Prologue: A case of the heebie-jeebies.
In a determined effort to spread inefficiency and uselessness throughout all possible universes, the Amalgamated Union of Pennames and Imaginary Friends(of which I am a reluctant member) has expanded like a toxic spill, and now includes the clientele of the recently defunct Guild of Fictional Characters. The mess has been “rebranded” the UPIFFC.
The latest trouble with the union can be traced to its now unwieldly size. You see, there really aren’t as many pennames and imaginary friends out there as the public might imagine—there are, however, billions of fictional characters (from here, FCs)—and every last one of them has been absorbed by my clueless union. All created persons (and sentient things) from Sir John Falstaff on down to “Kelton the Cop” from the cinematic works of Edward D. Wood Jr. are in it, and everyone involved has an equal voice. This displays the only true problem with democracy: when it comes to a UPIFFC vote, the sacrificial ensign who gets killed fifteen seconds into a Star Trek rerun has as much say as Sherlock Holmes. And they can be a prickly bunch, these fictional beings—to wit, I’ve been named as the antagonist in a kvetch brought forth to the union by an FC of my own creation. As a penname, I feel duty bound to my colleagues to relate the event that has perturbed my ever-fragile serenity, for the rantings of those who claim injury often serve as the best defense for the accused. It doesn’t take all that much to give me the heebie-jeebies nowadays, and this biting of what Omar Khayyam referred to as the “Moving Finger” that has writ you, has given me a case of the H-J’s of a historic proportion.—L.A.
Part I: It was a dark and stormy night.
Renfield entered the not so hallowed halls of the UPIFFC on a kind of evening best described by that greatest of all the literary beagles, Snoopy (who, sadly, it turns out, had “borrowed” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton). The wind was high and the seldom employed since 1939 apple trees from the Wizard of Oz scraped-out a cacophony of uneasy noises on the eaves and windows. Seemingly on cue, several flashes of lightning illuminated the world outside. In the intermittent light, one could see a thick throng of head-shot zombies, two or three unraveling mummies, a gaggle of vampires, ghosts of all persuasions, terra-covetous E.T.s, and a vast litany of “weres” (-wolves, -bunnies, -amebas, -etc.)—and every beasty out there was pursuing that ever-elusive, always taunting, Bluebird of Happiness—who’s proudly the most unlikely being ever to be dredged up from the abyss of the human imagination.
Since the expansion, the grossly understaffed UPIFFC is open 24/7. Instead of hiring extra help, the tight-fisted UPIFFC has contracted the cut-rate services of hundreds of FCs that go bump-in-the-night as a method to cut down on the nocturnal overflow of whiners and crazies that compose an estimated ninety-five percent of the collective. Yet every now and then someone gets through the defenses.
Renfield stopped in front of the lobby window, smiled winningly, and gave the old double-thumbs up to the mob outside. Something that didn’t have a thumb, and looked like a hovering cantaloupe with glowing eyes, reciprocated the gesture the best it could. Renfield excels at making friends. I can’t think of anybody (or anything) who (or that) doesn’t like her. This makes her exceedingly dangerous.
Twenty-five, Japanese-Irish, and yet as distinctly American as a baseball to the head, Renfield had arrived at the hall decked out like Holly Golightly from outer space. The cut of her dress, though flattering to her slim figure, was not overtly provocative, but it was a pupil-shrinking shade of dayglow neon blue seldom seen since the cocaine-fueled eighties. She had also accessorized in the same hue, which included a clutch, floppy hat, to-the-elbow gloves, pumps, and (in spite of the late hour) a pair of No Autographs, Please, sunglasses. Nary an atom associated with Miss Renfield had been disturbed the howling storm.
She took the stairs as gracefully as an ibex and immediately located the office of my—our—rep, Lennie. Renfield knocked smartly on the door. “It’s open,” said the muffled yet obviously peeved voice that called from behind the door.
Part II: Feeding candy to a stranger.
Lennie is an unmade bed looking sort of person who wears a white suit and black string tie ala Mark Twain. He also has the same thick mustache, bushy eyebrows, and unruly mad genius hair as Mr. Clemens’ greatest creation. Regardless, when I had first met Lennie, I had naturally assumed from his reluctance to aid me (in an unrelated matter) that he was an imbecile. But it has since turned out that he is much brighter than I had initially thought—then again, he’d have to be.
“How did you get in?” Lennie asked from behind a high stack of papers on his desk. The desk, the office, and Lennie himself exist perpetually in 1902.
Renfield flashed her wholesome, up-with-people smile at Lennie. “Why, you invited me in,” she said.
“I meant past security.”
“Oh, my credentials are in order.” Renfield approached the desk, removed her union card from her clutch and showed it to Lennie. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon asked me to send him a signed copy of the same likeness. He’s such a charmer—always ready to sweep a girl off her feet.”
