Chapter 6: Of Herbs and Burnt Wieners
Back at the homestead, Den was sitting on the end of the couch opposite the busted springs, mopping his forehead. He was puzzled by an unfamiliar prickling sensation at the back of his neck. It felt like little pins and needles. Was it an emotion? He could almost name it. It started with G...gil….guil….guilt. Guilt! That was it. He was almost feeling guilty about banishing Ferris. Dat junk be bonk, La'Tisha had said.
His stomach rumbled like a badly tuned El Camino, reminding him that he still hadn't had breakfast. Over in the corner, the parakeet, Dingleberry, started squawking in response. "Open up! Police! Open up! Police!" It was an uncanny imitation, and it got on Den's nerves. He hurled a TV Guide at the cage and missed. Dingleberry made a noise like BB shot ricocheting off a beer can, and quieted down.
"Need me some distraction," thought Den. He stood up and flipped through the record collection, all two of it, and finally settled on "I'm So Miserable Without You, It's Like Having You Here". Then he rummaged in the kitchen, found one and a half stale Hostess snowballs, and settled back on the couch to eat them. As BHT, polysorbate-80, and artificial cream filling dribbled down his chin, Den wondered what that no-account, shiftless, secondborn son was up to.
Ferris took a final hack at a stubborn jack pine and paused to scratch sixty or seventy of his eight thousand chigger bites. It was hotter than a goat's butt in a pepper patch. Goddammit, where were those Rowans? Elmer had probably forgotten all about him and was off noodling for catfish in the creek, or some such foolishness.
In the meantime, the bow saw needed sharpening, and he'd left the whetstone back on the rill, next to the briars. Work was going slowly. For the thousandth time, he wished Burris were here. He took the Dixie horn out of his bag and gazed at it sadly; Cousin Cletus had dropped it off the other day, saying don't pay it no never mind, he could get Ferris a replacement horn at Wally World, and a Confederate flag license plate besides.
A sound behind him in the scrub brush made him turn around. Someone, or something, jittery was scuttling off quickly, as if powered by too much caffeine. Ferris caught a glimpse of soft, pale feet paddling through the thicket. Then he was brought up short by the sight of smoke rising from a fire.
"The hell?" he muttered. Who was picnicking here? Revenuers? Gripping the handle of the bow saw tightly, he stole through the underbrush, being careful to watch for snakes. Whoever it was had some nerve, trespassing on the family land.
Parting the underbrush, Ferris peered out and saw two midgets roasting wieners over a fire.
"I wish we had some tater tots," one of them was saying.
"What the hell are tater tots?"
"You know. Little, mini, po-tay-toes. Extrude 'em, bread 'em, deep fry 'em, stick 'em in a TV dinner."
"Ugh! Keep your nasty tots." The second midget blew at the end of his wiener, which had caught fire. "I'd rather have sole meuniere, fresh foie gras, and a nice '86 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac."
"Good luck with that."
Ferris had heard enough. He had orders from Den to kill anybody he found messing around with their land. Quietly he drew his Leatherman multi-tool, pulled out the fish gutter, and stepped into the clearing.
"Can I help you boys?" he asked. "This here's our property. What y'all doing in Gonder Holler?"
The midgets gaped at him. Finally the curly-haired one spoke.
"We're…um….tourists," he said. "We're…..looking for the Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum. Why, is that it over there?" He peered off in the general direction of Tennessee, shading his eyes with a hand that was unusually hairy.
"Ain't no tourists in Gonder Holler," said Ferris. "Nothin' to see here, 'cept my crazy daddy and his two best friends, Smith and Wesson."
"Smith and Wesson? Are they nice like you?"
Ferris sighed. Geez, these midgets were dim. "No. Smith and Wesson, as in, the gun makers."
For a tense moment, they stared at one another. Ferris thought he smelled coffee on the curly-haired one's breath. He squatted down so he was at eye level with the midgets. "Now, suppose you tell me what you really doin' here. Who are y'all?"
"My name is Alfredo," said the curly-haired midget. "And this is Gangee."
"Your bouncer?" sneered Ferris.
"No, my cognitive therapist. He also does the cooking and carries all the baggage."
"Well, don't that beat all. Two fancypants midgets havin' themselves a BBQ on our property. Better put out that fire and come with me."
"Wait till I finish my wiener," said Alfredo, crunching into the burnt end with gusto.
"Can't believe you eatin' that plain, without gravy," said Ferris, shaking his head. "No wonder y'all so short."
Inside the tin shed where Ferris was camping out, he seated the midgets next to a pile of rusty farm implements and addressed himself to them.
"We've howdied but we ain't shook yet," he told them. "Now it's time to git down to brass tacks and tell me what your business is. First off, where's your skanky pal? Looked like he took a long dip in the ugly pond. "
"Pal? What pal?" said Alfredo. "Seven of us left Rivendale Street after the meeting. One of 'em wandered off somewheres in the Moria subway station tunnel. Two of 'em were related to me, don't know what happened to them either. There was also some chick named Meg O'Lass, and a gruff dude with a pickaxe. And Ari Gorn, and this hick named Burris who kept spitting chaw all over me. "
"Burris was with you?" Ferris grew excited. "You and he was pals?"
"Well, sure…..at least, I thought he was OK." There was an awkward silence.
"It would jar your preserves, then," said Ferris, "if'n I tole you Burris was dead."
"What?" said Alfredo and Gangee together. "Shut UP! How?"
