EVERYBODY PLAYS THE FOOL
The day of his ride on the big tornado in the brand new pink-and-white doublewide, Jerry Freeman began to view the world differently. Considering his luck with all things weather wise, and his constant concern with the workings of the heavens, this was quite a change for him, because it wasn't the weather he thought about now when the subject of tornadoes came up. Someone mentioned a tornado, he read about one in the papers, saw one on the TV news, first thing that came to his mind wasn't the storm and the fact he'd been in one, but what he'd found in that storm.
He'd actually been in two tornadoes. That's why he was so weather wise. The first tornado didn't bear the same merit in his book though. It had come about when he was ten, had jumped over his house not hurting anyone, only shaking them up a bit and filling their nostrils with the smell of rain and ozone.
It had jerked away his family's TV antenna, and had stolen a Holstein cow from the pasture at the back of their house.
Jerry had seen the cow go. He'd been standing on the back porch looking across the yard, out through Old Man Winston's barbed wire fence and into the pasture at the cow, when the storm, moaning like a locomotive, came over the house in a bad goddamn mood and in the shape of a giant asphalt-colored snow cone container. It jumped down on the cow, wadded the antenna around her before whirling her up into the blackness of the storm, and carrying her off without so much as time for the cow to look up or say moo.
Neither cow, antenna, nor that particular tornado, to the best of Jerry's knowledge, were ever seen again. As a kid, Jerry liked to think that the cow was over in Oz somewhere, watching TV with Dorothy, the Wizard, the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man. Watching TV using his Mama and Daddy's antenna, which had somehow gotten all straightened out.
If so, he figured they were getting better reception than his family ever had. Back then, come nine or ten o'clock at night, you had to go out and turn the antenna some to keep Shreveport coming in if you wanted to watch a late movie or whatever showed after the news. And it hadn't gotten any better when they got the new antenna either. You had to start jacking with that one an hour earlier, trying to twist it just right so the TV waves, or whatever the hell carried the picture through the air, would float in from Shreveport and leap into that aluminum sucker and run down it and through the main wire and into the Sylvania television set with the white dolly on top supporting a batch of dust-covered plastic roses and a sprig of green plastic leaves, species unidentifiable.
One time, Jerry's Old Man, geared up for a John Wayne movie that was coming on after the news, had been out there twisting the antenna around and yelling, "How's things now? Can you see somethin'? Is that too far? How's that? Is that sonofabitch clear?" when a bolt of lightning with a fork in it came out of the clear, moonlit sky, hit the antenna and knocked Old Man Freeman on his fat ass.
After that, Old Man Freeman got him a better growth of hair than he'd had before—so good in fact, it almost covered up his bald spot—and a cautious view of the weather that he passed on to his offspring. He became suspicious of clear sky forecasts and had bad things to say about people who worked at the weather bureau.
From then, Old Man Freeman was cautious when there was something he wanted to see. He sent Jerry or one of the other boys out to turn the antenna, saying, "Now watch the skies, hear. You got to be careful with that weather."
Incidents like this caused Jerry and his three brothers to grow up kind of nervous; they lived with the certainty that the Freemans had to be damn careful when it came to bad weather. Its presence always seemed to lead to disaster.
But this other storm, the second tornado Jerry was in, that was a booger. It had revealed to him a horror, and had cleared up a fact long considered and hotly contested before by him. A doublewide mobile home, with or without pink trim, was not that well built and it was undoubtedly a tornado magnet.
Tornado got a brewing in the heavens, first thing that good buddy wanted was a mobile home. It's like a drunk has to have a drink, and a tornado has to have a mobile home, or maybe a whole fleet of them. Cows and antennas were just make-do material. A mobile home was the ticket. Especially one of those finer mobile homes, the doublewide. And if that mobile home belonged to a Freeman, that was just icing on the fucking cake.
The time of the second tornado, Jerry had been sitting in a lawn chair in the front yard of his boy Daryl's place out near the satellite dish, watching Daryl barbecue chicken.
Daryl had just split up with Carol, his wife of two years, a Sunday school teacher and a rodeo barrel racer, and he was still mopey about it. He said she got up one morning and went out to feed the birds sunflower seeds, like she did every morning, and had gotten into a car with a strange man and driven off without so much as a "kiss my ass." He hadn't heard from her since. Daryl said he figured she'd had the whole escape planned for a month. She'd gotten out of there fast and clever, hadn't even bothered with her clothes, or belongings, except, Daryl said, for a black velvet orange day glow painting of Jesus crying a purple tear. Daryl took care of the rest of her clothes and goods by donating them to Goodwill.
