Danny Cater, Captain Hi-Score and Captain Hi-Score’s BIPOC friend Samanda James were a bit late to their press conference because Hi-Score couldn’t find anyone who could tie Cater’s tie for him. Normally Mrs. Cater would have done that for her best good sweetsie boy, but she was laid up in traction and receiving supplemental oxygen after she’d lugged her baby out of his burning hospital room during the raging conflagration that followed the bomb blast that had rocked Anytown to its very core. She’d also required a mild sedative to quell her primal matronly rage upon learning her son was the intended target of the detonation. At any rate, Hi-Score had paid a janitor a few dollars to tie Cater’s tie, finally, and the trio had made it to the presser.
Immediately the assemblage of reporters clamored. “Take! We need a take! Give us a take!” the fearless, frenzied members of the sacred fourth estate cried as Hi-Score and Samanda (BIPOC) helped Cater from his walker into a chair. They then sat on either side of him, Hi-Score whispering a few last minute instructions into Danny’s ear while his BIPOC friend adjusted the microphone before him to accommodate for his slouched, forward-hunched posture.
“Thanks all, for joining us today,” Hi-Score said. “As y’all can see, Danny Cater is safe, we’re all safe. We, er, of course are hopeful that those who were injured—those brave heroes—make a full recovery, and we hope the gallant first responders will find more, er, survivors in the rubble and not more bodies, yeah?”
“Danny! Danny! How’s your mother?” a reporter from the Coast City Caller shouted.
“Please, folks, save, er, save your questions until Danny’s had a chance to read his…” Hi-Score tried to raise his voice over the growing din from the journos, but he hadn’t the voice for radio to go with his face for the same medium, and they were worked into a lather already, facing deadlines in many cases but, more pressingly, needing fresh grist for the take mill that was Blither, the social media platform on which they spent most of their waking—and much of their sleeping, thanks to muscle memory—lives, broadcasting “takes” in multi-part “megathreads” that, cumulatively, often numbered in the thousands of words, rarely if ever read in full or deserving that honor besides, their words having the aspect of some less interesting, arguably more deranged man with a sandwich board on the street prophesying the end times.
“Why was Danny wearing a helmet at the time of the accident?” an out-of-stater from the Poughkeepsie Prognosticator interjected, cutting Hi-Score off.
“What do you say about your driving record, Cater? Why so many fender benders? So many troubles with insurance providers?” Anytown Journal of Affairs “ace” reporter Rance Hartley demanded, his loosened tie and sweat-moistened hair adding to the obvious his already readily apparent desire… need for information… answers. He wasn’t fucking around: he had a real deadline that mattered and he’d meet it if he had to mollywop his 500 words out of any or all of them, might even pay for the privilege with these chowderheads. He was tired of this fuckin’ shit.
Hi-Score tried to formulate a response but his faculties failed him, and he could merely hrmm and smile nervously.
“I’ve had a few oopsies… y’all,” Danny spoke unexpectedly in his strange drawl, adding the “y’all” to attempt compliance with the crash course Hi-Score had given him in speaking personably with the public, something that would be essential for Cater during this new phase of their project.
“What does that mean? What oopsies?” Hartley challenged further.
“We need a take! Please!” a desperate, hysterical Decatur Gazette reporter shrieked suddenly, tearing at his own clothing and flinging himself to the floor, sobbing bitterly.
“Folks… y’all, please, give us some… have some decorum,” Hi-Score said, his bony, lily-white hand covering Cater’s mic. He gave Samanda (BIPOC) a discrete signal, and she began rubbing her temples in circular motions with her fingertips. Hi-Score took a more confident, impassioned tone. “Ah, bollocks! Now look what yeh’ve done. My BIPOC friend’s head is aching.”
Despite their ravenous hunger for take fodder, the journalists began to simmer down, their frenzied barking softening to a low, rumbling inquisitive growling. Danny pulled a big chunk off a tattered paper with his teeth and took several quick bites. Hi-Score got up and went to Samanda’s (BIPOC) side, muttering faintly with the quality of one speaking in tongues, or a cartoon character whispering a plan. This acted as a palliative, easing her pain somewhat, though his glances toward the pool of still chattering hacks would let them know this poor, heroic WOC would not truly be restored to the pink of health, so to speak, until they’d settled down completely.
“Y’all, please, y’all, can y’all folks just let Danny read his statement? It’s what my BIPOC friend wants,” Hi-Score requested gently but insistently, a plea that many later likened to the immortal Joseph N. Welch “have you no decency” remonstrance of Joseph McCarthy, updated for a new and better generation.
Hi-Score nodded at Danny, letting him know it was now safe to speak his piece. Danny nodded back, noting Hi-Score’s warm, supportive smile. He loved his Cappy and hoped to never ever let him down.
