your war weapons and he uses his to the utmost. No matter at all really, so long as the profits beat out the losses in my receipts.

         Mr. Harvey steps over to a sliding closet door. He unlocks the door with a key that he keeps inside the goofy grin of a comical devil mask. He bends down and rummages through his closet. He lets out a big fart that stinks up his room; and, for the first time since stepping into this space, Billy Boy smells the extent of David and Rachel’s decomposition. It is as if that awful fart literally releases the Grim Reaper’s grisly aftershave and invites taunts and jeers from the living.

         Mr. Harvey steps away from the closet with a brown bag. He looks inside the bag, bounces it a few times, and grins devilishly. He approaches David, and nearly puts the bag in his free hand (the other hand still holding up the melting candlestick), before he remembers something. He sets the bag aside and smiles broadly at Billy Boy. It is a queer smile, deranged, manipulative, instilling fear; and yet Billy Boy senses that this is the most sincere smile he can offer anyone.

         You have studied the Great War, I presume, Mr. Harvey says to Billy Boy. The war to end all wars; the war to make the world safe for democracy; really, when you put aside all the propaganda, a Rothschild power grab from which we have not recovered. Surely, you know about Wilson and his Jew cabal. Captains of industry, bankers in tailored suits, yellow journalists, war profiteers. No law but unto themselves. No morality, but the little prayer that they chant to their devil god before slicing the vein of a Christian boy. There were resisters; a tiny band of brothers; but Wilson and his cohorts sniffed them out from their homes and shops, put them on the Lusitania, and chained them to the steaming cables below the water line. One of the resisters was smarter than the rest. He kept a tight lip and a downcast eye; travelled safely across the pond; and found a big, showy sandwich board that he hung upon his shoulders. He could have spent his days and nights wandering the boulevards of Paris, selling Absinthe and smokes, and charming the lost ladies after midnight; but he still wanted to resist all the Jew Bankers and Red union bosses who were slaughtering millions of Christians in the name of outdated royal households. He wanted to do his part; and so one night he left Paris, and he travelled by foot out to the line. He lowered himself into an Allied trench, put on a delicious grin, and sold his odds and ends to the shell-shocked and the sleep deprived. The frogs absolutely adored him, and he filled his bag. Then, one night, he ran with his wares across No Man’s Land. The Huns had been watching him all along through their binoculars; and so when he set out for their side, they set their rifles aside and welcomed him with all the fanfare proper to the German race. He spent as many days selling the Huns the very same odds and ends, and then he returned to the frogs. He went back and forth until peace finally brought an end to his profit. The soldiers regarded him as a merchant, a small time war profiteer, and no more; but, in fact, by paying no heed to the propagandists, and offering no salute to any one banner, he had resisted those Rothschild Rats who want to take over the world by turning all of us against one another. He opted out of their game. He resisted them, because he refused to favor one side over the other. So, boy, imagine I am wearing that same sandwich board. You and David are in opposite trenches, and my office is No Man’s Land. I am an amoral slug; and so I am free to resist the clumsy death that is out there and, soon enough, will be in here as well. I am free to play my tricks, while the little shits who buy my wares are doomed to lose their childish innocence. I guess this is my verbose way of saying that this is going to hurt you a lot more than it is going to hurt me. Surely I would not have it any other way.

         Mr. Harvey hands the bag to David. He pats him on the butt and snickers.

         You’ve got your war weapon, Mr. Harvey says to David. Now do whatever you are going to do, and be sure to tell your little lady to clean up after you. It may not seem like much; but for me this office is home. Don’t you forget that…

         Mr. Harvey does not complete his last sentence. He just lets go of it mid-stream. He looks about his office misty eyed; and then he views that paralyzing fear in Billy Boy’s face. That fear is the sweet spot in every one of his lucrative transactions. It is what keeps him going when the little shits accidentally knock one of his automatons over, or tear open a package without first purchasing it, or actually have the gall to return with their pissy pants parents and to demand a total refund, when the trick does not work at home as it did in his showroom.

         And so Mr. Harvey lets himself forget just how much he loves his peculiar office. He sits on his old desk, grins, and awaits whatever mayhem may follow.

         David still does not have a clue. He removes the white spray paint bottle from the bag, and he stares stupidly at it. His left eye slithers out of his socket.

         You still do not know what to do, Rachel screams irritably. And to think I left Tommy Dover for you. He would’ve known what to do with Freckles there.

         Rachel points at Billy Boy. David follows her index finger like he is a very well trained dog. He observes Billy Boy, but he does not seem to recognize him.

         Rachel elbows David. He then has a vague recall of what had happened.

         Billy Boy can read the recollection in David’s eyes. His eyes had been red all along, even when he had had no clue what he had taken out of the bag, but now they glow as vibrantly as when Billy Boy had first entered the crypt. There is an evil sentience behind those eyes; a mind much older and darker than what David possibly could have on his own; a subtle indication that the undead move and speak not in the command of their own souls but as instruments of the sick and twisted gods. Death is the playground of heaven and hell; and those young, innocent souls who would presume to take a peek at the dark world after their curfews will see angels and demons waging their eternal war through the stinky carnage of shredded flesh and rattled bones. There is a reason Grandma orders Billy Boy to be back before a certain time. He wishes he had followed her order without needing to know why. Oh, how he wishes he could close his eyes, open them beneath his sheets at home, and convince himself this had been a dream.

         But that cannot happen on this side of adulthood. Billy Boy has no choice but to step back and to clutch at his own heart. He cannot understand just how or why; but, in a queer way, it feels like he has been shot there already. It is as if the fear of death is the same as the loss of a loved one, especially when, like now, there is ample time to observe what the sad agent of death is going to do.

