The police had found the car easily, as it sat in flames within a mile of the Baskin home, the engine red hot and still smoldering under the hood, a charred copy of Dharma Bums visible on the dashboard. Deputy Pfumpf, who’d examined the scene, said the runaway was lucky it had moved at all, since the motor was running on only the faintest memories of fluids. The lawman speculated that the Roadmaster hadn’t been filled with gas or oil or water in years.
Buick had initially been spotted catching a hitch just west of town, but weeks passed and none of the bulletins or posters or phone calls turned up a thing. The authorities called Betty to tell her that her son was of majority and that since there was no ill play involved, except flifethe toasting of an ancient car, they were calling off the hunt.
He was gone, the one male she’d actually needed.
* * *
Brother Leweltus Whitsell remembered the night of Buick Roadmaster Baskin’s departure like it was yesterday. November 14. A Tuesday. The date was not, however, engraved in Brother Whitsell’s mind because it was the night a teenage boy left town.
Brother Whitsell, owner and proprietor of Whitsell’s Sav-Mor Hardware Store (located for your convenience at the center of the fabled business district of downtown Blue Moons, Texas), had been quite surprised when he answered the door of Cottage Number 8 at the Blue Angel Motor Lodge. His first reaction as he reached toward the doorknob was gratitude. He was going to thank the night manager for being so quick at bringing Whitsell’s half-pint of Seagram’s and Diana’s RC Cola.
Diana just wouldn’t go unless she got her RC first.
“You know, Lew. It helps me relax,” she’d say. “You want me relaxed, now don’t you, Lew?”
Brother Whitsell wasn’t so sure. And he hated it when the 16-year-old Diana Flatrock called him “Lew”. Besides, they were supposed to be Bert Lewis and his surprisingly nubile daughter Sharon, at the Blue Angel. Diana/Sharon showed absolutely no respect for his position in the community, not after he became her audience.
She’d stand and read aloud from her journals for hours. He sat and listened.
We started in today as soon as I got into my outfit. Getting “into my outfit” was not as easy as that phrase makes it sound, though, since the first thing I had to put on was a “sheer spaghetti-strapped suspender catsuit in deliciously demure filigree floral stretch lace with convenience crotch”, as the ever-romantic Theodore’s catalog described it.
There were two more layers atop the catsuit.
Our conversation was odd, as usual. I couldn’t keep up with where we were in time or space or situation, or even with what parts we were playing. At first. Luckily Anaïs was there to help.
The talk was immediately sexual, which is, I suppose, the way things go when two inexperienced virgins get in the same room with two hot and bothered adults.
Buick told me he had lunch with his old friend the day before, but that he’d been thinking of me: “You were with me today at my lunch so completely that you became a real presence,” he told me. “You were there. My poor buddy thought I was truly excited visiting again with him. I wasn’t. I was with someone who was miles away. You. And yet you were right there.”
How can I help but care for a man that says such things? Diana
“Lovely, just lovely. And now, while you meditate on the progress of your eternal soul, I must go to the lavatory for a moment. A matter of personal hygiene,” said Brother Whitsell.
It wasn’t like he didn’t enjoy every minute of her recitation, but Brother Whitsell had a sneaking suspicion that the girl was using him for something as much as he was using her. He hadn’t a clue as to what that might be. Leweltus’d be the first to admit he didn’t know anything about women.
It had happened so quickly. A grown man, and all of a sudden he couldn’t control himself. None of it his fault. He was cruising along, living life like he always did, with no diversion from the humdrum, when one day someone somehow switched on his glands. The power surged somewhere upstairs and traveled south. The once reverend Brother became... horny.
Leweltus felt alive, having found lust again.
The “again” might be questionable. He had never really found, much less enjoyed, physical stimulation as a younger man. But he had searched. Yes, he had. He searched with no small amount of diligence and perseverance, just like the apostle Paul. Unfortunately, instead of stumbling on worldly enlightenment, Brother Whitsell had tripped over and then been bound by the former Wilomena Frazier, his future wife. Who had no intention of wedding anything other than a source of three fan-cooled bedrooms and a fully-warrantied electric washer-dryer.
Wilomena said, “Wait until we’re married, honey,” all through the saliva-drenched spooning of their courtship. As a good practicing Methodist, he did. Wait. Only to discover that a longer period of waiting sat staring blankly at him from the other side of the nuptial bed. Even if she admitted to signing the larger contract, the further physical obligations of their marriage agreement definitely never got initialed by the former Miss Frazier.
