Leather and Feathers by Tony Longshanks LeTigre

“There he goes again,” said the woman across the way Joanne to her friend as they sat down for lunch.

She nodded out the window at the neighbor boy, Joey, who wore a mask fashioned out of a paper plate with a rubber-band strap as he chased his younger sister through the apartment yard with the toy chainsaw, its battery powered drone a feeble imitation of the raging clamor of the real thing.

Joey had bought the fake chainsaw with the money he’d saved recycling pop cans at ShopKo, after reluctantly accepting that a bulldozer was out of his price range.

Late the night before he’d run home and pounced on his mother as soon as she walked in the door.

“Mom, I just saw the most amazing movie!” Joey cried, springing upon her in the kitchen with such force she was momentarily startled. “It’s called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. You’ve got to see it!”

Colleen’s face clouded over. It was a title she had heard before, but not a film she would ever watch, and certainly not one she would ever allow her eight year-old son to watch. She would have to take steps to find him a stricter babysitter. But it’s hard when you’re a single mother, raising two children without child support, working nights as a bartender, while putting yourself through college on student loans.

“Where did you see that movie?” she demanded, her eyes a little like Sally’s during the most outrĂ© moments of the Chain Saw dinner scene.

She guessed the answer before he said it: at Wanda’s, of course. Joey loved Wanda. More than his favorite babysitter, she was his surrogate mother. Her cluttered apartment, her constant cigarette smoke, teeth stained yellow with coffee, the way her home stood open for all the children in the neighborhood to run in and out—there may as well have been a turnstile in her front door—all of them drawn, as he was, by her sugary permissiveness: the boxes of Fruit Loops and Cocoa and Fruity Pebbles and Apple Jacks and Honey Nut Cheerios stacked above the overflowing kitchen cupboards, and the cartons of red strawberry and orange and blue(!) raspberry and white(?) lemon popsicles that filled the freezer, and the veritable pyramid of glass bottles of Pepsi and Mountain Dew and Diet Pepsi and Sprite stacked on the landing of the staircase leading to the basement—none of this was available to him at his own apartment. Was it any wonder he was drawn with such regularity to Wanda’s place?

“Oh-ho, I saw this movie at the drive-in when you were in diapers,” Wanda had said to her daughter Pamela earlier that day, before dinner, holding the VHS cassette case, with its artistic rendering of poor Sally Hardesty, terrified out of her mind, her long blonde hair trailing as she ran as fast as her blood-stained bellbottom-clad legs could carry her through the backwoods of Texas, pursued by Leatherface, with his demented eyes peering through the grotesque mask of human skin that covered his face, chainsaw in hand: a perfect modern horror-film update of Hansel and Gretel, or Little Red Riding Hood.

“I really don’t think you need to see this," Wanda said.

But just like the recalcitrant youths in Chain Saw, and countless other films in the genre it helped create, her warning only strengthened their desire.

The cassette featured a quote from Rex Reed declaring the wildly titled film to be “the most horrifying motion picture I have ever seen.”

“It’s a true story,” said Craig, the neighbor boy, the one who spit a lot, and reminded Joey of a snake. There was something reptilian about those cold green eyes. It wasn’t hard to picture a forked tongue flickering from those casually sadistic lips.

(Just last night Craig had crawled in through the basement window of Joey’s townhouse while his Mom was at work, and smashed a big daddy long-legs spider on the side of the basement wall. Joey would never forget the fascinatingly gross way its legs continued to twitch and dance for a long time after its body was squashed to pulp against the white plaster.)

“Based on a true story,” Wanda corrected him. "Loosely."

Being the only adult present and a sort of community babysitter, her apartment a daycare-gone-wild for the whole welfare complex, she was all that stood between these impressionable young minds and the vast forces of corruption and misinformation waiting in the wings to warp them.

“It’s inspired by Ed Gein, who actually lived a lot closer than Texas, just one state over, in Wisconsin,” she said. She took a puff on her smoke and pretended her attention had wandered, looking out the window. (There was Betty, who’d had her stomach stapled last week, struggling to get out of her car: look how it bounced up, as though in relief, when she managed to heave her huge body out, assisted by a cane and her daughter’s arm.) She counted the seconds until they begged to hear more.

“Ed who?” her youngest son Timmy, Joey’s friend, asked.

Five seconds.

Wanda turned back in feigned surprise.

“What, you haven't heard of Gein? The guy from Wisconsin who dug up graves and made furniture out of people.” Then she noticed that Timmy and Joey were in the room though in fact she'd known it the whole time and shook her head. She looked at Joey, pointed at him with one finger of the hand that held the videocassette and said sternly, “You are not watching this movie.”

Joey pouted.

Unexpected advocacy came from Pamela. “Come on, Mom, he’s already seen Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. How much worse could this be?”

Wanda made a wide-eyed, head-shaking look, like You have no idea. “No!” she told Joey. “Your Mom would kill me if she found out I let you watch it.” Then she turned to her own seven year-old son, Timmy a year younger than Joey and said, “You aren’t watching it either.”

Joey felt a lucky thrill. The truth was, with Timmy on his side, his cause was all but secure. Wanda’s kids always got what they wanted, when Wanda was in charge. She didn’t exert her authority forcefully enough, not the way she did when they had really crossed a line and incurred true parental wrath. Kids have surprisingly sensitive antennae; they can detect minute variations in the tone of their parental units' play-serious vs. serious; rap on the wrist with a ruler vs. grounded for the weekend vs. grounded for life.

