THE TOOTH AND THE FUDGE SICKLE MOTIF
By Don Kenton Henry
The sky was so blue it could have cracked like a robin’s egg on that hot August afternoon in the summer of ’69. A war raged in Vietnam and boys barely three years older than us were dying there. We’d heard of this but, to us, the war was like a movie that hadn’t come to the Roxy yet, or another book we’d never get around to reading. Our only ambition in life was living; it was all we had time for … And forever was all the time we had.
Bull, Mule Skinner and I sat on the steps of my front porch eating fudge sickles. We felt the sweat run from our faces down our shirtless bodies to the waistbands of our blue jean cut-offs. Most of our clothes, including our shoes, had been discarded way back in early June when school let out. Now, our bare feet had become tough enough to run down alleys after swiping a tomato or two from someone’s garden or to ride a ten-speed oblivious to the bite of its steel-toothed pedals. Our bodies had turned as dark as nuts and our hair was bleached by the summer sun – mine turning a dark auburn – the shiny shade a buckeye longs to be. This was due to having spent countless hours at the reservoir or riding our bikes over seven miles of farm road to get there. You see … we were fifteen, an age when we had to get around. Especially to where the women were. If living was our only ambition in life, women were our reason for being. Women and other trouble. After all, what else was there to do in a town of five thousand … a town tucked into the corn belt as comfortably as a caterpillar in a cocoon … a tiny hole in the middle of a cornfield called, “Indiana”.
Once the corn came up in the spring, it seemed like no time before it was so tall that everywhere you looked – in all directions – there was nothing around you – nothing to be seen … but corn. In the fall, it came down-slain in the fields – and you could finally see what was about. You found yourself wishing the corn had never had to fall. Corn and pigs. That’s about all there was to Finn’s Landing. And if you weren’t into them – you were into trouble. The only pig Bull, Mule and I knew was Arnold of the TV show, Green Acres. And the only way we were into corn was – teeth first.
When I say “trouble”, I am not referring to bank robberies or riots of course. The closest thing Finn’s Landing ever had to a riot was the occasional fight at the Mr. Weenie between a few of our high school students and the farm boys from the country school, Maconaquah. These were almost always over a “stolen” girl or – worse – a lost football game. No, I suppose – in fact – I’m certain that any stranger who drove through Finn’s Landing would have left with the impression there was very little going on there – that it was a typical small town in Mid-America. He would have been correct. It was a typical small town in Mid-America. There was also very little going on there. But like all small towns, certain behind-the-scenes action took place there which that stranger would have been unaware of unless he somehow managed to become a victim of it. I am not referring to anything involving the community as a whole – although most of the town would talk as though they were – and would probably make themselves by the end of the day. I am talking about the action which took place down the shady side streets; behind chain link fences and neatly mowed lawns; past meticulously groomed flower gardens; and in the bedroom, attic or basement of any home –probably three bedroom with white aluminum siding – occupied by someone between the age of thirteen and seventeen. A home like the one on whose porch we sat at 333 Sycamore.
Our fudge sickles, which were melting faster than we could consume them, provided our only respite from the heat, and I savored the cool creaminess sliding down my throat while – at the same time – trying to ignore the sticky river of chocolate running down my wrist and arm. A small pond of ice cream accumulated on the step below my feet and I watched an ant, having discovered it, run off under a shrub. I imagined him telling his friends of the cool brown oasis between the two hairy redwoods which were my legs.
It had been a good summer: the best of my young life. During the last three months, I experienced all sorts of new things. I had my first beer; driven a car; and kissed my first girl. But now, this glorious run of experience was about to come to an abrupt and unjustifiable end. School would begin in just two weeks. Back in June it seemed as though they’d given us our freedom forever. Now, they were going to snatch it away from us. Now, all our parents talked about was how glad they were that this would be our last two weeks on “the loose”. I thought of all the laughs we’d had that summer – like the time we handcuffed Little Schuler’s girlfriend, Mary Ann Atkinson, to the microphone at the B&K root beer stand.
It had been her first night as a car hop and the other girl hadn’t shown up for work. Little Schuler was a year older than the rest of and, as such, had his driver’s license. Not only did he have his license, but he had a white ’63 Chrysler , which bore a striking resemblance to Moby Dick, to go with it. On this particular night, Bull, Mule, Little Schuler and I climbed into “The Dick”, drove to the root beer stand and waited until it was packed with cars. Most of these were honking their horns because Mary Ann, frantic as could be, was taking too long to fill their orders. With the situation already on the verge of being out of control, we pulled our car under the car port and placed an order for four Black Cows, eight Spanish Dogs and eight orders of onion rings. Due to the high level of business the B&K was experiencing, it took forever for our order to come. When Mary Ann finally brought it, Little Schuler told her he had a surprise for her. He asked her to close her eyes and hold out her hand. She did so, beaming proudly from ear to ear and spreading the fingers of her left hand in anticipation of Little Schuler’s class ring, still managing to hold our tray of food in her right. In one swift movement, Little Schuler slipped one side of the “official”, case-hardened police handcuffs I had purchased at the army surplus store around Mary Ann’s ivory wrist and the other around the microphone support on the swinging tray next to his window. I pictured her – as I always will – mouth stretched till her chin and nose disappeared behind her “Crest White” teeth; horror stricken screams emanating from her diaphragm past flagellating tonsils; her eye-lids rolled-up like window blinds exposing the big blue eyes which had opened expecting to see a beautiful bracelet upon her wrist. Instead, a “Niagara” of tears poured into our Black Cows. Neither will I forget the sight of “Big Dan the Hot Dog Man” (all three hundred pounds of him) in hot pursuit as we “peeled out” of the parking lot in reverse. We left him – baseball bat in hand – enveloped in a cloud of “burnt” rubber. Officer Cary Dawalt’s “official” police handcuff key would not fit our “official” police handcuffs and Mary Ann was cuffed to the microphone for over an hour before Herb Johnson, from Herb’s Ace Welding, finally arrived and cut her free. Little Schuler hadn’t seen Mary Ann since then, and it had been just as long since any of us had had a Black Cow.
