“life down in the last mines”

A strangely happy little story about reality, digging deep, pudding and turtles. | (c) Frank Rabey

Life Down in the Last Mines

We were sitting in the common room, mostly just watching the dirty mop water dry across the cracked linoleum. It was the dulling end of another Wednesday afternoon, about the time the muted words began to trickle loose from one side of Gomez’s mouth, as he stared resolutely out the wide windows, up into the dawn of twilight falling on the lawn like fog.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking,” he murmured. “Please fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a touch of turbulence. Nothing to worry about, though, folks. Clearer skies ahead.” With one index finger, Gomez rooted deep in his cavernous ears, the long, fat digit twisting like a slow drill. I was once of a mind that he was searching for something in there; I now believe he’s trying to push something back in.

Bohlinger was already pacing, eager to drag us once more through his life down in the mines. His spindly arms were reined in behind him as he marched atop those knobby little chip-chip legs, mere inches from our chairs.

“Father died carving out mountains with his massive hands,” Bohlinger began, his close-cropped silver hair like a stunted lawn of phosphorescent grass within the room’s dwindling daylight. “He would hoist up the very biggest chunks of coal, which he’d carved and chipped loose himself, breathing in their sweet dust as if it were the smell of fresh-baked pie.”

Molton shifted heavily in his seat, his fleshy mouth framing and re-framing the word “pie.” From his lips a saliva bubble bulged, then burst.

“Now, breathing in that dust on purpose hardly seems too wise,” commented Earl Foley, startling himself once again that he had just spoken. To his discredit, he often says what the rest of us are thinking. We all stared more intently at the floor, though Gomez’s arms were even then beginning the move in to his sides.

“Wise?” repeated Bohlinger, his thin voice pinched like a chalk scrape. “Wise? Father loved that coal as if it were his own blood – his own blood! He was led to misplace his affections, yes, so true and clean was the anthracite of his youth. But he can hardly be blamed for how that bituminous poison later hastened him down the path to ruin. And I would stack him against any man – any man!”

We were all suitably chastened, shooting sidelong glances at Earl Foley, who hung his unruly head, letting a soggy whimper escape.

“Father’s lungs finally collapsed into a kind of pudding,” Bohlinger continued more evenly. “When they cracked him open at the insurer’s request, the coroner’s greedy children had to be physically hauled away from his towering corpse, their long, cold spoons dragging the mortuary floor.”

This was a new detail. Molton raised an eyebrow. “Spoons?” he loudly interrupted. “For … for pudding?”

“Yes,” snapped Bohlinger, though not altogether unkindly. “Try to keep up, Molton. This is important.”

Molton nodded gravely. He put quite a value on importance.

“As a child,” Bohlinger pressed on, “Father would carry me into the mines on those special weekends when he’d gotten some of his wind back. His old friends would sneak us in, taking us in train carts down to the deepest shafts – they even had a small helmet reserved just for me. ‘Breathe in deep,’ Father would say as we stood there far beneath ground, surrounded by the Earth’s black bounty. ‘That is the smell of stored fire, my boy. Harvest what will ignite, and you will be the light of the world.’”

Bohlinger’s father wouldn’t allow electricity in their house, as we well knew. The family often ate in darkness broken only by the steady beam of the old man’s mining light, and a precious piece of pilfered coal smoldering in a rusty skillet set atop a potholder in the center of the kitchen table.

“It was up in New York state, home to my mother’s people, where I took my own great plunge,” Bohlinger continued, his head nodding. “I was but 15 then, way up in Schoharie County, a sorry place for a boy with real ambitions for a life below. And do you know what I was relegated to mining, since an honest life of coal was denied to me by those black-lung Pollyannas?” He practically spat out that last word. “Can you imagine?”

“Gypsum,” I let slip, utterly without thinking. Even Earl Foley looked at me in horror.

Bohlinger stopped pacing as suddenly as if he’d slammed into an invisible wall. His thin lips twitched like furious worms. “Balderdash!” he exploded. “If you would pay attention, Jones, this kind of ridiculous error would not occur.” Bohlinger had never been a teacher, just a miner. “It was gypsum,” he railed at me. “Gypsum!”

