StoryTime at Chez McCullough

© L.E. McCullough 1990

A stooped, solitary man neither old nor young paused in front of a small, white frame house on West 10th Street and used one toe of a scuffed brown workboot to crush out a half-smoked, hand-rolled cigarette in the damp sidewalk weeds.

He fumbled with the top button of his faded madras shirt and squinted through the darkening mid-August twilight at the cracked wooden sign propped against the broken porch swing.


it announced in bold, crudely-daubed red lettering, with no problems to bigorsmal added underneath in blue.

Patting the shrunken squirrel’s foot in the right pants pocket of his mud-spattered overalls, he mumbled a brief invocation and walked quickly up to the front door past the five fire-gutted washing machines hunkered at the foot of the porch steps.

“Please enter,” called a husky, heavily-accented voice as he opened the screen door and stepped into a small room containing one table, two chairs and a low-burning kerosene lantern hanging from a hook on the bare rear wall.

“Madame Tienta?” he whispered, peering into the shadows, his right hand squeezing the squirrel’s foot. “It’s Thurman Edrue. I got to talk.”

“Sit down, Thurman. I have been expecting you.”

“Yes’m. Y’all have, huh?” He sat stiffly in the metal folding chair closest to the front door as Madame Tienta emerged from the back, a glittery, swishing, clanking, shrouded blur of black lace and bright jewelry. “Reckon you know when somebody got to talk.”

A white-gloved hand laid a deck of tarot cards on the table between them. “There is nothing Madame Tienta does not know, Thurman. Shall we begin?”

*     *     *     *

It was nearly midnight when Travis Looper pulled the shoulder-length black wig from his close-cropped blond head and pocketed the three rumpled ten-dollar bills he’d received from a hysterically grateful Thurman Edrue. The reading had been intense, but Thurman had left in good spirits, whistling down the sidewalk fondling the new peacock’s claw Madame Tienta had given him.

Travis hung his shawl and dress in the closet, placed his rings and bracelets in a shoebox and went over to the sink to scrub the makeup off his face.

It’s wonderful to help people make vital changes in their lives, he reflected, scooping cold water into his bleary eyes. So much stress in the world. So much heartless competition, survival of the fittest. So little real happiness.

He shut off the tap and stared in the paint-streaked mirror at the 34-year-old face of a seven-year Big Wide World of Motormania Auto Parts, Inc. counter clerk, single, living alone in a tiny efficiency apartment in Lower Eagledale, one week’s paid vacation a year spent visiting his older sister and her three kids in Logansport. So little real happiness.

Travis started the engine of his olive-and-rust 1978 Ford Torino two-door and inserted a lecture cassette entitled “The New Prosperity and Your Increased Tax Law Consciousness” into his tapedeck. He had been a working reader/advisor for almost three years, ever since attending a weekend workshop in Psychic Transformational Biokinesic Integration sponsored by  the Dawnchild International Society in Broad Ripple. While immersed in a saltwater taffy rebirthing tank, the realization occurred that he might indeed be possessed of psychic powers. Possessed of the ability to know the minds and hearts of others. To foresee certain future events. To change things for the better.

During a followup cholesterol hypnosis therapy session his rebirthing vision of floating atop a bubbling sea of picante sauce (medium, no preservatives) in a giant cheese nacho (cheddar, no artificial food dyes) was identified by the weekend group leaders as an affirmation marking him as a true Channeller for the Spirit Guardians.

Once officially affirmated, Travis Looper never looked back.

He rented the old house on West 10th, assembled a believable costume to fit his five-foot-six, one hundred fifty-pound frame and posted his sign.

Within a week he had three clients.

Within two weeks, seven.

And at the end of the month there were a dozen, and they returned again and again, seeking his aid and insight — which he dispensed for a modest fee adjusted to their income and his periodic craving for parts to rebuild a 1969 Shelby Cobra GT-500 he’d coveted for years but never had enough gumption to buy until he acknowledged that acquiring material things he didn’t need just for the absolute, whimsical hell of it was his natural birthright and a necessary step to creating a peaceful planet free of stress and dis-ease.

But life continued to have its frustrations. Travis’ job at Motormania was phenomenally stultifying. He’d been passed over for a raise twice in the last six months, and his co-workers no longer bothered going behind his back to make fun of him. If they ever suspected his psychic predilections and occupational moonlighting, he’d be snickered right out of the shop.

