Idiot Idioms

Forgotten lore of American idioms

Johnson

Many lexicographers take a scientific approach to linguistics, wherein new words “develop” over “periods of time.” Their argument is that like adaptations in animals, words don’t just suddenly appear from individuals, they evolve inside populations. Thus, they say, it’s impossible to know how certain idioms truly originated. But think about it! There had to be a singular, first, archetypal, “original” source for all idiomatic expressions. There had to be one man who was the first person ever to call his or some other man’s penis a johnson.

Get Your Goat

This one comes from an ambiguous stretch of land in south Texas that after the Mexican-American War became an island of racial mixing, its people, still full of prejudice and crusty political leanings, remained held together by a common love for horse-racing. Texians, Tejanos, Spanish bastards, Comanche orphans, Black slave runaways—all observed the ritual of horse-betting. And dollar beers. Some believed it was the intense arid heat, or the dry undifferentiated landscape that mellowed the people, sucking out the venom that should have coursed amongst them. But one thing about the climate was certain—it was causing the worst horse dingleberries in history.

It was a pesky phenomenon that all, however subconsciously or not, were aware of, yet no one gave a hoot as to ask why, and most definitely not to study the process by which these small sandstone boulders were becoming lodged in horses’ arse-hairs.

Races were becoming increasingly erratic—panick at the starting gate, dislodged jockeys. Where once sounded the cry of bettors and the roar of crowds, now rang out the agonizing mid-stride groans of horses whose running gaits resembled that of frantic spina bifidals. Soon betting became devoid of all art and strategy.

It was discovered that Margarito, a local bum who hung around the stables doing odd-jobs for booze money, had a knack for prying the suckers out with a pair of horseshoe pliers. This niche talent was the only reason they agreed to keep him around the stables, so otherwise annoying he was—he’d pick off long weeds and creep up behind you to tickle your ear, he was frog-eyed and had a way of looking always at your chin instead of your eyes so that you became horribly self-conscious that you had a pimple, he was incessantly speaking the one line of English he knew: “Her breasts smelled of sandalwood and vanilla,” which he’d repeat like a bugle to wake you up from a nap, over and over again.

Goddamnithewassofuckingannoying!

But the horses were faltering.

Margarito was never without work. His talent was undeniable and folks were obliged not just to keep him around, but to keep him happy, which was basically synonymous with keeping him drunk. Yet when drunk, his antics increased all the more in annoyance—he would interrupt sexual intercourse to beg for cigarettes, then fart against the wall during climax—it was a vicious cycle.

But Margarito was a necessary evil, especially in the rainy season when after a downpour  stallions would laze in the muddy offal, then stretch out in the direct baking sunlight after a visit to the feed line.

Others had tried their hand, yet all failed miserably. No one had Margarito’s expert touch, his deftness of hand, his gentle way. His routine was simple—he would enter a horse’s stall with pliers drawn, and for several minutes he and the animal would engage in a mutual sniffing of the instrument, before he set to work. If grunts and curses were involved they were incredibly subtle, for the procedure was always quiet, until it was over, and Margarito would exit the stall, look you in the eye and say,

“No more ‘Ay Dios mio.’ ”

Bereft of dingleberries, horses were calm and unburdened, free to perform at their potential; people were convinced no race was fair otherwise. They demanded a level playing field.

And so, a sort of mania broke out wherein losing bettors, in various degrees of drunkenness, would storm the track demanding a closer look. A single dingleberry reeked of foul play. The hysteria in turn caused the horses great distress, and it was said that many of the animals developed pooranoia.

Thus Margarito became even more indispensable. Despite his sociopathic shenanigans, he developed a defacto immunity, a coterie of protecting hands; if some hot-head uttered so much as a threatening word against Margarito, he would find himself overcircumcised by sundown.

It goes without saying, there were those that tried to manipulate the savant in the hopes of sabotaging specific horses, of trumping a race toward a certain outcome. But Margarito simply could not be got to.

His psychological development past the age of 4 had been retarded.

Margarito himself didn’t even watch the races. There were those that speculated he was entirely unaware that any racing actually occurred. He was content to leave the stables at dawn and amble off to his one-room shack of goats at the edge of town, his canteen full of tequila, his pouch heavy with coins.

At least that’s what everyone assumed was in that bulging sack. Only the Comanche deaf-mute boy knew it was full of the shod-off bits of the procedure. The boy, a dirt poor stable-porter, had been appointed the task of rousing Margarito from his drunken slumbers and ushering him back to the once again dingle-laden stables. The boy seemed to be the only one spared of Margarito’s abuses, perhaps, people said, due to the boy’s affliction; it was actually because he was the only one not totally put out by the ritualistic snacking from the emptied pouch by Margarito’s many goats. In fact, he was amused, and somewhat transfixed by it. Goats would eat anything! Not only that, he witnessed how Margarito had complete control over the beasts. Clicks of the tongue, hissing, farty keens sent them all trotting in unison one direction or the other.

On several occasions, the boy had been permitted the magical experience of hand-feeding the goats. In this way he developed a devotion to them and to Margarito, and soon he took great pride in his duties.

When time came for the financiers and horse-handlers to perform the pre-race inspections, the boy was kept close at hand. So grateful that they no longer were obliged to have direct contact with Margarito, the men paid the boy handsomely for his services as go-between.

In the heat of the second summer of the Civil War, Texas fell under martial law. Confederate soldiers swept through the state weeding out Union sympathizers. When forces in Priggs County executed two German immigrants for gesundheiting a sneeze, their entire clan fled southward hoping to cross into Mexico, and eventually join the Union forces in New Orleans. A militia of red-blooded Confederates pursued the Germans, raiding the southern encampments and doling out harsh justice upon any whiff of dissent, even, as they were fond of saying, “di scent of bratwurst.”

On the mirage-ribboned horizon of an impending camp, Confederate soldiers gave pause at an unexpected scene—a horse race! The sight filled their weary sails with wind, and they arrived giddy and in time to place hasty bets while they washed down hotdogs with voluptuous draughts of hard lemonade. Like drunken frat boys they’d followed lead of Captain Dilf and all placed their bets on Skewball, an ungelded brawny named for the natural aerodynamicy of his package.

As the gates were loaded, the crowd became increasingly wary. What would the soldiers do if the horses panicked, if the race was a flop? The anticipatory air which would soon be filled by the crack of the starting gun and the clamber of hooves was tense, uneasy. Blacks lowered the brims of their hats, Tejanos crept discreetly to the bathrooms. As the pistol was cocked and raised, the unspoken notion that a single dingleberry might now cause extreme mayhem—perhaps even a massacre of the entire camp—was palpable. Many soundless prayers were invoked to Margarito.

But alas, his talent was contingent upon neither faith nor blessing; his thoroughness required no price or praise. The race went off without a hitch.

Skewball lost to Whitehead and the Confederates broke even, yet they were in high spirits and sought to ride their buzz into the night, demanding (at gunpoint) members of the camp to stay up and party with them. The people had no choice but to oblige, hoping the soldiers would pass out early and leave in the morning without incident.

No such luck. Pent up from weeks on the road, the soldiers were eager to cut loose and by midnight showed no sign of letting up. No one saw him approaching, no one anticipated in the least what horrible consequences might ensue, but all the sudden Margarito was amongst them, laughing and tilting back his canteen.

First, he drank several of their beers in one gulp. They burst out laughing. Then he wet a finger and stuck it into one of the soldier’s ears. They rolled in laughter. He did it again; they kept laughing. Then he did it five more times, until the soldier grabbed him by the shirt collar and flung him across the hardwood. They chuckled. When they’d nearly forgotten he was there, he returned to fold and began pinching nipples. Though they were highly intoxicated, they now fell into a sort of humorless shock. The entire barroom was tense. The only person laughing now was Captain Dilf. Margarito sauntered over to the Captain, plopped down in the chair next to him, and put his arm around him.

“That’ll be enough,” said the Captain in fading mirth.

Margarito gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“That’ll be enough!” the Captain barked slamming down his beer onto the table. The motion made him drop his cigarette. He got up and bent over to pick it up. As he did so, Margarito pressed his own ass against the Captain’s and farted.

That was it: the last straw.

The Captain dropped him with a single blow to the head and they dragged him out to the dark thoroughfare, beat him senseless, and threw him into the latrine.

Rain fell hard that night, as if the sky itself were crying out for Margarito.

By morning the sun had baked the earth as dry as the soldiers’ wallets. After drowning their hangovers in beer, they had just enough left over to play the horses—although a race wasn’t on the books, the camp was in no position to disappoint the soldiers who thus far had remained ignorant of the camp’s leftist bent.

“Let’s give these men a race and they’ll get the fuck out of here.”

“Easy for your white ass to say. What assurance we got they won’t kill us regardless?”

“Ever since you learned the word regardless you won’t shut up–”

“You shut up”

“You ungrateful sonofa–”

“Everyone shut up. Look!–” and their eyes all followed the line of the stable-keep’s pointed finger, across the way to the feed line, where in a row stood the horses. Each of their tails hung leaden, like medieval mace weapons.

“Sheeeeeeeyiiiit.”

“You, get them out of the sun now goddamnit! And you, find the fucking boy!”

“Shh, don’t cuss, you’ll frighten them.”

“Listen you greaser prick, when those horses panick at the gate its gunna be because of those rockhard balls of shit in their assholes, and when those drunk red neck bastards burn the camp and kill us all you’re gunna learn some new fuckin cuss words all right esé!?”

“Tenemos Margarito,” he replied and sent a gob of spit to the dirt.

“I hope to God we do.”

They found the Indian boy, franticly pantomimed to him the situation, and ran straightway to the latrine where they discovered only a Margarito-shaped outline and tracks leading away in absurd zigzags. Sprinting, the boy lead them across the plain to the one-room shack. The men stood outside, breathy, anxious. When they saw that Margarito wasn’t there they nearly panicked.

“We’re screwed!”

“No shit.”

“We’re already to the hills, let’s make a run for it!”

“You coward!” They jumped on each other, wrestling in the dirt.

“Look!”

The boy had lured several goats from the shack. As he fed them, more and more filed out, until a whole herd had amassed. He made a few noises with his lips, stomped his feet and began running; they instantly followed. The men were bewildered until they caught up to the boy, and he held up one of the small dirt-clods like a gold nugget and winked.

When they got to the stables, no one said a word. It was like some practiced event—the goats filed into the stalls and set to work.

Meanwhile, the scene at the adjacent track was even more tense than the previous day. It was past noon; hat-brims hung low over shifty eyes, the bets had all been placed. Someone bought a round of hotdogs to buoy the soldiers’ good spirits, but they remained crass and impatient. They began chanting for the horses. A few fired off their rifles.

Hearing the shots, the stable-keeps and horse-hands, the jockeys and wranglers, ran within eyeshot of the track.

“It’s time. We gotta load them now!”

A lagging stall-sweep came panting over. “There gunna need 10 more minutes boss! At the least!”

Just as he said this the boss looked back in horror.  The goats were fleeing en masse from the stables toward some dark figure cavorting on the horizon.

Their jaws dropped in unison. Silently boiling in rage, they stood, all thinking the same thing. A pissed little jockey was the only one to voice it: “Thatfuckingbastardidotsonofabitchlittlefuckingshit!!!!”

The horses were hastily loaded into the starting gates, their panicky groans drowned out by the chanting crowd until, when the starting gun was raised, Captain Dilf called out for silence.

Before the pistol even fired, four horses broke through the gates bucking like crazy. Jockeys were flung and crushed, bits of the metal gate shot at the crowd followed by one of the crazed mares who ravaged the once-lucky front row.

Amid the chaos, the Captain grew red-faced and enraged. By the time they realized he was choking, it was too late. He fell to the ground limp. In his hand they found the fatal hotdog. One of the soldiers parted the bun and brought it to his nose. He raised his eyes in utter fury and cried, “German Frankfurter!”

The slaughter of the camp was horrendous, not a soul was spared. The Confederate soldiers suffered only a single casualty, whom they carried on horseback to the foot of the hills and buried.

Nearby in a tiny shack they discovered a bizarre sight—a halfwit man lay amongst his many goats who were snacking voraciously on dried earthen lumps that ornamented his clothing. It disturbed one of the men so, he raised his gun. But his comrades pulled him away, and his rage was soon distracted by the spoils of war.

