Hot Lips Brandy

Dear Prospero,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to read your piece entitled Hot Lips Brandy.

While we enjoyed some aspects of the story, many of us kept questioning whether street swindler might not be a better vocation for you, but this sort of office chatter is unlikely to prejudice our view of your work as we are a top-tier behemoth of the publishing industry.

In some passages, our most senior editor seemed to have the need to lower her uvula, diverting air flow through her nose and producing a sort of nasal whine.

Though it is from time to time the sensitive writer’s wont to murderously impale certain words, many thought the word ‘veliger’ was typographically incorrect and that you must certainly have meant ‘villager,’ which in the context of the “visit to the local brothel” episode (part 3c) would have made good sense. But it was only on the fourth reading that a small cadre of us grasped the freshwater gastropod angle.

The sudden shift to Esperanto in the penultimate paragraph was admittedly unexpected. This linguistic sleigh of hand only works one out of a thousand times. This was not one of those times, though we did enjoy the sexual innuendo which came of its own toward the climactic end of an otherwise distracting and poorly lubricated gear change.

I personally felt your diagnosis of meningeal tuberculosis was unconvincing. Young farmer Brown probably suffered from eye strain.

One of our staff, Tina, a recovering bibliophile, saucer-eyed and mercurial of temperament, said your work was a finely chopped mixture of horseradish, Spanish onions, and Herbes de Provence sautéed in homemade goat butter and reduced nicely to an unctuous paste, and while her recent run-in with the law does not automatically disqualify her from opining on any of the material we receive–in hygienically sealed envelopes, as per the new regulations we were forced to adopt in the latter half of 2016–we make sure she is at all times kept away from the deep fryer.

In short, the majority of us look upon your cosmoramic writing style with a jaundiced eye. Gone are the days when a byzantine style is likely to curry favor with an editor, especially one prone to self-immolation; moreover, multi-protagonist stories can work a treat in the current market, but this sprawling amalgam of mirrory characters in search of the ‘perfect polygraph’ is weighed down by the crushing weight of its own invention.

Speaking personally again, I hope you will have occasion to submit some of your other work. We are always happy to discover new talent even if we have to look under rocks to find it. And believe you me, we’ve a huge collection of rocks ranging from petite pebbles to bulging boulders in the portico of our New York office.

We also wish to thank you for your submission fee. Rents are high and some of our staff seem to have acquired expensive habits.

With other colorful splashes of vitriol

Lovecraft goes to the pharmacy, trudges up and down the aisles, finds what he is looking for (a case of vaseline) and repairs to the counter, where he flashes a smile at the cashier, a dour specimen of a girl with a freckled face and friendly though bovine eyes. A flimsy carousel, displaying in candylike packages the sort of appurtenance often sold in public bathrooms, suddenly rotates, momentarily blocking his view of the exit. By dint of habit, he is always keenly aware of all points of egress.

Next moment Lovecraft’s credit card is refused with a small but foreboding fanfare. This embarrasses not only himself but the orange-haired youngster behind him clutching several cartons of ribbed condoms. In narratology, this event is called the ‘inciting incident’ or, to use Gérard Genette’s terminology, the ‘impregnable incident.’ (Scholars may wish to challenge the veracity of this term as it smacks of pure chimera.)

Outside, clouds scud bankward, and this is where we find Lovecraft following the cottony puffs, at a stiff pace, to the edifice whose name, Benito Bank, was emblazoned upon the tidy rectangle of laminated plastic having caused the ruckus in the first instance, and which sported a hologram of a festive scene, where Bacchus and three airily-clad females drink cooking sherry from the bottom of an iridescent, indigo-black high heel pump.

Some five minutes later, Lovecraft arrives at the bank having exhausted his capacity to whistle gaily, and is confronted with a series of gold-plated revolving doors–surely a metaphor for the va-et-vient, the hither and thither of transactional banking: life reduced to a devaluing series of transactions.

Sunlight breaks into the building, which strikes Lovecraft as ironic: most people are seeking to break out of the money palace.

