The long stretch of beach toward the tip South Padre Island was known for its shimmering white sands. My sister and I would play in the sand dunes and slide down as if it were fresh-fallen snow. Then, most days, we would run along the beach and bob in the water’s soft, translucent, green waves. Under our toes we would feel the hardness of sea shells and reach down to pull them up. Some would have turquoise and pink stripes, red sunbursts, blue spirals, yellow and chartreuse edges—all specimen to behold in our tiny hands and carry back to the pile on the beach’s edge. Now and then, in our collection of treasures, a shell or two would unexpectedly get up on its legs and walk away, making its way back to the pull of the ocean. Once in a while, we would find that we’d pick up a small crab, and its pincers would instantaneously let us know that it was not up for grabs.
The summer that I was five, however, there was an invasion of jellyfish. Thousands upon thousands of them floated toward the edge of the beach and, by the end of the first week, millions of them had washed ashore, and they lay beached upon the scorching sand. We stood back from the wet tide line and looked at the gelatinous clusters of them studding the sand between us and the beckoning ocean. Some had long-since expired and shrunken in like warped plastic but, those that were still alive could send a sting to incapacitate a dog or small horse. Clear and rubbery, they were dug into the hot sand like ready landmines awaiting a momentary lapse in our attention. Our parents told us, “Whatever you do, do not step on them,” and so we held each other’s hand for balance and tiptoed through the zone of hell toward the siren call of the softly breaking waves.
It seems, throughout his life, that numbers played a vital role in his day to day. By counting to 1,357, he could awaken from a catatonic framework to find the entire downstairs completely spotless. By counting to 254, a clockwise motion of his tongue (matched precisely to the metronomic seconds) could bring his wife to climax without extra rigmarole and only cause minor aches and pains in his aging jaw line.
The 2.5 children was another matter, entirely. In an effort to appease his superiors, he forced his only daughter to undergo numerous controversial surgeries, gradually working toward the aim of completely splitting the girl in two.
“You’ll be twice the woman you are now!” he told the whimpering lass, secretly possessing no intention of keeping the bottom half. It was to no avail. Following the third series of incisions, the girl succumbed to a nasty cold and could not be summoned.
There the man sat, holding the lifeless hand of his offspring, listening to the clock in room 4952 beat incessantly in perfect time. Sweat teased his brow, and he grew weary at the notion that there were indeed no solutions- not even in the absolute.
The first time I saw the word “Pontypool,” I was in the bathroom at Chicago’s Music Box – a famous, old movie palace – attending the annual 24-hour horror-fest known as The Massacre. A slanted poster with the complete running order of the festival was taped to the tile wall. Though I knew most of the fest’s schedule, I had overlooked one film…
The one that was next. The one that had the prime slot.
Drinking at the bar across the street was preferable to seeing this movie. This plan was on everyone’s mind. You could feel it. No one had heard of Pontypool. It wasn’t a classic film or a cult film. It hadn’t been in theatres. No special guest stars were present and, if they were, you probably hadn’t heard of them. And it was called Pontypool, for Christ’s sake; not a great title for a horror movie. The only data I had was some overheard chatter that it was a zombie movie. I do love zombies, but in 2008, zombie burnout was at an all-time high. Unless it was Fulci, or Romero, or 28 Days Later, this crowd did not care. Seriously. We did not care.
Returning to the theatre, I debated leaving. The festival organizers could sense the attrition and announced, “Hey! Don’t leave! This is the best zombie movie of the decade. You won’t want to miss it. It’s really special. And forget the title!” they pleaded over the PA system, “We know it’s a weird title for a zombie movie. But it’s really good!”
So as the movie started, I sat down. Though you don’t see a “zombie” (herein called “conversationalists”) for a good hour, I’m glad I made that choice.
About 45 minutes in, the 1,000 attendees were dead silent – no shuffling, no coughing, no asides or laughs, and no attrition. Just absolute attention. People did not want to break the spell. We loved, loved this movie. And we loved it together. And, like most horror fans, we now adored the fact that no one had ever heard of it. It was our secret treasure. We were in on the ground floor of this, the rarest of things: a really good zombie movie.
What made it so special?
