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Lowlife

Second Place 2016 Short Story Contest Winner
Illustration by Maureen Heaster

I was flappin’ my spats down Fourth Street when a funny feeling came over me—like someone was maybe reading my clock, so I turned left, pushed open a set of doors ten feet high and ducked in.

“Please state your business.”

“S’cuse me?”

“Your business. Please state your business,” the lady at the desk repeated.

“I’m … uh … I’m here to see a friend.”

“We don’t have friends here,” she said, looking me over and frowning like maybe she found a BB in her beans, or a louse in her lasagna.

This was a classy part of town, but I wasn’t ready for that answer. I was lyin’, of course; I wasn’t here to see a friend, but I couldn’t very tell the dame I was on the run. “There are stores and shops here, ain’t there? Along with the apartments?”

“There are,” she said, giving me a disdainful look. “But for members only. So if you’ll please …”

But then I saw an open elevator not far from the desk and I made a run for it. I pressed 24, the top floor: The Elite Lounge. But just as the elevator doors began to close, I saw ’em. There they were, pushing their way into the lobby. The whole gang. And talk about an ugly sight! This you wouldn’t want your mother-in-law to see if she showed up on your doorstep with a steamer trunk. There were four of ’em. Budgerigars—budgies for short, but these birds weren’t short. They were all six feet tall if they were an inch, with beaks to match! And sure, they were blue and yellow and green, but don’t let the pastel colors fool you: these parakeets were goons, button busters, fork-lickers, lowlife scum.

“Please state your business,” I heard the lady at the desk say just as the elevator doors shut and I lifted off. I didn’t like that dame, but wouldn’t want to see what happened to her if she gave those thugs any lip. She was a human being, after all.

* * *

But maybe I should start at the beginning. I’m just a regular Joe, you see, tryin’ to make a buck. My name’s Joe, too, and yeah, I work at the Mint here in Philly, but that’s not the point. Maybe if those birds got wind that I work with the big bucks, they might’ve changed their tune. But they never found out. They’re dumb. They’re keenos, lopsiders. For all they knew I was Vice President of the frickin’ United States.

So I was riding the bus to work one day when a dame plants her katoosh in the seat next to me. It was the only open seat, and I’m blinkin’ pink; I’m one lucky stiff, I’m thinking to myself: this lady’s a looker—blond, blue eyes, all that, a regular Marilyn Monroe. But something was the matter. She had a Kleenex in her hand and she was dabbing at her eyes, and when I looked over, she showed me the backside of her ears quicker than you can flick a tick off a taffy-apple. Then I heard her sob.

“Lady,” I said. “Is there somethin’ I can do?”

“No. It’s nothing.” But even as she says this, her lower lip and chin are quivering like lambs at a wolf convention. She’s wearing a bright red dress, her perfume’s top shelf, she has a rock on her finger too pricy for public transportation—and anyway, I could tell by the way she talked she was no jingle-brained chippy. So I decide to shut up and look out the window. Not that there’s much to see; I been riding this route every day for five years now—ever since I lost my licenses, both of them, my driver’s and my P.I.’s. But then she grabs my hand.

“You’ve got to help me!” she says, standing up and pulling me with her, looking like someone stuck a fork in her toaster. “Pretend you’re with me!” she whispers now. “We’ve got to get off this bus!”

“Wait a minute, lady,” I say. “I gotta get to work. I make big bucks. Find somebody else.”

“No! There’s no time,” she says. “They’re here! They’re on the bus! Don’t look back! Just come with me!”

Now she’s gorgeous, and maybe someone’s lookin’ to do her hair with a cement mixer, or bake her cake in a blast furnace, so sure, I’m going with her, but the hell if this ex-gumshoe’s not lookin’ back. And when I saw who was on the back seat of that bus, the starch came outa my socks. How’d I miss ’em in the first place? Maybe it was because I was wondering if Patsy Parker would be workin’ the hundred-dollar line with me again that day, and if I’d have the nerve to ask her to the Flyer’s game. Maybe that, or maybe I was still half asleep and maybe a little hung over from the last four Manhattans at the gin mill the night before. But there they were, five of them, sprawled across the big back seat, snoring away. Turp trotters, grillers, palm pinchers, thugs.

“Run!” she says once we’re out on the sidewalk. “They’re getting off!”

