Sat 1 Jan 2011
Topeka’s city lights make the low-hanging autumn rain clouds glow phosphorus orange. Against the clouds, I can see bats no wider than my hand. Not birds or moths. Bats. They make hairpin turns no bird could ever manage, snapping up the mosquitoes that have been so thick this summer. It’s a big happy bug hunt all taking place in the quiet dark.
I have never seen the bats before, even though I go for a walk (doctor’s orders on account of my blood pressure) every night along the same trail. It helps me calm down, and to stop thinking about the trouble I’ve gotten myself into.
It’s kind of freaky how something as simple as weather can reveal hidden truth. It’s not the bats themselves that get to me. I like them and their tricks, and without them, we would all be dying of malaria or something. What bothers me is that all this time, the bats have been flying only inches above my hat, and I just never knew. I didn’t know to look up.
It was the same with the mole men. I didn’t know to look down.
Sure, I’d heard of them. But there’s a difference between hearing about something strange and seeing it for yourself. Take my cousin Chet — my dad’s older sister’s oldest son, closest to me in age of the whole batch of us cousins — he never really believed in the saucer people—he swore up and down that the government made them and the War with Mars up to cover up something worse. That was until he was out fishing for catfish on the banks of the Shunganunga and had a disc hover overhead for ten minutes, shining green light on him. All his hair fell out three days later, but the doctors at Stormont Vail assured him that he didn’t have cancer or anything. At least that they can find. Not like the Old Man, our granddad, who has been fighting saucer cancer for 20 years. He’d fought in the War, and a lot of the vets ended up with that nasty stuff. Kills you slow.
Chet believes in the saucers all over again every time he looks in the mirror. I’d call him obsessed, but he’d say the same about me and the mole men. He’d be right, one of the few things we agree on anymore. We were pretty close before the mole men.
We were working a side-job together when I saw my first mole man. This was in the summer when the ants were really making a mess of things and the mild winter had let them spread all the way up from Arizona. Anybody could get trained up and receive an exterminator’s license on a Saturday afternoon at the Legion. We’d both been temporarily laid off from working at the plant, and the union fund payouts were not enough to live on, let alone make our loan payments to the family. The Old Man had personally instructed us to make money any way we could.
The state paid a $50 bounty on each beach ball-sized worker ant head (antennas not required). We’d been hoping to find the local queen in her warren. If we had, we would have made more money than winning the Kansas lotto, paid off our debts to the family, and still gone on one hell of a bender afterwards. A couple of boys in from Clay Center bagged her under the Santa Fe rail yards on the east side of the city, I read in the paper.
We were working the tunnels under Topeka West High, wearing our Maglites duct-taped to construction helmets that I’d found in the trunk of my car, left over from some odd job or another. The only thing we spent any money on was the class fee and six tanks of endosulfan. We were spraying down a lot more than anyone should really breathe in, but we were stupid in that way men get when they have dollar signs in their eyes.
We’d halfway finished the job when I saw the side passage. It wasn’t as big as the ant tunnels, and the grooves in the yellow clay walls from the digging were all wrong, not like ant scraping at all. “Hold up,” I said, sliding the poison tanks off my back and lighting up a cigarette while I took a look.
My cousin slowed, shooting me a pissed look that said I better not take too long. If he didn’t make it home to his wife Susie in time for dinner, he would catch hell. I’d told him marrying the daughter of a preacher would be nothing but trouble, but he never listened to me. Of course, nobody in the family did. Grandpa has always said that I think too much, and what Grandpa says is gospel in the family. So I’m the dumb one who thinks too much. Everybody’s got a role, and I’m fine with mine.
I did a year at K-State before dropping out and coming back home. That was more than anyone else in the family has done, and sure, give me a choice between a football game and a good romance novel and I’ll take the book.
I think a bit, but I’m no genius by any stretch. The family frowns on smarts. Anyone who’s got a brain might decide they’re better than us, and there’s nothing the family hates more than uppity folks. We work with our hands. Sometimes we come by the work honest, and sometimes not. Work’s work. We boys sure as hell don’t work any office jobs. In a pinch, one of the girls can get special permission to take a secretary job, but the Old Man won’t stand for girls having jobs permanently. To call him “old fashioned” would be understating things. He would not be happy with what Chet and I were doing to make money, but it was better than white-collar work for sure.
“What do you think made this hole here?” I asked after a minute of running my hands down the walls. They were rippled like corrugated aluminum, each dip about as wide as the fingers of my work gloves.
“Dunno. Mole men probably. Why do you care? We’re not getting paid to explore, Mel.”
“‘Mole men?’” I said. “That’s a real thing?”
He took out a handkerchief and wiped his broad, pasty forehead. He had to keep doing that every few minutes to keep the sweat out of his eyes, on account of having no eyebrows. “Sure it is. You never seen a mole man?”
I shook my head. “You?”
He tipped over his tanks of poison and sat down on them, took out a chaw of tobacco and slipped it into his cheek. I repressed a shudder and took a long drag off my cigarette. Nasty habit, chaw. They made us watch a video in junior high about how it can make your whole jaw fall off. I’d take lung cancer any day.
“Yeah, I seen one. Remember when I was working for KP&L digging ditches, before the saucers nuked off my hair?”
“You stayed over at my place a lot on that job, yeah? Susie was always screaming at you for tracking mud into the living room. Then you’d be banging on the door at 1 AM with a pillow in one hand and most times a six-pack in another.”
“Hey, I always brought the six-pack,” he said, hurt.
I waved it off. No big deal.
“We were running this line north in Mayetta. There’re caves in the limestone up there. I was running the backhoe when the whole dig damn near fell into a sinkhole. I fought that machine like a sumbitch, but I stopped it from going in. Couple of guys weren’t as lucky, dropped a good fifteen feet. One of them — you remember him from high school, Barry, about so tall and just as wide, played varsity at Shawnee High? He broke his arm, and we blew an hour jury-rigging a harness to haul his ass out.
“The foreman wanted me to climb down there and get the pick and shovel that Barry lost. I would have told him to do it himself, but Susie was pregnant again, so I shut up and let them tie that rope around me.
“Barry was lucky. He’d fallen onto a cliff, and in all around it, the cave fell off really deep. And you know my goddamned dumb luck—”
“The shovel and pick weren’t on the plateau,” I said, grinning.
“Fucking A. I tried to make the foreman forget it, but no, he was pissed and we were damned well going to get that equipment back or kill me in the process. Never did like me. So the other men went off and got more rope to tie together. My buddy Tommy, he had his camping gear in the back of his truck still from the weekend so he grabbed his Coleman and lit it up. I carried the lantern in one hand and held onto the rope in the other while they lowered me in.
“There was water about knee deep at the bottom of the cave, cold as the devil’s asshole. I splashed around, trying not to bite my tongue off because my teeth were chatterin’ so hard, dragging my feet looking for the shovel and the pick. I couldn’t see nothing in that water with the Coleman reflecting off the surface. The foreman really tore into me, shouting down that I couldn’t find my own ass with both hands. I was this close to telling him to go fuck himself when the mole man stepped into the light.
“What’d it look like?” Chet could tell a good story when he was sober. Not as funny as when he was soused though.
