Modern Communications Techniques in Des Moines (and other stories

)

Modern Communications Techniques in Des Moines (and other stories) Gary Britson

Murphy’s Law Press 2009

Also by Gary Britson The Courthouse Record Store

© Gary Britson, 2009 All rights reserved Modern Communications Techniques in Des Moines (and other stories) is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher. ISBN 0-9754308-6-6 Cover design by Matt St. Amand Printed and bound in USA Published 2009 by Murphy’s Law Press www.murphyslawpress.com

For Tom McHale (1942 – 1982)

Contents
What’s Been Going On In Des Moines Lately, Probably A Job For Gotsdiner Modern Communications Techniques In Des Moines Problems In Political Commentary Vis A Vis Secondary Education In Des Moines A Brief History Of The Insurance Business In Des Moines 2 Brothers Respect the System Dining In Des Moines: Zombies At The Salad Bar 8 12 28 34 38 40 42 49

What’s Been Going On In Des Moines Lately, Probably Now that summer is over and everyone is back from the Green Day tour, I thought I’d go over some of the stuff that’s been happening in Des Moines lately, if you’re still interested. Legal Update: I am pleased to announce that the City Council has finally outlawed Dixieland bands from the County Fair if two or more members of said band are retired accountants. There were just too many of them and they were getting in the way. My dog Oates: She wasn’t really lost. She was just over at the union hall, digging up Jimmy Hoffa again. I didn’t mean to worry everyone when I sounded the alarm last spring, but she’s just about the only one around here who’ll give me the time of day any more since I went on probation. My brother Earl: Now that he’s back from his tour of duty overseas, we’re doing just what his doctors told us to do: Keep him supplied with plenty of cold Old Milwaukee and don’t make any sudden noises. Let him sit by the TV and sop up the suds and take it easy. Since this is pretty much the way he’d lived before he enlisted, things around here haven’t changed all that much. Earl is considering various options, such as furthering his education. Right now he’s got it narrowed down to the DeVry Institute and Harvard Divinity School. Depends on which one will give him adequate funding. Personally, I’d go for the technical training, as there isn’t much call around here for theologians, now that everyone has cable and can watch Believers Voice of Victory whenever they want. Besides, we’ve got old Elmer Rudge down to the Seventh Day Adventists, and like my Dad always said, one Duns Scotus expert in a town is enough. I always liked medieval scholastics, but they do tend to go on a bit. Thomas Pynchon: He really got everyone’s dander up at the County Fair last summer, setting up that autograph booth right next to the ball park and giving free autographed first editions of Gravity’s Rainbow just to spite me for not letting him on the softball team, on account of I didn’t want him hanging around my sister any more. I just don’t think he’s a good influence on her. When word got out that he’d be doing a nightly book signing, all those skinny girls from the junior college descended on the town and folks wanting to go to the softball tournament couldn’t find a place to park. I’d rather have a shortstop who can’t discuss postmodernism than some stuck-up little geek who won’t even accept an invitation to appear on Oprah. It’s not my fault he can’t hit a change-up.

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The Nobel Peace Prize: Once again the community has banded together to formally nominate our own Sheriff Roy Albrecht for the Nobel Peace Prize. This year we got it submitted in the right kind of envelope and to the right address. The ladies of the church got together and did the calligraphy and also provided the ribbons. Anyone who can keep the peace five years running at the Zoo Bar deserves some recognition. I know Roy’s not as famous as some of those laureates, but I don’t see how you can give a Peace Prize to someone who’s never even run for sheriff. Annals of Justice: You probably saw in the paper how our own Ames Nickelsworth got his plumbing lethally ventilated by a blast from the shotgun of his neighbor, Walt Croolly. Walt was convicted of murder one two years ago, as you know, but over the summer the homos on the Iowa Supreme Court said he didn’t do it after all and gave him a new trial. Of course, all the real men were out of town for the summer following the Green Day tour and who was left to man the jury? Bunch of socialists and Seventh Day Adventists and kids working at Wal-Mart. I mean, get real. Anyway, Walt got a new trial and they convicted him of manslaughter, a real slap on the wrist. He’ll be out of prison in a year or two. Word has it that down to the prison, his dance card has been pretty full the last couple of years. My Little League Team: We changed our name from the Wildcats to the Badass Mutant Disciples, but we still lost to St. Mary’s 21-3. It was closer than it sounds. We’d have made the playoffs if we’d won a game, I’m convinced. Health issues: Have you noticed that since AIDS came and went, nobody ever talks about getting the clap any more? They used to talk about it all the time, especially Nestor, but I think he was just bragging. Probation: It’s not as bad as you might think. My probation officer is a pleasant lady, but I have to call her Ms. Sanderson and she won’t go to the movies with me. She says she’ll have me revoked if I ask her again. Women. Go figure. The arts: The high school production of The Phantom of the Opera hit a snag, on account of they couldn’t get the rights. They decided to do it anyway. Shirley and her sister had the album and their Aunt Melanie over in Omaha saw it and remembered a lot of the talk, so they just put their heads together and figured out some stuff to say between songs, but after a couple weeks of rehearsals they got a call from a guy who claimed that the guys who wrote the show would sue our eyeballs out if we sold tickets, on account of the rights hadn’t been purchased and are not, in fact, even available. So we wrote him a nice letter saying we’ll do Carousel instead, but then we’ll go ahead and do The Phantom of the Opera anyway. I personally don’t think a bunch of fruits in New York give a rat’s wazoo if
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we do The Phantom of the Opera anyway. They just wanted to get a nice letter. There’s nothing much in this world that can’t be fixed with a nice letter. It always worked with my Aunt Sally and it will work here, I am sure. Actually, I like Carousel better anyway. My favorite is still Anyone Can Whistle, though, but I have never been able to drum up any interest in it around here, on account of what happened at the gym the last time Steve Sondheim came to town. The less said about that the better, in my opinion. Meanwhile, pre-production plans for my long-awaited staging of Dialogues of the Carmelites are almost complete. Mindy’s doing the sets and Ed is looking for a guillotine. He thinks there’s one in his Uncle Lyle’s barn. I wouldn’t be surprised. Old Lyle has always gotten a funny look in his eye around Bastille Day. Law: Sheriff Leo was arresting guys for speeding and driving drunk and then they were going downtown and getting the charges dropped on account of the deputy kept forgetting to show up for the trial or the evidence was tainted with suppressions or some such. So Leo hit upon what appears to be a good idea. He arrests a guy and then instead of taking them to Court he just brings them over here and lets Harold give them a good talking to. After five minutes of his admixture of The Synoptic Gospels, Thomas Pynchon (again, that guy just won’t go away) and his speech about Hillary, the poor guys always end up paying about what they’d pay in court, only we get to keep the money for beer. I’m thinking about going to law school, but Mom says I have to finish high school first. Between coaching little league, shooting the breeze with my probation officer and keeping Thomas Pynchon away from my sister, I don’t have time to go to high school. Life is one thing after another. Amelia Earhart: She died last month, in case you’re interested. She’d lived out to Smiling Cedars Care Facility. She worked there, you know, for about 50 years as a nurse’s aide and part-time water-skiing instructor, and then when she took sick she became a patient. She came to town because she had heard that Des Moines was a nice quiet place to write one’s memoirs, but what with nursing and water-skiing and what-not, I don’t think she ever got around to it. Judge Crater came to the funeral, but hardly anyone else. Don’t tell him I told you. The Maynard Boy: He got back from Iraq in August. Seems fine, except he appears to think he’s George C. Scott in the first reel of Patton. Spends most of his time at the Legion Hall, talking about the Battle of El Alamein. He’ll be fine after we have a church supper for him next Saturday and he has a double helping of Alice’s Chicken Tetrazzini with sauerkraut and beer. Anyone’s ever been a little out of touch with reality, that always brings them around. Everybody’s welcome, but this may be one of those events that is not suited for family viewing.
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The Rossman Boy: He came home from Iraq last Friday. Services will be Tuesday at eleven, with a church supper in the basement after. Edith’s making pie.

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A Job For Gotsdiner Gotsdiner lost his cozy job after twenty-seven years. All sorts of inadequate reasons were given: the industry was retooling its paradigms, his mentors were dead or retired, the computers were down, there was not enough work, there was too much work, the market needed correcting, the new governor was a schmuck, there was a power struggle, the times they were a-changin’, nobody seemed to know. The excuses ran on and on, as endless as history, but not nearly so entertaining. Gotsdiner, however, knew the truth: they fired him because, for no particular reason, they could no longer stand the sight of him. So they canned him, and there he was, age fifty and out on the street. You want a good laugh sometime? Answer a “Help Wanted” ad, and tell them you’re fifty years old and you’re looking for a new job. You’ll hear a lot of things, but “Welcome aboard!” ain’t one of them. Gotsdiner sat by the phone and waited for calls of consolation and regret from his boon companions. It didn’t take long to realize that these calls were not forthcoming. If it’s true that nobody knows you when you’re down and out, it’s true in spades that nobody knows you when you’re a slightly graying fifty and out of work. Gotsdiner sent out 279 resumes to total strangers in the private sector and waited. While he waited, he watched TV. It was even worse than he remembered. Everybody there, it seemed, wanted to sell him car insurance, although he could no longer afford a car. Lithe young actresses peddled exercise machines, on which Gotsdiner knew he would last five minutes, tops, before the old ticker called it quits. Many other commercials he could not understand at all. He could not tell what they were trying to sell him. Images rocketed by him, accompanied by music that seemed to have been performed on a dentist’s drill. They had guitars now that sounded like jackhammers. The commercials left him feeling exhausted and confused. And, of course, old. Most of the total strangers to whom Gotsdiner sent his resumes responded. They sent him letters. Gotsdiner referred to these as T.S.G. letters. Thank you, Sorry, Good luck. They all said that. But Gotsdiner knew that T.S.G. didn’t really mean Thank you, Sorry, Good luck. T.S.G. really meant Tough Shit Get lost. In his long-gone youth, Gotsdiner recalled, companies had Personnel Departments. These entities were now as dead as Woodstock. They had been replaced by Human Resources Departments. They were staffed by ecstatic, cruel twenty-one-year-old Caligulas and Borgias who took one

