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Piss Poor
by Brian Moore

Tim Flannery had everything figured out until the Discovery Channel shot it to hell.

Back when cable television was a novelty, his old man had told him the primeval regions of the Amazon basin were chockablock with savages who couldn't tell a disposable lighter from a volcano. They lived in a grimy sort of pastoral languor, their P.M. hours spent supine on a riverbank after a tough morning of collecting nuts and berries. For entertainment, they'd bang a few sticks together and gyrate, doing one of the shuffles left unmentioned in "Land of a Thousand Dances." Clothes were deemed unnecessary.

"This is what I would've done if I had any balls when I was younger," his old man told him. "I would've packed a shitload of lighters and shiny things like rhinestones and mirrors, flown down there, and started showing it all off." His old man would always stop at this point of his Manifest Destiny scenario to tug on his unfiltered Camel cigarette, a brand that smelled like Bactrian ass to Flannery.

"Once those little bastards got a load of all that, they'd worship me like a God. I'd fuck the shit out of all their women and make the men wait on me hand-and-foot. That's pretty much all they've got, you know." That always made the old man chuckle. "Get me a goddamn mango! Oongowa! Oongowa!"

Flannery knew his dad was an idiot--the geezer's ex-wives were like the trail of dead in a barbarian's wake--but Flannery couldn't help think there was a kernel of genius inside dad's mountain of bullshit. Flannery spent much of his collegiate downtime molding this paternal insanity into a reasonable strategy for making some dough.

He remained true to the essence of the scheme: shiny things to impress the natives, take advantage of said natives. But Flannery wove a bit of nuance into the web. He'd read that authentic art from the hands of aborigines was selling for outrageous sums in New York; a half-baked assemblage of balsa, mud and straw worn over a twelve-year-old's face at a puberty rite often fetched ten large. Flannery began saving money after college to finance the trip down south. He was short about five hundred dollars--not counting the cost of glowsticks, lighters and Mardi Gras beads--when he happened upon the Discovery Channel.

A British fellow was journeying up "the mighty Amazon" in search of "the lost tribe of" something-or-other--Flannery had gotten high before turning on the television, so foreign names sounded Greek. Their designation notwithstanding, this tribe was "a people of God who've lived unmolested by modernity since the beginning of time," and Flannery settled into his loveseat to perform some important fieldwork.

The Brit, a saucer-eyed chap whose boundless enthusiasm wasn't as infectious as he'd probably hoped, took forty-five minutes to get to the tribe. Flannery's left leg began to jerk, impatience manifesting itself as an annoying tic. These restless spasms worsened as the Brit hacked through the greenery to the tribal lair, finally becoming epileptic as the tribal chief was introduced to American viewers.

One look at the big kahuna was all Flannery needed: his primitive art brokering contrivance was dead. The nut-gathering son-of-a-bitch sported a ratty Michael Jackson T-shirt, an ancient, glittered artifact from the bygone days of Jackson passing as a black guy. The chief glowed, a permanent smile powering the wattage. This radiance, nearly ecstatic, sent two messages to Flannery--either the chief was proud of his royal vestments, or the chief was telling Tim Flannery to go fuck himself.

The next day he quit his job as a record store clerk. Using his old man's connections, Flannery nabbed a management track job at a modest pharmaceutical manufacturer named Nocor Industries.


New neighbors are always great. Ask any realtor.

"And over there--you see the white house that's catty-corner to this one?--she's an artist. Artists are great to have around. The couple next door, they're retired," said the realtor. She was squat, her frame compacting a boundless energy that would be the envy of any British anthropologist. "On the other side of you is Tom and Gracie Badeaux. Gracie is the city administrator here!"

"That's good to know," said Janice, Flannery's wife, now in her seventh year of holding the title.

"What's so great about that?" Flannery asked.

The two women laughed. The realtor stage-whispered to Janice: "He's so funny! Isn't he funny?" The two women laughed again, lightly touching each other's arms. Janice ended her revelry with a reflective sigh. Flannery adored that sigh.

"If you put in the offer we discussed, I can have you inside in a week," said the realtor.

It took ten days, but no one, certainly not Janice, was counting.

