06
Jan
09

From the Horse’s Mouth

Hugo was not at all sure he believed in God. He had never really given much thought to religion. If there was a God though it must be one who practiced Karmic retribution for surely Hugo had done something atrocious in his previous life in order to deserve the one he was living now.

He looked over at Malcolm, his partner in this latest business venture, who whistled tunelessly through the gap between his front teeth. The drone of the flies in the back of the truck had at times rivaled the thrumming engine for noise, but now they had quieted down and Hugo could hear the blood pounding behind his eyes and the buzz of the thoughts in his head.

“Tell me again why we’re not doing this with a refrigerated truck,” he said to Malcolm. Malcolm sighed and turned to Hugo.

“We’re not using a refrigerated truck because it costs a lot of money,” he said slowly. “When you’re starting out you have to cut a few corners to get going and then you can move up.”

“But the UPS guys have refrigerated trucks.”

“That’s right,” Malcolm said. “They can afford refrigerated trucks because they have a big company behind them. They have a name that people recognize. They have stock and investors so they can buy the latest equipment. We were very lucky to get a good deal on this truck.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Hugo said.

“Of course I am.”

“But I can’t help thinking that they’d be fresher if we had another way of keeping them cold. Isn’t the dry ice expensive? Couldn’t we have bought a chest freezer and plugged it into the cigarette lighter?” Malcolm sighed again.

“You can’t freeze them. If you freeze them, you have to wait for them to thaw which we don’t have time to do. And if you freeze them they might get freezer burn and they won’t be as attractive.”

“But they’re not attractive now,” Hugo whined.

“If you freeze them there’s a good chance they won’t bleed properly,” Malcolm said. “There are two things that really make this work. One is the surprise of seeing the thing and the other is the terrible mess, which it is practically impossible to clean up, the incredible grossness of all the blood and knowing it’s on you and you’ve been in it. Ya see?”

“It just seems like there are a lot of flies back there. Are there supposed to be so many flies?” Hugo asked. He lowered his head and pulled as hard as he could on his hair.

“What are you doing?” Malcolm had turned his head again and was watching Hugo yank on his hair.

“I’m getting a headache from the buzzing and this helps.”

“Howzit do that?”

“It stimulates the nerve endings in my head and confuses them,” Hugo said. “The nerve endings in your head confuse very easily. That’s why if you eat ice cream really fast your forehead hurts. There really should be pain in the roof of your mouth because the ice cream was too cold but your head gets confused so your forehead hurts.”

“So how does this work? Does it make your head think the roof of your mouth hurts?”

“Naw, don’t be stupid. It spreads the pain all over your head instead of it just being in one place. Then instead of having a huge lot of pain behind your eyes there’s a little bit of pain in a lot of places.”

“And that’s better?”

“Argghh! Those damnable flies!” Hugo said. Malcolm took his right hand off the steering wheel and belted Hugo in the shoulder. “What are you doing?” Hugo snarled, clutching his arm.

“I’m helping you,” Malcolm said. “I confused your nerves even more. Now your head won’t hurt at all since there should be a pain in your arm. Or maybe the nerves won’t know where to send the pain.”

“Maybe I could give you a pain and then I wouldn’t have any at all,” Hugo said reasonably.

“No time for that, ” Malcolm said leaning away from him, “We’re almost there. Start looking at the map.” Hugo unfolded the map and flapped it around trying to find their location on it.

“I do like this job better than my last one though,” Malcolm said.

“Repossessions, wasn’t it?” Hugo said.

“Yeah,” said Malcom. “Organ repossessions.”

“Like instruments?”

“Naw, like spleens and livers and so on.”

“You took them out of people?”

“My partner did that. That was a rough job though. People would get really angry with us for trying to collect, but you know an agreement is an agreement. If you stop paying on something then the person who sold it to you has a right to take it back. Same as with a TV. Right?” Malcolm looked at Hugo for affirmation but Hugo appeared to be engrossed in his mapreading.

“Did you find us?” Malcolm asked.

“No, there’s no mark on the map where we are but I did find the place we’re supposed to be going,” Hugo said, laughing. “You know, Malcolm, I’ve been thinking. I’ve been pretty rough on you about the truck and all and the thing is… The thing is I think you’re doing an um good job and err,” he trailed off and Malcolm reached over and patted his shoulder.

“It was a job,” he said. “Just a job. I’m not violent and I’m not crazy and I don’t attack my friends. The truck’s not so good. I know that. As soon as we get paid for a couple of these jobs, we’ll get something better. Okay?” Malcolm smiled at Hugo then nodded to the map. “We’d better find the address and make the delivery before those flies give me a headache too.”

Eight miles later they turned off the main highway onto a private road that led to a circular driveway. Malcolm pulled up to the front steps while Hugo climbed into the back of the truck to get the package ready. Hugo jumped out with the bundle in his arms. He was met at the next to the top step by an imperious Black maid who would have been at home in a 1940’s movie.

“All deliveries around the back,” she said holding her arms out to bar his way.

“But this isn’t an ordinary delivery,” Hugo said.

“I don’t care if it’s salvation on a platter sent by the Almighty Himself,” she said. “All deliveries go around the back.” Hugo looked pleadingly at Malcolm.