And Wanda had once been the child disobeying her mother’s orders to enjoy forbidden thrills—maybe it was sneaking downstairs to watch Frankenstein or The Wolf Man on the black and white television set the family had only recently acquired, to the wonder and delight of their neighbors. Part of her was still that rebellious little girl, winking over the adult Wanda’s shoulder at the gaggle of rebellious children she now corralled. As long as they weren’t too blatant in their mutiny.

Anything that got them out of her hair for a few hours was a blessing. She liked her quiet time, too. She had library books to read, soap operas and sitcoms to watch, cigarettes to smoke. Vicky or Sue would stop by for a long chat. Jim might come over and ask if he could borrow fifty dollars until his next disability check on the first.

After dinner, when night had fallen, they turned out the living room lights and put the movie in. Wanda’s daughters—Pamela, the pretty one, who had the nice upstairs bedroom; and Peggy, the chubby duckling who lived in the basement—and her sons—Trent, the bully; and Timmy, the one who still picked his nose and ate his boogers—plus Craig, Trent’s friend, the one with the cold green eyes; and of course Joey, who was almost a member of their family, and yearned to be.

There was the tense waiting moment of the cassette clacking into place in the VCR, reading, then the FBI Warning, distributor’s image, followed by a silence deeper and blacker than Pandora’s box just before it was opened.

The film began with a grim narration, a slow, dark mood creepiness that got under their skin immediately, and slowly grew until it filled them and the entire room with its ever-increasing sense of dread. Joey, nestled between Pamela and Peggy and wrapped in a blanket—so that he could be easily hidden if Wanda walked in—had never seen such a film before. Not Michael Meyers, not Freddy Krueger, not Jason Voorheis had rattled his cage quite this way. He was the oversized hen or rooster trapped in the canary cage, on the verge of panic, freaking out.

Who had made this movie? Was it even a movie? Were those actors, or were they actually people being killed onscreen? He had never seen or heard of them before....

“Don’t go in there!” Peggy screamed at the screen, as the girl in red hot pants moved inexorably toward the house she had been warned not to enter.

The older boys, Craig and Trent, were transfixed as well, but if it was terror they felt, they contained it, evincing instead a cool, masculine fascination. Craig’s eyes had the same cold lizard look Joey had seen when he cut into the chest of a living toad to expose its beating heart. (He was into things like that.)

Then the crazy freak in the butcher’s apron appeared again—what was wrong with his face? Was his skin peeling off? Was he retarded? and when he hung the girl on the meathook Pamela, until that point maintaining control, lost her cookies and screamed.

“I’m done,” she said, getting up to leave. “You guys have fun.”

“I have to go too,” Craig said, reluctantly peeling himself away from the television with a sound like Velcro coming undone. “My Mom’s waiting for me.”

“But you’re gonna miss it, dude!” Trent protested.

“Don’t leave!” all the others cried in unison; Peggy pressed pause.

With Craig and Pamela gone, only Trent would remain of the older, more mature and protective children. Without that reassuring bulwark, they would be left alone with this demonic film, which they sensed had yet more deranged wolfpacks to unleash upon their tender, nubile psyches.

“I’ll finish it tomorrow,” Craig said, walking out.

Peggy pressed play, and the film resumed.

Up to this point it had been bright daylight; now it was nighttime, in the film as well. Peggy and Joey clung to one another like baby koalas: she was several years older than he, but the usual age-based social boundaries dissolved in the face of such a cinematic nightmare.

Wanda stepped into the room from her seemingly endless position in the kitchen, wondering why things had gotten so quiet. It was one of those long drawn-out tension-building scenes, almost unbearable.

Suddenly Leatherface jumped out of the dark forest and attacked.

Peggy screamed.

They all screamed.

Even Wanda jumped, momentarily startled.

Joey would never, ever forget the look of the madman’s masked face, the weird mouth that made it look like he was laughing, the terrified and terrifying eyes caught in Franklin’s flashlight beam as he bore down upon his hapless victim with chainsaw blade ablaze.

He caught himself just as he actually peed a little in the blanket. Just a little. No one had to know.

Still the nightmare continued unrelenting, pushing them further and further beyond the bounds of sanity, until Sally, the sole survivor, broke through the window and crashed into daylight, bloodied and broken, but still alive, still with enough of a spark of life to make it to the roadside and flag down a truck, and make her getaway, as Leatherface pirouetted in the middle of the road like a deranged ballerina, wearing a suit and tie, but also a wig and mask smeared with lipstick and rouge, looking for all the world like a homicidal drag queen on PCP.

Cut to end credits.

“That’s it?” Trent said, disgusted, getting up to go.

“Oh my God, I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight,” Peggy said, chattering nervously, hugging herself.

But Joey sat wide-eyed and bowled over by a vision of warped genius that he had never in his wildest dreams imagined. Not even the end of E.T. or Return of the Jedi both of which he’d seen in a packed movie theater with his mother by his side, not a dry eye in the house could compare with the unhinged brilliance of the sick vision he had just barely survived. He saw and heard nothing but the jaggedly undulating roar of the chainsaw in the hands of the masked marauder, still crazed and on the loose, whose frenetic silhouette raged against the blood-gold morning sun in an image of surprising beauty, leaving in his wake a shattered and shrieking woman and a grinning grade-school boy who would never be the same.