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by Tom Bradley

"Little by little, we shall see the universal horror unbend,
and then smile upon us..."

     -- Teilhard de Chardin

Several years back, not by choice, Sam Edwine was living deep in the hinterlands. This locale was so remote that land meant nothing. His neighbor's backyard was big enough for strange people to skulk around in for days and nights on end without being seen.
     Sam's neighbor had sufficient acreage back there, in fact, to accommodate a whole geothermal formation. He proudly called it a "fumarole or a solfatara or somethin'." It was shaped and colored, and even textured, exactly like the lid of a colossal human skull, scalped and trepanned. In the nighttime, peculiar trespassers were drawn like spectral head lice to crawl all over this peeled cranium. They perched on top with butts hanging halfway into the crater, sucking in vapors and communing with whatever invisible chthonians are drawn to such misty apertures under the moon.
     This neighbor did not cut rural Utah's most imposing figure, and he had wisely developed a severe physical cowardice. So he fell into the habit of waking Sam up at two or three a.m. and begging him to chase these weirdos away. Not knowing why, Sam usually surprised himself and complied with the requests. Persuasion was the tool he tried most often on the unwelcome visitors, resorting to violence as little as possible, because he was a nice man, after all, underneath those six feet, nine inches, and three hundred and thirty-seven pounds of orange hair and freckled flesh.
     So, one night Sam awoke to the sight of a head poking into his bedroom window, not two feet from his pillow. Starlight glinted off several buck teeth, and anguish distorted a pair of flaky lips. It was an especially urgent plea this time around.
     "He done killed Nilla. An' I don't figger he had oughtn'ter be a-hangin' round my solfatara."
     "I thought you said it was a fumarole."
     "I see your point. What's a Nilla?"
     "Huh?" The little man started to look even more sheepish than usual. "Why, m'third plural wife's half-stepdaughter. Sort of...y'know?"
     "Oh, but of course," yawned Sam, broadly and non-judgmentally.
     This kindness seemed not to go unappreciated. In spite of the emergency at hand, Sam's neighbor warmed to the conversation. He said, "We used t' call her 'Niller' for short, 'cause vaniller was her fav'rite over to th' soda shop."
     Sam started dozing off.
     "An' that pot-licker up thar done did her to death. Hey, Big Red? Much obliged if'n you c'd see yer way clear to runnin' him off b'fore Nilly's maw wakes up."
     Inspecting the small segment of eastern horizon visible between his neighbor's sloping shoulder and the sash, Sam sighed, "And I'll just bet the farm that Nilly's maw wakes up real early."
     "Dang tootin'. She's a early bird. Chores n' so forth."
     So Sam hauled himself out of bed, pulled on some underpants, stepped into his rubber shower flippers, and hulked off into the blackness, to chat up and talk down Niller's Killer. Feeling dutiful and saintly, he labored up the anticline, scraped between some strands of the devil's wire, and approached the crumbling lip of the volcano-hole.
     And there, silhouetted against a gritty clot of prune-colored clouds, was (conjecturing from the abhorrence that contorted the rodent-sized sinews in the clean-shaven nape of his neck) not one of Hell's escapees, but their passionate, fanatical enemy. A volunteer sentry, this human tampon stood vigilant at the porous border of our world. He held, in both hands, high over his head, a medium-hefty chunk of calcium carbonate, poised to be chucked deep into Nature's dank outlet, should any questionable entities poke their heads up and bare their fangs.
     Being naturally sympathetic to such selfless vocations, Sam decided it would be best if he squatted off to one side, unnoticed, and permitted the unwanted guest to get his rock off before chasing him away.
     No harm done. Such a stout little soldier probably had done nothing more sinister than forget to sign his name in an emotionally unbalanced Nillum's high school year book, or neglect to ask her to the big sock hop over at the prayer hall. Most likely something mild like that. Perhaps he'd been a slightly careless young driver, or maybe had once carried "mono," and had known about it, but had refused to quit "makin' out" with a weakly constituted Nillie-kins. Something along those bland lines.
     Sam had to admit that he was a bit surprised at the sheer conviction with which this skinny stalwart struck his blow against encroaching damnation. All at once he whinnied and snapped his whole body double like a jackknife, so that for a moment both of his toy-sized feet were off the ground, kicking his palms.
