Jan 02, 2019, 05:55AM

The Mysteries of Life

Several cold takes on a beloved genre.

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—Super Sleuths Save the Day! Skippy and Info were walking home from school when they saw the yellow crime-scene tape enclosing a neighbor's yard. There were cop cars in front of the house. Neighbors and even a local newspaper photographer milled about in the street. A helicopter circled overhead. Oh boy, somethin' was goin' down!

"Whaddya think happened, Info?" Skippy said, pushing his big goofy glasses back up the bridge of his puggy freckled all-American nose.

Info shrugged and looked down at the ground. Info was not always the most scintillating conversationalist.

So Skippy speculated. "Maybe, um... Maybe pirates broke into the house and tried to steal all the cookies from the cookie jar! Maybe ninjas snuck in, in the middle of the night, filled the sugar bowl with salt, then slipped away unseen! Maybe a dinosaur stomped through the house, shaking the floors and breaking all the vases and china and the mom got mad!"

On and on he went, like a goddamn Little Rascal. As if he were living in a fucking 1950s comic strip.

Info was called that for a reason. It wasn’t his given name, nor was it an arbitrary nickname, nor was it an ironic moniker the way that enormous people are sometimes called "Tiny." Oh no. Info had the facts. He was the only kid in their third-grade class with a BlackBerry. He whipped that sucker out and simply Googled the name of their street and found a news article that had just appeared online.

"Skippy, it says here it was a 'quadruple-homicide/rape.'"

Skippy, shaken out of his reverie, looked at Info with pure blue ingenuous child's eyes. His chin quivered, and his voice was tremulous as he said, "Quadroop— what's... what's that? It sounds scary!"

Info sighed and rolled his eyes at his exasperatingly immature friend. I mean, Jesus... dinosaurs, really?

"It means there were four murders and a rape. Or maybe four murders and four rapes. Or maybe someone raped someone, then that person got shot, and three others died in an ensuing hail of gunfire. Maybe one of the murders was a suicide—maybe the gunman raped an entire family, even the great-grandpa, even the dog, and then, grasping the magnitude and perversity of what he had done, looked in the mirror and gave a rather Shakespearean soliloquy, then offed himself."

Skippy and Info just looked at each other for a moment, blinking, the two of them standing on opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm. Skippy had never heard the word "rape" before, aside from all the times his mother screamed at his father, "I hate you! I want out of this marriage! You are raping my soul!" Skippy didn't know what the word meant, though.

Info looked at his friend, all dewy apple-cheeked naiveté. He couldn't bear to shatter that innocence. It would happen in due time; this harsh world would see to that. But not today.

Info said, "Did I say 'rape'? I meant 'ape.' Yeah, a gorilla broke into the house! And Tarzan! And they swung from the curtains and slid down the banisters and jumped on all the beds! *That* is why there are all those cop cars, Skip."

"Gee willikers!" said Skippy.

—The Kitty-Kat Cherries-Jubilee-Cheesecake Murders. So there was this cat. It was a smart cat. It solved mysteries.

No one knew why the cat was so smart. The cat could comprehend and reciprocate human language. It was generally smarter than the humans around it, and this disparity was fodder for much merriment and slapstick-y hijinks.

The cat belonged to an old lady. The old lady was the kind of old lady you see in movies and TV shows and read about in mystery novels. She liked teapots and her rose garden and was always draping doilies across surfaces in her home. She said, "Heavens to Betsy!" She had fluffy white hair she wore up in a bun, and dainty little Benjamin Franklin-type glasses. She was always wearing an apron, because she was always baking something that was just scrumptious! Apple Brown Betty or Cherries Jubilee or some shit like that. Why do old ladies have to give their food such corny-ass names?

So this wasn't like an old lady in real life, with osteoporosis and arthritis and dementia and grandkids who hate the hand-knitted snowflake sweaters she always gives them for Christmas and a WWII-vet husband in the grave.

No, if this old lady had any physical ailments, she kept them to herself, thank you very much. If she had grandkids, if she'd ever had a husband, we, the readers, aren't privy to any of that stuff. Maybe she's a goddamn dyke, who knows? All we've got to go by is: There's this old lady who bakes, perhaps a bit excessively, perhaps as a form of escapism, and her cat that's like fucking Kitty-Cat Stephen Hawking.

This old lady was British, of course, and lived in a quaint cottage in a quaint village in a quaint shire, overgrown with wisteria, with weeping willows growing all 'round, because American readers eat that shit up, that Thomas Kinkade-painting shit.