“About eight feet tall, covered in greasy black hair. His hands weren’t normal. They didn’t have fingers, more like nasty-looking claws as long as Grandpa’s skinning knife, all caked in dirt. His eyes were tiny and black like raisins, and he shielded them with his big claws from the light and to hide his ugly-ass face. When he did, he dropped the shovel.”
“What’d you do?” I asked.
“What the hell do you think? I picked up the shovel and beat that mole man into a bloody pulp. Like the Old Man says, there ain’t enough room for the one kind of people in this world.”
Chet spit chaw and it spattered in the dirt. I had to swallow to keep down my lunch at the smell of the used up tobacco.
“Never did find the pick though. Foreman took it out of my paycheck. That guy was an asshole.”
“Damn,” I said. We sat there in the dim light for a moment while I did some of my infamous thinking.
“So how did you know?” I asked.
“How did you know it was a mole man?”
Chet held up his hands more than a foot apart. “This long.” Then stood up and slung his endosulfan tanks back on his shoulder. “Come on. I am not in the mood to get bitched at tonight.”
I sighed, stubbed out my cigarette, and went to stand up myself. When I looked back over my shoulder one last time at the passage, I saw him standing there, quiet as anything. He looked just like Chet had described, maybe a little scarier in the flesh. I stared for a moment, mouth open, soaking in the endosulfan fumes that Chet was already spraying again. The mole man raised one massive clawed paw above his head… and waved.
I didn’t know much what to do, so I did the friendly thing. I waved back, then turned around and hustled up the tunnel to catch up with my cousin.
A month later, I was back to work at the plant. Chet got himself a sweet workers comp claim on the first day the plant reopened by slipping his hand through a piece of machinery that fed rubber into the press. He was lucky; they saved two of his fingers and most of his thumb after six hours in the operating room.
I don’t know what was going through his head that he got himself mangled — probably thinking about the saucerfolk — but I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about that mole man. I’d nearly injured myself twice while daydreaming.
There were a lot of questions I wanted to ask, but didn’t know who to ask. What was it like to live where there is no light? How did they see around? What did they eat? How come nobody ever sees mole women?
My crew was giving me a lot of shit for being distracted. Paul, a tall, lean Texan with a harelip, had transferred in to run our crew after the plant reopened.
“Hey, Mel, you been drifting off so much, I can only figure you’re getting laid six ways from Sunday by some hot young thing. What’s she look like?”
“Eight—Eight and a half on the right day,” I lied. I didn’t have a girlfriend at any part of the scale.
If girls really did prefer brains over brawn, then I had yet to see it. Didn’t help that I needed three drinks to work up the courage just to talk to a woman who I wasn’t related to. The last time I did, I’d thought things went well, but she had given me a number to a local suicide prevention hotline. Real damned funny. But you can’t let stuff like that get to you. Getting mad doesn’t do anybody any good, even if it feels as good as scratching chigger bites all over.
I was not in a good mood by the second week. There were already rumors about more closures, and I was taking double shifts to make up for the money I blew on the ant extermination stuff, which even after the couple of jobs Chet and I did, had left me in the hole. That endosulfan ain’t cheap.
Tuesday, I came home around sunrise. The only things on my mind were a beer and my bed, in that order. I staggered into my little kitchen, popped the door to the fridge, and it was goddamned empty. I’d been to the Food-4-Less the day before and filled the thing with frozen pizzas, lunch meats, and Coors.
I live on my own. The house is mine, mostly. My father left it to me, along with the mortgage owed to the Old Man. Dad worked most of his life for the city writing parking tickets trying to get free of it. Regular lung cancer had gotten him in the end. Two packs a day. I stick to one, figure I’ll live a couple of years longer.
Dad was on his third wife, Nancy, when he died. Boy was she pissed when it turned out he’d left the house to me in his will. Not that she would have wanted it. That would have meant owing money to the family. Dad didn’t tell her much about the family, but she knew enough to split after Dad was gone. I don’t think Dad wanted much to do with the family either, but he never broke things off totally. Nobody in the family has since Aunt Jessica, the dead aunt we never, ever talked about.
As for the missing food, I wasn’t too shocked about that. Half my cousins had keys to the place. My own key chain weighed a couple of pounds from all the spare house and apartment keys I kept for folks. Our family looks out for one another. We also tend to get drunk and lose our keys.
I figured I’d find a barely legible, poorly spelled IOU note somewhere if I looked around, but I was too damned tired and too damned pissed. They all knew better than to drink the last bottle of beer. I was going to whoop on somebody, just as soon as I could raise my arms above my head again.
Before I could stumble off bed, I heard a heavy thud in the basement. I had a little futon set up there for when Chet or one of my other dozen married cousins needed a place to sleep after a fight with their husband or wife. I also loaned the unfinished space out for when one of the younger cousins needed a place to take their girls for a little private time. Not the girls though — not that I was all that sexist or anything. It was just that the family elders would make sure the whole lot disowned me for facilitating soiling their honor and whatnot. No thanks.
I waited a second for the thumping to take up a regular beat, figuring the noise for a couple of love birds, but it never did.
Well then, I could at least give whichever of my extended family was responsible for my empty fridge an earful before getting some sleep. I carefully, quietly walked down the steps in the inky dark, pulling on the chrome chain attached to the bare bulb above the foot of the stairs with an exaggerated sigh and a carefully composed, pissed off look. I didn’t care if they were in the middle of screwing, I was going to give him a piece of my mind.
I blinked in the sudden bright light, and so did the three mole men who were slumped at drunken angles on my futon. Frozen pizza boxes and empties littered the floor. One of them hiccupped. A second barfed all over my throw rug with a loud spattering sound. The third, and most familiar-looking, made a groaning sound like the gate of an old abandoned churchyard and waved a paw weakly in my direction.
I stared at the scene for a few seconds longer. Worked my jaw a little to keep it from locking up. “Screw it,” I finally said, and stomped back up stairs. It was more than I could deal with right after a sixteen hour shift.
By the time I was up and moving around, the mole men had split. They hadn’t cleaned up after themselves, except for the puke, and I didn’t really want to think too hard about where that went. They had left a handful of dirty rocks atop the plywood cable spool I used as an end-table and tracked a hell of a lot of mud around. I hadn’t dreamed it, which is what I was thinking when I first opened my eyes.
I found their tunnel over by the washer and dryer by following the smell of wet soil. It was big enough for a mole man or a regular man to crawl through, and it went down at a steep angle. The concrete floor had been pried out in regular pieces and stacked in a neat pile against the foundation wall. How the hell they did that without tools, I had no idea. No way was I going down there after them, forget how angry I was.
I did a ballpark estimate of how much it would cost me to get the construction-working cousins over to fill in the hole and pour new concrete. Four, five hundred bucks and a dozen six packs of cheap beer, I figured. I’d have to make up a story about how the hole ended up there, but right then, I had no idea what that story would be. There were only so many ways you could end up with a man-sized tunnel in your basement, and the only thing worse than a cousin finding out I had a mole man problem would be someone getting it into their head that I was a “put the lotion in the basket” kind of guy.
I said a few nasty words down the hole — shouted, more like — and then returned to the part of the mess they’d left that I could do something about right now. I gathered up all the garbage and took it out to the curb. Then I crammed the rug, which still smelled faintly of puke, and the bedding from the futon, into the washing machine and set it on a heavy cycle.
A little bit worn out by the effort, I dropped down on the bare futon and, for lack of anything else to do while the washer spun, I picked up the handful of rocks the mole men had left.