“You want what?” followed by a reptilian glare was the result of most of her husband’s early nighttime overtures. Separate beds, then separate rooms, quickly followed. She had him install double-bolt locks on her doors. The good kind. $22.95 at his wholesale cost. Sex, he learned too late, was not particularly suited to Mrs Wilomena Whitsell’s temperament. He and his wife had actually indulged in what might generously be termed para-sexual activities only twice in twelve years of marriage, each encounter brought on by surreptitious and repeated refilling of his wife’s minutely alcoholic beverages at various church events. The pastor would be saddened to learn that Brother Whitsell’s sudden zeal for the religious life was brought on primarily by the possibility of developing more occasions for the exercise of his marital rights. Brother Whitsell had become an absolute demon for the Christian cause, raising the money and organizing the participants of any number of church socials. Yessiree, Leweltus Whitsell was determined to have a sex life before he died.
Then he had met Diana, and had fallen ears-first into one of the stranger sex lives he could imagine.
Until that knock on the door.
Brother Whitsell admittedly caught Diana Flatrock on the rebound. She told him that. She had come to the Methodist deacon for advice, the girl seemingly heartbroken at the breakup of a very odd, basically non-physical relationship she had been carrying on for over six months. Buick Roadmaster Baskin, eighteen years old and happy as a demented lark until then, had been Diana’s dedicated source of second-hand lust and yes, first-hand love. But Diana explained to Lew that the various Buicks were continually demanding ever-more-diverse interaction, and a proportionately expanding wardrobe, from her. It had made her crazy, trying to keep up.
Brother Leweltus Whitsell had indeed been a timely godsend. Diana changed the facts just a little, to allow Brother Whitsell a quick dismissal of what conscience he maintained for his own use. It hadn’t taken much.
“My Poppa -- when he gets this bill in the mail and discovers all the girly things I’ve been putting on his charge card -- Brother Whitsell, ohlord he is going to kill me,” the buxom teenager Diana had blithered into a non-stop boohoo stream, trying all the while not to snicker. “That’s any day now, it’s coming, and Poppa’s gonna put two and two together, knowing what such outfits are used for. Only one thing. But he’ll be wrong because Buick he just didn’t want to be doing anything physical. Not yet. It would get in the way of what he wanted us to learn. Which was fine for me. But he said that the right outfit was essential to the learning process. Said Mr Theodore and Miss Nin wouldn’t relate to us unless we were totally committed. Not telling us anything, he said. Not ‘til it’s right. It was crazy. Half the time he was a twenty-two-year-old female bisexual, and the other half he’s a seventy-three-year-old male panty salesman. Me, I was caught in between. I liked Mr Theodore OK, I guess. And I thought I loved Buick. I knew I loved Miss Nin and the way she said things, but I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to tell me! If I am ever going to really write, I know I need her help. I do. I do, but Buick and Mr Theodore and Ms Nin were all in there mixed up and I couldn’t ever seem to get it straight who I was talking to. I told Buick I just couldn’t stand the pressure any more, so he kicked me out, and now Poppa will, too,” she finished, sighing. The story might be a bit shaky, but the heartbreak was real.
“Bisexuals! Panty salesmen! Charge cards! Lord, Lord, this is serious. But not to worry, Little One,” purred Brother Whitsell, pulling the saline-countenanced Diana fully into his own heaving bosom. “I’ll help you through your crisis of faith. By the Lord above, I will use all of the experience and judgment that I possess to drive the devil from your heart.”
The holy man held the young woman at arm’s length for a quick survey of her female terrain. It was inspiring. He looked at the room in which they stood. It was comforting.
“Now, let’s see if we can recreate the environment that brought on this troubling situation,” he crooned. “That will be a good beginning. Why don’t you just put on one of those outfits and confess to me everything you did with this disturbed young man. Read to me your very own record of what it was like. I will sit and listen. I will understand and advise. Read, child. Read to me of your sins, and yea verily, they will be forgiven!”
Leweltus had helped her through nights of crisis three times. Discreetly, for the poor afflicted girl’s privacy, rather than at his very public hardware store he had suggested their meeting at the Blue Angel. At his expense. He would sit on the edge of the motel bed to watch and listen as the attractive teenager -- clad in a mail-order reptile-embossed gold-chained 4-piece vinyl ensemble with pothole stockings -- read of her literary mentors’ escapades, and the direction of her own writing aspirations.
The inspired purveyor of hardware was most taken with the metal portions of her outfit, but he remained prudent and in control. He never touched or interrupted the girl, and he listened intently as she went on and on in depth about various imagined encounters. She was a child already well into amassing a life of experience -- experience worth recording -- whereas he as a grown man had nothing. He was happy to let his eyes settle and his mind roam. The nights at the motel were a most pleasant non-threatening situation for the both of them. He knew had to be at the store at 7:30am. But Leweltus Whitsell was willing to sacrifice his own personal comfort, and his sleep, for his calling.
