My Dumbest Idea Yet

A Novel Novella in Chunks
by Chicken Sheets


My Dumbest Idea Yet: A Novel in Chunks by Chicken Sheets © Copyright 2024 Kristal Sheets. All rights reserved.

Published by Hoochie Koochie Press, an unincorporated entity which is the sole property of Kristal Sheets.

The written and graphic material or parts thereof in this publication may not be reproduced in any form, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—without prior written permission of the author, except as provided by United States of America copyright law.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, professions, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Also, however, the author tried to recreate events, locales, and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances the names of individuals and places may have been changed, as well as some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations, and places of residence.

Plus, some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Table of Contents





Chunk 0

Chunk 1

Chunk 2

This Is Not a Chunk  (By Citizen Jim)

Chunk 1.2 (Reprise)

Chunk 3

Chunk 4

Chunk 5

Chunk 6

Chunk 7

Chunk 8

Chunk 9

Chunk 10

Chunk 11

Chunk 12

The Final Exit—By Citizen Jim

The Gulf of Finland

The Wind-Up

Epilogue: Exit, Pursued by Kazimir


This is dedicated to the nation of Estonia and to the Gulf of Finland, without either I never would have been able to end this story.


Before I ask you to invest your time and brain cells in a project in which I invested my time and brain cells, it’s only fair that I should explain what, exactly, you’re going to experience.

This was my first-ever attempt to write a novel using the characters created for the Citizen Jim Stories by Chicken Sheets, a series of nearly 200 short and short-short stories that I’ve been writing for more than 20 years.

It never became a novel, just a novella—and barely that, if you consider its paltry page count.

I published it in serial form on a microblogging platform from which I have since extricated myself and my other work due to said platform’s refusal to kick Nazi and White Nationalist publishers to the curb.  There’s always a cry of “free speech” when something like this happens, but the squeaky wheel wanting the oil is never decent people who hate fascists and would gladly kill fascists if needed during a replay of WWII sometime in the future, even though it would be more like the Civil War vis-à-vis brother killing brother, son killing father, etcetera.

My Hopes—Dashed

I had joked that this would be the most important serialized work since Germinal by Émile Zola. I pretended that I wanted it to mark a new and wondrous voice in fiction with an X as big as Whatever by Michel Houllebecq. You will, I feel sure, eventually realize that I’m not smart enough to have actually read Germinal or Whatever in the original French.

Anyway. Let’s just say: My Dumbest Idea Yet was never supposed to be important. The work you are about to begin reading will not be assigned and studied for hundreds of years in classrooms on Earth and in classrooms on whatever planets we manage to colonize right before we completely destroy this one.

Redeeming Qualities of This Work?

When you read My Dumbest Idea Yet, you will see the times in which it was created reflected back to you through a warped kaleidoscope of action and dialogue.

You will come to understand the motivations of writers and of middle-aged spinsters, as well as the messiness of the creative process. On full display in this story: the horror of the blank page, false starts, and brilliant ideas that come to nothing.

You will hope never to develop plantar fasciitis.

There is always panic when an author feels as though her story is slipping through her fingers and out of her control. This panic—shown, not told, in this tale—will become palpable to the reader.

The ugly will become beautiful, and the beautiful will become less trustworthy.

No one who reads story will ever doubt the ease with which a person can become lost on the road never traveled.

There are so many things I could say before the story begins to prepare you for what is to come. But no matter what happens, please know: I mean you no harm.


For a decade or so I was in almost constant contact with Real Jim, who became the model for Citizen Jim. We became fast friends and stayed that way. One of us was rarely seen without the other. We worked together. Then we’d call each other after work. Then, on most weeknights, we hung out some more before our days were through.

In 2000—finally safe from the Y2K tragedy that never happened and with a few months left to prep for the start of the 21st Century—I moved back to my home state of West Virginia. There were an untold number of things I was glad to leave behind me but my close, sibling-like relationship with Jim and all the antics it entailed was not one of them.

To think that Jim wouldn’t be around to run across a room and tackle me? Knowing that I could no longer anticipate his waiting for an eyewitness and then putting me in a headlock and pretending to punch me? All of this was inconceivable to me.

And, so, after going back to live with my mother until I found a new job, a new life, I wrote “Gentlemen Callers,” which is the first Citizen Jim story I ever wrote.

“Gentlemen Callers” mixes Jim’s pretend violence, pseudo jealousy, and non-existent pettiness, while also exaggerating many forms of pseudo-crazy-talk. The story was, in essence, a twisted wish-fulfillment as I tried to cope with missing my best friend.

When I wrote “Gentlemen Callers,” I had no idea there would ever be a second story about Chicken Sheets and Jim “The Cheeseburgler” Gilbert (who only became Citizen Jim later). But when the second story came to mind I let it come out. It gave me something to do with my creativity and made me feel better about not seeing Jim every day, and that was a good thing. A third story popped out of my head, then another here, another there.

I never knew when (or if) another story would come into my mind. Sooner or later, though, something would fizz and bubble inside me and I would start typing—or writing, depending on where I happened to be—that first sentence. The beginning of a story almost always mentioned the day of the week, and sometimes observed what the weather was like at that moment before I would begin recounting some event that had nominally triggered the desire to tell a Citizen Jim story.

It was for this reason that I never, ever dated the stories when I wrote them. I thought each one I wrote was probably the last one, and who cared, anyway? Not even Jim, and he was one of the main characters.

If I started writing the stories because I missed Jim, I continued writing them because they flushed the creative sludge out of my brain and kept me “writing” when I wasn’t writing.

Looking back, I suppose I’ve used the Citizen Jim Universe as a sort of writing lab and playground, a diary, and, from time to time, a zero-cost therapy session. Pretty much everything that has made me happy, sad, scared, angry, self-righteous, or belligerent over the last two decades had made its way into these stories.

If it could be called such, this “body of work” has evolved—over time, whether helpful or not, whether I like it or not—into a secret and precise point-counter-point of my endless self-talk. Even now, as I write this, I can almost hear the voice of Citizen Jim in my head revving up his disagreement engine, preparing to challenge every truth I feel I’ve told in the last 600 or so words.

And now I see him coming at me, a look of anger and perturbation clouding his face. Any second he might say, “Would you please hurry it along! This is getting into time!”

Gotta go!

(Cue cartoonish “fast getaway” sounds.)

Chunk 0

Time is running out for Chicken Sheets to post her first installment of the serial she hopes will form a novel.

It was Tuesday morning, the day I was going to launch the first-ever novel-length Citizen Jim Story by Chicken Sheets, and I was just giving some last looks and edits to the preface that would kick off a serial of an indeterminate number of installments.

I thought it was a no-brainer that the story would need a preface since many people who started reading it without having read any Citizen Jim Stories by Chicken Sheets might be a little confused.

If they got confused, they might stop reading.

And if subscribers to the publication stopped reading before I even shared the actual first chapter of the publication, I knew I would have to count myself as the biggest failure alive.

Then, of course, I would have to take a hammer to my computer, quit my day job, buy a wig, and head to Mexico to become a drug mule. That’s all I would be fit for.

The clock was running out on me, as I had to leave for work at 8:00. I needed to schedule the release of the first chunk of my story for some time that day. If I put it off too long I might lose my nerve.

If I lost my nerve before releasing even one part of the story, I’d be too scared to write a second part. Once again, I’d probably end up a drug mule in Mexico if this happened. And the more I thought about being a drug mule, the less suited I felt I’d be for the job.

When I glanced at the clock and saw that it was 7:59, I panicked.

Was it possible to explain in 60 seconds the genesis and expansion of a collection of 200 short stories featuring a fictional version of my friend Jim and a fictional version of myself and a fictional version of our friendship and fictional reactions to the all-too-real world that couldn’t stop being a dick for five minutes?

I was just about to tell myself this wouldn’t be possible when I heard the most god-awful banging on my front door since the time I put a box of Yorkshire Gold teabags on the front porch of the fit bloke from Winchester, England, who lives next door to me.[1]

I was pretty sure it wasn’t the fit bloke from Winchester’s “feisty” wife beating on my door, so I thought it would be safe to open up and see who was out there. Once I opened the door, I knew this assessment of the situation was only half-right.

There stood Citizen Jim, my best friend and the person I love most in the world! He looked as panicked as he might if someone whispered in his ear that the government was planning to cut down Walden Woods and turn it into a go-cart track and firing range.

He shoved me from behind. “Get inside! Hurry!”

I did as he said. Even after I closed the door I was still trying to wrap my head around his outfit on this hot summer morning.

It was already 90 degrees by 8:00, but for some reason Citizen Jim was dressed in a three-piece suit: the jacket, the vest, and the trousers. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and he wasn’t wearing any type of tie. Thick tufts of ape-like hair were struggling to stay as much inside the vest as possible. His clothing appeared to be made out of wool. I reached out to touch his arm and found that his jacket was made out of wool.

He smacked my hand away. “Don’t mess with my threads. I borrowed this suit from a guy at the funeral home who owes me a favor,” he said. “I wanted to look sharp just in case I can’t talk you out of this madness.”

He was one to talk about madness, showing up in such a silly outfit. These days he was sporting very short bangs that looked pasted to his forehead like a series of toothbrush mustaches. Knowing Citizen Jim, he might have shaved hair off of his chest and his ape-like arms to fashion into bangs with the help of an adhesive spray. For some reason, he was wearing brown wingtip shoes without any socks.

To make everything as terrible as possible, he smelled like he’d filled a bucket with Old Spice cologne before asking someone to climb on a chair and dump the whole thing over his head.

I wasn’t brave enough to ask about any of this. And I was more than pressed for time.

“I can’t talk right now. I have to go to work,” I said.

“You better grab your phone and call in sick, Missy,” he said. “We got something important to discuss.”

I tilted my head and squinted at him, scrunching up my nose at the same time. “Do we?” I asked. I grabbed my computer bag and my car keys. “Can we do it later?”

“No, we can’t do it later!” he said. “I’ve got to have these clothes back to that undertaker by noon for a 1:00 viewing.”

The last thing I wanted on my conscience was delaying some poor man’s funeral, so I put my bag beside the door and shoved my keys into my pocket. I made a scoop of my hand and waved it in the direction of my living quarters. “Go on. I can listen for five minutes,” I said.[2]

“Are you seriously going through with this nutty idea?” he asked.

Citizen Jim has considered pretty much every idea I’ve ever had to be “nutty,” but I usually had some notion about which idea he was calling nutty. This time, however, I was stumped. I told him so.

“Oh, of course! You have no idea what I’m talking about, even if I’m talking about that stupid, stupid Citizen Jim novel you want to write,” he said.

This was certainly a shock. He’d been imploring me to write a Citizen Jim novel for ten years. Until now I never felt I was in the right headspace to write a novel.

“But didn’t you make the suggestion to me back in 2013, during my annus horribilis?” I asked.

“I’m not here to talk about your undiagnosed skin diseases, woman! I’m mad as hell that you didn’t give me a heads-up about this novel-writing nonsense,” he said. “If you must do this ghastly thing, are you at least going to use the title I gave you all those years ago?”

I sighed and shook my head. “I have got to go!” I said.

He didn’t care. He threw his hands in the air and said, “You’re not going to get a better title than that one. I’d bet this dead man’s suit on that.”

“I’m sure you’re right. How did you say I should spell it?” I said.

I knew the exact title he was talking about. I was just trying to make him think I forgot—to prove the point that it wasn’t a very memorable title for a novel.

“You can’t spell the words ‘gorilla’ and ‘crap’ but you think you can write an entire book?” he said and started laughing.

Non-plussed, I said, “Well, I’m going to try! No matter how much you whine and complain and rend your garments and gnash your teeth,[3] I won’t rest until this Citizen Jim novel is written and published and then picked up by Amazon Prime or Netflix as the basis of an animated series on par with…I don’t know! Maybe it’ll be as good as ‘The Simpsons!’ Or ‘The Groovie Goolies!'”

“Good luck with that, you deluded fool!” He shook his head as his laughter died to a chuckle. “I gotta admire your enthusiasm, even if it’s just to spite me.”

“So you’ll give this project your blessing?”

“I said nothing of the kind! I’m sure you’ll fall flat on your face the way you do with everything you try,” he said. “But I have to say! I’m pretty excited to watch the whole disaster unfold from the best seats in the house!”

The instant he declined the opportunity to condemn the entire project in order to revel in my impending failure, I knew this Citizen Jim Novel in Chunks was truly My Dumbest Idea Yet.

Chunk 1

In which our story begins using third person limited point of view to introduce Chicken Sheets and her withering literary ambitions. Then a famous dead poet appears at the foot of her bed.

Chicken Sheets was seated at her desk, a pad of paper in front of her. She gripped a Pilot G-2 mechanical pencil in her right hand.[4]

She was ready. She was ready for the words to come, to travel from her brain into her arm and then to her fingers and from her fingers to the pencil poised above the paper.

She wasn’t even sure why she thought the words should spill out of her mind so easily. Menopause had robbed her of many things, but the worst loss she’d suffered during her change-of-life nightmare was the inability to concentrate, to stay engaged. Her attention span had shrunk so that it was the size of a grain of sand—this after only being the size of a grain of rice for most of her life.[5]

This is why the normal means of generating ideas for her writing were lately failing her. Over the years she’d developed the habit of reading articles or watching television shows and YouTube videos while writing down any snippet of prose or narration or dialogue that caught her attention. Sometimes it wasn’t what she was hearing but what she was seeing that made it into her notes. Either way, she usually described her reaction very briefly, and later fleshed out the thumbnail sketch with details of her invention.

If no outside stimuli could keep her interested for more than five minutes in the cursory preparation for writing a single note, it went without saying that her sources of internal stimulation were suffering.

This made it difficult to ascertain why Chicken Sheets decided—seemingly on a whim, but actually after more than a decade of pondering it—to write the longest Citizen Jim Story ever. In her mind, this goal took the form of a “novel,” though she had no idea if such an endeavor could be sustained for the length of time required to begin and finish it.

Time constraints and lack of focus and the aforementioned inability to refill the shallow well of creative inspiration seemed likely to conspire in their efforts to derail her ambitions.

The vagueness of those ambitions made failure seem even more likely. The possibility of failure made Chicken Sheets increasingly reluctant to undertake the quest to write a Citizen Jim novel.

Realizing how reluctant she was to begin the project infected her brain with a fever to denounce any and all dreams of writing a novel-length story. She laid down her pencil, shoved the tablet of paper off to the side, and thought about taking a nap.

And why not? Sleep was the place where the impossible and the possible were both worthless concepts, where success and failure were ashes scattered to the wind. Sleep was where nothing was, and nothing was the strongest desire in the heart of Chicken Sheets.

