As a Christmas bonus and because I was a bit late this week, here is Chapters 3 & 4.
The Book of Bertram
“After coming in contact with a religious man, I always feel that I must wash my hands.”
Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 1888
Bakersfield, California. November 27th, 1972
The dawn just broke. The cold orange rays crawl slowly across the desert floor. Right now, we’re a few months before I’m born and almost two weeks before Ishmael’s bar fight in the Sisters Saloon. We’re way up in the sky like one of those boom shots in the movies. We see endless mounds of sand, a couple clumps of sagebrush over there, and the wind blows a couple tumbleweeds across the red plane. If you listen real close you can hear a rhythmic sound over the low desert wind. If you squint your eyes you can see a very large man hip deep in a hole off in the distance, digging.
Let’s zoom in on the big lug. He’s the reason we’re here. His name is Bertram James Olds and he plays a big part in this mess. At this point, he’s still a twenty-three year old high school teacher: the youngest in his district. He doesn’t know it yet, but he has already taught his last day. Even so, he will hold the record of the youngest high school teacher until 1982.
Bertram dresses pretty much always as we see him here, minus the dirt and blood stain. Today he sports a light blue, semi-formal dress shirt with white vertical stripes, a navy blue tie with matching slacks, and a pair of brown leather Penny Loafers with high shine. He also likes to accessorize most of the time with either a nice plaid vest with six buttons and four pockets, or something like the Cardigan sweater he has in the car. Of course being six foot six, three hundred pounds, just about everything he wears is either too tight or very loose.
Most people around here, in 1972, dress like the characters in the old TV westerns. People in Bakersfield love watching reruns of Hop Along Cassidy, The Lone Ranger (John Hart not Clayton Moore) and Gene Autry. So the stores sell a lot of the plaid cowboy long sleeve shirts with the arrows over the pockets and all. Bertram would never lower himself by emulating popular culture. He… sorry, he’s talking now, let’s listen in.
“You’re sick, that’s all there is to it. This will be the last damned time.” Raw emotion makes his whisper waver. “The last damned time.”
To continue our talk on fashion, I would have to say that the woman lying to the side of the hole is dressed very risqué. She has on a bright red strapless top and a short skin-tight polyester skirt. The lipstick, blush, and eye shadow is still perfect but the mascara is all over the place. Her hair shines in the sun, but her skin is so white that you can see some of the blue veins under the skin. It’s not too hard to guess her profession when she was alive. Although there’s no saying whether or not TV had anything to do with how she dressed.
“Focus!” Bertram says to himself in a moderate tone. He stares at his shaking hands. “Focus, Bertram!”
Slowly, he recovers himself enough to climb out of the hole and roll the corpse into it. Her skirt exposes her right buttock when she lands with a thud at the bottom of the hole. Bertram averts his eyes shyly and bends down with a grunt to pick up the shovel.
“You’re a sick man. This is the last time. I swear. This can’t keep happening. Where do you get these urges? They’re not natural,” he tells himself as he throws a shovel full of dirt onto the hole.
Bertram mumbles to himself the whole ride back into town. His head pounds with guilt, splitting at the temples. The roar of the 180 horsepower, three hundred and thirty-one cubic inch V8 FirePower engine in his blue 1951 Chrysler Saratoga Club Coupe drowns out his thoughts. Instead he turns on the radio. Buck Owens comes on singing about being a big star in the movies. The need to wholly and completely possess another person dissolves so much that the thought of it fills him with regret, as if he could have avoided the whole thing from happening.
An hour later, when he gets to town, he realizes that he’s hungry. He had no chance to grab dinner between picking up, killing, and burying the prostitute yesterday afternoon.
I’m sorry. I just read that part out loud and I sound so insensitive. She was someone’s daughter. In fact, I can tell you all about her, but she isn’t a big part of this story other than being Bertram’s fifth to last victim. Her death happened “off screen” as they say. Is there a danger in humanizing her at this point in the story? I mean if I tell you that she was only prostituting herself to pay for medical school, and that if she hadn’t died and been buried in that hole, she would have helped discover statins in 1984, three years earlier than they were discovered without her help. In those three years the drugs that lower cholesterol would have saved 453,209 lives. But if I told you all of that, you’d be even more upset at Bertram. The thing is, I need you to give him a chance. I know, he’s a total dick, a real creep, and a psychopathic killer, but as much as I’d like to downplay it, he does play a big part in all of this. Plus, if she would have lived, this female researcher and former prostitute started a lobbying firm later in her life that worked with the first Bush Administration to successfully overturn parts of the Clean Air Act that allowed the continued sale of leaded gasoline for an additional four years which lead to the death of 782,998 people. So, in a way Bertram saved a quarter of a million lives. I don’t know; does that justify murder?
