Only On Jupiter

by Ed Bread

-Strange – 5 Pages –

Mistakes happen.

I left the heater on. It was my fault. I admit it. No one was hurt. At least I have that on my side. So, while the cops and judges and whoever sort the details, I’m forced to live out here in Arizona with my Uncle Proosteau. None of my friends or family in California wanted to offer me temporary refuge, and like fuck I’m gonna stay in a public shelter, so it’s Arizona for me, if only for a few weeks.
Some friends, some family.

If it goes to court, maybe I can blame my roommate. I never used the fucking heater. It was always him. The one night I use the thing…

But Uncle Proosteau’s all right. Kinda weird, but aren’t we all. He’s obsessed with the desert. Keeps cacti and guns and jars of dirt and coyote bones and everything else. Not quite my gig, but interesting. I’ve been out here three days and about every other hour I’ve been awake he’s shown me something else.

“Oh! Here’s a canteen from the days of the Conquistadores!”

We ate turkey feet today (not bad, surprisingly) and now I’m just sitting out here on the porch in an itchy wool jacket and I’m smoking a joint of bad marijuana and thinking about the big red storm on Jupiter when Uncle Proosteau swings open the screen door and sits in the chair next to me. He’s wearing a red-and-black plaid jacket and he has a shiny bald head and a long white beard.

“Don’t bogart that thing,” he says.

“You can have the rest.” I hand the thing over, and already I miss California if only because of the quality of grass they’ve got out there. This shit’s just headache bud, nothing more, nothing less.
I light a cigarette, watching the far horizon as the sun descends. “You know Jupiter’s got a storm on it that could destroy our entire planet?”

“I’ve heard that,” he says. “Beats the hell outta Katrina, eh? That little hurricane’s nothin but a drop in the bucket when compared to such…” he takes a rip, “…things.”

He takes another, and, once again, while still holding in the smoke, speaks. “Oh yes, there’s something else I wanted to show you.” His voice sounds froggy.

“Oh yeah?” I say, thinking it’s probably a goddamn human skull or some shit. I visualize, if only for a second, the idea of filling such a thing up with gun powder and blasting it off somewhere out in the desert.

“Yup,” he says, exhaling. “Nothin big, but you might get a kick outta it.”

Back inside, we go upstairs and he leads me to a small space near my bedroom. We go in and take a peak around. Some picture frames, he’s got stuffed parakeets. He’s got cattle prods in here and matchbook collections and all kinds of fucked-up shit. I’m wondering if there’s some secret fetishist chamber hidden in this house somewhere, then I’m wondering how often my uncle gets laid, or if he gets laid at all. Now I watch as he goes through the closet, pulling out linens and hammers and sheets of paper and casting them aside.

“This.” He hands me a ragged cardboard box. “Check it out.”

I open the box and what do you know, there’s something alive inside. It’s a lizard kinda thing, but fatter and maybe a little meaner-looking than most lizards.

“Holy shit.” I raise an eyebrow. “What the hell?”

This shit’s just getting too weird, I’m shaking my head, shrugging my shoulders, holding this box.
“It’s a he-lah monster,” he says. “Spelled G-I-L-A.”

LA, I think. Goddamn roommate burned the house down. Old fashioned fucking piece of shit heaters. The world should ban everything old and archaic.

I watch the box.

The fat fucker inside just squirms around a bit, its arms testing the walls of the cardboard box.
“Does it, uh, have a name?”

“Yup,” Proosteau goes. “His name’s Muffler.”

“Muffler,” I laugh. “Good name. He’s fat like a muffler.”

“Don’t know if he’d like you callin him fat, but…huh.” Proosteau goes. “Whatever. S’all the same.”
“Is he cool to pick up?” I ask.

“Oh no!” Proosteau goes. “Well, for me it’s okay, but…that’s cause he trusts me. He doesn’t know you. Doesn’t know your smell, doesn’t know your touch. Just a like a woman, cept he’s prettier. And just a like a woman I say be careful even holdin him in that box. One wrong move and he’s liable to snap your finger clean off your fuckin hand!”

