The Bag Hookers by James Kracht

Dreams don't have anything to do with the real world, do they?

Dell drove the Cadillac, a soiled cowboy hat firmly seated above his tanned, aging face. Luby worked the bag-hook. Together, Dell and Luby stole bags. Any kind. Hand bags, back-packs, luggage, plastic. You name it -- they've hooked it.

But today -- today something was different.

Luby, in a rudimentary fashion, had decided he'd noticed it first, but Dell simply hadn't mentioned it yet. (Dell was the quick one in their little gang of two; that's why he drove.)

It all began when Luby awoke sweat-soaked from a terrible dream, convinced that his death was at hand; the nightmare, the vision, had made that very clear.

He sat trembling, vividly reliving every moment, making no attempt at analysis; with Luby, his memory was all and his mind worked precisely to that end -- to simply relive, endlessly. At first his dream was confusing -- a blur, speckled now and again with the startled faces of hooking-victims past, but beyond those faces there seemed to lurk a concealed consciousness that whispered indistinct things to him. Something dark -- and alien. He had seen it before -- or rather, sensed it before. It writhed within the very substructure of his consciousness, like some fractal madness that once glimpsed, was never to be escaped.

The nightmare had eventually resolved itself into a familiar situation, one in which Luby had hooked a promising piece of luggage from the curb at the airport. He had flung it into the back seat, letting loose with his distinctive, triumphant bag-call. He turned to Dell for approval, but his wise companion was nowhere to be seen. The driver's seat was empty. Initially this had frightened Luby -- not because the car might have crashed, but because Luby had never been in a moving car when Dell hadn't been driving. He felt a terrible loneliness and tried to grab the steering wheel, but his frail dream body reacted slowly if not at all, and all he could do was watch as the car gently, magically, negotiated curves and turned corners. Seconds later, as a soft dream-wind caressed his face, he began to smell something strange, like in the distance something was rotting. His nose began to twitch and the stench -- like some great dead fish -- grew stronger. Then he heard Dell's voice, muffled and distant.

Oh, shit! came the panicked cry. Luby, help me! Oh, shit no!

Luby turned, eyeing the light-blue suitcase he'd hooked. It was vibrating, jerking, thrashing on the back seat. He reached over and tried to steady it, but there was something alive inside, trying to force its way out. A dark, malignant liquid oozed from the seams as they began to rip apart. Luby tried to keep the bag from disintegrating, to keep what was inside from escaping, but the vinyl was being shredded from within. Luby was about to back away when a bloodied human hand broke through, catching his trembling right arm before he could escape. It began to pull on him, to reel him in. He cried out, his free hand clawing at the loose seat belts, his legs spastically kicking.

That's when Dell -- in the waking world -- had savagely punched him in the arm, tired of all his fidgeting and whimpering.

So after fifteen minutes of silently reliving it, trying to make sense of it, Luby recounted the dream to Dell -- his mouth failing to articulate important words, his breathing labored, his right hand still squeezing his shoulder where the wake-up punch had landed.

Dell, remaining calm at the wheel, was disturbed by the dream's details and he made Luby repeat the entire thing, paying special attention to where "his" panicked voice had come from -- the light blue suitcase.

Soon after, lost in thought, Dell nearly ran into a telephone pole. He pulled over and parked, holding out his shaking right hand -- attempting to steady it by will alone. He failed.

He spotted a convenience mart in the distance and drove forward, parking in front of a silver-hatched ice cooler. He tried to calm himself, concentrating on the frozen word "ice" before him, slightly distorted by the Cadillac's windshield. After a pause of several minutes he spoke.

"Luby," he said, "I had a dream, too."

"What?" Luby's voice cracked, a lurking fear asserting itself.

"I dreamed -- I dreamed that some sort of -- thing -- with tentacles, and claws, and huge eyes
. . ."

"Yeah . . ." prodded Luby's voice, suddenly weak with recognition; Dell's description had triggered a cascade of childhood memories.

"Well, it cut me up, Lube. Then -- then it threw me in a blue bag. All my pieces, I mean. Into a suitcase, you know? I don't know why. Took me on a long flight -- on a trip, somewhere, you know? I didn't want to go. It was like I was a prisoner. I don't get the last part at all, though."

