A Novel of Vengeance, Honor, and Bobbleheads
When a skirmish of practical jokes escalates, three men learn the boundary separating pranks from vengeance is drawn in dust. An eye for an eye becomes a worthless guide once they’re lashing out blindly. Caught in the crossfire of their reprisals, Vicki, a sarcastic hairstylist, must decide whether to take sides in a war or play Gandhi to madmen.
The bullied becomes the bully when Nelson pays Duncan and Tyler back for childhood torments. Such scores never stay settled. Duncan, an obsessive bobblehead collector, sees practical jokes as art. To Tyler it’s all about honor. After they retaliate, the sleep of forgiveness brings forth monsters: a blitzkrieg where suspicion dissolves alliances, mutually assured destruction is no deterrent, and unintended consequences mock all battle plans.
With war comes collateral damage. Hypnotized by a bobble-wielding Duncan, Vicki perpetrates a cruel prank against Tyler. Upon realizing she’s being used as a human IED, the enemy of her enemy becomes her boyfriend. Unknown is whether she’s chosen the right side, or if there is one.
Fantasies of Revenge are indigenous to a shadowy land where nightmares, archetypes, and bestial yearnings vie for dominion. The Sweetness of Honey charts this territory, offering the forbidden fruit of schadenfreude. “Revenge is sweeter far than flowing honey,” said Homer. Bears aren’t the only species willing to endure hardship for a taste.
From Chandelier Press, Winner of the GIWWPN Grant
One: Requiem for Gorillas
“He will be remembered for his sense of humor, his smile, how he loved to fish,” says the priest, as if citing an obscure beatitude. Blessed are they who cast their line from crowded piers. Memory of their deeds shall endure. Bonus points for smiling.
A hulking police officer walks across the altar and whispers in his ear. They confer, a pantomime of confusion and urgency. The officer takes the microphone like a reluctant karaoke singer. “I regret to inform you that we need to vacate the church. Starting with the back row, everyone please head to the parking lot across the street.”
A man scrambles from the first pew and stands before them. His suit leaves few details of his physique to the imagination, a reasonable goal for bodybuilders, which he is not. “What’s going on?”
“We’ve received a bomb threat,” says the officer.
“Is it real?”
“The people who call them in never say they’re fake. Wouldn’t be much of a threat.”
“This is Duncan Brandle,” says the priest. “It’s his father’s funeral.”
“No offense, but our concern is the rest of the gathering.”
Clouds of incense swirl above the departing bereaved, tie-dyed by a stained glass window where Michael the Archangel tramples Satan. If victory is assured, the game is rigged. What’s the point in playing? Two representatives of Schroeder & Sons push the casket toward the door.
“He’s not at any risk,” says Duncan.
“That depends on the blast,” says Schroeder Jr.
“Only the Althea Deluxe is designed to withstand explosions,” says Schroeder Sr.
“It would be disrespectful to leave him,” says the priest, putting a hand on Duncan’s arm. Center stage to all acts in the burlesque of life, a classic venue almost giving them respectability, the church is soon empty, no different than it would be after a baptism or wedding. The show must go on.
Beneath a neon taco across the street, a dark veil of mourners shrouds the hearse. Duncan stands on the curb watching cars drive past. To everyone else this is just another day. Blaring rap and dragging its muffler, a rusty Honda parks in the lot. A man with the body of a chicken emerges like some mythic creature the ancients neglected to chronicle, its deeds eclipsed by centaurs and gryphons. It attaches a chicken head and retrieves balloons from the trunk and skips toward the gathering honking an air horn.
A cloud absorbs the sun. Gasps from the crowd could be mistaken for the hissing of its extinguishment. The Schroeders study this unusual expression of grief. Is it a form of denial, anger, bargaining, or an eccentric cousin from New Orleans? Hard to say. The path of life offers no guidance for the impending cliff, only distractions.
“Is there a Duncan Brandle here? I’m Chirp the chicken.”
Some cultures acknowledge the shame of misfortune. Some pretend not to. Duncan sees the others watching, feels the third-degree burn of their judgment. “Who sent you?”
“Are you Duncan? Turn that frown upside down.” The balloons it releases expand and diminish like Jellybeans thrown into a pool. It blasts the horn and hops around on scrawny legs wrapped in yellow spandex.
