So you got introduced to our shrink, Joshua Symonds, and his criminally insane patient, James Arkham, yesterday. Over nine years, incarcerated as criminally insane, Arkham had never opened up to any previous psychologist about the hideous murder that sent him behind bars. Arkham is speaking, discussing the day of his 1993 job interview with Howie Phillips, superintendent of Mantorville Community School.
As Yet Untitled Horror Story, part two
That morning I woke up about six-thirty, seven. I guess I was excited. It was only about fifteen, twenty minutes to Mantorville. But I had to get this job. I wouldn’t admit that to myself. Not then. But it was my last chance. Mid-July, and I still didn’t have anything to go to when school started late August. Pretty much, it was this or nothing.
I got up, showered, got dressed. Just like the perfect candidate, in my one and only suit with a colorful but not too wild tie, blue buttondown oxford shirt. I kept checking myself in the mirror, but that was nothing. Big mirrors always catch my attention. I never look at myself so much as when I’m in a hotel. I looked good, really good. My hair lay flat for once. And my spring and summer of hell had kept me from eating. I think I’d dropped fifteen pounds since Christmas, and it looked good. I really felt ready for this one.
I decided to have breakfast. They always say eating a good breakfast makes all the difference. I don’t usually eat anything, but this time, well, it seemed like the right thing to do. There was a McDonald’s right next door to the motel, right on the highway actually with the motel out of the way behind it, but McDonald’s seemed, well, not the thing I wanted. I’d eaten that for supper the night before. I decided to see if there wasn’t a restaurant or local diner in town. There almost always is. I packed up my suitcase and inspected the room to make sure I didn’t leave anything behind and checked out—all before seven-thirty. Got in the car and drove up the highway, Main Street, of course, toward the turnoff for Mantorville.
I’d checked out the route through town the previous afternoon when I’d arrived. I didn’t want any surprises in the morning, and I was pretty sure I remembered a diner along the way.
And I was right, even though I hadn’t really been paying attention to that kind of thing when I’d driven through. The Eagle’s Nest. Corny name for what it was—a classic little Iowa diner. Found out later the Eagles were the Bear River Falls team. I bet the building was an old gas station, enlarged somewhen along the line, and the current owner wasn’t the one who made the adaptation to a restaurant.
According to the folks around there, that’s always the way it goes. Some gas station goes broke, closes down, somebody buys the building (or the bank unloads it finally, since the gas station owner was probably into the bank big time, and they had to be satisfied with the property when the business went bust), and they make it into a new kind of business—those days it seemed it was always a restaurant or an ice cream joint, one or the other—and survive for only about a year or so, just long enough for the bank to get back a good part of the loan they extended the guy to take the property off the bank’s hands, and then after a year, sometimes longer, another food entrepreneur opens just what the town wanted, another cheap place to eat familiar food cheaply. Sometimes the joint has something special (here it was gyros—either the new owner or the cook must be Greek), but nobody ever eats it—at least nobody local.
For breakfast, according to the greasy, laminated, oversized menu, I could select from a variety of five different breakfast plates, each featuring eggs fixed in one of four ways, bacon or “pork pattie” or sausage, hash browns or American fried potatoes or “breakfast spuds,” toast or English muffin with jelly, juice and coffee. Milk was extra. They also had omelets, my preference—mushroom, cheese, Denver, Western, plain, design-your-own (each ingredient fifty cents) with either toast or English muffin or “potatoe.”
He spelled it for me. Silent E and all.
D’you think they learn somewhere along the line to spell it like that? Small town people?
I wondered how he could remember all this, or if he were simply inventing it as he went along. But his eyes had that glazed look of someone entirely involved in recollection, almost oblivious of his surroundings, and although we weren’t quite on target even yet, I feared what an interruption might evolve. I just let him talk.
I ordered the Denver omelet with plenty of onions and green peppers, whole wheat toast, milk and coffee. It only cost $5.65, and it was good. That morning I didn’t think I’d ever eaten anything quite so good. Wasn’t until I got in the car to go on to the interview that I thought the onions and peppers might be a mistake. …Wasn’t though, was it? He looked at me suddenly, then drifted away over my head. That wasn’t the mistake.
I ate that meal a lot in ten months. Usually for supper after school. Every time it reminded me a little of how I felt that morning—like a king or a young god or something, as if everything were going exactly right for me and I was in control of everything. Even that day it was a damned illusion, a lie.
He stopped again, his expression drifting off, his eyes more unfocused than before. And then, as if someone threw a switch inside of him, click, he looked at me.
I finished eating at 8:20. I paid right away, even tipped the waitress.
I’ve always been a huge tipper. Girl I dated in college worked tables in the local country club, bar and restaurant—Ohio town about the size of Bear River. She was good-looking, very. I felt lucky just to be dating her. The golfers in the bar must have felt lucky to have her bend over their little tables to place their watery drinks because they gave her good tips. Not so good in the restaurant: families out, golfers together with the wives and often the kiddies. There she’d be lucky to get better than the spare change from the bill. She told me that’s the way it always is in hometown restaurants. Local yokels never tip. Grandpa thinks a quarter is good money thrown away when he leaves it behind on the table. Gramma picks up anything more than that quarter while the old man’s in the can draining his colon. And the teenagers don’t even know enough to leave anything other than their chewed gum. But the divorcees need the job—even if only to pay the daycare while they’re away.
