News From Hell #3


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I saw two foes facing, on a dim and dismal plain.
Each held aloft gray flags emblazoned with their names.
One was nothing special; the other just the same.
It was armies of the average versus divisions of mundane.

They met upon this grim tableau for another tepid battle.
These forces of the so-so, shuffling forth as human chattel.
Their voices droned and dropped away, as they slumped upon their saddles.
Commands were uninspired, with cries nothing more than prattle.

Even-keeled, sensible, and perfectly agreeable.
Ambassadors of the literal, and the easily foreseeable.
They approached each other warily, to find a groin that was knee-able.
But fierce was cloaked in fragile, and not able to be freeable.

They tried to fight and wage a war, but soon regretted what they started.
Determination sagged; they threw down their shields because they were halfhearted.
Their clash was short and sad, their courage then departed.
Shortcoming became forthcoming, and their war was all but thwarted.

These opponents so blasé and bland now realized their shame.
With tails tucked between their legs, they slouched back to where they came.
It was just another weak attempt, a mediocre game.
Another lame and listless day, for the average and mundane.


News From Hell is a series of satiric verbal collages made from words excised from New York Times headlines. These new headlines depict a world where all sorts of hilarious and unsettling things happen. Whether witty, absurd, or philosophical, each of these reconstructed headlines reinterprets the events of our times. Each entry is a thought worth pondering in itself – but when read collectively, News From Hell functions as wry poetic commentary and a socio-political critique on the state of our civilization, and the horrors and humors within it.

E Gladiatores

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This sort of amusement gives pleasure to children, silly women, slaves and free persons with the characters of slaves; but an intelligent man who weighs such matters cannot possibly approve of them.

-Marcus Tullius Cicero, E Officiis

Lactic acid boiled in the towering domes of Turbo’s pecs. Veins throbbed like angry worms and his face flushed beet-reed as he pressed one hundred twenty pounds. He held it over him, arms trembling, breath pumping rhythmically from blown-out cheeks.

Fucking pussy! Do one more! Do it! You wanna look buff for the cameras? Get psyched!

He lowered the stack, sucked air, and with an explosive, back-arching heave, raised it a glorious thirteenth time. Searing heat bored through his sternum; his arms were scalding trunks, but he couldn’t stop—thirteen was a new record! Wait until he told Torch. One more. Just. One. More.

I’m a gladiator! Whirled the voice in his head. And he was—an American Gladiator. in a polyurethane and foam rubber arena he competed, using his six foot four inch, two hundred twenty-one pound Nautilus-spawned body to conquer travel agents, while a studio audience of preschoolers and adult mental defectives whooped like a rookery. It was cake—all he had to do was stay in shape, (which was easy, what with the nutritional supplements, the fat-fighting tablets of Chromium Picolinate and Inosine 500 he gobbled) fire tennis balls at leapfrogging accountants, and rake in his paycheck. Not bad for a second-string tight end two years out of USC with a degree in Health and Recreation. Not bad at all.

Steadily, he lowed the weight. One more and his pieces would be as fluffy as fresh-baked bread. Do it pussy!

But the stack refused to move. He grunted, gnashed his teeth. I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator!

Turbo heaved, muscles locked in agony, petrified, but the weight was a wall. He saw glowing patterns, orange motes, and like wisps of spiraling smoke, blackness crept in at the periphery of his vision, sweeping over the palm-printed mirror and padded machines.

He went limp and dropped into space.

 

 

With every ounce of his flagging strength Priscus lunged, parrying the thrust, the brutal clang of metal on metal reverberating in his ears. He dodged, whirling, and when the Gaul charged he hurled aside, watching him reel into the dust in a tangle of sprawling limbs and glittering steel. Gasping, he lowered his sword.

Shrack!—a hot lash stung his back. “Fight, Thracian!” cried the lanista.

His troupe of gladiators crouched beneath the broken pillars bordering the courtyard, their lances, shields and leg-greaves scattered round. Beyond them, over the low compound of stone huts, the dusky, scrub-flecked hills shimmered in the heat.

Priscus could barely raise his weapon; his arms were lead weights, thick and unmovable. Since noon he’d been battling the merciless Gaul beneath a broiling sun that heated his helmet like a kettle-pot. Dust clogged his throat. His feet flamed in his sandals. He was parched, ready to drop.

The legions had captured him near Phillipi, and after a week’s journey through the craggy, windswept mountains, they’d brought him here, to the ludus in Capua, where he’d been training with forty other expendables: Gauls, Saxons, Illyrians, slaves and war prisoners, temple robbers, the lowest of the low. Soon the caravan would start for Rome and he would fight for the emperor. There were two possibilities: the sweet palm-branch of victory, or dying alone on the blood-soaked sand.

The sun beat down. Hot breath and brute grunts peppered the air. The second stroke becomes the third!” screamed the lanista, dancing like a crab, flicking his whip, “Parry! Feint! And you—Priscus! Keep your sword up!”

Priscus smashed and swung, but with each blow the sword grew heavier. Sweat stung his eyes and he staggered blindly around. He was dizzy, roasting like meat on a spit. Sensing weakness, the Gaul closed in. Priscus saw a flash, a glint of streaking metal, but before he could react, the heavy blunt practice sword smashed into his skull.

The last thing he saw was the courtyard spilling sideways and dim yellow sky.

 

 

Turbo blinked heavily, rubbed his eyes, and the mind-wash of gray, indistinct smears spun into focus.

Pale yellow light slanted in through a barred window. Dust-specs glittered in the air. He saw chinked brick walls, an arched wooden door, a hard-packed floor littered with straw. A punishing stench—untamed by the balm of hygiene—rankled his nostrils, and from far off came the hushed roar of what sounded like a crowd.

This isn’t the weight room, he thought.

Something gray scuttled into the shadows. He lifted his head.

Three men with stony features and wild, brambly hair hunched in the corner. The middle one wore a straw-infested beard that clung to his jaw like an oriole’s nest, and jabbered in a strange tongue. He was pointing. At his feet.

Turbo gazed down, at his one hundred forty-nine dollar Nike Air Mojave II crosstrainers. Spangled in a hallucinatory web of black and white striping, the high-top, Velcro-laced sneakers looked like mounds of vanilla ice cream dripping with chocolate syrup, and glowed fluorescently in the murk.

The bearded one slid forward and lowered a gnarled finger to his sneaker-tip. Lizard-quick, he darted it back. With an awed murmur the three gathered round, poking and petting, enraptured by the shocking colors.

“Nikes,” he said. The men gaped at him, obviously confused.

This must be a joke. He was in the basement of the studio, that’s where, and these hippie freaks were part of the elaborate ruse the producers had concocted to get him stoked for the show. That was it.

Snickering at the attempt to bamboozle him, Turbo sprang to his feet, towering in the dingy space, a cornucopia of color in his bun-hugging red, white and blue Lycra unitard. He poufed his blond brush cut and unzipped his fanny pack. Whistling the first turgid notes of the Warrant classic “Cherry Pie,”—a self-motivational remnant from his football days—he dug past the vitamin pills, Q-Tips and tubes of Sportscreme, rooting for his Stiff Stuff. But before he could locate the spray can and weld his locks into place, the door exploded inward, nearly flying off its hinges as it smashed into the wall.

Two figures dressed like the U.S.C. Trojan football mascot loomed in the doorway. Turbo watched as they stormed in, grabbed the men by their ratty threadbare cloaks, and yanked them upright. The man thrashed, kicking and scuffling, but the guards, secure in their armor, had no problem hustling them out the door. Before leaving, however, the taller of the two looked back—and spotted him.

“Yo,” said Turbo, barely containing his laughter, “what’s up?”

The guard stood irresolute. Purple feathers fountained from his embossed helmet and the silver inlay on his shield sparkled. Turbo’s face folded into a knowing smirk.

“That’s some costume.”

The guard turned, yelled something he didn’t understand, and his mate reappeared. Before he knew it they’d seized him by the arm.

“Hey. Easy.”

But the rough manner in which they dragged him through the straw made Turbo realize something.

The studio didn’t have a basement.

 

 

Blaster stuck a sky-blue contact lens on his cornea and blinked it into place. Standing two sinks away, before the mirror ringed with light bulbs, Zip waved a fine-tooth comb, flicking his wet locks into a shiny black helmet. The stink of styling mousse hung heavy as they primped and posed, anointing themselves with the numberless lotions and gels scattered atop the counter.

“Getting’ psyched?” said Blaster.

“Dude, I can’t wait,” Zip said, “I’m ready to kick some butt!”

Between the lockers, Torch sat on a wooden bench, pumping his Reeboks. His auburn mane was the color of fall leaves, and draped over his leonine face. “You just gotta believe in yourself, that’s the key,” he said, more to himself than anyone else.

“It’s all positive energy,” said Zip.

“Ex-actly,” said Blaster, sliding a second lens deftly into his left eye.

Torch pulled on his elbow pads and checked his watch. “Where’s Turbo? It’s time to go.”

“Pumpin’ up,” Blaster said, “Dude won’t quit.”

“He’s gonna pop a nut.”

No sooner had Zip spoken when they heard crunching footsteps. Metal clashed, jangling like an ambulatory junkyard, and the steps grew nearer, louder, before clodhopping to a stop. Then—with a click and a whoosh, a hand-dryer clicked in. A surprised grunt sounded, and the steps started again, picking up pace, their echo lessening as they left tile and found rug.

Torch rose up from the bench and peered down the hall. Blaster and Zip crept up behind.

The dryer shut off. The only sound was the splattering showers. And footsteps.

“What is he doing?” whispered Zip.

At the far end of the locker room, a metal blade angled out from behind a pagoda of pink towels. It dipped, scraped the floor, and reemerged. From its shimmering tip, fused in a sweaty, pretzel-like knot, dangled a size 28 Bike athletic supporter.

“Turbo?” said Torch.

 

 

To Gaius Slavius Capito, trainer of the Capuan troupe, the disappearance of Priscus and his replacement by the tall blonde in the tight tunic and zebra-skin sandals was a gift from the gods, and he did not hesitate to pay tribute. Incense was lit, and a white male he-goat—symbolizing the pale stranger—was sacrificed as soon as the guards brought the captive before him. Gaius called for a soothsayer, and the seer confirmed it: the muscular warrior had been sent by the war-god Mars, to test the skill and tenacity of his fighters.

