The Duck Joke Variations

A duck walk into a pharmacy, says give me some chapstick and put it on my bill.

 

A waterbird walks into an apothecary, says give me some moisturizing balm and put it where my lips would be if I had lips

 

An avian wetland dweller waddles into a convenience store, asks a clerk if they have anything behind the counter that might soothe and also protect the edges of his beak.

 

There is a bird in a store. It is saying it’s bill hurts. Apparently it can speak. What the hell am I supposed to do?

 

There is a joke about a duck in need of over the counter medication. It relies on similes. The joke, not the duck. It is a very, very funny joke, but also somehow sad and plaintive.

 

There is a joke with a bird in it that is hilarious yet also tragic. Some aspect of the humor revolves around plantains.

 

There is a Koan (Ko-Wan) involving a creature with uncomfortable lips that has no lips. There are no plantains in this Koan and while a little odd, it is meant for contemplation, not amusement.

 

If the duck means ‘bill’ in the sense of beak, what gives him the right to demand a product for free? If the duck means ‘bill’ in the sense of payment, what does he want chapstick for? Is he a collector? A fetsihest?  Is he getting the chapstick for someone else, someone who presumably has lips? What if they don’t have lips? Where will they put the chapstick? Why am I crying? Because I am allergic to plantains.

 

In restaurants, a bill is sometimes referred to as a ‘guest check’, which is absurd. If someone is your guest, why are you charging them? A bill is also sometimes referred to as a beak, but only if there are birds in your restaurant. Or some sort of genetic Chimera.

 

The Duck Billed Platypus is not a genetic chimera, although one might be forgiven for thinking it was. It is a Monotreme, one of only four. Monotremes are mammals, but they lay eggs. They do not speak or use drugstores. Scientists do not know what the fuck is up with them.

 

A duck walks into a drugstore. As soon as it begins to speak it is set upon by clandestine agents of the government who take it away, question it for days and eventually dissect its brain.

 

A duck walks into a library and says give me some chapstick, and put it on my bill. I tell him this is a library. He repeats the phrase, but whispers.

 

There is no duck. You are the duck. There is no drugstrore. Your mind is the drugstore.There is chapstick. Everybody knows what chapstick is.

 

Former olympic skier Suzy Chaffee walks into an endorsement contract. Reading it she thinks, if I do this, I will make a great deal of money. But there is the possibility I will never be remembered for anything but a stupid nickname. I won championships. I was captain of an Olympic team, I worked tirelessly to pass title IX legislation. I do not want to be a punchline. If only I could see the future, as the duck billed platypus is said to be able to do.

 

A duck would eat and enjoy a plantain. I am certain of it. A Platypus? Your guess is as good as mine. Monotremes are mysterious fuckers.

 

‘The Duck Variations’ walks into a store. It cannot ask for anything. It cannot pay for anything. It is a one-act play written in 1972 by a young David Mamet. That’s funny right? This concept? Maybe. The play is funny. But I didn’t write it.

 

The title of ‘The Duck Variations’ is a reference to ‘The Goldberg Variations’ by one of the Bachs or Mozart or some classical guy. I think Mamet would like you to believe that in some ways ‘The Duck Variations’ is influenced by, or maybe even an homage to ‘The Goldberg Variations’, but you know what? I doubt that. I think it’s a nod that Mamet hoped you might  think was something more. A lazy act by a talented writer. That’s what this piece  is. The title implies a relationship to a play when it’s really just a nod, a sadder nod.  Most highbrow folk know what ‘The Goldberg Variations’ are and almost nobody remembers ‘The Duck Variations’, A funny, but insignificant play, compared to the author’s later body of work.. My nod is more than sad. It is plantain.

 

This is not the first thing I have written that plays off ‘The Duck Variations’ and ‘The Goldberg Variations’ to create a desired effect. If that’s not plantain, I don’t know what the hell is.

 

Plantain sounds like plaintive. That’s not a joke. I don’t mean I’m serious, I mean literally. It’s not just that it’s not funny to say the wrong word over and over and pretend you have confused the meaning. It’s not structurally a joke at all.

 

‘Plantain’. HAH!

 

A Plantain walks into a duck and says ‘Hey, you got Chapstick in my Monotreme’. The duck screams ‘A talking plantain!’. The duck and the plantain are descended upon by clandestine government agents and soon have their brains dissected. Life is a miasma of suffering.

 

A duck walks into a store of any kind. That’s funny, but not funny ‘hah-hah’. What is it doing there?

 

A duck walks into anywhere and says something. That seems in the abstract like it might be funny, but if it happened, you would be scared. You would be gld when the clandestine government agents arrived.

Suzy Chaffe. Her lips. A CVS. An entire aisle of Plantains. Everyone who works there is ducks, but since ducks can’t talk, they are shitty CVS employees. All the customers are frustrated.

 

Life is a miasma of poor customer service and brain dissection.

 

Duck.

 

Duck.

 

Duck!

 

You didn’t duck, most likely because you thought I was going to say ‘goose’. You imagined we were playing a game, and now you are injured, perhaps severely by some flying something that would not have struck you in the head had you obeyed instead of misunderstood my command.

 

Perhaps the flying something was a hurled chapstick. Or a duck. That would be funny.

 

Life is a miasma of ducks.

 

Put it on my bill.

 

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The Very Last Summer Vacation Ever: Chapter Five

The Old Man was in a Black Study.

“What’s his damage?” I asked Alex.

