Thursday, January 31, 2013

     An Elegy for Mr. Bolex
By David Hunter

For the sixth grade at Hughes Public School we had Miss Rowan for the year; that would have been sometime in 1982 if I recall.  She was a wonderfully flighty lady with a Scottish lilt and a penchant for storytelling, often reading aloud to us at the end of the day from assorted books.  Sometimes she’d tell us Scottish folk tales and legends, acting out the parts and doing the voices.  She was the type of teacher you remember for the rest of your life.

At least until someone like Mr. Edgar Bolex shows up.  But I’ll get to that.
Miss Rowan sat in front of the class one day, sometime in December of that year, and told us she had to leave – she was going into the hospital for a procedure.  That’s what she called it, a ‘procedure’.  We all gathered around her, gave her a giant classroom hug, and she cried.

She never came back.  In fact, no one knows what happened to her, whether she lived or died.  In those days the school ‘authorities’ never shared such information with students.  It’s still one of the great mysteries of my life.

Enter Mr. Bolex.  A more diametrically opposite teacher to Miss Rowan could not exist. 

After enjoying our former teacher’s grace and warmth, where we were free to verbalize our thoughts, we were shocked when this man, six foot two and standing with his hands on his hips like an army sergeant, stared down at us through his glasses and ran through his list of rules: No Talking, No Whispering, No Gum Chewing.   Also on the list: No Arm Movement, No Turning Heads to Look at Other Students, No Speaking Unless Spoken To.  Bathroom Breaks Two Times a Day at His Disclosure, Once in the Morning,  and Once in the Afternoon.  He would keep a list in case someone went three times.  

He gave extensive homework assignments every night, and if you didn’t finish them you’d have to get up in front of the class and tell them why you didn’t finish and then he’d make you stand in the corner.  If you did it twice, he’d make the whole class stand up for an hour reciting text from our books.  
We never got to enjoy the spectacle of the punishment of our fellow students because we ALL got punished.  

I’ll say one thing; his was the quietest class at Hughes.  We’d sit there listening to that lonely clock tick, the muffled sounds of the other classrooms; laughing, cheering, talking.  We’d have our noses buried in composition books.  If we looked up for any reason, by God, Mr. Bolex wanted to know why.
The entire year went like this.  He excluded us from class trips, outings, and events.  We grew to hate our teacher. 

I figured I was doing okay on most of my assignments and tests (Mostly out of fear) but I never knew for sure.  Mr. Bolex never gave us our papers back, or our marks.  It was just his way, I suppose.  During Parent/Teacher night he would disclose this information to our parents, but never us.  I hate to admit it (and I never let on to my fellow students, only grumbled along and commiserated) but in that Fascist atmosphere I was actually learning.  
Who can tell me the Elementary Principles of Composition?” Mr. Bolex stated, standing at the front of the class shooting his steely gaze at us.
“I know an Elementary Principle of De-Composition – Flies!” whispered Robbie Lane, behind me.  It was so quiet that I barely heard it myself, but Mr. Balls, as he was becoming known, cocked his head like a puppy upon hearing a strange noise.

Mistake; those with sharp ears burst out laughing and Mr. Ball’s head turned into a nice beet color.

He zeroed in on Robbie.  Those ancient glasses must have contained a radar chip or something. 

“Mr. Lane, would you approach the front of the class?” he said.
Robbie looked surprised. 

“Right this minute.” 

Robbie extracted his ample body from his desk and slithered the necessary distance to the blackboard where Mr. Balls was standing.

“Now …” he began, “Please state for the class the entire table of the Elementary Principles of Composition.” 

Robbie’s brow scrunched and he scratched his head. 

“I don’t know the …” 

Mr. Bolex’s face opened up in an exaggerated and comical expression.  You could have called it sarcasm, I guess.  He had both arms out; one hand clutching an old copy of “Elements of Style”. 

“Well! Mr. Lane does not know the Elementary Principles of Composition!  Mr. Lane has been sitting in this class for nearly an entire school year and can’t name ONE – ELEMENTARY – PRINCIPLE  - OF - COMPOSITION! He said loudly.  He punctuated his sentence just like that.

