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Dick Bidnick, the nastiest man alive, never let the idea of suing somebody stray far from his nasty thoughts. He was a lawyer and knew all the ins and outs of suing somebody, always knew what to sue for, how much to sue for, when to sue, who to sue. He once sued a popular fast food chain for not putting a CAUTION WET FLOOR sign in an area where there was such a hazard. The fast food chain settled out of court and Dick Bidnick claimed himself another victory. No one had ever slipped or fallen in that WET FLOOR area, but it didn't matter to Dick. He was that good at suing. He had even sued the Beatles for jaywalking on the cover of Abbey Road. And he was just as good at spinning yarns of past lawsuits to anyone who would sit and listen.

He was spinning just such a yarn when something happened which would end his suing days forever. He was sitting in the bar of the cruiseship Truant with his two potential partners in business, whose last names were Gregson and Montgomery, at about three p.m. The business Dick Bidnick was considering going into was real estate speculation. He could make such a career move because of all the money he had collected over the years suing people. Dick was telling his potential partners about the time he sued I.G.L. for selling him a defective printwheel when the Truant, which at that time held about fifteen hundred passengers and was just now turning to head home across the Caribbean to Florida, began to be steadily rocked by gusty winds and perilously strong waves, the result of a hurricane that had been approaching since noonish. The bar was immediately closed upon orders from the ship's captain. This forced Dick and his potential partners back to their spacious cabin, where they stayed until the storm, whose eye happened to pass right over the Truant, caused the hull to rip open like a cheap pinata and scatter wood and metal and iron in all directions. Just as Dick Bidnick was shouting to his potential partners about how he was going to sue the Truant and everyone on it, the ship's emergency siren rang out, advising Dick to run to the lifeboats for safety. Dick and Gregson and Montgomery got into one lifeboat of ninety and rowed away as fast as they could.

The Truant sank. Through some happy twist of fate, nobody died. Soon most of the lifeboats were drifting across the Caribbean, waiting to be picked up and taken home.

These lifeboats were rescued with little or no delay. However, in the aftermath of the hurricane, the boats had been scattered in different directions, making it impossible for the Coast Guard to find all of them immediately.

Dick Bidnick was wondering out loud if it was possible to sue somebody for just such a coincidence when he happened to look around in the lifeboat he shared with Montgomery and Gregson and saw nothing but sky in all directions. Though Gregson and Montgomery tried to assure him that it wouldn't be much longer before they were rescued, Dick, somewhat of a pessimist by nature, panicked and became hysterical. He was convinced they would dehydrate and die within a week under that shimmering Caribbean sun. They had each grabbed a few canteens of water from the Truant's emergency kits before jumping into the lifeboats, but Dick knew they wouldn't last.

As it happened, Dick Bidnick was, as he was so often, correct in this assumption. Three hours later they had drunk most of their water and lay sluglike on the lifeboat. The emergency kits had not helped much. Their food, paltry as it was, became useless without water.

Dick drifted into an unchallenging daze which brought him essentially two ideas: the first, to sue the makers of the emergency kits for not including enough canteens, and the second, to strangle his potential business partners as they slept so that he could have the water in theirs. Being the nastiest man alive, Dick opted for the second idea, and shortly, Dick found himself sharing a lifeboat with two dead potential partners and a few extra canteens of water. He would find a way to sue the canteen distributors at a later date.

Dick drank water and slept. No rescue boats came.

He woke up to find the lifeboat gone and himself lying on a sandy, muggy beach. The beach was approximately eleven feet in diameter and was completely bare of any objects but Dick himself. Instead of thanking the heavens for waking upon sturdy ground, Dick panicked again. Then he fainted. His life at this point became a steady montage of sleeping and panicking, broken only by wondrous daydreams of a faraway land governed by an elfin king. The name of this faraway land was Suing Somebody and the king was called Now. If he only he could reach this glistening paradise, Dick reasoned through his stupor, he would never stop suing people.

But he still had priorities. First and foremost among them was getting water and food. He looked in all directions and saw nothing but sky and clear blue ocean. The sky was brilliantly sunny at all times and the ocean was as pure as the stuff Dick had often seen on television commercials for breath mints. Dick had tried to sue a television station once, back when life was fine and food and water were in plenty.

Dick slept some more and dreamed his nasty dreams. In none of these dreams did he see the two potential partners which he had strangled in order to survive. He had, in fact, nearly forgotten about these two men in his fantasies of sustenance. The sun baked his brains and made him believe that their names had been Wink and Link. He had begun to go insane.

In due course he woke up and beheld a tiny island one hundred yards in the distance. The island was surely no bigger than the one on which he now lay, but the island did have two interesting features which Dick's lacked entirely: a coconut tree and a tall plastic bottle of spring water. Dick had by this time forgotten what the word "mirage" meant, and instantly took the island at face value. He judged that he could probably swim the hundred yards to the island without too much difficulty, and even looked forward to dipping himself in that flawless blue water. He crawled to the water's edge and rolled in. Once submerged, his body remembered how to swim and he was off, doggie-paddling his way to island #2. The sight of the coconut tree ripe with fruit and the wildly beautiful bottle of water made his mind go silly and he didn't paddle so fast at first.

Dick sped up when he felt a nip at his left foot—which he could actually see through the translucent water. Figuring he had encountered some nipping fish, he hesitated just long enough to kick it away blindly, then doggie-paddle forward again. The fish did not return. The island grew closer in Dick's vision and soon enough, he was there, crawling up onto his new beach thirstily.

It was at about this time that the concept of mirages came back to Dick, and he despaired. But when he extended a hand toward the bottle of spring water, that is just what he felt. Dick laughed and jumped for joy. He landed badly after the first jump and dislocated a toe, but he didn't care. He gulped down the spring water and felt alive again.

The next problem was the coconut tree. The coconuts themselves were at least twelve feet over Dick's head and he didn't have enough strength left to do any climbing. Then Dick came up with the greatest idea he'd ever had, greater even than his 1989 decision to sue his next door neighbor for noise pollution and drive the old man out of town. Dick reasoned that one good toss of the water bottle might connect with the coconuts in question and send them cascading down upon him.

Dick was right again. On his first try the water bottle scored a touchdown and he was instantly pelted by three ripe coconuts. One of them landed on his dislocated toe, but he didn't care. The coconuts had even split in two so he wouldn't have to gnaw at them for hours. He ate heartily, looking at the cool blue ocean.

When he was finished eating he happened to look down at his dislocated toe, which was becoming more painful. He realized that it wasn't the dislocation that was giving him trouble. It was the fact that most of the toe was completely gone. It appeared to have been ripped off somehow. Droplets of blood dotted Dick Bidnick's sandy heaven.

Oh well, Dick thought. A man can't have everything.

He slept and dreamed. Time became somewhat of an illusion, and nobody came for Dick. His toe stopped bleeding. But soon he needed food and water again, and just where the hell was he supposed to get it? His old island was still barren; he could see it from where he lay. He dreamt of a pretty young woman kneeling down in the sand and offering him soup. When he had drunk the soup the woman took his dirty bowl and gave him her card. She was with the firm of Dunkenmost and Ipswick, she said, and had a pretty good idea just who to sue for this whole mess.

Dick woke up at some meaningless point and beheld a shimmering dawn lovelier than he had ever known. And even lovelier was his old island a hundred yards away—because it was now home to a tall bottle of spring water and a coconut tree laden with good eats.

Dick flopped back into the water again and began to doggie paddle his way back to island #1. What great fortune! What great adventures life sometimes offered!

Dick grew very tired about fifty yards out, and wished for a brief nap so that he would have some strength to finish his journey. He let himself drift for a moment, lying on his back. He even let the little nipping fish nip at his calves underneath the surface of the water. A bit of missing skin was a small price to pay for some rest.

Only when the water around him began to be stained a reddish purple did Dick resume his doggie paddling and pick up the pace. The island was getting nearer all the time.

About twenty yards away from it, he was yanked underneath the water. Dick screamed.

There were two nipping fish, he saw. One of them had its jaws clamped tightly around Dick's ankle, and was pulling hard. Flesh and blood floated away gently through the water. The other fish kicked its tail once, sending itself forward in a burst of speed. This fish closed its gaping mouth on the tip of Dick's left pinkie. The pinkie tip came off immediately and the fish retreated, chewing grotesquely. Dick yelled under the water but it did no good; no one could hear him.

The fish were about six feet long, thin and grey. Their heads were flat, like a snake's. Their faces were the strangest things about them. Where their noses should have been were little bumps with makeshift nostrils. They had no ears but their mouths revealed razor sharp teeth in tightly packed rows.

The eyes were the strangest things. They were completely human, right down to the bags of skin underneath them and the protruding eyebrow ridges. Dick saw that one of the fish was Wink and the fish that had taken his pinkie was Link. You could tell by the eyes.

"Hoodlums," Dick commented as he flailed about in self-defense. "Stop eating me. All deals are off."

Winkfish ripped away an impressive chunk of Dick's inner thigh and retreated, whipping its tail this way and that. Linkfish made another grab for Dick's hand but Dick was gone by then, paddling faster and faster through the water, leaving a trail of murky blood behind him.

"Rotten little fishies," Dick said as he neared his old island, his old home. "Gonna be some lawsuits when I get back to Tampa!"

Finally he was there, reaching for the new water bottle (CANADIAN MIGHTY, read the label), upending it, drinking everything down. The pain from Dick's legs was enormous until the cramps from drinking the water too fast kicked in. Then Dick was in agony. He rolled around on the island and wept.

"Gonna sue ya!" he cried to the brilliant blue sky, shaking his fists. "Look out!"

Dick hurled his empty water bottle at the coconut tree and scored another touchdown. Three more coconuts fell. One landed on his head and knocked him out cold, which is all Dick could have asked for. Gone was the pain, gone was the bloody river that oozed from his legs. He was back in his fairyland again, chatting amiably with the elfin king.

Dick slept like no man has ever slept. When he awoke, the brilliant blue sky was back and his throat was on fire. He tried to sit up, but it took him a while.

Somewhere in his haze he had eaten the three coconuts, he saw. He hadn't remembered them splitting conveniently in two like the first time but they must have, because there were the empty shells with all the good eats scooped out and gobbled up. Dick wished he could remember what it had felt like to eat those coconuts. But he had missed out. He reminded himself to be awake and aware the next time he had a fine meal.

He needed a fine meal right now, as a matter of fact, and something to wash it down with before he died of dehydration. Over on island #2 more coconuts had grown on his personal tree. And someone had been nice enough to replace the empty water bottle with a full one.

Dick would have sung the Polish National Anthem and O Tannenbaum if he'd had the strength, he was so happy. He started to crawl toward the water but stopped when he saw Winkfish and Linkfish swimming around halfway between his two islands. Their dorsal fins rose above the water's surface just like in that movie Dick once saw.

