Thursday, February 1, 2018

Free Story from My New Book: The Arcade and Other Strange Tales


To give you a taste of what to expect from my new book, The Arcade and Other Strange Tales, I've decided to feature one of the stories right here on my website, in its entirety. Enjoy!

Old Friend, Old Relic

I hadn’t seen or even thought about Eric Lewis in at least a decade. Imagine my surprise when he pulled into my driveway late one afternoon, hopped out of his new Lexus, confident, light of step, smiling from ear to ear. This was not the Eric that I remember.
I had worked with Eric at Luther’s Barbeque right out of high school—both of us had barely graduated. I worked my fingers to the nub, hacking and sawing and chopping beef, chicken, ribs, and sausage with one of those big, nasty looking carving knives.
All Eric did was fry onion rings, dipping them in batter, then flour, then hot grease, pulling them from the grease when the timer went off. Our work stations were situated directly behind the front line in plain view of the backsides of the lovely young ladies who served drinks, worked the cash register, and slid the plates of food we had prepared onto trays for the customers.
To pass the long, hot nights slaving in the kitchen, Eric and I would comment on the beauty, or lack thereof, of each female customer between the ages of eighteen and eighty. Every time a “woodja” (would ya? hell yes!) walked through the serving line, we would look at each other, thumbs in the air, like Siskel and Ebert. When a fatty or an ugly tramped through the line, Eric would wipe his hand on his flour-covered shirt, close his flour-covered nose, and bark, “I’d rather be a priest!”
Not that Eric could’ve ever made it with any of the ladies, much less the pretty ones. He had been quite repulsive, with a round beach ball of a body, though judging from his pale skin, he had probably never been near a beach. His ghostly flesh was shaded only by a dusting of pimples across his cheeks, neck, and arms, and his greasy hair was red with embarrassment at the prospect of covering his big, misshapen head. It didn’t help that his hands always smelled like onions, even after scrubbing them with lemon juice and industrial strength dish detergent.
So there I sat on my front porch, sipping my hot coffee, watching this former whale, this mammal-turned-macho man extending his muscle-rippled arm, pumping my hand, greeting me like a long, lost brother. His grip was steel.
“Joshua! How the heck are ya,” Eric said, a gleam in his eye, his barely recognizable face glowing from pride instead of lack of pigment.
“Eric? Eric Lewis? Good to see you. You look great, man!”
Great, indeed. I could scarcely believe my eyes. Eric was now remarkably handsome. His black knit shirt and belted khaki shorts showed off an athletic build. His blazing red hair had calmed to a cool brown, and his skin was smooth and tan, not a blemish in sight.
But his most striking feature was his confident smile. I had never known my old friend to open up his face to the world so free of shame and self-loathing. I couldn’t help but stare.
“I know, I know,” Eric said, nodding, forgiving my open-mouthed inspection. “I’ve been getting the same reaction wherever I go. I’m in town for a few days, looking up some of the old gang.”
“I hate to be rude, but what happened to you?” I waved my hand up and down his lean, but sturdy frame. I must’ve looked like one of those ladies on The Price is Right, showing off a new washer and dryer. “Have a seat, and tell me what happened.”
Eric sat down on the edge of the chair facing me, his back as straight as an ironing board.
“It’s interesting that you put it that way. Because something did happen to me. Something amazing and unbelievable But I swear to God it’s true.”
I assumed he was going to tell me about a beautiful girl he had met who lit his fire, filling him with confidence and the will to get in shape. But before he could tell his story, my lovely wife, fair skinned with beautiful, wavy blond hair, came out onto the porch. She wore a yellow tank top and tight red shorts.
After introducing herself, she offered my guest and I a couple of Miller Lights. I love mixing the hyper, caffeine buzz of coffee with the mellow, tired buzz of beer.
“No, thanks,” Eric said. “But some water would be terrific.”
As Linda smiled and turned to fetch the drinks, I noticed that Eric didn’t stare after her. While they were talking, he had only looked into her eyes, his gaze never wandering down to her breasts.