No, seriously, I’m asking you. Does it?
Anyway, he spots a grocery store and pulls in. After parking his car, he grabs his cardigan sweater and examines it. It’s not as bad as he first thought. He gives it a few swipes and puts it on as if he doesn’t notice the dried arterial spray.
Maybe, he thought, normal people will think these are just stains from working on my car. Sure, I was just changing my oil and accidentally spilled a quart or two on my sweater. I’m just a messy mechanic. That’s what went through his head right then. I can tell you that looking deep into his mind, he subconsciously wanted to get caught.
He puts the sweater on and walks in the grocery store like any other day. Two old men behind the checkout counter spoke about the last episode of M.A.S.H., and that makes Bertram’s head hurt immediately. Rage bubbles up from his rotted core at these people living lives with no purpose. These fake people have no more meaning than the sitcoms they watch. He’d put all these automatons down if given a chance, but then he realizes he’s not a beast right now. He’s the respectable school teacher now, and the respectable school teacher has patience. He straightens his enormously large spine and walks by them with a look of tranquility.
“Cheez Whiz,” Bertram says to himself inspecting a can from the shelf. “Huh.” The school teacher hates confrontation of any sort. He doesn’t even like eye contact, so he pretends to be interested in anything else. The can looks miniscule in his giant dirty and calloused hands.
He walks to the counter with the Cheez Whiz, Ritz Crackers, and a Nesbitt’s Orange Soda.
The old man rings up his items. “Ooh, Nesbitt. Nesbitt Orange Soda…” he sings the Nesbitt jingle, puts his finger in his mouth, and makes a pop sound. “It’s pretty good, but what do you think of Quirst?”
Bertram smiles but the question requires more than a smile.
“And there’s Orange Crush, Mello Yello, Orange Nehi, how does a feller choose?”
Bertram’s smile freezes and he nods furiously.
“Are you okay, son?”
Oh God, when will it end? Beads of sweat form on his forehead. He remembers the eight-inch diver’s knife in the leather sheath on his belt loop. He feels heat from the blade on his hip and spread through his thighs.
Shit. I forgot to tell you about his eight-inch diver’s knife. It’s how he kills all his victims, including that blonde prostitute slash potential doctor slash political terrorist. He made it himself from one of those long spikes you use to hammer the railroad ties down with. He found it during one of his “archeological” digs back when he was a teenager. Bertram fashioned it after what he believed Santiago’s diver’s knife looked like in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
Bertram’s eyes involuntarily widen when he hears the word son. Now, he thinks he smells the burning flesh from the knife scorching his thigh. It begs to be let out.
The old man puts his bifocals on and gives the Cheez Whiz a look.
Bertram’s gaze shoots around the store until it lands on the cover of Playboy. The December issue must have come out early. A beautiful woman She’s a beautiful, smiling blonde with her bosoms spilling out of a Santa Claus suit. Her teeth are whiter than an angel’s soul, her full red lips smile, and her mascaraed eyes staring through him, seeing all his faults, his insecurities. She knows how small he really is despite his 6’6”, 285 lbs frame. He stops nodding and shakes a memory of his mother out of his head. A grubby thumb with a dirty nail pops the button off the leather sheath and his fingers feel the smooth wood handle of his knife.
“Do you know how much this is?” The old man asks about the Cheese Whiz.
His breathing turns shallow. “Um, a dollar and fifty-seven cents.”
The shopkeeper’s dull eyes look up from behind his glasses that slip halfway down his nose. “Okay then, you look like a good kid. I trust you.”
He punches the keys on the old register machine, and Bertram smiles a docile yet wide smile and stuffs his hands in his pockets. The total cost pops up on the machine, and Bertram peels some bills from his wallet and fishes some change out of his pocket. When he puts it on the counter, one of the coins spins on its edge for a couple seconds.
In his peripheral vision Bertram notices the old man’s eyes are fixed with terror. The blood has his attention. The coins are smeared with it. The old man is a bit more observant now. He suddenly notices the stains on Bertram’s sweater.
The most pure moment that two humans can have passes between them. Bertram twitches slightly. “I was, uh, changing the oil…”
Five minutes later, Bertram’s 51 Chrysler screams down the road. He punches the roof of his car with his ham-sized hands and prays, “Please, dear Lord, if you help me now I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll clean up and stop this for sure. Whatever you want.”
People think that if they pray hard enough God will get them out of trouble, but what they don’t realize is that an omnipotent God is the one who sent them the fucking trouble. An omnipotent god, by definition, cannot be benevolent and would not suffer a rival. That Manicheistic shit just don’t fly.