Well, firstly, almost everything that happens is in your imagination. Set in a talk radio station, the story is about Day One of an outbreak, where the characters receive information as we, the audience, receives it – in confusing sound bites, in drips and drabs, without confirmed authority. Slowly, together, we realize: this is bad, really bad trouble. Secondly, with no idea how the infection spreads, there is as much paranoia on display here as in Carpenter’s The Thing; paranoia makes for some fascinating chemistry. Lastly, the movie was about language – people talk and talk, not like in a Tarantino film, but in the way you and I talk when we’re coming to grips with a nightmare problem. And all that talking is directly related to the infection.
I won’t blow the story for you here, since it has tricks up its sleeve. But I will say I thought about that movie for days. And so did others. Not because of the violence or performances, but because of the story. By popular demand, the Music Box showed the movie again two weeks after The Massacre. Those who had seen it the first time brought back friends. And, like the virus itself, word about this Canadian low-budget wonder started to spread…
As I anxiously awaited release of a DVD so I could add it to my collection, a funny thing happened. It never came out. Rather than a first appearance, these two showings seemed, in the years following, to be the ONLY appearances. Between 2008 and 2010, the film disappeared completely.
Once, while late-night cable surfing in 2010, I stumbled across the movie. It was like remembering a dream. (I had the same fascination with Dudley Moore’s Bedazzled when I was a kid. I caught the film on TV and liked it, but couldn’t remember the title. In the pre-IMDB.com, pre-VHS/DVD, pre-OnDemand days, there was no way a person could find a movie again unless by accident. It wasn’t until my twenties that I even knew that movie was called Bedazzled.) I must admit I was shocked to have found Pontypool playing anywhere after such dormancy. I TiVo’d the second half and watched it twice.
Over the next two years, more and more people started to name-drop the movie – even people outside of horror. At last, the film got picked up by NetFlix, and that’s where many discovered it. New fans were being minted every day. This film that never saw a major release was on the map!
In Chicago in 2012, Pontypool was adapted into a stage play by original screenwriter Tony Burgess and local wunderkind Anderson Lawfer. The play premiered at Strawdog Theatre and continued for a popular eight-week run. Not surprising that it made the leap to stage, since it had previously been not only a movie, but a novel, also by Tony Burgess, and an audio drama for Canadian radio. (I’m waiting for the Pontypool the Musical to turn up somewhere.) Asked if he ever considered alternate titles, Burgess’s answer makes sense, considering all these formats: “(Keeping the title) mattered to me because I was adapting so loosely that without the title Pontypool, which was in the title of the original 1998 novel (Pontypool Changes Everything,) the connection might get tenuous. Also, the word carries significance and you don't wanna toss it out.”
When asked about his own experience in discovering Pontypool, Anderson Lawfer recalls, “I happened to be flipping through NetFlix, lookin’ for a good zombie flick. If you are like me, then you know that while there are lots of zombie films, there aren’t that many good zombie films, so you have to learn to shut it off and move on. I give every zombie movie 10 minutes. Well, this one was awesome. From beginning to end.”
The film tends to stick, meaning that people see it, remember it, and champion it to others. This was common in the cinema of the pre-video age, where a film wasn’t widely available, but is rarer nowadays. Either something is completely forgotten or it explodes all at once, such as with Psy’s Gangnam Style rap video. Is this something Burgess ever thought would happen to Pontypool – an old school, slowly growing wave? “I'm very much a believer in things being discovered by people on their own. It was how I've found the movies, books, and music that I like. And yes, things stick longer because the moment of discovery is personal. I think the fact that the radio play was an adaptation of the novel and the film was an adaptation of the radio play gave it a shape-shifting DNA. It was easy from the beginning to see it existing in different forms.”
When asked how he made the stage play production happen with input from the original writer, whom he did not know prior, Lawfer remarks, “Since the circumstances all happen in one place, I thought that it would make a cool play. I did some research, found the book, gave it a read, and then I located Tony’s contact information. I sent him an email and told him that I wanted to discuss the possibility of trying to get this on stage and he was very supportive. We talked almost every day about little changes and overall script themes we wanted to bring out and stuff we thought we could toss… The coolest thing about that guy is that his words aren’t precious to him. That is so important when you make a new play or adapt, because when somebody thinks that their words are the be all and end all, then the show generally sucks. Reading a story and seeing a story are different things.”
