Few are the number of individuals caught in so dreary of circumstance as Herman Palmer.
Before Herman started the new semester, he took a trip to a large music festival in Clam Beach, California. Normally, Herman preferred the sanctity of used bookstores, libraries, or all-night cafes. When feeling extra daring, he went to the cinema. However, pure chance would have it that the cafe he frequented was handing out a free ticket to their 113th customer for the chilly yet massively-hyped winter bash on Clam Beach, and Herman won.
Herman tried desperately to convince his girlfriend to take the ticket and go by herself. She would not have any of that. Stacy was the type of girl who listened intently and retained everything you ever said. So when Herman told her seven months ago in Willamette Family bookstore that he had never been to a concert in his life, yet desperately wanted to, she resurrected that moment and cast it into Herman’s face and implored him to go, claiming that to act against his true desires would provide an even worse anxiety than the one he felt now.
This is why Herman loved her dearly. Stacy lived with a tenacity and fervor that bled helplessly into those around her, commanding their attention or demanding their retreat. Not many could withstand the towering character of Stacy, but those who endured often found it quite fulfilling and went on to pursue their deepest aspirations and secret passions. Herman was going to marry her. He bought the ring just the week prior to winning the concert ticket and was going to propose but decided to appease Stacy first and prove to her he trusted her guidance.
And thus it was that Herman, fighting against every nerve and fiber of his being proceeded south thirty-six miles by Greyhound bus to Clam Beach where he booked a room at a crummy two-star motel with reviews claiming the bed bugs had an insatiable hunger and the blankets were stained white and brown.
Herman dropped off his bag at the motel and felt like a shower so he entered the bathroom and noticed the peeling paint that dangled in loose ribbons and the black growth that had overtaken the toilet bowl. He tip-toed across the checkered linoleum floor dotted with mice pellets and stiff ear-wigs, barely dodging a lipstick-stained half-smoked Marlboro.
He drew back the curtain and screamed. A moving mass of gray hair gyrated across the corpse of a dead cat. The smell rose up into his nose and slammed into him like a brass-knuckled boxer. He stumbled back and noticed one small mass of grayness breaking away from the rest and saw the familiar pink tail of a mouse. Nauseous, Herman shut the door and went for his bag retrieving his water bottle. He would change clothes and head to the concert.
There were fourteen bands playing over two days. When Herman finally made it to the beach his face burned from the cold and he thought it would be impossible to stand on the beach in what felt like near freezing temperatures. His large down coat, blue jeans and hiking boots sufficiently warmed him for the first five minutes of being outdoors. After that, he felt his ass go numb and his lips start to chap. His hands would remain nice and toasty since he wore the thick leather gloves he got for Christmas lined with polyester fleece. Before he made his way to the main stage, he spotted a raging bonfire surrounded by three guys and felt the courage to join them.
Perhaps it was the light beer he drank before leaving his motel, or the belief that death might perhaps be inevitable due to the cold, that gave Herman the confidence to join these men. Whatever it was, he gave a mental nod to that area of his psyche that allowed him this moment.
Herman nodded to the three men who were drinking from red cups and smoking cigarettes. He pulled off his gloves and tucked them into his coat pocket and held his hands before the fire which tenderly warmed them.
“Hey man, you need to get your drink on. That’s how you get warm,” The guy without the shirt said.
“I didn’t bring any booze,” Herman said.
“Well that’s kind of dumb, don’t you think? Going to a beach concert without bringing any alcohol?” The fat one said.
Herman wasn’t much of a drinker and it never dawned on him that alcohol would go well with his first concert experience. However, now that he mentioned it, he regretted not bringing more than just one beer so he could drink more and feel a little more brave and a little less frightened by the lingering anxiety that permeates his introspective existence.
“Here,” the shirtless guy said, reaching into a a plastic bag to retrieve a plastic cup. He handed Herman the cup and said, “Hold it still,” before filling it halfway with vodka, then topping it off with lemon lime soda.
The fat one said, “Drink that and you’ll really start to warm up. The fire helps too.”
Herman drank and laughed and after thirty minutes had finished his drink and was poured another. Soon he was warm enough to shed the jacket which he tossed absently into the sand behind him.
A small-time pimp by the name of Dark Charlie walked by the four laughing men and nearly tripped over Herman’s coat. He yelled out a few curses which fell on deaf ears so Dark Charlie took the coat for himself and made a handsome profit selling the gloves he found in the side pocket at the pawn shop up the street.
“That’s real genuine cow leather,” The pawn broker said. “I’ll give you a hundred for it.”
Minutes after his coat was stolen, Herman threw a large piece of plywood into the fire and the other men cheered as the flames grew almost as tall as them and the heat singed Herman’s eyebrows so he shut them while pumping his fists skyward.