Catching a glimpse of an unoccupied bank representative, Lovecraft undertakes to arrive there with the legendary speed of lightning–mind now, not the accuracy, as angry bolts from the firmament often decimate perfectly salvageable structures, such as those pearl-white gazebos parked haphazardly in the verdant countryside, while giving a pass to heaps of rubbish which, when looked upon rationally, provide little enjoyment to anyone. Lovecraft, presently making himself as large as possible, looms over the bank employee and asks, “Are you the swine that tried to neutralize me?”

The clerk, a small man with a square jaw and watery eyes, clears his throat. “Passcode.”

“EBFS,” was the perfectly timed riposte, Lovecraft’s mnemonic for “execution by firing squad.” The diminutive man launched into an indiscreet ballet of mad, migraine-inducing rat-tat-tat on the keyboard, coupled with interminably long bouts of the dwarfish man staring blankly at a screen, as if to divine some meaning hitherto beyond the reach of humankind.

“Listen, Willy,” says Lovecraft. “You don’t mind if I call you Willy, do you?” An awkward, slightly pregnant pause. “I’m in front of your mug because your bank has seen fit to throw shade on my credit. For shame.”

The clerk remains stoic, conjuring up another screen. A list of names populates the dark void. His finger–a long member with a vaguely phosphorescent sheen–slithers down the list, then stops abruptly. “Credit card refutations: Mrs. Seaman,” he says perfunctorily, and then proffers a dismissive wave.

In another corner of the building a man is heard yelling “fascists,” which quickly gives way to other colorful splashes of vitriol.

Scoffing at the clerk’s insolence, Lovecraft turns volte-face. Meanwhile, drooping velvet ropes keep throngs of customers corralled. Like animals.

Soon he is accosted by a couple of sallow-faced bank guards, the tallest of the two muttering ‘like a dog’ under his foul breath. They are unpleasant, but polite. Impeccably dressed too.

Next Lovecraft is ushered into a small cubicle, whereupon he is seated forcibly across from a woman in a bathrobe. Was this Mrs. Seaman? Her head is covered by a phalanx of plastic curlers and her face smothered by a mud mask covering the entire real estate of her face.

“Sorry to discommode you,” starts Lovecraft, “but are you the one responsible for the bank’s shameful conduct?” At this point Lovecraft deftly pulls the wallet from his back pocket and removed the credit card, indignantly waving it about. “My credit card was declined at a very respectable shop in town. Are you sufficiently shamed?”

She takes the avatar of Lovecraft’s discontent from his hand, and exits to an antechamber. She returns, bathrobe intact, with a folder, which she lays out on the desk like a winning poker hand. “Johnny Lovecraft,” she sighs. “Your account has been in arrears since 1956.”

Lovecraft clasps his hands behind his head, supremely confident. “Impossible.” He pauses to reflect. “Though there is admittedly a gap between the impossible and the improbable.” His eyes narrow. “Yes, I acknowledge the error of my ways.” His voice deepens. “Still, nothing can alter my harsh opinion of Benito Bank.”

“Your healthy revulsion does you credit. But I can tell you that the chairman of Benito Bank, Mr. Rump, is a great man. A very great man.” She closes the folder, smiling through the mud. “Life is permanent warfare.” She stares dreamily at an imaginary ceiling fan. “A very great man.” She jerks her shoulder suddenly, ending her elegant soliloquy with some foggy thing she remembered: “All that corporate profits need to gain a foothold–is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”

Later, in the jaunty spring of 2020, after a little scrape with Hyperbolea, which left one hundred thousand dead—still and all, not bad business for Benito Bank, whose tentacles reached Hyperbolea—Lovecraft and the recently widowed Mrs. Seaman would be wed at a cacophonous ceremony, forever curing Lovecraft’s disdain of high finance.