Ten years after the death of Flannery's Amazon adventure, Nocor Industries had transferred Flannery to St. Harmony Parish in Louisiana. The company had built a new manufacturing plant in this primeval region of the country to take advantage of the FDA's rewrite of ancient pharmaceutical regulations. These new efficiencies decreased Nocor's overhead by 23 percent, and management was anxious to pass the savings back to themselves.

St. Harmony had a certain Third World aspect that appealed to the part of Flannery still longing for the jungle. The parish had a long list of disasters-in-waiting, Flannery was warned, an encyclopedia of misery threatening to empty its contents on the hapless transplant who assumed that the unworried serenity of North Carolina's technology triangle was transferable to Louisiana.

His new town, Coverdale, was bordered by two rivers that tended not to respect their banks. They ached to spill into Flannery's dainty neighborhood, and while the waters wouldn't necessarily sweep his house away, they would leave behind a slew of aquatic vipers with bad intentions for his bulldog, whose Napoleon complex had given the indefinite period called the rest of his life a charmed aspect.

Death could come from above. Thunderstorms from the north and hurricanes from the south meant tornadoes and their attendant flying trees. These trees, when planted, were a big selling point to Janice, who didn't care for Coverdale's new subdivisions; they seemed to have been de-vegetated with Agent Orange and napalm. She chose an older neighborhood filled with massive oaks that took out houses, cars, and power lines as if the trees wanted the place to themselves.

The houses were old, so they caught fire. Roots and rain buckled the concrete streets, causing wrecks and accelerating the depreciation of cars, called "vehicles" by the locals. Monsoons struck daily during the summer, leaving brackish ponds that spawned mosquito-borne viruses like West Nile. Flannery wondered why management didn't put the new plant in gentler places like central Bangladesh or darkest Africa.

"Why in St. Harmony?" He heard his question repeated by the plant's VP. "Because of the people. The juco trains the workforce at their expense. The dummy ratio is pretty low. The boss said everyone was nice. That and taxes. We don't have to pay a fuckin' dime for ten years."

Nocor had given Flannery a week to settle his domestic business--he thought that mighty white of them. It was an easy week; he'd painted a few rooms that didn't really need it, then stevedored furniture in accordance with Janice's whims until everything was tiptop. A little woodwork on Thursday would complete the project, leaving the couple to spend the weekend chuckling about how great it was not having kids.

Thursday morning, Flannery cut perfect angles into shoe molding with the aid of a miter and the occasional swearing jag aimed at incinerating the tedium. Janice was handing him a piece of hardwood when he first saw--the Thing.

"What's this for? It looks hard," said Flannery. He tried to eye-roll Janice's attention away from the wood to The Thing.

"It'll be a threshold for the bedroom, once you cut it where I've marked," Janice said.

Flannery jerked his head, bidding her close. "Do you see that over there?"

"Yes. Quite hairy."

"I think he's been staring at me."

"I'm not sure I feel sorry for you or for him," she said. She grabbed the pieces of molding her husband had already cut. "Don't worry about it."

Flannery placed the hardwood into the miter and pulled the saw; it bounced, nearly taking a chunk of left thumb with it. "Goddamn this goddamn thing!" he said, too loud for the neighborhood. He looked around, composing an apology if any virgin-eared dowager were happening by. All he saw was the Thing. It smoked a cigarette.

Flannery raised the saw and shrugged, both gestures of mock penance. He got nothing back, a non-response he found intolerably rude, bordering on hostile. He attacked the hardwood with greater care, using halting jerks like the initial wrenching of a steam locomotive until he found purchase in the wood. Progress was slow--five minutes of lurching back and forth, five minutes of biting his lips closed, yielded only a quarter-inch groove.

He lit a cigarette before resuming. He wondered why they needed an indoor threshold in the first place. It was nothing more than a stubbed toe waiting to happen. If Janice had any more thresholds for him to cut, he'd just as soon throw her over them as carry her, which had been the plan for tonight, along with champagne and hors d'oeuvres from a Coverdale restaurant stabbing at pretentious cuisine.

"What'cha doin'?"

Flannery glanced at what was talking. The Thing had come for a closer look.