They looked a little like cloudy glass, now that I had them up close. I held them up to the light, and hell if it didn’t look like they might sparkle a bit if I cleaned them up. I took the lot up to the kitchen, dropped them in my spaghetti strainer, and ran the tap over them. The water pressure was a little low with the washer running at the same time, but I got most of the dirt off.
They weren’t just rocks. They were gems. The diamonds were easy to spot. They were all cut into shape like you see on a wedding ring. Must have been lost by people down drains, and the mole men had collected them for some reason. Mixed in with those were little bits of things that I thought might be emerald and ruby. A couple of opals, too. I didn’t know a lot about rocks, but I had to do a rock project in the 6th grade, so I still remembered some of that stuff.
I made some adjustments to my itinerary for the day. I’d planned to run by Chet’s to check in on how he was healing up before my shift, but I could do that after I stopped in at the pawn shop to see what the mole man rocks might be worth. Maybe they’d cover fixing the damage to my basement.
I idled in the parking lot of Capital City Pawn, watching the store through the windows. Everyone in the family had to make a living, and everyone owed the family for something, but Aunt Livia’s kids weren’t made for legit work. You name an illegal way of making money — robbery, car theft, black market saucer goods, selling ant-juice to tweakers—they had their hands in it at some point. The family took a cut of their checks just like the rest of us.
Thankfully, Livia’s boys weren’t around. I stepped out of the car, patting my pockets to make sure I had the gems with me, and went inside.
Jerry the Jew looked up from an antique six-shooter he was cleaning as the door alarm beeped overhead. Of course he wasn’t actually a Jew — his family went to the same church as ours did, and anyway, I can count the number of Jews I’ve met in Kansas on one hand. Didn’t matter though. In the Old Man’s logic, Jerry was a money changer, and all money changers were Jews. Jerry did business with us anyway, and he was a decent enough fence for the dirtier side of the family’s schemes. I always figured Jerry got his revenge on us dumb racist hicks by under-paying.
Jerry greeted me with a rotten-toothed smile, which quickly turned into a frown when he recognized me. “Keeping your nose clean, Mel? Leonard and Charlie, them I expect to come slinking in here. Why don’t you give up the juice, throw out the booze. Straighten up. Your father would be—”
I shook my head. “It’s not like that, Jer. I found a box of this and that in my dad’s things in the attic and I wanted to see if they might be worth something. They’re talking about closing our plant again next month, you hear?”
He knew I was lying about the stones. The family had picked over the house right after dad died, taking everything short of the copper pipes. When one of the Kincaids die, our things get divided among the living. Immediate kin stake out their claims first. I took the house and some of the furniture, and everything else scattered to the four winds on the backs of my relatives.
Jerry sucked on his false teeth. “Sons of bitches. Times will get very tough around here if they moves the plant down under. Business will pick up for me though,” he mused.
“Australia? Why would they do that?”
“Shit, boy. Don’t you watch the news?” I shook my head. He gave me a look of disgust. “Your family wallows in ignorance, I swear. No curiosity in any of you.”
I shrugged. “I asked, didn’t I?”
He nodded, scratching the week old beard growth. “Sure enough you did. So present company excluded, but it’s been all over the news. And no, not Australia, the Kingdom of the Mole Men. The mole people sent diplomats to Washington in June. They’re working on a treaty special with the U.S. that will let companies move around between there, here, and Venus, if you can believe that. Those mole people work for next to nothing, on account of basically being slaves to their Queens. The saucer people are itching to start selling some of their tech down here without paying off-world taxes and tariffs. If you ask me, there’s no way it won’t pass. Millions of dollars in saucer money being spent bribing those assholes in Congress. Worse, if we don’t play ball, and they might just go make the deal with the Soviets.”
“Nah, the Venusians hate the Martians, and they’re all buddy-buddy with the Reds,” I said reflexively. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d turned on my TV, between doing errands for the family while I was laid off and then the double shifts. Maybe I should have spent a little more time on my lunch break reading the paper. I buried any thoughts of losing my job — I couldn’t handle it right now. “You’re right though. That sounds like it would mess a lot of things up.”
“No kidding. I’ve lectured you enough today.” He put his jeweler’s loop up to his squinty right eye. “Let’s see what you ‘found.’ Probably isn’t worth anything,” he warned.
“I’m not so sure about that,” I said, and I pulled the gems out of my pocket and carefully placed them on the velvet scrap on the counter.
Jerry looked me in the eye for what felt like a whole cold winter, as if he could see into my soul and find the rot that we all saw in my degenerate cousins. Jerry didn’t believe my story. That was okay. He’d still do business. That was why the family used him.
“Found, my ass. You’ve been trading with mole men.”
I said nothing.
He shook his head sadly. “If your Granddad finds out you’re dealing with them, he will hang you out to dry, son.”
“It’s complicated. I didn’t trade with them. They broke in and tore up my basement, ate all my food. In the morning, they were gone, but they left these,” I said, already regretting telling the truth. I wasn’t sure I could trust Jerry.
“I don’t need to hear it. Now, these diamonds don’t sell for a lot. Nobody wants a used diamond, see? I can give you a couple hundred for what we have here, and that’s generous. These other rocks are rough, but I can tell they’re worth something. You’ll need to sell these to a gemologist.” He scribbled something on a pad of paper, tore off the sheet, and handed it to me. I pocked the raw gems, leaving the diamonds.
“Bobby over on Huntoon is a fair man,” Jerry said.
It was my turn to look him in the eye. All I saw was a milky film that was probably the onset of cataracts.
“How about you give me half that, and nobody from the family finds out I was here.”
“Done deal.” He rang out the sale and handed me my money in twenties. A little bit of my anger with the mole men faded away with each bill that crossed my palm. I was praising my good luck when the “somebody’s here” alarm chimed above the door. I could tell from Jerry’s grimace that whoever had walked in was from the family.
I took a punch right in the gut before I could turn around. Leonard towers over me by a foot, and his arms are about as big around as my thighs. He’s always been bigger than me, even though he’s two years younger. When he wasn’t ripping off decent people, he worked out in a gym a few blocks away from the Grandparents’ house. The family story was that Leonard’s father was a pro wrestler who had played a show in town. Aunt Livia had never married that I knew, but she did have a long-time boyfriend. Sometimes when Grandpa got drunk he’d call her a whore for not marrying. Leonard though was a favorite, one of the Old Man’s inner circle that went hunting for quail and pheasant with him every Fall. Leonard brought in a lot of money, dirty or not.
My cousin smirked and helped me right myself. The ache faded quickly enough. I didn’t hold it against him. This was just how he said hello.
“How’s it hanging, cuz?” He looked at Jerry. “You look a little nervous. You working something on the side? Something you don’t want the Old Man to know about, eh?” He spotted the diamonds still sitting on the counter. He grinned wider, bringing to mind those big sharks that jump out of the water on the animal channel. “You thinking about getting hitched?” The only thing more valuable to him than catching me running something on the side would be learning some juicy gossip before anyone else.
“Lenny, if I was holding out on the Old Man, I wouldn’t be here,” I said. Truth was, I had figured I was out early enough that I wouldn’t risk running into the criminal element of the family. “I’m just selling some heirlooms from my mother’s side. They’re exempt from the rules.” Jerry remained quiet. Money well spent, I thought.