As a true man of the cloth often must.
Then came the knocks on the Blue Angel door.
* * *
“I say shit!”
“Bet-tee’s right,” yelled Matty Sue above the din of voices. “We shouldn’t let him off just because he’s got himself a rotten wife.” She rotated her chair to her right. “Sorry Wilomena.” Returned it to face forward. “But if we said it was OK to fool around just because a person’s mate wasn’t a good match, we’d be letting loose the floodgates of infidelity. The whole congregation would be messing around without a care in the world. Not that I personally think that a bad prospect.”
“Bing-bong!” came again from the crowd.
“But the man’s a deacon in this Church. He’s supposed to make an example. And her only sixteen years old! He is definitely in the wrong, and that’s that, we gotta do something this time,” said Matty adamantly.
“Exactly. Bet-tee’s got it exactly right.”
Matty rolled herself from the speaker’s microphone emphatically. She had said her piece. Even though she felt deep-down that the little slut Diana Flatrock had seduced the deacon just to break poor Buick’s heart, the old man shouldn’t have dropped his guard so easily. The very least he could have done was not get caught. Matty wouldn’t be surprised to learn that little Diana had something to do with that, too.
“There’s the matter of that anonymous tipster,” Matty had told Betty before the meeting of the congregational board. “It sure wasn’t the fellow down at the Blue Angel.”
“Let’s face it, three-quarters of his business is local. No other reason for him to be in town. We got no tourists rushing to stay overnight in Blue Moons. I mean, stay overnight and do what? Get up the next morning to see the scenic imitation-brass soda fountain at Daigle’s? Or open their windows at the Angel and inhale the delectable sunrise scent of the Bowie County paper mulcher?”
“I say shit.”
“Nope, the Angel is where married folks go to fool around. It’s going to happen some time or the other, and there needs to be a safe place for that sort of sinning. You and me of all people should know, seeing all of what we’ve seen over the years. Upsetting, and maybe immoral, but there it is. The Angel’s damn well supposed to be invisible, just like the sinning that goes on there. Then some fool starts calling up the church office with reports of hanky panky. Breaking the rules. Slap the Rev in the face with it. What’s a preacher to do?”
“Sorry about Buick, Bet-tee. Know it broke his tender little heart. I hear he’s gone. Run himself out of town. Is it true he was carrying Kerouac when he left?”
Betty had strong feelings about Child Number Five, made even stronger by her stroke. The Roadmaster was her youngest and -- even if he didn’t realize it -- her favorite child. The others were more handsome, beautiful, responsible, intelligent. Buick was more interesting. Always coming up with a new take on things. While he was living alone with her in the house, she felt like she was living in the Blue Moons library annex. A fun library, more times than not. And she very seldom had to use her few remaining words to communicate what she was thinking to Buick.
An altogether loveable child, though I could have done without the five weeks of Proust, Betty thought with words that would never make it out of her mouth. Not since the stroke.
One reason he doesn’t know how much he’s loved. Hard to tell him, me all messed up like this. May have lost my son ‘cause I lost my voice.
This Church nonsense isn’t doing anybody a bit of good, either. Should have listened more when he was Innocent III. Practical man, that pope, even if he was Italian. He told me. Useless. Church is supposed to bring comfort in times of crisis. So far that hasn’t happened, that comfort stuff. Not in my life, anyway. Buick probably had the right idea all along. Find your happiness in other people’s.
“Well, we made him a deacon,” Tri-Larry Daigle was chirping at the meeting, “so now we got to undeacon him.”
“And how in the absolute hell are we going to do that, if I may be so bold to ask?” yelled Joe Mergenthal, editor of the Once-in-a-Blue-Moons Weekly. He turned full circle as he spoke, trying to insure that his own views were given maximum sonic effect. “What do you think we are, Tri-Larry, Catholics or something? We going to drag in a goddamn exorcist into Blue Moons?”
“Mister Mergenthal, you are in the House of God, even if it is only His Auditorium,” reminded Reverend Burch in his pulpit voice, “and I would appreciate your restraint in using profanity here, much in the same way you see fit to do so in your newspaper. We should strive to keep the words made public, even in small gatherings like this, clean and wholesome.”
“God! House! I say SHIT!” proclaimed Betty Daniels-Baskin, pointing out the serenity of the holy figures imbedded in the large room’s stained glass windows. Her stroke, though it had roughly hacked her vocabulary to bits, had not precluded an appreciation of religious symbolism.