After a brief, hapless interrogation—the stranger spoke in an alien tongue and could barely utter a word without bursting into tears—the white warrior was escorted to a vestibule where he joined the other duelists to await the procession into the Colosseum. Since he’s arrived weaponless, Gaius figured him for a retarius, and had him fitted accordingly, with trident, dagger and fishing net. Strangely, the big warrior seemed bewildered when presented with these implements.

Ah, the crafty Mars! To send a fighter of such magnificence, only to have him blubber like a woman moments before battle—obviously it was a ploy, a strategy to goad his opponent into thinking the giant was weak. Gaius smiled. The cleverness of the gods—it never ceased to amaze him.

As he waited in the wings, listening to the death-squalls of the Mauretanian ostritches and wild ibex being slaughtered in the arena, he brimmed with pride. Soon the African slave-boys would rake the sand, the hacked carcasses and steaming entrails would be thrown to the dogs, and his men—all thirty of them—would battle for the emperor.

But who should oppose the white warrior? Glauco, the Syrian? Or Enomaus, the murderous Gaul?

 

 

“Who the hell’s that?” said Mike Adamle, the host of American Gladiators.

“Some clown they found in the locker rooms,” said Bruce “Ducky” Mallard, his producer. “Thinks he’s a gladiator.”

The two stood in Gladiator Arena, the huge soundstage of ramps, platforms, and padded runways where the players competed. Several yards away, a dark, rough-hewn figure wearing a sword, shield, and bronze war-helmet stood mesmerized under the blinding insanity of the strobes.

“Must’ve spent a fortune on the costume,” Mike said, glancing up from his notes. “Call security.”

Bruce shuffled uneasily in his shoes. “Mike, I’ve got, uh . . .bad news. Turbo split.”

“What to you mean he split?”

“He’s gone. We’re one gladiator short.”

Mike narrowed his eyes, gazing closer at the strange costumed figure gaping at the studio audience. Whoever the guy was, he was ripped. He looked like a statue.

“Bruce, I’ve got an idea.”

 

 

The line of stone-silent men stretched into the shadows, the crackling torches casting an orange pallor upon their grim faces. Turbo sniffled, nervously clefting his lower lip with his incisors.

In the low grotto of arched stone, workers scuttled in the dust, grappling lumber and hulks of machinery. Men in white tunics dragged canvas stretchers; a grindstone wheeled past; and with a high-pitched wincing or rope against wood, a mule-drawn cart loaded with tottering urns skirled by two feet from where he was standing. Trumpeters rag-polished horns, and back-lit by the flickering sconces, two men wearing placards and laurel garlands chatted, pointing at select men here and there. They did not point at him.

Turbo steadied his nerves. His new strategy was to lie low, regroup, figure out what was happening. He’d tried to communicate with these people; he’d begged and pleaded, blubbered and wailed, and now, his emotions spent, he settled into a quiet befuddlement. Reality or dream, wherever he was, he’d ride it out. What else could he do?

With a jingly din, two black, bare-backed men hauled in a chariot of arms: swords, daggers, scabbards, lances,; a horde of lethal points loomed like metal thistles in an ominous display. Following the chariot were the two U.S.C. Trojans who’d dragged him from the cell and the gruff thick-set man they’d brought him to—the honcho in charge.

The gruff man shouted, clapped his hands, and the group shuffled forward. Turbo gulped and fell in line. The trumpeters took their place at the head of the column, as did the men with placards. Slowly, with funereal seriousness, the line marched on, to the splash of sun gleaming at the end of the tunnel.

Just be cool, just be cool, whirled the voice in his head.

But when the procession wound out of the tunnel and the trumpeters heralded their entrance with a bugling wail and the roar of the capacity crowd rocked his ears, Turbo was overwhelmed with a spectacle more majestic, more awe-inspiring than anything he’d ever seen—even the Rose Bowl game he played a series of downs in junior year. It marveled him, took away his breath, heaved his heart into his mouth and quivered it like a toad.

A crowd of people—all wearing grayish whitish robes—sat canted back in row after row of bleachers soaring to the heavens. He gaped around. He was in a massive, bone-white bowl, a stadium. A canvas apron skirted its top level, where arched doorways hovered like cavernous eyes and red streamers flapped in the wind. Across a prairie of topaz-colored sand, a gilded box festooned in bunting jutted from the stands, where a purple-robed figure lounged in the sun, fanned by a bevy of attendants. The trumpets blasted again; the column turned, stamping through the dust, and somewhere in the dimly-lit shallows of Turbo’s mind, it dawned on him.

He was in ancient Rome!

Turbo did not arrive at this stupefying conclusion through any percipience of the classics; he knew nothing of the Punic Wars, the Pax Romana, the satires of Juvenal—no, his understanding of this period was gleaned from stereotypical sources, based on modern, overly simplified interpretations of the era. So it wasn’t until he remembered the beer-splattered toga parties at the Sigma Chi house and the movie Ben Hur, that he put it all together.

The gruff man stiffened to address the tousle-headed figure in the robe, who sipped from a chalice and watched the proceedings with a thin, superior smile.

“Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant!” came the cry.

Turbo had no idea what that meant, but he hoped it was good.

 

 

Faced with stiff competition from the ESPN networks, the ratings for American Gladiators had been sinking for two seasons, before reaching an all-time low of 1.9 in the latest Nielsens. Recently, a memo from Four Point Entertainment, the show’s production company, had been issued to the staff, and unless “new and more visually arresting contestants” could be found, the show was in danger of being canceled.

Mike Adamle knew this. Whoever the costumed stranger was, he was the answer to their prayers. Having a “real” gladiator on the show was the perfect stunt, exactly what Four Point was looking for.

However, the stranger reacted violently when the make-up girl tried to buff his cheeks, and had great difficulty understanding stage directions. No matter. A production assistant was dispatched to assist him, and the taping began as scheduled.

 

 

War-trumpets wailed in somber salvos and the crowd settled into their seats. Cries and piercing whistles cut the air as the column filed slowly back to the tunnel, followed by the chariot and its attendant slaves. The intervals between cries grew longer, until a pall fell over the arena and all was silent.

“Hey, where you . . .going?” Turbo said, nervously zipping and unzipping his fanny pack. He stutter-stepped after them, but the gruff man and the Trojans loomed at his side. Before he knew it they’d wedged a trident and fishing net into his fingers and were prodding him to the middle of the arena, where a bowl of hard-packed sand made a sort of center-ring. The gruff man patted him on the arm and walked off.

Turbo heard a creak, a long, strident moan, and turned to the opposite end of the stadium, where a braced wooden gate tottered on its hinges.

Like an insect spidering out of its lair, a tall, powerfully-built figure slid from the shadows and prowled over the sand. He wore heavy magnificent armor, with bronze leg-greaves, a large oblong shield, and a helmet with blood-red feathers. A sheathed sword wagged at his side.

An icy centipede of fear skittered down Turbo’s spine as the old rallying cry bleated insanely through his skull:

I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator! I’m a gladiator!

Finally, it all made sense.

 

 

Mike Adamle addressed the camera with his customary effusiveness: “Folks, have we got a treat for you! Because for the first time ever, a real live gladiator from ancient Rome will compete in Gladiator Arena! He winked slyly, pouring on the camp. “That’s right—don’t ask how he got here, but in a matter of seconds, he’ll battle Torch and Zip and the rest of our American Gladiators. Who’s tougher? The Roman? Or the Americans? Stay tuned!”

Slowly, mesmerically, Enomaus waved his sword, swiping left, right, getting a feel for it, gonging the mount against his shield. The crowd screamed barbaric slogans, writing like some massive ciliated thing, and he kept closer, gazing suspiciously at the towering figure in the tight tunic. Strangely, instead of circling in the sizing-each-other-up dance that always preceded a duel, his opponent remained stationary. The white warrior must be a superb fighter to stand so rigid and confident, he thought. He backed off.

After forging his nerves—and after being called a “eunuch” by a toothless sack-faced old hag in the front row—he charged.

“Our first event is ‘Swingshot,’ where gladiators leap from their cliffs and using the spring from bungee cords, grab red, blue, or yellow scoring markers from the center cylinder. We’re almost ready to go!”

 

 

White-flecked spittle flurried down; hisses, curses and boos stung the air as the crowd jeered, furious at the lack of blood. Turbo smiled uneasily, scuffing, back-pedaling through the dust.

“Look, I-uh, I’m not a real gladiator, like, like you are, okay? I’m an actor, on TV, and . . . this really isn’t fair.”

The man in the armor stalked closer. Wind whistled through the chinks of his armor as he fingered his sword.

“Do you think it’s fair? I mean, I don’t. So let’s—no, put that away. You win. I forfeit. Dude no, no. . . nooo!”

 

 

The underworld was nothing like Priscus had imagined. Instead of a murky realm of whispering shade and feathery spirits it was loud, alive, a pandemonium. Demons flashed swirling red eyes. Torches shed no flame and invisible dragons belched plumes of white smoke. And everywhere, stacked atop one another, the souls of the damned screamed, beating their hands in tortured agony.

The gods were angry with him. He’d died in shame, before competing in the arena, and now, like Sisyphus, he’d be tortured for all eternity. Why else had the servant of Pluto’s fastened the vine about his waist and brought him to this precipice?

He peered across the chasm, at the snake-men in banded skins atop the opposite cliff. He must conquer them—only then might the gods forgo his punishment.

A spirit with the markings of a zebra stuck a silver nut to his lips, and a trilling scream knifed the air. Priscus, flinched, arms treading wildly, and pitched over the edge.

 

 

From one end of the Colosseum to the other Turbo ran, with the clunking Gaul in hot pursuit. His one hundred nineteen dollar Nike Air Mojave II crosstrainers with the waffled outsole and snug ankle-high fit offered superior traction, allowing him to corner in the slippery dust, and the Gaul, having no such modern accouterments, lagged behind. After two orbits, Turbo spied a vague rectangle and sprinted towards it. The crowd was a seething mass, fifty-thousand voices united in a cataclysm of boiling caterwauling sound. His hamstrings felt like someone was pressing two red-hot irons against the back of his thighs and sweat stung his eyes but he made it to the door, plowing into it, bashing his fists.

“Open up! I don’t want to fight! Goddamn it open the goddamn door!”

Through the scrim of dust he saw the Gaul closing in, his sword waving like a crazy antenna.