I saw no point in splitting hairs; it would only delay things, and he would just puff up further, affecting that faded martial air that some of us dreaded more than life itself. Bohlinger’s Great-Great-Great Uncle Cyril, he had often told us, had been an officer in the South African cavalry, his tour of duty tragically curtailed by an insurmountable outbreak of saddle sores. (Cyril became then a gold broker, the family legend goes, being hacked limb from limb during a 1913 miners’ strike led by a disgruntled Zulu faction. This, I believe, is why Bohlinger distrusts T.K., our groundskeeper.)

“Gypsum,” Bohlinger repeated, his voice catching. “Scraping the mineral from the top. Above-ground mining. It almost sickens me to recall it.”

This was usually about where most of us had started to wane, with Parker long since having lapsed into sleep. Soon, it would be time for snacks. Molton would, no doubt, want pudding.

“In Florida,” Bohlinger said at some point further along, “we mined zirconium, in a bidding war between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and cable TV’s Home Shopping Network. Work was steady for a while, until the Cold War ended abruptly and the economy took a little upswing. So I looked around: What else could be mined? I briefly considered opals in Australia – and then I thought of gold, of returning to the old family business in South Africa, now that apartheid was being enforced.” Bohlinger leveled a heated glace outside, where T.K. was battling an errant wisteria creeper with a set of long-handled clippers. “But I hadn’t the money to travel, and I began to more realistically weigh my options. There was always the oil industry …”

It was right then that Gomez saw it. He gestured wildly, out beyond T.K.’s merciless pursuits. The great bulk of us peered uncertainly into the coming dusk. We needed something to carry us into tomorrow, when there would once again be mines to face, and Bohlinger ever there to remind us.

“A monkey,” Gomez practically shouted, “is riding atop a tortoise!”

As news went, this was fairly exquisite, fraught as it was with almost unbearable promise.

“My father’s father’s father’s father was a 49er,” Bohlinger hammered away, pointedly ignoring Gomez’s potent observation, and our percolating excitement. “He soon gave up on rivers as ignoble, and started hacking into rock, using only a pickaxe, some dynamite and his granite-like hands. Great-Great Grandfather was later killed by a bear roused from hibernation, though it’s said they discovered giant arteries of gold in the cave walls when they went in with muskets and clubs to retrieve his bones. The Bohlingers have always had the gift.”

“A monkey,” commented Neville, “is an arboreal creature. A tree dweller.”

We all glanced over at J. Allen III, seated at the end of our row, his dancing hands refusing as ever to stay neatly folded in his lap. He nodded discernibly in agreement. J. Allen had been a prominent professor at an Ivy League university before cutbacks had forced him to work in an elementary school cafeteria.

Outside, the monkey was casually whipping the tortoise with the belt from his bellhop jacket. Gomez had already brought this to our attention.

Neville looked at me in some concern. “Turtles,” he declared anxiously, “are not tree dwellers.”

“It’s true,” I concurred. “But long, long ago, the tortoise lived half its life in water, as other turtles still do. It finally turned its back on a life submerged, opting solely for the land above.”

I deferred once more to J. Allen, who again nodded. We all stared at him for an extra second, just to be sure.

Molton’s face erupted in a wild grin, the excitement rippling through him until his feet began tapping out an irregular rhythm. The look of mild surprise that followed suggested that he might have just soiled himself. He shifted in his chair, then smiled softly.

Bohlinger loudly cleared his throat; his head seemed to have expanded. “Do you know that when my father died, we had him cremated?” he hotly persisted. “I wouldn’t have believed it, but his ashes looked for all the world like coal dust. Using water and a little bacon grease, Mother fashioned bricks of his remains. Father was a veritable mountain of a man, sort of Paul Bunyonlike, and Mother got about a dozen good-sized bricks out of him. We put them in the back of our old stone fireplace, using them as fuel once our last scraps of wood were gone. Father’s bricks burned bright and true, each one smoldering for weeks at a time. Sometimes I thought I could hear him whispering to us from the fire – tales of the past, of the glories below. He kept us warm that whole winter, one of the coldest on record.”

