Dale kept a dummy out forty yards from the head of his drive because lug-heads took the turn so quick they were liable to kill him one day. Kids these days weren’t thinking about hidden drives, unless those drives were somehow electronic. Hell, even the parents of these kids were on their Goddamn phones. The whole world was, it seemed. Even in small town Dickory, First Street was populated with what looked like deaf-mutes, everybody walking serpentine, slow, looking down, wrapped up in a conversation that couldn’t have been any more interesting than the reality going on about them. But people were obsessed with the written word, or something like that. A thought carried more weight when you posted it than when you said it out loud, Dale guessed. For this, people couldn’t quit reading ‘em. They bumped into people on the sidewalk and sometimes they drove their cars off the road.
The dummy worked.
Once it was where Dale had to wait long at the head of the drive, checking back and forth to see if someone was coming, inching out from the gravel to the dirt, until his powder blue Ford pickup was a true four feet out onto County 6. It frustrated the hell out of him. And it’d come to a head the night Dale had hosted a woman, a thing he hadn’t done in close to twelve years and so wanted badly to impress her. And yet, he couldn’t even rightly pull out of his own drive without checking every angle in a math book.
“Get a lot of activity here?” the woman, a beautiful farmer from Gibbons, asked him.
“More than you’d think.”
“Ought to put up a dummy.”
“Like a scarecrow. But instead of scaring crows you’ll be scaring teenage fools.”
So the next day he made the dummy out of deep dirt he’d dug up far behind the farmhouse. The same kind of black stuff he’d buried six dogs in (and would bury Pickle with soon.) The dark stuff was more like clay and Dale stuffed handfuls into a yellow t-shirt from his days in the nineteen-seventies. Then he stuffed a pair of overalls. He held the thing upright with a long handled weeder whose two front teeth held solid to the earth and never swayed. He shoveled a pile of the black clay upon the thing’s shoulders, jammed his fingers deep enough to create eyes, called it a head, and set a red trucker’s hat upon the mostly featureless mound. When he was finished he looked out across the street in the direction the dummy was looking and saw the Bum Bum Rum sign that was probably as responsible for the distracted drivers as technology was.
“And it’s not as good as the billboard says it is,” Dale told the dummy.
The dummy worked.
Trucks went by at a slower speed and even the pouty Camaros and t-topped teens took their time. No stranger to fixing things, Dale believed the situation had been repaired and he was lulled into a sort of forgetful reverie, as the worry of pulling out once a day no longer meant as much as it used to. The dummy stood out there all four seasons long, facing the battered billboard, the two inanimate objects creating something of a rubicon the drivers were forced to take notice of as they passed. Often, coming home, Dale marveled at his own handiwork; the thing hadn’t fallen in the two years since he put it up and only two or three times did he have to head out there to fix a minor lean. The clothes were sun faded and snow weathered and the face had lost any semblance of features, but the dummy wasn’t too much worse for the wear.
The dummy worked.
And damn if it didn’t feel good to do good work. Way Dale knew it, he had two choices each night: spend time at the Whiskey Pit with the other old-timers or read by the fire at home. Usually he opted for the latter, but (partially thanks to that Bum Bum billboard) the former had a way of happening, and on the mornings following a dozen beers Dale often felt grateful for the weeder that held up the dummy. It was as if whatever he’d done to jam the thing into the dirt two years ago was a perfect physical act and couldn’t be undone by any type of weather, any type of storm. Some mornings it felt like that weeder propped up the whole damn farm, and the beer headache abated some with the comfort of knowing things were held aloft.
The dummy worked. The dummy worked well.
The teens slowed as they passed his drive. And Dale, fifty-five years old, wasn’t as worried as he used to be.
