Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 32

      "I don't know why we came here in the first place, better yet why we ever stayed," Aunt Doris said as she sat in the passenger seat of the car waiting for her husband to pull out of the old Two Guys parking lot after the meeting had ended. "The only saving grace, if you'll pardon the expression, was that everyone else we know was there and if we weren't they might have thought we were being just plain unsociable, and I'd hate for that to get around, since as anyone who knows us would gladly tell a total stranger without being prompted, we're as sociable as the next family, probably even more." She looked at the road, then sharply at her husband. "Well let's get a move on. How do you expect to get anywhere in life if you spend all your time sitting on your duff in a parking lot driveway, and heaven knows some of us could certainly stand to get somewhere in life for a change, and I think he knows who I mean."

     The younger cousin Jello looked at her brother. He in turn glanced at the front seat to make sure his mother wasn't watching them, a silly gesture since it was only on alternate national holidays that either of their parents paid them much attention, aside, of course, from the everyday bitching and moaning which hardly counts. He reached towards his mother's neck in a gesture of mock strangulation, sticking out his tongue and bugging out his eyes. His sister started giggling.

     "And exactly what do you find so funny back there?" Aunt Doris asked, turning around just as cousin Jello pulled his tongue and eyes in, smiling as angelically as he could. "Why don't you let me in on the joke? I happen to have a very good sense of humor, thank you very much." She turned and faced forward again. "Did you see Erta and the boys in there? Why I couldn't believe it; they were scattered to the four corners of the tent like a bunch of total strangers. I just don't understand them sometimes. I mean, I don't think it's asking too much for a family to act like a family and sit together, at least when they're out in public. In the privacy of their own home, well, people can do as they wish." She snapped her head towards her husband. "You just missed another hole in the traffic that was big enough to drive a freight train through and here we are still sitting. I have better things to do than grow old gracefully—which is how I plan on doing it—while sitting in the front seat of this rust bucket excuse for a car. Why, much more of this and the kids will outgrow their clothes sitting in the back seat."

     Uncle Jello tightened his grasp on the steering wheel, then let it loose. Tighten, loosen. Tighten, loosen. He clenched the wheel until his knuckles turned white, then closed his eyes and stomped the gas pedal to the floor. The car lurched into the street. Horns honked, tires screeched, metal crunched, and glass shattered. When the dust quite literally settled, Aunt Doris, Uncle Jello, and cousins Jello and Jello were trapped in their car, which was now sandwiched between a brand new station wagon and a now-even-more-compact car.

     After the rescue squad finished cutting the roof off the car so the family could be pulled out, and they were all being loaded into the waiting ambulances along with six injured people from the other cars, the first of a string of tow trucks pulled up. The driver got out and surveyed the damage while mingling with the police, firemen, and emergency medical technicians from the rescue squad. The wrecker driver stood next to an ambulance while stopping to light a cigarette. He was wearing a blue work shirt with the name of his employer chain stitched across the back in rainbow colors:

     Flippo's Body Repair

     As he circled the totaled car with the opened sardine can top trying to figure out how to rig up the mangled mass of sheet metal, he noticed a yellow card lying on the ground. Thinking it might be some identification dropped by one of the accident victims, and hoping there might be a reward in it for him, he picked it up. On the right hand side was a drawing of the mustachioed man holding a baby in each arm while a nurse is looking at a piece of paper and holding her hand outstretched, palm up.

Community Chest

     The card had fallen from Aunt Doris' purse, which she continued to clutch desperately as the rescue squad dragged her out of the wreckage. She'd taken the card on behalf of the whole family, because as she said, "One family, one prayer. We're all in this together."

     Unfortunately the card was far from being accurate, for thanks to their second rate—read: cheap—hospitalization plan, they would end up paying many times more than $100. While none of them were seriously injured in the accident, all were treated at the Retreat For The Sick and released, though some quicker than others. Cousins Jello and Jello walked out within hours sporting only minor cuts and bruises. Doris remained in the hospital for three days for observation due to a rather nasty concussion she suffered when her head smashed into the windshield, which miraculously didn't even crack. But it was Uncle Jello who would be kept the longest, spending two days on the fourth floor until they were sure the internal bleeding had stopped, then two weeks on the seventh floor for psychiatric observation and analysis, followed by eighteen months in Central State Mental Hospital.

     "I always said the poor man just didn't have what it takes," Doris would tell anyone who would listen.

     * * * * * *

     "What's your card say?" Ralph Marconi asked Timmy Padget.

     "What card?"

     "Your prayer card, pencil dick."

     "Watch your mouth," Jem scolded.

     "I would but I don't have a mirror," he answered, taking a big step backwards to put a safe distance between he and his mother.

     "What are you talking about?" Timmy butted in. "What's a prayer card?"

     "Where've you been, on Mars? This is a prayer card," Ralph said, waving his small yellow card in front of Timmy's face. "They handed 'em out in the tent."