I could feel us, even against our own uncommon tugs and tides, being lulled back down into Bohlinger’s mines, but for Gomez, whose teeth had commenced to grinding. His sagging arms were by then midway up his sides – Neville and Cartwright were already sliding their chairs out a little to make room. Soon, Gomez would be a plane.

“There are no real mines anymore,” Bohlinger continued morosely. “No great places to tunnel oneself into earth, and eat of the planet’s rich mineral heart.” He paused to let that sink in.

For a time, Molton had been consistently pigheaded on this point. He’d seen some mention on the TV about workers trapped in flooded coal shafts in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, one of those places. “Mines,” Molton would inevitably declare. “Men smeared black, and … light helmets!” But tonight, he was silent, most likely still swayed by thoughts of viscous chocolate. And in the unforeseen silence, Bohlinger very nearly grinned.

So, naturally, we were all just as surprised as was Earl Foley when it was he who spoke instead.

“I shouldn’t think I’d like the mines,” Earl Foley ventured, so softly we each had to strain to hear. “I just love a nice sunset. All those reds and yellows and purples in the sky.” He got up before any of us had even realized it, drawing the terrycloth more tightly around him and stepping to the reinforced screens. “The sky,” he repeated. Earl Foley sometimes wore little stickers of smiling molars and gold stars on his bathrobe; he had once been Neil Armstrong’s dentist.

Bohlinger looked like a pierced balloon being pumped full of hot air, the object of his indignation immune to him and peering fixedly beyond us all, out into the high hedgerow at the far edge of the yard. “No sunsets,” Earl Foley said.

Yet his movement had broken our enchantment for good, with Gomez then clambering from his seat as well. The rest of us turned our attentions fully to the wide windows.

And in the dense shadows by the far-left hedge, some movement.

“Well, would you look at that!” Bohlinger immediately observed. “A bunny.” A rabbit had appeared from out of the ground.

We all craned forward for a better view, with so much light already having drained from the sky, going who knows where. Bohlinger had long maintained that it seeped down into the abandoned mines, to help reheat the Earth. Without those mines, he insisted, the planet would likely freeze to death. J. Allen had never given a specific nod to this particular line of thinking.

Hopping then across the grass into full view, the rabbit shook itself, pulling each ear forward in turn and letting it spring free.

“Did you see that part?” asked Cartwright, who plays Monopoly with Bohlinger after lunch most days. It’s a slower game than badminton. Cartwright was once a submarine captain, and is now afraid of the rain.

We all looked at him, just that once, and he blandly recapped the event. A silence immediately invaded us.

“I wonder,” Neville asked finally, “what this all means?”

“The rabbit,” Bohlinger pounced, “is nature’s original miner. Why, my own father once told me of a hare that …”

It was at that point that Briggs, new to our assembly only that week, made his own discovery.

“A shadow!” he burst in. “A shadow by the birdbath!”

And it was Briggs, unblemished yet by custom, who broke the remainder of us from our chairs. We were caught up in his surging insistency, but for Parker, who found himself suddenly awake, and manning his station alone. His look of quiet hopefulness spelled the usual impending personal disappointment.

“Is Jesus here?” he asked, compelling several of us against pressing desire to face him. Parker wore on a shoelace around his neck a bulky cross fashioned out of twigs snapped from the far hedgerow.

“Sorry,” I broke it to him. “There is only Tortoise and his friend Monkey. And now Bunny.”

Parker nodded. His eyes were already beginning to close.

“Who … would you be for, Reverend?” Neville asked greedily. “If you had to pick, I mean. Between Tortoise and Bunny?”

Parker didn’t immediately answer; there was every indication that he’d already fallen back asleep. Finally, without ever opening his eyes, he made his pronouncement: “Rabbits are unclean: Deuteronomy 14:7, Leviticus 11:6. And there is no mention of the creatures in recognized tales of the Ascension. That is a myth begun by confectioners, and enemies of the pope. Baptists, mostly.”

