The Weird and the Strange XVI: Laurence Venkerhove

“If you thought he was cool when he walked down the cobble stone street with a white tipped cane and a stove pipe hat,” a man named Rex Bayer said. “You should’ve seen the man when he was under forty. What a set of tits that man had on him. There was something about his momentum back then … in his 20’s phase. He had a slight hitch in his step that would occur in direct proportion with the subtle lift of his bosoms. It was hypnotic. They would alternate with each stride. I don’t know if one can give it justice in spoken word form. You had to see it.

“I witnessed it firsthand,” Rex said after taking a swig from a cup of coffee. Rex was one of those types that looks older than he is, and he was an old man at the time of this interview. A friend of mine once told me that the eyes of a man that works the land could tell you his true age. Everything else shows the power of the Sun, and the effects of alcohol. Not every farm man drinks, he said, but it’s a hard life. The man’s voice reminded the listener of the cracking of seals on a tomb, his ruddy face and cottage cheese nose suggested that my friend was right about the Sun and alcohol. He rolled his red and black checkered flannel shirtsleeves up to expose farmer arms. A man attains taut, sinewy muscles, such as these, in the field, as opposed to in a gym. Rex had a trimmed mustache that swooped into the lip rather than remaining parallel with it in the manner most will trim their mustache. “I saw it a lot,” the man said setting his coffee cup down. “I never had a single homo thought, until I saw that man walk. The man could walk. He could make up for the fact that he had no discernible shape to him with a single step. I’m serious. It looked to me like the man had never lifted a weight in his life. I don’t think he engaged in a single day’s worth of manual labor, yet there was something sensual about the way that man walked that had you fantasizing about putting him into some kind of contraption that had him squealing with horror as you approached.

“It could’ve been his strange ways that were attractive,” Rex Bayer continued. “He was the type of man that drew your attention, but you didn’t want to look at him either. He made a person feel uneasy.

Rex Bayer was one of six witnesses of the life of Laurence Venkerhove that had decided to join me at a lunchroom table in Guza’s café. They were the ones that responded to an ad I placed on our town’s little website that called for stories regarding the strange disappearance of a member of our community. The ad informed all witnesses of the life of Laurence Venkerhove that there would be no money involved, but that anyone knowing any information about Laurence might help law enforcement officials, or anyone else, solve this case. What I did not say in the ad, but I began the meeting with was:

“We do not know what happened to Laurence Venkerhove,” I said. “We don’t know if he left of his own accord, if someone kidnapped him, which I know sounds odd since Laurence is a grown man, and his family doesn’t have much money, Sorry Sal,” I said to Laurence’s father. “But I’ve had conversations with Sergeant Keane, and he says, ‘anything is possible’. He said, ‘We have no leads on this case.’ If Laurence did leave of his own accord, he might read this piece and come back, or he might find peace with whatever drove him out.”

Rex was the first person to speak, after my intro, and he continued:

“He was my brother in law, and my wife was always on me to do things with him. ‘Go drinking with him or something,’ she said. ‘Do something with him. Get him out. He’s all alone.’ I didn’t want to do anything with the man. No one did. He was a strange, little man that could make you feel uneasy about yourself, as I said. I sure as hell didn’t want to go drinking with the man. The thought of what he did without influence unnerved me as it was. I did not want to know what he would do with a couple shots in him.

“So, I took him hunting. We cleaned up too. Got the state limit in under two hours. Laurence had a rifle, but he didn’t fire it. He said it scared him. I did all the shooting, and I was pretty damn proud of myself. I’d been hunting since I was a kid, and I never saw a day like this. I thought I was turning into one hell of a hunter. Either that, I figured, or I had built myself one hell of a deer blind. I never saw anything like it. The deer still had their innate fear of humans, but they were climbing all over one another to get a look at us. After I got the limit, this big, twelve-point buck makes his way through the doe. The doe remained about sixty yards from us, just sitting there watching. The buck broke that barrier and came within fifteen yards. When he crossed that distance of sixty yards, he did so with his head down. Sort of like a terrier that’s in trouble. Then, and here’s where it gets weird. The buck lowered his head just a tad to hold what I can only call a subservient pose. The pose that a puppy takes to suggest that he wants to play.

“I turned to Laurence and said, ‘should I take him?’ He said no. He said that we already have our limit, and he laughed.

