You've heard it told how Mr. Michael
Nitrous of West 43rd Street was a wily little street
urchin when he was young. Back in the day he was known as Little
Mikey Nitrous, and there was more than one thing that held his
interest. Some people thought that he was an orthodox druid, but he
was not – his parents had been reform druids for some
time, but little Mikey himself was more of a shaman. He used to eat
druids for breakfast. In fact, on Little Mikey's unicycle there was a
bumper sticker to that effect (no small feat on a unicycle) - “I
eat druids for breakfast” it read.
Little Mikey used to make his way down
to the shamanic mall every now and again, especially when they held a
smoker. Mikey would fire up a cubeb (usually a cubeb, anyway –
sometimes he would smoke a lizard, as it was said that Mr. Huston
fellow did upon occasion), and hold forth on some great and important
topic related to shamanism. It might be harmonic vibration or badger
innards. Who could tell? Little Michael Nitrous covered it all. At
least in his own mind, and at least until people stopped referring to
him as “little Mikey Nitrous” and began referring to him as “Mr.
Michael Nitrous of West 43rd Street.”
Everything changes. Some of it for the
better. Just wait...you'll see.
At one particular smoker, little Mikey
came face to face with a demonic shaman – one who was
just right testy, believe you me. The fellow wore a red jockstrap
and a headdress made of calf's liver – you don't get much more
testy that that, if you know what I'm saying. The demonic shaman saw Mikey and shook his little bird-bone rattle at him.
“Quee-hotch!” shouted the demonic
“Awww...applesauce!” cried back
little Mikey Nitrous.
“May the spirits confound your aura!”
shouted the demonic shaman.
“Yer mama's got a confounded aura!”
shouted back little Mikey, waving his hand.
This was too much for the poor shaman
to take, and he limped off to the wet bar, seeking a cool draught of
gin and milk. Little Mikey Nitrous wiped his hands on his trousers
and smiled a contented smile. He might have just as well licked his
chops, but alas, he did not.
one's chops” is a phrase that was used profusely throughout the
20th century, and it referred (in the literal sense) to a
person or animal licking his or her teeth with his or her tongue –
often in anticipation of eating some nearby and readily-available
food. In the figurative sense, this referred to eagerness or
anticipation of some soon-to-be-realized source of pleasure. In the
21st century we stopped using this phrase altogether. By
the early 22nd century we had begun using the phrase
“dulking the mudjow.” It means about the same thing. Trust me.
Little Mikey Nitrous followed the
demonic shaman to the wet bar and skulked up behind him (Mikey had
always been an expert at skulking). With a little shake of his very
own bird-bone rattle, Mikey began to sing the “Rime
of the Ancient Shamanic Mariner.” The demonic shaman looked on in
Several hours later, little Mikey wiped
the spittle from his chin and adjusted his balsa-wood breastplate.
He looked the demonic shaman in the eye. He looked him up and down.
He looked at his hairy left ear. “Sorry for sayin' that about yer
mama's aura,” said Michael.
The demonic shaman narrowed his eyes
until they were showing as little red slits.
“I shoulda' just pointed out yer
sloping mast and dipping prow,” said Michael, “but I thought yer
name was Coleridge, so I just left it alone.”
Michael turned on his heel and walked
back to the dancefloor. The demonic shaman collapsed in tears, and a
puddle of milky gin.
Some things are just too hard to take,
even for a demonic shaman.
I peered out of the open access panel
over the stubbly corn fields overgrown with prairie grasses, weeds,
and wildflowers. What exactly is the difference between a weed and a
wildflower or a wild grass, anyway? It has something to do with what
is supposed to be there and what is not, I guess. Certain things are
in a place because someone put them there, and other things get to
where they are because they just wind up there. No telling, really,
how a lot of things end up where they do.
Kind of like me, I guess you'd say.
I had not seen Ed's Ghost for over a
day, and I started thinking about what a ghost might really be. I
had never been what you would call a “spiritualist” or (in the
old fashioned way of talking) a “dualist” - that is, one who
believes in the a separation or coexistence of a man's mind and his
body. I never found any reason to start thinking that way – until
I met Ed's ghost, that is.
I looked at my rifle. My stolen rifle.
My rifle stolen from a guy who had a heart attack while he was
trying to peacefully take a leak on a roadside. Poor fat fool.
Since he was dead, did my taking the rifle from him count as
“stealing”? I suppose if I stole it from anyone, I stole it from
the Project. If there was anyone that could afford to lose a rifle,
it was the Project. And if there was anyone who would serve up your
head on a platter or your chest against a firing squad for stealing a
rifle, ditto. It was the Project. I would plead ignorance and fear,
I suppose, if I got caught, and just hope for a blindfold. Bastards.
Like they need all the rifles they've got.
It was a peaceful looking rifle. Black.