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look at Gotsdiner and figured he was there to ask for retirement information. “I don’t want to retire,” he said. “I want a job.” Most of them tried not to laugh in his face, but some couldn’t help it. Their laughter caromed down the corridors like crude weapons as Gotsdiner retreated. Whenever he got a T.S.G. letter, which was often, he considered sending an arch, sarcastic reply, something brimming with well-tooled malice and charming vitriol. But he refrained. Why bother? He knew that no one in any Human Resources department could read. Gotsdiner called one of his oldest and dearest friends, the executive director of a local firm of substance. Gotsdiner greeted him warmly. “Who?” the friend asked, disbelief and fear mingling in his voice. Gostsdiner repeated his unlikely name, but the friend was drawing a blank. “Who?” the friend wailed. “I’m looking for a job, old buddy,” Gotsdiner said, recounting old college days and drunken frolics and suspicious misadventures of youth, in which he and the old friend had often been partners and co-conspirators. “Who?” the friend cried. “It’s Gotsdiner,” Gotsdiner said. “I’m looking for a job.” The friend was speechless. When it comes to job-hunting, nobody is anybody’s friend. Gotsdiner listened to the silence, and when it became too loud, he gently hung up. If friends greeted his inquiries with deafening apathy, the total strangers were sadists, honing their skills of treachery and betrayal to points of exquisite fineness. The world, it seemed, was now run by nineteen-year-old girls. They answered the phones, they occupied the receptionists’ desks, they snarled, irritated at Gotsdiner for showing up just as they were about to repair to the ladies’ room to take yet another home pregnancy test. When Gotsdiner had entered the job market, it had been run by men in their forties and fifties. Where had they all gone? Gotsdiner called old employers, old professors, old roommates, seeking counsel and advice, but the old employers were either dead or in the nuthouse, the old professors were on permanent retreat, and the roommates were either in prison or unemployed themselves. A few old acquaintances had risen to spectacular heights in the world of big business, but, like his former oldest and dearest friend, they were so terrified of losing their positions that they had surrounded themselves with an impenetrable phalanx of toadies, yesmen, goombahs and nineteen-year-old girls, whose collective job was to keep Gotsdiner away, at bay, far, far away. Gotsdiner decided to improve his employability by buying a new suit, but the clothiers who had for years clad his lumpy and inadequate frame
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informed him, without a trace of regret, that he could no longer afford them, and that he would now have to take his custom elsewhere, like to the Salvation Army. Gotsdiner did not feel that he had actually changed much since the axe had fallen. But everyone else had. Once-cheerful countermen and grocery clerks now gave him the evil eye. Merchants with whom he had exchanged light and witty banter now wouldn’t give him the time of day. They seemed, in fact, to resent his business, on the theory, apparently, that Gotsdiner was swathed in bad luck and that it might rub off. He quit dining out, bought little or nothing, stayed home, watched TV. TV had changed since Gotsdiner’s youth, when there had been three channels. Now there were at least seven hundred. There were special channels devoted to religion, pastry, exercise, iffy real estate practices, athletics, classical music, fishing. Some channels showed nothing but the black-and-white comedies and dramas of his ancient youth. Gotsdiner had disliked this crap in the fifties, and he disliked it now. Time, which worked wonders for cheese, wine, and certain mutual funds, did absolutely nothing for stale and unconvincing jokes. The announcers who introduced this dreck, though, seemed entranced by it. They spoke of old episodes of Leave It To Beaver and The Munsters with the wonder and awe that should have been reserved for promoting Die Zauberflote at Covent Garden. Gotsdiner wondered why the Library at Alexandria was gone, but reruns of I Love Lucy were readily available at any time of the day or night. It had once been customary to teach young men Greek and Latin, as a matter of course. Now young men were taught the dialogues of long-dead gag-men with names like Morty and Art. It occurred to Gotsdiner that his philosophical reflections were naught but the musings of a prematurely aging misanthrope, and he resolved to change his ways. A tall order, in Gotsdiner’s case. Gotsdiner’s Case: The People vs. Gotsdiner. A case for the ages, and his was fifty. Therefore, his guilt was presumed. Guilty of being too old. Why had the world turned against him? His old friend Priscilla, once the light of his life and now a local financier and mover-and-shaker who was way too successful to be concerned with the likes of him, shed some light on the subject one afternoon, returning a call he had made a month or two earlier. “Because you don’t amount to a hill of beans, hot stuff. Never did,” Priscilla trilled, her voice unnecessarily cheery and bright. The cheer of money, Gotsdiner knew. She had a lot of it, knew how to get it, always had and always would. Even in their antique youth, Gotsdiner knew, she had sensed that any investment in his future would be unwise and hilariously unprofitable. Once a squeeze—perhaps even a main one, in the
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nanosecond of their abortive courtship—Gotsdiner knew he was not even a footnote to her history now. Which was why she had returned his call, after a hefty wait. To mock him, in the manner exclusive to the dizzying heights of executive suitedom. “How’s about a job, for old time’s sake?” Gotsdiner said, trying to sound concerned, rather than desperate, hopeful rather than doomed. Priscilla’s laugh was a noon whistle, a rebel yell, the triumphant trumpet of a jungle predator. “I wouldn’t hire you to drain my pool, Gotsy,” she cried. “I’m all in favor of ‘old time’s sake’ and all that other sentimental horseshit. But you? Where the hell would our industry put an unemployed bureaucrat who’s, what, fifty now?” “Fifty, same as you,” Gotsdiner said, reflecting that he had heard the voice of doom a few times in his life, but never from his very own voice box. Priscilla whooped. She was having entirely too much fun with Gotsdiner’s misfortune. “Nothing, honey,” she said, cracking up, holding the phone away from her ebullient and no-doubt slightly chubby face long enough to regain her composure, “nothing, about you, is the same as me.” The concept of Gotsdiner being in any way her peer engulfed her once again, and she collapsed in mirth. Gotsdiner held the phone away from his burning ear. Since his dismissal, everyone seemed to be laughing all the time. He hadn’t remembered that much laughter from the halcyon days of his prosperity. He waited for her to recover from this attack of the giggles, but when it seemed certain that hers was a terminal case, he gently returned his useless phone to its cradle and took a nap. At day’s end, the mailman brought him a fistful of letters from uninterested employers. They wrote to tell Gotsdiner of their sorrow. They were all sorry. Gotsdiner could almost see the tear-stains on the boilerplate pages. But they were also grateful. Thank you, they wrote. Thank you. Their gratitude slopped all over the place, like spaghetti sauce on a fresh white shirt. And Good Luck. That was the worst part. Good luck. If you wanted me to have good luck, Gotsdiner mused, you’d just give me the goddamn job and keep your sorrow to yourself. And how am I to use your unwanted, unrequested, un-asked-for sorrow? Where can I spend it? On the dizzyingly false theory that he was just killing time until he “found something”—as everyone said he would: “You’ll find something! Hang in there!”—Gotsdiner took a job at the post office. He lasted one whole week and part of another until conceding that it wasn’t the snow, the rain, or the dark of night that was keeping him from the swift completion
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of his appointed rounds, but rather the militaristic, not to mention dictatorial, not to mention fascist, nature of the management, which drove him to the voluntarily resumption of his unemployment, his idleness, his sloth. Somewhere between the diplomacy of Idi Amin and the patience of Vlad the Impaler lay the character of his supervisors. They had all served with distinction in the army, so they said. And they made it clear to Gotsdiner that only proud veterans of the various illegal wars in which his country had engaged during the last thirty years or so were morally worthy of federal employment, that they and they alone packed the ethical and patriotic gear needed to deliver mountains of unwanted junk mail to the housewives of his town. They had no use for his dearth of military experience, and what they perceived to be a latently pacifistic, i.e. commie, mind set, and when he at last pointed out that of the entire local postal corps, he and he alone had packed the brains to figure out a way to stay the hell out of the army, that, as they say, was that. Gotsdiner went home and turned on the TV. He watched reruns of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, whose teenage characters with names like Maynard G. Krebs and Zelda Gilroy, faced with the first rumblings of a disquieting world, smiled and said “Surely you jest” in moments of stress. It seemed to work for them. There were times when Gotsdiner himself, rattling around the house in despondent—and, increasingly, alcoholic—despair, found himself muttering these very words. After a morning of being rejected by an endless host of haughty H.R. teenagers, Gotsdiner shouted “Surely you jest!” at no one in particular. He went to a local print shop and ordered a Surely You Jest rubber stamp in capital letters. For a week, he spent time every afternoon stamping this new motto on the T.S.G. letters he received and returning them to the baffled senders. It didn’t improve his standing in the local job market, but at this point he didn’t particularly care. He decided to engage in some soul-searching, although he had always felt in close touch with his soul. Sometimes the damn thing wouldn’t go away, like a stale lover or the flu. Nevertheless, he searched. To start with the obvious: Gotsdiner wasn’t very smart and he didn’t really know anything. This wasn’t as bad as it sounded. Lots of men of high rank and wealth were airheads. Some didn’t even have air, were dying from oxygen deprivation, and it didn’t keep them from reaping every benefit their God could think to shower upon them. Smarts and knowledge were overrated. Just look at TV, at the success of Morty and Art, Herman Munster, the lizards who sold car insurance. In a world where Greek was eschewed in favor of boys named Beaver, what the hell did a guy need with smarts? He was generous, too. He gave fifty dollars to Jerry’s Kids every Labor Day, and five bucks to the paper boy at Christmas. He had never
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beaten anyone up and only insulted people who definitely had it coming to them. He brushed after every meal. He was kind to animals, benevolent to the poor, courteous to the halt, deferential to the elderly. He didn’t drink much, rarely threw up in public and was not nearly as much of a sexist pig as he had been in his salad days. Why wouldn’t anyone give him a job? “Why should anyone give you a job?” asked the thirtyish headhunter to whose firm Gotsdiner paid beaucoup bucks to rustle up some employment for him. He filled out their reams of paperwork, answered their puerile questions, submitted to their sophomoric philosophizing, took their tests, breathed the sodden and excessively conditioned air of their high-rise. And now this little punk in his pinstripes and his pink shirt and the tie with cartoon characters on it was looking down his nose at Gotsdiner, asking why anyone would hire him. Gotsdiner didn’t despise the young any more than he despised anyone else, but lately he was beginning to despise anyone else a great deal, everyone else, you name it, especially when they challenged his right to work. Especially when he paid them cash money to find him a job and the best they could do was ask idiot questions. He explained to the young man that he should be hired because he had an impeccable work record, perfect attendance, high standards, outstanding production, great personal hygiene and an unblemished record of being an all-around nice guy. Then he tipped over the guy’s chair—with the guy still in it—and went home. Gotsdiner went shopping. The streets were filled with cars, the stores were filled with men and women his own age and younger. Why weren’t they working? They couldn’t be unemployed. They looked too healthy, too clean and sober, too motivated. Motivated by what? By early retirement, of course. Nowadays, you got yourself a great job the day after you got your diploma, and fifteen years later you were a man or woman of leisure. It hadn’t been that way in Gotsdiner’s day. Not, come to think of it, that he’d ever really had a day, but if he’d had, it certainly didn’t include retirement at 36. Back then, you struggled to find some low-life job to pay off your student loan. Forty years later, if you lived, you might be able to quit work and spend the rest of your days in the modest home you’d sweated decades to pay for. Now the book stores and their concomitant de rigueur coffee shops were filled with 36-year-old millionaires. They stocked up on Proust and Jane Austen to read on their next Hawaiian extravaganzas, their perpetual vacations. What did they do with these books? Gotsdiner knew they didn’t read them. Used them as props, probably, furnishing an imaginary life of the mind.
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Gotsdiner applied for a job as a book store clerk. He filled out the forms in a fine professional hand, then went home and waited. Nobody called to ask him to report for work first thing Monday. What kind of a world was it where a well-educated professional man with twenty-seven years of experience couldn’t get the kind of clerical job traditionally reserved for teenagers or doddering retirees? A new world, that’s what kind of world. A new one, in which Gotsdiner had no place. Weary of considering himself unemployed, Gotsdiner decided to change tactics. He would now consider himself retired. Retired sounded better than unemployed. It didn’t mean anything much. He was still broke, still graying, and still couldn’t get laid in the proverbial whorehouse, but when he looked in the mirror he could see definite possibilities for becoming a successful old coot. He would sit on park benches and mock the ambitious. He would play shuffleboard and bitch about the government and welfare. He could dawdle for hours over a single cup of coffee at the diner. The flabby waitress would be known as Marge and she would call him Hon. He would leave her a dime tip. But after a couple of hours, the whole scenario left Gotsdiner reeling with a fierce blend of nausea and vertigo. He abandoned the concept of cootdom. Besides, there were no park benches any more (the parks were way too dangerous), the shuffleboard courts had been razed to make room for juvenile detention centers, and welfare wasn’t really such a bad idea these days. Gotsdiner’s neighbors, the Hendersons, bought a dog. He was a big guy. They named him Duke, probably after John Wayne, but Gotsdiner couldn’t be sure. The neighbors’ children were little girls, way too small to walk a big dog like that. And mom and dad worked all day and were probably too tired at day’s end to go for a walk. Gotsdiner looked out his kitchen window in the morning and saw the jumbo puppy sitting in his yard, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for a party, a job, some kind of action. It seemed mean to keep him waiting, but human and corporate cruelty had worked such a savage number on Gotsdiner’s own spirit that he had almost become inured to pain. Almost. There remained a soupcon of sympathy left in him. The dog sensed a soft touch next door and stared at Gotsdiner’s house. Feeling sorry for the pooch, who languished ignored and unloved in the neighbors’ yard, Gotsdiner volunteered to walk him during the day. It wasn’t as if he had anything else to do. The man of the house accepted the offer immediately. The guy clearly hadn’t wanted the dog in the first place, and had only caved in under severe pressure from the wife and kids, who probably had various romantic notions about the joys of pet ownership but no actual interest in
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the daily nuts and bolts realities of canine maintenance. So it fell to Gotsdiner to walk the dog. Duke was black and brown and white, part Huskie, maybe a drop of German Shepherd blood in there somewhere, and strong as a bull. He could have pulled a sled through arctic terrain with joy and ease; dragging an aging jobless old guy through the sunny streets was no problem at all. Gotsdiner bought his own leash, a sturdy black canvas strap, and it got a workout, for once Duke got over his initial shyness he expected to be walked every day, two or three times per day if possible, and why wasn’t it possible? The dog seemed to know a sucker when he saw one. He knew Gotsdiner was unemployed and had nothing else to do. He read Gotsdiner like a dime novel. The dog’s eyes were knowing and pure, and they spoke: Why not walk me? Why vegetate in sloth and despondency when you can breathe fresh air, exercise those atrophying limbs and do something useful for a change? Everybody loves doggies and nobody loves you. Come walk with me. Let us be happy. Let us find friendship. He was hard to argue with. Hard to resist, too. Everyone loved Duke. They liked his name, heard in it suggestions of dignity and grandeur one didn’t see every day in these gray and pointless streets. John Wayne, the Blue Devils, Mr. Ellington: the dog’s name came from a long line of winners. Duke was a winner. Everyone loved him. Some of this respect, if not exactly affection, rubbed off on Gotsdiner. People who would never otherwise have given him the time of day greeted him as he walked, just as an excuse for saying hello to and greeting and petting Duke. Some of them called Duke The Dukester, Dukerino. The dog was a hit, the kind of hit Gotsdiner had never even thought about being. For the first time in recent memory, folks were actually nice to Gotsdiner. The dog’s good fortune at being rescued from the kennel had rubbed off on him. Of course, there were drawbacks. Duke made more pit stops in an hour than Gotsdiner made in a week, or so it seemed. Other walkers carried with them little plastic bags in which to scoop up the offending material, but he figured he was already carrying enough refuse around with him as it was—toting, as he did, truckloads of frustration, anger and guilt throughout his solitary and impecunious days. He had burdens enough. He drew the line at toting offal. It was, after all, biodegradable. Nature melted it down. It deliquesced. It would have been different if Duke had eliminated toxic waste, but he didn’t. What was the big deal? Gotsdiner let the animal act as nature had designed it to act, without objection, correction or plastic bags. At first, Gotsdiner walked Duke once a day, usually after shaving, bathing, staring at his sad and silly resume—a document that lingered on