It was a failure of proportion, topped by a monstrous, bony head afflicted with wisps of hair crawling off the sharp curves of chin, lip and skull. Below were lean appendages that dangled long and endlessly out of a frame so thin it appeared two-dimensional; the torso was wrapped in faded red T-shirt, perhaps the sole non-monogrammed shirt in Louisiana. The Thing looked not so much born of a woman as drawn by a child.

Flannery later said he wasn't sure at first if it was a man or a woman, but that was bullshit. It was a man, with too much masculine hostility for anyone's good, aged anywhere from 18 to 30. His sinking facial features hinted towards the higher end of the age range, but the acne lent a youthful aspect.

"What'cha doin'?" The tone was equivocal to Flannery. It wasn't friendly, to be sure. Hostile was a stretch in the other direction. The thing sounded more like a cop trying to size up ambiguous behavior, consonant with the aggressive monotone lawmen use when asking "How we doing?" of a speedy driver.

Flannery forced another few strokes into the wood before answering. "I'm sawing," he said. He didn't look at his visitor. "Me and my wife bought this house. I'm fixing it up." Janice watched from the living room window, herself unobserved, her arms folded, wishing the best for her husband.

"Whatcha' sawin'?”

"I don't know. It's one of those things you put in the doorway."

"A doorstop?"

"No," said Flannery, still working. "It covers the space between the bottom of the door and the floor."

"A threshold?"

Flannery still refused to look at the man. It was work time, not a thorn-pulling opportunity to heal someone's claw, and Flannery wanted to convey as politely as possible that he didn't give a rat's ass about anything the guy had to say. At the same time Flannery worried that the brush-off might encourage an irrational hostility the guy probably possessed in spades, but that was fine line he felt he had to walk. "Yeah, a threshold," said Flannery. "That's what it's called."

The Thing didn't speak. He didn't go away.

Flannery babbled. "Me and my wife, we just moved here from Carolina. North Carolina. We're fixing up the house and all that. It's a pain-in-the-ass, but you know how women are about houses. My wife wants it nice. She calls it feathering the nest."

The Thing stood for a few seconds after Flannery finished his monologue, then walked away.

As he smoked on his front porch that evening, Flannery thought he saw The Thing standing in a dark corner across the street, staring holes back into him. Two hours later, when Flannery and Janice sipped champagne and giggled--Janice doing most of the giggling, Flannery leading on the sipping--the Thing careened out his front door. Following him were the muted sounds of music and the angry voice of an old woman. The Thing slammed the door, slurring "shut the fuck up" after it closed. He walked to the porch's edge, whipped out his dick, and hosed the plants down below.

"That's just . . . that's just wonderful," said Flannery, his voice low.

"I hope we didn't make him self-conscious," said Janice.

The Thing's open-air bathroom breaks became a nightly ritual, coinciding with Flannery's cigarette break before the ten o'clock news. The initial appearance had turned out to be a more animated performance than most. Usually the Thing ambled outside gently, enveloped in a joyous torpor. He'd look at the stars above , his mouth open like a startled bass's, or gaze at the plants below, his lips pursed as if a thought threatened to ruin the mood. But it always ended the same way.

Sometimes--a few at first, then more as the weeks went by--the Thing would turn his head towards Flannery. Though Flannery always looked away, he suspected the Thing was smiling at him. Flannery hoped the Thing wasn't, for if the Thing was, Flannery was sure he'd shit his own porch.


The Thing's name was Elmer.

"No I'm not kidding," Flannery told Janice. She was assembling varieties of lettuce without the help of croutons, cheese and ranch dressing, yet calling the creation a salad. "I heard whatever was inside the house yelling at him, calling him Elmer."

"You know, that's an awful name. No wonder the poor boy is so off," said Janice.

"Off doesn't even come close. Did you know that if he did his little move and a cop saw it, he wouldn't just get arrested for urinating in public? He'd get charged with lewd conduct, too."

"Oh honey, that's not lewd conduct. I know lewd conduct in men."

"You don't call flashing your dick around in public lewd conduct? Elmer is lewdness personified."

"He's not flashing it at anyone. He's going to the bathroom."

"I don't like it no matter what anyone calls it."

Janice handed Flannery a bottle of wine, then put aluminum foil over the salad bowl. "I don't like it either, but there's nothing we can do. Now let's go. We're late."