“Watching the old waistline?” I asked, suddenly feeling disgusted with this perfect specimen who was so damned uptight he couldn’t even have a beer or a quick peak at the hotness of my wife.
“No,” Eric said. “I don’t have to worry about my weight.”
“Well, if you don’t mind, I like a couple of cold ones in the evening,” I said, irritation clearly coming through in my voice.
“I’m not bragging or trying to make you feel bad,” Eric said. “It’s just that ever since…ever since my conversion, water tastes like the sweetest wine. The blandest food like manna from heaven.”
Dear God, I thought. So that’s it. My old buddy Eric. Pot-smoking, beer-guzzling, porno-loving, barbecue-swilling Eric had found religion. Hallelujah.
I found myself wishing for the evil Eric.
Linda came out with the drinks, and Eric asked her to sit down and stay a while. She declined, said she had a lot of work to do, told us that we guys should get reacquainted. This time I watched her ass as she went back into the house. God, she was beautiful. A masterpiece. I clearly married up.
“So,” I said to Eric, trying to avoid some kind of Jesus sales pitch. “Other than finding the Lord, what else have you been up to?”
Eric smiled that new, unabashed smile. The smile I was growing to hate.
“You don’t understand,” Eric said. “This has nothing to do with God. It’s going to sound ridiculous, but I’m just gonna say it. I was abducted by aliens.”
I burst out laughing, but Eric’s expression remained unchanged.
“It wasn’t a hostile abduction like in the movies. I wasn’t forced to do anything, and they promised me a new beginning. I was at a low point in my life and had nothing to lose, so I went with them. It happened after work one night three months ago. Believe it or not, I was back working at Luther’s. This time washing dishes—it was the only position available.”
“Ha, ha,” I said sarcastically. “I believe the dishwashing part, just not the rest of the story. Why are you acting so weird?”
“Anyway,” Eric said, unfazed by my skepticism and ignoring my insult. “I had worked late that night, scrubbing the dining room floors. I walked out to my car and…blah…blah…blah.”
Eric droned on and on, spinning a yarn that was at once ridiculous and clich├ęd, right down to the little green men, the flying saucer with spinning lights, and the vast warehouse filled with…I’m not sure what. I did the best I could to tune him out, wishing I was drinking whiskey instead of beer.
“I stood before rows and rows of pulsating, shimmering cubes that were hanging from the ceiling,” Eric continued, his story starting to get interesting (if still absurd). “One naked person was suspended in mid-air beside each cube, and each cube emitted a single ray of pencil-thin light, pointed directly at that person’s forehead, keeping them afloat.”
I started to say some smartass remark but couldn’t think of anything. I wanted to tell him it was getting late, that I had to go inside, but I was getting a little curious to see how the story would end.
“The cubes began transforming these people right before my eyes,” he said. “Beer guts rippling into cut abs, loosely hanging arm flab hardening into muscle. I watched the lady closest to me turn from a pudgy, pear-shaped old woman with saddle hips, a small chest, and dimpled buttocks into something out of Playboy magazine.”
“Now you’re talking,” I said, busting his balls a little, and still not believing a word of his fanciful tale. “That’s the Eric I remember. Always talking about hot girls.”
“I can fill you in on the rest later, but to make a long story short, they transformed me into what I am now. And they can do it for you. I want you to join us, old friend. It will change your life.”
Although I had started to enjoy the story, my patience was wearing thin, and I was beyond ready to wrap things up. “No, thanks,” I said. “I’m pretty happy with my hideously deformed body and my mangled face. Besides, I managed to land a rather attractive wife without altering my appearance.”
Eric smiled. “You look fine, and obviously you’ve done pretty well for yourself. But just imagine looking and feeling young for the rest of your time on Earth. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m oozing with confidence and happiness. I’ve transcended my lower, baser self and reached a higher plane of existence. I’m completely free of the shackles of sexual addiction and alcoholism. I’m also free from envy, greed, jealously…”
“Look…Eric…”
Eric leaned toward me. “The aliens not only transformed my physical, spiritual, and mental well-being, they helped me channel my sexual energy into other areas. You can’t imagine the beauty of a life unencumbered by lust. I’m a new man. It’s wonderful.”