When it squats and shits a silver egg two officers run across the lot and tackle it. “This might be the bomb,” shouts one. “Everyone get down!”
An armored man from the bomb squad waddles toward the egg. His partner circles it on a Segway scooter. Splayed bodies surround the hearse like linemen after a botched play. An ant crawls across a sliver of sun on the concrete beneath Duncan’s arms, from darkness into a patch of light back into darkness. Sound like anyone you know? Others follow, their paths labyrinthine, their obscurity abrupt.
Navigating a gully between Taco Hut’s parking lot and Walgreens, five adolescents peer over stacks of boxes. “Who ordered the pizzas?”
Duncan stands and removes his jacket. Sweat stains have transformed his shirt into the globe of another world. Drops trickle down his sunglasses, leaving crystal footprints. “Where are you supposed to deliver them?”
“The party outside Taco Hut. We had to park a block away. The cops got half the street closed off. Double anchovies and pineapple, right? They’re paid for but you can’t get them until you say hurray for Peppy’s.”
Duncan removes his shades. Red capillaries surround black holes with blue halos. He rubs his eyes as if massaging a sprain. What’s the right thing to do, or is this a singularity where social norms no longer apply? “I’m not saying it.”
“You have to. The guy who paid used the promotional coupon.”
“Did he leave a name?”
The boy puts his boxes on the ground and rips a label off the topmost. “It reeks like something died,” says one of his fellow deliverers.
“Anchovies are foul,” says another.
An elfin woman with white hair puts a vein-mapped hand on Duncan’s shoulder and apologizes for leaving. He apologizes for her need to apologize. Schroeder Jr. says he’ll take care of the pizza misunderstanding, says that’s what he’s here for, says, “Hurray for Peppy’s.”
“I don’t want the damn things,” says Duncan. “Who’s going to eat them?”
“Some people like anchovies.”
“But not pineapple.”
Like a tortoise trained to walk on its hind legs, the armored man places the suspicious egg in a metal drum on a trailer with a long hitch. He goes across the street where the police are interrogating Cluck. One officer speaks to the priest. The arched entrance of the church dwarfs the two watchmen, sentinels of different territories. Through a bullhorn the officer calls everyone back.
Duncan walks behind the others, alone with his thoughts like a blind man in a stampede. Some wonder why his father is dead, why now rather than in ten years, why this type of cancer instead of another. No one asks why he was alive, or why anyone is. Perhaps the ceremony quells the anarchy of Reason, the way coronations prevented revolutions.
The priest extends a hand to Duncan. “Come on inside,” he says, mouth agape, his eyes captive to a hijacker demanding an impossible ransom from his senses. Duncan turns to the source but the discreet elements fail to congeal.
Some things are not the sum of their parts but only the parts and cannot be melded by our minds or caged by our concepts: a gorilla, a pink tutu, a safari hat, handfuls of glitter. “Sorry I’m late. Is there a Duncan Brandle here?”
“That would be me,” says Duncan, looking over the ape’s shoulder at a Walgreens employee smoking a cigarette and playing with her phone. The day Icarus fell from the sky was just another day too.
“I’m going to do a little dance, then I want you to try.” Several mourners form a semicircle. The gorilla does the Boogaloo, the Swim, and the Mashed Potato. Duncan watches as though mesmerized by the shaman of some primeval tribe.
Far above, illuming ants and primates alike, contingent and transitory as both and cursed with the fragility this entails, the cluster of gasses recently nicknamed the sun seeps across the boneyard of Time toward its own demise.
“Jablonski’s first novel reads like a surreal existentialist crisis, a stream-of-consciousness narrative that employs secrets and intrigue as a driving, page-turning force. … [He] is able to inject a sense of immediacy and intensity in the story by using sparse description that suggests more than it tells. … An engaging narrative.” Publishers Weekly
Vicki & The Bobbleheads
If a hierarchy governs their placement it eludes codification. No obvious criterion separates the bobbleheads on the upper shelves from those below, certainly none based on contributions to civilization. Why is the Terminator next to the Incredible Hulk? What twisted taxonomy consigns Simon and Garfunkel to different shelves?
