Human beings are communal by nature. A mumble of outside chit-chat masks the extra voices inside an individual’s head. If Last Chance’s inhabitants vanished, what would remain besides buildings, streets, critters, dust, and the shadows of ghosts? “No population” equals “no tax base.” Without revenue, how does Government eat? Ideally, the cost of civilization is borne by a vibrant, prosperous citizenry, which in Last Chance means vagrants, drifters, transients, tramps, tinkers, and especially hobos are unwelcome.
Barrymore’s day, which began with an effort to dig a survival shelter in his backyard, ended when he hit a sewer line.
“A couple of feet down is usually enough to hide the bodies,” he moaned. “I’ve shoveled bunches of holes, never none this deep.”
Barrymore was the scoundrel who made puzzle pieces disappear, a wrangler of the unexpected, yet this day’s events fluttered beyond his control. All of his muscles ached and some vital organs as well. Decline and mortality peered over his shoulder the same way puffy Councilman Everett was prone to do. Barrymore battled the chronic urge to toss some possessions into a handkerchief, sling a bedroll over his shoulder, and set out for the horizon.
He scratched his brain bucket whenever he tried to recollect the exact details of his long-ago introduction to Last Chance. Also murky: his earliest encounter with eventual three-time mayor Lowell “Fuzzy” Nelson, presumably because shots of rye were involved.
“I see inside your heart,” said Fuzzy. “It’s pure and beautiful.”
“Yours is beautiful, too,” replied Barrymore, “in a scary way — it makes me want to lock my doors except I got none.”
The future mayor’s elbow bumped against an empty rye bottle. He watched glass fragments stampede across the tavern floor.
“Who did that?” he shouted. “What game is this?”
“I didn’t see nothing,” said Barrymore, “although I’ll swear you wasn’t responsible and probably was somewhere else at the time.”
“Good answer! I aim to be mayor of Last Chance, and I reckon you could flatten a few bumps on my highway to victory. Would you become my campaign manager?”
The moon climbed over Barrymore’s hill and poked its chubby ochre face between the washing machines, wheel-less pickup trucks, and overstuffed chairs grazing in the high grass. Barrymore choked on the nostril-clogging stink of escaped sewage. He groaned; even his beard hurt. The welcome mat tripped his feet and he tumbled headlong onto the floorboards, where he lay in darkness and wept.
Non-stop barking outside roused Barrymore. Artemis, the cursed next-door neighbor, had made himself scarce again, undoubtedly prowling Last Chance’s outskirts, trafficking with tinkers. How often had Barrymore been tempted to report such vile behavior? He could complain to Constable Arlene about the noise, but most warm evenings she was at the gravel pit handing out trespasser tickets to undrowned swimmers.
Barrymore staggered to his feet and hollered though a window.
“Cease and desist with your almost continuous baying, you frightful Hounds of Hellville. My day wasn’t so good, neither!”
Minutes later and fingers a-quiver, Barrymore rummaged through the storage shed behind his living shed. He found the five-gallon bucket of well-used Thanksgiving turkey deep-fryer oil and hauled it to Artemis’s kennel. The barking reached a new plateau of hysteria. Barrymore kicked open the gate and swung an arc of pungent grease toward the two dog-demons within.
“You’re the ones what can’t shut your yap! I got you now! Just wait right here for five to ten minutes while I go look for some matches!”
The larger of the duo, a mastiff-poodle mix, let out a single yelp and went for the crotch. When Barrymore sidestepped with adrenaline-fueled agility, the well-oiled beast missed the family jewels and clamped onto thigh muscle instead.
“Wow!” Barrymore exclaimed. “Wow! Wow, wow, wow! Macaroni and Jesus, it hurts!”
Barrymore tried to punch and pull the assassin’s slippery noggin, to no avail. The berserk mastiff-poodle reeked of rancid Thanksgiving leftovers. His smaller companion, a vomit-colored terrier, shucked Barrymore’s leg as if a meat-flavored ear of corn hid within the twill.
“Bad dog!” wailed Barrymore. He slipped on grease and fell. Bright agony diffused into a numb endorphin glow. “Oh, I am not yet ready to cross the River Styx. Me, with my good looks and handy skillsets.”
He’d never finish the shelter, his favorite television shows would go unwatched, his funeral would be stained by mocking references to “death by canine.” Worst of all, Barrymore’s decades-old courtship of the Post Office lady would end unconsummated, and damn it, last week at the counter he’d nearly asked her name.