After giving her card a superficial scowl, Lennie rose from his chair, went to the office’s only window, drew back the curtain and gazed at the grounds below. Satisfied that the horde was still on duty, he grimaced at Renfield (which is as close to forming a smile he gets) and said, “You’re not one of them, are you?—witch, or a succubus?”
“Oh, no,” she said (and she made a mental note of the vague disappointment that her not being a succubus had registered in his eyes). “Not that there’s anything wrong with being either of those, mind you. My name is Renfield. I’m just a hard working fictional character who could use a friend.”
Lennie closed the curtains and sighed the way people do when they’ve been caught outside their hiding-hole and now must do their job. “Please, sit down.”
Renfield thanked him and sat down. And just as she was removing her hat and sunglasses she blurted out something that caused Lennie to freeze as he had begun to sit down behind his desk: “Bambi’s mother faked her death and ran off with Thumper’s father.”
Lennie held his paused position long enough to make Renfield wonder if he had died. He finally plopped heavily into his chair. “You’re employed by that Allison person, aren’t you?”
“Yes!” Renfield said, and she raised her arms and face in an expression of triumphant joy. “And no,” she said, instantly affecting a deflated form and boo-boo face. “That is why I have come to you. You see, promises were made by the ‘great authoress,’ yet those promises have yet to be kept. I had a featured role in one of her productions last winter, and I am supposed to star in a long postponed sequel. Sadly, she has gotten hung up relating a long winded tale about old peop—um, times. Old times.” This obvious stumbling over the term “old people” had been a rare slip of manners on Renfield’s part; Lennie will never see sixty again.
Harder things have been accomplished—people on the moon, tallying the holes necessary to fill the Albert Hall—but here Renfield had actually (though accidentally) caused the impossible to come true. Lennie for real smiled and the light of wit shone in his flinty, deep set eyes. “Is it ‘opium times’ or just ‘old times,’ or perhaps ‘old opium times are not soon forgotten’? It seems to me that the former and the latter may be more interesting than what lies in the middle. But since I’m an old per—um, timer, I doubt that my opinion carries as much weight as it used to.”
Renfield excels at bounce back and spin. Although her mouth often out paces her thoughts, her mind has an extra gear that allows her to catch up with the occasional faux pas and smooth it out as not to allow her misspeak to bloom into a conversational field of weeds. “I meant no offense,” she said with a demur bat of her pretty, almond-shaped green eyes. “I’m not accustomed to the company of maturity and keen wit. It’s just that the ‘great authoress’ [Oh, I hear the quotation marks] and her empty promises have me twisted up inside. Naturally, this is why I have sought the advice of a man of your worldly experience.”
Unvarnished butt kissing isn’t something that worldly and experienced Lennie has had a lot of in life. And man oh man, how Renfield can dish it out. Whether it’s by the dropper or by the shovel, she always knows the proper dosage. This caused the lamp light of wit to puff out in Lennie’s eyes. Expertly shepherded into compliance, he affected a somewhat patronizing, “Now, now, little lady, it’s quite all right,” type of attitude that had already been on shaky legs around the time of the dismissal of the hoop skirt.
Renfield immediately conjured a degree of moistness in her eyes which lay between “dewy” and the formation of actual tears—that pre-weeping “undiscovered country” of calculated behavior in which the fictional males of Lennie’s generation are instantly transformed into malleable stooges (it’s not a long trip to that hamlet-dotted land for persons such as Mr. Lennie).
“Do you know what my penname is up to at this very moment, right now, when she should be writing about me?” Renfield said bravely in a meek and defenseless tone neither heard nor imagined since the Dickensian ink spilled out “Little Nell.”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Lennie said as he searched his pockets for a clean handkerchief. “Nearly all the paperwork you see on my desk details her recent activities. She’s holding court with a six-foot-three-inch fictional character-imaginary friend rabbit named Harvey at a nearby pub. The rabbit is currently on leave from his occupation as an imaginary friend to a man named Elwood something or another because the man has once again entered a sanitarium. I’ve heard that after her second pint your penname does something called ‘going online’ to post inflammatory non-sequiturs and flat out lies that rail against ‘the powers that be’—One can read the drunken slur in her words. I’m told that the rabbit encourages this kind of behavior, for he has more than a trace of Iago in his soul. I have only the foggiest notion about what ‘online’ means—for I’m a pen and paper man myself. But I do understand that making public such sentiments as ‘Snow White uses PEDs to improve her dwarf toss’; or ‘Since Pluto is no longer a planet, is Mickey’s pet still considered a dog?’ are attracting unwanted attention from ‘The Ears’—who, as we both know, are lawyered up to the eyes. They know I’m her rep and sometimes send people around to speak to me. Miss Allison is one of the primary reasons we have hired the security force. Perhaps it’s time that someone does something about her.”