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his computer like a lifeless leaf on a November tree—and engaging in a couple hours of intense self-pity and professional grief. He watched Leave It to Beaver, The Munsters, maybe Sanford and Son or Dobie Gillis. Then he edited his resume—that existential chronicle of despair; even Sartre couldn’t pack so much hopelessness into a single page—added a few adjectives, exaggerated a few references, expanded on reality, mixed memory and desire. Then threw in the towel. He knew when he was licked. Time for a walk. Gotsdiner trudged. Ahead of him, Duke pranced. He strutted. The dog was way too young to realize what a bottomless mire the world was. He thought it was a nice place. Wait ’til he finds out the truth, Gotsdiner thought. He’ll have to learn despair on his own, however. I’m not going to teach it to him. Pedestrians of all ages and creeds stopped to pet Duke the Dog. Curmudgeons, career cynics, psychopaths, parolees, wackos and malcontents alike all shed their sociopathic tendencies for a few seconds when they met Duke on the street. He melted hearts, impressed the jaded, charmed the troubled and brought joy everywhere. He was everybody’s friend. He glowed like a saint and marched like a drum major. Here was a critter who didn’t need to look for a job. He knew his niche from day one: being admired, being petted, a friend to all. Only Mr. Fitzwaugh failed to be moved by the beauty and nobility of Gotsdiner’s new friend. Fitzwaugh, who was said to own the rendering plant on the other side of town, was a widower, and a recluse and remorseless crabapple of long-standing. All Gotsdiner knew about rendering plants was that they took animal carcasses and melted, burned and otherwise blasted them into some new, unimaginable product. The resulting stench made the plant’s neighborhood uninhabitable, save for the Wagnerian and subterranean trolls who were forced to work there. It was no accident that Fitzwaugh himself didn’t live anywhere near the place. On days when the wind was feeling frisky, it carried vague but horrific waftings of the rendering plant carnage into Gotsdiner’s neighborhood. Never for very long, but long enough to let him and his neighbors know that, a few miles to the south, there dwelt a living and malignant horror. Fitzwaugh had sense enough not to put his own name on the plant, but everyone knew whose it was. His antique brick home of Dickensian gloom languished two blocks from Gotsdiner’s. The old man was said to leave the house rarely since his wife, who no one had seen during the last ten years of her allegedly painful life, had gone to her reward. Occasionally Fitzwaugh left to preside over the disposal of putrefying carcasses down at the plant for a few hours, but otherwise he stayed home. Doing what, no one could say. Gotsdiner first
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saw the old coot while following Duke on a morning canter. As dog and derelict went by, Fitzwaugh emerged from behind the kind of door that might have once borne the reflection of Marley’s Ghost. Duke had stopped on the little strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk—city ordinances referred to it as “The Parking”—and was carefully investigating something Gotsdiner couldn’t see and didn’t want to. Fitzwaugh emerged from his Victorian despond and stood in the doorway, wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie. “I don’t appreciate that,” he said. His voice was all money and dust. Gotsdiner looked up. “I don’t either,” he said. “It gets boring, watching him poke around like this.” Fitzwaugh reddened and pointed a shaking finger at the dog. “I mean,” he said, voice aquiver with self-importance, “I don’t appreciate that.” Gotsdiner looked down at Duke, who smiled and wagged his tail. The animal had a wonderful innate patience with idiots. “It’s all right, he didn’t defecate,” Gotsdiner said. “Besides, even if he did, this is ‘The Parking.’ City property. Not yours.” Fitzwaugh’s face became a fist of confusion. The smell of the rendering plant had done a job on his complexion, and his face throbbed in a variety of unknown and slightly scary colors. “That there’s my property,” he said. Gotsdiner’s job had once required some familiarity with the city code, and he had actually read the unreadable thing, which was more than could be said for the folks who had written it. He knew what “The Parking” was. Gotsdiner cleared his throat and assumed what he hoped was a slightly imperious, professorial tone of voice. “’The Parking’,” he announced, “is the area of land between the curb and the sidewalk, and is under municipal jurisdiction.” He’d hoped that Fitzwaugh would get it, but Fitzwaugh did not get it. Gotsdiner’s generous explanation did nothing to assuage the renderer’s mood. He darkened, his face lurched and contorted. He quaked. “My property,” he sneered, his voice a kazoo of rage. Gotsdiner thought about debating the old coot, but Duke wanted to walk. He strained at his leash The dog had no need for dialogue at all, which was one of the reasons Gotsdiner liked him so much. Gotsdiner followed Duke, but turned as he walked away. “It’s The Parking,” he said. “Municipal property.” Duke and Gotsdiner walked down the street. They didn’t see Fitzwaugh walk down the steps to the sidewalk and stare at them as they turned the corner.
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After a couple months of walking Duke, Gotsdiner developed a reputation. A following, even. A local joke, he figured: Look at the old man walking somebody else’s dog. He must be crazy. Why doesn’t he get his own dog? Once in a while a total stranger asked that very question. He had no answer. During one walk, a lady doing some flower gardening in her front yard stopped Gotsdiner and asked him if he would baby-sit her pet while she and her husband visited their daughter in Duluth for a week. His neighbors had recommended him. Gotsdiner agreed. The lady offered to pay him real cash money for visiting her home once in the morning and again in the evening, feeding the puppy, and walking him. Gotsdiner was given a key to the tidy and touching home, where pictures of dogs past and present were framed on coffee tables. Gotsdiner opened the refrigerator, looking for beer, found none. Lots and lots of dog food, though. The dog itself wasn’t much. Very small, for starters, with a tendency to yap when addled, which was often. Gotsdiner was a little self-conscious walking this hyperactive animal. Its legs moved with the speed of a jackhammer, making little rapping staccato sounds on the pavement. It walked with purpose and a certain amount of self-assurance and pride, but lacked the Dukester’s poise and nobility of spirit. He got the feeling that people were laughing at him behind his back, but when the lady returned at the end of the week and wrote him a check for a hefty bonus, the wounds to his pride healed quickly. Encouraged by this success—the first success he’d had since getting the boot at work—Gotsdiner placed a little ad in the newspaper, offering his services as a dogsitter. Soon his phone rang several times a week. People were leaving town, vacationing in Europe, visiting the grandkids in Schenectady, going to prison for a few months, rehab, that sort of thing. They may have let their personal and professional lives go to hell in a handcart, but the pets were well provided for, and soon Gotsdiner found that he had, quite unintentionally, become an entrepreneur. He incorporated, sought advice from the Small Business Administration, worried about the tax implications of it all. But usually he was having too much fun to worry. He liked the animals and they liked him. And not one of them ever called him a dipshit or tried to get him fired. Sometimes he went to the animals. Sometimes they came to him. He became a dog valet, and on occasion, even a cat chauffeur. Animals took to him as no human being ever had. The only drawback to all of this personal fulfillment, not to mention a fair-to-middling cash-flow, was Fitzwaugh. In the pre-Duke days, Gotsdiner had never encountered the little pickle-puss. He had, in fact, gone years without seeing him. But now, walking pets through the
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neighborhood five or six times a day, Fitzwaugh seemed to be around all the time. Usually Gotsdiner steered clear of Fitzwaugh’s street, but sometimes he forgot, and one day, walking a frisky Dalmatian, he heard the unmistakable whine of malice and rendering coming from the ancient oaken front door. “I don’t appreciate that on my property!” Fitzwaugh puled, a little Rumpelstiltskin, an Albrecht, a skinny Mussolini frantically looking for a populace to abuse. On The Parking, with a slightly dyspeptic pooch on the leash, Gotsdiner was temporarily helpless. “It’s biodegradable!” Gotsdiner chirped, but it didn’t do any good. “My property!” Fitzwaugh certainly was a territorial old geezer. Was this an extension of his capitalistic nature, or had he been a creep before striking it rich? Probably the latter, Gotsdiner reflected. After all, he thought, I’m a small businessman myself now. And I don’t bother a soul. “The Parking is municipal property,” Gotsdiner repeated with a sigh. “It’s not yours. Besides, it’s only a dog, and this is only—” “My property!” and Fitzwaugh was inches from his face. Veins jitterbugged over his eyebrows, and a big vessel pulsed furiously at his neck. Gotsdiner feared being a witness to some sort of coronary explosion, ambulances, stretchers, emergency hysteria, questions, inquests and depositions. “Don’t make yourself crazy, it’s just nature,” Gotsdiner muttered, and yanked the dawdling pooch to attention, half dragging him away. “It’s my property!” “It will deliquesce.” “My property.” “Municipal ground.” “Mine.” The cop who knocked on Gotsdiner’s door that evening seemed embarrassed about the whole thing, but he was young, and Gotsdiner figured the kid had to do a lot of dumb things anyway, at this stage of his career. The uniformed lad said there’d been a complaint about an alleged violation of Municipal Code chapter twenty-eight section nine, Animal Management. Gotsdiner knew how defensive cops got when discussing The Law. They didn’t like to get the idea that anyone else had read the darn things, and most certainly did not like hearing the statutes quoted to them, but Gotsdiner couldn’t help it. Ever so humbly, he explained that he too had read the ordinance, and while it proscribed allowing leashed animals to eliminate on private property, there was no such ban on said activity on “The Parking.”
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“The what?” the officer asked. “’The Parking,’” Gotsdiner patiently explained. “The area of land between the curb and the sidewalk is under municipal jurisdiction. It ain’t private.” The officer looked disappointed. “The dog has never defaced Fitzwaugh’s private property,” Gotsdiner said. “Nor anyone else’s.” Looking over the officer’s shoulder, he could see Fitzwaugh lurking across the street, a miasma on legs, trying to pretend he wasn’t there and doing a poor job of it. The officer shuffled and looked at the ground. Gotsdiner had preempted his lecture, and under the circumstances there was nothing for the kid to do but either walk away in futile disgrace, or unsheathe the nightstick he had been fingering and administer a really good beating to Gotsdiner. Might as well get something out of this visit. Wisely, he thought better of it and went away without a word. Gotsdiner watched as the officer and Fitzwaugh conferred across the street. The old renderer gestured frantically toward Gotsdiner’s house while the cop listened patiently, shrugged, and returned to his vehicle. Fitzwaugh remained on the sidewalk, glaring, fuming like tar. Gotsdiner grabbed a leash and sprinted down the street a few blocks to his next engagement. He walked a Lhasa Apso—a small, territorial little beast—collected his modest fee and went home. There was a doofus on his doorstep. “Ricky Rusher, Neighborhood Improvement Association, how are you today?” said the adolescent carrot-top whose frantic smile and overdone personification of good will had no doubt been pasted on by years of Jaycee membership and reading those godawful self-help books that were peddled on afternoon talk shows and sold at airports. “I’m out of breath, and you don’t look so hot yourself,” Gotsdiner said. The kid didn’t miss a beat. “I’ve been asked for your assistance in making this a better neighborhood.” “If you’re taking up a collection for kindling with which to burn Fitzwaugh at the stake, I’ll write you a check for the whole enchilada,” Gotsdiner said. “Otherwise, begone, go back to Oprah, leave me be.” “Mister Fitzwaugh,” the kid said, his grin becoming more panicked by the second, “would appreciate it if your dog would not evacuate on his property.” “The only things that ever evacuated Fitzwaugh’s property were his sanity, which apparently jumped ship some years ago—in sheer terror, I suspect—and his old lady, who had the good sense to meet her Maker rather than spend another no-doubt hellacious night under the same roof
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with a guy who burns animals for a living,” Gotsdiner said. Ricky’s community spirit reached an almost hallucinatory zenith as he silently, frantically turned the pages of his memorized copy of the Emergency Manual for Dealing With the Public, a Jaycee tome which he always kept on file in his active if not particularly fertile mind. Chapter Nineteen: How to Behave Around Older People Who Say Things You Don’t Understand. Section One: SMILE! “Mr. Fitzwaugh wants to be your friend!” Ricky croaked. “Mr. Fitzwaugh hates my guts and wishes me dead,” Gotsdiner said. “I, however, am merely a humble businessman. I wish none harm. I am kind to animals for a living. Neither I nor my charges have ever deposited any matter, organic or otherwise, on Mr. Fitzwaugh’s property, nor on anyone else’s. ‘The Parking’—defined under the city code as the area between the curb and the sidewalk—is municipal, not Fitzwaughian, property. The animals—who, by the way, are darn near the only sentient beings in this county who haven’t tried to wreck my life in the last year— are perfectly free to investigate, occupy and make contributions to said property in any manner which Mother Nature deems fit. I realize that yon Fitzwaugh, who, even as we speak, stands across the street, fuming like the ancient sulphur pits of which he is no doubt redolent, believes that operating a business whose function is ripping, burning and melting the carcasses of harmless animals who never in their tragically short lives ever harmed him or anyone else in any way, shape or form, automatically makes him morally superior to those of us with the audacity to help animals rather than maim them. But in this, as in everything else, no doubt, he is wrong, wrong, wrong. I shall continue to walk my dogs, my cats, my furry friends. We shall, and usually do, try to steer clear of Fitzwaugh Way, but in the unlikely event that we exercise our municipal rights to trod upon a municipal sidewalk which happens to front Chez Fitz, and if at such time Mother Nature, in her wisdom, commands us perform certain unsightly albeit unavoidable biological functions, than the animals will do so, with no objection from me. Who am I to tell Mother Nature what to do? And tell Old Fitzy”—here Gotsdiner pointed to the renderer, who, across the street, appeared to be performing an ancient war dance, a jig of rage—”that while the dogs and cats are making a pit stop, I might just do the same, only I might not confine my activity to ‘The Parking.’ You hear that, Fitzy? If you don’t stop sending these children to do your dirty work for you, I might just go to the zoo, rent a couple of camels and an elephant, and take them for a walk down your street. I can confine dogs and cats to the parking, Fitzy, but I don’t think I’ll be quite capable of reining in a hippopotamus with a great big load to lose, you wizened, senile, old misanthrope!”
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Ricky Rusher fled, having concluded, as a mentor at the Jaycees had once told him, that You Just Can’t Deal With Some People. “And I’ll tell you something else, Fitzy,” Gotsdiner said, as his little nemesis stood across the street, paralyzed with hate, “I might just go over there and hijack a couple of snow leopards. Let’s see how brave, how courageous you are when those little darlings fertilize your begonia patch, you animal-hater, you trouble-maker, you renderer!” Gotsdiner went back inside, where he fielded phone calls and job offers from owners of German Shepherds, Pomeranians, Sharpeis, and even the odd anonymous Muttus Americanus, as well as kitty-cats, hamsters, the occasional ferret. He was beginning to thrive. After sending out nearly a thousand letters, resumes and transcripts, and receiving as many T.S.G. letters, Gotsdiner picked up a ringing phone one day, expecting a date with a Doberman, but heard instead the dulcet tones of the new Director of Human Resources at the heartless concern which had deep-sixed him. That dark day was now, in the happy bedlam of Gotsdiner’s newfound prosperity, an event so remote that it seemed to have occurred in another life. In fact, it had. Did he want to come back? The paradigms had been retooled. Parameters had been aligned. Infrastructures had been stratified and harbingers had been acclimated and God was now back in His Heaven and the coffee was ready and Gotsdiner’s old job was back, if he wanted it. “Surely you jest,” he shouted. God, it felt good to say it. Thanks, Zelda. Gotsdiner dropped the phone and pirouetted around the room, performing, in his inimitable arthritic and clubfooted way, a balletic ode to joy. His dance was a poem, albeit a dull-witted and derivative one. He didn’t care. He was alive again, alive, reborn. No sooner had he returned the instrument to its cradle than it pealed again. A summons from neighbors called out of town on an emergency, and could he come fetch their Shih Tzu right away, maybe keep him a week? They offered a handsome sum, but he would have done it for free; maybe he would! He burst out the door. Outside, Duke the Dog waited in his yard, ready to run. Gotsdiner opened the neighbor’s gate and the dog was out like a shot. Together they spirited down the street, toward money and love and a new friend, and all the things that the world of jobs from which Gotsdiner had long ago been ostracized had never once in twentyseven years come close to offering him. Duke and Gotsdiner zipped down the street, a warm wind at their backs and sunshine on their faces. Their destination lay at the end of Fitzwaugh’s block, but at this time of day the geezer was probably at work, rendering something, turning some once-loving critter’s carcass to
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oil and lard. They decided to chance it; passing Fitzy’s place, they turned their pace up a notch, threw it into high, and sprinted, serene and free. They were too transported by joy to hear the ancient portal of Fitzwaugh’s wreckage of a house creak open, or to see the little man emerge from the doorway, shotgun at the ready. He wasn’t much of a marksman, but pure concentrated hatred made his aim correct and true. Gotsdiner’s spinal cord accepted the first shot as if it were just another T.S.G. letter, which, in a way, it was, right down to the Good Luck. Duke hyperspaced around the block and back toward home, where he hurtled the fence and was there in time for supper. Back on the sidewalk, Gotsdiner lay paralyzed, relieved, if only a little tiny bit, that he would not have to be dealing with any more teenage H.R. departments. As for the Dukester, he knew he needn’t worry. That dog would always have a job. Gotsdiner watched with grim fascination as Fitzwaugh trudged toward him to administer the coup de grace. When the shotgun was inches from his forehead and Fitzwaugh’s rancid mottled trigger finger began the last human action his victim would ever see, it dawned on Gotsdiner that this, in a way, was probably the job he had always been applying for, interviewing for, and seeking, right from the start. His search was over. Thank you, he said, right before the metal pierced his brain. Sorry. Good luck!

