If a priest were to hand me a crock of shit this deep anywhere but Max’s, where the very walls breed strangeness, I’d tell him he spends way too much time on the internet. But in this case, the evidence sings for itself...
“Wayne Gertler was a member of my parish for thirty years,” Father Darcy tells us over another round of coffee. “A difficult man, but not a bad one.” He lowers his voice. “Then, one day, he came to me for confession. May God forgive me for divulging this, but… It seems he was developing an obsession for Eileen Barton.”
Max and I look at each other.
“His behavior became erratic. People chalked it up to old age and general peculiarity… but when he was arrested in 2005, I knew what was at the root of it. Oh yes, I knew.”
“Arrested,” Max repeats in disbelief. “He must have been 80. What did he do?”
Darcy lowers his voice again. “One night he took his pickup truck and drove it clean through the back wall of the Costco on Harbor Boulevard. By the time the police caught up with him, he was halfway to Stanton with… with…”
Max finishes for him. “Four hundred boxes of cake mix and a hundred and thirty-eight cans of Duncan Hines vanilla frosting!”
“Wait,” I blurt, incredulous. “This is for real?”
“Of course it is,” Max scoffs, as if I should know about it. “It’s the Great Anaheim Cake Caper. People talked about it for months. Everybody said it had to be a drug gang trying to cure their sugar cravings. Jeez, I had no idea Mr. Gertler was behind it.”
“It wasn’t Gertler,” Father Darcy says, ominous. “It was that infernal siren, Eileen Barton.”
At that, Victor flashes to life and the speakers blare her song.
“If I knew you were coming I’dve baked a cake, hired a band…”
Max jumps to his feet and unplugs Victor. The song fades away. Father Barton reaches under his robe and produces a well worn Bible, which he nervously massages with his bony fingers as he goes on.
“When she died in 2006, Gertler started to come unhinged. He told me that Victor was the last jukebox on the planet that had his dear Eileen in regular rotation. As long as her song was playing somewhere, she’d be safe in the afterlife.”
“This is ridiculous,” I grunt. “Safe from what?”
“Safe from the oblivion of being forgotten, of course. And there’s more: it keeps her safe from something else much more insidious.”
Max and I look at each other again, trying to grasp it in all its lunacy, a lunacy that’s about to make another leap forward.
“As long as her song is played, she remains safely tethered to the earthly plane. Safe from the curses of people like you, and Max, and yes, dammit, sometimes even me, who have been driven half insane by that hellishly catchy song. Wayne Gertler was convinced that with all those people groaning out their aggravation 5, 6, 7 times a day or more, if the earthly tether were to be severed, the overwhelming negative energy would create a spiritual torrent that amounts to a curse. And his beloved Eileen Barton would be swept to Hell.”
“But that’s not fair,” Max says, indignant. “She didn’t even write the song, she just sang it.”
“Fair schmair,” I gripe, “That’s just plain insanity.”
Victor blasts to life again. Max gets up to unplug him, but he’s already unplugged. He tries turning some dials, to no avail. The music plays on.
Father Darcy drums his fingertips on his mug and frowns. He raises his voice over the music. “You’re both right. It is unfair, and it is insane. Everybody knew Wayne Gertler was out of his damned mind. But one fact remains: You’ve got a haunting here and it’s my duty to help.” He waits a moment, thinking, his jaw set. Then he cracks the coffee mug down on the table.
“Alright then,” he declares. “Let’s do the old man a favor and free his tortured spirit from the soft caresses of that Eileen Barton woman.” He stands up. “I’ll need another cup of coffee, light on the cream, and some more holy water. Gentlemen, shall we?”
Then he strides away, past Victor, and disappears into the bathroom.
It’s 3A.M. The Witching Hour. Father Darcy has told us to wait outside. Max refuses, since he’s the business owner. And aside from not wanting to leave Max hanging by himself, I wouldn’t miss a jukebox exorcism for the world. So we stand aside while the priest draws himself to his full height in front of the glowing TV cabinet. As if in response, the speakers begin to spew a gumbo of Mr. Gertler’s garbled voice and Eileen Barton’s otherworldly singing.
Father Darcy can’t both hold the Bible over his head and throw holy water, so he motions me over to hold the cup. He immediately begins an incantation, raising the Bible above his head and repeatedly dipping his finger and flicking water at Victor’s knobs and meters.
“Spirit of friend Wayne Gertler,” he intones, “In the name of Christ I command thee to loosen thy grasp upon this earthly object, which is now legally owned by our friend Max…”
The speakers quake with a blast of sound as old man Gertler literally refuses to give up the ghost. “No! Please! You don’t understand! The curses! All of you who hate the song, who got the visions… They’ll sweep her to hell! My Eileen! I can’t let it happen! I can’t!”