For an agonizing second Turbo stood paralyzed, riveted to the ground, bur as the Gaul loomed over him, swinging the blade, a flash of the old magic that had earned him the title of “Mr. Football” his senior year in high school returned, and he faked right, spun, and dashed off.

 

 

“Torch and Zip are flying high, grabbing markers—and here’s the Roman with a huge leap! Looks a bit lost out there, but he’s up, and . . . look at this! He’s impaling scoring markers on his sword! Jabbing, thrusting . . . Torch has a yellow, Zip going high . . . ten seconds . . . the Roman’s got two more, three more, annnnd—there’s the buzzer! Two, three, he’s got six markers! What a performance!

 

 

Domitian scowled. This wasn’t a duel—it was a joke, two chipmunks chasing each other. He fisted the cloak of Marcus Aurelius Rufus, his prefect, yanking him near. “Find the imbecile responsible for this outrage,” he said.

“Yes, lord and god,” stammered Marcus.

 

 

Buoyed by his victory in “Swingshot,” Priscus made short work of Zip in “Tug of War,” pulling him from his elevated platform with one brutal, Herculean yank. (Zip’s gymnastic training, a plus against twentieth-century opponents, offered no advantage whatsoever against ancient brawn.) The next event, “The Wall,” a sixty-foot, toe-holed crag of vulcanized rubber, went just as smoothly, as Priscus’ tenure in the granite quarries of Thracia had bred the nimbleness of a mountain goat. He scaled the peak two and a half seconds ahead of Blaster, his nearest competitor.

After three events, Priscus led with sixteen points. Torch was second, with five, followed by Blaster with three. Zip, his shoulder purpling with a nasty bruise, was unable to compete.

Mike Adamle reminded Priscus that if he won the last event, “Assault,” he’d win twenty-five hundred dollars, and be eligible to compete in the Tournament of Champions.

Priscus was unmoved by this information.

 

 

Turbo’s heart thrashed like a hooked bass. Lungs heaving, he ran one more circuit, the stadium swirling in a kaleidoscopic blur. But right when he planted his ankle to zag across the middle, he felt a snap, a sickening rip. His foot slid, seemed to break through, and he sprawled face-first into the dust.

He spat grit from his teeth and looked down.

The white, tube-socked nubs of his toes poked out from a gaping hole of flayed rubber and ripped stitching, and the famous swoosh—sewn on by Indonesian seamstresses earning twelve cents an hour—hung by ragged threads, flapping in the sand.

His one hundred nineteen dollar Nike Air Mojave II crosstrainers had blown out from the turn!

 

 

Furry stones. Priscus patted one with his sword, amazed at how light it was. Green, too. He’d never seen such a stone.

The zebra-spirit blew the silver nut and galloped off. Priscus explored the labyrinth of Plexiglas and modular cones, and with a snapping fling, a greenish blur whistled by his helmet. There was a second fling, a third, and emerald-hued comets whizzed by inches from his leg, one passing directly between his knees, grazing his tunic. He looked up. Outlined against a nova of dazzling light, wreathed in smoke, he saw the snake-demon crouched atop a short tower, manning a catapult. Instantly, he sprang into a battle stance, shield raised, creeping stealthily on his flank, the soft stones pittering off his shield.

When he was fifty cubits away, he grabbed a stone, waited, and when a break came in the fusillade, bobbed up and threw. The stone sailed high, missed the snake-demon entirely, and hit a large spiraled gong.

A horn blew, and red lights flashed all around. Priscus sprang up to hurl a second stone, but the snake-demon was climbing down from his tower.

These demons looked fearsome, he thought, but they weren’t very fierce warriors.

They gave up too easily.

 

 

“Please—I’m just an actor, I’m not a gladiator, now I know. I’m sorry.”

But the warrior wasn’t looking at him. His head was cocked back, peering at the crowd. Turbo looked up, scanning the faces, and then he saw them.

Thumbs. One after the other, pointing to the ground.

 

 

With his victory in “Assault,” Priscus had swept all four events, attaining a record twenty-six points.

But when Mike Adamle went for a post-game interview, the stranger huffed by, shouldering into the crowd of parents and balloon-toting toddlers as they queued for the exists.

 

 

This blubbering coward had humiliated him, made him look like an ass. Enomaus swung, and in three quick, bloody strokes, it was over. The white warrior lay dead.

As they hooked the body and dragged it off in a smear of gore, he hung his head in shame.

Turbo’s unitard, fanny pack, and one hundred nineteen dollar Nike Air Mojave II crosstrainers were stripped from his body and his corpse was thrown to the hounds. The fanny packs and unitard disappeared, no doubt stolen by unscrupulous morticians, but his Nikes were saved and brought to the emperor Domitian. For several years the sneakers served as dinner party curiosities, with many a prefect of the Praetorian guard marveling at their bright colors and hexalite midsole construction. But after Domitian’s assassination in 96 A.D., they too, were lost.

 

 

In 2002 a British expedition led by Sir Nigel Smith-Caruthers unearthed an Etruscan grave-urn on the Palatine Hill, bearing the figure of a fleeing, teary-eyed warrior clad in swoosh-emblazoned sandals. The discovery caused a minor sensation in archaeological circles, but was soon discounted as a public relations stunt once Wieden & Kennedy, Nike’s advertising agency, featured the urn in a television spot hyping its newest and most expensive crosstrainer to date, the garish one hundred and eighty-nine dollar Air Hercules.

 

 

The producers of American Gladiators launched a nation-wide search for Priscus, as the show he’d appeared on garnered the highest ratings in history. A proposal for a spin-off called “Beat The Gladiator” made the rounds among programming executives, but was scrapped as the stranger could not be found.

Three months later, Dud and Ida McGivens, a couple from Barstow, California, after reading about the “gladiator” in TV Guide, reported seeing a figure matching his description near I-15, twenty miles southwest of Las Vegas. It is now believed that the Thracian is working in some capacity at Caesar’s Palace, where to this day, his elaborate garb and ancient ways remain undetected.

Nothing is so damaging to good character than wasting time at the games; for then it is that vice steals secretly upon you through the avenue of pleasure. . . I come home more greedy, more ambitious, even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings.

-Seneca, Letters 7.3

-First published in Vignette

Warriors of Peace

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In the distance, a rumble. Low, full-throated, and ominous, it grows nearer and nearer. And suddenly, the idyllic spring day seems threatened by an ominous presence. Rising over the crest, they appear: a throng of whiskery, leather-clad bikers, seventy hard-eyed, bad ass mofos astride monster Harleys, announcing themselves to the world with menacing tattoos and growling engines, marauders of the open road hell-bent on finding peace, tranquility, and the gentle glow of spiritual enlightenment.

Wha . . .?. Wait a sec. Peace? Tranquility? Wouldn’t a crowd like this be looking for a bar? A babe? A brawl? Or all three? Conventional wisdom screams “hell yes.” But this horde of razor-challenged riders is anything but conventional. And they’re anything but threats to society, or middle-finger waving rebels looking to swipe a Cub Scout’s lunch money. In fact, they’re the exact opposite of bad behavior, as their name denotes.

Meet RedRum MC, the First Nations, Native American Bike Club, founded in 2006. Unlike other bike clubs or gangs, Red Rum is all about positivity. Built on the foundation of brotherhood, community, self-respect, family values, and charitable causes, the 80-plus members was formed in order to promote unity, peace and tranquility. Once you speak to club president Cliff Ke le Matias, it’s easy to see where the inspiration came from.

“I’ve been shot, stabbed, got cut with a sword, you name it,”‘ he said. Matias grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn, where RedRum is based, and like most members of the club, rubbed elbows with some sketchy characters while growing up, not to mention run-ins with the cops. Youthful defiance soon turned to the realization that he wanted to “make an imprint on society instead of the police blotter.” And so RedRum was born, as well as their motto of “spreading positivity on two wheels.” And they’ve followed that mission as naturally as inking another tattoo.

Over the past decade, Matias and his crew have not only provided a haven for part and full Native American riders by forming six chapters around the country—and several more internationally—but also rallied support for indigenous causes like land reclamation, historical education and environmental clean-up initiatives; they’ve raised funds for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, held and annual “Blessing of the Bikes” in Bear Mountain, NY, and on this weekend “Peace Run,” gave prayers at a white pine planted a white pine in the name of harmony at the Chuang Yen Monastery, in Carmel, NY. It is here where they boldly appeared out of the blue on a beautiful Saturday in early May.

After kickstands down and helmets off, the riders circled Matias to heaer him lead a ceremony of worship before the peace tree. Joined by his brother Dave on drum, Mathias played a Native American melody on the cedar flute, the traditional chanting drawing a crowd, the delicate notes cutting right to the heart. Then rider after rider lined up to crumble sacred tobacco into the soil, issuing silent prayers to the earth, their ancestors, and all things that are good in the universe. And when the music finally faded away, there was only the sound of the wind, which caused the small white pine to tremble slightly, yet remain firm and undaunted, reaching for the sun.

Then they said their farewell to the monks, throttled up their hogs and rode off to get some barbecue.

-As published in 1903 Magazine.

Product Placement Bible #2

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As featured on www.productplacementbible.com

The Product Placement Bible questions what we really worship,  lampooning consumer society and organized religion in equal doses, using the format of scripture to blend the two realms into one very entertaining, unsettling read.

Design by Graham Clifford (www.grahamclifforddesign.com)

Fat Chance

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On November 19th, 2008, a man weighing five hundred and thirty-one pounds won the New York City Marathon, covering the 26.2 mile course in a blistering two hours, seven minutes and fifty-eight seconds. How he transcended the severe cardiopulmonary limits of his obesity and traveled such a distance has never been determined; to this day his triumph over thousands of highly-conditioned runners remains one of the most baffling cases of physiology known to man.

Amazingly, the contestant, Kenny James Thorson, 34, a chain-smoking, corn chip-addicted security guard from Hackensack, New Jersey, had no prior experience in marathon racing. Nor was he even a casual weekend jogger, or had he undertaken even the crudest efforts at physical fitness. In fact, until that fateful day, the farthest trek Mr. Thorson had made in weeks-if his post-race comments to WFAN radio are to be believed-was from his couch to the refrigerator.

What quirk of ambition drove this unsightly behemoth to enter the premiere long-distance race in America? And what superhuman force pushed his quarter-ton body to take the tape before thousands of delirious fans?

