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About the Author

John B. Rosenman is an associate professor of English at Norfolk State University and the editor there of The Parsons Prize Essays in Performing Arts Criticism. Currently he is the Chairman of Policy and Debate of HWA. Dr. Rosenman has published fiction and poetry in over 200 magazines. Some of his fiction has appeared in the Hot Blood Series (Volumes 6 and 8), Galaxy, Offworld, Starshore, New Blood, and many more. His novel, The Best Laugh Last, was published with McPherson & Company.

Deep Outside SFFH 1998-2002 pioneering online professional SFFH magazine - we made history!

Three Pounds of Garlic in a Dead Man's Hand

by John B. Rosenman

It looked like a family -- mother, father, and two kids right there before him on Route 29. J.C. blinked and slowed, gaping at the cozy domestic scene as he drew closer. The parents, he saw, were sitting in easy chairs, and the kids were playing on what looked like a carpet. A Persian carpet, he amended, as he switched to the left lane and moved past.
   Despite the shock, he yawned. During a weekend at the lake, he had drunk heavily to forget his recent divorce. Three months before, his wife had shattered his neat, ordered existence, telling him she was bored and fed up. Then she had walked out, and things hadn't been the same since.
   J.C. sighed and lit a cigarette. Given all the stress he'd been under, was it any wonder that he saw things? A family sitting in furniture on the highway. Now, really!
   Five miles farther it happened again.
   This time a family was watching television in what appeared to be a rec room. As he drew close, J.C. noticed that the people and furniture seemed slightly transparent. Also, this time he could hear them. They laughed loudly at the colored images on the set. To J.C., it looked like a tag-team wrestling match was in progress and the family was rooting for different sides.
   A small terrier barked and bounded up into the father's lap as J.C. passed them, glancing about in search of a projector. But there didn't appear to be one, which meant the people had to be real instead of illusions. Either way, nobody seemed even to be aware of his presence, or that they sat squarely in the middle of Route 29.
   J.C. continued on, his hands trembling on the steering wheel. What was happening? He'd been at the cabin for two days and come back to find people and bedroom groups sitting on the highway. Was he going crazy? And if not, what would have happened if he'd hit those people? They could have gotten really hurt!
   He glanced at the sun, which was nuzzling the horizon. Had fading light made him . . . see things? Tomorrow was Monday, and he was due back at work. It wouldn't do if he was . . .
   He caught his breath. Before him, on the highway, was yet another family. He watched as a Mack truck coming the other way barreled right through them as if they weren't even there.
   This couldn't be happening. It couldn't!

