The Plan

     I wrote this several years ago and submitted it to McSweeney's. They didn't publish it, but I got some pretty positive feedback on it. I figured I would share it with the world in the hopes that someone might derive some joy from reading it.   

     I’m sitting on a curb in the Vandelay Center mini-mall, the dark concrete shimmering and waving as though it’s about to warp out of reality or something.  The sun is perched above the earth in a perpetual explosion, making each breeze feel like it’s coming from a giant hair dryer.  My knees ache from 20 years of tedious plumbing jobs.  I’ve just exited Coldstone Creamery, and directly in my line of sight lies the big red and white sign with a cartoon ice cream cone, hanging above the brick edifice with its array of peculiarly smudge-free windows.  As I slowly run my tongue over my double scoop of mint chocolate chip, I observe the seemingly happy employees in white paper hats performing repetitive motions.  The thing about Coldstone is, every time you tip your server, he or she and all the other servers burst into song.  Like a real, honest-to-God song.  So, see, I like Coldstone Creamery, because it’s the only place I eat at where I can genuinely feel good about not tipping my server.

     I lick a dribble of ice cream off my lower lip and lackadaisically examine my surroundings, which essentially consist of a number of tan brick buildings with burnt sienna tile roofing. Names are everywhere on bland signs: Starbucks, Kinko’s, McDonald’s, and the strangely s-free Hollywood Video. Black lampposts, worthless in the mid-afternoon sun, patiently wait to shed their warm glow upon verdant, well-tended shrubs. Annoyed by a sudden droning buzz, I swat at a bloated green fly, or, as the Spanish call it, a mosca. I don’t know why I know that nor why I’m telling you. To my right, jay birds peck at the carcass of a half-eaten donut. I have a sudden craving for scones.
      A group of children round the corner and begin dashing about the nearly empty parking lot; ignored by negligent parents, no doubt. It soon becomes clear by their innocently romantic games that they are either not all siblings, or else have had an extremely unconventional upbringing. I think briefly of my brother Luigi. That loser. A bit of melted dairy confection drips onto my right knuckle.
      A young boy grabs a fistful of a girl’s dress and yells, “Sally gave Jimmy a blumpkin!”
      “Did not!” hollers Sally.
      “Blumpkin giver! Blumpkin giver!” chants another girl.
      “C’mon, guys,” pleads one sheepish-looking boy, apparently Jimmy.
      “Sally gave Jimmy a blump-kin, Sally gave Jimmy a blump-kin,” the children say in their vile singsong. I miss childhood about as much as I miss my kidney stone.
      Not twenty feet away, a cream colored minivan zooms up and double parks. The windows are rolled down, and blaring from the interior at a hellishly loud volume is “With Arms Wide Open,” by Creed. Despite the deliciousness of the ice cream, my gag reflex kicks in briefly. For a few moments, the tune hangs in the air like nerve gas. Then, the van’s engine is killed and the song abruptly cuts off. The children nearby scarcely notice amidst their mockery and prancing about. Four turtle-waxed doors swing open, and the inhabitants of the van spill out, one by one.
      Penguins. Four penguins, varying in size from three and a half to about four feet tall, waddle out of the minivan. They’re all naked, if you can even call an animal “naked,” except for one of them, who is wearing a black t-shirt with “I See Dumb People” written across it in white letters. One of them is clutching a large paper shopping bag in his flippers, or whatever they are. The one with the t-shirt goes into Starbuck’s, a little bell jingling as the door opens and closes. The other penguins approach the group of children, who are starting to pay attention. Nothing like large flightless birds to grab the kids’ eyeballs.
      I figure this is a trick, something for a TV show. These are like circus animals or something, and pretty soon some guy is gonna come running out and wrangle them and the hidden cameras will catch it all on tape to be broadcast later to old people who think screaming children are the highest form of entertainment, so long as they are contained by the television rather than actually running around their living rooms. I don’t really get the joke, but what the hell, I’ll wait and see what happens. I’ve still got three quarters of a scoop left.
      “Woooooow,” says Sally, “Looka them.”
      The penguins halt, inches away from the children, and the one with the paper bag says, “Hey, kids, you want some candy?”
      “They can talk!” squeals one of the children. I admit, I’m taken by surprise, too. Unsure of what I’ve just seen, I slowly wipe a minuscule glob of ice cream out of my mustache before it hardens.
      “I want some candy!” says a boy that is not Jimmy. Apparently, these children were never told to not take candy from strangers. Either that, or they figure an exception can be made for strange talking animals.
      “Yeah, me too. Candy!” says Jimmy, bouncing in place.
      “Well, I’ve got something better than candy for ya,” says the penguin in a squawking voice not unlike that of Gilbert Gottfried during his Problem Child heyday. “Here, have some cigarettes.”
      OK, that’s the gag. Pretending to give kids cigarettes. Must be midgets in penguin suits. I guess it is kinda funny.
      The penguin pulls out one pack of Camels, and then another, handing them to Jimmy and his male friend. The kids greedily tear open the cellophane wrappers, and each yanks a cigarette out of the little cardboard boxes. Jimmy stuffs his into his mouth filter side out. Stupid kid, God bless ‘im.
      The penguin in the t-shirt ambles out of Starbucks holding a grande caramel frappuchino and joins the rest of his group. He seems to whisper something into another penguin’s ear (if they have ears, I can’t really tell), and is whispered a reply, after which he nods. The t-shirted penguin than brandishes a lighter and ignites both boys’ cigarettes, reversing Jimmy’s amidst a round of giggles from child and flightless fowl alike. This is getting really weird, I think, and take a small bite of sugar cone.
      The penguin with the bag hands Sally a fresh pack of Camels. She merely looks at it, and the penguin says, “Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.”
