The approach of a giant zucchini with legs sends rats scurrying in the dark alley between Heimlich’s Playhouse and Bessie’s Boardinghouse. The oversized vegetable pants for breath as it removes a satchel from across its shoulders, and its eyes, still used to daylight, adjust to the new surroundings. It wrinkles its nose at the smell of rotting food.
The photorealistic depiction of a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, four stories high, looms above on the brick of the antique theater. The relic of a 1938 promotional advertising campaign, the mural disappeared from the urban landscape two years later when a competing condensed-soup maker invested heavily in the construction of a tenement in the adjacent lot—fashioning the alley and forever sealing the now-faded artwork within. Although the rival corporation filed for bankruptcy a month after construction finished, the tenement remained. Walter Cogwell, the man in the zucchini suit, calls the tenement home and the theater work—for all their failings, at least he has a short commute.
Walter’s sweaty fingers reach into the satchel and emerge with a bulging Altoids tin, but lose their grip. The tin falls to the pavement and dozens of gritty cigarette butts erupt forth. Walter deftly produces a pair of tweezers from his pocket and drops to his knees, then spends the next three minutes carefully replacing all but one of the butts. He slides the tin back into his satchel and, holding the last stub, returns to a standing position.
After exchanging the tweezers for a matchbook from his pocket, he admires the sketch on the cover: a well-endowed mermaid, sitting upright in the curve of an oversized fishhook, beneath the italicized words Ladyfish Singles Palace: A Vegetarian Haven. The barbed end of the hook protrudes like a skewer through a stack of vegetable pieces, alluding to the made-to-order Palace Kebabs. In bold letters on the reverse side of the cover reads the slogan: We serve the veggies at our place—you serve the meat at yours!
Struck against a strip of seabed, the last match flares up and serves to light the cigarette butt. Walter brings the stub to his lips, inhaling the essence of garbage.
“So, you’re a vegetarian, too?” Her eyes lit up as she lifted a Palace Kebab to lips greasy from a heavy coat of magenta gloss. Biting off an especially tender piece of carrot, she chewed attentively.
Focused narrowly upon the woman’s lips, Walter started. “A vegetarian? I’m not ve—” Catching himself, he began again. “I’m not very keen on eating meat anymore.”
The lips parted and sound, a voice, emerged. “How long have you been—?”
“Maybe a year, since I started working at Heimlich’s Playhouse. I’m—a lead actor.”
The woman put her skewer down and donned a sultry expression. “Heimlich’s? Sounds kinky. Care to play at my house?”
His brow furrowed as the recollection of a forgotten obligation resurfaced.
Leaning in more closely, she unleashed a seductive whisper. “What’s wrong, honey? Cat-o’-nine-tails got your tongue?”
“I, er—I have rehearsal tonight.” Walter removed his napkin from his lap, rose abruptly, and strode toward the door.
Half an hour later, an elderly woman deposited a mahogany cane by the bathroom door and began to disrobe. “Are you ready for my weekly sponge bath, Walter?”
Standing by the bathtub, Walter winced in anticipation. “Yes, Mother.”
Still in the stifling zucchini suit, Walter leaves the alley behind. Sweat beads on his brow as he follows the sidewalk around to the front entrance of the theater. A pleasant breeze picks up, blowing a plastic shopping bag along the empty street.
The rustling bag draws Walter’s attention to something on the pavement, and he pauses just shy of his destination. With a glance around him, he searches his satchel again and stoops with his tweezers. “Hey, there! You look lonely.”
Satisfied, he deposits the remains of the newly-found cigarette stub into his Altoids tin and continues through the glass-paned double doors, ducking to avoid the decapitation of his zucchini suit.
She speared a piece of zucchini with her fork and lifted it to her mouth. “Don’t look so glum! He’ll be home any minute now.”
Ripples of red flowed outward as Walter let his spoon fall into his bowl of soup.
“His flight from Monte Carlo probably just got delayed a little bit. Your father will be happy to see how much you’ve grown.” Her eyes gleamed with anticipation.