"Poopers," Dick observed. "Nasty little fishies."

Dick went into the water and waited. Immediately Winkfish and Linkfish began to swim toward him, amazingly fast. Dick crawled back onto his island and began to cry. He was in an awful lot of pain again. He knew he had no choice but to swim for the other island and the water bottle and the coconut tree. He tried again.

This time it wasn't so bad. Dick Bidnick didn't see Winkfish or Linkfish in the water. Their dorsal fins were nowhere in sight. Gaining confidence, Dick doggie paddled with a little more energy.

They set on him just fifteen yards from the second island. Winkfish waited until Dick's face dipped below the water and then it made its lunge. Winkfish's jaws sank into his right cheek and ripped it away. Dick's entire head was jerked to one side with the force of the attack. Beneath him Linkfish grabbed a hold of his submerged hand and opened his wrist. Again the water turned red and now there was very little current to wash it away.

Dick shrieked, was paralyzed by a thunderous pain in his temple. He looked up and the sun burned into his eyes. He went under the water.

"Psychological trauma!" he yelled just before his mouth filled with warm red water. "Lost wages!"

Winkfish and Linkfish tore apart the rest of what was below Dick's waist. By the time he reached the second island he was in no condition to enjoy his soothing Canadian Mighty, and by no means did he have the energy to release the coconuts from their bond atop his tree.

It didn't matter much, anyway. This time the cap on the water bottle was on too tight for his one good hand to remove. He looked back at the hundred yards he had just swum and saw the sharks circling, waiting for him to try again. There was more sustenance on the other island again, he saw. That was fast. But he thought he might wait a good long time before he went back into the water again. Wink and Link did not sleep much, apparently.

"Silly," Dick Bidnick remarked to the sea as he bled. He wanted to crawl around some, just to confirm to himself that he still could, but he was afraid he might lose his balance and tumble into the water again, where the sharks would get him. He didn't like the sharks much. But they weren't going away. Their dorsal fins stayed above the surface of Dick's island oasis. Dick focused his eyes a little and saw what had happened to the other island.

It was somewhat farther away now. Just a few yards difference; not too much. But even from here Dick could see that the promised water bottle was smaller. And the coconut tree was taller, so much taller. That shouldn't have happened. That wasn't exactly fair. Dick drew a subpoena in the sand beside him with a stick, and the tide rubbed it out again. Dick let his face inch nearer to the water's edge, and he saw his reflection in it. That is, he thought it was his reflection; but no matter how terrible he felt, he surely could not have grown sharp teeth and a snout.

It was Linkfish, who had swum within inches of Dick's island. Dick tried to roll over to get away from that nasty thing but he couldn't do it. He looked at Linkfish and whispered under his breath at it.

"Fishie fishie," said Dick. "Eating me up."

Linkfish looked at Dick for a moment, then turned its tail and scooted away, back toward his partner, who was still circling some yards away. Dick thought he might try for the other island sometime near sunset, if they ever went to sleep. Just one hundred and some yards away. Dick counted backwards from one hundred and some, just for something to do, and he had almost made it to the upper eighties before he fainted yet again.

Out in the glorious blue water, the sharks circled each other, nipped at each other's tails playfully. There was no reason to head for deeper areas. If their instincts were correct, there would be plenty to eat between the islands for as long as this glorious sea existed.

 

 

 

Paflopp swept the floor of the lobby of the Itco Building bitterly. Mr. Frisch had yelled at him again about the bathrooms on three. It was the third time this week. That moronic bore.

Paflopp decided right then it was time to take a stand. I’m just some dumb janitor, Paflopp thought. Yeah, let them keep thinking that.

He pushed his slop bucket toward the elevator and waited. When the doors opened, Paflopp felt a shiver go up his vengeful spine.

In the elevator was the odious Mr. Parps. Parps was one of the highest of the higher-ups, but Paflopp realized this was his chance to get even with the corporate world that had looked down on him for so long.

Oh, how I’d like to destroy you, Parps, thought Paflopp.

Parps, a pear, remained still as the door slid shut and the elevator started working its way up. Parps’s four-inch high pear body was topped by a brown stem and swathed in a thirteen hundred dollar four-inch Armani suit. A little tiny briefcase the size of a matchbox sat beside him on the floor. Parps did not acknowledge Paflopp’s presence.

Sure, you’re a big shot pear and I’m only a lousy custodian, thought Paflopp. Mr. Bigshot can’t be bothered to say hello.

The elevator passed the fifth and sixth floors. Paflopp, six foot three inches tall, stared down at the small but ripe and powerful pear.

Do it! Paflopp thought to himself. Do it! Take a stand!

And suddenly twenty years’ worth of anger swelled up inside him and his right foot rose and fell with swift vengeance.

When the door slid open on the ninth floor, Paflopp’s heart sang—but only for a moment. His jaw then fell as he saw that Bakerslaw, one of the Florida oranges from shipping and receiving, was right outside waiting for the elevator, and even now was witness to the sweet, sticky mess that Paflopp had made out of a $75,000-a-year executive. Paflopp could not hope to hide the clumps of the whitish meaty part of the pear that had stuck to the underside of his ten dollar sneakers.

But then his dark heart understood that two murders were no worse than one.

 

 

 

In Courtroom F, there had been a six-hour showdown of wills ending in a guilty verdict for the sinister defendant Reginass Philb.

The judge gazed down at him sternly. "The court will now pronounce judgment on you, Reginass Philb, for the crimes for which you have been found guilty. Do you freely admit, here and now, that you knowingly stole fourteen cases of delicious Memphis-style barbecued ribs from The Hungry Caesarean on the night of June eighteenth?"

Philb only laughed mockingly. "That’s right, judge. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Give me five years in the poke, see if I don’t bust out in twenty-four hours!"

"I am well aware of your abilities as an escape artist, Mr. Philb," the judge intoned. "That is why I have devised a most unique and ironic punishment. I have no intention of sending you to jail, even for one day."

The district attorney rose to his feet. "Why, judge, you’re mad!" he exclaimed. "What can you be thinking to allow such a dangerous man back onto the streets?"

The judge was unfazed. "I hereby sentence you, Philb, to eat every pound of those delicious spare ribs! For the next month, your diet will consist of nothing but! And your only beverage will be rainwater, which I hope for your sake will be plentiful!"

Philb struggled against the bailiff's grip. "Why, that’s insane!" he cried. "You cruel monster, how can a man live productively with all that fatty meat inside him?!"

"Take him away!" the judge gavel-banged. "And may God have mercy on your soul!"

Two weeks later, State Warden Tortis called for the Judge to come to Philb's home.

"Judge," Tortis said to the judge as the walked through the front door, "I wanted you to see what your punishment has wrought. Even I, a hard-hearted man who has found amusement in watching kittens try to paw masking tape off their heads, am shocked and saddened."

The Judge would hear none of the warden's bleeding-heart liberal propaganda. "Dammit, man," he said, "don’t you lecture me on the ethics of penology! Our society cannot tolerate the criminal element any longer! We’re in a war—a war on unpleasantness!"

"Here he is," the warden said, opening the dank bedroom. Within, Reginass Philb lay like a beached walrus on his bed.

"You will rise when I stand before you, prisoner!" commanded the Judge.

Philb could only lift his left hand about a quarter of an inch. "Oh, man," he replied, "I would, but I am, like....so logy...."

"Has your logyness convinced you to renounce your evil ways?" the Judge asked.

"Never," Philb said defiantly but weakly. "Never....as soon as I stop eating ribs, I’m going to steal, like, everything there is. Right now, I just have no energy. Can I get a grape juice, please?"

"You know the rules, Philb," said the warden. "Now it’s time for dinner."

"What am I having?" Philb asked optimistically.

"Ribs!" came the reply.

Philb tried to roll over but was unable. "Oh, man, not ribs...."

The judge turned away in disgust. Warden Tortis shook his head sadly.

"Though he is a free man, judge, he simply has no energy to even leave the house. Please, I again beg you for mercy."

The judge stroked his mighty beard. "I have been greatly moved by what I’ve seen here today. But let us wait until his punishment is over to fully see its effects. The effects of a sentence...of ribs!"

Another two weeks went by and the warden felt compelled to put in another call to the Judge, who came back early from his vacation in Fort Worth in response to the summons. They walked through Philb's front door once more.

"Judge," the warden said, "before we see Philb released from his unusual sentence, let me just congratulate you on being recently named one of People Magazine’s Fifty Sexiest Men Alive."

"Thank you, Warden. You know, a man works hard all his life, but something like this feels like an act of divine providence. And let me just say, bravo on winning those four Grammy awards without even releasing an album or recording of any kind."

"Thank you. I must admit, U2 gave me a scare there for a while. Well, here’s Philb."

Inside his bedroom, Philb lay like a mud-soaked blanket in his own filth, and apparently the filth of others.

"Philb!" the Judge called out. "Can you hear me?"

Philb's eyes fluttered open. "Is that you, judge?"

"On a scale of 1 to 10, Philb," the Judge inquired, "how logy are you?"

Philb exhaled with no small effort. "Yeah, I’m....pretty logy....is it time to eat something other than ribs now?"

"It is," the warden told him. "We’ve brought you fresh melon, oranges, beets, and even a potato. You’re a free man."

"Okay. Can you, like, put a little of the potato right over my mouth and kind of open my mouth so it falls in at just such an angle that I don’t have to chew?" And with that, Philb closed his eyes and passed into the beyond.

"He’s dead," the warden pronounced. "Dead of a completely unrelated foot problem." He sighed. "Well, is there anyplace good to eat around here?"

The judge shrugged. "Well, I know it sounds a little immature, but why don’t we go down to the park and eat creamed corn with our hands?"

It was agreed, and the two became best friends after that, even going so far as to give each rides to the mall!

 

 

 

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Dear editors:

I should like the take the opportunity afforded by this fine newspaper to offer what I believe is an invaluable service to our community.

Crime is rampant in our streets. The forces of evil have the upper hand. Do not deny it! Our police force has been stymied. It is time for ACTION.

Yes, action in the form of a powerful, secret society of superheroes that it is time the world knew about. I, sirs, am the linchpin of this society.

We are the LEAGUE OF QUALITY.

And now we are prepared to come to the rescue of our fair metropolis. Let the citizens fear no longer the tide of darkness and corruption that is ever-present. If the day must be saved, let us save it!

Apart we are strong. Together we are invincible. Each of our parts will become a whole, and as a unit we offer TODAY to rescue this city from crime. Let us introduce ourselves.

We are TOASTERMAN AND SNACKBOY. Yes, Toasterman, who can at any time change himself magically into a shock resistant toaster with variable heat settings. And his partner in fighting crime, Snackboy, who can at any time shapeshift into a plateful of nutritious snacks. Can you imagine how these awesome superpowers could combat the disease that has infected our town?

