The outrage was when they found the mayor hanging from a light fixture in his office, wearing a powder-blue prom dress and mascara, his penis still hard. His death wasn't intentional, they knew--the belt he had used to asphyxiate himself had simply caught one of its holes on a projection on the fixture instead of allowing him to drop safely to the leather couch below. Besides, there were still five things left on his "to-do" list, including, cryptically, "Invade Sweden."
Regina Stafford, publisher of the Zeno Times-Clarion, heard a squawk over her police scanner that emergency vehicles were headed to City Hall. Could this be it? Dare she hope? Could the old bastard's ticker finally have quit? She sent a reporter over to investigate, planning an extra edition in her mind.
As details emerged, however—such as what the mayor had been doing and wearing when he died, and the well-thumbed copy of Tiger Beat that lay open on his desk, she felt increasing chagrin. She could never print the truth. Local merchants would pull their ads, there would be a flurry of letters complaining of obscenity, and scores of Zenoans would cancel their subscriptions. Though she hated the mayor, and was glad to see him go, she resented the hell out of him for denying her the satisfaction of making his departure family reading material.
She had Doug Flyk, her trusted managing editor, compose the item:
Zenoans were shocked and saddened today by the sudden death of their maverick mayor, Theodore "Teddy" Mungo, at age 77. Mungo won the mayoralty in a write-in campaign bid, winning by fewer than two dozen votes. He received national attention soon thereafter when he declared Zeno "a pimple on the [posterior] of America" in a New York Times interview. Within the next two years he sponsored a referendum to eliminate the city council, granted himself sweeping powers, and stopped talking to all members of the media.
Mungo instituted a program of landscaping and planting flowers on Zeno's vacant lots, saying to passers-by merely that he "thought parks were nice." Many Zenoans praised him for his parks policy, and just as many criticized him for bulldozing the library last year. "What do you need that old firetrap for?" he said during his weekly self-financed radio show. "If you really need to know something, I'll tell you."
Mayor Mungo was a decorated World War Two veteran, and operated several businesses. After living abroad for a decade, he returned to Zeno just five years ago after he "heard what a . . . [mess] . . . the . . . city had become in my absence."
The cause of death was not immediately apparent. Funeral arrangements are pending.
"'Decorated war veteran' my Aunt Fanny," said Regina Stafford. "I'll bet he was the one doing the decorating."
"Well, it was the best I could do on such short notice," said Doug Flyk. "As it is I feel like I have to go throw up."
"That's why we're guardians of the truth. We let out only as much as the public can stomach."
"I hear you, Reg," said Doug Flyk, looking very uncomfortable indeed.
Despite the discretion of the Times-Clarion, accurate and complete depictions of the prom dress aspect of the mayor's demise appeared on local television and radio stations, including a "virtual reenactment" by morning drive-time comedian Stan "The Man" McCann, who gasped out "Leo!" before giving a convincing impression of strangling to death. The only complaint about all this media coverage was from a fourteen-year-old girl who told McCann, "Leo was, like, so three years ago."
"But we have it on good authority that's who Mayor Mungo had, uh, been thinking about," said McCann.
Readers of the Times-Clarion (whom Regina Stafford and Doug Flyk had assumed had daintier sensibilities) responded with indignation at being denied all the juicy details. Seven cancelled their subscriptions because of the paper's "prissy squeamishness in dealing with the facts of life," as one correspondent put it.
Doug Flyk saw a familiar name and address bubble out of the fax machine, and he groaned. "That jerk. Why doesn't he cancel his subscription?"
To the Editor: Hi, Doug!
Leave it to the Times-Clarion to fumble the biggest story of the decade: "Death of a Prom Queen at City Hall." Think of the fun you could have had with a description of the death scene. You could have handled it like a fashion show. Was the gown itself made especially for the mayor, or was it a used garment tailored to fit his gentle curves? Did the mayor accessorize?
"Not immediately apparent," indeed. I suppose the erection poking through his petticoats was "not immediately apparent," though from what I hear he was rather well hung for a small man.
Most of us who are not comatose knew something--though not exactly of this magnitude—was bound to give. Teddy Mungo was as whimsical and dictatorial as the Emperor Nero. That he fiddled with himself while Zeno burned should come as no surprise.
The Times-Clarion fucked up, big time. If you had hit him hard while he was running for mayor, instead of using your thumb as a rectal thermometer, he wouldn't have taught the retarded citizens of Zeno to scribble his name even when they could barely write their own. Are you happy now?
As for me, I've got half a dozen books that are more than a year overdue, with no place to return them to. The fines could break me.
At least "Theodora" couldn't appoint his obvious first choice as deputy mayor. Otherwise we'd be spending the next three years with Leonardo Di Caprio.
P.S.: I know you don't have the balls to print this, you chickenshit.
P.P.S.: How can you leave the house with your hair looking like that? Your head looks like it's being humped by a hedgehog. You ought to sue your barber for professional malpractice—assuming he's a professional. If not, a simple assault charge might stick.
"My hair is perfectly fine," said Doug Flyk, feeding the offending fax into the shredder. "It's a modern style. All the kids are wearing it." Flyk reflected that some people appear to have absolutely no consideration for the feelings of others, even as he tried to justify his too-youthful coiffure. "Reg, I don't look like a hedgehog, do I?"
Regina Stafford looked frankly at her managing editor, and she felt a giggle rise to her throat which she deftly suppressed. "Not really," she said. "Why do you ask?"
"I just got another fax from Glenn Squire."
"Oh, him. Don't take anything he says seriously. He's just trying to get attention. The First Amendment gives him the right to say anything he wants—and we have just as much a right not to print it."
"I just wish he'd cut it out for a while. I have enough to deal with, like this Mungo thing, without having to take his abuse. Also, I have to get an angle on this new guy, this Scotty Church that nobody has ever heard of."
"It's very simple," said Regina Stafford. "We extend the warmest support to our new mayor as long as he remains open to our input. If he works with us, fine. He could be a talking dog for all I care—just as long as he's a good dog."
