The Squirrels of Vhuvutu

My situation was alarming.

I was harnessed into what seemed to be a giant slingshot suspended a few feet off the ground and facing the ocean. Between me and the waves was a great bonfire built before a very long wall of rocks, roughly three feet high. Gathered on either side of the bonfire were scores of chanting squirrels. They were praying. The group to the left of the bonfire faced me and were chanting “Efree Wee Lee.” The group to the right of the flames faced the ocean and were much more fervent in their chant of “Jay Su Ja Mess Reek Tair.” Perhaps the strangest bit to all of this was that far to my immediate left a quintet of enslaved chipmunks flutists played Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” over and over again.

I had the distinct, unpleasant idea that the squirrels were intending to slingshot me over the stone wall and into the ocean. Clearly my trip to the isle of Vhuvutu had been most disagreeable.

***

The squirrels were a group of tribal sciuridae—something Fibro, my imaginary pet raccoon, had told me about at length when he was drunk and/or stoned—that had created an elaborate society here on the isle of Vhuvutu, which is located somewhere between North America and Near Nearington. The island was primitive, though the native squirrels had an odd affinity for the films of the 1990s, the only relic of modernity to be seen. That was particularly quizzical to me, as there were no televisions or movie theaters anywhere that I could see. There was no plumbing, no electricity, and nothing more than dirt paths from the beach up to the largest village, Cluthkootu. The squirrels of Vhuvutu wore face paint and feathers and the bones of their enemies. Totem poles stood at the entrance to each village, each about four feet tall and featuring the faces of once-fearsome squirrels, legendary heroes, and chiefs from their respective village. Each totem was inscribed with the phrase tikem roodu, dikem woohu, dikem chukchoo, dikem squiruhl—which roughly translates to “Tell stories, make music, make carvings, make babies.” The totem at Cluthkootu, though, stood a staggering 11 feet, and contained a carving of the face of every one of the Vhuvutu nation’s leaders, spanning over 100 generations. At the top of the mighty totem was the carving of the current leader, Eethippi.

I came to discover, in my brief time on the island, that Eethippi was not only the chieftain of the entire population, but he was also the high priest of the local religion, which seemed to be based on the film Free Willy. Indeed, at the exact center of Vhuvutu, was a large billboard advertising the film. The poster was faded, as if it had been there since 1993 when the movie first debuted. And for all I knew it had been there that long, as nothing in my upbringing ever made me aware of this tiny island. Each night at sundown every squirrel on Vhuvutu would come to their village’s prayer square, face the billboard, and chant “Efree Wee Lee Jay Su Ja Mess Reek Ter” for nearly two hours before stopping and continuing about their nightly routine. Church consisted of a weekly gathering in Cluthkootu (Vhuvutu was tiny enough that no village was more than a one hour journey from Cluthkootu), during which Eethippi would read the script of Free Willy, translated into Vhuvutuan, followed by a sermon in which he promised of a great whale who would one day come to Vhuvutu. His story about this great whale was the faith that the whole society seemed to be built upon: that when the whale came, the squirrels would be charged by their god, Jason James Richter, to release it back into the ocean. As a reward for their service, Jason James Richter would use his divine power to see that the squirrels of Vhuvutu would be plentiful in nuts and free of harm.

Until then, the squirrels of Vhuvutu were doomed to spend an eternity of nutless winters engaged in an endless war with the chipmunks of the nearby island of Cheekogovo—heathens, according to Eethippi, who practiced the false religion of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. In the one and only sermon of Eethippi’s that I witnessed, he animatedly told that the squirrels’ miraculous destiny was about to be fulfilled.

Destiny! The whale had come.

Destiny! It would be returned to the sea.

Destiny! Their winter would be plentiful in nuts.

Destiny! The vile chipmunks of Cheekogovo would be destroyed.

The fulfillment of this destiny, it would seem, is the predicament I found myself in on the beaches of Vhuvutu.