No one knows. But one fact remains indelibly clear: his victory, preposterous as it seems, stands unrivaled as the most preeminent track and field accomplishment of the twentieth century, and perhaps, of all time.

 

When Mr. Thorson appeared amid the swarming crowd of sneakered humanity clogging the Verrazano Bridge that brisk November morning, the reaction of the other contestants ranged from titters of laughter to dumbstruck awe. The sight of his triple-chinned form drooping saddlebags of pink, rucked fat was as incongruous to the setting as a bulimic at a Weight Watchers meeting, and no less shocking. “He looks like a walrus in shorts,” one repulsed woman was overheard saying, as she knotted her Asics and gazed at his ballooning tonnage.

Of course, none of the whippet-thin runners stretching their hamstrings on the tarmac believed that a being of such planetary girth actually came to compete; that was a physical impossibility. No, the presence of this corpulent young man in the baggy cut-off sweats and sleeveless Nobody Beats The Wiz tee-shirt was obviously a joke, a sick gag by a radio shock-jock, or a vile PR stunt. How else could they explain the sight of him plucking sauerkraut pirogues out of a paper carton and stuffing each dripping, buttery load into his mouth? His gluttony confirmed it, and without further notice they readied for the start.

But when the stranger reached for his fanny pack, things turned truly bizarre. Lifting a mezzanine of flab off his midsection, he poked about in the steamy folds of his abdomen, feeling for the pack, before finding it and zipping it open. A moment later, after searching its interior, he produced a slip of paper, which he fixed to his chest and unabashedly displayed.
The crowd of runners gasped-for there, pinned between those pendulous breasts, read the timekeeper’s digits: 1-1-0-2-5.

There was a moment of lingering silence, then an ear-ringing cacophony of howls stung the air. This tub o’ lard was going to compete? It was ludicrous, insane, the most delicious thing on earth. It gave every svelte, aerobic body a smug sense of superiority-for that gigantic capsule of blubber looming in their midst was their nightmare, their antithesis, the worst thing they could ever possibly be: fat.

Mr. Thorson, however, remained oblivious, ignoring the laughter, his eyes two piggish black beads of concentration drilled into his hamhock face. He toed the ground with a tattered Rockport, steeling himself, and when a NewsFour chopper scissored low over the crowd and the mass of bodies surged ahead, he remained stationary, letting them flow around him, as stoic and immovable as a boulder in a stream.

Slowly, the seconds wound down, and the mile-long army pressed tighter and tighter. Police officers locked arms; camera crews jockeyed for position, and after a tense, ten-second countdown, the starting cannon exploded with a deafening shot. Gunpowder whiffed skyward, and with a celebratory roar, the herd of bodies surged across the Verrazano’s undulating span in a stampede of swishing nylon and pounding polyurethane.

The parade of runners poured into Brooklyn, past hydrants, bodegas, and a banner-waving crowd. A pack of leaders quickly distanced themselves, and it was obvious to everyone that the victor would hail from that esteemed vanguard. Miles four, five and six sped by, and the gap widened between the elites and the second tier.

But all that changed, abruptly, at mile seven, when Mr. Thorson made his startling emergence. First there was a ripple, the hint of a turbulent presence within the mob. Slowly, as its speed built, the surrounding runners peeled away, fleeing from its rampaging path. Then, in a glorious parting, the sea of bodies cleft open, birthing a glacier of jiggling, triumphant flesh, a joyous bathysphere of flouncing, shimmying cellulite that bounded down the avenue with astonishing speed.

What made Mr. Thorson’s emergence so memorable-aside from the sheer visual shock of it-is the curiously smooth way he glided over the pavement, defying the profundity of his size, as powerful and fluid as a whale skimming through the surf. It was majestic, a ballet of impossible moves, Thorson’s legs and arms, lubed by a sheen of sweat, operating in flawless synchronicity. Fans marveled at his flopping breasts, at his magnificently-sagging underarm wattles, and the curious way each step sent a shockwave of ripples through the great orb of all-dominating stomach. No one who witnessed the prancing, rolling style of his locomotion will ever forget it.

Especially the leaders, who could only gaze back in stupefaction at this most ridiculous of opponents. Stunned, they shot forward with a burst of acceleration, and within minutes, their obese challenger dropped away.

For the next three miles, Mr. Thorson chugged on amid wild, deafening applause. At one point a cadre of media journalists joined him, thrusting their cameras and boom microphones into his face, begging for an on-the-run interview, but Mr. Thorson made no reply, keeping his eyes locked on the leaders, his face as blank and expressionless as a passport photo.

Meanwhile, the media reports rushed in, and as news spread across the city, hundreds of citizens rushed out of their abodes to throw impromptu “Go Kenny!” parties on sidewalks and roof-tops, carting televisions outside to watch Mr. Thorson’s impossible quest. Cabs skidded to a stop as drivers tuned in race reports; priests and rabbis delivered Sunday sermons to empty pews, and in Times Square, live footage of Mr. Thorson aired on the appropriately-named Sony “JumboTron,” where a crowd of Japanese tourists amassed to cheer this strange, sumo-like competitor.

By mile twelve, a horde of overweight citizens, varying in degrees of avoirdupois from the chubby to the barely-able-to walk, gathered along the course route to fly homemade banners and salute their new-found hero with bags of potato chips and other fatty snacks. It was a gustatory orgy, a “Foodstock,” as one hastily-scrawled sign read, and the pavement echoed with a Nuremburgian roar at Mr. Thorson’s every stigma-erasing step.

Accustomed to being worshipped by race fans, several of the elites, including Olympic silver medalist Josef Nyakerantu of Kenya and Mexico’s “Iron Pony” Diablo Ruiz, objected to Mr. Thorson’s heightened media coverage, and could barely conceal their disgust. But what could they do? Mr. Thorson’s appeal was undeniable.

Amid screaming pandemonium, Thorson steamed into the mile thirteen fluid station, where he blew past the drinking cups without taking a sip. There was murmur of concern, but a hundred yards later, his intent became gloriously clear.

Who placed the customized ‘snack station’ along the marathon route has never been determined, but it is widely assumed that confidants of Mr. Thorson’s, perhaps working in collusion with other pro-obesity support groups, were responsible. The station, sagging under an avalanche of circus peanuts, White Castle sliders, garlic knots, Gummi-worms, chicken wings, Ekrich turkey franks and other unhealthy comestibles, appeared magically, borne out of the crowd, providing a much-needed boost for Thorson’s insatiable metabolism. Cramming whatever he could sweep into his mouth as he trotted by, he danced down the avenue, jowls chomping, his toes spry and youthful, energized by the quick hit of food.
For the remainder of the race Mr. Thorson would gain sustenance from more high caloric pit stops, and as he plowed into Queens he picked up speed. He ran past warehouses and drab industrial facilities, a full three minutes behind the leaders, and with miles fourteen, fifteen and sixteen blurring by, he followed them into Manhattan.

The first few miles went smoothly, but at mile nineteen, catastrophe struck. A shoelace on Mr. Thorson’s five-year old Rockports worked itself loose, whipping around his ankles. Fans screamed, trying to warn him, but he raced on, oblivious. And right as he seemed to be reaching a newfound fluidity, it happened. Abruptly, his stride came up short. Something snagged; he stumbled, losing his balance. To the crowd’s horror, his legs stopped and his upper body kept going, and in a tumble of bouncing blubber and pinwheeling limbs, he pitched forward, slamming into the pavement like a pachyderm felled by a tranquilizing dart.

Thinking that the inevitable had happened, two paramedics from nearby Lenox Hill Hospital darted to his body, which lay in a heap of quivering flesh whose shape and consistency was remarkably similar to that of a carnival moonwalk. But when they slipped their fingers onto his heaving neck to take his pulse, a dazed Thorson sprang to life, and with a club-like forearm, batted them aside. And seconds later, he was on his way.

To a lesser competitor, the shoelace mishap would have proved disastrous, but it only infused Mr. Thorson with more determination. Chins bloodied, knees and elbows scraped raw, he reached into the resevoir of his own iron will and pressed on, striding over the metal slats of the Willis Avenue Bridge for the course’s brief one-mile U-turn into the Bronx.

With Nyakeranta setting the pace, the lead-pack re-entered Manhattan for the push to the finish. The Iron Pony clung to the Kenyan’s heels like a wad of gum, followed by the German 10,000 meter Olympic champion Werner von Heinrich. It was a three-man race, but unknown to the leaders, Mr. Thorson was picking up speed, and by the time he entered the fifth and final borough, he’d gained a minute, running a scorching 4:47 mile twenty.

Skin salmon-pink, slathered in persperation, Thorson kept on, and as he barreled down Fifth Avenue and entered Central Park, the crowd boiled in tribute–for up ahead, only a hundred yards away, were the leaders. Finally, he was within striking distance.

At mile twenty-three, where the course leveled into a straightaway, Mr. Thorson made his move. Snorting and rolling and powering along, he drew closer and closer, gaining on von Heinrich. First, the champion heard an ominous plodding, followed by a wash of hot, garlic-tinged breath. Next a gigantic, baobob-big shadow fell over him as Thorson’s presence loomed larger and larger, until the terrified German felt the soft wet sponginess of his mammoth belly nudge into his back. von Heinrich had no choice but to veer wildly away, lest he be trampled by those churning chafing legs, and Thorson ripped by in pursuit of Ruiz.

It was a classic battle, Thorson quick, nimble on his feet, the Iron Pony springing off the cement like a jackrabbit, straining, gasping, every sinew of his taut brown body scintillating with lactic acid, and for a hundred yards the Mexican held him off. But as the two tore around a curve, Thorson closed the gap. Arms pumping in rhythmic firings, he pulled alongside Rivera with one last, desperate charge. The Mexican strained, his neck jerking wildly as he abandoned all form, but it was no use. With a turbo-charged burst Thorson pulled away, leaving the Iron Pony slack-faced and humiliated, muttering dios no, dios no! as his hefty vanquisher left him behind.

Now only one man stood between Thorson and victory: Nyakeranta, the fearsome Kenyan. But time was running out. In an ebony streak, Nyakeranta sprinted onto Central Park South for the twenty-sixth and final mile. Thorson drove on, his mouth a flat line, grim and determined, but he was five seconds behind. It didn’t look good.