“Our Father contends that what the hotel has supplied here in this… ‘Breakfast Room’… does not constitute a Continental Breakfast,”

“Incontinental, more like” Pop muttered under his breath, slumped deep in his chair, arms folded, hair every whichaway, still in his P.J.s, the striped ones so old and threadbare you could see the pock marks on his knees

“WHAT?” Our Mother shouted at him, Firing up an unfiltered Camel, “WHAT?”

“IN-continental, as in incontinent, as in peeing oneself against ones will, and also, wordplay wise, UN-continental, as in NOT… CON… TINENTAL!” He snapped, rising so suddenly the small table launched his uneaten bowl of Cheerios at Our Mother who deflected it deftly with the contemptuous back of one boney hand.

“PERFECT!” Mallory howled, bolting for the ersatz comfort of distance, quickly pursued by Alex not even bothering to feign concern, leaving me alone with them.

“I ought to check on Great Aunt Ginny, see if she’s still alive,” I tried, but the Old Man was quick.

“You’ll stay. Because you being the youngest, it’s my duty, a Father’s duty to educate you.” Here he paused, assuming the professorial mantle, “A continental Breakfast is a light breakfast, usually consisting of a breadstuff, a toast or croissant, perhaps a pastry… accompanied by coffee, tea or other unspecified hot liquid.”

“That’s exactly what- “ Our Mother tried to interject

“The ‘continent’ referred to is Europe which you may read as France, since at the time this phrase was coined, French culture was dominant.”

“Exactly what they have supplied us!” Our Mother finished, the essence of reason, “Look. Look. Look at that Lucite cabinet on the counter. What’s in it?”

“The ‘Continental’ breakfast is a quite deliberate and antithetical response to the ‘English’ Breakfast-

“Danish” Mom hissed, teeth clenching so hard her cigarette severed,“Danish, Danish, Danish, which IS-

“The ‘English’ Breakfast being a veritable bacchanal of self indulgence”

“A PASTRY, ARE YOU BLIND, DO YOU NOT SEE-

“A hideous yet magnificent conglomeration fried in a single gargantuan pan; of bacon, eggs, ham, sausage in its link form colloquially known as ‘bangers’, tomatoes, the optional mushroom-

“THE PASTRY IN THE LUCITE CABINET?”

“Fried bread, fried left over mashed potatoes Called by some, though not all, ‘Potato Cakes’”

“It’s made of Lucite so you can SEE-

“And Black pudding.”

“THE CONTINAL FUCKING BREAKFAST!”

“I think,” I offered, “That those little devices over there are waffle makers. You can make your own waffles.”

“Do you know what Black Pudding is, woman?” Our Father asked. “By her silence she infers she does not. I think she does. I think she knows very well. But you, son, are far too young and innocently ignorant to know anything of Black Pudding, indeed if you did I’d have to beat the knowledge out of you as it’s not the sort of thing a boy still in short pants ought to know.”

I checked my pants reflexively. They were jeans, and long.

“Black… Pudding,” said the Old Man, standing now, arms akimbo, addressing the collected guests, a senior couple and regrettably the family from last night at the pool, “Black… Pudding… is black. It is not a ‘pudding’ in the American sense, when the British say ‘pudding’ they generally mean any old desert, but confoundedly black pudding is a misnomer in that it is decidedly NOT a sweet, meal ending treat!”

“Don’t do this” Our Mother sottoed, “The boy!”
“Black pudding… BLACK… pudding is, in fact, a sausage, or ‘banger’ if you like,” said leering at Our Mom, “made by cooking blood to a temperature such that when allowed to cool, it… congeals!”

“Damn you.” Our Mother whispered, lighting a new butt off the embers of the last.

“It is, in point of fact, revolting, even secretly to the very British who claim it as a food. Pig or cattle blood is most often used, but poultry blood, sheep’s blood, cat’s blood, monkeys blood can and will do in a pinch. Not a treat. Not in any way to any one. It is named ‘pudding’ as a joke, the way my old man sometimes called a whupping with his belt ‘yer birthday present’.”

It was so quiet then in the breakfast room.

“SO!” He continued, “So, the English breakfast is a manifestation of brute strength, colonial dominance, and most of all, arrogance. To which… the ‘continental’ breakfast… is… a response. Do you see,” he said, tweezing a croissant between his thumb and forefinger “Do you ALL see that simply providing a ‘breakfast room’ that has an array of breadstuffs, little packets of jam, and sub standard coffee kept near as damnit to the boiling point to hide it’s inferior taste by burning the drinkers tongue, is only ‘continental’ in the letter of the law, in fact it misses the whole point, in fact it takes the word ‘continental’ to mean ‘cheap’, ‘shitty’, ‘insulting’; and so is in no WAY continental, because the continental breakfast opposes the English breakfast in that it is simple yet ELEGANT!”

“Now,” he says, one hand indicating the TV high on it’s corner shelf, a tiny anchorman caged in crawls and insets, “Does any of this,” his other hand, fingers splayed to indicate in turn the complimentary copies of USA today, the toasters, Lucite cabinets and waffle makers, the juice machine and coffee station, “Seem ELEGANT to you?”

Our Mother had, at some point, departed the scene, an overflowing ashtray the only evidence she had ever been there.

“Gin,” the Old Man said, “What kind of self respecting continental breakfast is not accompanied by a few damn bottles?”

I tried to make eye contact with the girl across the room, wanting to communicate ‘Wow, Dads, huh?’ but she was gone.

I hoped to sneak a few quiet minutes of solitude in the bathroom of our suite, but no sooner had I key carded the door than Mallory pounced and had me by the collar up against the hideaway ironing board.