“I’m not encumbered by anything,” I said. “I’m quite happy with things just the way they are. I like to lust.”
For the first time all evening, Eric displayed an emotion other than joy. He actually looked a little sad. Suddenly, I felt guilty.
“Eric…Believe me, I’m happy for you. Your new life. Your new look. Your obvious happiness. Cool story, but I’m ready to hear the truth. Did you meet someone? Join a fitness club? Get on one of those trendy new diets? Get a little work done? Botox? All of the above?”
“What are you doing this Saturday?” Eric asked. “I can pick you up and take you to where the conversions take place. No obligation to do anything. Just come see what it’s all about.”
“That’s enough,” I said. “Assuming the story you’ve told me is true, which I don’t believe for a minute, I’ve got a couple of questions, and then I’m going to call it a night. One, how come the government doesn’t know about this? Two, why are the aliens doing these…conversions—what’s in it for them?”
“First of all, everything I’m telling you is the God’s honest truth. I can show you if you’ll just come with me. The government knows everything. In fact, they’re helping facilitate the process, but they want friends to convince friends, not make it some kind of government-mandated thing.”
I rolled my eyes, but Eric continued unfazed.
“Can you imagine what this is going to do for the world? Crime rates will plummet. Peace and tranquility for millions of lost souls. Most of the people the aliens have contacted are social outcasts or misfits. Ex-convicts. The homeless. Or people like me, just drifting through life with little ambition and no real purpose.”
I started to tell my friend that I missed the Eric of old—the guy who told dirty jokes and bitched about everything, but instead I said, “But what’s in it for the aliens?”
Eric settled back into his chair. “That’s the one big mystery, isn’t it? So far, the only thing they’ve asked us for is our bodies after we die. There’s a rumor going around that they can harness the negative energy they acquire from us and use it to make weapons of some kind for a war they’re involved in millions of miles away. A few crazies say the aliens take our souls after we die and we spend eternity on their home planet. But who cares, really? They haven’t hurt anyone, and they sure have helped a lot of people. They could help you.”
“I’ve gotta go in now,” I said, standing up from my chair and stretching. “It’s been, ah, interesting. I think I’ll just stay the way I am, thank you very much. I’m happy.”
“I’m sure you are,” Eric said. “But a millionaire wouldn’t turn down someone offering to put a billion dollars into his bank account.”
I reached out to shake Eric’s hand, and he didn’t squeeze it quite as tightly this time. “Take care, buddy,” I said. “If you’re ever in town again, feel free to drop by. Maybe we can talk about old times instead of all this nonsense.”
Eric handed me a slip of paper and said, “Think it over and call me if you change your mind.”
I watched Eric go. Sadness cast a shadow over me as I walked back inside. Linda was sitting on the couch in her pink nightie watching television.
“How’d it go?” she asked in her perky, dimpled way.
I sat down beside her. “I’m afraid Eric is delusional. Or just has a really weird sense of humor. He told me this fantastic story about some aliens abducting and transforming him. And he was dead serious about it.”
Linda nodded. “And you didn’t believe him? Even though he had changed so much?”
I didn’t quite know how to respond to Linda’s question. Such a strange one considering what I told her. I patted her on the knee. “Of course I didn’t believe him.”
“Joshua,” Linda said, grabbing the remote and shutting off the TV.
I turned to her. She smiled and tears formed in her eyes. I couldn’t imagine what was on her mind. “Yes?”
“Eric called me a couple of days ago and told me he was coming to see you. Everything he told you is true.”
Linda seemed as sincere as the day she accepted my marriage proposal. I scratched my head in confusion. April Fool’s Day had already passed, and Linda wasn’t the prankster type anyway. I was speechless.
“I know it sounds insane,” she said. “It sounded that way to me, too. But how else can you explain the changes in your friend? It’s more than just looks and a few pounds.”
