Troublemakers: Stories by Harlan Ellison, p.1Harlan Ellison
by Harlan Ellison
This one is for my
long-time partner in crime,
the great cinematic auteur,
INTRODUCTION: “That Kid’s Gonna Wind Up In Jail!”
ON THE DOWNHILL SIDE
A LOT OF SAUCERS
RAIN, RAIN, GO AWAY
THE VOICE IN THE GARDEN
DEEPER THAN THE DARKNESS
NEVER SEND TO KNOW FOR WHOM THE LETTUCE WILTS
DJINN, NO CHASER
“REPENT, HARLEQUIN!” SAID THE TICKTOCKMAN
JEFFTY IS FIVE
FREE WITH THIS BOX!
INTRODUCTION: “THAT KID’S GONNA WIND UP IN JAIL!”
No use pretending: too many of the “young people” (whatever that means, 4–6 year olds, 10–13, 15–20ish?) I’m thrown into contact with these days are, in the words of Daffy Duck, maroons…ultramaroons. Dumb, apathetic, surly, dumb, arrogant, semiliterate, dumb, disrespectful, oblivious to what’s going on around them, ethically barren, dishonorable, crushed by peer pressure and tv advertising into consumer conformity, crude, dumb, slaves to the lowest manifestations of cheap crap popular culture (as, for instance, WWF wrestling; boy bands; idiot Image comics featuring prepubescent fanboy representations of women with the vacuous stares of cheerleaders, all legs and bare butts, with breasts like casaba melons grafted to their chests at neck level; horse-trank home-made mosh-pit Xtasy kitty-flippin’ dope; and Old Navy rags that make everyone look like a bag lady or wetbrain bindlestiff with a sagging pants-load), inclined to respond to even minor inconveniences with anger or violence because they’ve been brainwashed into believing everything they want, they ought to have, and everything ought to be given to them free, and oh yeah…did I mention they’re dumb? Did I mention, also, that they’re ignorant as a sack of doorknobs? Which ain’t exactly the same as dumb.
And isn’t that exactly what you needed today, on a day that has already been as friendly as a paper cut? Smartmouth from some total stranger ’way older than you, some guy you never heard of before, comes on fronting you with his “young people suck” riff, tripping on you before you even know what you did wrong to get this geezer so on a mission. Very nice, very cool. Yeah, you say: I gotcher cool right here.
So okay, I’m not talking about all teenaged kids. Just the ones you have to deal with every day. The pinheads, the bullies, the mean little rats who laugh at you behind your back or right to your face because you’re too fat or too scrawny or too tall or too short or you can’t control the farts or you bump into things all the time or you got a helluva acne plague this week or your mommy dressed you weird or you speak with an accent, or you’re good at sports but the other creeps think you’re just a big dumb ox, or you really like to read and you get decent grades but the jocks and sosch skanks think you’re the Prince of the Kingdom of Geek.
Not all “young people,” just the lames who bust your chops. Yeah, all of ’em…they should itch forever with no scratch available. They should break a leg or two.
When I was your age, they were on me, too.
That’s who this guy snarling at you claims to be. The kid who was there, same place as you, before you got here. And I’ve got this book of stories that definitely won’t save your life, or get you off crystal-meth, or turn your academic slide into a climb back up, or even clear up your acne.
It’s a book about some of the kinds of trouble we all get into. The stuff that seems to be a good idea at the time, but turns out to be six months in rehab or a beef in the juvie hall of your choice. Trouble has been my middle name since I was two–three years old. Yeah, that far back, I was the one they always swore was gonna wind up in jail or lying in a gutter with UPS trucks splashing garbage and mud on my wretched carcass. Well, it didn’t happen. I’ve got fame and money, and skill and a great wife, and a boss home. And now they ask me to put together a book for youse guys.
Well, imagine my surprise. Not to mention my nervousness. I do a lot of high school and college lecturing, and it’s not at all like what it was, hell, even ten years ago. Today, when I confront an audience of “young people” I get more mood ’n’ tude than a serial killer trying to cop a plea. So, like a jerk, I get really honked at them and start insulting the audience.
And here’s what really fries my frijoles…
They take it!
They don’t learn from it, they don’t get openly upset by it, they just sit there and pout like babies. And so, I’ve packed it in, pretty much. Not like it was when I did colleges in the ’60s and ’70s, when everyone was questioning and smart about what was happening in this country, when “young people” really had things to rebel against, instead of being upset that they’re not allowed to play their Gameboy in class.
So here’s this book of weird little stories, something like a modern-day version of Aesop’s Fables, except not really. A book of warnings, what we call “gardyloos.” With lessons to be learned that come out of my own corrupt and devilish adolescence.
Careful, though. Gardyloo! I am nobody’s hero, and I am as fu—well, you know what I mean, I’m as messed up as you. So read the stories for pleasure, and if they make you grin or scare you a little, and you turn out okay as an adult, and you get rich…send me some money.
Because I’m just a poor old guy trying to make a sparse living in a world full of “young people” who are smarter than I, cleverer than I, faster than I; and I’m just about on the verge of becoming like y’know a “bag lady” kind of guy, gnawing the heads off rats, peeing in doorways, begging from door to door. So, when these stories make you rich and famous, and they’ve just completely like y’know altered your life, send me a couple of bucks.
Because I love you folks, you know that, doncha?
I just love ya.
(And while we’re at it, I’d like to sell you some shares in the Panda Farm I’ve got growing in my butt. Very reasonable.)
Yr. pal, Harlan.
Sherman Oaks, California
ON THE DOWNHILL SIDE
Here’s one of the few Secret Truths I’ve learned for certain, having been “on the road” since I was thirteen and ran away. (Had nothing to do with my folks; they didn’t beat me; I was a restless kid, wanted to see the world.) The Truth is this: most of the reasons we give for having done something or other, usually something that got us yelled at or grounded or busted, most of the reasons we dream up are horse-puckey. (I’d use the B-word, but libraries are going to be stocking this book.) All those reasons and excuses are just lame rationalizations, and they only tick off the people yelling at you. So shine ’em on. Forget them. The only reason that makes any sense is “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Lame though it may be, it’s the Truth. “Why did you bust that window?” It seemed like a good idea at the time. “Why did you get hung up on that guy/girl when you knew it was a destructive hookup?” It seemed like a good idea at the time. “Why did you do that lump of crack?” It seemed…well, you get it. Too bad the guy in this first story didn’t get it, because the True Answer to why you fell in love with someone who ranked & hurt you is…it seemed like…
In love, there is always one who kisses and one who offers the cheek.
I knew she was a virgin because she was able to ruffle the silken mane of my unicorn. Named Lizette, she was a Grecian temple in which no sacrifice had ever been m
Much of this took place in what is called the Irish Channel, a strip of street in old New Orleans where the lace curtain micks had settled decades before; now the Irish were gone and the Cubans had taken over the Channel. Now the Cubans were sleeping, recovering from the muggy today that held within its hours the déjà vu of muggy yesterday, the déjà rêvé of intolerable tomorrow. Now the crippled bricks of side streets off Magazine had given up their nightly ghosts, and one such phantom had come to me, calling my unicorn to her–thus, clearly, a virgin–and I stood waiting.
Had it been Sutton Place, had it been a Manhattan evening, and had we met, she would have kneeled to pet my dog. And I would have waited. Had it been Puerto Vallarta, had it been 20° 36’ N, 105° 13’ W, and had we met, she would have crouched to run her fingertips over the oil-slick hide of my iguana. And I would have waited. Meeting in streets requires ritual. One must wait and not breathe too loud, if one is to enjoy the congress of the nightly ghosts.
She looked across the fine head of my unicorn and smiled at me. Her eyes were a shade of gray between onyx and miscalculation. “Is it a bit chilly for you?” I asked.
“When I was thirteen,” she said, linking my arm, taking a tentative two steps that led me with her, up the street, “or perhaps I was twelve, well no matter, when I was that approximate age, I had a marvelous shawl of Belgian lace. I could look through it and see the mysteries of the sun and the other stars unriddled. I’m sure someone important and very nice has purchased that shawl from an antique dealer, and paid handsomely for it.”
It seemed not a terribly responsive reply to a simple question.
“A queen of the Mardi Gras Ball doesn’t get chilly,” she added, unasked. I walked along beside her, the cool evasiveness of her arm binding us, my mind a welter of answer choices, none satisfactory.
Behind us, my unicorn followed silently. Well, not entirely silently. His platinum hoofs clattered on the bricks. I’m afraid I felt a straight pin of jealousy. Perfection does that to me.
“When were you queen of the Ball?”
The date she gave me was one hundred and thirteen years before.
It must have been brutally cold down there in the stones.
There is a little book they sell, a guide to manners and dining in New Orleans: I’ve looked: nowhere in the book do they indicate the proper responses to a ghost. But then, it says nothing about the wonderful cemeteries of New Orleans’ West Bank, or Metairie. Or the gourmet dining at such locations. One seeks, in vain, through the mutable, mercurial universe, for the compleat guide. To everything. And, failing in the search, one makes do the best one can. And suffers the frustration, suffers the ennui.
Perfection does that to me.
We walked for some time, and grew to know each other, as best we’d allow. These are some of the high points. They lack continuity. I don’t apologize, I merely point it out, adding with some truth, I feel, that most liaisons lack continuity. We find ourselves in odd places at various times, and for a brief span we link our lives to others–even as Lizette had linked her arm with mine–and then, our time elapsed, we move apart. Through a haze of pain occasionally; usually through a veil of memory that clings, then passes; sometimes as though we have never touched.
“My name is Paul Ordahl,” I told her. “And the most awful thing that ever happened to me was my first wife, Bernice. I don’t know how else to put it–even if it sounds melodramatic, it’s simply what happened–she went insane, and I divorced her, and her mother had her committed to a private mental home.”
“When I was eighteen,” Lizette said, “my family gave me my coming-out party. We were living in the Garden District, on Prytania Street. The house was a lovely white Plantation–they call them antebellum now–with Grecian pillars. We had a persimmon-green gazebo in the rear gardens, directly beside a weeping willow. It was six-sided. Octagonal. Or is that hexagonal? It was the loveliest party. And while it was going on, I sneaked away with a boy…I don’t remember his name…and we went into the gazebo, and I let him touch my breasts. I don’t remember his name.”
We were on Decatur Street, walking toward the French Quarter; the Mississippi was on our right, dark but making its presence known.
“Her mother was the one had her committed, you see. I only heard from them twice after the divorce. It had been four stinking years and I really didn’t want any more of it. Once, after I’d started making some money, the mother called and said Bernice had to be put in the state asylum. There wasn’t enough money to pay for the private home any more. I sent a little; not much. I suppose I could have sent more, but I was remarried, there was a child from her previous marriage. I didn’t want to send any more. I told the mother not to call me again. There was only once after that…it was the most terrible thing that ever happened to me.”
We walked around Jackson Square, looking in at the very black grass, reading the plaques bolted to the spear-topped fence, plaques telling how New Orleans had once belonged to the French. We sat on one of the benches in the street. The street had been closed to traffic, and we sat on one of the benches.
“Our name was Charbonnet. Can you say that?”
I said it, with a good accent.
“I married a very wealthy man. He was in real estate. At one time he owned the entire block where the Vieux Carré now stands, on Bourbon Street. He admired me greatly. He came and sought my hand, and my maman had to strike the bargain because my father was too weak to do it; he drank. I can admit that now. But it didn’t matter, I’d already found out how my suitor was set financially. He wasn’t common, but he wasn’t quality, either. But he was wealthy and I married him. He gave me presents. I did what I had to do. But I refused to let him make love to me after he became friends with that awful Jew who built the Metairie Cemetery over the race track because they wouldn’t let him race his Jew horses. My husband’s name was Dunbar. Claude Dunbar, you may have heard the name? Our parties were de rigueur.”
“Would you like some coffee and beignets at du Monde?”
She stared at me for a moment, as though she wanted me to say something more, then she nodded and smiled.
We walked around the Square. My unicorn was waiting at the curb. I scratched his rainbow flank and he struck a spark off the cobblestones with his right front hoof. “I know,” I said to him, “we’ll soon start the downhill side. But not just yet. Be patient. I won’t forget you.”
Lizette and I went inside the Café du Monde and I ordered two coffees with warm milk and two orders of beignets from a waiter who was originally from New Jersey but had lived most of his life only a few miles from College Station, Texas.
There was a coolness coming off the levee.
“I was in New York,” I said. “I was receiving an award at an architects’ convention–did I mention I was an architect–yes, that’s what I was at the time, an architect–and I did a television interview. The mother saw me on the program, and checked the newspapers to find out what hotel we were using for the convention, and she got my room number and called me. I had been out quite late after the banquet where I’d gotten my award, quite late. I was sitting on the side of the bed, taking off my shoes, my tuxedo tie hanging from my unbuttoned collar, getting ready just to throw clothes on the floor and sink away, when the phone rang. It was the mother. She was a terrible person, one of the worst I ever knew, a shrike, a terrible, just a terrible person. She started telling me about Bernice in the asylum. How they had her in this little room and how she stared out the window most of the time. She’d reverted to childhood, and most of the time she couldn’t even recognize the mother; but when she did, she’d say something like, ‘Don’t let them hurt me, Mommy, don’t let them hurt me.’ So I asked her what she wanted me to do, did she want money for Bernice or what…did she want me to go see h
“It wasn’t till two years later that I allowed myself to think about it, and then I cried; it had been a long time since I’d cried. Oh, not because I believed that nonsense about a man isn’t supposed to cry, but just because I guess there hadn’t been anything that important to cry about. But when I let myself hear what she’d said, I started crying, and just went on and on till I finally went in and looked into the bathroom mirror and I asked myself, face-to-face, if I’d done that, if I’d ever made her be quiet so I could work on blueprints or drawings…
“And after a while I saw myself shaking my head no, and it was easier. That was perhaps three years before I died.”
She licked the powdered sugar from the beignets off her fingers, and launched into a long story about a lover she had taken. She didn’t remember his name.
It was sometime after midnight. I’d thought midnight would signal the start of the downhill side, but the hour had passed, and we were still together, and she didn’t seem ready to vanish. We left the Café du Monde and walked into the Quarter.
Troublemakers: Stories by Harlan Ellison by Harlan Ellison / Science Fiction / History & Fiction / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes