“Get a loada that kid. She’s got a lotta frickin’ moxie for a nine-year-old."
The following is an excerpt for "KooKooLand" by Gloria Norris.
It was so hot you could die.
It was summer vacation 1963 and we were going to the drive-in to see a slice-and-dice called Blood Feast.
We lived in Manchester, the so-called Queen City of New Hampshire. The drive-in was in the boonies, in nowheresville. We had a drive ahead of us.
My father, Jimmy Norris, herded us into his Pontiac Chieftain. He wanted to get there early. Normally, Jimmy never got anywhere early. Waiting was for jerkos. He preferred to let the other guy wait for him. But tonight was special.
“It’s the hour of reckoning, little girls,” he cackled in his scary, Boris Karloff voice as he took the corner leading out of the projects at a speed fast enough to make the wheels emit a sharp squeal.
“Jim,” protested my mother, Shirley, clutching the paper bag with our supper so it wouldn’t go flying. The word seemed to evaporate the moment it left her shimmery pink lips.
Jimmy crooked his right hand into a claw. There was dark hair growing on the knuckles, and mysterious grime under the nails. I had seen that hand rip out the still-warm guts of dead animals ten times my size. I knew what it was capable of.
Jimmy drove with his left hand and swiped the clawed hand behind him into the backseat. The Hairy Claw was going for any part of us it could get.
Virginia, my fourteen-year-old half sister, buried her head under her arms as she’d been taught to do in school to ward off a nuclear blast.
I was five years younger but I took on the Hairy Claw.
As it groped for a fistful of flesh, I grabbed it with both hands. It escaped and clamped down hard on one of my spindly wrists. My fingers with their gnawed-on fingernails wriggled helplessly like earthworms trapped in a Skippy peanut butter jar.
I tried to pry the Hairy Claw off, but it squeezed harder. I pictured my hand snapping off and my stumpy arm pumping blood all over the car. I thought how mad Jimmy’d be if I bled on the upholstery. I’d thrown up a butterscotch-dip ice cream cone in his last car and he’d threatened to brain me one. Blood would be harder to wash out. It seeped right in and you could always see the stain no matter how many times you ran whatever bloody thing it was through the wringer.
My only hope was a sneak attack. Jimmy had taught me that that was the best way to get the jump on somebody in the schoolyard or on a battlefield. I lunged forward and chomped down hard on the Hairy Claw. The taste of sweat and pine sap filled my mouth. I was hoping for a taste of blood, but my chompers just weren’t up to the job. A couple of baby teeth were wobbly and the others were pockmarked with cavities.
Besides, Jimmy’s skin was tough as a moose carcass. He’d once had a two-inch hunk of wood embedded in his hand for weeks and didn’t even know it.
The thing was, I’d never seen him in any pain. Not even when he dug out that hunk of wood with a bowie knife.
Jimmy laughed at me as I gnawed away.
“Dirty fighter, dirty fighter. If you were in the ring, we’d have to disqualify you.”
Jimmy often compared life situations to boxing. His father, my Papou Nick, had been a boxing manager and Jimmy had been his cut man from the time he was six. Jimmy could stop a bloody lip from bleeding faster than a guy could scream “Get back in there, you bum.”
“Get a loada that kid. She’s got a lotta frickin’ moxie for a nine-year-old,” he said to Shirley.
Shirley nodded, her mouth stuck between a smile and a frown. She quickly lit a Lucky Strike. Her long fingers holding the match shook. She blew some smoke over in Jimmy’s direction.
“Hey, gimme that cancer stick, Olive Oyl,” he said. He called her that ’cause she was tall and skinny like Popeye’s girlfriend.
He gave my wrist one last, extra-hard squeeze and finally let it go. I fell back into my corner, sweaty and breathing hard.
Shirley passed her lipstick-smeared cigarette to Jimmy and lit another for herself.
Jimmy drove faster. The wind from his open window blew smoke back into my kisser. It mixed with the rotten-fish smell from the bucket on the floor next to my Keds. I remembered that butterscotch-dip and felt my stomach start to crawl up my throat.