The old lady wasn't a detective by profession, of course—she was just the one who happened to solve all the local mysteries, even when the local cops were all bamboozled and flummoxed. So, you know, you'd really think the local police would put her on the payroll. But no, it's cuter to have her sitting at home, drinking tea in her china rose-patterned tea cup, suddenly informed by the postman or the blacksmith or the Domino's guy or whoever, that there has been a murder in the shire again!

And then the old lady picks up on clues that the person talking, the blacksmith or whoever, doesn't even seem to realize he is giving away. Or, rather, once the Domino's pizza boy and the other suspects are gone, she goes, "Hmm. That's funny— the vicar was found bludgeoned to death with a milk bottle. Hmm. And the milkman always hated the vicar, because the vicar beat him in the shire jello-wrestling contest last May, and everyone was cheering, 'Yeah! The vicar wins! The vicar is the best jello wrestler in the entire shire! The milkman sucks!' Hmm. And the milkman was seen hurrying through the village square with blood on his hands, and has just fled the shire in quite a haste."

So of course the cat's all, "The milkman did it, you fucking idiot.”

See? I told you that cat was smart.

—A Most Perplexing Series of Events at the Old Victorian Manse. One gloomy eve, a group of mystery-solvers gathered at the spooky old Victorian manse in the moors.

Some mustachioed dude said to those assembled: "There's been a murder!" At just that very moment, a thunderclap reverberated and lightning flashed through the big bay window behind him.

Everyone gasped. One guy peed his pants.

The mustachioed dude who's spoken, let's call him Ernie, Ernie said, "One of you needs to solve this murder mystery!" And wouldn't you know it? On the words "murder mystery," there was another goddamn thunder-and-lightning combo.

"You folks are all detectives, so I've summoned you here to find Clues and solve this..."

"Don't say it!" the group cried in unison, covering their ears, bracing for the thunder and lightning. The guy who peed now hid under the table.

"...to solve this, well, you know." He chuckled. Ah, life.

So the detectives dispersed throughout the house, looking for Clues. The house was so damn spooky that they decided to split up into groups of two.

One duo went up into the attic.

"Holy shit, would you look at this? I've found a Clue!"

Sure enough, that detective had found a Clue.

Another couple was rummaging around in the cellar.

"Jesus Mary and Joseph, why, it's a Clue!" the cool surfer guy said.

"Holy fuck in a bucket, you're right!" said the hot surfer girl with him.

And some other detectives found Clues, and then the detectives all gathered and put the Clues together, and what do you know? Those detectives solved that mystery.

"Thanks, folks!" Ernie said, sending each detective home with a really cool "goodie bag" of gifts that included a yo-yo and a handful of Tootsie Rolls.

—Denouement. So I'm told that this wasn't a proper story unless the characters developed and grew as people, attaining wisdom and perspective. And I want this to be a proper story. I don't write these things just to get my jollies, you know. I have a very serious purpose here.

So here's the update on Skip and Info. Skippy became a porn star. I mean, come on. You could see that coming a mile away. Repressed, troubled background. Desperate for approval—the way he'd look up at Info with those pure blue child's eyes, hungry for validation. Hungry for love.

"I've got a hard-on for love!" Skippy liked to quote the Nick Cave song during his turbulent high school years.

Skip drifted in and out of cliques in those years. Freshman year he was captain of the German Scrabble Team, whose motto was "We play Scrabble—in German." I never said it was a catchy motto.

Serving as Captain of the German Scrabble Team resulted in an utter dearth of love for Skip, so he tried being Goth. He was the most Goth little jagoff you ever saw. While the other Goths at his school were wearing black eyeliner and Echo & The Bunnymen t-shirts, Skip smeared his face with bat blood and wore the clothing of bodies he'd exhumed from graves himself. He was hard-core, man.

Digging up dead bodies and smearing animal blood across one's countenance does something to a person. Skip developed an inclination toward thrill-seeking. He was magnetized to the bizarre and the outré.

Oh, and by the way, Skip was prodigiously well-hung. I mean, holy smokes. You should have seen that hog.

Well, actually, you can see this thing, because it's featured prominently in video after video that are all available at your local Blockbuster.

Because as I said, Skippy became a porn star. So there you go. He grew and changed. He's now a very wise, well-adjusted porn star, with the insight of sages.

Info's life took a less spectacular trajectory. His aptitude for understanding gadgets and gizmos led him to major in computer engineering at a big state college in his home state. He got a scholarship! But secretly he harbored a longing to become a novelist. Or maybe a poet. He would feel things, and then he would endeavor to translate them onto the page. Or the computer screen. But always, always, the words fell flat. Always the words were futile, like wingless birds.