         And, yes, David is sad. He curls his upper lip into an exaggerated snarl, a last ditch attempt to seem in command of his dying capacity for violent hatred, but there is sadness in his face. Maybe it is the way his left eye is slithering still down his cheek. It looks so much like an oversized tear; and it seems to pull his decomposing face even further towards his chin, so that he looks more like the mask of the tragedian than a peeled onion. He is almost pitiful, except that his warped mind is really focused on the act of killing. He means to do irreparable damage before the devil claims him. He means to be counted among the goats.

         You dented my Chevy, David gurgles through the greenish phlegm that is now sputtering out from his mouth. And you painted it white. Goddamn, white.

         Not everywhere, Billy Boy mutters. I just saw it. Part of it is still yellow.

         Goddamn, white, David repeats. Like some sort of fairy ghost low rider…

         David thinks about what that would look like. He sniffles back a sad wail.

         Get over it; Rachel steams. Do him better than you did me. Do him now.

         David holds up the bottle of spray paint. He is unknowingly pointing it at himself. He is fiddling with his trigger like an old coot suffering from dementia, his arms shaking, his head nodding back and forth, his mouth spewing out slimy phlegm in a series of geysers. He is making such a mess that Mr. Harvey is quick to move his model flying saucer onto the floor beyond that undead boy’s range.

         Rachel sees that he is going to spray himself. She fumbles for the bottle, not an easy task on account of her imbalance, and she manages finally to point it toward the freckled boy across the room. She glares straight at that boy, and she hisses. She looks and sounds like a snake slithering out from beneath a huge bouffant; and while much of that impression has to do with her violent temper, coiled and then thrusting without prior notice, it also reflects the fact that hers is now a shriveled and peeling face. She is the face of a cobra shedding its skin.

         Do him better than you did me, David repeats. Do him. Do him. Do him…

         He holds up the bottle. He taps his thumb on his trigger. He smiles again at his target, before another phlegm geyser rips his unctuous lips from his skull.

         Ah, that will not do, Mr. Harvey interjects himself. I cannot help myself. I really want to be the impartial merchant; the disinterested war profiteer; but I am also a fan of such sport. And, frankly, I cannot stand to observe one of my favorite war weapons misused twice in the same evening. I am not ever fond of paraphrasing niggers; but tis so true: A war weapon is a terrible thing to waste.

         And with that axiom hanging in the air like a guillotine blade on a string, Mr. Harvey runs over to Billy Boy and shoves him closer to David. He holds Billy Boy’s snotty nose to within an inch of the white spray paint muzzle. He lets out an even nastier fart than before, and even the dead have to hold their breaths.

         Do him; Mr. Harvey scolds. Give him a whiff of Snow White’s pussy. I am certain it is as close to rounding third base the freckled boy’s ever going to get.

         Billy Boy had been stunned into submission; but something springs inside his soft head just then, and he starts to squirm like a chicken in a headlock. He looks into David’s one remaining eye. It is glaring, red hatred, but it is also sad.

         David hesitates. He is confused again. He looks down at his loose trigger.

         And then his right eye pops out of his socket and slithers down his cheek.

         He fumbles to try to grab his one remaining eye, and he drops his bottle.

         And to think I left Tommy Dover for you, Rachel mumbles. What a pussy.

         Rachel shoves David aside. She scrambles for the bottle under the desk.

         Mr. Harvey continues to hold Billy Boy there, but it is hard to do. He has lost some of the strength he used to have; all that fluoride the Rothschild Jews have been putting in the drinkable water, no doubt; and the little shits seem to be getting bigger and stronger with every passing moment. It is times like these that he contemplates seriously closing his fine store, and retiring to Scottsdale.

         Rachel pops back up with the bottle in her hand. There is nothing within the snakelike blackness of her eyes, but the utter insanity of a pissed off blond.

         She inserts the spray paint muzzle into Billy Boy’s left nostril. She hisses, stoops forward to take a closer look, and presses down on her trigger. Just then her arm snaps off of her shoulder, and the bottle drops onto her princess shoes.

         She stumbles backward, and gasps. She realizes that she is still clutching her pink princess purse in her other hand. She starts walloping Billy Boy with it.

         Forget the purse, Mr. Harvey screams. Pick up the bottle, and paint him.

         Rachel stops hitting Billy Boy. She just glares at the Hitler wannabe. She has no more fondness for him than for the others, but she imagines spraying his porky nose after she is done with the lame boys. This will be her night after all.

         She bends forward to pick up the bottle. Her head snaps off of her spine.

         David stumbles backward. He has lost his right eye and is now sputtering out so much greenish phlegm it is almost impossible to see him through his goo.

         Oh, fiddlesticks, Mr. Harvey bellows. This takes the rum out of the cake.

         Mr. Harvey shoves the freckled boy aside. He just paces about his office.

         Billy Boy wants to make a run for it, but he is not sure he can get passed the adult. He grabs the bottle, stuffs it into his shirt, and hides under the desk.

         He anticipates remaining there for a long time; but then all of a sudden, and as if in answer to his silent prayers, the portly Mr. Katz charges through the glittering confetti. He does not stop to look. He just goes for Mr. Harvey’s neck with the subtlety of a rabid dog let loose on a slab of red meat. He mumbles an epithet of some sort through the spit in his mouth, but it is incomprehensible in his fury. What matters is that he is really here, and he is strangling Mr. Harvey, perhaps even gnawing at his Hitler mustache, in the fire of their private battle.

         You damn Bircher, Mr. Katz roars. Oh, you tried, and you tried. But your interference never worked. You didn’t prevent me from getting my permits for the Curly Q. You didn’t persuade the town fathers that I added fluoride into my soft drinks. Heck, you didn’t even manage to spook the Catholics into thinking I am a closeted Baptist, and vice versa. So what made you think that tonight you could run me out of town by turning my drive-in into a goyim graveyard? Do you think I can’t sniff out your dirty tricks? Do you think I can’t catch on to your old black magic? Well, let me make this so clear even a goose-stepping goon is able to understand. I am not leaving, not even if the whole damned town goes up in smoke tonight, no matter the spells you and your fellow brown shirts have cast.