The first three times he heard himself addressed as "Mr. Mayor," Scotty Church responded with a puzzled look, two beats of silence, a blurted "No, you want Mist--" and finally a tentative, "Yes? How can I help you?"
Scotty felt really very sad about what happened to Mr. Mungo. Mr. Mungo had taken Scotty for rides in his big car, had given him a very nice leather jacket, and had offered to rub his back for him. Mr. Mungo had been so nice to Scotty that it really hurt when people said bad things about him. They said he was doing a sick thing when he died. Scotty was sure it was all some kind of misunderstanding, like on a TV show. Anyone who said mean things about Mr. Mungo was just jealous, that's all.
Scotty liked the big mayor's desk and the fancy leather swivel chair behind it. Sitting there, Scotty felt important, like what he had to say mattered. He felt wrong about moving to that desk, because it had been Mr. Mungo's—but he was, after all, now mayor. He could proclaim tomorrow Chocolate Ice Cream Day, and it would be. He had that power. Why shouldn't he sit in the mayor's chair at the mayor's desk?
Scotty thought a moment, and buzzed the intercom, finally hitting the right button. "Peggy?"
"Yes, Mr. Mayor?" said Peggy Roth, without irony. Being receptionist to any mayor of Zeno tended to burn out one's irony circuits rapidly, and Peggy had lasted nearly thirty years of generally slipshod and slippery administrations.
"I want to issue a proctomation."
"You mean 'proclamation,' dear."
"Whatever. I want to make tomorrow 'Chocolate Ice Cream Day' in Zeno. Can I do that?"
"You most certainly could. But it might not be a good idea."
"Tomorrow is poor Mr. Mungo's funeral. People might think you're disrespectful. You might want to wait a bit, dear."
"Darn it, darn it, darn it!" cried Scotty. "I'll never get good at this mayor thing!"
"There now, don't fuss," said Peggy. "You'll do just fine. Do you remember that video you and Mr. Mungo used to watch?"
"The one with the gladiators?"
"No, the one with that guy there—Forrest Gump."
"Oh, yeah. 'Life is like a box of chocolates—'"
"Well, he wasn't the sharpest tool in the barn, but he wound up all right. He didn't panic. He just kind of went with the flow, and he did okay."
"I have to remember that. Peggy, you're so smart."
"Thank you, Mr. Mayor," said Peggy Roth.
Paul D'amico, down in Purchasing, examined the inventory sheets and scowled. "That damn fairy faggot could plant pansies all over this damn city, and somehow forget to budget enough for a fucking box of pencils." He slurped at his coffee, which was too hot, and managed to dribble it on his formerly-white shirt, as he had dozens of times before. "Fuck! Not even a fucking dozen Ticonderogas! But there's a fucking floral display on every corner! Queer sonofabitch! I gotta steal pencils out of my kid's backpack just to do my fucking job!"
The Zeno Times-Clarion conducted a telephone poll, asking Zenoans what they thought "the greatest challenge" would be for the new mayor "in the wake of Teddy Mungo's rocky, scandal-ridden administration." Out of more than two hundred calls, most were immediate hang-ups, answering machines, profanity-laced diatribes, non-committal grunts, and polite refusals to comment owing to dinner being on the table—-leaving only seven printable opinions, of which three were discarded because they were at variance with the editorial position of the Times-Clarion, which was startlingly similar to the personal opinion of Regina Stafford.
"Times-Clarion poll overwhelmingly calls for new era of openness and accountability," read the headline. One respondent to the poll opined, "Mungo promised to run the city of Zeno like a business . . . we should hold the new mayor to his predecessor's pledge." Another stated that "an open door policy is necessary to counteract the notion that . . . things are going on behind the scenes. We need to be informed of what is happening, rather than to be left guessing." The fine surgical hand of Doug Flyk was in evidence—the first quote originally included the line "and I don't mean a male bordello." The ellipsis in the second merely omitted the word "queer." The respondents were Regina Stafford's banker and broker, respectively.
The public mandate for fiscal responsibility and media-friendliness the poll suggested was echoed on the editorial page: "Zenoans Agree-—Run City Like Business." Within a few hours of the edition's appearance, Doug Flyk's fax machine stirred again. "Oh God," he said. "Now what?" He glanced at the screed, and moved toward the shredder with it, when Regina Stafford blocked him.
"Let me read it, Doug. I want to see what goes through his evil sophomoric little mind just so I know what we're up against." Doug Flyk surrendered the fax to his employer, wincing.
To the Editor: Hi, Doug!
By all means, let's run this city like a business-let's move it to Mexico where at least it's warm. Seriously, have you seen the "CEO" who is going to run this "business" of yours? To call him an imbecile is paying him a compliment. If you could read his thoughts all you'd get is a screen saver.
I know hizzoner only because up until about three months ago he cut my mother's lawn—and he hit so many rocks I thought he was a geologist. Once he came to the door and said the mower was broken. I assessed the situation and informed him that lawn mowers generally work if you put gasoline in them.
No doubt his love of the outdoors was what recommended him to that fine judge of raw talent, T. Mungo. Ostensibly being built like a brick shithouse had nothing to do with his promotion to deputy mayor. Now Mungo is dead—long live Lawnboy!
Okay, so let's run this city, as you say, like a business. To minimize any damage Mr. Mayor might do in his administration, we need to streamline the operations of city government to the level where anyone with a brainwave above a flatline can run things without starting World War Three—a philosophy the big burger joints have used for years, with great success.
We could even give him a paper hat, which I'm sure he'd think was really neat.
P. S.: Do something about your hair! It actually scares people!
"I hate to say it," said Regina Stafford, eyeing Doug Flyk's spiky head of hair and smiling, "but I think our snide little friend might be on to something."
"Whatever he says," said Doug Flyk, "I am not changing my hair."
Teddy Mungo's funeral, on what would otherwise have been Chocolate Ice Cream Day, packed the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow. There were mourners, the "little people" that Mungo took it upon himself to protect and speak for: street people, former mental patients, the semi- and illiterate, all of whom loitered and slept in his parks because they had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. They were heartbroken. They had lost their champion.
