Saturday, October 3, 2009

Buzzards for Rent

The sign said, "Flamingoes and buzzards for rent." If that wasn't a sign from God and the fates, I don't know what was. I went in. There was as guy behind a counter reading the racing form.

“Help you?" he said.

"I need to rent a buzzard," I said.

"Okay. How long?"

"I don't know," I said. "I wonder if you'd have a recommendation."

"Well," said the man. He folded the racing from, stuck it under the counter, took out a laminated card, and turned it so I could read it. "These are the buzzards we've got. Different sizes, sexes, it all depends on what you need it for. What do you need it for?"

"Got a dead sheep on my property," I said. "It's been there a while."

"And the buzzards?" asked the man.

"I was hoping I could get a buzzard to eat it. So I don't have to haul it out of there. How long's it take a buzzard to eat a sheep?"

"Oh," said the buzzard man. "You'd want several buzzards, I'm afraid. Just one, that'd take way too long. You'd really save money by renting, say, a half-dozen buzzards for a week rather than one buzzard for a month. We've got a volume discount. Unless this sheep of yours is in a confined space. Is it in a confined space?"

"Well, I don't know—you mean like the trunk of a car?"

"Is it in the trunk of a car?"

"No… it's. Well, it's in the bedroom. I was hoping to get rid of it pretty quickly."

"Ah," said the buzzard man. "You'll be wanting a couple of indoor buzzards. I've got just the thing." He disappeared through a beaded curtain into the back room.

I had a look around the room while he was gone. The place looked like a rental car office, or maybe a shipping company. There was a large package scale on the counter, a couple of chairs in a waiting area, and a low table covered with magazines. I moved them around to have a look. There were a few reasonably current issues of Hawk and Handsaw. Carrion weekly. The Flamingo Times printed on pink paper. And, strangely, something called Slots and Spinners, with a picture of a shiny silver slot machine on the cover.

I picked it up and had a look inside. There, in the first article, was a picture of the buzzard guy standing in front of a row of neon-lit slot machines. He held a flamingo under one arm, Alice-in-Wonderland style. There was a man in a suit with slicked-back hair, smiling and holding up one of those giant checks they give you when you win the lottery. It was made out in the amount of $200,000.00.

"That was last year in Vegas," said the man. He was behind the counter again. "That's my lucky flamingo, Janice. I take her with me every time I go, and every time I win a couple hundred grand. She tells me which machines to play."

"Mm-hm," I said.

"She never misses," said the man. "Betcha can't guess where we stay when we're there."

I laughed. "Bet I can."

"How much?"

"How much you bet you can tell me where we stay?"

"What, for real?"

"Of course for real. I'm a gambling man. Couldn't you tell?"

"Well, I…"

"Tell you what—" He bent down behind the counter and came up with a pair of plastic pet carriers, each about the size you'd carry a beagle in. He set them on the counter. "We'll make it a contest. You guess where we stayed, and I'll give you the first day's rent for Frankie and Johnny here for free. Otherwise you pay full price. Deal?"

"Okay," I said, "give me a minute here."

The man stood behind the counter, smiling. Rustling noises came from the pet carriers. Sounds like claws on paper.

"Could it be," I said, "the Flamingo Hilton?"

"Damn," said the man. "You're good. Nobody else has gotten that." He pulled some papers out of a tray next to the cash register. "Well, looks like you got yourself a free day of buzzard rental.

"You know, we stayed at the Luxor once, but Janice got drunk on one of those drinks in an obelisk glass, and she made a spectacle of herself. They won't let us go back there."

"I was wondering," I said.

"Yes?"

"The flamingo rental…"

"You want to know if you can rent Janice, don't you?"

"Well, I thought maybe…"

"You could," he said, "but the luck doesn't seem to work if she's with anybody but me. Some kind of symbiosis, I think."

I shrugged. "It was worth a try."

"Sign here, then initial here and here," said the man. "We'll see you in a week."

He held the door for me as I left with Frankie and Johnny. Time to get home. That sheep wasn't getting any fresher.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Possums and marbles

The thing most people don't know about possums is that they're hoarders. Worse than pack rats. Worse than magpies. Your magpie will go for shiny things—gum wrappers, engagement rings, what have you. Your pack rat likes soft, fuzzy things, along with seeds and objects with handles.

The world's record pack rat, found in a den in Texas, had a burrow full of suitcases. Valises. Gladstone bags. Steamer trunks. They had no idea how the rat got all that baggage into the burrow, because the opening was only rat sized. But the pack rat is well known to be the most determined of the rodents. Like the expression, you know: "He'll stick to that problem like a pack rat."

There's a paper that finally explained it. Measured the string-theory vibrations of pack rats in eleven dimensions. It's a lot of math and graphs, but you can really sum it up by saying pack rats can push things through walls. Shuffle the spaces between the atoms like riffling a pack of cards together, and the suitcase comes out the other side. Atomic interlacing, they call it.

Possums, now, possums like to collect round things. Baseballs, eggs, croquet balls, and ball bearings.

Al had a truck that he parked over by the laurel bushes. Took it out on the freeway one day, and all four wheels fell off at the same time. The truck skidded along on its belly, tossing up a rooster tail of sparks, until it finally stopped in the middle of the left lane.

It turned out a family of possums that lived in the bushes had stolen all his wheel bearings. He found them when he went to trim the bushes, piled up in one of those pyramids they pile up cannonballs in. Shiny, bright, with all the grease licked off them. Which also explained why he could never catch the possums. They were too fast with all that bearing grease inside them. You know the expression: "Faster than a greased possum."

Possums always look surprised, with those big, white circles around their eyes. "Yikes!" they say. "Look at all those ball bearings! So smooth and round. Gonna take those home and put them in the bearing pile." They pack their little possum pouches full of bearings and waddle home, dragging their lumpy bellies on the ground.

Possums like marbles, too. They don't really care what they look like, as long as they're round. Not like little boys, who have a marble hierarchy. Or at least I did.

Bottom of the list—and this is what's attractive to a second-grader, which is where my marble-appreciation sense is frozen—were the solid ones. Sure, they have interesting swirls and things. You might appreciate them now, but back then they just weren't cool.

Then the cat's eyes. More interesting. Colored patterns inside clear glass.

"You know where they get those?" said Rick.

"No," I said.

"From cats. All the cats at the pound, all those cats in the labs. They take one eye from each. Can't take both. They'd be blind."

"That's not true at all," I said. "That's gross."

"Okay, I was just pulling your leg. They make them for cats. Glass eyes. Cats lose eyes all the time in those fights you hear in the middle of the night. You take them to the vet, and they pop one of those marbles in. Sometimes they don't have a match. That's when you see one of those cats with two different-colored eyes."

Next in the hierarchy: clearies. Glass all the way through. Best were the clear clearies, just glass-colored.

Then the very most valuable marbles: steelies. Now I know they were just ball bearings, and they're not so interesting.

Eric had one of those Newton's Cradle toys. Five steel balls hanging from Vs of fishing line. It's a momentum transfer toy. You pull one ball back, let it go, and it knocks one off the other end. Makes the click-click marble pendulum noise I can hear right now, writing this. Pull two back, let them go, and two pop off the other side. And so on.

