Harley Hydrophobic

by Dave Jordan

Author's note: The theme of the Rabid Man With Boy has enjoyed a wide range of treatments in fiction and the (continuous) moving picture arts, from the Roman poet Lucretius's epic ``Foaming Tipesiod and Son, In Danger'' and the Petrarchan sonnet ``Rabidicus'' to the 1966 Glenn Ford film thriller, ``Rage''. The following vignette rehashes this tradition of profoundly touching insights into the father/son relationship, to negligible effect.

On a day not so long ago that its memory has faded from the weary brains of the old timers who still congregate at Pops Fontaine's five-and-dime, the blistering noonday electromagnetic soup from a nearby star (Sol, referred to colloquially hereafter as ``the sun") beat mercilessly down upon the streets of Carlsville, Mississippi. (The radiation from the sun also contains a number of generations of neutrinos -- which ``oscillate'' and transform amongst each other -- but for the purposes of this story we shall ignore their existence.) Ask any one of these old timers -- old Phil Maltby, for example, whose wife passed on in '67 and left Phil with upwards of 34 jars of preston-berry preserves that Phil ``would just as soon use for spackling compound as try to eat'' -- I say, ask any one of them about Harley Atwater's confrontation with Dumpy, the town's street cur, and he'll rattle off the story like it had just happened yesterday. Let's pretend that we're querying one of these old timers the day after the incident, so that it really did happen ``just yesterday". This will help allay your suspicion that you're being spoon-fed this story second-hand by some socio-sexually impotent cityboy college geek who vents his pent-up frustrations by quietly sneering at the backward hick characters he writes about.

``Well, sir,'' our hypothetical eyewitness might begin, ``it happened this way. Harley Atwater and his eight year old son, Ben, came strolling down Main Street with that big, bloated old sun just a-draining the will to live out of every creature bold enough (or foolish enough) to challenge its dominion. You may be aware of the fact that Harley and Ben live alone -- poor Jenna Atwater having passed on during the kwashiorkor micro-epidemic of '48 -- about 50 miles outside of Carlsville town limits, and they only make it into town every couple of weeks or so to pick up a few badly-needed supplies. They're hill people, Harley and his boy, and they're fiercely proud of their heritage: the rich heritage of the Soil, the birthright of the good, flowing Earth that nourishes their bodies (through Harley's okra crop) and, some would say more importantly, nourishes their hearts. A man's heart needs nutrients beyond, say, your niacin or riboflavin or your B-complex vitamins -- a man's heart hungers for the intangible sustenance of Pride and Freedom. And Harley's heart flourishes in the wilderness of the Mississippi hill country, even though some would say he's too isolated, too cut off from the companionship of his fellow human beings. Different strokes for different folks, says I, and to each his own. Which is just a fancy way of saying that it takes all kinds.

``Like I said, Harley and Ben came walking down Main Street like it was nobody's business. Harley had just bought Ben an ice-cream cone at old Pops Fontaine's Day-Lee-Mart and the two of them were happy as larks. Which is just another way of saying that a pickup-truck full of staple foods like wheat, barley and golden maize can put a pair of food-consuming human beings in a fine mood, no matter how you look at it.''

Okay, now that our eyewitness has set the stage, let's leave him in peace to drink his egg-cream. The quotation-mark stacking will get a little awkward otherwise, and anyway, it wouldn't be realistic to expect a distant observer to overhear (much less remember) intimate conversational details between our two main characters. (Here's a quick test of your story comprehension: Do you remember who the two main characters are? Be sure to record any preliminary impressions that may strike you concerning the ``interaction dynamic'' at work between them. You'll be glad you did.)

Harley turned to the fruit of his manseed with a loving eye and rumpled the strapping eight-year-old's flaxen hair.

``Does that ice cream taste good, son?'' Harley asked.

``Yes, it tastes very good, Pa,'' replied Ben.

``Well, that's fine. Just see to it that you don't spill it on the pavement, rendering impotent my act of patriarchal kindness in purchasing it for you."

``I'll be careful, Pa. I enjoy eating ice cream."

Harley chuckled.

``You're a good boy. I have a feeling everything's going to be just fine for us for the rest of our lives. The one bad thing that marred our joint father-son existence was the untimely death of your mother. We've weathered that storm, and we're the stronger for it, but I'm pretty sure that we won't have to confront any more unpleasant, or downright awkward, challenges for the balance of our souls' tenure in frames of blood and bone here on spaceship Earth.''