# # #

   Wunderlon -- Gas and Food, the sign said. He slowed, knowing he couldn't wait till he reached the city to ask about this. Pulling into a pebbled parking lot, he stopped and got out.
   He paused, trying to calm himself. In the west, the sun was half-buried on the horizon, and it was rapidly growing dark. He swallowed and went to the store, opened the screen door and entered.
   Inside, everything was normal. He almost gasped in relief. Glancing about, he saw aisles that offered everything from chips to dog food. Just an ordinary country store. And behind the counter sat a pleasant-faced, white- haired man in suspenders reading a newspaper.
   J.C. wiped his mouth. How to begin? What if the man thought he was crazy?
   He braced himself and went to the counter. As he approached, the man looked up, set his paper down, and smiled. "Hello there, Mister. What can I do for ya?"
   "Uh . . . actually, you can give me some information."
   "Sure. What about?"
   Now that he had asked, the problem seemed even greater. How did one tell a stranger that he had seen people sitting on the highway? He tried a couple of times to begin, then finally plunged right in.
   When he was finished, he felt foolish. Surely, this man would think he was insane.
   The kindly face smiled. "Families, you say?"
   Gnarled fingers tapped the counter. "Well, now, nothin's surprisin' about that." He tilted his head. "Say -- you been away a few days, Mister?"
   "Why, yes. I spent the weekend at Spirit Lake. Fishing."
   "Hmm. Well, they started showin' up Friday night."
   J.C.'s body turned cold. "'Showing up'?"
   "Ay-yuh. Scared half the folks in these parts plumb to death." The man hooked his thumbs under his rainbow-striped suspenders. "One of the science fellas on the T.V. said we passed through some kind of warp that scrambled the 're-al- ity mat-rix.'" He shrugged. "Anyhow, the folks you seen wasn't really there. Fella said they're just 'pro-ject- ions.'"
   Warp? A scrambled reality matrix? Projections? It sounded insane, but the man's calm response soothed him. J.C. sighed. Having an explanation for what he'd seen on the highway somehow allayed his fears. If it was madness, it was at least madness for a reason. And perhaps it was only temporary and things would soon be back to normal.
   The squeak of the screen door made him turn. Suddenly, a dozen people entered the store. Two of them, a fat woman with rosy cheeks and a man in blue coveralls, carried baskets filled with garlic, their voices excitedly competing with each other.
   "Hey, Shem -- I found some German Red and Silverskin!"
   "So what! Look, Shem -- I got me some Rocambole and Italian Purple!"
   The man rushed forward, placing his harvest of multicolored bulbs on the counter before Shem as if it were an altar. The fat woman, who was slower, nudged J.C. aside with her ample hips, and set an enormous offering on top of the crude pile. Bulbs rolled off onto the floor as she leaned across the counter, seized Shem by both cheeks, and gave him a lusty kiss.
   "Hot and spicy," she sang. "Just the way I like 'em!"
   The man in coveralls laughed and rubbed his beard. "Hey, Sadie, you talkin' 'bout men or garlic?"
   "Both!" she brayed.
   More laughter. J.C. edged back. The other people in the store grinned and watched as the two started to cram bulbs into their faces and swap varieties as if they were connoisseurs at some bizarre smorgasbord.
   "Try some of this here German Red, Seth," the fat woman said. "It has what you might call a robust and assertive air."
   "Don't mind if I do, Sadie," the man replied. "And just savor this Italian Purple. I believe you'll be impressed by its understated presence and the way it lingers on the palate."
   Soon, they were lost in a feeding frenzy, devouring whole bulbs in single bites. The air became thick and oppressive, yet they continued to feast as if it were jasmine and their rancid repast the food of the gods.
   Finally, they slowed down. But the slack, J.C. saw, was soon picked up by other people in the store, who snatched up groceries of all kinds from the shelves and refrigerator and started to juggle them. Canned goods and Twinkies, milk cartons and Snickers bars rose and looped in the air. Since none of the jugglers was particularly good, objects hit the floor often. Some broke and messily scattered their contents. Others exploded and sprayed the walls.
   J.C. gaped about him as groceries crashed and rang. A rack of Bic lighters and Timex watches toppled and shattered on the floor not five feet from where the owner sat. This was pandemonium! How could the man just sit there behind the counter and permit such destruction -- doing it, in fact, with a big, Cheshire-cat grin on his face?
   A man with an eye patch howled as a can of gourmet chicken soup bounced off his nose. Shaking off the pain, he jabbed a finger at J.C.. "What's the matter with 'im? Why ain't he doin' somethin'?"
   Behind the counter, Shem shrugged. "Aw, he went fishin' and didn't know about the warp thing. Poor fella's still tryin' to get used to it."
   The man grinned and started to juggle again, immediately breaking a large jar of Deluxe Herring Snacks. One of them, J.C. saw, wriggled its tail and started to swim off. "Well, don't worry 'bout it, Mister," the man laughed. "We was all skittish when things started to go haywire. After a bit, though, we settled right down and found things was a lot better than they was before. And we're better too!"
   "Sure are," the fat woman said. "We're a whole lot more loving and accepting of differences, for one thing." She sighed sensually and J.C. saw her turn her plump, rosy gaze on him. "But I almost popped my pants when I saw pa comin' toward me in what used to be his Sunday best." She laughed. "Twelve years pushin' up daisies and he was still rarin' to go!"
   A scrawny woman with a gap between her teeth moved forward. "Where's your pa now, Sadie?"
   Sadie's chins quivered and she jabbed a thumb back over her shoulder. "He fired up the tractor and started plowin' the north thirty. Said he missed doing it more than anything else while he was dead." Her bright eyes found J.C. again, and he saw her reach into her pocket and produce a huge pipe. Without even lighting it, she took a deep puff and exhaled a shimmering billow of smoke. She stood running her eyes with brazen interest up and down his body. "Take it from me, Mister, things are much nicer now. In a couple hours, that ole warp'll bring your better nature out just like it did ours. Hell, it'll do it even if your good side's buried deep as my pa was." She giggled. "'Fore ya know it, you'll be loose as a goose and just as used to it as we are."
   Incredibly, as J.C. watched, the smoke from the fat woman's pipe formed images of himself and her embracing passionately on a bed. He stiffened. Unless he was mistaken, they were helping each other to disrobe.
   "Oh NO," J.C. croaked. "I'll never get used to it!" He stared in disbelief at his half-naked image as it eagerly kissed and fondled the fat woman's, and looked away. Suddenly, he felt as he had when his wife had told him that she wanted a divorce, only this time it was worse. Now the universe itself was dissolving. Where was the order, the dependable, predictable pattern of reality? Things didn't go 'haywire' like this. They didn't!
   As if conjured, the scrawny woman appeared at his side, lifting a long silver pipe up toward his mouth. "Now don't ya fret, honey. If you don't like her fantasy, just take a puff and cook up your own. I guarantee it'll make a new man out of ya!"
   "I . . . I don't want to be a new man!" He backed away, toward the door. "I think you're all crazy, mad as hatters!" He darted a look over his shoulder to see how close he was to the door, only to find that someone was right behind him.
   A cold, bony hand gripped his shoulder.
   He smelled the damp rot of the grave.
   At the counter, the fat woman beamed. "Why, Pa!" she sang. "You all done plowin'?"
   Gulping air, J.C. spun. Dodging around the horror in his path, he crashed through the screen door and out into the sun.

# # #

   The sun.
   It took a dozen panic-filled steps for J.C. to notice that the sun was high overhead. But that was impossible! When he'd parked, it had been dusk. It should be night by now.
   He slowed and looked back, half expecting to see a scene out of Night Of The Living Dead, with mindless zombies shambling toward him, craving not garlic but his own tender flesh. To his relief, though, the store looked quiet, like any ordinary store on any peaceful Sunday.
   He shuddered. Maybe it was all just an hallucination. The divorce . . . his drinking . . . He was overwrought, that's all. When he reached home, he'd take a nice cold shower.
   Without wanting to, he remembered Alice telling him she was putting an end to their nine years of marriage. "I've had it, J.C.! Going to bed at 9:30 every night, cooking your precious linguini every Sunday, having to fold your damned underwear twice like it was holy writ or something! I'm through, do you hear me? Through!"
   "What's wrong with it?" he heard himself ask again.
   "What's WRONG with it? It's bloody boring, that's what! You're like a robot that always does things the same way, just like you do at work, where you add up figures to make sure they're right. There's never any room for variation, is there? Everything's always in its nice, neat, proper place." She thrust her chin out. "Well, I'm tired of it. I want to come home to a husband for a change, not a machine!"
   He cleared his throat. "My accountant's pay bought you that new car you enjoy so much, Alice. If I were you --"
   "Well, you're not! And as for my car, it'll do fine to take me straight to my lawyer, where I'm going to sue you for divorce! You can go straight to hell for all I care!"
   Her voice faded in his mind. Straight to hell. And he'd just landed there, hadn't he?
   J.C. trembled, surprised that his eyes were wet, and tried to force Alice from his mind. Just be calm. Pull yourself together. Then everything will add up, make sense again.
   He stood there in the pebbled lot until his heart stopped pounding and he no longer felt as if he were drowning in a pool of tears. Easy, he thought. Get a grip on yourself and look around. Everything is exactly as it ought to be, like a quiet, uneventful Sunday. Never mind that it was half dark when you went in the store. Just think how normal everything seems NOW.
   And it did. The sun shone. A light breeze blew. And nothing in creation was wrong.
   He swallowed and walked toward his car -- a safe, sensible two-door model with good gas mileage. He remembered reading articles to pick it out, and despite a bad spark plug, it had never caused him any real trouble. Not once in five years.
   He opened the door and got in.
   Seated, he took the keys from his pocket and inserted one in the ignition. Turned it.
   Nothing. There was no sound of a well-tuned engine springing to life. Only silence.
   He pulled the key out and examined it. Yes, it was the right one. Gingerly, he reinserted it, counted to three, and turned it again.
   The key turned into a lizard's claw.
   He gasped as the talons dug into his hand. No, this wasn't happening. He refused to accept it!
   On the hood, the six-foot radio antenna suddenly changed into a stalk of brightly-colored flowers. Roses, petunias, daffodils, all mixed together.
   "No," he whispered. Wrenching his hand free, he climbed out of the car, seeing it tremble and start to explode like kernels of corn in a popper. Pop! The metal top erupted into a thicket of pampas grass. Pop! The wheels became birds that chirped and flapped their wings. Pop! The chrome strips coiled into serpents with long, ruby tongues.
   Pop Pop POP!
   "NO!" he screamed as his automobile burst into music and rose into the sky. "I refuse to believe this! It's NOT happening!"