Who or what circumstances do you think keep the film alive and in circulation? Was it the cost of the film (profitability), the new rush of on-demand content, such as NetFlix streaming, film festivals programming the piece, or strictly the interest of the fans? “I'm not certain,” considers Burgess. “Pontypool has a chaotic life. Things play into it – the rules of distribution, access and promotion, some of that has extended its life. And clearly Horror and film blogs have played a big role.”
“I love Horror!” exclaims Lawler. “Mainly stuff that is ‘societal’ horror. None of that torture bullshit. Stuff that speaks to our world is what I like, apocalyptic stuff, viral stuff… No scary clowns or youth hostels in Amsterdam or whatever. That shit is a young man’s game.”
Recently, Pontypool disappeared from on-demand content on NetFlix, only to return six weeks later. The movie will probably continue to be like that. Now available on DVD and Blu-Ray a full four years after being completed, Pontypool is now readily accessible. But will it last?
When asking Burgess about the future Faustian choices, such as:
If you could choose just one outcome, which would you prefer:
1. Pontypool continues at this level of popularity for generations, long after you are dead.
2. You write something else entirely that completely eclipses Pontypool both in quality and duration of success.
…his clear answer is: “Well, you always want to produce better work so that's easy.”
Will his next endeavor will be as indelible as Pontypool? Only time will tell.
Darren Callahan has written drama for the BBC, SyFy Channel, National Public Radio, and Radio Pacifica New York. As the author of several successful stage plays, including The White Airplane and Horror Academy, both published by Polarity Books, he is highly involved in theatre as a writer and a director. Novels include The Audrey Green Chronicles and City of Human Remains. Screenplays include Documentia, Nerves and Summer of Ghosts. He is writer, director, and composer of the films Under the Table and Children of the Invisible Man. He is also a musician and has released many records, including film soundtracks, on various labels. His website is darrencallahan.com.
Mr. January is at least 43 now. He is the face of clean living and resolutions kept. In his fireman’s suspenders, he has the kind of muscled, but not overly muscled chest that reveals a good year of conscientious workouts at the gym. He’s acquiring that barrel-shape very strong men get as they age. His chest hair, blond of course, has become wiry and coarse. There’s more of it now. I am glad to see the charity photographer hasn’t made the firemen wax their chests or engage in other kinds of pre-photo shoot grooming I would call homoerotic (I am a bit academic) and everyone else would call metro-sexual.
It could have been completely different. All the things I could have learned about men, about real men, about honourable, honest men, I could have learned from Mr. January when his shoulders were broader and his waist narrower. I met him when I was 16 and he was a 22 year-old rookie. I know he was the “rookie” because that’s what the other firemen on the crew called him. They said, “Hey! Rookie!” and gave him orders.
I had been sitting in the passenger’s seat beside my best friend who had a newly printed driver’s license and 1974 dirt brown wreck of a car courtesy of her indulgent, non-custodial father. I may have been giving her directions about how to navigate the network of one-way streets through downtown. She was an inexperienced driver and easily confused. She backed over a concrete parking barrier and the bent iron tie that held it in place tore the gas tank of her car.
The lady who owned the earring and scarf store heard the crunch of steel being torn apart. She noticed the fuel leaking all over the road. She thought the car was going to blow up in front of her shop and its window full of expensive silk. She called the fire department.
Three trucks came racing down the street, all three manned by our city’s finest. The crews of each vehicle had to argue about who would spread the chemicals to diffuse the flammable properties of the gasoline on the street, who would wait with us for the tow truck and who would simply return to the firehouse in case of a real emergency. We were young women. We needed their protection on the dark downtown streets. While we knew that the firemen had made our Friday night, it was especially flattering to listen to them negotiate and learn that we had also made their Friday night.
Mr. January was a shy young man in those days. He peered out at us from under his helmet, making eye contact as his crew mates joked and asked us questions. Being a nice Canadian girl, I ran off to the local donut shop to buy all the firemen coffee.
“What, no donuts?” one of the firemen joked, his eyes twinkling above his moustache.
“So, are you girls studying at the university?” he asked.
Mr. January locked eyes with me from underneath his helmet.
“No, we’re still in high school,” I told him, at which point I felt my best friend kick me with all of her might on the back of my shin.
