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June 27, 2022

The Lake Erie Lights 19

By Hawkelson Rainier

Chapter 19: Diggin' Up King Tut

No fucking way, Roy said to himself as one of those old-timey 1920's Chevrolet stake trucks rambled up to the brick building, executed a haphazard U-turn, and proceeded to back up to the loading dock. The burly looking driver laid on the horn until the metal door rolled open.

An annoyed warehouse worker called out, "Where's the fire, Joe? Geez, keep your pants on," and the driver handed him the necessary paperwork.

Warehouse Guy went down the checklist and scribbled his name on a piece of paper, handed it back to the driver, and pointed in a vague direction somewhere inside the cavernous dimensions of the warehouse. "Just set it over there by the pile of slag."

The driver loaded up a dolly with heavy-looking boxes and wheeled it inside next to the slag.

"You listen to the game last night?" Warehouse Guy asked.

"Yeah. The Cards really did a job on those mugs," Burly Driver said.

"Pop Haines had that knuckleball dancin'."

"I wish I woulda threw a yard or two on that game. I woulda bought me a nice bottle of hooch and a dame with gams a mile high."

Roy was dumbfounded. In all the incomprehensible vastness, he had stumbled upon humans again. And they were speaking English. What were the odds of that? Granted, the language sounded like the script from one of those James Cagney gangster movies, but it was English and not Mandarin or Portuguese. As far as he could tell, he was on Earth again. Maybe not the exact same Earth he had once known, maybe not the same era he had come from, but it was close enough that it felt like home again. Roy listened to these two men bullshit about baseball, broads, and booze, and if he had tear ducts, he would have wept for joy.

Roy saw that the stake truck had an Illinois tag on it, but he figured he was in Missouri because the two guys had such big hard-ons for the Saint Louis Cardinals.

And the references to hooch, dames, and gams definitely sounded 1920's. The roaring 20's, Roy thought to himself. What do I know about the 20's? World War I just ended, prohibition started, bootleggers, organized crime, Al Capone, and ... I guess that's about it. Geez, Roy thought, I guess I don't know too much about the 1920's. Maybe I should have paid more attention in Mr. Hodder's American History class. But Stacey Wetzel sat right next to me and she was so hot. How in the hell was I supposed to learn anything in that class?

"Alright with all the gum flappin', I gotta finish my deliveries already," Burley Driver said to Warehouse Guy.

"Yeah, I'll see ya next week, Joe. Keep your powder dry."

"Will, do, Sam my man. Will do."

Roy tagged along with the driver named Joe because it seemed like the natural thing to do. Of course, Joe didn't know Roy was in tow, but part of him sensed the presence of an outsider. His arms broke out in goosebumps, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up.

"Christ," Joe complained out loud, "I got the heebie-jeebies for some damned reason. Well, I got the fix for that," he said as he downshifted to reign in some of the Chevy's momentum before turning off County Road 600 onto an unmarked dirt road that cut through an overgrown pasture and wound down into a wooded hollow. After about a mile there was a fork in the road, and Joe took the southerly route that meandered like a drunken serpent. They came to a rickety wooden bridge that was just wide enough to accommodate the truck. The beams bowed noticeably under the weight, and the planks groaned beneath the tires, but the bridge held, and fifty feet below, angry looking rocks as big as bowling balls seemed to sigh with disappointment.

About a quarter mile later, the dirt road terminated at the front steps of an unpainted, weather-worn house. A tired looking jalopy was parked out front next to a swayed back mare that was hitched to a post. Joe hopped out of the Chevy and glided through the front door with the ease and dexterity of Fred Astaire. It was as if the ponderous chains of years of manual labor had been lifted from him. He smiled easily and greeted the bartender and the one other patron who looked as if he had been bellied up for at least a couple hours already.

"Hey, Joe!" the bartender said, "Whatchya havin'? Whiskey?"

"No, I still got a couple deliveries to make, Franky. A draft will do me just fine."

"Draft it is, my friend."

"Thanks, Franky," Joe said as he traded a few coins for the effervescent mug of beer. "Boy, things sure seem slow in here."

"Oh, it's still early. It'll pick up later this afternoon with any luck. You know, Joe, a lot of my regular customers are headin' to St. Louis these days, or even makin' the trip all the way up to Chicago. Maybe they figure why come out to this joint in the middle of the woods if you can drop a name or two, waltz right into some big fancy-shmancy building and order the good stuff."