We collapse into laughter at this. Proosteau’s delivery in this circumstance proves impeccable, and we just have a good gut laugh at everything. I start thinking it’s not so bad out here after all. The Grand Canyon State. Not so bad. We laugh hysterically.

“One of the only poisonous lizards,” he says, and the laughter ceases.

We go back downstairs into the living room and Proosteau slides open a drawer and pulls out a massive bag of the cheap weed we’ve been smoking. He looks at it, puts it away, and says, “Ah, hell with it. Evenin’s come round. You like whiskey? Rum?”

We start in the on the drinks and I didn’t even know about this liquor cabinet or things might’ve been different the first few days. Jäger, schnapps, dark rum, light rum, whiskey, gin, all kinds of boozes. I start with a few shots of schnapps, then mix the Jäger with an energy drink and sip that, then I do dark rum jigger shooters, topped with a tiny bit of skim milk. Proosteau just sips whiskey or scotch or something. I persuade him into doing shots of schnapps with me.
“Hell,” he says, pouring ice from one container into another. “Might as well brew up some margaritas while we’re at it.”
“Fuck yeah!” I say.

“I’ll put on some music, here,” he says, walking over to the stereo. “I’m sure you like Pink Floyd…”

“Fuck that shit,” I say. “Everything old and archaic should be banned. Put on something fast.”

“Like what?”

“Got any metal? Pantera, Dark Slave, Lepers Peel, Fear Factory, Slayer, whatever? I even like punk…Clash–“

“You fuckin kids all jacked up on your fuckin speed and your metal and your racehorse lifestyles…take a break, man! This is the good shit, Syd Barret…you wouldn’t remember, man.”

“Fuck that old foagie bullshit,” I smile. “The new generation is where it’s at. Slayer…fuckin Lepers Peel…”

“You can fuck off with that shit,” he says. “I’m putting on some Rolling Stones!”

“Fuck the Stones!”

“Fuck you, man.”

“Fuck you too! And fuck this place! When was the last time anybody but you even set foot in this fucked-up dungeon of yours!”

“Other’n you? Never! I made an exception with you and you should be grateful, ya fucked-up goddamn arson youth motherfucker!”

“Fuck it all to hell.”

“Give it to em, Jagger,” this old fucker spouts, as some ancient-ass bullshit streams through the speakers.
“Hey, I know about that Gila lizard,” I say. “I’m not dumb, something brought back my memory. Those things are endangered. You’re not even allowed to keep those things as pets, much less in a fucking cardboard box! I remember Science class in High School. Do you even have airholes for that shit?”

“Muffler’s got all the air he needs.”

“Does he have food?”

“He eats. He’s a goddamn lizard. Course he has food, course he takes food.”

“But do you give him any?”

“There’s flies up there, spiders, whatever.”

“That’s cruel and unusual punishment!” I say. “I’m gonna set him free right now.”

“You’ll do no such goddamn thing!” He starts walking towards the staircase.

“Watch me!”

“Oh I will!”

I go upstairs but he doesn’t follow me. I grab the cardboard box and tear off the lid. There he is. I start down the stairs when I see Proosteau standing there in the living room and he’s got something dark in his hand–a goddamned handgun! Where the fuck’d he pull that from? He’s got it raised toward the ceiling, arm fully extended.
“Still wanna let him go?”

“He’s an animal,” I say, shaking and sweating, courtesy of the weapon’s presence. “He deserves just as much as we do, right? We’re Americans and we value our freedom. This is an American lizard. He should be free. We abolished slavery how long ago? Come on now. He deserves more.”

“I get joy outta having him around,” he says, lowering the gun, aiming it at me. “He’ll stay.”

