Lonely Hearts, Changing Worlds

By Robert Wintner

The Permanent Press

Copyright © 2001 Robert Wintner. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-57962-028-0



Chapter One


Crab Bait for Sale


    Dezmun Deyung never set out to build a crab bait business. He only got lazy with his chicken parts, the ones he found in the cavity wrapped in soggy paper—not the gizzards and the livers; he liked to eat those. But the hearts and little odd organs and big fatty globules he trimmed off the haunches and the UCOs (unidentified chicken objects) he cast into the bait bucket. It wasn't a bucket in the technical sense but a stainless steel bowl like they might use for baking down at the jail, if they baked down there and had any interest in coordinating the bakeware with the dinner service. They didn't care about such things, but they wouldn't have called it a bait bowl either, which was marginally disgusting and could denote bait on the menu. Those who weekended in jail would swear it was bait, but it wasn't.

    Dezmun knew the jail menu because of his part-time job there, not the county jail but the town jail. The county jail was different, one step shy of hard time. At least the town jail accounted for potential restitution/rehab. It seemed clear to him that a man facing Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and peas would more likely re-orientate than one looking at non-lubricated sexual trespass. I.e., you can turn more cons on applesauce cake than you can on sandpaper.

    He tossed a huge globule to the bucket, wondering if it was a record breaker. How could he measure? Or weigh? And would it matter?

    Never mind. Dezmun believed in the efficacy of good eating and would have proven his theory by baking something himself for the boys down at the jail, but the heat stole a man's energy until he could scarcely maintain standards at home much less start baking for the riffraff.

    Not that flipping odd parts to the bait bucket made him incontrovertibly lazy. All that stuff in one place was testimonial to tidiness, kind of, once you discounted the flies, which he did, because you can hardly call a mess what you can clean up with the wave of a hand. Dezmun put a plate over the bait bucket. The scent thinned and so did the flies.

    A whiff surged now and then, and he wondered how a man too lazy to throw his chicken guts out back could have the gumption to understand the mysteries of life, which he did. Then he smiled at the gifts of clarity and meaning. No—he was not a lazy man; he was industrious. This offal only waited processing in the bait division.

    He added the necks to the pile recently, just after Janita Rose down the road told him don't ever eat a chicken's neck. That's where they inject the antibiotics. And if there's a snowball's chance in hell that your own fool doctor hadn't gone and messed you up for good already on too many antibiotics to let anymore be worth a snit, it wouldn't even matter because of the humongous dose you'd get eating a chicken neck. Janita Rose knew about health-related issues because of her herb garden and vitamins, on which she thrived.

    If that weren't enough, right in the neck is where they also shoot the hormones that give the chickens heft on nothing but shredded newsprint, but next thing you know you're growing tits on your forehead or hair on your palms or more likely feathers. Janita Rose rubbed her neck and rolled her head, smarting from the horse syringe she could hardly help but imagine stuck there, pumping her full of bad juice. Well, maybe it was only a chicken syringe, but still.

    Dezmun's expansive brow bunched deep as Cefus Blodgett's freshly-harrowed turnip patch as if feeling for a stray tit sprouting there, or at least the idea of one, or two. He had room for three but three would be a push and seemed disgusting in a way. You'd likely need to eat several chicken necks a day for a long time to sprout tits on your forehead.

    Neither Dezmun nor Janita laughed at the imagery of misplaced breasts or hair or feathers, because ill-bred humor had for years cast aspersion on the native population. The home-towners remaining had had a gullet full. Tales of woeful inbreeding haunted Quenocene since way before the tourist traffic picked up. Innuendo lurked. Dementia loomed. Self-esteem gets undermined before you know it, and nobody yet proved that an extra finger or a forehead vast as a tide flat on a full-moon ebb was in any way correlated to deficient mentality. Just look at Karla Blodgett, graduated with honors from the tech school over in Quinault after having fingers eleven and twelve removed, and you could play checkers on her forehead, if she was lying down. Nobody ever questioned Karla's antecedents, except to joke that she was the smartest turnip Cefus Blodgett ever grew. That didn't mean his sister Sissie was Karla's mother or her own sister or both or neither one as well.