     "How come I didn't get one?"

     "'Cause you were sleeping," Ralph said.

     "Was not."

     "Were too."

     "Was not."

     "I'm afraid you did doze off for a while there," Jem said diplomatically, "but don't worry, you really didn't miss much of anything.

     "Except a prayer card," Ralph said with an I'm-cool-and-you're-not grin.

     Timmy stopped in his tracks. "I'm gonna go back and get one," he said.

     "Another time," Jem told him. "We've really got to be going."

     "But I want one!" he yelled, stomping his right foot with the same impetuous fury usually reserved for brats a third his age.

     Jem fished around in her purse. "Here," she said, handing him her card, "why don't you take mine. I don't need it anyway."

     "I can't do that," Timmy said without any conviction, not even trying to hide his desire for the card.

     "Go ahead. Take it."

     Timmy took the yellow card from Jem. He looked at the drawing of the mustachioed man, aged many years, now stooped over, holding his aching back, and sporting a white beard which was so long it scraped the ground.

Community Chest

     The thought struck Timmy that selling insurance must be a pretty profitable career, since apparently every time an insurance policy matured, the agent collected $100. Years later, after he would first try his hand at selling used audio equipment, renting tools and party supplies, and running the copying machine for the new King Kopy Kwik store, Timmy would try selling insurance. On the first day of training he gave everyone in the office a big chuckle as well as a story to pass on to every new recruit who would join the company for the next twenty years, which was, incidentally, nineteen years and six months longer than Timmy lasted. Where in the world would anyone get the idea that an insurance agent collected $100 every time a policy matured?

     Ralph's yellow card showed the mustachioed man with his leg in a cast holding two crutches, even though he appeared to be dancing.

Community Chest
PAY $50

     Ralph thought $50 to be a huge sum of money, a concept which was understandable when you realize that besides being fourteen years old—an age at which he still had everything he needed without having to spend his own money to get it—he also received an allowance of only fifteen cents a week, by far the lowest of any child his age since the Great Depression—the country's, not Aunt Doris'—so the idea that a doctor could charge his patients a fee of a seemingly astronomical fifty dollars simply astounded him. He decided right then and there that he wanted to be a doctor. He wasn’t the first, not would he be the last, to enter the profession for less than altruistic reasons.

     * * * * * *

     Neckless and his mother walked out of the tent hand in hand. Most boys his age would have been mortified, not to mention traumatized for life, to be seen in public holding their mother's hand. But Neckless was completely nonplused, for since his turtleneck was pulled up over his head and fastened with a green twist tie, his mother had taken on the necessary chore of being his Seeing Eye Mom, not to mention the fact that it really didn't matter to him one way or the other whether anyone was watching since as long as he couldn't see them doing it, it might as well not have even been occurring. "Out of sight, out of mind," he would say, at least until three years later when he would begin to develop an appreciation for Jet-like philosophies, at which time he would transmutilate it to "Get out of my sight, you're out of your mind." Actually, his mother was the one who was embarrassed—imagine, having to lead her twelve year-old son around by the hand!

     "Hey Neckless, hey Mrs...uh, Neckless," Jose Rosenbloom said, realizing after he'd opened his mouth that he had absolutely no idea what Neckless' real name was.

     His mother leaned over and whispered into the top of his turtleneck. "It's that big-headed boy Milton."

     "Huh!?" Neckless said loudly. "Milton who?"

     "Jose," his friend said.

     "Milton Jose?"


     "Jose Milton?"

     "Just Jose."

     "English class Jose?" Neckless practically yelled.

     "That's the one."

     "Why didn't you say so?"

     "I thought your name was Milton?" Neckless’ mother asked Jose.

     "It is, well it was, but no one calls me that except my grandmother," Jose began. "That is when she remembers my name at all. Heck, I bet she's gone and called the police on me by now and the only reason they haven't found me is they don't know what name to ask for."

     "Why would she call the cops on you?" Neckless asked.

     "I was supposed to be there hours ago. If I don't get there soon she'll probably call out the freakin' National Guard."

     "Do you need a ride?" Neckless’ mother asked.

     "Sure, if it's not out of your way."

     "It's no problem at all," she said.

     Thus the three of them spent the next hour and a half trying to find Jose's grandmother's house. It didn’t take this long because it was a great distance to drive or was far out of the way, but rather because Jose was so used to either being driven or taking the bus that he had no idea how to get there from any point the three of them found themselves at. As a monkey banging on a typewriter will eventually figure out that he needs to put paper in it, ultimately they drove to Jose's house, proceeded to the bus stop where he usually waits, followed the next bus that came along until Jose recognized the corner where he customarily debarked, and then Jose knew which way to go.

