Mrs. Fezziwig’s Complaint

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In Which the Ghost of Parallel Reality Intrudes

The street outside still bustled with the racket of last-minute shoppers and the hurried steps of Christmas revelers off to the next holiday happy hour.

Springing down from behind his high desk, ol’ Chortlesworth Fezziwig was as spritely as ever. He had broken from his bookkeeping as easily as a man might break from a colonoscopy appointment.

The cause of his most welcome distraction was the appearance of his wife, adorned in a clearly “well loved” plain gray frock fraying on all edges. She held her bonnet by the ribbon in one hand as would an incarcerated chap holding sock full of soap about to administer a prison beating.

“My dear!” Fezziwig exclaimed. “Assuredly I know precisely what I shall buy you for a Christmas present!” He clasped her hands, his eyes moist with radiant devotion. “London’s most lovely lemon gown with lace and long silk gloves to frame your ageless beauty!”

He attempted to sweep her into a round little dance when she pushed him hard enough to send him in his long stockings flush against the desk, clattering on it the inkwell and its quill, which teetered and then fell inky point first.

“My love!” he yelped, righting himself, arms extended to her.

“Save it, bub. You and I both know any presents you can afford are in Christmas Past.”

Fezziwig’s countenance revealed he was touched by her reproach, but he forced his trademark smile to his lips, buoyed by his ceaseless optimism.

“Our position, it is to be said, stands less solvent than in years previous, but never fear! I was at this very moment devising measures to chase the wolf from the door.”

“Chase the wolf away? Why? We should invite him in and eat him! The larder is nearly empty, thanks to your extravagance. You’re not planning another holiday shin-dig are you?”

Fezziwig clapped his hands together with a gleam in his eye befitting the lusty vestige of his youthful self when once business flourished more abundantly.

“I assure, you my lovely Delores, your cunning husband is but a few pen strokes away from concocting the single-most brilliantly crafted financial scheme that will immediately absolve us of debt, dress you in the finest clothes and gold chains!” Then he covered his mouth with one hand as if to cover a cough. “With enough left over to have just a few people over for a quiet little dinner,” Fezziwig added under his breath.

“I knew it!” She folded her arms over chest and turned away from him in disdain. “I knew you were planning a Christmas party.”

In contrast to his good wife’s discomfited posture, Fezziwig served the counterpoint. He spun like a Dervish, leaping several feet off the floor, his hands flourishing over his head gamely as he regained the steps to his high desk, his face now as ink-splattered as his ledger, but no matter to Fezziwig! He snatched up the heavily leathered book and pirouetted down to his wife.

“The machinations of accountery would undoubtedly leave you befuddled, as a rainstorm might scatter the tender petals of the daisy. Allow me to summate my divestiture plan for you.”

“So you’re saying I’m stupid.”

“Hilli-ho! Why, no sane person would intimate such an affront!”

“To my face, you mean. Just give me the book.”

She yanked the ledger from him once again sending him bobbing off into the desk. After roughly thumbing through several pages, she snapped shut the book and hurled it, narrowly missing Fezziwig’s head.

“So, Mr. Bill Gates. Your big plan is sell everything we own and throw a big Christmas party? That’s your brilliant financial plan?”

“Chirrup! Hilli-ho! Scrumwumpery and fiddle! Come, come.” Fezziwig vaulted into two back somersaults with two twists while in an open tuck position, and he stuck the landing like a Romanian gymnast.

“Don’t try to deny it with your gymnastics, Fez. The gig is up. We are not selling everything we own.”

“Consider our children, the three dear misses Fezziwigs! Wouldn’t they be wretched not to share in the holiday merriment as we do every year with a side of roast beef and flagons of port, wheels of cheese, and the warmth of chestnuts?”

“Our three misses Fezziwigs are one missed meal away from applying for jobs at Hooters just for the employee discount!”

Fezziwig looked as if he were about to do a series of backflips landing in an elbow stand, but he thought better of it.

“If not for them, then what about showing generosity and good cheer to our workers, Sturdy Dick and Ebby Scrooge?”

“Listen, sap. Those two connivers have been flaking off a few pence here and a few pounds there from you for years. The only party they deserve is a hunting party.”

It was difficult for Mrs. Fezziwig to remain much angered with her husband, although she often tried. She knew he meant well, but his generosity was causing the Fezziwigs to teeter at the brink of pecuniary disaster and destitution. Already they had ___, and they had resorted to paying their taxes with winning scratch-off tickets. But Chortlesworth Fezziwig was a good sort. He could take a punch, could out-dance the Rockettes, and he was no slouch in the kitchen. Slowly her frosty attitude toward him melted.

“Your welsh wig is on too tight,” she chuckled. “I can see your organ of benevolence throbbing from here.”

She tenderly patted his forehead (because that’s where the organ of benevolence resides, you pervert. Consult your phrenologist for more information). Then Fezziwig raised two slim and tentative fingers formed like pincers.

“Something small, perhaps?”

“How small?”

“Five hundred of our closest friends and whoever spills in from the street, with catered food and free-flowing libations.”

“Smaller,” Mrs. Fezziwig countered.

“200 guests, the Mayor, and King’s Council, on a small flotilla of three-masters off the coast with just a few dozen crates of champagne and decorous entertainment proffered by the Royal Philharmonic.”

“Smaller still.”

“The imagination reels from such constraint!”

Mrs. Fezziwig pointed to the ledger on the floor. “Fezzie, we need to constrain more than just your imagination this year. We have more losses recorded in that book of yours than a Green Party presidential candidate!”

Even his most modest proposal of a soiree consisting of a fiddler and a monkey banging on a chamber pot met with spousal consternation. After breaking into a quick chassé leading into an elegant pas de chat, finished with a chainé turn, Fezziwig replied with one of the wisest of responses on the historical record – men make note! For in suggesting to divide the baby, even Solomon himself had pissed off two women.

“What do you suggest, dearest?”

And so it was the remainder of the Fezziwig fortune was not squandered in one extravagance all of a Christmas Eventide. The Fezziwigs five, Mister, Missus, and the three misses, shared sections of an orange and half a sleeve of thin mint Girl Scout cookies while listening to the “Christmas Lounge” station on Spotify.

Unfortunately, the lack of larger-scale celebration in such a difficult economic time had unexpected repercussions – in fact unraveling of the known space-time continuum. Many years in the alternate future, the Ghost of Christmas Parallel Reality visited a very wicked man named Tiny Tim who had gotten it in his head that the world was a dismal place, but that the Large Hadron Collider was a pretty neat place to vent his frustration.

God bless us, everyone!

The moral:

The moral of the story is clear and bright.

To maintain peace on Earth and holiday cheer

Husbands, grant yourselves a silent night

By answering your wives, “Yes dear!”

A Letter from Denali

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Even a burglar like Johnny Lightfingers was willing to diversify when opportunity presented itself. He specialized in the “domestic export” of jewelry, paintings, and Beanie Babies, but there it was: opportunity. Just languishing in the dark attic, unseen and forgotten, on a letter that never got sent.

He’d picked this house randomly from a drawing at his State Fair booth for a free home inspection.

Winner.

He focused the beam of the flashlight on the corner of the envelope. The stamp looked a little faded, but otherwise it was unused and in excellent condition. If his mental math was correct, then this stamp, was worth somewhere in the neighborhood of sixteen million and the corner of some change.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Johnny. He needed money and fast. Johnny was on the list at the Mayo Clinic for Dual-Limb Vascularized Composite Allotransplantation, but the procedure cost an arm and a leg. The Beanie Baby market had tanked under the weight of knock-offs like Beeney Babeez and the Chinese version, Pellet-Filled Otter Child.

It wasn’t that Johnny was some kind of stamp expert: it was just that the rarity of this particular stamp was well publicized, like the upside-down bi-plane stamp of 1918 or clean energy. Any child could have recognized this stamp.

Fortunately for Johnny and his limbs, none of these informed children had wandered up to the attic since at least 1984 when the stamp was first released and then quickly withdrawn from circulation. There were only two other known copies of the stamp left in existence, and both of them were incinerated.

The story was that the stamp designer was about to be laid off by the Post Office and knew it, having learned about his imminent departure during Casual Conversation Tuesday. Just as the artwork for a holiday commemorative stamp was going to press, the designer pulled a switch with the layout.

Headlines around the globe reverberated with the question: What was John Denver doing to that Muppet?

According to famous sea explorer and friend, Jacques Costeau, the rendering was actually a true-to-life representation of the acoustic folk-pop star’s predilection for drugging and violating young Sesame Street hopefuls. Costeau said they often would take upwards of thirty Muppets on drug-filled ocean excursions where both he and John Denver had their way with the letter A and the number 6.

If a “furry monster” proved uncooperative or too fat, they simply tossed the reticulated polyfoam carcasses overboard as they sang Aye Calypso. To this day, the act of indecent acts performed on Muppets by folk singers is known as getting Denvered.

To make matters worse, the Postmaster General at the time suggested to the U.N. General Assembly that intimate relations with puppets might be a healthy alternative to homosexual AIDs sex.

Puppeteers were outraged, and the Postmaster General was fired by President Reagan who was afraid that puppeteers were pulling the strings. Reagan had his own problems, like trying to figure out why his television kept glitching when Max Headroom came on.

“Muppetgate” still haunts the legacy of John Denver and the U.S. Post Office, who both died in a small plane accident as they tried to avoid crashing into Sonny Bono.

Johnny was about to carefully tuck the envelope into his male burglar fashion satchel (known as a pinch) when he grew  curious about the contents of the envelope.

It was dated from 1984, the same year the stamp had been released and then rescinded. Johnny wasn’t alive in 1984, thank god. He wasn’t even conceived until Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Years Eve three years later. How awful it would have been to have lived back then: Palestinians attacking Israelis; Israelis attacking Palestinians; Americans on mass-murder shooting sprees; problems in Syria; the first minivan released in the wild; and, worst of all, Sweden won the Eurovision contest with Diggi-Loo, Diggi-Lay.

Thank god the world was so much better now (except for the whole Beanie Baby knock-off thing).
Inside the envelope was a letter written from Mount McKinley in Alaska.