Sure, we’d broken a lot of hearts and raised a lot of hell that summer – but there were so many things we hadn’t gotten around to. As I looked at what was left of my melting fudge sickle, I couldn’t help but think how our summer, like it, had slid between our fingers just when it had begun to taste so good. I wondered if this was what was on the minds of Bull and Mule during the silence which had occupied the last few minutes. Mule broke it and confirmed my suspicions.
“Darn … two more weeks and we’ll be back in that stupid hole in the wall pushin’ pencils when we could be out at the reservoir floatin’ in our raft with that nymph, Tomasheski, or canoeing down the Wabash with some of that beer we stole off Mr. Atkins’ back porch … I can just hear Ol’ Dog Ear’s voice comin’ over the P.A. system now: ‘Today is the eighteenth day of August, nineteen-hundred and sixty-nine … the first day of school. We expect this to be the best year yet at Finn’s Landing High … Mr. Fox just returned from a three week seminar at Indiana University where he studied the significance of the exclamation point in English literature … Mrs. Keith has fully recovered from her hemorrhoid surgery … ’ Blah! Blah! Blah! Man — I don’t know if I can take another nine months of that crap!”
“Yeah,” said Bull, “an we won’t have that little fox, Miss Newman, for French anymore, either – not since Henry ran her off! Or was it me -when I pulled her on my lap and gave her that ‘French Kiss’?”
“I think it was the frog that finally did it,” said Mule. Don’t you, Bull? Henry and his ten-inch frog!”
“It had to be! I’ll never forget you, Henry, sittin’ right there in the front row … you threw that giant bullfrog up Miss Newman’s dress while she sat perched atop her desk shootin’ that little beaver, the way she had a habit of doin’ when she reached for her teacher’s edition! Instead of jumpin’ up, she just clamped her legs shut an’ kept a screamin’ an’ a cryin’ while that frog kep’ a croakin and a kickin’ tryin’ to get out from under her mini skirt! We didn’t need no “parlez vous” to know what she was yellin’ at you, Henry! They almost never let you back in school after that one!”
The three of us laughed, talked about other exploits, and laughed some more, until the thought of summer being over, and the good times with it, recaptured our attention and sobered us up. I mentioned to Bull that his discarded fudge sickle stick was sticking to the back of his leg, but he didn’t hear me so I knew he must be thinking about something. Bull usually thought about one thing at a time. This habit, coupled with his six foot two inch, two-hundred-twenty pound frame, gave people the impression that Bull was a little slow. Bull, on the other hand, claimed it was a sign of genius. He explained that his mind was permeated with such profound and noble thoughts – “so far above your elementary level of comprehension” – that it became necessary for him to block everything else from his mind. As he said, this allowed him to “do justice to my genius!”
I left Bull alone with his “genius”, but reminded Mule I thought it was time we got dressed and headed for baseball practice. Both Bull and Mule played baseball for the Cardinals, a Babe Ruth League, summer team. Bull played catcher and Mule was first baseman. At five foot six, one-hundred-four pounds, and sporting size thirteen Converse high-tops (when I bothered to wear shoes), I was too small and clumsy to play on the team. However, not wanting to be left out as the Cardinals fought their way to last place in the league—my status was that of—water-boy.
Mule took note of what I said, slowly rose and kicked Bull in a place where he was reasonably certain Bull’s genius would not be disturbed. When Bull got up, we went inside, changed into our uniforms and headed for the ball park.
The August sun was unrelenting and practice would have been too long if it had been canceled. I spent most of it in the dugout drinking all the water and watching Bull and Mule sweat like the animals we’d named them after. Bull’s came about as his last name was Bullock and Mule’s was Skinner. As it took five acres of prime grazing land to feed each of them for a school year, the nicknames fit.
When practice was finally over, they trudged over to the dugout for some water. “You guys need to hustle a little more out there! You’re draggin’ your feet!” I told them, in my most critical tone. They let me know what I could go do with myself.
I took their mitts and we headed out of the ball park. No one said a word as we crossed the “Green Bridge” over the Wabash River and headed for my house. We stopped just long enough to pick up three fudge sickles and started for Bull’s, where his mom would have dinner waiting for the three of us.
The worst of the day’s heat was gone and, as the sun lowered itself in the sky, our strength returned and our conversation with it. Walking up “Hospital Hill” into the north part of town, we talked about what we always talked about: fast cars and faster girls—both of which we’d get once we got our driver’s license.
We reached the top of the hill and took the usual short-cut through Mount Hope Cemetery. As we passed the headstones, most of whose names we had long since memorized, we called out to them, “Hello, Mrs. Musall! It’s hot as hell today—and you know how hot that is!” I said.
Good-day to you, Mrs. Murphy!” said Mule, tipping his baseball cap to her stone. “Your grand-daughter is looking mighty fine these days!”
Mule and I laughed at what we thought were very clever remarks until we noticed Bull was no longer with us. We looked about and saw him standing in front of the Flannigan family mausoleum. He stood with his hands wrapped around the bars of its iron gate peering through them into the entrance of the lichen covered limestone tomb. Mule and I stood still, watching, until he called out to us, “Hey, you guys! Come over here an’ check this out!” Puzzled, we walked up behind him.
Through the iron gate we could see two huge metal doors slightly ajar. Mule peered over Bull’s shoulder and I got down on my hands and knees and looked ahead from between his legs. Through the gap in the doors we could see an eerie red glow caused by the setting sun filtering through the stained glass window on the west side of the tomb.
“What do you think’s in there?” asked Bull.
“Dead people, genius!” answered Mule.
“I know that, but I wonder what it’s like in there.”
“Well, you just keep on wondering, said Mule, “after we handcuffed Mary Ann at the B&K, we promised our parents we wouldn’t get in any more trouble until next summer.
