Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Hack Writer Strikes Again: Oubliette

Note: Once again, a short story from long ago. I certainly write better than this now. I don't know why I liked the zinger Twilight Zone endings. It's a cliche, of course. But here it is. Inspiration to do better.


The oil stain on the pavement under his car was enough to convince Howie that the Gods of Travel were conniving against him. He'd just had the car looked at. Commented that it used a little oil, and now there it is, a miniature Oklahoma gusher right in his own driveway. An ordinary, non-autophobic individual would have quickly surmised that the new stain of dinosaur dribble was the fault of a sloppily installed oil filter and nothing more, but Howie was not a normal non-autophobe.

From a young age, cars had frightened him. The roaring beast that charged out of the alleyway and sent him and his tricycle flopping into the flooded gutter. The leering, buck toothed and chromed monsters that stared out at him from parking lots while his mother drove one of the infernal contraptions, trying in vain to find a Ben Frankliin craft store. The klunker car he got from the neighbor for $20 that proceeded to careen down the freeway at sixty-five miles an hour without functioning brakes. The Lincoln Mark Four that had its hood ripped off and body warped by a speeding truck hauling a trailer containing two horses. The cracked blocks, the fender-benders, the dirty dashes, the tape players that ate Mel Torme and the beaded seat covers that fell apart a week and a half after he bought them.

Now the oil leak in his second Lincoln.

"Horses and buggies couldn't have been all that bad," Howie thought to himself as he knelt on the driveway and watched the steady drip drip drip tumble off the hoses and connectors and bolts to splat and slowly rainbow the concrete. "Bumpy, a bit slow and often smelly, but if there was a problem, all you had to do was fix the wagon or shoot the horse. Try and push a stubborn Oldsmobile Toronado off a modest cliff, and the police are there asking all sorts of questions."

He reluctantly drove the car the short distance to the repair shop, glancing guiltily at the orange "check oil" light that glowed accusingly up at him from the light panel. The oil light was never friendly, could not be ignored like the brake light, or that wimpy battery light. No, oil and engine screamed out for immediate attention and lived on a steady diet of tens and twenties, fan belts, spark plugs and 87 octane unleaded. And the insurance man, former colonel in the National Guard and Vietnam vet, who wore uniforms to the office and glared in unfriendly ways when one wished to drop their comprehensive coverage. "You don't break family traditions," the colonel had commanded him when Howie had wished to cancel his policy in lieu of a cheaper offer. "Your father has insured with me for thirty years. Don't throw that trust in the toilet."

So Howie thought as he drove, thought of the intimidation he felt when he left the office that day with increased medical coverage and $10,000 in accidental death/dismemberment insurance. Thought of the scrawny mechanic with the oily beard and burly name who awaited his car and his credit card in the office adjoining the concrete block building next to the roller skating rink.

"I'm ready to chuck the whole thing and ride bicycles for the rest of my life," Howie told his pet frog Herbie one morning. The car had, indeed, only a loose oil filter, but it waited menacingly in the garage for Howie to start it up and trundle his way to his next automotive disaster. "No insurance. No grumpy gas station clerks without change for a hundred dollar bill. No more flattened skunks. No more jerks in the fast lane or aggressive old women who race their engines at stoplights. But, I'd better get going."

Get going. Climb in the car and drive five hundred miles for a business trip. Company policy dictated that planes could be taken for trips longer than 500 miles, but would not make an exception for Howie and his 489 miles of mountainous Montana freeway. But the mechanic guaranteed a flawless trip and his secretary had made the hotel reservations and marked out his route on his highway map. Sparsely populated territory, a freeway dominated by semi trucks and state troopers.

He was met with heavy downpours near Hamer and experienced the rarely felt thrill of turning on the windshield wipers full blast and hearing the air roar past them in changing octaves as they moved across the bug-streaked glass. Monida pass was achieved without mishap, and the sagebrush expanses of the lower Montana desert opened up.

There's something about small towns, rurally located outposts of civilization offering their services to farbound travellers. Teoka. Cyr. And Oubliette. A small place. Exit 8. A storkish Conoco sign rakishly growing out of the scrub next to a faded building painted with tired red stripes. The car's tank was nowhere near being empty, but the vehicle had an annoying habit of beeping whenever there was less that fifty miles' worth of fuel in the tank. Howie detested the beeping, but more importantly detested the thought of running out of gas; the automobilist's equivalent of heart failure. "Funny the place isn't on the map, but then I suppose it's just a new fuel stop they haven't added in yet," Howie spoke aloud to himself.