Some inexplicable impulse sends me through the door and out on the porch and I reach into the box and pull the Gila out and wing it and instantly there’s a massive pain in my right index finger and even though I’m a bit drunk I can still feel the full brunt of pain and I feel almost like I’m gonna pass out as throbs of red and black course through my vision, but I regain myself and look at my hand and the index finger of my right hand, up to the first joint, is gone. There’s just a tangle of pulpy knots sticking out where the fingernail should be and I just stand there jaw-dropped and watching and–

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

Proosteau’s started shooting.

“Holy fuck, man!” I turn toward him, panicked that I’m dead, I’m shot, I just don’t feel it yet, but then I see he’s got the thing pointed at the sky.

“Get the fuck outta here!” he says. “I tried to do you a favor. That Gila monster was not mistreated. You’re lucky I don’t kill you right now!”

“Fuck you, man! I’m hurt, look at this.” I show him my hand and I’m almost crying. “Look at this fucking shit!”
“Get the fuck outta here! I told you as much! I told you Muffler wasn’t one to be fucked with! And neither am I! Get the hell outta here!”

“Where am I supposed to go?”

“Go sleep with the coyotes,” he says. “I’ll collect your bones in the morning, you son of a bitch!”
I walk away, clutching my wound with my left hand. What the fuck am I supposed to do out here? I’m fucked, I’m thinking. I’m completely fucked.

After Proosteau goes inside, I decide to go lay myself out behind his house, hide out there. In the black sky I see the dull twinkling of the stars, and different, brighter twinkle that might be Mars or Venus. My thoughts become increasingly blurred and soon I find I’m fading…out of consciousness.

In the morning I feel a jab of energy, and my finger’s throbbing and still kinda bleeding. I’m feeling lucky that some beast didn’t eat me during the night.

I go around to the side of the house and the first thing I notice is that Proosteau’s truck is gone. I try the front door, but it’s locked. The back door, same. I go back around to the side of the house and I’m able to jimmy a window screen open using the fingernails of my good hand. I crawl through and once inside, my first idea is to regain a bit of drunkenness. Anything to deal with the pain. I wad up a bunch of paper towels and wrap em around my finger. I find a pillbox and pop a few of the orange submarine pills located inside. I take a few shots of schnapps and the sugar and the booze lights me right up and I see clearly what I have to do. Digging around the living room I find the handgun Proosteau pulled on me last night tucked underneath a couch cushion. I’m thinking it’s a 45, not knowing much about guns. I check it. It’s loaded. I know that much. I take the safety off and wait.

Soon enough, Proosteau’s truck comes tumbling along the dirt road and I wait inside, the gun pointed at the door. I’m sweating and shaking very badly because I’ve never shot a gun before and I have to use my left hand for everything. I use my right arm to keep my left hand steady and I wait. I wait. I hear the lock go. The door opens.

“You!” he says, entering. “Son of a bitch got inside somehow, eh? Oh, and now you’ve got my gun?” He scratches his beard.

“You should’ve taken me to a fuckin hospital.” I say. “You said those things were poisonous.”

“What I shoulda done,” he says, leaning down on a knee, like he’s gonna tie his boot, “is shot you on the spot!” A knife goes poinnng right next to my ear and I didn’t even see a throwing motion. I look at it. The handle is wooden and reads BUCK CERTIFIED.

Before Proosteau can try another trick, I aim the gun at him and fire. A bullet hits him somewhere in the midsection, and I realize that the feeling of firing a gun is unmatchable to any other thrill I’ve ever experienced. I continue shooting and only after three or four shots do I notice the sight of Proosteau’s blood and I’m so amped it takes another few seconds before I realize that the room is filling with smoke and that somehow a brush plant by the doorway has caught flame. The flame attaches itself to a hanging rug, then to the wall, then to Proosteau’s shirt, then his beard. He’s groaning and I toss the gun aside and run over to him. He’s not dead because he’s squirming on the floor. He kicks the wall, grumbling, “Goddamnit!” and smoke and the scent of burning continues to rise. The hair is singed off my arms as I go through his pockets and find the truck keys.

