Dean was just dozing off in his favorite spot in the back pew when the Rev. Bugbuoy said, “That reminds me of a story.”
Right away Dean blinked his eyes to attention because one of the few times he listened was when the preacher told a story or a joke. He glanced sideways to see if his wife, Sharilyn, was glaring at him for going to sleep. Sometimes she even elbowed him in the side. But she was looking forward at the minister, a slight smile already on her face. Good--unusual but good. Better that she hadn’t noticed him.
Rev. Bugbuoy was touching the top of his bristly dark shaved-off head, looking really sober--which was good. It was one of his mannerisms before a really funny story.
Then he said, “There was this high school teacher giving a mid-term exam, and four boys in the class didn’t show up. They hadn’t called ahead. The teacher didn’t have any excuses for them.
“About two hours later, they did show up--four big old gangly boys standing there in front of the teacher, not looking her or each other in the eye. They all said they were sorry, but they had a good reason for missing the test. They had a flat tire on the car they all came in. Could she give them another chance?
“Now, this teacher was an old experienced hand. She knew what integrity looked like, and these boys were looking off at the corners of the room, or up at the ceiling, and only occasionally glancing at her face. But, OK, she says, she’ll give them a chance at a make-up test, but it will include some extra questions. ‘That’s fine, that’s fine,’ all the boys said.
“So, the teacher takes the boys into another room by themselves, and seats them apart from each other at the four corners of the room with a pen and paper for each. The first question, she announces, is, ‘Which tire was flat?’”
The congregation was laughing, and Sharilyn was chuckling hard as she looked at him, but Dean could only pretend to laugh. Good Lord, where had Rev. Bugbuoy gotten that story? Could he know? Did he know that Dean had been one of those boys? Oh well, probably this was a happenstance occasion, coincidental--probably some joke book had happened to give the Rev. Bugbuoy a true story.
Dean snuggled back comfortably into the cushions on the wooden pew as Rev. Bugbuoy loudly proclaimed, “Integrity.....” to begin his sermon.
Dean’s eyes were closed, and he gasped into a snore. He automatically woke himself up before Sharilyn could give him the usual elbow in the side. But she wasn’t looking at him this time. Her brown eyes were focused forward at the podium, where the Rev. Bugbuoy was saying, “That reminds me of a boy another time.
“He was at an abandoned house with some friends, an old falling-down thing with the plaster lattice showing bare like the ribs of a skeleton from the inside. They were poking with sticks to try to get rats that ran through the walls. They finally brought in firecrackers, and poked them through the holes to explode on the rats. They got more and more enthused pushing wads of firecrackers into the wall. Finally the wall caught fire.
“They sat on a hill a little way away, watching that old house burn in the wee hours of the morning when they all should have been home in bed. None of them ever told who did it. That boy didn’t tell his daddy he burned down the house. But it was private property. It belonged to somebody. The boy lacked integrity....”
Good golly, Bugbuoy must know something, Dean thought. This was the second story about him as a young man. He glanced around to see if anyone was looking at him, but even Sharilyn was only brushing at a corner of her brown curls as she looked straight ahead.
It made it tough to sleep again. Before Dean knew it, the service was over, and he’d stayed awake through the rest of it.
The Rev. Bugbuoy just said, “Good morning, good to see you, Dean,” as he went through the line to go out the door.
Mrs. Bugbuoy took his hand, too, but then held it a moment longer as she pulled an envelope from the table behind her.
“I almost forgot, Dean. Somebody left something for you here marked ‘Personal.’”
Dean took the envelope, turning it over in his hands as he walked out the door into a blustery north wind. He walked quickly to the car without visiting with anybody. Then he tore open the envelope to find a single sheet of lined stationery with three words written in lower case in the center, “It’s payback time.”
Payback time? What could that mean? It was probably no use worrying about it. But that Bugbuoy and his wife--they did know some things about him, didn’t they?
“Why are you in such a hurry?” asked Sharilyn as she got in the car.
“Just tired, and it’s Sunday. I’d like to get home, eat dinner and just relax a little--wouldn’t you?”
“Sure, but there’s a few chores we’ll have to do.”
“I know, I know,” said Dean.