Then Dumpy the street cur emerged from the alley behind Herb Westerly's livestock feed store and staggered into their path.

Dumpy was a real ``Beatrice 57'' -- that is to say, a mongrel mix of as many varieties of dog as there are distinct commercial entities crouching under the Beatrice corporate umbrella. He didn't look like the amiable, happy-go-lucky, abandoned-and-left-to-die-but-nourished-on-dumpster-mulch canine that everyone in Carlsville (except for hideous old Mrs. Greely) had grown to first tolerate, then like, then love with passionate, all-consuming intensity. For one thing, he was dragging his hind quarters; the two back legs didn't appear to be functioning particularly well, and his rear paws left little trails in the filth layering the ground as his laboring flanks pulled them along. A rheumy, blood-streaked film glazed the dog's eyes, which swayed back and forth in their sockets like the deck of the S.S. Poseidon in high seas (if, indeed, one can legitimately compare two little orbs of organic tissue to a submanifold of a several-thousand-ton fictitious luxury ocean liner.) Further, the eyes seemed to have receded in their sockets, lending a peculiar squinting aspect to Dumpy's troubled gaze. Thin rivulets of some foul, steaming discharge streamed from the beleagured canine's inflamed nostrils; and a layer of creamy white foam, driven by hot chuffing gasps of the dog's fetid breath, bubbled in poisonous little eruptions from between Dumpy's lips -- not unlike the globules of American processed cheese food that dribble out of a can which has been sitting on the shelf too long, and has forfeited most of its gaseous propellants to the atmosphere.

Harley eyed the dog with kindly concern.

``What's wrong with Dumpy, Pa?'' Ben asked with childlike curiosity. It's not unlike a child to voice his questions in this kind of situation.

``Oh, I expect he's feeling the heat just like we are, son. After all, when you look beneath his fur, a dog's practically a regular little person.'' Harley advanced toward the wary cur, which began to emit a throaty, liquid growl that seemed three parts menace, twenty-three percent agony, and 1.7 percent miserable bewilderment (with trace elements of instinctual territorialism and, from somewhere deep within the remaining vestiges of the dog Dumpy had once been, cheerful tail-waggin' recognition of a man who had always been kind to him).

``I don't think Dumpy feels very good, Pa. Maybe you should stay away from him."

``Nonsense, Ben. A dog's like a woman -- you just have to show them that you mean them no harm, and before you know it, they're cringing before you in abject servility and whining for you to allow them to nuzzle your crotch. And by the way, son: if you can't coerce a woman into doing that very thing, then you're no better than some impotent cityboy college kid who's more comfortable with a book and the caress of his own right hand than he is with people. A `man' like that ain't no fit excuse for no human being. And anyone who thinks any different is living in a fool's paradise."

Harley stepped toward Dumpy as Ben struggled to decode the grammatical deep-structure of the triple negative.

``Dumpy just needs to cool down, that's all. Don't you, old fella? There's a good dog.'' Harley stooped and gently extended his hand -- a proud hand, a hand that had tasted rain and sun, soil and sand, a hand that had sensed the delicate curves of a beloved woman's torso in the night-shrouded act of Love, and that had helped to return that torso to the eternal embrace of clay in the throes of a soul-rending remorse -- and reached down to stroke Dumpy's matted fur.

Dumpy yelped and sank his teeth into the webbing between Harley's thumb and forefinger, then dug his feet into the sun-cursed dirt of Main Street and snapped his head backward. Dumpy's canines tore through the thin veil of tissue and left a gobbet of greyish-white saliva to mix with Harley's crimson juice of life [translator's note: jus de vivre in the original text]. Harley recoiled with a sharp cry of pain and disillusionment, then briskly retreated from the animal.

``Well, I'll tell you what, son. Certain subtle preliminary indications suggest that Dumpy doesn't want to be petted right now, so why don't we just leave him alone. I've seen your dear mother (may she rest in peace) react to my advances in that very same way on occasion. Maybe Dumpy's just going through his monthly `bad time', if you know what I mean.'' They made their way back to Harley's pickup and headed home, with Harley muttering under his breath something about ``solar neutrino beams burning into everyones' heads'' and turning them ``goofy."

Every now and then, Harley would suck on the wounded area to help ease the smart.

