I was an awkward kid and spent a great deal of time in solitude. During the summer I turned ten I sat alone reading books, went for walks by myself, and on one memorable afternoon played monopoly against myself until I caught myself cheating and lodged the race car up my nose. That cost me my board game privileges for a week, but it was worth it because I always got to be the race car thereafter. All of my friends were off vacationing at places like Disney World, Six Flags, and Myrtle Beach. Even my poor friend Alex and his family would leave every summer on a two-week road trip to see famous roadside attractions like cement dinosaurs, Wall Drug, and every contender for The World’s Largest Ball of Twine. I wasn’t sure what twine was, but I was pretty sure I could skip the road trip and satisfy all of my twine-viewing needs for the rest of my life by visiting a hardware store. I’d rather have seen where Cheetos were made, but my friend Amanda said the factory no longer gave tours after a kid fell into the Corn Extruder and got turned into the world’s first Funyun.
I was left to my own devices over most summers. The only other kid around was Crazy Teddy. He was seventeen but mentally varied from six to fourteen depending in no small part on how many explosive or flammable things were in the vicinity. He didn’t go on vacations because of his Dad’s frequent business weekends in Las Vegas and also the court orders barring him from crossing most state lines. He got on the news for his attempt at building a rocket from an abandoned car and what the FBI later described as “a sort of improvised napalm.” I didn’t know what the big deal was, he barely cleared the grocery store.
I was torn between seeking out Teddy’s company, as despite being the coolest teenager my friends and I had ever heard of, I tended to experience bouts of what my psychiatrists have since labeled “mortal terror” whenever he was around. In his twenties, he got sponsorships from major power tool companies to never be seen in public with their products. He once disappeared for a week and the private detective his dad kept on retainer for such situations brought him home wearing a hard hat covered with spotted owl feathers.The sheriff’s office had a folder of forms with his name already filled in. He flouted the laws of both man and nature with the casual ease, expertise, and lack of consequence of a career Senator.
It was a typical midsummer afternoon in eastern Tennessee. The temperature was well into the nineties and the air was so humid that the U.N. declared the weather a human rights violation. Satellites declared the area a sand dune. I got tired of pretending our broken lawn sprinkler was a water park and rode my rusty old BMX bike down the street to Teddy’s house. I considered myself a master of BMX riding and ended every trick with my signature move of falling down and scraping my knee on the asphalt. My parents got bulk discounts on Band-Aids. No one answered the door but I heard hammering from the back yard and walked around the house to see Teddy duct-taping a badminton net to the end of a pole made from his dad’s custom cue stick nailed to the end of a broom handle.
“What are you doing, Teddy?” I was bewildered by his actions, as usual. The psychologist I saw in my late teens said this was an encouraging sign that I could someday integrate into society.
“Dammit Daniel, can’t you tell?” He tried to punctuate his reply by spitting, but only ended up coughing. He wet his mouth by finishing off a two-liter bottle of oddly-colored Mountain Dew and spitting again. He then threw the empty bottle in a pile with several more and cracked a fresh one, chugging for several seconds. He then slammed the bottle into the patio table. “We got a skunk ape.” He pointed to a knot of fur tangled in a segment of barbed wire he’d apparently cut from a fence somewhere.
“What’s a skunk ape?” I mentally pictured a gorilla with a white stripe down its back.
“It’s not a gorilla with a white stripe down its back.” Crazy Teddy hammered a ten-inch nail through the cue stick until it emerged from the other side and cracked the glass of the patio table. “It’s like a Bigfoot. But it lives around here. And it stinks.”
Crazy Teddy had a way of knowing when strange things were happening. I remembered when he stopped the vampire outbreak in the local squirrels. Toothpicks make good stakes when adjusting for scale.
I thought back to my trip to the zoo. “So Bigfeet don’t stink?”
“It’s BigFOOTS. And yes, they stink. But it’s less hot in Oregon so people are more struck by their big feet. Here, it’s a cryptid sweathouse.”
Crazy Teddy held up the pole. The net dangled from it. “Now this is the finest Skunk Ape Snarer I have ever seen.”
I looked at the strange contraption. “Me too.”