# # #

   He'd walked for six hours straight, heading home. Beneath him, Route 29 stayed hard and solid, undulating only when a car swept past. Now and then he saw a family sitting or standing in the road, going blithely about their affairs. Once, a naked couple frolicked in a hot tub directly on the yellow dividing line. As he approached, the woman laughed, straddled the man, and they started to make passionate love. A van whizzing through them didn't seem to faze their ardor at all.
   J.C. continued, toward the setting sun. Again and again, he pledged never to accept such illusions. Maybe the people back at the store had gotten used to them, but he never would. And that bloated version of Daisy Mae actually had the gall to say the warp would bring out his 'better nature' in a 'couple hours' and make him more accepting of things. HA! It was as if there was even something about this place that was supposed to change him and the way he thought, make him act as crazy as the rest of them.
   He frowned. What did he mean by 'this place'? It was the same place it had always been, wasn't it? There was no 'warp' and nothing had changed. In fact, the thought of ever tolerating such madness as a simple matter of course, as she did her dead father, was unthinkable. Such things just didn't happen, nor would he ever permit them to!
   If that was the case, though, why did he remember them? Why did he remember her dead father, reeking of the grave?
   Such questions bothered him even more than discovering an error on a balance sheet. Grimly he plodded on for mile after mile, trying to resolve the problem and at the same time determine why he wasn't getting tired. Why, he must have walked clear out of the state by now!
   As he walked, the sun rose and fell several times from different directions, caroming about the sky like a ball in a cosmic pinball machine. When he glanced at his watch, he saw it had three hands, all running backward.
   Pausing at last on top of a hill, he watched dazed as a couple of people floated past him, then another. A fourth person, a man dressed only in peppermint shorts, finally caught his attention.
   "How are you doing, brother?" the man called.
   J.C. stiffened. "Excuse me?"
   The man grinned. "I'm a wild goose, you know, and I'm heading south for the winter."
   "That's, uh, fine," J.C. said.
   "All my life," the man continued, "I hated geese, thought they were dirty, ugly honkers." He flapped his arms, striped shorts rippling in the wind. "Now I'm Father Goose, the biggest honker of all, and personally, I'm proud of it."
   J.C. watched the man flap his arms and sail off, honking as he picked up followers. After a while, J.C. looked down.
   He gasped. The ground was far, far below! In the waning light, he could barely discern a few houses, which looked like tiny children's blocks.
   By the time the dead man drifted directly across his path, J.C. had calmed considerably. Perhaps, he thought, his anxiety was eased by the wind's strange, soothing fragrance, which he had just begun to notice. Or perhaps it was the weird shapes of the clouds, which made it difficult to remember what troubled him. Whatever the reason, he felt calmer, more accepting of all these changes. Appropriately enough, the corpse's face bore a serene expression as if death were only a minor inconvenience and wouldn't affect his lifestyle. In fact, he clutched something in his hand like he was making a delivery. Squinting, J.C. saw that it was a brown grocery bag. Stamped on it in bright letters were the words: THREE POUNDS.
   Three pounds? Three pounds of what? Reaching out, he extricated the bag from rigid fingers and peered inside. Hmm. Looked like Italian Purple. His nostrils flared at the deep, rich aroma. Lifting out the biggest bulb he could find, J.C. took a deep bite, swallowed, and then sighed in satisfaction.
   A moment later, though, he frowned and gently nudged the trespasser away. "Ought to stay where he belongs," he muttered, bothered by the prospect of travelers drifting from their proper paths and ruining the order up here. While it might be the sky, it was still necessary to follow rules if people wanted to get where they were going safely. Well, someone would just have to look after them, that's all.
   As bright light began to bathe the sky from the Earth's three moons, J.C. reached into his pocket as the fat woman had done. Unlike her, though, he produced a gleaming red whistle instead of a pipe and began blowing it.
   "All right," he shouted to a young couple floating his way. "Please keep to the left!" He turned, seeing a fat man dressed in a diaper, and motioned him to the right. "Stay in your proper lane, sir," he ordered, giving three shrill blasts on his whistle to see that he was obeyed. "I want everybody to travel only where they BELONG!"
   As he directed traffic and unsnarled the occasional jam of bodies, J.C. found himself getting happier and happier, more at peace with the way things were. Who knows, he thought, perhaps he would even see his ex-wife up here and show her where to go. Wouldn't that be nice?
   Smiling, he caught a careless little girl who was about to collide with an adult and steered her back into the proper lane. "Just stay with your mommy and daddy, honey," he smiled. Seeing her wave when she rejoined her parents, he raised his hand and waved back in return.
   Then he laughed and reached into the bag of garlic again, wishing he had some German Reds.

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