“I can see your expression,” Rex said looking at each of us. “I can see that you’re a little shocked that I should be so casual about such a thing. All I can say is that I’ve been through a lot in the past couple years. I’ve seen things … weird things. Other things. Things that have nothing to do with Laurence. It all happened long before I ever met him. I learned my lesson the hard way. People don’t want to hear about such things. I tried to tell people about those things, and they decided to decide that I was off my rocker. All of them. One after another told me that I needed to keep up on my meds that I needed counseling, and all those pointed jokes that tell you not to talk to them anymore if this was all I was going to discuss. I almost lost my marriage over the things I saw. It took me a lot longer to get in good graces with the town folk. No one wanted to hear about the things I saw, so I realized that if I wanted friends in this community my best option was to keep my mouth shut. I tried to laugh off all this stuff with Laurence, on that basis. I tried to pretend as if nothing happened, so that I could just go about my business as all the normal folk do.

“Here’s the thing that keeps me up at night though, the kid, Laurence, had this look on his face. He looked afraid. He looked like he knew I was going to ask him before I thought of asking him anything and he looked like it was a question that he did not want to answer. When I said that joke about taking another one, he laughed so hard I thought I was going to have to put those EMT paddles on him. I never seen the kid laugh before, and what I said wasn’t that funny. I didn’t think it was funny at all, but I’ve never been a good judge of what’s funny to one man and what’s not funny. We’re all different, it’s all relative, but I’m thinking that Laurence got to laughing the way he did that day, because he was relieved that I didn’t ask him other questions.

“That moment right before I said the joke is the moment that I roll over and over in my head. That look of fear just haunts me, because I thought up a whole lot of questions after that day. I thought it was odd for those deer to line up the way they did that day, looking at us, bowing to us, but I didn’t think it was odd. I didn’t think it was odd, until I began putting that oddity together with his look, and his fearful look.

Like I said, I saw some weird shit in my day, and I didn’t want to see any weird shit ever again. I just want to live a boring life where no weird shit happens. It’s been four years since this happened, and this is the first I’m talking about it.”

***

“I tried to love him,” a woman who introduced herself as Sarah Franks said. Sarah was a plain looking individual. She was not unattractive, but she was by no means beautiful. One of the aspects about her that detracted from her looks was the sadness in her face. When she smiled, as she did when she said, ‘I tried to love him’ her face had some attractive qualities, but the muscles of her face weren’t taut until they collapsed into sadness. In other words, sadness appeared to be a more natural state on her face.

“I called him out for staring at me in the library one day. ‘What are you looking at?’ I said,” she said attempting to recreate the cruelty of her remark. “He had the saddest look on his face when I said that. He said, ‘I’m sorry Sarah,’ and I tossed it off as something done by a sad, little wretch that looked but never acted on his impulses. If he said something to me on one of those days prior to me yelling at him, I wouldn’t have reacted in such a manner. If he said something as insignificant as hello, it may have changed my course of action, but he just looked at me without saying anything. It creeped me out. Plus,” and here Sarah Franks composed herself a little to suggest that she was uncomfortable saying what she had to say next, “He was staring at my crotch. Who does that? Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to guys looking at my chest and my backside, but Laurence appeared fascinated by my crotch in a manner I found disturbing. I had to put an end to it,” she said in an apologetic manner. “It was creepy.

“I felt bad a week later,” she continued. “I did. I don’t feel bad about saying what I said. Someone had to correct that, but I did snap at him, and his reaction to my remark told me that I could’ve handled it in a more conscientious manner. I realized that he was harmless. He was a creepy guy, but in a peculiar way that I wanted to understand. I guess you could say that his eccentricities began to fascinate me after I called him out.

“That’s when he began staring at my neck,” Sarah added with some confusion. “I don’t pretend to know what goes on in another person’s mind, but I began thinking that he didn’t know what to look at after I scolded him. He wanted to look at my breasts, but he didn’t want to risk another scolding, and he couldn’t look me in the eyes, so he started looking at my neck. Then, he stopped looking altogether.

“A couple weeks after all that, Laurence puts this strange book on the desk I’m sitting at. He didn’t even look at me when he did it. I checked the book out and began reading it, and I don’t know if he was telling me things about him that no one else knew, or if he was telling me, he knew me in ways that others didn’t.

“I discovered the joy of fiction late in life that I didn’t have time for reading when I was younger. I was too anxious as a child. Then, when life began to slow down for me, I was lost in a way for which there was no solution. I tried therapy and religion, and they didn’t work for me. Both of them have worked for my friends, so I don’t mean to put either of them down, but they didn’t work for me. Fiction proved to be the perfect antidote for me. Laurence appeared to sense that. I was at the library a lot, so it wasn’t a wild guess on his part, but he appeared to find the perfect book for me at that time in my life. He began dropping books on my desk every other week after that. Each book was so thoughtful, precise, and helpful. I flirted with the idea that he was watching me, but he wasn’t. He was just picking books for me that I wouldn’t have picked otherwise. For the most part, these books were no name books by no name authors. What I mean by that is that most of these authors did little to nothing beyond this single book that he gave me, but the books were fantastic. He followed all of this with an obscure, little book of poetry that he put on my desk. There was no author on this collection. It was just a little pamphlet. It was about eighty-five pages in length, and there was nothing professional about the appearance of the product, so I assume that he wrote them, but he never said as much.