About six weeks later, Harley began to feel a little... well, goofy. You know how you'll wake up one morning, with the impertinent, relentlessly demanding glare of the snoopy gadfly Sun poking into your eyes, and your eyes seem to rebel, to say, in effect, ``Well, I'll tell you what. I'm just not up to the McCarthy witch-hunt interrogation of the Light this morning, to the Stalinesque gulag-feeding inquisition of Illumination, to the intrusive, in-your-face Susan-Cowper-on-weight-loss probing of infernal Daybreak. So instead of functioning normally -- directing you as you make your daily rounds, deciphering whimsical bumper stickers on the car in front of you, recognizing (and guiding you to acknowledge or to ignore, as the occasion warrants) loved ones -- I'm going to jury-rig a chaise lounge from jagged beached medical waste, bury the whole comfy mess in the soft meat of your frontal lobes, then stretch out for a nice long nap.'' You arise from bed, the moist sheets adhering to your fishbelly-grey skin and smelling both sour and (what's perhaps less palatable) a little sweet. Your head feels pulpy and misshapen. You pause to examine your now vaguely threatening environment and squint to block the rays of trespassing light your new organs of sight find so distasteful; and you realize that your bodily cravings have focused themselves into a gleaming crystalline splinter that's busily working its way underneath your fingernail: you're thirsty. In fact, you can't remember ever being quite this thirsty. It's as if you just baked and devoured a salt pie (the recipe's sinfully simple: a pound of Morton's and just enough flaky crust to cover it) -- and then topped it all off with a few spoonfuls of refreshing salt.

Oh, I should guess we've all been there.

And if you're wondering what any of this has to do with our story, simply replace the pronoun ``you'' with ``Harley'' and the startling relevance of it all will slam into you like the 7:45 Bullet Train.

Harley Atwater staggered from bed, passed a trembling hand over his face, and tried to construct a reasonable framework for interpreting the range of novel (and almost universally unpleasant) sensations that were presenting themselves for his consideration in the arena of his mortal flesh. And the first thought that crossed his mind was,


The second thought that ran across the turgid, salty tide-flats of his decaying mind occurred five minutes later, when he staggered out to the kitchen, tore open the refrigerator door with a shaky, clawing hand, and grabbed a bottle of Coca-Cola. On a visceral level, he sensed and relished the new plastic bottle's shape: the way it conformed to the fleshy pads of his hand, the sleek flow of its contours, the dull caramel glint off its translucent sides. But it was the drink inside that captured his intellect's attention. ``Must quench thirst,'' Harley thought as he tipped the bottle to his lips. He tried to swallow the refreshing draught of sweet liquid...

...and someone jabbed a Sears Craftsman 3/16 inch Phillips head screwdriver through his larynx and deep into his throat muscles. Or at least that was the startling first impression Harley registered as his throat spasmed, then rejected the life-sustaining liquid. The Coke fountained from between Harley's lips, which had stretched taught in a pale rictus of agony. Harley bent over and fought the crawling army-ant waves of paralyzing fire scurrying down his throat and into his chest, depriving him of the capacity for swallowing and, at this rate, of the ability to simply draw breath. The esophageal cramping subsided in a few moments, leaving a shaken and bewildered Harley in their wake. He glanced down at the Coke bottle, which had fallen from his hand and spilled its contents across the faded green linoleum. He looked at the pool of glistening fluid, which now taunted him, teased him like one of the notorious ``bad girls'' from nearby Cramer's Gulch, leaning against a light post in their shocking knee-length dresses and mouthing unseemly suggestions in the ear of the passerby:

``Go ahead, big boy. Drink me... if you're man enough.

If you're thirsty enough to die for me."

And somewhere deep in Harley's mind (perhaps directly underneath the hypothalamus), physical craving and the fear of pain entwined, wriggled around together for a while, and spawned a perverse psychoneural complex: hydrophobia.

Well, Patient Reader, you're probably flipping anxiously through your ``Reader's Digest Family Home Medical Guide'' at this very moment, and you've no doubt arrived at the conclusion that Harley's peculiar ailment will turn out to have rather unfortunate implications for the Atwater household. The situation developed in the following manner. Harley somehow managed to dress and appear at the breakfast table, where Ben sat reading the funny papers. The boy's daily round of chores included preparing a simple breakfast of toast and apple sauce, and providing the pair with beverages (as Harley had explained to Ben on more than one occasion, ``I know it's woman's work, Ben, but since your dear mother passed on, you're going to have to be both man and woman for the both of us.") Now, on any given day this beverage might be a glass of orange juice. Or it might be grape juice, or even tomato juice. Nothing quenches thirst like a tall, frosty glass of tomato juice. Consider your own breakfast nook for further examples; I cannot predict what you may find, because I am not Kreskin. But most human beings with a modicum of good taste recognize that water for breakfast simply doesn't ``cut it,'' as the hip young kids say today. For one thing, water doesn't mix well with eggs, which are a traditional breakfast food in this country and throughout the Western world. And for another, most people need a fluid with more ``bite'' than water to slice through the overnight salivary accumulation that accounts for that stagnant ``morning breath'' feeling. Well, I could go on recapitulating this week's episode of ``Beakman's World'' all day long, but let's just cut to the inescapable conclusion that fresh, pure water should be forever banished from the well-appointed breakfast table.

