It seems to me that the picaresque story is in short supply. The elements of the picaresque story are very much present– the distracted narrative, the low-class protagonist, the disrespect for the establishment, the road adventures. However, the once still-comprehensible, pre-electricity world that glued all these elements together is mostly gone. And with it has disappeared a certain droll perspective on life. The tall tale is being treated for dysmorphia issues. The shaggy dog runs a 12-step recovery program in Queens. A deadly arthritic earnestness has set in, and contemporary fiction, for all its superficial variety, is often as dreary as cod liver oil. It appears we authors now have to set an example.
Fortunately, Bill Gusky hasn’t gotten the memo. His story, set in the post-Civil War era, has a surreal quality only because its characters are, well, such characters. They haven’t watched TED talks. Their underage kids hold down two jobs. They believe in eye for an eye and have the eye-patches to prove it. Everyone is alarmingly dehydrated. They are also great fun. We can’t bring the picaresque world back, and perhaps it’s all for the best that the world has changed— whoa, wait up now pardner, let me quit my preachin’ and caterwaulin’ and send you and your cayuse moseying into the tale.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
“The pain is unbearable,” Father moaned from his bed. “Proceed with all due haste to Doc Witten’s. Purchase his Effective Head Decoction, Patent Pending, and bring it here so that I may find relief, ere I die.”
Lacking money, and knowing Doc Witten to be disinclined toward credit, I asked Father how I might pay.
“My funds are depleted,” he said. “But that Orin Reilly is in my debt for upwards of three dollars and twelve cents for a share of corn delivered two months past. Collect what is owed me. Then to Witten’s.”
Orin Reilly was widely known to be a squirrely and disreputable fellow. His sustenance was chicanery, fortified by flimflam. Reilly’s behavior had been the chagrin of Lockspittle County for lo these many years.
Hence my procurement of Father’s Union army sidearm, which he maintained against the large and much-despised jackrabbits that would otherwise dominate his modest holdings.
Holstered thus, and with the rising sun over my shoulder, I bid farewell and set off on foot toward Reilly’s shambling shack, some three miles distant.
A column of smoke espied from afar suggested Orin Reilly’s shack was on fire. Drawing nearer, however, I saw that what had appeared to be smoke was, in fact, dust, stirred high by the man himself as he scrambled in the dirt like an animal.
My hand attained a light grip of the pistol stock as I proceeded, until the crazed eyes and rabid teeth flashed at me from his grimy visage. Reilly’s laughter, manic and unhinged, lent no assurance of cordiality.
With a solemnity befitting my mission, I told him my name and stated my purpose. He answered with all the mad excitation for which he was famed.
“I have your father’s money,” he said in his airy, quavering voice, “and I shall remit presently, presuming you spare my life.” This latter part was spoken with no small measure of contempt, as he surveyed both my pistol and my diminutive stature.
“I must however continue with the effort at hand,” he said. “It requires not a great deal more time, and your patience shall be rewarded.”
I was given no opportunity to reply for, just as suddenly as he’d begun speaking, Reilly took leave of me and resumed scurrying through the dust.
Upon further examination I surmised that a maze of sorts lay before me drawn of stones roughly apple size, each painted green. Three uncommonly small people cloaked in animal skins, topped by horned antelope skulls, stalked the maze. A square tabletop painted the brightest red lay near one corner.
It was toward this tabletop that Reilly now feverishly ambled. Once attaining it he drew up on his knees, stood the tabletop on its corner, and began pushing it along the maze of red stones. Its halves being hinged at one side, he opened and closed them as he pushed the tabletop, all the while singing a demonic chant which I would render thusly: yippity yippity yippity yippity yippity.
As he proceeded Reilly kicked the green stones out of the maze, thus clearing it bit by bit. In a sudden and audacious move, one of the skin-covered men ambushed him. Reilly responded by springing from his knees in a display of fright, turning himself about entirely, and pushing the red tabletop in the direction opposite the cloaked man, who instantly gave chase.
I loudly insisted to know the aim of this inane display, assuring Reilly that as a graduate of Mather-Bowfry College, I would not be dissuaded by his demonic chants and his skull-topped companions. He granted my protestations nary a glance as he continued his bizarre pageant.
