3LBE #3
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The Kartoupelos

by Lester Thees

 

It was Sunday evening and Bob Mahoney was doing what he did every Sunday night. He was getting into watching Mike Wallace grill some crooked bastard, when he heard a loud banging coming from outside. It was a rhythmic drumming >Bam Bam Bambambam< and he figured it was some neighborhood kid who'd eventually get tired and stop. But when the clamor began to get louder, Bob knew he'd have to leave the comfort of the couch and see if he could do anything about the racket.

If Bob had decided to catalogue all the things he expected to see through his front window, the spectacle going on across the road wouldn’t have made even the long list. Marching down the driveway of the house across the street was a short, fat man beating a chubby fist on the shiniest trash can Bob had ever seen. The drummer, resplendent in a balloon sleeved orange fiesta shirt and sky blue pants, was drumming and grinning, swinging along as if he were leading a circus parade. Trailing behind him was a stout little woman dressed entirely in black and a painfully thin little girl in a tee shirt and jeans. Bob watched as the fat man halted at the curb, set the can down, and waited for his followers to catch up. When they joined him by the side of the road, he straightened the trash can, ran a hand through his oily black hair, and gazed benevolently up and down the street at all the other garbage cans waiting for collection the next day.

“Ann!” Bob called to his wife. “C'mere quick! You’re not gonna believe what’s going on outside.” Ann rushed into the living room, a long spoon still in her hand from stirring supper.

“What? What is it?” she asked, pushing in next to him at the window. Bob didn’t bother answering, only pointed toward the people at the curb. Shooting her husband a disappointed look, Ann said, “Oh, it’s only the new neighbors, the Kartoupelos. I thought something was wrong.”

“Kartoupelos?” Bob said.

“Yes, they moved in on Thursday. They’re renting the old Peterson house. You know, the one that never sold because it’s falling apart. Betty down the block said she thinks they’re from one of those places that used to be part of the Soviet Union.”

“Kartoupelo? What the hell kind of name is that?”

“I told you, Ukrainian or Siberian or something.”

“But what’re they doing?” Bob wanted to know.

“Why, they’re taking out the trash, silly. Look, I’ve gotta get back in the kitchen before dinner is ruined.” Ann hurried out of the room while Bob stared out the window. He watched as the Kartoupelos stood smiling at all the garbage cans, plastic pails, and trash bags set out on the street, their own container the handsomest by far.

Problems at the office, planning a summer vacation their ten year-old daughter could endure, and all of life’s other day to day details claimed Bob’s attention, and he didn’t spare another thought for the new neighbors until he came home from work the following Wednesday and found the ladder leaning against the side of the house. He went straight into the spare room Ann had turned into her office and, hoping there was some other explanation, asked if she'd been up on the roof.

“Of course not,” she said, as if Bob didn’t know perfectly well that such a thing was possible. “Why do you ask?”

“The ladder’s out like somebody was up there.”

“Oh, I forgot. Papa was cleaning out the gutters.”

“Your father was here?” Bob was totally confused. He couldn’t picture Ed Meeker taking time out from his medical practice to scoop sludge out of their drainpipes.

“No, dad wasn’t here.” Ann spoke absently, peering at her computer screen. “Why would you think that?”

“Well, you said…”

Ann turned to face her husband. “Oh, you thought I meant… no, Mr. Kartoupelo was cleaning them. Everyone calls him Papa, that’s why you didn’t understand.” She swung back to the monitor.

“How come he was doing that?”

Ann made a few quick motions with the mouse and said, “Well, you’ve been promising to go up there since the end of autumn, and here it is practically July and you never made it. You should’ve seen all the gunk he pulled out of there.”

Despite the fact that Bob was glad to have avoided the job, he still felt that his rightful place as doer of dangerous deeds for the household had been usurped. He heard the whine in his voice as he complained, “I would’ve gotten around to it. How did he end up doing it?”

“He came over and asked,” Ann said matter-of-factly. “From what I could understand, his English isn’t exactly perfect, he does odd jobs around town. I guess he’s having a hard time getting a regular job. But he’s a good worker, he even took all the bags of slimy leaves with him.”