It was hazy to Dell; the dream had come the previous night and he'd forgotten most of it. He could still feel the strange, cold tentacles on his flesh -- piling him neatly in pieces.

"Dell? I don't under --"

"I know ya don't, Luby!" Dell blurted. "I guess I just got all ripped up. Put in a blue bag. Sorta like your dream is all."

Luby tried to sit still, failed, and then fled into the tiny store. Inside, deep in aisle 3, he tried to distract himself by flipping through magazines.

He saw Dell finally come in to buy cigarettes. He watched the exchange from behind the pages of a monster truck magazine.

"C'mon, Lube!" called Dell, without glancing at his frightened partner. He jingled the Cadillac's keys. "We gotta go! C'mon!"

Luby took a deep breath, hesitated, and then dropped the magazine.

Once they were on the road again Luby began to rub his temples vigorously. His head hurt and he wished he'd stolen some aspirin from the convenience mart.

He couldn't fully accept or understand the concept of a shared dream experience, especially where he and Dell were concerned, and especially since he didn't even know how to use the words shared, dream, or experience in the same sentence. He did know -- believed with all his heart actually -- that it had to mean something, and though he wasn't superstitious by nature he felt a deep dread unlike anything he'd ever known; sitting there in the hot front seat, his eyes glued to a distant point on the horizon. Luby led himself to the worst of all conclusions: that he would soon die, but Luby's thoughts strayed -- to the memories Dell had dislodged. He strayed back to his childhood and the time his older brother had lured him into and locked him in an aged steamer trunk on the roof of their old Gambrel-roofed house. Why his brother had dragged that dusty thing from the attic window was never clear to him. But he felt as if he were going to die on that day, too. He recalled the sliding feeling as his brother had pushed it; the disorientation, the ineffectual scrabbling against the rotting floor of the trunk as if it would do some good, and the strange old book that he'd accidentally exposed in a hidden compartment; the texture of its pages had felt like crawling flesh in the darkness. The entire experience was all overshadowed by the basic, paralyzing fear that came from not knowing where the roof's edge was, or whether his brother would save him. The Cadillac had taken on the quality of that dark steamer trunk and Luby vividly relived what he'd felt on that cruel day so long ago.

Dell suddenly swerved to miss a pothole, didn't, and the jolt pulled Luby from his painful recollections. As the car ceased its bouncing Luby realized he missed his vanished brother. Dell noticed the look in Luby's eyes.

"You know what your problem is, Luby?" he said bitterly. "You're thinkin' too much! Too much thinkin'll screw a person. Just stop thinkin' and relax."

Luby nodded but only vaguely; Dell scowled, making a sound of disgust in his throat. He stared at Luby for a moment, at the odd shape of his friend's head, at the brow so thick with sweat. That's when Dell felt a pang of guilt. He'd accidentally locked Luby's hat in the Cadillac's trunk, along with the trunk's key; now Luby's brain was baking in the sun -- changing, sensed Dell -- probably browning.

Dell looked back to the road and wished he'd never told Luby about his dream.

Luby, meanwhile, ran his left hand along the bag-hook's twisted steel shaft, which was moored to the floor of the car before the expansive front seat. The hook stretched out behind them, resting on the folded-down top, a tattered pirate's flag tied to it.

The sweat poured down Luby's freckled face and he squinted, finding the airport looming in the distance. His stomach began a complex dance and he tried to ignore it, smoothing back a lock of his reddish hair.

"Dell, I don't wanna die here," he said weakly.

"That's a stupid thing to say!" scolded Dell. "We're goin' to the airport and that's that! Gonna get us a couple bags!"

Dell knew he had to be tough. He had to shake Luby out of it.

"But don't you think it's -- don't you think --," started Luby. He covered his eyes, trying to keep the sun out.

The sun.

Suddenly, to Dell, the sun existed to make him feel guilty about Luby's hat. He wanted to be hard on Luby but the truth was that he was scared, too. The dream was haunting him. His tone changed.

"So, tell me --," Dell faltered.


"I mean, talk it out," said Dell. "I think we gotta figure this out."