Cornhole

It was 1869. The U.S. had just fought a Civil War bent on creating a more perfect Union of States under one nation, but in the lawless West, it seemed the true perfect Union was that of the mining camp and the whore-house; for wherever there were hardened men with gold on hand, there was a market for drinks and pussy.

Yet underlying this union of commerce were the horrors–robberies, rapes, murders– that inexorably result from a lawless society steeped in alcohol and greed.

And so a certain implicit need developed amongst the more powerful businessmen and the wealthy miners of Western towns, a need for law, a need for punishment, but only the kind that would not bring with it the hand of government or the writ of legislation or the tax-collecting arm of federal oversight.

At first, Sherifs and ad hoc lawmen were anointed to keep the general peace and to dole out justice to petty criminals and thieves so the bigger ones could keep playing their money game, free from the eye of government, and under the guise of civility. But still, chaos in many towns proved too hot to handle and not to mention most lawmen could be greased for the price of a whore and a horse.

A group of entrepreneurs, all named Dick and each the proprietor of his own major whore-house and gambling saloon in a 50-mile radius area in the gold-veined San Jaoquin Valley, developed a coalition to fight the onslaught of bad-for-business rogues and criminals, while at the same time finding a way to make money off the endeavor.

The men acquired an abandoned Spanish mission and its 10,000 surrounding acres. Its occupation as an unofficial military outpost during the Mexican-American War meant that it was already well-equipped for their dual purpose: a secret prison labor-farm.

By the 1860s, the midwest Corn Belt had been firmly established as the commercial harvesting capital of the States. With the heavy population increase of the West after the Gold Rush, the demand for corn, a cheap versatile crop that had become a staple even in the diet of livestock, exploded so that soon Pacific-bound railroad cars couldn’t bring in corn fast enough. The result was a booming market in the West for what was known as “white corn,” referring not to the color of the cornflesh but to its CA homegrown-ness, unblackened by the soot of railroad commerce and notably cheaper.

In the late 1860s, San Jaoquin Valley farmers began to cash in, and soon developed strong relationships of commerce with the mining camps, especially with whore-house and saloon business proprietors like the four Dicks, who spent thousands of dollars weekly procuring low-cost “white corn” used in the production of corn whiskey, a cheap marked-up moonshine on which their businesses thrived. If only the Dicks didn’t have to hire out distillers, or pay to transport the corn, if only they didn’t have to pay the farmers who labored in the fields.

And so it was the convergent bust of crime and corn that made the Dick’s privatized prison scheme a viable commercial investment.

Bobby Grisholm would never have fallen to the horrors of that scheme had he not gotten drunk solstice night and fucked a horse.

A year prior he might have received the punishment of public slander, been issued a fine to be paid to the horse’s owner, and sent back into bar to buy more drinks and gamble off his wages. Problem for him was the sheriff, one of the Dick’s puppet-lawmen, knew that the kind of person who’d commit such a foul act probably didn’t have many friends, and thus wouldn’t be sorely missed. Perfect prison fodder.

When they dragged Bobby away from the livery, he kept screaming, “It was my horse! My own damn horse!”

They covered his head with a black sheet, shoved him in a wagon with three Chinese criminals, and rode all day and night. In the morning they yanked him out, a succession of strong arms pushed and pulled him through mud and tall bushes, he heard cursing and the cries of the Chinese being kneed in the groins, the sound of iron clanging and scraping, a huge slam, the jingle of keys, big men laughing and spitting, and then, growing louder as they crunched over a gravel path, the cheers of a large crowd. He stumbled up a staircase, fell, was yanked along, then made to kneel and while they cut the fetters from his mask, one of the guards said,

“Lucky to be joining us on a cornhole day.”

“Three tins says one of these Chinese shits himself watching,” said another guard.

“You’re on.”

The black fabric ripped off to blinding light.

“Hey this one ain’t even a chink.”

“Woulda look at that. What does his necklace say?”

“Ho, hor, hors–”

“Give me that you idiot. Horsefucker!”

“Well I’ll be.”

“Hey Horsefucker, get a load of this!” They shoved him by the neck toward a bright window and forced his vision downward. Slowly his eyes regained depth and began to focus. He saw a large crowd of men forming a semi-circle around two gaunt figures. It was two naked men, bent over at the waist; their hands were bound by rope to their ankles. Both had their front foot on a white line in the dirt. Next to them stood a guard in uniform, noticeably bigger, buffer, more burly, more healthy than any man in the crowd. He raised his rifle and fired into the air.

Instantly, the two men began running. It was the kind of frantic hobble that being tied only in such a way compels. The crowd cheered wildly.

The man on the left, in the lead,  slipped on a patch of mud, and came up covered in brown sludge, bucking to his feet as his rival took the lead.

Yonder, the dirt expanse of the open yard ended abruptly at a wall of greenery; it was a massive cornfield.

As he approached it, the man on the right gave no sign of slowing down, and sure enough, when he got to the wall, he plunged vigorously through the cornstalks and disappeared. Then, the mud-covered man followed suit and lunged headlong into the corn. Like choreography, the crowd grew silent, listening.

From his vantage, Bobby traced each man’s path by scanning the tops of the moving cornstalks. Right still had the lead. Left was closing in. But then it seemed both men had stopped. Suddenly a small section of cornstalks tilted, and with a loud crack, sunk away.

Cheers rose up in full force, but were quickly shushed until it was silent again.

Now there was the sound of a struggle amdist the stalks. Grunts, groans, the ripping of branches and the harsh pinching of leaves. Teeth and spit and huge gasping breaths were involved. Five, ten minutes passed.

All of the sudden, the brown-streaked man emerged from the corn. Cheers rang out.

“Yeah Billy!”

Something was different though. He was moving much slower, inching along in fact, his gait was tense and strained as though now his knees too were tied together.

He was halfway back when finally his competitor appeared from the wall of corn. This man had a wholly different method of return, a backward shuffle, which given his speed, seemed to be working better.

Clenched vertically in the man’s buttocks was a thick, stringy ear of corn.

At seeing this one of the Chinese muttered something that expressed disgust.

“I might have to make that bet 5 tins of chew,” said one of the guards.

“Shutup. Here he comes, here he comes!”

It was neck and neck approaching the finish. At some moment during the race, two wooden boxes had been lain beyond the line. Both racers were ten yards out.

Then the backwards man stopped abruptly, his body tensed and he was like a bent-over statue. Only the strings on the ear of corn were moving. What was he doing? Then with a violent convulsion, he sneezed, and out the other end shot the ear of corn to the ground.

An upheaval of emotions rang through the crowd. The dirt-covered man had crossed the end line and was presently placing his corncob atop one of the wooden boxes. Backwards man was (oh how painful it was even to watch!) frantically trying to regain his pinch on the now gravel-coated cob.

“Christ,” whispered Bobby.

The guards were animated:

“Get a grip man! There! He’s got it! Aw shit, dropped it. Wait. Ohp. Is that it? I think so! I think he’s got it!…Yep there it is!”

When Bobby looked back over at the dirty man, he was half-expecting some sort of sign or dance of victory, but no, it wasn’t over. What he saw was foul and horrid. The man was on his knees, bent over the wooden box, his face pressed to the cornpiece as he savagely gnawed at the husk.

Backwards man crossed the line, released his corn onto his wooden palette, and soon both men were performing the same vile act. It was then that the more vocal of the Chinese men beside Bobby retched and vomited onto the stone floor.

“Ha! Pay up Tony,” said one of the guards.

“You said shit, not spew.”

“C’mon!”

Bobby heard the metal tins change hands. He looked over and saw one guard put a wad of tobacco into the sick Chinese’s mouth. He seemed to appreciate it.

As the two competitors went to town on their respective corn-ears, Bobby scanned the rowdy crowd. The cheers were unwavering and there seemed to be equal parts encouragement and rancor directed at either man.

It was impossible to tell who was in lead, nor could one surmise that this was even the last stage in the cruel game. Removing the husk seemed to be the hardest part, and savage though it was, there seemed to be a certain delicateness to each man’s form, as though it was taboo to bite too far into the corn-flesh. Both men utilized forehead rolls and side-spits; the nose seemed to hold a special role in maneuvers requiring the slightest minutia.

At one point dirty man’s head rose, the guard came promptly over, inspected the corn, rolling it over with the tip of his rifle, then apparently unsatisfied, muttered something, and the man went right back to the task.

Minutes passed.

Now it was backwards man who’s head raised. Over came the guard, inspecting the gnawed cob, looking very closely (but not too close). The crowd’s volume subsided, all was silent.

Then the guard lifted his rifle and fired one off. The winner had been chosen.

Some men in the crowd cheered wildly, but most looked subdued and tired, and when a bell tolled from above, the men, in little groups here and there, ambled back toward the building.

“All right Horsefucker, let’s go.”

They yanked Bobby to his feet and dragged him down a corridor, lined with windows. At each one he struggled to catch a glimpse of the yard. In a flash, he saw the dirty man smash his own head into the wooden box and come up with the ear of corn plastered to his bloody forehead. Then a pair of big arms ripped him away.

“What’s gunna happen to the guy who lost?”

“Ask your horse,” said the guard called Tony. Bobby looked over at his face, it was huge and red and stretched taut like a pig bladder. The man’s right arm and chest were massive as if his uniform might explode with one flex. Bobby looked at the other guard’s face; his neck was thick and pimply. When he saw Bobby staring, he winked and blew Bobby a kiss.

“Johnny, take the Chinks to Chink Alley. I’m goin’ up with this one to see the Warden,” said Tony.

“What are you, my boss now?” said the guard Johnny. “Remember, I can bench press more than you.”

“More than me? More than Tony Dirito? Get the fuck outta here!”

Tony the guard dragged Bobby down a succession of grimy corridors; along the walls were portraits of what looked like U.S. presidents, but they were hung low and stank of urine.

They passed into a rectangle of light and cut across an open courtyard lined with phallic cacti. Bobby looked up at the blinding sun.

“Say goodbye to that for a while,” said Tony.

Next thing Bobby knew, he was in a small office of dark mahogany furniture. Across a desk was the back of a well-dressed man, the warden he assumed; he was staring at his mass of gold sporting trophies arrayed on the mantle.

“Warden Grindgrit. This is one Bobby Grisholm. Picked up in Pilser for horsefuckin. Would you like me to strip him sir?”

“Leave us,” said the Warden turning around, “I’ve got it from here.”

“Yes sir,” said Tony and left.

For a solid minute the two men stared at each other. To Bobby, the Warden resembled a piece of gnarled lumber in a suit, the way his face was thick, flat and twisted, the lack of eyebrows, the absence of a chin, the juncture of jaw and neck completely indistinct. This was what they called, back in Bobby’s grade school, a pencil-head, but all beefed-up and muscly, as if the warden once indeed had been a pencil-head, but had been so teased and ridiculed, so misguided, that he’d eaten and lifted his weight in red meat every day since.

“It’s a certain kind of man that would bear down on livestock, eh Mr. Grisholm? Don’t answer that. Just listen. I’m guessing also that you’re a drunk, that you have a sporting habit, gambling perhaps. Most inmates do. Or did, I should say. Judging by your build, you were a laborer, a miner most likely, although perhaps a blacksmith. Either way you probably couldn’t save a day’s wage if your life depended on it, pissing it away in a game of horseshoes. I’m excellent in that game by the way. I wonder if you’ve ever thrown a stick of dynamite from twenty feet into a small hole in an inconvenient rock. In here, you won’t see any of that. The fun is over Grisholm. In here, you are the livestock. You work for us, and it’s all corn. Corn every day. Picking, shucking, grinding, eating and breathing. Corn.”

“Why?” muttered Bobby.

A sharp, painful lash came down across his back. The Warden came around the desk holding a thin bamboo stick.

“Gotta love Chink engineering,” said the Warden grinning at the stick. “From here on, you’ll ask no more questions. You’ll only speak when spoken to. After you’re sufficiently broken, you’ll work the cornfields. Sunup to sundown. Nothing more except eating and sleeping. There is no leisure here, no gambling, no sport, no games–except for one, which I believe you’ve witnessed–and that is not a game for the participants, believe you me, it is the worst kind of punishment imaginable. That will be all Grisholm. Goodnight. For the next two weeks goodnight!”

Tony D came back in. With a practiced efficiency, he ripped off Bobby’s clothes, inspected his orifices, and made him to dress in the drab, grey prison garb. Warden Grindgrit sat watching from behind his desk with a look of pleasurable anxiety, his face a deep raspberry red.