“I don’t see what trouble would come out of just goin’ in there an’ havin’ a look – especially since the only thing holding that gate shut is a little piece of coat hanger,” said Bull, already starting to unwind it.
“I don’t think we ought to go in there, Bull. It’s not right to disturb the dead,” said Mule, backing up and tripping over me in the process, sending himself sprawling on the ground. Lying on his back, he asked, “What do you think, Henry?”
“I don’t know what harm could come from lookin’ around,” I answered.
“That’s right – we’ll just look around,” said Bull, as he pulled the unraveled wire from around the bars of the gate and tossed it aside.
No one said a word as Bull slowly opened the iron gates. I looked over my shoulder and about to see if anyone observed us as we prepared to enter what, to me, might as well have been The Twilight Zone. Expecting to see Rod Serling standing in quiet composure off to the side somewhere, all I saw was a blue jay, his head cocked, watching us from a nearby willow tree.
When the opening was just wide enough for Bull to slide between them, he slipped in and peered through the gap in the metal doors.
“What do you see in there, Bull?” I asked.
“Walls. Just walls with dusty windows in them and plaques with writing on them.”
“There’s dead people behind them windows and I don’t think we need to see anything more. Let’s get out of here,” said Mule, as he turned to leave. At the same time, Bull pulled the doors open the width of his wide shoulders. I saw the red light, emanating from within, wrap itself softly around his face turning it a shade of red slightly lighter than that of his Cardinal baseball cap. His eyes were wide, his mouth agape, as he leaned forward, peering in. Again, I got down on my hands and knees and looked from between Bull’s legs at the interior of the mausoleum. I felt the cool, musty air inside brush my face as it rushed to meet the summer day behind us. Mule must have felt it also for something stopped him as he took a step to leave. Again, he turned – this time to the tomb. The blue jay screeched and flew into the red sun.
I crawled slowly between Bull’s legs, a few feet inside. The stone floor was cold and moist beneath my hands. Bull and Mule followed slowly behind. We looked about, squinting, waiting for our eyes to adjust. I rose, first to my knees, and then to my feet, all the time crouched over, as though to dash for the door if my feet chose to flee. I remained in this position – silent, motionless, afraid to turn my head for fear of the noise it might make.
Bull and Mule huddled close behind me. Not a sound was made, except for that of their breath, which fell lightly on my shoulders. Finally I began to look around, my eyes still focusing through the glow of the sun, turned even redder by the scarlet window it was going down behind. In silent agreement we moved as one – like Siamese triplets – my brother’s hands welded to my back, we tip-toed lightly. I moved to the right, toward the east, and felt their fingers slide from my shoulders. I stopped a few feet from the east wall. In the middle of it stood my shadow, hands on knees, baseball cap cocked to one side. On either side of it were glass panels. Five of these were framed in darkness. But on the sixth, the one directly in front of me, shone the red rays of the sun, illuminating the dust covered glass. Above the pane, chiseled in stone, were the words:
Dr. Patrick Flannigan;
Born April 13th 1830 Died September 11th,1898
Rest in peace, dear father.
From the inscription my eyes moved left. My feet followed. Next to Pat, was John, and next to John, was Mary. Their dates of arrival and departure were all that headlined their remains. Back to the right I moved past John, past Pat, to Eliza and on to Thomas. And then … back to Pat, drawn like the sun.
I stepped up to the glass and knelt on my knees before it. With the sleeve of my baseball jersey, I rubbed away the dust creating a window within a window. Through this I peered, leaning closer until my hands pressed against it. That is when I noticed the crack. Just for a second, I felt it against my nose. Then my attention jumped beyond; beyond my nose – beyond the crack – on to the long auburn casket which stretched before me like a fallen tree. Down its lacquered finish, past its brass handles, my eyes traveled its seven feet or so. Halfway back, they came … stopped … stared. Stared as though I had x-ray vision. Stared and tried to picture Dr. Patrick Flannigan. What was he wearing, I wondered. Did he look like he could have once been alive. Did he look content. Did he look like I might look some day. Surely not. Surely some great scientist would find a cure for old age and death before they took me. “I’ve never seen a dead person,” I whispered. I missed my great-grandmother’s funeral when I was nine, because I had the stomach flu. Have you guys ever seen a dead person?”
“No,” said Bull, “but I saw my great-uncle Waldo once when we thought he was dead. Turned out he’d just fallen asleep at the supper table.”
“I’ve never even saw anybody I thought was dead,” said Mule. “ I never really wanted to.”
What do you think they look like?” I asked.
“Dead. Just shriveled up and dead,” explained Bull.
“Ol’ Doc here’s been dead for seventy-one years, so he’s probably nothin’ but an old skeleton,” Mule said, as though trying to disappoint us.
“There’s only one way to find out,” I said, as I pulled my face away from the glass and began to run my fingernail down its crack.
“You’ve got to be crazy, Henry!” shouted Mule, taking a step backward.
“You’ve known that about Henry for a long time!” laughed Bull, as he stepped forward and knelt beside me.
“We can’t disturb the dead!” pleaded Mule, “come on, let’s get out of here before someone catches us!”
“None of us have ever seen a dead person before,” I explained to Mule. “This guy’s been dead for almost forever. Consider it for the sake of science. Surely a doctor would be the first to understand!”
“Yeah – I’m sure he’d understand,” said Bull, as he rose to his feet and backed up.
“No! – You’re nuts!” shouted Mule, as Bull wound-up and let fly a knuckle-ball that whizzed like a hornet, past my ear. I fell backwards, turning my head to avoid the glass, exploding in a shower. Covered in it, I lay motionless.
Mule ran first to the windows, then to the doors- looking to see if anyone had heard. “Oh god, if we get caught for this one, we might as well be slid into that wall right next to him!” he cried. As I slowly sat up, glass fell off me like melting snow off an evergreen. Bull was already on his knees in front of the vault.
