Uncle Billy’s Chicken Hut and Salvation Emporium by Jeffrey G. Roberts
You know you’re dead but you’re not quite sure how it happened or where to go?
You never got a chance to realize the dream of eating oysters on the half-shell?
You insist your spirit can’t move on until you find that 1995 issue of Jugs Galore with Miss February before your wife does?
You’re still not quite sure you’re actually in dead mode?
Come on in! Uncle Billy can steer you on the right path!
West of the bustling metropolis of Phoenix along Interstate Highway 10, you’ll discover a place as alien as the planet Mars and just as foreboding nestled between two majestic mountain peaks and sitting in paranormal obscurity and trans-dimensional anonymity. Part diner, part carnival with equal measures of whimsy and just a smidge of nightmare, this most incongruous edifice is hidden away between peaks and valleys and desert vistas, located smack-dab between the Eastern boundaries of imagination and the Western shores of spooky. You can’t get there by car or plane, helicopter or even horseback. You won’t find it on any map in existence. You can’t stumble upon or surprise-visit this spot. Well, unless you’re dead…
Welcome to Uncle Billy’s Chicken Hut & Salvation Emporium. Just who is Uncle Billy–the 6’6″, 300-pound Texan that resembles a psychedelic St. Nick–and who or what conferred upon him the God-like ability to ease the passing of muddled souls? Angel, demon, or former bouncer at O’Reilly’s Chinese Cantina & Pub? Who knows? Who cares? Suffice it to say that Uncle Billy and his menagerie of helpers have been here for centuries. The only thing that could threaten his very important job of transitioning the dearly departed to the appropriate afterlife are interdimensional pests called punstafulz…and they’ve infested the Emporium, excuse the pun, like there’s no tomorrow. Getting rid of them will take some doing for Uncle Billy and the gang, but, hey, in the meantime, come on in and set a spell. It’s not like you’re going anywhere, right?
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Genre: Paranormal/Supernatural Humour Word Count: 8,724
Uncle Billy’s Chicken Hut and Salvation Emporium
West of the bustling metropolis of Phoenix, along Interstate Highway 10, is the magnificent and mystical desolation of the mountains of Southwestern Arizona. It is as alien as the planet Mars, and just as foreboding. Yet, hidden away between the peaks and valleys and desert vistas, is a most incongruous edifice – part diner, part carnival atmosphere, with equal measure of whimsy, and just a smidge of nightmare. And it lay smack dab between the Eastern boundaries of imagination, and the Western shores of spooky. You can’t get to it by car or plane; and you won’t reach it by helicopter or even horseback. Nor is it on any map in existence. In fact, you won’t find it at all.
Unless you’re dead. For this is Uncle Billy’s Chicken Hut & Salvation Emporium. Welcome. You say your spirit can’t move on until you find that 1995 issue of Jugs Galore with Miss February–before your wife does? Come on in! Never got a chance to see the dream realized of eating oysters on the half-shell? You’ve come to the right place! Not quite sure you’re actually in the dead mode? Uncle Billy will steer you on the right path! You know you’re dead, but you’re not quite sure how it happened, or where to go? Uncle Billy will set you straight!
But just who is Uncle Billy, and who or what could have conferred upon him such God-like ability to ease the passing of muddled souls? Let’s just say that some questions are best left un-asked, and thus un-answered. One then might ask how long Uncle Billy’s Chicken Hut & Salvation Emporium had stood? And that would be another.
But whatever supernatural force called it into being, it was a cross between a 50’s diner and a carnival funhouse. Nestled between two majestic mountain peaks, it contentedly sat in paranormal obscurity and trans-dimensional anonymity. But if you need to move on to the Happy Hunting Grounds, Nirvana, Paradise, Harp Central, etc., and there’s this teensy-weensy impediment holding you back from achieving your eternal reward–or just desserts, if your Karmic pendulum swings that way, Uncle Billy’s Chicken Hut & Salvation Emporium has what ails you. Yes siree! How? Well come on in and set a spell. It’s not like you’re going anywhere. Uncle Billy and the girls will be happy to see you. Maybe. Pity you’re dead. What? Well how the hell else did you think you’d get in?
