Sunday, September 16, 2007

THE DRUMMER (short story)

Photographer: Robert Landau

Russ Mars
© 2000

“Make a wish, any wish at all. What would you wish for?” Of course the old man didn’t respond because I hadn’t really spoken to him...hadn’t spoken at all. But that’s what I wanted to ask him as I stood and watched him. Why did he do this? What was he looking for? What was the dream at the end of all his nights here?
I figured him to be Chinese...maybe Korean. Pulled back into a ponytail, his thin, salt-and-pepper hair hung to the middle of his slumped back. His shoulders barely moved and his crinkled eyes locked on something far beyond the farthest end of the street as he beat out the monotonous rhythm on the miniature drum set that looked like a child’s toy. Tharump ba bump bump, tharump ba bump bump, tharump ba bump bump badoom ba bump bump. His drumming was self-accompaniment to tonally flat vocalizations of 50s and 60s pop hits. The beat changed but little as he began each new song in a voice more devoid of talent and inspiration than his drumming.
I adjusted my stance and looked up and down the promenade. Even at midnight, shoppers and browsers thronged, providing ever-shifting waves of audiences for the street performers who displayed their talents in between the carts and racks of the vendors of trinkets, crafts and food. Enough people crowded around most of the shows that those at the back had to crane their necks and stand on their toes to see the act, but not so for the drummer.
For twenty minutes, as I sipped my coffee, I’d been his only spectator other than passersby who would whisper among themselves, laugh and move on. He’d sung five songs, the breaks between them mere seconds. Any time day or night, weekday or weekend for the past year that I’d come here to browse, shop and people watch, he was here. On no occasion I could recall had he ever been still at his drums or not singing. Never were there more than a dozen people watching him play and usually fewer, if any. The coffee can a few feet from his base drum, put there to receive tips, seldom contained more than pocket change, occasionally a lonely dollar bill.
I’d bet a week’s salary that anyone who played as much as he, day in and day out for hours on end, would undoubtedly and eventually show some improvement, yet my ears knew that in his case I’d lose my wager. If I had such an apparent lack of talent and ability for a thing, I’d have given up quickly. Why didn’t he? No doubt there’s virtue in persistence, but his acceptance of reality seemed to be lacking. He sucked.
My curiosity finally overriding my sense of propriety, I stepped closer to him as he ended a song with a cymbal crash. I held up my hand to keep him from launching into another musical tragedy.
“Excuse me, sir, may I speak with you for a moment?”
He lowered his bony hands and the aged, splintered drumsticks into his lap, and merely nodded.
“I’ve seen you play many times, and I’m impressed with how hard you work at it.”
That’s not really what I wanted to say, but I’m not completely tactless.
Again, he nodded once.
“Well, I was just wondering where you hope to take your...uh...musical career? If you could make a wish, any wish at all, what would it be?”
Before the old man could answer, a small child of about five or six with black, straight hair and dark, almond eyes scampered between him and his drums and climbed onto his lap. “Can we go now, Grandpa? Can we go eat? Do we have enough?”
The drummer lifted the child from his lap and set him down gently but firmly next to him, and put an index finger to his lips as he patted the child on the head. He turned back to me and fixed his eyes on mine. With no emotion and in a deep, calm voice he said, “I’d wish you would put a dollar in my can.”

I was inspired to write this story by my many, many visits to 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica when I still lived in Southern California. It was one of my favorite places to hang out and people-watch, especially on hot summer nights. Since relocating to California's Central Coast, it's one of the very few things I miss about Southern California.

BEAT THE DRUM NO MORE (short story)

