TOMMY AND THE TICK
The town knew Jess and Daniel were fucking. The town knew, and although they didn't like it, they also knew there was nothing they could do about it. Samuel Lovett had died, and with him Daniel and Jess’ sense of restraint. Everyone also knew when they had started fucking. It was on the day of the biannual canoeing competition, the same day that the cottonmouth snakes had dropped from the sycamore trees, when all of the canoers except Daniel and Jess had been bitten, and had had to be rushed to the hospital for treatment. Daniel and Jess had fifteen cottonmouths in their canoe, more than any of the other canoers, and what had these cottonmouths done but decided to call that 10 foot by 3 foot aluminum space home, as Daniel and Jess both calmly paddled their boat ashore, got out, and walked down the street to the 7-Eleven to buy a forty ounce to share.
Earlier that week Daniel had found a tick lodged between his left scrotum and the base of his penis. When he tugged on it, he could see its head digging into his loosely hanging skin. He had tugged and yanked, but he had not been able to remove the creature. Finally, he had crushed the tick’s shell and had waited for its life to leave before reclaiming his genitals. A half a mile down the road, Jess had discovered mites on her vagina. She had pulled out her old chemistry set and her collection of magnifying lenses. Reclining with mirror and magnifying glass in hand, she had charted the mites’ wayward course, carefully observing how these alien beings had set up camp and how they had smoothed down her hairs and were preparing the field for a half-time intermission show. There would be baton twirling, drum majorettes, and acrobatic cheerleading stunts. The itching Jess experienced was excruciating, and before long she returned from Eckerd with a viscous white cream, which she rubbed all over her vagina, simultaneously snuffing out the half-time show.
“That boy’s got the devil in him,” proclaimed Jess’ mother when she heard about the cottonmouths. “He’s a snake-charmer, I knew it. That’s how he trained those snakes not to bite you both. I tell you what, you stay away from him. He’ll only cause you grief. He nearly killed your father with all of his carousing, and now I think he’s taken a shine to you too. But you know, he’s not smart like you are. He’s not going to college, and at this rate I don’t even know that he’s going to finish high school, and now he took that filthy apartment on Main Street, and is working at the Jiffy Lube. Now don’t you go see him down there. You mark my words, you visit him down there, and there’ll be gossip.”
There already was gossip. Most of it revolved around the peculiar origins of the boy, Daniel, whose tawny brown skin raised questions within the town about who exactly his mother was. Was it the exotic African dancer and singer, the beauty in the magenta head scarf and the brightly colored robes who had sung such heartfelt and tearful ballads of love and loss? Or was it the voodoo witch Heddie who lived two towns over and who they said could cast love spells, money back guaranteed, and if the spells didn’t work, she would put a curse on your lover (premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, urinary tract infections, you take your pick). But whoever it was who Samuel Lovett had gotten pregnant in the eighth month, the month before his first and only wife gave birth to Jess, she had agreed to remain silent and to let Samuel care for and love the boy. Who would have dreamed that Jess and Daniel would have become inseparable as they were? The shame to Jess’ mother was unbearable, and many in the town still contend that it was this humiliation that finally killed her.
On the day of the biannual canoeing competition, after the other 35 contestants were all wheeled away in gurneys to be given their anti-venom shots, Daniel and Jess split a forty ounce in front of the 7-Eleven, and as they drank, it began to rain, and then it began to pour, a torrent that continued for the next two weeks straight. During that time Jess did not attend school, nor did she show up to claim the trophy she had won in the canoeing women’s competition, which had taken place earlier in the day. Instead, she was to be found in Daniel’s filthy apartment on Main Street above the watering hole called Spigots. And while the men and women of Holcomb gathered for trivia night, Daniel and Jess were fucking. Had trivia night not involved the shutting off of the music in order to hear the trivia questions, most of the men and women of Holcomb might not have heard the creaking, the moaning, the spasmodic crescendos, the heightening tension, the almost pained utterances, and the final exultant exclamations of “YES, YES, YES!” But because the people of Holcomb needed to hear their trivia questions, as a result they could hear every body shift, every vaginal secretion, and every jubilant thrust. It made them, first, weak with envy but then, once they had reasoned it out, they took that envy and transformed it into indignation.
“The daughter of Samuel Lovett,” they said. “His people are respectable, not from Holcomb, of course, but still church-going, and now he’s let that gypsy son loose and look what that cretin’s gone and done: Gone and fucked his own sister!”
"Just goes to show: that Daniel comes from the devil! Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I always say it was in the eyes? Them eyes is cruel, and them eyes is crazy, too.”
“Well, I never much cared for Samuel anyway. Granted, he was a good paperman, but taking the seed of his profligate ways back to the house. Making Sandy suffer like that, forcing her to raise that cretin child, well, it was a slap in the face. Sandy bore it better than I ever’ve could, that’s for sure.”
