20 November 2013

Back to Balloonheart

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. How crazy.

That was before his leg had to come off.

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.

15 November 2013

Lunch? Or a Story?

“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 just ridiculous.

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 mutton wrap.

Such injustice.

“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 to him.”

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 moment.

“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, too...”

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.

Spirits have bigger things to care about.

And spirits don't have to pretend.


13 November 2013

Two's Company

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 anywhere.

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 pigeon-land.

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.

Nothing happened.

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 him.

“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.

08 November 2013


“Terrance, I done told you to lay off that rot-gut.”

“It ain't rot-gut, ma, it's just whiskey.”

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 that.

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 a grave.

“Terrance, I done told you to lay off that rot-gut.”

05 November 2013

Find Me on Facebook!

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:

01 November 2013

The Beginning of Chapter Four

From the forthcoming Radio - a Novel  by Tom Janikowski


If you 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.

This 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.

I tell 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.”

“Huh?” asked Michael, thinking he had misheard someone.

“Rab-klaat,” 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.

“Hey, there's someone in there,” started Michael, motioning toward the door.

“Yes, I know,” said the man in the leisure suit, “I'm aware of that.”

If we 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 romantic.

Enough about leisure suits. No one ever really liked them, anyway.