And they are. They’re awake and coming down the aisle, all five of them. I can see their ears, all ten of them, brushing the ceiling of the bus.

“We’ve got to run,” she says again, frantic now, dragging me down the street like a barrel a’ bricks. “We’ve got to get away!”

Now this dame’s not wearin’ a shirt, and she’s not wearin’ pants, and I figure it wouldn’t be appropriate to say, “Keep your dress on!” and it wouldn’t make any sense to say, “Keep your watch on!” so I just say, “Calm down, lady,” and I tell her to follow me, because I know a quiet little joint close by. It’s through an alley and down a set of stairs. You wouldn’t know it was there except for a burnt-out neon sign on a brick wall: Ratso’s Place. So the dame shuts up and follows me down the steps.

Inside, I tell her to plant her patootie on a bar stool while I take a look outside. I want to make sure those thugs aren’t on our tail like freckles on a Swede, because if they are, there’s a back way out that only the regulars know about. I only take a few steps up so my eyes are at street level and I see ’em: they’re just passing the entrance to the alley, all ears and eyeballs, but they’re headed off down the street.

“Frickin’ bunnies!” I say under my breath as I swing the saloon door open. And wouldn’t you know it, I see my lady friend’s already getting chummy with Ratso, who’s behind the bar.

“Hey, Joe,” Ratso says to me. “The lady tells me she’s got some rabbits on her tail, and you’re helping her out.” This surprises me. Maybe I read the dame wrong. She’s singin’ like a canary with a megaphone, and makin’ eyes at Ratso, an ugly mug if you ever seen one.

“Yeah,” I say, sliding onto the bar stool next to her. “But we lost ’em. I just saw ’em heading down toward the waterfront, lookin’ like they lost their sister’s silver.”

“What?” Ratso says, lookin’ at me kinda funny. “What d’ya mean by that? Lost their sister’s silver? I never heard that.”

I just shake my head. Ratso was working the late shift in the rock factory when the brains got passed out. But then he just shrugs and looks at the dame. “So why’s a nice lady like you have nasty characters like that on your tail?” he asks.

She’s about to squawk, but before she does I take her arm and lead her across to a booth. “Ratso’s got a big mouth,” I tell her. “And a big schnozz too, and big ears—a big mug, actually—and big feet, and a big butt. So spit straight, cookie. If you want help, anything that gets said gets said to me. Got that? Now what’ll you have?”

She says she’ll have a Singapore Sling—just what I expected, and I walk over to the bar and order it along with the usual for me. “That dame’s trouble,” Ratso says to me as he’s making the drinks. “She’s a regular sheeney, a gumball. I seen her here before. She was makin’ eyes at Big Joey just a week ago…”

“Joey? Which one?”

“The big one.”

“They’re all big,” I say. “How much you think he weighed?”

“Joey? 275 … 280.”

“And about how tall?”

“6’2” …  6’3” maybe.”

“Are you sure? ‘Cause there’s one mug named Joey that’s maybe 280 but he’s 6’4” if he’s an inch. And there’s another one named Joe who’s pushin’ 305 easy, but he’s 6’2” at most. And there’s another Joey jiggles in at 325 but 6 feet even. And then there’s …”

“This guy’s neck’s bigger than his head,” Ratso says. “He can button his shirt and pull it down over his noggin. I seen it.”

“I seen ’em all do that. What’s his racket?”

“He’s a lowlife bum. A fork-licker, a sashee. I seen him once wit a rabbit.”

I personally know four guys named Big Joey who’re lowlife bums, all between 275 and 325, and all of ’em 6’ to 6’4”, but only one who’s known to rub tails with rabbits. I’m kind of sore at Ratso for not mentioning this right off, but I just take the drinks back to the booth where the dame’s cryin’ again.

“So Ratso says you’re pals with Big Joey,” I say ignoring the waterworks.

“I know a number of gentlemen named Joey,” she says between sobs. “How tall is the one you’re referring to? And how heavy?”

I take a sip of my drink. There’s plenty of Vermouth to take the edge off the coffin varnish Ratso serves. “I’m talkin’ about the Joey who’s known to consort with a certain long-eared, fuzzy type of thug—like the ones who followed us off that bus. That Joey. And by the way, what’s your name?”

“People call me Jo.”

“Oh, yeah? People call me that too,” I say. “So tell me what you were doing in this joint with that lowlife bum.”