    Dezmun liked Karla Blodgett well enough to think the best of her and figured she must like him back. He wondered why she went off, but then so many of them did. He doubted she'd be back but then understood the changing world a young person lives in. Pondering odds and potential causation on her return, he picked his chicken clean.

    That's a good thing about chicken; once you get the hang of dressing it out you can near do it without thinking, slice it ass to elbow tidy as laying out your Sunday clothes in hardly six moves. The trimming takes more time, but that's personal taste, and Dezmun Deyung, for one, was particular about what he ate. One iota of disgust could foul a whole spread, so he got in there tweezing and cuticle removing to make it look right, because questionable presentation can very well goose your appetite. Karla Blodgett had looked about as good as a woman can look, even though it was only starlight and of that only what leaked through the roof slats. And he only had pictures from magazines as the foundation of a woman's potential look. He'd suspected it could look better than that, and Karla did.

    He sighed and wondered why certain moments keep you longing for another go, another chance to engage the senses at their apex. He laughed, digging out that pinch of mushy guts in there on the insides of the thighs; he knew what crowned those special times, no mystery there. It was the fun of the nasty and vice-versa.

    That's disgusting, he thought, flicking it into the bait bucket. He thought: tasted like chicken. Of course it didn't, but that's what they say about everything. He wondered if she missed him and figured she did not, since a man needs to be a realist with so many promising young men to choose from and her so smart. Still, you can't really know.

    Dezmun dispatched four slices quick and neat, two wings and two hindquarters. He might later part the legs from the thighs but on initial approach he only splayed for whatever direction things would take from there. Multitudinous as points on a compass were the many directions a chicken could take, which was another good thing: versatility. Dezmun Deyung had liked chicken for going on thirty years now, maybe longer.

    People compare the taste of it to darn near anything because chicken tastes so different from fried to barbecued to baked, stewed, fricasseed, chopped in a salad or Mexican style with some of that red pepper on it. You name it, and chicken prepared somehow or other will likely taste related to it. He figured chicken just about one of the best things to eat, all told, with its versatility and riboflavin and so forth. He wondered if a long-term love of chicken made him an authority on the subject and figured it did. With crab bait he was practically famous in local circles.

    He picked up a wing, his favorite part, all told, though he hated to see those restaurants hawking "buffalo wings." For one thing a buffalo with wings is plain stupid. For another, if a buffalo did have wings, they'd be huge, bigger than turkey wings and bigger still.

    No, the wing is your delicacy on your chicken, two to a customer. Experimenting in the realm of scientific understanding he parted the wing into three sections and skinned the middle one, the one with the two bones running nearly parallel for an inch or two. Holding it vertical he closed his eyes, drew it near and thrust his tongue through the meaty center. It was not the same as Karla Blodgett, except for maybe a little bit in texture and feel. He smelled it and set it aside. It wasn't exactly disgusting, but it didn't smell good, but it did smell like fresh chicken.

    He smelled it again to remember for comparison the next time Karla came home. Then he flipped it in the bait bucket and imagined that skinned wing converting to a big fat crab. Once you skin a wing it'll never cook up right no matter what. He went ahead and flipped the little end section as well, even though that part will cook up nicely in a stew or a bake—not on a grill, though. Most people set the little end piece aside because they think it's not worth the trouble, or that they might look disgusting sucking out the tidbits from the wing ends. People can miss the best of a thing because they're too lazy or self-conscious. Dezmun believed this about delicacy relative to goodness. He understood the sensitivity of crabs as well.