But as it so often does with champions, Fate lent a helping hand, in the form of Rachel Gluck, a two hundred eighty-one pound toll booth clerk from Great Neck, Long Island. One of the thousands of corpulent fans who’d assembled to cheer him on, she’d been chain-eating assorted pastries out of a Happy Donut sack, when sensing Thorson’s imminent defeat, she unselfishly pulled her twelfth and final snack cake–a sugar-glazed bear-claw pastry–out of the bag and dangled it over the blue police barricades.

Thorson, his glasses fogged over with perspiration, failed to notice, but luckily, his olfactory sense caught a whiff of sugar and like a bee after pollen, he went for it. Miss Gluck stretched, offering, and to her delight Mr. Thorson’s pudgy hand found her pastry. And in one mighty, on-the-run gulp, he swallowed it whole.

A second later, Mr. Thorson’s spent, sweat-slick body sprang to life, galvanized by the sudden sugar rush, and he shot forward as if propelled out of a cannon. Running like a man possessed, he dashed along, his feet barely touching the pavement, his leviathan body a wizened blur, every prancing, dancing step bringing him closer and closer to the striding Kenyan. And before the Olympic champion ever knew what hit him, Thorson whipped by, comet-quick, leaving a ferocious tailwind in his wake that nearly blew the stick-thin Kenyan off his feet. As his rival chugged on, his jowls working every last molecule of glucose out of the bear-claw, all Nyakeranta could do was watch, helplessly, as the absurd turned to reality and Mr. Thorson’s Brobdingnagian stomach shattered the tape amid a whirlwind of applause and pinwheeling confetti.

 

Years later, only one question remains: how? Of course, in a situation as ludicrous as Mr. Thorson’s, there are no easy answers. The only certainty researchers have concluded is that Mr. Thorson was able to accomplish his incredible feat through some transcendence of corporeal limitations, the familiar “mind over matter” theory. But that hypothesis is manifold, and falls drastically short when etiological factors are considered. And while no conclusive theories have ever pinpointed how Mr. Thorson was able to compete that day, there are several educated, albeit farfetched guesses.

The foremost theory was attained by a panel of cardiologists, dietary experts and nutritionists from New York’s leading hospitals and private clinics. Their hypothesis, known as the ATTM theory, (Adipose Tissue Transference Model) has its opponents, but for the most part stands as the only cogent study ever conducted. In a paper delivered to the American Medical Foundation two months after the race, Johannes Loushe, Professor Emeritus of the Endocrine and Metabolic Department of Tufts University, put forth the central theorem that Mr. Thorson was somehow able to convert his prodigious reserves of bodily fat into a boundless, inexhaustible energy source. Obesity is defined as “excessive storage of energy in the form of fat,” so at first glance, the hypothesis sounds legitimate. But when viewed on a more comprehensive level it is problematic, as it opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions as to how this process took place on a cellular and/or metabolic level.

That is where most contemporary research is being conducted, and while advances have been made both domestically and abroad, no conclusive answers as to how this energy transference took place, or how the subject’s limited cardiovascular system was able to function under such intense aerobic strain have ever been discovered. For years Mr. Thorson has cooperated with researchers, submitting himself to ruthless examinations, and still there are no answers. Every day, men of science pore over the same Petri Dishes of Mr. Thorson’s flab, to no avail. Sadly, it appears the case may never be solved.

Mr. Thorson, of course, parlayed his astounding victory into a string of media appearances and endorsements, and for a brief time went on to become one of America’s “biggest” celebrities. But the relentless attention proved to be a strain for the reclusive Thorson, and eventually, he returned to his $24,000 a year position as a security guard at the Twin Oaks Mall in his native Hackensack.

No one knows why Mr. Thorson chose to race that day; it seems as if he were chosen by some higher deity to put forth some pro-fat agenda, which he did magnificently. As Thorson never raced again, the world will never know what his exact motivation was.

But millions of fat people hardly care, for that day Mr. Thorson gave them reason to stand up and cheer, to love and respect themselves for what they are. Yes, for a brief, idyllic moment, all society-imposed stigma vanished in favor of something they’d never felt before–self-respect, confidence, and an unfailing pride in themselves. Never again would they trod the Earth with doubt or fear–thanks to Kenny James Thorson, every overweight man, woman, and child can live as gluttonously as they wish, knowing that appearances, at best, are illusory.

-As featured in Empty Pinata & Other Tales of Woe

Keep Shoveling (excerpt)

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TO LIVE AND DIE IN G.I.

“Gary lies in the gutter and looks at the stars.”

-Arthur Schumway

     Say the words, “Gary, Indiana” to most people, or better yet, mention that you grew up there, and the reaction is visceral and immediate. With wide eyes, those forced to hear these accursed syllables warily step back, gaping at you suspiciously, as if you’re going to whip out a linoleum knife and carve out their gall bladder. “That’s a rough town,” they’ll say, ever so ruefully, or “you grew up in Gary and you’re still vertical?” It’s either that, or as chipper as a cheerleader, they’ll chant the words “Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana,” from “The Music Man.” No other place ignites such an instant response, or one so at odds. One reaction involves terror. The other, happy go lucky insipidness. But from its inception, Gary has been a place of extremes, a crossroads of contradictions, a paradox incarnate.

For starters, Gary is in the state of Indiana. But it is nothing like the Indiana that comes to mind. There are no charming covered bridges in Gary. There are no basketball hoops on red barns in Gary. There are no fields of flowing corn, no combines or tractors plying God’s green earth, no bake sales, bucolic reveries, or Mellencampian heartland clichés. No, unlike the rest of Indiana, Gary is urban, ethnic, and gruesomely industrial. It’s a well worn, thoroughly used and abused area, like hardened scar tissue, or a scab that’s too thick too peel away from the healthier tissue growing around it.

To most people who experience it, Gary is nothing more than a horrific stench, and an even more horrific sight. Marked by dismal housing projects, dilapidated shacks, decrepit trailer parks, crumbling duplexes, boarded-up storefronts, grimy truck stops, junk yards, rail yards, garbage-strewn vacant lots, pockmarked roads, abandoned strip malls, charred husks of buildings, and countless smokestacks spewing out noxious emissions, Gary is a bleak, gray, depressing hinterland, a grim, hopeless-looking place to shudder at, ignore, or simply shake your head at in dismay as you zoom on to brighter, less threatening locales.

Gary is part of what is known as “Chicagoland,” as it’s only thirty miles from the Loop. But it’s light years away from Chicago in every possible way. There are no investment bankers trading futures in Gary. There are no world-class restaurants and chic, cosmopolitan cafes in Gary. There is no breathtaking architecture, no glimmering skyscrapers, no vibrant theatre scene in Gary. Gary is closer to Chicago than most Chicago suburbs, and receives the same television and radio stations as Chicago. But in spirit, mindset, and outlook, it is as far from Chicago as Prudhoe Bay. If Chicago is The City of Broad Shoulders, Gary is The City of Weak Knees. If Chicago is the Hog Butcher For The World, Gary is the Human Butcher For The World. If Chicago is The Second City, Gary is The One Millionth City.

Perched between these rural and urban polarities, Gary has always had an identity crisis. So it’s no surprise that its most famous native, Michael Jackson, suffered a similar fate. With his circus selves constantly shifting and evolving into various other selves, this desperate creation of plastic surgeons first grappled with who he was and who he wanted to be right over on 2400 South Jackson Street. Who knows, it might have been true—maybe Michael wasn’t sure who he wanted to be because he city he lived in wasn’t sure what it wanted to be, either.

Like the King of Pop, Gary burst into national prominence full of promise and infinite possibility. Hailed as “The New Industrial Utopia,” Gary was founded in 1906 by U.S. Steel. Hopes were high. A city brochure gushed, “Cosmopolitan Gary, the Magic Steel City, welcomes all comers to its confines, where health, wealth, and pleasure make it the most wonderful city of the present century!” But inevitably, like the Gloved One, Gary had nowhere to go but down, falling to pieces step by step, until the face it showed to the world was a grotesque atrocity.

This is due to two primary factors: pollution and crime. Upon entering its environs—usually by car, with every door being automatically bolted shut as soon as the road sign appears on the horizon—Gary announces itself immediately, with a nauseous, sulfurous odor. The smell is a stomach-curdling bouquet of contaminants including nitrates, cyanide, zinc, manganese, ammonia, barium, phenol, lead, nickel, and chromium among countless others.

The water in Gary is equally as foul. Suffering from over a century of environmental neglect, the brackish Grand Calumet River and its subsidiary, The Little Calumet, which wind through the city and its adjoining hamlets, seethe with pollutants. With PCBs, cyanide, heavy metals, mercury, cadmium, phosphorus, assorted dioxins, arsenic, fecal coliform, and other volatile solids like oil and grease commingling together in a bouillabaisse of poisons, it’s no wonder only sludge worms call the local “waters” home.

As for vice, corruption, gang warfare, and other crime, Gary is synonymous with it. Consistently ranking high or sometimes even first on various civic indexes in categories like “Most Dangerous,” “Most Miserable” and “Most Murders Per Capita,” the city excels in dubious honors. Now and then another town like Newark, Detroit, or New Orleans dethrones Gary of these infamous distinctions, but G.I. always seems to creep back up to the top of being the absolute bottom. An inordinate amount of murders, burglaries, rape, arson, car thefts, prostitution, and drug-fueled violence cement Gary’s reputation as one of the most notorious cities in America.

Mayberry eat your heart out.

Keep Shoveling is a memoir depicting my experience as a laborer in U.S. Steel. Bracing, bawdy, and full of seedy, unforgettable characters, it’s a rollicking, whiskey-fueled, warts-and-all coming of age story that confirms that not all of life’s lessons are learned in the classroom.

The Armageddon News

 

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When the end of the world started today, everyone in the newsroom was shocked. We’d covered big stories before—that whole World Trade Center thing, Frank Sinatra’s death—but never anything like this. There was panic at first, but after realizing our duties to the network and its clients, NewsFive rose to the occasion, delivering a flawless broadcast, showing all of New York why we’re the top-rated news program in the Tri-State area.

As news director, all I wanted was to depict the grave situation as best as I could, with accuracy, brevity and clarity. I wanted to do it for myself, to uphold my own journalistic standards, but more importantly, we owed it to our advertisers: Burger King, Chrysler, Blimpie, they drop serious cash—a hundred and fifty grand for thirty seconds—and if we don’t get the viewers, what’re we here for?

