You know how much Oprah pays for a whole book? It isn’t much, I can tell you, because I was signed, vicariously. Almost was. This was the Year of the Little People, according to Gibb’s system, and the year Gibb pulled me into the book business with his late-night machinations, his talk of easy money and free pie. I now sit in the Miles City lock-up, if this speaks for Gibb’s trustworthiness, southeast Montana, I’m told.
Gibb, he is probably hiding out within spitting distance of a national forest. He thrives on easy getaways. The thought of holding his breath under a moist log gets his blood up. Could be he finally got to Emmett, Idaho, where he said he knows a plain girl who owes him a favor or two. Though I figure he went in for something more elaborate, something he thought would fool the imaginary hellhounds on his trail, and that he is lying low in a motel in a nothing town like Rathdrum or Sandpoint up north, plotting his next move.
The Year of the Little People. I should have known not to trust a man who thought he could redesign the Chinese calendar by adding midgets. That stuff is not high school physics. But Gibb had it all figured out. The Year of the Little People, the Year of the Tuna Shark, the Year of the Trowel. There was a naming system he used, though I couldn’t follow it then, even with Gibb’s customary demonstrations, and so would naturally come up short trying to explain it now. I’d never heard him talk of selling a single calendar, though, and Gibb was not one to whisper his fiscal triumphs.
Gibb was not a lady’s man. He had what I’d heard called a monkey face on at least three separate occasions that I can remember. That is plenty considering that I may have forgotten a time or two or it may have happened at a counter when I was sitting at a booth or vice versa. Gibb would whistle at any pair of legs from behind. He dropped comments about his resemblance to famous screen actors like Robert Redford and Al Pacino, depending upon the light and angle of his face. When he did, he would get called a monkey.
Now, I am not up on primates but I wouldn’t call Gibb a monkey. I’d probably put him in the company of orangutans. He had the gait and displayed the nervous thumping movements of an orangutan, and he had that arm strength and could plot his next feed with ease. I repeat, lend Gibb a collared shirt and don’t expect to see it again unless as a shoe rag, but give him an hour and distance and dining preference and he would have you at a table fork-in-hand in some new hick town five minutes before you knew you were hungry. This was Gibb’s greatest personal strength, what drove him from county to county, state to state. He could not sit still otherwise.
My specialty was pallet jacks. Gibb was a walk-on. J.J. Toudt’s wasn’t Algoa. They gave pensions and provided decent working conditions and there was a child care in the basement and an honest-to-god phone booth. I’m not even sure how Gibb landed a job with Toudt if not by debasing himself in some way he was sure to be embarrassed about later on. Or flat-out lying. If so, that lie must not have flown with Toudt, or it was one of those picayune Gibb lies that stands him no better than if he’d told the truth. I incline towards the latter. He was stuck with me, after all, hefting Purina.
It wasn’t long before Gibb opened his mouth, and if you have ever done any box lifting, you would know just how much shit there is to shoot. I told the police all of this. Their recorders have miles of tape. Gibb would talk your ear off if you happened to be in his space. I wasn’t, but he quickly moved into mine, making that distinction moot. Still, he talked.
Gibb would not seduce you with his talk, he would wear you down. He was like a mosquito that never appears. Eight hours plus lunch breaks of Gibb’s mouthing and you’d beg to be put elsewhere, maybe even quit. I had my ways of filtering Gibb out, Hindu techniques I’d used on the highway running reefers from Champaign to Baton Rouge. Gibb had no way of knowing this, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to give him to understand I could reduce the frequency of his whining to just about zero. Still, the germs of his ideas would get through, and I’d end up thinking about them nights, staring up at the ceiling, not getting much sleep because of them, expecting Gibb to appear at my door at 3:45 a.m. with his suitcase and a six-pack of Coors.
One day at work Gibb said to me, “Lewis, you ever wonder how much they make in Shanxi Province?”
I said I didn’t. I said I didn’t even know where that province was, if not in China. Gibb said they made fifteen dollars more in Shanxi Province per working day, fifteen dollars more than we made at Toudt’s and they were nothing but Maoist tofu-eaters. He said that translated into a higher quality of life for the Maoists, and that’s about the point I started tuning him out.
I couldn’t not run into Gibb at Huff’s. Huff’s was a J.J. Toudt watering hole and I had credit there, which got me through the end of the month, most months. I was drinking tomato juice at the time, still am, and accruing the highest scores at Lethal Enforcers they ever saw in southern Missouri. You’d find me there today right at the top under the initials LHP, at Huff’s.