On a Saturday in town, Dale found himself thinking hard about those fifty-five years of his and wondering if it was time to retire. Maybe it was the sight of the other old farmers strolling the aisles and the hard look in their eyes and the grizzled tips of their fingers. Dale couldn’t remember the last time he’d shaken hands with someone and hadn’t felt calluses. On their hands and his. As if the two old timers were exchanging work histories, resumes passed back and forth in the noodle aisle. There were some younger men and women (one couple were kissing by the coolers) but Dale couldn’t hardly see them without seeing a future similar to his own, one in which a well placed weeder would be needed to hold things up and keep things from falling apart. One of those young ones was standing in line in front of Dale, his thick black hair like a wig upon the tight flesh of his face. He was buying a six-pack and forking change out of his pocket and flirting with the girl Eve behind the register. Dale didn’t mind waiting and even found himself longing for the days when he should’ve been flirting more and thinking less about work. Yet, somehow, it wasn’t a bad feeling. Rather, it was warm, thinking of life and loving and men and women and all the work that went into breathing and heart-beating and sleeping and eating and the farm. The kid paid and then Dale paid and he too made a flirty comment to the girl but it was understood that he was mimicking the young man in a way and Eve laughed and Dale laughed and it felt good because the joke worked. Just like the dummy worked. Outside, he climbed back into his powder blue Ford pickup and pulled out of Farmer Jack’s and drove the six miles home, gliding along the curves in the road by what felt like muscle memory, taking his foot off the gas at just the right moments, applying pressure again on the straight aways, hardly thinking at all. He passed the Markel’s great estate, the Pickford Cemetery, the Johnson Animal Sanctuary, before settling into the real meat of the road; the seemingly endless chain of curves and brief straights, a tract of road that used to find Dale fancying himself a racecar driver and now only passed as colors pass a man falling from the sky.
He hardly noticed the dummy was no longer there until he was ten feet from his drive and then had to slam on the brakes and still mostly missed the gravel head.
The absence of the red hat, the faded yellow shirt, acted like an alarm in his consciousness, one he didn’t hear till the sight of his farm woke him.
Idling now, Dale looked in the rearview mirror. He couldn’t quite see around the bend from here so he backed into his drive, then cautiously pulled out and drove the forty yards to where the dummy had stood for two years running.
It was dangerous, idling there in the blind spot, despite the fact that the oncoming traffic ought to be in the other lane, but Dale was so surprised to see the empty space that he parked the pickup half on the road, half off, and got out and strolled the ten feet to where the two holes looked up at him from the dirt.
The weeder was as gone as the dummy was. Dale looked across the street quick, as if the Bum Bum Rum billboard could tell him who stole his dummy.
“Teenage fools,” Dale said.
He got back into pickup and drove a ways up the road till he reached the middle of a decent straight and then did a four point u-turn and drove back home. Because he’d become so used to seeing it, he almost expected to see the dummy set up again and the second shock he felt at its absence acted as an echo of the first.
Dale pulled the truck into his drive, shifted to park, and got out. Halfway up his creaky front steps he heard the phone ringing inside. He guessed it was Michael Laramie calling from up the road. Michael liked to talk about little things like weather and football. Or maybe it was that Eve kid from Farmer Jack’s calling to say he forgot a bag of groceries he’d already paid for.
He entered his house and set the bags he did have on the floor and picked up the faded brown landline.
Hugh? Hugh worked the Whiskey Pit. He didn’t own the bar but he was more the face of that place than Donner Johns ever had been.
“Dale, you gotta come on down to the Pit. Your boy is wreaking real havoc down here.”
Dale looked up the hall to the front door as if he could see all the way to the Whiskey Pit from the kitchen.
“My boy? Who’s my boy?”
Dale thought he heard loud voices in the background.
“I don’t know his name, Dale. Your boy. The one always wears the red hat.”
Dale kept his eyes on that front door.
“I don’t have no boy, Hugh. Nobody I know wears a red hat.”
“You know, Dale, the fella’s always hanging out by your farm. Hell, we all seen him out by the road. He’s there every day. Your boy.”
“This is getting a bit serious here.”