And we did it. Dan Delaney, Sunny Greenfield, Dirk Malibu, Chip Simpletown—the entire on-air staff delivered, exhibiting the class and showmanship of the season media professionals they are. I tip my hat to them, to the whole department: the writers, producers, videotape editors—even the interns.

Hopefully, the eleven o’clock broadcast will go just as smoothly. If it does, I can meet my maker with a smile, knowing I’ve executed my job to the zenith of my abilities.

 

There was nothing unusual about Thursday, June 9th, 2003, certainly nothing to make you think it’d be the last day of planet Earth. I awoke at seven, had a bowl of Mini-Wheats, and cabbed down to Rockefeller Center, where the WNBC-TV newsroom is located on the third floor.

No sooner did I step from the elevator when I saw Sheila McNight, my assignment editor, and her red praying mantis eyeglasses. As usual, she’d camped in the lobby, waiting for me. “Doug,” she said, dropping Broadcast Media and rocketing off the beige lounger, “radar’s picking up some wild shit.”

“Morning Sheila.” She thudded after me as I made for the kitchen.

“The barometer’s going crazy. Comstar’s found strange cloud-patterns in the stratosphere.”

“Send Johnny up in the chopper.”

“What for?”

“I don’t know, we got the thing, let’s use it. Get some cloud shots.”

I got a coffee and holed up in my office, where I set my police scanner on HyperSearch and checked the wire reports. The red voice-mail button on my phone blinked like a tiny frantic eye and a stack of “While You Were Outs” sat paper-clipped on my desk. I sighed. A typical day—I hadn’t been in two minutes, and already I was swamped.

The morning passed. I screened audition tapes, talked with Fred Silverstein, our GM about Sunny (at 32 he thinks she’s “over the hill”), read press releases, and made a crude list of the stories so far. Besides another jogger raped in Central Park and a three-alarm fire at an ice cream parlor in Park Slope, the only good thing I had was the “crazy barometer” piece. I decided to see if Meteorology knew what it was.

I hit the newsroom, and couldn’t believe my eyes. Not a single person was at their desk. Walking the cubicles, I found steaming coffee cups, pushed-back chairs, and on Laura Mastrianni’s desk, a recently toasted, bialy whose pad of butter was still melting. I kept walking, but not until rounding a corner did I find them. Huddled three-deep, murmuring in hushed tones, the NewsFive staff stood by the windows, gazing outside.

Inky black murk filled the canyon of Forty-Ninth street, and herds of people fled down the sidewalk, darting between graffiti-carved delivery trucks and blaring cabs. Debris sailed in spinning circles. The wind threw light drizzle through the orange halos of streetlights and the windows in the building across the street glared a fluorescent white as the sun dimmed further. I saw shadows of office workers, men in ties, women cradling coffee mugs, all staring confusedly into the gloom.

I check my watch—11:32. Something major was happening, a freak midday thunderstorm, or—this got me really excited—a surprise eclipse. Either way it was damn good copy.

Right then someone tugged my arm. “I’ve got Johnny on the two-way,” Sheila said.

I followed her into AV, and watched as she fiddled knobs and dials. “Johnny, come in, over,” she said, between gusts of static. I heard garbled cries, broken-off words, but nothing intelligible.

“I just had him,’ Sheila said, slapping away the noise. “Johnny, what’s it like up there? Johnny come in.”

We tried and tried, but it was no use—nothing but static. “What did he say?” I said.

Sheila’s response was drowned out by a smash of thunder so loud it seemed to explode in my skull. It sounded like a giant whip cracking, snapped every cell wide awake, and sprawled me off my chair.

“Holy SHIT!” I yelled, scrambling to my feet. Sheila and I ran to the windows, elbowed forward, and what we saw simply defied belief.

I thought it was paint the Greek guys on the scaffolding had spilled, but as I watched heavy drops of it streak the windows and slice down the glass, my heart slammed into my gut when I realize what it was.

Blood.

 

Perhaps my ignorance of Biblical studies explains why I remained calm. Of course, back then, I still believed in a scientific explanation, that the pulpy red downpour was a freak of nature, like the reports of it raining frogs I’d read as a kid in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. But as the windows ran with a wine-dark crimson, and the secretaries shrieked about angels and the “the seventh seal,” I realized what was happening was preternatural, if not divine.

Like most people, I’d never really thought about Armageddon. It was a topic reserved for evangelists or hardcore Jesus freaks. In a sophomore theology class at Syracuse I read The Book of Revelations, but I didn’t understand it, not without Cliff Notes. It was an outlandish concept, but given the state of the world in the twenty-first century, it didn’t surprise me.

See, my fourteen years in the newsroom had bred a callousness, a detachment from the severity of the events we covered. War, assassinations, plane crashes, mass murders, ethnic cleansing, AIDS, babies left to rot in the trash, the music of Mariah Carey, I viewed it all stoically, objectively, no matter how sickening or depraved, it didn’t affect me. It was all par for the course. Armageddon was no different.

And besides, I thought, strangely resigned, with all the misery in the world, why shouldn’t it end? It would sure spare a lot of people from suffering. I was sad, because I wanted to live—I had an eighteen hundred square foot loft, a new bitch-magnet Jag—but deep down Armageddon didn’t seem that impossible. In the news business you get jaded. After awhile nothing shocks you.

Of course, my coworkers took it harder, but once I made them realize their obligation to the city of New York—I decided to play that hand, that old “civic responsibility” angle—they quit panicking and got to work.

“People!” I screamed, as high heels and wingtips stampeded for the elevator, “Settle down! Now!”

A few faces turned, but most kept clamoring. I was jostled and spun, but thinking quickly, I grabbed a metal garbage can and hopped onto the reception desk. I gonged the can with an umbrella until I had their attention.

“Hey, remain calm! Quiet down!”

Davis, a newswriter, craned back. “Remain calm?” he yelled, his thin face pretzeled with fear, “It’s raining blood for Christ sakes!”

With a shout the fracas started again, and the elevator beeped and banged as the scrum of bodies swamped its interior.

“Yes!” I screamed, “You’re right. It’s raining blood. But people . . . do we have to act like idiotic children? Like fools? Remember. We have an obligation—we’re a news department.”

The crowd quieted some.

“This rain, blood, whatever it is, it’s just news. Big news—bigger than Okalahoma City, Bosnia, even O.J! Think of the stories, the dramas—Davis, why think of the copy you could write!”

Davis’ face relaxed, and he fingered his chin, considering my words.

Richie nodded. A few other stirred, buoyed by the emotion in my voice. I decided to go for the jugular:

“The people have a right to know. We owe it to them. All of New York’s counting on you, and you’re leaving? To got out there?” I pointed to the windows. “Ha. Well, go ahead. But I’m staying right here, and if I have to go on myself and read the goddamn news, then by God, I’ll do it.”

Blood drummed against the panes; thick oily curtains of red streamed down the glass and bubbled over the sill. It felt like we were in a submarine, forty fathoms deep in a corpuscle sea. They looked at me. I looked at them. No one knew what to say.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have copy to write,” I said, leaping off the desk.

I strolled to the kitchen and brewed a pot of Maxwell House—a two bagger. I’d need all the alertness I could get.

Well, my impromptu speech got them pretty riled, and the newsroom sprang into action: phones ringing, keyboards clacking, modems chirping static—the manic flux of a department operating at peak capacity. Obviously, I’d touched a communal nerve, made them see that in a time as grave as this, there was only one thing to do—our jobs.

Richie and the field crews hit the streets, searching for stories, footage, anything to define the unbelievable situation. Reporters Frank Dabney, Suzy Ho, Yolanda Rollins, and Abe Glickman followed behind. Davis and the writers got the AP UPI and Reuters reports and jammed out copy. Graphics, meteorology, sports, every department was ablaze. Marion, my secretary, microwaved a big batch of cheese popcorn, and in a hilarious stunt that further enhanced our camaraderie, the interns from Skidmore College cranked “It’s The End Of The World As WeKnow It,” by R.E.M. That really loosened us up!

More reports came in off the wire, and the enormity of the situation sank in. Incredibly, the bloodstorm was only the beginning—by twelve-thirty it was joined by flaming hail, tiny Chiclet-sized comets plummeting from the blackened sky in tracers of gold before fizzling out in the red muck that stained every surface the hue of viscera. Thunder boomed; lightning slashed, and the sky churned in a mosaic of streaking glittering fire. It was a massive hallucination, a kaleidoscopic swirl, a strobing lava-like stew of orange and red and gold.

And then there were the locusts. Without warning they swarmed from the subway, in Grand Central, Penn Station, Battery Park; from the IRT and PATH trains, the Lexington lines, every one of the city’s 229 stations vomited rasping wings and scissoring teeth. In a vast nimbus they poured down the avenues, their collective buzz prickling my skin with goose bumps. I watched them perch on the windows, slapping their wings, smearing bloody arcs on the kidney-colored glass.

Due to the severity of the situation, I called Silverstein and told him to pre-empt. He just laughed. “Tell that to IBM,” he said. I was dismayed, but I understood. To deny IBM the time they paid for would be unethical, not to mention losing the network valuable ad dollars. And besides, none of the other networks were preempting, why should we? So I’d have to do cut-ins.

But I didn’t mind. Ivy Ivers would handle things until the anchors arrived, and with Sheila in constant touch with the reporters via the cellular, I knew we’d have some killer stories.

At two-fifteen, Frank Dabney stumbled into my office. From head to toe he was crusted in blood, and a fine paprika-like dust flaked off him with every move. White lines creased his mouth and forehead where his skin had furrowed, and burnt craters singed his suit.

“I’ve got a rough cut of a locust piece,” he said, “ramming a three-quarter inch tape into my VTR. Over shots of flying insects, I heard his VO:

With a whir they started skyward, out of the broken earth in vast, black clouds. They had come to punish mankind, to make him pay for his sins, and pay they did. All across the metropolitan area, the pesky swarms attacked, dive-bombing out of the roiling skies with a vengeance. Nothing could stop them, as this Queens man found out, as he was walking his dog.

They came from nowhere, out of the sky. They bit my dog up and then they come for me.

Why do you think they’re here?

Don’t know. Just want em gone.