When no trail of the maze remained, Reilly rested on his haunches, surveyed his accomplishments, and stated, “Guess that game is over for now.”
My patience well nigh obliterated, I pressed the gun’s muzzle furiously against the mad man’s temple, assuring him that he would either hand me the money owed my father, or I would offer him passage, free of charge, to his father, the devil.
With no regard for his predicament, Reilly stood, dusted off, and said, “My money is so cleverly concealed that not even Heaven’s own angels could discover it. Dispatch me, if that be your desire, but then the debt will remain unpaid throughout all eternity. Should repayment truly be your desire, know that satisfaction can only be attained through playing this game, which I call Runaway Tabletop.”
Reilly grinned, knowing he had me over a barrel.
“If there be no other way,” I said, “then I insist on commencing with your childish pastime at once.”
Reilly instructed his horned minions to rebuild the maze of green stones. Then he turned to me and said, “The price to play Runaway Tabletop is five cents.”
Outraged, I said, “I have no money. This is the very reason for my appearance at your shambling shack.”
“A pitiful shame,” he said. “Perhaps there is something on your person that you might pawn. Consider for example the cash value of that military-issued revolver.”
It was my good fortune that McLeath’s Pawn Shop was open. For both gun and holster I was able to procure a pocketful of coins totaling seven dollars and forty-eight cents.
I’d nearly returned the full distance to Orin Reilly’s shambling shack when the realization struck me like thunder that I could simply escort my newly acquired funds directly to Doc Whitten’s, cutting out the accursed middleman and dispatching my obligation post-haste. The very thought of never encountering Reilly again eased my agitation.
I found Doc Witten in his office, seated at his desk before a nearly emptied bottle of whiskey and a fully emptied glass. His bloated eyes and red face suggested he’d been occupied in the business of emptying that bottle for some hours.
“At the outset I must state to my shame and regret that I am bankrupt,” he told me.
“Perhaps our meeting is serendipitous then,” I replied, “as we both have needs, and I am able to supply a small measure of yours in return for mine through purchase of a bottle of your Effective Head Decoction, Patent Pending.
Doc Witten sighed.
“It would be my deepest and purest pleasure to supply you with that most powerful medicament in exchange for its price in full. But alas, that product, along with my other medicaments, lotions, extracts, and tinctures, is now the property of a certain Orin Reilly. He lives out beyond the edge of town. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.”
“Would that I had not,” I said, pounding fist into palm. “How could this squirrely and disreputable fellow come into possession of your entire inventory?”
Doc Whitten leaned forward on his desk, rested his plump face on his artful fists, and declared, “I was lured in by an accursed game of his very own invention. He calls it Runaway Tabletop. It infested my mind, mesmerizing me into playing it over, and over, and over, at cost each time. When my funds were depleted I began trading the tools and medicines of my trade, until my shelves and cases lay as empty as my soul. I sit before you now a broken man, utterly bereft and powerless to diagnose so much as a case of chilblains.”
I returned to Orin Reilly’s driven by rage, but lacking any firepower with which to satisfy it. Approaching the mad man as he preened before his maze, I said, “I wish to make purchase of an item you have claimed from Doc Whitten, to wit his Effective Head Decoction, Patent Pending.”
“It’s right there,” Reilly said, pointing to shelves built onto the side of his shambling shack. I saw the familiar bottle beside other medicaments and tools of the surgeon’s trade. Many and sundry other items there were, which had clearly been gleaned from his previous victims: hats, gloves, spectacles, watches, wallets, cutlery, vases, cigarette holders, keys, buttons.
I reached for the bottle, declaring, “You shall have fair price for it.”
“Not so fast,” Reilly said. “Those are prizes, and they can only be won through playing my game, Runaway Tabletop, at the price of five cents.”
“I have no time for Runaway Tabletop,” I said, seizing the bottle.
Clicks sounded loudly behind me. I turned to see Reilly’s horned minions, each pointing a cocked pistol in my direction from beneath his furry cloak.
Reilly giggled madly. “I made sure to build security into the game,” he said. “It’s essential in these lawless times.”