For the most part, however, the mood was frankly celebratory. An anonymous caller offered the organist a considerable bribe to play "Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead." There was a lengthy pause before she finally hung up the phone in indignation.
Local politicians in attendance tried to put on a solemn face for the occasion, but many couldn't help themselves from smirking, especially members of the ousted city council. When Father Eugene got to the part in his stock homily admonishing mourners, "You are only crying for yourselves," a voice from the back pews said, loudly enough to be clearly audible through the church, "So, who's crying?"
Who was really crying was Scotty Church. He sat there in the first pew, bawling his eyes out. He wore a suit purchased for the occasion, still bearing the tailor's chalk marks where the shoulders had to be let out. Sitting next to Scotty was Peggy Roth, wearing a tasteful dark dress that had seen her through dozens of official funerals, patting his huge hand and saying, "There now, dear." Peggy's own eyes were dry—-she had seen too many funerals to feel anything but a sense of inevitability.
It had finally hit Scotty, seeing the casket, hearing the organ music--Mr. Mungo was really gone. No more nice car rides, no more back rubs. Mr. Mungo was the only person who had ever really been nice to Scotty, who had ever treated him like a human being. His weeping was so loud that the cynical were moved in spite of themselves.
The media was in full attendance—both television stations, the one radio station that still maintained a news staff, the Times-Clarion, and OutTV, Zeno's gay public access cable program, were represented. Regina Stafford sat in the back, trying not to visibly gloat.
Later, after the graveside obsequies, those remaining on hand proceeded to a memorial brunch at Cap's Cafe. Scotty, no longer sobbing uncontrollably, sat red-eyed and sniffing, eating his cheese omelet. Suddenly, a sleek, plumpish young man bearing a consumer-model video camera approached him. "Mr. Mayor?"
Scotty swallowed a bit of omelet and looked up. "Yes?"
"I'm Brad Morgenstern, from OutTV—you know, on cable—and we're doing a retrospective on Teddy Mungo for this week's program. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions."
Scotty thought a moment, then his eyes narrowed. "Are you going to say mean things about him?"
"No. Hardly. In fact, members of our community consider him an icon—a trailblazer. It's just that since he didn't talk to any reporters for three years we don't have much to work with. There's so much regarding Mr. Mungo that we're curious about."
Peggy Roth, who was sitting at the table with Scotty, looked up from her blueberry pancakes, and said, "You don't have to talk if you don't feel up to it, dear."
"That's okay. There's something I gotta say. You can turn on your camera if you want."
Brad Morgenstern hoisted the camcorder onto his shoulder, and hit the record button. "We're talking with Zeno mayor Scotty Church. Mr. Mayor, when did you first learn the truth about Teddy Mungo?"
"Are you taping this?"
"Yes. See, the little red light is on."
"The truth about Mr. Mungo?"
"Okay. I knew it the first time he talked to me. Mr. Mungo was a great man. All those people who said mean things about him were just jealous. They didn't know him like I did. They didn't understand."
"So, you're saying that Teddy Mungo was a victim of prejudice?"
Scotty cocked his head like a dog hearing a strange noise.
"I mean, that people didn't like him because of what he was?"
"Mr. Mungo was very smart. A lot of people don't like that. He liked flowers. He just wanted to plant flowers for people to enjoy."
"One more question: did you love Teddy Mungo?"
"Yes," said Scotty Church, his eyes filling with tears and his mouth twisting in renewed grief, "I loved him very much."
"Thank you, Mr. Mayor. We share your sorrow," said Brad Morgenstern.
"There, there, dear," said Peggy Roth, offering Scotty a fresh paper napkin to blow his nose into. As he took it, he saw a look of concern in her eyes.
"Did I say anything wrong? I messed up, didn't I? Darn it, darn it, darn it!"
"No, dear. You did fine. Nobody watches that public access thing, anyway."
A man in a white shirt with discolorations that even repeated bleachings were not able to remove strode up to the table where Scotty and Peggy were sitting. "Mr. Mayor? Paul D'amico, from down in purchasing. Hi, Peg. I just wanted to pay my respects. I mean, what a shock. It was a freaking shame. One day you're here, and the next, you know, gone, Gonesville, Ohio. Debbie, my wife, lit a candle at Our Lady for Mayor Mungo. Geez, if anyone needs it, he does. Beautiful service. I used to like the Latin, you know, back in the old days, but Father Eugene did a beautiful job.
"I hate to be a pain in the ass, forgive my French, but could you spare a minute? There's something I really gotta talk to you about."
"Well, here's the deal. There ain't no more money left in the city budget for equipment or supplies. I mean, nothing. Not a freaking paperclip. I hadda buy pens at the dollar store just to keep us going. All our regular suppliers won't give us no more credit."
"Are we in some kind of trouble?"
"Trouble? We're broke! Even payroll is getting nervous. Mr. Mungo, God rest his soul, blew all our money on his parks projects--"
"But the parks are nice," said Scotty indignantly.
"Hey, listen. I like 'em as much as anybody. Beautiful. Acres of flowers and green grass. But in about two weeks we won't have the cheese to pay anybody to mow all that beautiful grass."
"I--I could mow the grass myself."
"Ha-ha. You're kidding, right? Seriously, you might have to. Listen, we gotta meet with payroll and accounting to figure this thing out. Maybe the state will float us a loan--another loan. Our bonds are a joke. They been talking about punching holes in them and using them as toilet paper. And we can't raise taxes. Everybody who could afford to leave when they raised taxes the last time moved away. People are eating cat food and macaroni and cheese just to keep their houses. We're screwed. Some smartass joker went around to the city limits painting out part of all the signs, so they now read 'Welcome to Zero.' That about says it. So maybe you better dust off that lawnmower of yours, Mr. Mayor."
Regina Stafford sat, at the bright orange plastic table, sipping her vanilla shake, thinking. Normally, she would have eaten her lunch at Cap's Cafe, but was deterred by its use as the venue for the outpouring of such effusive and distasteful grief for one who so little deserved it. If she had partaken of Teddy Mungo's post-funeral brunch, it would have choked her. And she knew that no one in attendance would have stopped to give her the Heimlich Maneuver. In the unlikely event of someone in that crowd saving her life, she knew further that that was a debt she never could—or would—repay. They might have asked her to say something positive—even nice—about Teddy Mungo. She shuddered at the thought.