“Here,” he said, handing him the book. “Turn to page 10 and read it to me.” 

Robbie was flushed with embarrassment now, because his reading was horrendous.  We could barely understand him, and when he mispronounced words snickers and giggles drifted forward from the class.  I have to admit, I smirked as well. 

But Robbie only saw me smiling, almost like no one else was there and making fun of him, like it was all my idea.  He bore down on me with a gaze so malevolent that his face looked like the face of a fat-assed demon, and not a 12 year old kid. 
Mr. Balls snatched the book away, satisfied.  He turned back to the class.  

“This boy,” he said, pointing with the book, “Can’t even read.  And yet he chooses to make insolent remarks at my expense.  A fine road you’ve all chosen; to laugh at this slovenly creature and give him merit.   Sit down Mr. Lane, and don’t waste any more of my time.” 

But Robbie never moved.  His bottom lip was pooched out like he was going to cry, but it was more from anger.  

Mr. Bolex tilted his head and looked over his bi-focals at the young insolent.
“Is there a comprehension problem my boy? Sit down.”

“Don’t you ever call me stupid.  My father calls me stupid.” He said quietly.
Mr. Bolex was un-mollified.  “Mr. Lane, when you cease acting stupid, you’ll be judged accordingly.  Now sit …” 

That’s when Robbie rushed him, screaming, calling him a bastard.  The whole class started whooping and hollering, on their feet.  He knocked old Mr. Balls down to the floor and was flailing his arms and hitting him.  Bi-focals went sailing across the wooden slats.

Seconds later he was back on his feet, restraining Robbie by the scruff of his shirt.
He said only one thing before hauling Robbie out to the Principal’s office, he said: “Dear boy, when there’s a large object blocking your path, don’t go through it; find a way around it.” 

The next day in class we were quiet as church mice.  Robbie came in, sulky face and all, and went to his seat in the back.  He made it a point to pass my desk, and I heard him say, quiet as the wind: “You’re Dead, loser.” 

Despite this moment of stomach-flipping dread, we were buoyed by the presence of Mr. Reed, the nice 5th grade teacher.  He walked in and did a double take at how quiet and composed we were.  

“Mister Bolex is away for a few days.  So I’ll be taking over his class till then.” He said, and then sat down.  He gave us some light reading to do, some spelling exercises, and some math stuff.  Afterwards we had a discussion on the Nuclear Arms Race, and Reagan.  All was well, but we dreaded the day that Mr. Bolex came back.  Every morning we waited to see who would walk into the class, the jovial Mr. Reed, or the sour Mr. Balls.  

During those days I was running scared, of course, trying to keep away from Robbie.  I don’t know what he was waiting for – did he have a set schedule for when to beat the shit out of me?  Mostly he would just see me from afar and scowl.  Who knew that a 12 year old like Robbie could be studied in the art of psychological warfare? 

One day, he appeared in front of me on the way home after class. He had stepped out from behind the northeast corner wall of the school and there we were.   The building, built in 1912, was 5 stories tall, and had lots of meandering angles.  We were in a cul de sac of sorts, an odd square in back of it.  Perfect place for an ambush.  There, no one could hear you scream.

I tossed my bag at him and ran.  I was a wiry little thing then, could run fairly fast, but Robbie was fueled by rage.  He caught me and hauled me down.  I smacked my head on the concrete and saw stars.  The last thing I remember was his fists and his spit flying.  

I was a mess; and Mom wanted to call the police, demanded to know who did it.  My father said the same, but I wouldn’t give up the name.  Sometimes you gotta wonder about kids and their schoolyard code.

The next day we waited to see who would come through the door.  We sat quietly.  Robbie had passed my desk again, and again he said, “See you after school, punk.” 

Come on, I thought.  Isn’t there a statute of limitations for this kinda stuff? My face was already a disaster – two black eyes and a busted lip.  Never mind my aching ribs.  I had to break the code and snitch or I’d have no teeth left.
Mr. Bolex waltzed into the room, arms laden with stacks of paper.  We all deflated audibly, like air being let out of a party balloon.  

“Listen up, class.  We have a lot of work to do!” he said.  The test was a killer; 6 pages long.  By the time the final bell rung my brain was fried.

