Brian Powell—or “John Brian Powell” as he has of late been calling himself, though it’s a fact that he had no such first name and was born simply “Brian Powell”—would have his audience believe that he’s some sort of “man of letters” or an individual of refined tastes and a sort of clinical, ironical detachment from the absurdities of the day, as in the scenes in the Fourth Edition of The Brian Powell Story in which he pillories the much-loved game show, Who Made a Doody in Their Pants?, in which a contestant attempts to determine which of a group of celebrities has made a mess in their underwears. However, it’s a known fact that Powell is, himself, a voracious consumer of that sort of low-grade pop-culture detritus: a man who has made a point of watching two episodes per day of Leave It to Beaver for many years, who is fascinated by 1970s relic Emergency! and, perhaps worst of all, the entertainment equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup itself, The Jerry Springer Show, is among his favorites. Indeed, this is but another case where we must endeavor to carry out that most Herculean of tasks: to draw a distinction between the art and the artist, and consider the work rather than the author.
Dr. Ted Tunnell listened with an air of self-satisfied relish as Micah, his former T.A. turned tabby cat turned feline/non-binary humanoid hybrid “professional scholar,” read from one of the many essays Tunnell had written about the late author/filmmaker/reprobate (John) Brian Powell in a field he called “Brian Powell Studies,” a cottage industry that had, along with his position as History Professor at South Anytown Community College, afforded him what he might call a measure of material comfort. This excerpt was drawn from one of his more popular pieces on Powell, the early study Pizza Boy Aesthetics: The Art of Brian Powell.
Tunnell was a short, stocky little man of about 5’4” with the sort of small, smooth hands you would get -850 odds had never done a day’s work and would need to parlay that with a prop bet on his being unable to to so much as turn a wrench or swing a hammer for a slightly better return on your sure bet investment. He had a thick, neat moustache that he liked to pair with a gray woolen flat cap and unlit pipe to “butch himself up a bit,” but he was still a pompous weakling who one might expect to be “kayoed” by a stiff breeze. Nonetheless, in matters such as these—holding court at a “Brian Powell Studies and Post-Literacy Gala” in one of the reception rooms of Anytown’s airport Ramada—he was an Important Man and his expertise was deferred to as a matter of course.
“Preposterous,” Professor Johannes Climachus said at an affectedly soft volume—loud enough to be heard but sufficiently quiet as to appear unintentionally disruptive—while molesting and nibbling on his signature flesh-tone fountain pen.
Deferred to as a matter of course, that is, by all but his nemesis Climachus, was Tunnell. Climachus was, along with Dr. F. Edward Blake Jr., who was running late or perhaps no-showing the panel, Tunnell’s “competition” in the crowded field of “Brian Powell Scholars,” crowded not because of particularly stiff, vigorous, ruthless contention, but because the field itself was less a verdant, rich-soiled expanse than a 3’x5’ concrete slab with a stray, scrawny weed or two poking through a veiny crack.
“Speak up if you must interrupt, John,” Tunnell said as he gestured with his pipe in a condescendingly benevolent fashion.
Climachus seethed the name “John.” It burned him up that Tunnell was aware of and used as a cudgel the fact that his “Johannes” appellation was as much an affectation as Tunnell’s own silly pipe—a reality that had created a sort of armistice where the two had entered into a gentleman’s agreement not to mention and ridicule the other’s pretensions, but as Brian Powell’s relevance had waned, going from “minor” to “utterly insignificant,” they’d gone “scorched earth” on one another to protect their slice of the dwindling, cold pizza pie—but now wasn’t the time to let fly the real doozy of a bon mot he had cooked up for Tunnell, and so he took it on his receding, nigh-on emaciated chin.
“Hmm?” Climachus intoned, pretending not to be aware he’d made his initial remark aloud. But not wanting to risk “the room’s” moving on, he added quickly: “Mm, yes, well, it seems to me everything our dear Micah has just read, Dr. Tunnell’s twaddle, is preposterous—as near total a fiction as one of those wretched Jesus and Santa vs. The Moon Men films Powell directed just prior to his final illness.”
Micah, who’d begun cleaning his paws fastidiously since the initial interruption, looked up in mid-lap, then at Tunnell. Initially meowing like a cute little kitty cat, Micah remembered he was among people and course-corrected to “humanspeak” after clearing his throat of a hairball. “Dr., you’ve said those films…”
Tunnell interjected with as much fire as an “effete nothing” (“Ted Tunnell is an Effete Nothing,” Powell, 1998) like himself could muster. “Don’t exist! They’re as fictional as John Climachus’ Germanic origins, my pet.”