         Mr. Katz is stark raving mad to think that any man could be behind all of the mayhem. Or is he? Did not one man in particular issue the order that would lead to the extermination of six million of his fellow Jews? Did not another man put the finishing touches on the A-Bomb and then presume to know the mind of Vishnu? Is his presupposition more insane than a boy offering his prayer to God?

         Fascinating questions, to be sure; but once Mr. Harvey gets over the real shock and horror of being assaulted out of the blue in his private office he has no more interest in entertaining them than in taking his seat every Sunday in an Old Negro church. He shoves Mr. Katz off, and he delivers his own salty epithet.

         Fluoride, Mr. Harvey roars. I saw the tank behind your snack shack. I saw it with my own naked eyes. Oh, sure, you pass it off as a ‘gas tank,’ but I know.

         No tornado is going to run me out of town, Mr. Katz roars back with just as much seething viciousness. No goyim graveyard is going to spook me. I’ll just rebuild my drive-in on top of their bones, like the white man did to the Indians.

         Fluoride, Mr. Harvey explodes. I saw the tank. I saw it. I saw it. I saw it…

         The two men grab each other’s throats. They wrestle one another to the floor. One of them kicks the desk, and the desk lamp drops onto Rachel’s skull.

         Billy Boy sees his opportunity. He sneaks out of the room and runs away.

         Billy Boy steps outside the magic shop. He hears a terrible wail swooping in from his left side; a bloodcurdling cry reminiscent of an injured hawk coming down from the heavens to take one more stab at the rat in its crosshairs before bleeding to death; a passion equally ravenous hunger and fear of death that, in the fervid imagination of the listener, bends its sharpened talons and sheds the feathers that had once veiled its fast breaths. He ducks and covers, like he had done so many times in those A-Bomb air raid drills in school. He closes his eyes.

         But there is no hawk. There is just the sound of skeleton legs, zigzagging in between the park and crashed automobiles on Main, and retreating as fast as they can from an unseen predator. Some of the skeletons have skulls connected to their wobbly spines, and a few of these are able to scream like sickened and frightened hawks, though how they can scream remains a mystery to the clear-headed and rational mind, since of course none of them have a larynx and a set of lungs anymore. The sound seems to be originating inside Billy Boy’s forehead and pushing out through his ears; and, again, he wonders if this is all a horrible nightmare that has everything to do with what is inside his own mind, and little to nothing to do with what is out there. He pokes his head up, and investigates.

         And then the screaming skeleton coming in from his left side; no more in his peripheral vision than a rattling horror show of thin bones and a heavy skull bent so far forward as to be tapping loosely on its own sternum; just slams into his upper body. Its skeleton legs virtually disintegrate in the collision. Its upper half flies forward, and slams into a street light pole. No more skeleton, and yet the terrible wail continues unabated. There is no reprieve within hell, not even when the bones have been scattered to the winds. There is just the hunger that will not be satisfied; the fear that will not be calmed; the pain that will not be soothed; and all of the passion takes on a tortured life of its own in the storms.

         Indeed, the storms have reached Main Street. The beaten cars sprawled every which way across the asphalt are no longer still and silent in their eternal deadness. They rattle in the strong wind; disrobe their rusted shells one loosed shred at a time; and then, when they are just rickety frames on bouncing tires, flip up and back. The cars that fly into the air never return to the ground. They just disintegrate into the swirling filth. This is not a gross rampage, so much as a late night spring cleaning; a Final Solution to the vexing problem of teenagers dragging the main after the curfew; a holocaust that wipes the innocence from the streets and leaves behind nothing, but hardened, heavy-hearted adulthood.

         Billy Boy stands up. He looks back towards Keeble. He sees nothing there but a black screen that stretches from the asphalt to the heavens and that is as wide as he can see in either direction. It is moving down Main; slow and steady, like an enormous tank crunching everything in its path into the sewage of spent history; cold and silent, as if a sentience devoid of even the tiniest capacity for human empathy. As it moves forward, the world appears to fall into the screen and down an eternal abyss. Now, change the frame of reference; and the black screen does not move further into the world, so much as the world slips further into it. It is quite literally the end of the road, and the storms in front of it are leveling the path so that time may fall into the finale as seamlessly as possible.

         Billy Boy knows that this may be unavoidable. He has broken that curfew after all; and on this side of the line between boys and men, neither he nor any other person may repent what has been done. But he determines in the span of a second that if he is going to slide into the darkness, then he is going to do so, while still running towards home. He wants to face that direction when it ends, reaching out still for his squandered innocence, and claiming for himself still all he had lost along the way. He will defy the end by turning his thin back unto it.

         And so Billy Boy runs down Main at breakneck speed. He suspects Spike is out there somewhere, because no matter if the end is so near, the Neanderthal tackle still has a mind to right what he perceives as a wrong. But, frankly, here and now Billy Boy does not care if he runs into him. He cares only about getting home, hiding beneath his sheets, and waiting for everything to go dark at once.

         Automobile parts, bones, garbage, even chunks of asphalt fly passed him and then circle back to fall into the black screen. As when he had been running toward the front gate at the Curly Q, he seems to be more substantial than the debris all about him. He is being punched and prodded by the swirling wind, no doubt; but his feet remain firmly upon the street, as everything else flies away.

