Mouths of Madness is simply YA weirdness, based on a summer job I had in Fort Erie, Ontario. It was Louis Sebo’s last house. I didn’t get paid when it rained, forced to suffer as he horked loogie’s out the car window as we waited for the rain to stop. There’s enough madness there to write another story about my time there. Especially when my buddy Ken got hired, then dummy Norbert who was ‘strong like bull’.
(pub. 1998 ‘Opening Tricks’ YA anthology 1998 Thistledown Press)
“You too skinny!” said the big man, his barrel-chest deflating in disappointment.
He stood beside a beat-up, rusted old Chevy Bel-Air, eyeing me through incredibly thick glasses as if I was in a shop window wearing a price tag. The man’s left shoulder sat noticeably lower than the other, matching his car’s slight tilt. Deep lines etched his tanned face centered by a nose bent to one side, just as the right car fender was slightly crumpled into a long wrinkle. One ear looked like it had been chewed on. The driver’s side mirror dangled by a coat hanger wire.
The two had gone through the same grinder. Evil twins.
I looked at myself. Sure, a bit on the lean side,-but not skinny. Wasn’t this discrimination? If weight was a requirement I would have worn three or four sweatshirts.
My dad had set this summer job up through a friend of a friend and I agreed to take it. Anyhow, this white-haired old fool couldn’t possibly see properly through those ridiculous black-framed glasses. They appeared to be pressed against his eyeballs, filling the entire lens. And to think I dragged myself out of bed at dawn for this, my first day at work, only to get fired for lack of a few pounds. What a waste of some good sack time.
I shrugged. “Your car sucks…and you’re ugly,” I said, turning, positive I’d blown any hope for a summer job.
He cursed. “Okay. Come. I make man from you.”
I stopped in my tracks, not quite sure I’d heard properly. Was he a builder or a biologist? I turned to see him raise his wrist, moving his watch into focus.
“We late. Get in.”
The car door screamed in pain as I opened it. I parked myself down amidst a conglomeration of hammers, nails, screws, string, lumber, and a million gum wrappers. Santa better bring him a toolbox for Christmas.
“I am Louis. Boss man,” he said, his large hand swallowing mine in a vice-like handshake.
His eyes stayed on me, measuring my reaction. His clipped words were laced with a thick European accent. Hungarian or something, my dad had said, the only information I had on this guy, my new boss.
“You build house before, Andy?” he asked, cranking the starter.
The engine coughed and died. Louis spewed a jumble of obscenities mixed with…Hungarian? The cures withered the pine cone air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror. His big hands angrily slammed the steering wheel.
I slid closer to the door, feeling a nail dig into my butt cheek.
“Uh, well…” I hoped to evade the subject as I had no experience at anything.
His goggly eyes waited for a better answer.
“I’ve worked as a fresh air inspector,” I said, my voice cracking slightly. “See-More Do-Less Incorporated. All last summer.”
He grabbed my hand, roughly feeling my palm with a gnarled thumb.
“Soft hands,” he spat.
In hockey that would be a compliment.
“Open hood, Andy. Push battery cable.”
I went out and opened the hood, revealing a tired six-banger crusted with black oil, goops of old grease, some mud, and hoses swelling at every ring clamp. A wiggle or two on the cable and a few cranks on the starter, and we were away leaving a stream of blue smoke in our wake.
Louis lit up cigarette after cigarette and popped in countless pieces of gum. Aspergum. A brand I’d never heard of.
“I got sore troat, Andy. I have to have,” he explained. “You take.”
It didn’t sound optional. He held out his large meat hook dwarfing the pillow-shaped white candy.
I popped it in and bit down.
In a flash, my mouth and throat were terrorized by an intense sharp blaze. I sputtered and choked and grabbed the window crank. It fell off. I ejected the venom between my feet where it disappeared into the rubble and would probably start a fire.
“You will like, sometime,” he said, nodding.