That was the first thought that went through “Stinky” Parmeter’s head when he appeared in the desert valley. But his thought was a non-sequitur. He was dead. That’s all that mattered. He was a seventy-year old bookie from Newark, New Jersey, who had a singular reason for being Earthbound. And lest you think it was some sort of payback from his shady associations that he had to come to grips with–think again. Some grandiose unfulfilled goal? Nope.
He found himself on a winding path set with colorful flagstones depicting the history of chewing gum. They made no more sense to him. But that’s the way it was. Colorful desert flowers bordered the path, which was quite long, perhaps 300 yards. It meandered directly underneath giant overhanging slabs of red rock, majestic candelabra-like Saguaro cacti, some of which had actual candles burning from the tips of their upturned arms, and the occasional Roadrunner. Soon, he saw something way off in the distance, but couldn’t quite make it out. What he did finally see were twin strings of twinkling Christmas lights flanking either side of the path, atop decorative bamboo poles. Nothing unusual…except for the fact that they didn’t begin on the pathway…but hundreds of feet up in the sky, disappearing right into the clouds, supported by nothing! He stared, transfixed, but felt compelled to move on to that edifice he could see in the distance. He felt there were answers there. And when he got within fifty feet of it he stopped, dumbfounded. “What in hell,” he muttered in shock.
A garish neon sign above the 50’s-style chrome-accented building, proclaimed UNCLE BILLY’S CHICKEN HUT AND SALVATION EMPORIUM in various colors. Several letters were failing, and periodically would flash on and off, presenting a gaudy and somewhat surreal look to the place. A wide porch enclosed in glass ran the length of the building, with the entrance in the center. And it was crammed with a myriad of bizarre displays, odds & ends, and diverse objects from around the world, as well as down through the ages. And the diverse collections were not limited to this world! It seemed more like a museum–God’s attic. Or basement, depending on your point of view. None of this made any sense to poor dead Mr. Parmeter. What made less sense–if such a thing were even possible here–were the pristine cars sitting on little hills surrounding the building. Among them: a 1953 Taylor Aerocar, a 1910 Stanley Steamer, and a 2072 Chevy. How could it possibly have gotten here? There was only one thing to do–go inside. Move on. Where else was he going to go, anyway?
And when he walked in–he looked around, and froze. “This isn’t possible! It’s at least twenty times bigger on the inside than the outside!” And so it was. It seemed like a diner. But Stinky Parmeter realized that something–indeed everything–was very, very off, indeed. It was Disneyland on acid. Right down to the plaque on the wall that said- “A MAN WITHOUT RELIGION IS LIKE A FISH WITHOUT A BICYCLE.” “What is this place? How did I get here?” he said quietly and to no one in particular.
“Where you are should have been pretty obvious from the dang-blasted sign outside, don’t you think?” a voice answered. “And how you got here? Hmmm–that’s a toughie. Oh yeah: you’re dead,” the voice said in a heavy Texas twang. Yep, this had to be Uncle Billy himself. Had he walked down any street in America, he’d be difficult to miss: 6’6″, 300 pounds, with a red beard like a psychedelic St. Nick, a Bolo tie with a turquoise gem the size of a ping pong ball, and a baseball style cap proudly proclaiming WEST HOLLYWOOD LUMBER. If there was anything mystically symbolic about that, it eluded Stinky Parmeter. He had two flaming red pig tails down his back, which made him look like Willy Nelson on steroids. And he had one green eye and one blue. Was he an angel, a demon, God himself–or a former bouncer at O’Reilly’s Chinese Cantina & Pub? Who knew? Right now, who cared?
He ushered Mr. Parmeter into a booth, where he would attempt to straighten things out. Get him up to speed, so to speak.
“Is…is this heaven?” he asked Uncle Billy timidly.
“Yeah, right, Stinky. Heaven looks like a broken-down diner in the middle of the Arizona desert. Hell, if that were the case, nobody would want to die! Oh, wait a minute; nobody does want to die. But we’re getting off the path here, S.P. You’re dead, plain and simple. Like the movie says, you’re not merely dead, you’re truly, really dead. You had to have popped up here for a reason. Folks don’t mosey into Uncle Billy’s (aside from the best BBQ chicken this side of Proxima Centauri!) unless they got a hankering bug up their butt, a thorn in their side, that’s holding them back; something unfinished, something undone.”
“Well, now that you mention it…there is something.”
“Now, see there? I knew it!”
