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THE FOX IN THE CHICKEN SUIT
by Dean Koontz
At the moment Richard Laymon was born, a mysterious rain of one million frogs fell on Cleveland, Ohio, and over seven hundred citizens were severely injured by large plummeting amphibians. In Tibet, at that same hour, the Dalai Lama suddenly levitated twelve feet off his monastery floor and, seized by Tourette’s syndrome, began barking like a dog and shouting the word ‘gravy’ in seventy-nine languages. While the holy man was aloft and shrieking, two archaeologists, at work outside Jerusalem, unearthed the alter of a third-century devil-worshipping cult on which was carved an image of Satan that bore an uncanny resemblance to the Warner Brothers’ cartoon character Yosemite Sam. Even as the doctor slapped Richard Laymon’s butt and the author’s first cry echoed through the hospital delivery room, a group of Carmelite nuns in Boston inexplicably fell into a ferocious hysteria and, racing through the streets of that city, set fire to anyone they encountered who was named ‘Herman’. In London, the Queen’s favorite feathered hat exploded for no good reason, causing no harm to her august personage but putting her in such a foul mood that, forgetting what century she was in, she ordered the royal hatmaker beheaded. In zoos all around the planet, elephants broke out of their enclosures and squashed anything cute and furry that they could find; for a few minutes, bears addressed startled onlookers in clear, grammatical English, speaking with better diction and projection than the greatest stage actor who ever lived - although according to all reports, none of them had anything interesting to say; and gorillas performed entrechats with a grace that made a ballerina weep. Perhaps the greatest mystery of that fateful day was the bewildering resence of so damn many ballerinas in so many zoos.
Then the world settled into its usual routines. Frogs stopped falling from the sky and were only seen in French restaurants, where they belonged. The Dalai Lama floated back to earth, stopped shrieking about the gravy, and returned to his usual pursuits: prayer, meditation, and betting on the ponies. Wiping the bloodied remains of squashed bunny rabbits off their thunderously huge feet, the elephants ambled back into their enclosures. Their passion for ballet forgotten, the gorillas just ate bananas and stood around scratching their asses. Calm ensued. Peace reigned on God’s good earth.
But all the while, Richard Laymon was quietly growing up.
With his sunny face, disarming manner, unfailing cheerfulness, and singularly good humor, he passed through high school and college as smoothly as a fox in an exceedingly convincing chicken suit could pass through a flock of Prozac-numbed hens - that is, of course, if foxes were sufficiently talented tailors to make chicken suits and if hens were able to obtain Prozac prescriptions. If you met Richard Laymon (who, for some reason I don’t fully grasp, is known as ‘Dick’ to his friends) he would strike you as one of the most amiable men you have ever met. He is one of those guys who - were he a movie actor - would most often play the best buddy of the male star: in comedies, he would be lovable and bumbling; in romances, he would be lovable and adroit at bringing the estranged lovers back together after they had quarreled over one stupid misunderstanding or another; in police action pictures, he would be the lovable partner who would be shot stone-cold dead by the villain at the end of act two, sending the star on a flinty-eyed, tight-lipped race for justice and vengeance; in a horror movie, he would be eaten alive. Thus, he was able to appear sufficiently mild-mannered to obtain a job, after college, as a ninth grade English teacher in a Catholic girl’s school. The nuns adored him - and they weren’t those crazy damned nuns in Boston who set fire to anyone named ‘Herman’; these were nice nuns. The students thought Dick was just swell, and their parents thought he was a particularly wholesome young gentleman.
But all the while, Richard Laymon was quietly writing.
Later he worked in a library at Marymount College, where he probably wore a bow tie, a jacket with leather patches on the elbows, and a look of bookish bemusement. There, I imagine, he kept the card catalogue in impeccable order, dusted the shelves, staffed the lending desk, regretfully sent out overdue notices, murmured of Socrates and Plato to his patrons, and gently reminded boisterous students to whisper at all times. If he were a fox, he would have sewn for himself a chicken suit so thoroughly convincing that any farmer would have reached under him in search of eggs.
He married Ann in 1976, as sweet-tempered and gracious a lady as you would ever hope to meet. In 1979, Ann gave birth to Kelly, a blonde little girl who appeared to have been modeled after the cutest cherubim in certain paintings in the Vatican. No one could look upon this young family without smiling approvingly and feeling that all was right with the world.
In 1980, however, Richard Laymon published his first novel, The Cellar. No doubt every nun who had ever known him began to pray for his soul, and every library patron who had ever been alone with him among the stacks at Marymount felt a chill along his or her spine, and all the Catholic school girls to whom he’d taught English said, ‘Hey, cool! The Cellar was the scariest, fastest-paced, darkest, just-plain-nastiest thriller in years. In that debut, he established a style that has often been imitated but never equalled: plunging, pull-out-all-the-stops, no-limits, in-your-face, shock-packed, take-off-the-top-of-your-head, gonzo suspense and horror that will appall some people and exhilarate others.