“At least you could have warned me you were going to throw the ball,” I muttered. He didn’t hear me. He just said, “Will you look at this!” as he reached to touch the coffin. His eyes were anxious as a child’s seeing a warm cookie, his hand hesitant, as though it still might be too hot to touch. And then, his fingers did touch. He ran them over the wood, feeling the smoothness of it, savoring its craftsmanship. “This is very good wood . . . mahogany I think.” Bull and his father worked a lot with wood in the workshop they had set up in the basement of their home. Good craftsmanship was something Bull never overlooked – whether it be in a gun, a lawn mower engine or . . . a coffin.
“Do you really want to see what this guy looks like, Bull?” I asked, looking right into his eyes. I watched a twinkle come into the root beer brown as they begged – “Don’t you, Henry!”
I felt a smile spread across my face as, simultaneously, Bull and I slid our arms down our respective sides of the coffin, reaching for the brass handles.
“You guys are nuts! You are sick! You’re going to get us sent up the river!” yelled Mule, jumping up and down and in the air and running in circles behind us.
At first he wouldn’t budge. The doctor held fast. We kept trying. We grunted and groaned and groaned some more until . . . finally . . . the doctor budged. Once he budged – he slid. And – as he did – we held our breath. Mule ran around like “Chicken Little”, when she thought the sky was falling. Let’s get out of here!” he screamed. “You guys ’ll be haunted the rest of your lives if you open that thing!” He continued ranting as the back end of the coffin came sliding out of the wall. We paused and Bull and I stood motionless for a moment, staring each other in the eyes, holding the coffin between us. We knew there was no turning back now. We gently lowered the coffin to the floor. To us, it might as well have been “The Treasure of King Tut”. Our young hearts raced, the blood pounded in our ears – and then – although we were not ready for it – there it was. The skull. We saw it together – and together – we caught our breath. For a purpose unknown to us – it was there – a small beveled glass pane over the doctor’s skull.
“They put a window in there for him to see out!” exclaimed Bull.
“No you dummy, that was for other people to see in!” I said.
“You mean like us?” asked Bull.
No! People at his funeral! His family!” I answered.
Mule stopped his frantic dancing and, reluctantly, came up behind Bull to have a look. Sure enough, he was in there. He hadn’t gone anywhere in the last seventy-one years. The doctor lay there. His face was gone; no more eyes; no nose; no lips; no ears. But he still had one thing that even my Uncle Tarney, who was still alive and walking the streets of Rensselaer, Indiana, didn’t have. Hair. Long red hair. From the sides of his head, just above where his ears used to be, stubbornly clung some long red hair. Six or seven inches of it lay strewn across the crusted remains of a satin pillow, probably once white but now turned gray by time.
My Cardinal baseball cap fell from my head and covered the window over which I had moved to get a closer look. There it sat: our State bird perched on a branch, on a patch, on a cap, on top of a coffin. I perched him back on my head where he belonged.
“He looks like Bozo the Clown seventy years after death,” said Mule.
Bull put his face up against the glass, was silent for a moment, then proclaimed, “We need a closer look.”
Mule’s face appeared to be suffering from a motor disorder. “You’re out of your mind! We’ve seen enough! Leave that creepy thing alone!”
I put my hand on Mule’s shoulder and tried to calm him. “Bull’s right. What will it hurt to examine him a little closer?” (I wanted to sound as scientific as possible.)
“Examine him yourself! I’m getting’ outta here!” he screamed, as he turned on his heels for the door. Then there was the snap of the coffin’s latches, as Bull flipped them up . . . and Mule stopped once more. On the tips of his shoes and halfway to the door – he stopped. As Bull slowly raised the lid on the coffin, Mule’s head turned over his shoulder. The hinges cried from seven decades of stillness. I stepped back to let the lid come to rest in its open position. There he lay before us, in all his splendor – a boyhood treasure – Ol’ Doc Flannigan. Three mouths hanging open – we stood above him – fixated. The setting sun, through stained glass, turned ourselves, the east wall and the good doctor scarlet. An eerie stage light on an encore performance.
Could all those bones have ever been a person, I thought, as I stared at the six-foot-plus frame. Was it possible that they had walked and talked; laughed and loved? Not a word was spoken as I pondered these things. Nor was it a word which finally broke the silence – it was a gasp! We gasped as one, Mule and I, as Bull’s catcher’s mitt shot toward the doctor’s skull, as if of its own volition.
“Oh god!” was all Mule muttered, his eyes so wide, they almost ripped at their seams. If I had looked in Bull’s eyes, I would have seen a look that had not been there since we put the frozen cat with the burglar alarm in it on Senator Stumpbower’s porch. It could have been a reflection of the look in my own eye’s – but it wasn’t.
Over the doctor’s face – or where it used to be – went Bull’s mitt. He gripped the skull and gently pulled back on it in an effort to sit the good doctor up. And he did – for a second that is! The doctor’s skeleton collapsed with a clash . . . except for the skull. It was caught in Bull’s catcher’s mitt. Bull rotated it so that we could look into the doc’s face. Mule ran to the window to see if the cops had us surrounded yet.
Grasping the doctor’s lower jaw, Bull began to move it. By speaking at the same time, he brought the doctor to life like a ventriloquist would do a dummy. “Good-day to you, Bull. You be looking a little peeked, are you not? Stick out your tongue and say, ‘ah’.”
“Look at yourself, Doc – if ya think I look bad!” Bull answered. With this, I laughed, catching the breath I had been holding for so long. Even Mule had to laugh.
I don’t know if Bull handed it to me or if I took it from him but the next thing I knew the doc’s skull was in my hands. I took my baseball cap off and placed it on the doctor. I opened his mouth and peered inside. All of his teeth were intact. I looked up his nose and poked my fingers through his eye sockets. I pulled his hair back and checked his ears to see if they were clean. To my surprise, Mule took the doc from me and did the same. Overcome with youthful curiosity, we said nothing. Then came Bull’s shout from the corner of the mausoleum, “Put ’er in here, Mule!”
