Here’s an excerpt story from the New York-based Joseph Ferguson’s latest short fiction collection, Shillelagh Law. It’s a must read. The story originally appeared in Ellipsis: An Anthology of Humorous Short Stories, August 2016. The author submitted this humourous story, to appear as a Book Extract, exclusively for Different Truths.
The names in this story are true.
Only the facts have been changed.
None are innocent.
We called ourselves the Scurvy Bastards. To us, drinking was science; the weekend our laboratory; our bodies, test tubes; and our minds, the experiment.
Every Friday and Saturday, each of us would absorb three to four times the lethal dose of alcohol, and have others report back on our actions. Needless to say, this was fascinating research.
One night, whilst sitting on the Scurvy Benches, as was our won’t, the Electrician (a man permanently wired) had just dismissed the whole of Kant’s epistemology with the words, “That faggot didn’t even drink.”
The air was crisp as lettuce and miniature fogs arose whenever someone used the Pissing Tree. The Electrician’s irrefutable logic set Feeney thinking. Feeney did a great deal of thinking. He had to. No one could be that disturbed or disturbing without having put a great deal of thought into it. He was something of an enigma wrapped in legend. None knew from whence he came; he would appear like some mythical being, gym bag filled with books, Jameson, and Stout, dressed like Sherlock Holmes. He had a great red beard, and spoke in parables. One night he passed out and we found the only identification he bore was a membership card to the Dudley Do-Right fan club in the name of Little Bobby Feeney.
At present, Feeney was engaged in what he termed, “The Great Experiment.” The premise was as simple as it was ingenious: How long can a human being subsist on Guinness Stout and Cheese Doodles? Feeney was determined to learn the answer.
“Hey Josh.” Feeney referred to everyone as Josh for no discernible reason. “Hey Josh; do you think James Joyce could have drunk the same amount that killed Dylan Thomas without croaking?” Here was a question of comparative literature we had not before considered. Speculation was rampant.
“I … could.” The words dropped from Hose’s mouth with the finality of a coffin lid falling. Already six sheets to the wind, Hose hugged his wine bottle as a child does a stuffed toy. He swayed in the slight breeze, not as ordinary drunken men, but with a lizard-like slowness, quite remarkable to behold.
“Fuck you!” The response was instant and unanimous.
“I … could.” No change in tone; a simple reiteration of fact, repeated merely for our edification. We could believe it, or we could go to hell.
Hose was a drunk’s drunk. If necessary, he could swill chemical waste. He passed out with his eyes open. He could piss for hours (hence, the Hose), and it was rumored the mighty Pissing Tree was but a sapling before Hose drank in the park.
Feeney knew or claimed to know, the exact dosage in question; as well as how long Hose had to complete this task. He produced a fresh bottle of Jameson 12-year- old. “You have 20 minutes to drink this, Josh.” Feeney’s wide theatrical wink was so evident, only someone drunk as Hose could have missed it.
Within minutes, Hose snored loudly at the sky while we drank not only the Jameson but his wine to boot.
It was a long-standing tradition among the Bastards to treat fallen comrades as blank canvasses; tabulae rasae, if you will, to be filled with dream and fancy.
When the Nut passed out, we colored his wrists with Mercurochrome and bandage, telling him he tried to slit them in a drunken fury. When the Electrician passed out (a rare occasion) we deposited him in front of a VFW meeting, tied to a bicycle, a brick on his chest, with Marxist slogans inscribed on his face and hands. I myself, awoke one morning astride a police cruiser wearing “off the pigs” placards.
What could we do with our latest victim? Feeney, who had recently inherited money, suggested we empty Hose’s pockets and put him on a plane to London. This, naturally, met with great approval, until we realized he would never be allowed on a plane. Other suggestions, which ranged from putting honey in his hair under a bees’ nest, to placing him in various bar denominations tattooed with the appropriate inappropriate watchwords, were all vetoed; largely because they involved leaving the park.
Finally, seeing as it was nearly Christmas, we decided it might be nice to decorate him. Besides, he was already lit, so to speak. At any rate, it wouldn’t have to be fancy; just materials at hand.
Everyone was filled with the holiday spirit. Empty beer cans were restrung into their plastic wrappers and draped festively from his ears. Bottles were attached by their necks to each of his fingers. Old wads of chewing gum were stuck to his face. The Nut festively strewed bits of paper about him, while old napkins were stuffed in his nose. His pockets were filled with rocks, dirt, and dead insects, while his entire body was dusted with a fine coat of sand. For the top piece, a water fountain was torn from its stand and placed on his head.
He was beautiful. There was no getting around it; the Hose was beautiful. We had truly outdone ourselves, and there was the talk of bringing him to the Guggenheim, but we dared not disturb our work. The fountain caught the magic play of streetlights, crowning him with a halo. The bottles resembled Robert-the- Robot fingers, while the beer cans swayed like great Raggedy Ann curls.
Even the sand glistened with the spirit of the season and seemed to capture the starlight itself. The Electrician giggled and gamboled, dancing like an unearthly sprite through the gnarled shadows of trees and the misty wash of the park lights. The Nut, blinded by tears of joy, ran straight into the Pissing Tree.
Still … there was something missing.
Feeney stood back and eyed the Hose for a long time. “Hey Josh,” he said finally to no one in particular, “Hand me that gallon wine jug and his shoe laces.
Sensing something big was about to happen, the Electrician stopped in mid gambol, the Nut’s tears dried, and we all gathered slowly about the Hose like zombies in a corn field.
Without a word, Feeney took the bottle and string and moved toward the Hose with the deliberation of a surgeon. The Hose’s pants seemed to come off by magic and there sat his privates like a dead bird on the cold wooden bench. The silence grew deeper. The lights in the park seemed to dim, and the whole world seemed a View-Master scene.
At last, with a flourish such as Dali must give daubing the last stroke; Feeney slid the mouth of the bottle over Hose’s hose, securing it to his legs with the laces.
The silence grew for one last moment before Feeney and the Electrician, as if moved by one thought, let out howls from some primitive depths long dormant in the human species.
Beer cans were strung into maracas, garbage cans became drums, wine bottles – flutes. Round and round him we danced hooting, chanting, and rattling our cans in a wild Druidic rite of winter.
As we moved, the winds picked up, undulating the bony branches of the Pissing Tree, which moaned in mournful unison to our song. Shadows squirmed on the ground, as monolithic clouds began to cross before the moon.
Dogs howled. Cats screeched. The cops came.
As we ran for the compass points, I heard one muffled “oof,” as Hose tried to scratch himself with a glass finger.
Photo from the internet.
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Joseph Ferguson, author, poet, and journalist, appears in various publications, and wrote propaganda some 25 years. His books include short story collections – Southbound, and Shillelagh Law, and a spoof of “how-to-get-a-job” books, Dave Doolittle’s Resumes That Work, So You Don’t Have To. He is a former editor and critic for Hudson Valley, ran the Fiction Workshop for the Poughkeepsie Library, and has reviewed books for Climbing, The American Book Review, and other publications.