Neville was clearly prepared to take this as Divine sanction when Earl Foley, still entranced at the wide windows, accidentally uncorked his heart once more, re-nailing poor Jesus to his cross.

“There’s never … light beneath … dark branches,” Earl Foley whispered, his voice falling in and out of the air like soot. His smeary glasses glinted with the last stray hints of day. “Maybe Bohlinger … right after all … fading sun … swallowed … drawn down into … cold earth … a pit … a bottomless cave, a …”

I knew it was coming even before Earl Foley said it. There was nothing I could do to stop it.

“A mine.”

Across the room, the Forsythe twins were embroiled in a furious game of checkers, forgetting as ever who was red, and who was black, while the sleepies in the TV corner were vainly demanding to buy a vowel, something you just can’t do on Jeopardy. But in our fading-afternoon world before the wide, wide windows, it was as if all the good air was suddenly gone, with only a stale stagnancy left suspended in its place. How Bohlinger can breathe like that, I’ll never understand.

“Mike!” Neville pleaded of me, his puppy eyes brimming over with watery defeat. “Mike!”

“Utter nonsense,” I mustered. “Complete hogwash.” But it was obvious that I lacked conviction.

Bohlinger, his face jammed into one screen so deeply that the metal mesh bulged into the pressing dusk, scrambled then through the fissure in our mood. “That shadow out there,” he proclaimed. “That shadow is … a mole.”

There arose a general murmur of distaste (I myself had thought I’d seen a squirrel).

Bohlinger pulled back from his vantage to address us more fully: “The mole, like the rabbit, is one of nature’s original …”

“Enough!” roared Gomez, his youthful jowls shaking like warm chicken skin. We were all quite startled, though this was not an entirely uncharacteristic display.

Yet it was but a temporary diversion from the drama unfolding out on the lawn, where the mole had just sidled up to the hare, climbing onto its back and turning to face us. It almost seemed as if the little fellow waved.

“Amazing,” I conceded, after Bohlinger had raised his expected fuss over the scene.

“Amazing,” the others chorused.

We all stood then still as stone, poised for one perilous second as if we had somewhere to go. I caught Neville looking my way in alarm. Gomez seemed ready to ignite. Molton was briefly enamored of a housefly.

I took a deep breath. Someone had to grab the reins, else the dark would arrive too unequivocally, with stalactites, eggy fumes, fruit bats and fatal footing. “Gentlemen,” I began, “what we have here today is a most significant happening, the outset of a … a great race. And there can be only one winner.”

One winner,” repeated Gomez, stabbing an angry finger at Bohlinger.

“On yonder side of the birdbath, we have Bunny and Mole,” I continued, quickly finding my groove. “On our side, Tortoise and Monkey.”

“Hey!” Bohlinger protested. “Who died and made you announcer?”

“I have a stentorian delivery,” I explained. “You’ll recall that I used to be a TV sportscaster on a network station.”

“I thought you were a race-car driver,” Bohlinger countered. He has resented my easy way with people since day one.

“Well, sure,” I hedged. (In truth, I’d forgotten briefly of those heady days of diesel and dust.) “But I wanted to keep my hands in it after retiring from my former fields of glory, so I became a famous TV personality.”

Bohlinger’s ghostly face was crimson-blotched with fury. “Oh, okay!” he spat. “But Bunny is faster, Jones. Everyone knows that Bunny is faster.”

“While it’s true that Bunny has speed and Mole is small and light,” I allowed, “Tortoise is patient and wise, and Monkey is cunning. This will be a very interesting contest here this evening, gentlemen.”

“Could you please speak louder, Mike?” Neville inquired. “I can’t hear you through Cyrus’ head.”

“Ahem!” I practically shouted. “Gentleman, our race is about to begin!”

A collective breath was drawn, with new air rushing in around us to fill the sudden void. “Check mate!” Andy Forsythe informed his brother across the room, the color issue briefly supplanted by a more fundamental confusion.