We are COLDHEAD. Coldhead, a former Vietnam hero forgotten by his country, who has gained the stunning ability to lower the temperature of his head at will to near-freezing levels. Many is the felon who will wish he hadn't been lured into touching the head of this brave warrior. He issues a fair warning to evildoers: one touch of my cranium will send a chill down your spines and a bolt of fear into your hearts!

We are THE CHOLESTEROL KID, a young incarnation of the classic western outlaw, more than prepared to pack up his six guns and head for the pestilence-ridden back alleys of this city. True, his persistent intake of fatty foods and oils sometimes greatly diminishes his ability and interest in rising from bed to fight crime—but beware. He is as vengeful as he is a quick draw!

We are DOCTOR SYNOPSIS. This former mad genius turned to the forces of good when he saw Hiroshima bombed by the dark side of science. Now, in his vast laboratory where chemicals churn and cauldrons bubble, he works day and night. But whenever we become confused as to the order of events in one of our anti-evil sprees, he turns his brilliant brain to verbally summarizing the situation for us in one swift stroke!

We are NON SEQUITUR. Brave. Defiant. Possessed with superhuman strength. Ready with an inappropriate comment whenever we need it. Beware, criminals! His seemingly incomprehensible metaphors in the midst of battle will confuse and bewilder you!

We are THE INOCULATOR. He'll vaccinate you against all major culture and spore-borne diseases—and he'll vaccinate you with terror! Fear his deadly accurate needles and skin tabs!

We are THE CHAMELEON. His ability to change will have crooks fleeing in terror. A courageous fighter one day—an embittered bastard the next—back in slightly better spirits the day after that! Think about it!

And last, we are CAPTAIN PANTS. That is I, our ringleader. I will not tell you of my powers here. Suffice it to say that I have long awaited this day. Look out, crime. It's Quality Time!

Dear sirs, use us as you will. Summon us as you must. You may not now be fully aware of the threat posed to this city by such powerful archvillains as The Spine, Dark Blackness, and the Sinister Lemon People. But we see what others miss.

And we are ready.

Sincerely,

THE LEAGUE OF QUALITY

 

Dear League of Quality:

We regret to inform you that due to space limitations, we cannot publish your letter to the editor in any future edition. In future correspondence, please include proper return postage and a standard envelope, if possible. Thank you.

Sincerely,

THE DAILY COUPON FINDER

 

 

 

"Hi, roomie!" Pippagail greeted her co-habitator upon entering their apartment on December 29. "How are you enjoying your gift?"

Pippagail's roommate Krissy, stretched out on the living room sofa, nodded an enthused assent. "It's great!" she said. The snug winter blanket that Pippagail's grandmother had knitted for her was wrapped around her feet cozily. "It's just the thing to keep my tootsies warm during this harsh season."

"I'm so glad," Pippagail said, sitting down beside her and reaching for the remote control. "You're so tough to buy for, and this apartment is so darn cold sometimes....and my grandmother wants so badly to see the young enjoy the benefits of fabric...."

"It's really great," Krissy replied. "I love just sitting here with the blanket swaddling my feet. Now let's watch some reality television. I think Eat the Rancid Plum is coming on!"

A week later, Pippagail entered the apartment after a hard day at the cannery to see that the rainbow-striped blanket Grammy Ann had made for Krissy was now getting even further use, as Krissy had it stretched up over her knees as she watched Dogwalker Confessions.

"There's just something about this blanket you made me that is soooooo alluring and cozy," Krissy said happily. "I figured, why stop at my feet? Now I just can't lie on the sofa without it!"

"I'm glad to hear it," Pippagail said. "I thought maybe it was a bit too colorful."

"Not a bit," Krissy said.

"I can't wait to see what effect it has on you when you cover yourself with it totally," Pippagail said.

"Well, if this east coast cold snap continues," Krissy replied, "that's gonna happen real soon!"

Two weeks went by. Pippagail came into the apartment after another double shift at the mill to find Krissy lying on the sofa and watching Burp For Your Life with the amazing technicolor gift blanket enshrouding her from toes to waist!

"It just gets cozier and cozier," Krissy observed. "I love it!"

"You sure look like you do," Pippagail said. "And to think I was just going to get you another meat thermometer!"

"I can't imagine life without this blanket," Krissy said. "Watching reality television without it would just be so....well, stupid."

The time passed. The two roommates got along just fine, and every day Krissy seemed to love the blanket more and more. She often watched TV now with it cinched up to her chest, snug as a bug in a rug. As February dragged on, she went so far as to draw the blanket all the way up to her chin, lying there like a happy caterpillar.

Pippagail thought it a little bit silly when Krissy took to lying on the sofa and checking out new episodes of Retard, M.D. with the dazzling blanket half-covering her face so that just her eyes and nose peeked out. Krissy laughed and said that the blanket was just so comfortable, she wanted it to cover as much of her body as she could. And to think she had only used it in the beginning to cover her feet! Oh, the bliss she had missed out on!

One evening Pippagail returned from ten hours at the plant to see that just the top of Krissy's head was sticking out of the vibrant oranges, yellows, and reds that made up the blanket's visible spectrum.

"Krissy?" Pippagail said. "Um....are you asleep?"

"Nope," Krissy answered without sticking her face out. "I'm awake. I can kind of see through the gaps in the weave, so there's really no need for me even to expose my eyes."

"That's kind of weird, Krissy," Pippagail said nervously.

"Nonsense," Krissy said.

"You know, you've been spending an awful lot of time under the blanket these days," Pippagail noted. "Even when reality television isn't on, you just kind of lie there under it. You're even skipping your anger management meetings!"

"Trust me," Krissy said in response, "If you were as comfy as me under this miracle, you wouldn't want to get up for anything either." But Pippagail thought she could hear a sadness in Krissy's voice―even a desperation.

Pippagail got truly worried when Krissy began to lie on the sofa for hours and hours with nothing of herself visible at all under the fantastic blanket. They would talk normally, but Krissy's voice, so often muddled and tired-sounding, emerged as if from deep inside some darkly blissful cocoon.

Then, one warm spring night, Pippagail opened the door to the apartment and saw something on the sofa which shocked her. Krissy was obviously gone, but the blanket remained. Yet it was visibly fuller, larger, thicker, and more spacious somehow, as if it had doubled in size.

"Krissy?" Pippagail called out. "Roomie?"

Then she saw the note tacked to the refrigerator. It said:

Pippagail,

For many weeks now I have wanted to tell you that the blanket's allure has become too strong for me to fight. I have now given myself over to it completely, which is what I think it always wanted. I am not afraid. I know that its incredible coziness will protect me on whatever journey now lies in store for me. Please don't be afraid to give in to the blanket yourself. If you do, perhaps we will meet in another fabric-laden place more beautiful and comfortable than we have ever dared dream.

P.S. I got a little mayo on it, sorry.

Krissy

Pippagail's eyes filled with genuine tears.

"That's the most beautiful f***ing thing I've ever heard," she said, and began to sing a haunting Irish love song she had been working on in spare moments for a couple of months now.

 

 

 

Morfman was sitting at home, minding his own business, reading a book. It was a very good book. He had just gotten to the part where the guy goes into the room with the gun and the other guy is there. The suspense was riveting.

The phone rang. Sighing, Morfman picked it up.

"Hello?" he said.

There was a pause. No one answered.

"Hello?" said Morfman again.

A subdued voice spoke.

"Phone Deli," it said tiredly.

"What?" Morfman asked.

Silence.

"Phone Deli," the voice mumbled again.

"Yes?" Morfman asked, puzzled.

A pause.

"You want a sandwich or something?" asked the low voice.

Morfman frowned, baffled. "No, I don’t." He hung up the phone, shook his head, went back to his book. The guy in it found out that Sheila was in fact a Russian spy intent on defection. Morfman had suspected as much. There was no way Sheila was as innocent as she seemed. And with a body like hers, it could only mean trouble.

A minute later, the phone rang again. Morfman picked up grudgingly.

"Hello?" he said.

A pause.

"Dial-a-Fix," a bored voice said softly.

"What?"

"Dial-a-Fix," the voice repeated.

"What do you want?" Morfman demanded.

Silence.

"How’s your radiator doing?"

Morfman rolled his eyes. "Fine!" he said.

"You sure?" the voice inquired.

"Yes!" said Morfman. "There is nothing wrong with my radiator. Now leave me alone."

Morfman tried to get back into his book. He had to flip back a few pages. Had he read the part about the hidden catch on the assassin’s briefcase? He read it again, just to be sure. Yes, that’s right. That would explain how the gun was already there, waiting for the Arab when he walked into the sauna. A minute passed.

The phone rang.

"What?!" he shouted.

A pause. Silence.

"Phone joke," a voice said lethargically. "You hear the one about Kool and the Gang?"

Morfman slammed the phone down. It rang forty seconds later. Morfman hurled his book across the room, losing a vital plot point that would soon make the reading of the volume entirely moot.

"WHAT?!"

Silence. A pause. Time spun out.

"Tele-mattress."

 

 

 

It was a typical weekday for McLazenby and Snell. McLazenby was the tall one; Snell was diminutive in nature and weighed approximately 2400 pounds.

The two youths were sitting in Ugly Stanley’s Meat Cave as usual, drinking free water because neither of them had much in the way of funds. After fifteen minutes of silence, Snell unaccountably began to weep. Copious tears issued forth like eye moisture.

"You’re pathetic!" McLazenby shouted at him. "I don’t know why I come here with you! You’ve embarrassed me for the last time!"

"Life just isn’t the way it should be," Snell sniffed. Their waiter put a Coke next to his arm. "Oooh, soda!" he shouted joyously.

"Soda is not the issue!" McLazenby countered. "You need a life change. Look at me—the envy of everyone."

"I know," Snell said admiringly, wiping his face. "You won an award."

"That’s right!" McLazenby said, whipping a small statuette from his vest pocket. "I won second prize in the 1984 County Council of Teachers of Collage Award for Design, 10 to 12-year old division! I achieve!"

Snell patted his forehead with an old napkin. "Maybe things will be better this afternoon," he sighed.

"Only if a miracle happens!" McLazenby said bitterly.

A miracle happened.

They stood on the street corner, gaping in awe at the piece of construction paper stapled to a phone pole before them. It read:

TONIGHT ONLY: "A STREETCAR NAMED FRANKENSTEIN" SPECIAL DELUXE RETURN ENGAGEMENT AT VALID CINEMAS

"I knew that if only I believed," Snell said, "everything would turn out okay."

"Oh, don’t worry," McLazenby snapped. "There’s always a catch to something that seems too good to be true."

"You’re such a pessimist," said Snell.

