Read an Excerpt
By Paul Di Filippo
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Paul Di Filippo
All rights reserved.
Laughter, the Best Medicine
Reader's Digest says, "Mister Enrico, sir, may I offer you a stick of this chewing gum from my native land ?"
Mister Enrico's response is out of all proportion to Reader's Digest's pleasant inquiry. The impenetrable, dangerously wild brown eyes — hard as those of a stuffed animal — belonging to Reader's Digest's traveling companion glaze over with a slick film. Reader's Digest is reminded of the distended skin of a Spice Island sea-anemone at low tide.
A sweat breaks out on Mister Enrico's badly blotched olive skin. The wispy, anomalously adolescent moustache clinging tenaciously to his upper lip flutters as his nostrils flare, reinforcing his resemblance to a fringed sea creature bloating on the beach.
Mister Enrico twists in his seat and, grabbing the zippered front of Reader's Digest's thin green wind' breaker, pushes Reader's Digest up against the cold bus window, so that Readers Digest can feel the November chill seeping through the glass and into the back of his skull. Midler Enrico thrusts his sweat-sheened face close up to Reader's Digest's countenance. Reader's Digest can smell an assortment of odors, ranging from garlic and skiff on down the spectrum to less pleasurable scents.
Malevolently, Mister Enrico begins to whisper.
"How many times I got to tell you, man? On this trip my name is not Mister Enrico. It is Duncan Armitage. Do you understand, culo? Duncan Armitage. If you can't get it right, I am going to kick your pitiful ass right off this bus and let you find your way to this goddamn Pleasant-town all by yourself, without the aid of my professional services. Which you are now by the way just barely holding on to."
"Pleasantville," interjects Reader's Digest, all calm assurance.
Mister Enrico seems taken aback by this interruption. The flow of his self-indulgent maledictions is diverted, channeled and dammed. Mister Enrico, in fact, is left spluttering.
"What, what? What's that you saying, man?"
"I only wished to mention that the place I am seeking is named 'Pleasantville,' not 'Pleasant-town.' The famous home of Reader's Digest magazine. In the state of New York."
Reader's Digest pauses, to assess whether Mister Enrico understands this important point. In further clarification, Reader's Digest adds, "Zip code one-zero-five-seven-zero.
For a full minute Mister Enrico contemplates Reader's Digest with a look of mixed bafflement, rage, and fear. The expression on Mister Enrico's pimpled, sallow face is akin to the look one might exhibit when confronted with some mythical creature — a centaur, say — standing on a common street-corner.
Mister Enrico releases his grip and lets Reader's Digest slump back fully into his seat. Shaking his bunched cheap blue suitcoat back into its normal folds, Mister Enrico resumes the relaxed pose the canny Hispanic exhibited before the argument. But now there is a difference in his slack-muscled sprawl. He seems defeated, beaten, all energy drained. The self- confidence he earlier radiated is now dispersed and unrecoverable, having evaporated under the heat of Reader's Digest's unshakeable single-mindedness, his near-holy devotion to his quest.
"You're loco, man," MiSler Enrico says wearily, regarding not Reader's Digest, but the overhead luggage rack. "Tonto, crazy, some sort of goddamn nut! Holy Jesus, what did I get myself into? If I didn't know you had that money ..."
Mister Enrico falls silent, obviously weighing heavy matters of pecuniary gain against his present tribulations. Reader's Digest watches his companion and guide in silence for a while. He wishes the skinny little man would not be so nervous all the time. It can't be good for him. Anyway, what is there to worry about? Surely no one will object to their mission at the border. Surely all this subterfuge is unnecessary. Still, he supposes, it is best to humor Mister Enrico, who, after all, has done this kind of thing many times before. Or so he says.
"Mister ... Armitage," Reader's Digest gently says.
"You never revealed whether you wanted the gum or not."
Mister Enrico starts to get the bad look in his eyes again, and Reader's Digest grows a little nervous. He knows Mister Enrico has spent most of the trip in the tiny lavatory right opposite their seats at the back of the bus, furiously smoking up the skiff he purchased in Montreal, so as not to have to carry it across the border. Now Reader's Digest begins to suspect such indulgence might not have been the most sensible way to dispose of the mind-altering contraband.
Exerting visibly enormous amounts of self-control, Mister Enrico says, with barely contained vehemence, "You know I hate that nutmeg shit, man!"
Reader's Digest is hurt. Nutmeg is the sole product of his native island. That is, other than substandard graduates of the local makeshift medical school, where foreign students who perhaps lacked certain prerequisites for admittance to more prestigious institutions that produce real doctors can study their cocoa-butter-smeared textbooks while simultaneously lessening their northern pallor.