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Modern Communications Techniques In Des Moines It was not unusual, on the bus, to see passengers wearing T-shirts bearing messages, advertisements and snide remarks. There were T-shirts announcing rock tours by groups ten years defunct, products whose stock had gone belly-up during the Reagan administration, attitudes once alarming but now de rigueur, quips long stale. Andrew usually paid them no mind. But glancing up from his newspaper one morning he couldn’t help noticing a T-shirt worn by a lass whose woe far exceeded her age and circumstances. In red letters across the back, he read: My grandmother died last week “No, it’s not a band,” said his friend Art that night over beer. Art was his cultural reference. Art, at 46, still listened to popular music, still went to movies that were fewer than 30 years old, still kept his finger on the pulse of a culture which Andrew had given up for dead around the birth of MTV. “It’s a statement. She has something she wants to share with the world.” It was more than a statement. It was a letter, a diary, a journal. The next day, directly in front of him, she was back with the next installment, in the same scarlet script: She was 107 “It’s not unheard of,” Art said. “In Russia, lots of people make it to 107 and beyond. It’s sex and vodka that do it. And no TV.” We weren’t surprised, her shirt said on Wednesday, adding, the following day: But, of course, death is always a shock He thought about tapping her on the shoulder and commiserating, but thought better of it. “If she wanted to be tapped, she wouldn’t have had the shirt printed up,” Art said. “I should say something.” “She doesn’t want you to say anything. That’s the point. She wants an audience, not a correspondent.”
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Longevity runs in my family “She’ll be riding the bus for decades,” Art said. “You’ll get a free show every day. It’s cheaper than taking the paper.” But of course, there are always exceptions She sounds suicidal,” Andrew said. “I’m worried.” “Anyone who is willing to go through the ordeal of mass transportation every day not only hasn’t given up on life,” Art said, “but is in fact the very embodiment of the Life Force. She’ll be fine.” Was she ever. On Monday, her T-shirt declared: Funerals can be an affirmation of life “Easy for her to say,” Andrew said. “It wasn’t her funeral.” On Tuesday, she advised: I don’t want her money “It means she desperately wants that money,” Art said. “It’s all she thinks about.” “I think I’m starting to fall in love with her,” Andrew said. “It has nothing to do with money. I like her mind.” “Falling in love with a T-shirt correspondent is the worst thing that can happen to a man your age,” Art said. “These people live on a different plane. They don’t like other people. They like writing.” She must have read his mind. We must keep our thoughts aloft he read the next day. There was a week’s silence. Then: I miss you, Grammy, wherever you are and Blood is thicker than water and
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Death can’t keep us apart and I’ll see you in heaven And, on Friday: I have to go to court next week “Probate, do you think?” Andrew asked. “Or criminal,” Art said. “They often try juveniles as adults, depending on the crime.” “Crime?” Andrew asked. “This girl’s no criminal.” “You never know,” Andrew said. “Maybe she’s tired of wearing Tshirts. She kills her grandmother and collects a big inheritance, she’ll be able to pen her messages on Chantilly lace, instead of cotton.” She was absent for two weeks. Andrew rode the bus, awash in messages, all of the Eat At Joe’s variety. His fellow passengers were walking advertisements for tin-eared ensembles, county fairs, potables. There was the odd tribute to breeding and its concomitant dilemmas; the occasional quotation from Kierkegaard or Mick Jagger (although the wearer would be way too young to know the sentiment’s source); the unfortunate declaration of nihilist doctrine. Andrew was relieved when she returned. I must see my lawyer tomorrow Followed by another long absence. Then: Moskowitz is a crook “Sounds like she’s getting a rocky crash course in civil procedure,” Andrew said. “Suffering is good for young people,” Art said. “It builds character. Don’t get involved.” Andrew kept his counsel. On the bus, he tried to keep his eyes on his Middlemarch paperback. But his correspondent was foaming at the seams. Justice delayed is justice denied The next day:
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Who speaks for the poor? And the next: Justice is a pain in the keester And Wednesday: A dog starved at his master’s gate/ predicts the ruin of the state—Wm. Blake Thursday: Do unto others. . . And Friday: Moskowitz is toast “Do you think we ought to warn the lawyer?” Andrew said. “If she dresses conservatively at the sentencing, she’ll be fine, if she washes her hair first,” Art said. Andrew hoped the shop he chose for his own custom shirts was not the same one she used. He opted for a masculine, more aggressive type face. The quality of mercy is not strained Her reply was quick. You can use that line to defend anything He tried a different approach. Moskowitz is only human Her reply, though mute, was loud and clear. So was Richard Speck. You want to start a fan club for him? “Bitterness is tragic in one so young,” Andrew said.
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“Being gunned down on public transportation by a foiled heiress would be tragic for one so old. Like you,” Art said. Look before you leap he advised her the next day. Who asked you? she replied. You want to argue, take it outside the driver said. And then she was gone again. A week, two, three. Andrew plowed through Middlemarch, drowning himself in the opiate of distinguished literature while he wondered what she was doing, how she was enduring probate, and whether Moskowitz was still a living, breathing shyster or a fresh statistic on a desk sergeant’s blotter. Art got a promotion and a hot new car and stopped taking the bus. Andrew, though surrounded by fellow passengers, did not attempt to commiserate with any of them. They were too young. Worse, they couldn’t spell. Their syntax made his eyes burn. They seemed to have learned English through a correspondence course every bit as shady and inadequate as the counsel of Moskowitz. Or they simply had down-home, All-American bad taste. A little floozy tried to pick him up with some early Pretenders lyrics, but he brushed her aside with a line from Finnegan’s Wake. He had no idea what it meant, but it seemed to work. Tiring of great books, he resumed reading the paper as he rode the bus. The day after scanning an hysterical account of the mysterious death of a prominent local lawyer, one day after a sudden marriage to an obscure young woman one-third his age, she reappeared. He didn’t expect her to say anything then, as it would have been sacrilege to deface the absolutely gorgeous mink coat she now sported, a garment so stunning that it was almost able to upstage the surrealistically large diamond on her left hand. As always, there was no eye contact. She stayed on the bus only long enough to be assured that Andrew was about to spontaneously combust. Then she rose. For one second, she stood still and let the mink drop halfway down her back.

