Ruffing It

It isn’t always easy being a dog. Oh, I will admit, it has its good moments, which surely outnumber the bad. The obvious ones that come to mind are a warm bed, plenty of food, and people who love me. The occasional bone, brought home by Brother BudPie, from the butcher, just for me, and anything else I manage to scarf up from the floor, well, those also are perks worthy of mention. In regards to the floor, anything edible is fair game. No silly five-second rule applies. It’s first come first serve. If you’re fond of your fingers, you’d better be pretty quick on the draw, or get out of Dodge.

The flipside of that coin, just to name a couple, include a very limited ability to vocalize my thoughts, and non-opposable thumbs, indeed, no thumbs at all. These two limitations alone rule out about ninety-nine percent of all the things I would love to be able to do. Also, it would great to be able to read, although getting into the library might be a challenge. I could always fake it guess. If I could score one of those service-dog get-ups, I could walk up and down the aisles pretending to look for my owner, while perusing the book selection. But then, were I successful in getting one down from the shelf, and I could read, how would I turn the pages? Using my nose or my tongue, either one, would make a huge mess. And if I were going to do that, I might just as well chew the heck out of it from the get-go. As a side note, that has happened, once or twice, when Jake’s left one on the floor. As you may have guessed, he spends the majority of his time on the floor.

But I couldn’t read, and I didn’t have one of those fancy outfits. It would be fun, if Jake or Brother BudPie, in a moment of forgetfulness, would accidently leave the front door open every now and again. I’m sure the opportunity to meander through the neighborhood on my own would present many enlightening opportunities. For instance, just wandering around, I might pick up a few words here and there, of practical value. But Brother BudPie was in the Amazon, and Jake was pretty good about making sure the door was closed. Ah well, I don’t have a bad life. Maybe I’ll just take a nap right here in front of one of Brother BudPie’s surplus space heaters, until kibble is ready…..

Ruff jumped up from a deep sleep. Something didn’t feel right. The house was cold, and had an empty feeling. Rushing from room to room, he saw no one, heard no one, caught no one’s scent on the air. Trotting back into the living room, he saw the front door, wide open. “How did I miss that?” he thought, as he walked out onto the front porch. He caught a lingering whiff of Jake’s particular smell, there was no mistaking that, but there was another, more subtle scent mixed in, vaguely familiar, but nothing he could put his paw on. His keen dog mind, shifting into overdrive, could only imagine the worst. “Jake is gone, someone has abducted him, I must find him!”  Following his nose, his best asset in his opinion, he trotted down the steps, up the walkway, out to the sidewalk.

“Man, cars everywhere! I think I’ll stay on this side up of the street.” Trotting on down the sidewalk, he continued to follow his nose, which could only be expected. “If I were been trotting backwards, my nose would be following me” he thought, proud of his quick wit. Just ahead, he was brought up short, in front of a funny looking yellow post, of a type with which he had previous experience. But this was the first time he had noticed the lettering it bore. The letters were: H-Y-D-R-A-N-T. “Ah!” He thought to himself, making the obvious connection. “Restroom. This reading stuff isn’t so tough after all.”

Continuing on his way, doing his best to stay focused, he came to a large, round, green container, sending forth a very tantalizing aroma. “T-R-A-S-H. “Hmmmm! Deli! That must say Deli!” And with a self-satisfied doggy smile, and a wag of his cute little tail, knowing that he might just stop in at this deli on his way back, he headed on down the street. “I might need to stop at that restroom too” he thought. “When ya gotta go…..”

Ruff was beginning to enjoy himself a bit more than he probably should, given the circumstances. He was on a mission, one of great importance, but dang! there were distractions everywhere, beckoning, calling, promising adventure, offering up choice tidbits of food. And speaking of tidbits, what was this? Oh, he had a vague idea, but it was not of a variety he’d previously encountered. “Hmm” he thought, as he circled it, wanting to view it from all angles. A quick sniff and investigatory taste confirmed his suspicions. And congratulating himself for not stepping in it, he continued on his way.

Jake’s familiar scent, in the breeze, but not on the ground, only confirmed his original suspicion of abduction. Someone was carrying him. And mixed with that was what he now recognized as lemon, vague to be sure, but still identifiable to his well-tuned sense of smell. But that wasn’t all. Along with the lemon scent was another, even more subtle, almost recognizable one. He’d smelled it before, but he couldn’t pin down the where or the when. “When I find Jake” he thought, “I’ll find the answer to that little mystery too.”