      “My grandpa says that,” says Jimmy, puffing on a cigarette and coughing. He tries to say something else but begins to hack violently. The other smoking boy smirks, and spits.
      “Smoking is bad,” says another little girl, her voice at a glass-shattering pitch. “My mommy told me so. My daddy got lung cancer from cigarettes and died.”
      “No offense, little girl, but your mother is a stupid whore,” says the penguin. “Smoking doesn’t kill people. Your daddy probably just met some waitress he loved more than your mommy and ran off to Mexico with her. That’s why he’s gone.”
      “Yeah, stupid whore,” Jimmy says gleefully between wheezes. The little girl begins to cry, and the other smoking boy hits her in the arm, which makes her wail. Still no sign of their parents.
      The penguin turns to another little girl and hands her a pack. “Here, kid,” he says, with the penguin equivalent of a warm grin. “It’s good for you. It’s got menthol, like a cough drop. You like cough drops, don’t you?”
      The child smiles and rips out a cigarette before motioning for a lighter. Jimmy vomits just a little, a brown splash onto the yellow line of a parking space divider, then cackles and continues smoking. I wonder what kind of devil child likes cough drops.
      As the penguins finish distributing their little boxes of tobacco sticks, the kids run off to wherever they came from in the first place, puffing on their flammable new toys. The penguins high five. Suddenly, one of them gives me this funny little narrow-eyed glare and they begin to murmur amongst one another. Slowly they all turn in my direction and stare. I crunch up the remainder of my ice cream cone, wipe my mouth on the back of my hand, and look around.
      “What the hell are you looking at, fatass?” says the penguin in the t-shirt. I glance at my rotund hindquarters almost reflexively and wonder if it counts as an insult if it’s true. I’m reminded of how much I hate questions, because you kinda have to say something in response. Still, there’s no reason to get all confrontational, so I figure I’ll redirect the conversation.
      “OK, guys, so where’re the cameras?” I ask the penguins. “And you can take the costumes off. Unless you’re naked in there. I mean, I don’t need to see that.”
      “Cameras?” the lead penguin says, crumpling the paper bag in his right appendage. “Why would we want cameras? That would really defeat the whole purpose, now wouldn’t it? And these aren’t costumes, you idiot.”
      “What are you talking about?” I say, glaring at the smug little black and white beast. “I know you’re all midgets in penguin suits or robots or something, and this is for a TV show or whatever, so don’t you tell me I’m an idiot!”
      The penguins all begin to laugh, a malicious, taunting chuckle. “What a douche,” says the penguin in the t-shirt.
      “You’re obviously confused,” says the penguin with the bag. “We’re real penguins. Just because we can talk doesn’t make us midgets or robots.”
      “Penguins can’t talk, dumbass. This is ridiculous. How stupid do you think I am?”
      “That’s really beside the point,” coos the penguin. “But you just hit the nail on the head. It is ridiculous. That’s the whole idea.”
      “What are you talking about?” I say. I’m not sure what I want more, an explanation or some more ice cream.
      “Well, see, it’s like this: the tobacco industry has fallen on hard times. Marketing to children is illegal now, which eliminates a huge base of potential customers. I mean, look at Camel. We lost Joe Camel, who was huge with the kids, and they denied our application to advertise in Highlights for Children. We were willing to pay them top dollar, too, for the page right next to ‘Goofus & Gallant.’” There is more than a little bitterness in the penguin’s voice as he spits the words out like moldy grapes. “So we, me and my buddies here, we’re the future of Camel.”
      “I still don’t get it,” I say, scratching my bristly mustache. I think, my God, I’m talking to a penguin, and then I think, my God, my mustache gets sweaty in the summer.
      “Camel pays us good money to give cigarettes to kids,” says the penguin. He punctuates this statement with a syrupy yawn, and it appears that his companions are getting restless. “Seriously, what kid is gonna say no to a talking penguin? We may as well be goddamn Barney the purple dinosaur, for Christ’s sake.”
      “You don’t even care that they’re not old enough to be doing this?”
      “Hey, don’t ask, don’t tell!” says the penguin. “For all I know, those kids were all consenting adults.”
      “You’re a goddamn liar! You just said yourself that you’re paid to market to kids! You said that, specifically! Kids!”
      “So sue me. Jeez.”
      “Maybe I’ll just call the cops on your ass, how do you like that?” I threaten. I silently wonder when I started to even care. Can’t have been more than a minute ago.
      “Oh, yeah, call the cops,” laughs the penguin. “Don’t you get it, jackass? That’s the genius of the whole plan! Who the hell would ever believe that talking penguins are giving cigarettes to children? Who? It’s the most ridiculously absurd idea in the world!”
      He has a point. Honestly, who’s gonna believe this? I have a hard time accepting it, and I’m standing right here. I have to admit, it’s a good plan.
      The penguin thrusts a pack of smokes into my sticky right hand. “Smoke Camels,” he grunts, and then he and his buddies waddle back to the van, pack themselves in, and speed off. I don’t even try to stop them, even if I should. I guess it’s really none of my business, and I don’t need the ASPCA1 coming after me for beating up penguins. Besides, the whole thing was so weird I’m not entirely certain it happened. There could’ve been acid in my ice cream.
     I look down at the pack of cigarettes in my hand. I suppose that counts as evidence. Oh, well, I think, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em, and light one up. I take a long, slow drag as my heart rate drops back down below normal. Mmm...I forget sometimes how nice a cigarette can be.

1 American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals


Unknown said…
This is more what I expected you to be writing. Taking on big tobacco marketing to children... a little bit on the nose, er-- beak, don't you think?

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