“Death is neutral,” said Prosper reassuringly. “Either you are or you aren’t.”
Be careful what you wish for. And when you make that wish, speak up and enunciate clearly. Want rapture? You could go home with a rupture. Think about it. You see, I had sold my soul to Apollo, the god of poetry and envelope flap literature. Well, not Apollo, really, but one of his representatives: Prosper Epilegomenes, a mouse demon. Anyway, I got the job.
An easterly ocean gale was cannonading the shores of Willipaq, Maine. It slammed down the chimney and blew my wood stove from bright coals to a full flame. Woo-woo-woo, the chimney whistled like a kid blowing a tune across the lip of a giant soda bottle. Not to worry, I reassured myself. There was a blacktopped town road between me and the fury of the North Atlantic.
Woo-woo-woo. “Mother Carey’s chickens,” said a familiar voice. “Watch the north wind rise.”
“It’s an east wind. Nor’easter...” I came up short. A diminutive green figure stood before my airtight, thrusting his rear end into the heat like a life-long Mainer. It was the demon. If he was here, he had a problem. And if the mouse had a problem, I had a problem.
My name is Jim Everhardy, and the mouse demon had granted my wish: to be read by millions. I now write the advertising blurbs on the envelope flaps of credit card bills. It was unlikely my personal representative from Sminthian Apollo had dropped in out of the storm to blow his nose and keep me company.
Prosper opened the glass fire door and stuck his head inside. A shower of sparks smoldered on the braided rug, my wife’s pride and joy. “Oops. Sorry about that.” He closed the door and ran around stamping out tiny fires. The smoldering continued. “Nice fire, but we have some escapers. Got water?” asked the demon.
“In the kitchen,” I replied. “There’s a bucket under the sink.”
Prosper hustled off. He returned with a bucket of water and doused the rug. I had not moved. I had learned to keep my expectations under control when dealing with the lesser deities. Minor deities reward at minor levels: cheap T-shirts, herds of cattle, the usual stuff. But when they punish, it’s major. Believe me, I know. From Prosper’s last visit I had gotten the literary equivalent of cheap T-shirts, but the money was good. We thus far had the driveway paved plus a brand new washing machine. I liked things the way they were.
“Ah, but I’m here to change all that,” said the demon. “You’re too good a man to fritter away on envelopes. I’ve got something really big lined up. You are going to be a contender.”
Prosper was taller than a mouse, but not by much. Five years back, during the first visitation, he had strutted on my desktop, pointy gray ears topped off with an upside-down colander which he called the Helmet of Cleptath, a magic hat. According to the mouse, he had wrestled the colander away from Apollo’s sister in a fight over cheese, the cheese of the gods. From the helmet dangled strings of those triangular flags you see at gas station giveaways and pizza joints. Then as now, Prosper wore green tights. Flags fluttered as he spoke.
“And here we are, you and I, nattering away like old school chums at a class reunion.”
I didn’t recall nattering. Typically, he was doing all the talking. He had popped back into my life like those barrages of advertising that regularly clogged my e-mail.
“Spam! Jim Everhardy, really!” Prosper was reading my mind. He was here to make me a proposition I couldn’t refuse.
“Of course I am, Jim old turnip, reading your mind, that is. And to characterize me as junk mail cuts me to the quick. Account Executive — I like that much better. Consider me your account executive.” He did a quick two-step on a residual smoldering coal and ground his heel into my wife’s prized rug. It was ruined.
“I only wanted to be an author,” I whined.
“You wished for success in writing. That is different.” He flicked lint from a lapel and studied his manicure. “Consider the pickle,” said Prosper, “in its progression from a humble garden vegetable to picklehood. Spiced, diced, plucked, peeled, steeped and cooked in a jar, yes? For now, you are a cucumber — not much going on, just waiting.”
I considered the cucumber.
“Let’s cut to the cheese,” said Prosper. “I am decidedly subfusc and awash in a sea of despair. Clothes may make the man but hats make the demon. Artemis wants the hat back. The Helmet of Cleptath.”
“Your colander? She is draining pasta?” I asked with sugary innocence.
The demon threw his arms into the air and then clutched at his heart. I had hit a nerve. Prosper’s little shoulders heaved as he wept. What the hell I figured, mice emote.
“Pliny the Elder says I am a fool to seek mortal assistance. But I have faith in you, Jim. Are you acquainted with the exemplary acting skills of Walter Pidgeon?”
I recalled him as an old-time leading man, a movie star when I was a kid.
