22 August. According to my Writer’s Calendar it was Dorothy Parker’s birthday. Mrs. Parker was famous for her wit, light verse, stories, book and theatre reviews, A Star is Born, dogs, as well as alcoholism, suicide attempts, failed romances and a hodge-podge of emotional problems of varying severity. She was the sort of human who was aware that she was human and desperately wished to surrender and join the other side. Although she already knew that such a thing was tantamount to squaring the circle, it didn’t keep her from trying.
Have you ever admired a person from history whose low points are similar to your own and have the similarities stop right there? It struck me that Mrs. Parker might have felt the same way about herself when compared to Hemingway, which made me feel a little stronger; sometimes the sustenance of life is a thin gruel indeed.
I was just sitting there at my desk, vaping in the dark, pondering the narrowhearted ridiculousness of being and listening to the radio. It was 3:00 A.M. By Universal Law, music performed by the undefinable band Tool is played on the radio at three in the morning. There’s something deeply disturbing about Tool music. It tells your soul secrets that Katy Perry could never know:
“I’m just a worthless liar
I am just an imbecile
I will only complicate you
Trust in me and fail as well…”
Nope, ain’t no “kissed a girl” there.
I rose, went to the window and opened it. In the distance I saw the glow of enemy bonfires, and I thought I heard them singing. More Tool, which I’d quote but won’t in fear of attracting copyright lawyers. I squinted my eyes and tried to make out the shapes of the troops under my command. Barnyarders. Most who hadn’t already deserted appeared to be doing so, while the very few others were gathered in twos and threes around apathetic campfires, singing Katy Perry songs.
“Captain Renfield!” I called out. Recent acts of duplicity on her part have caused me to keep my chief Fictional Character, Miss Renfield, close at hand.
She entered the room singing “Hear me ro-ar, roar..”
“Don’t do that,” I said, “it scares Jesus. We might need Him. Bring my cloak?”
Renfield arched an eyebrow and laughed. She tossed me a fleece blanket smothered with cat hair. “I can’t believe you’re really going to try the old Henry the Fifth wandering through the troops the night before gag,” she said.
“Methinks it’s navery to insult the Queen,” I said, wrapping myself in the blanket, headed for the door. “‘Sides, Bill’s stuff is public domain. No copyright lawyers.”
“Well, if you must go out there, lose that dumb vape pen and beware the ides.”
“Wrong play,” said I.
My office in the realm of Pen Names, Imaginary Friends and Fictional Characters has two doors. The door my desk faces lets in a variety of pests, whom I have little or no control over, whilst the other leads to whatever imaginary vista I have created in my chromebook. In the past the back door has opened to barrooms, graveyards, hospitals, jail cells, churches, to hundreds of years ago and millions from now, brothels, haunted houses, Mars, and so on and so on. On that night it was a “far as the eyes can see” field, with a peek-a-boo mix of clouds and moonlight–my interpretation of a place that might have been 15th-century Agincourt.
The Druidic chant of Tool and the cellophane lyrics of Katy Perry merged to form a cacophonous hellwind ‘neath the moonlight. I damn near lit the end of my vape pen, which I cast aside with disgust, then I lit a smelly, dirty and in all ways wholesome cigarette.
I hate vaping, alas the Cry Baby Police won’t let the person who employs me as a Pen Name smoke indoors anymore. Although we are in no way the same person in soul, we share the same addictions out of necessity of the body. The first time “we” vaped we disregarded the instructions and huffed the equivalent of a carton of cigarettes within four hours. We spent three gibbering, phantom-filled days in our beds–skins the color of old paper, eyes like the shiny black backs of death tick beetles. We listened to a lot of Tool and enjoyed a steady stream of delusions of grandeur during our convalescence. Then I disengaged from my employer’s mind and hit on the idea of starting a war with myself to achieve Mainstream Success; in other words I meant to fight it out with my barriers, sins and personality defects and produce a marketable novel series, then buy my own island and smoke indoors with impunity.
Yes, the enemy across the field was composed of every sin, broken Commandment, nasty remark, bellicose email sent in response to rejection, weird premise, obsequity made for the sake of addiction, self indulgence, and any other deed or thought (including infinite clones of the seven deadlies) that stood between me and a career similar to that of J.K. Rowling. Lo and grimey! There was quite the mighty force across the way. We were to engage at dawn. Renfield figured that they outnumbered us by at least twenty to one.
I thought I’d go around in disguise, like King Henry on Agincourt Eve, to get a feel for the mood of the Fictional Characters I had designed to help me overcome my shortcomings and make me rich. Almost immediately I was stopped by a female mallard duck dressed like a Valkyrie, who was an obvious member of my loyal Barnyard Brigade; an LED lamp was attached to her helmet.
“Halt,” she said. “Friend or fowl?”
“It’s ‘friend or foe’,” I said.