Teddy laughed, then looked at me. “Are you coming with me? I could use an assistant.”
I mentally weighed another afternoon of cheating while playing Scrabble with myself against an afternoon with someone whose activities were officially classified as “Acts of God” by at least one major insurance company. My innards became restless.
“S-sure, I’m in.”
“Great! Let’s get you some gear.”
“Gear” turned out to be an orange plastic pith helmet with a sticker on it saying “Junior Explorer At Adventure Pete’s Mini Golf and Truck Stop” and a carpenter’s tool belt with a ball peen hammer, a sandwich bag full of thumbtacks, a pencil sharpened at both ends, and a pocket notebook with “Skunk Ape-American Dictionary” scrawled on the front page in crayon. I opened the notebook. Written inside was line after line of entries such as “Grarg = Food” and “Grach = Telescope.”
“Skunk apes have a language?”
“Not that I know of, but it’s best to be prepared.” Crazy Teddy had put on a football helmet with “Greenfield Pangolins” written on it and stuffing a backpack with Mountain Dew, Doritos, a sandwich, Mountain Dew, a compass, and more Mountain Dew. He started to zip it, then stopped. “I almost forgot!” He then grabbed another two-liter of Mountain Dew and crammed it in, settling for only being able to zip up the backpack halfway. He then handed it to me and I staggered under the weight. “Don’t drop this, it’s critical supplies.” He then ran into the shed against the back fence.
I wrestled the backpack onto my back as he came out of the shed pushing a brand new dirt bike.
“We’re headed for the cave in the woods next to the mill pond.” Our subdivision was located in the middle of miles of countryside, mostly pastures and crop fields, and patches of forest that the landowner hadn’t gotten around to razing in favor of making more of the first two.
The cave was the subject of endless stories of hauntings told by the kids I knew. As I was best able to put together from various breathless playground retellings, in 1964 a group of satanic hippies drew a six-pointed pentagram on the floor of the cave to summon the ghost of an evil Civil War general named Zebulon Fencepost to make them werewolves. Also he was a werewolf. A ghost werewolf. But lightning struck their VW Bus and disrupted the ritual so they instead summoned Bloody Mary, who inhabited the rear-view mirrors of the bus and caused them to run off the road on their way home and die cursing the name of the guy who saw them crash but didn’t stop to help. He was named Steve Taylor or maybe Pat McDanus. The curse kicked in five years later when he was driving a truck full of chickens to his friend’s house in Wartburg and made him go insane and he drove the truck to the cave and set it on fire and then he exploded. So if you go to the cave at midnight, the Civil War general Zebulon Fencepost, the hippies, a werewolf, Pat McDanus, Bloody Mary and the chickens all get into a fight over who gets to eat your eyeballs. Several friends of older siblings of kids I knew swore it was true.
I nervously told Crazy Teddy all of this. He listened intently and nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll have to pack my ghost tools,” he said, picking up a clattering fanny pack that felt it was full of bricks and fastening it around my waist. “Also, ghosts and werewolves are mortal enemies so they’ll be too busy fighting each other to care about us.” Crushed by the weight of his logic, I said no more. He got on the bike and started it, patting the seat behind him. “Come on, let’s go.” I wrestled my over-encumbered body onto the bike and we took off across the fields.
Spending time with Crazy Teddy had some minor inadvertent benefits, like wearing over half one’s body weight in bags and pouches full of random items while trying not to slide off the back fender of a dirt bike. I hadn’t seen such hopping across treacherous terrain since the news cornered the CEO of the local plutonium refinery. If the ride was long enough I’d enter fifth grade with the abs of a bodybuilder.
The pond was barely more than a puddle, a tiny impoundment behind a small earthen dam just high enough to turn the wheel that was once there. On the ridge behind it was a thick forest with the cave somewhere inside of it. We stopped several dozen yards on the far side of the stream.
“I forgot where the cave is.” Teddy yelled over the engine.
A not-insignificant part of me felt relief. No skunk apes or werewolf ghosts or moments of imminent catastrophic injury. It was thanks to Teddy that I had such better judgment at such a tender age, even as he consistently was able to get me to disregard it.