As I said, Gibb was there too, with his famous notebook in hand, ordering parsimoniously. When asked about his lone wolf behavior, as happened often in the beginning, he’d ignore you. If pressed, he’d say he was just observing.
As a rule, box lifters are not the types to submit to gratuitous observation by the likes of Gibb, and our boys were no different. They formed a committee eventually, with Steve Pinks at the top. Pinks was the biggest, loudest character we had at Toudt’s and he and the others were trying to conceive of ways to get Gibb to drink elsewhere.
One time Pinks accused Gibb of coming from Mound City, where it was rumored even the judges had twelve fingers. Gibb lifted his eyebrow at this, a chilling thing to witness, and challenged Pinks to name all the states contiguous to Missouri. Pinks could not. Pinks could not get past “contiguous” and flailed helplessly like the stupidest of fish for a minute or two before heading back to his Blue Ribbon.
It went on like this until one day Gibb could stand no more of Pinks’ chiding and flew into a complete rage. This was his mad dog routine, a technique Gibb had pioneered to fluster large men in their cups. He would glare at his opponent from a close distance until the man could take no more of it, then fall to his knees as if afflicted by lycanthropy, frothing amply at the mouth and going for the other man’s shins.
Gibb took a savage beating that night with Pinks’ hard cowboy boots and that was the end of his days at Toudt’s. Even Gibb knew where his self-preservation lay. A day later he showed up on my stoop wearing a sling, with heavy raccoon eyes. I was hanging my undershirts on the porch at the time and was stopped cold by Gibb’s sickliness. His voice had risen an octave, as if he’d been caponed by Pinks, and he was missing every other tooth in his head. He was through hefting boxes, he said, through with time clocks. He was ready for something bigger, he had a plan.
Try as I might, I couldn’t shoo Gibb away, such was the volcanic nature of this speech. He’d insinuated himself onto my porch, onto a chair on my porch, and I was forced to listen to his gibberish, just to be polite.
The next thing I knew, it was dinnertime and Gibb was there, at my table, picking critically through a meat-and-potatoes casserole he demolished nonetheless. Somehow he chewed his food down even with his half-head of teeth. That night he made a second home of my roll-out couch.
It was a Gibb whirlwind, and truly, if you were to ask me how it all happened, how Gibb had entered my life for good, I could only tell you that you must know Gibb to answer that question.
Gibb was naturally a late riser. He spent his mornings scouring the want ads at Mama’s maple drop-leaf dining table. Mama is dead, was at the time too, long dead, and I’d inherited that table along with the house and the rest of Mama’s meager legacy, her things. I don’t believe Gibb was looking for anything in particular, but I don’t believe he was faking it either. Gibb liked to bat these notions around, to imagine himself in some other line of work or station in life. I had the feeling he sat there in his pink slippers and housecoat until around lunchtime and then caught a news flash at noon. When I was back in the evening, the house was long empty. I could feel it. A place needs an hour or two to air itself out of Gibb.
Usually he would leave a note, and an unwashed bowl of Sugar Smacks on top of Mama’s Magnavox. For the first month or so, Gibb’s notes reeked of vengeance. He was still hot about that beating Pinks had given him and wanted compensation in kind. Gibb had the idea that for legal purposes he would refer to Pinks as “the Chihuahua.”
WALKING THE CHIHUAHUA, BACK FOR SUPPER, Gibb’s note might say. Or, HOW ABOUT SOME FRIED CHIHUAHUA MEAT FOR DINNER TONIGHT?
Gibb’s puffery amounted to little more than taunting car honks. Gibb drove a Hyundai Pony with a leaking steering valve and a blown steering boot and he would circle Huff’s parking lot like a primed gamecock in that poor excuse for an automobile, making noises. But the minute Huff’s door so much as tremored from inside, Gibb was off in a flurry of horn toots. I’m surprised he never crashed the thing with his wide arcing getaway turns. He’d recount these “close” escapes to me over the many unacknowledged dinners I cooked for him, as if I hadn’t been there at Huff’s listening to Pinks and the others laughing it up at him and the puny growling Pony.