“Previous to that book, I thought I never read poetry. Whatever it is most poets are going on about has never applied to my life, and their message has never appealed to me. Same with song lyrics. Rhythms and rhymes grab me in a way that causes me to lose the author’s message. This thing that Laurence gave me just blew my mind. Therefore, I went up to him and told him how much that book of poetry affected me. I told him that I didn’t know if thanks would be enough, but if that’s what he wanted I would give him that. He smiled into the book he was reading. ‘Did you write it?’ I asked.’ Did you enjoy it?’ he asked. ‘God yes!’ I said with no equivocation. ‘Then, that’s all I need to hear,’ he said.

“He gave me one brief glance, over his book, when I didn’t walk away, and he pumped his head. I couldn’t take it anymore at this point. I was swooning. I went to my favorite seat and tried to read, but I couldn’t comprehend a word I was reading. I kept looking over at him, but he hadn’t looked at me since I scolded him for staring at me. I knew that was the reason why he ignored me the way he did, but those books, and that book of poetry, told me that he was paying attention to me in a manner that didn’t require interaction. I was touched. I may have been obsessed too, but I don’t know if that’s the proper word. I would think about him every morning of every week that he and I would visit the library. I would wonder if he was going to be there, because he wasn’t always there. I would wonder if he had picked out a book for me this week, because he didn’t always. I would wonder if he would ever look at me again. I would wonder if he would ever speak to me again.

“‘Can I buy you a cup of coffee?’ I asked him after weeks of deliberation, and plotting, and planning my course. Not all of those progressions that I would think about were happening. The books became less and less frequent, and I started to believe that it was over. As high as he took me, he then began to make me feel less and less important.

“‘Thanks is enough,’ is what he said to my invitation. He said it with a very warm smile that suggested he knew how much those books had meant to me. If that was a rejection, it was unlike any rejection I’ve received. I don’t think it was a rejection. I think he was just telling me that I didn’t have to go to all the trouble I was suggesting. With his smile still on me, I sat next to him. I didn’t sit in my usual seat. I sat next to him, knowing I couldn’t take another week of not knowing. I was about as nervous as I’ve ever been. I never asked a guy out before, and I knew I wouldn’t be good at it. I knew if I thought about it too long, I wouldn’t do it, so I just blurted it out. ‘But I want to have a cup of coffee, or a beer, with you sometime.’”

“‘Thanks is enough Sarah,’” he repeated with that warm smile. I asked him if I could talk to him at the library, and he said that would be fine, but he warned me that he wasn’t much of a talker. Therefore, he and I met in the library about once a week, and I would talk his ear off. I would tell him about my day and my nights, I would tell him about my fellow workers and my family, and I would tell him about my dreams and my disappointments. He would listen and nod and laugh in all the right places. He would also respond to what I was saying, but his words were limited to active listening responses that people give to be polite. He never went beyond that wall that he created for society, but he didn’t shut me out either. I made the mistake a couple months ago of telling him that I was falling for him. He smiled, blushed, and said, ‘Thank you Sarah that means a lot to me. I think quite a lot of you too.’ Then he patted my hand, and he smiled in a way that told me that it would never be. He didn’t say the words, but the smile was the kindest rejection I’ve ever received. The embarrassment caused me to stop reading in the library. From that point forward, I picked up my books and left.”

***

“There was this one day I was seated with him and I said: ‘Some of the times I get the feeling that everyone is talking about me,” a man named John Currie said. “I get so worked up that I just want to rip my hair out. There are other times that I think no one is talking about me, and that’s weird too.’ It was all I said, at first, but he didn’t say anything in return. He just sat there. Eating his burger. I don’t know if anyone has told you this, but Laurence takes these huge bites when he eats. They’re way too big for his mouth. He looks like a cow chewing his food in an almost diagonal manner. It can get under your skin, but it drives you nuts when you’re trying to get an answer out of him. So, I sat there like an idiot waiting for Laurence to finish that bite. What does he do when he finishes that bite, with me waiting for him to react to what I’ve just said? He takes another one.

“‘Well, what the hell, I yell, ‘aintcha gonna say nothing ya mongloid?’ He rears back like he thinks I’m gonna hit him. Maybe I was. I don’t know. Maybe I was that angry.”