The two walked one block to the Jones's, another neighborhood newcomer whom Flannery decided he'd have little trouble keeping up with. Though the Jones abode was almost twice the size of Flannery's, the two-story Tudor left Denise and Dennis Jones--and their two wailing toddlers--manifestly house poor. Whole wings had been sealed off to make the Jones's furniture rations go a bit further.

The neighborhood veterans had been a little slow showing Southern hospitality to Janice and Tim, so Dennis and Denise took matters into their own hands. Most of the block made it that evening, six couples in total. Tim found them an unsurprising yet not collectively unappealing collection of public employees and corporate backbenchers, an aggregation that skewed about a decade older and, because of this, manifestly less ambitious than himself, save for the Jones clan.

They spoke about themselves in unremarkable ways. Promotions were discussed as means towards modest home improvements; Janice happily dispensed advice based on her experiences. Some couples described vacations farther south, and everyone's children had done a marvelous job reaching adolescence without drug overdoses and pregnancy. Flannery was delighted to find that David Thibault, the owner of three sandwich shops in the parish, shared his disdain for colleges that take overt pride in their rowing programs.

"Yes, yes, yes," Flannery said to himself, "not a bad bunch of neighbors," but he quickly found it was a bunch unsympathetic to his complaints about Elmer.

"Is that really his name?" asked Sheila Coutrer, an English instructor at the local Catholic girls' school. Lapping fifty by a few years, she remained unafraid of wearing her gray hair below her shoulders like a steel waterfall, and she remained unafraid of venturing any opinion, however emotionally rendered and uninformed. Her observations flew like buckshot from a sawed-off Remington, save for one generous assessment of Elmer: "His name is cute."

"That's not really the point," said Flannery. "The guy--I don't know--he has a threatening quality about him."

"You think so?" she asked.

"I'm not a paranoid person. Just between all of us"--Flannery paused to make sure all were listening--"I'm pretty sure the guy is trouble. He stares at me. He stares at me all the time. And then he whips out his penis and pisses all over the place like a goddamn dog."

The throng stared at Flannery, small smiles offered instead of gasps to a vulgar, inappropriate guy who was most likely paranoid, a guy who might stir up a cauldron best left still, a guy who'd root for Ole Miss over LSU without a passing thought of suicide. Janice, who was behind them all against the living room wall, shrugged and blew Tim a kiss, a show of affection that conveyed to her husband that he was on his own on this one. He thought he ought to cower, but nothing said or unsaid tonight would bend his principled stand against crackers holding their dicks aloft in public.

He turned to serve himself another plate of food from the offerings, diverse plates collected from the invitees surrounding him, assembled by Denise Jones in just-so fashion to resemble a Southern tapas table. The chow was going fast. Would anyone here be eating if their heads were filled with his visions of Elmer? Not damn likely, he thought.

"I've never met a bigger bunch of self-absorbed assholes in my life," Flannery told Janice when they reached home. "If I heard another word about how great it was their kids weren't impregnating each other, I would've fucked them myself!"

Janice halted, cradling the empty salad bowl against her chest like a medieval breastplate. "Are you kidding? Please tell me you're joking!" She was woozy with astonishment. "They were nice people. And they were nice to us!"

"‘Nice.' That's great. You're supposed to be nice."

"You're just mad they didn't share your dread over Elmer. Don't you dare screw this up over that, over anything! We have to live here, Tim."

"I know that." Flannery used the grave tone of a man finding himself stricken with disease. They argued further, Janice adding nuance to her premise while Flannery spewed semantics and ad hoc invective into a river of vituperative bile: "Doesn't anyone care that they're being pissed on every night, or is there a golden shower fetish in Coverdale?"

"It's not that, Tim. It's your sense of proportion. No one wants to meet a person whose first words are penis this and piss that."

Flannery finished his losing contentions with a valedictory "I'm going outside." ("Fine," said Janice, not displeased she'd have the entire bed for a night.) He paced the length of his porch three times, torching three matches to light one cigarette. He inhaled the first drag with the desperation of a hysterical infant before exhaling a mushroom cloud of smoke. When the vapor dissipated, Elmer appeared, standing and staring from the sidewalk, not twenty feet away.

