Chapter 1.  The Damage is Assessed

My property was a shambles.  Worse still, my reputation, so carefully gleaned, so scrupulously nurtured, so zealously guarded, was shattered.  (Not to mention that the stock of my holding company had plummeted so far as to have disappeared altogether from the Big Board.)  In short, this was anything but how a sensitive spirit should greet a new day.  But - take heed - where there is woe there is wisdom too.  And, being a great writer (sans due acclaim!) and a consummate artist (minus a following!), the various component truths rendering a philosophic framework to my plight were not lost on me.

The state of one's property, dear reader, is of a different - indeed, a lower - order from that of his standing in the community.  It is therefore no accident which juxtaposed the term "shambles" against the term "shattered," notwithstanding their being differing parts of speech.  The great artist understands instinctively that while a shambling overtakes ruined goods, it is nothing less than a full scale shattering which accompanies the loss of public acclaim.  I won't even mention the loss to humanity, let alone to Art, when a great writer is pushed from the lofty pinnacle he so right occupies: no, I will not mention it, nor will I speak of the terrible cultural vacuum left in the wake of the disappearance of his books from the best seller list. No, such things are best left to the imagination.  The Great Artist suffers best who suffers alone.

A sad sight, my dearest sweet readers (may I still address you thusly?), the handiwork of the great Zimrod Zardon reduced to its very foundations.  No more would my smelter transmute sand to software; fortune flew as if a phoenixed corpse from those flames that so cruelly devoured my selfless dream of providing every man, woman and child on this fair planet his very own computer chip.  I myself had to be rescued by helicopter from my flooded house, whose poor grounds the heartless rains had ravaged  Had Art suffered a similar fate, the world as we know it would most surely have ended.  Fortunately, I had kept my talent intact.  Though beaten down as if into a plowshare, my circumstances and means kept clear of that within me which had once given rise to so much grandeur and doubtless would again - that precious spark, that sublime inspiration, that raw nerve of creativity from which had sprung a full-blown world: that touch of divinity which had netted me five weeks on the best seller list.  It was not gone from this earth, that rárá avis.  (I trust the gentle reader is enjoying my extended metaphor.)

I trust, also, that my readers are not casting glances askance at my prose for signs of a dereliction of duty.  Having apprised you of the state of my being, let me now appraise it; that is to say, let me render a formal assessment of the desecration of my myriad enterprises - for, let there be no doubt: I had not lost my senses; I understood, as if I had already lived it, that one's losses are useless if not catalogued by experts.  So I summoned them, one and all, to a grand summit at the conference room of the Holiday Inn.  By seven P.M., the assessors were all seated.  After a light buffet, I made my appearance.

In the guest of honor's seat at the head of the table was none other than the great Zimrod Zardon, architect of my grounds.  Seated beside him was Smythe-Pickering, of Smitty's 'Smergencies, whose helicopter had rescued me from the flood.  Scattered throughout were various experts ready to assess my estate.  Bogdan Buchner had prepared a psychic reading; Kretchner, the green grocer, was set to stipulate my physical well-being; the reverend Claude Dingledoody vowed to honestly report on my chances for salvation; and, scattered about the room, was the finest assortment of experts ever assembled in one location.

I was about to enter and seat myself amongst this illustrious assemblage when the caterer gave my sleeve a tug.  Introducing himself as Mister Lee of the House of Brought Offerings, and upon declaring himself a Born-Again Christian of the Evangelical school, he proceeded to say a word about my advisers.

"I tell you this in strictest confidence," he said with a little smile which emphasized the exquisite pointedness of his nose, "and in the spirit of Christian love," he added, giving a slight cough (or perhaps it was a hiccough).  "Zuckerman over there," he brought my attention to a gentleman seated halfway between either end of the table, "is a Jew - so I'd be careful he doesn't try and overcharge for his services.  And Mister Tyrone - he's of course black, so I'd keep my wallet pocket well-buttoned.  And do you see that man with the big red nose?  He's Irish: he'll drink your last drop of booze if you're not careful.  And the one with the longish black hair: part Cherokee, so before you can say 'Geronimo!' he'll lay claim to your property as his ancient burial ground.  And that one there, with the glasses: a fairy, so I wouldn't go near the restroom if he's milling about - as he's sure to sooner or later.  And the lady - well, she's just that, so don't be surprised if she cries 'Rape!' when things aren't going her way.  And Mister Mafdhi's an Arab: if he gets hold of your house, he'll paint it hot pink and purple and turn it into a harem.  Just a word to the wise."

"Appearances can indeed be deceiving," I noted, not quite certain how to respond but realizing full well the need to somehow show my appreciation to such an obliging fellow.  He laughed his tiny laugh and went on in to supervise the busing of the tables, gathering up the tips my guests had left for their waiters, doubtless to distribute them more equitably.  The busing accomplished, I made my entrance, to a respectable applause, and seated myself at the head of the table.

The Reverend Claude Dingledoody opened the forum with a benediction.  "We thank you, Lord," he prayed, "for these wonderful Brought Offerings, and for the truly generous fellow who placed them before us."  Over in the corner, Mr. Lee chuckled at this rather pointed allusion to his catering enterprise.  "And we thank you, as well, for the existence of this fine motor hotel; and for this delightful banquet room.  And, may it please you to bless our little forum and give it wisdom.  Amen."

When we raised our heads, my eyes at once met the steely gray gaze of Reverend Dingledoody.  "Now, my son," he addressed me head on, "as to your immortal soul, I can only say that your chances of salvation will greatly improve the moment you start tithing - 'Thus saith the Lord' - and keep improving geometrically with each increase in your tithe.  And should you reach that holiest of sacred holies, wherein your tithe is the sum total of your weekly gross, your salvation is a foregone conclusion.  Praise the Lord!"

Much heartened by this good news, I thanked the good Reverend, vowing to skip the intermediate steps and begin at once at the topmost rung: my income having gone to nothing (at least on paper), I would give it all to the church of my choice that very day.  "From this day forth," said Dingledoody, "thou shalt be with me - saith the Lord!"

When the Reverend Dingledoody had finished his business and sat down again, I indicated that it was time for the assessment to begin.  "And spare me nothing," I gave the green light to my advisors to speak their minds.  "Don't even consider who's footing the bill.  Speak the truth and nothing but the truth -"

"- So help them God!" Reverend Dingledoody stood up to interject, much to everyone's delight.  When he returned to his seat, his wallet fell from his back pocket.  I was just about to bring it to his attention when Mr. Lee glided over and retrieved the wallet for him; not wishing to interrupt the proceedings, however, Mr. Lee retained the wallet for the present, doubtless awaiting the optimal moment to discreetly return it.

First to take up the gauntlet was Isaiah Zuckerman, one of the keenest stock market analysts in the country.  I had submitted everything pertaining to my holding company to him (the 10K's, 10Q's, Proxies, ARS's, 14B's and even some 3's, 4's and 144's).  He had examined them from every angle - he even held them up to the light to make sure everything was kosher.  Now he was ready with his assessment.

Zuckerman stood up, looked me straight in the eye, and began.  "Frankly, sir," he spit out his assessment, "your prospectus sucks!"  Everyone was aghast.  "I might have contented myself with merely informing you it stinks; but the more I thought about it, the madder I got.  Whoever is the architect of your harebrained scheme to smelt computer chips ought to be arrested and jailed at once as a menace to society!"  All eyes fixed upon Zimrod Zardon, who, undaunted, kept at whatever calculations he was making on his dinner napkin.  "And whoever bankrolled you should be made to do penance in a Savings and Loan Institution!"  My banker, Horace Hoken-Poicus, was fortunately not present to hear this unkind reference to his financial judgment.  "Normally I would charge a thousand dollars a minute for my services -"  Here Mr. Lee nodded my way and winked "- but under the circumstances I choose to waive my fee.  It is unbefitting my station to take money from a fool."  With this, Zuckerman returned to his seat and finished his demitasse. 

Doubtless my precious readers are almost in tears; all I can say at this point is "Hold your tears till all the assessments have been rendered."  For each was as bad as the last, as witnessed by my next speaker, Tommy O'Toole, advertising executive par excellence.

"Gentlemen," he spoke gravely and in a soft tone, "what I encountered was enough to make me turn to drink."  You could have heard a pin drop.  Mr. Lee, for his part, left off supervising his busboys to once again nod and wink at me.  O'Toole explained that what he encountered was "nothing less than a travesty of advertising.  I found invoices for tee shirts, for tea cozies, golf tees, buttons and bows, soup and nuts - for every conceivable memento, except the most important: refrigerator magnets.  A line of Rondo magnets might well have turned everything around and kept a once promising writer from becoming a 'has been'!  I can only pray - and I pray a good three hours a day as it is - that future writers learn from your mistakes."

O'Toole sat down, and my poor spirits sank.  In retrospect it seemed so simple; had I been a writer with his finger truly on the pulse of his public I would have known that refrigerator magnets was the way to go.  If only I had it to do over, I would scrap the tee shirts (they shrank anyway and my logo ended up looking like a paen to poor spelling) - and all the rest.  I would have put all my money into magnets.  I guess I'm more a novice than I imagined.  I apologize, dear reader, for my provincialism.

There was some hesitation regarding who might speak next, as if no one wished to add yet more insult; finally Mr. Mafdhi arose and delivered his particular verdict.  His specialty was taxes, and I dreaded his words perhaps more than anyone else's, since I truly had never gotten a handle on that most elusive of subjects.  Let me just say a word first about his appearance, as it struck me as especially befitting his station.  He wore an impeccably tailored charcoal gray pinstripe suit, a crisp white shirt, a matching tie and handkerchief, and sported a first rate haircut.

"Had I a harem," he began and, sure enough, Mr. Lee, who had been milling about conscientiously, nodded my way and winked, "I would be no more vexed choosing the loveliest than I am here choosing the most interesting tax our host has left unpaid.  Of course, there's capital gains and losses; there's user and buyer and seller; there's specialty and non-specialty; pre and post; and the whole gamut which, were our illustrious host a conglomerate, he could of course ignore with impunity.  As it happens, however, he is too small to benefit from the myriad loopholes in our tax laws and much too big to warrant a tax credit.  Therefore, I estimate him to be in arrears to the IRS right up to his tailbone - and perhaps then some.  His only hope is to leverage a buy-out, put his holding company in trusteeship, appoint a board of directors, and skip the country, leaving his tax burden to them.  If, however, he chooses the moral course, they will undoubtedly throw the book at him."

"How much do I owe?" I asked.

"Upwards of a hundred million," came the shocking reply.

"But my company was never worth more than a few thousand," I protested.

"Your taxes, sir," Mafdhi replied, "are based upon a rather complex formula which takes into account the average corporate shortfall, which must be borne by someone - so why not you?"

Why not indeed!  "Is there no way out of this mess?" I begged to know.

"Not unless you have tons of political clout," Mafdhi advised.  Lucky for me I had the presence of mind to invite a political strategist to join the assessment.  And, indeed, as if responding to a cue, he at once stood up the address the gathering.

"Hi," he said in a somewhat effeminate voice, "I was afraid I'd be late: I got locked in the restroom."  Mr. Lee took the liberty of stopping his supervision of his busboys to once again acknowledge his having told me so.  "Worse yet," this fellow, whose name was Brian Adou, added "it was the ladies room and I didn't realize it till I was already in there!  Anyway, to get right to the point, I cannot recommend too strongly attaching yourself to a powerful political ally.  Writers, by nature, have very little political savvy: they're as apt to be socialists or fascists as Democrats or Republicans!  And they generally find themselves on the losing side in any political tug-of-war.  To put it bluntly: they just haven't the foggiest notion of what power is all about.  And one further piece of advice: avoid a liberal Democrat or an Independent like you would the plague!  A Southern Democrat might be your best bet.  And it wouldn't hurt to suck up the the Secretary of the Treasury if you can manage it."

I thanked him when he finished (I guess what he said entitled him to a "thank you," though I'm not certain), and turned to the next advisor.  Boris Trueheart, a full-blooded Cherokee, stood up.  (Mr. Lee, incidentally, made his one and only error that day in presenting Trueheart to me as "part Cherokee.")  Trueheart's specialty was computers; and, I dare say, no writer worthy of the name would have neglected to have that field represented at his strategy session.  (Perhaps, dear reader, I confess too much in using the heretofore absent term "strategy"; but I should point out at this time that what began simply and honestly as an assessment of my losses grew to become, in retrospect, a strategy for my artistic renaissance.)

Trueheart held up a miniature PC and, in a beaming voice, expressed confidence that "with one of these I could extend my reach as far as the human eye can see."  I awaited the customary response from Mr. Lee, but at the moment he was busy preparing my bill and evidently missed Trueheart's comment.  "For what is a writer if not the most elegant extension of a personal computer God ever saw fit to create?  And what is vision if not the crown prince of software programs?  In fact, I have proposed to Microsoft a new software package: Poesy and Prose, for today's writer.  Be that as it may, I am here to put the fear of God into slip-shod artists and hacks of every description, who sit in front of outmoded processors imagining they can draw inspiration from circuitry capable of storing but twenty-seven gigabytes of data!  One neither creates a masterpiece nor sits a coven of angels on the head of a pin.  To make a long story short, I have examined the PC you were using and, sir, I cannot believe you managed to sell a single copy of your book.  From such outdated equipment I would expect a novel hopelessly out of touch with the times.  Perhaps you could market it as memorabilia, but certainly not as a work of modern American fiction!  With anything less than one-fifty gigabytes you are merely playing at the fringes of great literature; and your work cannot possibly be taken seriously."

Here I felt duty bound to protest.  "Pardon me, sir, for interrupting," I said, "but my equipment was certified state of the art when purchased!"

"And when, may I ask, was it purchased?"

"Barely six months ago," I assured my guest.

"Six months ago!  My God!  For a computer, six months is an eternity!  It's ancient history!  Six days maybe - but six months?  And you call it state of the art?  My dear sir, the only state such antiquated equipment is in is the state of ruin - and deservedly so!"

"What do you recommend?"  I asked.

He handed me a brochure.  "I recommend this," he said.  "Six months from now, however, it too will be hopelessly outdated and, I quite assure you, your writing will become lackluster and ever so labored.  That is the price of greatness, I'm afraid."

Trueheart sat back down and Heronymous T. Tyrone arose.  He was tall, gaunt and quite dark complexioned.  "As you all know," he began, "I played semi-professional basketball for many years.  I was nicknamed 'The Reach,' and I could easily slip my hand right around you to fish out your wallet if I chose."  This one, Mr. Lee interrupted his billing long enough to underscore with the wink and nod I had grown accustomed to, adding one new gesture this time: he put his hand protectively over his back pocket.  Meanwhile, Mr. Tyrone had begun speaking.  His specialty, as you might have guessed, was sports and athletic contests of every description.  "I majored in Philosophy at Cambridge on a Rhoades Scholarship," he explained, adding that this was "all the better to comprehend the basis and importance of sports in human society.  It's made me one hell of a sportscaster!  And as I look over your résumé and and bio," he spoke to me directly now, "I understand a priori exactly why you bombed as a writer.  You have no athletic background - not even as a sports feature writer.  How could you possibly hope to portray the dialectics of human interaction if you've never donned a jock strap or watched others do so or at least written about it?  My advice to you is simple: stay out of museums and cafés; and take thyself epistemologically, metaphysically, ethically, aesthetically and theologically out to the ballgame.  You'll be one hell of a better writer for it."

Mr. Tyrone, with great flourish and to the delight of everyone, executed an imaginary jump shot into my champagne glass before returning to his seat.  Not, I might add parenthetically, that my glass held champagne; rather, it was a non-alcohol sort of wine beverage which, Mr. Lee had assured me in advance, was much less a devil's brew and much less costly.  Be that as it may, my next and final guest arose most elegantly from her seat to render the final assessment of my state.

Miss Penelope Cornatious was a graduate of the Wharton School and an alumnus of Radcliff, so she knew good taste and breeding like she knew her own name.  Her specialty, as you might guess, was precisely that: good taste and breeding.  Many a writer has been saved from ruin by consulting this wonderful woman.  "It is ever so easy," she graciously began, "to slip into that most Philistine mode of substituting detail for style.  The amateur writer gives himself away by insisting upon filling his work with themes and messages and homilies of every description.  He forgets, time and again, who his audience is and what their values are.  The class of people any writer worthy of the name writes for is not interested so much in little somber blue, green and orange or purple philosophical notions as he is in those brilliant flashes of expression that so perfectly mirror the essence of his lifestyle.  The masses, or some other tiny being in a white beard and overalls, imagine meaning to be the hallmark of great literature: to appeal to such myopia is to produce a work hopelessly pedestrian.  That much having been said, let me now move from the general to the specific.  Frankly, sir, your work is such an assault on good taste and breeding that with its preponderance of heavy handed maxims and axioms and value judgments and what-not - disguised, and not too cleverly at that, as art - that it reads more like one massive 'gang rape' of, rather than paen to, literature!"

I will not tax my reader's patience by reporting on Mr. Lee's response; suffice it to say simply that the word "rape," however used, drew his attention from his billing and supervision.

"Your style is so labored," she continued on, "I feel I understand mid-wifery in its every tiring detail.  Your attempts to substitute wisdom for wit, besides falling flat, so betray your working class roots I felt I had donned a blue collar.  I should be very much shocked if anyone beyond Pig-town has bothered reading your work.  I looked in vain for evidence of dactyl or trochee; even a lowly iambic was not to be found: I realize these are, strictly speaking, poetic cadences, but I think you'll find the best prose makes ample use of them as well.  Tractors, train tracks and dungarees of every size and shape I found aplenty, however.  And on that sad note, I rest my case."

Miss Penelope sat back down, and since she had already trampled my poor spirits under foot (I dare not say steamrolled for fear of being accused of once again substituting concrete reality for ethereal prosody), I had no fear of their being sat upon in the process.  My only solace was knowing I had not written a single word of "tractors," so her assessment could not be taken entirely at face value.  (Unless, of course, she had gotten hold of a pirated copy of my novel which had been altered by some farmhand from the corn belt!)

Now the assessment was over: now, gentle reader, you may weep, as freely as your heart commands; for, now, my situation is laid bare before God, man, beast, machine and you, my wonderful readers.  But at least, for all the pain and sorrow and hideous humiliation, I was better off than before, for now I knew absolutely what it takes to be a great writer in America today; and I could chart my course accordingly - a course as wise and true as my previous one had been foolish and false.  I can only thank my guardian art faeries and muses that I discovered the leeward and wayward errors of my course before I had wrecked entirely on some shoal of mediocrity, never to rise beyond the vain attempt to substitute matter for meter, relics for software, tee-shirts for magnets, holding companies for conglomerates, and any number of other similarly illiterate faux pas.

I heartily thanked my illustrious guests for their invaluable advice, and assured each one that I would take their advice to heart just as soon as I got my artistic house in order.  This reference to the word "house" seemed to have roused my guest of honor, Zimrod Zardon, from his lethargy, for he at once gathered up the paper napkins surrounding his plate and came over to me.  "No doubt you're as put out as I am," I addressed him.  He looked at me oddly and replied, wittily as ever, "My lease is paid up through 1979.  I shall not be put out."

"But we're way beyond 1979," I pointed out.

"In that case," he mused, "I myself may have to live in this dream house I designed for you."  Here he presented me with the napkins.  "The heating and cooling systems," he pointed out, "make use of asphalt instead of conventional elements.  Any road surface you choose to build on - except one of concrete - will amply provide for your every comfort, winter or summer."

"Won't traffic be a problem?" I asked.

He showed me another napkin.  "Not with this system I designed to re-route traffic through your garage."

"Where will I park?"

"It's a three car garage.  Room for your car plus two lanes of traffic.  My design will revolutionize the way the world lives.  A house will no longer be a home but a piece of the ecosphere.  I call my design 'Geodesic Dome.'  The world will know my name yet!"

"'Geodesic Dome,'" I mused.  "I seem to have heard that term before somewhere."

"Doubtless you overheard me muttering it to myself."

"This was well before I met you," I said.

"Ah!  In one breath you demolish half of human knowledge: pre-cognition, thought transference, parallel universes, non-being and all manner of anti-matter, not to mention the transmigration of souls, just to name a few.  The scope of your intellect boggles the mind!"

With this, he abruptly walked out of the room and, in fact, was never seen or heard from again.  I had no time to contemplate either his design or his departure, however; Mr. Lee summoned me with a gesture indicating his bill was ready.

"It was a pleasure doing business with you," he said with a courteous bow then took his leave, disappearing into the kitchen.

Something about the bill didn't seem quite right; it almost felt noticeably heavier than it should have - and no wonder!  When I perused it, I discovered double entries of virtually everything on the menu.  I could hardly believe my eyes.  "Surely this is a mistake," I said to myself as I went in search of my caterer.

I was shocked, dear reader, at what I beheld upon opening the kitchen door; were I not so keenly aware how deceptive, indeed incriminating, appearances can be, I should have been downright scandalized.  For there was my caterer, Mr. Lee, standing before me with his right hand down the pants of one of his busboys and his left hand holding a fifth of rotgut.  He at once sensed my presence - undoubtedly saw me out of the corner of his eye, though given the keen honest perceptions of those blessed with fine pointed noses, I am tempted to speculate that he more likely sniffed my presence (I could go on and on about the virtues of persons with pointed noses, so great is my admiration for them; but I will only say that I consider it the bane of my existence that I was not born with one).

"Own up to it!" Mr. Lee chastised his busboy.  "I saw you put that Weiner schnitzel down down your trousers!  Now where is it?"

"It's sure as hell not in there with my ten incher!" the impertinent lad retorted.

Mr. Lee withdrew his hand.  "I could have sworn I saw the sassy punk put it down his trousers," he said to me in a voice I can only describe as "tipsy."

"You don't sound quite yourself," I ventured - and a good thing I did, for it prompted him to take a closer look at the bottle he was holding.

"Jesus H. Christ and Sneaky Saint Pete too!" he exclaimed, hastily setting the bottle down on the nearest counter.  "I was so thirsty after my work that I grabbed up this devil's brew, thinking it was soda pop!  Oh Lord, oh Lord, what have I done!  My soul is as good as lost, for the dear sweet precious Lord Jesus will not abide a drunkard in his house!  You're looking at a fallen man, sir, a fallen man!"

"Then that hot pink bedroom with the purple curtains and mirrors on the ceiling you swore belonged to you is the perfect place for you!" the busboy said.  My heart went out to Mr. Lee, to be insulted by so insolent a subordinate - as if a man of such taste and breeding could so much as set foot in a room such as that boy just described.  It made the task at hand - straightening out my bill - that much more difficult; but, as my dear readers well know, no businessman worth his salt can bear for very long having overcharged his customers for his products and services, so I proceeded to present my findings.

"Each item seems to be double-billed," I explained as I handed the bill to Mr. Lee.

"Impossible," he replied, "I did the charges myself."  And indeed he had, for I saw him.

"Hmm," he mused as he looked the bill over.  "It appears in order, sir," he answered.

"But there are thirty portions of each entree listed, when there were but fifteen diners."

"Each one must have gotten two portions," he concluded.

"But they didn't," I protested.  "No one got more than one portion."

"Sir," Mr. Lee explained, "I am not responsible for the poor appetites of picky eaters.  Two portions apiece were there had they wanted them.  Now I'm left with fifteen full portions which will spoil before I can contract them to another assignment."

"But I didn't ask for two portions apiece," I again protested.

"I assumed you would want them," Mr. Lee admitted.  "I am at fault.  God is punishing me already for my drunkenness, however unintentional it was."

He began to whimper and I took pity on him.  "I will take the other fifteen portions," I said, "and distribute them to the needy.  Where are they?"

Mr. Lee began searching frantically; he even checked his own pockets.  "Have you got them down there after all?" he demanded of his busboy.

"Where would I put 'em?" the insolent lad replied.  "My ten incher takes up all the space I got down there between my legs - as you well know!"

"Then they've been stolen," Mr. Lee concluded.  "And with such an unsavory lot as those you dined with, sir, there's no telling who made off with them!"  He looked at me as if to say "What now?"

"I cannot in good conscience pay for merchandise I never received," I maintained, and rightly so, even if it did mean a loss to so fine an entrepreneur.  Mr. Lee grabbed the bill and corrected it.

"I should have known better than to ever deal with a best selling author," he muttered as he returned the bill to me - a sentiment I attribute solely to the alcohol, insofar as it belied everything else I knew of the man.  I wrote him a check, handed it to him, and took my leave of the Holiday Inn.

Let me add one final word concerning the evening's affair.  Later that week I was apprehended by the police on a charge of "theft and rape, in that order."  Mr. Lee, still under the influence no doubt, had summoned the police and filed a complaint against me.  Needless to say, when he returned to his normal sober state, his mind cleared and he dropped the charges, calling it a case of "mistaken identity."  And that ended it.  (But it did not end my admiration for the man, for if I have a nettle of pride in my makeup it is in my ability to look, as the great artist must ever look, far beneath the outer trappings of a man to his true character.)

 

Chapter 2.  New Quarters Are Sought

I was at once elated and disheartened by the evening's events: disheartened that I had failed so miserably to perceive the germ (or germs) from which great art grew; elated that I had been given a second chance.  But then, destiny and greatness will have its day, will it not, good reader?

I would have liked to have walked home, that I might better contemplate the wondrous discoveries I had made; but it occurred to me that only with the aid of a helicopter could I return to my split-level rancher any time soon.  So I betook myself to a motel.  (Had I thought ahead, I might have simply taken a room at the Holiday Inn; but by now they were filled up, so I had to seek out other lodging.)

The Best Western was nearest, so I made for it.  Luckily, the "Vacancy" sign was lit.  "A room please, for one," I told the desk clerk.

"Are you wearing Cowboy boots?" he asked.  "You get a 10% discount if you're dressed in Western."

"No, I'm not," I replied.

"Then you don't get the discount!" he replied somewhat curtly.

"I didn't ask for a discount," I pointed out.

"The discount is only for Western attire - I've just explained all that to you!  And you have neither boots nor chaps, nor even a 10-gallon hat.  So can we please drop the discount business?"  He seemed thoroughly offended.

"The matter is dropped," I said.  "Do you have any rooms?" I asked.

"At our regular rate!" he answered.

"That will be fine," I agreed.

"You must be from the city," he speculated.

"Yes, I am," I replied.  "How did you know?"

"Your contempt for Western wear is written all over your face," he explained.  "Just like a city slicker."

"With all due respect, sir," I felt compelled to point out, "we are, after all, on the East Coast, not the far West.  The Atlantic Ocean is barely a stone's throw from here."

"I am an Innkeeper," he said, rather coldly, "not a cartographer!  Seven days a week, sir.  I know where each and every room of this Inn is; so I suppose I need not be faulted too greatly if I can't locate the Atlantic Ocean on any given day."

With this, he presented me the register.  I signed in and was assigned a room.  I thanked him, he thanked me.  I proceeded to my room.  As I left the front desk, I overheard him tell someone who had just arrived "The most quarrelsome guest I've ever registered.  Don't go near him unless you have a map of the United States in your back pocket - and, above all, don't discuss fashion with him unless you want a snarling lecture on the superiority of East Coast pinstripes!"  I ignored this remark, directed obviously at me, and went on upstairs to room number 201-A, hopefully for a good night's sleep - which I would sorely need, so much did I have planned for the morrow.

Alas, my sleep was troubled, my dreams fitful and strange.  I dreamed I had written the greatest novel of all time: it remained on the Best Seller List for seven full years.  But when the people who bought it finally came to read it, the pages all crumbled to dust in their hands.  It was horrible beyond anything that ever befell Literature and Art: a hundred million customers all seeking refunds, a line of disgruntled readers standing seven long years, stretching all the way around the world.  Then the scene shifted to my study, where in sheer terror I witnessed my brand new 100,000 terabyte PC shrink before my very eyes into a pocket calculator barely capable of sensibly rendering "2 plus 2."  I shrieked and stormed from my study, only to run headlong into a den filled with critics, all sniffing and chewing and licking and otherwise mauling my manuscripts to determine their worth (and each was written in script!).  "What are you doing?" I cried.  "Quiet!" they commanded.  "We're critiquing!  It's what we do you know!"  "Why don't you just read it?" I asked in despair.  They all stared at me and, in unison, muttered "Philistine!" then returned to their critique.  I bolted from the critics' den, right into the fold of an open book, the leaves of which were a thousand wagging tongues each speaking a different language.  Then I awoke.

Wearily, I readied myself for the day.  Descending to the lobby, who should I encounter but Boris Trueheart, the PC expert who so graciously spoke at my strategy session.  I told him of my dream - not because I engaged in any generalized, stereotypical characterization regarding his heritage but simply because he happened to be there and, being the consummate artist, my every impulse is to share my experiences.  He said it sounded to him very much like a phenomenon among his people which he was wont to identify as "Totem Recall; that is, the taking of one's deepest fears and transposing them to his family totem during sleep that they might be confined there.  Or am I confusing it with modem cache?" he then mused.  "It's not easy straddling two cultures," he confessed.

"How well I know!" I agreed.  "My mother was Scotch Irish, my father German!"

"By the way," I interjected an afterthought, "did you happen to have your second portion at last evening's banquet?"

"Second portion?  What second portion?" he asked.  "I was distinctly told there would be one - and only one - portion!"

We exchanged a few more words then parted company, the business with the double charging on my bill at last clear to me.  Mr. Lee's insolent busboy had obviously taken the missing portions after all, despite all his graphic protests to the contrary, and had informed my guests that one portion only was their due.  I could only hope that that boy did not ruin Mr. Lee's business altogether with his greed.

But, dear reader, it was a beautiful day (as any day one begins his climb to the top, even if for a second time, must surely be), and much awaited, so let us not dwell on the unsavory dregs of humanity; let us, instead, rejoice and be about our business.  First stop was the office of Messrs Leggit, Barnhide and Schoop-Schoop - and what a lovely office it was, too, with its neat and trim facade of real wood siding and two bay windows that caught the mid-morning grayness in a dozen gently sloping panes.

Something, however, was amiss; for, at 10 A.M. (long beyond the start of the business day), these venerable realtors, workaholic in the finest Calvinist tradition, were not about; nor did it appear they had showed up that day at all.  Furthermore, to add to my bewilderment, there was a crowd of people outside their door.  A "crowd" did I say, dear reader?  A crowd indeed!  Were it not for the absolute imperative upon the great writer to report only what he knew for certain and never give himself over to wild speculation, and had I not recognized some members of this crowd as leaders of the business community, I would be tempted to call this gathering a "mob" instead of a crowd, so pronounced was their agitation.

"Come out you crooks!" I heard someone cry out.

"Give us back our money!" declared another.

"If I ever get hold of you," a particularly vicious individual shouted, "I'm gonna throw you in that plot you sold me and watch you bastards drown!"  (I need not add that this was not one of our leading citizens speaking - for, though they, too, may have been here, and perhaps even were angry, they would never have stooped to such vile rhetoric.)

Finally, I managed to address a gentleman I knew quite well (he owned our community's finest restaurant).  "What's going on?" I asked him.

"Messrs Legitt, Barnhide and Schoop-Schoop," he responded in the calm tones one expects of a gentleman, "have, it seems, sold a number of our townspeople here plots of worthless swamp land - and at a premium, I might add.  Very unsavory situation."

"I'm sure it must be a mistake of some sort," I offered.  "I know perfectly well these three gentlemen would never knowingly deceive anybody."

"No doubt you're right," my acquaintance agreed.

Just then a number of people pickup up stones from the little flower bed outside the office; it was clear they meant to hurl them at the beautiful bay window.  They all glanced over at my acquaintance, as if seeking a signal.  He glanced at me then told them to lay down their arms; and they obeyed, thus averting a terrible spectacle.

"How wonderful that these unruly workmen defer so naturally to their more successful betters," I observed.  "How wonderful, too, and how fortuitous, your having chanced to walk by at so crucial a juncture," I added.

My acquaintance acknowledged the truth of my observation, then excused himself.  "I would like to speak to these men in private," he said.

Realizing that he didn't wish to chastise them in front of me, I bowed my assent and left.  I had not gone two blocks till a shattering of glass overtook my ears; I hurried back, knowing full well what had happened.

"I feared the unruly mob might have turned on you," I told my acquaintance, who was, fortunately, unharmed.  He thanked me for my concern but declined my offer to summon the police.

"I think they will go now," he said - and, indeed, even as he spoke, the crowd began disbursing - no small testament to this man's ability to maintain, or at least restore, law and order (but then, successful businessmen ever have been and ever shall be the foremost defenders of law and order!)

I turned to go; then, as an afterthought, turned once more to my dear friend.  "I know where I shall dine tonight," I said.

"Ah, good sir," he replied, "perhaps you didn't know: my restaurant is closed.  It's in the process of being sold."

"What happened?" I asked.

"Oh, you know: the usual," he explained; "some bad investments, stocks that failed to keep pace with an ever changing market, land deals that went sour.  But, not to worry, sir, I shall bound back like a rubber ball!"

Somewhat troubled by what I had just heard, yet heartened by my friend's optimism, I proceeded on my way.  My mission: to secure the best possible lodgings I could find - a mission made all the more urgent by the sudden exodus of my realtors, whose experience and reputation would have reduced my task to its barest essentials; whereas now it had become a full-blown undertaking, for now, not only did I need a home, I needed someone whose standing and expertise stood as sure a guardian over the house's integrity as any built-in alarm.  In a word, the house was suddenly of secondary import; the house seller the prime factor - for as surely as there is a God above and a devil below, the house would take care of itself once the correct realtor was found: that, good reader, is the order of things in this the most wondrous of all worlds.

But, dear reader, it is ever true that the higher you aim the more narrow must your vision grow; for when you seek the best you must look only where it is likely to be found.  And the best house, it would appear, lay beyond the confines of my little town; for the best realtors were gone and none remaining bore resemblance to their knowing visage.  Ah Legitt! ah Barnhide! ah Schoop-Schoop: where are thee now that I have so great a need for a home befitting a consummate artist?  For surely I cannot travel so many light years as the distance between you and your nearest competitor!  Therefore, I must betake myself to other environs, where I will seek a seller of houses equal in stature to the one I lost.  And where better to begin my quest than where I began my career?  For is not all greatness but manifestations of one?

A great writer, a great book, a great realtor, a great home, a great point on the map: spiritual brothers - indeed, virtual astral twins.  Therefore, I set out for the city.  Ah! the city!  That great sprawling, teeming grab bag of human goodness and greatness, nobility and artistry, holiness and kindness, dignity and generosity.  That place where all men's highest values lay spread before you as on the stands of an exotic bazaar.  The city, where one day the muses came perching upon the balustrade of my abode and dispersed their sweet inspiration onto my eager shoulders like a golden mantle replete with rainbows of meticulously metered phrasing and rhyming schemes.  The city, where, as God is my witness, you can be that you can be, and do all that you can do, and glean all that you can gather.

"Oh taxi!" I called.  "Take me, in turn, to Utopia, Camelot and Babylon!  And then to the moon and back!"

"Whew!" came the reply.  "Dis train am bound for glory, dis train!"                        

 

Chapter 3.  Greatness Is Not Gone From This Earth

Quite an inexact metaphor - but he could be forgiven: he was, after all, a taxi driver and not an artist.  Besides, in an ironic sense he was correct: I was bound for glory.

"Where to, Mack?" he asked once I had settled inside his taxi.  "And, this time, how about let's keep it down to earth!"

A most prosaic fellow, to be sure - as was his vehicle; but these things, and these kinds of people, have their place, too, in the great scheme of things, however lowly that may be.  "I am an artist, sir," I said, "therefore I must go where my chances of fame and fortune are greatest."

"Long drive to DC" he replied.  "I better gas up."

"DC?" I asked, not sure I had heard him correctly.  "What is this 'DC?'"

"DC: Washington: the nation's capital!"

"Why would a great artist go there to get his start?"

"Where else would he go?" the taxi driver asked.  "You've got it all there: you got the museums; you got the Kennedy Center, the National Theater, Ford's Theater, the Folger; and, above all, you got the National Endowment for the Arts: all that money, just sitting there waiting to be plucked.  All you got to do is get on the good side of some bigwig politician and, pal, Art will be your middle name!"

"Actually, I need no middle name," I explained.  "In fact, my name is already well known in some circles.  So I hardly require a political ally to get my start!"

"Is your name a household word, Mack?" he asked.

"Well, in some households it would be," I noted.

"Yeah, sure, pal - like my name's a household word in my household too; but that ain't the same though, is it?  And unless every household in this country knows your name, you need help, pal.  And where better to get it than at the source!  You get yourself a good grant, check in to some foundation, hobnob with a few carefully chosen nabobs, and, buddy, you are on your way!"

I thanked him for his advice and assured him I would take it under advisement.  Of course it was, after all, advice from a taxi driver, so it lacked a certain something (call it "stamp of authority" for want of a better term); nonetheless, he meant well, no doubt, even if he was stepping outside his rightful role.

(The reader, I feel sure, knows me well enough by now to sense how firmly my feet are on the ground, for I am nothing if not the consummate realist, as witness this passage from my first novel: "The long blue scarf lay astride the tiny red parson's table set equidistant between a mahogany credenza with eight drawers and a beveled glass top, and a Chippendale stand with a Tiffany lamp atop it."  The accuracy of the detail veritably shouts the author's penchant for what is real and true and quantifiable.  Therefore, I realize instinctively that people generally fill the roles they are best suited for in society.  I note this so that the reader need not feel I am too stern a judge of my fellow man, or that I look down on a man simply because he occupies a lowly station.  Quite the contrary, the great artist accepts humanity as it is, and relishes all its wondrous diversity; but the man who would be philosopher had better first be one before he tries to dispense his wisdom, for it must ever follow that unless he attain the chair of philosophy he is not truly equipped to guide the destiny of his fellow man.  How much more so, then, must a career counselor or an investment analyst have the proper credentials?)

I emerged from the taxi onto the sweet terrain of the city, my attention at once drawn to a flurry of activity along one particular thoroughfare.  "A protest of some sort," I muttered; "this it is and nothing more."  (Did the attentive reader catch my literary allusion?)  Then of a sudden my heart quickened and my head reeled from a plethora of great thoughts as it occurred to me what day this was, therefore what activity had drawn this throng.

It was the annual "I Hate Nature Day" parade - of course! of course!  I should have known.  Especially upon closer inspection I should have known, for these were not ordinary protesters, clad as they were in three piece suits of an East Coast color, design and style and carrying briefcases - indeed, they were not protesters at all, they who five days each and every week trod these broad sidewalks on their way to their many splendored offices where the business of America was conducted (and the business of America Is Business!!!).  No, indeed, they were not here protesting some petty injustice or decrying some piddling outrage or moaning and groaning over some trumped up case or another - they were here for one reason and one reason only:  they were here to demonstrate the superiority of that which bore the greatest imprint of all: "Man Made" - over that which merely evolved over a million eons of endless time out of the raw oozing stuff of nature.  "Man Made": the greatest of the great, the creme de la creme, the raison d'etre, the most rara of all avis, the very soup de jour of earthly existence!  "Man Made!"  And here were my peers, a thousand strong, paying homage to that glorious dictum.  I could ought but throw off my lethargy and run to join them.

"Down with trees!" they cried as they passed a little park.  "Up with stock options!", a desperate plea by desperate men for more paper, more stocks, more bonds, more ticker tapes, and less wood stumps to sit idly in a clearing, rotting with termites or waiting to be set ablaze by summer lightening.  (And who hears a tree when it falls and no one is around anyway?  But when the stock exchange speaks, the whole world sits up and takes heed!)

A solid band of charcoal gray pinstripes taut against the vast horizon of steel and glass and concrete, broken only by an occasional placard declaring someone's private hell.  "I was denied a government contract because my smokestack spit a ton too much soot!"  "I was brought to the brink of ruin trying to clean up Muddy Pond!"  (And everyone knows we get our water from Muddy Pond!)  "My profits shrank to nearly nothing for no better reason than that my workers might breathe a little easier!"  These, and more, each a harrowing tale of government intrusion into business enterprise, each because someone somewhere sometime somehow determined what nature produced to be of greater value than what man made.  It was enough to make you weep - indeed, many a hearty soul was lost in a river of tears as they paraded past city hall.

"Pity!  Have pity!  Take pity!" many a doleful entrepreneur cried out in supplication as they filed past the seat of government where, from a great balcony overlooking the street, three stories up, the mayor and city council watched the parade, waving occasionally at the passers-by.

"Cursed be thy name!" a man shaking his fist at the mayor shouted.  I feared he would be carted away, never to be seen again; but was greatly relieved to learn he was a first cousin to the mayor and a partner in some stock holdings and was merely giving bent to his frustration at having had to disclose his financial ties to the mayor.

One brawny businessman who looked as if he could endure anything (and no doubt put in many an 18-hour day) fell to his knees sobbing.  "Their lives ruined - ruined!" he cried through his tears.  Greatly moved by this man's plight, I asked "Who?  Whose lives are ruined?"  "My wife - my kids," came the plaintive reply.  "Victims of heartless, soulless bureaucracy!  They closed my tax breaks - the monsters! the heartless monsters!  Do they want to eat us all alive?  My God!  My wife's mink is in tatters - she dared not go to the Cotillion Ball!  Now when we go to the country club the other ladies avoid her like the plague!  And my kids - my two darling, precious boys!  They'll never make it to Harvard!  I'll have to send them to State University - oh God! oh God help me!  What did I do to deserve this monstrous fate!  To be put upon by vultures - vultures!"

Dear reader, I nearly wept with him, for only the most callous would have failed to be moved; and, as you well know, I am nothing if not compassionate.  I vowed then and there that the power of the pen would right this horrible wrong: one day, no matter how long it took, I would expose this grave injustice before the world, or my name was not Rondo!

"Who is that man?" I asked, so I would know to whom to dedicate my expose.

"Him?  The one crying?  That's Mitchell Moop, owns Moop's Messenger Service.  It's been a bad year for him, friend, what with labor troubles, the IRS, his wife's attempted shoplifting at Make Mine Mink's, his boys' conviction for selling drugs -"

"Selling drugs?" I asked in a shocked voice.

"Costs money to go to Harvard," my correspondent explained.  "Luckily the judge was a friend of the family, he knew the boys were decent, so he gave them three months probation.  All that, because some bureaucrat decided to close a tax loophole.  The evil that men do, my friend: the evil that men do!"

How true! I thought to myself - and, as it turned out, how prophetic and timely, for barely five minutes had passed till the full weight of that maxim manifested itself.  Something happened which could not have been foreseen - literally could not have been foreseen - but which came close to altering the course of history (but then, such is always the nature of greatness!).  Let me take a moment to describe in some detail the setting of our city hall (and none too soon, for as I perused my manuscript I discovered a dearth of imagery and description in this passage; I can only hope the astute reader has been patient - and I can assure you your patience will be rewarded; for by the end of my story you will have veritably wallowed in rich detail and vivid description, so much so that you will come to believe the events to have transpired in your own back yard!).

City hall sits equidistant between the better parts of our city and its poorer, more unsavory districts.  The street it abuts is quite narrow, a street that never quite kept pace with the times.  Contrast this with the broad avenues which traverse the heart and soul of the business district and you get an instant picture of the sorry state of our city's political system.  It is no accident but rather the ironic hand of fate that left the seat of politics sitting on so antiquated a street, where there is not even parking space available; for anything so inimical to the farsighted and benevolent interests of the business community ought to be left behind as history surges ever ahead.  Along this street are numerous old trees, mostly elm; and perpendicular to it are innumerably alleys, some barely fifteen feet apart, the impossibly narrow houses they frame testimony in mortar and timber to the narrowness of the thinking generated here.  There are potholes in every ally, a few deep enough to wreck a car should it hit them with any speed.  The sidewalk in front of city hall is wide enough for one person only to traverse, and there are cracks in it enough to break the back of motherhood itself should they be tred upon.  The masonry, stonework and window frames are darkened with exhaust fumes and other dirtiness.

An alley runs along either side of city hall, the one to its left darkened by thick tree branches, narrow, and altogether sinister in aspect; the one on the right side is wider, brighter, and cleaner and more wholesome.  The course of the annual "I Hate Nature Day" Parade took the business community from right to left - a most fateful direction, owing to an unusual feature of architecture characteristic of our city hall.  Not surprisingly, and not unlike most public buildings, it is arranged in wings, extending like spokes from a central hall.  Where it deviates from the norm is in the left wing, which juts out sharply at its terminus, almost forming its own wing, and then bends back to the left, like an elbow, extending some 18 to 20 feet to the very edge of the alley, making it impossible to see anything or anyone coming down the alley from in front of city hall, which is exactly where the parade had halted to petition the mayor.  When the petition was over and it was time to move on, the business community proceeded to the left, oblivious to what it was about to encounter.

Let me prepare the good reader by saying that evil, while it lurks everywhere, lurked that day in a dark alley hidden by the left wing of city hall (some say evil always lurks behind the left wing, but I leave that for future writers to verify).

A whisper, quite some ways back, had slowly worked its way through the parade.  Indeed, as I later learned, there had been word in the business community for at least a week; and that word was enough to send chills down your spine.  For this year, unlike previous years, the "I Hate Nature Day" Parade would be met with resistance.  A counterdemonstration was rumored to be in the offing.  Some sinister group or another, or perhaps an amalgam of lunatics, had vowed to "stand up for Mother Nature."  How organized this counterdemonstration would be; how many lunatics would actually show; what idiotic beliefs would be in evidence; what level they would descend to: these and a thousand other questions remained as unknown factors influencing the outcome of the confrontation, should it actually take place.

And take place it most assuredly did.  For here they were, fast upon us, the "friends" of nature, who would deny nature its highest expression - who would deny it the privilege of serving man's greatest, noblest enterprise: business.  Wood, to these misguided souls, set best beneath the bark of trees, awaiting the inevitable termite assault; stone lay prettiest in layers up the sides of mountains, slowly eroding into dust and dirt; coal and iron and precious metals fit nicer into their myriad niches deep in the ground than into the great sprawling industrial-economic apparatus that spun and whirred and in every other manner effected man's progress from the cave to Utopia.  These advocates of lunacy would deny man the majesty of his destiny by sabotaging his subjugation of that mindless beast they so ironically call their "Mother."  They would "save" the world, these atavists, from those who knew best how to use it.  They would disrupt this wondrous parade that their lunacy might halt the shining chariot of free enterprise in its tracks.

"Over my dead body will they spare one single tree from the woodsman's axe!" a man in a gray flannel suit vowed, just as the throng of lunatics spewed all at once from the alley into the street, like some dirty water-main breakage.

"No! No!" the businessman cried.  "Stop!  Stop!" he demanded. But to no avail, for there was no stopping the nature lovers.  Their signs, their chant ("M is for your many precious gifts; O is for your ontological purity" and so on, right around to the final "E is for your earth with all its love," spelling out Mother Nature), their single-minded obstinacy pressed ever onward, rolling over everything in its path.

I must now caution the squeamish among you to take this next passage one careful word at a time, for it depicts an act of the most heinous violence imaginable.  The businessman who cried out but went unheard by the madmen, on a sudden self-sacrificial impulse, threw himself in font of the careening mob and was trampled underfoot.  All the other businessmen ran to his rescue, but it was too late.  By the time they managed to part a clearing around him, he was dead, the very life crushed out of him.

He looked so peaceful and unruffled lying there in the wake of the savagery that had destroyed him.  Then an ambulance miraculously happened by and he was quickly gathered up on a stretcher and taken away.  (I can only assume paramedics to be a heartless lot, for as the ambulance drove off, I heard laughter coming from the back, where the dead body lay.)

"Who was that brave soul?" I asked.

"Oh, that's Clyde M. Colpenenny," someone responded, "he's Vice-President - correction: he was Vice-President of CPA Savings and Loan."

"Then whenever I am asked to name a Great Man," I assured everyone, "the name Clyde M. Colpenny will glide from my tongue like a Viking ship with sail aflame disappearing into the mists of Valhalla."

Everyone looked at me strangely.  At first I thought my metaphor perhaps too obscure; then it dawned on me much later that I had let the wrong name glide from my tongue, and I felt ashamed at having carelessly dishonored the greatness of the man.  But the harm was done and could not be undone.

(As for the counterdemonstration, they were all apprehended, read their rights, arrested for manslaughter and taken in paddy wagons to jail.  But they were all released when no corpse could be found.  God only knows where the careless paramedics had left the martyred banker.)

 

Chapter 4.  A Blessed Event In Search Of A Transcriber

"I am born," the great Russian writer Balzac once observed (or perhaps its was one of his fictional creations, perhaps even that unforgettable woman of mystery, Emma Bovary, who said it).  Whatever the case, in light of events presently to be related, let it be known for now and for all time that, yes indeed, I AM BORN!

And, good reader, because I am born, I must toil or I shall not eat (so saith the Lord).  The question then becomes: how best to fulfill the prime directive set upon humanity, without compromising my standards.  To be sure, I did not return to the city destitute; I still had a bundle of stock options, a number of bonds, a bank book, a wallet full of credit cards, and, above all, my talent.  Even with all this, however, I felt compelled to earn a living wage - to gain valuable experience for my next novel if for no other reason.  But enough of these philosophical ruminations; description and style are the true mortar and brick of fine literature, so let us now return to the quantitative world.

I retired to a small cafe three blocks from city hall, walking past scraggly rhododendrons, rusted azaleas, red maples full of bag worms, and the drying green of over parched grass.  The summer had been bad here in the city.  While I nearly drowned at my country estate, the city fathers were reduced to banning all lawn sprinklers and washing of cars (save for a sponge bath or two).  Indeed, the papers had called it a virtual drought, and claimed it affected the entire East Coast (a claim well disputed by my soggy lawn!).

"Will the world end in fire or ice?" a most shabbily attired gentleman approached out of nowhere to inquire.  His tan overcoat, clearly once of an acceptable style, had places that looked like bird specks on it; and it was covered with a greasy looking grime, as was his graying hair.  He wore bright pink sneakers and what looked to be ballet tights.  I was understandably loath to respond to his inquiry; but he stood there, blocking my path, just staring, so I felt compelled to say something.

"Neither sir," I said, "for the world will never end."

"Sir," he retorted, a bit testily, "you are speaking to Jonathan Frisby Perpleton - of the Virginia Perpletons - and not to a child.  For though I have fallen on hard times, due to my lack of direction, or perhaps to my penchant for cocaine, I retain full use of my faculties, and will brook no such Pollyannaic nonsense!  This world must end: a world that could witness such a fall as mine cannot be eternal.  The only sane question is how it will end: fire or ice.  Personally, I hold with those who favor fire - and you sir?"

Again he just stared until I answered.  Wishing no further intercourse with him, I readily agreed that yes, it would indeed be fire.  "Not that ice would not suffice!" he angrily retorted.

"Sir!" I said, "Use your head!  Ice forms at 32 degrees, water boils at 212.  Add the two, multiply by the square of the distance from earth to the sun, divide by the number of stars in the Milky Way - and there's no question how this world will end!"

With this, which a certain instinct told me would occupy my interlocutor's full attention, I proceeded on my way to Cafe Guido, one of the quaintest little bistros in our city.  Fortunately, the final half block offered neither lunatic nor fallen Virginian, so it passed without incident (unless you count a stray dog that nearly mistook my let for a tree stump).  I had no sooner gotten inside than an elderly lady came up and took my hand.  "I saw how bravely you drove off that rabid dog," she commended me.  "Of course you'll want a series of rabies shots," she added.

"But he never bit me," I said.

"Why chance it?  If he doesn't bite you, another will.  I'm in the middle of a series right now - I was chased by a rabid skunk two weeks ago."

"There are skunks in our city?" I asked, a bit amazed.

"They are every where, sir," she replied.  "I'm told they serve them here in place of beefsteaks.  A man from Virginia warned me about it.  So I never come in here - except when a mad dog is after me.  But I see he's gone, so I'll slip out now."

With this, mercifully, she left; although very shortly afterward I heard barking and fully expected to see her coming through the front door, but Lady Luck was smiling, she didn't return.

"Madness radiates from city hall," I muttered as I took a seat.  Presently, I ordered a pork chop (for some reason I had no taste for beef that day) and, while waiting, assessed my situation.  I used a napkin to note my various options.  I could seek editorial work, but for a great writer anything in the same field so much lower down must necessarily be horrid frustration.  I had invaluable assembly line experience, but I had a feeling that line of work was pretty much played out.  I could lay a certain claim to Personnel, as well as Managerial work owing to my "houseguests" (shall we say) on my previous project.  I could conceivably do lay-out (did I not design the jacket for my last book?).  In short, there were as many options as there were facets of my personality.  But which one - which single one - to focus on: that was my dilemma.  (At times like this, dear reader, I would almost trade places with those poor unfortunates who have no skills with which to gain entry into the job market, so great a stress is having to fix upon but one among so many.)  Anyway, my port chop arrived so I folded the napkin and put it in my coat pocket, promising myself to take it up again once I had eaten.

No great writer, to my knowledge, has adequately dealt with the china used in fine restaurants and cafes.  So at the risk of gloating, let me be the first.  I did some research (as any artist worthy of the name would) before setting the first keystroke to the first page, and discovered the particular pattern used at Guido's to be Plum Pudding - and a treat for the senses it was indeed, what with its little red berries surrounding an embossed ring that circumscribed the outer edge, its delicate garland with three extending shoots in the very center, and its ever so subtle dish within a dish motif, a concept first used by the Sumerians and passed on to the Etruscans.  The berries and ring were later added by the Saxons; and the garland, I'm told, was a gift from the Magi.  And while I'm at it, let me give you a brief description of Guido's, lest you mistake your favorite author for an abstraction seated at a fog bank within a nether world.

The centerpiece, as it were, of this wonderful cafe, is its teakwood sculpture representing an attaché case.  Positioned slightly off-center and facing the front entrance, in profile, it can be enjoyed from every table in the house.  But its truly unique feature is its handle, carved from the altar of a church that used to sit next door (now a much needed parking lot sits there).  That church, therefore the altar, therefore the handle, dates back to the mid 1600s.  There had been some effort, in fact, to preserve it, old and decrepit as it was: a referendum, a bond issue - the usual; fortunately, the then mayor took matters in his own hands and simply bulldozed it himself.  And once it was down, no one wanted the expense of putting it back up again.  Of course, the busybodies and do-gooders tried to have the mayor impeached; but once they saw the new parking lot, even they were convinced it was for the best.  That handle cut from the altar is the only thing left of St. Cyril's.  C'est la vie!

The rest of Guido's, too, was borrowed, eloquent testament that things, having outlived their usefulness, once disintegrated and properly restored to their original state, can serve the ongoing needs of society.  The place mats derived from a number of old tapestries which once hung in some antiquated gallery long hence reduced to timber and cinder block (I vaguely remember the gallery, it seems my fourth grade class once took a field trip there; I recall - just barely, but I do recall - seeing tapestries along one wall, and if the place mats are any indication they must have been magnificent.)  The linens were once part of a dowager's trousseau (or perhaps a princess) handed down from generation to generation.  The plants saw their first light of day in a small park where an office complex now stands: Guido's uncanny eye for beauty was what spared them the fate of their plainer cousins.  And the quaint little chandeliers came from an old library which, once the modern new fully equipped library was completed, was no longer needed (the building itself now houses a much needed self-service storage facility).  In a word, as the ads for this delightful little bistro say, "If it was ever good, Guido's has got it."

My pork chop finished, I retrieved my napkin from my pocket and returned to my project.  And still the question begged: what does a great writer do when he is out of work?  And still I got nowhere - until I put it in the wider perspective: what does anybody do when they need something they are not quite sure how to go about getting?  Then the answer came to me immediately.  What to do in this case?  Simple: do the same thing you would in any case.  Consult an expert.  This is, after all, America - the premier nation of experts.  So, when in doubt, seek the advice of an expert.  And who would be the perfect expert to advise me what line of work to get into?  Why, an employment agent, of course!  The answer was so simple - but, then, the answer is always simple when things are placed in their proper category.  Ask not what a great writer can do to earn his keep - ask what anyone can do.  Reduce it to its broadest terms, then stand back and wait for the answer to come careening around the very next corner.

I bid Guido's adieu, knowing full well the ambiance would draw me back again and again, and made for the Ginny Johanssen Employment Agency - our city's finest.  "I'll speak directly to Ms Johanssen," I informed the receptionist, who in turn asked if I had an appointment.

"No," I replied, then explained who I was and what my accomplishments were, leaving the unmistakable implication to her professional judgment.

"I'm sorry," she persisted, "you can not see Ms Johanssen without an appointment.  But if you'll have a seat, I'm sure one of our counselors will be free in a very short while.

"I don't need counseling," I said.  "I need a job."

"Please don't be misled by the term," the receptionist said.  "We simply go with what's current in the industry.  Last season our counselors were specialists; before that analysts; two years back they were development associates.  Sometimes it's difficult keeping up with it all.  I remember one season we changed four times in a three month period.  One of our documentation processors - that's what we were at that moment - went berserk and tried to kill Ms Johanssen's current boyfriend at the time - ah, that is, the office manager.  It was a very trying time for us all."

"The office manager survived, I take it," I observed.

"Oh yes.  But his wounds prevented him from fulfilling his duties, so he was let go."

"You see!" I noted with a hint of vindication in my voice.  "There's a good lessen from all those petty, suspicious minds which suppose American business to be nothing more than one great big hodge-podge of nepotism!  When he couldn't work, he was let go - boyfriend or no!"

"Well, actually, Ms Johanssen did get a new boyfriend just about that time, as I recall."

"But he was not made office manager ipso facto, I'll warrant!"

"He tried it for a while, but he could neither read nor write; he was seriously dyslexic.  So Ms Johanssen made him her Vice President instead."

"Then I'm quite sure his qualifications, dyslexic or no, were impeccable!" I remarked.

"Well," she replied just above a whisper, "just between you and me and the lamp post outside, I'm told he's as good...at what he does...as any three men put together - and almost as big!"

"There you have it!" I exclaimed.  "In the corporate world, the cream rises to the top, no matter what."

Presently, I was ushered into one of the counselor's offices.  A number of forms lay before me, which I was asked to fill out.  I find, dear reader, such trifles to be a nuisance; but, realistically, how else is one to be property evaluated?  One does not get to be a corporate executive on appearance alone.

"I see you majored in Business Management," the counselor remarked.

"What better way to see the world as it truly is," I said.

"Yet you went into another line of work altogether - why?" she asked.

"To better express my genius," I said.

"But in doing so, you lost what might otherwise have been valuable years of professional experience."

"Actually only one year," I pointed out.

"But even a year away from the job market reduces your employability dramatically."

"I was self employed."

"Self employed, I'm afraid, is seen as merely a euphemism for unemployed - quite often, to be perfectly honest, unemployable.  Let me be up front with you: in your present state, you are practically unmarketable.  Now I don't wish, of course, to discourage you; but, frankly, we're here to make a profit.  We simply cannot devote our precious time to someone, like yourself, with so limited prospects.  But by all means we'll keep your application on file, and should we hear of anything we'll let you know.  Oh, by the way, you failed to put your Social Security Number."

"What's that?"

"That's your nine digit number assigned to you by the Social Security Administration."

"I know of no such number."

"Everyone has one," the counselor insisted.

"Not I!" I rejoined.

"You must - everyone has one - it's almost like a birth certificate.  I assume you have a birth certificate."

"I suppose," I replied.  "I've never really thought about it."

"You have to have these documents," the counselor stated most emphatically.  "Otherwise, how can you prove you exist?"

"I am," I replied, recalling something I once heard, "because I think I am."

"Not in America you're not!  You had better get this straightened out, and the sooner the better.  I'll set your application aside for now.  But please get back to me as quickly as possible."

I promised her I would - indeed, I promised myself as well, since I needed a job and the sooner the better.  Making a mental note to investigate this business of Social Security Numbers and birth certificates more thoroughly (the origin of it, what they look like, and so forth).  I left the office.  In the lobby of the building I encountered, of all people, the busboy who displayed such impertinent disrespect for Mr Lee, my caterer.  I couldn't imagine what he was doing here, and didn't care anyway; I just wanted to avoid him (he struck me as one of those over friendly individuals who, once having met you, however casual the circumstances, speaks to you every time they ever see you again).  Unfortunately, just as I was about the make good my escape, I got choked (on saliva, I suppose) and had to stop to cough.

"You okay?" the busboy asked.  Then he recognized me.  "Hey!" he exclaimed, "I know you!  We just met day before yesterday - remember? when my boss - ex-boss, that is, now that he fired me - when he tried to rip you off then grab hold of my -"

"Yes, I remember," I deliberately cut him short, not wanting to hear him defame the good name of his former employer.

"Yeah," he mused, "I thought I knew you - never forget a face.  I even got your name too: it's Rondo, isn't it?  You're a right winger, aren't you? or something with 'right' in it?"

"I'm a writer," I replied coldly.

"I knew it was something like that.  Me - I don't know what I want to be.  I just want a job.  Maybe some kind of manager trainee or something.  'Cause I think I'd be good at training people to be managers.  Course, I been offered all kind of jobs dancing nude in bars and things - sometimes fag bars, sometimes for women.  But I don't see myself as no dancer.  I'm more a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, you know?  Anyway, a lady I met on the bus - just met, you know? - she said to come here and maybe they'd get me a good job.  I could tell she liked me, so when we got off I kind of brushed up against her thigh - you know?"

"Make sure you've got your Social Security Number with you," I advised the young man.

"They never ask for it," he replied.  "They're supposed to, but anywhere I ever worked, we just get to talking, and smiling, and I kind of put on a sexy look, and they forget all about it - you know?"

Boy was he in for a surprise!  But I said nothing.  I just walked on.  Personable as he was (and he was very personable) I couldn't forget his insolence, so I decided just to let him learn the hard way, as I had had to.

 

Chapter 5.  I Think, Therefore I Am

Lest the reader think me less than tenacious, let me hasten to point out that I consulted no fewer than six additional employment agencies, all with the same result: no number, no job.  I decided, therefore, to consult the newspaper's Help Wanted Section while I went about securing my SSN (as the term Social Security Number has come to be acronymmed).  Needless to say, I had no intention of rushing right out and getting an SSN without first knowing what it was all about; nor was I about to just drop everything else to take up the investigation.  In a word, it would have to await its proper season; for though I was desperate for work, my desperation was artistic and intellectual rather than economic and existential.  I had to work because I had to grow, not because I had to eat.  My food, my clothes, my shelter were all taken care of: between my savings, my inheritance, my various lines of credit I wanted for nothing physically.  But ah! the wants of the psyche! how can the paltry needs of the body compare with those needs?

Good reader, I went out and purchased the first newspaper I came upon, so great was my eagerness to find gainful employment.  My eagerness, however, proved a bit excessive: in my haste I grabbed up a London Times, which, while thoroughly satisfying to my intellectual and artistic needs, lent nothing useful whatsoever in the way of employment opportunities - all of which prompts me to caution the circumspect reader not to neglect his home town newspaper simply because it gets its daily greatness second hand; for, as I discovered, it too can be of significant value.

Just because what goes on around you is of little import compared with the high and mighty events occurring elsewhere in the world does not mean it should be totally ignored.  Dear reader: you exist fully as much in your own backyard as your thoughts do on the world's stages or in the halls of power.  Wall Street may be heaven, but Main Street is home, so it too is worthy of a passing glance or two.  (I might note here that as extraordinary as the articles and columns and features in the London Times were, the classifieds were every bit as mundane as our own; the jobs, if anything, were even less appealing than those right here in our own home town!)  At any rate, I tucked the Times under my arm (it never hurts to be seen carrying a first rate newspaper, even if you've already read it) and set out to secure a home town paper.  I could see that the box back across the street was empty; so was the one on the corner (evidently the home town sells faster than the foreign).  I knew there was a newsstand in the next block, so I made for it.

On the way I encountered a young man selling flowers, mostly, it seemed, to motorists stopped at the intersection.  At that particular moment, however, the traffic died down, so he approached me.

"Excuse me, sir," he said very politely, "do you care to buy a flower?"

In truth they looked a bit wilted, but I didn't wish to hurt his feelings, so I merely said no to them.  "Actually, I'm on my way to buy a newspaper," I explained.

"May I make a suggestion?" he asked.

"By all means," I said.

"If you're looking for a great newspaper - one that isn't corrupted by the kind of lies and distortions my liberal college professors tried to brainwash me with, so that I would become a drug crazed lunatic selling my body to men and committing every horrible perverted act you could think of - then I recommend the Washington World News.  I read it every day right after my morning prayers and it makes me strong and wise and readies me to go out and do God's work."

"What is God's work?" I asked out of curiosity.

"They haven't revealed that to me yet," came the reply.  "I have to sell a certain amount of flowers first, then our leader will summon me along with the other novitiates and the truth will be revealed."

"Maybe, in the meantime, "I suggested, "you will have figured it out on your own?"

The young man backed away from me.  "You're from the Teachers' Union, aren't you?" he asked in a voice filled with muted panic.  "You've come to try and tempt me, haven't you?  They warned me many tempters would be sent before me to try and corrupt my mind and sabotage the one true way of thinking - but it won't work!  You can't get me to take those drugs again!  Neither will I go down on my knees and perform lewd acts any more!  So get thee gone child of Satan - get thee gone!  Satan be gone!  Be gone!"

Dearest reader, I don't need a ton of bricks to fall on me to know when I'm not wanted; so I proceeded about my business, and the young man returned to his, though I must admit I found his sales pitch a bit too broad and lacking in objectivity.  Nonetheless, when I reached the newsstand I bought a copy of the paper he recommended as well as our hometown paper.

"I have it on good authority this is a first rate newspaper," I observed to the vendor upon purchasing the Washington World News.

"If you like a Melanesian slant to your news," the vendor replied cryptically. 

"I beg your pardon?" I asked.

"Chapter and verse from the good book: 'It isn't polite to beg,'" the vendor replied, as cryptically as before.  Perceiving my puzzlement, he explained his cryptogram.  "I don't as a rule make conversation," he said, "but if it's called for, I always begin with an apt quotation from one of the Alice books.  Nothing you can read in any newspaper's one millionth as worthy of your attention - yet everyone rushes out to get the latest poop as if his life will be altered irrevocably should he miss one single tid-bit.  And, all the while, they consign Alice to their nursery.  People have a strange sense of what's important.  Great literature they keep on their shelf; the up-to-the-minute stupidities of their fellow man they carry about like they had just discovered the Universal Solvent.  Yet just try and sell someone those same earth shaking wonders 24 hours hence and he'll look at you like you're a madman!"

"If I follow you, sir," I said, "what you're telling me is to stick with the Times and leave the lesser papers alone.  But, you see, I have need of the classifieds.  And this other paper, well, I bought it on a lark."

"Who would have guessed?" he observed.

"Perhaps Alice would have - in one of her books!" I replied with a certain air of satisfaction as I briefly perused the hometown paper.  I cannot say what made me do so, but whatever fortune was at work I'm grateful for, since the outcome was nothing less than the salvation of second rate dailies.

"Aha!" I exclaimed, ostensibly to myself but with sufficient vigor to be overheard.  "A newspaper suddenly becomes more than a summary of the days events!"

"Yes," the vendor agreed, "it becomes their epitaph!"

"To the contrary, sir," I replied.  "Why, just look here: on page 1: "Honorable Right Reverend Mr Claude W.R.A.C.P. Dingledoody, DD, CP, RVN, Deacon of Suburbia Anglican Church in the county, had his pocket picked.  His wallet was removed clean without a trace.  Police are baffled, have vowed not to rest until this crime is solved."

"They've made yet another molehill into a mountain - so?"

"So his pocket was not picked, nor his wallet absconded with!  I saw it fall from his pocket, I saw it retrieved by a most conscientious entrepreneur who obviously has been kept too busy by his irresponsible staff to be able to return it yet.  I shall inform Reverend Dingledoody myself what happened.  Had I not read this newspaper, I would never have known what twists and turns reality had taken."

"And are you better off for knowing?" the vendor asked.

"I am an artist, sir," I pointed out.  "And an artist is nourished by even the most trifling occurrence!  But tell me sir: if the news displeases you so, why do you sell it?"

"Nothing pleases me but great literature," the vendor replied.

"Then sell that."

"I did once," he replied.  "I had my own shop.  I sold nothing but great works of art.  I went bankrupt within a week.  Now I sell only garbage and I'm a rich man.  You too can be rich if you work at it."

I thanked him for his advice and left, to seek my fortune, three newspapers in tow (one great, one meager and one with a decided Melanesian slant, whatever that might be).  Coming to a small park, I sought out a relatively clean bench and began perusing the classifieds.  The construction noise was deafening (the park is being converted to a much needed parking lot - so in a sense it will keep something of its former identity once it is plowed under: after all, the root of a word, any word, is its essence).  Fortunately, I did not need to spend too much time there, for I at once spotted what by all accounts must surely be the ideal situation.

"Wanted: Thinkers.  No experience needed.  We will train you in every phase of philosophical thought.  Apply in person."

It was clearly the perfect ad (except for there being neither address nor phone number - but I simply called the newspaper and got that information from an acquaintance who worked the city desk).  In no time at all, I was on my way.

A brief taxi ride and I was there.  I will omit the tete-a-tete between myself and the taxi driver in favor of the far more important task at hand: suffice it to say he called me "Mack" and questioned the wisdom of seeking work of a philosophical nature.  ("You think therefore you ain't!" he postulated.  When I asked him what he meant, he replied that if you were, you wouldn't have time to think, you'd be too busy getting from place to place - etc, etc.)  He finished his spiel just as we pulled up; these drivers are nothing if not masters of timing.

Now my most superlatively worthy reader very well knows that I am given to neither boasting nor exaggeration; so when I say that only I, of all writers who ever lived, could give this place its just due, you will pronounce a silent "Amen" in response.  So let me at once commence the detailed description.  

To begin with, the place does not exist.  This block - the 300 block of Thalmus Avenue - lies on no map of our city ever drawn up.  The street address - 301 Thalmus Avenue - is listed nowhere, not even on the building itself.  If you walk up and down the block, you will see 300 Thalmus, then nothing again till 307 Thalmus.  Nor will you find any reference in the telephone directory to a 301 Thalmus.  So as far as the universe is concerned, the Thinking Man's Tank is but a myth.  And if it is, then it's truly one wrapped in an enigma and surrounded by a mystery, the former being thick vines completely covering the building's facade, the latter a deep moat encompassing the entire width and breadth of the front lawn.  Neither of these two features exists, however; they are simply projections, illusions if you will, created to discourage thoroughfare.

"I can't see the building for the trees," I quipped as I disembarked the taxi cab.

"Pay 'em no mind," the driver assured me.  "Walk across the lawn as if the water was not there - 'cause it ain't; open the door as if the vines weren't there - 'cause they ain't."

"But I see them!" I protested.

The driver laughed.  "The boys make 'em look almost real!" he explained.  "People who spend all their time thinking get fooled every time; those who just do things and are then over with them can spot it for a fake in a second.  Your brain tells you they're real, but your senses know better.  You might see them - your eyes are practically slave to your brain; but you won't smell them or hear them or taste them or even feel them.  So go on in; your job's waiting."

Go on in, sir?  Dearest reader, there I was standing one foot away from what appeared to be a thousand foot deep pond, staring at the most impenetrable tangle of vegetation I had ever seen; for all I knew I had suddenly come upon the Amazon jungle.  To make a long story short, my first step was as hesitant as a baby's.  (It was only later I discovered the truth of the taxi driver's words; at that moment, I assure you, I though him a fool whose own senses were highly questionable.)

So I took first one step, then another, then yet another, each time my foot disappearing into the horrible quagmire.  But I never sank.  I traversed (dare I say "waded") the front lawn and came upon a yellow wisteria whose branches threatened a hundred thousand scratches, not to mention God only knew how many hideous bugs, should I thrust my arm through it.  Nevertheless, I braved the greenery and reached into the vortex of vegetation; and, in so doing, came upon what felt like - and was - a doorknob, which I turned, slowly, carefully.  The sound was of a door opening, the sight was of leaves being stirred in the wind.  Then, all at once, I burst through the vines and entered 301 Thalmus, home of The Thinking Man's Tank.

The words "Welcome to our humble abode," together with a searing blast of hot air from God knows where greeted my entrance.  At first (and the reader well knows the experience!), going from the light of day into the relative dark of a building, I saw no one; so it almost seemed as if it were the air that had spoken.  I therefore hesitated a moment to answer, while my eyes adjusted to room light - and my body to room temperature, though only a room in the Saharan desert would have engaged so unusual a temperature at this time of the year.  Perhaps, I thought, I'm standing directly beneath a heat vent; so I moved a few steps into the room, but to no avail, for it was just as hot everywhere.  And the pulverizing sensation underfoot as I moved only reinforced the impression of having come upon a desert.

Still seeking to adjust my vision before speaking, I looked all around the room (which I would have done anyway, of course, so as to detail my surroundings to the Nth degree).  It was a small room, the walls of which were a beige favoring brown, the ceiling an off white, the floor a very dark looking wood.  The windows - I counted them: too many, I feel, for so small a room - were all covered with brownish-red drapes, all ten drapes drawn.  There were some recessed fluorescent lighting, but a glance or two told of missing or burned out tubes.  A sofa, of some non-descript style and fabric, leaned against one wall (I say "leaned" because one of the back legs was missing).  There were occasional tables and two odd-looking chairs, each having torn fabric or broken legs.  A number of potted plants dotted the room, except that there were no plants in the pots, only a few withered stalks in hardened divits.  In places the paint hung like broken tapestries against the walls, and a number of large cracks crisscrossed the ceiling.  At last my eyes detected a living presence.

"Thank you," I replied to the greeting of several minutes ago.

"Oh," came a thoroughly dejected response.  "When you did not answer me, I dared begin hoping you were he, come in visitation at long last; and the very first words from your mouth would be French.  But alas, you are who you appear to be: nothing more than yet another seeker after employment."

"Who did you take me for?" I asked, anxious to know which great thinker I most resembled.

"Him, of course!"

"Him?"

Yes: him.  Merleau-Ponty.  The only man I could ever love.  Ah, if he would but grace my door, I - who am anything alive but a pervert - I would go at once to my knees to commit all manner of lewdness and sodomy upon that illustrious person!  But it is not to be, today, I see.  All I get is yet another artisan and tradesman - a yeoman, where I long and, yes, yes, dare I say it?: lust after a phenomenologist!  I curse this world - I curse it!  Please draw the drapes, that I may look no more upon this vile place!"

"Sir," I pointed out, "they are drawn."

"Then draw them more tightly," he insisted.  "I can still feel the outside.  Get thee the world gone from me, I implore you."

I did as he asked, though more for ceremony than otherwise, since it was physically impossible to draw the drapes any tighter than they already were.  He thanked me, after which an awkward silence ensued.  I was almost tempted to introduce myself as this elusive phenomenologist after all, just to add a little cheer to the somber setting; but as I wanted no manner of sodomy done to my illustrious person whatsoever, I decided against it, choosing instead to introduce myself as who I was.  I made a mental note, however, to secure a photograph of this Merleau-Ponty that I might compare our respective images.

"I am Rondo," I said as I extended my hand.  "And I should be honored to work as a thinker - though in truth that is hardly a new field for me."

"You have experience with higher thought?" I was asked.

"Indeed so," I replied.

"That is most unusual," he observed.  Then he took my hand and inspected it.  "Yes," he pointed out, "you probably have.  This is not a working man's hand.  Too bad.  I'm not sure we can use you.  Though the fact you got inside speaks well of you.  You weren't fooled by the illusions we create."

"Why do you create them?" I asked.

The man puzzled a moment and, when he answered, I thought I detected just the slightest hint of insincerity in his voice.  "It goes to the heart of the matter," he explained.  "Motivation: how motivated are you to get inside and claim your job!"

"I don't lack motivation," I assured him.  "By the way, sir, may I have your name?" I asked.

"Were it only so simple," he mused.  "Would that I could give it up so easily.  Oh, to be sure, it's a magnificent enough name; but unless he be called Merleau-Ponty, a man's name is of less value than his shoe size.  But since you asked, I am Kris-Klaus Kritch-Krinklehoffer.  The name is, alas, German; not French.  My life is therefore without meaning.  Bye the bye, I wrote a song about Merleau-Ponty.  It's called 'Merleau-Ponty: the Phenomenologist who brought aesthetics out of the Stone Age and into the future.'  I apologize not being quite in the mood for singing just now.  Perhaps later.  Do you play the French horn, Mr Ombo?  Perhaps you could accompany me."

"Actually no," I confessed, pointing out, as delicately as possible, that my name was not Ombo but Rondo.  "French origin," I added.

He shut his eyes.  "French!  Oh!  My exegesis for a French name!  Sir, I could almost commence to sodomize you, so refreshing is it to hear a French name pronounced in my presence!"

I assured him I could do without the sodomy at the moment.  "Spoken like a true Frenchman!" he congratulated me, finally shaking the hand I had extended to him several minutes earlier.  "We shall save the sodomy for another time," he answered.  "Though you do realize it's only your being French that gives me to even so much as think of such vile things!  Because, as you very well know, all Frenchmen are brothers in spirit.  Any other time - namely, where there's no one connected in any way with Merleau-Ponty - I would be the first to recommend the most severe penalties imaginable for such disgusting acts.  Indeed, I have many times over advocated execution and castration for even the smallest homosexual act!"

"That surprises me," I admitted.  "I generally picture philosophers and thinkers to be above such petty political concerns.

"Sir," Kris-Klaus replied, "I quite assure you I live very much in the real world!  I do not go about with my head in the clouds.  Why, just the other week I conversed with a distant relative of mine - a truly charismatic politician - about this very thing!  And he assured me he would very shortly advocate the death penalty for all untoward sexuality!"

"Who is this politician?"

"His name is of no importance: he is not French.  It's some brand name or another, some kind of fruit; Homer something.  It escapes me at the moment - but I quite assure you the world will remember his name for many generations to come!  But enough of politicians.  Suffice it to say sodomists of every description, along with terrorists and revolutionaries and one or two philosophers I can think of should be put in jail for life.  Now let me show you to your work station and introduce you to some of the thinkers you'll be working for."

"Perhaps you mean 'with,'" I ventured to say.

"No, I mean 'for,'" came Kritch-Krinklehoffer's reply.  "Your job will be to assist the fellows of the Thinking Man's Tank."

"Doing what?" I thought it prudent to ask.

"Oh, a hundred odd jobs - a thousand, who knows?  There's always something that wants doing around here.  In fact, the very first project - and I want you to get started on it immediately, just as soon as we've got your paperwork all done and you've read a chapter or two from Merleau-Ponty's magnum opus - is to sand the back steps: they're extremely rough, and for fear of getting splinters, no one will venture out back to feed the watchdog.  I know he must be hungry by now, it's been months since we first noticed the problem with the steps.  Then I'll get you started on the windows.  There's some film or another on them makes it almost impossible to see out - why I barely noticed you on your way through our little illusion!"

"When will I get to think?" I asked, since that was what I applied for, not a lowly handyman's position.

"First you must prove yourself worthy," he responded - a bit evasively, I felt.

Presently, we had traversed a long, rather dingy and, to tell the truth, somewhat foul smelling corridor and came to a small metal door with a handle rather like that of a refrigerator.  The door was barely big enough to admit us, but we managed to enter what appeared to be a laboratory with several rows of chairs arranged about a video monitor upon a table.  Seated at each chair was a person, and as I looked around the room it struck me how unique, if not to say bizarre, each one appeared to be.  I will not at this point attempt the description of these the Thinking Men of the Thinking Man's Tank; however, I would be extremely remiss (and hardly worthy of being called a great writer) if I failed to describe down to the smallest detail my host, Mr Kritch-Krinklehoffer.

He was a tall man (I estimate 6 feet 6 inches) whose body bent slightly at the waist and again, ever so slightly, at the shoulders.  His left arm appeared somewhat limp, though he was not without the use of it that I could detect (I might add that the fingernails of his left hand were quite ridged and much longer than those of the right hand).  His facial features were anything but pleasant; at the risk of sounding melodramatic, all I can think of to compare them to are those of the infamous Frankenstein monster, though of course much softened by the full exercise of his mental powers.  He was balding, his hair a reddish brown (somehow I felt it was dyed, since his eyebrows were a very dark brown matted with gray).  His clothes were quite wrinkled and somewhat like a physician's in style and color, with the exception of his shoes, which were red basketball sneakers.

"Gentlemen," he introduced me, "this is our new assistant.  His name escapes me at the moment - it has to do with a shape, I believe - but I assure you it is French.  And furthermore, gentlemen, his mother was a distant cousin to the great phenenologist, Merleau-Ponty.  So if you have any questions before he gets started, please feel free to ask them."

"And the paperwork?" I asked.

"That's quite alright," Kris-Klaus replied, "we'll take care of the paperwork.  You just take care of the building maintenance."

"I mean," I explained, "the paperwork attendant to my becoming an employee - you know: tax forms, and so on."

"Actually," Kris-Klaus replied, "you'll be a 'Temp'; and, as such, we provide virtually nothing: no benefits, no vacation, no raises.  Nothing.  Just a lot of hard work, the kind any handyman would be proud to do."

"With pay, I presume," I quipped.

"We can go as high as 75 cents an hour," Kris-Klaus, to my absolute amazement, stated.

"Seventy-five cents?" I asked in disbelief.

"Plus the chance to be around some of the finest minds in the country," Kris-Klaus was quick to point out.  "So if we can't always pay you right away, it would still be the opportunity of a lifetime!"

"And don't forget the chance to read Merleau-Ponty!" I quipped, a bit sarcastically.

"Just because your sister was his mistress does not entitle you to read him!" someone pointed out (I didn't see who it was).  "You must earn that privilege!" another chimed in.

"It would entitle you to a peek at his privates, however!" a third said.

"Yes," a veritable round robin of talk suddenly began; I couldn't begin to keep track of who said what.  "I'm told he was hung like a horse!"

"Not so!" said another.

"He had a ballsack like a bull's!"

"With nothing in it!"

"His average ejaculate was half a liter!"

"And his feces averaged 360 grams!"

"He once mistakenly wiped himself with a phenomenology of smell he was working on at the time!"

"And read it before the Academy all the same!"

"But he had a predilection for little girls!"

"Little boys!"

"Old women!"

"Old men!"

"He once wrote a phenomenology of sex while masturbating!"

An old man who heretofore had remained silent (I believe he had been silent during this entire philosophical discussion, though it was hard to tell, given the rapid fire syllogisms put forth) stood up and said, simply, "That was not him."

The others were aghast.  "Then who?" someone asked.  "Your precious Kierkegaard?"  The old man nodded in affirmation.

"They tried to pin the existentialist label on him," the old man said.  "But it wouldn't hold.  He's a phenomenologist, and I can prove it.  Not only did he write the definitive phenomenology of sound; it was he who first discovered the dancing Indian in the arrowhead!  Everyone else saw it as cold dead stone; only he performed the proper phenomenology and found the Indian brave dancing the dance of the living dead."

"Did he have on a loincloth, the Kierkegaardian papoose?" someone asked.

"He was naked as a popinjay -"

"And Merleau-Ponty proved it with a phenomenology of nudity!  Is it not so, sir?"

This last was addressed to me.  I had no idea how to reply, so I said nothing.  "Don't you know?" the interlocutor pursued.  "You are his illegitimate son, are you not?"

"Monsieur," I replied, rather foolishly as it turned out, "Je suis qui je suis!"

At this, Kris-Klaus Kritch-Krinklehoffer went at once to his knees and headed toward me.  "I will do it!" he cried.  "Here, now, before the whole world.  I who despise anything unnatural will sodomize this French aristocrat or die trying!  So do as you will: arrest me, execute me - what does it matter?  I must do what I must do!  My philosophy demands it of me!  I assure you it will be a philosophical sodomy.  There's no passion in it, only wisdom.  It is therefore no real sin, only pure thought!"

Dearest reader, I managed to escape my plight by commencing my duties at once.  "Where is the back door?" I demanded to know.  "I must perform a phenomenology upon it with sandpaper!" I explained as I sidestepped Kris-Klaus.  

"That way!" they all said, so I hastened in that direction, confident that Kris-Klaus' fear of splinters was greater than his philosophical love of Frenchmen - a confidence well warranted and amply borne out by his hasty retreat upon reaching the back porch.

"What am I to do now?" he asked in a plaintive voice.

"Who better typifies all Merleau-Ponty stood for than you?" I asked.  "Therefore, would it not be a fine tautology to sodomize yourself?"

"Yes, perhaps.  Yes.  If I stretch.  Yes - yes!  Oh yes!  I must be about it at once!  Oh yes, yes!  I'll do it!  Before God and Caesar I'll do it!  In the name of philosophy I'll do it!  Yes - I'll do it!"

He was off in a flash to attempt that most extraordinary of feats; but I did not follow, notwithstanding the writer's imperative to describe all events attendant upon his opus.  Instead, I turned my attention to the porch steps - not without some trepidation, but not because of the splinters: I half expected to see the decaying carcass of their watch dog in the back yard.  But there was nothing - and no wonder: even from the porch, I could see a tear large enough to admit a Saint Bernard in the fence surrounding the back yard; obviously Fido (which, as I discovered later, was the dog's name) decided to abandon his post when his rations ran out.  Nonetheless, for the sake of thoroughness and because, having ventured out back in haste sans sandpaper, I had nothing better to do, I tried calling the pooch.

"Here doggie!" I called.  "Here boy!  Here fella!"  (I did not yet know his name to be Fido.)  Almost immediately, to my amazement, a dog leaped through the fence and came running toward me, his tail wagging behind him.  He was a friendly enough dog, and appeared to be well fed; but could not possibly have been the watch dog my supervisor had alluded to (not that I claim to be a dog expert, only a literary one; but I know perfectly well that for a dog to be a watch dog he must have some mass and bulk to him - and this was a Chihuahua, the very smallest of dogs!).  I petted him; found some chocolate in my pocket, unwrapped it and gave it to him; and in general made myself a friend for life.  I was about to send him on his way when Kris-Klaus re-appeared at the back door.

"Ah!" he exclaimed.  "Fido lives!  Excellent!"

"You know this dog?" I asked.

"He's the watch dog I told you about," said Kris-Klaus.  "Fortunately our eyes were bigger than his stomach or he might well have starved by now."

"Isn't he small for a watch dog?" I asked.

Kris-Klaus looked at me incredulously.  "What has his size to do with anything?  It's his eyes we were after.  A watch dog, be he small or great, must above all else have particularly keen eyesight - and I was assured there is none keener than Fido's!  Besides, it costs less to feed him than it would a bigger dog."

"But," I protested, "surely no small part of a watch dog's duties is protecting his master from burglars and other undesirables - is it not?  And this dog, I'm afraid, would fail miserably at that task."

"We haven't been burglarized in six months!" Kris-Klaus answered me.  "So he must be doing something right."

"This dog would scare no one off," I refused to yield.

"He frightens all of us," Kris-Klaus assured me.  "It was he whose constant gnawing reduced the back steps to a deadly mass of splinters!  If that isn't proof positive of his suitability, then, sir, you require something well beyond the realm of ontology!  Perhaps you would be happier reading your daily horoscope!  And to think I nearly committed the unforgivable sin for your sweet sake!"

During this exchange, I might add, Fido had taken up residence, as it were, at my feet; he seemed not the least troubled by the "deadly mass of splinters" - a mass, I believe, far weightier in the minds of these philosophers than the boards of the porch.

"Perhaps, sir," Kris-Klaus was saying, "with your predilection for the supernatural, your skills would be more suited to a less rational environment.  Philosophic insight is clearly not your forte.  However, if you wish to stay, you may; but I will have to reduce your wages by one third.  We can only pay top dollar to our interns - and it is all too apparent you were not cut from a very rational cloth.  I await your decision."

What would you do in my shoes, good reader?  Would you remain, at 50 cents an hour; or would you take your leave, despite the chance to grow intellectually and possibly make some useful contacts?  I sat down on the porch to consider this dilemma; and, of course, Fido at once leaped in my lap and fell asleep.  To tell the truth, I fell asleep also, and managed to dream what I can only describe as one of the stupidest dreams of my life (which I detail only because it is my job to do so).  In the dream I was seated at a round table reading a book.  Santa Claus came in and grabbed the book out of my hand and put it in his sack.  I asked him why.  "Wrong book," he said.  Then he reached in and pulled a Little Golden Book out of his sack and handed it to me.  "This is for you," he said.  "But I read this as a child!" I protested.  Here Santa took out a notebook and read me a list of questions, five in all, instructing me to answer "yes" or "no" to each.  "Have you ever matriculated at an Ivy League University?"  "Have you been taught by a world famous thinker?"  "Have you studied aesthetics in depth?"  "Have you ever worked in a Think Tank?"  "Was Merleau-Ponty ever your lover?"  I answered "no" to each question.  "Then you're still a child.  Read your Little Golden Book."  Then the dream ended; and while it was not quite a nightmare, the sheer absurdity of it jolted me awake.  It did accomplish one thing, though: it convinced me to continue working here awhile, if only on a modified part-time basis.  I needed more exposure to the in-depth kind of thinking this place could provide; otherwise Santa would not have taken "Alice in Wonderland" from me.

I no sooner came to this resolve than Kritch-Krinklehoffer returned.  "What is your decision?" he demanded to know from inside the back door.

"I shall accept the cut in pay," I answered.  "But I can only work a total of eight hours a week."

"Umm," he mused.  "That comes to four bucks.  That's a little more than we had in mind.  Would you settle for fewer hours?"

"Yes, I would," I said.

"Good.  How about four?"

"Four would be fine."

"Then four it is."                    

 

Chapter 6.  Then That Has, Gets

I found myself faced with a serious dilemma: would for hours of work a week yield enough exposure to higher thought to substantially enrich my psyche?  I could come early, leave late; or even split my shift - thereby increasing my time at the Tank.  But would I gain enough to really make it worth my while?

Ah! dear reader, would that the concerns of the flesh were my only concerns!  How simple life would be, how easily circumscribed, if wondering where my next meal was coming from were the greatest instead of the least of my worries!  Were food, clothing and shelter my problems to solve, I could simply budget my income.  Instead of filet mignon, I could settle for New York Strip; instead of a three bedroom house, a one bedroom flat; instead of a roadster, a sedan: whatever four dollars a week would buy would be my everyday fare, and that would be that, pure and simple.

But ah! the problems I must deal with are as far removed from those pedestrian concerns as the penthouse from the basement.  It is my soul, my spirit, my psyche that hungers and yearns and needs and must somehow or another get!  Food, clothing, shelter: these can be dealt with in a thousand ways; but the careful nurturing of my creativity, my genius, my poetic sensibility is not so easily accomplished.  For though many ways present themselves, few afford genuine nourishment.

These were my thoughts as I betook myself homeward - as lofty thoughts as were ever conceived by the mind of man.  I kept being distracted, however, by a tugging at my pant leg; for, as you might guess, little Fido had chosen to accompany me to my home.  I tried leaving him to resume his duties as watch dog, but he would have no part of that.  He slipped time and again through the back fence and found me no matter how many times I tried leaving him or how deftly I tried covering my tracks.  Eventually I gave in, as much to save my pants as to assume the role of master, and picked the dog up and carried him with me.  Riding aloft seemed most agreeable to him, for he smiled the whole way and barked at everyone we passed.  Nor was he heavy enough to pose any real threat to my health, so the experience, I must admit, was quite as enjoyable for me as it was for Fido - with one added amusement: the irony of watching so many passers-by looking upon Fido as if he were the eighth Wonder of the World while failing to notice the great writer whose arms bore him aloft!

If my gentle readers will allow me to mine one additional gem of instruction from this particular vein without taxing their patience, I shall relate one incident that took place as Fido and I walked home.  It, too, graphically demonstrates the need to avoid false perspectives.  Two gentlemen were approaching from the direction of Moss House, one of the most exclusive private clubs in our city; and as they approached, I overheard a brief tete-a-tete.  "As for my part," the younger of the two was relating, "I have it all: looks, charm, personality, career, status, income - you name it, I have it.  Plus I'm happy - extremely happy.  I make no apology.  I have it all, and I love it; and intend to keep it that way!"

As they passed me, a man, who I had failed to notice, came from an alleyway and stood almost beside me.  He laughed aloud - and as he was somewhat shabbily attired, I feared the two gentlemen might be offended by his laughter; or, even worse, imagine I had some part in it.  So I asked him what was so funny, notwithstanding my reluctance to encourage very much in the way of intercourse with this type of individual.  He pointed at Fido and said, good naturedly enough, "If he's got it all, how come it's you and not him carrying this adorable little creature?"  Then he winked, patted Fido on the head, and went his way - leaving me to ponder the wrong headedness of his point of view. 

As if my having Fido somehow took away from that young gentleman's "having it all!"  For all I knew, he had a dozen purebreds awaiting his return; he certainly needed no such mutt as this to make his existence complete.  But, of course, one must always consider the source of the propositions he encounters; and it has always been my observation that the most absurd notions invariably proceed from the most unpolished, unkempt appearances while, conversely, the most praiseworthy ideas come from those whose appearance is exemplary in every particular - not surprising, since truth is generally a most pleasant thing to behold, falsehood awash in disharmony.  At any rate, dear reader, be wary of who tells you what.

Be wary, too, of where you lay your head - or try to lay it.  No doubt you have heard it said that you ought not to lie down with dogs; well, dear reader, you ought not to even be seen in their company - at least not if you must depend upon others for your lodging.  For as surely as a leper's bell will deprive you of the company of your fellow man, a pet traveling in your company will deprive you of a room at the Inn (any Inn).

"We do not take animals," I was repeatedly told upon seeking a room for the night.  (Remember, dear reader, I had newly arrived here from the country and, though I had lived in the city previously, I had neither residence nor references, therefore I had no choice but to register at a hotel.  However, no hotel would take me in.)