“Lucky he didn’t break the ladder and sue us,” Bob sulked. “Fat guy like that oughtta stay on the ground where he belongs.”

“Well, I think it was a bargain at twenty dollars,” Ann said, opening a new computer file and closing the Kartoupelo subject with one crisp motion.

That day seemed to Bob the beginning of a perpetual involvement of his family with the Kartoupelos. The first thing he heard when he got out of his car the next evening was a heavily accented voice from across the street hollering, “Papa’s home!” Bob looked over just in time to see the neighbor’s front door burst open, Mrs. K and little whatshername dashing out to greet the fat foreigner bounding up the walkway. Bob watched as the three of them embraced as if Papa was returning from some long, bloody war that he'd won single-handedly. Shaking his head, Bob headed up his own front steps where not even the cat came to meet him.

During dinner that night Ann casually mentioned that their daughter, Cindy, had spent the day playing with the Kartoupelo’s little girl. Bob turned to his daughter, trying to catch her eye as she rolled some peas around her plate. “Is that so?” He asked. She made a minute head movement that he took to be a nod. “Have a good time?”

“Mnh hmn.”

“She about your age?”

“Mnh.”

“So, what'd you do over there?”

“Oh, they had a lot of fun,” Ann jumped in. “Didn’t you, dear?”

“I guess.” Cindy mumbled. “They got all old stuff.”

“What kind of old stuff?” Bob said, leaning over to see his daughter’s face.

“Y'know, like junk.” Cindy finally looked up from her pea pushing. “Their furniture’s all scratched up like they got it at the dump, and there’s a brick holding up one side of the couch. Even their clothes look like they used to belong to somebody else. And their house smells gross! Do I have to go over there again, Daddy? Krista talks funny and she doesn’t even have a CD player.”

“It was my idea,” Ann said. “Krista, that’s the little girl, was outside all by herself. She was scratching at the sidewalk with a piece of broken chalk, and she looked so lonely. I just thought it might be nice if she and Cindy could be friends.”

Bob glanced at his wife, wondering how to approach the situation. Her expression was just the one he expected, the one that told him that if he reached down deep enough he'd come up with the right answer. It was as if a bit of Ann’s innate kindness flowed across the table, the words suddenly in his head. “You don’t have to go there if you don’t want to, but I think it'd be nice. Imagine if you were in an unfamiliar country with no friends. Wouldn’t you want someone to be kind to you?”

“I suppose,” Cindy said.

“Sure you would. They probably couldn’t take all their things with them when they came here. Maybe it was real bad where they used to live and they had to get out in a hurry. I’ll bet that in a few months they’ll fit right in. Just watch, they’ll end up more like us than you could ever imagine.”

Ann beamed at her husband, Cindy seemed unsure but maybe willing to give them a chance, and Bob found himself believing his own words. Believing them until late the following Sunday when his orderly little world spun into a whole new orbit.

As Bob was taking out the trash that Sunday evening, he witnessed the same scene across the street as the week before. Papa Kartoupelo, dressed in a different, but just as colorful costume, came drumming and marching down his driveway, leading his tiny trash procession to the curb.Bob’s curiosity wouldn’t allow him to return quietly to his own house, but propelled him across the road to stand before the neighbors, a foolish grin plastered to his face, an awkward hand stuck out in greeting.

“Hi, I'm Bob Mahoney. From across the way? I couldn’t help noticing you out here, so I thought I'd introduce myself.” He was grateful when the man took his hand so he could stop babbling for a minute. The grip was like a steel trap.

“I am Papa Kartoupelo,” the man pronounced carefully. He made a sweeping gesture toward his wife and daughter. “This my family, Kira an Krista.”

Bob nodded while the woman offered a shy smile and the girl studied the toes of her worn sneakers. “Well,” Bob began awkwardly, “I see you’re having quite a time taking out the trash.”

Papa lit up like a little boy with a new toy. “Tomorrow garbage day, so tonight we celebrate Garbage Eve. This country so wonderful, a holiday every week!”

“Guess I never looked at it like that,” Bob said, trying to think of a graceful way to escape this fat madman.

“Where we come from,” Papa explained, “whole village could live for month on what people throw away on this street tonight.”