“Look, ” Malcolm said stepping forward to take Hugo’s place on the stairs, “I know you’re just doing your job. Well, we’re just trying to do ours. This package needs to go in the house. It’s supposed to go to Mr. Cannoli and I’m supposed to take it in to him.” The maid shook her head.

“All deliveries go around the back,” she said. “Furthermore, I don’t know you and Mr. Cannoli don’t take things from just anybody. Now if you would like to leave that with me I will check with Mr. Cannoli and see if he is interested in receiving it.”

“No!” Hugo blurted. Malcolm recalled later that he could pinpoint the moment that Hugo had snapped. Hugo had been balancing the bundle in one arm and snatching at tufts of his hair with the other, but all at once he lowered the package to chest level and barreled into the maid, knocking her to one side. It took her a few seconds to recover and in that time, Hugo had reached the top step then the porch and wrenched the front door open. Hugo blinked several times. The foyer and living room were like Carlsbad Caverns after the bright motion light outside and he hoped his eyes would adjust before he tripped.

Flickering light led him to a bedroom at the top of a winding staircase. Hugo found a very wrinkled old man propped up in the bed watching the Public Broadcasting Station. The old man felt among the three pillows beside him then fumbled a pair of glasses onto his face. He peered at Hugo through their filmy lenses.

Hugo could hear the heavy breathing of the maid as she reached the top of the stairs and stomped into the room behind him. Hugo held up a hand to halt her just inside the doorway then walked toward the bed.

“I tried to stop him,” the maid said, “but he just wouldn’t listen.”

“It’s okay,” the old man said. “Please clean my glasses and then make me some toast.” The maid shook her head at Hugo then swished past him.

“Mr. Cannoli?” Hugo asked. The old man nodded. “I’ve got a package for you. I was supposed to put it in your bed so you’d find it when you woke up but you’re not sleeping so I’m not sure what to do.”

“I assume it is a horse’s head.”

“Yes, sir.” Malcolm had come into the room just after the maid had departed and he stood leaning against the wall with his arms folded. Hugo stepped towards the bed and held the bundle out. The old man peeled back the wrapping and sniffed.

“Am I the first person to receive this head?”

“Well, yeah, I mean. Something wrong with it?” Hugo asked.

“Usually they are fresher than this,” the old man grunted. “This looks like it has been to several other houses before mine. And there is no blood. There is supposed to be lots of blood. This is disgusting.” He tried to return the package to Hugo but he backed away.

“I know, sir,” Hugo said squinting and tugging at his hair with both hands now. “I’m awful sorry but we’re just starting out and a refrigerated truck is real expensive. I mean, you’re a businessman so you know how it goes.” The old man nodded.

“Yes,” he said gruffly. “I am a businessman. My father was a businessman also and his father before him. All of our lives we have minded the business. There are rules and when a rule is broken then we send someone the head of a horse to remind him. To remind him that a man is potent like a stallion and just like a stallion his life can be cut short. To remind him that even now when so many people are turning away from tradition and technology is more important than human beings, there are some of us who remember the old ways. Now it seems that even the delivering of the horse’s head is done poorly, by amateurs with no respect for tradition and no understanding of the ways things should be done.”

“I’m sorry,” Hugo said.

“Everyone is sorry,” the old man said. “Things change. In the old days you would have found me asleep and you could have slipped that sorry excuse for a horse’s head into my bed and I would have been none the wiser until I woke up in blood. Instead I am awake in the middle of the night and watching a program on how to use the Internet. Maybe I’ll send an e-head the next time I need one.”

“You gonna sign for this head or what?” Malcolm asked.

“Of course,” the old man said. “And let me give you some advice.”

“Here it comes,” said Malcolm half under his breath. “Get out of this business before it’s too late.”

“That’s right,” the man in the bed said sharply. “Get out of this business. You are young. You have ambition. You could go far. This delivery business, anyone can do it.”

“What’dya have in mind then?” Malcolm said.

“Car bombing. If I was a young man I would go into car bombing. It takes timing. It takes intelligence. It takes skill. It would be much harder to replace you with cheap foreign labor and, best of all, it cannot be done by computer. But delivery… Pah! Two guys and a U-Haul truck could do it.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Hugo said. He was grinning at the old man and at Malcolm who wanted to smack the smile off his face.

“You’re welcome. And speaking of tips,” said the old man, “Here.” He reached into the drawer beside his bed and pulled out some money which he handed to Hugo. “Take this and buy a good truck. Learn your business. You’re part of a noble tradition. Honor it.” He pinched Hugo’s cheek then patted it. He called to the maid who took the horse’s head and tossed it into the garbage at the back door before she hustled Hugo and Malcolm back to their truck.

“He was a nice old guy, wasn’t he?” Hugo asked when they were back on the main highway.

“Oh yeah. A real peach,” Malcolm growled.

“And guess what? My headache’s gone. This is gonna be a terrific day.” Malcolm balled up the map and tossed it at Hugo.

“Just read the map,” he said. ‘We’ve got a lot of deliveries to make and it’s not getting any darker out here.” He started to whistle through his teeth again and this time Hugo joined in.

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