"I like it here, Franky," Joe said. "They can have their fancy-shmancy cities and their French bubbly that gives you a hangover like you got an ice pick in your skull."

"Well, most folks aren't like you, Joe. They're always lookin' for the next big thing," Franky said.

"Like when they dug up old King Tut," the other patron, who had been quietly sipping his gin at the end of the bar, spoke up.

Roy was somewhat intrigued by this guy who knew about King Tut. He had one arm, and Roy wondered if maybe it had been torn off by a thresher, or some other farming machinery. Even minus a limb, the guy looked rather formidable. He was square-jawed with close-cropped black hair and blue eyes the color of Antarctic ice. Roy decided he'd have a look around and see for himself what this guy was all about. He passed into the man's head, through his skull, into the gray brain matter, the blood vessels, and into the firing neurons where the ghost lives, so to speak.

Roy's own consciousness reflexively synced up with the stranger's mind. The man's hopes and dreams, fears and regrets, long-ago memories and not-so-long-ago ones, thoughts and feelings ... they all raged in a whitewater river of consciousness that surged through Roy. The volume was overwhelming at first; it filtered through Roy's own consciousness -- not in any particular order, just a torrent of information that hit him with a sustained, crushing force.

Roy had to process it all -- sort it all into a linear sequence that had a beginning, middle, and end. There was a memory of being the first one eliminated in a second-grade spelling bee, and that one had to go before the memory of holding hands with Becky Sue Johnson and stealing a kiss on the playground in the sixth grade. Every memory was attached to its own set of emotions, and emotions being emotions, they had a tendency to trigger other memories which, in turn, were entangled with their own sets of emotions.

Roy thought he might drown -- his own consciousness might be swept away, dashed apart on some jagged rocks, and forever lost in this unrelenting current. But he hung on, and the narrative of this stranger's life began to unfold. The man's name was Clarence Marshal Bingham. He had been a local baseball star, but his dreams of making it to the majors were cut short on a Tuesday afternoon when the draft letter showed up in his parents' mailbox.

"What about King Tut?" Joe wanted to know.

Roy felt the rumblings of a powerful tremor deep in Clarence's psyche. Is he makin' fun of me? Clarence wondered. The question resonated in the man's head, and it rattled Roy plenty. It was like walking into a right cross, and it took Roy a second to recalibrate and get his bearings. I'll gut this ugly pug like a catfish, and his thoughts went to the hunting knife he had tucked in his boot.

"What are you? Some kind of wise guy now, Joe?" Clarence asked as he got up off the bar stool, a bit wobbly.

"No, Clarence. You know I ain't a wise guy. You started sayin' somethin' about King Tut, and I was just wonderin' what it was."

"Is that right?"

"Sure it's right, Clarence," Franky cut in nervously. "Come on, let's all have a drink on the house and hear what you have to say about King Tut."

"Yeah, that sounds nice," Clarence said as he sat back down and the bartender made up the drinks.

The rumblings subsided, but not before they had opened up a deep fissure in the riverbed of Clarence's mind. Dark feelings and memories swam up through the fault and brushed against Roy, filling him with horror. It was clear that Clarence had seen things in the Great War, and the specters of those things still haunted the turbulent, murky waters of his mind.

Roy saw it all unfold plain as day as he shared the stranger's consciousness. Clarence was a hulking man back when he got that draft notice. Young, dumb, and full of cum -- just the way the army wanted them. The commanding officer of his company had hand-picked him along with eleven other men for a special tactical unit. They were each issued a Winchester 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and a couple of grenades. In the darkness, the dozen of them would crawl out of their trench on their bellies like salamanders and advance toward the enemy position.

Now, the British boys had developed a type of artillery ordinance that was designed to skip along the ground, and so a lot of people called them 'daisy cutters'. The idea was that you could use them to tear a swath through the damned razor wire, wide enough to sneak at least one man through at a time so they could get back behind enemy lines. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.

