Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 15

     Erta stood in the checkout line at the Food House. Business was back to normal, as trumpeted by a huge paper banner stretched across the front window:


"Will there be anything else, ma'am?" the checker asked as he reached for the last item—a can of Double Q salmon large enough to make far too many salmon croquettes.

     Erta glanced at her shopping list, then at the magazine rack in front of her. There was no Weekly World Scene. Normally this wouldn’t have made any difference, for the tabloid had never been on her shopping list before. But that was before her sister-in-law Doris had called that morning.

     "I just heard the news," Doris said as soon as Erta picked up the phone. "Is it as bad as they say?"

     "Is what as bad as they say?" Erta asked, wondering what ever happened to opening a telephone conversation with "Hello, how are you?".

     "Didn't you read the paper?"

     "Which paper?"

     "The Scene, of course," Doris said as if the answer was obvious to anyone with even a lick of sense.

     "I guess not."

     "Well it made the front page."

     "What did?"

     "The story," Doris said impatiently. "Aren't you listening to me?"

     "What story?"

     "The robberies. Don't you even know about the robberies in your own town?"

     "Of course I know about them," Erta said. "What does the...what paper did you say it was?"

     "The Weekly World Scene."

     "What does it say about them?"

     Doris took a deep breath and started in. "It says there's been a bunch of robberies that don't make any sense and the town's in an uproar over them—I can't say as I blame everyone—and an FBI psychiatrist says whoever did it might be part of a satanic cult and that he—or she, though I can't honestly see a women doing irrational things like this—won't stop unless he gets what he wants, but even he's not sure just what it is he wants. The FBI! Can you believe they brought the FBI in on a crime that happened right there where you live?"


     "I mean, it's just so exciting," Doris plowed on. "Why can't anything like that happen here? Everything around here is just so dull and boring. Day in, day out, it's always the same old same old. Nothing ever happens out of the ordinary around here."


     "Face it, it's an exciting day if one of the children forgets to take their homework to school and I have to drive up there to bring it to them so they don't fail.  Do you know how embarrassing that can be? But I've got to do it, after all, not many children that age get left back and I sure wouldn't want to be the cause of some lifelong trauma just because I didn't feel like driving up to the school one morning."


     "It's not that it’s so far, really. Do you remember when I used to walk them to school? I'd walk their homework to school now too except you know how much trouble I've been having with my feet lately, or didn't I tell you?" Erta was silent. "The foot doctor says it's because of my shoes, but heaven knows I wear sensible shoes. I've always worn sensible shoes. You know as well as I do that I've never been a slave to fashion. Let those other women run around killing their feet in those tight, pointy high-heels; comfort is the name of the game in my book. Sensible might as well be my middle name." She paused long enough to take a deep breath, the first one she'd had in several minutes. "Erta? Are you still there?"

     "Yes, I'm here," Erta said patiently.

     "You're being so quiet I thought maybe we got disconnected, or heaven forbid you slipped and had an accident while we were on the phone and I didn't even realize it so I could call an ambulance. Or maybe the devil robber got you."


     "Sorry, dearie. Just a little joke. Look, I'd better run. I just called to make sure everyone was okay. You know how concerned I am about all of you.  I guess it's just the mother in me—you know I've always thought family is the most important thing in a woman's life—but I can't help but be interested in other people. And heaven knows I always like hearing all the news from your neck of the woods." She stopped for a quick breath. "Give my best to Jackson Robert and the boys, now."

     "I wi..."


     Erta looked at the receiver curiously. She never knew quite how to handle Doris. After all, this was a woman who faced life’s frustrations by trying to bury them. Literally. Once a year, almost as if it was marked in red on a mental calendar, Doris tried to commit suicide—tried being the key word.  While each attempt was slightly more elaborate than the previous, none were particularly creative or successful. The culmination was her seventh effort, when she closed the door to the kitchen, blew out the pilot lights on the stove, turned the gas up full blast, downed the better part of a bottle of aspirin, chugged half a bottle of Mogan David Concord Grape wine, put her head in a noose made from a dirty bedsheet which she attached to the ceiling light fixture, and slit both of her wrists with a Schick twin razor blade.

     When her children came home from school expecting to find her in the kitchen preparing dinner, they instead discovered her lying on the tile floor. The doctor at the emergency room was astonished, to put it mildly. It seems Aunt Doris had neglected to close the kitchen window, had taken just enough aspirin to ensure that she wouldn't have a headache for months, pulled the light fixture out of the ceiling, and managed to slash the tendons in each wrist without so much as nicking her arteries. But as anyone who has tried it knows, the half bottle of Mogan David Concord Grape wine left her with one hell of a hangover that even all that aspirin couldn't begin to touch.

     Erta replaced the phone in the cradle and went into the kitchen. She wrote "Weekly World" on her shopping list.

     * * * * * *

     "I'll be right back," Erta said to the woman standing behind her in the checkout line. "I just need to grab something real quick."

     She squeezed past the woman and looked down the next checkout line. No Weekly World Scene. She hurried to the next line. None there either. She looked back at her line; both the checker and the people in line were getting noticeably irritated.

     She spotted a copy in the rack at the next line. "Excuse me," she said, trying to ease herself past a huge man who was shaped like the Giant Mutant Pear From Beyond Venus.

     He pushed himself up against the conveyor belt as Erta sucked in her stomach and tried to sidle past him, her back to the wire rack displaying candy, cigarette lighters, and film.

     "Excuse me," she repeated.

     The man pushed towards the conveyor as hard as he could. His huge stomach rolled over the waistband of his pants and lay on top of the conveyor belt. Erta tried to move past him but was wedged tightly between the man's mammoth ass and the wire rack, the metal rods holding the small bags of Brach's candy and Kodak film stabbing her in the back.