It was in that very moment that Danny Cater realized the paper he’d been gnawing on during the latest tumult about “needing a take” was, in fact, the sheet bearing the statement Captain Hi-Score (and his BIPOC friend, let us not forget) had written for him. His waxy face took on a quality like that of a man marching to a gallows placed inside of the gas chamber of a spaceship on the heading “to the very heart of Earth’s yellow sun.”
“Oh… fudgesicles…” he said softly, almost inaudibly.
“What? What about fudgesicles?” Emily Twiggs asked.
“I always wanted fudgesicles when I was a kid,” Pillowface said vaguely. “My daddy said I’d make a mess of my pillow face, make a stain that wouldn’t come out…” she looked off in the distance, her little drawn-on mouth twitching strangely.
Emily thought there was something she was forgetting—something important she needed to remember—but she was blanking, her mind racing from all the events of the wild adventure she’d been on the last few days, her experience as an exotic dancer/real live sex worker, that Man with the Beard Made of Bees who had been so nice, not at all like she’d expected the owner of an icky stripper bad place to be, but then she remembered Bavasi, who had made her feel so gross with his hot stinky alcohol breath and his bad skin. That had all receded when she’d been on stage, and Pillowface had told her she was a natural, a real born dancer with nice legs. But then Oscar and Mr. Chief had shown up and ruined everything! She frowned.
“I don’t talk to the old man anymore,” Pillowface continued, speaking in that way someone who’s dying to be asked a follow-up question or series of follow-up questions speaks. She glanced at Emily, who looked a million miles from anywhere. “Yep… he sure is a mean old cuss, you bet’cha…”
“Do you think he loves me?” Emily asked suddenly, her dark blue lapis-colored eyes hungry for reassurance for someone… anyone, even a knobby-kneed tomboy with a pillow face. “Do you really?”
Pillowface’s crudely drawn eyebrows furrowed to the degree Sharpied-on eyebrows could do so. “My old man? Do you know him?”
“What? No! Oscar! Do you think Oscar loves me?” Emily grasped Pillowface’s hands and squeezed, staring pleadingly at the cartoon face on her pillow head.
“Ehhhhn…” Pillowface intoned, a nervous tic of a sound, unsure of what to say. “Didn’t you say his name was Otter?”
“Hmm? Otter?” Emily repeated vacantly, as if hearing the word for the first time, but then withdrew her hands suddenly and buried her face in them, despairing deeply. “Oh, Otter! Of course. What have I done!”
“I don’t… know? Sorry, I’m really just… very confused right now,” Johnita Luxton confessed as The Reformed Genius continued to bemoan some terrible but very obscure mistake he seemed to have made, all while first running and now trudging through thigh deep mud thousands of yards behind the abandoned Refuse Row factory in which he’d ostensibly been living with his new wife Ethel, leading the exhausted, exasperated, annoyed attorney who he spoke to infrequently and then only to insult, the rotten-egg sulfur smell of the marsh they had now reached so thick and overpowering it seemed almost to have a corporeal form of its own.
“Of course you are,” The Reformed Genius hissed, his broad, pointy shoulders hitching and falling as he sighed impatiently before adding disgustedly, “You’re nothing but a… a woman!”
She’d had just about enough of this shit and told him as much. “I’ve had just about enough of this shit!” Kind of redundant, really, but it’s what she said.
TRG stopped and waved his arms performatively. “Ah yes, of course! I thought it was about time for you to go on some sort of… melodramatic, narcissistic monologue about how ‘hard’ this is for you, a prelude to your abandoning me in my time of need, when I stand to lose everything I’ve worked for… reformed for… become a brand new man for, but none of that matters to you, does it? Hmm? Because you must know everything now, right now, yes? You can’t just trust that I know what I’m doing and allow me to do the thinking for the pair of us, can you? Because that, my dear, would deny you what you need above all else—above food, water, shelter and this very fine, freshest of air you breathe—attention!” He got all up in her grill like whoa, his bumpy, beak-like nose nearly touching hers, his spotty old liver lips speckled with spittle and quivering. “Hmm? Yes? Isn’t that so? Isn’t… gahhh!”
Before she knew it, Johnita had palm-thrusted him in his weak, birdlike sunken chest, knocking him off balance and flat onto his ass, his gangly, feeble body sinking into the thick, smelly mud. She stood over him, teeth gnashed, hands talon-like and ready to tear at his pale, sagging flesh with her perfectly manicured nails,—equally perfect at clawing the flesh from his bones or gouging out his beady little eyes, she thought—hungry for the mean old prick’s blood.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! I hate you so much, you ridiculous, decrepit old bastard! Do you even hear yourself?” her breasts heaved as she panted, TRG recoiling and trying to shield himself with his scrawny, machete-like forearms. “You… oh, forget it! I’m leaving. And this ‘freshest of air’ smells like shit!” she spat as a parting shot and picked up the heels she’d dropped in preparation of rending the very fabric of TRG’s puny being. She screamed even as she abandoned him, “Aaaahhhh! You haven’t ‘reformed’ at all!”
“I’m… I’m sorry…” the words, soft… weak… almost ashamed at being spoken let alone heard, reached her ears a second or two later.