After the class filed out, I lingered at my desk till everyone was gone.  Mr. Bolex was at his desk buried in papers, marking furiously.  After a while he looked up and saw I was still there. 

“You may go now, Mr. Polansky.  Class is over.” 

I gathered my books up and walked over to his desk.  He looked over his glasses at me.  “What on Earth happened to your face, Polansky?” 

I told him about the ‘student’, how he had cornered me and beat the hell out of me, and he was going to do it again today.  

“Well, the next time you decide to laugh at someone, you’ll probably think twice, won’t you? You deserve everything you get in this world.” he said, and went back to his work, leaving me standing there with my eyes welling up.  How did he know about the laughing, about Robbie?  I left him there, the old bastard, and realized that …

… I actually wished he was dead.  

The thought scared me, and I immediately took it back, but the truth was, it was out there now, in the ether, swirling above my head and headed for space. One thing about thoughts; you can’t really take them back once you’ve thunk them. 
I was walking along the sidewalk adjacent to the school this time, hoping there were sets of eyes on me from inside the houses along the street, and that someone would help me before I got my jaw busted.  Looking back over my shoulder every now and again, head on a swivel, I hurried along.  What a way to live, huh? 
There was a lane I pass through to get to my street, a narrow corridor between some of the houses, and Robbie was standing at the end of it, glowering.  I cursed myself for not realizing he would be there.  

This time I didn’t throw my bag at him, I didn’t run.  Mr. Ball’s words ran through my head again, though; ‘My dear boy, If there’s a large object in your way …’

“I saw you talking to Mr. Bolex, shit face.  Did you rat on me?” he said. 

“No, I didn’t.”


“Bull true.” 

He got this confused look on his face.  I guess he was conflicted.  I didn’t give a shit about his conflictions; I just wanted to get home with my teeth in place.

“Why?” he said. 

I shrugged. “Why make things worse?  And besides, I’m no snitch.” 

He considered this.  “Okay.  We’re even then.” 

And then he turned to leave – and I called out to him.  To this day I don’t know why I did, and I said, “I’ll help you with your reading, if you want.  No one has to know.” 

“Who says I need help reading, punk?” he said, marching towards me.  But he stopped a foot or so away, still too close as far as I was concerned.

“Come on, man, everybody knows.  Let me help you.  It’s no big deal.” 

“Listen, just leave me alone.  And don’t let me catch you laughing at me ever again, got it?” he said, poking me in the chest hard enough to make me sway.
I got it. 

During the last week of class in the academic year of 1982-83 Mr. Bolex walked in with a stack of papers; our final test of the year.  We were all nervous, expecting the most arduous and difficult quiz ever.  We waited, eyes forward.  He put the stack on his desk and stood there behind his desk; he had his chin up in that arrogant way of his, and his hands on his hips like the guy on the Captain Morgan bottles, the ones my uncle used to drain.

“Students, this is my last week in this fine profession,” he began. He gently took off his glasses and touched the desk reverently.  “I’ve been teaching since 1957, and I must say, you are a fine group.  It has been an honor teaching this class.  It could not have been easy for you, for I am not an easy man, but remember these words by Booker T. Washington, ‘Nothing ever comes to one that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.’”

We all exchanged looks.  

“Now, let us get down to business. Everyone - heads down for a few moments.  Let’s clear our thoughts.” He said, sitting back down behind his desk, crossed his arms, and closed his eyes.

We did as we were told.  Long minutes passed.  Robbie even fell asleep; I could hear his muffled snoring.  I was lulled by the distant sounds of the other classes and the traffic outside.  After a half hour I looked up; Mr. Bolex was sitting upright, arms crossed, eyes closed, just like before.

“Psst – Robbie,” I said over my shoulder.  

“Huh? Wuh ya want, geek?” he stammered.  There were crease marks on his face and eraser shavings on his chin.

“Look.  Old Mr. Balls fell asleep!” I whispered.  I tried to be as careful as anything.  That old geezer could hear a fly fart at 50 yards.

“No way! Let’s go see!” 

My turn to say ‘No way’.

“Are you crazy?”