She then leaned toward me and took in a beakful. “Have things decayed to the point that the Queen has conscribed talking blankets that smoke cigarettes and reek of cat urine?”
Then a pygmy goat wearing wayfarers and his beard dyed pink arrived on the scene. “What’s this, Derringer?” he asked the duck.
“Hold on, hold it, hold it,” I replied. “I’m a friend to you both.”
“You weren’t attached to the Queen’s ill-conceived Vampire-twaffe, were you?” the goat asked.
It was a good thing that I was covered by the blanket, or my blush would have given me away. One of my foibles is whenever I have a Big Idea I get so wrapped up in the overall grandeur of it that I fail to think it out fully. Vampires are big sexy money. So what better than to stock my army and profitable novel series with thousands of them? Unfortunately, Universal Law dictates that all battles of the soul commence at dawn, without exception. I guess you have already figured out the rest.
“I serve under Captain Renfield,” I said, resigned to the fact that Renfield’s name carried more weight with these guys than my own.
They brightened. Yet as it went with Dorothy Parker, a serving of fresh hell was dumped on my plate.
“If so let’s get the parlay started,” said the duck.
“Yeah,” added the goat, “we can ransom what’s her name right now and go back to bed.”
“Don’t tell me that Captain Renfield has rolled over to the other side, in the last five minutes,” I said. “Where’s loyalty to the Queen?”
“‘Queen’?” the goat laughed. “Do you mean the person who promised us all roles in the Great American Novel Franchise if we duked it out with her personality? And who is the same person who’d forgotten that battles of the soul are fought only at dawn and that, at best, Vampires have no power during the day–even though she’d stocked the army with them?”
“I don’t recall anyone pointing that out to the Queen,” I said. “She has a lot on her mind, and not enough tobacco in her system–she can’t remember everything.”
“We thought she had a secret plan,” said the duck.
“Only secret known to her is the recipe for sorrow,” said the goat. And both laughed the low laughter of the barnyarders.
I was about to launch into a moving speech that would’ve roused the bones of the dead to join me in my cause, but like it must’ve been for Mrs. Parker, I find it difficult to adapt to the ways of the motivational speaker. I fail to form words that can rouse anybody for the same reason I can’t write love songs: ‘tis an unnatural and political gift to convincingly deliver thoughts you do not believe in.
As I struggled to cobble together a feasible stream of grand lies, it suddenly got brighter. I slowly spun around on my heels and discovered that I was surrounded by my own troops–all but one a barnyarder, all wearing LED helmets. Thirteen in all, these guys were Fictional Characters (FC’s) created by my hand to do my bidding. Along with the duck and goat, there were three pigs, a cow, two weird looking little chickens, a donkey, a Jim Croce fan gander I’d created during my vape coma named “Rapid Roy” (with a tattoo on one wing that says “Mama” and on the other it just says “Hey”), a second duck, this one sporting an ill-fitting Minnesota Vikings’ helmet, a nanny pygmy goat, and a non-barnyarder personage known as “The Photobomb Fairie.” This was all that was left of my army after all the Vampires, Spirits, people, cats, Robo dwarf fighting hamsters and dogs had deserted me.
I flung aside my cloak and with chin up I displayed my royal magnificence. No one had been fooled, they had already known that it was I. And it was hard to look regal with a tuft of cat hair attached to my nose.
Now, I’m used to a certain amount of rebellion from my FC’s; I endowed them with Free Will to make things interesting. But I had never realized just how much trouble Free Will could cause until the former Union of Pen Names and Imaginary Friends expanded and took in all Fictional Characters about a year after I had given my FC’s autonomy. To illustrate just how powerful and vast the FC element is in the union I ask that you imagine a butterfly in spats named Gary. Guess what? Now there’s a Free Willed, be-spatted butterfly named Gary in the Union of Pen Names, Imaginary Friends and Fictional Characters. That’s what–but not so fast, union rules require that I, as a Pen Name, must offer the role of Gary to already extant FC’s of my creation before Gary may have his own identity or a role in a story. This means that my FC’s are extremely interested in what I create, as such affects their careers.
The overdose vaping incident left me a bit off my game and prevented me from handling the situation in the usual way. You see, everything we produce in our realm is shot like a movie from a script outline that is ever changing. This is where my problem with Free Will comes in. I write the script, direct the action and my FC’s play along until one or two of them get the notion that they can do a better job, or they go whining to the goddam union about me. The only real power I have over them is the script, and when someone displays a little too much Free Will for his or her own good, I pull out my phone and suggest that “we alter” the whiner’s role in the production. Past alterations have included electrocution and a threat of a meteor to the head. But just as I was about to extract my phone that little witch of a Photobomb Fairie flew into my pocket, snagged it then delivered it to a knight in black armor who’d just rode in on a Segway.
The knight was attended by the Bluebird of Happiness, who is the lyingist little son of a bitch ever to take wing. The knight dismounted the Segway and lifted her visor. Of course, it was Captain Renfield. Everyone present who had a knee took one in her honor, except Yours Truly.
