An Unwarmed Fish

It was always Thursday, August 14th.
by Rob Hunter

An Unwarmed Fish

“They told me I was immortal. Guess I am.”

I should say right up front that Prosper was not the devil. He was a mouse demon with good prospects for advancement, until he pissed off a Personage and blew both our careers to smithereens. And I am Jim Everhardy, would-be writer and full-time hack at the pleasure of the ancient gods. I had been raking in the not-so-big bucks, having found favor in the eyes of Apollo, driver of the Chariot of the Sun.

“Hey, Kathleen! Make the mouse do his trick for Frankie!”

That from Lee Frelinghuyser, irrepressible free spirit. It was eleven o’clock in the morning and, as it was Thursday, Lee was potzed. It was always Thursday in the Ferguson and McLaughlin Family Bar, Tables for Ladies—all Thursday, all the time. There were twelve pages on the calendar and all the pages were the same. By the way, that “Tables for Ladies” part was not to imply that there were grades of women, some Ladies, some Loose. There was a je ne sais quoi  generated by the bar’s habitués that kept even the female cockroaches off campus. Lee Frelinghuyser was the casualty of a successful advertising career. He drove a cab on the days he was sober enough to find the garage.

Me? I never saw a lady in the bar in all the months Prosper and I were marooned there. I had some trouble with Artemis, Apollo’s sister, but you’ll hear more about her as the story unfolds. I had spoken out of turn, once, and was now condemned to spend all Eternity in a barroom with a meatball buffet. I was to be here for the duration. Duration of what, you ask? Well, since it was always Thursday, August 14th, I lost count. Months, maybe, or perhaps years.

The word among the bar’s regulars was that Kathleen McLaughlin, proprietress of F&MFBTfL, lived in fear of a government raid. The TV over the bar, while it played the usual fare—Irish football, the World Series, soap operas, and Jeopardy—daily frayed Kathleen’s jangled nerves with the evening news, said news being highlighted by Immigration sweeps for undocumented aliens. Guatemalans, Asians, Sikhs, swamis, babus and bubbas—in short most anyone with chin whiskers and a suntan—were shown being herded into waiting busses, to be packed off for deportation back to the Hindu Kush, Quetzaltenango or Tuscaloosa. While red hair and freckles did not yet dominate the 6:30 news, Kathleen had the long-term jitters. For years, Kathleen had never gone out into the street except to dump her mop water.

Ah, but I am getting ahead of our story.

If you have been following these adventures as assiduously as my publisher hopes you have, you will recall that while I had not exactly sold my soul to the devil, I was close. A mouse demon had gotten his hooks into my psychic e-mail, and my name was now etched on the spamming list of the damned. Do not click the “Click to Unsubscribe” link; remember that. You’re on their list forever no matter what. Now, where was I? Oh, yes. It was Thursday, and as usual I was minding my own business.

Then I was standing in the rain on the corner of Eighth Avenue on Manhattan’s West Side, the part of town they used to call Hell’s Kitchen. I was naked and wet. And cold. A large gray mouse came shuffling up West 55th Street, looking decidedly shopworn and dejected. He wore a green derby and a “Kiss Me I’m Irish” button.

“Prosper!” I called, for it was my very own personal representative from Apollo, a demon with limited powers.

“Shhh... we don’t want to attract unwanted attention. It’s a fine mess you’ve gotten us into this time, Everhardy,” said Prosper. “They have stripped me of my powers and, worst of all, my hat.”

“Mess? Me?” I chattered. “You wouldn’t have a towel, would you?” He handed me a Kleenex. “I told you I’ve lost my powers. I have been shorn. No hat, no miracles.” Prosper’s powers were concentrated in the Helmet of Cleptath, a magical hat. The mouse demon had lost it to Artemis, sister of Apollo, in a duel I wrote about in The Perfect Homburg. Read it, and get educated.

Lee Frelinghuyser called down the bar again. “Come on, Kathleen, it’s meatball chucking time. Frankie needs a refill. Make the mouse do his trick.” Frankie Kravits, a septuagenarian as thin as his fifth-hand overcoat, was passed out with his head on the bar. Frankie was always one beer short with federal payday always three weeks off.

