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Summer 2007 [Issue No. 12]

FICTION

 

 

Fish and Birds, the Magazine ▪► J.C. Frampton

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The old man wanted to lie down and rest. After three intense hours with his stamps, he was tired. Such intense pleasure from the newly acquired sky-blue Abyssinia 1933 air mail, predating the arrival of Mussolini. An especial joy was the flesh-colored Magyarország (Hungary) 1948 bearing a crude likeness of Poe, described in Magyar, as best as he could translate, as "The father of the horror story."

He stretched out on the living-room divan, which Sheree had recently slip-covered so piquantly in a dogwood-cum-raven pattern. Pure comfort, he thought, embracing the earliest intimations of a doze … ah. Yet the world, as it was wont, conspired against his little pleasures. His bladder, always perturbed these humid days of late summer, sent him hastening to the powder room. After his flush the toilet kept running, till he untangled the cheap metal chain and repositioned the blubbery night-black flap, leaving his hands mucky with decomposed rubber. It took several efforts with cleanser to only partially remove the pitch stain.

Passing the kitchen, he noticed a large orange moth frantically orbiting the overhead bulb. For several minutes he stalked and swatted with a rolled-up newspaper, finally achieving success at the expense of a dusty smear on the still unread obituary section and its mirror image on the ornately carved door to his neo-Empire wine cabinet.

The doorbell rang. Patience, indubitably, was being tested.

Awaiting him with obvious eagerness was a young man, barely past early youth and wearing a soiled baseball cap for a minor-league team long defunct, the Jackson City Jesters. Yet another hearty salesperson defying the "No Solicitors" sign. If he sold enough, the young man would get to go to Hawaii -- Maui to be exact -- for a fun-filled vacation. (He had actually described it as a "fun-filled vacation." A one-time pulp-meister for whom language was as fascinating as stamps, omens and ornithology, Edgar noted, not for the first time, how easily one assimilated advertising twaddle, if not into everyday parlance, then at least into what was intended to pass as such.)

The young Jesters fan said he lived on the same street, but Edgar had never seen him before and suspected this was another commercial lie one was expected to swallow uncritically. When he said he was sorry but not interested, the young man quickly responded, "I have enough interest for both of us. It's called youthful enthusiasm, zip, go-get-em, y'know." He looked at his prospect as if saying, "Can you top that one?"

Edgar said firmly, "No, thank you, young man."

The young man insisted. "I'm the sort who just can't take no for an answer." Edgar began to close his door but the young salesman thrust out his list of magazines or books or religious goods and insisted he review it. "Any publitrabble in relatopsis you want I can fix you up, from Time to Trailer Life to Crypt Maintenance Digest."

Edgar shook his head with fatigue and vexation, and said he was growing impatient, yet still hoped to keep their conversation cordial. He said he never bought anything at his door and he wished his visitor would leave immediately.

"Do you think I like doing this?" the young man blurted. "Knocking on the doors of strangers, disturbing them most unwelcomely, and trying to interest them in these badoodleprammers and glaspenscutlems? What do they care about what I'm selling? About my career needs? I've been going since eight a.m. this morning. My legs are tired and my feet are sore and burning. Humidity at least a hundred-ten outside. And sticky. Don't you think I have better things to do right now? I'm also taking courses at the community college and I have a mid-term on content production coming up quicker than a goiter on steroids. You see, I have only thirty-two more to sell and I qualify for the finals."

This fellow was exquisitely trained in home-life disruption, Edgar was thinking. Commercium omnia vincit.

Extending his right hand in the decisive manner of political candidates, the young man said, "Here, let's shake hands and get off again on the right foot."

Trying not to raise his voice, Edgar said, "I have had enough of this. There is no need for further formalities. I have a sign just to your right -- do you see it? -- saying 'No Solicitors,' and that's what it means. Please leave my property immediately. I should also mention that I and my lovely partner, while not always in full accord, are uncritical, dues-paying members of the NRA."

The young man looked at him sadly, plainly seeing a lost soul, and said, with manifest abandonment of veracity, "I love you, sir."

Edgar cringed yet again at the destruction of the language and honest emotion at the hands of the profit-driven, an inevitability Adam Smith in his wisdom had not foreseen.

"Because of that, I want to make sure you, sir, get the best in this particular line. Every one of these is being offered at a cut-rate price and is the highest quality obtainable. Can I let you miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Not on your tintype, as my at-risk-youth role model used to say."