Elmer spoke. "You got a big fuckin' mouth, you know that?" Elmer leered.

"What's your problem, buddy?" asked Flannery. He ground his teeth, getting ready to bite should a brawl arise.

"You talk a lot. A lot of bullshit."

"What are you talking about? Are you spying on me?"

"You're mouth's so big the whole place can hear you."

"I'm not talking to you."

"You talk about me a lot."

Flannery slung the lit butt of his cigarette at Elmer. Elmer sneered.

"Get the fuck out of here before I call the cops." Flannery raced to his front door, trying to threaten by retreat.

"What for? They gonna' nail me for talkin'?"

"Fuck you," said Flannery. He moved towards Elmer, coiling with the rage of a man of property improperly threatened, his feet stomping with a martial pace. "Get out of here! Get out of here, or you'll wish I had called the cops."

"Ewww! Big man! I'm scared of Mister Big Shot! I better run!" Elmer twisted around like a slow-turning screw and crossed the street to the back of his house, or what was better called the house he lived in. Flannery followed the drumbeat of Elmer's footsteps until Elmer reached the front porch. Elmer unzipped his jeans, turned to face Flannery and did as was his wont, every night.


In down moments at the pharmaceutical plant, Flannery prepared a memorandum detailing Elmer's sociopathic atrocities in preparation for a legal showdown between the two of them--a courtroom apocalypse where he would ascend triumphant. Janice was moving beyond irritation to exasperation, so urgency began to charge Flannery's desire. The courts, or the police, or the "authorities," would settle this with finality. Like most law-abiding people, Flannery had no idea what the law was, and his wife, who paid her way through UNC-Wilmington as a paralegal, tried to impress upon him that courts weren't vehicles to impose one's will willy-nilly on a neighbor. She said he had to have suffered something. As far as she was concerned, righteous chafing wasn't cause for legal action. He'd see about that.

He tried to phrase his memorandum in the legalese he'd heard on television court shows, affrays where two bumpkins square off before a retired judge over whether the transfer of two hundred dollars was a gift or a loan. Among the particulars:

O "On Nov. 22, the defendant urinated from his porch in full view of the plaintiff and with the plaintiff's knowledge. When finished with his misdemeanor, the defendant stared with hostile intent at the plaintiff and shook his penis and gyrated his hips in a sexual manner. The defendant also laughed at the plaintiff."

O "On Nov. 28, the defendant played ‘industrial metal' music after 11:30 p.m. at a volume loud enough to cause the front windows of the plaintiff's house to shake, thus irritating and causing to bark the plaintiff's dog. The music continued until the plaintiff was told by Coverdale police to cease."

O "On Dec 5, the defendant--while inebriatedly drunk--shot multiple rounds from his BB gun at neighborhood cats. Though no cats were hit due to the defendant's intoxication, a hazardous situation could have elevated into bodily injury for those nearby."

When--on Dec. 18--the plaintiff showed his wife the memorandum, a memorandum in which the plaintiff took evident pride, the plaintiff's wife made it clear that she would divorce him the instant the brief was filed, thus ensuring that he'd be a stalwart presence at the St. Harmony Parish Justice Center, and also poorer for it.

Then it stopped. Four weeks of nothing. Was that young man over it? Janice wondered. There'd been no hysterics from her husband rebounding her way after they careened off Elmer's indifference, and she was grateful for it. Each day without a complaint allowed her to entertain the notion that her husband had matured a few decades in one month.

Four weeks of nothing. Was Elmer over it? Flannery wondered. Not a drop of piss had fallen from the porch, not a hint of what Elmer called music had drifted across the street, not a single speeding BB had menaced a cat's fleeing ass. It was as if Elmer had gotten bored and turned his mischief on others unknown, those poor bastards.

"I have a reward for you," Janice told Tim. She held a bottle of champagne, turning it with her wrist.

"What did I do to deserve this?"

"I'm afraid if I say, it'll jinx it. Let's go out to the porch. It's nice outside."

Looking aside to protect his eyes--Flannery compared opening champagne to juggling a detonator--he had massaged the cork halfway when he heard a premature report, a sound in the sonic range of a popping cork but decibels too low and its treble range a mite too high. He looked at the bottle and saw its cork still in place.

