THE OLD MAN powered the BMW smoothly up the steep winding slope still effusive, still grateful.
"It was just a reflex, sir," the easygoing passenger repeated yet again, looking out the window at the town receding below. The rolling golden hills were dotted with trees that the young man thought looked like giant bunches of overcooked broccoli.
"Why, it was...just a reflex!" The old man gave another dead-on Randy Rabbit impression.
The passenger turned his attention from the relaxing vibe of the scenic charms and began to scrutinize the old man behind the wheel more closely. The old man didn't seem to notice he was being watched. The young man said nothing, and eventually turned his attention back outside to the hills rolling all around.
"D-don't quit now, Ch-Ch-Chief!" The words came from the old man driving, but it sounded exactly like Guzzy Goose. Finally, the young man realized.
"Hey, you're Lem Weiss, aren't you?"
"What's your name, son?" Graciously the old man shot out a hand for the shaking without taking his eyes off the road.
"Casey Evans. Man, I love Krazy Kartoonz!"
"And I love not getting hit by that damn car, Casey! You saved my life, kid. At least what's left of it. Tell me, how long have you been homeless?"
"I'm not homeless, I just travel around."
"About six years."
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-four." He almost added, while the old man shook his head disapprovingly, "How old are you?" but didn't want to be rude.
The BMW eased up a side road and a hundred yards up that swerved into a driveway barred by a large wrought iron gate. A remote was attached with a clip to the driver's side sun visor. Lem clearly enjoyed hitting the button that made the imposing gate roll to the side.
"I never knew you lived out here," Casey said.
"Not many people do. That's the way I want it, too. I moved up here, let's see, almost three years ago now, shortly after my wife passed away. For years and years we lived near Morro Bay. But I just can't be there anymore."
"How did your wife die?" Casey hoped that was a polite way to respond.
"Freak explosion," Lem said as he parked the car. "Come on inside. When was the last time you had a decent meal?"
Casey gave an absent-minded reply, vaguely trailing off as he got out and beheld Lem Weiss's home. "Wow, it looks like a castle! Whoa, you even have a moat!"
"I stock it with piranha," Lem said, smiling. "Tell me, young man, I'm frankly curious. What on earth possessed you to hitchhike out here?"
Casey detected a rebuke. Somehow this put him at ease. "I've been on the road for years traveling around the whole Pac Northwest. I work on fishing boats, I work construction."
"You work clipping pot?"
"Why, you got any?"
Lem laughed. He still kept that tiny mustache. Old school. Still dressed casual conservative, still loved his Scotch, just like he did in the 1940s and 50s when Krazy Kartoonz was at its height.
"Go ahead, kid, reach into the moat. Piranha love to be petted."
At the right angle, Casey could see the glitter of fish chilling in the murk. "Yeah, that moat doesn't look too clean."
"Oh, they clean what goes in it. Come on, let's get a m-m-meal in ya Ch-Ch-Chief!"
At the touch of a button, a drawbridge slowly lowered, behind which simultaneously a large wrought iron portcullis slowly rose.
Casey wandered in wide-eyed. A profusion of wisteria complemented stone walls and a flowery scent permeated the air. Lem led the way to a heavy door which opened to a dark hall. Though the day was warm, inside the house Casey felt cold.
At the end of the hall was a door to the kitchen, the biggest kitchen in a home that Casey had ever seen, with multiple stoves and refrigerators, and great big pots, butcher knives and meat cleavers. Lem selected a temperature on an oven, pulled a foil-wrapped tray from a fridge and asked Casey if he wanted two enchiladas or three.
"Enchiladas? Seriously? I can have three?"
"Of course! Let's just give these a few minutes in the oven. They're worth it that way. What can I get you to drink? Scotch?"
"Scotch? Kind of early, but, okay."
On the opposite side of the kitchen was the door to the dining room, which in turn opened to a family room beyond. Casey got the feeling that Lem didn't have much family around. He spotted the mini-bar as he perused the décor. In the time it took him to take in what seemed cursory glances at surroundings which evoked imagery from the classic cartoons, Lem had turned on some classical music--Casey recognized Mozart's Turkish Finale--poured a couple of drinks, and retrieved a handsome box from which he produced a rich man's stogie.
"Cigar?" said Lem, proffering the open box.
"Sure," Casey said, selecting one, "thanks!"
In a gentlemanly manner, Lem produced a light. Gratefully Casey inhaled. Lem put his lighter in his pocket and took a step back as he watched Casey take a couple drags.
The cigar exploded.
Casey's screams of pain were stifled by the splits at the corners of his mouth. All around his mouth, from the tip of his chin to his cheekbones, the skin was blackened by the small blast.
"I'm so sorry," Lem eventually said. "I don't know how that gag cigar wound up in the box! Here, take my handkerchief. You'll want to wipe off your face, kid."
Casey took the cloth, wincing as he wiped.
