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Cleophus

By Gary Grenier

It's not mental telepathy, clairvoyance, or any other mystical power. A person's ability to sense that they are not alone is a trait that I believe everyone possesses. The eerie feeling that you have a pair of eyes watching you or the sense that you can almost smell or hear someone sharing your space may be shocking, but is not an uncommon function of the human brain. I have experienced this awareness numerous times, but one event stands out and it actually affected my life for a number of years.

It was 5:25 AM in a wilderness setting, an environmental clean up in Northern Michigan. I was more apt to come face to face with a bear, than with another human. I had just unlocked the gate at a State of Michigan sponsored remediation site, when I realized that there was no moon this morning. A former plating plant, Cleftis Chrome Parts, had gone bankrupt several years back, abandoning a lagoon that contained 6' of heavy-metal sludge. The plant had been located in an unlikely spot, miles away from any city, in an area more suited for hunting or trapping, than manufacturing. As Project Manager for an environmental contractor, I was typically the first one on site to open the gate, set up the construction trailers, inspect and start the equipment, and get the hauling and disposal logs up to date.

There is no better aroma than that first pot of fresh coffee brewing on a crisp autumn morning. Cup in hand, chores completed, I started out to inspect the lagoon for water infiltration, and if need be, I would crank up the de-watering pumps. We had security lights near the office trailers at the entrance, but I was headed to the far end of the project, as we were working our way out of the lagoon, from back to front, making the placement of backfill material much easier.

The lagoon sludge was a definite hazard to the environment, both via direct human contact, and to the ground water, a very precious commodity. Flint, Detroit, Grand Rapids, and many bigger Michigan cities have piped-in treated water systems, but 98% of the rest of the State's residents function from a well. Any one or any thing that affects the aquifer quality gets prompt attention from the EED, or Environmental Enforcement Division.

My main concern in the pitch black work zone was the grease like consistency of the plating waste. One poorly placed step, and I could be crotch deep in the heavy, viscous, toxic material. The cool morning had produced a lot of dew that covered the grasses, and that increased the slip probabilities by a factor of ten. Caution was in order.

The eerie pink streaks of pre-dawn light were helpful as I picked my way around the back of the lagoon, but I had an uneasy feeling. The first sense of an intruder hit me as I was navigating a narrow strip of high ground at the far end of the project. My neck hair was at attention. I froze, suspending my breathing, and initially, moved only my eyes in my quest for the "Headless Horseman", "Casper", or "The Night Stalker".

The best way I can describe the sensation is that I could almost feel the body heat from someone hovering very close to me. The back of my neck tingled. The cool 38-degree slow morning breeze was affected by a 98.6 degree presence. I slowly raised my right hand, pausing in readiness to relieve the electrified sensation that was tickling the nape of my neck. In that moment of hesitation, waiting for the internal scratch signal, I heard a voice, a Cajun voice in the traditional rhythmic twang saying, "This be Cleophus !"

Then again, "Cleophus here. You's OK." It was not a question, it was a statement, but at that moment, I was anything but OK.

Bladder function had never been a problem throughout my 50+ years, and after a lapse of about a tenth of a second, I had things back under control. Blood pressure, adrenaline infusion, and mental stability were a totally different story, setting records in both the minimum and maximum output categories. I knew severe pain in the left arm could be a sign of a pending heart attack, but my still hovering right arm had the 'million pin-prick' sensation that accompanies having something slam into your funny bone.

Slowly I raised and turned my head towards the center of the lagoon, the spot where the voice seemed to emanate from. The lagoon sludge level was eight feet below the surrounding terrain, and in that undisturbed atmosphere directly above the sludge, misty wisps of fog lazily corkscrewed up through the cool morning air. One of those wisps was wearing a pair of sunglasses.

Bladder control was once again considered as I consciously forced my gaping mouth closed, and I actually drifted off momentarily, considering my emotional and mental health.

I had heard a voice and I had witnessed a visual encounter. I had a difficult time justifying these events, but no medical excuses came to mind, therefore, they must really be happening.

Reality slammed back at me when the sunglasses turned in my direction and I heard "This surely ain't right, but you's OK." Through the buzzing in my head, I heard mumbling that included some verbiage that was very similar to common curse words.