“Oh yeah?” Leonard cocked his head, a comical gesture with a neck as thick as his.
“Yeah. Hey, I need to check in on Chet. I’ll see you at the fish fry Saturday,” I said, eyeing the door.
He slugged me on the shoulder. I winced. “Take it easy — oh, hey. I was talking to the Old Man and he was saying you haven’t been by with an envelope yet this month.”
Shit. I’d been working so many extra shifts that I’d nearly forgotten to make my payment. The twenties in my pocket wouldn’t quite cover it either, and my bank account was collecting cobwebs.
“I’ll drop one off today, I promise,” I said, backing away. Leonard just smiled. He knew he didn’t have to threaten me. The Old Man was threat enough.
I drove from there direct to the gemologist. He was an old codger who made Jerry look like a spring chicken. I never seen a jaw drop like his did when I showed him the stones. He stammered that he didn’t have that much cash on hand, but if I would take a check, he would gladly take them off my hands. I asked how much, and then I asked again because I was sure I had heard him wrong.
$20,000. Most of the stones were nice, worth a few bucks, but one of the stones I hadn’t recognized was something called alexandrite. It was named after one of them pre-communist Russian leaders, very rare. I asked for what he could pay me in cash and agreed to the rest as a check. The way his hands shook as he wrote it out, I figured he was cheating me, but I didn’t care. Twenty grand was more money than I had made all year, and definitely more money than I had ever held in my hand at one time.
I had already decided that I wasn’t going to share it with the family. I’d make my usual payments on time, maybe increase the amount a little bit, saying I’d sold some of my mother’s things to explain the extra cash. More than anything, I dreaded having to have a face-to-face with the Old Man to explain where I had gotten the money. Nobody lied to the Old Man’s face. His shrewd eyes saw through to the truth of any lie you ever told. If he didn’t believe gambling was a sin, he would have cleaned up in Vegas.
I deposited the check via an ATM into an account with a little local credit union on the south side of town. I had opened the account secretly after my father had died.
I had sat on the porch, watching my Gran take inventory of my father’s things, then casually mark down the names of other family members next to each object. My name was only next to the couch and the Laz-E-Boy— the house was more than my fair share, and Aunt Livia was downright angry that the family wasn’t putting it on the market and splitting up the cash.
It was while watching her parceling out my father’s life that it occurred to me that maybe I had the short end of the stick when it came to my family. I’d never questioned the relationship before. It’d always been there to help me. The Old Man had fronted me the money for my first year of college, even though he thought it was waste of time and money.
I saw then that my father never really owned any of the things that he thought were his. They all belonged to the family in the end. When I died, the same thing would happen to me and my things. I decided then that I wanted out. I opened the secret account the next day.
Judging the outside of his little one-floor 1950s prefab home, you would never guess that the Old Man was one of the wealthiest people in town. Especially not in East Topeka, not exactly the safest part of town (although the Old Man never had any trouble). Keeping down appearances was his way. The place was solid and had survived a couple of close calls with tornadoes mostly intact. The yard had gotten a little run-down especially since Gran had passed. No one else had taken any interest in planting the flower beds. The Old Man never left the TV room except to use the toilet, not even to sleep, so he could care less about the yard, and even if he knew about its state, he would probably have approved.
I parked in the driveway behind a Toyota pick-up that belonged to one of the younger cousins and blew the horn three times rapidly. The screen door opened and one of my crone aunts walked over to me. Susan. I could stand talking to just about any of them besides Livia, who was just as crooked as her kids and had several times skimmed money from my payment and then claimed I was short. Family trust always went with seniority, though, so I was screwed every time.
Since Gran had passed the year before, the aunts had taken to living with Grandpa in shifts. I don’t know if the Old Man even noticed Gran’s absence, the way they doted on him. Everyone owed him, some more than others, but you were born into the family owing him, and the debt only got deeper with time. He was quick to lend, but the terms were steep. I didn’t know of anyone who had ever paid off a family loan.
“Mel. Good to see you. Are you eating well? You look a little pasty.” Aunt Susan wore an old floral house coat that probably had belonged to Gran. Her hair had already turned deeply white, and she was cutting it short like old ladies all seem to do. I wondered about that. Was there some kind of letter they got in the mail on their 50th birthday from the AARP, dictating how long their hair could be? She held out her hand palm-up, resting it on the window. Her fingertips were stained deeply yellow from years of smoking. The old woman rapped me on my knuckles.
“Always thinking,” she muttered. “That’s going to get you in trouble one of these days.”
“Has plenty of times already,” I said. I handed her the envelope. “Tell Grandpa I’m sorry it was late. They only just reopened the plant.”
She eyed the envelope. I’d fattened it to make up for the late payment. “I hear tell they’re thinking about closing it up again.” She grinned, taking pleasure from the idea that I would end up taking out another loan and some day ending up in a hole as deep as hers and all the other elders. If I was laid off again, I probably would have to visit the Man with hat in hand. I didn’t want to think about that. My dad had worked his whole life to try and get out from under the debt. The way I figured it, with my new cash, I could be free in five or six years.
“Maybe so,” I said. “Speaking of the plant, I’m headed over to check on your son,” I said. It was probably the only way I could avoid getting sucked into a two hour conversation about her joint pain or the weather. Kansas folk of my dad’s generation could always talk about the weather. They say no matter how dumb you are, you’re born in Kansas with an honorary degree in meteorology.
“Oh, that’s sweet of you,” she said. It wasn’t, really. I would have caught hell if I didn’t do it. “You head off then. I’ll tell Daddy you said hello.”
“Thanks.” I pulled out of the driveway just fast enough o squeal the tires a little. I caught her staring at me in the rear view mirror. Maybe I was imagining it, but she was looking at me like she knew I had a secret. I broke out into a sweat, even though it was late October.
I made it to Chet’s place around 4:30. He was already piss-drunk. It didn’t take much, with the painkillers they had him on. His wife worked days over at an ophthalmologist’s office, so he had their little place (bought with family-borrowed money) to himself all day.
We sat together in his ‘recreation room,’ which is where he showed off all his collectable dishware. You know how when somebody famous dies, there’s a company that prints up the dead person’s face on a bunch of plates and swears they’ll be worth a mint one day? My cousin single-handedly keeps those plate companies in business.
Chet sprawled on his second-hand couch. His hairless head was shiny with sour-smelling sweat, and he scratched his injured hand with a wooden ruler, twisting it under the gauze. “I could get used to this workman’s comp thing. Can you get me another beer? This damn thing itches something fierce.”
I suppressed a sigh and got him a beer from the kitchen.
Judging from the cans on the table, it was his tenth. Chet functioned well drunk, and had operated the feeder that’d mangled his hand just as drunk as this too many times to count. For me, the distance between a little drunk and black-out-and-wake-up-naked-on-a-baseball-diamond-at-dawn-drunk was hard to figure. Lately, I’d been cutting back, but I grabbed a beer for myself.
“What pills do they have you on?” I asked. There were dozens of little yellow-tinted plastic bottles lined up on the end-table beside him.
“I can’t even pronounce them,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m selling half them to Lenny and Charles anyway. They just make everything fuzzy.”
I winced, but didn’t say anything. It would have been pointless.
“What brings you by? You working second shift, aren’t you?” He squinted. “You look like boiled roadkill.”
“Someone made a mess in my place last night. One of the younger kids had a party while I was out. I spent half my day cleaning up.”