"He's quite small," I would point out, "and very well behaved."  Or else, "He's housebroken, and never sheds."  But to no avail.  Not one single concierge would admit us.  And since it was too late to see a realtor, let alone begin the arduous task of finding the very best one, I had no choice but to sleep in the park my first night back in the city.  Fido slept at my feet; and I must say, proved himself well worth the trouble, for his barks scared off would-be muggers not once but twice during the night. 

Of course, if I hadn't had him with me, I wouldn't have been on the park bench in the first place; so, all things considered, it still behooves me as a great writer to warn you against taking in stray animals.  Believe me, they are no end of trouble (not the least of which, as you shall presently see, being the naming of them).  Be that as it may, I and my watch dog managed to get through the night, then took ourselves to a stand for breakfast (I had no intention of attempting to get into a restaurant for a nice sit-down meal), after which I bought a morning paper.

(And here, gentle reader, I must ask your indulgence, for the next passage is extremely complex, a delicate weave of a number of interesting elements.  If it is your habit to simply peruse great passages, or speed read past them, I ask you to please refrain from it now, lest you miss some point crucial to my themes.  In addition, you will glean a most helpful piece of information; namely, that newspapers are everything their supporters claim them to be, and nothing their detractors maintain.)

My aim was twofold when I opened the paper: to look for work, even though I had just obtained work (doubtless I am something of a workaholic at heart); and to seek a realtor, lest I find myself sleeping once again on a park bench.  Of course, I kept one eye peeled for a good kennel, just in case I had to find a temporary home for Fido while I sought a permanent home for us both.  So I turned at once to the classifieds and, sure enough, my trouble was well rewarded.

"Best realtor in town!" leaped out at me as if someone had anticipated precisely what I wished.  And the name of that realtor: Pasquale and Zido, whose signs I remember seeing everywhere - even at City Hall, which had inadvertently been put up for sale by the city council in place of the city dump, which is what they actually meant to sell.  So far there had been no bids.

"We can put you in the house of your dreams," the ad guaranteed, "before the close of business today!  No money down, no closing costs, no points, no hidden fees.  No other realtor dares to make this offer.  We're the biggest and we're the best.  So stop by and see us.  We're at 655 Filament Avenue.  We're Pasquale and Zido.  Home to some of the finest, most affordable homes in town."

I resolved then and there to make Pasquale and Zido my realtors, taking time only to peruse the help wanted ads before turning toward Filament Avenue, which, fortunately, was within walking distance of the park.  None of the ads, however, appealed to me; they were mostly minimum wage jobs, or else bookkeeping or some similarly inartistic profession - so I folded the paper and set it under my arm.  As I performed this maneuver, an article caught my eye.  "I'll just take time to read this," I said, out loud, to myself.

"Don't talk with your mouth full!" some passing stranger had the temerity to address me.

"My mouth is not full!" I pointed out.

"Of course it is!" came the reply.  "You've got so many ideas you're chewing on, some of 'em'll spit right on out."

"And just how, pray tell, do you know I have all these ideas?"

"You got the blank space stare of a man too preoccupied to see two steps in front of him!"

"Sir," I said, "I see, not only two but a thousand and two steps ahead of me!  I am a writer - that is to say, a man of vision!"

"A published writer?"

"Yes: a published writer!"

"And a man of vision?  How is that possible?  What is your secret?  Who do you know?"

These were offensive enough questions, to be sure; but I chose to respond.  "As if it were possible," I said, "to be a writer without first being a man of great vision!  The writer, like any artist, belongs to the world.  He does not need to know anyone to get published: his work must come before the public; that is the universal law.  What comes from the world must be returned to it!  Like the dancing Indian in the arrowhead!"  (The reader will no doubt recall where I borrowed that last from.)

"The dancing Indian all over again - of course, why didn't I see it coming?" my interlocutor mused.  "Tell me, sir," he asked.  "What if your work - belonging as it does to the world - is not presented in a form the world is ready for?  What then?"

"The great writer, I assure you, will always have his ear to the ground, his finger firmly on the public pulse, and his eye on his audience!" I replied.

"What a remarkable concept!" the passer-by was forced to concede.  "And from a man of vision no less!"

I thanked him and proceeded on my way.  "So long as there are great writers like you, Sir," he called to me, "I shall continue panhandling for a living!"

"We're all a bit of a panhandler," I stopped to call back to him.  Not that it was true, but I felt a little charity couldn't hurt.  Then I continued on, cognizant of having been interrupted in the midst of something important, but unable to recall what it was.  Fortunately, just at that moment Fido chose to relieve himself (it is with a note of regret I must report that dogs are incorrigibly indiscreet, and about as far removed from proper decorum as one dare imagine).  So I took a moment to once again peruse the newspaper - and then it struck me what I was in the middle of when the panhandler interrupted me.  An article in the Arts and Entertainment section had caught my eye.

"Writer with a capital 'C'," the title read.  A "capital C?"  Even the dullest of my readers knows perfectly well the word begins with a "W," not a "C!"  My first impulse was, as you might imagine, to throw down the paper in disgust - even if that meant Fido soiling it!  Fortunately for me I didn't, or I might have missed one of the most important feature articles ever written.

"What are the three crucial elements of great writing?" the article began with this intriguing question, which it proceeded, first, to rephrase, then, to answer.  "What is it that distinguishes every masterpiece ever written?  What separates, if not the men from the boys, the writers from the hacks?  What, in a word, is genius all about?  The answer - the three absolutely mandatory elements of great literature: charisma, charisma and charisma - in that order!"

Well, that was certainly a new wrinkle.  But what exactly were they saying? I wondered.

"And just where do you find evidence of it?" the article proposed.  "Not in the work itself, of course.  In the author's biography - that's where.  Or if he is yet without a biography: in his personality.  At any rate, look for it in him - in the man - in the writer himself.  To be truly great he must - HE MUST - have charisma!  (Anything you hear to the contrary is all fairy-tale.)"

Much evidence was put forth to support the article's contention that charisma, and that alone, marked greatness, not the least of which was this curious but nonetheless indisputable piece of circumstantial evidence.  "Call him a jester, call him a gigolo, a servant, a valet, a lackey or even a trained seal if you will, the fact remains that the writer, be he great or small, is forever a subordinate to the powers that be in this world; and, as such, must make himself in any possible way pleasing to his masters if he's to succeed at his craft.  It is a poor writer indeed (not to mention an unknown one) who cannot charm, cajole, bully, intimidate or in some other way obtain his masters' support."

Next came several whole paragraphs about a man the article called "the greatest writer living in America today."  His name (a veritable "household word") was Lancelot Wordsmith, and what characterized his greatness was "his immense charisma."  "If his genius is anything like his charm," the article postulated, "he portends to be the greatest writer of this or perhaps any century!"  It went on the characterize him as "a writer of considerable style, grace and charm; enormous personal charisma; and not a little talent."  And it ended with this stunning declaration: "Imagine Elmer Gantry, Willy Stark the Pied Piper of Hamlin all rolled into one - and the guy can write too!"

As yet, Wordsmith had completed nothing; but reportedly had several major works in progress, for which he was paid handsome advances.  Reviews of his anticipated masterpieces periodically appeared in the Small Press.  And, needless to say, he was a much sought after guest on every talk show on television.  "When will you finish your first opus?" he was recently asked.  "When time stands still long enough for my genius to touch earth," came his answer.  "Alfred Einstein, where are you when we need you?!" the article wailed.

But wait, there was yet one thing more to be gleaned from this magnificent article.  Tucked away in the middle was the name and address of a place a writer could go to have his charisma tested.  The place was called Star Labs, a chain of fully accredited, scientifically certified clinics where, for a "nominal fee," it was possible to determine one's level of charisma.  Imagine!  And not only that, but - wonder of wonders! - there was one right here in our city - right in our very own city!  It was surely no accident that led me to the Arts and Entertainment section, when I had only bought the paper for the classifieds; the finger of fate itself had pointed the way.

But which to do first?  Go get my charisma level checked, or buy a house?  It was a dilemma only a philosopher could hope to solve; I resolved, therefore, to proceed at once to the Thinking Man's Tank to consult with my supervisor and, hopefully, obtain a bit of good sound advice (and of course the appropriate phenomenology to go with it!).  Just then, however, my dog Fido, as if suddenly possessed of the devil, took off running with all his might in God knows which direction; so of course I had to pursue him, resolving with every huff and puff to give him a stern lecture upon overtaking him and even threatening to purchase a leash.

When finally he stopped running, and as I managed to catch my breath, and was about to deliver the lecture, I chanced to glance up.  And there, on a big sign staring down at me, was, of all things, the name of the very realtor I had decided to have act as my broker in the purchase of my new home: Pasquale and Zido.  So, being already here, Fido having in effect usurped his former master's philosophical imperative, I decided to go on in.  I picked up the little creature, who was now panting, and opened the door; and as I did I heard the receptionist call to someone "Mr P: another one with a rat!"

From behind a closed door a man raced out.  "Those condos don't have rats!  And if another one of you tries to -"

Here I cut him short.  "This is no rat," I pointed out.  "It's my dog, Fido."

"Then you shouldn't groom him to look so much like a rat," Mr P scolded.

"He's a Chihuahua," I explained.  "He's groomed by nature."

"Then nature has an odd sense of decorum," said Mr P.  I couldn't disagree with that - not with the memory of that gallant Mr Colpenenny giving his life so freely for that very belief so fresh in my mind.                    

"It most surely does," I said.

"And what can we do for you today?" Mr P asked.  "How about a condo?  We have a special on condos this week."

"No," I said, "no condo.  I must have a backyard."

Then you'll want to speak with Mr Z.  By the way, I'm Pasquale," Mr P at last introduced himself.  "Babs," he addressed his receptionist, "get Mr Z out  here."

Babs buzzed Mr Z.  Meanwhile I introduced myself.  Presently a gentleman considerably taller and thinner than Mr P appeared.

"I'm Zido," he said.  And my dog made bold to growl, presumably at the sound of a name so near to his own.

"I am Rondo," I said.  "No doubt you've heard of me."

Pasquale and Zido looked at me than at each other then back at me again.  "No doubt we have," Zido answered for the both of them.  Something in his manner made Fido growl again.

"This gentleman," Pasquale addressed his partner, "is looking to buy a home - with a back yard, for his rat terrier.  What do you have for him?"

"How much can you put down?" Zido asked me.

"Preferably, nothing," I replied.

"You've got to put something down," Zido insisted.  "Besides, it's to your advantage: otherwise the closing cost is way too high, there are too many points, the fees are outrageous, etc., etc."

I took out the ad I had seen in the classifieds.  "What about this?" I asked.  "I'd like a house without a down payment, closing costs, points or fees.  And I'd like it by the close of business today."

"Excuse us a minute," Pasquale said.  The two realtors retired to a conference room, returning presently with the unhappy news that "That house was sold first thing this morning.  We're sorry."

Just my luck, dear reader.  While I sat on a park bench reading the morning news, my dream house was sold right out from under me.  Truly doth the early bird catch the worm!  "What's the best you can do for me?" I asked.  Again the gentlemen retired to the conference room, returning this time with much happier news: you could tell just by looking at their faces that they had come up with something guaranteed to satisfy their customer.

"Zido," said Pasquale, "you give him the good news."

"I can put you," Zido began, "in a magnificent townhouse overlooking the harbor for just 20,000.00 down, 10,000.00 settlement cost, 6,500.00 in fees, and only 5 points.  And while you're waiting for the closing, I can put you up at a rental property on beautiful Thalmus Avenue for only $100.00 a night, plus an extra $15,00 for your rat terrier!"

At this - God only knows why: perhaps some combination of sounds angered him - my dog leaped from my arms and sprang upon Mr Zido's leg, growling and snapping and in every other way imaginable attempting to intimidate the poor helpless realtor.  Luckily I had retained another piece of chocolate, which I hastily drew out of my pocket and enticed Fido from his attack with; otherwise my  realtor might well have imagined himself set upon by a mad dog.  I grabbed Fido up again, scolded him - "Bad dog!" I said, which seemed not to phase him in the least; and apologized profusely for his untoward behavior.

"I will of course take the house," I said; "but as to the interim stay on Thalmus Avenue, I must decline - just as the neighborhood has itself declined, to the point where $100.00 a night is beyond overpriced, even beyond highway robbery.  I shall seek temporary quarters elsewhere."

"A hundred a night?" Pasquale asked in some shock.  "Did we say a hundred a night?"

"Plus an additional $15.00 for Fido," I reminded him.

"Excuse us a moment," said Pasquale as he and Zido again made for the conference room.

"What Mr Z meant to say," Pasquale explained when they returned, "was one hundred a week - not a night."

"That works much better," I said.  So the deal was struck and Fido and I were off again to Thalmus Avenue - to the 800 block, where our temporary quarters awaited us - comfortable enough quarters considering we would be there only a week; otherwise they would have been intolerable.

Once we were settled in, and Fido was fed and exercised and made, as best I could to feel at home, I left, making straightway for the Star Lab that my charisma might be tested.

 

Chapter 7.  Them That Can't Be Found Are Lost

It had the look of a clinic.  Its facade was a pale yellow brick given in three tiny spaces to windows, each protected by bars.  Next door to it was a genuine clinic, as well as across the street; and just down the street were three more, each specialized toward a single item: one blood, one urine, one (please forgive me) fecal matter.  The sign, too, seemed more appropriate to a clinic; it had a certain stark realism to it, a no-frills, no-nonsense businesslike quality.  It said simply "Star Labs, Inc"; and gave the address - 1789 Pineal Way.  I chuckled that so prosaic a structure should house so profoundly imaginative an enterprise.  "There's irony for you," I observed.  And, dear reader, need I say that in no part of any big city is it a good idea to make any observation aloud whatsoever, no matter how apropos it might be? for as surely as the sun rises on Tokyo and sets on New York somebody is bound to overhear you and respond - and, nine times out of ten, that somebody will be a vagrant.  And vagrants, of all people, cannot resist putting their two cents' worth to your ear (figuratively, of course, for they haven't two literal cents to their collective names!).

I no sooner spoke than I regretted having done so; for there, not three yards distant, though almost out of range of my peripheral vision, was none other than a certified, dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying vagrant.  "And ye shall know them by their works," saith the Talmud (I think that's where it was written).  But the authors of that sacred book never had a bevy of vagrants tugging at their sleeves, or they'd have known that not everyone knoweth what work is!

"Irony?" the man asked, as if he hadn't quite caught what I had said.  "You did say 'irony?'"

"Indeed I did," I replied.  "There is much irony in this building standing before us."

"This building?  Star Labs, you mean?  I once cleaned toilets for them.  Now it's done on contract with a firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.  They pay ten times what they paid me; only now they can write it off as overhead.  Stalls 'n Walls, Inc. has clout with the IRS; I don't  So I'm out of a job."

"Not out of a very good job," I pointed out.

"It depends which end of a man you find least offensive," he replied in that typically cryptic way vagrants have of speaking.

"I prefer dealing with a man's mind," I reported.

"You sure don't mind dirtying your hands, do you?" the vagrant had the effrontery to ask.  I said nothing, however; I merely looked at him in a puzzled and indignant manner.

"The leavings of a man's bowels are nothing compared to the leavings of his mind," he added by way of explanation.  "His philosophies, his theologies, his science, his art, his histories and a hundred other fetid objects: it takes a powerful stomach to remove them from one's path.  Or from one's shelf, as it were."

"Sir," I said, "I am both a thinker and an artist, for I am a writer - why I have even been mentioned in the same sentence with Merleau-Ponty!  I resent your inference."

"I make no inference," he said.  "I state what I have to state outright.  What you leave behind you upon visiting your toilet is infinitely more honest than what you leave on your publisher's credenza; for it is exactly what it is and nothing can persuade anyone otherwise - not all the trickery and deceit in the world, not all the pronouncements of all the pundits and panjandrums and poppycocks put together!  Not a soul alive would ever imagine his well-being dependent on yours or any man's stool, sir.  But every other one imagines his very existence hanging on every other word of some or another authority, when in fact by the time the words are given form they have already become the handmaids and servants of ego and self-interest and have neither meaning nor humanity sufficient to thereby hang a tale, a picture or for that matter anything but a turn on easy street!"

"You must be talking about writers of the Surrealist School," I conjectured, at once reluctant to encourage further discourse yet unwilling to let so flagrant an assertion go unchallenged.  "But I, sir, am a realist, not somebody who creates strange works in order to shock the sensibilities of his reader!"

"A realist!  Ah!  I am honored, sir.  But pray tell, what exactly is a realist?"

"A realist is one who portrays the world fully, totally, completely."

"And honestly?"

"Honesty is my virtual pseudonym!" I assured him.  "For I am an artist!"

"An artist?  Did I hear you right - but yes, of course I did, you said it a moment ago too: you're an artist.  What an extraordinary admission of guilt!"

Well, dearest reader, I was shocked - so shocked that momentarily I could say nothing except a poor echo: "Guilt?"

"Yes, guilt.  For what is an artist if not a thief?  He is given - freely, abundantly! - all those wondrous gifts of genius and inspiration and creativity which he immediately puts in the service of his ego so as to set himself above all others, demanding tribute and payment fit for a king's ransom before he will allow anyone else a peek at those gifts which had cost him nothing to begin with."

"It cost him the trouble to sit down and write!" I protested.

"For which he demands about a thousand dollars an hour!" my interlocutor (perhaps I should say "accuser") retorted.

"What about Mozart?" I, in turn, retorted.  (Luckily I had recently seen the movie "Amadeus.")

"You're speaking of Mozart the classical artist?  The great composer?  The same one who created beautiful music at a time when only the privileged few could enjoy it?  The one who moved through a shadow world of courtier intrigue and patronage roulette and came out on the losing end?  You're speaking of him?"

"I most certainly am!"

"Oh.  I thought perhaps you were speaking of the other Mozart, the one you never hear of because he never succeeded; because he had no link to the royal houses of Europe; so his genius went to his grave with him."

"And his name was Mozart?" I asked.

"Who knows what his name was," came the cryptic reply.  "He lacked the skills to get his works before the public."

"Oh, I see," I said.  "You're talking about a nobody, not an actual Mozart."

"A nobody, eh?" the vagrant seemed to consider the verdict.  At first I thought perhaps, in hitting so close to home, I had hurt his feelings; but his reply convinced me he was too far removed from reality to experience dejection.  "In what sense a nobody?" he asked.

"Every sense," I said.

"Every sense?  The metaphysical and epistemological as well as the social-political?  A nobody in essence as well as in social status and power?  An existential nobody as well as a hierarchic nobody?  Please don't trouble yourself to answer: my questions are purely rhetorical, for we both know full well what you mean when you declare my lesser Mozart a 'nobody!'"

"And what is that?"

"That he does not hold rank in the system created by those scoundrels, scalawags, liars, cheats, thieves and murderers known collectively as 'mankind.' - that peculiar system designed to honor those among them who stand out as even greater villains than the rest!  That system of scar-tissue and dung smears against which a person is profiled in order to determine whether he is a somebody or a nobody, so that those who have purloined the world's resources will know how much sustenance to allot him.  That system which runs on twin rails of competition and nepotism and is powered by the collective greed of the human race.  That system that rewards, not worth, not effort, not value, not genius but selfishness.  That system that since time immemorial has played upon man's ability to manipulate and deceive and intimidate one another.  That system."

"Sir," I spoke right up to defend humanity, "if I hear you correctly, it is nothing but sour grapes that inspires and certainly colors your rhetoric!"

"It isn't my loss I lament," came the typically cryptic reply, "but humanity's.  If I grieve, it is not that I did not attain the rank of 'somebody,' but that only in attaining such a senseless rank can anybody offer the best he has to give to this world.  I grieve for all the lost talent, all the still-born genius that might collectively have turned this pitiful world into a paradise.  I grieve that the encouragement of each person to express his own special creativity is not man's highest priority.  I grieve that our societies are content to exploit their members in order to enrich a few; content to sentence people by the million to mindless, soulless, lifeless tasks that ultimately produce nothing but a moment's satisfaction for the ones with power enough to dictate to the rest; content to reduce potential artists and scholars and researchers to paper shufflers and dirt grinders and boot lickers for the sake of that vilest of all earthly vanities: preserving a fleeting illusion of immortality.  I grieve that we honor empires and titles and statues and palaces and a thousand other withering stalks cluttering the landscape; and ignore the people - even though that 'people' be our very own selves - who, because they live and breathe and think and feel, give meaning to the universe every day of their lives.  And I grieve most of all, that because we have chosen to be fools, the force of a man's persona instead of the breadth and depth of his soul is his measure and therefore dictates his lot in life."

"Well," I said by way of response, "as for me, sir, I do not intend sitting around doing nothing while my talents go to waste!  I happen to be on my way at this very moment to get my charisma tested!  So if you'll excuse me, I'll be about my business."

"Getting your charisma tested, eh?  Then indeed, sir, you shall most assuredly be a somebody!"

"Indeed, sir, I most certainly shall!" I agreed.

At last! I thought as the door to Star Lab shut behind me.  Dear reader, do you know what it's like to be put upon by a madman when there is something of absolute importance before you?  If not, I hope you never have to learn, for the experience - mark my words - is anything but pleasant or illuminating.  (Indeed, only for the sake of my total commitment to my craft did I include the foregoing passage at all, so irrelevant was it to my themes, my structure, or my plot.  The truth is, were it not for these tedious interludes with vagrants my book would have been a perfect ellipsis, and a sure contender for the National Book Award.)  Be that as it may, I was at last within, away from all the madness and stupidities one is doomed to encounter on the streets of America (a federal law banning vagrants wouldn't hurt!); away from senseless notions and false premises; away from sour grapes and bitter pills of every description; harbored safe, at last, in the clean bright efficient halls of purpose and structure and guiding principles.  I was poised before my future, ready to meet it straight on, neither lamenting nor grieving, complaining nor criticizing, ranting nor raving; for in the crisp clear light of corporate strategy all foolishness and nonsense vanished without a trace, leaving fame and fortune - the goal and the proof of success - perhaps of life itself.  I was on my way.

"May I help you?" a woman seated beside a large leafy plant asked.

"I'm here for testing," I replied, looking more to the plant than the woman, for it was absolutely stunning while she was, to tell the truth, rather plain.

"What a beautiful plant" I could not resist observing.

"Yes, it is," the woman agreed.  "A silk plant."

Well, that was a new one for me: a silk plant.  But, being the consummate artist, I could easily enough imagine a host of silk worms in anticipation of the next gathering of silk.  "A silk plant," I repeated the woman's designation.  "How perfectly enchanting.  I might like one for my new house," I mused.  "I have just the place for it."  Actually, this last observation was pure conjecture, since I had not yet had time to adequately examine my new home with an eye to proper artistic decor; but it is almost always safe to propose a place for a plant or two.

"Follow me, sir," the woman advised as she arose from behind her desk.  Together, we started down a long corridor to her right.  "Oh, by the way, sir," she turned to ask me, "how did you hear of us?  It's something I'm supposed to ask new clients."

"Actually, I didn't - hear of you, that is.  I read about you in the newspaper."

"In the piece about Lancelot Wordsmith?" the woman asked.

"The very one," I replied.  "A masterwork of newsprint."

"I'll be sure and tell my friends at M-F-K-B," the woman observed.

"At where?" I asked.

"Meier, Frier, Knopf and Box: you know: the big ad agency.  They're responsible for putting that piece together."

"In that case," I resolved then and there, "I'll go thank them personally!"

"They don't have an office here," she pointed out.  "They're headquartered in Washington, D.C. - not all that far from here."

"First time I'm in DC, I'll look them up."

"And if you see a Larry Smelba," the woman requested, "tell him Jersaleene said Hi!"

"Will do!" I promised.

Presently, we came to a richly carved door at the end of the corridor.  Just as I started to comment on its workmanship, Jersaleene, in turning the knob, scratched her nails against a very delicate garland of cranberry.  Her nails must have been made of iron, for the garland was cleft from the door as clearly as if she had taken a chisel to it.

"Oh not again!" she exclaimed as she retrieved the carving and, to my amazement, stuck it back in place.  "Thank heaven for plastic!" she observed.

"This isn't wood?" I asked.  Jersaleene merely laughed and pushed the door the rest of the way open, admitting us to one of the most strikingly beautiful rooms I had ever had the great good fortune to behold.

I looked around the room to magnificently tiled walls, almost tapestry like in their subtly repeating pattern; perfectly complimented by parquet floors of an indescribably brilliant shine and a pure white ceiling bordered by a delicate mosaic.  The furnishing - for a single item graced this exquisite room - was a deep mahogany grained table some fifteen feet long.

"You may have a seat over there," Jersaleene advised me.

"There doesn't appear to be a chair," I observed.

"On the other side, the table folds down into a bench," I was informed.  "Like I say: thank heaven for plastic!"

"You mean that table's plastic?" I asked.

"I mean everything here's plastic," she said.

"But it all looks so real...I mean: so natural.  Why plastic?"

"Sometimes our clients get a little upset when they receive their test results.  One gentleman tried to ram his head through the wall."

"What happened?" I asked in some alarm.

"Within a day the wall had smoothed itself out."

"What happened to the gentleman?"

"I'm not sure.  I've seen someone who looks a little like him on TV, but I'm not sure it's him.  It probably isn't: after all, he completely failed.  Had no charisma whatsoever.  It was very sad.  Anyway, someone'll be with you shortly, so just make yourself comfortable."

With this, she left the room - and as it turned out, a bit too soon; for when I attempted to release the bench from its perch along the rim of the table, I found myself at a standstill.  It wouldn't budge; I made a complete failure of getting it down.  Consequently, I was forced to stand while I awaited testing.  I found myself wondering if one's charisma were stronger standing up or sitting down.  Fortunately, I didn't have long to wonder, for within ten minutes somebody entered.  At least I didn't have to ponder the appropriateness of rising to greet someone who, in essence, was my paid servant, since I was already standing.

"Hi!" the man said in a most chipper voice.  "I'm Tad.  I'll be your tester today.  You're free to sit if you like.  There's a whole school of thought says your charisma's at its optimum if you're seated behind a big executive's desk."

"Actually," I replied, "I was unable to separate the G. D. bench from the table."  Something in the young man's manner irritated me - otherwise I most certainly would not have taken the Lord's initials in vain.

"You shouldn't curse the table," Tad reprimanded me with a wink.  "It's purpose is not to offend but to enrich your life!  Now watch: I'll show you how it's done."

Tad gently grasped the rim of the table; reached up under the table; pressed a button (which I had no way of knowing was there); and - Voila! - the bench descended as if by magic.

"Presto!" he said.  "It's all in the wrist."

"And, I suspect," I added, "in the cleverly hidden button."

"It's a pretty standard item in Plasto-Tiki's Excelsior Line," Tad pointed out, as if he expected me to be familiar with a line of plastic furniture.

"I wouldn't know," I retorted, "my dining room isn't assembled like a Swiss Army Knife."

"This is made in the good old USA!" Tad stated emphatically (as if he had the capacity to say or do anything other than emphatically!)

Normally, of course, I would jump right in with my own "Made in America" sentiments; but Tad somehow gave a hollow ring to this otherwise profound perspective, so I let the matter drop.

"Have a seat," he offered, "and let the testing begin!"

"How do you test for something so elusive as charisma?" I asked.

"Simple," he replied.  "If you have to ask if you've got it...you ain't got it -"

"-Haven't got it," I corrected him.

"- haven't got it.  Just kidding though.  We give you a battery of pretty sophisticated tests.  In fact, if you'll open that drawer you'll see them."

"What drawer?"

"That's right, I keep forgetting: Plasto-Tiki's not your bag.  Here, you press this button and - Presto! - there it is.  You can start whenever you like."

"A pencil wouldn't hurt," I noted.

"Not unless someone poked it in your eye!  Just kidding.  Actually, though, it's been our observation that charisma is 10% inspiration, 90% preparation.  But, I suppose it's possible to be unprepared and still rate high on the Charisma Scale."  He handed me a pencil.  "You may begin," he said.

I opened the first test packet and, to my immense horror, a huge paper object leaped out at me - an object I can only describe as a simulation of the male genitalia.  I threw the thing aside.  "Someone on your staff is a practical joker," I observed, adding "though with very little taste."

Through his suppressed laughter, Tad advised me to go on to the next packet.  Needless to say I opened it with great caution; but it proved unaffected by whoever the practical joker was, so I began at once answering the questions.

"Name the universal solvent," was the first, followed by "One to the millionth power equals what?"  Then came "Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound...: what is it?"  The fourth question read "Take a thousand dollars, multiply it by a hundred pounds; diagram a million sentences; parse a billion verbs; all the while holding your breath: what allows you to do it?"  Altogether there were fourteen questions in this test packet; I endeavored to answer them as best I could.  Some I knew right off: the "universal solvent," for instance: everyone knows that's gold.  Others I had to guess at.  Eventually I finished and turned to the next packet.  I opened it right up, eager to get started; and - lo and behold - out popped what can only be described as a simulation of the female genitalia!  (Haste, dear reader, makes for more than merely waste!)

"The practical joker strikes again!" Tad exclaimed. 

"I wonder why I get the feeling you're that 'practical joker,' Tad?" I asked.

"Me?" Tad asked in a voice at once startled, hurt, frustrated and angry (it takes practice even for the great writer to detect so much in a voice).  "Me?  You think I'm the practical joker?  Oh God!  Oh God!  Why me?  Why me?"

Tad began banging his head on the table, then proceeded to the wall to do likewise.  Had this been a real table and a real wall, and not plastic, I would doubtless have been alarmed - perhaps so much so as to try and stop him.  As it was, I did nothing.  And, sure enough, when momentarily he ceased his banging, he appeared none the worse for the experience.

"Just look!" he pointed.  "Now I've ruined the wall!  They'll fire me for sure!"

"Oh, give it a couple hours," I assured him, "it'll smooth out.  If it doesn't, I'm sure Plasto-Tiki'll fix it."

"It's not Plasto-Tiki.  The walls from Panel-Tippi.  I don't know if it's guaranteed."

"Trust me," I said, "it's guaranteed."

I then turned to the next packet and was about to open it - cautiously, of course, not wanting to be the butt of yet another childish prank - when, all of a sudden, Tad wrenched it from my hands, declaring "Time's up!"

"But look how many more there are to go," I protested.  "There must be thirty here."

"You aren't expected to finish," he said.

"Yes, but I barely started!"

"Don't worry about it," he assured me, "we can judge as well on the one you finished as we could on all thirty - or a thousand for that matter - or a thousand thousand - or a -"

"I get the picture," I cut him short.

 

Chapter 8 - Imitation Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

"Do you?" Tad asked.  "Get the picture, that is?"

"I believe so," I said.

"Then you must know you have utterly failed our test.  The results indicate you have no charisma whatsoever.  Every answer is wrong."

"Every answer?"  I could hardly believe my ears: even the answers I was certain were right were wrong?

"Every answer," Tad underscored my disbelief.

"Surely not every answer," I protested.

"There is only one right answer for every question.  Charisma.  Look at your test form.  Where do you see 'Charisma' written anyplace?  Did you respond correctly to even one single question?  Did you?"

"I was forced to admit I had not.  "Then how can your score be anything but zero?"

"I guess it can't."

"And can such a score possibly indicate the presence of even as much as an ort of charisma?"

"I suppose not," I had to admit.  "So what now?" I asked.

Tad seemed to be trying on several faces, evidently looking for the one most suitable to the occasion.  At last he seemed to have found one that satisfied him, for his face stopped fidgeting and settled into an expression vaguely compassionate. 

"Well," he said at length in a voice of the same character as his expression, "you'll never be a Star - at least not without the help of some really super-duper PR firm.  But even they need some raw material to work with.  No, if I were you, I'd bite the bullet, face the music, read the writing on the wall, put my nose to the grindstone, and, above all, go get a job - as good a dog-gone job as your meager talents will allow.  How about it?  What do you say?"

"What I say, Tad, is that my talents are anything but meager.  I just happen to be a very great artist, who just happens to have written a best selling novel!  That's what I say, Tad.  So maybe this 'Charisma' of yours isn't the be all and end all you make it out to be!"

"A best seller?  Come on: how difficult can it be to create a God damn masterpiece - huh?  Anyone can have one measly best seller to his credit - hell, one year a chipmunk collaborated with a prairie dog to crank out a great novel on an IBM PC.  All it took was a little editing.  And I heard about a project at the Smithsonian to have a team of monkeys translate King Lear."

"King Lear?"

"The one where this guy marries his mother-in-law and she's too old to have sex with so he goes blind masturbating - something like that, I don't know.  The point is anyone can have one best seller - hell, I'm shocked everyone doesn't!  But not everyone, I guarantee you, can charm the greenbacks out of the public's wallets, time after time after time!  I guarantee you.  Charisma is everything - and then some.  And he who would be a Star had damn well better have it coming out the Kazoo; because if he doesn't, he'll never follow up that 'best seller' of his with a second, and a third, and a fourth - and so on and on and on!  Charisma: give me Charisma or give me obscurity.  You pays your money and you takes the only choice you got!  And in case you're wondering - and I'm sure you are - if we offer a Remedial Charisma Class: the answer is No!  Loud and clear: No!  You either got it or you don't.  It can't be taught.  Period."

"What do you recommend?" I asked.

Tad put on his most studious face and got a pencil and paper.  "I'm writing down a telephone number for you," he explained.  "I want you to call and schedule a class."

"A class?  But you just said Charisma can't be taught," I reminded him.

"It's a seminar.  It's given by Seminar Labs of America.  They're headquarters is Columbus, Ohio.  It's on 'Getting A Great Paying Job.'"

"The seminar?"

"That's right."

"'Getting A Great Paying Job?'"

"Yes: 'Getting A Great Paying Job.'"

"Hmm," I mused.  "That might be worth my while."  So I took the slip of paper with the phone number on it and departed, a little uncertain whether coming here was a good idea or not, since I left with even less charisma than I had when I arrived.  On the way home, I toyed with the idea of effecting some sort of disguise and re-taking the test: after all, now I knew the answers, so I was bound to score extremely high.  

These ideas were still floating about my brain when I opened my front door and something speed past me.  Was it just one more idea? I wondered; then it dawned on me what it was.  It was Fido.  The little beggar had run away.  Should I go after him or leave well enough alone?  I debated (actually there was no real debate, I only state it thusly for the sake of artistic convention, which I will have occasion to explain to you in some detail in a later chapter.  The fact of the matter was, I had grown too fond of Fido to let him return to where I was almost positive I'd find him.).

I gathered my thoughts and, shutting my front door, carried myself five blocks to 301 Thalmus.  I decided to go the back way and, sure enough, there was Fido lounging beside the fence.  At the sight of me, he bolted my way, wagging his tail and squealing.  I grabbed him up, hugged him, bestowed a few words of endearment upon his tiny person, and was about to make my exit when, all of a sudden, the back door opened and Kris-Klaus Kritch-Krinklehoffer poked his head out.

"Who is John Galt?" he asked in a voice not entirely unlike the cryptic style of a street vagrant.

From his tone, I took it to be a philosophic question of the highest import, so I studied a moment before replying.  What immediately ran through my mind was the uncanny similarity of the name to the ancient name of France: Gaul.  Galt-Gaul: so much alike in every way (though not in every letter, of course).  I readied myself for yet another go round with Merleau-Ponty.

"Was he not the lover, twice removed, of Merleau-Ponty?" I speculated - a speculation greeted by a most condescending sneer.

"Your little jest is in very poor taste, sir, very poor taste!"  Kritch-Krinklehoffer chided me.  "To mention the noble, dashing and oh so intransigent Galt in the same breath with that French riffraff is a slap in the face of Philosophy itself!  And only a Philistine would conceive so scurrilous a conceit!  Were you not my most loyal and trusted employee, sir, I would order you off these premises with all due haste!  Why, imagine, to compare that Frenchman, wild eyed with the most unbridled emotionalism, to the man who almost single handedly created perpetual motion, not to mention the purest and most perfect expression of rational self-interest ever drawn - why, it is nothing less than heresy!  And were you not one of the most gifted handymen ever set upon this planet I would advocate your immediate exile from Atlantis!"

"Atlantis?  You did say Atlantis?  The Lost Continent?" I asked.

"Lost only to such concrete bound second handers as yourself!" came the rather curt reply.

"But what has Merleau-Ponty to do with Atlantis?  Did he do a phenomenology of it on squeezable soft toilet tissue?"

"Merleau-Ponty!  Merleau-Ponty!  My God, man, can't you think of anything but that has been?"

"Has been?"

"Of course!" snapped Kritch-Krinklehoffer.  "He and his entire school of thought have been thoroughly discredited!  They're as outmoded as French ticklers or Spanish fly!"

"But only yesterday -" I started to point out but was cut off.

"Yesterday?  My God, man, give it a rest, can't you?  Philosophy does not stand still, not for any man!  It is forever on the move!  What was the latest word in human thought yesterday is but a dirty memory today, like a stain on your undershorts!"

"So who's in fashion today?" I asked - an innocent enough question, I would have thought; but, judging from Kritch-Krinklehoffer's reaction, not as innocent as I imagined.

"Fashion?" he stormed.  "You think philosophers come and go like garter belts and jockey straps?  I will have you know, sir, they are immensely - immensely - more significant than that!  Why Merleau-Ponty and his ilk have been on their way to oblivion for decades, man - decades!  I resisted seeing it as long as I could; but there were just too many signs, and too unmistakable.  Phenomenology is as obsolete today as Existentialism was ten years ago; as obsolete as Positivism was five years ago; and so on.  Objectivism: that's all there is, that's all you need know.  Objectivism!  Say it with me: Objectivism!  Ayn Rand - ah, the name sends tingles up and down my spine!  Ayn Rand is today's philosopher.  Ayn Rand: the last two words in philosophy.  There need be no further ideas espoused, for this is it, the be all and end all.  Objectivism: the last word in philosophy."

"You mean 'Rand,' don't you?" I corrected him.

"Beg your pardon?"

"If, as you say, 'Ayn Rand' are the 'last two words in philosophy; then must not 'Rand' be the 'last word in philosophy' rather than 'Objectivism'?"

"I see you're every bit as good with a barb as you are with a hammer," Kritch-Krinklehoffer observed.  "But if you'd leave off nit picking long enough to see beyond the concrete, you'd realize that Objectivism is merely a synonym for Ayn Rand.  Thus there is nothing contradictory in my observation.  A is A, my friend.  A is A."

"And AR is O," I noted.

"Will you never have done with your concrete bound way of perceiving reality? though it is perhaps natural for a bricklayer to be so bound.  A thing is either-or: either-or!  Except for A, which is always A!  For, indeed, Non-Contradiction is my middle-name.  You see, my atavistic friend who toils with his hands while his intellectual superiors labor over the birth of axioms, I am an Objectivist, first and foremost; and will brook no cockeyed mystics in my midst - no matter how good at wood working they be!  For I am no second-hander, nor starry eyed do-gooder; no Robin Hood from Sherwood Forest, nor Jesus Christ on a cross.  And, above all else, I want - and will accept - nothing - absolutely nothing - I did not earn with my own two hands, the sweat of my brow and my powers of abstract thought!"

Here, dear  reader - almost as if responding to the very words spoken - Fido jumped from my arms, ran up to Kritch-Krinklehoffer as if he would attack him, and began a fierce round of barking, intermingled with much growling and baring of teeth, once or twice even biting the great thinker's pant legs.

"Some watch dog!" declared Kritch-Krinklehoffer.  "Turns on his own master."  He tried not to show fear, no doubt having heard that a dog will attack all the more fiercely if he detects any; but I could tell he was quite fearful all the same, so I proposed a strategy to remove him from the present situation.

"What about the Thinkers in your Think Tank?" I inquired.  "Surely they have not all deserted Merleau-Ponty."

"To a man," came the reply.

"And the Kierkegaardian, with his dancing Indian?"

"Him too."

"Impossible!" I expressed my strongest reservation.  They can't all have become Objectivists in so short a time."

"Come," he said, "see for yourself."

"Fido!" I called.  "You stay here.  Stay."  Of course he didn't stay - he followed us, right on into the conference room, where everyone was seated about the table just as they were the day before; but at least he left off attacking his "master" (and my boss).

Just as we got to the door, and before he ducked down to pass through the tiny doorway, Kritch-Krinklehoffer turned to me.  "Incidentally," he said in a voice far more sprightly than a moment earlier, "I have composed a musical refrain in honor of my conversion to Objectivism.  It is entitled 'Ayn Rand, the Epistemologist who chased the mystics out of the marketplace and back into the temple where they belong!'  I'd honor you with a few verses but I can't be sure how my watch dog will respond.  He's...very touchy, as you well know!"

Presently we were once again in the midst of the Thinkers of the Thinking Man's Tank.  I couldn't imagine that place without the intellectual exuberance generated by Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenologists; surely something as dry and hum-drum sounding as Objectivism could elicit very little in the way of discourse.

"Gentlemen," Kritch-Krinklehoffer addressed his fellow Thinkers, "this is our new handyman.  He's a follower of Immanuel Kant, I'm told."

Where he got that idea I can't imagine: I'm not even Jewish.  Nevertheless, everyone gasped at the revelation.  I was about to make a comment about anti-Semitism when one of the Thinkers confronted me with a most unusual question.

"Are you an Astrologer as well as an Idealist?" he asked.  "Have you got your 'sign' tattooed to your butt?"

"What is your sign?" another asked before I could answer the first.

"The sign of the writer!" I replied.

"Did he say 'rider'?" someone asked.  "He must be Sagittarius!  He sure knows his signs, doesn't he?"

"Like the back of his hand!" said yet another.

"A palm reader too!  Next you'll tell me he celebrates the Mass in a G-String!"

"I have no truck with the masses!" I assured everyone.  (Naturally, I don't mean to include you, my most beloved reader.)

"Only the Bolsheviks, eh!"

"I think I've heard enough!" the old Kierkegaardian - former Kierkegaardian, that is - exclaimed.  "I don't need an arrowhead through my brain or a dancing Indian stomping my toes to know when I'm in the presence of mystics, second-handers, subjectives and do-gooders!"  (Old images, I see, die hard!)

"The question then becomes," Kritch-Krinklehoffer broke in, "what does one do with so blatant an intellectual atavist?  What philosophical penalty would you gentlemen impose for such intellectual crimes this neo-Humean is guilty of?"

Without hesitation the Thinkers, in turn and all at once, replied.  (It wasn't "either-or" this time!)

"Boil him in oil!"

"Stick a chalice where the sun doesn't shine!"

"Put him on a diet of host and water!"

"Burn him at Wyatt's Torch!"

"Tattoo the Book of Genesis on his...on his..." the Thinker faltered "...on his peanut brittle!"

"Make him sit on the head of a pin and count angels!"

"Cast hardcover copies of Atlas Shrugged at him!"

"Put him to work in a steel mill!"

"Let him have his way with Ayn Rand!"

"A heretic like him?" someone objected.  "Never!"

"I agree," said Kritch-Krinklehoffer; "a woman like her is too good for a mystic like this - even if he does have the hands of a John Galt!"

"But she had the body of death!"

"And titties for days!"

"She was built like a brick shit house!"

"And he's a master brick mason!" Kritch-Krinklehoffer reminded everyone.

"And don't forget the Professor of Epistemology: that cat of hers was beyond question the most enlightened animal ever to set paws upon this planet!"

Jealousy and envy, my dear reader, rears their ugly heads even in the animal kingdom, it seems; for no sooner had this last opinion been expounded than Fido leaped upon the table and made for the Thinker who had expounded it, growling and barking and making every threatening gesture known to canines.

"Oh God!" the Thinker exclaimed in great alarm as he rose from his seat.

"Careful lest you sink into the quagmire of the supernatural!" a fellow Thinker warned.

"Stay your ground," another advised.  "Be intransigent - even before wild animals and their familiars!"

"Call him off!" the Thinker enamored of Ayn Rand's cat pleaded.  "Call him off!  How can I remain intransigent with a mad beast at my throat!  After all, A is A - A is A!"

Fido relented a little, so the Thinker repeated his axiom.  "A is A!"  This time Fido (for what reason I can't say) even backed off a bit.

"Everyone!" the Thinker called to his fellow Thinkers.  "Join me - please! - join me!  A is A!  A is A!"

Before long the entire room was chanting in unison.  "A is A!  A is A!  A is A!"

Fido turned and leaped into my arms and we were off.  I paused momentarily at the door, turned back to the Thinkers, and asked "Who is John Galt?"

As I suspected, this started a round-robin philosophical dialogue.

"He was the most intransigent man who ever lived!" said one.

"He stopped the motor of the world!" said another.

"He had a bulge in his pants that wouldn't quit!"

"And an ass a Greek god would kill for!"

"But he was a 'leg man'!"

"He got a hard-on just looking at an equation!"

"And he could shoot halfway across the room!"

"Ah! but it was Hank Reardon who first discovered the dancing capitalist in the crankshaft!"

I closed the door at this point.  Then Fido and I departed.  For myself, I was rather pleased to see how flexible great Thinkers could be, how open to new ideas, how amenable to change; I had always imagined them to be rigid, unbending, unyielding, their minds shut tight against anything that went against the grain of their cherished beliefs.  Now I knew better.

But I had no time to dwell on such lofty thoughts just now.  My pooch retrieved, I immediately returned home to follow through with the task I had assigned myself.  No sooner did I set Fido down than I picked up the phone and dialed the number Tad had given me.

"Seminar Labs of America," the chipper voice answered.  "I'm Megan - how may I help you?"

"I'm interested in your seminar on 'Getting A Great Paying Job,'" I said.

"Oh yes!" came the reply.  "That's one of our Power Seminars!  A good choice!  It's a very Powerful Seminar, filled with Powerful Ideas, conducted by one of our Powerful Team Leaders, guaranteed to boost your confidence to Powerful Levels.  This seminar will put you in touch with your own personal Power Centers, so that when you decide to make that all important Career move to the big league, you'll know you possess the poise, the confidence, the skill, the style, the charm, the aggressiveness, the leadership, the esprit de corps to command the top salary in your field!"

"Sounds almost too good to be true," I confessed.  "Tell me: how much does it cost?"

"For only $398.00 you can attend this Powerful One Day Seminar!" Megan replied.

"Does it come with a money-back guarantee?" I asked.

"No," came Megan's reply, "it's not quite that Powerful.  But believe me, you won't want your money back once you've been motivated by the Powerful Ideas your Team Leader has to share with you!  Tell me: do you live near the Washington, DC Metro area?"

"Yes, I do."

"Then I can schedule you for the next seminar in your area on May 17th.  And you can make your check to Seminar Labs of America.  We're at Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland.  The seminar starts promptly at 8:30 A.M. on May 17th at the Shoreline Hotel.  And please pay special attention: it's the Shoreline Hotel, not the Shorelin.  A lot of people get them confused, so remember: the Shoreline, not the Shorelin!  Do you have that?"

"Yes, I do," I assured her.

"It wouldn't hurt to write it down," Megan suggested.

"I promise you: as soon as I hang up, I will."

"Good.  And thank you for registering for one of the most Powerful Seminars we sponsor.  Goody-bye, and have a motivated day!"

"Good bye," I said, although Megan had already hung up.  I went at once to write the seminar's location on a slip of paper.  (And this would be my Power Paper henceforth!)  Shoreline - not Shorelin," I wrote and set the note on the small table beside the front door, so I'd be sure to remember it - a strategy most excellent in design but very poor, unfortunately, in execution.  Had I been able to place the note at a higher level, everything would have been fine; as it was, however, the small table was low enough for Fido to reach, with the result that he got hold of my note and chewed part of it, leaving the other part pretty much intact.  Fortunately, the name of the hotel where the seminar was to be held escaped Fido's teeth (or so I thought).

On the morning of the 17th, when I betook myself to Washington, DC, I caught what I thought was the Metroliner but it turned out to be the local commuter train to Washington.  Normally I'm very careful about things like that, but I was running late, and when I saw everyone running to the train I assumed it must be the Metroliner (who would have thought people would run to catch so uncomfortable a conveyance as the commuter train?).  To add to my discomfort, I had the misfortune to be seated beside a gentleman who spent the entire journey moaning and groaning and holding his stomach as if he feared something might drop out.

"What's wrong?" I ventured at one point to ask.

"As if you didn't know!" he replied in a huff.  I said nothing more the rest of the way; but I certainly learned something from the experience, something so unusual I feel duty-bound to make it know to the general public.  What I learned was that even a well dressed man in a three-piece business suit carrying an attaché case can be mad.  It would seem therefore that there is no absolute gauge of a man's sanity (though by and large one is still on fairly safe ground, I believe, arguing that a man is sane in direct proportion to how clean-cut and conventional he is).  Even so, I must admit I find a madman almost as disconcerting in charcoal gray or tweed as in plaid polyester or denim - especially when the train I'm riding breaks down and I have to spend up to three hours in his company!

Fortunately, the rest of the trip proceeded without incident.  Though he constantly moaned, the madman made no further assault on me.  We arrived at Washington's Union Station at 10:25 A.M.  On the way to hailing a taxi, I endeavored to determine who the madman was, asking first one then another commuter; but no one seemed to know.  Then, suddenly, as if reality could no longer bear keeping me in the dark, two gentlemen accosted the madman just as I was getting into the taxi.

"Clyde M Colpenenny?" they addressed.  "We have a warrant for your arrest!"

 

Chapter 9.  Old Haunts

"Clyde M Colpenenny," I mused aloud, "that name sounds familiar."

"I guess so, Mack!" interjected the ever vigilant cabbie, "his name's been on the front page of every major newspaper for the last three days!  The bum's absconded with all his bank's money and even faked his own death!"

"Yes, that would be enough to drive a man mad," I speculated.

"Sure, Mack: mad like a fox!" the cabbie cynically declares.

As for my part, I eschew such cynicism; I prefer to think if a perfectly sane, normal businessman goes mad, there is some perfectly sound reason.  So not wanting to open the door to further cynicism, I said nothing more on the subject.  I simply got in and gave the direction.

"Shorelin Hotel," I said.  "And please hurry," I ventured to add, "I'm already two and a half hours late!"

"I hope you're not meeting with the President," the driver made bold to suggest.  "Two and a half hours late'll put you somewhere in Podunk, Iowa, if you're Interior or some such Department; and smack in the middle of Outer Mongolia if you're Foreign Service!"

"Actually, in its own way, my business is even more important than meeting with the President," I casually remarked.

"Whatever you say, Mack!"

Luckily, he said nothing further the rest of the way, except for the requisite "Thanks, Mack" when I tipped him.

The moment I got out, I knew I had come to the right place.  There was a brisk, clean air of efficiency about the place; much hustle, much bustle; baggage boys coming and going; doormen politely easing one's entry into the understated elegance of the main lobby; desk clerks eager to assist the traveler in any way possible.  I knew right away this was a businessman's hotel: deals were cut here, empires bought and sold, fortunes made and lost - I could just feel the excitement as I walked through the lobby.  If ever inspiration existed for a work of art, it was here.

"I'm here to attend the Seminar," I told the desk clerk.

"Of course, sir," the clerk replied.  "That would be the Lorghan Room, just down the hallway to your left.  It's our finest banquet room.  And you're just in time, sir, the conference has only just begun!"

"Ah!" I thought, "so they're late beginning - excellent!  I won't have missed a thing!"  My trepidation at being late dissipated in a flash, and with it the fear that some great job might have passed by as I sat idle on the train track listening to Mr Colpenenny moaning and groaning.  I entered the banquet room with a conscience as clear and open as a corporate contract.

"Life imitates art which imitates nature: life thereby discovers itself!"

This was being spoken, as I came in, by a small man with big heavy glasses, a tiny mustache and very large hands which gestured constantly.  I looked around for the team leader (I had no doubt I would instantly recognize him, given the extraordinary Power of his Person); I could just imagine how irritated he must be at having to endure this pipsqueak with his wildly irrelevant palaver.  But I saw no one with the kind of presence the team leader would necessarily generate.  Perhaps he had gone to the gentlemen's room, and the pipsqueak took advantage of the situation to address some or another topic dear to his heart.

"Excuse me," I said, "what does this have to do with the matter at hand?"  After all, dear reader, I was late arriving and they were late getting started: every second counted because every wasted second brought me no closer to that great paying job which was the sole raison d'etre of this seminar.

The little man with the glasses stared at me a few seconds, almost as if he considered me the one who was being impertinent.  "Could you be more specific?" he asked.  

"We're here to learn about the single most important thing in a human being's life," I explained.

"Agreed," said my protagonist.  

"So what is all this nonsense about imitating art?  I grant you sometimes art and the creation of it can fetch a great deal of money, but not everyone is cut out to be an artist, nor can everyone who is cut out to be always earn his keep at his craft - we already know that, so why even mention it?  Surely there are more powerful arguments than that awaiting us!"

"A point very well taken, sir," came the response, if somewhat in-apropos.  "There is indeed a veritable host of banalities, trivialities and tenth rate imitations of fourth rate imitations of second rate imitations of downright plagiarisms, each and every one executed for no other reason than that the execution will fetch a tidy sum for the executioner!  But it is not those bastardly imitations of which I am speaking.  I simply wanted to make the point that life, in and of itself, is aimless, senseless, formless, meaningless; and is given these things only to the extent that it assumes the kind of surface and texture and shape and depth expressed in the purest form in Art.  In this, it imitates, not any given work of art, but the process of formation from which springs the concept of Art.  And this process, in turn, springs from the natural unfolding of everyday phenomena.  So that, just as form follows function, so too does life follow nature; and with the same intermediary: process.  Reaction; interaction; being worked upon and in turn working upon: process, without which function yields no form, nature no life.  Process.  Art.  Now do you see?"

Well, dear reader, I'm not blind - of course I see all that!  Who wouldn't?  But who cares, unless it might be some third rate Merleau-Ponty - who I've just learned to be as obsolete as an existential positivist!  I came here to get a great paying job, not to watch a pipsqueak making mud pies to deepen his watering hole (or something like that).

"Sir," I asked rather pointedly, my patience at an end (besides which it was beginning to look as if the team leader would not return until order had been restored, so all the more reason to put this diversion to rest).  "Sir, who do you think you are?"

Incredibly, this dense headed individual smiled.  "There is a little Descartes in each of us, I see!" he observed.

"Well, Mr Descartes -" I started to say but was interrupted by a roomful of laughter.

"Your delightful sense of humor is infectious," the man said.

"I wish my sense of urgency at getting to the heart of the matter were equally so!" I, in turn, said.  "So please refrain from further discourse so that the leader of this seminar can resume his rightful place!"

A hush befell the crowd.  The smile that had played about the little man's features vanished.  He looked at me with piercing blue eyes that somehow made him seem bigger than his small frame, or at least seemed to make his size irrelevant.

"I am Jason Myersby-Calcutt," he said coldly.  "And I am the 'leader' of this 'seminar,' as you choose to call it!"

This was certainly a surprise.  I expected a man at least six feet tall, no nonsense, all business: the kind of man one would not merely expect but demand a place like Seminar Labs of America employ - not this pipsqueak wearing glasses and spouting the most inane chatter imaginable!  Well, this was just too much - and I was paying good money for the seminar!

"And I suppose we'll spend the entire day discussing imitations of fourth rate bastards!" I remarked.

"We're here to consider something a slip-shod world, obsessed with getting the stupidest tasks done with the rapidity of a photon, has not only forgotten but, more than likely, never known to begin with; something without which even the most mindless automaton in three piece gray flannel couldn't exist five nanoseconds together; something a computer crazed gaggle of public planners and decision makers consistently overlook for its not being imprinted on a magnetic disk: we're here to contemplate the Eternal Verities.  And to seek Truth, even if we know it will elude us, as it has always eluded those who went in quest of it."

"Truth?" I repeated.  "Did I hear you correctly?  We're here to seek truth?  I paid good money to search for truth?  When only the other day I was speaking to a man - a great philosopher, no less! - who assured me truth was good for no more than one season at a time!"

The little man - Myersby-Calcutt - glared at me with eyes that had the fierceness, the glow, the needle sharp fixity of a madman's.

"Then," he said, "he ought to be shot!"

"The philosopher?  Shoot the philosopher?  He's an Objectivist!" I insisted.

"Between the eyes!" Myersby-Calcutt retorted.

"How can you say such a thing?" I asked.

"Any philosopher who could so trivialize his chosen field as to declare its central core "seasonal" is unworthy, not only of the field but of life itself!  Please tell me the name of this traitor to his cause and I will dispatch him forthwith to his reward!"

"I cannot in good conscience do that," I protested.

"You have no conscience, sir, or you would have strangled him then and there for the enormity of his crime!"

"Against whom?" I demanded.

"Against humanity!" came the reply. 

"And are you forgetting the law?" I asked.  "Had I avenged humanity as you suggested, I would have spent the rest of my life in jail!"

"Better to spend eternity in jail than one minute in the company of such a man as this shameful philosopher!" Myersby-Calcutt insisted.

"Not for a great writer!" I replied.  "The great writer must ever and anon be an observer of life, in all its multitude of forms - not an observer of prison bars!"  (I had him there, and he knew it.)

"You are a writer?" Myersby-Calcutt asked.

"I am indeed!" I proudly proclaimed.

"I would have taken you for a gadfly!" he quipped.

(Dear reader, I must caution you here and now against mixing metaphors lest you damage yourself in the process.  I have no doubt you are the most sophisticated readers alive; but if even I have difficulty keeping my metaphors straight, I can imagine your consternation.  Indeed, my zealous commitment to the tenets of Realism notwithstanding, I would omit altogether my next comment were I not so sure to give you heart knowing that even the great writer can wax foolish now and again!)

"Or a fly in the ointment!" I retorted without thinking - much to the delight of everyone present, I'm afraid; for I no sooner said it than I realized how inopportune was its wisdom.

"A fly in the ointment!" Myersby-Calcutt at once leaped upon my faux pas.  "Not a gadfly, but a 'fly in the ointment!'  And is this ointment good for more than a season, or has it expired already?"

"Sir," I said, determined to bring this entire matter to a close, "your mockery strikes me as somewhat vindictive - all because I didn't kill Kritch-Krinklehoffer!"

"So that's the name of your 'great philosopher!'  I must confess I've never heard the name, but perhaps someday I will.  And on that happy day, the world will find itself short one hack!"

"The man is not a hack!" I protested.  "My God, he nearly sodomized me for the sake of Merleau-Ponty before Phenomenology went completely out of fashion!  If that isn't dedication, what is?"

"Well, I must say, you've got me there," admitted Myersby-Calcutt.  "But enough of this diversion: let us return to the matter at hand.  "Carole," he called to an attractive woman halfway across the room, "to get back to your observation - incidentally," he interrupted himself, "for those of you who may have just arrived: this is Carole Carton.  You may have heard the name already.  She's a writer of some repute, at least within circles that still consider writing to be more than simply wrapping for popcorn -"

"You mean academic circles," I interjected.

"- or credentials for tenure, "Myersby-Calcutt went on without so much as acknowledging my observation.  "Carole: the best answer I can give is to strike a parallel between any given way of looking at things and your own name: Carton.  The term 'carton' did not come into general usage until after Mr Dickens' famous novel had been published.  Ideas can be present - just as the word 'carton' was present - but are not generally acted upon until they are given the power and force that only a work of art can give, as Mr Dickens did with his Sidney Carton.  This is why any philosophy that doesn't lend itself to artistic expression inevitably falls by the wayside; while those philosophies that can be and are incorporated into some artistic work or body of work assume a kind of immortality - even if their intellectual merit is less than that of the former.  This explains why, of all brands of philosophy, Aesthetics has the least impact on our lives: in seeking to explain art, it is less able to become part of any work of art; it remains forever outside of art.  Do you see?"

Well, dear reader, as you might expect, this Carole Carton said yes, she did see.  She was obviously buttering the little man up: how else explain her agreement, when no one alive but a lunatic could possibly have seen what Myersby-Calcutt was getting at?  But I said nothing, I just sat and listened as the team leader went ever farther astray.  Money wasted - precious money wasted!  I might as well have put it in Fido's food dish as to have paid to attend this worthless seminar.  (Rest assured I meant to demand a full refund!)

"Pardon me," I said just as Myersby-Calcutt was going off on yet another tangent (this one having to do with "layers of meaning in a work of art": layers of irrelevance, if you ask me).  "I'll be on my way now.  And I suggest the rest of you join me, since clearly you'll be no closer to a great paying job when this seminar's over than when it began!"

"Good bye!" said Myersby-Calcutt.  "And will you be seeing this Kritch-Krinklehoffer anytime soon?"

"I work part time for him," I said.

"Ah!  So you already have a 'great paying job'!"

"I don't starve," I replied.  "Neither does my dog."

"What kind of dog?" someone in attendance asked.

"A little dog," I said.

"Precision," observed Myersby-Calcutt, "be thy middle name, I see!  By the way: what is your name, sir?"

"I am Rondo - I need no middle name, I'll thank you to know!"

"Then fare thee well, Mr Rondo - and don't forget to apprise your employer to expect a bullet between his eyes one of these bright days!"

"On bright days he stays in," I pointed out.

"What a pity!" lamented Myersby-Calcutt.  "It would be so much more poetic to do him in under brilliant skies; but never mind, clouds will suffice."

With this, I departed the Lorghan Room.  "Everything alright, sir?" the desk clerk inquired on my way out.

"If you consider a totally irrelevant discussion of literature by a madman who threatens to murder my employer alright," I replied, "then yes, most certainly, everything is alright!"

"Very good sir," said the clerk.  "Please come again when you can stay longer.  And don't forget: Tuesdays and Thursdays we offer a discount if your three-piece is herringbone and your attaché oxblood!"

"I'll bear that in mind," I promised.                        

Presently, I was in a taxicab on my way to the bus station: the great writer always varies his itinerary to obtain maximum exposure to life in all its many wondrous facets, so I decided not to return the way I came.  Of course, not even the greatest of writers must vary his itinerary so radically as to defeat his own purpose.  You'll recall how Tolstoy was killed crossing the Autobahn when an eastbound vehicle jumped the median strip - so I most definitely omitted hitch-hiking from consideration in deciding how best to get home.  That left only taxi, bus or plane; the taxi being too expensive for so great a distance; the plane too impractical for so small a distance - which left only the bus.  (I mention this to give you some insight into how a great writer thinks.)

"You don't strike me as a bus rider, Mack!" observed the cab driver.  "I'd have pegged you for an Amtrak-ee!"

"How so?" I asked.  I had no real desire to converse with anyone, I just wanted to get home and be about my business; but since a cabbie's going to talk no matter what and since he rarely pays attention to anything his fares say, I figured it couldn't hurt to join in the conversation.

"You're dressed like you've just come from a big business meeting," he said, "or else on your way to one - and a businessman never takes the bus, he takes the Metroliner."

"So who rides the bus?" I asked.

"Businessman always takes the train, Mack.  Common folk take the bus.  Commoners, Mack.  Commoners."

"Aren't you forgetting this is America?" I reminded the cabbie.  "We have no royalty, therefore no 'commoners'!"

"If you mean no one knights you with a sword, okay, I get your drift.  But if you don't think we have royalty, Mack, then you don't understand what's most important to the high and mighty."

"And what might that be?"

"Think about it a minute.  What's the single most important thing royalty has that you and I don't have, and never will have, Mack?"

"Their castle," I ventured, much to the cabbie's delight, for he burst out laughing.

"Mack, I seen some fine lords and ladies didn't have have the money I got stashed away!  And if they had a pot to piss in, which I'm not convinced they did, they sure as hell never had a castle to put it in!  And some of them were no brighter than a barnyard hen - and not half as comely!  But they had one thing no one could take away from them: they had their titles!  And what is it, Mack, that any businessman worth his salt'd trade his soul for?  I'll tell you what it is: it's his title!  He don't want to be merely a businessman, he wants to be Chairman of the Board, or Chief Executive Officer, or Chief Financial Officer, or President of the Company, or at least Comptroller or Vice President or General Manager!  Give him his title or give him his death, Mack, 'cause he bloody well knows royalty can be anything, don't have to be King and Queen and Prince and Duke and what not - hell no: it can just as easily be CEO and CFO and so on down the line!  For that matter, it could be Chicken Shit and Dickhead and Ass Hole and Pea Brain - and they'd still all be out there tearing up one another to prove themselves worthy of the name!  I tell you, Mack, people are crazy.  They say sticks and stones'll hurt 'em worse than any name you can call 'em - maybe so: but it's the name you don't call 'em  - the words you refuse to hurl at 'em'll bloody 'em right on down to the tips of their souls!  So what do you say, Mack?  Shall we turn around and head for Union Station?"

"You made a powerful case," I admitted, "but no: I already made up my mind to take a bus.  Nothing can dissuade me."

"You're the boss, Mack.  You're the boss!"

I paid the fare, got out, went into the bus terminal and was on my way to the ticket counter when a thought hit me: better make a slight detour to the men's room.  Needless to say, I do not care for public facilities to begin with, let alone those frequented by transients; but one's bladder is neither as patient nor as particular as his psyche.

I had completed my obeisance to mother nature and was poised to wash my hands when a gentleman in a blue serge suite accosted me.  He had just pulled what appeared to be some sort of garment from his attaché case (I couldn't help noting that, as his case was oxblood, if he had only had on herringbone instead of blue serge he could have gotten a splendid deal at the Shorelin).

"Excuse me," he said very politely, "could you give me a hand please?  This dress is almost impossible to zip up."

"What is it you're planning to do with it?" I asked.

"Put is on, of course!" he replied, still politely.  He then proceeded to slip the garment over his head and let it drape around him - suit and all.  "I don't know why I didn't think to get one that buttoned up the front," he explained.  "I almost always get my jacket caught in the zipper, or else it gets off track - or something!"

"Perhaps," I suggested, "what you had on was better after all."

He looked at me like I had just insulted him.  "I'm a businessman!" he exclaimed.  "A businessman!  My God, man, I'm a professional - a professional!  Oh, where is that wig?" he asked as he ransacked his attaché.  "Don't tell me I forgot it?  Oh God no!  I must have left it at the office.  Oh God, what'll I do now?  I can't get on a bus looking like this!  They'll take one look at me; they'll know I'm a businessman - a businessman! riding a bus!; they'll never let me live it down!  What'll I do?  You've got to help me!  You don't happen to have a spare wig in there, do you?"

He actually made bold to reach into my attaché case.  "I most certainly do not!" I said as I grabbed it away from him.

"Then a scarf or something - anything! - something I can use for a kerchief!"

"I have nothing in here, I can assure you, that does not pertain to my business!" I let him know in a tone that chided him for not maintaining the sanctity of his own attaché case.

"What'll I do?" he wailed.  "What'll I do?  Once before I rode the bus instead of the Metroliner - I had just gotten mugged.  I had no choice!  All they left me was just enough to get a bus ticket.  Oh God, I have never been so humiliated in all my life!  I swore on my every career goal I'd never go through that again - never!  That's why I carry this outfit in my attaché, so they'll think I'm a woman!  No one thinks anything of it if a woman rides a bus!  But a businessman - a professional!  They all laugh at you as if you've just fallen off your career track - almost as if you're one of them!  I can't bear to endure that kind of humiliation again.  I just can't bear it!"

Here he actually broke down and cried.  In a moment or so he had recomposed himself.  He looked at me with the saddest eyes I've ever seen.  "Buddy," he pleaded, "can you spare the price of a train ticket?  I swear I'll pay you back.  It's just...I lost my bank card...I couldn't use the ATM...I had nowhere to turn.  Oh, if only I hadn't put my wig in with those proxies, I'd have it now, when I so desperately need it!  Please - oh please, you look like a fellow professional!  Surely you can understand my plight!  Maybe you've even had to ride the bus some time in your life -"

"I plan to ride it home this afternoon," I advised him.

"But...where's your disguise?  Okay, maybe a dress isn't your style; but surely you don't mean to get on a bus looking like that!"

Well, dear reader, actually I had.  But I thought it best not to say so just then.  "No, I don't," I said.  "It seems the taxi driver had some difficulty keeping my destination straight.  Naturally, I intended to go to Union Station.  I didn't realize where I was till I'd already paid and he had left.  God only knows what I'm doing here."

"God must have sent you," the man in the dress said.  "He saw my plight and He took pity on me.  Oh please, please, don't disappoint Him.  Help me find the proper way home - please, I beg you!"

What else could I do but agree?  I couldn't leave the poor man like this: half disguised as a woman, half in tears.  No human worthy of the name would.  "Alright," I said.  "I'll help.  But first take off that dress."

"Gladly!" he said eagerly.

In no time his dress was neatly folded and returned to his attaché; and he and I were on our way from the bus terminal to the train station.

"Shouldn't we take a cab?" my companion asked.

"Actually it's just a couple blocks," I pointed out.

"Yes," he agreed, "but this is Southeast DC - a terrible section!  I tell you, we're not safe here - this is a Free Drug Zone.  It's run by a man called 'Cool Disco Dan,' and he'll kill you as quick as look at you!"

If I err, dear reader, let it always be on the side of safety; therefore I agreed to take a taxi.  "To Union Station," I ordered.  The driver said nothing, he just drove - at least until we came to the first traffic signal.

"I'll have to go right here," he said.

"You can't go straight?" I asked.  "It's right up there."

"Not allowed to discharge passengers there," he replied.  "I'll have to go across North Capitol then onto Massachusetts then round the loop."

"Whatever you think is best," I agreed.

A few minutes later brought us right in front of Union Station.  "That'll be $10.75!" demanded the cabbie.

"There must be some mistake," I said.  "We only went from the bus terminal to the train station."

"Yeah, but don't forget, Mack, I had to go through three zones to get there: from Northeast to Northwest then back to Northeast again!"

"What about the Southeast?" I asked, recalling what my companion had said.

"Southeast? What about - oh yeah, Mack, the Southeast.  I almost forgot.  That makes four zones.  Nearly undercharged you there, Mack!  Thanks for reminding me!"

I suppose I should have left well enough alone, considering that it cost me $3.25 more than the original fare - but I'm too much of a stickler for accuracy: it comes with being a writer of the realistic school!

On the way in, we were accosted by a panhandler who asked us for twenty-five cents so he could "get something to eat."  I was about to acquiesce when my companion stopped me.

"Let me handle this," he kindly offered.  Turning to the beggar, he said "I'll give you something far better than twenty-five cents: I'll give you twenty-five cents' worth of advice - for free!  Get a job!"

"I already got a job," the beggar said.

"What do you do for a living?" I asked, rather shocked that a working man would stoop to panhandling.  Unless he was an actor preparing for a role, I vaguely thought.

"I do this," he said.  "I beg.  And even allowing for all the thousands of dollars of 'free advice' I get, I still do better at the end of a week than when I was working three jobs to make ends meet!  Plus my main main, Uncle Sammie, don't take his cut!  So if you got a job that pays a real wage - one a man can live on - I'll take it, no matter what it is; but if not, just take your advice and keep moving, bud, 'cause I've got work to do."

My companion and I went on into the station.  "There ought to be a law," he proposed.  "People who won't face up to reality should be forced to!  The very idea that our taxes should pay for the upkeep of space for deadbeats to beg money in!  If I had my way they'd either be outlawed altogether or at least be charged ground rent!"

"I hadn't really considered that," I admitted.  "Anyway, let me go get our tickets.  Two one-way on the Metroliner!"

"I tell you what," he asked.  "If you could swing for a round trip, for me, I'd sure appreciate it.  That way I'd always be prepared, just in case."

"I don't see why not," I replied.

On the train we talked mostly of politics, and of various laws he would propose if he ever became a public official.  "Our streets have to be cleared of the riffraff," he insisted.  "So if you ever see the name of Stratton H Binglepood on the ballot, pull that lever as hard and fast as you can.  The future of this great nation may very well hang in the balance!"

I assured him I would.

 

Chapter 10.  New Haunts

I arrived home feeling a bit depressed: after all, except for meeting that most interesting and eloquent businessman, Stratton H. Binglepood, the day had been an almost total waste of time and energy.  It cheered me up somewhat to watch the delightful antics of Fido, not to mention his obvious enjoyment at seeing me; but to really lift one's spirit it is, of course, necessary to return to old familiar surroundings, for nothing else can cheer a body like the sights and smells and sounds of places once dear to the soul now gone forever.  So after a short nap and a light dinner I got both myself and Fido ready and went out for a long, leisurely stroll down memory lane.

Needless to say my first stop was where it all began, this up and down, twirl and whirl, back and forth, crazy wacky wonderful thing called CAREER.  My old homestead, where one fine day out of the blue, and seemingly out of nowhere, inspiration - my first and my greatest inspiration, the impetus to pursue great writing till the end of time - dropped like an exquisite golden mantle onto my shoulders and cast itself about me like a giant pair of wings ready to carry me to the ends of the universe in search of truth and art and the awesome unspeakable power of the pen and the presses and the public!  (You see dearest gentle reader: I never forget a friend!!!)

I did not get a chance, however, to ascend even the first step before being accosted by a vagrant.  I had seen him loitering the next block over but I thought I could make it inside before he reached me, should he decide to come this way; I was sadly mistaken, however, for here he was upon me in no time at all.  He must have run the whole way, I don't see how he could have reached me so quickly otherwise.  So not only am I to be plagued with an endless stream of vagrants, they are now running to get at me as well!

"Excuse me," he called to me, almost out of breath, "Mr Moop, I must speak to you!"

"My name is not Moop," I replied coldly.

"You're not Mitch Moop?" the vagrant asked then answered his own question.  "No, I can see you're not.  You're nothing like him.  I guess I just see a little of him in everyone.  Please excuse the intrusion, Mister.  It's just I was so close...so close.  I could have retired in six more months.  But he let me go.  Said he had to.  Said he had too many WASPs on his payroll.  Said he was a man with a social conscience.  Said he was letting fifteen employees go so fifteen minorities could be hired.  Fifteen minorities: sure.  All fifteen minorities turned out to be young women with big busts and little skinny skirts barely covering their rear ends.  And all fifteen WASPs turned out to be near retirement ago.  Moop said the courts frowned on 'seniority.'  Said 'last hired first fired' was wrong.  Immoral.  Anti-social.  So now I got no retirement.  And he sits around all day making goo-goo eyes at his fifteen 'minorities.'  Laws or no laws, Mister, a man's going to find a way to do just what he pleases.  Civil rights or civil wrongs: it's all one if you got no one on your side.  If you got no lobby to speak for you.  It just worked out good for him I was a WASP, that's all; but he'd have found a way to beat me out of my retirement no matter what.  'Cause people are ass holes, Mister, they've always been ass holes, they're always going to be ass holes, and nothing can ever change that.  If an employer wants a pretty young thing he can put the make on or if he wants to cheat his workers out of their retirement, he's going to find a way around all your G.D. laws and quotas and civil liberties and what not and get whatever the hell he wants.  'Specially if he's got friends - and have you ever heard of any businessman didn't have friends in high places?  Even the most liberal-minded do-gooder on earth breaks bread and drinks toasts and hob nobs with the country club set.  I never had a politician or a public official to dinner in my life - and never will.  You think they'd come to my house and drink beer and nibble Fritos when they could sip champagne and slurp oysters with the Rockefellers?  Yet I'm supposed to believe they're in there looking after my interests just 'cause I voted for them and their speeches say so!  Hell, I'm a minority too, you know: an old man!  But you think I'm going to waste my time going through the motions of applying for another G.D. job and sitting through an interview with some jerk of an ass hole who doesn't know his eyes from his balls but looks down his nose on me all the same when the ass hole's not serious about filling the job anyway, only getting his rocks off!  Quotas - ha!  Ain't no quotas to blame for me losing my job, only the greed of a selfish, heartless SOB!  So don't talk to me about no quotas, 'cause I know better!  Hell, I'm a quota waiting to happen myself, but it ain't going to happen, not in this life!  You can count on that, Mister: it ain't going to happen!"

Now I know for a fact my readers are not only gracious, generous, benevolent and intelligent, but also solicitous and above all else patient to a fault; even so, I fear if I'm put upon by too many more such individuals and compelled to transcribe our encounters (as my literary creed demands) rather than condense them to a word or two, my readers may very well throw down my book in disgust and take up something less challenging on the best seller list.  With this in mind, I turned and walked away, neither looking back nor attempting to enter my old homestead; for I wanted to do nothing to encourage further discourse - particularly discourse of so crude a nature.  Fortunately, he did not follow me, so I made a clean break of his company - something not always easy when accosted by these vagrants.  As I hastened along the sidewalk, I was puzzled, if not to say troubled, by one additional thing: my dog's behavior.  Had I made a mistake, I wondered, in letting myself become so attached to Fido when it was becoming apparent he was not at all the best dog for a literary genius?  Consider that he never barked once - not even so much as a simple growl - at this lunatic; yet verily barked his little head off at the great philosophical minds of the Thinking Man's Tank.  And come to think of it, he had never barked at a single vagrant since I got him.  Some watchdog!

"Fido," I scolded him, "you must learn to be more discreet."

He wagged his tail and licked my face.  I can only hope that meant he would try.

"Where to now?" I wondered aloud, but as no image in particular came into focus, I simply walked at random, enjoying the pleasant night air and Fido's jaunty little stroll whenever I set him down, my reverie broken only by his occasional stop at a patch of grass or a tree, which he would sniff as intently as a critic investigating a work of art.  Unbeknownst to me, I was moving, ever so leisurely, in the direction of 8th Avenue, where I had made a most unusual and fortuitous purchase just as I was beginning my career.  From a man named Job I had a philosophical framework for my first novel (I don't recall now what I paid for it; but I do recall being quite satisfied with the price).

But everything was different.  Where before I had encountered a once fashionable district on its way down, I now encountered...actually I did not know what it was, other than that it was nothing like before.  Gone were the tenement rows, once the townhouses of early merchants, given over to the poor and indigent.  They had been leveled, asphalted, covered over in vast well lighted parking lots, all surrounding what might have passed for a huge warehouse were this the same place I last saw Job.  This was not the same place, however, but reclaimed land, so the building could not have been a warehouse.  Besides which, the gleaming elegance of the town cars filling the parking spaces negated any possibility of so inelegant a structure.

"Where am I?" I muttered, half aloud.

"You are in Purgatory," came a strange reply in a strange voice, but a voice not unfamiliar to me.  I turned to see who had spoken.  It was Job.  Though it had been more than a year, there was no mistaking that wan visage or those deeply set troubling eyes that seemed to see everything while looking at nothing.

"What has happened here?" I asked.

"They have scaled my walls," came the reply.

"Your home -"

"Gone," he said.  "My street is gone.  Once more I am put upon by mankind.  I can never escape for more than a short while.  It is my punishment for a lifetime spent describing man down to the tiniest whiskers on his ears, detailing his every movement, however insignificant."

"That's right," I recalled, "you were a great realist once!"

"Yes, a very great fool," said Job.

"But what are you doing here?" I asked.  "Now that your home is gone, and since you seem so uncomfortable in the company of other people, why have you remained?"

"I park cars, I scalp tickets, I hawk wares, I carry people's knapsacks - whatever I can."

"To earn your keep," I noted.

"To pay my debts," Job corrected me.  "I told you: this is Purgatory.  They tore down my retreat and built an emporium to honor everything our world has to offer."

"That sounds wonderful!" I exclaimed.  "I can't wait to get inside!"

"Shall I watch your dog for you?  They don't allow pets - even though they have a pet store in the shopping complex and pet shows in the sports complex and movies about stray pups who save the world in the theater complex and even a rock group called Doggie Treat appearing at the concert complex!  But no pets allowed."

"Well," I hesitated," Fido is quite wary of strangers."

My dog seemed determined to contradict everything I said this evening for I had no sooner expressed my concern than he leaped into Job's arms and began licking his sunken cheeks.

"Perhaps I am not a stranger," said Job.  "Perhaps I even once depicted him, right down to the mole on his belly."

"Then again, he would recognize the philosopher in you," I noted.

"Why didn't he then go for my throat?" asked Job.

"Fido is a good doggie," I pointed out.

"All the more reason to attack a philosopher," Job retorted.

I decided it was unwise to leave Fido with Job.  I just didn't like the way he was talking: there's no telling what a person whose thinking was so deranged might do.  Better not tempt fate.

"It's getting late," I said.  "We'd better go on home.  I'll stop in here another time."

"And will you leave your dog in the company of a philosopher?" Job asked.  "Or perhaps the literati is more to your taste."

"This literati you speak of: are they professional dog sitters?" I asked.

"No," replied Job.  "The Humane Society would never allow such as these to watch living things.  The literati does best with decaying matter."

"In that case, I think I'll just leave Fido at home.  He'll be alright."

"A wise choice," said Job.

We went home, Fido and I, Fido looking back until Job could be seen no more.

"Careful he doesn't turn to a pillar of salt, looking after that sinful place!" some passer by remarked.  Luckily I managed to make it home without further incident by doubling my pace.

The very next evening saw me once again in the east parking lot of The Complex, as I discovered the building to be called - in the exact spot, in fact, where I was the night before.  And how did I know it was the same spot?  Well, let me just say my dog had left a little something behind (though I'm surprised it was still there).  I looked for Job but saw no sign of him.  When I got to the main door, I asked if he were working tonight.

"Job?  There's no one works here by that name," the doorman said.

"But he was here, just last night," I pointed out.  "He said he parks cars.  The name's not familiar to you?"

"Oh, the name is familiar, alright," replied the doorman.  "I've seen the name in the parking lot many times - on big pieces of paper.  But I've seen no one to whom the name belongs.  Just a name on a sign, always in the east lot, always in the same parking space.  We remove the name, it's back again the next day."

"I don't understand," I said.

"Neither do I," came the doorman's reply - but that's life!"

"I once made a most unusual purchase from a man called Job," I explained.

"Hey, I once bought a dildo from a man called Peter, only it broke the first time I tried it out.  But hey - that's life!"

I decided not to pursue the matter further, so I went on in.  And for the benefit of those of you who may not have such an emporium in your hometown (not to accuse any of my good readers of being provincial, however), I will spare no detail in describing it - for, indeed, it might well be the ninth wonder of the world!

Do not, however, think of, or confuse The Complex with, a shopping mall, for it was as far removed from that as a money market from a lowly checking account.  This was a city within a city, all under one roof - a series of roofs, actually.  It was immense: no mere mall could claim such dimensions.  In breadth, it was at least half a mile; the width three tenth of a mile, if not more; and reaching five stories into the beauteous city sky.  A mixture of brick, stone, concrete and glass, sensibly apportioned, it cast its place in the history of architecture as upon a gleaming mirrored wall.  And, within, spires and crossbeams and sturdy metal lattice work cut a vast confluence of inverted bridges against the skylight.  Trees abounded; fountains played to a dozen different rhythms.  And people were everywhere.

The interior was arranged in a series of tiers, or terraces, so that no one section abutted any other.  I knew already, from my conversation with Job the previous evening, that there was a sports complex, a theater complex, a shopping complex and a concert complex.  What I did not know (and I find Job's omission of it extremely telling) was that there was also a professional complex - easily the most important member of the quintet.  Needless to say, it was to the professional complex I headed - a most fortuitous decision, in light of the career possibilities it opened to me.

Let me assure you, this was my kind of place.  Most of the people here, as it turned out, were headed in the same direction I was, so in this particular instance it would have been alright simply to "follow the crowd": such a crowd as this even the most rugged individualist, the most intransigent non-conformist need have no fear of being perceived to follow, for these were not the followers of every chance trend of the moment, every passing fancy.  They were not going shopping for hoola hoops, nor were they flocking to the latest movie, nor preparing to scream at some over priced entertainer; they were here for one reason only: they were taking care of business!  And so was I, dear reader, so was I.

The professional complex was set apart from the others.  Situated on the highest tier and the most remote wing, it was like a world unto itself, every imaginable professional service under one roof.  Attorneys here, physicians there, consultants of every description, insurance brokers, stock brokers, publishers, agents, coordinators galore: a feast for the eyes and a treat for the soul.  The Business of America, all in walking distance, all for the taking.  Truly, the artist in me felt as if it had died and gone to heaven!

And in this heaven were no vagrants (that I could tell from the appearance of the people milling about - though "milling about" is an inaccurate depiction, since everyone here was moving briskly, purposefully, toward the fulfillment of some special goal all his own).  No one came to proffer unsolicited opinions here, no one interrupted your train of thought or commented on your existential condition.  These were clean, honest, hard working and, no doubt, hard driving businessmen and women making the most of what precious little leisure time they had.

I stood a moment beside a lovely fountain which, mercifully, did not distract from the business at hand with the sound of water spraying and tumbling and endlessly re-circulating (the "water" was actually an infinity of plastic hair like shoots furrowing beneath the air vents), debating where to begin.  I needed an attorney, I needed an agent, a publisher, and perhaps half a dozen other professionals; the question was what order did I need them in?  Previously, I had obtained the services of the professionals any great writer needs in a hit or miss fashion; now that I had the chance to do it right, I pondered a moment on what constituted rightness,  I decided the first priority was to get a good lawyer; all the rest would then fall right into place.  (I should mention that while I pondered, a gentleman - as it turned out, a physician - came up to me and asked if I was alright.  I told him I was.  Relieved, he said that when he saw me just standing there doing nothing he was afraid I was having a heart attack or stroke or something.  That's just the kind of place this is.)

So I immediately made for the place of lawyers - and a sleek, elegant, sophisticated place it was: the very vortex of this professional complex.  Do not think of shops or offices the way you are wont to see them, for this was no ordinary place.  Think, instead, of a free form sculpture, meticulously hewn of Plexiglas, gleaming chrome and spires of circuitry drawn together to showcase the majestic talents of these, the makers, keepers and interpreters of Law.  Each office was open to the sky, the way the workings of the Law are open to all the world; each office was partitioned from the rest not with walls but with space and height, each in its own place along a rounding staircase from low to high.  You walked, as the staircase spiraled, past each separate office, peering in at each, selecting the one best suited to your particular needs, talents and economic status.  On the bottom rung was Janus and Crinkshaw, Criminal Lawyers; somewhere in the middle, Kloppman, Biggerbash and Reddleman, Insurance and Real Estate Lawyers; and at the very pinnacle, Geppie, Mevlrhy, Milantropy and Mhloe, Corporate Lawyers par excellence. 

I walked to the very top, then back down, then up again as I perused the many wondrous offices.  Which was for me? I asked a hundred times over.  Which best suited my special skills, my needs, my station in life?  Surely not the bottom most: I was no crook.  Possibly not the top most either: I was no longer incorporated.  Nor the middle, for I required no help with insurance or real estate.  Where then did I fit? where did I belong? where was my place in this great hierarchic scheme of things?  I asked my heart, my soul, my mind, my body; perhaps I even asked God a little bit too!  Then I saw it, and I knew I had come to the right place.

 

Chapter 11.  Destiny Knows Me Better Than I know Myself

How I missed it my first ascent I could not say.  Then to miss it again on the descent seemed to me incredible now.  It hadn't moved, it was here all along; yet somehow I failed to notice it.  The sign was clear, both in form and content: Talent Attorney.  Three quarters of the way up - not as high as if I were still incorporated, but certainly not as low as if I were a common criminal.

I walked through the Plexiglas archway into an immaculate office carpeted in heavenly blue.  The desk, behind which sat the smiling attorney, like some benevolent angel, was Plexiglas trimmed with chrome; the chair on which he sat a soft gray leather.  Light from a hundred spots high in The Complex bathed the entire office, softening the angularity of both the furnishings and the man.

"Hi," he said as he slowly arose, "I'm Simeon, but call me Tad - all my friends do."

"I'm Rondo," I said, in turn, as I shook Tad's outstretched hand.

"And you're looking for a Talent Attorney," Tad at once understood my purpose.

"Yes, I am," I replied.

"Then please be seated," he pointed to a pale blue and gray leather chair which, to tell the truth, I had overlooked.  "You've come to the right place.  I give my clients 110%.  Sometimes more.  That's the kind of guy I am."

Since I knew it would take at least 110% to get me back on the best seller list, I gave a silent thanks to whatever benevolent fate had brought me here.

"Tell me, Ronald -"

"Rondo," I corrected him.

"Rondo, of course.  Great name.  Tell me: what is your particular talent."

"I am a writer."

"Fantabulous!  And how long have you been a best seller?"

"Two years, give or take," I said, a bit evasively.

"Awesome!" Tad exclaimed, then, perceiving my perplexity but misunderstanding its source, begged me to "Excuse the legalese.  But two years on the best seller list: that is awesome, Ronald, truly awesome!"

"Rondo," I again corrected him.

"Of course: Rondo.  Great name.  You'll have to excuse me.  They're putting a McDonald's in the Food Complex; every hour, on the hour, they advertise it over the PA.  I guess I just have Ronald on the brain.  I'm sorry.  I know how disconcerting it can be when someone mispronounces your name.  Believe me, when some guy on the racquetball court or some ass hole client calls me Ted - brother I go off!  So I know exactly how you feel.  Anyway, back to business, Rondo - there! got it right!  Just don't let that ad come over the PA or I'm not responsible for anything I call you!  So are you still on the best seller list?"

"Not at the moment," I admitted.

"Then the first order of business is getting you back on there," Tad set his strategy before me.  "I could go about this a number of ways; the idea is to find the best way for you personally.  A single lawsuit against whoever bumped you off the list: that might work.  Are you any particular minority? or in some way misshapen - like maybe your penis is crooked or you have two ass holes?"

"No," I answered on all counts.

"Bummer!  Can't use discrimination.  Might have to go with a recount: you know, we could challenge the sales figures.  Or maybe have the court declare some other work on the list offensive to the public taste.  Were there any exceptionally great books on the list that you were aware of?"

"No, I don't think so.  They were all pretty run of the mill."

"Damn!  We're getting nowhere fast here.  But don't worry.  There are as many ways to play this as there are sesame seeds on a Big Mac!  We'll come up with something or my law degree's not from Stanford!  Meanwhile, I'll have my secretary draw up a standard contract."

"I suppose she leaves at five sharp," I observed.

"She better or I'll never make it here in time to set up!" Tad explained.

"You have another office?" I asked.

"Of course.  This one's to drum up new business - period.  The real work's done across town. I'll give you the address in case you ever need to consult me during the daytime.  By the way, how many best sellers did you say you had?"

"One," I replied, adding that I did not believe I had actually given that information yet.

"Hmm," Tad mused, "only one.  Tell you what: we'll say you're a part time writer.  Wouldn't want anyone to think one best seller was all you could manage."

"I had some rather serious business setbacks," I explained.  "I developed writer's cramp, and a touch of Carpel Tunnel in one wrist.  I had to put all my ideas on hold."

"That's good," Tad agreed.  "We can use that.  Let's throw in a religious experience too.  Let's say you bled from your hands every time you tried to write.  Maybe even a conversion to something exotic - or, better yet, you were born again!  And you spent more time on your knees praying than you realized - time just got away from you.  That's good!  We'll go with that.  Soon as you're officially my client I'll begin putting out the word.  I figure...give it three months, then we'll make our move."

This all sounded good to me.  Imagine: the possibility of being put back on the best seller list after nearly a year!  Truly, the law was a wonder to behold!

Needless to say, I was in a state of euphoria when I went in search of an agent, having left the lawyers and their stairway to heaven behind.  There was no stairway in the talent agent section, nor was there Plexiglas, nor heavenly blue; only the soft muted pastels and gently curving forms and delicate textures so symptomatic of the sweet civility of this line of endeavor.  Like a row of gingerbread cottages the agents' offices opened before me.  At last, I came to one proffering his services to "Writers, Dramatists, Essayists and Other Best Sellers."

I walked in and was greeted by a pleasant, smiling gentleman sipping tea and eating crumpets.  I excused the interruption, offering to come back when his repast was finished; but he graciously declined the offer.

"Au contraire, my latter day Shakespeare, it is I who should beg to be excused, eating and drinking as I am in front of a prospective client.  Please forgive my incivility.  And have a seat.  My tea and crumpets are nearly a memory, I'll be with you in a moment!"

I felt so embarrassed for this most gentile spirit when, as he was speaking, some crumpet crumbs spat from his mouth onto my cashmere sports coat.  Mercifully, he seemed not to have noticed, so I simply brushed the coat and took the seat he so graciously offered.

"There now," the gentleman said as he finished the last bite of crumpet, "all done!  T&C's got the best tea and crumpets this side of Liverpool!"  Again he spat out a few crumbs; this time they missed me but landed on his desk blotter.  He took the last sip of tea then got down to business.  I expected, the whole time we talked, to see him brush the crumbs from his desk, but he seemed not to notice them.

"So tell me," he began at once, "are you willing to put 110% into this venture?"

"Even more," I replied.  "Up to 130%," I assured him.

"That is one impressive resumé!" he commended my attitude.  "Even if you only had one best seller to your credit, I still think I'd take a chance on you with those kind of credentials!  By the bye, just how many best sellers are we talking here?"

"Just enough," I said.

He began tapping his desktop (a Chippendale desk, I might add).  "Does that mean one?" he asked.

"You said it, not me!" I rejoined.

"So we are talking one here," he concluded.  "But with your grit, I'm going to take a chance on you.  I've got a standard contract here in my desk somewhere; we can fill in the blanks."  He began searching through each drawer until he found the contract; he had a great deal of trouble with the drawers sticking.

"There," he said as he brought forth the contract.  Before I could say anything he slammed it down right on the crumbs.  "This is a standard eight month contract," he explained.  "If you haven't produced a best seller by then, it automatically expires, leaving you only the commission to pay.  If you make the deadline - and with your 130% commitment I'm banking you do - we'll draw up a new contract: one that deals with movie rights and so forth.  So, Mister..." he seemed to be hinting for a name.

"Rondo," I introduced myself.

"Do we have a deal?"

"We have a deal, Mister..." now it was my turn to elicit a name.

"Grandel," he took my bait.  "Grandel Pan Abram."