"I was a-thinking you'd tell me," said Ferris, "seeing as how you was with him last. That makes you ree-sponsible, don't it? Pappy always says if you touch something, and it breaks, then you're the one got to fix it."
"Don't look at us, we didn't touch him. Last time we saw Burris, he was…well, he didn't look so chipper, but he wasn't actually, technically, dead. How'd you find out?"
"Cousin Cletus brung me his horn 'bout a week ago. Split right in two, just like a stick of Georgia fatwood. But it weren't just the horn…I had me a gut feeling something wasn't right. See, Burris was my kin. And I had a unnatural dream 'bout him. He was layin' down in the back of a Chevy pickup, just as peaceful as can be, with a whole bunch of red plastic coffee stirrers sproutin' from his chest. I was crossin' the road to collect some blackthorn berries, and that damn ghost truck near 'bout ran me over. So I hucked a rock at it and busted its rear window."
Alfredo whistled. "Wow, you got some imagination, buddy."
Ferris shrugged. "Ate too many Snickers with Cool Whip before bed. You two wait here. I gotta go refill my water jug."
When he had left, Alfredo pulled a manila folder out from his backpack and began caressing it absentmindedly.
Gangee said, "This hillbilly is trouble. We could be stuck here for days."
"Weeks. Holler dwellers are known for their stubbornness."
"The longer we delay, the harder it will be to finish our task. I say we use the marketing plan, just this once."
Alfredo, running his fingers over the cover, didn't answer.
"Open the folder, sir. Start reading. Wrap yourself in powerful marketing jargon and we can stroll out of here unnoticed."
"I can't, Gangee. You were right. You tried to tell me. It's taken me. If I open it and read it, Sarah Mann will see…she'll find me…"
The scuff of Ferris' workboots on the threshold interrupted Alfredo's thoughts (Ferris wasn't used to wearing shoes, and had stumbled a little bit on re-entry). Ferris' keen blue glance fell at once on the folder.
"Supposin' you tell me what you got in that there folder."
Alfredo hugged the folder tightly to his chest. "Nothing."
"Got to be something, the way you're guarding it." Ferris knew exactly what it was. He could feel the power radiating from its evil, legal-sized corners. The answer to all the riddles. The thing his brother had died for. The weapon of untold evil. A clear vision came to him: a string of FERRISBUCKS coffee shops spreading across the drab landscape, bringing flavor and ambience to all. The withered crops, the sickly hens, the dry cows, the thorny snake-infested pastures: none of them mattered anymore. He had only to stretch out his hand and take this for himself. Seek for the almond latte, sang the high clear voice from his dream…. He saw Den, clapping him on the shoulder and exclaiming "Boy, I'm proud of you. You saved Gondor Holler and brought honor to our kinfolk."
"You know," Ferris mused, eyeing the midgets, "ain't nobody knows where you two are. You're smack in the middle of an uncleared pasture, and I've got a gas-powered woodchipper out back…wouldn't be no trouble at all for me to snag this marketing plan. No trouble at all. And wouldn't Pappy whoop and holler then? Maybe he'd finally see I'm first rate after all." He reached out a grimy forefinger and toyed with the little tab on the folder. Alfredo shrank back in horror, sweat beading on his forehead, pulse racing. The whispers were unbearable... Retail expansion…..CAGR of 20% top-line revenue growth…drive out the independents….. A woman in white flashed in front of his eyes, reaching lasciviously for the folder.
"NO!" Alfredo cried, and sank to the ground, insensible, curling his body protectively around the marketing plan.
"Well, that booger's gonna be hard to thump off," remarked Ferris to Gangee.
"He's gonna have a hard time givin' up that marketing plan."
"It's starting to take him, begging your pardon, sir. The other day, we stopped for a water break. When I pulled out the canteen, he asked me for a venti sugar-free nonfat 16 pump water with a shot of H20. When I said no, he snarled at me and asked to see the manager. Then we heard footsteps, and I only just pulled him down off the road in time. A huge line of killdozers, earthmovers, and construction workers passed by inches from our heads. The workers had the shakes and were sipping in unison out of steaming cardboard cups. I get chills just thinking about how close we came to discovery. No telling what they would have done with us. Please, sir…we've got to get to the tower of I. Singh Ard and destroy the marketing plan. It's our only chance."
Ferris sighed. War was coming to their front doorstep, and these two plucky little midgets had a job to do. Cutting stumps would have to wait. Den would be furious, but he'd be even more furious if he found out Ferris had let the Marketing Plan of All Power slip through his fingers. Idly, Ferris wondered if he could lure the midgets into a Kopy Kaptain store and trick them into putting the folder face down on a copy machine. But no, that was fool talk, and besides, he didn't have a nickel to be operating any copy machines with. And besides that, Den couldn't read any marketing plan anyhow, not unless it had pictures that you could color with crayons.
"Come on," said Ferris. "I'll take you as far as the edge of our property. Then it's just down the road a spell to get the bus to the White City."
"Hurry," said Gangee. "We don't have much time. Look, Alfredo's starting to get another one of his caffeine headaches." Alfredo's eyes were closed and he was whimpering softly.
As the threesome started off through the briar thicket, Gangee supporting his master, they were followed by a soft, loathsome footstep.
"It's oursssss," hissed the creature, tugging at the tattered rags of a Cinnabon uniform with pale, trembling fingers. "They stole it. We wantsss it….the beverage belongs to us….it's our cherissssshed…. Dunkin' Donuts coffee burns us, yes it does………."
When they passed over the ridge, Ferris looked back; but there was nothing to be seen except shimmering heat and ten thousand chiggers.