“Hey Joey, guess what?” It was the question he’d always start with.
“What, Tommy?” I said giving in to the inevitable cycle of our conversation.
“Chicken butt.” The chortling would literally not stop for minutes. And I will admit, it was infectious.
We just walked passed the lawn and garden store. It wouldn’t be long now. Tommy and I would cut through vacant parking lots on our way to the school bus stop every morning, it seemed, until we went to separate high schools many years later. We lived on the outer edge of a suburban labyrinth that would stretch out for acres. From where we lived, it was a mile (or so) walk from the edge of the community, through vacant strip mall parking lots, to where our bus stop waited; at the edge of an aging industrial park.
When we were young we had to hoof-it, as our parents would say. They had to walk everywhere they went when they were kids, so why should we be bestowed the privilege of a ride to someplace that is practically in our back yard. It’s not like we argued. A few years later, and we could ride our bikes to school. A few years later, and we could drive ourselves. We walked. It’s what we did. Of course, these were the days when it was safe for children to walk to school unattended. We walked. It’s what we did.
Our feet just hit the sidewalk outside of the local Burger King. Closer now. Tommy was a bit of a nervous talker. Without fail, from the moment we left our neighborhood it was non-stop about what was on TV last night, pieces of wisdom his father imparted on him, what he had for dinner last night, what he had for breakfast this morning, all spun together in a dizzying stream of logic, that is seemingly delivered without pause for breath. “…and my mom said if I ate my vegetables, I could stay up and watch Knight Rider. Which I think is pretty cool because I think that the Trans Am is the best car that was ever made, at least that what my dad says because he works on cars…” and on and on. Tommy didn’t have very many friends. That responsibility fell to me. Tommy was helplessly overweight, socially awkward, smelled vaguely of rotten milk, waddled when he walked, and yes the volume of his voice increased whenever he got excited so much so that it practically squeaked. As for myself, I was a latchkey kid, a conciliatory prize in a messy divorce that was packed up with the rest of my mother’s belongings, and forced to start all over again in another town which essentially makes me the new kid in town, which means nobody talks to you, which means for good or ill, Tommy and I were close compatriots. We needed each other.
“…yeah and so I totally used that as the answer in my test last week…” Tommy was a bit of a nervous talker. He would fill every empty space with white noise as best he could. I suppose it’s because I was the only one in his as-of-this-point short life who would give him free reign to do so. I let him go and do his thing, occasionally throwing in a “yeah?” or a, “nuh-uh.” just to let him know that I’m still here. I let him do his thing because right about now, mere feet away from our bus stop, at the edge of an aging industrial park, is where he would start to fade and sputter like a light bulb. It wouldn’t be noticeable at first, then the stammering, then the half-hearted grunts, then nothing. Silence. Unnerving silence.
I would suspect that at one time in history, the average industrial park was like the shopping mall was during the 80s; powerful monoliths of industry, until time takes over and man invents new methods of efficiency. The malls have more going out of business signs than actual storefronts. While the same fate isn’t completely parallel to that of the shopping mall, time effects the industrial park the same way. Warehouses, auto repair garages, salvage yards, all seem to be eventually bested by Mother Earth by taking back what’s hers; vines and overgrowth devour that which is left behind and unattended. Across the street from us are rows of industrial warehouses. Beside us, a kitchen appliance wholesaler who has gone out of business years ago, but his faded, lighted sign with missing letters still stood, and window display of kitchen sinks and mock-up refrigerators can still be seen through the encroaching mold from the corners of the glass. Behind us, well…behind us was something you don’t see everyday, and it spooked poor Tommy down to his soul. Behind us was a manufacturer, handcrafter, and purveyor of custom headstones.
