"So he's, like, this sponge?” queried Walt over the kitchen table of the trailer on the morning after the night before, "the kind guys like me take into the shower and, you know, use 'em?"

          "Well, not that kind," said Fran, "or... I mean, that kind which is when it's alive, before it's taken out of the ocean and used, dead... I think..."

          "I'd hope," Walt agreed, pointing.  "Guy like that, I wouldn't want against my skin."

          "He lives in a pineapple under the sea.  I read somewhere, I think, that there are religious fundamentalists think he promotes the gay agenda but, also, that nine hundred seventy million, I think... or, maybe, it was seven hundred ninety million dollars worth of Spongebob merchandise was sold over the past year.  Former President Bush – the younger one, he’s a big fan…"

          Walter Fales pondered this.  "Hmmm... do you remember if it was just this year, to date, or a whole year, on the clock... September to September, October to October, however they figured it out..."

          Fran blinked.  She was holding one of those long, women's cigarettes between the index and middle finger of her right hand, a joint of lousy weed between the index and triple-bound ring finger reposed in her left.  Over breakfast this morning, while Elle was gathering books for her junior college Western History and Survey of English Literature classes... they were up to the foppy romantics of the 16th century; Dryden and Milton, and Andrew Marvell, those people... Fran had explained that, as each wedlock rusted, she'd move the token from the left hand to right.  "All but Toby... gave me a poptop from a beer can.  But that was in Nevada, and I was drunk.  You'd think I'd have made a mistake like that when I was this stupid kid, but no..." and she took a quick hit off the joint, a longer draught of the 120, " only took a few weeks to go south, literally.  Toby had all these warrants out on him and was going to Mexico, he said.  He robbed gas stations.  Probably dead now, knifed in some alley behind a Pemex... him and his brothers…"

          "Or else lyin' on some beach next to this guy I used to know..." Walt suggested, thinking, for a moment, about Bill Braxton.

          "Maybe..." Fran pondered, "like who were those Donald Duck guys, the Beagle Brothers on Disney?"  She nodded, "... if he finally pulled off that big score he was always talkin' about.  All of 'em had big ideas, all four and a bunch of others..." and she elbowed Walt in the ribs, "so what about you, big boy?  What's your secret plan for bustin' out of the life, moving up to the big house in the hills with the three car garage..."

          "I have a house in the hills," Walter reminded her, "but it's only a two car garage, and one of the stalls is filled with crap, Scottie has to park on the street."

          "Was meaning to ask you 'bout him," Fran thrust her hips round, squirming for a more comfortable position on the couch, which sported a blue corduroy slipcover and spectral vestiges of dog... more than a year gone, Walt figured by the smell, but less than three.  "Your boy... from what Mishy told me about him it would've fallen apart sooner or later, but... would he have been good for her?" 

          He'd bummed a cigarette off her; it was smoldering in a glass ashtray with the name of a bar on it, resting on a pressboard coffee table with three legs and a cinderblock.  The cigarette was a good friend, Fran was a good friend too... maybe… she deserved something nearer the truth than not.  "He's got a good head on his shoulders, when he takes the time to use it," Walt cautiously said.  Last night, or early in the morning, maybe, slackened by a couple of cans of Rainier Ale that Elle had given him money for (he'd gone into the same fuckin' police-state Gas n' Go he'd had that throwdown with the cleft-palate clerk in on fuckin' nine-oh-eight) he'd told her and Fran most of the story, including the wide shot that Scottie had taken at him.

          "He wasn't trying to kill you," Elle had opined, stealing a hit off another of those coffin nails that her mother had put down.  "Scottie's kinda boring, but he's focused.  He wanted to do you," and she'd pointed the 120 at his chin, like a box-cutter, "you would be dead."

          And now, added to the rest of the tarnish on his good name, she'd turned him into a criminal... technically speaking... one of those dirty old men who buy alcohol for young people for a quarter, or a hit of the sauce.  The gashmouth was gone; there was an indeterminately aged adult foreigner at the register... hard to tell Muslims from the Hindus without their headgear... who'd given Walt the fisheye, suspiciously looking from him to a bunch of kids boarding at the darkened corner where the curb between the Gas n' Go and a used tire place, shut for the night, provided an impromptu obstacle course.  Walt gathered his change, refused the poker-faced invitation to buy stamps or lottery tickets and, with the sixpack under his arm, hurried off, head down, withering under the silent rebuke directed at Elle in the passenger seat of the Town Car.  Well, fuck 'em, he'd decided after the first Green Death, if they didn't like the way Americans lived, they could go back to their own desert.  After the second, what Scottie had almost done to him seemed almost funny – now, in a Wily Coyote, cartoony way...