Mule and I turned, stupefied at the sight of Bull poised as we so often so him in his catcher’s position: mitt slightly extended in his left hand, signaling for a fast-ball with the fingers of his right. Mule was in shock – completely catatonic – so I took the skull.
“Burn ‘er in here, Henry!” commanded Bull.
I’ll never – no matter how old or senile I get – forget that pitch or the sight of the doctor’s skull flying toward Bull behind home plate. The pitch was perfect, the flight of the skull as though in slow motion – long red hair streaming in the breeze – jaws flapping open and shut.
“Stiiiirike!” shouted Bull, as he caught it and returned it to me. We tossed it back and forth several times laughing like the school kids we were. Even as we tossed it; even as we laughed; I knew it wasn’t right. I guess that’s partly why we laughed. I tried to convince myself the doc appreciated a chance to be join our game and be a boy again after so many years of doing nothing.
Finally, much to the dismay of Bull and I, Mule got into the act. Moving into the corner diagonal to Bull’s, he yelled, “Hey, batta, batta!” and extended his glove. I moved to another corner of the mausoleum and what ensued was a game of three-way-pitch unprecedented in the annals of baseball history: Strikes, double-plays, skull-balls and even a home run or two. “The Doc” served as game ball and umpire until the game was called for darkness with the Cubs leading the Reds five to four in the bottom of the ninth. As the sun outside kissed the earth and slid below the horizon we returned Doc Flannigan’s skull to its coffin and slipped it back in place. We shut the lid and started to slide the coffin back into the vault when – suddenly – Bull stopped us. “Wait! No one is ever going to believe us! Pull him back out!”
“Oh no, now what! Mule asked, sounding as though he were about to cry. Bull didn’t bother to explain, but we pulled the coffin back out and set it on the floor. Without a moment’s hesitation, he flipped the coffin lid open once more and reached for the doctor’s skull. By now, it was so dark Mule and I couldn’t see what Bull was doing. We only heard the clacking of bones. We asked no more questions as Bull shut the lid and returned the coffin to the vault. We felt our way along a wall of the mausoleum, to the doors; slid free into the warm night air and ran away under the moonlight. We didn’t stop until we got under a street lamp on the corner nearest Bull’s house.
Before I could catch my breath, I demanded of Bull, “What did you do to the ol’ doc just before we left?”
Bull just beamed and, not saying a word, reached into the pocket of his baseball pants and pulled out his closed fist. He held it in front of us.
“What’s in there Bull?” I begged. Mule just stood there, staring at Bull’s fist, his mouth open. Neither of us took our eyes off it, as Bull’s fingers slowly opened like the curtains on a Broadway play. And there . . . with a cardiac crescendo on center stage . . . lay the star of the show – resplendent in all its yellowness: “The Tooth”. Doc Flannigan’s molar. Bull just smiled like a proud father. His face was radiant under the soft light of the street lamp. He fingered its craftsmanship as though it were the Hope Diamond.
Word gets around in a small town and over the course of the next few days the line of teen-age boys – always followed another day or two later by their younger brothers – and then their cousin visiting from Ohio for the summer – grew longer outside the Bullock home. They all waited for the chance to enter the museum (which is what Bull’s bedroom came to be) – to gaze in awe at “The Tooth.” With no small amount of fan fare, Bull would delicately remove the otherwise empty bottle of Old Crow whiskey lined up next to his baseball trophies on a shelf above his bed. The ritual was always the same, “Hold out your hands, cup your palms together and be careful not to drop it. It’s history, you know”, he would say as he turned the bottle over and shook the tooth free from its shrine. The rock hard and yellow artifact would clang against the sides of the bottle before rolling into the palms of another pubescent, wide-eyed self-perceived “Indiana Jones”. “Yeah, it’s really from a dead guy,” Bull would tell everyone in his repeated “statement of authenticity”. “No, I don’t think he misses it, smart-ass.” If Bull had charged a quarter a kid he would have been rich.
Who knows where most rats go in the light of day but some local “greasers” or “hoods” (as we called them) by the names of Dave Barrish, John Grundy and Mike Clark found themselves in the local jail courtesy of the intrepid Finn’s Landing Police force. It seems they had gotten themselves apprehended for knocking over tombstones and otherwise doing “uncreative vandalism” in Mount Hope Cemetery. Given their already extensive rap sheets, these refugees from “juvy” hall decided it would be best to turn informants for the state. “No. We don’t know of anyone selling mari-ji-juana but – “Boy – do we have a story for you!!!”
It was with great relish that Officer Wheeler fished Doc’s molar from the empty bottle of Old Crow. From there, the squad car made its way to Mule’s house and lastly to mine.
A look of pale horror came over my mother’s face as she visited the Finn’s Landing Police Station and heard the charges against us: Criminal Trespass and Grave Robbing. The latter a felony violation of Indiana Statute 2286 punishable by one but not to exceed ten years in prison and a fine of $5,000.
When the headline: FLANNIGAN FAMILY MAUSOLEUM DESECREATED BY TOMB RAIDERS hit the front page of the Finn’s Landing Daily Republican, it was the biggest news to hit the town since John Dillinger robbed the police station of all their guns and locked all the cops in their own cells.
By the time it came to trial, the accounts of our escapade had been documented through countless interviews with secret unnamed sources. There was seemingly no end to the solicited and unsolicited opinions of various and sundry citizens and politicians of Finn’s Landing or to the almost daily editorials courtesy of, and highly publicized by, the “Republican”. Our crime came to make Dillinger’s sound like a diaper soiling offense on an episode of “Romper Room” (a fifties and sixties children’s television show and predecessor to Sesame Street). To my mother’s horror, she opened the paper one morning to see that some aspiring artist at the Republican had submitted the first know editorial cartoon by one of its own staff. The sketch portrayed three youths in baseball uniforms, in the crypt, gloves in hand at the end of outstretched arms and a skull flying through the air – hair streaming behind it. The caption read: Vandals 3 – Decency 0. Three kids and a long dead doctor immortalized. My mother mortified.