Kathleen turned toward the end of the bar. “I don’t make that mouse do anything, Lee Frelinghuyser. Filthy beast.”

I asked her what I was drinking. She shook her head and handed me a shot of rye with a beer chaser, the closest F&MFBTfL came to mixed drinks. She swabbed down the bar with a towel and leaned close with a conspiratorial whisper. “He got here first.” She indicated Prosper on the stool next to mine. The landlady’s serene face hardened, and then grew beatific, as though she was partaking of a heavenly vision. “I apologize, Prosper. About the filthy beast crack. But I really meant it.”

“I know you did, Kathleen,” said the mouse. “No apology needed.”

I whipered in the mouse’s ear, “Is that woman behind the bar who I think she is?” I asked. “How come she knows so much about you and me?”

“If she thinks she’s the next greatest thing since boil-in-a-bag gourmet treats,” said Prosper, “then she is Anu, Danu, Momma Molasses, the Mother of all the gods of Ireland. In other words, a royal pain in the ass. That’s Herself, Artemis, all togged out as the Bona Dea. She is rediscovering her Celtic roots. She figured Kathleen McLaughlin needed a vacation.”

“So, where’s the real Kathleen McLaughlin?” I asked.

The mouse shrugged and slipped some bills from the change under Frankie’s head and waved for a refill. Kathleen shuffled up. “For her, there are no yesterdays,” said the mouse. “She lives in the here and now. And under the sink behind the Bon Ami.”“Oh, could be she’s back home in Ireland, or in Atlantic City playing the nickel slots. Most likely, though, she’s in a Quaker Oats box under the kitchen sink, behind the Bon Ami. She won’t remember a thing.”

“If you know all that, how come you’re stuck here with me?”

“Unlike Kathleen, I can remember. I am an embarrassment to the sister of Apollo, and this is my punishment—probably for all Eternity. Here, wear this.” He removed his ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish’ button and pinned it on my shirt. “It’ll help you fit in.”

“Prosper, how can you talk like that?” said a divine voice. The goddess had returned; there was the smell of patchouli and a close, honeyed breath hot on my neck. “After all, Kathleen is under my protection. You buying?”

“Uhn... Yes, ma’am,” I managed. Except for low-ozone afternoons Kathleen’s skin was only rarely touched by the sunset rays that filtered across from New Jersey. Those Jersey sunsets penetrated the smoky sawdust cavern of F&MFBTfL only as far as the steam table. Kathleen was a dour, compact, even stringy woman—diminutive, wide-hipped and flat-footed in the carpet slippers she wore behind the bar. Although the face and form of the goddess were what I saw when I looked at Kathleen, in the mirror behind the bar was the reflection of a kindly, care-worn woman fighting off the ravages of late middle age. Not the sort of disguise one would expect from a goddess.

In came a scruffy kid in knickers, those three-quarter length knee breeches I thought were out of style since the Dead End Kids ruled Hell’s Kitchen.

“Hey, kid, gimme a paper.” Lee Frelinghuyser swiveled on his barstool as the street waif shuffled over with the Daily News. The kid wrung a tear out of one wide, innocent eye and Lee pushed a pile of bar change in the kid’s general direction. Lee was a soft touch.

“I got sensitive ears,” said Beany Levine, paperboy, the meanest, toughest kid in the neighborhood. “All that noise from loose change gets in the way of my staying centered. Hatha Yoga, you know.”

Lee peeled off a one-dollar bill and handed it to the kid.

The kid stood unmoving. “That’s for the paper.”

Beany was waiting for his tip. Lee went fishing for change to tip the paperboy. “Ah, what the hell,” said Lee, handing out another dollar.

“Thank you,” said Beany. “A pleasure doing business.”

“How about that,” said Lee addressing no one in particular among the assembled Broadway locals. “Yoga. The kid meditates.”

Prosper agreed. “The jangle of pocket change disturbs his tantric equanimity. He also accepts credit cards.”

*  *  *

Here we should pause and explore some salient points about satire. Only that morning I was a carefree everyday Joe. The shower was running hot and steamy and I had lathered up. I started singing.

