Grisly. Horrific. Baffling.
Those were the grave adjectives the nightly news anchors sprinkled throughout the top story of the eleven o’clock broadcast. The hype was appropriate for a change. Another bizarre serial murder had taken place in New York City. For lack of anything so exciting locally to report--and thanks largely to the media sensationalists down in Portland--the Big Apple’s recent killing spree had for past few weeks been the all the talk in Minnowauk. Carl Petnoy was oblivious to the late-breaking report, however, and napped through the entire segment in the comfort of his Barcalounger.
“Be safe,” the bottle-blonde live on the scene in Chinatown cautioned before sending it back to the studio.
“Good advice,” her hair-plugged male cohort seated behind the news desk agreed.
Twenty odd minutes later and the telecast was wrapping-up. The Channel Seven bobble heads briefly revisited the night’s top story in closing, once more promising new details as the story developed. Then, like flipping a switch, they tossed aside their overly-rehearsed gravitas in exchange for a final bit of chirpy banter before they were played off with a blaring orchestral score.
As was all too often the case, Carl startled awake to the consequences of having left the television’s volume up while he dozed. The musical crescendo threatened to trigger his tinnitus. If that happened, the result would be a warbling screech in his ears that would leave him dizzy and imagining a drunken and tortured electronic song bird caged in his skull. Thankfully, however, this time he was spared.
He clapped violently to turn off the television. Too many claps. The living room lights blinked out instead. A pain shot through his forearm. He was elderly. Pain was usually shooting somewhere. He ignored it.
Carl tried clapping again to restore the lights only this time to kill the television as he’d originally intended. Unfortunately, the soft glow of the antiquated cathode ray tube--which, as the sole source of illumination, had painted the room in pastel blues--suddenly popped off, leaving Carl abandoned to the dark. He mumbled. A curse first for Thomas Alva Edison and then another for electricity in general before finishing off with a little something for “the clever monkey” who’d unleashed the clapper upon the masses.
An angry, sputtering round of applause from Carl’s thick hands intermittently flicked the television and lights off, on and then off again. He clapped again and kept at it until he had things in order. Yes. Television off. Lights on. Bushy eyebrows arching in a moment of satisfaction, it was time for Carl to rouse himself and finish getting ready for work.
Carl grasped the threadbare plaid arms of his Barcalounger with both hands and began rocking both he and it back and forth. Things moved slowly at first, but Carl quickly built up momentum, like a child pumping a swing. Then, in a single, Herculean, wind-producing dismount, the old gent grunted free and teetered upright on his stocking feet.
“Oops. Sorry, dears,” he apologized, waving a palm at the baggy seat of his burgundy polyester trousers. “Lima beans.”
He stood for a long pause--spine as curled as a question mark--and then puttered off towards the kitchen. Two more soft poots of gas propelled Carl Petnoy on his way and he muttered more apologies following each outburst all while continuing to fan the mildly polluted air in his wake. It was of no consequence; there was no one present to accept the old man’s mea culpa.
The bathroom routine was practiced if not swift. Dentures were retrieved from their soak, shaken partially dry and gummed into place. A comb was run seven times through Carl’s bristle of porcelain white hair, which proved seven times more than needed. For the past eighteen years his appearance had presented more scalp than hair. He was already showered and clean-shaven and his adult diaper still snug and dry. “A thanks for small miracles,” he said after sticking his hand down below to confirm as much. A quick pass with the nose hair trimmer--first to the nostrils and then to the ears--and he was finished. He paused briefly to consider his reflection in the mirror. This elicited a grunt connoting something between dissatisfaction and approval.
His shoes and shoehorn dressing stick were neatly arranged at the single folding chair of the dining room table. Seven days a week he wore his solid black track shoes with white, knee-high athletic socks. Carl preferred the running shoes for comfort, but told his co-workers, as well as anyone he believed had noticed--strangers even--that they were appropriate in case his “duty” called upon him to “sprint.” The old boy hadn’t so much as half-heartedly jogged a hundred feet in the past seven years--on the job or off--and even on that last occasion he’d still failed to beat the rain home.
Although they certainly didn’t require it, Carl had purchased a bottle of black liquid shoe polish and was in the habit of polishing his work sneakers in the mornings after returning home from his shift. Out of the box, the shoes had been adorned with white racing stripes. He’d considered trying to remove them but worried this might endanger the shoes’ integrity. Instead he applied the polish to them. After several weeks of this, Carl had managed to dye the stripes a dingy grey. He told himself they looked fine and that no one was the wiser.
From the bedroom closet Carl donned a burgundy polyester blazer that matched his pants. He unclipped the black tie fastened to the lapel and after several tries got it under the collar of his white linen dress shirt, crooked, but in place. This was followed by another quick inspection in the hall mirror. Carl’s eyesight was too poor to catch the salt and pepper sprinkling of nose and ear hair sullying his dress shirt. He nodded approval.