***

I rather resented being thought of as a whale, if I’m being quite frank. I had been watching my figure in the months leading up to my unfortunate detour in Vhuvutu, and I was rather proud of the 18.6 lbs. I’d lost. I hadn’t eaten a turkey leg that entire time, a fact that almost led me to change my name to No Turkey Legs Jeff. But apparently my attempts to slim down were unnoticed by the squirrels of Vhuvutu, who immediately proclaimed me the sacrificial and divine whale the moment they saw me. This was an annoyance, to be certain, as I was just trying to get home to East Elmhurst when I was shipwrecked on this unfashionable isle of rodents. Getting home was looking less and less likely, though, as my journey with Fibro—who I was mostly sure was dead at this point—had taken me on a convoluted loop through places and situations (like this one) that I would rather forget. And now here I was in a slingshot, helpless in the face of my fate of being flung into the ocean like a rejected fish. As both my feet and hands were tied, I was certain to drown unless some magical dolphins took pity on me and saved me. I didn’t like my chances, considering how my encounter with the dolphins of WowBigHappyFun ended.

After a couple of hours the chanting ended abruptly when Eethippi motioned for silence. He began a strange series of dance moves—which I eventually realized was the choreography of C+C Music Factory’s “Things that Make You Go Hmmm…” music video—assiduously accentuating each motion with extreme concentration. During this strange dance, I felt myself being pulled slowly backward. This was it. I was about to die.

My life flashed before my eyes: fried chicken, pizza, pork fried rice, egg rolls, ice cream, turkey legs, Fibro. FIBRO! I hoped that damn imaginary raccoon was still alive so that I could kill him with my bare hands the next time I saw him! I closed my eyes and imagined throttling that beady-eyed stoner. This gave me calm as I rested in the remarkably comfortable slingshot of death. I opened my eyes when I felt myself stop moving backwards. Eethippi was doing the moonwalk. He finished with a twirl and screamed out “EEEEEHEEEEE!!!!” He then thrust right hand in the air.

The slingshot was released and I was flung swiftly into the air. I careened over Eethippi and the squirrels of Vhuvutu, at least 50 feet in the air, and out over the ocean. At the same moment a large and magnificent airship swooped in from the right side of my vision and cast a net out below its bilge, into which I safely landed. The net, with me in it, was immediately reeled upwards toward the deck of the flying vessel. From my vantage point, I was able to see the shores of Vhuvutu below me, where a massive battle was taking place around the ceremonial slingshot between the squirrels and what I can safely assume were the chipmunks of Cheekogovo. Eethippi was jumping up and down in extreme anger and shaking his fist in my direction.

It seemed, from my perch, that the squirrels were outnumbered and being cornered between the sea and the mighty battalion of chipmunks. They had failed Jason James Richter, and so it seemed that their doom had come at last. I felt sad for them in that moment; I had quite enjoyed Free Willy as a child and could see how one might re-interpret it into a tribal religion.

***

I was hoisted up and across to the center of the deck of the airship, a marvelous craft the likes of which I had never seen. The wooden rails around the deck were affixed with golden fastenings, and inlaid with silver. Each of the seven propellers holding the ship up were made of pure gold and hummed nearly silently as they whirled around at a dizzying speed. On the forward end of the deck was a towering red sail. As I looked at it from behind I could tell that there was something embroidered on the front, though what it was I could not say for certain. Perhaps a horn of some sort? Magnificent cannons lined the deck, each made of solid platinum and etched with swirly brass patterns. The flying barge was larger than any cruise ship I had ever seen, and far more grand. I was unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the deck and as I looked up I found myself in the center of a ring of rhinoceroses. They looked like an unpleasant group and I immediately began to wonder if I’d just gone from the frying pan and into the fire.

Looking around the circle, who should I see but that damnable raccoon Fibro. I lunged for the overgrown rat.

“I’m going to kill you!”

“Whoa, dude! Calm down! What the crap, man? I just saved your life!”

His words fell on deaf ears, though, as I chased him around the circle of rhinos (quite aware that they were all laughing at us), snatching at his ever just-out-of-reach tail.

“If it weren’t for you, my life wouldn’t NEED saving!”

“Dude, chill! Chill!”

“ENOUGH!” came a roar from the aft of the deck. The rhinos parted and I saw an enormous rhinoceros stomp toward Fibro and I, just as I had caught the scalawag and had my hands around his throat. This rhinoceros was quite clearly the captain, and obviously female. Her full-length red leather jacket was studded with precious stones, as were her over-the-knee red leather boots.