Tunnell had now risen to his full height of five-feet-and-change and was scratching Micah behind the ears, like he liked because he was a good kitty cat yes he was. He commandeered the podium, pointing with the forefinger of his available dainty hand at Climachus. “The man is a fraud and knows as little about Brian Powell and The Brian Powell Story as would dear Micah about being a canine. The man thinks everything—everything!—boils down to some silly phallic obsession.”
Chaser stroked his big hard .50 caliber cannon intently and intensely, rubbing its long stiff barrel like a genie’s lamp.
“Lousy stinkin’ broad,” Detective Death muttered bitterly.
The Chief was eating a big “Dagwood” sandwich, shades of that lovable rascal from Chic Young’s revered “Blondie” comic strip, and spat a bit of semi-solid half-eaten sandwich as he spoke: “Don’t take it so bad, Chase’—we’ll get ‘em back yet.”
Chaser picked the glob of mangled pastrami, knockwurst, corned beef, anchovy and “deli mustard” from the shoulder of his distressed black leather jacket and winged it angrily onto the floor, his dead cold gun-metal gray eyes burning with cold smoked hatred for crime and failure. The nostrils of his crooked, oft-broken nose flared. “Stuffin’ your face, and at a time like this,” he too spat, though since he was subsisting solely on Black Death cigarettes, his spew was free of partly-eaten food. He eyed his partner and former best man and godfather to his daughter ruefully. “How’re we gonna do that when he’s all lawyered up, wise that we’re onto ‘em?”
The Chief, with his tongue sticking out partly and his lips tucked inward in a display of intense concentration, crammed a bunch of potato chips into the heart of his monstrous sandwich, taking so long to do so that Chaser had, on similar occasions in the past, asked him if he was readying his food or “coppin’ a feel.” He missed that Chaser—the old Chaser who cracked jokes and was the best bowler on the force. Ever since the badness with Flower nothing seemed to give him any joy. Even taking down the Mob, then taking them down in a rematch on pay-per-view that The Chief had thought was ill-advised only to be proven wrong when it did big numbers and saw Chaser come out on top once again, had only seemed to worsen the cold deadness of his insides. There had been that awful five a.m. phone call where Chaser, out of his mind on grain alcohol, had said that he was “gonna sleep awhile.” When The Chief asked later he’d said he only meant he was “tired from a long night of ridin’ the town hard and hangin’ it up wet” to celebrate the final defeat of the Mob. But The Chief knew better. Not in the sense of knowing Chaser had misused that phrase, but in the sense he knew his partner, knew something was deeply wrong in his guts.
The Chief took a big bite out of his sammy but it brought him no pleasure. Then it occurred to him: a gag, a bit, something to rouse the old Chaser from the sleep of the dead. “Wonder what Kid Pop’d think if he heard’ja talkin’ like that, Chaser.” He tore a dangling bit of sauerkraut from the sandwich and tossed it into his mouth, all but inhaling it before continuing, pleased as punch, “Bet he wouldn’t like it, hearin’ ya talk so…”
Chaser banged his hairy fist with its flattened, scarred knuckles on the table, rattling both the dishware upon it and The Chief’s nerves. “He can’t think anything. He can’t like anything,” Chaser rasped, throwing daggers tipped in lethal poison at his best and only friend with his ice cold killer’s gaze. “He’s dead.”
“Don’t count him out so soon, Spuds—we’ve seen Kid Pop on the ropes before!”
“Not like this, Ernie; never like this!” Spuds Donegal, the fedora-wearing “Doctor of the Sweet Science” and “Prose Painter of the Pugilistic Arts,” mourned, the cigar between his teeth nothing but a soggy nub.
“Pop is down on the cars, no question about it, his eyes are as narrow as those of a chinaman from the peppery punches of the challenger, this Miyamoto, this Oriental himself,” Ernest “Ernie” Wilkinson droned like a man chanting an incantation for some sort of strange ritual. “And there’s another ruinous right hook to the body of the great Kid Pop, whose gut seems to be withering before our very eyes. How much can one man take? I ask you, how much can one man take!”
“If you’re in Pop’s corner you’ve gotta be thinking about throwing in the towel, living to fight another day. His face looks like yesterday’s hamburger cooked up for today’s Salisbury steak, Ernie, and slathering it in mushrooms, onions and gravy won’t make it worth a buck-fifty, not in this economy!” Spuds barked.
Ernie glanced at Spuds, who was now half-standing, squatting over his chair, his mic in hand rather than resting on the table, reacting to every pulverizing blow the heretofore unheralded Miyamoto landed on Kid Pop. Ernie shook off his partner’s eccentric behavior now as ever.