So she stopped at Alpha Burger, pulling in at the twenty-foot-high red "A" sign and parking her Lexus. She often brought her two school-age children, Adam Jeremy and Jennifer Jessica, when they wouldn't eat their father's esoteric gourmet cooking. She got them each an "Alpha Betty Giggle Meal" (complete with indestructible plastic toy) and they were happy as pigs in cool shit. Their cherubic pudginess that resulted from eating there regularly 'concerned' their father, but Regina asserted they'd slim down once soccer practice began in earnest that season.
The foods were cheap and flavored in the primary colors of the palate—hence incredibly popular. There were five Alpha Burger restaurants in Zeno, and their parking lots were always nearly full. The lines at the drive-through reminded Regina Stafford (who minored in film) of the string of cars at the French border in "The Sorrow and the Pity."
Regina Stafford bit her Omega Burger ("The last word in burger flavor") gazing past the cash registers at the food preparation operations beyond. God, it was efficient. Her husband Barney would have appreciated how the whole mise en place philosophy was carried to its extreme. Everything was right there—and right there all the time." It barely needed people to run it—or, actually, it needed those who were barely people. Perfect, identical burgers appeared as soon as they were needed—along with them uniform french fries, consistent shakes, and apple "Pi." The scene of constant, flawless burger assembly made her think of another movie—"Metropolis," maybe, or "Modern Times."
Regina ate a few Alpha Super Jumbo Fries ("as good as you remember, but now prepared with 100% vegetable shortening") and reflected on what she had read the day before. That insufferable gadfly, Glenn Squire, apparently knew his onions— or burgers. He probably had worked here, an embittered fry-cook, spouting vitriol in his relentless faxes, unable to find any real gainful employment. She pictured him living at home long past the age when it is defensible to do so, in a spare, dingy little room with his typewriter and fax machine, torturing her managing editor with his diatribes. The image gave her a flicker of curious pleasure.
Glenn Squire had known the mayor was an idiot — anyone who would bawl like a baby over Teddy Mungo must be. The matter was simple. The new mayor must be taken in hand and led by those who knew best what direction the city must take to recover from the excesses of the previous administration. He could be guided as easily as a burger flipper who, being told he is an Alpha Associate, never quite figures out that he is just part of the equipment.
That is, if the whole mise en place were in place.
Back at the Times-Clarion office, Doug Flyk washed down his rice pudding with a swig of Mylanta. It had been a hellish day for him. First, he was faced with the task of writing an article about Teddy Mungo's funeral that was balanced between tasteful respect for the dead and tasteful respect for the Times-Clarion policy of not saying anything too positive about Teddy Mungo. He did mention that a soloist sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," leaving readers to draw their own inferences.
Doug Flyk was also charged with the job of composing a sidebar about the new mayor, giving a brief bio and a summary of his plans for Zeno. He did extensive research (he made three phone calls) and found that nobody knew the slightest thing about this Scotty Church. The only lead he had--from Glenn Squire—he refused to follow as a matter of principle. In the planned piece, he would describe Scotty as a "landscaper"—he couldn't give people the unvarnished fact that Scotty had mowed lawns, and badly at that. He called the state Board of Education and could not even determine whether he had attended school. The Board of Health had a record of a Francis Scott Church being born in Zeno in 1976, but apparently he had managed to live twenty-five years and become mayor of a city without even acquiring a Social Security number.
Also, when he returned to his desk, there were a few faxes waiting for him, including the inevitable message from Glenn Squire. ("I can't wait to read the drivel you distil from the old sodomite's funeral. Are you ever going to do your job as a journalist—i.e., tell the truth—or are you just going to cower behind your hedge of ellipses and 'allegeds?' As you walk your tightrope between fear of offending your advertisers and needing to pander to your [imagined] readership, remember that even a Flying Wallenda falls once in a while.")
Then there was the press release, from the locally-based environmentalist group GWINE! (Global Warming is Now, Earthlings!):
Attention People of Earth!
We have watched with amazement as you have disregarded all evidence of global warming, driving ever-larger Earth-killing vehicles and stuffing your faces in denial with cheap greasy hamburgers. (Corporate cattle ranches are a leading source of methane, perhaps the worst known greenhouse gas.)
Doug Flyk thought back to when he had had the opportunity to take over his uncle's successful greenhouse on Zeno's West Side. No, he had said, he had just gotten his Batchelor's in journalism, and by golly he intended to give it a shot. "Suit yourself," said his uncle. If he had his life to live over . . .
Doug Flyk read on:
GWINE! welcomes the public to join us in our demonstration against globally destructive farming practices, especially corporate ranching. We will meet in front of the Alpha Burger on Unundadages Street at 3 PM next Friday. Bring a sign--and a friend. Be outrageous—and creative.
Your planet depends on YOU.
This was a no-brainer. Doug Flyk fed the GWINE! press release into the shredder right after Glenn Squire's latest effort. Publicize a global warming rally? Hardly. Not when two local car dealers had just bought full-page ads selling their flagship SUV's, and Alpha Burger itself was promoting its newest Alpha Betty Giggle Meal toys in a glossy color insert.
Doug Flyk congratulated himself that he had made the most prudent choice between a rock and a hard place. He broke the seal on a fresh bottle of Mylanta and took a long, satisfying gulp.
Art Tatum's "Elegie" coruscated out of the bedroom at high volume, like a boxcar full of sleighbells being spilled onto the floor of a gymnasium. Inside, at sleighbell ground zero, a shaved bear in underwear sat at a battered walnut typewriter desk, pounding away furiously (if not always accurately) on a Remington Model Sixteen. On close inspection, the bear proved to have a large human head, one that emitted guffaws at sentence-paced intervals, its eyes glistening with malicious fun. At length, the man-bear grabbed both sides of the sheet of paper with its huge human paws and yanked it out of the machine, causing the platen to ratchet savagely.