What a wonderful goddess is Artemis
In spite or because of her tartiness
She’s known to be kinder
When you slip up behind her
Dah-dahdah, da-dahdah, dah, dah.

Had I known then what I know now, etc. It seems satirists were a kind of lower-echelon druid, the royal poets who could compose gnarly rhyming curses to set the king’s enemies britches afire, or make their manly parts fall off, or whatever. I didn’t have a rhyme, or even words for that last line. And I never sang it in public. Poetry happens. Like athlete’s foot and eczema, it sort of sneaks up on you, especially in the shower. I had only adlibbed a teeny tiny fragment of doggerel that was understood as mockery by Prosper’s patron’s sister: Anu, Danu, Momma Molasses, Lady of the Wild Things, etc., etc. Not satirical in the way we use the word these days, not snide or sarcastic, not ironic, but satirical, and satire is deep doo-doo, divinity-wise.

Wham! Pow! Kablooie! Or sound effects of like persuasion. I showed up, naked and sudsy, on the street in front of F&MFBTfL. When I walked in the denizens didn’t give me a second look.

Kathleen McLaughlin was leaning over the bar, solicitously asking if I wanted a refill and a pair of pants. Where everybody else saw a frumpy, middle-aged woman, Prosper and I saw a goddess.

*  *  *

“Beany!” Lee was displeased with his Daily News.

The nine-year-old put down the beer he was finishing off for a departed customer. “Yeah?”

“C’mere,” said Lee.

Newspapers were not a big business with Beany, but they filled gaps in an otherwise busy schedule. Guys in bars had eventually got to pee, and when they did, Beany would be there to swap yesterday’s paper for the one he had just sold them. But Beany, despite his regular hustles, was an honest newspaper boy. Next day, I checked the dates on the pile of papers Beany dumped on the table in the back where he did his homework while nursing a draft beer. An outside date—from the real, non-timewarped world. October 22. Well!

Lee, who had returned from a visit to the necessarium, bellowed “Hey! Who swiped my paper? This one’s from August 14th.” He grabbed Beany by the armpits and shook him in the air.

“Hey, hey, hey. Sorry, Mac. You bought it; you read it. It’s used. No refunds.”

After drinking all day, every day, for fifteen years, that made sound sense to Lee. He put Beany down.

The next day, when Beany came in with his papers (which he swiped off the Daily News truck, by the way. Beany’s Daily News scam crowned a plateau of minor larceny requiring nimble footwork and the patience of a woodland hunter-gatherer.), I stood guard on the pile and watched the date and lead stories change. August 14th. The life expectancy for the daily paper at F&MFBTfL was sixteen minutes twenty-four seconds. No more, no less.

Beany Levine, autodidact, warmed to Prosper’s scams. Our very strangeness, in a neighborhood consecrated to strangeness, had attracted a hanger-on. Beany was one sharp kid. He never once batted an eye at the tales of supranatural doings, or over Prosper being a mouse demon in the service of Sminthian Apollo. Beany, though he did his best to keep it quiet, was the star student at Our Lady of Perpetual Matriculation. Don’t get me wrong; he was your All-American street hustler. But while Beany sold protection in the form of plate glass insurance, ran policy bets and peddled high octane crack to the high schoolers, he never touched the stuff himself.

Beany was hanging out with Prosper and me one Thursday while he waited for a deal to go down. “Don’t take this personally,” I said. “But how come a kid—you—with a Jewish patronymic is going to OLPM, a Catholic school?”

A cell phone was waved threateningly in my face. The kid pointed it at me as though it was a pistol. He thrust the antenna up my nostril. “You got a problem with that? You some kinda anti-semite, buddy?”

“No, just making conversation.”

“Well, in that case...” The antenna was withdrawn. He wiped it off on my shirtfront. “The kids at Our Lady have got more discretionary income than the street kids. And they get it regular, like allowances, like.”

“And you shake them down for their lunch money.”

“So? I’m good with numbers. And I get straight As in Latin.”

*  *  *

At the end of the bar, the goddess as Kathleen and Beany Levine were bent over an ancient book. It was huge, a fifty-pounder, brass bound with cracking leather binding and a gilded pentagram on the cover. She was tutoring him for his Latin exams.