     While idling at a stop light en route, Neckless’ mother searched her purse for a hard candy, Buttercream Lifesaver, piece of chewing gum, or anything else that would help stave off her growing hunger. Instead she found a collapsible drinking cup, wads of new and used tissues, a soup ladle, two empty eyeglass cases, a nearly full bottle of Gelusil, and two prayer cards, one orange and one yellow.

     She glanced at the orange one with its drawing of a newspaper boy hawking the Extra Edition of a newspaper displaying a front page drawing of the mustachioed man.

You Have Been

     "Fat chance," she thought as she chuckled to herself.

     Normally that would have been an appropriate response, but since no one had any idea where she was—for who would ever think to look for her first at a revival meeting and later on a circuitous grand tour of the town and its environs?—no one had been able to get in touch with her to let her know that her boss, Mr. Shaftner, had sent a cable from Guadeloupe tendering his resignation so he would have plenty of time to pursue what he'd very recently decided was his first and only true love: rum distillation. Or at least the physical assimilation of large quantities of the substance.

     Also unbeknownst to Neckless' mother was the fact that early that afternoon, during an emergency stockholders' meeting, she'd been unanimously elected to the position of Chairman of the Board of Amalgamated Global Communications, Inc., the closely held corporation which was much more visible to the public as WMDP-TV.

     "This one's for you," she told Neckless, holding the yellow card out to him.

     "What is it?"

     "Why don't you look at it?"

     "Why don't you tell me about it?"

     She sighed. "It's the prayer card I took for you."

     "What's it say?"

     "Why don't you read it yourself?" she asked.

     "It's too dark in here. What’s it say?"

     She sighed. "It has a picture of a dapper man in a tuxedo with a handlebar mustache holding a cane in one hand and a pick and shovel in the other. It says, 'Community Chest. You are assessed for street repairs. $40 per house. $115 per hotel.'"

     "You call that a prayer card?" Neckless asked.

     "Prayer cards are in the eye of the beholder, I guess."

     "What's it supposed to mean?"

     "You got me, kiddo."

     It wouldn't be but three weeks until they would find out, for it was then that Neckless' most elaborate chemistry experiment to date would create a huge crack in the street in front of their house which would take a six-man Department of Public Works crew three full days to repair. For while most teenager's interest in chemistry—if there was any interest at all—was confined to burning magnesium and making invisible ink out of Cobalt Blue, Neckless' inclination leaned a bit more towards the extreme. Neckless, it seems, had both a strong interest in, as well as an innate knack for, formulating explosives, and his most successful experiment to date would cause a powerful blast to rock the neighborhood exactly two minutes and forty-five seconds after he threw it down the manhole. While the police would variously attribute the explosion to religious fanatics, political zealots, and—even though he was behind the locked gates of the Bluemount Learning Center—Johnny Kasouska, Neckless would be pleased with himself each time he heard or read in the newspaper that the device had "obviously been the work of a professional".

     "What'd your card say?" Neckless asked Jose.

     "Nothing," he replied.

     "Whadaya mean?"

     "It was blank so I tore it up."

     "Did you look at the other side?" Neckless' mother asked.

     "No," Jose said as he turned and looked out the window, "why?"

     * * * * * *

     Of all the media people who had been in attendance, only one had the good news sense—or shall we say lack of a more imaginative alternative assignment—to stay through to the grand finale.

     Steady Steadman and Christie Enhart of WMDP-TV left just before the collection. "Could you imagine my handing in an expense voucher for that," Christine asked with a laugh. Dave Davis of WNUZ—"All the news, all the time, from all over the world"—snuck out as soon as he realized there was going to be faith healing. "If they're so damned good why don't they cure my bad attitude?" he mumbled to himself as he left the tent. Chip Bernard of WVGO-TV walked up to the door of the tent, looked inside, and instantly changed his mind. "My beat's local politics," he told himself as he drove away, "and if I covered this story I'd be guilty of screwing with the separation of church and state." Harry McLeod, the only reporter at the morning newspaper who was green enough to volunteer when the city editor asked, "Who needs an assignment?", ended up turning in a first-hand account of the efficiency of the local rescue squads instead, something he learned about when he plowed his car into the rear of a parked van while gaping at the big striped tent he was supposed to be inside. The afternoon paper chose to ignore the proceedings entirely.

     But one reporter stuck it out, tenaciously hanging on, knowing from experience that very often the best stories are woven from the most tenuous of threads. Digging in for the duration, he sat in the rear of the tent with one hand on his camera, the other clutching a dirty cocktail napkin ready for any inspired notes he might care to take.

     His patience paid off, for two weeks later the bottom half of the front page of the Weekly World Scene would be taken up by a photograph of the Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III crawling through the grass on his hands and knees, his hands clutching big fat wads of paper money, checks, and shiny silver coins. Above the photograph, in big, black letters, it read:

Pennies from heaven
become the devil's due
as preacher discovers:


Chapter 33 ]

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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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