“Listen,” She hissed, “the Old Man’s full of shit.”

“Mallory,” I said, “your teeth!”

And indeed, there they were, neat as you please, just a few centimeters from my face, gleaming, straight, white and naked! Utterly bereft of train tracks! No criss crossing lattice of elastics, no buckles, clamps, pins, stays, not one mechanical device at all, her crisp white enameled beauties sparkled!

“Braces,” She said, “are also a lie. I took them off myself just now, while you were all squalling in the Breakfast room. Used a pair of pliers from my beading bag, it hurt like hell if you want to know, but blood is a fine antidote for mendacity! At no time in the entire history of orthodontia has a single kid’s mouth, once spellunked, been found adequate, i.e. NOT in need of braces! That’s how yachts get paid for. But never mind that Alex, we’ve got six good minutes before the Old Man and his Bride come to defribulate Great Aunt Ginny awake and I need to know who’s side your on!”

“Where’s the dog?” I wheedled, playing for time as my sisters fingers twisted the neck of my shirt into a noose.

“She’s got problems of her own, pipsqueak! I’m putting my cards on the table.”

“There’s a table now?”

She let me go so suddenly I tumbled in a heap amongst the flip-flops and wet, cast off hotel towels.

“It’s not the end of the world” she said, showing me her back. “Everybody always thinks it is, but it isn’t ever. This is just a scam, the Old Man’s showboating, he’s on a toot, something got him up against it so he’s pulling a runner, and we’re along for the ride!”

“What?” I fumbled, “Wait, no, Mal, we all agreed we saw the signs”

“What signs?”

“The writing on the wall, then,” I pleaded.

“That’s his graffiti, don’t you see? It’s all a big flim flam so he won’t have to pay for anything! And I will not get stuck holding the bag!”

“What bag?”

“The bag of crap and comeuppance this family vacation will inevitably end in. I’m looking out for the main chance. When I see it I might be inclined to cut my kid brother in, out of sentiment or to increase my chances of survival.” Here she made an odd sign, tugging the skin beneath her left eye down with her middle finger, a gesture full of meaning I’m certain but a mystery to me. I dropped my head for only a moment, but when I looked up she was gone.

In the parking lot I found the Old Man holding forth unto himself while stuffing this and that into whatever tiny spaces presented themselves within Matilda’s gaping hatch.

“I should have told them about the Irish Breakfast. That would have learned them to the point of understanding. The German Breakfast,” he continued forcing a single shoe into the wall of our junk where it became a fulcrum for a tennis racquet lever, ”I did not deign to mention, it being far too frightening to be employed as metaphor” Putting his weight into it now, forcing the racquet handle down, the stringed end slowly lifting the great weight of suitcases, rucksacks, stuff sacks, winter coats in case a sudden unforeseen and violent climate shift should bring another ice age, just enough space so that the Old Man’s foot could lift a canvas toiletry bag and with an ankle flick, slide it in. “The Icelandic Breakfast can only be consumed while sledding and on fire. I know you’re there, Andrew, it wouldn’t kill you to lend a hand.”

“Mallory doesn’t think the world is ending,” I offered.

“Oh, that. Well, she’s a girl, isn’t she? Thinks scams are necessarily untrue. That’s the female mind. What do you think?”

I? Me? My opinion called for? I pondered only a moment, basking in the unprecedented. Since that long ago family meeting I hadn’t thought much at all, to be truthful. But the idea that my Old Man could be wrong about anything, could even deliberately lie about something… well, that existed outside the laws of physics, like God.

“I think we’re all hosed,” I said.

“Attaboy!”

The Very Last Summer Vacation Ever: Chapter Four

As the sun began to set on our first full day on the road, a quiet descended. The Old Man drove on, humming to himself now and then, and the back of Our Mother’s head bobbling stiffly on her thin neck, betraying nothing, playing it’s cards close. Mallory, earbudded, slumped deep in secret inscrutable alien girl thoughts; Great Aunt Ginny sawing wood, emitting quiet grunts and whistles, her lizard neck inflating and deflating gently with each labored breath. I turned my gaze up to Alex the eldest, crammed in beside me, squooshed uncomplaining against the driver’s side passenger door. His thin face tried gamely to resemble our Fathers and in the flattering amber light it almost did, it would have if not for that fine film of signature irritation, so classically his own. I could see he was pondering and I thought this lull in the family conversation, this pause with twenty questions all played out and license plate bingo not yet asked for, might be one of those rare occasions when my older brother would speak earnestly to me of things I yearned to know, and set aside for awhile the traditional brotherly bickering and name calling, the ritual assignation of blame.

“Well, now, y’see, Squirt, this is the thing…” He began, and I knew what followed would be important, for each word of that sentence was a note, he was almost singing to me with the ‘Well’ being a high pitched falsetto and the ‘now’ just a bit lower and the ‘y’see’ descending a minor third and the ‘squirt’ being right in the middle of his range and the ‘this is the thing’ coming out low and rich and all quarter notes.