At home, he hurried into the house ahead of her and punched the telephone answering machine as he went by it. Immediately, he heard a funny, low, gravelly voice that could have belonged to a man or a woman.
“It’s payback time, Dean,” said the voice. “Remember when you stole gasoline out of the tractor? Snuck right into the shed to get it time after time, didn’t you? Well, a list has been kept all these years-- the payback list. It’s payback time, Dean.”
Then, “click,” the voice was gone.
Old Man Simpson, that’s who the voice had to be. Dean used to sneak into the shed where Simpson’s tractor was stored, loosen the pet-cock on the gas line to drain some gasoline into his can, tighten it back up, and sneak back out again. Nobody should have known. Nobody could have been the wiser. But somehow Old Man Simpson knew and he was connected with the Rev. Bugbuoy.
Wait. Old Man Simpson was dead--had been for 20 years. Nobody would believe the Rev. Bugbuoy had a connection where he could hear the dead, least of all Dean. But the thought made the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
“Brrring,” rang the telephone.
“Hello,” said Dean as he picked up the receiver.
“Hi, Dean,” said the same low, gravelly voice. “Remember when you and the other boys did a drive-by egging of Sheila and her boyfriend? You ruined her dress and their evening. It’s payback time.”
“Who is this?” hollered Dean. “Who are you anyway? Say, is this Bugbuoy? OK, Mrs. Bugbuoy?”
But only silence could be heard on the other end. Dean listened a few minutes, then hung up.
Sharilyn came through the door saying, “Dean, do you realize you didn’t feed or water the dog when you got up this morning? You better take care of him before we eat. I don’t really appreciate it that I had to check on him.”
“Yes, dear,” said Dean. He felt really tired.
"Dean, do you think you might be able to help me with the dishes after we eat?”
Later that afternoon, after she had cleared the dishes, and was washing them alone, he was snoring in the reclining chair in front of the football game on television when the phone rang again.
Where was Sharilyn, anyway? He wanted her to answer the annoyance that was waking him up. The last thing he wanted to hear again was that gravelly voice.
He muted the game. “Sharilyn, where are you? Can you answer that phone?”
“Brrring...brrring...click.” The answering machine was coming on. He could hear it.
“Are you there, Dean?” asked the low gravelly voice. “Wake up, boy. It’s payback time. You’re the one who made Russell miserable calling him four-eyes when he got dark-framed glasses, remember? You even slapped him on the back of the head when he was going down the stairs. That was mean, Dean. Now it’s payback time.”
Who was that? Russell? Would stupid old Russell come back years later to connive with Bugbuoy? But Russell couldn’t know about Old Man Simpson’s gas, could he? He’d kept that quiet. Heck, he didn’t even know where Russell was or what had happened to him. Yet, that gravelly voice did have a tone of familiarity to it. Whoever was behind this gravelly voice, didn’t they know he never did pranks or bothered the property of other people like this any more? Heck, he had grown up. He just wanted to do his work, have his peace, and get along. Why bring up the past?
Sharilyn came in. “Good, you’re finally awake,” she said. “I took a walk with the dog, and I’ve been playing ball with him. I wish you’d come along, too. It seems like forever since Shellie left for college. All you do is work and sleep.”
“Oh, come on, Sharilyn. I get tired, you know. I’m entitled to a little relaxation.”
“A little, yes. But you’re sleeping away our time at home. It seems like you sleep everywhere we go. Of course, you’re worst at church.”
“Hey, I can’t help it if Bugbuoy’s boring and it’s warm in there. Anybody ought to be able to go to sleep in there.”
“Well, you missed the extra part about remembering our veterans who died in action. I guess the only one from our era was Russell Fontclare. You remember Russell Fontclare, don’t you?”
“Old Russell Four Eyes?”
“You might remember him that way. I remember him as Russell Fontclare, a really nice and caring guy. You might have known him better if you hadn’t spent all the time making fun of him.”
Wow, Russell was dead, too. Maybe old Bugbuoy really got messages from the other side. Who knew what a preacher might do getting into all that spiritual stuff?
It was 3 a.m. when the phone started again. “Brrring, brring.”
“Get the phone,” said Sharilyn, elbowing him in the backend from the other side of the bed.
“I don’t want to get the phone. Let the answering machine get it.”