“Fibro, is this the human?”

“Yes,” he gurgled out.

“Turkey Leg Jeff, welcome to the Golden Camembert. I am Captain Matilda Paddington-Jones and you and the raccoon are my prisoners. Guards!”

And with that, Fibro was yanked from my grasp and both he and I were aggressively hauled to our feet and dragged away from Captain Paddington-Jones.

“We had a deal, Tilly!” Fibro screamed as we were pulled down a staircase into the dark lower decks of the Golden Camembert.

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Dancing On My Own

I am riding on the back of a deeply fried chicken, whose wings were clipped by dreams that never came true, toward a dark and loud discotheque where my two best glamour cats, Consuelo and Kiernan Shipka, are waiting for me. It’s going to be a night like every other night—Consuelo will tell me about her family hating her and Kiernan will eat hummus seductively while looking in a mirror. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal will be out on the dance floor standing perfectly stationary as women dance around him with tight vinyl dresses and enormous breasts; they will be offerings for a sex God stultified by the endless carousel of simplicity that parades itself in front of him. Jake Gyllenhaal has seen it all before, true, but eventually he will succumb to the temporal needs of the young man and select one of the Robert Palmer girls to slake his apathetic lust. Who will Jake pick? Which lucky lady will he take home tonight? I know it won’t be me, though it is what I long for more than anything in the world.

The chicken lands gently in front of the club. I climb down its extra crispy back and into the pulsating volume, heading straight for the bar. I order a Long Island iced tea that originally came from Kansas City but eventually settled in Massapequa after taking a job selling fire insurance to young homeowners. My drink tastes of longing and regret. I see Consuelo down at the end of the bar. I tell my drink that I will rent my apartment and don’t need fire insurance, and head over to meet my sad little friend.

I sit with Consuelo and she tells me of dreams she has of running free through magical lands with an ethereal goddess. She explains to me that she has been brought there by a snowy white egret named Johanna. She and the goddess go on long safaris and ride in giant pastel teacups as overgrown mice watch on. In her dreams she feels connected to the fantasy of happiness, and far away from the sadness of her reality. I have heard about these dreams before, and though I long to go to this world of fantastical and idyllic sorcery one day, I tune out Consuelo and focus on the night around me.

I look casually across the dance floor and I see him. Jake is standing perfectly still in the exact center of the floor, gazing with mild boredom as women who smell of desperation and J’adore Dior slowly and sadly gyrate around him. They each show him their assets and he turns away from each of them, one at a time, unimpressed with the night’s offerings. The muscles on his forearms tighten and he clutches his folded arms closer to his torso. I see him turn his head slowly toward the bar—toward the area where I am sitting with Consuelo.

His gaze lingers on me (but only briefly) as a new crop of buxom ladies of the night approach, willing to offer up their flesh in exchange for his affections. They approach like languid zombies, or like strange planets pulled into the rotation of this massive and effulgent star. They orbit him, each of them with 2 moons jutting out from their chests. Again, Jake seems unimpressed.

The music, an earsplitting decibel of indecipherable bass, thumps rhythmically and ritualistically as Jake continues to assess the room.

But swiftly the music switches to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” The music calls to me and a force much more powerful than reality pulls me towards the dance floor. I begin to mouth of the lyrics, lip-synching while performing a dangerous breast shimmy, and locking eyes with Jake Gyllenhaal.

I slowly approach him, each step forward is a challenge of movement and lust. He doesn’t turn away. He has never been challenged on his home turf. He has never felt the heat of my sexual thunder.

As Robyn’s voice rings out, “I’m just gonna dance all night,” my shimmy becomes more intense, my challenge undeniable. You will take me home, Jake Gyllenhaal. You will show me your Brokeback Mountain of Love. The night will belong to us and we will take our rightful place in Xanadu—two Kings with righteous power, merciful and kind, but ready to except the gauntlet of a world that does not accept our love.

Jake Gyllenhaal holds my gaze. I can tell that he is intrigued by me and by my unparalleled interest in him.

