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Stragglers in the Heartland
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, August 22, 2003.
Little earthworm in the ground,
You see no sight; you hear no sound.
You gnaw out tunnels down beneath
Without the benefit of teeth.
Without no feet, no arm, no hand.
We are behooved to understand —
Just how, with attributes so few,
They named a planet after you.
A cinnamon toothpick was Old Becky Pritchett’s least favorite tool for cleaning her toes, but right after she’d poked her grandson’s eyes out with it, she spotted some well-marbled toe-jam and decided to make an omelet. It was, after all, Sunday.
Becky was a mean, bad lady. Ornery and hateful to the bone. And there was nothing she detested more than her husband except her son and his wives and their children.
“Grandma? Will you please read me the story about the yellow doggie?” was the last thing Becky Pritchett’s blinded, bleeding grandson, Eugene, was allowed to ask, ever. One mighty swing of her trusty iron skillet took care of that.
All the way at the other end of the ancient 2004 Cadillac Escalade that the Pritchetts had called home since 2016, Eugene’s father, Teddy Pritchett, was down in the wheel well, watching The Pat and Trudy Harmony Hour on JZUS and masturbating to his old high school yearbook. So he was more than a bit irritated when he heard his son’s fatal query and the ensuing skillet-to-skull thud.
“God damn it,” Teddy whispered, shutting off the satellite feed.
Teddy listened for a moment. Hearing nothing but his mother’s happy humming and the sizzle of bacon, he rose and retied his threadbare gingham bathcoat. Returned the yearbook to its Special Box under the bed; padded barefoot up and out of the wheel well, across the back seat and into the kitchen.
The Pritchetts’ kitchen ceiling and walls were so thickly coated with airborne bacon fat and dander that the faux-quilted Lord Bless This Mess! wallpaper pattern was no longer visible. The floor fat was considerably thinner and cleaner, except at the edges, where tufts of goo sloped halfway up the wainscotting.
Teddy found his mother standing barefoot, ankle-deep in bacon fat, burning breakfast, her dead grandson crumpled in a bloody heap at her feet.
“Dang it, Ma!” said Teddy, shaking his head, the bacon grease squinching audibly as he clenched his toes. “Why’d you have to go and kill Eugene for?”
“Shut your damn mouth,” said Becky Pritchett, dumping the black omelet onto the plateless table. “And eat your damn breakfast. Don’t go poking that big ugly nose of yours where it don’t belong. You know as well as I do that boy of yours was gettin’ to be a Reader.”
“I know, Ma, but . . .”
“But nothin’, Teddy! You know what happens when the Readers come!”
“I know, Ma.”
“First they take our jobs . . .”
“I know, Ma.”
“. . . then they take our guns . . .”
“I know, Ma.”
“. . . then they take our land! Get off our land, Readers!”
“I KNOW, MA!”
“I know you know!! That’s why I’m sayin’!! God hates Readers!! Now sit down and eat your damn breakfast and let me finish here! We’re gonna be late for church as it is.”
Teddy Pritchett did have a truly enormous nose. His father had seen to that almost 10 Thanksgivings ago, after Teddy’d asked for more Velveeta for his bacon pie. Old Zack Pritchett was just as rickety and rusted as any old roadside crankshaft in the Heartland. “Oh, my goodness!” he’d exclaimed. “Does Little Teddy not have enough Velveeta? Little Teddy wants more? Little Teddy wants I should get his bacon some more cheese? Come here, boy.” Until that moment, Zack hadn’t hated his only son as much as his own father had hated him. But not a living soul for miles didn’t know better than to go asking Zack Pritchett for more Velveeta. Teddy should’ve known better, plain and simple. So Zack sawed off a 2-inch length of hambone, hacked it in half and jammed the two bonechunks up Teddy’s nostrils, then plugged the holes with catfish eyes and wrapped the mess up with duct tape. Left it like that for six weeks.
Teddy learned his lesson. And, soon after, he took his revenge. All that remained of his old man now was the head, taxidermied and mounted on a slab of burled walnut above the fireplace, with two of his favorite 12-gaugers hung below, skull-and-crossbones style.
These days, Teddy Pritchett did as he was told. Sure, he was disappointed that his mother had killed his son, but she did make a heck of an omelet, and he didn’t question her reasoning. The Scripture was clear about Readers.
After breakfast, Teddy dragged his son out back, across Oil Creek and clear out to the old hickory tree, where the grass grew thick in soft soil. Tilly and Terri-Ann, Eugene’s mother and sister, had been laid to rest here back in ’32, after Zack found a Reader’s Digest in the glove compartment. A wild three-way brawl had ensued, with shovels and shotguns, rakes and knives. Teddy remembered the words his wife and daughter had used at the end — big long fancy words like orthodontia and toothpaste . . .
Teddy wiped his nose and sank his spade into the earth, again and again, each time lifting out a small piece of his planet and turning it on its side. About two feet down, he hit a vein of worms — hundreds of ’em, slimy and writhing in the raw mist, just asking to be hooked — and Teddy thought about abandoning his duties, ditching church and spending the day fishing for crappie in Oil Creek.
He dumped his son’s body in the wormhole and frowned down at him, shaking his head. “Damn it, Eugene,” Teddy whispered, sniffled and hit himself hard in the face with the shovel to keep from crying. “What in God’s name were you thinkin’?”