     Sam could have told him that excessive zeal is detrimental to marksmanship. The rock didn't even make it into the crater, but sparked off the rim and blasted to bloody atoms a horny toad that was wandering past in search of bugs to eat.
     "Missed," observed Sam.
     The boy almost leapt into orbit. He twirled around and flashed startled, yet chilly, eyes.
     "Missed," Sam repeated, and paused for the polite period of time, to permit a response.
     This kid did not seem to possess the ability to make intelligible noises with his mouth, so the conversation was lacking a certain piquancy. It occurred to Sam that his inarticulateness might be caused by paralysis of the lips. Through the darkness, the lower half of that undersized face seemed oddly fixed. For reasons not difficult to pinpoint, suspicions of rigor mortis, of the death rictus, of lock-jawed night-crawling zombies, started to creep up Sam's spine.
     But it was such an extra-long spine. While those images were still making their way to his awareness, the moon had plenty of time to rise over the curvature of this vast Death's head, and light up the kid's squinchy kisser. And it was not necessarily with relief that Sam saw what he should have been expecting all along: the Mormon Smile.
     It never goes away, this facial expression: the permanently creased gape that in old age curls into a grimace, everlasting as the mint-and-pastel Utah sun grinning down the back of your salty neck in the morning, just spiffy as the reflection off a good Latter-Day-Saint's pearly whites when he's whipping up a breakfast of buckwheat waffles and beaming that fabled Mormon Smile. What it conceals is beyond, or maybe beneath, most non-Utahns' comprehension.
     Sam immediately averted his gaze, as Lot's wife should have done. He pretended to inspect his own feet--which, to his surprise, were nervously twitching about in the pale sediment underfoot.
Suddenly, in a single avocado-colored blast, he caught a glimpse of something that caused not only contempt and fear and suspicion, but respiration and heartbeat, to cease. Even the crickets and coyotes took a break. Everything focused down on Sam's big shower flippers.
     Way down there, loosening a stain of psychomimetic green onto the aragonite under his grinding heel, just happened to be a bulb full of the concentrated essence of everything potent, grave and reverend yet remaining on the face of this poor depleted earth. It was the final receptacle for the ghosts of coyote- and iguana-deities, plus Phrygian Cybele and multi-dugged Demeter; the preserver of the souls of prognosticating eunuchs, theriomorphic virgins, and heinous Beelzebub--all chemically wedded within its darling, poison-tufted confines.
     A host of these squatty cacti swirled and spiraled around the crater, wherever a teaspoonful of fecund dust had happened to accumulate. Sam had never noticed them before tonight.
     "Jesus Mahogany Christ," he whispered, and fell to his naked knees.
     The boy did the same. Apparently he thought it a game of Simon Sez; for Sam was forced to lead his bony fingers down to the life forms in question before it dawned on him that the idea was to start gathering them.
     And, giggling and salivating in unison, elbows and contrastingly shaped haunches poked high in the air, Nilla-Killa and Samuel Edwine together collected at least a bushel of tomato-sized peyote buttons, plump and succulent as the buttocks of green babies under your arm.
     Soon enough, Sam was conducting a stern tutoring session on top of the geothermal formation. Dangling his legs down into the steamy vent, he was showing his new pal how to trepan the asterisks of icky strychnine out of each bulb with a slip of barb wire borrowed from the neighbor's ineffectual fence.
In the presence of this controlled substance Sam began to get all gauzy and sleazy, his lower eyelids pouting like those of a Penthouse model who has, for once, accidentally allowed herself to become aroused in front of that Vaseline-smeared lens. He heard his lubricated mouth going "Mmmmmmm?" with each fomented bulb they sundered and prodded.
     Already he felt traces of the sublimity that would descend when they chastised and houseled themselves on the immemorial Uncompahgre sacrament, scarfing this gunk by the sweaty armload. Digesting spineless tubercles was the sole reason Sam Edwine's DNA was braided in his mom's womb in the first place.
     So perfectly attuned was he that his tongue became gradually loosened from its frenum. It went into slippery orbit around his cerebral cortex.
     "There's no need to fret if your pulp gets stained phosphorescent-orange with oxidation from the devil's wire," mouthed Sam into the ears of his skinny apprentice, "since I bet iron is one of the nutrients that combat alkaloid poisoning in your system, anyway. And we're bound to miss a few of these lethal angel-hair filaments woven through-and-through the translucent green flesh, the fibrous essence of nux vomica, strung in and out, like systems of unpleasant symbols in an edifying vegetable narrative. Strychnine's what characters in ladies' mysteries murder each other with--