“Bunny and Tortoise are ta-king their po-sitions,” I proclaimed. “They are lining up at the edge of the fairy ring just behind the bird-bath. See how Tortoise is now scraping at the ground in an-ticipation. They are seconds – mere seconds – from starting their engines, from …”

“Bunnies don’t have engines,” observed Cartwright.

I blinked, renewing my focus. “Right you are, Robert,” I acquiesced. “Right you are. Merely a racing metaphor.”

The atmosphere had all at once become tense. I cut my eyes at Bohlinger, who clearly wanted my job. Molton, meanwhile, was peering behind him, in the direction of the main hall. He was pining, as ever, for the dessert cart.

“Gentlemen!” I exclaimed. “The race! Remember the race!”

“Um,” interjected Molton. “Um.”

Really, Cyrus, it’ll just have to wait!” I snapped. “This event is too, too, too important, and cannot be stopped!” Molton swallowed hard, turning back to face the wide windows.

And so it began.

“Notice Monkey now wildly chattering at his companions,” I suggested. “The excitement out there is just in-credible. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see a few records broken here today, gents.”

“But where will they race to?” Neville asked. “The sidewalk?” An appreciative murmur bubbled up from the group.

“Yes,” I confirmed. “To the sidewalk.”

“But how will it begin?” queried Briggs. “I mean, who will fire the starting gun?”

I spotted T.K. out across the manicured lawn, reaching down then toward a pants pocket.

“T.K.,” I revealed, “will fire the starting gun.”

“I knew it!” Bohlinger snarled. “I knew he had a weapon!”

“The gun is up,” I said, ignoring his outburst, and watching T.K. closely. “He’s set to fire.”

Everyone was staring at me now, mouths agape.

“Yes!” I shouted, smacking my hands together. “Boom!” We all jumped at the sound of the shot. “And they’re off! And from the starting line now comes Bunny, with Tortoise taking his time, taking his time! And there’s Bunnyrrrracing forward, with Mole clutching feeeeverishly to his slick fur. Oh, and look at this, would you! Bunny is … pausing, he’s …he’s stopping!” My rapt assembly gasped, swaying to the rhythms of the evolving race. “He’s idly scratching himself, gentleman. And Mole is urging him on – urging him on! – though Bunny is un-wavering, un-concerned. Look how he now relieves himself directly in Tortoise’s path! What arrogance is on view here to-day!”

“Boo!” shouted Neville, with Gomez stamping his boulderous feet in fury. Bohlinger looked like an overtaxed pimple.

“Bunny, you conceited piece of crap!” Gomez screamed.

“Hey!” shouted T.K. in the distance. “What the hell’d ya just call me, Doughboy?” We let slide his inflamed derision, not wanting to risk a grudge call. This was no way for a race official to behave.

I was about to speak, turning my attentions back to the contest beyond the screens, when Bohlinger hastily held a finger in front of my lips. “Allow me,” he said. “Bunny has dutifully righted his course,” he informed everyone, “as Jones was just about to mention. He is way out in front of Tortoise now. I’m afraid there’s no race left, gentlemen.” Bohlinger crossed his pencily arms across his chest.

And there, as reported, was Bunny, with Mole in the saddle, spurring him to within feet of the winning concrete. Most of the group turned to me, frantic, and I attempted to get the words out, though my mouth was suddenly, perilously dry. The race was doomed, the room already so much darker. Bohlinger was backing up to take his place in front of the chairs.

And then: “A bird!” screamed Gomez, spraying Molton in saliva. “A … a big bird! A swooping big bird!”

I swallowed hard. “A … bird,” I managed to get out, quickly rallying myself. “A … hawk! A red-tailed hawk!”

“An eagle!” Gomez shouted in ecstatic surprise.

“No, wait,” I cut in, cupping a hand to one ear. “Updated information is now arriving. New on the scene: an eagle. A mighty bald eagle!”

Wha … what?” sputtered Bohlinger. “Where?” He was frantically jockeying to get back to the windows.

“Hurling now along the right hedgerow with the hidden cameras,” I announced, “and dropping down to within mere inches of Mole and Bunnyyyyy, it’s Great and Mightyyyyy Balllllllllld Ea-gle!”