Have I set this up enough yet?

Ben served Harley a big glass of water that morning to wash down his toast and apple sauce.

And the third thought of the morning bubbled to the surface of Harvey's frothy, feverish mind and burst with a little pop that would have been audible, if we lived in a world where we could hear other people's thoughts.

``Ah, water for breakfast. How unpleasant."

His lips curling in the kind of look with which one might favor a cockroach skittering across the countertop, Harvey shot his hand out in a reckless streak and swept the offending glass off the table. The glass flew across the small dining room and shattered against the wall. A splash of cool water hit Ben's head and moistened one of his upstart cowlicks, while an errant stream splattered against the petunia-gilded curtains (one of Jenna's touches) swept to either side of the sole dining-room window. Ben's lip trembled, and a tear threatened to spill from the corner of his eye. He looked at Harley and said, his voice quivering,

``You didn't find the beverage pleasing."

Harley tried to ease the tension with a shaky laugh.

``Say, son, why would you want to serve a man water for breakfast? It's not that I'm... afraid... of water, you understand. Oh, heck no. Why, put me in the Sahara desert for a few dusty, throat-parching days, then lead me to your basic oasis, and won't you see a thirsty man drinking water just as good as you please? Sure you would!'' He reached over and ruffled Ben's hair. ``It's just that you can't always be expected to...'' (his facial muscles, which fairly itched to writhe at the excruciating, and now repugnant, prospect, bucked against the dwindling reserves of self-control left at Harley's disposal) ``drink... water. As they say, it's okay for bathing and washing your car. And it certainly finds its uses in a number of industrial processes which have contributed immeasurably to our standard of living. I'm not gonna sit here and argue with you about that. But do we always have to be drinking it every time a fella turns around, for pity's sake? Look, I'll reinforce my sagging alpha-male standing in your eyes later by drinking a whole bucket-full of scum-laden pondwater, if it's that world-spinning-out-of-its-orbit important to everyone. You'd like to see that, wouldn't you, you scheming little puke."

Perhaps it will not overly surprise the perceptive reader that we can date from this period Harley's aversion to bathing.

In the nightmarish forty-eight hours that followed, Harvey lived twenty normal lifetimes' worth of misery. 50 lifetimes, even. Maybe more. It's really hard for me to say, since you can never see the world from a man's eyes until you've worn his shoes. Whatever that means. But we can credit Harley with one thing: The presence of mind to take a good, hard look at himself in the mirror. He saw himself stripped of the heroic delusions that turn even the most cringing, vitiated and feeble milquetoast among us into a strutting Adonis, as long as we're surrounded by the comfortable trappings of our private little fantasy world. (This hackneyed insight would find a more appropriate place in almost any other story, since it doesn't really describe Harley's mental situation at the time.) He looked at himself in the mirror, and he saw a desperately sick man, a man imprisoned in a palace of exquisite tortures, a man who certainly had no business strutting about like Charles Atlas in his own private Soldier-of-Fortune little-boy power fantasies. The untangling threads of his thought processes struggled to wrap themselves around the cause of his predicament. And, in a brief quiescent moment when the dreadful malady relaxed its grip on Harley's steam-scalded mind (which one could now liken to a slightly-underdone Peking ravioli, white and glistening on the outside with greenish-grey meat occupying the interior), the solution swaggered up to Harley and tapped him on the shoulder with its walking stick.


