Willie Smith - March 2007
|BENNY SAVES THE DAY|
My name is irrelevant. I work in a greeting card factory. I'm a writer. Compose the verse. Most of the time, though, I work in the back stacking boxes, folding cards, mopping floors, loading trucks, taking orders over the phone; or dealing with customers who wander off the street into our shop up front, where the boss makes an extra buck retailing overstock, seconds, discontinued merchandise. You can't just let a poet sit around do nothing. But I probably write, on average, call it thirty minutes a day.
Some days I might versify a couple hours at a stretch. Like if the boss gets a bug up his butt the sympathies aren't selling, and he wants a new line ready for tomorrow. Other times I might not write a lick all week; although ideas perpetually percolate.
I recall this one day, I musta drunk too much coffee maybe, I sold our last box of baby announcements to this pert young lass whom I at first mistook for Linda Roundstack (before all the cocaine).
She actually bought the last three boxes - her three sisters having simultaneously entered triplets into the contest, or some such hooey. Doubtless a spy. Sent by the enemy factory out in Akron. We work for the same conglomerate; but I guess the boss and his Akron counterpart compete with each other for reasons of either personal animosity or corporate greed; I'm too bored with the gossip ever to get it straight.
Next day the boss finds out what I've done - sold off the last of the rugrat doggerel. After smirking in my face a full minute, repeatedly adjusting his tie, finally under his breath calling me a fucking idiot, he hands me a jar of Vivarin. Leads me to, locks me inside the writing cubicle.
I musta spent three hours in there eating Vivarin, wrestling with birth verse. No windows. Thing like a dwarf padded cell with no pads.
My strong suit is get-wells. I also excel at graduations, weddings, bar mitzvahs. When I'm hot, nobody can top my sympathies. I can as well, upon occasion, turn out a truly wicked thank-you. But birth announcements?
Just can't keep my mind on the subject. The birth of yet another human - who cares? There are six billion of us at this writing. Everytime I think of another fresh human I wanna burst into tears. Another sucker who's gonna suffer, be doomed to foul the nest further. Worst case scenario: grow up to be another Jesus Christ. Preach it's OK, keep right on multiplying - there's infinite room in Dad's mansion. The earth is the devil's outhouse - it's supposed to be choked with waste. The Gospel According To Gonads The Optimist.
So I'm in there with the Vivarin and my thermos of Chase & Sanborn wrenching rhymes into baby butts. Nothing's clicking. I get hung up on boy-toy-joy assonance. Dash off clinkers to the tune of: “It's a girl! Let the gerbil in his wheel whirl, the sun shine on the ant. Doesn't it feel fine to be a brandnew aunt?” Stuff that would never fly. Not that far off the mark; but the boss is a stickler.
I open the top drawer of the typewriter stand. Remove an amber plastic vial. With sweaty fingers rip off the childproof cap. Shake four diminutive white tabs into my quivering palm. I hate to admit it, but this just might be a job for crosstops. Benzedrine by any other name. I despise resorting to pep pills. Then I can't sleep at night; and when I do grab a moment of the fitful, I glimpse nightmares of stacking greeting card boxes incorrectly.
I chew up the bitter chalky whites. Chase 'em with a slurp of Chase & Sanborn.
Now, if you're wondering, why not use the identical verse on the line I accidentally sold out? Well, that would be fine; if anybody around here could remember anything. Nor do we ever take time to create a master file. Why bother? The stuff is so syrupy it all sounds the same.
Nope, out of the five of us - Bob and Chuck (the regular stackers and loaders), Jill (regular shop girl), myself, the boss - nobody can remember squat. Maybe it's the uppers. Could also be the hectic pace. Or what doctors - shrugging in ignorance - are fond of labelling stress. Personally, I suspect some inactive ingredient in the Vivarin. Magnesium stearate my eye - eats holes in your brain like lye clears a drain. Or maybe it's the Yellow #6.