It's a toy that's interesting for maybe ten minutes, then you're done with it. Forever. Sort of like those magnetic Wheel-O toys. And the spinning, fly-apart metal Christmas trees with the Santa in the middle.

Anyway, one day Eric dropped the Newton's Cradle on the floor, and one of the metal balls popped out of its plastic retaining ring. It bounced and rolled across the floor. Eric chased it down.

"Hey!" he said. "That's a steelie!" He got a screwdriver and pried the other four steelies out of the Newton's Cradle. That was five more steelies than I ever had.

But then one day, crawling around in the laurel bushes, I found a whole pile of them. Stacked up in a little pyramid like the ones cannonballs get piled up in. Gleaming steelies, all licked clean by possum tongues. Almost better than the time I found the waterlogged Playboy. But at least I could take the steelies home.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Museum of Curiosities

Today I'd like to welcome you to the Museum of Curiosities. It used to be a Cabinet of Curiosities, then a Closet of Curiosities, but the collection kept growing and growing.

Here we have the original closet. It smells a bit musty inside, I know. Of old wool suits worn too long and never washed. You can't, you know. Not without shrinking them. Which is okay if you have midgets or children around the house.

Here we have the costume collection. We specialize in fur coats.

This one's my grandmother's. It's made of weasels. Not pelts. That would be cruel. The weasels themselves, each carefully trained to hold onto the weasel next to it with its paws. Bite the tail of the weasel in front, below. As you can see, they all hang head down. It's a nice, warm coat, but it does smell a bit weasely. And it tends to writhe.

Here we have the Moebius Scarf, endless loop with only one side. You stick your head through it, and it comes out somewhere else. I think it's China. Hard to tell, because it's crowded, and all you see is people's feet. I'm not sure what they see. Maybe just your head sticking up out of the sidewalk. Best not to wear this one, lest you be mistaken for a soccer ball.

What's that, Ma'am? Yes, the costumes do get worn. Once a year at our Grand Fundraising Ball. There's information about it on our Web site. But there's a years-long waiting list for the weasel coat.

This is the most valuable item in the original Closet of Curiosities. A coat made entirely of hummingbird feathers. Originally belonged to the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. That's right, the one with the revenge.

The coat uses only the third primary feather from the left wing of a single species of hummingbird. The artisans caught thousands of the little buggers. Yanked out the single feather. Even a tiny modification like that messed up their ability to fly, so they could only fly around in counterclockwise circles. This single coat made the species extinct.

Notice how shimmery and blue it is. If you put your ear close—just there—you can hear it humming. They say the coat got its revenge on Moctezuma when Cort├ęs and his Spaniards arrived. Things went badly for the Aztecs. Moctezuma—they don't tell you this in the history books—Moctezuma was trying to escape by hiding inside an empty planter. The Spaniards were just walking by, ready to move on in their search, when the hummingbird coat started humming. The note was just right, just matched the resonant frequency of the inside of the planter, so the whole thing sounded like a foghorn. Moctezuma was discovered and captured, and you know the rest.

We'll move on now to the first room. This is our rotating exhibit hall. It does rotate. The crank is over there. But we also bring in a new exhibit every month.

Please don't touch that, Sir. You're right, it is crooked. Nevertheless.

That's really the secret of this exhibit. It's not an exhibit of paintings, it's an exhibit of the people looking at the paintings. The audience observes them from the other side of the two-way mirror along the wall, there.

Each and every painting in the exhibit is hung just a little bit crookedly. And another secret—even if we let you straighten them, you wouldn't be able to. Not a single picture, not a single frame is made of right angles. They're all non-equilateral rhombuses.

So we sit in the observation room and watch all the people fidget and twitch. Like that guy there—he keeps half-reaching out, arms starting up from his sides, fingers twitching. He's had to stuff his hands in his pockets, and he's dancing around as if he needs to take a pee.

Next week we're going to change this one out for an exhibit of Dutch Maters. They'll all be hung three feet off the floor, so you have to crouch down to look at them.

Now, if you'll follow me, please…

This is the Hall of Bears. Bears of all sorts, as you can see. No, Ma'am, they're not stuffed. We hire these bears to stand around in poses. They're quite good at it.

Here, as you can see, is our grizzly bear, posing as a rug in front of the fireplace. He has practiced for years to perfect the ability of flattening himself out like that. Mind your feet, please. Sometimes he snaps.

At five o'clock the bears help us clear visitors out of the museum. You don't want to be slow when we give the closing announcement.

Now if you'll follow me…

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Swine flue

The swine flue is the most important part of your pig furnace. You have to have the damper open just the right amount to vent off the lighter pigs while retaining the larger ones in the pork tank.

Let's take a look here at Diagram One. Note call-out A. The pig damper. It's hard to remember whether the damn thing is open or closed. Do you pull it forward to open it, or is that closed? You could stick your head in there and look, but by the time your remember to check, you've usually got a nice, crackling fire going, and looking would roast your head.

You'll know soon enough. If the damper's closed, pretty soon a bunch of hydrogen-filled piglets comes pouring out of the front of the furnace, collecting up near the ceiling, running around upside-down, squealing. One little spark from their hooves on a light fixture, and kablam! It's raining bacon. That's not a bad thing, but it needs to happen in a controlled space. And the little piglets are cute. Nobody likes to see them get blown up.

If you get the swine flue adjusted correctly, the stream of piglets flies up the chimney and out into the wind. The larger swine come out the vents at the bottom, the swine heatelator, and you have to let them out the door.

If you'd burn something other than those acorns, you wouldn't have to worry about all those pigs. It's the combustion product. You combine acorns and oxygen in the presence of heat, and you get pigs, water, hydrogen, and extra heat. That's just the chemistry of it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Reject-o-Rama

So I submitted the bit posted here earlier, the one about the kid and the escalator, to an on-line journal with literary pretensions.

Here's what they said:

We don't want it. Okay, I expected that. They sent editors' comments. I thought I'd want that. Now I'm not so sure.

"Too juvenile for this market," said one. That's the literary pretensions, I guess. Did they mean written for kids? I wouldn't read it to my kids, if I had kids that is. Or are they saying something about me? Damn this youth-obsessed culture, anyway. It's made me what I am.

"Some things are best left to the imagination," said another. I think they mean where the kid gets sliced into long pieces like linguini. That's all I said, you know. Didn't mention the gouts of blood and all the other things that would result if a person got sliced into linguini. Okay, never mind—we're talking about a kid who gets sucked into an escalator here. It couldn't really happen, could it?

I obviously sent this to the wrong people. I should send it to that escalator magazine, Tread and Riser, I think it's called. At least I know what they'd say.

"You should be ashamed of yourself," they'd say. "People are scared enough of escalators as it is. Not only are we rejecting your story, but we're putting you down on our enemies list. You'd better watch your ass the next time you try to ride an escalator. Not that there's anything unsafe about escalators. We're just saying."

They might have a point. Maybe the linguini part doesn't need to spelled out.

Maybe he got squashed flat like a postage stamp. Some things are best left to the imagination.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Slugs in the house

Slugs are coming into the house at night. I don't know where they get in—the slug-hole, maybe. It's the hole in the downhill side of the baseboard, where the water's supposed to run out if the apartment fills up with water.

I don't know why they come into the house. Maybe they've got a simple slug robot program.