I tried to get my mind off the fishy smoke by playing a game. I peered into the cars whooshing by in the opposite direction and picked out the one with the blondest family. I pictured myself a part of that family. I was on my way to the Ice Capades. My name was Kelly Swan. I had hair the color of just-churned butter and eyes like bright blue tiddledywinks. I had patent leather Mary Janes so shiny I could see my perfect teeth in them. My daddy was a doctor who saved people’s lives on a daily basis. He made Dr. Kildare look frickin’ sick. We lived in a big, white house. I had my own bedroom, all purple, with a window seat where I could read my Nancy Drews. Whenever there was a crime in my neighborhood, I solved it like Nancy. On Sundays, I went to church and sat beside Daddy. Sometimes he’d tickle me with his lifesaving hands. After church, we had churchy people over. We had banana splits in real banana split dishes. Never mind one cherry on top, we could put on as many as we wanted. It was frickin’ maraschino cherry heaven.
Bam! Jimmy hit the brakes. A fishing pole that had been on the back window ledge flew into my lap. Its rusty hook slid around on my bare thigh. Virginia was fending off a pair of muddy trimming shears.
Jimmy’s Pontiac had pulled up behind a creamy white Cadillac. An old lady was behind the wheel. I imagined she was on her way to bingo or a baked bean supper. She was not going Jimmy’s speed. He drove an inch from her bumper, trying to get her to go faster.
“Come on, move that jalopy, you old bat.”
He looked over at Shirley. “What’d I tell you? Never get behind a Caddy. You could turn into Rip Van Frickin’ Winkle before you get to where you’re goin’.”
Shirley was already bracing herself against the dashboard.
Jimmy floored it and swerved around the jalopy.
As we passed, I caught a glimpse of the lady’s watery blue eyes. She was scared shitless, I could see that.
An oncoming truck driver blew his horn and braked hard to avoid plowing into us. Jimmy scooted back into his lane.
“Chicken Little!” Jimmy called out to the passing truckie. “Pluck pluck pluck!”
The truckie flipped Jimmy the bird and barreled away faster to show he was no frickin’ Chicken Little.
“See what I mean about women drivers?” Jimmy said to Shirley, jerking his head back toward the lady in the Cadillac, who was fast becoming a white speck. Shirley nodded, shooting a reassuring smile into the backseat that we didn’t buy for a second.
The thing was, Jimmy didn’t think women should be behind the wheel. He said their hormones prevented them from making smart decisions. They didn’t have hair-trigger reflexes like men had from firing guns. It was for my mother’s own good and the safety of others that he had put the kibosh on her driving.
Recently, though, she had tried to change his mind. She came up with an angle she thought might win him over. Getting her license would free him up, she had insisted. He wouldn’t have to drive her to work or the A&P. He’d have more time to hang out at the bookie joint.
“You’d cream us all,” Jimmy had laughed. “You’d cream your own kids. Splat! Sayonara, brats. A car is like a gun. Unless a person knows how to handle it, they better not monkey around with it.”
“But what if I didn’t go all the way to the A&P?” Shirley had tried to bargain. “What if I just went to the Temple Market and back?”
Jimmy nearly split a gut. “With your sense of direction, you’d end up in KooKooLand.” KooKooLand was what he called California, his least favorite of the fifty states ’cause all the people out there were surfing ding-dongs.
Shirley’s doe-brown eyes flickered with doubt. “I guess you’re right,” she’d said. “I don’t want to endanger the kids.”
And that was that. Sayonara, driving, for Shirley.
The road was all Jimmy’s now. I watched the needle of the speedometer glide over ninety on its way to ninety-five. I wondered what happened when the needle reached the end of the numbers. Maybe it exploded like in a Road Runner cartoon. Meep! Meep! Kaboom!
Jimmy switched on the radio. Louis Armstrong’s “Stardust” filled the car. Jimmy turned it way up so we could hear it above the roar of the wind coming through the windows.
“Hey, brats, listen up. This music is so damn beautiful, it’ll break your heart and put it back together again.”
Jimmy made trumpet sounds along with the song, dueting with Satchmo. He sounded pretty good, if you liked that sort of music, which I didn’t. I wished I could switch the dial to Radio 1250, WKBR, where they might be playing “Let’s Turkey Trot” or “It’s My Party.” Talk about a song that would break your heart. Poor Lesley Gore got dumped by her boyfriend for a two-face named Judy. At her birthday party, no less.
Life was like that. Sometimes it just sucker punched you.
Jimmy took a drag off his cigarette and went back to making trumpet sounds, letting the smoke seep out from between his puckered lips. He had wanted to be a trumpet player when he was twelve, but had quit after two lessons ’cause he stunk up the joint. If you couldn’t be great at something, he insisted, there was no point in killing yourself. He decided to stick to hunting and fishing, since he could clobber anybody in Manchester, in all of New Hampshire even, at those things.