“If we let him sleep we don’t have to do the test.”

By this time a murmur ran through the class, giggles and whispers too.  Everyone was looking at Mr. Bolex.  Ha ha, the old man fell asleep.

I got up. 

“Jeez, are you deranged? He’ll kill you,” hissed Heather Oncutt from the other side of the class. 

“We need to do the test and we can’t start without him,” I said.  I made my way up to the desk, kinda like the cowardly lion walking up to the great and powerful Oz.   I said softly, “Mr. Bolex? We’re ready to do the test now.” 

He must have been a heavy sleeper, because he never moved, or flinched.  Didn’t even bat an eyelash. 

I reached over and picked up one of the test papers from the pile.  Everyone sat up and watched me, and that murmur started again. 

I started flipping through it. 

Every page was blank.

“What is it?” said Blake, the class nerd.  He had huge glasses and wild white-blond hair.  He looked like a pint-sized Albert Einstein. 

“This must be a joke; there’s nothing here.” I said. 

The class gathered around the desk to come take a look, forgetting old Mister Balls for the time being. If he woke up we’d be in deep shit.  But Robbie, not to be confused with Plato or Isaac Newton, said something that made everyone stop. He had been staring at Mr. Bolex when everyone else was flipping through the papers. 

“I think he’s dead, guys.” 

We all gasped.  A few girls started to cry, more out of fear than anything. 

“Look, he’s not breathing.” He said.  We all gathered closer to look.  Indeed, he wasn’t breathing. 

“What do we do now?” said Blake.

Heather butted up ahead of the crowd, “Duh! We go tell the principal! What’s wrong with you people?” she said. 

Despite that, we all stared at him there behind his desk, sitting upright, arms crossed, eyes closed.  We were strangely reflective.  This man had been the bane of our existence since Christmas.  He came and went with the bell.  A mystery.  A rumor.  

“He wasn’t so bad,” said Robbie. 

“Yeah,” Said someone else. 

And so, that’s how Mr. Bolex left us, in the only manner he knew how; behind a desk and in front of a class. Heather, who always took the initiative, went straight to the Principal’s office with the news like Paul Revere.  Everyone else just filed out to wait in the hall.  I was the last one there, staring at him, with his little bow tie and his ghastly plaid cardigan.  I remember looking at his desk, the stack of test papers, the sheet with our grades; he had passed everyone.  As for the blank test sheet, who knows? It still boggles my mind 30 years later.

The rest was a blur; the teachers rushing in, the paramedics arriving, our parents too.  Quite a buzz, you might say.  The rest of the week Mr. Reed sat in with us.  We played games, read books.  Then the year ended and school was out.  We were like cons getting parole, truth be told.

I never knew what to make of Mr. Bolex.  Still don’t.  But when I got older I understood one thing, that he was just plain crazy.  He was a man past his prime, who was uncomfortable with the modern world, and who lived to make people’s lives difficult.  And yet, I cannot help but admire the man’s staunchness, his obtuse mind, and his rigidity regarding the educating of children.  I have tried to gather up something of value, some divine reason why Mr. Bolex had existed and was dropped into our midst in that year of 1982, and I’ll be damned if I can think of one even now.  Maybe he was a drill sergeant who missed the army.  Maybe he just liked to lord it over little kids.  Who knows? What I do know is, his insane work ethic rubbed off on me – I made it all the way through teachers college and started teaching, If only to erase the path of most resistance that he left behind.   My classes love me; mostly because I do things Mr. Bolex wouldn’t do, like communicate.  How’s that for a legacy? Old Mr. Bolex, what a piece of work. 

And damn it all, even though I hated his guts then, wished him dead even, I sure as hell do admire him now.  Maybe because I can finally laugh about it, years removed from the whole debacle.  Because he taught me how not to be a teacher, I suppose, in a way.  

What a world, huh?  What a world.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

        Batz in the Belfry
By David Hunter

Cousin Billy once told me a story about his days as an exterminator down in Texas.  Now, mostly, he dealt with cockroaches, rats, spiders, that kinda thing.  Occasionally he’d have to fish a raccoon out of the attic room, or flush bats out of someone’s barn.  Sometimes an animal got under the back porch and died there and old Billy’d have to drag it out.  He had the stomach for it, mind you.  Nothin’ fazed Billy Joe Warner.  He was a medic back in ‘Nam and he told me he seen all manner of things that bugs can’t possibly compare to.  

