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A Surprise Party by Chuck Kershenblatt
published in Volume 2, Issue 3 on May 21, 1995

"Oh, man, you gotta be kidding me," said the Moose.

He was sitting back in his office chair with a phone receiver in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The ashtray was crammed with Marlboro butts and he was flicking his ashes into an empty Dr. Pepper can.

He nodded his head and exhaled grey smoke through his nose, then rolled his chair up to the desk and rubbed his eyes.

"For fuck's sake, the truck was due in Pittsburgh two hours ago," said the Moose into the phone. "Yeah, alright, I'll call them. Right, you too. Bye-bye."

"Hey, what's happening?" said a voice from the next room. "Come on, Moose, let's get out of here. We were supposed to leave a half hour ago." Thomas was standing by the doorway with his field jacket on, scratching his head.

The Moose said, "Alright. I'm finishing up now," and he stretched out a hand behind the computer and flipped the switch.

Thomas wandered over to a cluttered table and quietly dumped a jar of hard candy into his green wool cap. The Moose sat in his chair for a few moments more, then lurched up and tore a long computer print-out from a machine the size of a Franklin stove. He stood there ripping the roll at its perforated edges, carefully placing the sheets in a neat pile on a clip board. His body was tall and broad, with thick shoulders and a front lineman's neck. He had straight greasy reddish hair and a narrow face marked with a two-day beard. There was a tattoo of Bullwinkle on his forearm.

"Jesus," he said, hanging the clipboard on the wall. "It's been like this all day. I haven't had single break. The district manager is out fishing."

This was back in late '93 when the Moose and Thomas were still in South Jersey living in that apartment in Elmer, fighting poverty very hard with jobs that they could not wait to quit. The Moose had been a truck dispatcher for Leaman Chemicals eleven months now and he had begun to drink very heavily. Thomas worked the Camden aquarium as a seahorse, waving at the weekend crowds and standing next to three-year-olds in his floppy yellow outfit, saying over and over: "Welcome, welcome!" So they had remained for that strange period since college ended, living the precarious life of the underpaid and unmotivated, living in the same dirty apartment, eating the same Taco Bell burritos. Having leaking ceilings and unpaid bills and bounced checks and credit card collectors howling from their answering machine about "one last chance," having no spending money and no women; having no backyard.

Now it was well into December. Occasionally they would spot a stout-bodied fly in the apartment that had outlived the death of its peers and survived for reasons they could only guess at. Gathering any money they could find, they would purchase the largest, cheapest whiskey bottle available, and a game would begin whereby each contestant would toss back a shot of the bottom- shelf whiskey and in turn would attempt to dispose of the Uberflea. With each failed smite the game would demand double the amount of shots. Any object could be used to assassinate the insect except of course a traditional fly-swatter. Thomas tended to go for the rolled magazine or newspaper, while The Moose claimed he could succeed with a hammer. Soon they would be facing at least six shots of the sickening golden spirits, which they would examine with very long and very slow concentration. Throwing back the sixth sticky glass, immediately one would begin climbing upon the cracked folding chairs, swinging their arms madly, inefficiently trying to conjure a German accent as they stalked the black two-winged beast, screeching: "I vill get yoo, yet, Herr Uberflea!" And once again the mutant fly would narrowly miss the drunken flail, and once again the contestant would face an ever extended line of shots that in very little time would leave him gagging on the cold hard ground outside, hugging a tree and spewing his guts, begging for a gun.

So you can see that almost any diversion from the routine was welcome. And when the two of them were invited to Jake Casey's surprise party in the yuppie suburbs of Philly, with hints of free booze and tons of food, their feelings about the celebration took on a crusade-like importance utterly misplaced, but understandable. It had been months since they had been invited to anything other than court appearances. They jumped on the birthday party and refused to let the fact that cops would also be attending ruin their anticipation.

No one had forced Jake Casey to become a cop, no one had even suggested it. The Moose claimed it was some Irish thing: priests or cops, take your pick. Thomas had known Jake ever since high school, back when Jake was a scrawny pot head from Brigantine, a thin pimply kid with too many Moody Blues albums and never enough real women in his life. Jake used to fall in love with only the most beautiful women in Atlantic City high school, and never do anything about it but write two-chord love songs and paint abstract watercolours which he claimed captured their "essence." Maybe marriage did change everything; Jake had married Marian Dore almost four years ago and, who knows, maybe his instincts had become skewed. Marian came from money, made lots of money, and had that kind of haughty modesty which only true arrogance breeds. First Jake had given up drinking, then he gave up coke, then he finally let go of his massive marijuana habit; he gained weight, loads of it, his chin separating into three new countries, his belly jiggling like Jell-O. And then it happened: police academy, criminal law classes, his own semi-automatic. But somehow Thomas had never really foreseen the outcome, had never grasped that this one-time drunken and stoned buddy, the guy who used to play Neil Young till his fingers bled, the pal who used to drink cheap Port wine under a rainy spring sky and then try to break into abandoned houses--was now armed, on the force, chasing down the unlucky with the rest of the men in blue. Jake. Six-string cop.