Over the years, in nearly thirty novels and numerous short stories, Dick has never compromised his unique vision in order to please the marketplace, yet he has found an audience of devoted readers. Curiously, as I write this, he is better known and more widely admired in England than here in his native country. This situation arose, I believe, because many American editors favored the light diet of ‘quiet horror’ rather than the meaty stew that Dick cooked up, and along with good novels of quiet horror, they shoveled into bookstores uncountable self-conscious pseudo-literary exercises in obscurantism by writers who had yet to learn correct grammar and syntax, books that gave quiet horror - all horror - a bad name. Those unreadable tomes, combined with the usual yearly total of 3,568 vampire novels, virtually destroyed the genre on these shores even while Dick was trying to build a career doing something different from the work of others.
He has survived, however, and prospered, because a significant number of readers like a bowl of stew in their literary diet from time to time. By being politically incorrect in his fiction and singularly clear-eyed and cold in his portrayal of evil, he writes stories that read like the work of no one else - which is essential if a writer is to stay afloat in the sea of sameness that is modern publishing. Now that he has written so many books, however, he has revealed himself and can never again quite squeeze all the way back into that chicken suit.
Indeed, when Gerda and I go to the Laymon house for dinner, we sometimes wonder if Ann is really the gentle lady she seems to be or if she is engaged in a masquerade as clever as her husband’s. When she’s cooking, I pop into the kitchen unannounced - just to be sure that she’s adding only herbs and spices to each dish and not anything lethal. When she picks up a carving knife, I ease to the edge of my chair, prepared to leap away from the table and throw myself out of the nearest dining-room window if she should move in my direction instead of toward the turkey or roast. Several times, I’ve been a bit too edgy, misjudged her intention, and hurled myself through a pane of glass, only to look back into the house from the lawn and see her standing over the roast, looking astonished and bewildered. Too embarrassed to admit my suspicions, I always claim to have been catapulted out of the room by a catastrophic muscle spasm, and I think she buys that story because she keeps giving me the names of me
I keep a sly watch on Kelly too. When she was a tiny little girl, she was so cute you could have dangled her from one of the branches of a Christmas tree, and everyone would have been so dazzled by her that they wouldn’t have noticed any other decorations - yet she always had an unexpected wit that was more sophisticated and astringent than the average child’s sense of humor. One night, when six of us adults sat around the Laymon dinner table, having a grand good time, Gerda realized that Kelly was standing in the doorway, in her pajamas, quietly commenting on our conversation; Gerda nudged me, and when I tuned out the adults and tuned in Kelly, she was funnier than any of us - even though we thought ourselves reasonably amusing. Not long thereafter, during a visit to an amusement park with the Laymons, as we were suddenly swept up in a surging crowd, little Kelly - then no bigger than an elf- reached for my hand, gripping it tightly, and I was touched by her genuine vulnerability and more deeply touched by the fact that she trusted me to keep her safe; yet this same little girl eschewed the usual doll house and played, instead, with a miniature haunted castle full of monster figures and beheaded victims. That is a fact, not a comic exaggeration. Now, many years later, Kelly is a young lady of seventeen, quieter than the sprightly imp of yore, even demure. Nevertheless, she is her father’s daughter, with those strange genes, and if at dinner some evening she were to say, ‘Let me carve the roast, Mom,’ I’m certain that I’d have another catastrophic muscle spasm and wind up on the lawn amidst shattered window glass.
I hope that you enjoy this collection of stories as much as I have enjoyed it. 1 only wish all of you could have the additional pleasure of knowing Dick Laymon and his family as well as I do. In truth, the strangest thing about them is that they tolerate me as a friend.
Willy had left the window pane for last. Now it was done. He stepped backward, careful to keep his bare feet from landing on pine cones, and looked at it.
Great. Real class. Best damn shack in Wisconsin.
And he didn’t look to bad, himself, in the window’s reflection. A little bony, but what the hell?
‘What a fuckin’ stud,’ he muttered.
Then he whipped his putty knife at a dead, barkless poplar far across the clearing. It struck blade-first, glanced off, and disappeared into the thick undergrowth near the tree. Turning, he hurled the putty can high toward the lake. It plopped into the lily pads just beyond the shore.
He picked up a red bandanna and wiped the sweat off his face. A mosquito lit on his arm. He watched it for a moment, then rolled it under his fingertip until it disintegrated into a red smear.
‘That’ll teach you, y’little turd.’
He went into the one-room shack. It still smelled of mildew, but what could you expect from a place that’d been boarded up for three years? Besides, he’d be gone tomorrow.
The mattress in the corner was cluttered. He tossed his handcuffs onto a table in the middle of the room, set his flashlight and pocket knife on the floor, and sprawled backward.
A piece of paper crunched softly as his head pushed it against the mattress. He raised his head and picked up the paper.
It was brown with age. Creases from many foldings obliterated some of the lines.
Holding it above his face, he read the headline:
NORTH GLEN GIRL RAPED, KIDNAPPING FOILED
Foiled, all right. Thanks to that fucking neighbor.
Fix her wagon.