Except this one time.  He told me he seen guys flayed alive with napalm in Kai San, guys lying half-dead with they guts hangin’ out crying for their mamas, guys with skulls open to the sunshine for all to see - but never seen anything like he did that night 30 years ago.  

He got a call about midnight from a family in nearby Wynch – a short drive west of Houston – about a noise up in the attic.  They was all too scared to go up and look, and the daddy, who was new to Texas, didn’t wanna leave the girls alone to go see, so he looked up the phone book number for Cousin Billy’s Exterminator Service.  Billy was might pissed that he got woken up in the dead of the night like that, mostly because he was still sauced from an evening of whiskey and he hadn’t completely slept it off yet.  The man on the phone said he thought there was an animal up there and would he come over and look? Billy tried to tell him he’d come at first light, but something in his stone heart told him to go, so got in his truck and headed off. 

Well, when he got there the whole lot of ‘em was standing out in front of the place, still in their pajamas.  

“What’s the trouble?” said Billy, hauling his gear out of the pick-up truck and walking over.  The father, a tall drink of water with glasses, stepped forward. 

“I’m really glad you could make it, Mr. Billy.  We don’t usually get this kind of thing back east.” 

Billy grunted.  “Back east? Wherabouts?” 

“Connecticut.  I was an insurance broker there.  I’m Malcolm and this is my family,” He said, looking back at them all huddled together.  They all waved amiably. 

Billy grunted again.  He looked around but all he could see was whatever the front porch-light illuminated (A fifteen watt bulb, Billy had assessed) which wasn’t much.  Can’t survive in Texas with a 15 watt bulb! He did see something glinting in the moonlight off to the side on the front lawn. 

“Whut’s that?” said Billy, nodding his chin in the direction instead of pointing.
It took Malcolm a few seconds to register, but he finally turned his head in the direction of Billy’s chin.  He adjusted his glasses and squinted. 

“Oh, that.  That’s an aluminum shark cage.” 

Billy double grunted this time.  “No shit!” 

“I was interested in doing some shark photography back in Martha’s Vineyard so I had a friend make it for me.  I never got to use it – when the economy tanked I got laid off of work,” he said, shrugging.  “Plus, I had second thoughts about it.”
 “Stickin’ yourself in a cage and dumpin’ yourself in the water with sharks ain’t too smart anyhows,” Said Billy.  He looked up and noticed something in the attic window, glinted in the light of the full moon, something large flattened against the glass.  Malcolm followed his gaze and gasped.  

“What IS that?” he said. 

Billy pointed his flashlight up to the window.  “Looks like one big-ass bat, man,” said Billy, “Probably the noise you been hearing.” 

“A bat? Wow!” One of the kids marveled. 

“How’d it get in there?” asked Malcolm. 

“Flew in the window and the wind closed it up and trapped him.” 

Malcolm was transfixed, his fear abating a little.  “I’ve never seen one before.  What kind is it?” 

Can’t hardly tell from here.  You got to watch them, though.  If they get in your hair you’ll never get them out,” said Billy.  He put his spray gun back in the truck, picked up the large vermin net with the long handle, and a baseball bat, and marched up to the house.  “Y’all stay out here.  This’ll only take a minute,” He called back.

The house was chaos; boxes everywhere, and it looked like they had just moved in that very night.  When Cousin Billy made his way through to the stairs a terrible sound stopped him in his tracks; it was a high pitched screech coming from somewheres up in the attic.  From what Billy told me, he never heard nothin’ like it.  Not even a bobcat screeched like that.  

“Don’t you worry none, I’m coming, you sumbitch,” he said. When he got half-way up the stairs he turned back down and saw Malcolm. 

“You might wanna stay outside, Mr. Malcolm.  This here bat got kind of a bad attitude, if you get me.” 

“I thought you’d need help.” Said Malcolm feebly, standing there in his robe.  