Here's the simple slug robot program:

Step one: go forward.

Step two: if you can't go forward, back up two inches and turn to the right ten degrees. Go to step one.

So slugs bump into things a lot, if you can say something moving that slowly bumps at all. It's sort of a slow-motion thing.

A slug wreck is a terrible thing to watch. You can see it coming. Even the slug sees it coming. Says, very slug-slowly, "Oh, noooooooo!" The front end of the slug touches the wall. Back end keeps moving. Slow, slow, creeping. Front end of the slug stretches out like a puddle. Wider and wider over the course of five minutes. Ends up as a splatter on the wall. You watched it happen. It took five minutes, and you couldn't do anything about it. It's the same way God watches car wrecks.

You might think it's no big deal that slugs are coming into the house. Annoying, but not exactly dangerous. You'd be wrong.

Pat fell asleep one night with the window open. In the big orange wing chair. Beer half-finished in his hand, resting on the armrest. Woke up in the morning with his hair in his eyes. Reached up to brush it aside, and it felt as if his head had been covered in snot. Sticky, silvery on his fingers, flaking to powder.

The smell of beer had brought it—a six-inch banana slug from the patio. It muscled its way through the screen. Crawled up the chair, slowly, slowly. Over the top of Pat's head. Did a little circle with its back-and-fill slug robot program. Slorched its way down his arm, up and over the edge of the beer glass. Guzzled beer till it was too fat to fit in the glass, then died, head down in that last little bit of beer you're supposed to leave for the fairies so they don't snatch away your children and leave changelings in their place.

Pat tipped the glass over the sink, but the slug stuck. He tapped the rim down on the counter. Still nothing. Tried running a butter knife around the slug's body. It was working wonderfully, making a slurping sound, till he got to a place where the slug skin had dried against the side of the glass. He pushed too hard, broke the skin, and the slug popped. Splattered beer foam and slug guts straight up out of the glass. Straight up into Pat's face. It stung his eyes. And the analgesic property of the slug slime (try licking one if you don't believe me) froze his eyelids open for a week. He had to sleep open-eyed, and he dreamed about nothing but the second-hand on his bedside clock going around and around and around.

So slugs coming into the house are nothing to laugh at.

You can't seal it up. They tried. Ran a line of caulk all the way around the base of the building. Painted it with beer to attract the slugs, salt to dissolve them as they tried to cross over. The slugs used the dead bodies of their companions as bridges. Crawled over them as they hissed and bubbled with the salt. Drank all the beer on the way into the house, so it wasn't just slugs, but drunk slugs.

I got up in the morning. Staggered barefoot toward the coffee machine.

I stepped on something. Cold, wet. A little bit of resistance, then something burst. Colder and wetter. I looked down. There was a spray of slime across the kitchen floor, fanning out the way ketchup does when you stamp on one of those little ketchup packages.

And on my foot, slug skin. Slug guts—whatever kind they've got. There was a short trip to the bathroom while I scraped off the bits, sat on the edge of the bathtub and washed the bottoms of both feet, just to make sure.

Out in the living room there was a zigzag trail. A shining, meandering path you could only see if you stood where the light hit it at the right angle. The drunken slugs had stumble-slimed their way all over the floor.

They were all heaped up in a corner, singing slug songs in high, peeping voices. Sentimental ballads. "I met my love on a lettuce leaf." "When the dew is on the slime." That kind of thing.

I scooped them all up in the dustpan. Eighty-sixed the drunken slugs into the toilet. A meaner person would have poured salt in there from the blue can with the little girl and the umbrella on the label. I just pulled the handle. The slugs went around and around, down the porcelain vortex. There was a sound like "glup." No more slugs.

Next time someone peed in there, the toilet wouldn't flush. Did that thing where the water in the bowl goes up and up, and you stand, looking helpless, thinking, Please don't rise over the rim! Please don't rise over the rim!

I called the Roto-Rooter guy.

"Is it slugs?" he asked.

"Well, um…"

"It's slugs, isn't it?"

I looked at my toes. "Yes."

"Don't suppose you salted 'em first," said the Roto-Rooter man.

"Well, no. I thought it would be cruel."

"Yeah," he said. "Not like flushing them down the crapper. Well, I've got to go out to the van for my slug bit."

The slugs are still getting into the house at night. I put a bowl of beer out for them. Chuck them out the door in the morning. They weave off toward the next-door neighbor's tulips, humming to themselves. If you look at just the right angle, you can see meandering trails of silver on the sidewalk.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cornucopria

Crap. Today I'm going to write about crap. 'Cause we're surrounded by it. Inundated. There's the Cornucopia of Crap, the Cornucopria, I guess it would be. Curved horn with a river of garbage pouring out of it, fish heads and eggshells, coffee grounds and banana strings, the ones you have to peel off the banana after the peel is gone.

People come by with buckets, scoop up the bounty, and take it home to watch on their DVRs. That's where most of the crap goes, right? TV. There's a collection system by the Cornucopria, collects it all in a pipeline, funnels it to Fox headquarters and other places like that. Then it's piped directly into your house through a fiber-optic cable. You turn on the switch, and you've got a hundred channels of crap to choose from.

You kids don't know how lucky you have it. When I was a kid we only had three channels of crap to choose from. There would have been more, but our house was up against the foothills, and the signals from Golden didn't get to us. Or some of them. That's where the towers are for the Denver stations. Tall things on Lookout Mountain above Golden, with red, winking eyes at the top. Golden's where the Coors brewery is, so there's all manner of different kinds of crap emanating from there.

It all went off around midnight, too. They'd play the Star-Spangled Banner, show some jets flying around and some flags waving in the breeze, then there'd be a test pattern and a long beep—maybe 440 hertz? I don't know—for the rest of the night.

The test pattern was all mysterious symbols. Stripes and radiating lines. Triangles with an all-seeing Masonic Eye of Providence in the middle. Just starting out. When you looked away it would blink, but could never catch it in the act. Thing is, it was really watching you.

Here's how it worked. It all goes back to Golden, home of Coors beer, the Colorado School of Mines, and NORAD—that's the North American Air Defense Command. Under the mountain there, a bomb-proof complex mounted on giant springs from hundreds of old Chevies. From the towers on top of the mountain, Cheyenne Mountain, where there's a zoo full of mutant giraffes and things, baboons with a strict patriarchy and a resource base of booze and chicks—we'll get to that later—from the top of the mountain NORAD sent out that test-pattern signal with the All-Seeing Eye of Providence, watching, even when you turned off the TV. Ever notice how the picture shrank down to a little dot when you turned it off? The eye was still there. Then the dot got so small you couldn't see it, but still it was there, watching your living room all night.

Ever notice how the test pattern looked like a combination of a radiation symbol and a target? That was NORAD, too. A big message saying, "Hey, Ivan! Aim 'er right here. See if you can land one in the living room. We're ready for you."

But we were talking about crap. It's years later here. They've mothballed NORAD due to a lack of Rooskies, along with satellites that beam the crap down your chimney from directly overhead. Keeps you occupied. You're watching ads with fashionable people buying, well, crap from crappy stores like Target. You're watching shows like America's Biggest Idiot, where a houseful of contestants vie for the title of, as it says, America's Biggest Idiot.

