"I don't know why we
came here in the first place, better yet why we ever stayed," Aunt Doris said as she
sat in the passenger seat of the car waiting for her husband to pull out of the old Two
Guys parking lot after the meeting had ended. "The only saving grace, if you'll
pardon the expression, was that everyone else we know was there and if we weren't they
might have thought we were being just plain unsociable, and I'd hate for that to get
around, since as anyone who knows us would gladly tell a total stranger without being
prompted, we're as sociable as the next family, probably even more." She looked at
the road, then sharply at her husband. "Well let's get a move on. How do you expect
to get anywhere in life if you spend all your time sitting on your duff in a parking lot
driveway, and heaven knows some of us could certainly stand to get somewhere in life for a
change, and I think he knows who I mean."
The younger cousin Jello
looked at her brother. He in turn glanced at the front seat to make sure his mother wasn't
watching them, a silly gesture since it was only on alternate national holidays that
either of their parents paid them much attention, aside, of course, from the everyday
bitching and moaning which hardly counts. He reached towards his mother's neck in a
gesture of mock strangulation, sticking out his tongue and bugging out his eyes. His
sister started giggling.
"And exactly what do you
find so funny back there?" Aunt Doris asked, turning around just as cousin Jello
pulled his tongue and eyes in, smiling as angelically as he could. "Why don't you let
me in on the joke? I happen to have a very good sense of humor, thank you very much."
She turned and faced forward again. "Did you see Erta and the boys in there? Why I
couldn't believe it; they were scattered to the four corners of the tent like a bunch of
total strangers. I just don't understand them sometimes. I mean, I don't think it's asking
too much for a family to act like a family and sit together, at least when they're out in
public. In the privacy of their own home, well, people can do as they wish." She
snapped her head towards her husband. "You just missed another hole in the traffic
that was big enough to drive a freight train through and here we are still sitting. I have
better things to do than grow old gracefullywhich is how I plan on doing
itwhile sitting in the front seat of this rust bucket excuse for a car. Why, much
more of this and the kids will outgrow their clothes sitting in the back seat."
Uncle Jello tightened his grasp
on the steering wheel, then let it loose. Tighten, loosen. Tighten, loosen. He clenched
the wheel until his knuckles turned white, then closed his eyes and stomped the gas pedal
to the floor. The car lurched into the street. Horns honked, tires screeched, metal
crunched, and glass shattered. When the dust quite literally settled, Aunt Doris, Uncle
Jello, and cousins Jello and Jello were trapped in their car, which was now sandwiched
between a brand new station wagon and a now-even-more-compact car.
After the rescue squad finished
cutting the roof off the car so the family could be pulled out, and they were all being
loaded into the waiting ambulances along with six injured people from the other cars, the
first of a string of tow trucks pulled up. The driver got out and surveyed the damage
while mingling with the police, firemen, and emergency medical technicians from the rescue
squad. The wrecker driver stood next to an ambulance while stopping to light a cigarette.
He was wearing a blue work shirt with the name of his employer chain stitched across the
back in rainbow colors:
As he circled the totaled car
with the opened sardine can top trying to figure out how to rig up the mangled mass of
sheet metal, he noticed a yellow card lying on the ground. Thinking it might be some
identification dropped by one of the accident victims, and hoping there might be a reward
in it for him, he picked it up. On the right hand side was a drawing of the mustachioed
man holding a baby in each arm while a nurse is looking at a piece of paper and holding
her hand outstretched, palm up.
The card had fallen from Aunt
Doris' purse, which she continued to clutch desperately as the rescue squad dragged her
out of the wreckage. She'd taken the card on behalf of the whole family, because as she
said, "One family, one prayer. We're all in this together."
Unfortunately the card was far
from being accurate, for thanks to their second rateread: cheaphospitalization
plan, they would end up paying many times more than $100. While none of them were
seriously injured in the accident, all were treated at the Retreat For The Sick and
released, though some quicker than others. Cousins Jello and Jello walked out within hours
sporting only minor cuts and bruises. Doris remained in the hospital for three days for
observation due to a rather nasty concussion she suffered when her head smashed into the
windshield, which miraculously didn't even crack. But it was Uncle Jello who would be kept
the longest, spending two days on the fourth floor until they were sure the internal
bleeding had stopped, then two weeks on the seventh floor for psychiatric observation and
analysis, followed by eighteen months in Central State Mental Hospital.
"I always said the poor man
just didn't have what it takes," Doris would tell anyone who would listen.
* * * * * *
"What's your card
say?" Ralph Marconi asked Timmy Padget.
"Your prayer card, pencil
"Watch your mouth," Jem
"I would but I don't have a
mirror," he answered, taking a big step backwards to put a safe distance between he
and his mother.
"What are you talking
about?" Timmy butted in. "What's a prayer card?"