         He turns down Baker Street. There are fewer cars here, and he can make better time on this mostly flat and uncluttered way, even if it is not as direct a path toward his Grandma’s house as Main. The black screen is so wide of course that this meandering path toward the steel mills should not afford Billy Boy any more distance between himself and his end; and yet, somewhere removed from his rational mind, he senses that he will be safer if he proceeds down this path.

         The closed storefronts are much less kind on Baker Street. They are each and every one hidden behind a steel door and a padlock; masked as blank faces beneath liquor or cigar store marquees; allowed by their skittish proprietors to be impervious to those sad souls who may seek refuge from a late night. On the first several blocks, they stand side by side; but then, there are overgrown lots in between these storefronts; and finally, there are no storefronts whatsoever, just weeds, smoldering campfires, cardboard boxes housing drunken hobos who are so far removed from their own innocence as to be untouched by the wailing winds (although Billy Boy suspects that they too will fall into the black screen).

         Billy Boy stumbles on the rusted railroad tracks that run perpendicular to the street. The tracks are in such disrepair as to be unusable, and so years have passed since anyone working for the Redwood Railroad Line has seen fit to send out a work crew to pull the weeds and to pick up the trash. There is still an old railroad crossing sign, but it has been so overwhelmed by thorny vines as to be all but invisible. There is a beaten hobo snoring upon the tracks, but his scruffy beard and stinky rags camouflage so well with the overgrown weeds as to make him all but invisible as well. The disrepair here is in stark contrast to the large, stoic, even godlike steel mill chimneys and tanks shimmering seductively in the silver moonlight up ahead. These strong and sturdy reminders of America’s post war industrial supremacy stand as Sirens against a backdrop of twinkling, warm stars; their sweet songs calling men back to the company store; their hardened but seductive faces reminding men that sins should be indulged, and scandalous secrets should be buried, in the pockmarked earth and along the potholed ways that prevail on the wrong side of the tracks. The steel mills are timeless; silent and still; archetypal phallic symbols; and so they remind even a casual observer that the poor, the foreigner, the sick, the ghetto trash, always shall be with us, their lot impervious to the passage of time, their lives forever brutal and banal.

         As Billy Boy approaches the steel mills, he sees two sets of headlights off to his right. He cannot make out the cars this far away; but he determines that they have swerved off of a parallel road and are now rumbling through the tall, thorny weeds towards Baker. It is not possible that the drivers could have seen him, and yet Billy Boy knows that Spike and his buddies are behind those lights.

         He is exhausted and out of breath; but he quickens his pace, regardless.

         There are several old, peeling, sagging A-frames cluttered before a steel mill gate. Presumably, they had been once the temporary housing of those men charged with overseeing the construction of the mills; but in the past five or six decades, they have been weathered and beaten into hovels fit for the poor and the outcast. Polacks live out here; perhaps even a few Negroes as well; and the first citizens living on the right side of the tracks shun them, as if these strange and unwanted souls transform into trolls and demons just after the sun has set. Only the liquor merchants come out this way from time to time, pushing rusted carts on wooden wheels full of whiskey bottles, and whistling the fast melodies of fight songs from the old country. The police steer clear, except when one or more of them decide to pay a visit to a favorite Polack whore. Even the happy-go-lucky milkman, always so nice to the housewives, keeping little gifts for the freckled kiddies inside his work uniform pockets, stacks milk and cream cartons before the railroad tracks, thus forcing the dirty and the swarthy souls to come down to the tracks to retrieve their new items and to drop off their spent ones.

         Billy Boy should not know anything about this neighborhood, but he does on account of the several times that he has visited with Tommy Tubbs in one of those A-frames to trade comic books. This is his deepest secret; frankly, even a bit deeper than when he plays with his wee-wee on the toilet or imagines what it would be like to give a hickey to a girl; and so, even while he is preoccupied with the terrors of this night, he cannot approach this neighborhood without all of that old shame resurfacing. He blushes fiery red, and he casts down his eyes; but really, with his enemies right on his heels, what other refuge does he have?

         Billy Boy stands before the A-frame. His rational mind reminds him that the classmates who truly count are no more than skin shreds and bones swirling in the tornado winds back in town. Still, he looks anxiously in every direction; a frightened expression on his face reminiscent of a cornered rabbit; a loud heart beating in his eardrums and silencing any other sounds; lest a junior or a senior find him so close to this pudgy, four-eyed Polack’s ghetto home. He determines that the coast is clear, except for the headlights now barreling down Baker at a reckless, inebriated, testosterone inflated speed. He looks up at the small attic window, takes one more look around, and then tosses a stone against the glass.

         Nothing happens. His heart sinks into his bowels. He can hear the roar of the approaching beasts. He does not look back, because he is fearful that Spike and his gang are way too close for comfort. If he sees them so close, then he is likely to freeze in his spot and to snuff out forever any hope of making it home.

         He tosses another stone, then another. He is about to toss a fourth stone when he sees that someone has turned on the bedroom lamp up there. He looks at the attic window intently to see if anyone pulls the worn drapes to the side, and he lets out an audible sigh of relief when Tommy Tubbs does so. He throws his stone aside, and he tries to grin at the confused fat boy in the oval window.

         Who? Who? Who is down there? Tommy asks with the who-who-who voice of an owl. I have a real life Red Ryder BB Gun, locked and loaded; and, um, my matka, I mean my mother, says that I can use it against anyone who’s up to no good. I really can, um, and really will, um, but I guess I hope I do not have to….

         Shut Up, Four-Eyes, Billy Boy interrupts him. It’s really me. It’s Billy Boy.

         Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Tommy stammers. Do ya mean, Comic Book Billy?

         Yes, Fatso, Billy Boy blurts out. It’s Comic Book Billy. Can I come inside? 

         It’s after my bedtime, Tommy whispers. I could get into big, big trouble.

         There’s gonna be big, big trouble, if I don’t get inside, Billy Boy bellows.