“I have always seen life as an endless series of minor hassles punctuated by tragedy. You cut yourself shaving, unexpected traffic makes you ten minutes late for Macroeconomics, the yogurt you brought for lunch is two days expired, and it goes on like this for weeks at a time until someone tells you a beloved Uncle you thought you’d see come Christmas has decided to die of cancer instead. But I had an answer to all of that, or thought I did. A career in Public Policy. I would make of myself a perfectly balanced cog in the classical Confucian manner. Not a straw man, a soulless ferret, veins flowing with red tape in place of blood, that image so often and easily foisted upon us by the vast cretinous hive minds of the media and the chucklehead class, but something beautiful and true; an honorable bureaucrat kneeling at the throne of order. So in some minor way I dreamt of swimming against the tide, massaging numbers while never forgetting the individual souls they represented, and doing it well enough to alleviate a portion of their unavoidable suffering. But now none of that will ever be. The teetering, massive ramshackle, ornate, pseudo organic mechanisms that run our society have finally grown so baroque they must extinct themselves. Like that species of ice age venison whose magnificent antlers evolved ever more elegant and complicated shapes to impress their womenfolk until eventually the poor bastards could not lift their heads, or became hopelessly entangled in the underbrush or the antlers of their peers and so were doomed to die a death of slow starvation as the ‘selected against’, our systems of governance have begun to inexorably collapse under their own weight. It was bound to happen, but like my forefathers, I prayed it would happen to my children, or of I was really lucky, their children, so that when it happened I would be too old to fully grasp what was going down. What I shall do now and what will become of me I do not know.”

I wanted to offer him something in return for this confidence, some nugget of my own wisdom that might buoy him up, but I had none, and we both knew it. Also I was jealous. In his anguish he at least had something he was losing to hold up in the face of the end of it all, whereas I had squat. No particular dreams to nobly cling to or jettison as they got squashed, no goals, no ambitions, not one plan. Here I was hurtling toward oblivion, and I had not one shred of character or experience to shed along the way, and that was a fact that stung. I was callow, and in the darkening silence I chewed on that.

“AHA!” Our Old Man bellowed, “I spy with my little eye a hotel! Lets see if they have a pool fit for the Gallaghers!”

They did and we lounged around it like Romans, Even Great Aunt Ginny miraculously packaged in a glistening one piece spandex sheath, her portable oxygen compressor happily chugging beside her chaise lounge, even our Frodo, ecstatic to be at last set loose to loll upon the concrete, exposing her belly to the moon. We had the pool mostly to ourselves, sharing only the shallow end with a family of three, quiet and shrouded in darkness. Crickets and peepers sang in the night and the chlorine scented, heavy, humid air pressed on our wet bodies and Mallory frisked like a mermaid under the diving board, briefly at peace because under the water she couldn’t hear us, and she could hold her breath for a very long time. Fireflies sparked here and there and our Alex remarked upon how their bioluminescence radiated no heat at all, a mystery of science. We Gallaghers relaxed and all was well with us until the front desk girl came by to tell us the pool closed at ten o’clock, which was the time it was.

“Tell me your name, front desk girl,” our old man said unpacking his charm, and she allowed it was Veronique.

“Veronique. Veh-ron-eek. Veh… Rrrrrahn…eek!,” he said, his head dangling backwards over the back of his pool chair, “Now that… is a name of royalty. That’s no name for a front desk girl. That’s no name for a ten o’clock pool closer. Veronique, that’s the name of a fiercely individual woman who laughs at pool closing times. That’s the name of a woman who knows that setting a time a pool closes is a crime against nature! Do you watch the news ever, Veronique?” she allowed she did. “And the Internet? Do you peruse it now and then? What do you see? Celebrity Girls just half your age having babies and letting them sit unbuckled in the front seat. Typhoons sweeping third world hamlets and vast coastal cities into the sea without prejudice or discrimination, the dogs of war unleashed, well known television men of the cloth attempting to pass drug tests by means of a prosthetic wanger. The center will not hold, Veronique. All the old laws are tumbling down, the end times are upon us and the rule of law is strained to breaking every which way. Maybe yesterday this pool closed at Ten o’clock, but yesterday is as dead and buried as our Great Aunt Ginny ought to be. The closing of hotel pools is all over and done with now, forever and ever. Free yourself, shake off the chains of pool closing, look, look into the abyss and know that you have always been free if only you had known it, which now you do! Sit a while with us, Veronique, take off your shoes and dangle your tired feet in the waters! Don’t you want to watch the fireflies?” Veronique allowed as to how maybe she did.

On the other side of the pool near the shallow end the other family switched on a little portable lantern. It picked them out of the growing darkness and when I looked at their light the dark around them seemed darker and they looked like they were a TV show. The Dad was a lanky pale guy, younger than my Old Man. The Mom was kind of lumpy, like a Jell-O salad that got poured into a human shaped swimsuit. Their kid was a girl about my age. She was splashing around down there in the shallow end, holding this ball under the water and then letting it explode up to the surface. She did it again and again, and I got to thinking, why is she doing that? I mean once or twice, okay, but just how entertaining can it be? And then I got that she was just doing it. She’s here at the pool with her parents, she’s in the water, and it’s just something to do, like cracking your knuckles or picking at a scab. Then she hauls herself up and sits on the edge of the pool. I like her hair. It’s long and straight and dark, which is really all it could be since it’s wet. It could be blond, or red, curly when it was dry, or any way I guessed it might be. I imagined I got up and walked around the pool until I was pretty close. And she says ‘what’s your name?’ and I say ‘Alex. You here with your folks?’ and she says ‘Yeah.’ And I say, ‘there’s this mini golf place right over the other side of the parking lot, do you want to go?’ and she says ‘ok’. So we go and I pay for us to get clubs and balls. She takes a yellow one. ‘You don’t want pink?’ I ask, and she says ‘Screw that’ and throws the ball up in the air and catches it, and I think she might smile at me then, but she doesn’t. I take a purple ball. We play mini golf. There’s bugs that fly around the lights, but it’s not too bad. There’s almost nobody here, so we don’t have to wait hardly at all between holes. At this one hole there’s a Popeye the Sailor Man with a can of spinach in his hand. You have to shoot the ball between his legs. It’s not hard. ‘That’s not much of an obstacle’ I say and she says ‘I think he’s just for atmosphere.’ There’s the obligatory windmill hole. She gets right through, but I keep hitting the blades. ‘You only get five strokes’ she says. ’It has to be that way or we’ll be here all night.’ and I think that would be OK but don’t say anything. The last hole is the Statue of Liberty. She’s buried up to her chest in the sand. You have to hit the ball so it rolls up her arm to the torch and then into the cup. ‘If you get a hole in one, they give you an ice cream for free’ she says, but it’s clearly impossible. ‘I don’t care how many shots they give me, you can’t make a golf ball do that.’ Finally she smiles at me. Because of course that’s the point. They don’t want you to get the free Ice cream. What the hell kind of business would they be in if they gave away ice cream for free?