Of course, thought Harley, how beautifully the pieces fit together. The headache, the throbbing muscles, the unsightly acne pustules, the cramping, the grinning-death's-head resus sardonicus.... Well, he hadn't actually experienced this last symptom yet, but two would get ya five that it was just around the corner! He could trace his distress to that dark day, about two weeks ago, when he nicked his hand on a flailing strand of rusty ``bobbed wire'' (as little Ben referred to it) in the toolshed. He remembered (via vivid mental pictures unaccompanied by words) when old man Morton had turned ``lockjaw frenzied'' in the spring of '37 and thrashed his cousin Fred with a rake. It was the talk of all Fulton County, and with good reason. Old man Morton was as mild as you please, but add a dose of viral poisoning to his central nervous system, and you might as well just hand him a loaded shotgun with explicit instructions to point the barrel at your abdomen and fill you full of white-hot lead. And if Harley had been infected with the deadly virus, then that meant he had to get Ben away from him and into town as quickly as possible. Otherwise....

Harley grimaced. There could be no otherwise.

Harley staggered into the front yard, where Ben was sitting on a bench and reading the funny papers. Ben enjoyed ``The Family Circus'' the most, because it was very funny. He also liked ``Nancy'' because of the amusing adventures and predicaments that Nancy (the title character) and Sluggo (Nancy's little friend) found themselves facing on a daily basis. He looked up from this pleasant play-time funworld just in time to see his Pa stumble across the lawn (actually, little more than the grasseous analogue of a freshly-pubescent boy's facial peach fuzz) and fall headlong at the foot of the bench. Harley dragged himself up on all fours, then stood. ``Come on, Ben, we've got to get you out of here. There can be no otherwise.'' He grabbed Ben's hand and piled the boy into the tawny-red '57 Toyota Acryllica utility sports vehicle sitting in the driveway. He fumbled with the keys for a moment, then managed to insert them in a special slot in the pickup's steering column and ignite the (internal combustion) engine. Putting the vehicle in reverse, he promptly slammed the truck into a Lombardi poplar tree positioned at the corner of his property. The two unhappy passengers bounced around for a while (in fact, perhaps even more boisterously than the actual impact warranted), and it slowly dawned on Harley that he would kill them both if he tried to drive the fifty miles into Carlsville.

Dusk was beginning to blanket the Mississippi foothills as Harley and Ben limped indoors. And Harley began to suspect that this would be the last night for both of them, thanks to his devious little son's black magic curse. To think, you breathe life into a human being, you feed him from the flowing goodness of your bosom (Jenna's bosom, actually), and how does he respond? By stabbing you in the back with his cruel sorcery. Thanks, Ben. Thanks for turning my life into a miserable junkyard of the human spirit. Maybe I should express my thanks for your jackal's treasury. Maybe I should rip into your yielding vitals to demonstrate my profound gratitude. Maybe I should....

Harley shook his head violently. This was his son, his own beloved son! It was becoming increasingly difficult to think. He knelt down, grasped Ben's shoulders and held him at arm's length.

``Ben, I want you to listen to me very carefully. Your daddy's sick, powerful sick. So sick you probably wouldn't even believe it. And it's the kind of sickness that could make me do... bad things... that I wouldn't do in a million years if I were in my right mind."

``You mean, like render my yielding vitals? Is that the kind of bad thing you're talking about, daddy?"

``Well, uh, maybe not that bad, son,'' Harley replied, but he couldn't look Ben in the eye as he did so. ``But still pretty darn bad, believe you me. And we're in a bind up here, seeing as how we don't have a neighbor for 20 miles and the nearest town is Carlsville. Plus the good folks at AT\&T haven't installed telephones up here yet, and the word is they probably won't until the late 'forties. And we just don't have that kind of time. So you're going to have to help me save you from me. If that makes any sense. I want you to tie me up with that coil of good, stout hemp rope stored out in the toolshed. Do you think you could do that? There's a good boy, run out and get it.''

Ben meandered over to the funnypapers sitting on the couch.

"NOW, Ben. Go get the rope. Thanks, there's daddy's angel."

Ben returned with the rope a few minutes later. Acting in concert, the pair managed to secure Harley to the dining room table with several loops of the rope and a passable 4-cross-and-hop-over Boy Scout knot. At length Harley craned his neck and spoke to the boy. ``Ben, I just want you to know that your Pa loves you very much. But when I go behind the dark side of the moon, so to speak, I won't be the same old happy-go-lucky dad you've grown accustomed to. I could say mean things... I could lie to you to try to make you release me from these cruel bonds. But DON'T untie me, no matter what I say, okay? You have to promise me that, Ben."

``I promise not to untie you, no matter how convincingly you argue that I should,'' Ben replied solemnly.

About twenty minutes later, Harley spoke again.

``Hey, Ben. Tell you what. Why don't you let your dear old dad out of these ropes. They itch and chafe something awful. The creosote on this hemp acts as a powerful skin irritant. So be a pal, li'l buddy, and let me go."