         Tommy covers his piggy ears, like somehow if he does not hear how loud Billy Boy is just then, then his matka will not hear, either. He tries to clamp his right index finger to his lips, so as to signal him to be quiet, but instead he just hits his own nose. He stumbles back from his window, confused and frightened.

         I mean it, Billy Boy pleads. There’s gonna be big, big trouble. Look, I am not able to explain it to you right now. You’ll just have to take me on my word.

         But matka said, finish your algebra and go to bed, Tommy explains. And I finished my algebra. I can show you my homework, if you want. So I’m in bed….

         No, you’re not in bed, Billy Boy scolds him. You’re talking to me by your bedroom window. You’re already disobeying your matka. If you don’t let me in, then I’m gonna have my Grandma tell your matka that you got out of your bed, walked to your window, and talked with me when you should have been asleep.

         But you woke me up, Tommy pleads, while rubbing nervously at his chin.

         But you got out of bed, Billy Boy says in the voice of an accusing lawyer.

         Um, I guess you’re right, Tommy considers. So you want to come inside?

         Billy Boy picks up the stone. He intimates that he will throw it so hard as to break the glass. He remains in that aggressive pose until Tommy backs down.

         Okay, Tommy submits, holding out his sweaty palms. Okay. Come inside.

         They stare at each other in silence for a moment. Billy Boy rolls his eyes.

         I don’t have a key, you dumb Polack; Billy Boy says. Can you open your…

         Oh, yes, Tommy blurts out, when the light bulb goes on in his huge head.

         Tommy steps away from his window. Billy Boy waits anxiously for him to open the front door. He practically can feel the headlights warming his back. In another second or two, the headlights will be close enough to burn off his skin; and in a brief moment of intense horror, he imagines his skin burning in hellish, red shreds, snapping loosely in the wind, and then flying into that black screen.

         The image fades away; and while the headlights are close, he recognizes that they are not so close yet as to be able to detect him in the moon shadows of this A-frame. He hears the front door unlatch. He rushes in without so much as a hello or a thank you. He just shivers in fright in the foyer, and gestures for Tommy to close the cursed door before the terrible night is able to seep inside.

         Tommy studies Billy Boy like he is some sort of zoological freak. He takes a cautious step back from his guest. He recalls that he had forgotten to take his real life Red Ryder BB Gun with him, so he has no protection if Billy Boy totally snaps and goes for his jugular. He just says a little prayer in Polish, and shivers.

         Billy Boy considers Tommy. The fat boy is sausage stuffed inside of a sad hand-me-down nightshirt and a pair of bunny slippers. He looks like a porky pig about to be butchered. All of that is to be expected. What is surprising, indeed so surprising as to be creepy, is that Tommy is not decomposing. He is his four-eyed, fatso, normal self. Of course, that makes sense, since Tommy is not now violating his curfew; but it is still so much at odds with that destruction outside as to be altogether disorienting. Billy Boy had heard once that when those Reds launch their A-Bombs, everything will be dead, but the sturdy cockroach. Now, he can say that Tommy will rule over those cockroaches in the post-apocalypse.

         Do you wanna trade comic books? Tommy whispers after the long pause.

         Billy Boy views the headlights beaming through the spidery cracks in the front door. He knows rationally that the cars are passing and that the drunk-as-a-skunk drivers will not see him through a closed door. Still, he wants to get as far away from them as possible, and so he shoves Tommy into the dark kitchen.

         Do you wanna trade comic books for ice cream? Tommy asks. I’ve got my Rocky Road stash in the freezer. Matka says I can eat it, if I finish my algebra….

         I don’t have my comic books, Billy Boy interrupts him. Listen, I need you to help me. I need to get home, and I don’t have my car. Are you able to drive?

         My Schwinn’s got a flat tire, Tommy says. Matka says I can fix it, when….

         No. I mean your matka’s Olds, Billy Boy explains as he is peeping through the blinds over the broken sink. I need you to drive me to my Grandma’s home.

         What? What? What do you mean? Tommy stammers. Matka says I can’t be trusted behind a steering wheel. Matka says I’m too fat in the head. Um, so you see, well, maybe when I finish all of my homework, I’ll be allowed to drive just as far as the tracks, then back again, of course. Anyway, I know you don’t have any comic books to trade, but do you want a spoonful of Rocky Road anyway? It is really good with Oreos, if only I could find the open box of Oreos somewhere.

         Billy Boy tunes out the fat boy. He observes the 1932 Ford Coupe and the 1955 Chevy roar up and down the street in front of the A-frames. Clearly, they think that he is here somewhere; and they’re not going to leave until they sniff him out of his hiding place. Even if he forced Tommy to drive him back home in matka’s Olds, the two of them in her big boat of a car simply would not be able to outrun Spike and his gang. And so he drops his bad idea with an audible sigh.

         Forget the Oreos, Billy Boy bursts out after a while, even though by then Tommy had moved onto another topic. Let’s just bring the Rocky Road upstairs and read your comic books together. Since you’re so afraid your matka will find out that you’re awake, we can switch off the lamp and read them by flashlight.

         I don’t know, Tommy gulps. Matka says the flashlight is for emergencies, like when the Reds invade us, or something. Batteries are expensive, you know.

         Billy Boy snaps. He leaps away from the broken sink and grabs Tommy by his nightshirt. He shoves the fat boy against a wall, and leans into his ugly face.

         Rocky Road, flashlight, comic books, Billy Boy seethes. In that order. So help me God, in that order. Do you understand me now? Do you get it? I hope so for your sake, ‘cause I’m in no mood to continue monkeying with your fat head.

         Rocky Road, comic books, flashlight, Tommy mumbles. I mean flashlight, comic books, and what else? Not Rocky Road, since that comes first. Or does it?