"Nothing you have to offer is of the slightest concern to me, young man. How can you stand there and continue to torment someone doing his best to be civil with you?"

 “Let me tell you about most of the people I meet,” the young man said. “Once I’ve interrupted their day so unpleasantly, they generally -- with effort, patience, creativity and indefatigable resilience on my part -- respond to my fresh youth, and zealous, upbeat manner. Especially women, who are most of whom I meet. If they say they just don't have the money, I offer to put them on the installment plan; if they say they can't read, then I tell them about the wonderful pictures so many of these have; if they say their husbands make all the decisions in this regard, then I say let's go ahead and sign up and here's my phone number and you call me right away if the old man says no and, if the order hasn't gone off to Cincinnati, I'll try to cancel it. I've sold twenty-seven people already today. It’s true, some chintzy characters decide they don't want to help a rising young man who lives on their block, don't want to be part of another person's economic advancement, actually slam the door in my face, but then when I knock again, with a couple of pre-tested jokes for such an occasion they, more often than not, laugh and sigh and I'm off and rolling. A person such as you, with contained, gentlemanly determination, is probably the hardest nut to crack --"

"Is that why I'm getting the Cadillac close?" Edgar asked without humor.

"No, sir, to be honest, this is all me. This is one energetic, diligent, conscientious young American pouring out his soul to try to make you begin -- only begin, I emphasize -- to see his side of the merchandizing equation."

Edgar slammed the door shut and, for added punctuation, threw the deadbolt. Standing in his bare foyer wearily, slightly trembling, Edgar recalled that years ago he had succumbed to a not dissimilar approach by a fetching young redhead whom he actually allowed, on her bold request -- perhaps no compliment to his seductive powers -- to enter his home. He had purchased a two-year subscription, the kind she got the most credit for selling, she said, of Fish and Birds or some such publication, gave her cash on the spot and had never received a single copy. He headed for the divan once more, rotating his shoulders slowly in an effort to relax his muscles.

The doorbell rang again. Reluctantly, he slowly cracked the door. It was, of course, the same young man, the same filthy baseball cap, the same dreadnaught ebullience.

"I thought I'd give you a couple minutes to cool off, sir," he said. "Think how bad you'd feel if you'd done that to Jesus Christ. He is my Savior as well as yours. Do you think I don't have any feelings? But I can forgive you."

"I thought I got a joke," Edgar said, thinking, Is this me going through this ordeal?

"Maybe later," the young man replied. "I'm into total sincerity right now. Now let's get started all over again. All I'm asking is for you to take a look at my list. Then, if your answer is no, I can accept it because I'll know I have done my job to the utmost, and only the list has failed, not me."

Edgar knew he'd never even doze now. He remembered his chagrin when weeks, then months passed by and no Birds and Fish, or whatever it was, arrived in his mail, with the best writers and photographers in all of America represented, some having risked life and limb to capture the perfect shot of the most "arcane" species.

"I truly am under no circumstances going to purchase a magazine subscription from you, young man."

"Sir, you have no idea of the frustrations that come with this job, how difficult it is to crawl out of bed each morning to face the rejections, the scorn, the castigations, the later repercussions that accompany my profession. There are actually whole days when I do not sell one subscription. You say, ‘How come twenty-seven sales today and none on others?’ Well, it's the law of averages, or regression to the mean. Some math b.s., but you can't argue with it. You may not realize it, but this is actually a very nice neighborhood compared to some I work in. There are people I meet who truly do not know where their next meal is coming from. Yet I still make a determined effort to bring them the information, the entertainment, the relaxation produced by a good magazine. I may strive even harder than I do in a really wealthy neighborhood where some people, face it, may have more entertainment than they need and -- "

"Do you, son," Edgar broke in, fixing the young man's eyes with his, "have the ability to provide me with any periodical publication in America?"

The young man looked puzzled. "Yeah, sure I can," he said finally. “Whatever the customer wants, Motley Enterprises can deliver, with bells on."

"Come in and have a seat in my living room, young man," Edgar said, trying to be businesslike and not sound conspiratorial, or even giddy. The young man smiled broadly and followed him into his neat but modest home. "Would you like a can of soda, young man, before we get down to business?"