In any case, on the island Reader's Digest till so recently called home, one can — in fact, practically must — purchase nutmeg cigarettes, nutmeg cigars, nutmeg chewing gum, nutmeg soda, nutmeg suppositories, and nutmeg throat lozenges. The coffee, tea, and milk are adulterated with nutmeg, and all the food is seasoned with it. One can wear nutmeg cologne, perfume and talcum powder. Nutmeg is in the air and underfoot, in the natives blood and marrow. Nutmeg is the sole export of Reader's Digest's homeland, and, until the Americans came, raising and processing the spice provided almost the only occupation. It seems impossible to Reader's Digest that anyone can dislike the substance, and he forgot Mister Enrico's previously stated aversion to it.
"I'm sorry," says Reader's Digest.
"Okay, just drop it then. Look out the window for awhile, why doncha, man."
Reader's Digest complies.
The Canadian landscape, all sere and brown and grey at this time of the year, is rolling majestically by. Birds vastly different from the tropical ones Readers Digest knows gracefully cut the bright blue sky into little irregular parcels. A few clumsy clouds congregate close to the horizon. In the southbound lane twin to theirs, various cars and trucks and vans whiz by, heading toward the United States. Across the median, two lanes of traffic journey toward Montreal. It is all vastly different than Reader's Digest ever imagined, more impossible and wonderful than he could ever have dreamed. He can hardly believe he is here, heading toward his long-envisioned goal, the Media Mecca of Pleasantville, New York.
Reader's Digest raises his hand and places it against the window. The cold sends shivers throughout his slight frame. Withdrawing his hand, he turns to Mister Enrico, whom he finds sitting with eyes closed.
"Mister Armitage," Reader's Digest asks quietly.
Mister Enrico does not open his eyes, and indeed remains silent for so long that Reader's Digest fears he has passed out. What if he should still be unconscious at the border — ? Reader's Digest begins to plan what to tell the immigration officials. At last, however, the Hispanic man utters a grunt which Reader's Digest chooses to interpret as an invitation to continue.
"Is it always so cold here, Mister Armitage?"
Silence. Reader's Digest waits. Finally, a response, delivered at first in a barely audible voice, but quickly rising to an unconstrained sonic assault.
"Man, you are so stupid! This ain't cold, man. This is nothing! This is barely the beginning of cold. This is still fall, man. The winter ain't even started yet. Pretty soon it'll be so cold you drop your pants outside and your pecker'll fall off! Jesus! What do you think? We're back on your raggedy-ass island? Or maybe we're Still in Puerto Rico? Don't you remember climbing on the big silver bird, man? Up in the air, through the clouds, you know what I'm talking about? You ain't in the Third World no more, man. Check it out, you're in the First World now, baby. El Mundo Primero. Can you dig it?"
Reader's Digest lets Mister Enrico run down before he replies. "If you wish to be inconspicuous, Mister Armitage, I suggest that you moderate your voice, because people are starting to look back at us. Also, there is no need to insult me. I fancy that I am fairly well informed about most matters, thanks to my reading. But first-hand experience is something altogether different. As Will Rogers once said in 'Quotable Quotes': 'Kissing a girl and kissing your mirror are about as alike as cheese and chalk.'"
His eyes still closed, Mister Enrico remains unspeaking. Reader's Digest suspects — hopes — he is absorbing the mild reprimand and benefiting by it. When Mister Enrico's hairy upper lip twitches, Reader's Digest is ready to magnanimously accept his apology.
"You talk shit, man," hisses Mister Enrico. "Stupid shit! Kissing your mirror, man! Where did you learn to talk that way? Outta that stupid magazine you named after? Jesus! I'm glad I never looked at page one of that magazine, if it woulda made me stupid as you."
Reader's Digest is stunned beyond words. Never has anyone spoken out against the magazine whose name he bears. He cannot believe it. What can have caused this flood of invective? Mister Enrico must be very nervous about something. Deciding to probe gently, circumspectly, Reader's Digest approaches the question of what is bothering Mister Enrico in an oblique way.
"Each of us has his or her own tastes, Mister Armitage, I am sure. But I fear you do wrong to disparage such a fine magazine. Let me enlighten you with a few facts about it."
"Is there any way I can stop you, man?"
"Then go right ahead."
"Now in its seventy-eighth year of publication, it is the world's most-read magazine, with over thirty-one million copies in seventeen languages bought monthly. 'An article a day of enduring significance, in condensed permanent booklet form.' How can you argue with that, Mister Armitage? And as for my name, I am proud to share it with such a magazine, in whose pages I have discovered the entire world — and most particularly, America."
Mister Enrico seems cowed once again by Reader's Digest's unflagging optimism. He can only lamely reply, "Yeah, yeah, I know the whole story, man. The nuns — "
"Don't speak against them, Mister Armitage," warns Reader's Digest sternly. "The Sisters of Eternal Recurrence and their orphanage were my whole world for many years, from the moment when they found me on their doorstep as an abandoned infant, lying in a cardboard box full of Reader's Digests, to the day when I was old enough to leave. I owe them everything, my name least of all."
"They was mean motherfuckers."
Reader's Digest is appalled. "They were not!"