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          So, watching Spongebob frying and serving up Krabby Patties, Walt lifted his ladies' cigarette... bankrupts can't be choosers, he was coming to terms with that... and said "he'll probably turn out OK.  Doesn't have the vaguest idea about what he wants to be, to do..."

          "Doobie, doobie do..." Fran hummed, rotating her wrist to take a hit off the joint.

          "...but who can blame a kid, blame anyone!  I mean, the economy's so damn fast, and unpredictable, you could spend years getting an education, go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt, and then you have a skill that someone invents a machine to replace, or they send over to India to get done, and you're screwed.  And all of that retraining crap is just a scam... who's gonna go to school for three years, on their own dime, to learn to do something that's obsolete within eighteen months.  Or the government pays for it... yeah, they just put it on plastic..."

          "We pay, one way or another..." Fran said, "we'll pay.  The more that government goes into debt, the more worthless the dollar becomes... you can fool yourself if you don't travel, but the shit's floatin' down, even if you do live in a pineapple under the sea.  I go to the Safeway, understand?... they got this olive oil there, cost two bucks a little bottle at the beginnin' of summer.  Olive oil is supposed to be good for you, right?  Italians don't get heart attacks..."

          "Nah, they get chains wrapped around 'em and then tossed in the ocean, like on the Sopranos..."

          Fran elbowed him again.  "We don't get that fancy cable... I'm tryin' to make a point..."

          "Okay!  Okay!" he laughed, belly rolling above the rim of the boxers he'd worn to bed, the one with medieval lords and ladies posing, crowns and scepters... Missy had packed the one suitcase of his "things" perversely... all his underwear with stupid cartoon pictures on it, old shirts that didn't fit, single socks, gift ties...

          "So it used to be two bucks... it's the cheap stuff, ain't Italian, ain't even Spanish.  I think it comes from Turkey or Algeria, one of those places, I could look, but it's three bucks now.  The dollar used to be worth more than those new Euros, like they were worth ninety cents, and now, because of the plague and those deficits, one Euro is a buck forty, American."

          "At least this place didn’t burn down last year and our money's still worth more than Canadian," Walt rallied.

          "Yeah, but for how long?"



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          The topic of money had also come up as the last can of ale was divided into three grimy glasses that had once held jelly, perhaps, or something... Fran said he could crash at Precious Joy as long as he needed to for seventy dollars a week and Elle... bless her myopic little face... had come to his defense.  "They pay barely minimum at the Dog Pound, not some high-falootin' eight bucks an hour and Walter's trying to get back on his feet... how 'bout fifty?"  In the end, they'd settled for fifty, plus he would chip in for groceries, once he got his check on Friday, and there would be some side arrangement about the use of the Town Car to be determined later (since Fran's fifteen year old Sentra showed signs of developing serious transmission problems).

          It didn't help that Kenny had finked to Barry around his being late on Sunday and, with visible relish, the day manager said, when he'd clocked in, Monday, at 3:56, "'ll be docked half an hour for yesterday, and..."

          "And?" Walt prompted when Mister C seemed to run out of vitriol, Davy hadn't come in and probably wouldn't, and one of the temp cashiers had quit.  (She'd only worked twelve hours a week, but it meant that the day manager would have to either crawl to Mister Z for another hire, or try raiding the night shift... it didn't help that, when Louie strolled in at about five past, Barry snapped: "You're late!"  "Don't get ahead of yourself," Spicotti had yawned back, "you don't have any authority over my timecard," and any possibility the Lou-ster would do Barry any favors was inextricably, inevitably gone!)  Fermeley Haber had left early, almost as soon as Mister C. was out the door, gathering her belongings from the employee shelf and spending almost five minutes in deep conversation with Lula at the window and another five alone, with Louie, in the office before approaching Walter and putting her hand on his elbow. 

          "It's not your fault," she said, and stepped back, a quizzical tension drawing the muscles of his face upward, so that his mouth formed a tiny, almost feminine O, as he looked towards the closed door of the office for help.