“Pop looks for the clinch but his opponent is sneaky and crafty—I can tell ya a little something about that from my days in the Pacific Theater, folks, that’s for a fact—and hammers him with one, two, three piston-like jabs to that eye, that busted right eye of Pop! Oh, Jeezy Pete!” Ernie shouted his trademark exclamation that some said he overused; everyone was a critic and an expert, but he didn’t see them calling the action in big-time title fights in pro boxing and pro wrestling both, no indeed, please and thank you, yessir yessir three bags full.
“Miyamoto must run on rocket fuel, Ernie, ‘cuz he’s still fresh as a daisy after 10 rounds! Almost makes ya wonder…”
“There’s the bell! The 10th round expires, and Kid Pop will hobble back to the stool. What do you think, partner?”
“10-8. Another 10-8. Pop’s down big and without a home-run finish he’s gonna lose his title,” Spuds said dejectedly.
“As a reminder, fans, this broadcast is brought to you in part by Tidwell Tires: ‘They’ll Get Ya There,’ and by ‘B-Stings’ Gentleman’s Club: ‘Where there’s no cover before 5pm and where ladies always get in free.’ Much was made before this bout, Spuds, about how the Kid looked on the scale. He…”
“He looked soft as sugar and he looked tired, Ernie, let’s call a spade a spade!” Spuds licked his lips, maneuvering the gross little stumpy plug of a cigar around feverishly. “More worried about drinkin’ brew… smokin’ Black Deaths… than keepin’ that belt.”
Ernie blushed. “Well, we can’t really blame him for that, can we? Black Death Cigarettes: ‘It’s the Tar That Makes ‘em Stick to Your Tastebuds,’” he recited one of their biggest sponsor’s innumerable catchphrases. “But here we go with lucky number 11, partner!”
“‘Lucky number 11?’”
Pillowface nodded her head between ravenous bites of the greasy steak fries and greasier burger she sat hunched over like a famished jackal. She spoke with her odd little mouth full. “Yep, ‘s’what he called his ding-a-ling,” she said matter-of-factly, adding a long slurp of strawberry-banana milkshake to the mass of food she chewed.
“Ew, gross me out!” Emily Twiggs exclaimed, turning up her nose and making a face.
Pillowface swallowed barely a split-second before cramming more fries into her mouth. “Yeah, he was kind of a weirdo alright,” she said, then belched, a feather or two fluttering out directly after. “Got a smoke?”
Emily frowned and picked over the salad she’d barely touched. “I told you already, Pillowface…”
“Oh yeah, I forgot,” Pillowface cut in. “You don’t smoke.”
Emily took a little bite, mostly croutons. Even they were bad. The lettuce was lukewarm, damp, yucky, the veggies either soggy or overly stiff, and now the croutons seemed to be just stale toast repurposed. She hadn’t dared to touch the ranch dressing, billed off-puttingly as “our chunky ranch,” a departure from the standard of advertising ranch as “creamy.” She doubted whether its “chunkiness” was the result of any kind of artisanal process after what she’d seen of the rest of the menu. Sighing, she pushed the salad away.
Pillowface looked up from licking her plate of grease-thinned ketchup with her teeny little chihuahua-like sandpaper tongue. “Somethin’ wrong with yer salad?”
“It’s…” Emily had begun quickly, eager to share some of the scathing Yip review she was putting together in her head, but pulled back, not wanting to risk giving offense. “No, it’s fine. Just… not hungry, I guess.”
Pillowface nodded, then pointed at the salad, raising the crude eyebrows that were drawn unconvincingly on her pillow face. “You mind?” she asked and, receiving the go-ahead, squeezed chunky room-temperature ranch from the squeeze bottle onto the salad. “Still upset about Ohvuh, huh?”
“Oscar?” Emily asked.
Pillowface shrugged and started shoveling curdled ranch-soaked lettuce into her mouth greedily. She gave a garbled, “I guess, I dunno,” somewhere during the stomach-turning process.
“He’s got another thing coming if he thinks I’d make any kind of fuss about him!” Emily protested with a sharp, desperate sounding laugh. She traced circles around the rim of her mug of tea with a finger. “No. I have a boyfriend, you know. Back in Coast City.”
She looked at Pillowface, ignoring to the degree possible the rather unpleasant way she was eating in order to try to study her pillow face for a reaction of some kind. But Pillowface’s pillow face was strangely inscrutable, perhaps not as pillow faces went, if there were others somewhere by which to measure such things, but certainly by the standards of regular everyday faces.
“I love him very much,” Emily said, cutting through the silence that had followed her initial “confession.” Now the floodgates were open. “His name’s Otter. He’s asked me to… to marry him.”
