He discovered his talent, as many dillettantes do, by accident, having dropped the platter holding the cake his grandmother had made for the family to enjoy after lunch. Eager to get back in his cousins’ good graces, he accepted their dare later that afternoon to eat the blackened bananas from the freezer she had been saving to make banana bread. Decades later he could no longer recall whether it was the exhilirating cold, the surprising sweetness or the regaining of his loved ones’ affection that made eating expired food such a pleasant experience, but what kept him hooked was more than merely the thrill of risk inherent to his habit. As a college student he had to fight the perception that he was just that weird kid in the dorm who would eat anything, politely declining snickering offers from his classmates of orphaned pizzas and burgers from the fast food joints near campus notorious for disregarding accuracy in filling their customers’ orders, knowing that by the time most students discovered an error they would be unlikely to make the trip back from the dorm demanding satisfaction. Instead he would patiently clarify that his preference for expired food was one purely of taste and that a sub sandwich with olives on it, disgusting though it may be, hardly qualified. Among friends he achieved a perverse sort of acclaim for being able to predict to the minute when milk would cross the line into absolute undrinkablity. As an adult he spent years developing a tolerance for, and then an immunity to, the gray parts of overripe avocados, and later expanded his palette to encompass even the opposing pleasures of slimy wilted spinach salads and the dried hardened edges of forgotten cheese slices. And so it is with great sadness that we lay him to rest today, taking meager but meaningful comfort in the knowledge that he was able to enjoy one last serving of his beloved day-old egg salad before tragically being struck by lightning.
Pardon me, friend. I hope I’m not assuming too much here, but if you’re looking for the Rose Room it’s right down that hallway past those elevators. Have you checked in yet? There’s a really helpful information packet they give you when you get your name tag; always helps the first-timers feel a little more comfortable. Me? Oh, this is my fourth go-round with Dr. Johsnon. No, that’s not a typo; he’s actually really particular about making sure people pronounce his name correctly, which they’ll spend some time on at the orientation session before breakfast. He also won’t pick up his order at Starbucks until the barista says the “Ph.D” at the end of his name. But I suppose once you’ve had the kind of success he’s had, you can afford to be finicky about some things, no? And Dr. Johsnon is definitely the real deal. It sounds cliche, but these seminars have changed my life. Before I listened to his audiobooks on changing your sneeze, I was just a mess out there. I could hear my friends, family and colleagues laughing behind my back every time allergy season came around, but I felt helpless to do anything about it. Like you, I was a little skeptical at first, but my life was so out of control that something simply had to change. Turns out I just had a Class IV mouse sneeze- pretty common, actually- and by Sunday night I was able to sneeze with the same confident, smooth delivery as my ex-wife’s new husband. I personally have seen Dr. Johsnon work actual miracles with people who had been suffering their entire lives while imprisoned by scream sneezes, yodel sneezes, even a few poor souls with slide whistle sneezes. In ’09 I heard a moving testimonial from a brave woman who had just been reissued her library card and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. This year I’m taking the advanced course, where Dr. Johsnon himself will be showing us how to refine our sneezing technique so that we can achieve, as the Tibetans do, a spiritual awakening in the moment our heart stops just before the release point. It’s the only way to counteract the considerable emotional damage done by forcibly altering immutable personal characteristics.
Good morning, Mr. Guidry. Let me begin by apologizing for any rough treatment you may have received en route to this undisclosed location. I’d like to add that on a personal level, I’m especially sorry for the use of the black hood and leg shackles which, while they may have seemed a touch dramatic, were absolutely necessary for your protection during transit. Although I’m afraid I am not at liberty to tell you much more about where we are other than to say we’re roughly one thousand feet underground in a virtually indestructible bunker, you are certainly due the best explanation that our national security concerns will allow me to provide.
As you are no doubt aware, next week President Bush will be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before Game Three of the World Series, an event that has taken on much greater importance in light of last month’s tragic attacks on U.S. soil. The resumption of our traditions and customs is a vital step toward healing from this national tragedy, and the President feels that a smoking fastball right down Broadway could help boost the American people’s confidence at this critical time, as well as sending a powerful message around the globe to the terrorists who perpetrated this crime. And though the President is a big baseball fan, even serving as the managing general partner for the group that owned a controlling share in the Texas Rangers for a few years, he hasn’t played baseball competitively since high school and could use a few pointers to really send that white dot screaming across the plate. The President himself requested you as an instructor, as he is a big admirer of yours from your days with the Yankees. And I’m not just saying that to be nice, either; sometimes he’ll cancel a block of appointments with foreign dignitaries just to spend a couple of days holed up in the Oval Office poring over videos of your sublime 1978 season, particularly your 18-strikeout performance against the Angels.
I appreciate what a difficult position this must be for you, but your country needs you to answer the call. The American people need their President to display the strength and resolve that makes this country great, and of course we all want to see you returned safely to your family, so this represents a convergence of those interests. President Bush has said repeatedly to his advisers that he views this pitch as the most important act he’ll undertake during his Presidency, and he may well be right, considering that next week the Joint Chiefs of Staff will be meeting with the Vice President and various Cabinet members to discuss strategy in Afghanistan and elsewhere while he gets a guitar lesson from Eddie Van Halen. Oh, that reminds me: would you kindly place your hood into this laundry basket? We’ll need to have it cleaned before then.