"Goddammit," he said. He tossed the champagne and rushed to his front porch, the cork exploding from its purchase, golden bubbly puddling on the kitchen floor.

Flannery saw Elmer across the street, a Daisy air rifle at his hip. He was firing at sparrows darting across the sky, the birds becoming more disconcerted and chaotic with each volley of BBs. Elmer wasn't much of a shot, but the constant "pop-pop-pop" from his gun merged with the birds' escalating shrieks to create a chorus that Flannery and his wife, who was staring slackjawed at Elmer, her champagne flute under her lip, could not bear.

"Go inside," Flannery told Janice. "I'm ending this."

"I'm calling the police," she said, trying to phrase it as an objection.

"Do whatever you have to do," said Flannery, and Janice went inside.

Flannery took long strides towards Elmer, who wasn't aware of anyone but himself, lost as he was in his avian holocaust. "Give that thing to me," Flannery yelled. He grabbed the rifle from Elmer, lifted it by the barrel above his head like an axe, and clobbered the butt on the buckling sidewalk. The plastic shattered into four pieces; the gun discharged a chambered pellet, shooting through the inseam of Flannery's khakis, singeing his thigh.

Elmer loosed his high-pitched cackle. "You almost turned into a girl, motherfucker!" Elmer said. His face turned crimson, as if mercury had rushed through his veins, fueled by rage. "You busted my fuckin' gun, motherfucker! You owe me a new gun, asshole!"

Flannery tried to contain himself. He gasped, desperate for air. For a second, he'd been checked by his close brush with eunuchism, but Elmer's vulgar insults gave him new life. Flannery wanted to tear Elmer apart piece by piece, to draw and quarter him like the insolent serf that he was.

"You might as well just give me the cash, since that was an antique rifle and a collectable and you can't get it anywhere no more," said Elmer, who prided himself on playing his cards wisely, always trying to up his advantage.

"I'm going to shove what's left of this gun up your ass."

A stray bit of sanity rattled inside Elmer's head--"this motherfucker is fuckin' crazy," he thought--and he evacuated, bolting to his porch, then inside his house. Elmer turned circles in a foyer decorated with nothing more than framed lace doilies hovering around a potted plant struggling for survival. He stopped, exhaled, then walked into the adjacent living room, where an old woman sat on a sofa watching television. The room was adorned like a decrepit dollhouse, filled with crocheted pillows and miniature baubles yellowed by aged soot; it was a virtual museum of antebellum femininity.

"What's all the commotion?" the woman asked.

"Where's my bat?"

"Your what?"

"My aluminum bat from high school. Where is it?"

"How should I know? You ain't played ball in years. I'm tryin' to watch the news."

"Dammit! I told ya' to quit throwin' all my stuff away! It's important!"

The woman paid him no attention. Elmer dashed back to the foyer and looked out the small window in the door. He saw Flannery pounding the remnants of his rifle--now nothing more than a bent iron barrel--into the sidewalk. The sidewalk, he reminded himself, belonged to him, at least after a fashion. He raced outside.

Flannery slammed the barrel a final time against the concrete before hurling it on to Elmer's porch. He missed Elmer by inches, and for a second Flannery winced at the idea of harming another person, even one as aggravating as Elmer, until he saw Elmer urinating; the Thing tried mightily to direct the stream as close to Flannery as his bladder would allow.

A police siren sounded from down the street.

Flannery was now on the porch, livid, alive with a fury that made his previous years seemed spent in a coma. Elmer cackled while putting his johnson back in the cave.

"Oh man," said Elmer, "the pause that refreshes."

"What's goin' on out here?" Flannery saw the old woman at the door, her features spelling out her suspicion that no good was afoot. "You boys mind fillin' me in on the details?"

"This son . . . this whoever he is, he's been pissing off this porch in front of everyone. Playing music, shooting guns. I've had it with this son-of-a-bitch. I've had it!" said Flannery.

The old woman glanced between to two men, trying to sniff some truth.

"Now Nana, you know that ain't true," Elmer said.

"That don't sound like my Elmer. No it don't," the old woman said. Her skepticism was trained exclusively on the upset young man hyperventilating on her porch; there was some madness to him, she guessed.