“Dammit, Dale, I don’t have time for–”
“Hugh you do realize you’re talking about a dummy, doncha?”
“I don’t care what he is, Dale other than he’s in here and things aren’t right!”
“You been moonshining, Hugh? That thing out on my property by the road is a dummy.”
Was, Dale thought. Was out by the road.
“Dammit, Dale! I’m not gonna say it again. Come get your boy.”
Hugh hung up.
Dale held the phone a half minute before hanging up, too.
It was a prank is what it was, Dale thought. Hugh and the others were gonna surprised the shit out of him when he came strolling into the bar. They’d have the dummy set up behind the bar, or in one of the fold out chairs outside, and they’d say, GOTCHA, DALE!
But Dale didn’t believe this. The Whiskey Pit just wasn’t that kind of fun. And Hugh McGovern was about as stiff as a bad back.
Dale looked at the phone. Thought about what to do.
Then he left his house and got back into his truck. He had to inch out from his drive as he pulled out. The bottle of rum on the billboard seemed to smile at him.
I saw who took your dummy, Dale! Teenage fools!
Not a mile and a half from home Dale laughed. It was just a single a chuckle and then his face went serious again because really everything that had gone down since leaving Farmer Jack’s was too weird not to be a little confusing. For starters, whoever took his dummy was probably wearing the dummy’s clothes. That was weird enough to worry about the psychology of the person doing it. Hugh had sounded scared. Like he had a time-bomb of a customer who was dressed in a red hat and yellow shirt and blue overalls. Maybe it was the fact that Hugh felt compelled to call that irked Dale. Surely Hugh McGovern had seen his share of rough housers. How bad could this guy be?
Dale slammed an open palm on the steering wheel. He wasn’t angry. He just didn’t love being pulled into things that made no sense. He’d gone shopping, driven home, found the dummy was gone and had Hugh complaining about…
… about what exactly?
Your boy is wreaking real havoc down here.
Dale laughed again. That same solitary syllable.
When he passed Farmer Jack’s he almost pulled into the lot and turned back around.
Dale… come get your boy.
With a turn onto Miller Street he saw not only the Whiskey Pit’s weather beaten wooden sign, but the ten or so people smoking outside, facing the front door as though something bad was beyond it.
Dale pulled into the lot and parked. The dust hadn’t even settled by the time he exited the truck and he stepped through a cloud of it on his way to the door.
The folks outside turned and watched him and Dick Folgers said, “Your boy is nuts, Dale.”
“I don’t have any boy,” Dale said.
A crash from within the Pit and Dale stopped walking.
“Go on then,” Delly Moore said. “Go on and take care of… that.”
Dale faced her square.
“You listen here, Delly. I don’t have any ‘boy.’ I’ve got friends and I’ve got family but I don’t have any boy working for me, living up at the farm, or hanging about my property. I got a dummy, you dummies. And that dummy wears a red hat like the one I hear that fella inside is wearing.”
The customers looked at one another through their respective clouds of smoke and Dale could see none of them were buying it. He reached for the door, heard a holler from inside, then drew his hand back. “Is he armed?”
Delly shook her head like she didn’t know and Greg Quint said, “I don’t think so. But he’s like a gun all himself, Dale.”
Dale took hold of the door and opened it and stepped quick inside. Hugh was by the door already and grabbed Dale’s wrist and dragged him beside the music machine.
“You see that hole in the mirror?” Hugh asked. Dale saw it. “He did that with his hand.”
Dale saw mud across the broken glass. Mud on the floor and walls, too. Mud everywhere in the Whiskey Pit.
The man himself was sitting at the bar. His back to Dale. It was so striking, so like the dummy Dale had passed twice a day for two years that at first Dale reached his hands up to grip a steering wheel that did not exist before him.
A red hat, indeed. Faded yellow shirt. Blue overalls. There was no doubt the man was wearing the clothes the dummy wore. Dale knew he ought to approach the thief, but he found himself afraid to. Maybe it was the lumps in the overalls, the way they bulged out unnaturally.
