The book and its cover

If past experience was any indication, Old Lady Vukovich had already worked herself into a froth, exhausted her English vocabulary, and started in on her catalogue of old world curses. She’d be out there still, in her faded apron, waving a broom and screaming till she was hoarse. And when the police arrived she would scream at them too, as if they were the source of her aggravation. It was always the same—a joke that never seemed to get tired—even as Old Lady Vukovich limped toward her twilight years and Big Bubba Jo dragged his clubfoot into early middle age. Small towns never offered enough by way of entertainment, and every autumn a new crop of youngsters sprouted up, ready to do their part to continue what had become a venerable tradition of callous abuse. It was either that or get drunk and turn their attention to the livestock, or turn their backs on the town all together.

Big Bubba Jo had the brains of a six-year old and the shoulders of a Pro Bowl linebacker. It wasn’t clear whether one leg was too short or the other too long, but the difference between them could be measured in inches. Still, even with a pair of mismatched legs Bubba Jo was too tall to pass through a door without bending. It was the foot at the end of the shorter leg that took the bigger shoe—though it wasn’t like Big Bubba Jo was ever seen hobbling around town in search of a pair of Nikes. Rumour had it that Old Lady Vukovich cobbled his footwear herself, out of old tent canvas and truck tires. Other reports had Bubba Jo in black patent orthopedics. But these were dismissed out of hand.

Boomer’s old man was a doctor, and he used to give us all kinds of grief for hassling the Vukovichs. Big Bubba Jo wasn’t a monster, he’d say year after year to no avail. Big Bubba Jo was just poor creature of God, chosen by His will to suffer a host of ailments, including profound mental retardation and an unusual pituitary dysfunction, just like Andre the Giant. Of course, everyone was familiar with Andre the Giant, but not many of us could claim to know what a pituitary was, so it didn’t take long for Doc Patrick’s explanation to get corrupted into something we could get a better handle on: Big Bubba Jo had an ‘obituary function’. And when some smartass thought to ask what the hell that had to do with Andre the Giant, the best we could come up with was that Boomer’s old man had probably meant The Undertaker. Most of us figured Big Bubba Jo was closer to The Missing Link, but there was never any argument about whether Hulk Hogan could kick his pockmarked ass right into the next county.

Coach T. drew the ire of the PTA for suiting up players who couldn’t write or read. One account had it that when confronted with evidence that his starting tight end couldn’t spell his own name correctly, Coach simply shook his head and replied, “But Gawddam, can that boy throw a block!” Despite the titters this drew from the back of the room, the membership was not amused. Nor did they appreciate his candor when he added that he’d suit up Big Bubba Jo if he could teach the boy to tackle, reading be damned. Coach was subsequently assigned the task of assisting the special needs teacher, in the hope that this would remind him of his responsibilities as an educator. It turns out Coach didn't have much aptitude in this regard, and his responsibilities were finally reduced to little more than keeping his door open so the rest of us couldn’t sneak over and mock the retards—at least during school hours; we all knew better than to risk getting caught doing The 'Palsy' on Coach’s turf.

There was some debate in town about whether Big Bubba Jo should be required to take the short bus to school like all the other cripples and retards. But Old Lady Vukovich fought hard for the right to educate him at home instead, so Big Bubba Jo never attended school with the rest of us. This may have spared him the day-to-day humiliation endured by the other freaks as they were wheeled to and from their classes, but it fed rumors that Big Bubba Jo was kept at home for personal reasons, foremost among them being a tendency to murderous and unprovoked violence. If you believed all the stories about Big Bubba Jo that made the rounds over the years, you’d think he was source of everything that ailed the town.

Of course, most of the kids could be excused for failing to appreciate the real challenges that faced their home. Unemployment was nearing depression-era levels; alcoholism and a more recent scourge, methamphetamine abuse, were rampant; kids weren’t even waiting till they finished high school anymore before succumbing to the lure of the big cities to the north, packing up at night and sneaking off before their parents could beat some sense into them. The town was dying; it was being hollowed out. But among the kids, the only question was whether Big Bubba Jo actually ate the flesh of his victims or just offered it up as a sacrifice to his demonic masters.

The kids would get together every so often and head down to the Vukovich farm to see if they couldn’t settle their dispute about whether Big Bubba Jo really did have three eyes or a forked tongue, or whether the broom that Old lady Vukovich liked to shake at intruders really was the kind that witches used for flying around the country on a full moon. Most of all they hoped to see Big bubba Jo sitting down to a big old meal of man steak or pulling back a long draught of warm blood. That would put the bickering to rest once and for all.

It stood to reason, however, that the best opportunity to catch the son-of-a-bitch red-handed was on Halloween, and so every year for over half a century, a mob of youths would assemble behind the Pioneer, most of them dressed up for the occasion, many already unsteady from the effects of pilfered bourbon and moonshine, prepared for a long walk up regional road 31. Tradition demanded that they take along certain items—rolls of toilet paper to decorate the trees, eggs purchased in advance and left to age for a few days in the sun, cans of spray paint, homemade slingshots, even lunch bags filled with vomit or feces, which would be set ablaze and hurled at the homestead.

It was a long time since I was a part of that jolly mob of kids, singing and screaming nonsense into the cool night air, staggering in the dark toward the Vukovich farm, frightening myself and the others with outlandish tales of evil. But I still remembered the sense of excitement and solidarity.

I looked at the clock over the kitchen table. It was past midnight; the trick-or-treaters had stopped ringing the bell hours ago. My own children, still too young to get mixed up in the devilishness of Halloween, were quietly tucked in their beds.

My God, the look on that old woman's face when she tried stomping out those flaming paper bags, only to discover what was inside them! That was something I would never forget.

I chuckled quietly to myself and grabbed another beer from the fridge.