The Moose had freed himself and was locking the office door behind him, with his hands in front of him fumbling with the key, and Thomas was waiting in the car, sitting behind the wheel of his battered Delta 88, singing along with the Gin Blossoms on the radio.

The Moose swung open the heavy passenger door, got in the car, and rubbed his chin.

"Thomas."

"Yes."

"Don't sing."

They drove out of the parking lot and stopped. The Moose jumped out and uncovered a key from inside an orange cone by the side of the dirt drive. He locked the gate behind them and then returned the key.

"Some security you got there," said Thomas.

"Sure is."

"Which way do I go?"

"Commodore bridge, then straight up the Blue route."

Leaman Chemical Trucking Company was just off the Delaware river so they found themselves back on the road to the bridge very quickly.

"Are we picking Carmine up, too?" said Thomas.

"Yes, and he better be there," The Moose said anxiously. "He's the only one who knows how to get to Jake's new place."

"Think there'll be any single women there?"

"I don't think so," said The Moose. "I don't think so."

The Moose was older than Thomas, older and very wise. He was twenty-eight and his judgment was highly respected by his roommate.

"Let's drink tonight," said The Moose.

"Then what?"

"Then we can drink some more."

"Then we can consider the situation."

The Oldsmobile's shocks were worn and they bounced along a bad stretch of 322 before getting onto the freshly paved Blue route.

"Moose?"

"Yes."

"Why's Jake a cop?"

"It's the authority thing. Women go for uniforms and all that. It's really not that bad. He still plays guitar, still hangs out."

"I don't know, " Thomas said.

"Hey, that film major in Montana ever write back to you? What's her name? Sally?"

"No, she never wrote. Kinda sucks, you know," said Thomas.

"Falling in love always sucks."


They reached the exit. Thomas pointed the Delta 88 off the three lane highway and suddenly emerged into one of those faceless suburbs with identical strip malls and matching BMWs. The Moose lit a cigarette.

Thomas said, "I know. Carmine's house is down this street on the right. Right?"

"But we're not picking him up there. He's at work. Hang a left."

They pulled a sharp turn and got behind a mini van doing twenty on a single-lane street with traffic lights at every other corner. Carmine Correlli worked at some kind of computer tech company which The Moose pointed out after they had missed the entrance. Thomas swung around and came in through the exit, just missing a head-on with a large white Mercedes.

"Did you see that guy?" said Thomas. "The fucker gave me a dirty look. Let's go back and feed him to the wolves."

"There are no wolves in Montgomery county."

"Guess you're right."

They parked in front of an office complex called CompWrite and Thomas cut the motor and grabbed his jacket. It was a cold, cloudless night, and the sidewalks and darkened windows glimmered from the street lamps and full moon. The Moose flicked his cigarette butt into the gutter and walked ahead towards the twin glass doors. A receptionist buzzed them in and then picked up a telephone receiver: "The two grungy-looking guys you were expecting are here, Carmine." She was a small young woman with bright red lipstick, mousy permed hair, ample bosom. Thomas shook some of his long hair out of his eyes and gave her a nervous smile. The air smelled of brand new carpets. Carmine appeared and waved them back to his office.

"I think your secretary likes me," said Thomas.

"How's it going, Carmine?" said The Moose.

"Hey, guys," said Carmine.

"She's terrific. Invite her to the party!" said Thomas waving his arms.

"No, can't do that," said Carmine. "Got to keep a low profile. She would know too much."

Carmine used to be a roommate back when they were younger and had rented a house off- campus and thought Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here combined with bong hits was as good as life got. He was huge and resembled a kind of Italian Gerard Depardieu. His nose bordered on colossal and his hair was always pushed back from his forehead, only to fall back again in long oily strands. He still smoked Dunhills with a gold-tipped cigarette holder.

"Well, well. What you guys been up to?"

"Nothing."