“The height of skyward majesty,” whispered Gomez, his voice trembling with awe.

“The very height of skywarrrrrrd mmmmmajesty!”

“Oh!” cried Neville, a sob piercing his voice. “Oh!

But for Bohlinger and Cartwright, we the window bound were whooping it up and hugging each other in blind excitement when Gomez let loose his triumphant howl. Parker barely twitched in his chair, strolling the pillowy clouds of paradise once more.

“Oh, my God!” Gomez exclaimed, pounding Molton on the back, making the older man jiggle. “Great and Mighty Bald Eagle has latched onto Mole! He has Mole in his powerful clutches!”

We all blinked. And sure enough, Mole was gone. “Up into the open sky soars Great and Mighty Bald Eagle,” I reported, “a barely twitching Mole dangling from the raptor’s stunning talons. And in Bunny’s confusion, he has now fallen back in ranks!”

Bohlinger’s small white fingers strangled at his piece of window ledge. “I … I think I may be sick,” he got out.

“Go, Great and Mighty Bald Eagle!” Earl Foley whispered sharply. “Go, pretty bird!”

In the moments that followed, everyone tried to talk at once. Yet I could see Bohlinger already remounting his virulent composure; he was certain to cry foul, to try to nullify this great happening on a mere technicality.

“Ahem!” I shouted. “There is still a race being run, Mole or no Mole. Bunny, in his confusion, is …”

Bohlinger was suddenly smiling horribly, his drastic sunny change foretelling certain black clouds across our anemic horizon.

“Bunny has …” I tried again.

Bohlinger broke right in then, triumphant. “Bunny has turned on Tortoise and Monkey,” he reported. “He is pummeling Monkey in anger over the airborne assault on Mole, flailing with those powerful back paws, those amazing digging implements. Monkey appears now to be in real trouble.” Bohlinger’s voice always seems like it’s coming from the other side of a closed door. He is no fun to listen to.

Yet this was indeed dizzying information. Neville began furiously wringing his thin, red hands, though no one actually believes he has ever pulled one of them off.

“We must never embrace loss too quickly,” I pronounced, as Knute Rockne might have. “Monkey, after all, is cunning. Look!” I encouraged the group. “Look at Monkey’s little paws! He is set to defend himself from this travesty of sportsmanship, this abysmal display of … of cheating-ness.”

Bohlinger was biting feverishly on the insides of his cheeks. “Monkey,” I continued brightly, “is now hurling clumps of steaming offal at Bunny.”

I looked pointedly at J. Allen. “Monkeys like to do that,” he confirmed.

“Awful what?” Neville pleaded of me. “Oh, God, Mike, what’s awful?”

“It’s okay, Benny, really,” I reassured him. “Monkey is throwing his own poop at Bunny.” We are encouraged not to swear. Molton takes at least one pill for that.

“Oh,” Neville said. “Oh, yes, I see. That is awful.”

“Bunny,” I persisted, “has retreated in shame. Monkey has survived this egregious assault – like a champion!”

I cut a glance at Bohlinger, anticipating his inevitable reaction, but his brooding eyes were trained deep within. And I guess maybe I relaxed a little, as they tell me that I must.

“Did you see that?” Bohlinger then abruptly blurted out. “Did you see it? Did you?”

“Um,” I stammered. “Um.”

“What is it, Bohlinger?” Cartwright flatly coaxed. “What?”

“Monkey in his flailing with his … with his crap, has fallen from his perch!” Bohlinger snarled. “Bunny has settled upon him, kicking him directly in the head. There is blood pouring like a river from Monkey’s broken face.”

“That’s … that’s just absurd,” I sputtered, turning in a flurry to peer back outside. “Utterly …”

And there it was, the appalling carnage so described. “Oh, my God!” I gasped. “Why, this is … this is just … barbaric! This is a foul most foul! The race cannot continue! Bunny has … oh, sweet, dear Lord, Bunny has …

Killed him,” Bohlinger decreed. “Monkey is dead.”