Mr. January gave me a shrug that said, “too bad, sweetie.”
“She’s still in high school,” my friend lied, “but I go to college now.”
It never occurred to me that I could have lied too. I could have lied and changed the course of my life forever. I could have grown from nice girl into nice woman. I could have lived happily ever after with Mr. January, if only I hadn’t been so honest.
After the car had been towed to her mother’s driveway, my best friend and I took donuts to the firehouse where Mr. January was sitting in a chair outside, enjoying the evening air. After our little accident, it had been a slow night at the fire house. He was probably bored. We locked eyes over the box of donuts and he asked me how old I was.
“Seventeen,” I lied. Say what you will about me, but I am a fast learner.
If I had really been seventeen, I would have already had one boyfriend. I might even had had one bad boyfriend who’s pressured me to go further than I wanted to, who’d have called me fat when I wouldn’t go all the way and then, broken up with me to go out with my best friend.
If I had really been seventeen, I would have known how to flirt with intention. I would have known that I could have sat down next to Mr. January, introduced myself and shot the breeze. I would have known, once he’d touched my knee to draw my attention to a passing car of European design or even put his hand on my shoulder to thank me for coming by, that I could have made a move — given him my phone number or asked for a ride home.
Mr. January would have counted the months until my 18th birthday on his fingers. He would have said, “I can’t take you out until you’re eighteen. I have to be careful in the community.”
On Sunday afternoon, he would have come by to talk to my mother. He would have said, “Your daughter and I like each other very much and we’d like to get to know each other, but I know she’s young. Do you think I could treat her like a friend? Would that be OK with you? I don’t want you to think she’s sneaking around.”
And my mother would have thought of all those scrawny, slightly greasy boys she’d seen outside my high school who were going from auto shop class to the auto shop. She’d have thought of the very attractive, slightly effeminate guys I was in school plays with, whom she knew things about that I did not. She would have thought of all the ways young girls get hurt and reckoned that a young fireman coming to talk to her about her daughter was the best possible path.
“I just want you to know that she had to go to university,” my mother would have told Mr. January. “If you can help me make sure that she gets there, I think you would be a good friend for her to have.”
Together, they would have made a deal, an arrangement that I now know could have protected me from so much.
And so, for the next 7 or 8 months, Mr. January would have met me at the library after school before he went in to the firehouse for the night. He would have supervised my acquisition of French vocabulary and been able to help me with algebra.
I would have whispered teasing, naughty phrases into his ear like, “Je veux ton bizet sur ma bôuche” and refused to translate them, sending him rifling through dictionaries. I would have learned enough algebra to make up a mildly suggestive analogy about solving the mysteries of X.
After my homework was done, we would have gone out for ice cream or for coffee. When I needed a ride to a party, he would have dropped me off and told me to be as normal as possible for my age, but not to get too drunk or to do anything I might regret. His attentions would have been flattering enough for me to stay sober(ish) and keep my knees closed.
I suspect, maybe, Mr. January would have convinced me to go to church with him. I suspect, probably, Mr. January’s spiritual ideals might have been different than mine, certainly a great deal stronger. Eventually, I probably would have gone to church with him, if only to meet his family and make a good impression on them.
On my eighteenth birthday, he would have picked me up in the evening. He would have brought me flowers.
“Have her home by eleven,” my mother would have said, a slightly threatening look in her eye, but she would not have broken the deal.
He would have taken me for a walk along the lake pier to watch the sunset.
“Je veux ton bizet sur ma bôuche,” he would have said, to prove he’d been listening to me during all those hours in the library. After dark, we would have sat on the park bench beside the lighthouse and kissed and kissed and kissed.
“You’re legal now,” he would have said, breathless and smiling. “You’re finally legal.”
I, though, would have learned a thing or two by then. “I am not ready,” I would have said. “Maybe after I graduate. Maybe.”
He would have groaned: “But I have waited so long.”
I wouldn’t have had a ticket for him to come to the graduation ceremony itself. My mother, my siblings and grandparents would have used up my allotment of seats. Instead, he would have to come to the house afterwards to pick me up for the dinner dance. He would have worn his dress uniform and shaken hands firmly with my grandfather who would have taken our picture for the album. My grandmother would have beamed with absolute pride. She’d have been bursting with the news, “Marina’s got herself a fireman!” to tell my aunts and great-aunts.