I haven’t heard from you since you in a while, so I thought I would just write and touch base camp (ha ha).

I know the way we left things was a little weird, but for the record, just remember it was you who wasn’t ready to take the leap. I remember how much you liked to climb all over me, and mount me until you reached the summit, but then you always seemed let down — but that may have just been the altitude sickness.

After you left, I just wasn’t feeling as big as I used to. Then I ran into some money troubles, and to make ends meet, I’ve been doing some pole dancing. When I’m on the pole I really feel appreciated, but I wear a mustache so no one recognizes me.

If you’re ever up this way again, I’ll give you a private show. I work weekends at the Yukon Do It under the stage name Denali Mist. You’d probably recognize me, even in disguise, as the tallest mountain peak in North America. Just don’t tell my parents!

Love, McKinley

Johnny figured the letter might trigger an avalanche of interest from collectors specializing in geological identity reassignment. He folded the letter and carefully returned it to the envelope, which he then carefully tucked in his pinch before rummaging through the attic for other lucrative finds.

Just then the door burst open and a woman who looked a lot like Bruce Jenner appeared. She swung a gold medal at him, and Johnny did his best to keep out of range. He couldn’t help but notice that he was wearing a vintage Battle of the Network Stars t-shirt from 1977.

“Excuse me, ma’am, isn’t that shirt from the episode where the guy from Welcome Back Kotter and his ABC all-star team defeated J.J. Walker and Grizzly Adams?”

The gold medal slowed to a stop.

“It sure is. O.J. and I hosted that one with Howard Cosell. Are you a fan of American history, son?”

Johnny Lightfingers lied and said he was, but what he really was a fan of was vintage crap he could sell on eBay store. He told the lady that she was the most attractive men’s decathlon gold medal winner that he had ever seen. She invited him to her media room where they watched a decisive dunk tank victory for ABC where Jamie Farr’s speedo is mercifully covered by his thick chest hair as he plunges repeatedly into the water by well aimed tosses by Penny Marshall and Suzanne Somers.

“I love a good ball toss, don’t you?” the woman said, eating popcorn right out of her pink Lifestrides.

Travel Mugs

travel mugs

I frequent coffee shops, well, frequently.

In one of my regular spots I had seen the same older gentleman teeter in early in the morning carrying two travel mugs, presumably one for him and one for his wife who, perhaps, is too ill to rise from bed.

It’s always a touching scene, the man paying for his two cups of coffee and maybe buying the newspaper on Sundays. Then I didn’t see him for months, and I feared that he had died.

Then I saw him again yesterday in line for coffee, but this time he was carrying only one travel mug, and I was just as sad to think that his wife had finally died. I was so overcome that I approached him, touching his shoulder to get his attention.

“Hi, I’m sorry to bother you. I noticed you’re only getting one cup of coffee when you used to get two. I hate to ask, but did your wife pass?”

He looked at me like I was a madman. It may have been my rainbow afro wig.

“That old bitch? No she’s still around. My asshole doctor told me I had to quit drinking coffee.”

Minnesota Up the Back Door

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Hi, I’m Steve Ricks. Today on Visits to America Up the Back Door, I’m compelled to mention by the Department of Homeland Security that this show is not a how-to guide for Mexicans or members of ISIL. With that out of the way, we can begin our exciting exploration of Minnesota.

Won’t you join me?

Minnesota has captured the global imagination with its funny accents, life-threatening cold, and heroic work ethic. You could say Minnesota is hot — not literally, of course! More like how top-knots on young chubby men who chain their wallets to their pants are hot or bacon cupcakes. But beyond the steely piercing-blue stare of Minnesotans lurks a land filled with motor cars, flying contraptions, and the largest ball of twine in the world!

Today we’re making our way up the freshwater froth of the Mighty Mississippi, known to the native tribes who once operated the parking ramps here as the long, crooked lake that floats our trash into the Gulf of Mexico.

I’m aboard the Erik the Red, the flagship of the Viking Princess Cruiseline. It’s an exact replica of a viking long boat cruise ship from nearly a thousand years ago. Those same ancient vikings who splashed in the heated Olympic-sized pool and enjoyed limitless shrimp fest on Thursday nights from 6:00 until 6:15 were the first Europeans to discover the already-inhabited area known today as Minnesota.

The Viking Princess Cruiseline began running the Ya, You Betchya tour in response to the world’s growing love affair of the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, Down from Eleven Thousand Since the Last High School Reunion, Don’tchya Know.

For a seven-day tour of “gosh-darn genuine Lake Wobegon and parts adjacent Fargo”, the tour is a steal at any price. It’s currently being stolen by Japanese tourists and Californian hipsters for the bargain-basement price of $8,000 — if you help row.

The vikings who first uncovered native beaver and tall stands of virgin woodsmen called the wild region Minnesota, an ancient viking word meaning small, effervescent soft drink.

Much like my contemporary traveling companions, the first viking visitors refused to let the cold and unfavorable currency exchange rates deter them from witnessing the largest pre-historic predator uncovered by retail paleontologists, the Mall of America!

Whereas the first explorers once encountered terrifying Hollywood actors roaming the world’s largest enclosed pine forest, today’s tourist can feel safe knowing that Christmas never ends at the Jingle All the Way museum where you can be chased down by a real-life Arnold Schwarzennegger impersonator impersonating a real-life shopping mall Santa Claus!

Hollywood movies are just one insight into the real lives of bachelor Norwegian farmers of the Midwest. For most outsiders, the most trusted news source for updates on Minnesota culture is A Prairie Home Companion. Check it out sometime. I just love the way Garrison Keillor tells it like it is in his unvarnished radio documentary series. It’s the world’s longest-running patronization, and it’s a reliable guide for the first-time visitor, replete with phrases you’ll need to know in order to interact with the locals. Phrases like What the heck? and Aw geez that’s good. Peppering phrases like these into your verbal repertoire will help you blend in.

You could say the show’s popularity is universal! University of Minnesota researchers are beaming Prairie Home Companion into outer space in hopes of lulling hostile alien races into a false sense of smug superiority.

And speaking of space, did you know that Minnesota is known as the North Star state? That’s because Polaris, the North Star, is a popular line of snowmobiles made right here in an underwater factory beneath Lake Minnetonka by troll dolls. When high school prom rolls around, local youth put on their fanciest mittens for a brisk ride on the lake on these snow machines, careful not to run down their drunken aged relatives who have been relegated to end-of-life care facilities on the ice known as fish houses.

And speaking of ways to travel the wind-swept tundra, getting around the North Star state has never been easier! Minnesota is the first state to allow Uber to run public transportation. Now you can drive yourself and thirty strangers to the destination shouted out the loudest and the most times. You may not get to where you wanted to go, but at least it was easy to use your smart phone to pay for it!

And remember, strangers are only friends who other people ostracized, probably for good reason.

Of course, no trip to Minnesota would be complete without experiencing the authentic haute cuisine of 1100 A.D. still prevalent today at even the most quaint family-owned salt licks.

Grab a baggie full of walleye minnows from a street vendor. The wriggling mouth treat is still known as Sioux-shi in honor of the native tribe who first tricked Europeans into buying all the land and resources in the area for a song: The Song of Hiawatha! Those shifty red devils!

Try the hot dish on a stick, said to be the staple ingredient at the original Thanksgiving dinner, nearly a millennium ago, when the vikings and the natives gathered in relative harmony at the very first Minnesota State Fair. Of course, back then the fair rides and games were more primitive. Instead of the roller coaster they rode each other, and instead of the water pistol race, the ancients played an invigorating round of Catch the Axe until they lost.

Speaking of food, many visitors are surprised to learn that all food in Minnesota is frozen. Of course that has a lot to do with the weather. And no tour of Minnesota would be complete without weather. Minnesota has plenty of it! In fact, the weather never stops! The weather happens so frequently that people set their cordless watches to it. Whether you love weather, or whether you hate it, there’s no way to weather-proof your trip to Minnesota!

Minnesota’s fascination with weather has resulted in big business. Meteorologists are the state’s largest export. They believe the weather will improve at some point, although they couldn’t say with any degree of certainty, and they’re carrying that message to the far corners of the earth. Non-believers, the weather deniers, are considered persona non gratin in Minnesota and are refused cheese. They also are forced to the back of the queue where you pay for your groceries, called the “check-out line” by locals.

If you ever find yourself in the eight-items-or- fewer express check-out line at a market in Minnesota, settle in! The locals ahead of you don’t know how to count, and they’ll insist that a can of cream of mushroom soup and a can of tomato soup counts as only one item, because it’s all soup.

Just remember, you’re on Minnesota time now!

Although the expression Minnesota Nice evokes thoughts of a warm and generous people embodying the tenets of social progressivism, Minnesota Nice is actually a bastardization of the phrase Minnesotan Ice-Cold-Hearted Sons of Bitches. You’re more likely to get a sock on the kisser than directions to the nearest Uber bus stop.

When you meet people in Minnesota, do not look the locals directly in the eye. Think of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, and then think again: “Here’s not looking at you, Minnesota kid.”

Also remember a hug to a Minnesotan is the equivalent of a knife attack. Shaking hands is still an acceptable greeting as long as the act is performed in silence with a Lutheran minister in attendance.

I’m often asked, “Is it safe to travel to Minnesota?” Statistically speaking, no. In fact, travelers in Minnesota looking to rent a car will not find an insurance policy available at the rental counter. Or a car. Rental agencies do offer optional crisis counselors at the airport, because a trip to Minnesota is considered a cry for help. You may as well strap on a belt of dynamite and wave your hands around in front of an Israeli checkpoint. But to be clear, the Department of Homeland Security strongly discourages this type of behavior.

Besides the people, the weather, and the entertainment, Minnesota is a wonderful place to visit. Just try to get there before all the good snowmobiles run out of gas, miles away from any source of heat, in the dark cold night while a pack of starving wolves circle closer, closer, drawn to your shivering miserable last few moments by the scent of tater-tot hotdish stains on your parka.

Thanks for joining me today! And as they say in Minnesota “good bye.”