A piercing shriek flew up from Neville, his raw hands trailing down his patch of screen like those of some frightened fat kid watching retreating parents through a summer-camp window. Parker jerked once in his sleep. And in the explosive seconds of silence that followed, you could hear a startled Forsythe brother’s checker drop. “Oh, Monkey,” Neville moaned. “Oh, Monkey, why? Whyyyyyyyyy?

Bohlinger’s fluttery chest commenced to puffing up with stolen grandeur. “The race,” he proclaimed, “is even once more. Except that Bunny is so much faster!”

“Oh, oh, ohhhhhh!” Gomez wailed. “Oh, please! For the love of … somebody do something!”

Out across the ordered yard, T.K. spun around to glare at us, holding his big scissors aloft. There was to be no intervention today.

“It’s a done deal now, all right,” Bohlinger smugly declared. “See Bunny hop. See Bunny win!”

This was simply too much bad fortune to bear. Earl Foley began mumbling hysterically, with Neville sobbing then like some great, gassy baby. And in that descending atmosphere of doom, I advanced heavy-hearted to the wide windows, staring gravely into the swelling dark.

“Well, would you … have a look at this,” I directed, my words at first arriving in clipped bursts. “Bunny is no champion … gentlemen. Look how he … parades cavalierly now around … methodical Tortoise – taunting him, teasing him.” I felt the renewed crush of bodies against me, with Neville’s weeping waning into sporadic damp snuffles. “And look how Tortoise keeps moving forward, ever toward the finish line.”

“Oh, I’ve heard it all now!” Bohlinger fumed, forcing his way back to the front of our fevered throng.

“Bunny, that little showboat,” I continued evenly, as you must in my profession, “is kicking at noble Tortoise. See how Tortoise’s hard outer body deflects the cruel blows?”

Bohlinger snorted. “Ah, but Bunny will still …” he began.

“See,” I boldly interjected, “how a true champion comports himself?”

“Bunny will still win!” Bohlinger enjoined, his eyes bulging like angry little fists.

“Tortoise,” I countered, “will make a meal of bunny yet!”

“A tortoise,” J. Allen observed mildly, “will, in point of fact, sometimes eat meat.”

This gave us all pause. And when we turned from J. Allen back to the wide windows, I gaped in wonder at the shocking scene unfolding there before me.

“Bunny, that horrible, conniving burrower, seems now to have kicked gentle Tortoise directly in the face,” I reported. “The soft face.”

Gomez became instantly livid, attempting to throw a punch at Bohlinger, who backed quickly away. The blow landed instead upon Molton’s right shoulder, though he didn’t seem to notice. There was drool running from his abundant mouth; all this talk of food had made him hungry.

“But look!” I shouted. “Look! Tortoise has grabbed one of Bunny’s legs in his strong jaw! He’s … he’s … he’s eating Bunny!”

What?” screamed Bohlinger, lurching forward, to within inches of Gomez’s hulking frame.

“He’s dragging Bunny now, as he slowly devours him,” I continued. “The head has all but disappeared from view. Look, there go the ears!” Bohlinger made a sharp, hiccupping sound, like a room radiator quitting. “Bunny’s middle is now gone – now only the back feet remain! Oh, my, now only a single furry foot protrudes … as if … as if for luck! A winner’s spirit knows no bounds!”

In the dense ensuing silence, you could almost make out the gentle whirring of the overhead blades from the ceiling fans they removed last spring, following Gomez’s little flight mishap. And above the bickering Forsythes and the sleepies droning “What is a marshmallow? What is napalm?,” the steady click-click of T.K.’s mysterious machinations could be heard drifting from somewhere out upon the vanishing lawn.

But then Earl Foley opened his mouth once more, and the first unwanted chills of autumn crept in through the windows between the spaces in his words. “Oh, please, no!” he rasped. “Bunny could still win. A technicality. The foot.”

No sooner had Earl Foley spoken than Bohlinger had descended upon his news like some carrion bird sighting fresh roadkill.

“Bunny will still win,” he crowed, injecting himself between Cartwright and J. Allen. “Bunny will still win! The foot … the foot will cross the finish line first! He will still win!”