But by all appearances, the locusts are here to stay. Frank Dabney, NewsFIve New York.

Frank popped the tape. “Like it?”

“Yeah,” I said, slipping a gnawed Bic from my mouth, “lose ‘roiling’ thought. Too esoteric. And clip ten frames off the end shot.”

But that was only the beginning.

Abe Glickman shot a piece in the Sheep’s Meadow, with sound-bites from stoned Frisbee tossers who said they’d party right up to the end. “Like what can you do,” said one dreadlocked kid, puffing a Hebrew National-sized joint. I told Abe to use the R.E.M. song for background. “Gotcha!” he said, sprinting off. Yolanda Rollins shit Wall Street, getting fantastic shots of panicked traders and the plummeting Dow. And Suzy Ho came through with a tear-jerker about the diligent kids at P.S. 38 on the Upper West Side, who, despite the hopeless scenario, kept right on studying.

Things were going well, although we still hadn’t heard from Johnny Davenport in the NewsFive chopper. I hoped he was okay, but if not, I had a backup plan: we’d do an on-air memorial, a somber “line of duty” piece. That would sob things up.

 

At three o’clock, I held and editorial meeting in the small conference room with Sheila, Fred Silverstein, Davis, executive producer Ralph Busey, and our anchors, Dan Delaney and Sunny Greenfield. Our purpose was to decide what stories to do, in what order, and in what format. Usually the meetings lasted an hour, but today we decided to make it quick.

We all agreed that Franks’ locust piece was a highlight, and should run up top, after the global package Davis was writing. However, the Davis piece needed video, which was a problem, since Visnews and Imagique had no way of shipping us film. Around the world serious shit was happening—a meteor smashed into the Indian Ocean, triggering psunamis; monster quakes racked Asia-and we couldn’t show it. I considered dropping the piece, figuring Brokaw would cover the international stuff, but decided not to. We needed those stories, they were important. And time was running out.

Then Sunny had a brilliant idea.

Sitting at the long conference table piled with media schedules, program logs and scripts, twirling a finger in her frosty blonde hair, she squeaked, “Why don’t we used footage from disaster movies?”

As none of had ever heard Sunny say anything other than what ran on the TelePrompTer, a shocked silence filled the room. Then Silverstein shot up from his chair. “Perfect!” Archives has Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, every movie ever made!”

“There’s great scenes in The Ten Commandments,” said Ralph.

Dan nodded stoically. “That’ll work.”

Sunny looked bewildered, like she hadn’t expected anyone to take her seriously.

Fred was right—it was perfect. I sent Davis and an editor to Archives; the segment they[‘d build on the Avid would be our hard opening, and with Abe, Yolanda, and Suzy’s stories, and the celebrity piece Mindy Pug was shooting at Planet Hollywood, we had a good fifteen minutes. All that remained was weather and sports.

I called Chip and Dirk in. Chip was depressed, since all the ball games had been blooded out, but he’d cut together a “Great Moments” piece with film of the Yankees, Mets, Namath, Parcell’s Giants, the Knicks and Rangers, and it looked fantastic. All he had to do was introduce it and bang—three more minutes.

Dirk Malibu, however, was positively beaming. When a storm hits, weathermen get an almost sexual thrill, and from the mile-wide grin on his tanned, whittled face, Dirk was definitely aroused.

“I wrote a great intro,” he said flashing his bleached teeth. (Dirk also models for Tommy Hilfiger) He stood before us, templing his manicured hands. “As for the weather,” I guess you could say. . . all hell’s breaking loose.”

We must’ve laughed for a good minute. Dirk showed his scripts, and they were fabulous. I told him to have Mavis type them right into the TelePrompTer—they didn’t even need revising. I sent Dan and Sunny into make-up, and Sheila and I timed the copy and ran down the stories. The newscast was almost there, but we were ninety seconds short. Luckily, at that moment, Dr. Bernie rolled in.

Every station has a Dr. Bernie, some bookwormy freak with horned-rim glasses, tumbleweed hair, and a bow tie who offers a tidbit of advice or consumer warning; it’s another great way to fill up time. Of course, Dr. Bernie isn’t a real doctor, but who cares? This is TV!

“Can I read a PSA?” he said.

Dr. Bernie pulled out a scrap of yellow from his breast pocket and unfolded it. Through the underside of the paper I could see the inky swirls of his handwriting. He cleared his throat.

The end of the world is a difficult time for all of us, but there are ways to deal with it. The first thing to do—don’t panic. Remember: you can’t think if you’re screaming. The second thing to do is protect yourself. Stay indoors under a shelter of some kind, a strong table or ironing board. For those of you who live in apartment buildings, leave immediately for a nearby rescue center. If you’re going outside, dress in layers, and wear a cap. As for the locusts, spray yourself with insect repellent, Deep Woods Off! or one of the Cutter brands. We’re expecting some pretty severe weather, so please, keep these precautions in mind. They could save, I mean, prolong your life.

I checked my stopwatch: sixty seconds. With anchor chatter, we had our ninety.

Picking nervously at a hangnail, I hunched over the Grass Valley 2400 switcher in the control room, watching the red digits on the program clock slide to six o’clock. Technical director Tony Fazzio sat beside me. Rows of glowing buttons bathed our faces in shades of orange, yellow and green and the test and tone hummed an eerie flatness. No one said a word. I gazed into studio 6A, and saw Dan and Sunny propped behind the gray carpeted anchor desk, receiving last-second whisks of make-up.

At 5: 58 Dan appeared ten-fold on the bank of monitors. He adjusted the lavaliere mike clipped to his tie and stared blankly ahead.

I held my breath, hands slippery with sweat. The seconds ticked by. Then—the clock flashed zeroes; Tony punched a button, and with a zapping swoosh, our opening montage tumbled onto the screen. A soft, victorious “Yes!” escaped my lips as Dan read off the prompter:

The end of the world—fire, destruction, mayhem in the streets—Judgement Day is here and we’re live with the latest.

Good evening I’m Dad Delaney. The skies are black and the seas are red as Armageddon—the mythical battle between good and evil—rages in New York and all over the globe.

It started before noon, when as the Book of revelations foretold, the sun blackened in a terrifying eclipse. Next came thunder and lightning, followed by torrents of bloody rain and flaming hail that left New Yorkers scrambling for shelter.

I watched footage of fleeing pedestrians, then the global piece Davis cut from the Irwin Allen films ran—cleverly, he’d digitized the film, giving it the flat, muted look of video—with Dan’s VO:

In Asia and the Middle east, a series of mammoth earthquakes measuring 12.3 on the Richter scale has left those areas devastated. Baghdad, Hong Kong, Tokyo and other cities are in ruin, reduced to smoking rubble by the trembling earth. Billions are dead, and more are missing.

And to make matters worse, tidal waves triggered by a meteor plunging into the Indian Ocean are battering coastal areas. Astronomers say the meteor was a wayward asteroid, and may have been a quarter-mile in circumference. Residents are being evacuated, but as more quakes are due to hit, it doesn’t look good. Sunny, it’s a scenario right out of Hollywood disaster movie.

It sure is Dan. Here in New York, while the blood and hail has stopped for now, that doesn’t mean we can relax. Because as Frank Dabney reports, woes of a different sort loom on the horizon.

Frank’s locust piece ran, and I sighed with relief. Soon we’d hit the commercial break; after that, it was all downhill. But if I’ve learned anything from fourteen years in this business, it’s that nothing ever goes as planned.

Five minutes into the broadcast, I saw the fresnels in the studio swaying on the lighting grid. A low, subway-like rumble sounded, and the floor quivered under my feet. I heard a screech, like nails on a chalkboard only a million times louder, and with a sickening lurch the control room slewed sideways. Everything was a blur, a dizzying jumble of color and noise—crashes, explosions, horrid metallic splintering, screams, complete chaos. All I remember is diving under the console, where I was battered and slapped like a pinball, my head pummeling the floor. Then it was over.

I scaled a mountain of debris—torn cables, flayed wiring, broken-backed chairs—and peered into the studio. Lights dangled in eviscerated hulks, flanges of warped meal hanging from shattered bulbs. Cameras lay on their sides; glass-shards and plaster obscured the floor. Incredibly, Dan and Sunny sat behind the anchor desk, unfazed.

It looks like we can add earthquakes to the list of disasters, Dan.

That’s right, Sunny. I guess you could say we’re . . . all shook up.

Now that’s what I call commitment. But that’s the kind of crew I had—professionals, every one of them.

Once the technicians righted the cameras, we sailed on without a second of dead air. Dan and Sunny’s fortitude infected everybody—you could feel it. Never have I seen a department act with such purpose. Everything—the celebrity stuff, Dr. Bernie—went perfect.

The highlight of the show was Dirk’s weather:

As you can see on the satellite picture, there’s a massive low pressure system sweeping across the country, and right here, this giant mass of clouds, that’s where the blood’s coming from. Right now it’s a record 107 degrees in Times Square, with a low of 60 earlier in the day. One hundred percent relative humidity, and the barometer bottoms out at an incredible 21.02. The forecast for tonight calls for hurricane level winds and more flaming hail, so you may want to get the patio furniture inside. Tomorrow expect a high of 130 as temperatures skyrocket from comets and meteors battering the earth’s surface, and more earthquakes on the way, too. No, the way the weekends’ shaping up, you might want to stay inside and run the air conditioner.

Dirk never looked better. After Chip’s sports, Abe’s Frisbee piece ran, and as R.E.M. rocked over the credits, everyone whooped and shrieked and high-fived.

 

The newsroom is quiet, just the endless lashing of blood on the shattered windows and the chugging hum of the air conditioners. The place is trashed: felled cubicle walls, shreds of aluminum hanging from caved-in ceilings, smashed computers, and everything is swathed in dull, staticy gray from the television monitors flickering like ghosts through the room.

The staffers have left; it’s just Sheila and me, Dan, Sunny, Chip, Dirk, and some technical people. I guess that last tremor scared them off.

As I sit at my desk, reflecting, I’m filled with pride. Despite tremendous odds we accomplished our goal. Not even Armageddon stopped us! There were tough moments, but in the end we came through. I watched tapes of CBS and ABC’s broadcasts, and ours was vastly superior.

It’s ten-thirty now, and we’re almost ready for the eleven o’clock show. We’ve got killer stuff—Richie should be back form the South Street Seaport any minute, with footage of some fucked-up seven-beast thing with crowns and horns that emerged out of the East River. We should get a 10.0 share with that. Easy.