“What if it’s an emergency, Dean? Just go get it. You’ve had more sleep today than I’ve had.”
He heard the answering machine click on to take the message, but the person on the other end didn’t speak. Then the phone started in again. “Brrring, brrring, brrring.”
“OK, OK, I’m coming,” said Dean. “But it hadn’t better be this payback stuff again.... Hello?”
“Hi, Dean,” said the gravelly voice. “Remember when you used to do this to Mrs. Walters late at night? You’d call her, and ask her lame riddles. You nearly scared that woman to death, Dean. Since she’s deceased, who knows but what you didn’t contribute to her death. It’s payback time, Dean.”
Man, were the dead after him? No, it had to be somebody alive, somebody who knew him really well. But who knew him that well? Sharilyn was breathing deeply in her sleep. He wished he was asleep. Maybe he could ask her for an idea on who gravelly voice could be.
Dean didn’t sleep well the rest of the night. Didn’t whoever this was know he was a reformed guy now? Most people said he was even a nice guy. Life might not be terribly exciting, but he had learned to cope without excitement, hadn’t he?
“You’re going to be late for work if you don’t get up now,” said Sharilyn, shaking him by the shoulder. “Hurry into your clothes. I have some eggs and toast ready for you. Hurry, hurry.”
“Sharilyn, can you think of anybody we know with a low, gravelly voice?”
“Your mother when she’s giving hints, maybe.”
“Let’s not start in on Mom.”
He was stunned when he went out to the car. Written with shaving cream across the hood in big letters were the words, “PAYBACK TIME.” It was written the same way across the windshield, across the trunk lid, and on both sides of the car. The shaving cream might eat finish off, he thought. Whoever Gravelly Voice was wanted to make sure he got the message. He didn’t know whether to feel angry and threatened, or just confused. The past should be the past, shouldn’t it?
“There’s a funny message slip in your box,” said Teresa the secretary as he walked through the door at work. “The guy didn’t say who he was. Just called, and said to write it down. He said you’d understand.”
The pink slip simply read, “Payback time.”
Dean found himself staring at the telephone at times all day Monday and all day Tuesday, but no calls came. There wasn’t even anything on the answering machine.
When the phone rang at midnight sharp Wednesday, Dean jumped from the bed as if to attention to a 10-gun flag salute. “What is it?” asked Sharilyn sleepily, but he already was running for the phone.
“Hi, Dean,” said the gravelly voice.
“Talk to me,” said Dean. “I’ll figure out who you are. This stuff had better stop. You have to realize, whoever you are, that I’m a respectable man now. I don’t do things like I did when I was young.”
“Oh, ho,” said gravelly voice. “You’re a fine one to talk when you get on the receiving end. Remember poor Mrs. Belcher, Dean. You boys all used to belch when you stood in lines to ridicule her name. But that wasn’t enough, was it? It was you who stuck the M-80 in the exhaust pipe of her car. That’s like an eighth of a stick of dynamite, Dean. It really damaged her car when it went off, Dean, and she couldn’t afford the repair. Now it’s payback time. It’s time for you, Dean. I’m making a list, and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. And it’s you that was naughty, Dean. It’s payback time.”
“Look, whoever you are, I’ve made things right in the world,” said Dean. “I could pay Mrs. Belcher money if that would help. I don’t do anything any more, just live and let live I say.”
Sharilyn was almost snoring, so he couldn’t tell her about the latest call. But old gravelly voice had almost broken into song, and that tone, that tone.... He knew he knew that voice from somewhere.
It went that way the rest of the week. Thursday morning he thought again of the M-80 in the tailpipe, and went back to check his own tailpipe before starting the car. There was a pink slip wrapped around a stick in the pipe that had “Payback time” written on it.
Every day, the answering machine croaked out two words, “Payback time.”
Friday morning, his car wouldn’t start because it was out of gasoline. When he raised the fuel lid, the note there said, “Payback time.”
Finally, it was church time again. Dean got ready with unusual vigor--even beating Sharilyn to the car.
“My, my, you’re eager for once,” she said.
He kept an eye on everyone, but especially Bugbuoy and his Mrs., during Sunday school. When church began, he surveyed the room for anyone looking too long at him or for anyone with a suspicious expression.
