Spy In The House of Ice

The first hint of Bob’s betrayal came when he put off insulating the trailer not one, not two, but three months.  This despite my numerous attempts to raise the issue in conversation, and at least three passive-aggressive emails.

I’ll admit that this delay may not seem like much to get worked up about.  Especially to folks in relatively warmer climates, where the winter temperatures only set in around December.  But Lonesome Valley often gets snow in September, and has been known to go subzero in October.   Add to that the fact that Bob and I live in a three-season trailer (which may as well be a two-season trailer in Lonesome Valley), and you can see why waiting past Halloween to insulate is like flipping Mother Nature the bird.

So naturally when the temperature plummeted last week, our pipes froze, and we were back to bathing out of buckets in a matter of hours.  Still I heard no talk of insulating–instead, Bob wanted to figure out a way to make our bucket-baths more efficient.  Use a garbage can as a cistern, fill it every morning, etc.  We initiated microwaveable meals as an alternative to cooking, to save us having to do dishes.  And when I kept bringing-up the idea of my taking a day off work to help him handle the insulation, Bob kept brushing it away.  Too busy, he said.

Then, three days into the buckets, our thermostat broke.  We fiddled with the slider, we tapped the device–either it wouldn’t keep the furnace on, or it wouldn’t shut the furnace off once it was on, so we decided to turn it off for the night and use a space heater in the living room.

Only later that night, at around three in the morning, I heard Bob get up, walk into the living room, and mess with it.  I assumed he was turning it up, but I woke up to a freezing trailer.  That’s when I realized he had turned it down.

“Why did you turn the heat down last night?” I asked him.

“I didn’t even get up last night.”

“You did,” I insisted.  “I heard you do it.”

“I don’t remember,” he said.

Then he smiled.

* * *

During this time of year, the war with the elements is a constant one in Lonesome Valley, and the cold takes no prisoners.  Pipes burst, thermostats break.  All that hovering trouble results in a real feeling of Us vs. Winter among the locals, and our recent incidents at the trailer were beginning to suggest that Bob had defected to the other team.  But to be fair, there are a number of other explanations for his seeming attempts to further the cause of frost.

One of them is that Bob really is very busy, with holiday concerts, and an endless amount of music to learn for advent.  He’s also taking a pill for insomnia, which he’s had since he quit smoking, and this particular pill has been known to make people do weird things in their sleep.  Like cut their bangs off, or cook themselves breakfast.  Now, we can add self-refrigeration to that list.

Which brings me to the evidence for the other side, for all you conspiracy theorists, and fans of more shall we say esoteric explanations for Bob’s behavior.  Earlier this month, he changed his Facebook profile pic to this:

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The Muzak Man

The only reason I even knew we had mood music at our office was that, every few months, some random octogenarian caller would come off hold and bark,  “It’s too loud, dammit!”

So I asked my Boss about it, and yeah, it turned out that we had hold music and waiting room music.  Both were played from the same multi-CD player in the server room, which was only being turned on when somebody remembered to do it, which was close to never.

Even then, the employees were leaving it at full volume, which was fine for the quiet speakers in our waiting room, but over the louder phone lines, had the effect of furthering deafness.

* * *

Predictably, fixing this became my mission.

For one, I’m a music freak, especially when it comes to mood music and mixes.  Ask anyone.  It took me actual weeks to concoct the playlist for my 30th birthday party–from choosing the mingle tracks, to selecting the right karaoke tunes, to developing two CDs of pop for the dance-off, sequenced so that they would gradually increase in tempo from beginning to end, thereby urging to the revelers to boogie by subliminal means.

But another reason the hold music mattered was my firm belief that, if you paid good money for something useful, you should use it.  And hold music is useful in our office, because it indicates to the patient that they have not been hung up on.  This not only prevents nasty callbacks, but enables you to interrupt ramblers without losing the call, even if they’re mid-sentence.

Q: “I was wondering if I could get an appointment this afternoon, well not this afternoon specifically, but I would like to maybe come in on a Friday, but not this Friday, and if you could make sure that…”

A: “JAZZZZZ…”

Waiting room music is even more useful, since it creates much-needed white noise, and guarantees that conversational post-scripts like “it’s not my fault you waited until four in the afternoon on a Friday to realize you’re out of Oxycodone, douchebag” won’t drift into the ears of patients one room over.

* * *

It took longer than I thought to get it right.

I thought all I’d need to do was fix the volume on the CD player, then adjust the speakers accordingly.  What I had not realized was how little attention had been given to the actual music selection, back when the sound system was purchased.  Oh sure, all the CDs in our server room claimed to be relaxing.  One of them was a string quartet.  But look closer and you’d notice the composer: Igor Stravinsky.