All right, boys; it’s time to buckle down. Just got word from upstairs that employers all over the nation are demanding some daring new advances in toilet paper for the workplace. Seems they’re tired of losing valuable hours of productivity by having employees use the restroom while on the job, and while it’s still technically illegal simply not to provide a working restroom for employees, a little-known loophole allows employers to disincentivize restroom breaks by making it incredibly uncomfortable to relieve oneself on company time. To that end, we’re gonna have to fashion our flimsiest, most abrasive toilet paper to date or risk losing some big clients. Now, I don’t need to remind you all about the importance of making sure our end-line users draw blood each and every time they wipe. Each time some schlub decides to wait till he or she gets home rather than cram a wad of itchy paper into their swimsuit area in a practice that only mocks the idea of personal hygiene, we’ve done our job. And not just for our customers, either-if we play our cards right, we could save enough on wood pulp to equal several employees’ salaries, thus preventing layoffs here at the plant, at least until next quarter. It won’t be easy, and the clock is ticking: rumor has it that Scottissue’s got something in development with an accidentally-stick-your-finger-through-the-paper-and-up-your-own-ass rate of 7.6%. Seven point fucking six percent! That would have been unthinkable when I broke into the industry, back when all you punks were in diapers and had no need for toilet paper.
Every streetlamp in the warehouse district has long been smashed, leaving the moon as the source of the only light to fall upon the Camaro, dull red with a primer color rear quarterpanel, the lone vehicle for several blocks save for a nondescript van parked a few streets away. Seated upon the squeaky vinyl interior (the department had unsurprisingly not sprung for one with leather), Agent Slater, a man who has not gone by that name in quite some time, studies two index cards, each containing a single similar word. A drop of sweat forms on his forehead and he slows his breathing, savoring these last few minutes in the car where he can afford such luxuries as an involuntary biological reaction to stress. He crumples the index cards and stuffs them one at a time into his mouth, chews, then washes the pulpy paste down with a swig of bourbon from his flask, and enters the building.
After the customary patdown he sets the briefcase on the table and steps back to allow Snake’s goons to open it.
“All right, Snake. It’s all there; every dollar.” He barely recognizes the sound of his own voice anymore. The same goes for his arms and torso, now awash in coded tattoos. “I’m ready.”
Snake cocks a skeptical eyebrow. “Oh, so you make a few low-level buys and suddenly you’re ready?” This too will be a test, it appears. The correct combination of deference and assertiveness is critical to his chances of walking out of here alive.
“I told you when I started I wanted to be a player. All due respect, I can always take this briefcase elsewhere.”
This seems to satisfy Snake. “All right, man. So what you want?”
“Two kilos of swizzle.”
“Fuck did you just say?” Snake rises from his chair.
“‘Sizzle.’ Why, what did you think I said?”
“Sounded to me like he said ‘swizzle,’ boss,” says a faceless voice from the dark.
“Yeah, me too,” says another. Snake is seething.
“Look, I definitely said ‘sizzle.’ If it sounded like ‘swizzle,’ maybe it’s because I had a dentist appointment earlier.”
“You calling me a liar? You a fucking cop or something?”
“Yeah sure, a cop buying illegal drugs,” Slater says, his voice now muffled by the gun barrel between his teeth. “Now I’ve heard everything.”
“Goddammit, get him out of there!” screams the voice inside the van. Armored personnel rappel down the side of the building and through the window, only to find their pathway blocked by stacked crates of raw uncut swizzle and several bottles of champagne on ice, underneath dozens of balloons and a huge banner reading “CONGRATS BUDDY- WELCOME TO THE GANG”.
“Say, that’s quite a band you’ve got there, Miller. Your boys are really hot.”
“Thanks; you picked a good time to finally accept my invitation to catch a rehearsal. That new third-chair clarinet player we’ve got has made all the difference. So, what do you think of the new song?”
“The one with all those repeated arpeggios? Oh, we’ll be hearing that one on the Hit Parade all summer! What do you call it?”
“‘In the Mood.'”
“‘In the Mood?'”
“Yeah, because when I wrote it I was horny as shit.”
“I was just about to say, those dueling saxophone solos remind me of when you feel like you’re walking around with a huge rod, just looking for the nearest place to stick it in.”
“Yeah, where you’re riding the bus or at the supermarket and you look around and realize that you’d happily copulate with literally every woman of consenting age in your field of view? Yeah man, I’m that way all the time.”
“Even during concerts?”
“Oh, that’s when it’s worst. Sometimes the band’s really going, and the trombones remind you of a train going in and out of a tunnel. Lordy, I’m breaking into a sweat just thinking about it.”
“I know what you mean. During rehearsal I kept finding myself imagining the drummer just spanking the heck out of some girl’s buns.”
“Yeah, it’s rough conducting in those conditions. All those eyes on you? It’s like middle school; I have to wear like four pairs of XXS briefs up there.”
“Well, you’ve got to have a ton of ladies waiting for you after the show though, right?”
“True, true. But you’d be surprised how many of them call me Henry or Arthur.”
“Be careful with that, it looks heavy,” Barbara told the two men unloading the Lomaxes’ new dishwater, her tone leaving uncertain whether she had meant it out of concern for the delivery men’s safety or the dishwasher’s. Clouds covered the sky, fall leaves covered everything else.
A Buick, just arrived from the hairdresser, issued two stacatto beeps at the unfamiliar truck blocking her driveway before Barbara trotted over to explain.
“Oh Gladys, I’m so sorry. This just seemed like the safest path to our front door, so they don’t have to go around the hedges on our side. I knocked to ask permission, but now I see you weren’t home.” The delivery men looked relieved to have Barbara’s attention drawn elsewhere.
“Did Herb not answer the door?” Gladys asked.”That’s odd.”
“I thought he must have been playing golf this morning. I rang the doorbell. Twice, just to make sure.”
Barbara recognized the look that passed across Gladys’ face and suddenly felt very aware of the truck.
“Just pull in behind them,” she said, gesturing with her hand. “They won’t be out until they’ve finished loading the old one on.” She tried to say it calmly. Maybe he was in the bathroom. He wouldn’t have gone out back into his woodshop without anyone else home.