“Kick their ass,” he roared, then coughed until he was almost sick. “Damn, that hurts.”
I decided I’d rather change the subject than lie any more. “Thought see how you were doing before I went in. Looks like you’re fine. I don’t think you should be selling any of your pills though.”
He scowled at me, scratching his ass. “There you go, thinking again. I still got bills to pay. Gramps needs his blood money.”
I bit my tongue, decided it wasn’t worth explaining that the term didn’t mean what he thought it did. Chet could be an angry drunk. “Yeah.” I took a long pull from my beer. “Hey, you watch a lot of TV while you’re here, right? Have you heard about this treaty thing?”
The vein in his forehead began to throb. “That bullshit! Those fuckers in Washington are selling us out to the dirt monkeys and the saucer chinks. I mean, fuck those saucer people, right, I wasn’t ever going to go bald before their stupid saucer rays, but at least they sell us the plutonium we need to keep the Reds at bay. The mole men are just a bunch of underground spics.”
I could guess which news channel my cousin had been watching. “So you really think that treaty thing is going to pass?”
He shrugged. “Free trade bullshit. You know they’re talking about closing the plant again at the end of the month?”
I’d only heard the night before in the breakroom. A lot of folks in town made their living either directly or indirectly from the plant, so any news spread quickly.
“Nobody’s saying anything for sure.”
“Mark my words, cousin, if they pass that treaty, they’re going to close it for good. Bunch of dirt monkeys making the rubber after that.”
The beer had turned sour in my stomach, so I excused myself. I had to get to work anyway.
Driving home from my shift that night, I nearly hit some asshole in a BMW because I was worrying what I would do if I found the mole men in my basement again.
Turned out my worrying was for nothing. The basement was empty. I think I was more disappointed than anything else.
The family always eats together on Saturdays. In the summer, it’s crappie and catfish caught by the various cousins and their kids. Fillets go in the freezer in the basement of the grandparents’ house all week. The cooks bring them out to thaw Friday night, and on Saturday, they start frying just before noon — around a dozen women and girls cramming into a kitchen that was built for three people. I’ve had nightmares about being trapped in that kitchen, unable to escape as the bodies of my aunts pressed in and suffocated me.
The food’s damned good, even if the company leaves something to be desired. Six aunts, four uncles, twenty-two cousins, and a dozen second cousins, all arguing, laughing, and telling dirty jokes while they cram food in their mouths like they haven’t had a meal in weeks. There were times in my twenties before I got on with the plant when it was the only good meal I had all week. Now days, I went because not showing up would earn the displeasure of the Old Man, even though he never stepped foot outside to eat with the rest of us. He could see us out the window beside his chair though, and I always felt his eyes on us.
I arrived early to help set up as I usually do. I set up the folding chairs and card tables in the yard. Aunts and cousins pressed into service ran food from the kitchen out to the tables like a trucker’s convoy. Once everyone arrived, the family devoured it all as fast as it came out of the fry-grease.
I was standing in line for seconds when Leonard bumped into me roughly, nearly knocking the paper plate out of my hand.
“Hey cuz,” Leonard said with a scowl, “did you know there’s a big fucking hole in your basement?”
Shit. “Yeah. I know.” The bastard had been snooping around. I hadn’t given him a key to my place, but it would have been easy for him to ‘borrow’ one from one of the younger cousins.
“You been trying to dig your way to freedom?” He laughed himself red at his own joke. I relaxed. Leonard was great at putting two and two together and getting negative one.
“Good one. No, I’m fixing a backed up sewer line. I just can’t afford to pay to have it filled back in, what with the plant closures lately,” I said.
“You need to borrow some money, Mel?” asked Aunt Susan, who I hadn’t seen hovering over the buffet until just then. She slapped two big spoonfuls of potato salad onto my plate. “Head inside and talk to Daddy. He’ll help you out. It can’t be safe to have a hole in your basement floor.”
“Sure,” I said. “After I’m done eating.” More like, not a chance in hell. I hurried away from the buffet. Leonard followed me, stopping me by placing a big meaty hand on my shoulder.
“I know what’s really going on, Mel,” Leonard whispered. “My silence ain’t cheap.”
My blood froze in my veins. This was my worst nightmare come true, minus the little flying devil heads and my 3rd grade teacher in lingerie.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I hissed and moved to sit at the kids table where he wouldn’t dare be seen.
“We’ll talk later, cuz,” he said loudly enough for everyone to hear.
I stewed in my own dumb thoughts, wondering what the hell I was going to do. I didn’t even mind the rug rats throwing food around and being nasty little shits. I watched the family gorge themselves, waiting for an opportunity to get away unseen.
Luck was on my side for once. A fight broke out between Alex, Chet’s little brother, and Leonard, over a referee call in Monday’s Chiefs game. I used the commotion to slip out and drive home.
My stomach felt like I’d been drinking battery acid. I rummaged through my medicine cabinet and found some expired Pepto. I drank half the bottle while I slumped in my Lay-Z-Boy with the remote in hand. I flipped channels until I got to the news networks.
Everyone was talking about the treaty, how it was expected to pass on Monday, what it meant for America. One station said it would bring about a “new era of prosperity.” Another said it would doom us all, and painted a picture of a country living in poverty. I sneered at that. Take a look around, news people. We’re already a nation of poor people, just trying to take care of our own. I drank the rest of the bottle of pink slime and crawled into bed. I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow.
I dreamed that the mole men crawled up from the basement and escorted me to their underground kingdom. It looked like pictures I had seen of Carlsbad Caverns, and giant glowing mushrooms hung from the ceiling. We climbed onto the backs of claymation dinosaurs, and they herky-jerky walked us through the caves. The mole men led me through a maze of stalagmites (or stalactites — I can never remember which is which) until we came to a placid lake of water. Beautiful, long-haired women stood in the waters naked, and raised their hands to wave me forward, seductive smiles playing across their lips.
I couldn’t remember the rest of the dream when I woke up in the morning. I felt a little ripped off.
Sunday morning, I shat, showered, and shaved, then went into the garage and gathered up all of my second stepmother’s gardening tools — rakes, hoes, and shovels—and carried them into the basement. Still no sign of the mole men, but this time, I was relieved. I didn’t want them to see me giving up.
I climbed just inside the tunnel to inspect it for a way to collapse it. I didn’t know where the mole men had carted off the dirt from their digging. Maybe they had eaten it. I crawled in further.
The light from the basement barely reached me. The sides of the tunnel were shaggy with tree roots from the ancient cottonwood in my front yard. I sniffed, smelling something like a cross between a garbage heap and a wet dog. I backed up quickly. Light glinted briefly in the mole man’s tiny eyes. He climbed after me, his claws scraping clods of dirt free from the walls of the tunnel. For a moment, I panicked, thinking that he was attacking me, but once I was back on the cold concrete floor, I backed up, and the mole man only climbed halfway out of the tunnel. We sat there for what felt like minutes, just staring at each other.
I got this feeling that he wanted to apologize for breaking in last week. The feeling grew so strong I was sure of it.
“Hey… no big deal,” I said. The mole man flinched at the sound of my voice, then relaxed. It nodded slowly.
Relief flooded through me. It wanted to know if I had found the gems.
“Yeah, I found them. I kind of wish you hadn’t left them. I’m in a lot of trouble because of that. But thank you.”