“It was classic movie night in the demons’ pantry. Artemis slipped in to catch the second feature. And there he was, Walter Pidgeon, wearing a homburg. On the screen, I mean. Her Worshipfulness lost it, plop, right there on the linoleum. And Sean Connery — when he wears a homburg, it really twists her knickers. She became a regular at our movie nights. Having management hanging around puts a crimp in our otherwise freewheeling high spirits, if you get my drift.”
“She was baiting you to get your colander, the Helmet of Cleptath, back?”
“You betcha, buddy. She’s got a new attitude and she’s wearing a homburg hat. Struts buck naked through the firmament with the homburg on her head and her head in the clouds. You’d think a homburg hat would be sufficient for any goddess. But now she wants her old hat back, too. From me.”
Prosper indicated the beribboned colander on his head. “The Helmet of Cleptath.” The sobbing began anew. Prosper pulled a tiny kerchief out of his sleeve.
“We have been challenged,” said the demon, getting his blubbering under control. “Now, a challenge in Paradise is, by definition, unusual, perfection and all. But, be that as it may, the Divine Artemis has got a feather up her royal ass over losing her hat to a mouse. She challenged me to miniature golf. In Paradise, personal differences have been traditionally settled by miniature golf. I hate golf of any size. My weapon of choice was duckpins. As the challenged, I got first call.
“Pliny the Elder is her second. I would you were mine. There’s a Volvo wagon in it for you. The celestial playoffs will be at Dinwiddie’s Chuck-A-Bowl Lanes in Taunton, Massachusetts. You will also show me how to wire the Helmet for two-way communication. Police and fire calls, you know, keeping in touch…”
“If we win.”
“Of course we’ll win. Trust me.”
“And if we lose?”
“You die. I volunteered you. I have your signature on file. Remember?”
I remembered. Don’t sign anything you haven’t read. I was at the mercy of a mouse.
“Death is neutral,” said Prosper reassuringly. “Either you are or you aren’t. The means thereto are usually nasty and frequently spectacular. You should feel special. Most lives are lived like tire fires at the town dump. Years of smoldering, then a plume of gas ignites for a flashy finish when there is nobody around to notice.”
I tried feeling special.
“The guys and I got our heads together and we thought we’d call on you. You owe us one,” said the demon.
“Pliny wouldn’t help? As your adversary’s second, isn’t he supposed to negotiate any difficulties, iron out the paperwork, so to speak?”
“Conflict of interests. Gaius Plinius Secundus, naturalist, bon vivant, general, senator, etc., etc., was pledged to Artemis. We needed a fallback strategy. That’s you. If you should lose, and of course, you won’t,” Prosper slipped in unconvincingly “... a hubcap from a ‘38 Dodge sedan should do the trick. We’ll just negotiate a swap.”
Over my dead body. My body, probably smoldering like the rug. Prosper babbled on as he expanded my vocabulary of affliction.
“Artemis is wild for chrome. See, Valentine, Feng Shui and I were watching Antiques Road Show and...”
“Hold on. A chrome hubcap? This is what my life, my hopes and aspirations, all I have worked and struggled for, are worth? You will trade her a hubcap for the hat after I am toast?”
“That’s about right,” said the demon cheerily. “Meet the gang.”
Four new mouse demons popped up like unwanted advertising. “I am in uncertain waters, careerwise, so I got the fellows here together for some brainstorming. Jim Everhardy, meet Valentine, Tantrum, Elapse, Feng Shui.”
“Hello, Flopsy. Hello, Mopsy. Cottontail, how do you do? And… Feng Shui?”
“The very same,” said Prosper. A diffident demon in a red fez took a bow from the end of the line.
“You see, at my performance review, a Certain Personage was disappointed that you chose skills with ephemera over His Volvo wagon. Volvo wagons are a hot item, and I’m supposed to be pushing them. Gracewise for demons, a disappointed Personage is no fun to be around. Well, you’ve got to walk before you can strut. Trust me.”
“Oh, of course.”
I just love it when I read that. It usually means the author is running out of toner. Anyway, time didn’t pass. Not for me. We were out of doors and the wind was whipping up the trapdoor of the comfy red flannel union suit I wear when I am at home and being creative. A neon sign flashed “Chuck-A-Bowl.” We were at the far end of a strip mall somewhere in exurbia. Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Feng Shui were nowhere to be seen.
Prosper pulled at the cuff of my union suit. “Now, let’s get our story straight. What we want from her is…”
“We? What’s this ‘we want’? Hey, you want.”