"Not a lot."

"How's life in Elmer?"

"How do you think life is in Elmer?" said Thomas.

They examined Carmine's office, a pleasant room with a window looking out onto a woodlot and a hidden creek; a framed print on the cream colored walls of some Monet. Carmine's computer sat on his desk and computer manuals stood on the shelves. A framed picture of his wife Debbie rested next to his keyboard: Debbie staring into the sun and wearing an orange bikini.

"Guess we better get going," said Carmine.

They crossed the hallways and met the receptionist once more. "Oh, wait, I got to give Debbie a call," said Carmine.

Thomas leaned his elbows on the reception counter. "I work at an aquarium," he said to the young woman.

"Really."

"It's over in Jersey. Do you like fish?"

"I guess so."

"Sure you do. Jesus! Look at you. You're beautiful. Give me a pen."

Thomas scrawled his phone number and handed it to her. He shoved the pen in his pocket. "Just give me a call, really. I'm also very interested in chemicals. I minored in psycho- pharmacology, you know."

"Really."

Carmine finished his call and joined them outside.

"What did she say?" Carmine asked.

"She said she's interested. We're going to do some acid and take in a Flyers game. It looks good."

Thomas was twenty-three; five whole years younger than The Moose, though the same age as Carmine. He was fairly tall and chubby, with a lot of black hair and an almost Native American looking face which made him seem older. He had been a film major in college and had once created a fifteen minute black-and-white film about a philosopher who loses his umbrella. He moved slowly and lazily and had the habit of looking away when speaking to someone.

Carmine said, “Mind if we stop at my place first and pick up my guitar?"

"You got any beers?" The Moose said.


They were about ten miles north from where Jake Casey used to live. His brand new condo was on this road somewhere, Carmine assured them. They drove on a winding country road which no longer was a country road at all as the surrounding woodlots and orchards had been replaced with apartment complexes and condo complexes and strip malls and real malls and Blockbuster Video. The traffic moved very slowly.

At a small turn in the road Carmine pointed out an entrance to a very unfinished outline of what would soon be new and expensive condos. "This is their place," he cheered. "Pull in all the way down there. Marian said to hide the cars."

Carmine's wife Debbie stood by the entrance of Jake's new property, surrounded by a freshly landscaped green lawn with tiny young pines planted in discreet patterns. Except for the condo directly opposite, the rest of the complex was sorely unfinished and more than a few heavy machines stood silent amidst the upturned earth and construction materials. "Hey, guys!" Debbie said, as she leaned against the massive front door. "How you doing Moose? Hey, Thomas."

She shook the set of keys in her hands: "I can't get the door open!"

Carmine set down his guitar case and peered through the windows.

Marian had left her with a set of keys and a list of instructions. They were to bring in the food (a super hoagie the length of a javelin), carry in the booze (two cases of Yeungling beer, a twelve- pack of nonalcoholic beer, a bottle of Tanguray gin, and two bottles of Absolute vodka), hang up the decorations (a coruscated banner with birthday greetings in capital letters, three helium-filled balloons), and unload the refrigerator of its assorted snacks, hors d'oeuvres, and onion dip.

Carmine attempted opening the door but did not have much luck. While the rest of them tried to see if they could sneak in the back entrance, Thomas grabbed the set of keys, picked one that seemed would work, and placed it in the gold-painted lock. It opened immediately.

"Hey, guys!" he yelled.

He opened the door and stood in the polished foyer. "Oh Jesus," he said slowly. The two- story condo was brilliant, immaculate, tastefully decorated, spotless. It offered a very tall fireplace and a grand piano. The ceiling in the living room was also quite grand, terribly so, and the architects had proudly placed a giant mirror directly above the mantle of the fireplace to really drive the point home. "Look at this place!" Debbie said.

The Moose opened a case of beer, Carmine spread out the sub, Debbie poked in the refrigerator, and Thomas hung the banner across the bottom of the giant mirror with some scotch tape. They finished the preparations in about ten minutes and stood around under the bright kitchen light. The Moose was on his second beer and Thomas was drinking the Absolute straight from the bottle. Soon the other guests arrived.

