Chris Cleary

Werewolves of Landrum

You all remember Jeff Ewing. Short, fidgety guy with a soup-bowl haircut. That’s right—Jeff Jesus-Christ. Like it was his actual hyphenated last name. What a cutup, always introducing himself as Jeff Jesus-Christ. He’d take your hand, and give you this big smile, and say, “Howdy do! I’m Jeff. Jeff Jesus-Christ.” Never got old. Well, come to think of it, it didn’t really have a chance to get old. He wasn’t around long after he started doing it. Disappeared from Rosebaron in the middle of our senior year. Don’t know where he went. We came to school one day, and he was gone. But I always remember him referring to himself as Jeff Jesus-Christ. Jeff Jesus-Christ! You ever notice, though, that it wasn’t just him being silly to make us laugh? No, there was something else. Well, I don’t know, something of a challenge in the way he said it. Under the words. Daring us to forget him, just once, like when there was a party at Weaver’s, or a bunch of us were going out to a movie on the weekend. You never picked up on that? Maybe it was my imagination, but I don’t think so.

See, he started the Jeff Jesus-Christ riff the summer we worked together at Landrum Orchards, that produce place a few miles outside Middletown. You know, with the octagonal barn and all that farmland surrounding it, peaches and pears and cantaloupes and whatever. And those animal cages they put up for their petting zoo, deer and stuff that’d come up to you and suck down the apple core you’d shove through the bars like they just locked them up and never fed the poor, damned things.

So, anyway, Jeff and I worked a summer there with a bunch of other kids from the various high schools. And our supervisor was this guy, must’ve been about 22 or 23, who was also named Jeff. And the first day we show up, he took us into the apple-sorting room, and we went around the circle to introduce ourselves. “Hi, I’m Gary,” and so on.

Now when it came to Jeff, he said, “It’ll be easy for you to remember me! My name’s Jeff too!”

Well, this guy — who was tall and lean like he’d run track when he was in high school and had this long curly head of hair that he shook now and then like a lion’s mane — he walked right up to Jeff, and of course he towered over him ‘cause Jeff was so short and this guy was so tall, and he said to him, “Well, we can’t have two of us named Jeff. That’s going to be confusing. Why don’t we call you Jeff Junior? Or just plain Junior.”

And Jeff’s face went scarlet red, and he got this look of instant hate in his eyes. The other guys around me could see that having to change his name really got under his skin like he was all of a sudden this nobody, a pale copy of someone else who’d already claimed the rights to his name. They didn’t say anything, but they all understood that the hierarchy was being established. This guy was only five or six years older than us, so he felt he had to let us know he was in charge. Just like a baboon showing his ass.

“Yeah, we’ll call you Junior.”

But he was acting real cool about it like it was a joke.

“That’s all right with you, isn’t it?”

“That’s not my name.”

Jeff didn’t raise his voice. It was a really intense whisper.

“That’s not my name. My name is Jeff. Jeff Ewing.”

“Oh, Ewing, huh? Then we won’t call you Junior. We’ll have to make that J. R.!”

He laughed, and all of us laughed along with him. We knew he was referring to the season cliffhanger of that TV show everyone was talking about at the time. You know, “Who shot J. R.?”

Jeff Senior laughed again and poked him in the shoulder.

“J. R.! Fits you perfectly.”

Then he immediately moved on to the next kid. And so the matter was settled.

But Jeff never got used to it, and Jeff Senior never let it go. J. R. this and J. R. that. And whenever he wanted his attention, he made sure he was halfway across the floor so he would have to call out so everyone would hear, “Hey, J. R., bring out some more onions!” or “J. R., grab a broom and sweep up around the corn bin!” just to establish this new name among the customers. And poor Jeff could only flinch and mutter under his breath, “My name’s Jeff! Jesus Christ!” I think Jeff Senior was also showing off for the Landrums, like “See, I’ve got this kid under my thumb.”