"I feel just terrible about that," Lem kept saying. Lem felt so badly about Casey's cuts, he offered him a rare gift by way of compensation: a pair of actual jet-shoes inspired by an old episode from Krazy Kartoonz.
Casey looked up. "No way," he said, "really?"
"Actual jet-shoes. Try 'em on, kid!"
The shoes were an amazing achievement. Even if they didn't work, they were cool to look at.
At Lem's friendly behest, Casey went ahead and put the jet-shoes on without a trace of self-awareness regarding the pungent stench released from his feet. And for a moment his mind was taken off the pain from the exploding cigar. Then Lem showed him the switches at the heels. Assuming the requisite crouch, Casey readied himself as the jet-shoes powered up. He could feel the shoes shaking as they emitted a sound that started out low and slowly increased its pitch to a high intimidating whine. Just as Casey turned his cigar-blackened face to Lem with the intention of saying, "I don't think I want to do this," flames burst from a small box at the back of each heel and Casey was propelled forward faster than he could maintain his crouch, so that his feet shot ahead and his back slammed against the stone flagging of the small courtyard. It nearly cracked his head open, but he managed to keep his chin tucked in.
Though the power of the shoes was spent in seconds, in that time Casey was dragged around like a chew toy in the mouth of an excited dog. To Casey it felt like the shoes had chains attached to a Hummer that tore off at top speed. Only when it was over did he realize the screams still ringing in his ears were his own.
The smell which lingered in the air reminded him of the 4th of July. He couldn't quite remember who he was, initially. Where he was or why. He was bleeding, he noticed. Hands, shoulder. His back stung terribly. Holding up his right elbow, Casey saw a thick flap of skin about as big as a credit card flop over and bob on a wet grimy hinge. Lem was there, looking. Leaning down, he saw.
The old man laughed as the wound gushed blood. He laughed in a crouch, incoherently recounting what he'd just seen with tears of laughter streaming down. Finally, he gained control of himself sufficiently to wander off--Casey knew not where, out of the courtyard, anyway.
In mere moments Lem returned with a first-aid kit. "It's not that bad," he said of Casey's wound having cleaned it. "Looks worse than it is." As he wrapped the elbow with gauze bandage--having already been sure to give the young man a strong does of painkiller--Lem revealed that he himself was raised by abusive grandparents on a farm.
"My grandfather was a sadist. He required me to laugh uproariously every time he beheaded a chicken. He'd chase one down, grab it by the neck, hold it over a stump, and decapitate it with a hatchet. 'Lemme hear ya laugh yer head off, boy!' he'd demand while the body ran around aimlessly flapping. So I learned to laugh. I knew if I didn't I'd get worse than this little scrape on your elbow here. And then of course I had to play the violin. No violin lessons meant lessons in violence from my grandmother. Now then, all out of bandage, and it looks to me, Ch-Ch-Chief, like your p-painkillers are workin' d-dandy!"
"You got that right, Guzzy!" Casey laughed. "I am definitely feeling no pain. Thanks, man."
"Why, it was...just a reflex!"
"Thanks anyway, Randy."
As Lem led Casey back to the kitchen for the enchiladas, Casey happened to notice through one of the windows that further off there dangled two stories over the sidewalk a large, precarious-looking grand piano. Just waiting to fall. The moat, the cigar, the shoes, the piano--everywhere you looked, there was something to reference Krazy Kartoonz. Casey mentioned this to Lem, and Lem responded that the cartoons made him such a fortune, it's his pleasure to honor them. Leading Casey into the kitchen as he spoke, Lem stopped when Casey stood in the doorway and asked if he remembered the name of the cartoon chicken with the lisp.
"Of course I remember," Casey said. "Ima Goner."
"You sure are!" said Lem, smiling with his hand on what looked like a light switch.
The big red boxing glove that exploded into the side of Casey's face on a long retractable arm nearly knocked him unconscious. Multiple Lems rang with peals of unabashed laughter.
"Wantout," Casey slobbered, staggering sidelong into a wall.
"What's that you say?"
"Oh, you want out. I see. Good luck with that."
"I wanna go home."
"Home? You don't have any home. You're a b-b-b-bum, beggar!"
Ordinarily, Casey would have had nothing to fear from the old man. But now his body didn't work right, and the old man was more lively than he looked. There were only two of him now, two Lems calmly perusing the wide array of meat-cutting blades displayed along the wall.
In a panic of terror, Casey crashed his way out of the room.
The somber hall was dimly lit. Casey saw a hallway bisecting the one he was in; determining mid-sprint to continue on down the hall, certain that must be the way out, Casey ran headlong into a solid wall.
A wall painted to look like the hallway.
At the entrance to the kitchen, Lem sprang out, meat cleaver in hand. Perceiving what happened, he stood rooted to the spot and helplessly guffawed. The stark fear in the young man's face scrambling to escape was by itself nearly sufficient to incapacitate the old man with belly laughs. Collecting himself, Lem tottered off with his meat cleaver.