There was the clearing of a heavenly throat. A radiant woman strode toward Dinwiddie’s Chuck-A-Bowl. She was naked under an unfastened mink coat that flew open at each step.
“Shrewd, nude and lewd. Here comes the divine presence Herself, all greased and ready to kick some mortal ass,” said Prosper.
Mortal ass. I noticed the demon’s equation left Prosper, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Feng Shui safe above the high water mark,après nous le déluge-wise.
“I am here.” Artemis inspected the guttering neon sign. “This is truly the Land of Milk and Caviar,” she said of Taunton, Massachusetts, and blessed their efforts. Marring her beauty, Artemis’ lip had a curl to it, a slight inflection that made her look haughty and supercilious, like a banker about to break wind. She narrowed her eyes and wrinkled her nose, making an arch of the freckles across its bridge. “Mink becomes my legend most,” said Herself.
The coat wriggled.
“Strikes and spares it is, then? Well, me boyos, bring on your balls. I’m fair itching to have a go,” said the goddess.
If she had an itch it wasn’t psoriasis. My eyes rolled over her body, memorizing. No rashes present. Her itchy balls analogy did chime a familiar chord, though. I reached to scratch. Prosper waved me a caution sign — crotch scratching might be misinterpreted. “Jim Everhardy. How do you do?” was the best I could come up with. We shook hands.
“So much for bonding, let’s bowl,” said the Lady of the Wild Things. She spun on a heavenly heel and the coat swirled to cover her. “Shall we go indoors?”
With all that mink blocking my view, I checked the coat. Thirty pairs of beady little eyes stared back. The pelts were alive. Tails twitched. Artemis’ coat was giving me the once-over.
Artemis noted their interest. “Ranch mink have little to look forward to but a lot of sex, hormone-laced burger meat and then coathood. These guys are wild. Even so, I like to see they get out every now and again.”
Once we were inside, Artemis made a gesture, the effortless articulation of a perfectly proportioned wrist that indicated noblesse oblige, and we all were grateful. The minks jumped ship and headed for the crispy snacks spread out in the Chuck-A-Bowl’s refreshments area. The Divine Personage’s coat melted and flowed to the floor as the boys scrambled for the Cheetos and pickled eggs. Now that the coat had bailed out, I stared.
“Yes, I do look splendid in a hat,” the Lady observed.
I agreed wholeheartedly. Artemis got right down to the business at hand. She seemed to have brought along a basket full of bowling gear.
Prosper whispered hoarsely up at me. “Jim, watch the minks. Make sure they don’t get nasty. They are feral creatures. To them I may be just another mouse.”
“I get it. The Helmet of Cleptath is turned off or whatever. You are powerless.”
“Only for the duration of the tournament. Hold down the fort. I’m off to get Her Wonderfulness angry with me and hopefully off her game with rage.”
“Leaving me to win by brawn and native wit.”
“That’s why I chose you,” said Prosper, “muscle power.”
The Lady of the Wild Things, Ephesian Diana, et cetera, et cetera, sniffled and held the Number Five candlepin high above her, studying its curves against the Chuck-A-Bowl’s fluorescent lighting.
“An invocation for our games,” said Artemis, “one of my favorites and I hope it’s yours, too.” She took a deep bow revealing not much more than we had already enjoyed. She was now a piano bar hostess working the house. Her arms were extended and she held the pose. “You will join me, won’t you?”
“There was a man, Joe Bangles, and he did a dance.
He changed his pants
Once a year.
Ooh, ooh, ooh…
Mister Joe Bangles, dance…
Kicked off his shoes, he couldn’t lose,
He had no clues.
Ooh, ooh, ooh.
The pants were new, the shirt was, too.
Your mind is weak, so shuck those sneaks.
I bless this alley, please don’t dally.”
Artemis sat splat down on the floor as Pliny the Elder passed her the rosin bag. This might be a part of the ceremony. I sat, too, and removed my shoes and socks. She dusted the soles of her feet. Prosper offered me a rosin bag and I waved him off. He gave me a wink that suggested this was the correct option. “Okay, let’s kick some mouse ass,” said Artemis as she bounced to her feet. She chucked a ball with an underhanded throw that would have done her proud in women’s international league softball. The ball flew through the air, hit the lane 40 feet down and smashed the pins flat, scattering them to the left and right.
“Well, that one cleared out the deadwood.” She glanced meaningfully at Prosper and me. “Lucky for you two we’re just warming up.”
“She’s supposed to bowl the ball, not throw it,” Prosper whispered. “But she makes the rules.”