     "Move lady," the man said.

     "I can't," she said.

     "Well, do something."

     The checker looked up, her eyes staring right through Erta as her fingers continued punching the keys on the cash register. She was on autopilot.  She reached for a can of Vienna sausages while stepping on a small pedal to start the conveyor moving. The belt rasped against the bottom of the man's stomach, vainly trying to carry his excess fat to be checked out with the rest of his groceries.

     "I'm gonna get rubbed to death," he said.

     "I can't move," Erta told him. "I'm stuck."

     "Well get unstuck!"

     "I can't!"

     The woman who was next in line was oblivious to the predicament, pulling groceries from her shopping cart and placing them on the belt. One by one they glided along the black rubber carrier until they ran into the man's stomach. A rump roast, two half gallons of chocolate milk, and four grotesquely huge cans of Campbell's Pork and Beans piled up in a mound as the grocery gridlock pushed into the man's stomach. A can of V-8 Tomato Juice Cocktail and a ten pound bag of new white potatoes hit the logjam, toppled over, and fell to the floor. A bottle of Welch's Grape Juice followed suit and shattered.

     "Stop the fuckin' thing already!" the man yelled to the checker.

     "You don't have to cuss about it," Erta told him.

     "That was my grape juice you broke," the woman said.

     "Fuck your grape juice," he said, "look at my God damned stomach!"

     "I'd rather not," she said, suddenly feeling anorexic even though that very morning the doctor had told her she was twelve pounds overweight.

     "I'm being stabbed in the back," Erta said.

     "Oh my God! She's been stabbed!" the checker yelled.

     "Who's going to pay for my grape juice?"

     "Shove your fuckin' grape juice!" the man said as he tried to push away from the moving belt, pushing Erta harder into the wire rack.

     "My back!" she called out.

     "Someone help her!" the checker yelled as she stopped the conveyor. "She's been stabbed in the back!"

     "Someone help me!" the fat man yelled.

     "Will someone please get a mop?" the woman called out.

     Whitey Heppelwhite, the store manager, heard the commotion and came charging down the condiment aisle, plunging through the line like the star halfback he'd always wanted to be in high school, knocking the defensive line of shoppers out of his way with ease.

     "Well, excuse me ," the woman said as Whitey shoved her out of his way.

     He put both hands on the side of the man's stomach. "Start the belt," he called out to the checker. He pushed as hard as he could, his hands sinking deep into the flesh and fat. Putting one foot against the wire rack, he shoved as hard as he could against the man's stomach, his hands sinking deeper.  Desperate, he kicked hard, his hands disappearing in the man’s stomach until he thought they would burst out the other side. With a loud pop and a hard sucking noise, the man burst free and fell to the floor, rolling onto his back and listing from side to side while his arms and legs impotently flailed in the air. The momentum threw Whitey sprawling across the conveyor belt, knocking jars and cans and bags to the floor. Erta collapsed on top of Whitey.

     "Stop the belt, already!" he called out to the checker.

     "Now you've broken my applesauce," the woman complained loudly.

     Erta stood up, straightening her dress. She reached over and plucked a tabloid from the rack.

     "Sometimes life can be so difficult," she said.

     * * * * * *

     On the way out of the store with her five bags of groceries —Erta would never get over how much it cost to feed her family—two neatly dressed men in navy blue suits approached her.

     "Good morning, Miss," one of them said, "please take this and read it at your leisure." He dropped a white sheet of paper in one of her grocery bags. 

"I'm sure you'll find it to be of great interest," the other said pleasantly before turning and walking towards the fat man who was waddling away, the two grocery bags perched on his huge hips filled with potato chips, Hostess cream-filled cupcakes and the like.

     As Erta put the paper bags in the back seat of her car, the flyer the men had given her fell unnoticed to the ground.

at an old fashioned revival
featuring the
Quite Reverend
John Joseph Matthew Paul III.
You've seen him on TV,
now witness him in the flesh!
• Health for the infirmed!
• Faith for the sick at heart!
• An uplifting experience
for young and old alike!
in the parking lot of the
old Two Guys store.
Wholesome fun for the whole family!

     Had Erta not lost the piece of paper, she would have sat down at the kitchen table and gotten more excited than she'd been in years—perhaps more excited than she'd ever been in her life. As it was, she ran over the flyer when she pulled out of the parking space.

     When she got home and finally did sit down at the kitchen table, she looked at the front page of the newspaper she'd bought. She read the headlines: "Communism—Heaven on Earth or a Living Hell?", "What Top Gov't Officials Won't Tell You:  Slavery Makes Economic Sense", and "Keep Your Money Under Your Mattress—They DO Own All The Banks".

     She looked through the newspaper from cover to cover, never finding any reference to the robberies. Putting it aside, she wondered whether Doris was having another pre-suicidal hallucination—as had been her custom—or whether the Food House hadn't gotten the new issue in yet. What Erta didn't realize was that in all the commotion at the checkout counter she’d bought the Weekly World Digest, an erstwhile sensationalist tabloid which had evolved into an ultra-right wing propaganda sheet.

     She went into the living room and turned on the television. The Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III was holding up a life-size clear plastic illuminated bust of Jesus Christ filled with "the very tears he shed as he hung from the cross giving his life for your sins".

     "And with every contribution of fifty dollars or more," the Quite Reverend intoned, "you will receive this beautiful holy sculpture which radiates a constantly changing spectrum of colored light in the grand tradition of Joseph's Coat of Many Colors."

     Erta reached for the telephone.

Chapter 16 ]

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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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