“So we’ll have to look for it. “
Without another word he gunned the bike and headed for the creek at full throttle. I started screaming. I realized later that Crazy Teddy was also screaming, but that was drowned out by the motor of the dirt bike screaming, a few nearby groundhogs screaming, and above it all, a few million years of human evolution screaming.
We crossed the creek with barely a bump as we were going fast enough to not lose any altitude as we jumped. For the briefest of moments, I felt that relief again, only for it to evaporate once more as we didn’t stop. We were headed for the trees there are a lot of trees there TEDDY DO YOU NOT SEE THE TREEEEEES–
Years later, a urologist described my bladder control as “freakish.”
The trees flew past us as blurs and I shook in every direction as Teddy crisscrossed the hill in search of the cave. Time lost all meaning. I was sure I had been on the bike for forty years and was late for an Important Meeting at the office. At some point, we stopped. I slid from the fender and thumped onto the ground without ever leaving the fetal position I had long since entered.
I sat up to see Teddy sniffing the air. “I smell skunk ape.” I slowly and shakily got to my feet. The cave entrance yawned to my right. I took a few cautious sniffs and was struck by the pungent aroma of wet dog mixed with my dad’s work socks and maybe a hint of an old ashtray.
“Ack!” I agreed.
Crazy Teddy reached for his Skunk Ape Snare that he’d strapped across his back. He turned to me, held his finger to his lips, motioned for me to follow him then started up the hill toward the cave loudly crunching every twig and pine cone underfoot as he walked.
“IF WE’RE LUCKY WE’LL CATCH HIM SLEEPING” Teddy told me in a voice that might count as a whisper on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. I nodded, which caused him to scowl at me. “KEEP IT DOWN OR WE’LL WAKE HIM UP.”
Annoyed, I wriggled out of the straps of the heavy backpack and dropped it on the ground at the cave entrance. We slowly started in, turning on our flashlights as the light grew dim and the stench grew thick. My eyes began to water. I saw a lot of garbage, empty Mountain Dew bottles, snack cake wrappers, and what looked like an old Civil War sword that was embedded into the wall. An avocado green car door rested against one wall with a bra dangling from the side mirror. Beneath my feet, I noticed someone had actually tried to draw a pentagram on the floor, but there were seven points and they were all on one side.
Deeper in we saw a tangle of tree limbs, leaves, an old blanket and what might have been a sofa at one time. It was a festival of filth the likes I would not see again until I was fourteen and realized that cleaning my room wasted valuable Cheez-it eating time. To one side of the nest was a pile of porn magazines but they were pretty much solidified into paper mache by various fluids best not contemplated. I had already made a mental note to soak the clothes I was wearing in kerosene overnight before taking them to an empty lot and setting them on fire. At least I had just about outgrown these “Nukey Hair Johnson” shoes my dad had bought from the back of a van at the flea market. They were made primarily of corn husks, shellac, and spray paint, and as he sped off the guy in the van told my dad to never get the soles wet because of their tendency to “hyperlubricate.” So I wore plastic wrap on my shoes on rainy days. They had still held up better than the Springboks made from layered cardboard and glue that I had gotten for Christmas.
Crazy Teddy tried to spit, but choked and started coughing. He drew his current Mountain Dew 2-liter from the holster he’d made on his belt from what looked to be a cut-up monogrammed leather bowling ball bag and took a long pull, then once again spit successfully. “It’s hotter than dammit!” he complained, then stuck out his hand. “Pass me the deodorant from the ghost kit.”
I fumbled in the fanny pack for the can of deodorant and handed it to Teddy. He sprayed it further back into the cave, the mist seeming to swirl into the vague shape of a human body for a moment. The addition of the deodorant to the ambient odors strongly reminded me of the neighborhood bully after he entered middle school but before he went after Teddy. The next day he transferred to a boarding hospital in Pennsylvania. Teddy never said much about it but graciously accepted our offerings of full-size Snickers bars and Capri Sun pouches.
“As I expected. There’s something here.”
I had seen enough Scooby-Doo to know not to ask what that might be.
“Now hand me a lighter from the ghost kit.”
I unzipped the fanny pack and looked inside. “All that’s in here are metal lighters.”