“I’m givin’ it my all, but I’m not the guy you’re takin’ home. OOOOOOOhhhhhh. I keep dancing on my own!” cries Robyn. I have drawn to within a step of Jake Gyllenhaal. The women, who now realize that their pitiable attempts at seduction have fallen flat, now scoff at my moxie. They don’t understand the force of my desire or the undeniable warrant that  Robyn’s song gives me. I blast out a full-force shimmy and this intimidates the atrophied women. They slowly retreat, fading into the darkness of the club—the part where the wallflowers and morbidly pessimistic plot the dooms of those more successful than themselves. I know the atramentous perimeter of the dance floor well. It is where I have spent far too much of life, watching and waiting, hoping to come into the light. Now I am here and I will not waste this moment.

Suddenly, and rather too loudly, I am made awake. Fibro is on my chest, his little black eyes peering at me, his nose pressed right up to mine.

“Yo, Jeff, you awake?”

“Yes, asshole. You’re sitting on my chest. Get off me. Why did you wake me up?”

I roll over and Fibro topples off of me and over the side of the bed. He lands with a little thud. He stands up on his hind legs and peers over the top the bed.

“We got any BagelBites? I want pizza.”

“Do you see any in the freezer?”

“No.”

“Then, no, we don’t have any. Where the hell else would they be?”

“Oh, I… huh. Yeah that makes sense.”

“Are you stoned?” I ask this rather pointedly, since the raccoon had been stoned and eating pizza since I first let him stay with me.

“Yeah,” he says, looking away sheepishly.

“Jesus, stop being such a stoner. No, we don’t have any BagelBites. I don’t eat foods that are registered trademarks.”

He jerks his head back toward me. “Registered trademark? Registered trademark. Just like the rhino.”

I have no idea what he means by this, but I don’t care. I was so close to being with Jake Gyllenhaal, even if only in my dream. That feeling, of being close to the things you most desire only to have them yanked away, is an assassin of dreams though. When you want something, most desperately want something, and don’t get it… there is a lingering effect. It is the bitter aftertaste of a life that feels unfulfilled. Perhaps a crush on a Hollywood celebrity is not the thing that triggers this acerbity, but the long list of life’s little disappointments may be enough to add up to dreamless sleep, or worse—a dreamless life.

I roll over in my bed, away from Fibro, even as he is furiously muttering something about polar bears, pirates, rhinos and cheese. I don’t know what he was smoking that night, nor do I care. I want only to return to that club, to fly on the wings of a deeply fried chicken, to drink a Long Island iced tea from Kansas City, to shimmy and shake, to dance with Jake Gyllenhaal.

Instead I fall into a dreamless sleep in which I am dancing on my own.

Fibro Orders a Pizza

Fibro wanted pizza for dinner.
I wanted to be 10 pounds thinner.
But I saw the hunger in his black eyes,
So I softened and I compromised.
“For me, order a salad Caesar,
But remember this when we’re old geezers:
When your arteries have turned to glue
I will not take care of you.
So think twice before you eat that slice.
Instead eat barley, wheat, and rice.”
But Fibro just laughed and said,
“Life without pizza? I’d rather be dead.”

Fibro, My Imaginary Pet Raccoon

I live in a really nice part of Queens called Astoria. It’s made up of long boulevards filled with Greek restaurants, sushi restaurants, home goods stores, dentist offices, and hair and nail salons. It also has some of the worst pizza joints in New York. The side streets are tree-lined with large apartment buildings interspersed with World War II-era houses, mainly filled with young professionals who haven’t yet attained the salary needed to live in Manhattan. There are a lot of Broadway chorus boys, aspiring middle managers, and non-profit professionals out here.

I live on one of these tree-lined side streets at the end of a very long boulevard. Ditmars Boulevard, to be precise, which leads far away from the subway, down a hill, toward LaGuardia airport. On my walks home I can often see the planes landing off in the horizon. Sometimes they wobble when the wind is particularly fierce, which does little to calm the apprehension I feel about flying. I like being close to LaGuardia, though, because it’s easy to tell cab drivers how to get to my house; they all know where LaGuardia is.

Being so close to the airport means that I don’t actually live in Astoria. Instead I live in the much less desirable neighborhood of East Elmhurst. But since nobody knows where East Elmhurst is, whenever anybody asks me where I live I simply reply, “Astoria.” This is fairly common for the residents of East Elmhurst. In fact, it’s so common that most people would actually reply “the East Elmhurst section of Astoria” when asked where they live.