         The headlights again pass by the blinds. Tommy sees how the headlights bleed into the kitchen and, for a brief moment, engulf everything in the kind of nightmarish light that obscures much more than it reveals. He senses that there is a horrifying evil behind these lights; a sentience more interested in confusion than in straight thinking; and that is enough for him to fit together a few of the puzzle pieces in his soft grey matter. He looks Billy Boy straight in the eyes and smiles. He cannot remember ever feeling so empowered by his own deductions.

         Spike is out there, Tommy boasts. You’re running from him, like a scared kitty, and you’re trying to recruit me into saving you from him. Isn’t that true? Come on. Admit it. Isn’t that why you’re with me long after your own bedtime?

         Billy Boy looks down. He does not have a clue how to respond to Tommy.

         Isn’t that true? Tommy repeats as he tries to squirm away from Billy Boy.

         So what if it is? Billy Boy shouts while pushing Tommy back into the wall.

         Shhhh, Tommy whispers. My matka is going to hear you. We’ll be in big…

         Rocky Road, flashlight, comic books, Billy Boy insists. Come on. Let’s go.

         Tommy does not move. He shivers as a cornered rabbit and blinks wildly.

         Come on, Fatso, Billy Boy insists, while grabbing Tommy’s nightshirt, and yanking him towards the old freezer. Do ya have Rocky Road? Or are ya all talk?

         Tommy has his hand on the freezer door handle. He glances back at Billy Boy, just as the headlights again bleed through the kitchen blinds. He is dazed; frightened into a frozen doughboy; and so he dribbles warm pee down his legs, leaving a slime pool before the freezer, and stinking up the untidy kitchen. His matka is definitely going to know he was out of his bed, no matter what occurs.

         Tommy removes an open carton of Rocky Road. He grabs two teaspoons, and he starts to head out of the kitchen with the booty tucked into his heaving chest. He glances back at Billy Boy to ask with his eyes if it is okay to exit now.

         What about the flashlight? Billy Boy insists. We’re gonna need it to read.

         It’s upstairs, Tommy answers, as he looks down guiltily. It’s in my room.

         Sneak Reading, Billy Boy smiles. Not a good, little, mama’s boy after all.

         Tommy leads Billy Boy up the stairs. They pass by the master bedroom in the hall. Matka is in there, snoring up a storm, and mumbling drunkenly to that gypsy in her dream. There is the smell of cleaning alcohol near her closed door.

         At the end of the hall there is a dropdown ladder that leads to the attic. They take turns climbing the rickety ladder. Billy Boy is going to pull the ladder up after him, but Tommy gestures for him not to bother. The door cannot close anymore on account of the rusted hinges. It is just as well, because when a boy is able to close his bedroom door there really is no limit to his private mischief.

         Billy Boy walks to the window. He pulls the drape closed, when he views the headlights once again passing in front. He continues to peep into the night; the city lights in the distance nearly all extinguished; the black screen invisible way out there but presumably moving closer to him. It is just a matter of time, he thinks, just a matter of time before everything on earth slips into the abyss.

         Tommy turns off his bedroom lamp. He fumbles through his small closet.

         Where is the flashlight? Billy Boy asks without moving from that window.

         Tommy does not answer. Billy looks back to view what is happening now.

         Tommy has found the flashlight. He has turned it on. He is holding it like a candlestick in front of his chest. The light beams the wicked snarl on his face and glistens the thick rim of his glasses, so that he resembles a badass owl with indigestion preparing to swoop down from its perch and to devour the little rat in its crosshairs. He is frozen in this stance, and for a horrible moment Billy Boy remembers David holding the candlestick below his face and just waiting for his time to strike. He is dead in his stance, impervious to pleas, closed to emotions that may get in the way of what he has decided to do with his own war weapon in hand. But while dead in that sublime moment, he must act fast, explosively, impassively, in order to reap the blood lust victory that is there for his stealing.

         Billy Boy only has enough time to cover his face before Tommy tosses his flashlight at his head. He can hear the crack on his forehead. It sounds like old, slimy eggs splattered on a sidewalk. He falls back. He gets tangled in the worn drapes, and he feels the cold solidness of old glass against the back of his head.

         Billy Boy passes out. It could not have been for very long, since the next thing he knows he is pulling himself up the drapes, and looking out the window. He sees Tommy staggering out to the street, waving his flashlight, and straining to catch his breath. He is sick to his stomach, but he realizes somewhere in the back of his mind that he needs to get the heck out of Dodge as fast as possible, no matter that the world is spinning right now, and his head is clamoring for an icepack and a pillow. He staggers through the darkness, nearly falls through the open door in the floor, and descends one slow step at a time down that ladder. He has some of his wits about him, when he walks down the staircase and exits.

         And that is a good thing, since he realizes that he will need to do a bit of quick thinking when he sees Spike and his buddies park their hot rods right next to Tommy. He looks in every direction and determines that there is no practical way to bypass them, and so he strolls up to them with as much stiff confidence as he can fake. He even manages to twitch a peculiar, little smile upon his lips; a dandy look that in other circumstances would be effeminate; but nonetheless in this circumstance an odd enough affectation to make his pursuers uneasy. He cannot tell how long he’ll be able to hold this queer look, but for now it is fine.

         Spike and his buddies step out of their hot rods. They keep their engines idling and their headlights on. They are just drab ghosts in their headlights; the henchmen brittle skeletons now entirely devoid of skin and flesh; Spike a black shadow beast with pulsing red eyes. It is impossible to tell to what extent, if at all, he has decomposed. If anything, then he seems to be more of himself when in the kingdom of the dead. There is a beautiful, blond girl leaning against him; her bouffant sparkling in the moonlight; her cheeks blushing in innocence; and, though impossible for the rational mind to conceive, there is no doubt that she is Charlotte, back from the bone yard, clothed in the fullness of her flesh, ever so giddy and gay to be leaning amorously against her Spike. She is as fully alive as the others are drab; the queen in this entourage; the woman of the damned.