“Yeah, it’s my dad’s collection. Just pick one.”
I grabbed one that had “C. Lindbergh 1927” engraved on its silvery finish and handed it over.
Teddy grabbed it without looking and lit it. He spent a moment tracking something only he could see, then sprayed the Right Guard across the flame. There was a sudden explosion of movement as a flaming cloud of something flew past us, accompanied by a rasping, angry voice. The flame burned Teddy’s thumb and he hissed and threw the lighter off into the darkness. I heard it clack and crash against the rocks.
“What was that?” I gasped.
“Ghost. You were right. I ran it off.”
“Is that why it called us ‘mucker-flubbers?’”
Teddy stared at me in bewilderment for a moment, silently mouthing what I’d just said, before seeming to realize something and giving me an odd look. “You don’t get out much, do you?”
I had been asked that quite a bit as a kid, often in response to mentioning my notebook full of solitary rules for board games.
I was brought back to the present by a chill on the back of my neck. I couldn’t move. “Teddy…” I managed to croak out.
“Don’t move.” Teddy said, gingerly moving toward me with his arms extended.
“I can’t move.” I pointed out.
“Well don’t can’t move less. The ghost is sniffing you. It’s making sure you’re not a werewolf.” Teddy fired a blast of deodorant over my shoulder. “We mean you no harm, ghost. We come in peace to run off a skunk ape.”
“Todd.” came a pitch-perfect eerie voice from behind me.
“Okay, Todd. How can we help you move on? What’s your unfinished business?”
“Titty mags” came the bowel-shrinking voice.
Teddy nodded. “We are all bound to what we treasure in life. There’s a certain romance there. Perhaps even poetry.”
“Fear not, old soul. I shall send you into the light.” Teddy reached into my fanny pack and pulled out another lighter. He took a deep breath and stepped further back into the cave. I saw a flicker of light, then the pile of old magazines started burning. It seemed every time I thought the smell could not possibly get worse, it did in spades.
Teddy lit another blast of deodorant and lit the ghost on fire again, chanting strange words. “Et-gay Ost-lay.” The flames puffed out.
I could move again. “What did you say?”
“That was Latin. It’s too difficult to explain.” He took a few gasping breaths of the relatively cleaner air closer to the cave entrance.
“Back to the ape. What I was trying to say is that skunk apes mostly are active at night. This one is acting oddly. Really oddly.” He scratched his chin. “REAL really oddly.” He stared at the nest. Not knowing what else to do, I joined him.
“Well, maybe not that odd. The ghost might have been driving him from the cave.” He punctuated his sentence with another drink of the Mountain Dew. “Skunk apes are related to werewolves, so they are extra sensitive to ghosts.” He turned and headed for the mouth of the cave. “The chase is a-big-foot!”
I had a sudden urge to kick something.
The air outside was much hotter, but at least it didn’t quite reek like a commercial microwave full of jockstraps. Crazy Teddy finished his soda bottle, flattened it, and switched it out with a full one from the backpack. Teddy was many things, including an official hazard to public health in at least three municipalities, but he didn’t litter.
Something was bugging me, and I decided to take advantage of the rare pause in Crazy Teddy’s speech and activities to speak up. “Why is all of your Mountain Dew so dark?”
Teddy proudly puffed out his chest. “That’s because It’s not just soda. It’s Dew, coffee, cold medicine, tattoo ink, rust solvent, and chainsaw polish.” Teddy was counting off ingredients on his fingers as he named them, but kept skipping and re-using them randomly. “I call it ‘Megamonster Energizing Drink Soda, or MEDS.’ He trailed off for a second to watch himself continue counting fingers. Once that stopped, he continued. “I bought the dirt bike with the money I made selling shots of it to college students.” He took another drink. “It took a while to get it right- I had to feed a lot of test batches to some pigs.” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then snapped them back open. “It’s really boosted my productivity, but I keep having to remember to blink.”
I recognized the name- I saw on the local news where the university president had denounced it as an “affront to safety, decency, and dignity” after a noticeable uptick in students howling at the moon during finals and a couple of incidents of attempted bicycle ingestion. If he’d been drinking that cocktail all morning, It was a wonder he even needed the dirt bike.
