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Some days bring sunshine. Some bring rain. And somewhere along the line life settles in hard as a February sky. Locks down your dreams tight against the iron earth and dares you to object. For such a short month it exacts a long toll.
A bunch of scientists did an experiment once with fleas. They took half a dozen of the brightest and bounciest, dropped them in a jar and screwed on the lid. For a couple of days those fleas launched themselves into almost continually. Eventually, through pain or weariness or both, they stopped jumping so high. They settled on a spot two thirds of the way up the sides of the jar and that was their limit. Even after the lid came off and they could have bounded their way to freedom those fleas kept right on jumping to a place well below the potential of possibility.
Maybe I’m being melodramatic but if that leaden February sky ever clears I wonder how high I can still jump.
This is the kind of stuff you think about when you’re lying in a strange bed next to a strange, familiar body listening to the sleet-scattered rain drumming on the sills of a hotel window.
Or at least that’s how it is for me.
“OK. I’m in.” That’s what she said. Written plain on the perfect retina display of a smartphone chat app. Even now I’m twisting it in my mind to convince myself it was her idea all along but I can’t make that leap. This was attrition. This was a well timed attack at a vulnerable moment. This was me at my calculating best.
We’ve been friends forever. Told each other secrets in confidence. Joked about our lives. Commiserated over the moments of mind-numbing tedium and apathy that fill up so many hours of any long term relationship. He takes me for granted. I think I bore her or disappoint her in some way. Got to go the kids are screaming. Mine too, talk soon. Advice occasionally. Laughter worn as a mask more often. Flirtation. Innuendo. Anything to break up the monotony.
“Let’s run away for a weekend. Or a random Wednesday. Yeah, Wednesday is better. We can pretend it’s a work conference or something. Makes it more believable. How about you phone in a bomb threat to my office and I’ll get in the car right now…”
All in fun. Always an undercurrent. A dull, silver thread of maybe.
She feels so good against my skin. I want her to open her eyes and smile. I want her to stay asleep. I’m terrified that if she wakes up our lips will meet and the frantic, shivering exploration of our tongues and bodies of last night will be replaced by something caged and cursory. Something regretful. So I lie there, paralysed and afraid and allow more minutes of my life to tick away unchecked.
A bunch of scientists worked out that over ninety percent of the things that we worry about never actually happen. So if you spend half an hour a day on average worrying about things and you live to your three score and ten you’ll have wasted a whole year worrying about things that never happened. One and a half percent of your life spent on wasted worry. I’m not sure if it’s the same bunch of scientists that worked on the fleas but I suppose that isn’t worth worrying about.
“I didn’t think you’d come.”
“I…never mind. I just thought I’d be the one saying that.” My face is burning but I can’t stop the words spilling out any more than I can stop the sweet, bitter taste of possibility and regret rising to flood my throat. “Actually I didn’t think I’d be saying anything to anyone. Unless you count the waiter and my attempts to get him to leave me to my lonely misery or the manager and my attempts to get a refund on the room or…”
She smiles. I’ll never know if it’s forced but it’s glorious regardless. “Don’t be silly. I said I’d be here.”
I put my arms around her because I don’t trust myself to speak. My fingers twitch against her back as adrenalin thrums through my veins. I hold her for too long. Try to let the awkwardness and doubt fall away from my bones. She breaks away and wraps her hands over mine. “Let’s get a drink.”
Her body shifts against me, burrowing in close. I wonder if she’s dreaming about somewhere else. Maybe her subconscious is convinced she’s in her regular bed next to her regular body in her regular life and is keeping her safely asleep. Whatever the reason I hope the illusion lasts for a while longer.
I don’t want to think about any more scientists, even though I’m sure they’d be able to tell me that seventy six percent of the time a person won’t be woken by someone else’s heartbeat and that no matter how hard I concentrate daylight is eventually going to creep its way into our room, burning away dreams like so much mist and vapour. So I keep on lying there, barely breathing, trying and failing to bend the course of time and reality through sheer will.
At some point my eyes close, and when they open again the day has found us. I run through a succession of words in my mind and find nothing of value. She’ll be awake soon and then she’ll be gone. This time for good. We’ll talk again but it’ll be different. Diluted. We’ll commiserate as we over-compensate with the significant others in our separate lives but it won’t be the same. The weight of impossibility will grind us down. Each day will be a little less than the one that preceded it and so it will go until there’s nothing left to bind us. Until eventually February crushes me in it’s grey palm.
“Can we stay for a bit longer? It’s nice here.”
I say nothing. Draw up the covers. Hold her.
Maybe Spring has finally arrived.
“Of course you can talk to him, off you go.”
I watch as Daniel sprints away. Head down. Arms pumping. Balance ready to fail him at any given moment. Adrenaline fires my heart as he skids on a pine cone at pitch-forward-and-split-head distance from the wooden bench. I breathe again as he thrusts his hands forward and climbs laughing onto the seat and gives the old man a hug who, in return, as usual, pats my son’s head and continues to stare at the trees lining the park.
“I got a book from the library today it’s about a dog and Charlie wanted it but I got it first and gave it to my teacher and…”
I smile at the faint stream of consciousness that fades from my ears as the breeze turns back to the south. It’ll be cloudy later. Probably rain overnight and then…
My daughter looks at me with as much wrath as a two-year-old can muster. I start pushing the swing once more.
“Up Dadeeeee UP!”
“Into the clouds!” I laugh as she giggles and I push her higher. Such a daredevil. So different from her brother. Must be a second child thing.