     "Oh, and by the way, it makes some guys barf. Never been my particular problem, this barfing, because my whole hefty metabolism was made for these green grapes of insomniac Proserpine. I'm the only person in these parts, besides the Uncompahgre braves themselves, who never even gets a tiny bit queasy. And that fills my favorite homosexual cousin Bryce Barkdull with envy, turning him a visible emerald-green. He speculates that I might have the unfair advantage of some aboriginal blood in my veins, despite my physical type, which, as you can see, m'boy, seems unadulteratedly Celtic--although that doesn't necessarily inspire any undue feelings of narcissism in me. Do you think it should? What's your frank opinion?"
     The kid was already looking a tad nauseated, so Sam quickly added, "Just think of the barfing as part of the overall spiritual experience. And try to persuade the greater part of your spiritual barf to slide down into the crater--without falling in yourself, of course. We don't want to lose you at that point, kiddo, because, after the strych doubles you over, the rest of the plant lifts you up and puts a real smile on your little Cupid's bow.
     "Meantime, we've got this kitchen chore to do. Let these olive-drab Injun strawberries stain our tootsies, my boy, under the moon, stars and bits of space junk whose reflections obscure them. Fuck my neighbor. Selfish guy thinks a fumarole and its produce can be owned."
     It was bound to be true policy Sam talked, for he sat with large portions of his jockey-briefed buttocks flopped over the volcano-hole, in the precise posture of the bare-naked Pythoness at Delphi, who received divine revelation in the form of magic mineral steam up her oracular snatch. Sam positioned his admittedly vagina-poor crotch in the exact manner his mom had shown him ten years before, when she had taken him on a pilgrimage to the Omphalos. In the dissolving shadow of acid-rainy Parnassus, his bipolar mom had entered into one of her unmedicated manic states, and had demonstrated the proper squatting technique for the Minolta.
     And, tonight, here in the New World, Sam began to utter bona-fide doctrine at his fellow harvester (reaper, also, of at least one vanilla soul)--even though the kid was not a particularly good listener, and was starting to exhibit some definite personality problems.
     For example, he had already worked himself into such a state of ambiguous agitation that he'd lost all semblance of manual coordination, and was smooshing up his half of the blessed verdure. He just sat there diddling in the dirt with the dope, a juicy finger painting with a street value of seventy bucks, or even seventy-five, depending on whether you could find a high school student to burn. And, in the meantime, he was failing to hold up his end of the social discourse. He just cackled through that ossified grin, and kept muttering "What a brain-fuck!" under his breath, over and over again, regardless of the conversational context.
     Even so, despite all this smooshing, diddling, giggling and muttering, Sam had not forgotten the neighborly errand. He wanted to try to address this problematic youth, to exert moral suasion upon him through rhetorical means. Sam would bounce salubrious anecdotes off that petrified facade, like a Hasid bopping the brim of his big hat against what's left of Herod's town hall. Gesturing with a green juice-oozing fist, Sam would feed his junior crater-mate tales of the olden days, the formative years. In the manner of an old salt or staff sergeant, scratching his whiskers and reaching down to adjust his scrotum from time to time, Sam intended to preach.
     And it felt very strange, because, search as hard as he might for something sage to say, something big brotherly and uplifting and expressive of regeneration and the sun-also-rising, the only thing he could recall about his youth, under the present circumstances, with those pious Latter-Day-Saint choppers glinting up at him, was a squalid brothel way out in the Salt Flats.
     But, what the fuck? We must do the best we can with the materials available to us. So, ignoring the owner/proprietor of this lump of nature, who scampered in tight circles on the dim horizon, trying desperately to catch his eye with one of those "Tell the rascal to skedaddle afore m' third plural wife wakes up 'n poops a peck!" signals, Sam began spinning yarns of the remote epoch when he was hovering at this kid's apparent stage of psychosexual development, during his own drug-drenched teens, in the peak of the High Renaissance.
     "Back when I was your age," began Sam--