Gas-operated. Air-cooled. Magazine-fed. Select-fire. 5.56
millimeter bore. My uncle Niles said these were almost the same kind
of rifles that they used way, way back before the war. In fact,
Uncle Niles said that his granddad (is that my great-granddad? Great
grand-uncle? I don't know) had used almost the same rifle in a place
thousands of miles away where we went to go kill people for killing
the people who were helping us to kill people. He had stepped on a
bamboo skewer of some sort – the thing went right through his boot
when he stepped in a pit. The damned leg got infected and they ended
up having to cut it off. Uncle Niles showed me a picture, once, of
his great granddad and some of his friends using drugs in that same
war. Not the kind of drugs we have now, mind you. We have safe
drugs now. Him and his friends smoked things right into their lungs.
That was before his leg had to come
Anyhow, it was a peaceful rifle –
nothing like the street sweeper that I used to use on patrol. I held
it up against my shoulder and looked through the ghost rings. Funny
name, isn't it? Ghost rings. I thought about Ed's Ghost while I did
that, and I thought about Ed doing the same thing. And I swept the
barrel over the stubbly fields way down below, and I thought back to
Ed getting pressed though that steel grating – the whole big load
of titanium ingots coming down on him like a ton of heaven or a ton
of hell, and turning Ed into pulp in less than a second. Pressed him
right through that grating, clothes and bone and kevlar helmet and
all. And Cindy only had his one gold tooth that they found that she
could identify. The gold tooth with a cross engraved into the back
of it. Crazy.
And I saw a three-man patrol way down
below – looking for me, no doubt. They were less than 100 meters
away when they came into view, stretching their way across the corn
field, just like they were trying to flush out some kind of game –
which they were, of course. I trained my ghost rings on the man in
the rear, and flipped off the safety. Snap. He went down like a sack
of silicone caulking. The other two crouched down and shouldered
their rifles. Before they could figure out where the shot had come
from I trained on the second one. Snap. Right through his teeth. I
saw it. Down he went.
The last man let his rifle drop on its
sling, and he turned to run. I put the front sight right between his
shoulder blades, and took up the slack on the trigger.
“Hombre, easy.” I heard the voice
of Ed's Ghost.
I thought that I shouldn't let him get
away. I thought that he would let the garrison know my location. I
thought I shouldn't shoot a man in the back.
“Ed, I can't shoot a man in the
back,” I whispered into the ether.
“Easy,” he said again.
There was a flash of white light and I
saw bits of fatigue coat go blowing into the air. Probably a little
soldier-meat, too, but I didn't look too closely. The guy had hit a
white phosphorus anti-personnel mine. He probably never knew what
him him, I thought to myself.
“Like a ton of heaven or a ton of
hell, Hombre,” said Ed's Ghost. “Take it from someone who knows.”
It got silent. So did I. I snapped the
safety on and crawled back into the main shaft of the windmill.
The wind picked up, but I fell asleep,
and dreamed of wild prairie grasses and gold teeth.
“Lissen' here, Gutboy,” said
Prentice, the silver-haired exterminator chimp, “I gots me a lil'
story to share wif' you, so I needs you t' juss shuddup and siddown.”
Gutboy was in no mood to cooperate.
Gutboy was enjoying the gladiator match far too much. His low-carb
roast mutton wrap with arugula was not helping matters, either. He
chewed (not silently, unfortunately) and shook like a bowl full of
schmaltz as he watched the chariots tip end over end.
“Gutboy, youse de' one I gots' to
tell dis' here story to,” spouted Prentice in desperation, “I
GOTS to tell de' story. If'n it don' get told, it goes away fer'
good. Don' choo get it?”
Gutboy stared into space. When a
person does not want to hear a story, you can hardly force it on him,
can you? No, of course you can't. Forcing a story on somebody is
Prentice reached out with a meaty paw
and seized poor Gutboy around the throat. Now, while we have seen
things like this played out before in our fine literary
establishment, it has never been the throat of a poor, unwitting
puppet that we have seen grasped with a meaty paw. It has always
been right around the cranium (the work of very large hands) or the
lapel (accordingly, that of very small hands). Necks, while
seemingly a fine target, never get grasped in the way you might
expect. Perhaps it is due to the soft flesh. Perhaps it is due to
the proliferation of fragile bones in that region. Perhaps it is due
to the neck-devils that so many people seem to be sporting these days
– neck-devils with barbs of stainless steel and the occasional
spool of concertina wire.
Who would want to grab a neck-devil?
Prentice grabbed Gutboy around the
throat without a thought to the neck-devils, and his gamble paid off.
Gutboy made a sharp gulping sound and lurched forward. He lurched
backward. He lurched inwardly, attempting to escape the meaty hand
by means of existential absence. Nothing seemed to work. Prentice
increased the pressure on Gutboy's throat until the poor fellow could
no longer concentrate on the gladiator match and the low-carb roast
“Okay...now you sits down an' I tells
you de' story.” Prentice dropped Gutboy's limp body to the floor.