Look closer. Patterns emerge and vanish, icebergs of data drifting in an ocean of static, foiling assumptions and postulates. Is chaos a type of order or is order a subvariety of chaos? Are they antipodes or kin? If nothing is random then chaos is shorthand for ignorance. Careful. Some people break codes. Some codes break people. The line is slight and you won’t know you’ve crossed it. Others will.
Perhaps the difficulty involved in their acquisition is key. The bobbleheads easiest to obtain reside in the center. The more rarefied spread out in a spiral pattern. Regrettably these subjective elements necessitate the decryption of a medium even more convoluted. To account for a collection we must first understand its collector, forcing us to explain the enigmatic by means of the incomprehensible.
“How many bobbleheads do you have?”
They gander like alien invaders awaiting the signal to attack, their infiltration scheme brilliant in theory (camouflaged in the likeness of their prey) but destined for disaster owing to the retention of their oversized craniums.
“Many are called. Few are chosen.”
“You have more than that bar on Lincoln Avenue.”
“Bobbleheadz. The bobbleheads at Bobbleheadz are mostly sports figures. Quantity counts for nothing. Quality is indefinable.”
“How long have you been collecting them?”
“I prefer not to think of our relationship in those terms, or any. To speak of some things devalues their importance by denying the uniqueness of their nature. It assumes a linguistic currency that can be exchanged for the subject in question. Priceless things have no currency, conceptual or otherwise.”
“So they’re more like roommates or imaginary friends who aren’t completely imaginary. I get it. Not.”
“Would you like to see the heads bobble again?”
“Again? I’ve never been here before.”
“I was thinking of the ones in the bar. You should see these.”
“Big day in a girl’s life. Is this like that act where the performer has to keep ten plates spinning?”
“Much more impressive. Take a seat in the big comfy chair. Stare at the one in the center.”
“It’s Karl Marx.”
“Why is he between Chico and Harpo?”
“Think about it.”
“So you sit here and get baked and watch your bobbleheads.”
“What’s wrong with that? People turn to different things to find shelter from the commotion of life.”
“I guess. It’s no worse than losers who play video games all day.”
“How flattering. Thank you.”
“Do you do this with other guys or is it a solitary thing?”
“Take three deep breaths. It’s important to relax before you see them.”
“I’m looking right at them.”
“But they aren’t bobbling yet. Take a deep breath and hold it. Let it out slowly.” He flicks a switch on the wall. Cabinet lighting bathes the bobbles in blue neon. “I want you to imagine you’re drifting down a stream of clear water beneath a pale blue sky.”
“What does this have to do with big-headed baseball dolls?”
“First of all, as the presentation will demonstrate, there is not a single sports doll. Not one. Second, I might be exhibiting these at a Bay View art gallery. I’ll have to introduce them several times a day. I need practice. Do you think I’d let people walk up and paw them, let children put their sticky fingers on them? Maybe I shouldn’t bother.”
“Maybe you should pitch this to Cirque du Soleil.”
“Watch the sky change colors. Dark blue. Darker.” He turns on the vibrating dumbbell. His subjects nod like a coliseum of hydrocephalic dwarfs. “Watch them shimmy. Relax. Let your eyes slip out of focus so they look blurry. Blurry like a cloud. Can you see any faces in the cloud?”
“Who do you see?”
“Good, very good. Take a deep breath. Let it out. What color are her eyes?”
“Are you sure?”
“You’re seeing the sky behind the cloud, that’s why. Just like when you look into the eyes of the blue-eyed man. He is as temporary as a cloud, but the sky behind him remains. Do you understand?”
“I’ve never understood anything less in my entire life.”
“That’s okay. We don’t know anything for certain. That’s why we have instincts. Yours are telling you the current is moving in circles. Look at the cloud being blown by the wind, molded by it. What does it look like now?”
“Count Chocula — No, Franken Berry.”
“Are you afraid of monsters?”
“Monsters aren’t real.”
“Very good. None of the faces are. Only the sky behind them is. There are no individual monsters. What color are Franken Berry’s eyes?”
“That’s because you’re seeing the sky behind the cloud. Just like when you look into the eyes of the blue-eyed man. The sky is a permanent mind watching you, thinking about you, judging you from behind many passing manifestations. Do you understand?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“That’s good. The wind is getting stronger. You’re spinning faster. Are you dizzy?”