Here's the secret. I can't tell you where I found out. At the end of the show they reveal that America's Biggest Idiot is… you! Because you watched the thing for three whole months to find out.

There are others. Who Wants to be a Baboon? for instance. Where twelve hapless contestants are thrown in the middle of a troop of mutant baboons at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. They vie for the post of Top Baboon, with all the booze and chicks that come with the position. Nice work if you can get it, but you have to wear a big, red, strap-on ass, or the other baboons don't give you any respect. It's not fair or unfair. It's just biology.

At any rate, all of this stuff coming out of your TV keeps you distracted while the other guys pick your pocket and drive off with your car.

You look at the TV and say, "You call those idiots? I could be a bigger idiot than that! How come I'm not on this show?"

Then you can't find your wallet or your car keys. Meanwhile, they stop a red-assed Chacma baboon trying to buy Coors beer at the 7-11 with your credit card.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hummingbirds

I was sure there were no hummingbirds here. Eric said, yes, there are hummingbirds.

I still thought no. We hung up a feeder, just to see. No hummingbirds. Never saw them. Kept looking at the feeder every once in a while. Still full. Still full.

I went out to empty it about a month ago. Thought, That sugar water's going to grow mold. Grow toxic bacteria, and if a hummingbird happens to take a sip, he's going to fall right out of the air, stone dead on the bricks. Stuck point first into a crack, quivering like an arrow.

They have tiny little livers, hummingbirds. That's why you're not supposed to use that red-dyed hummingbird food. It kills them, just like the bacteria in the feeder. So you think you're being nice to them, but instead they're piling up in a heap over there behind the bushes.

Anyway, I went to empty the feeder, and it turns out it wasn't full of clear sugar water, it was full of clear air. The hummingbirds had guzzled it all in secret, when we weren't looking. So it's full again, and I see them all the time. Little fat things. They hover back a few inches, looking around for cats or something, then zip in to swallow about quart of sugar water in ten seconts, then zip back out again to check for cats.

Any cats? Nope. Zip! Glug-glug-glug. Zip! How about now? Any cats?

Any other hummingbirds? That's what they're really after. They fight like demons, zipping around, fierce. But tiny. You laugh, and it's all funny till one of them pokes you right in the eye. Hummingbirds are sharp. Fast. Dangerous. Poison-tipped, especially after they've been drinking out of a feeder full of toxic bacteria.

You wonder what note they make with those wings. Is it like the fluorescent lights, 60 cycles of out-of-tune B-flat? Could you train them to hum in chords? The bass hummingbird would keep falling down because its wings weren't beating fast enough. Once again to be stuck beak-first into the ground, and you'd have to pull it out.

You also wonder, Do they ever drink so much that they can't fly? Like those puffins up in Alaska that eat so much fish they can't take off. I saw them, with their little round bellies bouncing off the water. You figure most of them would get eaten by seals and orcas. A bonus, because they're already stuffed.

So then I learned this—it's amazing the things you learn. Vampire bats get a jet-assisted takeoff by peeing. It's because they suck so much blood out of a cow that they can't take off. It's a lot for the bat, not so much for the cow. They only way they can lighten up enough to take off is to pee. You don't want to be standing in the takeoff path.

Look at that—I start off with hummingbirds and end up with peeing vampire bats. That's the way of all this writing, right into the gutter, with all the bat pee and discarded hummingbird beaks.

See, you can eat them roasted, the little hummingbirds, if you really want to. Hold them by their beaks like hors d'oeuvres on toothpicks. Not much meat on a hummingbird, though. Just a mouthful of little gleaming green feathers.

Not like a puffin, but I imagine those are mostly beaks and oil. Seals eat them, but seals eat all kinds of things you wouldn't touch.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Signs from God

Signs from God.

Here's one. "Do Not Enter." That's what it says. Big red circle with a white bar across it. "Do Not" above the bar, "Enter" below it.

You'd really think God's sign would say, "Thou shalt not enter," but He keeps up with the times. Doesn't speak 17th-century English any more.

Anyway. Signs from God. He hung the Do Not Enter sign in midair over Scott's head when Maggie went on her first date with him. Tried to save her a lot of grief, but signs from God are usually tough to see.

Here's another one. It says, "Free." That's all. It got misinterpreted all the time.

"Free," said the sign.

Scholars argued. What did He mean? Obviously a sign from God. Written in that Old English blackletter He used back in the middle ages.

"Free."

Should we be free? Make others free? A sign maybe that you're free to meet God? God is free? Love is free?

What really happened was that God had an old sofa that He didn't want any more. The cat had scratched it up. There was a stain from when a bottle of wine tipped over when nobody was paying attention. The cushions were getting kind of shiny from all the rear ends that had sat on it. Time to get rid of it. Time to get a new couch. Maybe a hide-a-bed for when guests wanted to stay over. The only problem was, they were so damn heavy. God knows why. Or, really, He doesn't. He thought of asking the manufacturer.

Anyway. Time to get rid of it, but it was a perfectly good sofa. Someone should be able to use it. So he put it out by the curb. With a sign that said, "Free."

A guy in a red pickup truck was driving by. Stopped. Backed up. Muscled the couch into the back and drove off. Left the sign. Sign from God. And now a couple of rabbis and a Jesuit are trying to figure it out.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pirates and Breakfast

Exterior. Day. Fade-in. Okay.

There's an ocean. Long, rolling waves. Waves are the long, wide backs of big animals swimming in a line. Big animals like manatees. Extra big. Bigger than the biggest whale. Bigger than any other animal. Backs are green, mottled with white, all barnacle-covered. They swim at you, and you roll across their backs. The ship rides like a roller coaster up one manatee, down the other side, up the next. Their big, bristly whiskers brush the sea floor, leaving parallel lines. Like the sand-floor of one of those Japanese gardens, raked into parallel lines.

A pirate comes across the deck carrying a tray. Breakfast. Covered dish with bacon smells coming out from underneath. Silverware rolled up in a crisp white napkin. Bowl of cantaloupe slices, and a tulip in a little bud vase.

The captain's had a hard night, deserves breakfast in bed. Up all night lashed to the tiller in case a storm was coming. Heard it on the pirate radio weather forecast. Usually the pirate radio just plays this weird industrial music that the kids who run the pirate radio station record in their basement. The FCC's onto them, but they move the station every four hours or so, so the FCC boys can't get a fix on it.

The music today—the captain has it turned down low—music today is some kind of big steam engine with what sounds like a stick running back and fourth across a picket fence. Rhythmic. The weather report last night was wrong. No storm. Just long tendrils of glowing stuff, purple like the raver-kids' necklaces, drifting by the hull and eddying off the back.

The captain had an argument with the quartermaster. Quartermaster said, "In the northern hemisphere, the phosphorescent eddies swirl clockwise. In the southern hemisphere they go counterclockwise."

"Is that so?" said the captain. "Then why are they swirling in both directions off the stern, there?"

The quartermaster said they must be sailing exactly along the equator, hence the eddies on either side went in opposite directions. The Coriolanus effect, he said it was.

The captain thought the Coriolanus effect was something to do with Shakespeare. The swirling effect had another name. And besides, if they were sailing along the equator, what was the North Star doing there, directly in line with the bowsprit?