Luby hesitated and then looked to the buildings passing by.

"Don't you think this is wrong, Dell?" he said. "Hookin' bags, I mean? It's wrong."

Dell took a breath. He'd once had the same thought when he was Luby's age -- when he'd been in the hooking-seat himself.

"I had a friend," Dell said. "He was a lot like I am to you, you know? His name was Lyle. I think I told you about him a few times. He used to drive this car before he got -- well, before he got sent away."

Dell paused, caught up in his memories.

"Yeah?" urged Luby.

"Lyle made somethin' clear to me, Lube -- about baghookin', I mean. He told me that there's right and there's wrong, and they're both sort of over here." Dell gestured with his left hand near the side mirror. "And then there's what's important -- and that's sort of over here." His right hand paddled the air by the bag-hook. "Now, this is the thing you gotta remember, Lube. What's important ain't right -- or wrong. And hookin' bags is the most important thing there is. Got that?"

Luby thought for a moment.

"Yeah, I guess."

"So we're gonna get us a couple juicy bags, right?"

"Yeah, yeah, okay. Couple bags. Yeah. Juicy."

"So stop worrying. It was just a dream. Dreams can't hurt you, right?"

"Just a dream is all," said Luby.

"Think of the bags, Luby," said Dell. "The kind the gangsters carry around. One of these days we're gonna hook that bag."

"A million dollars," said Luby vacantly. "A gangster-bag."

"Maybe we'll get that bag today," said Dell, but more to himself than to Luby; Dell had been hooking bags for twenty years and the coveted gangster money-bag had yet to materialize. It had eluded Lyle all his life and now he was in prison. Dell felt like he would soon join his former partner if the gangster-bag didn't end up on Luby's hook within the year. He could feel the world getting smaller around him, like the special agents were closing in.

"The crook-purse," sighed Luby. "The bad-guy briefcase."

Luby wanted it; he wanted it so bad -- just so he could relive that particular triumph any time he pleased -- so he could truly experience a personal victory over something -- anything.

As they drove into the airport's main thoroughfare, going slow, watching, Luby's face showed signs of intense fear held barely in check. His pale hands massaged each other. Every light-blue piece of luggage made him start.

"Relax, Lube," said Dell calmly. "Check out the bags, huh? Pick a good one. Pick the money-bag. Don't even worry about the color, neither. Maybe the dream is tellin' us something, man. Maybe it's saying that that gangster bag is light blue. Them gangsters cut people up and put'em in suitcases, you know? Throw'em in the river when they do somethin' wrong? I think it's a good sign, Lube."

Luby looked to Dell and managed to smile. He turned back, swallowing hard.

Together they eyed the bags, hundreds of them, waiting on the curb -- their unsuspecting owners busy hailing cabs and waiting for rides and shuttle buses. Dell decided to circle the airport several times to calm Luby -- and it seemed to work, but barely. On their third pass around Dell maneuvered in for a kill. He surveyed the bags, spotting an almost ideal setup.

"You like that blue job, Luby?"

Luby saw it. It was a plump one. It looked heavy. Best of all, it was stacked atop a large cardboard box, its handle conveniently facing the road. Luby checked to make sure the hook's anchor was secure. Swinging it over his head he looked to Dell.

"Hookin' speed, D."

Dell slowly accelerated to that golden rate. It lurked somewhere between twenty-three and twenty-five miles per hour -- but it wasn't twenty-four. It was a subtle math, this speed. It came from the mix of speed proper and a timing that only emerged from the eight gargantuan cylinders under the hood of the Cadillac.

Luby took a deep breath. "All set, D."

The steely hook, with its severe welds and braces, arced outward from the passenger side; the pirate's flag snapped loudly in the breeze.

Luby looked ahead, trying to concentrate, trying to shake the vicious images from the night before. He wiped his brow on his sleeve and adjusted the bag-hook. Dell swerved in.

People gawked, unsure of what they were seeing.

Luby took aim -- aligning the blue bag in his sights; the owners, talking amongst themselves, hadn't noticed the Cadillac in its graceful swoop.