She lay down, closed her eyes, and waited to be embraced by the void. The void wasn’t surprised to see her. They were old friends.

“And darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

When she awakened, there was an old man in a tweed suit seated on an ottoman at the foot of her bed. He turned to face her just as her eyes were opening, and when she could finally focus she saw that he wasn’t smiling. She also noticed that he looked exactly like—

“T.S. Eliot?” she asked, sitting up so quickly that she frightened one of her cats, who leaped off the bed and climbed a nearby curtain.

The man at the foot of the bed stopped frowning, but he still wasn’t smiling. “Don’t quote me in this load of dreck,” he said, referring to Chicken Sheets’s use of a line in Choruses from the Rock in the paragraph before she woke up.

“Oh,” was all she could say.

“I do not wish for my words to get thrown into the literary carbuncle of an unpublished amateur,” he said.

If she hadn’t been sure, now she knew it was Eliot, as this man was speaking in the slow, sepulchral tones easily recognizable from recordings of Eliot reading from his work. Chicken Sheets wondered if she should offer him some tea, but before she could make her lips move in tandem with her brain, he was gone.

One cat was still clinging to the curtain while the other was frantically sniffing the spot where T.S. Eliot had been sitting.

Even so, Chicken Sheets decided that she was still asleep. If she were still asleep, the appearance of T.S. Eliot must have been part of a dream—a dream which had now inspired her to create a character named Elliott Carbuncle.

If such a thing were possible, she knew she must wrench herself from the sleep which had aided in her dreaming and also in her creating a new character named Elliott Carbuncle.

Also, she needed to investigate what seemed a violent attack on her front door.

Chunk 2

In which Chicken Sheets investigates the violent attack on her door at the end of Chunk 1.

Because I didn’t have time to stretch my feet and pull on my tennis shoes the way I’m supposed to before I get out of bed, I made my way to the front door like the Frankenstein monster, walking awkwardly on the heels of my feet.[6]

“Who’s there?” I asked, finally resting both of my feet on the brick floor and laying my forehead against the cool wood of the door.

“Who wants to know?”

It was Citizen Jim.

I’m not sure why I didn’t know instinctively that whoever was beating on my front door with their fists (or kicking my front door with steel-toed boots, or hitting my front door with a sledgehammer) at this ungodly hour of the day wouldn’t be Citizen Jim.

“Do you know what time it is?” I asked.

“I thought it was about 4:30 in the morning, but now I think it’s time you got a damned watch,” he said. “Open up!”

I unlocked the door and pulled it open, trying to look very angry, but it was hard to hide my happiness at seeing Citizen Jim! He’s my best friend and the person I love most in the world.

“Hi,” I said.

“I don’t like this!” he said, fanning his hands forward, the universal signal for “move along so I can get through.”

“What’s the matter now?” I asked, walking behind Citizen Jim into my living quarters.

He sat down at my desk and leaned toward my computer, squinting at the screen. “I don’t like how this story started,” he said. “Why would you start writing a Citizen Jim novel in third person limited point of view? It’s not right! Even the Citizen Jim stories that I allegedly wrote were in first person!”

“I’m sorry! I got panicked because I was running out of time again,” I said. “And that’s just how the narrative started coming out of my head.”

He turned around and scowled at me. “Then you better stuff that narrative in your ears and crank it back out with a first-person point of view! My reputation is on the line here, and I’m not gonna let you finish me off after all these years. I’m the survivor! Me, not you! Me!”

“I guess that’s why I thought you’d be happier with third-person—something more objective,” I said.

“I still don’t like it,” he said. “It needs to be like the stories.”

“Okay, but by your own admission over several decades, you hate the stories. So I don’t know how I’m supposed to—”

“I do hate the stories. And I hate this novel,” he said, turning back to the computer before spinning around a second later to face me again, his index finger raised high above his head. “However! I can’t control a wild animal like you. You’re going to do whatever you want no matter who you hurt or what you destroy or how idiotic you make yourself look. So that can only mean one thing.”

“What can it only mean?” I asked.

I dreaded hearing what the one thing was. Unfortunately, I was so tired! I just wanted him to leave!

“If I let you tell me what that one thing is, will you leave so I can go back to bed?” I asked.

“Ha! Nice try! No way am I gonna let you go back to bed! Not when there’s so much work you need to be doing on this stupid book!”

He shoved himself away from my desk and stood up, swiveling the chair around and pointing at the seat. “Plant your buns right there, Miss Lady, and get busy fixing the first chapter of this novel,” he said. “And then if I like the direction you’re going, I might give you my approval to continue.”

“There are no chapters in this book,” I said. “I’m calling it ‘a Novel in Chunks’.”

“Did you ever hear that joke about the guy who got drunk and blew chunks?” he asked.[7]

I guess I wasn’t thinking—because I immediately answered Citizen Jim with sass. “Do you want to tell me jokes or do you want me to fix the first chunk of this novel so you can inspect it?”

“Well well well! Look who’s finally learning to stand up for herself!” he said. “I’m real proud of you, Stimpy.”

“Really?” I asked, smiling.

“Hell no!” he shouted. “Now get busy. While you’re doing that, I’ve gotta go back to Mama’s and make sure the TV is on whatever channel she watches that damned morning show on. Then I’ve gotta poach her some eggs, squeeze oranges for her carafe of juice, and cook some prunes. I don’t think she hates anything more than cold prunes!”

“How many oranges do you have to squeeze to get enough juice for a whole carafe of juice?”

Citizen Jim snorted and shook his head. “Don’t I wish she only wanted one carafe!” he said. “But let’s put it this way. If I don’t find a way to raise some cash to buy an electric juicer, I’m gonna hafta get a second surgery for my carpal tunnel.”

“I can loan you some money,” I said.

“You just worry about your re-writes,” he said. “I’ll worry about laying my hot little hands on some money.”

“Okay, but if you change your mind, just—”

“Zip it up and start typing!” he yelled and left.

I glanced over at my bed and decided that maybe I should lie down for a few minutes—just to rest my eyes, of course. Then I’d be ready to tackle Chunk 1 again.

This Is Not a Chunk
(By Citizen Jim)

I’m just trying to defend myself!

Chicken Sheets thinks she’s being so funny, but I’ve got news for her: she better call her lawyers and ask how hard they think she’ll be laughing when I wrest control of this stupid book right out of her grubby little paws and make it worth reading!

Why shouldn’t I? If she’s just going to lie down on the job and sleep through all the heavy-lifting, why shouldn’t I be in charge?

I’m just being honest. You better hope and pray I can take over, or you’re going to fall asleep. If you manage to stay awake, your brain will be plundered and damaged to such a degree that you will never be in your right mind again.

If you think I’m full of it, you’re right. Well, let’s put it this way: I’m full of something, but it’s not shit like Chicken Sheets. I’m full of concern for you and your well-being. Now. You can ignore that concern and go on reading this crap, or you can repay my kindness and good will by conceding that I have better sense than Chicken Sheets, and because I have better sense than Chicken Sheets I should be in charge of this entire project.

Let’s touch base later. I’ll be at the Ravenite ordering some pizza for us. (I hope you like pineapple and anchovies!)


Chunk 1.2 (Reprise)

In which Chicken Sheets pretends she is going to rewrite Chunk 1 to make Citizen Jim shut up and leave.

I was seated at my desk, a pad of paper in front of me. I gripped a Pilot G-2 mechanical pencil in my right hand.

I was ready. I was ready for the words to come, to travel from my brain into my arm and then to my fingers and from my fingers to the pencil poised above the paper.

I wasn’t even sure why I thought the words should spill out of my mind so easily. Menopause had robbed me of many things, but the worst loss I’d suffered during my change-of-life nightmare was the inability to concentrate, to stay engaged. My attention span had shrunk so that it was the size of a—

And if Citizen Jim thought I was going to go through the entire first chunk of this story and change all the pronouns just to suit his vision of what this novel should be like, he was as crazy as a shithouse rat.

But it was good to know so early on what I was going to be up against to keep this narrative going and get this novel finished.

Later in the day, when I found the time to call my friend Pinkie Mosconi and tell her about my encounter with Citizen Jim that morning, she made a suggestion. “Just call Elliott,” she said. “That’s what I would do. And he’s not real expensive. That’s what I heard, anyway.”

“Who’s Elliott and what does he do?” I asked.

“Elliott Carbuncle! He’s Tommy Carbuncle’s brother,” she said.

“Who’s Tommy Carbuncle?” I asked.

“Uncle Carbuncle? You know! Uncle Carbuncle,” she said.

I guess my silence told her I had no idea what she was talking about.

“Haven’t you ever seen Uncle Carbuncle on DoobTube?”[8]

“No. What’s DoobTube?”

I didn’t sigh or scream, but I was getting very impatient with what I thought would be a simple call with a few quick words of advice that might solve all my problems.

“How am I seventy years old and know more about what’s going on in the world than a person twenty years younger?” she said. “DoobTube is a website where people upload videos of stupid things they do while they’re high.”

“Never heard of it,” I said.

“I watch it all the time with my grandkids,” she said. “Uncle Carbuncle’s one of the top stars on DoobTube. He gets something like a hundred million hits on every video—usually he’s just doing pottery, but the more pot he smokes, the funnier that pottery is. I won’t lie, it’s even funnier if you’re high when you watch it.”

 “So you think a guy who gets high and makes stupid videos can help me with this Citizen Jim situation?” I asked.

“No, I said Elliott Carbuncle can help you, not Tommy. Tommy, the guy that does the videos, he’s Elliott’s brother,” she said.

“Okay, then how is Elliott Carbuncle supposed to help me?”

“He’s an attorney—a good one, too,” she said.

“Have you ever used him?”

“No, but Uncle Carbuncle’s never done an hour of jailtime and those videos he makes are always getting shown in court by the prosecutors,” she said, “and Elliott Carbuncle is Uncle Carbuncle’s attorney.”

“I’ll look him up,” I said. “I just feel so guilty thinking about dragging Citizen Jim to court over something like this.”

“Up to you,” Pinkie said. Then she said, “Hey, come over! We’ll get high and watch Uncle Carbuncle videos!”

There was nothing on Earth—no amount of money, not even the best marijuana in the world—that could make me get high and watch Uncle Carbuncle videos on DoobTube.

“That’s so tempting, but I really need to keep working on this story,” I said. “Maybe next weekend!”

I would make sure I was working then.

Chunk 3

In which Chicken Sheets gets help from an attorney concerning her dumbest idea yet. It involves recycling fiction, watching book trailers, and participation in a readers’ poll.

By Monday morning I still hadn’t reopened the document I’d saved several weeks before with “Chunk 3” written at the top of it. Who knows what I was planning to write at the time. I certainly had no idea—not now and not then. That’s probably why I stopped after typing “Chunk 3.”

In fact, I wouldn’t have thought about any of this if I hadn’t received a text message from Citizen Jim that said, “Listen to your voicemails!”

When I listened to my voicemails, he’d left me one that said, simply, “Go and check your mailbox!”

I went to the mailbox and pulled out several envelopes through which I sifted. Credit card offers, an Alumni newsletter from a college I’d never heard of, an invitation to a neighborhood street party. (“Food truck! Karaoke! Piñatas! Frog Jumping! Mullet tossing! Bear wrestling!” I made a mental note to be out of town that weekend.) Finally, at the bottom of the pile, underneath the utility bill, there was a pink envelope with two words—READ THIS!—scrawled on it.

I knew this to be Citizen Jim’s handwriting (he didn’t even try to make it neat), and tore open the envelope. Inside was a half-sheet of notebook paper that said, “CALL ME!” This was also written in a barely legible scrawl, so despite the fact that it wasn’t signed I knew this message was definitely from Citizen Jim.

While the phone was ringing in my ear, I felt like I was at the long-awaited end of an exhausting snipe hunt. Citizen Jim wasn’t answering so I decided to leave him a message. However, his outgoing voicemail message said, “If this is Chicken Sheets, don’t bother waiting for the tone! Just go look under your toaster oven!”

I went back inside and lifted the toaster oven high enough to snatch an index card from under it.

“Can’t make it Tuesday! Can’t tell you why! TOP SECRET! Don’t ask for details!”

This was in reference to the next installment of the Citizen Jim novel, My Dumbest Idea Yet. If Citizen Jim didn’t come, how was I supposed to write a new chunk of the story?

Then I wondered if this was all a trick Citizen Jim was playing so that he could make good on his threat to “take over” the story from me.

What a horrible thought, I thought.

I imagined what would happen if he took over the story. More cussing, for sure. More violence. He’d find a two-story building downtown in Fairhope and strongarm the owners into letting him pontificate from the balcony.

He’d tell everyone what a horrible friend I am, what a terrible writer I am, how I couldn’t maintain control of my own story. He’d ask rhetorically, “Have you ever heard of anyone so weak and lazy that they couldn’t keep—or even try to keep—a fictional character from overpowering them and running off with their plot?”

Once he got tired of abusing me, it only stood to reason that he’d start abusing the readers. This was what sent a chill up my spine. I wouldn’t want that to happen to one person, let alone three or four people, the number I thought might be reading My Dumbest Idea Yet.

I panicked. I was so freaked out that I feared my nose might start bleeding. (This despite the fact that I’ve never had a nosebleed in my life. But it seemed suitably dramatic and weird enough for the occasion.)

I pulled myself together long enough to call Elliott Carbuncle, the lawyer my friend Pinkie Mosconi had suggested I contact in the previous chunk of this story.

Once I explained my issue to him, he said I needed to get down to his office right away. “Don’t waste another minute! Come now!” he said with much feeling and, I thought, concern for my situation.

I pulled on some pants and struggled into a shirt and my shoes while trying to brush my teeth. When I got to Carbuncle’s office downtown, there was a lot going on.

People were shouting, two or three phones were ringing. Someone had on what sounded like “The Facts of Life” at a strangely high volume and I heard a referee whistle from some far-off room.

A woman was running in and out of the reception area crying and saying to a young man seated at a computer, “Please hurry! Oh please! Please hurry!”

A man wearing Hawaiian-themed swimming trunks, flipflops, and a Jimmy Buffet t-shirt[9] walked toward me smiling. “Chicken Sheets?” he asked.

I nodded.

He thrust out his hand and smiled. “Elliott Carbuncle. Sorry about all this,” he said, and swiveled his head around to indicate the noisy, chaotic waiting area. “I just got a tip we’re about to get raided by the SEC and the FBI and probably the ABA. That’s why I told you to hurry. We’ve gotta get out of here in about fifteen minutes or the feds’re gonna round us up and take us to jail and then disbar me.”

I’m sure the look on my face said everything I couldn’t say, because he tried to assure me: “No, it’s all right. I did some research into your problem before you got here. It’s complicated, that’s for sure. I’m not an intellectual properties attorney, but I think I found a solution.”

