“Welcome back, folks, to the show that answers the question that’s on everybody’s mind: ‘Who’s got a stinky butt?’” The audience, having chanted along with those words, cheered wildly as he continued exuberantly, “That’s right, I’m your host Chit Pancer and it’s ‘Who Made a Doody in Their Pants!’”
Chit smiled big and wide and clapped along with the crowd. The contestant, across from whom he sat at an elevated two-chaired table apparatus shaped like a massive bare ass, out of which emanated clouds of green-ish mist sporadically, looked a bit overserious, but big money was on the line and, after all, figuring out who’s got a steaming pile of shit in their undies isn’t exactly child’s play, except during the annual “Kidz Week,” when grade-school children joined in the fun, and the beloved “Teen Turdament” when those awkward, hormonal teens vied for stinky-detecting supremacy and a college scholarship fund (plus plenty of “mad”/”fun” money!).
“Alright, we’re back here with Gordo Tubberson…”
“It’s Gordon Gunderson, Chit,” the slightly curt contestant interjected, a thin, unamused smile on his pock-marked, bespectacled face.
Chit cackled after trying and failing to keep a straight face, then wheezed, “I’m sorry, Gord, really. I just thought I could make ya break, I swear it!”
“Yes, well…” Gordon’s smile briefly became a bit more good-natured before his stern look returned.
Chit collected himself. “For those of you who missed our first three shows of the week, Gordon has been cleaning up, so to speak, and he’s back to try to claim our grand prize.”
Cheers from the crowd. Gordon looked around smugly, pushing his prescription tinted-lens glasses up on his nose.
“He’s used the Smell Test, the Tooty Frooty Booty Cutie Clue-y,” I should note that here, at this point during Chit’s recap of his efforts to date, Gordon sneered, the TFBCC ostensibly a bridge too far for the Decatur, IL actuary, “and the Log Pinch, but he earned a Doody Call in our last episode, so that may be of assistance as he tries to sniff out the big one. Ready to play, Gord?” Chit asked with his blindingly white teeth beaming.
“I was born ready,” Gordon said with the confidence for which many loved and admired him but that a vocal minority felt was a violation, even a perversion, of “America’s Greatest Game.”
Chit grinned and did his trademark chair-spin and enthusiastic point. “You heard the man: let’s play!”
“This isn’t playtime. This is serious,” Captain Hi-Score said exasperatedly as he turned off the “telly,” yielding a frown from Danny Cater.
“I just needed a break, mi Capitan,” Cater said, hopeful that this “clever” new nickname for his increasingly disillusioned instructor in all things Man with the Gold Car would catch on, maybe mend their fraying relationship.
“Mate, that’s cultural appropriation,” Hi-Score chided, disapproving but fairly gentle. “Not cool.”
Samanda James (BIPOC) shook her head disappointedly along with Hi-Score. Cater nibbled an already quite ratty napkin, his frazzled nerves a close match for its poor state of repair. There were so many rules he had to learn to follow, on top of all this reading he was made to do. He wasn’t having second thoughts, but he was having thoughts about having second thoughts. “Hey, that’s not bad,” he thought, making a mental note to include that in his next draft of the Modern Love manuscript along with that great “Things change” line at the end; that was, of course, his masterstroke and the kind of line most writers would kill for, but this wasn’t bad. He smiled with an intense feeling of satisfaction.
“Danny, mate, why are you smiling?” Hi-Score, who had been talking the entire time Danny was lost in thought about his wonderful dialogue, asked, his irritation muted but readily apparent.
“Yes, Cappy,” Cater said, crossing discreetly one of his disgusting little fingers over another to avoid culpability for his fib. “You’re right. Things change.”
Hi-Score exchanged a look with his BIPOC friend, Samanda James.
“You know, maybe a ‘thank you’ is in order.”
“A ‘thank you?’ For what?” The Reformed Genius asked somewhat contentiously as he climbed into Johnita Luxton’s Audi.
