Welcome to Creelyville
by George Thomas S.
A swirling cloud of dust and gravel flew up for fifty yards behind the silver Taurus sedan as it sped down Creelyville Road, heading anywhere but the main highway. Ricky "Slick Rick" Sanders was behind the wheel, pedal to the metal, and on the run. It would be hard to imagine that anyone would ever apply the nickname "Slick" to this hapless failure, and, in truth, they hadn't. He had coined that moniker himself after becoming tired of the one he was usually labeled with by those who knew his ineptitude well. "Thick Rick," they called him.
At barely five feet eight inches tall and slight of build, he was a completely unimposing figure. About three years previous, his dark brown hair had been worn in an out-of-style, fifties-era, slicked-back ducktail that was somewhat out of sync with the twenty-first century. Now it was shoulder-length and generally unwashed. He had a face that would be forgettable if not for the scruffy beard combined with pockmarks from a childhood bout of chickenpox and a broken nose suffered in sixth grade for failing to turn over his lunch money in a timely fashion. His brown, slightly crossed eyes had that faraway look that you just knew meant he wasn't all that bright. His normal facial expression could best be described as...Duh?
The reason for Rick's mad dash to 'anywhere' was yet another failed attempt at a bank robbery. In three attempted heists, he had succeeded only once, assuming you can call one hundred and twenty-three dollars and a lump on his forehead delivered by an umbrella-wielding senior citizen in a floral print sack dress a success. That experience came after a previous effort that had been even more pathetic in nature. It was less than two years ago that Rick had decided on his life of crime. In the wake of losing one job after another for various reasons, including being caught in the stock room of the local supermarket 'servicing' his urges over the pages of the lingerie section of their flier, he decided that he just wasn't cut out for regular work. Robbing banks seemed like it would be so much easier.
On a Friday, just before closing, he entered the tiny Winthrop Bank brandishing a somewhat realistic-looking plastic gun he had purchased at Toys-R-Us for eleven dollars and seventy-two cents, tax included. His first venture into a life of crime was doomed from the minute he walked in the door. Friday was payday for the local police department, and three officers in their street clothes were standing in line to cash their paychecks. Mere seconds after the words 'this is a robbery' had exited Rick's mouth, he was staring down the barrels of three Glock automatics and leaving a puddle of urine on the floor at his feet.
After his arrest, arraignment, and quick guilty plea, a lenient Judge sentenced him to two years in prison. During his prison stint, he let his hair grow to shoulder length and developed his scraggly beard. He had the opinion that it would give him a more imposing appearance. All it really accomplished was to make him look like an unkempt bum. Besides, the Winnie the Pooh tattoo on his forearm tended to belie any possibility of toughness. Remarkably, he was released eighteen months later on good behavior. A mere two weeks after gaining his freedom, enter the senior citizen in the floral print sack dress and her trusty umbrella.
As Rick sped away from that encounter with his minimal haul of cash, he figured it was time to try another State before he ended up in front of a more severe Judge in his home state of Kentucky. Tennessee wasn't far, and that sounded good. He headed off to Knoxville and, in between stops for a burger and fries followed by pizza, he began scouting local banks. Less than twenty-four hours after his arrival, he walked into Tennessee Trust, a cavernous old building with a brick façade, enough interior marble to give one pause and quaint solid oak teller cages. The building's cornerstone dated to eighteen eighty-six. With an empty hand and an extended finger in his coat pocket to mimic having a gun, he demanded cash from a pretty young blond girl working at the first teller cage. She looked at his scruffy face and into those slightly crossed eyes as they blinked nervously.
Glancing down at his alleged gun-containing pocket, she said, "Ya'll don't have a gun in there." Rick was momentarily taken aback by that startling announcement but found the nerve to protest loudly, if not authoritatively, that he did have a gun and that he would use it if she failed to hand over the cash. The bank guard, a rather robust man in his sixties, was oblivious to it all since he had previously sauntered, or more accurately, waddled to the backroom to get his morning cup of coffee and a jelly doughnut. "No!" The spunky little teller said. "Ya'll don't have no gun. That's just your finger," she chuckled derisively. In her best Southern drawl and irrepressible laugh, She loudly announced to those inside the bank, "He don't have a gun. Imagine, tryin to rob a bank with just his lil ole finger." Then she pressed the alarm button. With a stunned expression of humiliation on his face, Rick fled for the door as the sound of alarm bells clanged loudly throughout the bank and into the street. The clatter was so loud that it resulted in the bank guard squeezing his doughnut so firmly that grape jelly squirted all over his shirt and tie just before he fainted, coffee cup in hand.
