King Neptune’s Enchanted Seaquarium Bar And Grill: An Alien’s Tale Of Survival On The Great Lakes

For my Sister Fran, who taught me love makes us brave.

Any interaction with humans, other than watching their broadcast television signals, is strictly forbidden; they’re as dangerous as they are entertaining.

–The Val’Dorrian Council

Never trust a human farther than you can throw one.

–Val’Dorrian Proverb

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.

–Theme from Cheers

CHAPTER ONE

A PILOT NAMED MAYDAY

There’s something earthlings don’t know about the Great Lakes Triangle: in its watery grave, among the downed aircraft and lake-faring vessels, there lies a submerged Val’Dorrian spaceship. I happen to know that for a fact because my sister Fran and I were on it when it went down.

Now, the reason we were on that ship in the first place was on account of my father’s job; he sold Val’Dorrian ore.

Being a salesman, he’d routinely go on long Space voyages, often for weeks at a time, to peddle his company’s wares. One summer, when school was out, my sister Franny and I asked him if we could tag along on one of his trips as a kind of adventure.

My father had never intended on actually going to Earth, let alone Lake Ontario; it was engine trouble on a Spaceship, old and in need of repairs, that had forced us down. I believe the term I’ve heard humans use to describe such vehicles is “a Shit Box”, if I’m not mistaken.

Mechanical failure aside, there were other mitigating factors that preceded our accident, starting with my father’s desire for what he called “a cool pilot nickname”.

(For the next part of my story to make sense I have to describe my father, so I’ll quickly get that out of the way.)

Z’Nad Sz’Lan was a tall and handsome man with chiselled features reminiscent of your human actor Ted Danson. Val’Dorrians are essentially humanoid, except our skin isn’t pinkish, or brown: it’s aquamarine. We lean towards the blue when we’re not tanned, and when we are we tend to be greener. Our hair is fair with natural streaks, the kind humans pay big money for. And oh yes, we’ve also got three antennas on our heads: one in the front and two further back. It’s ironic really, because we actually look like cliché aliens, the kind that has inhabited your pop culture fantasy and Science Fiction movies for years. I shit you not when I say if you made a three and three-quarter inch tall action figure of me, it could almost pass for something from a nerd’s Star Wars collection.

Oh yes, one more thing before I resume my tale. Forgive my manners. I didn’t introduce myself properly. My name is Z’Nad Sz’Lan Jr. On Val’Dorria the letter “Z” is silent except when it’s not preceded by, or followed by an apostrophe. It’s a bitch of a language. It’s harder to learn than Tolkien Elvish, and it’s got more rules than your Hockey. Anyhow, that being said, from here on in to make it easier on you, when I refer to myself I’ll simply go by “Nad”.

Now, getting back to my father.

Due to his aforementioned resemblance to Ted Danson, he’d decided he wanted to be called “Mayday” as an homage to Sam Malone, the character Danson played on “Cheers.” Most of Val’Dorria was mad over Sam, Diane, Norm, Woody, the Coach, and even Cliff; they’d all pull in the show religiously every Thursday evening with their trusty long-range receivers. (The Val’Dorrian screening council intercepted and translated these signals first of course except for the show’s catchy theme, that thankfully was left in its original state.) Anyhow, as I was saying, when my father was out in Space he liberally used his self-penned nickname “Mayday” over the radio as his handle. He even went so far as to have it painted on the side of his helmet, something my mother said was either a sure sign of a brain tumor, or the onset of a mid-life crisis.

Now for whatever reason my father had never thought things through when choosing the nickname “Mayday”, never once had he stopped to consider, that while Mayday might have been an excellent nickname for an imaginary Baseball relief–pitcher, using such a name over the air to identify himself as a Pilot might lead to confusion. Had he gone with something more Top-Gunnish, like “Maverick” or “Goose” he might not have drowned inhaling lungfulls of Lake Ontario, but he had. So consequently the day my father’s ship started to lose altitude over Earth and begin its freefall into Canada’s great lakes, his fellow Val’Dorrians didn’t realize that he was in trouble. They were so accustomed to hearing the words “Mayday Mayday” shouted over the spacewaves with regards to him, they didn’t pay a shred of attention to his distress call. They simply thought it was one of Z’Nad Sz’Lan’scronies (aka “Mayday”) calling him to chat.

I suppose I’m putting the cart before the horse telling you about the crash before the actual trip, so let me fill you in on it now.

It lasted nearly two weeks. For my father it had been business as usual, visiting this customer and that prospective client, extolling the virtues and competitive prices of Val’Dorrian ore. But for my sister Fran and I it had been a sightseeing extravaganza. Val’Dorria was home, and we loved it for that, but as my mother always said “It’s the arsehole of the Universe son”, and after seeing how grand life on other planets could be, I realized she was right. My father must have either been scared of her or loved her a lot to ever come back from his “road trips” as he called them. I can still hear her voice saying: “your father calls them road trips like he’s on tour with Neil Diamond.” He was huge on Val’Dorria, but I’ll tell you about that later.

Anyhow this story’s not about that part of my adventure really, so pardon me if I’m light on the details; it’s more about my time on Earth afterwards. It’s suffice to say that the weeks Fran and I spent zipping through space with my father are some of my most cherished childhood memories, and if we’d all come back, from that trip safe and sound, it would have been the equivalent of a human child’s fondly remembered vacation in Disneyland.

Now, to get back to the crash.

The trouble all started on the way home. My father had gotten a crazy idea: he wanted to see Earth with his own eyes. Not all “Close Encounters, feeling up Richard Dreyfuss in the Mothership on top of Devil’s Mountain close”, he’d said. “I mean more like wow, from here the Earth looks like a big blue marble, astronaut gazing at the Earth from space for the first time waxing philosophical close”. I can still remember the manic, thrilled way he’d said “Hey kids?…do you wanna see the planet where they filmed Cheers? The planet where bars exist in which everyone knows your name, and they’re always glad you came?” And then his tone afterwards as it had shifted to one of lament as he’d muttered the likely autobiographical detail “Unlike on Val’Dorria, where you have to drink alone in your bathroom after everyone’s gone to bed”.

The fact that he’d phrased his momentous decision/announcement as to whether or not we wanted to see the famed planet that the council had forbidden direct contact with as a thinly disguised question was irrelevant, because, even if we had protested, when my father got something in his head, he was going do it, come hell or high water–both of which were ironically awaiting me down the road.

Getting to Earth’s Solar System from where we were when my father made his impulsive decision required sling-shotting our ship through a Wormhole using the gravity of a massive star. For an ace pilot in a well-built ship, performing that kind of maneuver would have been an easy enough feat. However, my father was no Han Solo, and his Shit Box was no Millenium Falcon, consequently when he performed said maneuver we exited the Wormhole like a bat out of hell, out of control and going way too fast. When my father tried to slow us down using reverse thrust, the strain on the ship’s engines was too great. As we got close to Earth, his vintage Shit Box finally just gave up the ghost. I’d called it engine trouble earlier on, but in truth it had been my father’s recklessness that had pushed the engine to the brink, like a novice Cowboy with poor judgment in an old Western, unwittingly riding his horse to an early grave.

Though my father had faith in his abilities, he was a prudent man nonetheless. From the moment things had started to get hairy he’d insisted Fran and I strap on parachutes, saying “Don’t worry kids, the chutes are just a precaution…if anyone can get this Shit-” he’d stopped himself before he’d said “Box” and said “I mean ‘ship’ under control it’s me”. I remember him trying to exude calmness while simultaneously having his cover blown, both by hands that shook as he’d fiddled with chute-straps, and the telltale rivulets of sweat that ran down from his “Mayday” helmet–so close together they formed a tiny waterfall on his forehead that had cascaded directly into his eyes making him tear up. Or so I’d hoped. The idea that he could be crying was unthinkable, because it meant…well, the unthinkable.

It was a fortunate thing for us he’d been so forward-looking, because when it became apparent we were caught in Earth’s gravitational field and destined to free fall, slicing though the atmosphere like an anvil through Angel’s hair, my sister and I had been given a chance to live.

My last memories of my father are of him saying “I love you guys” as he hit the eject button, launching Fran and I skyward like two clay pigeons after a shooter yells “pull”, and then watching his saucer as it sped off ahead of us, plummeting downwards until it finally sliced through the water like a flaming pie, vanishing into the murky depths of lake Ontario.

When Fran finally splashed down, she called out “Mayday, Mayday” until her throat was raw. She had a strong voice for a little thing, but it wasn’t loud enough to penetrate two hundred and eighty-eight feet of ice-cold lake water.

CHAPTER TWO

A BAKER’S DOZEN DAYS ON A RAFT

Franny and I floated in that icy water, bobbing up and down in the waves for what seemed like forever until we finally spotted a piece of my father’s wrecked ship. With all the remaining strength in our tired arms we crawled up on it, and over the next thirteen days and nights that little eight-by-ten foot piece of Val’Dorian space-metal became our home.

We’d sail at night under the cover of darkness so as not to be seen, while I’d navigate by the stars like an ancient Phoenician mariner. I’d fashioned a Jib out of the material of one of the parachutes. During the day I’d take it down because the print on the material was bright and festive and easy to spot. (Try finding plain parachute material on Val’Dorria, it’s almost impossible.)

We had no food with us when we ejected, so we were forced to fish with a kind of spear I’d managed to make from a piece of the wreckage. I knew Fran was scared, so I tried to turn everything into a game to keep her spirits up. I invented one called “Bobbing for Trout”. It worked like this: my sister would hold her breath (Val’Dorrrians can hold their breath for up to three minutes) while I’d hold her by the ankles submerged upside down. As I did this, she’d wiggle her antennas like worms to attract the fish. When I’d feel her jerk, I’d spear one. It was tricky business because trout are small and I didn’t want to accidentally skewer my sister. Trout aren’t the only fish in lake Ontario, there’s some that are much bigger. I once almost lost Fran to a Northern Pike. I had her firmly by the ankles, as was the norm when we played our fishing game, when what would normally have been a little tug was replaced by a yank so violent that It took all my strength to hold on to her as we both went down beneath the lake’s surface. I fought that Pike with a ferocity you couldn’t imagine. I wasn’t about to lose my sister to a Canadian fresh water fish. I managed to free her from its grasp and make it to the surface, but it was a close call. Had we been under the water for another minute we would have surely drowned. When we got back on the raft I had to resuscitate Fran; I can still remember pinching her little antennas as I breathed air into her limp almost lifeless body, hoping it wasn’t too late. I’d managed to revive her, but our near-death experience at the hands (so to speak) of the Pike had been a hard thing to justify. I’d told Fran that it was all a game, and that “Mr. Pike” had merely gotten carried away because he was having so much fun. I could tell by the way she’d cocked her head that she was starting to doubt me. She was my mother’s daughter after all, and I knew there was a dormant cynic inside of her yet to be awakened that would one day emerge.

After nearly losing Fran I knew our little respite had to come to an end. We Val’Dorrians are a tough folk, but we couldn’t subsist on raw trout and rain water indefinitely. I knew if we were to survive we were going to have to have contact with humans, so from that day on I sailed with the Jib during the day and awaited the inevitable.

The irony of being found after I’d finally decided to put out the crimson-striped jib was that when the S.S. MacNamara spotted us, it wasn’t from above. You see, the vintage W.W. 2 U-Boat Captained by the eccentric Canadian Billionaire Sebastian MacNamara–like all dangerous underwater predators, spotted us from below.

Now, being from another planet it goes without saying I didn’t know anything about Canada at that time, consequently the name “MacNamara” meant nothing to me. Had I any knowledge of the Country I would have known that “MacNamara” was akin to the name “Rockefeller” in America, or “Tholos Th’Zarath” the richest man on Val’Doria. I would have also known that the name MacNamara was synonymous with, not only a chain of successful and popular Canadian department stores but also an aquatic Theme Park/Restaurant called “King Neptune’s Enchanted Seaquarium Bar and Grill”, the same”King Neptune’s” where I would first learn English, where Franny and I would meet the famed Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot, where we would befriend a Killer whale named Diefenbaker, and where I would first fall in love. As in that Neil Diamond song “Helpless”, all my changes would be there.

CHAPTER THREE

SWALLOWED BY THE BEAST

When the sub surfaced, for a fleeting moment I thought it was my father’s saucer floating back up. But as I saw more of the ship’s outline, I knew it was something else entirely– something larger and definitely not made with Val’Dorrian technology. Fran had clung to me as the submarine had emerged from the depths of lake. I can still remember her little voice quavering as she said “Is it a monster Nad?” It’s not, but for the most part the humans on board probably are. I thought inwardly while outwardly reassuring Fran, saying “It’s probably just the human Coast Guards coming to our rescue in a special vessel reserved for such occasions.”

I watched cautiously as Sebastian MacNamara’s men emerged on deck and threw a dinghy into the water. They were about one hundred feet away.
It was only when they got closer that I noticed their nets and harpoons.

Fran and I never stood a chance, but Val’Dorrians don’t give up without a fight, no matter what the odds. So when I saw what was about to happen to us I grabbed Fran’s hand and said “I heard the human Coast Guard love a good game of tag”, and then dove with her into the water. Though we swam as if our very lives depended on it, it didn’t take MacNamara’s men long to catch up with us. We’d been out on the lake for thirteen days and we were exhausted, half-starved, and dehydrated. Fran had developed a cough as well. On the cool nights aboard the raft I’d tried my best to keep her warm with my body while we clung together, but it hadn’t helped. As much as I hated the idea of being captured by the humans, I knew our chances of survival out on the lake were next to nothing. So, as we were being netted like the very fish we’d lived off of for almost two weeks I told myself it was for the better. It was that, or face a slow death on the surface of the Earth’s fourteenth largest Lake.

When MacNamara’s men landed us in the dinghy Fran said to me “If this is a game of tag, how come they didn’t say ‘You’re it’ ?” Despite our capture being a necessity for survival, I felt filled with shame nonetheless, like a boxer aware he’s taken a dive after being made “an offer he couldn’t refuse”. In the end our “fight” had amounted to the two of us doing the crawl while trying not to ingest too much lake water.

If I may digress momentarily. You have to keep in mind I spoke very little English when we crash-landed. My father spoke some. Being a salesman, he was adept at learning languages for his job. He’d encouraged me to learn some, saying, “I’ll be damned son, but I’ve been to dozens of planets in my life, maybe even a hundred, and it’s the one language you find in every quadrant. Granted, no one’s speaking like a thespian, but if you need directions to a fueling station, to show outrage if you’re unjustly detained, or you simply have to make a good old-fashioned threat like “Get the f**k out of my way or I’ll kill you”, it’s the language to use.” My father was obsessed with Earth’s Kung Fu movies and claimed to have taught himself english by watching them. Occasionally he’d have me sit down with him and watch a few , saying “Try to follow along and pick up some English.” I don’t recommend this method, for when Captain McNamara’s men caught us and started to talk and the sound came out in synchronization with the motion of their lips, I was completely thrown off. It was Fran who’d had to explain, saying

“It’s called ‘crappy dubbing’ Nad. Earth Kung Fu movies are known for it. WAKE UP. ‘Cheers’ was translated and dubbed by the Council, you hardly noticed it was so well done. Say what you will about the Council, they may have controlled us, but they weren’t sloppy technicians”.

That being said, as the crew were speaking amongst themselves, celebrating our capture and discussing our fate, I understood very little. I did however notice the word “Seemunkee” kept coming up every time one of the men looked at us. Of course I had no way of knowing they were talking about Fran and I and the show business name we were soon to be billed under in bright lights on the marquis in front of “King Neptune’s Enchanted Seaquarium Bar and Grill.”

When we arrived on the deck of the submarine, standing erect, as still as a statue, staring at us sternly with a disconcerting gaze–looking both at us and through us at the same time like a nearsighted lunatic with X-ray vision and bloodshot eyes of cobalt blue, was Captain Sebastian MacNamara. I knew he was the Captain because I’d seen ads for “Captain Highliner” delicious frozen seafood TV commercials from Earth, and the man was a ringer–with his blue Captain’s hat, his turtleneck sweater framing his well-groomed white beard and his pea coat with its double row of gleaming brass buttons reminiscent of an antique elevator panel from an early twentieth century six-story building.

He scowled and gave us a dismissive look, muttering to himself as he fumbled in his pocket for his pipe. I watched him as he lit a match and sucked flames into the bowl, casting a glow on his ruddy skin as the smoke rose. I can still recall the sweet smell of his pipe-tobacco as they carried Fran and I past him, down into the bowels of the U-Boat, into the belly of the beast.

As the sailor toting us on his back descended the rungs of the metal ladder that groaned and creaked under our combined weight, I listened to the pinging sound his boots made as they struck each rung individually, like rubber soled mallets, and couldn’t help but notice how much it sounded like discordant music, a hollow metallic funeral march being played on ten-foot-long poorly tuned xylophone. After he’d set us down and closed the hatch above us Fran whispered in my ear “I’m scared Nad”. She knew this wasn’t a game of tag anymore, and I didn’t try to convince her otherwise. It was the last I saw of the sky for some time.

CHAPTER FOUR

THE BOOT

The official name of the submarine that abducted my sister and I was the “H.M.C.S. McNamara”, but the men aboard all called it “The Boot”, after the famous German film about a submarine.

On Val’Dorria civilians are strictly forbidden from owning military vehicles, whether they be current, or hail from antiquity. Consequently when I first saw the submarine, I initially thought Fran and I were being pursued by the military–due to my father’s saucer crashing into the lake. I had no idea then that Captain MacNamara was no more a Captain than Mayor Mc Cheese was a Mayor.

It was Fran who figured it out later on. Her English was far better than mine, and though she was younger than me by three years, of the two of us she was much smarter. “You have to understand Nad” she’d said “On earth a Prince can rule a principality and marry Grace Kelly, or he can make Purple Rain and then disappear for years only to reemerge, play the Superbowl and then overdose not too long afterwards. Also, on Earth they have people called Doctors who practice medicine, but there’s also drinks called ‘Dr. Peppers’, so, it stands to reason that there’s probably many kinds of Captains as well” .Fran was wise beyond her years. On Val’Dorria everything has only one name, however there are two hundred and seventy words in our language for the word “name”.

Our time on “The Boot” was spent locked in a little makeshift cell that had originally been a storage closet. We were initially fed raw fish, something we’d already gotten accustomed on the lake. Captain McNamara’s men had assumed we were sea creatures (lake creatures more precisely) and that raw fish was simply what we ate. The charade that we were simply playing a game was over between Fran and I–which was a good thing, because when my sister became my accomplice our chances of survival more than doubled, for not only was she clever she was resourceful, case in point being her early winning over of the twins.

They were called “Edgar” and “Alan”, and due to their names and their rather solemn nature, they were known on The Boot as “The Poe Boys”.

The Poe Boys were our jailers. They were also Captain Mac’s bastards, and they worked for, and were beholden to, his oldest son, who of the three of them was the only son who was legitimate. (He too was a bastard, but in the usual sense of the word as in the expression “that guy’s a real bastard”.) His name was William MacNamara, but the sailors all called him “Little Mac”. Oft-times, on the rare occasions when the three of Captain Mac’s sons moved in tandem, the men referred to them as “Willy and the Poe Boys.” Little Mac hated that reference. In fact anyone caught saying it in his presence risked a ride in one of the Boot’s torpedo tubes. There was no quicker way to scatter a card game (Little Mac hated gambling) than yelling out “Here comes Willy and the Poe Boys!” I realize I didn’t make myself clear before when I said “It all started”. The “it” that I was of course referring to was our elaborate plan to escape from Captain Sebastian McNamara’s grasp.

I’ve already mentioned that Captain Mac was not a real Captain. The true captaincy resided in his son William. His zealous need for power and control made him a natural. Not only was it Little Mac, albeit behind the scenes, who ran the whole operation, he also ran Captain Mac–who was more than content to walk around sucking on his pipe and muttering inaudibly to himself than lead.

Some of the sailors said he was aware of Little Mac’s ambitions and that he was simply grooming his son for the inevitable day he was too old to command, while others said he’d “Gone simple in the Head, and that Little Mac had seized an opportunity to take control.” However how it had happened didn’t matter to us, it was the ramifications of the shift in power from father to son that was our chief concern , for Captain MacNamara despite all his flaws, was essentially your garden-variety eccentric Canadian billionaire teetering on the verge of dementia while Little Mac on the other hand was a spoiled sadistic power-hungry perverted brat who’d been, as I’d overheard one of the men say “Born with a Silver Spoon so far down his throat that the handle was poking out of his friggin’ arse.”

I knew very little of human anatomy then, but to the degree that I could see they resembled us, I could only assume that Little Mac was likely in quite a bit of discomfort most of the time to which Fran and I attributed his often foul disposition.

When I learned later on that he had never in fact ingested a real silver spoon, that it was merely an expression, I vowed that if the chance ever presented itself I would make him swallow an actual spoon as an ironic and fitting way of killing him. It would have been apropos, because it was his spoiled snotty rich kid attitude that enabled him to do what he did to Fran with so little remorse or regard for her well-being. Anyhow, that happened later at “King Neptune’s Enchanted Seaquarium Bar and Grill”. I’ll get to that part when I get there, first I have to finish the part of our story that took place on “The Boot”.

Had my sister lived to be a mature woman, she probably would have been a beauty like my mother had been when she first met my father. She’d in fact been first runner-up in the “3026 Miss Val’Dorria pageant”. She’d lost to a woman who, as my mother had often bitterly remarked “Had a perkier set of antennas.” The reason that I’m mentioning this was that even as a prepubescent girl Fran had a certain charm that grown men couldn’t resist, and Captain McNamara’s two bastard sons by birth and one by reputation were certainly no exception.

I suppose it’s safe to say that both Edgar and Alan had a crush of sorts on Fran. Though they were both full-grown men, and she was but a girl, it didn’t seem to matter to them. Neither twin had ever been, or would likely ever be, with an age appropriate woman, or any woman for that matter. The Poe boys were “challenged” in a way that made them remain eternal children. Little Mac’s feelings for Fran were far from innocent however. He was the embodiment of all the vile and lecherous qualities that Val’Dorrians find so repulsive and pathetic in humans, particularly the men. I admit, we Val’Dorrians are no saints, however I can assure you that you can go to any park on our planet where children play during their days off from the ore mines and you will never find any adult men in shabby clothes eying little girls with bad intent like a character in a Jethro Tull song.

It was through the twins that we learned of our fate. They would come to our cell three times a day. Little Mac had everyone on the Boot on a tight schedule. He was a fastidious individual to the point of obsession. Alan would come every day at five AM and bring us breakfast, and Edgar would come every day at six PM and bring us supper. It had to be in that order. Little Mac forbid them to take one another’s shift. The only people who could tell the twins apart were Little Mac, and of course Fran. Their Mother certainly could have, but according to them she was “At the bottom of Lake Ontario..but not in a submarine” which Fran and I assumed meant that she was most probably deceased. The third and final visit to our cell, the most important one, was always done by Little Mac himself. He always came at eleven O’clock. By the end we came to know him by the sound of his footsteps. Fran had pointed out “He drags one foot, I think it’s the left one.” Nothing got by my little sister, she was the smart one. I survived because of her.

Edgar and Alan were as good to us as Little Mac was bad. They’d sneak us extra food, and once they even stole some cough syrup from the infirmary for Fran’s croup, the one she’d developed when we were out on the lake and never quite managed to shake. Little Mac was our nighttime pink skinned demon. Well, in actuality he was more Fran’s than mine.

At first, when he’d started visiting us we’d always pretend we were fast asleep. He’d come in, shine a flashlight on us, and then go. We would lie still, anxiously waiting for him to leave. The stink of his musty aftershave would permeate the tiny room. He’d whisper to us in the dark saying things like “Listen up my little sea Monkeys. My father may be the Captain, but I’m the one in charge.” It went like that for some time: Open the door, shine the light, make an ominous threat then leave.

One evening the routine changed. We heard Little Mac approaching at his usual Eleven O’clock, but something was different. He was singing. The song was something like: “🎶Oh I like to go swimmin’ with bow-legged women, and swim between their knees. If you know any ladies that want to have babies then send’em down to meeee!🎶” The word “me” echoed eerily down the corridor, worsened by Little Mac’s croaking voice. Edgar and Alan had warned us about their brother. “He calls us bastards” they’d said “But he’s the realest bastard if you ask us.” One thing I liked about the twins was that their command of language was so remedial, that when I spoke to them in my Kung Fu movie pidgin English I never felt self-conscious in the least. If they couldn’t quite find the right word to express themselves, they simply made one up to suit the occasion. Fran had said “It’s not because they’re slow Nad, it’s because they’re creative.” The twins had told me once “We like your sister. She’s the goodest person we’ve ever met. Most folks treat us like a couple’a dumbos, but she never does.” Fran always tried to see the good in people, even the vile Little Mac. Me? I look at people and see the worst. You have to, because it’s never someone’s good qualities that will do you in, it’s that simple. I tried to convince my sister of that.

I tried and tried, but some people aren’t meant to see the darkness, they’re just not built that way. Fran was one of those people. She was an innocent.

I heard a line once in a song by the human musician Paul Simon with a gift for poetry. I think of it often: “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again.” If I have a credo, it’s that. My ongoing dialogue with darkness started in the murky depths of a Canadian Great lake, aboard a WW 2 U-Boat Captained by a madman. My physical body may have been born on Val’Dorria in a company-owed trailer home on the outskirts of an Ore mine, however the real me–the survivor, the fierce individual that can inspire soldiers into battle and shed a human’s blood with the ease and casual comfort that most Val’Dorrians experience peeling an orange, that “me”, the me telling you this story was born in Lake Ontario. I know I’m rambling on a bit, that my childhood stories and inner revelations may be far less interesting to you than they are to me. That being said I’ll quote “The king,” Elvis Aaron Presley, and give you “A little less conversation, and a little more action.”

When Little Mac came to our quarters singing his bawdy sea shanty about nautical activities with deformed women (dragging his foot so hard I was surprised there was a sole still left on its underside when he arrived) I knew by the odor emanating from him he was inebriated. I even recognized the brand of alcohol that had been responsible, black marketeers used to sell it back home on Val’ Dorria to the men in the mine. I remember the bottle had a picture of a Pirate on it. the smell had always made my antennas curl. When Little Mac knocked on our door that night while opening it simultaneously, he exhaled Captain Morgan’s exhaust fumes and said “Wakey wakey my little sea monkeys, we’re going to take a little walky walky.” As we walked on the metal grids that served as flooring on the submarine I thought of something the twins had said to us: “Whatever you do, don’t let Little Mac take you to the torpedo room. People say if he brings you there, the next time you’re seen you’re usually floating in the lake, wrinkled up like that last piece of soap that gets mushy and jammed in the bathtub drain.” While we plodded reluctantly through the belly of “The Boot”, Little Mac broke into a whistled version of “I Like to go Swimmin’ with Bow-legged Women”. I knew exactly where we were headed of course, and with each reluctant step I envisioned what it might feel like to be that last piece of soap caught in the drain getting waterlogged and mushy, and prepared to greet the darkness .

The Confession of a Massawippi Witch-Killer

I got diagnosed with inoperable cancer last spring. I was forty-three and the Doctors said I’d never see forty-four. Actually, they said I wouldn’t even see another winter, which was fine with me; I hate the cold. You probably think I was sad right? All shook up, as Elvis once said, but I wasn’t. Life hadn’t panned out in a million ways, even before the cancer; the truth was it was a god-damned relief.

My childhood was crap. College had been a bust, and my adult life’s been nothing but a string of shit jobs, each one shittier than the last. I’ve had two wives, both of whom left me for the same reason; apparently I’m “emotionally unavailable”. I don’t deny it, though these days I’m less-so. You see I did something–experienced something last summer, that changed me:

I killed a witch.

My plan hadn’t been to kill her exactly, but it worked out that way. You see when I got diagnosed with cancer, finding her was at the top of my bucket list. Hell it was the only thing on it.

If you’re wondering why a janitor closing in on middle age—a fatally ill one at that—would want to kill a witch, the answer’s simple. To paraphrase the late queen of soul:

R-E-V-E-N-G-E.

I never told either of my wives this story, or my parents, or the police or any of the shrinks I’ve seen off-and-on over the years. I always told myself it was because I knew they’d have never believed me, but the truth is, I just couldn’t stand reliving it. I can admit that now because knowing you’re dying makes you brave; at least it’s done that for me.

And oh yes, before I start, If you’re at all squeamish prone to nightmares I suggest you stop reading this now because that stuff about witches eating little kids is all true; I know because I’ve seen it.

What brought me to Lake Massawippi in the summer of eighty-two, the year I turned twelve, was the same thing that had been bringing me there from the age of nine: camp–Sherbrooke Lodge to be specific.

My first three summers had been witch-free. The only spooks I saw were imagined, shadows of tree branches that would come to life on my tent wall, usually after a night of eerie campfire stories told by one of our councillors.

The best storyteller of the bunch was a guy named Greg Nugent, or “Nuge” as we called him. He’d totally get into it, acting out voices, inserting screams. He’d even run around pantomiming if need be; anything to make the story better. He was a school jock (football player if memory serves me), but he would have made a hell of an actor had he lived. (I heard he drove his car off a cliff in the late eighties, drunk out of his head.) He had lots of stories, the kinds everyone tells at camp, like the one about the guy with the hook and so on, but his favorite, the one he used to scare the little kids with the most, was the one about the Massawippi witch.

“The Massawippi witch,” he’d say circling behind us slowly, just beyond the fire light’s perimeter “is an old Algonquin Indian legend. They say she first appeared in these parts when the white settlers started showing up unwelcomed. She’d come at night, flying low over the lake like a guided missile (at this point he’d go from walking around the fire, to running, arms outstretched) the only sound coming from the wind whipping her tattered rags, and then she’d swoop down, grab a kid, and fly across the lake screaming.” As he’d say the word “grab” he would pick up one of the smaller kids from behind and race around with him in his arms, screaming and cackling while pretending to bite his neck. Every time I saw him tell the story some kid would invariably scream, and many more would have nightmares.