    Most people do not. Most people think that crabs will enjoy a rank chicken most of all. They don't. A crab will pass on rotten chicken as quick as anyone will. Well, maybe not just as quick. A crab might check it out, but then he'll pass. No, a crab likes just the right taint to his chicken. Dezmun figured it for a kind of sexual appetite on the smell part of it. Crabs and people are often curious about what might smell askew, and both are near certain to go in closer, like it'll turn savory with their nose where it shouldn't be. It doesn't, but then the other takes over, which is a sweetness all its own if you have any romantic inclination at all. Dezmun believed this to be the case.

    Because romance is perhaps the biggest mystery of nature, because a thing can draw folks on in and then hit them with a noseful of singe, because tawdry has its virtue to a point and then goes to skanky, which is where romance ends. You want to stay right there on the line. And you find it by keeping an open mind to the smaller iota and staying respectful of nature's boundaries.

    Like success in the crab bait business. Whoever paid chicken guts half a mind? Folks first thought he was out for easy pickin's. But the business came to him naturally, and folks tend to think the worst when something comes your way and not theirs. They thought poorly of him and Karla Blodgett, easy pickin's, and a prejudice seemed to carry over to where he only put his hand to earn a dollar.

    He knew what they said, that he led Karla to the barn for a view of the rafters. But he didn't lead the first time or the last. People might think a man of forty-five knows the wily ways a sight more than a girl of nineteen does. But it was her idea, and she set the pace. He only did what comes natural to a man and was primed to go whole hog, till death do us part, because Karla Blodgett suited him a might differently than any magazine ever had.

    She never said she wasn't ready to bog down with a man, but he read her sure enough when she kicked into overdrive and huffed like the preacher chasing demons and made him feel like a service stud. Well, he'd be doing all right if that was the worst he ever felt, so he took the gentlemanly course, obliging a young woman's whim on direction and frequency. She indicated barnwards often enough there for a month or two and then on her odd visits home. Forty-one times ducking into the barn made for seventy-six goes all told; seven times were too late for twice and the first time in was good for three goes and that makes seventy-six, which seems like a bit, but then so does chicken every day. Of course things seem otherwise soon enough.

    They were friends, she said, helping each other out. He went along with friendship but couldn't help the shiver in his spine when she took his arm now and then, walking beside him right down the road. People talked. He heard them, denying him what Carrie his way natural as sunlight to the hills. Oh, they loved their commiseration on the bleak future awaiting a man of forty-five hooked up with a girl of nineteen. In another forty-five years he'd be ninety and she'd be seventy-four. So what? They'd all be dead, most of them. So? What would they say then?

    No, she'd be sixty-four, even better.

    Folks then pointed the same finger and said Dezmun was stuck on easy pickin's, trying to charge good money for some old chicken guts. But anyone taking the time to look could see each bait pack was balanced out with a neck, two or three fat globules, a heart and a butt. That was your basic bait pack. Some people liked to eat the butts. Not Dezmun. Sure, you could be in for some delectable nibbles either side of the tailbone except for one thing: you're eating chicken butt, or would be if you did.

    Not Dezmun; he found the idea of munching some chicken's ass disgusting. Why, even a moron wouldn't want to eat something that spent its life a quarter inch from a life-size pile of chicken shit. No, thank you; the butts go to the crabs, who should take to chicken shit no sooner than you should, but then a crab doesn't know about proximity and associative disgust. Maybe that's what makes a man so superior.

    Or so much a product of what he's learned. It was plain to Dezmun Deyung that a crave or a cringe likely stems from what you grew up with. Chicken butt; chicken shit; crabs do care if it's fresh. And the feet. Some people don't like the feet and in fact think the feet disgusting, even if your prep person removed that crusty yellow skin that hangs on down there. But people have deep-seeded partialities with no basis in fact. They make another case for not eating chicken feet on account of what was stepped in by the feet for the very same lifetime the butt spent spewing chicken squat. Though parallel, this reasoning is also unfounded and possibly warped.

