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.

 

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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.