“Linda, I…”
“Joshua, just listen. I became a convert more than a year before I met you. I was just too…embarrassed to tell you. Afraid you would think I was nuts. Afraid you wouldn’t marry me.”
I nodded. “I’m going to bed now. I’m tired of these stories. The joke is wearing thin. Why are you playing along with this crap?”
“But honey,” Linda said. “It’s true. Just think of all those awkward photos of me in high school. You can’t imagine the happiness, the glorious joy of…”
“That’s enough! It’s getting late, and I’m going to bed.”
I started to get up, but Linda reached out for me and gently held my hand. “Please…just listen.”
I never could resist her soft touch or sweet voice.
Linda spent the next hour urging me to join her and Eric and the thousands of others who had undergone the conversion. I listened quietly, as usual, buckling under to her beauty and charm, despite the fact that what she was saying was clearly insane. Or was it?
When Linda was through with her sermon, I quietly told her that I appreciate her vivid imagination and her kind offer, but I just wasn’t interested in becoming some kind of Superman and that I like myself just the way I am, warts and all. I also told her I thought she liked me just the way I was.
That night Linda slept soundlessly beside me as always, not moving, not snoring. I tossed and turned, wondering if what she said was true. Staring up into the darkness, I thought of our time together. Peaceful. Content. Almost entirely without conflict. Linda always waiting on me hand and foot. Never complaining. Washing dishes, scrubbing floors, eating, making love—she did all these things with zest and pleasure. No ups and downs. No bad moods. No anxiety. Just happiness and smiling. Like Eric.
***
A month to the day after Eric’s visit, Linda vanished like a thief in the night, taking her clothes and other belongings with her. I knew she had gone to Eric.
***
The aliens revealed themselves to the world a couple of years later, eventually converting more than six billion people into happy, ethical, well-adjusted, beautiful people. Linda dropped by to tell me she was sorry that she had left me and that it was not too late to join her if I would only make the conversion. But I declined. I can’t sell my soul for beauty or the love of a woman, even someone amazing like Linda.
***
Now, more than half a century later, I sit alone in my crumbling house. I’ve tried to have someone out to make repairs, but they never show up. My skin is wrinkled, paper-thin, and spoiled with splotches of brown and purple. When I get up from chair to waddle to the bathroom and or fetch another beer, my bones pop like sticks and my head swims.
Night and day, beautiful people chanting and holding signs march back and forth in front of my house. I can’t quite make out the wording on most of the signs, but I can sure hear what the people are saying. I’m no longer wanted. No longer needed. A relic of the past. I make them nervous, uncomfortable.
Some days I don’t mind the protesting so much; it’s nice to know the beautiful people are a passionate about something—that they can show some emotion other than passive bliss.
On the rare occasions I make it into town, I get plenty of stares. Perfect strangers marvel at my crumpled, hunched over body and inquire as to why I never had the conversion. I look at their smiling faces and just shake my head. I know I don’t belong in this world anymore, but like a stubborn mutt with his ears chewed off, his tail a stump, and his coat bloodied, I refuse to give up the fight.
I saw on television the other night that there’s a woman down in Dallas who’s also refused conversion. Good for her. I keep saying I’m going to look her up, but I’m just too tired.
My bones ache, and I’m lonely. Sometimes all I can do is look at old photo albums and cry. I think back to Linda and what she tried to do for me so many years ago, and I love her for it. I know she meant well. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her and what could have been.
On really bad days, when my pain medicine isn’t enough and the protestor’s shouts are like nails being driven into my head, I’m tempted to walk out the front door and join them—I’m told it’s never too late the for the conversion.
But today, the pain is at bay, my mind is sharp, and I know who and what I am.
My name is Joshua Lamont Evans, and I am free.

*If you liked "Old Friend, Old Relic," you may want to purchase The Arcade and Other Dark Tales direct from me. I will sign the book if you'd like, and I will include a digital copy (PDF) for free. Simply PayPal $12.95 (this includes shipping) to brettw105@sbcglobal.net. Thanks!

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