The Tattoo of The Picture of Dorian Gray

Pants-dropped

The last thing he remembered from that night was drinking flaming Shanghai Nipple Twists with a beautiful young woman named Sybil at the Hosiery on Belmont.

Sybil was an actress — he could remember that, because she mentioned it just about every other sentence, insinuating it into conversation at every conceivable turn, things like, as an actress I really shouldn’t drink so many of these Shanghai Nipple Twists, or even though I spend most of my time at the theatre in rehearsal for the shows I’m acting in, I know people from all walks of life.

She needed a script writer to hold the attention of the audience, but he liked looking at her, and so he went the distance through three rounds of battle with the bright red cocktail without taking any damage. But then Sybil, who, as an actress, didn’t make that much money, convinced him to order a fourth round.

He forgot to extinguish the flames on the fourth Nipple Twist and burned off the five-o’clock shadow on his first sip, but he didn’t even feel it. His face was number than a snowman’s carrot.

They discussed late nineteenth century British playwrights who had published only one novel, and he groaned internally. It was the third time that week alone that the subject had arisen, and frankly he was tired of discussing Victorian-era aestheticism in literature.

Just the day before he had been in a department meeting about quarterly revenue projections, and no sooner had someone risen their hand to ask if the Operations Department would be shipping the new product line on time than the topic of producing literature for refined sensuous pleasure, rather than to convey moral or sentimental messages, arose.

But if the price of admission into Sybil the chatty actress’ boudoir was another discussion of Oscar Wilde, then so be it.

He remained unsure if he succeeded in that endeavor as he awoke alone except for a massive hangover and a throbbing pain on his backside.

“Oh no!” he said, leaping from the bed terrified of what he might have done the night before. Closer examination proved his worst fear had been realized.

He had gotten a tattoo of The Picture of Dorian Gray on his ass.

He had promised himself it would never happen: a big yellow Tweety Bird, a posing Betty Paige, a Chinese curse — these he would have gladly had tattooed on his face. But never a tattoo of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Now everyone would ask to see it, and he would be compelled to drop his trousers and endure countless discussions about life imitating art and the disillusionment with societal norms in favor of decadent self-indulgence.

Dejected, he pulled on a pair of draw-string pants so at least he wouldn’t have to fumble with buckles and zippers all day at the office when he would show his co-workers his fiery red ass inflamed by his tattoo of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

“I would sell my soul if I could get rid of this tattoo,” he announced to the traffic jam around him.

At that moment the car radio played an advertisement with zippy calliope music.

Thinking of selling your soul due to an unwanted tattoo? Don’t make a deal with the devil! Make a date with Nate! Nate’s Gentle Tattoo Erase Parlor.

The ad and its uncanny timing proved that marketing is one of the universe’s few beneficial forces, like the power of Grayskull and He-Man.

He immediately called to make an appointment for that very afternoon and then continued on to his workplace for a day-long drawer drop and Oscar Wilde show-and-tell session.

Finally his appointment with Nate the tattoo eraser arrived. Nate violated his own No Questions Asked signage when he saw the tattoo.

“What in the hell where you thinking?” Nate asked. “Were you trying to be ironic?”

“I really don’t remember what I was thinking. Can you just remove it, please?”

“You got it. This is going to hurt like hell.”

Nate pumped a pedal with his foot and wielded something along the line of a dental drill.

“Aren’t you just going to use some chemical that breaks down the ink to make it fade?”

“That’s for wusses. You’re not a wuss, are you? No, here we use flesh-colored ink and just tattoo right over the old one.”

“But this place is called Nate’s Gentle Erase Tattoo Parlor. Where’s the gentle erase part then?”

“You don’t know much about business, do you? It wouldn’t be very bright to call it Nate’s This Is Going to Hurt Like Hell and Possibly Give You an Infection place.”

Nate leaned in to begin the painful process but then jerked away.

“Oh my god!”

“What’s wrong?”

“The tattoo of The Picture of Dorian Gray on your ass just tried to bite me.” He shook his head. “I think its expressing its disdain for authoritative control mechanisms meant to suppress the full expression of individuality, but frankly, it strikes me simply as self-centered hedonism.”

“Oh, here we go again!”

Nate set down his drill and said that he wouldn’t remove the tattoo.

“Look, I’d like to help you, but art is primarily about the elevation of taste and the pure pursuit of beauty. If I tattoo over The Picture of Dorian Gray, how would you face yourself tomorrow knowing that the arts should be judged on the basis of form rather than morality? Your ass will be sore, you’ll probably get an infection and you’ll have lost the the sensual qualities of art and the sheer pleasure they provide.”

“Could you at least draw a mustache on it?”

“Why a mustache?”

“If you must, know a mustache would maintain the energy and creativity of the tattoo’s aestheticism and keep the shorthand way of expressing the fears about alternative views of morality in art, but at least I could tell people its satire when I have to show them my ass.”

“That makes sense, but I can’t do it.”

“Why not?”

“I only have flesh-colored ink, remember? It wouldn’t do to have a flesh-colored mustache, unless we want to dabble in negative space, but that would really blur the lines between forms. You think you’ve got problems now.”

Later, thanks to a black Sharpie marker stolen from the office supply closet, The Picture of Dorian Gray tattoo received a mustache — jaunty with curled ends, but it immediately faded from his ass and reappeared on his upper lip. The same thing happened when he drew an eye patch, blacked out teeth, and added a surgical scar. Soon his own face looked as if he had fallen asleep at a fraternity beer bust.

Over the years, the tattoo of The Picture of Dorian Gray never faded even as he grew older. He simply had to learn to live with the fact that literary aestheticism shocked the Victorian establishment by challenging traditional values, foregrounding sensuality and promoting artistic, sexual and political experimentation.

But at least it never tried to bite anyone again.

Festival of Lights

boxesThe sun had already begun its quick winter descent, reminding the Osenkowski’s that it was again time to get the battered cardboard box marked “X-mas” from the basement. It was one of many boxes there piled in a cardboard Limbo. Peeling yellow tape, dust: these always added to the suspense of the unopened box, but once the top was off, it became clear that nothing changed for the Osenkowski’s in a year’s time.

Even on ordinary, non-holiday days, it was Tony Osenkowski’s husbandly duty to fetch things from the basement since Pat had been diagnosed with subdomusphobia, the fear of basements. With the medication they prescribed for her condition, the stairs would have proved difficult for Pat to negotiate anyhow.

That’s not to say that Pat didn’t try to speed her treatment along, washing her pills down with a swallow of whiskey. Even though Tony tried again and again to stop her from drinking, there she was, slurping Jim Beam straight from the bottle as she poked in the spice rack above the stove.

Two hours before she had told him to get the box. He said he would get it, right after they finished the third hole at the Palm Springs tournament. One-and-a-half hours ago, she told him again, but he was snoring, and he didn’t hear her, so she had to yell at him this time.

He slowly rose from the sofa leaving a comfortable depression in the cushions. Lingering, the suddenness of twilight startled him. Another weekend over, the verge of the next week, and the next.

Pat was cooking a nice turkey for their church’s Advent Family Affair dinner for later that evening. She was “volunteered” to spend the twenty bucks for ingredients and an afternoon basting and roasting the turkey – a privilege doled out by the church’s Ladies Aid Committee. The ladies on the committee usually put themselves down for buns or potato chips.

“I’d like to decorate today, Mr. Groundskeeper!” Pat snapped from the kitchen.

Rubbing the afternoon out of his eyes, Anthony responded, “Sure thing,” and worked his way into the kitchen, toward the door to the basement, which he found with his forehead. “No problem,” he said, rubbing the skin as he started down the stairs.

Pat resumed the basting, giving it her last touches, yelling further commands over her shoulder. “Oh, and see if you can find the box with the cards and wrapping paper!” She leaned over the little gas stove, one of those old stoves that had to be lit every time she wanted to use it. The sleeves on her robe nearly ignited on the open blue flame that kept a pan full of butter melted.

Stove-lighting was another of Anthony’s little tasks; her therapist had uncovered a repressed memory were Pat had been separated from her parents during a Fourth of July fireworks celebration, which explained her pyrogenetiphobia: the fear of starting fires. Those were the blue pills.

Not that Tony felt unrewarded for all his menial errand-doing: Pat was a good cook, and besides being terribly irritable in the mornings and a bit psychotic when she drank, she was a fairly nice person.

Especially considering the crap I have to put up with! That’s exactly what Pat was thinking as she set the turkey in the oven.

It wasn’t that Anthony wasn’t good to her, because he was. It was just that he was so boring and inept. She pitied him mostly. Looking back on the years of her life, she pitied herself as well. Her wretched life, her boring house, her dull holidays: she wondered how she generated enough energy to get out of bed every day.

She heard Anthony stumbling around in the basement. He probably hasn’t even found the Christmas box yet, she thought. Then she heard him hit his head again, probably on the metal shelving where they kept old People magazines and paint cans.

Poor bastard, she thought, preparing her mouth to receive a much-needed cigarette. She sat one of the wooden chairs at the kitchen table, the robe slipped open. She hadn’t yet dressed even though the dinner was only two hours away. She retied the belt and tucked the collars together to cover her chest.

As she smoked, looking out of the window, she spotted the shadows of three children crossing through her yard towards their homes across the street. She rose quickly and crossed to the back door, opening it just enough to feel the chill air slap her face. She yelled at them, “Hey! You kids! Get outta my yard!” She slammed the door. “Find another short-cut,” she muttered, returning to her cigarette at the table.

The sun was setting and it wasn’t even supper-time. She hated winter. The grayness was so predictable, the cold a routine numbness that poked its sharp claws through their poorly-insulated door jambs.

Her attention was diverted from the morose winter landscape by Anthony’s voice in the basement. “Shoot! Pat! The bulb burnt out down here!” She noticed he was using his ‘something’s-the-matter-I-need-help’ voice, high-pitched and panicky. “Could you please hand down that flashlight; it’s in the kitchen drawer!”

Her silence filled the air with contempt.

As the first few trickles of juice trailed down the turkey’s slippery skin, Pat drew another deep breath from her smoke and picked up the morning edition.