I don’t want to give you any ideas that I’m living in some destitute hovel of humanity. East Elmhurst is quite nice, actually. In fact, to the naked eye, East Elmhurst looks just like Astoria: the landlords are mean immigrants who speak little English and seem to always be yelling at you even if they are just saying hello, the streets are quiet and pleasant and lined with trees, the rents are affordable, and there is a place serving awful pizza on every corner.

But there is one major difference between the two Queens enclaves—the animals. There are all sorts of animals here in my town and some of them can do amazing things, and some of them are very well known. I would be shocked if you had never heard of Larissa Figby, the famous purple elephant who hunts down car thieves for a bounty. Or Madame Lucy Bouvier, the red panda who runs the house of ill repute on the road to Riker’s Island. These are the sort of creatures that inhabit East Elmhurst, so you have to be careful around them. Some of them will swindle the shirt right off your back if you’re not careful. Mainly, though, they are simply vagrants who you might find rummaging through your trash cans or just hanging out and taking up space.

I thought that was the sort of creature sitting on my stoop last Wednesday. I was coming home on a sun-splashed early fall evening with some groceries I’d picked up at the Union Square farmer’s market. It had been a pretty long day, and I had taken a muscle relaxer to deal with some pain in my lower back. I have a herniated disc that is pinching a nerve, so my doctor has prescribed some pretty powerful stuff to help with that. I guess what I’m trying to get around saying is that I was pretty stoned the night I came home and found a raccoon sitting on my stoop, smoking a joint, and reading my latest issue of National Geographic.

I was wary of this raccoon, since one does not generally find an animal smoking a joint on your front stoop. Or if one does, there is fairly good chance that he of ill-repute or looking to commit some act that will eventually make his repute ill. So I warily sidestepped him as I went up the stairs to the mailbox. Typically, it was a bunch of bills and a few more MagicBands from Walt Disney World. While heading back down off the stoop and around to the door of my apartment, which is in the driveway of a two-story house, I dropped some of the packages that had the bands from Disney World. The raccoon looked up from the magazine (my magazine) and said, “Hey buddy, you dropped something.”

I mumbled something under my breath to him, gathered my packages and unlocked my door. The raccoon had irritated me, so I went outside to get my magazine.

Fibro, My Imaginary Pet Raccoon

Fibro, My Imaginary Pet Raccoon

“Hey duuude, is that my copy of National Geographic you are reading?”

“Uh, maybe. It was in that little box next to the door.”

“You mean the mailbox?”

“Oh is that what you call it? Yeah then, I guess. It was in the mailbox.”

“Well just so you know, Mr. Raccoon, stealing other people’s mail is a federal offense.”

He smirked, and said in a very condescending way, “Is it really? I wonder if I’ll get life in prison for reading somebody else’s magazine.”

“Well I don’t know about that, but it’s rude, don’t you think, to just take another person’s magazine without asking?”

“Chill out. Seriously, dude, you need to fucking unwind.” And with that he extended his hand and offered me his joint.

“I don’t smoke pot, thank you very much.”

“You probably should. You seem kind of high strung.”

“I am not high strung. I’ve just had a really long day, and my back is hurting me. And I didn’t expect to come home to find a stoned raccoon reading my National Geographic,” I said.

“You think you’ve had a long day? I’ve had a long three days. My owner kicked me out of the house and told me to fend for myself. You try that sometime! Do you know how hard it is out here? What do I know about fending for myself? I’m a talking raccoon. I’m a novelty pet. How can I fend for myself? Who’s going to give me a job?” He looked ahead, shoulders slumped, with his beady black eyes filled with worry and sadness.

I felt sort of bad for the raccoon. After all, he just wanted to read a National Geographic and smoke some pot. “Well, I’m sorry you have had a bad day. You can keep the magazine I guess.”

“Thanks, man. Here, try some pot. It may turn out to be the best moment of your life,” he said, again offering me the joint.

“Nah, I really shouldn’t. I’ve been taking muscle relaxers for the pain in my back. I’m not sure that I should throw some pot on top of that.”

The raccoon’s ears perked right up. “Whoa, dude. You’ve got muscle relaxers? Can I get some? I fucking love muscle relaxers!”