"A bunch of old ladies who would stick a name like that on some helpless kid — Sick puppies, man."
"What's wrong with my name?"
"It ain't no name for a human being. It's stupid. It's too long. It ain't hip. Every time I talk to you, I feel like I'm peddling subscriptions or something." With sudden determination, Mister Enrico adds, "And I ain't gonna call you 'Reader's Digest' no more. For one thing, until after we get over the border, you're supposed to go by the name on your passport, whatever it is."
"That's right." Mister Enrico laughs, as if at an old triumph. "Good old Spalding. What an idiot! But anyhow, when we don't need Spalding's passport no more, I'm gonna call you something else."
Readers Digest is leery. "What?"
"I'll just use your initials, man. Couldn't be simpler. Are Dee."
Ardy. He thinks it over. It sounds rather punchy, this condensed version of his name. Isn't brevity his Bible's byword? Don't new places demand new attitudes? Didn't Benjamin Franklin once say, in the little squib at the end of an article, "To grow is to change"?
"All right," says Ardy. "I rather fancy that."
At last Mister Enrico opens his eyes, slowly, as if the lids are weighted. "Great. Wonderful, man. You just made my day. Hey, listen, this chemical toilet smell is giving me a headache. I got to go take care of it. You sit tight."
Mister Enrico stands, a bit uncertainly, and partially steps, partially falls, through the narrow lavatory door at his elbow.
Ardy is puzzled about why Mister Enrico would go right to the source of his headache. But when he starts to smell the burning skiff and hear awesome sucking noises from within the occupied john, he understands all.
Mention of his assumed identity reminds Ardy of the passport in his jacket pocket. He digs out the impressive U.S. document while the bus rolls on toward the border, opens it, and studies the picture inside.
The color Polaroid embossed with an official seal reveals the clean-shaven face of a black-haired Caucasian man about Ardy's age. The man's face has been colored with brown felt-tip marker, in a vain attempt to match the cocoa color of Ardy's own skin. Idly, Ardy rubs a finger across the ink and sees it smear and come off on his thumb.
Just then Mister Enrico emerges from the lavatory in a bluish cloud of smoke. Spotting what Ardy is doing he cries out, "Holy Christ, man!" and snatches the passport away. The heads of their fellow passengers all swivel to look back at the commotion, as Mister Enrico drops down into his seat.
"Are you totally insane, culo?" demands Mister Enrico. "This is your ticket across the border, man. This document has been expertly doctored, man, by professionals. This is what you're paying me for, you stupid sucker."
"But that picture doesn't look anything like me."
"Oh, sure, not now, now that you're done messing it up." Mister Enrico takes a snot-spotted handkerchief out of his breast pocket, spits on it, and begins dabbing futilely at the photo, succeeding only in making it muddier. "Listen, did you come begging to me or did I come begging to you, back in sunny Pee Are?"
"Why, you approached me, Mister Armitage. I remember it distinctly. I was sitting on the docks —"
"That makes no difference," Mister Enrico hastens to stipulate. "The point is, you wanted to get into the United States, and you found out there was no way you could legally do it. You got as far as my country, and you ran into a brick wall. I seen it, man. I watched you go to the Consulate and all, and get turned away. It didn't matter that you had all that money, and claimed you just wanted to visit for a few months. It's this goddamn new immigration law they passed. Keeps all us southern types out of the country, for fear we're gonna go to ground, permanent-like, right after we come in, and ruin the goddamn Republic. And what was your genius plan, after you learned this? Go ahead, tell me."
"I planned to buy a boat and —"
"That's enough. Don't say any more. I can't stand to hear such stupid talk again. 'I was gonna buy a boat.' Yeah! And sail up like some raggedy-ass Haitian, maybe drown along the way. Sharkbait, man! You fancy that? And if you even make it to Florida, what happens? Big robocops with clubs there waiting for you, take you and stick you in the stinking Krome detention camp for a few months before they ship you back, just to teach you a lesson. What a joke!"
"I don't see —"
"That's just it! You don't see anything! You didn't even know about Canada, for Christ's sake. Didn't know that this big dumb country — which is so friendly and open, they're even buddies with Havana! — where was I? Oh yeah, this dumb country is like a sieve, man! You know what a sieve is?"
"Of course I know."
"Well, that's what this border's like. A sieve. And we're gonna ooze through it, if you just trust me. After all, I done it hundreds of times already. There's no doubt about at, man. When you put yourself in my hands, you did the smartest thing in your life. 'Cause I am the wiliest, slickest, most macho coyote you ever seen!"
"I suppose —"
"Suppose nothing! Just trust me. Think of how close we're gonna be to this Pleasant-town of yours when we cross, wherever the hell it is. A lot closer than you would have been in Florida, that's for sure. And as long as I get paid, I'll take you there. You still got the money, don't you?"
Excerpted from Joes Liver by Paul Di Filippo. Copyright © 2000 Paul Di Filippo. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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