 Cousin Billy, even with his meager 8th grade education, knew what was going on.  The man didn’t want to look like a sissy in front of his family.  Billy understood that better than anything.

He motioned him up the stairs, and passed down the bat.

 “If there’s any trouble, you use that.” 

Malcolm took it and held it in his hands as if it were an alien object.  

“The big end’s for hitting,” said Billy.

Together they proceeded up the stairs; a former Marine and a former accountant.  That thing, whatever it was, screeched again and Billy almost ran back down the stairs hisself, cept he was a Texas boy and that meant you never turned back, even if it killed you, once you said you’d do a thing, that is.

They got to the landing, the door mebbe four feet away. 

“This is what we gonna do,” Billy said quietly.  Malcolm was holding the bat above his head like he was gonna whomp someone right then and there.

“I’ll go in and catch the sucker.  You stay out here’n back me up case he gets loose, y’hear?” 

Malcolm nodded nervously, with the baseball bat still above his head.

Billy went over to the door and tried the knob, but it was locked.  Malcolm rushed down to the master bedroom and returned with a set of keys.  Through the door they heard the thing bumping and scraping against the window. 

Billy unlocked the door and slowly opened it. 

Now, I don’t reckon I can talk intelligently about the Bat species or anything like that there, but from what cousin Billy tole me this one was pretty smart, because once that thing heard the tumblers turning it made a bee-line straight for the door.  Caught Billy by surprise, it did.

Malcolm took a wild swing at the sunnuvabitch and hit the door frame just above Billy’s scalp.  You gotta hand it to that city fellah though; he was a persistent cuss.  He followed that Bat every which way, smashing up the place somethin’ terrible until he caught it at the bottom landing.  When Billy got down there the thing was deader’n a doornail, and Malcolm was sitting beside it struggling for breath.  

“Got it,” he managed to say between ragged gasps of air.

“Yeah you did.  Now alls you need is a new decorator,” Said Billy, lighting up a cigarillo, looking back up at all the holes in the stairwell walls.

“Maybe you should be in charge of the bat.” 

“Huh uh.  You’re doin jus fine.  Hate to see you with any kind of firearm, though.”
They inspected the Bat lying dead at their feet, wings splayed in grotesque crookedness, blood spattered.  Billy Whistled. 

“Never seen nothin’ like it,” he said.  He pinched the edge of a wing and lifted it. “Sumbitch must weigh 10 pounds at least.  Wingspan looks …”

From somewhere behind them a hideous mewling sound filled the air.  Cousin Billy tole me his hackles rose, and he didn’t even know what a hackle was.

“What was that?” asked Malcolm, standing up with the bat over his head again.

“Careful, son,” said Billy eyeing the bat.  He looked up the staircase at the open door to the attic.  “You got some kinda crawl space up there in the roof?” 

Malcolm shrugged.  “I … I don’t know.  We only bought the house last month.”
“Sounds like maybe you got some kinda sick raccoon stuck up there.” said Billy.  A lie; truth was, Billy had never heard a sick raccoon make that kind of noise.  But he didn’’t want to completely unhinge city Boy, if you get me.  Billy motioned for Malcolm to follow him back up the stairs and into the attic room. 

It was dark, and the light switch did nothing when Billy flicked it, so he shined his flashlight at the ceiling and saw that the critter had smashed out the bulb.  He turned back to Malcolm. “You wait in the hall if you want.  You swingin’ a bat around in the dark don’t thrill me much.” 

“Whatever you say, Billy.” 

From above them, in the roof presumably, came furious thrashing sounds, great wracks of noise, and finally a bone-jarring crash that shook the house and rattled the window. 

“Mister Cousin Billy, sir, I think I’ll take you up on that ‘waiting in the hall’ offer,” said Malcolm.  Billy put a hand on his shoulder.

“Hold up, son.  Look, whatever’s up there, bobcat, shrew, dragon, pissed off rhino, it don’t do no good to run away from it.  We got to face it, whatever it is. Hell, I got half a mind to go down and get my shotgun.  You cain’t leave me up in here by myself.  It’s against the code, man.” 

“The code?” 