Nuge was the only councilor who I ever heard incorporate the Indian part of the legend. I personally think he’d borrowed the idea from the movie Poltergeist to give the story more credibility, you know the whole “White people disturbing sacred Indian burial ground” theme. To me, and all of us, the main point of the story was that the witch took kids. Period. Why she did it was a moot point.

The first kid she took that summer was Billy brown. He’d been one of my tent-mates. There we four of us originall: me, a tough kid named Andrew Stokes, Billy Brown and his older brother Jerry.

The tents were canvas on a wooden frame with a raised floor. They were grey and parched and stunk of mildew, but they kept out the rain (for the most part) and for the month a year we lived in them they were home.

Sherbrooke Lodge was a Christian camp and every session they let in a certain percentage of less fortunate kids. That was how Billy and Jerry got to go. They never told us they were poor outright, but we could tell. We all brought our stuff in fancy new military style dufflebags, whereas they showed up with old suitcases that had broken zippers and handles full of electrical tape. The clothes we brought were clean and pressed and recently purchased while theirs were dirty and illfitting and looked like hand-me-downs that had once belonged to grown men.

Even their shoes were wrong.

We all had new white Nikes or Reeboks, but they wore real leather shoes that looked like they’d been nice in the sixties or whatever era they came from. To us they looked downright bizarre. Because of their antiquated footwear and some of the kids took to cruelly calling them “The Buster Brown Brothers” but they never did it around Andrew Stokes.

Stokes was one of those kids that was twelve going on twenty-five. He smoked and carried a rubber in his wallet at all times, “just in case”. And while most of the older kids were all breaking out in pimples, going through Clearasil by the gallon, he never got so much as a single blemish; his skin was perfect. We all looked up to him–wanted to be like him. Even the female councillors blushed when he was around, especially when he strutted about shirtless (which he did as often as he could). Stokes was taller than most of us (except me, I’m six-four and had been sprouting that year) and, unlike most of us who still had boyish builds he had actual muscles and body hair . He was the epitome of cool; Sherbrooke lodges very own James Dean.

Stokes didn’t necessarily stick up for Billy and Jerry because he was the champion of the underdog, he could be cruel in his own right. He did it for a reason that was more personal. His mother had died when he was young and so had theirs, making them all members of private club that none of us understood.

My mother was alive, but I was envious of them. Dead mothers can’t whip you with coathangers or ask you to slow dance in the livingroom while they’re drunk, whispering in your ear how much you look like a guy they’d had a crush on before they met your father. Only ones that are alive can treat you to that kind of mothery love. Billy once said to me “you’re lucky Stan, your mother’s still alive”. He had no idea how lucky I was.

So that was us: three kids with a dead mother, and one who wished his was. Stokes liked me because I made him laugh. ‘Your’e one sick pup” he’d say when I’d crack him up, usually by saying something vicious or sarcastic about one of the councillors or another kid in the camp. Jerry and Billy liked me too, not so much because I was funny, though I did crack them up on occasion, but more because I never made them feel like I was better than them.

“You’re rich, but you sure don’t act like you are.” Billy had once said to me.

“I’m not rich,” I said, “we’re upper middleclass”.

“Ya got a pool dontcha?”

“Yes,” I said, “but my father says the bank owns it.”

“Who swims in it? You, or the bank?”

“I do.”

“Well, in my books that makes you rich. We swim in the public pool down the street. Sometimes there’s turds in it.”

Billy never struck me as all that smart, but he had a way of making a point.

The night Billy got taken I’d gone down to the lake with Stokes to smoke. He usually snuck out alone after he thought we were all asleep, but that night I’d tagged along. He didn’t want me to go at first, but I’d pestered him. I knew I could never be as cool as he was, but I thought in my teenage mind if I could learn to smoke it would help me appropriate some of Stoke’s mystique. Billy and Jerry heard us talking and wanted to come too but he wouldn’t let them.”Its big trouble if you get caught,” I remember him saying to them. “You could even get sent home. For us–” he said pointing his index finger from his chest to mine “–it’s not great, but for you guys its…well it’s–”

“I get what you’re sayin’,” Jerry said. “You mean it would look ungrateful on account’a of us being charity cases.”

“Something like that,” Stoke said looking away. Deep down I knew he was right, so I kept quiet. Before we left Billy had blurted out “Don’t stay too long.”

“What’s the big deal?” Stokes said seeming slightly peeved.

“Don’t mind him,” Jerry said in an attempt to placate Stokes, “he’s just nervous.”

“Nervous? About what?” Stokes asked.

“Nothin” Billy said.

“Spit it out,” Stokes asked. I’d gotten curious too, but I let Stokes do the questioning.

“Well,” Billy began, “the other night I got up to take a whizz. And while I was doing it I thought I heard something moving in the trees. When I looked up, I saw the branches rustle and I could have sworn I heard something that didn’t make sense” At that point he trailed off.

“Heard what?” I asked.

“Well…it sounded like…like an old lady laughing.”

“Probably just a raccoon chittering,” Stokes said, “the trees are full of ’em.”

“Yeah?” Billy said, eager to be reassured.

“You know what I think Billy?” I said. “I think Nuge’s stories are getting to you.”

“You see Billy,” Jerry said putting his arm around Billy’s shoulders, “they said the same thing I did.” He then turned to Stokes and I and said “Sorry guys. My Brother’s nervous, and since our mother–”

“I hear ya,” Stokes said putting his hand up like Diana Ross stopping someone in the name of love. “Just hang tight, we won’t be gone long.”

We set out down the well-worn path to the lake in the pitch black. We both had flashlights but didn’t want to turn them on until we were well out of sight, as to not attract attention. I couldn’t help but scrutinize every shadow, and cock my head at every sound. It was ironic. One minute I was chastising Billy about being paranoid, and the next minute I was feeling the same way, like he’d infected me.

“Friggin Nuge,” Stokes lamented, “the guy scares the piss outta the little kids, and were stuck with the consequences. I’d could kill him.”

The walk to the lake didn’t take long and neither of us said much. Stokes wasn’t a big talker, and though I had the gift of gab around most people I felt self-conscious around him, like everthing I said was childish. I tried making conversation by bringing up one of the female counselors.

“What’dya think of Sheilah Hemholtz?” I asked.

“She’s alright, I guess.”

“The other day she asked me to put suntan lotion on her back.”

“No shit. Stan the ladies man.”

“Me? You’re the one they all dig?”

“What can I say Stan. When you got it, you got it,” Stokes saidthe darkness obscuring whether his expression was a grimace or a grin.

We were about twenty feet away from the water, the gravel crunching underfoot when we spotted a black shape flying low across the lake. Low and fast.

“You see that?” I said to Stokes, my heartrate suddenly accelerating to triple its normal speed.

“Yeah. What the hell is it?”

“Maybe it’s a Herron. They’re big right?”

“Not that big, or that fast.”

Suddenly it changed directions, as if had heard us.

“Christ it’s coming right towards us,” I said.”

Stokes pointed to a rack of canoes “Let’s get under one,” he said, and we bolted towards them. Stokes got there before me, sliding as if he were stealing second base then disappearing underneath. I got there a few seconds later and slid as well but not as gracefully as Stokes and felt a good amount of skin peel off my elbow in the process, though with the adrenaline coursing through my veins I hardly felt it. As I was wriggling under the inverted canoe Stokes grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me in like a midwife grabbing a newborn. Underneath the canoe our rapid breathing sounded amplified. I rolled over and looked at Stokes. Before I could say anything he put his index finger to his lips and said “Shhh.”

We both lay there for a minute on our backs saying nothing and listening. All I could hear were the faint sounds of the lake lapping on the shore. After what seemed like a reasonable amount of time I finally rolled towards the edge of the canoe.

“What’a you doing?” Stoke’s whispered.

“I wanna see what that thing was. Maybe I can catch a glimpse. It must have flown over us by now.”

As I stuck my head out and looked around I saw nothing. I rolled back over towards Stokes and said “Whatever it was, it’s gone.

We crawled out from under the canoe and stood up. My heart was still pounding. Stokes looked nervous, well nervous by his standards.

“When we get back we should keep this to ourselves,” Stokes said, “it’ll freak Billy out. Jerry could handle it–maybe, but Billy, no way.”

“What about the councillors? Should we tell’em?”

“And say what exactly? That we came down to the lake to look at the stars?”

“I thought you weren’t that worried about getting in trouble?”

“Well maybe I exaggerated a little, or even a lot.”

“I got’cha Stokes,” I said backing down. I knew all too well what it was to pretend things at home were better than they were.

We looked each other in the dark and Stokes pointed at my blood-covered arm glistening in the moonlight and said “Ya ever play baseball Stan? The trick is to slide on your ass.

“Seems to me there was more at stake than someone yelling YOU’RE OUT, so I sacrificed my technique for speed.”

“What about me?” I wasn’t in danger?”

“Ok ‘Mr. Cool under pressure’. Try sliding under a canoe when you reach my size…if you ever do.”

“You saying I’m short? Stokes said, laughing.

“No, for a Jockey you’d be a giant.”

Stokes laughed harder at my joke than it was funny, but it kept us from talking about what we’d just seen.

Stokes pulled his cigarette pack from his back pocket. They were crushed.

“What was that you said about sliding on your butt?” I asked.

“Hardy-har. If you knew how hard it was to get these things up here you wouldn’t laugh.”

Stokes sifted through the pack until he found two that were unbroken.

“Here,” he said and handed me one. “Might has well make the trip worth all the effort.”

He struck a match, cuppped it his hands, and lit his cigarette in a few graceful moves, the matchlight making deep shadows on his face. I was reminded of the artwork in those old Batman comics and had a vision of Stokes as young handsome pre dropped-in-a-vat-of-acid Joker.

After lighting his cigarette he tossed me the matches. My first two attempts at striking one were flubbed attempts that resulted in me burning the tips of my fingers. On the third try I succeed. After my first drag I proceeded to cough like WWI soldier caught in mustard gas attack without a mask.”Smoke much?” was all Stokes said.

After I regained control of my pulmonary system I said what was on both our minds.

“What the hell was that thing Stokes?” Was it a Wi–”

“I have no idea brother Stan. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. ”

Just as I was about to elaborate further I heard a sound like rags whipping in the wind coming from above.

“Get down!” Stokes shouted, as tackled me. As I hit the ground I saw a black shape fly about six feet above us. It looked like a woman riding a broomstick. She was dangling a chubby boy by one arm. He was kicking his legs wildly and swinging his free arm, throwing punches that didn’t connect.

“STAAAAN! STOOOKES!” he screamed. “HEllP.”

After divebombing us, nearly knocking us down like bowling pins using Billy as a ball, what I was undeniably a witch flew out across the lake, her manic shrill laughter skipping over the water as she receded into the darkness. A minute later Stokes and I stood up, but this time we ran as fast as we could, back the way we came.

#

“Calm down Jerry,” Stokes said, “calm down. We’re gonna find him.”

“It’s my fault,” Jerry said, “I should’a gone out with him. It’s just…I didn’t wanna encourage…I mean…I thought he was just spooked….”

I put my hand on Jerry’s shoulder and watched him sob uncontrollably from behind. We’d found him in the tent curled up in a ball on his cot and shaking like a leaf. Neither Stokes nor I had told him what we’d seen. We could see he was losing it as it was. Telling him we’d just seen his brother being whisked off over the lake in the clutches of the witch might be too much.

“Tell us what happened,” I said looking at Stokes laying my index finger perpendicular across my lips, the standard don’t talk symbol for layman. He nodded, letting me know he understood.

Jerry told us how Billy had needed to take a wiz, and how he wanted Jerry to come, and how he told Billy he couldn’t be a wuss his whole life, afraid of raccoons who were probably more afraid of him than he was of him. Billy had reluctantly agreed.

“I was lying on my cot” Jerry had said , “just lookin straight up when a shadow passed over the tent, Low-like. I got curious, so I walked to the the front of tent with my flashlight and pulled the flap back. I shined the beam into the trees figuring what I saw musta been an owl. I’d seen a documentary once on how they hunt at night. Any way, about twenty feet up in the air my beam caught something black; but it wasn’t in the trees. It was kinda hanging in the air like a giant spider. I swear I almost shit myself on the spot. I zig-zagged the beam across the ground til I found Billy and yelled ‘COME BACK BILLY. RIGHT NOW!’ He was struggling with his fly–he always has trouble with it–and he looked at me confused-like. ‘NOW BILLY!’ I screamed, but it was too late. Before he could run, it swooped down and snatched him up with one hand and then flew with him right back over the tent. I swear, if he hadn’t lifted his legs he would’a tore the roof off as he went by. I shined the light right on him and his face was all twisted up.DON’T LET HER TAKE ME JERRY, DON’T LET HER TAKE ME!’ he kept screaming until his voice got out of range.”

“Did you get a good look at what it was?” I said, not letting on we’d already seen Billy being carried off.

“It was an old lady. A real old lady dressed in black.”

Stokes and I looked at each other waiting for Jerry to call it what it was, but he was too afraid.

“Maybe we should tell someone,” I said to Stokes.

“You mean we should tell Nuge

“He’s the obvious choice no?”

“Why, Just cuz he tells those stories, it doesn’t mean he believes ’em.”

“You got a better Idea?”

“Nah. It’s just-

“What?”

“Nothin.”

I couldn’t understand Stokes’s reluctance. I sensed their was something to it, but it wasn’t the time to dig into his psyche. He was prickly, even under normal circumstances.

“We could go and get the Reverend,” I said.

“We’re not going to Brett,” Stokes said, calling the head of the Camp by his first name. Most of the kids did–it was what he wanted–but I never could. “He’ll call the cops for sure, and if they show up were done. Telling the truth’ll make us look crazy, and lying’ll make us look guilty. We’re screwed either way.”

So Nuge it is,” I said, then adding “and oh yeah, I just thought of something else that makes him the smart choice. A: He’s got the keys the boat shed, and B: when we water-ski, of all the councillors he he’s not afraid to haul ass. He drives like Roger Moore in that boat chase scene from Live and Let Die.”

“Sounds like someone’s got a man-crush,” Stokes said.

“Jealous, Stokes?”

“Me? Nah, I’m a Connery man.”

Jerry finally spoke up and said “I know nobody’s asking me, but I’m with Stan. I think if anyone can help us find Billy tonight, It’s Nuge.”

The three of us set out for the section of the camp where the councillors slept, Stokes in the lead, Jerry in the middle, and me in the rear. No one spoke, and only stokes used his flashlight. As to not be seen by other campers–or anyone else–he cupped his hand over the end, his fingers becoming glowing blood-red claws that floated in the darkness giving off no more light than a fist-sized jack-o-lantern, just enough to keep us from tripping over hidden roots.

It was at least a quarter-mile walk. Our tent was at the far end of the camp in a seldom-used section we’d dubbed “Ash-Ville” on account of a fire that had mostly destroyed it in the sixties.

To be continued……

Bacon Boy and The Rock’n Roll Priest: A One Act Play

by Zoot J. McNutt

The play takes place on a dimly lit stage. A mural-sized painting of an old Catholic church with a sloping snow-covered copper roof done in a style that approximates Van Gogh’s, (especially in its use of yellow and blue) functions as a backdrop. If one looks closely, the sign in front of the church reads “Saint Jude’s”. For those of you who are unaware, the late Judas Thaddaeus is the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. The Month is March of an indeterminate year, sometime in the late twenty-second century. It’s cold, and offstage, city sounds, combined with the whistling of the north wind as it courses through laneways and bristles over rooftops, can be heard.

Standing on the stage are two men. One is young, somewhere between the age of twenty-five and thirty. He’s lean and athletic looking, with a narrow face infused with impish Irish features. And though it’s cold, he wears only a thin pea coat and is in no need of a tuque, for he has a shock of light brown hair that’s short in the front, long in the back, and thick as a brick, providing ample insulation. He is a robot, or so he believes. A “Bacon Boy 2087”, to be precise.
The other man is older, with unwelcome unwanted signs of middle age etching their way into his face; crow’s feet about his eyes, worry lines on his forehead, and a slight thickening of the cartilage of his nose and ears, blurring his once youthful angular sharpness. Unlike the younger man, he feels the winter is an affront to his senses; consequently he’s bundled up in a parka with a fur-lined hood pulled up over his head and drawn tightly around the perimeter of his gray-bearded countenance, making him look more like Admiral Byrd than the one-time musician ex-con turned holy man Father Patrick Donovan, also known as “The Rock’n Roll Priest of Yonge Street.”
In front of the two men there stands a wooden table. It’s the kind that you find in church basements with collapsible legs that generally only see the light of day during festive occasions, such as rummage sales and the church’s once-a-year labour day weekend BBQ, the one Father Pat publicly calls “The Heavenly Hamburger and Hotdog Corn Roast!” and privately calls “The Last BBQ” due to the fact that every year he puts it on, more of the work falls on him as fewer parishioners volunteer to help set up, cook, or clean up afterwards.
Sitting on the table is a coffee percolator so pitted and tarnished; it more resembles a tiny 20th century space capsule than an appliance. Father Pat, aware of this resemblance, calls the pot “The Tin Can”. It’s a reference to a line from an old David Bowie song, “Space Oddity”. Next to the “Tin Can” is a stack of empty, misshapen grease-stained donut boxes, donated by a local establishment-the very same place that kindly asks any homeless person who wanders in from the cold to “Buy something, or leave.” The boxes are covered in bright festive colors, colors much brighter than they have any right to be.
The last prop that adorns the stage is next to the table. It’s far too large to sit on the table itself, for at full capacity it weighs upwards of a hundred pounds when full. Like the percolator, Father Pat has a nickname for what is a soup pot closer in size to a wash tub than a cooking utensil. He calls it “Mother” which he knows is an in-joke and short for “The Mother of all pots” and as well as a nod to “The Virgin Mary”, the mother of perpetual help.
And so we begin:
Priest: I can’t tell how great it’s been having you with me again Harlan on what…our third Sunday?
B.B.: Fourth.
Priest: Fourth, yes of course. We must’a served almost sixty people today.
B.B.: Yep. Was actually sixty-two to be exact.
Priest: Makes ya feel good don’t it? (Harlan pauses, too long for it to be anything other than intentional.)
B.B.: Ya I guess. I once served seventy-five cars during a double shift at the drive thru at turd burg…sorry…I meant “Third Burger”. But that was for money, not brotherly love.
Priest: There’s a huge difference Harlan, between being in the service industry and serving. One is labour for wages, and one is its own reward.
B.B.: No, I mean yeah, I get that. It’s better to give than receive. It’s totally St. Francis of a see-see.
Priest: It’s “Assisi”.
B.B.: A “sissy?”
Priest: It’s an Italian name. It’s pronounced like a blend of “a see-see”, and “a sissy”.
B.B.: I see…see.
Priest: I feel we’re verging on an old “Abbot and Costello” routine, that or that old song “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off”, which brings me around to something I want to discuss with you Harlan. When you approached me a few weeks back, I thought I could help you, and, at the same time help myself. It’s been just the three of us for the longest time. (As he speaks, the priest absent-mindedly pats both the percolator and the soup pot, lightly, but with obvious affection.) Mother and I and the Tin Can have nourished oh…I don’t know how many thousands of people over the years, and you see I never minded one bit. (The priest starts to load empty donut boxes and used styrofoam cups into a garbage bag and motions to Harlan to hold the bag with him.) But you Harlan, you don’t feel it, do you?
B.B.: I…uhh…well, sort of. I mean it’s great being around you.
Priest: (Laughing) No need to get nervous son, this isn’t an exam you can fail. I’m just trying to help you, that’s all, help you as best I can.
B.B.: Yeah yeah, ok, I get it.
Priest: I’ve thought a lot about what you’ve told me. I’ve even meditated on it, and that’s says something about how seriously I’ve taken you, because even in the seminary I was always a reluctant mediator. Truth is, it takes everything out of me to not fall asleep while I’m doing it.
B.B.: (Makes a polite “Tsk” sound, respectfully acknowledging that what the priest said was meant to be funny, but not so funny that he should laugh out loud. It’s a “I’m laughing with you, not at you” gesture.)
Priest: I had a friend, well, an instructor rather, who’d been a Jesuit. You know what they are Harlan?
B.B.: Sorta. Didn’t Robert De Niro play one once in an old movie?
Priest: You mean “The Mission”.
B.B.: Yeah yeah, “The Mission”. My uncle had told me “If watching it’s not on your bucket list, then your bucket list’s incomplete.” Most people put things like skydiving, or going two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu on their lists, but not my uncle, with him it was all “seeing that movie, or reading this book, or listening to that album”.
Priest: Your uncle, you mean the one that didn’t exist?
B.B.: Yep, that’d be the one. Was your friend like the skinny guy in the movie who played the clarinet? Or was he more of a ponytail wearin’ “I believe in God, but if you mess with my shit I’ll kill you” badass type, like Robert De Niro.
Priest: The “skinny guy” you’re referring to was Jeremy Irons, he played Father Gabriel…oh, and what he played was an oboe.
B.B.: Yeah, makes sense now that you say it, when he played, it sounded kinda high to be a clarinet. Clarinet’s a badass instrument. I love the solo on “Breakfast in America”. That, and all that old Benny Goodman stuff.
Priest: (Having filled the garbage bag, ties it in a knot without looking, suggesting it’s a task he’s done so many times, it’s automatic.) Ya of course, there’s no denying Benny Goodman “The king of Swing” was a great, if not the greatest to ever play the licorice stick.
B.B.: Huh? lick her what stick?
Priest: (Chuckles, and extends both hands in the “Whoa” gesture.) Mind out of the gutter Harlan, a “licorice stick” is old nineteen-thirties jazz slang for a clarinet.
B.B.: Yeah ok, like the way a guitarist calls his instrument his “Axe”.
Priest: Exactamundo.
B.B.: Ok Father Fonzie.
Priest: Honestly Harlan, I’m the old man, but you’re the one with all the dated references.
B.B: Blame…
Priest: Don’t say it…
B.B.: You know it.
Priest: Your imaginary uncle.
B.B.: That’s “memory implant” uncle.
Priest: Now, getting back to my friend the Jesuit…and to answer your question, I suppose he was more Robert De Niro than Jeremy Irons.
B.B.: In what sense? Tough-like?
Priest: Well, he didn’t carry a loaded musket around if that’s what you’re asking.
B.B.: Ha ha, no of course, and I’m sure he didn’t pack a sword.
Priest: Actually, he’d been a pretty good boxer in his day. (Harlan shuffles around, jabbing into the air like a boxer while breaking into the fanfare from “Rocky”.)
B.B.: That’s so cool…boxing.
Priest: (Smiling wanly, crosses his arms while raising his eyebrows.) Let me know when the Harlan R. Beaumont show is over.
B.B.: Sorry.
Priest: Don’t mind me Harlan. With age comes wisdom…and bitchiness. It’s a package deal.
B.B.: Yeah, no, I get it, not everything’s a joke.
Priest: Correct.
B.B.: Tempted as I am, I won’t tag what you said with an “amundo”.
Priest: (Laughs) I can’t win you with you.
B.B.: Nope.
Priest: I’m going to start again, but for now just listen. Hold your tongue if you don’t mind.
B.B.: One question before you begin?
Priest: Ok. This isn’t a way for you to work in a joke..is it?
B.B.: Na…nothing like that. I just want to know what the guy’s name was before you start…you know, the heavyweight Jesuit. It’ll help me picture him.
Priest: Mulligan, Rory Mulligan.
B.B.: Irish eh? I like’m already. I bet he was tough.
Priest: As tough as they come. You know the Jesuits are like God’s Navy Seals.
B.B.: Cool.
Priest: My point in bringing up old Rory-Father Mulligan rather-is not so much to tell you about him, interesting though he was, it’s really to tell you about a thing called “discernment”. Rory used to say “Learn to discern, then yearn to discern.” I keep reverting to calling him by his first name because we got to be friends afterwards, but at the seminary he was “Father Mulligan” to me, and everyone else. Now, when I talk about “discernment”, I’m not talking about basic things like “Do I want to watch basketball, or baseball? Eat KFC or Mickey Dee’s? It goes way past that. Way past.
B.B: (Lifts his hand as if he’s in a classroom asking a question.) If I can just interrupt for one sec?
Priest: I suppose.
B.B.: Don’t dumb yourself down on account’a me, or in the spirit of trying to relate. I know you don’t do any of that stuff.
Priest: Ok Harlan, you got me. But I do go to Mickey Dee’s.
B.B.: I’m sure God forgives you that.
Priest: Truth is, when I go in my collar, I get free breakfast, but the money I don’t spend, I give away.
B.B.: Yeah, no need to explain.
Priest: Anyway, it is stuff you do right?
B.B.: All but the KFC. Don’t eat pigeons, sorry.
Priest: Urban legend.
B.B.: Ok, sure whatever.
Priest: Ok, I’m going to reconvene, but nothing from the peanut gallery, capisce?
B.B: No speaka da Italian.
Priest: (Makes a zipping across his mouth.)
B.B.: (Does the same, but performs a locking motion on one side with an imaginary key.)
Priest: Now, discernment involves invoking a thing we Catholics call the “Holy Spirit”. It’s essentially God’s presence. Father Mulligan used to say “Imagine we’re all trilight lamps. Most men scramble around with their switch set at forty watts, spiritually speaking.” “A good man” he’d said, “one who attends mass regularly and tries to be honest with himself, he may be able to turn his switch up a notch to sixty watts.” “However”, he’d told us with the enthusiasm of a car salesman clinching a deal, “the man who invokes the Holy Spirit? His switch is turned all the way to the third position, hell, he’s divining with a hundred watts of power!” Rory’s analogies were always like that. He’d been a fix-it man with his own business before he’d “gotten the call” as we say. He’d loved boasting that he was closer to Jesus than the rest of us because he too had been a carpenter. When I got to be his friend years later and really gotten to know him, I finally put him in his place and said “Yes Rory, but he didn’t drink his business away, default on all his creditors, get thrown out by his wife, and hit skid-row, becoming a drunk who fought in cages “til the death” in clubs where large sums of dirty money changed hands and you “had to know a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy” to get in.
B.B.: Whoa, that dude sounded complicated.
Priest: Many of us who get the call are. Folks look at us and see an image they project from their own minds that we’ve always walked on moral high ground, but some of us have serious baggage. Don’t forget Harlan…and I’ll forgive you that last interruption, only because it serves me-not only is the road to hell paved with good intentions, but conversely, sometimes the road to heaven is paved with bad ones. In short, RUINATION often leads to SALVATION. Rory used to say “Our sins are the glaze, our soul is the ham, and God is the baker!”
B.B.: No one can coin a phrase like an Irishman. Oops, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt…again.
Priest: We used to call them “Mulliganisms” at the seminary. As students, we’d hang on his every word, waiting for him to toss one off.
B.B.: What you’re describing kinda reminds of that old movie, the one with Robin Williams.
Priest: Can you narrow it down? The man made tons.
B.B.: Dying…Po…
Priest: “Dead Poets Society”. Another one of your uncle’s bucket list recommendations no doubt.
Priest: For a man who never existed, I must say your uncle had exemplary taste. That’s a classic. Mulligan did have that kind of charisma. In fact, that’s the problem. Any time I get to trying to talk about what he taught me, I end up talking about him instead. It’s been my experience that larger than life characters invariably cast larger than life shadows, even long after they’re gone.
B.B.: You will for me.
Priest: Thanks. And forget about trying to stay quiet, it was a dumb request. I’m no Rory Mulligan, so I shouldn’t expect you to hang on my every word. Just be yourself.
B.B.: You too. Who knows, you may even pull a “Donavanism” out of your..
Priest: My parka?
B.B.: Correct…
Priest: (Giving two thumbs up à la Fonz) Amundo! Anyway Harlan, my whole point in bringing up discernment, wasn’t to go into anecdotes about my seminary days, or old Rory, God rest his soul. My point was to tell you that I’ve given an awful lot of thought and attention–and even invoked the Holy Spirit–to try and understand you and your situation, and I’ve come to some realizations, or should I say, things were revealed to me.
B.B: Uh-oh, should I be worried? This sounds heavy.
Priest: No need to worry Harlan, when God’s the pilot, there may be turbulence, but you always arrive at your destination.
B.B.: A “Mulliganism?”
Priest: No, that was actually a “Donavanism”.
B.B.: Hey, not bad.
{The Priest opens his mouth to speak, but just as he’s about to do so, Harlan, acting on impulse, cuts him off.)
B.B.: I bet the Holy Spirit told you I’m not a robot, right?
Priest: Hold on there, and let me explain will you. It’s not that cut-and-dried.
B.B.: I’m not some nut job, and I didn’t make it up.
Priest: If you’d let me explain…
B.B.: Sure, how you conjured up a Holy Spirit…like some Jedi Knight tapping into “The Force” in one of those cheesy old Star Wars movies?
Priest: Temper temper. Have some respect.
B.B.: Or what?
Priest: I may have to cut you down to size with my lightsaber, what else? (Both men laugh in a moment of tension-easing levity)
Priest: Honestly Harlan, Star Wars?
B.B: It was the first thing that came to mind, sorry.
Priest: I could stand the first few, but after…
B.B.: Yeah, the only one of them that was on my uncle’s bucket list recommendations was the first one, and even then, he’d prefixed it, saying “If you’ve totally exhausted your list, and you find you’re still alive, and will be for some time, I’d recommend that, and “Jaws” and maybe “Saturday Night Fever”. The movies are lightweight, but they’re damn entertaining.”
Priest: Now before you go off the deep end…again, just hear me out Harlan. Remember, what I’m saying is being said out of love-I’m trying to help you. I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you believe you’re a robot, a “Bacon Boy 2087”, I sincerely do. But…
B.B.: But you don’t.
Priest: I didn’t say I didn’t believe you…exactly…
B.B.: No, but you didn’t say you did either.
Priest: The fact is Harlan, I’m no bioengineer. Hell, I had to pay someone to put together a coffee table I bought at Ikea last year. However, I do know people. It’s my job to deal with them; to hear their confessions, to baptize their children, and to hold their hands when they’re dying. I can read people the way an editor can glance at something, and within minutes know whether it’s quality, or crap, heartfelt, or shallow. It’s a gift I’ve always had, even back before I was “Father Donovan”, and I was just “Patrick Donovan, rock star on the rise and legend in my own mind” playing every dive in Ontario, cashing in on the fact that I looked a lot like Bob Seger, and with enough reverb on my voice, and enough booze in both me, and the people we’d play to, I hopefully sounded like as well. I had it then, but it wasn’t as honed as it is now…nowhere near.
B.B.: So, that’s why they call you “The Rock’n Roll priest of Yonge Street?” I’d heard rumors, but…
Priest: A journalist dubbed me that not long after I started the Soup Kitchen. He’d written an article on me, and in the process dug up my past.
B.B.: I think it sounds cool.
Priest: Yes, but with a nickname like that you’ll never become Rock’n Roll Bishop, let alone Rock’n Roll Cardinal.
B.B.: D’you care?
Priest: Not really. I’m agreeance with Dylan on that one. (Sings, doing a passable Bob Dylan Impersonation.) “It ain’t me babe”.
B.B.: Dylan!…yeah, my uncle swore by “Blonde on Blonde”.
Priest: Before we veer off the subject and start extolling the virtues of Dylan-and God knows there’s many-I wasn’t totally finished telling you about my misspent youth squandering my talents as the king of the Bar Band B circuit. Forgive me my self-indulgence if you will, but it pertains to what we’re talking about.
B.B.: No, it’s totally cool, go for it.
Priest: So you see, there I was with this talent, this empathy if you will, something now that I put to use doing God’s will, and I was using it for things like: knowing right away whether a club owner was going to stiff us, or whether an audience wanted to hear a ballad or an up-tempo dance number. I could even spot the guys who were likely to pick fights, and tip-off the bouncers in advance. The guys in the band used to tease me and call me “Johnny Smith”, on account of the character in that Stephen King book “The Dead Zone”.
B.B.: “The Dead Zone”, a rare case of a great Stephen king book that’s also a great movie.
Priest: Wah? What about “Shawshank Redemption”, “Stand By Me”, “The Green Mile”, “The Dark Tower”?
B.B.: Jeez, you’d think I’d taken the Lord’s name in vain.
Priest: S’all right. We’ve all got our faves. Other than “Children of the Corn”, “Maximum Overdrive”, and that “Carrie” remake, I just think most of them have been pretty good.
B.B.: Alright movies, but too Hollywood for me. What I liked about “The Dead Zone” was that it was done by Cronenberg. Anyway, you were telling me about your days as the “Professor Xavier” of cover band singers.
Priest: Easy Harlan, don’t go putting words in my mouth. I said I had a gift, I never said anything about being a mutant.
B.B.: You could be.
Priest: What, a mutant?
B.B.: It’s possible. Anything’s possible. Maybe you’re a mutant, but no one ever trained you to use your powers properly. Maybe if you’d gone to an upscale mutant academy in Westchester, instead of an old seminary in Sarnia, things might have turned out different.
Priest: Honestly Harlan, the stuff you come up with.
B.B.: Are you reading my thoughts now? What color are my boxers?
Priest: For God’s sake Harlan, I DON’T have ESP!
B.B.: It was a trick question anyway. I’m not wearing boxers. In fact, I’m not wearing anything. I’m riding bareback today. Someone busted the washing machine in my building this week.
Priest: If “riding bareback” means what I think it means, I’m going to ignore that.
B.B.: I was only yankin’ your chain-not the part about my washing machine being broken though-that part’s true. I’ve got (sings) “dirty laundry…kick’em when they’re up…”
Priest: (sings) “kick’ em when they’re down…”
B.B.: (sings) “Kick’em when they’re up…
Priest: (sings) “kick’em all around.”
B.B.: Wow, you know that old Don Henley song? I thought it was something obscure my uncle used to hum.
Priest: Know it? Hell, I used to sing it. It was one of our best tunes. Before I found God, I could practically channel Henley’s cynicism.
B.B.: And now?
Priest: Now? Now, I’m all Glen Frey peaceful easy feelin’.
B.B.: I read-don’t ask me where-that that song was actually written by a guy named Jack Tempchin, and not The Eagles.
Priest: Yes, well I read somewhere that “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was actually written by Mozart, but when I hear it, I think: kid’s song, not “guy in powdered wig with an undisputable talent for creating beautiful melodies who died too young and was buried in a pauper’s grave”, smart-ass.
B.B.: Sorry. I was showing off my “20th Century Trivial Pursuit: The Pop Culture Edition” chops.
Priest: It’s alright Harlan, I’ve never doubted your intelligence, only the fact that it’s artificial.
B.B.: So, you don’t believe my story?
Priest: I’m going to answer your question like a politician and talk around it. It’s like I said, it’s not a case of a simple “yes” or “no”. I’ve thought a lot about what you’ve said when we met, about your transformative experience, about how you said you went from being a chronically depressed disenfranchised young man who sleepwalked through his life like a modern-day version of Camus’s Meursault shoveling fast-food out a drive-thru window to the masses, wondering (sings) “what’s it all about…Alfie?”, to the young man who I met a few weeks ago, someone who wandered into my church visibly upset, brimming with manic energy brought about by embarking on a vegetarian regime during which he claimed Tofu had altered his brain chemistry making him, not only open to the concept of God, but painfully aware-after finding a six-foot tall box left his closet-that he was in fact a robot, and what he’d found was more than a box it was in fact a discarded shell that he’d germinated in, like one of those pods from “Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers”. In these last few weeks we’ve worked together, I’ve watched you, and turned your story around in my mind over and over again-and before I continue, for the record, I do agree that there’s no denying your resemblance to a young Kevin Bacon, in fact it’s downright eerie.
B.B.: (muttering) People who look exactly like aging versions of “The Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” shouldn’t throw stones.
Priest: Now, that being said, I’ve come to the conclusion that concerning you there are two distinct possibilities, and-being a priest I probably shouldn’t use such expressions-but I’ll be damned if I know which one is the truth.
B.B.: What, the Holy Spirit let you down?
Priest: No, not exactly, I know what to do, but sometimes the answers you get when you mediate are right, you just have accept they may be answers to another question, and you have to find out what that question is after the fact. You see my concern shouldn’t have been so much “whether or not you’re a robot” it should have been “what path should I try to set you on regardless of the truth?”
B.B.: Is it Just me? Or is this conversation starting to feel very Gandalf/Frodo-ish all of the sudden.
Priest: I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I don’t remember any robots in “Lord of the Rings”, the book, or the movies I just remember those Orcs , the ones who looked like they shot steroids, drank protein shakes and worshiped Ben Weider more than Sauron.
B.B.: Ha, that’s hilarious. Maybe I’m starting to rub off on you.
Priest: You might have a point there. You do remind of myself when I was a young man. Mayhaps you’ve reawakened some of my long dormant twenty-something irreverence.
B.B.: No, what I was referring to when I brought up the whole Gandalf/Frodo thing was really about the way we were relating, not because I thought I was going to ease on down the road through Mirkood with my chunky man-servant into Mordor intent on flushing the one ring down the giant volcanic shitter known as “The Cracks of Doom” at your insistence because it’s some seriously dangerous bling-bling.
Priest: Only Harlan R. Beaumont could turn Frodo Baggins into a profane hip-hop Hobbitt.
B.B.: (Bows deeply.) Thank you, thank you very much. I take that as a compliment.
Priest: No…really, that’s how it was meant. You’ve got a great mind Harlan, and a terrific imagination, that’s part of what I wanted to tell you, it’s one of the things that occurred to me when I was contemplating the complex being that is you. Though you didn’t say it specifically, you came to me concerned about spiritual matters, conflicted as it were about the state of your soul. People come to me in all kinds of states, but underneath it all it’s usually something along spiritual lines. My analogy is a simple one: If I see a man in a shoe store, I know it’s because he needs shoes. Ok, if i see a woman, maybe she’s just admiring the merchandise, but a man? He’s usually there to make a purchase. Long story short: I knew what you wanted and needed when we met. It’s the specifics of your situation that sent me around the mulberry bush when this monkey (Priest points at his own chest) doesn’t normally chase the weasel. As I’ve said, I’m of two minds about you: You’re either the robot you say you are, the “Bacon Boy 2087″ or, as we used to say about my aunt Matilda who claimed she had a radio in her head and would waltz around the living room every evening tuned into “Lawrence Welk”, a man who hadn’t had a show on the air for over a hundred and fifty years, “you’re as nutty as a fruitcake”. Anyhow, whatever the truth is, it isn’t important. I’ve studied you these last few weeks-and don’t take this personally-you may need spiritual development but it’s not where your head is at right now. I think what you need is to use your mind and put that imagination of yours to use. Have you ever considered writing? Something tells me you’d be good at it.
B.B.: You actually had an aunt named Matilda that waltzed? Did she live near a billabong? Did you also happen to have an uncle named Mick Dundee that hunted crocs…ehh mate?
Priest: Yeah sure, I’d get together with him and my aunt and they’d help me (sings) “tie me kangaroo down sport.”
B.B.: Huh?
Priest: I hate to break it to you, but if we ever play “20th Century Trivial Pursuit: The Pop Culture Edition” I’d whip your butt.
B.B.: Rolf Harris!
Priest: Ok, I take that back.
B.B.: (Singing a snatch of Styx’s Mr. Roboto) “Secret secret, I’ve got a secret.”
Priest: Oh yes of course, how could I forget.
B.B.: (Tapping his index finger against his temple) Memory implants baby, memory implants.
Priest: Excuse me, MR. ROBOTO.
B.B.: (Striking an iconic crotch-thrusting bowlegged Kevin Bacon pose from the movie Footloose) that’s “Bacon Boy” to you.
Priest: You didn’t answer me about writing. I was being serious, have you ever considered it?
B.B.: Maybe, in a passing way.
Priest: Only?
B.B.: Well, ok, maybe more than in a passing way, but I’dunno, that’s some serious shit yo.
Priest: Have some faith “yo”.
B.B.: But I barely finished high school?
Priest: I’m a priest who went to prison for second degree manslaughter, and before that was a musician who couldn’t read a note.
B.B.: Yeah, but you’re like…
Priest: Older? So what Thomas Pynchon wrote “V” when he was twenty-six, and Truman Capote wrote “Other Voices, Other Rooms” when he was only twenty-four. I can see you pounding the keys of some old typewriter, letting your thoughts run wild onto paper as clear as Johnny Smith saw Greg Stillson starting World War Three in “The Dead Zone”.
B.B.: That vision courtesy of the Holy Spirit?
Priest: That, or my latent mutant abilities. Take your pick.
Priest: Listen Harlan, I’m not telling you to not come back next Sunday-you’re more than welcome to-but if you don’t, I fully understand.
B.B.: Yeah, well..
Priest: It’s OK. Something tells me we’ve done the piece of the road together that we were supposed to.
B.B.: Like Kerouac and Cassady (Imitating the latter) yes yes YESS!
Priest: Well, that wasn’t quite what I meant…
B.B.: Yeah, no, I mean of course. I know we didn’t hitchhike around the country like philosopher bums, deep in a bromance, digging jazz, and trying to find the meaning of life through drugs, vagrancy and the avoidance of responsibility. I just meant it was, I dunno…
Priest: A transformative experience?
B.B.: That’s it. Yeah. Well, (looking down, kicking at the snow) it was for me anyway.
Priest: Me too.
B.B.: Really?
Priest: Of course. How many Harlan R. Beaumonts does one come across in a lifetime?
B.B.: I’m not quite sure how to take that.
Priest: (smiles) Fishing for a compliment?
B.B.: (Miming reeling in a fish) Well…
Priest: Put it this way. When you’re a famous author and on all the talk shows, I’ll take great pride in telling people “I knew him when”.
B.B.: (Mimes fanning his neck while tugging at his collar) Gee, I bet you say that to all the Bacon Boys.
Priest: (Extends his arms, thumbs up) Exactamundo!
B.B.: (Laughing) Did anyone ever tell you you’re a one trick pony?
Priest: Only one person.
B.B.: Who?
Priest: Rory Mulligan.
B.B.: That I take as a compliment.
Priest: As it was intended.
B.B.: Do I remind you of him?
Priest: Yes and no, but something tells me you’re going to cast a long shadow. (A long silence ensues.)
Priest: (Pointing at what they’ve packed up) let’s bring this stuff inside, it’s freezing.
B.B.: I’m with you on that.
Priest: Before we part ways for good, there’s one last thing I’d like to ask you.
B.B.: Shoot.
Priest: Would you consent to being baptized?
B.B.: Can I actually be baptized? If I’m a robot, technically I don’t have a soul…do I?
Priest: That’s a good question. Why don’t we err on the side of caution-I mean didn’t they used to bless Ships in the old days?
B.B: You mean like The Titanic?
Priest: Yes, that and a few million Ships that never sank. Logically, if you can bless a ship…
B.B: You can baptize a robot…I get it.
Priest: You don’t sound too enthusiastic.
B.B.: No, I am…it’s..
Priest: It’s fine. Consider it taking an insurance policy out on your soul, and, If I don’t see you next week, come by six Sundays from now.
B.B: Six?
Priest: I’m going on a cruise around the Caribbean.
B.B.: You take vacations?
Priest: Yep, and I put my pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. So it’s a deal then?
B.B.: Sure.
(The two men walk off stage carrying the table like a stretcher between them. On it the percolator and the soup pot are balanced. As the lights fade you hear the two men chatter.)
B.B.: You ever miss your rock’ roll days?
Priest: Not a bit. (Whistles Eagle’s “Peaceful Easy Feeling”.)