"This ought to rock his world, that Polack chickenshit fuck," said Glenn Miller Squire. He lumbered over to the fax machine with it, and speed-dialed it to the Times-Clarion. He knew it would disappear, like all the rest—but for one brief moment he knew he would have Doug Flyk's full and undivided attention, like a bloody wreck on the Interstate. Glenn Squire kept all his originals, and often re-read them late at night, astonishing himself with his own brilliance.
Glenn Squire resented his mother for naming him after the orchestra leader. He had liked the records well enough when he was about seven years old—his parents had all of them, and he played them endlessly. It gradually dawned on him, though, that they all sounded almost exactly alike. "In the Mood" was an exception--though Edgar Hayes had recorded it better earlier. But all the others (especially the ballads) sounded to young Glenn as if they had been performed on bagpipes that somehow played in tune. He began to realize what lousy taste his parents had, both in music and in children's names.
When they bought him the trombone, it was already too late. He dragged the heavy monster back and forth to school through mud and everything else, and gave it up inside of six months. Glenn, in retribution for his name and for being brought into existence into a loathsome, ignorant toilet like Zeno, repaid his mother's crimes against taste and decency by never moving out.
Glenn Squire liked quitting the trombone so much that it led to a satisfying lifetime of simply walking away from any situation that offered more than its fair share of bother: the Cub Scouts, confirmation lessons, high school, several jobs (including his own business), any home improvement project that took more than a few hours to complete, and his engagement with the "love of his life," Debbie Tasso. This was the life album that he felt he should title Incomplete: Glenn Squire's Greatest Quits.
But Glenn Squire's need to challenge himself did not go unmet--he found he could master anything, no matter how difficult, as long as it was absolutely useless. He got so good at doing crossword puzzles that he completed them using just the "across" clues. Fifteen years after he stopped blowing sliphorn, he taught himself to play jazz piano (by ear and with unorthodox fingering)—this in Zeno, where the hordes of Country and Classic Rock fans had no taste for his Tatumesque harmonies and thumping stride choruses. Finally, he became the unofficial Village Ballbreaker, the fly in everyone's oatmeal, the Smartassissimo, the little boy who notices that the Emperor's New Clothes are, in fact, a prom dress with matching shoes and clutchpurse.
In most localities, the Ballbreaker position is uncompensated, except with remarks like "Why can't you be more positive?" or (better yet) "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?"
Glenn Squire knew that there was just no way to be sincerely positive in Zeno without actually hallucinating. Regarding the smart/rich connection, he knew that if he had wealth and prestige, he wouldn't be able to light bags of scurrilous shit on the doorsteps of those who really needed a flaming fecal satori. He would be too busy guarding his own porch for such a violation.
Lately, he had immersed himself in the task of writing letters to the editor that he knew would never be printed. In each he had teased and taunted Doug Flyk, with a particle of information that might upset the notion that the Times-Clarion was doing an adequate job of covering all the news in Zeno. Glenn Squire thought of starting his own publication to report the real news in the community—but that would have been too much work, and, besides, it might make money. What would he do then?
Doug Flyk was a hard-headed Polack—and wouldn't follow up on any of the juicy leads Glenn was giving him free, gratis, no leg work involved. He felt like Cassandra in overdrive. The Warsaw hedgehog was just being obstinate, ignoring pearls of truth and light, at his own peril. Well, if he wanted to be that way, Fuck! Let's see him just try to ignore this!
Glenn Squire wrote and faxed his latest missive after phoning his chief informants: his former fiancee Debbie Tasso D'amico and her husband Paul. Glenn and Debbie remained friends mainly because she had met Paul right after the breakup, and discovered, through her tears, that he was the love of her life. Paul actually got along with her teenaged son who had taunted Glenn and threatened him with a knife (thus leading to his departure)—and when Paul met Glenn (at Debbie's urging) they liked each other immediately. So much so, Glenn was an usher at their wedding. Paul picked up the phone, and Glenn greeted him as he usually did.
"Hey, greaseball, how are you taking care of my sweetie?"
"Just fine, mayonnaise-face. Better than you ever could. Listen. I ain't got the time to shoot the shit with the likes of you. There's a big fucking mess down at work. You don't want to know. All I gotta say is, when this shit comes down, they're gonna dig up that faggot bastard and kill him again. Flowers, flowers, all over--lah-di-dah--but not one fucking dime for pens, or paper, or potholes, or payroll. That retard just doesn't get it. He just sits in his office and watches cartoons all day. But we're so fucking broke we can't even pay attention. Listen. I gotta go. Here's your girlfriend, micro-dick."
"You had to go and tell him about my particular deficiency. I seem to recall that it was impressive enough for you once upon a time."
"I didn't have much to compare you with. It was over with little Dominick's father so fast that I couldn't judge by that."
"So much for Memory Lane. Apropos of nothing, is it true about Zeno being broke?"
"I'm afraid so. Paul is worried sick. He's not even sure he'll get a paycheck next week."
"Oh, Geez. Are you kids going to--uh, need anything?"
"It's nice of you to offer, Glenn--but I know you don't have it to spare. We'll be okay, for a while. Paul would be too proud to take it from you, anyway."
"Proud, my ass. How about your little one? Does Carla have everything she needs for school? I still have about fifty bucks left over from Christmas that I haven't spent on CD's."
"That's all right, Glenn—honestly. How's your mom?"
"She says that between my piano playing and my typing, I have almost made her life a perfect hell."
"Have you written any letters to the editor lately?"
"Only about one a day. But the spiky-headed Polack sonofabitch hasn't printed any for over three years."
"Glenn, you seem to forget that you happen to be half-Polish yourself."
"I haven't forgotten, my dear," said Glenn Squire. "Your son kept reminding me. Fortunately, the Lancashire genes counterbalance the Krakow ones--only in the kitchen do both lines undermine my competence."
Doug Flyk felt his by-now Pavolvian reaction of nausea and dread when he heard the fax machine. It became an office joke that he kept his Mylanta next to the paper in the supply cabinet under the fax—but that was where it was most needed. It was the most ergonomic placement he could think of. He swigged, and read.