Bonk. My head smacked against the window.
Jimmy had swerved to avoid a squished muskrat or possum or chipmunk. It was hard to tell which it might have been.
“Poor bastard,” Jimmy said. “Frickin’ civilization.”
I stared out the window. I didn’t see any frickin’ civilization. Just a lotta frickin’ trees. And ditches on the side of the road where some maniac could dump a dead body if he was so inclined. I sure hoped we didn’t break down or anything. I sure hoped Jimmy’s Pontiac didn’t blow a frickin’ gasket.
Finally a sign for the drive-in appeared. Jimmy pinched out the butt of his cancer stick and tossed it out the window. We took the turnoff and barreled down the winding dirt road toward the ratty-looking white rectangle that had been plopped down in the middle of a paved-over field.
Jimmy turned to Shirley. “Gimme a fin.”
Shirley dug into her purse, trying to hurry it up. Jimmy didn’t like it when stuff took too long. He never failed to remind us that in the merchant marine he had made his bed in under a minute, no wrinkles, and corners folded so sharp you could cut your keister on them.
“C’mon, c’mon, make it snappy,” Jimmy barked, as Shirley fumbled with her red vinyl wallet.
We had reached the booth. A skinny man stood there eating a sub, waiting for the money.
Shirley finally got her wallet open and handed Jimmy a fin and Jimmy forked it over. The sub-eating guy went to give Jimmy his change and Jimmy recoiled.
“A two-dollar bill? Forget it, Clyde.”
Two-dollar bills were bad luck. Everybody knew that. Except maybe people out here in the boonies didn’t know. Or maybe the guy was just trying to fob off some bad luck on an unsuspecting family.
“I got enough bad luck already,” Jimmy told the guy. “I got Norris Luck. You know what Norris Luck is? It’s when a two-to-one shot pops an ankle half a stride from the finish line. So don’t gimme any goddamn two-dollar bills.”
The guy shrugged and gave Jimmy two greasy singles instead.
Jimmy gunned it, kicking up a cloud of dust all over the booth. He sped onto the paved area and snaked between the posts that held the hissing speakers. There were mounded areas on the pavement that you were supposed to park on to get a better view of the screen. Jimmy swerved into a spot dead center and kept shifting the car from drive to reverse to get the best angle. The second the car stopped moving, Shirley jumped out. She Windexed the dead bugs off the windshield until every streak of their guts was gone and it passed Jimmy’s inspection.
Then Jimmy yanked the speaker off the post, hooked it onto the window, and adjusted the volume. The sound was muffled and crackly, as if some kid had poured a Pepsi into it.
Jimmy whapped it with his fist.
“Mickey Frickin’ Mouse Incorporated musta made these speakers,” he said. “And that screen looks like it was a hooker’s sheet in a flophouse. Remember, kids, the drive-in’s OK for a slice-and-dice, but for a quality picture like Lawrence of Arabia you gotta go to the indoor joints.”
A happy man’s voice was tinkling out of the speaker. “. . . Only twenty minutes till showtime. Visit our snack bar for a juicy hot dog, tasty hamburger, or pipin’ hot pizza. And don’t forget your popcorn, soda, and candy. Mmm-mmm.”
An animated hot dog and hamburger were doing the twist across the screen with a fat bag of popcorn and a smiling soda cup. A worried-looking clock showed there were only twenty minutes left till showtime.
I watched people all around us stampede for the snack bar. I wished I was going to the snack bar too. I could picture those giant boxes of Milk Duds and Junior Mints stacked behind the glass counter. Unfortunately, Jimmy thought snack bars were for ding-dongs.
“Look at all the ding-dongs about to get soaked for a rubber hot dog,” he crowed, as he pulled a fifth of Schenley out from under the seat. I always worried he’d cut his hand on the butcher knife he had stashed under there, but, nope, he never did.
Shirley popped open a bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale and mixed up some highballs in the plastic tumblers that Jimmy had gotten from Charlie, the gas station owner. Normally a person had to buy gas to get the glasses, but Jimmy had gotten them for free. He’d given Charlie a tip on a horse that was being hopped up and it won and Charlie came through with a tank of gas and the tumblers.
“It’s too bad I couldn’t get poor Hank to come,” Jimmy said as he slugged the highball. “It woulda been better for him than mopin’ around over that no-account ex-wife of his.”