Casey heard the old man's cartoon voices vaguely echoing as he tried to find a way out. Unable to tell where the old man was, Casey kept looking behind himself to see if he was being followed. Turning a corner doing this, he nearly fell into a trap: here the hallway had no proper floor at all, but was actually a huge pit. Fake doorways lined a fake hall. Hard reality was a bad fall--and worse. For as Casey looked down, incredulous and aghast, he saw movement below. From out of the shadows, perhaps only twenty feet down, the baleful glare of an unmistakable form regarded him.
It was a lion. A full-grown African lion. A lion in a pit in a trick hall.
From hidden speakers came Lem's voice.
I see you.
Casey looked around. He could see no sign of equipment.
Do you hear that? It's the sound of me eating breakfast cereal.
"What do you want?"
"Why are you doing this to me?"
I get to watch a funny show.
"Leave me alone!"
You better not do anything bad to Brutus. I saw you almost fall in. That was funny!
Casey paid no attention. He went through a bedroom, and a bathroom, then another hall. At the end of the hall stood a suit of armor. It held a long sort of battle-axe with one gauntlet at the head and the handle braced on the floor. The moment Casey came within range, frenetic classical music suddenly blared, and down came the heavy blade, barely missing him.
Lem's uncontained laughter blended with Khachaturian's Sabre Dance on hidden speakers positioned all around. Casey still paid no attention. His was riveted to the door leading outside. He ran over to it.
He shook the handle. He could see through windows in the door. He slammed his left, less-injured side into it.
Damage that door and I'll tan your worthless hide, boy!
Casey kicked it. Again. And again.
Finally the door burst open. Casey released an exhilarated cry as he rushed outside--then suddenly stopped, and following some instinct, took a step back.
In the next moment, the earsplitting sound of a grand piano crashing on the sidewalk from two stories up reverberated across the vast, rolling hillside.
There, straight ahead.
That wasn't where Lem parked. When could he have re-parked the car? If Lem had people working for him--as indeed he must--Casey never saw a one. In any case, the car was in front of him. There was nothing to do but run for it.
Every step of the way he expected another attack. Another trick, another trap. Another deadly joke referencing the old cartoons. Every window that he passed was an opportunity for a cannon to appear and blast. The sprinklers on the lawn--maybe battery acid inside? Gasoline? Don't get too close under the edge of the roof, could be anvils.
When he made it to the car, which was locked, the voice appeared behind him. "To be, or not to be. That is the question."
Lem held the shotgun in the crook of his arm like a country gentleman. "I never got to play Hamlet, you know. And I wanted to. Believe it. I would have made a great Hamlet. Maybe the best."
"Just let me go. I won't tell anyone. I promise. Who would believe me, anyway? Just let me go."
"O that this too too solid flesh would melt."
"It's 'sullied flesh,' not 'solid.' You got it wrong. You screwed up. And after all this time to prepare for your big role. I'm leaving now."
Casey headed toward the drawbridge.
Lem called out.
"Boy! Don't you turn your back on me!"
Lem called out to stand and face. The drawbridge was still down, the portcullis still up. Casey crossed the drawbridge over the moat and started on down the drive, then heard two distinct clicks.
He turned around. Lem had followed. He was standing at the extremity of the drawbridge studying his gun with a bewildered expression.
Sometimes guns misfire. Sometimes people forget to load them. Whatever reason the gun didn't work, Casey seized the moment.
"Try to shoot me in the back, huh?" The words shot out of Casey's mouth like flames from a dragon as he charged toward Lem. Casey came at the old man with everything he had. Ordinarily, no problem. In his travels hitching around he'd had lots of scraps. Ordinarily he could tear the old guy inside-out, wad him up nice and tight to get a good dribble, and then go shoot some hoops. But now, after all of his injuries, and disoriented by the painkillers, Casey rushed at Lem with everything, and without a thought for where the old man stood, because he hadn't yet known to take Lem seriously about stocking the moat.
Together they struggled. The old man had tried to swing the gun like a quarter-staff, but Casey's punches at Lem's face made him drop the gun and grab at Casey as they fell backward over the drawbridge chain together into the brackish water.
The plunge in felt instantly cold. Casey didn't want to let go of Lem, yet had no choice in order to reach the side of the moat and climb several feet up the rock wall. He kept trying to wipe the foul water from his face as he dogpaddled. Just before he reached the wall, he saw Lem struggling with the most intense expression of sheer fear stamped on his face that Casey could ever imagine. There was a flurry of motion in the water around Lem, followed swiftly by his screams.
For a moment Casey wondered who else was in the water with them, because he felt tugging at his legs. And then the water boiled as untold mouths of hand-size fish tore voraciously at flesh. The men's high-pitched screams lasted several moments, followed by the flurrying sounds of the feeding fish as Lem fed his pets one last time, and as the churning disturbance in the dark water subsided, perhaps having heard his master's cries, Brutus let loose with a rare roar.