“Hugh, I don’t know that man.”
Hugh didn’t have time to answer before the man hollered something unintelligible and Dale looked to the broken mirror and saw what he believed to be a face of mud.
The man saw Dale in the glass and he swiveled on his stool to face him.
“Jesus Christ,” Hugh said, inching back. “He’s gonna do that thing again, aint he.”
“What thing?” Dale asked without taking his eyes off the thing at the bar.
Under the red hat, features might be discerned, but Dale wasn’t seeing any of them. Only grooves in the dark clay.
“Wipe that mud off your face, boy,” Dale said.
The others in the bar backed up and Lacy Furman looked like she was bracing herself for a gun to be drawn.
“Don’t talk to him that way, Dale,” Hugh said. “He’s not right.”
“Go on,” Dale said to the thing in overalls at the bar. “Let me see the face of the fool who stole my dummy.”
Dale stepped toward it and the thing rose from the barstool. It’s forearms and hands dripped black dirt to the bar and tiled floor. When it reached its full height, Dale saw it was indeed the same height as the dummy he’d been so proud of.
Dale took another step toward him.
“Well?” he called.
But the thing didn’t move.
Everybody in the bar jumped when the music machine came to life and Connie Francis’s “Who’s Sorry Now” came blaring through the speakers.
“Don’t go near him, Dale,” Lacy Furman said.
“Now, everybody just calm down,” Dale said. Past the thing at the bar he saw more than just the mirror was speckled with dirt. The whole bar had visible traces of the same dark stuff that Dale buried his dogs under back home. He addressed the thing directly. “Alright, then. You stole my dummy. You’re wearing its clothes. Now’s not the time to be a coward. Show yourself.”
The thing didn’t move.
Dale walked up to it and the others hollered at him not to get too close. But Dale was already grabbing the thing by the wrist and rubbing dirt from its face with his other hand.
The clay flaked with Dale’s touch. And beneath it there was only more.
Dale backed up from the thing dressed like his dummy.
“What do you want? You already took my dummy.”
But there was little confidence in the statement. Little belief.
Beyond the thing, a bottle of Bum Bum Rum sat half empty on the bar.
Dale eyed it. Then he eyed the featureless thing before him.
“He drink all that, Hugh?”
Hugh answered from back by the music machine.
“Yeah he did, Dale.”
Dale kept his eyes on the thing.
“What do you want?” he asked it. The thing had no mouth to respond. But it managed to tell Dale anyway.
It stepped, awkwardly, uneven, toward him. Dale backed up but the thing followed him all the way to the closed front door. There it jammed it’s hand into Dale’s jacket pocket and removed the keys. The rim of the pocket was covered in dark dirt and clay.
“You want my car,” Dale said. He didn’t want to believe the things he was thinking and yet it felt unsafe to deny them.
The thing stepped by Dale, opened the front door and stammered out into the waning daylight. In the lot, the regulars all backed up and spoke at once and watched the thing move, limp and limber at once, to Dale’s parked powder blue Ford. They watched it open the door and climb inside. They saw the trail of dirt it left from the Whiskey Pit and they saw, too, when it clipped some of its clay foot in the door of the truck.
“You just gonna let him steal your truck?” Delly asked Dale.
But Dale hardly heard her. As the Ford backed out of the lot, then drove onto Miller Street, Dale was thinking of two things. The only two things a dummy propped up for two years by the side of the road might know.
Bum Bum Rum.
The Ford turned right on Miller and then made a left on First. Everybody watching knew it was the quickest way out of town and though all of them felt some relief that the thing was leaving, nobody could’ve said they felt settled about it.
“Your boy is gonna get pulled over,” Hugh said.
Dale, still thinking of those two things, still staring where Miller met First, answered quietly.
“That aint my boy.”
But he wondered, while considering lofty, unimaginable things, if maybe it was.