Just as he thought the trail might be cooling off, the vague odor made a sharp left, through a doorway with lettering above it, too high for him to see clearly. “I guess I can’t complain too much, considering how the world must look from Jake’s viewpoint.” And chuckling to himself at his clever joke, he passed through the doorway. Amid the hustle and bustle, the smells that assaulted his senses, of lemon, of rising dough, of baked goods and sweet frosting, standing at the counter with her back to him, was the source of that vaguely familiar smell. Bracing himself for the coming confrontation, knowing that he was looking at his little buddy’s abductor, he lowered to a crouch, and creeping forward, he couldn’t stifle the growl that escaped his throat.

Spinning, turning to face the threat, the woman, for it was a woman, was so startled that she nearly dropped the little snake perched on her arm. “Ruff!” exclaimed Jake, “What are you doing here? You followed us all this way?” Confused, Ruff could do nothing but sit, smile as only dogs can smile, and wag his tail. “I was sure I closed the door” said Jake, even though there was a hint of doubt in his voice. “I was going to leave you a note, saying I would be out with a friend for a while, but you can’t read. Ruff, I’d like you to meet Lemon Lady, a dear friend, down from Apple Land, where goodness grows on trees, and the Mexican food is superb. She’s here for a very special occasion. Today’s your birthday, Ruff! You’re one year old! We came down to the bakery to get you a cake.” Sotto voce, so as not to offend the shop owner, Jake added “It can’t possibly be anywhere near as good as Lemon Lady could make herself, but we were under time constraints. Oh! Besides Lemon Lady and myself, is there anyone else you’d like to invite over to have cake with us?” “Rowf” said Ruff.

And so it was, that Ruff, the lucky little dog, had the second-best day of his young life, the very best one being the day he was rescued from the animal shelter. And sitting in the living room, surrounded by friends, Jake, Lemon Lady, and Ralph, having finished the best piece of cake he’d ever had, he looked at Jake, with loving, if somewhat speculative eyes, and could only think, “Drop the cake, Jake. Drop the cake.”

Salesman Jake

Jake was so excited! Tomorrow, Brother BudPie, his brave, intelligent, clever, and really cute roomie was heading out to evaluate the market for a new product line, and Jake was going with him! The refrigerators were a big hit up by the North Pole, the space heaters did well in Ecuador, and of course, the electric griddles sold like hotcakes in the Amazon. Although Brother BudPie was somewhat excited to be on the road again, this time with his little buddy Jake, and their faithful dog Ruff, you couldn’t tell by his outward appearance. His calm, confident demeanor, what some would call a poker face, so important for a salesman, kept his excitement from showing. Jake wasn’t sure about the poker face. Brother BudPie’s face looked nothing like a poker, at least not like any Jake had ever seen.

“I better get packing” thought the little snake. “I want to be ready. We’re leaving early in the morning, and I don’t want to be late. Ruff, c’mon in here and give me a paw.” With no hesitation, and in the blink of an eye, lickety split, toute de suite, and faster than all get out, Ruff was at his side, ready to help. He was always up for any adventure that might come his way.

“Let’s see…new skin, check! Socks…..check! Ninja Turtle toothbrush and bubblegum toothpaste….check! Lemon jellied spiders for a snack on the trail….you betcha! Hand sanitizer….ditto!” That lemon jelly, though quite delicious, stuck to just about anything it came in contact with. “Step aside, Gorilla Glue, you’ve met your match” thought Jake, as he finished tucking everything into his specially modified backpack. While some might find it odd that a little snake, having no feet, would bring socks, to Jake, there was nothing unusual about it at all. He used them for carrying his marbles and loose change. “You never know when you might run across a game of marbles, or a vending machine” thought Jake.

“Brother BudPie, there are a couple of things I’ve been wanting to ask you” said Jake, as they secured their belongings to the camel that would carry them deep into the desert. “Okey-doke, Jake” replied Brother BudPie, with a wink, and a wiggle of his perfect, if a little bushy, eyebrows, an engaging smile on his tanned, ageless face. “Shoot! Hit me with it. Fire away! Go ahead and ask!” “Okay” said Jake. “I’ve wondered, how do you sell refrigerators at the North Pole. Isn’t it cold enough there already?” “You see, Jake my boy” replied Brother BudPie, in his most instructional voice, “the problem is that it’s TOO cold there. People put stuff in those refrigerators to keep them from freezing.” As he thought about that, it made perfect sense to the little snake. Sales knowledge like that, and the ability to meet his customer’s needs, was what put Brother BudPie leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.