“It’s true. I can’t move on.”
“Well let’s see now,” Billy said, pondering Mr. Parmeter’s situation. “If you can’t move on, as I see it, you got yourself one of two problems: you’re either constipated, in which case you need an enema. Trouble is, neither Uncle Billy nor my girls swing that way. Something tells me that ain’t your problem though; (thank God). The second possibility is something’s holding you back, something you ain’t done yet. And you can’t rocket on out of here till you do it.”
“Well, there is one thing, Billy.”
Billy slapped his hand on the table, then craned his neck to his waitress behind the counter. “Yee-ha, girls! Can Uncle Billy call ’em, or what? Dang I’m good!”
“Ok, Stinky my man. So what’s the deal? What’s that thing you got a hankering to do that you never had a chance to do before your untimely demise?”
“You’re not going to believe it.”
Billy put his massive face close to Stinky’s. “Try me. Son, I been here for–Mona,” he called out, craning his neck again, “how many centuries we been here?” Mona pondered the question for a moment, but didn’t appear to have an answer. “Hell, she don’t know. Dang, I don’t even know! My point is, I’ve heard it all. Ain’t nothing going to surprise me. Lay it on me!”
“Ok. I’ve never eaten oysters.”
Uncle Billy was silent for a moment. Then, without looking away from Stinky, called out: “Charlene, add one to that list of things I ain’t never heard before!
“Now Stinky, there are folks who can’t die till they’ve climbed Mt. Everest. Others want to visit the pyramids, write a book, or go into space. Some make it, some don’t. Those that do–well and good. Clear passage, smooth sailing. Those that don’t, well, they end up here. And old Uncle Billy and his girls try to accommodate them. But you, son, are a first, I gotta admit it.”
“Well, my mother always said oysters are what rich people ate. It’s a status symbol. And I never got rich. Or ate oysters. Can you do it?” he asked nervously.
“Can I do it?” he answered. “Son, I whipped up a Brontosaurus steak dinner, with all the fixin’s, for a V.I.P. gathering of 500, which included George Washington, Nikola Tesla, Julius Caesar, and the Wright brothers. And still had time to see my great-great-great-great grandson get creamed in a soccer match on Cydonia, on Mars! And I did all this while nursing a hang-over, a head cold, and a pulled hamstring! Hell, there ain’t nothin’ old Uncle Billy can’t do!” He snapped his fingers. Instantly a plate of oysters on the half-shell magically appeared in front of Stinky; lemon wedges and all.
“Well, down the hatch, as they say. Then you can mosey on out of here, and head up to where you belong!”
Stinky Parmeter eyed them for a moment, not really believing what he had just seen. But, throwing caution to the wind, he picked one up, and just like he’d seen on TV, slid it down the hatch. Then he screwed up his face, instantly making it apparent that he had overestimated the value of his last earthly desire. Big time. “Oh God, they’re awful! They taste like snot!”
Uncle Billy put his head in his hands, then pinched his eyelids in frustration. “Well thank you, Mr. Parmeter. What a delightful image. Which, thanks to you, I’m sure is going to be rattling round my brain for quite some time. But the important thing is–you got it out of your system, right?”
“Ok then. What’s done is done. You got nothing more holding you back, correct?”
“Nope. Not anymore.”
“Good! Well then, give me a few minutes to make some arrangements, and you can happily vamoose out of here, to join your ancestors. And while you’re waitin’ to wash down the–uh–taste, here’s a drink on the house.” And a glass of century old Scotch magically appeared before him.
“Wow, thanks. But…uh…my doctor says I wasn’t supposed to drink.”
“Uh, newsflash, Stinky!” Billy reminded him.
“Oh yeah,” he answered sheepishly.
Billy got up to make preparations for Mr. Parmeter’s anticipated departure. And while he did, Stinky took in all the weirdness few would ever see, including a framed sign behind the bar that said, “EVERYBODY SHOULD BELIEVE IN SOMETHING. I BELIEVE I’LL HAVE ANOTHER DRINK”. There was a giant, lit Jack O’ lantern on a bar shelf, between rows of liquor bottles. And when Stinky noticed it, he could have sworn it winked at him! Down a hallway which he had not seen before, he noticed the doors marked “MEN”, “WOMEN”, and about a hundred more, until they faded out of sight! He couldn’t imagine what they could be. And he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. The clocks on the wall made absolutely no sense at all to him, either: the numbers kept sprouting little legs and walking around the face, taking the place of other numbers.