When Regina Stafford returned from her usual lunch at Cap's Cafe, she found a note from her managing editor, scrawled hurriedly:
Suddenly feel very ill. Home for rest of day. Back in tomorrow.
On the reverse was a fax that Doug Flyk hadn't even been up to shredding:
To the Editor: Hi, Doug!
Sorry to interrupt your bad hair day, but there is something that you really need to know about, and your subscribers (God help them) need to know it, too.
This might seem a bit of a "drag" (not unlike our lamented Mayor Mungo)--but Zeno is broke as fuck. Apparently, Theodora Went Wild with his nursery bills, upending the city treasury to insure that every Zenoan inhaled his fair share of pollen during hay fever season.
The upshot is that the city might not be able to meet its payroll next week. The new mayor, out of deep concern for the situation, is keeping his eyes glued to the Disney Channel to watch for further developments. He might come out of his coma once the cable company pulls the plug for nonpayment--but that might take weeks.
In the meantime, office stalwarts are fashioning bread ties into makeshift paperclips. It is starting to look like the Donner Party, but with worse catering.
So where was the Times-Clarion, our beacon of truth and leadership, when all this was transpiring? Covering "Apple Pie Day" at Zeno Central Elementary School. Reporting on the best mix of seed to put in your bird feeder. Stating what "F. Scott 'Scotty' Church, successful landscaper," planned to do in office--in bland, noncommital phrases that you obviously stuck in his mouth, like a huge pacifier.
First of all, if Scotty is a landscaper, so is the pilot of the Enola Gay. Secondly, this lad has no "plans" for his term--he can barely "plan" to tie his shoes until after he's put them on. Of course, he knows that the Goofy cartoons come on at three o'clock, so he does have some concept of future.
What I would like to know is: what city are you living in? Assuming (as you seem to) that your average reader is an 86-year-old virgin with an I.Q.. of 60, a weak heart, and a limitless amount of disposable income--isn't there some way you could let us know we're in deep shit?
As the creditors move in, and begin auctioning off the fountains and park benches and fire engines, what are you going to do--propose a feasibility study? God damn it, boy--why can't you be more negative?
Peggy Roth, sat at her reception desk, reading the Times-Clarion—-lingering over the "Help Wanted" section ("Table dancers wtd. No prev. exp. OK. Apply Jigglers in person")--then sighing, realizing that there was nothing else out there for her. She had been de facto mayor of Zeno, off and on, for thirty years. She sat by as each of the elected mayors went to pieces, went to the track, or went to jail—-fulfilling all the basic duties of chief administrator. How could she top that? She had enough saved. She'd work for nothing, if it came to that.
This new young man, as far as Peggy was concerned, was business as usual. He certainly was very nice, and not too harsh on the retinas, but he didn't have the sense the good Lord gave a stump. She felt more protective, more maternal, toward him than any of the others—and perhaps something else. He was a pin-up, like that signed photo of Ricky Nelson she had had on her bedroom wall as a teenager. No wonder that old pervert had his hooks out for him. She would continue to shield the poor stupid dear from the more difficult aspects of his office.
The phone rang. "This is Regina Stafford, publisher of the Times-Clarion. May I speak to the mayor, please?"
That yuppie bitch! Thanks to her attempt to "guide" poor Mayor Mungo, he went around the bend a lot sooner than than he otherwise might have. Why did she always have to interfere?
"Mayor Church is not available at present."
"Oh. When may I get in touch with him? Would it be possible to make an appointment to see him?"
"I1m afraid not for some time. Mayor Church is a very busy man."
"I see. Well, perhaps you could do me the favor of conveying a message to Mayor Church."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Tell Mayor Church that we have it on very good authority that the city of Zeno is currently without funds, owing to misallocations toward nonessential services during the former administration, and that we have heard that he, Mayor Church, is doing nothing whatsoever to remedy the problem."
"Who told you that?"
"An inside source very close to this paper, one who would have no incentive to make such a thing up. Do you have any comment? May I quote you, Ms.--"
"Miss Roth. And the answer is no. I have no comment, and you may not quote me."
"Very well, then. Unless the mayor or any responsible person in authority is willing to go on record to confirm or deny these allegations, we have no choice but to publish what we have."
"Oh, dear," said Peggy Roth after Regina Stafford hung up on her.
Glenn Squire rose, as was his custom, at the crack of ten, put on his pants and slippers, and struggled to the kitchen table to read the Times-Clarion. He had barely started to microwave his burrito and focus his sleep-bleary eyes when he saw the banner headline and let out a deafening yelp. Somebody out there had been paying attention!
ZENO "BROKE" ?
by Regina Stafford
The City of Zeno is "broke," according to a reliable source close to the Times-Clarion. Expenditures on parks during the administration of Mayor Theodore "Teddy" Mungo apparently drained city finances, jeopardizing even the city payroll, according to a fax received at this office yesterday.
The fax also alleges that the new mayor, F. Scott "Scotty" Church, has taken few steps to address the problem. Attempts to reach Mayor Church by the Times-Clarion were unsuccessful.
A phone call placed to the regional HUD office in Albany drew a concerned response. "This is the first we've heard about it, said Regional Director Dale Toohey. "I guess we'll be sending auditors out there at the earliest opportunity."
"Zeno could borrow to meet its immediate obligations," said Kevin Mannini, investment planner at Mannini, Schwartz, and Pfister, "but might have trouble finding a lender. Zeno municipal bonds are now rated triple-c minus, the lowest possible rating."
Ari Andros, president of the Zeno National Bank, was more positive. "Things are rough for Zeno right now, but maybe what needs to happen is for the public and private sectors to pull together to try to save her. It's time for business to give something back. Will it be hard? Yes. But can it be done? Yes. It's doable. It's feasible."