Fright in the depths of a burgeoning kakistocracy

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Eerily, while taking my tripos paper at the University of Lake Erie, I was mistily reminded of an incident which happened to a colleague of mine whilst trying to commit hari-kari with a mint-flavored toothpick. Naturally, he was unable to draw a single gout of blood, but the experience was, in his words, transformative, so much so that it leapfrogged the sum-total of the miasmic flashpoints in his nearly pointless life, till, sadly to report, on a day of obnoxiously pristine clarity, he was hit by a city bus, broke several latin-sounding bones, dented the bus’ fine armature, and died agape of fright, starting in motion the cloak and dagger machinations of competing insurance companies and several legal challenges, proving once again that Lady Luck, that star-eyed trollop (sorry Anthony, not a Trollopean allusion) beclad in a tantalizingly tawdry tunic, still roams around, picking flowers willy-nilly from unguarded gardens or hopscotching through city traffic.

 

 

 

 

Another swift though modest proposal

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TOP SECRET

Another swift though modest proposal.

I, political commentator that I am, was re-reading King Lear, the part when Gonorrhea said to Regan, “Oh, you’re such a ho,” and it occurred to me that there is something wrong in America.

Allow me then to propose a tiny amendment to the constitution:

From this day forth, all presidential candidates shall poll no higher than one percent on name recognition.

The implication is clear: any candidate who is known to the public is immediately disqualified from sitting in a curule chair on the White House lawn.

This is, I think, a small price to pay for living in a vibrant democracy (well, pseudodemocracy–it’s as good as it gets).

I’d also like to propose another tweak (distant pun intended): elections shall take no longer than six weeks after the pistol at the starting gate has been discharged and no campaign donations shall be solicited; rather there shall be five televised debates (instantly available on social media) and one arm wrestling contest.

If you find merit in these ideas, you may circulate them and later congratulate yourself for being a fine, empowered citizen.

Fill in the Blank

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Since I am lazy by nature, I have failed to complete this scrappy story.

You, on the other hand, being even lazier, have fittingly only one word to contribute. Make it good. (An example of democratic writing.)

I’d like to buy a new car, but as a general rule I find car salesmen insincere, so I’m hesitating. You may say that I’m overly sensitive, and you may be right. But insincerity isn’t my only worry. Car salesmen are completely transparent about the personal benefits a sale can make to their hollow lives. In fact, if they were to stand by a window and you happened to be looking across the street at some poor petrified sod, with a grimy hand clutching a paper bag, waiting to cross an enraged street, mad with traffic, you would see him without obstruction.

But what if the salesman’s son is, let’s say, unhappy at work? I mean, it shouldn’t be a distraction, but what if I keep hearing about Simon’s problems. I’d get queasy. And after some banter about Simon’s awkward performance in an off-Broadway production of Hello Dolly , he says, “Standard or automatic,” hoping to take my mind off Simon’s problem with drugs.

“Automatic,” I say, in a reassuring voice.

“Here’s a cute little number,” he says, placing his palm on the hood of a Chevrolet Trax. “It’s available in Crack (a yellowish white), Hash (a handsome brown) and Weed (an unconvincing green).”

“I’ll take it in Hash,” I say hesitatingly, looking at the gigantic creases in his forehead, which are, it now strikes me, like trenches from some pointless war.

The salesman makes a tight fist and delivers a horrifying blow to the passenger-side window. The glass absorbs the shock, but the car is terrified. Owing to this show of brutality, I understand where Simon got his violent temper, and why Nadia, his girlfriend, who works in a sweatshop, has to call the police whenever Simon comes home drunk or can be seen dancing on the rusted steps of the fire escape while in a parlous delirium.

“It’s only available in Weed,” says the salesman, favoring his swollen paw.

The magnitude of my shame is bested by the immensity of the salesman’s natural gift for [FILL IN THE BLANK].

Ana (Part 4 of 4)

The grandfather clock’s arthritic and age-spotted hands indicated, by inscrutable conventions set ages ago at the first watchmaker’s council, that it was 8 o’clock—rather ironic seeing as though the clock had stopped discharging its duties for months now and was presently correct, but only by chance. A house waking. The usual hullabaloo. Spears of latticed light escaping from the blinds and tattooing themselves on the heliotropic parquetry. Everyone had assembled in the kitchen, except for my sister, whose irrepressibly golden hair, having probably just been coerced into a tidy chignon, seemed to demand the same undying attention that daylilies, for want of a fresh face, sought from morning sunbursts.