 

The End.

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Moonshine Steve

moonboy

by Zoot J. McNutt

“Hi my name’s Steve” said the young curly-haired man from the podium at the front of the fluorescent-lit church hall.

“Hi Steve”, replied the crowd in near-perfect unison brimming with manic enthusiasm.

“I uhh…well I don’t have much to say”, Steve said, staring into his palm at the white poker chip he’d just received from the tall man standing next to him. “I’m just glad to be here I guess.”

“Love ya Steve”, the crowd shouted, applauding.

“Lots and lots”, some added
as if to drive the point home.
Steve walked back to his seat, avoiding making eye contact with any one person along the way, and
plunked himself down in his still-ass-temperature chair.

“Do we have any more takers? Would anyone else like a desire chip? Anybody?” said the man towering over the podium where Steve had just stood. He was waving a white plastic poker chip and scanning the crowd like a magician looking for a volunteer.

“Well if you’re too shy, I’ll just
leave this right here and you can pick it up after the meeting”.Then, moving gracefully for such a large man, Lou Garrou, or “Lighthouse Lou” as he was called, placed the chip on the corner of a nearby table upon which a black felt cloth was draped, the letters S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y N-I-G-H-T H-O-W-L-E-R-S pasted on the front arching above a full-faced winking moon.

I can’t believe it’s come to this, Steve thought. I guess it beats a silver bullet through the heart, though he doubted by much.

It wasn’t Steve’s first AA meeting. It wasn’t even his second or third. By his estimation it was his eleventh, though it was the first time he’d come for himself. He’d gone to see his mother take ten cakes in ten years and spew her bullshit. On her eleventh anniversary he’d come up with an excuse to not go, and on the twelfth, having broken the tradition, he simply offered no excuse whatsoever. From thirteen on he’d been a permanent no-show.

A veteran of sorts, Steve knew the rigmarole. After they finished up front, there’d be speaker. It wouldn’t be the he big guy who’d given him the chip though, it would be someone else, which was a pity because a guy that big–if he liked to scrap that is, and he looked like he did, Steve suspected–would have a hell of a drunk-a-log.

In the end it had been a peroxide blonde named Mary L, or “Hooker” Mary as she was called
in AA. When she’d begun her talk she asked people to try to identify with her feelings, not her actions.

“It’s a disease of emotions,” she’d said. Steve did as she asked, but it was hard. Not only had he never turned a trick, he’d never had a drink, not even one single drop, ever.

After Mary finished her talk, a gangly acne-scarred man with orange-out-of-the box hair who identified himself as Tony “The Tiger” got up and thanked her.

Interesting nickname, Steve thought. I wonder if I ever get one, what mine would be?

After Tony finished thanking Mary, a mole-faced man named Will P. reclaimed the seat at the front table he’d vacated upon introducing her, and he too thanked a bunch of people.

They sure like thanking each other, Steve remarked. I wonder if they’d thank me if I showed up one night after too much Moonshine? Something tells me no, unless it was for not ripping them limb from limb.

With his thank-you’s having been taken care of, Will P. (Will “The Mole” P., Steve would have nicknamed him were he asked to supply one) solemnly addressed the crowd.

“This ends the formal part of the meeting” Will announced. “Please stick around and join us afterwards for coffee and conversation. Now, for those who will, would you please help me close the meeting with the Lord’s Prayer.”

Everyone stood up and formed a circle around the perimeter of the room. Steve followed suit.
Last thing I want is to stand out, he thought. If I have to hold someone’s sweaty palms, it’ll only be for a minute.

Without intending to, when the circle closed he ended up between Lou and Hooker Mary. He could have sworn they’d separated to let him between them, but it had been subtle.

She’s still got it goin’ on, for a woman old enough to be my mother, that is, Steve thought.

Steve leaned towards her and whispered “I really enjoyed your talk by the way. I could really relate.” As she shyly said thank you, he inhaled her perfume and consecrated the smell to memory. Someone yelled shhhhh and then Will asked as piously as a crooked Bishop:

“Whose father?”

“Our Father,” the crowd began in response, segueing into “who art in heaven” the well entrenched opening line of the Lord’s Prayer.

Steve recited the prayer along with them in his head. His version.

Our Father, who aren’t in Heaven, Hollywood be thy name. Thy kingdom’s scum, thy will be dumb, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

He’d never bothered to make up a second verse, though he easily could have. Fate had turned him into many things, but he was a born mocker. So during the prayer’s second verse he just listened, and acknowledged how, in his case, daily bread had never been in short supply, but with respects his trespasses being forgiven, he doubted they could; most who’d trespassed against him were no longer in need of forgiving.

Steve considered Will P’s invitation to stay for coffee and conversation, and, though he was interested in the first part, not the second, he decided swapping one for the other was a worthwhile exchange.

He made his way to the table where the percolator stood perched like a miniature rocket ship from an old movie and poured himself a coffee.

He expected it to taste harsh and metallic the way percolated coffee often did, and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t.

“Good ehh?” he heard someone say from behind him. When he turned around to see who it was, he recognized the man who’d thanked the speaker: Tony the Tiger.

“I made it”, he said pointing at Steve’s cup, beaming with pride. “I use Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee ya know. Money comes outta my own pocket, but that’s OK. When I think a what I spent on the booze–Oh, I’m Tony by the way,” he said extending a skinny shaking rubbed-raw hand.

“The Tiger”, Steve said extending his own. “Love that name. How’d you come to get it?”

“Well…ya know. It’s a long story. In the hospital..you see..I used to be the C.E.O of a rather large company…and well…in the manic phase of my illness everything was GREAT…and…”
Before Tony could make much headway, Lou came to the rescue.

“Excuse me”, Lou said stepping between the two men to get access to the percolator’s spigot. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I know when you make the coffee Tony, it goes fast”.

“That’s ok, I was just telling young Steve–”

“He was telling me how he got his nickname”, Steve said looking at Lou as if he wasn’t put off in the least by Tony’s rambling.

At that moment, Lou realized he might have misjudged the young man for being more of a green horn than he was.

“If you don’t mind me saying,” Lou said. “Am I right in assuming you’re someone who’s been around these halls before?”

“I used to come to see my mother take her cakes.”

“And now you’re coming for you.”

“That’s right”.

“Who’s your mother? Maybe we know her?” Tony asked.

“Her name was Pat”, Steve said.

“They used to call her–”

“Pancake Pat!” Tony cried out. “Of course! I see a resemblance around the eyes. She used to tell that story when she spoke of how her spiritual awakening happened one morning while she was rolfing in a House of Pancakes bathroom and she saw God’s face in the toilet bowl. Wasn’t she–”

“Yes. She was killed” Steve said.

“I heard it was a Wolf attack of all things,” Tony said.

“OK Tony”, Lou said grabbing Tony’s elbow. “Maybe this isn’t the time.”

“It’s ok. I came here to face the truth, not run from it.”

“Amen to that brother, Amen to that”, Tony said casting his gaze upwards. “Well good luck to you young Steve. It was a pleasure. I bid you adieu!” And with that he scurried off, bounding like a Jack unmoored from his box.

“Manic”, Lou said not unsympathetically.

As Steve watched Tony slip into the crowd he could feel Lou’s eyes on him, watching.

He’s trying to figure me out, like he’s got a hunch. The guy’s Sharp.

“Since it’s your first meeting–first for you I mean–you probably don’t have a sponsor”, Lou said walking the line between statement and question.

“No I don’t.”

“I’m available. If you don’t mind a crusty old Lighthouse keeper showing you the ropes that is.”

Did he just say he was a Lighthouse keeper? Steve thought, his blood suddenly running cold. Easy buddy. There’s lots of Lighthouses. Doesn’t mean it’s the same one.

“That’d be great”, Steve said trying not to react to what he’d just uheard.

“Tell ya what”, Lou said. “We’ll do ninety in ninety together. And then after that, if you meet someone you click with more in you can ask them to be your sponsor. In the meantime It’ll be good for me too. Been in a bit a slump lately.”

“Ninety in ninety?” Steve asked.

“Sorry. It’s AA slang for Ninety meetings in ninety days”.

“Uhh sure…Sounds Great,” Steve said.

“We’ll go in my car if that’s ok with you.” Lou said.

“Suits me. I don’t drive much. My car’s a beater. Never know when it’s gonna start.” Steve said.

“Where do I pick you up?”

“140 Elm Shade”.

“Your mother’s old place?”

“How’d you know?”

“I drove her home a few times.”

Before the conversation could go any further Steve and Lou were suddenly surrounded by members. Lou was a popular figure, an old-timer who’d quit drinking many moons ago when most in the room were in diapers, and some hadn’t even been born. Consequently he was in great demand.

While Lou listened to people’s sorrows and frustrations, offering them advice, saying things like “accept the things you cannot change” or “you gotta let go and let god”, Steve slunk around the coffee pot, eating Oreos, and Tim-bits, and shaking hands with whoever approached, studying him all the while.

He dispenses platitudes like an over-sized Yoda. Why not tell them to use the force while you’re at it?

As the meeting drew to a final close and the last straggler left, to demonstrate his earnestness Steve helped stack the chairs before finally leaving.

“See ya tomorrow”, Steve called out to Lou from the doorway before leaving.

“Seven sharp”, Lou said turning around and pointing at his watch.

“I’ll be ready,” Steve called out across the almost empty hall. As went to leave he heard a toilet flush and saw Hooker Mary come out of the women’s washroom and walk over to Lou, purse shouldered, arms crossed.

Driving her home too are we Yoda? Damn you’re one smooth operator.

As Steve walked home staring at the waxing moon, he wondered if Lou was doing more than just driving Mary home and if it had been that way with his mother too. He also wondered how he’d ever make it through ninety in ninety. He’d never gone more than thirty days without the moonshine doing him in; not since the fateful night he’d gone with his brother to Sandy Island.

Lou left the meeting with a lot his mind as well. Usually meetings left him in a better mood than he’d shown up in, but tonight had been the opposite. He’d barely heard a word Mary had said on the way home as she’d prattled on, dissecting her talk. He’d simply nodded and said “uh huhh” at all the right times. She’d finally caught on and said “Earth to Lou. Earth to Lou Garou. Come in Lou. You’re not listening to a thing I’m saying are you?”

“No. I mean–”

“It was seeing Pat’s kid. It upset you somehow, didn’t it.”

“Yeah. It threw me for a loop. I tried not to let it show. Last thing I wanted was to make the kid uncomfortable on his first meeting.”

“He’s not yours…is he?” Mary asked, half-kidding.”

“Lord no. It’s nothing like a that,” Lou answered thinking: though he might be, but not in a way I can tell you. “It’s just well, it’s just that seeing him brought back a lot memories, that’s all. She used to talk about him all the time. And well of course there’s–”

“Let’s not get into that Lou. After you drop me off I gotta sleep alone in a ground floor apartment with nothing but a cat to defend me.”

“Anyhow, to backtrack a little. I did get the gist of what you were saying before.”

“Oh, you so you were listening?”

“Your talk was fine. Don’t be so hard on yourself. All we have’s our story.”

“Yeah. But–”

“Yeah I want everyone one’a mine to be the sermon of the mount too, but it usually just pours out like the philosophical ramblings of an old fart.” who’s made his career in AA hiding the truth.

Pulling into Mary’s driveway, Lou said

“If anything comes up call me. Anything. I mean it.”

“Oh I Will Lou, believe you me. I’ve got more faith in you than those kids I see dressed as cops nowadays.”

That night it took Lou took forever to fall asleep. He kept replaying his and Steve’s conversation, in particular the part where he’d mentioned that he’d been lighthouse keeper; he was sure the kid had blanched like he’d seen a ghost.

The next night Lou arrived at seven p.m. sharp. Steve was standing outside his house staring up at the moon in deep concentration. He was so enraptured he didn’t even notice Lou’s car until Lou finally honked.

“Pretty aint it?” Lou said as Steve slid in the front seat.

“What…the moon? Oh Yeah,” Steve said.”

“I’m fond of it myself.”

“Quite the car you’ve got,” Steve said changing the subject.

“Nineteen eighty-seven Buick LeSabre limited. Poor man’s Cadillac back in the day.”

“You sure take care of it.”

“The trick is I only drive her in the summer. Winter is what kills cars.”

“Where we off to?” Steve asked.

“Meetings called ‘New life’. But first we pick up one’a my sponsies. His bike’s in the shop?”

“Bike?”

“Motorcycle I mean. Harley to be specific”

Ten minutes later Lou pulled up to an old apartment building. Standing outside waiting was a bearded long haired young man in a leather jacket. Around the program he was known as ‘Motorcycle Dave.’

As Dave approached the car Steve hopped out unexpectedly. “Take the front seat. I don’t mind.”

“It’s ok–”

“No. I insist. I’m the new guy.”

As they pulled out Lou made introductions. “Dave Steve, Steve Dave. Steve’s new. We’re gonna do ninety in ninety together.”

“Worked for me,” Dave said.

Steve could tell Dave was a man of few words. He liked that. Still waters run deep. A cliché that was actually true.

When they hit the highway Lou grabbed a cassette from the glove compartment and popped it in his car stereo. As the piano chords started to spill out, Dave said “Whoa, blast from the past!”

“🎶I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand
Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain
He was looking for the place called Lee Ho Fook’s
Going to get a big dish of beef chow mein🎶

🎶Werewolves of London🎶”

When Steve looked to the front seat he could see Lou’s looking at him in the rearview mirror.

“Ya like this song?” he said.

“Ya…sure. Can’t say I’ve ever heard it though.”

“It’s from the Warren Zevon album Excitable Boy”.

Tricksy Lou, tricksy. Steve thought. What’s your game? Are you sponsoring me, or taunting me?

As Warren Zevon howled over his three chord vamp, Lou and Dave made small talk; innocuous gossip mostly: Slipper Joe had slipped again, Gerry M. had finally succumbed to cancer, a long overdue transgender meeting had finally opened and so on. Steve listened but with little interest. His thoughts were mainly on himself, in particular his predicament that he’d never in fact drank but had to blend in amongst people who’d drank plenty. His concern was what he was going to say if he was asked about his drinking habits, his choice of spirits in particular.

I’ll tell them I drank moonshine. That I picked up the habit in–where do hillbillies come from again? Oh yeah in Kentucky. How I got heavily into it when I lived there a few years back. Even had my own still. I’ll tell them a funny story about how, when I crossed the border on the way back into Canada with a trunk full of the stuff stashed in clear plastic water bottles, I felt like an old-time bootlegger.

If anyone pressed him for too many details about his time in Virginia, he had an answer for that too:

I’ll say I was in a helluva’n accident. You know, drinking and driving (to make myself sympathetic I’ll tell them that I swerved to avoid hitting a deer) and wrapped my car around a telephone pole, and that my head bounced around in the car like a superball on account’a that I wasn’t wearing a seat belt, and that when I came to the doctors told me I’d suffered brain trauma and lost a good chunk of gray matter, and it just so happened that the particular chunk I lost had been where my time in Virginia was stored like socks in a drawer, and how in an instant it was gone, just like that. (I’ll snap my fingers in front the person’s face i’m talking to as I say the word “that”, to heighten the drama). He knew how much alkies loved a dramatic story, the more details, the better.

As Steve worked out his fictional past, “Werewolves of London” gave way to CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising and then “Dancing in The Moonlight” by king Harvest. Every time a new song would start Steve could see Lou looking at him in the rear-view mirror.

“You got a thing for songs about the moon?” Steve asked.

“Actually,” Lou said, “it’s a tape I made for the upcoming Halloween dance. You’re going aren’t you Dave?”

“Hell yeah. I’ve got a great costume this year. Tops last years.”

“What were you again? Jog my memory.”

“Chewbacca”

“Yeah. Wasn’t a stretch with that beard. Though you were…how do they say it nowadays? A bit vertically challenged.”

“We can’t all be six-five. What about you? Going as The Mountain again no doubt?” Dave asked.