"What have you got?" he replied, with some hesitation. "Any Sprite? I also like Mountain Dew."

"I believe I have a 7-Up from the last big social event I threw," Edgar said. "Ginger ale, also. A top brand."

"I'll take a 7-Up then. Ice, if it's not cold."

"Ice? Surely," Edgar responded. He returned with an iced 7-Up and placed it before the young man, who to Edgar's pleasure seemed increasingly uneasy with Edgar's volte-face in solicitor relations. "I know you could go for a cookie," Edgar said. "I have chocolate-chunk and macadamia with butterscotch bits. Also, molasses with plump organic raisins and hard vanilla icing, my personal favorite. Both are excellent."

"Yes, thanks," the young man said. " The macadamia sounds good. I only grabbed a burger on the run for lunch. "

Edgar returned with two cookies on a small silver plate and the young man quickly downed one. "The nuts are from the islands," Edgar said pleasantly, "which I thought you would appreciate. Is that easy chair comfortable? If not, you might try this cushioned rocking chair I'm sitting in. It's quite nice."

The young man looked at him a little strangely and waved him off, taking a sip of 7-Up and removing his list from one big side pocket of his cargo shorts. "What would you like to order?" he asked uncertainly, avoiding Edgar's avid gaze.

"Fish and Birds," Edgar said.

"Let me look. Sounds good, all right … I remember some other character, a fruity sort, was interested in canaries and ordered a Birds and Something a couple months ago. Hmm. I don't find it right off the bat here but I admit I lost some of the pages in an argument with this guy last week."

"A two-year subscription," Edgar added. "Start me as soon as possible."

"A great choice," the young man said. "I mean, who's not interested in fish and birds, the terrific lives they lead, I mean. I'll bet you'll learn a lot about them when you start getting this magazine. Probably some swell pictures too."

"I was figuring on that," Edgar said. "Lots of pictures would please me no end."

"Probably takes an ecological point of view, I'd imagine, rain forests, conservation and all, y'know, and endangered species. Maybe even that Al Gore warming business."

"No doubt all of those."

"Two years, huh? You could go three."

"Two will be just dandy. Now there's one condition," Edgar said.

"Um … condition?"

"Yes, I don't suppose you'd mind that."

"Like, er, what, sir?"

"That you write up my order and place it an envelope with a stamp quickly -- before the cookie takes effect. It will be severe. There is a slight chance it will be fatal."

The young man stood and started toward the door, faltering. "You bullshitting me or what, sir?"

"Would I do that?" Edgar asked with a gentle smile. "Especially to one who has lately protested his love to me?"

 The solicitor recoiled, as if he had seen the Prince of Darkness in full uniform. "What the f… "

"By the way, you can't run away," Edgar said, his face angelic with faux solicitude. "You already consumed that little delicacy I made, chiefly of birdseed laced with rat poison, earmarked for these damn doves that coo outside my bedroom window every morning at five a.m. in perpetual courtship. I confess I absolutely forgot that when I reached for it, swept up in bonhomie as I was. For most birds I profess sincere fondness. I don't mind fish a bit either, nor many other types of biomass, but I'm rather chilly toward importunate creatures, to be honest, especially noisy, implacable, self-impressed ones, such as doves and salesmen."

"Wha … what? What kinda shit is this, sir? Are you serious?" His words were becoming garbled and his hands went to his throat, Edgar thought, rather like a victim in a 1930s co-feature horror movie. He began gagging and then trying to vomit on Edgar's once opulent but now threadbare living-room carpet. He was soon thrashing on the floor, forcefully retching and yet doing a poor job of throwing up much beside brown greasy water and what looked like poorly masticated Burger King fare. But who could be sure?

"You were going to write the order," Edgar said. "Although I suppose you may wish to forget about Maui now as you can expect an extended hospital stay, that is if you are fortunate." Edgar smiled benignly as his partner, Sheree, entered the room, greeting him cheerily. Seeing the lad writhing spasmodically, even vaguely piscatorially, she said with concern, "My word! Is this what they call break dancing?"

"This young man has consumed a rather irresistible cookie regrettably laced with rat poison."