I sat on the wobbly stool and the irregular rat-a-tat of its helter-skelter rocking seemed to annoy everyone. Though it was reasonable to expect that all chairs were blind at birth, this one gave the sonic impression of a white-tipped cane continuously probing unfamiliar surroundings. Unperturbed and still somewhat mystified by the opium of sleep, I jotted down the raised eyebrows and disapproving faces and slipped the notepad and pen into my knapsack to avoid detection.

“Where’s your sister, Mandy?” asked my mother, as she surveyed my clothes for starry specks of lint, an improvident crease, or the slightest hint of imperfection.

“I don’t know.” I turned to my father and said, “I hope she ran away.” And with the palliative glow of a sudden revelation, I understood that whereas a hypnotist might repeatedly incant some subliminal mantra, I enunciated my prosaic observation too frequently, and it seemed to me then a grave strategic error since the constancy of the utterance was more likely to blunt its meaning than to tunnel itself into my father’s cerebral cortex, and as though to prove the point, the honey-lipped giant ate his butter and Manuka toast, payed no attention to my soliloquy, and all the while ruffled noisily the pages of his newspaper. “In case anyone is wondering, I saw her in front of the hall mirror.” He paused, took a sip of black coffee and added, “Why do we have so many mirrors in this house?”

“You have two daughters, that’s why,” said my mother in a disconsolate tone of voice.

I sat warming my hands on a bowl of oatmeal. “Are you daydreaming?” asked my mother, flitting around the table like a bee chancing upon a blossomy field of buckwheat.

I noticed a few strands of previously undetected silver-gray hairs on my mother’s temples. “Do you have to go to work?” I asked with solemn desperation. My mother’s mauve skirt, clear complexion, slightly turned up nose, coiffed hair, and eight-handed approach to kitchen duties were incontrovertible evidence that this morning, like so many before, was a thrall to modern domestic efficiency. She finally stopped for a moment and pulled up a chair next to me. “I already explained it to you, my darling. I have to. And I’ll see you tonight. A little later than usual. Okay?”

The reasonableness of her words hung heavily like a leaden sky. “I want you to listen in school, Amanda. No more making up excuses for not doing your homework. And no more stories. Do you hear me? No more Ana.” She touched my hair as a small child might touch an angel’s wings. “You know what Mrs Handly said, having an imaginary sister was not healthy. And that you have to learn to live outside of the world of fiction. Wasn’t that what she said at the meeting?”

“Yes, mother.” I lowered my head and stared at the frothy milk and porridge that was, it seemed to me, making gossamer clouds.

Ana (Part 3 of 4)

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When Ana awakened from her concoction of sleep and mock-sleep, she was clutching the white dress, and her spiral-bound notepad, suddenly taking flight, carefully negotiated tall, snow-capped pines to manage a skillful crash landing in a lucky-to-be-found clearing. It was now nearly midnight and Alexa had vanished. Ana, feeling lightheaded, put down the rumpled dress, picked up the notepad, and, with a few mincing steps, made her way to the door where, pressing her elfin nose to the glass, she stared listlessly into the semidarkness. She looked in desperation for the would-be thief, while her imagination, fleeting across the candlelight paleness of the snowy terrain, was trying to produce tangible traces of a lost prince. She quivered in dim hope for some sign of the boy. After a time she grabbed hastily the coat from the back of the chair, put it on, and, leaving it unbuttoned, opened the door. A stream of cold air rushed in and wrapped itself around her like a boa wraps its prey.

“I’m still on duty,” said the gelid voice from the darkness. There was a brief silence till Ana whispered, “My soldier boy!” Tiny flecks of snow landed on the wings of her nose and he entered timidly, noticeably ashamed at having stayed out for so long in the bitter cold. He cupped his hands together and tried to warm them with his ardent breath.