“Shouldn’t you object?” I whispered back.
I shut up. Subject closed. My turn, I guessed. I lost the ball in my backswing. It went flying behind us where the minks cleared the bar, diving for safety. “Whoops,” I said.
“Sweaty palms? queried the goddess. “Here, use my towel.” Pliny the Elder leaned close to Artemis. She nodded and spoke to me. “The worthy Pliny informs me you are inexperienced at candlepin bowling. Perhaps we should take a break for cocktails. But first, let’s get you a handicap.”
I looked desperately to Prosper.
“She means she will give you a couple of pins advantage because you’re new at this.”
Pliny again whispered to the goddess. “I shall give you pins seven and ten,” said Artemis. “Hit or miss, they won’t count.”
Sounded good to me, but Prosper was shaking his head. “Tell her you will go straight up. By the rules we need six strings to establish an average for a new bowler’s handicap. She’s parsing out a Las Vegas standoff. Pliny is trying to disqualify us.”
After three frames the score stood at them 90, us zero. The goddess had been rolling consecutive strikes.
“Let’s have that booze break.” Prosper beckoned me as he sauntered over to the refreshments area. “Hie thee here, tapster, some nut brown ale for me and my homunculus.” The tapster slid us a bowl of salted cashews. This was followed down the bar by two chilled margarita glasses.
“Ahem.” Prosper cleared his throat. The bartender, who seemed not to notice that he was selling drinks to an eight-inch tall mouse in an Errol Flynn suit, looked mildly startled and vacant, like a senior citizen who had forgotten this was meatloaf day.
“Sorry, sir.” He brought us two coasters and placed them under the margaritas.
“No offence taken,” said Prosper. The bartender appeared relieved.
Minor Lovegrove and Lydia, his missus, were bowling in the next alley. They joined us at the bar for some refreshment. Their embroidered satin team shirts bore the family crest, a tree with a heart carved into the bark.
“How do?” said Prosper. The Lovegroves nodded and smiled with the same vacant, unconcerned look as the bartender. Nothing out of the ordinary here, just a mouse and a man wearing red flannel underwear bowling with a naked lady and an old coot wrapped in a toga. Prosper produced a small plastic squeeze bottle from beneath his cloak. He pressed it into my hand. “Put some of this on your balls. You get three this frame.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The bowling balls, you ninny. Grease the track. A fast alley will give you the edge we need.”
Unnoticed, Pliny the Elder had snuck up on us to eavesdrop. The bartender brought another mug of beer and a coaster.
“I know. You want to get back to Paradise and your cable TV,” said Prosper.
“We’ll try to get you back as soon as possible.”
“Her Effulgence really, really wants to win this one,” said Pliny.
“When a building is about to fall down, all the mice desert it. Your own Natural History, Book VIII. Right, Pliny?”
Artemis’ second turned to Prosper with an appreciative bow. “Ruinis inminentibus musculi praemigrant, aranei cum telis primi cadunt, Prosper. May I assume you’re quoting my own work at me to signify you are in this fiasco to the bitter end?”
“Oleo tranquillari… You said that in Book II.”
“Ah, yes. Oil on the waters in a troubled situation. You, Sir Mouse, are slick as a chiropractor on roller skates.”
I nudged Prosper. “What the hell is going on?”
“Shut up and bowl,” replied the mouse demon.
I approached the line and scuffled my bare, un-rosined feet on the alley, testing the purchase. Nothing but purchase. I could not slide. Rosin residue from the goddess’ pitches gripped me tight to the floor. With each step I had to lift the soles of my feet up like a deep sea diver walking through a kelp bed. Prosper saw my problem. “Bring your ball and let’s get back up to the bar. We’ll get you cleaned off.”
I picked a house ball from the return trough and sauntered to the bar. The minks had gotten into the pearl onions and maraschino cherries. As they rolled about, spraying their musk, the scene looked like a slaughter of eyeballs painted by a crack addict. The bartender was oblivious, happily polishing stemware with a bar towel.
“Wipe your feet, Jim. Then run like hell, stop and let go of the ball when I tell you. You might stop short and fall on your face, so hold onto your nose. For luck,” he added. Prosper gave his colander a quarter turn and mumbled an exhortation in what sounded like an ancient language. A mink bit me and I hurtled forward.