Jess and Daniel did not come out once for those two weeks, and the fact that they could live without groceries or fresh air just proved to most that they were of the devil. This was nothing new for Daniel, but Jess had always been considered a good girl. In fact an aura of black magic had surrounded Daniel ever since his special skill of catching fish catching other fish was discovered. The girl fisherman Amelia said she personally had seen him catch eight fish this way. “They were like little Russian dolls,” she said, “and so good to eat. He let me have the outside one, but first he gutted and cleaned it for me.” That was how the rumor started about Daniel’s cruel ways, about his propensity to cut out the fish's eyes while it was still alive, and to do this while letting out a diabolic cackle and whoop. Others who had met up with him on hunting expeditions claimed he would purposely shoot the deer in such a way so that the animal would die slowly enough to look down and realize it was being gutted. And again everyone testified to the diabolic cackle and whoop as he performed this operation.
Jess’ mother was the first to receive an envelope devoid of contents from 141 Main Street, but soon others claimed they, too, were receiving blank missives. By the curving and loopy handwriting on the envelope’s exterior, they knew the blank letters to be from Jess, but what was she trying to say? Some said it was a stunt to make a fool of the people who had helped her along the way. Others speculated that the town had been so blinded by its jealousy of their boisterous nightly endeavors that it had neglected to think that perhaps the girl was in distress. She was later seen planting daylilies and snapdragons in a small plot of earth on the Spigots’ side of the building wearing a vacant, and even haunted, expression. “Fucked out,” is what the coarse Heddie Gabbins had called it. “Completely and totally fucked out.” A week later another Spigots’ regular reported seeing her watering the snapdragons, and asserted that her jawline had become more pronounced. “Mean is how she looked, like one of those old photos of Dust Bowl women, all resolute and tired and angry.”
One Thursday during trivia night the attendees at Spigots heard no creaking, no moaning, no screeching affirmations of “YES, YES, YES!” Instead, they heard two voices, one male and one female, batting hostile fire back and forth. The Spigots' attendees could not make out the words until all at once they heard what they would tell others sounded distinctly like Jess’ voice, “An African queen! Your mother?” Then, they heard Jess’ distinctly feminine and usually joyful laugh, and they were shocked by its new bitterness and malice. “We should go upstairs and take her back to her mamma,” one of the Spigots’ regulars said. “It’s time for her to go home.” But as they were discussing, Jess’ acrid laughter grew, and as it grew, a wind started up outside, and the leaves in the trees hung onto their branches, and even the stop signs bent first in one direction and then the other. The lights went out at Spigots, and for a time, with neither microphone to hear nor electricity to see, they had to make do with odd and sporadic conversation, sipping on the drinks they could no longer see.
The next day, amidst the detritus and debris, amidst the fallen trees and gnarled street signs, the web-like and listing telephone poles, the stock piles of pine straw, sticks and other flotsam and jetsam trapped within the crevices meant to drain, they heard a screeching, Jess’ voice again, and then they saw the terrible tear-stained spectacle of Jess running down Main Street, buck-naked, her tiny breasts bobbing, crying out to Holcomb, “He’s gone! He’s gone! My Daniel, where did he go? Oh Christ, I didn’t mean it. Why did he have to take my laughter as derision?” It was Amelia, the lady fisherman, who ran out with a red robe and wrapped the girl up in it, leading her back to her little ramshackle two room house to fix her some hot tea and call her mother to come fetch her.
The town was sure that she would never marry, not after the crushing blow of Daniel having cleared out over night. Not even an e-mail, not a postcard, not a telegram, not a Yahoo e-card, nothing—the man just disappeared. “I thought he loved me,” she whispered to herself when she was sure no one was around. “I thought he would love me forever,” she said in a low voice. “And all this over denying a fact. His mother was not an African queen. She could not have been an African queen. To my knowledge to this day we have never had an African queen visit Holcomb, not Lyons, nor all of Pike County. If an African queen had been here, we would have known, that was all I was saying. No need to get in your car and take off over something as mild as a disagreement of that kind.” But rationalizing her behavior could not help to bring Daniel back, and Jess was forced to make her way in the world. She moved back in with her mother, and within a semester she was attending the Holcomb Community College, trying to fulfill the prerequisite requirements to matriculate into the nursing school in the fall.