Beany looked up at Prosper. “Hey, she can speak the language!”

The urchin was impressed. So was I—she probably wrote the damned thing.

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora. That’s the Metamorphoses, first book.”

The goddess peered up at us through Kathleen’s eyes. “Of bodies changed to various forms, I sing. Congreve’s translation, I believe,” said Artemis archly.

“Criminy!” said Beany.

“The very same,” replied the goddess.

Over the ensuing months, the defrocked demon and I worked out some routines to help pay our bar bill. We’d hustle tourists with our talking mouse number. They tended to leave hurriedly, forgetting their change on the bar. Capitalizing on his looking like Stewart Little strung out on barbiturates, the demon cleaned up pitching pennies. It was a living.

But the favorite stunt of all among the Broadway locals was betting on whether Prosper could catch a flying meatball. Thursday was meatball day. That was when we first caught on that the Divine Artemis had us stuck in a time warp. It was always meatball day at Ferguson and McLaughlin’s Family Bar, Tables for Ladies. As much rapid fire betting went on for the meatball hurling as over on Eleventh Avenue where the Dominicans held forth with fighting chickens. The Caribbean Dominicans, not the cloistered friars.

Prosper was magnificent. No matter where Artemis hurled the meatball, he was there just in the nick of time. The goddess got loose with the number and graduated to Annie Oakley-style blindfolded and backwards over-the-shoulder tosses. I had by then figured that Prosper had held on to some, if not all, of his mouse demon armamentarium. The meatballs would curve and swoop right toward his outstretched paw, often executing ninety-degree turns in midair. The crowd was usually drunk enough not to notice. Word spread. The uptown swells started dropping in. You know, the crowd that asks for mixed drinks. We were Broadway stars, but we couldn’t get out.

Thonk!

Lee Frelinghuyser fell off his stool at the far end of the bar, blocking our hostess’ way to the cook top and the steam table. Lee was announcing he had achieved his limit. Two of the regulars stepped back to give him room on the floor.

The hollow-looking old man called Frankie tugged at my sleeve. “Seamus.” With Frankie’s brains fried for the last thirty years, everyone was Seamus.

“Seamus, make the mouse do his trick. Then we all get a free round,” said Frankie. Artemis, sister of Apollo was good to Kathleen’s regulars. Beany Levine did her bookkeeping.

Splonk!

Frankie fell face first into a puddle of beer on the bar, on top of his government check. From under his ear a familiar corner of pink watermark poked out. He had forgotten to cash the check and it had probably lain there for a whole week. A spreading stain feathered out through the signatures. I lifted Frankie’s head enough to get the check out before it melted so Kathleen could cash it for him.

Thonk!

Strange. Lee Frelinghuyser made the same sound, whether he was getting up or falling off his barstool. Lee had just achieved verticality. I made a note to ask Prosper about this.

“It is high time we expanded your educational horizons,” said the mouse. “I have the inside dope. Listen up. You will be needing thish information in the near foo-foo-future.” A certain sloppiness had crept into his speech. I checked out the level in Frankie’s beer glass. Half empty. Frankie was still out and waltzing with the muses.

“Wellerishms versus spoonerishims,” said Prosper. Burp. “That’s what I mean to impart, from the depths of my own extensive well of wisdom.” Belch.

Thonk!

Please note this is a lesser Thonk! than that articulated by Lee Frelinghuyser’s substantial 200 pounds when he fell off a barstool. Prosper had gone over head first and was out cold on the floor. I picked him up and brushed off the sawdust. The mouse came to and continued. “Or perhaps well of wisdom is an infelicitush metaphor...”

The goddess as Kathleen exited the kitchen packing a platter piled high with Swedish meatballs. Lee Frelinghuyser was hanging on to the end of the bar as he weaved back from a trip to the men’s room. “Hey, Kathleen... throw the meatball!”

Frankie was awake and waving his soggy government check. “I got ten says he’ll miss it this time.” Lee made a note of Frankie’s wager in the spiral steno pad he kept on the bar.