He met a nerd girl, with nerd-girl glasses, who was in some of his computer-engineering courses. She didn't secretly long to become a poet. One day he showed her one of his poems. He had never shown one to anyone.

Her response was: "0001110101011100000001101011110000."

Disheartened, Info never showed his poems to anyone else ever again.

He began to go bald at 22. The baldness happened in an embarrassing, scalloped sort of shape, so he began to shave his head. Info didn’t really have the kind of head that looked okay without any hair on it, but eh, what are you gonna do?

He married his nerd girl, and they had a near-sighted baby and they got it little nerd glasses just like theirs. Aww, how cute.

Info had drifted apart from his childhood friend Skip when one day, after Info's nerd wife had screamed at him in a hyper-hormonal rage, pregnant with their second nerd baby... Info had grabbed the keys to his car— his wife's car, actually, a family-friendly SUV bedecked with all manner of gadgets that talked to you in robot voices as you drove—and had driven out into the cold, sleeting night.

He found himself at the only place with its lights still on, a Blockbuster video rental. He shoved his fists into his jacket pockets, stomped slush off his boots, and walked inside, chilled to his bones by the weather and the hard little kernel that his heart had become.

He wandered to the "adult video" aisle, kindly located in a back corner so that browsers could do so with impunity. The videos glowed hot-pink and the tanning-bed buxom porn people beckoned to him. Info stood for a moment and imagined a life in which he had someone to love him.

He chose a tape at random and watched it at home, alone in the den as his nerd-girl wife dozed in their IKEA canopy bed. On the screen, Info's old friend Skippy pounded a bevy of moaning people with vacant gazes. But by the time this video had been filmed, Skippy had transformed. He had worked with a trainer to build himself a protective shell of muscle. He had lost the baby fat in his face and now looked chiseled. Info didn't recognize him.

And yet, before drifting off to sleep in his recliner, right in the middle of a bimbo pound-a-thon on the screen, Info had the strange thought that something about it all— maybe one of the actors, that well-endowed guy with the incongruously wholesome, all-American face— reminded him of childhood, of innocence not yet shattered.

"Did I hear what?" — a poem by Jason "Info" Kemp


Did you hear that?

Of course you didn't — it was the sound of me fading into insignificance.


So now you're wondering what happened to the cat and the old lady. I guess I should tell you.

The cat, keenly aware of his Kitty-Cat Stephen Hawking-like IQ, attained a bit of flash-in-the-pan notoriety when he made the rounds of the late-night talk shows.

"Oh, Jimmy Fail-son," the cat said in an uncanny imitation of human speech, putting on a show of faux modesty to one fawning, awestruck late-night talk-show host. "How you do go on." And he gave a dismissive wave of his little kitty-cat paw, sitting upright on the couch like a person, with his back legs crossed politely. He was wearing a little kitty-cat-sized 'do rag like a gangsta rapper, just for panache.

"Hahaha!" howled the audience.

The cat looked out at their laughing, lowest-common-denominator faces and felt a deep sadness. It took so very little to amuse them.

But instead of judging them, he felt more like helping them. And so he set up The Kitty-Cat Detective School for Gifted Felines, so that others like him could help their human "masters" with conundra ranging from quadruple homicide/rapes and vicar-cide to where they left their car keys.

So there. He went from wanting to maul his stupid old owner to wanting to help people. If that isn’t growth, I don't know what is.

Oh yeah, and when the cat had run away from home long ago, for the bright lights of Hollywood and New York City to do these talk shows, the old lady was so batty and fog-brained that she never even noticed. She was just a clueless fool, like the rest of these “Greatest Generation” ghouls and revenants.
That guy, the one we called Ernie—you know, the one at the old Victorian manse—went trekking in Nepal in search of enlightenment. And you know what? He found it. Way to go, Ernie!

That other guy, you know, the one who kept peeing his pants at inopportune moments? He got his bladder issues under control. Good for him!

As for the folks who'd found Clues, they all went to graduate school and started families and saw the miracle of life encapsulated in the face of a laughing baby or a daisy growing wild in a field or the grace of a dolphin leaping out of the ocean or the stern majesty of the Himalayas. They became philanthropists, and devout “Spiritual but not religious” and New Age types. They wore yellow Lance Armstrong "Livestrong" bracelets. They could recite to you the leader of any Third World country and give you a synopsis of that country's current trials and tribulations. They followed strict vegan diets and bicycled to the LEED-certified offices of their nonprofits. They left no carbon footprint. When they died, they donated their bodies to Science. Keep “doing the work,” you crazy kids!


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