She gave Edgar a long look, shook her head and made a sour expression. "You stinker, Edgar. What a horrid game to play. Young man, young man! This is just a game he likes to play. Forget it. Forget it. He did this foolishness a while back with a fellow who had a dozen bird feeders that attracted pigeons. And yes, once again with a woman whose dogs barked at three a.m. It's, well, like an April Fool thing. You're all right. Although the woman required some psychiatric treatment later. Happily, she had no witnesses and Edgar with his literary background is skilled at dissimilation."

"You mean dissim-u-lation, darling," Edgar said.

"Whatever," Sheree said. "I made those cookies to take to my third-grade party tomorrow. They're fine."

The young man hardly heard her at first, so swept up was he in convulsions. She went and shook him by the shoulders and reiterated her explanation several times until he began to calm down. "You're perfectly okay." She began to help him up.

"Tell her about this swell contest," Edgar said.

The young businessman was wiping his mouth with a handkerchief and finger-combing his hair. His body still quivered. He gave a long, slow look at a poker-faced Edgar but then, straightening up, evidently remembered his professional position, perhaps realizing he had learned a profitable lesson in sales resistance. "You might as well eat your other cookie," said Edgar, still genial.

"No, thank you, sir. One was plenty. Cowabunga, that was an experience. Look at this shirt of mine. I was down there on the floor in agony, sir, no question, and my life was passing before my eyes, sure enough. I was remembering my childhood in the Florida Panhandle, a pleasant time except in hurricane season, and then moving suddenly with my dad and stepmom to Tierra del Fuego, the place they call 'The End of the World.'"

"How fitting," Edgar said. .

"My dad used to joke, 'Out of the Panhandle and into the fire.' He was a lighthouse keeper. Truly an experience, sir, your cookie game, I mean."

"You're wholly welcome," Edgar replied. "Empta dolore docet experiencia, my young friend, experience bought by pain teaches. Was that Virgil or Ovid, Sheree? It doesn't matter. But now let me tell you that another young representative of the publishing industry, a young lady, Megan Ashley Something-or-other, fashionably named, very persuasive, visited my home many years ago and I purchased a two-year subscription to Fish and Birds. It was then only forty-eight dollars and something. But that was a lot of money to me in those days. That might have put food on the table for a week or more. And Sheree and I weren't eating too well in those days. It was a recession or worse and the writing business wasn't going too well. Well, actually, it rarely does. But the bottom line of this sad misadventure is that I never got a single copy. I can't remember clearly but it may have been Motley Enterprises she was associated with. What I want now is for you, as a representative at least of the publishing industry, to give me credit for those two years in writing up my subscription. I want my subscription for free."

"I don't think I can do that," the young man said. "After all, sir, you are forgetting the Statute of Limitations and the Hoot-Smalley Act."

"Fiddlesticks!" Edgar said. "You tell them. I have a customer who's been cheated, tell them. I want my copies, young man. Start me with next month's double issue honoring Jacques Cousteau or Lloyd Bridges or whatever."

"Sir, that fish won't bite."

"Not so fast, young man. I have been a victim of a scam perpetrated by the operation you represent. I want satisfaction."

"Did you report this at the time?"

"Did I? I called the Cincinnati headquarters many times, I wrote letters, I called the Better Business Bureau. Nothing, absolutely -- "

"Look," the young man interrupted, "I'll talk to my district manager about …"

"Get him on the phone right now!" Edgar's voice was becoming more and more passionate and Sheree was trying to quiet him with her gestures to no avail. "There's a phone on the desk to your right. Go right ahead. I'll sit here and listen. Now, young man! Maui awaits you. All expenses paid! Fun-filled. Do you have the phone number of this person?"

"In my wallet, I think."

"Then what are you waiting for? Call now."

The young man with some effort found the district manager's phone number in his ragged wallet and slowly dialed. "Mr. Fortunato, this is Joshua Purlwinkle … You know, like 'Joshua fit de battle' … Joshua L. Purlwinkle -- in subzone U-eleven … I know it's late … Yes, this is an emergency … Right, it's U-eleven, without question. I'm in this old fellow's house, okay … I don't know what part of town it is, over by the trolley repair yard, I think. A kind of lousy neighborhood." Edgar, naturally, frowned and glared at his visitor. Joshua explained Edgar’s request. "Right, Mr. Fortunato, this gentleman demands satisfaction, even some retribution … 'Deeply pissed' is no exaggeration … 'Merchant of Venice?' Well, maybe … But I think more like in that creepy old story about the wine cask in the catacombs. That would seem to be, y'know, on target, from a bookworm standpoint."