The trial came in September, almost two weeks into our sophomore year at Finn’s Landing High. It drew an almost bigger crowd than our annual Circus City Festival and made the “Scopes” trial look like an average day in traffic court. The entire student body of Finn’s Landing High skipped out to attend. All the shop-keepers on the court house square closed-up shop and the county offices did the same. The whole town dropped what they were doing and made their way to the trial. To “hear, tell” the local cows quit giving milk awaiting the outcome. Reporters with cameras came from the towns throughout our own and the neighboring counties. Even a television crew from Channel 13 WTHR had made the seventy mile trip from Indianapolis in their camera van to broadcast from in front of the courthouse when the verdict came down. The three of us felt the heat of their cameras flashing as they moved in for a close-up of the three hometown fiends responsible for raiding the tomb of one of Finn Landing’s finest families as we made the long “perp walk” from our attorney’s office to the courthouse.
The big courtroom on the top floor of the Killarney County Courthouse, on the square in downtown Finn’s Landing, was packed to standing-room-only despite the sweltering ninety-degree heat outside and the lack of air conditioning inside. Many of the old biddies in the audience cooled themselves with hand-fans they had stolen from the Presbyterian Church last Sunday – especially for this most auspicious of occasions.
Doctor Flannigan had been succeeded by four generations of beloved practitioners in his family practice and one (or another) of them had brought near half the town into this world. The youngest of the living Doctor Flannigans would come to see half of us out. The family was as adored and venerated as a family in a tight knit community can be. For the general population of patients and friends, it was as though one of their own family’s graves had been desecrated and they were beyond the point of rightful indignation and bordering on riot.
As Bull, Mule and I sat huddled together, heads lowered, more than once came the cry of “String ’em up!” from the crowd behind us. “Old Maid Milton” (who had a brief but unsuccessful courtship with Doc Flannigan’s grandson over sixty years ago) even brought the rope with which to do it. She had to be forcibly removed from the courtroom when she snuck up behind Mule and attempted to put a noose around his neck. The sight of her orthopedic stockings frantically flaying the air as her pointy black shoes put knots up and down the bailiff’s shins almost inspired the geriatric segment of the gallery to riot. The sight of fifty canes and walkers raised in anger brought the threat to “clear the courtroom” and a semi-circle of sheriff’s deputies had to be placed around us for our protection. The equivalent of the Frankenstein Monster with the crowd in general, we had acquired something of a cult status with the school age attendees. They had forsaken sitting on the benches of the courtroom in deference to their elders and instead stood lined against the plaster walls or sat on the sills of windows. Windows which had been left open to allow some semblance of ventilation to counter the courtroom’s stifling atmosphere. To us, the younger generation could relate. We were their friends. We were youthful rebels in search of our identity in a sixties world of the “establishment”. Only fifteen years of age, we didn’t quite know what this “establishment” represented, but we knew our parents were not Ozzie and Harriet or Ward and June Cleaver. As for ourselves, we were no Wally or “The Beaver” either. In reality, we were somewhere between those two and the 50’s iconic rebel actor, James Dean, who had grown up just 30 miles from us in Fairmont, Indiana. Stuck somewhere between childhood and inevitable acquiescence to responsibility, we were in search of direction. The court was here to provide us that. We were as the youth in attendance and, as such, they were on trial also. To them, ’Ol Doc Flannigan was of the past . . . gone. Bull, Mule and I were of the present. Rightfully or not, in their eyes, we took precedence. We should be forgiven.
Just before the proceedings got underway, I summoned the nerve to slowly raise my head and look about. The first person I lay eyes on was the minister of my church. He was leaning on a radiator at the back of the courtroom. Solemn faced, arms crossed in front of him, he was staring straight at me. I knew he was thinking he’d seen all of this coming since I hadn’t been to church in more than a month. I knew this because that is what he had told my grandmother. I quickly turned my eyes from him. The next person they landed on was my silver-haired English teacher, Mrs. Keith. I had always believed I was the favorite of her students. She looked away from me before I had a chance to do the same from her. As my eyes continued to scan the courtroom, they passed many friends, “Reidy Bones”, “Coxy”, “Little Schuler”, the “Madprick” brothers and M. “Comehead”. All were the best of our buddies and lucky not to have been involved with us on this caper . . . for once.
Becky Stumpbower, whom I’d had a crush on since the fifth grade, was there too – right in the third row. At first my fondness had been reciprocated but that ended abruptly when she saw me eat that night-crawler on the play ground in the sixth grade. Our baseball coach, “Bilbo” Beidenbender, was in attendance and so was the principal of our high school, ’Ol “Dog Ears” himself. He wore that same smirk of satisfaction he had on his face the day he suspended me for substituting that stag film for one on “Dating Etiquette in High School” in our freshman health and hygiene class during the brief period I was manager of the audio-visual department.
But there, in the front row (the only people whose heads were perhaps lower than our own) sat our parents. They might as well have been dressed in black for, to them, the thought of us possibly going to the Indiana State Boy’s Reformatory was almost harder to bear than if we had died.
The buzzing conversation of the crowd ceased and only the steady whish of the ubiquitous hand-fans could be heard as the venerable, “Honorable, Judge Dice” entered the courtroom and the bailiff asked all to rise. As this was the “crime-of-the-century” in Finn’s Landing, it was the biggest day in the Judge’s career behind the bench which began so long ago it seemed ’Ol Doc Flannigan and he must have attended Rotary together. Much to the disappointment of the local news media which had wished for a protracted jury trial, replete with what they anticipated would be colorful testimony, all three of us – Bull, Mule and I – had entered “guilty” pleas. By doing so, we had effectively decided to “roll the Dice” (as defendants in Judge Dice’s courtroom were known to say) and would let him decide our fate. As such, he had free rein to say what he wanted. Since this was an election year – he had every intention of making the best of it. Having anticipated this, the press waited eagerly, pencils poised, to take down his every word.The Judge requested we be seated yet remained standing behind his bench. He leaned forward resting on clenched fists. His steel-blue eyes were as clear as mile high mountain lakes against his wizened face. They focused on us and began to boil like the sulpher springs of French Lick in southern Indiana. Like lasers, their look pierced our souls. When he began to speak, I was engulfed in the resonance of his voice, his words a baptism in napalm. Bull and Mule must have felt bathed in the words as well for I felt them jerk on either side of me.