“But space heaters, in Ecuador? I’m not getting that.” “Ahhh yes! It gets so hot in the tropics, inside those little grass huts, that my space heaters actually cool it down. Until air conditioning becomes locally available, I meet the needs of that market.” Jake was impressed with Brother BudPie’s sales acumen, not to mention his ability to think outside the box, allowing him to tap hidden markets.

“You know, Jake” said Brother BudPie, “there will come a time when I’ll be stepping down from my lofty perch at the top of my sales empire, and I’ll be handing the reins to you. And when that day comes, hopefully not any time soon, you need to be prepared. So, pay attention, keep your wits about you and your eyes on the trail. Danger lurks behind every dune. In fact, this would be a great time to send Ruff out to scout the ahead. Ruff! Who’s a good boy? Go get ’em!”

“I would be the good boy” thought Ruff. “That would be me. Moi. This guy right here. The one, the only, Rufferino.” And with that, he sprinted down the trail, with nose to the ground and tail a-waggin’. “Jake, I’m going to grab a couple of lemon jellied spiders out of your specially modified backpack, if you don’t mind” said Brother BudPie. “Render yourself unconscious” replied Jake. “I think you mean ‘knock yourself out’, little buddy” said Brother BudPie. “Whatever” said Jake, “fracture a limb.” Brother BudPie just rolled his eyes and grabbed the snacks.

“Here comes Ruff!” said Jake. “Let’s see what he found!”  “How’s the trail up ahead boy?” “Ruff ruff!” said the dog. “Wow! Thats double rough!” said Jake. “Did you see any tracks?” “Woof!” said the dog. “That was most likely a desert fox, Ruff. Not many wolves out here” remarked Brother BudPie, in a thoughtful manner. “Did you see anything else, boy?” asked Jake. “Bark” replied Ruff. “Again, I think you must be mistaken” said Brother BudPie, with a smile. “There are no trees anywhere near here! But let’s be on our way. We can debate tracking and scouting later.” And that’s exactly what they did!

As the day wore on, a hot, sweaty, little snake had just about had his fill of the desert. Turning to Brother BudPie, he asked “How much farther do we need to go? It’s hot, I’m tired, and Ruff looks exhausted.” “Well” said Brother BudPie, with a wink and a smile, “I think I’ve found out everything I need to know. I will most definitely be adding this to my sales territory. We can turn around and head back now.” “What are going to sell out here, Brother BudPie?” asked Jake. “Why, Jake my young friend, raincoats of course!”

Flakey Jake

Jake wasn’t feeling all that great, and he didn’t know why. What he did know was that he didn’t like it, not one bit. He was grouchy and itchy and jumpy and twitchy, and felt like he could crawl right out of his skin! He would ask Brother BudPie, his long, lean, dependable mentor and roommate, for an opinion, but Brother BudPie was currently out of town, scouting a potential sales area for a new product he had taken on. Already at the top of the sales heap in refrigerators and space heaters, he had recently added electric griddles to his product line. Since he had just sold his last space heater to a donkey herder in Ecuador, he planned a stopover in the Amazon rainforest. He just had a hunch that the griddles would sell like hotcakes.

This was all well and good, but it left poor Jake on his own to deal with, what to him, was a serious problem. “I’m going to ask Brother BudPie if he will take me along on his next trip. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind, and I might pick up a few sales tips. Then, when a problem like this pops up again, he’ll be there for me.” But in the meantime, Jake needed help, and he needed it bad.

“Ruff, come here boy, feel my back. What does it feel like?” “Rough” said Ruff. “Do I have a fever? Is it really high?” “Roof” said Ruff. Ruff was a dog of few words, but when he did speak, he was direct and do the point. But Jake needed more than monosyllabic responses. He needed real advice.