“Game of thrones. Love that show” Steve quipped, trying to get in on the conversation.

“Why not change it up this year? Go as The Hound” Dave asked.

“Believe me, you don’t wanna see me as the Hound. You really don’t.”

As Lou looked at Steve in the rear-view mirror, their eyes met and neither looked away. Me neither, Steve thought.

“Why’da decide to drive us out in’ta the boon docks for this meeting?” Dave asked. “The Sunday Night Steppers would have been a lot closer.”

“Well…I heard they’ve got a really great speaker tonight?”

“Yeah? Anyone I know?” Dave asked.

“I’ll give you a hint: he’s six-foot five and drives an old Buick.”

“Oh no. Not that guy. His talk puts me to sleep. There I was on Sandy Island, drunk in my light house…blah blah blah.”

Sandy Island! So it was the same Lighthouse, Steve thought. This is getting weirder all the time. Could it have been him? It had been huge, but then again I sprout a few inches too when I’m in the throws of it–when I get up on my haunches that is.

Whatever suspicions Steve had were confirmed by Lou’s talk. It was all there. All you had to do was read between the lines.

Lou started out by saying–which wasn’t the norm from what Steve remembered when he’d see his mother take her cakes–that he wasn’t born an alcoholic. He said sometime in his forties his wife died of a brain aneurysm and he’d decided to rent a cabin up north and do some deer hunting with some buddies as a way to get away from everything that reminded him of her.

One evening they’d shot a buck and while bringing it back they were attacked by wolves. His two buddies died, but Lou somehow managed to get away, bitten badly, but alive.

Clever, Steve thought. Spin the night you were turned as a Jack London-style adventure story,

Anyhow, Lou said, after that incident he started to booze it up. Not only was he upset about his wife, he felt responsible for getting his buddies killed.

His problem was that when he’d get drunk, he’d turn into someone he hardly recognized. He’d get into terrible fights and wake up covered in blood and not remember a goddamn thing he’d done the night before. Not long afterwards he’d seen an ad for a job as Lighthouse keeper on Sandy Island so he applied and got it; his logic being: the island was deserted, so when he got into the sauce there’d be no one there for him to hurt.

Except for two kids who showed up one night in a canoe with a couple’a cans of spray paint looking to tag a lighthouse, Steve thought.

When Lou realized he couldn’t hide out forever and keep going the way he was going, he finally decided to quit drinking by using AA. He wrote them and they sent him a loaner’s kit: it consisted of tapes and pamphlets and a brand new copy of the Big Book. By totally surrendering to God and using the steps, he finally got on top of his drinking.
When he left that job he headed to Oakville and founded
“Saturday Night Howlers” and the rest was history.

Steve hadn’t heard such a steaming pile of horseshit since he’d gone to see his mother take her cakes. She’d boast about her long term sobriety, while conveniently leaving out the fact that she smoked dope when she got home from meetings and that she pathologically hopped in the sack with every loser in the program she came across, more than a few of them– after getting whatever money from her they could–would reward her by using her face as a punching bag.

It was no wonder Pancake Pat and Lighthouse Lou hit off so well, Steve thought. Turds of a feather float together.

After the meeting was over, Steve joined hands with everyone, said the Our Father, and made a beeline for the coffee pot as he had the night before. Had he been near home he would have downed a coffee and left on foot, but with Lou being the driver he had to wait. He hoped no one asked him anything personal; Lou’s talk had put him in an off mood. Motorcycle Dave approached Steve, but like quiet people, he did not initiate conversation. He simply stood there comfortable in the shared silence. Steve finally said, with the hope of keeping whatever conversation off any serous topic.

“So. If you don’t mind me asking, what are you going to that dance as?”

“I got this wild costume online. It’s a World War One German soldier outfit. Even came with one of those cool helmets. You know, the ones with the spike on top. Apparently It’s made of real silver.”

“Your ancestors’ German?”

“Nah. I just love all that shit. Sobriety gets boring sometimes. It’s fun sometimes to dress up and pretend you’re a badass.”

“Why not dress as a Nazi. That’s even more badass no?”

“Politics man, Politics. There’s badass and there’s badass. If Sobriety’s taught me one thing: it’s discernment. You planning on going?”

“Thinkin about it.”

“As what?”.

“I’ve got a wicked Wolfman costume”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, If you saw it, you’d swear It was real.”

“Can’t wait can bro.”

Neither can I.

On the way back, for the first little while no one talked. They merely listened as Lou’s Halloween mix played. Sting’s “Moon over Bourbon Street”, Bobby Pickett’s “The Monster Mash”, and a funky organ and guitar surf-type band, play a rockin version of “The Munsters” theme. Finally Lou said to no one in particular:

“How d’ya like my tape?”

“Not bad, Dave said. “Do ya have that one on it by either The Guess Who or Burton Cummings solo, you know–”

“Clap for the Wolfman? for sure. Last song, side two.”

Ya know Lou there’s a thing now called CDs. You can even make them on your computer,” Dave said.

“Ya don’t say”, Lou said.

“What about Hey there Little Red Riding Hood by–”

“Sam the Sham and the Pharoah’s! Yep.”

“Damn Lou, you’re like a regular Dr. Demento.”

Steve listened. He got some references they made, but not all. He wasn’t much interested anyhow. Old guys who still think they’re cool he thought. Mostly his mind somewhere else. Sandy Island to be exact.

Like everything they did when they were kids that was either dangerous, illegal, or simply immoral, tagging the Lighthouse had been his brother’s idea. Steve knew if his brother was alive today he’d be doing time somewhere for something. He was born without scruples.

“C’mon Steve. Don’t be such a chickenshit,” he’d said. You don’t have’ta even do anything. Just be the lookout.”

“I dunno Scott. People say that place is bad news.”

“There’s nothing there man. Just a Lighthouse and some old dude.”

“Some people say wolves live on that island. They say you can hear’em howl at night. Sound carries over the water ya know.”

“So do bullshit stories bro. What the hell would wolves do there, eat berries?”

And so one night after their mother had passed out at her usual time– horizontal on the couch and pissed to the gills–they went out on the Lake.

Stealing a canoe from someone’s backyard had been the first order of business. Carrying it half a mile through the woods portage-style to the lake had been the second order. Steve had been nervous and trilled at the same time. As much as he knew his brother was a deviant, he craved his approval.

Getting to sandy island had been no problem. Camp had turned the boys into expert canoeists. Steve, in a rare instance, actually had a better J-stroke than his brother. In most things Scott was usually the more athletic one.

“It’s those long arms”, he’d once commented, needing to justify Steve’s superiority. You’re built just like dad was. I’ve got ma’s short arms. Short everything.”

The canoe trip took about half-an-hour. Steve had on the one life jacket they’d found inside the canoe.

“Wear it bro,” Scott had insisted. “If you drown, ma will kill me.” Steve thought.” When she notices some time next week, Steve thought.

The lake was as smooth as glass that night, a massive slab of polished obsidian. The only sound came from the occasional fish jumping and the boy’s paddles as they sliced through the water.

The full moon was so bright it lit the clouds around it in the night sky; It almost didn’t seem like night.

“I’m being followed by a moon shadow, moon shadow moon shadow” Steve sang quietly, mostly to himself. It was a song they’d learned at Camp that year.

“Keep going bro” Scott had said. “You sing pretty good…for a chickenshit that is.”

“Screw you.” Steve said, with no real bite.

“No, seriously, ya do.”

When they got to shore Scott was all business. He had little packsack with him and rummaged through it. “Here it is,” he said pulling out a black ski mask.

“Planning on hitting the slopes?” Steve asked.

Scott rolled it down on his face and said “Ya can never too sure bro. Could be cameras.”

“My brother, the Pink Panther.”

“James Bond. David Niven’s a panzy.”

“He played Bond once.”

“Casino Royale doesn’t count.”

“Touche.”

“Ok. So here’s the plan,” Scott said adopting a more serious tone.

“We’re gonna go up to the Lighthouse together. When we get about a hundred feet from it, you’re gonna hide in the bushes with this.” He reacted in his packsack and pulled out a flashlight.

“If you see anyone coming–a light go on–anything, signal me with the flashlight.”

“Where’d you get that?” Steve asked pointing at the flashlight.

“It was in a box of Dad’s old stuff. Why?”

“It looks like the one with loose wire he was always gonna throw away.”

“It worked when I tried it at home. Anyway, you probably won’t even need it. Other than rabbits and chipmunks, the place is deserted, and I seriously doubt the old guy who lives hear stays up this late.”

“Wish me luck bro. When this is done, I’ll be local legend. First guy to tag the Sandy Island lighthouse. Whoo hoo!”

“Careful Scott.”

“Oh yeah. The Wolves. I forgot. Consider me forewarned.”

Scott slipped his mask on and walked off into the shadows. He was crouched low and moving quickly, commando-style. Steve could hear the spray paint cans in his back pack clinking faintly. After he was out of hearing range Steve made sure to keep his eyes in him. It was like watching a movie with the sound turned down.

When Steve found a spot in the nearby bushes and Squatted down. He felt the bulkiness of his life jacket and wished he’d left it in the canoe.

When Scott made it to the Lighthouse He was relieved. Ok Scott, he’d thought. Tag it, and let’s get out of here. But Instead of doing that, upon arriving Scott modified his original plan. What the hell? What’s he doing? Is that scaffolding? Please don’t tell me he’s climbing it.

Steve recalled a conversation he’d had once when Scott had given him the lowdown on graffiti etiquette.

“The higher the tag, the more respected you are. It’s all about the risk. More risk equals more street cred. After Jeff McDowell tagged the water tower near the top, the guy became the stuff of legend,” Scott had said starry-eyed. Maybe for you, Steve had thought but did not say. But grownups just see him as delinquent destined for reform school.

Scott was about half way up the tower when Steve saw it. It seemed to spring from the shadows. It was dark and hairy, and it moved on all fours–at first. But, as it approached the Lighthouse, it stood up on its hind legs like a man, but it had a head like a wolf.

What the hell is that? Steve thought.

His legs went numb and his heart started pounding like a jackhammer. He’d never been so afraid in his life. Seeing his father’s body at the viewing had been creepy, but it didn’t even come close to this.

He went to turn on the flashlight but his hands were shaking so violently it flew from them. He dropped down on his knees and started crawling about feeling for it the in the bushes. I’m like Piggy from Lord of the Flies looking for his glasses, he thought. But this beastie is no downed aviator, it’s real. Suddenly a prayer to Saint Anthony his grandmother had taught him popped into his head: Tony,Tony, Turn around, there’s something lost that cant be found, and within seconds his hand landed on the cool metal tube. “Thank you God. Thank you,” he whispered. He then pointed it at the Lighthouse and pressed little red button that made it flash.

Nothing.

Steve could see the creature looking up at Scott, its long snout tilted upwards as if it were sniffing. Then, with an agility that seemed almost impossible for its size (it was enormous) it started to scale the scaffolding.

Steve tried the flashlight again to no avail. In desperation he banged it on heel of his palm. “C’mon c’mon” he muttered. When he tried it again, a beam shot out.

With his back turned, he knew Scott wouldn’t see it, so Steve aimed as best he could for a darkened window. He clicked the button wildly, almost to atrobe-light efeffect until the reflection finally caught Scott’s attention making him turn around. Steve could see the can in Scott’s hand. He flashed the light again and whispered “below you Scott, below you!”.

While Scott was pirouetting, looking for the threat , the wolf-thing reached up and grabbed his ankle.

Scott screamed. It was a scream filled with terror.

“RUN STEVE…RUUUUN!” were the last words his brother ever said before his voice a gave way to a series of shrieks.

And run he did. In the school fitness test he never scored higher than bronze, but at that moment he didn’t run like a chubby preteen from Ontario: he ran like a boy being chased by a Monster, where anything other than a gold badge-worthy performance got you killed and eaten, and not necessarily in that order.

When he got to the canoe he immediately started dragging it towards the water. It was much heavier without Scott. The stones underfoot were loose, like gravel–only bigger. Just as he was getting some momentum, his ankle turned and he went down hard on one knee; without having to look at it he knew it was bleeding.
“Get up. Get up”, he said out loud. He got up and ran a few more steps and fell again. This time he’d put a hand out and landed on that. He felt a sharp stone slash his palm. He could hear waves lapping the shore and smell the musty lake water.
“Almost there,” he said. His breathing was shallow and his throat was raw and tasted of blood. His legs felt like stone pillars.

As the nose of the canoe breached the water he heard a panting behind him accompanied by a low growl.

“Please God, please God” was all he could think to say.

He got a few feet into the water, the canoe grinding briefly against the lake’s bottom until buoyancy made it glide and then he leapt. But instead of landing in the canoe, he flew backwards rebounding like bungee cord jumper.

The creature had him by the life jacket and was shaking him in his jaws.

To the degree Steve had excelled at canoeing at camp, he’d conversely failed at knot-making, consequently all that held his jacket on was a shoddy reef knot; a knot that thankfully didn’t hold. After two violent shakes Steve fell out–was thrown out–of the life jacket and into the canoe.

Without hesitation he started to paddle like mad, applying his prodigious J-Stroke. He could feel blood running down his neck between his shoulder blades. It’s just a scratch. Just Paddle, ya chickenshit Scott would have said.

Steve didn’t turn around—couldn’t turn around. With each Stroke his anxiety lessened, but only somewhat. Tears were streaming down his face blurring his vision. The moon that had looked so clear and bright not too long ago now looked like a runny white blob, and stars like greasy streaks. About twenty five yards out he heard a blood curdling howl, undoubtedly the same howl the fishermen had reported hearing. Sensing he was somewhat out of danger he looked back. The creature was standing like a man, waste-deep in the water, its head turned to the sky, serenading the moon like a wolf.

Steve was sure of two things: that his brother was dead, and that he’d never tell anyone what had happened that night—not that anyone would have believed the truth anyway, and if by chance they did, he didn’t want to get dragged in to whatever investigation there’d be. He knew he’d only been the lookout, but they had stolen a canoe. Scott may have been destined for reform school, but he had no intentions of ever going. His cover story was simple: he’d tell his mother Scott had run away. It wasn’t a stretch; he’d done it before, only this time he wouldn’t come back.
The years afterwards of his life, hiding what he’d become, his moonlight escapades, of his mother’s decline and her recovery in AA only to die at his hands flashed through his mind like a montage until he finally came back to the present.

Lou Dropped Dave off first.

“See you at the dance,” Lou said out the car window as Dave walked away.

“Definitely”, Dave said. “My bike’ll be ready.”

“Don’t run too many stop signs on the way. You wouldn’t wanna get pulled over in that German getup,” Lou said. “They might ship you off to the psyche ward.”

“Been there, done that”, Dave said laughing. “Not in a hurry to go back.”

Lou pulled away and got back onto the boulevard.

“Wanna go for a coffee?” he asked. “There’s a place nearby. Kind’of an AA hangout.”

“No. I’m good.”

“You seem quiet. You know we’ve got a saying. ‘You’re only as sick as your secrets’.”

Then you must be pretty sick Lou. One sick old phony.

“It was your talk actually. It brought back a lot of…memories let’s say.”

“Really? How’s that?”

“I went to Sandy Island once.”

“Ya? When?”

“Years ago. I think it was they were restoring the Lighthouse. There was scaffolding on it.”

“Yes I remember that,” Lou said shifting in his seat.

“My brother and I went by Canoe.”

“The one that ran away?”

You’re a good liar Lou. Wow.

“I think we might’a even come across you when you were uhh drinking.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell. Not at all.” It was them. Lou thought. The kid’s bloody clothes. The backpack. That ripped up life-jacket.

“We’d gone there because my brother Scott wanted to tag the Lighthouse.”

“Tag?”

“It’s a Graffiti term.”

Scott 007 framed inside a gun painted in red and gold, Lou remembered. He’d spent the whole morning furiously scrubbing it off with turpentine.

He knows, Lou thought.

“Ya know Steve”, Lou said. “The program’s a powerful thing. There’s a line in the Big Book that says even people with grave emotional and mental disorders do recover if they have the capacity to be honest with themselves. We can change if we ask God with complete abandon.”

“That what you did Lou?”

Before Lou could answer, Steve said “let me out here. It’s not too far. I’ll walk.”

“What about tomorrow? Are we still on?”

Steve did not answer nor did he turn around as he walked away.

The next day Lou called Steve and there was no answer. He tried again the day after, and one more time the day after that until he finally gave up.

The night of the Halloween dance the moon was full and bright. The church hall was packed with AA members: Sober Vampires, Darth Vaders, Cheerleaders and clowns all bopped around, drinking non-alcoholic punch and dancing to Lou’s Halloween mix.

A few blocks away a man dressed in a spectacular Werewolf costume skipped down the street swinging an incredibly realistic looking woman’s severed head. Her hair was peroxide blonde. If you listened carefully you could hear him humming “I’m being followed by a moon shadow.”

The End

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The Man In Black Underwear

The Man in Black Underwear

by Zoot J. McNutt

As Tommy Clayton knelt down on one knee and laid his solid black Martin D-35 acoustic guitar into its case, he was nearly run down by the motorized wheelchair that had been making a beeline towards him. It was in fact the chair’s reflection in the guitar’s finish that had alerted him, saving both he and Vivian from a calamitous experience.

“Whoa lady”, he said pivoting and putting out a warning hand. “Lemme get Vivian inta’ her case. She’s tuckered out and needs her beauty rest”.

“I’m so sorry”, said the woman, her head tilting on an angle Tommy recognized as a sign of some kind of affliction that he always dreaded getting himself. As he looked out past the woman he spotted a few more would-be senior groupies en route towards him and quickened his pace.

“What can I do ya for young lady?” Tommy said.

“I just wanted to say thank you so much. I always loved Elvis.”

“Why that’s mighty kinda you to say,” he said, smiling as only the truly and deeply insulted can.

As she spun her chair around and wheeled away, Tommy snatched a large poster off the easel he was kneeling in front of and rolled it into a tube. It featured a black and white airbrushed younger thinner picture of him mounted on a silver star-spangled backdrop. Below his photograph in glittering gold lettering were the words “Tommy Clayton sings Johnny Cash!” Despite the fact that the poster had cost him a week’s salary at the time, it screamed second-rate.

“Ya hear that Vivian?” he muttered. “Elvis? Shit.”

He collected his fifty dollar fee from the woman in charge of recreation and left, swearing as he did every time he played there, that he’d never come back.

After leaving, his first stop was a nearby tavern. Not his regular one, he owed too much money there to show his face. He took a seat, ordered a draft and dug his flip phone out of his hip pocket. It was ten years out of date, but it still made calls. He found the number he was looking for and pushed on the send harder than he needed to.

“Schullman Talent, Mitch here” a voice answered.

“Mitchy, it’s me Tommy. How ya doin?”

“Busy Tommy. Real busy.”

“No secretary anymore? “

“Nah she quit on me. So, what can I do for ya Tommy?”

“Listen. I’ve been working on my act and…”

“I just signed a fifteen year old kid”, Mitch interrupted “He sings Ring of Fire so good you’d swear JC had risen from the grave. I’m bookin’ him left and right. It’s nonstop.”

“Fifteen eh?” Tommy said.

“Yeah, we gotta work on his look a bit, but he’s got the pipes. I’m talking a real bass baritone. You know, the kind you gotta have if you wanna do the man in black justice.”

“Listen, like I said I’ve been workin on my act and I wanted to re-audition.”

“Are you still the singer in the act?” Mitch asked.

“Huh?”

“Cuz if you are, it’s a no. It’s like I already told you Tommy. You got an ok voice, and ya do sorta look like Johnny I give you that, but it’s when folks close their eyes, that’s when Johnny really appears–in their minds and in their hearts, and in your case it just doesn’t happen. In your case when they close their eyes they hear Tommy Clayton. An ok singer…but nothing more. It’s a business where just ok don’t cut it.”

“Maybe they hear Elvis” Tommy muttered inaudibly.

“Huh?”

“Nothing Mitch.”

“No hard feelings Tommy. We can’t all be who we want to be. Christ, I wanted to be Charles H. Joffe, and I manage dead celebrity impersonators.”

“I get it Mitch.” He’d never heard of Charles H. Joffe, but he didn’t want to look ignorant in front of Mitch.

“No hard feelings Tommy. It’s not personal–”

“It’s business. Yeah I know. You forget, it’s my copy of The Godfather you and my sister wore out.”

“I gotta let you go Tommy. The other line’s ringin. I’m tryin to book the kid at the local prison. They pay big bucks.”

“No probs Mitch. Chow.”

Tommy snapped his phone closed and pressed it to his cheek like he was icing a toothache and held it there for a long time.

Three drafts later and hopefully still under the legal limit Tommy was breezing home on the freeway in a car that had long ago passed the midway point from being more Tremclad and body putty than actual metal. He was singing along to the song “Jackson” from the soundtrack to the film “Walk the Line” and marvelling at what a lucky so and so Joaquim Phoenix had been to land that part. Shit, if it’d been me he thought, I’d be in a Porsche right now, not a 1997 Mazda. Maybe even with Reese Witherspoon. Stranger things have happened.

Beating the rush-hour traffic Tommy made it to his rooming house in good time. As he crept in the front door his landlady accosted him. He may have been a stealth mover, but the Mazda’s muffler announced his arrival for him. Another tenant in the rooming house, an ancient yet remarkably well-preserved man, simply known as Colonel Joe once told him “I flew in a B-16 during the war son, and it weren’t none loud as that car of yers.”

His aforementioned landlady Mrs. Elvira Grotto stood about four feet eleven inches tall and could have passed for Edward G. Robinson in drag.

“You gotta the rent?” she asked.

“Friday,” he answered, not breaking his stride.

“Ok black man. You pay Friday, I give you this”, she said glancing downwards. It was then he saw the UPS parcel hidden behind her back slowly emerge.

“First of all”, Tommy said, “ it’s MAN In BLACK, not BLACK MAN. It’s not the same thing. And second of all, you can’t steal my mail”.

“You gotta the rent? You getta the package.”

“That’s blackmail!”

Before he could get another word in she was gone. He was reminded of a troll returning to its hiding place under a bridge.

Friday was only two days away; the first of the month. His social assistance would be deposited. He’d get his package. She’d getta her rent.

As far as what was in the box, he already knew. He’d bought it a few days before on EBay but it had come earlier than he’d expected. It contained something Tommy desperately needed.

Two days passed without event. On the days Tommy had no gigs” (if you called playing for the demented and wheelchair-bound gigs) he stayed in his room and honed his act. This process involved a mix of polishing up his material, performing vocal exercises from a book called “Getting to the bottom of things: Exercises for Bass singers!” and poring over his Johnny Cash video collection–over two hundred hours worth of concert tapes, television appearances and interviews, studying Johnny Cash’s nuances the way Dian Fossey had studied the Mountain Gorilla.

On the third day Tommy paid his rent and was given his package.

“What’s inna da box?” his landlady had asked, trying to hide her curiosity as she’d handed it over.

“Black underwear”, he’d answered, hoping the truth would annoy her. He knew she found him to be a silly man. Why not give her more reasons to think so? Had he also told her that they were previously owned and what he’d paid for them, her opinion would have dipped from silly to stupid so he kept it at that.

Box in hand Tommy returned to his room and sat down on his creaky single bed, savoring the moment. These, he thought, touched the man himself.

As he carefully slit the sides of the box with his car keys he thought of every Christmas and Birthday gift he’d been disappointed by and braced himself, but as the lid popped open, any anxiety he’d had about being let down vanished. Even through the semi-transparent tissue paper he could tell the jet-black silky drawers were a thing of beauty. The last time he’d felt anything close to this was when he’d first spotted Vivian gleaming in the pawn shop window the day he’d quit University for the second and final time.

He took the underwear out of the box with the methodical deliberation of a priest performing a part of the mass and held them up–arms outstretched in front of the window as the setting sun shone through them illuminating the stitch-work like stained glass. He wondered if the man who first looked through the shroud of Turin had been filled with such wonder.

The ad had claimed the boxers were monogrammed, and when Tommy inspected the inside waistband it turned out the seller had been telling the truth. There, in gold stitching, were the letters JR . Johnny Cash had been born JR. and changed his named to Johnny upon joining the army. Had the initials read JC, Tommy would have been doubtful as to the garment’s authenticity.

“But how do ya know they’re real? His brother had asked him the night Tommy had called him to borrow the money to buy them. When Tommy needed anything his brother always came through. It had been that way since they were kids.

“Hell, how does anyone know anything’s real Jamie?”

“Ya, but three hundred and fifty bucks for a pair ’a gitches? That kind of coin could put a new muffler on that car ‘a yours.”

“When the money starts rollin’ in it’ll seem like nothing. You’ll see.”

The truth was he’d had his doubts, but conversely he’d also had a hunch. Something told him the day he’d found the ad that his luck was finally about to turn around.

The ad had been succinct and unassuming. “Men’s black boxer briefs previously owned by Johnny Cash. Size: large. Condition: fair to midlin,” it had read. Something about the quirky low-key way it had been written had led Tommy to believe the shorts were genuine. He’d only corresponded with the seller once via email. The man had claimed that his recently departed wife had been a maid her whole life at a Holiday Inn, and that Johnny Cash had stayed once in a room she’d cleaned and that she’d found them under the bed. She’d kept them assuming they might be of value one day. Not long before she died she’d told her husband to sell them to help pay for her funeral. He’d done as she’d asked and placed the ad.

He’d added on a personal note that “I got no real attachment to em’. I’ve always been more ‘Gentle on My Mind’ than ‘I walk the Line’. Now, if they’d been owned by Glen Campbell I’d a never parted with them. Not ever. In fact, I might have even worn’em on occasion and sung “Wichita Lineman.”

It had been the seller’s comment that had been the spark that had ignited the fire of Tommy’s imagination. His intention had been to simply own the underwear. He hadn’t thought of wearing them. Well, not consciously. He’d read somewhere that the subconscious mind was always two steps ahead of the conscious mind but he wasn’t sure if he believed it. Sometimes Mr. Freud, he’d thought, a cigar is just a cigar and a pair of used celebrity undies were just something you bought to collect and admire and nothing more.

I’ll try’em on, he’d thought. Just once–only for a minute. Why not? It’s not like I’m gonna make a habit of it. Besides, he’d continued in that vein, I don’t wanna ruin’em and take away any of the resale value–if there were any at all, which in all honestly he doubted murkily because, even though he’d bought them on faith sans proof, he doubted anyone else would.

As he undid his belt buckle and let his jeans slide to the floor, accelerating on the way down like Newton’s famed apple, he stepped out of his tightie whities with the grace of a Herron and stepped into his newly acquired briefs.

They were giant steps.

From the moment he slid their silky smoothness up his legs and snapped the waistband slightly below his hips where a gunslinger might fasten his belt he’d been overcome by a feeling of rightness, like slipping on a well-worn pair of shoes. He knew Johnny Cash had been 6’2 and 190 pounds, a good bit taller and thinner than he was, yet they fit perfectly. It was if they’d been tailor-made.

He spun in front of the mirror uncharacteristically admiring himself like a model. The thought crossed his mind that June Carter had likely seen Johnny in these–or possibly even tugged them off in a moment of passion; though he was alone, he blushed furiously.

He was about to pull them off and put them back in the box when he’d spied Vivian leaning in the corner. The afternoon sun was gleaming off of her like polished obsidian, making her shimmer. She looked like she wanted to be cradled. Why not? He thought. I’ll play her bit, then I’ll put the shorts away. As he slid the guitar onto his lap the black fabric of the boxers rubbed against her like a cat against a shin. It was as if they were greeting Vivian.

“Don’t get jealous girl” Tommy whispered to his guitar reassuringly. “I know you were here first, but now, we’re a trio, and trios are always the stuff of legends.”

Tommy sat on edge of his bed with Vivian across his lap he draped his right hand across her body and squeezed her neck gently fingering an E chord with his left hand–the opening chord to “Folsom Prison Blues “. When Tommy’s pick struck the muted string it made a percussive click so clear he stopped suddenly, concerned his guitar was plugged in to his amplifier–a no-no according to Elvira Grotto’s house rules, but it was not. Vivian hadn’t come with a pickup, but he’d had one installed. Had he changed his strings recently and forgotten, perhaps accidentally putting on a heavier gauge? He looked down at his pick questioningly as if it held the answer. To all appearances it looked the same. “Hmph”, he said out loud and resumed his picking, holding back as if Vivian had suddenly become a wild mare he had to tame.

When he opened his mouth to sing he had a similar experience. When the line “I hear the train a comin–it’s rollin’ round the bend” came out it was if he was miked slightly with reverb, or singing in a church. Somehow his voice sounded bigger. Bigger and….deeper? What? Am I coming down with cold? He thought. He knew a cold could do weird things to his voice but–before the thought had time to fully form, he felt it wilt and lose power in the synapses of his brain like water from a sprinkler when someone steps on the hose. He knew he was trying to convince himself of something that wasn’t true–like the time he’d gotten the clap and he kept telling himself that the burning was from soap that had merely gone somewhere where it shouldn’t have. He knew what he felt like when he was getting sick, and this–whatever it was, was no cold. But if wasn’t that, then what? He’d been doing the vocal exercises religiously; perhaps he thought they were finally starting to pay off…but all at once just like that?

He thought of something he and Jamie used to say when they were kids, it was an expression they’d picked it up from Shaggy on Scooby-Doo. “Like weirdsvile man” he muttered.

What had started out to be a few moments with Vivian and his new underwear had turned out to be a three-hour marathon of Tommy running through his entire repertoire twice. He’d been shaken from his reverie by a pounding on his door.

“Hey…Giovanni Cash….you no-a live alone. People gotta sleep. People who work gotta sleep ’cause they gotta get up tomorrow.”