         Billy Boy cannot take his eyes off of Charlotte. Inside his chest there is a painful toil of emotions; intense joy to see her alive again; intense regret that, by all outward appearance anyway, she has decided to return to her boyfriend. He no longer cares about getting home. He no longer fears Spike, although he is sure that Spike can do whatever he wants to do with him. He is just torn about his girl; ripped to shreds by the tension between the dreams of a young boy and the realities of a young man; his heart feeling as if it has been scooped from his chest and tossed to the wind; his bowels feeling as if it has been trampled by a pair of Oxfords and buried beneath a pink poodle skirt and a white blouse. That is all bad, but it is nothing in comparison to the torment in his mind, a mesh of fears, sorrows, and disappointments, and yet a dawning sense that he has to do something right here and now, even if it is not going to be sufficient to reverse the tide of this night. He senses that whatever he does it is going to be his first act as an adult; his admission to the rest of his life; his embrace of those moral conundrums and grey zones that will deaden his life, until finally it is just over, and yet also will mark his as the life of a man among silly skeletons and beasts.

         Look who we picked up on the street, Spike gloats. Told you I never lose.

         Billy Boy almost pretends that he has no idea what he’s talking about, or that whatever she has said is a lie, or something else to try to save his freckled skin; but he does not. He shuts his mouth and just stands there waiting for him.

         Spike looks back at his buddies. He snickers, and they follow suit, though when they snicker theirs sound more like old bones slicing against one another.

         One of the henchmen snickers so hard several of his ribs fall to the road. He scrambles forward to retrieve them, and his craggy skull snaps off his spine and tumbles toward the sidewalk. Billy Boy just lifts his right foot and stops the skull in between his shoe toe and his shoe heel. He kicks it back to him like it is a soccer ball. The henchman tries to retrieve it; but he is so anxious then other bones pop out here or there, until he is just a pair of skeleton legs staggering in a circle clockwise. This may have continued forever; but Spike struts over, rolls his eyes, and kicks his lanky skeleton feet out from under him for the last time.

         Impossible to find good help nowadays, Spike comments and then laughs.

         He turns back to Charlotte. He opens his arms, and she runs into his hug.

         I gotta admit you’ve got balls for a squirt, Spike offers to Billy Boy, as he is patting Charlotte on her derriere. But you can never walk with me, ‘cause no matter what you do, or whose sweetheart you try to steal, you’re always gonna be Freckles. Just Freckles Full of Frothy Fudge, that’s all you’re ever gonna be.

         Spike laughs inanely. He adores his own humor. The remaining henchmen follow suit. Interestingly, Charlotte does not laugh, though she still seems to be adoring him like there’s no one else in the world. Maybe soon there will not be.

         Spike realizes his own laughter. His eyes flare so brilliantly that Billy Boy needs to look away from them. He pushes Charlotte off, and leaps for Billy Boy like a rabid dog let loose from its collar. He wrings Billy Boy’s neck, and shoves him to the sidewalk. He stands so tall over him that Billy Boy imagines writhing for his last breaths at the base of the black screen before falling into the abyss.

         Sorry, Freckles, Spike says. Charlotte’s mine, and she’s always gonna be.

         Spike lifts his left foot so as to press it into Billy Boy’s face. Just then he is distracted by a wheezing cough off to his left side. He turns to see what it is.

         Tommy again is holding his flashlight like a lit candlestick. It beams upon his fat face and reveals at once the extent to which he has lost color in his skin and eyes. He looks like a pudgy snowman with albino eyes; but, even more sick and disturbing, he is coughing up blood in slimy geysers. His body is spastic and yet he holds onto his flashlight like it is the buoy he has caught in a mad storm.

         Blood splatters everywhere, as Tommy spins as a top and vomits his goo.

         Blue smoke sifts out from his skin. Its snakelike tentacles slither into the night and to some extent hide the tortured boy inside a filthy and stinky cloud. This is a blessing to the observers, because skin starts to rip in inch wide shreds from his forehead to his feet, and sick blood and organs ooze out from beneath his layers of fat and plop in indiscriminate chunks onto the sidewalk. His scared eyes slither out from their sockets like runny eggs. His nose bursts as a volcano.

         Tommy falls to his knees, as the rest of his face melts like rancid butter over a flame. He still holds his flashlight upright. It is his last defiance of death and in his own peculiar manner his one victory in a life marred by repeated and humiliating defeats. There is something strangely beautiful about how he sheds his tenuous grip to this world, and the others can do nothing more than to look.

         Tubbalooski is out after his curfew; Spike chuckles. Or is it Tubbaloodek?

         Spike looks back at his buddies. They are just bone piles now smeared by Tommy’s slimy blood. The excitement apparently had been too much for them, and in their manner they had decided to call it a lifetime before Tommy finally succumbed to his death spasm. The blue smoke covers their thin bones as well.

         Spike walks over to the bone piles. He kicks their skulls across the road.

         The passenger door to the 1932 Ford Coupe opens. Out crawls a skeleton clothed in nothing at all, but the wild hair on her skull and a piece of tape over her mouth. This is what remains of Patty Pie, and she is pissed at the blond girl who took her man from her just when things were starting to get good this late night, and who had had the audacity in the prior several months to tell her off. This is probably going to be her final hurrah, and she aims to go down swinging.

         Patty Pie does not even try to stand up. She prefers the posture of a sick bitch anyway, so she crawls at breakneck speed to the blond bouffant whore in the Oxfords. She does not have a face anymore, but she seems to be snarling as wickedly as the devil in heat beneath the tape. She is really going to enjoy this attack more than Charlotte will, and in her undead mind that is as it should be.