"Where've you been, on Mars?
This is a prayer card," Ralph said, waving his small yellow card in front of
Timmy's face. "They handed 'em out in the tent."
"How come I didn't get
"'Cause you were
sleeping," Ralph said.
"I'm afraid you did doze off
for a while there," Jem said diplomatically, "but don't worry, you really didn't
miss much of anything.
"Except a prayer card,"
Ralph said with an I'm-cool-and-you're-not grin.
Timmy stopped in his tracks.
"I'm gonna go back and get one," he said.
"Another time," Jem
told him. "We've really got to be going."
"But I want one!" he
yelled, stomping his right foot with the same impetuous fury usually reserved for brats a
third his age.
Jem fished around in her purse.
"Here," she said, handing him her card, "why don't you take mine. I don't
need it anyway."
"I can't do that,"
Timmy said without any conviction, not even trying to hide his desire for the card.
"Go ahead. Take it."
Timmy took the yellow card from
Jem. He looked at the drawing of the mustachioed man, aged many years, now stooped over,
holding his aching back, and sporting a white beard which was so long it scraped the
struck Timmy that selling insurance must be a pretty profitable career, since apparently
every time an insurance policy matured, the agent collected $100. Years later, after he
would first try his hand at selling used audio equipment, renting tools and party
supplies, and running the copying machine for the new King Kopy Kwik store, Timmy would
try selling insurance. On the first day of training he gave everyone in the office a big
chuckle as well as a story to pass on to every new recruit who would join the company for
the next twenty years, which was, incidentally, nineteen years and six months longer than
Timmy lasted. Where in the world would anyone get the idea that an insurance agent
collected $100 every time a policy matured?
Ralph's yellow card showed the
mustachioed man with his leg in a cast holding two crutches, even though he appeared to be
$50 to be a huge sum of money, a concept which was understandable when you realize that
besides being fourteen years oldan age at which he still had everything he needed
without having to spend his own money to get ithe also received an allowance of only
fifteen cents a week, by far the lowest of any child his age since the Great
Depressionthe country's, not Aunt Doris'so the idea that a doctor could charge
his patients a fee of a seemingly astronomical fifty dollars simply astounded him. He
decided right then and there that he wanted to be a doctor. He wasnt the first, not
would he be the last, to enter the profession for less than altruistic reasons.
* * * * * *
Neckless and his mother walked
out of the tent hand in hand. Most boys his age would have been mortified, not to mention
traumatized for life, to be seen in public holding their mother's hand. But Neckless was
completely nonplused, for since his turtleneck was pulled up over his head and fastened
with a green twist tie, his mother had taken on the necessary chore of being his Seeing
Eye Mom, not to mention the fact that it really didn't matter to him one way or the other
whether anyone was watching since as long as he couldn't see them doing it, it might as
well not have even been occurring. "Out of sight, out of mind," he would say, at
least until three years later when he would begin to develop an appreciation for Jet-like
philosophies, at which time he would transmutilate it to "Get out of my sight, you're
out of your mind." Actually, his mother was the one who was embarrassedimagine,
having to lead her twelve year-old son around by the hand!
"Hey Neckless, hey Mrs...uh,
Neckless," Jose Rosenbloom said, realizing after he'd opened his mouth that he had
absolutely no idea what Neckless' real name was.
His mother leaned over and
whispered into the top of his turtleneck. "It's that big-headed boy Milton."
"Huh!?" Neckless said
loudly. "Milton who?"
"Jose," his friend
"English class Jose?"
Neckless practically yelled.
"That's the one."
"Why didn't you say
"I thought your name was
Milton?" Neckless mother asked Jose.
"It is, well it was, but no
one calls me that except my grandmother," Jose began. "That is when she
remembers my name at all. Heck, I bet she's gone and called the police on me by now and
the only reason they haven't found me is they don't know what name to ask for."
"Why would she call the cops
on you?" Neckless asked.
"I was supposed to be there
hours ago. If I don't get there soon she'll probably call out the freakin' National
"Do you need a ride?"
Neckless mother asked.
"Sure, if it's not out of
"It's no problem at
all," she said.
Thus the three of them spent the
next hour and a half trying to find Jose's grandmother's house. It didnt take this
long because it was a great distance to drive or was far out of the way, but rather
because Jose was so used to either being driven or taking the bus that he had no idea how
to get there from any point the three of them found themselves at. As a monkey banging on
a typewriter will eventually figure out that he needs to put paper in it, ultimately they
drove to Jose's house, proceeded to the bus stop where he usually waits, followed the next
bus that came along until Jose recognized the corner where he customarily debarked, and then
Jose knew which way to go.
While idling at a stop light en
route, Neckless mother searched her purse for a hard candy, Buttercream Lifesaver,
piece of chewing gum, or anything else that would help stave off her growing hunger.