So he pulled off the highway and trundled to a smooth stop at the road; the narrow country road that dared cross the mighty ribbons of the freeway, spanning over four lanes and median as if there were actually some important destination at either end of its weed-grown shoulders. A mile of interstate covers forty acres of ground, he remembered. This skimpy streak of asphalt couldn't cover two if it went for a thousand. Howie turned right and drove the sort distance to the Conoco station. Green spring weeds grew in the cracks between slabs of concrete that bordered the pumps, and odd scraps of paper and discarded oil bottles rolled back and forth through the lot, spinning off weeds and bouncing and tumbling with the stiff breeze. Weeds grew, too, inside the singe car wash bay.

But the farm truck parked near the gas pumps, the farmer jerking gas into the tank and the loud country music coming from the station assured him that the state of the place as he saw it was as it should be.

"Howdy," Howie said brightly as he began filling his tank from the pump behind the old truck. The farmer nodded and yupped a reply. "It's about three hundred miles from here to Kellogg, isn't it?" Howie asked, keeping one eye on the gas pump at all time so he would not have the embarrassment of having to pay some ludicrous sum, such as $10.01, when he went into the store.

The farmer screwed on his gas cap, screwed his ball cap down a little tighter on his head, and muttered, "Three hundred. More or less. Where you from, son?"

Howie bit his tongue, reluctant at starting a long conversation with a total stranger, but replied anyway. "I was born and raised in San Jose, California, but I've been working the past five years in Idaho Falls."

"You a Squid?" the old man asked.

"Uh, no, but I do work for the navy," Howie stammered. "Nuclear engineering."

"Any family in Idaho with ya?"

"Yes, my wife Elizabeth and two sons, Steve and little Jeffrey."

A slight frown dimmed the farmer's lips. "You leave here," he muttered, almost a whisper, "straight out on the highway. Nothing to see in Oubliette. Storms come up real quick here, and it's hard to get out. So long, stranger." He waddled off, spoke briefly with the dusty cashier, waddled back and squeaked his way into the truck and down the road that disappeared into the small knot of trailer houses and scrappy trees that was the City of Oubliette.

The cashier's name was Cecil, or so said the embroidered tag on the front of his ruddy shirt. Howie held out his seven dollars and sheepishly dug in the pocket of his pants for three pennies. "Nice little place you've got here. How many liv--"

"Don't bother payin', mister," Cecil warbled as he stared blankly at Howie's fistful of bills and coppers. "Old Bub there paid for your gas as well as his."

"Old Bob-"

"Bub. Farmer fella. Paid your seven dollars and three cents along with his gas."


"Said you looked like you might be needin' a break," Cecil drawled. He appeared to be a little bored with the whole exchange. "Don't know what he meant."

"You're sure?" Howie asked incredulously, still holding his money out to the slow-talking cashier.


"Wow! I've always heard you Montana people were pleasant,"-Howie ignored Cecil's bored look-"but, you've got to realize this is the first time something like this has ever happened to me."

"Hope it ain't your last," Cecil burbled. He banged a few keys on the old cash register. A bell pinged and a little red sign popped up that read NO SALE.

"What's the town like?" Howie asked.

Cecil looked a bit startled. "Nice enough, I guess. Nothin' much to see, though. Best to keep on movin' down the highway while it's there. Missoula ain't too far. Take a break there. Nice town, worth explorin'."

Howie bought a Squirt and a few Slim Jims, partly trying to stave off his incredulity and guilt over the free gas and partly to cheer up the dour Cecil by making a few convenience store purchases. This time, Cecil took the money and gave him a little strip of paper, a cash register receipt, that was stamped on the back: "Say Goodbye to Oubliette."

Rain sluiced down in buckets from a black and blue sky, the wind whipping it into froths and upturns that seemed almost vertical, and that sent massive waves and other turbulences across the parking lot puddles. Howie darted for the dry safety of his car. Even while stationary, the highest power setting on his windshield wipers was not able to keep the windshield clear for longer than half a second. Raindrops glowed like fireflies when Howie turned on the hi-beams. He started the car and steered it towards the waterlogged road, his left hand towards the highway, his right towards Oubliette. Across the road on the shoulder of two massive wooden posts hung a large highway sign. I-15 to the left, Oubliette to the right. The clouds opened up a bit more, showering even stronger torrents of rain down on the landscape. His windows were fogging up and the air conditioner was sucking in rainwater.