I’ll see you in hell first. I gulped half the water in my jug. I opened the vent to get rid of the fog of cigarette smoke. A torrent of dust, pine needles, and maple tree seeds showered my face.
Louis, with the aid of his prescription goggles, veered the car like a pinball between the white lines and the ditch, cursing with every jerk on the wheel. In the half-hour ride to the job site he had me searching every nook and cranny of the front seat and dash for Aspergum. I’d heard of retarded squirrels misplacing nuts.but people?
“I alvays have some. Keep looking, Andy.”
I tried not to take my eyes off the road, hoping for a bit of lead time to assume a crash position before careening into oblivion. Nevertheless, we made it safe and sound, the arm rest and dash permanently imprinted with my fingerprints. We pulled off the main road into a dirt lot beside a large mound of freshly-dug earth. Rising out of a hole beside it were four cinder block walls of a new basement.
“My house, Andy. My last house. We finish, I retire.”
I envisioned him hanging up his hammer and parking his motor home outside the Aspergum factory.
“Get tools in back seat, Andy.”
I got out and opened the back door. A waterfall of tools, nail boxes, saws, drills, rope, string, and Aspergum wrappers flowed out.
“Ever heard of a pickup truck?”
Louis cursed and called for more gum, frantically tapping the pockets of his blue plaid shirt.
“Get shovel,” he ordered, scooping up an extension cord and a sump pump.
The flooded basement resembled a crude swimming pool after a recent two-day downpour. A Mount Fuji of grey-white gravel rose from its center. Feeling the shovel in my hand I knew at once what I’d be doing–forever. I moaned loudly.
“You not as stupid as you look,” he deadpanned.
I shook my head, wishing I could drag him in front of a mirror. He ordered me in, not the least concerned I might be leaping into an oceanic trench.
“And get shovel, Andy.”
My implement looked exactly like a shovel: wood handle, a bit short perhaps, and a shovel-like steel end that came to a rounded point.
“That is spade for digging,” he said, a grumble rising in his throat.
He grabbed it roughly from me and tossed back onto the dirt pile.
“All right! All right!” I said.
He shook his head, then asked what I did at See-More Do-Less. It had to be the oldest joke around my school. I couldn’t tell if he was putting me on or just stupid.
“Well…I saw a lot more than I should have and…I uh, did a lot less than they wanted,” I replied, trying to keep a straight face.
Louis spat a thick gob at my feet and thumbed toward the car. By default, I picked the right shovel–the only one left–with a flat, wide mouth.
The idea was to drain the pool and evenly spread the gravel. Louis tossed me a pair of size twenty boots and I splashed down into nearly knee-deep water.
Louis had an Aspergum attack and disappeared. Within minutes cold water seeped into the boots. I plugged in the sump pump and flicked the switch.
A jolt of current mule-kicked me through the air. I crashed on my butt against Mount Fuji. Whoah. Something definitely wrong here. The sump pump lay on its side nearly submerged. I sloshed over to a nearby window well and began to climb up.
“What you do, Andy?”
The old man stood over me, holding a hammer in one hand like a six-gun and a long hand-saw in the other. His boot toes overhung the edge.
“I got a shock! Nearly killed me.”
“No kill you, Andy. Keep you awake.”
“You think I’m sleeping? Down here?” I protested from my pit, squinting against the morning sun, looking up at Louis’ silhouette. I explained electricity and water and short circuits–handy bits of knowledge I learned in electric shop at school. Safety first kind’a stuff.
But Louis, who no doubt used to walk to school barefoot in the dead of winter–uphill both ways–would have none of my blathering. He kept staring down at me, appearing as big as a bear, his eyes overflowing the lenses like the goofy-goggly eyeglasses in a joke shop. I stepped back from the wall, sensing a wild intensity in that insane gaze.
He stamped a heavy work boot on the wall and unleashed a string of obscenities I never thought could come from a human mouth.