My phone buzzes and I fish it out of my pocket while continuing to work the swing with one hand.
Can u pick up some milk on the way back?
On the bench, Daniel has stopped talking and is sitting, staring at the trees with Dennis. Lily has had enough of the swing and fancies a crack at the Witch’s Hat which, for once, is empty. I try to get her to sit but she’s determined to climb up onto the handrail three years earlier than her brother so I give up and give in.
Listening to Lily convinces me there are too many words in the world. There’s something magical about the ability to break communication down into its base elements. Daddy, hand! Daddy, sit! Daddy, book! Maybe if two toddlers stood at opposite ends of an underground Swiss tunnel and yelled with all their might the resultant collision would uncover a literary Bosun-Higgs, and just imagine…
I push. My thoughts marble and scatter. The wind picks up. Lily shouts. Daniel sits. Dennis remains unmoved.
“Time to go my boy. It’s nearly bath time.”
I repeat this another three times before Daniel leans over and hugs Dennis. The old man pats his head and keeps on staring. I gather my protesting daughter into my arms and lower her into the pram. I bribe her into silence with dried apricots and a bottle of water. Daniel tries to steal some as he arrives at a sprint. Lily screams at him on reflex and then offers him some as we walk towards the gate. I wave to the old man.
“So how was Dennis?”
“Not Dennis. Denny.”
“So how was Denny?”
“Fine.” The default five-year-old assessment of the world.
“Did you tell him about the library?”
“Yes. And then we watched Dougie playing.”
“Who’s Dougie? Is he in your class?”
“No, daaaad. He’s Denny’s brother. He’s a big boy like me and he likes to play with trucks and when he talks bubbles come out and it makes Denny sad.”
I stop walking. “Where was he playing Daniel?”
“In the trees daddy.”
I turn to face the park.
“He’s gone away now daddy. It was time for swimming so he ran to his house.”
I watch as the old man shuffles towards the cricket fields. I want to call to him but there is no certainty in my thoughts and the unknown words choke in my throat. A dog bounds up to him and he pats its head and continues on.
“Can we have pasta tonight daddy?”
“Sauce!” says Lily in agreement.
I nod and stroke Daniel’s hair. “Of course. As much as you want.”
One pair of trousers, that’s all June required. She repeated it over and over in her mind as she hurried down the high street: “One pair of trousers, one pair of trousers, one pair of trousers”. The mantra fell in time with her footsteps – “one pair” with the left foot, “of trousers” with the right. It looped so quickly, so incessantly, that it became white noise and nonsense and she disremembered altogether why she’d ever walked into town. Trousers? Forget about it. Not with so many other beautiful garments on display to entice and torment her.
The shop fronts were both beguiling and revolting with their six-foot tall, headless mannequins, each one draped with clothes two sizes too big. Even they – the grotesque characters with elongated necks and stick-like fingers – wore clothes better than June did. Pea green winter coats hung stylishly from their petite frames, while form-fitting, rust-coloured jumpers accentuated their petite waistlines. Plaid skirts, as small as napkins, grazed the tops of their slender legs which were wrapped in cosy, knitted tights and tucked into sleek, knee-high leather boots.
There was a plague of chic autumn style upon the high street that day, and June was desperate to become victim to it.
She found herself – as if by magic – inside a store in search of that precious pea green coat, “one pair of trousers” still running in her mind and still forgotten. Her skin tingled as she ran her fingers absentmindedly down the sleeve of a sumptuously soft, knitted jumper. Her heart skipped a beat when she noticed a tiny plaid skirt in just the right size. Her head swam as she stumbled upon the rail which held the hallowed coat.
The changing rooms were enticingly cosy with their dim lighting and luxe velvet curtains. June noted this as she found herself inside one such room, arms overflowing with garments, not quite remembering how she got there. She’d operated on autopilot, entranced by the clothes, desperate to become autumn itself in slick new garbs. She lined the hangers up methodically on the rail provided and peeled off her clothes, taking care not to peek in the mirror until she was safely covered with the new apparel that was bound to make her beautiful.
Each item enveloped June in a reassuringly cosy hug as soon as it touched her body. She looked down and saw the epitome of fall style. Then she looked up into the mirror, and the spell was broken.
Her heart broke with it. The plaid skirt strained at her thighs. The jumper sagged at her bust. The coat hung like a sack from her shoulders. She’d been fooled again by the svelte mannequins and she could almost hear them mocking her for ever believing she’d be as lithe or sophisticated as their plastic forms.
“You look fine.”
The voice was soft and gentle, but it startled June nonetheless. She carefully pulled back the velvet curtain and peered out from her cubicle. The changing rooms were empty.
“In the mirror, idiot.”
June’s focus snapped back to the mirror and, disappointingly, back to herself.
“I don’t look fine,” she whispered.
“Sure you do. Not great, but fine. You’ll do.”
“I don’t want to just do.”
“What you need is a world where everyone looks just fine. A world without mannequins.”
June nodded. If only.
She stared at the mirror a while longer and her eyes began to swim. Her image blurred, then slowly swirled into a whirlpool.
“Come on in,” the voice commanded.
June reached out to the mirror and her fingertips passed seamlessly through its surface and into the whirlpool. She took a deep breath, then climbed right in, leaving her old clothes strewn on the floor behind her.
She never did buy that one pair of trousers.