"Better stick around a bit, see if the rain lets up," Howie thought to himself. As he turned to the right, the rain eased up slightly, and as he drove on, it eased up even more. He passed the knot of trailer houses and scraggly trees and lowered his hi-beams, as the rain let up, practically, with every car length he travelled. At a stop sign, he noticed another green sign that read OUBLIETTE CITY CENTER. A white arrow pointed again to the right. He drove on a bit further, noting a few wooden houses on the right contrasted by a few more wooden houses on the left. A dog darted across the road, but as he was travelling at only twenty miles an hour, he barely had to put on the brakes. The dog raced up a lawn, turned around and barked loudly at Howie's retreating Lincoln.

Now there was a brick school building, a church so white and clap-wooded that it was almost a cliche. Rain was barely falling now as he approached what he assumed to be the only traffic light in Oubliette; a yellow flashing light strung over an intersection and protecting two white ladder crosswalks. The business district. A few bars. Barber shop. Hardware store that bulged at the seams with tools and assorted whatnots. A scrawny King's department store with a rack of shiny new bicycles up front.

The rain stopped as Howie parked the Lincoln in front of a stately brick building surrounded by a small park. Oubliette City Hall and Library, he read from the letters carved in the stone above the building's entrance. He parked next to a familiar rusty pick-up truck, and assumed that Old Bob -Bub- had some business at City Hall. "I'll have a chance to thank him for the gas," Howie thought to himself as he climbed the new cement steps.

The massive wooden door creaked open to reveal an entry foyer coated in dust, dead leaves and old water stains.

"Hello? Bub? Anybody?" A mouse scurried across the warped hardwood floor and shoved itself under a door marked MAYOR. Behind the door a light bulb glowed. Howie pushed the door open to see old Bub sitting behind a huge oak desk, fumbling with papers on the massive green blotter. A 1930s style radio on a small table behind him filled the air with light static. A calendar on the wall read May 8, 1973.

"I thought I told you to leave, stranger," Bub muttered sadly. "While that highway was still there. But it's gone now."

"What are you talking about?" Howie demanded, feeling his amity towards this character, towards Montana in general, fading as quickly as the sun faded outside.

"Young I was, ambitious and a little stupid," Bub said, ignoring Howie's question but indicating a rather comfortable-looking armchair in a corner of the office. "Sick to death of the ranch in Salmon. Too young for the war, so Hitler wouldn't save me from my life of drudgery. Hitchhiked to Butte and got myself a job at the lumber mill. Worse hell than the ranch."

"But what does this-" Howie's voice trailed off under Bub's hard, but sympathetic stare.

"Had a friend who was a cop, and said he'd help give me a leg up, and by hell I made it. I liked it. Criminals were more interesting than cattle and lodgepoles." Bub rubbed his eyes, shuffled absently through his papers for a few seconds, then continued. "Then we found the hobo, strung up down at the railyards. Neck broken, eyes bugged out and stinkin' to high heaven. Puked my guts out right there. Decided I wanted a more peaceful line of work. I wanted to forget everything there was about policin', ranchin' and loggin'. Packed up the truck and drove north--the old state route, since the highway wasn't finished yet. Stopped to buy gas just outside of Oubliette and ran into the mayor at the service station. Seemed they were lookin' for a part-time janitor and police chief, and after he heard my story, he offered me the job on the spot."

Bub stopped, stared intently at Howie, and asked, almost a whisper: "You runnin' from somethin', stranger? Somethin' you're tired of, never want to deal with again?"

"Well, sort of, now that you men-"

"Let me finish, then. It's better that way." Howie didn't like the look of fire and fear in Bub's eyes. He jumped out of his chair and made for the door. Bub made no move to stop him.

