A Trickster Tale

In which Citizen Jim arrives to inform Chicken Sheets that her sister has played “the dirtiest trick in the book” on her before giving her the worst advice on how to turn the tables on ViDalia.

When I got home from work on Wednesday I fed the cats, closed all the blinds, took a hot bath, and made a very important call. I then silenced my phone, cut my fingernails (the better to strike my keyboard with), and sat down at my computer.

I was about to begin a very strange and exciting assignment: earlier in the day, my sister had asked me to write her a Citizen Jim story. It was hard to believe that one moment I was telling her I would send her a jar of pickles, and the next she was requesting her very own Citizen Jim story.

At first I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly, so I asked her to repeat her request a few more times. When I realized that she was saying what I thought she was saying, I asked her to say it a few more times (just so the sound of it would always be in my memory bank).

Finally, she got so frustrated that she said, “You know what? Never mind!”

The moment she expressed to me that she no longer wanted me to write her a Citizen Jim story, I knew I would have to write her a Citizen Jim story—and not just out of spite.

For the rest of the day at work, all I could think about was getting home to write that story for my sister. Every task I performed seemed like material that might somehow be used for my art.

Gathering mail for the residents; promising to bring the Chaplain some batteries for his flameless advent candles; making a lunch run to Subway; planning the next day’s Picklepalooza in celebration of National Pickle Day; reading with deep feeling and great comic timing from the Book of Exodus: it could all be run through the grist mill of my mind and fashioned into a rollicking tale of family and love, faith and valor, constipation and incontinence.

Despite my earlier excitement, I found myself staring at the blank computer screen for an hour, my fingers unable to strike a single key. Why wasn’t I making any progress? Fatigue? Nerves? Performance anxiety?

Thankfully, I didn’t have to let those thoughts take up space in my head for very long, as I heard a banging on the door so violent and forceful that it rattled the street-facing windows in my little Hobbit House and scared my cats. I knew it couldn’t be anyone but Citizen Jim, and I was so grateful to know he’d finally made it.

When I opened the door there stood my best friend and the person I love most in the world! He was wearing a red silk bathrobe covered in a black paisley print. On his feet (which were hairy and ape-like, not beautiful, as he always insisted) were a pair of black flip flops. He had a towel draped over one of his arms, and a pink plastic shower cap hugging his huge head.

“This better be life or death, Sister Kristy,” he said.

“Oh, thang God you’re here!” I said, grabbing the towel and dragging him toward the writing nook of my living room where my story was stalled out. “I need some help in the worst way.”

He winked and nodded. “I guess that therapist finally got fed up with all your whining and lying to yourself, didn’t she?”

I shook my head.

“I hope you didn’t give up on those drugs you’ve been taking so you won’t cry every time you read ‘September 1913’ by William Butler Yeats,” he said.

Therapy. Antidepressants. Wow! Only Citizen Jim would start with these things instead of working up to them.

“Again: I’m not talking about that kind of help,” I said.

“Now, see, when you told me you were buying a bottle of alcohol every time you went to Walmark, I thought you meant rubbing alcohol. Are you trying to tell me that you were actually talking about Riunite Lambrusco?”

“Why are you making this so difficult?” I asked.

He crossed his arms over his chest. “If you need money, I’m all tapped out,” he said, and closed his eyes. “That plane cost me a fortune.”

“What plane?”

He opened his eyes so that he could roll them at my question. “The plane I had to fly here when that special red telephone in my basement started blinking and ringing,” he said, sitting down and crossing his legs at the knee.

“Oh, dear. If you’d only—” I started.

He held up a hand to hush me. “Okay, I’ll be honest, I only flew that plane as far as Stapleton. Then I had to make an emergency landing in what turned out to be a marijuana field. And let me state for the record: it’s not easy to arrange an Uber ride in the middle of nowhere while you’re running for your life from a rowdy bunch of farmers—especially if those farmers are shooting at you with Civil War-era muskets and pesticide dusters.”

“I’m sorry, Precious Lamb. If you’d answered the special red phone in your basement when I called, I could have just talked to you about my problem,” I said.

“Well, I’m here, now, so you better hope this is the biggest problem you’ve ever had in your life, or I’ll be seeing you in court!”

“In court? For what?”

“For mental cruelty, pain and suffering, and restitution,” he said. “But go ahead. We can talk about settling out of court in a minute.”

I sat down in the chair beside his. “My problem’s not as big as it is just…weird,” I said.

“Big and weird?” he said. “I’ve already told you a million times, I’m not getting involved in your love life. End of story.”

He had never said any such thing to me. Citizen Jim always makes it a point to do the opposite of not getting involved in my love life whenever the opportunity presents itself—an opportunity which hadn’t arisen in nearly a decade, and will probably never arise again.

“I was talking to ViDalia today, and she made a strange request,” I said.

“I hope you did what I do whenever one of my family members makes a strange request,” he said.

I didn’t have to ask what that was. “No, I didn’t hang up on her,” I said.

“Ha! You could’ve saved yourself a heap of trouble if you had—and now it looks like you’re trying to drag me into it,” he said. “Which is extra terrible because you know ViDalia hasn’t ever forgiven me for making everyone watch Zodiac instead of going to that casino in Shorter when you and Miss Mabel came to Montgomery.”

“I doubt she’s thought about that in the last 10 years,” I said.