When Bennett moved back to Holcomb, the town agreed not to say a word about Jess and Daniel’s four months of fucking. "After all," they said, "the girl was only eighteen years old. She was bound to make mistakes." " That girl’s not the only non-virgin to ever graduate from Holcomb High School, and besides, she paid her dues, she’s back in school, and she’s going to be a nurse, too." For Bennett, Bennett had an education. He had gone north and come back smarter, and he could run Samuel Lovett’s moribund newspaper again, and the town knew that they needed the steady influence of fact and news, for without the paper they would languish. So all went as planned, and the two were to be married. Bennett would move back to Holcomb and run the paper, and Jess would finish nursing school and get a job at St. Mary’s. The town would have its weekly news again. Jess’ mother could reclaim the tiny shred of dignity still left to her after Jess’ hysterical running down Main Street naked, and Daniel, that demonic and self-possessed creature, would be cast out of their lives forever.
Because of the town’s intense desire to see Bennett and Jess matched up, everyone agreed the wedding would have to be a carefully orchestrated event. Jess’s mother spent a good portion of her dead husband’s life insurance policy making sure that all was up to snuff. Handpainted invitations, disposable cameras on every table, towering and sumptuous desserts, fresh lilies in every nook and on every table, filet mignon for every guest, and an exhaustive guest list. "Well," she reasoned, "Bennett may want to run for office one day, and these could one day be his future constituents. I just wouldn’t want them to say we had done the whole thing on the cheap, that’s all," she said to herself.
All would have gone according to plan had the two small handprints not defaced the left side of the stunning three-tiered white chocolate and raspberry wedding cake. First, there were the indentations, then the tiny fingers, almost like paws, embossed into the left side of the cake, the same side where Jess and Bennett were standing. Jess’ mother, panicking, grabbed Jess and Bennett’s arm. “Let’s have a dance before cutting the cake,” she said. But by that point the alien hands were already occupied with a more destructive endeavor. The air in the cathedral-ceilinged hall grew viscous and heavy. Lights flickered. The small hands were not content to simply deface the cake, but had actually begun throwing fistfuls of Mrs. Lovett’s $550 white chocolate and raspberry wedding cake at random guests. And no one, not even the voodoo witch Heddie, knew whose hands they were, but most everyone who attended agreed that Daniel, from wherever he was, whether in New Delhi or Las Vegas, had done what he could to sabotage the new couple’s celebration. “It wasn’t enough to take her virginity and her dignity, not even enough that he violated that sacred code against family fucking family. No, now he’s hell bent on haunting her from afar and ruining the good man Bennett in the process. Now it’s our job to stick by Bennett and Jess. Let ‘em know we don’t hold with what Daniel’s done.”
And for a while Jess and Bennett managed to forget the hands. Jess did her residency at St. Mary’s and Bennett ran the newspaper. A housekeeper cleaned the house once a week; a gardener took care of the garden. For a while they managed to be happy, and then one day it started to rain again and then it started to pour, and Jess remembered what the rain signified, what she had been doing the last time it had rained that way, and she began to pine and to physically ache. After a week of this aching, she forced herself to run around the garden. She stripped and rolled around in poison ivy in order to feel a physical discomfort similar to the discomfort she was feeling. If she could have infested herself with mites, she would have. But this time it was not mites, but ticks which lined the crevice between her vagina and her thigh. A long and militant line of them marched first up and then down and eventually implanted themselves in that gully. She did nothing for as long as she could, but a few days later, she couldn’t take it anymore and she began crushing their heads, waiting until the fervent bodies grew limp and until the tiny ticks returned her genitalia back to her.
Back in Crawford, a slightly wizened, and extremely tired, relation of Jess’ was steering with one hand and scratching the hell out of his privates with the other. At the next street light, he would take a right and then another right into the local Piggly Wiggly, where he would make a beeline for the pharmaceutical section, and a few minutes later would emerge again with the white and viscous cream, which he would pour generously all over his privates as if dousing them from a fire of his own creation.
With the cream still soaking his shorts, Daniel drove to Spigots and put down 500 for the dirty apartment on Main Street. The landlord, who was also the bar’s owner, gave him a key, for he hadn’t had any luck renting the place since the great storm many years earlier. The town claimed the apartment was cursed, and no one wanted the evil eye upon them, as they feared it would be if they stayed in the abode of Daniel and Jess’ ill-begotten four month fuck fest. And then Daniel waited, and while he waited, the cottonmouths fell from the sky, and many Holcombites rushed their loved ones to the hospital, once again to be wheeled around in gurneys and given their anti-venom shots. From her white-picket-fenced, four bedroom home, Jess saw the snakes falling from the sky and knew precisely what that signified. She swept the dead ticks into the basin and flushed them down the toilet, and then she calmly told Bennett she was going out for a walk.
“Not in this weather, you ain’t. Not when God's raining down this plague, like He is. You’re staying right here, and we’re playing Parcheesi!”
He grabbed a hold of her wrist, and he held on hard, but Jess was strong. She had grown stronger over the years, and she twisted her wrist hard, and in a flash she had grabbed the keys to the Subaru and was tearing down the gravel driveway to get to the dirty apartment on Main Street. The cottonmouths crashed onto her windshield, and her windshield wipers scattered them across the road. She wasn’t scared, for she knew (as she had known before) that they would not harm her. And when she got to the apartment, once again they fucked like rabbits, yanked the phones from the phone jacks and howled at the moon.