“He says, ‘John, you haven’t done anything to cause people to think about you, ‘and he says,’ Most people don’t give two shits about you.’”

“He said two shits?” I asked. The reason for my interruption was that I thought that was out of character for Laurence, from everything that I learned of him.

“Yes, he said … all right maybe he said that. Maybe he said people don’t care if you live or die John.”

“He said people don’t care if you live or die?”

“…I think so,” John Currie added wincing a bit. “I don’t know what his exact words were. It had to do with no one caring about me. Pissed me off, and that time I did almost hit him. I made it known that this was a very real possibility anyway, if he continued with this line of thought.

“I tossed my tomato soup over the counter, and I ripped up my sandwich to pieces and threw it into his face. I don’t care what you guys think. He shouldn’t have said that. I took the plate his burger was on, and I whipped it across the restaurant. My Mom says that I have what they call a hair trigger temper.” John said. He leaned into the recorder to say that. “It means that the smallest thing will set me off. There was one time that my Dad flipped a radio station on me in my car. I told the man not to touch the tunes a thousand times.

“So, I took the car off the road and ran us into a tree. It wasn’t a huge tree, but it was enough to cause a whole lot of impact.” John pointed to a white scar that snaked around his forearm to his tricep. “My Dad can’t see out of his left eye no more. I said I was sorry to the man and all that, but people gotta learn that you don’t want to see my bad side,” he said flexing his pecs.

“So what happened in the diner?” I asked after waiting an acceptable time for the man to continue.

“I got ready to throw his precious TV through the front window. I told him I would. He wouldn’t say nothing. So I started unscrewing the cables from the wall mouth when he says, ‘John wait!’ I told him to screw his wait. I told him that he had no idea how angry he made me, and that people who made me angry were always sorry for it later.

“If you want people to talk about you, you’ll have to do more in life. Right now, you’re not out enough. You sit around the house too often. You don’t give people enough material. Spending too much time by yourself has caused you this paranoia that makes you think that everyone is talking about you. If you don’t want people talking about you, keep doing what you’re doing, because as far as I know, no one talks about you.”

***

“We were so sad and confused by his disappearance,” said Laurence Vankerkhove’s Father Sal. Sal appeared fatigued. The way his face was lined, you thought either that the troubles and travails of life beat the man down, or he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in ten years. If it wasn’t either of those two, then the man had slept far too much in life. I saw that in a man I knew well, and I knew the deleterious effects too much sleep can have on a man’s appearance. “He just up and left one day. Maybe someone killed him, and they buried in some field or something, but Clive Barrow said that he saw Laurence walking down Highway seventy-five with one of those blow flowers in his hand.

“I look back on the life that I experienced with my step-son Laurence, and I think about how his life was comprised of a series of concessions. Life forced him to concede to the idea that he wouldn’t have biological parents early on in life. That’s quite a blow for a young man to accept, yet he appeared to accept it in his way.

“It’s tough for a step-parent, too, who has a child of their own. When you see your kid running down a soccer field, the joy in your heart is unprecedented. When you see your stepson do the same thing, you fake the joy as best you can. If you decide to show up at all, that is. You can’t help but treat them as the other son. They’re not yours, yet you are willing to feed and clothe them. You have accepted the fact that you have certain responsibilities in life to that son after having decided to marry his mother. The line ends at those accepted responsibilities, and you begin to neglect the intangible needs of that child. No one intends to do it this way. Everyone falls into accidental routines in life.

“One thing Laurence said as a kid that still haunts me is that he learned not to reveal weaknesses to me, for he knew that I would use them against him when I needed an ego boost. I considered that something a teen says to a parent. A parent of a teen learns that they will say the meanest, harshest things possible things to a parent to get their way. That’s all I thought this was. The more I thought about it, the more I realized there was some truth to it. The ego thing was false, as far as I was concerned, but when we argued, well, I would say some things I regret to him.

“I watched him withdraw from society more and more every year of his life. I saw his friends dwindle from what they were to what they are, and I can’t help but think he gave up on that aspect of his life. How horrible must it be to go a day without talking to anyone? Laurence began down that road with each successive concession that he made to people leaving him in life. People have kids, people have jobs and busy lives, and people just move on in life. We do this without considered the other people, the people that don’t have these things, and we do it so often in life that we leave them thinking they have no one left.

“I think he plodded on for much of his life with the idea that one day it would all matter. I think he thought he would meet that one person, one day, that changed it all, and that he would matter to someone in a manner that sustained him. His walking away from everything he knew was his final concession to the fact that that was not going to happen. I still don’t know what happened to him, but he’s an adult now, and he can live life the way he wants to. I just hope he found whatever he was looking for, and he’s happy.”

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