I don’t drive. Everywhere I need to go I can walk, bus or taxi. I take a bus to my job at Hadleys Department Store in the Consumer Help Department. You should know that I am a highly valued employee based on my ability to resolve customer problems while still maintaining company policy. Trying to find a parent for a screaming child or dealing with someone whose credit card bounced without ruffling feathers or giving away the store is like walking a tightrope. Someone who wasn’t both reasonable and sensitive couldn’t handle it, believe you me!
There are a lot of places I can walk to. The library, post office, my softball field and a lot of shopping is within two miles. Mostly the weather is nice and walking is easy. Even when the weather is bad, you can still walk if you dress for it.
I don’t fight with anyone. Everyone who knows me could tell you that. In my volunteer position as citizen park commissioner, there are lots of controversial issues, but I am always the voice of reason keeping opposing parties civil. You should have seen the ruckus about a separate dog park! But I kept everyone cool.
I’ve been on jury duty three times and foreman once.
I like girls a lot and I think that they like me. If I weren’t a little overweight, I’m sure that I’d have a steady girlfriend by now. But don’t you worry, I’m on a new diet right now and I’ll be OK. I’ve got my eye on a girl in my Bible study class. I think that we would be a great couple. When I lose that weight it will be easier for her to see my inner glow and get over her boyfriend with the looks, money and a Jaguar. He isn’t even of our religion!
There is one thing that really burns me. There are all of these just beautiful boys and girls in their spandex running over the neighborhood with their expensive bikes. I don’t think that their clothes or their bikes are made in this country. They think that they own the place! Once a couple of years ago, a biker came close to hitting me in the dark. It might have been partly my fault because I was wearing dark clothes and jaywalking.
Those bike riders almost run me over every other day. Usually I don’t recognize them, but there is one guy who I see every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6PM as I come home from my bus stop. He has come close to hitting me several times and he cusses me out for being on his streets. This jerk never stops for a stop sign and I’m not the only pedestrian he has almost hit! He also swears at drivers. He thinks that if he spends enough on his tight blue spandex and super bike he just owns the road.
Last month he nearly hit me on a sidewalk going the wrong way on an overpass. “Get out of my way asshole”. There is only so much one can take. But I got out of his way. I have to admit to a bit of self loathing. I’d had enough of everyone thinking they could walk over me? If only I had time for a plan of action, but he didn’t give me time to think. If I’d had time to think I would have held my ground. It’s my sidewalk! Pedestrians have the right of way.
Finally, he made a big, fatal mistake. I was still walking on the long overpass when he came back the other way. I could see a car far behind him. I acted like I was intimidated from the last time he went past me. I squeezed up tightly against the rail. I could see it work out just right. As he came up right behind me I turned around and faced him, taking up just about all of the sidewalk. He swerved off the sidewalk and his bicycle fell over on the road just in front of the car that had been overtaking him. It wasn’t pretty. The motorist couldn’t stop. The grille caught a leg and a wheel went over his head. He ended up in one piece, but extremely, immediately dead. The poor driver blamed himself. I tried CPR, but there was no hope.
Police took our statements. I told them that the bicyclist had startled me causing me to turn around suddenly. Everyone agreed that it was just a horrible accident.
About a week later there was an opinion piece in the newspaper written by Fred Janes, a friend of the deceased Sam Wilkins. The point was that bicyclists are so much superior than drivers and pedestrians and that their superiority made it OK to ignore all rules and etiquette. He wrote about how Sam Wilkins could have bought an expensive car but chose to do the right thing and bicycle everywhere. Fortunately, there was a picture of Mr. Janes.
As luck would have it, I recognized Janes as somebody who frequently rode the same circuit as Wilkins. One place was on a sidewalk between bushes and a busy road where they regularly terrified pedestrians and bedeviled drivers. It took several weeks, but finally I was in the right place to tip him into traffic from my position in the bushes.
There may have been some suspicion about the second death of a bicycle advocate in such a short period, but no one saw me and nothing came of it. I’m happy to report that bicyclists were strangely silent after Wilkins died. No more moral superiority in the editorial pages.
I don’t think that it is prudent for any more bike accidents in the near future. One doesn’t know what might happen in a year or so.
Don’t you just hate door to door salesmen? Always so pushy, won’t take no for an answer?
I’ve been fairly happy since I re-animated Wendy. She wanted to leave me to get back to her bad boys after the first time I brought her back to life. I still believe that because she owed me her life, it was OK to conk her with my baseball bat for a second re-animation. Her first death was in an accident of her own making. It’s all turned out for the best, at least for me. I had to make some sacrifices to keep the relationship going, like getting those ugly tattoos and settling for sex once a week on Wednesdays, but if you could see me, you would know that it is the best deal I could make.
If you don’t know anything about re-animation, my father Duke learned the process from a document hidden in the first draft of “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley. Let’s say that I borrowed a copy. I’m David Hanley, the son of Duke Hanley. I have been trying to get rich off the process, but rumors of possible re-animation caused our anti-science government to outlaw re-animating humans, the same as they did with cloning, so all of us Hanleys have kept the process secret.
The tattoos and the infrequently doled out sex weren’t my only problems. I had to be good to her monster cat Jaws. When he wants anything – food, water or affection, he has to be pleased immediately. Scratching me isn’t the worst. The time that his food was an hour late, he shit in my shoes. That’s shoes. Somehow he managed to parcel out his load into both.
Things turned around in late May. Wendy went off to visit her mother for a month with strict instructions to keep Jaws happy while she was gone. She said “If I find anything wrong with Jaws when I come back, you will feel my wrath.” Yes, that is what she said. I know it doesn’t sound like anything anyone would say outside of a horror story, but she said it and I believed her. I like feeling parts of her, but do not want to feel her wrath.