“Wayne Gertler, I command you, leave this place!”
“But she’s not to blame!” Gertler’s spectral voice shakes with desperation. “Someone else wrote it! They should be cursed, not my Eileen!”
Father Darcy presses the Bible against Victor’s glowing dials. The music and the spectral voice get louder still, a bizarre mix of corny lyrics and pitiful pleading. The Bible begins to smoke. It suddenly bursts into flames. The floor shakes beneath us as the priest is forced to throw the flaming book onto the linoleum. Without thinking, I toss the contents of the cup on it to douse the fire.
“You jackass!” Darcy bellows, “Not the holy water!”
Victor’s formica door flaps open and shut. Metal advertising signs rattle and fall off the walls. The bookcases begin to rock back and forth, spewing volume after volume onto the floor.
“Hold on,” the priest shouts. “Close your eyes! Whatever you do, don’t look at the ectoplasm!”
That’s all the invitation I need to keep looking, and I’m treated to the sight of a snake of glowing white ectoplasm slithering out of Victor’s meters to wind its way through the air, around Father Darcy, around Max, and finally around me. It ripples with palpable energy as it coils around my chest, my arms, my neck, across my mouth. I wince, disgusted, as it slithers across my lips. Then, suddenly, I’m suddenly filled with a blissful calm. As I discover secret of the paranormal umbilical cord that binds the spirits of Wayne Gertler and Eileen Barton to the haunted jukebox, the words burst from my mouth in a storm of divine release:
“Vanilla buttercream! The ectoplasm is vanilla buttercream!”
The bookcases crash down with a rolling crunch of falling volumes and shattering particle board. The music and cries rise to a crescendo. The formica door flies off its hinges and rockets through the shop. One final command from the mighty priest:
“Wayne Gertler, begone!”
With that, he bends down, breaking the coil of ectoplasm, scoops up the ashes of the Bible, and thrusts them at the flashing jukebox. They whirl into a cyclone of black ash that mixes with the white ectoplasm. The cyclone whips around us, pulling pictures off the walls, scooping fallen books into a tornado of debris. Then, slowly, it begins to dissipate into a grey dust storm.
Old Man Gertler’s voice wails out: “Eileen! Eileen! No, Eileen…” With every word, the cry becomes more feeble until it, too, swirls into the grey cloud. There’s one last chorus of “Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do…” and then, finally, silence.
Victor’s meters and dials flicker; he pulses to life for a loud chorus of “Hey Jude” as if you confirm that, indeed, the ghost of Old Man Wayne Gertler has been laid to rest.
At 4:30 A.M., Father Darcy is picked up by his driver in the Lincoln Continental. He admonishes Max and me not to utter a word of the misadventure to anyone, ever. Then the sleek black limo disappears into the predawn. Max and I stay behind to sweep up the Bible dust and reset the book cases. By the time I leave, Victor is his happy self, playing a Bing Crosby tune and not missing his broken door at all. Max is grinding the day’s blend. It’s as if nothing has happened. Max follows me out. He’ll be ready for the day’s customers when he comes back. We’re sure they won’t mind his opening late, though they’ll never know why.
As I drive East towards my apartment, where I’m looking forward to sleeping away the tension and fatigue, my eyes are caressed by a glorious Southern California sunrise of orange and gold sunbeams blazing over the San Bernadino Mountains. A glint in my rear view mirror distracts me for a moment, and I instinctively slow and steer towards the shoulder as if an emergency vehicle is approaching. But there’s nothing there.
I accelerate. But again, movement behind. Gripping the wheel, I crane my neck to look behind me. And there, charging towards me, is the figure of a woman! Her arms are outstretched; her body leans forward as she dashes headlong as if fleeing from something. I shake my head, wipe my eyes, slow down to get my bearings on the road. There she is again, rushing toward me, larger than life, her feet not touching the ground. Her clothes are burning, consuming her in a blazing halo of fire. And behind her, figures are pursuing. They hurl flaming objects at her. One of them flashes past my window, an immense, spinning spear trailing sparks and smoke. It looks familiar, but it’s too shrouded in smoke and fire.
I step on the gas and leave the bizarre tableau behind.
By the time I arrive at my apartment, I’ve been able to rationalize what I just saw. After all, I haven’t slept for days due to the plaguing visions of flour-dusted breasts, the psychological torture of That Song. And going through an exorcism is bound to tire the fittest athlete, which I’m most definitely not. Not to mention the fact that over the last several hours I’ve had so many cups of Max’s notoriously potent house blend that my eyes feel like they’re about to pop out of my skull from sheer caffeine overload.
As I climb the steps to my apartment, all visions have faded, and a sense of blessed normalcy is returning, a cool breeze to reinvigorate my spirit. When I arrive at the door, I chuckle at myself for letting the blaze of sunrise conspire with my fatigue to pull my mind into vision-land again. I smile as the key slips into the lock.
“Flaming cake forks” I smirk, “what the fuck…”
As I open the door, the awareness hits me. Cake forks… cake forks… Wait, it was a cake fork? Holy shit… That woman with the burning clothes was Eileen Barton!
I step into my apartment. But it’s not my apartment. It’s a glowing cavern. I’m hit by a putrid-smelling wall of reek, the nostril-flaying stench of burned flesh and rotting corpses. And the noise that comes with it: a rocket blast of agony, the sounds of an eternity’s worth of souls screaming in pain.
“What the—I’ve stepped into Hell!”
Suddenly, from where the stairs to my bedroom should be, the burning woman leaps into view. Her hair is on fire. Her shoulders are draped with the smoldering remains of a cashmere sweater. Her face is torn with a look of horror and pain. She locks eyes with me.
“Help me!” she screams. "Why did you do this to me? Why?"
“Eileen!” I shout, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
“Please! It’s not my fault! I didn’t know my song would drive everyone crazy and make them curse me! For the love of God, I didn’t even write it! It was a bunch of guys, all I did was sing the damn thing!”
The pursuing demons appear behind her, carrying flaming cake forks like devil’s tridents. One of them drags her, screaming, by the arm to a huge iron pot set up over glowing coals. In it bubbles a man-eating, greasy soup that hisses and gurgles as it prepares to consumer her: a deadly cauldron of boiling frosting.
One of the demons, a scaly, horned creature half man, half lizard, roars with hellish mirth, “We’ve been waiting for years to bake one for you!” He laughs again, a cruel cackle that sounds like rocks being crushed. “It’s devil’s food cake for you, Eileeeeen, hahahahah!”
“Help me!” she shrieks again. “PLEASE!”
I slam the door behind myself and dash for my car. As I race back towards Max’s, my mind spins with the horrid realization: Old Man Gertler was right… So many people have been driven crazy by “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake” that their decades of collective griping has cursed Eileen Barton into the pit of perdition. When we exorcised him, and her song along with it, she lost her last handhold on salvation…
I screech to a halt in front of Max’s. Seconds later, the ’47 Plymouth burns rubber around the corner. We both run from our cars for the front door. Max’s face is taut with fear and remorse. “We accidentally damned her,” he cries, tears streaming down his cheeks. “I saw them sticking candles in her and cutting her up… We should have known better than to second guess Victor.”
“I know, I know,” I shout back, frantic. He drops the keys. “Hurry, goddammit! They’re gonna cook her in the frosting!”
Finally, the key clicks, the door swings open, and we fall over each other to get to the virtual jukebox. Max pulls a thumb drive out of his pocket and fumbles it into a slot. The dials and meters blink and flash. Max scrolls and turns and pushes. And then, finally, the blessed sound wafts from the speakers:
“If I knew you were coming I’dve baked a cake, hired a band, goodness sake!” Never have we been so happy to hear it as we are now.
At that moment, the day’s first customers appear at the door. One of them winces at the sound of the tune and staggers away. “Oh, please,” he mutters with bitter defeat, “that song again…”
Max and I glance at each other, trying to hold our emotions in check. Things are back to normal at Max’s Coffee House. Mission accomplished.
It’s a week since the exorcism of the Ghost of Wayne Gertler from Max's faithful jukebox, Victor. I’m sitting in my usual place on a bank of old theater seats, across from the book cases. Max is behind the counter, grinding some of his famous house blend. His eyes are hollow, like someone who’s been through a fierce firefight.
Mine are, too. They’re glazed over with a snowy coating of powdered sugar as I try to concentrate on my work. I try in vain. Because of the visions. The visions… I can only think of Eileen, her flour-dusted buttocks. Her cashmere sweater, under which her breasts wait, each garnished with a dollop of creamy, delicious Duncan Hines frosting.
I want to work, I need to work. I need to reclaim my life, my mind. But it won’t happen. It can’t. In saving her from her unjust damnation, we’ve damned ourselves. I hope that somewhere, somehow, to someone, it’s worth it.
She’s in front of me now. There’s a dot of vanilla buttercream on her nose. She’s leaning close. Smiling. Singing. Smelling all vanilla and fresh-baked cakey. My mind goes blank in complete, utter surrender. Her breath caresses my ear, its gentle vanilla scent carrying her words to my deepest core:
“Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do…”
I’m hers now. Max is hers. The customers. We all belong to Eileen Barton. There’s no escape.
And it’s not even her fault.
© 2015 Richard Day Gore