    Because a man who remembers his first timid grasp on a thing and remembers holding it still for eating will love that thing for showing him the means to survival and more, to the enjoyment of life itself. Dezmun loved chicken feet—boiled, baked, you name it. Hot off the grill took him back every time, as if his mother handed him another after all these years and told him to rinse it off if he dropped it. He laughed, as if he wouldn't have known to rinse it off.

    Childhood accounted as well for the unlaid eggs found inside if you had the gumption to clean your own chicken. Dezmun had the gumption. What? He should go out and buy a chicken missing a vital cog in his personal economic machinery? I don't think so. He didn't pluck because feathers had no application in the crab bait business. But he was thinking.

    Maybe he'd step boldly toward innovation. Pillows seemed a long shot, since a mess of chicken could fall short of filling a pillow. And they stank, the feathers. Maybe the breakthrough would be in fishing lures. He made a mental note to put his mind on feathers later, maybe on the way over to Quinault for some chickens. Maybe step one would be the savings on chicken as yet unplucked.

    Because as it was Dezmun Deyung bought his chicken without the feathers, with the guts and without the head. (It just made things so sad.) He could tell you right now that slitting the belly and reaching in for a fistful of chicken guts was no walk in the park, but a man has to do what he doesn't want to do. He could chill the chicken to cut down on the shmush, but chilling reduces viability in the unlaid eggs. Not that these eggs could get laid; they could not. A woman on TV had seven babies at once, then one had eight, so you couldn't confine potential. But that was different.

    And the unlaid eggs lost culinary viability if chilled. They could simmer till sundown and not lose flavor or texture. But go chill a pre-cleaned chicken and presto chango, the little yellow balls come out stiff and pliable instead of formless balls of snot, pardon me, which is how they're supposed to be.

    Up to the elbow in chicken guts, Dezmun laughed when he hit the mother load, six unlaids and him with nothing but a bait bucket to put them in. One time he reached for a clean cup from the shelf but got chicken twiddle all over the wall and on the dishes in the dish rack and it wasn't worth it. Now he tossed the unlaids to the bait bucket. Big deal; he could sort and rinse later. One time he forgot until Tuesday, four unlaids big as golf balls left in with the bait. But the lid was on for most of that time, and they were fine, or near fine, leastways not stiff like they get from chilling. Truth be told, a man who grows up with unlaid eggs will prefer a few days in a bait bucket to chilling every time.

    Truth be told, a man who pays attention to experience will understand the why and wherefore of things and find comfort in his calling. He'll know right from wrong and what side he's on.

    Truth be told, nobody was trying to fool anyone. All the chicken guts and necks and butts and UCOs just piled up. Dezmun Deyung never fooled man nor beast in his life but only hated the wastefulness most folks take for granted. So he hung a sign on the fence facing the road.


Crab Bait for Sale


    Nobody paid much attention. Nobody stopped in, not for a few weeks, until the weather warmed and the faint, subtle stink of crab bait conveyed the sincerity of the enterprise. Maybe the smell put them in a mind for crabbing. When they saw each bait pack balanced out like it was, with the more decomposable parts held snug in a flow-through square cut from some nylon pantyhose, they understood something too.

    You could get your basic crab pack or your bait deluxe with one foot and one, two or three extra hearts at 35¢ each. Dezmun believed the crabs loved the feet like he did, like the feet walked right out of their youth. And a foot will last all day and into twilight without falling apart no matter how often you pull up your net for a looksee. He topped each pack with two butts or three depending on size and feather nubs. Then he'd throw in some fat and skin. He didn't eat either one, though some people do, and he believed the crabs avoided both as well. But the fat and skin fleshed out the pack, and a savvy operator knows that perceived value is ninety-five percent of the game. Maybe ninety-eight.