I forgot all about the snack bar and leaned closer to the front seat.
Whenever Hank’s name was mentioned, I was all ears. Hank Piasecny was one of Jimmy’s best friends and he sure as hell wasn’t poor. He was a big shot who owned a North End store that, according to Jimmy, had enough guns to kill every dummkopf in the rotten world. He also sold every kind of ammo, and fancy fishing poles to catch giant fish you could hang on your wall if you were a blowhard, and boats and motors that I figured millionaires bought. Hank and his knockout wife, Doris—well, ex-wife as of a few months back—both drove Cadillacs and Doris had a fur coat and jewelry that Shirley said was the real McCoy, so I figured Hank must be a millionaire too. It made me feel like a big shot that my dad was friends with a millionaire. None of the other kids in the projects had even met a millionaire, much less had a father who went hunting and boozing around and to the fights with one.
Jimmy said Hank was a man’s man. A man’s man was a guy who didn’t get all nervous when a copper stopped him. A guy who would belt any palooka who looked at him sideways. Hank had a bulbous nose that had been broken a bunch of times ’cause guys were always looking at him the wrong way. I myself never looked him in the eye so I wouldn’t get clocked.
Hank and Doris had a daughter, Susan, and more than anything I wanted to be her best friend. She was in college and I was only going into fourth grade, but I figured once I got into high school I’d be old enough and cool enough to win her over.
According to Jimmy, Susan could do anything. Supposedly all of Manchester and even some people outside of New Hampshire felt the same way.
“Anything that kid touches turns to gold,” Jimmy insisted. “She’s a real brain, a regular egghead. She’s really going places.”
I wanted to go places too. I wanted to go where Susan was going.
Jimmy said Susan was going to be a doctor. I’d never seen a lady doctor. I wondered if they got to wear high heels or if they clomped around in those ugly nurses’ shoes that looked like the orthopedic ones I got stuck wearing until I was seven so I wouldn’t trip over my own feet. I figured they must have lady doctors in KooKooLand. Doris had just come back from there. She must have been scoping things out for Susan.
I’d already made up my mind I was going to be a lady doctor too. That is, when I wasn’t writing mystery stories. Or making movies that would scare Jimmy to death. Or flying around the world free of charge as an airline stewardess. Being a stewardess sounded like a real blast. I’d just learned the ins and outs of it from a book I’d stolen from the library. I’d already begun my training by gliding around my bedroom holding one of Jimmy’s Louis Armstrong album covers as a tray and repeating, “Coffee, tea, or juice?”
I figured if Susan could do lots of things, why not me?
Susan wrote poems that won awards and she could draw and play the clarinet and ski and ride horses and play basketball and was in school plays and on prom committees and ran a newspaper.
I sure hoped Susan didn’t already have a best friend.
I sure hoped Doris didn’t drag her off to goddamn KooKooLand.
“Who the hell does that Doris think she is anyway, the goddamn Queen of Sheba?” Jimmy was asking Shirley. “Who the hell does she think she’s gonna find better than Hank? The poor sap bought her a new Caddy every time she batted her phony eyelashes. What more did she want? Blood? Hank shoulda booted her ass out instead of the other way around.”
“Maybe we could introduce Hank to Shirley,” Shirley suggested. Shirley was the sister of Shirley’s best friend. Her husband had died and she was desperate to find another one even though the one who’d died had been a no-good drunk.
“She’s a little dippy, but her legs are sound. Maybe Hank can ride her around the track a few times,” Jimmy said. “I’ll go talk to him tomorrow. I gotta get the poor sap out of himself. He’s not livin’. And with all that dough, he oughta be livin’ the life of Riley.”
Shirley gave Jimmy a peck on the cheek, leaving a pink smear, pleased he was aiding in her matchmaking efforts. She dug into the brown bag on her lap and passed out sandwiches, Fritos, and sweet-and-sour pickles. The sandwich was my favorite, pimento loaf, which was like bologna but with olives stuck in it. I wondered how they got the olives into the meat, but I was glad somebody had figured it out. Virginia hated olives and began to pick them out and hide them in the tinfoil wrapping.
As soon as I took a bite of the pimento loaf I realized I wasn’t hungry. A knob of fear was lodged in my gullet like a big, fat olive. I felt like that worried-looking cartoon clock on the screen that was now starting to sweat. There were only three minutes left. Three minutes till Blood Feast.