Travis pulled into his apartment parking lot and guided the Torino into its assigned space, sighing audibly as he noticed the space on the right was empty. The empty space belonged to a brand spanking new Fiat Spider 2000 owned by Miz Tabuleh (pronounced to rhyme with “I fool ya!”) Sandgartner, the only woman with whom Travis had ever felt a close spiritual attachment in a lifetime marked by a distinct lack of close attachments of any kind to any woman driving any make of automobile.

He’d been irretrievably smitten—on a purely creative visualization level, of course — by the 22-year-old self-professed “actress” from California since the night two months ago when she’d knocked on his door at four a.m. dressed in a white-fringed, black polysilk bikini, her luxuriant mane of sun-swabbed auburn hair rushing down her slim, tanned back like a molten waterfall frothing playfully around a slender pair of bare, freckled shoulders and framing the most angelic face he’d ever seen alive or in a magazine.

“Hi, guy, I’m Tabuleh! Just moved in next to ya. There a hot tub or sauna in this complex? Hey, y’all right? Look kinda weirded-out. Were y’asleep or something? What’s that on the wall? Hey, is that a picture of a dog? Farout, I’m into dogs, they’re soooooo Sagittarian. Can I touch it? I don’t eat meat so my fingerprints won’t hurt it or anything.”

From the moment this nymphic creature had bounded across his apartment to more deeply experience the black-velvet portrait of a cocker spaniel in a clown suit playing a saxophone, Travis Looper was a man cast hopelessly and cruelly adrift on the vagarious Sea of Unrequited Infatuation.

He saw her nearly every day, usually in the company of studly young men all immensely more tall, more pectoral, more white-toothed and blow-dried than he.

Occasionally he encountered her alone as she was running out of her apartment to attend a belly dance class, audition for appliance store commercials, meet instructors named Troy, Rolando and Rafe at the health spa or sit in on the weekly past-life regression soirees of the local Order of Sufi Cosmetologists.

Travis would nod and smile, vainly trying to engage her in conversation as she rushed by confessing her habitual lateness with a throaty laugh that sent shivers up his cheeks and set butterflies loose in his ears. He would watch with unspeakable yearning as her willowy, five-foot-eleven frame folded itself lithely into the minuscule Fiat.

Lately, though, he hadn’t even bothered to watch her peel out of the driveway. Instead, he turned his face toward the velvet spaniel on his wall, wondering aloud how it was their souls—with so much in common spiritually — could not become entwined as one.

“At least long enough to go to the drive-in some night for a coupla-three hours,” he’d declare to the sympathetic canine visage.

Passing her apartment tonight, Travis glimpsed half of a small yellow envelope protruding from under the door, as if it had been shoved in partway from outside. Glancing furtively around, he bent down and picked up the unsealed missive.

My Tabuleh Darling Dearest:

Too bad but I forgot this morning to tell you today I must
be gone back to N. York. Was great fun last few days you
and us being almost like married. I send my brother Thano
down next month to visit when his green card come.
Much wet juice to my Big American Love Muffin.

Yours, Nikkos

Travis replaced the letter and envelope as he’d found them and went immediately to bed, cogitating furiously. He was not at all surprised when the sound of uncontrolled sobbing from the next apartment woke him around three a.m.

Moving with an excited, curiously elated kind of stealth, Travis stumbled through the dark to his desk, giggling and hiccupping in short bursts at the cleverness of his scheme. From the lower left drawer he selected one of his business flyers he’d stapled on supermarket bulletin boards and telephone poles all over the Westside.


Madame Tienta Can Help Your Emotional Life Fill Up
Full of Fun and Profit!

2706 W. 10th. Nites Only After Six.

— Certified Amer. Inst. of Psychic War Vets —

When he left for work at 6:15 a.m. he taped flyers to her apartment door, on her mailbox and under both the Fiat’s windshield wipers.

As he’d hoped, Tabuleh appeared that night about a quarter to eight and unburdened her troubled psyche to Madame Tienta, who instructed her that true happiness could be discovered only by showing up at the Starvin’ Marvin gas station on the corner of 38th and Georgetown at precisely 7:43 p.m. tomorrow. There she would see a man with short blond hair wearing a white shirt with white pants and brown-leather belt, white shoes with argyle socks and a red-and-blue “I Got Mine At Jones Country Music Park” gimme cap. He would be holding a batch of live flowers and gassing up his automobile with regular.