* * *

     It was an era of enforced liberation, of requisite coolness about Love-Love-Love. All persons under twenty were expected to spend sedate evenings maturely sucking in their pudgy cheeks at "pod-pardies" alongside washboard-tressed, archaically smiling androgynes. Herbal tea was provided to wash down the methaqualone and the artsy-craftsy religion and the Simon and Garfunkle LPs, and every person, regardless of demographics, had an equal right to speak frankly about "balling."
     This sort of thing soon wore thin as Joni Mitchell's singing voice, and a certain young Turk began to feel the need for something more substantial. He hankered after crotch-level, butt crack-reeking fun.
So he struck out into the wilderness and linked up with his distant country cousin, one Bryce Barkdull. Resorting to familial blackmail, he held over Bryce's blushing head various whispered secrets and sensory details excerpted from latently gay dreams that had been tormenting the poor hick ever since he'd entered puberty not long before. Teenaged Sammy coerced his cuzzie into driving him to Auntie Louanda's Bordello, which was tucked, like a uterine cyst, in the emptiness of Nevada.
     There, especially in the darkest small-town nighttime, a six-foot-six-inch, two-hundred-and-eighty-three-pound fifteen year old had no trouble gaining admittance.
     Bryce, the muscular but obviously adolescent chauffeur, had to wait outside in Uncle Rusty's pickup, huddled among dog-eared piles of Mormon choral sheet music, trying to keep his hands off his gorgeous self, and fervently petitioning an especially svelte Lamb of God, magnetized, by the deliberate hand of his mom, to the dash.
     "Hey, Fifi. Run fetch muh cuzzie one o' them glossy maggerzines, plus a flashlight. And a big ol' box o' damn Kleenex! Yaw-yaw-yaw!"
     Old Sambo modified his accent at such moments without even being aware of it. He was, after all, a congenital and irreversible Utahn, which is to say a terminal chameleon. He had to take Bryce's word for it next morning that he'd sounded like such a perfect ass.
     And, tonight on the geothermal formation, Sam regaled the mute intruder, his fellow dry Utahn, with mouth-watering descriptions of the sparkly bottles of real liquor behind the bar--upside-down, for hell's sake!--and the black velvet painting of a nekkid gurl with huge gold bonkers.
     And don't forget to mention the actual three-D nekkid gurls--pros-TIT-toots!--ranged according to size, shape and function in front of the juke box. Surely, God's own tumbling plenty was represented in that line-up, and glory be to Him for dappled things. Each purred or snarled a non-Biblical, ostensibly onomatopoeic moniker that Sammy, with his innate good taste, immediately forgot; so he just held out a finger and grunted.
     "Wow! He pointed at the pitcher! How much sh'd we charge him to dork the pitcher?"
And the legit patrons, leathery prole-types slumping in the livid shadows, would reach for concealed lethal things, assuming Sammy was making fun of them when he replied with some Arkansawyer-esque bit of asininity--
     "Naw, naw, ladies, you got me all wrong. I don't want ter feck nobody. Just put it in and slide it around a leedle bit, that's all. Yaw-yaw-yaw!"
     On the jukebox was somebody whose throat kept going "gunka-gunka" while singing the following:
     I caught'cha honky-tonkin' with-a my best friend;
     The thing to do was quit'cha
     But I should of left then.
     Now I'm too old to quit'cha,
     But I still get sore
     When you come home a-feelin' for the
     Knob on the do-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-or.

     The madame, a permanent fixture, would sling Sammy complimentary stingers, which he obediently guzzled to cloak his chronic teen halitosis under the creme de menthe. Her night-colored face was so absolutely motionless behind those rhinestoned harlequin spectacles, that Sammy caught his eyes searching for electronic speakers concealed about her vast, shiny person when he heard her say, "How you old Unker Rusty? Ain't seen him in days. You tell him the gals all says hey."
     Upon overhearing the tall tale Sammy whined into the gals' ears, i.e., his benzedrine palsy and herpes-horror-induced impotence were chromosomal afflictions, stemming from H-bomb tests in the sterile wastes just outside the back door, why, Auntie Louanda would open up her big black heart, and would neglect a whole Showdeo-rodeo of Brahma bull-humpers in favor of this poor, gangling, ill mutant. She'd nurture Sammy with free Brandies Alexander, gently swirling in extra shots of nutritious Guernsey cream to cushion the hard stuff.
     Regardless of what he would tell his cuzzie on the long drive home, old Sambo wound up doing nothing more or less lascivious than talking the night away with his Negroid 'nother-mother; for Auntie Louanda was a bottomless coal mine, bursting with tons of invaluable dirt about The Business and its various manifestations across the increasingly horny nation: pimps are being phased out in the Big Apple, cat houses phased in, owned and operated exclusively by liberated pros-TIT-toots; men are no longer needed, no bouncers, even--have you ever tried to stand up against a dozen pissed-off working girls?
Heck no thank you, Ma'am! Although we could use a couple of them on this sultry solfatara tonight.
Speaking of pissing off such persons--out in the gravel parking lot, Cuzzie-wuzzie had meanwhile been keeping Fifi bending over the pickup window bare-assed. Like a good classless American boy, Bryce democratically expected her to be, deep down inside, delicate and trembling like himself, another Sonia Marmeladov. So he nervously twiddled the steering wheel between his thigh muscles and tried to engage her in soul talk.
     "What, um, insights have you gained into humanity from this, er, job?"
     "I'm no diesel dyke, if that's what you mean, queerbait," snarled Fifi, grabbing the fuck-books, the flashlight and the Kleenex and slamming the doors of Paradise in Bryce's maroon face.