Ben immediately walked over to the table and untied the childishly clumsy, but brutally effective, granny-mounts-the-mare Cub Scout knot and threw the ropes off his father. Harley, in turn, cuffed him one against the side of the head. ``I thought I told you not to untie me. You listen to your dad from now on. You kids today think you have all the answers. It's always, `Oh, we're the next generation, and we've got life by the tail, so who cares about yesterday's wisdom. That stuff's old news.' Well, this isn't a kid's game anymore, Ben. People can get killed playing the games we're playing. So tie me up again and leave me tied up!'' Ben once again bound his dad with the rope.

Let's lay our cards on the table, Friend Reader. You're probably thinking to yourself, ``Okay, now comes the ripoff of The Shining where Harley goes nuts and chases Ben around with an axe.'' On the contrary, you bloodthirsty animal -- I refuse to have anything to do with a plot that places any child, no matter how deserving, in physical danger. It's just not my style. As a matter of fact (and so sorry to disappoint Your Majesty), Harley's period of torment came to a merciful end a few hours later, as he sank into a coma and died.

The ripoff of Alive follows presently.

Nobody in Carlesville took much notice of Harley and Ben's failure to show up that week for supplies, and only a few of the old timers (who, at the time this story takes place, were actually relatively young) sitting on the porch of Pops Fontaine's Walmart remarked on their absence two weeks later. But when a month had passed, word began to spread that Harley and his son had apparently caught a cab. And by week six, folks were concerned (and curious) enough to form an investigatory committee under the auspices of the Sheriff's Office of the Township of Carlsville. Three weeks later, chairman Hap Jacobs proposed a motion to the effect that an exploratory party be sent to investigate the domestic scenario at Harley Atwater's spread in the foothills; sadly, a minor breach of proper parliamentary procedure (as pointed out by secretary Dale Spencer) invalidated the 5-4 vote, and the motion was tabled until the next meeting. The next meeting, unfortunately, had to be delayed in order for the participants in the upcoming Fulton County Animal Slaughter-fest and Agricultural Fair to prepare their potentially prize-winning livestock and vegetable entries. It was not until almost two and a half months had passed that a contingent of inquisitive searchers after truth ventured out to Harley's okra ranch.

They found Ben, alive and kicking, absorbed in his funnypapers.

And they found what was left of his dad, Harley.

Ben had been... at... Harley, if you know what I mean. Ben explained to his horrified rescuers that he and his father had been desperately low on supplies when Harley ``took sick". After his Pa's untimely demise, Ben had quickly (almost greedily) polished off the remaining food; then, as the reality of his isolation sank in, and as the powerful prodding of hunger became more and more difficult to ignore, Ben had polished off his dad. Public opinion regarding Ben's struggle to survive polarized into two camps: Ben had, after all, turned to the pungent meat of his father's flesh (dug out of his torso with a fork at first, then with a spoon as the relentless processes of decay worked their fascinating magic), disdaining an entire field of okra. On the other hand, one would have to be Mother Theresa or Gandhi not to turn up one's nose at an entire field of okra. At length, the good people of Carlesville threw up their collective hands and bade pastor Lyle Brown sit down with Ben and explain to him the moral implications of his act of patricannibalism. Then Ben was installed in his new home, the Carlsville Orphan Asylum.

And it was at about this time that Ben started to feel kinda goofy.

Goofy and very thirsty. But somehow... uncomfortable at the thought of water. Oh, not afraid, mind you. Just, ah, maybe a little edgy.

And on the second Thursday before the semi-annual Carlsville Happy, Productive Farmers Jubilee, the new Ben -- a boy who had been squinting a lot lately, and who seemed perpetually irritable, even paranoid -- drove the prongs of a rake deep into the soft melon head of little Jimmy Burlson during their daily round of Garden Detail. No close onlookers overheard the argument that preceded the lethal attack, but we can surmise with some confidence that the issue fueling the seemingly trivial dispute was the relative funniness of the strips ``Nancy'' and ``Marmaduke".

But I guess everything turned out all right. Later that day, under a blood-red, bulging, unspeakably weary sun that had seen it all and then some, Sheriff Mervis Spoonwell put down Ben like a mad dog in the street with a single shot from his .38 Special.

Postscript: The author acknowledges that there have been no verified cases of human-human rabies transmission via cannibalistic consumption of a victim's flesh. But it would be kind of neat if it happened.