The fat one, motivated by his daring companion, grabbed another piece of plywood and threw it in and the flames grew above their heads and there was a moment of silence inspired by the sheer brilliance of the dancing flame and those surrounding stopped and turned to witness the roaring inferno with mouths hung open and wide eyes.
Finally, the four of them cheered and tossed every colorful swear word they knew into the blaze like vulgar offerings to Hephaestus.
Herman felt his bowels twist and a sudden rush of pain crawl down his abdomen. He thought back to the egg salad sandwich he ate at the truck stop on his way to Clam Beach and knew he had to find a bathroom fast. Fortunately, there was a Honey Bucket not three strides away behind the shirtless guy which he had not noticed in the dim evening light of his arrival, but was now fully illuminated by the flames.
He excused himself and entered the portable toilet. He was unfastening his belt when he heard a scream from outside. He paused, waited, and listened. Nothing more came, just the harmonious hum of countless conversations overlapping and the deep bass of the nearby stage playing some type of pop rock song.
Another cheer and applause erupted outside in conjunction with the copious amount of diarrhea he expelled. He was feeling sick to his stomach now, the alcohol starting to come up into his throat. Herman quickly went for the toilet paper and wiped furiously yet clumsily and it tore open on his fingers and made a mess on his hand and the nausea was back and the screaming from outside. At first he couldn’t see a thing inside the Honey Bucket but now it was filled with a faint glow and he saw he had shit all over his hand he the smell made him gag. The scent of smoke and feces and chemical solution combined to make him vomit all over himself. Someone was banging against the door and screaming through the small space between the door.
“Get out! Get out!” the voice cried.
Herman ignored this and silently swore he would be out soon, but now he was mortified at the thought of leaving with puke on his chest and shit on his hand. The banging became more frantic and deafening. The Honey Bucket was now filled with light as if someone had shined a spotlight through it. The banging had stopped and was replaced with screams and car horns going off. A siren screamed in the distance and the unmistakable warmth of fire was upon him.
Herman watched the door turn orange as flames crawled across. He stood and furiously wiped his hand against his shirt to hide at least some of the residue. He went to pull the lock free and recoiled back with a hiss. It was too hot so he peeled off his shirt and wrapped it around his hand and tried again. He freed the metal bolt and pressed the door open with his foot but it wouldn’t budge.
Herman kicked at it again but it was as if someone was holding it shut. That was impossible, he could see that the Honey Bucket was shrouded in flames so he kicked and kicked as hard as he could until the pain in his foot became unbearable and he stood, frozen, waiting for an idea to pass through him.
“Please, god,” Herman said. “Save me. I’ll do anything, I’ll be so good from now one. Just save me, don’t let me burn.”
The heat was agitating his eyes so Herman squeezed them shut. From the parking lot the fat man watched the pillar of fire reach for the stars. His attempt to save Herman had been in vain; for the door had melted shut before he started banging on it. It would be another hour before he would feel the second degree burns that ate up his arms.
With eyes shut it was impossible for Herman to see the first glob of molten plastic fall like a chubby raindrop on the back of his neck. The pain sent a shiver down his back and he screamed so that everyone in the parking lot could hear him. Then, like a gentle April drizzle, the roof showered down on Herman, searing his scalp and burning his clothes until penetrating the fabric to cover his skin. In a few seconds his body was covered with shards of plastic that flared on contact before smoldering out. His lungs threw forth a gale of screams so terrible, those remaining in the parking lot fled, the echo of Herman’s agony ringing through their ears.
The roof was gone and the melting walls slowly fell down towards the sand.
The firemen found him half-buried. In a last ditch effort, Herman had crawled through the toilet bowl into the chemical bath but when the walls melted away, the liquid slowly drained out. The flames licked Herman’s legs and crotch as he clawed his way through the sand. The chemical water kept filling up where he dug yet he still persisted and managed to dig four feet out before the Honey Bucket collapsed and trapped him in an underground pool of formaldehyde and bleach.
The blue-stained face of Herman Palmer fuels the nightmares of the four firemen who pulled him out that night. They all heard his whimpers beneath the sand. They heard him cry for his mother. And when they finally pulled him to the surface they saw a face they wished to soon forget. The crossed eyes, the shriveled lips, missing nose, peeled back eyelids, and scaly black cheeks. Herman looked more like a deep sea apparition than a young man nearing graduation.
Memories of him were scarce and isolated. He kept a very private, quiet life. Because of this, friends and family kept a deep, closely guarded secret. They tried arduously to keep him far from their minds, for the most potent memories of him took on a face of horror that poisoned their existence and they quietly resented him even in death.