We exchanged a few more words before I left, Grandel assuring me he would very shortly begin "to break some ground."  I thanked him and, in turn, assured him I would leave no stone unturned in my artistic efforts to become, once again, a best selling author of great literature.  I had a good feeling about our partnership; we were both dedicated, both professional, both attuned to the psyches of the masses.  Together we would climb the charts, of this I had no doubt.

My next stop was the Publisher's Corner; the very next thing I needed was a publisher.  My old publisher, Timpony House, had dropped my contract: this at the insistence of a new editor, a real go-getter whose creed was simple: six months on the best seller list was six months a year too long to be idle.  If you couldn't keep cranking out the masterpieces, you didn't belong at Timpony House - period.  So I was not renewed.  Mr Timpony, on my way out, said he had read a word or two of my novel and found them quite acceptable: not one went beyond two syllables.  "And these words were right in the middle of your book," the great publishing tycoon expressed his admiration, "the hardest place of all to keep it short and sweet!  I was very impressed, and I'm sorry to be losing so terse a poet."

So now here I was looking for a new publisher, in the Publisher's Corner of The Complex.  I meant to browse, as I had earlier, so as not to rush right in to the first publisher I came upon; but as luck would have it, the first publisher I came upon rushed right out to me.

"In here!  In here!" he took hold of my arm and rather pointedly led me to his storefront.  The sign over the door read "Desktop Schlopp" - definitely not the place I would have first chosen to enter.  But, as I was here, I decided to begin my search here.

"I'm in need of a publisher," I explained.

"You've come to the right place!" came the definitive reply.  "I'm Rabbi Roosevelt Ben-Zubin - call me Benzie!  I'm black and beautiful and Jewish all over!  I'm reaffirming my Jewishness just now, so bear with me as I savor the joys of Yiddish!"

His blue eyes and sandy blonde hair prompted an otherwise improper remark from me.  "You don't seem at all black," I noted.

"I may not be," Benzie replied.  "But then again I just might, so why fight it?  For all I know I'm not beautiful or Jewish either - but hey, it's the thought that counts!  Just joking, friend.  Just joking.  Truth is, I'm at least one fourth Jewish; there's at least a hint of black in my ancestry; and - face it! - this kisser belongs on the cover of Sears Roebuck!  So schlep right on over to my desk top and we'll get you started right up.  Incidentally, you might have heard of me: I'm the man brought the class action suit against Jesus H Christ."

"I thought the Christ was dead," I observed.

"Oiye!" moaned Benzie, "another doubting Thompson!  You don't believe in the second coming?"

"Indeed I do."

"I wanted to get my suit in early, before the rush!" Benzie explained.  "When my main mensch gets here, gonna be a lot of mad Jews picking at bones and pulling at straws.  I figure the legal system'll be tied up at least for decades -"

"For a thousand years!" I quipped.

"Right on, dude!  You see what's going down!  So I want my complaint on record.  Jesus schlepped when he should have schlopped.  Took his shtick to the shiskas and made us look like a bunch of schmoes!  And I want justice, friend, I want justice!"

"And I want a best seller," I said.  "Can you help?"

"Right now, my friend, there a tug of war - like you wouldn't believe - going on inside me!  The soul brother I'm almost sure is in there somewhere wants to kick your lily white butt; all my Jewish instincts tell me 'alright already the honkey's no schmoe, publish him already!  And me: I'm going with the Jew.  Like I say, man, I'm into this Jewish thing real big right now!  What do you know about desktop publishing?"

"Only that you need a pretty good sized desk," I said, not quite sure that that was correct.

"Oiye!" Benzie wailed.  "Just pull out my beard, why don't you?"

"But you don't have a beard," I pointed out.

"Every Jew's got a beard - if not on his kisser then somewhere in his soul!" Benzie assured me.  "Mine's a scraggly old thing, halfway down to my navel, been growing half a lifetime.  I've also got an Afro in there someplace.  And a faded photograph.  And a moldy bagel.  And a half eaten gefelterfish already!  But hey, let's get down to business, we can discuss Kosher some other time.  How much are you willing to put up or shut up front?"

"Up front?" I asked.

"To publish or perish already!  Hey, that's what desktop publishing is, dude!  You pays your money and you puts up or shuts up!  Just joking!  But you do pay."

"How much does a great writer usually put up front?" I asked.

"A great writer might want a run of 2000 copies, let's say, to start off.  I think I can give you a deal - such a deal! - such a deal! - you wouldn't believe!  Have a seat, I'll write it up.

As I sat, I looked around the room - literally, for Benzie's office was as round as a donut - a bagel, that is!  In fact, all the offices in the Publisher's Corner were either round or triangular; and all were joined, so to speak, at the seam, together forming what appeared, from ground level, to be a jumbled mess of Siamese twins, but from on high - from the next tier up - a beautiful, flowing pattern, slightly irregular but most profoundly purposeful in design.

"Publish or perish": that was what the Rabbi said, and it was what I had heard all my life, both in and out of academic as well as business circles; and, furthermore, it was what I deeply, sincerely, profoundly believed.  For what, dear reader, is a man if not a creature of action?  And what is action if not the foundation of accomplishment?  And what, pray tell, is the good of living if not to accomplish?  And, to round out this most exquisite tautology, what is the value of accomplishing if not the attainment of success?  What, then, doth it profit a man to set pencil to paper if not to put his words before the public?  Does a tree make a sound if it falls on deaf ears?  More to the point, who cares if it falls at all unless it be heard round the world?  For I shall never hear a tree-fall lovely as a published poem read before a living audience willing to pay the price of admission!  (I trust my gentle readers were ready for this baring of the artistic temperament.)

"I want no works sitting idle on a shelf in old notebooks gathering dusk," I informed Benzie, "when they could be sitting on the public's mantle displaying their wisdom and beauty beneath a well tempered jacket!"

"Such a jacket, you won't believe!" Benzie all but guaranteed. 

Long after I had gone, those words kept ringing in my ears.  "Such a jacket, you won't believe!"  Ah! if ever there was music to a poet's ears, it was this!

 

Chapter 12.  What God Hath Nearly Wrought

At last my trip to The Complex, so productive, so filled with food for the mind and soul, so great a boast to my talent, was drawing to a close.  My artistic work done, I decided to take a few minutes to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this magnificent emporium before I headed home - a most fateful decision, in light of what horrors befell me afterward.

I went among the food vendors, looking for something with which the celebrate my great good fortune.  "I have just re-discovered the wellspring of literature!" I said to the first vendor I came upon.

"One Perrier, coming up!" the young gentleman replied.

Of course, he had inferred too much from my comment; but a Perrier over ice sounded very good to me just then so I refrained from correcting him.

Next I stopped at a pet shop to buy some treats for Fido, taking a moment to look at the puppies for sale.  One, in particular, caught my eye - a perfectly enchanting little gray and black creature.

"He has the very finest papers, of course," the sales person informed me.

"They're for housebreaking him?" I asked.

"No.  These papers guarantee his pedigree.  He will do exactly what a dog of his breed is meant to do - neither more nor less!"

"He won't eat my slippers?"

"Not if he's properly trained!"

"How much is he?"

"Only six hundred dollars - he's on special this week."

"And next week?"

"He goes back to eight hundred.  It's a jungle in here.  Do you want to hold him?"

"Why not?" I said.

I was led to a special glass enclosed booth where I was asked to be seated on a velvet covered bench, at which point the puppy in question was set upon my lap.  Of course he promptly leaped up and began licking my face.

"Will he get to be very big?" I asked.  "I only have a three bedroom house."

"Oh no," the sales person replied, "he's a miniature Schnauzer.  He'll only get to about fifteen pounds."

"And what about training?  I wouldn't have time to train him myself - although I do have a dog already: maybe he can train the pup?"

"Oh no - no, no!  That will never do!  Even if he's fully pedigreed, it's a very bad idea to have one dog train another.  To bring out the optimal characteristics of the breed, a professional trainer is needed."

"I do like this puppy.  I'll take him - but I'd like to have him fully trained before I bring him home.  Can you arrange it?"

"Most certainly!"

"Good.  So don't wrap him," I advised.

"Oh no!  We never wrap our animals!"

"Just joking," I pointed out.

By now it was really starting to get late, so I made for the nearest exit - another mistake, as it only delayed me further.  (Next time I'll remember the basic rule of shopping: always go out the same way you came in.)  I found myself in the Northern parking lot, when I needed to be at the Southern lot.  I eventually worked my way around to where I entered, but not without heading East first, then North again, then East again - these parking lots are a marvel of orderly confusion, what with everything designed to make automobile recovery easier.  At last familiar terrain lay beneath my feet and I was on my way home.

I had only gone a block when it happened (and here I must caution the too squeamish reader to move quickly beyond this passage without looking back, or risk being traumatized by a violence great enough to be called nightmarish.  For indeed, if dreams be made to ensnare fools, what befell me must surely have been made to ensnare the most mindless idiots imaginable!)

As I walked along, I became aware of a presence - more accurately stated: presences.  For, little by little, I was joined by first one then another then yet another until by the time I fully realized what was happening I was completely surrounded by no fewer than six.  They moved as I moved; they sped up as I increased my pace, slowed as I slowed, stopped and reversed course as I did.  They went left to my left, right to my right, all the while surrounding me, blocking my escape.  I concluded they were following me.

"What is it you want?" I asked.  But no one answered.  "Do you want money? advice? comforting, counseling - what?  What is it you want."  Silence.  I stared at each, trying to read in their expressions what they were about.  Nothing.  Silence.  Then finally one spoke.

"Where's your purse, honey?"

I looked to see which one had spoken, but they all had laughing smirks on their faces.  Then, suddenly, one reached out and, with nothing but bare fingernails, ripped a button off my cashmere sports coat.

"Scratch her eyes out girls!" the one with those long hard nails reported to the others.  They all began laughing.  And before I knew it, twelve sets of long, hard fingernails were reaching toward me.

"What do you want?" I again asked.

"We know your kind," someone said (I think it was the one with purple nails).

"Yes, we know your kind," another agreed.  This one I clearly saw, and I can only say I had never in my life seen so mean a visage (crazily, I found myself wondering how someone so evil-looking could be attired so elegantly and tastefully).

"You do it with them!" a third said, emphasizing the word "them."  "Don't you?"  I did not see who had spoken, I was still transfixed by the other one's eerie incongruity.

"Do what?" I asked.

Do it!" came the reply, this time emphasizing the word "it."  This time I saw my interlocutor: it was the one in the black dress.

"I don't know what you mean," I insisted.

"Hit her - somebody hit her!" yet another demanded.  This one had on red slacks, a black halter top, and sported long reddish hair.

And then it happened: the horror that all of this was leading up to.  One of the men reached out and pushed me.  "Take that you beast!" he said in a whiny voice.  Then another, from behind, did likewise.  And another, from one side; and another, from the other side, and another and another, until I was being pushed and shoved and buffeted about like a sailboat on high seas.  I could feel myself losing my balance.

"Please God," I pleaded, "don't let me fall and be trampled underfoot by those horrible, monstrous spiked heels!  Please - oh please!  Spare me that hideous fate!  Spare me, dear Lord, spare me!"

"Hit her upside her head, someone - please!" the one wearing a mint green peek-a-boo blouse and black mini skirt begged.

I saw a long nailed hand reach up and, though my balance was monstrously precarious, I managed to duck.

"Oh, you missed her!  You missed her!  Try again - try again!  All of you - together - slap that bitch silly!"

I knew it was all over for me.  "Into thy spirit I commend my hands!" I said softly as I resigned myself to the inevitable.  Then, as suddenly as it began, it ended.

"Beat it, girls: the cops!" an alarmed voice shrieked.  I have no idea whose voice it was.  All I know is that the six murderous thugs left off pushing me, parted from around me, and took off running.  Presently a squad car pulled up and out jumped two armed policemen.

"Thank God - thank God!" I said.  "It's a miracle, your arriving when you did - a miracle!  God has answered my prayers - for only a miracle could have saved me!"

"We've been watching those fags all evening," one of the policemen said.  "We knew what they were up to.  Sorry it took us so long, but my partner had to take a leak."

"Yeah, we knew what those fags were up to," the partner added.

"But why - why?  What did they want from me?"

"They didn't want anything.  They're just plain evil, out for some 'fun.'  They call it 'Straight Bashing,' and it's getting out of hand.  At first, only a sporadic occurrence - maybe one bashing a month.  Then gradually more and more until now it's a nightly occurrence, these 'Straight Bashings.'  It's totally out of hand, and something's got to be done about it or it won't be safe to walk our streets after dark."

"Has anyone been killed?" I asked.

"No, not yet," the officer replied; "but we've seen some pretty nasty scratches lately."

"You almost did tonight," I observed.  "Why, just look what they did to my cashmere sports coat: ripped the button right off!"

"My God!  What's the world coming to?"

"Who are they?" I asked.  "And why those atrocious disguises?"

"Mister, that ain't no disguise, that's their evening wear!  They're the GAYS: Gay American Youth Squad.  They hate anyone who's not like them.  You're either gay, or you deserve to get your head bashed in - period!"

"But that's crazy!" I protested.

"That's just how small minded they are," the officer said.

"Not everyone wants to be gay - or even could if they wanted!"

"Man, don't you get it?  They don't give a damn what people want - your wishes mean nothing to them!"

"That's sick," I concluded.

"Now you're beginning to see where they're coming from," the officer explained.

"It's a little disheartening," I owned, "knowing sick blind senseless evil exists in this otherwise perfect world.  A real eye opener.  Who knows? maybe that's why it happened.  You see, I'm a writer - a best seller!  Maybe God wants to broaden my vision.  Who knows?  Who can ever explain the workings of that great, eternal mind?  I don't even think I could."

"But I can," someone stepped out of nowhere to offer.

"Who are you?" the policeman asked.

"Don't encourage him," I whispered.  "He looks like a vagrant.  He'll talk your ears off."  But it was too late, the cue had been inadvertently given already; I knew from past experience we could expect a full-blown dissertation.

"I am no one that would concern you," the vagrant replied.  "Though I once was.  Once I would have presented myself to you with full credentials.  Now I have none."

"We'd better be going," the policeman informed me.  "Those fags'll be bashing someone else just about now.  You'll be safe from here on out."

"After that near death experience," I informed the officers, "I don't think I'll ever feel safe again!"

"In that case, you might want to take a taxi," they advised.  Then they were gone; and as they sped away I realized it was not so much the fear of the straight bashers as it was the dread of having to endure another vagrant's tirade that made me loath to continue walking home.

"I think I will take a taxi," I mused aloud.  Then, without thinking, I turned and asked the vagrant where was the best place to hail a taxi.  Needless to say, this blunder gave him the green light to begin talking.

"You will find a taxi wherever there is a god," the vagrant replied.  "They travel in tandem.  For, like the taxi, God has no roots.  He belongs to all but belongs to none.  And those who ignite His engines to commence the journey seek to realize as great a profit as the law will allow.  The only difference is that the taxi's profiteers are often beset with robbery and even murder whereas God's profiteers face no danger greater than dropping the Eucharist down some matron's bosom."

"You don't believe in those who preach the word of God, I take it," I observed.  (Doubtless the reader will wonder why I responded at all, but I could see I had no better chance of escaping this predicament than the previous one so I resolved to make the best of it till someone came along to save me.)

"I don't believe in God," the vagrant replied.

"I see.  Well let me tell you something, Mr Atheist: a few moments ago I called upon God when faced with almost certain destruction, and I was saved!  God heard me, and He responded to my pleas!  Could a God who does not exist do that?"

"I never said I was an atheist," came the (typically!) cryptic reply.  "I said only that I do not believe in God.  Whether or not He exists is of no consequence to me.  I no longer believe in Him."

How these vagrants exasperate one - especially one for whom language is the very essence of existence.  "Tomáto: tomàto: it's all the same thing, isn't it?" I demanded.

"No," he calmly replied, "it isn't.  When I say 'believe in' I am not verifying the existence of anyone or anything - I can barely verify my own existence, so how could I possibly verify God's?  I am expressing a value judgment, not a metaphysical theorem - the way one says he 'believes in' or doesn't believe in another person.  If you say you 'believe in' the President -"

"I most certainly do!  As I do most CEOs!"

"- you are not saying that he exists but that you admire the man and accept what he stands for."

"Indeed I do!  He has given the upper middle class a much needed tax break!  As an artist, I know only too well how crucial the professional class is to the survival of Art in America!"

"I care nothing for art - in America or anyplace else!  So I too applaud your President's tax break.  The sooner all art is reduced to its lowest common denominator - dollars and cents - the better."

"I should have guessed you wouldn't believe in Art either," I noted.

"Perhaps I once did but no longer.  When I stopped believing in God, I abandoned all frivolity: my frocks, my hosts; my monastery full of silence and severity and a hundred other sillinesses; and my crucifixes and rosaries and miniatures of The Last Supper.  I no longer believe in God.  He who I prayed and chanted and chastised myself for, I saw one day for what He was."

"And what's that?"

"A very petty, exacting tyrant who teaches one thing and practices another."

"That, sir, is blasphemous!"

"I thank you for the compliment," the vagrant replied.

Why does one waste one's breath trying to enlighten these madmen? I found myself asking.  But, of course, as a great writer it is my duty to try and shed light on the mysteries of life, so that my fellow man may benefit from my genius - otherwise why go to such pains to nurture and develop that genius in the first place?

"It is not my wont to throw compliments at blasphemers," I replied, a bit coldly.  After all, he must meet my genius halfway if he's to profit from the encounter, must he not?

"Compliments?  I neither seek nor accept compliments, unless they come my way ironically.  As for blasphemy, though, I do confess a certain weakness for it.  It's been my observation that what most people call blasphemous a thoughtful person can mine for years and still bring forth precious jewels.  A preponderance of evidence indicts God for being more concerned with the form of one's activities than with their content.  Your prayers are judged according to how spit-shined they are, not how heartfelt they are.  This explains why the prayers of the rich get answered far oftener than those of the poor.  The poor pray to an all loving, all merciful being and receive dung heaps; the rich pray to a vainglorious potentate and are given dominion over this earth.  The rich know how to pray; not with fervor do they petition the lord, but with style.  Not that the poor mean to be fervent, they just don't know any better.  They go by what they were taught - and they were never taught the correct litanies.  Those crazy, madcap priests - you've got to hand it to them!  They serve the status quo first and foremost; then God; and finally, if there's any time left, their flocks!"

"You shouldn't speak ill of priests," I reminded this poor misguided soul; "after all, they do the work of the Lord."

"Precisely," he agreed.  "You know how Prometheus got into trouble by bringing fire from the gods to man?  The priests likewise transmit the wonders of heaven to man - only they're not punished for it.  Because it isn't fire they bring, or anything else that could advance humanity.  They bring the fine art of ass kissing.  They are the conduit between the Divine Plan and the social imperative.  God created man so that ass kissing would never go out of fashion - and so long as man lives, it never will!  This way, God truly is omnipresent.  Again, the rich have the advantage here.  They kiss ass so stylishly that the grand panjandrum could no more refuse them their advancement than God can refuse them salvation -"

"Aha!" I exclaimed.  "I have you there!  Did not Jesus Christ himself say that a camel goes through the eye of a needle easier than a rich man through the pearly gates?"

"Our dear lord Jesus had a fetish for conundrums," the vagrant had the gall to say.

"Conundrums?  How dare you say that!  That's worse than blasphemy!  Besides, it's historically impossible: they didn't even know about latex till the 19th Century!"  I chastised the blasphemer, as well as corrected his inaccuracy.

"It's a question of perspective," he tried to explain away his sin.  "Stand here with a needle very close to your eye and that entire building back there fits within its eye; move to the other side of the building and it will appear that the building has leaped through the needle's eye - parking lots, shoppers, complexes and all!"

"Nevertheless, you shouldn't make fun of Christ: he died for our sins," I reminded the heathen.

"When we sin, we sin against one another; therefore our sins are what please God most, because they're His proof that we will never join together.  It would appear then that Christ died in vain.  Not to worry, though: we love our dear sweet lord Jesus no matter what; but we love him best when his commandments fit our program."

"Such bitterness," I couldn't help noting.  "And didn't you say you lived in a monastery?  Was it the Jesuits?  I've always heard they were good teachers."

"It was the Franciscans," he said.  "But it was the truth, not the monastery that made me bitter.  I spend much of my time in church - not praying, but verifying the truth I discovered.  Ah! the church!  The black market in salvation!  The place where souls are bought and sold like cheap flasks of wine.  I've known some folks in my time who sold their souls to the devil; even a few - a very few - who refused to sell their souls at all; most, though, end up selling their souls to God, sooner or later - usually sooner, so they'll get that many more goodies by retirement age, but a few wait till later, when they feel death drawing upon them and don't want to risk damnation.  It's all one to God when you sell Him your soul; He knows that once you do He's safe.  So long as enough sell their souls, He'll never have to see His Plan go up in smoke.  And that's all that matters.  Heaven is filled with ulterior motives; it's the old self-service store in the universe."

"Do I perceive a little contradiction to your earlier statement about rich and poor and the merits of their respective prayers?" I asked.

"No.  The poor end up in heaven too; it's just a more tortuous route, and instead of presenting themselves for judgment in satin and gold, they wear sackcloth."

"And where will you end up?"

"I suppose I'll walk with Dido through an eternal fog."

"Oh!" I interrupted.  "I see a taxi.  It's been nice talking to you, but I must go hail it!"

"And if you meet the Holy Ghost on the road, kill him!"            

 

Chapter 13.  A Saint Is Born

Thank goodness I was able to get the taxi driver's attention.  He barely came to a stop before I grabbed the door open and leaped in; so eager was I to escape the vagrant that I was willing to risk life and limb to accomplish it.  That's just how uncomfortable I am around blasphemy.

"Where to in such a hurry, Mack?" the driver asked.

"807 Thalmus Avenue," I replied.  "Take me home, kind sir, for I am weary unto death!"

"Going home to die, eh, Mack?" the driver mused.

"Going home to feed the dog," I corrected the driver's bizarre observation.  (Sometimes these taxi drivers can be as weird and unconventional as the vagrants one encounters on the street.)

"That's it: keep up the spirits!" he replied.

The taxi, which my artistic duty demands I depict with microscopic precision, was yellow on the outside; had four doors, one of which was dented; smelled of pine cleaner; had the well-worn appearance characteristic of such conveyances; offered reddish brown vinyl seats, which were starting to tear at the seams; had rather grimy looking floor mats; and windows that were yellowed and streaked.

"Sir," I offered after a moment, "let me propose a brand new hypothesis for your consideration: a theory of vagrancy.  To put it in a nutshell -"

"Before you put it anywhere, Mack," the driver interrupted me, "have a look at that sign."

"What sign?" I asked.

"The one two feet in front of you, on the back of the front seat," I was told.

Then I saw the sign and read it, aloud.  "No talking, smoking, eating, drinking, playing radios, passing gas, picking noses."

"What does it mean?" I asked.

"It means you can't jump up and down on the seat," came the reply.

"It could be worded a little more clearly," I suggested.  "In fact, I'm a writer - a best seller - I could help you re-write it in such a way as to remove every trace of ambiguity."

"I like ambiguity," came the strange reply.  "It's the quality of heroes."

"Heroes?  There's nothing ambiguous about heroes," I assured him.  "Why, when I create a hero, I give him just about every quality but ambiguity!"

"You throw in everything but the kitchen sink, eh Mack?  You must be a very great writer!"

I thanked him for the compliment, then fell silent and grew deeply reflective.  Fortunately, the driver obeyed his own rule and said nothing further the rest of the way home.  My eye, dear reader, may have been on the meter, but my thoughts, I promise you, were with the Almighty.  I had come to realize how much it profit a man to regain his life, saved as I was from the clutches of death and the brink of destruction and edge of eternity.  My entire life had flashed before me in that fateful instant when six men in drag had set upon me; and I knew what I had to do.  I had been so blind to what really mattered, so caught up in my own petty attention to detail, so dedicated to a rigid formula that all I could see was having a best selling novel to my credit.  How shallow and vain is man, when there is a whole world out there just begging to be noticed.  I need not devote my entire life to writing novels in the vain foolish hope that one would outsell every other novel written that season.  I could just as easily write plays!  Or poems!  And so what if I could never aspire to best selling status?  I could still get rich on the royalties every time a play was produced, a poem read; and the movie rights: not gone, not forgotten, not out of reach, just differently obtained, that's all.  The possibility still lay before me, just down a different path.  I felt as though I should ask the taxi driver for pencil and paper and write a sign to put on my head: "All ye who enter here are blind!"  Of course, he'd undoubtedly add it to my fare, so I restrained myself.  But the thought was there, and that's what counted.  God listens to the voice within, not the one on your tongue.  Even if you speak with a lisp, you can still pray in silence and know your prayer will be heard.

"Ah!  Home at last!" I exclaimed when the taxi came to a halt in front of 807 Thalmus.  I paid, got out, and bounded to my abode to share the wondrous doings of the evening with Fido.

"Guess what, boy?  Guess what?" I said as he leaped and squealed and barked his happiness at my return.  "The most wonderful think happened, fella!  You're going to have a playmate - as soon as he's fully trained!  You won't believe your eyes, Fido: he's going to be everything a puppy dog should be - and more: he'll be pedigreed, pampered, and trained right down to his toenails!  Dog like that doesn't come cheap, Fido - but oh! won't he be worth every penny - every last penny!  And who knows," I scolded him ever so gently, "you might learn a thing or two from him yourself?"

He growled a little at my scolding, but his growl was really of the same nature as the scolding: more teasing than chastising.  "Ready for your walk?" I asked, and was assured by a round of leaping and yelping that, yes, Fido was ready.  So we took ourselves to the streets, he in search of bushes and trees appropriate to his needs, I in search of ways to flesh out my new found strategy.

"Excuse me, sir," a voice came from out of nowhere.  In truth, it startled me at first; then distressed me as I foresaw yet another encounter with a vagrant - and practically at my own front door to boot.  But, luckily, as I turned to where the voice seemed to come from, I saw right away that this was no vagrant but an immaculately dressed and exceedingly well groomed gentleman.  (I need not point out that vagrants are invariably just the reverse: sloppily dressed and downright unkempt, if not to say slovenly.)

"Excuse me, sir," he repeated in a voice as scrupulously polite as his appearance was refined.  "I couldn't help overhearing you.  And as a result I feel a little faint - please don't trouble yourself over it, though, I think I'll be alright now.  It's just that whenever I have the misfortune to hear bad words I get tense and nervous and my palms sweat and I feel cold and clammy and, in truth, sir, I have passed out on occasion, when the words have been particularly naughty.  I can't help being that way."

"Well, I daresay," I offered, "if we were all that way this world would be a much better place to live in!"

"That it would, sir," this fine gentleman agreed.  "Indeed," he went on, "I am so convinced of the rightness of that very proposition that I have recently formed a coalition dedicated to the eradication, not just of the spoken obscenity but the written as well.  Cleanliness in language, sir, cannot help but produce Godliness in thought and deed.  Our bodies may be what we eat, but our souls are what we read and speak.  Let all bad words be stricken from our language and, as surely as the standard of living follows free enterprise, goodness, kindness and loving thoughtfulness will come our way."

Who but a madman could disagree with so profound and, let me say it proudly, so religious an observation?  Not I!  So I at once proclaimed my wholehearted support for his coalition.

"God bless you," he said.  "The National Association To Move Bad Language to Albania has just become richer, wiser and more deeply committed than ever!"

"Albania?" I couldn't help asking.  "Why Albania?"

"It is one of the evilest places on earth," I was told.  "Godless communism has flourished there as nowhere else.  Bad words can do no harm to a God-forsaken place like that."

"How exactly will you move the bad words?" I asked.

"By telegraph," came the reply.

"Telegraph?"

"Yes.  I am working on a non-stop telegraph, which when fully operational will transmit words twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Every bad word known to man will be fed into a data base from which the telegraph will automatically extract it and send it to Albania."

"Is there any way they can return it?"

"No, none whatever.  Once moved, the words will remain there forever - and our language will again be pure as it was when God first gave it to the prophets."

"Sir," I said in awe, "you are a saint.  I must know your name, so I may honor it from this day forth."

"It would be immodest to take any credit for my good deeds - even so much as stating my name.  Therefore I have taken a pseudonym, one I feel God Himself has given me.  Know me simply by that name.  Mr Good Words."

"Mr Good Words," I echoed.  "Yes, it fits.  And, truly, sir," I observed, "God broke the mold after He gave it to you."

"That He did, sir.  That He did."

We parted company, each to go his own way, when all of a sudden a wonderful thought came to me - so wonderful, in fact, that I turned and ran after him.  "Sir!" I called.  "Oh Mr Good Words!"

He finally stopped and turned.  "Are you addressing me, sir?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.  "I've just had a most wonderful thought - apropos of our recent discussion.  Why don't you - just to be on the safe side - collect every page of every written document containing bad words and ship them all - Federal Express maybe, or perhaps UPS - to Albania - just to make sure you haven't overlooked any?"

His whole face lit up.  "Sir," he said, "you have just made my day."

I had not mentioned this previously, but - much to my chagrin - Fido had been growling under his breath and occasionally barking the entire time I was conversing with this sainted gentleman.  Now, at just about the same time I was conveying my wonderful idea, he began howling - actually howling, almost the way a wolf might howl.  I had subsequently learned that the phenomenon is not all that rare (Fido howls every time an ambulance goes by; sometimes when a Good Humor truck passes); but I can assure you at the time it was quite unnerving and more than a little vexing to the gentleman I addressed.

He shuddered and stepped back, raising his hand to his forehead.  "I feel faint," he whispered.

"Did someone say something unbeknownst to me?  I know how that affects you."

"Not in so many words," he replied.  "But that sound your pet rat made -"

"Dog," I corrected him; "he's a dog: a Chihuahua."

"That sound of his had the exact same tonal quality as a string of expletives.  I thought I would pass out for sure.  Every bad word known to man passed in front of me."

"If only you had had a transporter," I observed.

"Oh God; oh God, if only!" he agreed.  "I could have been rid of them all, once and for all.  If only."

Ah! dear reader: those two little words - the biggest little two words in Texas, in the world, in the very universe itself!  If only.  What they don't say, doesn't exist.  But what they do say stands like an Everest of possibility before us, awaiting the grand trek to its summit.  We have only to don our hiking boots and woolen caps and take the plunge.  (It seems I've struck a metaphor out of uneven elements here; but it's a fine passage so I'll leave it.  Besides, as I stood watching this living saint walk away from me, I could think of nothing so mundane as good grammar; my mind was elsewhere - it was on the Almighty, and all the wonders of heaven spread before me.  So please bear with me while I settle back into the never ending task of making sense out of existence - and what better way of doing that than describing some of the sights and sounds of this, my little temporary piece of turf on Thalmus Avenue.)

The lawns are generally larger on this street than elsewhere in the city.  Not including the front of the Think Man's Tank, which is a mystery made in a myth-machine, as it were, the lawns have room for two large trees (not that every lawn has two large trees, but the ones that do confirm the space being available).  Japanese holly predominates among the bushes; which, however, means a preponderance of bees.  It's nice to hear their buzzing, nice to contemplate their busywork; but I should not care to step too near the hollies.

As to what kind of trees predominate, I really can't say.  There are a number of big, spreading trees; but as my knowledge of horticulture is pretty much limited to the Sunday Supplement, I'm not sure what kind they are or if they're all the same kind.  All I can say for sure is that I should not care to be the one designated to clear the leaves in the fall.  Indeed, my first impression is that the world could do with a lot fewer trees; but then I recall some of the beautiful wooden banisters I've seen, not to mention the countless lovely miniatures of trees by the Masters, and I realize how truly important these objects are to the various art forms man so desperately needs if he's to survive.  So nuisance that they are, I should not wish to diminish their population but neither would I wish to increase it: there are just about the right amount in the world as it is, so I recommend leaving well enough alone.

But enough about nature - that infamous intruder that even on so civilized a thing as a front lawn threatens to run amok and spoil what man has so patiently attempted to create.  Let me turn my attention to the real raison d'etre of this, or any, avenue in America: its man made structures.  Specifically, its houses.  If, as I said earlier, the 300 block of Thalmus exists without human documentation, its houses exist nowhere else so eloquently as in that greatest of all possible ideals, the American Dream.  For they are, these houses nestled into an ever so delicate slope, the picture perfect expression of what it means to aspire to middle class status in these United States.  Indeed, there are moments when I find myself regretting that my stay here will be so brief; but, alas, my new home will very shortly be ready and I shall have to depart this lovely piece of Americana, taking solace only in the pull of my part time job at 301 Thalmus - otherwise, who knows when I should ever pass this way again?

A few of the houses are frame; but most are good, solid all-American brick.  Some are ranch style; but most are two full stories of upward mobility.  This is more a neighborhood you aspire to move into than one you grew up in.  The people who live here would never think to break into your house and make off with your hard earned possessions.  They are decent, honorable, fair minded and, above all, enterprising.  Just consider the gentlemen of the Thinking Man's Tank: because of their enterprise they are able to offer gainful employment to others (in this instance, me).  I guarantee you the other residents of Thalmus Avenue are no less enterprising.  Indeed, so great is the spirit of enterprise along this benighted Avenue that I should not be thought too guilty of overstatement if I inform you, dear reader, that one of my neighbors changed the very course of my life - and to this day I still do not know his name!  That is precisely what it means to be known by the company one keeps!

 

Chapter 14.  In The Land Of Opportunity

Since I cannot offer the name of my great benefactor, I shall do the next best thing: I shall describe him to the Nth degree - from the somewhat tacky appearance of his attaché, to the uneven crease of his trousers, clear down to the tiny hole in his otherwise commendable shoes; so that, by the time I am finished, his name will be quite redundant, for you will feel you've known him all your life (even if he turns out to be someone you might not care to have known).

To start with (and I'm determined to start at the beginning, i.e., at the top), his hair lent itself to speculation concerning its true color; it might have once been black, or brown, or even blonde, but it most definitely was never a greenish black, so one must conclude it to be gray beneath the dye.  But I'm not criticizing his hair (please don't think I am); with a face like his it really didn't matter how his hair looked: better looking hair wouldn't have helped, worse looking hair would have done him no further injury.  Were it not for my absolute artistic integrity, I should not have the courage to come right out and declare the man one of the homeliest individuals I have ever beheld.  (Which just goes to show you how much good can proceed even from ugliness in a free society.)

It would be wrong to say his body was misshapen; out of alignment comes much closer to the truth.  He leaned a little to one side; and as a consequence one shoulder rose somewhat higher than the other, one arm hung lower, one leg stretched a step or two ahead of the other.  Not that his ears were a perfect match either; but I felt, observing them, that even the most scrupulously observant artist wanted an instrument of some sort to measure their disparity.  At least, thank God, his nostrils flared with more or less regularity, as did his eyes bug with identical intensity.  He had no teeth, so the poor writer is spared their depiction (but, given the rest of his personage, I can only shudder to think what they must have been: perhaps, one cannot help speculating, they were removed not by a dentist but by an aesthete).  His fingers were clubbed and much too hairy; his nails ridged and purplish.  His arms were skinny, his body somewhat bloated.  He was medium height and had a crooked greenish black mustache which entirely covered his upper lip (if he had an upper lip at all - and judging from the thinness of the lower, he might not have).

When he introduced himself he injected a rather foul breath into our encounter that made me turn away and, in so doing, miss his name.  I was about to excuse myself when he began asking me if I could use one after another contest entry form he had with him, each of which he held up.

"I get these from everywhere," he explained, holding one from a magazine publisher.  Next came one from a fast food restaurant.  "Sometimes I enter, if I'm feeling lucky," he said.  "Sometimes I don't, if I'm depressed.  I haven't actually won anything yet, but it's just a matter of time.  I like the ones best where you just put your name and address and don't have to do anything; I never know quite how to go about the others.  Like the songwriting contest I entered last spring: I made a tape explaining what I want to say in a song, and ended with some suggestions for which key to play it in.  But I never heard from them."

I should point out that not only did this neighbor of mine emit a trail of bad breath with every syllable, he carried each syllable as far as it would go before bringing forth the next one, the end result being something analogous to playing a record at a slower speed.  I felt the urge, the entire time he spoke, to reach down into his throat and pull the words manually from his voice box.  I was about to simply turn, say goodnight, and go when he pulled out one last entry form."

"Take this one here, for instance," he was saying as I was preparing to go: "it's no use to me, I'm not half the prose writer I am the poet.  Now when I get one for Best American Poet, I'll be in business.  But Best All Around American Prose Writer: it's useless to me.  I can't put two words to paper but what they come out rhyming.  My hands are the hands of a poet, not a prosedist.  So if you know anyone who can use this -"

Here I interrupted him.  "Let me take a look at it," I said.  "I may know someone."

As you might imagine, dear reader, I was thrilled almost beyond belief, but dared not let my enthusiasm show lest a fee suddenly accompany this entry form - or, worse yet, a change of heart.  I therefore kept a cool head despite an overwhelming desire to jump up and cheer.  I thanked him for the form and bid him a pleasant evening, then turned and left.

Of course, it was not the form per se which so piqued my interest but rather what was on the form: the information, which would enable me to research who was sponsoring the contest, what the prizes were, how best to present myself before and ingratiate myself with the judges, and a hundred other vital matters without the consideration of which they may as well have been a Popsicle stick.  Indeed, is it not just such a focus which ever and again distinguishes the man of culture from the savage?  For while the savage takes the object itself for some kind of icon, to which he attributes all manner of magical possibility, the civilized man looks beyond the object, and through it, and all around it - any place but directly at it - to discern its significance, its meaning, its relationship to and its place within the greater scheme of things.  In a word, the content is the grain of treasure the higher being seeks, not the mere physical form it assumes.  (This is why, I might add, civilization evolves so slowly, and men remain ignorant and beastly so long.)

When I got home, I reverently lay the form on the mantle piece - high enough so Fido could not get at it and attempt to chew it, as he had other vital bits of information.  I decided to put off my examination until morning, when I would be wide awake and alert, the light would be better, and there would be less chance of overlooking some crucial piece of data.  (It goes without saying, there was no danger of my enthusiasm waning come morning.)

My mind obviously preoccupied with tomorrow morning's task, I slept a rather restless sleep - indeed, so did Fido, for I heard him walking about several times during the night.  And I had a strange, if not to say downright troublesome, dream along about 3 A.M., a dream which awoke me and almost kept me from returning to sleep the rest of the night.

I had come upon an old book lying in a deserted alley.  It was dog eared and dusty and clearly had not been read in a very long time.  I would have walked on past had it not excused itself and begun a conversation.  "Forgive my boldness," it called out to me, "but a couple of my pages seem to have gotten stuck together.  I wonder if I might trouble you to dislodge them."  I at once corrected the book.  "The term 'dislodge' is mis-applied here," I pointed out; "you would be better served by the term 'loosen,'" I suggested.  "How do you know so much about language?" the book asked.  "I am a best selling author," I explained.  "Are you the author of my chapters?" the book asked.  "No," I answered; "my book had a red jacket.  And it's much newer."  I could tell the book was disappointed.  "I've been waiting so long for an author to come claim me; but no one ever does," it moaned.  "Perhaps," I said as I picked it up to seek out the stuck pages, "you are the product of vanity publishing, in which case your author remains unknown; or, if he became famous wishes to disassociate himself from you." "Abandon me?" the book asked.  "I'm afraid so," I replied.  "But why?" it asked.  "There is a proper way of doing things," I endeavored to explain.  "How so?" "A book is not judged by whether or not it exists but by how it came into existence.  There are rules governing, not only what in a book will be considered valuable, but what will be an acceptable creation.  Reputable publishers exist solely to weed out what their society does not wish to see in print.  To circumvent that natural order is to produce something deformed and unworthy of being read.  The perpetrator of such a mockery of moral law must necessarily remain unsuccessful or else, if he by chance succeed, utterly deny his role in his earlier wrong doing."  "But isn't all publishing really vanity publishing when you come right down to it?" the book asked.  Just then, as I was loosening the stuck pages and preparing to set the book back down, the alley was flooded with light and a multitude of people appeared, filling every inch of alleyway.  They were all pointing at me.  "He's the one!" first one then another cried.  "He's the one!  It's his book!  His book!  He's the one!  He's the one!"  I tried to explain but no one would listen.  "Philistine!" they all cried out together, then a chant went up.  "Phili...Phili...Phili...!" the people lining one side of the alley sang, while the people lining the other side sang "Stine...Stine...Stine...!"  I threw the book down and ran as fast as I could.  I could see a light at the end of the alley, which had grown dark again.  I ran toward it.  Finally I reached it.  But it wasn't the end of the alley; it was a dead end.  A shop.  The sign out front read "Vanity Publishing."

Then I awoke, and though I remained in bed a couple hours more, I never succeeded in fully returning to sleep.  Fido seemed to sense my sleeplessness and shifted his position closer to mine.  It was a senseless dream, and merely repeated what I already knew - I thought dreams were supposed to provide new insights into existing problems, not serve as a medium for putting oneself in embarrassing situations.  Anyway, six o'clock finally rolled around and I got up, tired but still eager to begin my new project.

The first order of business, of course, was taking Fido for his morning constitution.  Our walk, quite understandably, given the proximity of respectable dwellings, brought us in front of the Thinking Man's Tank.  Something was different about it but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.  Then Fido leaped headlong into the imaginary lake covering the front lawn and ran up to a bush right in the center of the lawn to mark it as his territory (the images cast over the lawn did not conceal objects traversing it so I had no trouble following his path).  Then it dawned on me: that was no bush my dog wet on, but a huge carved object.  At last it became clear to me exactly what it was: it was the sign of the dollar.  "How odd," I thought.  "Perhaps it has something to do with this new philosophy."  I made a mental note to inquire about it my next scheduled workday.

"Well, Fido," I scolded my dog ever so slightly when he returned, "you are neither a patriot nor an entrepreneur to have wet on the single most important symbol of American democracy there is - except for the flag of course."  Fido merely wagged his tail, barked and headed for the next bush.

Twenty minutes or so later, our walk done, at last I could commence the all important task of preparing my game plan - my blueprint for success - my scheme to secure that most coveted of all artistic prizes: Best All-Around American Prose Writer.  The very first order of business was to see who was sponsoring it.  I read the entire contents of the entry form aloud, so as not to miss one crucial bit of information; and there it was, in the opening paragraph: "Sponsored by the American Prose Writers' Association, headquartered in Overland Park, Kansas."  So, like Toto and Dorothy, I would have to travel to Kansas to obtain an audience with my particular wizard.

"Fido," I quipped, "don't eat my ruby slippers - I may need them yet!"  (Of course, they were actually oxblood, and men's footwear, not little girl's.)

I read on.  "For a complete listing of contest rules, send SSAE to Sherick Canard, Controller, 401 Echo Place, Boulder, CO 80302."  I would certainly need a list of rules, since even the very best writing may need extensive editing to meet the particular specifications of whomever was sponsoring the contest.  (I hardly need to point out that the very essence of a great writer is the ability to re-write his opus at the drop of a hat should his public demand it of him.  The truly great artist changes themes, ideas, plots, characterizations - you name it - every time the wind changes direction.  It is this extreme flexibility which sets him apart from lesser souls and nets him a steady place on the best seller list.)

"And just what does it mean to be 'The Best All-Around American Prose Writer?'" I eagerly read.  "It means, for starters, that you possess an intellect that truly ranks you among the 'best and brightest' this nation has to offer.  And a talent that can only be described as 'awesome.'  It means you have no pre-conceived notions about art, or any other topic; instead, you have a mind as open to new opinions, new forms of expression, new conventions as the seashore is to the breezes billowing in from a thousand points of origin.  It means, in a word, that you think, feel, write, act and just plain old 'be' as an all-around American prose writer should.  If you're that kind of guy or gal, then you're who we're looking for.  So don't wait another minute.  Write to us at 1819 W. Cheyenne Drive, Muncie, IN 47304 for complete details.  And if you think you qualify for membership in our exclusive association, call us toll free at 1-888-555-5111 or write to Debbie Contact, Director of Marketing, P.O. Box 1417, Murfreesboro, TN 37130."

"Think I qualify for membership?  Brother, I know I qualify!" I verily shouted out before God and man and all the lesser order of beings of this and every other universe, be they parallel, contra-parallel, 4th dimension, non-dimensional or any other time and place and condition.

In no time at all, dear reader, I had composed, edited, typed and sealed three separate letters to three separate addresses.  One would get me the rules of the contest; one the details; the third a membership in this most prestigious organization.

"Fido," I asked, "do you wish to accompany me to the United States Post Office?"

He barked his assent, so presently we were off, man and beast and three of the most important letters taken to be posted.  And as we walked to the Post Office, I found myself disbelieving I could have gone this long without having already learned of the American Prose Writers' Association, or of this wonderful contest - especially since I was so natural and obvious a contender for the title.  But as that giant among dramatists, Percival Shelly, observed upon being at long last knighted into the Royal Scriptwriting Society, "Better late than never!"

At any rate, the earth for once was the perfect mirror of the stunning events about to transpire.  The sun cast a thousand photons for every square inch of landscape, illuminating to a degree well beyond the "Nth" the lovely old townhouses standing like dowagers in full regale along the narrow street I chose to traverse - one of the quaintest streets in the entire city.  The sky made blue divine and every other color dingy.  This was not merely the brilliant blue of a crisp November day but the very font from which the spectrum drew pigment and hue to entwine crystal and essence until perfection sprang from the clouds to render an artist's sky - a greater sky than was ever in Mother Nature's philosophy.  (It was better even than Emily Blue.)

The street on which my foot took wing was a receptacle of magnificence, its glass encrusted asphalt glistening like sacred diadems worthy of a king, or a god, or an artist.  And all the litter had vanished into some nether dimension (though very little litter, thankfully, ever strayed into this part of town anyway).  The sidewalks were white as a dove's wings; the street lamps silvery walls woven by man's electrical genius; the overhead wires strands of golden angel's hair; even the trees a lovelier green than is usually nature's wont.

"World," I exclaimed, "you are what you are as I am what I am!"

"And God am what God am!" a deep, scruffy voice from nowhere asserted.  I was taken quite aback, for I had been aware of no other pedestrian in the immediate vicinity; besides which, this being, as I believe I said, one of the finest parts of town, there was but the remotest likelihood of encountering the sort of person who just comes up and begins speaking for no good reason.  Momentarily, I saw the man who spoke; from his appearance, however, I could glean nothing definite (and my good readers already well know me as someone with a keen sense of character judgment).  He could not have been someone very important, dressed as he was - unless he was exceedingly eccentric.  Not only was he wearing no three piece suit, nor carrying an attaché, he did not even have on a tie; and his blazer was entirely the wrong color for this time of year.  Yet neither did he have the attire and aspect of a vagrant.  There was something wholesome about his appearance, even elegant; but not quite appropriate to this locale.  To strike an analogy, this place was like a boardroom, the man strictly mid-level management; so while he was not totally out of place, he clearly did not belong.

"I beg your pardon, sir," I said, "were you addressing me?"  Fido, I might add, had gone up to the man even as I pondered his being, his very essence, and was clearly seeking to be petted.

"Indeed, sir, I were," the man replied.

"You live around here?" I asked.

"Yes, I do," came the reply.  "This is the world, is it not?"

"Most certainly," I agreed.  "Our own little world.  And what do you do?"

"I, sir, am a whistle blower for Christ!"

"A most unusual occupation, but I suppose someone must do it," I conceded.  "God knows you must have hundreds upon hundreds of souls to blow the whistle on."

The gentleman - although judging from his clothing, I was a bit reluctant to label him a gentleman - looked at me strangely.  In someone else I may have been unnerved by such a look, but it has been my observation that deeply religious types are generally peculiar, so I paid it no mind.

"I do not blow the whistle on my fellow man and his legion of alleged sins," the man said; "but on God the father, God the son, and most of all God the Holy Ghost!"

"Then sir," I made bold to point out (I say "bold" here not from a sense of imminent danger but because it was becoming clear I had once again been set upon by a nut and while I was loath to encourage further discourse, I was even more loath to allow so blatant a linguistic faux pas to go unchallenged), "you are quite in error calling yourself a 'whistle blower for Christ.'"

"What should I have said?  What would you have said?" he asked.

"I would have said 'a whistle blower on Christ,'" I replied.

"So too would I have," he admitted, "had I not thought the term 'on' to imply a physical contact.  You see, I am very poor at grammar.  My prepositions all turn upon themselves, or else become adverbs by the time I'm finished arranging them in a sentence.  And I have great trouble with verbs - the 'To Be' verbs especially."

"To be or not to be!" I quipped.

"That's one I'll never know," the man confessed.  "But then I'm not a linguist, I'm a harbinger of doom.  We're doomed because of our love for the Christ."

"Isn't that a sacrilege?" I asked.  "And aren't you afraid of retribution?"

"Retribution?  You think that has some bearing on anything?  Well it doesn't.  My dear lord Jesus, Inc, casts stones with an impartial eye.  The Trinity Holding Company doesn't care who it strikes.  Saint, sinner, torturer, victim: suffering has no particular portal.  I knew a very fine man, who spent his life caring for others, and he died a lingering death, unable even to feed himself; and I knew a monster, who spent his every waking hour tormenting others so that he might further his own ends, and he died peacefully in his sleep, never having been sick a day in his life."

"Ah! but the one was taken up to heaven, I'll guarantee you, while the other was sent straight to hell!" I stated.

"Actually it didn't happen that way," he said.

"How do you know what happened?" I asked.

"How do you?" he, in turn, asked.

"I know, sir," I replied, "because the Bible tells me so!"

"The Bible also tells you that what you give to God you will get back ten fold.  No one on earth gives to God like the poor; no one gets less in return."

"They are rewarded in other ways," I assured him.

"Of course.  Why didn't I think of that?  The rich merely get their reward in ways you can use to make your life worthwhile; the poor, however, get a pocket full of promises - praise the Lord!  But if it's all the same to you, I'll take the bird in hand before the two in the bush: less chance of being bush-whacked by my dear sweet lord Jesus!"

"I imagine, sir," I said, "that your 'dear sweet lord Jesus' is wondering right about now if it was worth it, dying for your sins!"

"He died for our sins, yes, that's right.  But tell me: who died for his sins?"

"Against whom?" I asked.

"Against us.  Or his father's sins?  Or the sins of that elusive third member of the trinity?  Who died for their sins against man?  We know who died because of their sins - did I hit the right preposition?  Millions upon millions of us died through their sleight of hand: showing us one way; then creating a world, a reality, a set of circumstances, a sequence of events another way.  'Do as I say, not as you must do if you're to survive the obstacle course I've designed!'  Those sins.  The ones I blew the whistle on.  But tell me: have you ever murdered a man because he stood in your way?"

 

Chapter 15.  ...The Man Of Talent Is King

I know perfectly well, dear reader, what you are asking yourself right now: what is this world coming to when a man of taste and breeding like myself - an individual of such obvious and genuine gentility - is asked such a question as this "whistle blower" just put to me?

"Have you ever murdered a man because he stood in your way?"  Why, the very idea that I, of all people, have it in me to murder anybody, for any reason!  The man must be mad.  And the record must be set straight at once, in no uncertain terms - even if I was on a mission of the utmost urgency.

"Sir," I addressed the lunatic, despite my desire to end all further intercourse with him, "I must protest your question.  I quite assure you I am no murderer!"

"Not even a little bit?" he had the gall to persist.

"One can no more be a 'little bit' of a murderer than he can be a 'little bit' pregnant!" I informed him.

"Ah," he countered, "you forget: with God all things are possible!"

"I believe," I pointed out, "you'll find that what God meant was all possible things are possible."

"Another of Jesus' conundrums?" he asked.

The reader already knows my distaste for such blasphemous filth, so I need not repeat my comment.  I will only say that it caused nothing short of a fit of laughter from this lunatic.

"Sir," he at last ceased laughing to say, "your innocence is exceeded only by your narrowness of mind.  As for your being a murderer, sir, did the Christ not die for our sins?  And are our sins not expressions of our wanting to get and have our own way?  Ergo, sir, you helped murder the Christ because he stood in your way!"

"The Bible, sir," I reminded him, "is not a treatise on logic, nor is it in any way epistemological or even necessarily historically accurate.  It is a doctrine of theology.  When God says the son died for our sins, He does not mean to indict us for murder.  We are, at most, accessories after the fact."

Again, there came an explosion of laughter.  "You know your Jesus - I'll give you that!  The son of man provides the wary pilgrim as many 'outs' as there are human failings.  It's only the ignorant among us who haven't yet learned to read between holy scripture: that's another sin against us I blow the whistle on.  What the lord makes to look like hellfire and damnation, when you see up close turns out to be a flick of the Bic and a slap on the wrist."

"Sir," I informed this poor misguided madman, "I quite assure you the God I pray to doesn't play at damnation, any more than He does at retribution!  His is an all loving, all merciful, all just God who will consign you as surely and as swiftly to eternal flames as, I'm told, the philosopher David Hume did his treatise on metaphysics!  And now, I must be on my way.  I have a matter of the utmost urgency to take care of.  Good day to you."

"Good day," the lunatic replied.  "Perhaps we'll meet in the hereafter."

I sorely doubted that, but I simply said "Perhaps" and continued on my way to the Post Office, where, after standing in line at the counter some eight or ten minutes, I posted my three letters.

"Would you be interested in our newest service?" the lady behind the counter asked.

"What is this service?" I asked.  After all, anything that would speed the mail along was well worth looking into.

"Designer addresses," came the reply.

"Excuse me?" 

"Designer addresses," the lady repeated.  "You look puzzled.  So let me take a moment to explain.  Perhaps you've found yourself wishing your address were a little more stylish, or exotic, or sexy - or even a little more prosaic.  Well, for a small monthly service fee, we can set up what amounts to a Post Office Box for you.  You can pick out any address you like - any combination of numbers, any street name.  As soon as it's set up, you can begin using it as your official postal address.  Now your real address won't change, of course; but for all postal purposes you will no longer reside on Street X; you will reside on Avenue Y!"

At once my brain was flooded with a thousand possibilities, as any great thinker's would be (I imagine even you, dear reader, would have had a few things gathering inside your head as well).  Name tumbled upon name, number after number, as my mind conjured up a plethora of rich and influential places.  At the very top of my list: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; followed very closely by Wall Street, the Champs D'Elysee, Number 10 Downing Street, and so on down the line.  My head was reeling from the rush of geographical greatness.

"Hmm," I muttered.

"For instance," the lady was saying, "you look like an accountant or someone in some such field.  You might like your mail addressed to Number 1 GAAP Place; or CPA Way; or perhaps Credit Corner or Debit Lane - "

"It doesn't have to be an actual street name?" I asked.

"No!  It can be anything!"

"Hmm," I mused.  "Anything, you say?"

"Anything," she answered me.

"Even a noun like 'genius'?"

"Most certainly.  We can't give you Number 1 - that's already taken for that particular name.  But we could give you the next number in sequence."

As tempting as it was - and, as you can imagine, dear reader, it was very tempting - except, of course, for not being able to get Number 1 - I decided to decline the offer.  I was satisfied with Thalmus Avenue, besides which I would be moving shortly anyway, just as soon as my new house was ready.

"I think I'll pass this time," I said.

"Very well.  Next please.

A day went by, an ordinary day, uneventful, as any day away from one's goals must necessarily be.  Storms, snows, earthquakes and volcanoes came and went; wars were fought and won; empires rose and fell; politicians went to jail, or to Congress; workers went on strike, or on unemployment; babies got born, people got sick, the sickest died - all on an autumn day in this the year of our lord.  But to me, whose entire raison d'etre lingered in limbo, it was but 24 hours, neither more nor less.  And 24 became 48.  And two days became seven.  And seven became fourteen.  Like a tiny spinning top winding down, the days whirred and gyrated to a ceaseless monotony of indescription.  Boredom and a parade of almost meaningless non-events trudged along with timeless time endlessly by my front door; I felt that if I looked out I would actually see this senseless parade.  Then at last the postman, like a fine taut lariat, snapped the world out of its lethargy and back into sync.  My life, and all the heaven's cherubim and planets' move and cosmic dusts, was back on track.  And what seemed trivial and meaningless revealed itself with lightening speed to be no less than earth shaking.  My mail had arrived, and with it all the significance attendant upon all the great and wondrous happenings of this the greatest possible of all worlds returned.

"What?" I said, dumbfounded, "the President vetoes yet another bill"  The Soviets put grain on their tables?  The European Community seeks open borders?  The Japanese created another technological marvel?  Oh, dear God! where was I when all this transpired?  How could I have been so blind not to see it coming?  Where is my newspaper?  Fido: did you eat it?"

Ah! dear reader: life was good again.  My goals were once more my own.  I would languish no more in a lethargic time warp!

I at once set to opening my mail.  Three letters had arrived.  One from Lexington, Kentucky - ah! I could almost smell the bluegrass as I took it in hand!  One from Grand Rapids, South Dakota - I could hear tomahawks twirling in the crisp plains' air!  And the third from Detroit, Michigan - I could almost see Henry Ford himself leaping from the envelope!  But which to open first?  How does one go about selecting the greatest of the great, the best of the best, the creme de la creme of all cremes?

One potato, two potato?  I don't think so.  Eenie meenie?  Not in your life.  I pondered this mystery a moment, then flew to it.  "Oh, why not?" I asked as I began.

"My mother told me to choose the very best one!" - and there it was: the very best one.  The one from the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Carefully, reverently, I opened it, unsealing the flap from right to left, as I had watched my mother do a thousand times in my youth.  Then, as carefully, as reverently, I coaxed the letter from its wrap - the treasure from its chest, as it were.

Fate, as always, had guided my every move toward attaining the very best resolution possible.  For I had indeed chosen "the very best one."  Facing me, like some long sought after and much cherished muse, was the entry form and contest rules for the Best All-Around American Prose Writer.  And from one muse - this muse - to another muse - my muse - a great magnetic beam extended, an instant bond was formed, an affinity commenced that would last as long as literature itself lived.

Call it pre-cognition if you will (even if the great Zimrod Zardon had declared that topic the victim of my intellect), but the moment my hand touched the paper on which the entry form was presented, I knew that I - and I alone - was destined to win.  I - and I alone - would be the Best All-Around American Prose Writer.  I - and I alone, of all this season's best sellers (and they were legion) - would write my name in the great annals of literary history.  For as surely as A is A, I am I.  But enough of sublimity, there was real work to be done.  I began reading the cover letter - and a masterpiece of efficiency it was.

"Dear (here my name was filled in)," it began.  "Many may be called, but only one will win.  Will it be you?  Will you stand alongside the various winners of the various contests in the various fields of human endeavor?  Will you prove yourself to be of that rare breed for whom a legion of honors awaits?  Are you, (here my name was again inserted), one of 'the best and brightest' this great nation has to offer?  Is it your destiny to be looked up to by lesser mortals, quoted at every turn, flattered and honored?  Will it be you who receives the RSVPs from the Blue Book Registry?  Will it be you every reporter seeks to interview?  Will it be you getting out of that 'Jag,' wearing the $3000.00 suit and sporting the confident, jaunty air of a superstar?  If you know the answers to these questions - and the fact that you're holding this letter now proves you do - then don't wait another minute.  Fill out and return the entry blank.  And begin today practicing how it feels to be one of the best and brightest in America."  The letter was signed by a Vice-President of the American Prose Writers' Association.

Dear reader, I did what you or any sane person would do: I held the letter to my lips and kissed the paper on which it was printed.  Then I set it aside and began perusing the contest rules - and what a monumental set of rules they were, too!  The paper was gold-leaf, the printing was script, the texture of the page was like parchment.  It was as if I had stumbled upon the Magna Carta, or the Declaration of Independence, or at the very least a stock certificate.  They read, these rules, like the Ten Commandments, or Mr Wilson's Fourteen Points, or, perhaps better still, like a fine tuned, eminently drawn-up job description.  They told not only what I needed to do to win the contest, but also what any writer who would aspire to fame and fortune must do to succeed at his craft.  For they told what being a great American writer was all about.

When I had read them thoroughly (and have no fear, dearest reader, you will be apprised what they are at the appropriate time - for, who knows, even you may one day wish to try your hand at being a writer), I decided to consult with my agent, my attorney and my publisher - particularly my agent, who I sensed was not 100% (or shall I say 110%) sold on my marketability.  My timing was perfect, for I had no sooner set the rules aside (in a safe place, so that Fido could not get at them) than the phone rang.  It was the pet shop, advising me that my puppy dog was at last fully trained, papered, certified, and ready to go.  I told them I would get him this evening.

The day went by rather quickly, for this was a workday - and there is nothing like a little work to turn an otherwise dull day to its glistening best.  I betook myself to the Thinking Man's Tank, Fido in tow, to perform whatever chores wanted doing.  Today I encountered no one.  The philosophers must have been hard at work devising, evaluating, studying and in a hundred other provocative ways dealing with their chosen craft, philosophy.  There was a note tacked to the back door advising me what needed to be done.

"Underling," it was addressed (what a sense of human those philosophical types have!).  "The President of the East Coast chapter of The Best and the Brightest will be paying us a visit tomorrow.  The back porch must be completely free of splinters.  Here is a list of what else must be done if you expect to be paid this week: First, pick up sticks; second, lay them straight; third, rake the leaves; fourth, burn them bright; fifth, mow the lawn; sixth, prune the trees; seventh, paint the house; and last but not least, ninth, smell the roses - but plant them first.  You will notice there is no eighth item on the list, the reason being that the number 8 represents infinity and, as such, is reserved for in-house memos only."  "Only philosophers can comprehend infinity," my boss once informed me; "therefore only philosophers have any business making a figure 8."

"Excuse me, young man," a big, booming voice called to me as I was completing my chores (not all nine, of course, only the ones I could reasonably expect to accomplish).  "Please announce me, I am here!"

I turned to face one of the most exquisitely tailored gentlemen it has ever been my pleasure to behold.  "Who, exactly, am I to announce?" I asked.

"Jackerond Mizenmack, of course," the great voice replied.  "President of The Best and the Brightest East."

"You are a day early, sir," I pointed out.

"And a dollar short, too, I suppose!"  He seemed annoyed.  "Just announce me."

I rapped at the back door, but as no one came to answer I opened it and called inside.  "Mr Mizenmack is here!"  Still no one came, so I suggested that he go on in.

"Imagine!" he declared.  "Me - one of the Best and Brightest men in America - and I must come sneaking through the back door like any common tradesman!  Anyone would think I am no better than you are!"

"Are you better?" I asked.

"Just how do you think I came to be President of the East Coast Chapter of the most prestigious organization in America?  I'm one of The Best - "

" - and the Brightest!" I reminded him.

"Precisely"!

"Are you affiliated with Mensa?" I thought to ask, more out of curiosity than anything else.

"Indeed not!" Mizenmack replied.  "The very idea!  They allow just anyone in their Club: janitors, truck drivers, artists, clerks - underlings of every description, who by accident of birth just happen to be geniuses!  We, on the other hand, permit only the Best among the Brightest - only those whose breeding, skills and ambitions have forged a path to the top and made their names household words.  Our members have influence, enjoy power, drive the best cars, wear the most expensive clothes, live in the most elegant neighborhoods.  We are The Best and the Brightest!  When people 'drop names,' ours are the names they drop most.  Affiliated with Mensa?  Why, the very idea is repulsive - blasphemous!  So if you'll excuse me, young man, I am far to important to be standing here talking to a common gardener!"

With this, he went in.  And none too soon, for I could no longer hide my absolute mortification at what, unbeknownst to him, had befallen this great giant among me.  Almost the entire time Mr Jackerond Mizenmack, President of the East Coast Chapter of The Best and the Brightest, was lecturing me on the sterling merits of his organization, Fido was busy wetting on his shoe.  I dared not scold the naughty little creature for fear of bringing to Mizenmack's (his victim's) attention what had, mercifully, escaped it.  I felt it would be redundant, however, to scold Fido now that it was over; so I let the matter rest, finished up my gardening chores, and took my leave (though took it in the figurative sense only, as there was no one there to take actual leave of).

"Well, Fido," I gave the little mischief maker the good word when we arrived home, "this evening you will have a playmate - but not just any playmate.  Oh no.  This one will be the quintessence of doghood.  He will be trained to be anything anyone could ever want or hope for in a dog.  All the bad habits indigenous to the breed will be trained out of him, leaving only the good.  He'll be almost human - but with four legs and a tail."

My small companion seemed less than impressed with these sterling credentials.  He actually yawned (a coincidence, of course, but an untimely one) and lay down on the rug that covered the living room floor - an oriental rug, I might add, the genuine article, which my realtors, Pasquale and Zido, assured me had been woven on the finest Persian looms.  (Doubtless I am at fault as master to allow my dog to lie on so fine a rug, but he took to it so naturally I hadn't the heart to chase him away.

"I'm off, on one of the most important missions in the annals of human history!" I announced; but Fido only gave me a fleeting glance then lay his head back down again.  "Artistic history, anyway," I corrected myself as I stepped from the front porch to the sidewalk.  I said a small prayer that the mission would go without incident - but since I was going to The Complex, and as lunatics, hobos and other undesirables seem almost irresistibly drawn to places where normal, sane people congregate, the chances were good my prayer would go unanswered.

But - ah! - one must never underestimate the power of heartfelt prayer.  For not only did I not encounter any madmen on the way, I was most singularly fortunate to be treated to a spectacle the essence of which can only be described as ethereal.  Halfway to The Complex, let me just take a moment to point out, is a lovely (dare I say enchanted?) little park, the description of which I will now undertake in as exquisite detail as my talent allows.  And, at that park, a most wonderful thing occurred.

There are trees, dear reader - and then there are trees!  These were trees of the second, that is to say higher, order.  They made no mess, neither sap nor pollen; they left no leaves; split neither bark nor wood.  No nest of robins composed their coiffe.  No dung of birds fertilized their roots.  For these were magical trees, metal trees, man-made trees, sculpted by man, not nature, therefore sculpted to please, not pester, man in his eternal quest for oneness with the great cosmic life force.  Some were copper, some pewter, some bronze; all were perfect in shape, texture, hue and detail.  I counted twenty, each a masterpiece of arboreal splendor.  At their feet were tiny flowers, most of them silk, a few plastic - each a rainbow without a sky to dim their luster.  To complete the effect, a beautiful fountain showered delicate gossamer sprays of pure filament down into a marble basin.  The fountain was in the middle of the park; and around it they had gathered.

I at once recognized my great spiritual mentor, the right Reverend Claude Dingledoody.  Who the girls were, I had no idea.  I counted fourteen, each wearing a short navy blue skirt, bright white sneakers, a red sweater, and carrying a big red-white-and-blue pompom. 

"Who are these girls?" I asked a woman standing nearby.

"Why, they're Reverend Dingledoody's Cheerleaders for Christ, of course!" the woman replied, her voice and manner together a question mark: How could I conceivably not know who they were?  Had I just arrived on a slow banana boat from Taipai? or come from a voodoo coven in Port-au-Prince? or was I just plain stupid?

"Cheerleaders for Christ," I mused.  "How perfectly wonderful!'

"Let the cheers begin!" a magnificent voice boomed as I mused.  The voice of the good Reverend: I'd know it anywhere.  How many congregations had it blessed? how many benedictions recited? how many litanies chanted? how many sacraments dispensed?  Now it was leading a lovely group of young women in cheers in honor of the Almighty.  And it was my great good fortune to happen upon it.

I could only stay a moment, of course; my own business pressed me ever onward.  But a pure joy that moment was - an elixir for the spirit, a tonic for the soul.

"Give me a C!" the cheer began.

"C!" the cry went up.

"Give me an H!"

"H!"

"Give me an R!"

"R!"

"Give me an I!"

"I!"

"Give me an S!:

"S!"

"Give me a T!"

"T!"

"What do you have?"

"Christ!"  And they repeated it with even greater enthusiasm.  "Christ!"  And a third time.  "Christ!"  Then they crouched down and leaped into the air, exclaiming for all the world to hear "Yay Christ!"                

 

Chapter 16.  A Man Most Misunderstood

The crowd assembled at Poupon Park extended a hearty round of applause to these wonderful cheerleaders - and, considering the compactness of the park, quite a sizable crowd it was.  Most were centered about the fountain, around which the cheerleaders had strategically positioned themselves; a few stragglers loitered next to the trees, or else leaned against them.  I hated to leave after only one cheer, but duty called; so, knowing full well that God would understand, I continued on my way, vaguely conscious of the need to speak to Dingledoody about some matter or another but unable to recall what it was.

In twenty or so minutes more, I was standing in front of my agent, ready to make his day with my fantastic news.  He was on the phone, though, so I'd have to wait another few minutes.

"Grandel Pan Abram here," he was saying.  "Hey, Bizurko!  How you doing, baby?  No, I didn't ask how long you doing - everyone already knows that - I asked how you doing!  Ready to start?  Alright, baby!  Make my day!"

At this point, Grandel looked up and saw me.  "Hey!" he practically shouted into the receiver, "you need a ghost?"  The reply clearly pleased him.  "Alright, Beezie!  Got the perfect man for you.  I'll have him on the next shuttle bus, I promise you!  Baby, you just made my day.  So keep up the faith, and - who knows? - with good behavior: who knows?"

Grandel hung up the phone.  "Butcher!" he exclaimed, as if he were mad at the phone company for this piece of equipment.  "Hope they remembered to throw away the key!"  Then he looked up again.  "Oh yeah," he said.  "You."

As always, the master of understatement!  So I replied in kind just as if I were not his most illustrious client!  "Yeah," I said, "me."  Then I casually - very casually - took out the precious documents heaven had sent and laid them before him.

He glanced down.  "Interesting," he said, then glanced up again - but oh! it was the way he said it!  I could tell he was stirred to the soul, no matter how great the pains he took to conceal it: for how could he not be? was this not the opportunity of a lifetime? and, as his greatest living client, was I not a shoe-in to win?

"Well?" I asked.

"Well what, my latter day Sophocles?" Grandel replied.

I must confess his reference to Sophocles and the Lion was lost on me (so I'm sure the gentle reader is totally mystified).

"Well," I saw I'd have to gently prod my literary agent, "for starters, has there been, in recent memory, a more graphic demonstration of how 'life imitates art'?"

Here Grandel brought forth a cupcake and began, at once, to partake of it.  Past experience taught me to rescue my documents - and none too soon, for he had barely taken the first bite when he spat out a crumb or two; and, sure enough, they landed right where my documents had lain.

"Life imitates art?" he questioned.  "I think you have it backwards.  No matter.  I've got an assignment for you.  My most prestigious client needs a ghost writer to assist him with his memoirs.  Even though you've only got one best seller under you belt, I'm taking a chance on you.  'Cause I believe you've got what it takes.  Am I right?"

I answered the only way I knew how.  "If greatness and genius are what it takes, then, yes, I have what it takes!"

"I knew I could count on you," he said.

"There's just one problem," I pointed out.  "I do not ghost write."

"Now wait a minute," Grandel remarked.  "Let me get this straight.  You call yourself a writer, yet you're willing to pass up the chance of a lifetime?  The chance to work with one of the finest literary minds of this century?  I mean, we're talking real genius here, real greatness here.  He may be a little misunderstood - hell: maybe a lot misunderstood! - but isn't that what greatness is all about? that lesser minds can't comprehend where he's coming from or what he's all about?  This man didn't give a paltry 110%, or 130 - like the losers - or even 200: hell no, he gave a full 1000%!  Hell, if Maggie Mitchell had wanted you to ghost 'Gone With The Wind,' would you have told her 'I do not ghost write?' or if Ben Franklin had needed someone to assist him with his autobiography? or if Marcus Aurelius had ordered a copy boy?  Don't you get it, man?  You need the kind of exposure to great literature only rubbing elbows with the best can give you!  The hell with egos, with pettiness, with all the nonsense about being your own man, writing your own stuff - the hell with creativity, man!  You have a chance here to be one of the best and brightest stars - the whole G D literary heaven!  Grab it, man - grab it by the dangling participles and go for it!  Go for it!  Go for it!  So what do you say?  Is it a deal?  Or is this best writers' contest you just showed me merely a cruel joke you decided to play on your poor dumb gullible old klutz of an agent?"

He had me there, and he knew it.  I couldn't let him think I wasn't serious about my craft, now could I?  "Alright," I agreed, "I'll take the assignment.  Far be it from me to place personal interest above the greater glory of Art."

"Alright!  I knew I could count on you!  There's a shuttle leaves tomorrow at noon, for the City Police Headquarters - the back lot I think.  You should arrive at the State Pen around 2ish.  Ask to speak to number 90927 - got that?"

"The State Pen?" I asked.

"Yeah, the State Pen.  Where else would you expect to find the greatest mind of the 20th century?  In somebody's back yard raking leaves?"

I left my agent, dear reader, with a pang of regret (and who wouldn't?), for, once again, his great insight had pierced me with a "peerless co-incision," as the great realist Henry James had so aptly expressed it.  For I had, indeed, been raking leaves in a back yard while a far greater mind languished in prison (doubtless for a crime of conscience).  And my brief sojourn at Poupon Park, that monument to the creative spirit, gave the lie to any notion of artistry juxtaposing the messy ravages of nature.  I vowed to rake no more leaves in this lifetime, lest I lose with each stroke a degree of my genius.  I am, after all, an artist; not a nature lover.

Perhaps to reestablish my sense of purpose, or perhaps simply to kill time till my puppy was ready, I dropped in on my attorney and my publisher.  Tad, the former, was just leaving, complaining of a "Mac attack," whatever that might be.  Benzie, the latter, was at his desk, intently studying some new manuscript.

"Whew!" he noted aloud, "heavy stuff already!"  Then he looked up and saw me.  "Yo dude!  Been keepin' the faith?" he asked.

"If by faith you mean the purity of artistic expression, then absolutely I've been keeping it," I replied.

"Purity-shmerity, honkey!  I'm talkin' soul here, bro.  But then again, I wouldn't want you should bring me no schlock either already!  By the way, how do you like my hot pink blouse?"

"It's certainly bright," I pointed out.

"Too bright, you think?  Maybe a nice plum, or a sea green - something pastel!"

"What's wrong with gray?" I asked.

"This is Thursday," said Benzie.  "Thursday's the day I give expression to the feminine side of my nature.  So don't be cruel, dude, or I'll cry till my mascara runs dry already!  Agreed?  No hassles?"

"No hassles," I agreed.  "I just stopped to say 'hi' and to show you just what the power of faith can do."  Here I brought forth my treasured documents.  "Read 'em and weep!" I, rather foolishly, exclaimed - for weep is exactly what Benzie did.

"I'm so happy for you I could shit," he said, through his tears.  "I knew you'd find some way to pay for your first run.  And such a run - it'd make the Boston Marathon look like a schlopping ground already!  Just joking.  But hey, dude, speaking of marathons: you gotta enter one, I see."

"I don't quite understand," I confessed.

"One of your rules here - see? Number 18: 'Finish in the top one quarter in a local marathon.'"

I must confess, dear reader, that in my haste to carry this all important message to my literary entourage, I had overlooked a rule or two.  For there it was, in big gold leaf on parchment, Number 18, just as Benzie had read.  "How does one go about such a thing?" I asked.

"First you get them spindly little honkey thighs of yours in shape," Benzie replied.  "Then you carry that lily-white butt down to the Sports Complex and sign up for the big Arts and Crafts Annual Marathon and Renaissance Fair which, unless my name's not Joe Schmoe, is scheduled for next week."

"Joe Schmoe?  I thought your name was Rabbi Roosevelt Ben-Zabin," I said.

"Oiy vey!" exclaimed Benzie.  "The mashugina awaketh - from a deep dream of peace already!"

Publishers, dear reader, are a rare breed indeed.  At times, one is almost tempted to regard them as a "necessary evil"; at other times, as nothing less than the guardians as well as the transmitters of culture.  The genius of Rabbi Roosevelt Ben-Zabin nearly eclipses his eccentricity, it's true; but once in a while that other side of him casts a glimmer or two - and how refreshing it is!

I decided to grab a bite to eat before claiming my puppy - and who should I encounter but my attorney.  "Tad," I called to him, "may I join you?"

"The name is Simeon," he corrected me.  "Simeon R. J. Smith, magna cum laude of Stanford Law School.  I'm a talent attorney.  Have we been introduced before?"

"I'm your client, Rondo," I reminded him.  No doubt seeing me in a different setting obscured my identity.

"Of course!" he brightened up.  "You're the guy bumped from the best seller list for indecent exposure.  The briefs are almost done, Ronnie.  We'll sue the pants off those prudes!  By the way, call me Tad: all my friends do!  And a client is the next best thing to a friend!"

"Actually, Tad," I pointed out when I sat down, "I was bumped, as you put it, from the best seller list by another novel, not because of any perversion."

"Let's not pull at straws right now, shall we?" Tad begged.

Just then a young man entered the restaurant.  I at once recognized him as the insolent young man my most excellent caterer, Mr Lee, had had to fire - the same young man I had encountered at the Ginny Johansen Employment Agency.  Doubtless he was here seeking work as a counter man or a cook.  Tad seemed also to recognize him.

"Pssst!" he called my attention to this misguided young man with so much to learn about the business world.  "See that kid?  Got a dongie on him'd make a horse green with envy!  Happened to see it when he was taking a whizz the other day.  He's the new assistant manager of the Retail Complex.  Every retailer in this place gotta suck up to him.  Now that's someone I wish to hell I could call my client instead of the bunch of losers and jerks I got stuck with!  That kid's future is pure gold, Robbie - pure de gold!"

Obviously I had misjudged the young man's business acumen, let alone his managerial skills.  And in this, I must caution the good reader or stand derelict in my artistic duty to instruct as well as delight - for if even I can misjudge a person, I shudder to think what errors of judgment my worthy readers are capable of if they fail to approach the world circumspectly.

"Well, Randall," Tad said as he got up to go, "it's been."

"Tell me," I made bold to inquire, "why do you have so much trouble remembering my name?"

"It's like this, Raymond - or whatever you name is: you do something to make your name a household word, I guarantee you I won't have any trouble remembering it.  Deal?"

"Deal," I agreed, and in a flash I was off, to claim my new puppy.  But a very funny and completely unexpected thing happened on the way to the pet store.

Dear reader, if ever you find yourself thinking you've just about got it all figured out - take a moment to think again.  For as surely as there's a sky above, something will happen to unravel all your fine handiwork.  Who (to bring matters into immediate focus) would have ever thought, in a million years, he'd find a lunatic in a shopping mall?  But find him I did - or, I should say, he found me, for I surely did not seek him out.  And what a lunatic he was!

I was between complexes, having just left the Food Complex but not yet arrived at the Retail Complex - in a kind of no-man's land, wherein no commerce of any sort was being conducted; and at such a juncture one is most vulnerable, for he has no real "business" here.  Should he be set upon by a madman, he is without the ammunition a good retail manager must necessarily provide: the simple "May I help you?" or "May I show you some wares today?" or even a good, swift "Please do no loiter here!"   So, pretty as it was, and doubtless very pleasant, this holding area, this border between countries, it is almost useless, a waste of space.  (Who has the time or inclination to sit and reflect a moment, anyway, when there is work, shopping and all the attendant amenities to perform?)

The last thing I recall before my encounter with the madman was the faint smell of buttered popcorn; and, from this association, one of the sweetest odors God ever set upon this planet became henceforth odious to me.

He looked so ordinary, so much like he belonged in this great emporium, so perfectly safe and sane; otherwise he would never have gotten past the security guards - ah! security guards! I sing their praises! but, alas, even they can be fooled by appearances.  I happened to look up, to see from the skylight if it was still daylight; and when I brought my glance back down, it met his.  He nodded a polite greeting; I did the same and was about to move on.

"Excuse me," he stopped me, "but I couldn't help noticing: you have the look of someone who's been brainwashed."

"Me?" I asked.  "Brainwashed?  Sir," I assured him, "I know of no one in this country with a brain more unwashed!"

"I beg to differ," he persisted.  "There are certain unmistakable signs, and I recognize these signs in you.  In almost everyone I meet, for that matter.  You see, brainwashing is a thing I know a good deal about.  Too much.  I am, in fact, one of its pre-eminent victims.  It's true," he responded to my look of incredulity, "I have been brainwashed, sir.  Completely, totally, absolutely.  It's with me even today, even after I've discovered it and taken steps to free myself.  I still bear the scars.  Why, just look how I dress: I need only an attaché to complete the picture.  I never think to wear a cap, no matter how cold it gets, so great is my dread of being caught out of uniform.  You look doubtful still, sir," he noted my skepticism.  "Let me take a moment to explain, so you'll understand.  You see, I was kept in a room up to 18 hours a day, 5 days a week and every other weekend.  I was fed the same ideas and notions, over and over and over 18 hours at a stretch.  No other ideas were permitted within the walls of that cursed room.  No contact with the outside.  No art, no science, no theology, no philosophy.  Nothing.  Only the business at hand.  Eighteen hours a day, for 9 months - 9 long, tortuous months! - he kept me there.  And I loved every minute of it!  I thanked God on high for sending him to guide me in the one true path of righteousness and goodness, to tutor me, to instruct me in sacred mysteries and initiate me into holy rites!  I loved the man; I worshipped the carpet he tred upon; I would have gladly flung my fellows from the top of the tallest building had he commanded it as my sole means of rising to the occasion, responding to the call; of doing my duty, fulfilling my obligation.  He brainwashed me so thoroughly I continued on my own for years after I left his charge.  For nine months - 9 months - I was brainwashed.  Carried to term."

"And have you reported him to the authorities?" I asked, genuinely alarmed now for this poor soul.

"Yes, but to no avail," he replied.

"And who was he, this monster who brainwashed you?" I demanded to know.

"My boss," he replied.

I could hardly believe my ears.  "Your boss?  He held you prisoner, against your will?"

"Prisoner, sir?  Against my will?  Are you mad, sir?  I entered into the arrangement not only willingly but eagerly!  I was ecstatic!  Me - me! - out of all my class - me, out of nearly 2000 graduating seniors in just one university out of among hundreds - me!  Chosen to enter the world of high finance, investment banking, stock brokerage!  Me!  Imagine it!  A kid of 21 - still a virgin, no less - and chosen from among thousands to be junior associate at Ammozz and Annddie, the most prestigious firm of its kind in the whole country - the whole damned world, maybe the whole universe for all I know!  Me.  Given the chance to prove I had what it takes to be one of the best and brightest and most ambitious and hardest working and, ultimately, most successful men in America.  Me.  Allowed to hone my personal and social skills to their penultimate sharpness.  Me.  On the path to becoming the quintessential capitalist - the very paradigm of the self-made man, the prototype of a great business executive.  Me.  All set to hoist myself, ego trunk pecker and balls ass hole toes and teeth and all a mile above my fellow man.  Me.  Looking down my nose at all those other pathetic, lesser human beings who didn't have what it takes to be me.  Me.  Reporting for brainwashing as ordered, sir.  All the way to the top of the tallest building in New York City - the Big, Big Apple, and me slithering my way up its core like one of the sperm cells I left in all the chaste places coming up.  Me.  At the summit of the world, the pinnacle of its dreams and aspirations, the spine holding its societies' crest.  Me.  Little 'ol me.  Learning how not only to lick ass but to relish it as man's highest calling.  That little 'ol ass licker, me!  But don't think I had nowhere else to go but that office atop the world, because I did.  I had a magnificent apartment, with a magnificent view.  Not at first, but very soon after my indoctrination.  Not quite the penthouse - that would be my final stop - but not far from it.  And all the right trimmings.  I had Bach, I had Beethoven, I had Brahms - the 3 Bs; but no time to listen, and if I listened - really listened - I couldn't have stayed another day at Ammozz and Annddie's, could I have?  And I had Monet on the wall, and Degas, and - just to prove I could be a regular guy too - a Thomas Hart Benton; but no time to look, and if I had - if I had really seen them - I'd have been on the first train to nowhere!  And, of course, the sports - always, always the sports: team work, team spirit, team bangs, and team shirts.  Team, team, team, team: hey, baby, I'm a Team Player!  Team, team, team!  Jerk offs all in a jerking circle!  Team-team-team!  Rah-rah-rah!  And now look at me.  Still a three piece man, that's me: once you earn your stripes you can never take them off.  You can never go home.  I might have snot on my tie, and shit on my topcoat; I might pee on my pants and come in my pocket - but, brother, I don't go nowhere unless I got my proper duds on these old rickety bones of mine.  It never stops, never quits, never dies.  Not when the brainwashing takes, as it took to me."

"So what happened?  Did you quit your job?  Or get bored with the rat race?"

"Quite my job?  Are you nuts, man?  I had it all - who but a fool and a loser and a less-than-best would walk away from that?  No, I didn't quit.  A bigger and better ass-licker came along and bumped me.  Hell, man, do you know what happens if you go a whole week without kissing ass?  You get sent to Siberia!  I had to find me some ass - I had to - I had to!  But there wasn't any to be found.  It'd all gotten away from me.  So I was exiled - to Siberia: to the Branch office in Weehauken, New Jersey!  From there, it was all down hill, till finally they just sent me home one day, promising to call if they needed me back, but I never heard from them again.  I knew I wouldn't, and I didn't.  I died a broken man."

"So what will you do now?" I asked, concerned even for a lunatic's well being.

"Now?  What will I do now?  Oh, I think I'll go find a paper bag someplace and take a dump.  Nice talking to you."

"Same here," I said, more for the formality of it than anything else, since I can't really say I did much talking; and only as much listening as courtesy dictates.  Needless to say, I made a mad dash to escape this "no man's land" for the safety of the Retail Complex, where, just ahead, was the Pet Store.

(I must pause here to ask, first, the reader's indulgence concerning the foregoing passage; and, second, his assurance that he will never take any of the untoward words the madman hurled at me out of context, otherwise my opus could be deemed pornographic.)

"I've come to pick up my puppy," I announced as I entered the store.

Recognition was instantaneous, though more than two weeks had elapsed.  "Of course, sir!" replied the manager in a chipper voice that made me eager to browse for such puppy accoutrements as my understanding of dogs might suggest.

"I'll just look around while you get him," I said.

"Well, there he is - right at your feet!" she pointed out.

"My God!" I said.  I could hardly believe my eyes how much he'd grown.  "He's more than doubled in size - are they supposed to grow that fast?  And all his gray has vanished.

"Keeshonds have no gray, sir.  You must be mistaken."

"But mine was a Schnauzer," I said.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, sir!  I thought for sure Lord Balfour was yours.  I'll go get Sir Heinfried right away!"

"Sir Heinfried?" I asked.

"That's his AKC registered name," she explained.

A moment later the lady returned, this time with the correct dog in tow.  I at once recognized that little squarish face and those salt and pepper markings.

"Ah," I said, "that's more like it."  I purchased a leash, put it on the little bundle of energy, and headed for the door.

"Oh, sir," the lady stopped me, "you can't take him through The Complex like that!  You'll have to put him in a carrier.  We have them over there.  They range from $19.95 to $59.95.  I recommend the deluxe for a dog of Sir Heinfried's pedigree."

"The deluxe it is," I agreed.  "You sure he'll be okay in there?"

"Oh, he'll love it," I was assured.

Indeed, he did seem quite content.  When I got him home, however, I discovered he had had a little "accident" in transit, which, unfortunately, left a permanent stain on the beautiful silken lining - a stain I was willing to write down to experience.  Fido, however, whose sniffing and watching somehow or another gave him to realize what had happened, was of a much sterner opinion, for he at once lit into Sir Heinfried, snapping and growling at the poor frightened puppy: doubtless a tinge of jealousy helped sharpen his critical appraisal of the situation.

"Have no fear," I assured Fido on two counts at once, "I love you none the less for Sir Heinfried's arrival; and as he is fully, and certifiably, housetrained, you need fear no further accidents.  Let us, therefore, avail ourselves of the facilities in the back yard."

Sir Heinfried absolutely refused to go out, and neither Fido nor I could coax him otherwise.  Upon our return, to make matters worse, we discovered yet another "accident," this time on my good oriental rug.  I was upset, naturally, by the offense to so fine an artifact; but not nearly as upset as Fido, who all but attacked the puppy, practically dragging him to the back door by his nose.  And as the door wasn't shut completely, Fido managed to pry it open, Sir Heinfried still in tow, and force the poor creature outside.  When they returned, to my amazement, both dogs wagged their tails and began a round of playing which ended only when Sir Heinfried lay down to sleep, right at Fido's heels.

 

Chapter 17.  A System Is Only As Good As Those Who Must Work Within It

I awoke next morning with a bang.  Literally, a bang.  I hurriedly get dressed and went to see what on earth it was; it had sounded like an explosion, and came from down the street, in the direction of the Thinking Man's Tank.  Fido, after making it clear to Sir Heinfried that he must stay put, accompanied me to 301 Thalmus Avenue to investigate.

Imagine my surprise, dear reader, when I encountered a man, brandishing a handgun, standing on the sidewalk facing the Thinking Tank.  But that was nothing compared to my surprise at who the man was; for I at once recognized him as the leader of that ill-fated seminar at the Shoreline in Washington on Getting A Great Paying Job.  It was Mr Jason Myersby-Calcutt.

"What, pray, are you doing, sir?" I demanded to know.

"Testing the firing pin," came the eloquent reply.  "I have not had occasion to use this particular weapon in a while.

"Why must you test it here?" I asked.

"Where better to test it?  Since I came here to do this tenth rate philosopher the honor of sending him to his reward, which task I propose to complete the moment I've discovered the way across this damnable barrier, it is only fitting that I first test my weapon in front of his residence - is it not?  But tell me, how do you come to be here?"

"I work here," I said.  (I thought it best not to mention my being a neighbor.)

"I thought you were a writer, not a philosopher," he observed, toying with his gun.

"I'm the handyman, not a philosopher," I admitted.

Myersby-Calcutt burst out laughing - and I dare say the sound of his laughter was as loud as that of his gun blast had been.  "So you're the general factotum," he said.  "A philosopher who has someone as inept as a modern writer to tend his property - but of course, I should have known.  So tell me, Mr Factotum - or better still, show me - the way in that I might complete my critical mission."

"I can't do that," I replied.

"In that case, I shall wait here till you go in, and simply follow you."

"I don't know the way in," I said.  "I receive my instructions in a list tacked to the back porch."

"Ah!" he brightened up.  "There's a back way in."

"As impenetrable as this," I assured him.  "If anything, more so."

"Nonetheless, I will remain, in case he shows himself, perhaps for the purpose of sodomy," Myersby said.

"Sodomy is not consistent with Objectivism, I don't think," I, in turn, said.  "Besides, I don't work today.  I merely stopped by to leave a note to that effect."

"And what are you about today?" he asked.

"Well, you might say I'm going to jail."

"Good!" Myersby exclaimed.  "If you're too jaded to blow this Krinklecrepe's head off, that's where you belong!"

"Krinklehoffer: Klaus Kris Kritch Krinklehoffer," I corrected him.

"I know, you cowardly dimwit," Myersby replied.  "I could hardly have found his lair had I not fixed his true identity indelibly in my brain, now could I have?  But now that he's found, and for the remainder of his worthless life, I shall call him by the frivolous form of his name!"

"I wasn't aware that names even took frivolous forms," I confessed.  "Unless you're referring to pseudonyms."

Again he burst out laughing.  "You, sir, are priceless!" he was forced to admit.

"Would that my works were likewise," I said with a sign.

"Why is their monetary value so important?" Myersby asked.

I tried to explain as best I could, the nature of writing to this gentleman - this would-be killer, this would-be lecturer on job hunting.  "I have but one best seller to my credit," I said.  "Consequently my agent cannot take me as seriously as my talent warrants - otherwise, how could he be so bold as to propose my becoming a ghost writer for a convict?"

"Who is this convict?" Myersby asked.

"I don't know," I replied.  "All I know of him is that he's the most brilliant thinker of the 20th Century."

"And requires the services of a ghost," Myersby observed.

"Precisely," I said.

"I take it your agent is the one who described him to you in such glowing terms?"

"In fact yes, it was him."

"Grandel Pan Abram," I said, then at once regretted revealing my agent's identify.  "I hope you're not planning to shoot him too," I said.  "I don't think my conscience could bear two deaths in one week."

"You have no conscience, sir," said Myersby, "or else they would both already be dead!"

I didn't know quite what to say to that; the concept was alien to anything I had ever been taught.  Evidently Myersby perceived my puzzlement.

"You find the unconscienceability of hacks less offensive than a simple act of murder?" he asked.  "That is to say, you see less evil in the banality of fools, cowards, charlatans and all the other parasites living off the sweat and blood of artists, philosophers and all the other believers in the power and glory of human creativity than you see in their destruction?  Less ungodliness in the transactions of leeches who value only money and status than in the actions taken by heroes to make the world safe for genius?  Art and science and philosophy you find less deserving of life than pimps and prostitutes and the host of other perverts reducing these the grandest of man's endeavors to the threads of a tredmill designed solely for the sake of keep up with the Jonses?"

"You're not referring to the Emperor Jones, by any chance, are you?" I asked.

Myersby shook his head and, grinning sardonically, said "Were it not that the world should lose its very greatest fool, I would dispatch you, sir, this very day to your heavenly reward!"

I thought this an excellent time to make my exit, so I excused myself, went around back, and tacked the note I had written to the back door.  Then I was on my way to police central.

And here I must remind my most learned readers that there is no substitute for good citizenship.  And what makes for good citizenship?  Simple: it is knowing that no higher social imperative exists than the status quo; that nothing but chaos lies outside the system specifically established to handle all matters of a societal nature; and, above all, that the greatest good of the greatest number derives from leaving all troublesome matters in the hands of the authorities.  So I took the incident on Thalmus Avenue to the front desk and placed Myersby-Calcutt's threats before the desk sergeant.

"I am here to report a madman brandishing a weapon," I said.

"In our city - no!" gasped a shocked policeman.