A short, tire-worn dirt path connected the road to the front entrance which was this gaping maw cut into the side of a building; it was presumably there for pick up and delivery. The sign above it, beaten from years of neglect and in bad need of a fresh coat of paint bore the name “Frank & Sons”. In front of the not-too-welcoming facade, lay a display of their handiwork; rows of blank headstones, each with a cherub, or a cross, or a pair of baby shoes carved into its face ready to go, ready to mark eternity. It resembled a small graveyard, or a front lawn Halloween display made by someone who REALLY gets into it. Slightly macabre, but nothing out of the ordinary. It probably wouldn’t have been so bad were it not for a pack of older kids putting the fear into Tommy’s head that this place is where zombies come from. Typical cruelty from typical privileged bullies in training. The poor kid has an irrational fear of monsters to begin with, but for someone to give that fear an actual address to live in is just disheartening. It’s been two years now, and he still hasn’t gotten over it. He still stands rigid with his back turned from it, right hand clutching the bus stop sign, eyes clenched. It would be a few more minutes before the bus comes; an eternity to someone gripped in fear.
I still have a fear of big dogs, drowning, spiders that are bigger than my fist, big empty houses that have big, spooky basements, and for some strange reason, chickens. Don’t judge, they just freak me out. Outside of these things, there wasn’t much that scared me…well…not much that surprised me. Not anymore. When you’re a kid and your parents do nothing but argue, which in turn leads to having mom and dad sleeping in separate rooms, which in turn leads to mom and dad sleeping in separate houses, which in turn leads to repeated visits from a strange looking man that mom called a lawyer, which in turn leads to one day, you’re down to one parent and very little explanation as to why. Since then, The Boogey Man and all his crazy cousins including The Monster Under the Bed, The Ghost in Your Closet, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, a Heaven where your pets go, all tend get smaller in stature with every day until one day the monster you fear most isn’t purple or has fangs, he wears a three piece suit and carries a briefcase and calls you, “buddy”.
I never gave the warehouse a second thought. To me, it looked more sad than scary. I’ve stared at it many times, mostly because Tommy checks out for the rest of the morning, and I’ve never seen so much as Frankenstein’s Monster or the Mummy come rambling from the headstones. In fact, I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen any life in the place ever. Which is why it doesn’t surprise me to see mostly darkness from the gaping hole every morning. What does surprise me is that on rare occasions such as this morning, I do see a pair of eyes staring back at me. They are the type of eyes that reflect light like a cat or an owl and I reason them as such. But today, today the pair of eyes seemed to follow me. As if they were on to me. And they didn’t fly away on massive wings or scurry away on furry feet when our gazes met, they instead shuffled. Slowly. Sideways. These eyes were attached to something human, something slow, and something a little creepy. Creepy enough to make me take a step back to Tommy, and make me put my hand on his shoulder. For a brief moment, I considered that it might be a zombie, and for an even briefer moment, I considered telling Tommy. But reason had my ear today. That wasn’t a zombie, that was just some guy sweeping the floor. If I told Tommy, it would put him in therapy for the rest of his life. I had to say something, he was noticing the expression on my face and he was beginning to breathe funny.
“Chicken Butt.” There was much needed laughter as the bus opened it’s doors.
Author’s Note: Admittedly, this took me a little longer than I should have. However, this is the first sort of fiction where I didn’t have a framework to start out with, say for instance like a flash-fiction contest. All I had to go by was the glorious and unfiltered vision of my daughter and I was off and running. For most of the week, I was riffing while at the same time, drawing a blank on a title, which took me an hour to come up with.
Many years ago, I had a job that was located in an industrial park. A co-worker employed the services of one of the businesses in our little warehouse cluster. The business was a family run moving company and it’s name is (wait for it) Frank & Sons Moving Co. Now, my ears are a little lazy and start acting a little screwy whenever someone speaks too quickly. Someone asked our freshly moved in co-worker who she used as a moving company to which she responded, “Oh, I used Frankenstein’s. They’re a few buildings down?” I couldn’t help but ask, “Frankenstien’s?”
“No sweetie, Frank and Son’s.”
badda-nah-nuh-nah-nuh…NEEP! [cheese shrug]
Anyway, I swore to myself that I would use the play on words one day. It just took me forever to remember that. I would also like to point out that I have never worked for the company, nor do I know any employees or affiliates. This is a work of fiction and bares no reflection on said establishment. So. There. Please enjoy and as always, I welcome any and all feedback. Thank you.
Walking to School (sorry, couldn’t find the right one that had two kids in it.)