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  1. #5
    Night of the Poe Toaster

    by

    William Haskins



    I was halfway through my third bong hit when Duncan burst through the door with that look on his face and his jacket dripping with the unlocked treasures of a breakfast burrito.

    “Come on, man!" he said. "Let’s go!”

    I looked up at him and blew out an impressive cloud of smoke. “Where we goin’?”

    “Road trip, dude!” he replied, fanning away the smoke. “I emailed you about it last night.”

    I got up and pulled a T-shirt over my head. “I’ve been blocking your emails for months.”

    “Well, come on, man. We gotta get going.”

    I shrugged, slipped on a jacket and took one more hit for the road, and then followed him out the door. I honestly had nothing better to do.

    Duncan’s battered Oldsmobile was pulled alongside the curb, and I immediately saw someone in the backseat. I climbed in and a pasty-faced butterball of a teenager, clutching a video camera and smiling uncomfortably, leaned over the seat. “I’m Bronco.”

    “You a cowboy?” I asked.

    Confusion crept across his face. “No. Why?”

    Bronco…” I said. “It sounds like a cowboy name.”

    He shook his head and watched Duncan get behind the wheel. “I just had bronchitis a lot when I was a kid,” he said, melting into the seat.

    “Now. Where the hell are we going?” I asked Duncan.

    He looked at me and smiled. “Baltimore. Here, read this.”

    He handed me a page ripped from a magazine, with a fresh salsa thumbprint on it.

    It was an article about how, every January 19th for the past 56 years, a mysterious stranger has visited the Baltimore grave of Edgar Allen Poe, stealing into the cemetery in the middle of the night to lay three roses and a half-empty bottle of French cognac on the writer’s final resting place. It went on to interview people who show up year after year, to quietly and respectfully watch the ritual from Westminster Hall.

    I saw what was coming. “No way,” I said.

    Duncan shot me his devious eyes. “Hell yeah, man! You kidding me? A buncha goth fags just stand around and watch this guy, year after year! Nobody even tries to talk to him! You have any idea how much the tabloid shows will pay for a video of me unmasking the mysterious Poe Toaster?”

    I felt sick. Of course, this kind of half-assed plan wasn’t without precedent for Duncan. Not by a long shot. Just a year before, he had stolen the controversial art piece American Beauty, a jar of piss with a bikini-clad Barbie doll floating in it. But his getaway was sloppy and, during the twists and turns of the chase, the jar rolled off the seat onto the floorboard and shattered.

    He outran the cops, but they tracked him down a few days later—by following the stench of urine.

    “You’re outta your god damn mind,” I said. “Why can’t you show a little respect for tradition?

    “Tradition?” he screamed, looking a little unhinged. “What tradition? A buncha geeks hanging around a graveyard? What about the great American tradition of making money and being on TV? What about that tradition, huh?”

    “You’re an idiot.” I said, closing my eyes.

    “Yeah, well, we’re about to get paid.”

    *****

    It was dark by the time I awoke to Duncan singing along with the radio. It was “The Walrus” by the Beatles, and, even tangled in the cobwebs of sleep, I couldn’t ignore the irony of him yelling, “I am the eggman!” while chunks of his breakfast still dangled from his jacket.

    But when I heard the line:

    Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe

    I bolted upright and was wide-awake. I’m not a superstitious man, but I know an omen when I hear it. All I could think about was that miserable little bird-faced man, so unappreciated… so despised in his own time. And the thought of a tool like Duncan humiliating him in death was too much for me to handle.

    “Change of plans,” I said, grabbing the wheel. He backhanded me in the mouth and we fought for control of the car while Bronco shrieked and tumbled around in the backseat. The car spun around and slammed into a lightpole.

    Duncan dragged me out of the wreckage by my hair. “What the hell’s your problem, man?”

    “Other than hanging out with jerkoffs?” I said. “Why can’t people just pay tribute to somebody they admire without some prick like you coming along and screwing it all up?”

    Duncan’s eyes flashed. Pure crazy.

    “You ain’t gonna stop me,” he said, pulling a .22 out of his waistband. And, as he stood there bowlegged, hand trembling, I swear he looked just like Don Knotts.

    “He looks just like Don Knotts,” Bronco observed from the back seat.

    “You know,” I said, “I was just thinking the same thing.”

    “We’re doing this, you hear me?” He aimed the gun at my face. “Bronco’s gonna film it and you’re gonna keep your stupid mouth shut… if you wanna get your cut.”

    “Give me the gun, Duncan.” I took a step toward him.

    He shot at the ground in front of my feet, and I took a step closer. “Duncan, I swear to God… if you shoot me—“

    He shot again. This time, he took off the tip of my little toe.

    “You bastard!” I screamed. “You psycho motherfu—"

    “I told you!” he said. “I told you to shut up and play nice! Now get in the car.”

    *****

    We got to the cemetery well after midnight. The street was eerily quiet, but a faint light shone in the church window, where a handful of nosy silhouettes peered out. We snuck over the fence into the shadows of the graveyard. Others had staked out strategic locations, so we fumbled through the darkness to a small thicket near the grave.

    And we waited.

    After what seemed like hours, we heard hushed whispers, and saw a solitary figure, dressed all in black, enter the graveyard. He walked slowly, calmly—but with purpose—across the icy ground.

    The stranger stood in front of the headstone and arranged three roses on the grave. He lifted a bottle of cognac and drank a toast, then set the half-empty bottle down among the flowers. He bowed his head, but only for a moment, and then turned to leave.

    Duncan chuckled. “It’s show time.”

    “I ain’t gonna let you do this,” I told him.

    He brandished the gun and whispered between clenched teeth: “You screw this up for me and, so help me God, I’m gonna shoot off more than your stupid toe.”

    And, with that, he leapt from the thicket and accosted the poor stranger, badgering and mocking him. A collective gasp rose from the shadows and, within seconds, the bushes emptied and the church door swung opened and Duncan was beset on all sides by an angry mob.

    The mysterious stranger extricated himself from the chaos and escaped with his anonymity (and his dignity) intact—leaving Duncan to absorb a vicious beating from two-dozen sleep-deprived Edgar Allen Poe enthusiasts. I watched with delight.

    “You getting all this?” I asked Bronco.

    “Oh, yeah,” he assured me. “I’m getting it.”

    A few minutes later, the police arrived and dispersed the crowd before hauling Duncan off to jail, bloodied and beaten. Something about it just felt right.

    Silence fell over the cemetery again, and Bronco and I emerged from the shadows and walked to the grave. I picked up the bottle of cognac and poured some on my mangled toe, then tipped the bottle up for a long gulp. I handed it to Bronco and he took a swig.

    We stared at Poe’s grave for a moment and a cold wind coiled around us. Bronco poured some of the cognac on the ground, and we watched it seep into the frozen earth.

    “Nevermore,” he said, solemnly.

    I had no idea what the hell context he was using it in, but I agreed completely. Nevermore.

    *****

    By the way, we sold the footage of Duncan’s brutal asswhipping to “A Current Affair” for five grand. Bronco used his share to buy new camera equipment.

    As for me, let’s just say my morning bong hits will be covered for a long, long time.
    Last edited by William Haskins; 06-14-2005 at 08:08 AM.
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