         Patty Pie grabs Charlotte at her ankles. She pulls her down to the earth.

         Charlotte gives as good as she receives, and so they wrestle one another.

         Spike turns from the bone piles. He crosses his arms and laughs at them.

         Billy Boy knows this is his chance. Spike is distracted. The girls are killing one another. And off in the distance, he thinks he sees the black screen moving down Baker Street. It is going to reach him soon, and then that will be the end.

         Billy Boy pushes himself off of the ground. He is instantly nauseas; and in a quiver of self-doubt and excruciating queasiness, he nearly falls back down to the sidewalk and waits for Spike to finish him off. It takes everything he senses he has in his soul, and quite a bit he does not yet know that he has, to build up the courage to press forward, notwithstanding how downright shitty he feels at that moment. Once he makes up his mind to do that, everything else is a piece of cake, indeed almost anti-climatic, and done before he knows he has started.

         He runs toward Spike. He lifts his right hand to his ear, curls it into a big fist, and lands the mother of all sucker punches right into the bully’s hard chin.

         Spike is injured; but, even more so, he is dazed. He cannot imagine that freckled squirt attacking him, and so he senses that there must be something of much greater power and viciousness at play here. Surely, whatever it is, it is to be feared; and so he holds his own chin, sheds girly girl tears, and staggers off.

         Billy Boy massages his own hurt fist, as he watches Spike run toward the abandoned railroad tracks. Spike is no longer the black menace with red flames in his eye sockets. He is just plain, old Spike; and, in the silver moonlight, he is a frail and ghostly version of himself. Now, Billy Boy cannot be absolutely sure, since his vision is so limited way out here in the boondocks, but he thinks Spike is starting to decompose. He may be coughing up blood. His right arm may have fallen onto Baker Street. He may be nothing but a blood clump on those tracks, before too much time has passed. If so, then even Spike has broken his curfew.

         Billy Boy turns back in time to see Charlotte flip Patty Pie over her right shoulder. That would never have been possible, when Patty Pie had been a fat, muscular broad; but the skeleton version does not weigh nearly as much. Patty Pie lets out a final, horrendous, catty screech as her bones scatter everywhere.

         Charlotte stares at her vanquished opponent a while. She finally looks at Billy Boy. She is shedding the tired tears of a small girl just wanting to be held; but then, as she considers Billy Boy longer, she sheds the sick tears of a woman just wanting to be loved. She does not say a word. Her tears say it all: Yes, you are my man for real, Billy Boy; and I pray that you’ll have me still after all this.

         Billy Boy walks over to her. He takes her hand. He offers her a kind grin.

         Come on, sweetheart, Billy Boy says with a shrug. Let me take you home before it gets too late. You never know what’s going to be out there after dark.

         They leave the idling hot rods there. Perhaps, two of the poor souls who live on the wrong side of the tracks will claim them for themselves. Surely, the 1932 Ford Coupe and the 1955 Chevy could not find a worse owner among those outcasts who live in the A-frames. And, who knows, maybe it is time a little bit of luck turns up where the A-frame roofs sag and the steel mill chimneys churn.

         They do not say much, but they continue to walk hand in hand as if long lost lovers reunited. They share an unspoken conversation the whole time they are together. The silent moments pass as soft intimations of what soon may be.

         Billy Boy is distracted only when they are crossing the tracks. He tries to see if Spike has fallen there. He sees nothing unusual, and so turns back to her.

         They hardly notice that the wind has ceased. There are no bones swirling in the air; no rusted automobile parts flipping end over end; no storefronts that have been shattered; nothing, but flashing stoplights at sleepy intersections, or bedroom lamp lights filtering through drawn shades, or subtle moon glows afar.

         There is a song in the soft and supple night air. It may be imagined, or it may be heard. It really does not matter which, so long as it penetrates the two young hearts blossoming together. The Platters’ Smoke Gets In Your Eyes stays with them, caresses them, leans her blond head against his side, settles his arm over her shoulders, and sighs. That is what the song does, when there is just an undefined trace of dust and smoke sifting up from the streets in the moonlight.

         Billy Boy walks Charlotte to her front door. They look at each other, and then they look at their own shoes. They are as awkward as innocent children on a first date. Perhaps, with a new love that is always the way, regardless of age.

         Charlotte looks back at Billy Boy. She gives him a peck on the lips, and a smile to boot. He smiles back at her. She then steps into her home and is gone.

         Billy Boy walks back to his Grandma’s house. He is tired and injured, and yet he still has a skip to his step that he thinks will remain there for the rest of his years. He had been hoping all night just to get back to his bed and to call it a night; but now with Charlotte in his dreams, he never wants the night to end.

         He sneaks in through the back door. His Grandma is still on her sofa. She is snoring into her oxygen mask. There is a smoldering Lucky Strike in her hand.

         There is a test pattern on the Zenith. Billy Boy turns it off, and he exits.

         He tiptoes into his bedroom, closes his door, undresses, and slithers into his bed. He feels for his comic book beneath his pillow, but decides he has had enough adventure for this evening, even if indeed it had been always a dream…

         Or had it? He cannot be so sure, when he opens his eyes in the middle of the night and views a black shadow standing beside his bed and smiling coyly at him. It is a curvy, buxom form; a woman of the night; and it speaks to him then in a sweet voice that he is sure is Mrs. Peabody’s. It may be imagined, or it may be heard. It really does not matter which, especially when it kisses his soft lips.

         At that moment, they are together. They are alive, and they are dead. It is only the tortured heart; vexed at the point between innocence and maturity; resplendent in hope, as it is also colored by loss, that may know the difference.

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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