"Oh yeah? Look." McLazenby pointed to the fine print with a sour finger:

ADMISSION ONE DOLLAR

"I have a dollar," announced McLazenby proudly, "but where are you going to get one?"

Snell looked to the heavens. "I’ll get a dollar somehow."

"From who?" asked McLazenby with a laugh. "Your parents?"

Snell thought about it, remembered what they had said to him that morning as he stood sheepishly before them:

"YOU’RE WORTHLESS! YOU’RE WORTH NOTHING! THERE IS NO WORTH TO YOU! YOU HAVE NO WORTH!"

Snell was nonplussed. "Yours are no better," he said defensively.

McLazenby thought about it, remembered what they had said to him that morning as he stood sheepishly before them:

"HOW COULD YOU BE SO STUPID AS TO EAT STAPLES?!"

"Well, anyway, it looks as if I’m going to go see George A. Romhepple’s A Streetcar Named Frankenstein all by myself," said McLazenby with vigor, holding up his crumpled dollar totemistically. But just at that moment, a wind blew up, snatching it away, carrying it to St. Louis.

"Man," McLazenby whispered. Such was life.

It should be noted at this time that George A. Romhepple’s A Streetcar Named Frankenstein was in no way an acclaimed motion picture.

 

Snell and McLazenby sat in the park for a while, mooning over their respective fates. After fifteen minutes of silence, Snell unaccountably began to weep again.

"Shutup, will you!" McLazenby shouted. "I can’t think!"

"Maybe we should both get jobs," suggested Snell.

"Oh sure. Then the government gets at your paycheck and doesn’t take enough money out and you get in trouble with the E.R.S. and you go to jail!"

"But what happened to our dreams?" wondered Snell.

"I had a dream, mister," came the defiant response, "and I achieved it!" McLazenby produced his award again, thrusting it forward into Snell’s conical face.

"We’ve got to find a dollar," Snell insisted.

"Well, we’re not getting anywhere sitting here."

"Maybe we can wash a car, or clean a gutter, or sweep a walkway."

McLazenby’s spine arched suddenly; a gleam touched his brow.

"I’ve got a better idea," he said.

 

The trash can by the parking lot was mostly full.

"Hey!" Snell exclaimed, his hand thrust deep toward the bottom.

"What? Is it a dollar?"

"No, but look," Snell said, lifting something out of the rubbish. It was an old index card, stained with a cigarette burn and bent in five places.

"How come you get it?" McLazenby challenged.

"Because I found it," Snell reasoned.

"Dummy," McLazenby jeered.

"You’re the dummy!"

"Ha!" McLazenby cried. "I’m holding up the insult mirror—bounceback!"

Snell began to cry again. Tears squirted from his lemon-shaped eyes.

"Christ," said McLazenby, revolted.

It should be noted here that George A. Romhepple’s A Streetcar Named Frankenstein was not considered by any means to be a box office success.

 

The two dreamers marched to the counter of the popular fast food establishment known as BurgerZonly.

"Follow my cues," nudged McLazenby.

Snell straightened his hair. McLazenby put his award around his neck for that extra touch of credibility. As they approached the counter, they both eyed the first dollar that BurgerZonly had ever made, nestled safely inside a frame on the wall.

"Yeah?" the counterman said to them as they came close.

"Excuse me," said McLazenby, "but we just saw a big criminal doing some big heist outside."

"Oh yeah?"

"You should go check it out," urged Snell. "We’ll keep an eye on the dollar."

"Oh no," the counterman defied them, narrowing his eyes. "I’m not going anywhere."

"But it could be that super big crime that they reported on the important news show!" McLazenby persisted.

"Get out of here!" yelled the counterman.

"Hey, is that Robert Redford over there?" wondered Snell, pointing.

Yes, it was. Robert Redford, accomplished actor and director, had chosen to take his luncheon at BurgerZonly. He really had. Yes.

 

McLazenby and Snell regrouped in the toilet after voiding their bladders.

"Well, you screwed that up," McLazenby pointed out.

"I’m sorry," said Snell. "But I’ve got an even better idea."

"Okay, let’s hear it, Mister Einstein Smart Head Guy."

 

Back to the counter.

"We’d like to return these hamburger sandwiches," declared Snell, holding up a greasy bag.

"What’s wrong with them?" the counterman asked.

McLazenby stepped forward. "They had poison in them."

The counterman took the bag and upended it.

"So where are they?" he asked when nothing fell out but oxygen molecules.

Silence. McLazenby and Snell searched each other’s souls for answers.

"The poison made them evaporate," Snell volunteered.

More silence.

"And cause fumes," said McLazenby.

Longer silence this time; an undetermined length.

"One guy fell down," said Snell.

The counterman called the police, causing them to run away at a hurried rate. Back in the restaurant, Robert Redford gobbled another fry. His film credits included The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, and Quiz Show.

Sometimes in life, you just have to keep trying.

McLazenby and Snell set up a soft drink stand by the side of the road. They hand-lettered a sign that read:

BERRY-FLAVORED MILK BEVERAGE DRINK A DOLLAR

No one bought their offered potation. They spent hours huddled in a doorway, McLazenby in a hokey western cowboy outfit, Snell shivering with a cigarette in his mouth, holding his bum leg. (Wait a second, that was Midnight Cowboy.)

They changed the sign after a while, as well as the focus of their business. Snell stood defenselessly while McLazenby tried to summon people in:

HIT A GUY REAL HARD A DOLLAR

No one was buying. They tried to counterfeit a dollar using an old Reese’s wrapper, a protractor, and a red magic marker. The results were mixed.

Their final sign by the stand on the side of the road read:

GIVE US A DOLLAR A DOLLAR

It was no use. The dream was over.

 

They stumbled back to the park, less than men.

"Gee, it’s almost time for the movie show," Snell said.

"‘Of all sad words of tongue and pen,’" McLazenby quoted, "‘the saddest are: It might have been.’" He crumpled the A Streetcar Named Frankenstein flyer bitterly, cutting himself.

Suddenly Snell gaped and gawked. "Look! A spectral figure!"

Indeed, a ghostly apparition had appeared before them hovering over the sliding board. It was tan in color, shaped sort of like an egg.

"BECAUSE YOU WORKED HARD AND DID NOT BETRAY YOUR FELLOW MAN," said the apparition, "I WILL GIVE YOU EACH A DOLLAR."

And the impossible became possible—a dollar appeared in the hands of the two young go-getters! The apparition then disappeared or collapsed in a heap, it’s not clear which.

"I’ve learned my lesson!" Snell sang out, rubbing the dollar against his head. "I’m going to become a different person. I’m going to pursue a career in dance!"

"I, too, will change," McLazenby promised, licking his dollar again and again. "But first...."

And they skipped happily toward the future. Actually skipped.

An alternate ending might have them falling off the curb and hurting themselves.

 

 

Larry Box was feeling sad. His life, his home, his car, his television set, were all on the fritz. He was forty years old and still lived with his parents. He could have afforded to move out long ago—like every other single human being in America, he had made a billion dollars on the internet with laughable ease—but he just didn't feel like it. It was so much effort.

Now, just after sunset, the power suddenly went out at the house. Larry was eating cereal and watching an old rerun of Webster when it happened.

"Shoot," he said to himself. Another lousy day. How could things get any worse?

An hour passed. Still, no electricity. And no power meant you couldn't go to the bathroom, really. The toilet wouldn't flush and you couldn't wash your hands—no water. To make matters worse, Larry had just drunk all the milk from his bowl of cereal. Already his traitorous bladder was irritating him..

"Larry?" his mother called up the stairs. "Are you all right, honey?"

"Yes, ma," Larry replied tiredly.

"Are you afraid? Come down here with us, then."

"I'm not afraid, ma," Larry said. "Jeez."

Time went by. The second hour passed. Still, no power. By this time Larry had to pee quite badly. He squirmed and tried not to think of it. No use. Something had to be done.

Larry sighed. He felt his way down the stairs. He went out the back door and navigated around to the side of the house.

He hated to do this. Suppose someone saw? But no one could see. The neighbors were all indoors. If he was quick, he could go about his business and get back inside. His bladder was killing him...

Larry unzipped his fly. He began to pee freely and unabashedly against the side of his house. He felt greatly relieved.

The neighbor's high voltage floodlight came on a second later, trapping Larry in a circle of dazzling illumination. Power had been restored to the neighborhood.

Larry looked up, still peeing.

Mrs. Bellman was standing on her porch. She saw Larry and screamed. She passed out where she stood in a crumpled heap.

Larry gaped.

Lights came back on up and down the street. The other neighbors, roused by Mrs. Bellman's screams, came out, saw Larry, pointed in shock and dismay.

Larry gaped.

Two power company guys were standing at a light pole fifty feet away. They saw Larry and their mouths dropped open. A small motherless whippet saw Larry, yelped in terror, ran into the night.

Larry stood there.

"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN," a voice boomed through a megaphone. "THE PRESIDENT AND FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA."

The president's motorcade, detoured by midtown traffic, rumbled down Larry's street and past the house. The president waved and shook hands with the commoners. When he saw Larry, his face became slack and perplexed. The first lady fell from the car, offended to the highest degree. The Soviet ambassador shrieked and made the sign of the cross, vowing at that moment to accelerate the arms race by four hundred percent.

Larry Box stood there, peeing, defenseless.

Larry Box knew at that moment that he was: The Unluckiest Man.

 

 

 

The Red Death had taken its toll upon the land. It was a gruesome affliction, bringing a bloody death. But in his vast castle, Prince Prospero reveled. He had summoned hundreds of friends to a gala masquerade ball, and food and wine were in plenty. Inside, all was gaiety. Outside was the Red Death.

The dancing was in full swing when Prospero made his entrance.

"Greetings, all!" he trumpeted. "Let us revel!"

"A superb festival!" complimented the Duke of Noseville. "Excellent!"

"Thank you, my friend," the Prince said, suddenly swept up in the tide of dancing and music.

But then, somewhere in the house, a gong tolled. A figure appeared without warning in the doorway. A faceless figure wrapped in a bloody sheet, dressed in the habiliments of the grave.

"Who dares pee on my parade?" asked the Prince testily.

"IT IS I, THE SPECTER OF DEATH," Death proclaimed in a booming voice. "I HAVE COME BEARING THE PLAGUE."

"Take it outside, pal," someone said.

"NO! PRINCE PROSPERO, WHEN I RAISE MY SCYTHE, THIS ENTIRE CONGREGATION SHALL FALL DEAD!"

"Why?" asked the Duke of Noseville. "Has your scythe been dipped in human blood, or the entrails of rats?"

"NO," said Death.

"Well then you can hardly expect to infect us all simultaneously, can you?"

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN?" asked Death, suddenly feeling self-conscious.