Russ Mars
© 1998

Billy Bob Hagood lay on his side behind the toppled, rotting tree trunk, clutching to his chest the treasured, high-powered hunting rifle his daddy had given him on his fourteenth birthday. In the last twenty years, he’d brought down countless prey with the highly accurate Winchester, but none as frustratingly elusive or threatening as that which he now stalked in the shivery dawn of the hushed Alabama woods. His pulse thundered in his ears, and he silently cursed the visible frost each panting breath formed, fearful his position could be seen.
He cautiously rolled from his side and raised himself enough to peer over the moss-covered log into the dense brush, studying each detail of the wooded terrain ahead of him——every rock, every gully, every bush and tree, every inch of the leaf-covered forest floor——for any movement, any potential cover in which his quarry could be concealing itself. Usually the creature just kept moving——going and going——ever relentless, but Billy Bob was certain that by now its reserves were exhausted and it would have to stop soon.
Billy Bob was near collapse from the pursuit begun nearly twenty hours before. Then, he wasn’t prepared for a protracted hunt when he sighted the critter as he drove his pickup down a dirt road on his way to check a fence line. He grabbed his rifle from the rack behind him and ran across a pasture just as the fluff of its stumpy tail disappeared into the edge of the woods where he followed, and he was able to follow only by brief glimpses that never afforded a clear shot. Obsessively, he gave chase on into the night, finally tracking it by ear alone. He had to stop the vexatious creature.
As he continued to scan the woods through the lifting morning mist from behind the log, his object of pursuit darted from behind a thicket and crossed his field of vision about two hundred yards in front of him. Billy Bob jerked the scoped rifle up and lay it to rest on the log, sighting in on a blur of white and simultaneously squeezing the trigger. The echo of the shot boomed through the forest, but the rifle’s projectile thudded into another dead log as the intended victim scurried behind it.
“Damn it all!” he bellowed, and flicked forward the bolt of the rifle in preparation for another shot, but as he looked through the scope no target presented itself.
He jumped up from his spot behind the log to charge the new hiding place of his enemy, but his legs had cramped from having lain atop the damp forest floor, and as he leaped over the knee-high log, his legs gave out. He stumbled and fell face first into the bed of leaves. The rifle tumbled to his side and the impact caused it to fire. The hot lead bullet tore through his boot and plowed a strip of skin from his ankle. At first his wound wasn’t felt, his frenzied state and the initial shock of his fall preventing the pain from registering. He rebounded to his feet to continue his charge, but the second he planted the wounded foot the stinging fire of pain penetrated, and he crashed down again, cursing.
His rage-filled charge left the adrenaline coursing through him and helped him ignore the pain. After quickly pulling off the torn boot and seeing that it was only a flesh wound, he pulled the boot on again, grabbed his rifle, and, half limping, half running, headed for his enemy’s lair. The varmint must have shortly thought his pursuer’s dilemma assured his safety, but Billy Bob’s quick recovery startled it into panic-stricken flight from behind the log. The second his prey sprang into sight, Billy Bob planted himself, raised his rifle, and squeezed the trigger. This time the large caliber slug found its mark, disintegrating the creature into a spray...bits and pieces clinging to low-lying branches and scattered all across the damp forest floor.
Billy Bob hobbled toward the few remains of his victim in order to confirm that he had been, indeed, successful in his mission. Balancing on his good leg, he extended his injured one and nudged the pieces with the toe of his boot. Really, only three identifiable pieces remained among shreds of white and pink cottony fluff——a torn rabbit ear, a single “D” battery, and a tiny bass drum.



Russ Mars

© 1996

“You stubborn old goat, it says ‘Mildred Faragut,’ and you know good as anyone else, she ain’t out there no more. I tell you, send it back where it come from. Why you waste your time, three times now, dragging it out to my place is beyond me.”
“I can’t help she done run off on ya,” said Cyrus. “Can’t say I much blame her though, contrary coot that you are.” He dragged his gnarled finger under the address scrawled on the coarse brown paper that covered a small box. “Lookit here, it says ‘Faragut Farm, Bent Oak Road,’ and by golly that’s your place for as far back as I can recollect, Elliot, so I reckon this be yours.”
“I don’t give a damn! Just return to sender, Cyrus. Is that so blasted hard to do? Just send it back!”
Elliot had slogged four miles through wind-driven rain last night to return the package to the tiny post office inside the general store, and this morning had found it again on his doorstep. Barely keeping his temper with Cyrus Winger, storekeeper and town postmaster, because Cyrus knew damn well that Mrs. Faragut had been gone for nigh on six months. Elliot had no idea where she was and, a month ago, had finally gotten rid of the few items she’d left behind. He certainly didn’t want her mail…or any other reminder of her. What was done, was done.
“You see any other writin’ on this here?” Cyrus said, shaking the package at him and pointing to the blank spot that should have contained a return address. “Send it back where?”
“I guess them kinda’ problems just be yours, bein’ mailman and all,” said Elliot.
“No sir! My job’s to make sure folks in this town get their mail. If you won’t come get it, by golly, even if I got to stop by your place on my way home at night from now ‘til doomsday, I’ll do ‘er. Now just take it and let’s be done with this here nonsense.”
Elliot made no move to take the package from Cyrus’s outstretched hand. He glared at Cyrus, said nothing, and pulled his soaked coat in at the front and walked back out into the rain. By the time he got home it was dark, and as if driven away by the night, the storm had passed. Elliot ate some biscuits and sausage gravy, and turned in.
Now, with the morning sun streaming in the open front door, Elliot stared down at the package sitting on his doormat. He stooped down and picked it up, shaking his head. He considered tossing it in the fireplace but just couldn’t do it. No matter what Mildred had done, she still had a right to her mail.
“That man’s stubborn as an ol’ mule,” he muttered to himself.
Elliot, figuring that Cyrus was already heading in to open up for the day, retrieved his coat from the back of the chair next to the stove where he’d left it to dry the night before. He pulled it on and, clutching the package, started down the muddy farm road.
Walking up the town’s main street, Elliot approached Cyrus’s store and saw Cyrus Winger’s battered, red pickup truck, ‘U.S. Mail’ painted on the sides in faded black letters.
“Good!” he thought, “We’ll get this settled once and for all.”
“Mornin’, Elliot,” Cyrus said to him when he walked in. “I sorta thought you just might be headin’ in here this mornin’. Now what might I do for ya?” Cyrus said, grinning.
“You know damn well what you can do, Cyrus. You can take this here package and, and—I don’t much care what the hell you do with it, long as you don’t bother me with it no more! I’m gettin’ damn fed up tryin’ to make shuck of it, walkin’ all this way.”
“Don’t be hollerin’ at me, Elliot. I won’t have it. I been trusted with official U.S. Mail, and it’s my duty to make sure it reaches its delivery. Nothin’ or no one is gonna keep me from doing my duty.”
“You crazy sonnabitch! You’re taking this duty malarkey way too serious. Mildred ain’t with me no more, and I don’t want her mail out at my place ever again,” said Elliot.
“I brung it to you. You got to take it,” said Cyrus with a finalizing nod of his head.
“I got to do no such thing. I’m leavin’ it here, and there ain’t no more to be done,” said Elliot. He slammed the package down on the service counter, and turned and stomped toward the door.
Cyrus reached under the counter. “Hold it right there, Faragut!” he commanded.
Elliot spun around to give Cyrus another piece of his mind but got no chance to say another word. The room thundered. Elliot’s back slammed against the door from the impact of the big lead slugs that tore through him. Dark, wet crimson flowers blossomed on his chest as he slid down the door and dropped to the floor.
Cyrus Winger kept the smoking muzzle of the old Colt six-shooter trained on Elliot lest he needed the incentive of the three remaining bullets to stay down, but he lay still, no doubt dead before he hit the floor.
By the time Sheriff Cole Titus arrived, Cyrus had put down his gun. The sheriff handcuffed him and put into the back of his cruiser. Cyrus offered not a word or a struggle.
What in God’s name got into you Cyrus? Are you plumb loco?” asked Sheriff Titus as they headed down the highway toward the county courthouse and jail, but he got no response. “I swear,” said Titus, “I heard tell of these kind of things from the city, but I never...what’s the dang deal with you postal workers?”
Cyrus, silent, stared out the side window and grinned.