“This is the man Destiny decrees,” croaked Madame Tienta, writing the full description on the back of an Earn Big $$$ Hauling Chemical Waste matchbook. “Do not dare refuse him!”

At work the following day Travis was practically imploding under the strain of anticipation, and his co-workers were not slow in detecting the presence of a distinct yet indeterminate attitudinal alteration.

Some, like Billy Ray Beckhurst, expressed their empathy and concern in a probing, yet sensitive manner.

“Trav-dude, I’ll be good and double-damned if you ain’t got a boogle up your butt or what? Been yampin’ around like a gopher fulla giggle-piss ever since you waltzed in this mornin’. What the hell’s matter with you, boy? Must be them damn silly socks messin’ with your brainwaves.”

Travis had hoped to leave work no later than 6:30 p.m. to take up a strategic position at Starvin’ Marvin and wait for Tabuleh. Unfortunately, the other two counter clerks took off at five left him alone to contend with a last-minute onslaught of dilly-dallying customers who insisted on charging their purchases. He was writing up the last ticket at twelve past seven when Billy Ray suggested it might be an excellent idea before leaving for the day to re-file Wednesday’s invoices in reverse alphabetical order by their last three zip code digits.

By the time Travis squealed out of the Motormania parking lot it was 7:27 and he was in such an advanced state of agitation he didn’t notice he’d forgotten to remember to not forget to lock the shop door and set the alarm system until he was a full mile away.

As he zoomed out of the lot the second time he glanced down at the bunch of flowers on the seat next to him and spent a few moments engaged in moderate self-congratulation for having had the extreme foresight to purchase them on his way to work this morning, thus obviating any possible chance of him forgetting to remember to not forget them tonight.

“Travis Looper, you are one comprehensively illuminated operator,” he chuckled, hooking his right thumb inside his waistband and suddenly noticing he was not wearing a belt.

He stuffed his gimme cap into his mouth to keep from bellowing at the top of his lungs. Clothes store clothes store where’s a goldanged clothes store?!?! his mind screamed as he inched the Torino through unusually heavy post-rush hour traffic.

At the stop light at 34th and Lafayette Road he pulled up next to a brown Buick Regal driven by an elderly man. “Hello there!” he called to the driver, catching his attention by waving his arms and honking. “Are you wearin’ a brown belt? I said — please roll down your window, sir! Please, the window, window, roll it down!” He mimed the motion with exaggerated gestures, and the man’s window slowly opened.

“Hi, thank you, are you by any chance wearin’ a brown belt? I need to borrow a belt for a little while. You got any belt at all? If it isn’t brown we could find some shoe polish and—”

“No hablo ingles,” the man said. “No comprendo ingles. Se habla español?”

“Ohmygod. No comprendee Mexican, nosir I don’t, it ain’t an official language round here. Uh, belt, belt, what’s the goldanged word for belt? Belto? El belto? Do you habo un el belto?”

The man, his hearing diminished by the onset of deafness and the surrounding traffic din, thought he heard Travis say “el belgo” and nodded affirmatively, thinking it was nice to meet a friendly Belgian person here in America but wondering why they dressed and behaved so oddly.

“You do! You do! Lordamighty you’ve saved my life! Look, I’ll buy the goldang thing off you,” said Travis, waving a twenty dollar bill at the man.

Travis sprang out of his car and ran to the Buick. “Here’s some dinero, padre. Hand ’er over. Hey, the light’s gonna change, come on.”

He tossed the bill on the dashboard, yanked open the door and started tugging at the man’s belt. “Reckon it’s more kinda tan than brown, but it’ll do. C’mon now, you got your money, amigo, what’s the goldang deal?”

“Robo! Robo!” the man cried, frantically trying to twist away from Travis’ grip. His knee struck the windshield squirter and wiper control, jamming the button into the “on” mode.

“Yowww!” yelled Travis as he caught a gush of cleaner fluid in the face. “What the—hey, c’mon, al. . . al. . . most. . . yeghghghghaaaa!”

He succeeded in yanking loose the last section of belt, ran over the top of his car hood and jumped behind the wheel just as the light turned green. “7:38” announced the watch on his dashboard as he roared away, and it took Travis about a half minute to realize two things — the watch’s minute hand was not moving, and he had no idea when it had stopped.

The gimme cap went back into his mouth to reprise its scream-muffling role as he sped eastward. After an agonizingly long wait in the left turn lane at 38th Street, he cut in front of two oncoming vehicles, scraped over the sidewalk into the gas station parking lot and screeched the Torino to a bone-jarring, brake-searing halt next to the regular gas pump.

