OCTOBER 26, 2014
THE ANNUAL DRAWING OF STRAWS
So anyway, once again the time came around for the Annual Drawing of Straws. Each year the Editor calls the entire pressroom together for the chance drawing that will determine who must make the dreadful crossing to the Other Side on the last night of Los Dias de Los Muertos, the night ending the seven day period when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. There, the staffer is charged to consult with the Departed so as to glean news or portent of what is to come in the following year.
This information, is of course, a valuable bit of data for any self-respecting Editor.
The procedure does not vary much from year to year, save in those years some people feel, for some unexplained reason, they do not want to go face to face in conversation with dead people. Then the Editor has to go and ferret these cowards out from wherever they have secreted themselves so as to get the ball rolling, make the show go on, preserve Tradition, and get the job firmly done.
Rachel, the Administrative Assistant cum sandwiches and beer fetcher, carrys around the battered fedora hat with the straws to each staffer wherever they may be. Even Festus, the messenger, is required perforce to take his chances.
"Boss, I am a hamster! How can I talk to people!"
"You talkin' to me?" The Editor said.
"Ahhhh! I should never have let on I can do the human speech; it's always bad for the animal. Look what happened to Mister Ed -- farmed out to a circus dog and pony show at the end of his days. Our lives are nothing but abuse. . .".
"Shut up and sit down and take your straw."
"That's what they said to Mr. Ed."
The one year two people went was the year when the main loser in this bad contest had a broken leg and so Jose had to push Denby's wheelchair literally through the gates of Hell.
How was it, people asked Jose.
"It really, really sucked!" Jose answered. And no more about it would he ever say to anyone. The following year he hid in the toilet stall until somebody came to drag him out, kicking and screaming and crying like a baby.
This year, what with the protracted lack of "Recovery" from the dismal Great Recession, which many claimed had not ceased at all, but only slackened once a President with some intelligence got sent to the White House, people sat around the Pressroom with cups of coffee and ibuprofen and here and there the distinctive blue dots of Valium, resigned to the terrible news, staring with lackluster eyes devoid of hope.
As it so happened the drawing occurred on the night when the big dockwalloper hit the Island, the remnants of a typhoon which had given Japan some trouble a week ago, and so as events unfolded, torrents of rain came down in a howling wind outside and every once in a while the lights flickered as if about to go out entirely. They didn't but it sure added to the atmosphere of doom and gloom that pervaded the place.
As the hat passed around, Rachel stepping with the gracile movements of a dance instructor between the desks, each drew and breathed a sigh of relief as they compared their straw with that of a neighbor, which was the best way to defuse the tension that built until the final straw.
They need not have worried, save for the slim possibility that chance would upset Tradition, for according to Tradition, each and every year, the same man always loses. That man is always Denby, who accepts his fate with sad resignation. After all the straws are drawn and it is clear who must take on the quest, people clap the man on his back, wishing him well with high hysterically relieved voices and the high pitched, forced laughter of people who have been released from a monstrous fate. They all wish him well with sympathies, but mutter under their breath, "My god am I glad it's not me!"
Festus scampers back to his immense Habitot home, a home constructed of hundreds of feet, perhaps thousands, of clear plastic Habitot tubing that snakes around the rooms, up the stairs, loops over itself and joins pathways to pathways with crossconnects and hutch stations, all purchased over the past decade by various staffers who have been adding to this structure every week with more pieces of that famous pet store item to the point that in the Pressroom, it is the people who live and work in an enclosure while all around them Festus and his companions roam with far more freedom in their own home. Some people might claim that the Island-Life offices are not your usual pressrooms.
Jose pops up with a question. "My straw is shorter than all the others, but still not so short as Denby's. What can this mean?"
"O! Glad you reminded me! That means you must be the one to start the Island-Life Contraption for this year's Flyover."
Jose's response was violent and immediate. "Aaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeaaaaahhhhhh!" Then he fell down weeping.
"Now Jose, at least it is not as bad as going to Hell," Denby said.
"Perdido gabachos! Last time I broke both legs my left arm and lost nearly my life!" Jose said.
"Now, now Jose. It's been over four years, almost five, since the last flyover and we are about due for another, given all the things which have changed here. And you have had plenty of time to recover and learn how to walk normally again," said the Editor.
After that, Denby went over to the Old Same Place Bar to take the edge off of things. Somehow the word had gotten out -- in a small town, bad news travels faster than the Special Delivery Postman -- and so they all edged away from him there at the bar, giving him the hairy eyeball and whispering among themselves with awe and fear and perhaps a little respect -- but not too much of that, as respect is hard earned around here. Even the hookers held back and became almost demure in his presence. Almost.