Three years passed. Bennett was running for mayor and had put picket signs up on many lawns and in many shop windows. He was by now favored over the incumbent. Daniel and Jess could occasionally be seen out at town festivals and picnics with their baby goat.
“You know you won’t win, right?” a drunken shopkeeper said to Bennett when he was buying a pack of gum.
“They’ve named the goat after you. The entire town's been laughing at your expense for the past three years. The goat just shows what a horse’s ass they’ve made of you.”
Bennett, dear freshly laundered Bennett, sweet, conscientious, Ivy League educated Bennett, what could he do? He thanked the shopkeeper for his honesty and then asked where the nearest gun shop might be.
“You probably mean Stanley’s. Just hang a right and then two lefts. Should be open even on Sundays. You got a credit card?”
“They’ll hook you up if you got a card.”
And so Bennett thanked the shopkeeper, climbed in his Subaru station wagon, hung a right and then two lefts, and before long he was standing in front of Stanley, asking to take a look at the machine gun so proudly displayed in the shop window.
“Sure, Bennett, for you I’ll take out Tommy,” for he had named the machine gun in his zeal for the weapon.
Tommy had many wonderful features: two main barrels, sling attachments, a state of the art trigger mechanism, two free ammunition belts. Tommy felt good to the touch. Tommy felt right. Oh, happiness, thought Bennett, right here in my hand.
“What’s the asking price?” said Jess’ husband.
“I’ll give you thirty if you let me walk out with it today.”
“Now that sounds a little illegal,” said Stanley. “I could give you an automatic weapon today, but a machine gun, and not just any machine gun, but Tommy—” said Stanley, shaking his head.
“Forty thousand, Stan. You just run that amount through my card, and you’ll be forty thousand dollars richer than you were when you woke up this morning.”
Stanley rubbed his beard and acted as if he were thinking very hard and very deep.
“Alright, Bennett, you got yourself a deal.”
Even if there were trouble with Tommy, Stanley knew Chief Varnadore would arrange it so that the gun shop would not be held accountable. A few minutes later Bennett walked out with Tommy slung over his shoulder and a new found optimism and peace. Happiness, he thought. Tommy is my happiness.
He kept Tommy by his side all the way to the dirty apartment on Main Street. He felt calm and peaceful as he observed the blooming and shaded garden to the side of Spigots. My wife’s garden, he thought to himself. With Tommy by his side, he stopped and inhaled the snapdragons and the daylilies. He breathed in their wonderful aroma, and once he had enough of this, he began to climb the stairs up to the second floor. The door was ajar, and he could hear the sound of pigs feeding, sheeps bleating, and goats blubbing. So they have more than one child, he thought, freeing himself of the shoulder sling in order to hold Tommy more freely. He pushed the door open. Jess and Daniel, dressed like Tarzan and Jane, sat in lazy boys made of thick vines hanging like streamers and confetti all across the apartment. Animals, he thought with disgust. All these animals. He steadied himself, spreading out his legs, as he had seen Rambo do in First Blood. He did not look down to see the spilled pig feed, nor did he realize that his flat soled shoes did not have enough tread. He felt the gravelly feed beneath his soles, and then he felt his feet give way beneath him, first one leg and then the other. At the same time Jess and Daniel swung from a far vine together.
“My God,” they said, “what’s he doing?”
“Tommy,” Bennett yelled, “where are you?”
Tommy had slid across the room, and Bennett the goat was standing on him.
“That’s mine,” he said. “That’s my happiness you’re standing on.”
But the goat did not hear him, and then a boy, a boy who shared many features with Bennett, appeared from behind a stack of blue crates.
“I want to play with that,” he said, pointing to Tommy. “Bennie, move!”
The gun was heavy for the boy, but he used all his strength to lift it and to point it at the animals, at the kitchen counter, at Jess and Daniel, and then finally at the stranger sitting on his living room floor. Bennett asked the boy for his toy back, but the boy was adamant.
“No, I want to see what this button does! I want to see what the button does!”
The boy did find out what the button could do, and the dirty apartment on Main Street became known for the grim end it brought to Tommy’s new owner, an end so grim that Jess and Daniel no longer wanted to live there. And so they gave the key back to the landlord and bought a farm outside of town, where they lived peacefully with the boy and the animals for many years. The town no longer quite recalls just why they once objected to Jess and Daniel’s love, although they do remember a certain shiftiness in that boy Bennett. “You could see it in his eyes,” one Holcombite explained. “Because them eyes was cruel and them eyes was crazy. Yeah, sure as I’m standing here, you could see it in the eyes.”