“Wow, married huh?” Pillowface asked suddenly, seemingly with real, childlike enthusiasm. “I’m gonna get married someday.” Then she seemed to become self-consciously jaded again. “Maybe. I dunno. I don’t want anybody givin’ me the business, y’know?”
KID GOES POP
By Edward I. Jacks
A eulogy for one of the greats.
The title reign of one of the great modern gladiators was ended Saturday night, and though the voice of the famous Kid Pop was heard telling the hacks in the press section, “Don’t bury me, I’m not dead!” those with the right kind of ears could hear those words for what they were: gas escaping a dead body ready for the slab. Laid low by an unknown from Nippon with a glass eye and a jackhammer right, out-colded in “Lucky Number 11,” Pop Popped, washed up and washed out.
I was with the man we once called Kid Pop late Sunday night and into the wee hours of Monday morning, drinking sidecars and eating oysters at Slate Flanagan’s joint. Some of the usual faces were there but most of ‘em were at Johnny the Greek’s, uptown, trying to be seen, trying to get their picture taken with Miyamoto, man of the hour. The Kid didn’t take it too bad, said he knew the game by now.
I asked him where it all went wrong. Was it his camp? Nah, he said, he had a good camp. The weight cut? Spuds Donegal said he’d never seen a championship middleweight look so soft the day before a fight. No, it had been his easiest cut in four, maybe five years. So what was it?
“Ed,” he tells me with the candor of a man heading to the gallows, “I just don’t have the insides for it anymore. Ever since my little girl was born, smashin’ a guy’s face doesn’t send me around the world like it used ta.”
I tell ya, it’s a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme. The fight game ain’t the racket for a family man. How can a guy feel good about holding an itty bitty babe with the same hands he uses to turn some other fella’s face into lunchmeat?
What’ll he do now, I ask? Says his father-in-law’s put him on to some new potash mining deal-- underground, he says, supposed to be the Next Big Thing, out Saskatchewan way. And if that don’t work out, there’s always policing.
Sure, Kid Pop, a bull, a flatty, a jake, the fuzz. But only… he’s not Kid Pop anymore. He’s just John. So long, Kid. Faretheewell, John Chaser.
“Kid Pop. John ‘Jack’ Chaser. Note the phallic, sexual,” Climachus began molesting his flesh-tone fountain pen with an impassioned, zealous vigor, his lips puckering and twitching like those of a fish, “The butch, homoerotic quality of the very names!”
Tunnell scoff-groaned. “The professor is a madman!” He emphasized “MAD” and pronounced the “-man” as “-muhn.” He continued, “Pure poppycock. The names of Pop and Chaser are real people… real men, my dear sir!”
Climachus body-checked Tunnell with one of his bulbous hips, the pear-shaped professor having perhaps “two bills” on his sawed-off foe. He struggled for the mic on the lectern. “Yes, and I suppose Danny Cater—whose name has the very metre and rhyme of the word ‘masturbator,’ surely a coincidence in the Good Doctor’s poor deluded mind, mm?—is ‘real’ too, then? A character who is a clear, nearly oh so nearly to a fault, manifestation of Powell’s crippling fear of fecklessness… incompetence… impotence!”
“If you don’t know,” Tunnell said with a meaningful pause added to the deliberate, measured pace at which he now spoke, having crawled between Climachus’ legs, stood up and insinuated himself between the startled prof and the lectern. “It’s not my job to teach you,” he said smugly, his thin lips stretching into a smile possessed of a wealth of both pure contemptuousness and contentedness.
“You just got served, Professor Climachus,” Micah remarked from a perch he now occupied atop a bit of stage rigging. “Boom!”
“Yes, it was a sound we hoped we would never hear again in Anytown: a boom, an explosion. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, I’m Trace Crabtree,” the somber anchor began, his hair ever so slightly but tastefully mussed to sell the gravity of the moment, his very important papers in hand.
“And I’m Lizz Dublin,” Trace’s female co-anchor with her stiff, helmet-like head of short blonde hair, said in perfect time with the cut to her close-up. “A bomb detonated at Anytown General Hospital this evening, killing at least four and injuring hundreds.”
She turned to a somber… concerned looking Trace, a troubled expression on her own face, in sync with the cut back to the medium two-shot.
Trace nodded reluctantly. “Details remain sketchy at this hour but we can confirm for you, in a Channel 9 exclusive, that local writer Danny Cater, who made news some three weeks ago when he was in an auto collision with local institution The Man with the Gold Car that resulted in a number of fatalities, was the intended target of the blast.”