I got a grip and managed to peer back into the mist. Quivering glimpses revealed a silver streaked goatee and pencil thin mustache on a very shadowy face. It also appeared that just above the sunglasses, cocked to the left, sat a dark gray beret. All this faded in and out with the fog and mist.

Not all of these events are perfectly recalled; there were numerous lapses. Suddenly, I realized I was sitting down. I don't think I fell down, but I do vividly recall the temperature of the morning dew soaking through my jeans and underwear. Momentarily, the vision was gone, but then I thought I saw the glint of a gold tooth.

I was floating mentally, recalling my childhood and conversations with my mother. During this sanity time-out, I suddenly remembered the name of my first pet bulldog, Bing, some fifty years ago. My long deceased Uncle Ferdy was just coming into focus when I was asked, "Yo! Mister, is yo name Miller?" Then "where I is?"

My mouth was suddenly coated with alum, topped off with at least a half a cup of sawdust. I was speechless, with my first verbal effort resembling a slow leak in a beach ball. Eventually, I uttered one distinct word, "Ah", followed by, "er" and another, "ah". Then I heard myself saying, "are, are you talking to me?" Even in my befuddled state, I realized the profound stupidity of my question and was actually embarrassed, so I quickly followed with these facts, "I'm not Miller, but we are in Hodmiller Township, Montmorency County, Michigan, at the Cleftis lagoon site." There was at least a ten-second pause.

"Damn, Damn, Double Damn! What is a Cleftis? I is Cleophus, not Cleftis, and I supposed to be with a Howard Miller at Laguna Beach, south of Monterey, not at a lagoon in Mont-what's its name.

"Holy Jambalaya, my first solo and I blows it, two and a half years of apprenticeship right down de drain. Ooh-eee, I in deep crap and short cotton! Damn!"

The pink of the dawn sky was adding some yellow streaks, and I could make out a few more details about this vision. He was an older black man who spoke with a melodic bayou dialect, and he was pacing across the sloppy goo and sludge like he was waltzing on K-Mart's parking lot. He was marching on pure slop, but his shoes and clothing were spotless. He was making references to the bossman, 'Mr. Peter,' who would never let him back in, especially empty-handed.

"I has to be back up there before dat sun comes up, and I best be escorting Mr. Howard Miller, dee-ceased. Ain't no escort ever missed before," he said pacing away from me, but now the beret was gone and he was wearing a straw Panama hat and the flashy sunglasses were missing.

"How can a 'Class A-1 Special Escort' miss?" This time he had his hands locked behind his back, pacing towards me, and he was smoking a large black cigar that was not there the last time he faced me.

"Did you say I in Minnesota?" he asked, pointing his cigar at me.

"No, Michigan," I answered, noticing a vortex, or slight swirl of the fog, forming at his black leather brogans. I was hearing a whirling sound.

"Mich-gun, dats even worse yet. How in de hell did I wind up in Mich-gun? Oh daddy, there be no crawfish in de gumbo tonight!"

Things were happening fast. Also, the Panama hat was gone and, believe it or not, he was wearing a maroon WWI leather aviator cap, the ones with the goggles. The fog was gaining speed as it swirled and started to form a mini-funnel. There was a slight rumble growing that joined the high-pitched wind whistle from before.

"Can I ask you where you are from Cleophus?" I sheepishly inquired.

"I was born in La Fouche, in a Parish south of - I ain't got time for this crap, boy. I gonna be living in the basement of a one-hole outhouse if I don't come up with somet'ing fast!"

His stubble had grown to over an inch of beard in the last few minutes, distorting his goatee and covering his mustache. His baggy zoot-suit pants had been replaced with Cavalry britches and get this, now he was wearing a bright orange pilot's scarf, and it was standing straight out because the vortex was beginning to spin at high velocity.

The wind noise was overpowering and the rest of his statements were only partially understood. Something about -

"I told that escort dispatcher I was no good at penmanship. If that place is perfection, why do we need to fill out all those forms?

"My ass can kiss those Pearly Gates goodbye!"