I would have shown him off at the dance. After a shot or two, he would have confiscated the mickey of vodka I had hidden in my purse. “You don’t need that,” he would have said because I still wasn’t old enough to drink and he still had to be careful in the community. I might have known enough, at 18 years and seven weeks of age, to buy stockings and garters instead of pantyhose to go under my formal gown. My best friend would have coached me, would have told me exactly what to buy and where to buy it.
Later, after two or three slow dances, we would have left the party to celebrate alone. Legal, or not, there would have been a bottle of champagne.
“Do you want to wait?” he would have asked me. “I’ll marry you first, if that’s what you want.”
“I think I’ve waited long enough,” I would have told Mr. January.
But, I was not really 17. I was only 16 and some months, and while I had just learned how to lie to men, I had not learned enough about myself to pull it off. I hadn’t been lied to, no one had been un-careful of my feelings, there was so much I had not learned how to appreciate or navigate.
For the next two years, whenever I passed a fire truck in traffic, I would inevitably find myself looking directly into the eyes of Mr. January. If I were driving with my best friend, she eventually got another car and learned to drive a little better, she rolled down the window and joked with the whole crew who remembered us, but I was too busy making eye contact with Mr. January to join in with the group.
I had to go away to university and, for some time, I did forget Mr. January, at least, until I heard a siren off in the distance.
Right after my last year of university, when I was old enough and had learned enough about myself, I had a summer job working with special needs teenagers. I was responsible for planning community integration activities and making sure our clients learned about public resources and agencies. One day, we went to the firehouse for a tour. The kids had a great time trying giant boots and raincoats, viewing the equipment and rolling out hoses. Mr. January didn’t give the tour. It was the moustachioed fire fighter of the twinkling eyes who had forgotten all about the dirt brown car with the broken gas tank, the coffee with cream and a quip about their being no donuts 6 years before.
Then, I turned a corner from the fire truck garage into the office and there was Mr. January in a navy blue t-shirt so tight that it looked like it might unravel from the strain of being stretched across his shoulders. My eyes wandered from his shoulders to those suspenders.
“I know you,” he said.
“I know you too,” I said.
I might have swooned, if swooning means feeling a sudden and dramatic drop in blood pressure. I am aware that I needed to grasp something…the door frame or a desktop. Someone asked me if I was really all right. Someone went running for the oxygen tank, just in case I passed out.
The whole twenty-two years of my life flashed before my eyes and ended with the acceptance letter to grad school on the other side of the country. I’d received the letter just a few months before. The experience left me chilled and dizzy. I had to go home right after the firehouse tour and lie down for about a week.
I never saw Mr. January again. He wasn’t hard to avoid. I lived on the opposite side of the country. Later, I lived in 12 different apartments in the big city on the opposite shore of our great lake. Now, I live an ocean away. I have had lots of boyfriends and learned a lot. Much of it, I had to unlearn in order to function and have real relationships. It’s been a complicated kind of life.
Then, I came home for Christmas with my husband and children to have my mother present me with the local fire fighters’ fundraising calendar.
“Jeff from across the street sold it to me,” she said proudly.
Mr. January lives with his slightly younger, slightly chunky wife and their little boy, who is exactly my oldest son’s age, right across the street from my mother.
Kate Baggott’s work has been published in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland and Israel. Mr. January is from her recently-completed book Tales from Planet Wine Cooler for which she is actively seeking a publisher. Links to other published pieces can be found at http://www.katebaggott.com
EDITOR’S NOTE: John Hay was one of two secretaries who were like adopted sons to Abraham Lincoln. He and John J. Nicolay assisted Lincoln, kept visitors at bay, and were always available as the 16th President managed the country’s greatest crisis. Together, Hay and Nicolay wrote an authoritative Lincoln biography, based on access to the presidential papers.
Until recently, however, it was not known that Hay kept a private diary during his days in the White House. Lincoln scholars Tom LaPorte and Mike Brady recently uncovered this historic document,. To coincide with the new biopic, in theatres now, Omnibucket is pleased to publish the first excerpts from this extraordinary uncensored look at our nation’s greatest president.