Walter looked down. “Three years, Mom. Three years. Every night you still say the same thing, but he’s not coming back.”
She put her fork down. “If you’re suggesting that he simply ran off with the money—”
“Mom, you spent it on the wake!” He pushed out his chair and rose angrily. “And you never followed through with the settlement!”
“Nonsense! What good is a funeral when you’re not dead yet?” She glared at him. “And sit back down—you still have soup in your bowl.”
He ignored her and pulled open a cabinet. Rows of red and white lined the shelves. “We must have a hundred cans in there.”
“There’s plenty of other food in the house.” The fork pierced another chunk of zucchini and brought it to her mouth. “Like this zucchini. Or that cake I made last night.”
The cabinet door slammed shut. “A tomato soup cake! From that—_cookbook_. If it weren’t for the school cafeteria, I’d starve to death.”
She speared another piece of zucchini. “There’s no talking to you, Walter, is there?”
Whispers in the front auditorium seats precede the lilting of a sweet Irish brogue. “It would seem that we have a slight misunderstanding here. Please come down-stage, Mr. Cogwell.”
As he approaches the director cautiously, Walter shields his eyes from the painful glare of the spotlight.
The director continues. “Puccini, Mr. Cogwell. God alone knows how the hell you got that wrong, but the show is entitled An Evening With Puccini.” She licks her lips. “Did you see anyone else in the back in costume, much less a vegetative one? You could at the very least have worn something slightly bohemian.”
Walter’s shoulders droop in defeat.
“No wonder you’re only a lighting technician, Mr. Cogwell. We’ll see you at rehearsal, in said capacity, should you so desire.” She pauses briefly to nod to the figure seated beside her, then looks forward again and booms loudly: “Next!”
Awash in the glow of the spotlight, Walter holds his arms rigidly at his sides and bows.
The ceiling lights flickered. Walter glanced briefly upwards and picked up his loofah. As he reached for the faucet, a heavy knocking cut him short.
A gruff voice boomed from outside the door to his unit. “Mr. Cogwell? You in there?”
“Coming!” Grimacing, he slipped on his robe and started for the door, tying the sash as he walked.
Outside stood a short woman, about twenty years his senior, grasping a sheet of paper carefully. “Mr. Cogwell! You’re looking well. Is that terry cloth? Very nice, very nice.”
“Thanks, Bessie. Look, I know my rent is late again. I’ll have it to you when I get paid—three weeks, I promise.” He glanced down at the paper in her hand and frowned. “Please tell me that isn’t an eviction notice.”
“No such luck, my friend.” She held out the paper. “It’s about the situation.”
A cursory glance at the heading evoked a groan from Walter. “Maintenance issues? I suppose the hot water’s—”
“Out again,” completed the landlady. “I know—it’s strange how it seems to affect only your pipes. Some people have all the bad luck, I guess.” A dry chuckle escaped her throat. “The third time this year, too. I’ll get someone on it as soon as I can.” With a nonchalant shrug, she turned and started off down the hallway.
He shook his head and called after her. “Do you have some idea of when?”
A smug expression crossed her face as she looked back over her shoulder at him. “Three weeks. I promise.”
“Let me in, damn it!” Walter pounds on the front entrance to Bessie’s Boardinghouse, to no avail.
“Ah!” He hurries around to the back alley.
Humming a tune from an old Western under his breath, Walter moves a dented garbage can against the faded brick and climbs the teetering cylinder. “I’m in my back alley again, where—” He fumbles for words but, unable to conceive of anything to complete his musical endeavor, concludes with nothing more than a sigh. “`Only a lighting technician.’ Poppycock!” Within a minute he hoists himself onto the first level of the fire escape.
“What’s that racket?” An elderly woman pokes her head out from a top-floor apartment window and does a double take at the giant zucchini rapidly ascending, then ducks quickly back inside. After a moment, Walter hears a conversation through the window.
“Hon? A zucchini is coming up the ladder out there. A zucchini.”
“A giant zucchini. With legs. Just thought I’d let you know. Should I dial the authorities?”