Luby began to feel the familiar hook rush and he realized, scared though he was, he truly loved what he did. His hands steadied and his confidence grew. His mind was suddenly lucid. His eyes, focused on the bag's handle, were unaffected by the bounce of the car. He angled the hook, preparing for contact, making minute adjustments.

"What the hell!" cried Dell.

The tone of voice shattered all that Luby had just achieved.

He looked around at the last moment and all his fears came storming back to him. Ahead, three police cars were speeding in their direction, lights ablaze, sirens sending slower traffic from their urgent paths.

"Shit!" Luby cried. "Oh, Dell! Dell!"

"Th-the bag!" stammered Dell in confusion. "The bag!"

Luby was shocked that Dell was still concerned with the hooking, and he tried to regain his wits. When he looked back the hook was now too high and Luby, panicking, over-corrected. It narrowly avoided an elderly woman's head and missed the blue bag entirely. Instead, the hook punctured the large, securely taped cardboard box that the luggage had been resting on. The weight of the box was too much for Luby and as the shaft of the hook was dragged backwards it pinned him against the seat. He squealed in pain and barely managed to force the now weighted shaft up and over his head, skinning his nose in the process. The cardboard finally ripped and the whole box fell neatly into the back seat. Luby's gaze shot to the police ahead.

"They're gonna get us, Dell!" he gasped, gripping his aching chest. "Do somethin'!"

Dell was now simply confused. The initial batch of police cars had vanished, having turned up an open ramp that led between the two main terminals of the airport. As Dell drove closer more units arrived; the officers emerged from their cars and began to alter the flow of traffic, preventing anyone, from any direction, from passing the ramp. An officer held out his hands for Dell to stop.

"Dell!" Luby screamed.

For that one brief instant Dell succumbed to Luby's fear, now so infectious, and he punched the gas, steering in the only clear direction -- the ramp between the terminals.

The police units that had gone before them now came into view. They were arrayed in a large arc about a hundred yards from a small, twin-engined aircraft. Several police troopers wearing light-blue flak-jackets were waving him off hysterically.

Luby panicked and unfastened his safety harness. He managed to stand up, his legs weak, and then fell over the front seat into the back, trying to get away from what he knew to be his death. Dell, momentarily distracted by Luby's spastic actions, tried to pull him back into the front seat.

"Goddammit, Lube!" he yowled. "Get a fuckin' grip!"

Unable to wrangle Luby, Dell sped up, pounding the steering wheel in anger. He swerved between two parked police cars. A moment later he saw an access gate just beyond the small plane. An inviting road lay just on the other side.

Luby, meanwhile, scrambling around in the back seat, was trying to deal with the large cardboard box that he'd fallen onto. His right hand managed to find its way into the tattered hole near the top and he felt something smooth inside. The feeling startled him and the rushing turmoil around him seemed to fade. Unwillingly, he peered into the hole -- and found a hand loosely grasping his. The sight made him dizzy and the touch of the cold, hard fingers seemed almost hallucinatory. A few seconds passed slowly -- his vision skewed -- and then he cried out in terror. Lunging away, he stood awkwardly in the back seat, holding the bag-hook for support.

"We're -- gonna -- die!"

Luby was sobbing, tears streaming down his face, his right arm waving wildly into the air. The wind tore through his hair and he was suddenly transported into a painful past. Everything vanished; Luby saw nothing but blackness. The speed of the car was mercilessly simulating a shattering plunge to the ground, a plunge he had tried to forget, a plunge he had taken long ago, locked in a musty steamer trunk.

An eerie calm overtook him. He felt no movement at all. Everything was still. Light flooded his memory and he gazed up, finding his brother towering over him as he remained motionless, too scared to cry, curled into a bruised ball in the bottom of the trunk, grasping an ancient book. His brother only grinned and pointed at him, laughing -- and then kicked the trunk mercilessly until Luby staggered out, his little body protesting in pain, the book falling away and out of his life. Then the image faded, clicked off; the mental home movie was over.

Dell, in the time it had taken Luby to flashback, gawked at his dazed friend.

"Get the crap down!" he yelled. "Luby, dammit! Sit the crap down!"

Luby remained, blinking uncontrollably in the wind, his tears drying as quickly as his eyes could produce them.