The girl and her parents are gone. My family is gone. Veronique is gone. I’m all alone at the pool and I don’t know how long it’s been that way. I get up, walk back to the Hotel, up the outside steps to the second floor, still wet and just as cold as beJesus. The door to my parent’s room is open.

The TV is on. The Radio is on. Mallory has found a hair dryer attached to the wall and she’s turning it on and off, on and off. Great Aunt Ginny is up on the bed with Frodo. The old Man and my Mother and Alex and Veronique are clustered around the overturned mini bar, gorging themselves smoked almonds, Toblerone bars, imported European mineral water. My Father brandishes a wine cooler.

“WE” He bellows, “WILL NEVER… PAY… FOR ANY OF THIS!”

The Very Last Summer Vacation Ever: Chapter Three

“All right then, troops,” the Old Man allowed over his shoulder, Matilda spastically idling in the bird crap spattered parking lot of the depressingly nondescript brick sprawl nursing home our Great Aunt Ginny had been stowed in since time before remembering. “There are a few things I would request you all keep in mind before we assimilate your aged Great Aunt into this trip, the first of which being that she is exceedingly old. The second is that she is not precisely my Great Aunt.”
“Well she sure as hell isn’t mine!” our Mother shrieked, “Don’t you dare try to pin that venomous old bag of recriminations on me!”
“WHAT?” Mallory exploded, a wad of gum shooting out of her mouth and flattening against Matilda’s dome light, “Why does she have to go with us then? Who the hell does she belong to?”

“She’s almost certainly a blood relative,” our Father opined, “Being as she has lurked around the corners of our extended family since well before I was born. It was rumored for several years that she was my Father’s half sister by way of Armenian tramp that boarded with them against their will during the depression, but my own Grandmother vigorously denied any such claim. The point is she is family in that she appears in most of our group photographs and has rarely forgotten to send me a five-dollar bill on my birthday for longer than I care to admit. More than twice a year these last few decades.”

“Does she have to come with us?” Mallory pleaded, “She has no idea who I am!”

“She has very little idea who any of us are, dear. She comes with us on the last family vacation ever because she is our link to the past, a fraying hemp hawser in human form binding us to the old ways and old countries from which we sprung and without whom it could well be that none of us now here in this car would exist today! In whatever cargo hold she made passage to the New World those many years ago were nestled a secondary cargo of human eggs that would one day become some unknown number of the men and women who may well have born me and through me, us. Gallaghers, without those eggs, if indeed they had anything to do with any of our actual kin, we are quite possibly less than ideas. So we honor the mostly still living vessel that once clutched those long ago hatched human eggs within her internal, metaphorical briny depths over the actual, much physically larger and more dangerous external briny depths. We honor her by taking her with us on our last journey, just as we would her mortal remains had she died prior to right now, which it must be admitted would have made her easier to transport. And that segways very nicely into the third and final point I mean to make before I extract her from the bosom of this… place we are parked in front of. Our Great Aunt Ginny hovers on the verge of death and has done so since I was a tot. What keeps her from expiring is a mystery of science, though more than one medical professional has suggested that ‘cussedness’ might have something to do with it. She may pass away at any moment on this trip, and when she lets loose her trembling old ankle and kicks her personal bucket, it could go down any number of ways. Her shape may suddenly collapse inward, as if her skin and bones had turned to sand, dusting by awkward stages like a Vampire in a Hammer Film. She may continue to emit twitters and grunts for hours after her demise so that you never know the point at which she actually died. She could explode for all I know, killing each and every one of us; it’s not unheard of in women of her years. What I am trying to say troops, is that I, her sort of Grand Nephew or whatever, would consider it a great personal favor if when she at last rings down that final curtain, the ringing of that curtain has not been hastened or caused in any way by any one of you. Do not bump her, surprise her, castigate her in any way, either fairly or unfairly. Do not fold, spindle or mutilate this old woman, purposefully or by accident, don’t contradict, sass, or look cross eyed upon her. In short, I want you to treat our Great Aunt Ginny with the same degree of respect you would show a priceless Egyptian papyrus scroll duct taped to a nuclear time bomb. Capice?”

