This is the prologue to the novel A Masque of Infamy. It has also appeared in different form in the zine Piltdownlad #4. The artwork is by Walt Hall.
The ladies called it the Jackson Home.
“Nobody will be able to find y’all there,” they said as we drove through the black part of town. “So you’ll be safe.”
The silver minivan pulled up to a run-down two-story house on a treeless street among dwellings of similar vintage. We stepped out of the air conditioning and the heat pushed against us like an unruly mob. The sun, directly above in a cloudless sky, beat down without restraint.
At the door, an elderly woman with kind eyes behind a sea of wrinkles greeted us.
“Boys, this is Mrs. Gertie,” said Clorise, the one who had done most of the talking so far.
Joey and I mumbled a feeble hello and followed the ladies up a staircase.
“This here’s the bedroom,” Mrs. Gertie said. “And over yonder, the bathroom.” She gestured at the obvious.
Joey and I walked into the bedroom but the ladies stopped short of the doorway.
“We’ll check on y’all in a few days,” Clorise announced. “So just sit tight and don’t make no trouble for Mrs. Gertie, y’hear?”
“Don’t worry, guys,” the other lady said. Her name was Sandra. She was young and, compared to Clorise, a glamor queen. In the van, I’d watched her apply mascara in the visor mirror and longed to go home with her and watch her put on makeup for the rest of my life. “Everything’s going to be alright. You’ll look after your brother, won’t you, Louis?”
I swore to do my best, though I would have promised her anything so she’d see me as a big man and not some stupid kid.
“Supper’s at seven,” Mrs. Gertie said. “You’ll hear me holler when it’s ready.”
Joey and I listened to their voices fade down the stairs. Clorise and Sandra thanked the old woman for taking us in on such short notice.
When they picked us up that morning, the ladies had told us about the Jacksons, how they used to have a houseful of foster kids, but since they’d gotten old, the Department of Human Resources only used them for special cases.
Although we were relieved to be the only ones there at the time, when the front door closed with a thud and we were alone in the strange room in a strange house in a strange part of an already strange town, the stark reality of our new surroundings hit us like a Mack truck.
The room was dismal: two beds, a beat-up dresser, a small Zenith on a metal stand and above the TV, a portrait of Jesus.
“What a dump,” I said.
“How long do we hafta stay here?” asked Joey.
I stood in front of the small window and looked out at nothing. “Beats me.”
“This is a rip-off!”
I couldn’t deny Joey’s claim that we’d been shafted. The ladies said it was only temporary, but after five minutes in the Jackson Home, we were ready to bail on the whole plan. Besides the general shabbiness, the room smelled like a sewer.
“Did you just fart?” I asked Joey.
“Then why does it stink?”
“I dunno. Maybe–”
“Psht!” I sliced the air with my hand. “Go see what’s on TV.”
Joey turned the knob and a burst of static squelched the silence.
“Fuck, it stinks!” I sat down on a bed and the mattress squealed in revolt. “Seriously, dude, you can tell me. I won’t kick your ass for reeking up the place, but damn, own it, at least.”
“I didn’t do it!” Joey maintained adamantly as he flipped through the channels.
“Then who? It wasn’t me.” While I was fully aware of the theory that the one who smelt it was usually the one who dealt it, I was not shifting blame.
Joey continued to manipulate the TV. With each click of the dial there was more fuzz. Only three channels came through: Family Feud, Donahue and As the World Turns. Those were our options. But Joey kept switching channels, as if a program that wasn’t there before would magically appear.
“Jesus Christ!” I shouted. “Enough already!”
“What do you wanna watch then?”
“Just pick one and get it over with.”
“Survey says, why the fuck not.” I was too distracted by the third occupant to care what we watched. I squeezed my nostrils shut. “It stinks like shit,” I said, all nasally.
“It’s pretty bad,” Joey agreed.
“No, I mean it smells like shit. Poop. Crap. Caca. Shit!” I leapt to my feet. “Lemme see your shoes.”
Joey lifted up his high-tops. I examined the scuffed and treadworn soles and found what looked like the remnants of gum, but nothing that would cause the offensive odor.
“We gotta do something,” I said. “Help me find out where it’s coming from.”
For the rest of the afternoon, we circled the room and sniffed the air. We looked through the closet, the drawers of the dresser and under the dresser. We searched under the beds and behind the headboards. We lifted up the mattresses and tossed back the blankets and sheets. But nothing. Just lint and dust.