A shiver went through us all, but for Cartwright, who just shrugged. “Wow,” he offered. “This is sure close, idn’t it?”

Sweat was streaming then from my flushed face, the very salt of myself threatening to obscure my ability to still see. It took every single shred of me I could muster. I stepped boldly forward, pinching Bohlinger sharply on the back of his neck.

“Ow!” he hollered. “Hey! Who … ? Gomez, you troll, did you … ?”

“What’s this?” I shouted above his anxious din, the words tumbling from me like a newly broken strand of pearls. “What have we here?” The room itself seemed to step in stride with me, throbbing with the impossible present. “Tortoise clamps his powerful mouth shut, severing the offending limb. He spits out the last scrap of Bunny mere inches from the sidewalk – no cheap good-luck token is needed for our big contender today!” Yes, I was back on track, all right. “Look, he’s grrrrrrinding it into the ground with his own foot! Gentlemen, I’ve rarely seen a race like this before!”

Bohlinger was reaching now at his throat, his pale hands fluttering in front of his face like light-immolating moths. “And Tortoise …,” he tried to get out. “Tortoise …”

“And Tortoise,” I continued for him, returning the earlier favor, “now steps eeeasily across the finish line. He has taken the race! Gentlemen, we have ourselves a wwwwwinnerrrrr!”

The rest of my group was pressed then to the screens like cats in thrall of a sunning summer lizard. No one could speak. The charged air around us thrummed with the faintest sounds of T.K. toiling somewhere in the deepening unseen, where he was, no doubt, interring with honor Monkey’s martyred remains. Suddenly, Gomez let out a roar, lifting J. Allen in a bear hug that nearly crushed the modest man, and interrupting for an instant his spastic internal vibrations.

“A tortoise,” observed J. Allen brightly, “is an above-ground animal.” Gomez kissed him on the mouth.

Bohlinger brushed past me like a piece of flung cloth, hurling himself into a vacant chair, its metal feet harshly stubbing against the uneven tiles. The flurry of movement startled Parker briefly back into our midst.

“Is … is Jesus here?” he asked.

“No, Reverend,” I broke it to him. “We’ll wake you if he stops in, I promise.”

Parker nodded dreamily, immediately re-closing his eyes.

But Neville was too wound up to allow him to exit us again so quickly. “Tortoise won!” he shouted right up in Parker’s relaxing face. “Tortoise, he won the race!”

Parker partially opened one eye, peering out from his briefly fractured glory and lighting upon his earthly assailant. “Of course,” he offered gently. “Jesus, after all, came out of the cave.”

It felt like a short sermon. “Amen,” said Neville, for all of us, repressing for the moment his urge to sit down. Neville is an Episcopalian.

And in this fleeting parcel of uplift, no one even noticed Tortoise’s surreptitious departure, bearing our well-burnished hopes atop his heroic, helmeted back.

Finally, with the fresh darkness suspended above the world beyond us like a soft scarf sprinkled with shimmering confetti, we who had remained turned en masse from the wide, wide windows. And Gomez was already there, quaking with electric expectancy, and haloed by the overhead fluorescence that someone – possibly goodly T.K. – had quietly allowed. Gomez ran a hand through his mad hair, as if to flatten it, and his arms sprang up again, straight out from his sides, dislodging one corner of his newly tucked shirt.

“Sit, sit, sit!” he directed, dive-bombing stragglers back into the empty seats around rigid Bohlinger, glaring then in the lost direction of the high hedgerow, and serene Parker, murmuring soft singsong somethings in his sleep. There was just too much night collected outside to glimpse any longer the hints of fence beyond the thick shadow barrier, or to discern the flashy gun tips of the hidden marksmen.

Gomez loudly cleared his throat. He’s such a hothead, that kid.

“This story comes to me from my dear father, recently deceased,” he began as we all shifted into position in our chairs. “He was, as some of you know, a World War I flying ace, ignored by the history books by virtue of his Swiss nationality. It was his own mother, Ariel, who deflowered Orville Wright …”

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