“So, what do you think, Prissscilla?” Jake asked of his young snake friend. She sometimes thought she was Jake’s girlfriend, but Jake wasn’t so sure how he felt about that. “Have you tried lotion, Jake? That helps me when I get itchy. Or maybe a bath. When was the last time you had a bath anyway?” Maybe just a smidgen offended, but overly so, Jake replied with “That’s not it Prissscilla. I’ve gone way longer than this without taking a bath and nothing happened. Well, except no one came over to play for a couple of months, but that was probably because they were all busy. That’s what they said anyway.” Prissscilla just rolled her beady little eyes and said “Uh huh. Try the lotion. Talk to you later.”

Jake did try the lotion, and it didn’t help the itching. It didn’t help the heebie-jeebies and it did nothing for the jitters. In fact, it did nothing at all. “I’ll give Lemon Lady a jingle. She always has good advice” thought Jake, as he absently scratched under his chin. And so he did. “Hi Lemon Lady, it’s me, Jake! I need some advice. Are you busy?” “Jakey Jake, my little snake! How good it is to hear your squeaky little, if somewhat distressed, voice! I was just on my way out the door, dear boy. My Lemon Lovers League friends and I are going to a Citrus Social Quilting Bee. But I do have a minute for my best little buddy. Out with it now. Tell Lemon Lady all about it.” “Lemon Lady” said Jake, in a quivering voice, I feel miserable, and itchy, and scratchy, all over. What can I do?” “Oh my! Indeed, that does sound awful! Let me think of what might help…hmmm…..lotion, nope, bath, nuh uh…ah! Try this Jake! Have a hot glass of lemonade, a sugar free non-artificial sweetener non-GMO, gluten free cookie, and wrap yourself up in a quilt. Take a nice long nap in font of the fireplace. The combination of citrus on the inside and heat on the outside should sweat the bad humours right out if you! Okey-doke Boyo, gotta run, kissy kiss on the phone! Mwah! Mwah!” and with that, she was off, leaving only advice, and a dull ringing in Jakes ears.

Later that same day, no better for Lemon Lady’s treatment plan, Jake was nearly at wit’s end, when an idea came to him. “Maybe I’ll call Ralph. He might have some ideas.” Ralph was a friend Jake had met at the Sentient Snake Seminar a while back. He too was a little snake, but unlike Jake, lived with his mom and dad and a couple dozen brothers and sisters. He was really smart from watching Innovation Nation on Saturday mornings. Mo Rocca was his personal hero.

“Hey Ralph, Jake here. I was hoping you could come over and help me with a problem.” “No worries, Jake, I’ll crawl right over. Uh, when’s the last time you had a bath? Never mind I’m on my way.” “Man, what’s with all this bath stuff?” thought Jake as he furiously scratched his back against a bristle brush that Brother BudPie, his thoughtful, handy, really-cute-to-the-ladies roomie had screwed to the floor for just that purpose.

When the doorbell rang, Jake was still busily scratching his back. “Ruff, will you get the door please? Who is it?” “Rowf” said Ruff. “Okay, let him in. C’mon in Ralph.”

“Hi Jake. You look awful! You’re blotchy, peeling, and generally in bad shape. How long has this been going on?” “A couple of weeks, although it seems like forever” replied Jake, as he scratched is underside on the brush. “You gotta help me Ralph. This is making me crazy!” “Okay Jake, we’ll get the handle on this. Just relax for a couple of minutes while I do some research.”

And with that, Ralph whipped out his iPad and began scrolling through past episodes of Innovation Nation. “Jake, while I’m going through this, let me ask you a couple questions. Did you try lotion?” “Yep” replied Jake, “Zero. Zip. Nada. Except that now I smell like a garden in springtime.” “Well” said Ralph, “that can’t be anything but good.” “Too bad you chose to be a science nerd, Ralph” said Jake. “Comedy lost a true genius when they lost you. Maybe you could keep scrolling. It’s getting to a point where I can’t be held responsible for my actions.”

“Well, let’s see, scratching, you’re doing that now. Bathing is out. You already nixed that. Let’s talk about your symptoms. Do you have an elevated temperature?” “Yes” replied Jake. “According to Ruff, it’s through the roof.” Ralph continued to scroll. “Hmmm….let’s see….itchy, twitchy, grumpy, jumpy, like you’re going to crawl right out of your skin….wait!! Lemme see…..it says here, molt. That’s it! You’re molting!” “Whaaat?” asked Jake with more than just a teensy bit of doubt. “What’s that?”