Edgar smiled, presuming he was being compared to Shylock, a character for whom he had always maintained a grudging admiration. The allusion to Poe was a further blandishment to his ego. Joshua was then quiet for what seemed to Edgar an interminable period while Mr. Fortunato was apparently speaking or going through his no doubt voluminous catalogs.

"A one-time special offer?" Joshua said, nodding at its incontestability. "Okay, Mr. Fortunato." Turning to Edgar with his hand over the mouthpiece, he said, "Mr. Fortunato says Fish and Birds stopped publication a half-dozen years ago. We still have tons of back copies in the warehouse because people always wanted to order back copies when they missed some great article or picture spread. But not anymore now that they went belly-up like a dead sparrow. Otherwise, we could do this deal for you. But I’m authorized to give you a discount of twenty percent if you wish to order another magazine along the same lines."

"Isn't that a shame," Edgar said. "What poor luck for me, I suppose you and your Mr. Unfortunate are thinking -- "

"Just a minute, Mr. Fortunato’s telling me what we have. Okay, we’ve got," he said, turning again toward Edgar, "Fish and Dogs, Fish and Rodents, Fish and Pachyderms, Insects and Fish, Birds and, what? … Amphibians? … and what was that last one, Mr. Fortunato? Fish and Bats? Okay, that one sounds terrific … how about Fish and Bats, sir? Seventy-eight ninety-five is our special price and, with 20 percent off, you'll be getting this primo publication -- " he began manipulating a small hand-held calculator while shoulder-cradling the receiver -- "for a mere sixty-three, sixteen, plus tax and handling."

"Wonderful," Sheree exclaimed. "We'll take it." Josh gave a two-fisted thumbs-up.

His energy level nearing empty, Edgar felt his resolution dissolve. Suddenly his main interest was putting an end to this travesty of commerce; his stomach for some reason was becoming queasy. Joshua was as triumphant as Napoleon at Austerlitz.  Professional decorum reasserted itself. He thanked Mr. Fortunato with a jaunty "See you soon, Skipper," and hung up.

Edgar decided he had won the first set and lost the second, something like six-love.

"Sweetheart," Sheree exulted, "we'll soon be getting our very own copy of Fish and Bats, with a twenty percent discount yet. I know you'll love it. Bats, you know, can fly into a home through the air-conditioning fan and not get a scratch."

"Oh damn," Edgar exclaimed. "Honey, I just realized -- we already will be getting Fish and Bats. I won it in a drawing on a website in Rumania I like to visit. I missed out on the first prize, a CD album of Eastern Europe's Greatest Funeral Marches. Forget the whole thing, Joshua. But, please, now that you know the truth, go ahead and finish that last cookie before you leave."

"No thank you, sir. One was plenty. The nuts were excellent. But, look here, Fish and Bats is great but Fish and Pachyderms, Mr. Fortunato mentioned, is clearly the best in the field. It recently won the 'Our Wild Friends' award --you know that TV show with all the shots of little furry animals being caught and eaten by baby carnivores -- it won their annual award for best integration of advertising with editorial. Well, you'll be in for a big treat because in two months it's going to have a keepsake issue, with thirty-six extra pages featuring The Elephant Man, with a bunch of really gross out-take photos and scenes from the new director's cut. You wouldn't want to miss it. With a twenty-percent discount, you'll be making out like the bandit in Rashomon. I can figure it out for you real quick. Let me show you a photo of a cover from a recent issue … totally fantastic stuff, even dugongs …"

Edgar's stomach was now churning. This event was taking on a life of its own, as permanent and intransigent as shingles. But Sheree's interest was definitely piqued, he could tell. And her birthday was in a couple weeks; he had settled on a new pair of chenille slippers with pink puffballs but if she really wanted this …

"And they've just started a new interactive online edition for subscribers only," Joshua pointed out.

"I really like interactive," Sheree said.

"We'll take it."

"Mr. Fortunato said, because of your negative experience, Motley will extend your twenty percent discount to any other magazines you would like."

"Edgar, that's awesome," Sheree said. "What would you suggest, young man?"

"Well, let's see. Do you or Edgar have any, like, blackhead problems?" Sheree did a mock covering of her mouth and then shook her thumb in the direction of Edgar, who rolled his eyes and gave his version of an exasperated moue, one of several moues he employed to complement hers. "I'm always after him, but he's afraid to fool with them for fear of getting broken blood vessels or something."

