A collection of short stories that take place within the universe of Good, Clean Dirt.
If there is one thing to know about Reuben Weller, it is that while he had historically been the victim of a great number of painful incidents (many of which being his fault), he was also keenly aware of the opportunities that may arise from pain.
It should be no surprise to anyone that as a young person he did not quite fit in. Now, if a student was a ‘teacher’s pet’ so to speak, they could avoid a lot of beatings by way of snitchery. This was not the case. A collection of teachers would agree that an apt description of Young Reuben could be boiled down to…
‘Too smart for his own damn good.’
And so it should be no surprise that a bloody nose was a common conclusion to school days.
Now, there are two ways to go about bullying. Well, to be honest, there infinite ways to go about bullying- but for the purpose of this demonstration of character we will work within a binary. The first is when an entire class decides something about a person and systematically ruins their life by way of building a bad reputation. The second is when one person develops a strange fixation on another and feels an urge to destroy them.
Reuben was a victim of the first and then the second, in that order.
Now he could do nothing about that first one. Rumors are, by definition, vicious and long-lasting. But the second…
Bobby Michaels studied Reuben’s route home for about a week before laying a trap. It wasn’t much of a trap- Bobby was not particularly smart, but smart enough to know that if he was going to beat someone up it had better be well off school grounds. So he waited in an alley for him to pass before giving Reuben a daily ass-whooping.
And he did phrase it as his ‘daily ass-whooping.’
Reuben changed routes to avoid it, changed patterns, changed habits. But Bobby Michaels was smart enough to know that the boy was too lazy to go too far out of his way and he made plans around it. Eventually, he would find him.
This is the part of the story where most people expect a tale about how he learned to fight back, how he trained and trained and eventually joined the wrestling team and they won second place at state. However, since we are viewing this through the lense of nostalgia and we know, ultimately, how very not-strong Reuben was as an adult, it is clear that his story went in a different direction. Although, this was where he learned to run very fast.
As Bobby Michaels loomed over him smacking his fist into his palm in preparation for the oncoming beating, Reuben held up his hand.
“I’m going to have to ask for that money up-front,” Little Reuben said.
Bobby was rightly confused, given that the usual reaction to being cornered in an alley is to beg for mercy or try to run. His fist loosened, his shoulders sagged at the mention.
“What money?” Reuben asked, edging away from the wood fence that cornered him in. “Buddy, I’ve been keeping a tally on how much you owe me.”
“I don’t owe you nothin’.”
“Look, the first one was free, but I am clearly providing you a service here. This is my 39th beating. And with a first week entrance fee of $1 each, then the regular fee of $3 and a cumulative interest, you owe me $119. Plus tax.”
“It’s a service, so you pay a service tax. I don’t make the rules, man!”
Bobby was silent for probably an entire minute, in which Reuben dared not move lest he alert his opponent to his plan. He could breathe again when Bobby started fishing in his pockets. “I-..I don’t got $119.”
“Alright,” Reuben said, faking a wince. “I know I kind of tricked you into thinking it was free, so we’ll uh... we’ll forgive the interest. But I can’t go any lower than $84.”
Bobby was distraught. “I don’t got that neither! Oh man, I’m gonna have to get a job.”
“Listen… Bobby- you know I’m trying to help you here. So what we’ll do is… I’ll put this whole thing on hold until you pay off your debt and then we can come back to it, just as long as you pay the fee in the future. Sound like a deal?”
Reuben held out his hand to shake, fully expecting Bobby Michaels to break his hand. But slowly, slowly, Bobby extended his hand in return and offered a weak handshake.
They parted ways, and Bobby never bothered him again until about a month later- when he approached Reuben in the usual alley with a sack of quarters and dimes. “I got your money,” he said.
“Oh good,” Reuben said, dreading the worst.
“My mom found out about this and she told me to go to counseling, so I ain’t gonna be able to pay back the...uh… interest.”
“You know… that’s okay,” Reuben said, looking for his quick exit. “I mean we shook on $84, didn’t we? $84 is enough. Debt forgiven.”
Bobby handed him the sack of coins. “So guess this is the last time I’ll be seein’ ya.”
“I guess so,” Reuben said. “How’s that make you feel?”
“I dunno, man. I kinda wanna punch you in the face.”
Reuben did a quick assessment of his life choices, but given that he was only twelve- there wasn’t a whole lot to measure up against and he figured that if you’re going to make mistakes, your youth is where you make them.
“You got three dollars?”
Bobby’s fist crunched against Reuben’s weak little jaw. The bag of change went flying to the ground, singing a tune of deep but satisfying regret against the weathered brick. As Reuben’s eyes refocused, he was aware of his face against the ground, Bobby’s hurried footsteps falling away from him, and twelve quarters stacked somewhere near his head.
And the lesson that he took away from this was not ‘violence never solved anything’ or ‘a sharp tongue is better than a closed fist.’ Instead, it was this:
‘There is a way to take anything and turn it into money.’
Perhaps it is less common now than it was in the mid-late 90’s, but there was a time when morning radio shows all had a section of their programming dedicated to performing phone pranks on the unsuspecting public. This is, quite possibly, because the Internet was not as widespread yet and people needed to entertain themselves somehow. And with his tens of thousands of listeners across the county, Sam The Bear was eager to entertain them for fifteen minutes between country songs about dying.
Now, Sam the Bear had only been hosting The Morning Drive for about a month at this point, and he’d been filling the shoes of Howlin’ Eddy perfectly. Eddy had gotten his nickname because of his tendency to howl into the hot mic when things got too exciting, however, and Sam didn’t have that.
Instead of howling, Sam played a recording of a growling grizzly to fill moments of dead air.