Instead she found a collapsible drinking cup, wads of new and used tissues, a soup ladle,
two empty eyeglass cases, a nearly full bottle of Gelusil, and two prayer cards, one
orange and one yellow.
She glanced at the orange one
with its drawing of a newspaper boy hawking the Extra Edition of a newspaper displaying a
front page drawing of the mustachioed man.
chance," she thought as she chuckled to herself.
You Have Been
OF THE BOARD
Normally that would have been an
appropriate response, but since no one had any idea where she wasfor who would ever
think to look for her first at a revival meeting and later on a circuitous grand tour of
the town and its environs?no one had been able to get in touch with her to let her
know that her boss, Mr. Shaftner, had sent a cable from Guadeloupe tendering his
resignation so he would have plenty of time to pursue what he'd very recently decided was
his first and only true love: rum distillation. Or at least the physical assimilation of
large quantities of the substance.
Also unbeknownst to Neckless'
mother was the fact that early that afternoon, during an emergency stockholders' meeting,
she'd been unanimously elected to the position of Chairman of the Board of Amalgamated
Global Communications, Inc., the closely held corporation which was much more visible to
the public as WMDP-TV.
"This one's for you,"
she told Neckless, holding the yellow card out to him.
"What is it?"
"Why don't you look at
"Why don't you tell me about
She sighed. "It's the prayer
card I took for you."
"What's it say?"
"Why don't you read it
yourself?" she asked.
"It's too dark in here.
Whats it say?"
She sighed. "It has a
picture of a dapper man in a tuxedo with a handlebar mustache holding a cane in one hand
and a pick and shovel in the other. It says, 'Community Chest. You are assessed for street
repairs. $40 per house. $115 per hotel.'"
"You call that a prayer
card?" Neckless asked.
"Prayer cards are in the eye
of the beholder, I guess."
"What's it supposed to
"You got me, kiddo."
It wouldn't be but three weeks
until they would find out, for it was then that Neckless' most elaborate chemistry
experiment to date would create a huge crack in the street in front of their house which
would take a six-man Department of Public Works crew three full days to repair. For while
most teenager's interest in chemistryif there was any interest at allwas
confined to burning magnesium and making invisible ink out of Cobalt Blue, Neckless'
inclination leaned a bit more towards the extreme. Neckless, it seems, had both a strong
interest in, as well as an innate knack for, formulating explosives, and his most
successful experiment to date would cause a powerful blast to rock the neighborhood
exactly two minutes and forty-five seconds after he threw it down the manhole. While the
police would variously attribute the explosion to religious fanatics, political zealots,
andeven though he was behind the locked gates of the Bluemount Learning
CenterJohnny Kasouska, Neckless would be pleased with himself each time he heard or
read in the newspaper that the device had "obviously been the work of a
"What'd your card say?"
Neckless asked Jose.
"Nothing," he replied.
"It was blank so I tore it
"Did you look at the other
side?" Neckless' mother asked.
"No," Jose said as he
turned and looked out the window, "why?"
* * * * * *
Of all the media people who had
been in attendance, only one had the good news senseor shall we say lack of a more
imaginative alternative assignmentto stay through to the grand finale.
Steady Steadman and Christie
Enhart of WMDP-TV left just before the collection. "Could you imagine my handing in
an expense voucher for that," Christine asked with a laugh. Dave Davis of
WNUZ"All the news, all the time, from all over the world"snuck out
as soon as he realized there was going to be faith healing. "If they're so damned
good why don't they cure my bad attitude?" he mumbled to himself as he left the tent.
Chip Bernard of WVGO-TV walked up to the door of the tent, looked inside, and instantly
changed his mind. "My beat's local politics," he told himself as he drove away,
"and if I covered this story I'd be guilty of screwing with the separation of church
and state." Harry McLeod, the only reporter at the morning newspaper who was green
enough to volunteer when the city editor asked, "Who needs an assignment?",
ended up turning in a first-hand account of the efficiency of the local rescue squads
instead, something he learned about when he plowed his car into the rear of a parked van
while gaping at the big striped tent he was supposed to be inside. The afternoon paper
chose to ignore the proceedings entirely.
But one reporter stuck it out,
tenaciously hanging on, knowing from experience that very often the best stories are woven
from the most tenuous of threads. Digging in for the duration, he sat in the rear of the
tent with one hand on his camera, the other clutching a dirty cocktail napkin ready for
any inspired notes he might care to take.
His patience paid off, for two
weeks later the bottom half of the front page of the Weekly World Scene would be
taken up by a photograph of the Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III crawling
through the grass on his hands and knees, his hands clutching big fat wads of paper money,
checks, and shiny silver coins. Above the photograph, in big, black letters, it read:
Pennies from heaven
become the devil's due
as preacher discovers:
MY ALTAR BOY!"
[ Chapter 33 ]