The crying woman ran by us, still crying, and said, “Oh God! Oh God! Please! Please! Please!”

My eyes followed her around the room.

“Don’t worry about Jeanne. She thinks this is all her fault—probably because I told her it’s all her fault,” he said. “It’s not, but I’m gonna let her squirm. That’s what she gets for bullying everyone in the office for fifteen years.”

He looked at his watch. I said, “Look, I can come back.”

Elliott Carbuncle laughed. “You can come back but there’s not gonna be anyone here–I’m flying to Estonia, then taking a ferry across the Gulf to see if I can’t bunk up with one of my ex-wives and her girlfriend in Finland til this blows over,” he said. “But here’s what you need to do. If you don’t have a new chunk Tuesday, just post an old Citizen Jim Story. If you don’t have one the Tuesday after that, post another old story. Keep doing that until you have a new chunk.”

As Sherlock Holmes might say, it was simplicity itself![10]

“Thank you!” I said.

“No problem,” he said, glancing again at his watch and wincing. “And all things considered, I’d prefer you pay me in cash.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling stupid for not asking about his rates, since Pinkie insisted he was very reasonable. “What do I owe you?”

“Usually I’d charge you about $500, but today I’ll take $450.”

If there hadn’t been so much pandemonium assaulting me from all sides at that moment I’m sure I would have blacked out. On my way to the ATM at the bank across the street I thanked God I couldn’t engage him for more than five minutes.

I also couldn’t believe how much my own laziness was costing me.

I pushed all those thoughts aside as I tried to decide which old Citizen Jim Story I would post.

It only took a few seconds for lightning to strike.

If I needed more time to further compose My Dumbest Idea Yet, I would reward the patience of my subscribers with an older Citizen Jim Story by Chicken Sheets—but a super-long story, not just a regular-sized story.

So far so good! However: which one?

There are three Citizen Jim stories with a word count exceeding 5,000:

  • “Yo! Broccoli!”
  • “Bitter Belly”
  • “October Surprise”

Their length makes it hard to sum up each story in a pithy, one-sentence blurb. Maybe the readers should be allowed to decide, I thought. Maybe I should let them choose.

Maybe I could give them a link to watch book trailers for these titles.

Maybe after they watched the trailers they could make a democratic decision that I would carry out no matter what.[11]

Chunk 4

In which Chicken Sheets engages in a lot of thinking and very little action—until she hears the sirens.

On Saturday morning the very last thing I wanted to do was go to work, but that’s what had been forced onto my agenda for the day.

I thought about simply not going. I wouldn’t even call in sick. I’d just stay home.

And when my supervisor contacted me and asked what the hell was going on and why I never showed up to work, I would say—and he would believe me because I’m right on the buckle of the Bible Belt—I would tell him I didn’t think it wise to leave my house when the New Testament is so clear about not knowing when the Lord will return to Earth for the righteous.

I’d say I wanted to be ready for that, just in case Jesus wanted to take me. I was sure he’d be okay with it at least once.

I mean. Wouldn’t he?

I started second-guessing myself and thought about my rent and the utility bill, not to mention Chrissy’s insulin and insulin needles from the vet.[12] Though I still had no desire to go to work, I also had no desire to be fired and then fall back into the trap of poverty out of which I’d finally—after 52 years in its sharp, steel teeth—lifted myself to a degree that might seem laughable to a rich person, but that made all the difference to me and my debilitating addiction to Tayto cheese and onion crisps.

By the time I got to this point, less than 250 words into Chunk 4 of My Dumbest Idea Yet, I’d already forgotten that I was writing Chunk 4 of My Dumbest Idea Yet.

I thought about Elliott Carbuncle’s advice (posting old Citizen Jim Stories by Chicken Sheets until I managed to write a new Chunk of the novel) and knew the number of times I could do that was limited. I should have been buoyed by the fact that Chunk 3 eventually had the most views of any story I’d posted on Substack since creating my account there in March of this year of our Lord 2022.

So the only solution to the dilemma of not wanting to go to work and not wanting to waste another second not writing Chunk 4 of My Dumbest Idea Yet was, I realized, writing Chunk 4 while I was at work.

Was it risky? My God, yes. It was riskier than dangling a baby covered in bacon grease over a pit filled with hungry Jack Russell terriers.

Did I feel I owed something to the 88 people who had read the most recent Chunk of this novel, posted on 18 July? Meh. Probably.

And besides. If I did stay home pretending to wait for the rapture to happen, instead of writing more of the Citizen Jim novel, I’d most likely just keep rewatching “The Americans” on Hulu. That would probably make me think about the Battle of Stalingrad and how inherently doomed and useless the entire Soviet experiment was and that, in turn, would make me feel at least a little sad for the people who dedicated their whole lives to trying to make a doomed and useless experiment work.[13]

Then again, if I got caught writing a novel when I needed to be calling a bingo game or leading an exercise group or going from room to room being assaulted by FOX News and Newsmax and Joyce Meyer and—as improbable as it would have seemed to us in the 80s and 90s—Jimmy Swaggart[14] and Jim Bakker[15], I could probably plant a big goodbye-kiss on the mouth of my job and my exposure to “how the other half lives.”

But before I go on: a grown man going by the name of Jimmy? Pathetic.

I was still pottering around grabbing my keys and my wallet, talking to the cats about being good while I was gone, and really trying to psych myself up to leave.

I wouldn’t be doing any writing on this project at work. I couldn’t take any risks that might upset the balance of my life. I realized, just when I was set to walk out the door, that menopause was upsetting the balance of my life enough—almost more than I could handle on some days.

That’s when I heard the sirens!

Two fire trucks and an ambulance wailed their ways into my neighborhood and stopped right outside my door. I looked out the window and saw Citizen Jim waving his hands at the men hanging off the end of the firetruck. He was yelling, “Sorry guys! I guess she was lying when she called me about a huge fire eating up the wood fence beside her house. I’m gonna go pound her for messing around like that!”

Then the two fire trucks and the ambulance, their sirens still blaring for some reason, left the street in front of my little Hobbit House.

Citizen Jim jogged toward the front door and commenced banging and shouting and making a general nuisance of himself.

“You open this damned door, turncoat!”

I shouted from the other side of the door, “Is that you, Jeannette?”

He banged his fist against the door once more. “I’m gonna count to one, and then you better open this door and step up so I can look you in the eye and ask you why you’ve done this horrible thing!”

I did as I was told.

As soon as Citizen Jim got inside, I said, “I’m not the one who called the fire department for no reason,” I said.

He stared at me, flaring his nostrils.

“That’s the horrible thing you’re talking about right?” I asked.

He still didn’t say anything.

“Did that ambulance driver hypnotize you?” I asked, snapping my fingers an inch from his nose.

He slapped my hand away and said, “Don’t play dumber than usual with me!”

But I did feel dumber than usual, because I still had no idea what horrible thing he was talking about.

“I still have no idea what horrible thing you’re talking about,” I said.

He thrust an index finger toward the ceiling and said, “What does it say at the top of the page?”

When I looked at the ceiling, he really blew his top. “Don’t try being funny! You know what I mean! We’re right in the middle of Chunk 4, aren’t we?”

I brought my face level with his again and shrugged. “I guess you’ve been taking some advanced classes in not getting to the point,” I said. “Just tell me what you came to tell me so I can go to work.”

“I’ll be damned if you’re going to leave before you fulfill your writerly duties,” he said. “You wrote nearly a whole chunk of this Citizen Jim novel without one mention of me!”

Had I done that? “Did I do that?” I asked him.

“Yes, you did that!” he said. “And I want to know why, and I want you to promise me you’ll never do it again.”

“Do you want a cup of tea?” I asked, walking toward the kitchen.

He ran in front of me, blocking my way. “I don’t want a cup of tea! I want a cup of apology,” he said.

Did I dare tell him that what he just said sounded like the lyrics of a song by some 80s band from England? Probably the Human League or Heaven 17.

No, wait: definitely the Thompson Twins. Right?

It was way past my time to leave for work, so I decided not to open that can of worms.

“I’m sorry,” I said, looking at the floor so I would appear to be groveling, but actually I was still trying to work out what British band would have lyrics that said, I don’t want a cup of tea, I want a cup of apology.

Maybe it wouldn’t be a British Band. Maybe it sounded like the Mamas and the Papas, or the Left Banke.

That was it!

But was it?

No, it definitely sounded like lyrics from an early 70s song by the Kinks.

I knew I’d better snap out of this fog and focus all my attention on Chunk 4 of My Dumbest Idea Yet, or yet another Chunk would be finished but I would be no closer to the finish line of this novel.

“Okay, okay, I have to confess. I only failed to mention you because I knew it might make you show up, mad as hell! And that would give me the chance to ask you what you see happening with this story as we move forward.”

He squinted and frowned. “Are you lying to me so I won’t be mad anymore?”

I shook my head. “No, Precious Lamb, like I said: I wanted you to be mad as hell. I really need some input from you. I was just being stubborn before.”

“Oh! Ho ho! Wow! Now you need my help?” he said and laughed. “Why would I do a damned thing to help you after all the grief you’ve caused me ever since this novel started?”

“I knew it was a longshot, but I had to try,” I said, and continued my way to the kitchen.

“Hey, hey, hang on,” he said. “Do you really want my help? Because if you do, I’ve got a little notebook full of great ideas you could use—and not just for this story! For everything in your stupid, worthless life.”

“Do you have it with you?” I asked.

“Sure I do,” he said, and reached into his back pocket. He pulled out nothing. “Damn it! I left it on the fire truck!”

“I can still hear the sirens, maybe you could catch up with them and get your notebook back,” I said.

“Okay! But don’t make a move. I’ll be back in five minutes,” he said.

“Okay, I’ll be waiting,” I said.

The thing is, I did not hear the sirens. The sirens were long gone. But I think Jim’s head is filled with the sounds of sirens at all times, so I knew he wouldn’t question it.

My question: why has Weird Al Yankovich never written a parody of “The Sounds of Silence” called “The Sounds of Sirens”?

I walked outside with Citizen Jim and as soon as he got around the corner, I hopped into my car and headed for work. I tried not to worry too much about what a disastrous slugfest Chunk 5 might be like in light of my means of defection from Chunk 4.

Chunk 5

In which Citizen Jim finally returns after a two-week absence. Was he looking for his little notebook full of ideas for this novel and for improving Chicken Sheets’s “stupid, worthless life?” Apparently not.

Almost two weeks went by before Citizen Jim finally turned up at my little Hobbit House.

I tried my best to get a straight answer out of him regarding why he didn’t return when he said he would. It was soon obvious to me that this was like trying to get a straight answer from Billy Joel about why all his albums after The Nylon Curtain were steaming piles of dogshit.

I know there might be some of you out there ready to assert that every Billy Joel album BEFORE The Nylon Curtain was also a steaming pile a of dogshit. It’s your right to have this opinion, and the United States government can’t and won’t punish you for expressing it.

Part of me, in fact, wants to agree with you. A sliver of me actually does agree with you but can’t bring itself to say so.

There are protons and neutrons being circled by electrons in many of the atoms that make up my physical existence who argue amongst themselves almost ceaselessly about whether Billy Joel should be praised or reviled for his contributions to Western Culture.


Is that what we’re here for? Of course not.

“Be honest with me,” said Citizen Jim.

This was pretty funny considering the fact that he said it after I asked him for the third time—he’d already told two lies so obvious they were embarrassing—why he’d taken so long to come back with his little notebook full of ideas for what should happen next in My Dumbest Idea Yet.

“Why don’t you be honest with me?” I asked.

“Why do I always have to be the honest one? Why can’t I be like you and go around telling lies and making shit up off the top of my head whenever I don’t feel like telling the truth?” he asked. “Why do I have to make all the effort? It’s like you don’t even care!”

It’d been a long time since I’d heard that line! I wanted to answer it, but it was time to move on.

“It’s time to move on,” I said. “I don’t care where you’ve been or what you were doing or why you’ve only just come back with your notebook full of ideas about what should happen next in this novel.”

“You look fairly untroubled for someone who’s just admitted she doesn’t actually give a shit about one of her fellow human beings,” Jim said.

“That’s a crazy thing to say! You’re my best friend and the person I love most in the world!” I said.

“Oh boy! First you dismiss the significance of my existence, and now you’re calling me crazy?” he said. “You’re becoming a seriously disturbed individual yourself, if you ask me.”

“Do you have the notebook or not?” I finally asked.

“What notebook?” he asked.

I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to punch anyone as much as I wanted to punch Citizen Jim at that moment.

I took a deep breath and exhaled very slowly.

“The last time I saw you, you left to retrieve what you called ‘a little notebook full of great ideas’ I could use,” I said. “You told me you had ideas ‘not just for this story,’ but for everything in my ‘stupid, worthless life.’ Does that ring a bell?”

“Kind of,” he said. “What color was the notebook? Was it small or regular-sized?”

If I thought I wanted to punch him before it was nothing compared to how much I wanted to punch him, now.

“It must have been small, because you reached around to your back pocket to get it when you realized you didn’t have it,” I said.

“I bet if you reached around to your back pocket, you could pull out a two-inch three-ring binder,” he said. “Your ass is HUGE!”

He started laughing at his own cruel observation of my midlife weight gain. Then he stopped laughing and a cloud of anger gathered on his face. “Now I remember! I remember everything!” he said. “You let me run off chasing that firetruck where I thought I left my notebook even though you knew there was no way I could catch up to those assholes in their rubber coats and their backwards helmets!”

“In other words, you never got your little notebook full of ideas back,” I said. “Is that what you’re telling me?”

Citizen Jim shrugged. “I guess so,” he said.

He stuck out his bottom lip and hung his head. It was heartbreaking!

“I’m sorry, Precious Lamb,” I said. “I can give you a new notebook. You can fill it with even better ideas than the last one!”

“But those were the best ideas I’ve ever had!” he shouted. “I’ll never have better ideas than the ones in that notebook I left on the fire truck.”

“I guess we’d better start calling around,” I said. “Maybe we can find a way to get it back.”

“We’ll never get it back if those fire fighters opened it up and started reading it,” he said. “Hell, there were so many good ideas in that little notebook that those guys’ve probably all quit being fire fighters and started new careers based on the wonderful ideas in my little notebook.”

As soon as I realized Chunk 5 was getting close to a thousand words, desperation took hold of my brain: I really, really needed some direction for this story, or I would have to admit yet another creative failure before moving on toward a new and different creative failure.

“There’s only one way to recover all those lost ideas,” I said, and picked up my telephone off my desk.

“If you think that pet psychic you call every week is going to tell you anything about where we can find my little notebook, you’re truly dumber than how dumb I tell everyone you are,” he said.