“According to Mo, it’s a natural process that, as snakes, we all go through. You’re shedding your old, smelly skin to make room for a new, sparkly, non-itchy one. It appears that your questionable hygiene habits may have triggered an early molt. It goes on to say that by the time you reach the stage where you feel like you’re going to crawl out of your skin, that you will. Crawl out of your skin, that is.”

At that moment, maybe as a result of all the intense brushwork, Jake’s old skin peeled off like the skin of a split Cara Cara orange. “Ho boy what a relief!” said Jake as he admired his new duds. “Ralph, you’re a genius! I’ll be eternally grateful, for a while.” Just then Ralph began furiously scratching where his armpits would be, if he had armpits. “No problem Jake! Any time. Gotta crawl! See you later. Awww man….itchy…..” Whereupon Ralph, making a hasty exit out the front door, down the steps and through the gate, headed for home.

A few seconds later, the front door opened, and in stepped Brother Budpie, Jake’s tall, tanned, treat-for-the-eyes roomie. “Well howdy, Ruff! Who was that just leaving?” “Rowf” said Ruff. “Ah! A good lad, if a little nerdy. How’ve things been around here the last couple of weeks? “Rough” said Ruff.

Jake Gets a Dog

“Where are we going Brother BudPie? Is it close, is it far, when will we get there?” Jake was somewhat less than the ideal passenger. He wiggled and squirmed and tossed and turned as only a young snake could. He didn’t deal well with suspense, and patience was not his strong suit. “Calm down little buddy” said Brother Budpie in his deep, soothing, magical voice. “We’ll be there when we get there. And that will be the moment we arrive.”

 Brother BudPie was Jake’s roomie, a tall, well-proportioned hunk of a guy with handsome features and a chiseled chin. He loved teasing Jake, and could see he’d just managed to push the little snake’s button. “What fun!” he thought as he grinned from ear to ear, revealing, even, well-spaced, sparkly white teeth. Some people, especially the ladies, said that his smile was his best feature. He didn’t know if it were true, but he never passed up an opportunity to flash it.

Pulling up in front of a long, low building, Brother Budpie parked the car and looked over at Jake. “We’ll, Jakey Boy, we’ve arrived, and not one second before we got here. Just in time actually, to be present.” And tuning him out, as he sometimes did, Jake looked out the window at the front of the building, which bore a sign proclaiming “HUMAN SOCIETY”. Not understanding, Jake sighed, got out of the car, and followed Brother Budpie inside, where he was immediately bombarded with barking, growling, whining, and general mayhem. Wondering what this all had to do with humans, he turned to Brother BudPie, hoping to gain insight.

“Humane Society, Jake-Bob. You must have misread the sign. Could be that blob of lemon curd in your eye has fogged your vision.” Then, with a chuckle, and a wink of his hypnotically hazel, wise, knowing, but not overly so, eye, he said “We’re here to get you a dog, Boyo. You’re old enough now to have and care for a furry little buddy.”

Jake was so excited! He’d been wanting a dog since forever, but had almost given up hope of it ever coming to be. “Can we go see ’em? Can we, huh?” “That’s why we’re here, Jake. Let’s go!” And with that, Brother BudPie headed toward the back, with an exuberant Jake right on his heels.

As they entered the holding area, Jake saw dogs of all shapes and sizes. He saw big ones, and little ones, young ones and old ones, fat ones and skinny ones and everything in between. What he didn’t see was one that he felt a connection with, that is, until he stopped in front of the very last cage. In the back, in the corner, cowered a dog, not very big, not very old, not very anything. He looked up at Jake, their eyes made contact, and instantly Jake knew that this was the dog for him.

Jake slithered into the cage, right up to the dog and said “Hi, pup. What shall we call you?” “Grrrr….” said the dog. “No” said Jake, “that sounds a little harsh.” “Woof!” said the dog. “Mmmm, no, I’m not feeling it. It doesn’t grab me, you know?” “Ruff!” said the dog. “Ok! Third time’s a charm. Ruff it is! Hi Ruff, I’m Jake. I’m pleased to meet you. How’s it been going, here at the shelter?” “Rough” said the dog. “At least they gave you a blanket. How does it feel?” “Rough” said the dog once again. “Great! I feel like we’re already communicating! We’re going to get along just fine.” “Ruff” said the dog.