* * *

     "My cuzzer and I were, I'd guesstimate, about your age back then, son."
     Suddenly, the kid looked up from wrecking his share of the peyote. For the first time all night, through his paralytic grimace, he exhibited more-or-less full powers of speech. Looking every bit as vicious and perverted as Edgar Bergan insinuating things into a wooden doll's oral cavity, he sizzled and hissed, "Yeah, but it was the mid- to late-sixties. Didn't you see God? You never saw God in the mid- to late-sixties? And the early seventies?"
     Sam was about to yell, "Nyah-hah, so you can talk!" and nudge him in the floating ribs. But there was something anxious and astonished in his voice that made it seem urgent to deal immediately with his pitiful question.
     After all, an oldster dispensing wisdom to a youngster on top of a geothermal formation in the moonlit nighttime really has no business implying that the Golden Age was nothing but a long, smelly visit to a whorehouse, even if such an assertion is fundamentally true. Sam had a responsibility to tell the kid something more.
     So he thought hard for about forty seconds, meanwhile keeping an eye on the east for any rosy dawn-fingers that might claw their way over the brink. He furrowed his brow for effect, and caused the piling-up pleats of forehead flesh to push his eyeballs inward and downward a bit. He was being serious now.
     And, ever so gradually--as Sam's unhappy neighbor fretted around the base of Golgotha and did those shouting sorts of stage whispers to the effect that Sam should "Run him off! Run him off! It's well-nigh milkin' time!"--the memory-doors creaked open onto a passageway, a luminescent chartreuse tunnel, leading back to the night when Sam did, indeed, get a look at The Beyond.
     "Way back when I was a mere callow stripling like yourself, m'boy," said Sam--

* * *

     "On one of those endless rides home from Auntie Louanda's, during the night-portion of a schoolday when several classmates and I had dropped some Mr. Natural for the frog-pithing and -vivisection unit of biology class, Brycie-pootums finally got tired of hearing about it instead of doing it (or having it done to him--I don't recall which), and he burst into tears. He stopped Unker Rusty's pickup with an ultimatum (the subliterate rube pronounced in 'ul-tomato'): either he and I climb straight into the back and do what I supposedly just did at Auntie Louanda's, or he, muscular lumpen-peasant that he is, dumps me off, right there in the middle of the midnight desert, to have my poor red-haired noggin scalped and punctured and sucked dry by wild Uncompahgres and picked clean by buzzards before sunrise.
     "Well, son, as you may well imagine, it came to blows (no pun intended, necessarily). I remember laughing so hard as to give myself a stitch in my left side, then losing the proverbial 'it.' I briefly came to, flat on my ass on top of a waffled skunk in the middle of the highway, with a turquoise eighteen-wheeler bearing down on me, and quickly learned that the old ethological chestnut about a deer frozen in headlights does not apply to homo sapiens--
     "I land in a mess of oxidized Nephi Creme Soda cans and nettles and salt, all four limbs and twenty digits cold and numb, tingling, no circulation. And then, all at once, the wiseacre razzer, the color announcer to my ball game, my logorrheic consciousness, shuts up. All verbiage is cleared away from a yellow sky, for the length of time it takes to blink once--"

* * *

     "Oh yes!" cried the Killer of Niller. He allowed his ruined brain fruit to slop and dribble through his fingers. "The death experience! That's what hallucinogens were for! To scour out your skull so you could see God! In the sixties! What--" his spinal cord flipped three times in anguished anticipation, like a damp towel in a locker room "--what'd you see?"
     At first Sam withheld it, for the kid's sake, because of his earnest face and tender years. Sam protested, in a masculine VFW-type voice, that he didn't want to talk about it.
"That'd be an indiscretion, li'l fella. Like snickering to your buddies about a peek up the skirt of some vast and terrible flirt."
     The enthusiasm for this discussion, which Sam had been enjoying well enough, abruptly drained from the boy, like ichor from hickeys on birthday sixteen. The snide little "posht" that puffed out of his button nose as much as said, "Oh sure, you doddering coot. 'Indiscretion.' You probably never saw beyond the pucker of your prepuce in the first place. And if you did, you obviously haven't enough psychic energy left over to remember it as anything more than a slight pre-seminal emission. You were feeling all goosey-woosey over the cloddish prospect of servicing this butch cousin of yours whom I keep hearing so much about. Really on your mind, this Brycie, isn't he? After all these decades? Kissing cousin? Hmmm? Old fart. Lecher. Pederast in the past-perfect. Get thee to a proctology clinic."
Sam was not about to settle for the type of reaction that he'd given his own dad's and grampa's and uncles' fond reminiscences for more than a third of a century. So he sat up straight and said, "All right, Sonny Jim. I'll tell you what I saw when I got One with the Goddamn Cosmos in the path of that big rig. Are you ready?"
     No response.
     "Well, I hope you're ready," huffed Sam, "because I sure am. So, here goes. Okay?"
     It was hard to tell if the brazen trespasser was even listening anymore. The time had come to eject him from the premises. This was not a dude ranch around here.