Rick jumped into the old Taurus sedan and headed to Interstate 40, just a mile away. Speeding along the I40 to Highway 66, he hung a right and drove toward Sevierville. He had no specific destination in mind as he connected with Highway 441, which took him through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. 'Golly, there's Dollywood! I love Dolly,' he thought as he cruised past the busy theme park and, for one insane moment, almost considered stopping. Less than an hour after his misadventure, he was in the Great Smoky Mountains. The car radio had been playing country and Western music. In the middle of a somehow appropriate Folsom Prison Blues, the station cut in to report the news of the "pathetically inept, long-haired, bearded bank robber who was foiled by an alert and perky young teller, a former cheerleader, who had made him a laughingstock before he fled the scene empty-handed." The news report noted that the police had put out a statewide alert for a silver Taurus sedan seen racing from the scene.
It seemed that not so 'Slick' Rick had to lay low somewhere until things cooled down. Soon after passing through Gatlinburg, he began questioning the wisdom or lack thereof about his chosen route. By now, he was deep into the mountains with minimal sunlight seeping through the tall trees that hugged the only two-lane road to the other side. Darkness comes early under the forest canopy, and it would be pitch black within a few hours. Just as it appeared that there was nowhere to hide, quite by chance, he came upon a narrow dirt side road off to the right, barely visible in the undergrowth. It was easy to imagine that most would drive by without ever noticing its existence. He pulled the Taurus about thirty feet onto the road, stopped, and got out. Standing there in the semi-darkness, he needed to make a decision. Should he follow this one-lane dirt road? Or wait it out in oncoming darkness. He had at least had the foresight to fill the Taurus gas tank before his misadventure, and the tank remained just a smidge below full, so fuel was not a major factor in the decision.
As he paced back and forth beside the Taurus, he noticed a fallen signpost in the undergrowth. He stood over it for a second, hesitating to pick it up. Snakes petrified Rick, and rattlesnakes abounded in this area. He picked up a rock and tossed it into the undergrowth. Nothing moved. He reached down with a shaky hand and lifted the signpost. A cracked and splintered board that said 'Creelyville Road' was nailed to the top in barely readable, faded black letters. Now, with some suspicion that there might be a town along this side road, he decided to press on for a while. If he didn't come upon a town in an hour, he would sleep in the car and head back to the main road in the morning. As he returned to his seat behind the wheel, he glanced in the rearview mirror and realized that he needed to make some alterations to his appearance. With the radio broadcasting his description, he needed to do something about a shave and haircut. He started the car and began the drive down Creelyville Road.
An hour later, as he was preparing to give up and turn the car around, he came upon a sign that read, in scrawled black letters, "Creelyville." The sign showed the population beginning at 67, which someone had crossed out in black paint, and followed sequentially by the similarly crossed out numbers 66, 65, 64, and on down to the, one would assume, the current populace of 57. Creelyville seemed to be in population decline. It's worth noting that the place had long ago fallen off the map and out of anyone's recollection. Its very existence had become virtually unknown outside its borders. As he slowed the Taurus at the entrance to town, Rick was baffled by what he saw. The place appeared more like a frontier settlement built on a vast plateau. With the absence of any trees nearby, there was significantly more sunlight, and he had an excellent view of the area. A central field was perhaps three hundred feet square, surrounded by an old split log fence and filled with undergrowth, weeds, and the rotting hulks of six or seven antique buggies.