Anyway, thirty minutes later, when the bennies kick in, the coffee's jazzing and the Vivarin's got me oscillating between horripilation and dyskinesia, I finally hit paydirt. Silver meter, diamond sentiment, opalescent word choice; exquisitely chased with golden rhyme.
Because of copyright, I can't quote the inscription. (Show up at the shop tomorrow, I'll sellya one; always there from noon to two, while Jill takes lunch, then craps out on Tuinal in the backseat of her Volvo).
But take my word, this is the McCoy. Coleridge, Wordsworth, Pope, Swift - all rolled into one. The cramped quarters, the bright fluorescents, my disgust for the assignment - coupled with being high as an escaped Garfield mylar helium balloon, wired as terrier hair - produce a masterpiece. The entire effort done unconsciously in one banzai of 148 key strokes. Through the medium of my fingers, the Muse spoke.
I'm clawing, screaming, kicking at the door. Till I remember the intercom. Jump to the opposite wall two feet behind. Tremblingly hit the switch.
The speaker in the acoustic ceiling activates. From his office the boss acknowledges.
I yell up at the invisible mike, “I got it! It's here! Archimedes in the bath tub!”
The boss instructs me to stay calm. He'll be right there. First he's gotta over the phone close a deal regarding a truckload of Halloween cards. Then he'll refill his coffee, come down the hall, see what I got.
Fifteen teeth-grinding, nail-biting minutes later he shows up. Unlocks the door. Squeezes buns into cubicle. Off-gasses Seabreeze, while he reads what's in the typewriter.
His eyebrows arch. He adjusts his tie, mutters, “Hmm.” A rare utterance of non-disapproval, meaning roughly: “Well, maybe you're a writer after all.”
The product circulates the office. Ours is a democratic totalitarianism. Everybody gets a chance to fudge with whatever the boss thinks has a chance to make the most dough. Maybe that's the essence of all democracies.
Anyway, Jill adds her two cents. Points out I misspelled both rennaisance and placenta. Bob and Chuck persuade me to alter the final couplet - universalize the appeal. The boss insists I change cherubic cheeks to chubby cheeks. Screws the meter; but keeps off my neck his fat ass. We wind up going to press with basically the original work.
Next I know a year or two evaporates. I dunno, I don't remember. The boss works staff hard, constantly reminding us we're pitted against Akron.
Nothing much changes. Except the shop gal seems to be named Jane, is fifty pounds heavier, ten years older. Rumor hints Jill overdosed on tooies. But Chuck claims she walked off the job one day last summer; now raising a family in El Paso. The boss backs this up with a shrug.
What's the diff? Actually better for everybody. This Jane takes just an hour lunch; so I work less in the shop; consequently screw up less; all fine with me. I'm a writer at heart; am OK with stacking boxes. It's the customer contact I can't handle. Typewriters and boxes I understand.
One item definitely hasn't changed: we still carry the same birth announcement. I'd remember for sure if in the meantime I hadda sweat another eternity grinding out baby tripe. And, as figured, the product has proved an enormous success. Even today, sales daily increase. It's the reason profits have soared.
The boss has lost a few pounds, stopped worrying about his tie. Conversely, Jane expresses her contentment with the recently instituted bi-annual ten cent raises by eating extra sweets and getting fatter yet.
Me, I sneak a few more pep pills. Everything's fine.
Till this afternoon I begin to learn the truth.
The pert young lass from a year or two ago saunters in while I'm tending shop - Jane down at McDonald's subjecting herself to grease.
“No spies allowed!” I sneer.
“Oh - it's you!” she flashes a full complement of perfect teeth. Fiddles with an earring. “I'm not working for Akron anymore, if that's what you mean.”
“Actually,” I say, “I mean, Do you want something? This is a store, you see.”
She pulls off a kid glove. Slaps it - as if lost in thought - against her cheek. “Can I buy you out of birth announcements?”