There was no sign of Tabuleh, so Travis got out of the car and wrestled with the belt for a few seconds until discovering it was drastically too small. “Just needs to be on partway,” he decided, running the belt through a loop, buckling it and letting it hang from his waist in what he hoped would be viewed as a casual and maybe even assertively trendsetting manner.

“Lessee now,” he said, skimming down a mental checklist of props required for the rendezvous. “Shirt, pants, belt, shoes, socks, hat and, lessee, what else, oh yeh—”

“Flowers!” cried a longhaired, bearded man standing on the corner and waving swatches of flowers at passing motorists. “Getcher red-hot, real-live flowers right here! Two bucks a dozen!”

“Flowers!” yelped Travis, clutching the bunch on the seat next to him and staring at the vendor, who was clad in a white t-shirt and patched white jeans with a brown belt and a red-and-blue gimme cap that proclaimed “Bro’ Ernie Sez Root Hog Or Die”. Tattered green-plastic sandals adorned his sockless feet, but Travis was taking no chances with Destiny due to appear any moment.

“How many flowers you got?” he shouted, whipping out a wallet bulging with the life savings he’d withdrawn for tonight’s festivities.

“Say what, man?”

“How many flowers you got?”

“Well, chill out a sec, dude. Got one, two, three. . . uhhh, like how many you want?”

“All of ’em.”

“Say what?”

“Every goldang one.”

“Whoa, dude, who bought the farm?”

“Here’s two hundred dollars for the bunch. C’mon, c’mon, hand ’em over.”


“I want all your goldanged flowers. I want ’em right now or I’m GONNA KILL YAAAAAAAAAA!

After completing the final financial details of the transaction, the vendor helped Travis tote the four large crates of flowers to the Torino’s trunk, thanking him profusely for not only letting him live but for slipping him an extra twenty bucks to “make like a bee and buzz off” from the vicinity immediately.

Travis leaned against his car and watched the vendor scamper across 38th Street. Where is she? Did she forget? Must be quarter till by now, maybe ten till, maybe—

He was startled by a loud car honk. “Please move if you’re finished!” commanded an abrasive, East Coast-inflected voice belonging to a grey-suited, bespectacled man leaning out the window of a silver BMW that had insinuated itself behind the Torino at the gas pump. “You’re blocking my access.”

“I’ll block more than your goldanged access!” snarled an aroused Travis, raising his right fist in the air. “Why don’t you access yourself somewhere else?”

The man scrunched his face into a pout and backed his vehicle around the pump toward the exit. “Hey, what time you got?” Travis shouted, but the BMW’s window had already zipped up tight.

Travis had to shoo off three more motorists before the Fiat purred up and Tabuleh emerged, wearing a hot-pink halter blouse and faded denim cutoffs. She raised her lavendar-lensed sunglasses to peer around the parking lot and did not seem to notice Travis standing at the pump ten feet away.

“Hi, Tabuleh!” called Travis, grabbing the gas hose off its hook and straightening his hat bill.

“Oh, hi, Travis,” she fluttered, looking around and past him. “What’cha doing here?”

“Me? Doing? Here? Gosh, I, uh. . . uh, just came to, uh. . . came to get some brown shoe polish for my brown shoes. Looky, it’s these brown shoes here.” He hiked his pants up to mid-calf for emphasis.

“Farout, Travis.”

“I, uh, guess lots of people might not wear these brown shoes with these socks?”

She glanced briefly at his feet and continued looking around the parking lot. “Huh, ohyeh, wicked socks, Travis.”

“They’re ar, uh. . . argyle socks, Tabuleh, is what they, uh, are. . . argyle.”

She turned and started to walk toward the door.

He dropped the hose and ran up beside her. “Actually, I came to fill up with gas. To fill up my car with gas, I mean. Regular gas is what my car takes. What about yours? Does it take regular gas, too?”

She stopped and faced him, examining him from head to toe with a puzzled expression spreading slowly across her features.

This is it. She’s gonna say it! Lordamighty, hereitcomes, hereitcomeshereitcomeshereitcomeshereit—


His heart skipped a beat and lurched into a crazily syncopated drum roll as she stared into his eyes and grasped his hands tightly.

“Travis, I don’t know how to say this exactly.”

“Say what, Tabuleh?”

“It’s. . . it’s. . . well, I wouldn’t say this to just anybody, but. . . “

“Say it to me, Tabuleh. Goldang, say it to me!”