"Crazy old fool. Slowtown hick!" Howie muttered as he jogged down the steps and down the sidewalk to his car. . .which was nowhere to be seen. Eyes bugged, he ran out into the street, under the flashing yellow light and stared frantically down each street. Deserted save a few potholes filled with rainwater, and down Front Street a squashed cat. He felt in his pockets and found his car keys. "Hotwire?" he whispered. He ran down Front Street as the sun winked its last ray over the town. No cars. No dogs. No lights. He banged on a few doors. They replied, dully echoing his frantic knocks through their empty chambers. A few doors sprang open on their hinges to reveal more scenes of general disuse and disorder.

He found himself again on the steps of City Hall, and decided to go in to Bub and bring an end to this sick practical joke. He banged the MAYOR's door open and found Bub in generally the same state he'd found him earlier, shuffling through those enigmatic papers spread like leaves on his massive desk. "Listen here, you old boob-"

"That's Bub, son. Siddown," Bub said flatly. Howie's mouth gaped, but he sat down in the chair anyway, hoping to cajole the old man, through his patience, to bring the joke to its hopefully anticipated conclusion. "What are you runnin' from?"

Howie felt suddenly ready to be Bub's friend, though he tried to shrug off the eerie feeling that Bub was to be his only friend for quite some time. "I hate cars. . .and my computer with the faulty hard drive. And the crime, and those fake Jackson cowboys. I've never been to Seattle and regard that as the greatest accomplishment of my life. . ." Howie half-listened to himself as he listed every technophobic, societal and political fear he'd ever expressed, or ever imagined expressing. Bub only nodded, smiling occasionally, but generally growing more somber and sadder as Howie talked.

"Welcome to Oubliette, son," Bub finally said after Howie's diatribe against society in general tapered off. "We're all like you. We were like you. Lookin' to escape. Lookin' to forget. Most everybody's in the cemetery by the church, where it's the easiest to escape and forget. But then there's me, and Cecil. Julietta at the grocery. Hank the barber, and a few others. We all live in the schoolhouse, seems a bit cozier that way."

"Fine. Just super. DANDY! And cozy. Now would you tell me what the hell is happening around here?" Howie shouted, again bounding from his chair.

"Ever heard of Xanadu," Bub shouted, jumping from his chair to angrily stare Howie in the eye. "or Shangri-la, son? This is it! Oubliette! Where everybody comes to escape and forget. . .and live until they die, because once you're in Oubliette, you never get out! This valley of rain and hell is what those shiftless people have been scratching after ever since somebody dumped mankind on this happiless rock! Congratulations, son. You've found it. Sugar Candy Mountain. Paradise. Eden. Get used to the dust and the rain and the dead cat in the middle of Front Street, because they're yours! Everything you hate? It ain't here!. . ." Bub collapsed in his chair and broke into huge, heaving sobs.

Howie stared agog at the burly man crying behind the wooden desk covered with papers. Papers filled with names. One name. Gloria Sarah Smythe. Gloria S. Smythe. Mrs. Robert "Bub" Smythe. Bub quickly covered up his papers. Composing himself, he murmured and burbled, "That's the price, the entry fee to Paradise. If you want to escape everything you hate, you can. But at the same time, you must deny everything that you love."

Howie sat with Bub in the MAYOR's office that night, and many nights afterward, regretting his flight from all he hated, and the rest that went with Paradise.

* * *

Marian pulled her Toyota next to the gas pumps behind the beat-up, rusty pick-up. She jerked gasoline violently into the tank, trying not to catch the eye of the older gentleman pumping gas into his outfit. "Damn men. hate 'em," she whispered.

"Little gal," the old man said, "don't say that. We ain't all that bad."

She stopped pumping gas and gave the man a long, cold stare. "What do you know, geezer? You never met the man who just kicked me out of his life, did you? I wish there were a world without men!"

"Nothing to see here in Oubliette, ma'am. Missoula's not far. Nice city," the old man muttered. He waddled off to the store and paid for his gas. "Best get on that highway before the storm comes. Get on the highway while you can still see it." She glowered as the old man climbed in his truck and drove off.

"Moron." she muttered. She stalked into the store and held fourteen dollars and three pennies out to the clerk behind the cash register.

"Howie paid for the gas, ma'am. Said for me to see you on your way."

"Whatever." Marian grumbled back out to her car and tossed her crumpled receipt on the ground. She gunned the engine and turned left on the road that led away from Oubliette.


digger derrick trucks said...

I guess its normal to have that experience during our younger days. But, what's important is to learn from them.

Mister Fweem said...

Yup. That's about the only reason I keep these things around.