Definitely nuts. Totally psycho. If his head started spinning around like an owl’s…
The chorus of blue had me baffled. So far I had interpreted a short curse as an annoyance possibly caused by a missing tool, followed by an Aspergum search. A longer, louder one–greater irritation–suggested urgency and immediate rectification; possibly brought on by being completely out of Aspergum or the car fender grazing a highway sign.
But this blast was an absolute earthquake.
“Look,” I said, hoping my educated viewpoint combined with reason and calm would prevail, “if I turn on the pump I’ll be electrocuted, zapped. You know–deep-fried in all this water here. I can’t do this.”
I began to climb the wall. The hammer fell from Louis’ hand. It hit the top of the wall and tumbled past my ear, plopping into the sea. Accidentally on purpose?
“Now look what you do, Andy!” Curse. Curse.
As if. “Hey! Excuse me for living, eh?” I shaded my eyes.
His face reddened.
Louis let out a long breath like the hiss of a tire going flat. His eyes bounced behind the lenses. “You make little pile gravel and stand on, Andy.” His tone softened as though he spoke to a small child.
His voice purred when he spoke my name. “Then…you pull switch.” His arm shot back as if chambering a round in a rifle, making me blink.
Made sense. At least I’d be out of the water. He watched me scoop gravel into a small pile. I placed the pump into a depression and aimed my butt at Mount Fuji for an emergency landing.
I closed my eyes and flicked the toggle.
Nothing but the throb of the pump. When I opened my eyes Louis was gone. Sounds of his hammering carried down to me. But every time I shifted my weight the pile crumbled and I’d be back in the water. The small steady current, like a physical humming, ran through my wet boots, occasionally up my leg to my chest. I feared black spots were scarring my heart with every jolt. A death sentence.
My brain waves altered into vivid flashes–crazy still-lifes. See-More Do-Less flashed on a huge neon sign above a factory. I couldn’t make out the address no matter how hard I concentrated. What a good job that was.
I made the gravel pile higher, reducing the juice, but had to bend over so steeply my back began to ache. This pile too, eventually broke down. My shop teacher had explained that a quarter amp could kill a man under the right conditions. If not death, doing the chicken seemed an excellent possibility.
I recalled a picture in my Electricity 101 book of a cartoon man in a bathtub full of water listening to the radio beside him. The radio falls in and the room flashes with lightning bolts revealing his skeleton like an X-ray.
A picture of me.
The black heart spots crept to my brain clotting its neurons: Louis’ face appeared in my mind with even bigger eyes; his decrepit car sported chrome wheels and tinted windows; he let me take it on a date.
My back racked with spasms. Any stance longer than ten seconds became an ordeal. The only way to stop the juice was to release the pump every few seconds, catching it before it tottered over. The words of Mr. Voltage echoed in my head: “Electricity can be your friend.”
Louis appeared as I reached the end of my sanity.
“Take break.” He slid a ladder down.
And there it was, my chance to escape.
But I was too rattled to make a run for it. I climbed out, drained my boots, and wrung out my socks. He offered me a baloney sandwich wrapped in wax paper. I snatched it with a trembling hand; delicious.
“Andy, go for Aspergum.” He coughed and croaked up a massive phlegm ball.
Go-pher. Aspergum gopher. Anything to keep out of the torture chamber. A corner store/Chinese cafe stood on the main road behind our job site. I walked over–very slowly.
The Chinaman behind the counter handed over the evil packet. His last one.
“You should get more of this in–lots more,” I said. “We’ll be out there for a while. My boss is an addict, eh?” I smiled.
“That is your boss?” He shook his narrow head. “He have foul mouth. Tell him to stop swearing.”
I passed the message to Louis as he fumbled madly with the wrapper, like a desperate child on Christmas morning.
A rumbling rose in his throat like a dragon stoking its furnace before frying the peasants. A golf ball-sized gob of phlegm swirled in his mouth. He horked it out in the general direction of the store. Mr. Sensitivity.
I gathered a few scraps of lumber and fashioned a crude contraption from simple plans in my head.
“What you do, Andy?”
“Something to keep me alive.” It was a simple brace for the pump with outriggers to keep it from falling.