“It’s okay, you couldn’t have known what it’s like to have such a fucked up family.”
Disagreement. Pictures began to play on the back of my brain. I felt like I was having an acid trip. I could see the underworld the way the mole men did. They saw heat instead of light, like the monster in that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. The pictures fast-forwarded through their warrens of passages until I could see a huge chamber the size of Arrowhead Stadium. The floor of the cave was teeming with mole men coming and going. In the center was a great, heaving beast, like someone inflated a mole until it was the size of a parade float. Their queen. The mole men tended to her, and she spat out little mole men babies. I felt the mole man’s revulsion and love simultaneously for his queen. His mother. She gave off these smells that told the mole men what to do. All around her, they scurried to do her bidding. It made the mole man angry, and he crawled away, trying to ignore the smells that told him to obey.
“Okay,” I said as the vision faded. “Maybe you do know something about messed up families.”
I felt something that can only be described as “damned straight.”
I laughed. “I’ve got some leftover crappie if you’re hungry,” I said. “I know you like pizza, do you like fish?”
Alarm! The hair on the back of my neck stood up. The door to the basement stairs creaked open, and heavy footsteps clomped down the stairs. Leonard. He carried a pick-axe over his shoulder. I turned back to urge the mole man to flee, but he was already gone. He’d heard Leonard coming long before I had.
“Hey cuz,” Leonard said with an easy, fake smile.
“I don’t remember giving you a key to my place,” I said.
“Door was open,” he said. I knew that it was not, but didn’t press the point. There was no sense in getting him riled up. He was here to roll me, no question about it.
“What’s the pick axe for?”
He sighed. “I told you I knew what you were up to. I’m not as dumb as everybody thinks. When you acted all funny at the Jew’s place, I decided I had better look around your place. I was sure you were working some secret job and holding out on the family. I found this hole and I knew that that ice didn’t belong to your mom.”
“No, it didn’t.” I wondered for a moment if I could knock him down with the shovel before he could split me in two with the pick axe. I didn’t kid myself. He’d gut me before I could raise the shovel above my waist.
“Your dad was always trying to get out from under the family debt. You know he tried to pay off his whole debt with the Old Man when we were just kids?”
I hadn’t known that. Dad had always been frugal, and it had seemed like he was spending less money than he must have been making right up to the end. I had figured it was all going to the Old Man for some loan or another. He’d never talked about how much he owed.
“Yeah. He was going to be all paid up. He wanted the Old Man to leave you guys alone. He was going to move you and your mom to Oklahoma City. Never come back.”
I remembered my parents talking in hushed tones about some trip. I thought it was a vacation. But a couple of weeks later, we hadn’t gone anywhere, but Mom had. She filed for a divorce and never came back.
“How do you know about that?” I whispered.
“The Old Man tells me this stuff when he gets drunk.” He shrugged. “They got in a knock-down hell of a fight, your old man and the Old Man. The Old Man finally said your parents could leave. But not you. You’d have to stay here with us.”
I blinked. Me?
“So I guess the Old Man won that one. You never moved away. And Uncle Sean never paid off his debt after all. I guess your mom couldn’t take being part of the family anymore. The Old Man always figured your dad lost all the money he’d saved up to your mom in the divorce, but me, I figure something different. Uncle Sean squirreled it all away down here in the basement and sealed it up, told you where to find it before he died. And now what with the plant getting ready to go under, you need the money, so you’ve been digging up all the loot.”
I sat in stunned silence, which he took as an admission that the story he’d concocted was true.
“Here’s the deal. I take half. I don’t tell the Old Man about your secret stash. Should have told the family about the buried treasure when he died, but I guess I can’t blame you. I would have been tempted myself, just a little.”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah… okay, Lenny. You got me,” I said. “I’ve been digging for a while, but I don’t think I’ve found all of it.”
He laughed. “I knew a pussy like you wouldn’t be able to handle the real work,” he said. He hefted the pick axe from one hand to the other. “I’ll come by every couple of days to help you dig until we find the rest.”
“That’s very kind of you,” I said, keeping my tone as level as I could manage.
“Hey. That’s what family’s for.” He peered down into the hole. “You got any lights we can run down here?”
“I have some Christmas lights,” I said.
“Yeah, that’ll work. Go get those.”
I hurried up the stairs back to the garage. I risked ten minutes of worrying about what he was going to do when digging didn’t turn up any loot, then grabbed the box of Christmas decorations and returned to the basement.
Leonard and his pick axe were gone. I yelled down the tunnel, but no one answered. When I stood up, I found something wet smeared on my fingers. I looked down. There were a three spots of fresh blood on the floor.
Chet sounded either sleepy or drunk. I couldn’t tell which through the phone. “Jesus, Mel, you own a watch, don’t ya?”
“Yeah, sorry. Do you have a spare key to Leonard’s truck?” I fidgeted with the phone cord and tried to sound calm.
I heard him flipping through a key ring. “Um, I think so. I forgot to mark some of these.”
“Good. Can you come over and bring it with you?” I asked, making it clear by my tone of voice that “no” or “can it wait until morning?” were not acceptable answers. I knew I was taking a gamble with him, but we had always been friends. At least, I was pretty sure I could buy his silence if blood turned out not to be thicker than water.
Twenty minutes later, he walked in my front door wearing boxers, a wife beater, and his work boots. His injured hand was still twice its usual size, wrapped in bandages. He smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a week.
He noticed me wrinkling my nose. “Doctor said I shouldn’t get the bandages wet,” he said lamely.
“So you duct tape a plastic bag over it, you idiot,” I snapped. I took a deep breath. “Do you have the key?”
“Yeah, yeah. Um. Hey. Why do you want it? I saw his truck outside but it’s not blocking your driveway. Say, got a beer?”
“Sit down. How about some J.D.?”
I gathered the bottle and two shot glasses and joined him at the kitchen table. I filled each to the brim.
“Leonard’s dead,” I said after downing the shot.
“No, really, where’s Leonard?”
I poured two more shots.
“No, really, he’s dead. I’m pretty sure anyway.” I drank the second. My thinking felt crystal sharp. The alcohol was having no effect on me. I wondered if it was the adrenalin.
“Did you kill him? Always thought he was an asshole.”
“No. The mole men did.”
He laughed. “I don’t think that will hold up in court.”
He seemed to sober up for a moment at that. “We need to dump his truck.”
“Right. And then what?”
“Then we get drunk enough to forget where we dumped it.”
I had to admit, it had a certain logic to it.
When I woke, I was sure that a mole man had crawled into my mouth and died. I did a quick inventory of my limbs. All were present, but my hands were covered in blisters. I couldn’t remember getting them. Something was wheezing next to me.
The room swam into view as I cracked an eye. I was on the futon in my basement. The wheezing turned out to be Chet. I tried to sit up, but decided against it when the room spun like a top. I lay back down, but not before I had seen that the mole man tunnel was patched with fresh concrete.
I lay on my side and stared at where the hole had been. I had to admire our drunken handiwork. I couldn’t tell that the tunnel had ever been there.
The evening came back to me in puzzle pieces. I remembered Leonard’s disappearance, and I remembered pushing his pick-up off a ledge into some lake but I wasn’t sure which of the half-dozen nearby it was. There was a Jack Daniels-colored curtain between me and the rest of the night.