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So sue me she said, and left the bus. Andrew walked to work for the rest of his days. There were a lot of them.

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Problems In Political Commentary Vis A Vis Secondary Education In Des Moines As she dropped her son and daughter off at Hoover High School in Des Moines, Moira couldn’t help noticing a bumper sticker on the car ahead: My kid is an honor student at Hoover High A terrible thing, she reflected. To damn one’s own offspring with faint praise. Sort of like announcing: My kid has hardly ever been to prison She was reminded of a ferocious, ultimately futile, campaign her state of residence had conducted, some years back, to come up with a catchy slogan for itself. Moira had aspired to the cash prize offered to the winning entry. She still thought hers was far and away superior: Iowa: Smarter than Mississippi She hadn’t won. The car ahead of hers started to pull away from the curb, but was quickly cut off by an aging Volkswagen whose rear bumper announced. Given the laughable failure of Herbert Hoover’s so-called economic policies, being an honor student at Hoover is rather like being the best-dressed man in Sing Sing, n’est-pas? The two drivers stared at each other wordlessly. Moira made a U-turn and headed home, only to find herself blocked again: My kid is home schooled and he’s forgotten more integral calculus than your kid will ever know. Moira thought: If he’s home-schooled, why aren’t you at home, schooling him, instead of clogging up the parking lot? Her question was answered by the opposite bumper: I just work here. It doesn’t mean I approve of this school and its antediluvian curricula.
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I’m rather like Joyce in Dublin, simultaneously loving my city and its people, but, mired here by circumstance, despising its oppressive cultural and intellectual miasma. Prolixity, Moira reflected, rather defeats the whole purpose of bumper stickers. But, after all, this was Des Moines. As she drove home, she considered preparing her own bumper stickers. My kid has an interesting record collection That seemed to sum things on the home front up pretty well. Her fellow motorists read her thoughts: I was a roadie for Foreigner and my kid is on tour with Coldplay so shut up and drive Des Moines, Moira reflected, was turning into a tough room. My kid sings in the all-state choir a nice maroon Mazda proclaimed. Only to be replied to by a somewhat obstreperous BMW: You call your kid a singer? Your kid thinks Puccini is a spaghetti sauce Had the pioneers of the auto industry foreseen this kind of problem? Mora wondered. The internal combustion engine as a mode of hostile communication. Give man a tangible object, she mused, and he’ll figure out a way to turn it into a weapon. My kid is a champion debater at Hoover High School proclaimed a well-polished Oldsmobile. Debate, my eye; your kid just talks too much replied a station wagon of ancient vintage. Up ahead, a Des Moines police car waited with ominous patience at a stop light.
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Seat belt, lady, and don’t make me get out of my car Moira quickly buckled up, and proceeded homeward apace. At the next stop sign, however, she was accosted by the chrome of a new Cadillac. My kid plays football at Hoover High Alongside him, a small European vehicle obviously primed for quick getaways replied: The way your kid tackles, he oughta be wearing a tutu Moira got out of there tout de suite. She backed up and sought an alternate route. Going back toward the school, she hung a quick left and began a series of zigs and zags that she knew would take her home with a minimum of editorial commentary. But, encountering the inevitable detour sign, she was stopped by a buxom Buick: My kid made the honor roll at Henderson Junior High Moira threw it into reverse and had to swerve viciously to avoid a vintage VW bus: Honor, schmonor. My kid can identify fourteen Wagnerian leitmotifs in Parsifal Your kid is in the Hitler Youth, and you’re bragging? Politics and art cannot be confused Yeah, you’re confused enough without art and politics Pulling into her driveway, at long last, Moira let the car idle a long time before getting out. She collected her thoughts. They were all in capital letters. She resolved to sit there until she had reduced them to lower case. Her five-year-old daughter sped out of the driveway on her new bike, which declared My mom sits in the car and talks to herself Moira left the car in the driveway. The next day it was
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For sale Let the kids walk to school.