Bertram prays to God the police won’t respond to the old cashier’s cries about a lunatic murderer in his store. He’s praying that no one saw or described what car he drove or which way he drove off. His hotrod screams into the desert, while Perry Como sings “Papa Loves Mambo” on the radio.
Another glance in the rearview mirror reveals a police cruiser speeding up behind him. Its overhead lights flip on and the siren sounds. Bertram sighs, gives one more look into the rearview mirror, and shifts into neutral to let his Chrysller glide to a stop. There he sits, staring into the desert horizon. Both of his hands rest on the wheel with his eight-inch diver’s knife on his lap. His thoughts drift. He remembers a stunning recreational park nearby that he went to on the way back from burying a victim last summer, Lake Isabella. What a nice name, Isabella. Bella. It means beautiful in Italian. He says it outloud a couple of times to himself.
“What’s the hurry there, boy?” The Bakersfield police call everyone boy. It’s pretty much the South of California.
Bertram glances from side to side, to each mirror, and sees nothing but flat land for miles in every direction. He calmly and slowly turns his head to face the officer who just now walked up to his door.
“I’m going to need to see your license to drive and the registration to your vehicle, son.”
Bertram pulls his wallet from his pocket and removes his driver’s license.
The officer looks down the road as he talks, “So, are you having problems with her? It took you a while to slow down.”
When the officer reaches for the license, he notices the knife. It’s sitting right there on Bertram’s lap. The officer goes for his gun, but Bertram pushes the door open with the strength of a lunatic. It strikes the officer hard, sending him toppling into the sand. The knife seems to jump into Bertram’s hand as he flies out of the car.
He never had to become a killer again so quickly, and this makes him hesitate. In that second of indecision, the patrolman regains his wits, unholsters his .45, and fires three times. Only one bullet hits Bertram in the top part of his left deltoid muscle causing him to drop the knife. Blood splashed across his face and specks on his black-framed glasses. His arm falls limp, but he kicks the gun out of the patrolman’s hand. The rage fills him now with dark need.
He descends and bites the trigger finger of the hand that shot the gun. He wrenches back like a wolf, tearing the end of the finger off, more blood. Bertram punches, bites, and tears at clothes, skin, and eyes.
This shit’s getting gruesome. Let’s pull back for a second. We can look at it from way up here in the sky. Sometimes distance can make a thing bearable. Up here, we see the two cars off to the side of a dirt road in the middle of what will soon become an oil field full of pumps and wells, but at this moment it’s nothing but endless miles of sand and some sage brush. Now if you squint you can just make out the violent beating of one man by another and off to the left we see a crow flying toward the scene.
As we follow the crow and slowly zoom back in, we find that it’s less of a struggle now. The police officer loses consciousness. Bertram finds his knife again.
He grunts as he stands up over his sacrificial offering, eyes wide open and teeth clenched tight. Each time his aortic valve opens to push blood through his giant frame, it sounds like a rushing river in his ears. A second before the final blow, the one that would end the policeman’s life, the crow lands on top of the open door of the police car. Bertram looks over at it, his chest still heaving. He thinks it weird a bird would be that unafraid. He smiles and wipes the blood from his knife onto the officer’s navy blue shirt. “You know,” Bertram says to the crow with a hoarse laugh, “if you would have brought a couple of friends… well, then we would really have ourselves a murder.”
Bertram bursts into laughter, and it lasts longer than it should.
The body at his feet moans and coughs up frothy bubbles, his face half buried in the dirt and sand. Saliva and dark blood ooze from his mouth. The diver’s knife heats up again. It scorches his hand. It needs to release this poor quivering mass. Bertram raises the knife.
“Don’t do it, Bertram.”
He freezes. He doesn’t move because he’s afraid of what he can’t see. There must be another person around, but who would know his name? When this last question goes through his mind he cocks his head involuntarily. He turns in all directions, head still cocked.
“Leave him be, Bertram. We have other work to do.” The voice comes again. It’s the crow talking to him. He sees the beak move and everything.
Hank is weird. For some reason, only He knows, He loves the desert. I don’t know why. I can only guess. I think it’s ironic that the creator of all life picks the most barren places to talk to His chosen. It was in the desert that He appeared as Ra and ruled over Egyptian dynasties for three thousand years. It was in the desert on the top of Mount Sinai that He appeared as a burning bush and gave Moses the Ten Commandments. It was in the desert that He wrestled with Jacob before giving him the nation of Israel. It was in the desert that He gave Muhammad the ideas that would become the Islam. It was in the desert that He appeared to Bertram as a crow to give him the divine mission.
Wow, Sean. The rythm, the rat tat tat of details and descriptions. the narrator snarkiness. good stuff.