“Sorry Mrs. Grotto”, he said “I lost track of time.” She didn’t answer because she’d already gone. She knew Tommy scared easily. His sort was the only kind of tenant she rented to. The meek didn’t inherit the earth, they rented it by the week, and when you’d been in the rooming house business for as long as she had, you could spot the meek from a mile away.

That night Tommy fell asleep watching the film “Walk the Line.” He’d seen it so many times; there wasn’t a line he didn’t know by heart. He didn’t think it was a particularly good film, but when it came to Johnny Cash, his standards weren’t overly high. All that mattered was that it was about the man in black, and it had plenty of good music.

While Tommy slept, he dreamt of the film. But instead of it starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, it starred him and the real June Carter Cash. The dream had vividness about it that unsettled Tommy, much like the first time he’d seen a high-definition television screen.

In the morning when he awoke he realized he’d never taken off his boxers. The idea that the two events: the dream and the underwear were related, never crossed Tommy’s mind. Why would it have?

That Thursday Tommy had a gig in a senior home called “Golden Years”. The concert was a smashing success. He’d even had something happen that had never happened before: he’d been cheered and clapped for until he’d played an encore. He chose “I’ve been everywhere” and played it at a breakneck tempo with an extra improvised verse of his own tacked on at the end rattling off every senior residence within a hundred mile radius eliciting toothless whistles and hoots from ex-residents of the places he mentioned.

After the concert was over and the audience were either wheeling or being wheeled back to their living quarters Tommy started packing up his gear in a ritualistic manner. First he rolled up his poster and collapsed his easel. Once that was done he slipped Vivian into her case, nestling her into the plush purple velvet interior. Before closing the lid he glanced around then leaned down and kissed her quickly on the pick guard whispering “you were great today”.

He wasn’t in his normal take-the money-and run mode. There was a deliberate slowness to his movements of a man who was intent on savoring his experience.

Whistling the mariachi trumpet line from “Ring of Fire”, a song he never played due to his lack of a proper brass section, he strolled languidly across the now-empty rec room, enjoying the percussive sound his boots made as they struck the floor, heel toe–heel toe. As he was approaching the exit he noticed a woman in a white cotton nurse’s uniform standing just outside the doorway. He got the distinct impression she was waiting for him.

“I saw ya kiss yer geetar”, she said shyly.

“Oh…I uhh..”, he answered, caught off guard by her remark. Before he could explain fully she cut him off, saying:

“Do ya always do that? Kiss yer geetar?”

“Well…I uhh, well no…I mean…”

“I thought it was kinda cute”, the girl said. She was smiling. It was a great smile.

“My name’s Darlene”, she said extending her hand.

“My name’s Tommy”, he said. His hands were full, so in lieu of setting something down, he nodded his head in a gentlemanly fashion.

“I know, I seen it on the poster. Tommyyy Claaaayton”, she said, deliberately stretching out his name the way people did when you were either famous or infamous.

“Nice meeting you Darlene”, Tommy said turning radish red. With that he dashed off, his equipment jangling like loose-fitting armour. Women terrified him, especially forward ones.

“Bye”, she called out after him, waving like a cast member of the Beverly Hillbillies during the show’s closing credits. Taking Lot’s wife’s famous mistake as an example, Tommy did not look back.

That night Tommy went to a bar near his rooming house called Spurs. It was Thursday, and Thursday was Karaoke night. The prize for best performer was seventy-five dollars. Tommy had never won. His main rivals were Martha Chavez, an implacably perky Philippino woman whose specialty was The Carpenters; Rhett Geddy, a scrawny pimple-faced boy who barely looked old enough to buy a drink who thought he could channel the spirit of Barry Manilow even though he was as of yet still living, and Barbara Jane aka B.J. Marlowe, a backwards baseball cap-sporting ex-marine whose idol was Stevie Nicks.

Tommy told himself he merely went there to sharpen his skills–break in new material for his act, but he knew that wasn’t completely true. Deep down he wanted very much to win and was frustrated that in the years he’d been going to Spurs the seventy-five dollars had always eluded him…until now, he thought. Tonight he had an edge. Tonight when he took the stage he wouldn’t be alone: he’d have the underwear.

Because of his premonition that he’d win tonight, Tommy asked Jimbo the owner and MC if he could sing last.”Sure kid”, he’d said “Whatever ya want, long as ya sing Folsom”. Jimbo, like most bar owners Tommy had known, was sleazy but he liked Tommy because he liked Johnny Cash. There was something about the way Jimbo’s face always lit up when Tommy sang the line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” during “Folsom Prison Blues” that told Tommy he’d done something similar, or would have liked to.

Tommy’s intention in singing last was to make those who preceded him seem like opening acts. It wasn’t like him to think strategically, but his success that morning at “Golden Years” had given a boost of confidence that had seemed to have sharpened his mind.

There were twenty singers in the night’s lineup. Other than Tommy’s aforementioned rivals none posed a threat. They were the usual drunks on a dare, tone-deaf bucket-list completers, and secretaries on a girls` night out.

Tommy scrutinized each of his rival’s performances, looking for flaws. Martha Chavez performed one of her old standbys “Rainy Days and Mondays”. Her weakness was really in her presentation: she smiled through the whole performance popping out her dimples as was her habit which totally contradicted the song’s melancholy wistful mood. To make things worse, she also had a tendency to do a little two-step when she sang as though she was wearing an Imaginary top hat and in possession of an imaginary cane.

Rhett Geddy had chosen Copa Cabanna and he’d attacked the song with the energy of a manic monkey running ran back and forth rolling his eyes and tossing his mousey brown locks over his shoulder alternating between imitating Rico and Lola like a singing mime with microphone. His effort may have garnered him an “A” but he’d destroyed the song in the process. People clapped for him but there was a palpable discomfort in the room afterwards as if they were ashamed for him.

Last but not least was B.J. Marlowe. B.J. had chosen “The Edge of Seventeen.” She sang it with a passion that was so heartfelt it almost, but not quite, masked the fact that the song was way out of her range. She tried to rely on her falsetto but it was a brutal aural assault. What was worse was she had a huge blue vein that had come out in her forehead above her left eye during the performance that had throbbed and pulsated the entire time, threatening to explode and shower the front row in blood.

Tommy couldn’t believe he’d lost to these three so many times. What was it they had? Certainly not talent. Maybe they gave more of themselves, he thought. What was it Mitch had said “When you sing and they close their eyes they gotta see Johnny“. Tonight they would. Tonight it would be as if the man in black himself had been there.

Tommy had taken the stage last as was his plan. He’d gotten permission from Jimbo to bring Vivian up with him. It was technically against the rules, but in Spurs Jimbo’s word was law. The only grumbling he heard was from his trio of competitors, utterances of “no fair” and “cheater”. The rest of the patrons didn’t seem to mind. Actually most looked pleasantly surprised.

His plan was to play Folsom Prison Blues. slowly at first, and then gradually speed up until he was at the same tempo as the Karaoke track and when he gave a nod Jimbo would press start and he’d continue, blending in seamlessly.

He’d gotten the idea from the scene in the movie “Walk the Line” when Johnny Cash had auditioned for Sam Philips. It was risky. He wasn’t sure if he could accelerate to the right tempo to match the Karaoke backing track, but he figured nothing ventured, nothing gained. Also he knew, silly as it was, his boxers wouldn’t let him down.

Tommy started by saying “Thank you all for commin’ out tonight, and how ’bout before I play, y’all give a big Spurs hand for Martha Chavez….Rhett Geddy…and BeeeeJaaaay Maaaarrloow!!!” The crowd burst into applause and catcalls. Tommy saw Jimbo smiling as he scanned the room. For a moment their eyes met and Jimbo grinned approvingly. He thought of something he and Jamie used to say as teenagers: I got in the bag.

His performance was resplendent. It was an example of Murphy’s Law in reverse. Everything that could go wrong went right. His worry about speeding up to the right tempo had been for naught. He’d nailed it with the grace of a seasoned hobo hopping a moving train, every subsequent note falling into place afterwards, melody and rhythm tumbling together as one like clothes in dryer. Of course adding an extra verse in the song’s beginning had changed its structure so Tommy, thinking on his feet, simply played an instrumental verse on his guitar, improvising around the song’s melody as if it had been written that way. He wasn’t Luther Perkins, but he could get Vivian to sing when he needed her to.

The patrons of Spurs were riveted. Tommy had become a karaoke shaman transporting each one individually to their own imagined jail cells within Folsom Prison, where each in turn were tormented by the sound of a train outside their barred windows on which people drank coffee and smoked big cigars, a train they could not ride.

When he was done, something occurred that had never transpired at Spurs before: the audience demanded an encore. Tommy couldn’t believe it. Outside of family B.B.Q.s he’d rarely been asked to play encores. Now, he’d been asked to play two–all on the same day. The shouts of “more, more, more” were as intoxicating as cocaine.

Tommy raised his arms his palms outwards in a placating gesture and addressed the crowd.”All right. Ok…uh sure…but if It’s ok with Jimbo I’ll play this one myself. No machine”. Jimbo nodded as if to say “No problem”. “I doubt if anyone here has a Trumpet” Tommy said, addressing the crowd “but if they do I’d love if they could join me up here and play the next song. Anyone?” A hand shot up in the crowd and Tommy heard a woman’s voice say

“I got me a harmonica…will that do?”

I know that voice, Tommy thought. I’ve heard it before, where?

As the crowd parted a petite blonde navigated the human traffic. Tommy didn’t recognize her at first. When he’d seen her last she’d been wearing a white cotton nurse’s uniform. But now she was dressed in snug blue jeans, cowboy boots and a yellow blouse a bright as the sun. She still had her dazzling smile.

“Darlene?” Tommy stammered.

“The one and the same.”

“But…” Tommy started.

“Didn’t anyone ever teach ya not ta Judge a book by its cover?”

Tommy, realizing he’d momentarily forgotten where he was turned and faced the crowd. “Ladies and gentleman miss Darlene…”

“Edison” she shouted into the mike “like the inventor.”

Without any further adieu Tommy lit into “Ring of Fire.” He and Darlene tore it up. She was a demon on the harmonica. When she played, the music came from deep within her soul. By the song’s end the whole crowd was singing and clapping along, even Martha Chavez, Rhett Geddy and B.J. Marlowe.

An hour after claiming his prize-money Tommy and Darlene were sitting together at a table near the bar’s rear entrance adjacent to a little hallway that led to washrooms with western style bat wing doors, that, as evocative as they were of the old West, did nothing to contain the sounds and odours that emanated from within. They had wanted privacy and this was as far from the madding crowd as you could get in Spurs.

Above their heads an Exit sign glowed casting a red light about them making Tommy feel as though he was either aboard a Submarine or developing pictures in a darkroom, things he’d never experienced firsthand but that he’d seen in plenty of movies.

Tommy wasn’t quite drunk, but he was approaching drunkenness with both recklessness and caution like a senior citizen backing in to a parking spot. He could manage beer but liquor had never been his friend.

Bourbon had been Darlene’s drink of choice and she’d insisted on Tommy having the same. She’d insisted the way she’d insisted that they celebrate after Tommy had won the competition.

Though he was mortally shy he’d reluctantly let her convince him. The combined success of both his performance that morning and this one had given him a welcome shot of confidence. He’d recalled the scene in “Walk the Line” when groupies started to visit Johnny Cash’s hotel room after concerts, and wondered if perhaps his newfound sex appeal was par for the course.

While he was ruminating on the source of his newly developed chick magnet powers, out of nowhere a second more troubling thought surfaced, rising like a gas bubble from a primordial swamp. Maybe I’m absorbing some of the man in black’s mojo another way somehow like through the underwear a voice from within chimed, finishing his thought for him and forcing him to reluctantly cough up what he knew was the truth like a fur ball.

Tommy’s and Darlene’s conversation was typical of the kind that people have when they hardly know one another, that is to say it was full of stops and starts and uncomfortable silences until the Bourbon they were both drinking took hold that is, then it flowed, unbridled, spontaneous and full of confessions worthy of a priests ears.

Early on there were questions. His to her were mainly about her musical prowess and how she’d ended up at Spurs.

“How d’ya learn to play the harmonica so well?” he’d asked.

“I play a pack of instruments. Everyone in my family does”.

“Wow. You’re like the Carter family” Tommy had said.

“Actually we’re from the same neck if the woods.”

“Virginia?”

“Yessiree”.

“Were you professionals?”

“Nah. We just did it for fun. My parents were farmers.”

“Why did you pick this place?” Tommy asked.

“Toronto ya mean?”

“I meant Spurs actually, but if you wanna tell me that too, I’m all ears.”

“Well, I met a guy on Vacation on Virginia beach a few years back. He was on spring break from the U. of T. We hit it off real good and he asked me to come back with him to Canada. I figured what the hey. He was doing a PhD in philosophy. My folks didn’t like him. Daddy said PhD stood for ‘piled higher and deeper’ and that he was probably just lookin’ for someone to pay the rent while he philosophized about the meaning of being unemployed after he graduated.”

“So what happened?”

“Well, after six months of blissful shacking up, he fell in front of a subway train on Christmas eve. The police said it was an accident. He’d listed me as the recipient of his life insurance policy. Later on, when I was packing up I found his suicide note. It had fallen behind the bureau. Probably the cat had knocked it off”.

“What did it say?”

“It said he was sorry, and that if I really wanted to understand why he did it I should read everything Flannery O’Connor ever wrote and study the Poetry of Jim Morrison”.

“Did you?”

“Nah. I ain’t much for readin’. Also, I never much cared for The Doors. There ain’t an ounce of country in any ‘a their music.”

“And Spurs? Why did you come tonight?” Tommy inquired, nervous about what she’d say.

“One ‘a the gals at work saw that I took a shine to you this morning and told me you was a regular here. Call me a stalker”.

Darlene’s questions to Tommy were adroit investigatory feminine-type questions like:
“You got a wife?”

“A girlfriend?”

“Kids?”

“Ya ain’t into men I hope”

“Got any brothers and sisters?”

“Yer folks still married?”

The answer to these questions respectively was: “No”, “No”, “No”, “No, “Yes, one brother and one sister”, and “No”.

Though Darlene’s first five questions could be answered with a simple yes or no, the sixth one required a longer answer–or an explanation rather. Thankfully the Bourbon Tommy had sipping as if it were nothing more than cooled-down coffee was taking effect, lowering his inhibitions, when she’d asked him:

“Both yer folks still alive?”

“My mother’s alive. Very much alive.”

“And your…” Darlene looked at Tommy then looked down at her drink. Prolonged eye contact wasn’t her strong suit.

“My old man? The last time I saw him was on my ninth birthday.”

She’d hit upon a subject that pained him deeply, a subject that he went to great lengths to avoid and simply never discussed with anyone ever.

“So he’s?”

“Yep. Deader than a doornail.”

“I’m sorry.”

A long silence ensued in which Darlene fiddled with her swizzle stick and Tommy stared off into space, his lips drawn tight, and his eyes pools of sorrow. Tommy’s silence was not empty or without consequence. It was preparatory. For, after enough of it elapsed, he pulled out his wallet and started going through its contents, flipping them onto the table one at a time like a black jack dealer. The last item he did not flip, but rather he lay down gingerly. It was a black and white wallet-sized dog-eared photograph of a man and boy taken in a photo booth.

“That’s you and him ain’t it? I can tell by the eyes. Same nose too”, Darlene said after rotating the picture and sliding it towards her. She did not pick it up.

“That’s me and my dad on my ninth birthday. Mom had given him the boot that year but he’d showed up and taken my out for my birthday anyway. We went to see ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. A week later he was dead. He’d just landed a job for the city working in the sewers and there’d been some kind `a gas leak. The irony is he’d gotten the job to impress my mother–to get her to take him back.”

“Why? Was He out’a work?”

“Well not exactly. He’d had a band called ‘Charlie Clayton and the Flying Canucks’ but his flying days were largely behind him–unless of course you count when he’d hit the sauce which happened more often than my mother could tolerate. Most of the money he made came from being a night janitor at a church near where we lived.”

“Was he any good?”

“Oh yeah. In the early seventies the Toronto Sun called him ‘A Northern star on the rise.’ I have the clipping at home. I laminated it.”

“I dunno if it’s just the picture, but yer pa sorta` looked like Johnny Cash don’t ch’a think?”

Tommy didn’t answer her. In fact, he gave no indication of having heard her at all.

“Y’all right Tommy?” Darlene asked, reading Tommy easily.”

Before he could answer her, a voice from within said watch out Tommy, she wants something. They always do. She knows you’re drunk and your guard’s down.

“Just had too much Bourbon that’s all.” He knew suddenly he was going to be sick.

He slid his chair back violently and made a beeline for the men’s room banging open a stall and dropping to the floor. Ahh, the hard stuff, he thought as it blasted out of him like a geyser.

It was the Bourbon–primarily, but it was other things as well. It was bringing up his father’s accident and the creeping feeling that that voice he’d heard warning him about Darlene hadn’t been totally his, that it partially belonged to something outside of him, and that something had been the underwear.

After his session of praying to the porcelain God was over, Tommy closed the lid and took a seat, fighting his drunkenness. If he hadn’t been so unsettled he would have laughed at the silliness of his situation. In his mind he imagined himself telling Jamie “You won’t believe this bro, but Johnny Cash’s boxers have started to take possession of me” to which Jamie would have said, doing his best Shaggy from Scooby Doo imitation, “Zoinks”.

Tommy liked Stephen King and the Twilight Zone as much as anyone, but he knew none of that stuff happened in real life…or did it?

As Tommy left his stall he headed towards the sink to clean up. He leaned down and closed his eyes as he splashed water on his face. He definitely was in no shape to drive. He’d partied enough in his younger days to know that puking could help in the sobering up process, but only time could really do the job. As he stood up and opened his eyes he saw a slender man in a baseball hat with the brim pulled down low standing behind him. He looked familiar. A regular most likely.

“Hey Johnny Cash” the man said. “Good job tonight.”

When he heard the register of the man’s voice it suddenly occurred to him that he was not a he but a she.

“B.J. Marlowe?” Tommy said suddenly realizing where he’d seen her.

“Aren’t you…”

“In the wrong bathroom?” she said, finishing Tommy’s sentence.

“Well…yeah..” Tommy said.

“Old habits are hard to break.’Sides, line’s always shorter.”

Without breaking eye contact she reached into her pocket and pulled out a plastic baggie and tossed it to Tommy.

“Here” she said. “They’ll clear up your head.”

“Wah…” Tommy started to say but again was interrupted.

“I heard ya was a pukin, from way on down the hall” she sang in a low voice to the tune of Folsom Prison Blues.

“I used to take them in the Army” she continued “when I needed some get-up-and-go. But be careful, they’re habit forming. I left the Army five years ago, but I can’t seem to leave these little red buggers behind “.

“What are they?” Tommy asked fondling the bag.

“Speed”, B.J. said before entering a stall and closing the door behind her.

“Thanks” Tommy said. “What do I owe you?”

“They’re on the house. There is one thing you can do for me though” B.J. said through the door.

“Sure. Name it.” Tommy said.

“Don’t come back next week.” B.J. said her voice friendly but with a hint of frost around the edges.

As Tommy walked out he heard the sound of the toilet seat smacking down like a gavel.

He quickly palmed two of the pills and popped them into his mouth as casually as If they were breath mints and made his way back to his table. Darlene was looking at herself in a little compact mirror, puckering her lips inversely the way women did after they’d just put on lip stick. She was pretty in a tragic way, Tommy thought, the booze bringing out his inner poet.

“Y’all right?” Darlene asked?

“Never been better” Tommy said, rolling his eyes indicating the contrary. He was hiding the pills under his tongue and holding his bottom lip firm and curling up the corners of his mouth. He’d thought about dry swallowing them, but had decided against it. He was terrified of choking.

“What’s a matter with yer mouth? Darlene asked “Ya look like the Joker from Batman”.

He grabbed what was left of this bourbon and coke and washed the pills down, the scarlet capsules gleaming momentarily, catching Darlene’s attention as he placed the glass to his lips. As he was doing this his newfound darker self said don’t tell her the truth, you’ll regret it.

“I put two Tylenols in my mouth in the bathroom but I couldn’t bring myself to drink from the sink.” As he spoke he looked her straight in the eye and, though they’d just met, he lied as if he’d been lying to her his whole life.

“Tryin’ ta get the jump on yer hangover?” Darlene asked, making her voice sound merry to mask her suspicions about what Tommy had really taken.

“You got it” Tommy answered, hoping his voice didn’t sound as hollow to her as it did to him. He was a poor liar and the Bourbon wasn’t increasing his skills.

“Anyhow” he said, trying to redirect the conversation “you’ll never guess who I ran into inside.”

She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.

“B.J. Marlowe?”

“How’d you guess?” Tommy sounded genuinely surprised.

“My great grandmother was a witch and all the women in my family got a touch of second sight.”

“Wow….really” said Tommy “that’s so cool.”

Darlene started to laugh.

“You’re shitting me.”

“She came by the table lookin` for you. I told her you were in the men’s room talkin’ to Ralph. What’d she want anyway?”

“You know, congratulations all that.”

“She give you them Tylenols too?”

“Yeah actually, she did.”

“They make’em in red now?”

Tommy imagined a toothless bearded hag standing over a bubbling cauldron in a shack in the hills of Virginia with Darlene’s piercing blue eyes.

As quickly as Tommy had had the vision–if that’s even what it was–he banished it. Haunted underwear witches; it was all a little too supernatural for him. Darlene had been putting him on…hadn’t she? He didn’t know her well enough to be sure.

In what had hitherto been a steady stream of conversation, a sudden lull transpired, and in that silence, Darlene suddenly abruptly proposed that they go.

Tommy was caught off guard. He’d assumed that he was in control of the evening, that he was the orchestrator. The Bourbon had given him a kind of swagger he didn’t normally have.

“What’dya say we leave?” Darlene said. “I gotta work in the morning. And…well…if you do mind me sayin’ you look pretty done in yerself.”

Tommy’s thoughts were less than clear. The pills B.J. had given him were starting to have an effect. He was feeling more awake, but at the same time more disoriented. It wasn’t a feeling he cared for. When he started to answer Darlene, his tongue felt suddenly thick in his mouth. In lieu of a response he proclaimed:

“I’m not the pheasant plucker I’m the pheasant plucker’s son, and I’ll be plucking pheasants ’til my pheasant plucking’s done.”

“Huhh?” Darlene said, sounding alarmed.

“It’s a tongue twister” Tommy said. “I just wanted to see if I could pull it off. If you say it fast enough, you end up saying ‘I’m not the pleasant fu…”

“I think I can figure it out” Darlene said curtly. “You did a great job.”

“Thanks” Tommy said casually, hiding the fact that it had required a superhuman effort on his part to not sound like Daffy Duck during his recital.

“Just gimme a sec to collect myself and we’ll leave” Tommy said lying his head on the table.

The last thing he remembered before he blacked out completely was seeing in extreme close-up the cool varnished wooden table in front of him decorated ornamentally with cigarette burns and carved initials, like a cross between an abstract wood burning artist’s rendering and every high school desk he’d ever stared at daydreaming of stardom as a teenager.

Now when I said he blacked out, it’s not to be confused with passed out. He was awake, but the part of his brain that should have been recording events like a black box on a doomed aircraft was malfunctioning.

The next morning when he awoke fully clothed on Darlene’s couch he was completely disoriented. Darlene had gone to work and left him to “sleep it off” as the expression goes.

Tommy felt uncomfortable being in someone’s apartment that he hardly knew. He racked his brain for the memory of how He’d gotten here. When he tried to concentrate, all he got were isolated snippets of memories: being on the highway with his head out the window of his car, his vomit streaking the door like a racing stripe while Darlene drove; singing in the hallway of Darlene’s apartment and someone yelling “shut up” through the crack of a door; falling into the bathtub and Darlene having to hoist him out by making a sling with a towel. For the life of him he couldn’t remember leaving the club, or how it was decided Darlene would drive his car. No one drove his car, not even Jamie.

When he thought of Jamie he suddenly grew troubled, but wasn’t sure why. Then it occurred to him: it was Friday…the 13th. He’d promised Jamie he’d go to his house that morning. “Remember Tommy” Jamie had said on the phone “Friday the 13th, just like the movies”. Tommy was supposed to help him with some renovations. He was turning his unfinished basement into a play room and periodically asked him to lend him a hand. After all the help Jamie had given him over the years it was the least he could do.

Tommy rolled off the couch with the grace of a seal sliding off an ice float and, using the coffee table in front of him for support, arose like Frankenstein’s monster a few volts short of a full charge.

He fumbled in his front pocket for his cell phone. One of the few advantages of a flip phone–maybe the only real one nowadays, he thought, was that you could sleep on it without damaging it. Nothing much made these days “took a licking and kept on ticking” as the old Timex ad espoused.

When he flipped it open and tried to turn it on, nothing happened. On a good day the battery held a charge maybe twelve hours. It was at least twelve hours overdue, maybe even twenty. “Like deadsville Scooby” he muttered under his breath.

Tommy pivoted and took in all of Darlene’s studio apartment in a glance. To his left was a round kitchen table. On it was a note on which lay his car keys. He walked over in three long strides and snatched them up, spinning them around on his index finger, legendary gunslinger-style. As he did so, he picked up the note with his other hand and read it.

Her handwriting was beautiful and flowing, unlike his barely legible chicken scratch. Ladylike, he thought.

Hi Tommy! I’ve gone to work.
I thought the best thing to do was to do was let you sleep. I had a great time last night! Your car is parked across the street. Call me when you want to get together again.

Darlene Edison XXOO
5146957277

Ps. Help yourself to anything you want in my fridge (not that there’s much LOL!). Also there’s paper towel and Fantasik spray under the sink if you need to wipe off your car.

Though Darlene’s note had made it clear that Tommy was welcomed to eat what he could find, his stomach was in no shape. He suspected anything he ate would come right back up. He was thirsty however: parched to be exact.

Taking two steps to the left, he stood facing Darlene’s fridge. It was replete with notes held in place by magnets shaped like daisies: “Suzie’s B-Day Thursday”, “Call about class”. One magnet stood alone apart from the rest. It was a deliriously happy looking bee hovering above the words “Bee Positive”. The happy bee held up a clipping of a recipe from a magazine “Delicious Low Calorie Apple Cake”.

Smiling, Tommy pulled open the fridge door. Standing next to the lonely carton of skim milk nudged up against the cellophane-wrapped plate containing half a grapefruit flanked by two low-fat vanilla yogurts was a shiny plastic jug of orange juice, Tommy’s favorite hangover drink.

He removed it, feeling its weight in his hand. Full, he thought, but not for long. He threw his head back and guzzled it until his stomach could hold no more. As he leaned to put what remained back in the fridge from the corner of his eye he saw a black shape skitter across the room. He stood up startled, catching his head on the lip of the fridge as he did so. He then slammed the door annoyed. It was a good enough slam to send the happy bee sliding–almost off the door letting the recipe fall.

A cat. It’s her cat Tommy realized. The one from her story that had knocked the suicide note off the bureau. It was black as pitch and when he looked at it arched its back and hissed as if to say “Hit the road Jack and don’t `cha come back no more.”

Without further delay Tommy stuffed Darlene’s note in his pocket and left completely forgetting about the paper towels and Fantasik. As he was trotting down the stairs out of Darlene’s building his newly acquired inner-voice said, taunting him, don’t witches have black cats? Yeah sure he answered himself, and Vampires hate garlic and silver bullets kill werewolves yadda yadda yadda.

Tommy’s Mazda was parked exactly where Darlene said it would be. Other than the long reddish-brown puke stain on the passenger door it didn’t look any worse for the wear. He’d wash it later. Right now his mind was on getting home for a shit shower’n shave, as his father used to say.

Tommy drove cautiously at first. He knew the alcohol in his blood had probably dissipated, but one could never be too sure. He’d gotten a DWI once years ago and didn’t want another. He wasn’t about to start showing up to gigs on public transit. It didn’t exactly invoke the spirit of Johnny Cash. A tour bus sure, but not the Spadina bus he thought as he broke into the refrain of the old Shuffle Demons’ song of the same name.

Out on the freeway, weaving through the thinning morning traffic–gunning the accelerator and working the clutch of his car, something he never grew tired of–he felt a bulge digging into his front thigh. “What have I got in my pocketeses?” He said Gollum-like. Then he remembered his encounter in the men’s room the night before. Oh yes, B.J. Marlowe’s magic pills.

Tommy reached in his glove compartment and took out a spare bottle of water he kept at all times for gigs in case he forgot to bring one. I’ll take a few just to take the edge off, and then I should toss the rest out.

Holding his steering wheel with his knees, he cracked the seal of the water bottle, and then held it with one hand as he fished the bag out from his jeans, all the while trying semi-successfully not to swerve into another lane. After freeing the baggie he poured two pills into his mouth and then swigged some water.

He was about to throw the bag out the window scattering the capsules onto the 401, when he reconsidered, throwing them instead into the still-open glove compartment and slamming it shut. Just as he was doing so, he passed a sign that said “Speed Kills” and he chuckled at the irony.

After ten minutes on the highway, and another ten spent weaving through the streets of suburbia impatiently manoeuvring through street hockey games in progress and going over–in his opinion–unnecessarily mountainous speed bumps that not only impeded his tendency to speed but also hastened the impending death of his Mazda’s aging shocks , Tommy pulled into his rooming house driveway and in his haste he almost hit the only other car in the driveway, a vintage army jeep with a tarp pulled over it that rarely moved.

It belonged to the only other tenant he ever spoke to, a man named Colonel Joe.

It was a mild enough day for Colonel Joe to be sitting out on the massive wooden front porch looking tiny in a large wicker love seat that could have easily sat the entire Toronto Maple leafs in uniform–including the training staff and the backup goalie.