    The basic bait pack ran a dollar seventy-five at first. Dezmun figured soon enough he could sell the basic till the pigs rolled over and he'd still be screwing the pooch, so he jacked it to three bucks even and went to five-fifty on the deluxe. Nine out of ten of them wanted the deluxe with hardly a flinch. Because a body knows he's got only so many chances at crab, and if he's going out there, he might as well up his odds. Dezmun wanted one more price point, but a bait pack beyond deluxe seemed greedy and crazy. Beyond deLuxe? Yet banging his head on the wall six days straight led again to that which served him best: simplicity. At seven dollars the new top o' the line was called Crabfest and doubled dosage on each item in your basic pack, then went double again on your livers and necks. He threw in a back or two for volume, even though backs are perfectly good eating. The Crabfest sold well enough, not as well as the deluxe, but that extra dollar and a half was like found money and rounded out the market, securing the mid-range for the primary thrust. This, Dezmun knew, was good, because most people fear extravagance, and the Crabfest let them snuggle in at midrange.

    He felt good in contemplation of economic stability and resignation in life. Clarity re-clarified like a girl rewrapped over and over again over a relaxing repast that many in the business would have tired of long ago. Not Dezmun. He loved chicken and knew he'd eat some even if the whole world wasn't knocking on his door for what most people throw out.

    Maybe he always loved chicken because it meant a greater love tomorrow, which was crab. Of course a man with crab bait inventory can have crab any time he wants it. He had only to bait a trap, throw it out and wait and haul in a feast of crab. That is, if he played the tide right and had some bait a crab wouldn't cringe at. Then again a businessman needs to protect his inventory from personal desire. This and other contemplation went well with legs and thighs, and though a whole chicken in one sitting seemed inordinate for a single man, he felt good about things, resolved for better and worse. He would have the wings, first one, then the other. A jar of cider seemed reasonable too on an evening of such apparent reason. So he ate and drank, savoring the contentment a life can come to if given a chance.

    A back isn't much, but he'd save the breasts for tomorrow, for a sandwich, which wouldn't take long to fix, which was good, with bait bagging and an outing for crabs on the schedule.

    He wondered again if it would be better bagging fresh bait and letting it ferment or waiting for nature to take its course and then bagging it. He licked his fingers and figured bagging first would spare the bait undue disturbance. Sure, the roil could release the pungent lure, but no; a conservative approach was best here for the sake of stable inventory, shelf life and several other levels of practicality. And he sat in contentment, grateful at reaching that point in life where mere thought can solve a problem.

    A problem remained that by preference would remain unnamed if not for the syllables residing on the fringe of his consciousness. He couldn't say what he wouldn't give to have her cross that threshold then and there, knowing full well she'd only wince with a no, no, no on nary a peck on the cheek much less drop her drawers for a bell ringer. Out in the barn would be a horse of a different feather, and he laughed, feeling good tonight, because it was a new time, not a bad time but a time of change and acceptance. These kids today, like it makes a pinch of bait's worth of difference whether you're lying on a bed or in the hay. He wished for the bell ringer all right but wished as hard for a minute or two beforehand to present his view of the thing. Then again, he'd kept his mouth shut and could again if she showed up willing.

    He saw her surely as when she stood there, forehead rising, back a bit sway, pretty, as a picture and smart as a diplomat explaining the difficulty a girl encounters getting her fill, explaining that Dezmun was different from the boys. He needed no explanation. But she felt free and easy with him, so she went ahead and ventilated her frustration over the boys wanting to feel her up hardly a wink before sticking it any old where while he, Dezmun, was slow as a slug in molasses. It didn't take much more than two directions to make a woman feel good, and he, Dezmun, was good for in and out with a deep respect for both that a girl could appreciate, she said.

    She didn't come home now like she did in tech school. Even then it was only holidays and odd weekends, but she always came over to see if Dezmun wanted to drop everything—crab, chicken; she didn't give a care—for a walk down to the barn. Dezmun always nodded, dropping everything and wiping his hands up to the elbows on the way, because a towel is nice to have on certain outings.