Jerry thought it was good riddance. She liked too much gospel music for his taste, and she'd done what she called "primitive paintings" and he called ugly. His granddaughter by his lawyer son Henry did about the same level work, and she didn't expect to get paid for it. Just hung it on the refrigerator with a Snoopy Magnet.
And Carol, she had fat thighs. Jerry couldn't stand fat thighs. His wife had fat thighs and he went to bed at night with it on his mind. It made him kind of sick to his stomach, those fat thighs. When his wife walked they shook the way his belly shook when he laughed hard, which wasn't all that often, since Jerry wasn't finding too much funny these days.
But he wasn't going to let that get to him. Fat thighs would not depress him. Not today. In spite of Daryl's mood, Jerry felt good. It was a bright and sunny day, but it wasn't really hot yet. Just warm, and there was a little wind carrying the smell of pines with it.
Jerry liked it out here in the country, even though Daryl's idea of landscaping was a bit on the stupid side. Daryl bought two acres in the center of some fine pine woods, then hired a bulldozer to come in and scrape his two acres down to the red clay, then he had bought a pink and white double-wide mobile home and moved it in, had a septic tank dug and electricity hooked up.
You came down the dirt road that led to Daryl's property first thing you saw on a summer day was a kind of tomato red sheen as the sun hit the clay and bounced back the earth's colors ten fold. Next thing you saw after rounding the corner was the pink and white doublewide. There was an electricity pole on one side of it, the satellite dish on the other, and a blue plastic bird feeder out front. There were four anemic bushes planted on either side of six chunky flagstone that were laid out slightly crooked in front of the mobile home door, making up the walk. From there, it was a small leap up to the metal steps that led into the trailer. You could get a hernia making that first step.
Driving up on the place, it was a sight best seen through cheap sunglasses. Nonetheless, Jerry liked coming out to see his son and getting away from his second wife, who didn't really like him or the boy. Jerry thought that maybe she didn't really like anyone, for that matter. A kind word never left her lips. About once a month, consumed by a sense of duty, she let him fuck her, prefacing the event with either: "Well, all right, but hurry" or "I guess so." It wasn't the sort of foreplay that made a man hard as steel. Jerry thought maybe he ought to buy her a little night-light, some magazines or something, so she could read about clothes and makeup while he pounded away, trying to drop anchor in her sea of flesh, her thighs foaming up over his legs and ass as if he were driving into a tub of silly putty. It had gotten so the idea of asking her for sex was so demeaning, he spent more time in the bathroom than usual these days, looking at the lingerie section in the Sears catalogue and exercising the hand, wrist, and forearm muscles in his right arm.
But to hell with all that. He was relaxed on this day. He sat in a lawn lounger, his hat tipped back and his feet stretched out so he could see the toes of his ostrich skin boots just beyond the rise of his T-shirt covered belly. A cold long neck, Lone Star beer cooled one fist and a cigar dangled from the other. He hadn't lit the cigar yet. He was enjoying the wait.
From time to time, if he felt the need of it, Jerry turned his head a little so he could see the blue, plastic bird feeder. There were a couple of scruffy blue jays sitting on the edge of it, quarreling. It seemed that blue jays always quarreled about something.
Missing his wife had made Daryl buy the feeder, as he said that she loved nature. But the feeder had some huge chunks out of it where Daryl, late at night and drunk out of his mind, had taken some pot shots at it with his .22 pistol. Mention that bird feeder now, Daryl got livid. He'd start ranting about how he was gonna use it as a place to shit, and pretend that it was his wife's face. There was no reasoning with him.
If Jerry turned his head in the opposite direction, he could see Daryl, wearing a big white apron with Let's Eat stitched in red across it. He had on a John Deere gimme cap and held a long handled fork, as he watched a chunk of chicken blacken and smoke on a barbecue grill. Daryl's mouth was open and his bottom lip drooped as if it were melting wax. He had a flat bumpy nose that reminded Jerry of an albino pickle mashed flat by a truck tire. It disturbed Jerry to think that people said the boy looked just like him. Secretly, he thought his son was terribly on the homely side, and he'd always thought of himself as on the left hand side of handsome.
Jerry was just about to light his cigar, when the sky turned a kind of green color in the west. Then he heard the signature roar.
A goddamn tornado come out of nowhere. Fat thighs and tornadoes. They were his lot in life.
"Tornado," Jerry yelled, and Daryl, a chicken breast on his cooking fork, turned to say "What," but saw the pine trees two acres away heaving up and launching themselves into the rolling, black sky as if they had secretly been missiles disguised as trees. They twisted and cracked and became part of the tornado's huge flexible funnel.
