Product Placement Bible #2

luke-631

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

The Product Placement Bible #1

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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.

Sting Shits His Pants

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sting: vb 1 : to prick painfully: as a: to pierce or
wound with a poisonous or irritating process

Forget Ursa Major. Forget the Big Dipper. The old constellations, the old patterns of alignment, are dead, replaced by newer, sleeker gods; perfect salient beings who dazzle like diamonds across our pulsing mediated skies. Arnold. Madonna. Britney. Prince. The list goes on and on. . . while the clueless masses, the Us-fed cathode-coddled couch taters plot their every move.

But hey, they’re just people. After all the lights go down, after all the bullshit and bombast, the famous are just like you and me. They are not gods. They are not heroes. They are people. Living organisms, bags of protoplasm that breathe and eat and function like the rest of us. Or, as we shall see, malfunction . . .

His real name is Gordon. Gor. Dun. But it’s been years since anyone’s addressed him by those hateful, ungainly syllables. He’s no Gordon. Gordon’s the guy down at the Firestone shop who slaps a retread on your El Camino. Or the loam-loving T.A. from Geology lab junior year. Gordon, hideous caterpillar, long ago blossomed into a new sunshine being. A glorious being, an angel really, who’s delighted the free world with his soporific musings for years. A being known only as “Sting.”

But names are irrelevant here. Being “Sting” may help him slide past the mutants to the V.I.P. lounge at Suede, where he’ll bump chests with “Bono,” “Puffy,” and the other monomonikered darlings, but it’s not going to help him now. Because right now, “Sting” has to endure a bodily function like all the rest of us. To put it crudely, Sting must drop a load. And celebrity means nothing, absolutely nothing, to biology. Let’s watch:

He stands with viced buttocks, shifting from one black-booted foot to the other, staring at the bathroom door. Hoping, praying, it will open. He glances at his Rolex. The seconds click by.

He watches thirty. Sixty. And then it happens-something stirs and comes alive, clawing towards daylight, wiggling inch by gruesome inch out of its tight canal, its rugged holster.

Sting arches up on tippy-toes and lifts. The hairless nates tuck inward, knotting around the wrinkled grommet. He holds for thirty seconds; the rising sinks away. He exhales. Paces. Wipes the sweat from his receding hairline. Phew, that was close.

A mushroom-headed woman, all mouth, running at him.

“Y-you’re Sting! Oh my god!”

“Aren’t we perceptive?” The thing inside lurches again. He grits his teeth.

“I just loved “The Dream Of The Blue Turtles!” God! I can’t believe you’re at the Power Station! What are you doing, recording a new album or something?”

“Or something,” he mutters, shuffling away. She moves with him, making up the space.

“Will you sign my arm? Puh-lease? Oh please Sting?”

He is going to burst. Any second now an explosion that would humble Krakatoa will rip through his lower G.I. He feels the pressure building, the magma rising, ready to shoot.

“No!” Get away from me! I’ve got to . . .” He snaps, dashes to the door. Tugs the knob.

Mushroom-head darts away, around a corner, stunned at the temperamental display. She won’t buy any more albums. She’ll move on, farther down, to Kenny G.

Sting bounces up and down to a bass track in his head and stares at the door. Who in bloody hell is in there? Some stupid wank wiping up an enchilada spill? A couple of engineers sniffing in a stall? He bites his lip. The thing twists again, aching, begging to be released.

He vaults to the door, bangs his fist. “Open up! Please! This is Sting! The pop star!” I’ve got to . . . uh . . . get back to a session! Please! I beg of you!”

Pain stabs into him. The thing is moving again, kicking, thrashing, a terrible fetus waiting to be born. The sudden movement, the mad dash has upset the balance. The center cannot hold.

Sting hobbles back to his waiting place. His buttocks are iron sentries, locked together, tight as fists. Here it comes . . . oh Jesus . . . ohhhh . . .no . . . hold it . . . please . . .oh god . . .and the thing, somehow, against all odds, is beaten back to its nesting place.

“This the line?”

He turns his head a few centimeters. A body. Hair. Keys jangling.

“Hey, how’s the session, man?”

“Good, very uh . . . good.”

“You likin’ the place? How’s the vibe?”

“Nice. Very nice.”

“Cool. Let me know if you need anything, if you want to order food or something.” The body tramps down the hall, whistling.