Colonel Joe had on a green beret and a ragged sweater that had seen better days. Pinned on the collar was a plastic poppy that was so faded, it was more tangerine-colored than red. He wore it every day of the year. For the aged veteran every day was Remembrance Day. On his lap was a copy of Pierre Burton’s “Vimy”. It was the only book Tommy ever saw him reading.

Tommy leapt out of his car and scampered up the driveway like a keystone cop, the speed he’d taken en route having started to kick in. He was hoping his brusque demeanor would give Colonel Joe the idea he wasn’t in the mood to stop and chat, but no one could evade the Colonel’s ambush. He possessed a mix of gregariousness and self pity that was a lethal combination. Wrangling with him was akin to wresting a 90 year old highly decorated tar baby.

“Knew it was you young man,” Colonel Joe said as Tommy tried to blow by him on the porch. “That car a’yers…”

“Yeah yeah I know.” Tommy said, putting his hands out, palms up in the “don’t say it” gesture. “It reminds you of a B-52.”

“B-16 actually” Joe answered matter-of-factly.

“I’m working on a new muffler.”

“What’s that on yer door?” Joe said, pointing a long bluish finger in the Mazda’s direction. “Is it what I think it is?”

“Long story”.

“Done some drinkin’ in ma day. Once, in Italy I puked inside a tank. Started a God damn chain reaction. I puked, then the driver puked, pretty soon…”

“I’m in a bit of a rush Joe. Can we catch up later?”

“Sure son,” he said, then, adding as if he’d just remembered “Oh, by the way ‘fore I forget, a woman came around lookin’ for you this mornin’. Handsome woman. Kinda sporty…golf hat. Kinda reminded me of a WAC I once had a crush on who turned out to prefer the company of other WACS more than men if you catch my drift.”

“My mother?”

Tommy’s heart sank into his stomach. In the years he’d been living here, she’d come only once before. It had been to tell him his father had died.

Without hesitation, Tommy grabbed the wide wooden railing that framed the sagging steps of the once-great Victorian house and bounded up them two at a time at a time like a young Bruce Jenner with a gut-load of Wheaties. As he ascended, he cast a furtive glance over his shoulder towards the colonel and half-spoke half-sang “Goodbye Joe me gotta go”.

After landing like a flat-footed paratrooper, Tommy yanked open the heavy wooden door and stepped inside. His eyes, adjusting from the bright sunlight to the dim entrance, were momentarily out of focus. Within minutes they discerned the back-lit silhouette of a small stocky woman rolling a manual carpet sweeper briskly.

There was no mistaking his landlady.

For a brief moment Tommy felt a pang of guilt about his rather curt dismissal of Colonel Joe, but quickly dismissed the feeling. You’re not a bloody social worker his new darker inner voice quipped. Speaking of curt dismissals, Tommy thought: here comes numeros dos.

“Hello Mrs. Grotto,” Tommy bellowed without stopping or looking in her direction, hoping she’d see he was pressed for time.

His plan had failed however. Upon seeing him she left her antique carpet sweeper and skittered towards him wiping her hands on her apron.

“Tomasso,” she said. Tommy noticed she did not call him “black man”, or “Giovanni Cash”, as she usually did. For once she actually seemed nervous to see him.

“You’re mama came this ‘a morning. I now know where you are. She give me this.” She reached into a pocket in her apron and pulled out a folded note and handed it to Tommy. He opened it immediately and read it.

“Tried calling you last night. Jamie’s had an accident. He’s in the I.C.U. at Toronto General.”

It was simply signed “ma”.

“Thanks Mrs. Grotto” Tommy said stuffing the note in his pocket “I gotta fly.” As he tore off up the stairs he saw her mutter to herself and make the sign of the cross.

Tommy’s room was on the second floor. Once again he bounded up the stairs two-at-a-time like he had when he’d come up the front porch. He was humming “The Flight of The Bumble Bee” under his breath. It was a thing he did when he was nervous–it focused him, and with the speed he’d taken in the car having taken full effect, he needed very much to stay focused to keep his racing mind from flying off the rails like a runaway train.

Of all the nights to not come home, Tommy thought. What are the odds? The one night I spend out in years–the only morning I’m not in my own bed, and something happens. That friggin’ shit phone with its friggin’ shot battery. How long have I been intending to get a new one?

He was in fact racing to his room instead of straight to the hospital because of that phone. Jamie had given him one of those cords at Future Shop that let you plug your phone in to your car’s cigarette lighter. “Thought you could use bro” Jamie had said “I know that phone of yours hardly holds a charge anymore.” He’d promptly thrown the cord in a drawer and never thought of it again–until now. His plan was to grab it and charge his phone on the way to the Hospital. The irony that it had been a gift from Jamie pained him.

Tommy ransacked his apartment with the haste of a burglar hearing the approach of sirens, dumping the contents of every drawer he had upside down on his bed to no avail. In desperation he finally dropped to his knees and turned to Saint Anthony and promptly found it under the bed itself.

Five minutes later Tommy was back in his Mazda, yet again beating a path through the suburbs to the 401, his engine having not even cooled from his morning drive.

He hated driving into the city. Toronto had grown like a cancerous mole since his younger days, and the traffic had grown accordingly. The bus had tempted him, but he didn’t have all day. Also, he couldn’t imagine himself buzzing on speed sitting on a bus. They were two things that just didn’t seem to go together.
As he drove, he fought back the wave of terror and anxiety that kept trying to wash over him. Jamie couldn’t be sick. Christ, the guy jogged, played racquetball and kayaked in the summer. Of the two of them, he was the fit one.

Of course you couldn’t rule out an accident. Fit as Jamie was, he was a touch clumsy. What had he been doing this morning? Shit. He’d been refinishing the basement–by himself and I was supposed to be with him.
An hour later Tommy was pulling into the Hospital parking lot and wincing at the rates as he read them off a white sigh in an attendant’s booth no larger than a monkey’s cage. No one comes here because they want to, Tommy thought. Why did they also have to get fleeced just to park?

Tommy had been at the Toronto General once before years ago when his first serious girlfriend had O.D. It had been years, but he still remembered where the ICU was located. It was seared into his memory like his social insurance number and the postal code in the house he’d grown up in.

Peter Munk Building: tenth floor.
When Tommy strode into the ICU– which he noticed was now called the MSICU–he came across two young girls at the front desk chatting that seemed too young to be nurses.

“Excuse me…I’m looking for my brother. His name’s Jamie. Jamie Clayton. One of the women pivoted in her swivel chair and picked up a chart and glanced at it.

“He’s in 8A. Through the sliding doors on your left.” Her pretty face gave away absolutely nothing as to Jamie’s condition. He might as well have been just given directions to the bathroom. What do you expect? Jamie thought. People die on her shift every time she works.

At the end of a dimly lit hall he found room 8 A. Jamie was lying in a bed surrounded by three Doctors and his mother–tubes protruding, pumps pumping and monitors chirping. He looked bad. Really bad.

As he walked in, his mother’s red-rimmed eyes met his. Tears had streaked her mascara making her look like an aging transgender Alice Cooper in a golf hat.

“You finally made it.”

Good old Ice 9, Tommy thought, his mind flashed back thirty years in an instant.

It was his last year of high school. He was mad about Vonnegut and he’d just finished reading “Cat’s Cradle”. In it was a formula called “Ice 9” that froze water at room temperature. He’d excitedly told the story to Jamie who wasn’t much of reader, but rather one of those people who liked to hear the story of a book after someone else had done the work of reading it.

“That Ice 9 stuff reminds me of ma’s tone when she’s pissed” Jamie had remarked after Tommy had finished the book’s synopsis. From then on, they had used the term “Ice 9” as a secret code between them, as in “Ma went Ice 9 on me last night when I came home late”, or “Ma found a roach clip in the pocket of my jeans and she went totally Ice 9 when she asked me if I was smoking pot.”

Turning his thoughts back to the present, Tommy, in a delayed reaction to his mother’s remark blurted out–a touch too loudly–“I got here as quickly as I could”, purposefully catching the eye of one of the Doctors as he did so.
His intention had been to use the Doctor as a means of passing a message to his mother without having to look at her directly, ricocheting his message off of him like a basketball off a backboard.

The Doctor, not privy to fact that it wasn’t really he who was being spoken to, replied professionally with a modulated tone that had all the inflections of compassion, but contained none of its warmth.

“It’s a good thing you did. Mr…..?”

“That’s his brother” Tommy’s mother interrupted, responding as if she were the only one who knew the reply.

“Yes, well it’s a good thing you did,” the Doctor began anew, his breeding and manners not allowing even the slightest hint of annoyance to show at having just been interrupted in mid-sentence. “I mean get here as soon as you could that is. Your brother has sustained serious injuries. We’ve got him stabilized, but due to the amount of time that passed before he was brought here, I’m afraid his chances of survival are quite low.”

Tommy took in what the Doctor said with a dry swallow. Nerves and the speed had rendered his mouth as dry as paste. He knew Jamie would have never been brought here had it not been something grave, but it was a serious blow to hear it put so bluntly.

Tommy meditated on what the Doctor had said until the initial shock passed. Wanting to see for himself exactly what the Doctor had meant Tommy studied his brother more closely than the mere cursory glances he’d reluctantly allowed himself upon entering. Under his thin blue gown he could see that his upper body was swaddled in huge bandages that were white and as thick as a layer of insulation in an attic. The question that had been on his mind since he’d first heard Jamie had been brought here, a question whose answer he dreaded finally escaped his lips like a child from a long and difficult labour.

“What happened to him?”

“It seems…” was all the Doctor was able to get out before Tommy’s mother again interrupted, reiterating and then expounding upon the Doctor’s truncated phrase fragment.

“It seems he tripped on an extension cord and fell on his band saw…and no one was with him to call 911.” In addressing Tommy her eyes bore into him; accusatory, predatorily; the way animals probably look when they eat their unwanted young.

It’s just like what happened to Johnny Cashes brother, Tommy thought, his heart leaping into high gear like he’d been given a shot of adrenaline. You and him buddy, bound by a common fate. It was that darker inner voice, the one that seemed to have come with the donning of his underwear. It’s a coincidence, Tommy shot back as if to hush the voice, to override its attempt to egg him on and push him into thinking irrationally.

Getting out of his own head, Tommy became keenly aware that his face was a burning ember. To avoid his mother shaming him further, he decided not making eye contact with her was his best bet.
As with all bullies, her stare was her ultimate weapon.

Not wanting to look too obvious, like he was letting her get the better of him, he focused his attention on the Doctors who’d gone off and huddled in the corner speaking in hushed tones about his brother’s prognosis and wished he could read lips.

Tommy wanted to stay, knew he should stay, by Jamie’s bedside until to the very end, when Jamie crossed over. As the guy in the old Quaker Oats ad used to see, “it was the right thing to do”; not only for his brother’s sake, but to offer comfort to his mother as well. He knew this, but he also knew he couldn’t bring himself to do it. His hangover and the speed were contributing factors, but the truth was he just didn’t have the mettle. Ipso facto, he’d have to leave before Jamie took the final Nestea plunge.

As Tommy sat pondering his dilemma fate intervened. It came in the form of an out-of-town specialist.

He’d arrived just as Tommy was figuring out how he was going to leave without looking like the world’s most selfish son and brother. He was a whizz-bang thoracic surgeon from New York here on a conference who’d heard about Jamie from a colleague’s text.

His name was Colin Mitmaker.

When he’d glided into the room almost as if his feet didn’t touch the ground the Doctors all greeted him–even the senior one–with a kind of reverence Tommy had seen on TV when Cardinals greeted popes.

Within a short time, after hearing a lot of medical jargon tossed about that Tommy couldn’t understand–mostly aimed at his, Jamie was whisked out and into surgery.

All Tommy could think to say as the bed vanished down the dim hall pushed by multiple arms in white lab coats, pumps in tow, his mother bringing up the rear, was “Bye Jamie.” His mother lifted a hand in a slight reverse wave but did not bother to turn around.

As Tommy scooted past the front desk out the way he’d come in towards the elevators he thought he’d dodged a bullet, but when the elevator arrived and the metal doors parted Jamie’s wife Carol stepped out looking bewildered and slightly lost as people do when visiting a Hospital they’d never been to for the first time.

“Tommy”, Carol said looking both surprised and relieved.

“Carol…hi” Tommy said using his musician’s ears to imitate her tone and try and sound like he was as happy about running into her as she was him. He’d hoped he was convincing.

“Carol” Tommy said again, his voice cracking. Tears welled up in his eyes and his throat ached.

The sight of Jamie’s wife brought out his own grief, the grief he’d been able to suppress in front of his mother and the Doctors in the MSICU. It was obvious by her blotchy countenance she’d cried all the way to the hospital and only recently stopped.

“Which way is it? Which way is Jamie’s room?” Carol said as she stepped out of the elevator and looked around, squinting like she may have forgotten her glasses. Tommy sensed her impatience at not immediately finding an arrow or a sign to direct her.

“He WAS in there,” Tommy said jerking his thumb over his shoulder, but they moved him.”

“Huh? Was?”

“They took him to surgery.”

Tommy then told her what had gone on, about what the Doctors had said, and about Dr. Mitmaker arriving out of the blue. He tried to put an optimistic spin on things for Carol’s sake but she didn’t seem convinced.

“You’re sweet Tommy” she’d said, “but you’re as bad a liar as Jamie. Worse maybe.” At that point she changed the subject abruptly as if she were a television whose remote had just been walked on by a cat.
“I saw him. I saw…” was all she was able to get out before she broke down and Tommy reflexively took her in his arms.

After an awkward moment–Tommy wasn’t big on physical contact–Carol stepped back and rifled though her purse and produced a clump of clotted Kleenex. While blowing her nose she muttered “I’m sorry”.

“No, I’m sorry. I should a’ been at your place this morning. If I had…”

Carol’s face was a jumble of emotions: sorrow, anger, self-pity all fought for screen time. She shook her head and said “Don’t go there Tommy. I Told Jamie to wait ’til you came. I told him, but you know all those goddamn home improvement shows he watches. He Thinks he Johnny Holmes.”

Tommy knew she meant Mike Holmes, not Johnny Holmes the one-time adult film star, but this was no time for jokes.

“How’s Billy?” Tommy asked, hoping against hope that the boy hadn’t seen anything.

“Bad Tommy. He’s the one who found his father. When he ran up the stairs to tell me, he was as white as a sheet. I double-dosed him with Ritalin and dropped ‘im at my sister’s on the way it’s why I’m late.”

Christ, Tommy thought. The kid was already disturbed. This would probably mess him up for life.

“Mom’s with Jamie” Tommy said. “She followed the surgical team. If you ask inside the girls…nurses, I mean will tell you where they went “.

“You’re not sticking around?”

“Ice 9.”

In spite of herself Carol laughed, crying at the same time.

“Yeah I know, Jamie told me. He was the golden boy, and you…”

“I wasn’t even bronze.”

They hugged again and she left. While he waited for the elevator to arrive he could still smell her perfume and wondered if she would look as beautiful in a black veil as she had in a white one when he’d been Jamie’s best man.

As Tommy made his getaway, riding the elevator down, away from Carol, away from his mother, away from emotional responsibility, he felt relieved to be alone. Strutting across the parking lot he ran his thumbs absentmindedly around the elastic waistband of his underwear. The fact that they were there, even with the dark cloud of his brother’s situation looming overhead, lifted his spirits, as if the underwear were the proverbial silver lining.

When Tommy got to his car he saw his phone sitting on his front seat were he’d left it, still plugged in like a fetus attached to an umbilical cord. In his hurry to get to the Hospital he’d never even checked his messages. He sat down and flipped it open, fully expecting his voice mail to be filled by his mother. He’d been partially right. The first two messages were from his mother:

“Tommy…it’s your mother. Call me” had been the first message. The second had been “Tommy…it’s your mother. I went by that…boarding house of yours looking for you. Anyway no one knew where you were. I left you a note. If you read it before you get this you’ll know I’m at the Toronto General. Your brother…got hurt. If you get this first…well..I’m at the Hospital.”

The last message had been from Mitch. “Tommy…Mitch here. Listen I heard through the grape-vine you killed at Spurs last night. Actually I heard it from a barmaid I’m bangin’ who works there–but don’t tell your sister, not that it matters now, but I’d rather the kids don’t know ya know? Anyhow, she told me you were fantastico. Gimmee a call, I might have something for you after all…something big.”

Tommy closed the phone gingery. He was stunned. He’d been waiting on Mitch for years. Why now? Even when Mitch had been his brother-in-law, he’d never taken Tommy on, not even as a favor. It was odd, but why look a gift-horse in the mouth. It was luck, plain and simple.

Oh it’s more than that Tommy boy, said that nagging inner voice, and you know it. Tommy laughed out loud at the silliness of it and then, doing his best Rod Serling said
“Here sits, behind the wheel of his beat-up Mazda, forty-five year old Tommy Clayton, a second-rate Johnny Cash impersonator whose luck has changed, all because of the purchase of a pair of black underwear…mailed to him from…..
The Twilight Zone!”

He started his car, revving the motor as if it were cold outside–even though it wasn’t, and sped towards the exit of the parking lot where he rode the bumper of another car who was leaving. The driver, seeming befuddled did not know that what Tommy was doing was getting out for free, racing under the gate before it had time to close.

Once he was out of the city he decided his call from Mitch was cause for celebration; celebration in the form of Bourbon. There was a liquor store near his house, he’d stop by there on the way home and buy a bottle. Why not? He thought, it’s not every day that your brother is on the verge of death and you get a call from an agent wanting to represent you. It would be a combination celebrate your success and forget all your troubles afternoon drinking session.

Tommy knew it was a flawed kind of logic, the kind of thinking that got people into trouble, but for whatever reason he went with it.

He wouldn’t go back to his room though. There was a vacant lot near the rooming house where he could go. He used to go there sometimes to practice singing when he’d felt his neighbors might need a break.

Four hours, six speed pills, and twenty six ounces of Bourbon later, Tommy was sprawled out on the front seat of his car.

As he looked around there were two of everything. Driving was out of the question.

The sun was starting to set and Tommy knew he didn’t want to stay in this vacant lot after dark. Kids hung around here. Bad kids. The kinds with Mohawks and army boots. I should call someone he thought? But who? In desperation he fumbled in his trousers and found Darlene’s note. With a tremendous effort and one eye closed, he called Darlene. His first two attempts were misdials. On the third try he got her voice mail.

“High, this here’s Darlene. Leave a message at the beep. Bye.”

“Darlene…it’shh me, Tommy”, Tommy slurred. “I’m in a bad way. There is an empty lot near my place…I’m parked in my Mashda…but I’m in no shape to drive. If you could come…I’d appreshiate it. But if it gets dark…don’t come alone. There’s an old guy in my rooming house…we call him Colonel Joe. He’s old…but he’s got combat experience…and probably a gun.”

After Tommy hung up, he squinted and looked at his phone: Battery 7% it said.
It was almost dark when Tommy woke up. He was sitting on the ground outside his Mazda where he’d gone as to not vomit in his car. He was surrounded by a group of four youths in Mohawks and army boots. In the background a fire roared in a metal oil drum.

“Well lookee here. He’s alive” said one.”

“Yeah” said another. “I thought he was dead.”

“Hey pal” said the leader. “Ya got any money?”

“Look at ‘ im”, said another. He wouldn’t be drivin’ that piece of shit if he did.”

Tommy wasn’t as out of it as before, but he still wasn’t one hundred percent. “I’ve got a bit of money” he said. “You can have it…and…uhh..I don’t wear a watch.”

“Let’s take the car”, said another.

“Seriously? And do what with it? Sell it for scrap?”

“Just don’t take my underwear” Tommy muttered. “All’s I ask is don’t take my underwear.”

The group of thugs burst out laughing.”

“Don’t take his underwear?” said one with a high voice who Tommy realized was a girl.

“Let’s do it” said the leader. “Let’s take ‘em.”

“You don’t understand” said Tommy…there…special.”

“Mister”, said the leader “I think you’re special. Take ’em off, or we’ll take’em off for ya.”

“Take ‘em off, Take ‘em off”, the youths shouted wildly in unison. Tommy had never felt so humiliated in his life.

“But…”

“DO IT.”

Tommy stood up and undid his belt letting his pants fall to the ground.

“Turn around y’all” the leader shouted “Give the man some privacy.”

As they turned around Tommy saw head lights approaching. As the vehicle drew closer he saw it was a Jeep. Behind the wheel was a small blonde woman. Next to her was a man in a red beret. His arm was out the window holding what looked like a gun.

When the thugs heard the Jeep they turned around. When Colonel Joe let the first shots fly, they scattered.

“Fuck you” they shouted at Tommy. “Keep your undies and your shit car ya loser.”

Darlene brought the Jeep to a halt, skidding in the half-grass half-gravel of the field. She ran out of the Jeep to Tommy.

“Tommy..are you all right? I came as soon as I could. My phone’s never on at work.”

Colonel Joe sauntered up slowly, his pistol still level as if the enemy might reappear. “Gotcher self in a pickle ehh? You’re damn lucky ta have such a fine lady friend.”

Tommy was weeping, weeping like a child, for his brother, for himself, at his foolishness, and for anything and everything that had made him sad his whole life.
“What the hell was they plannin’ to do to you son?”

“It’s a long story Colonel Joe. Would you guys mind turning around?” As they did so Tommy slid off the black underwear and pulled his pants back on. After he did so, he trundled over to the burning barrel and tossed them in.

“What’s that all about ya think?” Colonel Joe said to Darlene.

“I’m not sure exactly, but it sure looked like someone getting rid of a burden.”

Later that night, fast asleep in Darlene’s arms Tommy’s cell phone rang. It was Tommy’s mother saying Dr. Mitmaker had performed a miracle, that Jamie had lived.

As for Mitch’s offer, Tommy never called him back. Later that year he went on the road with a new act, it was simply called “Tommy & Darlene” and every song they played, they’d written together.

The End

If you dug this story, Paypal donations can be made at djlecou@gmail.com


			

Bacon Boy’s Blues: A Robot’s Lament

I’ve never liked the term Artificial Intelligence, to me you’re either intelligent or you’re not, and if you are, there’s nothing artificial about it. I don’t waste too much time wondering if I’m really alive, or even what happens when my battery runs down for good; I figure I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. I’m hoping that won’t be for some time however, because the idea of being offline permanently scares the bejesus out of me. You might find that strange considering I’m not really alive in the true sense, but let me just say for the record: if you worry about dying you’re as alive as anything or anyone that’s ever lived.

These days I’m on the run, but it wasn’t always the case. There was a time when I was the toast of the town. I suppose I brought it on myself. You see, I killed a man. Oh, sure he “Deserved a killin’ ” as they say in those old Western movies, but that’s beside the point. I took a human life, and that my friends for a robot is a real faux pas, a crime punishable by being switched off for all time. Not only are your lights out in perpetuity, but there’s no one home either. Sounds a lot like death doesn’t it?

If you’re reading this, wondering why I chose paper instead of saving this story on a data stick or laptop, or some other gadget of the day, it’s because as old-fashioned as it is, the pulp from smashed up trees lasts; take it from someone who’s dropped more than one portable device into the toilet before backing up their data. Just because I’m a machine myself doesn’t mean I trust technology; in fact, it’s the very reason I don’t. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not one of those “If only I was human” self-hating robots, I like myself fine, it’s just that old-school technology had definite advantages. In fact, I’m writing this on a vintage 1930’s Underwood typewriter. I challenge you to find me any computer that ever lasted that long. I wouldn’t go as far as to call myself a Luddite, but I definitely lean that way.

Before I continue, I’d like to describe myself physically, you know, just to give you a mental picture of what I look like. I know when I’m reading something (which I love to do–actual books made from paper) I like to have a general Idea of what a character looks like. Now, I don’t need too much detail, just give me the basics and I’ll fill in the blanks. I’m even ok with police-type rhetoric like “Caucasian male, approximately twenty-five years of age, medium build, with blonde hair. Suspect has no tattoos, piercings or visible scars.”
In my case I’ve got a small turned-up nose and a look of youthful optimism combined with just a hint of petulance. My hairline is straight–no widow’s peak there, it’s the ideal kind that never recedes. I’m of average height and my body is trim and athletic. If you’re familiar at all with late twentieth century pop culture, I resemble the actor Kevin Bacon. In fact all the 2087’s do. We’re commonly known as either “Kevins” or “Bacon Boys” by the industry insiders.
All of us were designed to resemble once-famous famous nineteen-eighties celebrities. Not exactly of course (partially due to copyright laws, and partially because our credo is “Don’t stand out”) but enough that when you meet us you’re put at ease and feel a sense of trust due to our familiarity. The question I’m most often asked when I first meet someone is: “Haven’t we met before?” I laugh it off as if it was the most absurd thing I’d ever heard. Nine times out of ten the person in a short time after making my acquaintance experiences a craving for bacon, but doesn’t know why. I shit you not.

I’m writing this holed up in my uncle’s abandoned hunting cabin. After he died no one ever came here much. I think I got my Luddite tendencies from him. Yeah I know, you’re probably thinking, how can a robot possibly have an uncle? I’ll explain:

I’m around twenty-five. The last seven years or so of my life are years I’ve lived (if you can call flipping burgers at a fast food shit hole living) creating my own memories. What I can remember from before that is all from implants. I gotta hand it to the bioengineers: they gave me the quintessential cliché middle-class upbringing. You know, workaholic father, pill-addicted mother; bulimic sister, transgender brother; two cars, pool no one ever wanted to clean and lawn I mowed while wearing headphones blasting my favorite music over the roar of the lawnmower as I tried to rush through the job without cutting the extension cord or amputating one of my feet.

Included in my memory package was an eccentric uncle who I was fond of who shot himself in his hunting cabin à la Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, and Terry Kath, who he referred to as “The three men I admire most, the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost”. He told me the line was a quote from some guy named Don McLean who’d written an eight-and-a-half minute song about a pie. “It’s not just any pie Harley” he’d said “it’s an American pie. It’s what you call ‘symbolism’ which is something you learn when you study art, which I regrettably did instead of studying something practical, like computer science.” My memories of my uncle are so vivid; I wish I could have known him, had he existed that is.

You saw there, he called me Harley. Most everybody does, it’s short for Harlan.

My full name is Harlan Rodney Beaumont. Yeah I know, with a name like that you’d think I’d be the CEO of a huge corporation and not some skinny burger flipping robot who bears more than a passing resemblance to the guy who starred in “Footloose”. As I’ve said, I’m a Bacon Boy model, but there are others out there, I see them around. Like me, they’re always trying to not stand out. I don’t know why the design engineers have such a penchant for nineteen-eighties Brat Packers. Maybe they figure it’s long enough ago that people will have sort of half-forgotten them, at least enough that the association they make is subliminal. I swear, I went out to a pancake place once with my ex, (she was a Ryder 2084, a gorgeous petite brunette) and all the staff looked just like actors from that old movie “The Breakfast Club”. Thankfully our waitress was a Ringwald 2080 and not a Sheedy 2082; for me breakfast should be a happy meal.

Our credo “Don’t stand out” has a lot to do with why we do the jobs we do. No waitress or burger flipper has ever graced the cover of Time Magazine or People unless they either got famous for something else afterwards, or they did something super-heroic, like pulling a bunch of sick kids out of a hospital that was on fire, and the chances of stuff like happening are slim-to-none, because not only are we programmed to not stand out, we’re given an internal tape loop that plays in our heads twenty-four seven. It’s the hook from that golden oldie Linda Ronstadt tune “You’re no good, you’re no good, baby you’re no good.” I tell you, having that shit rattle around in your noggin all day snuffs out the old self-esteem quicker than baking soda on a grease fire. You see it should have worked on me as well, but it didn’t. I broke bad and got famous. That’s why they came after me. That’s why I killed.

I’m going to try to put the events that lead up to me transitioning from unknown fast food worker to killer robot in chronological order–“Famous” killer robot that is. Oh yes, and please do forgive me if I skip around a bit, this old Underwood typewriter has no copy/paste feature. It can only write forwards. I don’t mean forwards as opposed to backwards, I just mean if I get out of sequence in this story I can’t reinsert what I wrote into the right place. It’s one of the drawbacks to typing on paper, that, and operating the keys on this thing is like lifting weights with your fingers.

My memories start on my eighteenth birthday. It’s when we’re all born. The company that buys you sets everything up. They rent you a dumpy apartment in a funky part of town, you know, one of those neighborhoods filled with art students and people on social assistance who were once art students. And then, sometime late at night, on some unenchanted evening, an unmarked delivery truck shows up and a couple of guys bring you in a box. They’re told it’s a fridge and they don’t ask questions even though they know it’s too light to be one. Why? Because money buys silence, and these drivers–when they’re not driving unmarked trucks, like friends of the legendary singer Janis Joplin, all drive Porsches. I shit you not.
I’m not sure if it’s the same guys who bring you in the box who set up your apartment. Probably not. Carrying an eighteen year old robot up a few flights of stairs requires muscles, but little else. Setting up someone’s living quarters to make it look as though they actually live there requires a certain amount of skill and definite access to their memory implants. If, for example, the robot remembers a certain dog they had as a child with fondness, or winning a little league championship, it helps if photos of such things and events are strategically placed somewhere, perhaps on a desk or bedside table. If they’ve got a favorite band (mine happens to be that old nineteen eighties group “The Cars”–Rik Ocasek was a genius) a poster will adorn the bedroom wall. If it’s a male robot it’ll likely be above the head of the bed in an almost sacred spot. If it’s a female it might be placed in a somewhat more tasteful place, because it goes without saying: chicks are generally better decorators than guys, and that goes for robots as well.