“Yeah, the code.  Otherwise they take away your man-card an you ain’t allowed at the big boy table no more, you getting’ the drift yet? Once you start runnin’ away from stuff you become a scared rabbit all your life.  You getting’ the drift yet?”

“I think so.” 

Billy grunted his approval.  He liked Malcolm.  The city boy had potential.  Texas’ll make him a man yet, thought Billy.  Maybe.

“Good.  Now you wait here in the doorway.  I’m gonna see If I can’t find a way up there into the crawl space.” 

He left Malcolm there to guard the doorway and entered the room.  All Malcolm saw was a disembodied light moving erratically.  Billy walked slowly, inspecting the room, and he started to hum a tune.  

“…Oh don’t you go swimmin’ with bow-legged wimmin … they’ll drive you to drink … they’ll drive you ins-a-a-a-a-ne …” 

Moments later Billy was inside a nook, shining the light up at the ceiling.  It bounced back down, putting him in sharp relief from the reflection.
“Found something.  A trapdoor.” He called.  “Must be the way up.” 

Billy stopped his movement.  So did Malcolm.  

There was a sound.

“You hear that?” whispered Malcolm. 

“Can’t help but,” said Billy.  

It was a snuffling, raspy sound, coming from the crawl space.  Like someone trying to breathe through a clogged nose.

Billy left the nook with his flashlight trained on the ceiling’s wooden beams until he stopped.  He stood there for a moment, staring up. 

“What in the hell …?” 

Malcolm started to walk over when Billy let out a loud curse and dropped the flashlight.  The room was plunged into darkness, and from above a high-pitch squeal sent them both tumbling back into the hall where they collapsed. 

“Lord a’ mighty,” said Billy, unsheathing his buck knife out of instinct in lieu of gun.  

“There was …” 

“What? What was it?” 

“…There was something looking at me through a hole in the ceiling …” 

“Something looking at you …? Said Malcolm, his own hackles now fully arisen.  He had already decided to sell the house in that split second. 

“An eye,” said Billy.  From inside his vest he produced a .57 Magnum.  He was on his feet and marching back into the room.  “Look at me though a hole in the floor, you sumbitch?” he yelled.  His army boots clomped as he made his way back over to the nook.  Malcolm heard loud cursing and noise in the darkness as Billy tried to get up and open that trapdoor, and from somewhere above the awful thrashing noises again.  Dragging sounds: Billy managed to find a trunk and jam it into the nook where he could finally reach the ceiling.  

Well now, as soon as old Cousin Billy opened that door, something came down at him, knocking him clean off the trunk and onto the floor.  It was clawing and biting at him and poor old Malcolm was beside hisself with fear.  Next thing you know, Billy’s on his feet with this thing caught in a bear-hug wheelin across the floor.  Malcolm just ran down the stairs, and he barely got out of the way when Billy come tumbling down behind him, with that creature attached.  They was smashing up everthing; walls, banisters, photos hung.  It was hissing and screeching, and Billy was a-punchin away at it but it done no good.  

By some happenstance, Billy, blinded by blood and rage, found hisself out the door off the front porch where he gave the damn thing one last punch that seemed to stun it, and he kicked it off where it went reelin’ back into that old shark cage of Malcolm’s.  Billy, instincts as good as anyone, applied his size 12 boot to the door and it locked.  

By now Malcolm had sequestered his family in their Volvo and was standing by the passenger door with the baseball bat still held up.  He staggered over to Billy who was crawling back to the porch steps, face bloodied, but still able to pull out a cigarillo and light it.  He sat there, finally getting a look at the beast.

The thing was not of this earth; its skin was blackish green, it had large ears and large teeth and pretty much eliminated any local species.  It also had large crooked wings that up to that moment had remained folded up – but as it was trapped now them things spread out and touched each end of the shark cage.  It sat staring at Cousin Billy for the longest time before it leaped forward at the bars, gnawing, gnashing, beatin’ its wings.  Spit flew and teeth flashed.  For a moment old Billy was wondering if that thing would chew right through the aluminum bars.  

Malcolm sat down beside him.

“Billy …?” 


“What is that thing?” 

“Damn if I know.” 