I feel content, like my life’s been worthwhile. I did a lot in thirty-eight years. Thank god for TV. I tell you, it’s the most powerful force in the world. It was an honor to be part of it.

My only regret is what happened to Johnny Davenport. J.D. was a top-notch chopper pilot, but even he couldn’t navigate the blood and hail. Poor guy.

That’s it, I guess. I feel good. I did my job. We all did. At eleven-thirty, the champagne will fly. Sunny wants to have an orgy, but hey, no thanks.

I’m not into blondes.

-As published in The Portland Review

News From Hell #2

 


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News From Hell is a series of satiric verbal collages made from words excised from New York Times headlines. These new headlines depict a world where all sorts of hilarious and unsettling things happen. Whether witty, absurd, or philosophical, each of these reconstructed headlines reinterprets the events of our times. Each entry is a thought worth pondering in itself – but when read collectively, News From Hell functions as wry poetic commentary and a socio-political critique on the state of our civilization, and the horrors and humors within it.

Revenge Of The Manatees

 

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Traces of mist lingered over the smooth, glassine surface of the Kississimee river as seventy-nine year old Edna Buchanan prodded her four-pronged aluminum walker over the Ferndale Retirement Home’s manicured lawn. Glacially, she inched forward, shuffling through the dew-laden grass, her wizened head bent in determination, her spine aching with each agonizing step. And twenty minutes later, she reached her goal: the short wooden pier jutting into the water. She hobbled onto it, gazing into the tranquil, black-green depths.

Would she see them today, her flippered, two-ton friends?

Each day, Edna’s morning ritual was the same. She rose at seven A.M., slid her dentures in and plodded into the communal kitchen for a breakfast of oatmeal, whole wheat toast and Metamucil-laden orange juice. Then, after an obligatory trip to the bathroom, she’d pluck a head of lettuce from the refrigerator and make the fifty yard journey to the river, where her arthritic fingers would shred the roughage and sprinkle it atop the surface, in hopes of attracting one of the kindly, herbivorous manatees that frequented its warm waters.

Like most Floridians, Edna adored the shy, reclusive sea-cows. There was something magical, something breathtaking about these massive, endangered creatures who blundered among the lily pads and lolled beneath the piers; at the very sight of them her spirit soared. Longingly, she would gaze into their sad, pleading eyes, and somehow, through an almost mystical connection, she communed with them. In many ways the manatees were her surrogate family–her real family, unable to cope with her advanced case of osteoporosis, had marooned her at Ferndale several years ago–and to the emotionally-deprived septuagenarian, no day was brighter or more enjoyable than one which began with a manatee sighting at her little pier in the woods.

But today, a far more disturbing scenario would unfold. Because on this very morning, under the glaring Florida sun, Edna Buchanan would suffer one of the most viscous marine mammal attacks ever recorded. Yes, she would see her beloved manatees; she would see several of them, but they’d be nothing like the benevolent creatures she adored. These manatees would be different. Very different.

Perhaps some feral evolutionary instinct made them abandon their happy-go-lucky personas in a last-ditch effort to retaliate against the homo sapiens destroying their habitat. Or perhaps they were simply bored, fed up with eating water hyacinth and searching for kicks. Whatever the case, the three bull manatees speeding down-river to the pier where Edna tottered were cruel, insensate brutes, hostile ambassadors from a new breed of predatory West Indian sea cow bent on one thing: exacting vigilante-like justice on every human being they encountered.

Edna had no way of knowing this. She remained on the pier, hunched at its very end now, training her bifocals on a dragonfly buzzing the lily pads. She watched the insect dart from flower to flower, her shaky, liver-spotted hands peeling the lettuce head and flipping its curled leaves, one by one, into the water.

Each piece that landed sent ripples across the surface, ripples that grew in ever-widening circles and sounded the feeding call to every creature in the river, including the three manatees, who were cruising fifty yards off-shore, thrashing their flukes in spasmodic rhythm, powering through clouds of drifting green algae. In a cruel twist of Fate, they would have sped right past her, perhaps for a grisly rendezvous with some other, more deserving victim–a beer-swilling speedboat nut, for instance–but on this day, due to her munificent efforts to feed them, they’d find her.

The lead manatee, sensing a disturbance, whipped around to investigate. His two cohorts followed, and the three of them, in a perfect trident-formation, glided eerily shoreward, as silent as phantoms. Stealthily they crept, walking on their front flippers, lurking on the mucky bottom, biding their time, waiting for the perfect moment to ascend and case out the shoreline.

Edna tossed in the last bits of lettuce. For a long moment she stared, following the leafy little boats as they sailed over the surface, driven by the wind. She wondered if they would lure a manatee to her, and the longer she stood waiting, with the wind fluffing her white, dead-dandelion hair, the more apprehensive she became. Had they moved on, to more hospitable waters?

It had been over a week now, eleven tortuous days to be exact, since she’d seen one, and a tear came to her eye as she scanned the river’s indifferent surface. She hoped, she prayed, trying to will a manatee out of the gloomy, weed-choked depths–but there was nothing. Only the buzz of the dragonflies, and overhead, the plaintive cry of an inland gull.

And then–right when she was about to give up and head back to the home, something caught her eye: a flash of whitish gray, a long otherworldly massiveness hovering before her. Her pulse quickened, her ancient eyes came alive. They were here! Finally!

“There you are,” she whispered, as not one but three cigar-shaped behemoths drifted up to the pier. “Oh, and there are three of you! My goodness!”

She stood in awe, marveling at them. They were huge, ungainly, impossible. Three torpedo-like slabs of thick, barnacle-mottled flesh, tons of it, each with that chubby, adorable face and wonderfully hairy mouth that resembled a vacuum cleaner attachment. She was mesmerized.

“Go ahead,” she crowed, lifting the walker, pointing at the lettuce, “eat your breakfast, now.”

The three manatees made no move. Oddly, they floated, a foot beneath the surface.

“What’s the matter?” she said, as six beady, black eyes narrowed to a fixed stare. “Not hungry?”

Maybe they were tired, she thought. Or injured. They did seem a bit dazed, like they were sick or something. She inspected the long fuselages of their bodies, squinting, bending closer for a good long look, before gasping in unrepentant horror at what she found–each of their three backs was crisscrossed by a network of ugly, gouged-out scars, grotesque carvings where their flesh had been slashed and shredded apart.

She trembled, recoiled in shock–the poor, innocent creatures were hurt, their hides heartlessly disfigured by the churning propellers of passing motorboats. And here they were, too weak and stupefied to feed. It was tragic.

“Oh my. . . g-God,” she cried, her eyes welling with tears, her frail body shivering with emotion.

The three manatees ignored her sniffles. They remained in place, glaring at her through the prism of water, their rage intensifying with each passing second. Usually, confronting one of these large, land-dwelling bipeds had little or no effect; they’d simply stare, dumbfounded, but at the sight of this one they felt a curious awakening, a cognizance firing in the waterlogged synapses of their brains. And slowly, the myriad atrocities visited upon them by Edna Buchanan’s fellow humans flashed through their collective consciousness: the cigarette butts and plastic six-pack rings and raw, untreated sewage, the insane propellers, the annoying stuffed animal replicas they sold to tourists while the manatee population dwindled even further. . . they sensed everything, until every last cell seethed with hatred.
Abruptly, the three broke from their positions, gliding into open water twenty yards from the pier where they raised their gaping nostrils, sucked in a last sputtery breath and slid under the surface. And then, with a wriggling, joyful thrash, they tore off, rocketing through the water amid a chaos of bubbles and froth, heading directly for the pier.

All Edna could do was stand, gripping her walker with a bony, knotted fist, as the three manatees torpedoed towards her. At first she thought it was some kind of game they were playing, and a thin smile crept into her face at the thought of them frolicking. But when the two manatees flanking the leader broke formation, glancing into their own attack trajectories, she sensed that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. They were swimming fast, she thought. Too fast.

A little voice told her to flee, and as quick as she could manage she spun around, stutter-stepping over the wooden planks, aiming her walker at the green lawn at the end of the pier. She wheezed and coughed, her shrunken, calcified spine crackling with each shuffling, excruciating step, her brittle old joints and bunioned feet straining faster and faster. . . I’m almost there, whirled the thought, I can make it. . .

But it was no use. Because right when Edna Buchanan reached the mid-point of the pier, there was a crash, a sickening caterwauling thud, and the entire left side of it caved in, buckling under the cataclysmic force of the three rampaging manatees as they head-butted its pilings. Wood smashed apart, timbers snapped, and with a terrible groaning creak the entire structure slewed sideways, slanting down, pitching Edna and her four-pronged aluminum walker–complete with rubber hand grips–head over heels, into the water.

It was over in seconds. Edna barely had time to scream before the manatees converged, each one seizing one of her toothpick limbs and hauling it into an insatiable maw of whiskers and tongue. Gumming her withered flesh, and swimming as brazenly as a gang of chum-crazed sharks, they dragged her floundering, ninety-one pound form to the slimy bottom, where they battered her senseless with their sizable flippers. Bubbles trailed away as the old gal clawed for the surface, but the three beasts sealed her off, their massive girths looming over her in a wall of immovable blubber. Edna struggled, she kicked and flailed, but the assault kept on, and after one last fusillade of pulverizing flipper-hits, she moved no more.

The three manatees floated to the surface, where they swam lazily around, surveying the scene. Bits of wood and splinters bobbed on the waves and the lily pads, broken apart by the chaos, drifted aimlessly back and forth. A chirping squeak sounded as the lead manatee called out to his peers, and after one last circuit of the ruined pier, they sped downriver, their scarred bodies brimming with a newfound confidence.

Finally, they’d fought back. After centuries of slaughter, they’d learned how to survive, how to compete in the hostile world of man.

But as each of them knew, the mauling of seventy-three year old Edna Buchanan–however wrong or unprovoked it may have been–was only the beginning, the first in what would be a long, arduous reign of terror.

Yes, there would be more victims, hundreds, thousands, and to the media or whoever was interested in such a thing, each gummed-up body bobbing to the surface would bear the same telling marks–the bruises and lip-prints and whiskery trails that meant one thing: another hapless human had experienced the revenge of the manatees.

-from Empty Pinata & Other Tales of Woe