His spirit sailed aloft, however, hovering several feet in the air.
“When I was just a lil' chillun', I
used to hafta' go an' gets my daddy a pail a' beer from de' corner
tavern. You know how dat' goes? When you gets a nickel slapped in
yer meaty ol' paw from a way meatier paw? An' den' you hasta' go an'
walk t' de' tavern for de' pail a beer?”
Gutboy's spirit shook its head.
Prentice never saw it, so he went on.
“An' de' one day you gets to de'
tavern, an' at de bar 'dere sits de' biggest ol' lumpkin of a man –
puffin' on his ciggy-but an' hampherin' away at de' ol' lumpkin next
Prentice made a pantomime motion of a
man smoking a cigarette.
“Well, when I gets to de' bar an' de'
barkeep' he up an' sez “well Master Prentice, wha' choo' want?
Nudder' pail a beer fo' yo' daddy?” an' I looks at him and sez
“yessir.” Well, de' hairiest and biggest ol' lumpkin of dat man,
well he reaches on over an' tweaks my cheek wif' a meaty set o'
fingers and a smelly, bony thumb.”
In mid air, the spirit of Gutboy
pondered what a bony thumb might smell like. He gave up after but a
“Well, 'dat bony thumb, it lef' a
mark. It lef' a deep mark. Like dat' man said as he tweaked it, “be
careful what you pretend to be, because you are what
you pretend to be.” I dint' know what he wuz talkin' 'bout at de'
time, an' dat' he wuz usin' anudder man's words. Dere' wuz worse,
Gutboy's spirit hovered and with a
wispy ethereal hand made a 'so, go ahead...go on...' kind of motion.
Prentice never saw it, of course, but he went on anyway.
“I got home wit' de' pail a' beer,
an' my daddy din' even say thank you. He din' even say a 'ting. As
time got goin' by, I got to prentendin' dat' I wuz a whole lotta' bad
stuff. An' dat' kin' be really bad. Just look.” Prentice swept
his hands in front of himself, as if to display what he was wearing.
“But now, I ain't gonna' preten' no
more. You kapiche? Gutboy? You kapiche?”
Gutboy's body was motionless on the
ground. Gutboy's spirit nodded his head though, and said silently
with wispy, ethereal lips “kapiche.”
“Gutboy...Gutboy, youse de' one I
gots' to tell 'dis here story to. Ain' choo' gonna' say somefin'?
Ain' choo' gonna' say? Do I gotsta' go on wif' de' pretendin'?”
Gutboy wept. Not for himself, but for
Prentice. His spirit flew away, not caring anymore about gladiators
and low-carb roast mutton wrap with arugula.
With a hop-holder starchart, that
gravy-drinking idiot thought he could find his way around the
universe of dreams, but he was mistaken – there is nothing you can
read on a hop-holder starchart that will tell you how to get
Just ask that old Tumultuous Tooby, the
wisher of pigeons.
Tooby held his pigeons in a grand old
coop. This was back in the day of much larger coops, however, so for
me or anyone to call his coop “grand” really meant something. It
was grand. It was lavish. It was clean. It was energy-efficient and
(for the most part) politically correct. Everyone wanted to visit
Tumultuous Tooby's pigeon coop. Wouldn't you?
Of course you would.
(I say that a lot these days.)
Tooby had one of those
less-than-accurate hop-holder starcharts, and on a blissful day back
in 1979 he attempted to actually reach the stars – he was going to
go for all the glory. I was but a tender youth at the time, but I
knew a grand coop from a plain one, and I knew what glory that
gravy-drinking Tooby would draw upon himself if his outlandish plan
would actually work. He would be the talk of the town. The toast of
Tooby took that hop-holder starchart in
his sweaty little fist. He clenched. He squeezed. He dreamed. He
went to his happy place. He went to his calm place. He went to his
agitated place. He went to his nervous and shaky place. He soiled
his trousers. He whistled a German marching-tune.
Tumultuous Tooby opened his eyes and
wiped the palms of his hands on his stained trousers. He had felt
the sweat pop out of his pores like bullets. That is, each little
droplet of sweat had actually come to the surface of his skin as a
little lump of soild lead – some of them with hollow points or with
steel jacketed cores. It was the strangest thing. Tooby listened to
the little leaden droplets as they rolled off his pants leg and onto
the linoleum floor of his kitchen. He realized that perhaps the
kitchen was no place to shoot for the stars and assume that your
hop-holder starchart was going to do you any good.
Tooby came upstairs and sat down in his
beanbag chair, right next to me in mine. We looked at each other for
a brief moment.
“It didn't work, did it?” I asked
“Shut up and give me a bite of your
Zagnut,” he replied.