Then one morning Gibb shaved. A man of stubbly breakfast appearances, Gibb had not only shaved but he had borrowed one of my wrinkle-free Arrow Classics. It was a peach color with the extra room I like under the arms. On Gibb, with his apish frame, it was a tighter fit. I could only assume he’d claimed that shirt while I was in the shower and that he hadn’t crept into my room while I lay asleep and rifled among my possessions unheard. I say this, though it was a recurring nightmare of mine to wake suddenly from a contented slumber to find Gibb’s unshaven face peering deeply into mine. In this nightmare Gibb, is always holding a piece of unthawed breakfast waffle.
I filled my glass with fresh squeezed orange juice Gibb had put in a pitcher. Early mornings I am usually at my best, but all of this had thrown me off. I set about making my breakfast.
“What do you know about crack cocaine, Lew?” Gibb said.
I didn’t like it when he called me this. Physically, I am not a Lew. I am not a Lew in temperament or intelligence either. Plain maybe, but I am not the salt of the earth. I tuned him out.
“This guy wrote a book about crack cocaine and he didn’t know anything about it either,” Gibb went on, waving the newspaper. “That’s what I call brilliant.”
I had to admit that this made for better table talk than Tokelau, Gibb’s fantasy island. Tokelau was a 38-hour motor boat ride from Samoa, stuck somewhere in the South Pacific. It was three lagoons you could paddle to and from and a population of about 100. Their whole GDP was no more than $1,000 and Gibb thought he’d buy it, or maneuver himself into a position of sovereignty and then tantalize the State Department with nuclear base offers. It was worse than nonsense, but I’d found myself daydreaming about Tokelau for a week before Gibb dropped the idea and never spoke of it again.
I drove out to Toudt’s and lifted pallets for eight hours. That evening I fumbled around on Lethal Enforcers at Huff’s, giving myself handicaps that would have surely drawn uncomprehending stares from PPP and KOR, my two closest challengers. I even treated myself to a hamburger. I wasn’t in the mood to broil another chuck steak for Gibb and then listen to him try to eat it. Gibb had been contemplating a new set of teeth for weeks now, but had no medical insurance and so went without. When he ate, he grinded each mouthful down with a single tooth, or with an outcropping of two or three teeth, depending on which of his cheeks he favored. No one at Huff’s asked about Gibb or his sissy car.
When I got home, Gibb had cleaned Mama’s living room. He’d cleaned the living room and left the rest of the house in relative filth. Mama had an open arrangement where the dining table was visible from the living room and I could see it still held the morning’s breakfast dishes. Mama’s short piled carpet bore the pulverized trail of Sugar Smacks Gibb always left on his way out of the kitchen. Gibb had cooked for a change. He’d heated up some frozen waffles. First thing I did was have a look around for any missing knickknacks. Then I nearly died.
“Give me those,” I said.
Gibb said, “You’re a natural, Lew. I bet you could write about crack cocaine and nobody would know the difference.”
I had the right to kick Gibb out of Mama’s house and almost did. I collected my diaries first. Gibb asked when I’d stopped writing. I ignored him. He asked other questions. How much had he seen was what I wanted to know. Gibb struck me as a man who would boast of a photographic memory. My gut instincts were borne out.
“I liked that episode at the Edgar Allen Poe event. You didn’t really feel her up though, Lew, did you?”
Ms. Lordell had called me a toad in front of the whole seventh grade for a buttocks grope on the bus ride back that wasn’t me. I hadn’t been able to pass a turd for a week. Gibb called it top-notch prose. He said that stuff the fake crackhead had written was week-old mouse leavings compared to my description of Molly Lardner calling me a dried-up old sow. He said he liked my accusatory second-person technique.
I took a look, and had to admit Gibb might have had a point. We leafed together, Gibb reading out loud the passages that caught his fancy. We had those waffles and then Gibb ran down the block to the Pantry for a case of Coors. He even paid. The next day he woke me up at six sharp, pushed me under the shower and sat me down at Mama’s dining table. This was Saturday, my day off. Even if I didn’t like sleeping in, I at least liked to contemplate it on a Saturday.
Gibb pushed a legal pad at me and he told me to write. First I said no. Then I said, about what?
Gibb said, “Dead bodies.”
Now that I was awake, I felt that Gibb had finally crossed the line, waking me with such nonsense. But he was spitting, which was how you knew when he was serious.
“Mark Mucky of Compton writes about cocaine and he’s really Sharon Shea of Tucson,” Gibb said. “Oprah doesn’t care. Mucky-Shea, they don’t care, they’ve got the dough. How much dough did they squeeze out of that book contract anyway?”