As the day wore on, it seemed like we’d never solve the mystery of the stench.
After a while, we took a break and watched an episode of the Andy Griffith Show. During a commercial, Joey went back to the dresser and said, “I think it’s coming from around here. Maybe there’s a dead rat or something in the… the…uhm, whatchamacallit? You know?”
“You know? You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. We already looked there.”
“Well, it’s worse here.”
Reluctantly, I got up and took a whiff. Joey was right. The smell was more pungent around the dresser. I pulled out the empty drawers, peered behind the dresser and shoved it away from the wall. Just as I’d done before, but still nothing.
“I don’t get it.” I scratched my head. The stink was like a demonic entity from a horror movie. I stared at the dresser for several minutes and then let out a prolonged Ooooooo. “Why didn’t I think of this before! Check it out.”
I pulled out the drawers again, but this time I lifted them off the runners. There, in the dead space of the dresser, was the source of the foul smell: a pair of shit-stained tighty-whities.
“And we have a winner!” I proclaimed, as if I were Richard Dawson. “Looks like some dirty fucker done pooed his underoos.”
“That’s so gross.” Joey wrinkled up his face. “Who craps their pants?”
“Who craps their pants and hides them in a dresser? That’s the real fucking question.” I rummaged through our stuff and retrieved a paper sack. “Here, use this.”
Joey looked confused. “For what?”
“Don’t be stupid. Pick them up with this and get rid of them.” I stuck my hand into the sack and demonstrated. “Use it like a glove.”
“But why me? I’m the one who figured out where they were.”
“Exactly. Finders keepers.”
“But… but…” Joey stammered and backed away.
I grabbed his shirt in my fist and glared menacingly. “You know the rules. Do what I say.”
“Please don’t make me!” Joey whined. He broke free from my clutches and collapsed on the bed in a fetal position.
“Ah, fuck it,” I said with palpable disdain. “Be that way. I gotta do everything myself.”
With the sack over my hand, I took a deep breath and reached into the dresser. Carefully, I grabbed the waistband and extracted the underwear.
I held them at arm’s length. “What should we do with these?” I asked Joey. “You want them?” I waved the poopy pants in his direction.
Joey screeched and tried to slide down the narrow space between the bed and the wall.
“No! No! No! No! No!”
“Fucking pussy!” I carried the foul undergarment to the bathroom and considered flushing it down the toilet, sack and all, but that would have surely backed up the line. And the garbage can wouldn’t do either. So I opened the window and tossed the bag out. I scrubbed my hands with soap until I was sure the taint had been washed away.
Once I’d solved the mystery of the stench, it was Marlboro time. But I didn’t have a pack. Didn’t even know if smoking was allowed in this place. I kicked myself for not bringing it up with the ladies before they left. Several hours had passed since my last cigarette and the idea that I couldn’t smoke only exacerbated my nic fit.
Back in the room, Matlock was on TV. I shuffled through the Hefty bag that held our clothes and what few possessions we’d been allowed to take from the house when they picked us up that morning. I had my Black Flag and Metallica tapes, but my Walkman was out of batteries. Besides a few changes of clothes, there was little else. I’d meant to bring a notebook or a magazine, but forgot them in the rush out the door. With nothing better to do, I reclined on the bed and stared at the TV screen. I tried to focus on the show but watched in dismay as every character on the screen seemed to be happily inhaling and exhaling billowy clouds of yen.
Sometimes, the way Joey said my name really grated my nerves. “Now what?”
“What do you think Dad and Rick are gonna do when they get home?”
“Fuck am I supposed to know?” I snapped. The question had been gnawing at my guts as well, but the nicotine withdrawals were getting worse and I didn’t want to think about that stuff. “We got more important things to worry about.”
“Like when we’re getting outa here?”
“What did the ladies say again?”
“They have to talk to a judge or something.”
“How long does it take until they talk to the judge?”
“Do I look like a lawyer to you? How am I supposed to know anything you don’t? I’m here with you. You’re here with me. We know the same shit, which is NOTHING!”
Joey burst into sobs, filtered mournfully through his pillow.
I felt a twinge of remorse. I didn’t want to be there either. But I still had faith that everything would work out if we played our cards right.
“Stop fucking worrying so much,” I said, my feeble attempt to sound reassuring. “This is only a minor setback. You’ll see. We’ll be on our way to golden in no time.”
© 2013 Kelly Dessaint. All rights reserved.