November 30, 1863
The People are being fooled some of the time tonight. The lights are burning late, and it looks to all the world like we are prosecuting the war. In fact, President Lincoln is practicing his magic again, insisting on being addressed as Abraham the Magnificent.
It’s not so much the waste of time. It’s the smirk. It’s the overuse of his own clichés to the point of indignity. Yelling “Four Score!” is bad enough on the golf course. But when it accompanies that fourth rabbit out of his hat, it’s downright un-presidential.
And, that hat. Whoever gave it to him should be shot. Sure it was quaint when he started keeping state papers in there. But birds? And scarves? The Second Inaugural was a disaster.
If he could keep his hobbies separate from his official duties, the war might have been over two years ago. But he no longer seems able to resist showing off to a crowd. I called in more than a few favors to keep the phrase “Nothing up my sleeve” out of the coverage of Gettysburg.
But I guess it’s better than the practical joke phase he went through after The Wilderness campaign. I’ll be the first to admit getting a kick out of Secretary Seward and the mouse trap. And, the look on Stanton’s face when he saw that plastic vomit? Priceless! I think it was the only time I ever saw the Hellcat he’s married to laugh.
If he really wants to put his magic to use, he might make her disappear.
January 11, 1864
I don’t trust the new intern. She knows how to distract the Tycoon from his duties. One bat of her lashes and he goes into his Honest Ape routine to make her laugh. That’s my cue to leave the room, but I still have to listen from my office to his twangy, fucking “Hey, watch this,” and “Look! No feet. No hands.” I can only imagine.
The name Landa sounds distinctly southern. And calling him her “hat trick” to his face is the height of disrespect. I could go on, but the mere thought of her makes me shudder.
The idea that he would dump the Hellcat to marry her is utterly scurrilous, yet she believes it and has spoken of it to Mrs. Keckly. The country is not ready for First Lady Landa Lincoln.
March 23, 1864
He had another of his dreams last night—the dreams where he always ends up laying in state in the East Room. The entire cabinet has grown weary of these recitations. Nobody thinks any credence should be put in his dreams. They are not moved when he points out that his first one involved growing a beard, which he did. That’s just dumb and embarrassing.
Subsequent dreams are more revealing than they are portentous. Lincoln wrestling with an alligator just isn’t in the cards. He will never learn to fly.
And then boating his way to a distant shore? He is working too many hours.
May 15, 1864
Now, he thinks he’s a chef. “This is the hat I was born to wear,” he says as he dons that big, white cloth mushroom. The flowered apron looks preposterous over his black frock coat. The wooden spoon is decidedly not majestic. But this is his White House, and he can do what he wants.
Last night, he prepared salmon for Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase. He was unhappy with the sauce, and embarrassed by the rolls. But what really derailed the occasion was when he called himself “the real cook in this house,” and said it was good the secretary’s name was Salmon and not Garbage, or Mary would have had to cook the meal. Hellcat was fit to be tied.
Nobody knew what to say last week when Mr. Lincoln roasted a turkey, and then “emancipated” the dark meat. When he wasn’t looking, we made sandwiches for the staff.
Tomorrow, he’s making Gettysburgers, and they’re sure to offend. “Lots of catsup,” he keeps saying. He won’t listen to us that sandwiches can be named in honor of important battles without being full representations. His All-you-can-eat Bull Run still occupies part of the south lawn.
He can’t keep his mind on any one hobby for more than a few days. The Old Soldier’s Home is stuffed to overflowing with stamp albums and dried out aquariums.
I long for Paris.
June 12, 1864
Juggling is not his strong suit. But, try telling that to “Abraham with His Magnificent Balls.” His problem isn’t getting them up in the air. He’s brilliant at that. It’s keeping them in the air that’s the problem. If he wants to do it in public, he’d better learn some eye-hand coordination, and clean up his language. There’s no audience in the world that will sit through the President of the United States yelling “Mississippi Fuck” every time he drops one.
August 5, 1864
“Tennis whites” will never catch on. What is more, he should never wear them again. His are the boniest knees ever to spring from the imagination of Almighty God.