“I don’t even know your name,” she said, tensing her thin, dark brows.

He dusted the snow from his sleeves, squared his shoulders, and said, “Peter, Peter Menard, but my friends call me Frankenstein.”

Ana stood on the tip of her toes to see if there were in his eyes rumblings of a bellicose monster. “That’s a strange thing to call someone!”

“You see, my father was a tool and die maker, and he now owns a hardware store. I help out on Saturdays,” began Peter. “And since I always played with nuts and bolts as a boy, the name was a natural.” He turned to her, and seeing as if for the first time her bright eyes, was immediately struck by the queer impression that her satiny black hair was that of a proud gelding in the early light of day. Ana folded her arms and sighed. “So that was from your father’s hardware store. And to think I accused you of being a thief,” said Ana, reproaching herself for having reached an unjust conclusion. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Would it have made a difference? People believe what they want to,” said Peter looking deep into her eyes.

“I would have believed you,” insisted Ana leaning indolently on the bookcase by the window. “You never asked me for my name, though. It’s Ana.”

“I know. Anna with one ‘n.’ I saw it before, on one of your notebooks,” said Peter, smarting from his early discovery.

“You’re a spy, then. Sent from some unscrupulous government. But I don’t care. I still have your feather,” said the girl, lowering her suddenly doleful eyes.

“It’s very late and now that we have properly introduced ourselves I must go,” said Peter darkly. They had been moving closer and closer to one another, and Peter touched her milky cheek with the unexpected warmth of his sunfilled hand, after which, in an unbearable sweep, he turned around, opened the door, whence there blew a whirlwind of frosty pollen. And as though the razorlike cold of the night were his true mistress, Peter left silently and without a trace.

Ana (Part 2 of 4)

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They stood face to face, and after a prolonged moment heard the sound of footfalls coming from behind Ana’s bedroom door.

“You have to go,” she said in a muted tone. She reached for the icy-cold door handle, opened it and, gingerly yet resourcefully, pushed him onto the balcony, saying all the while, “Go back into the darkness. Go now.” The deathless wind transformed the snow into a sandpapery sheet, and once the door was closed, an eerie silence blanketed the room.

Anna crossed the room. “Can I come in?” said the shrilly soprano behind the door.

Having at once recognized the voice she rolled her eyes and said, “Yes, Alexa, come in.”

The door opened slowly and the unwelcomed girl stepped into the cocoonlike room, made her way to the bed, and sat down on the quilted duvet (the one whose colors reminded her of the riotous russet hues of autumn).

Alexa had her sleek black laptop tucked under her arm. “You’re going to do your homework here?” exclaimed Ana, unable to conceal her desperation at the thought that Alexa should choose this evening, the one with an august moon and a frozen boy waiting hopelessly on the balcony, to commandeer her room.

“I have an essay to write. Do you mind if I work here?” said the tall-as-a-skyscraper girl, pushing her hair back and exposing a snow-white ear, the other still sequestered behind a lavish curtain of gold.

“No. I mean why can’t you do that in your room?” asked Ana, her face reddening with an access of fury.

“I don’t want to sit in the dark,” replied Alexa, pausing and then smacking her lips..

“Couldn’t you put the lights on? You’re such a putz,” said Ana incredulously, after which she stood up and started pacing the room like a caged bobcat.

“Don’t ask so many questions–besides you wouldn’t understand,” continued Alexa, well aware that the small but important difference in their age gave her the upper hand in matters of fashion, for one, but primarily in the sanctimonious arena of unassailable logic.

“I hate you,” retorted Ana, stopping directly in front of Alexa and stomping her foot with a thud.

“No wonder you get sent home from school a lot,” said Alexa in the authoritarian tone of a rosy-faced dictator.

Ana was in no mood for vacuous pontifications. “Mind your own business.”

Her elder sister’s long lashes now dithered as she typed on her wafer-thin keyboard, and the silver barrette in her spring-garden hair shone brutishly in the light. “Do the kids at school still tease you? You don’t make it easy on yourself, you know.” The rumor that Ana had made an impolitic remark while at school swirled around the neighborhood like water draining from a bathtub. “You should really learn to hold your tongue,” added Alexa impassively.

