inked by DoYourBestNothingMatters
There was sunlight and a cool breeze that swept the fruited plains, blowing leaves across brick laid main street. Our hero, Todd Starnes, Private Investigator, popped the collar of his signature black trench coat, and adjusted his straw fedora, as he walked up the sidewalk to his favorite diner, a greasy little joint called Chicken & Grits.
The fry cook, a fella that went by Joe, made the crispiest chicken sandwiches, and had a recipe from his grandmother for the butteriest biscuits to be found in the tri-county area. Todd, a man of predictable routine, always sat at a table waited on by Ms. Mabel Jones, a divorced woman (but nice enough), plump and about thirty years old. She wore a knee length, trim white dress, with a pastel blue apron, and had a pencil tucked behind her ear. When he wasn’t gumshoeing and helping people find answers to very important questions, he was the scout leader of the troop Mabel’s son belonged to. He considered himself a sort of father figure to her son, since he had no children and her son had no father, he found this very rewarding.
But today, today was different. The detective walked in only to realize there was no Mabel, there was blue apron, and there were strangers sitting at his table.
Clutching the rosary around his neck, his mother pearl had given him, he quickly scanned the room for any other discrepancies and promptly noticed the people seated at his usual table were not wearing black and white suits, and dresses, like proper men and women wore, but they wore bright and multi colored t-shirts, with blue jeans. Even the women.
Breathless and confused, his heart started to race, he noticed another group of people, similarly dressed, at the table next to his usual table. And the one next to that, and the one next to that.
A woman walked up to him, looking remarkably like Mabel, but with a red, bee-hive wig, glasses hanging on a chain around her neck, and a pencil in tucked into her sweater pocket. “Oh, hello doll. How ya doing? Be just one minute and I’ll be right there.”
What in tarnation was going on?
Todd pulled out a kerchief and dabbed his brows, pushed up his glasses, and gathered his composure. Just as he was about to turn around and leave, the Mabel look alike came back and asked him, “How many? You want a booth or a table, dear?”
“Just one,” he said, “A seat at the counter, and maybe Joe can make my order to go. You know, special, like he does.”
“I don’t know about no special order, but you can sit at the counter all ya want. Oh, and Joe ain’t working today, alls we gots is Joey. But he’ll take good care a ya.”
As he walked past his usual table, Todd glared through his thick rimmed glasses at the people seated there, hoping he could make them feel as uneasy as their presence made him feel. Something was wrong with these people. Where did they come from? Why did they have to look like they did? They, too, looked like people he knew, but different. And why, lordy why, were they sitting at his table? Thankfully, there were none of those brightly colored weirdos seated at the counter, so he could wait on his food in peace.
He ordered covfefe, ten cream, ten sugar, like he always did, and looked straight ahead, staring at the white subway tile wall, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone.
As he waited, he started to relax a bit, thinking to himself how lucky he was, to live in a country and a time where one can find ex-convicts and single mothers to prepare meals for him and his wife. He beamed with pride, as he thought of how much his patronage meant to them. He then thought of Bobby, Mabel’s son, and how excited he was to teach him about proper flag protocol at their next scout meeting.
“Um, yeah, you, Mr. Regular glasses guy, your food is ready,” the Mabel look alike said, startling him from his daydreaming. “Oh, um, yes, yes, thank you. How much do I owe?” Todd asked the woman. She tapped out some numbers onto a large, metal, cash register, talking while entering, “Let’s see, six chicken sandwiches, two dozen hot buttered buns, a gallon of our mayonnaise and dill sauce, two gallons of tea…..that’ll be four dollars and sixty-two cents, with a twenty-five-cent refund when you bring the glass jars back.”
Todd looked over his shoulder, checking to see if any of those miscreants were eyeing him and his money, then pulled a five-dollar bill from his money clip and placed it on the counter. The woman gave him his change and Todd slid a penny back towards her, and said, “For you.” “Gee, thanks,” she said. “Oh, and quick question, before I go, what’s the deal with those people in those clothes?” “Oh them? I don’t know. Think they’re supposed to be hippies or something.”
Hippies? Hippies? In his town? He’d only heard about them on the news, and read about them in the paper. He didn’t think they were a real thing, or even a thing that could happen to him. Yet here these people were. He put the cardboard box of chicken and biscuits, and the jars of sauce and sweet tea, into canvas bags his wife “Nancy” had sown for him, and headed out the door.