“I heard he had business arrangements with … with rabbits. I needed to hire one.”

Hire one? What’s a classy dame like you want to hire a bunny for? Those rabbits are scum, thumb suckin’ scum.”

She sobs again, but then Ratso calls my name—or maybe it’s her name. We both answer, but he points to me. “Phone call for Joe,” he says.

I tell the dame to stay put and walk over to the bar. Ratso hands me the phone. He’s hanging around, so I give him the hairy eyeball and he makes himself scarce.

“Who is it?” I say.

“It’s big Joey,” the bum answers.

“Which one?” I ask.

“I’m six foot even and I weigh 305.”

“Sure you do,” I say. “And I’m the frickin’ Governor of New York. The Big Joey I know who’s 6 foot even weighs in at a good 325, not 305. You wouldn’t be 6’2” would you?”

“No.”

“So who are you, really? And how’d you find me here?”

“Like I said, I’m Big Joey. I lost some weight. I just got weighed today. I had a doctor appointment.”

“Oh yeah. A doctor appointment? What’s a matter witcha?”

“I got bad knees.”

“Bad knees? You wouldn’t get that from jumping would ya? Tryin’ to keep up with your … long-eared associates?”

There’s a long, cold silence on the phone—sounds like I slammed this mug’s fly trap shut. “Listen,” he says. “I’m callin’ you as a courtesy. That dame you’re with is trouble. She’s a regular sheeney, a gumball—just ask Ratso. If you know what’s good forya, steer clear.”

“Or what?” I say. “I’ll be smilin’ at my grandmother? Singin’ in Saint Pete’s choir? Wearin’ cement galoshes?” But the mug hung up. Just then I see a big goon slip out of the phone booth in back and head toward the door. It’s dark in the joint and all I see is his silhouette, but this lug’s dreamin’ if he thinks he’s 305—looks more like 315 to me. People are always lyin’ about their weight.

Back in the booth, I see Jo’s hardly touched her Singapore Sling. “So as you were tellin’ me,” I say as I slide in across from her. “What was your business hirin’ a bunny?”

Her voice is all tremulous now. “It was because of my husband. He’s terrible, Joe. He’s a brute. He’s a monster, Joe. He’s a sadist. A day didn’t pass when he didn’t …”

“He was beatin’ you up?”

“No. Not exactly. But worse. Every day he … Sometimes twice a day … he … Oh, Joe, I can’t bear to say it!”

But I wasn’t going to make her talk. I could see it written all over her face like lipstick on a horse. It made me sick. “So I see,” I said, reaching across for her hand. “And you wanted to hire a bunny to …”

“Yes,” she answered, but burst into tears. “I tell you Joe, it was in self-defense. I had to find help! You’ve got to understand, Joe. You’ve got to understand!”

I could tell this doll wasn’t going to finish her Singapore Sling, so I reached over with my free hand, grabbed it and downed it in a gulp.

“So Big Joey hooked you up with a bunny?” I asked.

“Yes, he did.” She’d stopped bawling but her voice got real frail, real meek. “Yes, he did, but … But that bunny … that awful bunny … he did it to me too!” And at this time the dame completely fell apart.

I shot a glance over to Ratso, who looked like he was trying to listen in. I gave him another hairy eyeball, meaning for him to scram, and I held up two fingers. “Two more,” I said, figuring if this doll didn’t want the second Sling, I’d drink it myself. I kinda liked that first one:  Gin, and cherry brandy, I think, and something that tasted like Cointreau, and Benedictine, maybe, and pineapple juice, and a little lemon juice—no, make that lime juice, and Grenadine to make it pink, and a dash of bitters, maybe? Kinda makes my mouth water. Kinda made me wish my elbows were as sharp as my eyes, as they say. And then I just let the lady cry. But by the time Ratso brought the drinks over, I got to thinking: Life’s short, just like midgets.

“You know,” I said quietly, so Ratso couldn’t hear. “I ain’t never told no one about this before, but once, years back when I had a beef with the state of New Jersey, I did a bit in the hoosegow, the slammer, the cooler—you know, the Grey Bar Hotel. That’s when …” I downed my drink in a gulp. “That’s when I met my first bunny. He was my cellmate. He was a big one, he outweighed me by a hundred pounds. He was in for some kinda Easter violation, and at first I didn’t know he was such a bad Joe—his name was Joe too—but then he … then he …”

“Oh no, Joe!”