"Last week, Hector came back late from a retrieval in Memphis and his flight leader called him 'lower dan whale poop, and dat be on de bottom of de ocean'. What you tink dey gonna call me? I'd rather have a Cottonmouth in my shorts than face ."

The sky was gaining in brilliance, with a streak of nearly blinding bright yellow-white that occurs just before you can see the first sliver of the sun. Some of the less viscous sludge material was airborne, spinning and splattering me and the weeds. The fast turning wind funnel was covering Cleophus from his chest down, and he was sputtering and contorting his face, seemingly unaware of the gale-force winds surrounding him.

"If I got's to go back to shinning halos again, losing my flight ticket, I be lower than snake dodo ." The proverbial freight train sound was starting to vibrate the earth.

"You'd tink that place would have computerized dispatch, direct deposit of escorts. No, no, no! Dat would be too easy; I fill out a routing form, enter a dispatch preference, pre-register the new arrival, fill out three housing forms, paperwork I hates." I spotted numerous sparkles from the pink predawn light reflecting off Cleophus's gold capped teeth.

This man, soul, or whatever, was in a tirade over workplace technicalities, while standing in the middle of a miniature tornado. Every nerve ending in my body was at full alert.

Just like a spotlight, the sun made it's entry into the new day, a blinding ray of glory, and after a quick glance at that golden beam, I turned back to the lagoon, finding absolutely nothing but the calm steamy vapors, slowly drifting upward. Silence. The quiet was almost painful.

Now, they found me staring at the lagoon, wet and sludge splattered. Later, I told a lie, telling my operators and laborers that I skidded down the lagoon bank, nearly sliding into the goo. That explained the wet blue jeans, but the gang kept asking throughout the day if I was all right? I spent lunch break sitting on the lagoon bank, and I arrived extra early each morning, hoping for another chance at Cleophus. Eventually I realized that Cleophus never wanted to be here in the first place, and chances of a return visit were non-existent. Depression became a way of life for quite some time.

This is the only accounting of that strange event. I wouldn't dare relate this tale and hope to be allowed out in public. Eventually, I actually started going two or three days in a row without thinking of that bizarre heavenly foul up. Occasionally, I would daydream, trying to imagine how Cleophus explained away his failure. I supposed that mystical event would someday fade away, but for a long time, I would ruin a fresh shirt every time I recalled the events of that morning.

They say time heals all wounds, and my sanity was most definitely wounded that autumn morning, but eventually I stopped having nightmares. I rationalized that I must have been in a stupor or I might have let my imagination run wild. Everything I thought I saw was in poor light, shadows, fog, and mist; your imagination can do strange things under those conditions. The event was no longer a weekly or even monthly nuisance. Besides, they don't actually send down escorts, do they?

It took a while, but eventually I had myself convinced that things like that just do not happen. The last eight years have been peaceful, knowing that event was a cerebral short-circuit, persuading me it did not actually occur. Retiring for the night had once again become a pleasure over the last few years. I am now retired at a Florida Golf community, and apparently I am emotionally stable.

But tonight, Oh my God, tonight might well be another sleepless and nerve-racking experience. This morning, at the High Point Community Center, I met a heavy-set woman in a wheelchair, Miss Cynthia, who had moved from Louisiana, was new to the neighborhood, and was considering membership in our retirement group. The jovial Miss Cynthia had a definite Creole accent and she seemed so jolly talking about her bayou lifestyle and Cajun customs; our group truly enjoyed her company.

She used several of the same "Coon-Ass" expressions I thought Cleophus had uttered in his frustration, but then, I'm quite sure he didn't really exist. I caught her looking at me several times that afternoon, flashing me a wide gold toothed smile.

Miss Cynthia made sure that she visited with each of the seniors, asking questions and extracting personal details with what I thought was more than a passing interest. Then Miss Cynthia bid us farewell, and several of us helped wheel her out of the facility at the end of the day. I suddenly halted midway down the ramp when I noticed she was using an orange pilot's scarf for a lap blanket. The difficulty in breathing came when I spotted the back pouch of that wheelchair, as I was just barely able to make out the maroon leather chin-strap of an old military aviation helmet, the kind with goggles.

(C)opyright 2006 Gary Grenier All Rights Reserved

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