Showtime. Artemis set down her platter and picked off the very topmost from the squishy pyramid of burger balls. “I’ve got work to do. It’s all right for you guys to be playing at games,” she said with Kathleen’s lilac-tinted Irish lilt. The goddess spat on the floor and scuffed the soles of her tennis sneaks in make-believe rosin box. “Okay, one last time.” She wound up like a major leaguer and let fly.

The meatball did some strange things. First, it flew straight at Prosper, where it hovered between his eyes, daring him to catch it. Prosper grabbed at it, whereupon it reversed itself and rocketed smack into Artemis’ face. “Time out!” she cried. The goddess squeegeed sour cream, paprika and mushroom bits from her nose. “That’s it! No more Ms. Nice Guy.” She picked up the whole platter and started pitching wet, sloppy meatballs at the mouse.

Prosper tried to run, but he was too drunk to navigate. He did dodge the first three, which splatted behind him against the mirror in a neat straight line. He leaped to the top shelf where the McLaughlins kept their best stock. There, the mouse demon cowered, out of breath and flushed with unaccustomed exertion, between the Drambuie and a tall bottle of some greenish liqueur. A rapid-fire fusillade of meatballs had him pinned down. Most missed.

“I’ve done it! I’m getting my powers back. Oh frabjush day, calloo, callay!” The mouse was still drunk even after the exercise.

Splat!

Thonk!

In case you’re not following the sound effects, Artemis’ fiftieth meatball connected and knocked Prosper off the shelf. Lee and the guys were arguing about the bet, whether the meatball caught Prosper, or Prosper caught the meatball.

“He caught it, fair and square. You owe me five. Each,” said Lee.

“Shhh!” Beany Levine was hunkered over a pile of books next to the sleeping Frankie. “I gotta study. Got finals next week.”

Flat on his ass in the sawdust of the floor, the mouse was looking very pleased with himself as he licked sour cream off his suit. “Finals?” said Prosper. “But it’s the middle of summer.”

“In here, mouse,” replied Beany. “Past the door, it’s Thanksgiving break.”

 Prosper sat back on his haunches and nibbled at his last meatball, turning it like a Central Park squirrel dismembering a candy apple. He made it back to his seat next to mine at the bar while Kathleen primped, straightening her hair, which had come loose during the meatball melee. Kathleen looked the same every day no matter who was driving the car.

“How does she do it?” I asked the mouse.

“Because it’s always Thursday. Your round.” I turned my head sideways to read the spines of Beany’s schoolbooks. Geometry, Latin Year II, Social Studies. “Uh, couldn’t you strong-arm the sisters into a passing grade?” I chimed in. Innocent me.

“That would be cheating.”

Silly me.

*  *  *

Another Thursday, but a different barmaid. “Hi, I’m Bambi. The Divine Artemis couldn’t make it. The demiurges are chucking quoits today.”

Bambi was either wriggling into or wriggling out of a blouse intended to draw stares from male customers even if it had fit her, which it didn’t. I sighed, swallowed hard and sat down on the first empty stool. “Herself sent a stand-in?”

“I am a sub-muse, the nymph of inverted sentence structure and Divine Artemis’ personal assistant. How d’you do?” She followed my gaze and I flushed as she buttoned up. “Seen any mice lately?” I asked.

“Little guy, in a green suit? He’s passed out on the free lunch table next to the cashews.” Then, almost as an afterthought, “You here for the duel?”

“Uh, duel?”

“To the death, unless I miss my guess.” Bambi looked pityingly at me. “In its fullness, time has ripened underfoot and the gods have grown weary with their sport. You are now being given the opportunity to fight for your freedom. Isn’t that neat? The sister of Apollo told me I was here to referee. Don’t sweat it; you may have years yet to live. The duello is traditionally a Friday event, like fish-frys.”

“And today is...” A no-brainer, as it was always Thursday.

“Check the calendar.”

Now, it was Friday, August 15th.

Enter the heavy.

They say good taste is timeless. Well, this gonzo’s time was up, haberdashery-wise. I immediately dubbed him Seamus McThug. Put him in a zoot suit, and he could have been the “After” of a “Before and After” photo spread in Undertaker’s Quarterly. Add a black turtleneck, a Norfolk tweed jacket and a gold Rolex. An Irish workingman’s cap finished off his ensemble. Today he was collecting for the IRA, NorAid or something with an acronym.