December 3, 1864
Abe Lincoln: Epic Poet? I think not. The Tycoon’s first attempt at serious verse fell a little flat last night, when he regaled a Congressional delegation with rhyme:
“In this age of heroic lore
Nothing tops the Civil War
With all those soldiers dead and stinkin’
I’m one lucky bulletproof Lincoln”
On it went for half a god damn hour. By the time he was done, the veins on Senator Sumner’s neck were visibly pulsing. I thought Thaddeus Stevens was going to slug him. The last time that happened, chairs were broken.
(That was the first time the Hellcat’s compulsive spending has ever paid off. We have 75 backup chairs in the basement. If the war ever requires for bolts of lace, we’re set for that, too.)
I suppose I’ll have to do the research, but I’m convinced there is no past president who ever appointed himself Poet Laureate of the United States.
March 8, 1865
Hellcat has been in one of her snits again, and Maestro Lincoln isn’t helping. His plan to soothe her spirit by playing the violin has been hard on all of us.
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles makes it worse with flattery. It only encourages him. Just last week, Stanton had a brainstorm and invited General Halleck to a meeting where Lincoln wielded a wild fiddle and performed a terrible version of “Orange Blossom Special”.
Everyone present was ready to scream.
Down the hallway, Mary Lincoln was already letting loose. Outside the White House, birds were taking wing, carriage horses reared and bolted. Fugitive slaves came out of hiding, holding up their hands in abject surrender. Lincoln was oblivious, as he always is.
He hoots and hollers like a man possessed as he runs the bow back and forth, heggeldy peggeldy.
Lincoln always exults and lets out full-throated whoops and shrieks as he accelerates the tempo. He always accompanies his fiddle playing with high-step dancing, his knees practically hitting the fiddle. His boot heels pound the wooden floor. His fiddle bow frays. His Cabinet suffers from frazzled nerves.
Lincoln invariably ends it with a “Shave and a Hair Cut, Two Bits!!” runs over to his rocking chair, sits down and goes to sleep.
He wakes up to an empty room, asking how “they liked it.” Nobody has the temerity to tell him the truth.
November 22, 1864
Great. Now his big hobby is his Legacy, with a capital L. He’s taken to talking slowly so we can write everything down. Frankly, it’s not always that worth preserving. For example:
“Seems to me that this country of ours is suffering from some sort of malaise. Might be from the war, who knows? I mean, who can ever really know what’s bothering so many people? Might be from the crazy late spring we had. Could be the goddamn Dutch. Dunno.”
He insists that nothing be edited, but what president ends a great quotation with “dunno”?
He also reaching too early for immortality, calling himself “not just a president, but a brand.”
He’s naming everything after himself:
“And so I urge you all to begin calling it, Mr. Lincoln’s War. And you may call our army, Mr. Lincoln’s Army. And when you hear me speak, you may call it Mr. Lincoln’s Speech. And when I show up in the morning with one of my bruises, it will have been inflicted with Mr. Lincoln’s Wife’ Griddle Pan, and so forth. I dunno.”
He is trying to convince anyone who will listen that he never aspired to be President– but the nation simply called on him to save the union. This simply is not so.
He also dictated a change in his will declining to have his picture on money of any denomination lower than a $100 bill. “Mother Lincoln didn’t raise no pocket money president,” he says.
I wouldn’t put him on a penny, personally.
April 14, 1865
I really can’t excuse this any more. He’s taking full credit for winning the war. No one can believe his presumption and ingratitude. All those boys did not die ”because they were supposed to.” It really is unbearable to be around him.
“Now that it’s over,” he asks, “what will I do with my emancipation powers? I can’t just stop emanicipating. A man has needs.”
It’s making my hair stand on end and my spirit plume with hate. This war has ended one fatality shy.
I am taking the afternoon off and arranging a surprise ending for tonight’s play.
In the end, it wasn’t the knights in shining armor or the friendly dragons that did it: it was the pink bunnies that made my wife divorce me. I write children’s books, you see, and so I’m always coming home with something new to put in a story. At first she thought it was cute: “Oh,” she’d say, “look at the little-biddy-friendly hedgehog! Come over here and give me a kiss.” And at night, after eating a steak dinner with snow peas and Pepsi, we’d all sit around the fire and cuddle while I’d write about how even hedgehogs need love. Or why hedgehogs should listen to their parents. Or why the best way to handle hedgehog bullies is to ignore them. She loved it.