Doug Flyk sat on the living room couch, unshaven, half-dressed, his hair not (for the want of a better word) combed. Regina Stafford had called him that morning, telling him not to bother coming in if he still "felt raw"--everything was going just fine, thank you. In fact, she relished getting back into editorial after being in management so long. She was having fun. The thought of Regina Stafford enjoying herself made Doug Flyk's blood congeal. He very nearly vomited on the tasteful country plaid sofa that he and his wife had picked out at Ward's twenty years before.
Doug Flyk, gray-faced and cadaverous, stared open-mouthed at the television. He couldn't believe how raunchy morning programming had become since the last time he had seen it. Where was Captain Kangaroo? All they had on now were transsexual bikers using language that made his stomach churn. Half of what they said was bleeped out--but still enough came over the air to distress him. Imagine using that word on TV! If he'd ever said that in front of his mother, she would have slapped him. He felt like going to confession for just having heard it.
He hadn't seen the paper that morning—he usually waited until he got to work to read over the results of the previous day's labor. He saw no point in subscribing to the Times-Clarion when he already knew everything that was in it. Of course, on the rare days he hadn't put the paper to bed, there might be some surprises—but not many. Nothing ever happened in Zeno.
When he saw the special report announcement on Channel 22, he knew something had happened—and it wasn't on his watch. As he listened, he realized that it was his story, that it had been dropped in his lap—it had made him run home, shaken. Why hadn't he destroyed that fax? Maybe if we just ignored the problem, it would go away. If you have a scab, don't pick at it—it might get infected. Why stir up trouble? Regina Stafford had to pick at it. She was tempted, and she bit the apple. Didn't she realize Glenn Squire was the Devil?
"According to a report in this morning's Times-Clarion, the City of Zeno teeters on the verge of bankruptcy," said the chubby-cheeked anchorwoman (Doug Flyk thought her rather cute). "City employees and local business leaders are wringing their hands, wondering how it all could have happened. City Hall has been flooded with phone calls, demanding a response. The mayor's office is issuing a statement at a press conference moments away. On the scene is Sally Jacek. Sally?"
"Thank you, Heather. The mood is grim here at Zeno City Hall. As you can see, in addition to members of the local media, dozens of concerned citizens and city employees are packing the former city council chamber to hear what the mayor has to say. In fact, there's a--wait, they're about to begin. Someone is about to read a statement."
Peggy Roth, rising to her full height of five feet, two inches, spoke into the microphone. "I've been asked by Mayor Church to read the following statement. Mayor Church is suffering from severe laryngitis and is unable to speak above a whisper. Therefore, any questions you may have after I have read the statement may be addressed to me, Miss Roth.
"The City of Zeno finds itself embarrassed by a temporary shortfall. This has often happened in our history, and yet we have been able to meet our basic obligations on those occasions. We see no reason why the present instance should be any different, provided that community leaders and citizens of Zeno act together to keep city business running as usual, and view with patience any unavoidable inconvenience or minor interruption of service. We beg your forbearance during this period of adjustment, and pledge to return city services to an optimum level as soon as possible."
Peggy Roth very nearly smiled. She felt like Elizabeth Tudor confidently facing the Spanish Armada. Hands shot up,in the media gallery. "Yes, you in the blue, dear."
"Rayleen Russel, K-Hotnews radio. Miss Ross—"
"—Miss Roth, what is currently being done to solve the budget problem?"
"Mayor Church and I have spoken with business and community leaders who have stepped forward today with many suggestions and offers of outright assistance. We have also contacted state and federal agencies that may be able to provide us emergency funding. We are considering all these options carefully. Yes, you in the gray pinstripes."
"Rod Ballard, TV 4. There have been reports that Mayor Church is taking a less than serious approach to this problem. Is there any truth to those reports?"
"None whatsoever. Mayor Church, though young, is an administrator of the highest order. Between us, we are fully capable of handling any of the numerous duties of city government. Yes, you, young lady."
"Sally Jacek, Channel 22 News. The report said that all the budget money had been spent on parks. Do you have any figures on just how much money was spent by Mayor Mungo?"
"I wish we did, dear. Poor Mayor Mungo tended not to write any of his purchases down, or tell anyone what he was doing. He was very independent that way. Those in Purchasing and Accounting are working overtime—and the comptroller has his work cut out for him. Yes, you in the mauve sweater."
"Brad Morgenstern, OutTV. The gay community of Zeno regrets the passing of Teddy Mungo. He was an inspiration to us all. Will Mayor Church maintain a gay-friendly policy during his term?"
"Mayor Church assures me that he will treat all members of the community with equal deference, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, sex, or sexual orientation. He is incapable of prejudice. Now, if there are no further questions--"
"--I think we may conclude this--"
"Regina Stafford, Times-Clarion. Since Zeno's bonds are so devalued, borrowing ourselves out of debt seems almost out of the question. City employees can live off their savings only so long before patience wears thin. Infrastructure has been crumbling for years, and is in constant need of repair. Fires need putting out. Garbage needs to be picked up. To ask Zeno's taxpayers to shell out more when they are already taxed nearly to death is unrealistic and unfair. Therefore, isn't the possibility of a public sector-private sector partnership--which you alluded to earlier--in fact Zeno's best hope for getting its finances back on track?"
You pushy bitch, thought Peggy Roth. Little Miss Agenda. "We are doing our best to remedy the budget situation. But we will not act rashly. We want what is best for the people of Zeno. That's all I have time for today. Thank you."
Doug Flyk missed Peggy Roth's response to Regina Stafford. He was too busy kneeling in front of the toilet, hugging the bowl, expressing his editorial opinion.
The editorial in the Times-Clarion the next day left no doubt as to Regina Stafford's position:
A HELPING HAND
Zeno is in trouble. City government admits that it has little or no money left to meet basic expenses for the indefinite future. Yet Mayor Church, in a statement released through his office, asks for our "forbearance." City government is weighing options "carefully."
When our house is burning down, do we conduct a "feasibility study" to determine the best way to "remedy the situation?" No. We call the fire department without unnecessary delay.
As Zeno vacillates on the brink of ruin, trying to decide "what is best for the people"--garbage goes uncollected, potholes go unfilled, and the National Guard sits poised to staff our police and fire departments if necessary.