It should be noted that Sam’s moniker was obtained not because of a demeanor or a tendency to hibernate through the winter- but simply because he had a collection of Teddy Ruxpin toys.
But none of that made it to the air. All people needed to know was that he was The Bear, followed by a recording of a growling grizzly.
Sam the Bear was chosen to take over after Eddie’s retirement because he was reasonably obnoxious, but also because he had a handful of impressions in his bag of tricks. His Forrest Gump impression was famous in the office, second only to his Bill Clinton- which came paired with exactly one lewd joke that he told over and over again.
And this made him perfect for prank phone calls.
He inherited the morning time slot, Eddie’s thirty-thousand morning-commute followers, and Jenny, who had no nickname despite being Eddie’s co-host for five years.
Their unsuspecting target du jour on one particularly cloudy and slow work day was Rhonda Rhodes of the Herronville Florists. The pluralization of ‘Florists’ was a misnomer, of course. She was the only florist in Herronville. She thought that putting an ‘s’ at the end would make it sound like it wasn’t just her. Everyone in Herronville knew this.
Rhonda was transcribing someone’s terrible handwriting into an already out-dated computer template for the late Mandy Cantrage. Her daughter had left a long, long message to be printed on the card, made all the more difficult by the tear stains on the paper. Asking for clarification would have resulted in another fifteen minutes of incomprehensible wailing and zero progress.
Sometimes she wondered if the dead were easier to communicate with than the grieving.
The stiff keys clacked and loudly in the empty store.
God is our refuse-
Oh, no- that was ‘refuge.’ R-E-F-U-G-E, tak-tak-tak.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea-
“Oh fuck me, it’s scripture,” she mumbled, interrupted by the ringing of the corded phone. “Herronville Florists, Rhonda speaking,” she said into the receiver.
“Hello,” sang Sam the Bear, withholding his own laughter and gesturing at Jenny and their special guest to quit giggling. He spent a considerable amount of energy covering up a finely-curated Southern drawl in favor of a nervous caricature of what he imagined a New Yorker sounded like. Oh, we’ll be frank- it was a Billy Crystal impression. “It’s my wife and I’s anniversary and I would love to buy her some flowers.”
Rhonda searched every possible place for a pen before finally finding one in her apron. “What would you like to buy for her?”
“Well now, she wants something very specific. First off, she wants roses.”
Rhonda wrote ‘roses’ on a sheet of scrap paper. “Okay.”
“And then she wants daisies.”
“And… uh… I think she’d also like some pussywillow.”
Rhonda’s expression became flat. While she might not have listened to The Morning Drive with Sam the Bear, she was the mother of two sons. One was too smart and one of them was too strong and the combination of those two things meant that the pair of them were only trouble. And she had observed that the average morning show radio host had about the same demeanor as a bored pre-teen troublemaker.
And she had learned, quite a long time ago, that if you want to find out someone’s game, you have to play along.
Without skipping a second, she wrote the word down. “Roses, daisies, pussywillow. Anything else?”
“I think she also said I should order some horehound,” he said. Rhonda could hear stifled laughter. Yeah, yeah. She rolled her eyes and made a hand gesture to no one. “And if you could incorporate some pinus rigidia into the piece, that would be nice. Actually, if you could have the pinus sticking out of the pussywillow, that would be great.”
“Pinus in the pussywillow,” she said, ignoring the giggling in the background. “You say you want it sticking out of the pussywillow or you want the pussywillow surrounding it?”
“If you could just… envelop the entire pinus in pussywillow. Just… really stick it in there.”
“I can do that,” she said. “Anything else?”
“No, I think that’s all I need.”
“Let me read that back to you: roses, daisies, horehound, and you would like a branch of pinus in the pussywillow.”
“You got it,” Sam the Bear snickered. “How much is that going to cost me, you think?”
Sometimes, you have to give people what they want. “Before the cost of delivery? Six dollars and sixty-nine cents.”
Sam and company all laughed at the total being ‘the sex number.’ But then the price processed and Sam dropped his facade. “Wait,” he said, his Southern Drawl making its own guest appearance. “You’re tellin’ me that all that is worth less than $7?”
“Many of our flowers are locally-sourced, keeps the cost down. All that’s left is to take your card number and I’ll get started on this.”
In the studio, Sam covered the receiver of his phone. “I kinda wanna see what this thing looks like for seven bucks,” he said. And to the horror of his co-conspirators, began to rattle off a sixteen-digit number without even skipping a beat. Jenny hung up the phone for him before he got to the final two numbers.
“Sam, you do realize that this is live, right?”
“Relax,” Sam said, while sweating ice-cold bullets. “It’s not like I gave her the whole thing.”
“Call your bank right now,” she commanded. Sam responded with a pre-recorded grizzly growl.
But with the tens of thousands of listeners that The Morning Drive with Sam the Bear had, several people had already figured out the last two digits to his card and racked up a thirty-thousand dollar charge over the course of five minutes.
It would be years before Sam was let back into the studio again. Jenny was put in charge of the morning show, which they made a new rule to never broadcast live. She still didn’t get a nick-name. It’s hard to follow up The Bear and Howlin’ Eddie when your name is Jennifer. She changed it to Jax.
But none of this was known to Rhonda Rhodes, who up the mountain in a town of less than 2,000 people, who never listened to The Morning Drive with Sam the Bear, and had more important things to do than worry about some stranger’s debts.
Rhonda went back to her computer, trying to pick up where she left off before having to deal with the utter annoyance of that prank phone call.
...And the mountains fall into the heart of the sea- she began to read again before repeating:
“Oh fuck me- it’s scripture.”