"That's not the North Star," said the quartermaster.

"It bloody well is the North Star," said the captain. "I think I'd know the North Star when I see it, and who's the captain here, anyway?"

The quartermaster shook his head and muttered something about heathens.

The captain said of course he was a bloody heathen. He was a pirate, wasn't he? Violated all ten commandments right after breakfast as a warm-up for the day. And the coveting your neighbor's wife one was a damn challenge, let me tell you, since there were no women on board that he knew of.

"Are there?" he paused to ask, and the quartermaster shrugged.

There were no women on board, so he had to covet Gabardine Jack's wife back there in Kingston, and if you got a look at her last time we were there you'd know that coveting her was a damn sight more work than coveting Gabardine Jack's cattle. He half suspected she had been one of the cattle until Jack brought her in the house.

The quartermaster sauntered off toward the bow, whistling, and the captain went to bed with a migraine.

So here we are this morning with the pirate carrying the breakfast tray across the deck, peg leg knocking every other step with the slapping bare foot—knock-slap-knock-slap-knock-slap.

The peg leg gets stuck in a knothole, and the pirate stumbles forward, barely catching himself on the rail. The tray and breakfast sail out into the air, each piece of bacon and half a grapefruit turning slowly in the air, half of them clockwise and the other half counterclockwise. All drop in with fifteen tiny splashes, and the nearest giant manatee rolls over and swallows the whole thing. Astern, you can see it spitting out the tray, the plates, and one tulip in a bud vase.


Mail Order II

My dad used to get a catalog from Miles Kimball. Quarter-page size full of miscellaneous things, a grown-up version of the last page in a comic book, the one with the x-ray specs. I think my dad got it because he'd had something for sale in there once.

Here's a real item from the Miles Kimball catalog. It was called the "Vibrating Tingle Bullet," your own personal massager. Relaxing, it said, for those hard-to-reach places, like the back of your neck. There was a line-drawing of a smiling woman holding the Vibrating Tingle Bullet up next to her face. You could buy the regular 8-inch model, or the deluxe 10-inch model. For those really hard-to-reach places.

I saw the same thing once, honest to God and no fooling, on a display table at Montgomery Ward's. Different name, but it was a whole table full of Vibrating Tingle Bullets in boxes. I don't know whether the Ward's people were in on the joke, or so completely clueless that they ordered them as personal massagers. They only had one size, though.

Here are some things that would be for sale in my catalog:

A holy relic necklace. It's a chip of porcelain in a filigreed box, gold or silver, glass front. On a chain so you can wear it around your neck. This is a piece of the True Toilet. The one Elvis died on after eating one of those football-sized peanut butter and bacon sandwiches. At great expense the True Toilet was smuggled out of Graceland by descendants of the Knights of Malta. There was a forklift accident while they were loading it onto the truck, and the holy relic tipped over, dropped four feet to the sidewalk, and smashed into tiny shards.

It's lucky for you, though, because that means we can bring you your very own personal piece at a very reasonable price. It's said that just touching a piece of the True Toilet will cure the tone-deaf, chill the uncool, and put a swivel in the hips of the most hopeless brown-shoed square.

Later there was a big scandal. First, because there were enough pieces of the True Toilet sold that the porcelain could have filled a hotel with full-sized bathtubs. And second, because the experts knew that Elvis didn't die on the actual toilet, but in a big easy chair that he kept in the bathroom.

"But what about the miracles?" people asked.

"Placebo effect," said the scientists and theologians. "Of course it's all ruined now, since the secret is out."

In the next edition of the catalog you can buy a small square of Naugahyde, a piece of the True Easy Chair Elvis died on. It's a little lucky patch you can carry in your wallet or sew onto the elbow of a sweater.

Here's another item from the catalog:

An accordion possessed by the devil. There was a young kid in a lumber camp in Minnesota who challenged the devil to an accordion contest, just like in the song. The devil made a crucial mistake in the da capo in "Lady of Spain," took all the repeats when the rules clearly state that repeats are not to be taken on the D.C.

The devil was disqualified, and the kid got the accordion. But the devil had the last laugh and left it possessed. Now when you play the buttons on the left hand side, you get nothing but diminished chords and tritones, the Interval of the Devil. Whatever melody you try to play in the right hand comes out as "Tubular Bells," "Danse Macabre," and sometimes "A Night on Bald Mountain."

The kid gave it up and devoted the rest of his life to timber-cutting. The accordion sat in the Accordion Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, but the night watchman swore that it played tunes all by itself in the middle of the night. Earworms, repetitive things that get stuck in your head—"It's a Small, Small World," "Happy Together," or "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." The hall always smelled like sulfur in the morning. After a couple of unexplained fires, the museum de-accessioned the possessed accordion into the dumpster, and now we're offering it to the discriminating collector at a very reasonable price.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Cold War Artifacts #143

The Soviet Weather Machine is up near the Arctic Circle. Underground.

The Soviet Weather Machine is gray. Leftover paint from battleships. Appropriated by the Commissar of Gray Paint, manufactured by the Progress Gray Paint Factory, where women in gray overalls and gray kerchiefs squeezed elephants and thunderheads in big presses to extract the gray pigment. A byproduct of the Progress factory was white elephants and big, puffy, white cumulus clouds.

The theory behind the Soviet Weather Machine was developed by Aleksandr Timofyeyev Sarkhov. Sort of like Lysenko, who was responsible for Soviet genetic theory, which, as it happens, was false. But at least the weather theory didn't hurt anyone.

Sarkhov, Lexi to his friends, developed a theory with three main principles, known as Sarkhov's Three Laws of Weather.

The first: Weather wants to change.

The second: Weather at rest tends to stay at rest, and weather in motion tends to stay in motion, unless acted on by an outside force, such as a big, gray weather machine constructed on the Siberian tundra.

Sarkhov's Third Law of Weather: If you don't like the weather, shut up and quit bitching about it, unless you want to get sent up to work on the big, gray weather machine.

Work on the machine began in the early 1940s, under Stalin's plan to create avalanches in the Austrian Alps, thereby blocking supply lines to the Nazis' eastern front.

The Commissar of Meteorology went to watch the first test. The machine was the size of a small refrigerator, the kind you could keep a keg of beer or the weekend supply of vodka in. There was a slot in the upper half, a knob with a pointer that could be turned to a number of selections designated with numbers, and an opening near the bottom.

"All right, Comrade Researcher, show us what you've got," said the commissar.

"Well, Comrade Commissar, the operation is quite simple. One sets the dial, thus." He turned the knob to a setting in the middle. "Then, to activate the machine, one places a ten-kopek coin in the slot." He shrugged apologetically. "Later we hope to add change-making functions, but at the moment exact change is necessary."

The researcher accepted a coin from his assistant and put it in the slot. It rattled down inside the machine. There was a humming noise, then the machine began rocking violently from side to side. The commissar jumped up, but the scientist held out his hand. "No cause for alarm," he said. "This is the normal function of the machine."

After about 30 seconds a buzzer sounded. The machine stopped, then a slushy white ball dropped into the opening. The assistant removed it with a pair of tongs and held it out for the commissar to examine.

"That's it?" he asked.

"We're still in the early stages of development."

"Development of what?"

