by Steve Gronert Ellerhoff
For Eunice Tiptree, Royal Historian of Upper Ozgur, Ohio
James, doubled over on the stool behind the practical jokes counter, sat like a slinky stopped between steps. He drew defensively with one arm fortifying his Moleskine. Meant to be illustrating the poster for the store’s Fifty-Ninth Annual Silliest Sneakers Contest, he instead sketched an idea for a strip he’d been working on. He had to work fast because Edgar, manager by birthright, was in the back taking inventory. Despite no artistic leanings, his boss always had a word of criticism for James’s store-commissioned artwork. The thought of him poopooing these private efforts was too offensive to allow for drawing freely.
He kept sketching when the phone rang, waiting for Ryan at the wind-ups counter to get it. Ryan, schooled at Chicago’s improv institutions and fallen to open-mic stand-up at the Ha-Ha Hut in West Des Moines, thought it funny to let the phone go three rings and a chirp into the fourth before answering, simply because it hackled Edgar. “I want that phone answered after the first ring” — which they all thought redundantly hilarious — “and no later than the third!” Wanting to keep Edgar in backstock long as he could, James trumped Ryan’s comedy of delay by picking up on ring number two.
“Nub’s Novelties,” he answered, his pencil stitching crosshatch into his protagonist’s loincloth. The caller, speaking with corn-syrup-and-caffeine urgency, sought a videogame console the store did not sell. Being a retail pro, James took care to let him down gently. “Oh right. We carry a selection of games but none of the video kind.”
The caller hung up and he followed suit, his pencil never stilling, adding his sagely hero’s trademark: the eyeglasses resting on his forehead. This was Dr. Jungle, pronounced Yoong-ull, psychoanalyst to the rainforest peoples and fauna of postcolonial Switzerganda. The three-panel strip he jotted portrayed the good doctor counseling the nation’s star political prisoner, Nelson Mandala, on their favorite topic: Switzerganda’s dictator, Greedy Amean.
He scratched out beer and wrote wine. Beer was too hoi polloi for Greedy’s tastes.
“Mr. President?” asked a voice from the past, making his pencil to gouge the page. He snapped the sketchbook shut, swept it into his apron. For all his attention to Edgar’s whereabouts in the store, someone else had cloaked through his radar. He pushed his hair back from hanging over his browline glasses and there they were, beaming like day-old missionaries: Dan Perry and Joycey Wesson—or rather Mr. and Mrs. Dan and Joycey Perry. At their side stood an eerily corporate three year old, dressed as if to golf in khakis and a tucked-in navy polo just like his papa, who reined him with the tail of a monkey-shaped harness that fit like a backpack. The boy’s unborn sibling also pronounced him or herself nearly ready for the world from Joycey’s belly, which rounded out the petite lady’s front under a white maternity dress with Winnie the Pooh embroidered eating honey from a jar across her breasts—breasts that had not been there in high school.
“The delegation has arrived!” Dan drew his thumbs to his armpits to adjust the straps on his own backpack. He still had that ambiguous grin that led them in elementary school to nickname him The Joker, not for any villainous reason but its infinitude. Even when losing to Andy Pittock in a swimming pool rut over Joycey the summer after freshman year, the blood on his teeth didn’t keep him from smiling. Neither did Andy’s two-week-prize of her attention, which had, as evidenced by them and their offspring standing before him, not lasted.
“Hey,” he nodded, unable to match their excitement.
“Are you so surprised?” she thrilled. Her face was masked with foundation a tone darker than her neck and exposed shoulders.
“I’m…” He slid off the stool, cracked out of his illustrator’s hunch. “Dan, Joycey…”
“And little Jackson!” Dan yanked his son’s hand into a wave.
“Not little!” the boy soured, puckering every facial muscle in threat of wail. He whipped the monkey’s tail free and leaned into his mother’s knee, reaching up her side.