“I suppose we are pretty wasteful,” Bob said.

“That what make this land so great,” Papa said gathering his wife and child in his bear-like arms. They turned and started up the driveway, leaving Bob speechless at the curb.

Bob dreamt of garbage that night: huge mounds of trash, like a rubbish mountain range extending as far as the eye could see. The Kartoupelo family frolicked, hand in hand, across the slopes. Krista took a running dive off a tall, trash cliff, crashing into a wickedly gleaming pile of sharp silver cans. Bob sat straight up in bed.

Rubbing his eyes, trying to wipe away the image of Krista’s slashed face, Bob lay back on his pillow. He rolled onto his side and heard the same metallic sound from his dream. For one appallingly long moment he was sure he'd see the little girl’s torn face grinning up at him if he peeked over the side of the bed. Then the noise came again and he realized he was hearing it through the open window.

Sneaking out of bed so as not to wake Ann, he crept to the window and looked down onto the midnight street. He could just make out the lighter shade of the sidewalk and some darker shapes that he took to be his trash pails. He was thinking that there seemed to be too many pails, when one of the shapes moved. And then another and another. Three shadowy figures seemed to be digging in the garbage cans.

Bob hustled down the stairs, hoping to catch them in the act. His hand was closing around the knob on the front door when he froze. Something told him he didn’t want to go out there, didn’t want the prowlers to know he saw them. It was a little like catching somebody picking their nose at a red light, or seeing someone kick a dog when they think no one is looking. Or witnessing a member of your community engaged in some behavior so unnatural that they might just do something to keep you from telling anyone. And it was that last thought that stopped Bob in his tracks. There was no way he was going to confront them at their witching hour work, but he had to find out exactly what it was they were doing.

Moving to a front window, he lifted the shade just enough to peek out. He could hear the rattle of the cans clearly and, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he began to recognize Papa Kartoupelo’s round form selecting tidbits of trash and stashing them in [some sort of sack]. Evidently his wife and child couldn’t wait to get home for the feast; they were rooting around in the pails, coffee grounds slopping from Mrs. K’s over-full maw, bits of eggshell stuck to little Krista’s chin, as they chomped and slurped and gobbled the garbage. Bob felt he'd be sick if he watched for a minute longer, but he couldn’t tear his eyes from the abominable banquet for even a second. Papa finally filled his bag, popped something into his mouth that might’ve been the bit of moldy cheese that Ann had thrown away the day before, and headed up the sidewalk, presumably, towards the next offering.

After a moment, Kira and the youngest Kartoupelo followed.

That seemed to break the spell. Bob backed away from the window, unconsciously running his tongue through his lips, swallowing over and over to ease the dryness in his mouth. He collapsed onto the couch and sat in the dark, wondering if he could tell even his wife what he'd seen.

The next morning, Bob woke up stiff and sore from the sofa. He'd finally fallen asleep sometime near dawn, after turning on the television to purge the pictures from his head. By the time his wife and daughter woke up and Bob had a couple of cups of coffee, the events of the night before didn’t seem quite as bizarre. Not that he thought it was normal to scrounge for food in someone’s garbage, but he began to consider the idea that what the Kartoupelos had been doing might not be considered outlandish behavior back where they'd come from. For years he'd heard stories from his parents about the Depression, how it'd turned people into misers and workaholics. Maybe this was the same kind of thing. The Kartoupelos were probably victims of such poverty that they'd learned to scavenge to survive. Bob thought back to what he had told his daughter about giving the new neighbors time to adjust, and decided to take his own advice.

Over the next few days Bob found himself increasingly irritable at work. At home he grew distant, retreating behind the newspaper or through the T.V. screen. As much as he wanted to believe that the best course was to mind his own business, a part of him, that bothersome part that had conjured the vision of the girl’s bloody face, insisted he do something. He was angry because he wasn’t sure how to handle the situation, and furious that he felt it was his responsibility to figure it out.

It all came to a head when he drove up his street on Thursday night. There was Papa, bouncing down the sidewalk, calling out his customary “Papa’s home!” as he reached his yard. The sight of his neighbor, the oblivious bluster of the man, made up Bob’s mind that it was time to go over there and see if there was anything he could do to straighten the whole thing out. Perhaps have a talk with them about food banks and charitable organizations. At least drop a few hints about the dangers of disease.