"Yes - and in one of its finest neighborhoods!" I said.

"Well, thank you for that information.  It's concerned citizens like you who make us proud to wear this uniform."

"It's my honor to do my civic duty," I assured the sergeant.

"And, rest assured, we'll keep an eye out for this madman."

But of course, I thought: that's why you're here - and, oh, what comfort it is to know it!

I returned to the back lot with a conscience as cleared as a freshly washed blackboard - a conscience that could not have borne the great loss to humanity and philosophy should anything happen to Kritch-Krinklehoffer while I stood by in cynical indifference and did nothing.  Now he was safe; philosophy was safe; humanity would not suffer the loss of one of its giants among men.  Not to mention the possible loss of my literary agent, now that I had inadvertently given his name to the madman.  All in all, it felt good to the Nth degree to have done the right thing.  Besides, the bus to the state prison was running late, so I suffered no inconvenience whatever.

The trip took an hour.  The bus was rather small, hot, uncomfortable, and yellow, like one of those school buses used to transport disadvantaged children to special schools or day workers to temporary job sites.  There were twelve people in all on board, the driver and myself being the only males.  As I learned along the way, this was a conjugal bus primarily, transporting the wives of inmates to spend some time with their husbands.  I would be deceiving the gentle, trusting reader if I said these eleven women were elegant, or stylish, or strikingly attractive, for they were none of the above.  They were either frumpy or stringy looking, poorly dressed, badly groomed, and rather hard looking.  To tell the truth, they vaguely put me in mind of the GAYS who attacked me one night in drag, except that they were not quite as delicate in their mannerisms.

"You goin' to see yer boyfriend?" one woman, who I would estimate to be about 35, asked.  The other ten burst out laughing.

"No," I replied, a bit coldly, "I'm going on business."

"Well, golly gee weenie whizz!" exclaimed another.  "I ain't never seen a 'ttorney on this bus before in my life!  And I been coming here ways goin' on twelve years!"

"I'm not an attorney," I pointed out.

"What are you then?  A judge?" yet another asked, to the great amusement of the others.

"No, I'm not a judge - nor a policeman," I added, anticipating their next question.

"Then what are you?"

"If you must know, I'm a writer."

"You good at it?" someone asked.

"I'm a best seller," I replied.

"So, you being a writer, tell me: is Bishi Ballow as pretty as she looks on her cover?"

"Bishi Ballow?" I asked.  "Who's she?"

"Hell, you cain't be no writer and not know her!  She wrote all the Gracie Gallant stories!  You know: Tears in Monaco, The Torn Negligee, Prince or Pimp - that were her latest - and about a hunnert more just as good!"

I was beginning to suspect a Romance writer - and judging from my fellow travelers, I should have known immediately.  I decided to have a little fun with these ladies.

"Didn't she write the Canterbury Tales?" I mused.

"Her stories ain't no tales: they're all from real life, they're what real people do, not some bunch 'a uppity middle English boobies -"

"What was it Lady So-n-So in She Stoops to Conquer called everyone?  Thou Boobie!" someone rudely interrupted.

"The Wife of Bath - yes, I remember," I noted.

"Bunch 'a Thou Boobies!  Cain't even find their ways home without fartin' all over the churchyard like a bunch 'a broken eggs!"

"You're thinking of the Decameron," I said.

"Ha!  She ain't never been to Italy, ain't never goin', and don't want no Bubontic Plague on her doorstep nohow!  I tole you: she's a real writer, writin' 'a real things happenin' to real folk!  They ain't afraid to drop down their drawers when Prince Luca or some other exotic hunk unzips his pants!"

"Tell me," I asked, as much to steer the conversation from the tawdry direction it had taken as anything else, "how do you ladies happen to know about Chaucer, and the Decameron, and so on?"

"Blame it on Bizurko!  'Cain't no one so much as set foot in the state pen without him taking it upon hisself to instruct you in the most trivial points of find literature you can imagine - no matter how bizarre they are, these great high and mighty works."

"Who's this Bizurko?" I asked.

"Just the most infamous mass murderer this state's ever seen, that's all!" came the reply.

"And they let him roam free?  Just come up to anybody and start talking literature?"

"They say he ain't no more dangerous to no one than a piss ant," one of the ladies informed me.

"But he's a murderer!" I protested.

"That was then, when he were a teacher's aide and decided none 'a the teachers was fit to teach, so he went on a rampage and killed all but three of 'em."

"Why did he leave three?"

"They was Home Ec, and he had a soft spot in his heart 'a hearts for housework.  Anyways, he ain't killed no one goin' on five years now, so they say he's cured."

I pursued this no further, having no desire to learn more about someone so bold as to murder teachers en masse: what good would be served anyway - it wouldn't bring them back, just to discover the psychological motivation behind their deaths, would it?  The Board of Education would have to fill the vacancies, and that was the end of it.  So the conversation died down; and before I knew it, we were there, in the courtyard of the state penitentiary.

And what a chill it gave me to look around and know that the most dangerous beings who ever lived surrounded me, with nothing but stone walls and iron bars to keep them at bay.  In fact, I made a comment to that effect to the warden, who personally greeted me and escorted me inside.

"Oh, there are a few dangerous ones still at large," he said.  "But we'll get them, just give us time.  The next skull they bash may be their last.  Meanwhile, you go on in there, and wait in that little cubicle, and I'll go get Bayard."

"Actually," the warden explained, "that's just his pseudonym: Bayard V Cheswick.  Real name's Boris Magurski."

I was shown into quite a small room, with only a desk and two chairs - the desk not unlike a student's classroom desk: small with a slatted top; the chairs likewise small, wooden, and vaguely slatted.  Presently the warden returned; with him was a man the description of whom I will undertake upon recovering from the shock of introduction.

"Rondo," he said, "meet Bizurko.  Bizurko: Rondo."  And he was gone, shutting the door behind him with a kind of click that suggested the engagement of a locking mechanism.

"So here we are," I said, a bit nervously.

"No time for small talk," the man with whom I was now shut up replied - a man, I must admit, most impressive to behold.  A man of medium frame and height, but with features anything but mediocre.  A man with a very high and prominent forehead and a very large face, the jaws and chin of which reminded one of an English bulldog.  A man whose brow overhung his deep and exceedingly narrow set eyes; whose thin lips stretched like a rubber band around his mouth; whose aquiline nose terminated in a bulbous flare; whose French horn ears wrapped about sound like a coiled snake about a suckling pig; whose skin was folded into creases as hollow as a rolled up newspaper; and whose eyebrow could have held a nest of robins, whose bushy hair a nest of vipers.

"You ready to start?" he asked in a gruff voice.

"Shouldn't we get to know each other first?" I asked - not that I really wanted to get to know this man, impressive as he was (for he was, after all, a murderer, not to mention a mere teacher's aide); but that it might help to get, as it were, a feel for the man I would be ghosting for.

"I'm the greatest thinker of the 20th Century and you're not - what else is there to know?" he, in turn, asked.  "And," he added as an afterthought, "I have the courage of my convictions - which I'm sure you don't."

"Just tell me one thing," I persisted, ignoring his subtle barbs, "what do you need a ghost writer for?  Anyone can see you're not illiterate."

"Writing is the function of scribes," he replied, "not thinkers.  I am far too great a literary mind ever to set pen to paper: that is the task of inferior intellects.  My talent is reserved for concepts and tautologies and first principles and eternal truths; it cannot be wasted on commas and phrases and syntaxes and tiny dots at the end of sentences.  Now let the opus begin."

Here he threw down a notebook he had been holding, and a pencil.  I opened the notebook, hoping to find some great scribbled truths; but found only blank pages.  I took the pencil in hand.

"What are you writing?  I haven't begun yet!" a displeased Bizurko chortled.

"I'm writing the date," I replied, a little piqued at his arrogance.  "It would be an absurdity to begin anything so important without framing it in time as well as space."

"Small frames of reference for small minds," he muttered.  "Now you see why I don't lower myself to write.  I refuse to use my intellect for no higher purpose than beating on kettle drums.  So if your writing tablet is properly margined, let us begin.  And let it be at the beginning."

"Somebody already took that line," I pointed out.

"What line?" he asked.

"I am born," I said.

"Render unto Dickens that which is human," Bizurko observed, "and unto Cheswick that which is divine.  I am called a murderer," he at last began in earnest.  "But I cannot be, for that which I am said to have murdered did not exist.  Were I not the greatest educator of the 20th Century, I, too, might have failed to see that unmistakable fact.  They were not teachers, they could not teach, therefore they could not be murdered qua teachers.  Incidentally," here he left off dictating to make an aside, "my publicist has taken a poll, and, as it turns out, teachers are not all that popular just now.  So I want this book to hit the stores within the month.  The public may never again be as receptive to it, or as sympathetic to its author as they are right now - and, though they're tinier than fly specks compared to one such as myself, they are legion, and their soundless little voices collectively produce a roar.  Or an uproar.  Or, best of all, a cheer."

"So," I thought as I stood poised to reproduce these the great thoughts of a great mind, too great to transcribe directly, "even the loftiest thinker of the 20th Century cannot escape the irresistible pull of public acclaim."  But I said nothing; I simply continued transcribing.

"When I am no more," my dictator mused as visiting hours drew to a close and the rickety hum of the autobus that would return me to civilization could be heard in the courtyard, "the world that now scorns me, for its want of understanding my educational theories, will mourn me.  Then, it will see that not only those of Piroesque Middle School but all teachers should be put out of their misery.  Teacherdom, thy name must never again be spoken."

"But isn't there a danger here," I pointed out, "of making teachers martyrs?"

"Not if their popularity keeps slipping," Bizurko replied.  "No, the real danger here - and it is a very real danger - is that I might be assassinated, and all my efforts will have been in vain.  You see, there are still a number of misguided souls out there who refuse to see the enormous boon to mankind in ridding this world of all those whose ideas go against my own.  For, when I was made, all that went before me became superfluous; all that follows me, redundant.  The question is, can such genius amass a following?  And will such fans as I acquire remain loyal?"

"Organization," I said.  "That's the key to it."

"Organization," he mused.  Like a solar system.  Yes, of course.  We will use Astronomy as the central motif of my opus.  I give you leave to work out the details."

With this, Bizurko banged on the door to alert the guards that the visit was over.  And for my part, the word "leave" struck a most responsive chord.                

 

Chapter 18.  A Star Is Born

Who but a fool would pass up a chance to work with so great a mind a Bizurko Magurski's?  And, as my dear, sweet, ever so observant readers well know, I am anything but a fool.  Yet, pass up the chance I most assuredly did - or, more properly put, in keeping with my mental timbre and overall character and general good sense, I was compelled by circumstances well beyond my control to pass it up.  (Lesser critics might take to task my inclusion of the past chapter, as it led nowhere, but to a dead end; but the truly great critic will perceive in an instant the inestimable glow such an encounter gives even an otherwise lusterless work: you simply cannot go wrong filling your manuscript or your canvas with giants, no matter how demented they are or how brief the encounter.)

"Why do you speak of canvases?" I can almost hear the good reader asking right about now.  And well you might - for you had no way of knowing, nor do your perceptions extend far enough between the lines of my manuscript to permit you to intuit that not only do I write, I dabble in paint as well - a dabbling that nearly cost me my life!  But first things first; and, just as, in the larger sense, first of all I Am Born, in the immediate sense I returned home.  And what did I do upon arrival?  That is, after greeting and being greeted by Sir Heinfried and Fido?  I think even the slowest witted reader alive can guess that one.

I took out my list of Contest Rules that I might go over them more thoroughly (not wishing to overlook anything else, as I had obviously overlooked the one about the marathon).  And, sure enough, there was another I had missed.  Rule Number 19: "Display a Talent in at least one other field."

"Hmm," I mused, "how literally should I take this, I wonder?  Should I take it in the artistic sense, as to 'display' a painting in a gallery? or, more generally, as simply to give evidence of such a talent?  Better be on the safe side," I concluded.  And since I could paint, I could observe the absolute letter of the Rule as well as its spirit.  So that's what I would do: I would paint a picture and display it in a gallery.

"Fido...Sir Heinfried!" I announced, "your master requires an afternoon of complete silence and peace, for I must produce a masterpiece of form, color and texture before the day is out!"

A very bad choice of words, dear reader, for the moment the sounds producing the word "out" left my lips, my two dogs were leaping about like a couple of children, as eager to take me up on my inadvertent offer as I had been to sit myself before my easel.  Nothing to be done but take Sir Heinfried and Fido for their late afternoon walk along the lovely, tree lined Thalmus Avenue.

And what a joyful, peaceful walk it was, what with my charges tugging ever so gently at their leashes and straining to pick up the many telltale scents along the way.  (The leashes, I should point out, I added only upon Sir Heinfried's arrival, for Fido needed none.)  Upon our return, I retired to my easel and paints.  I had chosen acrylic for this particular enterprise, since I wished it displayed before the public.  My scheme was to use every shade on the color bar to the left of green for the outline, the shades on the right for the details, striving at all times for absolute clarity.  I wanted no picture that, as you approached nearer, seemed to lose its definition, texture and color in a non-descript blur like Cezanne's flowers, Gauguin's mountains, Delacroix's skies, Van Gogh's cityscapes, and some of the other Impressionist paintings I had seen.  In short, I demanded no less of my palette than I did of my typewriter - for I am a Realist, sir, and will brook no imitations of life under my auspices!

The paints veritably flew from brush to canvas, the lines grew crisp and clear, the images threw old chaos on his back, the painting drew near completion; and, in my mind, a title was brewing for my opus.  "House Of Thought" I would call it, after the subject, the inspiration and the artist's model which, from my studio window, I could just make out.  Yes, dear reader, it was no less than the Thinking Man's Tank I sought to depict, and from a perspective only an artist could appreciate or render.  Just as everything about the dwelling said "Abandon all thought, ye who would enter this portal - for we have thoughts enough to fill a multitude of minds like yours," everything about the painting proclaimed "Artist at work!  Do not enter!"

By sunset the picture was complete.  I arose from before my easel and went from my sealed studio to the interior of my house, where my charges lay sleeping on a magic carpet from the Alhambra. 

"Gentlemen!" I announced.  "You are invited to an unveiling ceremony!  Treats will be served."  So of course they came - ears, tails and spirits erect, hearts a-flutter, eyes fixed on eternal truths, and palates eager for refreshments.

"Here it is!" I exclaimed.  "My 'House Of Thought' - which you, Fido, will surely recognize for what it is; even if you, Sir Heinfried, have yet to incorporate it into your personal experience.  What do you think?"

My two patrons began barking vigorously.  They had spotted the box of treats, and in an instant high art was forgotten: such is the immutable difference between man and the lesser beasts.  Where man labors hour upon hour at the font and marvels at the fruits of creativity, the beasts but briefly glance as they pass by in their never ending quest for the mundane.  Nevertheless, the moment had made me anxious for my presentation before the public, for even a taste of acclaim is like a siren beckoning one ever onward to greater fulfillment.

Soon the refreshments were gone, and my patrons gathered about to lie at my feet; and I sat and watched the sunset fading, heartened by the knowledge that while the beauties of nature must all fade into night, be it literal or figurative night, those of man, as mine, will endure forever.  It's all a matter of form.  The raw stuff of nature is content merely, upon which man imposes form, thus rendering it permanent.  But you know this already, dear reader; you are wise beyond your years - of this I have no doubt.

I smiled as I covered my painting - a smile as much for you as for eternity and art and form and a hundred other verities.  "Come along now," I admonished my charges as I made for my bedchamber, for a night of much needed rest.  My head no sooner hit the pillow than Hypnos stole upon me, and held me fast in his weightless grip until quite early next morning, a great commotion loosened me.

Much clanging, much banging, the movement of heavy things, the pulling and shoving of drawers, the tossing to and fro of a host of smaller items; the steady rhythm of muffled speech; and, above it all, the continual barking of dogs, my dogs, Sir Heinfried and Fido, leaping about my bed like a couple of agitated leprechauns.

"What is this?" I asked as I roused myself from my lethargy.  "What dam has broke loose?  What is happening?"  I leaped from my bed with no less vigor than my two canine alarums had exhibited.  "Oh no," I thought.  "Not the poltergeist again!  Or even worse: burglars and thieves fallen upon my goods!"

Never one to easily lose my wits, I immediately grabbed my telephone and dialed the police.  "What is that damn number?" I exclaimed, though in a muted voice lest I give my plan away.  "It contains a 9, a 1, and another 1 - but in what combination?  Must I be set upon by a thousand permutations while my home is ransacked?  Oh, just try any combination and see what happens!"  My third try yielded the blessed results.

"Hello, Police!" I said.  "Help me!  I'm being robbed - or else invaded by ghosts!  In either event I require assistance!  I'm at 807 Thalmus Avenue, I am Rondo - no doubt the name is familiar to you!  Come at once!  My life may hang in the balance!"

When I hung up, I tiptoed to the bedroom door to see what was happening.  I beckoned my watchdogs be still lest they give me away.  Fortunately, my bedroom is situated at the head of the stairs, and the stairway is open on one side, providing me an excellent view of the living room and front foyer.  The front door was open, admitting a draft of cool air; big, brawny men were exiting with pieces of my furniture then re-entering for more.  I counted five men engaged in the pilferage.  Then I saw something that gave me a start.

Into the midst of this madness walked none other than my esteemed realtors, Mssrs Zido and Pasquale - as oblivious to what was happening as if they had been deaf, dumb and blind.

"How do I warn them?" I thought, almost in a panic.  But then...it was already too late for warnings.  The thugs had spotted them.  I could only pray the police would arrive before these most excellent gentlemen became (as they say) another crime statistic.  Then, good reader, all of a sudden this entire scene took on another - a wholly different and unexpected - dimension, one that neither you nor I could have intuited in a million years.  Mr Zido spoke first, then Mr Pasquale.

"When you get this stuff out of here," said Zido, "we have a job for you over on Exeter Street.

"Another deadbeat," Mr Pasquale explained.

Dear reader, can you imagine the cold chill that ran down my spine and curdled my blood when, for that briefest of instants, I perceived - misperceived, thank God! - my realtors to be leaders of a burglary ring?  The whole would had gone topsy turvy in the twinkling of an eye.  A businessman a crook?!?!  What's next, now that the world's gone mad?  Will the saints turn lecherous? the angels conspire against the Almighty?  Will the heavens turn to vapor? the skies pass gasses? the stars fall upon themselves?  O despair! what unsightly metaphors thou inspirest!

Mercifully, the moment was not long in passing.  Presently the truth was revealed.  All the world, with its heavens above and secrets below, came right again.  My benefactors had not come to rob me, but to evict me.

"Gentlemen!" I made bold to inquire, for, though I still half thought in that instant I was being robbed, I could not imagine such paragons of the work and business ethic doing me any real harm.  "Excuse my boldness, but shouldn't you be on your way?"

"When we get this stuff out of here!" replied Pasquale.

"Why do you want it?" I asked.  "It's not in mint condition."

"We don't want it," Zido explained.  "We just want it out."

"Why?"

"You don't pay your mortgage, you don't stay here!"

Now that I saw what was happening in its true light, I grew bolder by degrees; and began a more direct attack.

"So," I said, "my new house is at last ready, and you're moving me there.  I thank you for your kindness, good sirs."

Messrs Zido and Pasquale looked at each other then each looked around the room, as if searching for something.  "Excuse us," they said as they made for the small study just off the living room.  A moment later they returned.

"You new house?" asked Mr Zido.

"This is not the house we sold you?" Mr Pasquale asked.

"No," I replied.  "This is the house I rent from you for $100.00 a week while my house is being readied - plus $15.00 extra for the dog," I added.

"Excuse us a moment," the two gentlemen said almost in unison.  Again they retired to the study.  Again they returned.

"Mr Pasquale," Mr Zido informed me, "thinks he heard two dogs barking."

"Indeed he did," I replied.

"In that case, we must add on an extra $15.00 per week."

"That's understood," I at once agreed.  "And is my new house ready?" I again asked.

The realtors excused themselves a third time, informing me, upon their return, that they had made an error.

"The tenant we meant to evict was on Hypothalmus Drive, on the other side of town," they advised me, "not Thalmus Drive.  Our secretary -"

"Babs?"

"Yes.  Evidently Babs has given our movers the wrong address.  Our men will return your things and we'll be on our way."

"And my new house?"

"It can't be moved," said Mr Zido.

"Had you wanted a mobile home, sir," added Mr Pasquale, "you should have informed us at the outset."

With this they abruptly departed, leaving my question unanswered.  No doubt their secretary's careless mistake had so shamed them that to remain longer in my presence was unbearable to them; so I did the humanitarian thing and let the matter drop for now.

Besides, there were a thousand things to do, once my furnishings were returned to their rightful place.  First the chores, then the work.  I fed and walked the dogs, ate breakfast, did some small housework; then the mundane gave way to the ethereal.

"Hello," I said when my call was answered, "please let me speak to Kyle Anderson.  You may say his old school chum and fellow fraternity brother is calling."

Momentarily, my old pal Kyle was on the line; and, after a few minutes of getting re-acquainted chit-chat, I made a proposal which I had no doubt would be to our mutual advantage.

"You gallery would be the perfect place to display my latest work," I said.  "How about it?  for old times' sake!"

"Your timing is absolutely perfect!" Kyle exclaimed.  "Artistically, there is no better time to display than now.  I'm opening a new show, by one of THE up-and-coming young artists of our generation.  However, his work - great as it is - is scant.  I have wall space to fill - wall space galore - wall space coming out the kazoo!  Have your picture here by 5 PM and, old buddy old pal 'o mine, it's on its way to immortality!"

"Five it is," I said.

"By five!" Kyle emphasized.

"By five," I promised.

Next on my agenda was signing up for the big Arts and Crafts Annual Marathon and Renaissance Fair.  That meant yet another trip to the mall - something, in light of my previous experience there, I was not looking forward to.  But I had alerted the security staff (perhaps I failed to mention that earlier) and they assured me they would monitor the shoppers a little more carefully to make sure the wrong kind did not get in again.

The South parking lot was full of gleaming new cars (I had made a wrong turn and ended up here instead of the more familiar East lot).  People were coming and going at a rapid and steady pace.  And, in the midst of all this activity, standing almost stone still, was someone I had seen before, or thought I had; and here he was again, only in the South lot: maybe that was why the doorman at the East wing had never seen him.  I approached, but had to veer sharply to avoid being smashed between two cars vying for the same parking space.  When the smoke cleared (literally, for they had damaged their radiators in the collision and steam poured thirty feet into the air), he was gone.  A mirage, I concluded as I turned toward the South wing of The Complex.

"Who cares for your Chihuahua?" a voice from nowhere asked.  A voice I recognized.

I turned and, yes, there he was: Job.  He had not been a mirage; I really had seen him.  Being the consummate realist, he must be answered, I know, as literally as possible.  "He has a playmate," I said.  "Another dog: a Schnauzer.  Sir Heinfried."

"Sir Heinfried," he mused.  "Bought at this very complex, with such a name, I'll wager."

"Why yes, he was," I replied.  "By the way, I meant to tell you: those philosophical underpinnings you sold me worked beautifully!  They held the weight of my entire work - laden as it was with bon mots and detail enough to delight the most discriminating connoisseur!  There's almost nothing I didn't describe."

"Myself included?" asked Job.

"Indeed so," I assured him.

"That explains it: I felt as if I had been lying in a coffin, listening to a thousand foolhardy tongues sing my praises.  A horrible feeling.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'll get back to directing traffic."

As quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared.  I had no intention of braving this traffic to pursue him; so I went on in and registered for the Marathon - just in time, as it turned out, for the registration would end at 5 this evening.

"The good you'll be doing for Art cannot be measured," the registrar praised my desire to place in the top 10.

"Art is my life," I said, simply.  "I would run a thousand races for it - backwards, if that's what it took!"

"I can't wait to read your next novel," the registrar noted.  "I can almost predict it will have a strong religious motif."

I made a mental note to add a passage or two from the Bible as I departed The Complex, to make my way through the parking lot, luckily without incident.  I got home in record time; put the finishing touches on my painting; draped it over when it was good and dry; got dressed in my best tuxedo; and, tucking the painting under my arm, hailed a taxi to take me to the very very prestigious Bal Thurleau Gallery.

"Immortality be my middle name!" I informed the taxi driver.

"Dickhead be mine," came the scurrilous reply.  "See, my old man was as mean as a man can get," he proceeded to explain (as if I cared to hear an explanation for so tasteless a name).  "But he had the palsy, so he couldn't beat his kids, so he gave us all as evil a name as he knew how.  Now my brothers he called -"

Here I cut him short.  "- I'm really in a hurry," I said, "and I have to rehearse my acceptance speech -"

"What're they giving you?" he asked.

"The chance to prove my worth," I replied.

"That's just what my new babe said.  'I'm giving you the chance to prove your worth.  So take out that thing and let's see just how worthy you are!'"

I said nothing further, nor did I in any way encourage my driver to speak again.  Such is ever the dilemma of the realist that, bound as he is to faithfully transcribe every word of every conversation, he invariably finds himself putting unwholesome material before his public.  All he can do is avoid the seamier side of reality altogether; or, if he encounter it, make the encounter as brief as possible.

At last I saw the big square marble edifice up ahead; the ride was over, thank God.  I paid, got out, and hurried into the gallery.  My old friend Kyle Anderson was standing in the main foyer, not fifteen feet from the front door, deep in conversation with a rather unkempt looking gentleman.  Upon my entrance, however, he left off conversing to greet me.

"This is the man I told you about," he informed the other gentleman.

"Let me see," that gentleman said in a surly voice, upon which he had the temerity to pull my painting from my hand and toss aside it covering.  He studied it a moment, pronouncing it "Perfect.  You can put it right between my 'Hephaeus Rising' and my "Vulcan Bursting at the Seams."

Kyle then proceeded to introduce me.  "And this is Krakatoa," he introduced the rude, but I'm forced to admit supremely aesthetic, individual.

"Pleased to meet me, I'm sure," he said as he extended his least finger, which I didn't know whether to shake, kiss, clasp or slap.  Fortunately he walked away before I was forced to decide.  My friend and, by implication, partner, Kyle showed me where to display my work; and, in no time at all, I was all set up.  And none too soon, for I had barely taken a moment to admire the many works displayed when the hour of 7 rolled around; and, with it, the opening of the show.

This is not, however, a movie theater, dear reader, or a circus, or for that matter anyplace else you may be familiar with; but a gallery of fine art.  Therefore, do not expect a throng of people to be at the door waiting to get in; they arrived in ones and twos, and came in in very small, discretely spaced groups which, from my strategic vantage point, I was able to observe without being obtrusive.  (This is how the elite make their entrance and how the very best authors record their arrival.)

Mrs Vanderdunton wore a deep green silken gown perfectly complimented with an emerald and diamond necklace; an ermine stole draped her shoulders.  Mrs Ammerberg wore pale yellow organdy and satin; her brooch was opal; her stole chinchilla.  Mrs Jan-Moot, as always, kept to her customary white velvet, ruby brooch, blue fox cape.  And so on, till at last the elegant matrons of high society, together with their escorts - be they husbands or whatever - had made an appearance at the opening.

My friend Kyle Anderson circulated, greeting one by one these splendid patrons of the Arts.  You knew the order of their importance by the order in which they were greeted (reverse order, of course, from lowest to highest).

"And who are you?" one of the lesser ladies inquired of me when Kyle had gone on to the next.

"I am Rondo," I said.  "Author, painter, entrepreneur -"

"Are you displayed here?" she asked, cutting me off.

"Yes I am," I proudly replied.  "'House of Thought' is mine."

"Isn't it exciting," another lady just greeted joined in, "being here surrounded by such sensuous, pulsating works?"

"Yes," said the first.  "His works are so volcanic -"

"Yes: volcanic!  Exactly!" agreed the second.

"The very word for it!" yet a third lady joined in now that she, too, had been greeted.  "Have you ever seen so much red in all your life?  Why just look at his 'Vulcan Bursting at the Seams'!  It's like - why it's like -"

"Krakatoa?" a voice interjected - a masculine voice which, while I failed to see who had spoken, I recognized from somewhere.

"Exactly!  Krakatoa!  Just like its painter!"

"Yes: just like its painter!  Have you ever seen anyone so volcanic in all your life?"

"That's why he changed his name, you know.  His Christian name - Purvis Maelstrom - simply was not volcanic enough!"

"But underneath it all," a fourth lady joined in, "he's very - very - insecure!  That's why he surrounds himself with inferior talents, I'm told!"

"Yes, I know.  Every time he has a show he insists - insists, as part of the contract - that only works inferior to his own be displayed alongside his!  Imagine!  So powerful an artist, yet so vulnerable."

"So fragile."

"So delicate."

"No wonder the art world rises and sets on his shows."

Just then the voice I had heard a moment earlier came clear, for, there, standing not five feet in front of my painting, staring as if transfixed in an ethereal thrall, was the man who had spoken.  I saw in him a chance to escape these ladies, whose conversation had taken a turn discomfiting in some way to me.

"Excuse me," I said, "I must go speak to that gentleman."

"Myersby-Calcutt?  You know him?"

"Yes, in fact I do," I said.

"The great art critic?  Isn't that a little like consorting with the enemy?"

"Art critic?  Him?" I asked.  "I think you're mistaken.  Oh, he may fancy himself one.  But I quite assure you his true occupation is considerably less illustrious."

With that, I took my leave and, though I really was rather reluctant to approach him, made my way to the little man with such a violent streak.

"Ah! you again," Myersby-Calcutt at once recognized me.  "You'll be pleased to know, considering your...taste, let's call it...for corruption and excrescence, that your precious employer remains alive: holed-up and alive."

"He's really not all that bad," I tried to persuade him.

"He's really much worse," said Myersby-Calcutt.  "Excrescence is at least a natural phenomenon.  But we won't discuss it further.  We have a show here to witness.  Tell me, sir: will you be my witness?"

"I don't know how to answer," I said.

"Don't try.  The proposition was entirely rhetorical.  The world will be my witness when I rid the world of yet more carrion.  By the bye, what do you think of the show?"

"I'm pleased with it.  I find it very...very..." I groped for a word.

"Volcanic?" Myersby-Calcutt prompted me.

"Yes, that's exactly it," I agreed.  "Volcanic.  Except, of course, for that painting."  (I referred, of course, to my own).  "You do recognize it, don't you?" I asked.

"I assure you I have never laid eyes on it before.  Otherwise it would be in shreds."

"I mean the house itself," I explained, truly alarmed now lest some harm befall my masterpiece.  "It's the house on Thalmus Street - the home of the infamous philosopher."

"How can you be so sure?" asked Myersby.

"Because...well..." I somewhat hesitated, "...because I painted it."

Myersby laughed - a truly sardonic laugh.  "I should have known.  In that case, both it and its painter I will spare, lest the world lose its last genuine fool.  This Krakletoes, however -"

"Krakatoa," I corrected him.

"Again, I dismiss the familiar name in favor of its frivolous daemon.  Just as, soon, I shall dispense its namee."

"Now wait a minute," I protested.  "If you're saying what I think you are, I cannot stand idly by what you cold-bloodedly murder one of the world's greatest artists!"

"I wouldn't dream of it," Myersby assured me.

"Thank goodness," I sighed of relief.

Just then, who but that very artist should approach, surrounded by a gaggle of our city's very finest patrons of the arts.  "These two are mine," he was informing the ladies.

"As if we didn't know!" one interrupted him.

"- the garbage here, however," he scandalized the dear ladies by pointing (are you prepared to be scandalized, too, dear reader?) to, of all things, my 'House of Thought,' "I have no idea what sort of rank amateur paint-by-number did this fluff-puff of gingerbreaded Americana schlock!"

I made a mental note to consult my publisher, the good Rabbi, on whether this term "schlock" should be taken as a compliment or a criticism (though I feared the latter would come closer to its meaning).  As to the reference to gingerbread, I full well knew how to recognize an insult when I heard one.  What "Americana" means is anybody's guess.

I was about to say something in defense of my work when, all of a sudden, something happened so horrendous that even the fate of my greatest masterpiece paled in comparison; something so shocking that anyone less than the most ruthlessly dogged realist would not be believed; something that set the cause and the course of Art back a thousand years.

The little would-be critic, Jason Myersby-Calcutt, stepped in front of the painter, pulled a revolver from his pocket (the same revolver I saw him brandishing in front of 301 Thalmus), and pointed it directly at Krakatoa.  The ladies all scattered.  I don't recall if they screamed; but probably not: society ladies are made of quite stern stuff and not easily frightened - but not so foolhardy as to remain in harm's way either.  I distinctly recall seeing Mrs Armand del Batherton make a flying leap onto the hors d'eurve table, while several others gathered about the punchbowl, the salad bar and the desert cart.

"Give me Art," Myersby said in a deep, ominous voice, "or give you death."

"There, you fool: there!" a voice cried out.  A second later I realized it was my voice, and that I stood pointing at "Hephaseus Rising" (or was it "Vulcan Bursting at the Seams" - I could never remember which was which).  "There's Art enough for any critic - and as red as the rings of Vesuvius!"  (Forgive my confused metaphors, dear reader, I was under a very great strain as I attempted to save the life of the most volcanic painter I had ever met.)

Myersby grinned and shook his head as he cocked the pistol.  "You need not waste your time trying to save this 'artist,'" Myersby addressed me.  "He will live or die according to the worth of his work."

"Oh shit!" cried Krakatoa who, pushing me aside, tried to make a break for it.  But no artist can outrun a critic's bullet, not when it's aimed directly at him.

Myersby fired.  Blood splattered.  Krakatoa fell.

"The artist is dead," I muttered, as I watched beads of red drip down the front of my 'House of Thought.'  "Long live the artist."

 

Chapter 19.  A Saint For All Seasons

When I turned, Myersby was gone.  Krakatoa lay at my feet.  The world of Art stood shaken and reeling.  My friend, the curator, Kyle Anderson, who had been in another wing of the gallery when the shooting occurred, was deep in conversation with his security staff, whom he had hastily assembled, trying to piece the tragedy together.

"You men were derelict in your duty," Kyle was advising his staff.  "Should there be a lawsuit, it will be against you, not me.  I just want to make that clear.  Now go around and make sure none of our special guests were hurt - and, above all, don't let anyone so much as touch a single one of his paintings.  I have a feeling they will henceforth be worth their weight in gold.  I want them watched around the clock.  Ah!  The police: good!"

I looked behind me and yes, indeed, the police had just arrived.  A most welcome arrival, I assure you.  Their competent, well seasoned faces and stocky, toughened frames could not possibly have come at a better time.

"Nobody move," one of the policemen ordered.  "Who's in charge here?"

"I guess that would be me," Kyle Anderson answered.  "I'm the owner of the gallery."

"It was you who called us?"

"No, it was not I," Kyle replied.

"Then who?" the officer persisted.

"I have no idea."

"We'll leave it at that for now.  Show us the paintings that were taken."

"I beg your pardon?  No paintings were taken," Kyle informed the policeman.

"Wait a minute: this was not a robbery?" the officer seemed genuinely puzzled.

"No, it most certainly was not.  Where did you get that idea?"

"According to the dispatcher, the caller who reported the crime said - and I quote - 'You'll catch a thief, if you hurry to the Bal Thurleau gallery.  He is frozen in the act.'  Unquote.  So where is he, this thief?"

It was beginning to dawn on me what had happened - who had called the police - how so grim a thing as a murder could be reported as a theft.

"Tell me, officer," I inquired, "did your informer speak in a very patrician voice, almost displaying a British accent?"

"What's your name, mister?"

"Rondo," I replied.  "No doubt the name is well known to you."

"Yeah, we probably have a rap sheet on you somewhere, with a name like that.  You from Vegas?"

"No."

"Anyway, you know the rules.  No way I can divulge the identity of an informant - especially if you're an accomplice.  So if it's not a robbery, what is it?"  This last was addressed to Kyle Anderson.

"A murder," my friend Kyle replied.

"What?  Holy Be Jesus!  A murder, you say?  So where the hell's the body?"

Kyle pointed to Krakatoa, who lay practically underfoot.  "There," he said.

"I was beginning to wonder how anyone could have slept through all this," the officer admitted.  "Another five minutes and I'd have had him up on a drug charge, or at least for being a public nuisance.  But now you tell me he's dead!"

"As a doornail," I assured him.

"Hold it, pal!" the officer demanded.  "Just hold it right there.  The degree of the victim's lifelessness is not your concern.  Unless maybe you're an accessory.  That's a matter for the coroner to determine.  That's his job.  He's trained to tell just how dead a man is, whether it's a doornail or a drowned rat or whatever.  So unless you've got a shingle outside your front door, I suggest you leave this to the experts."

"As you wish," I assented - and what choice did I have? he pulled rank on me; he appealed to a higher authority: an expert on dead people.

"So did anybody see anything?" the officer asked.  (I should point out that although four policemen had been dispatched, only one did any talking.)

"I witnessed the murder," I spoke right up.

"It figures," the officer muttered to the other officers.  "So, just as I suspected, it was a hit."  He turned again to me.  "You sure you're not from Vegas?" he persisted.  "For all I know it might have been you got old Bugsy."

"I assure you," I said, "I'm not from Vegas; nor am I in any way involved with exterminating."

"Then you gotta be with the Chicago mob."

"This is my hometown.  Right here.  And I'm not with any mob."

"Then how come I got a rap sheet on you long as your arm?  Don't bother to answer: the question's purely rhetorical.  The corpse at your feet's got all the poop I need.  This has got all the ear markings of a professional hit.  Can anyone describe the murderer?"   

"I can do even better," I said.  "I can identify him.  His name is Jason Myersby-Calcutt, he's about five feet two inches tall, with balding red hair, piercing blue eyes, horn rim glasses, and a very elegant demeanor."

"And where might we find this elusive mobster?"

"As to his being a mobster: I think you're mistaken -"

"That's for a jury of his peers to decide."

Again, the officer had me on that one.  "I can, however," I said, "give you the name of his employer.  As it so happens I attended a seminar led by him - a very poor seminar, very poorly conducted, which, frankly, I left halfway through.  He works for Seminar Labs of America of Columbus, Ohio."

"We'll check it out.  Meantime, don't leave town - especially, don't head for Vegas!"

Vegas? dear reader.  Vegas!  Can you picture me in a place like that? given over entirely to lust and greed and the most vulgar, tasteless displays of wealth and power? a place where, I'm told, not only are there more games of chance than there are pharmacies, more croupiers than doctors, more crap tables than hospital beds, but where there are also more electric lights in the marquee of but on single casino than there are in an entire mid-west town? a place where entire existence is given over to conspicuous consumption and unbridled pretension?  Me, dear reader?  Me!  In a place like that.

"Never!" I spoke out proudly and boldly when I stepped from the museum to the sidewalk, to hail a taxi.  Unfortunately - most unfortunately - there were no taxis about; but there were vagrants.  And, as surely as pride goeth before a fall, preoccupation preceedith an encounter with a vagrant, for nothing encourages unwelcome discourse like speaking aloud to oneself.

"I commend your choice of words," a voice, at first from nowhere, momentarily revealing itself to be from alongside the portico, cut through the evening chill and right into my brain.  I started, not realizing anyone was so close at hand.

"Keep your mouth shut!" I ordered myself.  "Maybe he'll go away."  Though I couldn't at once see who had spoken, I knew him for a vagrant as surely as I know myself for a great artist, and I was determined not to say or do anything to pique his interest.  True to form, though, it was too late; I may as well have climbed upon the seat of knowledge, as the great poet Alexander Pope advised us to do, and began babbling away as to have silenced myself.  For the mistake was already made; I had spoken; I would now be put upon.

"One cannot better address the hierarchic ordering of society than you, sir, just have," the vagrant emerged from the shadows to apprise me.  "Eloquent, but simple.  You, sir, are a true genius of the art of rhetoric."

Vagrant that he was, the man was clearly no fool.  But, then, everything I say is as terse and to the point as it is profound; so, perhaps, it was not all that perceptive on his part after all.  In any event, I had no wish to remain a moment longer in conversation with him than absolutely necessary.  (Incidentally, should the reader be asking why not simply turn and walk away, I should point out that it is not only my artistic temperament that keeps me from doing so but also my early upbringing.  My mother, a very polite and gentle if somewhat misguided person, believed that we have but one thing of value to give others: our time; and that no one could say for certain whose claim upon it was greatest, so it should not be hoarded or saved only for a special few.  I, of course, do not subscribe to this view; but, having been reared according to it, find it hard to abandon it altogether.)

I thanked him and attempted to move on, but of course was detained by further intercourse.  So I may as well take a moment to describe him; and I must admit, once I saw him in the full light of the museum's rich glow, he looked quite presentable, not at all like a vagrant.  He had almost a jaunty, collegiate look about him, with his well trimmed beard, his dark turtleneck, corduroy jacket, and penny loafers.  I say "almost" because two quite discordant features gave the lie to his having attained the college professorship his appearance suggested.  First, the patches on his jacket's sleeves were plaid; and, second, he wore a skirt instead of trousers.  Incredibly, the patches seemed more at odds with what was proper than the skirt.  

"I need not tell you the unending horrors inflicted upon humanity by this perverse ordering of things.  Be it seemingly innocuous - the Great Chain of Being, for instance; or clearly sinister - such as the Hindu caste system that sinks into the hideous mire of 'untouchability'; or the Colonial American custom of slaves and plantations and 3/5 of a whole citizen for gerrymandering purposes; or the vile, odious Nazi separation of humanity into Arians and non-Arians with its inevitable result - whatever its form, it is always, always, always a creep show of masters and servants, haves and have-nots, good-better-best-and-the-rest.  It is gods in heaven, demons in hell, and the vast middle ground dividing itself as fast as chromosomes toward metamorphosizing one way or the other.  But, then, you already know all this, so perhaps I should be about my business.

Oh, if only, dear reader.  If only I could lie my way out of these messes as easily as I stumble into them.  All it needed was a silent assent on my part, and he was gone.  But I couldn't.  Upbringing again.  I might agree with you to spare your feelings or some other reason; but not simply to shut you up.

"Actually," I said, wishing with every syllable to bite my tongue, "I could not possibly disagree more."

Now it was my interlocutor who was taken aback.  "But I thought," he fumbled, visibly shaken.  "I was sure...I hoped that maybe...I'd found another who thought as I did...an ally...there are so few."

"I'm sorry to disappoint you," I said.  "But if I understand you correctly, sir, you are advocating nothing short of anarchy.  The abandonment of governance.  The overthrow of authority.  This I can never sanction.  Just think what this world would be like if no one took the responsibility of ruling it.  I realize there are excesses, and they're regrettable, horrible even.  But they're nothing compared to what would be if no one ruled - if there were no hierarchy.  Why even this Great Chain you spoke of: the masses would steal it from whichever museum houses it and wrap it about our throats in a minute if there were no ordering of society.  Believe me, I know what I'm talking about."

"The Great Chain, sir, was not forged of steel but of venom.  But never mind, you at least understand its true usage.  This order soldering the Chain's links, sir - the old hierarchic based world order: it is crumbling.  Whether you like it, or I like it, or King Farouk likes it, it's crumbling anyway.  It may not be an unnatural state, but it is a perverse one, especially as it has evolved.  The old ways are dying.  The hierarchic mode is failing to hold these masses you so properly fear in check.  All these centuries and all the efforts of all the societies that ever were could have gone toward uplifting humanity; instead, it was decided again and again and again to simply hold humanity at bay and leave it at that.  The World Order, sir, may end by the year 2000."

"Oh, now I see," I said.  "You're talking about Doomsday.  The End of the World.  The End Times."

"Oh no," he replied.  "That's a religious concept.  I'm speaking from years of observing and reasoning and analyzing and study; not from half an hour a week of Sunday School.  The old ways are dying.  And, unfortunately, the only legacy we will have left is Power, which will be sought after and fought over by every gang there is - and make no mistake, the world will end, not in fire, not in ice, but in gang warfare - a splintering of humanity into an endless array of gangs.  The world will end in madness, sir.  Why, one fine day, I imagine, the gangs will make toys for the children out of nuclear waste.  It is all falling apart.  And the weakest link in the chain will go first.  The strongest will go last.  But the linkage itself, that which holds it all together, will remain.  Power.  Only then it will reappear in its true guise, unaccented with the trappings of civilization.  Pure raw brute force.  And for a millennia it will scourge this earth until nothing remains but a heaping of skeletons.  And in an eon, or an age, the skeletons will turn to an endless spread of mounds for a future archeology to uncover.  Power: the fuel, the engine, the exhaust and ultimately the crackup of hierarchy.  Power.  The be all that will be the end all.  And we may live to see it, you and I.  But we surely will not live through it."

"You present a pretty enough picture, sir, but you leave it outside the frame!"  No, dear reader, this was not said by me; but by a second vagrant who, almost unnoticed, had joined our tete-a-tete.

"Form over function," he went on to say.  "That's what's brought it all about, gentlemen: the elevation of form over function.  The evolved appendage has supplanted the body it grew from; the parasite its host; the modifier its verb.  Substance has gone from this earth.  And, true to our nature, we go about observing the multitude of rituals and darling little tea ceremonies that arose from that substance, as if they were magical incantations, their execution the correct formula for restoring it to its former vitality.  We are spending all our energy demonstrating history: for when a culture nears its end, its ceremonies assume an obsessive, dictatorial, almost demonic quality; they become ends in themselves, not merely chance expressions of that culture's values.  Productivity, gentlemen, is over; for when we start manufacturing products merely because we have the capacity, without the slightest regard for their need or even their possible usage, you may rest assured we have lost touch with the very concept of productivity.  When all a product can do is do something faster than its predecessor, it should receive minor attention, not be the focus of all our efforts.  You can make a bundle of money manufacturing FAX machines, and can convince every man, woman and child on earth that they must have their daily ration of data at the speed of sound; but you cannot make the rapid dissemination and obtainment of data important to man's survival.  You can lead a computer to and from and through water but you can't make it quench your thirst.  Food, clothing, shelter and all that responsibly proceeds from them: if it doesn't address those needs, it's a waste of time and energy.  Why, just look at what we call productive nowadays.  Machines that sort an endless spread of facts, an infinite array of figures; machines that tell us what our world will look like in a hundred years; machines that display an army of statistics in a rainbow of color; machines that add, subtract, multiply, divide and extract a square root but give no hint at how to repair a leaky faucet, let alone make one.  Technology: it can put us on the moon, but can't put a roof over our heads to keep the rain out or even the sun's rays.  Give me a machine that protects me from ultraviolet rays, not one that lets me pass along yet more useless information faster than I can pronounce my own name.  My name, incidentally, is Iknaxida Papagloxikon, I am a research scientist - was, that is.  I quit when the principles of a machine I was developing to better detect latent disease of the body were used to construct a machine to splice the genes of an elephant to those of a mouse."

"Why?" I asked.

"They decided it would make the perfect laboratory animal.  Then, when this silliness was patented, my company forbade me from using the very principles I formulated to complete my own machine.  All with the consequence that, as more and more people get sick, more and more labs are buying elephouses - or is it elephice? - to research a host of diseases for which no cure is ever found!  My company, I'm told, has made a mint.  But nobody ever gets well.  But not to worry, they're going through the motions.  That's not why I quit, though.  Oh no.  I quit because they instituted just one too many asinine rules.  'No cursing.'  I asked what possible reason there could be for such a rule.  'Productive men don't swear,' I was told.  'How do you know?' I asked.  'They're too self-controlled,' they said.  'I'm a research scientist,' I said; 'what I need is the freedom to create, to experiment.'  They agreed entirely.  'That's why we have the 47 rules listed in the research lab, so you'll be free to be creative.'  That was when I walked out.  I may have killed my boss on the way out, I don't recall.  In fact I must have killed him, and half the rest of my fellow employees.  Because on the way out I cursed incessantly.  No doubt the walls caved in behind me, the ground opened up and swallowed the elephices; the bunstens blew, the beakers flew, the rotten eggs were left stinking in the vials.  Etiquette could have saved them, taste and breeding could have shielded them from the imploding sun.  But, alas, I said the 'F' word one too many times, and the world as we knew it ceased to exist."

"I take it you're speaking figuratively," I suggested.

"Why, yes," the second vagrant replied.  "And no."

"Well," I said, "whichever it is, I do hope you're aware that the rotten eggs left overnight could very well contain salmonella.  They should not be eaten - nor fed to laboratory animals!"

The two vagrants stared a moment at each other.  Evidently, neither had heard of the dangers of uncooked eggs - and, from the look on their faces, they remained unconvinced.

Just then yet a third vagrant walked up to our little group; and, of course, the first two made haste to bring him into the conversation.

"No good can come of eating uncooked eggs," the first vagrant informed him.

"Nothing good can ever come from heaven either," he replied, as cryptically as possible.  "So don't turn your back on the Almighty.  God can only exercise His power through evil, so it's either do the dirty deed or take a hike."

"What?" I protested.  "You dare accuse God of doing evil?  How dare you!"

"How dare you accuse God of doing good," the vagrant, in turn, demanded to know.  "Good requires real power, a power far greater than anything in God's grab bag of smoke and mirrors.  It requires an effort of human will.  And God has no power over human will - only over human instinct.  Good is an act of will; evil an act of pure instinct.  There's an infinity of inborn traits that predispose humanity toward evil - God has His choice of buttons to press.  And an infinity of beings just ready and waiting to become His pawns.  But man does good only through a concentrated effort of will.  God has enough power to influence man's instincts, but not enough to influence his will.  It's neither good nor bad that interests God but power.  God's omnipotence exacts a very high price down here on earth.  Instead of cursing us as blasphemous, sir, be glad we do not do God's bidding, or your skull would be split open like one of those eggs you spoke of a moment ago."

This was an excellent time to make my exist, for, although I did not take their words as a plot to do harm to my person, the image of what had transpired inside the Bal Thurleau was still quite vivid and quite fresh in my mind, so any mention of violence, however rhetorical, was all too real.  Luckily, a taxi pulled up just at that moment.  I bid the gentlemen adieu and hailed it.

"Where to, Mack?" the taxi driver asked.

I told him where (home to Thalmus, of course).  Then, along the way, at the considerable risk of inviting discourse, I brought up a matter that had been germinating, as it were, in my mind ever since the shooting of Krakatoa - particularly in light of my being so easy a target and so very well known to Myersby-Calcutt.

"Tell me," I said in a voice strained by the evening's events, by the fear of starting a lengthy conversation, by the thought of seeming a bit overwrought, "you take people of quality all over the city, for all kinds of reasons.  Where do they generally go to get their bullet proof vests?"

"Good question, Mack," the driver said after a moment's pause.  "And a tough one.  Puts a lot of pressure on a man, figuring the best response.  You send your fare to the wrong tailor, the bullet might go right through the fabric.  No better way to lose a fare.  You're gonna be pretty safe, though, with Thomasina's.  Not one lawsuit to date.  At least not that I ever heard of.  Yeah, Thomasina's your best bet."

"And where would I find this tailor shop?" I asked.

"You know the big shopping complex over near 8th?"

"Like I know my own name!" I assured him.

"It's in the Service Complex.  Right across from Ogleby's Data Delights.  You can't miss it.  Best time to go is early morning.  Starts to get busy by noon; stays busy till 5; closes at 5:30.  Yeah, better go early."

"Will do," I promised.  "Will do."

(Let me take a moment here to point out something I neglected to mention earlier.  I do so for two reasons: first, because my good readers may be confused as to why I left my painting at the Bal Thurleau; and, second, because I should not care to be thought a slacker or, God forbid!, a surrealist, who changes the perfect shape of reality to fit every passing whim.  The fact is, I didn't depict the fate of my opus because it still pains me to think of it.  A bullet had lodged in it - presumably the one that killed Krakatoa; and it was taken as evidence.  My greatest work sits - to this very day - in a warehouse awaiting inspection by judge and jury.  Don't be ashamed to cry, gentle reader; it's only natural.)

Tomorrow...and tomorrow...and tomorrow: do you know those lines, good reader?

And when the white rabbit, just after glancing at his watch and before disappearing down the hole, utters them, please note, he is wearing a vest.  And tomorrow...and tomorrow...and tomorrow... so shall I be.

 

Chapter 20.  Match Point

First things first, dear reader.  And the very first of all firsts is of course finding out what happened while we slept (as no less a news hound than Henry David Thoreau enjoined us to do).  So I no sooner arose next morning than I was off to get my daily newspaper.

"Come Fido!  Come Sir Heinfried!  We must reassure ourselves the world still exists.  To the newsstand!"  And we were off.

Naturally, having two dogs in tow, I was considerably slowed; but at last we arrived.  I verily burst into the place, demanding my morning ration of greatness.

"Good sir," I said, "greetings from myself and my two friends," to which Fido added a sprightly bark, Sir Heinfried, as befit his superior station, a muffled growl.

"A daily, please," I ordered, "that I might see for myself all the glories and wonders man has set upon this blue jewel in the sky!"

"Chapter and Verse: 'I only wish I had such eyes,'" the vendor replied.

"Ah, sir," I pointed out, "your Alice has led you into a tautology.  For none of us have such eyes: that's why we have newspapers, good sir, that better eyes than ours might transcribe the day's events."

"Indeed," he agreed, "making a thousand wretched acts of selfish depravity appear noble and uplifting requires eyes of the most truly extraordinary character.  I can only marvel at the enormity of the news media's perception and insight.  Truly, they are the equal in every particular to that which they report."

"Now you've got it," I said.  "By the way," I added as I took the newspaper from the stand, "you may be interested to know that I am part of today's news.  Look here: the front page.  Last night's incident at the Bal Thurleau: I was standing not two feet from both the murderer and his victim."

"Ah," the vendor observed, a bit to my chagrin, "then you must be the 'Small Time Hood Out Of Vegas.'"

"Let me see that!" I at once read the article, every single word, till, finally, on page 7, I discovered the reference to Las Vegas.  I read it aloud.  "At present the chief suspect is a small time hood out of Vegas named Romboy Cutlett."  I could hardly believe my own eyes.

"I told that policeman I'm no crook," I insisted.  "Why would he turn around and say something like that to the media?"

"There's an expression -"

"From Alice?" I interrupted.

"No.  I stray occasionally from the good book.  This is an old saw.  'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'  No doubt you've heard it.  Well, you're the bird in hand; the real culprit's the one - or two - in the bush.  You must remember: a policeman is first and foremost a bureaucrat.  He can always be counted on to take the path of least resistance.  And our local cops?  Javert they ain't!"

"And there's no mention of my painting either!" I protested, ignoring the in apropos reference to Madame LaFarge's husband.  "Only the precious art objects the ladies went about trying to safeguard."

The vendor chuckled.  "Now there's a perfect reporter for you: he knows who butters his bread, and which side he must lick to get at it."

"I don't follow you," I said.

"Exactly which art work was Mrs Armand del Batherton trying to save when she leapt upon the hors d'oerve table?" the vendor inquired.  And, I must admit, I myself saw her do just that.  "And the petit fours: which object d'arte did they hold that Mrs Sallie Mae Brigston-Garon needed to shield them with her not inconsiderable bulk?  Or the sauce table that Mrs Goldie Kempton Spicermeyer nearly knocked over trying to save?  Or how about Lillian Rikkershaw and the case of vin blanc she almost smashed?  No, my dear Mr Cutlett, it was neither art nor treasures but high society these good ladies risked their lives for.  The respective caterers of last evening's opening have saved many a highbrow social function from being the vacuously pretentious muck they otherwise would have been with spectacular feats for the palate.  The ladies were protecting what was important to them.  Monsiuer Joniker's baby peas á lá bernaise were of infinitely greater moment to the ladies than your 'House of Thought,' I quite assure you, as was Mr Poogie's lobster triage, and -"

"How, sir, do you know the name of my painting?" I interrupted to ask.  "It doesn't even mention it here."

"No, but I was there," the vendor informed me.  "I provide the buffet settings for these occasions.  It's made me a rich man.  Whereas I went broke trying to feed the hungry.  You see, the hungry are next to impossible to feed, the overhead is too great.  For they'd rather go hungry than lift a finger to keep Mrs So-and-So from stuffing her rich guests.  You see, they're able to convince themselves it's only a matter of time till it's they in Mrs So-and-So's shoes or salon.  So they'd sooner go hungry than do anything to change the system that permits some to gorge while others starve.  The poor may curse the rich till they're blue in the face and bloated in the belly; but you will never, ever live long enough to hear them curse the concept of wealth."

"But they're the same thing," I said, "the rich and the concept of wealth."

"Yes, but don't try and tell that to the poor," said the vendor.  "They'll go to their graves believing it's a concept meant for all, without regard to race, creed, color, sex, birth, death, rank, family, influence and a thousand other particulars of power.  They imagine they could as easily exploit their fellow man and all the treasures of the planet as the rich do.  But they're fools.  Their idea of exploitation is bopping their neighbor over the head and taking his money.  Whereas real, true, honest to goodness exploitation consists of giving him money, not taking it; making him think that the pittance in his pocket at day's end equals the weariness in his bones or pays for the choking in his lungs.  It's a gift, given only to the rich, this innate instinct for exploitation.  Only they know the source of wealth; only they can create wealth; only they know how to give, give, give a little that they might take, take, take a lot.  And only God can make a tree.  And only newsmen can properly exploit that tree.  And only the poor can believe something miraculous happened along the way."

"Ah, but there's the flaw in your argument, sir," I pointed out, "for it is a little bit of a miracle that, each morning, come rain or shine, or gloom of night, we can for but a quarter, enjoy the world on a platter, as it were, with our coffee, bacon or toast.  No other thing quite equals the power of the free press - not even the power of great art."

"Perhaps they're the same thing," the vendor retorted.  "After all, the press makes it seem that such and such only happened because they were there to record it.  Had it not been properly witnessed by them, the greatest event of the century could not have happened.  For even God's mightiest tree makes no sound when it falls if no one is around to hear it."

"Ah, sir," I assured my skeptical friend, "there will always be a good reporter there to hear it!"

"Then existence is safe," he muttered as he bid me good day.

"Safe and sound!" I reminded him as I took my leave.

Soon my two charges were bedded down for their siesta, their muscles exercised, their stomachs full; and I was standing at the portal of Thomasina's, seeking admittance to the elusive land of safety and peace.

"I need a bullet proof vest," I informed the elderly gentleman behind the counter.

"Come," he beckoned, "let me show you my stock of fabric, take your measurements, explain my craft, and set your mind at ease."

He led me to an enclosed room that had the low ceilinged feel of a bank vault to it.  "Will it be formal, or casual?" he asked.

"Do you have something midway between them?" I, in turn, asked.

"You mean all purpose?" the gentleman asked.

"Why, yes," I said, "that would be perfect."

"Sir," he raised himself to his full stature (he had been stooped and a bit hunch shouldered) "would you settle for an all purpose eyeball? or an all purpose arm or leg? or a one size fits all brainstem?"

"Why, no," I was forced to admit.

"Then how much more so not to accept it in your attire!" the gentleman insisted. 

"Ah, I see," I said.  "The clothes make the man."

"The clothes," said he, "are the man!  More so even than his arms or legs or eye color or mental capacity.  For while these incidentals - mere accidents of birth - designate his physical attributes, his clothes are uniforms designating his station in life.  Therefore, sir, he who would be outfitted by Samsong Hierauric will be attired in his entirety.  For I clothe, not merely the man, but his social standing and economic class as well.  So, please, tell me all about yourself that I might suit you properly.  And dress yourself each morning as if the evening will see you interred in what you have on."

"Sir," I quipped, "the idea of the attire I seek is to not be interred this evening!  As to me, sir, I am an artist.  A writer, a painter, who knows? maybe a musician too, perhaps even a sculptor."

"And nothing more?  Only a beatnik!"

"Not a beatnik: an artist.  A genuine artist, not someone who sips strong coffee and grows a beard and wears a beret and grimaces at the critics.  A real artist!  I had my own holding company, till it went bust.  But I haven't given up, I assure you!"

"Excellent!" the tailor exclaimed.  "Now I feel I've known you all my life.  I can now properly tailor you."

The measurements taken, the fabric selected, the style set, I was on my way.  In two weeks I could again hold my head up high without fear of being shot dead by a madman.

Before leaving The Complex, I decided to pay a visit to my agent, Grandel Pan Abram.  He was just finishing a croissant and sipping a steaming hot coffee.  I entered and, in one grand gesture, threw my newspaper onto his desk.  I had boxed the article in red.  "I was there," I informed him.

"Jesus H-I-J-K-L-M-N-O-P Christ!" Abram exclaimed.  "There's a crumb on the desk!  Don't throw a newspaper on it!  I can't stand food stains on news print - it just drives me buggy!"

I removed the paper.  "Sorry, I didn't see it," I said.

"That's better," said Abram.  "Now, what can I do you for, my latter day Rabelais?"

"Rabelais, dear reader?  The infamous author of the Reign of Terror? who ended up hoisted on his own guillotine?  I don't think so, dear reader, and neither should you.  However, I was here to apprise him of my recent brush with death, not pick apart his analogies or call his sense of humor into question, so I ignored the quip.

"You may have heard about last night's murder at the Bal Thurleau," I said.  "Well, I was there."

"Oh?"  My agent seemed interested.  "Let me see that."  He took the newspaper and read the headline.

"I saw the whole thing."

"Oh?"  His interest seemed even more piqued.

"In fact, I was standing as close to the victim - and to the murderer - as I am to you right now," I further pointed out.

"Oh?"  Abram's interest had now reached such a pitch that he leaped from his chair, spilling some coffee on his trousers.

"Let me get this straight," he questioned me.  "You were there - right there -"

"Yes, I most certainly was," I assured him.

"- In harm's way -"

"That is correct."

"- In the line of fire -"

"Practically," I replied.

"Son of a bitch!" he stormed.  "Just my dumb luck!  Son of a bitch!  The bastard could have shot you instead - or, hell, shot the both of you: who would have cared?  Son of a bitch!  If only - if only - if only - he'd have had the good grace to blow your GD bloody head off, I'd be rich - rich - I'd be a rich man!  Your stupid works would have been a gold mine, your agent their only miner!  Son of a bitch!  Son of a bitch!  Why do things like this always happen to me!  Now Drapz's got it all - Drapz's gonna be rich!  Son of a bitch!"

"Who's Drapz?" I inquired, not quite sure how to take or respond to this strange, uncharacteristic outburst.

"My rival, that's who," Abrahm replied, still fuming.  "Druscilla Posse.  My 'ex.'  We were partners.  Son of a bitch, if only I hadn't dumped for for Tootsie, we'd still be partners!  She took the painters, I stuck with the writers - what a fool! what a blithering idiot God damn ass hole fool!  I could have been rich.  Krakatoa was one of ours - one of ours!  I could have been rich!  Oh, why, why, why did I have to meet Tootsie?  Why?  Why?  Why couldn't the bastard have blown your miserable brains out! why, why, oh why me - why me! dear lord - why me!"

I must admit I came away from our meeting a little dizzy.  I hardly knew what to make of my agent's outburst.  No doubt one of the things playing on his mind was how close his cherished client came to being killed; I, too, have been a little edgy ever since the incident.  And, I suspect, underneath it all he still loves Drapz just a little.  At any rate, I was glad to be on my way.  And the timing was absolutely perfect, for who should I encounter not ten feet outside Abram's door but my esteemed publisher, Benzie.

"What a pleasant surprise," I said in greeting.

"Tennis anyone?" the always witty Rabbi said in response.

"Ah, one of my all time favorite expressions," I complimented his wit.

"Expression-schmession!" he replied.  "I'm talking tennis here, Rondy baby!  When's your game?"

"Game?" I asked.  I was puzzled.  "I don't play tennis," I informed him.

"Yo momma!  You better get that lily-white flat little honky ass of yours in gear, dude, if you expect to win that contest!"

"What contest?"

"What contest already!  Oioy!  The contest for best writer already!"

"What does tennis have to do with that?" I asked.

"Rule number 17, that's what!  You gotta make love in the afternoon - and then some already!  Better you should win, but at least play."

"I have to play tennis?  That's rule 17?  How could I have missed it?"

"So go sign up already," Benzie recommended.  "There's a charity tournament today sponsored by the Literary Ancillary of the Greater Midtown Athletic Club.  Proceeds going to sponsor a Rhodes Scholar already!"

"A Rhodes Scholar?"

"Scholar-schmoler!  All you need to worry is meeting the rules of the game.  Now move it, dude, before the game gets over.  And break a leg!"

"Ah!"  I at once perceived the core of his wit.  "The play's the thing!  Wonderful, Mr Rabbi, wonderful!"

"Alright already with the wonderfuls!  Let's get schlepping!"

"You got it!"

Of course I would have to double check the contest rules when I returned home - I'm quite certain Benzie was mistaken.  But, just in case, I proceeded to the Sports Complex to enter the charity tennis tournament.

"I must sign up at once," I informed the concierge, who was doubling as as tournament chairperson.  "My career may hang in the balance.  Pray it is not too late."

"Actually, no," the concierge replied in the friendliest, most reassuring manner imaginable.  "As it so happens, we have an opening in today's round.  One of our contestants - perhaps I shouldn't be telling this - has a somewhat unpleasant personality.  No one wants him as a partner or even as an opponent.  You know, tennis is a very high brow game - not as aristocratic as polo, but very chic, very sophisticated, and very 'IN' right now.  Above all else, one expects proper decorum from its practitioners.  Now I don't like to have to put you with this somewhat irascible fellow; but, unfortunately, that's the only opening I have."

"Then that's where I want to be," I assured her.  "Show me the way."

First, of course, I stopped at Sports Can't Wait, the huge new sporting goods emporium, and purchased a tennis racquet (top of the line), a tennis outfit, and a canister of tennis balls.

"Oh by the way," I remembered to ask, "I'll also need the best pair of jogging shoes money can buy, for the Renaissance Marathon.  Just add it to my bill, and I'll pick them up the day of the big race."

(As I've mentioned to you before, dear reader, my purpose is not merely to delight and entertain but to instruct you in the ways of the world.  So let me tell you straight up: be particularly careful how you use generalities.  As crucial as they are to intelligent communication, they can most decidedly return to haunt you.  Case in point: read the above paragraph, paying special attention to my phrase "just add it to my bill."  Clearly I meant one thing - jogging shoes - but sadly something else entirely ended up charged to me, as you will presently discover - something which almost caused my expulsion from the very contest meeting the requirements of which prompted the need for sporting gear in the first place.  So take heed: life will brook very little in the way of misunderstanding.  What you say, not what you mean, quite often determines what you get.)

"Tell me sir," a voice as if from nowhere reached out to me, "why must John Steinbeck be less than a trained seal?  Who decreed it?  And, more to the point, who gains from the decree?  All rhetorical questions, of course.  We know who determines the status of various occupations: the ruling class.  Were they song and dance men, story tellers, actors, musicians, painters and the like, I quite assure you they would not be thought less than trained seals!  But you and I both know our rulers are merchants and to some extent their flunkies, the bureaucrats and high functionaries; so it is these categories that elevate you high above the level of seals and other artisans.  But why do the rest of us accept it, that's what I wonder?  Have you ever considered what would happen if we all just said No to thugs?  For that's what they are: thugs.  The Thugi.  And extortionists, ransoming our earthly existence to their greed.  We must be guardians of cabbage patches so the cabbage pods may acquire yet another cottage at Newport; tillers in others' fields; toilers in their pot boilers; foundry men and grease monkeys; accountants and stamp lickers; button holes and shoe scrapers; and all the host of evil job oriented tasks devised to make the rich richer still.  So that there is neither time nor energy left to tap the rich natural vein of our own souls.  Then, to those who, no matter what, still manage to keep alive their creativity, goes the inestimable boobie prize.  The trained seal's collar.  The wand of the court jester.  He who is allowed to create universes within a universe so that the king might sit naked and be pleasantly amused and perchance pat him upon the pate in reward."

Needless to say I looked all around during this most unusual tirade, but saw no one speaking - or even listening.  But then, this was the Sports Complex, so there would be little interest in the ideas being espoused.  I was about to conclude I was hallucinating (although I would hardly have hallucinated in so stridently anti-business a manner) when I caught the tail end of a conversation that saved me a trip to the Professional Complex in search of a shrink.

"Why do they allow it?" a lady was asking one of the security guards.  "The PA system should comfort shoppers, not agitate them."

"We're unable to trace it, ma'am - I'm sorry," replied the guard.

"Excuse me," I interrupted their conversation, "are you referring to what I, too, just heard?  Something about seals and clowns and somebody named John Steinbeck?"

"Yes," the lady said.  "Wasn't it perfectly ghastly?  How could anyone say anything so cruel?"

A very good question, but one I had no answer for.  So I discreetly took my leave and made for the indoor tennis court, where what awaited me, dear reader, will send a chill down your good spine as momentous as the nauseating sense of deja-vu it elicited in me.                                

 

Chapter 21.  The Moment Of Truth

A cool head, a sharp eye, a circumspect tongue, nerves of steel, and ears that reverberate to the very highest vibrations: a little, I imagine, like that great Shakespearean sage Polonius.  "Yes," I can almost hear my gentle reader's agreement, "that's you, alright - to a T!"  So when I tell you what I saw upon the tennis court, the horror and the tastelessness, the pathos, bathos and monstrous incongruity of so fiendish a figure in the midst of so elegant a setting, you will at once admit, dear reader, that the improbable can not only happen but actually assume a mesmerizingly hideous shape.  For there, in the far court, dressed as pretentiously appropriate as humanly possible, was none other than my great nemesis - he who you, like me, had come to loathe in the pages of my first volume.

"Oh, thou hack!" I muttered, as if awakening from a deep lethargy.  "Thou most grievous hack!"

Yes, it was him.  Squeaky clean and athletic, as if that had always been his demeanor and not simply a ludicrous facade.  Him, orange crew cut and pink cheeks, tanned forearms and calves, white shirt, shorts, socks and shoes; and a top of the line tennis racquet.

"You can't fool me, Silly Jilly," I said, mostly to myself, for I wished not to be caught conversing with so unprincipled a character.  "You can change your image as you change your hair color, but not your spleen!"  (I could just as well have said 'cheek' or 'bile' or a host of other rudiments of character, but I chose the one less apparent, in keeping with my basic originality.)

"Hello, old sport," this abominable phony had the audacity to greet me.  "Shall we get on with it?  I have a tete-a-tete this evening with my agent.  I'm about to bring out a line of children's books.  We're going over the illustrations.  I'd do my own but -"

"What's so hard for children to relate to stick figures!" I cut the charlatan off.  "Or stick prose," I added, as if it were a tennis ball aimed at his face.  (One could only aim at his talent with the aid of a high powered scope, of course.)

"Bye the bye," he said, "when it's time to eat those words, please drop me an RSVP.  Thank you so much."

Luckily, the start of the game stopped all further intercourse.  And oh! what a game it was!  Zeus and his fellow gods must surely have looked down from Olympus.  Apollo, of course, could only root for the artist in the courtyard - as, indeed, must have all the luminaries, save Pluto, who, from his underworld, quite possibly took my opponent for a kindred soul.

We played till we dropped, almost literally, neither of us giving up a single point without a fight fit for a Joe Palooka.  And though I had never played before, I put body and soul into the enterprise, as if it were the most important thing I had ever done or the world had ever seen.  I understood, as I had never understood before, the immense power the image of the athlete has on the mind of man.  For if, as the Bard so aptly expressed it, the game's the thing, the winning, as the great American jock so eloquently put it, is the only thing.

I could feel the beads of sweat on my brow, could see the droplets on my opponents.  And though I wished with every stroke of the ball (those I made, anyway) to smash my opponent's face, yet I respected him for his skill: such is the greatness of this game that it throws something of itself into each court and onto each player.

It was an outdoor indoor court we played upon: indoor, for it was within the confines of the Sports Complex (which, incidentally, is second only to the Professional Complex in size); outdoor because it was an open courtyard.  If the sky was the limit - which it was - then it was a pale blue limit, laced with strings of white.  And if the ground beneath our feet were our mother, she was a sturdy woman of pale red speckled with chips of gray marble.

And did we win, or lose, or draw?  Who could say - and what did it matter?  We both won for just being here.  We both lost, for having settled for something less than perfection - the absolute perfection of this most perfect game, perfectly designed and perfectly executed.  And we were both brought to a draw in that neither could transcend the awesome rudiments of this, not only the greatest but the most valuable and socially correct of all games.

Make no mistake, dear reader, this was more than a game: it was an entire culture unto itself, its discovery no less enthralling, no less enlightening than the discovery of some ancient civilization in ruins.  Therefore we, enemies in our chosen professions, had, for the game's duration, come together as fellow archeologists, philosophers, archivists and keepers of the holy grail and sacred flame.  We were priests, celebrating the solemnest ritual our society presides over.

The words of - how appropriate! - Rabbi Roosevelt Ben Zubin kept coming to mind.  "Tennis anyone?"  Indeed, tennis everyone!

Finally, though, as all things must, our tennis match drew to a close.  One point - one single, solitary point - stood between us.  Our match point.  My opponent would lose, or he would win, all riding on the spin of a ball.  We stood, he in his court, I in mine, eye to eye across the net.  As I stared him down, as I lifted my racquet, as I tossed the ball into the air, as I poised and readied for the swing, as I let rip my final serve, I realized - as all true athletes must sooner or later realize - that beating this Philistine, and beating him at his own game, wasn't just everything: it was the only thing.

Whack! went the ball.  A well-placed shot.  Returned my way.  Another whack.  Another return.  And then it happened.  How, I'll never know; but as I swung my racquet at the approaching ball, it flew from my hand, sailing like a corporate jet into the stands.  Luckily no one was hit (no one was in the stands to be hit: this was a charity tournament, not a media event).

"Game!" I heard the judge announce.  Game indeed!

I had lost.  The Philistine had won.  All was not right with the world.  God had stepped from His heaven.  The sun and moon had stopped their orbit.  Earth had been demagnetized.  The poles reversed.  The rivers ran dry.  And a thousand other tragedies to mark the outcome.  (Though I speak metaphorically, the aesthetic calamity was fully as great as would have been the cosmic had these things actually occurred.)

Aghast as I was, I knew what I must now do - for this most aristocratic of games was ripe with protocol, each gesture a stylized refinement of ritual, every single movement laid out in rigid format.  I stepped to the net and, hand extended, shook the hand my opponent offered.

"Another one under the belt," he said.

"You've played before?" I asked.

"I play whatever I have to play," he replied coldly as he turned and walked over to where the judge and a few other official-looking gentlemen were standing.

"Congratulations," I heard the judge say, as I joined them after retrieving my racquet.  Then he made it official.  "The winner of Round 7 of the Ladies Literary Auxiliary Tournament is our own Silly Jilly!"

"Actually," the beast that beat me in Round 7 corrected the judge, "I go by S.E. Jillson these days.  Silly Jilly was a temporary facade, quite apropos of the time, the place, and the kind of work that was popular a few months back.  Ah! we were young, and wild, and oh so carefree.  We were, in a word, 'silly.'  Now we've matured.  Put on a pound or two, grayed at the temple.  Our work, too, has all grown up: where once it was free verse and whimsy, now it's rigid rhythm and very serious.  It's no longer about youth coming of age but men in their prime making that all important career advancement.  So, too, must our name grow up, if but a tad."

"And how would you describe your work today?" someone asked - just as if what this creature did warranted the term 'work.'

"It's actually quite posh," replied Silly Jilly (a.k.a, S.E. Jillson).  "Yes, that's the perfect word for it.  My work is best described as 'posh.'  Not merely eloquent, not merely sophisticated; but downright 'posh.'  When the style was different, I spoke in a different style: I spake as a child.  Now that career is everything, I speak as a man."

The reader no doubt marvels at my strong stomach, but may wonder a little at my judgment: how could I stay so long and listen to such drivel? you perhaps ask yourself.  To which I reply, I had no choice but to stay, otherwise I would have defeated my own purpose, for I would have missed getting the certificate given each and every contestant - my one and only proof of having fulfilled this requirement of the Prose Contest.  Once I had my certificate, you may rest assured I departed forthwith - in the very midst of a reading by my adversary.  "Salt Pillars Give Me The Jitters," floated disembodiedly by (not to mention arithmically ), then trailed off into the same nowhere from whence it came.  (Or did it come from the Black Lagoon?)

Looking back, as I left, at this spectacle of absurdity and utter artifice, I realized that losing was not everything - in the context of such a travesty, it was the only thing fit for a true artist.  Besides, in light of what greeted me upon my arrival home, losing the tennis match was the very least of my worries!

"Hello," I answered the phone upon entering my abode.  I could hear it ringing all the way to the sidewalk.

"This is Gretchen from the auditing firm of Cocteau, Genet and Jarry.  The American Prose Writers' Society has commissioned us to run a credit check on all entrants in the Best All Around American Prose Contest.  I have detected some egregious anomalies in your economic history.  They must be satisfactorily cleared up or I will have no choice but to recommend your expulsion from the Contest.  I'm sure you're aware how absolutely essential a mastery of proper accounting principles is to the creative process.  No one can call himself a serious writer who has little or no control over his bank book.  Why, you may as well fail to dot your I's or cross your T's as to maintain sloppy records.  The public rightly expects its creative geniuses to know an IRA from a money market, a stock from a bond, a debit from a credit.  Otherwise, how can they take your work seriously?"

"Good question," I was forced to admit.

"It's a rhetorical question," Gretchen pointed out; "as such, neither good nor bad."

"I understand," I said.  I don't know how I could have failed to pick up on that.

"Now let's get down to specifics, shall we?" she asked.  I didn't answer, of course.  "Are you still there?"

"Yes, I am," I assured her.

"Then are you ready to get down to specifics?"

"Oh.  I though that was rhetorical," I explained.  Up to now, I could have sworn I knew what was and was not rhetorical.

"There's nothing rhetorical, I assure you, about your IRA - shall we begin there?  You have not made a deposit in six months.  And your business loan has not been renegotiated at a lower rate.  Nor has your line of credit been increased lately.  In fact, you have not even made a deposit to your savings account in three months.  Why?  Is all your money going to a Swiss bank account?"

I paused a moment.  "Not rhetorical - right?" I asked.  I was becoming idiom shy.

"Yes and no," came Gretchen's reply.  "But you need not answer.  I'm more concerned about some recent charges to your credit card.  It seems you have exceeded your limit with the purchase of two dozen jogging shoes, a gross of tennis balls, five tennis racquets, half a dozen football jerseys, a set of golf clubs, a bowling ball and nine athletic supporters - all charged this very day!  I will not comment on the propriety of these purchases, only their economic soundness.  Perverted pleasures should remain within the parameters of one's credit spectrum.  I simply cannot countenance such cavalier disregard for the principles of accounting - and in a man who would be a great writer!  Is there anything you can tell me to help ameliorate this appalling financial report?"

One by one I tried as best I could to explain each anomaly, easiest of all being the most egregious of the lot: a pure and simple mistake overran my credit limit.  The Sports Can't Wait shop misunderstood what I intended to charge: a single pair of jogging shoes somehow became a panoply of equipment.

"A simple lack of communication is all it is," I said.  "Which I will clear up before the day is out."

"Well," Gretchen was forced to admit, "that does put a somewhat better face on all this.  But I'm still more than a little concerned with your professional image.  I'm going to have to recommend disciplinary action of some sort.  I just don't see how, in good conscience, I can do otherwise."

"What sort of action?" I asked.

"Well, there's nothing like good old fashioned hard work to put the fear of Adam Smith in you.  I'm going to recommend that you prove yourself worthy of entering this - or any - prose contest by taking a position with a big 7-plus-2-less 3 accounting firm.  How well you do will tell the tale.  I'll leave my report open for now.  You'll definitely hear from me again.  In the meantime, remember your GAAP and have a nice day - but if you have a kitten, don't name it after me!"

Don't worry, I thought, I'll name it rhetorically!  Of course, I'll probably need an accounting degree to successfully apply the principles of rhetoric to the task of formulating a proper feline name!

Anyway, I knew what had to be done.  "I'm off again!" I announced to my two charges.  "Don't wait up!"

By the way, dear reader, have I described the Sports Complex?  Even if I have, it's worth repeating.  It was shaped roughly like a football: two full tiers of shops arranged around an atrium whose floor was designed to resemble a football playing field and nestled against a concave fence extending from dome to floor through a widened equator, the ceilings of the shops higher nearest the vortex, lower the farther from the center one moved.  It was beautiful, symmetrical and in some ways very practical, so long as you were not too tall, or, if you were, stood too close to the entrance of each shop.

I made my way through an impromptu tag football game to the glass enclosed elevator which took me to the second floor, where I walked around to the Sports Can't Wait Shop.

"I've been overcharged!" I announced to the store manager.

He immediately burst into tears.  "My life in retail is over," he wailed.  "I have betrayed the sacred trust passed down to retail managers from the earliest guild apprentices.  I have failed.  I have failed."

I felt so sorry for him, but I dared not let my sympathy stand in the way of career goals.  I needed to win that prose contest.  I had no choice but to insist on a full refund.  When I left, the store manager was on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably.

"Oh," he groaned, "if only the National Association of Retailers had not set its canons against self immolation, I would lick my finger and stick it into the battery component of my cash register!  My life is over.  Over."

"And mine," I thought, "is just beginning.  Truly, the Lord taketh away from one that He might giveth to another."

Ah! but where - where oh where - could I possibly turn now, now that I have been touched by such devastation: I can almost hear my good readers ask.  To which sentiment I reply simply and humbly "Oh ye of such little faith: have no fear.  For I shall turn where any sane and civilized man may turn - where even you might chance to turn, dear doubting Thomas of Aquinas. 

I turned to the daily newspaper, of course; to the employment section to be exact, bypassing all the lesser entries for just one kind.  I perused the professional pages in search of some word or two from the big-7-less-2-plus-3.  And, sure enough, there it was.

"Journeyman to begin at once: Big 7 (etc) seeks aggressive individual with all the right stuff, the right moves, in all the right places at all the right times.  The successful candidate will be a goal oriented self starter who is skilled, poised, college educated, conversant with correct attitudes and mores, and able to move up the corporate ladder in leaps and bounds.  Send confidential resume to Mrs Shap-Fields at 1990 Nyack, Suite 1991.  If you've got what it takes - and know it - you're our kind of man (or woman)."

Never, dear reader - never - doubt the ability of this most truly wondrous of all systems to give you just what you need, or of its mass media to direct you to where you can find it.

 

Chapter 22.  One And One Is More Than Two

In a word, I called, I submitted, I received.  I was to the Big 7 (etc) as Caesar was to Stonehenge when he came, saw and conquered the seven deadly Druids and built a city on their bones.  And, as I discovered, able to begin work "immediately" meant just that; consequently, I had no chance to report to the Thinking Man's Tank to either rearrange my schedule or submit my resignation.  (Besides which, I was still apprehensive that the lunatic, Myersby-Calcutt, might be lurking about.)

I could hardly believe my incredible good fortune as, on my way my first morning of gainful employment with the Big 7 (etc), I stopped for my daily fix.  Yes, I said "fix," dear reader, for you can get as hooked on the news as on any hard core drug, except that while the drug does immeasurable harm, the news enlightens, invigorates, stimulates and gives you a feeling of genuine euphoria.

"This is responsible for it all!" I held up my paper to inform the vendor.

"Off with their heads!" replied the vendor.

"That can't be a quote from a children's book," I observed.

"Where else would you expect to find the honesty needed to adequately deal with those who perpetrate the crime of trivializing our earthly existence?"

"I don't follow you," I complained.

"You've seen soap operas on TV, haven't you?  Nothing happens unless initiated by somebody important in the community.  Well, the news is nothing but a soap opera in black and white.  Nothing happens in this world unless initiated by its leaders - except for an occasional murder, robbery or some other criminal act.  If we the people commit no mayhem or break no law, we do nothing noteworthy.  Yet all a leader has to do is sit at stool and he's at once the center of a media storm.  And don't let him sip champagne or the bubbles'll clog the airwaves and stop the presses for days.  And yes, you're quite right, the news media does bear full responsibility."

"Perhaps," I said.  "Then again, perhaps not.  After all, what the great men of this world do is noteworthy just because they choose to do it.  But I'm speaking more narrowly here.  What this newspaper I hold in my hand is responsible for is nothing less than saving my career.  Had I not seen the ad that led to my new job, the world might have lost one of its greatest authors; for had I not secured work with one of the Big 7 plus 3 less 3 Accounting firms, my career might have stalled in its tracks, and left me a marked man.  A handyman outside a house being watched by a madman.  My days would truly have been numbered.  But rejoice, the news has not only written the days events, it has re-written the future as well!"

"In that case," said the vendor, "it was indeed a lucky day that made me a major shareholder of this paper, was it not?"

A rhetorical question if ever there was one, dear reader: for how could a day that saw one acquiring stock in a major corporation be anything but lucky?  So I chose not to respond.  I bid him adieu and was on my way.

"Oh taxi!" I called.

"Where to, Mack?"

"The Literary Center of J. Harold Sprung!" I proudly proclaimed.  "I'm an employee there!"

"Apology accepted," replied the driver.

I said nothing further - how could I after so untoward and unwarranted a comment?  When we arrived, I paid the fare - to the penny - and got out.

"No tip, Mack?" asked the driver.

"Why, yes," I replied.  "A very good tip in fact.  And it's this: do not sit waiting for a penny from someone who has just begun a career with one of the finest companies in America!  You'll wait a very long time."

"Old J. Harold's took a shine to you, has he?  'Cause if he ain't, with your attitude, I give it maybe a week till your career comes crashing through the back door!"

I didn't even so much as dignify that comment with a response.  I walked away from that petty, small minded, socialistic cynic.  When are people ever going to give businessmen their due and stop all the envious name calling?  How despondent they must be, those whose effort and enterprise make the world go 'round, looking down at everyone else's mean-spiritedness while they go about the business of making human existence possible.

And what a magnificent place to look down from, this shining tower that housed the Literary Center of J. Harold Sprung.  Sixty stories up the most exquisitely ethereal blend of glass, steel, cement and chromium imaginable - oh, what genius of geniuses had conceived such an edifice? what hard driving enterprise had guided its erection? what nobility of spirit had presided over its dedication?

I entered into a marble foyer which opened to a gleaming lobby laced with elegant little shops, to the right, and a row of bronze elevators to the left.  I made for the elevators, where the building directory was also located; and it was there, dear reader, that something happened so heinous, so monstrously incongruent with everything this place suggested that you will surely think you have mistakenly grabbed up a copy of police gazette in place of my opus.  But I assure you you have not, for, as you have no doubt already discovered yourself, these little abominations known collectively by the euphemism "the real world" make an occasional appearance even in a work of consummate gentility.

No, I was not accosted by yet another vagrant.  I was set upon by no less than a robber!  Right in the lobby of the magnificent BF & RT Building (where oh where had all the security guards gone when I needed them now?)

"Excuse me," a gentleman who stepped into the elevator after me said once the door had shut and the two of us were alone, "shall I rob you today, sir?"

I was too stunned to respond.  "Allow me to introduce myself," he continued.  "I am a criminal.  Oh not entirely by choice.  But we do live in a democracy, don't we?  So, to facilitate its proper functioning, it is incumbent upon the citizenry to commit crimes.  That's the essence of your 'archies.'  Not who rules: that never varies; but who commits the crimes.  In a police state, the police do; in a 'free' society, criminals do.  And criminals must come from somewhere, mustn't they?  So I volunteer for the role."

Fortunately, the elevator had reached my floor; the door opened and I leaped out.  But so did the robber, following fast on my heels as I made for an open door.  All were locked, however.  There was no escaping him, or the terror his filthy trade inspired, or the nonsense he was spouting every step of the way.  All I could see were tiny red blinking lights in the middle of little black boxes beside door after door after door along first one then another corridor as I tried to get away.

"If you wish to inquire into the state of your society," he was blabbering, "check the hands of your people for traces of blood.  Whose hands are bloodstained determines the relative freedom your citizens enjoy.  The more crimes criminals commit, the fewer there will be for police to commit; ergo, you will be an ecstatically free man!  So, come, do let me rob you, if only of a penny, that we might keep this country safe for democracy!  I quite assure you, sir, my respect for the law is second only to my love of the Almighty!  But if no one ever breaks the law, it has no meaning.  We must, above all else, preserve the law - the illusion, the exquisite exquisite illusion! - that something other than brute force dictates every action and reaction taken upon this planet.  Do not force your fellow man to see that the law is but a mirrored veneer glazed over top of raw power to make people think there's something other than the interests of the ruling class being protected.  Please, sir, I beg of you: let me rob you!"

Finally - dear God finally - I spied a security guard at the end of a long corridor.  "Oh sir!" I called out.  "I beg of you: help me!  I am being pursued by a mugger!"

"Mugger?" the security guard called back, in some alarm.  "Did you say mugger?"

"Mugger!" I emphatically informed him.

"Oh thank God!" exclaimed the security guard.  "At first I could have sworn you said the N-word!  But you only said mugger!  Thank God!"

"Mugger?" the would be thief muttered.  "I: a mugger?  I hadn't even considered that.  A mugger?  A mugger?  So even if you're penniless, you can still become an instrument in the never ending pursuit of freedom.  Oh, joy!  I can always mug you if you're broke!"

Thank God the security guard arrived just in time to prevent the madman from attacking me.

"This the man who tried to mug you?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied, "it is."

"You tried to mug him?" the guard asked.

"Actually no," the man replied, "I tried to rob him.  But if you wish to say I mugged him, that's fine with me.  Just so we get a criminal conviction out of this!  That's all we really want, isn't it?"

"No problem," the security guard explained.  "I'll call the police.  They'll come and get a statement from you.  Then they'll book him.  No problem."

"How long do you think that'll take?" I asked.  "I've got to be somewhere in 10 minutes."

"Might take an hour."

"Oh no - no - absolutely not!" I insisted.  "I start a new job; I can't be late.  I'm sorry.  You'll have to let him go.  I can't get involved.  I can't afford to file a complaint."

"Okay," said the guard, "you're the boss.  As for you: beat it before I make a citizen's arrest myself!"

"Oh please, please," the thief begged me, "you must press charges.  It takes all of us pulling together to hold the police at bay - can't you see that?"

"I said beat it - now!" said the guard.

"Do you have some free time?  Perhaps I could assault you!"

"Go!  Get out of here!  Now!"

Presently the thief shook his head, heaved a deep sign, and turned to go.  "When next we meet," he said without turning back, "it may be in the shadow of Big Brother.  Meanwhile, adieu."  And he walked away.

I thanked the guard and made straightway for Suite Number 7, where there awaited that most deliciously American treat: a career.

"Good morning," I addressed the receptionist through the telephone outside the door.  "I am Rondo - reporting for duty."

Momentarily came the curt reply every worker worth his salt fears worse than death itself.  "I have no record of any such employee," a crisp, efficient woman's voice retorted.

"I was just hired," I explained.  "Today's my first day."

"Who's your supervisor?"

"Oh.  Wait a minute.  Wait a minute.  His name's right on the tip of my tongue.  It's Roger something.  Oglethorpe.  No.  Ogleby.  No.  Oglebothen - that's it: Roger Oglebothen."

"He no longer works here," came the chilling reply.

"Oh God," I moaned.  "Is there anyone I could speak to?"

"Call our main switchboard, ask for Peter B Henry.  He'll advise you what to do."

I thanked her and made at once for a pay phone I remember seeing a block away - fearful every step of the way I might re-encounter the man who attempted to mug me.  Fortunately, it went smoothly.  After some unavoidable delays, I finally reached Mr Henry, a very brisk, businesslike sounding man.  He discovered my file in a drawer; looked it over; decided to give me an interview.  So at last, and hour late and a quarter short, here I was, standing in the foyer of J Harold Sprung's Literary Center, face to face with the receptionist, who I later learned was named Alga, awaiting the arrival of the man who would prove to be my new boss.

"Mr Henry," Alga introduced me, "this is -"

"Fine, fine," replied Henry.  "Follow me," he said to me.  Momentarily we were in his office.  "Be seated.  And bear with me, you're my first piece of business since J H booted Oglebothen and gave me his job.  If you work out, you'll have earned the right to call me P B.  For now, Mr Henry will do just fine.

He seemed to be looking over my resume.  "Uh huh," he observed at several points, spiced with an occasional "Good."  "Okay," he said when he was finished.  "You'll do.  You begin today.  Two years probation.  You can be fired at any time for any reason.  Overtime is required.  We observe six paid holidays a year.  After six months you earn a day of leave, and a day each month thereafter, to a total of five.  You may use your leave anytime after a year provided it's approved in advance.  At the end of your probation period you will be eligible for medical insurance.  Should you decide to enroll, the company will pay two thirds of the premium up to the annual maximum.  Any questions?"

"Just the usual," I eagerly replied.

Henry shook his head.  "You won't get a key to the men's room till you've been here three months.  We have skills, not bodily functions.  You go to the bathroom on your own time."

I didn't wish to embarrass my new boss, but he had anticipated the wrong question.  It was not the location of the men's room I meant to inquire about but the location of my work station, that I might at once begin proving myself worthy of his trust.  I said nothing however, putting discretion before a valiant posture.

"Alga will direct you to your work area.  On your lunch break, report to Kathy R in Personnel.  She'll get you a card reader so you can get in and about.  She'll show you how it works.  I'll stop by later to see how you're doing.  Oh, one more thing," he stopped me before I left his office, "is 'loose' one 'O' or two?"

"Two," I said without hesitation, just to let him know words were no problem with me.  He then proceeded to write something on my resume.  I continued on to the reception desk, not wishing to interrupt him further.

"The third left past the second fight," Alga directed me.  "Tell them you're Schpritzer's replacement.

Well, as luck would have it, I made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at Kathy R's desk.  When I excused myself, after an awkward pause, and told her I was Schpritzer's replacement she glanced up from her work.