Walter sucks in his breath.
“Sounds good. I’ll get the Mauser.”
A moment later the barrel of a rifle emerges from the window and moves from side to side as the octogenarian scans a now-empty fire escape through the scope. “Where’d it go?”
Secure in his apartment, Walter pants for breath and begins to rummage through a mass of sundries atop his dresser. A key finally separates itself from the mess and falls to the floor with a clink. Satisfaction dawns upon Walter’s face as he kneels to retrieve it.
Above, meanwhile, the rifle barrel slowly retreats back within the window, as the aged woman tries to console herself. “It would have made a lovely mounted trophy.”
Thick fog encroached upon a forest clearing where a lone figure knelt in the dirt and aimed a military-issue rifle at a square of paper stapled to a bale of hay.
The figure reloaded the rifle.
“Sergeant Cogwell? May I ask what you’re doing?”
Walter stood and spun around. “Lieutenant! Practicing—sir!”
The lieutenant extended his arm and gently pushed the barrel of the rifle away from his face. “You come out here every goddamned evening, Cogwell. You need to quit avoiding everyone else—it’s bad for morale. Stop playing with your gun and haul your sorry ass back to the mess hall. There’s soup tonight. The others are having a time of it around the table—probably talking about you.” The lieutenant glanced at the design drawn on Walter’s paper target and frowned. “Is that a fucking smiley face?” He shook his head in consternation. “I’m worried for you, Sergeant.”
Walter hesitated momentarily before responding. “What sort of soup, sir?”
“Aargh!” Walter struggles with the zipper on his zucchini suit, to no avail. Trapped in the stifling costume, he drops into a recliner and presses the power button on his television remote.
“Our top story tonight: members of Panduto Barena’s separatist movement have escalated a small strike at a processing plant into what some are calling The Great Nigerian Meatball Factory Uprising. With us now is Coalition Leader Panduto Barena himself, from an undisclosed—”
Walter changes the channel.
“Now we’re going to show you how to prepare body shots of macaroni and cheese for you and your partner to enjoy. First, you’ll need some elbow—”
Sigh. Walter changes the channel again.
The strains of a Southern drawl emerge from the television speakers. “Hey, y’all—watch this!” A man stands atop a cliff, large paddles attached to his arms like wings. He jumps—and flies, gracefully, down, down, down, until some power lines entrap him like an electrified net. The station cuts out.
We’ll be back in a minute!
Almost half a decade ago, a young woman wearing cloying perfume, a smile to match, a black bow tie, and not much else showed up at Walter’s door, waving her arms in circles. “Singing telegram!”
Walter gawked. “Singing telegram?”
“Echo!” She clapped her hands and spun in a circle, then repeated the gesture. “Your birthday is here—let’s all give a cheer!” Her maneuver complete, she teetered unsteadily as she regained her balance.
“What’s all this about?”
Her voice took on an air of irritation. “Let me finish!” She winked slyly.
“Shh! You’re thirty-and—and—” With some hesitation, her face assumed a blank expression and she stood motionless. “And one?”
A confused nod from Walter prompted her to continue. “Right. You’re thirty-and-one, so let’s have some fun!” Her voice rose in pitch as she said the word fun, which Walter liked somewhat, but he wondered how she would have continued the rhyme had he given her a different number.
“Who are you?”
She grinned mischievously. “Does it matter? Come with me!” she giggled, dragging him toward the couch and loosening her bow tie. An entranced Walter put up no resistance.
Elsewhere, at about the same time, an elderly woman seated herself in front of a rolltop desk and withdrew a ballpoint pen, one of many, from a canister that had once contained a stack of anti-hemorrhoidal wipes. Crimson ink flowed as she put the pen to a card with an image of a cake on the front.
Happy birthday, Walter! Your father will be simply delighted to see you in a couple of days once he returns from Monte Carlo. Please enjoy your singing telegram!
The woman let her gaze drift toward an invoice on the left side of the desk. She stared at it for a few seconds before returning her focus to the letter in front of her. The slightest traces of a smile crossed her lips.