Like I said, it’s less than fifteen minutes from Bear River to Mantorville. At the Eagle’s Nest I was just less than a mile from the intersection. You have to make a left turn going east on 54 to pick up 41. It’s the damnedest intersection (have you ever been there? No. Funny. I figured everyone I’d meet from now on would have been through there): it’s a three-way stop—southbound on 41, westbound on 54, and northbound from the bypass (and that doesn’t quite match the rest of the intersection, it’s about 200 feet east of 41). Only eastbound and turning from the west onto 41 don’t have to stop, but that turn is like uphill across the westbound lane and on up onto 41. Sheer hell in the winter. I’ve seen pickups slide all over that intersection.
But it was a great summer day, and I just cruised right through and on up 41. I started fantasizing the interview. …Phillips would be tall and fiftyish, maybe wearing a rug, and he’d like my credentials. Maybe he’d gone to Luther, too, yeah…
I had the radio on, of course, and something good must have started playing when I’d gone about a few miles, because, well, this is what I was saying… I just drove right on through Mantorville northeast to Machen. It had to be the song changing that woke me up. I didn’t drive the whole way to the river, but I had gone, oh, a good ten miles past town before it started to dawn on me that I should have gotten there by now. It was 8:40.
I wasn’t sure what I had done, but I took a chance and turned around in a little lane to a cornfield and headed back. At 8:48 I saw the big sign on the north side of the livestock business: “Welcome to Mantorville.” I realized how I could miss it, spaced off in my own thoughts as I had been. The town was basically all off the highway to the east. Water tower and the school on a big hill to that side of town. What had once been downtown too, right on the north end. Really, if you weren’t paying attention, it was easy to just cruise on through without really noticing you had even entered a community. …I never did that again though.
Maybe it would have been better if I never turned around that morning.
He dried up again and looked forlorn, getting ahead of himself in his thoughts, remembering the ugly stuff. We’d get there, but I had to get him going first.
—And the interview? Were you late?
I made the appointment. Barely. It was 8:54 when I walked through the front doors of the school, and thank God, the superintendent decided to be there waiting for me because I wouldn’t have found his office for at least fifteen more minutes.
That building is a labyrinth. It took me probably two months to start sorting out my way around. Three and three-fourths storeys, old Howie Phillips liked to say. It’s what he did say when he took me by surprise standing right inside the front doors, short, fat and full-haired, and only just forty-five. I liked the old fart right off. He was a windbag and lazy as hell, and I could tell both qualities within the first fifteen minutes. But I liked him.
I guess he was kind of like me. An outsider. “Not a local boy,” as the Quetzal County folk like to say. Of course, hardly anyone counted as a local boy in their view. You could live in Mantorville for thirty years, raise two generations, and be the biggest taxpayer in the county, and they’d still give you that look—that “you’re-an-outsider” look. I couldn’t understand that attitude, even though I’d had it in a smaller way in Jackson. But part of that had been being a teacher. Teachers are never local boys, always outsiders, never at home. After all, you give the kids homework. And get the summers off. Makes you seem unnatural to the locals.
Nobody knew your parents. That’s always a big deal in little farm towns. You’ve got to be able to calculate someone’s family back three generations to “know” them. It’s like people aren’t really real unless half the county’s related. My cousins are real back where my dad grew up because the family’s been there since 1878, and I’ve never quite been that real myself anywhere else.
But Howie and I had that lack of reality in common. He had it in common with few others on that faculty. It was a little disconcerting to realize, first day of school, just how many of these teachers were locals. There were twenty-three on that staff and only Howie, me, and the other new teacher weren’t raised in the area. Hell, four-fifths were raised right in Mantorville.
That alone should have warned me.
It had taken a while, but he’d gotten to the starting point.
—So the interview went well?
Yeah. He showed me around. Explained a few things about the building, old fossilized maze that it was. Showed me my room, the lunchroom, teacher’s lounge, the gym, office complex. We talked in his office. Tiny little place, actually, off in a corner on the second floor. One hell of security mess, but old-fashioned like so much in that district, in that whole county.
He offered me the job before the interview was done.
Less than two hours after we’d met. I was the first person he talked to. Flattered me. Later I learned he just hated doing interviews, hated sending rejection letters even more. But we did like each other. Hit it off that day and became friends once I took the job. I miss him, you know…We were in touchy territory now. I almost held my breath waiting to see what this subject might do. They got to him, that’s all there is to it. They got to him.
I wanted to ask, “They? Who are they?” But I knew I’d better not push it. He had to find his own way to the abomination. Just as he had done when it happened. Unfortunately, it was now 3:10: our session was past over. I didn’t know if we would actually have time enough for him to find his way through everything to his personal little heart of darkness. I told him we were done for now. He looked a little surprised, but shrugged, got up and walked out. The guards were waiting outside the door.
©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.
There is more, but this one is long enough as it is. We’ll take a break tomorrow for a little autobiographical reflection (and to point out that this is fiction here, regardless what details I have stolen from the real places I live and have worked).