"Then I'd recommend Tweezers World -- nothing like it in this area. It has news on the latest products in this area of social embarrassment, including in-grown hair control and even, would you believe, nose-picking tools."

"Edgar, may I?" Sheree said with enthusiasm. "You know how I detest birthdays. It'll cheer me up … and you hate to shop." She failed to recognize that Edgar's imitation of the old burlesque slow burn was not for laughs. "He gets really annoyed with sales tactics," Sheree said to Joshua, who nodded and rolled his eyes for a change.

"Do you have dogs in your neighborhood?" Joshua asked. They both nodded, Sheree vigorously, Edgar in darkly deepening dismay. "Then I know what your front lawn must look like after doggie walking time," Joshua went on magisterially. "You guys ought to consider the latest entry in this controversial field, Dog Waste Management. Forget those quart jars filled with water and those tacky cartoon signs saying, 'Just Doo-doo It -- Someplace Else.' This even has electronic devices, it says here, that emit the odor of the breed any particular dog most fears, and that's tough when you're dealing with Rottweilers or those Presa Canario hummers."

"Just a one-year on that one, though," Sheree said. "Edgar hates doing that number with the plastic bag rolled around his hand, but we do have a tight budget.”

Joshua nodded, made a note and continued, "If you're religious -- and who isn't? -- I'd recommend Second Coming Update . . . It's miles ahead of those dweeby Left Behind books."

"Do you handle that -- what is it? -- UFO Diet Breakthroughs," Sheree asked, "that they sell at the checkout stands? There was this miniature alien -- he'd fit in a spoon -- and in just six months he lost seven-hundred grams.”

Edgar raised a decisive hand. "No, I've decided no. N-O, no. End of this charade." Sheree's look said, Edgar, you wet blanket. "Why reward Motley's inefficiency, its sloppiness, its callousness, its fraud?" he asked. "I wanted my Fish and Birds and I got nothing. Not a refund. Not an apology. Not even a back copy. Now take your cookie and leave this minute, young man. No deal."

"Very well, sir. You don't know how sorrowful this makes me. Because I do love you, sir, in a youthfully abstract way. But, combined with earlier provocations, you leave Motley no choice."

Just then there was a boisterous, insistent knock on the front door and Joshua rose hurriedly to open it. "This is Mr. Fortunato, folks," he announced proudly as the big man stepped in. Mr. Fortunato was an exceptionally tall, hatchet-nosed man, who needed to stoop to enter the front doorway. He wore the classic cap and bells and tight-fitting, wildly hued trousers and shirt of a jester's professional outfit, which, of course, Edgar realized in near terminal despair, must be the asinine uniform of executive staff.

"Thank goodness for caller ID, sir and madam," Mr. Fortunato exclaimed, gesturing like a crazed orator.

"That U-Eleven code always works when we're having trouble," Joshua explained to Edgar, who had not risen to welcome Mr. Fortunato.

"And you were so close to a big score," Mr. Fortunato said to Joshua. "Beaten in the bottom of the ninth. We were listening outside on our FBI-caliber Big Ear device -- those terrific clunky earphones look so great and you can't imagine how much fun it is to zero in, for example, on somebody's bedroom at midnight -- and I could tell you were rounding the corner, Josh. Lord, I was rooting for you, I'll tell anyone."

"I was telling them about Second Coming Update."

"Oh, ma'am, that's a winner for those who are salvation-minded, yessirree," Mr. Fortunato said. "Those signs keep multiplying and we all need to be ready for that. But then this gentleman had to go and spoil it all. A real gen-U-ine par-tee pooper. 'Oh, hell, unload the vans,' I had to say to the boys."

"Would you like some 7-Up?" Sheree asked.

"Oh, no, me and the boys have some work to do." Two burly, hirsute workers, half as broad as Fortunato was tall, came through the front door. They were dressed almost comically in green elf-like short pants and brown leather jerkins and atop their heads were green conical caps that said "Motley" in an unmistakably frivolous lettering. On their feet were yellow leather slippers with rolled-up pointy toes peaked endearingly with a jingle bell. Each was carrying a stack of magazines to chin height. "Set them down anywhere in here, fellas," Mr. Fortunato said. "To make up for your discomfiture, Mr. --"

"Deuce to you!" Edgar interjected angrily. "Get out of here, you nut case.”