Clarence and the rest of the squad would be out there, crawling around in the blackness, because if you so much as lit a match you'd bring an entire division of Krauts armed with heavy artillery down on top of you. Those doughboys would try to feel their way through the razor wire, and sometimes one would get hung up by their collar, or the seat of their pants. Maybe you could still work your way out of the jam, but if you panicked and flailed around, that wire would cut into flesh and bone, and then you were hooked like a fish. The sun would come up in the morning and you'd be stuck, out in the middle of no man's land, waiting for a Mauser to send you to your maker.

And if you managed to make it through the wire, there was still the problem of having to sneak up on a trench full of Germans, or Bulgarians, or whoever the hell happened to be in there at the time. Those doughboys would slither in close and lob a grenade into the trench, and a dozen grenades would go off pretty much simultaneously if they'd timed it right. Then they'd start raining down double ought buckshot for all the sons-a-bitches who were too dumb to die from the grenades. And those Winchesters were damned fast -- they didn't have disconnectors, so you could just hold the trigger back and slam-fire the weapon by working the pump back and forth as fast as you could until she was empty.

These guys got good at it, and they'd be able to get off their seven-round payload in just about two and half seconds. That's nine pellets per shell, times seven shells per man, times twelve men (provided they all made it through the razor wire, of course). That worked out to 756 .32-caliber pellets ripping through the length of the trench in two or three seconds. And even after all that, you'd still have to toss a flare down there to check for survivors.

That was the worst part -- cleaning up the stragglers. Those old Winchester riot guns had bayonets on 'em -- big sons of bitchin' bayonets damn near a yard long. One time Clarence looked down into the hole, and in the chemical burn of the flare, he could see some of them Krauts writhing in agony. They were squealing like pigs -- nothing human about the sounds they made. The 'Hit Squad', as they came to be known throughout their company, jumped headlong into the trench and got to work with those ghastly bayonets, plunging them into flesh and cursing Heaven and Hell whenever they'd bury the point into bone, and they'd have to yank and twist until the damned thing came free.

Clarence was shocked to see one German soldier just standing there among all the carnage. It didn't appear like he was hurt at all; he was just standing there straight and tall, and he looked right at Clarence and said, "Grüß Gott."

Clarence didn't speak German, so he replied, "Fuck you, too," as he watched his bayonet disappear into the German's belly. He twisted it so that the sharp edge was to the sky, and ripped upwards with a sudden, violent motion. The German's guts spilled out onto the muddy ground, and the Kraut was just looking down at the mess saying, "Scheisse, scheisse, scheisse ... " Then the German soldier reached down as if he were going to try to bundle it all up like a garden hose or something, but his feet got tangled in it, and he fell face first. Clarence could still hear him mumbling, "Scheisse, scheisse, scheisse ...

Somebody in his squad grabbed Clarence by the shirt collar and hollered point blank into his ear, "Come on, buddy, let's get the hell outta here!"

As they made that mad dash back through no man's land and to the relative safety inside their own trench with their own platoon, Clarence kept thinking:

They were only pigs, they were only pigs. Didn't you hear them squeal? Pigs squeal like that, not people.
But that one talked, he said something in German.
Bullshit ... that was a pig.
But pigs don't talk, Clarence. He was standin' up on two legs when you gutted him.
I don't care what you say. That was a pig. I know it was a pig -- I'm sure about it.

After a few days of repeating the lie over and over, he started believing it. That's how Clarence could trick himself into doing such an inhuman job. Even when the army awarded him with the Distinguished Service Cross, Clarence blushed and told the General,

"Shucks, sir, I was just gettin' the bacon ready to put up in the smoke house." The General had laughed at that, believing it was a joke.

That said, Clarence and the Hit Squad had made seven runs behind enemy lines. Of the original dozen, ten of them were killed in action. Clarence lost his arm, but not from a Kraut. He'd nicked his bicep while scooting under the razor wire one night and didn't think much about it. Didn't even think to put a bandage on it, that's how small it was. About a week later, it felt like his arm was on fire, and some kind of infection had set in there good and deep. Medicine was still pretty crude back then, and there was nothing anybody could do.

The doc gave it to him straight.

"Son, if we don't take that rotten arm off, you'll be dead within a week."

Clarence took the news about his arm as well as could be expected.

"Cut the damned thing off then, Doc. I'm gonna go home and have me a real Sunday supper with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, peas and carrots, and my momma's apple pie for dessert. But no ham ... I'm not eatin' no goddamned ham no more."