"You can't be," she said.  "Schpritzer's replacement is on my schedule for 2:00."  She then returned to her work.  It was then that I noticed the nameplate on her desk.  I apologized and, to make a long story short, eventually found my way to where I was supposed to begin working.

"I'm Spritzer's replacement," I announced.  Everyone in the office looked up.

"No such person," someone said, and everyone returned to their work.

I started to walk away then remembered the "sch" sound.  "Schpritzer's replacement, I mean," I corrected myself.  Again everyone looked up.

"Well, why didn't you say so in the first place?" someone arose to ask.  "I'm Merhollen, I'll be your team leader.  I'll show you the ropes.  There's your desk.  Over here's your pencils.  And in that bin you'll find the policy manuals.  Take a handful, sign out for them, and get started.  When you're finished, put them in the review bin and I'll look them over.  Any questions?"

"Just one," I replied.  "Where are the ropes you were going to show me?"  I thought I'd try a little humor to break the ice.

Everyone looked up, looked at me, looked at each other, shrugged, then returned to their work.  I felt very foolish as I proceeded to my desk.

"Ropes?" someone muttered to himself.  "What ropes?"

"What's he talking about?" another mumbled to himself.

"Is he planning to hang himself after only five minutes?" said a third.

"That's a new record!" observed a fourth.

I said nothing further the rest of the morning, saving all my energy, all my concentration and all my creative juices for the task at hand: editing the policy manuals of J Harold Sprung.  It was challenging, and at the same time exhilarating and immensely rewarding, for I knew that by day's end some of the finest policies ever designed would be edited to perfection.  I felt as if nothing could stop me.

"Debits before credits," I read in the very first line of the very first manual I picked up.  "Ah!" I thought, half out loud, "a sentiment worthy of the most exquisite embellishment."  I changed it to read, "The real winners in life's ceaseless struggle for mastery over the forces of nature, so inimical to man's creative instinct, are they who boldly affirm their leadership by placing their debits before their credits."  Many, many more such gems followed fast upon the heels of this, my very first editorial triumph.  So eagerly did I work that before I even knew what had happened, it was time to do lunch.

That meant a trip to Personnel, where Kathy R eagerly awaited my arrival.

"Your lunch began fifteen minutes ago," she pointed out, looking the whole time at her watch, as if she were reading the words from the face.  "I've been holding up important work.  Why are you late?"

"Work!" I proudly replied.  "I became so engrossed in the task at hand that time nearly got away from me.  I apologize for keeping you waiting."

"Please see that it doesn't happen again," Kathy R said.  "Now fill out this form and I'll take your picture."

I did as she requested.  "Now smile," she said.  "I said smile," she repeated when I failed to respond.

"Actually," I explained, "a serious demeanor best becomes me."

"That is not yours to decide," she said.  "It is company policy that only smiling, happy faces may enter these offices.  So smile!  There, that's better.  Now wait over there while I prepare your card reader ID."

Momentarily she returned with my ID, got me to sign for it, handed it to me, with appropriate instructions: "Don't lose it, don't allow anyone else to use it, don't bend it, spill anything on it or in any other way damage or deface it!"  With these words she walked back to her desk and resumed her paperwork.  I made my way to my own desk, still a little fuzzy as to the layout of the suite, and took up the next manual - highly impressed, I might say, with Kathy R's keen business sense and economy of dialogue.

Along about four-thirty, Mr Peter B Henry entered the PMS office (for Policy Manual Support, as I discovered my team's area to be called).  Accompanying him was an individual of extraordinary presence.  Leadership cloaked an aristocratic bearing; power, authority and breeding exuded like an aura from his being; the very air grew dense and conveyed a chill when he entered.

"For those of you who have not yet had the inestimable pleasure of meeting him," Henry was telling us, "as well as for those who have already had that great honor, I am delighted to present a most special guest, a man who has not honored us with a visit for quite some time.  But, as he expressed it so succinctly to me a while ago, he got tired of the Machiavellian shenanigans of the corporate headquarters in Cleveland and decided to pay us a visit.  To which we all give a resounding 'God Bless America!'  My fellow workers, may I present the Chairman of the Board, the chief honcho, the big Kahune, the head of our little organization, and last but not least, my friend and yours: Mr J Harold Sprung!"

Everyone applauded, none more enthusiastically than myself: for years I had heard of this great captain of industry who, with only a dollar bill and a dream, had created one of the largest accounting firms in the world.  In a very real sense, to be - to genuinely be - an American was to step aside, hat in hand, and let this man, along with his peers (and he had few) work his magic as he passed.  Your hat, rest assured, would be filled in the wake of his passing; your heart and mind inspired with a zealous "can do" attitude.

"Why, listening to P B here, you'd almost think I could walk on water!" J Harold quipped.  "Course, I haven't tried yet, so who knows?  Seriously, though, I won't take any more of your time than absolutely necessary; I know you've got a million things to do - each one more important than standing around here paying court to the man who started the ball rolling.  I'll just take a moment to let you know what a fine job you're doing and how proud we all are of you.  Who's the new guy, P B?"

"Oh him?" P B pointed at me.  "Just started today.  Fancies himself a writer.  Working on the Great American Novel!"

"Well, if he can just come up with the Great American Policy Manual, he will have reached his highest calling."

"And met his maker!" P B added.

"Now there you go again, P B, filling my head with all sorts of silly notions!  Comparing me to God, when all I am is a simple accounting clerk in a 3-piece suit!"

"Who just happens to have some of the most important clients on the face of the earth!" P B was quick to note.

"Oh me!" said Sprung.  "You'll give me a complex yet - unlike your predecessor Oglebothen, who saw fit to downplay my meager talents and accomplishments till I downgraded his position to that of a piss ant!  As you were gentlemen!" Sprung advised us as he and P B Henry left.  "By the way, P B, I'm thinking about moving this whole operation - lock, stock and barrel - to Cleveland next month.  What do you think?"

 

Chapter 23.  You Can't Go Home

I did not get to hear P B's reply: the two gentlemen had passed beyond the portico of our little PMS office.  I could tell by the sudden stillness in the room, together with the pale, wan looks that crept upon my colleagues' faces, however, that nothing P B might have said could have softened the effect of J H's final words.  The editors of PMS were clearly stunned, and clearly unhappy with what they had just heard.

"Cleveland?" one after another asked in voices fraught with disbelief, anger, fright or sorrow - or a combination of all these qualities.

"That's in Ohio - right?" I asked.

"It may as well be on the moon!" retorted my team leader, Merhollen.

"I think it's on Lake Erie," I persisted - not to rub their noses in it but to try and point out the positive aspects.

"Yeah," said one especially somber editor, "the most polluted waterway in America."

"Surely it can't be more polluted than the Potomac," I pointed out.

"There's enough in the Potomac to feed an army of sharks!" a particularly cynical editor exclaimed.  I knew what he was referring to, but I had no intention of dignifying his scurrilous remark with a reply.  Besides, the bell had rang signifying the end of the work day, so I prepared to go.

"Where you off to?" asked Mr Merhollen.

"Home," I said.

"Why?" he asked.

"The work day's over."

"Not for you," he retorted.  "We need you - as well as Bill, Perry, Jackson, Pip and Schmitt - to put in some overtime.  That's unless you're tired of working here."

"Tired of working here," I exclaimed.  "One of the greatest literary centers on the planet!  Tired of working in such a place? me?  I haven't lost my mind, dear sir, that I should tire of such an opportunity - and so quickly!"

As my dear readers well know, you cannot be too exuberant in your expression of enthusiasm for a new found career - especially when your ranking as America's best prose writer hangs in the balance.  So I gladly returned to my desk to take up the next policy manual, and the next, and the next, until, at last, the hour when all overtime must end rolled around and I was sent home.

"Watch out for the Perquackeys!" Merhollen called to us as the elevator door was closing.

"Watch out for who?" I asked.

"The Perquackeys," Pip replied.  "Are you deaf?"

"But who are the Perquackeys?" I persisted.

"That's our name for people of color," Perry explained.

"You know," Bill elaborated, "the ones who hang out downtown when the work day's done and no one's got any legitimate business being here."

"They come around and harass you, and just in general make life miserable," Jackson added.

"Are they dangerous?" I asked.  "You know, I was almost mugged this morning."

"Dangerous?" Schmitt repeated, somewhat mockingly, it seemed to me.  "Are they dangerous?  Isn't anyone who turns up there he's not supposed to be just a little dangerous?  This is America, you know.  We have rules of etiquette.  You don't go where you're not wanted - no matter how many laws say you can!"

"But why Perquackeys?"

"Would you prefer the 'N' word?"

"The 'N' word?" I tried to elicit an explanation, but the elevator door opened and everyone scattered before I could complete my question.  So, for now, it will have to remain a mystery.  If ever I discover what it means, however, I will be sure to inform my readers.

How quickly everyone disappears," I thought as I stepped from the magnificent lobby of the BF & RT Building to the sidewalk; for, indeed, not a trace remained of my co-workers.  It was as if the night had swallowed them up - and well it might have, such is the nature of the untamed world we live in, a world only made inhabitable through countless generations of human civilization.  Were we not surrounded by concrete and steel and glass and all the other by-products of human effort and greatness, wild beasts might lurk where there now stand street lamps; terrible plagues might await us at every intersection; a plethora of winds, rains, storms and other natural hobgoblins might descend from above, ascend from below or come flying at our faces from out of nowhere.

I thanked God for our way of life as I made a dash to the curb to hail a taxi.  Presently, I was unlocking my front door and being greeted by two little creatures wagging from head to toe.  I had one final chore before I could retire for the night - and both Fido and Sir Heinfried well knew what it was.

"We won't go far!" I cautioned my charges - as if caution had any meaning to these brave, carefree little spirits.

It was very late, almost midnight; and very dark, thanks to the thick elm and hickory branches which diffused what light of the street lamp they allowed through at all.  Were I less acquainted with this street or less tired I might well have been afraid; but, as it was, familiarity gathered weariness into a peaceful lull that made the street seem more like a memory than a neighborhood.

A very good memory, but not a memory of past events.  Rather, a memory of the future: a memory of a memory.  Not the actual street on which I grew up, but the street my imagination conjured up.  My dream house, along an idealized street, somewhere in Middle America, inhabited by happy Americans who believed in themselves and their accomplishments.  A place where trees were never felled to make room for factories and shopping malls and thoroughfares; where the tapwater was safe and clean without tasting of bleach; where the cobblestones were free of oil, the gravel untainted with asbestos.  A place whose families' responsibilities allowed them to spend time together.  A place children could play at having fun instead of competing for toys they only wanted because there weren't enough to go around.  A place whose evening breezes were cool, dry, smokeless, stenchless, poisonless, and carried no hint of danger from a hundred disparate points.  A place - a street on this planet - as it could and should be.

I remember such a place as clearly as if I had been there.  I remember beads of air brushing through my hair as I walked along the narrow street looking up at the sky through big silky leaves; I remember beams of fading sunlight flatening against my shirt as I reached down to investigate the fleeting gleam of a rock wedged between the sidewalk and the grass; I remember dew drops at the tip of my fingers as I gently stroked the petals of a chrysanthemum; I remember old leaves shattering like parchment beneath my feet as I peeked into a robin's nest; I remember young flowers composing sonnets from a single scented meter as I puffed away a gnat about to crash against me; I remember clouds stretching from opaque through translucence to transparence as I sniffed the evening air for hints of honeysuckle; and, moving from oak to maple to laurel to the roof of a gabled Victorian house to the chimney of a split-level to a dogwood to lilies, changing its size and color every time my step changed its perspective, the big round quicksilver moon that seemed to pulsate continuously and with each pulse lubricate invisible strings filtering the sky's luminescence through leaves so high it looked like an evening star then through leaves whose eye level stance inflated it to a big yellow balloon, then against silhouetted gables, then between the silvery spires of an antenna.

But it was a dream then, and only a memory now; and the tug of my two little friends' leashes dispelled the reverie and brought me back to the present moment.  Something else, too, had been working all the while to remind me where I was and what I should be doing instead of daydreaming - kind of like catching a glimpse of something out of the corner of one eye that doesn't really register till, all at once, you realize its significance.

It wasn't until I was fast upon the Thinking Man's Tank that it hit me exactly who it was casting that eerie length of shadow stretching from the street lamp at the intersection of Thalmus and Carstairs to the front of 301 Thalmus.  Just as suddenly it occurred to me that I had not yet picked up my bullet proof vest from Thomasina's.  But it was too late; what would be would be, for here I was, fast upon the shadow's aperture.

"I thought you'd be in hiding," I said, a bit timidly perhaps.

"Indeed," came the arrogant reply.  "Which is precisely why I must now stalk those creatures by moonlight."

"I suppose," I made bold to suggest, "I ought in god conscience to call the police."

"We have already established," Myersby-Calcutt retorted coldly, "that you have no such feature in your makeup as a conscience or I would be at the graveyard seeking these snake oil salesmen; so spare yourself the agony of debating what course of action is appropriate."

"I'll take your advice," I agreed, "since, doubtless, you have a gun and could easily stop me anyway."

"A gun?  To stop you from calling the police?  Waste a perfectly good bullet on something like that, when all I need do is flee before they arrive?  Bullets do not grow on trees, sir!  They must be used judiciously."

"Of course, though," I mused, remembering my conversation with Grandel Pan Abram, "if you did shoot me, you would generate my immortality - as you did Krakatoa's."

"Your thought, sir," Myersby remarked, a bit piqued, "is as elusive as it is conventional.  I have no idea to what you refer."

I proceeded to explain my reference to the murder victim.  "My agent was extremely upset that you chose to kill Krakatoa and not me," I said.  "Not that he actually meant it, he was just upset.  You see, Krakatoa was Drapsz's client, and will now make her fabulously wealthy; whereas I, the living, am Abram's client and will keep him in poverty unless someone has 'the good grace to blow my bloody head off' - to quote my agent,."

"Your agent is a fool; and will get what he deserves soon enough."

"He has a point," I felt obligated to take up for him, "unnerving as it is.  Krakatoa's paintings will now begin to assume an enormous value simply because he can never paint another one."

"They will not," Myersby said in a sardonic voice.  "For I intend to track them down, one by one, and destroy them.  The evil this man did will not live after him if I can help it.  The fraud he perpetrated upon the concept of art will not continue in perpetuity, I quite assure you."

"And Drapsz will not grow rich?" I asked.

"Only through honest endeavor," Myersby replied.  "And since agents are pimps, I leave you to draw the proper conclusion."

"And that would be?" I prompted.

"That, of course, she will grow rich - but not at the expense of my gesture of good will."

"You watch this place all night long?" I asked after an awkward moment during which, I believe, we both realized we had run out of things to say.

"Some nights, yes," Myersby replied.  "But not tonight.  I shouldn't wish to shoot anyone and risk disturbing those two exceedingly well behaved dogs.  You do live just down the street, don't you?"

"Yes, I do," I reluctantly admitted.  "They are well behaved," I hastily shifted the conversation back to the dogs and away from my address.  "Even Fido here.  Sir Heinfried, of course, being a purebred with AKC papers, is the very paradigm of excellent behavior."

"I take it, sir," said Myersby, "it is he who is presently fouling the sidewalk?  You still have not yet got it through your head that the form is not, cannot be, will never be, greater than the content, have you?  I may yet have to shoot you, sir.  And that would be a pity.  It would be a genuine loss.  So let me go before my muse convinces me to leave your dogs orphans, and your agent fabulously rich.  Good night, sir."

And he was gone, just that quickly.  And so, to, was I; for I had to arise bright and early next morning for my second day at J Harold Sprung's Literary Center - though, in retrospect, I need not have made such haste.  But who can anticipate the ironic twists and turns of fate?

"Good morning," I greeted my fellow workers: my team mates.  They were too occupied to respond; so I went to my desk, got my things in order, then proceeded to the policy bin, where I encountered Pip, who was also getting a stack of manuals.

"Let me just ask you -" I started to inquire about last evening's elusive "N" word.

"Can't talk!" Pip mumbled and hurried off.  Just then Jackson got up and headed for the policy bin.

"Oh, by the way -" I began, but was cut off.

"Gotta go!" said Jackson, who hurried off before even getting any manuals.

Perry, as it happened, had been absent from the room.  When he came in, I approached.  But he backed away - so hastily that he bumped into a file cabinet and almost stumbled before retreating.  As crazy as it seemed, I was beginning to imagine my team mates were avoiding me, so I went to my team leader's desk; but he, too, seemed reluctant to speak to me.

"Not now!" he said.

All of a sudden a door opened and, if I didn't know better, I'd swear Merhollen pushed me away from his desk.  I'm sure it was simply an accident that as he arose to see who had entered, his hand reached out and happened to shove against me; but it certainly made me feel uneasy.

Momentarily, Peter B Henry and our illustrious chairman, J Harold Sprung, were fast upon me.  Henry glanced pointedly at me then turned to Merhollen.

"Been conversing with your new man?" he asked.

Merhollen turned white as a ghost.  He shook his head and began stammering.  "N-n-no!  N-no!  No!  I swear I wasn't!  He was just passing by!  I didn't even know he was here till you pointed him out!  I swear, P B: I swear!"

"We'll discuss this later," Henry informed him, at which revelation Merhollen began to sweat and had to steady himself against his desk.

"You okay, boss?" I asked.

"Yes, do tell us: are you okay - boss?" J Harold himself echoed my question.

"Oh God," moaned Merhollen, "I'm going to be sick.  Where's my key," he began fumbling in his pocket, "my key to the men's room - where is it?  Oh, here it is: here it is!"

"Use it while you can," Henry advised.

Merhollen ran out of the room.  "Perhaps I should go see if he's alright," I suggested.

"Since when do you have a key to the men's room?" Henry asked.

Of course, he was right, so I said nothing further - and just as well I didn't, or I might have missed a remarkable tale of social responsibility, which I now set down before my readers in its entirety.

"I have something I want you people to hear," J Harold addressed us.  Everyone was aghast, or so it seemed to me.  No doubt they still had Cleveland, Ohio on their minds.  But since the great writer can find a wealth of themes for his opuses even along the shores of Lake Erie, I was untroubled by the prospect.  Not that I wished to leave my home; rather, that wherever a writer lays his pen is his home.

"And I'm going to begin," he continued, "with an aphorism this company was built upon, stands by, and has become the shining expression of - so listen up.  Because it's what I tell, and expect of, every person I employ, from the janitor to my vice-president.  There is no place in this company or this Center for people who neither feed nor oil the corporate machinery.  As far as I'm concerned, this company is your god, and if you can't or won't or don't treat it accordingly, you will be banished from it - period.  Without enterprise, without good old Yankee ingenuity, without a free market economy - without companies like this - this great nation of ours would be nothing but a jungle, where big, brawny apes would go around intimidating and browbeating and terrorizing anyone and everyone smaller than themselves.  We look at Central Africa; we look at Central America; we look at Central Asia - and we say to ourselves: 'there but for the grace of God go I.'  But it's not enough...survival is not enough...growth is not enough...it's never enough...never enough...never enough...not for them.  Not for those starry-eyed yellow-bellied bloodsuckers who want to take what you and I and all those who made America work, made; and 'redistribute' it...just hand it over to those whose contributions amount to less than a billionth of a percentile of the GNP - if they contribute even that much!  Does anyone of any intelligence seriously believe that people who spend their entire working lives earning minimum wage contribute a plug nickel to this economy? that we should just hand our hard earned dollars over to them?

"I want to illustrate this point with an incident that took place in this very Center less than a year ago.  The 'spanic that used to clean the men's room - Javiar Valdez or some such nonsense - maybe you recall him, I don't.  But I do recall how close he came to closing down this Center.  Seems his kid had a bad heart, needed an operation or something.  Since he didn't have insurance - do these people ever? - some of you decided to take up a collection.  P B remembers: it was his predecessor tried to set it up.  A delegation came to me - I happened to be visiting - to tell me all about it.  I looked at them - I looked at every one of their faces - I don't think any of them are still here, are they, P B? - and I said, 'Sure, you can take up a collection - over my dead body!  Because if you've got so much money that you can afford to hand it over to some kid who's never going to be able to do a full day's work like his old man, even if he gets his operation anyway - then maybe I'm paying you too much.  'Cause I know I don't have that kind of money to throw around.'  Well, that was the end of that.  Sometimes it takes a strong leader with strong principles to keep his people from making jackasses of themselves.  You don't throw good money after bad.  You don't get rich tending to the needs of everybody else.  This world is very rich and very generous - but you've got to prove yourself worthy of its riches and its glories.

"Now to the matter at hand.  We're moving to Cleveland next week.  The new man's not going.  Here you are -"

I being the 'new man,' was the one to whom J Harold handed a pink slip of paper.

"You're fired," he announced, "and I'll tell you why - because I want everyone to hear, to understand, to know once and for all what this place is all about.  This is a place of business - not a freak show.  We put out Policy Manuals - not loony tunes.  You are dealing here with accounting - accounting - not literature or some other kindergarten subject.  You, sir, do not accord the principles of accounting the reverence they warrant.  You treat them as if they were no more than some great eternal truths to be encapsulated in some pitiful little homily.  Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

I thought a moment.  "I suppose I am a little rusty on my printer's marks," I admitted

I said my good-byes - "I'll miss you guys," I told Pip and Perry.  "And you too," I told Jackson and Bill and Schmitt.  "And I'll miss Merhollen.  We were a team, weren't we?  We had such team spirit, such camaraderie, such esprit de corps!  Right, Pip?"

Pip turned white.  "No!" he practically screamed.  "It's a lie!  We didn't!"

"Perry: weren't we a team?" I asked.

"No, Mr Henry, Mr Sprung!  No, we fought all the time!" Perry insisted.  "I swear it!"

"Maybe you're right," I was forced to agree.

Henry addressed Pip and Perry.  "Pip, Perry: what's going on here?"

They both turned to me.  "Why'd you single us out?  Why not Jackson, and Bill, and Schmitt?" they demanded to know.

"Us?" Jackson snorted.  "It's you two he was so chummy with!"

"Yeah," Schmitt agreed.  "They were as thick as thieves, those three!"

"You said it!" said Bill.  "We all wondered if they weren't sleeping together!"

"Pip, Perry," said Henry, "I'll need to see you guys when I deal with Merhollen.  As for you," Henry turned to me, but I cut him off.

"I'll miss you, P B: we had some good moments.  But most of all, I'll miss you, J H."

"Get out of here!" stormed Sprung, "before I fire the whole lot of them just for being in the same room with you!"

So I gathered my things and left.

 

Chapter 24.  Larry Smelba

Outside, though it was daylight, it seemed as dark as midnight.  The unthinkable had happened - the thing all good and true workers fear almost worse than death itself:  I had been fired.  And not just fired, but fired from one of the finest, most prestigious companies in America - a company listed not only in the Fortune 500 but in the Top Ten of America's Best and Brightest Organizations (a list to die for, if truth be told).

Oh, of course, there would be other jobs, in other prestigious places; but this was the job I needed in order to prove my worth as an American prose writer.  How could I tell Gretchen of Cocteau, Genet and Jarry that I had failed to make the grade and meet the requirement of rule #17? what could I tell her? what could I say to justify myself?  That I had tried to palm off great eternal truths as principles of accounting?  I may as well withdraw from the contest and be done with it.  No, better to say it was a conflict of personalities and hope she leaves it at that.

But not yet.  I wasn't ready to face that just yet.  I didn't want to go home just yet.  So I walked.  I took a midnight stroll at ten A.M.  The darkened streets - darkened by tragedy, not by clouds or the earth's rotation - lay stretched before me in a seemingly endless procession; no matter where I turned, it felt I must walk to the ends of the earth to get anywhere.  A big clock, high on a building, with gilt hands and black numerals, said 10:03; but something inside me said forever.  "You have entered cosmic time," a voice within whispered; "you are traveling forward and backward together; but there is no motion, no direction, no stopping, no starting; only timeless velocity, and you."

And in such a loop of time and space, you could end up anywhere, with hardly a recollection of how you got there or what you must have seen along the way.  The world could have ended, began, ended, began a hundred times; pyramids and mausoleums could have risen before me and crumbled to dust; castles, museums, prisons, factories, work houses might have rotated back and forth along my route - and all I could say was that I ended up at the place where my journey of a thousand miles began,.  My steps had taken me home again.

Like a fortress it rose before me, the apartment building I had lived in, worked in, was inspired in, created my first masterpieces in.  It was a gray building - ah! but what a gray! a pearl gray, blackened but only slightly by the inexorable exhausts of the city's streets.  Was it Rococo? Art Deco? Baroque? Victorian? Edwardian?  Oh yes!  These and so much more - perhaps even Cubist!  But, above all, it was American, right down to the security bars on the first floor windows, the window wells full of leaves and a few bits of litter beside the basement windows, the network of hairline cracks in the upper windows which shimmered in the morning light like spider's webs.  It had spires, it had gables (seven times seven!), it had dormers, it had gingerbread; but most of all it had character.  It was its own self and none other.

"Why did I leave?" I asked as I ascended the front steps leading to the small elegant portico.  But of course I knew why: I left to seek my fortune, and now was returning - but only as a visitor, for I was no longer of this place though it would always be a part of me.

"Excuse me, sir," a doorman, or someone in a uniform, opened the front door and accosted me, "do you have business here?"

"The artist has business wherever there is humanity," I replied.

"May I see your pass, sir."

"Pass?" I asked.

"You have to have a pass to get in here, or to get out," the man explained.

"Ah, I understand," I said.  "For security reasons, so that only the residents can freely come and go.  Excellent idea.  Who do I see about getting a visitor's pass?"

"Visitor's pass?"

"Just for old time sake - I used to live here."

"There are no visitor's passes," the man said in a somber voice.  "You either live here or you don't.  No one comes to see you, not if you live here.  If you wish to apply for residency, I'll need you to fill out an application.  I have one here someplace."

The man fumbled about in his pockets then brought forth a crumpled piece of paper, which he handed me.

"Here," he said.  "I'll need your name, social security number, age, former occupation, and  the reason for having failed at your craft."

This was more puzzling than ever.  "Let me get this straight," I said.  "To get in here one must reveal something so personal as why he did not make a go of his chosen career; then he is given a pass; but he may have no visitors.  Has this place gone Condo?"

"Condo?" he said, greatly puzzled.  "Condo?  This is a charity ward!"

"A charity ward?" I repeated, incredulously.

"Yes: a home for has-beens - has-beens of every description.  It's funded by the Morcon Foundation - no doubt you've heard of it.  Now you see why no one pays anyone here a visit.  They once were someone - everyone here was.  Now they're nothing, they've lost it all, they've fallen, they've failed.  They are has-beens.  So if you'll fill this out, send it in - the address is there, at the bottom; Morcon will look it over, evaluate it, let you know if you qualify.  This is all strictly humanitarian - Morcon gets nothing out of it, they do it for the love of God and their fellow man.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I must return to my post."

The man turned, opened the front door, and was about to go in when a most singularly peculiar thing occurred.  A second man came running out the door, right past him, and on down the front steps, all the while shouting "I'm free!  I'm free!  At last I'm free!  Thank God I'm free!"

As if that wasn't unusual enough, what happened next was pure surrealism.  (I should point out, lest my most singularly sophisticated readers skip past this passage with a blasé "Not another vagrant!", that no, this was, mercifully, not another vagrant; it was a has-been.)  A jogger was jogging by, a young man wearing very smart jogging apparel and sporting a Walkman radio with the requisite set of headphones.  No sooner had the man from the home for has-beens descended the steps than he spied this young jogger, made for him and to everyone's utter horror, grabbed the headphones from his head.

"Get that off there before it's too late!" the man cried out, as he pulled the cord free of the radio and hurled it as far as he could.

"You crazy?" the incensed jogger shouted.  "Huh, old man?  You crazy?  You crazy?"

At this point, as much to try and calm the jogger as to subdue his attacker, I stepped forward.  "I saw what happened," I said, plainly.  "I will testify in any court of law to as much.  You, sir, took away this man's property - and as one of the premier champions of property rights in the Western world, I must protest!"

"Property?" the former has-been practically screamed in my ear.  "You speak to me of property?  When I have just saved this boy's life?  How dare you trivialize my heroism just to get in a plug for free enterprise!  I've saved this boy from a long, painful death.  What good will his property be to him in the ground?  What profiteth a man if he hear every song ever written and lose his eyes, ears, nose, throat and very life in the bargain?"

"I was listening to the Beatles, old man!" the jogger said.  "Not every song they ever wrote, just Sergeant Pepper!"

"Ah!" said the attacker.  "A well-seasoned carcinogen!  But just as deadly, I assure you!"

"Wait a minute," I interrupted.  "Are you saying a headset is a carcinogen?"

"Idiot!" the man retorted.  "The headset is only the medium - the gun barrel, the syringe, the bomb's casing!  It is the sounds coming through the headset that carry the danger!  The sounds!  The sounds!  All those wave lengths shooting through one's body, causing untold mutations within the cell walls!  The sounds, man!  Don't you get it, you blithering idiot?  Sounds cause cancer!  Now do you see, now that at last your eyes have been opened to the truth that was all around you?  Sounds - sound waves - coming and going, entering and leaving, forward and backward, up and down, in and out and all around - all around!  We're surrounded by a sea of sound waves, all beating against us, battering us to and fro, hither and yon, helter and skelter -

"Heckle and Jeckle!" the jogger added his two cents worth (though I'm not certain which direction is which in that particular expression).

"Let me ask you this, you moron: do radios make any noise if there's no one there to hear them?  Of course not!  More to the point: do radio waves make sounds if there's no radio there to pick them up?  Of course they don't!  So what happens to the waves - all those waves - a sea of waves - flooding every inch of the atmosphere?  Oh look!  There goes a country wave, flying by your ear; there's a rock wave, piercing your skull; an easy listening wave, jabbing you in the belly; a talking wave, tickling your ribs.  They're always there - everywhere!  Go down into the deepest cave, they're still there!  Atop the highest mountain, they're still there!  Where do they go if there's no radio to pick them up - or even if there is?  I'll tell you where they go: they go right inside, right through skin and bone and blood and guts - and begin mutating every cell in your body till you become either one big mass of walking tumors - or else a schizoid!" 

"Schizoid?" I asked, absolutely flabbergasted. 

"That's right: schizoid!  Where else do you think schizophrenia comes from if not from radio waves?"

"TV waves, perhaps," I tentatively replied.  

"Oh God!" the ex-has-been replied.  "It's worse than I thought.  Now I know for sure what I've got to do.  I've toyed with it; now I have no choice.  I'm going to re-take my vows of silence.  I'm returning to the monastery of St Francis.  You see, I was a monk - a brother - almost a sister once - but never a priest.  Always a bride's maid, never a bride.  I left because I couldn't bear the silence.  But I'm going back.  I'm going to get down on my knees, all fours if necessary - and re-affirm my vows of silence.  But not chastity!  Oh no, not chastity.  I've been too long in the world.  If I should happen to see some cute little novitiate, don't think I won't reach up his cassock and fondle his or her - if they've gone gender neutral - equipage.  Don't think for a minute I won't!  Unless of course he or she's got a radio tucked away under there!"

"Or a miniature TV," I added.

"Oh dear lord in heaven, they're everywhere!  I must hurry, before those cute little chaste fellows end up like this boy here, running to keep old age and illness at bay when all the while it's pouring right into his ear canals!"

In a flash, he was off.  Not knowing quite what to say or do, and being unable to get in to see my old home site, I turned to go.  As I did, I overheard the door guard mutter to himself "We'll get you back.  We know where to find you.  Morcon's a charity for life, not for a day or two.  You'll see."

When I got home, I forced myself to pick up the phone and call Gretchen.  "I was fired," I confessed.

"Hmm," she mused.  "That's bad news.  How long were you there?" she asked.

"One day," I replied.

"Not good," she said.  "But you did fulfill the letter of the law, so to speak.  The contest committee never specified how long you must hold down your accounting position.  Did you get to count any beans?"

"I brought my lunch," I explained.

"I see," said Gretchen.  "You failed to pick up any jargon - yet you would be a writer?  I'm in a quandary here - help me out.  I can't recommend outright disqualification, but neither can I in good conscience say you have completed the requirement.  I'll have to give this some thought.  Give me a call later this week; I'll let you know then if you still qualify as a writer."

I thanked her for her open mindedness.  And then, dear reader, I thanked God.  "For what?" you ask.  Ah! as if one needs any more reason to thank God than simply being alive, for does not the Almighty spend His every waking moment making sure our lives are rich, full, productive, rewarding and, above all, happy?  But if you demand specification, what I thanked God for in this instance was inspiration - pure, divine inspiration.  For, completely out of nowhere, dear reader, it had come to me what I must do to get my career back on track and in full throttle: advertise.

Yes, yes - oh yes! - dear reader: advertise!  For is not the great art of advertisement the be all and end all of our mercantile culture? it's modus operandi, raison d'etré and sui generis?  For what is it we do, and do better than anyone who ever lived, if not buy - buy - buy and sell - sell - well?  And the great medium, the transmission belt, the heat and steam that keeps alive and well that blessed tension between the two: advertisement!  What I have, what you want: I who have genius must find a means of putting it before you, who have need of it.  That's commerce, that's enterprise, that's economic imperative enough for any man, beast or culture!

And so I was off, on a mighty quest to advertise my talents that you, dear reader, might reap the benefit.  And what of my agent? you ask.  My attorney?  My publisher?  What of them?  This was something I must do on my own, with no help from anyone.

And I knew right where to go - for every inspiration has a name to go with it.

"Gentlemen," I advised Fido and Sir Heinfried, "I am off today to our nation's capital, to see a man about a career!"

In life, as in a good story, everything carries the action along, even if at the time it appears a dead end.  Who would have thought that my ill-fated Charisma Test, which led to the non-seminar, which led to meeting a madman and nearly being killed, would yield one of the most significant events of my entire career?  But it did, thanks to a small, almost insignificant tete-a-tete with a mere receptionist, Jersalene, who turned me on to one of the greatest advertising agencies on the face of the earth, Meier-Frier-Knopf-Box, and its premier copy writer, who I will presently present to you in all his glory, the great Larry Smelba, of whom it is impossible to say too much.

But first, I must get there; and to fail showing you my transit from one point to the next would be tantamount to short changing a customer.  Fear not, gentle reader, you will not be short changed in these pages.

"I must get to Washington, DC, forthwith!" I informed the ticket agent.

"Next train leaves in ten minutes," he replied.

"Then I must be on it.  Is it by chance a commuter train?" I asked.

"No.  It's a metroliner.  Top of the line.  Twenty-two dollars one way."

"My business won't wait," I said as I paid the fare.

When I boarded the metroliner, who should I see but my old traveling companion from my last trip to the Capital, Stratton H Binglepood.  I sat down beside him to renew our acquaintance. 

"Have you got your dress with you today?" I asked, pointing to his briefcase.

Binglepood turned very pale.  "You must be crazy!" he exclaimed as he got up.  "You must be crazy!" he repeated as he hurried to the other end of the car.  I chose not to follow: obviously he was still shaken by the experience of almost being forced to ride the bus, and panicked when I so thoughtlessly reminded him of it.  I resolved to make an apology once we arrived at Union Station, which I discreetly attempted, but still to no avail, for he was still too upset to think clearly.

"Get away from me, you God damn transvestite!  Get away before I call the police!" he nearly screamed and took off running through the station, almost knocking down some tourists from Podunk, Iowa. 

"He must a been high as Ben Franklin's kite on that cracker barrel ice," an elderly gentleman informed the others.  "Everyone in the East snorts it through a hypodermic needle.  Then they go berserk.  Then they go out and buy tennis shoes.  Then they return to their high paying government jobs."

"I've heard about it," said a fellow tourist.

I thought it best to say nothing, so I moved on.  Besides, I was in a hurry: destiny awaited.  You don't want to be late for that appointment.                    

 

 

Chapter 25.  Art Is As Art Does

"Where to, Mack?" said the driver of the taxi I leaped into.

"Take me to your advertiser!" I quipped.  "And spare no expense!"

"You got it, Mack," said the driver.

"Meier-Frier-Knopf and Box - and hurry!" I fleshed out my itinerary. 

"You taking old man Kretchner's job?" the driver asked along the way.

"No," I replied.  "Who is he?"

"Who was he, you mean.  He died at his desk.  Ninety-seven.  They don't leave M-F-K-B except in a box - no pun!  I thought maybe you were his replacement.  They don't advertise when they have an opening."

"Great place to work, eh?" I noted.

"Great-schmate!  You leave, they put out the good word: don't hire this schmuck, he's a traitor.  So no one hires you.  You go on welfare, if you're lucky - except you can't prove why it is you can't find work.  Last man quit ended up in jail for robbing a bank.  That's the way it goes."

"Surely that's all just sour grapes," I said.  "I mean, no one has that much influence to blackball people like that."

"Hope you don't have to eat those words, Mack.  I hear they got a real bitter taste to 'em."

"Tell me," I felt compelled to ask, even at the risk of encouraging a protracted conversation, "why are you so negative?  Indeed, it has been my observation that very nearly all taxi drivers are - why?  How did you get that way?  And why are you so down on free enterprise - that's the real question!"

"Mack, I'm not pro, I'm not con.  I just repeat what I hear straight out of the mouths of my fares, that's all.  If there's somebody negative, it's them.  That's all.  They climb in here, they sit themselves down, they tell me their troubles.  If it ain't their wife running around, it's their boss kicking them around.  I only tell what I hear."

"You shouldn't listen to the complainers," I advised.  "They cause nothing but trouble.  All kinds of laws restricting free trade get passed when people listen and take them seriously.  And we all suffer."

"That's good advice, Mack.  Too bad it overlooks about a hundred thousand minor points.  Like building codes 'cause people got tired of their homes falling down around their heads.  Food inspection 'cause they got tired of food poisoning.  Labor laws 'cause they got tired of sweatshops.  And so on, and on, and on.  Believe me, Mack, nothing came about 'cause someone sat in a taxi complaining; they came about 'cause people got scared and scarred and shafted and such.  And now everyone's forgot.  So they go around believing that free enterprise got a raw deal.  I drive 'em here and I drive 'em there; but, Mack, they just about drive me crazy with their half-ass memories!"

I said nothing further - why bother trying to enlighten a mind so closed to the truth?  The business of the world is business: how could it be otherwise, why would anyone want it to be otherwise?  Period.  End of discussion.  We have arrived.

We pulled in front of a very modest, unassuming building in downtown Washington.  The words of that great philosopher (I forget his name just now) "Appearances can be deceiving" came to mind as I paid my fare and got out.  From such a modest countenance, as it were, proceeded work of the highest magnitude, work of the Nth degree, work second to none in style, quality, originality and beauty.  A small brass placard announced the name of the agency.  I wiped a smudge from it with my tie as I walked past and into the building.

More than ever the deceptiveness of appearances struck me as I beheld what I can only describe as something right out of the Arabian Nights.  Rich and ornate to the point of opulence, with exquisite latticework of gold embellished with crimson sculpture seemingly suspended in mid-air, archways leading to several corridors, mosaic tile on the floor, tapestries along the wall, and crystal chandeliers, the lobby of M-F-K-B not only suggested but insisted upon the most palatial imagery imaginable.  Surely, I thought, I have come to call on the Caliph.  Yet when the receptionist, who I had not seen but who had evidently seen me, led me down a corridor to the elevator that I might ascend to the corporate offices, I could only conclude I had hallucinated, and that the palace of Scherazade had been superimposed by my own fancy upon the lobby; for what I stepped into beyond the corridor was something straight out of Shakespeare.  It was bare, plain, dark, somber, and had the thick protruding stoniness of a medieval castle.  I half expected the elevator door to slowly creak upward as it opened; but it opened in the normal fashion.

We got into a brass and ivory colored car.  I could only wonder what would greet our departure when we reached floor number 5.  The receptionist and I made no small talk in the elevator save for one comment on her part.

"I liked Biz Kretchner," was all she said.  I knew, from the taxi driver, who that was, but made no reply.

The fifth floor had a vaguely Victorian patina, though not nearly so pronounced as the two lobbies had proclaimed their respective styles.  I was led to a suite of offices at the end of a long corridor.

"Here you are, sir," the receptionist said as she opened the door to admit me.  I thanked her and entered.  I couldn't help being a little disappointed as I looked around and saw a very plain, almost drab suite with a typical "office-y" look that belied its exotic atrium.

A woman at once arose from behind a reception desk to greet me.  "Good morning, sir!" she exclaimed.  "Which of our advertising executives have you come to see?"

"Your best," I replied.

"That would be Jimbo.  May I ask if you have an appointment?"

"Actually no," I replied.

"Well, who may I say is calling?  And what should I say is your business?"

"I am a best selling author.  I am here to begin an ad campaign to promote my talents."

"Excellent choice, sir," she said.  "Please wait here, I'll be right back."

Momentarily she returned and I was ushered into a plush, but still disappointingly plain office.  

"Jimbo Kahn here," the extremely pleasant looking man behind the oaken desk announced.  "No relation to Genghis - except in the aggressiveness of my advertising style.  I understand you're here to promote your new best seller."

"In a manner of speaking, yes," I replied.

I sensed a certain waning of his ebullience as he asked me "What manner might that be?"

"Actually," I explained, watching a kind of weariness descend, like a shade being drawn, about his face as I spoke, "my best seller is somewhat in the past.  What I'm looking to do is promote my talent itself - not its product, highly marketable though it will inevitably be - but the talent that produces the best selling masterpieces."

"I see," Jimbo mused.  "Let me understand this: you haven't had a best seller in a while, you have no immediate prospects for one, yet you wish to place your talent before the public in hopes of gaining greater visibility - is that it?"

"Exactly!" I answered.

"I see.  Not to denigrate your talent; but any ad campaign I could come up with - we could come up with here at MFKB - may be a bit too high powered for what you have to offer the public.  We have a responsibility - no: an obligation - to give the public the best possible product in the best possible light.  We can do wonders, but we've got to have something to work with.  I just think you might be better served by another agency.  One a little bit - well, one that's not quite so high powered.  But hey, before you go: I've got an idea!  A great idea!  You're a writer - and a pretty good one, if I'm any judge of character.  We've got an opening in our Copy Department - we need a writer.  So how about it?  Why not take a minute to look into it!  All we can do is say 'No.'  Look, I'm going to call Human Resources.  I'll tell them I'm sending someone to apply for old Kretchner's job."

"Kretchner?" I interjected.  "The one who died at his desk?"

"I don't know what happened," said Jimbo.  "All I know is he's not here anymore.  Hey, these guys just do copy for me, I can't keep up with each and every one of their lives - wish I could, but I can't.  So what do you say?  You want to take a walk on the 4th floor?"

"Sure," I said, "what can it hurt?"

"Good man.  Ask for Jarnet.  Tell him Jimbo sent you."

"Thanks," I said.

"Don't mention it," said Jimbo.

The fourth floor suite, I'm sorry to say, was even more disappointing than the fifth: plainer, more non-descript, more efficiently conventional, it had every cliché of the modern office save florescent lighting.  Its odor was even bland.  Only the crisp, clean, efficiency of the Human Resources staff gave testimony to the true quality of this fine old establishment.  In no time at all they had me tagged, weighed, boxed and on my way (to wax fanciful for a moment).  "You can fill in the SSN later," they promised.

I was sent to the second floor, to begin work.  So eager was I to begin, that, truthfully, I barely noticed my surroundings.  Was it plain? dismal? was it ugly? tasteless, dingy, dirty, dark? was the air stale? the carpet threadbare? the walls peeling? were there cockroaches scurrying about? mouse droppings? dead flies? crumbs and oil stains?  Who knows?  Who knew!  For surely not I - I, who had stumbled into the most truly wondrous workplace imaginable!  No, indeed, not I.  For all I knew I had come to paradise to set up shop.  And to sit at the right hand of -

"Boompy Starboard, head copy writer," the big moon-faced gentleman introduced himself.  "I'll be your team leader.  Come with me, I'll show you where we work.  And remember: Be Creative!"

Boompy led me to a room with a long table and what seemed to be about ten chairs on either side, all but one filled, plus a single empty chair at the head of the table.  Overhead was a single florescent light stretching the entire length of the table; it extended about a foot from the ceiling, and since the ceiling was itself somewhat low, it appeared rather menacing, almost a danger should anyone tall lean over the table without first ducking.  There were no windows; but there was a drapery drawn open to reveal a wall plaque which read, in big bold golden letters, "Be Creative."

"Larry," Boompy motioned to one of the men seated at the table, "I'd like you to take Kretchner's replacement here under your wing.  Change seats with Perk if you will.  I'll put the new man next to you."

Two men arose: one non-descript, the other a creative giant.  They switched seats.  Boompy offered me the vacant chair, next to the giant.  And, yes dear reader, this was none other than Larry Smelba, who I promised to present to you in all his glory.

As so often happens, genius assumes a modest demeanor; so don't expect a physical masterpiece seated next to me.  The monumental giant was seated inside the man.  Outwardly, he was medium to short in stature; a little heavy set; slightly balding; his posture bordering on slovenly, his shoulders hunched somewhat; he displayed prominent nasal hairs, as well as considerable fuzz at the rims of his ears.  He had a rich, mellow voice when he spoke, but tended toward a sing-song style of speaking.  What, then, you ask, was so great about him?

Besides his enormous talent, he had a game plan: a master plan - and quite a masterful plan it was.  His goal in life - no, let me allow him to tell you, as he told it to me while we worked.

"My goal, incidentally, is to become the greatest writer of this century," he informed me.  "That's why I'm here.  That's why we're all here.  I trust that's why you're here too.  There is no better training ground for the development of creative genius than right here, doing copy writing.  You get to know first hand exactly what sells, why it sells, how it gets sold, and, best of all, how much it'll bring in that great glorious red white and blue arena we call the marketplace.  You get to see precisely what your talent is worth.  It's not some fuzzy, wuzzy, buzzy, lazy hazy, indistinct, shapeless, formless blob lumbering its way through a thick fog toward some half concealed goal.  It's a thing with sides, a back, a front, a top, a bottom, clearly defined, clearly demarcated, clearly enunciated, on a clear path toward a definite goal.  It can be quantified, this talent you possess - just as all other things in existence can and ultimately must be quantified if they're to have any worth.  The benefits of copy writing are great, they're wondrous, they're stimulating, scintillating, captivating, and, ultimately, rewarding.  I intend to write more novels than anyone who ever walked upon this planet.  But don't imagine I'll ever run out of ideas: I won't.  I'll never want for something to say.  Because it's not particularly important what you say; it's how many different ways you can say it and, especially, how often you can convince people to listen.  It's all in how you present your ideas.  They can be good ideas, they can be bad ideas; they can original, they can be hackneyed; they can be brilliant, or blasé, or banal, or downright radical: it doesn't matter so long as they're presented in a way that's pleasant and precise and palatable.  The public pays for quality, and it recognizes it in a minute.  That's why I'm absolutely, supremely, unequivocally confident that I will succeed in my goals."

"Hey Lar!" someone called, "tell him about your dildo collection!"  I think it was Perk who uttered this sleazy obscenity, but I can't be sure, though it sounds like something someone so non-descript would say.  And I must beg my reader's indulgence, for even  something so offensive, in the presence of greatness, becomes a tool circumscribing that genius.  So please bear with me.

Larry Smelba laughed.  "Rubber," he exclaimed, "plain, formless, indistinct - but ah! in the hands of American enterprise, a thing of beauty and a joy forever!  And I like to think I helped shape it, direct it, turn it from just another tree sap to a pillar of the free enterprise system.  I mapped a strategy for the Tricky Dickies -"

"And the Picky Wickies, don't forget!" someone interrupted.

"In its own time," a nonplussed Smelba cautioned.  "P&T - you know: the big novelty conglomerate - had this great idea for party favors," he explained: "miniature dildos.  Obviously they needed a very special ad campaign, one that would thrust their product into the wide open market of adult games and toys without ramming it down people's throats.  How to do that.  So they came here, they saw my ideas, they conquered the market.  Now I didn't do it alone, I had help from Perk, from the other guys, from Kretchner, even Boompy helped put a few finishing touches on the product.  These dildos were handled by the best.  The rest, of course, is history.  We had a line of fourteen sizes, shapes, colors - as distinct as the human anatomy.  P&T insisted I take a bronzed replica of each.  Ergo, my 'collection.'"

"And the Picky-Wickies: tell him about that!" the same someone again insisted.

"They were little rubber men that picked their noses when a certain pitch resonated tiny electrodes in their bellies.  Really quite ingenious.  An offshoot of P&T's Boozie-Woozies - as you know, one of their all time favorites.  But how to market them: that was the question.  We didn't want to focus too strongly on their raison d'etre, as it were.  Yet we definitely wanted to capitalize on their relationship to the Boozie-Woozies.  After numerous polls, we decided to call their little habit an 'itch.'  The campaign we dubbed 'The Big Itch.'  It was a stunning success."

Just then a door opened and an extremely important looking gentleman came in.  He stood a moment and looked around the room, then proceeded to circle the table.  When he had again reached the door, he asked the question "Are you fellas being creative?"

I, of course, presumed it to be a rhetorical, if not to say whimsical, question.  So you can imagine my amusement when everyone else at the table replied, in very loud, clear voices, and in unison, "Yes, Mr Box, we are being creative!"

"That's what we like to hear!" the gentleman replied, then retreated from the room.

"For future reference," Boomby called me aside to advise, "when one of the firm's partners asks us something - anything, however trivial it may seem - he expects a reply."

"I'll remember that," I promised him.  "Truthfully, I thought he was taking a moment to inspire us - the way the sign over there is meant to inspire us."

"Inspire?  What's to inspire?  It's what we're here for - to be creative!" said Boompy.  "It's what they pay us for.  It's what they expect.  If they ask if we're being creative, they're asking if we're earning our pay.  Hey, Lar: over here a minute."

"Yeah, chief," said Smelba.

"What do we mean when we say 'be creative?'"

"When we say 'be creative' around here, we mean 'be productive.'  You see the difference?  Creativity does not pay the bills; productivity does.  Productivity is what makes the world go 'round; it's what separates the movers and shakers from the moaners and groaners; it's real, it's here, it's now, it's all around us; you can feel it, see it, smell it, taste it, touch it the moment you enter this building, this grand fortress of creative genius, this bastion of economic might, this encampment of commercial purity.  For us, here, creativity is not a process of inspiration, not a dredging of dark images from within, but a wrenching of all the right stuff from all the right places in all the right ways for all the right reasons.  Talent is not what gives form, texture, shape and color to our work; it's what polishes our products till they look and shine and gleam and glisten exactly how our client wants them to - exactly how he is paying them to.  He knows what he wants, and we know how to give it to him.  That's what I strive for in my copy; it's what I will strive for in all my work.  That's why I'll be recognized as great in my own lifetime."

Dear reader: is there anything I, or anyone, can add to what this profoundly remarkable man just said?  I think not, so I'll simply say that the expression on Larry Smelba's face as he spoke these resounding words encapsulating for all time the dictum of human creativity, was nothing short of ethereal.  He had peered into heaven and his face knew it.  And we were all a little holier for it.

 

Chapter 26.  A Season For All Saints

"His name is Malius Dvichniskt," Boompy Starboard informed me.  "He is one of the great inventors of the 20th Century.  He's one of the founding fathers of the modern prosthetics.  He worked for many years for a subsidiary of P&T - in fact, he was their leading researcher.  Now he's started his own company.  He wants us to handle his newest line of merchandise.  I'd like you to help with the account.  Jimbo's cousin Timbo's coordinating it.  Get together with him, visit Dvichniskt, study the product; then make me proud."

"Yes, sir," I promised.

"You do a super job, I just might consider you for Lar's accounts," Boompy said in a lowered voice.

"Lar?" I asked, also softly.  "Is he leaving?"

"Sooner or later, of course.  He's got an appointment with fame and fortune: everyone knows it.  But the guy loves his work.  We may have to give him a little nudge to get him out of the nest.  Anyway, you make me proud, I'll keep you in mind."

I thanked him and went at once to the fifth floor to seek Timbo, my head reeling with the thought that someday I might be asked to fill Larry Smelba's shoes - and, indeed, who better to fill them than me?

Timbo proved, however, to be elusive.  For one thing, no one seemed to know who he was (as I later discovered, he had just that day been hired).  And for another, as I discovered when at last I found him, he was a small man, barely five feet tall, with a squeaky little voice that was barely audible two feet away.

"I've got big ideas for this campaign," he informed me after I explained to him what I was here for.  "Real big ideas."

It was only on the third go-round that I managed to hear him well enough to be able to report his dialogue I should point out.  So let me eliminate everything I said at our first meeting, since most of it was prompting, pure and simple, and condense his words into a compactness that in actuality stretched nearly half an hour.

"Real, real big ideas!  The kind of big ideas only big ideaed men come up with!  These big ideas, if given height and depth and all the proper dimensions, would cover an area bigger than the big dipper.  So let's get down to business.  This is a big account that's gonna bring us big bucks and gonna make us mighty big men in this business."

"It's a big business," I noted.

"None bigger!" Timbo assured me.  "None bigger, my friend.  May I call you friend?  Jimbo - he's a big man in this company: real big; and he just happens to be my cousin - Jimbo says it's best to call everyone your friend on your first day, till you've been here long enough to know who's worthwhile calling your friend and who's small potatoes.  What we're gonna do, my friend (friend for now, that is), we're gonna start big: we're gonna go visit this Dipshit clown and see what his Dipshit invention is all about.  I've made an appointment for 10 A.M."

"It's now 10:15," I reminded Timbo.

"Better late than ever," Timbo quipped.  "Let 'em know who needs who in this game.  We're the biggest, we're the best.  Everyone knows our name.  Who's ever heard of this Dipshit, huh?"

It was after eleven when we finally arrived at Dr. Dvichniskt's office - actually, his laboratory, with a desk and typewriter against one wall.  Timbo made our apologies for being late -"something important came up" he said in his tiny voice.

"Something important came apart, you say," Dvichniskt guessed, incorrectly, at what he had just heard.  "Hope it wasn't your Twitchin' Twitcherer," he added.  "Or your Struttin' Stutterer.  You know, I invented both of them.  Two of P&T's all-time best sellers.  Of course, now I've moved to more sophisticated endeavors.  Speaking of which, please walk this way."

Dvichniskt led us down a corridor to a room separate from the main laboratory.  "Pardon the secrecy," he explained in a low voice as he unlocked a heavy metal door.

"What'd you say?  Could you speak up?" asked Timbo.

"I said 'Pardon the secrecy.'  But I've got to keep this under wraps till my patent's patented.  The walls have ears - sort of like Wally the One-Eyed Ear-Dropper: only a modest success, that one.  Don't want anyone to steal my idea.  Come!  Let me show you."

We were led to a table whose entire top looked something like a muffin pan.  There must have been fifty separate compartments, each with a distinctively colored powder in it.

"Well?" asked Dvichniskt.  "What do you think?  Is it the most fabulous thing you've ever seen?  Next to Fabio the Fantabulous Farter, of course - quite possibly my finest creation ever."

"What exactly is it?" I asked

"That's just it," said Dvichniskt, "it's whatever you want it to be!  That's it's greatness!  Mix and match!  Not only instant art but mix and match art as well!"

"Instant art?   You mean like paint by numbers?"

"Only better!  Much better!  You take a little of this  powder, a little of that, maybe a little of this - but not that row or that row: I'll explain in a minute - you mix them together, add water and - presto! you have an instantaneous work of art!  Instant Art!"

"But not from those rows?" I prompted.

"Yes and no: yes, you get art there too; but no, you cannot mix rows.  These produce one type of artwork, these another, these yet another.  You can no more mix poesy with music or music with painting than you can apples and oranges.  Or, more precisely, water and oil."

"Three kinds of art?" Timbo asked.  "Aren't you overdoing it a bit?"

"My research shows that people of culture enjoy dabbling in more than just one art form," Dvichniskt replied.

"People of culture," Timbo stated so emphatically that we could almost hear him without straining, "dabble, not in artworks, but in artists!  Children dabble in art!  I have a nephew who has three paintings; my brother-in-law - his father - owns the artists!"

"A charming anecdote," Dvichniskt observed.  "Howsoever, this world is full of dabblers in the arts, just as it's full of little old ladies knitting afghans and doilies for next Christmas.  Now let me show you how this works so as to dispel all doubts - the way a good spanking dispels all of Doubty Pouty the Moon Prune's doubts: you remember Doubty, no doubt?  P&T's last all styrene novelty before the lawsuit that forced him off the market?  Who knew back then that lead-based paint was harmful?  And if parents had kept their children from biting my Doubty they wouldn't have suffered irreparable brain damage.  Ah, but que sera sera!  Now: observe!  Voila!"

Dvichniskt took a few grains of powder from five different cups, spread them on an open stretch of table, sprinkled a few drops of water from a standing beaker over the mixture and - Voila! - something started at once to happen.  It smoked, it whirred, it fizzed, it belched - rather like Dr Jeckell's magic potion.  Then the grains - doubtless the molecules within the grains - started to gyrate and, if I may wax geographical, to migrate.  Before ten minutes had elapsed, what had been merely a smear of colors on a table became a three stanza poem.

"Read it and weep!" quipped Dvichniskt.  "For I've composed a sonnet of sadness and unrequited love worthy of a Dido!"

I must confess I found the reference to an extinct bird a bit overly cryptic, but I let it pass: the man, after all, was a scientist, not an author in any significant sense.  Besides, I was too dazzled by what I witnessed to worry about trivialities.

"How did you do that?" I asked.

"Ah!," he replied.  "That's for me to know and everyone else to find out!  I could just as easily have composed a symphony, or drawn a picture.  It's all in the powders, gentlemen.  And the combination."

"It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen," I said.

"Yes, it is," Dvichniskt agreed.

"We'll be going now," Timbo abruptly said (I think that's what he said: a beaker spilled somewhere and nearly drowned him out).  "We'll map our strategy and get back to you."

"Map your progeny?" Dvichniskt noted in the interrogative.  "If you do half the job Mopey Mappy, the Map-Maker did, your children will adore you!  Ah! what a pity world geography fell out of fashion just about the time we introduced our little Mappy.  He would have been another household word, like Mooney Balloon or Whacko the Whacky Wax Worm or Tippy the Tipsy Tonsil.  But, instead, alas, he was melted down to form a line of gag swizzle sticks.  They were shaped like buxom blondes.  Don't get me wrong: I love capitalism, I love the marketplace, I love survival of the fittest, I love buxom blondes.  But I can't help wondering if the world didn't lose a little something of itself it can never regain when the last Mappy melted down into the last blonde swizzle stick.  Ah, well, such is life."

"I thought he'd never shut up!" Timbo exclaimed when we were outside.  "As if I had nothing better to do than hear the metamorphosis of a latex doll!  Oh!  Let's get this taxi!" he called, waving his little hand (a hand, I might add, with as little in the way of bone and sinew as any adult hand I've ever seen).

"I think perhaps I'll walk," I said: it was only five blocks.

"Whatever," said Timbo.  "Just be sure when you get back - if you do - to report to the Corporate Library and research the appropriate ad campaign.  Use something artsy.  I'll look it over later.  And watch out for the Perquackies!" he called from the taxi.  "They carry woozies nowadays!"

It took me a while to figure out that this was most likely what Timbo had said.  When I finally reached the home office, and had pretty much narrowed his words down, and was about to go inside, a man I at first took for a beggar approached.

"Excuse me," he began, "do you have any -"

"I'm sorry," I cut him short, "I have no change to spare."

"Just as well," he said, "I don't need change.  It's your blame I want."

"You did nothing I should blame you for," I assured him.

"Not my blame: yours!  I want yours.  Do you have any to spare?  Any that you don't want, or won't accept?"

"Actually," I replied, in all modesty, "I stand pretty much blameless at the moment."

"You and who else?" the man asked.  "Just a figure of speech," he explained.  "The correct answer is 'you and everyone else.'  I've yet to find anyone who owns up to having any blame.  Everyone is 'pretty much blameless at the moment.'  So tell me: if no one has done anything which warrants blame, why is the world in the state it's in?  If no one has done wrong - and that's what it means to be blameless - then where did all the evil come from? all the heartache? all the pain? all the misery?"

"I think," a gentleman walking by interjected, "I can answer that.  It comes from the poor.  If it's blame you're after, go seek it in the ghettos of our cities, the slums of our suburbs, the rural shanties: seek it in those places where those who contribute nothing to this world dwell.  Seek it among the losers, the failures, the non-conformists, the anti-social; among those who hold no job, or, if they do, perform so badly as to prove a liability to our magnificent way of life; among those who, having been dismissed from their job - and what employer has not the right to hire and fire according to the dictates of his conscience? - seek vengeance through the host of monstrous laws protecting the 'rights' of workers as if those who collect day wages have any basis or need for rights!  Go seek it among those who spend their days complaining, and plotting the overthrow of the capitalist way of life; and who, just by existing, mock everything that's good and just and decent and productive and profitable!  Blame?  There's blame aplenty in those quarters!"

The gentleman - and I do most assuredly mean gentleman, for everything about him spoke of taste, style, breeding and, most of all, the entrepreneurial spirit - paused a moment before us, as if debating whether to leave or stay.  Then, as our good fortune would have it, he volunteered another piece of dialogue.

"Perhaps you wonder how I know all this?" he asked.  "Well, I'll tell you.  I know because I've been brought here in chains and handcuffed to the vilest bureaucratic lunacy ever envisioned.  For want of a piece of paper - a single piece of paper - I may have to shut down my most profitable branch office.  Oh yes: madness reigns supreme in this heartless town.  And what did I do to deserve this monstrous fate?  Why, I committed the unpardonable sin: I fired a man!  An ungrateful, incompetent wretch who, if not for me, would have starved long ago.  A man who, after 20 years of - well, let's just say - of the kind of service one expects from those who haven't the smarts to own their own business, had long since outlived his usefulness and had to be let go.  But because I didn't properly document his poor performance, because I had the unmitigated gall to just up and one day let him go, I'm being charged with violating his civil rights!  Can you imagine such obscenity!  His civil rights!"

"Sir," the other gentleman said before I could say anything, "do you reckon yourself blameless in all this?"

"Blameless?  If the term has any meaning than I am most definitely it!  The day Mitch Moop accepts blame for firing a worthless bum is the day I renounce any and all claim to the title 'entrepreneur'! all claim to decency, morality and honor! all claim to the resources of this world so begrudgingly allotted those who toil so tirelessly to earn them!"

"Then, sir," said the other, "please permit me to accept, in your stead, the blame for firing a man you kept in your employ 20 years - a man who could not possibly have been as worthless and incompetent as you say or you would not have kept him 20 seconds!"

"He was too damn old to ride a bicycle!  It was for his own good!  He was a liability!  Why should I keep paying insurance for someone too old to ride a bike - tell me that?"

"I accept your blame - happily, proudly, eagerly!"

"Go to hell!  You must be a damn do-gooder like the fools and knaves that nearly put me out of business!"

With this, Mr Mitch Moop moved on - and only then did I remember where I remembered him from.  He was the staunch businessman weeping at the last "I Hate Nature Day" Parade in my home town - the one whose tax break had disappeared, and, with it, his children's chances for the future, as well as his wife's new mink coat.  Now here he was once more being plagued by a bureaucracy totally insensitive to the real needs of real people.  My heart went out to him.

When he had passed from view, the beggar turned to me.  "Now do you see why I beg people for their blame?  Now do you understand that someone, somewhere, has to start accepting blame for all the mistakes people make, all the crimes they commit, all the horrors they inflict upon each other, themselves and the world, or else we'll all perish?  There must be a thousand billion small contritions made or there will one day be one monstrous day of reckoning!"

"Ah, now I see," I said.  "You speak of Armageddon.  The end of the world.  The second coming.  The thousand years.  Don't you understand, dear sir: that's all merely symbollic."

"No," he replied, "it's merely horseshit.  I'm not speaking of religion.  I'm speaking of a mountain of accumulated retributions reaching as high as the Aurora Borealis, for which someone must accept the blame.  And since those whose accumulated guilt has built the mountain will not accept it, I have undertaken the task, thankless and endless though it is."

"I see.  Well, have it your way, Mister -" I prompted.

"Cain," he replied.  "Call me Cain."

Then he, too moved on; and I went inside to begin my research, stopping at my desk on the second floor only long enough to get a pad and pencil before proceeding to the Corporate Library on the third floor.  Ah! the third floor: would it be a Library of Congress? a Library of ancient Alexandria? or, indeed, even a Library of Babylon (I think there was a famous Library in Babylon)?  Would the ceilings vault to the sky? the shelves of first editions span the earth? would the librarians "shssh" everyone who spoke out of turn? the readers stand awestruck before the accumulated wisdom of the ages?  And, most of all, would I, amidst such treasures, discover what I sought or be distracted the livelong day by my insatiable love of the printed word?

Now, at last, here I was, the Library door opening before me; and there it was.  A room.  A single room no bigger than a supply closet.  A single chair.  A single table.  A single video display terminal on the table.  A single florescent light overhead.  The Corporate Library.  No volumes piled to the ceiling, no flying buttress, no stained glass, no Egyptian scholar, no Hammarabi Code.  Just a little lighted green screen with a tiny blinking rectangle and instructions how to get the information I required.  The Corporate Library.

I seated myself before the terminal to begin my search for the perfect advertising campaign, a bit disappointed perhaps but no less eager to ply my trade in this, the greatest of all possible workplaces.

 

Chapter 27.  Conquering Hero

Bingo!  Voila!  Veni, Vidi, Vici!  Translation: I found it.  What I was looking for.  The prototype of the perfect ad campaign for Malius Dvichniskt's powders.  It was artsy, it was stylish, sexy, witty, altogether delightful and guaranteed to sell the public on the idea of creating their own works of art, from scratch.

"Yes!  Yes!" I cried out in ecstasy, clapping my hands as I did.  Even the terminal screen was excited: it blinked off and on.  Or so I thought.

Momentarily a grim looking woman with hair tied severely back into a bun entered the room.

"You've been making noise, haven't you?" she insisted upon knowing.

"My God, your ears are keen!" I exclaimed.

"These machines are extremely sensitive to sound," she said.  "I monitor them.  A light on a board blinks when one has been exposed to noise.  Please keep your talk to a whisper, your movements to a crawl.  Otherwise, I shall have to ban you from the library."

Then she left.  The terminal finally calmed down, and so did I.  I made my notes, gathered my things, and returned to my desk on the second floor, secure that my future in this monumental business was a fait accompli (and maybe even a little prima facie, too).

"So let's see what you got for Timbo," Boompy Starboard insisted upon knowing.

"I'm basing our campaign," I informed him, "on the old Quigley and Curly contract of '75.  Their 'Dimpled Darling' Doll was a masterpiece of artistry, subtlety, style, taste - you name it!"

I saw right away that no less a personage than Larry Smelba gave me the thumb's up.  "That's my protégé!" he congratulated me.

"And what are you going to call it?" asked Boompy.  "I mean, this Dicknick, Dashplak, Dipstick - whatever his damn name is - never bothered to come up with a name for his product.  What are you going to call it?"

A smile played at my lips as I replied, simply, eloquently, proudly, "I'm going to call it 'Be Creative'!"

This time I got two thumbs up from my mentor.  "It's gonna be great, it's gonna be right, it's gonna be what's now, what's happening, what's tomorrow today!" said Smelba.  "And," he added with a big smile, "it's gonna make you rich, make you famous, make you the big cheese, the big honcho, the big kahune!  Mark my words!"

I was ecstatic when, later than day, I presented my idea to Timbo.  He reflected a moment.  Shook his head.  Readied to speak.  And when I sensed his flow of words commencing, I strained as hard as I could to catch his every inflection.

"It's not bad," he said.  "Not bad.  Not quite good enough for the big campaign I've envisioned, but not a bad start.  A little more homework and I think you've got something.  I'm going to change the name of it though.  'Be Creative' is a little bit hokey, a little bit too corny for my big campaign.  I'm going to call it 'Being Creative.'  I hope you see the difference; I know the public will.  Yep, I think we're going to make a good team, a big team with a big future.  And, for the duration, I'm even going to honor you by calling you Rombo.  How's that sound?"

"It's got a big sound to it," I agreed.  "A big big sound."  (I think "Rombo" was what he said.)

I put in long hours, dear reader, as I'm sure you, too, would if you had a job so exhilarating, so fascinating, so demanding and rewarding, a job that took all your creative juices then threw them back ten fold.  In a word, I was tired at day's end.  I snoozed on the train going home, so I'd have the evening to give my two little charges their fair due.  I knew I'd have to quit my part-time job at the Thinking Man's Tank, but I hesitated to give them notice: their disappointment at losing me prompted my hesitation.  Besides, maybe I could work in a half-hour on weekends, assuming Myersby-Calcutt tired of stalking the place.

My dogs were ecstatic to see me - almost as if they knew to what heights I had risen and were applauding my new found greatness.  I walked them, played with them, fed them various treats, gave each, in turn, some special "quality time" (a term I got from the monthly newsletter the Pet Store where I bought Sir Heinfried sends out); then, finally, bedded them down for the night.

I was about to go to bed myself when I noticed a blinking light on my telephone answering machine.  When I played the tape back, I thanked God and His twinkling red stars I had not failed to retrieve my message.

"This is Kay Blackston-Smith of Klackledrap, Harwood and Anustub.  We're handling all the public relations for the Best American Prose Writer contest.  The Ruling Class is sending a small contingent to your area next week.  This is a perfect opportunity to fulfill Contest Rule Number 13, if you have not already done so.  Please call me at 1-800-555-PRMN if you have questions or would care to arrange an appearance.  Thank you."

I, of course, went at once to my list of Contest Rules and, sure enough, there it was: Number 13, right between 12 and 14, where it should be.  Somehow I had overlooked it.  Rule 13: Entertain the Ruling Class.  As plain as day, even at 11:30 P.M.

And now, dear reader, I must caution you:  the story is about to get a little complicated.  There will be two distinct story lines intertwined in the next passage.  So please do not skim.  Pay attention lest you miss something.  As for my part, I shall try and keep it as close to a level you can comprehend as the momentous events about to transpire allow.

I was in a state of great anticipation when I arrived at work the next day.  I could hardly wait till I got a free moment to return Ms Blackston-Smith's call.  Clearly my excitement showed, for I had no sooner seated myself at my little corner of C Street, as our table had been dubbed ("C" for "Creativity"), than three people, almost at once, remarked on my condition.

"Timbo's got you all fired up, eh?" noted the first.  It was the non-descript man called Perk.

"I too would be excited to be part of a campaign called 'Being Creative'," said the second, a tall, skinny, somewhat pock-marked man named Jason Jaspers, nicknamed Vasco de Gama after a moderately successful ad campaign for sailboats.

But it was the third who, as expected, hit the nail precisely on the head.  (Need I say that this most perceptive individual was none other than Larry Smelba.)

"There's more to it than that - right?" he at once intuited.

"Indeed there is," I assured him and everyone else.  Then I explained about the Contest and the call I had received.

"How I envy you," said Smelba.  "I'd kill for the chance to appear before the ruling class!  That's what it's all about, that's what we're in this racket for in the first place, the second place, the third place, every place!  The chance to entertain our rulers, to broaden our base, extend our horizon, our perception, our very minds, souls and talents!  To go where no artists have been.  Not just to put our works before the public, our ideas before the masses, our pearls before swine, but ourselves before the high and the mighty, the rich and the famous, the movers, the shakers, the wheelers, the dealers: the guys who know how to get things done!  And brother, you can take all your little snot-nosed readers out there, and throw in all your fancy-schmancy critics, and put 'em all inside the back pocket of any one of our rulers, 'cause it's they who've got the smarts, got the saavy, the chutzpah, the schutzpah, the just plain old balls to know what is art and what ain't, what sells and what don't, what's worth your while creating and what's not worth a rat's behind!"

Once again, the great man was right on target.  Who but a fool would attempt to add anything to what he just said?  It was profound, it was real, it was true, and the very basis of all artistic endeavor.

"Well, Rombo," observed my boss Boompy Starboard, "what do you got to say for yourself now?"

"About the only thing I can add is my deepest, humblest, most heartfelt 'Amen'!" I replied.

"That's enough for any man," Boompy agreed.  "By the way, when you get a chance, Timbo needs to see you."  He paused.  "Or was that smell you?  Hmm.  Anyway, something about a bag lady, or a big lady, or a bat lady.  Take your time, though, I've got something I want you to look over.  Now that Dipstick's garbage is ready to go, you're ready to go to: on to something bigger and better, that is!  Lar, you want to show him?"

"Can't bossman, got a meeting with my agent," replied the great Smelba.

"Then Perk," Boompy called, "you show him CapAm."

All eyes turned toward me.  "CapAm?" I heard some mutters of disbelief.  I had no way of knowing then and there, but before the week was out I would end up handling the biggest, most prestigious account NFKB had in its plethora of stellar clients.  But first things first, and the very first was returning Miss Kay Blankston-Smith's call."

"This is Rondo, returning your call of yesterday," I spoke into the receiver upon at last being connected to the lady in question.

"And what is this apropos of, may I ask?" the crisp, efficient voice retorted.

"The Best American Prose Writing Contest," I replied.  "Specifically, I am responding to your suggestion regarding the visiting ruling class.  I'd very much like to arrange an appearance before them."

"Excellent!" replied Miss Blankston-Smith.  "And where is your place of business?  Assuming, of course, you're not one of those long-haired, foul-mouthed, radical-minded types who frequent the coffee houses; but a genuine, upstanding writer."

"I can assure you I take my writing seriously," I replied.  "You will find no indecorous hair on me, nor coffee stains on my clothes, nor dirty words on my palate, nor free thoughts in my head.  I am gainfully employed at Meier, Frier, Knopf and Box as a copy writer!"

"I can see you do indeed take your writing seriously!" the lady agreed.  "So there shouldn't be any problem putting you before the ruling class, no danger you might say or do something to upset them.  They're so sensitive, their feelings so easily hurt.  You know how it is: the head that wears the crown rests uneasy.  They're just one great big mass of insecurities - pussycats, one and all, really, whose hearts are not only as big as their coffers but right out their on their sleeves as well!  So please don't break them!"

"Oh, I won't," I assured her.  "I would never do that."

"I didn't think so - not for a minute!  So what we'd like you to do - just to show your good faith - and since you people seem to relish your little pseudonyms so terribly much - is adopt, for your appearance, an appropriate nom de plume.  You know, something light - fluffy - even a little self-deprecating - just to show them that artists aren't really as arrogant as everyone seems to think; but down to earth, regular Joes, no different from anyone else!  Make them feel at home, just as if they were in their corporate offices watching their workers earn their keep or in their drawing rooms being attended by their staff.  Oh, and I should add, this little simulation will take place in an actual drawing room.  So, please, do not touch anything; and if you're invited to partake of the refreshments, please, whatever you do, try not to spill anything.  Better yet, just discreetly decline.  At any rate, avoid anything that might give offense.  They are your hosts, after all.  And very, very committed to the fine arts.  Now if you need help with your nom de plume, we're here to help.  Just make sure you get our approval first on any name you choose."

"In fact," I said, "I have a name in mind.  It just came to me."

"What is it?" Miss Blackston-Smith asked.

I had been thinking of my two little charges as I listened to the lady, and - just like that - the name popped into my head.

"Monsieur Waggie Tail," I said.

"Oh, I love it!" she declared.  "It's just wonderful!  Monsieur Waggie Tail: how perfectly darling a name for a writer!  I just love it!"

"Then," I concluded, "Monsieur Waggie Tail it is!"

And, so, Monsieur Waggie Tail it was.  A name, along with the good news surrounding it, I was all a-flutter to share with my colleagues; but on my way back from lunch I encountered Timbo.

"I could scream!" he exclaimed.

Somehow I doubted that he could, but, of course, I kept that reservation to myself.

"Do you know what just happened?" he demanded.  "Some old bag lady filed suit against Dipshit's artwork!  Claimed he stole it from her dreams.  She's claiming plagiarism!"

This was what, eventually, I pieced together.  At the time, however, I was considerably less certain what had just been said.  "Bat lady?" I asked.

"Bag lady!" Timbo replied.

"Oh.  And someone stole something from her dream?"

"From her dreams!  Her dreams!"

"And she's claiming pilferage?"

"No!"

"Pilgrimage?"

"No!"

"Patronage?"

"No!"

"Sacrilege?"

"No, no, no!  Plagiarism: she's claiming plagiarism!"

"From who?" I asked.

"From Dipshit, that's who!"

"She's claiming that our client stole her idea?"

"From her dreams!  And marketed it as his own!"

"But it hasn't been marketed yet," I reminded Timbo.  "Perhaps, if she knows about it before it's even put before the public, she's a psychic or something.  Anything's possible.  Maybe it was her idea!"

"And perhaps my big ideas are those of a midget!" Timbo countered.

"You've just rested your case," I was forced to admit.

"Speaking of cases," he said before moving on, "I want you to go see Limbo in the Corporate Law Office.  Have him work up a case.  He can go under the law, around it, over it, through it - I don't care! just give me results - big results!"

Later that day I was face to face with Edward Z Arbuhooten, affectionately know to everyone at MFKB as "Limbo."  Somehow he had already heard about the suit against our client, Malius Dvichniskt, which made my job considerably easier.

"Arbuckle, Zanser et al versus the State of New Jersey Republican National Committee," he began rattling off a list of court decisions; "Chuhaha Colonial versus Karrignation Filaments; Nanacy Naquide verse the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Grand Teton National Park versus the Whirling Dervishes of Greater Laramie; Ping-Pong Panties versus Bing Bang Bloomers with a curia amica by Ding Dong Diapers; Kimplesness and Charmer versus the Special Olympic Committee - just to name a few.  We've got 'em.  We've got 'em good this time.  There'll be no flub-up this time.  Here's a suit so frivolous, so flagrantly at odds with common sense and good judgment that we can twist it into whatever shape we want.  We've got 'em this time.  We've got 'em!"

"Got 'em good!" I emphatically added.

"That's what I like: a layman with a keen legal eye!" Limbo congratulated as he ushered me out.  "Got work to do - legal beagle at work here!  Your eye might be keen, but unless you've got a shingle and sheepskin to go with it, it's time to separate the men from the boys.  Ta-ta!"

 

Chapter 28.  Stopping To Smell The Roses

My dear sweet gentle readers - you, who, bye the bye, I fully consider to be my equals in almost every particular (and what other great American prose writer can boast as much? perhaps humility should be Contest Rule Number One: then I'd win hands down!), you who can only imagine what a life like mine - so full, so rich and rewarding, so exciting and energizing - can be like; let me assure you that no matter what new found pitch of wonder my life struck, I never forgot the simple pleasures - the ones even you may partake of.  Rarely did I go past a street vendor without slowing to inspect his wares.  I even took time to reacquaint myself with a young man I had seen at another time, in another place, doing what he was doing here: selling roses by the stem.

"Haven't we met before?" I asked.

The young man stared.  Actually he had a somewhat crazed look in his eyes, even more pronounced than when we first met.  Otherwise he would have been quite a handsome young man, with his close cropped sandy blonde hair, his square jaw and high cheekbones, his rather muscular physique.

"I never did those things!" he practically shouted at me.  "Why do you torment me?  I never did them!"  Then he began repeating, over and over, like a chant, the phrase "Jesus is my lord, Jesus is my lord!"  Then he reached his hands to the sky and cried out "Father Luna, deliver my spirit from this land of evil!"  Then, remarkably, when he resumed a more normal stance, he seemed much calmer.  He even smiled.

"May I sell you a rose?" he asked in a voice as sweet as it was plaintive.

"Why yes," I said, deciding not to bring up our previous encounter again.

"May the love and grace of Jesus be with you," he said as he accepted my money and handed me a rose.

"Thank you," I replied.  "Oh, by the way," I started to go but stopped to offer a bit of valuable advice, "might I suggest something?  If you dispensed with the cellophane, got yourself some more colorful paper, perhaps arranged those flowers more - you know - artistically, you could almost certainly sell more.  I mean, I can't help noticing you haven't sold very many.  Now look over there.  See that stand? That young man?"

"I never knelt before him!" the young rose seller grew suddenly agitated.  "I never did those things!"

"Please," I said, "don't be intimidated by his flowers.  You can make yours more marketable.  Get together with him, ask his advice - what can it hurt?"

"His advice is the devil's advice!" the increasingly distraught young man cried out.  "His flowers, with their beautiful thick foliage, their big round bulbs, their long thick stems as hard as steel, their sensitive pink petals with a golden drop of nectar slithering around and around and up and down and around and around till the rose bursts open in seed: his flowers are from hell, sent to deceive and seduce the unwary children of God.  I curse his flowers!  I spit on his flowers!  I would chew them up and swallow them before touching them!  Oh, why, why would you have me throw off my cellophane and stick my flowers naked into a vase that they might wither and die?  We have always sheathed our stems that way!  Always!  Oh Father Luna, deliver my spirit from this land of evil!  Deliver me!  I must go!  I must go mortify my wickedness!  Dear Father Luna, deliver me!  Deliver me!"

The poor young man grabbed up his scrawny flowers and took off running down the street.  I feared for him; I would have gone after him had he not jumped into a van filled with other young men and women and sped away.  I could only hope none of them chided him on his poor salesmanship, as I inadvertently had.  But I meant well; my advice was as succinct as it was well intentioned, for it's true - absolutely, unequivocally, undeniably true - that how you present your wares is 90% of getting them sold.  Who would buy a flower whose beauty was stilted by an unappealing cellophane wrapper when all he need do is cross the street, walk up to this young vendor, and select a beautiful, full-stemmed rose exquisitely displayed against a rich velvet backdrop?  Why, you could almost smell the delicate bouquet from here, they were so skillfully arranged for a sure sale.  In fact, I was so moved by his keen nose for business that I bought a butoneer from the young vendor.

"What'd you say to that loonie to make him run like that?" the vendor asked.

I found the use of the word "loonie" inappropriate, but kept that thought to myself.  "I merely advised him to consult with you on presenting his wares to the public," I explained.  "He said he hated your flowers."

"They tasted pretty good to him at the time," the vendor said with a wink.

I would have pursued this odd remark further, but another customer came along, and then another, and another; so I moved on.  Besides, I had a meeting with Malius Dvichniskt to help plan our strategy; and had already devoted quite enough time to smelling flowers.

Dvichniskt was in high spirits, considering the dreadful legal morass his fledging enterprise would soon have to cross.  Indeed, he was fast at work developing another product when I entered his lab.  "Are you worried?" I asked.

"Worried?" he responded to my question, without looking up from his work.  "If the mold of my little Little Lily Littletoes burning beyond recognition didn't worry me, nothing can!  In fact, I'm working on a new project inspired by this lawsuit.  See?  Can you make out yet what it is?"

"No," I replied.

"Well, it's a little bag lady fast asleep dreaming," said Dvichniskt.  "Her closed eyes will have battery powered rapid eye movements, and she will talk in her sleep, repeating the phrase 'You stole it from me!' or else 'You robbed me!'  I'm going to call her Dreaming Dagmar the Daffy Derelict.  What do you think?"

"Will you offer it to P&T?" I asked.  He looked up momentarily.

"P&T you say?" he mused.  "I think not.  They're no longer on the cutting edge.  They've grown fat and lazy, rather like my P.T. Lardo, the Slurping Chef, wouldn't you say?"

"I once worked for them, you know," I pointed out.  "On the assembly line.  To get a feel for how working class Americans live, think, feel.  Making Piddily Poop -"

"And Tiddily Turds?" Dvichniskt interrupted.  "I curse the day Powell & Tuttle ever invented that foul crap!  It made them soft, easy prey to all manner of corporate piracy.  Why, my Henry the Humpback Hobo was stolen right out from under them, the incompetent fools!  No, I'll market my own products, thank you."

Together, we went over the strategy for his Being Creative powders, as well as touching upon our anticipated defense against the bag lady's lawsuit.  He seemed pleased with my efforts, so much so that on my way out he gave me a bronzed replica of a big red nose - his Picky the Prodigious Proboscis, his first successful body part.

I thanked Dvichniskt, bid him adieu, and made for my meeting with Cap Am, the immense importance of which warrants the most abjectly detailed account.  However, I find myself in an artistic bind in that, in order to keep from confusing you, my readers, I must step outside the time-space continuum to present things out of their proper sequence.  I'm told there are writers who habitually do this sort of thing, though I can't imagine how they expect to render their plot realistically if they ignore the rules of fundamental chronology.  But ignore them, I, too, must in the present instance; for, though I met with Cap Am on a Wednesday afternoon, and entertained the ruling class the following Tuesday evening, I must pretend the latter occurred before the former.  I can only thank God neither brushed the cusp of daylight savings and entered standard time.  (My mother once told me of someone, incidentally, who neglected to re-set her clock one afternoon and, consequently, forgot to use the bathroom for an entire week.  I don't remember if she survived or not.)

My invitation arrived Thursday, the day after my ground-breaking meeting with Cap Am (which I will present shortly).  I held it a moment before my dazzled eyes, then held it to the light, then opened it.  It was all parchment, its lettering embossed script, its border golden.  And what it said was pure Nirvana.  I read it silently, I read it aloud, I committed it to memory, I recited it.

"You are invited to present your talents before the ruling class at a small reception Tuesday evening at 7:00 P.M. at Kalorama.  Black tie optional."

Oh ye Shakespeares! oh ye Chaucers! oh ye Beowolfs!  What you wouldn't have done for such an invitation!  But alas! it had fallen to me, a mere mortal, to take up the mantle of greatness, and entertain his majesty my Lord!  Oh! what great good fortune had smiled so kindly upon me as to have set me in the midst of such a world, where at a moment's summons I could appear before my rulers to display my talents and, perchance, receive their blessing!  Truly, verily, must we thank the Almighty for whatever state of being presided over the creation of such an ordering of life upon this emerald isle we call Earth!

I showed my invitation to my fellow workers; and, as you might expect, it was Larry Smelba who succinctly expressed the essence of the document.

"The gods have spoken!" he exclaimed.  "And these are the gods you had better pray to!"

To which we all said "Amen!"

Then, all of a sudden, like magic, there I was, in the company of five or six others, standing beneath the front portico of a stately old Decatur Place townhouse in the posh district of Kalorama.  I debated whether to rap upon the door; but as the others seemed reluctant to do so, I thought it best not to.  Finally, when it must have been nearly 7:30, the door opened.  A tall, stately man in black suit and tails bowed slightly and said, in the most eloquent tone of voice I had ever heard, "Good evening.  You are late.  We have been waiting since seven."

"We've been here since seven," I explained.

"We were waiting at the back door," the gentleman replied.  "So if you'll please follow that red brick path, it will take you to the rear of the house, where you may enter."

We all turned to go.  All but one, that is.

"Are you awaiting a private invitation," the gentleman asked the small, slender young man.

"I refuse to go around back," the young man said.

"Beg pardon?"

"I said I refuse to go around back!" the young man repeated in a louder tone of voice.

Presently a woman, very elegantly attired in a white evening gown, appeared at the door.  "Jeeves, what on earth is going on out here?  We can hear all the way in the sitting room."

"Madam," replied Jeeves, "this one refuses to accompany the others to the back door.

The woman looked the young man up and down; I thought for a moment she might even ask him to turn around.  "And who are you that you have no manners?" she asked.

"I'm Little Tuff Stuff!" the young man proudly answered.  "And if I'm good enough to dance the dance of the seven veils for you, I'm good enough to come through the front door!"

The woman laughed.  "Oh, I love him!" she exclaimed.  "He's simply adorable!  Jeeves, for heaven's sake, don't be so stuffy!  Let him come in any way he wishes!  Let him climb through the window if he wants!  The others can go around back, but my precious Little Tuff Stuff may come through the front door!"

"Very good, madam," said Jeeves.  "You may enter," he advised Little Tuff Stuff when the woman had retreated.  "The rest of you: follow the red brick path.  Joanne, the kitchen maid, will admit you and show you to the sitting room."

With this, Jeeves admitted the young dancer and slammed the front door shut.  The rest of us proceeded as directed, following the red brick path around the side of the house, past a lovely garden whose flowers had already waned for the season but whose trees, shrubs and grasses dispersed a rather noxious array of pollen, till we finally - and gratefully - came to the back door, two of the party sneezing almost uncontrollably, the other four or five sniffling quite miserably.

"Please wipe your feet!" Joanne, the kitchen maid, ordered.  "I won't have the help tracking mud and pollen through my kitchen!"  Then, when she was satisfied our feet were clean, she showed us to the sitting room.

"The journeymen are here!" Joanne announced.

"Yeomen!" Jeeves corrected her.

"Whatever," she said as she turned and left.

People often say they feel like they have "died and gone to heaven"; but, I assure you, dear reader, they know not of what they speak, for unless they have entered such a place as the sitting room I now found myself in, they cannot begin to fill in the heavenly details needed to give credence to their claim.  This was like no other place I had ever seen - no other place on earth, I'm quite certain.  It was the kind of room one should be ushered into by four horsemen in livery, not by someone so mundane as the kitchen maid.

Fourteen people were seated in a cluster against the north wall - ah! but not just any fourteen people!  These were not mere individuals of the sort who put on their trousers one leg at a time; these were members of the ruling class, and each separate beaming aristocrat had an air and a bearing that could only be described as "regal."  Their clothes were impeccable, their coiffures as precise as wigs, their nails shiny, their hands smooth, their faces set into the firm, powerful cast of statues.  These were gods, not mere mortals: to be worshipped, not simply acknowledged.

"Welcome to our little reception," the woman who had briefly appeared at the front door arose to announce.  "Jeeves: show them where they can stand.  And we'll let each one introduce himself and give a brief account of his artistry, background - and anything else biographical he might care to amuse us with.  "Oh!" she happened to catch sight of Little Tuff Stuff.  "Let's do begin with him, Jeeves; he's so adorable, with his little tough mannerisms and all!"

"Very good, madam," said Jeeves.  Then, pointing to Little Tuff Stuff, he said "You may proceed."

"I'm Little Tuff Stuff," the small young man began, "and I don't enter through anybody's back door.  I dance a great dance with seven veils -"

"Could he make it ropes for this occasion?" a gentleman called to the butler, Jeeves.  "There's something about seeing someone dance on ropes that pleases me."

"You bet!" replied Little Tuff Stuff, although he was not the person being addressed.

"Then get him some ropes," the gentleman said, "and let's see what he can do."

The ropes were gotten, Little Tuff Stuff danced on seven of them - a smooth, elegant dance if I must say so.  The audience clapped their hands twice in applause.

"Next!" called Jeeves.

An elderly man stepped forth, crying "My turn!"

"And who is he?" someone in the audience asked.

"I am Bushy League," the man replied.  "I have spent my entire life perfectly the fine art of impersonation, which I shall now demonstrate for you most esteemed ladies and gentlemen."

The man started gyrating, twisting his head one way, his arms another, his legs yet a third.  Then he started to recite something - I can only call it gibberish.  But a voice from the audience abruptly returned him to normal human parameters.

"How about if we don't improvise and say we did - okay, Jeeves?"

"Very good sir," Jeeves replied.  "As you were," he ordered Bushy League, who bowed and moved back with the other entertainers.

"Next!" called Jeeves.

An androgynous looking person slinked forward and began reciting.  "I am Tinker Toy; part girl, part boy.  I can mime and be mute.  Or I can play the flute.  Which I should do, is up to you.  And while you decide; I will run and hide!"

Tinker Toy pulled a flute from his or her pocket and began playing; and while he played, she scrambled about feigning to hide.  Before the presentation was half over, a lady in the audience - other than the hostess - summoned the butler.

"Jeeves," I overheard her tell him, "go find Tinker Toy and bring its act to a close.  We still have three more to have to endure before supper."

"Very good, madam," said Jeeves, who then proceeded to remove the flute from Tinker Toy's lips.

"We thank you for your efforts," Jeeves informed the flautist/mime, who bowed and stepped back.  "Next!" Jeeves called.

An extremely dignified looking gentleman stepped before the audience, bowed low, and exclaimed in a deep baritone voice that swept all other sounds aside, "I am Sir Thomas Thumb.  I am a Shakespearean actor.  I am at your command."

"I hope his ability is more original than his name," someone in the audience cried out.

"I shall take note, sir," Jeeves assured the speaker.  "You may begin, Sir Thomas," Jeeves addressed the actor.  "Bye the bye, may we drop the artifice and simply call you Tom from here on out," he added.

"Call me Ishmael," the actor blurted out.  And, needless to say, dear reader, I was embarrassed at his thoughtlessly comparing himself to the brother of Jacob, one of the most revered men in all Christendom.

"Better yet," someone in the audience suggested, "call him on the phone and record his monologue: this divertissement's running a little late."

"Very good, madam," said Jeeves.  "Tom," he said, "you may leave your number with the kitchen maid on your way out.  "Next!" he then announced.

The two remaining members of this most fortunate little troupe looked at each other.  "After you," I said.

"I think you should go first," replied the young lady who, along with myself, awaited a chance to entertain this most astoundedly sophisticated audience.

Jeeves," someone asked, "what's keeping them?  Our truffles won't wait forever."  I'm almost sure it was our hostess who spoke, so I felt a personal comment was in order.

"Madam," I said, "as surely as the Muslims face Mecca in prayer; as surely as the Buddhists face Nirvana, the Jews the Wailing Wall, the Christians the Bible Belt or the Agnostics the Aurora Borealis, I must ever and anon defer to the fairer sex.  Therefore, let this lovely young woman go first."

"One can only hope," said our hostess, "that his performance is briefer by degrees than his apologia; else we'll never get to our caviar.  Really, Jeeves, don't these people have any idea when we sup?"

Jeeves spread his arms in a gesture of futility.  "They are artisans, madam," he explained.  "What can one expect of them?  Next, please!"

"Don't say I didn't warn you," the young lady whispered to me as she stepped forward to offer her talents to these most excellent people assembled in this most exquisite sitting room.

