Mar 11, 2014
The Shortest Distance Between Two Opposing Points of View Is a Punch Line
Posted on May 2, 2011
By Mr. Fish
“Don’t get her any of those things,” I said, still smarting from the implication that I should learn to shut my mouth and soften my sense of humor into a piece of vanilla ice cream. “Not the chocolate, not the flowers, nothing. Get her a doormat—one with the word WELCOME printed on it,” I said, opening the Velcro on my wallet.
“I don’t get it,” said Zeeker, screwing up his face.
“I’m going to tell her to put it on the inside of her front door instead of on the outside. That way she’ll be reminded every morning on her way off to school that the outside world is what she should be acclimating her thinking to, rather than thinking that the weird and completely scentless Christian voodoo that she practices inside her own head is useful to anybody.”
“Oh,” he said, “so you’re going to save her.”
Forty minutes later, Zeeker was walking around Pennebaker’s looking for a dime on the floor, having calculated an eight-cent discrepancy between the money I’d given him and the welcome mat that he was carrying around the store. He was also reminiscing, as we all were prone to doing whenever we walked into Pennebaker’s and heard that 40-year-old bell tinkle above the door, about how special the place used to be when we were younger. He remembered all the many thousands of baseball cards he’d gotten there and how he used to come in on Sunday afternoons with his grandparents and how he’d get a sundae in a tall parfait glass and sit at the soda counter and eat it with a long metal spoon. Mr. Pennebaker would serve the ice cream, himself, and use flattery to exaggerate Zeeker’s size or congratulate him on his cunning, and everybody would laugh easily and life was a beautiful and predictable routine. But now, with the soda counter having been removed with sledgehammers and replaced with a chirping lottery machine and a cloudy Plexiglas case full of cigarettes, and with Mr. Pennebaker having become so sullen and quiet, much of his generation dead or scattered across the Sunbelt like optimistic seeds left to die on the pavement, nothing was the same. Gone even was the old drugstore smell of popcorn and floor wax and bubblegum. In fact, the only thing that he could smell was what he guessed was dog shit.
Rounding the far end of the candy aisle after checking the soles of his shoes and finding nothing, he came upon Mr. Pennebaker dressed as a giant white rabbit in a grubby striped vest and bowtie, his brown wingtips looking horribly discordant with the rest of him, his black dress socks narrowing his ankles into gruesome sticks. He was sitting on a folding chair at the mouth of the greeting card section, his enormous bunny face frozen in an expression of happy, unblinking hysteria, as if he was imagining the body of his worst enemy being torn apart by wild animals. The shit smell was especially strong then, and the shabbiness of the costume’s fur made Zeeker think of a hopeless animal too repulsed by its own decay to lick itself. Startled by the spectacle of the whole scene, Zeeker stopped and gave a nervous grin and a little half-wave. When the rabbit didn’t move a muscle, Zeeker turned away, embarrassed by the strange nudity of the moment, and quickly turned down the next aisle and was almost knocked down by a pint-sized version of himself, same red hair, same tattered Chuck Taylor sneakers, running in Pennebaker’s direction with an empty Easter basket, the child’s mother apologizing as she walked cheerfully by. “No problem,” said Zeeker, momentarily allowing himself the deeply surreal sensation that he had just blessed the rebirth of his own enthusiasm as he watched it round the corner and disappear out of sight.
“Probably the creepiest thing that happened was the cashier shouting at me, ‘We’ve got to take off his head! We’ve got to take off his head!’ ” said Zeeker the next day in Lewis’ basement, where we’d all congregated for the purpose of dissecting what we were ready to imagine might be the greatest story ever told, not because we were looking for a respectful place to apply our sympathies or because we wanted to test its viability with a dismantling logic, but rather because we wanted to know what sort of psychic wind had howled through the center of our friend when he first realized his incredible good fortune at getting to see an actual dead person—something that we all prayed for nightly to witness ourselves. “What broke my heart was watching this little boy who wouldn’t let go of Mr. Pennebaker’s hand. All I could think was here’s this kid who came to see the real Easter Bunny and some maniac with fluorescent orange fingernails and gum in her mouth is screaming about taking its head off, like she’s going to find a person to save inside.”
Six weeks later we were silhouetted against the nighttime sky and unzipping our flies on the spine of Muffy Fulbright’s house, desperate to reclaim the narrative of our own lives by committing a wholly meaningless act before Zeeker’s constant retelling of his experience threatened to morph his story into a useful parable that might turn us all into corroborators of an invented wisdom by which none of us wished to be made spectacular.
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