"Listen, I don't mean to burst your bubble," the Duke explained, "but death is not some all-knowing spirit that can just traipse into a party and off everyone at once. The plague you purport to represent is transmitted through a complex series of biochemical reactions and can only be passed on through certain narrow windows of organic interaction."

"BUSHWAH!" shouted Death. "ONE...TWO...THREE! AH BOOGAH BOOGAH!" He raised his scythe and swashed it through the air. A moment passed.

The revelers looked at him.

"'Ah boogah boogah'?" marveled the Duke. "Prince Prospero, would you kindly have this feeb bounced?"

"Oh, hell," sulked Death.

"Listen, either take off or join the party," the Prince offered kindly. "This nonsense has got to stop."

And so Death decided to drop the sheet act and have some fun. He danced and sang into the wee hours. He had many disparaging things to say about his employers and turned out to be the hit of the evening. And outside, the plague held dominion over all.

 

 

 

Larry Box decided to go to the movies. The movies always soothed him. He paid for his ticket at the booth and went in.

He was the only one in the theater. Apparently the revival of The Coneheads wasn’t very well advertised.

Oh well, Larry thought. There won’t be the comforting sound of the riotous laughter of others, but at least I can stretch out a bit.

Two minutes into the previews, Abraham Lincoln came into the theater and sat down right in front of Larry. His stove pipe hat made him eight inches taller, completely obstructing Larry’s view. Even worse, when the movie began, Honest Abe kept commenting on every scene, aloud to himself at a most distracting volume. "This is the good part!" he would say with enthusiasm. Or, "This is the part where the guy runs away!"

Great, Larry thought. Some behavior for the great emancipator.

After a half hour Larry couldn’t take it anymore. He got up and left. He could sense the last straw was coming.

 

 

 

Hendricks and Lem, two guys from New York, were looking for something to eat. Dressed to the nines, hair slicked back flawlessly, they entered the first place they saw. The establishment hummed with customers.

"Well," Hendricks said loftily, "I guess this is technically a restaurant...I see a business license on the wall, and there seem to be restrooms in the back."

"Yet check out the empty table near the window," Lem remarked with disdain. "Must be hard times here in the sticks. Guess the local mill closed down or something."

"Hi, welcome to Mike’s," the hostess said cheerfully. "Can I seat you gentlemen?"

Hendricks sniffed and smirked. "Well, we’d love a table, but you see....we have no reservation."

"That’s all right. Two for dinner?"

"No wait?" said Lem snottily. "No bribe for even the crummiest corner booth?"

"Looks like we’re not in New York tonight, buddy," said Hendricks airily. "Whoops!"

The hostess led them to their table.

"Hey Lem," Hendricks said arrogantly, "is that President of NBC Entertainment Garth Ancier I see by the bar?"

"Why, no," Lem replied. "No, just some lonely blue collar shlump from a nearby Elks lodge, I’m afraid."

"Oh right....forgot where I was for a second!"

The hostess shook her head and walked away. The waitress arrived quickly and grinned.

"Can I get you two something to drink?" she asked them.

"Well, I don’t know," Lem told her. "We’re two guys who live in an unidentified ACTUAL city on the eastern seaboard. We know little of your native trade."

"Yes, do tell us," said Hendricks, "are you people here in ‘Richmond’ familiar with the concept of alcohol?"

"Ah....yes, sir. What can I get you?"

Hendricks brushed a hair off his shoulder. "Where we live, we can get one thousand different kinds of beers in a four block radius alone. Would it be absurd to ask you to bring us, oh, say, ONE kind?"

The waitress kept her cool. "Whatever you’d like."

"Say Hendricks," said Lem, "since our DC-10 touched down at the cardboard mockup of an airport the good working folk of Richmond call their own, I’ve had a yen for a Goldstone Creamer. How about yourself?"

"Sounds sensational, Lem. But am I mistaken in thinking that particular lager, and countless others like it, is available only in NEW YORK?"

Lem slapped his forehead. "‘Oh shoot goddarn it,’ as they say here in.....WHEREVER."

The waitress sighed. "I’ll bring you some water for now," she said, and walked off.

"I think we offended the waitress," said Hendricks, wiping away imaginary tears.

Lem chuckled. "I imagine the poor creature will go home to the tobacco farm tonight and weep into the pillow she made by hand in Home Ec class at Harry Truman High."

"Perhaps we should have established from the outset that we’re from New York so as not to frighten the child. You know how the self-professed ‘outside world’ fears and idolizes us." Hendricks looked around to make sure other diners had heard him.

"Let’s see what we have here on the menu," said Lem, then slapped his cheek in mock dismay. "Oh, my, some of these dinners run as high as $18.95! Do you suppose there’s a bank open somewhere, or a place where I can get a quick low interest loan?"

"Gee willikers," added Hendricks, "we can get everything from a steak sandwich with fries to a chicken sandwich with fries! I’m no epicure, but these dishes must be Ethiopian in nature, or maybe Mongolian! My brain is absolutely spinning!"

The waitress returned with the water. "Are you ready to order?" she asked.

"Yes," replied Lem. "Do you have anything on this menu that could pass for interesting food?"

"Anything with more than one syllable, maybe?" Lem chimed in.

The waitress frowned. "You don’t like the selections?"

Lem set his menu down. "Sweetie, honey....do you realize we’re from NEW YORK? That we can go out on a Tuesday night at 3 o’clock in the morning and have our pick of ten thousand restaurants serving anything your cornfed mind could imagine?"

Hendricks touched her gently on the hand. "We realize this is Richmond and the concept of four distinct food groups hasn’t fully made its way down I-95 yet, but surely you don’t expect us to choke down this swill."

"It’s just standard pub fare, sir. Surely there’s something you’d like. How about the shrimp platter?"

"Yeah, tell me, how many garnishes do I get with that?"

"Well, it’s all food....we don’t take up space with pointless garnishes."

Hendricks rolled his eyes. "So you’re saying there’s no effort put into the presentation at all?"

"God forbid you get your heads out of the wheatfields long enough to put some color on the plate," Lem said sourly. "Are our eyes just supposed to stare vacantly at our meal with no peripheral stimulation whatsoever?"

The waitress looked from Lem to Hendricks, from Hendricks to Lem. "Why are you guys even down here?" she asked.

Hendricks said, "A good question, Richmond Sue."

"My name’s Karen."

"You see, Lem and I are high caliber businessmen from a certain city—"

"That city being THE BIG APPLE," Lem inserted.

"Yes yes, MANHATTAN to be exact, and we often have occasion to jaunt into the undeveloped American outback to sell our New York-based power products to other, lesser companies in backward-thinking, non-New York towns like yours."

Lem yawned. "You see, in New York we’re not all waitresses and engine room coal-stokers. We have higher pursuits, most of which involve keeping far away from whatever Steinbeckian dust bowl you sleepy folk wile away your nights in."

Karen scowled at them. "You know, I waited on a couple of guys like you just last week. Two guys who had this big attitude just because they were from Boston."

Hendricks and Lem gawked at each other.

"BOSTON?!" they shouted simultaneously. People looked over.

"Well, I’ve been told that square acre of parking lot meets the dictionary definition of the word city, " spat Hendricks, "but you wouldn’t know it from sampling their alleged ‘culture’!"

"We’re from NEW YORK, dammit!" cried Lem. "Speak to us not of blighted neighborhoods that pass themselves off as metropoli! Comparing New York to Boston is like comparing a fine wine to Dennis Rodman’s spittle! Which we’ve literally seen, by the way, from our courtside seats at Madison Square Garden. No no, sugar pie, it’s not an actual garden, but rather a celebrated sports arena larger than even your local community center. Does such a size even seem possible to you okies?!"

The manager came over. "Is there a problem here, Karen?" he asked.

"YES, there’s a problem!" shouted Lem. "None of you dunderpates seems to understand that we’re from NEW YORK! Last week we were dining on orange arugula at the Fuzzy Vatican, preparing for a night of Broadway, clubbing, art museums and crazy sex with thousand-dollar hookers—"

"—and tonight," finished Hendricks, "you savages would have us dine on franks and beans before we catch the number 9 bus to some church sock hop!!"

They sat bolt upright and chanted together. "WE LIVE AND DO BUSINESS IN NEW YORK! KNEEL BEFORE US!"

The manager nodded silently. "Ah....I think you gentlemen should leave."

Lem tossed his menu across the room. "And leave we will! To return to the only city on the earth that matters!"

Hendricks rose. "I certainly hope we can find suitable transport back to our hotel!" he said. "It appears everything in Richmond is sadly not within walking distance like it is in our aforementioned urban nirvana!"

"Farewell, common rabble!" Lem exclaimed as they headed for the exit. "See you at Elaine’s—never!" They vanished and were never seen again. Maybe they even learned to love.

The restaurant was quiet for a moment. "Did you know them?" the manager asked Karen.

"No," she said. "I think they were from New York."

The hostess sat a woman at Karen’s table almost immediately.

"Hi," Karen greeted her. "Can I get you something to drink?"

"Ah, yes," the woman said, "but can I just have a soda, I have to drive back to Annapolis tonight."

"Wowwwwwwwwww, ANNAPOLIS," Karen said mockingly. "Sounds like a BLAST! Tell me, what do you do in that lemonade stand of a town? Dream all day about running away to a REAL city like RICHMOND?!"

 

 

 

By 8:19 p.m., Larry Box had reached the limits of his sanity. Life was lousy. He just couldn't get a break. Then he had an idea.

He went into a bookstore, wandered over to the books on cassette. He bought one called BE POSITIVE! AN AUDIO WORKSHOP.

He went home, put the tape in his player. He pushed play.

"Welcome to BE POSITIVE, an audio workshop designed to draw out the optimism within you," a soothing female voice said. Larry sat down in a chair, leaned back, closed his eyes, and began to listen.

"I want you to imagine you are szxx ttgkjhfg adj zzxdlsf," the voice said. Larry's poorly maintained tape gears commenced to eat the cassette, shell and all, with great relish.

At 9:43, Larry Box threw himself from the top of an ice cream truck. Because you can't really kill yourself by throwing yourself off the top of an ice cream truck, it was really more of a cry for help. But as it turned out, Larry did actually die from throwing himself off the top of the ice cream truck.

It happens.

 

 

 

HEY EVERYBODY! WHO'S IN THE MOOD FOR SOME....

AMAZING BUT SALIENT FACTS!!!!

If a planet is ever discovered beyond Pluto, scientists have already agreed to name it "Terry".

In the book on which the classic horror film The Exorcist is based, little Regan's terrifying illness is caused not by demonic possession but by eating too many apples.

The average human brain weighs 3 1/4 pounds. The heaviest human brain on record, at 5 1/2 pounds, belongs to screen actor Treat Williams.

Although there is no film censoring process in New Zealand and sex is often graphically portrayed on screen, filmmakers are strictly forbidden to show people sharing gum.