Indeed, I cannot deny having been warned, though no warning could have ever prepared me for the sheer horror of what happened next.  Indeed, too, would I be most derelict in my duty, as a great writer, to enlighten as well as entertain my readers, were I to neglect warning you, dear reader, of what was about to transpire; for it was a thing so monstrously uncivil, so preposterously ill mannered, so viciously presumptuous that no person of breeding should ever have to witness it without proper guidance (and every sane person knows that it is the assigned task of artists to guide their gentle audience through that spooky terrain filled with all manner of monsters, gargoyles and the like we call "life").

This young lady, so well groomed, so genteel, so very like an artist in every possible way, all of a sudden threw off her lovely gingham pinafore, tore her golden curls from her head, kicked off her black patent leather pumps and revealed herself a slinky vixon in lady's clothes.

"I've come cloaked as what I'm not!" she explained in a triumphant tone of voice.  "Now you see me as I am!  You were intending to see Little Miss Betsy Wetsy.  Well, I'm sorry, Betsy Wetsy's time is up!  And who am I?  I'm an artist disguised as Betsy Wetsy!  The real Betsy Wetsy is in jail on a charge of prostitution."

And yet, dear reader, it was this young lady in a tight black silk dress, with long black hair, standing barefoot in a sitting room at Decatur Place who, from any sane perspective, looked to be the prostitute.

"I was to sing before you," she explained.  "That is the one and only thing I have in common with Betsy Wetsy: we both sing.  But where she sings for her supper, I sing for the love of it.  My voice is therefore too pure to ever sing your praises.  So I will never be called a singer, or be allowed to sing in public.  You, who live only for power, can have no notion of what art is, or what it does, or what it creates inside the souls of those who truly cherish it.  You would rule it, and thereby destroy it, instead of giving it the freedom to flourish and to enrich everyone's lives.  You would chain it to your power lust as if it were just another of your servants; or seat it upon your lap like it was your pet poodle.  All the world honors you as patrons of the arts when all you really are is a horde of barbarians no better able to comprehend or appreciate art than a pack of apes.  And although an infinity of apes seated before an infinity of typewriters might produce a King Lear; an infinity of you seated upon an infinity of thrones could never grasp the meaning of a single line uttered by Lear.  Not even chance has a chance of civilizing you, you who cannot even speak directly to the artists you assemble before you for your amusement.  Not that any of these are artists - but how would you know that?  To you art is just a medal you stoop to pin upon those who flatter you and fawn over you and grovel at your feet; a designation you bestow upon the lackeys willing to come before you; it has no reality for you apart from the vacuous pronouncements your servants pass along in your name and by your grace at the pinning ceremony.  You wouldn't know an artist if you saw one; but, then, you wouldn't want to see one.  That which creates beauty could not conceivably be very pretty to you, you vile gaggle of vultures who feed your own images reflected back at you from the empty hulks who come to jest at your court.  So let me just say in parting: may your stock portfolios be as rich and bounteous as your works of art.  Good day to you."

She turned and left - curiously, by neither the front nor back but the side door.  A moment of deathly silence ensued - perhaps more than a moment.  The words of Kay Blackston-Smith came back to me, and I felt deeply for these sensitive souls seated before me; for their feelings had been indeed wounded, terribly wounded, by the insufferable young woman's senseless and totally baseless tirade.  I longed to give succor, to nurture them as if I were their mother, father, sister, brother and grandparents all entwined in one; to balm their bruised sensibilities with my poesy - for is not the poet the greatest of all comforters? the very prototype of a parent, a sibling? a caring, loving relation akin to all humanity?

"I feel for your generous, trusting souls as I would feel for the lowliest beggar in the street," I lovingly assured each and every one of my audience.

"Jeeves," our dear sweet hostess said, in a voice I could tell was but decibels from breaking, "Little Miss Betsy Wetsy - or whatever that creature's name was - is, career wise, as they say, 'history'!"

"Very good, madam," replied the ever stalwart butler.  "I shall make a note of it and pass it throughout ASCAP and BMAC."

"And we'll have to forgo the last supplicant," she added.  "This has all made us quite weary of the arts and crafts for the evening.  So have Joanne oversee the buffet.  And you may invite these people to join us in the small dining area once we've been served."

"As you wish, madam," said Jeeves.

"Oh, one more thing," our hostess turned to add, "please instruct them on proper etiquette before they join us.  I should find any future reference to beggars most inappropriate."

"Very good, madam," said Jeeves.

When they had all left the room, and as we awaited our turn to re-join them in the small dining room, I made this observation to Jeeves: "How brave a lady is our lovely hostess to carry on so graciously in the face of such wicked treatment."

"Yes," he agreed, "isn't she now!"                    

 

Chapter 29.  A Great Discovery Is Made

It was well worth the wait when, forty-five minutes later, we were admitted to the small dining room.  Just to see such a place, to be in such a room, let alone to partake of the festivities and the food as honored guests, made it very well worth the wait indeed.  The room lived up to its name admirably, for it was small, and most definitely a place for dining.  The walls were the palest blue, the ceiling an oyster inlaid with white gold embroidery: "A tasteful use of gold," observed Sir Thomas Thumb, a sentiment I heartily endorsed; "unlike the garishness of Muslim and Ottoman architecture, not to mention Ethiopian!" he added.

A single crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, though hung is much too prosaic a term; for it seemed to flow from the pale golden design embellishing the ceiling.  The floor was gleaming oaken parquet, with a single Persian rug covering the center.  And on the sideboard was a feast fit for a king.  There was, of course, caviar; there was smoked salmon; there was a delightful looking pate, doubtless of goose liver; and various main dishes, each an absolute treat for the eyes and the nose, not to mention the eager palate; a delicate nuance of colors, textures and shapes worthy of a Rembrandt or a Vermeer.

I couldn't wait to, as they say, "dig in"; so you can imagine my disappointment when Joanne, the brusque kitchen maid, brought in a troop of servants and ordered them to "clear the table!"  I must say, my mouth veritably watered watching the wonderful culinary creations disappearing from right under my nose.  I felt tempted to do as I saw the various servants do on the sly and grab a tasty morsel to nibble on.  But I'm glad I didn't, for no sooner had the thought struck me than Joanne came up behind an old gentleman who had just bit into a piece of salmon and slapped him, quite hard, on his ear.

"This ain't for the likes of you!" she said.  "It's to go in the garbage!  The guests have had all they want."

"I haven't!" a sprightly voice blurted out, in total disregard of decency and etiquette.  Naturally, it was Little Tuff Stuff.

"Madam," Jeeves addressed our hostess, these people and their tapeworms demand to be fed.  Shall I get some peanut butter and crackers from the servants' pantry?  Or shall we let them eat cake?"

"Oh, very well," said the hostess, most exasperated with Little Tuff Stuff's constant belligerence, "if you must!  Give them the peanut butter - the cake's for the servants!"

Presently, a jar of peanut butter and a box of saltines was brought out and set upon the sideboard.

"Have a care you do not get crumbs on the floor," cautioned Jeeves, "or else you'll have Joanne to answer to!"

"These crackers are stale!" exclaimed Little Tuff Stuff.  "I do not eat stale crackers!"

"Jeeves," said the hostess as she turned back to her tete-a-tete with the others, having interrupted to see what was going on in her small dining room, "he no longer amuses us.  Show him the door: the back door!"

"Yes, madam," replied Jeeves, who proceeded to take Little Tuff Stuff by the pant seat and escort him out of the townhouse.

When Jeeves returned, a gentleman who had been laughing quite heartily called to him.  "Oh, bye the bye, Jeeves," he said, "I have a jolly good joke for you.  How many power brokers can you stand on the head of a pin?"

"I've no idea, sir," replied Jeeves after a moment's reflection.

"None!" came the answer.  "Power brokers do not stand: you stand!  They sit!"

"Ah!" said Jeeves.  "Very good, sir.  Very, very good."

Some ten minutes or so had passed - awkwardly, I might add, owing to the dearth of conversation among those of us assembled in this beautiful room - when I happened to notice the gentleman who had told the exceptionally witty joke summon Jeeves.  As they conversed, I distinctly saw them both, in turn, point my way.  Then Jeeves approached.  I must confess I half expected to be grabbed up by the seat of my trousers and shown the back door (Jeeves, I should point out, was a very big man, standing well over six feet tall).  But, to my relief and great pleasure, far from having committed some unforgivable faux pas for which I was to be forcibly evicted, I was asked to join the gentleman in the dining room.

"Follow me," said Jeeves as he led the way.

Quite naturally, I assumed this unusual and quite extraordinary occurrence to have been precipitated by my inadvertent and most unfortunate exclusion from the evening's program; therefore I anticipated an apology, which, understandably, would require privacy - possibly even (dared I hope it?) a private reading.  The artist in me was veritably reeling from the possibilities.  But even in my wildest dreams I could not have anticipated the actual purpose of this meeting in the drawing room.

"It's good of you to join me, Mister..." the gentleman said as I entered the room, pausing to elicit my name.

"Monsieur Waggy Tail," I introduced myself.  But he shook his head.

"I mean your business name," he explained, "not that rubbish."

"Ah," I said, "in that case call me Rondo."

"It's a shame to have to endure these tedious gatherings," he said, in an intimate tone.  "But the wife will have her divertissements.  In the time I sat listening to the senseless prattle of these artisans I could have added another 10 to 20 million to my holdings.  So this moment is kind of my payment for the hindrance.  Although I will admit that gal in the black dress had a body I'd kill to get hold of.  But, anyway, I wanted to let you know the outcome of your lawsuit holds a certain interest for us - we're with you a hundred percent, every step of the way.  We've been waiting a very long time for this very thing.  A lawsuit so frivolous that it can serve as a prototype, indeed a template, for all lawsuits brought against any of our interests.  We'll be watching very closely.  Just wanted to let you know.  And it's been a pleasure meeting you."

I assured him the pleasure was all mine.  Then I took my leave, returning to the small dining room, where the senseless chatter of those artisans struck me as not merely tedious but vacuous and vainglorious - so much so that I had to excuse myself and depart.  Why should I remain to endure this ridiculous charade when I could just as easily be at home in my study composing ten or twenty sonnets in the time I was wasting here in their company?

"Please express my regrets to the mistress of the house," I informed Jeeves, "but I simply must leave."

"The mistress of the house," said Jeeves, "was discovered in a tryst with the gardener and has been sent packing.  But I shall most certainly convey your message to the madam of the house."

"Oh, Jeeves!" this very same madam called to her trusty butler.  "Our guests are going now.  Please have the limos brought around to the side entrance."

"Very good madam," replied Jeeves.

"Oh, and please remove these persons from our house," she added, indicating with a sweep of her hand the artisans at the sideboard.

Jeeves turned to the motley crew and made the announcement that would clear the small dining room.  "You may leave now!" he advised.

"We're not quite finished," replied one of the troupe.

"You may leave willingly," Jeeves, in turn, replied, "or you may leave the way your little 'tough' colleague did!"

"Shall we be leaving by the side entrance, as the other guests are?" asked Sir Thomas Thumb.

"Madam," Jeeves called, "shall these people leave by the side entrance?"

The good natured hostess burst out laughing.  She stopped her guests long enough to ask them "Shall they leave through our entrance?"  Soon everyone broke out in good natured laughter on their way out.

Jeeves returned his glance to Sir Thomas.  "I think not," he said.

"Humpf!" snorted the rude Shakespearian indignantly.  "Whatever happened to equality?"

"Mercifully it died stillborn," replied the witty butler.

At that very moment Joanne appeared at the dining room door, accompanied by two other servants.  She said nothing at first as she entered and looked around; then she ordered the other two to "Clean up this pig sty!  And, Jeeves, get these creatures out of my dining room before they relieve themselves on the rug!"

"Carpet, Joanne: carpet!" Jeeves corrected her.

"Whatever!" the unruly kitchen maid retorted.  "And don't let me find droppings on my kitchen floor either!"

Presently, I was ushered out the back door, in the company of these artisans who, needless to say, I immediately parted company with.  I wanted nothing further to do with such rude, uncivil creatures.  The very idea of soiling so beautiful a room as they had had the great good fortune to have been invited to enter.  I feared it would be many a black day before the good lady of the house ever again had artists to dinner.

I dawdled.  Yes, I, who treat each and every second of each and every day as though it were yet another percentage point of interest accumulated to my principle - which is, of course, my talent; I, who measure time the way others measure weights of gold dust; I, who brook no breach of time nor space nor tide: I dawdled.  So that the others might get gone before I left these wondrous grounds, lest I, too, be thought a mere artisan.

I loitered about these beautiful late season gardens, musing about the meaning of life and other powerful things, as if each withering stalk were a little shriveled philosopher guiding me on that most solemn journey man can undertake.  Why were we here? where were we headed? how could we get there? would our fame and our talent follow beside us or, like the precious jewels of this earth, would they vanish into oblivion at the end of our sojourn?  Was it possible to only have one best seller and yet be a great, epoch making author?  These and a thousand other profound questions filled my mind as I ever so slowly made, unbeknownst to my insightful reverie, for the side of the house opposite the red brick path leading to the front portico, just in time to behold the last limousine pulling away.  

"They're as close to hearses as we ever get in life," a voice from nowhere spoke out.

I turned to find a very aristocratic looking dowager of quite advanced age, perhaps as much as 90.  She was tall, and slender, and ever so slightly bowed.  Her hair was a deep steel gray, and she wore an extremely tastefully designed coat of a burgundy hue.  Her eyes appeared to be green, though in the dim light of the garden it was difficult to be exact.

"You prefer another color," I at once intuited her meaning.

"No," she said however, "I prefer another style of car altogether.  I despise limousines.  It is obscene for healthy people with all their faculties to be chauffeured about like they were Dresden dolls."

Now I understood what she was getting at.  "Perhaps," I offered, "a European touring car would be more comfortable for you."

She smiled, but there was an irony in the way her lips drew up.  "Perhaps so," she agreed.

"You tend the garden?" I asked after a somewhat awkward pause.

"Not the whole garden," the lady replied, "just this small patch.  It's all that's mine."

"They let you tend this area," I summed up the situation; "how good of them.  And people are always criticizing the rich, when in truth they are the most gracious, generous people on earth.  Why, just now they had the most ungrateful, ill-mannered group of people you've ever seen to dinner."

"You misunderstand," the lady interrupted, "they don't 'let' me tend this.  I tend it because I planted it.  I planted nothing else here.  I was very much in my youth as the others are now.  I had servants to plant and tend everything for me.  Only, one day, on a lark, I asked the gardener's nephew to let me plant this rose tree: I was having an affair with him at the time.  It meant nothing to me - neither the affair nor the tree.  I forgot all about both till just recently.  My doctors tell me I probably won't live another year.  No particular ailment; just 'old age.'  Even then I didn't think of this tree, till one evening I was out walking and came upon an old man standing at the very spot where you're standing.  He was staring at the roses on this tree.  I asked him if he had any business here - I can still be a nasty fool on occasion -"

"There's nothing nasty or foolish about maintaining the sanctity of one's property," I assured the lady.

"True," she agreed, "but you do not maintain that sanctity by limiting access to those who have 'business' on your grounds.  He had no business there; but he had something better: he had a right.  He loved this garden, which he helped plant and tend so long ago.  He especially loved this tree, which, so many years ago, I had made him let me plant.  I had no idea he had loved this place, any more than I had the slightest idea he had actually loved me.  But he had."

"Then he does have business here now," I pointed out.

"He's never been back since that evening in May.  He said he only wished to see this tree one more time.  I didn't even remember till he mentioned it that that was the very date, seventy-two years ago, that I planted it.  May 20th.  'If you plant it,' he had said to me, 'you must plant it before the Sun leaves Taurus, or it will die.'  So we came out after dinner and, while he held the tree, I dug a hole.  Then I took the tree from him and placed it in the hole.  Then I replaced the soil and braced the tree."

She grew quiet for a moment, her features contemplative.  "I have no regret at growing old," she said.  "But I hate being old.  I envy the young, but not for their youth.  I envy them for being at the right place at the right time no matter where they are or when it is.  I envy them for being able to experience things for the first time.  Most of all for falling in love for the first time.  Everyone says love is better the second time around; but it isn't.  You can avoid the worst of the agony and heartache - but that's precisely what makes the first time so complete an experience, like none other you will ever again experience.  You almost always fall in love with the wrong person the first time - only it isn't the wrong person; it's precisely the right person for what you need to experience.  It's only the wrong person in light of the wise, sensible, predictable, precision bound world you come to accept as the best of all possible worlds to spend the rest of your life in.  Well, yes, that sensible world is a very good place to grow old in and to die in: the perfect spot to exit from.  But it isn't where you want to begin your life.  You want to begin with the turmoil and wildness and half madness of that first and greatest and most dreadfully misguided experience.  Oh, how I envy that.  That first love; I'd give anything to experience it again, and again, and again.  But I've grown old, and wise.  And wisdom squeezed all the life out of love.  When you find yourself growing wise, you should give up love.  Ah, that precious lost first love.  Or anything - anything at all a young person experiences is experienced for the first time.  And its fresh and vibrant and more significant than anyone could have ever imagined.  Take the most hackneyed work from the most jaded lackey, and place it before a young person - and they will see the most wondrous, insightful, masterful creation since time began.  Then, in time, they'll learn to be embarrassed by that exuberance, when it was in fact their finest moment, which if they live to be as old as I am, they'll realize at last for the precious jewel it was."

"Ah!" I mused.  "The innocence of youth.  The subject of much commentary, much philosophy, and so very much art."

"Is that all there is to it?" the dowager asked.  "A life poised effortlessly between joy and madness; a being on a tightrope high above the precipice, letting go of all the stays, dashing headlong toward the other side; a soul for its one and only time unfettered by any convention, any moré, any rule or law or other tether: a creature totally aware of itself and its deepest needs - and it's to be reduced to a bromide?  'The innocence of youth.'  But, then, how could we see it as anything else?  We ourselves are bromides.  By the time we reach the age when our ideas can be taken seriously, we've become addicted to maxims and dogmas and a thousand other mechanisms for turning life's experience to a sausage we can package, market and serve up to that vast hole in the cosmos we call 'our fellow man.'  The only experience left me to experience for the first time is death.  But I don't look forward to it.  But then, no one has ever managed to turn it to any recognizable product - so maybe it does have merit after all.  Today we're madly in love, like my son has fallen hopelessly in love with the young woman who appeared here tonight with you; then, tomorrow, we're writing treatises full of bromides on older men and younger women."

"No young woman appeared here tonight," I corrected the dowager.  "Just the insufferable ingrate who posed as one of us."

"The young lady in black, yes: her.  The one who told my peers to go to hell: that young lady.  My son followed her out the side door and begged her to be his mistress.  She refused.  But I could tell her refusal was only a postponement.  Her name is Gaby.  She has principles; but, mark my words, you will hear that name some day.  Her principles will fall victim to fame.  My son is very persistent.  A complete scoundrel; but very persistent.  In a sane world, he would be taken out and shot, and his property distributed to the poor.  But in this best of all possible worlds, he will corrupt a young woman of conviction."

"I don't think he will," I disagreed.  "She was very adamant about her disregard for the rich."

"I'm sure she was," the dowager agreed.  "She is young, and the young have nothing to lose; and when you think you have nothing to lose, you can make a very grand stand - and be perfectly sincere about it.  But she will not always be young.  Her youth will desert her long before her beauty does.  She will, as they say, 'come 'round.'  As we all do.  For my part, I shall never love anyone again any stronger than I do my pet Schnauzer.  So let me now offer you a bromide, albeit in the guise of originality: we spend our youth shadow boxing Ozymandias; the rest of our lives composing ourselves in his image."

She returned to her roses, withered as they were; and I moved on, honored at having conversed with the matriarch of one of the ruling families of this country.  Though I must confess her rhetoric was somewhat hard to follow - but, then, she was old, and ailing, and probably a bit senile, so I could hardly expect the kind of rigid logic I was used to.  Most puzzling of all was her reference to the ancient Hebrew philosopher: why would anyone shadow box him or compose themselves in his image?  The worship of idols only came into vogue in the Middle Ages.

I descended the long driveway to the street and was momentarily getting my bearings when, of all things, a derelict (I don't know what else to call him) happened by and, needless to say, began conversing with me.  It seemed incomprehensible that such a person would be allowed to roam such exquisite streets; but there he was, old Army fatigues and all.

"You won't have to worry about them for long," he informed me.

"About whom?" I asked before I could check myself."

"Them," he replied.  "The ruling class.  You don't need to worry: they'll be gone soon enough."

"Gone?" I asked.  "Where?  The South of France for the season?"

"Gone!" he exclaimed in a voice of doom.  "They'll be overthrown, just like they overthrew the old monarchy - and for exactly the same reason.  The old aristocrats - even the kings and queens themselves - got in hock to the new mercantile class.  The merchants had the money to bankroll the monarchs' petty little wars.  Eventually they got in hock up to their asses - no, make it up to their necks!  Then the merchants simply called in the IOUs, took possession of what was theirs.  And now it's happening all over again.  The merchants, as mad to buy up every other business on the planet as the kings were to take over every other fiefdom in the land, have gone and gotten themselves in hock to the mob."

"The mob?" I protested.  "Surely you don't mean what it sounds like you mean!"

"I mean 'the mob'!  The underworld!  The vast network of criminal organizations!"

"I guarantee you, sir," I said, "the people I just spent the evening with would never be caught dead in the company of the criminal element!"

"And I, sir, guarantee you they lie down with them every day and curl up beside them every night!  The mob has what the merchants need: they have money.  And any good merchant worth his salt would lie down with lepers if there was money in it for him!  They've already sold their souls - why not their bodies as well?  Besides, the mob'll make a fine ruling class."

"Ruling class?  You must be mad!" I said.  (As if there were any doubt of it!)

"They'll be your next rulers.  The underworld.  The mob.  And they'll make a splendid ruling class to boot.  They already have the primary feature of all ruling classes built right in: birth is worth.  You worth is determined solely by your family lineage.  They are as keen and as fierce about that one as any of the old monarchs were.  They even call themselves a Family!  You realize, of course, the monarchs, in their turn, sprang from the cavernous remains of the old Church dominated societies of the Middle Ages, which, being manned, so to speak, by eunuchs, had no lineage to confer, per se.  At least not one anyone spoke about above a whisper.  But the Church needed henchmen to keep the masses in line once the people began to see all the maggots behind the mask of God it had shaken at them to subdue them.  And the henchmen got more and more power and wealth for their efforts till finally they had one of their flunkies pin 95 dicta: that's right: 95 - to the cathedral door!  The Schism, it was.  And it ripped power from the Pope's hands once and for all and put it in the hands of the new ruling class, the monarchs, the former henchmen who did the Church's dirty work for it."

"Wait a minute," I objected, "doesn't this contradict what you just said about 'birth is worth' being the primary feature of every ruling class?  How could one's birth ever come into play when there was no family lineage?"  There!  Logic had won the day - as it always does!

"You were born a priest, you died a priest," the derelict replied.  "It was your calling - from the Almighty.  Not your lineage exactly; but your birthright as surely as if your pappy had been the old grand panjandrum himself!  Because the pappy your particular rulership demanded was your spiritual father: old Yahweh himself!"

"And tell me," I asked as I inspected the man's garb, "what's your part in all this?"

"Me, I'm just an outcast, a street bum in fatigues, who once belonged to the ruling class.  Oh yes," he emphasized his absurd claim, no doubt sensing my disbelief, "I quite assure you, I was every bit a card carrying member of the ruling class!  But I could never master the game of polo or the sport of dirty dealing; so they expelled me from their ranks.  'Go,' they said, 'and never return.  You are unfit to rule.'  So I left.  But I'll be right here, beside them, when the time comes to man the battlements.  It's my duty.  My birthright.  I'll go to my grave fighting a lost cause.  But I won't be alone.  I will be reunited with my brothers in common folly.  Such is the fate of every last generation before the seat of power shifts locus.  We are all anachronisms, those of us in the mercantile class."

"I beg to differ," I informed this poor misguided soul.  "There will always be merchants - just as there will always be a need for buying and selling and trading, and all the many other wondrous aspects of business and enterprise!"

"Of course," he was forced to accede to my superior logic.  "Just as there always were merchants - didn't Jesus time and again have to throw them out of the temple? - and always was business enterprise.  But the merchants were not always rulers - that's the crucial difference.  Business was not always the focus of power within the social structure.  Just as I was not always an anachronism weaned on a time warp sittin' on old Einstein's saddle!"

"If you mean Albert Einstein, sir," I pointed out as I left, "he never rode a horse in his life."

 

Chapter 30.  A Great Blow To Posterity

"Hey Rondy, baby!" a happily familiar voice called to me as I entered the office next morning.  It was, of course, my great colleague, Larry Smelba, who, heretofore, had never presumed so familiar a designation.  He went on to say "we were having a brainstorming session, a barnstorming session, a bull session - you name it, you got it, 'cause it's now, it's real, it's for all time, and it's what happening - and made the greatest discovery - I'm talking great, I'm talking big, super, duper, ka-boom! - one that'll change the course of literary history; or at the very least change the direction your career takes.  So pull up a chair and sit on the floor and we'll put a fly in your ear'll knock your socks off!  But, first, tell us all about your shining moment basking in the glorious glittering glow of the best, the brightest, the richest, the beautifulest, the most powerful men, women, children on this or any planet in this or any solar system!  And tell us fast, so we'll grasp the power of the moment; then tell us slow, so we'll feel the full beauty of the beast!"

"Speaking of beasts," I at once took up the gauntlet, "the pitiful lot of artisans trouped together to perform were absolutely beastly."

"Hogged the limelight?" Boompy Starboard asked.

"Then broke it altogether," I replied.  "They couldn't rise above their own mediocrity, so they refused to allow anyone great to be heard.  But that's alright.  The man of the house called me in for a private consultation.  But not about art: about business!"

"Awesome!" exclaimed a greatly impressed Larry Smelba.

"And guess what it was we discussed?" I teased.

"What? What?" everyone insisted upon knowing, except the overly cerebral Perk, who alone took the bait.

"Dvichniskt and his dream dust," he guessed - a guess no one even dignified with a response.

"What we discussed," I said, "was that ridiculous lawsuit that idiotic old bag lady brought against our Being Creative line of instant art!  They're with us on this one," I assured everyone.  "Behind us 100%."

"Alright!" everyone said almost in unison.

"So now tell me," I, in turn, insisted, "what was this great discovery you made?"

"Your name," said Smelba.  "Say it, speak it, listen to it, savor it, flavor it.  Then tell us what it sounds like.  You give?  Good.  'Cause I wanted to be the one to deliver the good news.  That name you coined, that pseudonym, that nom de plume, that pen name old Will Shakespeare himself'd kill for: that Rondo of all rhomboid Rondos: it's another Rambo if ever there was one!"

I puzzled over this a moment; for, in truth, I had never heard the name Rambo before.  I couldn't even begin to tell you what his particular opus was (quite a confession for a great writer!).  Then I let the name play about my tongue.

"Rambo, you say," I half mused, half asked.  "Rambo.  Surely a name like that could not have completely escaped my attention."

"He was very big at the big office back in the day," Boompy Starboard, the very prototype of a supervisor, attempted to help me out.

"Ah!  They made a movie of his work," I at last understood.  Indeed, has it not happened time and again that some worthy author, granted only minor success in his field, has been catapulted to the very height of acclaim when his book was made into a hit movie?

"I haven't been to the movies in awhile," I confessed.  "Nevertheless, I already feel like I've known this Rambo all my life.  I can almost picture him, seated at his desk, the instrument of his chosen profession in his hand, the other tools of his trade spread before him.  Then he takes up his instrument, aims it toward its target, begins to do what God and the fates have decreed he must do."

"And - bang! bang! bang! - the bad guys fall dead at his feet!" added an excited Larry Smelba, his analogy, as always, perfectly on the mark.

"Just like you, vis-a-vis those who would try and rustle the best sellers or de-value that great coin of the realm, the written word," said Starboard.

Now, the good reader knows I am not given to hubris, so I could not of course respond appropriately to Starboard's glowing report of my prowess.  Therefore I merely thanked him and promised to do my small part to keep the culture free of clutter and the world safe for great literature; which prompted a pat on the back from Starboard, a general round of thumbs-up from my peers, and - best of all - a glittering accolade from Larry Smelba.

"If only I had a glass of champagne," he told us.  "Ah! my kingdom for a drink, that I might properly toast our conquering hero as he begins his climb toward those dizzying, dazzling, death-defying heights that only a few good men ever aspire to reach!  For, gentlemen, make no mistake: we are in the presence here of the gods, the demi-gods, the semi-gods: the boys what just plain old know how to get things done on this here planet, and get them done with style, with grace, with chutzpah and in a timely manner that would make heads not only turn but spin green with envy!  So here's to Rondo, the Rambo of literature, the big guy who's got a pen in one hand, a gun in the other; the dude with the skill, the will, the chill, the just plain old balls to make art all that it can be, and all you'd ever want it to be, and all it ever needs to be!  To Rondo!  i.e., to the future of Art!"

What could I say after that?  Me: the future of Art.  Imagine.  My head was reeling almost as if I had actually sipped the champagne Larry Smelba despaired not having.  I simply smiled and was about to return to work, but they would have none of that.

"Speech!" they all shouted.  "Speech!  Speech!"

"Ah, speech!" I said.  "The rudiments of that great, divinely inspired activity we call 'writing.'  Were it not for speaking, we would not be here pursuing its higher octave.  The utterance of sound is to the formation of words as the formation of words is to the setting of thoughts to paper.  So well you might call for 'speech,' just as the gods must call, ever and anon, for holy grail, the written word, the sacred transcription that links them with us.  It is, therefore, that very same sound and oh so holy grail that I aim to give form to, in my humble way."

"And damn if he won't!" Smelba observed.

"Then it was back to work for everyone; back to the grind, the hum drum, the everyday - though, really, it wasn't any of these things: how could it be in such a place as this, where inspiration practically exuded from the very walls?  We sat, at our table beneath the sign that said "Be Creative"; we mulled over a hundred brilliant ideas; we arrived at any number of strategies.  And we discussed our respective projects.

"How'd it go at Cap Am?" Starboard asked me.

"It went very well," I replied.

I hope the good reader was able to keep in mind my transposition of occurrences.  (Remember: my meeting with Cap Am actually took place prior to my appearance before the ruling class?)  Because I wish now to go back in time, after having come forward.  So here we are, on a Wednesday afternoon.  And there I am, standing before a great edifice looking up at an impressive sign that read "Capital American Insurance Corporation."

As the reader knows, I am not given to hyperbole, so when I say that this was unquestionably the finest building of its kind I have ever seen, you can stake your life on the clear-headed veracity of my observation.  This was a masonry structure, twelve stories tall (which is just about as high as buildings are permitted to rise in the nation's capital).  It's texture was so smooth, and with so delicate a patina, that it almost seemed to be cloth, not stone - perhaps a silken derivative.  The glass - and, like so many Washington, DC buildings, there was a minimum of glass - had a greenish tint that made it seem like a living being watching from within, a rich, leafy being filled with the quiet tenderness of a fern or a rhododendron.

I looked up and saw the great bronze placard which announced to the world who this ever vigilant being was: Capital American Insurance Corporation.  One of the giants of this corporate effulgence we call earth.

My hand leaned upon the rich brass railing and pushed open the thick glass door that would bring me before our largest and most prestigious client.  I felt giddy; a smile played at my lips.  I headed through the lobby to the elevators, my eyes doubling as fingertips upon the red velvet wallpaper here, the ivory and rose sconces there, the gray and pink marbled floor beneath, the golden fixtures above.  I was in a palace, or a cathedral perhaps.

"Excuse me, sir," a deep voice interrupted my flight.  "Have you business here?"

"Indeed I have," I replied.

"What is your business?" the uniformed gentleman asked.

"I'm with your company's premier advertising agency, Meier Frier Knopf and Box."

"Do you have ID?"

I showed him my employee badge.  "And who are you here to see?" he inquired.

"A Mister Pinch," I replied.

"Ah!  Our Senior VP!  Very good, sir," he said as he ushered me to an elevator, reached in, and pressed the number 12.  As the door closed, he nodded a greeting; and I made a note to recommend to Mister Pinch that the doorman greet visitors first, then inquire after their business.

"Mr Pinch is expecting you," the receptionist informed me, "and will be with you shortly."

"I suppose I am a few minutes early," I explained.

"Actually," came the meticulous reply, "you are 15 seconds late for your appointment, so Mr Pinch turned to his next project of the day.  A short project though."

And, indeed, it was short.  Hardly twenty minutes had elapsed when I was ushered into the brightest, warmest, most delightfully cheery office I had ever seen.  Yellows, purples, golds - virtual rainbows of lovely spring colors abounded everywhere; it was as if I had come upon a hidden garden high atop the nation's capital.

"In keeping with the nature of my work," Mr Pinch circumscribed all formalities to get right down to business, "I graciously allow all my visitors a full five second leeway.  After that, I must presume they are not intent upon keeping their appointment, so I move on.  Please have a seat.  Since your firm is so highly respected, I must assume a presidential edict or something kept you."

"Actually," I explained, "your doorman's inquisitiveness is what detained me."  I mentioned here my thought concerning the greeting.

"Some of our security staff might be a bit lacking in social grace," Mr Pinch admitted.  "I'll look into it."  This ever so aristocratic looking, ever so businesslike executive paused a moment and sat back in his chair, then spread his arms wide in an all-embracing gesture and said "Ah!  Insurance!  All part of the game!"  Again he paused, this time reaching his hands behind his head.  Then he spoke again.  "You, of course, understand the enormity of our good works - otherwise you wouldn't be here; they'd have sent someone unworthy of our business," he observed.

I nodded my agreement.

"Good man," Mr Pinch congratulated me - and, I must say, even a simple congratulation from such a man is as meaningful as a medal of honor or legion of merit.

"And because you are a good man - because you're special - because you have the savvy to understand the enormous benefits bestowed upon society by the Insurance Industry - I'm going to share with you a story I've never told anyone before - and may never tell anyone again.  It relates the exodus of a man from that awful state of uncertainty wherein he knows not what the best insurance is or how much is good or what's the optimal deal; on through the great uncharted territory of selecting what best meets his own personal needs; until he at last traverses the pearly gates of complete coverage.  I call it 'The Odyssey Of A Man In Search Of The Best Insurance Policy For His Family.'  It's a true story.  I can even tell you his name: Joe Blackman."

Mr Pinch paused.  His eyes rolled upward, as if he meant to consult the angels.  There was something awesome about the moment.

"I sent him away," he said as his eyes descended again to mine.  "Oh yes, I sent the man away.  More precisely, I sent him on his way.  For I knew I could not give him what he needed.  Nor could I in good conscience shortchange the man by giving him less than full coverage.  'Try Capital National,' I advised him.  But, as I later learned, they too were unable to best meet his needs.  'Try National American,' they advised.  And, again, my mind's eye followed his path, from Nat Am, which also lacked what he needed, to American Binders, which sent him yet a stop nearer his destination: Underwriters and Brokers of America.  It was there I lost track of him.  I don't know where they sent him.  But I know one thing: his Odyssey was not in vain.  For even if he never did find that great elusive 'perfect policy,' he found something far better.  He found a wealth of generous, loving brokers and agents willing to bend over backwards to give him everything he deserved.  Joe Blackman.  How I envy that man his journey."

Only because it falls within the purview of God to declare men saints do I hesitate calling this Mr Pinch, Senior VP in charge of Marketing for Capital American Insurance Company, a living, breathing, dyed-in-the-wool, bonafide, honest to goodness saint - with a capital S.  If only you could have seen the ethereal look on his face as he leaned back in his huge leather chair and contemplated the great wondrous Odyssey of a thousand steps he had started Joe Blackman on, you would have rushed in where angels fear to tred to sing and shout the eternal praises of Saint Pinch (I don't know his first name).  It was one of the supreme moments of my sojourn in our nation's capital, one I shall never forget - although in less than a month's time something happened so horrible, so mind boggling in its heinousness, you would have thought it would render all earthly memory but a fleeting pile of disjointed fragments held together by the weakest sliver of continuity.

And where, you ask, did this happen, this momentous thing that would reduce men to little more than walking amnesiacs?  In a dark ally? along a sinister waterfront? in a jail? a den of thieves? a pit of vipers?  No, dear reader, a thousand times no!  It happened in a brightly lit auditorium, in full view of an audience of the very elitest of Washington: elite connoisseurs of the Arts.  It happened, I shudder to say, on stage at the Kennedy Center!

I was there for the event of the season (at least, what was supposed to be the art season's biggest event).  I obtained the tickets by way of my mentor at MFKB, Timbo, who decided at the last minute not to attend.

"There are bigger fish to fry," he said (I think).

"Sicker fish to try?  You ate bad fish?" I expressed concern at what I though he had said.

"Not 'try': fry!  And not 'sicker': bigger!  Bigger!  Think of me and my concept of advertising!"

"Ah!" I thought I understood.  "You have another concert to attend."

"I don't attend concerts," he replied, loudly enough I pretty much got it the first try.  "I give them."

"Ah!  What instrument do you play?" I asked.

"The human instrument," Timbo replied in such a way I could tell he wished to converse no more.

So there I was, in a fashionable box at the Kennedy Center's main auditorium, looking over my program, when I happened to glance up and see something which made my blood run cold.  "Oh my God!" I thought.  "He's followed me here!"

For there, in the very next box, sat none other than my great nemesis, Jason Myersby-Calcutt, the murderer of that great painter, Krakatoa, whose death had made Drapzy a very rich woman.  I at once thrust my program in front of my face, but it was already too late.  I was sure the maniac had spotted me - a supposition borne out moments later, when a note arrived by special messenger.

"Meet me stage left at the opening of Opus 1099," the note read.  "It'll be like old times."

I looked up from the note to find the steel gray eyes of Calcutt staring at me.  He bowed his head in greeting, so of course I had no choice but to follow suit (one cannot neglect amenities in such a place, even if his life hangs in the balance).

Meanwhile the house lights came down halfway and the stage was flooded with magnificent light from everywhere.  A man walked out and began at once to introduce the maestro of this evening's entertainment.

"Ladies and gentleman," he said in the smooth, rich tones of an aristocrat, "it is my great pleasure to introduce to you the most celebrated composer in the world today.  So, without further ado, I present his eminence, Mr Code Smith!"

A man of medium stature stepped out, to thunderous applause.  He had a very long nose, very long fingers, a small round mouth, receding chin and hairline, and almost no neck at all.  But he had something far better than any neck: he had an air of importance about him worthy of a corporate executive.  He was an artist - with a capital A; and he knew it.  One could almost say he flaunted it.

"My first selection, you'll be interested to know," he started right in, in a scratchy voice laced with ever so faint a trace of a continental accent, "was composed right in the middle of a board meeting with my holding company.  It is dedicated to my company controller, a man of consummate professional panache.  I call it, simple, 'CFO.'"

I must say I half expected something with an almost outer space flavor; but the piece was all business.  Six or eight similarly stunning pieces followed, each piece short and profoundly to the point.  It was easy to see why he was the most celebrated composer of his day.  The hands and fingers of the orchestra ran up and down or back and forth across their respective instruments as efficiently as if they were inputting data into a computer.  Each musical selection had the cadence and rhythm of a fine tuned software program; Code Smith, the conductor, exhibited the patient competence of a system analyst.  You could almost visualize the blinding diodes of a super computer as you listened to the crisp little notes ascend and descend the scale.

Finally came the highlight of the evening's performance, the magnum opus of this magnificent composer, the piece de resistance, the creme de la creme of a breathtakingly phenomenal career.

"As you might guess," Smith informed the audience held spellbound by his captivating music, "my opus 1099 was conceived in the office of my tax accountant.  What you may not be aware of is that its mighty crescendo was written in the very heart of the Treasury Department's systems operation.  In a very real sense, without the computer, my Taxpayer's Guide in A Major, opus 1099, would never have been composed.  The whole raison d'etre of our existence - i.e., business and earning a living - infuses my work with that professional expertise so peculiar to corporate America, so lacking in the arts.  The arts are like a great dish of rainbow sherbet, formless, random; my goal is to be the Good Humor Man, to shape them up and coat them so that they can be properly marketed.  He who cannot sell should not create."

With this, he tapped his baton upon his conductor's podium so that the music might begin.  But as the opening refrain drifted ever so leisurely through the auditorium, I happened to remember the note in my tuxedo pocket.  And, as if by reflex, the instant I remembered I looked across to the box where Myersby-Calcutt sat.  He was gone.

"Oh my God," I muttered, "he's coming for me.  Well, let him.  I'll be ready!"  I got up, went to the corner of my box, and stood, awaiting the inevitable assault.

And the music played on.

And still I waited.

Until it dawned on me that I was not the intended target.  "Stupid!" I chided myself.  "You idiot!  How could you be so blind?"

Then I saw - how I saw it I don't know, but out of the corner of one eye I saw - an eerie metallic glint from...from precisely stage left.  I'd know that glint anywhere: it was the same one that caught my eye at the Bal Thurleau.

"Oh my God!" I exclaimed.  "I've got to save him!  I've got to!  If not for the man, then for the sake of art I must save this composer!"

But how?  Was there time to descend to the stage?  To call the security officer?  Was there time to do anything?

Then I saw the glint again.  Then a raised arm slithered into a shaft of light from above.  And there it was, pointed right at him.  The gun of Jason Myersby-Calcutt.

I ran to the edge of my box and screamed.

 

Chapter 31.  The Be All And End All

The taxpayer's guide was fast approaching its mighty crescendo.  The notes cleverly mimicked the rapid keystrokes of a calculator headed for its final resolution of accounts added, subtracted, divided and multiplied (as per our Program notes).  It was like an actual tax form being computed, the soaring, swirling, whirling, cavorting notes ascending, descending, going back and forth across the page with an almost numerical precision.

The Kennedy Center's patrons of the arts were aglow in eager anticipation of that breathtaking moment when taxes are done, refunds entered, forms signed and envelopes sealed.  And Code Smith had captured that exquisite ecstasy.

The house lights had gradually lowered during the opus to one quarter, as if they were a mirror image of the rising notes, doing just the opposite of what the music did.  The main hall of the auditorium looked, and felt, like a sleepy little town, enchanted by the twinkle of star light above, intoxicated by the sweet lull of music below.

A shot rang out.

"No!" I screamed.  "Don't kill the conductor!"

Everyone arose.  Some directed their attention to the crack of gunfire on stage, some to the peel of my voice in the balcony.  Then Code Smith fell against his conductor's stand, knocking it over, spilling the pages of his opus onto the stage floor.

I saw the hand of the assassin withdraw from the beam of light.  I cried out "Stop that man!" and tried as best I could to point out the fleeing killer.

"He's getting away!  Stop him!"

No one seemed to comprehend.  Everyone in the house turned to me.  "Not me: him!" I cried; but still to no avail.  So I turned and ran from my box in hopes of pursuing Myersby-Calcutt. 

"Look!  He's escaping!"  I heard some people cry out.  "Thank God," I thought: "finally they're getting the message.  Maybe together we can stop this madman before he kills again!"

I bounded down the staircase leading from the balcony to the lobby, and was almost to the front door when, mercifully, DC's finest arrived on the scene.

"Goin' somewhere?" I was stopped and asked.

"Come on," I said, "I think we still have time to catch him!"

"Seems to me we already have," the officer replied.

"Thank God," I muttered.  "Thank God."

"You want to come with us?" he asked.

"Indeed I do!" I enthusiastically replied.

I was ushered to a squad car, helped into the back seat, and sped away to the station.  (Considering the importance of the event and its attendees, I might suggest a gentler approach in the future when the police question an eyewitness; otherwise, their behavior was exemplary.)

"What relic have you desecrated?" one of the officers had the temerity to inquire.  Although I saw no earthly relevance to the murder, I nevertheless answered his question, notwithstanding its unmistakable implication of my being Bohemian, if not downright avant-garde.

"None," I said.  "I am a realist," I saw fit to add.

"Oh, I get it," the officer persisted.  "Realistically speaking, you don't see it as desecration.  You're the kind of artist who could take hammer and chisel to the Pieta and not blink an eye."

"You wouldn't dare blink an eye," I explained.  "You might botch some all important stroke."

"Sure, sure.  Just bang up all the world's great treasures and be done with it," the officer mused.  "I guess even the Iwo Jima monument's fair game."

When we got to the station, I discovered a much tighter security than at the police stations back home.  I - a mere witness - was actually fingerprinted and put into a detention cell, where, once again (if you can believe this) I was asked about the desecration of relics.

"Why do you persist in this irrelevancy when there's a murderer on the loose?" I asked.

"Yeah, sure, we know," came the reply.  "There's all kinds of criminals at large out there.  But we didn't get a call about that, did we now?  We got a call from some kind of British dude who said he wished to report a 'desecration of sacred relics by a charlatan in a tuxedo.  If you hurry, you can stop him.'  End quote.  Well, sir, hurry we did.  And we got him alright.  But not in time to stop him."

"Code Smith lies in the middle of the Kennedy Center's grand auditorium," I said, it having dawned on me who the caller, and what his intent had been, "and you're off on a wild goose chase!"

"A Wild Goose: so they were doing a play," the officer concluded.  "And this Code Smith: that's a type of early wireless, if I'm not mistaken.  And you think you can just run up on stage and smash it like it was no more than a flower pot or a milk jar - and you no more than a run of the mill Luddite!  I've heard enough."

Just then the entire police station went into an uproar.  "There's been a murder at the Kennedy Center!" a passing officer shouted.  "Some international celebrity!  Hacked to pieces right in front of the audience!  Tons of witnesses!  Everyone saw the murderer make his escape!"

"Thank God!" I said.  "This time he won't get away!"

"You saw him too?" the officer asked.

"Yes," I replied, "I was there, I saw the murder with my own eyes!"

"Come on," he said.  "Come with us.  Broken relics take a back seat to the mutilation of celebrities!"

I was ushered into a squad car and driven back the the Kennedy Center.  But the place was deserted; everyone had gone, even the paramedics and ambulance crew who, I later learned, had attempted, to no avail, to revive the fallen conductor.

"The show is over," I muttered, at once relieved that throngs of curious onlookers had not descended upon the Kennedy Center yet disheartened that everything could be so quickly tidied up after the murder of so great a composer and artist.

"Where have they taken him?" I asked the Center's lone security guard.

"To the morgue," he somberly replied.  "Nothing could be done for him."

"They should have taken him to Morcon," one of the policemen observed.

"Morcon?" I mused.  "I've heard of that.  But I don't remember where.  What do they do?"

"What don't they do?"

"But, specifically," I persisted, "what do they do that you would recommend taking a dead conductor to them?"

"They traffic in souls," said the policeman.  "Bodies too for all I know."

"They traffic in lots of things," another policeman added.  "Their big honcho did time in the hoose'gal."

"What does any of that have to do with Code Smith?" I asked.

"I've heard he was a product of Morcon.  But who can say?  And who cares anyway?  Que sera sera!"

Do I hear my good readers asking why I have devoted so much space and time to so trivial a repartee?  Surely - you must be thinking - my precious talents could be better spent than on relating silly speculation by ill-informed public servants concerning mysterious organizations.  Ah! ye of little faith!  Remember: not only am I the premier vehicle of realistic expression in America today, I am the very essence of discretion and the hallmark of organization.  In a word, I include nothing simply because it is there; it must carry my story forward or it will be left by the wayside, as it deserves.

Not only have I twice encountered the name Morcon, dear reader; rest assured I shall have encountered the organization behind the name on enough subsequent occasions to warrant the inclusion of every whisper, every innuendo and mutter relating to it.  For, as I discovered, this wondrous organization is as nearly all things to all men as is possible among earthly societies.  It is, simply put, the be all and the end all.  And better still, it was soon to become my company's premier client, outdistancing even the illustrious Cap Am!

For, unbeknownst to me, or to any of the staff of MFKB for that matter, the Chairman of our Board was a member of Morcon's Board of Directors; and a large block of our stock was just recently bought up by a subsidiary of Morcon, ATCO Productions, Inc.  A memorandum from our company President brought the matter before us.        

"Spare no expense!"  That was how it began, this memo from Applebaum Meier.  And what was it apropos of which we were to spare no expense?  It was nothing less than "the biggest contract in this agency's history!"  And exactly how could we afford to spare no expense?  Because "they'll pay for any and everything - the more the merrier!  They're drawing on an unlimited supply of money.  Think of them as a lightening rod, directing endless funds our way.  From Melanesia, from Micronesia, from just about the whole damned South Pacific; from Borneo to Samoa: resources, businesses, taxes; consortiums, holding companies, securities, shipping, dredging, importing, exporting - you name it, Morcon owns it, or does business with who owns it, or just plain outright owns its owner!  And it's our job to put the best face possible on this heretofore faceless entity.  People used to tremble a little when they spoke the name Morcon; by the time we're finished, they're going to smile every time they say it.

"Let me just add, in conclusion, that our Chairman, J. B. Moffatt, has been given a seat on the Board of Directors.  So let's get going - and remember: spare no expense!"

"P.S. Morcon owns a block of M-F-K-B stock: just thought you'd like to know!"

"What do you make of this?" I posed the question to my fellow copy writers.

"Uh-uh," Larry Smelba corrected me.  "The question isn't what do we make of it, but what will it make of us!  And I'll tell you in one word what it'll make of us.  It'll make us the best - and I mean the best - ad men this nation has to offer.  That's what it'll make of us.  The best, the brightest, the winningest, the richest, the just plain old all around gol durndest ad men you ever laid eyes on.  You remember Caesar?  And his palaces?  And how he vidi, he vici, he vinci?  Well, gents, that's us!  We, too will vidi; we, too will vici; we, too will vinci the living beJesus out of our competitors!"

To which Boompy Starboard added a quiet "Amen."  So did we all add our "Amens" - indeed, who but a fool would not rush in to second Larry Smelba's sentiments?  Just then the telephone rang.

"Call for you," Perk, who had answered, advised me.  "At least I think it's for you."

"Who is it?" I asked.

"Don't know," he replied.  "Sounds vaguely human though."

"Maybe it's your Sir Heinfried," someone suggested.

"Hello," I picked up the receiver.  Something was whispered which I strained mightily to make out.  "You want to pump a butt in my rear?" I prompted, quite unnerved at such a foul suggestion, if in fact I had heard the foul suggestion correctly.  "Not a butt; a what?  A bum?  A bun in my rear?  Not rear...ear.  Pump a bun in my ear?"

Finally, just as I was beginning to comprehend the garbled message, it dawned on me where I had heard this buzzing sound before.  It was Timbo on the line.

"You want to put a bug in my ear," I at last understood.  "A big bug, big enough to fill God's ear.  Meet you where?  In the electric waste bin?  Washroom?  Eclectic washroom?  Executive washroom!  Ah!  The executive washroom!  Of course I will.  Around 2'ish.  Will do, Timbo."

I will not detail my meeting with Timbo, except to say that the executive washroom turned out to be "off limits" to all but senior executives, so we were forced to meet in the employee's lavatory - a twist which seemed to cause Timbo a great deal of consternation.  I will, however, announce the outcome of our meeting: I was invited to join Timbo, his cousin Jimbo and our corporate attorney Limbo on a tour of Morcon's headquarters in South West DC.

"Hot damn!" exclaimed Boompy Starboard upon hearing of my great good fortune.

But it was the wry wit of Larry Smelba that said it best.  "Major coup d'etat!" he congratulated.

Will it surprise my worthy readers if I say I had trouble falling asleep the night before the big event?  I hope not; for, though you probably never had anything nearly so wonderful happen to you personally, I'm sure that with a little effort you can image yourselves in my shoes.

I tossed and I turned (have we all not?).  I got up several times.  My dogs looked at each other in amazement at my strange behavior, even getting up themselves once to come join me in the study.

"Gentlemen," I advised them, "you must not be troubled by my agitated state.  I am, I quite assure you, as much in possession of my faculties tonight as any other night."  This seemed to reassure them; they returned to their baskets, and I to my bed chamber.

The morning arrived on little cat's paws (I wax poetically, as always).  Actually, it was human footsteps that woke me; and, even though I didn't recognize them, I knew as surely as I knew my own name where they were.  I arose with a start, the numbers "911" on my lips, the words "Help, police!" not far behind.  Then came the tap-tap-tapping on my bedroom window.

Fido commenced barking; Sir Heinfried hid under the bed; I asked "Who's there?" in a trembling voice.

A voice clearly disguised replied "Candygram."  Well, I know as well as anyone the Western Union man doesn't knock at night; so I replied "Never touch the stuff: it's too sickingly sweet."

"But you listen to it, I'll warrant!" my visitor pointed out.

"Go away," I insisted, "before the police arrive."

"Police?  What, have you completed yet another best seller that you should be locked away?  But, never mind, I'm not here to shoot you; merely to inquire if you enjoyed the concert last fortnight."

"I did not!" I emphatically stated.  (As if I could ever enjoy a concert culminating in the murder of the maestro.)

"Nor I," replied my interloper, none other than Jason Myersby-Calcutt.  "I found the horns trite, the woodwinds gaudy, the strings maudlin, the percussion entirely inappropriate.  I will not even mention the horrible bastardization of the glockenspiel in its attempted emulation of keypunch operation.  A most unsatisfying evening, all things considered, redeemed only by the precise symmetry between the gunfire and the final coda.  But it's late, I must be off.  Oh, bye the bye, I've noticed some changes of late at the Thinking Man's Tank.  Have you come around recently, or been too timid to do your duty and allow me the opportunity of dispatching those hooligans?  The big sign of the dollar has come down; in its place is a cross.  Check it out, if you haven't already.  And pray for the sake of humanity I find my way inside before too much longer.  Well, ta-ta!  I'm off!  Jolly-ho! and all that good rot!"

The steps quickly retreated.  I was too unnerved to return to bed, so I got up and went into work early - which, in fact, proved so great a boon that I heartily recommend the practice of early rising to everyone truly interested in living a productive life.

First and foremost, it enabled me to give Sir Heinfried and Fido an extended walk.  Secondly, it allowed me to visit the newsstand and renew an old acquaintance while I picked up the daily paper.

"Guess you wondered if I'd run away from home!" I quipped upon reaching the newsstand.

"Chapter and Verse: 'It takes all the running you can manage just to stay in place.  If you wish to get somewhere, you must run twice as fast!'  Good advice from the Red Queen," said the vendor.

"She's the one who said 'Off with their heads'?" I observed.

"No.  She's the one who could actually have done it if she'd wished.  But tell me, now that we've established you haven't run off, where have you been?"

"Working!" I answered proudly.  "Working hard, working just about every day.  Working in our nation's capital."

"Ah!" he replied.  "That explains my having seen you at the Kennedy Center of late.  At that most unfortunate performance."

"You were there?" I asked.  "You saw Code Smith killed?"

"Actually, I missed that part.  I was readying my staff for intermission."

"Your staff?  The orchestra you mean?"

"Musicians?  Oh please.  My men's room and women's room attendants pick up more in tips in a single night than most musicians make in a week!"

"You clean the restrooms at the Kennedy Center?"

"Yep.  At a few other prestige spots too.  Time was when I thought everyone deserved decent facilities for that most private of all earthly activities.  So I endeavored to set up a cleaning service, quality work at cut rates: something office buildings and shops and restaurants could afford, even those catering to lower income patrons.  I lost my shirt on that one.  Most folks don't care if they have to sit in someone else's filth to make their own, just so they've got a dollar in their pocket, a bauble or two dangling from their necks, and above all a chance to get rip-roaring drunk on a Saturday night and menace their fellow man.  Now I put little doilies under matrons' purses and pass out newspapers at the stalls and help fluff gowns and tuxedoes - and I'm rich: filthy rich!"

Not wishing (as you might well imagine, given my delicate sense of decorum) to pursue this topic further, I immediately changed the subject back to the murder.

"I tried to stop the assassin," I pointed out.  "I saw him pull the trigger - saw it from my box.  I cried out, but to no avail.  The madman couldn't be stopped."

"Ah!" remarked the vendor.  "So that was you!  That 'material witness wanted for questioning.'"

"I was questioned," I admitted.

"An eyewitness heard you scream 'Stop the music!'  Another swore what you said was 'Stop or I'll kill the conductor!'  'My God!  He hated music!' a mister Jantz Purling was quoted as saying: 'Hated it so much he killed the conductor!'  Then there was Janice Pemberlint: her newsworthy quote was 'Philistines should not be allowed to purchase firearms or artists will be afraid to entertain us!'  Right from the mouths of babes.  As if the asinine remarks of some dimwit matron was needed to flesh out the story, or give it color, or in some other way circumscribe it.  As if a dunce who just happened to be sitting nearby warranted as much coverage as the murder itself.  Or the elusive murderer."

"He's still at large!" I said, so very well aware of that eerie fact.

"I'm sure he is.  There are no clues to his identity."

"But I know him!" I protested.  "I've given his name to the authorities!  He's the same madman who killed the great painter Krakatoa!"

"But there no evidence to that effect," replied the vendor.  "Your madman left no trail the police could follow.  Their job is to prove he's the murderer.  Not to know it but to prove it.  They need a spent bullet or a dog hair or a patch of torn cloth or a sliver of DNA or a severed great toe: something they can stick under a microscope or tuck into a computer.  Your having seen him pull the trigger just won't cut it.  Sorry."

"We can all be sorry for that," I heartily agreed.  "None of us can rest easy as long as that madman's at large."

"Actually, I rest pretty well in my house surrounded by ten foot high walls," the vendor said.

"Even in a fortress," I rejoined, "I don't think I could feel safe."

"Excellent!" a strange voice cried out.  I turned, and the vendor turned, to behold a man standing in the doorway - an elderly man, rather poorly dressed, with a somewhat patrician look tainted by a certain wildness in the eyes.  "My kind of man: a man who doesn't think!" he went on, quite unsolicited, to say.

"Sir," I endeavored at once to set him straight, "I assure you: not only do I think, I probably engage in the act of thinking as fully and as frequently as any man who walks this earth!"

"You're very bold, sir," the man replied, "admitting your superficiality and your stupidity for all the world to hear.  I salute your courage, though I can't regard your mind very highly."

"My mind, I assure you, is capable of the most profound thought!"

"No doubt," the man agreed.  "But the most profound thought imaginable is child's play compared to the almost unimaginable powers of the human brain.  You think, sir, therefore you think you are.  But it isn't your thinking that establishes your own and everything else's reality.  Your thoughts do no more than glaze the vast materials your inner mind must contend with if you're to keep from stepping off a tenth floor ledge.  Your thoughts are but a powder thrown over existence so that you may leave a thumb print of your having been there.  You, sir, like most men, have been brainwashed (I should say flattered) into believing thought the highest form of mental activity whereas in truth (notice I do not say 'in fact' but 'in truth') it is the lowest.  The most superficial.  Just as the place which gives rise to it - your cerebral cortex - is the very most - and the most literally - superficial part of your brain, a mere covering, a tip as it were of the iceberg, a cloth and a mantle, a coat of mail, a graven image - take your pick, all images derived from thought are equally inferior to the kind of real images your mind is capable of creating."

 

Chapter 32.  A God Among Men

I thought at last he was finished, so I turned and started to go.  But, alas, he was anything but done with his ridiculous tirade (I make so bold as to call someone's opinions "ridiculous" only because the absurdity of calling thought an inferior power of mental activity is patently obvious).  I had barely taken a step till he again spoke.

"I applaud your style, sir!" he said with considerable enthusiasm.  "In taking but one step - exhibiting even that little motion - you have reduced all the lofty thoughts of all the high and mighty philosophers who ever climbed upon the Seat of Knowledge to a pile of rubbish awaiting the morrow's trashman.  For in moving so much as a step you are undertaking to circumscribe your world through sensory awareness of your own existence.  Had you said 'I propose to walk from point A to point B,' I would have had to curse your mindless addiction to journalistic description of your world.  Instead, however, you simply made bold and moved, thus reinforcing the primacy of sensation.  Not that it's mere sensation I'm talking about, but rather making use of the senses to create a world order within from the chaos without."

"Isn't that precisely what thought is all about?" I proposed, though in the interrogative.

"Most emphatically not!" came the predictable reply.  "Thought merely labels and rearranges chaos into patterns of deceit enabling the most clever - the wisest - to subdue and enslave the least clever.  Intelligence is not a spider's web constructed to entrap your prey, but a beacon pointing toward a hundred hidden paths deep within your mind, any one of which will take you farther and show you more than any encyclopedia of treatises built to capture and imprison the universe."

"Thought, sir," I at once corrected what I perceived to be not only the most mistaken concept ever put forth but the vilest, "is not the handmaiden of power but its supreme tempering and humanizing force!"

"I never said thought was handmaiden to anything," the man backed down.  "It is no less than the mastermind behind the plot.  Power without thought is like a bullet awaiting the chamber of a revolver.  Power is only the weapon.  Thought produces the authority needed to justify using power to subdue your fellow man.  Not merely a necessary component of power, thought is the impetus transmitting power throughout society.  Thought, in and of itself, is man's greatest enemy - yet he takes it for his best friend and invites it not merely into his home but into his very mind!  He ruminates, contemplates, reflects, examines, analyzes, and all the other tenth rate things a mind is capable of doing, and imagines himself educated, sophisticated, wise and, above all, safe and secure and insulated from the outrageous slings and arrows of fortune when in truth he has all but sealed his tomb with his syllogisms.  If you suffer a pain in your body - say in your tooth - you can try thinking and talking your way out of it till you are blue in the face and the cows have come home to feast upon your carcass, and the pain will still be there.  But if you visualize - really, truly visualize - your tooth and your pain as if it were a physical presence in your body; and watch your pain being snipped or in some other way destroyed, then your pain will lessen.  Perhaps you already know this; perhaps you've even done it.  But then you set the images and process which created them aside and go right back to thinking again, once you're better, as if nothing but thought mattered.  You've heard of Crime Prevention: well, what I am for is Thought Prevention.  Nip it in the bud, sir.  And start afresh.  Instead of sending your children to school, to have them dipped into a steaming, gurgling vat of thought; instead of rewarding your children for wallowing in the corrosive filth; instead of urging every man, woman and child alive to yield all their energies up to the process of re-formulating existence into patterns which reinforce the notion of life as a mere formula; instead of paying homage to the proposition that that which is can be reduced to a series of words, phrases and sentences; instead, sir, of thinking you are because you think, it is time to use your head for something other than a thought rack!  It is time to stop thinking you are and start being because you are!  And like all good - what shall I say: thinkers? - I begin with myself.  I practice what I preach.  I am that I am.  I don't let a day go by without reaffirming the primacy of existence over babble.  I spend at least as much time attuned to my sensory interconnection with the universe as I do steeped in thought.  Oh yes, I too am victim to an educational process which teaches us to regard our minds as cutting boards against which a host of syllables are etched like row upon row of tiny gingerbread men from the drippings of our cerebral cortex, while the vast canyons beneath that cortex go unexplored.  It's difficult even for me to keep from thinking as my first, last and only response to every natural stimulus.  I try to be a real person.  Sometimes I almost succeed,  Then a thought or two always manage to creep in, and I run the risk of letting a nest of stubborn critters get started, then an army, then an infinity, then an encyclopedia -"

I saw my chance and I took it.  "Sir," I cut him short, rude though it may have been, "speaking of running, I must run!  For I'm already late!"  With this I turned and made a hasty retreat, not even waiting for a response.

"Excellent!" the man called to me.  "If I hadn't already planned to go sit under a tree and forget everything I just said, I'd join you!  There's nothing like a good run to clear the mind of its thoughts!  Run as fast and as far as you can, sir, and perhaps when you've stopped running, you won't even remember your own name!"

He may have said more, I don't know; for I was far enough from him by then that the sound of moving traffic drowned out his words - and what a wonderful, truly thought-provoking sound it was, this first hustle and bustle of the day as people headed hither and yon in fast pursuit of their goals, dreams, ambitions and, above all, their careers.

After a brief interlude, during which I was almost run over in a crosswalk and had to await the police to verify the make, color and style of the vehicle (it had sideswiped three parked cars before nearly hitting me), I was on my way to work.  I noticed my old, but very highstrung, traveling companion, Stratton Binglepood; but, as always, he escaped to another car the moment he saw me.

"Stratton!" someone stopped to chat a moment with him.  "Let me tell you what happened: the other day I nearly had to ride the bus home.  I missed the last train.  I had my dress all ready when who did I run into but Mitch Moop and he gave me a ride home!"

"Keep away from me, you God damned pervert!" Binglepood cried as he fled the car.  (As I said: very highstrung.)

Soon I was at work.  And soon, dear blessed beautiful wondrous reader, I was standing beside Timbo, Jimbo and Limbo in front of a huge golden door bearing an insignia (of a configuration unknown to me), and inscription (in a foreign tongue) and, in large black letters, the name MORCON.

All things, they say, come to he who waits; but to wait is to hesitate and, as we know, he who hesitates is lost.  All things, they should say, come to he who moves, who acts, who does, and, above all, who follows the right path.  For at the end of that path, so religiously tried, so dedicatedly pursued, lies a massive edifice housing a great enterprise.  (Is that not what heaven itself is?)

We were admitted; we were ushered through a marble lobby, past a desk where we signed our names in an elegant registry, to an awaiting elevator; we were then taken down a long hallway where a door was opened and we were let into the anteroom of a magnificent office.

"Mr Atwill is expecting you," an efficiently friendly secretary informed us.

"Welcome!" said the man behind the big dark desk against the rear wall of a sumptuously appointed office.  "Harry Atwill," he introduced himself.

Jimbo did the honors for us.  "Pleased to meet all of you," our cordial host authenticated our introduction.  "Have a seat."

An awkward moment followed, for there were only three chairs, four visitors.  "I wasn't expecting so many," Mr Atwill apologized as he summoned his secretary to get another chair.  Everyone waited till I, too, was seated before the meeting began.

"It's an honor meeting so big an executive," Timbo spoke up first.  (I use the term "spoke up" loosely, for, as it happened, Mr Atwill failed to hear him.  (Being right next to him, I had succeeded in that not trifling task.)

"An honor treating a sick left tibia?" Mr Atwill puzzled over what he thought he had heard.  "And this would be apropos of what, may I ask?"

"Not 'sick,'" Timbo corrected that worthy gentleman, "'big': big, as in my ideas!"

"Ah!" said Mr Atwill, "now I see!  Your agency is being likened to a physician, mending the broken bones of a giant: excellent!  I like it already.  Except that nothing is broken here at Morcon.   We don't seek any sort of repair.  Our reputation is immaculate.  We are, you might say, that standard against which all claims to purity are measured.  Nonetheless, I like your boldness."

"That would only be part of our campaign," Jimbo, ever the super salesman, was quick to point out.  "Just the window, you might say, through which our entire advertising expertise glows, gleams, shines, sparkles and glistens!  We're like you: we're the biggest and the best at what we do!"

"The only way to be!" a smiling Atwill agreed.  "But do you know what Morcon is really all about?" a more reflective Atwill posed the question.  "Oh yes, we're a conglomerate, people tell us - people tell us a lot of things.  But we're so much more.  Ever so much.  Forget for a moment the newspapers; forget the canneries; the studios; the investment groups; forget even the numerous foundations and consulting firms under our aegis - forget all that.  It's merely window dressing.  What we're about - the real true heart and soul of our organization - is ethics.  Not some high blown philosophical super system; just plain old everyday, down to earth, run of the mill morality.  That's what our name stands for.  I know you've heard all kinds of conjecture - so have I.  But I'll tell you here and now, what Morcon stands for is simply 'moral consortium,' plain and simple.  That's how we started, that's how we've remained.  And what, exactly, does a moral consortium do?  It provides - for a fee: nothing's free, not even a worthless key chain, let alone what we have to offer - Morcon provides its clients the whole spectrum of ethical necessities.  On the simplest level, we demonstrate the proper forms for various kinds of prayers to take.  We assist you to realize your fullest potential as a morally superior person, or organization, by teaching you which rituals lead most naturally to moral superiority.  We define proper contexts for various social mores.  We supply correct contexts for every extraordinary moral situation, so that you can readily determine when virtues are warranted and which ones; when certain views become acceptable and why; when it's alright to do unto others as you would not have done unto you; when your interest becomes paramount, and how to go about persuading others that their interest is likewise best served - these and a hundred other practical, down to earth considerations people need in order to effectively rule the masses.  Why, we even have classes to teach the elite how to appear refined and which art works are okay to appreciate, which ones dangerous to their interests.  As you can see, we're all things to all men."

Here I saw a chance to make a profound statement - a statement of religion, of art, of politics: whatever you will.  "All moral things to all mortal men," I ever so slightly altered Harry Atwill's homily.

"Use that in your campaign!" Atwill demanded.

"It's going to be a big campaign!" Timbo assured our new client.

Either Atwill heard Timbo this time or chose to ignore him, for he went right on speaking without a break.                         

"Let me tell you fellows a little story - a true one, rest assured.  It shows how desperately people need moral guidance in their lives.  It also shows man's inhumanity to man.  There is an expression: The Issue of a Jackass.  You may have heard it.  It's applied, as you might imagine, in a most uncomplimentary fashion.  It was attempted to be applied to a young man of my acquaintance, by the name of Cedric.  A very enterprising, promising young man: bright, articulate, ambitious, full of team spirit and goodwill.  He went to work - and this stands as a warning to all to be wary of labels - he went to work for an egalitarian company.  Well, gentlemen, in an egalitarian company, it's hard to tell who's who; the highest and the lowest blend into a kind of common muck.  The president, the janitor: it's not easy to distinguish which is which.  And for a bright, energetic young man like Cedric, always eager to please and to move up, it became a living nightmare.  'Who do I seek out?' he wondered.  'Who do I please?  Who can help me get ahead?  Who do I need to be noticed by around here?' - the kind of questions any youngster on his way to the top asks.  Well, he made the mistake of asking them aloud.  And the ensuing run-around almost drove him to a nervous breakdown.  Oh, to be sure, they answered his questions, the godless devils.  'Him: he's your man!' Cedric was told, only to find out a month later that the man he'd been getting coffee for each morning and stopping by to chit-chat with every afternoon was nothing more than a second assistant bookkeeper.  Then it was: 'Over there.  See that man pushing a broom?  The Big Kahone!'  So day after day poor trusting Cedric ran behind the man pushing a broom like a little puppy dog - only to discover three weeks later that he pushed a broom because he was, in fact, the janitor.  Then again, and again, another 'him,' and another, and another, and so on and on, till one day they found him alone, crying, in the broom closet.  This time he was taken to the president of the company - the real president.  He was sat down.  His tears were dried.  He was told that there was no one there to try and emulate (I won't dignify their salacious term for it by repeating exactly what they called this most normal of all business norms); that nothing mattered there but how well one did his work; that there was one, and only one, path to the top; and there were no shortcuts.  It would take years to get somewhere, applying that sadistic formula.  Cedric tried in vain to point out the error of their 'egalitarian' ways; tried to make them see how many talented individuals they were driving away; desperately tried to convince them that the best and the brightest deserve special consideration, a special set of rules, a quick, clean path to the top.  But it was a waste of his time trying to put eyes on these blind men.  All they could see was, if that was how he felt, then, perhaps, this was not the place for him; because, here, nobody moved faster than his work or higher than his ability.  They said they'd give him a good reference, because - as they said - in his own way he meant well.  But the experience nearly destroyed him.  It brought a latent homosexuality to the surface that took five years of  unrelenting aversion therapy to neutralize.  Now he's a happy, productive member of society - of a real society, not some egalitarian pseudo-society spawned in hell.  A little simple morality, gentlemen, could have spared my young friend so much heartache.  Now go, and put forth your best effort.  There are a lot of Cedrics out there, sitting like ducks in a pond, just waiting to be picked off by the fiends who prey upon the innocent."

I made up my mind then and there to someday meet this Cedric and let him know just how courageous he was to stick by his principles, how strong to be able to bounce back from so great a torment at the hands of those monsters in altruistic garb.  For now, though, there was work to be done; so Timbo, Jimbo, Limbo and I, Rondo, made our way back to MFKB, invigorated and inspired by the words of Harry Atwill - words of profundity from the lips of one of America's least known, most elusive and most powerful corporate leaders.

We worked - God we worked!  We put our hearts and souls, our minds and bodies, our thoughts and feelings into it as only those committed to the promulgation of the very highest standards of artistic endeavor throughout the land are able to do.  We ate, drank, talked, walked - and even slept - work.  It was this ad, it was that ad; then it was the other; no, the other; no: the other after all.  Over and over and over, until we got it right.  No: not just right: this was ad copy for our biggest client; right wasn't good enough.  It had to be perfect.

"Hey Rambo!" my dear friend and fellow worker, Larry Smelba, called to me, "get a load of this!"  I stopped working to see what he wanted.

He had our television monitor on (we use it to analyze our own and our competitors' ads).  There was a political ad just starting.  We all stared, enthralled, each of us no doubt wondering how best to express his transfixation, when Smelba broke the silence - on target, as usual.

"Be still my beating heart!" he quipped.  "Because he's not ours," he explained momentarily.  "He will be, but right now he belongs to our major competitor, Schmithering, Camosate, Scarff and Wisby.  And I'll tell you boys: you spell that man's name with a capital K for Karisma.  'Cause the regular old C charisma won't do.  'Cause he's got it all.  He's sharp, he's savvy, he's witty, he's wise; he's got character up the kazoo, enough charm to sink a battleship!  He's urbane, sophisticated, ambitious, full of energy, brimming with enthusiasm!  He shoots from the hip and tells it like it is!  He could sell coals to Exxon and send shivers down his audience's spine!  He's what's happening and what's gonna happen.  He's gonna be president some day.  He's a leader and a statesman and a diplomat and a soldier all rolled into one.  He's the hope of the future, the glory of the present, the crowning achievement of all our yesterdays.  He's the nearest thing to heaven we've got!"

 

Chapter 33.  Go Not Alone Into That Abyss

"Who is he?" I asked.

"The Man," replied Smelba.  "Not the man of the hour, or the day or year or even the century: just plain old 'The Man.'  Le homme.  El hombre.  Not the man of a thousand faces, but of a thousand years and a thousand thousand glories.  The man of whom the highest accolade one human can bestow upon another pertains - pertains? hell! fits like a glove!  He's a politician's politician!  And, like I said, he's gonna be president one day.  Mister Karisma himself -"

"With a K!" I reminded my colleague.

"With a capital K: right you are Rambo!  Mister Karisma with a capital K himself: Omar  Sundquist.  Man of the hour and premier politician of the fair Unitey States of America!"

Something clicked somewhere in my memory at the sound of the name, but I couldn't quite get a fix on it.  Perk - of all people - seemed to sense my momentary confusion.  "What's wrong?" he asked.  "You know this guy maybe from a previous life or something?"

"No," I said, addressing myself, of course, mostly to Smelba and Boompy Starboard, who could best be expected to comprehend the subtleties of my thought.  "That name rings a bell though.  Something about it."

"Of course," replied Smelba, on target as usual, "it's the literati in you: you responded like a fine tuned instrument to any allusion to the Arabian Nights."

"And Sundquist was one of them?" I half stated, half questioned.

Everyone broke into laughter.  Starboard slapped me on the back.  And Smelba quipped "That's my Rambo!  Lightening fast!  Rat-a-tat-tat-tat!  You're gonna be big someday - I mean big big! huge! humongous! gargantuan -"

"Maybe a little Pantaglesian too!" Perk attempted a volley of wit which, needless to say, fell as flat as a pancake - no: make that a pantaglesian cake!  Slightly embarrassed, he walked away, at which Smelba, always the rapier sharp wit, made yet another rapier sharp witticism.

"More like pantaloon!" he whispered, emphasizing the last syllable.  It was all we could do to suppress our laughter.

"You have plans to get Sundquist for MFKB?" I asked.

"No," replied Smelba, "but you do.  Or, at least, will.  As for me, old buddy, it's about time for me to move on to that great, glorious advertisement in the sky.  Gentlemen, I'm gonna get my first book published," he announced, to our immense delight - and no little relief, for we, quite naturally imagined our hero, for a moment, at death's door and were, understandably, mortified at the thought of so great a loss to the world of art.

"By this time next year," he went on to say, "I'll be up to number ten.  One a month is a mite tacky.  Besides, don't want to de-value my reputation - that is, my projected reputation - by spreading it too thin."

"You're actually leaving us?" I asked.  "Couldn't you publish and still stay here?  Look at me: I'm published, and I'm here."

"Don't you go tempting him now!" Boompy Starboard winked and insisted.  "We had a hard enough time getting him to go in the first place.  We had to all but push him out of the nest.  Brick Frier himself came down here - Rondy: you were at CapAm and missed him.  He put his huge ruddy hand on our boy here and said - I do quote him verbatim - 'Go on, young fella - you don't want to spend your life here.  There's a whole wide world out there.  Make me proud.  Make me glad I sent an artist of your caliber out there to shake up the literati.  I want to see your name not just in lights but in decimal: I want to see ten of the ten best sellers under your belt, young fella.  So go, the mass is ended.  Carry the good word into every land and unto every man who can read.  In other words: beat it! scram! scadadle! hit the road, Jack! and don't look back, Mack!'  Then the great man returned to his own office."

"Wow!" I said.  (Yes, I know: it was trite and totally unlike me; but I defy any man to come up with a more apt response to what Starboard just related.)

We spent the day - in addition to working - discussing fame, fortune, best sellers and all the other elements of great literature.  But, mostly, we spent the time discussing Larry Smelba's unique place in the history of art (soon to be place, anyway).  (I'm going to save something for you, dear reader - something very special and very wonderful: the opening paragraph of Smelba's first novel, which he treated us to that very day.  I'm not saving it just to keep your interest piqued, though; but to await the perfect setting for so lovely a jewel.)

"Don't forget," Boompy Starboard reminded, "CapAm: tomorrow: 9 A.M. sharp.  Pinch likes your style - not too ingratiating, not too strident: just the right blend of obsequiousness and independence.  I know you're hot and heavy into Morcon, but we've still gotta stroke CapAm's ass too.  So don't be late!"

"Got you," I replied.

I expected, as always, to come home to the leaping antics of my two little charges; I even stopped and bought some special treats on the way home, in anticipation of their glee.  Imagine my surprise, then, to find them lying on my Persian rug in the middle of the front lawn.

They at once spotted me, of course, and ran to greet me.  I tried to return their greeting as much in kind as I could; but all I could think of was my furniture, my household goods, my clothes - my entire possessions - carelessly cast about the yard, as if arranged for a yard sale or an auction.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  I even shut my eyes and turned completely around, on the chance that this time everything would be as it should be.  But it wasn't.

Sensing instinctively that we could not spend the night outside, even in so quiet, refined a neighborhood (not to mention the thought of Myersby-Calcutt lurking about), I made for the front door.  On it was a notice - an eviction notice, from my realtors, Zido and Pasquale.  Worse still, I could not get back in: the locks had been changed.

"We'll have to spend the night at a motel," I advised my two little companions.  "And hope our things are still here," I added as I surveyed my goods.

"Nonsense!" came a sudden voice from the vortex of shadows criss-crossing my front lawn.  A man arose from my sofa, where he had evidently been lounging.  I knew at once who it was.  "I'll be happy to stand guard - if you don't mind the night air, of course."  Myersby-Calcutt, carrying a lighted cigarette, stalked across my lawn.

I stammered for some excuse not to remain.  "The night air - yes! the night air!" I seized the opportunity he himself had set before me.  "The vet had forbidden Sir Heinfried to suffer a chill."

"No wonder!" snorted Calcutt.  "With a name like that, even a good hearty spanking'd send him into shock!"

Perceiving the madman to be about to grab the little Schnauzer, I leaped in front of him and cried out, without thinking how foolish and dangerous a threat I was leveling.  "Hurt him and you'll regret it!" I said.

"Ah!  If you were only half the writer you are the caretaker," Myersby began a proposition that simply trailed off into that night air we were earlier contemplating.  "But you needn't fear: I wouldn't harm a hair of Sir Heinfried's head.  How could I?  He had the good grace a while ago to mark my shoe with his scent.  He may yet belie the influence of that high-blown name.  I would very much like to have the name of the shopkeeper who bestowed the name upon him, however.  Don't bother refusing, though: the question was merely rhetorical.  If I went about ridding the world of puppy pimps, I should have no time left for artists!  Right now, however, we must get the puppy out of the chill night air.  I shall break a side window and come upon the front door."

"No," I objected.  "I cannot condone vandalism.  Besides, I wouldn't want you to get in trouble."

"You would have me locked up for ridding the world of vermin," Myersby retorted.  "Yet you would protect me from smashing a window.  How odd your priorities, sir."

I chose not to provoke him by emphasizing the absolute need for justice in the world, or the concomitant need to apprehend and punish lawbreakers; so I merely shrugged and left it at that.

"Bye the bye," he interrupted my chain of thought, "why were you evicted?"

"A mistake, no doubt," I replied.  "My realtors probably got the address mixed up again."

"And will you bring suit?"

"It was an honest mistake," I said.  "I wouldn't have the cheek to sue two of the most respected realtors in town, over a mistake."

"Yet if some wayward citizen should happen to abscond with some or another of your furnishings, you would have him arrested at once!"

"I can't condone petty theft!" I assured my interlocutor.

"Of course you can't," Myersby at last seemed to understand the concept of justice.  "Who could?  Certainly your realtor couldn't.  Why, they evict their tenants if even so much as the thought of thievery crosses their minds - as I'm sure it has crossed their minds as many times as there are blades of grass underfoot or twinkling stars overhead!  But enough of this, we are not barristers, pleading before her majesty's high court; we are - at the moment - hobos looking for a place to stay the night.  I could offer you my hideout, but I'm afraid it would soon thereafter belie its name."

"I would be duty and honor bound to reveal your hideout if I knew it," I assured Myersby.  "So I'd rather not know.  We'd better go to a hotel.  Then I'll have to find a kennel to look after Fido and Sir Heinfried -"

"Please don't call him that," Myersby insisted.

"It's his name," I, in turn, insisted.

"No, it's his title.  But - call him what you will.  I can watch your dogs until you set your realtors straight; your furnishings, too, if you trust me, that is."

"I trust you," I at once replied, "with all my worldly possessions - even my two little friends here.  I just don't trust you with my life.  Or my life's work."

"I'll make you a deal," Myersby said.  "You promise not to write a best seller overnight, I promise not to shoot you."

I accepted his offer - oddly enough, without the slightest trepidation or reservation.  I have never, in my life, felt so completely certain of another human being's sincerity.  Yet here he was, an absolute lunatic, and a vicious killer to boot!  I can't explain it.  All I know is, I slept as peacefully that night as I ever have - not in a hotel, though: right there, on my front lawn, I in my bed, my guest on the sofa, my dogs on the Persian rug.  I even admitted having exaggerated the dangers the night air posed Sir Heinfried.

And we all awoke to the first band of light across the horizon, a deep red sliver singed with purple and gold which quickly decompressed to cover the whole eastern sky, its interior paling as it fanned out.

"I must get to work today," I explained.  "I have a meeting at Cap Am this morning, a meeting at Morcon this afternoon.  I'll call my realtors mid-day and alert them to their mistake.  Would it be too great an imposition to ask you to watch my dogs till my stuff is returned to its proper place?" I asked my overnight guest.

"Not at all," came his reply.  "I'll be on your street anyway, stalking philosophers.  Perhaps I'll take the opportunity to rename Sir Heinfried.  So be on your way; we'll do just fine.

So I gathered a few things and left at once.  "What?" I can almost hear my readers ask.  "You left your possessions in the hands of a madman?"  Ah! dear reader - dear sweet over cautious reader!  You already know me for anything but a fool, so be not troubled.  I am always about my business, you need not fear.  For, under the pretext of collecting some papers needed for work, I grabbed my manuscript and stuffed it in my attaché.  (Oh yes, did I not tell you?  All the while I had been creating yet another opus to sit on your shelf beside my others!)  Rest assured: my most precious and priceless earthly treasure was safe and sound.

When I arrived at the train station, a little out of breath, I made for the gentleman's room where, since, by hurrying I had left myself a few free moments before the train departed, I took the time to wash my face, comb my hair and straighten my tie.  As I was drying my face, who should walk in but my high strung fellow commuter, Stratton H Binglepood - wearing a dress, no less!  I covered my face with the paper towel so as not to embarrass him, but to my surprise he not only recognized me but actually engaged me in conversation.

"I didn't even have time to take this off first!" he casually said as he attempted to unzip the dress.  "Can you give me a hand?" he asked.  "Thanks.  I thought I was going to have to take the bus - the money mover was broken.  Got a big meeting, got to take the Amtrak.  So there I was, headed for the bus station, when a man just out of the blue dropped a twenty.  I guess he'd gotten change; he was putting it in his wallet; it fell out; he just kept going, didn't even notice what happened.  Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I grabbed the twenty and took off for the train station.  Let me just put this dress in here and I'll be off."

Just then a gentleman entered the restroom who Binglepood evidently knew.  "Shit!" he cried under his breath.  "Sprinklebilge!  That's all I need!"

"Stratton?" the gentleman asked as he approached.  "Is that you?"

Binglepood crumpled his dress into a ball and hastily stuffed it inside my attaché, before I could protest.  "Please keep your things out of people's way!" he snapped at me before turning to greet the other gentleman.  "Clarence!" he said in a pleasant voice.  "You taking the Amtrak today?  Thought you drove?"

"I thought that was you," the gentleman said.  "Yes, I'm slumming.  Big meeting we have.  Left the buggy in the garage next to the BMW.  Can't take any chances.  Gotta be on time."

The two gentlemen laughed and walked out.  I finished my morning toilette and likewise left, arriving at work in plenty of time to make my meeting with Mr Pinch of CapAm.

It was 9 A.M. to the second when I walked into Pinch's office.  "I was about to give up on you," he informed me.  "But, better late than never."  Perceiving my somewhat puzzled look, he explained that "eighteen nano-seconds may be nothing to most people, but in those eighteen units of time our computer can execute half a million commands.  Half a million: that's a lot of lost productivity, my friend.  Not easily made up.  This world's got a long ways to go to meet my standards.  But, never mind; I want to show you something.  Let's go back downstairs."

We took the elevator to the first floor.  "Perhaps you noticed the glass case in our main lobby," Pinch explained on the way down.  "Although it wouldn't surprise me if you hadn't: it's been my observation that people who are careless of time are generally pretty oblivious to their surroundings."

"In fact I had wondered about it," I replied.  "Since it wasn't here last time."

"It couldn't have been here last time," Pinch noted, "or I would have commented on it.  We're setting up a display.  It'll run till the middle of next week.  This is, as you know, National Insurance Buying Week.  Our spokesperson, even as we speak, is being set in place.  The display should be ready by the time we arrive."

And, as surely as there is a God above who lovingly presides over all matters temporal and spiritual, Mr Pinch, senior VP of CapAm, was right on target - to the nano-second.  For, there, in the main lobby, encased in a gleaming glass box with bronze trim, sat a gentleman in a picturesque outfit waving at passers-by and holding, in his free hand, a stack of papers.

"What's he waiting for?" Pinch asked impatiently.  "His first recital was to begin a full three second ago!"

Just then the man in the case stood up.  "Hi thar!" he said in a somewhat provincial tone of voice.  "Ezekiel Jeremiah Pugh here.  I'll be here all week to help you understand the value of insurance.  Friends, there's no such thing as being over insured.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  I know 'cause I've got every kind of insurance a man can have - and if there was more I'd have it too!  I got it for my house; I got it for myself; got it on the missus, on the kids, the car, the furniture, the garage, even the outhouse and my chickens.  There was even a time we feared my first born'd turn out slow witted, but my broker said 'Don't worry - be covered!  Get special education coverage: and I did.  Turned out I didn't need it, but I never regretted it.  I don't never intend to see my family want for nothing, not a education, not a deduction, or a syndication, vindication or a vacation!  'Cause I'm an American.  And I'm modern.  You could call me a truly modern American.  I got insurance for floods, insurance for quakes, for volcanoes, mudslides, draught, plague, mosquitoes, tadpoles, even cockroaches and termites.  I got enough insurance, folks, that even if the sun itself explodes, my family shouldn't suffer financial ruin.  I got my ankles insured so's I can walk; my wrists so's I can work; my neck so's I can think straight; my privates so's my line won't die out; even my tail bone so's my innards stay regular.  I got it all, folks, and so can you.  Just do like I done and see one of the good folks at CapAm.  Do it for God, for your country and, above all, for your family.  And God bless you, every one of you!"

"What do you think?" asked Pinch.

I felt it my duty to a valued client to answer as honestly as I could.  "He may be a little too homespun," I pointed out.  "People might think he's a clod who got duped into buying more insurance than he needs."

"He is," Pinch admitted.  "And you and I can see it.  But the vast majority out there - the ones we mean when we say 'the masses': they won't see it.  All they'll see in a sincere, colorful character who believes in insurance the same way he believes in the flag, in mom, in apple pie, and in his family.  He's not an actor, you know: he's a real person.  He's not doing this gig for money: he's doing it because he genuinely believes in the power of insurance!  He sees this as a public service."

Just then a dreadful thing happened that might have resulted in tragedy had Mr Pugh not lost his balance and fallen onto the floor of his glass case at that very instant.  An overhead light came loose and fell, landing right where Pugh would have been standing had he not fallen.  I ran at once to his assistance.

"How do you get in here?" I asked, perceiving no means of entering the display case.

"See that slit in the center of the right hand side panel?" replied one of the workmen.  "It's a door.  Slide it, it'll open."

I proceeded to the side, slid the door open, and ran to help CapAm's spokesperson to his feet, setting my briefcase down beside the chair to the left of where the light lay smashed.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"Yes, indeed-y," Pugh replied cheerfully.  "Fit as a fiddle.  There was never any danger: I'm fully insured against falling objects - even meteors!"

"But are you physically okay?" I persisted.

"Not a bone in my body's not covered," Pugh assured me.

"And you're not shaken?" I just wanted to make sure so harrowing an escape had not taken a psychological toll.  "You feel okay?"

"Wouldn't matter no how," said the smiling spokesman for National Insurance Buying Week.  "I'm covered for just about every mental disorder you can think of - and then some.  No problem whatsoever."

 

Chapter 34.  Fate Is Kinder To Those Who Are Kindest To It

It wasn't until that afternoon that I remembered having left my attaché in Ezekiel Pugh's display case.  I was preparing to leave the office to go to Morcon when I casually mentioned the incident with the falling spotlight.

"It came that close to crushing his skull," I said.  "If he hadn't tripped, he'd be dead by now."

"God looks out for those who look out for themselves," Boompy Starboard observed.

"Amen to that," agreed Larry Smelba.  "Bye the bye, what'd you think of his spiel?  I helped him with it.  Not that dreadful down home style, of course, but the cadence, the rhythm, the flow, the gracious meld of infrastructure to superstructure; the just plain old tits and asses of it!  Did it pass muster?"

"Faster than I can pass gas!" Starboard exclaimed with a laugh - though since he wasn't actually there, his comment was of course rhetorical.

"It had that special ring to it," I said.  And it did; now that I'd had a chance to think better of it, it really did.

Just then it occurred to me where my attaché case was.  "Damn it all," I said.  "I left my attaché at CapAm - and it had something important in it.  You might say, my most cherished possession.  Maybe I'll swing around there on my way back from Morcon.  So if I'm a little late, you know where I'll be."

"No problem whatsoever," said Starboard.  "Be it man or beast or machine: whatever's in there, go get it, tiger!"

"That I will," I said, "you can count on it."

Timbo and I took a taxi to Morcon (Jimbo and Limbo were involved in a legal proceeding and had to take a rain check).  The ride was great, except for a minor delay in the left lane of the East-West Expressway; the driver said not a word the whole way, and even the delay proved a boon, for just as we were pulling up in front of Morcon, a vagrant was being led away by security police.  Had we not encountered heavy traffic, we would have most assuredly encountered the vagrant.  He looked vaguely familiar - but, then, they all have the same peculiar look to them; and he was spouting some nonsense about radio waves that had a familiar ring to it - but then, all their nonsense sounds alike.

"You can take me back!" he was shouting just as they ducked him into the security van, "But you won't keep me there!  I'll get away again or my name's not Brother Jennifer Seraphin!"

"Hope they throw away the key!" Timbo exclaimed, loudly enough that I heard him quite clearly, though not loudly enough to extend that same advantage to the taxi driver.

"Say what?" the driver asked in an amazed tone.  "You hope they blow a gay honkey?"  Then he started laughing.  "Get on out of here now!"  He even refused our money.  "You just keep that," he said, "you made my day!  First kind words I ever heard anyone say of those SOBs at Morcon!"

Were we not already late for our meeting, I would most certainly have taken the driver to task for his insolent jab at one of the noblest organizations ever set upon this planet.  If only he knew, as I know, what Morcon was all about, he would have begged the forgiveness of every man, woman and child from here to Melanesia!  But there was no time for recriminations; Timbo and I hurried on in.

Mr Harry Atwill disdained any explanation of our tardiness with a simple, elegant wave of his hand.  "This is Washington," he said in his broad, patrician tones.  "One is grateful simply to arrive at all.  Besides, I summoned you not so much to conduct business as to give you the chance to capture the flavor of the place, get a feel for it, immerse yourselves in the relaxed atmosphere, enjoy its pleasant informality; so as to better appreciate the task ahead of you.  It isn't something heavy and grim we want from you but rather something light, almost idyllic.  Come, let me show you around."

He led us, first, to a large office filled with desks, cabinets, equipment and, best of all, happy smiling workers.

"This is our Accounting Department," he said.  "Feel free to look around, ask questions, engage in small talk - whatever you wish."

I headed for an area set apart from the rest of the office.  The managers, no doubt, worked here; and what better place to start than at the top?  But to my surprise, a man came up and stood in my path.