Steering proves to be no problem, even with a bloodied hand that–judging by the tendrils of discoloration winding up the palm–has gone infected. I try to remember the route Proosteau took from the airport to his place. How can I trace it backwards? Which turn was which? I drive along, but I’m kicking up too much dust so I slow the truck, especially around turns. But then, by hell and damnation, I hit a dead end. I hop out of the truck and scope its features. It’s 4×4. I consider off-roading the fucker, just driving until I hit something. A house, a city, a market, anything. Hopefully a hospital before anything else because this shit is seriously fucked. I remember the police. The police will doubtlessly lock me up for some time because of all this, those fucking bastards. None of it is even my fault.

Standing out here, looking at the truck, I notice a little buggeroo crawling around near the front tires, hiding in the shade. I go in for a closer inspection.

Sure enough, like some kind of dream, it’s a Gila. The markings are similar, but there’s no way of knowing for sure. The ugly freak scampers away from the truck and I hover over it. It stops by a little hole in the ground and I raise my shoe high.

“Sayonara” I whisper, but I can’t do it. I try to plunge my foot down on the fat bastard, but my brain simply will not send the message. I try again, but I can’t. The Gila looks up at me, almost winks, and then vanishes into the hole.
I get back in the truck and I start driving away from the dead end, back along the road, back toward Proosteau’s house, back toward something. The sky is yellow and blue. I get to Proosteau’s and park the truck. The right side of the house is engulfed in flames, but the left side isn’t bad. I wonder if Proosteau’s dead in there. I go in through the door, through the smoke, covering my mouth with my injured hand. I see him. Proosteau’s dead all right. I don’t know why but I go into the weed drawer and grab what’s there, but then just toss it into a patch of flame. I see the gun on the ground where I dropped it. I try to pick it up but it burns me. The thing is practically glowing red and the smoke is becoming too much and over here on the left side of the house things are quickly getting worse. I kick the gun through the doorway, past the pile of clothing and ashes that was once my uncle, and into the dirt outside. I kick it out to the truck, and then kick some thick soil over it, hoping to cool it off. There is no greater thrill than shooting a gun. I need it. I give it some time under the dirt, then it’s ready. Hot to the touch but not too hot to hold. I tuck into the waist of my pants.

The sirens begin and I don’t know who could’ve told the police anything because as far as I know there isn’t another house for at least ten miles in any direction. I decide to just hang back and let them come to me because after all, I haven’t done anything wrong. They arrive and the hostility is with them.

“It was just candles!” I tell them, pointing at the smoldering building behind me. “Proosteau had lots of candles!”
“Get in the dirt!” a cop shouts at me. “Hands interlaced atop your head!”

I decide there’s no exit here. The cops will believe what they want to believe, and they can take that to the grave. The grave that is more forthcoming than they might think. I pull the handgun and take aim. I begin pulling the trigger but there’s just click click click empty and I see the facial expression of one of the cops. It is one of surprise and survival, but mostly survival. I get the bullets this time, feel them course through me, and if I’m honest, the thrill of being shot is even greater than the thrill of shooting.

“Did the same thing out in LA. Damn near killed his buddy,” I hear one of the cops say. “Call emergency medical, this guy might live. Call fire, too.”

“Yup,” I hear another voice say. “A little pyro, this one. You can see his record, here…”

Lying on my back, I feel the fading once more. The sky is bright and the sun is the only visible celestial body. Time passes and I feel hands lifting me up. Arms, hands and arms, lifting me, taking me somewhere.

I don’t know where I’m going but I’m thinking of women, and poker, and police, and the white sterility of hospital rooms. I’m thinking about shooting. I don’t know what I’m doing or who is holding me but I’m thinking there might be gods out there and Jupiter is the biggest planet of all…

The End

More Strange Stories…

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