I handed it to him and we turned back
to the TV. The hop-holder starchart never worked for Jack Tripper
and Mr. Roper either.
“Terrance, I done told you to lay off
“It ain't rot-gut, ma, it's just
Terrance never was too bright, and when
his ma told him it was rot-gut, he should have just believed it was
rot-gut. A kid can't go around second-guessing his ma too long,
'fore something bad happens and he winds up hurtin', dead, or dumber
than he was before. Like that story of the brush chipper I was
tellin' you all about – how Jared Austin got hisself all up and
killed just by being a little too careless.
But then, I already told you about
Terrance always got that rot-gut
whiskey from that man up in Blanchers who was known to have a still
out back of his barn and who kept it hid behind a bunch of old
machinery. Sheriff Morgan never went 'round there to check out
things, and everyone says that there might have been some kind of a
deal struck there. I ain't sayin' that, mind you – that's just
what everyone says.
I ain't sayin' it.
So Terrance would get that rot-gut and
go off on a wild spree, drinkin' and cuttin' up, and hangin' out with
his friends up in Cotton City. He lost his job at the mill, and took
to livin' back at home – that's how his ma got to knowin' about
his drinkin' in a real first-hand sorta' way. She seen' it. His
aunt Lila seen' it. The mail delivery driver seen' it – seen' it
when he was passed out in the culvert with his coveralls bunched up
'round his ankles 'cause he was drunk and didn't want his ma to hear
him having the trots in the house. Dumb, drunk Terrance saw it fit
to do his business out in the culvert, and he was still there when
the mail came around.
Word travels fast, and folks 'most
already knew the truth, anyway.
There was time that Terrance had to
spend in the pokey in Haverland, 'course, and I think Sheriff Morgan
liked havin' a little fun with him whenever he had the chance. No
one said a thing, even though some seen' it. Lotsa' folks suspected
it, but none could ever prove it.
Terrance didn't last too long. He
wasn't near' as old as his old man was when he passed away. Terrance
done dumb things, and then he done some dumber things. Dumbest thing
of all was ever getting' started down a road that he shouldn't have
set foot on. You know how that goes? You know roads like that? You
know how a road can look like it's goin' in one direction when you
set out, and then by the time you ain't too far down that road,
you're headin' right' different.
And so it was that his ma looked at the
piled up dirt on the grave and thought about things a ma should say
and things a ma just can't. You know how it is. I ain't never been
a ma, but I think I know as well as anyone – we all do. Anyone
that has seen fit to ever think about right and wrong or even just
been faced with the difference. You see it and you can hardly not
think about it. You can't hardly let the thoughts form ideas and the
ideas form words and those words form right into the shapes on your
tongue and on your lips and they damn near come rollin' out your
mouth. Even rollin' out words when you're lookin' at piled up dirt on
“Terrance, I done told you to lay off
Hello everybody. As a bit of a shameless plug, I would like to let you know that you can find me now on Facebook. In fact, you could even go over there right now and "like" my page. No...no...really, you could do that...I wouldn't mind at all. No, really, go ahead...don't let me stop you:
From the forthcoming Radio - a Novel by Tom Janikowski
have read this far, it is worth sharing a few things with you.
Seeing as how most readers of fiction never make it through the third
chapter of any given book and merely go around criticizing it based
on something they read on the dustjacket, I opted to make the third
chapter inordinately short. I figured this would get you “over the
hump” and into chapter number four. Which, if you are reading
this, seemed to work.
being the case, you are probably ready for me to share with you the
strange truth regarding the word “all-righty,” sometimes spelled
“alrighty.” The word has more or less the same meaning as the
phrase “there you go,” alternately rendered as “there you have
it.” A phrase or a word of affirmation. A phrase of agreement.
It is a phrase, however, that by the end of the war, had fallen into
disuse, only to be replaced with the word “rab-klaat.”
Linguists, English scholars, and bloggers were uncertain how this
particular word made its way into the language, but they had plenty
of fun trying to explain it. Most believed it was an Inuit word (the
Inuit being an advanced nation of people, who had discovered the key
to cold fusion long before any advanced extraterrestrial races had
done the same). There was an Inuit phrase “ra-ab kla-a-at” that
originally meant something like “pass the seal relish, Rob,” but
had devolved into meaning something like “yeah?”. This was as
close as anyone could figure.
you this only because I intend to use the word profusely over the
next seventy-five or so chapters, and because that was also the first
word that Michael Nitrous heard as he stepped out into the
moony-light airframe of a swollen day. The wafer-thin cheesewood
door swung open, and he heard a dry voice say “rab-klaat.”
asked Michael, thinking he had misheard someone.
said the dry voice again. Michael turned in its direction and saw
something very unlike an Inuit reindeer herder. It was the old man
from chapter 26. An old grey-headed fellow with an out-of-style sort
of leisure suit and a smell about him that was something like a
tortilla factory. Or a tortilla factory that had soiled itself,
perhaps. Michael shook his head a bit and looked again. The old man
was still wearing polyester.
there's someone in there,” started Michael, motioning toward the
I know,” said the man in the leisure suit, “I'm aware of that.”
may just chat about polyester leisure suits for just a moment, that
would be most delightful. Polyester was a petroleum-based fiber that
the pre-war world of the 1970's found easy to manufacture and rather
stain-resistant (you can never have enough stain-resistance, you
know). When clothing-chemists first began the search for the leisure
suit, there was great optimism and an overriding hope that some sort
of fruit-based fabric could be worked out, but it never happened.