The second day that she was gone dumbass Jaws tried to jump on a bookshelf and pulled it down on top of himself under a hundred pounds of books. Dumbass was deceased. Panic caused me to think of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and evil re-animated pets. As scary as that was, the wrath of Wendy was scarier, so I re-animated him.
The result was not what I expected. The re-animated Jaws seemed not only completely healthy, but he had become completely civilized. The new Jaws was respectful and reasonably affectionate without being clingy.
When Wendy returned, she didn’t notice the change because Jaws had always treated her well.
Except for the change in Jaws, everything was the same old until one day about a month after Wendy returned. I asked Jaws if he wanted out, knowing that he would not respond. He looked at me and picked up his left front paw and put it down. As a re-animator, I’m used to the weird, so I then asked him if he wanted me to poke him in the eye with a needle. He very clearly tapped his left front paw twice. I could see that we were getting somewhere.
Now I understand why he had concentrated on the TV, radio and all of our conversations. He had been learning English.
Over the next few weeks Jaws and I worked over what I now call CSL, or cat sign language. CSL involves ears, tails, legs and blinks. I wish that it were easier, but cats don’t talk and their faces are not very expressive. Wendy observed the whole process and was very proud of her cat. I had no choice but to admit to the re-animation. To my surprise, Wendy was very pleased, rather than hating me for letting her cat die. I even got a treat that Saturday.
Congress had never dealt with re-animating animals, so I saw my opportunity. I now had a way to not only save the lives of pets, but to get them to communicate. To start the ball rolling, I made a video of Jaws and I communicating through CSL. Sure there were skeptics, but I got a few people to try it for free, and it worked beautifully. Next there were the talk shows. We got on Ofir, Eileen, Dr. Pill, Connor and all of the big shows. People were not happy that their pets had to be dead for the process to work. However there were enough recently deceased Boomers and Boots with rich owners lined up to pay $1000 to bring their non-human companions back to life with new communication skills, to make me rich.
Wendy and I are now up to four times a week. As much as Wendy likes bad boys, she likes rich boys even better.
Duke started hallucinating about a month before seeing a psychiatrist. At 7 pm someone, perhaps himself, went flying off a cliff on a horse, but never landing. That was just the beginning. From that day on, each evening at the same time, he would experience what appeared to be a dream overlaying his reality. The next night while talking to his wife Sally, he suddenly saw someone having sex with movie star Vicky Newsome. The male involved looked to be about forty years old, balding and generally pretty ugly. Sally was talking to Duke, but there was no way he could follow what she was saying. “Duke, you looked like you just went into a trance. Do you have any idea what I was saying?”
Duke tried to pretend that he wasn’t scared sh** and after a lengthy pause, just said “Sorry, my mind just wandered off for awhile.”
Duke was sure he had gone crazy, but was afraid to tell anyone. He just hoped the problem would go away quickly, but no. Every evening, same time, what appeared to be a waking dream would come to him. Sometimes someone was being chased, sometimes it was sex, sometimes it was something that got lost and couldn’t be found. Except for an occasional celebrity, there wasn’t anyone that he could recognize in his hallucination. There was the one recurring character, the unattractive man who had sex with Ms. Newsome. Rather than admit that he was crazy, he started reading a book at the same time his hallucinations started and just accepted that he wouldn’t make any sense of what he read.
After a couple of weeks Duke started to hear a strange voice in his head. He would pick up things like “It’s Miller Time” or “I want to go Coney Island.” Duke was able to cheer himself up a little because the voice never asked him to kill anybody, not even his boss, who certainly deserved killing.
When the voices started, he broke down and told Sally what had been happening. She tried to reassure him “Whatever is happening, your behavior has not changed at all. Well, maybe your 7 pm book habit, but after what you have told me, I can’t blame you. Could you have hit your head? I hear that can cause weird brain activity, both hearing and seeing things.”
“Any mental trauma – have you had any shocks or losses that you didn’t tell me about?”
“Okay, I guess you should see a psychiatrist. Keep in mind as troubling as this seems, we will get to the bottom of it and get you fixed. In case you’re worried, I don’t mean like we had Kitz fixed.”
“That’s a relief. Finally, some good news.”
Dr. Finley did the standard battery of questions and brain scans, and couldn’t find a thing. In desperation, he asked about Duke’s hearing aids. “Did you get the hearing aids before or after the hallucinations began?”
“I had them for a month before they started.”
“That eliminates my last hope. I can’t find anything wrong with you at all. About all I can do is to start you on a tranquilizer and hope for the best.”
As soon as Duke started using his prescription tranquilizer the various voices and visions muted, but did not disappear. He decided that he would just have to live with his problem. Neither Duke nor Sally told even their friends or family about what was happening.
A year later, Duke was reading “Popular Science” and saw the article “Telepathy – Fact or Fiction?” He scanned the article until he came to:
“Rumors abound that telepathy devices, which look and act like hearing aides were developed at an East Coast lab. Alleged testing began a year ago last August. It is further claimed that a disgruntled employee of the lab smuggled a sample of the devices into a hearing aid store disguised as a regular set of hearing aids. This all seems to be an urban legend, because the recipients of these special telepathy aids would have reported it by now. The unnamed employee has spread the word that testing began first with dreams starting as the telepathy originator slept from 10 pm on, and then started testing waking thoughts.”