"You think this is Jack Armstrong here?" Flannery told the old woman. "You think this guy's in the Rotary Clu . . ." Flannery cut himself off. He wasn't going to reason with any dotard, and he wasn't going to debate any cracker. He returned his glare to Elmer. Moving towards him, Flannery screamed "why don't you try taking a leak with this?" then sent his foot crashing into Elmer's groin like a place-kicker nailing a fifty-yard field goal.

Elmer spent the fleeting interregnum between the vicious blow to his genitals and its resultant agony by lurching towards Flannery to strangle him--he was halfway to Flannery's neck before he crashed to the floor and balled his knees against his chest. He shrieked with metronomic peculiarity, like a man shot, rocking back and forth.

The old woman was frozen, spellbound by the froth of violence that so typically delights the elderly, until the cop arrived. Only then did she retreat behind the door; Flannery, when his head had cleared slightly, figured the old woman had seen enough of Elmer's interactions with law enforcement officials. Elmer softened the volume to a low moan.

Coverdale's finest was a porcine man in his mid-forties, naturally suspicious of any situation where two men faced each other with scowls, though this suspicion came more from watching cop shows on television than personal experience, the sum of which was ordering drunk people to behave. The cop--Lt. Melvin--noticed that one of the men, a hippie, looked like he'd eaten some bad Chinese food.

"Howdy boys. What seems to be the trouble?" Melvin asked, clipping his words to sound friendly because, at base, he was friendly.

"Nothin', man," Elmer groaned. Flannery held his tongue.

"You look like you ate the Kung Pao Chicken at Five Happiness downtown, son. You want an ambulance?"

"No, man." Elmer let loose a wee groan.

"You, sir," Melvin said to Flannery. "You and him been in an altercation?"

"Uh, not really," said Flannery.

"Thing is, I got a report that two fellows might be goin' at it on this block, and since this fellow down here said he didn't eat no bad food, I gotta' think somethin' went down."

"That guy . . . we've had our differences."

Melvin examined the wounded man more closely. "Oh shit, it's Elmer. What a surprise. You get kicked in the balls, Elmer?" asked Melvin.

Elmer moaned something inarticulate.

"You kick Elmer in the balls, sir?"

Flannery seized a bit, suddenly realizing that the perverse reality of the moment might trump his more general complaints about Elmer. "I may have . . . I want a lawyer, okay?"

"Oh for Christ's sake, sir. I ain't gonna' arrest no one. Not now, anyway. Twenty grand a year covers police work, not neighborhood referee duties." Melvin saw Flannery relax, his shoulders easing downwards. "Don't loosen your hole just yet, sir. The boys at the station been talkin' about the both of you; it's kind of a joke there, you see. Anyhoo, we got better things to do than give out etiquette advice. You hear that, Elmer?"

Elmer nodded and moaned.

"I got some things to do, so I'll make this quick. Elmer, quit peein' and shootin' guns." Melvin looked at Flannery. "Sir, you oughta' know better than to resort to this sorta' 'nad-kicking. It's something a lady might do."

Flannery sheepishly raised his hand, but Melvin would have none of it. "Please lower that, sir. I expect this'll be the last time I'm needed here. Understand? The both of you need to get some sense." The officer returned to his car and drove away. Flannery sulked to his house; Elmer more or less rolled into his.


It was one week later that Flannery and Elmer returned to their positions. They eyeballed each other without so much as a stray blink, each puffing away at a cigarette, each sneering after exhaling the smoke like dragons. Flannery paced to his right, a move that Elmer mirrored by moving to his left. But Elmer didn't push things forward, and Flannery didn't issue any warnings. They simply stared, flaring their nostrils when the gesture seemed appropriate, which was often.

Elmer raised his hand, turned his palm upward, and gave Flannery the finger. Flannery, in the same deliberate, silent motion as Elmer, did the same. They held the their signals aloft until they both felt their shoulders quake with pain; after ten minutes, they lowered themselves into wicker chairs, their fingers still raised.

"How long is this going to last?" Janice asked her husband.

Flannery thought it over, adjusting his elbow to more comfortably deliver his message to Elmer. "I'll be in at some point."


"Not a minute too soon."

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