"That sounds fine, son," the doctor said. "Fried chicken's good. Real good."

It's no wonder Joe and Franky got a little nervous around this guy, Roy thought. Clarence was a loose cannon who could drink a gallon of gin and was pretty handy with a knife.

"So, I was sayin' it's like when they dug up old King Tut," Clarence began again. "I reckon he never wanted to be dug up in the first place. And I reckon those folks knowed damn well he wouldn't appreciate bein' dug up like that. And if they didn't know it, they sure as shit shoulda, because they wouldn't like it neither."

"Sure, Clarence, that makes sense," Joe said soothingly. "Nobody would like bein' dug up like that."

"Yeah, yeah, it's not a Christian thing, diggin' up people after they been put to rest," Franky said.

"What the hell was that Limey boy's name ... the smart-aleck archaeologist? Carter. I think his name was Howard Carter. Do you know what he was doin' in Egypt in the first place?" Clarence asked.

"Geez, Clarence, I don't know. You know what he was doin' in Egypt, Joe?" Franky asked.

"Damned if I know, Franky," Joe said.

"I'll tell ya," Clarence said, and he slammed his closed fist down hard enough to make everyone's drink jump a little bit up off the bar. "He was out there sniffin' around and diggin' in places he didn't belong. Siftin' through all that sand until he found that old boy, King Tut. You know King Tut was thirteen hundred years older than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?"

"Holy smokes, Clarence, I never knew that. How'd you get so smart?" Joe said.

"It's nothin' to do with bein' smart. It's just readin' the newspaper and rememberin' what it said. And the newspaper said that English mug went to Egypt and dug around those deserts for years until he pulled out old King Tut. And for what?"

"I don't have no idea, Clarence," Joe said. "What for?"

"Hell if I know, and I reckon Carter don't know neither. People like to go around findin' answers for things that don't even have no damned questions," Clarence said.

"It don't make sense," Franky said.

Clarence nodded in agreement and continued, "And that's really what these folks from around here are doin' when they up and leave where they was born and bred. They go into these big cities and start sniffin' around, diggin' around. What's wrong with our women? What's wrong with our hooch?"

"Not a damned thing wrong with 'em," Joe chimed in.

"But that don't stop 'em, Joe. They just don't have sense enough to grow roots. They wander every damn place diggin' up mummies, and they never stop and think that maybe these things is dangerous. Maybe these things ain't supposed to be dug up."

"But I never heard of any mummies in St. Louey or Chicago, Clarence," Joe said tentatively.

"Well, it's a figure a speech, see," Clarence explained. "There prolly ain't no mummies in St. Louey or Chicago, but there's plenty of things that are plenty dangerous. There's gangsters in those joints every bit as mean as the Krauts I fought in the trenches. And there's dames even meaner and more dangerous than them 'cause you'd never reckon a pretty lady would drop a Mickey Finn in your drink, steal your watch and your wallet, and leave you passed out in an alley for the bums to do things to you."

"What kinds of things, Clarence?" Joe had to ask.

"Queer things, Joe. Unnatural."

"They do things like that?" Joe asked, visibly shaken.

"Sure. People do all kinds of things," Clarence said, and then he drained the rest of the gin and tonic and put his head down on the bar. "Since I been to the war, I got more sense, you know what I mean?" he said sleepily.

"Yeah, Clarence," Franky said, "You got a lotta smarts."

"The trick is that you gotta keep it simple. Everything you need is right here under your schnoz."

"Sure it is, Clarence," Franky agreed.

"Is May gonna be doin' her rounds tonight, Franky?" Clarence asked.

"Yeah, it's Friday. She'll be here around four-o'clock like usual. Were you thinkin' maybe about takin' a roll in the hay?"

"I've been savin' up for one. You reckon she ever been with a one-armed fella?"

"It don't matter none to May. It's only the money that matters for her."

"Yeah, I reckon so. Will you wake me up in a little while, Franky? I could use a little shut-eye."

"Sure thing, Clarence. I'll wake you up a half hour before May gets here so you can get all washed up. I got a little cologne in the back, and some hair tonic."

"You're a real pal, Franky, a real ... " and he was asleep before he could finish his sentence.






Article © Hawkelson Rainier. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-01-03
Image(s) are public domain.
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