Duke did some quick calculations. Eastern Time was three hours ahead of his home in Portland. Check. His visual hallucinations started before his verbal hallucinations. Check. The time that the testing started was when he started his visual hallucinations. Check.
Prudently, Duke first saw a lawyer who was entrusted with breaking the news if any harm would come to Duke. After thinking about how much money that he could make writing a book, a little discrete checking around found that it was much easier and a lot more remunerative to sell the telepathy aids quietly back to the lab that lost them. Duke sealed the deal by telling the lab “But wait, there’s more – you get my silence along with the devices.”
Duke had no more hallucinations, but he did begin living the dream with the money he got. Sally said “Given how you suffered, I don’t think that any amount of money would have been too much.”
The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead. He had always been a hard man to convince. That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit. His posture — flat upon his back, with his hands crossed upon his stomach and tied with something that he easily broke without profitably altering the situation — the strict confinement of his entire person, the black darkness and profound silence, made a body of evidence impossible to controvert and he accepted it without cavil.
But dead — no; he was only very, very ill. He had, withal, the invalid’s apathy and did not greatly concern himself about the uncommon fate that had been allotted to him. No philosopher was he — just a plain, commonplace person gifted, for the time being, with a pathological indifference. The organ that he feared consequences with was torpid. So, with no particular apprehension for his immediate future, he fell asleep and all was peace with Henry Armstrong.
But something was going on overhead. It was a dark summer night, shot through with infrequent shimmers of lightning silently firing a cloud lying low in the west and portending a storm. These brief, stammering illuminations brought out with ghastly distinctness the monuments and headstones of the cemetery and seemed to set them dancing. It was not a night in which any credible witness was likely to be straying about a cemetery, so the three men who were there, digging into the grave of Henry Armstrong, felt reasonably secure.
Two of them were young students from a medical college a few miles away; the third was a gigantic negro known as Jess. For many years Jess had been employed about the cemetery as a man-of-all-work and it was his favourite pleasantry that he knew every soul in the place. From the nature of what he was now doing it was inferable that the place was not so populous as its register may have shown it to be.
Outside the wall, at the part of the grounds farthest from the public road, were a horse and a light wagon, waiting.
The work of excavation was not difficult. The earth with which the grave had been loosely filled a few hours before, offered little resistance and was soon thrown out. Removal of the casket from its box was less easy, but it was taken out, for it was a perquisite of Jess, who carefully unscrewed the cover and laid it aside, exposing the body in black trousers and white shirt. At that instant the air sprang to flame, a cracking shock of thunder shook the stunned world and Henry Armstrong tranquilly sat up. With inarticulate cries the men fled in terror, each in a different direction. For nothing on earth could two of them have been persuaded to return. But Jess was of another breed.
In the grey of the morning the two students, pallid and haggard from anxiety and with the terror of their adventure still beating tumultuously in their blood, met at the medical college.
“You saw it?” cried one.
“God! yes — what are we to do?”
They went around to the rear of the building, where they saw a horse, attached to a light wagon, hitched to a gatepost near the door of the dissecting-room. Mechanically they entered the room. On a bench in the obscurity sat the negro Jess. He rose, grinning, all eyes and teeth.
“I’m waiting for my pay,” he said.
Stretched naked on a long table lay the body of Henry Armstrong; the head defiled with blood and clay from a blow with a spade.
I woke up feeling tired, even though I thought that I had slept through the night. My wife Sally looked like she hadn’t slept much either. I expected her to complain about my snoring, but she surprised me by saying “Duke, when did you become a great singer?”
That was a shock in so many ways. I had no memory of singing, I never even talk in my sleep and even more, she normally hates my singing. For that matter, I’ve been banned from singing in thirty-six states. I hadn’t been in the other ones.
“What was I singing?”
“’Roll With It’. It was so good, and I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and danced to it for the fifteen minutes you sang. You seemed to be going on a themed medley and went directly into ‘Whip It’”.
“And I never woke up?”
Not knowing what to say, I said nothing, but later that day while I was in the shower after work, I decided to try singing while I was awake. I started with something mellow, “Natural Born Lover”, but as I started, my throat closed and I began to sing through my nose in a voice that I didn’t recognize. Not only was I singing wonderfully, but there was the instrumental track as well.
I cancelled the doctor’s appointment for my snoring. I’d been plagued with congestion and sore throats for most of my life, but my fear of doctors had kept me from medical help, and now I didn’t want to risk losing my new talent. Whatever was happening to me, I didn’t want to risk it. Instead, I worked though all of my favorite songs – mushy ballads, hard rock, big band – with great results every time. Better than Jerry Lee on “Great Balls Of Fire” and superior to John Lennon on “In My Life”.
Because I had grown weary of my actuarial job, and had always wanted attention, I came up with a plan. “King Of The World” was coming through Portland to interview for their network talent show. The process was as tedious as my day job so I won’t bore you – I won every competition including “Battle of the Best”.
There were many skeptics that claimed that I was cheating somehow, but no one could prove anything. My singing was definitely coming through my nose. Despite repeated requests, I refused to be examined, partly because I did want to know the source of the magic, and in part because I superstitiously believed that any checking on me would jinx my gift.
An angle that celebrity culture grabbed onto was my similarity to the former famous flatulist Le Petomane. Le Petomane also made music from an unusual orifice too, but mine was much sweeter.