Now let me tell you about the Landrums. They were a family of four brothers who owned the business. There was Larry, the oldest, and we saw him the most, as he was in charge of making sure Jeff Senior kept things in order on the floor. The three younger brothers were called Skip, Trip, and Chip. I’m not making that up. Their father obviously had run out of imagination when it came to handing out nicknames for his boys. But I guess they never minded it growing up because they all had learned to work like robots in whatever job they’d been given. Skip was in charge of the finances and ran the small gift shop on the second floor. Trip was a supervisor in their garage, and he must’ve had a real perspiration problem because every time he came inside to talk to Larry, he was wearing a new shirt. We never knew if he was always stopping off at his house to change or he had a closet full of clothes in the back. The youngest, Chip, organized the fieldworkers and had this spotted Great Dane called Princess that was as big as a horse that followed him everywhere. Occasionally he’d bend over to give it a peck on the head, and we joked he even slept with the damned thing.

But what was really strange about the Landrum brothers was that you’d swear they just stepped out of a horror movie. And you could tell they were all related because when they stood side by side, you’d swear they’d been cloned, probably by some mad scientist. Their faces were one big ball of fur, from the puffy hairdo to the tight curls that started just below the bags of their eyes, down their jawline and ended in a round beard that reached down to the middle of their chest. I’m serious. They were so hairy they probably had to run a comb through the backs of their hands on grooming day. On top of that, they all had a pug nose that always ended up black with smudges when they rubbed it with their sleeves. And beady eyes hidden by these great bushy eyebrows.

Well, we were all teenagers, which means, of course, we could be a bit obnoxious now and then, so we weren’t ready to let their physical appearance go without a comment or two. There was this guy, Vince. Had these teardrop mirror sunglasses. Remember them? The height of fashion in the ‘70s. Asshole thought he was a real hotshot. And always on the lookout for Larry so he could tell what he could get away with. I swear he could turn his head around 360° like an owl. So whenever Vince saw Larry or one of his brothers across the floor, he would break into song, loud enough only for us to hear, and it’d be that Warren Zevon number that had come out a couple of years before.

“Psssst! Gary!”

“What?”

He’d lean across the mound of squash or whatever that separated us.

“A sighting! At your three o’clock!”

I’d look. Larry was by the front door.

“Aooooooo! Werewolves of Landrum!”

And I’d laugh, just like the other kids. The joke became a real hit, and a few of them started doing it too. You’d be standing in the middle of the floor rearranging the bananas or whatever, and all of a sudden you’d hear this soft Aooooooo coming from two or three different places, and we’d know not to mess around, like whipping the rotten grapes at each other, ‘cause one of the Landrums just came in. So that was our little joke.

But the first time I did it, Jeff was next to me, and he did not laugh. He got all full of himself and stared me down.

“Shut up, Arietto. You’re just as bad as the rest of them.”

“What’s wrong with you? Don’t you think it’s funny?”

“They’ve given you a job. They pay you regularly. They’ve treated you fairly. So you shouldn’t disrespect them like that. All right?”

Well, I won’t lie. I kind of found it hard to stick up for the Landrums. I mean, they weren’t the friendliest bunch. Cold and distant. Private folks they were. Some of you kid me about being one of those close talkers, and that’s only because I like to connect with people. I’m a people person. That’s who I am. But the Landrums, well, they just made you feel weird. Maybe Jeff saw something in them that I didn’t.

But to make him feel better, I admitted, okay, I guess they weren’t a bad sort. They weren’t mean. They never once raised their voice. Anyway, I figured it’d be best for me to lay off the howling, at least when Jeff was around.
And I wasn’t disrespecting them. I just found it funny is all.

Well, the other kids heard about Jeff’s disapproval. I think I may have mentioned it to one of them in passing. I wasn’t ratting Jeff out, of course. I just wanted them to cut back on it a little so’s not to upset him. And, of course, my good intentions backfired. Not only did they keep up the howling whenever they spotted a Landrum. They started doing it right behind Jeff’s back. They said he was one of them now, the runt of the werewolf litter.

As you might guess, things between Jeff and the rest of them went downhill pretty quickly. The more they targeted him, the more he pushed back.