 When he swaggered into Ferguson and McLaughlin’s Family Bar, Tables for Ladies, there was a hush. This was the showdown at the O.K Corral, minus Wyatt Earp.  He looked at what was to him the dumpy woman behind the bar and suppressed a chuckle.

The mouse demon preened his whiskers. “He’s got an AK47 down his pants leg,” he said casually.

“Oh? I am so happy for him. What do you propose to do about it?”

“Oh, nothing. Just thought you might be interested. Why don’t you satirize him? See, there was this gangster walked into a bar... ‘Down in the mouth? Whatd’d ya do? Bite a duck on the ass? Yuk, yuk, yuk!’ Hilarity reigns. Now that’s satire, and as you’re already cursed for it, what the hell? Give it a shot.”

What the hell, indeed. Under my breath I made a rhyme:

Roses are blue; violets are orange.
You mess with Kathleen and she’ll put you in
storange...

Nobody noticed. Nothing happened. McThug picked his nose. He hadn’t twigged to the fact that the largely undocumented Irish ex-pats who hung out at the steam table bars lining Eighth Avenue had come to America to get away from guys just like him.

The NorAid man was talking. “Listen, grandma, you’re behind on your insurance. That’s five hundred today. You’re short two-fifty from last week.”

Oops. Seemed that Nymph Bambi looked like Kathleen to this guy.

“WHO ARE YOU CALLING YOUR GRANNY, YOU SCUMMY, MUSCLE-BOUND PARASITE?” the nymph of inverted sentence structure roared. “Why do you think this poor woman is mopping out urinals in a saloon where the sun never shines? For you to chisel nickels and dimes to buy C4 and blow up babies in the old country?”

If Nymph Bambi’s query was meant as an insult, McThug didn’t get it. “Even today there are invaders oppressing innocent women and children, their boots defiling Ireland’s holy soil.” The intruder spoke with an accent much more authentic to Red Hook, Brooklyn than to Ireland.

Did he mean the Koreans and Germans, with their microchip and automobile factories? In the days before the Celtic Tiger roared, bringing a shriveled US export dollar, various insurgencies had lived high on the shamrock. Now, they hustled small change.

“I would be interested in knowing how much of what you collect makes it past Yonkers,” said Nymph Bambi.

Things became icy. This time he got the insult. The intruder fidgeted and appeared confused. And he had a gun. He glowered at the Broadway locals lining the bar. He had their attention. Definitely. “Fuck you, bitch,” said the hit man, a bad move.

“This lady is a woman, and therefore under my protection,” said Nymph Bambi. “She might have been your mother, asshole. Show some respect.”

Kathleen grew and changed. She filled out here and slimmed down there, until the nymph stood fully revealed in all her (almost) naked glory. “Jim, get in front of me. Quick.” This was from Prosper.

What I could see of the scene, from the hit man’s perspective, was reflected in his wraparound shades. I was impressed; McThug’s jaw gaped. “Hmm, a mouth-breather,” the nymph commented.

The jaw still gaped. Bambi checked his teeth. “A high-carb, high sugar diet, all Snickers bars and bourbon. You really should see a dentist. If I allow you to live, that is. You will recline with the fishes.” Nymph Bambi had mastered the operating philosophy of Hell’s Kitchen, if not its precise vernacular. The nymph turned her attention on me. “Scrivener, you are here on probation for inadvertent satire. Satirize this lout, and I shall release you.”

“And the mouse?”

“Prosper? Don’t push your luck.”

Our visitor did not enjoy not being the center of attention. “Pay me my money. I’m collecting. For the Struggle,” said the hit man.

“You are really, truly a Celtic son of Erin?” Nymph Bambi had a romantic twinkle in her sea green eyes. “Have you seen Riverdance?” asked the nymph.

“Fruits in Suits? No. And lady, I don’t give a flying fuck what you think about my dental health. This is business, not personal.”

“You are a common extortionist. I am considering satirizing you,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, a.k.a. Nymph Bambi. “Is that an AK47 in your pants or you happy to see me?” A chancy line, even for the personal assistant to a divine Personage.