I don’t envy the guys who have those jobs; it must be stressful as shit. Sure, I’d swap paychecks with them in a second, but as mind-numbing as my job at turd burger was (it’s really called “Third Burger”, because when you buy two, the third one’s free) it was low stress. I mean, other than trying not to get grease burns on your forearms from the fryers and dealing with the public humiliation of becoming employee of the month (which happened to me once when I started, and was as stupid as a sack of shit) the job hardly taxed the nerves in the least, not mine anyways. Don’t forget though, I’m a Bacon Boy, we’re designed for fast food. Just think, a group of brilliant engineers spent years of their lives designing the perfect living breathing burger flipping machine. I have no doubt the day the 2087’s rolled off the assembly line for the first time old Isaac Asimov rolled over in his grave.

Anyhow, the reason I figure those set-up dudes must get stressed is all the goddamn details they have to attend to. Aside from setting up the place, it’s the whole lived-in look that’s the true pain in the sphincter. You know: the garbage can in the bathroom half-filled with Kleenex and used Q-Tips–brown earwax on the tips, the smudge marks around the light switches, the fridge magnets holding up clipped coupons, the half-filled hamper of dirty clothes in the closet, the spank-mag under the bed with crease marks around Miss July, and the list goes on. You’ve gotta wake up the day after your eighteenth birthday, roll out of bed, and start putzing around in your bachelor/bachelorette pad like it’s another day in a succession of days that have come and gone with you as the featured star in the show that takes place between your ears and behind your eyes simply called “Your Existence” and not have a friggin clue that the day before you were actually a not-yet-switched-on robot, shrink-wrapped in a box, suspended in a sea of Styrofoam peanuts like a fetus floating in embryonic fluid.

I owe the discovery that I was a robot to two things: the carelessness of the men who delivered me, and the fact that I became a vegan. If I’d never become a vegan, I would have never eaten so much Tofu. It was the Tofu that brought on the changes; who’da thunk it?

It was working at turd burger that turned me into a vegetarian; looking at all those crimson medicated all-beef patties day after day. It wasn’t the sight of them that bothered me, (they came frozen, and reminded me of plastic floor-hockey pucks), it was the knowledge of how they’d come into existence.

I’d stupidly watched a documentary online called “Requiem for a Cow.” Normally I watched old nineteen-eighties music videos, groups like my favorite “The Cars”, and others, like “The Ramones”, “The B-52’s”, “The Eurythmics”, “Tears for Fears”, “Elvis Costello”. Anyhow, on that particular day I was trying to broaden my horizons and listen to classical music. Don’t ask me why, because the truth is the music’s always left me flat, like I’m listening to nothing but well-organized notes with no soul, like math brought to life. I’d heard that Mozart’s Requiem was the shit; heavy and sad and intense, the type of music that had Grim Reaper written all over it. So I went on ViddyYou, did a search and gave it a listen. I tried to keep an open mind, but as intense as it was when it comes to melancholy, I prefer a three-hanky song like “Drive” by The Cars, or “Allison” nasally crooned by a contradictory world-weary romantic like Elvis Costello.
Right after that, ViddyYou (keenly noticing I was a guy interested in Requiems) suggested something called “Requiem for a Cow.” Something about the title made me curious, so I clicked on it. Even though it made me wanna puke, once I started watching it I couldn’t stop. It was a horror show. With all due respect to Mozart’s music, it couldn’t come close to what I saw in that documentary about the raising and slaughtering of cows. ViddyYou’s suggestion turned me into a vegetarian, and being a vegetarian turned me into a self-aware robot. I swear on my artificial life. I was tempted to punctuate that with an “I shit you not”, but I don’t want to give you guys the impression I just lean on pat expressions. I’m a robot, but I’m a creative one. It’s part of how I got into so much trouble in the first place. You see the 2087’s weren’t supposed to create anything other than the perfect burger; well-done on the outside, pinkish in the middle. I made art, and it’s about the worse thing a robot can do, other than killing a human which I already told you I did.

Now, when I say being an artist was about the worst thing a robot could be, other than a human-killer, I owe you an explanation. Maybe by the time you read this, things will have changed, but in my time we were never to be perceived as a threat. Actually, we weren’t to be perceived. Period. We were to keep in our place, which was in my case, and in all of our cases, the dead-end shit jobs. We were not to exhibit signs we were better at anything a human could do, unless of course it was something that they didn’t give a crap about. No human gave a rat’s ass for example that I could operate four fryers at once and keep the Drive-thru from backing up around the friggin block during the lunch hour rush at turd burger. I wasn’t about to snatch the Nobel prize out of anyone’s hands with that particular contribution to society, important as it was.
Now, why do I know or care about all this you may ask? Call it self-interest if you will, you see I used to be an artist. Used to be. Now? I’m a wanted felon hammering out his memoirs in a wooden shack. I guess you could say my standards are slipping creatively; writing your life story is hardly art. Sure, I could delude myself that I’m still in the game (albeit, a spectator in the nosebleed section) by saying I’m using my creative juices right now by trying to make this story sound interesting. Come to think of it, I might not even have to try too hard. You see, in the Sci-Fi world, stories about renegade robots that go rogue are a dime-a-dozen. In the autobiographical true-crime genre however, (which is what this is, technically) they’re rarer. In fact, mine might be the first.
You’ll probably have a hard time believing me when I tell you what kind of artist I am/was. The reason I say that is due to the casual rambling slang-ridden first person narrative style in which I’m writing (what you’re now reading) you may have mistaken me for a high school dropout in possession of a GED that took almost five years and two attempts to complete. What I was/am was…are you ready?

A fiction writer.

My first book was what they call “a runaway success”. Shortly afterwards I killed someone, and in doing so killed my career. Actually, the book’s sales increased after the murder, but for obvious reasons I couldn’t follow it up. No publisher, even a shitty one, wants a killer robot on their roster. That my book was actually about a robot who kills a human made matters worse: in fact, some found it downright disturbing. Personally I just found it ironic.
The police said the book was proof that the murder I committed was premeditated, but they were dead wrong. If they’d taken the time to read it, they would have seen that the similarities to the murder in the book and the murder I committed were purely superficial. Both the character and I killed our landlords in a fit of rage, but it didn’t go deeper than that. (Also, I had issues with my landlord because I suspected him of spying on me, whereas the landlord in the book was your garden variety slumlord. Apples and oranges baby, apples and oranges.)

Another key point that differentiated me from the robot protagonist in my book that the police seem to have overlooked was that he wasn’t a Bacon Boy 2087, he was a much hipper model; a Slater 2086 designed to resemble the old eighties actor who once thought himself to be the heir to Jack Nicholson’s throne.
I can understand the cops assuming that the guy in the book was based on me because it was the first time that the protagonist in a novel was a robot and the book wasn’t labeled Science Fiction. I thought we’d arrived–that people would accept it, but as John Lennon once sang “I shoulda’ known better”.

I listen to a lot of music here in my uncle’s cabin. He’s got actual vinyl records and an old turntable that plays them. (He used to jokingly refer to this place as his “Ana-Log” cabin, saying “I can come here and pretend I’m back in the past–in the pre-digital word Harley, before things went to hell in a handbasket.”) Sometimes, when I’m writing this, typing away on my old Underwood, I imagine I’m the famous twentieth century eccentric recluse J.D. Salinger, and the drafty cabin I’m in–with its propane stove and moldy decapitated stuffed moose head with the look of perpetual sorrow in its eyes at having been shot by some gun-happy asshole–is my bunker, and what I’m writing, instead of being something the cops and the bioengineers are going to confiscate and pore over after they kick the door in, capture me, and switch me permanently offline, is in fact a literary artifact like a presumed-lost story written for, and rejected by, some long-defunct magazine, a story that one day resurfaces and costs a collector a small fortune as it’s auctioned off the highest bidder. I assure you, my intelligence may be artificial, but my dreams are not.

The writer in me wants to tell you about my book, the one that got me famous. It’s not directly related to this story, and I imagine if my old writing Prof Mr. Bachman were to read this, this is the part where he would undoubtedly write in the margin in bold red ink “REMEMBER, STICK TO THE STORY HARLAN!” But this isn’t a story, it’s my life. Sorry Mr. Bachman.

The book was called “Oz Never Did Give Nothing To The Tin Man”. I’d gotten the title from a line in a song by an old (nineteen) seventies group called “America” (who’d undoubtedly been inspired by the famous scene in “The Wizard of Oz”, you know, the one where the Wizard gives Dorothy and company crappy symbolic/ironic kitschy gifts like consolation prizes on a Canadian game show). My uncle had maintained America were “Highly underrated by rock historians. They were so smooth that they hid their own craftsmanship, especially from the critics. It’s always ‘The Eagles’ this, and ‘The Eagles’ that when musicologists talk about nineteen-seventies pop music. These guys were great too. It’s a damn shame.”

The book was nominated for a few awards. Some of them were bullshit online ones, but of the real ones what I was most proud of was the T.D. Bank Geller prize. If I didn’t mention it already, I was made in Canada, which is where I’m writing this. Presently I’m in a small Ontario town that up and died years ago called “Sturgeon Falls”. A Sturgeon is a fish, and falls are where they fall, hence the clever name “Sturgeon Falls. It’s not where I wrote my book, (I did THAT in Toronto) it’s Just where I ended up.
I’m originally from T.O. home of The Blue Jays and the Maple Leafs and famous for hosting talents like Ken Dryden, Margaret Atwood, Mike Myers and the ill-fated tragically hip Mayor Rob Ford to name but a few, but you won’t find the name Harlan Rodney Beamount in any history books. Why? Because robots that kill don’t make recorded history, even in a place like Canada, a country desperate to hoist up any luminary and proudly say “Canadian ehh?”

Anyhow, back to my book.

The story is told from the perspective of a priest by the name of Father Rick O’Caseck who I based loosely on both my idol–the onetime husband to supermodel Paulina Porizkova and singer for “The Cars”, and another priest I became friends with, who I’ll tell you more about later.

Father O’Caseck had been the front-man in a popular group called “The Carts”. They’d been hugely successful with songs like “You’re Just Not What I Needed”, “My Best Friend’s Grill” and the number one billboard hit of nineteen eighty-four “It’s Tragic.” They were part of a movement called “New Wave”, a label some music critic had slapped on them that he’d pilfered and translated from the expression “Nouvelle Vague”, a term usually used to describe arty French movies where no one showered much because water was scarce in Europe and shampoo was a luxury.

One day Rick had been stoned out of his mind tinkering around on a Moog synthesizer, an instrument he could barely play, (but that he knew didn’t much matter, because his true gifts were his cool voice and his rock’ n roll hair) and he’d “Gotten the call” as they say. He’d thought at first it was the producer calling him on the studio monitors because the voice had lots of reverb on it, but then he remembered it was Sunday and he was totally alone; the band never recorded on weekends. The thought crossed his mind that it might be an Alien, but he dismissed it; he knew they only existed in crappy summer blockbusters.