“Never before . . . in my forty years behind this bench . . . have I been forced to preside over a case . . . so heinous . . . so bizarre . . . so outrageously reprehensible as the one before me now.” As he spoke, the words – like red-hot coals – lingered on the end of his tongue until you could almost see the steam rise off it and hear the flesh sizzle. I thought the end of it would catch fire. Then – when he felt certain his words had achieved exactly the desired effect – with a flick of that red-hot poker – he would send them – like sparks – flying into the audience. “Never before,” he continued, “have the citizens of our fair city been subjected to such an abomination as the macabre exploits of these three young hellions.” He punctuated this by letting his eyes come to rest on the living members of the Flannigan family who occupied almost the entire second row of the courtroom. The Judge’s eyes lingered then returned to us as he resumed his ranting tirade.
He expounded on “the decadence of today’s youth”. This included our lack of reverence for religion, our elder’s, and . . . our “flag”. He went on and on about “The Generation Gap” and widened it with every word he spoke. He paused intermittently. This was a cue for the old biddies in the audience to applaud and pound their canes on the floor. “Old Maid Milton”, who had somehow managed to make her way back into the peanut gallery, got so worked up, she stood – and with one mighty swath of her own cane almost wiped out half a row of senior citizens seated in front of her! With lightning reflexes, rookie cop, Rollie Thompson, sprang into action and attempted to subdue her with a half-nelson. Officer Gary Fallwalt was about to slap his “official” police handcuffs on her when he noticed the newspaper photographers focusing their Pentax’s on the pandemonium. Rather red-faced, he put his cuffs back on his belt and he and Thompson, each took her by an arm and led her from the courtroom once again.
“The Judge” never skipped a beat. He was oblivious to all around him – except the applause – and the greater it was the more reporter’s flashes flashed, their pencils raced and the more dramatic “The Judge” became. As his sententious oration reached a climax, from his foam-flecked lips came caveats of riots in the streets and equal horrors – “right here in River City”! At this point, I saw Deputy Nichols clutch the pearl grips of his nickel-plated .357 magnum. I didn’t understand half The Judge’s words such as “abominable miscreants” or “perverted purveyors of iniquity from the dark side of purgatory”, I just knew we were “fucked”. I had to roll my down-turned eyes, knowing the greatest threat the streets of Finn’s Landing would ever face would be the occasional elephant-pie that landed on it during the Circus City Parade. I thought how lucky Dillinger had been to have been shot and killed by that “G Man” outside a Chicago theater instead of being captured in Finn’s Landing and tried before Judge Dice.
All flushed and frothed in perspiration, he finally ran out of breath and half sat, half collapsed in his seat. With that, our counsel, Richard “Tricky Dicky” Rhodes, at last had his chance to speak.
Rhodes was a small town but flamboyant lawyer and the type that would take cases no one else would touch. That left him often traveling to the big cities of Fort Wayne, Kokomo and Indianapolis because cases like that didn’t come around very often in Finn’s Landing. Cases of murder and incest. Cases like this one. In his black J.C. Penney suit and fake alligator shoes, he paced back and forth in front of the bench, stroking his toupee in place. He very slowly and deliberately removed his suit jacket, laid it across the bar, loosened his tie and the collar of his shirt and rolled its sleeves up. As perspiration had already soaked it, this seemed a very reasonable thing to do and the audience patiently observed and waited what he had to say. I on the other hand saw his gestures as a purposeful ploy to conjure subliminal parallels between himself and actor Spencer Tracy portraying lawyer Clarence Darrow defending professor John Scopes in the infamous “Monkey Trial”. Scopes was tried for attempting to teach evolution in a Tennessee public high school in spite of a state law prohibiting such. This academy award nominated performance was brought to the screen in the 1960 movie, “Inherit The Wind”. While I’m certain Rhodes identified with Darrow, I fantasized we (the defendants) were like Scopes – the unappreciated seekers of “truth through science” – on trial in a fundamentalist town unsympathetic to our laboratory or our method. In my mind the veracity of modern science was on trial. The town, on the other hand, saw us as the monkeys. Rhodes spoke of the curiosity of youth, our basic goodness, of our . . . repentance. This brought muffled cheers from our classmate friends. The general audience saw us as “Boy Scouts gone bad” and “The Judge” did not appear impressed. To say the least, things did not look good for us when Rhodes finally concluded, “Your honor, one of my clients has asked for an opportunity to address the Flannigan family. I feel his message is worthy and I request your permission to allow him to say a few words.
Judge Dice stroked his chin with his hand, then slowly moved it to his ear and gave it a pull. After carefully weighing the request he said, “Permission granted, Mr. Rhodes.”
“Trickey Dick” said, “I call Mr. Henry before the bench.” I rose, walked around the bar to stand briefly beside him before he took a seat, and turned to face the crowd. My experience on the freshman speech team had not prepared me for this and I wrung my hands before hooking my thumbs in the front pockets of my trousers. I raised my head and did my best to focus my eyes on the faces of the Flannigan family. My voice quivered as I began.
“Doctor and Mrs. Flannigan . . . and to all the members of your family – I know it is a lot to ask. To ask . . . ask for understanding and even more . . . to ask for forgiveness. We didn’t mean harm. I guess we got caught up in the moment and one thing led to another. I guess we thought maybe your great-grand-dad, your great-great-grand-dad, er . . . your great-great-great-grand-dad – was making eye contact with each successive generation of Flannigans as I continued – would kind of enjoy the attention after all those years alone. I guess we kinda’ imagined he would like joining in our game . . . like maybe he was a boy again too. I can see now we weren’t thinking at all. I can see we were only thinking of ourselves. We didn’t think how you – his family – would feel. I am sorry we played baseball with your grandad’s head.”