“Yeah. He did it to me.”

“Oh, Joe!” she says, getting a grip on herself again. “You mean … in jail? You were …”

But I can’t hold back any longer. “Yeah!” I say. “Yeah! Why don’t you just come out and say it? TICKLED! That’s what I was! I WAS TICKLED! And not by just one bunny, but by his big white buddy too!”

“Oh, Joe! Did they use their … their …”

“Their EARS? Yeah, they used their EARS, their FUZZY EARS! The filthy animals!”

“Oh Joe!” she said. “How fuzzy were they?”

“Oh, God, Jo! They were FUZZY!"

“Oh, Joe, don’t say it! The thought of those makes me sick!”

“But I gotta, Jo. I gotta say it. I gotta be a man, Jo! I gotta do it! PUSSY WILLOWS! PUSSY WILLOWS! Their ears were fuzzier than PUSSY WILLOWS!”

“Oh, Joe. No more! No more! I think I’m going to regurgitate!”

“But there is more, Jo. There is! You gotta face it too. Because those ears were FUZZIER than pussy willows! They were as fuzzy as baby … baby …”

“Don’t say it, Joe! Please! For the sake of everything that’s decent and clean, Joe! Don’t say it!"

“I gotta say it, Jo. It’s true. I gotta say it! Those bunny ears were fuzzier than BABY DUCKS!”

“NO-O-O-O! NO-OO-O-O-O-O!” She screamed, her hands up to her face like a picture I saw once in a book. But then she was quiet for a moment, and didn’t say a word, until her voice got all hushed: “But … those ears weren’t fuzzier than … than …”

And yeah, I knew what she was thinking: they’re something like ducks, but with shorter necks and all yellow. But I’d never say that to a lady. Not this lady, not any lady. “No,” I said, “not that, not those.”

It takes us both a while to settle down, and I could tell by now she didn’t go in for the giggle water, so I downed her second Singapore Sling and ordered another. “Easy on the bitters this time, Ratso,” I said. And then I remembered. If I didn’t call my boss at work, my bank account’d be barkin’ like a dead dog, and my landlady doin’ the hammer dance on my front door. So I excused myself and went over to the bar to call the Mint.

I had some explaining to do, but after all my years as a private dick, lying came easy, so I concoct a story about how a butterfly broke into my apartment through a hole in the screen, and I was up all night going after the filthy thing with a baseball bat. This took some time. I heard Jo laughing like a cuckoo on happy gas in the background, but figured Ratso must be putting the moves on her again, but it turns out I figured wrong. Ratso was off in the men’s room ironing his shoelaces, and when I got off the phone, the booth was empty. The drink glasses were knocked over on the table. And there were soft white hairs all over the place. I ran back to the men’s room to puke. When I get back, everyone in the joint’s as pale as your grandma’s caboose, and nobody saw a thing.

* * *

The phone call came late at night. I hadn’t been sleeping. I was ridin’ the late train to Palookaville, going crazy with thoughts of that jailhouse tickling—in the ribs, on the back of my neck, behind my ears. I was in a cold sweat when the phone rang.

“Joe,” Jo whispered. “They’ve got me! Five of them. They fell asleep all curled together in a disgusting furry heap, so I snuck in the kitchen to use the phone.”

“They gotta phone in the kitchen?”

“Yes. A white one on the wall.”

“Oh, yeah? I heard about those … So you say there’s five of them? Five bunnies? Did they …?”

“Oh, yes, Joe! Repeatedly. And they’re going to do it again. They’re not going to stop until I … They want me to … Oh, I just can’t bear to say it!”

“Cool your kidneys, cookie. Take it slow. Start at the beginning.”

Jo sniffed. “Okay, Joe. I’ll try. When I hired that bunny to give my brute of a husband the tickling he deserved, he told me there’d be only a nominal charge for the service. I guess I was so upset and frightened I forgot to ask him just what that nominal charge would be. But my husband and I are well-to-do, Joe; I couldn’t imagine there’d be any problem. But then when I met the bunny afterward he told me I’d have to pay him with … Oh, Joe, I’m so ashamed! He said I’d have to pay him with … with a song!”

Bunnies are born perverts, I knew that, but I never guessed they’d sink this low.