“Yes, maam, Missus Baskin, quite correct,” agreed the minister, glad his point was well-taken. “You have remained a source of truth and inspiration in spite of your recent loss. In any case, I believe we are all agreed that Brother Whitsell can no longer remain a deacon of this Church. But the fact is he was properly ordained, and that honor is meant to last a lifetime. Now, this is highly unusual, but I do believe we have certain portions of liturgy that we might tailor to handle this rather perplexing case. And thus rid ourselves of an embarrassment. Brother Whitsell has agreed that, as part of his own making peace with our Blessed Lord, he will submit to whatever judgment we proscribe. He has even offered a twenty-percent discount on the roof tiles we have ordered for the rectory.”
“Hell,” interrupted Joe Mergenthal, “discount or no, I move we undeacon the sumbitch!”
“God damn!” replied Betty, simultaneously commenting on a number of matters.
Wilomena Whitsell, the sole dissenter in the vote, argued that her husband should forfeit a more concrete manifestation of his manhood. She was assured by Reverend Burch that Brown Memorial was not equipped to handle such seldom-performed elective surgery.
Behind their hands, most folks whispered Wilomena’d already done something close to that to the poor guy, anyway.
* * *
“Now, go put on that black number with the ribbon thingies. Right now, quick. This is the last one. You’ll be sorry you messed with your Dad, you will. Hurry it up! Get this over with. We want to play some poker here tonight, girl,” said Arty Flatrock, as Diana climbed down from the kitchen table wearing only a chartreuse bustiere, matching g-string and her mud-encrusted rugby spikes. The outfit (less the shoes) had been Buick’s -- and Mr Theodore’s -- favorite. But Buick Baskin was no longer within the spiritual confines of Blue Moons, Texas.
Brother Whitsell’s far-fetched cover story for the lingerie purchase had evaporated with the discovery of his covert part-time residence at the Blue Angel Motor Lodge. His fabrication had been a little far-fetched to begin with: “Your sweet Diana’s been buying those frilly togs for me, Arty, as a surprise for Mrs Whitsell, because you know me, I’m too embarrassed to purchase such things, you know, I just know nuts and bolts and the like. I mean, as a deacon of the church it wouldn’t do, but we men got to have our little pleasures now, don’t we?”
Arty had swallowed it, but only because Brother Whitsell paid for what Arty had thought at the time were all the charged purchases. He did not suspect a coming economic tsunami which had its epicenter in the on-line credit-card purchase website of a lingerie store in Hollywood, California.
Arty Flatrock was duped easily, in spite of being a wary businessman. That pissed him off, bad, every time it happened. And this time his very own flesh and blood had been involved. Arty had looked into his darkest soul for some suitable punishment for his daughter’s lies. He also wanted some further use for the unreturnable garments. The possibility that Diana had been enjoying twisted relationships with both an 18-year-old borderline lunatic and a 59-year-old married man did not seem to trouble him quite as much as the unauthorized use of his MasterCard. Still he thought the ex-deacon had covered that cost. He was soon to learn the breadth of the young woman’s capital outlay in erotic costumery. That, accomplished on plastic embossed with his own name.
Arty was rather compulsive about credit cards, seeing as how he had to deal with them day and night down at the Flatrock Flower Shoppe. People were always phoning for arrangements and deliveries. Phoning, so you couldn’t see their faces or IDs. Arty knew that one out of every ten people calling in for flowers was ordering on a canceled or expired credit card. He couldn’t get credit cleared fast enough, what with Blue Moons’ antiquated phone system, and still get the flowers out. He was a one-man Shoppe. So he had to listen to the voice and make a gamble. It took a week for the bad credit slips to come back. He routinely got burned. Quite regularly. So he’d make a second delivery after the fact -- some rotten old twigs and garbage with “Rest In Peace” scratched in felt-tip marker over the “Bon Voyage, Betty and Bruce” underneath. Delivered to the bereaved family’s door with apologies. “So sorry, they just called this one in,” he’d gloat. Arty made sure the free-loader’s name was prominently displayed on the filthy sympathy card. That’d show them.
People still gave him bad credit cards. Sometimes it seemed they did it on purpose. Called in a completely bogus delivery and name. He knew how to handle them. He’d been delivering his “punishment” arrangements for eighteen years, often on the mere suspicion of a perpetrator. After that long, he had reason to believe that he’d finally got both the bereaved and the joyful flower purchasers of Blue Moons in line. In spite of the occasional emotional scene and recriminations. He thought knew who the bad guys were. Until he had been fooled by a deacon in his church. And his daughter.
Arty Flatrock had his own concept of crime and punishment.