“A little. I’m afraid of drowning.”
“Look down at your feet. It’s a whirlpool. Look how fast the horizon is spinning.” She shrieks. Duncan sips his beer and smiles. “Watch your cloud. Which one are you seeing?”
“Very good. Look at Boo Berry. Look at his eyes. Think of the blue behind them and the mind of the blue-eyed man and what the mind wants. Then the terrible spinning will stop.”
“What does the mind of the blue-eyed man want?” she pleads.
He picks up a book and opens it to a page bookmarked by a cigar band. Some sentences are highlighted, others crossed out in red as though stabbed. “He wants you to remember a simple phrase. Then he wants you to forget it until you hear it again. Can you do that?”
“The current is slowing down. What does your cloud look like now?”
“The Great Gazoo.”
“What color are his eyes?”
“And why is that?”
“Because that’s the sky behind the cloud.”
“And the sky is the mind of the blue-eyed man. So deep and blue. So blue and deep.”
“The sky is the mind of the blue-eyed man,” she says. “The sky is the mind of the blue-eyed man.”
“Excellent. Look into the blue of his eyes. A blissful calm washes over you like you just had an orgasm. You’re not tired but you’ve never felt more peaceful in your life. Do you like this calm?”
“It’s like ecstasy.”
“Ecstasy the drug or the many states of being squeezed into that concept?”
“Would you like to feel this way all the time?”
“I couldn’t drive or go to work.”
“How about feeling like this more often?”
“It’s not worth the effort. Guys resent constructive criticism. It makes them self-conscious. I learned my lesson. Accept what you get or move on.”
“This won’t involve the Pavlovian manipulation of inept boyfriends. Are you interested?”
“Then listen very, very carefully.”
Go Forth My Book Into the Open Day
Happy, if made so by its garish eye.
O’er earth’s wide surface take thy vagrant way.
They love not thee: of them then little seek,
And wish for readers triflers like thyself.
Of ludeful matron watchful catch the beck,
Or gorgeous countess full of pride and pelf.
They may say “pish!” and frown, and yet read on:
Cry odd, and silly, coarse, and yet amusing.
“If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that. I’ll live my life or I’ll end my life with this project.” Herzog
Someday, life will be sweet like a rhapsody. When I paint my masterpiece. Dylan
To what shall I liken the creative process, birth or death? Yes! Luigi Zeripaldi
Chapter Three: The Sorrows of Nelson
An ancient sage said no man should own more than he can carry. Clutching a Hefty bag and watching the dawn rain brimstone on Milwaukee, Nelson makes a virtue of necessity. One of his boots has no laces, forcing him to favor the other leg, signaling a weakness he doesn’t have. If consciousness is a stream, compassion is a rivulet that appeared yesterday and could dry up this afternoon. Don’t count on it during droughts. Don’t count on it ever.
He walks behind a drugstore and leans against a dumpster and searches through his bag and pulls out a pair of jeans. Is the split in the seat too big to be worn in public? Once upon a time. Not now. Amazing how standards change, like a yardstick warped by humidity. The ragged cuffs don’t reach his ankles, but they’re less awful than what he was wearing. He folds those sour shreds and places them in his bag, a tomb of Bethany from which they will one day arise with new life, when the jeans by comparison are worse.
Sunlight oozes over walls painted with cryptic symbols and spreads an orange growth in the alley, irresistible to a one-eyed cat. It makes a pact with gravity and plunges from a windowsill. On its back it stretches and writhes, in the throes of a feline vision quest, perhaps napping with a pride of elders. Contrary to popular belief, pleasure is the absence of pain. Blink and it’s gone. Don’t blink and it’s gone too.
Back on the street Nelson limps with great resolution. In lieu of rage or bewilderment or resignation, the remains of dignity smolder in his eyes. Avoid the inference. If it can happen to him …
He stands across from a bank and studies the digital clock, outraged by its testimony as if arriving from a place where Time’s obscene striptease is prohibited, the wanton display not tolerated.
Drivers watch him. Disgust hops from one host to another like some condemnation from a Universal Mind using individuals as vessels. It inflames a young man driving a pickup, possesses a woman in a Camry, then fills the faces in one shiny vehicle after another until Nelson yearns for the paradise of invisibility or at least the stupefied indifference of his fellow homeless travelers. With what talisman do they deter this demon or aren’t they superstitious?