“Idiot, he thinks. And then it comes. The next wave, rippling through him, watering the bright blues that so many lonely housewives have longed to gaze into. He can’t hold . . . fight it . . . think of something else . . . refuse . . .no no . . . use . . . yoga . . . yoga . . . suppress it . . . concentrate . . . yoga . . . yoga . . .

The thing sees its shadow and retreats to its burrow. Order is restored. For now.

His thoughts turn to the mansion in Highgate. The classic roadsters, the Aston minis. Dugal, the butler. The trout stream. Thrashing around the loch with Hector, looking for wild partridge. Waking to fingers of mist filtering in through silken windows. Smoking Joel’s Afghan hash in the marble tub, sipping a glass of red, listening to Charlie Parker. Making love to Trudie, hour after hour, in fields of rain, the cool goldenrod towers fanning over them, foolhardy supplicants of Nature. He’s gone now, back to the estate on the Thames, far from this Yankee vulgarity, this hideous studio where he brave auteur, has been denied defecation.

A sound-the sound he’s been waiting for! The metal cha-chink of a door opening. A door! There it is! Gleaming tile! Swirling gurgling whirlpooling toilet! The bathroom! The door creaks on its hinges, beckoning.

The second he moves, the colon remembers its task, and pinches inward. Pain soars, oscillating through walls of flesh, and the bent torpedo slides on to meet its destiny.

He’s inside. Hopping to a stall. Fumbling with belt. Ripping trousers open, yanking them down. He better hurry . . . here it comes . . . oh no . . .get those boxers down . . .come on . . . oh God . . .oh God no . . . OH GOD NO . . . just one more second, one more bloody second . . . please . . .

And then it comes, finally, terribly, in a zenyatta mondatta cloudburst. Acrid. Stinging. Sputtering, bouncing, falling to the tangle of pant legs and shorts, onto the smooth dark tile. Screams. A faucet. Desperate scrubbing. A pair of silk boxers, buried in the ash can, a lot souvenir you won’t find at Hard Rock.

Ten minutes later the door of Studio B swings open.

“Where you been,” from Kim, his personal manager.

Sting sits behind the console of blinking lights and knobs. “Sorry, Kimmy boy. Just shit me pants.”

Everyone in the control room laughs-Miles, Jerry, Aidan-everyone. Ha! Sting! So clever. What a good geezer. Always kidding around, that Sting.

Sting lights a Silk Cut and stares at the wall, brooding, sulking, retreating to that lonely world where only he exists.

-As published in Uno Mas

(illustration by Jack Hornady)

Catfish Lessons

 

channel-catfish-painting

One day in the fall they tried to haul a catfish of gigantic size. But when they reeled him in they did him in no matter what anyone tried.

Jim caught his best on a twenty pound test and it weight one forty-two. Enough to rate best in the state, number one in ‘ole Mizzou.

In the mud the big cat hud and Jim hunted him like no sissy. He pulled for miles then he had to smile, the cat was might and Mississippi.

Jim knew he’d caught what can’t be bought, greatness for which he did not strive. Then he knew right then what he had to do which was keep that cat alive.

Above all cost the fish can’t be lost, Jim cried, dragging it to shore.It’ll bring me green on the exhibition scene, I’ll have a double-wide no more.

On the dock it was a shock, Jim yanked it in a tank. He heaved and hoved and then he drove thinking money in the bank.

But he only got a few then things fell through the big cat’s gills could take no more. It was too huge to deluge in a tub that Bud is for.

Jim saw that cat’s fins turn flat and had his payday muffed. But he paid no mind because he’d signed a deal to have it stuffed.

With its dead they mounted its head making whiskers stiff instead of squirmy. When they were done and they had their fun the big cat was taxidermy.

Jim kept it for awhile, then it seemed out of style so he got a crazy thought. He’d sell the brute for a little quick loot, and that’s how the fish was bought.

What’s true and blue and indisup, is where the big cat can be seen. He’s on a wall in a strip mall, surrounded by TV screens.

Now Jim had to do what he head to do, that fish was worth some dough. With it stuffed it fetched enough so he could not just say no.

But over the years and over the beers Jim gradually regretted it.Cashing in the fin seemed like a sin and he wished he could forget it.

Now the nature of fishin’ is the nature of wishin’ and Jim hoped for too much glory. But now when Jim fishes all that he wishes is for nothing more than a story.

-from Donuts & Wine, demo forthcoming