"Hailstones, Comrade Commissar. We're well on our way to pea-sized hail, and we hope to have hail the size of golf balls by the end of the month."

"Golf balls?" said the Commissar. "Golf is decadent, bourgeois, capitalist. There will be no hail the size of golf balls."

"Very good, Comrade Commissar. We will proceed directly to grapefruits, melons, and soccer balls."

"Well, it all seems promising. Only…"

"Yes, Comrade Commissar?"

"Well. It's weather. One supposes that the hailstones, whatever their size, must eventually find their way into the air."

"Yes, Comrade Commissar. We have a crack artillery team working on that aspect of the project."

"Well, then. This is good progress."

"If I may suggest, Comrade Commissar..."

"Yes?"

"The prototype hailstone that my assistant is holding..."

"Seems a bit large and mushy."

"We're working on the compression. But as it is, if the prototype hailstone is placed in a cup, or, say, a paper cone, and one adds flavored syrup or vodka to it, it becomes a delicious confection."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Mail Order

I got this e-mail. "Do you want a really big penis?" it said. I thought, Why not? Sent away to the address. Paid them the 50 bucks. It arrived by UPS about a week later. The box was waiting on the doorstep.

By the time I got down through all the Styrofoam peanuts and the layers of bubble wrap, the thing turned out not to be very big at all. In fact, I'm not really sure it was a penis. Maybe I'd been ripped off. Sort of like ordering that stuff out of the comic books.

Like x-ray specs, which I knew didn't work. The picture showed a pervy-looking man staring at a woman in a skirt. A dotted line went from his eyes over to the woman. That means, in comic-icon-speak, "I'm looking here." They used it a lot in the comic "Nancy," the one with her little boyfriend, Sluggo. She had to use dotted lines to show where she was looking because her eyes were just two big, black dots.

The x-ray specs idea was stupid anyway, because if you were looking at a woman in a skirt, why would you want to look at her bones? Can you even tell girl bones from boy bones just by looking at them? I'm no forensic anthropologist.

But there were some things that were worth ordering.

Like the ventriloquism kit. Throw your voice! The laundry hamper says, "Hey! Let me out of here!" And you mom doesn't know what's going on.

But the ventriloquism kit arrived in an envelope, which wasn't encouraging. An envelope from Honor House Products in Lynbrook, New York.

Inside the envelope was a booklet, the size of those religious comic tracts from Jack Chick. And a pill-sized metal tube with an accordion reed inside. You were supposed to stick the tube under your tongue, where it made buzzy sounds when you talked through it. I learned later that it's called a swozzle.

The booklet told you all the secrets of ventriloquism. I'd tell you some of them, but that would violate the ventriloquist's code. Anyway, it didn't work. Not any better than the x-ray specs.

There was other stuff—the secret book safe made of plastic. The hot pepper gum. The whoopee cushion. The soap that turns your hands black.

The auto fooler—stick it up the exhaust pipe, and it makes whistling noises and shoots off sparks. Jimmy Walsley got one of those. Stuck it in his dad's car, but he put it in the wrong way around, and the car went up in a big fireball. Lucky for him, Jimmy's dad had gone back in the house for the key to the motel room where he was supposed to meet Amy Beatty's mom at lunch time.

The flames peeled the paint off the garage door and made everything smell like the inside of a fireplace.

They suspected Amy Beatty's dad, out for revenge, but they couldn't prove anything. The cops thought the clues pointed to a gang working out of Lynbrook, New York, and they didn't have the resources to pursue it.

So after that Amy's mom and dad had a reconciliation, and the state victims' compensation fund bought Jimmy's dad a new Chevy Impala. Jimmy slipped the auto fooler package down between the holes in the storm drain and didn't read comics for a long time after that.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cautionary tale #439

There was a kid once. He had a name like Billy or Bobby, because that's the kind of name kids had back then. Now he'd be named Trevor or Hunter, and if he were a girl he'd be Madison or Riley.

Billy never paid any attention to what his mom told him. He crossed his eyes, and they didn't stick that way. He swallowed gum, and it went right through him. He knew, because he looked. He went out in the rain without a coat, and he rarely caught a cold, but he did catch hell if his mom found out.

So when Billy's mom said, "Pick your feet up at the top of the escalator, Dear, or you might get squashed flat like a postage stamp," Billy ignored her, and nothing ever came of it.

One day Billy was riding the escalator up to the second floor of J.C. Penney's. He liked going there to wander around the lingerie department and look at the bra mannequins. They were truncated women—torsos with heads and breasts, no arms. Faces with painted-on eyes, big and blue. Wigs in different styles. But they had what counted—bras. All kinds—great big ironclad bras with rivets, like the Titanic. Tiny, lacy bras with little flowers. Black, racy numbers that you couldn't see unless you went around behind the case to look at them, so he guessed the manager had mixed feelings about putting them out on the floor. Training bras, whatever that meant. He pictured girls wearing them with long lines hooked to the back. The girls trotted around in a corral, while a trainer stood in the middle and made encouraging clicking noises with his tongue.

Billy steered clear of the panties. That would have been perverted.

This time Billy was on his way up the escalator with his hand on the rubber handrail. The rail crept forward, gaining time against the gliding stairs. He wondered: Is the handrail on a separate motor? Why doesn't it stay even with the steps?

Coming the other direction, down the crosspiece of the big escalator X, he saw Mrs. Demmons, the school secretary. She smiled as they passed and said, "Why, Billy! Hello!" And then she was gone, her back to him in a tan wool car coat, carrying a paper bag with looped string handles.

First Billy smiled. He thought, Was she up in the underwear section? I'll bet she was getting one of those Titanic bras with the rivets.

But then he stopped smiling. Felt cold all up and down his back. She saw me, he thought. She knows where I'm going. Knows I'm on my way up to the lingerie department. Or, anyway, she knows there's nothing but women's clothes on the second floor. What if she tells Miss Garrett at school? What if Miss Garrett tells Mom?

With his head twisted around to watch Mrs. Demmons step off at the bottom, he forgot to pay attention to his own feet. Forgot to pick them up where the grooved steps flattened out to slide under the sharp metal comb at the top.

He felt his foot catch. Looked down, but it was too late. Feet first, before he could call for help, Billy got sucked into the escalator. The last thing the people behind him saw was eight fingertips pulled backwards under the comb.

The thing your mom doesn't tell you, because she doesn't know, is that you don't really get squashed like a postage stamp. There's that comb, and the long, grooved treads that look like the flip-over footrest on a barber's chair. The two surfaces work together like the rollers on a pasta machine. First Billy got flattened out, sure, but then the escalator squeezed and sliced him into long strips like linguini. The strands got tangled up in the machinery. The rolling steps squeaked to a halt, and the motor burned out. The manager of the Penney's had to call out the escalator man. They charged Billy's mom and dad for the repairs.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Advice

Today I'm giving out advice.

Buy low, sell high.

Buy sheep, sell deer.

If you think to yourself, Maybe I didn't eat enough of those brownies, maybe I didn't take enough of those mushrooms, you did. Really.

Never refuse free food.

Never, ever refuse free booze.

Always think twice. Maybe three times. Always think in odd numbers, or you'll end up back where you started.

Bend your knees.

Don't think you can change him. You can't. If your plans depend on changing him, think twice. Or three times.