“You never know, Philip might get an accurate vision for once. And he did turn over the Tower card in my tarot spread right before Zelda came to live here,” I said as I dialed the Fairhope Municipal offices to see if I could talk with the city’s police chief.

Chunk 6

In which we trade one cliffhanger for another, each of uneven quality. (Warning: ruminations on love and mortality ahead. If these trigger you, skip Chunk 6.)

If you’re surprised that I tried to call someone official to help us find Citizen Jim’s little notebook full of ideas, you haven’t been paying very careful attention up to this point. I was desperate—in every way—to shake up the narrative of this ill-conceived novel.

Imagine being five chunks (and something like 8,000 words) into a novel without any workable idea for a plot, for peripheral characters, no high point, no possible endings. This was neither normal nor desirable in the realm of creative writing.

(The voice in the back of my mind just said, Please let’s don’t talk about creative writing. This is because talking about “creative writing” makes me think of winning the Creative Writing award when I was a senior in high school and being presented with a $10 gift certificate for the James and Law bookstore in the Middletown Mall. This was awarded to me by the Creative Writing teacher, who was also my friend. She recently died unexpectedly, and I still can’t come to terms with this. Also, the memory is more than somewhat embarrassing when I recall that I bought a copy of either The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged with that gift certificate because I wanted a long book for the summer—a book that seemed never-ending, like I wanted the summer to be since I was moving to Southern California that August, away from the girl I loved—secretly, in torment and anguish and every other word nobody ever wants to associate with love—who, to my never-ending sadness, died unexpectedly 15 years ago, in 2007. And now I have no choice but to change the subject, despite the fact that I could fill an entire book with memories linking together from a starting point prior to meeting either of these two dead friends, both of whom watched me and were watched by me from afar before each became inextricably linked to me and my memories.)

The pounding on my front door let me know that Citizen Jim was sick and tired of my ruminations and was ready to get this chunk started in earnest. Of course, typing the word “earnest” made me think of the title of the play The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, whose only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, had so many lines in it that reflected my relationship with my dead secret love from adolescence, such as

“NOT ANOTHER WORD! OPEN THIS DOOR!” shouted Citizen Jim.

“I know he likes me. Of course I flatter him dreadfully. I find a strange pleasure in saying things to him that I know I shall be sorry for having said.”

“I love you! Be there in a sec!” I called from my desk, but didn’t move.

“Now and then, however, he is horribly thoughtless, and seems to take a real delight in giving me pain.”


“Please be patient!” I yelled, still parked in my desk chair.

“Then I feel…that I have given away my whole soul to some one who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day.”

“If you want me to stay in this stupid book, you’d better make me happier than I am right now,” he said. Now the voice was right outside the window facing my desk. “If you don’t open that door by the time I count to six, I’ll bolt and you’ll never see me again! Then what’ll happen to your book?”

Part of me wanted to let him bolt just so I could see what would happen to my book. Should I say this to him? No. He’d come back, and my punishment would be dealing with his regular stupidity times-ten.

I didn’t want a big speech from him today, either. If he tried to give me a big speech, I’d be slammed back into my previous memories of buying The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged in 1988—and it truly doesn’t matter which one of those books it was, because what I remember best about that particular reading experience was that, not very far into the book, I thought, This might be the worst thing I’ve ever read. Why is it so famous? The moment after this thought went through my mind I was filled with sorrow that I’d won the Creative Writing Award but wasted my $10 prize on the clunkiest, most cynical, most transparent prose I’d read in eighteen years of living. And this was before I realized how repulsive Ayn Rand’s politics were, or that at the same moment I realized what a horrible writer she was, Rand’s badly written work was forming the worldview of some of the most evil people on the planet at this very moment.

Oh, no, I did not want a speech. I opened the door.

“It’s about damned time!” said Citizen Jim when he walked past me. “Go make me some lemonade and cucumber sandwiches!”

“First of all, I don’t have any cucumbers and, secondly, I don’t know how to make a lemonade sandwich,” I said, knowing it was mistake before I could stop the words from leaving my mouth.

“On any other day, your smart-mouthery and wise- assery would make me furious enough to pick up a horse and throw it across a lake,” he said. “But not today.”

“That’s a relief,” I said. I meant it, too.

“Nope, not today. Because you know what’s special about today?” he asked.

I desperately wanted to but did not answer him with, Is it special because today is the first day of the rest of your life?

Citizen Jim sat down on the edge of my bed and said, “I want you to consider today to be the first day of the rest of your life.”

Dang! I knew I should’ve said it! No, wait—

“The first day of my life? Don’t you mean your life?” I asked.

“See? Not even a smart aleck comment like that can piss me off,” he said. “Because today I have in my possession the answer to all your prayers and the keys to your eventual success.”

“Are you trying to say you found a big winner among all those lottery tickets you bought with stolen money in Florida?” I asked.

“Don’t you think if I wanted to say that I could say that? Irregardless of your mental thoughts I’m not all the way inarticulate completely,” he said.

Then it dawned on me! “You found your notebook, didn’t you?” I asked.

I was so excited!

“Fat chance of that,” he said. “You were trying to figure out a way to get hold of it at the end of Chunk 5 but you haven’t said shit about since the first paragraph of Chunk 6.”

I couldn’t even remember if that was true or not.

“No, instead of trying to find my little notebook you were too busy talking about your dead friends and humble-bragging about winning a piddly little prize almost 35 years ago,” he said. “What I want to know is this: why that book when you could have bought so many other books in 1988?! There was Love in the Time of CholeraFreaky DeakyA Brief History of Time! It was the same year Red Beans Anne Rice published The Queen of the Damned! You could have really changed your life and bought Trump: The Art of the Deal.”

He knew this last was a bridge too far. He threw up his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, maybe not The Art of the Deal, but Ayn Rand can’t be considered a ‘much better’ choice.”

“I already explained it. I’m not going back into it with you,” I said. “You better hurry up and tell me what the hell you’re so happy about, or I’m going to stop writing this Chunk and go back to binge-watching Dark Shadows.”

(I was not binge-watching Dark Shadows.)

“Listen, if I don’t tell you why I’m so happy and you go back to binge-watching Dark Shadows, can I stay and binge-watch Dark Shadows with you?” he asked.

Now I was trapped—like a cliffhanger!

I weighed the pros and cons of stopping here and continuing this scene in Chunk 7. It wasn’t a very good cliffhanger, though, especially since Citizen Jim was notorious for building something up and then made foolish by an underwhelming Big Reveal.

Before I could get to the pros of my choice, there was a huge explosion outside, followed by the loud bumping and thunking as a shower of debris hit my car and fell upon the roof of my little Hobbit House. Then we heard screams coming from somewhere above the house.

“What the hell is that?” Citizen Jim, his eyes wide and frightened.

I knew it was just me trying to write a better cliffhanger to lead into Chunk 7.

Nevertheless I said, “Sounds serious! Let’s go check it out!”

Chunk 7

In which Citizen Jim and Chicken Sheets lay their hands against the back of the plot and give it a good push by going outside to see what has exploded and who is on the roof.

We thought the yelling was coming from the roof of my little Hobbit House, but when we got outside and scanned that part of the house we saw nothing but squirrels. They were frolicking and screeching, hopping over and under the large tree branches gathered haphazardly on the roof. These, we thought, were most likely what made the crashing sounds moments before.

“Over here! Hey! Help! Please help me!” someone yelled.

We looked over and up at my landlady’s house. On the roof, waving his arms, was what appeared to be a fire fighter.

“How can we help you? We know nothing about fighting fires,” said Citizen Jim. “We haven’t been trained to assist first responders in any way. You need to call 9-1-1.”

“How did you get up there?” I wanted to know.

“Call the fire station and they can tell you,” he said. “But for now I need a ladder, a glass of water, and a cold washcloth.”

“How dare you make demands on us when you need our help!” said Citizen Jim. He turned to me and said, “Don’t you dare give that asshole one drop of water. He needs to learn how to ask for favors with grace and dignity.”

In response to Citizen Jim, I sprinted to my landlady’s front door and knocked. I asked to borrow her husband’s extension ladder, which I dragged around to the south side of her house and laid against the edge of roof.

“You can come down, now,” I said, gripping the lower half of the ladder to keep it from moving while the man descended.

He leapt off the ladder with five or six rungs to go. “Wow. That was crazy,” he said, glancing back up at the roof as if he could hardly believe he’d been up there moments before. He threw a thumb over his shoulder and said, “That’s what happens when the fire department goes professional and the new fire chief is a relapsed cokehead.”

Not only was this a cryptic remark—it almost sounded like an anachronism. Was that—are there still cokeheads? I was under the impression that cocaine was no longer a popular drug choice since people could make methamphetamine from common household poisons found in their bathrooms and under their kitchen sinks.

I also thought for sure that Whitney Houston’s 1990s PSA—when she said, “Crack is whack!”—would have turned an entire generation away from any iteration of “Bolivian marching powder” as I believe it was called in the 80s by Jay McInerny in his novel Bright Lights, Big City—a novel that set itself apart from others during that era by being written in the rarely-ever-used second person point of view. This did not help it to win a Pulitzer, nor has McInerny been bandied about as a possible Nobel Prize winner in literature. But he’s only in his mid-60s, so that could still happen. Except these days he’s more famous for being a wine connoisseur than a novelist. Oh! And now he’s married to Patty Hearst’s sister Anne, which should surprise no one who has ever taken one look at the guy.

Yeah, that Patty Hearst, who could’ve gone down in history as a revolutionary fighting for social justice but will instead be famous for being such an unlikable defendant that not even a super-lawyer like F. Lee Bailey could save her from going to jail.

Well. That and appearing in a John Waters movie in which she was murdered by Kathleen Turner. I think she might also own winning show dogs. Which I would say is the WASPiest thing ever, but for the fact that Hearst is Catholic.

My God, does any generation suck worse than the Baby Boomers? I mean! Jesus Hyperbole Christ but they’re the absolute worst!

I suddenly realized that Citizen Jim and the fireman–whose name (I decided at that moment) was Brad—and were staring at me.

“What?” I said, my eyes darting from one to the other several times.

Citizen Jim laid a hand on Brad’s shoulder and said, “I’m sorry you had to endure that.”

“Is she okay? Do we need to take her to Thomas Hospital or…some other kind of hospital?” Brad asked.

“Nah, that’s just narrative, stream of consciousness, whatever you want to call it. I like to call it having diarrhea of the mouth,” he said. “I have to put up with it all the time, because I’m the nominal ‘star’ of these stories. But I thought for sure she’d put a lid on it in mixed company.”

If looks could kill, the one I shot at Citizen Jim would ended his existence, and this book would be over.

“Let me go get your water and cold wash cloth, Brad,” I said.

“Actually, ma’am, my name’s Hunter,” he said.

“Ha!” said Citizen Jim, giving a short, rueful laugh. “She’ll just call you whatever she wants. That’s another thing about being in one of these stories—you’ve got to put your foot down, though! She tried to give me a new name once, and I let her know I wouldn’t put up with that shit. ‘Hugo Sark’ wasn’t long for this world, I can tell you that.”

Now it was Citizen Jim who was scaring Hun—fuck it, this is my story! Brad was looking a little confused and frightened after Citizen Jim’s outburst.

“Listen, don’t worry about the water or anything else,” he said. “I can–listen, I’ll just walk back to the station. It’s only a couple blocks from here.”

Citizen Jim stuck his hand out and shook his head and said, “No no no! Hang on, Fire Man Pete. You can’t just cause a cliffhanger and then leave before anything gets explained.”

I could easily forgive Citizen Jim for busting my chops earlier, as he seemed willing to be on the side of the story for at least a couple more paragraphs.

“Yeah, what happened? How’d you get on that roof?” I asked.

It took him a while to answer, mainly because I totally forgot what the explanation was going to be once I got to the chunk after the cliffhanger. Eventually, though, he managed to draw a picture almost ludicrous enough to be worth waiting for.

“Well, we got called to that chiropractor’s office on the corner of Prospect and Greeno Road,” he said, pointing in that direction.

I knew that office, as it was only one block from where I live.

“Apparently, a disgruntled patient got mad and doused the waiting room with turpentine, and then he threatened to throw a lit birthday candle right in the middle of it,” Brad said.

“Oh, dear—why was he so mad?” I asked, but I had a feeling I knew exactly why he was so mad because I’d been to see that chiropractor, too. By the time I’d finished my third appointment (and, it turned out, my last appointment, despite the fact that I’d been bamboozled into signing a $500 contract for 13 adjustments), I probably could have done something as desperate as whoever he was talking about.

“I’m not real sure what pushed him over the edge, but we had to get a negotiator to go in while we were on standby. He said he was mad about the loud music in the office and all the steps you had to go through before you even got to lie on the table—I’m not really sure what that all means, but that’s why he was mad.”

I knew what it meant! That was exactly why my third appointment with that chiropractor was my last visit to the office! My God, that Christian “rock” blasting out of the walls! All the nonsense with taking a number and swiping a card and exercising before the adjustment. It was awful! But those weren’t even the worst offenses.

“Did the guy tell that negotiator he was being texted every single day about coming in because they had openings in the schedule?”

“Ma’am, I’m not sure,” Brad said. “I really need to go.”

Citizen Jim gripped Brad’s arm. “Like hell! You haven’t told us why you were on her neighbor’s roof,” he said. “You’re not leaving until we get the answers we deserve!”

I shrugged. “I’m sorry, Brad—”

“Hunter,” he said.

I let him know who was in charge. “Sorry BRAD, but he’s right. I can’t just let you leave the story without explaining the cliffhanger at the end of the last chunk,” I said.

He looked miserable. “Well, the guy never threw the birthday candle into the turpentine puddles, so we left,” he said. “But our new chief was so mad we didn’t get to put out a fire and he was still so coked up from breakfast this morning that he made me get on the aerial ladder so I could throw grenades into the treetops along these streets. He reckoned at least one or two might start a housefire we could go and put out.”

“Did they?” I asked.

“No, but the farther along the streets we were, the faster the chief was driving. When he cut the corner to turn onto this block, the aerial ladder went one way and I went flying through the air in the other direction,” he said. “That’s how I landed on the roof where you found me.”

“Wow,” Citizen Jim and I said in unison.

“Anyway, once the chief cleared the curb, the ladder started swinging back and hit the pecan and magnolia trees along the sidewalk there,” he pointed in the direction of my mailbox. “It knocked a bunch of limbs off the trees and they landed on your roof, plus the roof on the house next to you.”

That roof belonged to the fit bloke from Winchester. I prayed his wife didn’t find out about the limbs on the roof, as she might make her way over to my front door with a list of accusations in one hand and a knuckle sandwich in the other.