I flicked the switch and voila–no shocks. I’d live. All I had to do now was stand there. Just like See-More Do-Less Inc. Beauty.
Louis cursed–with a sing-song lilt–a good curse. If it was possible to curse in a nice way, I guess that was it.
“Andy, you smart–like new tractor.” He slapped his thigh, then tossed a two-by-ten plank into the water, splashing, soaking the front of my shirt. “This work, too,” he added.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Why didn’t he give it to me earlier? His clever creation had just made my sump-steadier/shock-absorber position obsolete. Technological advancement. One small step for man; one giant step for mankind.
So much for standing around. The pool eventually drained. I’d spread Mt. Fuji all over the uneven dirt floor. As the mountain disappeared gigantic blisters rose up on my hands–and broke.
At lunchtime I wolfed down another of his baloney sandwiches. They had some kind of sauce on them which was quite good–a secret Hungarian sauce. My own two sandwiches weren’t nearly enough. After lunch, Louis found a pair of gloves for me but the damage was done; my hands were nearly crippled by flaring pain.
Louis let me drive the Chevy home. He cursed as I dipsy-doodled all the way home. Nowhere near as bad as he, had but still bad.
“Louis, this hunk-a-junk’s steering box is probably shot and the bald tires aren’t helping and the windshield is cr–“
A fearsome grumble rose in his throat. I rolled my eyes and zipped my lip. I needed both hands and one knee on the wheel to control this coffin and couldn’t be distracted by fending off any slime balls.
Every night at home, I ate like a horse. Mom couldn’t believe how much food I was packing away, said I had a hollow leg. Dad noticed my changing physique. “Wondered where those muscles were hiding.” A minimum ten hours a day will do that.
Totally exhausted and sore beyond belief, I slept like a dead man. Life, if you cared to call it that, had become working and sleeping with very little in-between.
The Chinaman said he was unable to get in any Aspergum. He didn’t sound convincing. He just didn’t want to accommodate Louis.
“My wife afraid of him,” he stated.
His wife often puttered around in the garden out back, a stone’s throw from our job site.
She only caught our attention when she leaped from the bok choy patch and scampered away inside after Louis launched a fresh curse into the stratosphere.
And off I’d go, searching the town for the dreaded concoction. Most storekeepers never heard of it. While on one particular mission, I sauntered into a drugstore intending to check out the magazine rack and happened to be passing the cough drop section. It must have been the beam of light from the heavens that caught my eye. And the choir.
There it sat–the biggest display of Aspergum I’d ever seen. Four packets wide and two shelves high. A shrine.
And my little secret.
I needed the daily break the search provided, even though the car was getting downright dangerous. Since I wasn’t even getting minimum wage, doing as little as possible had its appeal.
“You get what you get,” he’d said, after I confronted him about labor laws.
If I didn’t like the pay I could quit. The theme ran through my mind most days. But having a few bucks for a change was cool. One night at the dinner table I reached for the milk container, spilling it across the table.
The curse burst from my lips like water from a fire hose.
Dad’s jaw dropped. Mom’s hand covered her mouth. Her fork tumbled to the floor. My young brother and sister froze, their eyes nearly popping from their sockets. The fridge motor even stopped humming. “Uh…it’s Hungarian.” I excused myself and slunk into a nearby hole.
Between my extended Aspergum hunts and looking for Louis’ continually misplaced tools, we somehow managed to get work done. He was slow and methodical, maybe because of his eyes.
One day, after working like a pack mule to get the main floor beam in place, Louis slapped me on the back, nearly separating my vertebrae.
“You strong like bull, Andy.”
During our breaks or lunch, the Chinaman’s daughter would emerge from the cafe, coming out back to do yard work or hang laundry on the line. I’d seen her in the cafe waiting on tables.
Now and then she’d offer me a smile. I’d wave to her. A sweet little china doll. Louis, not noticing our interaction, would lob a curse yonder breaking the blissful moment. She’d high-tail inside just like her mom.
