(An ancient tale originating from sometime in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century)
Frank Allendorf sucked down the last of his thirty-two ounce Coke and stuffed the empty styrofoam cup into the overflowing trash bag that hung from the dash of his big rig.
He fiddled with the radio for a few minutes until he finally settled on some right-wing talk show that he was vaguely familiar with.
The host was fervidly spewing some archetypal rhetoric about the war on terror and the unpatriotic traitors who opposed it, somehow tying it all in with illegal immigration.
Frank wasn’t terribly interested in politics, but the program’s antagonistic tone matched his foul mood, so at the very least it made for some acceptable background noise.
About twenty miles down the road, he found himself starting to nod off again. God damn, I must be developing some kind of immunity to caffeine.
Just two more days, he kept reminding himself. Then he’d be finished with this run and he’d have two weeks to lie around the house and make up for all that lost sleep.
Sleep. That sounds nice. He shook his head and cracked the window. A rush of cool air hit him in the face. Stay awake, damn you.
Frank unbuckled his seatbelt and grunted as he strained to reach the glove box, retrieving a crumpled pack of Marlboros.
He drew one of the cancer sticks from its cardboard housing, bits of dried tobacco spilling onto his shirt.
After several unsuccessful attempts to light up using a souvenir zippo knockoff he’d picked up at some truck stop in Little Rock, he tossed it out the window in frustration.
“Know I’ve got some fucking matches here somewhere,” he mumbled, the cigarette dangling from his lips. After some searching, it turned out he did. Two left in the book.
He struck one and ignited the cigarette.
He took a deep drag, letting the smoke rest in his lungs for a few moments before exhaling.
Charlotte had been after him for years to quit. He cocked his head and nodded. One side benefit of divorce; no more nagging.
Not that Frank was still pining over her, or anything. He took another drag and flicked a glowing ember out into the darkness.
No, what he missed was that feeling of usefulness that one experienced in a serious relationship. That sense of being desperately wanted, even needed. Could have come from anyone.
Unfortunately for him, it had come from a cheating cunt. Apparently all those long, lonely nights apart hadn’t been all that lonely for her. He snorted. “Fucking bitch.”
He shook his head. “All those blowjobs I turned down over the years,” he muttered through his nicotine stained teeth, snickering cheerlessly.
The dopamine flooding his brain was starting to make him a tad dizzier than usual. He sucked the cigarette down to the filter and tossed it.
As he did so, he realized that his left arm had begun to fall asleep. “Dammit.”
He stretched it out toward the dash, flexing his meaty fingers. Still numb.
“Fuck. Come on.” He kept flexing, making a groping motion with his hand, waiting for the feeling to return. Nothing.
“Shit!” Frank involuntarily released his hold on the steering wheel as a sharp, stabbing pain asserted itself in his chest.
He managed to regain control of the truck in time to swerve out of the path of an approaching pair of halogen headlights, clutching at his heart with his numb left hand.
The oncoming vehicle passed, the angry staccato beeps of its horn fading into the distance.
Frank breathed a sigh of relief as the chest pains subsided and the sensation returned to his arm. “Hmmph. Must’ve been a gas bubble or something.”
He pulled off to the side of the road and sat for a few moments, staring out of the bug-splattered windshield.
He dug around in the glove box for an expired bottle of aspirin, the print having long since faded from its label. He’d seemed to remember hearing somewhere that aspirin was good for preventing heart attacks. Probably on a fucking commercial.
“Shit. Nothing to wash these down with.” He shrugged and dumped four of the little pink tablets into his sweaty palm, then tossed them into his mouth, swallowing them dry.
The radio was still blaring. Commercial for some barbeque joint.
“Buddy’s Barbeque! You’ll eat ‘till you can’t eat no more! Come on down and try some of our famous hotter’n hell hot wings! Or how about some of our brimstone smoked brisket? And you ain’t never had no ribs like ours, I guarantee it! So come on down and see us. Buddy’s Barbeque, right off exit six on historical route sixty-six! Bring your appetite, we’ll do the rest!