Researchers the world over were forced to begin crafting the
embryonic leisure suits (sometimes called, in those early days,
“non-toil suits”) out of petroleum-based fabric known as
“bridgetfelt.” bridgetfelt was a tough, fibrous fabric that
reminded most people of an over-cooked buffalo steak. Development
was rapid, however, and progress came with each dawning day. How
about leisure suits. No one ever really liked them, anyway.
segment of the forthcoming collection of short fiction by the same
And so a hot, dry
spell issued out into a long, long time of waiting, and hoping and,
if truth be told, of dreaming. That seems to be the thing that hot
and dry spells always lead to. When you can't have,
you dream. When you can't dream, you just might die.
There was a man once who said that where there is no vision, the
people perish. I believe there is likely some truth to that.
I put the last of my
things in the back of my truck and drove out of Crawford County on a
Sunday night. Not the most usual of times to leave, but then, the
County is not the most usual of places. I knew that if I didn't get
going right then and there, I might never leave. I took my record
collection, of course, and all of my books. I left photo albums and
such (such as I had) behind. I won't miss them.
A long time ago,
when I first moved to Crawford County, I set fire to all of my
pictures that I had from the years before – when I was up in
Kentucky, and when I was drinking more. Those were good times, but
it seemed that when I moved down to Haverland I didn't need to be
reminded of any of that. And that was a good thing, for when you
enter into that hot, dry spell, you just hate looking back at a time
that was lush and green – a time that was well watered and full of
life. You can hardly stand a thing like that, can you? Certainly
not. Certainly not when the grass is brown and dry and as crisp as a
When I finally
parked my truck the next morning, I was in the city – no, not
Cotton City, mind you. I had gone a lot farther north that that.
There wasn't any kudzu to be seen, and not a single sourwood, as far
as the nose could smell. Everything was different.
And that was exactly
the reason I was here.
Sometimes the most
common thing is the strangest to a person. I heard about a guy who
had come down with some disease wherein his body started rejecting
certain other parts of his body. I think his liver was the first one
to go, if my memory serves me. The doctors were able to keep him
from completely shutting down by allowing his body's immune system to
develop something of a lend-lease agreement with the organs as they
started to be rejected, if you know what I mean, but this only went
on for so long. His body just didn't want to put up with such
How could it?
Other times, it is
that which is entirely foreign that you crave and you desire. It is
not unlike a man being joined to his wife – two distinct and
separate entities that become one and are nearly inseparable. That
is exactly it. Instead of a body rejecting itself, the body craves
that outside itself which makes it complete.
And so it was. And
so it is.
I could never go
very far north. Folks are too different the farther north you go,
and nearly incomprehensible. I had a friend, once, who had a brother
who had a friend who lived all the way up in Wisconsin. He came down
to Crawford County and I met him at a hog roast out at a farm near
Blanchers. He was full of himself, and cold.
But then, I guess
you could say I was being judgmental. There you have it.
Well, I am getting
to rambling, and that is sure no way to close when I've been telling
you. Not that all of it seemed to stick together, of course, but
that just seems to be the way I tell things. I just want to make
sure, after all is said and done, that you all know how important it
is. Life, I'm talking about. There are those who think it isn't
worth a plugged nickel, and who treat it as such. Then there are
those who just take it for granted and let it slip right by without a
thought. I'm here to tell you not to do either.
I stepped out into
the driving rain and pulled my oil-skin tightly around my neck and up
to my cheeks. Not those cheeks, you sicko – the oil-skin was not
nearly that long. Anyhow, I swaddled myself right up and headed down
the street to Limpy's Place, late for my traditional nightly meeting
with my brother Pat.
After the short
stroll to my traditional watering hole (“always buy a house close
to the watering hole”, my father had once told me. He had lived
for five decades in a house just across the street from a delightful
little gin mill that changed its name every six months or so. Mother
did a lot of needlepoint.), I opened the door to Limpy's, to see that
Pat was already ensconced in his traditional spot – right next to
my traditional spot. He was drinking his traditional single-malt
with some unpronounceable and traditional Scottish name, and he had
ordered up my traditional martini (stirred, very dry, straight-up,
and with a single, unskewered olive stuffed with traditional pimiento
– I detail this for your benefit and mine, just in case I come to
visit your area and you wish to buy me a drink.), which was waiting
for me on the traditional bar mat. Pat greeted me (traditionally) with his traditional greeting.