I would have said fitting Great Aunt Ginny into the backseat when Alex, Mallory and I could barely expand our lungs for fear of crushing one another was a physical impossibility, but I was wrong. Perhaps it was because her paper thin, surprisingly flexible person weighed almost nothing at all, or perhaps because our Father used his near wizardly powers of packing to fold spacetime in unheard of ways, or maybe it was the terrible silent throbbing of the anger vein upon the Old Man’s head when a few spools of Great Aunt Ginny’s medical tubing became ensnarled in Mallory’s head gear. In the end there she undeniably was, right next to me, smelling like cinnamon, antique text books and old blankets a beloved cat had enjoyed to sleep upon before it passed away during the Carter administration. Her glazed left eye settled upon me, indicating, probably, consciousness.

“It warn’t Santy Claus what done it” She hissed like a deflating bicycle tire, and I let it go at that.

“All I am saying,” our Old Man said some time later in his most reasonable voice, the one he used when desiring to infuriate us the most, “is that ‘White Plains’ sounds like an Upstate New York name. And Upstate is north, compass wise. And the Tapanzee Bridge is south.”

“I don’t give a tepid Christ what White Plains ‘sounds’ like” Our Mother returned. “I am the navigator. I am reading the map. I am looking at the signs. White Plains is O.K.”

“White… Plains. ‘White’. Suggesting plains covered in a blanket of whiteness, which to me says snow. Snow more commonly found in the northern climes. Which is why when we pass a sign saying “White Plains” I begin to suspect that we may be heading north, which would be the WRONG DIRECTION!”

“Are you questioning my map reading skills? Or is it the map itself you are questioning?”

“I am not QUESTIONING either, I am merely saying that WHITE plains puts one in mind of-“

“Perhaps it’s my veracity you are questioning. Perhaps you mean to insinuate that for reasons unknown, I, your bride of umpteen years out of whom shot forth your offspring, am deliberately and inscrutably LIEING!”

“Now you see, you see,” The Old Man rumbled, foreshadowing thundering, “THIS is EXACTLY the twisting of words you inevitably engage in. I didn’t ‘QUESTION’ ANYTHING! I suggested the etymology of the name “White-

“SAW MILL PARKWAY! SAW MILL PARKWAY! ARE YOU BLIND? LOOK AT THE SIGN!” Our Mother howled.

“Saw Mill PARKWAY? A moment ago you told me to keep my eyes peeled for the Saw Mill ROAD!”

“Same DIFFERENCE!”

“There is no such THING as the SAME DIFFERENCE, you terrible harpy! Those words mean nothing at all!”

“Oh, I will grab the wheel and KILL US ALL!”

“YOU DO NOT HAVE THE SPINE!”

“STOP IT!” Mallory pealed, “STOP IT, STOP IT, I HATE YOU ALL!”

I looked to Alex for some sort of guidance, but he was miles away, and then I saw it the sign. Tapanzee Bridge. Far right lane.

“Tapanzee!” I shouted, but Mallory was barking like a Howler Money with a grease burn and the Old Man had turtled his head down almost into his chest cavity in indignation and our Mother was manufacturing a sort of air raid siren squeal by forcing a thin column of oxygen through the spaces between her tightly clenched teeth.

“Tapanzee, Tapanzee, TA… PAN… ZEEEEEEEEEEEE!” I cried, launching my upper body up over the front seat, grabbing the steering wheel between my Old Man’s meaty hands and turning us into the exit even as we very nearly raced past it. The wheels squealed like a choir of mortally offended virgin weasels, Matilda lurched up on two wheels for a moment, then thumped down, her contents likewise thumping, the near comatose shell of our Great Aunt Ginny thumping and cracking and shooting out jets of dust and snowflakes of dead skin, poor hidden Frodo moaning as her carrier thumped down somewhere under all our crap, but we made it.

“Well…” Our Mother said, lighting a fresh Marlboro off the crumpled stump in the corner of her mouth, “While I will willingly concede that White Plains is a stupid ass thing to name a town in southernmost New York-

“I will admit” said Our Father, “that seeing a sign that says ‘White Plains’ when looking for the Tapanzee Bridge turns out to be O-KAAAY!”

And we all laughed. Alex and Mallory and me, and Great Aunt Ginny, laughing in her sleep, and Frodo burbling a doggy chuckle of her own from wherever she was, all us Gallaghers laughed together. Because laughter releases tension. Because laughter is the best medicine. Because with laughter comes Catharsis. Because in the face of terror and mortality and the deep soul loathing known only in snowed in Yukon cabins and tightly packed family cars, what else can you do that isn’t lethal?

The Very Last Summer Vacation Ever: Chapter Two

 

(If you haven’t read chapter one, yet, this won’t make much sense. If you scroll to the bottom of this page, in the black section you’ll find links to recent posts.)

The entire month of May was devoted to procurement and packing. For a while the Old Man went to work, came home and launched himself into controlled fits of organization and staging lasting long into the night, thumping up and down the stairs with laundry baskets full of crap, pulling tents and water skis, straps and rigging out of the attic and up from the basement, creating huge piles in the living room and on the dining room table, leaning towers of hard and soft luggage and brown paper sacks of dry goods that constantly threatened to collapse on us, possibly fatally.

 

Our Mom wrote endless lists on legal pads, the backs of envelopes, napkins, her arms. She crossed things off in a fury, her ballpoint trenching through layers of loose leaf. She vanished under a landslide of three ring binders, pencil cases and hole punchers, emerging days later, personalized blank travel journals for each of us clenched to her breast with sections for car games and art work and preaddressed post cards to relatives, teachers, anyone any of us had ever come into contact with during the entire course of our lives. I discovered her late one night in a corner of the basement, betrayed in the darkness by the coal of her cigarette, crouched over a card board box full of mustard, ketchup, relish and ‘Texas Pete’ Hot Sauce, her pale knees up around her ears. At the merest suggestion of inquiry upon my face she shrieked ‘BECAUSE THE CONDIMENTS IN TOURIST TOWNS COST A FUCKING FORTUNE WHICH IS JUST HOW THEY GET YOU!’ and I backed my way up the stairs never taking my eyes off her for fear she might spring upon me and devour me whole.