“Oh honey,” she cooed. “Dan, would you pick him up? I don’t want to go into labor with Capri at the…” She glanced down into the glass-topped display case. “Fake Dog Poop Counter.”
“Sure, babe.” He bent to fetch up the Oedipan toddler but, met with a snarl, compromised with a hair rustle. Cut identically to his own style, its russet color was closer to what his mother’s had been before she grew up to, apparently, pay a professional to color, streak, and highlight it ocelot.
“Congrats on the whole…family,” James said.
“Your parents told us where to find you,” she said, ticking off the proper box of who he could blame. “We’re on our way to Colorado.”
“Perry family vacation,” Dan filled in.
“And since I-80 goes through Des Moines…”
“I clocked it out on Mapquest.”
“So how are you?” The way she asked he felt she meant What are you doing?
“Well…” He set his gaze on Jackson, whose unmistakable wondering why they were there matched his own. “I’ve been paying bills. Student loans.”
“You still doing your cartoons?”
“Trying.” He choked on a failed chuckle.
“Looks like you’ve got something going on here.” Dan cocked his head to examine the unfinished poster spilling over the counter.
“Yeah, I do some art for the store.”
“That’s great!” she championed through clenched teeth and eyes too wide.
“We keep watching the funnies page every day for the James Fenk cartoon.” The way he said it, James knew it was true. Dan probably opened the newspaper every morning and asked the missus when she thought good old James Fenk would land a strip. “You got one going here in Des Moines?”
He held up the Moleskine from his apron pouch, opting for self-deprecation. “I’ve got a strip in this tiny book, if that counts.”
“Show us!” they cried.
Against his gut, he pulled free the notebook’s strap and flipped through a few concept sketches while explaining the setting and characters in brief. No better test, surely, of whether this idea was a flop or potentially viable than to get input from Middle America. He skipped the one he was just working on, choosing instead another that featured Anima, a talking gorilla who was often getting into trouble brought about by punnery.
Holding it flat for them, he slid the open book across the unfinished poster and let them read it, finding fault in the lines and composition when seeing his work upside down for the first time. It was only a concept sketch but still.
“Ha-HA!” Dan said.
“Cute,” she decreed.
“Is Animal a hippo?” he inquired, second-guessing not only the artist’s drawing skills but his spelling, too.
“It’s perfect,” Dan offered in all kindness. “We’ll be watching for it.”
“Well thanks.” He dragged the book back and slid it into his apron. “And you guys, I mean, looking great.”
“We’re doing great. Joycey is your next big up-and-coming realtor in the new development.”
“There are entire cul-de-sacs to sell whether or not Capri is coming in September.” She pushed her belly forth for emphasis. The sight made him wonder. What shenanigans might the water creature swimming about the fishbowl of her womb pull in the selling of those cul-de-sacs?
“And you’re in Cleveland now?”
“Oh, we never left Oz,” she flapped. “There was no need to.”
“Yeah,” he winced, being one who had left. “Seems every Thanksgiving I’m back, Upper Ozgur has engulfed more and more farmland.”
“The growth is tremendous. I mean, our Oz is just like everywhere else now.”
“Starbucks?” Dan asked, pedestalling the undisputed supreme symbol of prosperity.
“Is that where you’re working then? Or managing?”
“Oh,” he said, grinning at the ceiling, “I’m doing the whole stay-at-home dad thing. Which brings us to why we’ve ambushed you like this.” He lowered one shoulder and swung his backpack around to unzip it. “Being our class V.P. and in charge of our ten year reunion next month, since you graciously passed on those duties in absentia, I guess I’m on a mission to make sure everybody’s able to make it—especially you!”
James swallowed as he produced a folder and handed over a sheet. It was a list of those who had not yet RSVPed. His name fell beside the first bullet.
“We’ve not received your e-mail confirmation and it’s just three weeks now till the big shebang.”
“Geez,” he lied, “I should check my e-mail more often.”
“That’s AOK.” He pushed forward a stack of fifteen or so pages. “Our real hope is that you might illustrate the ten year program for us, too. I’ve got it all written there with blank spaces for your cartoons all ready.”
“Liiiike,” he stalled, unwanted school newspaper cartoon assignments rehashing themselves, “some grown up, office-worker Red Devils?”
“Oh, no,” Joycey gasped, “we’re the Blue Streaks now.”
“Going on, what, six years?”
“We were the,” Dan lowered his tone, rubbernecking the store for minorities, “Red Devils, sure. But that isn’t so P.C. anymore. They changed it in 2001—”
“I’ll never forget ‘cause it was the same year as 9/11.”
“—to the Blue Devils, but then the Blessed Cross and Sword of Jesus Christ Church threw up a stink—”
“Cross and Sword?”
“Loudmouths,” Joycey dismissed, “but still, they’re Christians, too…”
“They didn’t like their kids playing on teams associated with Satan—lobbied—won. So now we’re the Lost Nation High Blue Streaks.”
James blinked, wondering what the hell a Blue Streak looked like, what tradition other than public nudity at sporting events it had arisen from, what sort of costume the school mascot had to wear in order to become it. “I missed all that. Only child.”
“Anyway, haha, we thought our class might leave its own legacy, do something to help the school, show our Lost Nation pride ten years down the road. The colors when we were the Red Devils were red and white, so the building is painted to match. But now the school colors are blue and white. Band and football, they’ve got new uniforms colored the right way, but the school itself, the building, is still painted the old colors. We thought it’d be nice to raise money to repaint the high school’s red trim blue and leave the white. And Joycey here even has the connections to contract that job out and ‘git her done.’” He clawed quotation marks in the air for the last bit and went on and on, presenting more and more documents from his magic folder.
Jackson, unbeknownst to his proselytizing parents, went about constructing a yellow brick road of sorts upon the floor behind them, his monkey tail leash trailing. Collecting an armful of self-inflating whoopee cushions from a low shelf, he placed each Pantagruelian device on the maroon carpet in a precise line before gathering another armload and extending it twice as long. Standing at the far end and admiring the row of his design, he readied himself like an Olympic gymnast. With his arms flourishing he breathed and went to hopping, the tail swinging behind like a sine wave.
BLORT! BRAP! THAFF! PLOOF! PLOOP! PLORTCH! FAPPGHT!
“Oop, Dan,” she swatted, her wedding rings glinting under the store lights. “Dan!”
“No, Jackson,” he scolded a-smile, bending at the waist and snatching up whoopee cushions like dirty laundry. “No, no, no!”
“It’s what they’re for,” James got in gently just before the boy boiled over with tears.
Joycey determined Jackson was hungry and that she herself was famished. Time to find a place to eat and get back on that westward road. When asked about nearby family friendly eateries he noted Curry King across the street but Mom—could she really be such a thing—ruled out exposing Capri to ethnic food till after she was born, declaring that the next Mickey D’s would do. The bawling product of a relationship that had lasted half their lifetime handed over his own leash to the girl James once depantsed in a kindergarten game of tag. She gave half a wave as she walked him out of the store.
“I’d say goodbye,” she called back over the keening, “but I’ll see you at the reunion!”
James nodded as they left and Dan, having reshelved the whoopee cushions, scurried to get his papers back into the folder. He shoved forward the sheets begging for original Fenk illustrations. The sales clerk cartoonist glanced reluctantly at the empty spaces reserved for him.
“You can just send them to me when you’re done,” he offered.
“Oh sure. I mean okay.”
Dan eyed him, catching his hesitancy. “It’s okay if you’re too busy! I mean, we could fill the gaps with your old cartoons from the school paper’s archives—but I think we’d all be thrilled with some brand new Fenk.” He dropped the folder into his backpack, smiling his perennial smile. “And you’ll definitely be there?”