“He wanted me to sing for him right there in the alley where I met him, but I refused, Joe, and I stamped on one of his big back feet and ran off and jumped in a cab before he could hop after me. But he and his associates have been following me around ever since … until they snatched me away from the booth at Ratso’s.”

I knew what I was about to ask then would strike a nerve, and probably make the dame drop a dimple or two, but I had to know. “What was it he wanted you to sing?”

“Oh, Joe! I can’t say it. It’s so perverse! I’m so ashamed. …” Here she paused for a moment to get up the nerve, sniffled a few times, and went on. “He told me to … to sing. He told me to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star!”

I thought I was going to loose my lunch right there, or my late night snack, maybe, seeing as it was 2:00 am, but I couldn’t: this dame was in the soup up to her crackers and she needed my help.

“So they snatched you up from Ratso’s and now they got you there in their hideout?”

“That’s right, Joe. It’s horrible here. And they say they won’t let me go unless I sing.”

“That same song?”

"Oh, yes, Joe. But they’ve got three verses written out. Three verses! Oh, I’d rather die, Joe!”

“Listen, Jo. Do you have any idea where they’re holding you? Is there anything you can tell me about the joint?”

“Just that there’s something awful here, something ghastly.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yes, Joe. When they got me here and took my blindfold off, I saw them. At first I thought it was a box of rats, Joe, and who can resist a box of rats? But when I went to look more closely, I saw what they really were. They weren’t rats, Joe! They were small! They were …”

“Oh, God, don’t tell me. Puppies?”

“No! Worse, Joe. Worse than puppies. Much worse! Oh, so much worse! Oh, Joe, it makes my skin crawl!” And then she stopped. And then she said it: “KITTENS! KITTENS! And they’re right here. A BOX OF KITTENS! And this time I did it. I did regurgitate! A box of kittens, Joe, right here in this dingy little second floor apartment with the elevated train rumbling right by and a bright red and blue neon sign flashing the words Third Street Bar and Grill right in the window, and all that racket from the drunks downstairs. And before I fell asleep the bunnies were talking about bringing in T … TE … TED … TEDDY BEARS if I don’t sing! Oh, Joe, I can’t bear it any more!”

That’s all I needed to hear. “Just stay put, Toots,” I said. “Lay low. Me and my boys’ll be there before you can fry a fly’s egg on a hot plate.”

So I call my boys, all four of ’em, (Frisco and Detroit Harry, the twins; and the brothers, Sluggo and Lucinda) and tell ’em to dress for the job. Tickleproof: overcoats, galoshes, gloves, hats, sunglasses, and gauze wrapped around their mugs like mummies. And I instruct them to bring the usual: rope, extension cords, and to stop at the barber college and meet me at Third and Washington at half past blue on the button. So like I say, they come prepared, and right on time, and Lucinda, the biggest mug among ’em, knocks in the door to the bunny hutch with one bump of his backside. And there they are: all five of ’em, cottontails, still sleepin’ in a stinkin’ furry heap on the floor like Jo said. So I tell Jo not to watch, and me and the boys we tie ’em up, plug in the clippers and shave ’em clean, ears to tails, every one.

“Your ticklin’ days are over, you bums!” I tell ’em as we cut the ropes and let ’em loose, looking all thin and pathetic now, with one of ’em still clutching the sheet of paper he had when we busted in.

“Don’t look at that!” Jo says. “Don’t Joe! You’ll never be able to forget!”

But I’ve seen plenty in my day: a dame sellin’ flowers in the street, two little kids with mugs and clothes that matched, even a guy with a white face actin’ out stuff without talkin’—so how bad could this be? Just words on paper. And the first part was nothin’ new.

Twinkle, twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are.

This made me kinda sick, sure, but like I said, I seen a lot a disturbin’ things in my day. But tough as I am, I only got two lines through the next verse.

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon …

That’s when my boys told me I kissed the carpet. When he nothing shines upon … That’s what did it; like Jo said, I’ll never forget it. I guess there’s just so much a man can take. But as I was comin’ to, I realize that Sluggo’s lookin’ around the joint, checkin’ it out. Then he made the same mistake Jo made.

“Hey fellas,” he called from the other room. “C’mere! You gotta see this! There’s a box fulla rats in here!”

And like Jo said, who can resist a box a’ rats?