* * *

     "I saw the yellow heavens sundered, and there, in the silence, staring me flat in the face was--" Sam paused, in order to achieve the full emotional impact, then concluded, in round tones, "--Zero! Cipher! Null Set!"

* * *

     "No!" cried the boy, jumping to his feet, kicking up clouds of white dust. "I'm the one that's seen Beyond, not you! I've seen! Lots of times!"
     And Junior here began prancing up and down the crater, squishing whole alternative universes of sweet succulent buds under his scale-model combat boots, haranguing Sam with some neo-hip-religio-blab, to the effect that you gotta love persons' minds, and not just what's contained in persons' minds, but you gotta love the very physical substance that comprises persons' minds, and in the act of loving this substance you may pave the way to seeing Beyond. All this was derivative of some twaddle as old as the Carpocratian gnostics, but twisted, comically bent around this twit's Salt Lake City accent, to sound vital, fresh, pertinent.
     He pranced way too close to Nature's orifice, affecting each of the stage mannerisms of that other perpetual Utah teenager, Donny Osmond: the same well-coached sexlessness voided from the same squeaky rosebud mouth; the same fretful pettishness glossed over with the same rows of well-flossed toothinesses, peeking from the same, yes, Mormon Smile.
     It never unflexes, not even when someone curses their plural parents in their faces: the vitamin D-enriched smile of folks who have Our Heavenly Father by the short-and-curlies, who know the Answer to all the Great Questions. You can't pose them a problem that'll befuddle them.
     Sam was faced with the fabled Mormon smile, and it was getting more and more difficult to return his interlocutor's gaze and simultaneously to maintain a settled stomach. The fruits of tonight's harvest were not helping. But Sam continued scarfing them anyway, now that the performance had begun. This was turning out to be a twin rite of mutual self-mortification, a double header.
     And then, just as Donny, Jr., started whirling and swishing like a dervish around the vaporish maw, Sam felt a tiny claw grasp his shoulder from behind. He jumped so far and fast in surprise that it felt as though the flap of flesh on the crown of his head had shifted down over his eyebrows forever.
     The tiny claw belonged to his neighbor, holder of the deed to this conduit to dissolution. The unhappy man was crouching in terror behind Sam's left love handle. Having apparently lost confidence in Sam's ability to play the bouncer tonight, he had swallowed his own cowardice and bellied up the side of the geothermal formation. Judging from the smell of him, he'd also swallowed a complement of "weasel piss," the Mormon-style three-point-two percent beer, which never had any effect on Sam, but seemed to alter the locals' personalities well enough.
     Patting the brownish-orange muzzle of a derelict splatter-gun that he'd dragged up with him, he croaked in a mouse whisper, "Got'cha covered, Big Red. She's loaded with rock salt."
     "Un-iodized, no doubt," replied Sam in a voice loud enough to make his neighbor wince and consider scrabbling back down to safety.
     "Not so loud!" he pleaded. "Pot-licker'll hear us!"
     "Not likely."
     Young Master Osmond over there had decided to punctuate his harangue with a few rousing soprano choruses of the Mormon anthem "Come, Come Ye Saints," which is based on the chord changes of Eddy Fisher's "O-o-oh My Papa-a-a." The coyotes sang harmony, and it seemed likely that Nilly-Willy's maw might be awakened any minute by the infernal ruckus.
     Even though his deepest convictions had just been offended, the stunted stranger retained that Smile, containing in quintessence everything unregenerate about today's far-western youth. They'd never let this teeny-bopper into Auntie Louanda's Hookshoppe. And if he ever killed anyone's daughter, it was with charm.
     Up close, beery and damp, came the whisper into Sam's auditory meatus: "What frosts me is the pot-licker did less time in the damn pokey for doin 'trocious thangs to our pore li'l gal than he did for bein' sack-religious on his damn proselytizin' mission back east."
     "Proselytizing mission?" cried Sam.
     "Would you keep it down? This ain't choir practice in the ding-dang tabernapple. That's jest what I said: mission. He's a returned mish, dishonor'bly dish-charged. They say he done 'trocious thangs 'n stuff to his damn missionary companion. Somethin' nutty like boiled him 'n shackled him 'n drove him bonkers. I am here to tellya, Big Red, when our good Latter-Day-Saint boys fall off their palomino, they don't mess 'round, y'know?"
     "Mission?" Sam repeated with growing incredulity. "How old's this crazy guy?"
     "Damn sight older'n you."
     "But I thought--"