    Oh, heck, he laughed; a shirttail would do in a pinch. Or a sleeve. Or this bib; he wiped the dribble off his chin and laughed again and finished his cider. Then he sighed and fell asleep in his chair.

    Well, a man who doesn't get up from the supper table and go to bed before falling asleep can rightfully worry about things gone wrong. For one, he could be alcoholic, so drunk he'd lost the will to sort things out. A jar of cider didn't seem excessive, so maybe he was aging prematurely, verging on senility. Psychological instability could stem from too much solitude, too much thinking, no dialogue save that between him and a bucket of chicken guts. That made him sweat, never mind the slumber, and before he could say a l'oranges, he floundered in a tureen of dreamswill, which can be real to a sleeping man.

    Nobody needs a nightmare gone to worse yet, with crab guts thrown in and the fat and skin and assorted globules swirling away in a dreamy stink. Dezmun Deyung cringed with a violence he would recall for years to come, reliving that night to the end. For ten hours he moaned like a mourner with an ache in his heart that could not be filled. Opening his eyes on a new day in stiff dishevelment, he felt lost and alone where only the night before resolution had been his.

    The pounding in his head gave way to the pneumatic insistence at the door. "We don't open till eight," he called. Even as he spoke he wondered how they would talk about the sound of a man so obviously pained so early in the morning. Who shops for crab bait at sunrise? Well, it could be a body so keen on crab she might know the rarity of spring ebb at first light, which this morning was. This morning was as well scheduled for a pleasant interlude until a night of fitful dreaming turned logical progression to mush. He could still go for crabs and probably should with a bag of deluxe.

    Still and all; six a.m.?

    He looked up as the door opened on Karla Blodgett outlined by first light. Wiping his chin from habit or maybe because a man wants to look all right for the woman of his dreams, he tried to speak but could not. He wiped his eyes next and rubbed the crusty goo off his knuckles onto his pants. And he smiled at the balance a bad dream can find. He had only to rise and take her hand and drift dreamily to the barn. Who needs a towel if it's only dream spruzo chilling beneath them? But then a towel might be good since spruzo is the only thing you can bring home from a dream.

    So he rose and rubbed his face. He looked down at the wild rooster as if willing it ready for a cockadoodle do. He reached for a towel splotched red but mostly dried, and she said, "Not so fast, Mister Dezmun."

    "What?" he asked back, realizing sudden as a goose bump that this was no dream. Karla Blodgett stood at his threshold in the flesh like he'd wished for only awhile ago. What was it he agreed to give for one more go? Oh, heck, who cared? He wished it. Here she was. Let's go! "I ... Uh ..."

    "I know," she said. "I'm done with tech work. It ain't for me. I hear you done good in crab bait. I'll help."

    "Hm. Well ..."

    "You want to go to the barn first?

    "Well, I might brush my teeth first."

    "Okay. Or we can stay here."

    "Here?"

    Then she smiled like a sunrise all her own at the cockadoodle do Dezmun Deyung could raise any old time. He'd told her he could and more than once proved it. "Yeah." She said, "Yeah. I said yeah. Again yeah. I read that. In a book."

    She would later tell him her arrival at first light was to confirm his solitude, because a woman doesn't want a playboy for a man. She tested true love too, because every man looks ready for a cockadoodle do at sunrise. She made him pee first, to be sure. Distraught but ready to pass muster at sunrise, he went out back for the bracing air available there and aimed to please. He thought she'd be all tucked in when he came back, but she only stood there holding out a wishbone. "Make a wish," she said.

    They locked eyes and grasped the little bone at either shank and pressed thumbs on the thumb rest. The sun poured in, and it didn't matter who got the long end to twirl three times overhead for luck, for their wish was the same.

    And to think, thought Dezmun Deyung. I thought it couldn't get much better than chicken and crabs