One day, during lunch, she picked her way over the lumber-littered lot wearing a shiny satin-like dress tightly wrapped around her like a pretty present. She carried a small take-out container.
She smiled at me and scowled at Louis. “This is for you. I will bring more for both of you if your father stops swearing.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, frowning.
She gave me an odd look and pulled the container back.
“No! I mean he’s not my father. Come on, look at my eyes.”
She did, then glanced at Louis. She laughed.
“Thanks,” I said, and opened the container. Pork chunks in black bean sauce. Yippee-ki-yay! My family was strictly meat and potatoes.
“You be better looking if you cut hair, Andy,” said Louis, tearing into a baloney sandwich.
“And you’d eat better if you stopped swearing.”
I dumped my working-man plaid shirt and began to wear sleeveless T-shirts. I had new muscles to display and a babe to flash them at. Amazing what working like a dog does to the body. After nailing up the outside frame and sheathing, I realized how powerful I had become. I could hammer in four-inch nails with a starter tap and two good drives.
My hollow leg demanded more and more food. Louie packed extra sandwiches for me–with double globs of sauce. I was absolutely huge, getting so strong and exuberant, gaining so much confidence, I began to hide Louis’ tools. We’d organize a search party and scour the job site wasting lots of time.
You’re getting hot, Louie…hotter…hotter…cold.
At times, when he really did misplace a tool, I had an urge to kick him a good one in the ass for his stupidity. I mean, he did wear a tool belt and the missing pencil was always tucked up on his unchewed ear.
The thought of ‘accidentally-on-purpose’ setting fire to his car crossed my mind, just to see how much he could crank up the curse-meter.
Every day May Luck came with food–the same whatevers-in-black bean sauce. She would sometimes stay and talk for a few minutes. I ate the delicious Chinese leftovers with gusto while Louis sat sniffing in the aroma. But I still couldn’t resist his sandwiches at break time and actually looked forward to the tangy sauce. I kept telling him that she’d bring more if he’d stop swearing–at least in English.
A tall order. The rude, obscene, unmentionables continued every few minutes, varying in their intensity. It reminded me of the rude unmentionables in baloney. If you are what you eat, well, that explains Louie.
Over the weekend I caught a cold; stuffed up sinuses and a throat so tight I could barely swallow. On Monday, driving to work, Louie offered me an Aspergum; held it out in his callused palm. The white coated gum seemed to shine and drew my hand to it like a magnet. I cursed.
Against my better judgment I quickly took it and bit down.
The toxic chemicals spread in my throat like a fiery tomato splatting against a brick wall. The powerful rush caused me to jerk the steering wheel spasmodically. Louis’ hand grabbed the dash. I thought I saw the corner of his lip curl up.
But the gum cleaned my sinuses as good as a sewer-snake reaming through a clogged pipe. Unfortunately, the effect didn’t last too long. I had to have more.
I bought double my usual complement of Aspergum. The drugstore guy gave me a look as if I was buying condoms or something. I gave him a look right back. I had banged my thumb earlier and was in no mood for snide Aspergum comments.
When I returned I found May Luck heading toward our job site with another tray of food.
Louie gave me a long leer. “Andy, you smart like tractor, strong like bull, and now, I think you twice good-looking.”
What could I say? I hope I hadn’t blushed. May Luck smiled at me. I opened the container; whatevers with black bean sauce…or something similar–again.
Yeah, just as natural as natural as could be, a river of filthy epithets flowed out into the atmosphere.
Her eyes shot open nearly as wide as Louis’. Her slender frame shuddered.
Before the curses had even ended I regretted losing control.
Her hand went to her mouth. “He is your father!” She stormed away as if she’d left a wok on the stove.
Louie slapped my back heartily, splashing black bean sauce onto my jeans. I handed him a plastic fork and together we dug into the tray, horking loogies between bites and cursing every slippery vegetable.
For dessert we slipped out the baloney centers from his sandwiches and lapped at the secret sauce. Just like Oreos.