Johnita turned so quickly that her mind had not yet even registered fully what she’d just heard. Her eyes widened and her mouth went agape once the words had actually been processed.
TRG had struggled up to a seated position, his entire pathetic form nearly covered in mud. He wiped some off and flung it aside, his face pitiful in its aspect and therefore suiting perfectly his deflated posture.
“Y-yes. I’m… I’m sorry,” he said.
Now her mouth opened wider and Johnita actually laughed, partly amused but at least as much in disbelief. “You? Apologize for something?”
Indeed, in all the time she’d known him she’d never heard the Genius so much as ask to be excused for a belch, sneeze or fart, or even beg pardon when he’d misheard someone’s remark, so now to hear him apologize—twice!—like this was really something.
Danny wiped away some of the perspiration that was pooling on his forehead, leaving a streak of blue, inky moisture, as he’d used like a kerchief the remnants of the prepared remarks he’d been attempting, with only fleeting success, to read. The already mangled paper was now little more than confetti in his tiny, ink-stained hands.
“I think it said ‘really need to…’ oh, I don’t know. What was your question?” Cater asked, superficially distressed but curiously aloof as he made a train wreck of the whole affair.
“The original question or the latest follow-up?” the half-irritated/two-fifths-morbidly fascinated/one-tenth-scrolling Blither reporter from the Schenectady Sentinel responded, genuinely puzzled by this creature with whom she was interacting.
“I don’t know. What paper did you say you’re from? I used to be a ‘journo,’ you know,” he said, taking a further, more thoughtful bite from the paper he’d just been fretting over having ruined. He touched a finger to his lip, giving him a blue ink little Hitler ‘stash. “Hmm, wonder why I thought of that.”
Captain Hi-Score, his hairline having gotten a head start sometime earlier, fled the scene with his BIPOC friend, Samanda James, their exit barely noticed by the reporters who were now held in the weird thrall of Danny Cater.
“Did someone ask what ‘oopsies’ are? They’re what I call my little bumps into other cars, usually when I’m trying to park. Why are the bloody spacesso narrow?” Danny raised his voice in the odd way he did that, at times randomly, and unwittingly drew some laughs from the pool of reporters. “That’s why I carry these pre-made, erm, little laminated ‘oopsy’ cards I got someone to create for me,” he said, producing one such card with his contact info and a cartoon likeness of an embarrassed, bashful, apologetic looking version of himself beside a dinged-up little car, which he then passed to a reporter for circulation around the room. He neglected to mention Mrs. Cater was the “someone” who had made them for her dear honey child. “Dey comes in handy, dey sho’ ‘nuff does, yes’m,” he added in what one might charitably call an “outdated” approximation of a “black” voice.
The reporters, who’d chattered pleasantly and comparing notes on a couple of subtle variations on their “this guy is good, actually” takes, gasped more or less in unison. Danny looked up, seemingly vaguely aware he’d said or done something “bad, actually.”
“I… forgive you…”
The Reformed Genius looked up briefly, his beady little eyes magnified, from Johnita’s vantage point, by the reflection and refraction in his big thick lenses. He tried to smile but it just looked weird. She extended her hand to help the mud-caked, sad-looking figure to his feet.
“Thank you,” he said as he took her hand, expressing verbally even this minor bit of gratitude another first for the Genius. Perhaps he had changed after all. He braced himself with a bony, veiny hand on her shoulder, breathed sharply and seemed on the verge of saying something further when abruptly his face—his entire body, really—lit up. He smiled as if filled with some all-consuming mania. “Ethel…” he pointed a quivering finger. “Etheeeeeel!”
Johnita jumped a little and stammered briefly before turning to see, over on a little patch of land maybe 75 or 80 feet beyond them, just past a shallow strip of murky water, a very large, very full-figured woman whose physique would send the underground cartoonist/”comix” legend R. Crumb to the moon, standing with her broad back and ample buttocks turned to face them, not reacting in any observable way to TRG’s now repeated, relieved, nigh ecstatic cries of “Ethel! I’m coming!”
He ran toward her with a renewed sense of purpose and recovered vigor, pitching forward and nearly face-planting into the stinky mud after several feet but regaining both his upright posture and awkward running form with surprising quickness and agility. Something told her to call after him, warn him of some unseen danger that she could nonetheless feel, but before she could, she heard the buzzing behind her. Her breath caught in her throat. She turned and saw, a ways back, The Man with the Beard Made of Bees. The buzzing carried, as sounds do, better over the marsh and the water, and it had the quality of satisfaction—dark satisfaction—to it, matched by what she could see was a malevolent smile.
Johnita shook her head, spun back around, first mouthing then shouting, “No… no! R.G.! R.G.! It’s a trap!” She took several awkward, unsteady steps forward, falling in the mud and crying desperately, reaching out instinctively toward him in the distance. He turned, a bemused look on his gaunt, pale face. She screamed, “It’s a trap! Run!”