The emotional flood welling up inside him forced him to his knees, and he pressed his forehead against their locked hands. “Say it to me!”

“Travis, your belt’s on kinda funny. It’s just kinda hanging off one little thingie. Hey, are ya, like, gonna snarf or something?”

“I. . . I. . . my back. . . ahhhhhh! Dang, it’s thrown out. . . I don’t think I can get up.”

“Ohwow, superbummer. I’m gonna get some ice cream. Want some?”

He nodded “yes” and remained on his hands and knees in the middle of the parking lot, cursing himself for being such a hopeless — and now thoroughly helpless — fool.

“They were out of strawberry fudgie so I got cinnamon coconut limewhirl,” she said, slurping vigorously and handing him a cone. “Here’s yours. I had extra coconut put on it.”

“Thanks,” he replied, staring at her knees and trying to forget for at least the next five minutes that even the tiniest particle of coconut within a ten-county radius made him violently nauseous.

“This is fun, Travis. I never get to talk to ya. You’re a real sweet guy.”

“Gosh, thanks, Tabuleh. I. . . I’ve always thought you were. . . were a pretty special lady.”

She slurped in silence another minute or so before he let loose with his last desperate shot.

“In fact,” he said, “an old gypsy lady told me over a year ago, way long before you moved in next door, that. . . that Destiny would decree I come to this parking lot tonight.”

Her slurping ceased and was replaced by a long intake of breath. “She said I’d meet a woman,” he continued. “A woman who. . . who I’d dare not refuse.”

Tabuleh squatted in front of him and stared mistily into his eyes. “Like, what did this woman—your Destiny—look like, Travis?”

“Well now, this old gypsy said she’d be wearin’ a pink shirt or blouse. . . and an old pair of shorts. . . and. . . and purple sunglasses.”

“Faroooouuut! Did she say anything about ice cream?”

“Uh-huh, that’s right, ice cream, uh-huh. . . said this woman’d offer me an ice cream cone.”

“And the flavor?” she gasped.

He frowned in deep concentration. “I think it was. . . think it was. . . no, wait. . . uh, it would have cinnamon in it and lemon — no, lime. . . lime, that’s it, and—”

“And coconut?”

“And coconut,” he declared.

“Travis,” she squealed, popping the last piece of cone into her mouth and gripping him by the shoulders. “Travis, this is so, like, unreal! Ya won’t believe what I’m gonna tell ya! Hey, are ya gonna like, eat your ice cream? It’s, like, dripping on your shoe and stuff.”

After she finished his ice cream, Tabuleh and Travis went back to her apartment where they spent several hours engaged in primal fluid release massage therapy that left Travis completely exhausted but, for the first time in his life, completely happy. Around two a.m. they got married by the district J.P. and left immediately in the Fiat for a honeymoon in Newport, Kentucky.

During a drunken spree in the hotel bar that evening, Tabuleh lost the keys to the Fiat and Travis lost all their money. He also lost Tabuleh, who disappeared at some unrecollectable point to take a boat cruise to Martinique with a critically acclaimed Hungarian producer of sci-fi/porno films after being promised a lead role in his next epic, Lust-Crazed Space Sluts from Mars.

Travis set up a fortune telling booth in the plaza to try and earn money for a bus trip home but was arrested for impersonating a citizen of Kentucky and practicing augury without valid liability insurance. After a week he was extradited to Indiana where he married the bail bondsman’s secretary, a 19-year-old three-time divorcée named Miami who renewed his spiritual faith in the American legal system when she told him of her frequent visits aboard the extra-terrestrial spaceship parked behind her trailer court outside Plainfield.

Some years later, Billy Ray Beckhurst was sitting in a barber’s chair leafing through a recent copy of National Tattler when he came across a photo of a man surrounded by eight women, nineteen children and fourteen late-’60s Shelby Cobras.

“Bonanza, Utah patriarch Travis Looper says he has made ESP contact with a race of intelligent beings from the Arcturan Galaxy,” read the caption, “and waits with his family near the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge for their imminent arrival. ‘They’re just like us,’ Looper says. ‘Except they have a much more refined appreciation of vintage automobiles.’”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Billy Ray repeated to the shoeshine man. “I’ll be good and double double-damned!”



No Camel, Sirhan & Other Stories You Don’t Want to Hear
About People You’d Rather Not See
– 9 Short Stories by L.E. McCullough –

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