Russ Mars
The deafening sound of its madly fluttering wings drowned all rational thought as it settled on him and began to feed. It sucked at his frustration and irritation, gobbled annoyance and disgust, and gorged itself on the pain of patience stretched to the limit. Lapping nourishment from his soul, the creature’s strength grew and compelled his frenzy.
The actor’s plea changed abruptly to a rasping cough as Vince Fulmin’s wrist tightened against his Adam’s apple. Held from behind, he dared not struggle. Vince’s other hand pressed the point of a foot-long chef’s knife against the actor’s ribs, and a quick lunge would penetrate deeply. The director and production crew stood frozen at the back wall of the sound stage where Vince had ordered them, using the little man’s life as leverage.
“Shut the fuck up! I been listenin’ to your bullshit too fuckin’ long! I’ve had it! Had it!” Vince screamed. “Ya been yappin’ at me in that moronic voice, and telling me the same old shit for years. I just can’t take it anymore, P. D.!”
Vince was shaking and sweat poured from him, the temperature on the set rising steadily from the floodlights as well as the oven being used in the kitchen shot.
As hot as it was, the crew was cold. Chilled to the bone with incredulous shock and fear, they stared at Vince in wide-eyed terror. They could see their coworker — their friend — gone over the edge, but couldn’t see what he saw, or what had descended into his life.
For months it had plagued him. A black butterfly would swoop down and somehow meld with his soul. There, fed by a thousand petty irritations, it would grow. As its size increased, so would Vince’s outrage at annoying intrusions into his consciousness — and so would the drive to eradicate these intrusions.
“Wha...what do you want?” P. D. gasped. “Vince, name it. We’ll work it out, just please ease up —”
“Shut up!” Vince hissed through clenched teeth. “You ain’t got a motherfuckin’ thing I want. I just want you out of my life. I don’t want to see you. Don’t you get it, P. D.? I don’t want you to be anymore!”
“Vince, take off for a while. Take a long vacation. We can shoot this one without you. It’s okay. Really!”
“Oh man! You really don’t get it, do you, you fat little freak,” he shrieked, hysterically. “It’s not just here. I turn on TV and there you are. Radio! Same thing! I don’t have to look at your pasty face, but I still get your squeaky little voice and nauseating giggle. It used to be cute, but it’s gone way beyond cute. Makes me wanna puke!”
“Please, Vince, don’t hurt me,” the pathetic little man sobbed. “Oh, God, please let me go.What have I done? Tell me. I just tried to do my job!”
Vince tightened his hold on P. D.’s throat and screeched maniacally, “That’s right, beg for your life you little white freak. Suffer! Feel what I feel! You did this to me — you did this to yourself! Goddamn you! You’ve gotta pay for this! You’re gonna burn in hell. You’re gonna burn,” he bellowed, arching back and lifting P. D. off the floor, his legs kicking and twitching.
Vince sucked air in great heaves, his heart pounding. Now fed by raw rage, the winged creature surged with power. It fluttered desperate urgings to Vince. Its anomalistic nature demanded destruction of the spiritual chaffings upon which it fed.
Vince shuddered with an orgasmic adrenaline rush and plunged the huge weapon deep into the body of his vexatious hostage, then slammed the razor-sharp knife forward, cleaving the man’s doughy belly. He dragged the dangling halves across the room, and using his free hand, opened the door to the oven. He stuffed him inside and before slamming the door, prodded the mess with his index finger.
“Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven, does it, Doughboy?”
Vince giggled.