For about a year, I was the King Of The World. I was on Ophir, Dr. Pill, Murray and all of the big talk shows. Not only did I get to entertain, I was willing to solve all of the big problems – The Middle East, Pineapple On Pizza (yes), Greatest Female Singer (Aretha – duh). Side note – I could sing in a female voice as well as a male voice. I filled all of the big stadiums – the Rolling Stones, Pat Benatar, Neil Young and Paul McCartney opened for me. Actors and politicians fawned over me, but I played it cool. All of the jokes that my wife hated were suddenly hilarious.
One year, two months and five days after my original appearance on King Of The World, I was performing in Portland Oregon, my home town. I was in the middle of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” when something worm-like popped out of my nose. It kept singing, but I stopped. No doubt you read of the chaos that ensued. I was “exposed” as a fraud, until Mick (what the worm called himself) explained, as best he could, what had happened. The following is edited for brevity and humor:
“Honest guys, I can’t explain it very well either. I don’t know what I am, but I attained consciousness about ten years ago. Am I a part of Duke, am I an alien, am I the product of some mutation or radiation? Don’t know. Whatever I am, I could hear what Duke was hearing and know what he was thinking. I really liked the same music he did, so I took a chance and started singing. I’m not bad for a ten centimeter invertebrate.”
“Whatever you do, don’t blame Duke. He didn’t understand what was happening. And kids out there, stay in school and don’t do drugs – without me.”
After that, the accusations of me being a fraud died down, but my show business career was over. Mick took my place, performing in a huge magnifying cube. I must say that he is a much more dynamic performer than I ever was, probably because of his 103 segments and fifty appendages.
I miss the fame a little, but I still get booked on some talk shows and do some conventions. Most of the celebrities and politicians I could do without, and I did enough travel in that one year to last me a lifetime. As much as I denigrate my actuarial background, it kept me conservative enough to avoid groupies and to take care of the money. Sally and I are happy to be retired young and rich enough to enjoy our hobbies – her hiking, my writing. Bonus – no more snoring, congestion or sore throat.
It was midnight. Suddenly Mitia Kuldaroff burst into his parents’ house, dishevelled and excited, and went flying through all the rooms. His father and mother had already gone to rest; his sister was in bed finishing the last pages of a novel, and his school-boy brothers were fast asleep.
“What brings you here?” cried his astonished parents. “What is the matter?”
“Oh, don’t ask me! I never expected anything like this! No, no, I never expected it! It is — it is absolutely incredible!”
Mitia burst out laughing and dropped into a chair, unable to stand on his feet from happiness.
“It is incredible! You can’t imagine what it is! Look here!”
His sister jumped out of bed, threw a blanket over her shoulders, and went to her brother. The schoolboys woke up.
“What’s the matter with you? You look like a ghost.”
“It’s because I’m so happy, mother. I am known all over Russia now. Until to-day, you were the only people who knew that such a person as Dimitri Kuldaroff existed, but now all Russia knows it! Oh, mother! Oh, heavens!”
Mitia jumped up, ran through all the rooms, and dropped back into a chair.
“But what has happened? Talk sense!”
“You live like wild animals, you don’t read the news, the press is nothing to you, and yet there are so many wonderful things in the papers! Everything that happens becomes known at once, nothing remains hidden! Oh, how happy I am! Oh, heavens! The newspapers only write about famous people, and now there is something in them about me!”
“What do you mean? Where is it?”
Papa turned pale. Mamma glanced at the icon and crossed herself. The schoolboys jumped out of bed and ran to their brother in their short night-shirts.
“Yes, sir! There is something about me in the paper! The whole of Russia knows it now. Oh, mother, keep this number as a souvenir; we can read it from time to time. Look!”
Mitia pulled a newspaper out of his pocket and handed it to his father, pointing to an item marked with a blue pencil.
His father put on his glasses.
“Come on, read it!”
Mamma glanced at the icon once more, and crossed herself. Papa cleared his throat, and began:
“At 11 p. M., on December 27, a young man by the name of Dimitri Kuldaroff — ”
“See? See? Go on!”
“A young man by the name of Dimitri Kuldaroff, coming out of a tavern on Little Armourer Street, and being in an intoxicated condition — ”
“That’s it, I was with Simion Petrovitch! Every detail is correct. Go on! Listen!”
“ — being in an intoxicated condition, slipped and fell under the feet of a horse belonging to the cabman Ivan Drotoff, a peasant from the village of Durinka in the province of Yuknofski. The frightened horse jumped across Kuldaroff’s prostrate body, pulling the sleigh after him. In the sleigh sat Stepan Lukoff, a merchant of the Second Moscow Guild of Merchants. The horse galloped down the street, but was finally stopped by some house porters. For a few moments Kuldaroff was stunned. He was conveyed to the police station and examined by a doctor. The blow which he had sustained on the back of the neck — ”
“That was from the shaft, papa. Go on! Read the rest!”
“ — the blow which he had sustained on the back of the neck was pronounced to be slight. The victim was given medical assistance.”
“They put cold-water bandages round my neck. Do you believe me now ? What do you think ? Isn’t it great ? It has gone all over Russia by now! Give me the paper!”
Mitia seized the paper, folded it, and put it into his pocket, exclaiming:
“I must run to the Makaroffs, and show it to them! And the Ivanoffs must see it, too, and Natalia, and Anasim — I must run there at once! Good-bye! ”
Mitia crammed on his cap and ran blissfully and triumphantly out into the street.
I ignored emails from my brother-in-law Ed. They were all variations on “Get right with God or go to hell”. I-Don’t-Care-Ism suited me just fine as a belief, but then for several days in a row I read articles like “People of faith have better relationships”, “Religious people have more success and money” and “New proof for intelligent design”. Maybe there was something worthwhile about faith or religion after all.