“I’m the most popular girl in my class,” chirped Ana.

“In your dreams!” exclaimed Alexa, who lay curled on the bed like a soulless sultana. And with the swing of a malevolent arm she pushed a stuffed rabbit onto the flat weave carpet saying, “You’re fifteen. Why do you have children’s things?” Ana sat silently on a burgundy chaise clutching a soft percale dress that needed mending.

“You know, it’s freezing in here,” said Alexa. “Aren’t you cold?”

“No. But if you’re so cold you can just leave.”

“I told you, I have work to do,” said Alexa with frustration. “And why do you keep looking outside? You’re making me nervous.”

Unaware that she was interposing in her younger sister’s affairs and that, apart from anything else, reading aloud a short passage with the dull intonations of a librarian would only serve to heighten Ana’s belief that the stars, pinpricks in a dark, unmanageable fabric, were actively conspiring against her, Alexa nonetheless persisted in her recitation: “The Eloi are meek artisans that live on fruit and the Morlocks, who live underground, surface on moonless nights to feed on the Eloi.” From a comfortable repose, Alexa slid her feet from the bed onto a dense carmine throw rug. “Where are you going?” asked Ana with growing alarm.

“I’m going to see if there’s a moon out.”

“Don’t you dare,” objected Ana. “I told you there is one. Can’t you see it’s bright out?”

Alexa marched defiantly to the glass door to see the moon for herself. Unseen specks of snow at her feet, whose propinquity to the glass door kept them intact, were improvident and glistening reminders of Ana’s stolid secret.

“You’re right. I see it now, behind a cloud,” said Alexa, returning to the warmth of the bed. From that time on not a word was spoken, and sleep drifted stealthily into the room like a curled puff of smoke, and the insufferable bliss of having been given a magnificent feather was for Ana suspended over a pool of limpid dreams.

Ana (Part 1)

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It was early evening, and a thin band of tawny brightness stretched across the sky. For some time already a powdery snow had begun to fall. Ana, a porcelain-skinned girl, sat idly on her bed and gazed out of the French doors, which gave boastfully onto the soft ivory of a winter garden. At the far end of the property there stood an iron gate, and, in the dim light of the moon, the snow looked like a wavy quilt of fine silk. She cast a glance at the swanlike elegance of the wintry trees, and with a sudden turn of her head noticed a strange agitation near the cedar arbor where, out of the shadowy depths and into a rectangle of pale light, stepped a tall, sinewy figure. He disappeared again into the shadows, and to satisfy her curiosity, Ana, somehow believing she had seen a ghost, warily opened the door.

“If you stand there with the door open you’ll catch your death of cold,” said a voice that resonated in the chill air. It belonged to a young man in a black duster coat and an ivy cap.

“Then you must come in,” said Ana “but be very quiet. My father is a reasonable man, but would probably kill you if he found you here. And there’s no telling what my mother would do.” With great clarity Ana went on to explain how her mother had enthusiastically developed a hierarchy of punishment, where death by a poorly aimed pistol, for instance, was of lower standing than, say, the slow loss of vigor by secretive means. “But these methods are more or less dated and mother seems obliged to find new ones.”

She spoke in hushed tones, yet the boy was mesmerized by the animated girl who stood before him in a flowing white nightgown, like a sylph, and with the dry squeak of snow under his feet, he took a step forward.

“I don’t normally let strangers into my room,” she said hesitantly.

“But I’m not a stranger. I know your sister. Well, I’ve seen her here and there,” said the boy in a cheerful tone.

His voice had the freshness of a windswept field of buttercups, yet it seemed caught somewhere between the plush of boyhood and the diamond hardness of adulthood, and the first thing she noticed, as he stepped through the door, was a dusting of snow covering the felt of his mid-calf boots.

“Well, here we are, “ said Ana with a smile.