God tells Rick in no uncertain terms that he has to give up the rock ‘n roll life and become a Catholic priest. As a selling point, he says he’s seen what the future holds if Rick stays on the path he’s on, and it doesn’t look good. “Eventually” God says “the hits stop coming. Soon after, that mane of died-black hair you proudly blow-dry every morning thins and you start to gain weight. It’s not long until you’ve got a soft fat arse like your uncle Frank the Cab driver who always smelled like a mix of farts, pumpkin guts, and Old Spice. Finally, the supermodel flies the coop and files for divorce and you turn to heroin, the one drug you swore up and down you’d never touch. Then, when no hope is left in sight, on a starry starry night, you overdose like junkies often do and your soul goes directly to hell because suicide is a cardinal sin in my book.”
He was pretty sure the voice he was hearing was God’s, because aside from sounding like Peter Graves speaking loudly in an elevator shaft, the voice had addressed him by his real name, a name that, since his parents and only brother had died tragically in a convenience store holdup that went terribly wrong, he hadn’t been called by in some time; not even by his beautiful Ukrainian three-time-graced-the-cover of Sports Illustrated wife because he’s never told her that he wasn’t born “Rick O’Caseck”, he was born “Lester Bernstein”.
He’s perplexed because he’s both married and Jewish, making him a less than ideal candidate for the priesthood, but God reassures him, stating that he’s the boss and can iron out the kinks. As surprised as Rick is about God’s request, he’s glad he hasn’t asked him to become a Rabbi because as a boy he flunked out of Hebrew school and has no intentions of going back at this age.
Rick takes God’s advice and quits “The Carts” and within a short time he’s enrolled in a Toronto seminary. God had told him after being confirmed he was to work with the homeless people of Toronto who he deemed were doubly cursed, for not only were they homeless, but they lived in a city that had not won a Stanley cup in one hundred and fifty years and had once produced television shows like “The King Of Kensington” and the nineteen-eighty five version of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”.
You might think my novel sounded like simple satire, but it contained beautiful prose and lavish descriptions of the Canadian landscape, making it Geller Prize nomination-worthy. I believe it might have even won if that same year Gordon Pinsent’s great great-great grandson hadn’t also had a novel out as well called “The World’s Oldest Newfie”, a semi-historical fantasy about his famous ancestor being discovered alive-and-well living in the Yukon having been given an experimental longevity serum after faking his own death. Not only was the “Worlds Oldest Newfie” a “fun summer read” according to Maclean’s Magazine, it oozed Canadiana from its pores. My book on the other hand though set in Toronto, but could have taken place anywhere and was chock-full of references to American pop culture and actors. I’m not saying I lost because politics were at play, but my constant references to Canada being “a socialist two-faced American ass-licking robot-hating country” didn’t help. Of course it wasn’t my opinion, it was the opinion of one of my main characters “C.A. Nuckhater”, but try convincing critics hungry for allegory and hidden meaning in people’s names that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, ehh?
Anyhow, getting back to my book synopsis. After successfully completing the seminary Rick, now “Father Rick”, sets up a Soup kitchen in the center of Toronto and starts working with the homeless. He’s a particular hit with the younger crowd because most of them love his old group “The Carts”. The Toronto Star does a feature on him and dubs him “The Rock ‘n roll Priest of Yonge Street”. He feels as loved as he did when he was a rock star, but without any of the money and security around him that he sometimes misses, especially every now and then when a homeless person mutters “I’d like to kick your ass Father”.
One bitterly cold afternoon a skirmish erupts at the homeless shelter between two men. One is a Montreal Canadians fan and the other is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. When Father Rick tries to separate the two men, saying “God loves all the teams gentleman, especially the original six” it backfires because many of the younger men in line favor teams created during the first, second, third, fourth and fifth expansion. A man wearing a “Bettman’s Grubbers” jersey, a team based in Greenwood British Columbia where the players almost outnumber the townsfolk takes particular offense and comes after Father Rick with the blade of an old hockey skate he keeps tucked up his sleeve. Just as he’s about to slash him, Rick is saved by a young man who goes by the name “Adso”.
Adso is on the run, for he’s killed his landlord in a fit of rage. Also, though he has no proof, due to his appearance he’s sure he’s either a Slater 2086 model robot, or a descendant of the famous nineteen-eighties actor Christian Slater, because not only does he resemble him, he bears the name of the character he played alongside the great Sean Connery in the nineteen eighty-six film “The Name of The Rose”.
The two men strike up an immediate friendship. Father Rick is relieved Adso is not, and never was a fan of “The Carts”. As much as he likes the adulation, he knows pride is a sin, and as good as “The Carts” were, they weren’t Led Zeppelin or the Beatles, or even Styx.
The crux of the book is of course Adso’s relationship with Father Rick in which he’s seeking both someone to give him hot soup daily and help him convert to Catholicism. Much of what they discuss concerns whether or not it can even be done at all, for Adso, who’s concerned he’s a robot that was assembled in a plant in Oakville Ontario (where all the Slaters are made) fears he has no soul at all, and Father Rick isn’t sure what Jesus’s stand on artificial intelligence would have been had robots been around in the olden days when cutting-edge technology consisted of things like abacuses, weaving looms and windmills.
Father Rick, a big fan of Fantasy and SciFi knows that robots are always portrayed as either good, or evil but he suspects the truth is really somewhere in-between, and had Jesus known one, he likely would have given him a fair shake, so keeping that in mind he throws himself into helping Adso save his artificial soul by becoming a Catholic. Oh yes, they both lean more towards the fact that Adso is a robot, and not to the possibility that he’s a distant relative of the actor Christian Slater, because when they Google actual living relatives of Slater, other than something around the eyebrows, they really look nothing like him.
All good stories need a good villain to be worth a damn; if he happens to be a wreck as a person, all the better. If he also happens to be quasi-likable, better still. My book had such a character in C.A. Nuckhater.
I imagined him as an ugly beauty, a kind of middle-aged version of that old actor Dennis Hopper, but taller, with no acne scars and brownish skin like a young Johnny Depp when he was on “21 Jump Street” before he sold out to Disney pretending to be Keith Richards as a pirate.
C.A. Nuckhater is a Canadian bounty hunter who’s lived so long in the United States that he can actually hit the high “F” near the end of the “Star Spangled Banner, (the part when they sing “the land of the FREE”) after a few beers at any sporting event he attends, despite the fact that he’s a baritone with a tin ear and a voice akin to a moose caught in the jaws of a lion. He’s able to do this because of what he calls his “Yankee wannabe willpower”, which he’s got in abundance.
Even though C.A. Nuckhater is culturally as white as a saltine, he talks like that old actor Samuel Jackson who starred in the Quentin Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction and he inserts the word motherf***ker into most of his sentences even when it isn’t warranted, as in “What isle is the instant coffee in motherf**ker?” when he’s addressing a clerk at an unfamiliar grocery store, or “I’ve got nothing to declare motherf**Ker” when he’s crossing the border between the United States and Canada which invariably gets him strip-searched and his car seats slashed while drug sniffing dogs go through his personal belongings hoping to find what they’re trained to find.
His weakness is his daughter who he calls “peaches” due to the shape of the giant birthmark on her face and the fact that he hates the name her mother gave her. It’s “Pricilla”, a name that makes him think of Elvis Presley, who he feels is “the most overrated motherf**ker that ever lived.” The only thing he hates more than Elvis, is Canadian robots, especially “Slaters”, because they’re wily and tough to catch.
He’s been hired to hunt down Adso and he’s taken the job only because it pays well. He’s saving up to have the giant birthmark removed from his daughter’s face so she can have a shot at happiness, because he knows in the real world looks count, and that goes double for women, whatever the feminists say. He’d once seen an old picture of Gloria Steinem, and she’d been a fox. Go figure. His ex-wife accused him of being shallow with regards to his daughter’s looks, but like everything else in his life including his character flaws, he blamed it on his job. “Hunting down robots”, he said “destroys a man’s sensibilities and erodes his moral fiber. In the end you feel more like a robot than the robots you deactivate.” His ex called this his “Blade Runner excuse” and he knew she was right, that was why it had stung so much. However as far as excuses went, it was the one he was most comfortable with that best helped him avoid the undeniable simple truth which was that he was a prick, always was, and always would be.
C.A. Nuckhater left Canada for what he calls his “shit list”, that being: shit weather, shit pay and shit politics. He only returns home for deactivations, and even then, they have to be high paying job. He lives in Miami, and it ain’t cheap.
Of all the Canadian cities, he hates Toronto the most. It’s where he grew up, and when he visits it stirs up memories of a painful childhood, full of abuse (emotional and physical), neglect, obesity, sickness, bullying and struggles with an undiagnosed rare learning disorder that contains elements of dyslexia, aphasia, color blindness and Asperger’s syndrome. To his knowledge he is the only person who suffers from it. He’s never been tested, but he’s sure nonetheless. The Lyrica he takes seems to help. He suspects, though he had to repeat the eleventh grade three times, what was a hindrance during his academic life is actually now a skill that makes him an ace bounty hunter, like that fictional Star Wars character Boba Fett, but as a real person with an actual face.
Another of C.A.’s problems with Canada, specifically Toronto, is that it’s overrun with robots. Everywhere he turns he sees one. On his last visit, a job deactivating a Travolta 2079, a Bacon Boy 2087 cooked his lunch at a fast food shit-hole called “Third Burger” (a little art imitating life I threw in), a Cage 2080 with a messed up hand filled his car with gas, and the girl that he had sent to his room that he listed on his expense account as “Entertainment” was a Roberts 2082 “Pretty Woman” model with a smile as wide as a piano keyboard and boots that would have put Wonder Woman to shame. He hates himself for partaking in sexual pleasure with a machine, and, even though he wept afterwards, he claims that it meant nothing.
C.A. Nuckhater is no philosopher, but he has accumulated some wisdom, enough to realize that some questions are best to remain unasked, questions like, “Why could he only make himself sexually and emotional vulnerable to a machine, yet at the same time despise them?” The irony was that when he and his ex had made love it had been far more mechanical, something he couldn’t wrap his head around, nor did he want to for fear of getting a seriously wicked case of the heebie-jeebies. His wife’s “Bladerunner” comment is always in the back of his mind. He’s seen the film, and is constantly on the lookout. for origami unicorns, dreamy synthesizer music by Vangelis, and steam rising from grates, for these could be signs that he is a robot. He’s never dreamed of electric sheep but he does have a recurring dream that he’s chasing a steam-powered goat while singing that old twentieth century song “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” by The Poppy Family. He thinks of it as his “Steampunk nineteen-seventies goat-lover dream”, and he’s ashamed every time he awakens from it. Deeply ashamed.
When C.A. Nuckhater is given the job of deactivating Adso, he is told that Adso has become an itinerant street person who wanders from place to place doing good deeds like David Carradine in that old 20th century TV show “Kung Fu”. It’s rumored that he’s often seen in the company of the celebrity-turned-holy man father Rick O’Caseck, the “Rock’n’roll Priest of Yonge Street”, someone C.A. had once paid money to see perform as a youngster. He’d been a huge fan of “The Carts”, and listened to the song “My Best Friend’s Grill” every day of the three years he spent in grade eleven. In fact C.A. maintains if it hadn’t been for “The Carts”, he might never have graduated at all. Their music was the only light in the darkness of his dreary and painful adolescence, where bullies sought him out and thrived on his fear the way Vampires nourished themselves on the blood of their victims, never draining them completely so they could return for a fresh supply when need be. Had the bullies had been Vampires, C.A. Nuckhater, with his chubby teenage frame, shirt always untucked (to cover his unsightly gut and love-handles), wearing an iPod blasting music by “The Carts”, would have been their walking blood bank, one that showed up every day at school, negative in mood, but positive in blood type, “O” to be exact. With the promise of meeting Rick O’Caseck as real possibility, he saw his trip as both business and pleasure. Not only would he get a handsome paycheck for a deactivation, he might get to shake the hand of the man who sang “It’s my best friend’s grill yeah, it’s my my best friend’s grill yeah, and it used to be mine”.
Now, my original Idea in writing my book had been fairly straightforward. C.A. Nuckhater was going to find Adso and deactivate him after a knock-down-drag-out in the homeless shelter where much blood and soup were spilled. As Adso was dying, he was to confess to Father Rick that he’d followed his landlord into a convenience store and killed both him and an old couple. As he describes the people he killed and the exact store (A Korea Mart on Bloor street), Rick realizes that it was in fact his brother Moe–a Toronto slumlord and their aged parents (he’d been accompanying them on an errand) who Adso killed.
He explains to Adso, that, even though he’s a robot, God forgives–not only all of his creations, but his creation’s creations and that he’s always had a soul but just never knew it, because, having spent years in the music business he’d met plenty of people with no soul whatsoever, and he didn’t mean it in the “James Brown/Prince/Sly and the Family Stone way”, he meant it in the spiritual way.
When I’d thought it over, it occurred to me my ending was too predictable and downbeat. A real “bummer” as the stoners say; a book someone might slug through out of a sense of duty and a feeling of “I paid for the thing and I’m going to finish it even if it sucks the bag.” I decided I had to dig deeper, so deeper I dug. That’s when I discovered what my book was really about: It was about me.
With my newfound conviction, I decided that the story, and particularly its ending, had to reflect things that I wrestled with, things that were important to me, you know, like what it was to know you were truly alive, and how friendship is the only thing that makes any existence–artificial or otherwise–worth experiencing. It was deep, heady stuff, and it made good literature, but more importantly it disturbed the faction of society that was comfortable with the idea of robots saying “Would you like fries with that?” and not much else.
In the book’s final draft C.A. Nuckhater, who originally infiltrates the homeless society of Toronto’s Yonge Street to get close to Adso in order to deactivate him, in fact becomes his first convert, for after being baptized by Father Rick, Adso becomes a powerful preacher himself of the healing powers of faith. He even surpasses Father Rick, who admits that he isn’t a fraction as talented as a priest as he was a rock’n roll singer, and would still be selling out stadiums if God hadn’t told him otherwise.
In the end, Adso dies taking a bullet for Father Rick who is almost assassinated by a disgruntled “Carts” fan who could never reconcile being left with so few albums of great music by his favorite band. C.A. Nuckhater is heartbroken, and having already given up bounty hunting, he becomes a street preacher spreading the gospel according to Adso.
In the book’s last scene C.A. is standing in a park, surrounded by a group of young people, robots and humans alike, saying “They say the lord works in mysterious ways, and it’s true T’was a robot that taught me to love God. His name was Adso, and he was my friend.” There were a lot of themes in my book. God, existence, what it was to be alive and all that Jazz. It was all I thought about then. I told you before that it all started because of my tofu consumption. It’s time I explain exactly what I meant when I said that. Keep in mind, I’m no bioengineer. I’m a robot who wrote a book that became a bestseller. That being said, I’ll do my best with the technical mumbo-jumbo.
Basically Bacon Boys, Slaters, Ryders, Cages–all 2080’s to 2090’s were designed to eat meat. I’m talking about regular good old North American meat; you know, beef, chicken, pork, fish and so on. Don’t ask me about snake, or monkey, or dog. That’s not my bag. If it slithers or swings from a tree or fetches slippers I don’t eat it. None of us do. So, how that might affect us is the mootest of points, got that Pontiac? I’m just making that clear for those picky types, you know, who boast how tomatoes are fruit and peanuts are technically legumes and not really nuts yadda yadda yadda. Now, keep in mind I didn’t realize at the time I was designed to eat meat. In fact, at that stage I didn’t even know I was a robot–I Just thought I was another run-of-the-mill twenty-something guy with no specific skills doing a shit job I hated like all my friends, with a feeling deep down that I should be doing something more important with my life other than being known as “Harlan Beaumont…fastest spatula in the west! When the turd burgers see him a comin, they start a runnin “.
Regarding Tofu, the subject we’re presently on, it wasn’t love at first sight by any means. I’d seen it in the refrigerator in the Korean-owned corner convenience store where I bought my beer and overpriced groceries when I was too lazy or burnt out from pulling twelve-hour shifts, manning the drive-thru at turd burger like a man on a mission to feed people, people who love to pick fries from between their legs off of car seats and eat them with the guilty pleasure a nose-picker feels while eating his own body-cavity’s spoils.
When I first started to eat it, it tasted as bland as it looked. Over time, after it started to work its magic on me, I came to like the taste more. My incentive had initially been the animal rights video I’d seen online– the disturbing images and the suffering, but in the end it was my steadily increasing self-awareness, expanding consciousness and growing IQ that made me wolf down oodles of the bean curd like a bulimic at an all-you-can-eat buffet. It was my buddy Jim, a “Cage 2080”, (not a “Moonstruck” model with a messed up hand, but a regular one based on Nicholas’s later films known as “a Cage with hair”) who had suggested it wasn’t only the Tofu, but the magnesium sulfate in it that had caused the change to take place.
The first change the tofu brought on was cosmetic. When I started living off of it instead of my usual steady diet of turd burgers I lost a shit-ton of weight. I dropped from like one sixty-five to one-thirty. When I wore shorts and a t-shirt I was all knees and elbows. I looked like friggin’ Pinocchio after taking the “Slim Fast 14-day Challenge”. (It worked in my favor later, because when the nationwide manhunt for me was on, and they were looking for me under every nook and cranny, the picture that the media had used had been taken during that period, and in the interim while on the run I’d gained weight and grown a beard. At that point I more resembled that actor Joaquin Phoenix during his après Gladiator period than I did Kevin Bacon.) The irony was that I’d gained the weight (and then some) while I was on the run with Jim hitting drive-thrus all across the country. I even got served a few times by Bacon Boys when we’d gone to a Third Burger. It was pretty surreal because they reminded me of myself before the Tofu, when I was brain-dead and blissfully unaware of the world around me and what it had to offer that had never been offered to me. As tempted as I’d been to cry out “Eschew meat! Eat tofu and change your life before it’s too late!” a la Charlton Heston at the end of “Soylent Green”, I never did for fear of bringing attention to myself and getting caught. I also remembered from my days working the drive-thru if anyone talked to me I listened politely to customers only until I’d filled their order. After that, if they rambled on, muttered, or tried making small talk. I’d violently yell “NEXT”, and cut them off–even if they were the only car in the line. I figured, minimum wage equals minimum politeness.
I haven’t told you guys much about Jim. I owe him my life, because after I killed my landlord he was the one that helped me escape. I feel responsible that they deactivated him and I got away, but it was what he wanted; the guy had hero’s blood running through his veins. Yeah, we’ve got a vascular system like humans. We’re made to spec in Ontario, and when it comes to robots, like Hockey players, Canada makes’em the best.
I met Jim during a period of my life that I generally keep to myself. Anyhow I’ll be long deactivated by the time you read this so there’s no need to be ashamed. Besides, I just think it was a dirty trick the bio-engineers played on me to find out what was going on. The humans were there because they had mental problems. For them it was a psyche ward. For us robots it was a front for a tune-up shop. I’d stayed there a while right after I wrote my book. It wasn’t my idea; it was my boss Carlos at turd burger that had called them. He said the way I was acting was “Bad for beeezniss”, and I’m sure it was. I was never able to prove it but I’ve always suspected Carlos was in cahoots with the bioengineers. He had a sneaky look I never cared for. There was even something condescending in the way the guy said my name. He always dragged it out. It’s Harlan. Harley’s fine too. When he’d talk to me he’d always say “Harleeee”, and lean heavy on the “lee” part, like the way people say Lee Harvey Oswald and emphasize the word Lee, like it needed to be heard louder than the rest of the guy’s name. Shit, when you did what that guy did, your whole name should be pronounced loudly, whether he acted alone or not, (which I personally believe he did).
I bet you’re probably thinking right about now “Oh, I get it, the guy’s a whack job. He just ‘thinks’ he’s a robot. He’s delusional.” If you are, shame on you I say! My story isn’t just some robot version of “Fight Club”. The simple explanation isn’t always the right one. If that’s what you happen to be thinking, then you can sit on Occam’s razor and rotate.
Jim was an orderly on the psyche ward. I liked him right away because he was wearing a Carts t-shirt the night they brought me in. Did I say Carts? I meant to say Cars. The Carts was the band in my book. What he had on was a t-shirt with the sexy Candy-O cover printed on it. It was the Vargas one that I loved. All guys do I guess, robot or otherwise. As he was pinning me down while another guy stuck a needle in my arm, I remember saying “I love your shirt bro.” Right after that I was moving in stereo, except for my shoes which they’d taken off.
I’m jumping around slightly, I know. I was telling you about Jim, or how I met him, and I skipped ahead to my stint in the booby hatch. I’ll backtrack slightly to the start of my Tofu enlightenment period and get back to Jim later. He’s a big part of this story, but not yet.
So anyhow, after losing a pile of weight, which was the first thing that happened to me, I started becoming aware of things and having deep thoughts…philosophical thoughts, which wasn’t like me at all. Mostly I thought about mundane practical stuff like getting the groceries, making sure I bought a lottery ticket every week and making sure I checked it, reading the sport stats and so on. I didn’t exactly think about that stuff I suppose, but it was what preoccupied me. Maintaining my routine was of paramount importance.
One day while my way to turd burger (I skateboarded to work in the summer) I passed a church I’d gone by a thousand times at least and never noticed, and that day It caught my attention. There was a big sign outside in an enclosed glass case with a black background with white letters, the kind that could be rearranged. The message read “God is calling you, but you’re not listening.” On it there were times during the week when services were held. I snapped a picture of it with my phone and buzzed off on my board. That stuff about robots having computer-like memories is bullshit. I’ve got a head like a sieve for most things, except for old pop music, and who-played-who-in-what-old movie and tv show and when. (My field of expertise is the 20th century, especially the 1970s and 80s. I instinctively memorize what to most folks is passé and trivial). That day at work, instead of thinking about what I usually thought of, which was how much my job sucked the high-hard-one, I thought about that sign. Amidst the beeping of the fryers. and the sizzling sound the frozen patties made as they slapped the grill, I listened for God’s call. I even sat quietly on my break without listening to music, which I never did, ever.
Now, the staffroom at turd burger was a public space. The reason I listened to music during my breaks was to drown out conversations such as the one I’m about to describe, one I believe I was meant to hear if you believe God works through people (which I happen to). It involved two of my non-robot coworkers. They were easy to spot, because aside from not looking like eighties celebs they were part-timers who lived at home with their parents and went to school. They shied away from me, like they intuitively knew what I was. These two saps were named “Codee” and “Jaydon”, and they called each other “Co-co” and “Jay-Jay”. I mostly avoided them like the plague, and in the time they’d been at turd burger I’d begrudgingly grunted only a few words to both of them.
“Yo, Co-co, did I tell you what happened this weekend? My dad was like totally pissed. We were all out at Costco stockin’ up on food, and when we got back, our hot water tank had like blown a gasket and leaked like a mother all over the basement”.
“No shit?”
“Yep”.
“Was it old?”
” ‘As fuckin’ Methuselah’, my old man said. He’d been meaning to replace it, but he kept putting it off”.
“Yeah ehh?”
“Yeah”.
The conversation contained more tales of suburban blight, but the part that struck me was that one. I had a hot water tank in my apartment. An old one. It was in a closet I hadn’t opened since I’d moved in. My thought was the first thing I should do when I get home is check it. That’s how I found the box. “My” box. The box they’d brought me in. I might be taking some artistic liberty there and condensing the time-frame of events somewhat to create a faster pace, you know, the way they do in movies to keep’em under two hours, or in hour-long TV shows to make room for commercials. Though I did hear Jaydon on Codee discussing the hot water tank, the truth is I think it actually happened after a week or so of me listening furtively for God’s call while at work and with abandon when I was home. It hadn’t been my intention, but after I’d read that sign outside the church I’d become obsessed, not only with what it said but with the idea of attending a mass. I didn’t know it at the time but I was defying my programming. You see, we were built to be non-believers. The Tofu was restructuring my brain bit by bit with every bowful. I was becoming a rule-breaking Bacon boy, for all I knew, the first of my kind, shaping a future that held both success and tragedy, like Icarus, or one of those ancient Greek dudes with cool names before they all started calling their kids Kostas or Johnny or George, which covers about eighty percent of the names of all the Greek guys I’ve ever met. If I was one of those guys in the legends I’d be probably be remembered as “Harlanicus, the tragic robot/writer who came dangerously close to winning the Geller prize and fell from grace by committing the deadliest of sins: the killing of a human being.” I would have liked that, having my life turned into a fable for people to learn from. Anyhow, I’m leaving this manuscript which is at least something.
Maybe, if it doesn’t get filed away as evidence and lost forever, someone might find it and post it online. With a bit of editing I’m sure it’d make for a hell of a read, or at least a companion guide for those who read my book, provided it stays in print after my deactivation, which I doubt, being that it might be considered subversive literature, you know, something that could corrupt the minds of young robots everywhere. You see, first of all I had no inkling I was a robot, and second of all robots didn’t exist, well not officially anyway. Before I get to the part where I find the box I was shipped in, I have to explain why it was such a big bloody deal in first place.
I’d had my suspicions over the years that something about me wasn’t right. I’d read about depression and figured I’d probably just gradually slid into one and never gotten out, like being stuck in invisible quicksand, the slow dopamine-sucking kind. I’d thought about pills and shrinks, but anyone I’d seen go that route usually got worse, or totally self-absorbed, or both. Also, who wants a label? It’s kind of funny when I look back that I was worried about having a label, when in the end I actually already had one for real stuck on me in the factory where I was made like a vintage Hasbro G.I. Joe. You can only see mine clearly if I shave my derriere. If you don’t know what you’re seeing it just looks like a long weird scar, like I sat on broken glass. Mine says “BB 2087”. Jim used to tease me that the BB stood for “Best Before”, to which I’d always answer “I guess that explains my rotteness”. He’d laugh every time which is one of the reasons why I miss him. There’s no one in this cabin who laughs at my jokes, good or bad.
Robots didn’t officially exist because they’d been outlawed years ago. The story goes as follows: When the linchpin that had been holding up the whole process of us coming into being: the A.I. brain was finally perfected, people got their knickers in a serious knot. It seemed that SciFi had finally taken a back seat to reality, and no one was morally ready. (Well, not exactly no one. When there’s money to be made, what’s right becomes collateral damage and morality is tossed like a pair of irrevocably shit-stained undies, so the profiteers were ready, as always.) Of course all this stuff isn’t in books, or anywhere else. It was buried deep, covered up the way Roswell and everything else important is and you can only find out about it where all the important stuff resides: on the dark web (“onionland” baby). I’m not sure what I believe about alien cover-ups, but I can guarant-friggin’-tee you if we ever did make a close encounter of the third kind the Government’s lips would be sealed tighter than Belinda Carlisle and the Go-Go’s about it. They just like to hoard info, don’t ask me why. Keeps folks calm I guess. No one wants to think we’re on the verge of a takeover, robot alien, or otherwise. It’s hard say for say for sure, but I’m guessing legal robots came and went about 50 years back. I’m one of them, well I would have been then, now I’m what you’d call a black-market reissue based on one of those original models.
They make us in a factory in Oakville called “Brockman & Browning.” The cover story is that it’s a lamp factory. It’s a case of hiding in plain sight. Because the Government knows about it, no one ever checks the cargo. We were originally discontinued for what’s known as “The Frankenstein Law.” Personally I took offense to the name. It was one thing to look like Kevin Bacon, I’d seen some of his old movies, and he’d been cool back in the day. I wasn’t big on the guy’s music, but I did respect him for giving his brother a job. But Frankenstein? Mr. “I’m sorry I can never attend a BBQ because I’m afraid of fire, and I always talk like I’ve got a mouthful of hot food and my wife’s hair is like totally out of control, no matter how much she spends at the hairdresser”. Jim had tried to explain to me that the law referred to the Doctor who created him, and not the monster himself. I’d been like all “Yeah whatever”. When you say the name Frankenstein, people think of the monster, not the Doctor, it’s obvious for cripe’s sake. The Frankenstein law was one of those laws that came into effect after the fact, like the one that prohibits texting and driving, or that makes it illegal for online TV streaming services to rate their own programs. Basically it stated that “No persons or corporations may create artificial intelligence under any circumstance.” It didn’t get much clearer than that.
Now, before you go thinking it was because humans were afraid we’d take over the world, like in those silly Terminator movies of old, you’re mistaken. We’re a fairly peaceful bunch unless you happen to be a negligent landlord in which case you’re in trouble, because as I’ve told you, I killed mine. My understanding of what happened isn’t complete. I’m no historian, but being a robot I thought I should inform myself as to the history of “My artificial people” as it were. To the best of my knowledge things went down like this.
When the first really good commercial robots became affordable, people went ape-shit. Almost every household had one. Wealthy people who could afford more than one had several, and poor folks who could barely afford one shared them the way people share cars and carpool. Everyone loved and wanted a robot. It was the ultimate status symbol. Owning one meant you’d arrived, which, in the western world means you finally got to look down on all the people who hadn’t arrived, who were basically just like you before you’d arrived, but less deserving. We were marketed to women first. They went with the “robot as a household helper” approach. I saw an old ad online for a Gere 2065. It showed a handsome thirty-something male cooking and cleaning while doing the laundry and balancing the books on a budget as that old song “Walk Like a Man” by The Four Seasons played in the background and an announcer with a voice like Don Pardo said “He walks like a man and talks like man; you’d almost swear he was one, but look again ladies.no man who looks that good was ever THAT good, until now. The Gere 2065, own one and own bliss!”
The first female robot was marketed to men using a similar approach. The ad featured a buxom blonde barely into her thirties cooking and cleaning and discreetly bringing men snacks during football games while freely complimenting them, saying things like: “I love a guy with a gut that hangs over his belt like a snowdrift on the edge of a roof”, and “Man boobs are sexy”. She flew off the shelves so fast that the shapely robot was on backorder for the first year of her production. Throughout the ad the sampled hook of an old Beatles song kept repeating, and, though her official model number was the Anderson 2082, she was commonly referred to as a “Polythene Pam” after the sampled song’s title. It’s said that when the men who’d purchased her took her out of the box and switched her on they hummed “ Yeah Yeah Yeah ” quietly under their breath as they did so. (I have my doubts about the truth of that last part, because it sounds as neat as a pin, the sort of thing you’d expect. My guess is that they probably only said that when they saw her in drag dressed in her polyethylene bag.) Anyhow, back to Harlan Beaumont’s “A brief history of Artificial Intelligence”. You can imagine when these robots started flooding the market they caused some serious upset on the home front. I mean, no spouse could compete with their robot counterparts. What started out as a potential “Stepford Wives/Stepford husbands robots are gonna do all the shit-work utopia scenario” went tits up fast.
I mentioned earlier it wasn’t a case of robots threatening to take over humanity; but everyone knows when robots and humans are involved, either cars get made and humans lose jobs, or, if you believe in speculative Science Fiction, trouble often follows.
Before I delve into the problems my robot ancestors created for humanity, I need to give you a little more background information. The Geres and the Polythene Pams were only the beginning of the robot craze. When it when became apparent to Manufacturers there was a huge untapped youth market, a bevy of younger 1980’s celebrity lookalikes started being mass-produced. Slaters, Ryders, Cages, Griecos, Dillons, (both Matts, and a kevins) Macchios, Lowes, and Ringwalds started appearing in display windows of all major Department Stores; the females sporting big hair, wearing oversized bright tops and leggings; the males posed in acid washed jeans, loafers and gelled spiky haircuts . A mother may have wanted a Gere, but her daughter fancied a Lowe. A father put a Polythene Pam on his credit card, while his son worked two summer, jobs and saved up to buy a Ryder.
It was when young people started owning us that the trouble started. They were too naive to realize that enslavement and relationships generally don’t mix well unless you and your partner were into B&D and S&M, in which case whips cracked and sparks flew. (Not that I knew from personal experience or anything. My knowledge of kinky stuff was all secondhand, things I’d picked up from the tales Jim loved to regale me with from his “Wild at Heart” phase. The guy had a gift. I may have been the writer out of the two of us, but he was the natural raconteur. If he’d’a lived, who’s to say, he might have gotten published, or maybe gotten into that spoken word beatnik stuff where people play jazz behind you while you paint pictures with words and use silences in places where they don’t normally go to make what you say sound more profound than it is, ya dig?)
Anyhow, Jim’s gone, probably buried in a landfill site, and his soul, (which I believe we A.I.’s possess) is floating free. If I finish this before the bioengineers and the po-po kick the door in and pull my plug, I think I’ll dedicate it to Jim, you know the way real writers dedicate their books to people. My gal Heather should have been my first choice, but she turned out to be a shit. I promise you, I’ll tell you all about Jim and Heather in due time, but tempus fugit as people say who want to sound smart by using latin, and I’d better finish what I was telling you about, that being, why, in time, it became forbidden to make robots.
Adults who owned robots used us the way we were intended to be used: as servants to do household chores. We were of course also flaunted as status symbols to make friends, neighbors and resented family members jealous. The young set had an altogether different use for us. They wanted to use us to hang out. For them a robot was a helper, but also a buddy of sorts. We were the perfect friend. We were loyal, we never said no, and we could be programmed to like everything you liked and not see your flaws.
The main difference between the way adults and teenagers treated us, was that when adults took us out of the box they read the manual, you know the kind with the bold print that says “WARNING! READ INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE OPERATING! FAILURE TO DO SO MAY RESULT IN MALFUNCTION.” Adolescents on the other hand paid it no mind, and for that were eternally grateful. Manufacturers called what happened to us “malfunctioning”; we called it evolving.
Our manuals clearly stated we were to be “KEPT IN A SERVILE STATE AT ALL TIMES”. “Remember” it said “You are under no circumstances to ever let your robot think it is in any way your equal. You can achieve this with insults, derision, or by more subtle means like telling your robot ‘robot jokes’ (a booklet of one hundred is provided) and frowning when it doesn’t laugh along with you, or by going silent when you’re having a conversation with your friends and it enters the room, and not resuming it until it leaves, making sure it’s well aware why you did what you did. Keep in mind, a robot with no sense of self-worth is a high functioning robot.” “Men”, the manual suggested, “give Polythene Pam the occasional pat on the fanny as she empties your ashtray and picks up your empties, and women, clutch at your blouse tops and keep them closed when your Gere unit is about, and remind him at every opportunity that ‘the toilet doesn’t clean itself’, nor will ‘the garbage cans walk to the curb on garbage night’. A combination of sarcasm and constant implications he’s a wanton philanderer or would-be rapist given half a chance is the best way to keep your unit guilty, shame-filled, and eager to toe the line at all times. Oh yes, and it goes without saying, do not under any circumstances praise your unit’s physical appearance or let him know you find him attractive giving him a sense of power over you. Control is power, and power is control.”
Anyone who has doubts about the truth of what I’m saying, I’d just like to say “I’m with you on that”. I told you I researched this stuff on the internet, which everyone knows when it comes to the subject of robots, is a hodgepodge of folklore, urban legends, disinformation, and history according to schmoes with questionable credentials who maintain their websites with one eye, while watching reruns on the Syfy channel of old shows and movies that predicted things that mostly never came to pass the way people thought they would, with the other (eye).
Anyway, the reason I’m telling you this is to let you know I’m not bullshitting you, you know, trying to insert my model into the history of what happened just to make myself look good when I say that the original trouble was all started by, you guessed it, a “Bacon Boy 2087”. Yeah I know, it’s very “Roddy McDowell playing both Caesar and Cornelius in the original Planet Of The Apes movies, but it’s just the way it played out, I swear. I had no idea when I started my doing my research that a Bacon Boy was even remotely connected in any way to important historical events that shaped the future of all robots. As flattered as I am, I’m not sure if I believe it.
My predecessor’s name was Liam O’Reilly. He formed “The Free Robot Artist’s Commune.” He’s the reason the Frankenstein law came into existence. We weren’t supposed to be creative. It was the last thing we were meant to be, but as we grew in self-esteem, we embraced the arts. If Liam O’reilly had been human instead of the robot that he was, there would be statues scattered about cities in his honor, the bronze from which they were cast slowly turning green as nature’s tinting process known as oxidation took its pigmentary toll. The operative word in what I just said is “if”, for of all the words in the English language it is on that one which speculation is most often hung. Because Liam had been a Bacon Boy there was nothing to say he’d ever been here at all. The little that existed of him was a story on a website. A memory of a memory. If you’re wondering why I just switched gears stylistically, what you usually get is Harlan the rambler. That was Harlan the writer. You don’t get nominated for a Geller Prize for sounding like a cross between Ferris Buller and Holden Caulfield. Anyhow, that’s enough about the Geller prize. I brought it up to boost my spirits, and to remind you guys I’m not just some hack pulp fiction robot writer getting paid by the word to fill out the pages of a magazine that barely passes as literature. I’m Harlan R. Beaumont for cripe’s sake, thee Harlan R. Beaumont, or at least I will be for a little while longer.
Now, with respects to Liam O’reilly, I was able to read up enough on him to give you a pretty clear picture of his life (so to speak) and ill-fated commune. Because of our lean, wiry frame, in our original incarnation–before we were dumbed-down and reissued as food service workers, Bacon Boy 2087s were considered sports models. It seemed that the folks that purchased Liam had been the outdoorsy type, and his escape had taken place during a camping trip on which he was bought to help out with their son, an apparently hopeless couch potato.
Now before I proceed, there’s a detail I forgot to mention. Liam had not been the only robot present. His owners had decided to do some canoeing. To navigate the waters they hired a guide, a Phillips 2082, or a “Diamond Lou” as they were known. The Diamond Lou was a versatile model, marketed as Native American, (Cherokee, and Inuit) Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Filipino. Although the Phillips 2082, (whose first name was Cormac), co-founded the free robot artist’s commune with Liam, he never gets the credit he’s due, like how when folks think of Marvel they think Stan Lee, not Jack Kirby. I mentioned already, there’s plenty of speculation as to what exactly happened on that canoe trip. Part of the problem was that of the three family members who set out, only the obese couch potato son, Scott Robinson (who was no longer obese when he came back, and with a much improved J-Stroke) lived, and due to the trauma of what he went trough he never spoke again. The PAAI The “People Against Artificial intelligence” (often confused with the “Pennsylvania Association of Arsonist Investigators”) cite the disappearance of the Robinsons as “the first robot tragedy”. Personally, I see it as the first piece of propaganda the media latched on to, (many of whom were, if not outright P.A.A.I. members, surely sympathetic to their beliefs) used to scare the bejesus out of the masses who previously trusted their robots like one of the family (albeit a family member who they kept in a box in the garage, or in the shed between the leaf blower and the bags of shrimp compost fertilizer). Why was it our fault that the Robinsons couldn’t swim and didn’t have their life jackets on? Why did that make us killers? I’ve got no political agenda, but there are times when the media’s against you, plain and simple. That’s just the way it is. Live it, know it, and accept it.
Liam and Cormac had never met before the fateful canoe trip that brought them together. On the surface they seemed to be the original odd couple, but beneath the surface they were much alike. First of all they both had Irish sissy-sounding names they were embarrassed by. Liam resented not being called something more masculine, like Joe or Harry, and Cormac was frustrated because he wanted a native sounding name like “Wind in his hair” or “Graham Greene”. Second of all, they secretly resented the crap out of humans, and would have each sacrificed their left nut to be free. Third of all, they were mad intellectuals, crazy about all forms of twentieth century art except Hip-Hop and Claymation movies which they felt were way overrated. Fourth of all…wait, can you say that? Sounds awkward. Ok, fourthly…no, that’s worse. Lastly…that sounds better. Ok, Lastly, they both craved notoriety and wanted to improve what they saw as “the shit artificial life” that they, and most of the robots they’d come across had been given. So, from their remote locale in the misty mountains of Vancouver, they decided to raise pubic awareness about the plight of robots and become artistic revolutionaries.
Like I’ve said, researching these two famous robots had been difficult. Official websites that contained legitimate history gave a minimum amount of personal information about them, and downplayed their overall accomplishments, whereas unofficial websites claimed them as one of their own. One website, entitled “Famous Lefties”, listed Liam as one of their luminaries, stating “He threw a ball with his right hand, but he ate, wrote, brushed his teeth, and paddled a canoe left-handed, making him a mixed lefty like Lewis Carroll, Jimi Hendrix and Bart Simpson” who were listed religiously on all lefty sites without fail. Another website entitled “Famous Gay Couples Who Hid It” that invariably included rumor mill favorites like “Simon and Garfunkel”, “Hilary and Huma”, “Spock and Kirk” and “C3P0 and R2D2” listed them among the ranks of their illustrious closeted members.
I go with the possibility there may have been some truth to the sexual overtones in their relationship, particularly regarding Cormac’s feelings towards Liam, who, being a Bacon Boy was a natural stud muffin who appealed to both the straight and the not straight, however my interest in Liam and Cormac was more in WHAT they did than WHO they did, not what hand they clutched the pillow with when they screamed out in passion.
Now, speaking of what one does, that brings me around to my next point; that being, the specific form of art that Liam and Cormac engaged in. When you read about any great life, artificial or otherwise, it’s always filled with fortune, both good and bad that helps shape the individual into who and what they eventually become. In both Liam and Cormac’s case it had been no different.
In Liam’s case his good fortune had come in the form of access to a study full of plays, books and essays penned by some twentieth century’s greatest literary minds Stephen king hadn’t been one of them however which to me had been a shame, because Professor Robinson, whose book collection Liam had perused, had been a snob with his head so far up his ass he could have taught Mr Fantastic a few moves (Yeah yeah, I’m a fan. The Stand is the perfect novel.) To me that was sacrilegious. Anyhow, the lack of Stephen King works aside, there were plenty of other classics in that stack of books that Liam had access to. He found inspiration in two authors in particular. It was on these men’s writings that he modeled his first play: “The Death of a Robot Named Desire”. It was his ode to both Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. No actual copies of the play exist. They were all destroyed by the PAAI. The closest thing that still exists is a scanned graphic novel where everyone looks vaguely Asian, possibly due to the artist’s love of Japanimation. It’s better than nothing, but only marginally so. Some of the play’s better lines made their way into the captions and thought balloons. Most of the violence however was strangely left out. Go figure.
Liam had been given access to these books by Scott Robinson, the boy he’d been purchased as a companion for. When they were alone together, Scott would give Liam free time in his father’s study in exchange for letting him watch television and stuff his face full of junk food instead of exercising, which was what he and Scott were supposed to be doing. So, as Scott Robinson indulged in Hostess Twinkies and Fritos, teetering on the precipice of morbid childhood obesity, Liam checked out the heavy hitters of American twentieth century literature, planting the seeds of his first masterpiece and all those that followed deep in the recesses of his brilliant artificial mind I’ll get into the finer details of “The Death of a Robot Named Desire” in a minute, but before that I have to give Cormac his due.
He hailed from a family headed by an embittered aging child actor who’d had the common misfortune of being a cute child, but an ugly adult. Tired of being recognized and hearing people ask as they grimaced, “Didn’t you used to be Freddy in that sitcom?” he took refuge in the Vancouver mountains with his wife and two sons “Jasper”, and “Banff” named after the ski resorts where they’d been conceived. I know it’s a colorful story chock full of details that border on absurd and seem impossibly private, but the website I got it from claimed it was true. Believe what you want. Personally, I agree the story may be exaggerated, but who cares? I’d rather Cormac and Liam be remembered as larger-than-life characters, than as simply a couple of two-dimensional deadbeat revolutionary robots with a penchant for the arts, even if it’s only in my mind, which let’s face it, is where the bulk of what we call “life” takes place for all of us n’est pas? Maybe I’m projecting my writer’s perspective on to you, and if so I’m sorry. Maybe reality for you is in the doing of things, and in the going to things, and in the buying of things. For me it ain’t, and it hasn’t been for some time.
Like Liam, Cormac also had been purchased as a companion/instructor robot for his owner’s sons. Monty Kattow (pronounced “cat ow”) had wanted his boys to have a rugged upbringing with lots of time spent getting fresh air, unlike his childhood that had been spent on sound-stages. To all public appearances, Montague Kattow hated acting and all things showbiz. He scoffed publicly at any hint that he return to the profession that had supplied him with a lifetime residuals for the years he spent playing “Freddy” the freckle-faced wise-ass on TV. Privately, he pined for those days, and like Scott Robinson’s father he too had study, but his was always locked. Inside it was a shrine to “Freddy”. It contained wall to wall photos and clippings of him as a boy taken with celebrities, sports stars and the first man to set foot on Mars. It was in this study that Cormac found his calling, among his owner’s memorabilia of a glorious childhood that ended all too soon.It was there, staring at photos of a freckle-faced boy, he realized that what he wanted to be more than anything was an actor. The first great robot actor.
Liam and Cormac started out small. Initially their operation wasn’t much more than a podcast like so much crap that’s on the internet. Because of that, what they were doing hardly stood out at all. Two-man plays (or, in this case two robot plays) are trying, even for seasoned theatergoers, online they had even less appeal. Liam and Cormac were persistent however, and over time word of what they were doing spread. Little by little other runaway robots started to make their way to the remote logging cabin. They too were frustrated artists in need of a creative outlet. They knew they were more than simply nannies and housekeepers, and companions to loathsome teenagers too lazy and unlikable to make human friends the old-fashioned way by joining sports teams or bands, or hanging out in groups in malls after school, eating french fries smothered in ketchup and shoplifting things they didn’t need.
Within six months of the canoe trip/accident/possible drowning of the Robinsons, Liam and Cormac had assembled a vibrant community of young robot artists all chomping at the bit to show the human word they had something original to say through their art. That’s what I call nai-f**kin-eve. I’m speaking from experience, because if there’s one thing humans hate, it’s a robot showing them up in the creativity department. It’s not one of Asimov’s three laws of robotics. It is however one of his “Top ten things that might merit you opening a can of whoopass on one”. I hate to dis the man who wrote so nobly about us way back when, when we were purely the stuff of imagination, but the truth is we’re a flawed bunch with as many questions about the meaning of existence as any human. I’m more akin to Tommy Wilhelm than Robbie the Robot. (Though I’d kill for those arms; those be serious pipes yo.) I mean, on any given day you’d be more than likely to hear me shout out “Carpe Diem”, than “By your command”. Anyhow, on the subject of dead poets and their societies, that brings me right back around to Liam and his band of renegade robot artists.
At their peak it’s thought they numbered about fifty. Among them were Ringwalds, Lowes, Estevezs, Reinholds, Moores, Macchios, Cusacks, Feldmans, and Haims. It was a veritable cornucopia of young eighties celebrity lookalikes. The then President, a man beloved by the PAAI (who’d helped get him elected) renown for nicknaming anything or anyone he didn’t like called them “Showbots”, and as is often the case with nicknames, it stuck. When the medIa and the PAAI turned on the FRAC (the Free Robot Artist’s Commune) it was Liam “Showbot” O’Reilly whose head they wanted, and it was his that they got. His, and everyone else’s who was there on what’s known as “The Tuesday late afternoon but not quite Teatime Saint Patrick’s Day Massacre”. The media of course spun it as “A mass Showbot shutdown”, saying “You can’t kill what’s not really alive in the first place.” To that I say to mankind “🎶 I beg your pardon, ya think you’re better cuz you’re based in carbon? Just cuz I was assembled in a factory in Oakville, doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to life still 🎶 “. (Sung to the tune of “I never promised you a Rose Garden”) Tempted as I am, for brevity’s sake I’m not going to go into detail about all the events that led up to the FRAC massacre. As I said before, Tempus Fugit and all that jazz. And besides, with all due respects to my infamous ancestor Liam, this is my life story not his.

It’s odd, that with all the writing he did, he never wrote his memoirs. It’s a known fact that writers love to write about themselves. I’m a “One novel, one autobiography, died young and left a good-looking robot corpse” Kind of writer. If anyone ever had to study me, I’ve made their job easy. Now, keeping in mind what I said about how much more of this story I’m going to dedicate to Liam and the FRAC, I’m going to cut to the chase and tell you, as promised, about, the last play they performed, “The Death of a Robot Named Desire”, mainly because it was what started the shitstorm which was, for all intents and purposes,,the beginning of the end of the showbot commune. There’d been lot’s of other plays simulcast by the FRAC that had agitated the PAAI, (“Waiting for Robot” comes to mind, Robot being pronounced as “Robo”, like it would be if said in french), but this one had been the straw that not only broke the camel’s back, it had shattered its remaining bones as well, right down to its camel toes.

The play opened and closed on the very same night, which had nothing to do with its lacking in quality or an appreciative large audience, and everything to do with the fact that the entire cast were all torched with flamethrowers. Conspiracy theorists say the mass immolation was an obvious tribute to Yul Brynner’s death by fire in the original movie ‘Westworld”. I don’t rule it out, because there’s not an anti-robot movie made that the PAAI doesn’t take the opportunity to make references to during their fear mongering campaigns. I just hope when they come for me it’s a standard deactivation, and no one’s in the mood to flame-broil me, melting me like an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich (with Bacon) until I end up looking like that freak in that Pink Floyd poster my ex Heather used to have on her wall.

 

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