Frank’s gut rumbled in response. God damn it, Frank, no wonder you’re so fat. Damn near have a heart attack and right away you start thinking about food.
Fat fuck Frank. That’s what the kids used to call him growing up. That or “Frank the Tank.” The list of disparaging and predictably unoriginal monikers was endless.
He turned off the radio. This Buddy’s place was less than ten miles away, and he was hungry, after all. Hell, why not?
“Fuck it,” he said, and shifted into gear.
One quick mirror check later, and he was back on the road, and he’d be damned if he didn’t feel better than ever.
Frank liked driving at night. Cool wind in his hair, no jerkoffs riding his ass; just him and the highway.
“Well fuck me runnin.’” There it was, bigger than life. A giant marquee with a smiling, cartoonish neon pig, its front hooves resting on its rotund belly. Buddy’s BBQ.
Frank must’ve been up and down this route a hundred times in the past year alone, and he’d never noticed the place.
The air was thick with the sweet smell of hickory smoke as he pulled into the lot, tires crunching on the gravel. Finding a parking spot wasn’t that difficult a task, considering that there were no other vehicles in sight.
He glanced at the clock. 10:23. It occurred to him that they might be closed for the night, but the flickering “open” sign hanging lopsided atop the front door begged to differ.
Leaving the window rolled down, he shut off the engine and hopped out of the cab.
As he approached the door, Frank could hear a faint reverberation of drums and a bass guitar drifting out into the parking lot. Someone was there, apparently.
He tested the knob. Unlocked. With a gentle shove, the door opened, creaking on its rusty hinges. A string of miniature cowbells jingle jingled, announcing his arrival.
Nobody in sight. Not that anyone could have heard the cowbells over the old Waylon Jennings tune blasting out of the jukebox in the corner, but still. A little eerie, he thought.
“Hello?” Called Frank. Nothing.
He meandered about the dining room, hands in his pockets. The tables were all covered with those red plaid vinyl tablecloths that all barbeque restaurants seemed to have.
The wood-paneled walls were lined with photos of famous patrons. Wow. Chris Farley, John Candy…Elvis Presley? No fucking way these were real. Jesus, apparently Marlon Brando had eaten here, too. Could have used a more flattering photo though. Fuck.
There was a light on in what looked like an office behind the counter. Frank walked over to the bar and craned his neck for a closer look.
A few moments passed before a tall, skinny man in a bloodied butcher’s apron popped out of the office, carrying a washrag. He stared impassively at Frank.
“Uh, Ya’ll aren’t getting’ ready to close, are ya?” asked Frank.
The man smiled, tossing the rag down next to the cash register. “No sir,” he said cheerily. “We’re always open for hungry fellas like yourself.”
The voice from the radio ad.
The man emerged from behind the counter and gestured toward the dining area. “Now you just have a seat anywhere you like, mister, and I’ll be right with you. Get you somethin’ to whet your whistle?”
Frank squeezed his ample frame into one of the booths, relieved to get off his feet. “Iced Tea?”
“Comin’ right up,” said the man. He turned to leave, then paused. “Oh,” he said. “You want that sweetened?”
Frank chuckled. “Is the Pope Catholic?”
The man smirked. “Most of ‘em, so far,” he said. “By the way, my name’s Buddy, case you hadn’t already figured that out.”
“Well, Frank, I’ll be right back with that tea.”
“Thanks,” said Frank, feeling like an ass for barging in when Buddy was quite obviously preparing to close up. Guy probably had a wife at home, wondering where he was. Maybe even a kid or two.
He glanced up at a photo of that fat opera singer guy—what was his name? He squinted. Ah. Pavoratti.
He shook his head and laughed. Buddy had a unique sense of humor, it seemed. These were all fat dudes. Dead ones, at that.
Buddy returned with a menu and the iced tea, which Frank gulped down greedily. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d been so parched.
He began to peruse the menu, feeling slightly uncomfortable as Buddy hovered over him, pen and pad in hand, waiting anxiously to take down his order.