“Hey, what's up?
You look thirsty.”
parched, Pat,” I said, slipping off my oil-skin and handing it to
Limpy, who looked at it suspiciously. I watched as he took it in
back and a small dog started whimpering. “How was your day?”
said. “I had to give a graphic artist the sack.”
“The sack of what?
Some kind of grain or something?”
Pat looked at me
with a blank expression. “No, Tom,” he said, after several
agonizing moments, “I had to fire him.”
Why? What happened?”
“Well, it was kind
of tragic, really. The oaf had been working on a presentation for a
new aquatic entertainment facility that we are doing for a zoo up in
Saskatchewan – 60,000 acres dedicated to showcasing the Richardson
ground squirrels spend a lot of time enjoying aquatic entertainment?”
ridiculous, Tom,” he said. “This is for the patrons of the zoo.
Canadians love synchronized swimming, I'm told. Best of all, we have
one entire outdoor pool that has an expandable liner. In winter the
whole thing freezes over and they can use it for ice hockey,
“Fun for the whole
family,” I said.
said, going on. “Well, as it turned out, my graphics guy...”
guy,” I interjected.
graphics guy. Well, he had put together a fairly decent piece of
work, and I just said something to him about the kerning. He tilted
his head at me, opened his mouth, and walked out of the office. He
came back the next day. It was awful.”
“Well, when we sat
down to look over the presentation one last time, I asked him if he
had taken care of what we had talked about.”
“Well, the long
and short of it was that the guy wasn't really a graphic designer.
He had a degree in botany or something from some school in northern
Wisconsin or Norway or somewhere. He just had a good eye for
lettering and knew how to use the right kinds of software. He had
been stealing little bits of artwork here and there. That's why our
graphics have had the unique 'ransom-note' feel to it for the last
year or so.”
“I always kind of
liked that,” I said. “I just thought you were being avant-garde.”
“Yeah, I did to.”
“So what tipped
you off?” I asked, draining my glass.
“When I asked him
about the kerning, he had no idea what I meant. He thought I said
said, “gurning. The art of horrendously disfiguring your face
using only your muscle control.”
“You have got to
be kidding me...” I said, flagging down Limpy for another round and
to ask him if the dog was all right.
“Nope. There the
poor schmuck sat, sticking out his tongue and bulging his eyeballs
out of their sockets, all the while trying to puff out the tops of
his cheeks and frown at the same time. It was awful.”
“I can only
“Well, we all sat
there in a really uncomfortable silence for a minute or so. Finally
Woody, our landscape architect, cleared his throat and said something
about going for a smoke. Woody being an orthodox druid with only one
lung, I figured a serious nerve had been struck. I had to go for the
“How'd you break
it to him?” I asked.
“I just told him
that we didn't need his services anymore.”
“That's it?” I
asked as our drinks arrived.
Pat, “I did warn him that if he did that too often his face would
stay that way.”
“You do have a
heart, Pat. Here...drink up.”
“Thanks, Tom. And
you know, I started researching gurning after that.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“I was thinking that if the whole writing thing doesn't work out,
there could be a future for you there.”
“Thanks, Pat,” I
said, rolling my eyes back in their sockets and sucking in my upper
lip. “Here's to health.”
David dipped his
finger into the pool of clear, cold water that was just taking up
space in his living room. The pool had been there for the past week
and a half, and David had no idea how it got there.
The pool was six
feet and seven inches in length and at its widest point about four
feet and two inches in width. David knew this because on the second
day of its existence he took out his fancy little tape measure and checked its
dimensions. What else would you do with a pool that spontaneously
appeared in your living room? He carefully noted the dimensions and
wrote them down on a wrapper from a cheesesteak poorboy. He used a
black magic marker, for although he originally tried writing with a
blue ball point pen, some grease on the wrapper made that impossible.
The depth he had not
been able to determine. That is often how it is with
spontaneously-appearing living room pools.
David had been
checking the dimensions daily, to see if they had changed, and he
found no fluctuation in size. Now, after swallowing the oversized
silver capsule of the trickey-dickey powder that he loved so much
(and ingested twice daily) he was conducting another experiment. He
had turned off the heat in his apartment and opened the windows. As
it was in the depths of a Minnesota winter, he figured the water in
the pool should freeze in no time. This had not yet happened, but
the water seemed to be cooling down.
As he looked down
into the water it seemed as though there was a face visible just a
foot or so below the surface. It did not appear to be attached to a
body, and it did not appear to be a severed head, as had been found
in that one spontaneously-appearing living room pool that had cropped
up in a subdivision in Dayton, Ohio back in 1997. This was just a
face, or the form of a face. Perhaps that of a young woman. Or
perhaps it was that of a not-as-young woman. It is hard to tell in
situations like that.