I handed Reilly a five-cent piece from the pawn broker’s payout. He directed me to take my place behind the red tabletop. Although wearing my best suit, I crouched like an animal in the dust.
“To win, you must eliminate all the green stones without allowing the horned men to catch you,” Reilly said. “Keep that red mouth opening and closing, and recite yippity yippity yippity, or Runaway Tabletop will terminate most abruptly, as will your opportunity for satisfying your need. Last of all, do not proceed until my say-so.”
The horned men resumed stalking the maze, each according to his whims. I gripped the handles nailed into the back of the red tabletop. Reilly whistled a strange and stilted tune, then hollered, “Proceed!”
I pushed the tabletop, yelling yippity yippity yippity while opening and closing its red halves, and kicking the green stones out, as I’d seen Reilly do.
I’d eliminated an entire row and part of a column when a horned man approached. “Ye gods!” I yelled, reversing swiftly. Still the devil was upon me, the better of us for speed. When he touched me Reilly hollered, “Death!”
“Death?” I said, mindful of the pistols hid beneath his minion’s coverings. “Is death the penalty for losing?”
“Calm yourself,” Reilly said. “In Runaway Tabletop, death lasts only a short while, and then you come back to life and resume the game.”
“How many of these so-called deaths should I expect to endure?” I inquired.
“Three in total,” the mad man proclaimed, enjoying his God-like authority. “The third death, so far as the game is concerned, is permanent.”
His cackles filled the air. He whistled his cursed tune again, and I resumed pushing the tabletop through the maze. Whenever a horned man appeared in my vision’s periphery I reversed or darted down a different path. My muscles ached from all of the crouching and tabletop pushing, and my voice strained from the constant singing of yippity yippity yippity, but concern for Father’s health became my strength. I eliminated well nigh unto two-thirds of the green stones by the time another horned man slapped my shoulder.
“Second death!” Reilly shouted, grinning dementedly. “Continue!”
I endured his shrill song yet again and was off, streaking through the remaining rows of stones. Sweat and grime clung to me as I feinted, dodged, and otherwise avoided the filthy skin-covered shills who, coyote-like, worked together now to close me in. By dint of sheer willpower, I managed to kick out the final stone just as all three were about to converge upon me.
“You win, you win, you win!” Reilly hollered as I stood, shook the blood back into my limbs, and dusted myself off.
He skipped over and handed me a red paper strip of tickets.
“What are these for?” I said.
“They’re your winnings,” he said. “You trade them for prizes.”
I advanced toward his shelves and reached toward the highest shelf for the decoction, but he swatted my hand away, saying, “Hold on a minute now, I’m not sure you can afford that.”
After counting my strip of tickets twice he said, “Five tickets.” His hands defined the boundaries of a tiny fraction of bottom shelf. “You can trade them for anything between here, and here.”
Within the boundary he defined lay a much-chewed pencil, a child’s marble, a cracked doll’s head stripped of its hair, and a dried lizard.
My anger rose like magma within my chest. “You have insulted me for the last time,” I said. I reached for the decoction, only to hear those ominous clicks again. A glance confirmed three horned hooligans and three cocked pistols.
Trembling with rage, I uttered through gritted teeth, “How many tickets must I win to procure yon bottle?”
“Oh, it’s up at the tippity-top,” Reilly said. “That’s the two-hundred-tickets section.”
“Two hundred tickets?” I said.
Despair overshadowed my soul, fulminant and foul. But then I remembered Father’s misery, and his absolute reliance upon me. I set my jaw, proferred the required five-cent payments, and shoved that red tabletop hither and thither, again and again, through all the channels of Reilly’s accursed maze. I felt at times like wretched Sisyphus, reaching the top of the hill with every cleared maze, only to have my boxy red boulder return to its starting place whence I was forced to begin again. My agonized muscles gave out at times as I found myself surrounded by my horned pursuers, whose energy flagged not in the slightest.
When the ravages of thirst overcame me, I begged Reilly for a drink of water. He led me, dusty and bedraggled, to a hand pump behind his shambling shack, where another of his minions waited. I was required to tender yet another five-cent piece for each throw of the pump handle. After water spilled through my fingers twice, I was offered rental of a tin cup for an additional three cents.