Zeno officials play phone tag with state and federal agencies while its prospects grow ever more bleak. Issue new bonds? Not when the old ones have achieved junk bond status. Ask for a "temporary" emergency tax increase? Please. When there is no accountability, and hasn't been for years, the last thing citizens—already taxed to the limit—want to do is shell out more.
The solution has already presented itself. Initiate a partnership between Zeno City Hall and a corporate sponsor willing to give us a helping hand. Corporate sponsorship of public institutions is nothing new. Nor is it anything to be ashamed of. Chicago is justly proud of its Wrigley Field, which is a national treasure. Other stadiums, arenas, concert venues, and civic centers have been funded or adopted by corporations, and everybody wins. The people enjoy a real cultural boon, and companies get to do good and reap the good will from doing good.
Let's not wait too long to save our city. Corporate sponsorship is an idea whose time has come, and none too soon.
"Well, what do you think?" said Ari Andros, removing the videocassette from the machine.
Spiros "Steve" Andros stood and walked to the window of his office on the eighty-seventh floor of Alpha Tower, surveying the skyline of Chicago in a proprietary manner. I own that one, that one, that one, and that one, he thought. And this one.
"Sounds intriguing, little brother. Sponsor a whole city?"
"It's not a big city. It's lost so much population in the past few decades it's basically a speed bump with a city hall."
"Is that why you still live there, Mister Big-Fish-In-A-Small-Pond? Afraid to come home to Chicago and play with the big boys?"
"No, Steve, not at all. I have a good life there. It's different. The pace is slower. Less stress. Less traffic. And the bank is fine. It's just that for the past five years we had this queer weirdo fuck who came in promising to run Zeno like a business and then wound up running it into the ground."
"Was that the prom dress guy? Hell, that was all over the papers even here."
"Well it gets worse. It seems like the faggot liked flowers—really got into the whole parks and recreation bit. So what does he do but gut the city treasury to keep his floral displays going. No money for garbage pickup or anything. All pansies and petunias."
"Sounds like a level-headed businessman to me."
"Ha-ha. The other thing is that he stuck the city with a successor who don't know enough to wipe his own ass. You saw how on the tape they wouldn't even let him do his own press conference. That old biddy handled the whole thing, and said he had 'laryngitis.' 'Laryngitis,' my ass. Nobody ever gets that shit except on television. The word is the guy used to cut lawns, but the queer mayor liked the look of him, so he got hired. 'Beautiful but dumb.' Well, that's our new mayor!"
"Sounds like a real charity case to me. But I'll tell you something. Alpha Burger could use some good PR after the year we just had. First there was that tainted beef scare out west--we got it contained in a hurry, but not before some poor retard died from e. coli poisoning. Then there's the usual group of environmentalists who claim a few farting cows are melting the polar ice caps. Just a few whackos, but all it takes is a few. And, there's this whole stupid trans fat issue. Fortunately, we've been able to keep it out of the national press, but it could blow at any time. We've got all our experts lined up to refute whatever the 'Science in the Public Interest' crowd throws at us." Spiros Andros smiled grimly. "See what you're missing by living in fucking Zeno, New York?"
"So, do you think it might be worth a shot?"
"Yes. No. Maybe. I don't know. Probably, yeah. We need to improve our image. If, after all the shit that's plagued us over the past six months, we were able to score another PR coup like the Alpha Betty Blind Children's Hospital, our stockholders would probably blow us. We should get legal to write up a prospectus and submit it to the Zeno City Council."
"That's the other thing," said Ari Andros. "The queer mayor abolished the city council. All decisions are made solely on the authority of the new mayor, with no oversight."
"Hmmm. Well, in that case, there's something else we should do. We should get rid of that old bitch at City Hall," said Spiros Andros. "I got a feeling she's no team player."
Scotty Church held the brightly colored post card, turning it over and over. It was the first piece of mail he had been allowed to get as mayor. Peggy Roth screened everything that came into the mayor's office—all the death threats, all the maniacal rants scrawled in pencil and running off the edge of the paper, all the anti-gay diatribes, all the bills, all the registered letters containing threats of legal action, all the sexual propositions from men and women. This was harmless enough. It was a fast food coupon, obviously computer generated, offering a Free Complimentary Omega Value Meal for a Limited Time Only So Act Today!
Scotty pushed the button on the intercom. "Peggy?"
"Yes, Mr. Mayor?"
"What's this big word, next to 'free?'"
"Break it down, dear. How does it start?"
"That's 'complimentary,' dear."
"What's it mean?"
"It means 'free.'"
"How can it mean'free?' They already said 'free.'"
"They wanted you to know that it was really free, so they said it twice."
A moment later Scotty buzzed the intercom again.
"Yes, Mr. Mayor?"
"Can I go? I'm hungry."
Peggy Roth considered that the mayor hadn't left her alone for more than five minutes at a stretch, always asking questions. Unless she let him go, she knew she wouldn't get any work done until the good cartoons came on at three.
Why not? Alpha Burger--what the heck could happen there?
Ari Andros, who had parked across from the City Hall garage exit, saw the unmarked city vehicle leave and head toward the Alpha Burger on Unundadages Street. He hoped the driver wouldn't stop in with Mayor Church--it would make everything more complicated. It needed to be a casual meeting, with no third parties, if possible.
He pulled in after the city car, and waited. Yes! The boy was getting out of the back seat, the coupon clutched tightly in his hand. Ari Andros waited three minutes and followed him in.
He had timed it perfectly. Scotty Church sat by himself at a bright orange plastic table, wolfing down his Omega Burger, munching his Super Jumbo Fries. Ari Andros approached the mayor.
"Delicious, aren't they?"
"Hmmmm?" said Scotty Church, his mouth too full to speak.
"The fries, I mean."
Scotty Church chewed and swallowed his mouthful, helping the process with a swig of chocolate shake. "I love the fries here. They taste real good--and they were free. Free and comaplemintary."
Ari Andros smiled. "Tell you what. How would you like to eat Alpha Super Jumbo Fries, free and complimentary, every day--forever and ever?"