“Funny, I don’t recall a scene where everybody kisses your traitorous ass,” I said. Then I smiled manically and added, “As far as the phone goes, BFD. Ain’t one of you guys a recognized Pen Name.”
“We know all that, darling,” Renfield said. “But we would like to have a little talk with you before we continue this, um, opus. As soon as we come to an understanding approved by our union, I’ll give back the phone.”
“So, am I to understand that theft is approved by our union?” I asked.
“Theft is such an ugly word,” said Renfield. “We call it Democratic Socialism.”
“All right, barnyarder princess,” I sighed. “Let’s adjourn to the round table.”
The round table lay in the barnyard. It had nothing in common with Camelot or the Algonquin, in fact it was actually a rectangle whose corners had broken off over the years. The first thing I noticed when I sat down at the table was the nanny goat’s reluctance to sit anywhere near the billy with the shades and dyed beard. She climbed into my lap, her tiny, sharp hooves tattooing my thighs.
“Trouble in paradise, Daisy?” The Photobomb Fairie, who was seated in a tiny throne to my immediate left, asked the nanny.
“Tom’s such a gross eater,” said the little nanny with a wave of a hoof at the billy, who was seated at the other end of the table. “It would be all right if not for the flatulence.”
“Nannies seldom take grasses with billies who pass gases,” said I.
Daisy nodded politely, as though humoring a dotty old relation who’d just spouted nonsense. But the Fairie seemed offended by my remark; she glared at me and lifted her wand menacingly.
“What? Whatcha gonna do?” I said. “Dude, you’re four-inches long. If you were a trout I’d have to throw you back.”
As previously stated, I’m not big on thinking ahead. But Renfield prevented the minute “Magickcian” (that’s what she calls herself: “Muh-JICK-shun”–says it just like that) from showing me what she had up her wand.
“Now, now, Mab, no spells, please,” Renfield said from the other end of the table, “we all know you’re a bigger Magickcian than that.”
“As you wish,” the Photobomb Fairie said demurely. But under her breath she hissed “Anything more like that and you’ll spend the rest of this story as a bale of alfalfa.”
“Thought I told you a few stories back not to call her ‘Mab,’” I said to Renfield, hooking a thumb at the Photobomb Fairie. “Thought I told you that it would give her big ideas.”
“If you really felt that way you wouldn’t have given her Free Will,” quacked the duck in the Viking’s helmet.
“Yeah,” honked the gander named Rapid Roy.
Here the pigs and the chickens, and the donkey and the cow, and everyone who had yet to speak were to recite lines, but they all went “Narco”–including the Bluebird of Happiness. Daisy the nanny goat was snoring in my lap, and the rest of the Barnyard Brigade had fallen fast asleep on their hooves and in their chairs. Only Renfield, the Photobomb Fairie and I remained awake. And I noticed a thin trail of smoke emanating from my phone where it lay on the table in front of Renfield.
“Shit and cut” I said with a huge sigh. “There goes my career as a rich novelist. Guess one of us ought to explain to the readers what has just happened before I call it a wrap,” I added, gently patting Daisy on the head.
“Let’s have Mab explain,” Renfield said.
“Sure, fine, whatever. And keep calling her Mab, why should I care? Seems fitting that a four-inch Fictional Character Photobomb Fairie should tell the world my great shame and failure.”
Although the Photobomb–Mab is about the size of the average thumb when viewed at arm’s length, she has a loud mouth and plenty to say. Since the mass Narco event left my phone in the same condition Vesusvious had left Pompeii, the only control I had over her was the word limit. This piece had a budget of three-thousand words, I informed Mab that she had two-hundred-forty words to spend, and prayed to Jesus that she’d bring it home under five-hundred.
“It’s like this, dear readers,” said Mab, “our esteemed Pen Name cannot for long sustain more than three, sometimes four characters in a conversation at the same time. There are sixteen of us seated at this table. As soon as the second duck and the gander joined a conversation which already contained our Pen, Daisy, Captain Renfield and my magnificence the scene shorted out the phone and caused all but three of us to go Narco–which means, out like a light, catching zees, beddy-bye or even ‘night-night.’”
“Furthermore, our Pen claims that her stories are produced like movies, which is mostly true, except she neglects to mention that like a pilot flying in fog she must keep a spatial image of what’s going on in her mind during composition or risk having the whole mess go down in flames, which, of course, is exactly what happened here.”
Mab seemed like she had more to say, but I mumbled “Cut and print.” Then we put the barnyarders to bed, raised the white flag and I slunk back to my office. There was no more Tool or Katy Perry heard that night. The only sound was that of the wind futilely shrieking in to fill the bottomless vacuum of my soul.
Renfield popped in and removed the NO SMOKING sign. I lit up. I’ve fourteen words left in the budget. Behold the one word meaning of life: