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Featherproof Books

C.T. Ballentine

Only one installment left in Ballentine's magnum opus. Stay tuned... In part 5 of this serialized novella, things became dire for the philosopher-cum-TV writer Nietzsche at, among other locales, an elementary-school library. Herein...Strimmer, Madeline return.

Bloated, oafish minstrels! Don't like my scripts? No matter! Genius perseveres through the whipping winds of foolish men's hot air. And the crumbum, Matty: abandoned by new comrades and likewise the old, Crabtree: nowhere to be found. Truth cast out to the desert for to starve and wander. Puny gestures to the stars, an empty soliloquy. A fool's paradise. Do men know of aspiration any longer? Do I? I will cross the desert without food in tow for as long as my body will let me, I will cling to perseverance, but I have grown old and weary, despite myself. I will settle into a forgotten land, give my sun-bleached skeleton in an offering to all that never was.

Facing Friedrich Nietzsche on the screen, two happily homosexual men debated the relative worth of banana bread. Artificial laughter played at regular intervals.

What am I missing here?

Outside, in the world at large, how many people knew of love? How many would not dread the end of peaceful sleep, the awful bitter taste of caffeine dragging them through horrendous waking hours? The oak floorboards beneath him continued to hold his weight, the weight of his leather armchair.

Why do they bother?

Fried took a long pull from his near-empty flask and found no answers. Four-day stubble and a general stink protruded from his body like antennae, feeling out into a jumbled mess of a world, finding nothing of worth.

Flittering across his television screen full-length melodramas advertised themselves at large. Tragic children taken by forces no one dared argue with -- cancer, perhaps -- their tiny bodies in the maternal grip of boxes built from pine trees who couldn't give less of a damn. Hollow-eyed parents did their best to understand the cruel whims of nature. Producing a new bottle from his cabinet, Fried wished them the best of luck.

Hiking along an indistinguishable forest lane, the sorrowful, childless couple was replaced with a content elderly pair -- who had apparently not lost their children, who had, it seemed, forgotten any minor infractions life had doled their way -- discovering the outdoor beauty of the wonderful lower Tennessee valley. A brochure presented itself to Fried like an all-knowing talisman.

Fuck you, Tennessee! You crooked rectangle of deceitful treachery!

For 14 hours his eyelids caked over in the crud of melancholy inertia, offering themselves with a martyr's hung head to the TV's masochistic rot, wrapped in the blissful cocoon of drink. And as of yet he'd seen not one show with more merit than the seven he'd written himself. Not one. His voices, lost to time, sent like a child without supper out to landfill, snuggling up close to clammy hands, dying alongside a century's worth of beautiful notions without realistic marketing potential. He cursed the television screen.

Oh the promises you send of lives spent at ease in front of a fireplace, greeting loved ones who will never grow old, never die. Sympathetic string accompaniments and hordes of tear-soaked viewers on hand in case they ever should. It's an ugly world in which we live. I only wanted to show them that. I am tired of hearing supposedly moral people lying to our hopeful children.

Statistically speaking, Fried decided, why shouldn't Betty prove adulterous? Why shouldn't she suck Barney for every penny he had? Why wouldn't Fred, blessed not with a wonderful wife, but one who was at the very least simple and honest, why shouldn't he smash Wilma delicate face with the beak of a pterodactyl? And if the pterodactyl then told the audience, "Hey, it's a living," why was that unnecessarily cruel? Haven't we all destroyed things of beauty because we need a few dollars?

"But wait," he'd said, "I know the Hollywood script. Redemption is coming." Barney had seen in his best friend's wife something worth dying for, something to break him from the shackles of routine. Is there really anything more that any of us could ever hope for? Wasn't that far more poignant and heartwarming than anything any of them had seen anywhere, let alone on television, for years?

"Yes," they replied, "But Friedrich, they are both killed! Fred feeds his best friend, and yes, even his own poor wife's mangled corpses to the saber-toothed cat. There's too much blood! We can't show that to children."

"My God!" he screamed, throwing his three-ring binder to the ground, shattering an expensive glass table. "Have you people never read Shakespeare? Love is never really love without death to test its mettle!"

For the second time in a week Fried felt the burly arms of uniformed authority dragging him from a building, but not before one old board member could shake his head sadly and say, "Dearest Friedrich, you did used to be one of our brightest stars. Pull yourself together, man. Do what you need to do. Get some help."

I find my help in the bottom of hip-pocket bottles. Is there nowhere left? Oh, woe is me!

Technicolor rays spread their mighty wings on Fried's now sleeping face, soothing his unconscious body with a MIDI-sequenced lullaby. Outside a cat moaned with heat: lonely, prowling alleyways, looking for someone, somewhere, to love.

An oafish blond man in a potato-sack jumpsuit appeared before Fried's eyes like a humble martyr, his face covered in scabbed-over blood. Something in his eyes was pleading. Fried recognized his one-time ally, the Rubble Man, whom he had sent to his death at the hand of his very best friend in the world.

"Hiya, Fried!"

"Oh, jeez, oh, Barney. I didn't want to, honest. Nobody ever wants anyone to die. But it happens! All the time, and there's nothing we can do about it. Why shouldn't our children be made aware of such things, early, so they can prepare?"

"Oh come on. I know that. I'm not sore that you had me killed, not even how you did it, though I'll promise you, it hurt a whole bunch. I just wish you didn't have to take Betty from me."

"What?! You old idiot! She was running around on you with every man in town. She fucked Mr.Slate while you toiled away at his factory. She made a fool of you!"

"But, Fried, I did love her so."

"Love her! After all she did, I'm surprised you didn't want her killed instead. Wouldn't that satisfy you, just a bit, the cheating whore finding her bloody comeuppance?"

"No, no, no, Fried. Not Betty. She keeps me in line, you know. She's the only one that ever really loved me."

"What about Wilma? You and her, you know?"

"Oh, sure. Wilma. Sometimes we get lonely and sad, but it was just a game, just something for fun, because our hearts ached and we fell victim to human folly. I tried telling Fred that, but he wasn't interested, not that I'm sore at you over that, not at all. After you had Betty run off, I didn't really see the point in continuing."

"Damn, Rubble, be a man, will you! The cosmos is infinite. There is nothing but possibility. You could remake yourself into a new world, one maybe with happiness, free from embarrassment and heartache, where a man can find himself utterly fulfilled, most ready to do the work of good, to make his mark on this planet once and for all."

"Gee, Fried, I already made my mark, everyone knows who I am. And everybody knows you, too; it's nothing to worry about, even if they didn't. Sometimes you just want to have a nice big steak and go bowling, and then come home to someone who loves you, in their own way, no matter how flawed the two of you might be."

"Spit! If you had lived in the real world as long as I had, you'd not feel so idealistic, after the random stumbling weight of years stack up and break your back and then present you with no reason for doing so, no final resolution, no ending credits. You've been sheltered for far too long. You turn up your blinders to the sun of truth, beaming its unpleasant message."

"Maybe, Fried old pal. We all make our choices. Love is blind and only the blind can love."

"Oh, Madeline!"

"I'm here Friedrich darling."


"Yes, darling, I did love you so. Why have you forsaken me?"

"Bah, you are not real, I am only dreaming. You are a dream Madeline as false and phony as your real-life counterpart."

"Perhaps, but I love you nonetheless, and so did she."

"Ah, but Angus, what of him?"

"I loved him, too. With him I will save the world. With you it was different. You are a wise and funny old man, but not for you the world would certainly not be worth saving."

"What do you know? I am nothing but a bitter angry old drunk."

"We cloud in our own minds. Haven't you always stood steadfast by your search for the truth? Yet you take the easy escape in matters of your life. The truth of love is harsh and unforgiving."

"Do you tell these things to your former husband?"

"He was a child. He will always be a child. Sometimes I wish I were as well, but I have slipped and have grown. It is for my shame."

"I think perhaps that I am but a child as well."

"Maybe. I never got to know you that well."

"I could have brought something beautiful into this world. I am angry that my voice has been silenced."

"Tiny voices grow larger with age. A whisper in the wind can move a mountain. Someone I came to know taught me that. He is a kind old man."

"He is a fool."

"We are all fools, Friedrich, my dear."

Fried wept through his dream. Profuse saline streams stained his drowsy cheek. Kneeling at Madeline's feet, he kissed the spaces between her toes.

How beautiful it is to have ever known love!

Madeline responded by punching him square in the jaw, which struck Fried as perhaps a little odd. He woke, surrounded by rusty green dumpsters and the stench of decaying human waste.

How in the hell did I end up here?

In front of his face was a mirror.

By God, I look horrific! How the dirt has aged my skin like ancient leather! My features are transformed! Pain and heartache has twisted my heretofore gorgeous countenance into a hideously ugly blob, one I would flee if ever I encountered it on the street!

The mirror moved. Fried had not.


The mirror spoke:

"Goddamn, man! I told you old Strimmer's liable to find you and whoop the living shit from out of you! Boy, you pick the wrong man to cross, yessir. You on my turf now, white man, now you in for something, all right! I'm gonna start by taking those fancy dandy socks from off your feet. Yeah, that's nice! Now, you go fuck yourself, my friend!

"Whoo-wee, but do these socks look nice on me! I'm a brand-new man!"

With his last remaining shred of consciousness, Fried watched his socks walk away on a strange and dirty old man and, wondering what it all meant, slipped into the murky haze of oblivion.