Bobby was ushered stiffly out the door and down a hallway, passing on his way a dirty sickly figure who, detained, was screaming “Noooooo!” as guards forced him through the Warden’s threshold. It was the man who lost the corn game.

The guard led Bobby through a metal door and down the stairs of a room that was the large shaft of a bell tower, then along a cold hallway that stunk of slaughtered meat; he could hear the cries of livestock and voices of Chinese. Then it was a room where many guards sat at long tables, picking rib-bones clean, drinking ale, over there some were on their backs lifting bars with huge weights on the end, two men were wrestling, one in a headlock looked as if his face might explode.

Then a door opened, shut, and it was darkness.

Darkness for a long time, forever it seemed. Vast tracks of time. A sliver of light once in an eternity brought food. A type of thin gruel that he drank; thirst was the only feeling greater than hunger.

It was not long before his mind hungered for a task that would relieve it of having to think. He discovered a declivity in the stone floor, and began a game of tossing one of his shirt buttons into the darkness, trying to get it to land in the dent. He did this over and over, sweeping his hand over the ground to retrieve the button. Soon the game erased his thinking, consumed him.

Still, he was aware of the sounds, sounds that made the darkness deeper and more saturating–metal bars clicking, distant laughter, screams, his own breath–that his mouth was the breath’s source was unbelievable, so distant it sounded. It was the breath of a horse, he was thinking, of a beast whose ears stretched far above its nostrils. He was a horse. Wasn’t he? He had traded brains with a horse. Yes. That made sense.

One day–what was a day?!–the sliver of light ruptured into a giant flame and black blobs forced him to his feet.

The time the eyes need to adjust to daylight from extreme darkness pales in comparison to that of the brain and the spirit readjusting to the stimuli of waking life from a vast solitary confinement.

They took him to the mess hall and plopped him down at a table of inmates, who immediately let out groans of disgust and gave the guards begrudging looks. Bobby had that solitary stink.

“This here’s Horsefucker,” said Tony the guard. “Be nice.”

The men said nothing and continued eating in silence.

“They sure broke him.”

“What do you think his real name is?”

“He looks like a Peter to me.”

“No, Peter’s are more needly, they have thin noses. He ‘s got a big nose.”

“Why don’t you idiots just ask him.”

“You kidding? He’s dead-brained. Watch. Horsefucker, what is your real name?”

“Is your name Peter?”

“Shutup, give him a second. What’s your name guy?”

“Guard 12 o’clock.”

“Pipe down over here jackasses!” yelled the guard.

The men grew silent again and continued working at their food, a thin mealy yellow paste peppered here and there with hard blackened corn-kernels.

“Why do they overcook this? Every day, I swear.”

“It’s the salt peter they cook it with.”

“Enough of the Peter shit.”

“I said salt peter you idiot, it’s a drug to suppress our sex drives. Turn us into complete work mules.”

“Naw. They cook it hard to wear down our teeth, case one day we try to bite our ways outta here.”

“Any word on whether Gruger made it out?”

“Pot shot killed ‘im, swhat I heard.”

“I heard it was the dogs. The ones we hear howling out there on the edge of field. Supposing you even make it all the way out there they’ll rip you limb from limb.”

“Gentlemen, I heard it from a guy who’s in with a chink, and this chink as they say, ‘Spicka Inglesh,’ and he says he heard the guards saying it was the road agents, he’d made it all the way out to the highway only to get nixed by state guns.”

“Ain’t that a bitch, win or loose cornhole, you’re screwed either way.”

“What would you choose, what if say, you had to play cornhole? Wouldn’t you just lose on purpose? Only way you’d know for sure you was getting out of here alive.”

“I’d rather be dead than play Missus to Warden Grindgrit.”

“You kidding? I’d have the son-of-a-bitch’s child to get out of here.”

“But you’re never the same. You lose something. Look at Williams. He lost cornhole and paid the piper a year ago. Shocked ever since. He’s getting out next week, and by the look of him he couldn’t give two shits.”

The men looked over at Williams, a weak shell of a man who, staring off blankly toward the ceiling, let out a wet-sounding fart.

“Well, maybe two shits.”

Bobby laughed.

“Hey, Horsefucker likes that.”

“Horsefucker, do you like shit?”

Bobby laughed again.

“A big pile of shit.”

Bobby laughed even harder.

“We got a real sicko here.”

Over came the guard Johnny.

“Who’s talking!?”

No one said a word.

Bobby, staring dumbly at Officer Johnny’s barrel chest, reached out and made to touch the guard’s third shirt button. In a swift movement, Officer Johnny put Bobby in a headlock and spanked him three times.

“I’m the one that’s ‘sposed to put the moves on you sweetheart,” said Johnny through gritted teeth. He threw Bobby to the ground. From below, Bobby winked and blew Johnny a kiss. Several of the men saw it and winced, but Johnny merely huffed, and re-rolled his shirtsleeve. “Clear out and get to work,” ordered Johnny.

“Did you see that?”

“Never in my life…”

The men cleared the mess hall, walked single file to the outside yard, and gathered in three lines, waiting for the whistle that commenced each 12 hour work day.

The men were sallow, shriveled creatures; the corn diet gave you just enough energy to work your monotonous task, do and think of nothing else in between except sleeping and eating more corn-gruel.

Picker, shucker, grinder– those were the three jobs. Unless of course you were a Chinese. Then it was the slaughterhouse, and preparing food for the guards. And that was just what people knew. Rumors went wild about what else the Chinese were forced to do–some say they were cooking up the corn into strange Oriental drugs, others that they were in charge of churning the latrines lest they combust and blow the whole prison.

Months passed.

Bobby was a shucker. His task was to receive fresh-picked ears, remove the husk and stem leaving absolutely no shred of green plant material, fill up a wheelbarrow, cart it across the dirt yard to the grind-house, return, repeat.

Bobby, who had gained back only a small inkling of personhood since his stint in solitary (which was rare but not unheard of), excelled at the job. His secret: he made a game out of it. That’s right. Bobby was now mule-brained, yet the little shred of human spirit he did contain was that of a child, and to a child, life’s sole purpose is to have fun, and so everything is a game.

It started one day when the left-side handle of his wheelbarrow broke off on his way across the dirt yard, and out spilled a whole load of new-shucked corn-cobs. Rather than try to fix the thing, he picked up the cobs one-by-one and chucked them about 40 yards toward the oak loading-barrels at the grind-house portal.

“Horsefucker what the hell are you doing?” said a fellow shucker passing with his wheelbarrow. “Is you crazy?” The man, a redhead, was nervous and started scanning for guards. “They’ll beat you hard for–Jesus have you missed once?”

Bobby was utilizing an underhand finesse technique that he’d learned playing hours of horseshoes in his former life. Though his mind had little concept of the past, his muscles had retained the memory of the once thrilling arm movement that, in gambling situations, had garnered for Bobby everything from money to drinks to women to kicks in the nards. (His were presently tingling).

“That’s amazing! Must be twenty in a row! Twenty-one! Twenty-two!” yelled the redheaded man. He scanned for guards again. None.

“Let me try.”

Anxiously, the man let fly a feeble toss that landed pathetically twenty yards short of the barrel.

“Shit,” he giggled.

“More hips,” said Bobby.

“Give me another one. Quick.”

With giddy excitement, the man wound up again and released, this time a low-flying bullet shot that hit the barrel but glanced off the top edge, and sputtered across the dirt trailing dust.

“Holy toledo! Hot shit!”

Bobby already had another cob held out, but the man, squinting toward the thinning dust, had caught sight of a set of three guards who were bench-pressing next to the grind-house. The two spotters were staring and looked pissed.

“Shit,” said the redhead. He grunted and scurried off with his wheelbarrow. Bobby could hear anxious laughter coming from the man. When was the last time he’d heard anyone laugh? Bobby smiled.

Ahead in the distance, the man approached the oak barrels with his load. Suddenly the two guards appeared and in a flash were beating him senseless with their huge wooden-like arms. Bobby’s smile vanished and then he himself disappeared into the nearest corn stalks.

Over the next few weeks, with the foresight and rationale of a pre-teen, Bobby continued throwing his corns from across the yard, referring to it now as a game called shuck n’ chuck; he was now 95% from sixty yards out. Fellow shuckers began to take notice, and the emotional reaction amongst them was varied and complex, ranging from bewilderment to apprehension to derision to even a nervous type of approval; at least one shucker a day now ventured to try his hand, usually stopping for not more than five seconds to flick off a tense grounder or weak pop-up. Some shots even went backwards. However, there were a few men, two perhaps, that aced their first shot.  Such bright smiles at that moment broke out across their sunken faces that Bobby felt a sense of pride and purpose for the first time in his life.

Such as prison is, rumors began to fly:

“There’s a game now. Guards don’t even know about it. Some type of corn cob horseshoes. Risky.”

“A shucker, I won’t say who, suffice to say he’s got brass balls, he started it, right in front of the guards’ noses.”

“Word is a shucker’s been screwing that one guard Johnny to give him the go-ahead. That’s why it’s called fuck n’ chuck.”

“He don’t care about Grindgrit. He wants to be picked for cornhole. He’s either got a death wish or a death grip.”

“It’s like catch, but by yourself.”

“Only inmates with the biggest balls have the gall to try it.”

“In the barrel’s 3 points, hit the edge, that’s 2, hit the box, bounce off, that’s 1, dirt is nothing, nada, zip. Simple but fuckin’ brilliant!”

“Stupid if you ask me. But let ’em do it, least I know I’ll be safe from the next game of cornhole.”

One night, before lights-out, Bobby heard a whistle and held out his hand to receive a note from the adjacent cell. It took him thirty minutes to decipher, and still he could only guess what it said:

The pickers want in. Switch tomorrow.

Respect,

Longbeard

P.S. Eat this.

While Bobby lay sleeping that night, digesting Longbeard’s letter, he had a dream that he had swallowed a whole ear of corn, and that inside of him, it became an actual ear. The thought occurred to him, in the dream, that when he woke up and pooped it out, he would never be able to hear again, as if being kicked in the head by a horse.

He woke up crying and drenched in perspiration, yet he was not shivering or cold. In fact, he was being cradled by a warm, heavy weight. It was Officer Johnny.

Next morning, when breakfast ended and the men dumped their trays and exited in staggered lines to the outside yard, Bobby and Longbeard had already made the switch. Most of the guards were noticeably fatigued from the weekends’ weight-lifting competition and failed to notice.

Pickers worked out in the cornfields. On the one hand, the dense corn-stalk coverage gave them an advantage from the scrutiny of the guards, yet on the other, it made ambush and the possibility of a rapid discovery an ever-present threat.

It didn’t take long for Bobby to teach the men the gist of the game. A clearing of about 50 yards was achieved with the help of ten men, five on each side, lying down head-to-toe, and rolling opposite directions, to gently bend and separate adjacent rows of corn-stalks, thus creating a temporary alleyway. At a moment’s notice, the men needed only to stand and the corn-stalks would flick back up to normal position, as if the vegetation too were conspirators in the illicit deed. The wooden boxes in which the men transported their fresh-picked corncobs to the shuckers became the obvious targets.

The game caught on quickly and after a couple days, shuckers, and even a few grinders, hearing about the game’s renewed secrecy under the coverage of the corn-stalks, sought to make the switch, utilizing bribes and ego-massages on the pickers, if not to play, at least to see for themselves what all the hype was about.

As the game’s popularity grew it became harder for anyone but the picker’s to get a crack at it, and soon indignation rose up among the shuckers and grinders, making mealtimes tense. The threat of rats and stool pigeons lent a palpable tautness to the air.

Then one day it seemed someone had indeed talked, because here was Warden Grindgrit himself addressing the men who stood at attention in their respective lines in the blaring sun of the dirt yard.

“For the last week, we’ve been severely behind quota, and coupled with rumors I’ve been hearing about an unsanctioned recreation activity, I’m, needless to say, pissed, and when I’m pissed, like most of your wives who you’ve abandoned, betrayed, beaten or else never had due to excessively puerile brains, I get bitchy and needy and demand attention. We will hold a cornhole match twice weekly. Starting today. Guards please retrieve the designated men.”

The white chalk line seemed to have appeared from thin air, and two men were dragged toward it, ceremoniously stripped naked, and bound in that most humiliating position.

One of the men was the redhead who’d been badly beaten weeks ago for mimicking Bobby’s first corn toss.

From his place in line, Bobby could see that the redheaded man, though bent-over, was staring at him with intense hatred in his eyes, which, as the man contorted into ready position, morphed into the savage stare of a more odious eye.

The rifle flared and the match began. Even from the start, something was different about the game. The two men, everyone in the crowd, even the look of a few guards, all seemed desperate and hopeless, too much so to even care about the outcome. One of these men would die, the other receive unthinkable bodily and psychological horrors. All because of what? Throwing an ear of corn into a barrel. Over a stupid game. These were the thoughts that spun through Bobby Grisholm’s head as he watched a distant bunch of cornstalks tremble sideways and snap.

“No fair!” he wanted to cry out. This prison was like having school all the time and no recess. He looked at the faces of his fellow inmates. No cheers, no excitement, no bewilderment, no recess. Craning his neck, he peered upward and saw Grindgrit watching from a high window of the bell tower.

“Pencil Head!” he wanted to yell so badly. He wanted to scream and run around playing, jump on the other men, dog-pile and laugh and run free like wild horses. Yes! He wanted to run with horses, he wanted to play with horses. But this feeling sank quickly. Something about it felt wrong, like a lump of lead balled-up in his chest. It was the guilt from something he could no longer remember, some distant reprimand or beating associated with the fanciful play of horses.

A very mature thought began to poke through the flits of childish whims and non-sequiturs that encompassed his 8-year-old mind: The Warden Grindgrit, when he was just a kid, had been a pencil-headed dweeb that got bullied and excluded from everyone’s games. He’d come to the fishing hole on the weekends and big kids would call him “titty-williker” and hold him over the bridge by his ankles. At horse races, they’d trip him into dung piles, and during jacks, they’d stuff the metal barbs down his pants and punch his crotch. Perhaps his stilted jaw hindered proper chewing, thus contributing to irritable bowels later on, and he’d spend hours on the toilet, and the teacher would reprimand him for missing the lesson, sharp cracks and slaps so everyone knew, and a couple big kids at recess would come to tip the outhouse. He was beginning to see that it wasn’t that the Warden had been excluded, but that he’d been included in the worst possible way, the butt of every joke, the submissive rag-doll of humiliating games.

In his bunk that night, Bobby couldn’t sleep. He kept thinking of the Warden. His mind was ping-ponging back and forth between hatred and sympathy for the man. He was a brutal prick, yet a lonely soul. He deserved to be slaughtered with the pigs, yet maybe all he needed was a friend. Now one feeling, now the other. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth! Yes! It was such a random thought, but that was just what his corn-toss game was lacking! And all these thoughts about the pathetic Warden just needing a friend, made him think of partners. Yes, the game should be played with teams!

At breakfast next morning, Bobby detailed the new rules to a table of allies, however, no one shared his excitement. The men were skeptical and frightened.

“It’ll reinvigorate the game, get everybody excited! We could have tournaments!” said Bobby.

“It ain’t worth gettin’ cornholed!”

“It’s a verb now?”

“Shutup Lester.”

“Too risky.”

“C’mon guys!” cajoled Bobby. “Plus we have eyes.” Officer Johnny passed the table. Huge and puffed-up, he yelled no curses or reprimands, but did slip Bobby a coy wink.

“Horsefucker. Get it through your skull. It’s over.”

At a nearby table, the redheaded man who’d yesterday lost cornhole had rejoined the inmates. So uninhabited and vacant was his demeanor that he went almost wholly unnoticed save by the sordid group of men at his table. Per his command, they had all removed one sock and into them were presently depositing, one after another, the hard over-cooked corn kernels that dotted their helpings of gruel. Each man filled the tip of his sock, pinched and tied it off.

The men finished eating, filed out of the gates to the yard and gathered into their respective lines. The scene was tense, as though at any moment a bugle would sound, the warden would appear and order another batch of cornhole to be served up immediately. Instead, it was Officer Tony Dirito announcing that work was to be extended by 2 hours today and every day following until quota was raised sufficiently and all vestiges of covert yard games eradicated. The reward for stool pigeons would be handsome and involve meat.

As the pickers maneuvered a line through the cornstalks, Bobby and a small group of loyal followers weaved a path to a hidden pocket of the cornfield. They broke into teams and like school-girls began to play the new version of the game.

At high noon, a sharp crack resounded in the near distance. The warning signal was immediately sounded (three rapid sneezes), and the players quickly flipped the boxes upright. As the supine men rolled inward to disappear the alleyway, several figures burst in from multiple directions swinging mace-like socks and started beating the gamesmen senseless. One man so enraged cracked Bobby’s partner Ronson on the side of the head, who let out a painful shriek cut short by a second blow straight to his Adam’s apple. On impact the bludgeon’s fabric ripped showering the air with corn-kernel bullets, one of which beaned Bobby in the right eye. As he fell down, Officer Johnny, who’d been their eyes on the fringe, erupted onto the scene, and filled with passionate rage, began grabbing the ambushers one by one, until he had about six of them in his clutches, at which point he fell to his knees and began squeezing the men with all his might. Bobby rose to his feet and from out of his one good eye he could see the veins popping on the foreheads of those six men.

Suddenly Officer Johnny’s face went from red to stark white and he screamed, “Billy!” which wasn’t Bobby’s name but nevertheless caused him to turn around at a crucial moment and see that he was about to be socked (literally) by the angry redhead. He leaned quickly left, the blow glanced off his ear. Two gamesmen promptly jumped the redhead and began rapidly punching his face.

Bobby’s reality slowed; the scene rang with an intense silence. His left eye latched onto the flung sock spiraling like a severed foxtail, up and up and up, scraping the silent clouds. Then it fell, gracefully and soundlessly, and with a plop landed in the open mouth of dead Ronson.  Beautiful images blossomed in Bobby’s brain.

Soon guards poured in, took all the men away, flogged them, and put them back in their cells. Immediately rumors went wild– were the gamesmen being tortured to give up their leader? No one was surprised when the bugle sounded and the guards came to corral the inmates into their lines on the yard.

The surprise came moments later when the two victims were brought forth to the starting line. It was Bobby Grisholm–they’d finally nabbed him– and the other man was Officer Johnny.

Gasps and whispers spread across the crowd, even amongst the guards, several of whom cursed and lowered their eyebrows in disgust at the Warden who stood at attention at the window of the bell tower.

“Here finally we have the perpetrators–Horsefucker and Officer Johnny himself. They’ve tried for weeks now to peddle their little bush-game in secret, convince you of its charm and merit, but there can be no sweetness here! No leisure. Only punishment! Guards!”

Two guards stepped forward with rope in hand and began binding the men, wrist-to-ankle.

One of the guards was Tony Dirito.

“What have I done Tony?” snivelled Johnny.

“Shutup Johnny. Listen,” whispered Tony as he wound the rope. “You gotta win this. The warden’s going to the shoot whoever loses right here on the spot. This is a trick knot, undo it when you’re in the stalks, you’ll have the advantage.”

The guards finished binding, stepped back, and the two men hunkered over the chalk line. The sweat and tears on Johnny’s face were indecipherable. Bobby’s face however, seemed completely relaxed, his mind far away. Already, murmurs of praise for Bobby’s courage passed among the audience of shrivelled inmates, and many sallow eyes twinkled as if beholding a fleeting human presence that in a matter of moments would pass from man to legend. Others just thought he was an idiot.

The rifle flared and off they went hobbling toward the wall of corn, disappearing into the stalks.

Johnny quickly wriggled free from the rope.

“I’ll untie you,” whispered Johnny passionately.

“Then what?”

“Then, I don’t know, we’ll escape, we’ll run for it.”

“It’s no use Johnny. One of us has to lose. Let it be me. I’m not afraid.”

“Let me at least untie you,” said Johnny reaching for the knot.

“No,” ordered Bobby. “Leave it like it is,” he said and he turned his body and looked back doe-eyed at Johnny.

From across the yard the men began to see the tops of stalks moving back and forth rhythmically. At any moment, they expected to see them bend and hear the familiar crack, any moment, any moment now…

Then–and people to this day can only guess what really caused it –an explosion came from within the structure of the prison, launching out streaks of flaming debris. Hordes of Chinese men came running out of the building, their clothes and hair on fire. Then chaos ensued as the edges of the cornfield caught fire, enclosing the yard in a wall of flame. Guns were wrested from the guards and fired every which way. Most inmates were weakened immediately by the fumes, passed out, and burned like wisps of hay.

Seeing the smoke from afar, the road agents closed in with poised rifles and shot at any movement inside the brush along the road. Still, a few inmates managed to escape the crucible, slip past the highwaymen, and sneak into the nearby town.

There was four of them. Their spirits were broken, beyond broken, shattered, yet they were men of the earth, and they did they only thing they knew–got drunk and bought whores.

They were so dirty and their clothes and bodies so riddled with the vegetation through which they’d clawed and trampled, one of the whores looking at her man as he stripped said,

“Dang mister, you got corn comin’ outta every hole!”

The man smiled and looked nostalgically out the window at the night sky. Then he screamed, “Horsefucker!” and jumped into bed.

“Yeeehaw!” said the whore.

Yesterday, in t…

Yesterday in the wee hours of the morning I was chopping wood, and mid-stroke, something finally dawned on me. The sun!

Apeshit

The fascination of humans toward apes goes back to the dawn of man when the first human was born, grew up, and suddenly got weirded out that his parents had genital hair covering their entire bodies. Yet, for thousands of years man and ape lived alongside each other, separated only by the location of their beds, apes preferring caves, high trees, or top bunk.

As nature took its stubborn course, apes stayed pretty much the same; but humans evolved. They built cities, dammed rivers, sucked minerals from the ground, and worshipped an invisible guy in the sky whose name was Him, and apparently Him had given birth to men, so men believed that they were Him, had always been, and apes were just apes that kinda looked like them.

Centuries passed and man, more and more it seemed, had traded his evolutionary kinship for a package deal known as salvation. Some humans, however, retained the knowledge of evolution, instilled in them by family lore, or conceived during a split second burst of common sense while watching a monkey juggle. These men were philosophers, scientists, teachers.

One of them was John Scopes a young science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee prosecuted for teaching evolution in what came to be known nationally as the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925), pitting strict religious conservatism against Darwinian evolutionary theory, on a national stage.

But all it seemed to do in Dayton was make Moe the Monkey the talk of the town.

Moe was the pet chimpanzee of LaDonna and St. James Bronely, but for all intents and purposes, he was their son.

St. James, an independent oilman, and LaDonna, retired seamstress, had tried in vain for years to have a child. They’d seen doctors, priests, a shaman–nothing worked. Their infertility had so confused St. James, a man at the helm of an oil-laden land spurting off hourly to huge profits, yet his own marital bed was a dud.

After years of anguish, St. James up and left LaDonna in the summer of 1920, disappearing one morning without a word, leaving all affairs of the business to her. He returned months later a changed man– thick beard, leathery tan, prince albert piercing– but most notably, with a small monkey on his back.

“I want you to name him,” said St. James without a word of explanation about where the hell he’d been. As LaDonna stared wide-eyed at the small creature, St. James began to cry.

“He’s our boy now,” sobbed St. James.

When LaDonna started crying as well, the little guy jumped down, and the couple watched intently as he began humping the lawn mower.

“Moe!” LaDonna keened between sobs.

“Yes! Moe! Our new boy!”

From that day on, they treated Moe like their son. He had his own room with a twin bed. LaDonna dusted off her sewing machine and began making custom fit clothes for Moe– tweed suits, pleaded pants, hats topped with furry balls. Moe took to vests well for by age 2 his biceps were apt to flex and bulge at the teensiest of stimuli, causing his shirt sleeves to split and ribbon like a circus orphan’s, and Moe was definitely not a circus pet. He was their boy.

And he was much the same as any other boy. To an extent.

He would play catch with St. James in the yard, bare-handing his father’s fastballs and ripping sliders that dived and splattered blinding dirt into St. James’ eyes. He loved piggy back rides (giving them), hide-n-go-seek (-the poop), and even arts and crafts (eating crayons).

It did not surprise the Bronelys that not only did Moe have the boylike capacity for enormous love and energy, but also, he was a sensitive creature, given to tantrums if you woke him up from a nap, fits of jealous anger towards cats and dogs and doggiestyle, not to mention the horribly shrill episodes of whining when his parents made him finish his milk at dinner before he could have any banana pudding.

Yet, never once did Moe, on walks through town, at the movies or the grocery store or the penny arcade that sold his favorite treat red licorice, never did Moe express the wild beastly rage of an ape. In fact, when it came to violence and irrationality, Moe seemed to be wholly lacking the inherent primitive impulses of a monkey.

And the Bronelys were happy. They had their business, their house, their family, their boy. And, not even the most conservative yokel in Dayton had given so much as a hoot one way or another about the Bronelys and their apechild.

That is until the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 began and downtown Dayton transformed into a carnival scene, unbeknownst to St. James who’d been so busy for weeks fending off a pestering sales agent from Standard Oil, that he’d neglected to read the news. On a Sunday trip to the grocer, he and Moe were suddenly caught in a sea of banners and lemonade stands, St. James gripping Moe’s hand tightly as they snaked through the crowd, stopping only to buy Moe, anxious and rattled by the stifling atmosphere, a frozen banana. They finally broke through to a grassy clearing where Moe could rest, eat his banana, and lower his heart rate, which was by now, as St. James felt below Moe’s left nipple, beating faster than a distressed squirrel’s.

But as the crowd shifted yonder toward the court house, a row of metal cages came into view, in each a chimpanzee, some of them flailing wildly, others yelping or sleeping or scratching each other’s asses through the bars, all of them naked. Above hung a satirical banner: Meet The Cousins. Before St. James could shield Moe’s eyes from the potentially confusing scene, Moe quickly rose and crow-hopped into a tuck-n-roll, and like a little hairy snowball spun to the foot of the cages, where he righted himself, reached out and tenderly grasped the metal bars, gazing curiously at the face of a sleeping monkey.

“Look at this one!” came a cry from the crowd.

“My lord, this one’s wearin’ clothes!”

“Oh my god how cuh-yute!”

Instantly a large crowd encircled Moe, people elbowing in from all sides to get a look at the funny little monkey in pants. Scared of getting too close, the crowd formed a giant ring around Moe, who, although untouched, was noticeably afflicted by anxious tremors, while the crowd cheered and pulsed around him. From the outskirts, St. James pushed manicly through the crowd, stink-eyed by greedy onlookers as he edged his way through. He’d yet to get a view of Moe when suddenly the cheering subsided and the crowd grew quiet until it was completely silent.

The only noise was that of a high-pitched keen, the unmistakable cry of a small child who’s lost his parents.

“Moe,” cried St. James finally breaking through the crowd. “Moe, my boy, my sweet boy!” wailed St. James as he swooped Moe into his arms hugging him tightly and showering his hairy brow with kisses.

Several emotional women in the crowd began passing around handkerchiefs to dry their eyes.

“What’s his name?” someone yelled, breaking the silence.

“Moe. Moe Bronely.”

The crowd burst into applause and that was the start of Moe’s fame in Dayton. For weeks after, he received letters, baked goods, visits from curious children, even St. James’ long lost brother Richard wrote inviting the family to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he managed a successful casino.

Rumors went wild that Moe was actually part-human, part-monkey, not so much the missing link in an evolutionary chain, but a freak of nature born of the unconsecrated union between a human and an ape. Everyone wanted to see the amazing boy-monkey.

At first, LaDonna and St. James, skeptical of what too much contact with human strangers might do to Moe’s pyche, sheltered Moe, letting no visitors enter the house and, on outings, disguised Moe as a geezer.

But they couldn’t keep him hidden forever.

One day Moe, in his striped pajamas, answered a knock on the door, and, all by himself, escorted a couple into the living room where he proceeded to pour hot tea onto their laps. When LaDonna entered the room, she was horrified. Yet the couple seemed delighted, and although LaDonna showed them the door with an anxious haste, Moe stood poised by her side and cordially shook the couples’ hands on the way out.

It was that night that LaDonna and St. James decided that maybe it was best if Moe were socialized as a human boy of 8 would have to have been by then in order to be successful in life.

And so it became an open door policy at the Bronelys. Not that large crowds came flooding in at all hours, no, Moe’s visiting time was strictly monitored and regimented, all non-perishable gifts thoroughly screened and sanitized, all baked goods and candy tested on an old goat named James who lived in the barn.

Moe seemed happy.

Yet for all his popularity, rarely did Moe have return visitors. It seemed that people would come for an afternoon, have loads of fun, get their kicks, then never come back again. No playdates were ever scheduled, no sleepovers planned, no invitations for birthday parties received in the mail.

But what did any of that matter if Moe was happy. Plus, the gifts and endorsements from local businesses had been keeping the Bronelys afloat during particularly hard times. Standard Oil’s buy-out offer had doubled.

Then one day, the Tandiks called, it was Mrs. Tandik, wanting to set up a playdate with  Moe and her son Arthur.

The Bronelys were ecstatic. They spent all morning making preparations, sprucing up the rumpus room and readying the linens in case a sleep-over situation developed, or if not, at least a savage fort could be built in the living room. Through an hour of role-playing and aggressive pantomiming, they managed to communicate the impending event to Moe. Just to be safe they fed him a double serving of densely carbohydrated porridge to calm his nerves.

At noon came a knock. The knock. It was little Arthur Tandik, a rosy-cheeked blond boy with perpetual sniffles, standing a bit squeamishly behind his mother’s leg.

“Helloooo” cried Mrs. Tandik, with her hands to her breasts as if Moe’s cuteness were too much to bear. She wore gold jewelry that jangled audibly, pounds of make-up, and her nails were freshly painted bright red.

“Hello, hello, come in,” welcomed LaDonna, ushering mom and son into the foyer.

“Oh I just love how Christmasy your house looks. That wreath Ladonna! Oh and St. James you naughty boy! You must have had a ball putting up all those lights!” said Mrs. Tandik.

St. James, setting Moe down, began to blush. “Why thank you Mrs.–”

“And look at this handsome little guy!” said Mrs. Tandik bending over, her sun-blotched cleavage heaving behind her garrish necklace like a pair of carelessly chained dogs. Moe smiled; he seemed to remember her fondly.

She put out her hand to touch Moe’s head, and, instead of receiving kindly her affections, he became instantly excited, and quickly snapped his jaws at her hand  biting off the tip of her index finger.

Mrs. Tandik screamed in agony. Moe, extremely startled, spit out the fingertip onto the carpet, its candy-red nail still intact.

“Mrs. Tandik please, oh my lord, we’re so sorry, St. James get a towel and some ice, please, Mrs. Tandik, come take a seat,” pleaded LaDonna trying to guide the woman toward the couch.

Before Moe could run away, St. James snatched him up. “My boy,” said St. James holding Moe to his breast and petting his head, “It’s okay my boy, you thought it was licorice, didn’t you? There now. There now. You see Mrs. Tandik he thought it was licorice is all.”

Hysterical, Mrs. Tandik violently pushed LaDonna, grabbed Arthur and shielding him, began slowly backing away from the Bronelys.

“Stay away! You’re insane! You stay away!”

“No, please Mrs. Tandik! Please understand he meant no harm!” cried LaDonna.

“The fuck he didn’t!” screamed Mrs. Tandik and ran out of the house, little Arthur’s sobs echoing down the walk.

The tides of fame in American culture are such that Monday, you’re a wonder, loved by everyone, an icon, a hero, a golden boy. By Tuesday, everyone hates you and agrees you’re scum, a malignant disease rotting the moral fabric of the nation.

Such was the fate of Moe and the Bronelys after the finger incident. Not only did the Tandiks press charges, they slandered the Bronelys name throughout all of Dayton, and began an aggressive campaign, backed by local conservatives, to have Moe taken away and confined to a nature preserve in Illinois. Even left-wing groups vilified the Bronelys, blaming them for the failure of the Scopes Trial to return a pro-evolution verdict.

St. James was forced to sell the oil business to Standard Oil, who now offered only a piddling recompense. All the Bronelys’ money for the next year went into fighting an endless court battle, which turned out in their favor. But it didn’t matter.

The Bronelys were done in Dayton; they needed to move as soon as possible, find a safe, peaceful home for Moe.

Out of desperation, they pursued the aid of Richard Bronely in New Jersey, finally responding to that kind letter of invitation he’d written to them a year before. But his response never came. Hostilites in Dayton intensified, and soon it was imperative that the Bronelys leave immediately.

They packed their valuables and set out for Atlantic City. They hoped it would be, if nothing else, a place more open-mided, where they wouldn’t be eyed with suspicion and treated like lepers, where they could celebrate Moe’s 10th birthday in anonymity and peace.

Their plan was simple: Visit every casino on the boardwalk until they found Richard and more or less beg him to put them up until they could get back on their feet.

But would it be that easy? St. James hadn’t seen or spoken to his brother since they were kids. Richard, older by two years, had ran away from home after shooting their father in the foot over his discovery and brutal murder of the two brothers’ secret pet raccoons.

Brief Sidestory https://idiotidioms.wordpress.com/authors-note/apeshit-sidestory/

St. James had no idea that Richard had since been leading a life of organized crime in Atlantic City, cashing in on the town’s bootlegging and gambling market, eventually rising up the ranks under political boss Nucky Johnson, as manager of a string of casinos and restaurants on the boardwalk.

Richard, like St. James, loved animals, albeit in a more exploitative sense than his younger brother. He bet the horses and cherished the thrill of a dogfight. He’d owned many wild animals over the years and had made a small fortune exhibiting them in the curtained antechamber of the casino.

He hadn’t responded to the Bronely’s plea because he had been so overwhelmed by the imminent unveiling of his latest venture, a specially designed Ape House, that would allow the public close interactions with monkeys, rivaled only by the wild experience.

What happened on that fateful day that the Bronelys arrived in Atlantic City, December 3rd 1929 Moe’s birthday, could have been merely strange coincidence. Or it could have been the inexorable doom that so often awaits those men who believe they can contain Nature, civilize the savage.

That morning, the giant tarp was removed and the Ape House revealed to the public. The paying customers, churros and cotton candy in hand, began to snake their way through the viewing path lined on either side by tall steel fences, the crowd ooooing and aaaaaing at the spectacle, completely unaware that a terrible mistake had been made. Just moments before, the apes had been fed a batch of rotting, fermented bananas. The sight of people enjoying their delicious carnival snacks was all it took to enrage the apes, who began violently screaming and throwing wads of feces at the patrons. The design of the Ape House was such that no one could escape the thrall of flying dung, until a custodian valiantly entered the cage and blasted the troop of apes with a high-powered fire hose. However, three apes dodged the blast and escaped through the emergency gate onto the boardwalk where they ravaged a pretzel stand and made off into the city.

That day, the Bronelys ventured into the city later than scheduled (Moe had had explosive diarhea at the train station). They decided, it would be best to rent a cheap room, at least for the night, to enjoy a much needed respite from traveling, and if possible, gauge the public’s reaction to their presence. They put up their bags (all but one special bag) and with the few hours of daylight left, walked to a nearby park, where on a bench under a tree, they surprised Moe with a large birthday cake and gifts.

The three apes had been hiding in a tree for hours now, their nervous panting had almost subsided, until they spied, on the table below, one of their own kind. A chimp. But not like them. He was dressed in human clothes–black slacks, a plush velvet vest with a golden watch chain, dark shiny clogs on his feet. And his food. He ate not what they ate, not bananas, not gruel, but birthday cake. Chocolate with blue frosting and glowing red string of script  ”   ppy Birthday Moe!!!” They watched him take little bites of cake off a paper plate. He ate using…his hands! Had he used a fork the apes might have dropped their query, resolving that he was after all a human child, albeit one deformed and forested with hair beyond his years, his species. But no. Beast indeed he was!

This detail stung the apes, their hearts not yet settled from the trauma of captivity and the thrill of the recent escape.

Then, the presents came out. The woman pulled box after box from a canvas bag, while the man sat smiling and with each unveiling clapped Moe on the back, bellowing cheers like “Yeah Moe! Yeah big boy!” And this stung the apes again, this showering of gifts onto a chimpanzee, whom they called their boy, who was after all, not theirs, but the apes’. He was one of them. He was their lost brother, ripped from the pride years before. Civilized. Ruined.

Moe opened gift after gift–a frisbee, a money clip, a toy train set, a satin boxing robe with his name emblazoned on the shoulder pallet in crimson font–and oh this stung the apes!

With loud human cries they leapt from the tree slamming onto the table and with pumping knuckles obliterated the birthday cake and shattered the train set. The blow caused Moe to fling backward where he landed behind the trunk of the tree. Completely frozen in shock and fear, he watched the apes violently attack is mom and dad.

First, they piled onto LaDonna and like starving coyotes bit most of her fingers off. St. James was quick to drag LaDonna by the feet and stuff her beneath the picnic table, agitating the apes further and causing them to focus their rage onto St. James, who, running away downhill tripped on the slick frisbee, and the apes, with snapping jaws and brutish fists, tore into various sections of his flailing body. They ripped his genitals clean off, dislodged an eyeball, mewed off his nose, gnashed away his toes and fingers. When St. James finally lost consciousness, the apes grew bored. Luckily for LaDonna, a nearby kite attracted their attention, and off they went across the park disappearing beyond the grassy horizon, never to be seen again.¹

Horribly injured, LaDonna still was able to flag down help and the entire family was rushed to the hospital.

After the incident, the couple, especially St. James, were so incapacitated they were forced to put Moe into an animal shelter in the Jersey National Forest. They were told that Moe, because of his fragile demeanor, would receive near-human accommodations. St James would have it no other way.

Just days after the accident, LaDonna, missing 3 fingers on her left and 4 and a half on her right hand, started biweekly visits to the shelter. Moe was indeed getting excellent care, but his spirits were extremely low, spending most of his hours underneath a desk.

It took two months before St. James was healthy enough to make the trip.

But when the couple arrived, they received tragic news. Moe had escaped.

The shelter’s theory was that he’d simply opened the door to his dormitory, climbed a fence, entered the forest, and never returned.

For months St. James lived in denial; he hired investigators to examine the shelter, suspecting they had killed Moe and tried to cover it up. But, there was no evidence to support foul play.

Years passed. Dayton had entirely forgotten about the Bronelys, and Atlantic City had long since cast them into the heap of sensational headlines.

But New Jersey lore tells of a disfigured invalid who sits in his wheelchair on the boardwalk holding out a piece of red licorice. If any human child tries to grab it, he goes totally apeshit.

ENDNOTE

¹Although, some Atlantic City folklorists uphold a 1950s legend that the apes were seen playing Motown music.

Takes the Cake

The course of this idiom through early American history is strange and snake-like, buried at many junctures beneath hardened layers of racism and cultural amnesia, bulging, swelling at others, amid festive parties where couples danced the “cakewalk” uninhibited and others watched from the dark edge of the dancefloor, laughing.

It started with a dance, and even then, it wasn’t really a dance, only perceived as such by the first white man who saw it, Bob. He was an early settler in the Plymouth colony, raised in Yorkshire, England where he’d chummed with his rich pal William Bradford who’d gotten him a seat on the Mayflower and set him up with a new life here in New England. Much obliged Bob was, but unlike Bradford and the rest of his Puritan comrades, Bob couldn’t shed his poorman’s impulses: imbibing liquor and heeding the call of Bacchus which seemed to tickle weekly, daily at his spinal cord with restless prods of wanderlust.

One night, drunk on a thick, filmy alcohol he’d filched from the Doctor, he wandered lazily away from a goat cream social, through tall grass, into bushes and woods, stumbled down gullies and up the muddy banks of creek beds, until he came to the rocky crest of a small mountain where in the valley below he could see and hear a tribe of Natives chanting and moaning in a circle punctuated by tall fires, five, like the tips of a star. In the middle of the circle, a rectangle of earth glowed dully and gave off a purple smoke, like heated coal. Had he been more perceptive that night he would have noticed sooner that it was a fiery bed of buffalo shit, huge dried cakes of bisonpoo he’d heard tell they used like firewood.

From his crouched vantage behind a small boulder, he squinted and saw a small feathered figure twisting and stomping along the edge of the orange rectangle. With a loud cry, the feathered figure, which Bob now realized was a naked man in headdress, gyrated his hips wildly, jumped barefoot onto the fecal embers, tightened, and scampered quickly across. Bob burst out laughing. It reminded him of the rich Yorks in England who, under tinkling ballroom chandeliers, would dance with clenched buttocks as if collectively butt-gripping the smug aristocracy that he’d vowed forever to scorn.

The resemblance, the exaggeration of it, the uncanniness of the convergence and queerness of its circumstances excited the drunken Bob, and he too began to dance the dance of the kindled buffalo poop, hopping on tip-toe and swinging his knees into one another until he tripped, nudged the small boulder, and sent it rolling down the hill where it was saved from ripping into the prayer circle by a stockpile of bison cakes that cracked loudly, wheezed, and let out a plume of poodust.

Bob turned to run, but an invisible archer was quick to tag his buttocks with a swift arrow that pierced his buttflesh and, interestingly, sent Bob back into the dance, his gay laughter now screams of agony. As he ran manicly along the ridge and down through bush and forest, the screams and cries of the Natives seemed to Bob like the sadistic laughter of a drunken crowd at a Yorkshire cockfight.

When he returned to the familiar fires of the goat cream social, he heaved his way desperately through the crowd to the Doctor’s tent, where stood the Doctor holding two shapely fruits to his bosom keening loudly to a small audience in mockery of the Queen’s stillbirth. But before Bob could cry for help, a small, repressed youngster noticing the arrow’s feathered end ripped it from his arse, sending Bob into a stilted dance-walk which the audience took for brilliant satire, lavishing upon Bob and the Doctor many cheers and the frothy dregs of goats cream and pan-crusted corncakes.

The equation was set that fateful night: the dance signifying the celebration of cultural mockery. Yet, the line between mocker and mockee, celebration and satire, was drunk and blurry.  The who is who and which is which, and who’s buttock is the butt of the joke, remained to be seen.

By the 18th century, the dance became a staple past-time of well-to-do New England society, now purely celebratory in nature, its root as a mocking exaggerated imitation of the English obscured. (Certainly forgotten, else completely ignored, was its Native source; Yet its name the cakewalk, aptly seemed to conjure the long forgotten scene whence Puritan Bob peeped the spirit dance of the flaming buffalo-cake dancefloor.)

The split between North and South over the issue of slavery following the American Revolution prompted an ironic iteration of the cakewalk dynamic; It became a popular dance among white southerners who, drunk at festive plantation galas and all jived-out on the latest Yankee wisecracks, nudged their partners, winked, and broke into the dance, buttocks elevated, legs fluid, toes dainty.

The slaves that floated in and out of these ballrooms, silently cooking and muscling through the logistics of the parties, had no concept of the ironicness of the dance, all they saw was the white people having fun and dancing like, well, white people. And, they did notice an important connection:

“Why is they dancin like chickens?”

“I dunt know, bit I’d rather live with da chickens den dance like one!”

“Oooo Lahd!”

It was Dilda Jenkins and Shithead (“sha-THEED”) Bilberry, slaves on the Girkston Plantation in Louisiana, who at this moment were busy carefully garnishing fruit onto a freshly baked cake, and didn’t so much as blink as huge gales of laughter burst from the ballroom. But they were mighty startled a second later when Miss Lora busted into the kitchen (a rare occurrence),

“A prize! A prize for the winner! Give me that cake!” she barked, ripped it from Dilda’s hands, and huffed back through the door, trailing a thick waft of rancid sherry. From the shadows of the ballroom threshold, they watched Miss Lora stumble drunkenly across the room, sneeze, nearly drop the cake, catch herself, hiss at the approaching Mr. Lora (as the slaves called the emasculated Mr. Girkston), and present it to a portly, yet handsome couple, the man abashedly refusing the prize until his wife promptly flicked his earlobe and practically ripped the cake from Miss Lora’s hands screaming “Yeeeeessssss!”

Later, when the party ended and couples boarded carriages along the tree-lined walk, Dilda and Shithead stood on the back porch beating a throw-rug in rhythmic broomstrokes.

“You’s quiet tonight,” said Dilda, who was like a mother to young Shithead.

From inside they could hear Mr. Lora hammering out a drunken shuffle on the piano.

“I’s just tinking bout dat kek,” she said longingly, smacking the rug with a hearty blow.

“I bet dat fat woman done ate it up already,” said Dilda lightly. That made Shithead start laughing.

Dark figures approached from the distance–their husbands, who’d been working all day in the field.

“They’s out late tonight,” said Dilda, gesturing toward the approaching figures.

Shithead, still laughing, turned towards the men, and when she saw them, she felt a sudden burst of bold giddiness, threw down her broom, tilted her buttocks to the sky, and started trotting to the piano like a drunken ballroom honky.

“You stop it!” Dilda whispered harshly.

“Am I ruffling your feathers,” said Shithead in her best white lady impression, now flapping her knees together smoothly like the spiral blades of a grass-mower.

“Is you crazy girl?” said Dilda sternly, glancing at the back windows. “She’ll have you beaten ded.”

But Shithead couldn’t stop, she’d been bit by the dancin bug.

“C’mon ya big tittywillicker,” taunted Shithead, tip-toes pattering tiny circles in the dirt.

Dilda, fuming with anger and apprehension, swung the broom hard at Shithead, purposely missed, but accidentally tripped over the bottom porchstep, and with a hard thud balanced herself using the broom like a cane, and maybe it was her rage or maybe it was her hunger, or perhaps it was sheer boredom or some kind of valentine to the devil, but she started in on that dance, jostling her cane and tipping an invisible hat to the piano shuffle, and neither of them stopped until the dark figures came into the light and one of them said,

“Bravo! Bravo! Good show!” It was the portly raspberry-faced man who’d won the cake. Beside him was his wife, soot-drenched and nearly blacked out drunk, and Miss Lora, a little tipsy herself, but now seething with embarrassment and rage. A small acne-ridden boy stood nearby, holding a cake.

“What the hell is this?” screamed Miss Lora.

“We’s just–” mumbled Shithead.

“Shutup, I know what you were doing. Roger! Roger! Get the hell out here! Roger?!!” She stormed up the porch steps and shoved her head through a back window screaming, “Roger stop playing fucking piano and come out here!”

“Ladies, that was marvelous. Don’t stop. That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Ha! Negroes cakewalkin! Ha, do it again. Darling? Darling, wake up! Did you see them? Ha! Absolutely priceless!” Raspberry Face chuckled and repeated “Ha!”

The drunk wife wobbled slightly, let out a gurgling sound and then screamed “I looooovvved it!” She threw out her arms wildly, then, remembering the cake, she turned and ripped it from the little boy, who was sweating. “Here! Take this!” She thrust it at the two women.

Miss Lora, seeing the exchange from atop the porch, darted down the steps, picked up a broom, and charged Shithead.

“Disobedience!!!!!” She began whacking Shithead repeatedly over the head.

Dilda, repressing her anger, winced at each blow.

“Nooooooo!” cried the drunken wife, then fell asleep standing.

“Not necessary! Not necessary!” Raspberry Face kept repeating. He lit a cigar. “Talent I say!”

The little boy with acne started crying.

“Miss Lora please,” muttered Dilda.

“Mocking me! Mocking my guests!” screamed Miss Lora, now charging Dilda.

The wife snapped to, and thinking it was one minute ago, burst forward to give Dilda the cake, but was instantly stroked in the face by Miss Lora’s broom, the sharp bristles cutting her soft facial skin and sending stipples of blood onto the cake.

“Aaaaaaaaaa!” screamed the wife.

The little boy wheezed heavily, choking.

“That’ll be enough!” said Raspberry Face, grabbing the broom and finally asserting manly control.

“Beat her, Ed!” cried the wife. “Just…aaaaaaaaaa!”

“Banshee woman, calm down!” snapped Ed. “No one’s beating anybody. Miss Lora!” he bellowed sternly. Sitting in a pool of her dress, she herself was now sobbing. “You’ve managed to ruin a terribly decent party by interrupting the best show of entertainment I’ve seen in all the southern states. Isn’t that right John Peter?!”

Still crying, Little John Peter, his face swollen red, gave a quick sniffling nod.

“What would you say young boy? Would you have them keep dancing? Would that make you happy?” asked Ed.

The boy sniffled and nodded again.

Ed gripped the broomstick hard.

“Ladies?”

Scared, Dilda looked at Shithead, then down at Miss Lora who sat in silence aghast at the situation, then back at Shithead. As if attuned to a symbiotic rhythm, the two women thrust their clenched buttocks to the heavens and resumed the dance.

“Yes. Yes,” repeated Ed,”Yes, there it is!”

The little boy stopped crying and smiled.

“Wooooooo!” screamed the wife, shooting to her feet and joining the dance. “Fuck it, Ed!”

“Yes,” muttered Ed softly, between puffs of his cigar. “Yes.”

The little boy was laughing now, and excited, he ran over, picked up the cake, and presented it with utmost sincerity to Shithead, who looked down at the little boy’s shiny pocked face, and, with a breathy smile, accepted it.

Ed’s eyes glowed fiercely like the tip of his cigar. “Yes,” he whispered.

Bust A Nut

Construction workers in 1880 New York weren’t like they are today. They were worse. Sweaty, tar-streaked men that cussed, smoked cigarettes for breakfast, and prided themselves on a charm as callous as their bloated hands. But perhaps more so back then, they had a reason to be hardened pricks. Working conditions on major public building projects were rough, usually involving jarring unwieldy machinery, hot thick metal raised hundreds of feet on rusty pulleys, not to mention crude scaffolding that bucked and splintered underfoot amid the grind of a working day.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in the summer of 1880 was the worst of the worst, rife with the most extreme conditions. Chances are you were either a Monkey or a Mole. Monkeys worked high up, on single-planked scaffold pulleys 200 feet above the Straight Line (which would be the future road) and 400 feet above the river. They wrenched bolts and threaded wire in the baking sun. They got their name from the horrible cries they’d make from above when a patch of their exposed arm or leg-skin grazed the burning hot metal of an iron-meshed suspension cable. FAAAAAAAAAAA!

Moles had it worse. Every morning they’d line up along the Straight Line at one of the two towers, north or south, and wait to be lowered in groups by a rickety elevator that would take them hundreds of feet down underwater to the river bedrock, where they labored away in air-tight rooms for hours laying concrete in rigidly uniformed cubes and hacking away at hardened, rocky mud with heavy pick-axes.

The harsh change in air pressure and the dark candlelit dankness of the subterranean rooms was hellish. Moles often suffered bouts of intense light-headedness, causing confusion and panic amid the horribly shrill, pressure-warped sounds of hammers, drills, and chains. Random explosions and consecutive farts made it not only miserable, but deadly.

It was not yet known the full extent of the effects the massive change in air pressure had on the body of a Mole, long or short-term. In ’78 a man’s right lung was rumored to have exploded out of his chest during the elevator’s ascension, just ten yards from the top. The man was never seen again, but on the elevator wall, someone had pencilled a cartoon picture of a bearded man in overalls writhing in pain on his knees as what looked like a snake of fire burst from his chest. A caption read: “R.I.P. Kendoogie. He shoulda been a Nutter!”

If you weren’t a Monkey or a Mole, you were a Nutter, considered unanimously to be the easiest, most desirable job on the bridge, and for that fact, Nutters took a whole lot of shit from everybody else, especially the Moles, who for a lack of sunlight and space or for the hellish delirium of their daily grind, became embittered assholes bent on ridiculing the Nutters, who worked the Straight Line, where every morning and evening the Moles went in and out of hell. Rumors flew that the Nutters were Nutters ‘cus they were the bosses’ nephews.

A Nutter’s job was simple: They worked in threes. One would heat over hot coals and dip into oil a piece of metal hardware known as a nut n’ rivet, passing it to the next guy who with wooden tongs would press the end of the rivet into a pre-drilled hole at the juncture of two steel beams, holding it there for the third guy who would hammer home the nutted rivet, then all three would join in a circle, wrenching the nut hard-flush to the steel beam. The trick was, the hammer had only one clean shot on the rivet head. An odd angle delivery, any whatsoever, would send the nut shooting off sideways. They always wore goggles.

Tommy, Tony, and Nicky–Nutters–had stoically endured the jabs and insults of Ricky Sgusting and the Moles of the north tower for months. Every day it was the same story.

“Hey faggots!” yelled Ricky, burliest among his clan of burly redneck friends, “What are a buncha gayboys doin on the Straight Line?!”

The Moles would laugh and cackle between hits of their cigarettes and slap big Ricky on the belly like he was the hottest shit around.

Tommy, Tony, and Nicky would say nothing. They wouldn’t even do the service of looking at a dickhead like Ricky Sgusting. What did they do? They worked harder, faster, more efficient than ever. Nicky, the hammer, never missed in the face of Rick Sgusting. Straight and True every time, although he did often fantasize about one day taking that hammer to Rick Sgusting’s skull and giving that charred smug, grisled face a makeover. The last makeover.

“Don’t bust a nut Cindyrella, you might give your partners a hard-on!” yelled Ricky, as he and his Mole clan entered the elevator laughing hysterically. A couple of Monkeys overheard from above and bellowed wild, wordless cheers.

“Great, now we’re fuckin’ entertainment,” griped Nicky.

“Uh oh, here he goes,” muttered Tommy.

“What do you think it’s gunna be today, Tommy?” said Tony, ” a ‘One of these days I’m gunna park Rick Sgustin like a lemon against a baseball bat.’?”

“No, I was thinking ‘One of these days, I swear to god, Rick Sgusting’s gunna kiss my hammer and sparks are gunna fly.'”

The two busted up laughing, Tony barely holding the rivet steady as Nick dealt it a fatal blow. The rest of the day, Nicky worked in silence, stewing on the fact that not once, not even one time had they stood up to Sgusting. They hadn’t even talked back let alone put up fists. It was bullshit. He was tired of being a two-bit hack. Literally.

Weeks went by. Nothing changed.

Then, midsummer, something started to happen. To the Moles. What was it?

“You guys notice anything different about the Moles lately?” asked Nicky one morning, as the elevator carrying the last of them descended out of sight.

“Yeah,” said Tommy “they’ve been neglecting to mention our tiny penises lately.” He bursted into laughter.

“No, you’re right Nicky,” said Tony sternly. “They don’t look as tall or somethin. It’s like they’re, uh, what do you call it…hunched.”

“Hunched? Like geezers or something, what do you mean, hunched?” asked Tommy.

“He means that their backs are starting to bend, like their spines are gettin messed up,” said Nicky.

“From working down there in them rooms?” asked Tommy.

“Who knows,” said Tony holding steady as Nicky’s downward stroke pummelled the rivet, but a milimeter crooked, and a busted nut went shooting up into Tommy’s face, but he dodged it with the reflexes of a cat, and the poised and fluid spine of a Nutter.

A couple weeks passed. It was August now, and it was official, no longer mere conjecture. The Moles were hunched, bent over like sippy straws. But they didn’t seem phased by it at all. In fact, they didn’t even seem to notice, else, they were such hardened, stubborn pricks that they refused to acknowledge it or had agreed to wear it like a battle scar or a branded tattoo. Or maybe they were shitting themselves in silence.

Either way nothing much had changed.

Here came Ricky Sgusting and his merry band of burly bent-necks.

“Oh baby, pinch that nut while I stroke your head,” mocked Ricky, flanked by his cackling sidekicks.

The three Nutters worked harder than ever. They were damn good at their work and even better at ignoring Sgusting’s piddling jabs. Well, at least Tommy and Tony. Nicky pounded with bitter force. He was fuming.

“Look at their little glasses, how cute! Bet they gottem from their Uncles for Christmas,” jeered Ricky Sgusting as he stepped into the elevator. The Monkeys howled.

Nicky did then what he hadn’t done before; he looked up at Sgusting’s face, still visible for a couple seconds as the elevator began its descent. Without even looking down at Tony’s grip, he brought down the hammer harder than ever, clipped the edge of the hot nut and sent it flying toward the elevator, where at the last possible second before his face disappeared the nut beaned Ricky Sgusting right in the eyeball.

There was a horrible cry from the elevator muffled instantly by the squeak of the gears and the hollering of several Monkeys.

“Holy shit,” said Tommy. “You’re a dead man!”

“We all are,” said Tony.

The rest of the day the three men worked pensively, dreading the inevitable fury that would surface from that elevator shaft.

By 5:00 pm a small crowd had gathered, mostly Nutters and Monkeys and the few bent-backed Moles that had surfaced from the south tower.

Tommy, Tony, and Nicky sat there doing the only thing they knew how to do. Keep working. Nicky studied the tick of the elevator cables like a man on death row.

Finally, the elevator surfaced and out stepped Rick Sgusting and the Moles, grubby and pissed as all hell. Rick, hunched over and wearing a slipshod eyepatch over his left eye, looked like a demented pirate out for blood. He’d lost a good 7 inches off his height in the last months but still he towered over all the men in the crowd. It was silent except for the thud of Nick’s hammer.

“Hey fuckface,” yelled Rick, “Come here so I can pound you like that hammer. Or are you too busy strokin it like a cock?”

The crowd let out a giant, “OOOOOOOOOOO,” and several Monkeys howled.

“Hey,” yelled Sgusting, “I’m talking to y—”

“What’s a matter Ricky,” said Nick jumping suddenly to his feet, hammer poised in his right hand. “What happened to your eye?”

“Cut the chitchat and let’s tango you son-of-a-bitch,” muttered Sgusting through grinding teeth.

“Wait a minute here Rick-o,” bellowed Nick gesturing to the crowd. “Some of us heard that your back’s so bent, you were jacking off this morning…”

Dead silence.

and busted a nut in your eye!”

“OOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!” The crowd went wild, cheering manicly, roiling, bursting with laughter, practically doing backflips off the bridge.

In a couple swift moves, Sgusting had Nicky pinned to a steel beam and was beating him senseless. Tommy and Tony pounced on his crooked back, biting and scratching him, as ten, twenty men from the crowd jumped into the scuffle, a giant heaving dogpile of grubby stinking construction workers, men who would one day be revered as the builders of the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The next day, Nicky didn’t come to work; he was laid up real good. But had he been there, he would have seen the day when the bosses declared “the bends” a possibly fatal health hazard, and hundreds of Moles, the crookedest ones, were switched to the easier, less strenuous task of Nutter. One such changling was Ricky Sgusting, who’s back was so bent he sat hunched over the rivet. His partner, a fellow Mole who was new on the hammer must have busted 18 nuts that day, all of which Ricky Sgusting could do nothing but receive in the face, stoically, one after another.

Brain Fart

It was the 1870s and Medicine and Home Remedies had hit a healthy stride as a consumer industry thanks to opportunist quacks¹ who posed as “Doctors” and aggressively touted their patent medicine ads in weekly newspaper columns. Some bunk doctors even published remedy pamphlets and full-on medical advising books showcasing entire catalogues of pills, pellets, powders, potions, and products ranging anywhere from nasal douches to worm lozenges to essences of corn-rot and Godsbreast.

In many ways, this time period reflected the age-old cyclical relationship between human pain and medicine. Yet it held the first inkling of a 20th century consumer paradigm in which the act of medicating, meant to allay the symptoms of common ailments and harmful lifestyle habits– drinking, smoking, whoring– became, itself, a harmful habit. In other words, the remedies became the worst culprits of ill-health². It was self-destruction sold as self-help, a truly American equation of highly promising returns for the manufacturer.

One such manufacturer of quack cure-alls was a man named Roger Pimpkin who went so far as to fabricate an elaborate concept of brain physiology in order to sell a treatment process that he claimed cured Brain Farts: random lapses of consecutive thought causing confusion, paranoia, and unstamped mail.

Pimpkin had been thinking of the idea since he was a child when, at the dinner table after a meal, his family would amuse each other by telling jokes. His father, Plinko, not only had an uncanny ability to masterfully unravel and even compose a riddle or joke, but he could also, without fail, guess the answer to anyone else’s joke.

One night before bed, young Roger asked his father how he was able to guess the answer to every joke, the solution to every riddle.

His father leaned in close and began whispering,

“There’s a part of your brain, on the right side.” He brought his hand up slowly and touched his right ear. “It’s a bump. Inside this bump, there’s a little guy.”

“A guy?” asked Roger nervously.

“Yeah, he’s a tiny midget. But not human, no peepee or vageen. And he lives inside that bump.”

Frightened, Little Roger began to shake, and he pulled the blankets up to his chin.

“It’s okay son. Relax. He’s not the devil or a demon or anything. He’s just this little guy, and he sits there, inside the bump, and he listens. He listens for riddles. That’s his sole purpose. And when he hears one–a joke a riddle a problem a puzzle–he whispers the answer into your right ear.”