I had one last thought before I passed out again. Where had we found concrete mix at that time of night on a Sunday?
When I woke a second time and glanced at my watch, I saw with a jolt that I didn’t have time to be hung over. I stumbled upstairs and got dressed, putting on dirty clothes because I hadn’t had time to do laundry with everything that had happened that week. I heard Chet in the toilet praying to the porcelain god.
“Oh God, I’ll never drink again if you will just stop the barfing.”
“Hey man,” I said at the door as I tucked in my shirt. “I gotta get to work.”
“Yeah-mrphph.” The toilet flushed. “Go. We’ll talk when you get back.”
“Okay. You know where I keep the booze.”
When I clocked in, I found a sticky note stuck to my time card asking me to see the department’s union rep. As soon as my first break rolled around, I went to Ricky’s office on the second floor, overlooking the factory floor. That’s where all the pencil pushers lived. His door was open.
Ricky was twenty years older than me and a real true-blue union believer. As far as I was concerned, the union was as much of a pain in the ass as it was anything else, but Ricky always said we were too young to know what it was like before the union, even if he hadn’t experienced the pre-union days himself exactly.
For a guy his age, he had a surprising amount of energy. Ricky leapt to his feet with sickening quickness and closed the door behind me. “Mel, thanks for coming. I have to talk to you about something important. Promise me you’ll keep this quiet. If the others find out, there will be hell to pay for everyone.”
I nodded. “I promise.” He settled back into his desk chair.
“We have informants down under. They tell us that the mole men are already building a factory to replace us. And the closures? The company’s been letting mole men in here to train on the equipment.”
“What are you saying here, Ricky?”
“They’re shutting us down as soon as Congress passes MaVFTA.”
I groaned. “Why are you telling me this? You have no idea the shit week I have had.”
“We’re not going down without a fight, don’t worry. The union’s got a plan. We’re going to send our people to the new factory and we’re going to unionize those dirt monkeys whether they like it or not. We’re talking old school tactics if you know what I mean. We want you with us down under.”
“Why me? I don’t even show up for union meetings.”
“I know. That’s going to have to change if you come on board. You wouldn’t have been my first choice, no offense, but our inside guys asked for you by name. Well, sort of. They don’t really talk, but they can put ideas in your head. I got a clear picture of you.”
I only knew one mole man who knew what I looked like. And he was a union spy? It made a twisted kind of sense in light of everything else that had happened.
“I’m going to have to think about this.”
“Sure, but you can’t take long. When the president signs the bill, we’re shut down. You’ve got two days at most to think it over.” He passed me a card. “This is my private cell. Call me as soon as you’ve made up your mind. If you turn us down, we’ll need to find an alternate. Do you think your cousin might be interested?”
“Probably not. He thinks you guys are communists,” I say over my shoulder as I leave his office. I don’t know which is weighing me down more; the news or my hangover.
After my shift, I walk the quarter mile across the asphalt parking lot to my car in the darkness just before sunrise. Some days, that walk is the only exercise I get. I like parking in the back.
When I see my car up ahead, I also spot two figures leaning against it. I start to turn around to run, but Charlie calls out to me. Leonard’s brother.
“Don’t make me chase you, Mel. I’ll run you down with your own car. Get over here.”
From his tone, I guessed he had other cousins watching the exits of the parking lot anyway. I walked close enough that I could see the other figure. Chet looked down, not even man enough to look me in the eye.
“You son of a bitch—” Charlie hit me with a bat across the back and brought me down to my knees.
“The only reason I’m not caving in your dirt-monkey-loving skull right now is because the Old Man told me I couldn’t,” Charlie said. “But he didn’t say anything about not roughing you up.”
After the first blow to the head, I was too fuzzy to really feel the other blows. Blood oozed down my face and my right eye was already swollen shut when the beating stopped. I went limp, just so they would have to drag me into the back of Charlie’s truck.
“Sorry, Mel,” Chet whispered. “I had to tell them. They were going to find out somehow.”
I tried and failed to flip him the bird.
I lay in the bed of the truck and stared at the stars as we drove. They were harder to see with only one eye, but I looked at them harder than I ever had. The way I saw it, no matter what happened next, it might be the last time I ever saw them.
I blanked out for a little bit, because the next thing I knew, I was being dragged up the steps into the grandparents’ house.
“Jesus, clean him up a little bit first,” Aunt Susan said. “I don’t want to have to scrub his blood out of the carpet in the morning again.”
I made a point of bleeding as much as possible, just to spite her.
After wiping me down roughly with a couple of paper towels, my cousins dragged me into the living room and tossed me roughly into the “interrogation” chair. I started to panic the moment I felt its scratchy fabric on my skin.
You only ever talked to the Old Man if you’d done something wrong, or if you were so backed into a corner you had no other option. Every bad memory of getting bawled out by him when I was a kid came flooding back, and my meeting just out of high school to ask for help with college was the cherry on top of this shitty memory sundae.
The Old Man slouched opposite me in his own arm chair, a nice leather one with a foot rest. The 42” TV in the corner played ESPN, and a bluish light flickered from it across his face, making him look more sickly than usual. The cancer was slowly eating him up, or so everybody said. He had less hair than I remembered, but what little he had was still black as night. He had been an athlete in his youth, a star basketball player, and it showed in his frame even now, sixty years later. He would still be tall, if he stood. I pleaded silently with whatever forces would listen that he wouldn’t do that.
His double barrel shotgun rested across his lap. His hand lay loose on the stock and barrel. His face was calm, not showing a trace of anger.
“Mel,” he said. “Long time since you stopped in to see me.”
“Sorry,” I muttered.
His tone turned sharp. “Don’t you bother using that word again tonight. I’ll say when you’re sorry. ‘Sorry.’ That word isn’t going to get you out of this trouble.” He shook his head.
“I have to tell you, boy, I see a lot of myself in you. Always have. Your Gran, bless her departed soul, wasn’t the sharpest tack. I figure it was her rotten genes that turned my children and their children dumb as tree stumps. Your Daddy had some brains in him, but he never used them right. Wasted potential.”
I wanted to scream at him for even mentioning my father, but I also wanted to live through our talk. I sat quietly.
“When Sean died, I was torn up for days. I’d always figured that when I went, your daddy would take my place running things. This family needs a strong leader, someone they respect and fear to keep them in line. You think I’m evil — no, don’t deny it, I know all you children think I am some kind of monster from the moving pictures. But if it weren’t for me, your cousins would all be dead or in jail. I channel the family’s natural tendencies into better things. ‘Cept for Livia’s boys. They been a lost cause since the day their mama squeezed them out, but even they have a purpose in life. The one I gave them.”
He turned his attention to the TV for a few minutes, ignoring me. After hearing whatever it was he wanted to hear, he turned back to me.
“Your cousin tells me that you’ve been dealing with them dirt monkeys,” he said. “And your dealing has gone and gotten your idiot cousin Lenny dead. That true?”
“Pretty much,” I said.
“You call me sir when you speak to me, boy. What’d you do with the body?”
“There wasn’t one.” I hesitated. “Sir.”
“Alright, I’ll bite. Tell me what happened.”
“What’s the point?” I asked.
“Hmm?” He squinted at me.
“Sir, what’s the point? We both know you’re going to shoot me no matter what I say.”
“What?” His tone was bewildered. He looked down at the shot gun then, and seemed surprised to find it in his lap. “I was just cleaning this. I’m not going to shoot you, boy. Now tell me what happened.”