While sea turtles can live up to 180 years, the tiny insect known as the Gleeb has a lifespan of less than four minutes, which it spends crawling around looking for a suitable leaf to die on.

It takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile. However, it takes even less muscles to call somebody a useless bastard.

German philosopher Nils Ipps Grubel (1841-1854) was the first to theorize that man is doomed to live the life he is now living over and over again throughout eternity, each time wearing a slightly sillier hat.

Human and cows are the only species on earth capable of giving their females "the eye".

The human body is seventy-one percent water. The largest amount of water ever detected in a human body, eighty-five percent, belongs to screen actor Treat Williams.

Due to an engraving error that was not rectified until 1996, the tombstone of Pope John Pius I once proclaimed that he was "The Heart of Motown".

If there were ever any use for it, the medical technology now exists to completely reverse the position of our ears.

Animal behaviorists now believe that cats can speak, but just can't make a "g" sound and figure to hell with it.

Tragedy occurred on the first NASA moon landing when Captain Leo McBates dropped a packet of dry frozen ice cream as he walked along the surface of the planet. The packet floated in space for eleven years, gained speed as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere, and struck the South Indian city of Braghwananan, leveling it and its four hundred thousand innocent citizens.

The small country of Beleemus in South America is supported solely by its one export, T-shirts that read "I Don't Do Mondays".

If you write to the government of Saudi Arabia and ask politely, they will ship you all the sand you want at no charge.

Robert Frost spelled backwards is T.S. Orftrebor, the name of an inferior Dutch poet whose most famous work was 1921's "Elegy for the Anoria", a tragic requiem for a well-built ship that easily traveled from place to place with no navigational or flotation problems whatsoever.

Ducks are capable of achieving land speeds of up to ninety miles per hour. Hence the popular phrase, "Christ, look at that duck go."

Although the Chinese did invent gunpowder, they at first had no idea what it could be used for, and for hundreds of years just sprinkled it on toast and ate it.

Although he was a famous, brilliant, and prolific man of letters, as well as a noted lecturer and scholar and the author of The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall, the only last word Albert Camus could get out on his deathbed was "pants".

The United States Postal System will deliver an unstamped letter as long as you affix a cookie to the corner of the envelope.

Benjamin Franklin was once a member of a little-known organization called The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Except Cats.

Although it is a waterless, airless, totally uninhabited wasteland constantly pelted by winds of up to three hundred miles per hour, the planet Mercury is considered by most experts to have a much better shot at winning a playoff game than the Cincinnati Bengals ever will.

If she ever so desired, the Queen of England can at any time declare herself the all-time NBA assists leader.

In 1978 an unassuming businessman named Rutherford Richardrutherd put a quarter into a newspaper vending machine but accidentally took two papers out instead of one. To this day, he has never been brought to justice.

If we were all really growing at the rate our grandmothers said we were, at death we would all be sixty-one feet tall.

Because the United Nations will in the year 2005 award three hundred thousand dollars to the country it has judged to be the safest in the area of sea travel, the U.S. Coast Guard is still patrolling the Atlantic looking for survivors of the Titanic.

 

 

 

He was a good card player. No, no....he was a great card player.

They were playing five card stud. He was already up ten thousand dollars. But then, he decided it wasn’t enough.

The other three players were no greenhorns. But even so, they knew they were in for a rough go of it.

Four hundred dollars were in the pot. He drew two sevens, a four, a jack, and a nine.

"I’ll raise a hundred," he said.

The other three got one look in his eyes, and they decided to fold. He took the pot with a lousy pair of sevens. They groaned. His bluffing skills were known from Tempe to Key Biscayne.

The next hand was even bigger. By the time the betting was done, there were eight hundred dollars at stake.

They got one look in his eyes, and they decided to fold. He showed them his cards: only half of a straight flush. Nothing. They groaned. But it was the look in his eyes that had bluffed them.

Bigger pots followed. A thousand dollars. Two thousand.

He took five cards the next hand. Looked through them idly. The others began to sweat. What did he have?

One of the men laughed. He had drawn a royal flush. He raised three thousand dollars, laughing.

Then he saw the bet, and called.

"Bet you have a royal flush, eh?" he asked.

The other nodded. "Yup!" he said victoriously.

"Well, that's unbeatable, I guess."

The other looked into his eyes. What was he thinking? What was his game? He looked down at his cards. A royal flush! But...

He folded.

He took the pot. He had no pairs, no nothing.

Damn, he was a good card player.

The next hand was not much different.

"Boy," he was heard to say. "I hate it when I get nothing higher than a six." And he showed them his cards.

Bets were made. He turned his cards around, let them look long and hard.

Unnerved by his infernal confidence, they all folded. He won a great deal of money.

The dealer dealt the cards.

"Oh, that's okay," he said, examining his fingernails. "No cards for me this hand."

"Are you out?" they asked.

"No, no, I'm in," he replied. "But no cards are necessary."

They collected their cards, examined them—and examined him over their hands. He sat there as if nothing was more pleasant than just sitting there.

One man had three kings. Another had a full house.

He raised a hundred dollars.

They looked in his eyes. He smiled kindly. He drummed his empty hands lightly on the table.

They folded.

There was nothing else they could do. He was so good.

An hour later, he left the game. Keep dealing me in, he told them. Make whatever bets you think I should make. I trust you.

So they did. The three of them sat and dealt his cards to an empty space.

He went home on the train.

His confidence overwhelmed them. They didn't know what to think.

While he was home asleep, they lost everything to him. They left the chips on the table and went out, shaken.

He was a good card player, all right. No, no...he was a great card player.

 

 

 

Another Friday night—and another Friday night of pain for Vanderfudd. He guided his battered old Dodge around the neighborhood, trying desperately to think of something to do before he went absolutely nuts.

Why do I get stuck with hanging out with this loser every weekend? he asked himself. Am I cursed or something?

Vanderfudd sighed. "So, ah, Dracula, what do you feel like doing? Bowling?"

Dracula looked out the window at the passing neon lights of the alley. "THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS IS NOT SO SURE ABOUT THE BOWLING IDEA!" he said loudly in a dense Transylvanian accent.

Vanderfudd nodded. They passed an Arby’s, the mall, a Citgo station. This is pure pain, he thought. I need to get some new friends.

"So Dracula, did you catch the Cowboys game last week?" Vanderfudd asked, bored.

"THE COUNT WAS MOST IMPRESSED WITH THE COWBOYS’ SWARMING THIRD DOWN DEFENSE!" Dracula bellowed. "AH LOOK—THERE ON THE SIDEWALK, A FRESH YOUNG GIRL WHOSE BLOOD DRACULA WOULD LOVE TO DRINK, AAHHHH-HAAA!" He licked his ruby lips and tried to throw his cape across his face. The seatbelt made it tough.

"Great," agreed Vanderfudd tiredly. Obviously this night was never going to end. "Nice weather," he said. "There’s gotta be something to do. Wanna go to the discount cinema?"

"THE PALE GLORY OF THE FULL MOON IS SPECTACLE ENOUGH FOR THE KING OF VAMPIRES!" the Count said, his evil eyes widening with bloodlust. "BUT DRACULA DESIRES THAT YOU DRIVE BY ANYWAY TO SEE IF ‘BATTLEFIELD EARTH’ IS SHOWING!"

Is this gonna be my whole life? Vanderfudd wondered. Stuck with this pest as my best friend?

 

 

P lay dead by the river in the back of a beaten '78 Plymouth Duster. That's right, P, as in pain. P, as in passed on. A bullet through the proboscis. And no one knew who did it.

My name is S. S as in Sadsack, basically. I got the call from L at two a.m. in my cheap hotel room at the corner of 30th and 27th. I had just gotten through a sleepless night where my only company was a fifth of Monsieur Daniels, one too many memories, and a surprisingly enjoyable new CD from one of the true masters of the electronic bagpipe, Yog Simonsssson.

"Somebody whacked P," L told me from headquarters. "It looks like a nasty one. We're going to need your help. Nobody knows the alphabet like you do."

What could I do? I took the case and went out into the night. Anything was better than that room and the ghosts from my past that cavorted through it.

J was none too happy about being shaken awake, I'll tell you. He had hooked up with some petite Roman numeral he'd found at Tick's Bar and was just sleeping off the jollity. Still, he agreed to tag along, like always. He's a good partner, J is. Knows how to keep his mouth shut.

The rain hit us like a ton of bricks as we got out of the car at the river to examine the corpse. It was nasty, all right. P had been nearly cut in half.

"And that's not all," L told me as we watched P being shoved into the back of a hearse. "U has been found murdered tonight too. Across town. Just as bloody. Someone's out to kill off the alphabet, S."

"Don't jump to conclusions," I admonished him, and asked him if he had any Orangina handy. He didn't. Bad move, not having Orangina handy at a crime scene. Sometimes it just gets too much to handle.

Me and J walked through the downpour across town to where U had apparently been offed as well. Already we could both feel the first needles of fear in our guts. Without the alphabet, no more communication. That was the only motive. U and P had been stand-up letters, no enemies. What would happen without an alphabet? Rather than think, I whistled. J did the same.

M made the mistake of walking past on the other side of the street. Me and J cornered him fast.

"I don't know anything!" he pleaded. "Let me go!"

"Everyone knows something," I said. "Who do you think did it?"

"No one I know!" he protested.

"Aha!" J said. "How did you know what we were talking about?"

"Because it's all over town," M said. "What happened to P and U."

I slipped M a fiver to make him cough up some answers.

"The scuttlebutt is, T did it," he said. "He was getting real jealous of P. Suddenly P was creeping into more and more words in the language until it was becoming just about even."

"Then why kill U?" I asked, interested.

"Some say U was planning to make a move," M squawked. "To become the 20th letter in the alphabet, bumping T after all these years of following on his heels like some mutt."

I didn't buy it. T was on the up-and-up. We left M behind, chewing it over. And M, the dunce, didn't think I had seen N hiding right behind him all the time, perfectly camouflaged. What was their game? Were they playing footsies without anyone knowing it? They had been so close for so long. Or maybe N just didn't want to be seen tonight. Seen by me. The alphabet is a tawdry place, I'll tell you.

It was time for everyone to fess up. I had L round up some bigtime letters and corral them at the station house. N was one of them. B, I, E, A, and ? came too, not liking it.

"What are you hiding?" I grilled N.

"Nothing."

"When will you tell me what you know?"

"Never."

That was N. A defeatist. You couldn't spell No, Nil, or Not-A without him.

I turned my questions on ?.

"Where were you tonight?" I demanded.

"Who wants to know?" he replied.

Talking to that creep was frustrating and got me nowhere. He answered all my questions with other questions.

I poked B's fat gut until he gave me some information.

"K knows what's up, I swear," he squealed.

Of course he did. K was underworld. Big time underworld. I would have to pay him a visit.