“But, but” the little boy Roger stuttered, “but what if the midget gets stumped?”

“Well son, you’re still young. Your midget’s so small it can’t even hear yet. Give it time.”

Little Roger seemed momentarily satisfied. His father petted his head a few times, kissed his forehead, but before he could rise from the bed, Roger pulled on his shirtsleeve. “Dad?”

“Yes boy?”

“What’s wrong with Mom’s midget?”

His father sighed, looked over at the door, then leaned in close.

“The thing is, sometimes the little guy can’t hear the jokes so well. And, sometimes, he can’t hear them at all.”

Little Roger took this very seriously. “Mom’s guy is deaft?”

“No,” his father replied sternly, “It’s worse.”

Roger looked horrified.

“He can’t hear jokes at all…” He shifted his weight towards the boy, and looked into his sons eyes. “It’s because…” He took a long, deep inward breath–

and ripped a huge fart that rumbled the mattress and sent Roger into a coughing fit. His father busted up laughing, blew out the candles and left the room, leaving little Roger to shiver in the suffocating darkness.

Roger would never forget that night his whole life, it had so juxtaposed and cemented such horrible images and feelings and smells into his consciousness.

When Roger grew up, he studied to become a doctor but not only did he have a horrible memory that could hardly retain a page’s worth of information, he suffered from horrendously painful migraines set on by the telling of jokes, which he stubbornly believed caused a midget in his head to fart and clot his brain. He became increasingly absent-minded, entering rooms for no apparent reason, and venturing outside with his dick tip exposed. People noticed.

Consequently he became paranoid about hearing jokes.

On walks to the grocery, he’d stuff his ears full of cotton attempting to block out the common speech of the townspeople that was often rife with puns and jabs. Fodder.

Soon, rumors went flying that Pimpkin had “brain farts” and plugged his ears to prevent leakage that would stink up any joint with 4 walls.

Henceforth Roger became a recluse interacting with no one save a runner boy who delivered his weekly mail. Neighbors often prodded and coaxed the boy into telling secrets about what Pimpkin was up to. It was always the same thing:

“He’s working on a cure for brain farts.”

Which upon hearing they would bust up laughing. But the boy wasn’t joking. He knew what was inside the mail.

Years passed. People became so interested in the mystery of Roger Pimpkin that when his medicine finally hit the drugstore it sold by the hundreds, especially to husbands who bought it for their wives who every few weeks suffered bouts of erratic hysteria and mental spaciness.

“I used to call my only son Billy. I ain’t ever met no Billy in my goddman life!”   Belinda Puddin, Idahoan 1871

“I’d get on my horse to go to the hardware store. But I’d just sit there thinking, ‘Where the hell am I going?'” Christy Keerstensin, S. Dakotan 1875

Like most quack medicines of the time, Roger Pimpkin’s Brain Fart n’ Fog-Buster, was nothing more than a mixture of caffeine, alcohol, and poppyseed reduction sauce. It was highly addictive, physically but also psychologically, the way after ingestion it seemed to sharpened the wit and expel inner demons but later on when it wore off, give way to an aimless, relentless deadheaded terror.

People became suspicious of the product especially when wives would pass out momentarily during intercourse and then wake up and make dinner twice.

Plummeting sales meant Pimpkin needed a plan. A new mixture? No, too much trouble. A new name! Yes, that was all he needed. At the moment of this epiphany, he heard a gurgling sound from the living room. The mail boy was lying on the hardwood, spittle and blood gurgling from his mouth. The empty soda bottle turned on its side by the boy’s head reeked of ether resin and gasoline.

Dying, the boy mustered a few garbled words, “I bwain fwarten.”

That’s it, thought Roger ecstatically, Ibuprofen!

 

 

 

¹A British idiom (so I won’t delve to deep) derivative from the idea that fake doctors were like ducks, feathery creatures who at first glance appear to have mastered all elements–water, land, air–but one piece of hail to the head will send them flying hundreds of miles away.

²Notice how the term “drugs” refers to harmful substances that damage the body AND the medicinal substances meant to heal those damages. Notice that, then run through the house naked screaming “Billy!!!”

Hammered

The history of drinking in America is about as old as the first pilgrim fart on New England soil, so it’s no surprise this one dates back to the 1830s when just about everybody and their mother’s uncle was taking hard liquor on a daily basis. In fact, many Americans back then took pride in being seasoned, calisthenic drinkers. There just wasn’t anything else to do. Even reading was out of the question because most people were poor and illiterate, and books, if you had ’em, were most often used for kindling. Indeed, it was a strange point in American history where folks had been around for a while, put in hard work, built homes, had families, trained animals to poop in designated areas, yet technology and medicine hadn’t yet advanced and the entertainment industry–things like traveling circuses and freak museums–was yet to burst onto the scene. It was plumb boring, and life, for the most part, sucked.

After a horribly strenuous day of manual labour, nothing worked better to ease the mind and body than the kindly bottle.

What was in these bottles? Mainly home-brewed bathtub liqours such as whiskey, ginger beer, and sweat wine¹. Most run-of-the-mill taverns had no distilling capabilities, and thus, the liquor they bottled was more akin in alcohol content to an aggressively strong wine. So it’s no surprise that some people were downing 2 or 3 bottles a night and not dying of alcohol poisoning or internal drowning. Rather, they entered the highest stage of drunkenness preceding full-on coma, which was a kind of pathetic reversion to infanthood or, farther back still, to a primordial glob of shit.

They had many names for this state. They called it: seeing the beauty of the rainbow, going black, sleep-walking, cribbing, chewing the tongue, seeing your dinner twice, becoming fearless, and getting randy. In this state, the drinker was liable to inflict untold mayhem especially upon the quiet, peaceful homes to which he returned.  Needless to say, wives were pissed.

As a backlash to the rampant binge-drinking of the 1830s, the first prohibition and temperance movement emerged, led mainly by Protestants fed up with smelly, bedraggled men that stunk up the seats³ and aisles during mass, and wives who had to bear the wrathful night terrors of drunken overworked husbands. In Boston, a group called the Teetotalers Initiative for Temperance Sisterhood (TITS) began hammering delinquency notices to the house-doors of known drunkards. Since no one could read, the notices portrayed a black-and-white image of a prickly-faced bottle-tipping clown burning in a pit of hellfire.

As a backlash to this backlash, a corrupted Amish buggy-driver named Crusty Rogers hatched a plan to capitalize. He was already a well-known mobile liquor vendor who, for months, had been posting up outside of work farms and trading posts peddling a particularly strong country-brewed silo whiskey. His plan was simple: he would use the delinquency notices like discount coupons. One notice got you half price on any bottle.

After only a week, it caught on like wildfire. Even back then, Americans were crazy for liquor deals. Any given drunk would wake up one day with a notice on his door, which he would use that evening to buy a half-price bottle from Crusty. After downing that bottle, the man would be drunk enough to buy one or two full-priced bottles, then stumble back and get into some drunken home-wrecking, which in turn, would start the process over again with yet another deliquency notice hammered to the door, and Crusty Rogers reeping all the benefits.

Pretty soon most drunks were raving about the thrifty joys of getting “hammered” with a deliquency notice. Bands of men formed gambling pools and began betting on who could get the most hammered in one week.

It didn’t take long before TITS caught on to Crusty’s rogue coupon scheme.

One Monday night, armed with hammers and flaming torches, the wives stormed the vending carriage, intent on destruction and reckoning by hellfire. Surrounding the carriage were 80 or so drunken men who, upon seeing the light from the torch-flames, began screaming “HOOOOOORAAAAAAA” and bumping their chests together. At that moment, the women seized upon the drunken men, beating them in the face with hammers, then swarmed the carriage like rabid fireflies,  torching the wooden frame and canvas coverling, and in a matter of seconds, the carriage exploded, glass and flaming embers shooting out in all directions.

The next day, the men couldn’t remember what had happened the night before. Most of them, upon arising, did the usual: inspected their front doors for deliquency notices. But it was all in vain, for not a single notice had been hammered to any door that morning.

The men went to work, and in the evening, met in the usual spot where Crusty parked his wagon. But Crusty’s wagon wasn’t there. In fact, nothing was there, except a large blackened hollow in the ground. After a while, the men lumbered off to a nearby tavern. Only one man tarried. Something in the blackened hollow had caught his eye. He picked it up. It was a delinquency notice.

“Hey guys, look!” he yelled excitedly and turned around. No one was there. He looked at the image on the sheet of paper. A drunken clown burning in a pit of hellfire.

“Where the hell is Crusty?” he thought.

 

¹not to be confused with sweet wine, sweat wine was a gnarly concoction of fermented mushrooms and cow-grazed grass. It had a curious effect of magnifying the body’s already foul odor and of keeping even the best of friends² at a distance of 10 feet.

²Those who loved you enough to endure the stench henceforth became known as “close friends.”

³This is how the bench seats in modern churches became knows as “pews”.

Up Shit Creek

This one takes us back to the pre-Gold Rush years of the 1840s when, even before gold fever struck, many settlers from the midwest sought a better life on the West coast. They’d heard tell of huge unclaimed plots of land, of rock mines filled with gold and minerals, and even of sparkling bubble water that popped out of the ground and when imbibed could cure the bodily terrors* of an all pheasant-and-goatmilk diet.

In 1846, a party of about 40 settlers arrived in Westerville, Oregon. They’d come from Wyoming, and primarily consisted of cousins and inbreds from a once-thriving ranch in Duneskin County that had been increasingly pestered by drought and Mexican horse robbers. After weeks of travel, they arrived horribly weathered, many stricken with typhoid and dysentery, else completely broken in spirit lamenting the loss of two children who’d been carried off in the night by a pack of wild foxes.

When they heard that Stephen Meek, a local guide and fur trapper, had blazed a shortcut to the coast that bypassed the treacherous Blue Mountains, they wasted no time seeking him out and gathering provisions for the final leg of the journey. Despite having heard tales about the high death toll on Meek’s previous expedition, the elder men decided to put their faith in Meek who, they figured, after making the journey before (plus he had a really savage beard) was the most seasoned and expert guide they could hope to find. They kept the horror stories to themselves.

Stephen Meek had a mentally disabled younger brother named Daniel. It was rumored among the townspeople, many of whom resented Meek’s fame and the amount of dirty unwashed settlers it lured, that Daniel was Meek’s retarded twin, and that at birth, whereas Stephen Meek had been bestowed with the vigor and intelligence and beard of a keen Mountain Man, Daniel Meek had been deprived of facial hair and nearly all mental capacities save the ability to make damn good pancakes. To all, he was known as Daniel the Pancake Man.

You probably already guessed that on the morning of departure it was Daniel the Pancake Man, not Stephen Meek, who led the 40 Duneskin settlers west. Not a single one questioned the sudden lack of a beard. In fact, they seem to be flattered and took it as a gesture of good will. That morning, the real Meek accidentally slept in.

About 3 weeks on the trail, after having just forded a shallow, relatively stagnant creek where everyone including the horses dropped horribly foul, strangled poops, one of the elder men finally asked their guide a question,

“When are we gunna see mountains?”

to which he replied, screaming,

“I am Daniel the Pancake Man! I am Daniel the Pancake Man!!!” and began violently whipping himself in the face with his belt as if repeatedly flipping invisible pancakes.

“I am Daniel the Pancake Man!!!”

Suddenly, several of the women began wheezing heavily, apparently having panic attacks, while others grabbed their children, now sobbing, and held them tightly to their breast, covering the children’s ears and shielding them from the horrible cries of “I am Daniel the Pancake Man!!!” and his bleeding face.

Two strong men quickly tackled the disgruntled guide and pinned him to the ground, while a third ripped off his clothes– buckskin jacket with Indian fringe, crusted canvas pants, woolen underlings. As he lay there twitching naked, the men were appalled at what they saw. On the inside of each article of clothing was a carefully stitched name:

Daniel the Pancake Man Meek.

New, never-before-heard expletives were uttered by the three men, who now had the unenviable job of breaking the news to the entire party, that for 3 weeks they’d been led astray by an impostor invalid pancake maniac.

For such a devastating blow, the people seemed calm and resigned, for what else could they do but turn around and go back the way they had come. But the truth was they were stupefied. After such a traumatic experience, no one could quite process what was going on.

Until they were crossing the creek again. Then it hit them where they were.

 

 

*especially esophagus-lodged shotgun pellets