 

Mallory entered the terrible dark forest of her closet, pawing through trembling drifts of young adult novels, magazines, melancholy independent graphic novels, CD’s, ancient crumbling cassette mix tapes of unknown origin, anything, anything at all that might during the hellishly long journey be made into a crude barricade between her and us.

 

Alex passed into some other plane of consciousness entirely, totally aloof, utterly unreachable, his left eye drifting slowly about like a dispirited goldfish in a dirty bowl, the tiniest hint of an inscrutable smile tugging the corner of his upper lip.

 

And where was the dog? I could hear her at times, whining for food or attention, lost behind hedgerows of road atlases, travel guides, badminton racquets, beach toys, bug spray, sun screen.

 

“SUNSCREEN!?” My Father, bellowed, more feral each moment, “SUNSCREEN, why the hell would we take up valuable packing space with SUNSCREEN when the world as we know it will long have been over well before any one of us could die of SKIN CANCER, IF THERE EVEN IS SUCH A THING?” He began to break laws of physics appearing simultaneously on the stairs, out in the driveway, half under Matilda, our battle scarred, venerable station wagon, (already starting to list like a clinically depressed drunk under the poorly balanced cargo of all our shit), hurling rust dusty folding lawn chairs out the attic window, cursing almost constantly under his breath like a sailor with Tourette’s. Our Mother, rearing up out of a camouflage of laundry, bent Marlboro jutting rakishly, howling “ARE YOU PACKED?! ARE YOU PACKED?! HAVE ANY OF YOU PACKED A SINGLE GOD DAMNED BAG? I HAVE ASKED YOU SIXTEEN MILLION GOD DAMNED TIMES!” And Mallory, besnarled in the barb wire mass of her indecipherably customized dental headgear hysterically crying, hot tears, liquid mascara and snot shooting out of her head, telling us to go, go, for God’s sake go and leave her behind, just get out, get OUT, GET OUT!!

 

And suddenly without transition I am slammed into Alex, Mallory slams into me, the car door slams shut pushing a solid bolus of stale car miasma redolent of hair spray, cigarette smoke, fraying vinyl upholstery, gin and capitulation straight through us, We are IN! Fixed like prehistoric bugs in amber up against each other, the back of the front seat even now edging closer as the Old man adjusts it, like the trash crusher on the Death Star, until it chunks into place, the lid of a stone sarcophagus slamming shut,we are buried alive. A moment of silence, broken only by Frodo’s thin desperate whine, crated somewhere like a medieval prisoner somewhere beneath mountains of Gallagher crap, and somewhere under my cramped ass Matilda’s ancient engine sputtering once, twice, catching, alive!

 

“NOW!” The Old Man Thunders, his voice oddly muffled by the stuffing of our traveling cave, “we pick up Great Aunt Ginny.”

The Very Last Summer Vacation Ever: Chapter One

(This is the first chapter of a book I’ve been working on for quite some time. It is one hundred percent autobiographical and reasonably all true in every way that counts.)

CHAPTER ONE: A FAMILY MEETING

At the ass end of the worst April ever, the Old Man called a family meeting. Himself presiding, Our Mother, Alex the eldest, Mallory the middle, me the youngest and also our dog Frodo in attendance.

“There is,” said the Old Man, “an Elephant in this room. Not an actual Pachyderm, clearly. Nor the proverbial pink variety ascribed to stock cast dipsomaniacs, though I won’t say I haven’t seen that kind a time or two before; and no, not the Grand Old Party’s Elephant slouching toward wherever. Troops, the Elephant of which I speak is the classic Elephas Idiomaticus, i.e. a glaring and obvious truth that is being ignored or going unaddressed. That Elephant is here in this room. It is omnipresent in our nation. It stampedes amuck across the globe.”

He paused then as he often did when the train of his thought was long and the last few cars, hastily attached, often of a different gauge, listed; their cargo shifting dangerously. We waited with him, his last long breath still inflating his chest, the slate of his face blank, his eyes either glazed, or fixed on some distant point; waited for the great relief that came born along on a rush of new words, grateful if not for any wisdom gained then at least for the release of tension.

“I think it’s clear to those of us in this room and everyone outside it. The world as we have known it… will soon be over.”

Well, you could have heard that pin so often spoken of dropping, though what we did hear was Frodo, whose ragged panting indicated her canine sense that the Old Man’s words were only what any of us would have said ourselves had we known a name to give the feeling that had been in our stomachs for some length of time.

We just looked at each other like dopes.

For my own self I had to admit that for a while now when I walked to school or took the shortcut through the woods to the General Store or if I rode my bike alone down by the railroad, a bad feeling rode with me. Even in my room before I went to sleep, the safest place of all, just lately it seemed something ugly was gathering force outside, pushing in until the individual panes of glass on my window convexed a tiny bit. And didn’t just lately everything if you caught it out the side of your eye seem a little angry? Stuff that had no way to get mad, like tall dead grass or crushed up soda cans or a water stain on an old wall? Didn’t it feel like all that bad feeling was waiting to congeal into a giant pointing finger that would come down out of the sky and crush you sure as shit like a bug?