Renfield has the recuperative powers of a professional wrestler. “Right?” she said. And her irrepressible good nature exploded through her smile. “I say that you and I go down to that pub and put things the way that they ought to be.” She then toned down her smile a degree and made sincere eye contact with Lennie. “Have you ever been allowed to set foot outside this office, dear sir?”
Lennie pursed his lips and shook his head sadly. “No.”
She raced around to his side of the desk and took him by the hand. “Then we both have grievances to air. And to make our point all the clearer, I think we ought to take a security detail along.”
Part III: My horoscope said nothing about this.
Quickly’s Boar’s Head Inn is a successful franchise owned by the legendary Mistress. In the realm of pennames, imaginary friends and fictional characters, the dives are as plentiful as Starbucks in Seattle. Neither I nor anyone I know has ever actually met the great landlady, but her touch is everywhere. The Inns are low-ceilinged affairs that have wooden benches and tables and vast stone hearths. And although the Boar’s Head specializes in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century food and drink (mostly all things capon and sack), you can get just about anything that your heart desires—including free Wi Fi (just don’t refer to the female wait staff as “randy wenches,” they’re sensitive about that). The eclectic menu has worked out well for me because I’ve developed a passion for stout, which Google has informed me didn’t attain widespread popularity until after Shakespeare had shuffled off his mortal coil. I love stout. It gives me Fine Ideas and the courage I need to express them. Gleaning Fine Ideas from stout and then posting your genius online—how the universe got along for eons without this process in it is beyond my humble imagination.
“Well, here’s something new,” my pal Harvey said dryly.
“How’s that?” Already three tankards into my muse-of-choice, and further energized by the always trenchant observations made by wise Harvey, I was fiddling away on my smartphone linking a certain wooden, would-be-real boy to aluminum siding, thus unaware that uninvited shadows had landed on our table.
I glanced up and saw radiant Renfield, befuddled Lennie, a Brain from planet Arous (whom I’d recognized from a 50’s-era creature-feature), and a glowering two-dimensional “Thurber Woman” standing there (except the Brain, he or she or just plain it, hovered in mid-air). The dreaded Bluebird of Happiness was perched on Renfield’s shoulder like a dayglow, neon-blue accessory.
As you may have already guessed, strange sights are common at the Boar’s Head. Yet I turned to shrugging Harvey and then to my tankard of stout in a futile effort to find something to blame the hallucination on. I almost rose to poke Renfield in the shoulder to see if she was real, but the presence of the Bluebird of Happiness caused me to reconsider; I’ve seen that little son of a bitch remove more than one Moving Finger with its evil beak. Anyway, I knew that they were real—or as real as things get in the Boar’s Head. And I should have known that this day might come. As I stated earlier, FC’s are both abundant and prickly. They also have substantial egos because, unlike pennames and imaginary friends, they have a complete set of “parents.” You see, The Moving Finger writes FC’s, but for a proposed FC to become an actual FC, a second agent has to accept and publish them in some manner. Until then they are just “Ideas”—fine and otherwise.
“Hello, ‘great authoress,’” Renfield said, all charming-like, “May we join you?”
Epilogue: It’s now the hee- or sheebie-jeebies.
Well, there you have it. Clever Renfield has cast herself into the role of the Meek Oppressed and me into the thankless gig of “Da’ Man.” You’d think that somebody would be smart enough to see the sham for what it’s worth—but even cynical Harvey has sided with Renfield. The little Imp told her tale of woe, which, I think, but I cannot be one-hundred percent sure, was in some way enhanced by the Arousian gift of extreme hypnotism. What really sold the swamp land to Harvey, and the motley herd of customers who all gathered around to hear the fiction, was my perceived ill-treatment of Lennie—You know, ‘ She keeps him locked in a little room, denying him his full potential’—that sort of thing.
I mean it.
A writer’s life is wickedly hard. You do one good thing, and everyone goes ‘what great characters, they leap off the page at you,’ but few persons give credit to the writer. And when things go wrong the same crowd turns on the author as though he or she has left a burning bag of dog shit on every front porch from here to Arous, without as much as a snide syllable directed at the characters (oh, all right, perhaps I overstate, but not by much). It now falls to me to undo the suddenly popular notion that I’ll be a sure-fire, unanimous, first ballot selection for the Jerk Hall of Fame, ten minutes after I die. Renfield wins. She and Lennie will appear in a future production—make that ‘next production.’
Well, I’ve got to shake off the sheebie-jeebies and get to work. New promises have been made… The Wicked Witch of the West was right, “whatta world, whatta-world”… It’s an unjust place…. For instance, whenever anything needs to be given a shake, I think of Taylor Swift, which causes me to think about how sad it is that she is better known than the great Jonathan who had had the same surname… I bet that Taylor is actually a FC… That explains everything… Right now goddam Renfield is on the phone demanding that I stop rambling and get on with her production…Fellow writers, heed my warning: keep a careful cursor on the people that you think you make up out of thin air. According to the UPIFFC, the Moving Finger isn’t what it used to be.