Novelty Manufacturer’s son dead in The War.
I bore condolense: a spider plant, courtesy Topiary Techniques.
The Novelty Manufacturer sold jokes, baubles, erotic novelties to The Citizens of The City.
Office receptionist in black mourning.
“The Plant guy’s here. He brought a gift,” she said to the machine.
“Plantman! Yes. Of course. Please, send him in,” voice of The Manufacturer.
The Manufacturer paced. Gulped brandy, offered brandy. Eyed the green spider. Suspicious. Then, eyes misty, arms stretched toward me.
“My Greatest Salesman.”
Accepted his embrace, briefly, stepped back.
“Once,” I said. “A long, long time ago. Now I tend plants.”
“Yes, yes of course. But still…”
His eyes wandered The Past.
I said, “This is a gift of Topiary Techniques. We are all sorry for your loss. What can we offer but gratitude? Your ultimate sacrifice to The Nation.”
Victor’s lines as I’d rehearsed them.
“Thank you,” said The Manufacturer.
“You and me,” said The Manufacturer.
“You, Plantman, with your living, growing Joy to peoples’ lives. Bearer and distributor of Joy. No finer calling.”
“I do my work,” I said.
“I love a good laugh,” said The Manufacturer.
I false-smiled agreement. The Manufacturer equally false-smileed counter-agreement.
“Humor is violence. To make people laugh is to control them. People need that in their lives. To be taken over, controlled. To have voids filled. The People need…the People demand torment. Otherwise…numb. Numb.”
The Manufacturer poured another, sat down, gazed upon the photograph of his late son.
“You remember those boys at school. Grade School, High School. Beaten on the bus. Teased. Ridiculed. Their revenge? Humor. They were the class clowns. The ones who made the whole damn crowd, the ‘gang,’ laugh themselves to tears at recess. At parties. Laugh till they pissed their pants. Laughed themselves silly while the clown, the fool, the erstwhile victim of their ridicule, their blows, ran off with all the pretty girls. Do you remember that, Plantman?”
“Uh, no. Not as such. I don’t recall —”
The Manufacturer rose, smiling sparked energy good cheer.
“What do they tell the comedian en route to his stage? ‘Knock ‘em dead.’ What does the audience remark, gratefully, if he succeeds? ‘That guy kills me.’”
“I no longer harbor such notions. I am Plantman,” I said cold unperturbed.
“You must recall that we don’t only sell humorous novelties. We have a whole collection of life-sized dolls, fully equipped, furry or shaved, modeled after stars and celebrities. ‘So true to life, you’ll try to make her come.’ My erstwhile Greatest Salesman coined that line. Masks too,” he grinned wicked. “Leg Irons.”
The Manufacturer, success at seventeen, rose higher, higher. The boy who sold baubles. Portable stand at amusement parks. Now largest, most profitable Novelty Company in The Nation.
“My wife died during cosmetic surgery, you must recall. When they buried her, half of her face was thin, supple, youthful, half was aged, dry, be-jowled. My punishment: to simultaneously gaze upon the beauty I’d married long ago, and the bloated matron who lay beside me in my bed night after night after night after night. Until they hid her away in the humorless ground. What a miserable end. You don’t expect that when you’re seventeen, do you, Plantman?”
“I didn’t know what to expect when I was seventeen,” I said.
The Manufacturer’s son, wild, unruly, ran away, age fifteen. Lived Missing Young. The Manufacturer hired The Detective Agency: resolve the situation. Situation resolved. The Son flirted with Novelties in High School. The Manufacturer thought The Son would inherit. But age nineteen The Son left The University. First to become a killer component of the green machine, Special Forces, kill ‘em with bullets, not jokes like the Old Man. Then to The War, kill-be-killed for The Nation.
“He was my only,” The Manufacturer said evenly. “Now, like so many of the customers I’ve served over the years, I am alone. A Jokester hates to joke alone,” he said.
“You are like me,” said The Manufacturer. “You bring The Citizens joy.”