“No way, dude. I need those for my back. And, in any case, I’m not a drug dealer.”

“Oh come on! I’ve had a shit day and I’m hungry and I could really use a nice, relaxing night,” the raccoon pleaded.

“You’re hungry?” I felt really bad for the raccoon now. “I’ve got some apples. Would you like some apples?”

The raccoon nodded and I could see now that he was desperate with hunger. I went inside and put together a plate with three honeycrisp apples, some cheddar cheese, a glass of water, and one of my muscle relaxers. I came outside and the raccoon was staring longingly at the apples on the plate.

“Here,” I said. “This is for you. Have some dinner.”

The raccoon tore into the apples, taking one in each hand, and eating them simultaneously, alternating bites from each.

“Whoa slow down! You’re going to choke on that shit. I guess you haven’t eaten in a long time?”

The raccoon took a big swallow and a deep breath and said “I haven’t eaten in three days.”

My heart broke for the little guy. I sat down next to him and put my arm around his shoulder. “It’s ok. Eat as much as you want. I have more apples inside if you’re still hungry.”

The racoon went back to his apples, eating at top speed. He was in a bit of trance as he chowed down for a couple of minutes, then saw the cheese and wolfed that down too. “Thanks, man. You are a lifesaver.”

“No problem. You want more?”

“No, thanks, I’m good,” he said as he got up, chugged down the rest of the water and picked up the magazine.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

“I gotta find a place to crash for the night. I saw an empty trash can a couple blocks from here. It should be warm enough.”

“Dude, that’s crazy. Don’t sleep in a trash can. Here, I brought you one of my pills. You can stay here tonight. I’ve got a couch you can crash on.”

“For real? Whoa, that’s so nice of you. I really appreciate that. My old owner would never have given me apples and a couch. She gave me dog food. Dog food. And a cardboard box with a fucking Dora the Explorer baby blanket in it.”

“That sucks. What happened?”

“She got a new girlfriend who was allergic to me. That chick was allergic to everything—raccoons, pot, gluten, you name it. Pretty much everything that I’m even about, you know what I mean? And so LaTonya, that was her name, LaTonya was like ‘You’ve got to go, Fibro. Michelle is more important to me than you.’ She said that! She fucking said that! She said that her girlfriend of two weeks was more important to her than me—her pet raccoon of four goddamn fucking years. And those four years were my prime cuteness years. Those years are HUGE for a novelty pet! And I was cute, too. Cute, goddammit! I had the kind of tiny, wet nose that you humans go shit yourselves over. And I would do funny stuff, make funny voices and shit. I stayed up on current Internet memes. LaTonya would come home and I would say ‘I can haz dinnerz, pleaze, LaTonya?’ and that bitch ate that shit up. Then she’d reward me with fucking Kibbles’n’Bits. Do I look like fucking Snoopy to you, LaTonya?!?!”

I could tell that the raccoon was hurt, so I patted him on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, dude.”

He shrugged. “Yeah. Well, let me tell you: if I ever see LaTonya Jatson ever again I’m gonna scratch her fucking eyes out.” With that he tossed down the muscle relaxer.

“Your name is Fibro?” I asked.

“Huh? Oh yeah. Fibro. Nice to meet you.” he stuck out his paw.

“I’m Jeff. Turkey Leg Jeff,” I said as I shook his hand. “C’mon inside. I’m pretty stoned off the muscle relaxer so I think I’m just gonna pop in an old movie and do some needle point tonight.”

“Getting stoned and doing needlepoint is like my favorite thing ever!” Fibro shouted out excitedly, springing up from the stoop, scooping up the plate, the glass, and the magazine and darting over to the door.

“Oh, sweet!” I said, thinking that this raccoon was cool as shit. “Are you cool with watching All About Eve?”

“Get. The. Fuck. Out. That is my favorite movie.” Fibro was in awe. “Are we like the same person, but different?”

“I’m not really sure what that means, but… maybe?” I said as I opened the door and let Fibro into my apartment.

“Dude, we are gonna be awesome friends. It’s gonna be sweet. Oooh, look! You’ve got a poster of Derek Jeter! I love baseball. Jeter’s my fucking spirit animal, bro!” Fibro exclaimed as he made his way into the apartment that would become his new home.