“This is going to give me a heart attack,” was how one patient at the front desk put it, the first week that I had the sound system up again.  He wasn’t kidding, either.  When I poked my head out to listen, it sounded like Orcs playing Hockey.  So I brought some blank CDs home and tried to use Bob’s and my extensive collection of frilly soundtrack music and Greatest Hits of the Celts to get a listenable mix going.  Some of it worked fine, other tracks continued to grate.  Finally, one of the front-office employees explained her issues:  “You can’t pick music that stands out.  Otherwise you’re going to recognize when it comes back around.  After eight hours, it’ll drive you crazy.”  I knew what she was talking about, too.  I used to do data entry back when Jill Scott’s “A Long Walk” was in tri-hourly radio rotation.  I blew two hours of my wages on a Donny Hathaway CD just to block it out.

So one weekend, armed with the motto “Nondescript or Die” and some dollar-store relaxation CDs, I returned to the trailer determined to make a go of it.  The result is the amazing muzak mix that plays in our speakers, and on our telephones, today.  The muzak that I can’t really tell you anything about, because I can’t even remember hearing it.  In the world of instrumentals, these tracks are ninjas.

I’m not finished, either.  I’m determined to expand our collection, so that nobody in the front office will ever know when a track repeats.  All morning, I while away the time between calls by browsing the Lifescapes product catalog online, with collections called things like “Celtic Soul”.

Just you wait:  This is going to be the most unmemorable mix ever.

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Rodentia

There’s pretty much no way to avoid mice in Lonesome Valley, especially when you live in something as sneak-able as a trailer.

Around September, when the weather starts to get chilly, they make a beeline for our kitchen, eating whatever crumbs and sauce splotches have not yet been cleaned up.  Then they poop like mad, and run…or at least plan to.

Little do they know, we have these creepy little seesaw-coffin-traps waiting for them.  Elegant contraptions.  When properly set, their opening rakes invitingly toward the food, like a staircase in a Busby Berkeley musical—and when the mouse tapdances up, this tips the balance of the trap, rolling the door shut.

The next morning, you take the trap for a walk to the edge of the nearby forest and send the mouse out with a gentle fling.  Though sometimes I prefer to drop them off in Coleberry Lake, just in case they, you know, find their way back to the trailer.  (Hey, it could happen.)

These mice, I should be clear, are still alive.  That’s right–despite the “rodent relocation” aspect, these are non-lethal mousetraps.  Trouble is the winter, once it comes, renders the traps significantly less so.

When you release a mouse in any other season see, you have the pleasure of watching it land on the peatmoss unharmed.  Then it has this moment of confusion, followed by an adorable “let’s get outta here” run.  Away it scurries, toward any number of adventures—steamboat piloting, theme park construction, metastasizing corporate proliferation.  You name it.

When you release a mouse in the winter, however, it scurries approximately ten feet into the snow, curls into a defensive ball, and slowly freezes to death over the course of the morning.  Then inevitably, something bigger comes along, and scarfs it like a mochi ball.

This poses a dilemma for me, and I’m open to suggestions.  Should I just get a zapper mousetrap for the winter months, so that I’m knocking the poor guys off outright, instead of giving them an evening of claustrophobic terror, followed by popsiclehood?  I feel like my unwillingness to “exterminator up” is forcing them to spend the last stretch of their lives in a Dutch horror film.

Perhaps a better man would just clean up after the mouse and have done with it—but pretty soon I’d have Studio 54 in my kitchen, minus the toilets.

Feel free to suggest a solution here.  I’m running out of ideas, and I’m open to anything that does not involve sending mice to college.  And while you’re at it, weigh in on the mystery.  As in how, if the mouse can’t get ten feet away from the trailer without freezing, it crosses the ten feet to the trailer in the first place?

If I get up early enough, I wonder if I will catch a similarly guilt-ridden resident from Coleberry Lake, empyting his mousetrap into our galley hatch…

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Hyphen Nation

Lonesome Valley doesn’t have much in the way of actual production, so its economy is dependent on tourism, with a secondary focus on breakdown business—that is to say, businesses that fix whatever’s prone to breaking down, from your vehicle to your furnace. (I am in the breakdown racket too, “human body” division.)

So it goes without saying that there is very little money moving around up here, and it’s common for local business to get lost in the shuffle—with everyone looking for increasingly creative ways to make theirs more useful to the general population.

One of the most common techniques is hyphenation.

For instance, the diner on main street, and the karaoke bar on main street, and the bowling alley on main street…are all the same place.  Then there’s the animal feed store, where we get mash for our chickens, and of course, bring all our dry cleaning.  And over in Morris Lake, there’s that famous laundromat, which is also a donut shop, Native American craft store, and antler dealership.

It gets so that you don’t notice this kind of doubling-up–which would explain why, despite living for over a year next to the same highway eatery, I never realized until today that, just over the sign that reads “Ed’s Diner”, are the words “Snowmobile Rentals”.

The obvious strategy for me would be to find the remaining business “holes” and fill them, simultaneously.  So if anyone is interested in helping me get my smoothie shop/palm reader’s off the ground, let’s hook up toots sweet.

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Trust The Pants

I was recently able to buy my first new pair of pants in over a year, guilt-free.

Oh sure, it’s been technically possible for me to buy new pants sooner, but before Bob got his job at the church, there was always this nagging fear in the back of my head that we would end up running out of cash again.  And who would we blame then?  My pants, that’s who.

Another reason I waited this long was that, living in Lonesome Valley, I knew I could.  This is a town where people appreciate using something until it’s broken, then patching it with duct tape and using it some more–and that attitude applies as much to clothing as it does to cars.

This past weekend provided hard evidence of this phenomenon.  It was Sunday, and Bob and I were at the local train depot, where a festival was being held to commemorate the traditions of railway hobos.  There, we ran into some friends, who are recent refugees from suburbia, and they got to talking about how charming the festival was.  “And isn’t it nice that everybody went to the trouble to dress like hobos?” one asked, totally serious.

I turned red.

* * *

The new pants make me especially happy when I’m at work, because I was so tired of showing up in my Boss’ office with shredded cuffs at the end of my khakis.  Though truth be told, she didn’t mind.  My Boss knows the drill.

In fact, there was only one day she objected to my clothes, or mentioned them at all.  I remember it well.  I was tired of putting my raggedy pants on, and decided I would come to work in my jeans, which I wear so infrequently that they are like-new.  I thought this would be more respectful than showing up at the Practice-wide meeting in my zombie Dockers.

So I walked into the office, and delivered my good morning.  My Boss instantly looked down and smiled politely.

“You realize of course that jeans are against our dress code…”

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Buzz, Plop, Stop

Telltale signs of under-planning did not take long to show themselves at the Wolf Mountain Judy Garland Sing-Along, for which Bob had a gig playing piano a few weeks back.

It started when, toward the top of the set, the singers launched into that ubiquitous Judy Judy Judy standard from “Meet Me In St. Louis”. You know, “Clang clang clang went the trolley, ding ding ding went the bell”?

Hoping to encourage some audience participation, the performers handed out noisemakers, so that audience members could make sounds to coincide with the various onomatopoeias in the song. A pot and a spoon went to the folks who would be handling the “clangs” of the trolley, for instance. A bell and finger-cymbals went to all the “dings”. Rubber bands for the “zings of her heartstrings”. You get the picture.

Trouble was, the organizers only handed out enough noisemakers to make those three sounds: The clang, the ding and the zing. For Garland novices out there, the so-called “Trolley Song” has at least three more sound effects in it—specifically, a buzz (of the buzzer), a plop (of the wheels) and a stop (heartstrings again).

So while things were already shaky when the singers got to the “clang”, the “ding” and the “zing”, with any children overzealously banging their pans and snapping their rubberbands, the singalong equivalent of mass hysteria broke out once those mystery sounds came along.

Everybody started looking around like, Who’s doing the buzz?  How the hell are we supposed to do the plop without getting arrested? The only person who didn’t miss a beat was that little girl crashing her finger cymbals together like the toy monkey in Stephen King’s eponymous horror tale, killing Judy Garland over and over again.

A lack of prep was likewise palpable in the staging, which consisted of the organizers rounding up any fidgety children in the audience, and then setting them loose to run back and forth in front of the singers.  Though, to be fair, these barely-veiled behavioral exercises were themed to the songs: For “Singin’ In The Rain”, the kids were given umbrellas to run back and forth with; for “Be A Clown”, they ran back and forth wearing clown wigs; for “The Atchison Topeka” they ran back and forth in the manner of an enormous, under-Adderaled choo-choo.

It kept on like this. Cupcakes were unwrapped for sale at intermission, but the coffee still wasn’t ready, so the singers improvised an encore of the title song from “Meet Me In St. Louis” to kill some time, changing the tagline to “Meet Me At The Cupcakes, Cupcakes…”. And don’t even get me started on “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag”, which for some reason, was performed with the original 1915 lyrics: “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. While you’ve a Lucifer to light your fag, smile boys that’s the style.” You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen the host of the village green sing-along try to explain, as gently as possible, that those words have nothing to do with the immolation of homos.