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A Brief History Of The Insurance Business In Des Moines Everything seems to have been fine until the people showed up. Wildlife in abundance, plenty of rabbits, joyful streams. Most significant in the earliest days of the territory was a complete absence of anyone even remotely connected with the insurance business. The early settlers were mostly Christians. That is to say, they were individuals—Jesuits, mostly, the occasional Presbyterian, the odd Anabaptist—who had insurance potential hidden deep inside them, yearning to breathe free. Like the capacity for art in a child who, at the moment, is preoccupied with throwing things at the nearest available wall, these settlers had the seed of successful insurance executivedom inside them, but nature had yet to give them the means to bring this latent talent to light. Christian missionaries settled the land and christened it Des Moines. The precise meaning of this phrase remains unknown to this day, primarily because Des Moines is French, and no one in Des Moines is smart enough to know how to find a French-English dictionary. Some say it means “The Monks.” Others opine that it means “The Rapids.” The Marx Brothers, while still a traveling vaudeville act, long before going to Hollywood to film “The Cocoanuts,” visited one weekend to play an engagement at the old RKO Orpheum Theatre. They translated the name thus: “Death Moans.” They weren’t invited back. Pity, because Groucho, incorrigible cynic as he was, could have had a brilliant career in insurance. The early business community seems to have consisted of the usual assortment of farmers, traders, trappers, blacksmiths, three-card monte experts, madams and heretics of all stripes. Wildlife and local flora seem to have coexisted more or less peacefully with the inhabitants, although cholera, diphtheria and low-grade whiskey—all maladies for which there was no known cure—were grave impediments to population growth. The first traces of the insurance business in Des Moines seem to have arrived without notice or fanfare, much as the arrival of the first boatload of plague victims arrived in the port of Messina in 1347, without a whisper of warning or press agentry. Local legend has it that Increase Adams— displaced Mormon, failed polygamist and inventor of the convertible covered wagon—appeared in town around 1900, ostensibly to set up shop as a singing blacksmith. He began slipping insurance policies for term life insurance between the hooves and the horseshoes of randomly selected customers, thus pioneering the concept of pop-up advertising almost 100
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Modern Communications Techniques in Des Moines (and other stories)

years before the first home computer was invented. Increase is credited with being the first insurance agent to offer dental insurance, an achievement particularly remarkable in view of the total lack of dentistry in Des Moines until the early nineteen-twenties. It was impossible to know if Des Moines lived up to its moniker, but Increase certainly seems to have lived up to his. World War I was clearly a turning point in the insurance life of Des Moines. Some two thousand local boys marched off to war, unencumbered by responsibilities, wealth, knowledge or insurance. Three years later, most of them came back, much to back, much to their collective surprise, to find themselves not only fully insured, but seriously in arrears on their premiums. To this day, no one knows how the old boy did it, but Increase Insurance was here to stay. Incidentally, regardless of the yearly ebb and flow of commerce, the local flora and fauna have always caught holy hell. Most of the rabbits are gone, and the ones that remain haven’t got a chance. I saw a dead one in my neighbor’s driveway just this morning. Anyway, ever since The Great War, wherever failure occurs, Increase Insurance has been there to fill the void. The last village smithy succumbs to the march of progress, and his shop is reborn as Increase Casualty. The corner haberdasher dies, and the next Monday his shop is Increase Mutual. The local barber moves to Branson and, voila, his business is now the new site of Increase Life. Nowadays, you can’t buy a shirt or get your hair cut in Des Moines, but you can insure yourself and your international conglomerates up to your eyebrows, no questions asked. Well, a few questions. Today, Increase Insurance dominates Des Moines. There are those who say that Increase Insurance is Des Moines. The two entities are permanently entwined. Cholera and diphtheria have been conquered, but insurance in Des Moines is here to stay. And there is still no cure.

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2 Brothers Gerald started taking piano lessons at age four and was playing Mozart at four and a half. He gave his first recital at seven. Gene was mugged on the way to his first piano lesson at age six and got out of the hospital on his seventh birthday. Gerald went directly from the third grade to high school, where he rewrote the calculus textbook, corrected the history teacher’s interpretation of the Battle of Hastings, and wrote his first book of poetry, which the critics hailed as a milestone, comparing him to Yeats and Auden. Gene was mired in the sixth grade for a few years, until his continued presence became an embarrassment and he was passed on to the high school, which didn’t want him either. Gerald ran into Gene’s room one night and said he needed a dollar to buy a ribbed condom because a movie starlet who was passing through town was waiting for him at the Sleepy-Tyme Motel. Twenty years later, in her best-selling memoir, the actress wrote, “I learned what it meant to be a woman while visiting a small Midwestern town, with a young man who must remain nameless, and who has gone on to become an international captain of industry. He inhabits my soul to this very day.” Gene never got his dollar back. Gerald graduated from college at sixteen, having earned magna cum laude in astrophysics, bio-medicine, finance, musicology and Renaissance Poetry, along with the Heisman Trophy and a Rhodes Scholarship. Gene was conditionally admitted to City Technical Training Day School, but kept getting lost between his locker and the lunch room, and they had to let him go. At twenty-one, Gerald was a doctor, a lawyer and merchandise chief, a renowned poet with a seat on the Stock Exchange, the occupant of a Chair in Physics at Oxford, and was in demand as a heart surgeon throughout the world. Gene was night watchman at a day-care center, where they didn’t want him all that much, and where he kept falling off his chair. Gerald became the only U.S. Supreme Court Justice with four Super Bowl rings. As Secretary of State, he ended all wars, brought eternal peace everywhere and filled in at the Vatican one summer when Mother Church was between popes, the previous one having entered the witness protection program. Since Gerald was in demand throughout the government, the system of checks and balances was thrown out, enabling him to be President, Chief Justice and Speaker of the House, all at the same time. Gene tried to

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balance his checkbook, but made such a hash of it that the bank took away his checkbook and beat him with it. Gerald’s mansion on a sprawling estate of scenic splendor was the envy of monarchs and minor deities. Gene had a cot at the Midtown Mission, where parolees kept stealing his gruel. Gene sent Gerald a postcard, asking if he could have his dollar back. To reach Gerald, mail had to work its way through three hundred and twenty-nine layers of factotums, lackeys, minions, elves, dwarves, Nibelungen and Wharton School alumni. Gene’s card made it to the twelfth layer, where a Nobel Laureate in economics used it to floss his teeth before having it recycled. Gerald was offered the chairmanship of Microsoft, but didn’t want to take the pay cut or the loss of prestige. Gene was offered the opportunity of shoveling two feet of snow from the city block surrounding the mission, but he didn’t want to continue the diet of botulism, prayer and abuse, so he took to sleeping under the bridge. Gerald was married to a former Miss America, a ravishing management consultant who bore him a son who won the Cy Young Award straight out of high school, the year before he was appointed Secretary-General of the U.N. Gene’s erotic experiences consisted of fending off the amorous advances of mission guests and bridge denizens who had been out of prison about two days and who seemed to be in a hurry to go back. Gerald’s heart wasn’t supposed to stop beating, but it did. Gene wasn’t supposed to be beaten senseless by a bunch of methheads while hitch-hiking to Gerald’s funeral, but he was. An enterprising newspaper reporter found him in intensive care and published a maudlin article about a loser whose brother had owned the world. This led, for better or worse, to the first and last real honest-togoodness job offer ever made to Gene: Tour Guide at Gerald’s boyhood home, now a national shrine, opening on the very day that Gerald’s face was added to Mt. Rushmore. He can still be found there, Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., showing the curious where Gerald did his calculus homework, brushed his teeth, planned world domination, and where he gypped his little brother out of that fateful dollar. He likes to tell the story, and for a dollar, he’ll tell you a few more. He knows some good ones.