I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for.
One Sunday, a few weeks back, we had come upon a movie theater in Boston where Blood Feast was playing. The theater was located in the part of town known as the Combat Zone. The area was crawling with girls in skintight skirts who had eyes like sleepy raccoons and guys hawking “genuine Bulova watches” that were phony as a three-dollar bill. Jimmy told us we were lucky he was showing us around the big, bad city. Other families just got to go camping in the boonies and have their keisters chewed by fire ants. Or maybe toDisneyland, which was for patsies. Well, screw that. Jimmy wanted us to see the watering holes and strip joints he had frequented when he was in the merchant marine. He wanted us to see the real world, baby.
“How else you gonna write the Great American Novel?” he had asked me.
I didn’t answer him.
I’d just laid eyes on a giant poster of a half-naked lady dripping blood. The poster was outside the theater playing Blood Feast.
Jimmy saw the poster and let out a whistle.
Shirley’s hand holding mine tightened.
Virginia stared down at some garbage.
Jimmy sauntered up to the ticket booth. The punk in the booth was reading a magazine. I caught a glimpse of a picture of a woman with breasts like pink birthday balloons stuck to her chest by static electricity.
“What’s the lowdown?” asked Jimmy. “Just how rough is this picture?”
“Oh, it’s rough, man. Real bloody. Like nothin’ you ever seen.” The guy suddenly noticed us. His mouth dropped open. “You can’t bring kids in here.”
Jimmy didn’t like the sound of that.
“Oh no? Who says I can’t?”
“Read my sign,” the punk said.
He pointed to a handwritten sign taped to the glass that said ADDULTS ONLY. I could see he wasn’t much of a speller.
“Frick you and frick your frickin’ sign,” said Jimmy. “My brats love a good slice-and-dice, the bloodier the better. Don’t you, brats?”
Virginia and I nodded, doing our best to look eager.
The bad speller wasn’t convinced. “Look, this ain’t like any other horror movie. It’s eighteen and over. That’s it, over and out.”
Jimmy’s tanned face grew a shade darker. He tore into the punk. He said he’d seen a lotta phony-baloney movies in his life. Ones where some hooker dressed like a nurse stood in the lobby to take your blood pressure afterwards but the blood in the movie looked like Karo syrup and he knew what he was talkin’ about ’cause he’d seen a lotta blood, for Chrissake, he’d been in World War II when the guy was crawlin’ around in diapers. So he wasn’t buyin’ that this one was so bad. He was goin’ in to judge for himself and we were comin’ with him. It was a free country, and no little pip-squeak in some rinky-dink booth was gonna tell him where to go. He would tell the pip-squeak where to go first.
Finally, the guy hissed at him, softly so we wouldn’t hear, but we did. “Beat it or I’m callin’ the fuzz. You want your kids to see you get pinched?”
Jimmy’s right fist clenched into a knot. I watched the eagle tattoo on his biceps fill with blood and look like it was about to fly away.
Just then, a big cop lumbered by. He was carrying a large box of pastry. I recognized the box. It was from a bakery in the North End where we often stopped for boozy rum cakes and cannoli after we left the Combat Zone. The Dago Joint, Jimmy called it, ’cause of it being Italian.
“Daddy, can we go to the Dago Joint?” I pleaded, hoping to distract him from knocking the guy’s block off.
The cop overheard me and chuckled. Jimmy glared at him. He didn’t like cops. Not any cops. They were mostly Micks, he said. McMurphys, McMullens, and McMeatheads. You never saw a Greek cop, ’cause the Micks had it all sewn up. They acted like big shots, but they were really just a bunch of four-flushers in uniform. I didn’t know what four-flushers were, but they didn’t sound like very nice people. They sounded mean for not letting any Greeks like us work with them.
Not that any Greeks would want to be cops anyway. They were too smart for that, Jimmy explained. Who the hell would want to be pounding the pavement in the dead of winter freezing your keister off when you could be in a café drinking ouzo or shooting the baloney at the bookie joint?
The cop disappeared into a pizza joint.
“Look at that lard-ass go,” Jimmy laughed.
The cop did have a fat ass, but it didn’t seem right to point it out. Maybe he couldn’t help having a fat ass. It might be a glandular thing. Like my friend Tina, she had a glandular thing.
“No wonder they can’t finger the Boston Strangler if that’s what they got for USDA prime fuzz around here,” Jimmy said.