Taking care of that snoopy old bag would be kicks. He looked forward to it.
But not as much as he looked forward to Martha.
She’d only been fifteen, way back then. Fifteen and cute and fresh and a virgin.
She had changed a lot since that morning ten years ago when he’d nailed her.
But not her address.
After the curtain slid shut and the lights came on in the movie theater, Dan let out a sigh of relief.
‘Unimpressed?’ Marty asked.
‘It was better than a hangover, but just barely.’
‘That good?’ Grinning, she pulled her hand away from him and stood up. It felt good to get out of the seat. Straining upward on tiptoes, she enjoyed the luxury of stretching her muscles. ‘Hope the second show is better.’
‘Couldn’t be worse. Hungry?’
‘How does popcorn sound?’
‘Popcorn. Sounds great.' Turning around, she scanned the people in the rear part of the theater. She had spent most of her twenty-five years in North Glen, and knew most of the faces.
‘You want the butter flavoring?’ Dan asked.
‘But of course.’
‘What size Pepsi?’
‘For an extra twenty-five cents, you can get a large.’
She laughed and said, ‘Medium will be…’ Her voice stopped dead as the man near the back of the theater smiled at her and she suddenly recognized him. She sat down fast and scooted low in her seat until the back of her head was against the cushion. She propped her knees against the sticky metal of the seat in front of her. She folded her arms across her belly.
‘What’s wrong?’ Dan asked.
‘Okay. I’ll be right back.’
She grabbed Dan’s arm. ‘No. Wait. Don’t go.’
He frowned and looked worried. ‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘Do you think we could just leave?’
‘You don’t want to see the second show?’
‘I’m not… I feel sort of icky.’
‘We can go.’
‘You won’t mind missing it?’ she asked.
‘Hell, we can always rent it from Blockbuster if we really want to see the thing. We can leave.’
Dan got to his feet and Marty followed him, sidestepping carefully, trying not to tread on feet, tumble over knees, or bump into heads along the row in front. At the aisle, she took Dan’s arm and looked down so she wouldn’t have to see that face again.
She kept her eyes fixed on her sandals and the carpet until Dan pushed open the door and they entered the lobby. The lobby lights seemed very bright. Fighting the impulse to look behind her, she hurried with Dan to the exit doors.
‘Wait,’ she said, and took off her yellow pullover sweater. ‘Won’t need this outside.’
Dan pushed open the door. The chilly air from the theater followed them outside until the door shut. Then the muggy night settled over them.
Marty took hold of Dan’s hand. They walked down the block and round the corner. Dan’s old Ford was squeezed into a stretch of the curb between two driveways. He opened the passenger door for Marty.
She climbed in. The air inside was stifling. While Dan walked to the other side; she rolled down the window.
‘I’ll have the air-conditioning going in a minute,’ he said as he dropped into the driver’s seat.
‘Yeah, right. Mother Nature’s air-conditioning.’
‘The best kind. Doesn’t deplete the stratosphere.’
Marty managed to smile.
When the car was moving, a warm breeze came in through the window. Marty let her arm hang outside and leaned against the door to feel the air’s calm touch. ‘It’s a beautiful night,’ she said. ‘I love it when it’s hot like this. Makes the night seem so… friendly. Sort of friendly and quiet.’
‘And romantic,’ Dan suggested.
‘Why don’t we go somewhere?’
‘Do you feel up to it?’
‘I think so,’ she said.
‘Where to. My place?’
‘Nah.This is too beautiful a night to be cooped up.’
‘Cooped up?’ He put an arm around her shoulders and reached down to her breast. ‘I’m not sure I like the sound of that.’
Marty moaned at the gentle pressure
‘I hate bras,’ he said.
‘They come off.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t wear them at all.’
‘I know. Your parents. Christ. You’re twenty-five.’
‘You oughta get a place of your own.’
‘So I hear.’
‘It isn’t normal.’
‘So you keep telling me. And like I keep telling you, I don’t see any reason to move out. I like it there. They like having me. And I don’t see any reason to find a place for myself until I’m ready to start a family of my own,’
‘Is that a proposal?’ Dan asked, not sounding especially amused. ‘This is my proposal - let’s go to the lake.’
Outside town, the road had no lights but Dan drove fast as if he knew every twist and curve and bump, and he was taking them by instinct.
‘The air-conditioning works really good out here,’ Marty said. ‘Open your vent?’ Dan suggested.
Marty opened it. A warm breeze rushed suddenly up her legs and under her skirt. She kicked off her sandals. The floor mat was gritty under her bare feet.
‘Can I ask you something?’ Dan said.
‘Anything you want.’
‘What was bothering you at the show?’
The question hit her like a blow to the stomach. She wanted to double over and hold herself.
‘You weren’t sick, were you?’
‘You were scared. That’s why you wanted to get out so fast. Something scared the hell out of you. What was it?’
Marty turned her face away and gazed out of the open window. Her arms felt cold. She rubbed them, trying to get rid of the goosebumps.
‘I saw this guy.’
‘Someone I used to know.’
‘You saw him during intermission?’