Having forged a promise, Dan left to catch up with the wife and son. James, waving stupidly, watched them through the windows ushering each other into the Land Rover with the “Beautiful Ohio” license plates parked on the street. When they drove away he slunk back onto the stool and lifted the edge of the stack of papers left for him as if testing a pancake’s readiness.
A green plastic periscope rose from the other side of the counter, turning left, right, and then centering on him. “Knock knock!”
“Pity Dove who?”
“Mr. T?” Ryan leapt up. “Sorry, I was looking for James…”
“Wah, wah,” James intoned.
“Who were the stiffs?”
“Oh, the delegation from my ten year high school reunion. Making sure I go home for it.”
“Bounty hunters…” Ryan, red-haired with Marty Feldman eyes, had graduated the same year as James. “You gonna go?”
His shoulders sagged. “Is your class having one?”
“Are you going?”
“I grew up here. Of course I’m not going.”
“What’re we doing?” It was Edgar. Invoices in hand, he had sneaked up on them. “Ryan, why aren’t we back at Wind-Ups?”
“Someone unwrapped a Starburst back there,” he explained, “and a spontaneous tsunami washed me up here.”
“No it didn’t.”
“You’ll be sorry when a spontaneous tsunami comes and washes away your children!”
“I don’t have children.”
“Do too!” Ryan shouted, scuffing back to his station. “What do you think we are!”
“He was helping me get rid of some people from my hometown,” James defended, laying the corner of the poster down over the pile Dan had entrusted to him, hiding it.
“Well I don’t see them so looks like we did a good job. Did they buy anything?” He scanned and flipped through the pink stapled invoice. “I suppose not.”
“Hey,” James asked, “have you ever gone to your high school reunions?”
Edgar was a badger-gray fifty-three and lived on the other side of a duplex from his parents, who had founded the store. He leveled his eyes at the discouraged cartoonist as if he were dim. “I grew up here. Been to every one.” He examined the lightly-outlined poster on the counter. “We sure the shoes are in scale there?” The point of the window advertisement for the Silliest Sneakers Contest, of course, was that they be grossly over proportioned, but before he could raise his creative ire Edgar found a discrepancy on the invoice and stutter-stepped back to the back.
James commenced work on the poster’s lettering for several minutes. Monks had once illuminated holy books much in this same manner, bent over and drafting with material compensation amounting to food and shelter, which is what his own pay just covered month to month. It was some sort of holy office he had been called to and answered diligently. That of the broke nearly-thirty unsyndicated cartoonist. And to think he had once been President of the Red Devils.
He pulled Dan’s pages out from under the poster when their underscoring proved a nuisance to his pencil point. Before shoving them aside, he flipped through them. All he saw in the empty rectangles were polar bears in blizzards with their eyes closed. Temptation crossed him briefly to fill every void with apocryphal red devils.
Urgently, he threw open his Moleskine, pressing it flat on a fresh page. Squaring out three panels, he filled each with Dr. Jungle and Nelson Mandala. The scene: their typical dungeon setting. His pencil scratched that itch that could not be got at any other way, a little to the left, a little to the left, yes, right there. This strip did not birth like most, stillborn or in need of further incubation. This one knew what it was, what it needed to be. Nothing profound. Something better.
Done, he clapped it shut to preserve its juju and stowed it in his apron. Later at home he would draw it out precisely and ink it on fine paper at the great white table next to his window, another strip to add to the Dr. Jungle portfolio.
Dan’s pages sneered at him with homespun innocence. He folded them over once the hot dog way and slid them into the plastic wastebasket at his side. And then, ashamed, James leaned down and pulled them out again, smoothing the thoughtless crease and laying them back on the counter.
Steve Gronert Ellerhoff is an Iowan. He is an alumnus of the Creative Writing MA at Lancaster University in England and is currently pursuing a PhD exploring myth in the short stories of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut at Trinity College Dublin. His fiction has appeared in Fourteen Hills, Stimulus Respond, College Green, and How to Hug Your Ex.