The ticket taker cracked up. He said he’d been sayin’ the same frickin’ thing himself. Then he leaned forward and gave Jimmy the lowdown.
“Look, save your dough. This picture stinks,” he whispered. “Not enough bazookas.”
“I love Bazooka,” I chimed in. “I can fit six in my mouth at once.”
The guy laughed and said, “Hey, kid, me too.”
Jimmy told the guy to quit making fun of his kid or he’d golf him one. Then he said never mind the frickin’ movie, he’d take his business elsewhere, that he wouldn’t be caught dead in that fleabag joint anyway. He might get bitten by a rat and have to sue them for every red cent they had.
Then he turned away from the window and threw his muscley arms around the three of us.
“I’m taking my dolls to the Dago Joint.”
And off we went. We stuffed ourselves silly with rum cakes. Jimmy gave me the maraschino cherry on his. Then he took us to see Modern Times and we laughed ourselves silly. Charlie Chaplin played a poor working stiff in a factory, just like Shirley. Except Charlie made machine parts and Shirley made Foster Grant sunglasses, which were mostly shipped to KooKooLand ’cause that’s where all the sunshine was anyway.
It was late when we headed back to the car, which was still parked in the Combat Zone. Everything looked scuzzier, but I wasn’t afraid. Not even of the Boston Strangler. I knew Jimmy, unlike that lard-ass cop, could take him. Take him blindfolded with one hand tied behind his back and on one foot. Knock him six ways to Sunday and still get home in time for supper. None of my friends in the projects had a father who could do that. Heck, most of them didn’t even have a father that I’d ever seen. If they found themselves face-to-face with the Boston Strangler they’d be sliced and diced like that lady in Blood Feast.
I must’ve looked tired ’cause Jimmy suddenly lifted me up like I was no heavier than a skinned rabbit. He slung me on his back and I buried my face in the back of his sinewy neck. I didn’t even mind that his Wildroot was greasing up my forehead. A piggyback ride through the Combat Zone was a lot of fun. The raccoon ladies thought so too; they smiled and stepped aside. I was asleep by the time we got back to the car.
Over the next few weeks, Jimmy checked the newspaper to see if Blood Feast was playing in our neck of the woods. Finally, he saw an ad that said CALL THEATER FOR FILM TITLE. The paper had a policy against printing the name of any movie it didn’t think people oughta be seeing. Usually it was a dirty movie. The paper let you know there was something smutty playing, but what exactly the smut was, you had to get off your lard-ass and find out for yourself.
Jimmy picked up the phone and called. Sure enough, his hunch was right.
“It’s coming,” he teased us. “Blood Feast is coming.”
For the next few nights he scratched at our closed bedroom door, pretending to be a maniac.
“We know it’s you, Daddy!” I would shout.
“Cut it out,” Virginia would add for good measure.
He never let on it was him. He just growled and drifted away, leaving us to stare wide-eyed into the darkness, listening to our hamster, Squirmy, as his toenails clicked frantically on his hamster wheel.
But now, the wait was over. Blood Feast was finally here.
The cartoon clock on the drive-in screen was jumping up and down. Its alarm had just gone off. It ran off the edge of the screen and into the darkness.
Shirley reached into the backseat and sprayed us with bug repellent. The mosquitoes were starting to come out.
I peered between my parents’ heads. My heart was bumping against my rib cage like it wanted to follow that cartoon clock wherever it was headed.
It couldn’t be that bad, I told myself. I had made it through Psycho, Homicidal, and The Sadist. Sure, I got scared, but then everything turned out OK. The bad guys got caught, shot, or, like Charlie in The Sadist, fell into a pit of poisonous snakes. The killers got what was coming to them and that made you feel happy. The worse they got it, the happier you felt. Happiness was always waiting for you at the end.
That’s what I told myself, anyway.
The movie began with some organ music that sounded like what they played at the ice-skating rink. I relaxed a little. Maybe there’d be some ice-skating in the movie. Maybe it’d be like the Ice Capades with a little blood thrown in.
But there was no ice-skating. No flouncy skirts or bouncy ponytails. Just a blond lady coming home from work to an apartment kinda like ours. The lady took off all her clothes and got into a bathtub. Before long, a man appeared out of nowhere. He began stabbing the lady over and over with a carving knife that looked about a foot long. He stabbed her in the eye, pulling the eye right out of its socket and impaling it like a morsel of Greek shish kebab on a stick. Then he sawed off the bottom of her leg and cut out her heart.