“I’m busy cooking this turkey,” she finally yelled down to him, turning to the crossword puzzle page.

“Aw, c’mon, Pat, just throw down the flashlight!”

She folded the paper in half and searched the counter behind her for a pen before responding, “What do you want me to do about it? The flashlight’s down in the basement with you!” It was then she first smelled something chemical wafting up from the basement like gasoline or paint fumes.

“You put the flashlight in the basement? Why’d you do that?” Anthony was getting frustrated, bumping around in the dark like an idiot while his wife ignored him, safe in the kitchen. He inched along a wall of boxes, guiding himself with his fingertips. The smell of turkey made his mouth water. He was hungry and lost in the dark.

Unfortunately, his fingers didn’t warn him of the imminent collision between his knee and an oaken wardrobe.

“Ow!” The pain shot through his whole leg, cramping his calf muscle. “Just where in the hell did you go and hide that thing?”

“I didn’t put the flashlight in the basement, you did! Remember? I told you I didn’t want that thing next to my spatula!” Stained with oil and paint, it belonged in an equally ugly place, his basement, and certainly not her kitchen, she had said. Pat could really sense his frustration, and she chuckled out a little curl of smoke when she heard him thumping into things. He still hadn’t found the damn Christmas box.

It was true: Anthony hadn’t found the box or the flashlight, but he had tipped over a five-gallon pail of oil-based primer. That was the smell Pat had noticed upstairs. The fumes were just now beginning to affect Anthony, burning his eyes a bit. The thought of the roasting turkey, however, was making his stomach grumble. He was imagining sitting around at the fellowship hall of the church and gorging himself on turkey and stuffing with all the other church families, maybe sit by the Pastor’s wife. She was a real milf. This thought helped calm him, although his knee still hurt. He had no idea that he was tracking his footprints all over the basement floor, searching blindly either for the box or the flashlight, completely disoriented.

“Are you making a mess down there? I smell gas or something. Did you knock something over?” She wasn’t able to place the smell. She also was stuck on a five-letter word for egalitarian in the crossword.

“Well, if I had that damn flashlight maybe I could see, but no-oo, you had to go and hide it!” If Anthony had his flashlight, he would have seen a mess of red footprints leading from the puddle of primer near the tipped pail. He would have realized he had been meandering over the same areas for ten solid minutes and was presently back where he started.

Pat laughed, “Oh, why don’t you go hide, you moron!” She thought she said it too quietly for him to hear, but his ears were working better than ever in the dark, and she spoke louder when she was drunk.

He hated her…attitude. That’s what she had. Attitude, like the way she thought he was stupid. He didn’t know if he was stupid or not, but he didn’t want anyone else to think so. He felt dizzy. The turkey smell was overpowering, now making him feel nauseous.

He finally found the flashlight sitting on top of his work-bench. Lifting up the flashlight made his head spin, and it slipped from his fingers.

“Damn it!” He heard it crash against the floor with a slight splat as it hit a puddle. He slowly lowered himself until he once again gripped the handle of the flashlight. “What the hell…” He could feel that it was wet. He sniffed his fingers, and something acrid burned his nose and made his eyes water.

“Finally!” He announced. He clicked on the flashlight, but there was no light. He shook it back and forth in a quick round of troubleshooting that revealed the problem: no batteries. Unknown to Anthony, Pat was using the batteries for a power massager when he was at work.

“What’s taking you so long down there — did you get lost?”

Her voice grated on him, especially as sick as he was feeling. He flung the flashlight hard into the darkness, listening to it crack against the wall.

“Geezus, Pat, have a little sympathy! I think I’m bleeding down here!”

Pat slowly stood and reached for a fresh bottle on top of her refrigerator and poured herself a tall one, “Yeah, whatever you say,” she snorted at him.

Anthony used his wife’s voice like a beacon, steadying himself until his feet found the stairs. His head reeled with fumes, and he had enough of her attitude. He was muttering something to that effect as he pulled himself up the stairwell. His eyes narrowed as he reached the light of the kitchen, the brightness overwhelming his balance. Pat saw the primer stains that Anthony had tracked up the stairs and into her kitchen. Her chuckling mouth lost all joy immediately.

Finally able to focus at where Pat was pointing, Tony saw the footprints. His feet and the bottoms of his trousers were soaked red. He thought he was bleeding profusely. He couldn’t understand why his wife looked so angry — she should be helping him, damn it! But instead, she grabbed a rag from the sink and seethed, “You’re making a mess! Don’t just stand there, moron!” She crossed over to him, dropped to her knees, and began scrubbing furiously at the red stains.

“Look at this mess!” Her voice was so shrill, her words pushed him over, too weak to stand. He waved his arms in little circles, but it was no good. He fell back down the stairway. He saw his wife kneeling, wiping away his footprints. She was mumbling about the crap she had to put up with, unaware of the thumps her husband made as he disappeared back into the basement.

The darkness engulfed him again. The smell of turkey filled his head, and his body felt as tender as he imagined the turkey to be. He rested a moment at the foot of the stairs, no longer hungry, no longer tired. He couldn’t feel anything. Groping around him, his fingers contacted the primer, but he thought it was his blood.

On the side nearest the railing, Anthony felt something that had fallen out of his pocket during his tumble down the stairs. He’d had a book of matches in his pocket all along, having used them earlier to light the stove for Pat’s turkey. He could still hear her up there, frantically cleaning and cursing him.

“Better light than never,” he mused bitterly. Setting the sulfur head against the flinty surface of the matchbook, he slid the match hard along the length of the strip.

A little spark buttressed to life. His pupils narrowed in the tiny white light, but soon widened in horror as the little flame kept growing, catching his shirt and skin, Everything around him suddenly became white-hot. He watched every single one of the footprints on the floor ignite.

“PAT! PAT!” He was screaming and trying to put the flames out.

Pat tossed the filthy rag into the sink. “Aw, go to hell,” and she rubbed her eyes, drowsy from the highball, oblivious to the imminent explosion that would positively ruin her turkey.

 

Posable Polly’s Revenge

posable polly Mom wanted Chuck to be a lawyer, and when he googled how much those corporate lawyers make, he wanted to be one, too. He changed his major from journalism to business, worked his way through law school as a debt collections agent, and passed the bar exam in three states. He excelled in school and excelled in debt collection, getting the proverbial blood from turnips.

He worked from home, making calls during the daytime with the alias “Mr. Tiberius.” The name fit well with his commanding style, the way he ran debtors through the paces and practically had them selling their children to pay off their Sears card by the end of each call.

Since he was versed in law, he knew exactly how far he could go with his phone calls, knew when to switch gears, knew how to steer, and he knew more than a few dirty tricks that he hadn’t learned in books. He knew that every call he made and every debt he collected was only yet another confirmation, that yes, yes, yes, Chuck was on his way.

He was one of the company’s best, and they knew it. Not only did he receive those commission checks, but also incentive gifts, like the case of gin they got in a bankruptcy settlement from a deadbeat bar owner, a set of golf clubs which he would use some day when he was a big-shot corporate lawyer, and a box of expensive cigars. But what he liked best was the power to manhandle the weasels and the welshers he dealt with every day.

He once got his own sister’s account for a delinquent dental bill, and he had relished the thought of calling her and demanding payment, but the company had a rule about family calls.

Debt collection was only a temporary gig, though. Chuck already had his nets in the water. Soon he would be interviewing with Bosch and Laumb, or Pratt and Lambert, or Simon and Schuster, and they would claw one another to get him, but he wanted a spot in the world famous consulting group Secort, Haight, and Lies (pronounced “lease”). They took only the best and the brightest, and Chuck was certainly that. Top in his class, top in his exams, top top top. He was so good it made him sick when mediocre people like his family commented on his greatness. It was always Ah, here’s our dear Chuck. Well, here’s the boy who took the top score in his class. O, we do expect so much from you Chuck.

Chuck was like shut up already.

He was the family hero whereas his sister was saddled with a kid, an incomplete community-college education, and the misconception that her brother Chuck had a good heart. She believed he empathized with her struggle, a solo act, of raising seven year-old Peachy. She even went so far as to ask if he would watch Peachy during the summer while she helped people use the self-service checkout machines at Walmart.

He said he’d be delighted to watch his niece for two hundred bucks a week because she was family. “As long as she doesn’t bother me while I’m working.”

“Peachy is no problem at all,” Chuck’s sister insisted. “You won’t even know she’s there.” That’s what Uncle Chuck wanted to hear. Easy money. Besides, he had enough to do, what with making phone calls and simultaneously playing Call of Duty. He barely have time to bathe anymore.

Uncle Chuck woke up five minutes before Peachy was deposited on his doorstep and chose something suitably comfortable to to wear, which often meant not bothering to change out of his sleeping clothes. He ruled the apartment from the living room, which connected the kitchen and the bathroom. In this way, he could passively sit his niece. “She has to come out for air every once in a while” he reminded himself, and she did, for water or some cold pizza, and in this way he knew she hadn’t been stranger-snatched through the tiny bedroom window or gotten her head stuck in the waste paper basket and suffocated. Easy money.

He made sure to have himself seated firmly in front of his television with the game controller in his hand when his sis dumped Peachy off at his door.

Peachy may well have grown up with the mistaken notion that all men are selfish slobs who yelled at perfect strangers on the phone when in reality it was only her Uncle Chuck. She was frilly and played with dolls and did all of the lovable little things a contented seven year-old girl did in lieu of playing Call of Duty. When Peachy asked (every day) if she could have a turn to play, as seven-year-olds assume is their right, Chuck said “No, not today. Uncle Chuck has got to work today.” Which was true, only he had Peachy convinced that he somehow used the video game to help him collect the debts of the people he was calling. He said it helped him “get the bad guys.”

He would urge Peachy to go play with her dollies. Peachy was a resourceful little girl. She liked playing with her dolls, yes, but these could hardly keep her occupied every moment in a nine-hour day, so she learned to cook eggs in a variety of styles. This pleased Uncle Chuck who had for years sustained himself on pizzas delivered in cardboard boxes. The only time he went into the kitchen, in fact, was to throw away the box and spray tomato sauce from his face.