"Not over there," he advised.  "They're pretty busy."

"Indeed," I agreed, "management will always be the busiest of everyone!"

"Actually," Atwill interjected, "they're not managers.  They're - oh, how shall I put it? - they're disgruntled employees.  And we can't have them disrupting the rest of the staff."

"Just fire them if they can't see the enormous benefits of working at a place like this," I recommended.

"That's in the works," the other gentleman rejoined.  "But it's got to be done precisely, exactly; we've got to make sure we've got all bases covered.  Otherwise they could bring a lawsuit.  By the way," he introduced himself, "I'm Garkus Lightfoot.  I'm the Assistant Accounting Manager."

"Our hatchet man," added Atwill, "brought him straight from Lynchberg, Virginia!"

"Let me show you our regular staff - we'll start over here," Lightfoot went on to say.

"That's right, start with the loonies!" a passer-by had the audacity to blurt out.

"One of your disgruntled employees?" I posited when the individual had moved beyond earshot.  "Isn't what he just said sufficient to fire him?" I asked.  "Calling good, hard working people crazy?"

"Actually," the Assistant Manager responded, "he wasn't using the term that way.  He was referring - but let's move on.  We have a lot to show you."

Timbo and I were steered to a much more densely populated part of the office.  Incidentally, lest you fear a cat had gotten Timbo's tongue, let me assure you he was chattering away like a magpie the whole time we conducted our tour; but, save for whomever was closest at hand, no one heard anything he said, except for one ill fated comment, which I hesitate to relate owing to the exceedingly offensive reference it prompted - a response, I assure you, not by one of the fine, hard working people we met but by a disgruntled employee who happened by.

"I'll just barely get a chance to do so," he had innocently replied to our host's question concerning something or another.

"What?  You must fairly shit your pants in Tucson?" the obnoxious lout asked in a loud voice clearly meant to embarrass poor Timbo.  When he returned to his own area, Mr Lightfoot excused himself.

"I'm going to have Personnel draw up the papers," he explained.  "Insulting our guests with foul language is grounds enough for termination.  I'd appreciate a written statement from you two gentlemen before you leave, if you'd be so kind."

"To make the workplace safe for decency: I should say so!" I at once agreed, as did Timbo.

"As if Tucson were big enough for me to bother with!" Timbo exclaimed.

"I'm from Phoenix," a young woman tastefully attired in a flowing dress that came to midway between her knees and ankles noted.  "My college professors tried to brainwash me with their liberal propaganda.  I ran from Arizona to Tijuana; but some liberals on vacation tried to get me hooked on sex and drugs.  So I ran to New York.  Only the liberals on 42nd Street tried to make me a prostitute.  Then I met some good Christians who told me about Father -"

"Thank you, Mary," Mr Atwill cut her story short so as to leave enough time for the rest of the tour, "that was a very interesting story.  But perhaps you should return to work now.

Mary smiled as she returned to her desk - well, sort of smiled: it was an odd smile, kind of disjointed, as was the somewhat faraway look in her eyes.  No sooner had she sat down than a young man in a crisp short sleeved white shirt and dark blue tie and trousers stepped up and spoke.

"I know about those liberals," he advised us.  "They tried to make me queer.  They've been trying to destroy the family for so long.  They came up with the idea to force men to lie with men, women with women, so there will be no more normal children born.  Then I found the Church.  And I work here.  We all work here.  We're not alone anymore.  We're strong.  We won't let the liberals twist our minds ever again.  We're together."

"That was very nice, Larry," said Harry Atwill softly.  "But don't you have work to do?"

Larry returned to his seat.  And as he did, a third person arose, approached, started to speak, then shook his head and returned to his desk.

"I think what Barry wanted to say was that we're like a family here," Atwill explained.  "We're all close knit, we pull for one another, help one another - not just at work, but in every facet of our lives.  In that, we're a lot like Morcon itself.  We've come together - all of us - to bridge that abyss and keep that big, wallowing, voracious, immoral beast at bay."

"Where is this beast kept?" I asked, not realizing the beast in question to have been metaphorical.

(Here I must caution the reader never to let your mind stray; keep the matter at hand the center of your focus.  Otherwise you might, like me, end up saying something rather foolish.)

Fortunately, Atwill took my faux pas for whimsy and replied in kind.  "He's on display at PBS," he said.  (Presumably, PBS is some liberal college in Virginia; but I chose not to inquire further, since it had just dawned on me how foolish my question had been.)

Something had caught my eye, distracting me from my host, otherwise of course my mind would have been as alert, my wit as agile, as ever.  Several workers had gotten up from their seats and walked to a small cabinet at the far end of the office.  There, they lowered their heads, paused a few seconds, then returned.  But it wasn't so much their movements that struck me as it was their seeming detachment from their surroundings, from one another, even from themselves.  It was as if they really weren't here, or else they didn't truly think they were; as if some part of them were missing.  Were they not so articulate, so definite in their opinions, such clearly capable and efficient workers, I would have suspected them the victims of lobotomies.  As it was, I couldn't quite put my finger on precisely how they seemed different from other workers I've seen; all I could say was that they were somehow different.

"You seem puzzled," Atwill inquired.  "Perhaps you thought it odd the accountants should get up and say a silent prayer in unison.  "Jewel!" he motioned a young woman closer.  "Would you and Joel care to explain to our visitors what just happened."

A middle aged man and the young woman came over.  Both were conservatively attired in white tops (his a short sleeve shirt, hers a long sleeve blouse) and blue bottoms (his polyester trousers, hers a long flowing skirt).

"We said our vespers," Jewel said.

I was about to say something about the hour when Joel spoke up.  "Over there - in the Holy Land of All Lands - it is evening.  We pray that our Father shall convert all mankind before it is too late.  Before the liberals poison everyone with their liberal ideas of free love and wife swapping and civil rights and letting murderers go free and job discrimination and killing the unborn and taxing corporations out of existence.  They think life should be good for everyone - even the mass murderers and the welfare cheats and the rapists and the homosexuals and the atheists and the poor and homeless, the shiftless, the unproductive.  They think people should be given choices on everything: where to live, what to wear, how to speak and act and think and...and...and everything!"

"Thank you Joel," said Atwill.  "I'm sure we can all agree with that."

Jewel and Joel returned to their desks.  Garkus Lightfoot returned from his mission.  "By day's end," he announced to us, "we'll be minus one more misfit."

I was about to ask him how long he thought it would take to finally clear his office of misfits when he was summoned by one of his clerks.

"Garkus," the young woman in a long blue flowered print dress who had sought his help asked, "these figures won't come out.  I wonder if one of them sabotaged them.  What do you think?"

Garkus puzzled a moment.  "Hmm," he said.  "Let me go see if they did sabotage them."  He went over to the misfits and presented them with the evidence.  I overheard one of them say, in a predictably rebellious tone, "Looks like loony - I mean Lucy - forgot to allow for sales tax again."

"Lucy," Garkus gently explained upon his return, "try adding 6% and see if that helps."

"Six percent of what?" Lucy asked.

"Of our DC sales."

"Which ones are they?"

"These - in this column labeled 'DC,'" said Garkus.

"Oh," replied the young accounting clerk, "I thought that column meant 'don't count' so I left it off.  That's the way I did it last month."

"But remember: we corrected it last month."

"Oh.  Then it really was wrong last month.  I thought they were just trying to confuse me, like my liberal teachers.  It's so hard to tell sometimes.  I just have to stop in the middle of what I'm doing and say 'Satan be gone!' over and over till all the confusion leaves and I can think clearly again."

"That's very good, Lucy," Garkus reassured her; then he turned to us to remind us to write a statement verifying the misfit's misconduct before we left.

"I'll videotape it," said Timbo.  "Writing is for little people and other underlings."

I won't detail the effort it took to coax  the meaning out of Timbo's words; suffice it to say we were engaged in the transcription nearly half an hour.  By the time we got his message, it was time to return to the office; and neither of us remembered the statement he and I had promised to make.  I could only hope this careless neglect did not prevent Mr Lightfoot from firing an incompetent worker.

"I though those idiots would never shut up!" Timbo exclaimed once we were outside.  We hailed a taxi and were about to get on our way when a man stepped in front of the cab waving his arms and shouting.

"In the name of the father and the son and the holy ghost I say unto you: 'Stop!'" the man insisted.

"Run him over and let's go!" demanded Timbo.  "I'm too important to be kept waiting!"

Just then the taxi lurched forward.  "Oh shit!" cried the driver.  "My foot slipped off the brake!  And my hack license is up for renewal next month!  Damn, this is all I need!  A manslaughter charge!"

In the meantime Timbo exclaimed "Good!  Now let's go!  I've got big plans for this campaign.  Let's move it!"

"Did you hear something?" the driver asked.  "Like a voice maybe?  Do you think it was the guy we ran over?"

Suddenly the man arose, as if a ghost, and began brushing himself off.  "Let's beat it while we can!" exclaimed the driver.

"Hold it!" I said.  "I can't just leave an injured man."  I jumped out of the car.  "I'll take another cab," I explained.

The taxi drove off.  I went to the man.  "Are you alright?" I asked.

He was still brushing himself off and, intermittently, examining his limbs for evidence of broken bones.  "As alright as a defrocked priest who's just been run down in the street can hope to be," he replied.

"Are you thinking about pressing charges?" I inquired.

"I'm thinking about a lot of things," he said.  "Mostly, I'm thinking about my sweet lord Jesus, and how I can best express my admiration for him.  Although that's what got me defrocked in the first place.  But charges?  Am I thinking of pressing charges?  Against whom?  The Bishop, who gave me the axe?  The congregation who deserted me?  The cardinal who refused to hear my appeal?  The pope who went off to Castelgandelfo for holiday just when I was most in need of a Bull?  Or perhaps the saints or the prophets or the archangels?  Who?  Who am I to charge with the loss of my preacher's license? the unblessing of my right thumb and forefinger? the stripping of my priestly robes? the blessing of my sacred colors?  Who?  That cabbie who nearly killed me?  That pouting child in the back seat?  You?  Who?"

"Actually, that wasn't a child in the back seat," I pointed out.

"Then somebody needs to pray for his immortal soul," the hit and run victim replied.  "That's if he has one.  If any of us do.  Not that I care if we do or don't: we're of no importance.  Only Jesus matters.  We exist for no other reason than to love and adore him.  What does it matter if we go to heaven, or hell, or purgatory, or just cease to be?  As long as we love our sweet lord Jesus we have enough to occupy us a lifetime or an eternity.  I am totally devoted to Christ.  That's why I ran in front of that cab.  That's why I silently protest in front of this devil's sweatshop.  That's why I wear a union suit all year long with Jesus' name written a thousand times on it - one name for every year of his reign when he comes."

"You're speaking of the second coming," I observed.  "Will you be one of the elect, one of his disciples, one of his harbingers?"

"Why should I?" he replied.  "Because he is everything to me is no reason I should be anything to him.  If he wants me to serve him, I will; if he wants me to join a cult and worship Satan, I will: what does it matter if I'm saved or damned for eternity?  As long as I take my devotion with me it matters not whose right hand I sit at or what state my soul is in.  And I said so, to the bishop.  I said it to the archbishop as well.  And the monsignor.  And to a class of novitiates visiting my parish.  They said - they all said - I was blaspheming.  I said so what?  I will curse God to His face or behind His back: what difference does it make what I do so long as I'm loyal to Jesus."

"Jesus is the son of God," I reminded the fallen priest.  "He is hurt when we blaspheme against the Father."

"I don't care - I don't care.  It doesn't bother me if I'm evil.  Only if I stop loving my lord.  I will blaspheme everything in the universe - Jesus included - if I must.  I don't care.  The particulars of existence mean nothing, only the essence.  As long as my essence is my devotion, let me do whatever I will.  One of the novitiates said I seduced him.  I didn't - but I didn't care that I didn't.  What did it matter?  What would it have mattered if I had?  Let them punish me in any way they please; let them neuter me if it makes them happy: a priest can pee as easily into a bidet as a urinal!"

"Was that why you were defrocked?" I asked.  "You should have stood up for your innocence."

"There is no innocence; there is no guilt.  There is only Jesus.  But no, that isn't why I was defrocked.  I was defrocked because -"

Here the priest stopped.  And, before I realized what he was about, before I had time to stop him, he ran into the street, right in front of another taxi, waving his arms and crying "Stop!" just as he had earlier done.  Fortunately, the taxi came to a screeching halt.  The driver hollered out a few poorly chosen expletives (which I will not repeat, champion of realism though I am), then continued on.  The priest returned to finish our conversation. 

"- because I made a mockery of the Christ," he continued on as if nothing had happened.  "There was a stone crucifix on the front lawn of my parish church, some ten feet tall.  One day, while I was praying I got the idea to drape cloth over it and attach a ball with a face on it at the top.  Then I placed a crown of thorns around the face.  The likeness was uncanny.  It - it could have been Christ himself standing there.  I warned my parishioners against falling on their knees in worship.  'Just bow your heads and say a silent prayer,' I advised them.  Instead of praying, they all began speaking of it as if it were a scarecrow.  One of them dubbed it the Sainted Scarecrow.  They began taunting it.  I didn't mind, so I said nothing.  Jesus has been taunted before.  Then the bishop came one day in his limousine and tore it all down.  I was stunned, that a man of the cloth could do something so callous.  If he wanted to destroy something I made, that's alright: let him destroy everything I've ever made, everything I have.  But don't tear Jesus apart.  I vowed to him to put it back up the moment he left - and I did.  But he kept returning to tear it down, and I'd build it back up again the moment he got in his limo and left.  Till finally he gave me my walking papers.  'You may no longer say the mass or hear confessions or preach the sacred word of God.  Nor may you erect any idols on church property.  You are to report to St Cyril's one week from today to have your thumb and forefinger unblessed.  At that time you are to turn in all your priestly garments.  You will never again have a parish of your own.  A priest you will remain, of course: you are ordained for all eternity.  But you will remain an outcast for all eternity, shunned by all who follow the teachings of Christ.  No go.  Your stay among us is ended.  And may God have mercy on your soul.'"

 

Chapter 35.  Genius Gets A Little Push

"I wrote the archbishop, I wrote the cardinal, I wrote the Papal Council, I petitioned the pope.  All to no avail.  I even made a pilgrimage to Rome to walk the steps of St Peter's on my knees.  'Your perseverance is of course in order,' some idiot of a monsignor told me, 'and may put you back in God's good graces; but it will not get you your parish back.'  I was so enraged by his silliness I lifted his cassock and would have goosed him but the sight of women's bloomers made me forget why I had lifted his skirts in the first place.  'You must have chased Mother Superior a mile for those!' I exclaimed - then took off running.  Two days later I received a registered from the bishop advising me to say nine rosaries in penance for assaulting a fellow priest."

"You didn't say them, I hope!" I objected to his mistreatment.

"I said them and more," he replied.  "I said nine then nine more then nine times nine - ninety times nine - and still I kept saying them!  I said so many I wore the beads down to a fine dust.  I was the force of nature compressed in a single pair of hands.  In that minute I knew how the winds and rains felt wearing a mountain down to a gully; how desperately tired they had grown; how disappointed they were to see all their effort reduced to a tiny hole in the ground, barely big enough for a stream to wash through.  My rosary was no more than a chain - the little beaded kind you wear a badge around your neck to work with.  It was as if the more I prayed the smaller and more insignificant the result.  Till I took the rosary to one of the dumpsters that compact everything and made a tiny sliver that sits in a thimble next to my ordination papers on my toilet tank lid.  I no longer say prayers on my rosary: I pray to it!  Every time I take a dump I worship my sliver in a thimble.  'God is great, God is good; I pray you help me with this turd!' I chant.  And God never fails me.  It's because I love Jesus so completely."

"Excuse me," he said abruptly, "I see Father Luna's car.  I must go jump in front of it!"

He did just that before I could stop him.  Luckily, it screeched to a halt and he was saved.  "My kingdom for a priest!" I heard him exclaim before a handful of guards rushed from the building and ushered him into a van, which sped away.  In truth, I had no idea there were so many guards stationed at Morcon, for the only one I had seen was the guard at the entrance.  At any rate, I could return to work now with a clear conscience, satisfied that the priest - ex-priest - was safe and sound and in good, capable hands.

There was a message for me at my desk that sent a cold chill down my spine.  I looked at the name of the caller as at a rattler ready to strike, wanting to run yet strangely transfixed.  Why was she calling?  Had I not kept faith with her audit? kept true to the rules? kept in touch with the times?  What, then, could it be?  Why - dear God in heaven why! - had this name come upon my desk today?  And, above all, what lay in store for this poor mis-understood literary genius?

Smelba broke the silence and my lethargy.

"Hey Rambo," he asked, "who's this Gretchen?  Got a mistress on the side, have you?  You wouldn't be the first, you know.  Writers are wacky, they're wonderful, they're witty, giddy, silly, sappy and snappy as all get out.  And, yes my friend, a little wicked, too, methinks."

"She's my auditor," I explained.  "For the contest I told you about, the Best All Around American Prose Writer.  What could she want now?"

"Call her up and find out," the as-always sensible Smelba suggested.  "Find out the scoop, the poop, the loop-de-loop and the hoola hoop.  'Cause she's there, she's real, she's now, she's where it's at and what's happening and where it's gonna be.  Take it from a pro, Ro: pucker up and let her blow!"

Of course he was right, as always.  I thanked him for his advice, picked up the phone, and dialed.

"Gretchen," I said, "it's me: Rondo.  I'm returning your call."

"What are you doing there?" Gretchen demanded to know.

"I work here," I replied.

"Why?  You were distinctly told you needed accounting experience, were you not?"

"I thought you said my work at Sprung's Literary Center would count."

"I did," she admitted.  "And it does," she further admitted.  "But I never intended to suspend the requirement entirely.  I fully expected you to take another job in accounting - a lesser job, if that's all you're capable of handling; with a less prestigious company.  What work do you do there?" she demanded to know.

"I'm a copy writer," I replied.

"And a dag-gone good one!" Larry Smelba interjected.

"You'll need more than a testimonial at this point," Gretchen advised.  "Copy writing cannot be substituted for the kind of professional experience the Committee requires.  I will call you back later today and let you know if you must be disqualified.  Frankly, it doesn't look good for you.  This cavalier attitude of yours that you're a law unto yourself and can determine your own rules is going to get you in serious trouble one day.  How you expect to be taken seriously as a writer with so unconventional an attitude is absolutely beyond me."

With this, she hung up.  And, I might add, I, for my part, hung my head - a state of being not lost on my fellow copy writers.  Needless to say, it was the razor sharp insight of Larry Smelba that perfectly captured my angst.

"Bad audit, eh?" he posited.

"The worst," I admitted, then quickly amended it to "next to the worst anyway.  I'm about to be disqualified for trying to palm copy writing off as accounting experience."

"She sounds like a real bitch," said Smelba.

"Let me put it to you this way," I said: "she called me unconventional."

"Ouch!" Smelba exclaimed.

"The unkindest cut of all," Boompy Starboard agreed.

"She says copy writing cannot be substituted for 'professional experience.'  I tell you, Lar," I expressed the utter helplessness of the situation, "even you would have a devil of a time getting around that one.  I guess it's just as well you didn't enter the contest."

"Me," he said, "I'm no competitor.  I avoid contests like the plague.  I go more for the jugular than the juggler - know what I mean, chili bean?"

Nothing further was said - and why would it be? we had work to do; we weren't here to discuss juggling, as my colleague so succinctly put it; we were here to write copy - and dag-gone good copy too!  So I set the contest, along with the dreaded audit and the anticipated return call that would seal my fate, aside; and went about my business - for, as the great American showman P T Barnum once observed "the business of America is my business!"

Along about mid-afternoon, I received a call from (as it turned out) Timbo.  He wanted to see me "in medieval togs" (translation: immediately).  I excused myself and made for his office.

"I believe this is yours," he said as he pointed to an attaché case on the floor.  "Pinch sent it over.  Along with a great big note requesting a new rep.  He never wants you to set foot in his big building again."

"He's a stickler for time alright," I admitted.  "And I was nearly 18 nano-seconds late for our meeting."

"He's also a stickler for men being men," Timbo said.  "Now please take this garbage and get out of my office.  I have work to do."

"Big work, Timbo?" I inquired, a bit sarcastically.  In retrospect, I wish I had not been quite so annoyed with him, for that was the last time I ever saw him.  That evening, on his way home, he was run over by a mini-bike and nearly killed.  By the time he was able to return to the consummation of his big plans, I was long gone from MFKB.  (But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

The first thing I did upon my return to my own office was open my attaché to make sure my opus was intact (not that I for a moment suspected CapAm of anything but the most scrupulously proper conduct.  I simply wanted to double check - as you, yourself, would if you had anything of comparable value in your briefcase).  That was when the dress Stratton H Binglepood had hastily stuffed into my attaché case that morning tumbled out onto the table - and, with it, the sense, at last of what Timbo had just relayed to me.

"Of course!" I exclaimed.  "Mr Pinch was referring to this damned dress!"

Everyone looked my way: doubtless the reference to the VP of CapAm had gotten their attention.

"The most important thing you own was in that case, I believe you said," observed one of my co-writers (a thoroughly non-descript person even more non-descript than Perk, which is why I have heretofore neglected to mention him).

"And all in one piece," I assured him and everyone else.

"One piece is nice," someone else agreed.  "You get a better fit, don't you?"

An odd way of putting it, I must admit, but I had to agree with the general sense of his metaphor: a masterpiece, such as my manuscript, does indeed fit - and where it fits best is on a shelf beside all the other great classics.

"It's really quite tasteful," said Perk.  (You will observe, dear reader, that non-descript types, such as these fellow copy writers, are equally non-descript in their patterns of speech.)

Again, imprecisely as it was expressed, I had to agree with what Perk actually meant to say: my opus could hardly have been anything but tasteful - otherwise, what's the point of possessing a genius for artistic creation in the first place?

"A bit too prissy, perhaps," a maintenance man - of all people - who had entered our office to empty the trash cans had the audacity to add - perfectly unsolicited - to our enlightened conversation.

"I will not have my prized possession spoken of in such a manner!" I insisted, glaring hard at the janitor as I grabbed up Binglepood's disguise and stuffed it inside my attaché, as if using it to hide my opus from such Philistine eyes.

The janitor shrugged, said "Touchy, aren't we?" and went about his business.

(Lest the reader think me obtuse, let me assure you I have not failed to take note of something very peculiar going on right under my very nose - something concerning the dress my fellow commuter had stuffed in my attaché case.  I was wrong in seeing that garment as having come from CapAm to haunt me; for it cannot be - it cannot be, dear  reader! - that it figured into Mr Pinch's dissatisfaction with my services - because that would imply someone at CapAm having peeked into my private papers!  And, as you and I and every decent American well knows, no insurance company would tolerate anything so improper or underhanded.  Therefore, I must have failed to interpret Timbo correctly.  What I thought to be a reference to "men being men" clearly must have been, instead, a reference somehow to time, couched in a softness so impenetrable that not even I, with all my powers of observation, could untangle it.  At any rate, the damage was done; whether it involved the dress or the hourglass was irrelevant.  Suffice it that, even if my immediate interpretation of the raw data my senses provided me was a bit faulty, my perception itself was as sharp as ever.)

"Just want you to know," Boompy Starboard said in a kind voice, "we're with you whatever your proclivity."

I thanked him for his support; assured him he could not find any proclivity worthier of support; and even went so far as to speculate that if all men had such proclivities the world would be a decidedly better place in which live.

"I'll have to draw the line there," Starboard held up a big chubby finger to underscore his remark.  "Wouldn't want to see us all attired in those kind of duds!"

I liked his metaphor, since we are, in a sense, what we wear; and as an author it is strictly black tie and tails for me (figuratively speaking).  Besides, he was right: even if everyone had the genius to be a great writer, it wouldn't be practical for everyone to don the garb of literary genius - otherwise, who would man the presses that produce the masterpieces? who would drive the trucks that deliver them? who would perform the necessary exchange for legal tender? and, above all, who would review them?  No, better to live in a world peopled with an army of menials for every genius.

"At last!" I said when the workday ended and it was time to go home.  Yes, that's right, dear reader: I - the foremost champion of good, clean hard work in the free world - I was glad to see the workday come to a close.  Had I lost my mind?  No, I have not.  How could one so gifted ever lose that which is  the font of his genius?  What it was, dear reader: I had yet so much to do, and (as the great poet Sarenghetti observed in his opus The Cornish Highlands of the Mind) so many miles to go before I lay me down to sleep.  And what was it I had to do?  I had to oversee the return of my furnishings to my humble abode; for I had managed to squeeze a call to my realtors, Pasquale and Zido, into my breakneck schedule.

Image my surprise, then, when, upon my return to 307 Thalmus Avenue, I discovered, standing in my front yard, not a single piece of furniture; not a stitch of clothing; not a towel, folded or unfolded; not a rug, a lamp, an electronic component, or a kitchen utensil; not a book, a picture, a doily; not even a scrap of paper.  Instead, I saw, standing all alone in my front lawn, none other than my two dear friends, the eminent realtors, Pasquale and Zido.  I no sooner stepped from the street to the sidewalk than they were upon me.

"We don't appreciate your strong arm tactics!" they said in unison, almost right in my face.  "Your underhanded maneuvers!" they added.  "We don't like being fingered by your hit man, either!"  "Or pawed by your guard dogs!"  "We can't stomach this kind of ruthless disregard for our rights!"  "We're human beings, we have feelings, we deserve to be treated with a little respect!"

"Gentlemen," I said, "I agree completely.  But I don't know what you're talking about.  Who has fingered you?  Strong armed you?  Dealt with you underhandedly?  Surely not I."

"No, you wouldn't do it yourself," they replied.  "You're too sharp for that.  You had your henchman do it - your 'business associate!'"

"I have no business associate," I assured them.

"Excuse us," they said, retreating to the locust tree at the side of the house, to engage in private discourse before returning.

"You have no business associate?" asked Zido.

"I do not," I replied.

"Then who was it threatened us?" asked Pasquale.

"And made us move all your things back inside?" added Zido.

"Gentlemen," I said, "those are two separate questions, which I will address in reverse order.  As to moving my things inside, that was no doubt in response to my call this afternoon.  As to the person who threatened you," I went on to say, certain enough what that was all about to forego my pat "did he have a British accent?", "I can only say he is a man zealously committed to artistic purity."

Pasquale and Zido looked at each other a moment.  "Excuse us," they said, this time making for the willow tree in the back yard.  When they returned, I noticed a caterpillar on Mr Zido's right shoulder.

"We've never been threatened with artistic purity before," they pointed out.  "Nor did we pay any attention to your call.  So we'll have our men return first thing tomorrow and clear your things out."

"Why?" I asked.

"That's the standard response when a deadbeat fails to make his mortgage payment."

"I will gladly pay my mortgage at such time as you complete the house you're building for me," I assured them.  "In the meantime, since I rent this house from you and am paid through the month, I shall expect my things to remain inside until the end of the month, at which time I'll move out.  I need to get closer to work anyway."

Without a word, my realtors made, this time, for the ledge at the right side of the yard for a conference.  Returning - this time with a spider on Mr Pasquale's left shoulder - they informed me I was required by the terms of my lease to give six months notice before vacating the premises.

"Will you be able to resist the temptation to evict me for six full months?" I asked.

They looked at each other and shrugged.  "We'll try," they said, then turned and left.

I, too, turned, and went inside, to be greeted by my two merrily leaping little charges.  I half feared Myersby-Calcutt would be there as well; but, luckily, he was not.  Had he been, I would have been compelled to express my displeasure at his having intimidated and threatened my realtors, notwithstanding his great generosity in staying with Fido and Sir Heinfried; I was therefore quite relieved not to have that task facing me.

I no sooner greeted the dogs and set my attaché case down than the phone range - and rang and rang, and threatened to ring unto infinity before I could negotiate my way through the jumble of mis-arranged furniture to answer it.

"Hello," I said.

"Why aren't you at work?" came a stern response to my greeting.  It was Gretchen, and it had not occurred to me until just that moment that she had failed to call back, as she promised.  "If you're going to substitute copy writing for more pertinent experience, at least pursue it like you're serious about it!"

I assured her I was quite serious about it.

"Then I would think twelve hour days would be in order," she observed.  "I really am extremely displeased with your lackadaisical attitude.  Be advised - for now - that the Committee has determined advertising copy to be acceptable writing vis-a-vis the Prose Contest.  I would advise against resting on your laurels, however: you may still be disqualified if I feel your overall qualifications fall short of our exacting standards!  I will keep in touch.  Goodbye."

"Let me ask you something -" I started to say.

"I have no time for questions," she curtly interrupted.  "I have three contestants yet to call and inform of their disqualification.  Goodbye!"

"Goodbye," I mumbled perfunctorily, for she had already hung up.  Perfunctorily, too, did I assemble my charges and ready them for their walk: even that which is normally enjoyable fades to a meaningless gesture when something so dreadful as being disqualified from one of the most significant Contests one can enter faces a man.  Would all my great efforts go for nothing?  My almost beating Silly Jilly at tennis; my day with J Harold Sprung; my appearance before the ruling class: these and so many more extraordinary feats of artistry seemed little more than empty inane gestures now that my entire fate lay in the hands of one ill-tempered auditor who, for God only knows what reason, had taken a dislike to me.  I realize she was a professional, just doing her job - anyone could see that from her intensely business-like manner; but, still, I found myself wishing she were a little more understanding, a little more lenient in assessing my qualifications, a little more tender-hearted and a little less dispassionate.  I know I'm a great writer (only a fool could fail to see that): but how could I get her to accept the evidence I've presented and will continue to present?  How, in a word, could I gather all my talent into a form Gretchen could and would recognize as epitomizing literary genius?

Then, like a bolt out of the blue, it struck me - and I grabbed up Sir Heinfried's leash, motioned to Fido, and veritably flew from my front door, my two dogs fast upon my heels.

"Of course!" I nearly shouted to the evening sky.  "Of course!  I'll go back to the Creatatorium and give my talent a much needed work out!  Why didn't I think of it sooner?  Oh, Fido! oh, Sir Henfried!  What a slow-witted dullard is this creature called man that he must be clubbed over the head before he can see what's right in front of him!  Give me my leotards and running shoes for I must go exercise the very devil out of my genius!  Of course!  Of course!"                    

 

Chapter 36.  A Time To Love And A Time To Learn

I could barely wait for the weekend.  My tremendous eagerness manifested itself in an almost visual impatience at work - not by any means an irritability, for I would never allow even so great a thing as genius to interfere with my work; but a distraction, a preoccupation, an air of wishing the day to be done.  Needless to say, my esteemed colleague, Larry Smelba, picked right up on it.

"Rambo's ready to roll!" he observed mid-day Friday.  "Got a big weekend ahead?  Something to do with this Prose Contest maybe?"

"In a way it has to do with it," I admitted.  "But only in the sense that that Contest has made me see how far afield I've strayed.  You see, gentlemen, I've neglected my genius.  I've let it grow flabby and lazy.  Now I've got to get it back in shape.  I'm on my way - first thing tomorrow - to the Creatatorium.  It's not far from where I live.  I don't know if any of you have ever heard of it; but it's a place where you can go and have your genius put to the test."

"I know the kind of place you mean," said Smelba.  "it's to genius what the hen is to the egg; what Detroit is to the car; it's what kneading is to bread, pulling is to taffy; it's the rainbow before the gold, the night before the day; it's the silver in the lining, the twinkle in your eye; it's all you'll be and everywhere you'll see.  It's the father of time, the mother of nature, the good in the morning, the happy in your birthday.  It's like real, like now, like forever.  And a day."

"And it's a little like the fore in your skin," observed Perk, an observation the smuttiness of which only a dyed-in-the-wool realist like myself would feel compelled to set upon his page.  An observation, also, which pretty much curtailed further discourse: who felt like talking after such a travesty of human language?

Fortunately, the rest of the day went by quickly and without incident, the only business of any great import being my meeting with Limbo regarding the lawsuit against our client, Malius Dvichniskt who, in fact, joined us via the conference phone in Limbo's office.  

"See: the old bag," Limbo was explaining, "opened a can of worms, and we've got to seal it back up.  And seal it for good."

"It's a little like my Little Tommy Doosentoodle," a somewhat garbled Dvichniskt offered.  "He carried a can of earthworms in his right hand, a fishing rod in his left, a sign on his back that said 'Gone Fishin'.'  I designed it so he could carry real worms, only they tended to crawl down his overalls and effect the most unusual creases.  He was declared obscene by a Court in Arizona and had to be taken off the market."

"What we'll take off the market here," said Limbo, "isn't some piece of rubber with a worm hard on down the middle.  We'll take the very concept of lawsuits off the market.  That's what we're aiming for.  Frivolous lawsuits; all lawsuits.  Because, really, all suits against business interests are frivolous, when you get right down to it.  This country was put here to industrialize the world - the universe too, maybe, who can say?  You can't tie its hands every time some ass hole piker thinks he's been wronged, or plagiarized, or pilfered, or fired without cause, or poisoned because something the world desperately needs happens to produce some minute residue of toxin.  That shit's gotta stop.  And, gentlemen, it stops here.  If I was a corporate lawyer - which I am - I would get down on my knees at night - which I do - and thank the Almighty for that old bag and her ridiculous suit.  It was a godsend."

"A godsend": that phrase of Limbo's kept reverberating in my mind the rest of the day; half the night, as one after another dream lazily wove its way about that one theme; and well into the next morning.  Right up till the moment I stood in front of the Creatatorium and read, aloud, the sign in the window.

"Closed for Repairs."

Closed for Repairs!  Of all things, closed for repairs.  I could almost feel my genius sagging beneath the weight of that horrible news.  Put yourself in my place, dear reader; imagine for a moment that you, too, had a genius for something; then just think how you would react to the discovery that its premier place of enhancement had closed for repairs, that there would henceforth (at least until repairs are completed) be no place to shape up and tone down and fine tune your great precious talent.  However (and there is where I differ from your imagined self), I resolved to keep looking until I found a suitable substitute, for under no circumstance would I allow my genius to fall to ruin.

"Closed for repairs," I muttered as I read the sign.

Unnoticed by me, a man had come up to stand almost beside me and was likewise reading the sign.  "Closed for repairs," he, too, read aloud.  At first I thought it an echo, then he caught my eye.

"You come here often?" I asked him, sensing perhaps a fellow artist.

"Once ought to do it," he replied.

"Only once?" I asked, a bit surprised by his overconfidence; for, in truth, he seemed very out of shape, even sickly - and, as everyone knows, genius ever and again takes residence in the sprightliest of forms.

"Well," he thought better of his hasty reply, "I guess till they get their ovens back up to snuff, it'd take several tries, even for these old worn out bones.  I never seen this one before though."

"Believe me," I assured him, "it's one of the finest I've ever seen."

"You go to a lot of them?" he asked.  "What for?"

"I'm an author!" I proudly replied.

"Ah!" he at last caught on.  "And you commit your books to the flames like Mr Hume said to do?"

"Hume," I puzzled.  "Hume.  What did he write?"

"Who would know?  He burnt 'em fast as he could write 'em!"

"He'll never get a best seller that way," I noted.

"You got a best seller?"

"Absolutely," I replied at once, volunteering all the pertinent data. 

"What kind of writer are you?" the man asked.

"I am a realist," I assured the man.  "Realism is my creed.  There's no detail I overlook in my search for perfection; no color I omit; no line, no shape, no shadow I leave out."

"You have your characters sit at stool?" the man asked.

"Well, no," I tried as best I could to respond to his bizarre observation.  "Why on earth would I?"

"That's realism," he replied.  "People do that, you know."

"Not in my books they don't!  I portray reality discreetly."

"Your characters don't wipe themselves neither, nor clean their noses?"

"They most certainly do not!"

"Or scratch their crotch?"

"No, indeed!  It would be vulgar," I said, beginning to suspect I had, unwittingly, come upon yet another lunatic.

"They don't even so much as take a piss?" he added, as if somehow that were of significance.

"They spend their days in pursuit of truth, and justice, and goodness, and love, and honor, and decency!" I explained.  "Their valuable time is not taken up in daily ablutions, bodily evacuations, and other equally mundane activities!"

The man looked at me then shook his head and moved on.  "Realism," he muttered as he turned, "thy name be Procrustes."

"Procrustes," I mused.  "I know the name so very well.  Was he not one of the great Greeks?  Did he not compose a series of sonnets in praise of Sisiphus and other Athenian noblemen?  And how ironic that, of all names, that one should be thrown at me; for, unless my memory has completely failed me, it was he who penned that immortal line 'Seek and ye shall find' - a line I have time and again made my hallmark."

For I sought, and sought, and sought.  And at last found.  "Go to School, young man," an old gentleman advised me, upon overhearing one of my many inquiries as to the existence of places similar in scope and grandeur to the Creatatorium.

"I could enroll at the University," I mused by way of reply.

"Not the University," he corrected me.  "The School.  The School."

Seeking a diplomatic way out of this semantic bind, I explained that I preferred the more definitive term.  "Every University may be a school," I addressed the logic of the matter, "but not every school is a University."

"I'm not speaking of 'school,' young man.  I'm speaking of 'The School': The Grammar School.  Those boys'll give your talent a workout it won't soon forget!  They made me what I am today."

"And that would be?" I prompted.

"A bum," came the strange reply.

"A bum?"

"A bum.  You see, I went there, thinking I had talent.  I came out, knowing I had nothing.  Only go if you're absolutely certain of your talent," the old man continued.  "Or else you'll leave like me: a bum, wandering the earth empty handed in search of something you'll never find.  Because once you've tasted of talent, even a false taste of a bogus substitute, your life will never be the same again.  I'm like an addict, looking for a fix.  Everywhere I go, looking for a fix.  So be careful, young man.  Be very careful."

I assured him I had nothing to fear.  My talent was indisputable; nothing would wither it, wear it down or so much as question it.  But I thanked him for his concern: that was the least I could do, knowing that everything he sought in life and would never attain, I veritably overflowed with.

And there it was, an hour later and a degree warmer, the place where a man's talent gets put to the ultimate test.  The Grammar School.  Where, if you're not a genius, you may very well go in thinking you're talented but rest assured you'll come out a bum.  (I caution my worthy readers against going near the place.)

I rapped at the door: the door was locked.  While waiting to be admitted, I surveyed the modest exterior that so belied the enormous vortex within.  A brownstone, rather dense with ivy that draped over the windows and seemed about to wrestle the door from human carriage.  A quaint reddish roof with a pair of gables peeking through the leaves of an elm tree.  A trellis extending up one side of the building, home base to the aspiring tentacles of vegetation.  Bric-a-brac on the window ledge within, bird droppings without.  And a chimney, right in the middle, from which arose a yellowish smoke.

Finally the door opened and a voice beckoned one to "Enter."  Once inside, I was asked to state my name and reason for being there.  "Please be specific," the voice insisted.

"I am Rondo," I said.  "I am here to put my genius to the test."

"Have you ever been here before?  And if so, when?"

"I have never been here before."

"Yet you would call yourself a genius: how odd!" the individual admitting me observed.  I could not be sure if this were a man or a woman; neither the appearance nor the tone, timbre and pitch of its voice definitively suggested one gender or the other.

"Follow me," the androgynous voice commanded.

I was led through a short non-descript corridor to a longer, equally non-descript corridor; and, from there, to yet a third corridor, midway between the other two in length, equal in its lack of distinction; till, at last, we came to an open door, which led to what appeared to be a laboratory of some sort.  The walls - all sixteen of them (a number the significance of which will become clear presently) - were a pale kind of greenish gray; the ceiling was an expanse of interconnected recessed lighting fixtures; the floor was green and gray tile of a large checkered pattern.  The man standing in the middle of the room was wearing a green lab coat over what appeared to be gray work clothes.

"Another genius, Cliage!" the androgynous person announced before departing, at which introduction the man in the lab coat motioned me forward.

"Hold it!" he held up his hand and said when I had taken a few steps.  "Go back one quarter step - quarter, I said: not one third!  There!  Perfect.  Now be seated."

"There' no chair," I pointed out.

"But there is a floor," the man countered.  "Be seated."

The floor appeared to be clean, as did the room in general.  So I complied with the gentleman's request and seated myself on the floor.

"I am Cliage Meouschneeschness, I am your grammar scholar.  I will be assisted by my lovely assistant, Coralette Wimblestilken.  Together, we will administer a battery of tests designed to ferret out hidden genius as well as expose fraudulent talents.  Are there any questions?" he asked.

"Just one," I replied.  "How do you spell your name?"

"I did not instruct you, at this time, to ask your question; merely to tell me if you had any," I was chided by the grammarian.  "Since, however, you chose to forge ahead without permission - as, I feel obliged to point out, nearly all untalented persons do - I shall answer you at this time.  And the answer is this - are you writing this down?"

"I forgot to bring pen and paper," I was forced to admit.

"You wouldn't have been allowed to use the pen in any event; only a pencil until we're sure your talent is genuine.  As to my name, it's spelled exactly like it's pronounced.  Your dearth of phonetic acumen does not speak well of your alleged ability.  I can only hope, at this time, you are in the throes of an attack of angst and have gone temporarily mad and that's why you can't tell one syllable from another."

"That's partly what happened," I felt compelled to go along with his assessment.

"What part?" came the question I should, by now, have expected, owing to my grammarian's predilection for precision.  "One part of three?  Two of seven"  Five out of twenty seven and three fifths?  What part is it?  Don't leave it just hanging there."

"It is one point nine seventh parts out of seven and six eighths," I made up what I thought was a suitable response.

"You don't reduce your fractions either?" he inquired in a sarcastic tone of voice.  "Seven and six eighths is unacceptable at this time.  But we have to move on.  There is much to be done.  The first test is scheduled to begin in forty-five seconds.  At this time, I shall call my assistant."

He picked up a phone, dialed what I could have sworn were eleven numerals, waited a couple seconds, spoke into the mouthpiece "You may come in at this time.  Bring numbers 4, 12, 11, 6 and 9879," then hung up.

Momentarily, a young woman appeared in the room.  Seated as I was, I failed to see where she came from.  But, when I looked up and saw her standing before me, I was tempted to conclude she had come from heaven.

Is this what they mean by "love at first sight?" I wondered.

Because, dear reader, I suddenly found myself seriously poised in the direction of that very concept.  Love at first sight.  Wild, mad, impassioned, unbridled love!  At first, then second, then even third and fourth sight!  I could almost picture her, dear reader - not as she was, of course, clothed in hot pink leotards, dark hair flowing, eyes glistening; but in all her feminine glory, seated beside me at a book signing ceremony in an elegant bookstore, tastefully attired in a lovely beige suit, hair discreetly pulled into a tight bun, eyeglasses resting on the beautiful bridge of her patrician nose.  Then I saw her in the kitchen of our little dream house, preparing an elegant repast for our guests; then in the dining room, passing a tray of hors d'oeurves; then in the sitting room, conversing with the literati.  (Forgive me, dear reader, if I have overly titillated you with my sensuous depiction of the incredible beauty that lay buried beneath the garish exterior of this siren, but I am smitten, and I am captivated, and every fiber of my being is concentrated on her and her alone.  Oh reader, what a magical, wonderful, magnificent whirlwind is this thing called love!  And, yes, just a little maddening too.  So, forgive me, I pray you!)

"I said," my reverie was dispelled by the brusque efficiency of the grammarian, "we are ready at this time to begin."  It seemed like hours my thoughts had been focused on the object of my affection; and - who knows? - perhaps it was.  "I have waited a full ten seconds beyond the time I have determined we must begin.  Now let us begin!"  

Ten seconds?  Only ten seconds?  Impossible!  It must have been ten hours, not ten seconds.  And yet, there he was, Cliage Meouschneeschness, staring down at his stopwatch.  So ten seconds it was - but, oh! what a momentous ten seconds!  An eternity wrapped in a single tick-tock!  But all good things must come to an end; and it was time, now, to test my genius.

Meouschneeschness instructed his assistant - my dream lover - to hand me the first test.  I took the slip of paper, hoping and praying it had her address and phone number and the sacred words "I love you and all your works" along with the test question.  (But it didn't.)

"Parse this sentence at this time," I was ordered.  I quickly complied.  "Now convert it to its phonetic equivalents."  This, too, I accomplished (in record time, too, it seemed).  "Now place its modifiers before its interrogatives."  I succeeded in locating every interrogative, every modifier, and juxtaposing them as instructed, leaving one modifier with no interrogative to modify.  "Now make its adverbs into adjectives."  So it was done - and done as none has ever done before (or since, I'm sure).

Next I was handed a sheet of paper containing a single paragraph.  "At this time you may read the paragraph," the grammarian instructed, so I read it - as quickly as my speed reading training would allow.  "First," I was then told, "find the infinitives hidden in this paragraph.  I found seven.  "There are eight," he informed me.  "Now, take all participles and gerunds; divide by subordinate clauses; subtract every third conjunction.  What have you got?"

"Alphabet soup!" I quipped.

Meouschneeschness and my darling Coralette Wimblestilken looked at each other, shook their heads, then shrugged.  I was absolutely mortified.  How could I have been so foolish as to treat this matter so casually?  What foul demon made me imagine a quip could ever replace the hard, cold response the question demanded?  Most of all, had I forever ruined my chance to win this woman's heart with a moment's inappropriate levity?

"Could I reconsider my answer?" I asked, almost in desperation.

"Not at this time," the grammarian answered coldly.  "We must move on to the next round of tests.  We have already lost nearly three seconds."  He motioned for his assistant - my heartthrob - to get the next set of tests.  While he waited, he grilled me on some of the finer points of grammar.  "You have a subject, a predicate, an object.  Tell me: can you place ten units - they can be any given part of speech - between your subject and object?"

"Yes, I can - and have, resulting in many fine passages!" I at once replied.

"Can you place twenty units between your verb and its principal modifier?"

Again, I answered without hesitation.  "Any day of the week - and twice on Sundays!"

"Not the same twenty I trust," a rather skeptical grammarian observed.  I was about to reassure him when his next question cut me short.  "And can you place thirty units before and up to forty units after your infinitive?"

"Without splitting a hair!" I replied.

"And what about your copulative and action predicates?  Can you place 7000 between them?"

"I'm no fool!" I said.

"Then I take it," Meouschneeschness retorted, "we can assume you to be fundamentally incapable of placing 9 million units within the confines of an ellipsis."

"I never use ellipses," I explained.  "Whatever I have to say, I say outright."

"The strong, silent type, eh?" a voice from out of nowhere observed.  I turned, and my heart pounded, for it was my adored one, my grand passion, my lovely little author's helpmeet who had made that profound observation.

"At this time," the voice of the grammarian nipped my reverie in the bud, "I will give you a Thematic Apperception Test.  Coralette: lead this person to the Thematic Apperception booth."

My precious Coralette led the way to a faraway corner of the room, where a screen hung against the wall and, on a table a few feet back, stood a projector.

"Be careful," she said, taking me by the arm, "the floor's slippery - as slippery as an existentialist's tautology.  It was waxed only yesterday."

"I swear, on everything I stand for," I replied, "that I shall be careful."

Just as we successfully negotiated our way to the place where I was to stand, we heard a loud noise, something like a bang.  We turned and, to our horror, beheld our respective colleague and tester, Cliage Meouschneeschness, flat on the floor.  He had evidently slipped upon the slippery waxed surface.  We went as fast as we dared to him.  For a moment we stood looking down at him, half wondering if he were still alive, for he was not moving.  Then he opened his eyes and looked up at us.

"At this time," he said, "I shall require some assistance to resume an upright position."

 

Chapter 37.  A Man Among Gods

The beauteous Coralette Wimblestilken and I flew like two star crossed angels of mercy to assist the fallen grammarian, she to his right, I to his left.

"Alright now," my heavenly darling addressed me when we had each taken firm hold of an elbow, "at the count of three, heave.  One.  Two.  Three.  Heave!"

And heave we did.  But, alas, so zealously did we execute our task that we exceeded our own highest expectations.  We overshot the mark.  Somehow - and God only knew how - we succeeded in actually tossing the poor shaken grammarian in the air, where it would have been quite sufficient merely to have lifted him to his feet, which was of course our original intention.  Luckily he didn't go far; but he did slip all over again upon his return to terra firma - and had to once again be helped up.

"I am in nowise to be compared with a ping-pong ball," he cautioned as we took hold.  Gently we lifted him this time, the way we might embrace one another, my Coralette and I.

"How's that?" asked Coralette.

"That is acceptable," Meouschneeschness replied.  "However, I must retire to the sanitary facility at this time for some much needed relief.  Please do not begin further testing until I return."

When we were alone, Coralette turned to me and, with eyes as bright as those of a literary critic opening the latest best seller, addressed me in a manner that sent chills of passion up and down my spine.

"Come with me," she whispered, "there's something I must show you."

Would she lead me to her quarters perhaps?  Would she give herself to me in all her womanly beauty?  Would we become lost in a world of the most exhilarating ecstasy?  Or, perhaps (dare I even thing it?) would she reach beneath her pillow and bring forth a copy of my one, and therefore only, best seller that she and I might serenade each other with our favorite passages?  Oh wondrous imagery! wondrous imagination! wondrous world! wondrous everything in it!

She led me through a door at the far end of the lab; down a long hall; and through another door.  My heart was beating wildly.  My mind was busily counting the pages we might share.  My feet, my hands, groped their way through time and space.  My senses were all reeling.

Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

"You see that guy over there?" she asked.

"Oh yes, indeed I do!" I replied as eagerly as I could for, even though he was the only person in the room, I wished to impress my Coralette with my absolute attention to details.

"He's my boyfriend," she said, so matter of factly that I failed at first to grasp the full import of the revelation.  "He's also our resident 'whiz kid.'  He's a computer whiz.  He has a story to tell that I want you to hear.  He tells it over and over - but it's so fascinating!  It expresses the very essence of the human spirit, over and over, in a way I've never heard before or since!  I want you to meet him.  And, just to make sure he tells his story: when I introduce you, ask him what he's working on."

"I'd like to hear his story," I graciously assured this ravishing beauty who suddenly seemed so ephemeral, so unattainable, so phantasmagoric.  "You know, I have quite an interest in computer science."

"I used to," said Coralette.  "Now, I'm only interested in philosophy.  That's why we're breaking up.  I can no longer bear the company of Cobal and Fortran and the like when such concepts as epistemology and metaphysics and so many other fabulous things await."

"Ah!" I said, suddenly re-invigorated with new hope.  "Philosophy!  Practically my middle name!  I shall have to take you with me sometime to the place I work part time, that you may converse face to face with one of the greatest thinkers of our time!"

"I'd love to," my profound darling agreed.  "Oh, Tinkie," she called to the tall, thin, blonde, non-descript young man with horn-rimmed glasses.  "Tinkie, this is Rondo: he's a famous writer.  Rondo: meet Timothy T Timiss.  His nickname is Tinker Toy.  I call him Tinkie."

The young man extended a hand so limp that I had to look again to make sure I had taken his hand and not his lab coat.  We exchanged a word or two of greeting.  I would have left it at that, but Coralette prompted me.

"There was something you wanted to ask Tinkie, wasn't there?"

"Oh yes," I replied, "I was curious what you were working on.  I see all these computers.  It must be a big project."

"I had a little problem," Tinkie immediately launched into his story, as if reciting from a memorized script, "but I'm working on a program to make sure it never happens again.  It'll be a digital program, naturally.  State of the art.  I'm anticipating between 30 and 40 billion bits."

"You know," I muttered, "I was almost involved in the manufacture of computer chips."

"Computer chips are almost obsolete," Tinkie replied in the same sing-song voice.  "I'll need the next generation circuitry.  That's what we were researching.  A bunch of us guys were doing research in an isolated location in the Southwest, somewhere near a desert, with mountains on one side and a stretch of sand on the other side.  They called us the Cat's Meow In Jammies Kids.  We were holed up in a big lab filled with all the latest computer technology.  All of a sudden, one day, we lost power.  We couldn't call out.  Then a blizzard struck and we couldn't go anywhere.  The snow blocked the windows and doors.  Then we ran out of food and water.  Then it began to get real cold inside where we were.  Then we kind of got on each other's nerves.  So I killed the others and was fixing to eat them when we got rescued.  It turned out I hadn't really killed them, I just hallucinated it.  Neither had they died of exposure like they thought, they just hallucinated that.  We were cold, we were hungry, the wind was coming through the cracks in the walls, the snow was seeping through the holes in the roof, our food was gone, we didn't have any warm clothes, not in the desert, no one ever told us it got cold in the desert.  We tried eating the floppy disks, but we couldn't keep them down.  We tried using the spreadsheets as blankets but our arms kept tearing the perforations.  We tried climbing inside the computer housing to keep out the wind and snow but we couldn't loosen the circuits and there wasn't room enough for the circuits and us.  Then we tried burning the diskettes to keep warm, but the smoke made us choke; and the status reports went up so fast we barely felt the heat.  So we just sat there, staring at our computers, dreaming of better days when the diodes were aglow with light, the circuits alive with an army of bites, the printers abuzz with the end results of our collective labor.  When we had sat like that for hours on end, we all began to think we had died and must have gone to heaven, surrounded as we were by all the latest technology.  Eventually some old miners with a mule team happened by and rescued us.  They fed us.  They gave us blankets.  They put us in a big covered wagon their mule team was pulling, where we got warm and fell asleep till we awoke in a hospital in Roswell, New Mexico.  This must never again happen.  Human beings must never again be put in such jeopardy.  I intend to work - night and day if I must - to see they're not.  All the resources of the earth should go into making sure such a thing never befalls anyone, anytime, anywhere, ever again.  My project - program - will see to that.  If not my project, then someone else's - I don't care who gets the glory.  I only care that the world gets the perfect program to ensure its survival.  And I will not rest till all the resources of this planet are channeled into this sort of project, mine or not mine, it's all the same to me.  How can I do less?  I owe it to mankind.  And to the miners and their mule team that saved me from the elements."

With these words, Tinkie returned to his work.  And Coralette and I to my Thematic Apperception Test.

"I get goose bumps every time I hear it," she confided in me.  "Maybe I'm doing the wrong think breaking up with him over a little thing like philosophy.  I don't know."

"Little thing like philosophy?" I said.  "It's the single most important thing in the world!"

"You're right of course," she agreed.  "How can I go back to Pascal when there is Berrylpuddin, and Smittenmiliker, and the whole host of other famous philosophers?  I have no choice but to break up with Tinkie."

"So it would seem, at least in the phenomenological sense," I agreed as philosophically as I could.

"Phenomenology," she mused.  "I've heard of that.  It's a very old philosophy, at least 50 years old.  People once took it seriously, if you can imagine such a thing.  You're not into phenomena, are you?"

"Oh no, no," I assured my darling.  "I only used the term ironically."

"I'm torn between Berrylpuddin's Prescient Materialism and Smittenmiliker's Molecular Ontology.  Berrylpuddin's book covers make use of geometrics and neon-glow colors, whereas Smittenmiliker uses pastels and soft curves.  Which seems more philosophical?" Coralette asked.

"Philosophy needs both," I replied.  "It must be tough and hard hitting, but it must also be softly spiritual."

"Above all it has to be relevant - please don't forget that!" Coralette reminded me.

"Believe me," I assured my darling, "I would sooner forget my own name than forget relevance!"

"More than anything your name must be relevant!  Why do you think I changed mine?  I wasn't always Coralette Wimblestilken.  I used to be Coral Wilson - but who wants a plain Jane name like that in an exciting, inventive era like this?"

"And only God can make a tree!" I exclaimed - apropos of absolutely nothing save my exhilaration at being here with my lover on a Saturday afternoon.

"Oh that's beautiful!" Coralette, in turn, exclaimed.  "It's so ontological - and yet material at the same time!  Write it down, save it, use it for one of your stories!  Let the world know just what a genius you truly are!"

"Ah," I mused, "after these tests you've put me through here today, I'm not so sure anymore."

"Forget the tests, they're meaningless!  If even a minor league philosopher like Eupelgooning could see how useless they are - you know what he said?  He said - get this - 'The only good test is a dead test' - meaning,  of course, the test they give you to see if you're dead or still alive.  Forget these stupid tests!  All they prove is that you're not dead yet.  You can just as easily prove that with a good stiff shot of Scotch!  Speaking of which: let's go.  There's a perfectly wonderful little bar just down the street.  Let's go get a Scotch on the rocks!"

"Would these rocks be molecules or materials?" I asked.

"It's ice," my darling had taken me much too literally.  "Rocks is a synonym for ice cubes."

"I'll remember that," I promised.  And shall I tell you as well the silent promise I made to my darling Coral, AKA Coralette - to promise to love, honor and obey?  (But perhaps my worthy readers have sufficient intuition to have already guessed as much.)

"So this is Biff Bannake's," I remarked as we stood poised to enter the little corner bar that jutted to an apex where two of our best known blocks intersected.  "I've heard of it, but I've never been here."

"Oh, you'll love it!" Coralette assured me.  "And pay special attention to the football carved out of wood," she advised, "it has a fabulous history!"

One always wonders what an edifice with so small and tightly angled a portico must be like inside; and now I know.  It was peculiarly shaped.  To be sure, it's narrow sliver of an opening expanded to something wider inside; but not as much wider as one might imagine: this was not the tomb of Pharoah, whose truly tiny door opened upon a vast burial chamber.  Nor did the room ever assume normal planes and dimensions; it never became oblong or square, playing out instead the lines of a polygon, taking so many turns to become a room that it resembled nothing more than a trapezoid.

Its motif was wholly athletic - not surprisingly, since it was dubbed a Sports Bar.

"I'd introduce you," my precious Coralette whispered, "but since you're only a writer, I'd just as soon keep you anonymous.  Oh, and - should it come up in conversation - I'm a fitness coordinator, not a genius tester.  Okay?"

"Okay," I said - and would as readily have agreed had my darling asked me to jump off the roof of Biff Bannake's.

"Let's sit over there, where it's more private," she led me to a far corner of the trapezoid.  "Maybe no one'll notice you're not wearing sweats.  Oh, and pay special attention to the frame holding the Babe's picture: it, too, has a simply fabulous history!"

I eventually discovered almost everything here had a history behind it, each quite unusual - if not indeed fabulous - from the aforementioned football, which was carved from the oaken balustrade of a famous battleship; to the picture frame my darling alluded to, made from the siding of an old military barracks; to the miniature stadium, intricately carved out of an old Roman amphitheater; right on down to the bust of Ty Cobb, whoever that was, which, I was told, was carved from the barrel of a gun.

I noted the uncanny confluence of military artifacts to the patrons at the next table my darling and I had occasion to converse with when the barmaid mistakenly switched our orders; this, I was told, signified the essentially military nature of the earliest sporting events - something I have not yet had the chance to verify, so I must caution the reader to meet this explanation as askance as I did.  I was, in fact, about to inquire further when the gentleman abruptly got up and left.

"He was in a hurry," I said.

"No," replied Coralette, "he just wanted to avoid Obie.  Oh!  He's coming this way.  Pretend we're kissing or something and maybe he'll go away!"

How little my darling knew of love if she imagined the man who loved her so completely could simply ignore the rest of the world, and express his feeling in plain view of two dozen or so barhops!

"Oh, it's too late!" she said.

The man stopped at our table and introduced himself.  "I'm Horace Oberon Ensign," he said.  "They call me Obie.  They used to, that is.  Way back when I almost became a role model.  Before they caught me masturbating out behind the high school gym.  It was just me.  I mean, there were no kids.  I wasn't exposing myself, or molesting anyone.  I wasn't even all that drunk either.  I just...I don't know...I just...was out there...and without thinking I pulled it out and started doing it.  I didn't know anyone was around.  I swear, I didn't.  I just...I don't know...it's hard to explain...but I wanted to recapture something...a feeling maybe...like when I was a kid, in junior high, and things were going bad and my dad was drunk and I was sort of crying...I'd go out behind the schoolhouse and...and do it.  But you can't go home, can you?  Isn't that what you say?  They say you can't go home.  Next thing I knew, I was standing in front of the baseball commissioner in a big, long room.  'We were considering you for a role model,' they told me.  That was the first I'd heard about it.  I didn't know I had a shot at it.  That year all the role models were coming from the basketball court.  Baseball players were lucky to get to advertise underpants!  Shoes? soda pop?  Get real!  There wasn't any baseball player anywhere near role model enough for that!  But I had a shot at it!  I actually, really, truly, had a shot at it!  If I just hadn't unzipped my britches!  I could have been a contender...I could have been one of the ones kids look up to and everyone pays a million bucks to sell their products!  I might have had kids growing up who wanted to be like me.  I might have had shoes named after me.  How could I know I was scheduled to be that season's role model?  How - tell me how!?  'We cannot allow a known masturbator to be a model for our children,' they said.  'We have a responsibility to protect their best interests.  Besides, no sponsor will touch you with a ten foot pole now.  Perhaps it would be best if you looked for a new career altogether.  We must think of the children first.  And our revenues have fallen slightly since this scandal hit the papers.  But, above all, it's the children.  God bless and keep the children!'  And that, as they say, was that.  I lost my moral stature before they'd even given it to me.  I lost a million bucks in endorsements.  I even lost my job.  Tell me: would you want your kid saying he wants to grow up and be just like Obie Ensign?  Would you want your kid masturbating out behind the gym?  You don't have to answer, the question's rhetorical - purely rhetorical."

I knew something about the horrors of rhetorical questions, so I could certainly emphasize with him on that point.  As to the other: what could I say?  What could anyone say?  Our children are our greatest treasure; they must at all costs be shielded from the ugly side of life.  Anyway, Obie left the moment his tirade ended, so I was spared the necessity of further comment.  I was free to return to my heavenly tete-a-tete with my little enchantress, Miss Wimblestilken.

The time to go drew nigh, though, as it always must.  Were an afternoon eternal, even that would leave too great a gap in my schedule.  I would need a thousand eternities, each bursting from a magic bubble, falling back, arising all over again - and still my time with my lover would be too brief.

"Oh look!" she cried as we were leaving.  "They're peg-legging!"  She pointed to a section of the bar where men were climbing upon a table then leaping off to try and land on one foot.

"Peg-legging?" I asked.

"The idea's to keep your balance using just one leg - like your other one's a peg-leg!  Oh, you try it!  Please!  Please!"

"I'm feeling just a bit dizzy," I confessed.  "And my feet have been bothering me lately.  I'd better not this time, much as I'd like to."

And what, pray tell, happened next?  I can almost hear my over eager readers asking in anticipation of what all the hosts of heaven and all the denizens of the deep have ordained must follow upon the heels of so great a passion.  But, alas, my reader asks for that which I cannot give, for it would be unseemly and indiscreet to invite a company of voyers up the flight of stairs leading to the apartment which housed my darling, my precious, my heavenly treasure.  I will say only that her bedroom walls where covered with giant posters of her favorite philosophers, apropos of which I relate one small bit of conversation, this concerning a smaller poster of Plato.

"This one was Greek," she pointed out.

"Ah!" I quipped, "a Greek bearing gifts!"

"Not gifts: ideas," my darling said.  "His ideas are important, too, because both Berrylpuddin and Smittenmiliken decided to use them in their own philosophies!"

(My darling, as you see, has a way of cutting right through the thick layers of husk to the kernel of reality.)

"I shall return!" I said upon taking my leave.  The words we speak, however, are not always written down in heaven.  Sometimes they fail to ignite, remaining ghosts before our eyes and ears, coming back to haunt us.  Such a case was this.  Heaven had not heard me, for, alas! I never fulfilled my pledge - not for want of trying, for I verily flew to her before the week was out; but for lack of admission.  As quickly as my darling found me she had found another.

"No," she said the next time I appeared before her door, wings upon my feet, an unexpected lull in my work.  "Only the true lover of philosophy may cross my threshold.  You are a heretic.  I didn't realize it until Matt pointed it out.  Matt is my new boyfriend.  He's a CPA, and a true believer."

"But I love you," I protested.

"What is love compared to knowledge?" my Coralette retorted.  "With you I should starve intellectually.  For how can I discuss my bountiful Berrylpuddin or reflect on my scintillating Smittenmiliken with a Philistine?  And, really, philosophy is nothing more than the wind our heaven father dispatches our way.  Oh, the things Matt has learned from his church!"

"His church?" I prompted.

"The Mortification Church," Coralette explained.  "He wants me to join.  'Let me take you away from all these earthly concerns to a realm of pure thought!' he said.  Isn't it wonderful?  A place where Berrylpuddin and Smittenmilken join forces with Jesus, Mary and Joseph to bring understanding to all mankind.  And the man who will lead us all there!"

"Matt, you mean," I said.

"No, not Matt: he's just one of the chosen.  Father Luna!  That's our leader: Father Luna!"

"And has Matt given up all earthly concerns to become a CPA?" I asked.

"He's already done that," replied Coralette.  "He gave them up three years ago.  Now he's cleansed, he's pure - he's been mortified.  Now he's free to take them up again.  You really don't understand anything, do you?"

And she slammed the door shut.

 

Chapter 38.  It Is A Poor Spy That Has No Secrets To Sell

"Lunamuna Soleilisun: that's the man," I was told.

"You the man!  You the man!  You the man!" the chant arose from below.

"He's savvy, he's sharp, he's sophisticated; he knows where God is and he knows how to find Him!"

A might cheer went up.  A hundred thousand people leapt to their feet.

"He's got the beat of an era in the palm of his hand.  He's like a drum roll, like a baton, a maestro, a song of the times and a timeless song - and some kind of super deluxe sense of timing!"

The throng swayed as it began singing a hymn.  The people held hands.  The words they sang were unintelligible.

"A finger on the pulse of humanity, a two-thumbs-up track record, an old hand at working a crowd; but don't look for feet of clay, not on this messiah!"

They were pronounced man and wife, a hundred thousand souls becoming one.

"He's here, he's everywhere; he's now, he's tomorrow; he's what is and he's what will be.  Mark my words: he's not only put Melanesia on the map; his teachings at the head of the class, his church in the social registry, himself in Who's Who - he'll put just about every other denomination out of business before he's through!  The man is to religion what Henry Ford was to the motor car, what Andrew Carnegie was to steel, Rockefeller to oil, Goodyear to rubber."

Fifty thousand men lifted fifty thousand veils from fifty thousand hats and slowly covered their brides' faces.

"He doesn't just make converts, he makes friends - big friends; allies - big allies; contributors - big contributors.  He piles up debts on earth the way he piles up treasures in heaven.  The rich and the powerful know him and owe him - and if you can think of any greater praise one human being can give another, brother keep it to yourself!"

The newlyweds bowed their heads.  The sun began to set.  The little squat man on stage took his leave.  All was quiet.

Larry Smelba reached up and turned  the TV off.  "Well," he said as he turned back to us, "what do you think?  Can we pull it off?"

Perhaps, given the characteristic breadth, depth and insight of the analysis, my more intuitive readers have already guessed it had been Smelba narrating the scene for us.  Now he offered us the chance to add what little we might to his, as always, brilliant analysis.

"Pull it off?" I asked.

"We're one step away from signing Father Luna and his Mortification Church as our newest clients," Boompy Starboard explained.

"Father Luna?" I practically screamed.  "Mortification Church?  You mean that was them?  You mean he's just married all those people?"

"You got it," said Smelba.

"Oh God, no!" I almost wailed.  "She might have been among them!"

"Who?"

"Her: the great beauty I was telling you about," I replied.  "She's dumped me for a member of the Mortification Church - and I'm determined to get her back!  But now - what if she's married already?"

"No chance of that," Smelba assured me.  "These couples' nuptials have been happening for two years.  The ceremony's just the last of a long series of steps.  Rest assured your little Chickadee's not got the ring through her man's nose yet!"

"Thank God," I breathed more easily.  "There's still a chance for me.  But I've got to act before it's too late - before the nuptials begin, even if it will take two years to get to the altar!  I've got to find out all I can about that church and that Father Luna.  Is there any way I can be a party to what's going on between them and us - I mean, trying to sign them up?  Who's on the team?"

"Of course, the actual work's being done on the cocktail circuit," Starboard explained.  "I hear old Whitti himself's taken up this one."

"Whitti?" I asked.

"V Whittaker Frier, VP for company development and ex-officio Board Chairman," Smelba interjected.

"Right," said Starboard.  "He's been wining and dining old Pappy Luna ever since the news came out the Church was looking for a good old American PR firm to handle its expansion effort."

"Once we have the contract: what then?" I asked.  "Any chance I could be on the team?"

"If you can keep your objectivity," said Starboard.  "Remember: the aim here's not to do anything to offend the Church hierarchy.  If they think one of our people's trying to keep a prospective member under wraps - bye the bye, I assume this gal's rich?"

"I don't know," I replied.  "I don't think so."

"Then they won't miss her," a relieved Starboard said.  "So, I'll see what I can do."

"It's as good as done!" my friend and fellow colleague Larry Smelba assured me as an aside.

And, as the night must follow the day, reality always accommodates the consummate artist - not merely in the presentation of his opuses before the public but in the manifestation of even his most casual prognostications: further proof that God is not merely the greatest of all possible beings but the most tasteful as well.  Within a week Smelba's assurance suffused the texture of possibility; I was selected to join the team formed to create a campaign for our newest client.  I could begin the important work of winning back my beloved.

Our first meeting was held on a rainy, windy afternoon.  If, according to business lore (so I'm told) it is an ill omen for the man in charge of a project to lose his train of thought during the initial presentation; how much worse an omen, then, when he dies before uttering his first word!  For die is surely what he did, our esteemed Vice President, the man who almost single-handedly won the contract, the illustrious V Whittaker Frier, one of the founding partners of Meier, Frier, Knopf and Box.

We assembled at 10 A.M. sharp - the time of the day most favored at MFKB for important meetings.  "Whittie," as we all knew him and loved him, entered the conference room.  We all stood up out of deep respect.  He made for the chair at the head of the conference table.  He sat down, the rest of us following suit.  He set the notebook he was carrying on the table, opened it to the first page, glanced down at his notes, looked up, looked all around the room, returned his gaze to the notebook, leaned back, closed his eyes, and died.  It took us a moment to comprehend his last action; when we did, we all spontaneously arose and left the room, single file, the way we had entered.

"Markada," someone said to Frier's secretary, who always sat just outside the conference room door with a cellular phone on her lap during meetings like this should her boss receive an important call, "Whittie has just died."  Just then Markada's phone rang.

"Hello," she said, always the consummate secretary.

"This is Junie," came a voice we could hear through the receiver.  "It's his wife," someone whispered.  "Tell Whittie his pet rat just gave birth," the voice announced.

"I would tell him, Ma'am," replied Markada, "but he's dead."

"Oh," said Junie.  Then a pause; then she spoke again.  "I forgot," she bravely carried on, "is he wearing his gray pinstripe with the single or the double breast?"

"The double."

"Please have it cleaned before the funeral," the clearly distraught wife of our great Vice President kept enough of a stiff upper lip to instruct the secretary.

"Yes, ma'am," said Markada.

"Frier, I should point out, was well past 90 years of age.  His wife, I'm told, was in her 20s; one can only pray she will be able to get on with her young life after so monumental a loss.

For my part, I was totally devastated.  My dear friend Larry Smelba at once detected my consternation and tried to console me.  "Relax," he assured me, "the project's alive and well and already in LB's court.

"LB"" I asked.

"Lou Knopf, Executive VP in charge of marketing: he's taken over the project.  So don't worry, you're still on the team.  Maybe not his first choice, but you're already there, and Louis B Mayer Knopf's made a career - and a fortune - out of not fixing it if it ain't broke!  Trust me: the team will stand as presently constituted!  His debt to Perk will not override his obsession to go with the flow - to leave well enough alone."

"What debt to Perk?" I asked, a bit nervously, sensing the possibility of being supplanted.

"Perk saved his life once by taking a bullet a disgruntled client meant for old LB.  It's no big deal, so don't worry.  Your team is THE team - the one, the only; the team with the bestest, the mostest; the team that's with it and going the distance with it.  You're a team's team, brother!  You're rewriting history even as it's being made - and you're the ones making it!  So hang in there, kid - and give it all you've got - all 1000 percent!"

I went home that night with a mind reassured by Smelba's comments and a conscience made clear and clean by standing up for what was right.  On the way to the train station, I saw something that made my mind turn cold and brought my conscience to a boil: a picket line, in front of an office building, a thing that would have piqued my righteous indignation at any time or place, but all the more so in this particular time and place.  For they were not picketing just anyone, anywhere: they were picketing the home office of one of the foremost examples of the entrepreneurial spirit to be found in America today, a man who had started with a dream and a mere 50 grand his father had left and had built an empire on wheels: my great good friend, Metchelton Z Moop, affectionately known by all his friends and business associates as Mitch.

Some five or six men scantily clad in some kind of tights that came only down to their knees, dirty T-shirts that reeked of perspiration, bandanas around their heads and sneakers on their feet were parading in front of the MacVilliers Building, on their bikes, carrying signs that read "On strike against a company unfair to workers!"  To give you an example of the caliber of individual who does this sort of thing, on one of the signs, the word "strike" was misspelled "strick."  (I leave to the reader to determine the worth of their "strick!")

I could have simply walked past - indeed, the police were already there ordering the strikers to leave; but my great sense of justice and fair play would not let me.  If I were ever to look myself in the eye again, I had no choice but to confront these shiftless bums.

"Will you never understand the enormous boon to humanity a man like Mitch Moop is?" I raised my voice to ask.

"Yeah, he's a boom to humanity to right!" one of the bikers replied.

"And we'd like to boom him right where it hurts most: right in his big fat wallet!" snorted another.

"Were it not for such as he," I retorted, "you would have no work!  You and your families would starve!"

"Me and my family," said a third biker, "used to live here - right here where this building sits.  We had a little garden; we grew enough food to eat all summer long and still have enough to can for the rest of the year.  I guess we would starve now, that they took our land and we got to buy everything we put in our mouths to eat from the grocery store.  That don't make the SOB that's keeping us from growing our own food a boon to us just because he needs someone to carry his messages all over DC!"

"Mitch Moop is one of the most honorable men I know!" I said.  "His name can be found in just about every civic association's list of supporters.  He's president of his kids' PTA.  He's a lifetime member of the Chamber of Commerce.  He sits on the board of the local college.  He helps raise money for the annual policeman's ball.  You name it, he's behind it!"

"Fair labor practices," said a fourth biker.  "He behind those?"

"'Course he is!" rejoined one of the others: "'Bout as far behind 'em as you can get and still remain on this planet!"  They all broke out in laughter.

I just shook my head and moved on.  "Why am I wasting my time trying to enlighten the rabble," I muttered.

"You mean the strikers?" a gentleman walking in the same direction remarked.  "They're the rabble?"

As we walked I glanced over and saw that my interlocutor was well dressed and even patrician in his demeanor: a kindred spirit with whom it was safe to converse.

"Exactly," I replied.

"It's a war zone out there," he observed.  "The psyche is violated ad nauseum.  The level of violence inflicted on people is enough to make you want to wear a suit of mail to work."

"They've got to get the hoodlums off the street," I agreed.  "And the rabble."

"I've not seen any hoodlums on the street," the man said.  "The violence I speak of occurs not where thieves and thugs and drug pushers ply their trade, but in the fancy offices scattered like gingerbread houses about the District.  It's the violence of the workplace."

"When someone breaks in and starts shooting: yes, I've read about it," I said.

"No," he replied, "I'm referring to the daily violence committed upon workers by management in the name of - I should say: under the guise of - making a profit.  Because I don't think profit is the real motive any more than dogma was the real motive of the Inquisition: cruelty is."

"Sir," I strove at once to correct his ridiculous notion, "our bosses do not come to work carrying whips and chains!  This is not a slave state."

"Whips - chains - slavery: oh no, mercy no, that would be far too direct, too gauche, too out of character.  No, our bosses are nothing if not paragons of sophistication, vehicles for the enshrinement of discretion, transmitters of culture, purveyors par excellence of taste, and - above all else - supreme metamorphysicians tempering the exercise of raw power with grace and style.  Breeding: they have breeding: they leave no marks on their victims.  It's all done with such subtlety and deftness that, more often than not, even the victims themselves cannot detect the process by which they are, over the years, reduced from free, eagerly independent spirits casting friendly glances at the people they meet to rapacious hulks looking with suspicion and envy upon anyone, even their neighbors.  They'll think it's this group out there with whom they've never interacted, or that group they saw on TV, or some idea someone espoused, or some reluctance of some unspecified individuals to live up to some unsubstantiated social obligations - anything but who and what it really is.  Deference: that's the real weapon; the club, the ball and chain, the whip, the cat o' nine tails: the excrement that fills every crevice of every work place and eventually spills over every worker on earth.  'Yes sir' 'no sir' or their equivalent: the most chivalrous words in the language if offered freely, the vilest, most malevolent if uttered by decree."

It occurred to me that, by now, nearly everyone had discreetly moved away from us: such observations are discerned almost subconsciously, the way one picks up social cues regarding what is acceptable in a given situation.  As we neared the subway station, I, of course, assumed I, too, could discreetly go my own way; unfortunately, he showed no sign of taking his absurd ideas elsewhere.  Not only did he trail me down the escalator, through the turn style, down a second escalator and onto the platform, blabbering unintelligibly the whole way; he followed me into the subway car and sat down beside me to embarrass me with yet more nonsense.

"Management will not rest till every last worker submits to its will.  You would think they were the rulers instead of merely the overseers," he continued without skipping a phrase.  "If it weren't for foolishness, managers would have nothing to do.  If the foolishness did not sit on a base of cruelty, it could simply be shrugged off as another of life's little annoyances - like dog poop on your front lawn or fly specks on your lace curtains.  But they're nothing if not cruel.  What they do they try to justify in the name of profitability, but the figures give the lie to their big lie every time.  They have a host of instruments at their disposal with which to torment those who work for them - all paid for with the profits the workers create - and make no mistake: it is those who perform the actual work who create wealth, not those who simply oversee it all.  They even have classes offered by enterprising entrepreneurs on how to get around what precious few protections workers still have.  Hiring and Firing Within The Law, these obscene abominations are called.  The teachers of such foul obscenities should be drawn and quartered."

I couldn't help thinking of Bizurko Magurski as I listened to this preposterous slander.  What seemed in him megalomaniac now appeared before me as sour grapes, pure and simple - the petty spitefulness of someone who hadn't the wherewithal to assume the mantle of leadership, and cast his own failure as a bogey man set loose upon the world.  I was about to say something to that effect, in a much watered down form, of course, not wishing to be thought the kind of person who indulges in coarse and tasteless dialogue, when a gentleman in the seat across from us interjected a proposal designed to shut my interlocutor up.

"I will offer, at my own expense, courses on how to counter the machinations of management," he said.  "The courses will be free - I will even pay a stipend to those who attend.  I offer you, sir, a gentleman's wager that scarcely a single one of your precious battered workers will sign up.  The simple fact is, sir, that management knows where its interest lies, and conducts its activities accordingly; whereas labor seems not to have a clue what is and is not in its interest.  Clearly its interests are served by a strong, viable entrepreneurial class with considerable capital at its disposal.  Having a plethora of jobs available is what matters, not getting or keeping any particular job.  Having the chance to improve one's lot is what counts, not any actual salary.  Having managers who know how to maximize the productivity of their workers is the key to economic stability, not the actual conditions any particular set of workers might encounter.  So will you take me up on my offer, sir?  Or simply continue to bellyache and whine?"

An applause - yes, dear reader, an actual applause - went up from our fellow subway riders.  The man seated beside me abruptly got up and, as we had just pulled into a station, made a quick exit - to much laughter, I'm sorry to say, for though his ideas were laughable beyond words, his sincerity, however misguided, warranted, I felt, something a little more gracious.

As quickly as he had left, the man returned, almost getting caught in the closing door.  "I'm sorry," he said as he sat down next to me, "I lost him."

"Who?" I asked.  "Who did you lose?"

"The man who made off with your briefcase."

"What?" I exclaimed, reaching down to where I had set it.  "It's gone!  You mean someone took it?"

"Yes," the man replied.  "It happened so fast, but I thought I could catch him.  But he was gone before I even got out the door.  At least I have a good description of him.  He was medium height, medium build, medium length medium brown hair, wearing a medium gray pin stripe suit and carrying two briefcases, your and his."

"I take it he was black," the generous individual who had earlier offered to underwrite the effort to educate the masses, observed.

"No, he was white!" my seat mate replied, a bit testily for so innocent a remark, it seemed to me.

Nothing further was said the rest of the trip, except for my expressing my thanks to the gentleman for trying to retrieve my briefcase.

But later that evening - that very evening - (dear reader, you will not believe this) my briefcase turned up, and in the most completely unexpected place imaginable!

Before going home, after my long train ride (the commuter train had broken down - something almost unheard of), I made a stop at the men's room.  I no sooner walked in and there it was, right before my very eyes, sitting on the lavatory.  A man was just closing it - but not just any man, for this man was, in fact, two men: the first, my old traveling companion Stratton H Binglepood; the second, an exact match to the thief described in such great detail on the subway - both men caught in the act of shutting my attaché case!"                        

 

Chapter 39.  The Wealth Of Nations

"Where did you find that?" I addressed the first of these two men-in-one.

"Find it?  Find it?" Binglepood nearly screamed.  "How was I expected to find it?  Had I not had the immense good fortune to be seated in the same subway car as you, I would still be looking for it well into the Second Coming!"

"But you nearly always ride the same subway car," I corrected him.  "I've seen you any number of times."

"Oh!  So that means I either saw you or was too drunk to open my eyes, I suppose!" he angrily retorted.  "Anyway, you had my property and I had no choice but to get it back - and what a crime! what a crime it is when a law abiding citizen must resort to stealing to get his own property back!"

"I offered more than once to return your dress," I calmly pointed out.

Just then our conversation was cut short by a third person entering the restroom.  Binglepood hastily grabbed his own briefcase and ran for the door.  I ran after him, to draw his attention to the piece of bluish cloth protruding from the side of his briefcase.

"Your dress is sticking out!" I said.

"You're crazy!" he cried.  "That man's insane!" he warned the gentleman who had just entered.  "And he's a pervert too!"

The gentleman looked at me oddly, as if begging an explanation for what just happened.  "He's very high strung," I said.

"I imagine we would all be if we just received a lewd proposition," the gentleman, in turn, said.

"Ah, so that's it," I mused.  "Lewd propositions upset him - I'll try and remember that next time I see him."

"What the hell's going on here?" the man asked as he turned and left.

For my part, I finished what I came for and was about to leave when the gentleman returned, in the company of a policeman.  "That's him!" he cried, pointing to me.

"And you saw him performing lewd acts?" the policeman asked.

"I didn't exactly see it, but I know from the look of horror on his victim's face what must have happened!"

"But you didn't actually witness it yourself?" the policeman persisted.

"No - but if you'd seen that poor distraught man!"

"If you can get him to testify, there'll be one less pervert on the streets of our fair city," said the policeman.  "Usually the victims are too scared to come forth on their own.  They spend the rest of their lives living in silence with the horror of what happened to them.  I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do."

With this, the policeman turned to me and advised me that "we'll get you sooner or later," then left the lavatory.  So too did the gentleman leave.  And lest the reader think me dull witted, I assure you that what transpired was not lost on me.  I would have taken a moment to explain the situation, but to do so could easily have resulted in a charge of theft being leveled against Stratton H Binglepood; so I simply let the matter rest.  Being innocent of such acts as may have been alluded to, I had no need to defend myself.  Besides, I still had much to do before retiring for the night.  I could not spend the entire evening enmeshed in a fine network of legal crosshairs.  Specifically, I had to begin planning my strategy for winning my darling Coralette back from the benevolent clutches of the Mortification Church.

One thing I concluded for sure - absolutely for sure: I must somehow infiltrate the ranks of the Church hierarchy, or else engage the services of someone already inside.  To spy or to buy a spy: that, dear reader, was the question!  And the answer, as I soon discovered, was to do unto others yourself rather than contract the work to another.

"You're off to see the wizard!" my friend and confidante Larry Smelba greeted me the next morning with this little ditty.  "The wonderful wizard of wealth!"  Then he returned to his usual mode of conversation.  "Eleven-thirty sharp," he said, "you, Limbo and Jimbo and Dumbo from Accounting and Popo from Far Eastern are to meet with the man himself: Acquiestancio Judanuncio Lunamoona Caracillio Donatarrio Soleilisun: Father Luna himself.  You gonna meet the man!  Sing Halleluiah and pass the plate!"

I kept thinking, all through that momentous mid-morning meeting, and all the rest of the afternoon, of that sublime Freudian maxim: "Less is More."  For truly, so it is, dear reader, and the Mortification Church can prove it, in the person of its great leader.

Have you ever been in the presence of a light so powerful that darkness was all your eyes could behold? of a canyon so deep and wide that you felt its floor almost at your fingertips? of a building so tall it seemed horizontal instead of vertical?  Then imagine yourself in the presence of a charisma so vibrant, so intense, so overwhelming that your ordinary, everyday, run of the mill aura could only attune itself to a band within its radius so narrow that you imagine yourself in the presence of a nonentity.

Yes, dear reader, you read me right.  Father Luna, whose gigantic charisma had built a church, a following a movement - an era of human history - appeared before my bedazzled eyes a squat little man with the personality of a Styrofoam cup.  No, dear reader, it was not the envious eyes of a tormented lover whose woman had been stolen right from under his nose that blinded me to Father Luna's true stature: it was that very stature that kept my gaze correctly focused on the literal object before me.  As great an observer of my fellow man as I am, I could not fix upon the enormity of the man's soul, only the vacuous pettiness of his presence.  And when he spoke, my poor ears detected no more of his greatness in his voice than my eyes had in his visage.  Had I not done my homework excellently well, as I always did, I might have believed myself addressed by an imposter.  But he was The Man; this was the face and form of he who our President had called "One of the greatest religious leaders of our time"; he who our Congress had awarded a Medal of Honor; he who the Pope in Rome had congratulated for his service to the Almighty; he who the Archbishop of Canterbury had begged from his deathbed to please come to dispense the Last Rites; he who the National Council of Churches had praised as the foremost evangelist in the Free World; and he who the National Press Club had dubbed "The Vicar of Wakefield."

"God's work is my work," Father Luna was explaining his life's mission.  "His love is my love.  His mercy, His justice, His goodness, my mercy, justice, goodness.  Call me Adam.  And you may call my darling Clytemnestra, my lovely wife of ten years, Eve.  My ministry covers the globe.  I am here today, I may be gone tomorrow, called away by the ever constant need to make men worthy of God.  Therefore, since I must always be ready to go among the heathens, I will not deal with you directly but rather through my right hand man, my trusted assistant, my fellow Melanesian, Baapak Hoke, whom I shall now summon."

Father Luna leaned a stubby finger toward his intercom and was about to press a big red button when the door to his office sprung open and a tall slender man wearing thick glasses rushed in, slamming the door behind him.

"Pardon the intrusion, your holiness," the man excused his sudden entry.  "He is fast upon me."

Just as our host was introducing the gentleman as his assistant, Baapak Hoke, the door again burst open and a small but extremely stocky young man with an exceedingly dark complexion leaped into the room almost in the manner of a boxer entering the ring.  He immediately made for Mr Hoke and, before any of us realized what was happening, grabbed that worthy gentleman by the wrist and flung him hard against the wall, then sprung upon him like a wildcat, slapping him repeatedly about the face and head.

I at once arose to try and stop the assault but Father Luna motioned me to remain seated.  Reluctantly, I complied, hoping against hope the security guards quickly arrived.  But no one came; the beating continued unabated for nearly five minutes, during the course of which I arose two or three more times but was motioned back into my seat by Father Luna each time.

Then, as suddenly as it began, the incident ended.  The young man jumped to his feet and ran from the room.  Baapak Hoke slowly got up; he seemed not too severely beaten.

"That was my adopted son," Father Luna explained.  "I must apologize for his behavior.  He is a bit rough around the edges.  Even among his own people, godless heathens near the Nyasa, he is considered brazen.  Were it not for the reincarnated spirit that dwells within him, I of course would have him institutionalized.  But never mind.  He has taken a dislike to Baapak Hoke and is not likely to harm anyone else."

"My well being is a matter of small import compared to the immortal soul of young master Judanuncio," the extremely gracious Mr Hoke insisted.

"That's his name," I asked, "the young man who was just here?  Judanuncio?"

"No," Hoke replied, "that was the name of our great leader's first son who departed this earth and whose soul has entered the body of the young man you just saw."

Nothing further was said regarding the juvenile delinquent.  Indeed, just as it was beginning to look as if nothing at all would be said the rest of the afternoon, something most unusual and as unexpected as Hoke's beating occurred.

The door to Father Luna's office burst open a third time and at the exact same instant a voice came over the intercom saying "They're here!"  Baapak Hoke made a mad dash for the only other door in the office (it led to a private lavatory, as I later discovered): doubtless he expected the delinquent's return.  To our surprise, however, it was not Father Luna's adopted son, but three very well dressed gentlemen, one of whom was carrying what looked like an official document.

"Father Luna, I presume," spoke the gentleman carrying the document.  The great leader of the Mortification Church, the shining hope for mankind's salvation, nodded his assent.  The gentleman proceeded across the room to hand the document to him. 

"This is a search warrant," to our immense shock, the gentleman announced.  "We're here to gather all records pertaining to Church income and expenditures."

"I will gladly comply," a most gracious Luna replied.  "However, we keep all such records at an undisclosed location, known only to my associate, Baapak Hoke, who, as you see, is not in this room at present.  Upon his return, I will have him deliver all the documents you require - or else you may accompany him to that location to gather them yourselves."

"Will he be gone long?" the gentleman asked.

Father Luna spread his arms in a gesture of uncertainty.  "I cannot say," he replied.

"Very well," the gentleman reluctantly acquiesced, "your assistant can deliver the documents.  Impress upon him, if you will, the absolute importance of complying to the utmost letter of the law.  And please advise him the IRS will not be kept waiting.  He has ten days - and only ten days - to comply with the terms of the warrant."

With this, the three gentlemen turned and left.  Limbo, Jimbo, Dumbo, Popo and I all tried to maintain our composure, acting as if nothing unusual had happened.  Even so, our host, man of vision that he was, clearly read traces of our consternation in our countenance.

"You are greatly troubled by this, I see," he said with a gentleness and compassion only a saint, just emerging from so harrowing an experience, could possibly summon forth.  "Be not troubled, for it is ever the lot of the elect of God to be persecuted by the godless forces of the state.  Until all secular government is replaced by the one true form of government - theocracy - there will be no peace, no respite from the forced intrusion of the state into men's lives.  Let me just bear with it and, until the time of the return of God's elect to their rightful place, render unto Caesar whatever he lays claim to.  In the meantime, could one of you good gentlemen inform my associate he may safely come forth from my lavatory."

I at once undertook the task, advising Baapak Hoke that all was clear.  "It wasn't your nemesis after all," I assured him; "only the IRS.  But they, too, are gone now."

A relieved Hoke retreated from the lavatory, breathing a very deep sigh of relief, as if to say "That was close."  Unfortunately, we, too, were asked to retreat, Father Luna and his right hand man suddenly remembering some urgent business they had overlooked when they scheduled this meeting.  They apologized, assured us they would meet with us again very soon, then sent us on our way, my colleagues leaving the building at once while I remained, in the hope of discovering something I could use to win back my darling Coralette, after which I planned to visit the IRS - as a tourist if I must - to try and find out what the incident I had just witnessed was all about.                  

But I fear I have neglected you, dear reader, for not only is my primary duty as a great writer to transcribe reality as literally as humanly possible, my secondary duty is to first set the stage then invite my worthy readers inside.  My excitement at meeting Father Luna made me reverse the order.  I apologize and will at once make amends by giving you the grand tour of the Mortification Church.

It sits at a juncture of not two but three thoroughfares in the Southeast district of Washington, DC.  More precisely, nothing short of the most incredible coincidence imaginable placed it "with a peerless co-incision," to quote Ezra Pound, directly across an alleyway from the building that housed Morcon, the rear of the one facing the rear of the other.  I had commented on the coincidence when we arrived; no one else said anything, but Popo burst out laughing, then was seized by a coughing fit, then shut completely up.

The church rises majestically out of what seems to be a jumble of stone more reminiscent of a free-form sculpture than anything truly sacred, gradually assuming the form of a Gothic cathedral some fifteen to twenty feet above the ground.  Its spires are gold leafed; its windows are stained to depict scenes of a tropical paradise  - an overly idyllic version of heaven, to be sure, the good book making it perfectly clear that heaven is filled with mansions, not palm trees and beaches; its front portal - one, not the customary double portal - is a very high, very wide wrought iron gate; its belfry sits ever so slightly angled toward the west.  It resembles nothing else half as much as a castle or a monastery rising out of a high cliff somewhere in Central Europe.

Inside, there are (as I discovered seeking my beloved) a maize of corridors and aisles; a plethora of doorways; an infinity of tiny peep holes along the walls and a host of narrow, spiraling staircases.  The main hall of the Church sits on the third floor almost exactly in the middle of the building, surrounded by chambers and ante-chambers, inner and outer sanctums, sacristies and confessionals, baptismal fonts and burial vaults.  The offices of Father Luna and his staff are at the rear of the building, at least one flight below street level.

I began my search in the choir loft, and worked my way as nearly throughout the building as time would allow, finishing up in a tiny sacristy behind the altar, where I was taken prisoner by the Church elders who, evidently, had been watching my every movement, for they re-traced my steps for me as if their own feet had been in my shoes.

"I got lost," was all I would admit to when questioned.

"Why were you spying on us?" they persisted again and again to know, yet still I stuck to my story.  "Who sent you?  Who do you work for?  How much are our enemies paying you?  What secrets are you planning to carry away with you?" they asked in rapid-fire succession, but I held firm. 

"And, above all," a very tall slender man sporting a cigarette holder demanded in a slow drawl, "Who are you?"