The lady’s heart filled the whole screen. It was a huge, drippy hunk cradled in the man’s hands like a kitten.
I told myself it must be a deer’s heart or maybe a moose’s. But I didn’t know how they could make it look like it came out of the lady’s chest. And the blood looked real and sticky.
“Wow,” said Jimmy. “This makes Psycho look like a Sunday school picnic with a bunch of frickin’ penguins.” By penguins he meant nuns.
Virginia started to wail and slid onto the car floor.
Shirley turned away from the screen, making a face like she was sucking on a sour ball. Her left arm flailed into the backseat, trying to locate Virginia. She patted her on the head.
“Jim, maybe this one’s too much for them.”
“Oh, c’mon, it’s just a movie.”
He called back to Virginia, “It’s just a cow’s heart covered in Karo syrup. Don’t be a crybaby. Your sister’s five years younger, and she’s not blubbering.”
On the screen, they were showing the dead lady’s face with one empty eye socket the size of a hole you’d dig to play marbles.
“But, hell, they’re doing a pretty good job with the realism,” he said.
He turned back to get my opinion. “What do you think, kiddo?”
I agreed they were doing a pretty good job with the realism and said it was the best slice-and-dice ever.
“See,” Jimmy told Shirley. “Don’t be a killjoy. Some of us have a movie to watch.”
I kept my eyeballs glued to the screen, determined to prove I could take whatever the movie dished out.
Virginia stopped crying but stayed on the floor where she couldn’t see anything. Sometimes she would put her hands over her ears if there were screams or if the ice rink music got a little louder.
Now and then, Shirley would glance into the backseat to see if we were OK. Virginia would mumble that she was fine and I acted like I was too wrapped up in the movie to even notice her.
It turned out the killer was an Egyptian caterer with a gimpy leg named Fuad Ramses. Fuad was cooking up a big feast for a party and he planned to serve humans, not hamburgers and hot dogs.
Fuad had to collect a lot of body parts for the feast. After slicing and dicing the lady in the bathtub, he went after a girl making out with a guy on the beach. He cut out the girl’s brain but didn’t bother with the guy’s. I figured the guy’s brain must not be as tender and said so.
“That’s right,” Jimmy said. “Men’s brains are tough and women’s are all soft and squishy and little Greek girls’ brains are the softest of all. They’re the best for eating, like a baby lamb at Greek Easter. So you better hold on to your head from now on or some maniac might try to snatch it.”
“No maniac’s getting my head,” I snapped. “I’ll stab them in the eye first.”
“That’s my girl,” he laughed.
The next lady got her tongue ripped out, roots and all.
“Aw, it’s just a cow’s tongue,” Jimmy said, sounding disappointed. “A human tongue would be a lot smaller.” Jimmy knew everything there was to know about body parts ’cause when he was my age he’d worked after school for Yanco the Macedonian Butcher.
Finally, Fuad kidnapped a lady and brought her back to his place. He hung her up by her arms and whipped her until her back was a bloody mess. He didn’t seem to want any of her body parts. I figured he was just mad. Or maybe he wanted her blood for gravy.
After that, the lard-ass cops were onto Fuad and chased him down. Like a numbskull he hid in the back of a garbage truck. The truck ground him up like a giant wad of hamburger meat. You’d never even know he was a person. He just became gunk like the muskratpossumchipmunk I’d seen on the road.
It was the perfect ending.
But something was wrong. I didn’t feel happy at all.
I knew I’d never look at garbage trucks the same way. I’d steer clear of them so I wouldn’t trip and fall in or maybe get pushed in by some kids who were just goofing around.
I knew every time I played marbles I’d see that lady’s eye socket in the marble hole.
I knew from then on I’d be checking my bedroom closet for psychos every night and sleeping with scissors under my pillow.
Jimmy winked at me in the rearview mirror.
“Man, that was a kick in the chops, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, Daddy. I wish we could see it again.”
“That wasn’t really him in the garbage truck, you know. He pushed in one of the coppers instead and got away.”
“He did not. He got all squished up. I saw it.”
“No, he got away. You musta got all scared like a girl and closed your eyes for a second. He’s still out there. And guess who he’s coming for next?”
“You!” I blurted out. “He’s coming for you.”
He grabbed me around the neck. For a second, I couldn’t breathe.
“No, he’s coming for you, little girl. He’s coming for you.”