So, here was this thing with Diana. Arty had come up with the idea of both affording the regular participants in his Thursday-night card game with a little entertainment, and in the process shaming his daughter for her sins. He’d make her show all his old buddies the outfits, make her model right in front of them, same way she did for that crazy Baskin boy and the old geezer. She’d break down crying. He told the boys they could give her all the grief they wanted. Long as they didn’t touch.
“Good plan,” Arty told the boys as they waited for her first entrance. “Parent, you know. I got a head on me for this stuff,” he affirmed.
Problem was, they were up to the fifth and final outfit, and so far everything was backwards. Though she was initially shy, Diana now seemed to be enjoying the whole thing. Was actually sending a bit of bump-and-grind at her dazed audience.
The members of that audience were in turn were exhibiting all of the effects of a two-thousand-volt hit from a Steer-Twister Brand® cattle prod. The boys were stunned speechless, eyes slammed back in their heads, their mouths hanging open. Arty had begun to suspect that Joey Randazzo might have soiled himself. Not that the florist could really tell. Joey was the County Director of Sanitation. That meant he drove the truck. The Assistant Director picked up the cans. Neither was very sanitary.
The rhythm had been established early. All four card enthusiasts opened a new beer each time Diana left the room, looked at each other and Arty without saying a word, and drained the beers. Arty picked up the empty cans and threw them away. Diana would re-enter. The men would breathe shallowly and not move as she gyrated about. Then she’d exit. They’d all exhale, more beers would materialize and the cycle would happen again.
“C’mon, boys! You’d think you guys’ve never seen a woman before! She’s not even a woman! This is just a bad-assed stupid teenager!” urged Arty Flatrock.
In truth, none of them had seen anything even vaguely like what young Diana had been showing them. Blue Moons itself had no venue for such activity.
“Geez, Arty, it’s like a dream I had about Betty Baskin-Daniels bein’ in heat back when she was a beauty queen! Where did your girl learn to do that? We could get in some trouble here,” commented Village Alderman Leonard Ponder, owner of the Dainty Duds Laundromat. Leonard had been in the Army National Guard, and knew about such matters.
“Her mother, God rest her soul, had a little fire in her, too, when I first met her,” admitted Arty Flatrock, “but I fixed that, and now I been raising her daughter alone all these years, strict and all. I got no damn idea where this came from. Hell, I thought she’d be too ashamed to even come in the room. But I told her this was going to be her punishment, and that it will be. I ain’t letting her off now.”
“Absolutely not. Got to give her what she deserves.”
“Right thing to do.”
“Please let’s don’t stop the girl now.”
The reaction to Arty’s possibly skipping Diana’s last bit of punishment was immediate and vocal from his four friends. Just then his daughter again entered the kitchen, snapping the last of her garters onto the tops of the lacy black stockings.
“Ohmigod,” said Arty Flatrock.
* * *
It was to be one of the last things he ever said to his daughter. Not that he cared that much. She disappeared for good that night, and Arty thought he was well rid of her. His life would be simpler, for sure.
Three weeks later, standing on his own front porch at 9:30 on a sweltering Saturday morning, Arty discovered that though his life might have been simpler, his death was quite another matter altogether. A horrific scream alerted neighbors that something was amiss. By the time they got there, the body was tilted back against the porch siding, stiffer than a Pentecostal preacher forty-five minutes into a Ladies-Drink-Free Happy Hour. The corpse had become completely rigid from the very moment of death, though not for what could be termed natural reasons. The florist’s eyes and mouth were jammed open, abject terror still evident in their dark voids. The source of that reaction, a seventeen-page MasterCard bill, was tightly clenched in Arty Flatrock’s right hand.
The mortician told Arty’s remaining kin -- two second cousins who arrived the next day from Delight, Arkansas -- that if they wanted an open-casket ceremony he’d have to break the corpse’s jaw to get its mouth shut. Arty looked too scary otherwise. They declined. The casket was left closed, eyes and mouth open. A preacher was called in to speak the right words, an organist to produce the proper melodic groans. Both of the Arkansans remarked on the odd assortment of thorny branches and inappropriate banners that were delivered to the funeral home over the next twenty-four hours. They figured it was an insider tradition of some sort between the locals and a beloved provider of floral services.
Something tribal, perhaps.
* * *
Texans are known to be peculiar in many customs involving the flesh. As are many residents of the three states that make up the Arklatex -- which is what the residents of adjoining Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas call their collective selves.
But there are a few plump raisins to be found in the unsweetened oatmeal of contemporary life, and no small number have accumulated at the bottom of the North American breakfast bowl. Down in the Arklatex.
In what are basically good-hearted places, like Blue Moons, Texas.
Read the next chapter of the story.