He watched intently as the Rev. Bugbuoy got up to give the sermon.
“Well, I promised,” said the preacher, “to give you a two-part sermon--first on integrity, and then what can happen when you don’t have integrity in your values, in yourself as a person. There always comes a payback time, and that’s our subject today. It’s payback time.”
Dean nearly jumped out of his seat. He listened intently the rest of the service, curling and uncurling his fists. This minister had to confess to him about who gravelly voice was so he could tell them both what a decent man he was now. Why would anybody pick on a guy like himself when there were other people who still did things wrong. What about forgiveness? Yeah, what about forgiveness? Wasn’t church supposed to be partly about forgiveness, just letting people get on with their lives.
He was so obvious in his distress that Sharilyn was glancing back and forth at him. Finally, she was grinning at him, he was looking so stressed and odd during the sermon.
As they got up to go through the minister’s handshake line, she said, “Well, you certainly paid attention, and didn’t nap through church today.”
“First I’m going to get that preacher to tell me if he’s gravelly voice, or who it is if he’s not” said Dean as he clasped his hands tightly together. “Then I have to explain how I don’t bother anybody, and just lay low. Why would they wish payback on me.”
“I don’t think our pastor knows you well enough to have come up with any personal incidents about you, Dean,” said Sharilyn. “If he said something that got to you, somebody probably tipped him off, probably somebody who knew you well.”
Dean blinked at Sharilyn in agitation for a moment. “I’m going to talk with the pastor because he knows something that I don’t,” he said.
Sharilyn tilted her head, smiling with a pertly upturned mouth like she was quite pleased with herself, then stepped against him to kiss him full on the mouth. Other parishoners around them quickly looked away.
“For crying out loud,” whispered Dean, looking at her stunned. “What are you doing? You’ve gone and kissed me in church. It isn’t right.”
“I know I did. It was like we were living people again, wasn’t it? You didn’t complain when I kissed you at our wedding in church. You just come with me to the car because I know who gravelly voice is. Pastor doesn’t know.”
He said “Who?” a couple of times as they walked to the car, but Sharilyn just smiled.
At the car, she sat on her side for a moment, then asked, “What would you say, Dean, if gravelly voice has been telling you it’s payback time because he’s your friend? What if he’s tired of seeing you sleep your life away, not growing as a person, and not spending any time with your wife like you should? What if he only means by payback time that it’s time for you to get some real meaning in your life, be what you should have been, get some joy and action and meaning in your life instead of laying back, and saying, ‘Ah, I’m good now, snore?’”
“Well, I don’t know, Sharilyn. I guess by getting respectable, I might have settled a little for not doing much real living at all if that could be what gravelly voice is trying to say?”
“It might be, Dean. You have been a little like the living dead.”
“ Maybe this last week has shown me he might have a point if he’s a friend. But who is it?”
Sharilyn smiled at him. Then she put a handkerchief over her mouth, and one hand on her throat to say, “Hi, Dean, did you know it’s payback time?” in a low, gravelly voice.
Dean widened his eyes at her with a stunned, surprised look on his face.
“You see, I know you very well,” she said, “and I want you to come alive now to live actively as you should, not all subdued like you’re already in hell. You used to tell me how you wanted to still go swimming and fishing a lot, read more books, go out more with me, and stay alive even as you aged. What happened, Dean? Did getting respectable mean you decided to die? I got you to pay attention, I think, and now we can see what happens from here.
“I know a few tricks, too. It’s not hard to punch the call button for a call forward recording on a cellular phone in your hand while you hold it over the side of the bed.
“You slept through it when pastor told us two weeks ago he was going to give a two-part sermon on self-integrity and the payback for it when you didn’t have it. That’s what gave me the idea, and I decided to talk to him about his sermon. He doesn’t even know the person in the stories I asked him to tell was a real person. God gave you a wife who wants you to truly be happy, Dean.”
Dean’s mouth was open in amazement only a moment more before he burst into a loud face-splitting laugh with the tears running down his cheeks.
Sharilyn began to chuckle too as she put the handkerchief over her mouth one more time to talk to her husband in the gravelly voice, "Now give your wife a kiss, Dean."
Copyright 2008, from Highly Embellished Truth and Some Poetry by Jerry W. Engler