Mrs. Kartoupelo, attired in her usual drab uniform, opened the door and immediately turned her head, calling over her shoulder in an odd sounding language that Bob wasn’t able to identify. Papa came bustling to the entryway, nudging his wife aside and greeting Bob in his loud bass voice. He wore a conservative pair of red bib overalls and seemed extremely pleased to have company. Taking Bob by the hand, he led him to a seat in the living room. Mrs. K left the men alone.

The first thing Bob noticed after sitting down was the odor. It made sense that the place would smell bad, considering their dining habits, but there was a foulness to the air that went beyond the mere pungency of spoiled food. He tried to ignore it, looking around the room with a silly smile on his face. The furniture was just as his daughter had described it, looking like it had been unearthed instead of bought. There was not a single decoration of any kind on the walls, and Bob was surprised to see that there wasn’t the television set that he assumed would be in even the poorest of American dwellings. There wasn’t even a radio in sight. He wondered how they amused themselves when they weren’t out gathering garbage. Mr. Kartoupelo hovered over Bob, an expectant expression on his fleshy face. Bob searched for a casual tone.

“Listen, I was thinking, Mr. …”

“Papa! Call me Papa. We friends.”

“Yea, well uh, Papa. Like I said, I was thinking. Being neighbors an all…”

“Yes, neighbors!” Papa agreed happily.

“I think neighbors should help one another, and…”

“Of course, help. What you need?” Papa bent down, apparently so Bob could whisper, should he be embarrassed to beg out loud.

“No, no,” Bob said quickly, “You don’t understand. I thought I might be able to do something for you. Maybe lend you a couple of bucks. I realize you’ve got your pride, and I don’t mean to insult you, but just to make sure your wife and daughter have enough to eat, until you can get on your feet.”

Papa smiled indulgently, as if Bob had said something stupid, but kind of cute. “Wife and daughter have plenty to eat. All Kartoupelos have plenty. More than we need.”

Bob saw he was getting nowhere. He hated to do it, but the guy just wasn’t getting it. “Look, I saw you Sunday night. In the… you know, in my garbage. Now, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t spying or anything, I just happened to glance out the window. What you’re doing is unhealthy! And its also unnecessary. If you don’t want to take anything from me, there’s all sorts of assistance out there. But you’ve gotta stop doing what you’re doing. You’re all going to get sick! Understand?”

Papa walked toward the doorway. “I understand. We not sick, healthy as pack of wolves. Now you must go home. You are tired, talk crazy.” He stood holding the door, and Bob had no choice but to leave. He also knew that he had no choice but to tell someone what was going on. And he wasn’t about to waste his time with cumbersome state agencies or ineffectual charitable foundations. It was time to do what he should’ve done in the first place, bring out the big guns. Bob went home and told his wife everything.

As always, her confidence amazed him. After he'd finished telling the tale, the words tumbling out like a guilt-crazed schoolboy’s in a confessional, Ann headed out to have a “mother-to-mother talk” with Kira Kartoupelo. Bob had a feeling that after ten minutes alone with his wife, Mrs. K would be ready to write down recipes and begin clipping coupons. He was sitting at the kitchen table, just starting to enjoy the feeling that everything would be all right, when Ann came through the back door.

“They’re not home,” she said.

“Sure they are,” Bob said. I told you I was just over there.”

“Well, if they are, they’re not answering the door.”

Bob stood up, saying, “I'm gonna find out what they’re up to, now.”

“Don’t do anything foolish,” Ann called to him. But he was already out the door.

Bob marched up the Kartoupelo’s front steps and jammed a finger into the doorbell button. He heard the chime, but that was all that happened; no footsteps, no plump woman in black, no hearty welcome from his new buddy, Papa. After punching the button a few more times, Bob decided they weren’t going to play games with him. He walked around the house, peeping in windows, listening for some tell-tale sound to prove the house wasn’t empty. From what he could see, only the living room and kitchen were furnished, the other rooms used to store junk that ranged from broken exercise bikes to old fashioned dress dummies.