The NorAid hit man hadn’t figured out how to be a quick draw artist. He dropped his pants trying to pull out his assault rifle. Even with his pants down around his knees, he was armed with a rapid-fire automatic rifle.

Which he commenced firing.

Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.

The mirror went, then the top shelf of hi-grade booze in a shower of amber liquid and splintered glass.

“Well! Now, that’s plain bad manners,” said Lee Frelinghuyser. Lee was naturally so pale his skin coloring had no place to go, chromatically. So he turned bright blue and dived under the bar.

“Ohh...”

A groan from the floor got my attention. Prosper had been hit! I knelt over him and steeled myself for mouth to mouse resuscitation.

“Get this goddamned button off my vest,” said the mouse demon. “I can’t breathe.” He dusted himself off.

He was alive.

The mightily battered “Kiss Me I’m Irish” button had deflected one of the hit man’s ricochets. “They told me I was immortal. Guess I am.”

Clickety-click, click, click. The extortionist-assassin rummaged through his jockey shorts for a replacement clip. Must have been in his other briefs. Since the guy was out of bullets, I picked up a barstool and headed toward him. He picked up a barstool and headed toward me.

“Stop! It seems we have a Mexican standoff,” said the nymph.

The thug looked at me. I looked at the thug. We both then regarded the Erin go Bragh banner above the bar.

“Standoff, Mexican variety,” said Nymph Bambi. “Two armed contenders, each with the drop on the other. This will necessitate a challenge to the duello.” A prophecy was fulfilling itself.

“You celestial types are big on confrontation, you know that?” I said.

“Your utterance is indisputable, Jim Everhardy.” Bambi, nymph of inverted sentence structure, had removed her apron and was rolling up her sleeves. “The duello will be the casting of spells: Spoonerisms, at ten paces.”

“Huh?” Seamus McThug and I froze in position, bar stools aloft. Then I caught on. Spoonerisms—that was what Prosper had been trying to tell me about when he had passed out drunk. I wished I had paid more attention.

“Do I sense hostility?” She stepped between us. “Excellent. But be warned, I have a spellchecker,” here she patted her bosom, “and since you are both named Jim, don’t try any funny business.” The nymph took the hit man’s cheek between her thumb and forefinger and flexed her arm. The burly gent levitated and I saw daylight shining under his Gucci shoes. Splatters of saliva went flying as she shook his head back and forth in midair. “Spoonerisms,” said Nymph Bambi, “Say it.”

“Splurdlamish?” said the hit man.

“Correct,” said the nymph as she dropped him to the floor. “You are neither of you the sharpest tacks in the box, so I will have to explain. Don’t be afraid to contribute. Speak right up.”

“But... I...” I offered.

“That’s enough; break’s over,” said the nymph, manhandling the two of us to the center of the floor. “Spoonerize,” said the nymph.

The hitman rocked back on his heels, smug and confident. “Hey, plumber, are you copper-plating those pipes? No, I’m aluminuming ‘em, Mum,” he smirked.

“Close but no cigar,” said the nymph. “What you have uttered is clearly an alliterative, assonantal construct calculated to dupe the vocal apparatus of an opponent. In short, a tongue-twister. One demerit for you.”

Seamus sank into F&MFBTfL’s old oak flooring right up to his knees.

“Holy shit!” was the best profanity he could muster.

“Indeed,” said Nymph Bambi. She threw me a wink, as if there was a hidden message waiting for me if I could only understand it.

Beany Levine walked up to the IRA hit man, now about Beany’s height given that he was embedded in the barroom floor, and dumped a charger of pickled herring snacks from the free lunch buffet over his head.“Nyah, nyah!” jeered the lad. “Six stainless steel twin-screw cruisers! Bite on that one, loser.”

“Glurph,” said the hit man.

“Glurph, hmm. I shall employ my spellchecker,” said Nymph Bambi, reaching again into her bosom to retrieve the PDA. “Hmmm, nope. Not in here. Sorry, one more demerit.” Seamus McThug sank deeper into the floor.