Peachy’s stint as chef was short-lived, however. After only three days, all of the eggs were gone and nothing identifiable was left in the refrigerator. She created an Almost Omelet with ingredients poured from unlabeled jars and scraped from the bottoms of musty Tupperware. It had everything except eggs, which made it just short of a culinary miracle. It held together, even, but in Uncle Chuck’s analysis, an omelet should have eggs in it. He banned her from the kitchen area until he went shopping again.

With the tenacity of a fictional child detective, Peachy cased the entire one-bedroom apartment by the end of the first week. She found the thick, expensive-looking books on Uncle Chuck’s shelves particularly engrossing. They were standard reference for aspiring attorneys, the kind with thick leather and lots of words. They didn’t have pictures, but Peachy felt they should have pictures. She liked connecting all of the periods and dots of small “i”s with crayon to see what kind of pictures each page made. She’d even connected some of the dots of semi-colons; and sure enough, the punctuation in those books offered plenty of ducks with umbrellas and horses, all just waiting to be colored in.

There were plenty of things that she found entirely uninteresting, like Uncle Chuck’s junk box. Everything he’d collected through the years — test scores, autographs, diplomas, ribbons, copies of resumes — all got tossed in this box, at the bottom of which was a collection of magazines of naked people, cleverly hidden by a debate team certificate of merit.

Other items fired her imagination for hours, like Chuck’s collection of hats. Peachy loved these. There were all kinds: cowboy and a fez and and Mickey Mouse ears and Mexican and construction worker and army officer and police officer, but her favorite was the witch’s hat. She used to wear this the most when she played with the dollies she spilled out on the floor each morning. To her, it was the hat that was magic, the hat made a person a witch just like the other hats made a person a police officer or cowboy or a Mexican.

She wore the other hats often enough, but her favorite was the witch’s. It gave her the power to change things from, say, a Ken doll into a handsome prince. But then Ken would always do something naughty, as boy dolls are apt to do. And look out if you were a dolly who did something naughty while Peachy wore the witch’s hat! Anything could happen! You suddenly might find yourself flying through the air to be imprisoned in the Mountain Cave (Chuck’s sock drawer) or tied to the Rock of No Niceness (Chuck’s tennis shoes). She never wanted to hurt her dollies, because, after all, if she had ruined her dollies what else would she have to do once she’d rummaged the contents of Uncle Chuck’s closet?

She was too young to appreciate the idea of a pecking order but was, all the same, at the mercy of the pecking order of Chuck’s place. Here’s how it went: Chuck called someone from his “D+D” list (deadbeat and delinquent) who yelled at him for calling. This usually made Chuck misfire a grenade and blow up his own teammate. Then Chuck yelled something back at the deadbeat and really pounded the buttons on the controller until the whole TV screen was a smoky mess of video game sulfur. Then he slammed down the headset yelling something about pay or else and Peachy came in the room to see if he’s mad about something she did. He told her to cook him an egg. Then she reminded him they already ate them all. He remembered that he hasn’t been to the grocery store since April, and cursed himself because he doesn’t have enough ammo to finish the mission. He snapped at her to go “play with your dollies.” This made Peachy very irritable so that when she popped on her witch’s hat, she could tell that one of her dollies, Posable Polly, has been trying to make a break for it in her absence.

“If I stay, you stay, Polly-Wolly.” She leaned over and waggled her finger at the doll who tried to play innocent and smile a supportive codependent smile. “This time you’re gonna get it but good, young lady. To the cave with you!” And off to the sock drawer went Posable Polly with nary a clue about the pecking order herself and only a single golden ringlet visible from the floor of the room to warn the other dollies about what happened if you crossed Peachy and her witch’s hat.

The sock drawer wasn’t the worst punishment, however. She only condemned her lady dollies there. Yes, it was dark and lumpy. But the boy dollies (there were two: Ken and Roger) got the Rock when they misbehaved — which was almost all the time. The Rock was dark, too, but didn’t smell nearly as nice as the sock drawer. She’d say “It’s the rock for you Ken-Fen” or the “It’s the Rock for you Roger-Dodger!” And lace up their tan plastic arms with shoestring and put them head first into a shoe. They kept beaming those fabulous Malibu smiles, but deep inside, they resented the injustice. After all, they were just sensitive West Coast guys whom Posable Polly had met at the Posable Polly Beach Party Set, and they weren’t used to restraint like their cousin, Terry Tie-Me-Up.

Often Ken and Roger were locked up for no better reason than that they had small feet. They couldn’t stand up by themselves while they waited in line at Posable Polly’s Super Shopper Grocery Counter, and so they would fall over, spilling Posable Polly’s grocery cart, which, in turn, upset Peachy. But it wasn’t Ken and Roger’s fault. Their feet weren’t meant for standing; they were meant for pressing down the accelerator on the foot-long red corvette convertible or for sloshing about in Posable Polly’s fun-size aqua-pool with little neon-green floaties on their tone, plastic arms, their plastic goggles only thinly veiling their stolen glances as they floated, at times bobbing gently against one another, the tips of their snorkels rubbing furtively. Peachy found them out often enough, never truly understanding what the two boy dolls were up to, but she punished them just the same.

Their suffering taught Peachy a valuable lesson: that a person can (and must) keep smiling in the face of injustice, in the face of being snapped at and sent off to some musty place like a sock drawer or a grumpy uncle’s bedroom. According to Peachy’s mother, Uncle Chuck was going to become a provider for them all. His career was the major concern, so Peachy mustn’t do anything to interfere. Poor Peachy had very few options and at times thought she would start screaming her head off if she had to go to Uncle Chuck’s one more time.

One morning Uncle Chuck stood on his scale and realized he had gained seventy pounds. That would explain why the toilet seat creaked when he sat down on it. He was afraid it might snap in two some day and send plastic slivers into his ass.

That’s when he went on his meat diet. Nothing but meat. No bread, no pizza crust, no sugars, no fruits, nothing but steak or hamburger and eggs. Raw protein. Somehow that was supposed to trigger his body into a phenomenal weight loss without the desire to binge on cake or cookies, but he caught himself more than once chewing a little too gingerly on the headset microphone.

Another consequence of Chuck’s diet (which really wasn’t working and just made him froth more at the mouth when he yelled at some deadbeat) was that poor Peachy wasn’t even getting pizza anymore. Instead of ratting on Uncle Chuck whom the family supposed was their very own Bill Gates, she surreptitiously composed spur-of-the-moment lunches and goodies, called more-or-less sandwiches because they always contained some ratio of bread slices, peanut butter, butter butter, jelly, ketchup, bologna, and potato chips. She ate with her dollies and never once let on to Uncle Chuck that she was hungry enough to trouble his conscience, and his conscience was about the only thing that hadn’t gotten bigger with the rest of him. He had remained, in a word, heartless.

Fortunately, heartlessness is an asset in debt collection. If he could just keep from chewing on the game controller, things were going to be swell.

But then he took to drink.

One day Peachy found one of the unopened bottles of gin in Chuck’s closet. She was exploring new “time-out” places for her lady dollies since the sock drawer on that day was particularly overcrowded with wrong-doers and her Princess Ariel doll was acting up. The remaining dollies remained as quiet as possible, but Peachy was wearing her witch’s hat and they were really in for it. She uncovered a heavy cardboard box beneath some sweatpants, Chuck’s favorite attire of late, and pulled out a bottle of gin from a slot in the box. It had a picture of a pretty drink with an umbrella and a bright red cherry. She read well-enough to notice that you could make it with the easy-to-follow recipe on the back.

After punishing the rest of her dollies, she was in the kitchen stirring and pouring and searching and mixing. She mixed a Pollyanna Fizz Cocktail. She liked the name because it reminded her of Posable Polly. She didn’t know what vermouth or grenadine was so she improvised and put in some gin and cherry Kool Aid and ice cubes instead and offered it to Chuck in one of his afternoon phoning lulls. He, in fact, thought it was Kool Aid, so cleverly had she mixed it, and thanked her. He gulped it down without thinking how it might spoil his all-meat diet. “I’ll have some more,” he said, and Peachy was more than happy to create another Pollyanna which to her looked very much like the one in the picture. This time she made extra for herself, and Chuck told her there was a pitcher in one of the cupboards, and that she could just make a whole pitcher full at one time. He was afraid that she would get the counters all sticky and told her to wipe up after herself. But she was careful not to waste any of the pretty red liquid.

Uncle Chuck noticed his reactions had slowed, and he wasn’t thinking straight. He  thought the blurry vision and slurred speech were the result of not having sugary things so long. He called the office and said he needed the rest of the afternoon off. Then he caught sight of the gin bottle on the counter, and there was little Peachy adding some more gin to her Kool Aid, a big red stain around the outline of her lips like an evil, goofy clown.

“Geezus” he tried to get up to snatch the bottle away but fell uselessly on the floor in front of the TV screen. “This can’t be good” he muttered.

Peachy thought it was hysterical to see her fat uncle prone on the floor, and took another swig of the Pollyanna Fizz without a word. Then the phone rang. Chuck assumed that it was the office checking up to see if their star boy was okay.

“Harloo” he said drunkenly in the mic. It wasn’t the office, though: it was Secort, Haight, and Lies (pronounced “lease”). They wanted to interview him for an opening. They said they’d had their eye on him for some time. Was he interested in doing a spot interview right there over the phone?

Chuck could barely contain himself and rolled over excitedly to his side. “Shhhhher!”

Peachy quietly insinuated herself onto the couch in front of the game controls and hit reset while Chuck lay on the floor, chewing absentmindedly on the headset mic, giving what was the world’s worst job interview.

The interviewer asked Chuck about test scores and club memberships, trying to find out just what kind of blood ran in those veins of his. (The interviewer would have been shocked to realize that Chuck’s blood had recently replaced by a Pollyanna Fizz transfusion.)

Chuck suddenly couldn’t remember all the facts and figures of his accomplishments. “Jus a sec,” he said. “I gotta getta box. It’s all in my box.” The interviewer asked Chuck to repeat himself, unable to understand Chuck’s thick gin accent.

“Huld yer husses. I’ll be reet buck!”