Using his sleeve he unnecessarily buffed the silver badge adorning the blazer breast pocket, as was another of his habits. The silver electroplating had begun to flake away for some months now as a result. Ironclad Security, the badge read in a horseshoe of letters corralling a screaming eagle. The regal bird of prey clutched a pair of lumps in its talons which were meant to be a quiver of arrows and a shield.
“Ready or not world, here comes Petnoy,” Carl announced, retrieving his lunch pail from the refrigerator.
As he headed for the front door he blew two kisses, one for each of the photographs kept side by side atop the television in sterling silver frames. One a study in black and white and dull grays, and the other more recent, but yellowed and faded in color. They were wedding day portraits of Carl and his former wives. The first vanished mysteriously from his life and the second taken from him by cancer some twelve years gone by.
“Good night, my darlings. I shall greet you on my return in the morning.”
Lastly, Carl gathered up his wallet, keys, and flashlight from the foyer table, and, after momentarily blinding himself in checking its beam, he holstered the heavy-duty, high-intensity Maglite to a chrome ring on his belt. With that, and whistling a meandering rift of Coltrane loud enough to wake the neighbor’s dog if not the dead, Carl was out the door right on schedule to make it to work ten minutes early, as always.
It was a seaside town. A resort of sorts for the middle class. A summer perennial whose bloom was the Minnowauk Midway, a six block stretch of ocean boardwalk complete with a cavalcade of carnival games of skill--mostly rigged--running alongside several rickety, heartburn and vomit inducing thrill rides. There was the neon-armed and madly spinning octopus, the Mind Blender rollercoaster, a beloved merry-go-round, the Rumpus Room, which was four walls and a floor of inflated space for children to careen off of one another, a dilapidated but still open for business House of a Thousand Horrors, which had maybe two good scares and another two dozen hokey attempts, and the grand centerpiece, the Minnowauk View, the largest Ferris wheel to be had in all of the state of Maine. At the wheel’s apex a couple could see all the way to tomorrow. Or so the sign at its base claimed. After sixty-seven summers of operation the number of marriage proposals made atop the Ferris wheel numbered perhaps in the thousands. Carl Petnoy’s had been two of them.
Carl was the boardwalk’s night watchman. Graveyard shift. Midnight to eight, five nights a week. He’d held the charge of night custodian for nine years. On his off days he could often be found there as well, but only in the summer, and only in the late afternoon. On those busy dog days he would prop his opened trumpet case at his feet and busk for small bills and loose change. He kept his playing low lest his tinnitus flare up, although sometimes he had to cut his playing short when it did regardless. It had ruined his jazz playing days. Not that his musical career had ever taken off. But there had been a time when his music had brought him fulfillment. Memories now. Figments haunting the gloomy recesses of his mind, fading with each passing day, and, like so many other aspects of Carl’s long life, best forgotten.
There was no need for his flashlight nor even the streetlamps as Carl made his way down the sidewalk to get to his job. The moon was sufficient illumination on this night.
Pausing briefly to better appreciate it, the old night watchman was instantly reminded of his mother. The moon was as big and bright as one of her prized white china dinner plates, or so he mused. In a few hours time, before his shift was finished, its transit would see it inch along the dome of the heavens to where it would be obscured by the horizon. For the moment, however, there it looked down on him, what his dear departed mother would have called the egg moon of spring.
Rabbits, she’d explained to him when he was but a tow-headed, skint-kneed boy, were driven mad by the egg moon, jinxed with a compulsion to pluck it out of the night sky and hide it away. This lunacy was brought on in part by the egg moon’s abundant light. Light which made sneaking out from their warrens to nibble midnight snacks of dew sweet clover, or more importantly, to mate, quite dangerous. But far greater than any practical reason, rabbits were compelled to catch the moon because of a curse put upon them by the very first witch who’d ever lived. Aracha was her name. And hers was a curse bestowed upon all rabbits after their king had been caught teasing the old hag’s familiar, the wolf.
Of course the bedeviled, earth-bound hares could never steal the moon--no matter how desperately they tried--and so many a spring night would find the normally wary and wily creatures witless and unawares, dancing circles on their hinds in the silver moonlight, forepaws scrambling in vain to snatch the egg moon down from her high station in the firmament. This, Carl’s mother had explained matter-of-factly, was also why wolves, foxes, coyotes, and all other manner of canines, especially loved the full moon and sang their howls, yips, and bays in praise and thanks to it.
As Carl reminisced on childhood eves sitting crossed-legged at his mother’s feet while she crocheted and spun those and other fantastic tidbits, the old boy couldn’t help but let slip a wry smile. His mother, a clever Scottish woman, had always possessed a knack for making the dreary, humdrum world come alive with magic and wonder. Her name had been Ellsie Anne Topp and Carl’s Father had borne his bride back to her family’s ancestral home among the Shetland Isles when she’d left the world behind some forty years gone by now. That would mark the last Carl would see of his father as well.
“Soon, ma-maw,” Carl sighed to the egg moon, “I’ll see all of you very soon. Of this I’m sure.” And then he continued on his way.