The most remarkable thing about the show, though, was the fact that nobody cared.  Bumps and all, the audience had a wonderful time.  Again, this is something that makes Lonesome Valley different from The City—up here, The E for Effort is still a passing grade, and people appreciate even the most undercooked attempts at fun. At least you gave it a shot, right?

* * *

This isn’t to say the locals are stupid, just gracious.

At one point, the host of the sing-along came to the mike covered in Christmas tree wrap, and delivered, “This is more garland than I can handle!”, to thunderous silence.

Frances, the 91-year-old WWII veteran seated beside me, leaned over confidentially.

“Trying real hard, ain’t he?”

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Saturday Night

The screams were coming from inside the barn.

When we finally crossed the threshold, there he was on the floor. Some scrawny cleric, getting himself clawed to pieces by farmers who had probably died in The Last War.

He wasn’t fighting back either, just kinda letting them do it–praying to Balinor, crying while they cut him up, with their creaky little bone fingers.

The three of us lent a hand.

After, he told us his name was Pruitt, and that this sort of thing always happened to him. He said he was cursed. We couldn’t get anything else out of the guy, but he agreed to accompany us to the trading post, so we all rode on together.

This trading post I’m talking about is at the eastern edge of the Brelish wilderness, and it’s a good thing too, because as you’ve probably heard, the wilderness was enchanted by the hags during The Last War. Now, rivers that went this way are going that way, towns have been moved miles from where they used to be, even mountains have been relocated. The old maps just don’t work anymore.

But that’s not the weird part.

The weird part is, we heard this trading post was getting raided by bandits from the west. Which is to say, bandits who hailed from the new wilderness. Bandits who probably knew the new layout, who maybe once worked for the hags who concocted the new layout. Maybe still did.

We arrived at dusk, and met the owner, a guy named Osric. And his wife, a halfling named Grew. We told them we’d been sent from the city to look into the raids. They told us thanks. We asked them when the raids generally happened. They told us generally the first of the month.

Needless to say, the first of the month was the next morning.

We got a plan together. Tellek found some bear traps, told us we could put them to good use.  Vlix is an Aberration, and as such he’s my sworn enemy, but he’s good with machines, so we put him to work fixing the catapult. The cleric hid in the stable.

Me, I just prayed to Balinor. Prayed all night long.

The theory was, we’d get all the bandits into the tavern and let that halfling Grew liquor them up. Then, while they were inside, Tellek would set the traps outside the tavern doors.  Vlix would head up one of the towers and get the catapult ready. And on the signal, I’d summon a giant centipede to appear and scare the bandits out of the tavern, into the traps, and into range.

Needless to say, it didn’t go quite that way.

The bandits came the next morning sure, like clockwork. Osric and his wife plied them with mead, hustled them into the tavern. Only I never got the signal to summon the centipede, because these bandits, they left a guy on lookout outside the tavern.

So when our man Tellek came with the bear traps, this lookout saw him, and straight away started filling Tellek with arrows. Me I panicked, and summoned the centipede to block the bandits at the door, but that didn’t last long.

It got that it was looking bad. The bastards stabbed Grew. They even killed my badger, and yeah, he was only a spirit animal, so no big deal, except it meant we were down one. Then two of the guys started running for the woods, saying something about how they were going to warn The Stag King.

Needless to say, we were in no great rush to get acquainted with The Stag King.

But even with the plan busted, some things worked just fine. The catapult, for one. My scythe, for another. And though Osric wasn’t much for fighting, it turns out he had these dogs…

Long story short the situation turned around. It took a while, but it turned around. Hell by the end, we even got to keep one of the bandits as a souvenir. He’ll talk when he’s ready, and if he doesn’t, we’ll just let Osric’s dogs back into their pen.

Now the situation is looking up. Osric and Grew are up in the towers manning the catapults, and we’re out mapping the territories.

See there’s prospects in an undeveloped forest like this, as you can imagine. Alliances to be forged. Business to be done.

You might even say the hags have done us a favor, making a new land out of the old one like they did. It’s like time turned back to before The Last War, and waited for us to get here. And sure, we don’t know what The Stag King is yet, but there’s time enough to find out.

There’s time for us to all to rise to where we’ve got to be. To build this outpost into a kingdom. To build that kingdom into a stronghold, against the Aberrations that threaten the borders between this world and the next.  Vlix will have to die of course, but not yet. There’s use in him. And besides, we have work to do.

We’re going to make this country into something great.

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