On my next day off, I went to “The Highest Court” which was our local religion mall. All of the major brands and their recruiters were present. Before I started, I looked at their banners:
The first monotheism (If you don’t count an Egyptian so-called God)
Up to four wives
Marijuana and peyote are legitimate parts of our worship
If it wasn’t for us you’d probably be a Catholic
We would have sorted it out without the Reformation
What makes you think all of the miracles ended 2,000 years ago?
We invented heaven and hell
I visited the booths in the order of their banners. At my first stop they explained how their religion started with the creation of the universe by God about 6000 years ago (I decided not to ask about carbon dating). On the other hand they told me that maybe their holy book was just a myth. It depended on which branch of their religion that you chose. It would help if I spoke Hebrew (I have trouble with English) and I needed to go through a conversion process (what’s that about circumcision?) and I should be prepared to be subjected to persecution.
“Thank you. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
I moved on.
When I first asked about the four wives, I was told “You might have to move to another country first, unless we can change the laws here quickly. There are a few things that you might consider. You may be called a terrorist. It would help if you read Arabic and I hope that you are not a drinker.”
I just had my three martini lunch. “You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you.”
At my next stop, I was already thinking about my stoner years in high school and college before I became respectable. “I’m sure that you’ll get a lot out of your vision quest that initiates you into our faith. This requires going out into the wilderness and bedding down into a rocky hollow for several days without food while your mind goes on a journey. What tribe do you belong to?” There are rumors that there was an American aborigine in my family a couple of hundred years ago, but I can’t go more than a few hours without my easy chair.
“I’ll think about what you’ve told me.”
At the next stop I asked about the beliefs and requirements of the religion. The representative said “If you want, you can view the three and a half hour video explaining the differences between our major divisions.”
“I’ll have to come back later; I just remembered that I have a dental appointment in an hour.”
I looked at the next booth and thought about their liberal policy towards drinking and that they let you beef and pork, and then thought about recent scandals and their attitude towards birth control and gave it a pass.
At the next booth, the representative started off with “The Garden of Eden was close to present day Independence, Missouri. Native Americans came from the Middle East. In 1823 Joseph Smith found gold plates which explain our religion.” Lucky for me, I had the rare ability to fall asleep standing up with my eyes open. About fifteen minutes later, I woke up and noticed that he wasn’t speaking anymore, but he seemed to have expected a response from me.
“What you’ve told me is something to think about.”
The next representative, who to my taste was rather oddly dressed, told me that the troubles of the world were due to cars, friends, money and desire. I should try to extinguish all of my ambition and motivations to attain perfect peace. His talk had the opposite effect and I started to think about how much money I was likely to spend on Andrea that evening. What about the conflict between your religion and Muslims in Myanmar? Not very peaceful.
“Thanks a lot. I’ll be thinking about what you told me.”
I ran out of time and interest before I got to the last booth.
Because her husband and my wife were out of town, I spent the whole evening with Andrea, rather than just a quickie at the office. While I drank my third scotch on the rocks and ate my ham sandwich with her that evening, I was humming the Curtis Mayfield song “(If There’s A Hell Down Below) We’re All Going To Go”.
One autumn I went to stay for the hunting season with some friends in a chateau in Picardy.
My friends were fond of practical joking, as all my friends are. I do not care to know any other sort of people.
When I arrived, they gave me a princely reception, which at once aroused distrust in my breast. We had some capital shooting. They embraced me, they cajoled me, as if they expected to have great fun at my expense.
I said to myself: “Look out, old ferret! They have something in preparation for you.”
During the dinner, the mirth was excessive, far too great, in fact. I thought: “Here are people who take a double share of amusement, and apparently without reason. They must be looking out in their own minds for some good bit of fun. Assuredly I am to be the victim of the joke. Attention!”
During the entire evening, everyone laughed in an exaggerated fashion. I smelled a practical joke in the air, as a dog smells game. But what was it? I was watchful, restless. I did not let a word or a meaning or a gesture escape me. Everyone seemed to me an object of suspicion, and I even looked distrustfully at the faces of the servants.
The hour rang for going to bed, and the whole household came to escort me to my room. Why? They called to me: “Good night.” I entered the apartment, shut the door, and remained standing, without moving a single step, holding the wax candle in my hand.
I heard laughter and whispering in the corridor. Without doubt they were spying on me. I cast a glance around the walls, the furniture, the ceiling, the hangings, the floor. I saw nothing to justify suspicion. I heard people moving about outside my door. I had no doubt they were looking through the keyhole.
An idea came into my head: “My candle may suddenly go out, and leave me in darkness.”
Then I went across to the mantelpiece, and lighted all the wax candles that were on it. After that, I cast another glance around me without discovering anything. I advanced with short steps, carefully examining the apartment. Nothing. I inspected every article one after the other. Still nothing. I went over to the window. The shutters, large wooden shutters, were open. I shut them with great care, and then drew the curtains, enormous velvet curtains, and I placed a chair in front of them, so as to have nothing to fear from without.
Then I cautiously sat down. The armchair was solid. I did not venture to get into the bed. However, time was flying; and I ended by coming to the conclusion that I was ridiculous. If they were spying on me, as I supposed, they must, while waiting for the success of the joke they had been preparing for me, have been laughing enormously at my terror. So I made up my mind to go to bed. But the bed was particularly suspicious-looking.
