My friend Plopman had inherited his optimistic, visionary spirit from his father, who had been able to see little iridescent and transparent winged things crawling up his legs . . . up everybody’s legs. Plopman’s own gift lay less in the realm of second-sight, more in the area of transcendental theory and extra-practical application of the same. That is to say, Plopman was an inventor with lots of ideas that didn’t always work out the way they were supposed to. For example, one of the ideas he developed when he was living on the second floor of the Dunlap Commercial House between Tenth and Eleventh on Omaha Street had to do with putting together a suit made entirely out of vienna sausages.
It wasn’t that Plopman was overly, or even particularly, fond of vienna sausages. But he did have his eye on the hefty blonde who occupied the room just opposite his across the court. She was a gym teacher or something. Over a period of months Plopman had tried every trick he knew to get her to be as interested in peeping across into his room as he was in peeping across into hers. These included such old reliable attention-grabbers as 1) doing nude exercises all night long in front of his window with the shade up and a flashlight gripped between his teeth, 2) standing on one leg on his chair for hours like a stork, and 3) anything else he could think of. All to no avail; not only did his attractive neighbor refuse to glance his way, she seemed to be making a deliberate point of refusing to glance his way. Things were starting to look hopeless until Plopman had his great inspiration for constructing a suit built entirely out of vienna sausages. That would rivet her attention, he told himself. Once he exhibited himself at the window attired in the splendor of his vienna sausage suit, she would no longer be able to resist him . . . He immediately plunged in and set to work on it, exhilarated.
The exact number of Vienna sausages needed for such an undertaking came to 2,976. And so, inasmuch as Plopman was highly unskilled when it came to handling a needle and thread, and found the stubby, slippery little franks devilishly tricky to keep a grip on, it took him a long, hard time to stitch his suit together. About two years, all told. Which soon brought to light a number of problems he had failed to anticipate. To begin with, there was the problem of how rapidly and thoroughly a suit built entirely out of unrefrigerated finger-food can spoil, to say nothing of how oppressive this can grow to be over a period of two years, particularly in the confines of one small room during the summer months. Long before Plopman reached the stage where he could try his suit on in front of the mirror and see how spiffy it looked, the 2,976 Vienna sausages had gone to pot and were frankly reeking. The smell was cloying and pervasive — worse than a fart in a phone booth. As a result, Plopman spent a lot of time in the bathroom feeling ill.
One month — two — three, the foulness intensified, and spread, far beyond the four walls of Plopman’s room. Flies soon became a big problem. Some of them came from as far away as Eberley’s Meat Market, on Shook Avenue, drawn in swarms as if by a powerful fly-magnet. Thanks to their presence, Plopman’s room took on the air of an unmucked stable, or abattoir . . . Also, hardly a moment passed when Plopman could not cock his ear and catch, floating up from below stairs, the plaintive yowls of most of the neighborhood cat population, who had taken to worshipping his suit from afar; to them, the redolence of the 2,976 fetid little sausages was more exciting than even the dumpsters out back in the alley or the grease traps at Church’s Fried Chicken two blocks over on Tenth and Vine, which was saying something. Plopman had never liked cats and it made him nervous to think of them down there now, clinging to the back screen at all hours as they yearned after his weenies. He began, rather morbidly, to fantasize, picturing to himself what might happen if the whole hairy-tailed gang of them ever succeeded in breaking down the back door and came pouncing up the stairs, intent on flensing him of his suit. Plopman’s eyes darted feverishly and there was much dark brooding over the cat situation.
Not that it ultimately made much difference one way or the other, but given the continual strain and fatigue he was under, Plopman couldn’t help experiencing certain mental lapses. As the months wore on, there were moments when he found himself sliding right off the end of the map, as the early cartographers might have put it. One day he had been hard at work on the left sleeve of his suit for nine straight hours and the flies were out in force, so he was doing a lot of swatting and mumbling, when he looked up, and there was Mr. Greenberger, his old high school shop teacher, stepping out of the wall, apparently unaffected by the passage of years, or, for that matter, by the fact that he, Mr. Greenberger, had been deceased and buried for the past seventeen of them.
“Mr. Greenberger,” Plopman said.
“Hello, birdbrain,” Mr. Greenberger said, and waggled his tongue suggestively.
Plopman didn’t know what to say, so he said: “How’d you get in my wall?”
Instead of bothering to tender a direct answer to this question, Mr. Greenberger held out his arms and looked at them. They were covered with black bristles. “When I see my arms,” he whispered rather horridly: ” — when I see my arms I see as if a cat was wedded to a fly. Sometimes it would have the cat head and the fly body. Sometimes it would have the fly head and the cat body. Well? So what?” Then he looked at Plopman and laughed like a loon, and then he stepped back into the wall.
At such moments as these — and there came to be more and more of them as time went along — Plopman would press his knuckles against his temples and decide he needed to take a few days off from his suit — kick back and chill out. Nothing simple about putting together a suit of 2,976 Vienna sausages; it could wear a man out.
But it was toward the end of the first year, when the suit was only half done, October or thereabouts, that Plopman suffered what was perhaps his worst set-back: the blonde across the courtyard moved out. Evidently she was gone for good, and her room was soon taken over by a retired army man who drank bourbon and 7-Up all day and fell asleep with a lit cigarette at four every afternoon and set his bed on fire. Coming awake to find his mattress smoldering or his pillow lightly ablaze he would holler, “Help! Where am I? Am I in hell?” He seemed a tormented individual, not at all an attractive or satisfactory replacement for the hefty blonde, and Plopman, at this juncture, entertained serious thoughts about giving up on his suit. But by now the project had become too much a matter of pride for simple abandonment. What with already having invested so much time and effort in the thing, and the feeling of Destiny being somehow involved, Plopman decided he owed it to himself and the world to see his suit through. Doggedly he pitched back in, kept at it.