Well, Jo’s screamin’ now. “No, stop! Stop! Keep away! Sluggo’s wrong. Those aren’t rats!” But it was too late. The boys were already in there. And this I’m sorry about: the younger ones, you see, Sluggo and Lucinda, they’re grown men now, and they’d heard of kittens—hangin’ out on the corner, in the pool hall, on the men’s room wall at the bus station—but they’d never seen the real thing. But I guess when you’re savin’ a damsel in distress, you take a chance getting’ your flappers in the gearbox.

So once they come to, I take Jo over to Patsy Parkers to cool off for a few days, and I’m thinkin’ what’s done is done, right? But, no. The next day when I’m walking down the avenue feelin’ no pain, with a smile on my face and my troubles behind my behind, like they say, that’s when I notice the budgies on my trail. And I heard rumors, but who hasn’t? Rumors that parakeets are the upper echelon of all things fuzzy, cuddly, and cute. But I also heard rumors that the pope keeps flapjacks under his hat, so who knows? So I try to lose those birds but I’m havin’ no luck. I jump in a cab but they follow, and like I said, I finally duck into the lobby of a building in a classy neighborhood, take the dame at the front desk for a rocker ride, and head for floor Number 24: The Elite lounge.

But as soon as I step off the elevator, a mug in a suit who’s standin’ there like a side of beef in a sweet shop looks me over and says: “Peddle your pudding elsewhere, chump!”

Now I never heard that expression before, but I caught the drift that I was as welcome there as a grasshopper at an Irish bar mitzvah. So I figured I was in it up to my salt shakers: this goon telling me to beat it and four budgies on my tail. And then I hear the elevator doors slide open behind me, and the goon in the suit screams along with all the guzzlers at The Elite Lounge whose heads pop around like ping pong balls on a griddle, and before you know it they’re runnin’ for the exits, but the goon’s frozen in his tracks, and then I hear ’em. They’re behind me; I don’t turn around but it’s getting louder and I can’t stand it, I can’t! It’s all four of ’em together, and I know they ain’t gonna quit! I put my hands on my ears.

“STOP! STOP!” I scream. “STOP IT NOW! STOP YOUR CHEERFUL CHIRPING NOW! OH, GOD! MAKE IT STOP!” But they’re chirpin’ away like a damn glockenspiel or a frickin’ brook, and I can’t tolerate another minute of it, not another minute! It’s worse than tickling! It’s worse than nursery rhymes! It’s even worse than EASTER DECORATIONS! “I’LL DO ANYTHING!” I finally say, “JUST MAKE IT STOP!”

And I know I’m singin’ my death warrant when I say this, I know I’m shipping my dreams fourth class to Buffalo, but the cheerful chirping stops, and one of ’em, the biggest one, the chartreuse one steps around in front of me.

“So it’s Joe, eh?” he says, and then he chirps and even whistles a little. “So Joe, we understand you shaved our bunny friends within an inch of their stingers.”

I never heard that expression before, but figured it meant shaved ’em as short as the whiskers on a soft-boiled egg.

“Yeah, birdbrain,” I said. “Me and my boys gave ’em what they deserved. Their ticklin’ days are through.”

“Well, they stopped by to see us, ya see, and dem bunnies was shiverin’ like icicles on a ten cent wiener, and they asked us for a little favor, see?”

“Wait,” I said. “What was shiverin’? The icicles or the wiener? I don’t get that.”

The big lug turns to his cohorts and has a little conference. “We all heard our grandmas say it,” he says. “You got a problem wit dat?”

I did, but pushin’ it would be like tryin’ to dress a dog in last year’s tuxedo, so I shook my head. And then he pulls out a tape recorder from under his feathers, and along with that a piece a paper. And I don’t have to see it. I know what it is: sheet music!

“So what’ll it be, Joe? You listen to our cheerful chirpin’ for the resta your days, or you sing us a little song into dis here tape player so da bunnies can hear it whenever dey want? What’ll it be, huh?”

I get so dizzy I have to flop on one of The Elite Lounge bar stools. I see the words, and yeah, I heard ’em once before.

“I gotta clap too?” I ask, feelin’ like I fell about as low as a fella can fall, like maybe I’m hired to walk a pack a’ poodle dogs.

“Yeah! You GOTTA clap!” the budgie says. “You clap or we chirp!”