" -- Mr. Deuce," Fortunato continued calmly, " -- and I'll overlook that aspersion as born of overweening anticipation -- we are giving you, absolutely free, two million five hundred thousand back copies of Fish and Birds from our local warehouse. Just conjure up the pleasure you'll have perusing all of these."

Edgar rose and started to intervene frantically in the delivery but several more heavily burdened workmen had already entered the living room, followed by two more pushing eight-foot-tall stacks of magazines on dollies. To avoid a collision, Edgar, objecting vigorously, was backed unceremoniously into a corner under a potted philodendron. He noticed through their front bay window beyond the potted silk tulips that a forklift operator was dropping a pallet piled high with magazine copies onto the front porch. When the workmen turned around to fetch more copies, Edgar found himself virtually walled in above his head. He pushed over one stack and began to emerge, only to have Mr. Fortunato exclaim with annoyance, "Be careful, sir, you're spoiling our work. Only have so much time here and we're off to other jobs."

"Get out of my house this very minute," Edgar shouted. "Sheree, call the police!"

"What will we ever do with two million five hundred thousand copies?" she shouted over the noise and clamor of the workmen, one of whom had placed a blaring ghetto blaster in the foyer. "I suppose we could donate some to the library."

While Edgar watched, stunned, Mr. Fortunato, aided by Joshua, began quickly piling up the fallen stack, while his workers stacked a second and a third row of magazines around Edgar, their jingling bells a discordant addition to the radio's gangsta rap.

"Sorry, sir, work is work," Mr. Fortunato said, occasionally counteracting Edgar's feeble efforts to undo their efforts. "Woo-ee, here's that famous cover story on the dodo bird in 1937. A real collector's item, that baby. Poor dumb birds weren't doin' nobody any harm. These issues go back to the inauguration of Fish and Birds in the nineteen twenties." Mr. Fortunato worked quickly stacking and arranging, speaking loudly to be heard above the rap concoction being played just then, number three that week, according to the announcer.

"In heaven's name stop this foolishness," came a shout from Edgar, followed by a somewhat muffled call for help.

"You can keep up with the progress of the entire magazine industry if you read and examine carefully," Mr. Fortunato continued, "like when they went to color in the forties and stopped running sexually explicit advertising in the fifties."

"I'll sign anything," Edgar could be vaguely heard shouting over and over.

Mr. Fortunato laughed and shouted back, "How ridiculous, sir: you've got enough reading material here for the rest of your life. I do not jest."

Sheree had collapsed on the dogwood-and-raven divan and another wall of magazines was beginning to surround her. In very short order the entire living room was packed tightly to the ceiling with copies of Fish and Birds and Edgar's continuing protests and yells were becoming fainter. The workmen then began filling up the home from the rear forward, first the kitchen, then the family room, the powder room with its designer Bourbon Restoration pedestal basin Edgar had gotten at a garage sale only a year ago, the dining room, the central hallway, then the master-bedroom suite and the two secondary bedrooms and their cutely decorated, if out-of-date, Jack 'n Jill bathroom (a reminder of the days when their two wonderful children had lived at home), all the way out to the front door.

"I'm glad this isn't one of those two-story jobs, boss," one of the workmen said to Mr. Fortunato, who was now standing on the front porch and wiping his forehead with a dishtowel he had borrowed as the kitchen was filled, "not with my corns and hammer toes." Twilight was fading disconsolately into night. Across the street, in a neighbor's lopsided old dogwood, a chorus of ravens was raving.

"You still got more, fellas?" Mr. Fortunato asked. One workman raised three fingers. His bells jingled. "No more room inside, darn it," Mr. Fortunato said. "Just leave them here on the porch. They'll be available for reading on balmy summer evenings."

Joshua, sweating heavily into his already soiled shirt, looked at Mr. Fortunato quizzically. "Will that be it for tonight?"

"Josh, you still got another forty-five minutes to work. Go get 'em, baby -- could be a three-year subscription waiting right next door. Can't you see them hula girls now. Any more problems, call me on my cell, okay? But I don't think I could handle another U-eleven tonight." He threw Joshua a wink and wrapped the dishtowel around the front doorknob as he pulled the door shut. "Fellas -- who needs a beer?" he called out. 

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