Suzie, who simply could not resist this one time, mixed up a cocktail for him that is called the Corpse Reviver, but she did not tell him the name, only that it was something to help lift the spirits when you feel deadened. By life, of course. By Life.
For those of you who simply must know, we spare the Google search by saying the plain Corpse Reviver cocktail is a cognac-based cocktail, with two parts cognac, one part Calvados or equivalent apple brandy, and one part sweet vermouth. It is a family of cocktails with many variations. At the Old Same Place Bar the habit was to make it neat in a cocktail glass with equal parts gin, lemon juice, Cointreau, Kina Lillet, and a dash or two of absinthe from the local distillery. Suzie paused a moment before dumping a goodly half jigger of absinthe into the mixer.
So when Denby left the bar he was in fine fettle, feeling much better about the world and all his misfortunes. Officer O'Madhauen noticed this, for it was his habit to park kitty-corner from the bar on the small sidestreet, angling both for speeders and for DUI. He set his Crown Vic in gear in hopes that he would observe the man get into a car and attempt to drive, but Denby never had owned a car in his life, well briefly he owned a VW microbus he shared with Diane, the Hippie Poet, but she left him for a member of the Hells Angels and took the minibus with her only to have the transaxle break at the Tehachapi Divide on a sweltering day in August because she always wanted to paint her nails and snort cocaine rather than allow basic vehicle maintenance get in the way of having fun.
In any case Denby kept on walking unsteadily past several parked cars and clearly had no intention of allowing himself to be pulled over for DUI, so Officer O'Madhauen worked on the pedestrian error possibility of a ticket and so parked his own vehicle to watch for a jaywalking incident, but when it came time to cross, Denby stumbled on up to the crosswalk at Sherman Street, where O'Madhauen hoped for a crossing against the light violation. Denby stood there gazing upward and when the light changed, went ahead and ambled legally across, staring up into the sky.
At the next intersection, near the Forbidden Island bar, Denby paused and remained staring up at the sky. So Officer O'Madhauen set himself quickly into gear and drove up to park his black and white and leaning out the window, hoping for at least an intoxicated in public offense, asked if Denby had been drinking.
"Not a drop," Denby said. "I am a total teetotaler."
This dumbfounded the straightforward O'Madhauen. "I just saw you walk out of a bar. Don't deny it."
"Yes, I was delivering a message. I am a part time delivery boy. That is what I do." Denby paused. "I notice your shirt is not buttoned up all the way. In fact it looks buttoned up a bit askew. Have you taken anything, like painkillers or something from the evidence locker?"
"I . . . nevermind. It's you walking around staring up at nothing we are concerned about. . . ".
"I was looking to see if there would be any more Super Moon like they have been talking about in the news. There is nothing wrong with that."
"Just do as I say and you won't get hurt," said the Officer.
"So you are going to kill me for jaywalking?"
"So you admit you were jaywalking. Ha!"
"Did you observe me jaywalking? I think I walked with the light. You know you really should fix your shirt buttons. They will not help your case."
"Nevermind all that, get out of your car . . . O for pete's sake skip that, put your hands on the hood and spread 'em!" Officer O'Madhauen said, opening his door and getting out of the cruiser while withdrawing his nightstick as curious onlookers peeped at this show from behind curtains.
"Um, whose hood? You'rs?" Denby began to realize he was in a dangerous situation in America. Do as I say and you will not be hurt, means in this day and age, this encounter may very well end badly.
A call came in from dispatch that an armed robbery was in progress at the Chuckee Cheese on Webster with a 2921, firearm weapon present.
Officer O'Madhauen responded with "Suspected DUI in custody. Returning to Station."
The radio commanded him to let the DUI go and respond ASAP on code to Webster and provide backup. Meanwhile the led on the dashcam recording his interaction with Denby glowed bright red. The distinct pop-pop sound of gunfire drifted on the air from a few blocks away.
Officer O'Madhauen cursed in language that is typically not used at community pancake breakfasts with the Citizens and let Denby go with the warning, "I am gonna have my eye on you!", before racing off with all sirens blazing in answer to the more serious call.
"Don't forget to fix your shirt!" Denby shouted.
It was in that moment there came the eerie ululation of the throughpassing
train from far across the water as it trundled from the gantries of the Port
of Oaktown with their sentry lights along First Street, letting its cry keen
across the waves of the estuary, the riprap embankments, the grasses of the
Buena Vista flats and the open spaces of the former Beltline, through the cracked
brick of the former Cannery with its leaf-scattered loading dock, its ghost-haunted,
weedy railbed, its chainlink fence interstices until the locomotive click-clacked
past the shuttered doors of the Jack London Waterfront, headed off out of shadows
on the edge of town past the old Ohlone shellmounds under the gaze of the lucky
moon to parts unknown.
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