Count your change.

Find the exit. Keep an eye on it.

Do it. Whatever it is, you'll always wonder what would have happened. Now you'll know.

Stay away from the Twinkies. You may have eaten them when you were a kid, but you'll be sorry now.

Never send the waiter away to give you more time to study the menu. Make him wait. When you send him away, he'll do his whole round of tables, go outside for smoke, play a game of cards, have another smoke, and call home to check in before he comes back.

Don't bet the field. The field is a sucker bet.

Don't take the top one. It's probably been read, fingered, crinkled up, covered with eye tracks.

Don't take the front one. It probably fell off the shelf and got stuck back up there.

Don't follow a bunch of kids through the buffet line.

Always pick the other line. It moves faster.

Put things off. If you wait long enough, they'll go away by themselves.

Don't bend over in those shorts.

Avoid restaurants named with possessive nouns, unless they're the name of the owner. Bob's, good. Shenanigan's, bad. Gomerini's, okay. Chili's bad. T.G.I. Friday's, especially bad.

Be careful when the sign shows a smiling animal that you're going to eat.

If you wonder what will happen if you do something, it will probably be bad.

Get some gas now. You never know.

Practice, man, practice.

Don't ever, under any circumstances, let anyone take pictures of you naked.

Don't take pictures of yourself naked. Sometime you're going to wish you hadn't.

If you don't know where you're going, just keep going. You're bound to end up somewhere.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Knitting a Bat

We don't seem to have many bats around here, but they're there. Watch for them at dusk. When the light's all grey, like the bats. It's hard to tell them from the swallows. They fly the same way. Zigzag. Dart. Flitting here, there, wherever the bugs are. They're after the same food, the bats and swallows. But swallows zoom, and bats never do. Bats fly like old sheets of newspaper, swirled around by dust devils. Bat devils.

The devil bat lives under overhangs. Red rock cliffs with the long streaks of black running down them. Carved river cliffs, the over-cliffs, where the sun bakes them all day, and they slow-cook you at night, all night.

The devil bat is named for its two little horns. Not to be confused with the antelope bat or the moose bat, with its spreading antlers to scoop birds and tumbleweeds out of the air.

The devil bat has a tail. The flat end looks like a spade from the two of spades, not as big as the one on the ace.

The devil bat has little hooves on its back legs, much like the antelope bat, the moose bat. The devil bat's wings feel like velvet, not at all like the leather you imagine. They're translucent. You can see the moon through them, when the moon is full and the bat flies between.

The devil bat looks enormous, but that's because you're really close to it. The devil bat fits comfortably in the palm of your hand.

While most bats sleep hanging by their feet, the devil bat sleeps curled up in a little ball with its nose tucked under one wing.

The devil bat has a sweet disposition that belies its name. It eats mostly nectar licked from the inside of cactus flowers.

When necessary it will eat a cow. But it eats every part and thanks the cow afterwards.

The bat was the first animal Grandmother knitted. This was after she created the world, the planets. There's always something else at the start of what Grandmother does. The world, the planets began as oatmeal, bubbling in a pot over the fire. But Grandmother got distracted, was thinking of something else, and she forgot to stir the oatmeal, so it got lumps in it, and there are your earth and planets.

This time Grandmother was knitting. At night, by the fire, she thought, It's about time to knit me some animals. She had red yarn, was going to knit a squirrel, but somehow she was thinking about something else, was watching the flames dance and jump, watching the sparks fly up and out over the yard, and so she kept knitting where she shouldn't, about when she was at the front legs, and they ended up all wide, all joined to the body like wings. But she had the face all done, the squirrel face, because you always start knitting animals at the nose. So Grandmother sighed, finished off the legs at the other end, and there was a bat. You don't pull out stitches when you're knitting an animal, see?

The little bat hung from Grandmother's finger, tiny claws hooked in her skin like little burrs. It weighed no more than a pinecone. It wrapped itself up in its wings, then licked the end of its nose.

"People will say you hang upside-down," Grandmother said. "But you don't. You hang the way a bat hangs, head down, but for a bat that's upside-up."

"Whatever." The bat rolled its eyes. It had taken to saying things like "shuh," and "yuhr." Picked them up from its friends, because Grandmother certainly didn't talk like that.

"How would you hang, anyway? I've got no hands to hang from, and I wouldn't be able to talk if I hung from my teeth. Shuh. Yuhr."

"I should have made your legs longer. Then you could stand on them. But I was running out of yarn."

"Whatever."

Grandmother held her finger up to the hook on the ceiling. The bat shuffled sideways along her finger until it reached the hook. It swung there a few times, adjusting itself, fast back and forth because it was a small bat. It curled into a ball under its wings and started snoring.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cautionary Tale #361

Art went out in back of the house to empty the trash. He should have done it earlier, the way his wife asked him to.

"Art, would you just empty the damn trash? It's full."

And he said, "Just a minute."

And he said, "When the next commercial comes up."

And he said, "As soon as the show's over."

And on and on, like a kid stalling before bed. Until it was before bed, and Art's wife said, "Empty it, now."

So he pulled on a pair of sweatpants and dragged the bag out the back door. Took barefoot steps down the cold sidewalk. Through the back gate, and what was that? Something rustled in the laurel bushes. Probably the damn raccoons again. Art had to hold the trashcan lid on with a bungie cord just to keep the little bastards out. He bent down to unhook it. Sure enough, there were deep scratches all over the lid.

"Goddammit," he said. He ran at the bushes. Waved his hands and shouted, "Booga booga booga!"

That's when the bear jumped him. Launched itself out of the bushes with a noise like "Rargh!" Ate him up, just like in the fairy tales. And the moral is, Take out the trash when you're supposed to. Or wear one of those bear bells, so they can track the bear down by listening for the jingle inside its stomach.

They never did find Art's body. Just his head, set carefully on top of the trashcan, facing north.

Your bear likes to start eating a person from the toes and work its way up. Come morning it waddles off, bells jingling in its stomach, in a hurry to get home before the sun's rays touch its pelt and turn it into stone.

Art's wife wanted an open-casket funeral. Her brother said that wasn't a bad idea. They could save money on a casket and just use a hatbox or even one of those little cases for carrying around 45 r.p.m. records. But then, he thought, Art had kind of a big head, so they might have to use a bowling ball case.

But Art's wife wanted a whole casket, and the mortician was going to have to make an entire wax body to go in it. He worried about the temperature in the chapel and whether the body was going to go all soft and slumpy.

Then the head turned oracular, and the open-casket funeral never happened.

It happened when the wildlife department was packing up the remains. There had been procedural fight with the police department, the medical examiner, the forest service, and zoo over exactly whose job it was. They had it in one of the bags they keep in the truck just in case they come across a head that needs bagging up. Very nice. Red velvet with a tasseled drawstring.

They were about to put the bagged-up head the cab, in the space behind the seat, when it started talking. It talked in numbers in a reedy little voice. Repeated the same numbers over and over: "4, 16, 19, 28, 35, 36." Kept it up all night long in the little head-sized drawer down at the morgue.

It was only on Sunday morning, when the lab dishwasher was flipping through the paper while the Petri dishes went through the rinse cycle, that he noticed the six numbers on the lottery page—4, 16, 19, 28, 35, 36. Seven million dollars, and nobody won it.