As he watched the
face, he expected to see its eyes open or its lips move, but neither
happened. In a minute the face seemed to vanish. Immediately the
pool began to shrink in size. Soon it was the size of a coffee
table, then the size of a toaster oven, then the size of a napkin
holder, then the size of a deck of cards.
David was left
looking at a spot of dry carpeting in his very cold living room.
Down the ramp did
that mint-sucker fly, running right up to old Levinhook and slapping
him on the back of the head. It mussed his hair, but that was OK.
It was just OK.
“Step back from
the melon cart,” cried Levinhook, sizing up the mint-sucker and
thinking to himself an unpleasant thought. “Keep your filthy hands
old nutter,” said the mint-sucker, “I know what they say about
you...I know all the things they say about you, and I know they're
Levinhook, “like that one man said in his song, it's a real good
time to forget I ever knew you.”
“But you know you
can't,” said the mint-sucker, prancing in circles and lifting his
eyelids in a most provocative manner. He slapped Levinhook on the
back of the head once again. The subcutaneous fat beneath the
wrinkled skin of Levinhook's head shook just a little bit. Had
anyone noticed, it would have seemed reminiscent of gelatin in a pan,
surrounding a cold pork hock.
incidentally, is often produced from the connective tissues of
animals. Sometimes these tissues are taken from pigs, in fact. I
just thought you might want to know this.
pranced around Levinhook, who kept his beady little eyes trained on
him, lest he fall victim, once again unaware, to another slap on the
head. High overhead a man carried a long two-by-four beneath his arm
as he strolled nonchalantly on a steel beam.
This was all taking
place adjacent to a construction site, in case you were not aware.
A big construction
site. One where they were constructing wonderful things.
called out the mint-sucker, “would you tell me where you found that
crazy, crazy sweater you are always wearing?”
bright red. Beads of sweat popped out of his fatty little head.
“Get out of here,
you prancercizing fool!” Levinhook took a swing with his meaty
fist and nearly hit the mint-sucker, who bobbed and weaved like a
“I know where you
got that crazy, crazy sweater! I know right where you got it! I
know who you took it from!” The mint-sucker was jumping about
wildly and flailing his arms like a windmill. Levinhook stood silent
High overhead a load
of steel suspended from a crane swung perilously close to the man
carrying the two-by-four.
High overhead a
Kosher wife and two Kosher children never gave a thought to a crazy,
The strange gurgling
sound in his throat had begun only a few weeks ago, but he took it to
be a sign that he was getting older. Gurgling sounds in the throat
did not scare him as much as the emptiness in that place that some
would call the heart, some would call the soul, and some would just
Yep, that's our
Pinny. Pinny with the tongue of the Rocketman still lingering in his
Pinny stayed low against the tops of the furniture (so as to hide
himself from the snipers that might be outside) and he listened
carefully. The only sound he heard was the gurgling noise in his
throat, but he knew that sometimes the snipers were trained to move
during the gurgling and remain motionless during the silence. Pinny
gurgled in uneven intervals and tried to catch the snipers moving
unexpectedly, but he had no luck.
He made his way toward a
window (pure foolishness, he knew), and took a quick look outside
into the chaos of his back yard. Chaos. Pure chaos. Loads of
rusting automobiles and engine blocks, and loads of places for
snipers to hide. This would not do. He collapsed to the floor,
breathing heavily. Gurgling heavily.
You have perhaps
realized, dear reader, that there are no snipers in Pinny's back yard
– only rusting automobiles and engine blocks. The snipers, of
course, exist only in Pinny's imagination. Can you say”imagination”?
There you go. I knew you could. “Imagination” is where the
Easter Bunny lives, along with personal freedoms in the early
twenty-first century. Accordingly, “imagination” is being
gradually being beaten out of our schoolchildren – not with leaden
pipes, but with leaden curricula...but that's another story. Let's
get back to Pinny and the “snipers”, so -called.
The whole of the day
he limped about, gurgling, limping, crouching, avoiding chaos and
avoiding the deadly crosshairs of the snipers. It was in the early
evening when precious, precious Pinny stubbed his toe against a block
of poly-resin that had been crafted into a scale model of the
pyramids of Cheops. Or was it Ramses? Or some other Egyptian
Pinny dropped to the
floor to inspect the pyramid. He picked it up and held it before his
eyes. Little crystalline chips seemed to sparkle on its surface as
he rotated it upon its axis. He looked carefully at the little
doorway molded into the pyramid's side. He imagined himself as being
very small and walking right into the doorway, down the descending
corridor into the pyramid's interior, into the ante-chamber, and then
right into the burial vault. With a deft little pop of his crowbar
he would pry open the lid on a mummy's sarcophagus, revealing the
linen-wrapped corpse within.
pharaoh lifted his scoped rifle and cracked a single shot through the
forehead of the imaginary Pinny-adventurer, who fell to the floor of
the burial chamber, leaving the pink mist hanging in the air.
the beatings, now, isn't it?
the emptiness in that place that some would call the heart, some
would call the soul, and some would just ignore.