Light and pain diminished until he found himself on Heaven’s porch. His long-deceased grandmother nodded towards her beer cooler and smiled. You walked the railroad track all day, boy, set down your bundle and have a cold one with Granny. Then Barrymore heard an angel call out to him:
“Sir, is there anything I can do for you?”
Barrymore squinted open one eye, the one not pressed into fried-poultry-flavored mud, and beheld a fit young man dressed in khaki trousers and a dark blue polo shirt. Denny the insurance agent reached behind the mastiff-poodle and applied confident pressure to the monster’s boydog area.
The beast howled even louder than Barrymore had done just moments before, and released his victim. Bare yards away, a suddenly penitent terrier quivered beneath an inverted rusty barbecue grill.
“This feller’s firm handshake was what inspired me to board the ship of commerce he captains,” Barrymore muttered to himself.
Whimpers of discomfort and regret escaped his lips. Denny the insurance agent stood at a respectful distance and pretended to surveil Barrymore’s now timid assailants.
“I journeyed to the bitter brink of eternal lamentation,” Barrymore told Denny. “You yanked me back to this here world in which we all live together, you and me and others.”
“Happy to help, sir, although nigh my arrival I overheard a voice similar to yours yell something about setting domesticated animals afire…”
“Oh, them words was a private joke between the pooches and me. Nothing of importance. Or someone else was talking, I don’t remember.”
In the shack’s breakfast nook, Barrymore and Denny the insurance agent reflected on life’s ephemeral circumstances and narrow margins of victory.
“I’m sorry,” said Denny the insurance agent, “am I delaying your supper?”
“You have very recently saved my life and also my scrotum,” Barrymore replied. With kitchen scissors he snipped bloody strings of fabric. “I invite you to stay and chew as much fat as you desire.”
“I enjoy all of our appointments, sir, and yet I sense you don’t wish to discuss modifications to your insurance policies and investment portfolios.”
“You are keen beyond your years. Because you performed heroic acts, I’ll share my intentions frankly. Often I’ve daydreamed the notion of running for public office, merely to settle old scores and perhaps nibble at Last Chance’s overflowing pork barrel…”
“And yet, sir, I see in your eyes a furious blaze of something contrariwise to cutting corners and plying the odd grift. You are all lit up with purpose.”
“You bet, son, I am a furnace stoked with logs of honorable ambitions. After tonight’s escapades I see I’ve got to raise my game and give instead of get. I suspect “Fuzzy” Nelson’s taillights are well and truly faded into the distance. I’m fixing to run for mayor of Last Chance and I want your help. I will stand for goodness.”
“Assist you, I shall, sir!” Denny the insurance agent sprang from the nook. He paced the kitchen; two strides in each direction. “We’ll build you a platform of integrity, and societal progress, and folks restraining their murderous pets. A golden age of prosperity and goodwill, thanks to Mayor Barrymore yanking on the levers of power.” He paused, a bobblehead come to life. “Once and for all we’ll rid Last Chance of wanderers and vagrants and their campfires and forlorn harmonica music!”
Barrymore tied the last bandage, sighed, and shifted his weight from one ham to the other. His ravaged leg hurt like wasp stings dipped in tabasco pepper sauce. The kitchen’s sole lightbulb, usually puny, tonight shone bright as sunshine on spilled beans.
“The world could use a whole lot less negativity and a bunch more of them optimisms,” said Barrymore afore his voice dropped low. “There’s just one fly in the margarine, and you mustn’t tell nobody: I aim to serve my constituents, and pledge to execute the will of Last Chance, even though I myself was born a hobo.”
Outside Barrymore’s shed, the sound of dogs not barking threatened to cleave the night’s moist, turgid air.
Money and secrets are sometimes earned, sometimes inherited. Bury them as deep as you wish (mind the sewer pipes) and yet they still get found. We covet whatever is concealed by others, and hoard our own privacy. Last Chance is a bank, if you will, where social business is transacted. The occasional rascal jacks our ledger or pulls a broad-daylight heist, but mischief faces consequences! Criminality notwithstanding, courage and a sense of go-getterism are admired in Last Chance, and more oft than not those qualities can get you elected to the corridors of power. First you must roll up your cheap past and wrap a C-note around the deception.
Image via Pixabay