Police officer Lawrence R. Malloy entered the party accompanied by his wife, whose name no one could remember. The latter was dressed in something perhaps homemade, perhaps once seen late on TV back in 1973. It was checkered and it was long, it was cotton, maybe, and it successfully enveloped her figure like a starched stretched table cloth. Her head was awkward and not quite aligned with the rest of her body; it looked uncomfortable. One could not really discover any neck. Her face held an exceedingly wide smile, and throughout the evening the smile never once dared to free itself. It clung to her pale face like a barnacle. The former ("Just call me Larry") sported the standard issue mustache, as well as a head of hair which perhaps once belonged to some helpless animal. His brown polyester pants were held up by a lighter brown leather belt, upon which hung a thick key ring.

Officer Malloy shook The Moose's hand. "Hey, man," The Moose said.

In an instant Peeve and Ingrid entered, followed shortly by officer Paul O'Brian, who came without company and had a head full of curly ginger hair, a genuinely shy smile. Peeve surveyed the party with his all-weather smirk. His thinning hair seemed to have been recently making a run for it, and he no longer bothered trimming his deep black beard. Ingrid appeared thinner than usual, her face displaying an obvious gauntness around the eyes. She smiled at The Moose and asked for a beer.

"Help yourself," said Carmine as he bit into a mound of hoagie, mayonnaise dribbling down his chin.

Peeve uncovered Jake's new Sony Professional 8 video camera and soon felt more comfortable coming up to the guests and zooming in on their nostril hairs. Thomas and Debbie decided to take a tour. He followed her up the winding stairs, in one hand his vodka bottle, in the other a beer which trailed foam behind him.

"This is nice." Debbie said in an awed whisper.

The master bedroom was suitably huge and they could not help themselves from examining the master bathroom as well. They gazed at the sunken tub which could easily accommodate Siamese sumo wrestlers.

"We better keep a look out," Debbie said, "it's quarter after seven."

Ingrid joined them and they moved to the next room which Jake used for storing his amplifiers and guitars, and offered a better view of the street. They leaned against the cold new windows in the dark.

"What exactly are we looking for?" said Thomas.

Debbie said, "It's a big black Bronco. Marian just bought it last week."

Thomas drained his beer. "There you go," he said, "that's it, isn't it?"

The three of them peered intensely at the headlights coming up the deserted street. Debbie tore from the room, shouting from the landing: "They're here! They're here! Turn off the lights! Oh, and Marian said we should wait on the steps, okay?"

The house lights were darkened, the conversations muffled. Thomas stood behind Debbie, while Carmine stood behind The Moose. The rest of the guests huddled close together. "Sshh!" someone said.

Peeve aimed the camera and they listened for the door. They heard the first footsteps, the sound of keys tossed on the dining room table. Jake was saying something about the Bronco. They waited. Suddenly he came into view beneath the stairs, his donut belly protruding from his unzipped bomber jacket. "SURPRISE!"

Jake turned to his right with the stealthiness of a puma. His right hand had the 9mm semi- automatic Glock pistol out from his waistband holster before the greeting had even closed its second syllable.

It was one of those suspended moments one hears about but rarely experiences. The happy message of goodwill crashed against his sleek black barrel and actually seemed to hang there, as if the moment were not sure which way to go. Though no one on the stairs had time in those few seconds to observe it, their faces had undergone exquisite changes, instantly turning bewildered- looking, paler, a collective life force in distress.

Jake's mouth hung open, his eyes hollow. Then the awful seconds let go their hold and Jake jerked his hand back and the faces regained their smiles. Yet, as Jake tried to fit the pistol back into its hidden holster, an eerie silence seemed to drown out the giddy laughs and nervous conversation. Marian hugged her husband and smiled, her eyes almost tearful with strained nerves, and one by one the guests descended from the stairs and greeted the birthday boy. The Moose and Thomas stared at each other.

"A burglar doesn't stand a chance in this house, huh?" said Thomas.

"Not a chance," said The Moose.

"I saw my life pass before my eyes. Only it seemed shorter, you know. I think I left out a lot."

"Good thing we were in the back," said the Moose.

"Yes. I don't think the first clip would have got us."

"Maybe a stray bullet."

"Maybe."

They were the last to greet Jake and Marian. While the Moose shook hands with Jake, Thomas hugged Marian, whose voice was gone from some sort of laryngitis. her mouth opened, and it seemed as if she formed something resembling words, but the sounds were lodged in her throat, feeble. "I'm so glad you came," she managed to say.

"Hey!" Jake said, his eyes still paralyzed.

"Hey," said Thomas.

They hugged each other and then Thomas shrugged his shoulders.

"How you been?" Jake said.

Thomas looked at his empty beer bottle and nodded his head. "Okay," he said. He shuffled away and strode to the refrigerator. "Okay," he said to himself.

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