I at last caught the nymph’s hint. Seamus McThug had said “Holy shit,” and a simple Spoonerism would get past her spell checker—and nothing else. The gods, in their wisdom and inscrutability, had again chosen me as their champion.

Another wink from the nymph, broad and lascivious.

At me. Wow.

“Sholy hit!” I cursed.

It worked. The hit man sank further into the flooring. He was now caught at the waist.

Nymph Bambi demurely toyed with her spell checker. “You have reached the fork in your road and taken it, Jim Everhardy. That, by the way is a Wellerism, favored by your redoubtable Yogi Berra, and not a Spoonerism. Will you keep playing, or take what you have got?”

“Keep going,” said Prosper from the salted cashews.

I looked to Nymph Bambi for confirmation but her eyes were glazed with Olympian impartiality. I had seen that look in the eyes of home team referees when my high school basketball squad played away games. Uh-oh. Against my better judgment, I took Prosper’s advice.

I declaimed.

“I feel an unwarmed fish rising in my... uh, er, your throat.” I bobbled on the destination of the spell.

“Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah. You forgot the magic words,” Nymph Bambi clucked and wigwagged at me with an admonitory finger.

“What is,” I stumbled, “I see an unwarmed fish rising in your throat.” And we had one unhappy hit man.

“Graaak, splurch!” His face passed through shades of red and violet, from infra to ultra, missing all the local stops. His head began to bulge as he sank into the floorboards up to his Adam’s apple. From one nostril came a wriggling protuberance. It displayed little pink suction cups.

“Blurragh!” From Seamus’ mouth popped a miniature octopus. Bambi knelt to pick it up. She cooed and chucked it under the chin. If you ever find out where an octopus’s chin is, let me know, but that’s what it looked like.

“Ohhh, poor iddy-biddy beebee octypuddle. Oodsy, woodsy, poody-uphums?” So help me, God, I could swear the creature purred.

“Very well, then,” said Nymph Bambi. “My work here is done. Give him a shot of ink, octypuddle.” The octopus squirted Seamus McThug in the eye. She popped the octopus into her cleavage and stood up.

The personal assistant of Artemis, Sister of Apollo, Anu, Danu, Momma Molasses, the Mother of all the gods of Ireland tossed a roll of silvery duct tape to Beany Levine. “Hey, kid, truss him up.”

Beany's nine-year-old eyes were glued to her oscillating bosoms. Don’t say it, kid. “Even my sisters don’t have knockers like that!” He said it. I waited for the bolt of lightning.

“They will,” said the nymph, “I’ve arranged things.”

*  *  *

“Why don’t we ever bet on ourselves?” I asked Prosper. “Lee Frelinghuyser just won twenty bucks.”

Kathleen—Kathleen McLaughlin, the real Kathleen, who had returned, freed from the Quaker Oats box under the sink—placed two fresh beers in front of us.

So now, you are thinking, things went back to normal? I got back home safe and sound and Prosper got his comeuppance? No, it was still Thursday. Nymph Bambi had sent us a note saying she was “working on things.”

“Because, Seamus, me boyo,” replied the mouse, “that would be using my sacred powers for venal, personal gain. But, charity, sweet charity? The enrichment of the lives of those less fortunate than we? This, the gods do truly bless.”

I smelled a scam. Prosper did not wear piety well. He was on to something. “And what do we get when you catch one of Kathleen’s meatballs?”

“For you, Seamus, it’s zero-sum-gain, I fear. You are loved; that should be sufficient. I however get the meatballs, and Frankie gets the beer.”

The mouse poked the sleeping Frankie. “Frankie? You love Seamus, don’t you?”

“Oh, sweet Jesus, I do, I do.” Frankie threw his arms around my neck and slid slowly to the floor.

“Love, then, will have to be enough,” said Prosper, downing Frankie’s beer.

copyright 2003, 2016 Rob Hunter

An Unwarmed Fish was first published in the Summer 2003 issue of Demensions-Doorways to Science Fiction and Fantasy and reprinted (in a slightly different version) in SpecFicWorld’s E-macabre #2 (2007). The three Prosper stories consist of this tale, The Perfect Homburg, and I Want to Share Your Wheat.

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