“The dirt bike would have just slowed me down but I pour a little Megamonster in the tank and it takes off like my dad’s Ferrari.” Teddy had a way with pushing everything around him so far beyond any boundaries of sanity that you’d swear his life story was a pitch for an 80s action movie made after a week-long coke bender.
Crazy Teddy frowned at the backpack. “I thought I had more Megamonster than this with me.”
“SHHHH!” Teddy slapped his hand over his own mouth, caught himself, and slapped his other hand over mine. He gestured downhill with his head. Walking along the creek was a large hairy figure. He paused and looked in our general direction. It was no man. It looked like an orangutan mimicking the face of an old Catholic who had accidentally walked into a bus station bathroom. I’d seen happier faces after home dental surgery experiments.
It had a bottle in its hand. As we watched, it ripped off the top, sniffed the contents, recoiled, then drained it in one gulp. It then staggered around for a few seconds and before suddenly falling over.
“We got him!” Teddy was ecstatic, but something about that bottle wasn’t sitting right with me. I stopped thinking about when Teddy pulled me onto the bike and we rode down the hill.
The skunk ape looked like the inside of a chewing tobacco spit jar left in the sun and smelled twice as bad. We had just left the cave and I hadn’t spent this long wanting to throw up since my third grade class put on a history pageant and my Thomas Jefferson outfit was an old T-shirt with the face of a penny screened onto it. I got a “D.”
It lay on its back taking rapid, shallow breaths. Crazy Teddy pushed his eyelid open with his fingers. It looked to be every bit of eight feet of muscle, matted hair, and protruding gut. I wondered if it was related to my gym teacher, but I couldn’t know for sure until I could see how it chose to humiliate me for not being able to do pull-ups.
Teddy pulled out his pole-net contraption and put it around the ape’s head and shoulders and bumped into me.This caused me to lose my balance and fall into the creek, drenching me head to toe. I tried to stand, but my shoes suddenly felt like everything under them was melted butter, so I grabbed the pole to use the ape’s weight to steady myself. It was then that I noticed that the bottle the skunk ape had dropped was one of Teddy’s Mountain Dew bottles, completely empty. I looked at it, then at the Skunk Ape Snarer whose handle I was still firmly gripping, then at Teddy. Our eyes met. Without breaking eye contact, he slowly opened the gas tank on the dirt bike and poured the rest of his bottle of Megamonster in.
I twitched slightly, something that would continue for the next several weeks and be mentioned in a neurology paper.
The next twenty minutes of my life was a blur to the point where I can’t really put it into words, so I’ll just describe what I saw on the local news that night.
The clip opens at a local hog farm, with the reporter explaining how the farmer’s prize hogs are becoming aggressive and that the meat is linked to several bizarre incidents, like an octogenarian mall-walker tearing through a Spencer Gifts on rollerblades and a father of three repeatedly trying to surf off the roof of his house on an ironing board. She goes on to detail how the hogs had come to prefer eating shotgun shells; buckshot, gunpowder and all.
The reporter trailed off as she and the farmer reacted to a rapidly increasing growling noise that at first sounds like a malfunctioning semi but is quickly revealed to be the combined screams a huge hairy creature running at 75 miles per hour in the throes of catastrophic tachycardia and the boy it’s dragging behind him who appears to be skiing along the ground like he’s in the Olympics. In close pursuit is a teenager on a dirt bike that’s shooting a twelve-foot jet of green flame from its red-hot exhaust pipe. The skunk ape runs through the pigpen and smashes it open, followed by the bike, which ignites the green bristle on the boars, causing them to panic and begin howling like porcine wolves as they start stampeding after the dirt bike.
The camera starts shaking as its operator starts running after the reporter, who is running after the farmer, who is running after the hogs. All three give up and dash back to the news van after the hogs hit highway speeds while making roaring engine sounds typically only heard in NASCAR highlight reels and Road Runner cartoons. The reporter is heard to yell “FOLLOW THOSE PIGS” before the video cuts out.