It was just patch
of tall prairie grasses and a couple of thin, spindly trees, but you
could hardly see through it. The sunlight came racing along and
stopped dead in its tracks when it hit the vegetation.
Schmiechowski, rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands, “when
I bought this prime little piece of real estate over fifty years ago,
there wasn't a damn thing anywhere around. It was all just a rolling
prairie with a couple of patches of trees here and there.”
A little prairie
wind blew gently across where we were standing.
“I wanted a little
place to retire to,” he continued. “A little spot of land where
I could put my rocking chair and watch the earth crumble away to
dust. I could only afford this little patch.” He motioned to the
four foot square patch of vegetation.
shifted a little, moving his hands nervously on the handgrips of his
aluminum walker. The hiss from his oxygen tank reminded me of a
serpent. Serpents get their heads crushed, though, you know.
“Well, the damned
place grew up around it, as it turned out,” he said. “This whole
area got developed. It used to be pristine public lands. Now its a
“And a movie
theater,” I added.
“And a movie
theater,” he agreed, nodding his head. “Now this little patch of
vegetation is so overgrown, standing here by itself in the middle of
this parking lot, I can't even set my lawn chair down in it. You see
what I mean?”
I nodded to show
that I understood.
“Get to it then,”
I started up the
Bobcat and had the job done in less than three minutes. In the
middle of the asphalt parking lot there was now a four foot square
muddy scar on the earth, where tall prairie grasses and a couple of
thin, spindly trees had just formerly grown.
opened his lawn chair with one hand and threw it into the center of
his little patch of land. He plopped himself down in the chair,
knocking over his walker as he did so.
“I guess I don't
need that damn thing anymore,” he said.
around at what had been a beautiful forest just fifteen years ago.
He breathed in what had been pure, clean air just fifteen years ago.
What a crock, he thought.
Schmiechowski took a
last breath and died right there. And crumbled away to dust.
Pinny walked out his
skin that fateful day (the day after he died in the cold county jail,
victim of the United States Postal Service). Pinny walked down the
street and up to the house of the man who was rumored to give
rocketry instruction to anyone who was interested. That is exactly
what the sign on his lawn said: “Free Rocketry Instruction to
Anyone Who is Interested.” Pinny figured he had nothing to lose.
He had been dead for a day, after all. What could it hurt?
With a deft rap on
the door, Pinny summoned Rocketman, who quickly appeared.
“You're the meth
addict who died in the county hoosegow, ain't you?” asked
“Sure am,” said
Pinny, rubbing his tender noggin with a piece of flannel soaked in
camphor. “And I'd like some rocketry instruction.”
Pinny's eyes and his nose and his mouth. He went on, studying his
chin and the lump on the side of Pinny's neck. Pinny shifted
“What 'cha doin'?”
you...as one must study oneself. You got it, or do I gotta' pop you
one? Now shut up, while I study.” Rocketman seemed impatient.
Pinny could feel the
insects beneath his flesh begin to move again, and he was afraid that
his beloved necklump might be shifting in shape or size. He raised
his hand to cover it, and then lowered it again, afraid that it might
call attention to him in a way that he did not desire.
“Is that the
cha-la salute?” asked Rocketman, noticing Pinny's raised and then
lowered hand. “You a cha-la boy?”
“I'm afraid I have
no idea what you're talking about,” said Pinny, blushing bright red
(bright red for someone who has been dead for a day, anyhow. These
things are rather relative, you know).
his study and stood close (very close, in fact) to Pinny's face. He
locked his little beady eyeballs onto Pinny's little beady eyeballs.
And he leaned in close. Close. Real close.
And he stuck out his
tongue must have measured at least eighteen inches on a good day, but
Rocketman only needed an inch or so of it just now, as he placed but
the very tip upon the very tip of Pinny's nose. It felt cool, and
then warn to Pinny, who very nearly drew back, but stood still and
allowed Rocketman's tongue to linger for at least a minute.
his suddenly rainbow-colored tongue and turned back into his house.
“Where you going?”
asked Pinny. “You going to go get your rocketry supplies so's you
can teach me?”
“I will not teach
you,” said Rocketman. “I will not give you instruction.”
“Why?” asked a
saddened Pinny. “Do I taste bad?”
Rocketman. “Steel dreams. They ooze out of a man's flesh. And I
can tell your dreams, even if you cannot tell them yourself. Be off.
And be well.”
Pinny turned to a
deserted street – nowhere to wander for a lonely meth-ghost, but
the abandoned avenues of Rocketman dreams.