Meanwhile, the mug in the suit who tried to keep me outta that joint is sittin’ on the floor in his own mess. And then the bird turns on the tape. And I know it’s bye-bye fruitcake and fricassee for me, but what’s a mug gonna do? So I start right in:

There was a farmer had a dog, and Bingo was his name-o!
B-I-N-G-O! B-I-N-G-O! B-I-N-G-O!
And Bingo was his name-o!

Even before I finish the first verse, I see the mug in the suit falls over backwards with his left leg shakin’ and his eyes rolled back in his head, but I kept on singin’.

There was a farmer had a dog, and Bingo was his name-o!
(CLAP!) I-N-G-O! (CLAP!) I-N-G-O! (CLAP!) I-N-G-O!
And Bingo was his name-o!

And even though everything I ever believed in in this lousy world, every decent and clean thing told me to stop, I knew I had to keep on singin’. So I did.

There was a farmer had a dog, and Bingo was his name-o!
(CLAP CLAP!) N-G-O! (CLAP CLAP!) N-G-O! (CLAP CLAP!) N-G-O!
And Bingo was his name-o!

But then one of ’em—a big yellow one—whispers somethin’ to the others, and tells me to stop. I’m thinkin’ maybe I got lucky, maybe the stars were aligned with my freckles, like they say, but then this bird comes over and tells me they changed their minds, they got a better song for me to sing, another clappin’ song. And he wants to know if I know the words to a certain song, and I tell him no, and then, God help us all, he informs me:

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! (CLAP! CLAP!)
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! (CLAP! CLAP!)
If you’re happy and you know it, your face will surely show it!
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! (CLAP! CLAP!)

And it’s just when I’m startin’ to sing, that I first feel the numbness in the back a’ my neck comin’ on, and smell somethin’ that smells like last Saturday’s shoelaces, but I get through that first verse and the second where I gotta stomp my feet instead of clap my hands. And every time I get to the part where I say “your face will surely show it!” they shout at me that I gotta smile! So I do that, but by this time I’m seein’ double, and after the next verse I don’t clap or stomp but have to sing: “If you’re happy and you know it, SHOUT HOORAY!”

But then one of ’em gets another bright idea. And this time they make me dress up for the song because they’re gonna take pictures too. That’s when the numbness moved down my spine—and then nothin’, nothin’ at all.

It was a janitor who discovered us. The mug in the suit already droolin’ and twitchin’ permanently on his left side, and me out cold lookin’ like I had a plaster a’ Paris transfusion.

* * *

So I ain’t workin’ at the Mint anymore, and I never been back to Ratso’s. Fact is, I’m a charity case. I got the shakes so bad Patsy Parker has to come over to iron my socks, so bad when I try to brush my teeth I end up with minty smellin’ eyeballs, so bad when I try to call my bookie, I end up sendin’ a sawbuck to “Friends of the Flophouse Flea!”

And things have gone from bad to worse in this town. The budgies and rabbits joined forces and moved in on the mayor’s office. Now the barber college is closed, the frickin’ Easter Bunny’s got his mug on the city bus tokens, and they’re playin’ “Bah, Bah, Black Sheep” in the elevators in City Hall.

At least that’s what they tell me, ‘cause I don’t go outta the house except to the corner pharmacy for my nerves, and down to the next corner to Mickey’s joint for what the pharmacy can’t cure. But I see in the papers, though, that the dame named Jo divorced her rich husband and moved on to marry the owner of a chain of pet stores! Ratso and Big Joey were right when they collared her as a regular sheeney and a gumball. I shoulda listened. But, hell, I shoulda listened to my ma when she told me to change my sheets every time I changed my oil. I shoulda listened to my uncle Joe when he told me never to date a woman with more nostrils than ears, and I know I shoulda listened to my old man when he told me never to shoot craps on flypaper.

Yeah, there’s a lot I shoulda listened to, but like I said before, I’m just an ordinary Joe—5’ 10”, 180-185, maybe—just tryin’ to make a buck, or get a couple in the mail once a month; and yeah, I ain’t got much of a stomach for things fuzzy, cuddly or cute, but how about you, wise guy? Sure, life’s tough, just like midgets, but when was the last time a budgerigar danced the bossa nova on your backside? And when was the last time you sang “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” wearin’ bunny slippers, fuzzy pink pajamas, a tutu and a top hat? Huh? When was that? 

 

Contributors

Richard Borovsky is an artist whose works have all been produced through lulu.com. A cut-paper artist as well as a writer, many of his pieces may be seen at his website richardborovsky.com.

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