The road circumnavigated the square. Positioned every fifty feet or so around the perimeter were cabins constructed of rough-hewn logs that were severely weathered to a dark gray, each log separated from the next by mud mortar. On the square's Southern side, to Rick's left, was a small cluster of buildings that appeared to be the center of activity. There were another half dozen dilapidated old buggies parked along that section of the road, not one seeming the least bit functional and not a horse in sight. Leaning against one of those skeletal remains were two men in battered fedora hats and tattered bib overalls casting curious gazes at this new visitor. They were not men of great size, nor were they overly small but average in stature, seemingly ill-proportioned, and with faces somewhat distorted in appearance. The men stood in front of a building with a sign that said, in paint-brushed letters, "Store." It didn't say what kind of store, just "Store." Since it was the only store in sight, Rick supposed it didn't matter much how specific the sign was, and he couldn't imagine what anyone might sell there.
To the right was a larger building with a porch upon which three women, dressed in ankle-length wrinkled black dresses and gray bonnets, sat in rocking chairs as they smoked corncob pipes. Above the porch was another brush-painted sign, "Berthas Restrant". Yes, that's the way it had been spelled. Literacy was not a Creelyville strength. By this time, a smattering of other men and women began to peek out from the doors of their abodes at this new visitor. It was all enough to send a shiver up Rick's less-than-heroic spine.
Not having eaten for the better part of a day and a half and still possessing about twenty dollars from his previously ill-gotten gains, Rick overcame his nervousness and decided to have a meal. The boy did have an irrepressible appetite. He parked the Taurus in front of the "Restrant." As he stepped onto the porch, he couldn't help but notice how hideous those three women were. 'Uglier than the backside of a mud fence,' he thought. More than simply ugly, they didn't look normal. He recalled hearing that inbreeding was not uncommon in backwoods communities, and such physical appearance could be the result. He walked past them and through the front door as they gave him a most discomforting and almost salivating look. He was silently praying that it wasn't lust in their eyes.
The interior of the "Restrant" was very much in keeping with the outward appearance of the place. There were six rectangular tables scattered about the wood floor, each slapped together from pine planks that were warped and severely worn in the most irregular pattern. Most had randomly scattered initials or names deeply carved into the wood, and some crude attempts at art in the form of stick figures depicting what Rick supposed were deer or other such animals. Each table had a bench on either side, also made from pine planks of similar description, long enough to seat four people on each. Behind a counter which was little more than a giant slab of tree balanced on two tree stumps, stood a woman equally as unattractive as the ones on the front porch. She smiled a less than disarming toothless grin and invited Rick to sit. His first instinct was to make a fast retreat and get out of this strange town, but whatever was cooking smelled so good that he decided to stick it out for the time being.
He took a seat and asked for a menu. "Don't got no menu. Just got burgers. Old family recipe. Smells good, don't it?" the woman said as she stood beside him. He had to admit the aroma was more than appetizing. "Sure," he mumbled nervously, "I'll have a burger and a Pepsi." The woman chuckled. "Don't got no Pepsi. Got homemade drink. Tastes real good." Eager to be rid of her, Rick said that was fine, and she set off to prepare his burger.
As he waited for his meal, Rick scanned the room. The more he examined his surroundings, the more interesting the place became. He could imagine trappers from the seventeen-hundreds taking their meals there. In keeping with the motif of trapping and hunting, the walls were scattered with various animal pelts, deer antlers, and the head of something resembling a boar. Over the front door were two antique flintlock rifles that might have dated back to the Revolutionary War. One thing struck him as odd. Behind the counter were twenty-seven belts, neatly nailed up in a row, along the wall. Before he had much time to consider that vision, he heard footsteps on the porch. He looked through the window to find a half dozen grinning, semi-toothless faces staring back. He imagined that Creelyville didn't receive many visitors, and his sudden arrival was the cause of this discomforting curiosity. In truth, no one ever ventured out of Creelyville, and the few who had ever ventured in had done so by mistake.
When Bertha returned to deliver his food, she was followed by a young man that she introduced as her son, "Jethro, Bertha's good boy." As for a description, Rick was uncomfortably reminded of the Dueling Banjoes scene from Deliverance. The burly, clearly deformed young man retired to the back room quickly enough, and Rick set about eating his burger. He had eaten many a burger in his day. They were his favorite food. But he had never tasted anything this good. It was juicy, well-spiced, and served on the most delicious homemade bread. He was glad that he had decided to stay to enjoy this taste sensation. But there was one more thing to attend to. He needed that shave and haircut.