     "Us too, at first. Thang is, these crazy fuckers--'xcuse m' French--they don't age fast. It's like they ain't got a damn conscience gnawing away, drivin 'em to drink and self-aboose like the rest of us."
"Come, come ye sai-i-i-ints, no toil nor labor fe-e-e-ear!" shrieked the boy--rather, man. Or maybe guy. And, as he shrieked, it remained even still: the vomity rictus of Donny Osmond, Merlin Olsen and Orrin Hatch. How can their names start with an "O" when their lips remain stretched wide to make an "E"? Smile and smile and be a villain.
     Sam's neighbor was huddled and snuggled way too close, like a grooming rhesus monkey. He had jockeyed his buck teeth and chappy lips only millimeters from Sam's ear-hole, presumably to aid whispered communication over the ruckus. He propped his splatter-gun's crumbling muzzle against Sam's bare shoulder.
     Oblivious of his audience's doubling, the ageless creature continued writhing before them. He squatted down, gathered up another chunk of calcium carbonate, and started whacking it against his own forehead to emphasize some of his finer eschatological points. Blood trickled down to gild his tetanal smile and trace the crevices between his big wholesome incisors and canines. Like many divinely inspired homilists, he was giving himself up to the Paraclete, and losing awareness of his audience, assuming the Pentecostal tongue-flame that rose from the hole newly bashed in his head would light the way through his subordinate clauses, like the pillar of fire leading the usual folks through the usual wilderness.
     "This li'l turd-snapper spended most of his 'dult life in the damn nut-house, anyways, so's he ain't had wimmen 'n bills drivin' him to his early grave neither. Our taxes, yours 'n mine, Big Red, been footin' that little cake-soaker's bill all these years, through the damn sexy-sixties, feedin' him that hot kwee-zeen they serve down to State Mental Horspiddle. So he's stayed all smooth and shiny and purdy and smiley, like one o' them toy dolls they always show bitin' pore little gals in the damn scary movies. Red lips 'n all."
     Sam's neighbor patted his relic splatter-gun and released a three-point-two percent belch, redolent with chemicals and confidence.
     "Sum-bitch'd better not be pullin' no more scary movie crapola round here. Leastways not real soon. Or they'll be hell t' pay. He's got you 'n me to corn-tend with. Right, Big Red One?."
"Um, well--"
     Meanwhile Nilla-Killa, too, had shifted to a more emphatic rhetorical stance. Down on hands and knees, he had reassumed the peyote-plucking position, and now heaved his reflections straight down into the vagina dentata. Sam considered reaching out a long leg and sending him to apologize to Nilla. But that wouldn't be running him off, exactly. Quite the opposite, in fact.
     "Jumpin' Jesus!" cried Sam's neighbor in a stage-whisper, "Don't let 'im get so close to th' edge o' that raunchy toilet!"
     "What, you're worried about his safety?"
     "Not his safety. Ours! For hell's sakes, talkin' at the great white telephone is what set him off in the first place."
     "Set him off? In what sense of the--"
     "Near's ol' Deptysherf could re-con-struct, him 'n silly Nillie was up here courtin', an' she came on a bit too hellacious, as wimmen in that branch of our genealogy are prone t' do. So, of course, he started havin' tummy problems 'n excused hisself, as good L.D.S. boys are instructed to do by their neighborhood bishops. And he seen somebody or some goddamn thang down there inside my fumarole or solfatara, or whatever. And the sum-bitchin' kid jest went bonkers is all. Started chuckin' boulders 'n hollerin' bout monsters from the finny deeps, Leviathan and so forth, then took off a-runnin' through the damn scrub oak. Took half a barb wire fence with him. He come back when everbody but you-know-who was asleep in Dream Land."
     At the mention of that unfocused continent, the poor victim's plural papa seemed to go into neutral. He sighed, and shifted to a more comfortable attitude of prostration behind Sam's goose-bumped hugeness. Idly clinking a few gnawed fingernails against his firearm, he settled in to watch the monster show. An inordinate amount of time passed.
     "Oh, for fuck's sake!" cried Sam.
     "Are you going to tell me?"
     "Tell you what?"
     "Wha--what'd he do to her?" Sam whispered, knowing the answer, deep in his guts, as they say. But not nearly deep enough. Already halfway up the esophagus.
     "Somethin' nuttier'n a damn hoot-owl's what he done," began Nilly-Willy's quasi-stepdad, warming to the tale. "It seems that--"
     Some episodes of queasiness manifest themselves with such conviction that, when we finally are able to separate our cold-sweat-glued eyelids, we expect to see, distributed across the vast expanse of our bare body, great throbbing gouts of our own scarlet entrails, which will flop off the ill-defined edges of our torso and soak into our poor inadequate jockey briefs.