Just as he was leaving, he looked down at his watch and realized he would not have time to take the food home before his dentist appointment, so he’d have to head straight over. He walked past the businesses, admiring the quaintness of their awnings and shop signs. The tailor shop, run by Mr. JW, was called: If It Suits You. He found this very amusing. JW was a perfectly pleasant chap from England, that would occasionally sip a scotch and have a cigar with Todd.
As he neared the dentist’s office, he could hear the yelling of a couple of the towns eccentrics. One guy, everyone called Downtown Davis, would yell at people about how long they had been parked in a spot, or were in a business, and he’d tell them go home. The fella on the other corner, people called Weird Wayne, yelled religious stuff and tried to hand out pamphlets about the end of the world. Strange fellows, but harmless enough, and accepted by the community by and large.
Todd usually hated going to the dentist, but he really liked this one. Or so he told himself. He did his detectively due diligence when finding this place by asking five of his friends who they recommended. Four of his friends said they used Dr. Gutfuhlen, and one of his friends highly recommended Dr. Schmerzbringer. Thus, the fifth dentist it was. He didn’t like that he was German, but reasoned that after everything he’d learned about Germany and the war, he figured they had some good medical advances and equipment.
Todd signed in with the receptionist up front, and asked if he could leave his bag of food and jars of tea with her. He promised her a penny if she swore not to touch any of his food. She shook her head and walked him back to the doctor’s office. “Todd, my man, how goes you today, sir?” Normally Todd did not care for such laid-back informalities, but his head was literally in the Dr.’s hands, so he went along. Laying the chair, looking up at the doctor, Todd said, “I’m well. Just looking forward to getting home and having some chicken and buttered buns.” The dentist laughed and said, “Oh, is zat vut you tink to happen today? I’m afraid you might not be able to eat for zum hours after our wisit.”
What?! Panicked, Todd said, “Well, sir, I’m just here for a cleaning today. Not sure why I won’t be able to eat.” “But is okay, lay back, and I vill get you all fixed up,” dentist replied, as he turned up the gas running to the mask covering Todd’s nose.
When he came to, Todd had gauze and cotton balls stuffed in his cheeks, and a bit of drool dribbling from the corner of his mouth. “Is okay now. Four fillings, done! I had tried to come up for amusing vord pun while you vere knocked out and I vas vorking, but coming up short. Good news is you are all fixed up.” Sitting up in his chair and anxious to get out of the office, Todd thanked the doctor and headed to the door. Just before he left, he remembered the weird “hippies” he saw in the restaurant and thought to ask the dentist what he knew about them. Great detectives, after all, ask questions.
Muffled and spitting, Todd asked, “Muh duh ewe owe out iffies?” “Vas?” Todd signaled and gyrated, trying to mime out what he thought could be a hippy, and the dentist finally realized. “Oh, ze hippies? Know wery little, really. Not many of them in Germany, tis for sure,” he chuckled and continued, “Veird bunch, but seem okay to me. Do not know.” Todd was unsatisfied with this answer, or the dental work he got, but he always stood by a decision made out of spite, and he thanked the doctor, collected his food and left, forgetting to tip the receptionist on his way out
Dazed and confused, with his black trench coat now creased and tucking under his stomach, fedora askew, Todd waddled up the street, with his canvas bags of food, sweet tea, and mayonnaise dill sauce, to the final place on his list. As he approached the downtown deli and market, one of Satan’s Warriors (as he called them), a conjuring of the devil himself, a black cat, hissed and crossed his path. An ominous sign, indeed.
The bell attached to the door jingled as he opened, and from inside he could hear the familiar smells and sounds he knew. Ahhhhh, familiarity. He could smell the bread baking, the salty and meaty fragrance of an au jus sauce simmering, and he heard Mariner Mike and Nautical Max arguing in the back of the store. Feeling a sense of relief, he straightened himself and teetered his way to Mike’s counter. Mike and Max were shouting at one another, more than likely, about Eisenhower.
“The New Deal is a raw deal, I’m telling you, I know!” shouted Mike from behind the counter. Leaning against the glass case displaying the Mariners catches, and holding a cup of coffee, Max shouted back, “Oh good. Sure. Just let people who worked hard for generations die, and don’t take care of them. The Japanese might’a bombed us, but we can learn something for them when it comes to taking care of our elders.” “What?! Respect your elders? You got no room to talk, dunce. You New Deal people got no room to talk about respecting elders or tradition. You hippies are all the same.”
Todd’s spidey sense went off. Was Max, in fact, a hippy? He looked like the Max he had seen arguing with Mike every time he came here. But was he hiding something? Todd walked up to the counter, set his bags down on the ground, and greeted the two men. “Good day, sirs.”