Daryl bolted for the doublewide, still holding his chicken on the fork, making good time for a man in a knee length apron. He reached the high step just ahead of his Daddy and dropped the chicken and fork to jerk open the door. He then stepped inside, wheeled, and stuck out a hand for his Daddy. Jerry took it, then the tornado took them.
It jumped down on that mobile home with a whoop and a howl, crumpling it as if it were nothing more than a Saltine Cracker box. A second later, they were airborne.
Later, Jerry and Daryl couldn't remember much after that, at least not until the find, that is. Jerry said that all he knew was that he was standing in the doorway one moment, and the next thing he knew, the mobile home was wrapped around him like a Christmas present, and somehow he had been blown across the trailer backwards until his ass had been forced through a half open window. Only thing that held the rest of him inside the flying double-wide were his arms spread crucifixion style on either side of the trailer wall, which he could feel vibrating like a hula girl's ass.
All Daryl remembered was laying on the floor on his stomach, wearing a velvet Elvis painting around his face, a heavy day bed couch on his back. The trailer trip was too brief for any real memories. Course, he remembered the afterwards of the storm, as he had to admit to some things down at the police station later.
After the storm got through beating up the countryside and wadding up the mobile home, Jerry was the first to wake from the ordeal. First thing he saw was a large fragment of the bird feeder lodged in the branches of some trees. The sky was as blue as the background on Old Glory beyond that.
He raised up on one elbow, looked for Daryl.
The storm had carried them across Daryl's land into the woods beyond, and had plowed a path through an acre or so of the woods before letting them go as it bounced on its merry way or dissipated in that mysterious manner tornadoes practice.
All that remained of the mobile home was collected in the trees and scattered about on the ground.
Daryl was nowhere to be seen.
Jerry raised up and discovered he was wearing the aluminum trim of the window he'd been lodged in. He slipped the trim off, stood, tried his legs and arms and found that everything worked. He started to call for Daryl, but saw the boy's feet, one shoe on, one shoe off, sticking out from behind a mangled fragment of the satellite dish.
Jerry felt as if a ball of razor wire were in his gut. "Daryl," he croaked through a mouth as dry as cotton.
He eased over to Daryl and saw him lying face down, the velvet Elvis painting wrapped around his head, his arms pushed out before him, his wrists and hands buried in the oak leaves, pine needles, and rich forest soil.
Jerry dropped to his knees, calling Daryl's name again and Daryl moaned a little, giving Jerry a smidgen of relief. The boy was alive at least. Jerry reached out to get the velvet painting off Daryl's head, but paused. A hand stuck up between Daryl's outspread arms. It was poking out of the dirt, palm toward him, and the fingers were loosely together, as if the hand was raised to wave.
"Oh, God, Daryl," Jerry said. "Your hand!"
But at that moment, Daryl pulled his arms aback and under him and lifted himself to his knees and started unwrapping the Elvis painting from his head. He used both hands.
Relief rushed through Jerry, but then another sensation instantly took its place. He looked at the hand again. It was a small left hand, and the wedding ring finger wore a wedding ring. Jerry could see the thumbnail where the thumb was curled toward the palm. The nail was painted red.
It was a woman's hand. The storm had uncovered it, and there was more. Beneath where the tornado had plowed the dirt, Jerry could see the rest of the body. It was wrapped in a black velvet cloth sporting an orange day glow painting, the dead hand escaping from a rip in it. Jerry crawled over and looked directly into the eye of Jesus crying a purple tear. He peeled the cloth back, revealing a face that looked like it was made of wet paper-mache. He could still recognize her as Daryl's wife, though, and knew that the black wound across her forehead certainly wasn't natural.
Daryl sat on the ground folding the Elvis painting absently, looking up at his Daddy, then over at the body. "I was gonna turn myself in anyhow," Daryl said. "I was gonna tell you about it after we had chicken. I know how you hate bad news on an empty stomach. I was gonna say all about it to you 'cause I couldn't live with it no longer. I dreamed last night I could hear her out here calling."
Jerry wasn't looking at him. He was looking at the hand and the painting. "You did hear her," Jerry said. "She wasn't dead when you buried her. She dug her way out this far then called to you for a while before she finally died."
Jerry peeled the cloth open and looked at the body, which was naked. The girl had fat thighs.
A shadow moved overhead.
Jerry looked up at the sky.
"Everybody Plays the Fool" was originally published in 1993 in Thunder's Shadows, Volume IV, Number 1, and later appeared in the Lansdale short-stories collection, Writer of the Purple Rage, published by Carroll & Graf. "Everybody Plays the Fool" © 1993 Joe R. Lansdale.
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