In his office, Uncle Billy was deep in thought, determining the best avenue and method for sending Mr. Parmeter on his way. A large cat with luxurious red fur jumped up on his desk.
“Oh, don’t start with me,” Billy said.
“You know the rules,” the cat answered. “Yin and Yang, light and dark; all that crap.”
“I already submitted my recommendations. You can read them if you want. It’s a simple call. He’s a good man. No red flags.”
“He’s a bookie, Billy. He represented illegal gambling.”
“So? In England it’s a respectable profession.”
The cat growled. “In 1962 he beat up a guy for his money. $24.67. Some good guy.”
“So? When I was a teen on Earth I broke a guy’s arm and put him in the hospital, just because he looked at my girl. And look at me now.”
“Must I?” the cat answered sarcastically.
“My point is, he never hurt anyone again. He’s even given to the church, and volunteered in the 90’s with the YMCA.”
“Fine. Let’s put it to the vote,” the cat said, mildly annoyed.
“Ok, Billy sighed, “I’ll get down the book.” And he lifted his 6’6″ frame from the desk chair, and walked over to a book shelf.
“And don’t cheat.”
“You stupid bucket of red fuzz! How the hell am I going to cheat? Neither one of us makes the final decision. The book does. And we both know who’s behind that.”
The cat said nothing, as Billy solemnly took down a gilt-edged leather-bound volume with an elaborate brass clasp. The title on the spine said, “The History of Dots”. He put the book on the desk and slowly undid the clasp. The book magically opened of its own accord, flipping open its pages as if by an unseen hand. Within a few seconds, it stopped. But both left and right pages were blank–until something began to supernaturally appear on them: two green arrows, pointing up. The verdict was clear. Two red arrows pointing down would have been bad news indeed for old Stinky; necessitating a somewhat lighter wardrobe.
“You know, you’re not going to win them all,” the cat muttered.
“I’ll win enough,” the corpulent Billy answered.
The cat skulked off to lick his wounds. Or himself–whichever came first.
“Are you ready, Mr. Parmeter?” Uncle Billy asked, returning to the booth.
“Uh, I guess so,” he answered nervously. “Now what?”
“There’s the front door. You’re free to go.”
“Then what? What do I do? Where do I go?”
“And why do hot dogs come in packages of eight, and buns only in packages of six? So many questions! Just step outside, and it’ll all be taken care of. You’re going home. No more worries.”
Billy sighed. “Or oysters.”
Stinky Parmeter took one last look around. It was so surreal. But then, in the dictionary, under “surreal”, one couldn’t have found a better definition than: “Uncle Billy’s Chicken Hut & Salvation Emporium.”
He stepped outside into the hot desert air. Down the path of colored lights, past the funny flagstones, past the weird candelabra cacti, and past the pristine cars from yesteryear and the distant future. Then he saw something in the distance. “Is that for me?” asked himself quietly. And as it came closer, he reasoned that yes, perhaps it was. It was a hot air balloon, way off in the distance. And it was coming closer to him, and descending. How could an ordinary hot air balloon take him to his eternal reward? he wondered. But his was not to reason why. Besides, it would only have given him a headache.
But stranger things were yet to come. For as the balloon came within 100 feet of him, Stinky Parmeter, the recently dead bookie from Newark, New Jersey, realized that although it did indeed have a gondola; which, though empty, seemed to beckon him; and though it did have cables from the gondola–said cables were not connected to a balloon at all! Indeed, they were connected–in a way Stinky dare not fathom–to fluffy white & blue clouds! And then it landed just a few feet from him. How was such a thing possible? Who was controlling it? It didn’t really matter now. He was relaxed and at peace. He knew no harm would come to him as he climbed over the side. And then, magically, the cloud-powered balloon that wasn’t a balloon rose higher and higher into the desert sky. And as he looked around him, he broke out in a great big grin. “It sure is beautiful.” And then he made a mental note to use his real name from now on–Sylvester. A noble name. A respectable name. From a now purified and respectable spirit. And the cloud-powered gondola got smaller and smaller as it receded into the distance, soon became just a speck, and then–was gone.