Chuck went to the closet and dislodged his junk box, which held his resume and awards, from under a pile of sweat pants and musty towels and hauled it back into the living room. Peachy meanwhile made explosion sound effects as she played her uncle’s video game, punctuated by outbursts of “Kill em!” Chuck dumped over the box and found a copy of his resume and fact sheet about Secort, Haight and Lies (pronounced “lease”), found the headset under the coffee table and proceeded with the interview from his prone position once again.

The interviewer wanted to know what all the noise was in the background and Chuck explained it was where he worked “in corrections.” And when Peachy started yelling “dirty bugger!” at the Canadian asshole on her squad who kept shooting at her, the interviewer said “Working in a jail must be a nasty job. All those criminals!” But Chuck pshawed him, “Naw, she’s only seven.”

There was a silence from the other end.

“She’s my niece,” he added.

It became quite clear to both Uncle Chuck and the interviewer that Chuck was “out of sorts” and it was decided to try a face-to-face meeting where the interviewer suggested a sign language translator might be present.

“Oh, but I’m not deaf or anything. I’m just drunk.”

That little revelation got Chuck nowhere except a dial tone.

Uncle Chuck realized he may have blown his only shot for his dream job. Then he noticed the time. His sister would be picking up little Peachy in an hour. An hour and she would be picking up his underfed, drunken, maniacal niece whose eyes were red from gin and world conquest and her fingers gripping the controller tighter than the gin bottle. “This can’t be good,” he slurred.

The place smelled like a bar.

Uncle Chuck came up with a plan. He would lavish Peachy with attention, making her wild promises about zoos and circuses and all the video games she could play, if only she would keep quiet. Meanwhile maybe he could get some coffee and toothpaste down her throat before his sister showed up. He threw open the living room window to air out the place but in the process knocked Peachy’s drink all over himself. He cursed and put one hand against the window screen and the other on his shirt and pants trying to wipe the excess off. He felt no breeze coming in and decided to light a cigar to help bury the gin fumes. He was sloshed, so the lighting-the-match part didn’t go so well, and soon his clothes were on fire. He hit himself with a note pad trying to extinguish the flames. But the tattered remains still glowed, so he ripped them off as they scorched his skin, ran to the bathroom for the toothpaste, and was holding the tube of toothpaste into Peachy’s struggling clenched mouth.

There came the inevitable knock on the door, the inevitable Hi, Chuck it’s me. I thought I’d come a little early for Peachy, then the equally inevitable horror of Chuck’s semi-naked person shoving a tube of something into Peachy’s mouth, the place still smelling like a speakeasy with a thick rank layer of smoke and burned clothes in the air,  a clutter of pornographic magazines strewn on the floor.

Uncle Chuck tried to explain it all with a slur, revealing he was drunk, and when Peachy added her side of the story, she revealed that she was even more drunk. Sis grabbed up Peachy and her things so quickly that she overlooked poor Posable Polly, still doing her punishment in the closet, upside down in a bowling trophy, for a crime she did not commit. She smiled all the same.

Adventures with Wally, Police Dog of the K-9 Corps

K-9Sgt. Chalmers knew that Wally had a very sensitive nose, but he didn’t realize that, to Wally, the sergeant smelled like a cheeseburger. Wally had to remind himself not to attack and throat his police officer, no matter how much he wanted to. Throat meant that Wally would grab a suspect’s throat in his jaws and wait for further instructions. Wally learned to throat people in K-9 corps school.

There were two kinds of throat and two kinds of humans. The first kind of throat was called soft mouth. With a soft-mouth throat, Wally got to clamp his teeth on the suspect’s throat, but gently. If the human was a good guy, then Sgt. Chalmers would say “release”, and Wally would let the human free. But if the sergeant said “go!” Wally got to go to town because that kind of human was known as a bad guy. The second throat is called a critical throat because usually the bad guy, if he lived, was in critical condition.

When Wally heard “go!”, he closed his eyes and growled and sank his teeth deep into the perp’s throat. A perp is a suspect who is found guilty by Sgt. Chalmers but who hasn’t had time to consult with the judicial system.

One day, Sgt. Chalmers brought Wally to a Vietnamese restaurant. It was called the Lily of Saigon, but the owner and his wife didn’t want to pay Sgt. Chalmers and Wally for protecting the restaurant. Sgt. Chalmers thought that was not very good business sense. Sgt. Chalmers said that there were plenty of places that he protected and nothing ever happened to them — not while he and Wally were on the job.

When the owner told them to get out of his restaurant, the sergeant told Wally to lunge. Lunge means that Wally should knock over the man and take him to the ground. That wasn’t difficult because the man wasn’t very big. He went over like a one-legged nightstand in Justin Bieber’s hotel room. Then Sgt. Chalmers told Wally to throat. He asked the owner if he was going to pay the money now.

Wally did a naughty thing before the man could answer. Instead of maintaining a soft mouth, he clamped down enough so that the man couldn’t answer. It was apparent to Wally that the man was trying to say that, yes, he would pay, but what did Wally care about money? Wally didn’t care whether Sgt. Chalmers’ lake cabin had a satellite dish or not. But Sgt. Chalmers cared, and he was very angry when he thought the owner still was refusing to pay, so he told Wally to go. And Wally did go. He went to town with a critical throat.

Wally did such a good job that Sgt. Chalmers took him to the airport as reward. “There’s a plane coming in from Jamaica today,” he told Wally.

Wally wagged his tail. Lots of bad guys came from there, and they always had scooby snacks in their luggage. A scooby snack is illegal contraband that Wally liked to sniff and eat and Sgt. Chalmers liked to snort or smoke.

Wally liked scooby snacks so much that he forgot all about sniffing out bombs. Suitcases with bombs don’t have scooby snacks. All Wally got for sniffing out bombs was a bronze medallion. What did Wally care about bronze medallions? He liked scooby snacks in bad guys’ luggage. Airports are fun. When they got to the terminal, Wally pulled on his leash, dragging Sgt. Chalmers down a row of suitcases, sniffing each one with his super-sensitive nose.

Sgt. Chalmers introduced Wally to one little boy from the arriving flight. “What are you sniffing, Wally?” the boy asked. Wally wondered if the sergeant wanted him to lunge and throat the boy, but the sergeant simply patted the boys head and told him to stay in school and not to eat too much candy.

Finally, Wally smelled a scooby snack in a big red suitcase. It was a really good kind of scooby snack. Wally barked twice and wagged his tail. A nervous-looking bad guy started to run, but Sgt. Chalmers pointed and told Wally to lunge. Wally knocked down the bad guy but airport security came and took the perp away before Wally could get a throat on him. That made Wally angry. He and Sgt. Chalmers did not like airport security. Sgt. Chalmers called them numb-nuts because they always made getting scooby snacks more complicated.

Sgt. Chalmers confiscated the suitcase and pretended to write a report so that the numb-nuts would leave him and Wally alone. Then, they got back in the K-9 squad car and went back to the sergeant’s house. Sgt. Chalmers cut open a plastic bag full of white powder. He said that they should investigate the evidence and laughed.

Wally and Sgt. Chalmers sniffed the white powder and it went up their noses and made their heads crazy. Whenever Wally sniffed the really good kind of scooby snacks, something very strange would happen. He could talk, and Sgt. Chalmers would crouch in a corner with his hands on his head and listen. Wally would say all sorts of wacky things about his life: how he hated hand rails because his leash almost always got tangled on them; how there wasn’t much television targeted at dogs (at least not intelligent dogs); how he liked scooby snacks and the way bad guys tried to run away. Sometimes the sergeant would speak, too, but he would say really stupid things like, “wow” and “no way”.

Something kept Wally from mentioning to his police officer how much he liked cheeseburgers and how much Sgt. Chalmers smelled like a big juicy cheeseburger. Ideally, Wally thought, the sergeant would realize what a horrible and empty existence he was leading and would want an honorable death. He would command Wally to lunge and to go at his own throat. That would be the right thing for Sgt. Chalmers to do, so Wally supposed that’s what he was waiting for.

Wally mentioned that he liked the little boy at the airport and was torn between wanting to play frisbee with the boy or to toss the little boy like a frisbee around the airport terminal. The sergeant laughed and tried to steady his nerves with a slug of Mad Dog 20/20. That’s when another officer kicked open the door. It was one of the numb-nuts from airport security except he was wearing city blues, which means his nuts weren’t as numb as everyone thought.

“So you got a talking dog, eh? Maybe he’ll talk downtown. You’re going away for a long time for all that cocaine, Chalmers,” the other officer said as he cuffed Sgt. Chalmers and led him away. Suddenly Wally’s entire life changed. He was no longer a part of the k-9 corps. Instead, he was a material witness in a trial against his former handler.

The trial was hard on Wally. He had to wear a jacket and tie all day long because his attorney told him to. He was also instructed not to throat anybody, no matter what. Wally was very sad. At night he went back to his room at the Sheraton and was forced to watch whichever station the maid previously had on since he had no thumbs and could not use the remote control to change the stations.

When the time came for him to testify, three men came and lead him into the court room. They had earpieces on and moved very cautiously down the hallways as if they were receiving instructions every few steps. One of them exuded a definite cheeseburger bouquet, but Wally did not lunge at the man and he did not throat, no matter how much he wanted to, because Wally was all about obedience — unless he got angry.

There are four things you shouldn’t do in a courtroom. The day he testified, Wally did them all.

First of all, you shouldn’t pee on the carpet, but that really wasn’t his fault since his new handlers only went outside to smoke and never thought to take Wally with them.

Secondly, don’t eat the Styrofoam shell on the court microphone. Someone will spank you and then you’ll vomit in the hallway and it will taste like the time you ate matches out of the ashtray when no one was looking.

Thirdly, don’t lunge at the judge and knock him flat on the dock, which leads nicely into number four: don’t throat the judge and just randomly critical him until he’s dead. But that was hardly Wally’s fault since the judge had referred to him on several occasions as “Sgt. Chalmers’ pet”.

That was a load of hooey. Wally and Sgt. Chalmers were co-workers with scooby snack benefits.