While he closed the door she fetched a leather jacket from her wardrobe and draped it across her shoulders, gently tossing back her voluminous hair. A thin wisp of perfume circled the room and Ana stood stock-still, several loose strands of her bible black hair crossing her lips.

“Do you have any other sisters?” he asked narrowing his eyes.

Ana paused for a moment and began with a melancholy voice, “No. There was a time when I did, and I had wished for my mother’s fairykin to die, and one soulless night it did.”

“You’re a strange girl,” he said knitting his eyebrows.

“What were you doing in the garden, standing so still? Are you a runaway?” She paused and bit her lower lip. “I’d like to run away, but my parents wouldn’t allow it.”

“But that’s the whole point of running away—no one is supposed to know,” he said, suddenly remembering to remove his cap.

She gave him a crooked look. “I know what a runaway is. I just meant I couldn’t do it. I’m afraid of the dark, for one thing.”

“I’m from the darkness. Are you afraid of me?” asked the boy, secreting his black cap into an empty pocket.

“No,” she said, clearing her throat and then placing an indolent finger on her cheek, where he had but a moment ago seen a dimple.

Looking around the room he saw pictures of ballet dancers and bookshelves filled with exotic looking books, and on a small writing desk were a music box, an apple peel on a rose-colored napkin, a notebook , and a box of sharpened pencils.

“I have something for you,” he began. “You may remember me by it.” He thrust his hand deep into the other pocket, made a tight fist, raised into the light his hand and, unfurling his long, pinkish fingers, produced a delicate white feather. A broad smile extended athwart Ana’s face, but alas his impressive sleight of hand was soon brought to an end by a resonant clang.

He crouched down and picked up a dull piece of metal and returned it to his pocket.

“What was that?” she asked with the heedless curiosity of a bear cub exploring a newly minted world.

“Nothing,” said the boy sharply.

“Let me see it.” He hesitated and then showed her the noisy offender.

“That’s something of my father’s. You’re not a runaway. You’re a thief!“ exclaimed the girl.

Twas the night before Christmas

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when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. Wrong. The mice were up to something. And it may only be a matter of a twisted chromosome or two, but the genetic defect that leads to unstinted gluttony (so common in the rodent family) was on display this frosted night. And inside one particular tinselly house you could hear the rattle of pots and pans all the way to Santa’s workshop, some three thousand icy miles away. With that racket you’d think the mouse-folk were competing gastronomes at a culinary arts show, convened at some lodge in Switzerland, accessible only to those who have survived the open tundra. But tiny mouse-chefs these were not! The cacophony was a concertina of fumbling about, gnawing, and sawing. You have to mangle a lot of carrots to keep those ever-growing incisors short. But what really keeps them chewing are the bonuses. And the really filthy lucre comes from chomping on floor boards, beautifully milled spindles, Ikea furniture, which for archaeological purposes can be radiocarbon dated to within seconds of home assembly, and the train set, made from the finest chipboard, destined for Timmy, whose eyes on Christmas morn are brighter than the storm-piercing lamp on a John Deere snowblower.

But the real trouble stems from a small group of intellectuals deep in the bowels of the Rodentia order, and the challenge of providing enough chewing material to keep the working class mouse with reasonably short teeth is what they argue about most vociferously. One of the leaders, a certain mouse known as John Maynard, with dove-grey whiskers and a pair of spectacles resting atop a most distinguished snout, proposed to make available stacks of wood from the warehouse. This was done in order to help tide the mouse-folk over till things picked up again. And though this sounded like an idea of great moment, it led to the perpetual plundering of the warehouse, and heroic steps had to be taken to keep the stores full to the brim with tasty pine, delectable cedar, and creamy elkwood. Some independently-minded mice were afraid that a surfeit of timber (the easy-wood policy) would lead to a so-called bubble. But what could possibly go wrong with a system bloated by the creation of wood products, be they in the form of folding lawn chairs, white picket fences, or dog houses for gawky Great Danes? Flood the market with cheap wood and the rodent economy will thrive. And so, twas indeed the night before Christmas, and the mice-folk were positively busy—little did they know they were staring into a dark abyss.