Dell gave up, deeply angered, and tried to concentrate on driving. In the distance he saw a bald man climb out of the small plane; he pulled a blue suitcase from the interior and threw it to the ground. He then forced a woman from the cockpit of the plane. He wore a baggy green military jacket and black horned-rim glasses. He swung the woman around, forcing her head under his left arm. Even from a distance Dell could see she was terrified, just like Luby. The similarity angered him and he felt like having a discussion with the strangely dressed pilot about how to keep your passengers from panicking -- but then realized that slowing down wasn't an option; the Feds were tailing him, after all.

Accelerating, sinking back into the soft seat, Dell focused himself; as the scene ahead drew closer, something distracted him. The pilot, the bald man, had a gun to the woman's cheek.

Dell's face lit up; he understood now. The police weren't after --

The pilot of the plane had suddenly opened fire and Dell never knew what hit him just to the right of his nose. Luby, fully aware of his surroundings now, felt his knees spattered with blood; he felt it seeping through his pants, felt it cooling in the savage breeze.

He looked to Dell who was no longer alive.

Standing in the back seat, struggling to keep his balance like some enfeebled surfer, Luby sensed that his body was growing numb, his stomach contracting in thousands of little quakes. Mustering all his strength, he flung the bag-hook out to the right. He scanned the Cadillac's interior; the cardboard box -- with its nameless, hideous contents -- was leaning against his legs, a pale, pinkish hand hanging from its side. His clenched his teeth and flipped the box of body parts over the rear of the car. It burst upon the tarmac.

Luby didn't see the rest of the mannequin spew from its darkened confine; arms, legs, torso -- shattering like a plane that had lost its landing gear. The head continued on, tumbling amid a blizzard of Styrofoam packing material; the slipstream of the Cadillac sucked the tiny, vaguely peanut-shaped objects along behind it.

The police officers, guns drawn, hidden behind their open car doors, were unsure of what they were witnessing, although they later agreed that it looked pretty cool.

Luby, having climbed into the front seat, grasped at the slippery steering wheel. Dell had slumped bloodily forward, immobilizing it. He tried to remove Dell's foot from the gas, gripping at his dead friend's pant leg.

"C'mon, Dell! Move your leg!"

More bullets ripped into the car, shattering the windshield. One found its way through Luby's shoulder and he fell back in shock, into the passenger seat, his mouth wide in a soundless scream. An image flashed through his mind -- something vast and alien, surrounded by writhing tentacles.

The terrorist, confused by the law enforcement tactics he was being confronted with, threw the woman to the ground and took precise aim at the roaring Cadillac speeding towards him.

Bullets tore into the great car's engine. The hood flew up amid a shower of steam and fire, but the juggernaut rattled on.

At the last moment the exasperated terrorist leapt from the Cadillac's path. Not surprisingly (and similar to his exceptionally poor choice of careers), he chose the wrong way to jump; the bag-hook, extended from the side of the car, pierced him neatly.

Luby, eyes streaming tears, thoughts drifting back to his lost brother, glanced over at the man gasping and spasming on the hook. They both died confused; the two steely structures -- aircraft and automobile -- propelled by the motion of the Cadillac, skidded for a hundred yards. The ex-hostage staggered to her feet and attempted to stumble away. Moments later the two commingled modes of transportation behind her burst into flame. One of the grenades in the impaled terrorist's jacket detonated in the heat, showering the runway with smoking, twisted debris. One small fragment landed next to the woman, who had been forced to the ground by the blast. It glinted in the sunlight, and she found herself transfixed by it -- this small brooch, which she'd seen pinned on her abductor's jacket. It was a tiny head, with deep black eyes, and tentacles where it's mouth should have been. She reached for it.

Nothing happened for several minutes.

The airport's fire trucks came.

A week and one day later, what was left of Dell's Cadillac was in the city dump crushed into a blackened cube nearly four feet wide. Nearby, resting serenely and mysteriously at the bottom of a scrap pile was Luby's bag-hook.

Send your comments to James V. Kracht


© 2000 Edward P. Berglund
"The Bag Hookers": © 2000 James Kracht. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1999-2000 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: May 16, 2000; Current Update: August 9, 2004