I stepped over to I.

"Don't cross me," he warned.

But on a hunch I raised my left hand and crossed him anyway. He was made into a T before my eyes! Everyone gasped.

"I've heard some bad things about you, T," I said. "M seems to think you're a wolf in sheep's clothing."

"You know me better than that, S. I just posed as I for a while because I didn't want to get whacked by this psycho."

There was truth in his eyes. I let it go.

E and A, those two pretty boys who had been shacking up together, nursing each other's egos, were useless. I had them put under 24 hour guard, though.

"Why?" they asked in unison.

"Because if somebody clips you too, it's the end of the whole ball game," I told them. Imagine an alphabet without E or A. As much as everyone thought they were a couple of self-important shmoes, the fact was, vowels were important. They all lived in bungalows on the upper side and got the best of everything. And dammit, they had to have it.

Back into the rain. It was time to see the big man, K. K as in Killer, K as in Kastrate.

"Wait a minute," J said to me, falling behind. He had filled up with rainwater. I tipped him over, he thanked me, we went on.

Me and J waltzed into K's club and went right to the back. There he was behind his desk, smoking a cigar and loving it. Standing next to his chair was a tall, curvy ampersand who piqued my interest pretty quick. I was cool, though.

"What's the deal, K?" I asked. "Out with it. I want some info."

"Buzz off, S," he growled. "I'm not telling you anything."

"Oh, you'll tell me something," I warned him. "I know you've been shaking down the single digits in the numerical system. When I tell the big numbers what you've been up to, they're going to get real unhappy. Imagine what 500 would do if he knew."

K fixed me with a stony gaze. "Go see the Cloak," he said. "You get one freebie. I don't know what's going on. I'm scared like everyone else. Why do you think I have all these guns lying around? I think I may be next to go."

"I'll see the Cloak," I said. "You're not so bad, K, for a lousy rotten hood."

That got him. While his mouth was still agape I put the moves on his ampersand friend and an hour later we were sweaty. I liked her. She had a dangerous look about her.

"How long have you been with K?" I asked her as we lay in the moonlight shafting through my cheap windows.

"Not long," she told me. "I came to this town looking for a dream. To be part of the alphabet, where it was all really happening. I was foolish."

"I'll take care of you, toots," I told her, getting up and strapping on my shoulder holster.

"Where are you going?" she asked plaintively.

"Into the slums," I said. "I've got no choice. I think P was killed with a slashmark. And there's only one place they can be found."

She tried to stop me, but there was no use. The slums held the key to the puzzle. I knew it. I met J at Tick’s and we started the long walk to the edge of town, where the truly bad characters lived and crawled, home of the lower case and the poor.

On the way we saw sirens and parked cop cars. We checked it out, walked up three flights to some dirty dive. L was there. And so was Q—hanging from the rafters, dead.

"Killed himself," L told us. "Left a note. He said he couldn't be much of a letter without U to stand by him. I guess he was right."

I stepped into the bathroom and wiped a renegade tear away. Damn, this was a nasty business. Human tragedy, that sort of thing. It would have to stop. Tonight.

Me and J approached the slums. The buildings got taller and darker. The losers of the alphabet were out in force, standing on streetcorners, making deals, shooting up, wondering where their dreams went. I saw Z, X, and V huddled in the rain, talking to some slashmarks, giving me the evil eye. Multilingual symbols like ů, ŕ, ż, who had no place in the english alphabet, stood around looking mean. And the real losers, things like @ and ß, the forgotten and the useless. The slum was a depressing place. An old friend of mine, the pound symbol, #, used to live here, until he got out, finding new popularity when people with cellular phones found a good use for him. He had told me some horrifying stories.

J and me tried to keep slick, but suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by a pair of mean parentheses.

"Get outta here," they growled.

I pulled out my piece and stared them down. "Beat it," I said.

They did. A second later, ¶ came running down the street, shouting incoherently.

I stopped him. "What's up?" I asked.

"Somebody shot Quotemarks!" he cried. "They just took him to the hospital! They say if he doesn't make it, we'll all be speechless forever!"

I sent J over to St. Stecky's Hospital. Things were out of control. I ran over to the parking garage on Strickland and there he was, the Cloak, waiting for me in the shadows. No one knew what he really was...number, letter, whatever. I personally thought he was an asterisk with heavy guilt feelings. But he kept his ear to the ground, that's what counted.

"The case has stalled on me," I told him.

"You're missing the overall," he whispered. "Follow the money."

"What money? There is no money."

"There's always money," he said, and disappeared.

I left, baffled. But a minute later, I saw what he was talking about. Because there was $, walking toward the wharf all secret-like. I tailed him.

On the way I saw something that almost took the wind out of my sails. Under a broken lamplight in the corner of my eye, an Arabic consonant was handing an envelope to a Russian vowel.

What the hell was happening to my town? Was this an international thing? Spies and the like? I made like I hadn't noticed and followed $ into a deserted warehouse.

Only it wasn't deserted. Chemicals bubbled and machines hummed. Dollar Sign went in, put on a smock, and hunched over a microscope. O was there, too, that punk, flipping dials and fooling with a Bunsen Burner.

Something bumped me from behind and I turned, gun outward.

"Easy," J said. "It's just me. Quotemarks is gonna pull through."

Together we crept forward, still unseen. In one corner of the warehouse, we saw something truly terrifying. It was a pile of what could only be described as letters, but they were all wrong. And they were all dead. Something that looked like a D, but bigger, misshapen. Binf, said an identifying sign around his neck. A kind of F that looked deformed had been named Gom.

. Letters that had been created and then offed just as fast. Rejects.

"So you've found out," a gravelly voice said. We turned around. Something was holding a gun on us...something that looked like this: (!^=.

"My name is Zveeb," he said, smiling. "And now your names are Dead and Doornail."

"I know you," I said.

It was Zveeb, all right. I had seen his picture in history books and mug shots for years. The twenty-seventh letter of the english alphabet that had been dropped like a stone before language ever even took hold. They had decided he was just extra baggage, and sort of silly. Now he was back, and more than a little bitter.

"You gentlemen are witnesses to a new beginning," he said. "An alphabet created from scratch. A nine-letter alphabet more powerful than any ever imagined."

"Impossible!" J said. "You can't do anything with just nine letters."

"Not true," Zveeb remarked casually. "My letters can double as consonants or vowels."

"No way!" J cried. But Zveeb wasn't nuts. Such a thing was possible. Y had been doing it for years, just not with any fanfare.

"How do you explain the commie and the arab out there?" I asked him, stalling for time.

"The commie is mine," Zveeb said. "The Russian E. A very big man. He offered me a million dollars if my new alphabet would have communist sympathies. I said why not? He's been making deals all over town. And now, both of you must die. By the end of the week, I expect every letter of this puny alphabet to be dead, and I will finally have what's mine!"

O advanced on us from behind, very sly. So did $, %, and, to my deep surprise, so did my darling ampersand.

"Sorry, S," she purred. "I have to make ends meet. Zveeb promised to take care of me. I know you did, too...but you betrayed everything you ever loved. Plus, you have to wonder about a private detective who's so fond of new age music."

Well, that was debatable and not a little bit cruel, but there was no time to think about it. On a silent cue, J and I drew our pistols and the air was filled with gunfire.

When the smoke cleared, everyone was dead...even &. Oh, well, I thought. No one ever really needed her, anyway.

J and me started to walk out of the warehouse together. Suddenly he was konked on the noggin. O had only been playing dead! I pinned him on the ground and shoved my gun where it hurt.

"Stay down, O," I said. "Or I'll put a hole right through you."

It was over. L showed up with the fuzz a minute later. I found myself out in the rain for the umpteenth time, thinking of the future. There were some bad apples in the alphabet, but there always would be. P, Q, U, and the letters I had offed in the warehouse would be replaced. Maybe the pi symbol was looking for work. Life would go on. So would I. But I would go on alone. That was the difference. On the way home I saw H standing in an alley, turned on his side to try to imitate I and get a little more word work, like that was going to fool anyone. God, the alphabet was a rough place. I needed an Orangina.

 

 

 

 

Well, partner. It looks like the moon is high, and we've come to the end of our trail. It was a tough journey, I know, but we've made it. And now I can honestly call you a man. You've seen much on our quest. You've loved and lost, you've tasted blood....and of course, you've survived the showdown with the infamous assassin, Grinning Stan. His gun was fast, but yours was faster. You're a gunslinger now.

I want you to go on ahead now. Don't worry about me. There's a stagecoach that passes through here when the stars come out. It takes cowboys like me to a special place. I’ve done all I can do in this territory. Most importantly, I've fulfilled my duty of showing a young man the ways of the West.

Say goodbye to Belinda for me, will you? She was always special to me. Set my horse free and give my Colt to Chicken Phil. He'll know what to do with it. And do I have to mention that the farm is now completely yours? We fought for it together. But you deserve its riches.

Go on. The sun is setting. There's nothing left for you to prove. Don't forget that the gunslinger's life is a lonely one, but that is how it must be. Good luck. And I want you to do one last thing for me: When the time comes, you have the best damn Hanukkah it's possible to have.

That's right, don't look back. Keep going. Ride straight and true. Be sure to get some sunscreen when you reach Disneyworld, now.

God, I need a shower.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afterword

 

At least I'm not a big JERK, Mr. Critic Fancy-Pants Lydell! What's THAT like, huh??

 

 

 

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

Held In the Thrall of the Awful

a true story

 

On a lost summer’s eve in the year 199something, my life changed forever when I was romanced, just like in a storybook, by the worst eighty minutes of cinema ever made. I was not alone that night; my friend Koslonsky (name changed for no real reason) also bore witness to what appeared on my television screen and remained there, its spirals of pulchritude embedding themselves into our already dicey brain stems for all eternity, for what seemed like days. The movie was not Plan Nine From Outer Space, as you might guess—in fact, I never want to hear another mention of that work again, for its wretchedness, though certainly immense as the universe itself, is simply old news. The torch has been passed.

There are others whom Koslodsky and I have sworn into the brotherhood over the ensuing years, the brotherhood of Ripoff. Like malnourished survivors of a more benevolent Bataan Death March, we share a secret that binds us together, but I feel that only I have the passion to explain Ripoff to the world, because I said so, and that time has come. A decade has passed since I saw it first, I am older and wiser, my vocabulary now includes words like benevolent.

So here is what happened:

We were sitting there in my room at about ten p.m. eating pretzels when channel 54 began to show this movie. "Welcome to the Movie Greats Network," said channel 54, and Ripoff began, its celebrated opening shot of the wizened, august Acropolis seeming all the more amazing when you consider that this is also a movie which features shots of a Texan getting his pants pulled off his legs from underneath a bathroom stall and an illegal alien placing a dead bug inside a baked potato to avoid paying his dinner bill. It can safely be said that the opening image features Ripoff’s last shred of dignity, because from there, as my uncle Roger used to say, "Hooooooo boy."