“Can I start you out with some of our hellacious jalapeno poppers?”
“Um, yeah, that sounds good,” said Frank absent-mindedly. “And I think I’ll go ahead and order the blazin’ babyback ribs. Side of fried okra.”
Buddy smiled, scribbling on the pad. “Comin’ right up.” He turned and disappeared into the kitchen.
The jukebox had finally stopped playing. Thank God. Frank had never been too keen on all that tear-in-my-beer shit. Kind of wailing, twangy caterwauling his dad had tortured him and his sister with on all those long car trips as a kid.
Buddy returned a few minutes later with a steaming hot basket of golden-fried jalapeno peppers.
He placed them on the table and stepped back, smiling and watching Frank eagerly.
“Go on,” he prodded. “Stuff one of them suckers in yer foodhole. I bet you never tasted nothin’ like it.”
Frank shrugged and popped one into his mouth. His eyes lit up. “You’re right, by God. These are delicious!”
He quickly devoured the rest of them, barely taking notice of Buddy, who was giggling and wringing his hands, looking immensely pleased.
“Those ribs should just about be done by now,” said Buddy. “You just sit tight while I go an’ fetch ‘em for ya.”
He made a brief detour over to the jukebox, pumping a few quarters into the machine before vanishing into the kitchen.
Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” blasted out of the speakers. Frank was in such a good mood now that he actually found himself enjoying the music, even tapping his foot to the rhythm.
By the time the man in black had given way to an old Hank Williams tune, Buddy was back, carrying the biggest, most delectable plate of ribs Frank had ever seen, smothered in thick, red barbeque sauce with two halves of Texas toast on the side.
He proudly placed it on the table, alongside a basket of scrumptious-looking okra. Frank loved fried Okra. He’d often said that they should serve it in movie theaters in lieu of popcorn.
Frank thought it odd that Buddy continued to watch him eat, but everything was so damned good that the strange man’s presence failed to bother him.
Within a span of fifteen minutes he’d completely cleaned his plate. He dabbed at the corners of his mouth with his napkin, burping discreetly into his fist.
“Buddy,” he said, “You’ve got yourself a customer for life.”
“Don’t I know it, son.” He smiled. “How about some dessert? We got home made peach cobbler, cherry cobbler, apple pie, you name it.”
“You know what?” said Frank. “It’s been years since I had some really good peach cobbler. You got any vanilla ice cream to go along with that?”
“Ain’t right without it,” said Buddy with a wink, darting back into the kitchen.
The cobbler was every bit as succulent as everything else had been.
Frank wolfed it down and leaned back, rubbing his bloated belly. “Man, that really hit the spot,” he groaned, reaching for his wallet. “How much I owe ya?”
Buddy narrowed his eyes. “Leaving already, Frank?”
“Gotta get back on the road. Got a load of ball bearings have to be in Kansas City by nine tomorrow morning.”
Buddy giggled strangely and began gnawing on his fingernails.
Frank stood up and leaned toward him. “You alright, man?”
“Yeah. Heh. Yeah, I’m alright. But you, hoo boy.” He shook his head, grinning. “You’ve got some atonin’ to do, don’t ya?”
What the fuck? Guy’s out of his gourd. Frank started to back away faux-casually, trying to hide his discomfort. He fished two twenties out of his wallet and tossed them on one of the tables.
“Well,” he said shakily, “that should about cover it, and then some. You can keep the rest.”
Buddy’s snickering grew increasingly hysterical as he watched Frank reach for the knob on the front door.
“What the fuck, man!” barked Frank, dropping all pretenses of politeness. “Unlock the God Damn door!”
Buddy, now cackling uproariously, began edging closer to Frank, who suddenly felt overwhelmed by an acute sense of vertigo.
He stumbled backwards against the door, and then slowly slumped to the floor. The wood-paneled walls seemed to be melting, dripping wax—no, blood—as they arched inward, bubbling and steaming until they had morphed into some kind of meaty amalgamation of pulsating organs.
Hearts pumped a yellowish, fatty substance out of open-ended arteries. The whole room seemed alive.