     Sam's neighbor didn't seem to notice any eruptions. He was holding forth now, building his own momentum for once, like a man. Splatter-gun tucked close at hand, he'd gotten up off his belly, and was now on his knees, the better to bear down verbally on the hole in the side of Sam's head, as if it belonged to the sweet prince's father.
     "Now our dang neighborhood bishops're always preachin' at us 'bout yer blast-phemy 'gainst yer Holy Ghost bein' yer One Unpardonable Sin, y'know? Well, sir, right 'bout now I'm thinkin' the ol' Prophet/ Seer/ Revelator up there in Salt Lake oughta de-cree that the Second Unpardonable Sin is when you're gittin' a hold o' somebody's li'l nineteen-year-old princess and--"
     "Boo-wharr-ghhhhk-mmf-bah!" said Sam's upper gastrointestinal tract, independent of his will. And again: "Mmm-blaght-urp-ghhhk."
     He raised his forehead from a semi-solid puddle in his lap, and saw reflected a lumpy clown face. Pert red tennis-ball nose, fuzzy arched eyebrows, shiny yellow mouth wearing, ooooh, such a festive grin! Smeared on with indelible grease paint! He had pranced the nocturnal fumarole with such quaint anecdotes!
     "--ain't that one heck of a note? Talk about brain-fuck. Talk about givin' head. Boy, that'd cure me o' sex forev--whatsa matter, Big Red? You're lookin' awful dang chipper, considerin' the tale o' woe I been tellin'. Smug as a hog in slop, I'd say. Where's yer compassion at? Where's yer feller feelin'? Maybe you sh'd consider wipin' that guffaw off'n yer mug afore Nilloid's maw starts clankin' them milk buckets around."
     It sounded like a fair warning, and was accompanied by a shudder on the word "maw."
In fact, now that he mentioned it, Sam did feel a lot better, thank you very much. Marvelously better. The Hour of Lead had passed, and the Great Noonday approached. Sam was unbending now, a good green Uncompahgre vegetable king. Take, eat, this is my chlorophyll. Do this in remembrance of me.
     "You saw Nothing because you never saw anything!" cried the intruder, and focused on Sam.      "Degenerate heathen eyes such as yours can never--oh, that's disgusting!"
     "Eat me raw."
     "But I thought you said you never did that."
     Sam laughed right in his kisser, gave him another display of puked eucharist, and laughed again through mustache-strained chunks. In sublime hiatal discomfort, he bubbled and splashed amplitudes of full-pulp pepsin.
     Showing fastidiousness worthy of a true gourmet, the little cannibal recoiled. He skidded all the way down Golgotha, into the brimming dawn light, and disappeared behind an authentically rustic outbuilding.
"Where you going, Donny?" hooted Sam, whisking him away like a fly with a fistful of strychnine fibers.
Several surprised moo's accompanied the plasma-carbonating shriek of a woman's voice--belonging to Niller's maw, no doubt--followed by the sounds of bare-knuckled mayhem, climaxed by the sight of poor Nilla-Killa bleeding and limping and skedaddling faster'n a partly-squished jackrabbit, taking half a barb wire fence with him, clear across the Salt Flats till the curvature of the planet gobbled him down. The early bird caught the worm after all.
     "Pot-licker got lucky this time," said her husband. "Last time he was jest barely able to crawl away. She hates havin' to wail on people. Takes a lot out of the poor ol' gal."
     And then some somber, accusing eyes focused on Sam.
     He sat up straight and tried to wipe himself off a bit. Assuming the expected facial expression, he said, "What? I ran him off, didn't I?"

Various of the five novels which comprise Tom Bradley's SAM EDWINE PENTATEUCH have been nominated for The Editor's Book Award and The New York University Bobst Prize, and one was a finalist in The AWP Award Series in the Novel. His short stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. One or two were translated and published in Japanese (or so he's been told).

His screenplay, KARA-KUN, based on his novel of the same name, has been named a finalist in the Write Movies International Screenwriting Competition.

By invitation, Tom has contributed to INKING THROUGH THE SOUL, an anthology of authors' reflections on their craft, to be published by Tarcher/ Putnam in January, 2001.

Tom's stories and essays are, or will soon be, in such publications as Big Bridge, Ralph,, Exquisite Corpse, LitKit Journal, Jack Magazine, milk magazine, Tower of Babel, Oyster Boy Review, Spoken War, Unlikely Stories, Blue Moon, and Heresiarch, the mighty journal of anti-theology out of Belfast.

Excerpts and reviews of Tom's books, links to his online work, plus a couple hours of recorded readings, are posted at his website--










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