He kept saying that word, “dough,” waving it around like it was real money. It was him that had read the article, not me.
I said, “A million.”
“A few million,” Gibb said. “That’s a lot of dough. You could buy an island with that dough.”
“I heard dead bodies.”
“Because that’s what you have.”
I looked around. It would not have been beyond Gibb to plant a corpse on Mama’s property. I didn’t see or smell anything but waffles.
“Why do you keep saying that?” I said.
“Because Oprah is going to pay us.”
“What am I doing with dead bodies?”
“Playing with them.”
“Do you mean this?”
“Dressing them up. It’s a sickness. You try to fight it, but you can’t. Don’t you see?”
I had to admit I didn’t. Gibb explained the whole thing as I listened slack-jawed. I would write this story of dead bodies, I found out, and Gibb’s face would sell it. He would handle all the promotional engagements, he would find an agent, deal with Oprah, or Oprah’s book concern. According to Gibb, all I would have to do is write the thing, and quit my job at Toudt’s. In a year, after we’d knocked Dean R. Koontz off the bestseller list, we’d have more money than Mucky-Shea and no legal strings because there was no organization like the ACLU protecting the rights of genuine necrophiles.
When he was through, I could see that Gibb had given more thought to this dead body business than I’d imagined him capable. My mind, now that it was infected by Gibb’s wildness, was off and running on its own.
“Why does your face go on the book?” I said.
The question, I realized, was more perceptive than I’d intended. Did he really imagine that without his face I couldn’t sell my book?
“What?” he said. “Put your face on the book?” He had a snicker at that.
I have already admitted to being plain. On the other hand, I wasn’t thrilled to be reminded of it on a Saturday morning by a man who has been called a monkey. I just hoped Gibb would find an outfit or two of his own in the meantime.
I spent the rest of the day reviewing my prose. I was pleasantly surprised by my wit and virtuosity. And Gibb had certainly nailed it. My second-person technique, when I’d fire back at my tormentors, was devastating. I supposed I was ready to dip my pen back in the ink for a cool million.
But I was not about to stick dead human meat in my mouth for sexual titillation. Not even Gibb, a Kentucky boy, would go in for this, so five minutes into our big plan and we were stuck. Gibb retired to his office upstairs and stayed there for the whole day, cogitating. This was Mama’s old sewing closet, which Gibb had emptied out, placing all Mama’s sewing equipment and other things that weren’t sewing equipment in the bath closet, to make room for his quarts of Mr. Pibb. When he came back out, he had found a solution to our problem, or so he said. His solution was Beverly Hubble.
My first thought was that Hubble was a jilted love Gibb had left to hang at an ice cream counter in Fort Knox years ago and that she was back, in Nixa. I quickly foresaw a Garfield-Turner plot here. I was the fat Greek and these two lovebirds would pickle me with cheap bourbon and strap me to the front seat of the Pony and drive me into a lake, and I would die in that foolish little car.
I couldn’t have been further from the mark, though. Hubble was just our necrophile and Gibb had made her up out of whole cloth. He said we’d sell more books if we had a woman author because women serial killers hardly ever ate their victims, they just had relations.
Nixa lending libraries don’t carry much about necrophiles, and I wasn’t going to present this odd request to the clerks there. I checked out one book called The Compulsion to Kill, which was filled mostly with men killers. There were just three females mentioned in the book, and out of those, only one bona fide necrophile. Her name was Karen Greenlea and she wasn’t even a killer, she was a career morgue worker
I gave notice at Toudt’s that day. This was a Monday and it felt good to quit on a Monday. I’d had an uneventful career of mediocre span at Toudt’s and wasn’t presented with anything on my way out. I didn’t even get a handshake from Toudt, or a check, because Toudt paid by the week and I’d already gotten mine. When I was through there, I visited the only mortuary we had in Nixa, Kelber’s. I’d had Mama arranged there.
Old Kelber wasn’t fixing dead bodies anymore, neither was Kelber Jr. It was a Kelber in-law who answered my questions that day; rather, who answered Dan Heap’s questions that day because that’s who I was meant to be. Heap worked for the Better Business Bureau, Nixa Chapter, where they put out a glossy bulletin once a month with profiles of certain lucky businesses. Gibb had thought all of this up and Kelber wasn’t bothered by it.