“That’s some explanation,” I said.

Citizen Jim nodded. “It’s not the best she could have done, but she’s really trying to crank out the chunks and apparently she doesn’t care how well or badly she does it,” he said. “You were actually supposed to tell us that someone found a little notebook at the fire station and you were driving around knocking on doors to find the rightful owner of the notebook.”

Brad had no clue what Citizen Jim was talking about. “Yeah, okay, so, you know,” he said. “Can I go, now? I really need a shower, and I’m in a lot of pain from flying through the air and landing on the peak of that roof.”

“You better check your pockets before you leave,” I said.

He shoved a hand into each pocket on the sides of his fireman’s coat. From his left pocket he pulled a small, spiralbound notebook. He stared at it as if it were a moon rock or a thousand-year-old bird’s egg.

“My little notebook full of ideas!” Citizen Jim shouted, and snatched it out of Brad’s hand.

Brad’s mouth hung open for a moment, then he started walking toward the sidewalk, a weird look on his face. I could see his lips moving but no sound was coming out. He kept shoving his hands into his pockets and pulling them out, but he found nothing else on his person. He disappeared around the corner by the fit bloke from Winchester’s house.

As Citizen Jim and I were walking back into my little Hobbit House, Citizen Jim said, “Well, I guess you learned your lesson.”


“I said, I guess you—”

“Yes, I heard you, but what are you talking about?” I asked.

“Cliffhangers are hard—that’s one thing you learned,” he said. “And you also know, now, it’s really better when you stick to you and me in one central location.”

I guess he had a point.

“Also, you probably need to start making notes before each chunk from now on, or you’re going to forget where you want to take the story,” he said.

He was right about that, too. But I could never tell him so.

I was super-relieved that we could finally get down to the business of talking about the ideas in Citizen Jim’s little notebook. Even though I was apprehensive about letting Citizen Jim have much to do with laying out plot points, I knew it would be necessary if I didn’t want to have to quit writing after a few more thousand words because I had nowhere left to go with the story.

Chunk 8

In which we finally learn what is contained in Citizen Jim’s little notebook full of great ideas, and have to wonder: how will it help Chicken Sheets as she continues trying to write this novel?

“Do you want something to eat or drink before we start working?” I asked.

“Don’t use a word like ‘working’ and then drag me into your twisted schemes,” said Citizen Jim. “I’ve gotta go and pick up Mama’s tabloids from the Piggly Wiggly and drop off Mr. Swan’s toupee at the wig shop to be washed and styled.”

“Who’s Mr. Swan?” I asked.

Citizen Jim screwed up his face in disgust. “He lives a few doors down from Mama at the Ranch,” he said. He was referring to Homestead Ranch, a retirement community where his mother lived. “I can’t tell for sure, but I think he’s giving Mama the Big Eye.”

“Is that good or bad?” I asked.

“I’m not sure about that, either. I mean, he wanted her to fix his hairpiece, so I thought I’d better step in to save her the hassle.”

“That’s sweet of you,” I said.

“Whatever. It was probably a huge mistake.”

“Why’s that?” I asked, but I didn’t care why, not in the least.

“Well, you know how it can go. Today it’s the hairpiece, and the next thing you know I’ll be cooking him three meals a day and washing his drawers. I’m not ready for that kind of commitment.”

Citizen Jim started toward the door.

“Wait! What about your little notebook full of ideas? I thought you were going to let me in on all your brainstorming,” I said.

He put a hairy, ape-like hand on one hip and rolled his eyes. “Listen! You couldn’t handle one of my brain drizzles let alone a brainstorm.”

I wondered at that moment if I should make a pithy reference to the song “Brianstorm” by Arctic Monkeys, but I knew now wasn’t the time. (Actually, there would never be a time. My love for Arctic Monkeys isn’t shared by anyone in my life. Definitely their loss.)

“Can I at least try?” I asked.

“My God, Stimpy! Are you that uncreative? Can’t you even pretend to have enough gumption to reach your goals by yourself?” he said. “The stench of desperation coming off you is stinging my eyes!”

was desperate. Here I was—in the middle of Chunk 8!—and I still didn’t have any semblance of a plot for this book, let alone a cast of minor characters, reliable comic relief, or an overarching theme.

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his little notebook full of great ideas and offered it to me. Before I could take it from him, he pulled the notebook away and laid it against his chest. “Once I hand this to you, I’ll give you sixty seconds to memorize as many notes as you’re able to.”

“Can’t I just hold onto it until you come back?” I asked.

“Ha! Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if I could trust you with my little notebook full of great ideas!” he said. “But I can’t leave my little notebook with you, unfortunately, because of all the great ideas it contains.”

“Okay, okay,” I said, making yarn-wrapping motions to indicate the need for him to hurry up.

He kept the notebook pressed to his chest. “Are you sure you’re ready for this? I can’t be responsible for the brain-scrambling and mind-blowing these great ideas might visit on you,” he said.

“I’ll take my chances,” I said, and snatched the notebook away from him, running into the bathroom and locking myself inside. Before I opened the cover, my heart was pounding so hard I could feel it in my eardrums.

This could be it, the answer to all my creative problems! With just a little inspiration there was a chance I might breeze through the remainder of this story, writing in a rage of white heat the same way I once wrote a 12,000-word esssay in a single weekend after a woman broke my heart.

After reading it, the list made my heart pound even harder, but not from anticipation—from fury and anger! And also furious anger!

Here were some “great ideas” from Citizen Jim’s little notebook:

  • Remind Chicken Sheets that you have a notebook full of ideas
  • Wave around a notebook while taunting Chicken Sheets about how uncreative she is and how lazy she is and how ill-suited to the writing profession she is
  • Tell Chicken Sheets you’ll share the contents of the notebook with her for “the right price”
  • When she wants to know what “the right price” is, remind her that if you rearrange the words in the phrase “the right price is,” you’ll eventually come up with the name of a popular game show that Mama watches religiously right before the local news report leads into “The Young and the Restless.”

“That’s it? Are these the best ideas you could come up with?” I yelled from my spot on the downturned toilet lid.

“You forgot one on the back of that page you just read,” said Citizen Jim. He was right outside the door, now.

I turned the page and began reading.

When she asks if these are “the best ideas you could come up with,” accuse her of being the malevolent force that has torn this country apart and pitted red against blue, white against black, dogs against cats, two against nature, mothers against drunk drivers, rage against the machine, etc. If worse comes to worst, just keep naming things that are natural enemies until you can’t think of anymore. Then pretend to faint. Better yet, play dead after planting her false murder confession inside a roll of toilet tissue thrown into the recycle can outside her house.

The remaining pages were blank.

I opened the bathroom door. “Thanks for nothing,” I said as I flung his little notebook at him.

“Yeah, well, you aren’t welcome to any of it,” said Citizen Jim. “You don’t appreciate a damned thing I do for you. You never have and you never will.”

I waved away his little tirade by feathering the air with my fingertips. “Honestly, it’s fine. I’ve got my own notebook full of ideas. I don’t need any ideas from you.”

“Is that right? Well! Good for you! Let’s see that notebook! Let’s hear some of those ideas,” he said.

“Do you really want to hear my ideas? What about your mother’s tabloids and Mr. Swan’s hairpiece?”

“First off, right now, as we stand here, I forbid you to ever use the phrase ‘Mr. Swan’s hairpiece’ as the title of a story, the name of a rock-n-roll record, or as the password for your Wi-Fi network,” he said. “Secondly, I wouldn’t trade hearing your ideas for all the vinegar in a pickle factory, not for all the exotic dancers at Club Elegance—not even for all the hair that has left my head between 1991 and now!”

The truth was, I didn’t have an actual central repository for my great ideas—I only had notebooks scattered all over the place like Ignatius J. Reilly.

Some of those notebooks (none of them was a Big Chief tablet) may or may not have contained a few good ideas here and there. But I was—I am—one of the most disorganized people I’ve ever known.[16] Because of this, I had no clue which notebook had the highest yield of good ideas in it.

I couldn’t very well admit that, now.

I grabbed the first pocket-sized composition book I saw and opened it with what seemed (to me) like aplomb. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bear to read aloud what was written on the first page I looked at. Or the second. Or the third.

“You sure seem to be studying hard on those great ideas, Kristy Krust,” Citizen Jim said. His smirk was like a blow to the head. “Maybe they’re so good you’re afraid I’ll steal them if you read them to me. Is that it?”

That thought hadn’t even crossed my mind until he said it. “Actually, yes, I’m a little wary,” I said. “The quality of these notes is far higher than I remembered.”

Naturally, saying this stupid thing only resulted in his snatching the notebook out of my hands. He immediately began reading out loud.

“Hmmm. Eyelash cancer! Mystery Science Theater but for classic literature instead of terrible movies?”

He looked up at me, then back at the notebook. “Time-traveling 19th Century anarchists are transported to 21st Century Brooklyn?”

I shrugged.

He looked back down at the book and continued reading. “A kiosk that sells handbaskets two or three miles away from the doors of Hell.”

Surprisingly, he didn’t roll his eyes, laugh, snort, or shake his head and stare at me with sad eyes. He closed the book and held it out in my direction.

“Pretty impressive,” he said, squeezing his eyes closed and clamping a hand over his mouth to hold in his mirth. After he managed to straighten his face he said, “I can’t decide which note is going to make the plot better: ‘Sussex Ghost House’ or ‘Side-scrolling motherfucker.'”

He then exploded with laughter so powerful that it rendered him too weak to stand. He fell into a quaking, guffawing heap at my feet. I wanted to pull back my leg and kick some seriousness into him. But I couldn’t, as Citizen Jim is my best friend and the person I love most in the world.

I went back into the bathroom and locked the door again, vowing not to leave until he was gone.

I must have fallen asleep on the toilet because the next thing I knew, it was Friday. Not just Friday—the Friday before Labor Day, which meant that this particular Friday was the start of a three-day weekend which I had already vowed to fill from top to bottom and from side to side with doing nothing. Not a thing. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

Well, that was the plan.

While I was making my plans life started happening.

For a moment—just a half-moment, really—I thought this might be a great way to end my experiment with writing a Citizen Jim novel.

I mean, nobody would care if there wasn’t a Chunk 9. I didn’t know myself if there would be a Chunk 9.

Unlike journalling or scrapbooking, novelling[17] is a nerve-wracking hobby. I’m not sure why I’ve ever thought I should do it. It’s not clear why anyone chooses to do it.

Maybe I would figure all of this out before the next chunk was due. If not, I was in real trouble, because I’m starting to believe there is little to no hope for this endeavor.

Chunk 9

In which Chicken Sheets finds several possible ideas for future novels while trying to find a good idea for the plot of this one.

With Citizen Jim gone and a three-day weekend spread out before me, the last thing I wanted to think about was wasting time on a doomed project. Didn’t I have enough notches in my Failure Stick? Was there any compelling reason not to abandon My Dumbest Idea Yet?

And there was plenty to do otherwise, so many tasks I could take care of and then not worry about for a month or two. But did I really want to dust or grocery shop or send out résumés to special service branches of foreign consulates or clean my floors or continue watching many of the series I started but hadn’t finished on the plethora of streaming services to which I subscribe?

No. What I wanted—what I really, truly, honestly needed—was to find the switch that keeps my mind buzzing and flip it to the OFF position.

Not buzzing—zooming![18]

My mind sometimes reminds me of my younger cat who gets “the zoomies” every night before bed, scrambling around, leaping about, climbing, jumping, sliding with no discernable objective except ceaseless movement.

To allay this nightly ritual, I had to develop a new nightly ritual which involves coaxing her to chase the red beam of a laser pointer until she is exhausted. Once she collapses on the floor and starts letting a series short snorts escape her. When I notice her keeping still even as the laser light continues its loops and zigzags on the floor and walls, I know I can stop. Then I get into bed without worrying that Zelda will keep me awake with her pre-sleep antics.

Where’s my confirmed spinster with a cat toy to distract me, I wondered.[19]

In addition to feeling put-upon and lazy at the same time (not an easy feat, let me tell you) I felt ashamed all over again when I thought about Citizen Jim’s reading aloud from one of my notebooks after he’d already made a fool of me with his notebook.

If I’d only picked up some other—maybe any other—notebook for him to seize!

Wanting to prove a point (to nobody but myself), I pulled a different notebook from a pile on my desk and opened it to a random page.

Notes for Someone Else’s Money

  • The money keeps being “found” and moved from place to place; so everyone is looking for this money, spending here and there, but nobody knows who it belongs to, or
  • An attaché full of money is mistakenly removed from
    • a bathroom
    • luggage carousel
    • hole in the wall
  • Or the person who has taken this money coerces the protagonist (a stranger. They meet in a bar, the protag’s “Mr MacGregor’s Garden”) to help him or her hide it, promising half of it when “the heat dies down.”
  • Or the protag finds it in an apartment, a rat trap. The landlord waives the first month’s rent and the security deposit if the protag will clean it out. It’s hidden behind a movable slab of sheet rock.

“It’s like winning the lottery.”

“Well, it’s more like stealing the winning ticket, and sooner or later the person you stole the ticket from is going to find you and probably kill you. Not my kind of lottery.”

“Then what should I do?”

“I don’t know, but if you keep the money stay away from me and my house. I’m not even kidding.”

“Who died and made you king of morality?”

“It’s not about morality. It’s about safety. Whoever wants that money will find you, and while they’re looking for you I don’t want them knocking on my door.”

There definitely isn’t any legal explanation for that much money being stuffed inside a leather attaché.

Name the protagonist.

Chapter 1:




Signing the lease

Flashback to how she ended up having to rent the apartment

Despair giving way to resignation

Cleaning the closet

The slab of sheet rock gives way, she reaches in, feels a handle, tries to lift but it is almost too heavy

End of Chapter 1

Make sure there’s no tracking device. Who can launder it? Little J.—for a fee, of course. Little J. recognizes the money bands as a former client’s.

Meh. Not great. I flipped a few more pages and found something that read like a full blurb for a book already written.

SOMEONE KIDNAPPED BABY BRITNEY?!: A gripping mystery with an eye-popping twist you would never expect!

After spending a night out with a group of war veterans who swear they want to help her break into show business, Rhonda Fonda returns to her fleabag motel room and finds that her baby is missing.

Who would abduct a helpless child, and where have they taken her? Why does Rhonda Fonda hear a phone ringing every time she turns on her hairdryer? Who keeps knocking on the bathroom wall whenever she’s brushing her teeth?

Might she find her baby with an Ouija Board and advice from her Twitter friends? Can she count on the dead man in the whisky bottle help her?

Or is Baby Britney gone forever?

Needless to say, I blinked my eyes several times and shook my head after that one, too stunned to even let a full What the fuck? form in my mind.