          "She's leaving us, hopefully only awhile," Louie said, when Walt brought up the matter.  "Fuckin' county took her kids away... they've had investigators investigatin' for months, even coming round here, undercover.  Said they'd subpoena our surveillance footage - there must be hundreds of hours of it, so Barry signed a statement that she brought her kids in here while she was working... I guess we're considered a sort of hostile environment, you know.  And that crap with the taser... man, society sucks, you know?  She says they cut back on the Head Start, so what else can she do with the kids... actually, she'll be makin' more on welfare than if she tried to line up private daycare.  I'll sort of miss her running commentaries on The Apprentice," the night manager reflected, "and she did score a lot of donations for Project Moonglow or whatever it was, guess I should get over my fear, buy one of those videorecorders and learn to program it."

          "They got lots of them, cheap now," Walter suggested, owing to the fact that Fermeley had been alright by him, too, even with... well, that difference decent people didn't talk about.  "Thing is, now that everyone's buyin' DVDs, it'll be impossible to get repairs, or even tapes, and once that happens, they'll come up with something to replace the DVDs, too."

          "Can't win," Louie sulked.

          "Can't win."

          There was the usual spurt of commerce in the hour before Monday Night Football, then... at around seven... the still of the grave descended over 271st NW and Gerson as if though the agency of the great Vampire Mickey Mouse balloon (of course not-so-great, to Walt, next to the mammoth MP blimp... which, the media reported, was somewhere over New Mexico... but, still, a colossus of fear and confusion to most children under seven).  A chthonic hush... a silence of the lambs.  (And of the pigs and roadkill, their lips and their lungs and their salivary glands.  A blister on one of the sausages on the grill swelled and popped, a wheezing sound escaping from the charred dog.)

          The Chargers had taken a sixteen-fourteen lead over Arizona in the third quarter on the Ukrainian kicker’s fifty-three yard field goal when four of the tidiest young people Walt had seen out of uniform entered... three male, one female... and, in tortured, but earnest English, heavily accented, barraged Crake and the two temps working registers with questions: were pecans in the pecan pie careful sifted to extrude walnuts, peanuts and other contaminants lethal to nut-sensitive consumers?  Were the coffee coffeebeans imported from certified cruelty-free and child-labor-free nations.

          "You saying we're poisonin' yer nuts?" Crake shot back, menacingly, and the two girls... their first language wasn't English, either, but lacked the guttural imperatives of these visitors from the far North... appealed to Walt.

          "Help you people?"

          "Can you guarantee, sir," a young Thor with blond tresses curling down over his backpack addressed the former Triple Ace Achiever of BCM, "that the... the components of..." and he snapped his fingers, repeating, twice, a foreign word...

          "The household animal which is duly prepared..." said the female, whose long, blonde hair framed an eccentric, oval face that reminded Walt of a fish...

          "The hot dogs?" he guessed...

          "Ga!" said Thor, "that they are not of the radioactive or alter the genetic substantial over the meat..."

          "You askin' if I jerk off over the Good Dogs?" Crake's eyes narrowed, suspiciously... “like we was Domino’s or something…”

          "Nah," Walt stepped in before he added something that could get him arrested, maybe even extradited by some United Nations Commission and put on trial in Der Haag.  "You want me to tell you whether these dogs been irradiated, or come from one of those places where they mix cows with sheep, pigs with celery and chickens with chimpanzee DNA, somethin' like that?"

          "Ga!  Ga!" the quartet gabbled... Thor and Fish-face, the fat one with the red face who looked like he'd been drinking beer since about noon, and a quiet-looking one, echoing the others.

          "You look like a bunch of students," Walt surmised, "...any of you familiar with Mister Nietzsche, the philosopher, Freddie Nietzsche?"

          "Ga!" declaimed Thor.  "Der Superman, the being and nothingless..." and Fish-face rattled off something in her native tongue that was distinctly and unmistakably corrective, at best, corrosive, at worst...

          "People," Walt held up his hands in his best imitation of a Geneva diplomat.  "What I am trying to convey to you is the fact that all of the Dog Pound's sausage constituents are, like the Almighty, something unknowable.  They are wholly beyond good and evil..."

          “And nutrition,” smirked Crake.