So at the end of two years (or twenty-three months, three weeks and four days, if you want to be perfectly accurate about it) when the big day finally arrived and he could at last don his suit for the first time, Plopman felt like he’d climbed Everest or something. Dressed, standing there with the 2,976 Vienna sausages actually encasing his body in their slimy embrace, Plopman found the proximity virtually overwhelming in terms of aroma, and for several minutes he had to fight hard to keep from passing out. Up that close the fumes made his eyes leak and run like a pair of badly cracked eggs.
Once he managed to get his eyes focused,and the flies shooed away, and could see himself in the closet mirror he felt immediately reassured. His suit was everything he had hoped it would be, and more. Massive, streaky pink in color, glistening squamously, it made him look as though he were festooned in all the foreskins a busy hospital might hope to harvest in a year’s time — or like a high priest of the White Worm Cult of Eastern Thrace — or like something huge and blobby grown with steroids in a vat — or . . . Plopman ran out of superlatives at this point, and as he stood there quietly savoring his triumph, Mrs. Dunlap, the mad fretful old landlady, banged on his door with her cane and then rattled the knob. Fortunately, the door was locked; even so, it made Plopman jump; this, in turn, caused his suit to sway to and fro around him, and as it did so, there was a faint but audible squish-squish sound. The mixed feelings engendered in Plopman’s mind by this sound may be well imagined by anyone who has ever cleaned and prepared a tub of eels.
“Mr. Plopman! Mr. Plopman! What smells dead in there? Are you boiling your shorts again?”
“No, I’m not, Mrs. Dunlap. Everything is fine in here.”
Plopman groaned. He had been afraid all along that this was going to happen, mostly because of how, over the last two years, ever since the stench had first started getting out of hand, Mrs. Dunlap had been coming around about once a day, regular as Queen Estrus, to bang on Plopman’s door with her cane and pester him about what smelled “dead” in his room. To make matters worse, or anyhow more ridiculous, she had somehow got it into her head that Plopman was engaged in the exotic practice of “boiling” his shorts. Who could say why? It’s just something that had sprung up between them — part of the nitwit, singsong routine that invariably took place whenever she appeared. By now, it had become a litany, practically. Plopman gritted his teeth, foreseeing twenty or thirty minutes of anguished lassitude while they shouted back and forth at each other through the door.
“Well,” called Mrs. Dunlap, next, just as she always did, “I thought that since whatever you had in there smells dead, you were probably boiling your shorts again, Mr. Plopman?”
“No, I’m not, Mrs. Dunlap,” called Plopman, just as he always did. “I’ve told you and told you — I never boil anything in my room; I don’t even own a hot plate.”
“Well, I wouldn’t like to admit to it either, Mr. Plopman, if I was the one who was in there with the door locked, boiling my shorts.”
“Neither would I, Mrs. Dunlap. But I’m not. So I can’t.”
“Well, I can’t say I blame you for wanting to conceal your activities, Mr. Plopman. People who boil their shorts aren’t very welcome in polite society.”
“I know that, Mrs. Dunlap. But the thing is, that’s not what I’m doing.” In short, a typical exchange.
As such, it dragged on with only minor variations for the next quarter of an hour; and when Mrs. Dunlap finally hobbled away, bound for the basement to check on the mouse traps, always her customary next stop after visiting Plopman’s door, Plopman at last had a chance to look down and take stock of himself. By then, of course, enough time had elapsed for heavy natural attrition to take its toll; his suit, he saw at a glance, was in a bad way, was on its last legs, in fact — tragically foundering. Because his eyes were still watering, it was hard for Plopman to tell whether the left sleeve had come apart before the right leg dropped off, or vice versa. But the whole spongy pink mass continued to sluff away at an alarming rate, unraveling on him even as he watched. In less than two minutes it was as good as gone — proof beyond question, were any needed, that Vienna sausages are far too glutinous and unstable ever to be much good for suit-making. Plopman heaved a sigh. Damn. It was depressing to realize how miserably his suit had fared. And Mrs. Dunlap’s meddlesome, ill-timed intrusion. There had only been a few minutes in which to wear and admire his creation — so brief, so fleeting, it was — and she had effectively distracted him from any real enjoyment of it. It hardly seemed fair. But, standing there, now, knee-deep in the ruined and steaming pile of 2,976 malodorous little weenies, Plopman told himself that perhaps something might yet be salvaged from the experiment, provided he could locate some crackers and have those along with part of his suit for a late-afternoon snack, without poisoning himself. That was the thing; you couldn’t let an obsessive, unbalanced, crackpot personality like Mrs. Dunlap drag you down and mire you in defeat. You had to go ahead and make the best of things, no matter what.
Plopman began to feel more optimistic as he got busy rummaging in his closet — and the crackers turned up in fairly short order, only a little stale from having spent time under a pile of Plopman’s unlaundered shirts and socks. Plopman sat down on the edge of the bed to have his snack of crackers and suit, and at that moment the faint aroma of burning mattress wafted in through the open window. “Help! Where am I? Am I in hell?” he heard his neighbor across the courtyard holler.