Had I copied and pasted this from somewhere because I thought it was so ridiculous? Or had I written it myself—as a joke, some means of blowing off steam and “flushing out the pipes,” as I like to call burning excess creativity after finishing a project?

I tossed that notebook back onto the pile and grabbed another from the very bottom, pulling open the cover and feeling the relief of recognition when I saw “Drebbler,” since I could actually remember writing what followed.


The first one of us to die in custody was Drebbler. It didn’t seem like the biggest loss we might suffer until we found out that Drebbler hadn’t been tortured to death or starved to death by the state. She’d hanged herself. Because she didn’t want the cops to kill her, and she didn’t want to name any of us to be sought out and hauled in ourselves. We knew, then, that Drebbler was probably the best of us, the bravest, the most dedicated of us. That she died without giving up any information made the state even more determined to find the rest of us and bury us alive in a mass grave. But it strengthened our convictions and expanded our resolve to meet that death while engaged in full-on combat, to fight the barbarians in her memory.

Yes, I’d written that, but for what? There was nothing before it or after it that would give me any clues about what I intended to do with it, or if I intended to do anything with it.

The next page just had other snippets, the context of which I could neither trace nor guess.

Then I ran across this:

A Game of Cards

An ace is male, a two is female. Three is their son, who loves four, but she is married to five and they are childless. Six: male. Seven: male. Six and seven might be brothers, but might be romantically involved, but seven isn’t as into it as six is. Eight is female, married to nine, a male. Ten is male, the brother of nine, and is good friends with the jack, whose parents, of course, are the king and queen.

Always cover a card by itself before covering a card that is already part of a run. So the card by itself won’t feel lonely or left out. The cards already grouped together will understand.

Finally! Something I recognized and remembered using. I’d incorporated that into a story—and had even somehow expounded upon it!—a year or so after writing it.

Okay, so. Damn. Which story?

I sat down at my desk and rocked back and forth in my chair as I tried to answer that question. When I knew my Menopause Brain would never release the information to me, I set about scouring documents on my hard drive, on thumb drives, in Google docs and my OneDrive docs in the cloud.

After searching for five hours, I still hadn’t found the story in which I’d used the snippets about the genders and interpersonal relationships of playing cards. The more I thought about the whole concept, the less convinced I was that I might have used it in a story. Why would I? Where would I manage to fit such an oddball (almost sinister, I began to think) scrap of weirdness?

Then it hit me like a shovel to my head or a brick to my face or a knotty stick to my teeth.

I knew I needed to assure myself that I wasn’t telling myself things just to make myself shut up and buzz off. To ensure this, I found the thumb drive that contains all of my Citizen Jim material and opened a PDF version of “Yo! Broccoli!”

And there it was in the very first part of a novella I’d dedicated “to Daniel Craig. (Yes, the actor.)” when I published a Kindle version on Amazon.

It took me the rest of the long weekend to figure out how to celebrate this minor success (such as it was), and I still wasn’t sure if what I decided was the right thing to do, but I had a notion somewhere in the very back corner of a dusty storage cupboard in the attic of my mind that it might help bridge a gap between this part of the story and a future part of the story.

Only time (and maybe my readers) would tell me if I made the right decision.

Chunk 10

In which Citizen Jim arrives and Chicken Sheets—for once!—wishes she didn’t have to leave before he can tell her why he is there.

If there’s one way I hate to spend the first half hour after I wake up, it’s trying to pull myself together with nothing but ice water in my system.

That was the hellish scenario in which I found myself a week after I scoured my old notebooks for something—anything!—that might get this novel shaking and moving in a direction in which it could travel comfortably for the long haul of the journey to the end of the road toward its final destination.

Final Destination! Wasn’t that the name of a video game? Wait. No. A movie, maybe? Perhaps.

But Final Destination is also the title of a book written in the 1990s by an old German guy who retired in Fairhope. At the bookstore where I worked in the last decade of the 20th Century, he harangued us on a daily basis for not arranging a weekly book signing for him. (And for not having the book displayed prominently, and for not ordering more copies of the book even though we never sold any of the copies of the book we already had.)

Because human consciousness offers one of the faultiest means of storing and retrieving memories, I can only recall a few tiny details about this book and the man who wrote it. What I remember is flattering to neither the book nor the writer.

In fact, one day when I answered the telephone at the bookstore, stating my name alongside the name of the business, this man said, “I would like to speak to somebody else.”

I asked him to whom else he would like to speak, and he said, “Anybody else!”

This is probably why I used the author of Final Destination as a comically sinister character in many stories I wrote set in Frinton, a town based (very loosely) on Fairhope. There was some not-so-subtle insinuation that the fictional “Dr. Weizenstein” was a former Nazi who’d escaped justice and found himself in Frinton after spending several decades in Argentina.

That character’s constant refrain was, “During the vorr I vuz just a young man verking in a factory in Svitzerland. I vuz just making Sviss chocolates.”

(In my stories I didn’t bother with a phonetic rendering of a German accent. For one thing, it’s too much extra work. And for another thing, I’m not that lame.)

But I digress. What was I saying about ice water?


I couldn’t drink a cup of tea as soon as I got out of bed on the morning in question. Because of the fasting requirements for a medical test I could only drink a glass of ice water for breakfast. That’s no breakfast, except maybe for a prisoner of war.

My gallbladder was acting up—going bad, tormenting me—so I had to go get an ultrasound. The doctor would then be able to determine how long I might (or might not) put off the removal of my gallbladder.

After I finished brushing my teeth I heard a car alarm start honking right before a man’s voice yelled, “Pipe down! I barely kicked you!” After a couple of beats, the man screamed, “SILENCE!”

When I glanced out the window I saw that the headlights on my car were flashing, which indicated to me that the car alarm going off belonged to my vehicle.

This was a surprise.

What didn’t surprise me was the person who’d set the alarm off in the first place.

“Don’t just stand there letting this car shout at me!” Citizen Jim shouted when I stepped outside. “Hit that panic button and shut it up!”

I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned against the door. “It’s not bothering me,” I said. I waved. “See you later!”

Before I could twist the doorknob and push the door open, Citizen Jim was leaping over the fence. (He probably thought he projected the image of a man half his age, but he almost didn’t make it to the other side. After ending up sprawled on the grass he had to roll over and jump up quickly to keep from looking like a complete fool, to be honest.)

He blocked the doorway so that I couldn’t get inside. “No! You’re not going anywhere until you turn off that damned alarm!” he said.

“The alarm won’t stop unless you let me inside to get my keys,” I said.

“Oh, so now you’re trying to blackmail me?” he asked. “Listen, I got enough problems with blackmailers as it is. That’s why I’m here.”

“Oh?! Well, by all means, let’s stand outside and shout at each other over this blaring alarm until—”

He cut me off and opened the door. “Go on!” he yelled. “Do it! Then come back out so I can tell you about this awful thing that’s happened.”

It wasn’t normal for him to demand I leave the house to talk to him. He was usually shoving me inside the house for such top secret conversation.

I ran inside and grabbed my keys, mashing the red button and letting out a huge sigh when it was quiet again. I tossed my keys onto my desk and tried to finish getting ready. I was tying my shoes when he burst into the room.

“Rude!” he said.

“I’m so sorry, I forgot to come back outside,” I said. “I’m in an awful hurry. I’ve got to be at the hospital in ten minutes.”

“Hospital? You’re driving yourself to the hospital?” Citizen Jim asked.

“Of course,” I said.

“Ha! I guess that ambulance service got tired of pulling up at the emergency room and then finding out you only wanted to be closer to the Dollar Tree when it opened at 9:00,” he said.

I had no idea what he was talking about. I hadn’t been in an ambulance since 2013, and back then I was probably hoping the asthma attack I was having at the time would kill me.

“I just have to get an ultrasound,” I said. “It’ll take five minutes, then I’ll come back and we can talk.”

“Why don’t I just go with you?”

“No, absolutely not,” I said, instantly regretting my tone. I sounded desperate for him to not go with me, which meant he would want come with me no matter what.

“Oh, I see! You’re the only one with time constraints,” he said.

“I’ll be right back, I promise,” I said.

“Oh, fine, okay. I’ll just sit here and twiddle my thumbs until you decide I’ve waited long enough,” he said. “Because I never have anything important to do, like making sure the window blinds in her bedroom are opened just so when Mama wakes up or going three doors down and beating on Miss Loftin’s door because she’s been playing those Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass records at full volume since five a.m.”

I laughed at that image: a mistake.

“Don’t you—you’re not gonna be laughing when I tell you what that damned Mr. Swan did to me! You’ll be lucky if I haven’t been murdered by an assassin when you get back, thanks to that bald racketeering bastard of a sneak,” he said.

Well. After he put it that way I almost wished I didn’t have to leave. But.

“Hold that thought,” I said, and ran out the door.

Chunk 11

In which Chicken Sheets returns from her medical procedure and finds Citizen Jim less agitated than when she left, but more paranoid than usual when he emerges from her garden shed.

When I got back from my trip to undergo an ultrasound on my gallbladder—I was gone for half an hour—there was no sign of Jim in, around, or on top of my house.

I figured this meant that his mother called him and demanded that he return to her apartment to perform some menial task or other, and I used the peace and quiet to make my first cup of tea since the nightmare of fasting overnight.

While I was enjoying what I believe is my favorite flavor in the world I heard a loud crash outside. (A cup of tea is the “last meal” I would request on death row if I were only allowed one thing, while drinking tea is a habit I would never attempt to break even in exchange for cigarette smoke that might make me healthier and more cognitively robust.)

I stood up to investigate and through a window I spotted Citizen Jim coming out of a shed on the south side of my little Hobbit House. He appeared to be spitting and cursing, slapping the top of his head and thrusting his hairy, ape-like arms out to each side of his body and shaking them—and his head—vigorously.

He glanced up and saw me watching him through the window and made a series of weird hand gestures that may have been translated as “get out here” or “don’t just stand there staring at me: read my mind and do my bidding this instant” or maybe “be ready to open the front door because I want to come inside and complain about something over which you have no control whatsoever.”

In preparation for one of these three possibilities, I went to the front door and waited for Citizen Jim to start beating it with his fists. When this finally happened, I opened the door and smiled.

“I’m glad you didn’t leave while I was gone,” I said.

“Ha! How many times did you have to drive in circles around the Thomas Hospital parking lot to come up with that stupid lie?” he asked, walking through the open door and turning around to face me.

“It’s not a lie, Precious Lamb,” I said. “I want to hear about Mr. Swan.”

“Just hearing his name makes me break out in a cold sweat and start shaking inside,” said Citizen Jim. “You just don’t know, Stimpy. This is more horrible than anything you could ever dream up in one of these stupid stories.”

“I’ll make you some tea and then you can tell me what’s going on,” I said.

“I don’t have time to drink a leisurely cup of tea this morning—I’m gonna need a plane ticket, a metal briefcase with three or four locks on it, a laptop, and a sick bag to take with me on the ferry.”


“Because I’m not good on the water,” he said. “I get sick the moment I step foot on a boat.”

“No, I mean, why do you need all of that stuff you just named?” I said.

He didn’t answer, but laid a finger against his lips and motioned for me to follow him.

He whispered, “I can’t talk. This place is probably bugged,” he said.

When we got to the kitchen, I lifted the handle on the sink tap and let the water gush out. Then I turned on a little radio I had on the window sill by the sink. I walked over to the microwave and set the cook time to fifteen minutes, slammed the door shut, and mashed the START button.

“What the hell are you doing?” he asked, scowling and looking around the kitchen at the running water and the blaring radio and the humming microwave.

I had a sick feeling in my stomach, as these precautions I’d taken were all things I’d seen in movies and TV shows when spies onscreen wanted to talk to each other without being heard by a hidden listening device. 

I was terrified because Citizen Jim’s insanity had finally reached my brain.

Chunk 12

In which we learn more about Citizen Jim’s latest attack of paranoia. Mainly: it isn’t paranoia. It’s real.

As soon as Citizen Jim finished telling me the reasons behind his fear and loathing of Mr. Swan, I opened the microwave door, twisted the knob on the radio to silence it, and slammed down the faucet handle with my palm.

If he was right and somehow my little Hobbit House had been bugged, I wanted the people who did the bugging to hear every word I had to say about the situation.

“Listen up! Citizen Jim is my best friend and the person I love most in the world,” I said, nodding once and winking at Citizen Jim. “Whatever hell and danger he has to face I, too, shall face! Whatever his fate is that, too, will be my fate!”

“Stop! You don’t know what you’re saying,” said Citizen Jim, trying to grab my arms to pull them behind my back. “These people are dangerous, they could really mess up your life!”

I wasn’t about to heed his protests. Though he was usually prone to over-exaggeration, I had no doubt that what he said now was absolutely true.

I left the room and headed toward my desk. I sat down at my computer and immediately bought two plane tickets and shopped for a metal briefcase with five locks on it. (I could only find a briefcase with four locks. I decided it would have to do, but worried it might not do enough.)

I already had a spare laptop and plenty of bags to send with Jim in case he got sick on the ferry.

“Is there anything else we need?” I asked before I completed my Amazon order.

“We probably need some stuff to use for bribes,” he said. “Get a couple boxes of Pop Rocks Candy and a dozen or so cases of Hostess Ho Hos.”

I hated to think that we would have our first disagreement about this trip so soon, but I didn’t think he was on the right track with his bribery techniques.

I decided to let it go.

There would be plenty of other things—pettier but more explosive—to about which disagree by the time we landed at Tallin Airport.

Oh! I forgot to tell you: we were headed to Estonia. Because of Mr. Swan. And also because of Elliott Carbuncle—remember him?

Haha! Yeah.

The Final Exit—By Citizen Jim

Yes, it says “By Citizen Jim.”

Dear Readers,

It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Chicken Sheets was distinguished.

During all the years that our friendship thrived I always tried to give her something interesting and enlightening to write about—even when I (and she, most definitely) should have been doing more significant and productive things.

I will never forget the adventures recounted in “The Mystery of the Missing Don Rickles Videos,” “The Busted Vinegar Bottle Mystery,” and so many others with equally stupid titles.

She will be missed by me and by the few people on Earth she somehow didn’t piss off by being a know-it-all pain in the neck always trying to prove she was the smartest person in the room. (But not like Sherlock Holmes. More like Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces.)

 It was my intention to have stopped there, and to say nothing of that event which has created a void in my life which the lapse of 24 hours has done little to fill.

However, I’m the only one who really knows what happened. It would be criminally negligent not to tell the world—or at least the three (maybe four) people who read these stories—exactly how my friend disappeared and became a person who is “missing, presumed dead.”