Here my genius stood arm in arm with my resolve.  "My name," I replied in order to cover my identity lest I jeopardize my company's contract, "is Jason Myersby-Calcutt.  I am a teacher.  And a tourist.  And I've always wanted to visit the National Cathedral.  It is the first edifice St. Gaudens ever built.  But I got lost.  I'm sorry.  Please, can I go now?  I'll miss the tour bus."

"He has no secrets worth a plug nickel," the tall skinny elder at last decided.  "Let him go.  Be gone, tourist!" he advised me.  "And never again cross our portal."

"Thank you, sir!  Thank you, gentlemen!" I said again and again as I was taken to the alley out back and released.

I made my way around front and was about to hail a taxi when at the other end of the block, who should I spy being ushered into an awaiting cab by a tall, dark, handsome man but my dearly beloved, she who I had just risked my life to find.  They were too far ahead to stop, so I quickly jumped into the taxi which, thanks to an ever vigilant God, had just pulled up.

"Follow that cab!" I yelled, delighted to be once again reminded that so benevolent a world permits even one of the most famous lines in all literature to be uttered almost as if it were a commonplace.  God must surely be an aesthete of the highest order, I thought as I leaned back in hot pursuit of my lover.

Presently I became aware of a most unpleasant aroma emanating from someplace nearby.  I mention this incident as a warning to all men to pay close attention where you seat yourself.  For upon inquiry of the driver what the smell was, I was told a woman carrying a baby had just gotten out and the baby, it seems, had wet itself rather badly - if not more!  To make matters worse, the scent of urine was attracting some strange tiny bugs from the crevice at the seat's edge, making all tolled, for a most distasteful journey.  I thanked God when, some twenty minutes later, the taxi we were following, which the driver had fortunately managed to keep pace with, stopped and the passengers - my precious Coralette and this man she was with - got out.  I too leaped out, handing the driver a twenty dollar bill as I did, calling to him "Keep the change!" and ran after them.

And where, dear reader, do you imagine I found myself?  Before you answer, remember: this is the best of all possible worlds (a fact Archimedes proved time and again with a crowbar), and God helps those who help themselves (a fact that needs no fulcrum for its demonstration).  Therefore, it should surprise not even the skeptics among you that my beloved and her paramour had led me right to where I had planned to go all along.  Say it with me, dear reader, for the very name speaks of what is highest, noblest and best within us: for if no wealth had been created, no taxes could be collected.  Can you imagine anything so preposterous and absurd as a tax collector in a poor, third world country?  Only a nation of wealth, a nation where the bare essentials have already been met and the populace is free to create the kind of surplus which occasions the levying of taxes, can number among its bureaucrats one who collects what all must, by divine decree, render unto Caesar.  Just as only God can create a tree, dearest reader, only wealth can create an IRS.  And here I was, looking up at the proud Pantheon where the goods and services of a people meet the demands and needs of a nation, the building whose pillars, I'm told, each represent a milestone in our nation's economic progress, whose delicate frieze of garlands and leaves sits like a victory wreath around a people's productivity, whose Corinthian flutes proudly trumpet the meaning of earthly existence.

I hurried in lest my darling be swallowed up in these dingy, dark corridors of pea soup green and gunmetal gray while I lingered outside paying homage to the wondrous turn of events that gave these United States the mightiest tax collector of them all.  I followed as they moved first one way then another, then yet another, till their maneuvering brought them before a door whose placard read "Assistant Secretary for Reclamation of Overdue Taxes."

I could follow them no farther, for even love lacked a right of way into a business meeting.  I waited outside till their business was over.  When they reappeared, his long stringy arm around her waist, I stepped into their path and cried out "Unhand that woman!"  Then I spoke to my darling.

"Come away from that place!" I warned.  "There is a mad man there, who goes around beating up innocent people!  Please, Coralette, come away with me, now, before it's too late!"

She looked at me as if I were a stranger and coldly replied "My name is Cora Wilkins.  Coralette Wimblestilken was a pagan name, dreamed up by my liberal teachers to try and tempt me.  I now have a good Christian name, which Father Luna himself bestowed upon me when he sanctioned my love for Dryden."

"But he's an accountant!" I reminded her.  "He is married to his debits and credits!  He cannot give you the love you need!"

"He's so much more than an accountant," my darling said.  "He's a martyr, a saint, a child of God who has offered himself in sacrifice to the Philistines to save our Church from ruin!  He has -"

Here Dryden cut my Cora off.  "That's enough, Miss Wilkins.  Let us go."

As they were leaving, she turned to me and said, softly, "By this time next year I will be Mrs Dryden Polk.  And if I must go to prison to be joined in wedlock, I will!"

"That's enough!" said Dryden.  "Let's go!"

 

Chapter 40.  The Milk And Honey Of Human Kindness

"Good of you to join us!" I heard someone say as I stood watching the future Mr and Mrs Dryden Polk get into a taxi and drive away.  At first, in my distracted state of mind, I replied "Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here."  Then, as the reality of losing my lover slowly faded into the reality of the scene at hand, I glanced around and, upon seeing who had spoken, at once realized my grievous error; for, there, between the curb, where I stood, and the IRS facade, a throng of people had collected.  I found myself wondering if they had overheard my exchange with Cora Wilkens, for, clearly, these were not the kind of people one could expect much sympathy from.  They were protestors, gathered here for that most scurrilous of all activities: protesting what they believed to be wrong with our glorious way of life.  Specifically (this time, for these misguided and myopic moaners and groaners are forever protesting something), they were protesting the system of taxation without which there would be no government, no foreign service, no national art endorsements, nor even a dog catcher.  They carried signs, some even had slogans affixed to their shirts, all of which maligned the way the IRS did business.

- "Tax the rich!" some read - as if it were not the rich who made the concept of taxation a workable reality in the first place!

- "Tax the corporations!" read others - as if you could cripple that upon which all wealth proceeds without impoverishing everyone!

- "Make them pay their fair share!" read yet other signs and slogans - as if something fair was involved in taking from those with the wherewithal to make money work for them so that those whose entire notion of economics could be reduced to the three basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter) might have a few pennies more to show for having done their year's work!

- And a host of other equally absurd ideas scattered like hollow, rusted beggars cups across an arc extending nearly the entire length of the building -

This was what, in a moment's stupor, I had expressed pleasure at being amongst.  You can imagine how shame faced I was, to let a thing like love blind me to the economic and political realities surrounding me, if only for an instant.

If only that cursed accountant had left the same way he came in, I could have avoided this crowd of unpatriotic ruffians altogether.  As it was, all I could do was feign not noticing them.  So I made for the main entrance, but one of the thugs had the temerity to grab hold of my arm.

"Don't go in there!" he had the audacity to insist.  "Keep the protest out here or they'll arrest you for sure!"

"I beg your pardon!" I retorted.  "Protest?  I?  Protest the cradle of liberty? the place where the riches of a society meet the requirements of a free people?  You must have mistaken me for a subversive, sir!  I am not here to protest but to spy - well, not spy exactly, I would never spy on so honorable a place.  Merely to do some investigating."

"You're a reporter, then: good!" the man remarked.  "How about reporting our plight?  Everyone here has lost nearly all they own because someone, somewhere - can't imagine who or where! - decided to give the IRS police powers!  Police powers, that is, over the people.  Not even the powers of a dog catcher or a meter maid over the corporate Juggernaut, of course.  It takes years and millions of taxpayer dollars to get a plug nickel out of a corporation.  But all they need to take everything the average citizen has is the time it takes to go from Point A - here - to Point B - your home!  And you're out on the street just like that.  And then it takes you years and thousands of dollars you'll probably never have again in your life to try and get even a plug nickel of it back!  Why don't you tell that story?"

"Oh, I think I'd much rather tell the story you're conveniently omitting," I replied.  "You know: the one about how you didn't bother to pay your taxes like everyone else - that one!  Okay?"

"Oh, we paid," the man said.  "All of us: we made a pact to pay at the corporate instead of the individual income rate - the actual corporate rate, that is, not the one on paper.  We paid exactly the percentage of our incomes the fifty biggest corporations in America paid of theirs.  Funny thing was, they got away with it, we didn't.  The wealth of this nation, it would seem, comes not from those who are said to create wealth but from those who are said to owe their existence to the generosity of those who own almost everything.  They pay us for our labor, which makes them wealthier still; then turn around and recoup a portion of their losses in the taxes the taxman collects and redistributes back to them in the form of goods and services and interest on the national debt.  The only way to improve the free enterprise system is to lower our wages and raise our taxes till they meet in equilibrium and our rulers recoup 100% of their expenditures necessary to the creation of greater wealth.  Who knows?  It may already be in the works."

Further discourse with such misguided souls would have been fruitless; so I turned to go up the steps leading to the front portico.  Just then a man breezed by, almost knocking me down as he, too, ascended the steps.  He turned to face the protesters before going in.  I assumed he was a figure of authority, about to order the mob to disperse, though I felt, given his unassuming appearance - more that of a second assistant bookkeeper than a law enforcement officer - he would meet with little success.  This feeling was reinforced the moment his mouth opened and a rather stilted voice of quite ordinary timbre proceeded.  But, as it turned out, he was not here to disperse the rabble: he was here to encourage them!

"Stand your ground!" he declared in a manner that made me think of an actor - a rather bad actor - reading a line - a rather bad line.  "You are the hope of the future!  Together, we will defeat this behemoth, this Leviathan, this Bigfoot set to trample all our rights into the ground!  Stand fast while I enter this devil's tabernacle to go amongst the denizens of totalitarian tyranny!  And, above all, pray for me, that I come out alive!"

A cheer went up from the mob assembled on the sidewalk.  A polite cheer, the kind you hear at a public performance where the performer was not all that good, but was rumored to have risked his life to appear before his fans: a perfunctory cheer more of obligation than enthrallment.  Then the man turned and went inside.  I followed suit, but at a discreet distance lest anyone inside mistake me for a fellow conspirator.

Just as I entered the main lobby, I saw this rabble-rouser being ushered into an elevator full of awaiting men, some carrying what looked to be movie equipment, by a big man whose extremely fat arm was draped around his shoulder; and I heard the words "Training Film" spoken, though by whom I could not be sure.  I thought no more about it as I proceeded about the business of trying to find out more about the Mortification Church.

My search - thus far fruitless - took me eventually to the Office of the Chief of Investigative Tactics.  I was preparing to ask the secretary, in the ante-office, if I might speak to the Chief, a Mister Elron, when his door opened and who should step out but the fat man and the rabble rouser.

"Sunday Brunch," the fat man was telling his visitor, his big arm once again around the man's shoulder, "you all come back, anytime you want!  And you can call me Bigfoot if you please.  Hope your 'Training Film's' a killer.  And don't forget: Mitch Moop's got Paragrin Oil in his corner in this EEO fiasco.  So say what you've got to say, but try to make an appearance at Rickey's Saturday.  Oh, by the way," he addressed his secretary, call Mrs Frederica Sthoelbeiger, tell her Sunday's almost a sure thing for Saturday.  Then tell the Director I'll stop by at four, I want to give him the lowdown on the Luna-Mouna business.  And call Harry Atwill and let him know everything's taken care of.  Sunday: as always, it's been a pleasure.  Don't forget now: have your editor do as I suggested before you release it to the press.  It'll make you look like the worst enemy the IRS's got!  And don't forget Saturday!"

With this, the rabble rouser departed and the fat man turned to go back in his office, at which point I made my presence known.

"Mr Elron," I said.  "May I have a moment of your time.  It's vis-a-vis the Luna-Mouna business."

"I told Harry," he said, "it would be okay - not to worry.  All the bases are covered.  We'll investigate, we'll throw some poor slob to the wolves, that'll be that.  Now that's all I have time for.  Good bye."

"Let me just take a moment of your valuable time, sir, to warn you about the gentleman you just had in your office," I persisted.  "He's not to be trusted," I assured Elron.  "I heard him say the most abominably inflammatory things about your great bureau just a while ago to a mob of subversives just outside your front door."

Elron and his secretary stared briefly at one another, almost as if they thought me a liar.  Then he turned to me and said, as if stating something I ought to have already known, "That's his job.  That's what he's paid for."

I thought about what Elron said all day long.  One minute it made sense; the next minute it didn't, the next it again did, in some entirely different way; then that, too, fell apart.  My thought was so much on it, in fact, and on its wider implications, that I was amazed I could carry on regular every day affairs with my usual aplomb.  Who would pay someone to bad-mouth the IRS? and for what motive?  Taxation was one of our sacred cows along with death and putting pants on one careful leg at a time and maybe half a dozen other universally acknowledged truths - why would anyone pay someone to lambaste an American institution?  It didn't make sense.

"Yes, the game was extremely interesting!" I responded to some trivial question about last evening's sporting event, in the very midst of these profound reflections on life.

"I was surprised he had so little in the way of an accent," I commented on Father Luna's excellent command of the English language as, inwardly, one after another syllogism flitted before my mind's eye.

"Why, yes, I'd be happy to show you my ticket," I told the train conductor - happiness but one of the myriad states of being I invoked in my ongoing search for truth.

Nor did I simply react like a monotonous automaton to others' comments; I initiated my own as well, and lengthy comments too, not merely the choppy staccato of small talk.

There is a gentleman, for instance, who rides the same commuter train as me, but who gets off three or four stops ahead of me.  For some time I have watched a rather peculiar activity on his part - an activity that seems to have abruptly halted.  I mention this to emphasize that, even in the midst of the most profound philosophical ruminations, my mind has space aplenty for clutter of the most absolutely inconsequential nature and my tongue vocalization sufficient for the most trivial nonsense.  Ergo, I engaged the gentleman in conversation: while the sublime reverberated within, the ridiculous sauntered without.

"Excuse me," I said, "I hope I'm not interrupting your train of thought."  He was staring out the window, as if watching something of great significance, when in fact there was nothing to be seen but an old scrap metal yard full of unsightly mounds of debris.  "But I'm curious about something.  Every day, for as long as I've been riding this train, I would see you stop a moment at your station and pick up the litter from the little strip of grass this side of the parking lot.  Then, two days ago, you didn't.  And yesterday you didn't -"

"And today I won't either," the commuter anticipated my next remark.

"Is it because you've injured yourself?" I asked.  "Your back perhaps?"  I knew instinctively which comments were appropriate to the occasion.

"No," he replied. "it's because I don't feel like doing it anymore.  For twenty years, every day, I've stopped to pick up the trash people throw down.  Not everywhere I go; I don't do it everywhere.  Just here.  That little stretch of grass.  I enjoyed doing it.  Not because I was keeping a little piece of the environment clean; simply because it made me feel good.  I never failed to want to do it.  Till Tuesday.  I can't say what changed or why I stopped wanting to do it.  I just didn't feel like doing it.  I just stood there, ordering myself to reach down and pick up that gum wrapper.  But I couldn't.  I don't know why.  It's like losing a very dear old friend.  And the moment I realized I was actually ordering myself to do something I used to eagerly do, I walked away."

"Even if you don't feel like it on a given day - and some days everyone feels like breaking the routine - you could still do it anyway," I pointed out.

"Then I'd be simply the trash man, doing it because it's my job, not because I want to."

"I can understand that," I sympathized.  "Who knows: maybe you'll get the feeling again."

"No," he said, "I know I won't.  A part of my life is over, and I really don't know why.  Picking up the wrappers and bottle tops and straws and cigarette butts was never a goal, never anything I set out at the start of the day to do, not even something I thought about as I stepped down from the train.  But everyday: there they were, those little devils, just begging to be collected and taken to the trash bin.  And, everyday, I felt the same need to do it.  There was a completeness to it.  A wholeness."

"Maybe it's for the best," I started to explain; "they say compulsive behavior can be -"

"It can be a chore," he interrupted, "something you feel forced to do but don't really want to.  This was something I wanted to do.  If it had been a compulsion, simply not wanting to do it wouldn't - couldn't - have stopped it.  It was more like a friend, an activity that each day took on a fresh new yet familiar countenance.  All I see now when I step down is a task that someone ought to be paid to perform."

"Get them to pay you, why not?"

"Money won't bring back what's gone.  It wasn't a love of cleanliness that made me want to clean that little patch of earth, it was a love of the act of cleaning it.  That love is gone.  I still care if it's littered.  I could still stoop down and pick up the paper and thereby end the litter -"

"Of course you could!  That's the spirit!" I interrupted.

"- but I won't.  I'll regret it's being there as I go by.  But I won't have the least desire to remove it.  I'll hope someone else chooses to remove it, I'll even rejoice a little if I see someone else take up the torch I've let go of.  But I'll have no wish to do it myself."

"You don't want to just go through the motions.  I can understand that," I said.

"Can you?" he asked.  "Can you really understand how painful the thought of doing something out of a sense of duty that you once did out of love is?  Perhaps you can.  But can you understand that losing something you truly relished is as tragic when it's as inconsequential as picking up a spitball as when it's as significant as ruling the universe?  Can you really understand that?"

Well, dear reader, he had me there, so what could I say - I, who knew real loss, genuine loss, the loss of one day being at the pinnacle of my career, the next day off the best seller list altogether - what else could I say but "No, I suppose not?"  Of course I couldn't understand putting as much value in picking up trash as in creating masterpieces or, in his example, ruling the universe - who could?

"I didn't think so," my fellow commuter replied.

Neither of us said anything further.  Presently, his station arrived; he got up and left.  I watched him stop a moment and look down at a candy wrapper, then shake his head and walk on as the train pulled away.

From that day forth we managed to avoid each other, as if something had happened that we both found embarrassing to be reminded of.  But never again did I see him clean the ground at his station stop.

Never again did I see Dryden Polk usher my darling into an awaiting taxicab either.  What? you say: a non-sequitur?  From me?  I must surely be fresh out of transition devices!  Not so, ye of little faith, for I am as full of literary devices as the night is of stars.  I leaped from picking up sticks to counting beans because, just as my fellow commuter - whose name, incidentally, was Otis - abandoned his sticks, so too did my rival for the hand of Cora Wilkens abandon his beans.  Or, more precisely, they abandoned him - and in a hurry, too!

And just how did I get from sticks to beans (albeit it "ex" of each)?  I got there with the aid of a speechwriter by the name, ironically enough, of Beaner Stickleback.  Thus did I arrive via a literal as well as existential transition: for a writer, truly a Godsend!

I was watching the late news on TV when who should I see but the very man I saw earlier in the day inciting the rabble to riot then chatting politely with a VIP of the IRS!  I was astounded, but too drowsy to understand a word he was saying, except to note it seemed to be a speech of some sort.  The next morning, as I was about to present this coincidence to my fellow workers for consideration, my great friend and esteemed colleague, Larry Smelba, cut me short.

"Didn't mean to interrupt," he apologized, "but there's something I want you guys to see.  I taped it last evening, in its entirety.  So get ready, fellows, what you're about to see is the final word in 20th Century political thought - word, hell!: it's a bloody dictionary!  It's rhyme and reason and pro and con, with even some jabber and wacky thrown in; it's the synonym that equals success, the antonym that augers genius; the homonym that'll haunt your dreams; it's accent grave and accent soft; inciseful syllables, vaulting vowels, consummate consonants and phrases they'll paraphrase for a thousand years!  It's every decent definition and every classy connotation.  In a word, gentlemen, it's charisma.  With capital italics and idyllic captions.  It's the Man!"

"Father Luna," I at once intuited who he meant.

"No," he corrected me, "the other Man.  The one who'll do for politics what Luna Mouna's done did for theology.  But enough talk!  Now's to listen."

Smelba started the tape rolling.  And as the image of a man - no: The Man - rising up before an assembled multitude made its way across the screen, I, in turn, started.  For it was him: him, who I had seen last night on TV; him, who I had seen hobnobbing with a nabob; him, who I had seen addressing a group of protesters.

"Sunday Brunch," was all I could think to say.

Everyone turned toward me.  "How'd you know?" asked an amazed Boompy Starboard.  "How did you learn his nickname in high places?"

"He's the man I was getting ready to tell you about," I replied.  "I saw him yesterday at the IRS.  I heard Mr Elron -"

"- Hal Elron?  The Halliburton Carnastie Elron?" Starboard asked.

"- the very one - the one who's going to Ricky's this coming Saturday!" I expanded my explanation ever so slightly.

"- The Ricky?  Mrs Frederica Weirmariner Sthoelbeiger?" Starboard asked.

"- the very one," I said.  "And Sunday Brunch is expected to attend!"

Boompy Starboard could only shake his head and mutter "My God, my God, my God!"

But it was, as always, Larry Smelba who put it all in perspective.

"Rat-a-tat Rambo does it again - slips another major coup right under his cap!" he quipped.

"So tell me," I asked, "who's this Sunday Brunch?"                

 

Chapter 41.  Warnings Heeded

"Oh ye of such short memory!" quipped Larry Smelba.  "It was in this very room - from this very monitor - that not a month ago the greatest political mind of the century and our future president looked down upon us from on high.  The man whose name we humbly spelled with a capital K - for Karisma, for Karma, for Karacter, for Klass, for Kunning - hell, for just plain old being the Kantankerist Gol'durn leader ever put upon this planet!  Mister O-mar Sun-Kwist!  The man! -"

"The Man of a Thousand Years!" I suddenly remembered the very incident Smelba had alluded to.  "The man our competition left out of his own ad!"

"The one and only!" said Smelba.

"And I had the great good fortune to see him - to actually see him with my own two eyes - in action!" I proudly remarked.  "I could tell," I went on to say, at last seeing how foolishly superficial my first reaction had been, "I could tell at first glance there was something special about him!"

"It's called greatness, my friend," Smelba gave a name to that special something I had - almost unbeknownst to myself - detected, brief as our encounter had been.

"When he brushed by me," I began to recall details I had heretofore overlooked, "what I felt was inexpressible."

"It was the wind of a god," my friend put a name to what I could not express, artist that I am.

"And when he addressed the rabble - yes!" I exclaimed.  "I see it so clearly now!  He was not inciting them to riot: he was calming them, lulling them into the easy - but oh so false - security of thinking he had taken up their cause, thus actually preventing their rampage, when in fact he had taken up nothing!"

"That, my friend," said Smelba, "is what being a leader is all about.  And you won't find anyone, anywhere, more attuned to leadership than Omar Sundquist - attuned, hell! he's a regular Ludwig von Mozart el Bach der Beethoven when it comes to puttin' on the crown and wavin' the holy scepter all around!"

"But without Beaner he'd be just another nabob-in-waiting all dressed up with nowhere to go!" our colleague Perk delivered his by now expected non-sequitur.

"What's this Beaner all about?" I asked.

"You had to ask!" Boompy Starboard muttered under his breath.

"Beaner Stickleback," Larry Smelba jumped in to reply before Perk could get started.  "Sundquist's main speechwriter.  Some people - who just plain don't know what power is all about and wouldn't recognize Karisma if it came up and bit them on the ass - entertain the fanciful notion that the politician is merely the messenger, the speech the message, the speechwriter the real brains of the operation."

"No," Perk attempted to correct his colleague - as if a Larry Smelba stood in need of correction - "the PR man is the brains.  The speechwriter's merely one of the magicians employed to help a midget cast a gigantic shadow."

"I have to admit," I said, "that speech was a humdinger."

"Precisely," Boompy Starboard agreed.  "That's why it would have taken an army of Beaner Sticklebacks to come up with it.  Beaner's a jerk.  And I can prove it: he passed up the chance to work here to go with Schmithering-Camosote-Scarff&Wisby: and, thanks to him, they've got Sundquist, not us - he and Sundquist are related somehow, through some obscure, crackpot philosopher, no less!  I rest my case: Beaner's a jerk.  But you don't have to take my word for it.  Pay him a visit.  Spend an afternoon with him.  Talk turkey with him - shop too!  Then you decide."

And thereby, dear reader, as they say, hangs a tale, for talk to him is exactly what I did.  And what, pray tell, came of this tete-a-tete, you ask?  Plenty, I respond.  Not only did it lead me ultimately to where my darling was holed up - but more of that later; it led me as well to a speechwriting job with - but more of that too later.  For now, let's content ourselves with sitting in an ante-room within the maze of offices housing the Committee for the Best of All Possible Governments, whose primary objective was getting its chairman and leading candidate elected, appointed or in some other way put in a position to fill some important high government office, post or some other category of job providing a springboard to the White House.

A very large man with very large hands, enormous ears, a nose worthy of a Cyrano de Bergerac and two tiny green eyes, their irises the merest pinpoints, opened a slender green door on which the word Preemie was written, peeked his head out.

"Who goes there?" he said in the pleasantest tone of voice I'd ever heard.  I introduced myself and explained why I had come to see him.

"I hope you have a minute or two to spare," I asked.

"For a fellow convert: you bet!" Stickleback replied, a bit inapropos of anything in evidence.  But he went on to explain.  "You weren't 1000% sold on the next president of the United States, I can tell.  But you want to be.  Especially after last night's speech.  That's why you're here.  We put our hearts into that speech.  The entire speechwriting team worked on it.  We've got to get the people behind us 110% at a minimum.  And what do the people want to hear?  They want to hear 'more jobs,' they want to hear 'lower taxes,' they want, in short, to hear everything positive, everything that's familiar, and easy, and comfortable, and, above all, undemanding.  They want us to be on their side.  They want someone to reaffirm their cherished values.  They want to be assured they're still the free-est, richest, strongest, most generous, most beloved people who ever lived.  The American people are no dummies - they're no dummies.  They know who's for them and who's not.  They know, as well as they know their own names, where their interests lie.  Lots of people have tried to put one over on the American people.  Where are they now?  Even my former accountant, Dryden Polk, couldn't compute that one!"

"What?" I nearly shrieked.  "You're acquainted with Dryden Polk?"

"Was," the ever pleasant speechwriter corrected me.  "I was acquainted with him.  I still have my invitation to his wedding two years from now.  But he's not there anymore."

"Not where?" I asked.

"Not anywhere," Beaner replied.  "He's dropped completely out of sight.  Even Morcon doesn't know where he is.  He got himself into a little trouble with the IRS I understand - something about missing documents.  How ironic!  Omar's speech last night was taped at the IRS yesterday.  Our code for the project was 'Training Film 1040.'  We call our projects 'Training Films': it invites fewer questions.  Dryden free lanced for us in his capacity as an accountant: we couldn't have any open ties to Father Luna, you see."

"Is there anyone who would know where I might find Dryden?" I asked.

"None of Harry Atwill's people know - or admit to knowing.  Someone did say something odd though, I seem to recall.  A reference to 'that lunatic' with the fists of iron!  But it was one of the non-Church people, so I wouldn't put much store in it.  I'm sure you follow my drift."

"The lunatic," I mused.  "The one who beats up Baapak Hoke.  I hate to have to deal with him," I said, "but to get my darling back, I'd deal with the devil himself!"

At this stark and bold revelation, Beaner Stickleback's little eyes lit up like two miniature Christmas trees.  "I always had a suspicion about Dryden," he half mused, half related.  "But I'm not one to throw stones, you can rest assured."

"Well, I am," I said.  "And if I ever find Dryden Polk, he'll know what it feels like to have a volley of stones cast his way!"

"Hell hath no fury!" Stickleback observed.

"After what he took away from me," I concurred, "you better believe it!"

I left the offices of the Committee for the Best of All Possible Governments resolved to return to the Mortification Church the first chance I got - no matter what the risk.  Let them capture me, let them chain me to a dungeon wall, let them torture me day and night, let the Lunatic from Lake Nyasa beat me to a pulp - and I will still profess my love for my precious Cora Wilkens!"

First things first, however.  And first on the agenda was an important meeting with Limbo, our corporate attorney, to get the latest update on Dora the Dupont Circle Bag Lady (as she was formally called) and her ridiculous lawsuit against our client, Malius Dvichnisk. 

Limbo sat in silhouette profile against the blazing mid day sun outside his window, his hands draped into a church steeple in mid-air, his head raised as if beholding an archangel descending from heaven; his eyes seemed to be closed.

"You may be seated," he graciously offered, "or you may stand.  I shan't be long in summation.  The Court has issued a preliminary ruling - actually an advisory, but I don't think it's premature to label it a ruling.  There's good precedent for it.  Things have been done all along the way; you might say our path is lined with legal armaments.  Heavy legal artillery.  Be that as it may, the Court is of the opinion that, while legislation would be in order to hone the rough edge once and for all, the suit is at once of a type with that general genre of lawsuit we are inclined to call 'nuisance,' and frivolous to the point of absurdity.  A concession which leads the Court quite naturally to a general conclusion regarding all nuisance lawsuits.  For, really, the Court opines, it is every bit as frivolous to sue a physician for malpractice or an employer for discrimination or negligence as it is to sue an inventor for pilfering one's dreams.  The days of the nuisance suit are numbered.  What they want from us, specifically, is a projection of the costs attendant to Dora's lawsuit should it win.  Have Dumbo work up a cost assessment as part of our impact statement.  There's more to this old fool's lawsuit than meets the eye."

Limbo swiveled around in his chair till his back was turned to me: that was his way of signaling visitors that the meeting had come to an end.  So I left him to his reflections and contemplations and returned to my own work space.

"Call FBS," a note on my desk read, along with a telephone number where I could reach this FBS.

"Foundation for Better Science," an extremely pleasant voice answered.  I gave my name and explained I was returning their call, upon which I was transferred to a Jeffrey who, after informing me they liked my work, asked if I would care to give a recital at a symposium honoring the concept, history and future of Nuclear Power.

"It'll be at the Shoreline two weeks from yesterday," Jeffrey added.

The attentive reader may recall my last experience at that location, when I first encountered Jason Myersby-Calcutt at a most unsatisfying seminar.  This association, in turn, prompted a feeling within me I can only label "dread," despite my lack of distinct experience with such a state of being (but, then, I'm a writer, so I can put myself in the shoes of those who have experienced it and imagine what it feels like).  It had the force of a premonition, this feeling, and prompted a most uncharacteristic response from me - for, as you well know, I'm no fool, therefore as fully committed to nuclear power, to all the latest technology for that matter, as the next man.  Added to this, the great honor of being invited to sing the praises of so noble an enterprise as nuclear power - or any great business venture for that matter  - and it waxes nearly incomprehensible that I would turn it down, this highest pinnacle an artist can aspire to.  But turn it down I did.

"I'm so very sorry," I apologized as sincerely as humanly possible, "but I have other commitments.  If I had known earlier.  I'm truly sorry."

"Maybe next year," a nonplussed Jeffrey replied.

"There's no maybe about it: if the invitation is still open, I guarantee you I'm your man!" I assured him.

"What was that all about?" asked Larry Smelba, who, having come over to consult with me, overheard my comment.

"Ever heard of FBS?" I, in turn, asked.

"Can't say that I have."

"It's the Foundation for Better Science.  They want me to deliver a paen to Nuclear Power at their upcoming symposium."

"Hey!" replied my colleague.  "Congratulations!  You're on your way!  Today, Nuclear Power!  Tomorrow, the Moon!  The next day, who knows?  But who cares, long as it's up!  And up!  And up some more!  'Cause up's where it's at; up's the only address, the only locus, the only focus, crocus, hocus pocus!"

"I turned it down," I said.  "I had a bad feeling about it.  There's a lunatic running around out there.  I don't know.  I just had a bad feeling."

"Let's hope a bad feeling doesn't equal a bad career call," Smelba cautioned.  "Many a promising career's landed up on the skids 'cause somebody let their feelings get in the way of their game plan.  Maybe you should reconsider."

"I appreciate your concern," I thanked my dear friend.  "But my mind's made up."

"It's your career," Smelba said as he turned and walked away.  Had it been anyone else, I would have sworn I detected a hint of annoyance.  But Larry Smelba?  No, not him.  The most positive, supportive, just plain old all around bestest Gol durn guy anyone ever met: that's Larry Smelba.  When you're talking annoyance, you're talking someone small and petty and self-serving, someone more like Perk, for instance.  Not Larry Smelba.

"Not him," I mused as I left work that evening.  Carelessly, and stupidly, I gave voice to my thought.  And, as night follows day, I was overheard by a DC wanderer, who at once leapt upon it as though it had been a gauntlet thrown down.  The worst part was, I had seen him standing there, and still spoke out loud!

"I beg to differ, sir," the man said; and, of course, there was no stopping him.  He had taken hold of my careless comment and was off and running - indeed, so was I: not to escape him, but because I had work of the most compelling nature to take care of before going home.

"Sir," I interrupted, "if you have something to say, you must say it as we walk, for I am on my way somewhere."

"So is he," the man replied as he fell in step beside me.  "Barnetha Colleran -"

"How do you do," I mistook the name for an introduction and started to give mine.

"Not me!" the man (shall I risk having my dear reader pass over this passage by calling him "vagrant?") in turn interrupted.  "Him!  My ex-boss.  The man who had me thrown in jail.  He's Barnetha Colleran.  A prissy woman's name, if you ask me.  My name's John."

"I'm Rondo," I said.  I hesitated giving my name to John - how can someone like him possibly understand its significance? - but, of course, one cannot dismiss civility simply because it seems misplaced.

"Rondo," he fell to musing.  "Let me ask - and please don't be offended: is that your given name or a pseudonym?  I only ask because it has a certain artistic flair to it."

"It's my pseudonym<" I explained, "but it's come to be so great a part of my life - just as my art has: I'm a writer - that I feel almost more comfortable with it than I do my Christian name.  Not that I question God's right to bestow whatever name upon us His vicar here on earth, in consonance with our parents, deems appropriate.  I just feel more at home somehow with a name of my own choosing."

"Then it's a name I shall never take in vain, or in any other way desecrate," the vagrant said, a bit pompously I felt.  "However," he added, effectively undermining the very principle he had just espoused, "I shall do every conceivable manner of injury to that cursed ass of a name my former boss, at every turn, shoved down the throats of his staff.  'I'm a Colleran,' he would say.  Or 'This is Barnetha Colleran, of the Virginia Collerans.'  Or 'When you're born a Colleran, you instinctively know your worth.'  But if he'd truly known his worth, he'd have shut up and crawled back under the rock he came out of!"

"There's nothing wrong with being proud of one's heritage," I found it necessary to point out.

"Heritage?  Don't you mean status - the status prominence confers even on a scoundrel from a family of scoundrels?  Because if you take a peek inside the Colleran family vault, you'll find the biggest collection of perverts and con-artists and assassins and just plan old venomous devils you'll ever find under one roof!  And they all come together in the person of Barnetha Colleran.  The most ruthless, cold blooded, treacherous, manipulating, vengeful SOB anyone ever had the misfortune to have to work for; but he never raises his voice, never displays the least anger, never uttered a single off-color syllable in his life.  He fired 75 people one day with nothing but the stroke of a pen.  Then had a man arrested who told him to 'Go to hell!'"

"That man was you?" I surmised.

"No, that man was a fellow worker.  He spent a week in jail before Miss Prissy finally got around to actually filing the charge.  'Use of abusive language,' the charge read.  Everyone had a good laugh and sent the jailbird home, with a good lecture.  'Civilization will not endure if people don't observe the laws of common courtesy,' the jailer told him.  'I can't hold you for disobeying those laws; but I can sure enough advise you of your wrongs!  You think you can just go on hurling expletives like they were rocks at decent people every time someone does something you don't like; but let me tell you, Mister Law Unto Yourself: those expletives strike at the very fabric of society.  And every time someone hurls one, another thread is severed.  Until one fine day you'll wake up and find the whole thing in shreds.  And people running amok doing to you and to all of us just as they please - and getting away with it!  Now, get on out of here, and think about what I just said!"

"Sounds like very good advice to me," I said as I made my way southward to the Mortification church, vagrant in tow.  I chose to walk rather than ride the subway or hail a taxi: this was rush hour, my mission was of the greatest urgency, I could not risk being held up in traffic or left on the platform by an over crowded train.  "We must keep a civil tongue in our head," I added.

"Yes, indeed, we must," came the unabashed reply, "for licking our boss's ass!  He don't want no barbs poking him where his most important management decisions are made!  Smooth as silk and soft as butter, and easy does it: that's the way protocol dictates.  That's the way - the only way - to get taken seriously in the world of business, 'cause they don't take anyone seriously if they don't have to.  If you're their boss, they have to, no matter what; and if you've acquired that special knack of easing their itch, they're willing to.  Otherwise, a Colleran is a Colleran is a Colleran doing what a Colleran does best.  He wanted me to make bricks without straw - figuratively, of course.  I told him it wasn't realistic; it couldn't be done.  'Reality's whatever the Board decides it will be,' he informed me.  'And the Board has decided to increase productivity by reducing manpower.  It's the job of underlings to adapt to our idea of reality.  End of discussion,.'  So I waited till the next time the Board met.  And I snuck in, carrying a submachine gun.  I plastered the paneled walls.  I held the gun aloft, waving it all about so each could feel it was pointed at him and made one single demand: 'Say Uncle!  All of you: say Uncle!  No one said a thing.  So I filled the gleaming oaken table full of holes.  'Say Uncle!' I repeated my demand.  Everyone looked to the CEO, who remained steadfast.  All the while the CFO was punching numbers into his adding machine, taking a tally of my rampage.  Next I aimed at the floor and cleared a path through the velvety carpet.  'Say Uncle."  Still they wouldn't.  Then I took aim and blasted the windows out of the Boardroom.  The CFO whispered something to the CEO, who nodded to the Board, which finally complied with my demand, and said 'Uncle.'  Reality, that day, was something other than what they decreed.  I spent the next six years in jail.  In fact, I just got out.  And I mean to look up one Barnetha Colleran."

"No!" I cried.  "You've suffered enough!"  It was, I'm ashamed to say, a purely instinctive reaction, not a carefully reasoned response.  I quickly realized my error, and re-directed my focus to where it belonged.  "You have no right to hurt this Colleran man," I said.  "He was only doing his job."

"Funny, that's exactly what they said about the people who kept my grandfather a prisoner in Nazi Germany," the vagrant replied.  "Good day, sir; it's been an interesting conversation.  And though you disappointed me at the denouement, I shall still honor the name Rondo whenever I speak it."

I wanted to say I would likewise honor his name - and I would, I think; but not knowing his name, only this John he mentioned, and not wanting to make a promise circumstances might keep me from honoring, I simply nodded an acknowledgement of his offer and proceeded the final few blocks to the Mortification Church - a place off limits to me, but a place that held the key to the whereabouts of my precious Coralette Wimblestilken, alias Cora Wilkens, who was gone, disappeared off the face of the planet, without a trace; but not forgotten, and, best of all, not gone forever.

I raised a fist - yes, dear read: I, who would never raise so much as a finger to a man of God, raised my fist, if not to heaven, if not to Father Luna, then to the spires of mortification rising from the pavement of Southeast DC - and vowed, then and there, that I would wrest my lover from the clutches of this Church or my name was not Rondo!

"All the incense you can burn, all the hosts you can dunk, all the pews you can build, all the chants you can sing shall not stay me from the execution of my appointed route!" I swore.

"Go ahead girl!" exclaimed a passer-by, who obviously needed help in the area of gender identification.  "Lift that pouch!  Tote that mail!  Get a little funk on your tail!  Atta girl!"

But I had no time for nonsense, so I merely shook my head, scampered up the steps, and slipped through the wrought iron gate.                    

 

Chapter 42.  Warnings Unheeded

I crept through the maze of corridors, trying to retrace the steps that had, earlier, taken me to the heart of this edifice, going first to the left, then to the right, then around a circular hall, then behind a stairway, then up a stairway, then down a stairway, then down another, until, finally, I pierced an almost impenetrable darkness to enter the dim red glare of candles radiating from a host of tiny red candle holders.  I had reached the sacristy.

Now that I was here, however, I began to wonder what I expected to find.  Did I think my darling had become a vestal virgin, tending the sacred fires that cast a deep red glaze over the altar?  Did I imagine she would be strapped to that altar ready to be sacrificed?  Or did I simply expect to come upon her beauteous figure bent in prayer or placing an offering before her Creator?

"Not here," I whispered as I took my leave.  Slowly, painstakingly, I made my way to the same suite of offices where I had originally been led the day I met Father Luna.

"Here," I said as I began searching through drawers and files and what not for clues.

Suddenly, the door sprung open.  I expected the security guards to burst upon me; instead, I stood face to face with the savage from Lake Nyasa, the reincarnation of Father Luna's dead son.

"I am prepared to defend myself!" I insisted as I held up my fists.

"You think because I'm an African all I know is fighting?" the reincarnate asked - I must admit, catching me off guard.  "Perhaps you think if I dropped my trousers, you would encounter a monstrous genital protruding from behind a leopard skin loin cloth?  Perhaps even a tail of equal length hanging down in back?  You white men never tire of generalizing about every race of beings on earth save yourselves.  But I'm not inclined to fight you.  Racist that you are, I maintain a spark of admiration for you: you had the courage to try and save that pitiful simpleton who manages my Father's business affairs.  Nevertheless, you must leave: you have no business here.  There is great danger for those who do not belong.  Harry's men are everywhere.  Go!  You have no business here!"

"I do," I replied, ignoring the ridiculous accusations leveled against me.  "I am determined to rescue my chosen woman from the clutches of this place.  She is betrothed to Dryden Polk, your Church accountant.  But they have disappeared.  I must find them."

The reincarnate came very close to me.  His face was barely an inch from mine.  I could feel his hot breath on my cheeks.  He stared me in the eye, his gaze piercing and wild.  For an instant I almost thought I beheld a beast of the jungle behind those eyes.  Then he spoke.

"Look for them in the Valley of the Lepers!" he said in a low, deeply mysterious voice.  Then he leaped back.  "But I must go find Baapak Hoke and box his ears!" he said in a voice suddenly light and almost playful.  He turned and, as if stalking, left the room, reciting as he went, "Fee Fie Fo Fum, I smell the greed of a tall skinny Melanesian!" over and over, till his fairy tale refrain trailed off with his retreating steps back into the darkened halls of the Mortification Church.

Left alone, and no wiser than before, I began searching in real earnest for some clue to where Dryden Polk and Cora Wilkens had gone.  "Valley of the Lepers!" I echoed the silly word games of the African.  "How childish, taking an address from the Bible and offering it as somewhere in DC to locate a missing person!  Valley of the Lepers indeed!"

I was just about to open the top drawer of Father Luna's desk when the door to his office sprung open again.  Thinking the reincarnate had returned, I offered a casual "I know, I have no business here!  I'll be gone in a minute!" without so much as looking up.

Then came the reply - out of a mouth other than his.  "Right on both counts!" a deep, firm voice informed me.

I looked up to behold five tall, stocky Caucasians and (to quote the man from Africa) one tall, skinny Melanesian.  I had been discovered, not by the security guards, as before, but by no less than Baapak Hoke and (as it turned out) Father Luna's personal bodyguards.

I was at once apprehended - rough-armed, if the truth be told.  Held fast by two men, I was questioned by a third, who came to within an inch of my face, as the last two stood watching.

"Who are you?" the man demanded to know.  Receiving no answer, he next demanded to know what I was doing there.  Again, he got nothing from me.  "Who sent you?  Are you one of Sister Thomasina's operatives?" he asked in an increasingly annoyed voice.

And why - my reader, in turn, is now demanding to know - did I refuse to answer these, the perfectly legitimate questions of men whose authority, though limited by custom and statute, certainly justified their asking?  I didn't answer, dear reader, because I couldn't!  And whose interest did my silence serve?  Ah, now we arrive at the crux of my refusal.  It served the highest interest a man can strive to serve: it served, my dearest reader, my company's interest!  And how did it serve so noble an end?

I could tell that Baapak Hoke had some faint recollection of me.  I could not, therefore, give my name as I did when earlier detained for snooping on Church property: should I lie, and be remembered for who I actually was, my company's account could be in jeopardy.  Yet neither could I come right out and say who I was and, by implication, where I had come from, on the chance Baapak Hoke might not remember me, thus sparing my company the embarrassment of having one of its star employees caught spying on its biggest client.  Besides, these moments of silence gave me a chance to devise a strategy for extricating myself from this situation.

"So you won't talk, eh?" the man, meanwhile, was saying.  "Well, we have ways of making a man talk.  We have a room across the alleyway just filled with little things to loosen tightened tongues."

I couldn't help smiling at the childishness of his threats.  "So you think this all a joke, do you?  You think we can't do anything?"

Now I spoke.  And delivered the coup de grace.  "This is America," I said.  "And I, a citizen, have constitutionally protected rights.  Even if you gentlemen were policeman - which I take it you're not, or you would have at once shown me your badges and read me my rights - you would not be able to treat me as you're implying you're about to."

"Oh, you're quite wrong," the man retorted.  "This is, as you say, America; and the business of America is business.  And though I can't say exactly which planet you just stepped off of, I can say for sure that you've no idea how much latitude the Courts have given businesses to conduct their business.  Virtual police powers: that's what they've given us, at long last.  We don't need badges: we're not answerable to the public - to anyone but our bosses; and we don't have to read, to honor, to even so much as recognize those rose-colored daisies you call you 'rights.'  We can say whatever we want, and it's the word of you, a 'citizen,' against the word of a business enterprise: who will be believed?  So make no mistake: you will either tell us what we want to know or you will cry uncle!"

I was beginning to think these gentlemen were from another country - or another planet - and only looked and talked like regular Americans - otherwise, how could they seriously say the things they had just said?  This is the land of the free, and home of the brave!  Rubber hoses and thumbscrews just didn't fit in here - not in America.

"I want to speak to my attorney," I insisted: that normally gets a person's attention.  But the men just broke out in laughter.

"Randall!" the man summoned one of the two men standing by.  "Come give this citizen a taste of what I've been telling him.  Show him your subpoena!"

The man approached, bringing forth from his pocket a piece of what looked to be sandpaper: some subpoena!

"What a pity our friend here has become a little oversexed," my interrogator said.  "He just didn't know when to quit!"

Turning to the fifth man, he motioned for him too to approach.  "Moe-Moe," He addressed this last man, "on my signal do your thing: drop this sex maniac's drawers!"

To the man with the sandpaper, Randall, he said "On my signal, give the man a hand job!"

"You're in for quite a lawsuit!" I warned.  "These activities - men doing the things to one another you propose doing to me - happen to be illegal!"

"Not to worry," he assured me, when Randall uses sandpaper, he leaves no marks.  No traces.  Nothing to tie us to you.  He does his thing smooth as a rat's ass!  Sorry, friend, you've got nothing that would stand up in a Court of law!  Moe-Moe, Randall: proceed!"

Just then, as Moe-Moe was undoing my belt and Randall was cupping the sandpaper in his hand, I heard a shuffling in the hallway, followed by what I can only describe as the most profoundly beautiful ditty in the history of poesy.  "Fee Fie Fo Fum!" the sing-song voice of the reincarnate rang out from nowhere.

The door burst open, and the second verse leaped from his lips.  "I smell the greed of a tall skinny Melanesian!"

In a flash, the African sprang upon Baapak Hoke and began slapping him about his head and ears.  The five bodyguards ran to Hoke's rescue, releasing me in the process.  I immediately took my leave, crying out as I burst from the room, "Free Africa!  Death to the Colonialists!"

"No!" I heard Hoke command his men as I ran down the hall.  "Don't harm him.  He's Luna's spiritual heir!"

"What about the intruder?" the man who had interrogated me asked.

"Let him go!" came the reply just as I ducked into the stairwell to begin my descent.

"Thank you Jesus!" I whispered when I had finally maneuvered my way from the Church and my feet again touched the sweet safety of DC's sidewalks and streets.  I quickly hurried to Union Station, just making the last train home.

"Ah Sir Heinfried!  Ah Fido!" I exclaimed upon entering my home sweet home, as my dogs leaped all about me and the late evening air filtered through the front door, while I lingered a moment before turning right around to lead my little charges on their nightly walk.  The simple, elegant joy of everyday activity seemed especially exquisite after my harrowing escape from Father Luna's headquarters.  Even the eviction notice affixed to my front door - bearing, need I say it? the names of my realtors, Pasquale and Zido - took on the aspect of an old, familiar, cherished friend.

"Fellas," I said as we walked, "I may come home tomorrow to find you  - and all my furnishings - and perhaps Myersby-Calcutt - on the front lawn again!"  But even the thought of that didn't bother me: I was pre-eminently the prototype of a man happily enmeshed in domesticity, an untroubled man, lying an untroubled mind upon his pillow to dream untroubled dreams.

I dreamed of Jesus.  A very long dream, deeply textured with a plethora of reality's playthings, layered with many meanings, aglow with a halo of spirituality; but peppered with many blank spots wherein details dissembled and meanings blurred.  From a distance, I beheld Jesus; he was watching us.  Then he slowly approached.  So clearly did I see him that the very whiskers of his long flowing beard stood in relief against his tunic.  Many things happened in the space and time before his arrival, some of which I recall, some I forget.  Then there he was, standing before me, smiling in a radiance as pure as it was joyful.  I reached out to feel of his beard, for that was what, the whole time he drew near, I was most aware of, most in awe of, most wanting to experience, for it seemed to possess its own radiance, as if beams of light shone forth from within.  But as my fingers touched Jesus' whiskers, they encountered, not the soft, gentle tufts of radiantly lit hair I perceived, but shafts of coarse, jagged hemp like matter which rushed to embrace my hands as if they were snakes encircling or wolves devouring a helpless lamb.

"Why hast thou forsaken me?" I asked, but received no answer.  Jesus only stared as my hands became ever more entrapped in the particles of his beard.  Then his tunic slipped from his shoulders and, though it caught on many places, finally fell to the ground.  Jesus stood naked before me, my hands still unable to free themselves from his beard.  Jesus licked his lips with a tongue as coarse as sandpaper.

I woke up to find myself struggling with the tassels of my drapery's tie-back, which somehow I had managed to get hold of.  And Sir Heinfried had climbed upon the bed and was licking my face, while Fido sat at the foot of the bed shaking his head (or so it seemed).

By the time I got to work, I realized that the dream I had, far from being the nightmarish omen I at first took it to be, was actually a very wise, very benevolent parable, which could easily be interpreted as a search for and, ultimately, a discovery of truth, as superficial appearances were cast aside and while I was forced to watch, the truth began to reveal itself.  Had it not been for my over zealous puppy, I might still be fast asleep, dreaming, so beauteous a dream was it.

It felt so good to be here, at work, after my harrowing experience in the badlands of Southeast DC, back to the safety and humanity of my own place of business, where no one held you at bay while threatening to perform all manner of mayhem upon your person with all manner of dangerous matter.

"Pull out your weenie, Rambo, and take a wizz!" the glorious words of my fellow worker greeted my eager ears.  And though I eschew all forms of colloquialisms, and would be compelled by my regard for the purity of the English language to correct anybody else, on Larry Smelba's tongue even so unacceptable a form of speech resounded as eloquently a a quatrain.  Hot dog, frankfurter, weenie: call it what you will, I had none - and said so.

"There is, I believe," I replied, "a weenie in the fridge; but alas none on my person!  As to taking a wizz," I added, much puzzled by that particular colloquialism, which apparently has to do with eating, waxing lyrical all the same, "truthfully, I wouldn't know a wizz from a wuzz from a fuzz!"

"Spoken like a true herme!" Boompy Starboard exclaimed.  And since he and Smelba broke into such hearty laughter, I had to assume, even though I had no more idea what herme was than what a wizz was, that I had inadvertently spawned yet another witticism, of the sort I had by now become famous with those two for.

"Read this and weep!" Starboard said laughingly as he stuck a memo from the Board of Directors in my hand.

It was a long memo, very well written, as usual, and of an extremely serious tenor, the gist of which was that our firm had suffered a series of losses of late significant enough to warrant the immediate implementation of a program designed to test all employees for possible drug usage.  Six big - very big - accounts (I'm starting to sound like Timbo!) had been lost in the business quarter just ended, and it had become painfully apparent to the four senior partners of the firm that only drugs in the workplace could have been responsible for such a turnabout.  Therefore, we were to report, in groups of four, to the lavatory - men to the men's, women to the ladies' - for the purpose of gathering urine samples from each and every employee.

"We must act now to save this great firm and stem the flow of our losses by weeding out those hateful habits threatening our profits," the memo concluded ominously, "or else there shall one day be no firm to save, no profits to be threatened."

"I don't get it," I said, holding the memo up.  "There are drug addicts here, at MFKB?  Is that what they're saying?"

"Right on target," an officious Perk intercepted the question meant for more knowledgeable ears.  "That's precisely what they're saying," he stressed the final word of his rejoinder.

"If I might get a word in edgewise here," Larry Smelba came to my rescue, drawing me aside a step or two, before Perk could discourse further.

"Remember that poetry reading I was telling your about?" he asked in his most whimsical manner.  "You know: the one that's here, that's now, that's on target and on time and in time and of time and oh so timely; the one that'll put someone on the map - that great, grand and glorious map called The Stairway to the Stars; the one that's gonna separate the men, those who create a living, breathing, heart beating form from the boys, who merely grab their parts and shoot blanks - remember that reading?  The one you - for some ungodly reason - turned down?  The one you had a bad feeling about? or had gas - or had a false pregnancy - or had something or another: remember that reading?  Well, through my efforts, a little lady named Nuclea Powder's gonna do her thing at the Kennedy Center - that's right, Rambo: the Kennedy Center: they moved it from the Shoreline to the Kennedy: from the original date to the perfect moment - and from Rat-a-Tat Rambo to little Miss Nuclea Powder.  She's a big, strapping black woman - but don't let that fool you: she's a damned good poetess!  Who, after her perfect moment, is gonna be a damned great poetess!  Could 'a been you, buddy, old buddy, old pal, all decked out in your blue satin dress!  Could 'a been you.  You could 'a been a contender, Rambo, but you blew it - no offense: you stroke those folks any way you want far as I'm concerned.  But you did blow it, Rat-a-tat!"

Smelba walked away before I could reply - obviously he remembered something important he had forgotten to do.  I turned to the coffee pot to get a cup of java before starting work, just to be sure I had sufficient water for the drug test.  Perk followed me.

"Be careful of him," he had the audacity to caution me.  "Larry Smelba would grind up his own mother's bones if that would get him where he's headed.  And he wouldn't especially care if she was still using them.  That business with the poetry reading - you don't know the whole story.  But I have a friend who works for the Foundation for Better Science.  They wanted Smelba, only he didn't want it but didn't want to look bad refusing it so he's been trying to palm off everyone he knows - even me!"

"I don't really want to hear this," I informed this insufferable busybody.  "Larry Smelba happens to be one of the most gifted men I've ever had the pleasure of knowing.  And one of my best friends in the bargain.  So you can just peddle your gossip someplace else."

"Just be careful," a crestfallen Perk said as he walked away.  Needless to say, I immediately regretted my terseness when I saw how much it hurt him.  Were it not for my sense of loyalty to Larry Smelba, I would have apologized; but to have apologized was tantamount to sanctioning Perk's slanderous remarks, so I said nothing.  I resolved, instead, to try and say, or do, something nice for him sometime in the not too distant future.

Meanwhile, my turn came for the drug test.  I had expected to accompany Starboard and Smelba; but, instead, I ended up in a foursome with Perk, a man named Harrell from the printing department, and Dumbo from accounting.  I felt sorry for the security guard who had to oversee the test, having to watch people perform so private an activity; I could imagine how embarrassed he must be, so I decided to offer a word of encouragement.

"We're not offended at your watching us," I assured him as I handed him the vial.  "So don't let anyone make you feel bad."

"You ain't even people to me," came the odd reply, no doubt his way of sublimating his embarrassment.  "It ain't no more to me than watching a pack of dogs lifting their legs.  Here," he said as he handed me a kind of receipt, "here's your number.  Don't lose it or you'll have to be tested again next week."

On our way back to the office, Perk began his gossiping all over again - this time maligning, not his fellow workers, but the entire company before I could stop him.  And why did I even let him start, you ask?  I didn't realize that answering what I took to be a perfectly innocent question would open the door to such a tirade - that's why!

"Do you personally know anyone here at MFKB who takes drugs?" he asked.

"No," I replied, "I don't."

"Neither do I.  Neither does anyone.  Because no one here takes drugs."

"Someone must," I pointed out.  "Otherwise why test everyone?"

"You don't get it?" Perk asked.

"Get what?" I foolishly took the bait.

"We're the scapegoats," came the reply that finally alerted me to his true purpose.  "Those six big accounts the firm lost?  You really think they were lost because one of us took drugs?  They were lost because of incompetence - specifically, the incompetence of top management.  But even beyond that, of the way upper management operates.  Messers MFK&B got their accounts in the first place, not because they could do the best job, but because they had the best connections.  They still have connections, but they're old now.  Their connections have died off.  Now younger men run a lot of the companies we deal with - and our competition has the connections now.  Added to that, the big rumor going around town: namely, that each of the partners, for personal gain, bartered a client or two to the competition."

"Hold it right there," I stopped further discourse.  "I will not be a party to the spreading of rumors - especially, against my own company."

"Okay," said Perk, again somewhat crestfallen.  "You know best."

Yes, I felt like saying, but of course didn't, I do know best.  Not because I'm the smartest but because I know what's important.  The place you work is important, and if they decide you could be a drug addict, they must act accordingly.  And if you have character and moral fiber: if you're just plain old worth a damn, you'll go along with them.

That's what it's all about, this wondrous adventure we call life in the best of all possible worlds!

 

Chapter 43.  Semi-Finals

I fear my readers may begin to feel they've bungled their way outside the clean, wholesome, richly positive bounds of my book into the dark misty environs of psycho-drama, what with the events of the last couple chapters so fresh - and so deeply ingrained - in their minds: my pursuit of the thief who stole my lover, my capture by madmen in the guise of sentries, my encounter with the African who keeps stalking his father's right-hand man, my conversations with Perk - all ripe with pessimism, cynicism, violence and all manner of anti-social sentiment.  But take heart, good and loyal readers, I am not the sort of man to place deep pools or high hills or broad plains or endless horizons before you.  You may rest assured your trek is unencumbered with thought-provoking themes, difficult idioms, unpleasant actions or anything else which might interfere with your enjoyment of great literature.  The delightfully bland wholesomeness of traditional morality, conventional wisdom and good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity is the heart and soul of my vision.  (Accept no substitutes!)

This much being said, let me now take you someplace you will be sure to feel more at home, someplace safe and secure and untroubled by that madness of spirit so alien to the American psyche, though so much in evidence in the last couple chapters.  Let me, in a word, take you to Church, dear readers.

But let me, first, remind you that I had still - through all the excitement and gathering storms of the last several months - not forgotten Reverend Claude A Dingledoody's wallet.  Not for a moment did I intend neglecting my moral duty as a child of God to advise the good Reverend where he might reclaim his wallet - assuming, of course, that that paragon of community and business ethics, the caterer Mr Lee, had not already caught up with him and returned his lost property.  So when I read that Reverend Dingledoody was officiating at a luncheon to honor some local dignitary - at a Church, just down the street from where I worked, at an hour which did not conflict with my business schedule - I veritably leaped at the chance to attend.

"Say a prayer for me!" my great friend and colleague, Larry Smelba, quipped.  "Even a man with a game plan for success needs a little help now and again!"

It was a lovely little church, newly redesigned and refurbished from a standard traditional decor to an updated traditional look, one actually much closer, I've since been told, to what an old country church was supposed to be.  To be sure, there was every modern convenience: PA system, recessed lighting and heating, air conditioning, wall to wall carpeting, restroom facilities, even a heated baptismal font; but, beneath it all breathed an old fashioned atmosphere superior to that of any little country church, because it was an element specifically and very deliberately built into the design by one of DC's best interior decorators.

On my way in, I was accosted by someone claiming to be an ex-parishioner and detained just long enough to miss the opening ceremonies, so I'm unable to say precisely what honor was being bestowed.

"They weeded me and my whole family out!" the disgruntled person stopped me to say.

"Who?" I asked before realizing what I was opening the door to.

"The Church elders," came the reply - along with the inevitable diatribe.  "Not just my family but dozens of families that'd worshipped her for decades."

"Why?" I thought I might as well go ahead and ask.

"Why they said was because we weren't born again and wouldn't testify before the congregation.  But we'd already done that.  The moment you know you're saved is a holy moment just like when a child's born into your family.  It's not something you can repeat every time someone schedules a Testify for Jesus night.  But that wasn't it, anyway.  They wanted us out to make way for a bunch of fancy uptown parishioners who would of sooner gone to the devil than worshipped beside the likes of us, with our threadbare clothes and dog-eared hymnals and frayed collection plate.  The church wanted to attract parishioners with a little more money to their names, and a lot more social standing.  This is a Yuppie church now.  You see, it's in a section used to be run down then one day got turned around to become fashionable and chic, so the young born again professionals wanted to be seen coming here: it's good for their careers, especially since the President came here one fine day on a whim."

"Well," I offered an objective overview, "until churches are publicly funded, they have to do their best to raise money.  They've got to attract the kind of tithes it takes to keep a church going nowadays - and there's just so many raffles and flea markets you can hold in a year's time!"

"You're right, of course," the ex-parishioner, luckily, saw the wisdom of my observation.  "Devotion looks better in silks than in homespun.  Anyway, it's not the same church anymore.  I couldn't worship here.  There was a little alcove, where the sun came in just about worship time Sunday morning.  They liked the sun coming in, so they got rid of the alcove and cut a big skylight in the ceiling.  Now everyone gets flooded with light.  But that little spot, the only spot where the sun came in: somehow it always made me think of God, even more than the prayers or the sermons; it always gave me a little extra boost to get me through the week.  It was a little sliver of God looking in on us.  Not His whole face, just a little wink of His eye at us.  Now it's gone.  But I still get through the week.  I can find a little spot of sunlight almost everywhere; and every time I see one I bow my head and say a prayer, 'cause I know I'm looking at a part of God.  Took me all this time to realize I don't need a church."

"Then why do you come here?" I couldn't help asking.

"To witness a travesty.  To see the great men of God sing the praises of a great man of virtue.  I know them for what they are because of what they did to me; I know him because of what he did to my boy.  That's okay though.  I just want to watch."

With this, he went in; and, after a discreet pause, so did I.  As I said, the ceremony had already begun, so I'm unable to relate the exact purpose of it.  Indeed, were it not for my splendid powers of observation and my excellent memory, neither would I be able to relate the recipient of whatever was being honored.  I knew right off I had seen him before.  It took me a moment, though, to fix his identity - but no wonder: I had no name to affix to his person.  When I had previously encountered him, though we talked at length, we failed to introduce each other.  I knew him only as the founder and driving force of the National Association to Move Bad Language to Albania; a man so virtuous, so appalled by and opposed to foul language that he was devising a means of transceiving it en masse to one of the great citadels of Communist oppression - a place ideally suited to be the depository of a capitalist nation's detritus. 

The Reverend Claude Dingledoody was encapsulating the man's many virtues, placing particular emphasis on his saint like hatred of four-letter words.

"This pious man - man, did I say?  how about saint? - this saint will go to any length to rid this world of the terrible onus of blasphemy," Dingledoody said.  Yes: blasphemy!" he repeated himself.  "Because you don't have to even pronounce the holy name of God to take that name in vain.  All you have to do is curse - and you've cursed the Almighty God.  Every foul word that comes from your mouth is as if you had stood with clenched fists before the altars of this world's churches blaspheming our heavenly Father.  So let's all stand up and lift our voices in praise of this saint whose life's goal is to take all bad words out of our mouths and put them into the barbed wire confines of godless Communism.  Rise, my children, rise!  And say it after me: Good Words!  Say it with me: Good Words.  Repeat it: Good words!  And as you say it, let me present the man God has sent to save us from our tongues - the man who, henceforth, I shall - we all shall - call by his divine name, given him this day by our Father who art in heaven!  Mr Good Words!  Arise, ye children of the Lord, and call him forth!  Mr Good Words!  Mr Good Words!  Mr Good Words!"

A great cry went up from the assembled multitude as the man I so keenly recognized from our brief encounter arose and stepped forward to the dais.

"Mr Good Words!  Mr Good Words!  Cleanse our mouths!  Free our tongues!  Mr Good Words!  Mr Good Words!

(You must pay careful attention here, dear reader, for what happened next happened in the twinkling of an eye, a complexity of events tumbling as if acrobats from the circus, all coinciding in...in, well, in the person of yours truly.)

The cry of the crowd grew by degrees to a mighty pitch.  Mr Good Words stepped from his seat to the dais.  Reverend Dingledoody stepped back a step and, in stepping back, stepped on a man's foot.  The man was to his left, but to my right.  My gaze had strayed a second, from the dais to where the ex-parishioner was standing (no doubt the spot where the little alcove he spoke of had been).  The man whose foot had been stepped on cried out "Gol Durn It!" and moved hastily away from the good Reverend.  In doing so, he ran into me.  My senses diverted, I panicked ever so slightly and, without even thinking, gave the man a quick shove (the images of the last few days still vividly fresh in my mind).  The man reeled from being shoved and fell down, a foot or so beyond where I encountered him.  At that split second something fell from the skylight and landed with a resounding crack on the exact spot the man I pushed had been standing.  It suddenly grew as quiet as a tomb.  No movement.  No sound.  On the floor were hundreds of shattered pieces of glass and, a foot away, the man whose life I had just saved.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Then the unearthly silence broke.

"Hi thar!" the man I saved from an almost certain death exclaimed as he extended a hand, which I took to help him get up.  "We meet again!"

"Do I know you?" I asked.

"Ezekiel Jeremiah Pugh here!" the man offered a name which, in truth, had no meaning to me whatsoever.  "We met at Cap Am awhile back.  You left yer perty blue dress in my cage.  "Course I cain't use it - though if I wanted to, I got the insurance for it: I could get me a sex change just like that if I's a mind to but I ain't!  They'd tuck up my dongie in a flash, and make earrings o' my gonies.  Old Mr Pinch said he didn't ever want to see your face around there again.  Says he could tolerate a fairy in a blue dress but not one that's habitually late.  He won't take no two vices in any one man, no siree!"

Needless to say, I didn't understand any of this gibberish, so I simply ignored it.  "Are you alright?" I asked, concentrating on essentials only.

"Am I okay?  Hell, if it'd crushed my G.D. skull right into the ground, don't make a rat's ass: I'm covered for any and all kind o' dismemberment - even for dwarfism if I come out smaller'n my casket holds!  I'm covered!  Even if the dang thing'd cut me into half, each one of me'd be covered!  Shit, if it'd a' been a ton a' turkey turds buried me alive, I'd a been hauled out, embalmed in Chanel's 5 and put'n a mauselum!  If a flock a' fairies'd got hold a me and made a plaything a' muh dongie till I croaked, I'd a' been hosed down and laid to rest in lily white cloth!  No siree!  Don't never need to worry none about me!  I'm fully covered, comin' and goin'!"

I pray that the spate of bad language from the mouth of this individual claiming to know me does not effect my worthy readers as it did the gentleman being honored.  For it made him faint - and faint dead away - and no wonder, given his extreme sensitivity to such words.

The audience gasped in unison.  I turned to see what had happened now, just in time to catch the honoree falling to the floor.  "Call an ambulance!" someone called.

"Call the cops!" the ex-parishioner called from his perch.  Evidently, from back there, he suspected foul play of some sort.

As it turned out, neither suggestion was or needed to be acted upon; for, momentarily, the honoree regained consciousness and, as they say, the show went on even if all that remained was the traditional appeal to please leave the Church as we found it - the Itae Missa Est, to give it is formal title.  It was at that point I approached the good Reverend to apprise him of his wallet and made a discovery which, I guarantee you, will astound you, my worthy readers, as much as it did me.

"How good it is to see you again," I greeted Dingledoody.

"Have we met?" he asked.

"You gave the benediction at a dinner I arranged," I explained.

"If I had a penny for every benediction I've given, I'd be a very rich man now!" he quipped.

"Ah!" I, in turn, quipped, "if only others had the courtesy to give you a little something, as I did!"

"Well, it's good to see you," Dingledoody said as he abruptly turned to go.

"Actually," I stopped him, "I came here to let you know where you can locate your lost wallet."

"Where?" he turned back to ask.

"I read about you having lost it," I elaborated, "just a few days after my dinner.  I recalled seeing it fall from your back pocket and - miraculously - our caterer, Mr Lee, retrieved it for you.  I'm sure he's been desperate to find you - if, in fact, he hasn't already."

"Mr Lee," he replied, to my great astonishment, "is the very first person I sought to check with.  He informed me some tenth rate hack with a penchant for young boys, which he mispronounced as hung boys, made off with it.  The next thing I knew Mr Lee was in jail for something or another, so I don't suppose I'll ever see my wallet - or the $897.00 it contained - again!  So if you'll excuse me, I have another honorarium to attend.  What with a world full of thieves barely two steps behind me, I have to work practically non-step to make ends meet!"

I was too stunned to say anything; all I could do was watch the right Reverend Claude Dingledoody make a hasty retreat from St Alice and Ann's Church.  Mr Lee in jail: I couldn't believe it.  Surely it was some other Mr Lee, not the upstanding entrepreneur who catered my banquet.  But if it were true, it was as apparent as the nose on my face what had happened: the young man he had had to fire had undoubtedly set him up somehow.  And now that same young man held a well-paying position of responsibility at the Shopping Complex.  Ah! the fickleness of irony!  The only thing that didn't fit was this tenth rate hack.  Who was he, I wondered, and how did he manage to make off with the wallet Mr Lee was keeping for the Reverend?  Had he been at my dinner reception and I failed to notice him?  Although, being a tenth rate hack, I would almost certainly have failed to notice him.  Ah, dear reader, what can we say of life but that it's full of insoluble mysteries and riddles the answers to which we can search and search for and never find!  Therefore, the matter of the missing wallet must forever remain a loose end, a single thread frayed from the tightly woven tapestry of our earthly existence, never to be reincorporated into the richly elegant weave.

Therefore, also, I returned to my everyday activities, content that, like a feathery tickle playing inside one's ear, an event flitted about my life story that I couldn't quite coax back into its proper place.

"Quick: call 911!" I was greeted by my dear friend Larry Smelba upon returning to work.

"911?" I asked.  "What would information be doing calling me?"

"No no!  You don't need information: you need help!" Smelba informed me.  "While you were praying, unbeknownst to you you were being stalked by the beast with a thousand tongues!  Gretchen called, so I hope you're all ears!"

"I think I know what she wants," I said in a dejected voice.  "No doubt she was calling to inform me I've been disqualified once and for all.  Perhaps there was yet another contest rule I'd overlooked, like maybe one that says you have to marry the boss' daughter!"

"That's not funny," said Smelba in an understandably severe tone.  "Whatever else fuels and moves and drives and just plain old makes these contests cream their pants, it ain't nepotism, or influence peddling, or anything of that sort!  These contests are here, they're now, they're dynamic, they're where it's at and how it's happening and where we're going and why we're going and how to get from here to there!  So you can badmouth Gretchen till the cows and all the birds come home, she's just a flunky with delusions of grandeur; but leave the contest and its judges out of it!  Got that, Rat-a-Tat?"

He was right, of course; and I appreciated his forcing me to put it all in perspective.  I thanked him for his candor.

"Anytime, old buddy old pal old friend of mine," an ever gracious Smelba rejoined.  "So let's come, let's see, let's hop to it and call and let's go out and conquer that bitch from the badlands!"

"Right on," I, in turn, rejoined as I made for the phone to return Gretchen's call.

"In all the years I've been auditing this contest for Cocteau, Genet and Jarry," an uncharacteristically reflective Gretchen explained, "I have never encountered semi-finalists of such poor repute."  No doubt she was softening the blow by offering me a branch of sour grapes.  "I have the great dishonor of informing you that your name is among that motley crew.  It is inconceivable to me that someone so rife with improper credentials should be numbered among the semi-finalists of so worthy a contest; yet there it is, right before my eyes: your name on the list.  You, an almost bankrupt illiterate with barely the faintest notion of grace, style, elegance and sophistication - not to mention taste.  You who barely understands the rudiments of formal competition, as evidenced by your poor showing at tennis and your out and out non-show at marathon running.  You, who have no more sense of finance than a savage from the jungle.  The society matrons whose gracious patronage make this contest possible will curse my name for setting someone like you in the midst of their drawing room.  I can only hope they won't altogether abandon our efforts to place the best young talents before them.  All I can so is, you must have friends in some very high places indeed, whose influence the meager talents they squander it on most assuredly belie.  Nevertheless, your worthiness for such an honor notwithstanding, you have been selected.  You are a semi-finalist.  Just barely - let me add (at least the world hasn't gone completely mad)!  There are a few special requirements you will have to meet to even remotely be considered for the finals, however.  You simply must broaden your horizons, literary as well as economic and competitive.  You have concentrated your energies (I cannot in good conscience call them 'talents') too exclusively in the area of fine literature - to the exclusion and neglect of other equally important areas of the written word.  What is your experience in technical writing? - and, yes, these are rhetorical questions, so please don't waste my time answering - in speechwriting? in scientific and athletic writing?  What have you done lately to line your pockets?  When are you going to demonstrate your marketability?  Your ability to charm an audience?  Where is your fan club?  What is your political affiliation?  Do you attend a respectable church?  Do you live in a respectable neighborhood?  What is your favorite night spot? your favorite country club? who does your hair? - there are a thousand things to be considered, not merely how well you might choose to write or how cleverly you can turn phrases to passages.  Anyone can sit down and write a book - for heaven sake, my cockatiel is halfway through his third novel already with nothing but his beak, an old typewriter, a hunt and a peck here and there and a burning determination to outperform Mr Jarry's bird of paradise!  But not everyone can become a writer of the first magnitude.  My cockatiel has no more notion of accounting principles - to name just one thing - than you do.  Yet you made the semi-finals; he didn't.  So much for talent.  I will get back to you in two weeks' time to evaluate your progress.  Oh, and one more thing: joining a pack of radicals in protest in front of the IRS is not the image we have of a great writer.  Good day."

"Well, Rat-a-Tat - old buddy, old pal, old friend o' mine: what's the good word?" an eager Larry Smelba came at once to ask.

"I made the semi-finals," I answered.

"Then why the long face?" asked Boompy Starboard, who also came over to the common phone, at the far end of the room under a new red-white-and-blue plaque which read "Be Productive."

"How could she have known I was even at the IRS, let alone at the same time as those protesters?" I wondered aloud.  "And if she knew, why didn't she also know that I took no part in their protest?"

"You sure you weren't on the nightly news?" asked Starboard.

"I know I wasn't."

"Maybe CNN," suggested Smelba.  "They go the whole nine yards!"

"Or maybe," offered Perk, who happened by, "someone told her about it, and conveniently left out the pure coincidence of your being there."

"Maybe someone ought to cut out your tongue and stick it up your ass hole where it belongs!" said Smelba, quite angrily.

Perk wisely moved on: with a wit like Smelba, he was well out of his league and knew it.  (I know I wouldn't want to tangle with so awesome an intellect - and, I dare say, my own intellect is miles above Perk's!)

"You know, Rat-a-Tat," said Smelba, "if I weren't leaving this place soon to begin my ascent to the top of that great, big, bright, snappy-tappy-happy, dippy-dopey literary ladder, by God if I wouldn't set that bastard up for so big a fall he'd never get his busy body ass up again!  Hell, maybe I'll do it anyway - just to keep in practice.  Yep, I'm a' goin' skeet shootin'.  And that big ugly skeet with his head up his ass is going to be splattered all over the walls when I'm finished.  Well, back to work - right?  'Cause that's where it's at, and where we are, and where Mister Turd Hole ain't gonna be for long!  Are you in, Boomper-Doomper?"

"Sure," replied Starboard, "why not?"

"And you, Rat-a-Tat?  How about you?  You in?"

"Let me think about it," I said.  "I'll let you know.  This is something new to me, this setting someone up to take a fall.  I need to think about it - okay?"

"Don't think too long or it might start to look like you and Perk got something going, if you know what I mean - no offense.  I just wouldn't want any rumors to get started.  If you know what I mean."

"Nothing to worry about there," I assured Smelba.  "No one's likely to think he and I have anything in common.  I'm an optimist, I see the glass half full; he sees it half empty, he's a pessimist.  We're as different as day and night."

"You're forgetting: opposites attract."

"Maybe in romance novels they do," I pointed out.  "But not in matters of intellect - rest assured of that!"

We all returned to work; and as I reviewed my accounts, cognizant of the need to be, not merely creative but productive also, my mind turned Gretchen's words of warning over and over till, before I knew it, I found myself almost lost in thoughts of the most profound depth.

What is the nature of this thing we call the creative process? I wondered.  Is it born of our experiences or are our experiences born of it?  Is great literature too broad to encompass just works such as my recent best seller after all?  Should I reach out, to take hold of science and technology, sports and leisure, perhaps even lowly hearts and bridge, gardening and homemaking, cooking and cleaning?  Can I charm beasts and audiences alike?  Can I become more marketable without losing my objectivity?  What is my political affiliation?  Where is my church? my neighborhood?  Where did I get my last haircut?  And, most of all, where has my fan club gone; and can I ever hope to reclaim it?"

If you have ever had thoughts even remotely as profound as these, dear reader, you have some idea of my great perplexity.

 

Chapter 44.  Broadening Horizons

I know, I know, dear reader: after all my assurances to the contrary you're still finding traces of pessimism, cynicism, negativity and just plain old bad taste on my pages; it's as if, stuck somehow between the lines, they rear their ugly heads up into my clean, crisp prose at the most inopportune times.  But take heart: better times are just around the bend, rest assured.  And proof of this - you ask for proof?  How about the following tete-a-tete between myself and one of my fellow commuters, which I transcribe verbatim.

A gentleman sat down beside me for the ride home.  I recognized him but could not quite place him.  Then he turned to me.

"You're an acquaintance of Beepee's, aren't you?" he inquired.

"I don't believe so," I responded.

"Yes, you are.  I saw him speaking to you in the men's room one morning awhile back.  He was hot under the collar.  You must have said something that rubbed him the wrong way.  Perhaps that's why you eschew association with him now that he's poised to take his place among the rich and powerful of this earth."

"I'm sorry, sir," I insisted.  "I simply don't know any Beepee."

"Then I've mistaken you for another: forgive me.  Nevertheless, I do hope you'll vote for Stratton."

"Stratton," my quicksilver mind at once made a connection.  "Now that name's familiar to me.  I do know a Stratton H Binglepood!"

"Then you know Beepee," the man concluded.

"Are they related?" I asked.

"They're one and the same," he answered.  "Beepee is Stratton's nickname.  Has he never insisted you call him that?"

"He's very highstrung," I explained.  "Our meetings haven't always been such that he would invite me to use his nickname."

"So I gathered, the time I saw you.  Bye the bye, I'm Clarence E.D. Sprinklebilge, Esquire, of Punie, Cantrice and Schprenglebarge, P.C."

"Ah!  You're a partner!" I remarked.

"No," came a somewhat pointed reply, "but Harrison Schprenglebarge is.  I'm of Counsel."

"Of course," I immediately perceived my mistake.  "You said something about voting for Binglepood - Beepee, that is," I noted after an awkward silence.  "He's running for office, I take it."

"Running - and winning, if the polls are to be believed," replied Sprinklebilge.

"What office, may I ask - so I'll know which election to vote in."

"There's only one election coming up next week: the one to fill old Jeb Champlain's office."

"Ah," I expressed my regrets, "Champlain is no longer with us, I take it."

"No," Sprinklebilge pointed out, "he's with Perry Mahan, Carl Pelt, Huey Lee and Bip O'Toole up at the Big House!"

"So sad," I mused.  "Here today -" I started to say.

"Five to ten with good behavior tomorrow!" my interlocutor incorrectly completed my sentiment.  "So we can count on your vote?" he prompted.

A sudden thought came to me, in the form of a single phrase: political affiliation.  Followed closely by the sound of Gretchen's voice pronouncing those two great big little words.

"Vote for him"  I'll do more than vote for him: I'll campaign for him!" I promised.

"Good show!" congratulated my fellow commuter.  "Good show!"

And, indeed, it was a good show - a very good show.  The only question was, how to get it off the ground, up in the air, and on the road (as always, I wax lyrical!).  I pondered this mystery over supper, and all during my walk with Fido and Sir Heinfried, still to no particular avail.

"Now if I were a campaign looking for a candidate to help elect," I mused aloud, "where would I betake myself?"

"To the lowest rung in hell!" came a sudden reply from out of nowhere which startled both myself and Sir Heinfried - I because I recognized the voice, he because, as I was becoming resolved to, it was his nature - but strangely, not Fido.

"As a great author," I replied, "I cannot go there."

"Then go to this candidate's campaign headquarters," the voice of Jason Myersby-Calcutt sardonically suggested.

"Campaign headquarters!" I at once saw the sense of it.  "Of course!  The perfect place!"

"Bye the bye, who is the lucky candidate?"

"Stratton H Binglepood!" I proudly announced.  "No doubt you've heard of him."

"No," Myersby replied, "I haven't.  In what particular manner has he hoodwinked our sacred cow?"

"Sacred cow?"

"The public."

"He hasn't hoodwinked anyone," I assured the self-styled art critic.  "I trust you won't attempt to assassinate him."

"Cut off one of the Hydra's heads?  Not even I am up to that task.  Besides, one can hardly undertake a more Quixotic task than preserving the purity of our political system."

"For once we agree," I said.  "We the people insure its purity.  We have no need of a Quixote or any other reformer!"

Myersby inexplicably burst out laughing - but, then, I had come to expect almost anything from him.

"Bye the bye, before I retire back into the night," he said, "there are some gentlemen at your front door - the same ones who previously carried off your furnishings.  Are you being evicted again?"

"Damn!" I exclaimed.  "I forgot all about that eviction notice!  Thank you, sir, for the information.  I'd better be off.  Oh, and please don't murder anyone anytime soon - at least not if I'm around.  I should hate to turn you in, but I would have no choice."

"You'd do that to someone who has twice saved your goods from unscrupulous realtors?" Myersby asked.

"They're not unscrupulous," I pointed out, "just over zealous - but I won't split hairs.  And yes, I would still turn you in - even if you saved my very life twice!  I wouldn't take the reward money though."

"I say: is there a bounty on my head?"

"Not per se," I had to admit.  "No one but me seems to realize it's you who's been killing the great artists of America.  But I'm quite sure someone would offer a reward to stop you."

"Ah!  The Philistines are everywhere!  We'll never be rid of them!"

"Nor the Jesuits, nor the Benedictines!" I added, much to Myersby's delight, his laughter trailing behind him like mischievous imps as he disappeared back into the darkness.

The night air was crisp.  A layer of low, thin clouds rippled across the sky, reflecting a pinkish glare from below, conveying hints of a brilliant silver gibbous moon above.  A near frost coaxed a cornucopia of scents from the ground, undetectable to me but a source of endless possibilities to Fido and Sir Heinfried.  A steady drone of traffic from distant thoroughfares assumed the harmonies of a muffled drum roll.  Leaves crumpled underfoot.  Lamplight twinkled through shorn branches swaying in a westerly wind.  I would have walked the night away, but for the men at my front door.

"Gentlemen," I said upon my return, just as four burly men were lugging a piece of furniture apiece from my living room, fortunately the first pieces to be removed, "there is a mistake here.  Please return my things.  The eviction is in error."

The four men simply stared at me and continued with their work.  "I shall be forced to call the police," I warned, but still to no avail.

"Did you guys hear a noise?" one of the men asked the others.  "Like the buzzing of a fly?  Or the bah of a sheep?  Or the squeak of a mouse?"

"What you gentlemen heard," came a voice not my own but almost as familiar of late, "was the sound of a pistol being cocked.  A pistol aimed in your general direction.  A pistol that will be fired at any or all of you unless the furniture is at once returned and yourselves dispatched from these premises.  That was what you heard."

It wasn't the threat but, I'm convinced, the voice that delivered it, that prompted the movers to do exactly as instructed.  

"Again, sir," I turned to where the voice originated, "I am in your debt.  I can only hope there will be some way I can repay you, short of interfering with our great system of justice, of course."

"You can repay me," came the odd reply, "by repeating after me these most apropos words: 'A fool and his money are soon parted.'"

I declined the offer, in favor of something a bit more meaningful.  "As you wish.  "Bye the bye," Myersby added as he was leaving, "I hope to see you at the Kennedy Center."

"When?" I asked, half in a panic.  But it was too late, he was already gone.  I would never know what he had planned, or why, or when; but, then, perhaps he was simply planning an evening on the town, sans revolver, motive and victim.  At any rate, I would not be there, so it wasn't my problem.

(Before you dismiss me as just another indifferent spectator of life, dear reader, be advised that, in spite of what I just concluded, my sense of civic duty got the better of my good judgment.  I did, in fact - at great embarrassment - go to the police with my apprehension, as well as to the Kennedy Center box office - at even greater embarrassment, for they thought I was a deadbeat trying to wrangle a free ticket, whereas the police only thought I was a demented maniac.  But, at least, I had done my duty.)

Speaking of the police, the movers Myersby threatened called them and had them come investigate "an armed assault with intent to interfere with the execution of a legitimate Court Order to evict a tenant derelict in the payment of his rent."

"I know of no such tenant," I said, adding "not at this address."

"Ah!" came the astute rejoinder.  "Then you do know of one at another address!"

"Why yes," my lightening wit shaped a reply.  "At 301 Thalmus!"

"Ah!" came the reply.  "Thank you!  We have those deadbeats dead to rights!  It is citizens like you who keep this city safe for democracy!"

"And politicians like Stratton H Binglepood!" I cried as they were leaving.  And why did I bring Binglepood into the discussion?  Because I was determined to work for his election!  And why did I send the cops to the Thinking Man's Tank?  Because, per chance, they just might catch a murderer stalking the thinkers who dwelt therein!  (Two birds with one stone, dear reader!)  That is, if they could get beyond the illusory barriers and into the house.

At any rate, I had done what I could, so I slept the untroubled sleep of those who leave no responsibility undone, no stone unturned, no thoughts incomplete.  And I awoke eager to meet the new day.  I flew to work on Mark Twain's "little cat's paws."

"I killed a roach on the way in," I remarked.  We had a kind of running contest who could kill the most roaches in a week's time.  (Need I say who had won every single week since I began?)

"You just won't turn loose of that G.D. trophy, will you?" my friend Larry Smelba remarked.  (I'm told before my arrival he was the big winner.)

"Which reminds me," he drew me aside to say in a lowered voice.  "Remember when I proposed a little skeet shooting the other day?  You said you'd think about it.  Now I know with all that fame and fortune you've cornered the market in - hope you left some for me! - you ain't got time to mull over too many things - but oh! ain't we got some kind of fun in store for little Mister Perkey Derkey Turkey Turd! - have you had a chance to think it over?"

"Not really," I admitted.  "Like you say, I've been busy - but nothing like the busy I'm going to be once I really jump into this thing."

"Then you're in!  Great!"

"No," I said, "I'm not.  I won't have time.  I'd like to help you guys out, but all my free time's going to be taken up with the campaign.  I've throwing myself into it, hook, line and sinker!"

"What's this 'campaign' shit?  Faggot rights or something?"

"Has nothing to do with rights.  I'm working to get someone elected to...to...to fill a position that suddenly came open.  I'm not entirely certain which position it is, but it's one Beepee is eminently suited for, you can rest assured of that!"

"Hey Boomper Doomper," Smelba motioned, "get your butt over here.  Rat-a-Tat here's too tied up to join our little skeet shoot."

"That right?" Starboard asked.  "You gonna pass on this one?"

"Got to," I said.  "I know you guys mean well, and God knows Perk could use a good lessen to make him a little more sociable.  But I'm gonna have my hands full."

"But not your mouth," Smelba noted, adding that he had heard Perk had a small male organ - though why he thought I'd be interested knowing that, I can't say."

"I'm really sorry," I said.  "But, rest assured, I'm with you guy in spirit 1000%!  I'll be as glad as the next man to see Perk come around."

"You just can't wait for that turd eating fart to come, can you Rat-a-Tat?" said Smelba.

"He's basically a good man," I again took up for him.

"At any rate," Smelba remarked rather cryptically then walked away, "a good lay!"

Head first, dear reader; and feet first!  Head first, feet first, all at once, all first: that's how I jumped into Beepee's campaign!  I will not, however, say, apropos as it may be, that "I came, I saw, I conquered," lest you think that I, like my friend Larry Smelba, have a fixation for arrivals, departures and the like.  I assure you I have no such propensity - though, God knows, I easily could if I chose; for I am fully as great a literary genius as even he is, with all the complexities, obsessions, quirks and eccentricities attendant to that rare breed.  Beneath our respective exteriors - cool, calm, collected - beats - I daresay: rages - hearts huge enough to encompass a plethora of contradictions, animosities, inspirations, variations, compulsions and just plain old honreyness.  (I know, I know, dear reader: you know all that about me already.  I just wanted to let you see it in another, lest you think me solitary among those blessed with genius, a thing unto myself, a breed apart, a being unaligned to any other.)

"Is this the campaign headquarters for Stratton H Binglepood?" I asked upon entering a small, dark, ill smelling office bursting with activity.

"You from the Ethics Committee?" a young man with a rather effeminate voice and manner asked.

"Ethics?  Ha!" I replied.  "I'll show you ethics!  I have ethics enough to want to help put one of the finest men in the country in office!"

"Okay, okay, we get the picture," came the reply.  "What can you do?"

"I write speeches!" I proudly exclaimed.

"Can you make black sound white?  Old sound new?  Down sound up?  You can put a pretty face on a twisted body?  A good foot in a soiled shoe?  A velvet hand in an iron glove?  You can do all that - and keep a straight face?" this young man asked.

Ah! I thought: a man with a metaphysical bent: a man after my own heart!  I felt at home here already.  "Yep," I answered, "I can do all that - and still have time to count the number of buttons on a maiden's shoes, like a true gentleman!"

"I heard the joke differently," replied the young man.  "But no matter, you sound like our kind of man.  So pull up a chair and sit on the floor!"

I looked about for the proffered chair, but saw none; and, seeing none, I remained standing, realizing his offer to seat myself on the floor was, in fact, to be taken quite literally.

"You'd rather stand?  Suit yourself.  Here's a piece of paper, here's a #2 pencil: let's see what you can do."

"Could I have something to set the paper on?" I asked.

"Why do you think we have a floor?" the young man retorted.

So I had no choice but to take a seat on the floor, and set my paper down, and begin the serious work at hand.

"Friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears!  I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him!" - No, I did not work that into my speech, popular as it is.  I'm no fool.  Something a gravedigger said 2000 years ago has no application to the modern world.  We don't give speeches at gravesites, we give eulogies.  Nor do we speak of the evil men do till the period of mourning is officially over.  Most of all, we do not inter a man's goods along with his bones nowadays - at least, not until the IRS has assessed them.  Why, then, did I even mention this speech, you're wondering.  To give you an idea how not to write a speech, that's why.  What I did write, by contrast, was right on target.  Read it and weep.

"Who am I?" I wrote, and even as I wrote I could hear the (somewhat less than) booming voice of Binglepood enunciating every word, every phrase, every nuance of every connotation of every line.  "I'm the man: that's who I am.  The man of steel?  The man of mystery?  The man of a thousand faces? you ask.  Yes, I proudly proclaim, all this and 17 infinities more.  For I am the man who would be your (I left the elective office blank till I learned for sure what it was).  And what do I stand for? you ask.  I stand for truth, for honor, for justice.  I stand for family, for family values, for family ideals, for family virtues: for all family matters.  I stand for all things sacred and solemn, hallowed and holy, past and present, coming and going, high and low, here and there.  And why do I stand for so much? you ask.  Because I'm here, I'm now, I'm the be all and end all, the catch all and catch as catch can, catch a falling star.  Catching on and carrying on and on and on and on.  And who are you?  You're what's happening, and why it's happening, and how it happens and when it happens and who it happens to!  Taxes: you want lower taxes? I want lower taxes!  Jobs: you want more jobs? I want more jobs!  Higher pay?  Good for the economy!  Higher profits?  Good for the soul!  Higher aspirations?  Good for you!  And good for me.  Why? you ask.  Because if you aspire higher it follows as night after day, as black after white, as pride after a fall, boom after bust, and dust after dust that you aspire to have a man like me as your (elected office: to be filled in later)!  To which I say: yes!  Yes!  Yes!  And thank you, one and all!  (You, too, Tiny Tim.)  Your aspirations are my votes, my votes your guarantee of quality, of purity, and of a deep and abiding dedication to the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  So help me God!"

As I sat silently reading, Binglepood came in.  I heard his voice, I saw him out of the corner of one eye go by; but I don't believe he saw me.  By the time I was in a position to make my presence known, he had traversed the office and gone out the back door, so I missed my chance to let him know he could depend on my support and affiliation, whatever his politics.  After all, he was "the man" - what more need be said?

"Let's have a look," said the young man as I handed him my rough draft.  He read it over.  "This is some classy kind of speech!" he observed.  "I love the part about 'the family' - we'll keep that in, that's too good to throw out.  And I especially love the part about 'I'm here, I'm now,' 'You're what's happening': that's a classic.  This is one perfect speech - it's perfect just like it is.  There's very little we'll need to change.  Hey, Jar!" he called to a short, fat man with a goat-ee and mustache.  "Go over this, make it do-able!  Jar's our head speechwriter," the young man turned back to me.  "Best in the business.  Beepee's only ripped up a dozen of his speeches so far.  Fired him 18 times, rehired him 19.  Me, I've been fired 27 times, rehired 29.  I'm Angus.  You're -"

"Rondo," I introduced myself.  "No doubt the name's familiar to you."

"You the one molested those boys awhile back?  'Cause if you are, you can't be on our regular staff.  You'll have to go it freelance."

"No, indeed, it wasn't me who did so dreadful a thing!" I at once set Angus straight.

"It was something like Rondo," Angus began searching his memory (or so it seemed from his intense concentration).  Then a certain untoward sound emanated from his person.  "Sorry about that," he apologized for so unciv