Kelber was mostly helpful. He explained, for instance, how the iceboxes sometimes snapped open not from the sudden jerk of a limb settling into rigor mortis but from a pocket of gas expelled form an inconvenienced body cavity, a last breath, as it were. He was more perplexed when I asked him how long a living person could hold his breath in one of those iceboxes and if they put the suits on before or after they got them out of there. I wondered myself what kind of business Hubble could possibly get up to with Kelber’s flaccid bodies but didn’t ask. I just took a good look around and committed the layout to memory. I counted one body. Kelber said it was an average day.
That first chapter took forever to write and I felt it was in bits and pieces, telling no coherent story. I still didn’t know if Hubble was to have carnal relations with her victims or just arrange clandestine picnics. Gibb was deaf to my concerns, to any qualms I had about literary merit. Instead, he haunted the living room in his slippers and housecoat wondering out loud if I’d gotten any inspiration yet. I may not have, but it was a sure thing that if I had Gibb’s pestering ran it off. Still, the thing got done, and Gibb typed it up fresh out of my hands and drafted a business letter and sent them both to Oprah’s people within the week.
He waited in agony for the next month for an offer. That offer never came. Gibb flew into daily frenzies fueled by toaster waffles and quarts of Pantry cola. His love handles thickened and the skin on his upper lip had mysteriously blistered and was starting to flake off like dandruff. When he finally heard back from Oprah, the news wasn’t good and I was still out of a job.
“Can you believe this crap?” Gibb said.
I could, very much. I’d told him not to send it out like that. I took that letter from Gibb and read it through. It said that, unfortunately Oprah doesn’t publish books, so she is in no position to offer editorial or publishing services. It said that although our idea sounds potentially interesting, Oprah already has someone working on a similar story. This was baffling.
“This is secret code,” Gibb said.
“I think you’re mistaken,” I said.
“This is a secret message that says, ‘We want your book but can’t publicly acknowledge this due to its sensitive nature.’ I can see right through this. What this means is that she’ll get us on the show and launch the book simultaneously. We’re as good as signed.”
“She doesn’t put out books and yet she’s working on something like ours.”
“That doesn’t fool me.”
“It fools me.”
“That’s because you’re not an agent.”
As I debated responding to this, Gibb went away. When he returned with a quart of Mr. Pibb, he said, “I’ll find out who that monkey was.”
“The monkey from Missouri that got rich selling his book to Oprah.”
“Oprah doesn’t buy books, she said that.”
“That book she put her stamp on.”
“If anything, you probably pay her,” I said.
“So this is how NBC plays hard ball,” Gibb mused. “Lew, I’m giving you an advance. This is from Oprah.”
He gave me a fifty.
“Just keep writing,” he said.
I did, and two days later I was in Miles City eating dinner off a tray.
I’ve done my best to reconstruct the events leading up to my incarceration. I do know Gibb notified the Nixa Sheriff’s Department, sent them a taunting letter from Beverly Hubble to drum up interest for the book. He thought he’d lead them on a wild goose chase addressing the envelope from Lufkin, Texas while posting it from a Nixa mailbox, ignoring half a century’s worth of forensic science. A quick check into any recent odd happenings at Kemble’s led them straight to Dan Heap. On the five o’clock news I was described as vacant-eyed and non-threatening, possibly epicene. They also reported my height as 5’9.” I am actually closer to 5’10”. I can only imagine that the day I visited Kemble I was slouching, as I tend to when exposed to formaldehyde, or that Kemble had some destabilizing effect on me.
The one thing Gibb had going for him besides his unerring judgment in highway rest stops is that the man was born ready to run. I guess, looking back, I would have expected him to leave me there in Nixa. It would have been easy enough. He’d alerted me to the news report himself. Instead, he took me with him.
The Pony caught fire in Lebo while I was sitting on the hood. We headed West in something worse. When the police busted down our door at the EconoLodge in Miles City, Gibb was already heading for the tree line. He’d taken both ashtrays and my three best shirts.
Max Sheridan lives and writes on the island of Cyprus. He once hacked for the Cyprus Mail, a low- circulation newspaper—until he challenged the film critic, a notorious windbag, to a duel. His short stories have appeared in DIAGRAM Magazine, the Writing Disorder, the Atticus Review and Thuglit, and he’s got something forthcoming in Rusty Barnes’ latest venture, Fried Chicken and Coffee. His latest comic novel, Montcrief, is seeking shelter. He keeps his work here: www.maxsheridanlit.com.