They pulled open the drawer, but the head wasn't talking. It looked off in the distance and pretended not to notice. Pursed its lips in a way that said, "You should have paid attention."

Art's head is on ice now, in a little head-sized vault in the basement of the lottery commission offices in Olympia. They won't let anyone see it. The only person with access is the state Prognosticator General. He can't make any sense of the seven numbers the head is repeating now.

He tried dialing them on the phone once, but all he heard on the other end was growling and the jingle of little bells.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Beachball Cat

There's a cat outside. He lives next door. He's surely the world's fattest cat. Looks like he swallowed a beach ball. He lies around all day on his side, like a sea lion on the rocks. Rolls over every once in a while and makes a sea-lionish croaking noise.

You might wonder how he got so big. It's the neighborhood, all full of possums and moles. And the rats that moved up the hill when they covered the old dump to make the Interbay golf course.

Here's how he works, my fat cat friend, the beachball cat: He lies on his side, eyes half closed, claws on each front paw going in and out, alternating. What my mom calls kneading biscuits. In case you were wondering, it's left over from nursing. It's what kittens do to push the extra milk out of their mother's belly.

Beachball cat sounds like he's purring. That's what you hear. But high above what your ears can pick up, higher than that 18,000 hertz that the TV tubes used to put out, there's a tune. A little melody. You can't hear it, but the rats can.

Rats are susceptible to melody. Remember the guy with the pipe and the multicolored clothes? The rats hear the tune, and their little rat feet start dancing. They do a four-foot, rat-foot shuffle. A soft shoe. The rats come sashaying out in a sideways line, out from under the house, out from under the blackberry bushes, out from the storm drain, up out of your toilet—you know they're down there, right? Just waiting to come up and bite you on the ass. Don't sit there when the butterball cat's outside. And leave the window open unless you want them to take the long way out of the house, through the kitchen.

Beachbutterball sings his high rat song, and the rats come out in a chorus line, step left, step right, spin around, end with a low bow.

The butterball cat rocks sideways a couple of times, gives a couple of heaves to get himself up on his feet. He walks along the line of deeply bowing rats like a general inspecting the troops.

Then, one by one, from right to left, he bites off their heads. Leaves the rest. The heads are really the only part he feels like eating most days. He's too fat. Read it in an article: a good way to limit your food intake is to always leave some on the plate.

He used to feel guilty. Wasting food, the way his mother said. "Now you eat that whole rat, and I mean the tail, too." She made him eat the whole rat every time, then turned around and said he was getting too fat.

She laid some pretty good trips on him that way. Contradictions that would spin his head around. Then one day he thought, She's a cat. Her brain's the size of a walnut. Of course the contradictions don't bother her. And since his brain was the size of a walnut, too, they really didn't bother him either.

Now he gets back at his mother by eating the heads off the rats and leaving the rest. As an extra bonus it's also a way of getting back at the people in the house, when one or another of them comes out in the morning, barefoot, to get the paper.

Possums are different. Possums won't come when he whistles. He has to go out looking for them. They're not too bright, the possums. What you have to do is find one as it ambles along through the blackberries, then just lie down in front of it with your mouth open. It'll walk right down your throat. About the time when it thinks, Hey, there's something not quite right here, you just close your mouth, swallow, and that's dinner.

The cat next door on the other side is a poor bastard. The people in the house have taken it upon themselves, as animals with cantaloupe-sized brains with all those extra lobes and folds, to bring the cat along with them to the morally superior plane of vegetarianism. The poor bastard gets an all-vegetarian diet of rice, beans, evening primrose oil, and some kind of soy amino acids that come in a brown cake that looks like a cow pie.

But, as enlightened, large-brained animals, they also don't believe in restricting the poor bastard cat's ability to roam around the neighborhood. So he spends every spare minute outside the house chasing down animals and eating them.

Butterball shares the headless rats with him. No sense in letting perfectly good rats going to waste. Poor Bastard eats them all, and the tail, too.

Horses

Horse fact: Horses are big. Except those little pet horses some people keep in their houses. Not sure why. One of the good things about living indoors is that you usually don't get up in the morning without your glasses on and step in a pile of horse manure. Maybe the little horses can be box trained. You'd think if little horses could be box trained, the big ones could, too, and it would be a lot more fun to march in parades.

The best miniature horses are the size of hamsters. You can keep them in an aquarium, where they roll in the cedar chips and run in a little horse wheel. The only problem is that they keep you up at night with their high-pitched clippety-clopping.

Another horse fact: The earliest horse fossil is Eohippus. A very romantic name—it means "dawn horse." They were small. Had three toes on their back feet, four on the front. As zillions of years went by, the horses got bigger. All the toes but the middle ones got shorter. Toenails thickened into hooves. After a while you get to mid-afternoon horse, which spent most of its time sleeping after a big meal of oats and carrots.

Eohippus was an overachieving little bastard. Up at dawn, running all over the place before mid-afternoon horse had even rolled out of bed to leave a pile of road apples on the rug for you to step on.

Eventually you get the modern horse. Equus caballus. The ones that live outside the house. The ones that first galloped around in herds on the steppes of Kazakhstan and Tuva.

At first people milked them and ate them. Then someone got the idea—sitting around the fire drinking a big mug of fermented mare's milk, nibbling on a horse shank, said, "Y'know, I've been thinking. Maybe we could get these horses to drag stuff around for us."

"Like how do you mean?" said the guy across the campfire.

"Well, supposing we wanted to move this rock here to over there."

"Why would we want to do that?"

"I don't know. Bear with me here. Maybe it looks better over there."

"Okay."

"So we could tie the rock to one of these horses, then have it drag the rock over."

"Riiiight. I've got a better one—how 'bout you just climb up on one of those horses and let it drag you around."

"You know, that's not half a bad idea."

"Yeah, right."

"You saying I couldn't do it?"

"Yeah, I'm saying you couldn't do it."

"How much?"

"What?"

"How much are you saying I couldn't do it? Enough to make it interesting?"

"Sure. I'll bet, let's see... I'll bet you a keg of fermented mare's milk you can't get up on that mare over there and have her carry you around."

"You're on."

So the guy goes over. Pats the horse on the side. Puts his arms around her neck. Tries to heave one leg up over her back, and off she goes. Drags him around in a big circle and dumps him in a pond.

This is horse humor.

Other kinds of horse humor: Taking a big horse dump on the rug next to your bed, then going down to the phone booth down on the corner and calling you up. You jump out of bed and step right in the pile. Snatch the up phone. "Hello!"

A horsy voice on the other end says, "Do you have Prince Albert in a can?"

"Who is this?" you say.

"Is your refrigerator running?" says the voice.

"Goddammit!" you say.

"Stepped in anything interesting lately?" says the voice. Then a bunch of whinnying.

You slam down the phone. Wonder why you ever got one of those miniature horses in the first place. All it does is raid the cereal cabinet and play stupid practical horse jokes. These usually involve leaving a pile of manure in an inconvenient place. The middle of the kitchen floor, right before the big dinner party. The middle of the living room floor, right before the big cocktail party. At the foot of the bed the first time you get that new girlfriend into it.

The next time around you'll be sure to get one of the hamster-sized ones, or maybe a goldfish.