“For saving you from what looked like it was going to be a very painful dental surgery,” Luxton said as she pressed the button to start the car.
“Yes, well, forgive me if I assume you’ve got some ulterior motive for that,” The Reformed Genius said, looking out the window.
Luxton chuckled sharply. “Boy, you might not be building Miracle Murder Machines…”
“ANY Murder Machines,” he hastened to correct her.
“…but you’re still every bit as distrustful as ever, huh?” she glanced at him as she made a turn.
The Reformed Genius said nothing for a time, his move to draw her out, see what she was thinking, find out what she was up to, who she was working for.
“This is all getting pretty weird,” Berkman said as he looked through a pair of night-vision goggles at Emily Twiggs and some weirdo with a beard made of bees.
“I’ve known lotsa people with weird deformities, kiddo, believe me,” The Chief said as he took a couple of small bites from a cigarette.
Berkman didn’t know why he’d brought the old guy along. He wasn’t exactly much for keeping a low profile, especially on account of the bum knees that kept him from so much as squatting or kneeling, and his conversation left a lot to be desired. But it was good for him to get out of the office, which he usually only did a couple of times a year. Or maybe Berkman just didn’t want to be alone and would settle for any companionship he could get right now.
“Yeah, but… a bee beard?” Berkman wondered.
Chief held court while gesticulating with the partly eaten smoke. “Look, kid, I’ve seen men with bee beards, babes with cow udders where their boobies oughtta be, guys with live eels fer arms, little kids wid’ feet fer hands and hands fer feet… trust me, the world’s a damn strange place.”
Berkman was quiet for a moment, then had to ask. “Live eels for arms? How would he, I dunno, pick up a knife and fork? A glass of water?”
The Chief popped the rest of the cigarette into his open mouth and, while swallowing, quipped, “Ya think I’d go to DINNER widda freak like that? Heck should I know!”
Berkman returned his eyes to the goggles. “I wish I knew what they were saying. We need to get closer somehow.”
As if on cue, The Man with the Beard Made of Bees opened the door for Emily, who passed under his outstretched arm and into the building.
Grinning, The chief asked, “Whaddaya say, kid, feel like a lapdance?”
We’d been sitting down there in silence for a good while, in his basement, the two of us. I remember I was quite high. Mistaking the little flecks of lighter color in the marble countertop of the bar in the corner for grains of dope, bits of crack, scraping sporadically at them with a razor blade. Every now and then realizing my head had dropped and picking my face up off the marble, my vision hazy, doubled.
“Anything can be sexual,” Servais said, his voice cutting through the long silence, hoarser than normal both from disuse and from all the crack and keyboard duster. “A woman drying her hands on a towel hanging over a shower curtain rod, trying to hold back a sneeze and makin’ that high, dopey little squeak birds make, mashin’ up and mixing a meatloaf…” he burped and trailed off, took a swig from the bottle of tequila that lay against his side. “Call one’a those broads—Mookie, maybe—I need some brains.”
I struggled to keep my head up, the room seeming to be spinning. “We need to get some more dope. Coke too.”
“‘Ja already do all the candy?” he asked, feigning disbelief. Then he grinned puckishly. “Greedy S.O.B.”
“You know me…” I said with a little shrug.
He stood, fished in the pocket of the basketball shorts he wore beneath his sweats, tossed a little corn kernel-sized chunk of crack onto the counter before me.
“You still got that vinegar?” I asked.
“After you call Mookie or her sister,” he said with a lecherous smile.
“Where are you living these days?” Luxton asked, lighting one of the thin clove cigarettes she smoked occasionally to either settle her nerves or lend herself a sort of mystique, sometimes both. “The address on file is for your sister’s place.”
“We have a little place down by the docks, Ethel and I. It’s not much, but it’s home,” The Reformed Genius answered. “Make a left at the next light.”