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Respect the System To: Administrator From: A.B. Adams, Sales Assistant Date: January 15, 2009 Re: Sales I just got a call from Rich Wagner over at Levine and Associates. They need a few million units of our Wotan Nibelungen Extractors immediately. He’s on his way over with a check for forty million dollars. We can sign the contracts in my office. I’ll need to borrow a chair from the conference room. The check will be on your desk by noon. To: Adams From: Administrator RE: Implement reallocation protocol Implement reallocation requires authorization pursuant to our Systems Code. See Chapter 267(A)(b)(II-a)(XIV)(hnds-off) pertaining to Physical Plant Systems. To apply for authorization to modify the Physical Plant model of this unit, Implement Relocation Logistics Requisition, form C190-14 is mandated. File the original in my office, with copies of the application to all 112 units in the organization. When the Logistics panel meets in September, your request to Relocate an Implement will be reviewed. The panel’s decision will be forwarded to the Sales Resources Commission for study. When their study is complete, their report will be reviewed by the Logistics Team. Their decision is promulgated through normal industry channels. You will be advised of their decision following the annual Logistics meeting in approximately six months. Logistics panel meetings, are, of course, subject to funding authorization by Implement Financing Authority, which will meet again in 2012 to discuss appointing a panel to discuss the feasibility of funding for Implement Relocation. If funding is approved, a panel will be appointed to define the Scope of Implement panel review. The scope of review determination will mandate priorities for long-range planning regarding implement reallocation. In the future, please consult our Systems Manual before reallocating office contingencies. Protocols are primary. You must respect the system.

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To: Administration From: Adams Re: Chair Since he’ll be here in ten minutes, we’ll get along without the chair. The $40 million check will be on your desk shortly. To: Adams From: Administration RE: Foreign personnel entering premises—aliens—human logistics Visitors to Sales Offices may apply for admission to the Niebelung Building by completing Alien Admission Accountability Form AA-39visa/human logistics/whos-he-form 9719. The original is filed with the Interpersonnel Panel of the Office of Human Logistics. Copies must be provided to each Niebelung office, sub-office, and all non-official office substitutes. The application panel meets four times per year and reviews all applications for alien admission. Interviews with applicants occur in years in which the Super Bowl is won by an AFC team whose starting quarterback is not married to a person of questionable character. All applicants must provide medical clearance, psychiatric evaluations, and Affidavits of Good Citizenship from three veterans of World War II, one of whom must have been present at Pearl Harbor. Applicants must pass a written examination on American History, The Constitution, and Bible Appreciation. Applicants will be asked to bake a cherry pie using wood shavings from the executive pencil sharpener and old copies of National Review. Successful applicants may enter the building on alternate Fridays during months with an “r” in them, between 5 and 6:30 a.m. upon submission of proper subsidiary application form DUM-15(n), co-signed by at least three Nibelungen. The decision of the Interpersonnel Panel can be appealed by preparing the proper appellate forms and filing them for review at the following year’s July Interappellate Council Reviews. I have notified security not to admit this individual until he has prepared the appropriate application for admission and can prove that he has his own spatula. To: Administrator From: Adams He’s not applying for a job with Rachel Ray. He’s bringing us a check for $40 million. Can’t the rules be modified under these circumstances?
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To: Adams From: The Administrator Re: Protocol/Rule Modification/Code Systems Prerogative Mandate Please see Nibelungen Personnel Manual 1114-urxtatic 2B w/us, page 293, verse 2(b)/MORALE: “Respect the system,” regarding application for Rule Changes vis-à-vis Logistical Implementation Modifications. Rule Modification panels are scheduled for reappointment in 2013, provided everyone is out of federal prison by then. The panel will meet to discuss the scope of review for funding requests. A proposal for meeting to discuss the proposal for the meeting will be drafted by a sub-committee. See Manual, Chapter XXI, verse 12(ix)(whsthisguy) regarding parameters for drafting the committee proposal to propose the proposal for the committee. All decisions regarding rule modification re: code systems mandates are pending the proposal to propose the proposal, depending on how many times the applicant has been married to Britney Spears. To: Administrator From: Adams I’ll just go downstairs and meet him at the door. We’ll do the contracts in the cafeteria. The check will be on your desk this afternoon. To: Adams From: Administrator Re: Vacating Nibelungen premises/permission to/reallocation of personnel resources All employees leaving their Nibelungen Patrol Designations beyond the parameters of hourly occupancy must file Form IM/outta/here-19-iv(3)-XIV(n). I will review your application to vacate your designation within 27 weeks. My decision will be reviewed by a blue-ribbon panel comprised of representatives from all 261 Nibelungen Teams at their biyearly Council. Application for funding for this panel is anticipated by 2014. When the panel is fully funded, a select Team will meet to discuss the parameters of the scope of their duties. Should your specific request fall within these parameters, your request to vacate your designation will be studied. A report will be issued and reviewed by the Nibelungen Review Designators, if their parole officers say it’s okay.

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Modern Communications Techniques in Des Moines (and other stories)

To: Administrator From: Adams I’ll just meet him at Chelsea’s Pub on my way home. I’ll pick up the check then and bring it in tomorrow. It will be on your desk by 8:00 a.m. To: Adams From: The Administrator Re: Extra-office interpersonal communications See Systems Code Parameters Parabola XXXIV-(xii)-14B(tag-yr-it)— Nibelungen Logistics vis-à-vis Extra-territorial Conference Extra-Personnel (xtra-cheez-99) Visitation Outer Limits(Pubs-see “C” classification “Chelsea”)for guidelines re:Nibelungen FILES (Removal thereof en route to domestic designation) for parameters of alien conference. Nibelungen born subsequent to 1814 must, prior to alien conferencing outside Nibelungen Parameter Sector XXX, request permission to complete FORM 1,997,352. The FORM when completed will be designated for referral to Alien Conference Committee. Funding for Committee meetings is pending. Contingent upon funding, the scope-of-review panel will meet in 2017 to discuss parameters for blue-ribbon panel which will meet to consider considering forming sub-panel to consider mulling over thinking about pondering meeting sometime to try to decipher the FORM. When FORM has been translated into Nibelungen you will be notified. To: Administrator From: Adams He didn’t have time to go into the pub. We signed the contracts in the car and I have the check. I’ll have it on your desk first thing tomorrow. To: Adams From: Administrator Re: Unauthorized seating extra-office rendezvous ALERT: Systems Manual Chapter T (Sub-6-iv)(XTC ABNRML 11IV-xix) “Two Men In a Car At The Same Time” prohibits two male Nibelungen from occupying a motor vehicle simultaneously when either or both is thinking about money. Abort mission immediately. Destroy all checks, memoranda, records, microfilm, notes, diaries, logs, Original Broadway Cast albums, Unplugged CDs, Playbills autographed by Nathan Lane and references to Paul Monette novels.
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To: Administrator From: Adams What about the $40 million check? To: Adams From: Administrator Re: Financial instruments See Systems Manual, Chapter F, Financial Instruments. Section 6,895 (A)(flthy-lucr)(B)(Whatitis-tx shltr-wknds in Malibu, offshr drling, goomar, etc.) Administration is currently seeking funding to establish a committee which would study the feasibility of appointing a panel to establish procedure for processing financial instruments transported from a motor vehicle in the parking lot at Chelsea’s Pub to Corporate Offices. If funding is provided, a blue-ribbon panel will be appointed to study the feasibility of forming a committee which would appoint the panel. The panel, in turn, would consider the possibility of commissioning a study of potential parameters for potential use to propose initial discussions regarding the formation of a committee to appoint a committee which would appoint the panel. The panel will establish a charter which will delineate the scope and responsibilities of the panel. The panel will have authority to seek funding from the corporation, subject, of course, to the corporation establishing an independent charter to establish a panel to discuss the formation of a committee which would meet annually to establish discussion guidelines to enable the panel to discuss the possibility of meeting to discuss the possibility of meeting to discuss the possibility of meeting. To: Administration From: Adams I’m in the lobby. I ran into the Chief Nibelungen Treasurer, Al Brecht. I gave him the check. He’ll have it to you in three minutes. To: Adams From: Administration Re: Logistical query re: financial instruments, intra-office parameters thereto

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Modern Communications Techniques in Des Moines (and other stories)

See Nibelungen Manual Chapter XXXIV-xxvi-12-(Treas.)(financial instrument)(frm. Lackey)(to-little guy in brn suit). Further references, visà-vis op.cit.(whattodo)(whaddyaUdo)(ibeenhoodooed)(Hr-she-comes-now -singin’mony-mony)(fed. Prison) XXI. All financial instruments entering lobby of Nibelungen corporate headquarters must be scrutinized pursuant to Maximum Security Mandate 2,997,325(ii). Officers of the Maximum Security Authority are authorized to examine, inspect, deface, abuse, and make strange faces at all documents representing potential financial progress of this institution. Financial instruments approved by Authority must be approved by the Basic Ulterior Cash Knowledge Suspicion panel, for which funding is pending in 2019 subject to Vatican approval. Wash your hands before entering elevator. Must have proof that you have not missed a Mother’s Day since 1923 and must have receipts to prove it. Must provide justification of birth, education, and last episode of The Sopranos. To: Administrator From: Adams Rich Wagner has hired me as VP in charge of Sales for his corporate empire. He just bought Nibelungen Enterprises. Be out of the building by four-thirty or I’ll personally settle your hash with a flame-thrower, you incompetent yuppie nitwit. To: Adams From: Administrator See Nibelungen Survival Manual, Chapter 666 (I was only doing my job—see memoirs of Adolf Eichmann) regarding deep-sixing old pals. Subchapter 13 provides that dumping on auld colleagues who have spent the last 17 years abusing Nibelungen can only be implemented by blueribbon panel of Nibelungen with Ph.D. in European history from institutions of higher learning with a “v” in them. Once the panel has been funded through fiscal parameters (See Chapter 2,917-bgbks, tnre-trak, hot coeds, free vactns, etc.) the panel must allow applicant time to come up with a respectable excuse. Letters of reference from at least 14 graduates of Harvard Divinity School, at least 12 of whom must speak in tongues, are mandated. Applicant to be interviewed by committee established to determine cause for dismissal and whether or not the applicant is a nice guy.