So it’s left to me, Citizen Jim, to tell you all how “the smartest person in the room” wound up getting herself killed (presumably) in a much dumber way than the dumbest person in the room could manage even with the help of others nearly as dumb.

As far as I know, there have been only three accounts in the public press: a small item in Eesti Päevaleht[20] (above a sales ad for pumpkin spice Kohuke[21]); a dispatch in the Helsinki Times; and a Lost & Found query I placed in a local free newspaper called the Gawk Sheet.

Look, you’re just going to have to trust me to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth, cross my heart and hope to die. (I don’t want anyone to stick a needle in my eye.)

It was a Tuesday, and the sea was violent as we stepped onto the Tallinn Helsinki Ferry in the capital of Estonia. We boarded alongside families and singles and probably a bunch of criminals with stolen cars and maybe even some ghosts of spies from the Cold War who’d no doubt escaped the U.S.S.R. on foot, traveled across the dangerous northern coast of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, then boarded the ferry that would carry them to safety in Finland.

Chicken Sheets couldn’t believe her luck when she realized she was on a ferry that might have carried Cold War spies back and forth from danger to safety back to danger and vice versa.

While she was lost inside the cyclone of this super-weird nostalgia, the spell was suddenly broken and she grabbed my arm. Her fingers were like a vise.

“What’s the date today?” she asked.

Her eyes were crazy!

I told her it was the third of October. I apologized and said no, it was the fourth, then I told her to wait, it might have been the third of October but I wasn’t sure.

“Think! Is it the third or fourth? Which one? I have to know!” she shouted, her fingernails now digging into my flesh as she gripped my wrist with true violence in her eyes.

“I’m not sure!” I said, my eyes welling with tears, then, “Stimpy, let go! You’re HURTING ME!”

She released my arm with a huff and started walking up to strangers on the ferry and asking them if they knew the date.

When she was finally satisfied that she knew the correct date, she shouted into the crowd, “Turn this ferry around right now!”

The people who’d been speaking English a moment before began murmuring among themselves in Estonian and Finnish and Russian and Lettish and any number of other Baltic-Slavic languages, I’m sure.

(Don’t look so shocked at my knowledge of such things. Surely by now you know that Chicken Sheets only makes me look uncultured and dumb to make herself look more worldly and smart! If you haven’t caught onto that, yet, I don’t know what that says about your own intelligence. I’m not judging you, I’m just sayin’.)

As she sprinted back in my direction, I grabbed her and pulled her arms behind her back. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Why have you lost your mind today?”

“We’re not scheduled to go back to Tallinn until day after tomorrow!” she said as she freed herself from my concerned grasp.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “What’s that got to do with you running all over this boat like a cat with its whiskers cut off?”

This made a few people laugh in the crowd that now surrounded us in a tight ring.

“Is good joke!” I heard one man say.

Another agreed. “Yes, this is boss quip to cuckoo-crazy woman.”

I didn’t bow or thank them then, but now that some time has passed, I guess the image of a cat with its whiskers cut off was pretty funny—but it was also disturbing and somewhat sad.

What was wrong with those people?!

Believe me, though, I wasn’t laughing when Chicken Sheets told me why she was so desperate for the ferry to turn around and head back to Tallinn.

But first: in the movies there’s always some doctor with a bag full of sedatives and syringes nearby when a woman gets hysterical and becomes dangerously unhinged. But in real life there’s never any kind of doctor around at all for any twist in the plot, not even one of those doctors at universities who just collect salaries while adjunct professors plan and teach their classes for them!

“You’ve got to calm down, you jabbering fool!” I said, not knowing if I were talking to Chicken Sheets or the voice in my head. “We’re here to do more important things than celebrate Kate Winslet’s birthday!”

The two men who got such a kick out of my cat joke were now drooping weakly, choking with laughter.

“Is good comedy team!” said one of the men.

Chicken Sheets ignored him. Apparently, she wasn’t too interested in what I had to say, either.

“Please! All the stuff I need for tomorrow is in the hotel room in Tallinn! We’ve got to go back!”

This was something that was never going to happen, and we both knew it.

“I guess if you want to get back, you’ll have to swim. And you can do that if you want. But I’ve got to get to Elliott Carbuncle before he leaves Finland with all of Mr. Swan’s money.”

“You and your damned Mr. Swan! One day you’re taking his toupee to be styled, and the next thing I know you’ve got me on a ferry to Finland—you’re wrecking my Kate Winslet plans!” she yelled.

“Calm down!” I said, trying to make people stop staring at us. She hadn’t pitched such a fit since the time we went to see Roger Waters and demanded—very loudly, from across the parking lot—hot beverages from inside the gas station after I paid for the gas.

“You always wreck my Kate Winslet plans!” she shouted.

I was so embarrassed I could have crawled between the cracks on the poop deck.

Oh, come on! That’s not what I meant, and you know it!

“Nobody said you had to come with me!” I yelled back. “Not one person asked you to come with me to Finland—not even me!”

“I don’t know why I didn’t just guess I’d get trapped on a ferry far away from all the things I need to celebrate the birthday of world-famous, Emmy- and Oscar-winning movie starlet and voice actor Kate Winslet,” she said.

“You’re not trapped,” I said.

She started running toward the railing of the ferry.

As she moved away from me I said the thing that will haunt me for the rest of my life, maybe longer. “Ah hell! Why don’t you just jump off the side of the boat and swim back to Estonia?”

She answered my question a moment later when she leaped into the Gulf of Finland.

The Gulf of Finland

In which we have news of Chicken Sheets after she plunges into the icy waters between Tallinn and Helsinki.

It was a Tuesday afternoon, very, very cold, and I was on a ferry crossing the Gulf of Finland.

Citizen Jim and I had an appointment with the Prime Minister of Finland in Helsinki. She claimed many of Finland’s elderly residents were double-crossed in some business dealings with Elliott Carbuncle in the previous months and she knew that we were looking for him, too.

On the day that I went to see him about my legal worries regarding the Citizen Jim novel, Carbuncle mentioned an impending trip to Finland. My assumption was that he was going to Finland to hide out from (by his own estimation) “the SEC and the FBI and probably the ABA.”

Unbeknownst to me, Carbuncle had made a small fortune—both legally and illegally—by acting as a conservator to elderly people who had no family or legal representative should they become mentally or physically incapacitated in the course of their aging.

One of his charges was Mr. Swan, a man who lived a few doors down from Citizen Jim’s mama at Homestead Ranch, a retirement community. One afternoon Mr. Swan coerced Citizen Jim into taking his hairpiece to be washed and styled at a local wig shop.

What Citizen Jim didn’t realize and could never have known was that Mr. Swan’s hairpiece was returned to him—via Jim—with a secret message sewn into the lining near the crown of the toupee. The message told Mr. Swan that it was “time to move the body.”

In this case, “the body” referred to a suitcase full of Estonian kroon with which Mr. Swan had escaped the Soviet Republic of Estonia in August of 1989. After the fall of the Soviet Republic and the restoration of Estonia’s national independence, Mr. Swan’s plan was to watch and wait until the perfect time came for him to convert all his Estonian kroon into Euros, and then into US dollars.

Still waiting for the most optimal moment of currency conversion, Mr. Swan buried the suitcase stuffed with Estonian kroon with his wife in (what was known as) the Colony Cemetery after she died in 1999.

(This is a graveyard full of dead adherents to Henry George’s Single Tax theory upon which the settling of the town—and the establishment of a Single-Tax Colony—had hinged. There aren’t many communally-owned acres left in this “single tax colony,” but the Colony Cemetery will remain—in perpetuity—a reminder of the former ideals of the town’s long-ago residents.)

When Mr. Swan hired a few local guys to dig up the suitcase under the cover of night. The quality and placement of the soil led the hired guys to believe that the grave had been disturbed a few months before. This was a few months after Elliott Carbuncle had left town without informing any of the folks whose conservatorships he held.

The grave looked disturbed before they began. After an hour or so of digging, they found that the suitcase was missing.

Mr. Swan, it was reported by Citizen Jim’s mama, had sat in the dining room weeping at every meal for days after finding out Elliott Carbuncle had swindled him out of his Estonian fortune.

This is why Carbuncle didn’t fly straight to Helsinki, but made a stop in Tallinn. We weren’t sure what had happened when he tried to convert the kroon to Euros. (Though we were amazed that this was something he could actually do.) The Estonian authorities, merely reluctant to hear us at first, weren’t at all helpful to us after Citizen Jim wondered aloud if they’d “even stopped being Commies” after the fall of the Soviet Union.

We figured it would help us a great deal if we had all the resources of the Finnish government and military behind us as we tried to bring Carbuncle to justice for his crimes. Some representatives from the FBI and the CIA were supposed to be flying over and joining us, along with the head of MI5, MI6, and the enigmatic rapper who calls herself M.I.A.

We were all meeting to discuss what could be done about this awful “boil on the ass of humanity,” as the Finnish Prime Minister called Elliott Carbuncle.

(I tried to imagine what sort of boil she would call Elliott Carbuncle’s brother, the infamous internet buffoon who calls himself Uncle Carbuncle. He’s built an entertainment empire based upon smoking marijuana and drinking Fireball whisky while making and destroying pieces of very ugly pottery.)

Elliott Carbuncle once charged me $450 for advice that amounted to: “Just post some old Citizen Jim stories while you’re writing this Citizen Jim novel.”

To me, he was worse than a boil on the ass of humanity. So I’ll admit it: I was pretty excited about the prospect of nailing Elliott Carbuncle to the fjords or whatever.

Still, I might not have been as excited about that as I was about the prospect of meeting the Prime Minister of Finland.

(By the way: Sanna Marin has, according to her Wikipedia page, “two mommies.” This is quite a PR boon for the gays, I think, that the child of a lesbian couple is the leader of a highly developed nation—a nation that has received the designation of Happiest Country in the World five years in a row as of this writing.)

Well, I was excited about going to Finland to grind Elliott Carbuncle into dust until I realized that we were going to be in Helsinki on Kate Winslet’s birthday. Because then I also realized that I didn’t have any of the stuff I would need to celebrate Kate Winslet’s birthday in the very personal, private way to which I had, over the years, grown accustomed.

Citizen Jim pretended that he couldn’t understand why this was so important to me. Thus, my insistence and belligerence prompted him to start hurling threats at me—mainly threats that if I didn’t “calm the deuce down and act like a nice young lady,” he was going to have me thrown off the ferry.

For some reason there were two men watching us and cracking up the whole time we were arguing. No clue why.

(I think they were retired Cold War spies on vacation. I truly do. If you could have smelled the booze on them and heard their smoker’s coughs, you’d think so, too.)

Anyway, I said it was fine with me if Citizen Jim had me kicked off the ferry because I didn’t want to be in Helsinki on October 5th without my Kate Winslet Birthday Celebration accoutrement.

Citizen Jim always speaks his mind, even when what he has to say involves advising me to put myself in the gravest of danger.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised when he said, “Why don’t you just jump off the side of the boat and swim back to Estonia?”

It wasn’t unlike anything he normally would say to me.

I answered his question a moment later when I leaped into the Gulf of Finland.

Chicken Sheets laid down the pen and put her hands on either side of the stack of paper in front of her. “I think this is all pretty much right,” she said, glancing back down at it and nodding. “Yeah. That’s it. That’s what happened.”

The man in the chair behind the desk between him and herself pulled the papers toward his side of the desk and scanned just the top page of what she’d written. He pushed the papers back toward her.

He handed her the pen she’d just laid down. “You’ll need to sign at the bottom of the last page before we move forward,” he said.

“Sign it?” she said. “Why?”

“You don’t wish to sign it?” he asked.

“I don’t know if I do or don’t wish—what’s the point? Who are you? Where am I? Am I in a black site somewhere? Are you going to make me start spying for the Russians in exchange for my freedom? Which side of the Gulf am I on, now?”

She asked all of this using one breath, it seemed. He didn’t interrupt her, she had to give him that. He just kept letting her ask questions until she was worked up into a state of near-mania.

“Do you have any other questions before I start giving you answers?”

“No, I guess not,” she said. “Go ahead. Fill in the blanks for me, please.”

“Mordley Dingler. That’s my name. You’re in my office on the 943rd floor of the Metatron Building. You are not in a black site. You are not going to be asked to spy for the Russians in exchange for your freedom. You are not on either side of any Gulf.”

Chicken Sheets rolled her eyes and let out the biggest sigh of her life. “Okay. And?”

“Those are the answers to all the questions you asked me,” said Mordley Dingler. “You had no other questions, so I thank you for your time. Now if you’ll just sign your statement I’ll let Ms. Ivers know you’ll be in to see her as soon as you leave here.”

“Ho-ho-whoa-whoa-whoa!” she said, sticking out her palm, a universal sign to “STOP RIGHT THERE!”

“Yes?” Dingler said.

“What if I don’t sign my statement? What’ll happen then?” she asked.

Dingler stuck out his bottom lip and shrugged. “Nothing. We’ll just enter it into your file without your signature.”

“What file?” she asked, but before he could answer, she finally understood. She closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. “This is a dream, isn’t it?”

Dingler shook his head. “No, it’s not a dream.”

“No, no, look—I bet it is,” she said. She pointed at the desk. “I bet you anything if I don’t sign that and leave this room, I’ll wake up.”

He pushed his chair backward with his hands grasping the desk and stood up, which is also a universal symbol—for “It’s time for you to go, now.”

“So I don’t have to sign it?”

He shook his head.

“Good, then I’m not signing it. For all I know, you could take my signature and forge it onto some kind of confession to an international crime,” she said, nodding once as she looked down at the desk.

The hair stood up on the back of her neck when she noticed that her “statement” was no longer where she’d left it. It had just…vanished.

Dingler shoved a fist into each pocket and rocked back on his heels. He smiled and said to Chicken Sheets, “Not signing your statement won’t change anything. You’ll still be dead.”

The Wind-Up

A few words from the failed writer who murdered Chicken Sheets in “The Final Exit” and sent her to the Metatron Building in “The Gulf of Finland.”

In a letter to his mother dated 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle admitted, “I think of slaying Holmes… and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.”

His mother was emphatic in her response to what she must have considered a crackpot idea: “You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!”

Like all sensible grownups, he ignored his mother’s entreaties and killed Sherlock Holmes anyway, allegedly throwing him over the Reichenbach Falls in a death-embrace with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

The vitriol from his readers (and, without doubt, from his mother) was such that Doyle had to resurrect his blasted creation in 1903. After “The Final Problem,” he wrote more than 30 stories featuring Holmes. He didn’t manage “winding him up for good and all” until 1927.

Three years later, Doyle himself was wound up for good and all.

Over the last fifteen years I’ve tried—on a number occasions—to wind up Chicken Sheets and Citizen Jim for good and all.