The two men turned and looked at him, and then went back to carrying on with one another. “Hippy?!” Max exclaimed, “You think I’m a hippy? Please, go back to your heifers and sheep old man. You never seen a hippy a day in your life.” “AH-HEM,” Todd vocalized, trying to get Mikes attention. “Shut it Max, I got a customer. What’ll it be, guy?”
“Well, quick question, unrelated, I heard you refer to this gentleman as a hippy. Is it true? Are there hippies in our town?” Mike scoffed, and replied, “In a god fearing Christian town like this? Doubtful. But they’re out there. Oh, they’re out there. Smoking their marijuana, or Mary Jane, as they call it. Taking off their clothes and rolling in mud and painting their bodies. Real freak show, those hippies. Anyway, I gotta get out of here soon, whaddya want?” “Hmm. Oh, well, yes,” Todd replied, “I’d like to know what prices you have today for your salmon.”
“Let’s see, uhhhh, looks like seven cents a ounce.” “Splendid! Oh, Nancy will be so pleased. In that case I will take three pounds.” “Three pounds?! I mean I got it, but that’s a lot of fish. Sounds like your Nancy is quite the lady.” Mike said looking to Max and grinning. Max laughs and quips back, “Yeah, real……substantial.” Not getting the joke, but feeling like a joke was made at his expense somehow, Todd let out a nervous chuckle and said, “Well, yes, she is quite the lady.” Max and Mike laughed as Mike reached into the case and pulled out nearly all the salmon he had for that day. “Just about clearing me out here Nancy.”
Mike placed the salmon on scales, wrapped it in butcher paper, then rang him up. “That’ll be three dollars and thirty-six cents.” Looking over his shoulder, to Max, who was looking directly at Todd, smiling with his cup of coffee, Todd quickly turned back away and pulled out his money clip and handed Mariner Mike four crisp dollar bills. He took his change, placed the salmon into the already voluptuously stuffed canvas bags, and toddled his way back toward Main street.
When he exited the shop, he could still hear Davis and Wayne, yelling down the street on their respective corners. One mocking and yelling at people for being in a place for so long on a particular day, the other warning of religious invasions. And Todd accepted them. This was the America he knew and loved.
Todd approached his 1952, mustard colored Crosley (Agnes, he called her), his pride and joy, and huffed and struggled as he lifted his food laden bags into the back seat. He’d purchased her about five or six years ago, with money he had eared bailing hay for Earl. Though he was currently a well-respected P.I., he held tight to his Agnes. Todd took off his straw fedora, placed it on the passenger seat, and squatted down, shimmying into the driver’s seat, the steering wheel touching his knees. So snug. So comfortable. Something about it reminded him of home.
It was now dusk as the investigator drove home. Passing the rows of Sears homes, he noticed pumpkins on the porches of some houses, some places even had candles burning. Who had died, he thought to himself. He read the paper every day and had, in fact, read this morning’s paper, but there was no one from town who was in the obituary section. The hippies! That was it, he knew. For a fact. It was the hippies and their dastardly black magic, responsible for all the changes to his town. Overnight, even. These hippies had strong powers, indeed.
He Turned on the radio, hoping for some good news, and was pleased to hear his favorite DJ on the air. “Good late afternoon everyone! I’m Happy Jay, here again, to bring you the greatest hits and local news. It looks like it’s going to be spooky tonight, as a dense fog, meteorological experts are calling the grey 256, is set to roll in early this evening. Keep an eye on your kids, or you might lose them out there in it. In national news the FBI has finally released more information about the 1955 plane bombing by Jack Gilbert Graham, that killed 44 people. It seems alienation and greed led the man to commit the atrocity. That’s what happens when you stray from the lord’s path. Well, that’s all for now! God bless! Have a fantastic evening! And stay safe out there. Up next, a little Jailhouse Rock.”
Todd pulled Agnes into the drive, put her in park, turned off the radio, and retrieved the canvas bags from the back seat. As he walked up the sidewalk, he noticed the flag he had displayed from a pole mounted on his house had been torn down, and the flag lay in shreds. He felt woozy, and off balance, at the sight. Who on earth would do such a horrible thing?
The hippies! That’s who. Those New Deal loving, colorful shirt and blue jeans wearing, Mary Jane smoking, no good, miscreants. As he rushed inside he noticed a large dark figure, ambling in the woods behind his house. It was much, much larger than a dog, and let out a deep, low, growl. He felt nervous, and rushed inside to begin heating his food.