I realized at one point that my pockets had been emptied, while the number of tickets in my possession was not yet sufficient. Despair overtook me, until the debt Reilly owed my father leapt to memory. “Three dollars and twelve cents,” I reminded him. “Use Father’s money to discharge both our obligations at once.”
Reilly seemed amenable, pulling out a small book and writing on its grimy pages to keep track as I continued.
It was late afternoon when Reilly handed me the final strip of tickets needed to procure Father’s medicine. A spark of lunacy had settled upon my brain by then, a derangement of dust, blazing sunlight, exasperation, and pure bloody-eyed exhaustion. I cackled with gleeful delight at my wretched bouquet of tickets, leaping and yelling, “Yippeee!” as dust smoked from my body.
Reilly hustled me over to his shelves. “You can afford anything here,” he said. “Make your choice.” My muscles sang in agony as I stretched and pointed toward the bottle that would end my father’s misery.
The sun had bid its final adieus, and the moon had begun making merry with the distant mountains, as I returned to Father’s cabin.
Strangely I found the door open. To my dismay, the large and much-despised jackrabbits had begun to overrun the place. They perched upon the cold stove, reclined on the bed, and sat at the table, screeching at one another in critterly conversation.
“Where is Father?” I yelled to the floppy-eared felons. “What have you done with him?”
They surveyed me dully, as though somehow it was I who had taken over their home.
I stormed past them and out the back door.
Father, as it turned out, had determined to await me in the outhouse, being rightfully unwilling to subject himself to the wiles of his cotton-tailed interlopers. He cursed my tardiness, but anger swiftly transformed to joy when I placed into his hands the bottle containing Doc Witten’s Effective Head Decoction, Patent Pending. He uncorked it, drank deeply, and closed his eyes as relief ascended from his belly to the throbbing that bedeviled him behind his eyes and between his ears.
After long minutes, he intoned with a rage known only to those displaced by inferior life forms, “Take my Union sidearm and dispatch those jackrabbit invaders to Hell, so that I might regain the use of my cabin.”
Those were the last civil words I was to receive from my father’s lips. For when I informed him of the multiple transactions involved in procuring Doc Witten’s Effective Head Decoction, Patent Pending, and that the pawning of his sidearm was one of those transactions, the man unleashed upon me a fusillade of cursing and invective so searing and catastrophic that it obliterated any possibility of our further cohabitation in any building, let alone the close confines of his outhouse.
The jackrabbits had by then shut and locked the cabin’s doors and windows. They ignored my repeated rappings, pleas, and curses.
With hunger upon me and darkness falling, I headed to the one place where I suspected that some sort of welcome might still await me.
Orin Reilly and his now-uncovered companions were finishing a supper of beans and biscuits when I arrived. For ten cents I was allowed to sit at his table and eat what little remained.
In the cool of the evening, I found Orin Reilly to be a firm but reasonable man. I entered his employ with the sense that perhaps Providence rewards those willing to adjust their viewpoints in light of changed circumstances.
During the days that would follow, as I stood at the water pump awaiting thirsty game-players, my idle mind drifted to the possibilities inherent in the piles of junk laying about. It soon occurred to me that an entirely new game might be devised by procuring another tabletop and painting it a sweet and lovely pink, signifying that this one is female. Sister, so to speak, to Reilly’s Runaway Tabletop.
We could even call this new game Madam Runaway Tabletop.
Image credits: @ byous.art
We aren’t sure who created this artwork, but we liked it. The unstoppable cowboy, his unnatural hurry, his demented quest, his Sancho Panza of a horse, the quivers of fate sieving his back, and of course his sports shoes captures some of the strangeness of Bill Gusky’s story.
Author | BILL GUSKY
Bill Gusky writes poetry, short stories, novellas, screenplays, and other fictions. He was a finalist in the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction and the Barry Hannah Prize in Fiction. His stories have appeared in Dark Matter Magazine, Feathertale Journal, and other publications, as well as in award-winning educational and entertainment games released under license from Mattel, Warner Bros, and Universal, and in promotions for shows distributed by public broadcasting organizations APT, PBS, and NPR.