Funny how you care what others think even when critical issues vie for precedence. A wise man said consciousness is an illness. Then being concerned with the consciousness of others is a fever in a funhouse.
A yellow Mustang detonates hip-hop tremors across the pavement. The passenger inspects Nelson and looks away as if recanting belief in his existence. A hybrid runs the light to avoid idling next to him. For this they’re saving the planet? Should have bought a Hummer. It requires no psychic to detect thoughts piercing as screams: sentences of exile commanded by dozens of petty dictators each day. Maybe his cohorts who argue with unseen tormentors are practicing soliloquies of innocence. But their energy nourishes the scrutinizers, transforming lowly magistrates in the court of social norms into executive editors deleting names from the Book of Life.
He spits in the gutter and crosses the street. His reflection in the bank window flinches. If only some telescope could have seen this apparition approaching from the distance of ten years. He could have taken another direction. Or were other future incarnations worse? Maybe there was only one. Cold comfort until you think about it. Something made this happen. This. Hard not to take it personally.
The people inside tend an abstraction that grew from the exchange of beads for food, the way sacrificing goats to stop thunder morphed into Mozart’s Requiem. Small changes accrue, leaving few fossils. Remember that. The rest is trivial.
“We don’t have public restrooms,” says the security guard, followed by a disastrous attempt at a smile. Any juries deliberating whether pity is worse than cruelty are dismissed.
“That’s alright,” says Nelson. “I piss and shit outside. Like an animal. There’s something wrong with your clock.”
“It tells the time, temperature, and date. You can watch it for free. Outside.”
“Are you sure my eyes won’t wear it out? I’d be happy to pay for the depreciation. I have some underwear in my bag I could trade.”
On his first day the guard must have thought he’d be foiling robbers, negotiating with kidnappers, and seducing tellers who instead act as vessels of the same harsh judgments haunting Nelson. Some of the patrons turn away from the confrontation, declaring neutrality or at least indifference. Those who watch find succor from the pain that living brings, mollified by the ultimate antidepressant: Schadenfreude XR, time release, a natural tonic used by all people at all times.
“I want to call your attention to the fact that it’s not showing the same temperature as the credit union,” says Nelson.
“I’ll be sure to mention this to the president.” The guard hands him a pen. “I’d like to thank you for your support.”
“You don’t have to be an ass. I’m trying to help. You need to check and see if anything’s wrong with it.”
“Nothing’s wrong with it. Ours is the correct one.”
“How do you know? Prove it. What if they’re both wrong?”
“Maybe you could keep an eye on our clock. Outside. If you do I’ll give you another pen tomorrow.”
“Can I fill out an application for your job? I promise I won’t mention the grade school diploma that makes me overqualified.” Nelson unzips his parka. A ghastly stench seeps out like some malevolent genie escaping a cracked bottle.
The guard steps closer until his face contorts. He remains a few feet away as though blocked by a force field. Revulsion is an instinct. And judging. He can’t help blaming Nelson for stinking and dressing this way. Everyone naturally believes we choose our traits. Some thoughts are as essential to survival as lust and thirst. Most are lies.
“There’s a restaurant three blocks up the street with a bigger sign,” says the guard.
“It has the same temperature as the credit union. This isn’t a matter of consensus. If it were, your bank would have some explaining to do.”
“Maybe the temperature is different from place to place. Why does it have to be the same everywhere?”
Nelson covers his ears and screams. Two of the guard’s neckless comrades approach, chomping gum. A teller with shooting stars tattooed on her neck and a swarm of earrings grimaces and looks away. Some tribal chieftains killed subjects who walked in their footprints or made eye contact. Talk about privilege. Bank tellers have no such rights.
“The thermometer here is wrong,” Nelson yells to the patrons. “They’re lying to you, you stupid sheep. Don’t you care?” He retreats through the revolving door. This one doesn’t lock when he’s halfway through, trapping him like an insect in a Tic Tac container. Distorted by the tinted glass, the guards watch him like mad scientists performing a biopsy of his soul. He doesn’t wait for the diagnosis. Far above, all those chemicals failing to clot in the silent and beautiful reaches of space have no idea how good they have it.