As he closed and locked the door behind him, he breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Whatever was going on in the world, he was home now, with “Nancy.” As he placed the bags on the counter and began unloading the food, a raspy, and nasally voice called out from the bedroom, “Toddles, is that you dear?” “Yes, tis me.” He answered back. “Oh good, did you get the fish okay?” “Oh yes, Nancy, three pounds of it!” “Good, I’m starved. Will you start dinner now?” “Yes, dear, right away, dear.” “Oh, and Todd, did you hear about the bear that escaped from the circus today? Big brown bear, been roaming the woods on the edge of town they say. It’s a miracle no one’s been hurt. I hope they catch it before it gets totally dark out. Would be dangerous for the kids.” The children. What about the children. Forget the bear, what about the hippies and how will they corrupt the children?
“You know what is a real shame,” Todd shouted from the kitchen, “is these damn hippies.” “Language, Todd, language. I’m a lady.” “Yes, sorry, but it just has me so worked up. I saw some in town today, and they were sitting at my table at the diner, and there were a whole bunch of them, an unknown number, I couldn’t even count how many I saw. I’m afraid the hippies are trying to come over us, Nancy. That is the biggest threat to the children and our town. Those dag nab hippies trying to come all over us.” “Sounds frightful. How long until dinner?” Todd glanced at the boy scout calendar hanging above the oven, glanced down at his watch, and yelled back, “Be about twenty minutes.”
Todd preheated the oven, prepared the fish, placed his chicken sandwiches in biscuits into glass baking dishes, and pondered the day’s events. He was unnerved, and worried for his community. How could one of his investigative abilities not see this coming? Were the hippies some sort of body snatcher, invading the bodies of people he knew? Or were they coming in and kidnapping then replicating them as hippies? And the children. The children. What was going to happen to these poor, innocent souls? Were they going to start taking the children next?
Todd began to weep as the timer went off, indicating the oven was warm enough for the food. He placed it all in the oven, and stared at the boy scout calendar above the oven. A mix of incongruent emotions, pleasure at the smell of the food cooking, sadness and delight thinking about the boys of his troupe, tears streamed down his cheeks as he reached into his trousers, and began to comfort and pleasure himself one of the only ways he knew how. Looking back and forth, from oven to calendar, the scent of buttered bread starting to fill the air, his movements became more vigorous, until he finally completed, leaving his sticky remains all over the outside of the oven.
He wiped the tears from his cheeks, zipped up his trousers, touched his rosary, then went to a drawer near the oven to retrieve a small dish towel to clean off the oven. He felt better, cleaning up his mess, looking in the oven at the food almost ready. He also felt bad, knowing that Nancy could never have his seed. She had “medical issues” that prevented her from having children, and had told him early on that she was allergic to it. He loved her so much, and found his scout work to be an excellent compensatory outlet for his fatherly inclinations, and so he did not mind so much.
Just as he was about to take the food from the oven, he heard a loud roar from just outside the kitchen window. He went over to it and pulled back the lace curtains only to see a bear on its hind legs, wearing a pink tutu, sort of doing what he could only describe as a gyrating motion. Was this the bear from the zoo? What was going on with it? Why was a bear gyrating? Bears don’t gyrate. He knew this, as a fact. That was it. Todd was going to call the police, and the FBI, and whoever he could, to investigate these matters.
He walked over to the rotary phone and rang the local police. “Hello, this is Todd Starnes at 4666 Amberwood Drive, and I’d like to report some very troubling happenings, as well as a bear.” “What?! You’ve seen the bear? Thank god. We’ll send someone right over.” “No, no. That’s not all ma’am. I’d like to also report some possible illegal hippies in town.” “Hippies? Um, yeah, okay, I’m making a note. Tell the cops all about it when they get there, we just have to get that bear.” And the woman disconnected the line.
Todd paced his kitchen, thinking about the bear, and the flag, and the scouts, godless, muddy, colorful hippies. He glanced over at the small dinette table in the corner, and realized he should probably hide the kitchen towel evidence of his impure soul. As he was throwing the towel into the hamper, he heard a knock at the front door. Todd waddled as fast as he could, to the front of the house, straightened his glasses and cleared his throat, then opened the door.