Bean

Not far down the road from where I live, nestled in a small shopping center in Wildomar, is one of my favorite places to spend an hour, and where on most mornings, you’ll find me. Bean, my little neighborhood coffee shop, welcomes me with open arms, gathering me in, folding me into its warm embrace. It has an eclectic feel, much less commercialized than Starbucks. They offer all the fruity, foamy, icy drinks one would expect, but my cup of tea is the coffee, freshly roasted, ground and brewed, served up black, with no room for cream.

The coffee is excellent, but the atmosphere is the main draw for me. I enjoy the social aspect, even though I don’t socialize. I like the friendly buzz of conversation, the people, some talking among themselves, others sitting alone with a laptop or notebook, fingers flying across the keys, most likely students from one of the local colleges doing an assignment or preparing for an upcoming test.

Across the room, two mothers quietly converse, enjoying a brief moment of calm from what might be a normal, hectic day. Two young children play at their feet, occupied with one toy or another, bothering no one. At a nearby table, a would-be employer is conducting a job interview, in a much more relaxed setting than one is accustomed to seeing. To me, that speaks volumes about the company he represents.

Occasionally, as though by common consent, the chatter dies momentarily, and the quiet sound of music can be heard, Michael Bublé, singing a Frank Sinatra song. It’s busy this morning, seating is at a premium, and a sharp eye and quick reflexes are a must if you wish to grab a just vacated seat, still warm from the previous occupant. As the buzz increases to a normal level, I look about the room, and knowing no one, still feel a sense of connection.

The little coffee shop feels like a bit of home. When I order my daily brew, few words are required. They know my preferences, what I like, and they serve it up with a smile. Standing at the counter, watching them work, I can tell that they enjoy what they do, the interaction with patrons, friends, being part of the connection.

Through the bustle, the relaxing background noise, the comings and goings, I can sit back, breathe in the aroma of my coffee, jot notes and observations into my tablet, on the chance that I might be able to use them in a story. Then I have to laugh at myself when I come to the realization that this is the story, and while some faces are different, some the same, the story will change as the cast of characters change. I like being part of the story, and as I look around at the people focused on their keyboards, I wonder if they too feel like a part of the story, or even by chance, are recording their own version of events.

My little coffee shop will be there tomorrow, as will I, as will most of us, taking a timeout from our busy lives to look around and see the things that matter.

Itchy Brother

If you were a child growing up in the United States in the 1960s, and watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, then you’re familiar with, if not a fan of, King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. If, as an adult, you still watch cartoons on a Saturday morning, then you were not totally ruined by society. There’s still hope for you. My sister Sue and I collaborated on this story. Her handle is quiltysue.wordpress.com.

Itchy Brother

Leo was drunk. Again. He didn’t really need much of an excuse to get blasted, but having one, even if it were only Saint Patrick’s Day, helped to ease his guilt just a little. “Whoa! A few too many green beers” he muttered to himself, as he staggered out of Duffy’s, barely able to walk. “I guess I better get a cab home.” As he stumbled toward the curb, something, or maybe nothing at all, snagged the toe of his right foot, and before he could catch himself, he pitched headfirst into the street. The last thing he remembered was the squeal of tires on wet pavement, bright lights, then….nothing.

He woke up scratching. He itched, everywhere. He couldn’t remember a time when he had itched so badly. “Where am I?” he thought, as he picked himself up off the ground. He had no memory of the night before, except for a vague recollection of green beer and stale pretzels. But one thing he did know was that he had been wearing clothes, not dirty, flea infested fur. And he had been in the real world, not some crazy cartoon version. “I’m probably still drunk” he thought, as he tried to clear the fog from his head, which, now that he thought about it, felt like he’d just taken a Russel Wilson spiral right between the eyes.

But even though he might still be drunk, it didn’t change the fact that somehow, something had gone terribly wrong. Gathering his wits, what few he had left, he looked in both directions, randomly chose left, and began walking. The buildings all seemed crooked, out of kilter. And the street, wide enough right where he was, seemed to narrow, both sides converging to a point just ahead, an impossible display of  cartoon perspective. As he walked, the structures on either side of the street vanished, only to have new ones pop up to take their place. “Curiouser and curiouser” he thought to himself. “What have I gotten myself into this time? I gotta lay off the sauce. Next thing you know, I’ll be seeing talking animals, lions and rats and skunks.”