They sat there for a bit while Billy smoked his cigarillo.  Malcolm’s wife came over an said she was takin’ the kids to a local motel and that she wasn’t settin’ foot in that house ever again.  The beast stopped its hissy fit long enough to listen to all this as if it understood.  Mal’s wife hustled back to the car and they was off, leaving them two fellahs a sittin’ there. 

“Now what?” said Malcolm. 

Billy shrugged.  “Dunno.  I could use a beer though.” 

“I mean, about this … thing?” 

Billy smiled broadly, and mixed with his wild scruffy face and caked-on blood, made him look a little nuts. His ear had almost been torn off.  “I have a feeling that this sucker’s days are numbered.” 

“Billy, your ear … you probably need a doctor.” 

“Nah.  Just a scratch.  About that beer though …”

All the while this thing thrashed and carried on, alternately hissing, barking like a dog, screeching like a cat, as if it was trying out different ways to get Billy to let it out of the cage, until it finally got tired or something and just stood there with its claws wrapped around the bars and it’s little grotesque face between them, staring.  It was coming on the blue hour, just before dawn.

“Stare all you want, you sumbitch,” said Billy.

They stayed that way until daybreak.  Malcolm had curled up behind Billy on a welcome mat, cradling that Louisville Slugger like a Teddy Bear, and the thing, well, it continued its staring contest with Billy, until the first hint of the coming sun showed itself.  They both turned to look east, cowboy and monster, where the sky was becoming lighter, and the thing began its most furious rage – spewing, thrashing, rattling the cage an almost tipping it over.  Harsh barks and shrill screams.  Malcolm woke up clutching the bat, eyes wide and scared.

“What’s happening?” he said sleepily. 

“The sumbitch don’t like sunlight, I reckon.” 

The sun was on its way, and now the thing decided to take giant runs at the cage door almost like a linebacker tackling a dummy, and as the sun got closer it took to throwing itself around the cage like a panicked budgie. 

“My uncle tole me he seen something like this once.  Dunno if it was truth or bullshit.  But he said one day he was cleaning out the barn and up in the hayloft was a creature that he’d never seen before, a creature with large wings and teeth like a bobcat and claws like a lion.  He shot it dead right then and there, but when he drug it out to the barnyard, well …”

“What was it?” asked Malcolm.

“He called it a Texas Harpy,” said Billy, finishing another cigarillo and tossing it on the ground. “I always figured he was full of shit.  Sorry ‘bout that, Unc.  And here I thought you was just a miserable lyin’ drunk.” 

When the first beam of sunlight hit the floor of the cage, the ‘Texas Harpy’ stopped all movement.  It gave up, I believe, or it knew that it’d been bested by Billy, so it just stared at him through the bars with that mean little face and its long claws and it’s orange teeth, until the sun come up and it burst into flames and issued forth a hitherto unheard of screech like Billy had never heard before, like it was giving birth to hell itself, until it disintegrated into a pile of ash that the gentle morning breeze blew out across the way and into the morning air. 

Malcolm produced a couple of beers and handed one to Billy. 

“By the way, I only accept cash, son,” he said, taking a generous gulp. “I’ll write you a receipt if you like.”

That was Billy’s last job.  


Nobody was ever able to verify Billy’s story.  That Malcolm fellah and his family went back east to Connecticut without looking back and no one ever heard from them again.  They only sent a moving company to pick up their belongings.  As for Billy hisself, he passed on 10 years later, a shell of the man he was – frail and sick.  Half his face was paralyzed by infection and doctors couldn’t help him, since all they heard him tell was he was bit by a Texas Harpy, and of course that only made him sound crazy as a bag of hammers.  In the end, he fell asleep on the front porch of his ranch one day and never woke up. 

He often tole me he didn’t know if he imagined the whole thing, or it really happened, or whether he dreamed it all.  Either way, the Harpy got him in the end, I believe, by biting him on the ear and sending lord knows what into his bloodstream.  Yes, I believe his story.  He was Cousin Billy and I loved him like hell an I believed everthing he ever said, even when he said he was bit by a hideous winged creature that poisoned him 30 years ago. 

All’s fair in love and war, after all.  Even in Texas.