I don’t know when things started to change. Heck, I only found out about it when I came home one day with a new friend, and instead of getting all excited, she said “Oh, a happy gnome. How original.” That clued me in pretty quickly that something wasn’t all right. She seemed out of sorts, though, so I thought maybe she was just allergic to gnomes – it happens – and so that night I shooed the gnome out of the bedroom and after we’d turned out the lights I told her that I’d never bring another one home again.
“It’s not that, honey,” she said, lying on her side of the bed. “It’s just that, well, I don’t know, maybe I’d like something a little more. . . exciting.” And she reached over and started to stroke my arm.
I heard a whimpering from the hall. “I think the gnome is cold,” I said. “I’d better go get it a blanket.” And she signed.
So the next day I brought in a singing butterfly, who I felt sure would learn that a song in your heart can keep you warm through the coldest winter, if you’re singing for your friends. He was all excited, because I’d told him what a wonderful cook my wife was, but she said she had a headache, so he and I had to go out. I took him to an expensive restaurant, and all the waiters were excited to have such a well dressed customer, and all the children ran up to meet him, and all the parents wanted to know where they could buy the book. So, you see, it wasn’t that he was a bad butterfly. When we came home I found that my wife had eaten 5 pounds of chocolate. Then she wanted to talk about the running of the bulls in Spain while I was trying to go to sleep. I told her it sounded too dangerous (somebody could get hurt), and she said she should have expected me to say something like that, and then rolled over and wouldn’t talk.
The next day she broke. When she woke up the butterfly was singing in the shower, and the hedgehog had eaten all the pancake mix, and the silly little centipede was playing rolly-polly in the basement with the grumpy little frog, and the bell ringers had begun to play the one about the tailor and the calico cat, and the gnome was in the fridge arranging all the mushrooms into a ring and the house was just a mess. I could understand her being upset about that. So I told her I sympathized, while she was trying to change her contact lenses in a sink filled with mermaids, and that I would try and do something about it.
So I went out to find some help. I walked every place I knew: the little gnell, the grassy hill, the gentle river, the big back yard, the animal schoolhouse, even the forbidden kingdom – or at least I stopped by the gate, but I didn’t go in because it looked locked, as usual – and eventually I found them. It took longer than usual, but there they were.
Of course I thought my wife would like them. There were lots of them, and they were ready to help around the house. So in I walked, followed by a family of cute pink bunny rabbits dressed in aprons, and lickety-split, before I could say “Hi, honey, I’m home!” they began to do the dishes.
She began to cry. That was it, she said, she couldn’t take it here any more. So she packed her suitcase full of all her favorite things, the orchid she’d been given by her prom date, her autographed picture of Rosa Parks, the postcard her mother had sent her from Ethiopia while working for the Peace Corp, and she locked it down tight. She told me that she couldn’t stand my books any longer, that she hated all the good characters and didn’t want to live with them, and just before she slammed the door behind her she said she wanted a divorce.
When the door slammed shut and latched automatically, all the friendly creatures came out to see what the thunder was. They had never heard anything like it before, and I should have explained it to them, but I couldn’t find the words. I stood there, in the middle of the living room, and I couldn’t find the words to say anything.
And this began to bother me, you see, because I’m a writer, and so I needed to know what to say. But I couldn’t think of any way to describe the look on her face, or the absence of her smile, or that I couldn’t remember her laughing for weeks. I couldn’t put a name on what she’d done. So I went over and got her picture from my night stand to try and explain it to them. “You see Marion?” I asked them. And then I ripped the picture in half.
And then I broke her favorite cup, the one with the blue stripes, and then I couldn’t stop, so I ripped her dresses and I broke the picture I had bought her for our 5th anniversary, and I lit her books on fire, including her diary, and then I smashed the TV, which only she ever watched, with a baseball bat.
They were all quiet when I was through, and moved back into their hiding places, the fridge, the basement, the cracks of the white picket fence, without even saying good-bye. The mermaids covered their breasts when they dove into the bathtub.
None of them will talk to me now, and no one meets me when I go looking for new friends. They hide from me, and we don’t even speak the same language anymore. All I can hear are growls and hisses and grunts. My writing comes in spurts and shadowy images, and I hear the goblins singing from the forbidden city late at night, where my wife has gone.