“Yeah, sure, but it happened more than ten years ago, so—”

“Can we get back to today’s problem?” I asked.

“Fine!” he said, ripping the shower cap off his head and flinging it across the room.

After sailing a short distance, it landed on top of my kitten Zelda. She fought valiantly to free herself but only ended up running around in such a way that the shower cap seemed to be moving of its own volition. That, in turn, brought Chrissy into the fray. While Chrissy chased a lumpy pink shower cap around my little Hobbit House, I tried hard to focus on the problem at hand.

“ViDalia asked me to write her a Citizen Jim story,” I said.

Citizen Jim leaned forward and squinted, cupping a hand around his ear. “Say again?” he asked.

“You heard me right. ViDalia claims she wants me to write her a Citizen Jim story,” I said.

“Obviously, it’s a trick of some kind,” Citizen Jim said, settling back into the chair.

“A trick?” I asked. “I don’t. Under. Stand.”

He dismissed my confusion by brushing the air with his fingers. “Oh, sure. It’s definitely a trick—and it’s the dirtiest one in the book,” he said, then cocked his head as if contemplating the truth of what he was saying. “Okay, it’s not as dirty as old Pharaoh changing his tune every time he told Moses and Aaron they could take all the Israelites out of Egypt in the first chapters of Exodus. It’s hard to beat that in the dirty tricks department.”

Well. Hard to beat if you weren’t working for Nixon in ’72. And besides: Pharaoh only went back on his word because God kept hardening Pharaoh’s heart against the Israelites. It really complicated things but made for a much better arc in the story, which, as we all know, led to a more powerful and satisfying outcome for Holy Moses and his people. (The Hooters just skimmed over this incident in the song “All You Zombies,” which I know, now, is a terrible shame.)

But yeah. Tricks!

My sister never asks me for anything. That she was asking me to write a Citizen Jim story for her was a little suspect, to say the least. I had to face it: if anyone knew how to play a trick on me, it was ViDalia. She’d been doing it my whole life.

Oh, those winter nights at our grandmother’s house when she would open the window of the room we shared—before yelling “FREEZE-OUT!” Then she’d throw off the covers and threaten to tickle me if I tried to get back under them.

One time she got bored while we waited for our mother to finish taking some kind of medical test at West Virginia University hospital and tricked me into telling a series of escalating lies to medical staff so that we could see the morgue. And okay, sure, we saw the morgue. In fact, we were given a tour of one of the exam rooms by the state medical examiner (a man with the improbable name of Jack Frost), but by the time we finally rejoined our mother—angry, worried, and then appalled when we explained where we’d been while she waited and waited and waited on us to meet back up with her after her exam—what had we actually accomplished?

Then there was the time ViDalia tricked me into buying a one-way plane ticket to visit Mom by promising to drive me back to Alabama at the end of my visit. When it came time to head south she suddenly—and completely and remorselessly—forgot that promise. On the last day of my visit, she and her friend Toni were herding me onto a Greyhound in Fairmont, West Virginia. That bus was bound for Mobile, Alabama, some 900 miles—and a thirteen-hour ride—away. (Thirteen hours by car, that is. By car! Not by bus!)

“And that was twenty-six hours of my life I’ll never get back!” I said to Jim after recounting my Nightmare Bus Story.

He nodded slowly. “Yeah, it’s a trick,” he said.

“Do you think she wants me to write a story she can pass off as her own to get attention on Facebook or something?”

She was certainly wallowing in a deep pool of borrowed glory gained from posting photos of my new kitten for all her social media friends to “Like” and comment on.

“Let’s not try to fool ourselves. If she wanted to pretend she’d written a story, why would she ask you, of all people, to write it? Doesn’t she know you’re a terrible writer?”

He made a very good point. “That’s a very good point,” I said. “But I don’t think she knows any other writers.”

“You’re probably right about that if she’s asking you for such a thing. I mean, it’s not hard to @StephenKing on Twitter and ask him if he’ll write you a personalized story!”

I shrugged.

“I think if she’s so hot for you to write a story for her, you ought to make it so she can’t pass it off as her own! Just talk about your lefty, Democratic Socialist, anti-fascist politics—that’ll get her attention and discourage any literary theft,” Citizen Jim said.

“Are you insane?”

“Oh, come on! It’s so soon after the election and so close to the holidays—doesn’t every family like to talk about politics and air their ideological grievances around the holidays?”

“No. Not a good idea,” I said. “She specifically asked me not to mention politics if I wrote her a Citizen Jim story.”

“Yeah, about that: how’d your sister even broach the subject about writing her a Citizen Jim story?”

“I honestly don’t remember,” I said. “We were talking about my cats and her hair and pickles, and then I told her I was going to send her some Wickles—those are Wicked Pickles. They’re made by company in Dadeville, Alabama. A few seconds later, apropos of nothing, she asked me if I would write her a Citizen Jim story.”

“Did you send her the pickles?” he asked.

“Sure I did, right after we got off the phone,” I said.

“Then you don’t need to write the story,” he said. “If you hadn’t sent her any pickles, I’d tell you to write the story or risk getting sued. But if you sent the pickles, you’re under no legal obligation to fulfill any further requests until some agreed-upon point in the future.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yep. Them’s the rules,” Citizen Jim said.

“Those are some very weirdly specific rules.”

Citizen Jim opened his arms and looked up at the ceiling. “Don’t tell me—tell the universe.”