“A husband and wife,” said Buddy, drawing nearer, “and two kids, ages six and eleven. On their way home after a vacation”
His eyes were glowing now, like fiery coals embedded in his skull. He drew back his lips to expose a row of sharp, jagged teeth.
“You killed them Frank. With Your insatiable craving for food, your gluttony.”
Frank’s heart was pounding audibly. “What?”
Buddy threw back his head and roared with laughter. “Fat fuck frank! Fat fuck Frank!” he squealed gleefully, leaping into the air with inhuman agility and landing in a squatting position in front of Frank.
A forked tongue snaked out of his mouth and lapped at the sweat on Frank’s forehead. “Ah! The taste of fear. How I relish it,” he hissed.
“Stop it!” Frank bawled. Fragments of memories surfaced, flashing in his mind with quick bursts of rapid-fire succession.
Headlights… Brights turned on, horn honking frantically; a gut wrenching thud of steel on steel, the truck jackknifing across the highway as he swerved, too late to avoid…Oh. Shit.
“No!” Frank scrambled to his feet and darted across the room. Some kind of thick, fleshy tendril, like a giant intestine, emerged from the wall and wrapped itself around his ankle, yanking him forcefully to the ground.
It dragged him across the floor, now slick with blood and lard, jerking him upside down into the air. He hung there, dangling in front of Buddy, the sickly sweet coppery stench of blood forcing itself into his nostrils.
Another appendage materialized from within the wall, lashing out and wrapping itself around his midsection.
Buddy was standing face-to-face with him now, wild-eyed with delight.
“What the fuck is this?” screamed frank.
“This,” said Buddy with a flamboyant sweep of his hand, “This is my playground.”
He gently raked a long, filth-encrusted fingernail down Frank’s cheek.
Frank shuddered and closed his eyes.
“I’m sure you’ve got a lot of questions,” said Buddy. “Everyone does.”
“Who…” Frank gasped for air as the tentacle’s grasp tightened. “Who are you?”
Buddy shrugged and rolled his eyes, sighing. “No real name, per say. Not in the sense that you’d understand, anyway. I’ve been called many things, though. You can call me whatever you like.”
“Satan?” Breathed Frank, grimacing. The pain was becoming intolerable now.
Buddy laughed. “Aw, Hell no, son. Just one of his hired hands, I guess you could say. The Boss’d be pissed if he heard you say that, though. He’s kind of a, uh, whatcha call it.” He paused. “A Narcissist! Yeah, that’s it. He’s got a real big ego. Best not to step on it.”
Frank went limp, too weak to continue struggling. He whimpered almost inaudibly as Buddy held up a rusty bucket in front of his face.
“I hear you’ve had quite a few names in your time, Frank,” said Buddy, thrusting a hand into the bucket.
“Let’s see, there was Frank the Tank, pretty obvious one there. Not too creative.”
He pulled a handful of rancid, maggot-infested meat out of the bucket. “Fatass Frank. Frankie Fatass.” He shook his head disapprovingly. “Just variations on the same ol’ theme. Now, Frank the Fortress, there’s a good one. Really gives a sense of just how massive your fat ass really is.”
Frank gagged as Buddy thrust a generous helping of the putrid concoction into his mouth. He could feel the maggots wriggling past his tonsils before he vomited in his tormentor’s face.
Buddy scowled as he wiped the puke from his face. “Come on now, Frank. Don’t be a baby,” he said, shoving another handful into Frank’s mouth.
“’Sides,” he said, “I thought you liked to eat.”
Frank heaved again, struggling to catch his breath.
Buddy furrowed his brow. “Well, sure coulda fooled me, with that big lard gut you been haulin’ around for the past forty years.”
He scratched his chin pensively. “Say, how about I go crank up that ol’ jukebox again? Whaddaya say, Frank? Any requests?”
Frank said nothing.
Buddy looked disappointed. “No? Well, alright. I’ll pick the songs. I gotta warn ya, though, all we got is country. See, the boss, he just hates rock ‘n roll.”