Like the time he found out Vince was squirreling away half-filled cartons of cider in the back of the walk-in cooler to ferment them into applejack. Vince thought one of the Landrums was finding them and emptying them out, but one day he caught Jeff pouring it down the drain. The next week, Vince and a couple of his buddies trailed Jeff to the storage area on the third floor, the apex of the octagonal barn that was a home for all these bats. They picked Jeff up and threw him in a huge mound of guano. Jeff went to Jeff Senior to complain, but Jeff Senior did nothing about it. So Jeff went out to the greenhouse, where Jeff Senior was growing this exotic flower as a gift for his mother, and pissed in the pot, and the thing was dead the next day.

Or like the time Walter had the guys lock him in the freezer. Blond Nazi prick, this Walter, always looking down on us first-timers and ordering us out of “his kitchen,” where we used to like to hang out ‘cause it smelled so good. See, it was Walter’s second season with Landrum Orchards, so he had been promoted to baking the fruit pies. Well, one day, Jeff told Walter he had no right to order him anywhere, that it wasn’t really his kitchen.

“Okay, you want to help? Get me some more butter. It’s in the freezer next to the flats of ice cream.”

So Jeff agreed, and as soon he was in the freezer and looking around, Walter locked the door on him and turned off the lights. He let him out after a while. Laughed like a hyena as Jeff stood shivering by the ovens trying to get warm again.

But Jeff didn’t yell at him or anything. He’d already planned his revenge. He knew Walter would sometimes reserve the best pies for himself, the ones that came out of the oven without any of the crust burnt. You’d see the box in the corner of his worktable with his name written on the top in black magic marker—WALTER’S PIE, DON’T TOUCH! So later that week, Jeff had me stand guard, and I watched him take one of these perfect pies out of the box, delicately extract it from its pie tin, open up the bottom—he could’ve been a surgeon, he was so careful—and dump in a whole bunch of salt. Then he put everything back in place and waited for Walter to take his perfect pie home to Mom and Dad. By the way, I doubt Walter actually purchased any of these pies. He kept a roll of PAID stickers that he took from the cash register and hid in the back of his cabinets.

Well, the next day I was rolling these cases of oranges out of the refrigerator, and Jeff and Walter were going at it. Not physically. That’s the strange thing about that summer. You were just waiting for someone to throw a punch, but it never got that far, and nobody got hurt. Anyway, Walter was going off on Jeff, calling him a misfit and delinquent, saying his mother and aunt couldn’t control him, that his father was smart enough to walk out on him when he had the chance before Jeff soiled his good name. I don’t know how Walter knew about his home life, in that row house on North Second by the tracks, when Jeff was the only one besides me that went to Rosebaron, and everyone else went to different schools. Walter must’ve gone through the personnel files when nobody was looking. I swear it didn’t come from me.

Anyway, Jeff got real quiet, but he was all red in the face and had those daggers in his eyes I saw him get with Jeff Senior on the first day. Walter thought he’d made his point and turned away. But Jeff picked up this 24-egg carton and dumped the whole lot on Walter’s head and ran back out onto the floor, where he was safe among the customers, ‘cause Walter was not going to come after him drenched in egg yolks and everything.

Well, the next morning when Jeff and I were clocking in, we ran into Larry, who told us we were going to be working outside for a while. He didn’t say why exactly, but I knew why right away, and I was glad of it, ‘cause I was thinking about the hell that was going to happen to Jeff that day when Walter would team up with the others again for revenge. We followed Larry around back, and when we got to the truck, we noticed there were a couple of picking bags in the bed, canvas sacks that you’d fill and then release the bottom part so the fruit could ease into the bushel and not get bruised. I asked Larry what we’d be picking, and he told us it was peaches all week.

But we didn’t head out to the peach orchard. We went the opposite direction, down the south road towards the woods, and Larry turned the truck off onto this tiny dirt road. We were bouncing up and down over the rocks and potholes, wondering where the hell he was taking us. The trees got thicker and thicker, and the road back to civilization got farther and farther away. We didn’t say anything, but any reasonable kid would’ve come to the conclusion that we were done for, that Larry was going to murder us and bury the bodies where no one would find us. We soon came to a rundown cabin. Larry drove across the grass and pulled up to the front porch. We heard several dogs barking around the back.

“Stay here,” he said, and without any explanation of what he was about to do, he got out and left us alone in the pickup.