And as though the mere thought could create the reality, he found himself staring at an impossibly large, impossibly impossible skunk. “Don’t tell me. Let me guess. You’re Odie, and you’re here to take me to the King.” It sounded ludicrous. It sounded insane. But, if by playing along, he could get to the bottom of this nightmare, and back home, then that’s what he would do. At this point, he told himself, he had nothing to lose.

“Lead on, Maestro. Take me to your King.” Without a word, the skunk spun on his heels and marched up the street. Hurrying to catch up, head pounding, legs that were barely able to support him, he paid scant attention to the bizarre landscape on either side. Streets popped up, only to vanish as he drew abreast. Odd, absurd, caricatures of people and animals stared through him, as though he were not there, did not exist in their world. And maybe he wasn’t fully in their world, or his either, but somewhere in between. For sure, the skunk saw him, and was at that very moment, turning onto a broad avenue that led up to a palatial building, with huge double doors, and guards standing on either side. Idly, he wondered if getting stuck by a cartoon spear would hurt. Dismissing the notion, he scrambled up the stairs after the skunk.

One of the guards opened the doors, the other’s spear vanishing, to be replaced by a large, preposterous version of a trumpet, which he immediately placed to his lips, and issued forth a fanfare, announcing Leo’s arrival, and what he assumed to be an audience with the King.

He made his way unsteadily down the carpeted aisleway, only to be stopped ten feet short of the steps leading up to the throne. A sharp blow to the back of his legs with what he assumed to be a spear haft, brought him to his knees. “Kneel, huh? That’s what you’re looking for? Okay, I can do that.” So far, no one in this outrageously insane…place…he had no other word for it, had yet to utter a single word. Looking up at the figure on the throne, an animated, sketchy version of reality, Leo felt a sense of familiarity.

“Do I know you? Am I supposed to recognize you?” As the silence drew out, the figure on the throne studied him. “No, Leo, you wouldn’t recognize me. It’s been too long since the last time we met. You see, I’m you. You, before you lost yourself in a bottle. I’m what you were when life still mattered, before you had numb yourself just to face each day. Look at me Leo, and you will see yourself, as you were before your life spun out of control. Look in a mirror. Do you like what’s looking back at you? Which Leo do you want to be? You’ve got one more chance to get it right.”

As he fell to the floor, his head spinning, darkness pulling him in, his last thought was “I know what I want! I’ve always known. I was just too weak to hold on to it….”

Leo opened his eyes, then immediately closed them. The sunlight streaming through the window was blinding. Cracking them open, peering through slits, he began to take in his surroundings. Walls, a bed, windows with curtains. He breathed a sigh of relief as he realized where he was. “I’m in the hospital.” That was the first thought that came to him. “And I hurt. All over.” That was the second thought. Memories came flooding back, blasting his mind with visions, both real and fantasy. He now knew what had happened to him, and why, and he vowed it would never happen again. The doctor chose that moment to enter the room, clipboard in hand.

“Ah, Leo, you’re awake! It was a close thing my friend. I can’t believe you’re alive. I wouldn’t have bet on you, no matter the odds. I thought if the taxi cab didn’t kill you, the alcohol would have. But here you are! When they found you in the street, according to the taxi driver, you were clawing at your skin, as though you were trying to scratch yourself out of your clothes.”

Jake the Inventor (Test Flight)

“There! Almost got it” muttered the little snake as he tightened the last hold down screw for the framgadget in his new jetpack. “Now I just need to hook the torsion spring onto the flapcap, top off the tank with some go-juice, and it should be ready for a test flight.”

Jake the Snake, inventor, putterer, tinkerer and total science nut had been working on this project for months and was glad to finally be getting it off the ground. His new jetpack should let him soar above the treetops, fly over hill and dale, cruise the clouds, buzz the Ave, and other pretty cool stuff. Fueling was the final step before launch, but he had to be very careful. This wasn’t just any fuel. This was a specially refined, super concentrated, really potent derivative of lemon juice, and required the utmost care in handling. So powerful that the container was labeled CAUTION! EXTREMELY HIGH LEVELS OF CONCENTRATED, ENRICHED, FORTIFIED LEMON JUICE! FOR USE AS A FUEL IN JETPACKS AND CLEANING THE KITCHEN SINK ONLY!