The Grecian-made Ripoff (circa 1976 or so) is the story of two halfwit entrepreneurs who stow away on a cargo ship to America, where they hope to make their fortunes in Las Vegas with, according to halfwit #1, Mario, "a plan that can’t fail." This plan apparently consists of Mario and halfwit #2, his dashing yet illiterate buddy John, getting the crap kicked out of them by pimps, sleeping with old women whom Mario thought had a lot of money, and trying to master the basic syntax of the English language only to emit sentences like "My friend John’s in big problems" and "This is once-in-lifetime type of chance." But Ripoff is about more than that. In its frames we, the sophisticated American audience, are given a harsh lesson in the vagaries of film technique, evidenced in the many out-of-focus shots, scenes where the camera seems to be literally tumbling off its tripod, and a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting f-stops which sometimes turn the frame a brightish blue in mid-sequence, probably because the director of photography kept forgetting to hit the little switch that says DAYLIGHT. None of this hodgepodge is as golden as what we see in the fabled restaurant scene, during which the set completely changes from one shot to the next, a continuity error so titanic, so crystalline in its absurdity, that I seem to remember the force of Koslopsky’s laughter causing his kidneys to spontaneously switch places. Ripoff also provides the viewer with a compelling cross-sectional view of early seventies America, where it seems every woman was a total whore, every black man carried a switchblade and actually said stuff like "So you got a lotta bread, bruthah," and Jewish people were almost exclusively bald traveling salesmen named Mort Green.

Evidence supplied by the opulent opening credit sequence suggests the movie was the notion of a skinny swinger named Michael Benet, who plays John as a wide-eyed innocent just scrumdiddlyumptious to the ladies, and who one day must have decided to use the eighty dollars or so he’d made from dogsitting over the years to produce a movie he likely believed would make a big splash in the all-too-forgiving world of international cinema. Benet is the star here; you can tell because Ripoff features him not only nailing every woman in the cast (see the reference to total whores in the above paragraph) but breaking out into two memorable dance sequences, one in a Greek restaurant where many fine fine ladies drool on his handsome arm and throw plates and whatnot, and one in an idyllic cow pasture in the American southwest, where a horse watches the proceedings with what can only be described as guarded optimism. Benet’s dancing, a series of lascivious hops, turns, and scissor kicks reminiscent of the movement of little plastic football men on a vibrating electric board, underscores Ripoff’s central theme: If you’re going to make a total vanity film, try not to make yourself and all others involved with the project look like semi-retarded dishwashers.

Some other stuff to be seen in Ripoff:

The ugliest cafeteria cashier ever captured on thirty-five millimeter film.

Two Vegas prostitutes engrossed in a game of chess.

A large van with flowers on it driven by a hippie named....yeah, Sunshine.

A man dressed only in his underpants driving a utility cart across an airport runway.

A man dressed only in his underpants doing something entirely different.

Wide lapels.

People with funny-looking heads.

A guy eating beans for the last time.

A freeze frame of two idiots parachuting from a 747 (oh hell, I just gave away the ending).

To affix the tag of Worst Ever to a movie is a foolhardy risk akin to hoisting a great steamship over a steep, forested mountain, which Klaus Kinski‘s character did in Werner Herzog‘s Fitzcarraldo, a movie that has nothing in common with Ripoff beyond the fact that both are talkies. When speaking of suckiness, we must always remember that the twentieth century gave us Showgirls, Battlefield Earth, and any movie involving anyone taking anyone else under their wing. But in Ripoff we are offered not just a car wreck of a film, but a car wreck of a film that can be wrecked again and again. Repeated viewings reveal not just layers, but ladders of atrociousness. For example, it was not until the ninth or tenth viewing of Ripoff that I noticed that when Mario and John filch money from the Mafia briefcase entrusted to them by a mob boss whose vast income is ostensibly generated from the efforts of six drug-addled hookers, they grab maybe two hundred bucks from the case and escape Vegas believing themselves to be wealthy beyond imagining. And how many Christmas mornings have I spent with the remote control, listening again and again to Ripoff’s penultimate line reading: a ship porter’s angry cry of "HEY, YOU, STOP", the commas between each word almost visible on his lips and growing more and more pronounced with each lustily anticipated turn through the VCR. Perhaps the true measure of a Worst Ever is the tremendous, unconditional affection one can offer it, and it is at this point in my essay that I go so far as to claim that Ripoff has given me more sensory and emotional enrichment than any of my supposedly caring ex-girlfriends or any children I might ever accidentally have.

Some time ago, my friend with whom I shared my first experience of Ripoff on that long-ago night suggested we somehow purchase the rights to the film and market it on DVD, complete with extras, which might include everything from our own running commentary to actual phone sex ads that channel 54 showed during the commercial breaks. But those rights, I fear, are never to be had; a lengthy canvassing of the internet revealed to me virtually no mention of Ripoff apart from a mysterious listing in the Internet Movie Database—which offered no information about the film aside from an errant release date of 1985. (Something tells me most of the people associated with the film were deported from their country of birth by 1980 at the latest.) A casual phone call placed to channel 54 just seven years or so after they screened Ripoff for a grateful nation turned up surprisingly little viable data. It was almost as if they simply didn’t care.

Ripoff is no ghost, though. I taped that magnificent excreta, and gave copies to friends, and one day, if necessary, I shall wander the frozen earth like the literary pariahs of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, who memorized entire books so that future generations would someday recover them. I feel certain that on one blustery autumn afternoon in the year two thousand something something, weary, hardworking citizens will file into the American Film Institute to watch a restored print of Ripoff, thanks to the efforts of a Chosen One who might not yet even be born, but who will watch in jaw-dropping awe as Michael Benet beats up the Mafia thugs who try to plant drugs on him in scene four by leaping and kicking and poking and spinning and going Hayaaaaaa, and though the Chosen One will certainly be confused as to A) why someone is planting drugs on this harmless doofus to begin with and B) why the lighting on the set becomes twice as intense from one shot to the next, he will go forth and do what destiny commands, and I thank him even now, but for what I cannot possibly fathom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calvin’s View

 

Another Christmas has come and gone, but the 1998 holidays had a greater significance to science than most. Researchers from Syracuse University, led by the noted ten year old prodigy Calvin Tolliver, have ended a thirty-six month project to put an end to the destructive Santa Claus myth once and for all using irrefutable mathematical statistics.

The team announced its findings, fittingly, from Station 33A, a remote geological survey outpost in the center of the frigid North Pole.

According to Tolliver's team, there are any number of scientific impossibilities clouding the Santa Claus legend. "Let us examine first this story about Claus' amazing selflessness," said Tolliver, owner of a doctoral degree in forensics from USC since the age of eight and an IQ of 208. "According to the myth, this Santa delivers toys to all the boys and girls in the world. Putting aside for a moment the vast cultural absurdities involved in giving toys to children in parts of the globe which have never even heard of the man, it is better to concentrate on the figures. There are over a billion and a half children on the earth right now. If Santa were to give just two gifts to each child—and we have reports that show they sometimes get many more than that—and each gift weighed just three pounds (a wildly conservative estimate), that would mean a payload of more than five billion pounds. Distributed among eight 'tiny' reindeer, this weight could not be pulled even a fraction of an inch. Most likely these animals, confronted with such a daunting task, would merely lie down in the snow and go to sleep."

But the inaccuracies in the legend only begin there, according to the diminutive Dr. Tolliver, who coincidentally launched the study shortly after the sad death of his mother in 1995. In order for Santa Claus (a name which appears in no North Pole address directory, Tolliver adds as a side note) to travel the entire circumference of the earth in those twelve hours, his sleigh would have to rocket at speeds of almost five thousand miles per hour.

"We have studied artist's depictions of this vehicle," Tolliver said, "and the materials from which it is built suggest no technology advanced enough to maintain wind gription or curvature integrity at speeds half that fast. The sleigh would, upon reaching top speed, undoubtedly break apart with disastrous results. The most insulting aspect of this portion of the myth is revealed in the thousands of drawings and sketches of Claus in his implausible conveyance. We can assume these drawings were done to scale because there is never any notation otherwise. And yet the sleigh seems no bigger than a school bus, or a single train car. Unless Claus is some sort of giant commanding a sleigh the size of earth's sun, we see here that five billion pounds of toys could never fit in that or any other man-made vehicle. Utterly impossible."

Tolliver's team did not rely merely on detached scientific data, however. Over the past three years they spent more than fourteen million dollars of their college’s money conducting over ten thousand interviews with the general public. The team claims that they were able to document few credible sightings of Santa Claus. This already insignificant number plummeted to almost zero in interviews with adults forty years of age and older. Tolliver also claims that eighty percent of all known elves in the northern hemisphere were contacted and questioned, a landmark project in its own right, eclipsing even Rudolf Van Ingot's famous Elf Registry of the mid-seventies. "No elf had any knowledge of any employment program offered to anyone of their size in the North Pole. And only eight percent of all elves are employed in trades which might translate into an ability to make serviceable toys."

The president of Syracuse University, upon receiving a copy of the young Tolliver's nine hundred forty page report, commented, "How much of our money did they spend?"

The report will be reviewed by various independent academic panels around the country beginning in January. Most likely no conclusive, cohesive statement on the Claus situation will be issued until more universities and think tanks combine on a second, or perhaps third, report. Such efforts are already underway at Bowling Green University and the Kris Kringle Research Center in Tokyo, Japan.

Troubling questions remain, however. If the Claus legend is nothing but a collection of rumors and well-meaning platitudes, how does Tolliver account for the mysterious appearance of gifts beneath his father’s own tree every year, gifts which materialize with unerring consistency? "That is a vexing problem," he said last year in an interview with Wunderkind magazine, a journal devoted to the works of child prodigies worldwide. "There does not seem to be another plausible explanation for the abundance of delivered toys. And the disappearance of the cookies Daddy and I put out is another conundrum to be investigated, perhaps in a fully separate study. One might say that we are proving conclusively that there cannot be a Santa Claus—and yet he simply, and maddeningly, exists."

Tolliver plans to continue his research and deliver a supplementary report in the fall, which will delve into such aspects of the myth as the impracticality of maintaining vast databases of children's behavioral acts from season to season, and further skeptical writings on the so-called Claus "workshop" which will be serialized in the Paris Review. This year, Tolliver, who according to his father was not quite able to stay awake past midnight to hopefully get a personal sighting of Santa, woke up extra early on Christmas morning, as usual, to race his little sister down the stairs to retrieve their stockings. He then unwrapped a pro-sized football, a wooden sleigh with excellent steering, the board game Boggle, a large stuffed alligator (his favorite animal), some new pajamas, and his very own telephone.