|By Jack Cawthon|
The boys were already sounding half-fried when I entered the Over Easy Inn and took a seat by Arley Cleeter in the Sober Room. It might be better named the Reading Room, as Arley now reads books instead of burning them for his winter heat. And like a librarian at a nudist convention he is pretty much left alone to his own desserts.
Arley was reading a thick volume titled War and Peace, a story about Bill and Hillary Clinton, as I recall, and a tome that would have provided at least two hours of heat output, more, of course, had he combusted it as Bill had lived it.
I noticed black splotches on his fingers, the end of his nose and part of his chin. He looked liked he had been working low coal in a bad seam. When I asked about it, he smiled wanly and reckoned it was a slight case of frostbite.
I knew it was bound to happen. Since his arrival in Big Puf, Arley had burned books. I saw his actions as not only a heat source but a rebellion from his college days when he was forced into readings not of his choice. I had suffered the same bitterness, most notably hating fish after I was force-fed Mellville's plot of a big white fish named Moby Dick. Only after my crusade began to save the Big Puf Orange Roughage Catfish did I appreciate that fish were part of God's creation and that Moby Dick shouldn't be shunned just because he was white.
I knew Arley didn't want to discuss it, but I needed to express my concern for his well-being in facing the cold. I was afraid that he might become like one of Shackleton's Arctic team found clutching a book that could have provided warmth of the body instead of a mind frozen by a thought.
As I expressed my worry, Arley snapped his book shut with some irritation after first inserting a bookmark with the words "Better read, than dead," a far different meaning than his days of Vietnam protests of the 70s.
He assured me that he had prepared for the cold nights ahead. Okey Hanshaw was lending him four or five hound dogs that he could sleep with and share their warmth, although he admitted sheepishly, Sister Hannah, spiritual leader of the Holy Rattlers, had offered to serve the Lord by sharing her body heat, all 300 pounds of it, with him. He reckoned, however, that freezing would be gentler than smothering, and that he would prefer the dogs, and he stressed four legged ones.
I had done all that I could do as a do-gooder, a trait I had picked up from my association with liberal university apostles who needed some reason for existence beyond their obscure disciplines that set many a soul adrift stalking big white fish in shallow waters.
The noise from the adjoining room where work was the curse of the drinking class made conversation difficult. I kept hearing shouts of "carbs" and frequent mention of "Atkins," which I associated with the Atkins Diet that the late doctor went to his early grave defending. It was time that the natives of Big Puf became aware of the health risks of their usual intake of the three food groups of beer, cigarettes, and Copenhagen. (Copenhagen is a notorious hellhole on the upper reaches of Blue Tick Crick where healthy living consists of surviving two days and nights and then bragging about it.)
Being somewhat nosy, as most non-drinkers are in a party of partakers, I decided to add my knowledge to the conversation, realizing that sticking one's nose into matters not concerning it can lead to excessive bleeding from it.
In one of the lulls when everyone was inhaling, I put forth the thought that the Atkins diet might serve everyone well, with more red meat such as possum and raccoon. For a moment one could have heard the bubbles of a Budweiser bursting and then the room erupted in raucous laughter.
"Who is talkin' about food?" Burvil burbled. "We're a talkin' about Charley Joe Atkins' modified carburetor on his 79 Ford Crown with big interceptor police engine!"
Well, I certainly know when to retreat with honor! I knew I could lend little to a conversation about the peculiarities of a two-barrel Holly or a four-barrel adjustment to lean out performance, something college had failed me once again, I picked up a pack of beef jerky, threw my money on the counter, and hoped that by example someone might modify his diet and lean out his carbs.