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To: Administrator Date: January 16, 2009 From: Adams Just got your job application here at Britcom. The application is incomplete. Respect the system! To perfect your application, please submit the following: One copy of A La Recherche des Temps Perdu in Coptic Greek, preferably signed by Proust; 152 copies of Britcom Application Form XXXII-(xx-I-xyz)(whsyrdaddy)(5,221,897.1(ii)(ina-pigseye) (nwayJose) which must be signed and notarized by at least 14 Wimbledon Champions, Judge Crater, Jimmy Hoffa, Harpo Marx and Jayne Mansfield, and I will promptly submit your application to our blue-ribbon panel, which is currently in vitro in a lab somewhere near San Ysidro, and as soon as they’re born and have graduated from Harvard Business School, we’ll begin the funding process for appointing a panel to interview applicants who will appoint a panel to interview applicants who will appoint a panel to interview applicants who can still remember what they applied for and why. Be patient. Respect the system!

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Dining In Des Moines: Zombies At The Salad Bar Melanie asked me why there were zombies going through the salad bar. I explained that zombies prefer cool, damp food. It makes them feel at home. Hot things tend to alarm them. One must try never to alarm a zombie. Melanie next wanted to know why the zombies wanted to have lunch at a fast-food joint. She thought the constant noise and commotion might unnerve them. On the contrary, I explained. They enjoy the colors and the bright buzz of life all around them. It makes them feel like they’re part of something again. This is a delusion on their part, of course, zombies being part of nothing whatsoever. But if the lunchtime bustle makes them happy, well, I wouldn’t deny them. Fast food proprietors actually welcome zombies, as a rule, one reason being that zombies don’t take up space in the parking lot or cause car accidents there. Zombies don’t drive. Often they have no idea what cars are, many of them having been zombies since before the invention of the internal combustion engine. Zombies don’t adapt well to technological or cultural change, with a few exceptions, such as the salad bar. They adapt to the food in the salad bar because it is cold and wet. Anything that is cold and wet is, to a zombie, comfort food. Melanie, traditionally a proponent of universal brotherhood and good will, said that while zombies certainly had the right to have lunch wherever they pleased, she would just as soon not have them lunching next to her. This intolerance was not like her. She said she knew it was terrible, but they just made her feel uncomfortable. This was understandable, to a certain extent. The zombies are not much to look at. Many of them haven’t shaved since the late nineteenth century. Their clothes are woefully out of date. They tend to take little or no pride in their personal appearance. Their slow, languid gait suggests that they are bored with where they are going, or worse, that they have nowhere to go. In short, zombies make a terrible first impression. These are, alas, the impressions that always remain with new acquaintances, and upon seeing one’s first zombie, one’s train of thought tends to segue into irrelevant childhood memories of zombie movies from long-ago late, late shows, in which zombies were usually slandered willy-nilly. No group has received shabbier treatment from Hollywood than have the zombies. Your typical film-maker, for example, asked to depict zombies at the fast-food salad bar, would create a scene of panic and hostility. Nothing could be further from the truth. The zombies are models of decorum as
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they fill their plates, spilling not so much as a shred of lettuce or a drop of creamy Italian dressing. They quietly seat themselves at a table close to a window, where they appear to be enjoying the sunlight. They spread napkins on their laps and dine peacefully. When they are finished, they deposit their plastic plates and spoons carefully in the nearest receptacle, take a couple of the complimentary balloons the restaurant offers to children of all ages, and walk away, seemingly at one with the universe. Melanie said that she appreciated their good table manners and the fact that they cleaned up after themselves, but that the zombies gave her the heebie-jeebies nevertheless. I sympathized with her feelings, of course, but at the same time I could not help feeling a twinge of pity for the zombies as they ambled into what will probably be an eternity of social failure. It’s sad. Melanie said that one of the problems with seeing zombies at lunch was that she would probably continue to see them everywhere she went for the rest of the day, whether they were really there or not. In fact, she said, she thought she saw a zombie way back there behind the counter, wearing an employee’s uniform and cap, solemnly taking instructions from an assistant manager on how to operate the French-fryer. I thought she was letting her imagination get the best of her, but didn’t say so. She could, after all, have been right. There is no reason why a zombie could not learn to make good, even great, French fries. While most zombies are not employed, those who are, generally speaking, have excellent work records. They bring to their work a blend of patience, single-mindedness and perseverance that almost any employer would welcome and reward. Contrary to what the Hollywood cynics would have us believe, zombies can be as competent and cooperative in the workplace as anyone. Perhaps even more important is the fact that they lack the character flaws that keep so many young people from moving up the career ladder. For instance, a personable young employee may turn out to be a little too personable for his own good, or for the good of his fellow employees. Who knows how many work hours are lost annually in on-thejob flirtation and heart-throb? Zombies, being notoriously maladroit at flirting, incur no such wastes of time, and their hearts, while still intact, have gained the wisdom of age. They don’t cause anyone any trouble. Moreover, zombies never watch the clock at work. For understandable reasons, they are not the least bit interested in time. They don’t count the hours until it’s time to go home because, except in a very ambiguous, metaphysical sense, they have no homes to go home to. Like many individuals who have nowhere to go, many zombies quite naturally are drawn to amateur theatrics. Our local community theatre counts zombies among its finest volunteers, depending, of course, on the
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nature of the production at hand. For instance, several zombies turned up in last season’s productions of Waiting for Godot and Abie’s Irish Rose. They seemed to blend right in. On the other hand, their attempts to participate in anything by Rodgers and Hart, or any show requiring an abundance of sudden motion, are, to put it most politely, unfortunate. They make good stage hands, though, as they have limitless patience and all the time in the world. Having no post-rehearsal assignations, they are never in a hurry to leave, and their talent for successfully foraging in unlikely places for even the most outré props is legendary. Melanie said she once heard strange sounds coming from her garage late at night. She was afraid to go out and see what it was, but when she checked the following morning, she found that several items of hardware had been rearranged, and her lawnmower had been moved slightly. Could it have been a zombie? Probably not. Zombies are wanderers, not burglars. It was probably just Norman puttering around with the lawn tools again. Melanie said he’s done this sort of thing before. But what if it was a zombie? How else could she explain the fact that her lawnmower, out of order since 1997, worked like a charm the morning after she heard the noise in her garage? It had been brought back from the dead. Norman certainly couldn’t have done that. I suggested that she leave a note on the lawnmower: “Please mow lawn Wednesday. Thank you.” They’ll probably do it for free. It couldn’t hurt to try, I told her. She’ll probably keep paying the neighbor boy to mow her lawn, though. She promised the neighbors she would. Melanie and I left the fast-food place and headed back to work. The zombies were gone, which pleased her. She kept talking about them, though. She is worried that a zombie might sit next to her in a restaurant or a movie theater some night. What if one asked her for a date? Not to worry, I told her. Zombies are perfectly satisfied with their own society and seldom make social forays outside it. On the other hand, what if a maverick zombie seats himself next to her and strikes up a conversation the next time she goes out for fast food? Mentally I began to prepare a list for her. It would be ready to type when I got home from work, for delivery to her at lunch the next day. I called it: Tips on Conversation with Zombies. Be yourself. Relax. Remember, they’re meeting someone new, too, and they’re probably just as apprehensive as you are. Stick to simple, basic topics, such as what you’ve been doing for food lately. Try to work the subject of walking into the conversation. They walk most of the time and love to talk about it. Ask a zombie if he/she wants to go for a walk and you’ve got a friend for life. Stay away from current events. Zombies aren’t current.
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As a matter of fact, avoid talking to zombies about anything that’s ever happened to anyone. They probably won’t understand. Feel free to smoke while talking to a zombie. There’s no need to ask permission. After all they’ve been through, the potential danger of cigarette smoke is the last thing on a zombie’s mind. You could ask the zombie if he/she wants to go get a beer somewhere, but the offer will probably be politely declined. The idea of spending money to numb the senses will be incomprehensible to a zombie. Introduce sports as a topic of conversation with caution. The zombies, most of whom stopped reading newspapers several decades ago, will ask what kind of a year Christy Matthewson is having, and unless you are prepared to analyze World Series highlights that occurred before your parents were born, I’d stick to food and walks. Discuss chairs. At first, zombies spent an enormous amount of time in the supine position, but now that they are practicing zombies they seldom get a chance to sit down. They appreciate chairs, on the rare occasions when one is offered to them. Listen as they discuss the relative merits of this type of furniture. It will enhance your appreciation of even the crudest chair. The preparation of my list was interrupted a couple of blocks from work when a stranger standing next to us at a stop light commented on the brilliance of the autumn day. He was a zombie. I agreed that it was, in fact, a perfect day. He asked me if I thought Ruth would hit number sixty, one of these days. We began to talk. I noticed Melanie crossing the street. When she was a block away, I saw her turn and look at us. She seemed relieved that I wasn’t getting hurt, and she waved. She needn’t have worried. We were only talking. Maybe they’re not zombies after all. Maybe they’ve simply lived in Des Moines too long. 13 more stories in the print edition Buy the paperback for $18.95 www.murphyslawpress.com

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