“Sure. No problem.” I reach under my shirt tail. Remove contents from pancake holster strapped over right kidney. Jerk out, clack same onto counter. “This is a snubnose .38. It's just laying here with my hand over it. The barrel aimed at your navel. A minute ago I ate six Benzedrines. You mind explaining why again you wanna clean us outta birth announcements?”
When she's through pretending to gulp (these spies continually act ), she gazes down at the mouth of the pistol held flat against the glass counter: “OK, no more kidding. But you mean to say you really don't know what's going on?”
“I never said that.”
“You probably,” she huffs, “don't even know why these things are selling like cocaine. Look - you put that gun away, I'll let you in on the secret.”
We dicker a minute. Compromise on my pointing the revolver off into a corner of the shop.
I offer a Vivarin. She declines. Eat it myself, gulping hard to get it down. So preoccupied am I swallowing a tablet without water, I miss her first remarks. But come in where she reveals people buy these cards because they skyrocket fertility.
Kinda chain letter deal. You get someone who just had a baby to mail you 666 announcements, and you'll conceive within the week; some say even if you don't have sex. Then, the day you give birth, mail 111 cards to each of any nine people whom you desire to conceive.
“Whether they like it or not?”
She purses lips. Nods affirmative. “And you must mail the 999 cards - divided equally among nine women - to assure that your child is born healthy.”
A shudder ascends my spine. My poem has triggered a pregnancy avalanche? Accelerated the snowballing of planetwide breeding?
“I don't believe a word of it.”
She shrugs. Says belief is a personal matter. But the truth is - as far as science is willing to admit - the phenomenon concerns the rhythm of the rhyme. Psychological tests suggest the wording itself to be irrelevant; as is probably the exact number of cards mailed. Don't I ever read the papers, watch the news, turn on a radio?
I shake my head. Explain I can't clutter my mind - need to keep a clean slate, as new greeting card verse can arrive any time; likewise any time the boss could demand by yesterday a fresh line of sympathy, get-well, Easter, birthday, Christmas, whatever. Reason for all the uppers, why everybody here needs to stay sharp. We're committed to the business of quality greetings. How come we're number one: dedication.
She sighs. Rolls her mascara-ed eyes at the popcorn ceiling. “You're number one, dipshit, because of serendipity.” She levels her baby browns back onto my own crosstop-dilated pupils. “Current research indicates the onslaught of hundreds of these announcements causes the brain to resonate with the herky-jerky of the bombastic inscription. Creating a prolonged memory cramp. Forcing the brain - really only a sort of master gland routinely secreting much more than mere thought - to throw the body into hyper-fertility. I imagine you are also ignorant of the parthenogenesis rumors. Well documented, however, is the upsurge in triplets, quads, quints. Week by week, less and less rare become even octuplets. Thanks to your card, all America waxes giddy with birth.”
“So what's in it for Akron?”
“I don't work for Akron anymore.”
I snap up the heater. Shove the squat barrel in her smile face.
Her eyes cross, holding the aperture in focus. This time the gulp looks real. She stutters, O-O-OK, she'll level:
Eighteen months ago she bought us out because Akron wanted to corner the market. Even then baby announcements the comer in anybody's inventory. They didn't figure we'd rebound in less than a week with a new line. And nobody anticipated the voodoo card explosion.
I lower the gun.
She produces a cigarette. Lights it. Replaces the lighter in her blouse pocket. Says, blowing smoke, “Akron sent me in to try it again. Assuming, once sold out, you self-isolated spaceballs wouldn't have a record of the active ingredient - the verse, I mean.”
“Flattery gets you nowhere.” I stash the snubnose back under my shirt. “C'mon back - I'll show you the warehouse. You brought a truck? You're gonna need an eighteen-wheeler if you intend to clean us outta the bambinos.”
“I can have one here in ten minutes,” she states. “My lighter is a miniature cell phone. Got a crew stationed around the corner.”
I step out from behind the counter. Lead the way to the swingdoor into the back room. She comes through close behind, whispering instructions into the shiny lighter cupped in her palm.