The last window he checked looked in on a space the size of a small bedroom that was almost completely filled with plastic garbage bags. He picked up the odor right through the glass, and was about to give up his search when he noticed the pile of clothes in a corner. At least that was what he assumed it was, but there was something wrong about it. The more he stared, the less it looked like clothes heaped in that dusty corner. He gave the window frame a tentative push, and the glass slid smoothly up. The stench was overpowering. Turning his head, Bob took a deep breath, then angled himself into the room.

With every step he told himself that this was insane, he'd be caught, probably arrested, but he kept on wading through the bags toward the corner. It seemed to take forever, placing his feet carefully among the soft sacks. When he reached the pile, his breath burst from his lungs, but he no longer noticed the smell. Every bit of his attention was focused on what lay in the corner. For a second his brain refused to accept what he was seeing, insisting that it was nothing more than a stack of foam pads, some leftover carpet matting. A glimpse of finger, a flash of foot, and his mind invented a collection of rubber costumes, stored out of the way until the next Halloween. A good hard look at a tangle of oily black hair, deflated breast, flattened little girl face, and Bob’s head gave up trying to fool him. He stared at the three empty skins, wondering who they'd belonged to before the Kartoupelos.

Bob managed to pry himself away from that vile pile, not so much because he was afraid of getting caught in the house, although the very thought terrified him, but because he found the sight of those pelts utterly fascinating. And that scared the hell out of him because he understood that if he didn’t get out of there quick, he might just have to touch them. He experienced a reckless curiosity, a desperate longing to know how this was done, to understand exactly what these creatures, these Kartoupelos, were about. Forcing himself back across the room, he ducked through the window and ran toward his house.

Ann was waiting for him when he returned. “Well?” she asked, “were they there?”

“No, they’ve gone away.”

“Gone away? What do you mean, moved out? I didn’t see a truck or anything. Are you sure they’re gone, gone, or just out for a while? How can you tell? You didn’t go in there, did you?”

“I just know.”

“Maybe they went to the store or out visiting someone.”

“Visiting?” Bob began to laugh. “I don’t think… they can’t go visiting without their…” His laughter turned shrill, almost a shriek. “I don’t know where they are, but its not out for a goddamn visit!” He collapsed into a chair, eyes wild, howling in helpless, air gulping laughter.

All that evening, Bob sat and stared at the T.V., jumping at every noise, a slight twitch developing in his right eye. Ann kept a close watch on him, figuring he would eventually tell her what was bothering him when he'd worried whatever it was to a stalemate. When the eleven o'clock news came on and Bob was still silent, Ann went up to bed, leaving her husband to fall into a fitful sleep on the couch.

Bob sat straight up on the sofa. Rubbing his eyes, trying to wipe away the nightmare image, he lay back on the couch. He rolled onto his side and heard the same metallic sound from his dream. Then the noise came again and he realized he was hearing it from outside. He rushed to the front window, gazing out at the empty street, then caught his mistake: this wasn’t Garbage Eve, the cans were still in back of the house where he kept them during the week. He made his way to the kitchen window.

In the darkness of the back yard, Bob was able to make out two figures, one larger than the other. As he watched, they foraged through the trash, the larger one leaning deep into a pail, the smaller sifting through the debris that spilled from the other can laying on its side. Bob was wondering where Papa was when his eyes adjusted just enough to recognize the scavengers. His head reeled, his stomach lurched, as he gaped at his wife and daughter gobbling up the garbage. He passed out cold on the kitchen floor when a voice behind him whispered, “Papa’s home.”

 

 

Lester Thees has worked as a welder, driving instructor, office manager, truck driver, private investigator, and house painter, spent a year in college, a year in a Catholic Seminary, and many years in the Land of the Lotus Eaters. He began writing after a friend cornered him in a dark parking lot and forced him to admit what he really wanted to do with his life. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Ellen, and their cat, Rita. His fiction has appeared in over a dozen print publications, including Not One Of Us, Night Terrors, Outer Darkness, Mindmares, and vampire Dana’s Story Emporium, and on the World Wide Web in Shadow Feast, Gathering Darkness, Crimson, and Genre Zone.


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ISSUE #3

October 1999

FICTION

ART