“Fuel topped off, check! Flapcap shut, check! Little tiny straps for my little tiny snake body strapped on, check! Airbrake pressure up, check! Bailout Button handy, check! That should just about do it, except for one last thing.” His preflight checks complete, Jake placed a quick call to his best friend.

“Hi Prissscilla, Jake here. I’m just about ready for launch, all systems are go, and I’ve initialized countdown (Jake loved that kind of talk). I just wanted to let you know, in case anything goes wrong, that you can have the rest of my lemon jellied spiders, my scout compass, and my petrified fly collection. Oh yeah! And my specially modified backpack. You can have that too. (Jake still hadn’t been able to get the remnants of the lemon jelly out of it from his trip to Lost Lake.) Wish me luck!” And with that, Jake the Snake, inventor and would be test pilot, hit the launch button, juiced the jetpack, put the pedal to the metal, and let ‘er rip!

“This is really cool!” thought Jake as he climbed higher and higher, his house diminishing to a tiny speck far below. “I could get used to this…Whoa, what was that??!!” Jake just about hit something or something just about hit him. And whatever it was, another one was headed his way!

“Hey Buddy, watch where yer going! Ya durn near run me right off’n this here cloud!” said a big white bird with a long beak. “It’s a pelican!” thought Jake. “Susorry mister, I’m still getting the hang of this” said Jake, as politely as he could. “Wal, if ya don’t got wings then ya got no bizness flyin’ around up here. So scram! I’d tell ya to blast off, but it looks like ya already did, har har!” And just like that, the perniciously persnickety pelican was gone.

As Jake continued on his way, unaware of the gaggle of geese on his six (more pilot talk), he was startled by loud obnoxious honking. “Honk honk!” he heard. “Honk honk! Move over kid! If you can’t maintain the flow of traffic, then stay out of the fast lane!” said one particularly grouchy gray goose. “Great!” thought Jake, “a bunch of honkers. Might as well be on I-5 at rush hour.”

Moving to the right, allowing them to pass, his attention was drawn to a mockingbird in the slow lane. As he approached and drew up beside the bird, his ears were assaulted by raucous laughter. “Ahh you got no arms you got no legs, Runt. You got no feathers you got no wings. I bet your mother wears army boots.” Of course, Jake never knew his real mother, who had left him on the doorstep of his adoptive mother, the loving, kind, and generous Lemon Lady. But he’d bet a box of jellied spiders that she didn’t wear army boots. And for as long as he’d known Lemon Lady, not once had he seen her clomping around in such footwear.

Rolling his eyes as he passed the maliciously miscreant mockingbird, Jake thought “Man it’s more crowded up here than I would have thought. Oh well, I still have some testing to do.” Whereupon he hit the throttle, pulled back hard on the stick, and went into a barrel roll. “Yeehaw this is fun!” shouted Jake, and he did another, and another, and another. He did so many that he became dizzy and he blacked out! When he regained consciousness, he was plummeting earthward, straight down at full acceleration!

Jake frantically pulled back on the control stick, knowing he had only a few seconds until disaster struck. Pulling back with all his might, he finally seemed to be making some small progress when the stick broke off in his hand! “Rats!” thought Jake, “I knew I should have used something other than a stick to make the stick out of. Now what am I gonna do?” Thinking quickly, Jake realized he had only one option: The Bailout Button! “Here’s hoping I packed my parachute correctly” he thought as the harness fell away and he went from power dive to freefall.

Floating gently to earth, Jake was able to see his house below. Shifting his body weight to maneuver the parachute, he aimed toward his front yard. Looking down and seeing a small figure by the front gate, he thought “That looks like Prissscilla!” She was waiting at his house to meet him! “What an awesome friend!” he said to himself as he gently touched down.

“Jake! Jake! I was so worried! I saw you lose control of the jetpack and was afraid you wouldn’t make it down safely! Thank goodness you’re okay!” “Hi Prissscilla. Yes, it was a nerve-wracking experience, but us pilot types never panic. We must always remain calm and clear-headed in the face of the unexpected, so we can be prepared, and react decisively to any situation. But it does feel great to have my belly back on the ground. Say… is that a lemon jellied spider leg stuck to your chin?”