“You know, you’ve got the wrong idea about me, R.G.,” Luxton said a moment later, flicking a bit of ash into the tray in the cupholder. “I just wanted to help you.”
He looked at her, studying her through his Coke-bottle glasses, thinking back to when she’d been something of a consigliere to him, facilitating much of the esoteric, Evil business which had both made and broken him. “Sorry, yes, I’d forgotten you were so altruistic,” he said cruelly, returning his gaze to the window, watching the trendy shops and luxury condos and high-dollar mixed-use spaces and their attendant well-to-do pedestrian traffic and the expensive cars give way to the broken and boarded windows, disused storefronts, ancient, dilapidated warehouses and disused factories of Refuse Row.
Johnita started to speak but her voice seemed to catch in her throat. She took an unsteady drag from her clove smoke and ashed it with a trembling hand.
TRG closed his eyes. Save for a couple of words of direction to her, they sat mostly in silence. It was only the marked shift in the surface of the road, from relatively smooth to pothole after pothole, debris kicked aside too frequently to merit comment, that informed him he was home. It had been a horror of a day, but Ethel… she would soothe him, help him make sense of it all.
“‘O sweet burn!
O delicious wound!
O tender hand! O gentle touch
That savors eternal life,
And pays every debt!
In slaying you have change death into life”
These words, from the writings of the great mystic St. John of the Cross, are but a few that The Man with the Gold Car’s followers have seen fit to allege describe visions from noted figures of the past to recount, address and pay homage to the ‘beatific killings of this golden-haired god-driver’ (Tunnell, 2004, p. 17). Dr. Tunnell further goes on to describe his subject in terms consistent with apophatic theology, suggesting that our human concepts of The Man are bound to the mechanisms of human perception and ideation; neither near nor far, same nor different, are proper characterizations of his true form, and thus…”
Danny groaned in abject agony and misery, slamming the Moleskine down on the tray table as fiercely as his feeble arms could manage. Captain Hi-Score’s BIPOC friend, Samanda James, looked up from the thick tome that she was going through and highlighting (Racism is Bad, Mmkay? By the respected nameless scholar whose “names are a form of oppression and violence” take had caught on with some among the crowds in which Hi-Score and Samanda (BIPOC) travelled, and made her a revered figure despite the challenges presented to revering someone by that someone’s rejection of the very concept of identification), an annoyed expression on her face.
“Sorry,” Danny mumbled weakly.
Captain Hi-Score returned to the room with a couple of bags of takeout. Cater’s spirits lifted; he’d felt deprived of proper food throughout his hospital stay, and was “jonesing” for the type of eats he ordered several times per day when at home via apps like FoodDudes and, his favorite, NoshToss, a wonderful service where your food was crammed into a soft but unbreakable plastic tube that the delivery boy (not the preferred nomenclature among the gig workers who sustained these much-used apps, but Cater struggled as much with cokeness ads he did with wakefulness) simply chucked at the customer in the manner of a football from some distance. Cater couldn’t catch well, both on account of his teeny weeny little bitty baby hands and being an uncoordinated oaf besides, leading to a number of his orders being splattered on the walls and floor of his filthy, disgusting hovel (the TossTubes—patent pending—were unbreakable but the seals did pop on impact fairly frequently), but as he despised dealing with the public, this was a small trade-off for him, and his mother did a decent enough job cleaning up the mess.
“Here ya go, Danny mate,” Hi-Score said with a smile, placing a container before the famished “writer,” pleased that Danny had made an effort to plow through the Moleskine. “Little bit of brain food, yeah?” he added with a wink.
Hi-Score took a seat across from his BIPOC friend, Samanda James, the two sharing the small table. They split a deep-dish pizza pie in half, each having a neatly portioned slab of the stuff on a paper plate, using plastic knife and fork to avoid making a mess.