“Holy shit!” I said to Jeff. “What is this place?”

“No idea.”

“Hear those dogs? Probably some of his distant relatives.”

“Shut up.”

“If he comes out with an axe, I’m running.”

Eventually, Larry did reappear, but not with an axe. In one hand he carried a large paper bag, half filled. In the other, he carried the carcass of some animal I couldn’t identify ‘cause it was stripped of its fur. He left the paper bag on the porch and walked around to the rear of the cabin. Seconds later, the barking stopped.

“He’s feeding them that meat,” Jeff said.

“As long as it isn’t us.”

“Must be hunting dogs.”

We waited a few minutes more, and then Larry returned, retrieved the paper bag from the porch, tossed it into the bed, and drove us back past the barn and into the orchard.

This was the first time either of us had ever picked anything out of a tree, so Larry demonstrated how the satchels worked and explained which peaches to pick and which to leave alone. He told us to be careful not to damage the fruit when placing our ladders against the branch.

“Gary, you start with this tree and work your way down the row. Go on up. Let me watch how you do it.”

I made sure the ladder was anchored well against a sturdy branch and climbed into the foliage. I found a full-grown peach and gave it a twist. Then I carefully placed it into the bag.

“That’s fine. Remember, this is not a race. I’d rather you do it right and be safe than try to get it all done in one day. Like I said, you’re here all week.”

He found the paper bag in the bed of the pickup and dropped in onto the grass.

“Here’s your lunch for today. I know you both buy sandwiches back at the barn, but tomorrow you’ll have to start bringing your own lunches. There’s a water line over there if you get thirsty. I’ll come back to get you before quitting time.”

He took Jeff to a tree in the next row over and pointed to his ladder, which was lying horizontally in the grass against the trunk. I turned back to pick the rest of the fruit that was within arm’s reach, but when I looked through the branches at the endless row of trees, I was overwhelmed. I knew the week was going to creep by. I was about to ask Larry if we couldn’t switch with two of the other kids the next day. It wasn’t fair to punish us when we weren’t the ones who had started it all.

But before I could speak up, I heard Larry talking to Jeff about that very thing. Jeff was sitting on the ladder, his back against the tree, and Larry next to him, all chummy. He said he was aware of what had been going on between him and the other kids, and that picking peaches all week might seem like a punishment, but it was the only way he could think of to keep them apart until we all cooled down. I had been chosen so he would have someone to talk to, someone who was the closest thing he had to a friend.

Larry did all the talking, the most talking I’ve ever heard him do at one time. Jeff said nothing. He just looked at his feet. Probably embarrassed, because Larry kept going on about how difficult it was sometimes to deal with other people, how sometimes you have to see things from their point of view, and take into account things that might be bothering them that has nothing to do with you but that they’ll take out on you because they haven’t learned to deal with their own stuff yet, all this fatherly stuff that I can’t remember now.

Well, when he finally finished, he put his hand on Jeff’s knee and then got to his feet. Good timing, because I’d just about run out of fruit to pick and would’ve had to interrupt him when I climbed back down to reposition the ladder.

Larry was about to open the door to the pickup when he turned back to Jeff.

“Think about what I said. It’ll get better, J. R.”

And then he drove off.

Jeff got up from the ladder and watched him leave. Then he yanked the ladder erect, planted one end into the earth, and slammed it into the branches of the tree with all his might. He did it again and again. Peaches rained down on him.

“Jeff, what the hell?”

He looked up at me. His laughter was hollow and humorless.

“Who needs the whole week? We can have them all down in no time!”

“But you’re bruising them!”

He picked up one from the ground and looked it over.

“So what? Things get bruised all the time.”

Then he sank in his teeth, and the juice dribbled down his chin like blood.

***

Chris Cleary is a native of southeastern Pennsylvania, in which many of his stories are set. He is the author of four novels: The Vagaries of Butterflies, The Ring of Middletown, At The Brown Brink Eastward, And The Vitality Of Illusion. His work has appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Belle Ombre, Wilderness House Literary Review and other publications. His story “An Idea of the Journey” appears in the award-winning Everywhere Stories Vol. 2 from Press 53.

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