“Good evening, Mr. Starnes, I’m officer Smith and Doris at dispatch told me you saw the bear that was reported missing from the circus.” “Yes, sir. Just not six minutes ago. Right outside my kitchen window. It was a big brown bear, one, if I remember correctly, and it was wearing a pink tutu, and it was up on its hind legs, and it looked like, I swear, this may sound crazy officer, but it looked like it was gyrating its hips as it walked toward me.” The cop gave an awkward side smile, and sort of cocked his head to the side, and said, “Well that does sounds weird.” “Yes! Yes! It is weird! I think, officer, well, I think it’s the hippies. I’ve never seen a bear like that before in my life. And I saw hippy gangsters in the diner today, and the town is just not quite the same. And I think they are all connected. And-“
“Slow down Mr. Starnes. One thing at a time. I noticed the shredded flag in your lawn, and your trash can tipped over, as well as the big pile of…pardon me…but the droppings outside beneath the kitchen window. So it checks out that the bear was here.”
“Yes! Yes! That was the hippies. They hate America, and destroyed my flag. I know it sounds crazy, but officer, maybe this is not what weird Wayne, downtown, had been warning us about. They’ve come all over us, full force, and now they are shredding flags, and lighting their candles with their pumpkins, and defecating on peoples’ lawns. I mean, where does it stop?! Where?!!”
The officer, hearing things he thought to be far-fetched and over dramatized, quickly shook his head as he took everything in. “Um, well, okay. I appreciate your concerns and will report the chief this possible problem. In the meanwhile we are going to be scouting the woods behind your house for the bear. Very important we catch it before the kids begin trick-or-treating.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot, you’re the fellow that moved here from the south a few months back. Halloween. Harvest time. Spirits. All that. Kids will be all over the place in costumes, going door to door and asking for candy. Todd thought of candy, then of food, then of his food in the oven. His food in the oven! “Oh no! I just remembered I have food in the oven. If you don’t mind waiting a minute, I can go take it out and come back to you to tell you everything I learned about the hippies in our town. I’m a very well respected investigator, where I come from.”
“I think I have all I need for now, and wouldn’t want to hold up your dinner any longer. I’ll be in touch if we have any questions.” Todd replied, “Yes sir, officer sir, and a Merry Halloween.” “Happy. It’s Happy Halloween,” the officer replied. And Todd looked over his shoulder, suspiciously, as he opened the door and watched him walk away.
As Todd entered the house Nancy could be heard yelling from the bedroom, “Toooooooood. Tooooooooooood. I think the food is burning! Todd?!” “Yes, yes, I’m here. The police were here and I was speaking to them, and there was a bear,” Todd shouted breathlessly, as he rushed over and opened the oven to cloud of smoke. He quickly grabbed another “special towel” from the drawer nearby the oven, and waved it to clear the oven, then rushed over to the window to open it up.
“Todd? Smells like the food is burned. Did you burn the food again?” “Yes. I mean no. I mean, I don’t know Nancy.” Todd peered his head into the oven to see the food burned to a crisp, when suddenly there was a knock at the door. Startled, Todd bumped his head on the top of the oven, then straightened his glasses and walked to the door.
He opened the door to see four children, dressed in various costume. One child dressed as a pilgrim, another as an Indian, the third as a ghost, and the fourth as a witch. “Trick-or-treat,” the kids said loudly and in unison. Todd looked around, down at his hands and to his sides, realizing he had nothing to offer the children, and looked back up and said, “Merry Halloween, kids. You look like different things, so that’s fun. I…. don’t have any candy, I’m sorry.” The kids stood and stared, with their brown paper bags out, and Todd shifted in the doorway. “Well, okay, you kids have a good evening.” And the kids repeated, “Trick-or-treat.” “Well, I told you kids, I’m terribly sorry, but I have nothing to offer.” Just as Todd finished saying his words the small girl dressed as a witch shoved a letter into his hand, and the boy dressed as the Indian shouted, “You’re a bummer,” and they all ran away.
Confused, extremely uneasy, and very, very, hungry, Todd made his way to the kitchen dinette to sit down. He looked over at the oven, longingly, then back down to the letter in his hands. He tore it open, pulled out the paper, and read the following:
Dear Mr. Starnes,
I hope this letter finds you well, as this is now the fourth attempt I have made at contacting you. I know, because I can count, as well as document things. I realize you are also not good with names, so allow me to introduce myself as Dr. Valannin, P.I. I have followed your cases in the paper, and have offered my services to, as your work is a little shoddy and could use some tightening up. Not only have you been unresponsive to my, and others, offers of assistance, it has now become apparent that your investigative work is sloppy, and dangerous to the public. As such, I am left with very few options, and find the matter of such urgency so as to warrant a legion campaign. I have tried other, peaceable, means, to no avail, and so now it has come to this. You have been warned. We are coming for you, and we are going to come all over your town.