Alex was nodding his head like something had added up for him. Like all of the eight thousand minor things designed to piss him off that he enjoyed to list for any convenient audience had been put in a bag and shaken up and thrown out on the floor like entrails that a guy like me couldn’t see but to him made a map to help you find things that weren’t in the place you knew for an absolute certainty you’d left them. I looked to Our Mother but she was looking away and down so a wind that wasn’t there wouldn’t keep her cigarette from lighting. I didn’t need to look at Mallory to know she blamed us all personally, but I looked anyway for confirmation, which I got.

So we all had known. Dad had just been bold enough to take the bull by the horns and ride it straight into a family meeting. It was a boldness we demanded from him and which I certainly hoped was in my blood, although to be honest I had seen no sign of it whatever in me up to this point.

“Global warming,” the old man intoned like a drum beat, “tsunamis, earthquakes, dusky skinned terrorists blowing themselves and any freedom loving folk standing nearby to Kingdom Come, one per customer limits on the basic staples at Costco, Seven Dollar a gallon gas by mid summer; Negroes, Women and the Living Dead running for president, ‘smart’ phones, my collection of antique World’s Fair commemorative tea spoons vanishing from their rack and appearing in circulation with the regular teaspoons… unmistakable signs of the impending dark future we always hoped to travel back in time to prevent.

It pains me to speak on this subject. The end is particularly unfair for you kids. To you, Alex, who ironically, in one more year would graduate college with a promising degree in Public Policy; To you, Mallory, with your fond hopes of finding male companionship of a stripe that would render me incurably insane; and especially to you, young Andrew, for whom the world held such as yet unspecified promise seeing as none of us has figured out what all your special talents and proclivities might be yet. Even to you Frodo, who surely dreamed of chasing rabbits and rolling in cow manure every spring for several more seasons that likely now won’t come, though you ought to be grateful for whatever you get seeing as the time left to you will seem seven times longer than the time left to us.

“But not talking about something doesn’t make it go away. All not talking about something does is allow it to sneak up behind you and jump up on your shoulders and scare the crap out of you, and frankly I have never thought being snuck up on was the Gallagher family way.

“Now,” he said, raising his right hand palm outward, “now, no one should panic here. There never has been any use crying over spilled milk and crying certainly won’t help now that the even the spilled milk is almost gone. Your Mother and I have thought ahead and made a plan.”

Here Our Mother turned her head on it’s thin neck to look at him, and in that look I saw confusion, frustration, downright loathing and a surprise born of the simple and obvious fact that she had not been in on any plan at all, that she was hearing this plan for the very first time just as we were, but would now be an unwilling accessory. It was a look that spoke equally of unconditional love, unconditional hatred and years of piled up bitterness caused by placing all her eggs in the single basket of this husband and family, a basket it was pretty clear had more than one hole in it and so was a poor choice for the carrying of eggs, clear if not from the get go than at least from very soon after.

“This family has never been the head in the sand, build a fallout shelter type,” my Father said. “We are not hunker downerers, cowerers or dead end survivalists! Troops, our family is all about hope. Hope, optimism, stick-to-it-ivness and good old fashioned, American made elbow grease. But how can we express this grease in the face of the end of all things?”

“Family Diaspora!” spat Mallory, her retainer flying from her mouth, a furious inevitable blush beginning at her hairline and racing to her toes. The Old Man turned his kindly look upon her, the look that said ‘fooled once more by the rhetorical. I cherish these leaps forward of yours, when you hear the gentle eyelid on eyelid sound of a wink and mistake it for a starters’ pistol; but that kind of cherishing takes time, the very thing we lack an abundance of.’

“We shall go on as we have always gone on,” Pop struck up once more, “Chins up, never giving in to fear, going about our business. Which in this case means a family summer vacation! But being brave enough to admit that this is the very last summer vacation we shall ever take in the world as we know it, we must make it the bestest, longest, most extremest family vacation ever! Your mother and I have spent the last year applying to every single ludicrous credit card and loan come on we got in the mail and I am now happy to say that while we are not rich in money, we are rich beyond the dreams of avarice in credit! Credit that shall never come due, as long before the bills arrive the world will certainly end! And so we shall take to the open road as royalty and make this a family vacation you kids will never forget, taking into account that you won’t have very much time to forget it in!”

We all leapt to our feet clapping spontaneously for joy, all us kids and even our Mother, and Frodo yapped around our feet, happy ass wagging, jumping up onto us, which she knew was forbidden. The Old Man beamed and put his arm around his bride who to her credit cringed only briefly.

“And where shall we go?” our Mother asked, forgetting for a moment that this was supposed to be her plan too, her glassy eyes filled with pride, bitterness, terror and a violent, yet for the moment contained rage.

“SOUTH!” my Old Man Bellowed, raising his fists to the ceiling, and “SOUTH!” we all cried in unison (Frodo barking). “South away from the worst April ever and a May that will surely disappoint, South through Hartford, South over the Tapanzee, skirting Manhattan and Newark, Souther still into untold lands of Southness with no destination other than South! Destinations were meant for vacations that would be followed by future vacations, so let us leave destinations behind with the winter coats and the bills and the brick-a-brak, rat race bullshit that has clung to our hides like barnacles crusting the belly of a great whale! South, South, SOUTH!” he chanted and we chanted with him, unified Gallaghers chanting ‘till the acoustic tiles of the living room ceiling shook and let go years of dust that sparkled as it rained down upon us in tiny motes, like we were inside a snowglobe souvenir of this vacation we were going to take, this most best and very last summer vacation we would ever take together or at all.