“Foul line! Stop!” shouted the mouse demon. I stopped, remembering to let go of the ball. Leftover rosin grabbed at my feet. I clutched my nose as I careened head first into the floor. The 2½ pound candlepin ball flew forward in a fireball curve. I noticed it pick up speed as I slid right up to, but not over, the foul line. When the ball connected, the number seven and ten pins dodged while the others fell. The ball rebounded from the bumpers and returned to take them down, too.
And then we had to face the wrath of the goddess. And me with a bloody nose.
Artemis, the Lady of the Wild Things, Ephesian Diana, etc., etc., was collecting her minks and packing to leave. She seemed in a good mood, for a disappointed Personage.
She handed me a large basket. “If you are here to cut a deal, you are too late. You really should get that nose looked after. Behold! Ecce Bocce: a bowling alley. What a shabby field of honor! The fields of my epistemology are awash with mice, beer and salted nuts.”
She wriggled her shoulders. “You think you have a role to play among your betters. Well, you don’t. As you go through life, Jim Everhardy, remember the parting words of the Lady of the Wild Things: Be careful what you wish for.”
I hadn’t wished for anything. This time at least. I spoke up. “Uhn…”
“Speak up, you ninny,” thundered Artemis.
“I was just minding my own business...”
“No excuse. Not valid. Shut up. You were sucked into Prosper’s machinations by a vortex of avarice.”
“I find you guilty of betting on a corrupted sporting event. I told Pliny to tip you off about the greased ball maneuver. You are therefore guilty as charged.”
“But we won.”
There was a smattering of applause from the Lovegroves in the neighboring alley. Artemis stared them to silence.
“Madam…” Pliny was edging in for a word. “If I might get a word in, edgewise as it were?”
“Not even sideways, you doddering old letch. Keep your noble Roman mouth zippered if you ever want to watch another Girls Gone Wild.”
Pliny persisted. “They did win. You cheated; they cheated. So it would appear you are even. And screw cable.”
“Precisely. You, Gaius Plinius Secundus, are sentenced to spend what remains of your eternity watching paint dry.”
At this, the preeminent natural scholar went ballistic. Screaming, “An indulgence, Madam!” Pliny reached beneath his purple-bordered toga and, in a fit of pique, drew forth a hubcap and skimmed it at the goddess’ head. I closed my eyes and sent a silent prayer winging heavenward.
“A ’38 Dodge, chrome and all!” cried Artemis. “And intact, too. Museum quality. The old hidden hubcap trick, not unheard of in dirty bowling. Leave it to a statesman. Ball greaser!” One superbly formed arm shot forth and caught the hurtling hubcap in mid flight. “It doesn’t matter if you won or lost,” said the goddess. “I want all the hats. And whatever Lola wants…” She snatched the colander off Prosper’s head and tossed it aloft along with her homburg and the ’38 Dodge hubcap. Dots of light reflected from the polished chrome sparkled and bobbed on the ceiling.
“You can’t slight perfection,” said Artemis, sister of Apollo, as she juggled the three hats, “The homburg is perfect.” She took the hats gracefully out of aerobatic rotation, bouncing them one by one off the back of a heel.
“I shall keep the hats.” The supercilious curl returned to Artemis’ celestial lip, this time with an evil tic she didn’t even attempt to get under control. “But I am willing to share,” said the goddess with a self-congratulatory chuckle.
“Prosper, here’s your new apollonian chapeau.” Artemis tossed the chrome hubcap at the mouse demon. “I’ll be keeping my colander, and my homburg too. Everhardy, begone. Pliny, you too. I banish you to the 21st Century. Prosper, I want words. Stay.”
Well, that’s about the story. Ask me about the shelf life of a live mink. Go ahead. Pliny and I passed the hat and washed dishes to get back to my place. We made the last leg by bus. The minks tracked us all the way. I visualized polecats, ferrets, weasels, the wild cousins of the goddess’ coat, lining the road and cheering the lads on, up the New England coastline. The coatful of minks must have raided one hell of a lot of chicken coops. On the bright side, they have since cleared our neighborhood of mice and rats. That’s right — no more Prosper, Flopsy, Mopsy, Feng Shui or Cottontail either. Like I might have said, negotiating with the gods is playing house rules against house odds. I have tried to get the hubcap off, but every time I try, the computer crashes.
And so it is I am writing again, in the time I free up by being good at writing inventory control codes. Be careful what you wish for, even if it’s only for a better mousetrap. We put up with Pliny, and I wear my hubcap all the time.
Even to bed.
An Unwarmed Fish »
the 3rd Prosper story
The Perfect Homburg was first published in the March/April 2003 issue of Demensions-Doorways to Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Donna Thiel-Cook.