When Bertha returned to clear the table, Rick asked, without hope of a yes, if there was a barber in town. "My man'll do it." She replied. "Got a barbershop in back." That was a surprise but seemed more than convenient to Rick. He would attend to that need, leave this strange place, and head North to Illinois. Cash was a little short, though. As he waited for Bertha to retrieve her 'man,' Rick began to think about how easy it would be to rob whatever money they had. It should be a piece of cake to rip off a few inbred hicks and get out of town. A getaway should be easy since there didn't seem to be any cars to chase him with. Surely, they would fall for the gun in the pocket trick. They couldn't possibly be as alert as that ditzy twenty-year-old blond at the bank. He would take whatever he could sell if they didn't have cash. Those flintlocks over the door would likely bring an excellent price. Everything in its proper order, he told himself. Shave and a haircut first, robbery second. Within a few minutes, Bertha returned with a fairly normal-looking man. Certainly more normal than anyone else he had seen in this town. "Mah names Clyde," he said. "Ya'll come on back, and we'll see ta that hair and beard fer ya."
Rick stood and followed along to the barbershop in the rear of the building. Clyde invited him to sit in the antique barber chair, draping a rather soiled, gray, knee-length bib around him. As he began to comb through Rick's hair and snip away with his scissors, he inquired as to where Rick was from, what he did, where he was going, and did he have any family. It was the general conversation one might experience in a similar circumstance. Of course, Rick was intentionally vague about what he did and where he was headed. He just made up some things as he went along.
With Rick's hair nicely cut to a decent length, Clyde took out his shaving brush and lathered up his beard. He honed the straight razor to a fine edge on the leather strop hanging at the side of the chair and then began to work the razor carefully through many months' worth of whisker accumulation. Soon enough, Rick's face was clean-shaven and feeling quite fresh. He had forgotten how normal he could look, except for the aforementioned pockmarks and fractured nose. Clyde seemed to be quite an accomplished barber.
The temperature of human blood is about thirty-four degrees centigrade, or one hundred point four degrees Fahrenheit, slightly more than normal body temperature. A person doesn't notice the temperature as the blood flows through the veins. They become more aware of its warmth when it's flowing in rivers down their neck. Rick took notice very quickly. "Relax now, young fella," Clyde said softly, just after he slit Rick's throat. "It'll all be over soon." Rick slumped down in the barber chair, blood gurgling in his throat, life rapidly leaving his now limp body. Clyde was right. It was over quickly.
As he wiped the blood from the razor and removed the blood-soaked bib, Clyde called for Jethro, and the lad came in a hurry.
"Get him ready, boy," Clyde ordered. "Folks is a waitin." Jethro got a grip on Rick and hoisted him up over his shoulder. He carried him to the kitchen, removed his clothes, wrapped a rope around his ankles, and hung him, upside down, on a meat hook next to the meat grinder. Jethro had become quite adept at dressing a deer after the kill, and it seemed to him that a person wasn't much different. But the folks of Creelyville had lost the art of hunting, and deer were few and far between these days. Jethro picked up a rather large butcher knife from the counter, slit open Rick's belly, and began to remove the intestines. Clyde collected Rick's belt and nailed it up behind the counter at the end of the row. Now it was twenty-eight.
Meanwhile, Bertha had gone out onto the porch where a crowd of Creelyville residents had gathered to await the news. It truly looked like a meeting of circus freaks. "Burgers will be ready in an hour," she said with that toothless grin. There were hoots and hollers from those assembled as the sound of the meat grinder echoed through the door. The town was running out of food, and Rick had come along at the most opportune time. Less than an hour ago, he had savored the last burger made from the previous unfortunate soul to stumble into Creelyville. Before that individual's arrival, some of the older men of the community were given a rousing send-off and then handed over to Clyde for a shave and a haircut, followed by a visit to Jethro's meat hook. For now, thanks to Rick, Creelyville's population would remain at 57.