I nodded as if to say, “that’s all I have to say” and made my way back around the bar to take my seat between Bull and Mule as my mother dabbed her eyes with a kerchief. In silent agreement, Bull and Mule rose, turned to face the Flannigan family and said in unison, “we’re sorry too”.
My sophomore year passed all too quickly. When school let out in the spring, my friends did as I had always done. They tossed aside their shoes and other shackles and headed for a summer at the reservoir beach. With the exception of Bull and Mule. For them and myself there would be no summer at the beach. There would be no drifting in the raft with temptresses like Tomasheski or cruising around in some ’57 Chevy that some friend of ours was finally old enough to drive and rich enough to buy. For us there would be no summer of 1970. Our’s was spent in Mount Hope Cemetery. That was our sentence. We had to work a minimum eight hours a day, six days a week, Monday through Saturday. We mowed the grounds; tended the shrubs and flowers; clipped around the tombstones; dug the graves and buried the customers. No pay. More clients were buried on Saturday than any other day and we would stand off in the distance somewhere, shovels in hand, waiting to go to work. On at least one occasion, the solemnity of the graveside was broken by a car load of teenagers driving past, honking their horn, waving beach towels and taunting us with instructions of, “let’s go for a swim”.
Our internship was supposed to make us appreciate the dead. By the end of the summer I had come to appreciate the dead – if only for the sake of the living – a state I hoped to return to if I ever made it through that summer! I also made up my mind to be cremated should I be wrong and death catch me before a cure could be found.
Our first job at the cemetery, the one which had been saved for us, was to repair the Flannigan family mausoleum. The delicate task of replacing the beveled glass in the lid of the casket over the Doc’s skull had fallen to Bull because of his handiness with wood and other delicate materials. “The Tooth” had long since been restored to its original location by the Killarney County medical examiner. But just before closing the lid, Bull carefully slid something in next to the Doc. The cemetery superintendent over-seeing our project turned a blind eye as he turned and put a chaw of Red Man tobacco in his mouth. Together, Bull, Mule and I replaced the glass at the front of the Doc’s vault, repaired the front doors and gate and closed them – never to open them again. Bull did not play baseball that summer, or any time after for that matter, having decided to concentrate on football which more appropriately suited his massive frame. So no one ever noticed his catcher’s mitt was missing.
I turned around and forty-one years passed since we met ’Ol Doc and “skullbull” was Mount Hope’s favorite pastime – each one passing quicker than the last – quicker than our glorious summer of ’69. During that time we grew up, or tried to, and the town eventually forgave us the atrocity committed upon it. So much so that Bull and Mule capitalized on their established rapport with the dead and opened their own mortuary there. Their reputation for the “personal touch” with their clients is purported to have greatly contributed to their success.
Forty-one years ago all we worried about was how quickly our summer was slipping away. Now it is years that have slipped through our fingers like the melting fudge sickles of that summer so long ago. Oh – that I could have them back. I look in the mirror these days and feel what I see has more in common with the ’Ol Doc than that boy tanned dark as a nut with so much shiny auburn hair – the shade a buckeye longs to be.
Through the years I have buried a few good dogs; too many friends; family members of my own and more than one boyhood dream. A couple of times along the way, I almost bought “the big ticket” myself. In a sense, I did, for whatever was left of my innocence from the summer of ’69 has since flown into the red sun with the blue jay. The death I thought would be eradicated in my lifetime, at 50 something, shows no signs of remission. And should it? For if not a privilege, at least life is an opportunity. And isn’t it the things we take for granted, we appreciate the least. I appreciate life more these days.
I’ve recently returned to my home state of Indiana in attempt to get closer to what I have left of family and friends. I don’t live in Finn’s Landing but have settled in Indianapolis which is where, like me, so many of them have gone to earn a living. Most of the factories and the railroads which once employed our grand-parents and parents have gone the way of the cotton gin and MS-DOS. But late one recent afternoon when the sun shone like a yellow yolk in another robin’s egg blue sky, I got in my car and made the hour and a half drive to my boyhood hometown. The B&K Root Beer stand still does business at the west end of town and I stopped there, parked under the car port and ordered a Black Cow. I tipped the waitress when she brought it and decided not to handcuff her to the microphone post on the tray. I looked around and saw no sign of “Big Dan the Hot Dog Man” but as I took the first taste of that oh, so cool, creamy respite from the summer heat, the memories of my youth came rushing back. I watched a couple of boys in Babe Ruth baseball uniforms take their root beers and trudge off in the direction of “Hospital Hill” and the cemetery. I recommitted to getting my living will updated to reflect my last wishes, took what was left of my drink and drove off in the direction of Mount Hope.
I parked my car, carried my large B&K Dixie Cup with me and made my way past the willow to the Flannigan family mausoleum. I peered between the bars of the front gate and this time the gate appeared secure. No wire coat hanger held it shut and the metal doors behind emitted no sign of light from within. The limestone walls of the crypt did not appear to have aged one bit. A little more pale green lichen cover perhaps. I moved to the stained glass window on the west side of the tomb and peered through it at the far inside wall of the crypt again turned red by the slowly sinking sun behind me – the wall which contained the doctor. I would like to say the blue jay screeched and flew into the sun but there was no sign of him. I pressed my nose against the glass and whispered loudly, “Hey, Doc! You in there? It’s me, Henry!” No answer.
Life is for the living. As I lingered there, peering in, I wondered if the good doctor had had a chance to use Bull’s gift to him or what he had been doing since we last saw him. As for myself, I’m savoring what I hope will be more than a few – last of the laps – around the track pursuant to “The Fudge Sickle Motif”. So I might say with – no hyperbole – “I tasted it . . . and it was good.”