The trial got a new judge and began again. This time, Wally had to wear a shirt, a tie, and a muzzle. A muzzle is something that keeps dogs like Wally from going to town on perps or shih tzus. A shih tzu is a rat that eats dog poop and that people pretend is a dog.

The prosecution really wanted to make Wally talk. He almost spoke up to correct them when they called him a Rottweiler, even though he was a full-blooded German Shepard, just like you or me. Finally, the frustrated prosecuting attorney brought out exhibit B, which was the remaining scooby snack from Sgt. Chalmers’ house.

“Oh, boy,” Wally said, wagging his tail.

No one in the court believed their ears. The court recorder asked the bailiff to ask the judge to have the phrase repeated. Wally responded a second time with “Oh, boy!” and he wagged his tail again.

The prosecution asked to approach the bench. The judge and attorneys for both sides whispered to one another. Then the judge ordered the bailiff to let Wally go to town on the scooby snacks of Exhibit B. The bailiff gave the bag of white powder to Wally who happily sniffed it and chatted up a storm about the shortcomings of commercial television and how, if he had a thumb, he would be watching “The Walking Dead” like the rest of goddam America.

Speaking of having thumbs, it turned out that the judge was under the thumb of the powerful remote-control lobby. He did not relish the thought of a class-action discrimination lawsuit brought against the industry on behalf of thumbless animals. It was time to sweep this whole Wally thing under the carpet.

Sgt. Chalmers was found guilty of stealing scooby snacks from the airport security numb-nuts. He was executed by excessive ear wax removal. Wally was given a very special remote control surgically attached to his tail. When Wally’s tail wasn’t wagging that meant he was bored, and the remote control automatically switched to a different channel until Wally’s tail started wagging again.

Wally liked Wendy’s commercials and the shows when little kids were victimized by their soccer coaches. When Wally’s new handler, the man pretending to be an airport security numb-nuts, brings scooby snacks home from the airport, Wally can click through all the channels with his happy, happy tail.

A Theology of Downsize: Dark Humor Short Fiction

Office-WorkersThe day God walked in through the revolving door of the Murray-O’Hare Accounts Receivable Associates Building, it marked the apocalypse for three local placement agencies.

(S)he had applied for other, more challenging positions on the bus line (God doesn’t own a car), but during interviews, God intimidated prospective employers. (S)he seemed very capable but was overqualified. That was the case at the cardboard factory (It says here you created the universe, but have you ever folded boxes?), Barnes and Noble (Someone has to shelve all the 50 Shades follow-ups and be prepared to talk about them), and, at the roller rink, where God had applied as a bouncer. The manager had said, “You just don’t have that tough look that we need to keep the kids in line.”

God had to beg for the accounts job at Murray-O’Hare, not-so-subtly reminding Cindi in Human Resources that when she was a little girl, she had prayed for her pet hamster to overcome its affliction of chronic eczema, which left the little creature perpetually hairless. The hamster had grown its fur back, and Cindi had not forgotten.

“Well, God, you went to bat for me once, so welcome to the team! I’ve got some paperwork for you to fill out, and I need to go over the sexual harassment policy with you.”

“Sexual harassment?” God blushed and stammered.

“Yes, just routine,” Cindi smiled her salaried smile. “You can be terminated for making unwanted sexual advances; giving or receiving sexually explicit material over the internet; touching, joking, or swearing; looking at someone the wrong way in the sauna; wearing a tie or a t-shirt with a scantily clad fifties’ pin-up star; or simply being nice to someone who isn’t emotionally balanced and interprets kindness with sexual degradation. Sign here.”

God believed in sacrifice, so signing the bureaucratic paperwork was simply a necessary evil. Why, in time, God might become a department supervisor and tuck some money away in blue-chip stock while working toward a regional promotion. Some day! Maybe a private office overlooking a busy street, the babble of traffic, and God would look down through the half-open blinds of her/his office and say, “Look at me! I was just like you! But now, through hard work and diligence, I’ve beat you at your own game, world!”

After months, however, it became apparent that no promotion would be forthcoming. Management was pretty content to keep God gobbling down the work for an hourly and a hit-or-miss dental plan.

God proved, well, a god-send to the accounts department at Murray-O’Hare: (s)he typed a lightning-quick 450 wpm, could set up pivot reports in seconds, and actually made a fresh pot of coffee when (s)he took the last cup. God took no breaks and, best of all, didn’t whine about the lack of portability of the company’s insurance benefits.

God was in for the long haul.

Unsure of how exactly to strike up a conversation with her/him, God’s coworkers found themselves always about to say something but then clamping their jaws shut, afraid that whatever came out would seem inadequate, and that suited God just fine. (S)he was pretty much a heads-down kind of worker, seldom looking away from the spreadsheets.

When nervous coworkers asked Cindi in Human Resources why God would settle for a seventeen-dollar-an-hour job, she merely offered her trained smile. “Whatever the reason, I’m sure we’re all glad to have God on board.”

Frankly, God’s presence was more than a little disturbing for her/his coworkers. Some felt guilty because they hadn’t been to mass since their first communions; for others, it was the fear of an imminent judgment about to be set upon their heads as they went out for a smoke. No one knew whether God ate pork so they never invited her/him for pizza Friday.

They sometimes went to their respective churches and temples on the weekends just to get away from the overwhelming burden of seeing God each weekday, trying to escape that nagging feeling of inadequacy they experienced when they looked at the weekly performance reports.

When it came time for the annual picnic, the others decided not to invite God, but somehow God found out about it and showed up with an armful of Old Dutch potato chips. Much to everyone’s disappointment, God won the raffle for the color TV, and the cake walk, too.

It wasn’t all bad having God around, though. The company softball team did remarkably well with God playing short stop. And left field. (S)he wanted to pitch, but so did Sandy, the night auditor, and since Sandy had seniority and seemed to be going through menopause again, she was allowed to lob the big white balls more-or-less over the plate.

Some of the Data Entry department had started a running collection of cartoon drawings made on yellow Post-it notes that showed God as a stick figure engaged in various acts of office drudgery and thinking ludicrous thoughts like “I’ll be damned if I can have this done by five!”

But, in reality, God usually had the work completed before lunch.

One Monday, the Accounts Receivable Department found their task lists blank, their computers gone, and a memo announcing major Department restructuring. They noticed, however, the flurry of activity in cubicle 34, the rustling of papers being passed over with deft fingers and the buttons of the keyboard being struck so quickly that it sounded like a hail storm walloping a tin roof.

Where once the office was stretched at the seams with sixty coffee-drinking, Monday-despairing people, each made of corruptible flesh and who called in sick two days a month and made four personal phone calls a day, now there lingered a solitary, diligent form in 34, third from last cubicle in row ‘D.’

Meanwhile, the supervisors realized that between the six of them they should be able to manage a department consisting of only one employee — and a perfect employee at that — so they installed a dart board.

Ms. Murray-O’Hare, the owner, came to see her star employee, shoulders jutting squarely under foam padding meant to make her seem more line-backery. “God, you’ve been doing an outstanding job. Production has never been so high in this department! I just can’t believe it!” she said.

God didn’t glance up and kept on working, “That’s most people’s trouble.” But Ms. Murray O’Hare ignored God’s glum tone and clapped her/him on the back, reiterating her disbelief at God’s outstanding performance.

The mid-level department managers, those whip-cracking pencil necks, remained employed even though they had only God in their Covey-Habit clutches. Oh, they tried to look busy by calling one another on the intercom to see if the coffee was done brewing yet. They left the sports columns strewn in the sauna and never wiped up the benches after themselves.

Finally God realized it was time (s)he felt move ahead, and (s)he put in for a promotion to Department Supervisor. This unsettled God’s managers who knew that they would be easily missed and dismissed if God was raised to their ranks, so they put off the request by saying that her/his work levels weren’t quite good enough to merit a promotion. God was too wise, however, for the carrot-on-the-stick trick as (s)he had been using it on every one else quite successfully since they had begun walking upright.

Taking matters in her/his own hands, (s)he marched directly into the office of Ms. Murray-O’Hare.

“Look, God. We’ve done all we can to accommodate you here, not the least of which was actually hiring you. Let’s face it: we took a chance on you, and you’ve done pretty well for yourself, chosen Employee of the Month five months running, elected to head the Safety Committee. What is it, exactly, that you want?”

“Purpose,” was God’s response.

Ms. Murray-O’Hare tilted away from her desk in her multi-adjustable Ergo-King chair, rolling her eyes. “Your purpose is to do your job for which you are paid a fair rate. I’m afraid you weren’t hired to find some personal satisfaction; oh no, you were hired with very selfish motives on our part.” She folded her hands and leaned her torso over desk, “To be perfectly frank, you’ve saved us a bundle of dough! That’s your purpose!”

“But that purpose,” said God, “serves you alone. It provides no value for me to slave for you, to make money for you, while I grow restless, in need of something more…”

“How about a nice raise?” God shook her/his head. “Look, let me be direct here. You’re worth more to us right where you are. I guess you could say you’re too good for your own good. I have no intention of moving you from cubicle 34. If you need purpose, find a hobby. Crosswords or needlepoint. Deep sea fishing — hell, I don’t care!”

Sensing that God would not leave empty-handed, Ms. Murray-O’Hare handed her/him a pair of movie passes, encouraging God to perhaps get out there, socially, and find purpose outside of company time. She violated company policy by slapping God on the behind in an inappropriate attempt at camaraderie. “Now get back to work!”

Now God saw clearly where things stood, and (s)he no longer took great care in worrying her/his finger joints with blinding movement. God slowed down and made mistakes. In short, God became human, and the middle management pounced. They had been waiting to put God down a notch, especially since they each had lost fifty bucks to her/him in the Final Four office pool. Negative performance reports accumulated in God’s personnel file attesting to her/his “negative attitude” and “heightening inaccuracy.” They were setting the stage for a justifiable termination. God didn’t straighten up and, instead, began calling in sick, took twenty-two-minute breaks and snorted in disgust whenever new work was brought in.