This last attempt, I felt as I wrote it, had a finality to it that none of the others ever achieved. After writing the last line of “The Final Exit” I knew I would go to bed feeling free, maybe even feeling a little…lighter.

And so I did, awakening next day with relief to realize that I had finally done it—I had removed the barrier of Chicken Sheets and Citizen Jim between my mind and “better things.”

I was luckier than Doyle, of course, in that I got no vitriol from the public. This has much to do with the fact there is and never has been a true “public” to feel possessive of Chicken Sheets and Citizen Jim. Not even the very loose shadow of an inspiration for the character of Citizen Jim has read one of the Citizen Jim stories in actual, honest-to-God years.

The exception to this near-total indifference was a weak, disappointed cry from an old friend who’d been reading My Dumbest Idea Yet and, I guess, was enjoying it.

And yet.

Imagine: I was a thousand pounds lighter and fifty feet taller, but I felt like I had to give hope to the one person who called me out on the murder of my darlings. I knew immediately that gifting her this hope might destroy all of my peace of mind and sense of release.

I wasn’t sure of much but I was sure I didn’t want to do that.

I disingenuously tried to comfort my sad friend. This semi-malicious act brought guilt into my heart for the first time since I’d pushed Chicken Sheets off the side of that ferry into the icy waters of the Gulf of Finland (but told everyone she’d jumped because of some weird Kate Winslet birthday-thing).

My guilt created a sort of fissure of regret in the wall of my resolve. It wasn’t, though, a crack I wouldn’t be able to patch up with some spackling and go on my way.

Well. That’s what I told myself, anyway.

Then my conscience stopped believing my lie.

Once my conscience stopped believing me I knew I had to do something to ensure that the end of Chicken Sheets and my friend’s disappointment wouldn’t team up to haunt me for the rest of my days.

From my limited experiences there in my early 20s, I remembered the city of New Orleans as a creepy socioeconomic mishmash of haunted streets containing the ghosts of a billion horse turds and a glut of palm readers, psychics, and voodoo shops.

Because of this, I was prepared to travel 160 miles west of my little Hobbit House and plant myself in the presence of a supernatural cipher to figure out where my life was going in relation to the brutal slaying of Chicken Sheets.

Would I get away with it? If I didn’t get away with it, what form would my punishment take?

If I did escape karmic retribution, what did that mean for my creative life?

These kinds of questions definitely needed to be addressed by a professional.

My mind naturally wandered in the direction of Chicken Man, the Voodoo King of New Orleans whose retail shop I once entered. (In spite of all the weird voodoo gear I saw that day, the weirdest piece displayed was a photo of Chicken Man with Pope John Paul II.)

When I found out Chicken Man died in 1998 (sad!), I figured there was no sense making a round-trip to Sin City (five hours!) without knowing if I could find someone to help me.

Instead, I went to see Willie Mae in Prichard, Alabama.

I had to wait for about half an hour in the back of the laundromat she managed, but Willie Mae finally got a chance to step away from the front counter to tell me what I was anxious to know.

I should have waited, but I blurted out everything before giving her a chance to ask me few questions.

“I got rid of the main character in my stories and my friend Jill was upset about it so I need to know what killing off Chicken Sheets is going to mean for me and my life and for everything I decide to write from now on, and maybe whether or not I’m gonna die in three years like Arthur Conan Doyle when he stopped writing Sherlock Holmes.”

Saying it out loud to Willie Mae certainly didn’t make me feel like I was in possession of all my marbles. Still, typing it out now makes me realize how truly insane I must have appeared to the person whose help I most needed.

Then again, it was hard to tell how many different kinds of crap people spewed at her in the back of the laundromat when they were desperate for consolation or guidance. I could only hope Willie Mae was the pro I’d been seeking.

The woman closed her eyes and held out her hands. I put my hands on top of her hands, and she opened her eyes at the same time that she snatched her hands from beneath mine. “What the hell?” she asked me.

Her icy, angry stare froze my blood and almost made me burst into tears.

“I thought you wanted to feel my energy to answer my questions,” I said.

“I want my money,” she said. “I ain’t doing this for free, now.”

“How much?”

“Regular charge is five hundred dollars, but I can live with four-fifty,” she said. “Rent’s due by 5:00.”

“Are you kidding?” I asked.

She stood up and started walking out of the room without another word.

“Wait!” I said.

She stopped but she didn’t turn around.

“Do you take debit cards?” I asked.

“Usually I do. My Stripe swiper broke. It hafta be cash today,” she said, still with her back to me.

I didn’t have that much cash in my wallet. I felt doom descending on me. I would have to leave empty-hearted, without any of the reassurance or hope I was seeking.

Inside my skull, my brain shouted, “NO!” because I had to do this!

But that much cash wasn’t going to appear in a puff of smoke just because I wished for it.

Willie Mae must have read my mind, because she turned around and smiled, then said, “There’s a ATM out there by the vending machine with all the washing powders.”

That she understood without my saying a word proved everything to me.

I hurried to the ATM, got the money, and made it back in three minutes.

Five minutes after that, I was out the door.

This was after Willie Mae assured me that I was in no danger from the wrath of the universe. She also let me know that Chicken Sheets was in a better place with a better job.

This sounded a little weird to me. “A better job? What job? She’s dead!” I said.

I was afraid Willie Mae might tell me Chicken Sheets wasn’t dead. What then?

I panicked: had I not wound her and Citizen Jim up tightly enough?

“I’m just telling you what I know,” said Willie Mae. “Now I see a book.”

“Is it in a bookstore?”

“No, maybe what I see…” she trailed off.

She was squeezing her eyes shut and grunting, using her palms to push the air down on either side of her. I hoped she wasn’t going to have a bowel movement while we were trying to figure out my future.

Her face relaxed and she continued, “That gotta be a notebook. The front…There’s words…You know a Mr. Pit?”

“Brad Pitt? I don’t know him, but I know of—”

“Wait. Pitt Man! Pitt Man mean anything to you?”

“Like a guy from Pittsburgh? Is it a man in a car pit? Is he changing oil? Is that Chicken Sheets’s new job?”

“It’s a notebook, not a damn car!” she said.

Then it hit me! “Is it a spiral notebook?” I asked.

“Uh…Yeah, uh huh,” said Willie Mae, opening one eye and peering at me.

“Hallelujah!” I shouted.

“That good news?” she asked.

I don’t know why she sounded surprised considering her obvious gifts as a psychic.

“Of course! It’s wonderful news! I’m pretty sure Chicken Sheets is holding a Pitman Ruled Reporter’s notebook,” I said. “That means she’s probably found some kind of newspaper job. Good for her!”

I swear it didn’t sound as crazy then as it sounds, now.

“I didn’t get all that, but okay,” said Willie Mae. “What’s a pitman book?”

I didn’t bother answering. I thanked her and ran out of the back room of the laundromat.

If I weren’t so clumsy and fat I would have leaped up and clicked my heels together as I was running out the door. I was too happy to risk spending six weeks in a body cast.

So I just jogged out the regular way.

I was poorer by $450, but I was rich in hope for the future.

Exit, Pursued by Kazimir

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

If people think communication with the afterlife is hard to establish and nearly impossible to maintain, they’re going to be even more frustrated following that last click of the turnstile when it’s their time to go.

According to my file, I heard that click almost as soon as my head went underwater somewhere in the Gulf of Finland. From that point forward, every moment was swollen with Kafkaesque menace.

But was it really Kafkaesque? Was it even menace? Or was it just a strangeness that I’d never experienced before and couldn’t give a name to?

It might have been a little of both but I had no way of knowing for sure because this was the first time I’d ever been dead. I didn’t even know I was dead until someone said to me, “You have two choices: go back or stay here and work in the Metatron Building as a personal assistant.”

I knew that “go back” meant to return to a state of being alive versus a state of, you know, being dead because I jumped off the side of a ferry into the Gulf of Finland.

What could I do, though? All the things I needed for celebrating the 47th birthday of British movie starlet Kate Winslet were at the hotel—in Tallinn! We were headed to Helsinki! I had to go back to Tallinn, but nobody was willing to insist that the ferry turn around.

The second choice presented to me, “work in the Metatron Building as a personal assistant,” held no real allure, but I was somewhat curious.

When it was explained to me, I knew I wouldn’t be staying behind to become a Girl Friday to Matthew Hopkins or James Joyce or Winston Churchill. Even the thought of working with Ida Tarbell or Eugene Debs or Fred Hampton didn’t appeal to me half as much as getting back to my normal routine.

When I asked what the date would be when I went back, I found out I’d–

“Stop! Stop it right now!”

Imagine how shocked I was when I heard Citizen Jim yelling at me!

“Precious Lamb! Have you passed to the other side, too?” I asked.

“Tell them the truth!” he yelled.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.

“I know you’ve never been friends with honesty or earnestness, but you know exactly what I’m talking about!” he said.

I looked around. “Where am I? What is this place?” I asked. “Are those my cats? Have they crossed rainbow bridge?”

“How long are you going to play this game?” Citizen Jim asked. “How long are you going to make people think you died and then appeared out of the blue? Who would believe it?”

“Believe what?”

“That you’ve magically risen from the grave! And just one day shy of exactly one year from the day you supposedly jumped off a ferry into the Gulf of Finland? And, oh! What a coincidence! It just so happens to be on Kate Winslet’s birthday!”

“Oh my God! Is it really Kate Winslet’s birthday?” I asked. “Gosh, I sure miss her since I passed on.”

“You really should have just called Taylor up and asked her for some advice, because you’ve made a huge mess of this sad little piece of performance art,” Citizen Jim said.

I pretended not to hear him, then spun around a few times grasping at the empty air with a surprised look on my face as if I couldn’t see him, either.

“You just admitted you can hear and see me, but you’re pretending not to. Tell them the truth, for God’s sake. Tell them you got sick and tired of being in a novel the author probably wasn’t even going to finish, anyway, and that’s why you faked a jump into the Gulf of Finland,” he said.

I fell back onto the couch and sighed. “I guess I won’t have to, now, since you just did,” I said.

“You need to tell them everything else, too,” he said. “All the misery and worry and heartache you laid on me when you acted like you were dead.”

“Do I have to right now? Can’t I celebrate Kate Winslet’s birthday first and then be honest about what’s happened in the last year?” I asked.

“Suit yourself, but you have paying customers, you know—people who’ve laid out their hard-earned money to read this crap,” he said.

“I know, but I won’t be able to fully concentrate until I’ve done my yearly birthday prayer and worship for Kate Winslet,” I said.

“Maybe you can stall with something else,” he said.

“I’m not stalling with anything! They’re just gonna hafta wait!” I said. The two statements each ending with an exclamation mark made me feel weird, like I was being inhabited by Citizen Jim’s personality instead my own.

“If they come for you, don’t drag me into it,” he said. “Dr. Watson may have forgiven Sherlock Holmes after the Reichenbach Falls incident, but I’m still on the fence about your little stunt.”

[1] It was a harmless gesture of appreciation for a favor. Apparently, though, his wife—who he’d described to me once as “feisty” in a way that made me think he meant to say “stark-raving mad” or “dangerously insane”—thought this was some type of signal from MI5 to let her husband know they would be whisking him back to England within a day or two—but without his wife and two children. When he told her who he thought might have left it—to thank him for helping move a desk the day before—she made a beeline (fueled by jealousy) for my little Hobbit House with her fists balled up before she even got through the fence gate. I can’t remember how it was resolved, but I do have some vague recollection of an animal control officer, a dart gun, and an ambulance speeding away in the opposite direction of the hospital. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen those people since that day. Huh!

[2] And this was true, as the traffic was considerably less congested if I left five or seven minutes later than everyone else who got on the road at 8:00.

[3] A common reaction to vexation in the Holy Bible.

[4] The Pilot G-2 mechanical pencil has been written about at length in more than one Citizen Jim Story by Chicken Sheets. They’re marvelous writing instruments.

[5] A late-in-life diagnosis of ADHD solved this mystery for Chicken Sheets (which is to say, the author of Citizen Jim Stories by Chicken Sheets, whose name is not really Chicken Sheets).

[6] This is due to plantar fasciitis, “a disorder of the plantar fascia, which is the connective tissue which supports the arch of the foot. It results in pain in the heel and bottom of the foot that is usually most severe with the first steps of the day or following a period of rest.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

[7] Guy 1: Oh God. I got so drunk last night I blew chunks.

Guy 2: That’s no big deal—I always puke after I drink too much.

Guy 1: No, no, man—Chunks is my dog!

[8] Both Pinkie Mosconi and Uncle Carbuncle have appeared in non-Citizen Jim Stories, also as a sort of comic relief.

[9] I suppose this character came to mind based on an actual attorney I once knew who wrote a book called Revenge of the Buck Naked Surfer Dudes: And Other Observations on a World Gone Awry under the pen name B.J. Teller. He may have been retired or he may have been disbarred, but I saw him most weekends at Books-a-Million when I was an assistant manager there. He’d sit near the front of the store drinking coffee and signing books—until he got enough money to go Bruno’s for groceries. Then he’d leave with a wave: “Seeya next Saturday!”

[10] When you get closer to the end of the story, you may wonder if this is foreshadowing a later chapter. It is not.

[11] Yes, I did all of this in an effort to get readers interested in other Citizen Jim Stories by Chicken Sheets, but nobody cared and nobody read the super-long story I chose, “Bitter Belly,” about Citizen Jim and his mama playing a joke on the people in her retirement community to convince them she’d been taken during the Rapture but they hadn’t. It was hilarious!

[12] Like an answer to a financial prayer, Chrissy reverted to being non-diabetic after this story was written.

[13] “The Americans” will make people of a certain age and ideology think about so many things. This is only one of a million thoughts.

[14] Involved in not one but two prostitution scandals, in 1988 and 1991, Swaggart was abject in his apologies after the first incident, defiant after the second. He reemerged into a second-stage evangelical career later.

[15] Resigned after accusations of sexual misconduct within his ministry, and was later convicted of fraud and sentenced to 45 years in Federal prison (this was later reduced to eight years in a minimum security prison). He’s out of jail and hawking over-priced doomsday prepper materials to the same sort of people to whom he sold the Rapture.

[16] I was hoping the medication for my ADHD would help with this, but it hasn’t.

[17] It was certainly a sign of my deteriorating mental state that I turned the nouns “journal” and “scrapbook” into verbs, a trend I have held in the hottest, most violent contempt for the past twenty years.

[18] Again: ADHD. But the medication does help with that.

[19] I found out a year after writing this: amphetamine salts. That’s my confirmed spinster with a cat toy to distract me.

[20] An Estonian newspaper

[21] Fresh curd cheese covered with a layer of chocolate.