Cater, meanwhile, ate like a “difficult” infant, pulling chunks of marinara-drenched, gooey-cheese-laden pie apart with his gnarled ferret paw-like mitts, producing unappetizing squishing noises and plopping bits of food on his chest and dropping chunks of the thick top-sauce into the bed even before getting it near his gaping, trembling maw, from which strange, almost sexual sounds emanated, a primal, animalistic sort of ingestion that was perhaps even more off-putting than his having sex would’ve been. Within seconds he’d added several more napkins, each more mangled than the last, all soaked so thoroughly with sauce and grease that they looked more like the bloody gauze pads used in a surgery to repair an evisceration than napkins, to the ever-present graveyard of ruined paper that lay atop the tray table.
“Diff id guhd,” Cater moaned loudly and unintelligibly, a glob of melty cheese issuing forth from his sloppy, cavernous yap.
Samanda (BIPOC) pushed her plate forward and away from herself, her dark face seeming to turn vaguely green somehow. She began to cry softly. Hi-Score, himself something of a messy eater and thoroughly famished till now, set down his barely touched pie, the small joy de vivre that had been alighted in his red-rimmed eyes by the prospect of good Anytown deep-dish snuffed out like a baby smothered in its crib.
I found myself face to face with my mirror image—that is, Brian Powell—who had a sort of ominous look on his face; his normally bright blue eyes seemed darker and his entire aura was unsettling.
“You’re the ruined vein man, mortgaging your life for the blurry white vision and the rattling head-throb, the bell-ringer,” he said.
And right after, before I could say anything—I wanted to speak but couldn’t—there was the feeling of being drowned. No, not even drowned actually. Consumed, swallowed up by an ocean of oppressive blackness, and I found my chest tightening.
Brian Powell gasped awake with the distinct impression someone or something had been hovering just above him, and as he blinked his vision into focus he could see a dark figure receding quickly from him, but not the way a person would, with steps, but rather sliding, and it gathered itself inward, like closing a cloak around itself, and it vanished behind the little television set in the corner.
He told Servais about this and Servais received the information with the same unflappable, stoic demeanor he’d had when he was told that pitching prodigy Kerry Wood had elbow soreness and would miss the final month of the ‘98 season. He’d known then that Wood’s arm wouldn’t hold up to the demands of big league ball, not with his power pitching style and not as the workhorse Jim “Riggy” Riggleman, a good manager who cared about his boys as much as he could and knew the game but who didn’t yet grasp the changing realities of caring for young arms, had envisioned him as being. Just as he had known that, Servais knew Powell could not handle what had to be done now. But he cared for the kid and wanted to believe different.
“Get’ch’er stuff together, Kid. We gotta get the hell outta Dodge,” he said gravely. “Quick.”
Berkman paid the cover both for himself and The Chief. His bottom line had taken a hit from his recent “cancellation” due to the Ba-Bing!-related “literal misogyny/actual sex slavery” accusations so he wasn’t exactly wild about paying $20 to enter this scuzzy titty bar, but they needed to get closer and The Chief had assured him he would, and reminded him that he always did, pay him back. Berkman was pretty sure that wasn’t his recollection but he didn’t feel like arguing. Besides, he was a tee-totaler so meeting the two-drink minimum with a couple of club sodas would be cheap enough, he thought.
As it happened, he’d thought wrong. $8 for a club soda with no ice (“Ice is $2 extra!” the large-breasted bartender had said)? Madness!
The Chief sipped the “Sugar Tittytini” on which he’d been upsold (further deepening Berkman’s money pit) and, over the insistent throb of “Girls R Good” by Jayla Ba-Bing!, said, “This ain’t half bad!” He took another sip and then added, “Oh boy, look at the gams on that bird, sonny boy!” and nudged the glum Berkman, pointing at the girl on the nearest stage.
Berkman looked up from his club soda wearily, and his eyes widened instantly. There, dancing on the stage, utilizing a feathered boa to suggestive effect, was Emily Twiggs.