Sandy, the former night auditor, popped in to Murray-O’Hare for a little chat with Ms. Murray-O’Hare. She was determined to bring God down. She argued that since God was an eternal being, then employing this God person would eventually drain the company into insolvency with the current 401k and stock option program. “Just think,” she told Ms. Murray-O’Hare. “In just a few decades, God would own the majority of stock.”

Ms. Murray-O’Hare did not relish the thought of losing control of her company, even posthumously. She decided to fire God and to rehire the mortals who tied up the phones with personal calls, played Angry Birds on their iPhones, and used the web site for illicit sexual purposes.

“At least they are content to go on for years and years in their same old capacities, their same old cubicles,” she concluded.

At the end of work one day, when God was punching out five minutes early, several of the managers and Cindi from Human Resources asked her/him to empty her/his pockets, whose contents amounted to a comb, a compact mirror, a coupon for two-for-one Chinese take-out, and a phone number with the words Call Jim scrawled next to it, jotted on company letterhead.

Cindi shook her head, clearly disappointed. “Sorry, God, but this is the final straw.” She held up the company letterhead to him. She delivered a prepared Speech of Termination. Cindi escorted God to the door with her arms crossed like a bouncer at a roller rink.

Nothing definite had been heard of God since (s)he left the Murray-O’Hare Accounts Receivable Associates Building. God’s LinkedIn profile listed only Author of Universe for current position. It was rumored, however, that God was approaching strangers in supermarkets and, under the pretense of friendliness, pressuring them to buy Amway products.

All Sorts (A Short Story of Dark Humor)

103539_A-Funny-Demon_400The demon entered the town at dawn, bringing with him the driest, hottest days of the year for a city already suffering the effects of five years of drought. Flies swarmed the overflowing garbage cans after the garbage workers went on strike.

He was a devil, the embodiment of evil, sweaty and belching and scratching his small, twisted body against the corners of brick buildings. He chose a dark barroom that reeked with the stench of sour beer and cigarettes. The floor was sticky when he lifted hooves, and it reminded the demon of the sucking sensation of a bloody crime scene. He felt at home.

Left in his corner of the bar, the demon drank his beer, evilly. His smell was dangerous, his soiled claws clutching the handle of each chilled mug jealously. There he sat, the details of his gruesome face lost in the faded electric light-bulb that hung overhead, swaying in the course of hot bursts of air that pushed their ways inside through the slanted transom glass.

He could be only evil. The bartender knew this and sent the demon large mugs of cheap beer to keep him occupied. Of these the demon made quick work, not pausing long between mouthfuls to maintain his steady torrent of hateful, malefic words. His words spoke apocalypse. His words were fallen. They were curses from the inner ring of hell, spells from lunatic wizards and corrupted priests. Slowly he brought on the doomsday from his dented head with its frothy lips, swollen in the incessant swinging of hell gates.

No one in the bar understood the language of the demon. They left him alone to swig his beer, except if they needed a packet of ketchup. He was blocking the condiment counter.

The demon haunted the same spot in the bar, raving or muttering, for weeks. A child, one day, stepped into the bar, asking for some coins in exchange for paper currency, and the bartender made the exchange, giving the boy a handful of small coins, just shy of the total amount owed him. The demon saw the bartender’s larceny and laughed horribly. Lifting his mug, he spoke a spell so potent it still resonates in the wood rafters of the bar. It foretold the shadow world of the afterlife and a few moments of agony wrenching the boy’s body. The boy left, laughing, to tell his mother about the funny foreign hobo.

A group of women entered, stepping towards the back room of the bar, as they did each Thursday night, to play cards and cheat one another out of coupons, which they used as currency. The demon, wretched with beer, stood when they entered to debase them in the most foul manner, gesturing wildly, promising obscene violence and vengeful humiliation. The women tittered, thankful for the attention and then fell to play cards. Some occasionally eyed him through the curtains trying to guess what was his occupation and how much money he might make. He repaid their gambling and lust by commanding a curse that would render their wombs hatcheries of hell spawn. He vexed their fingers with his necromantic intonations so they forever after would drop threads and needles and an assortment of other small objects.

The next night was karaoke Friday. The demon watched mortals defiling music with their drunkenness and their inability. He laughed loud enough to overpower the final ride of the Four Horsemen, but the mortals around him did not understand. They sang all the more loudly. Finally, the demon leaped onto the stage and snatched the microphone from a man finishing a third chorus of “Born to be Wild”.

The noises he made were necessarily horrible because he was evil incarnate. The static from the speakers drove the crowd first to cover their ears and then to boo the demon from the stage. They couldn’t make out the demonic hexation that he vented through the distortion of beer-drenched equipment and, even if they had heard, the words were para-foreign, made by a tongue that had licked white-hot sulfur from the ass of Satan. The demon laughed at the pitiful humans who hissed at him. He hissed back but climbed off the stage, slowly, and returned to his seat. The bartender pulled the demon another beer.

“On the house,” he said.

An off-duty Java programmer said to the bartender, “You know, you could really make something of this place, if you kept the riffraff out.”

The bartender puffed out his chest and sounded surly. “What do you mean, riffraff?”

“That guy over there,” the programmer said, indicating the demon.

“That’s no guy, and he’s no riffraff.”

“What is it then?” The programmer stirred a tall red drink with a little plastic sword, leaning over a bowl of pretzels to be nearer the bartender.

“He is a demon.”

“Get out!”

“You get out! This is my bar!”

“No, I mean,” the programmer said, “I don’t believe you.”

“Well, tough. It is my bar.”

“No, I mean about that guy being a demon!”

“Ma’am, I’m standing behind the bar. All the lying that goes on does so on the other side of the tap. He’s a demon.”

Java programmers have little understanding of blatant evil. Their ability to sense malevolence is limited, but they could bury others in a slow-motion hell with endless pointers on scripts and platform plug-ins that would make any end-user’s soul explode. The programmer did, however, spread the word about the existence of the demon. Soon an ex-priest who taught a course in Daemonic Languages at the County Vocational Technology School was drawn to the town with little more than a shaving kit.

The ex-priest was greeted by a hot wind that smelled like the bottom of a State Fair garbage dumpster. That, he knew, was a sign of ultimate evil: the stench of the devil and pronto pups. He checked in as “Ex-Father Bob” in the town’s motel. The woman behind the counter saw his signature and began confessing her sins to him without warning, but Ex-Father Bob absolved her without hearing her out.

“As long as the giraffe and the bag boy remain a fantasy,” he assured her, “It’s not a sin.”

He was ready to fight the devil, so he headed for the bar where evil reputedly lived in a dark, beer-stained corner of the reeking, arid town.

It is not difficult to spot a demon: the way in which a mirror reflects light, a demon absorbs light and makes it dead like black holes in outer space do, and there is a connection. Black holes are entrances into hell; their density draws condemned matter to judgment. Ex-Father Bob knew all about black holes.

Crossing himself and murmuring the Lord’s Prayer, the priest entered the bar. For his appointment with evil, he had worn his black cossack that fell jauntily below he ankle. He was going commando—that is to say, he wore no underwear—although there was no reason for anyone in the bar to suspect that. It is just a fun fact. The demon, however, knew. Underwear and the lack thereof are among the chief concerns of the unholy.

The demon growled and laughed and howled and scoffed and roared and panted and sweated and grunted. Finally the bartender brought him another beer and he was quiet again, watching the priest’s lips chanting in Latin.

“Whatchya saying there, Father?” The bartender asked. “Are ya talking to the Lord?”

“Yes, my son. I am preparing to do battle with the forces of darkness and seal forever the orifice of hell. I have come to cast out the demon and return him to his Master who is the Fallen Lucifer, walking back and forth across the earth seeking whom he may devour.”

“You should see the guy plow through a tub of popcorn, Father!”

As it was happy hour, rail drinks were two-for-one and tap beer was a nickel so there was quite a crowd lined up along the bar and the tables were full of smokers and drinkers, a familiar scene to both the demon and the ex-priest.

The crowd became more and more intoxicated, laughing hoarsely between sucks on their tobacco sticks. Their thoughts ran to the gutter like filthy 10W-30 oil ran from an unregulated gas station’s back door. The demon seemed to grow to twice his size with the evil thoughts blossoming in the smoke around him. The ex-priest poised himself to spring into the mass of exorcism. He dug out a book of chants from his pocket and found the page, marked by a coupon for a bucket of chicken wings.

Of all the maledictions ever uttered, what spewed from the demon’s lips has never been rivaled. He had been drinking Milwaukee’s Best beer for two weeks straight, and that, alone, accounts for the spewing. The bar trembled under the force of his iniquitous incantation. The demon called forth his Master to ascend from the floorboards and foul the eternal souls of the town with the blackest excrement. He commuted the Newtonian laws of physics, and blasphemed the prophets. He spilled his beer on his only clean shirt. His tongue flickered like a nest of wasps on fire. The air was filled with sulfur and methane, but it had been since happy hour got rolling.

The crowd quieted and watched the demon leaping against the ceiling. They clapped when his head spun around on his body. Ex-Father Bob trembled as he heard the most malefic spells spoken. “Pray!” He urged the crowd. “For all that is holy! You don’t know the great evil that is about to befall you!”

“You got that right, mister!” yelled a systems analyst.

“Hey, guy! I’m trying to watch the show!” a woman shouted after slamming a Jello shot.

“You must be warned!” Ex-Father Bob declared. He shook his fist and told the crowd the meaning of the demon’s words. Ex-Father Bob translated the every subtlety of damned metaphor, every shade of meaning that were shot from the very testicles of Satan. The crowd was terrified as they listened to the ex-priest. They hid their faces in their hands and wept in horror.

“I had no idea!” The bartender pleaded with the crowd to forgive him. “I wouldn’t have let him in here if I’d known he said such horrible, horrible things!” And then he commanded the ex-priest to leave.

“Get out of here, you sick scum!” The crowd rose in force behind the bartender, and they chased Father Bob out into the street.

It is a known fact that a man can’t run as fast in a dress – underwear or no — and so they caught him easily, summarily executing him with jolts of electricity from the portable electronic devices.

The bartender cleaned a few of the tables with a damp musty rag and poured the demon another beer. “Sorry about that,” he said. “We get all sorts in here.”

“Same where I come from,” the demon replied.