The scene then cuts to another reporter covering the grand opening of a Walmart, the camera panning across the huge parking lot, packed with cars and a carnival to celebrate the store opening. As the manager starts to cut the ribbon, he pauses and looks into the distance as the cacophony heard before, this time accompanied by sirens and galloping, quickly increases in volume. At first, the people gathered at the ribbon think that the town has organized an impromptu parade to celebrate the cornucopia of Always Low Prices about to be bestowed upon them and their families, as that seems much more likely than having the biggest display of total mayhem bearing down on them since the KFC had Free Gravy Tuesdays.
Everyone gapes then scatters as the ape, me, Crazy Teddy on his MEDS-boosted rocket bike, thirty-six adrenalin-crazed hogs, four police cars, a fire engine, the news van from the pig farm and a very confused elderly man who thinks he’s getting an elaborate escort to his free birthday cone at Baskin-Robbins come tearing into the parking lot.
The whole furious mass of us came barrelling down the lane between parked station wagons with faux wood panelling and double-parked pickup trucks lifted too tall for most drive-thru windows like a flaming pork tsunami. Grown men climbed light poles and strictly religious parents covered the eyes of their children like their parents did to them in the fifties when a black person walked by. Preachers would declare this sight the sign of the impending Rapture for years afterwards like they had with sock hops and MTV before.
The skunk ape’s heart and central nervous system, already outperforming the pistons in the cars behind it, goes full speed like a toddler in a video arcade. It finally noticed the net and tore it off, sending me careening into one of the carnival attractions, “Guess How Many Marbles Are In This Giant Unsecured Top-Heavy Bucket WIth No Lid and Win This Truckload of Down Pillows.” The radar gun in one of the police cars clocked me at hitting the pile of pillows at 64.7 miles per hour, the impact spreading feathers and marbles across the parking lot.
Crazy Teddy stops just short of the doors, sees the situation, and tries to flee, but the Megamonster runs out and the glowing engine dies seconds before melting through the bike’s frame and then the concrete below. The deputies had a longstanding and strict policy of detaining Teddy on sight, and soon he was handcuffed to a cruiser door as the fire department followed radioed instructions from engineers at the nuclear power plant on how to stop a meltdown before it reaches the ground water. The result was a thick fog of water vapor, which only added to the pandemonium as the hundreds of people panicked and ran aimlessly. Several tried to drive away, and in the confusion smashed open a fire hydrant, rang the bell on the strongman game, and dislodged the prizes in the target shooting booth from the shelves they rested on for the first time since they were glued there in 1937.
The hogs smashed through the front doors of the Walmart and stormed inside like there were exciting Black Friday Deals that they couldn’t miss out on. They knocked over the jewelry counter and flattened most of Housewares before eating the entire cereal aisle and falling asleep in Lawn and Garden.
The events were best summed up in the press conference the next day by Sergeant Michael “Mickster” Hamner of the National Guard, who called it “the most intensely chaotic hysteria the area had seen since the college football stadium ran out of beer before halftime.”
The hogs were rounded up by enticing them with seven-dollar pretzels from what was left of the snack tent. After an emergency FDA inspection declares them a Class 2 Gastronomical Hazard, they were sent to a laboratory farm where their bacon was reverse-engineered for use in truck stops and college cafeterias.
Crazy Teddy was released after his father’s lawyer pointed out that, technically, Teddy didn’t personally incite a riot this time. He sold his formula for his MEDS drink to Raytheon for an undisclosed sum.
The news reporters later went on to cover such legendary news stories as “Bear Cub at Zoo Eats Large Fish,” “Cats Wear Whimsical Outfits at Cat Show” and “Six Dead After Guest Chef On Morning Show Causes Grease Fire.”
Edgar Stoole Jr. arrived at the Baskin-Robbins after a moderate delay but still in time to get the last scoop of mint chocolate chip.
The Walmart’s opening was delayed for a week. Within three years it was responsible for the closure of sixteen local businesses, including the grocery store.
I was sent to bed without supper for destroying my shoes and for “whatever you were doing today.” I got up at eleven-thirty and ate the last of the American cheese.
The skunk ape was last seen headed for Florida on a freight train, and the consensus is that it is a much more fitting home for it.