Off to one side Bob kneels stacking sympathies. Only Bob is working today. Chuck home with diarrhea. (Shit, gotta send him a get-well - have Jill start it around the office when she returns from lunch).
I approach Bob. “Don't bother to get up,” I say. Slip the .38 out from the pancake. Carefully shoot him in the head.
The shot is loud, but muffled by the inventory jungle. Each ceiling-high stack holds over a hundred thousand-card boxes - 98% of these the famed baby announcements. The air between the close-packed columns and rows stale with the odor of paper and cardboard. Almost can't smell the cordite.
Turn around to check on my vintage Linda Roundstack. She's ambling down the aisle, still whispering into her palm. Likely thought the round I put through Bob's temple backfire out on the highway.
Her I shoot in the heart. Right between those 34C's. She topples over like a bad ad for pantyhose and heels. God I'm good!
Isn't even my piece. Sent along by a happy gun nut in Alabama, after his barren wife brought to term sextuplets. Such the rewards of good writing.
Pull out handkerchief. Wipe prints off snubnose. Wrap Bob's fingers around the handle, forefinger locked over trigger. Bob always hated Linda Roundstack. “Evil Bitch Music” he called it. Chuck will testify to that. Or maybe Bob caught her spying, killed her. Didn't wanna face the music, suicided.
Then I remember it's Jane. Jill is dead, or raising a family in El Paso. The gun nut, in the note he enclosed, swears the .38 is registered to some Wisconsin senator (Wyoming?). Anyway, absolutely untraceable to yours totally wired.
I rush into the small windowless art room. Hurry out with solvents, turpentine, lighter fluid. Splash accelerants on dozens of boxes. Use the dead spy's lighter to start six different fires. In seconds the overstuffed warehouse blazes.
The corpses will char beyond recognition; but any coroner worth his salt will determine the truth. How Bob shot the girl, set fire to the joint, then shot himself.
Coughing, retching, stumble back out to the shop.
Nothing wrong with this picture. One less spy (nobody loves a snoop). Nor did I enjoy Bob's company - him badmouthing crosstops, calling me “Poppa” Benny. Best of all - I glance back through tears at smoke curling around the edges of the swingdoor - the announcements are history, not a card will survive. Meaning a nosedive in production of the single greatest threat to life on earth: Americans.
A return to the usual climb in the population that consumes the most, wastes the most, establishes its taste worldwide. The evangelists of data, the preachers of speed, whose anathema is everywhere peace and quiet. The invaders of the retreat, the shrine marketers, the speculators on their own hyprocrisy.
And if someone releases a pirate? No fear. No American could resist creating an improved version. Perhaps simply dropping a comma, or establishing newness by altering chubby to cherubic; democratizing placenta to afterbirth, remisspelling rennaissance. Thereby, I know in my palpitating heart, emasculating the magic.
Soon the original will be ashes. And only I could ever hope to sweat out another such poetic catastrophe. Locked in that cubicle, high on stimulants and disgust… only I… only…
Spot, through the plateglass, Jane drift up; toss a burger wrapper in the gutter; pause outside the door. Her nose wrinkles. Detects a hint of conflagration?
Something beautiful there is about Americans. An independent people capable of - at the last minute - togetherness. I, what the hell, push back through the swingdoor.
Into the smoke tramp. Greet the flames.
Fall choking to the floor. Feel the face blister; skin catch; guts about to burst with heat. This way I for sure won't be responsible for accelerating hell on earth.
Will the boss escape - hustle his girth in time down that corridor? Well, he does, it's his business.
Shit… forgot to send Chuck that card.
Willie Smith is deeply ashamed of being human. His work celebrates this horror. He exists in Seattle and is the author of the novel OEDIPUS CADET is. He is currently busy collecting a storm of his flashes into EDIBLE GARBAGE. He taught fiction once at Naropa Institute for exactly seven days. His chapbooks EXECUTION STYLE, STORIES FROM THE MICROWAVE, SOLID GAS and GO AHEAD SPIT ON ME are probably not available anywhere.