I explained the whole thing, how I had met the mole men, how they had given me the gems which had made Leonard suspicious, and how he’d come over to extort me. The Old Man laughed at that part, but grew sober when I explained how Leonard was gone when I got back from getting my Christmas lights.
“Did you tell your dirt monkey friends to murder your cousin?”
“No sir. I didn’t tell them much of anything. I don’t even think they’re my friends.”
“Fine then. But you lied about them to your cousin, and when you did, you got him wrapped up in your bullshit. That lie got him killed, and that’s a sin you’ll stand for before the Lord. Now me, I would have shot them mole people dead like we did when I was a boy, but you young ones are too soft for that I suppose. School system addles your brains.”
He reached for a calculator the size of a small laptop computer and started punching in numbers, referring occasionally to his massive ledger that sat on his left armrest. The lives of all our family members were tracked by the numbers in that book.
The calculator tape whirred out covered in faint blue numbers. The Old Man smiled. “You’re going to take on Leonard’s debt. He owed me eighteen grand. You can write me a check right now from your ‘secret account.’ You think you’re so clever, boy, but I’ve been around too long for you to pull one over on me.” He threw me a checkbook I didn’t recognize. It was for my account with the small credit union. I’d never ordered checks. He offered me a pen.
I wrote him a check for the eighteen grand. I stood to offer the checkbook back to him. He waved his hands. “You keep that. It’s yours.” I tore out the check then and gave him that, and slid the checkbook into my back pocket.
“Come by every Tuesday. With Leonard gone, I need someone to run my errands for me. I don’t care if you have to work,” he said, cutting me off before I could protest. “You make a hole in your schedule.”
He chuckled. “Everybody’s gonna hate you now, Livia and Charlie specially. That’s good though. If you’re ever going to run things, you’ll need that. You’ll need their fear even more.”
“Can I go now, sir?” I asked through gritted teeth.
“Not just yet. I have one other condition for your continued membership in this family. You bring me the hands of the dirt monkeys that took your cousin. Those claws are good for scrimshawing.”
He barked for Charlie to bring my car around. He motioned for me to lean in.
“This happens again, I won’t be so generous,” he whispered.
I limped to my car and drove home.
“Who is this?” Ricky’s voice was cautious. Union people were always kind of nervous on the phone.
“Mel, from the plant,” I said. “About that opportunity we talked about.”
“Yes, Mel. Great to hear from you. Have you made up your mind?”
“Would the union pay me?”
“You bet. You’d come to work for the union direct, not the plant, of course.”
“How long do you think this job would take to finish?”
“I have no idea. It could take years, Mel. I heard you’ve had some trouble with your family lately. Is that true?”
I ignored the question. “I’ll go. You tell them, I’ll go.”
“That’s great to hear. Come by my place tomorrow afternoon. We’ll do some paperwork and then you can meet with them. They’ll be excited to hear that you’re coming.” He gave me an address. It was only three blocks away from my own house.
“Great. See you tomorrow.”
Outside Ricky’s place, I took my pistol from the glove compartment and checked to make sure the safety was on. It was. I slid the gun into my waistband at my back as I climbed out of the car and walked up to the door. I rang the bell.
The door swung open. Ricky’s eyes were wide. “What happened to you?”
“Oh.” He stood there for a moment. “Well, come in then.”
His place was a lot nicer than mine. Seniority buys you that in the plant, or at least, it did before the company decided to move it down under. Kid toys were scattered around the living room by some unseen child.
“Sorry about the mess. We’ve been watching the grandkids. Margie is out at the park with them now so we can meet privately. I’ve got the paperwork in the kitchen if you want to—”
“Actually, I’d like to meet with them first, if I could,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to meet a mole man.”
He hesitated. “Okay, sure, I guess. Follow me.” He led me to his basement. A hole similar to the one in my place was blocked off with child-proof gates in his utility room. Ricky dimmed the lights.
“Bright lights are painful to them. They see into the infrared, but their cities are lit by bioluminescent fungi now, so you’ll be fine once you’re on site.” Ricky brought out a mason jar of clear fluid and unscrewed the top. “This is how I signal them,” he explained.
A moment later, I heard scraping from the tunnel. The mole man pulled himself up out and stepped over the children’s gates.
Pleasure, enjoyment at seeing a friend.
I drew the pistol. Ricky shouted, but I pointed it at him and barked for him to shut the hell up. The mole man didn’t flinch. It was almost as if he knew what I was going to do.
“I don’t like being manipulated,” I said to the mole man.
Confusion, with just a hint of deceit.
I turned the safety off. “You’re a terrible liar. What did you do with my cousin. You kill him?”
Images played again in my mind. This time, I watched myself bend over the hole to run Christmas lights. Leonard stood behind me and brought the pick axe high over his head—
“Enough! I get the idea. You knew he was going to do that? You can read our minds?”
Sad partial affirmation. Hints of complexity difficult to convey.
“But you saved my life. Leonard was going to kill me for the treasure he thought I had buried under my house.”
Affirmation. Pleading for calm.
“You left those gems because you knew the trouble it would cause. Or maybe you thought it would be what you needed to convince me to go on this ridiculous mission down under. Right?”
Also affirmation. Surprise at one’s cleverness.
Pictures again. A glowing red version of me waving from the ant tunnel. My family eating at the fish fry, fighting and arguing, while the Old Man watches from inside. That one dredged up from my own memories. Then, another quick flash of the Queen.
I put the safety back on and tucked the pistol back into my waistband. “Okay. I just wanted to get that cleared that up.” I turned to Ricky. “Let’s go fill out that paperwork.”
The mole man cautiously waved at me as I climbed the stairs to Ricky’s kitchen. I pretended not to notice.
I go for one last walk on the surface through the park tonight. Tomorrow, our union expedition departs with the mole men guiding the way below. They say it will take a week to reach their kingdom. The new plant is set to open just before that.
We’re going to have a lot of work ahead of us. I’m kind of looking forward to it. I sometimes wanted to be one of those exchange students when I was younger, but the Old Man would have never allowed it. Now I don’t give a damn what the Old Man allows.
A few bricks have been thrown through my windows, and I receive a death threat on the phone from a different family member every night, but so far, I’m still here. I think the Old Man is still keeping them on a tight leash, hoping I will come around. I think he was serious about me running things when he’s gone, but if there is one thing I am certain of in this life, it’s that I will never run the family.
He doubled my debt after I refused to kill the mole men. I’ve set it up with the union so that my paychecks go straight to the family while I’m down under. I hate the Old Man as much as I ever have, but I wouldn’t be able to respect myself if I didn’t pay off my debts, even if they are bogus ones.
I like watching the bats now that I know they’re there. I’ve been wondering a lot lately about what else might be out there that I just don’t know to look for. I figure I’ve got a lot more discoveries ahead of me now.
The weird thing is, that doesn’t bother me at all.
Copyright 2011 Jeremiah Tolbert
Jeremiah Tolbert lives high in the foothills of Northern Colorado. The majority of his time is spent building websites for authors and publishers as Clockpunk Studios. He spent the first 18 years of his life on the surface of Northeast Kansas. His fiction has previously appeared in Interzone, Polyphony, and a number of other anthologies, including most recently, Way of the Wizard edited by John Joseph Adams.