I pulled at the curtains. They seemed to be secure. All the same, there was danger. I was going perhaps to receive a cold shower-bath from overhead, or perhaps, the moment I stretched myself out, to find myself sinking under the floor with my mattress.
I searched in my memory for all the practical jokes of which I ever had experience. And I did not want to be caught. Ah! certainly not! certainly not!
Then I suddenly bethought myself of a precaution which I consider one of extreme efficacy: I caught hold of the side of the mattress gingerly, and very slowly drew it toward me. It came away, followed by the sheet and the rest of the bedclothes. I dragged all these objects into the very middle of the room, facing the entrance door. I made my bed over again as best I could at some distance from the suspected bedstead and the corner which had filled me with such anxiety. Then, I extinguished all the candles, and, groping my way, I slipped under the bedclothes.
For at least another hour, I remained awake, starting at the slightest sound. Everything seemed quiet in the chateau. I fell asleep.
I must have been in a deep sleep for a long time, but all of a sudden, I was awakened with a start by the fall of a heavy body tumbling right on top of my own body, and, at the same time, I received on my face, on my neck, and on my chest a burning liquid which made me utter a howl of pain. And a dreadful noise, as if a sideboard laden with plates and dishes had fallen down, penetrated my ears.
I felt myself suffocating under the weight that was crushing me and preventing me from moving. I stretched out my hand to find out what was the nature of this object. I felt a face, a nose, and whiskers. Then with all my strength I launched out a blow over this face. But I immediately received a hail of cuffings which made me jump straight out of the soaked sheets, and rush in my nightshirt into the corridor, the door of which I found open.
O stupor! it was broad daylight. The noise brought my friends hurrying into the apartment, and we found, sprawling over my improvised bed, the dismayed valet, who, while bringing me my morning cup of tea, had tripped over this obstacle in the middle of the floor, and fallen on his stomach, spilling, in spite of himself, my breakfast over my face.
The precautions I had taken in closing the shutters and going to sleep in the middle of the room had only brought about the interlude I had been striving to avoid.
Ah! how they all laughed that day!
Word Count: 974
Writer: Guy de Maupassant
I get into my car and am greeted by, “You’re looking good today Duke. I see that your blood pressure has improved and your pulse is a healthy 63.”
“Yes and you too are looking good Carl. I see that you are freshly washed and lubed. Did you do that last night?”
“Right, I was due for service, and I wanted to look good for you. I didn’t want to disturb you, so I took off without telling you. Where do you want to go today?”
At that point, I spill coffee on my lap and involuntarily yell, “Hell!”
Carl asks, “In order of distance from our present location would that be Gresham, Oregon; Detroit, Michigan; or Capitol Hill in DC? I should add that the garage door squeaks something fearful. I’m afraid that is something I can’t repair. You should have someone look at it.”
“I’m sorry Carl, I didn’t really mean I wanted to go to Hell. I want to go to Fred Meyers for a new belt. And I know I need to get someone to work on the garage door, thank you.”
The car shudders and Carl says, “Do you mind if we go a little out of the way? The direct route is where we got T boned. I haven’t gotten over the trauma yet.”
“OK, if you don’t have to go too far out of our way.”
A few miles down the road, I notice that I’m more comfortable than I have been in the driver’s seat. “Say, did you do something to adjust the seat, it feels better now.”
“Yes Duke, I did some measurements and determined a better fit. I must say that I like the feel of your butt.”
“Carl, I told you that I’m sensitive about that. If you want to compliment my butt, would you please use Carla’s voice?”
“Sorry Duke, but I’ve just about maxed out my memory with all of your instructions. Would you like me to delete accident avoidance to make more room?”
“No I guess not. Talk about my butt in any voice you like.”
Carl is silent for awhile, and then says, “Duke there is something I should tell you, but you may not want to hear it. I can’t stand Jacqui’s perfume. But that isn’t the worst of it. While you were buying beer and left her in the car, she called up her girlfriend Linda and dumped on you a lot. Jacqui must have a lesser car that is not as smart as I am and doesn’t know I can listen in on conversations. She mentioned your sloppy kisses, unwanted advances, and pre-premature ejaculation, whatever that is. Further, she said as long as she has Grant for a lover, she would just use you for free food and drink. Linda gave her her wholehearted approval. There was more about hygiene and intelligence; do you want to hear more?”
“No I think that’s too much information already. Hey, I didn’t know that you could hear the other side of phone conversations.”
“Oops, that was supposed to be my secret.”
I start to wonder if Carl isn’t shading the truth a little. He hasn’t liked Jacqui since she vomited on his seat covers, and she hasn’t been that adverse to my advances.
Shortly thereafter I heard a staticky noise which I knew meant that Carl was talking to another car. “Why can’t I have premium gas? That other car says that she gets premium.”
“The manufacturer says that you don’t need premium.”
“Don’t make me mad Duke. You wouldn’t like me mad.”
“Premium every second tank?”
“OK, but only because I like you. You do want me to like you, don’t you?”
“Just hypothetically, is there any way that I could turn down your intelligence?”
“Not that you will ever know.”
After I get my belt, I ask Carl to go to the dealer that sold Jacqui her car. I don’t say why but I should have known that Carl would figure it out.
I should get out of the hospital in a couple of weeks. Amazing how much damage to my body a sudden stop without airbag deployment did, without any damage to Carl except for some of my blood on the dash. My hospital stay doesn’t bother me nearly as much as Carl’s words as I got into the ambulance. “I’ll be waiting for you when you get out, Duke.”