To Joe and Sheri Lindbloom, brilliant teachers, beautiful friends.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
A RIVERHEAD Book
published by arrangement with the authorp>
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Electronic edition: September 2005
one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.
Whenever the Outer Hornerites looked at the hangdog Inner Hornerites crammed into the Short-Term Residency Zone, they felt a little sick, and also very patriotic. Inner Hornerites were pathetic and whiny and grasping, unlike them, the Outer Hornerites, who for many years had been demonstrating their tremendous generosity by allowing the Inner Hornerites to overflow into the Short-Term Residency Zone. Not that the Inner Hornerites appreciated it. No, they never wept with gratitude anymore, only stood very close together, glaring resentfully at the Outer Hornerites, who, having so much room, had no need to stand close together, and in fact could often be seen drinking coffee at the spacious Outer Horner Cafe with their legs thrown out in the aisles, causing the Inner Hornerites to wonder: Jeez, couldn’t those jerks spare us a couple hundred extra square yards of that vast unlimited country?
For their part, the Outer Hornerites felt that, yes, okay, their country was big, but it wasn’t infinitely big, which meant they might someday conceivably run out of room. Besides, what if they gave more of their beloved country to Inner Horner and some other crummy little countries came around demanding bits of Outer Horner? What would happen to the Outer Horner way of life, which was so comfortable and afforded them such super dignity and required so much space? Well, those Inner Hornerites could take a flying leap if they considered Outer Hornerites selfish, it was pretty nervy to call someone selfish while standing on land they were letting you use for free.
So it went, year after year, with much mutual glowering and many murmured rude comments and the occasional angry word hissed across the border.
Then one day Inner Horner got smaller. It happened without warning; there was a loud scraping rock-on-rock sound and suddenly three-quarters of Elmer, the Inner Hornerite then in residence, was not in Inner Horner at all. That is, every part of Elmer but the octagonal shovel-like receptacle with which he scooped dirt when nervous was suddenly now located in Outer Horner.
Just then Leon, the Outer Horner Border Guard, came by on his rounds, noted the presence of three-quarters of Elmer in Outer Horner, and rang the loud buzzer that meant Invasion in Progress.
The Outer Horner Militia (Freeda, Melvin, and Larry) came rushing over and stood glaring fiercely across the green piece of string that constituted the boundary of the Short-Term Residency Zone.
SUDDENLY, INNER HORNER SHRUNK.
“What are you people trying to pull?” said Larry. “What’s that part of a guy doing in our country?”
“Our country shrunk,” said Elmer, digging nervously in the dirt with his octagonal shovel-like receptacle.
“Oh please,” said Freeda. “You expect us to believe that? Our country never shrinks.”
“Decent countries don’t shrink,” said Melvin. “They either stay the same or get bigger.”
“Take a look,” said Elmer.
And the Outer Horner Militia (Freeda, Melvin, and Larry) looked into the deep heart of Inner Horner, by leaning over the red string that constituted the Inner Horner border, and saw that Inner Horner had, in fact, shrunk.
“Weird,” said Melvin.
“Gross,” said Larry.
“What do we do now?” said Freeda.
“I say we expulse the invaders,” said Larry.
“That sounds pretty good,” said Melvin. “How do we?”
“We just, ah, you know, expulse them,” said Larry. “Watch. Something like this.”
And Larry expulsed Elmer. That is, he pushed the portion of Elmer that was in Outer Horner back into Inner Horner. But since Inner Horner was now too small to accommodate all of Elmer, as the portion of Elmer in Outer Horner was expulsed into Inner Horner, a different portion of Elmer reemerged out of Inner Horner, sort of inadvertently reinvading Outer Horner.
“They’re a scrappy, stubborn people,” said Melvin. “You’ve got to give them that.”
“Sneaky,” said Larry. “That’s what they are.”
“What you need to do,” said someone, with great authority, from over by the Cafe, “is tax them.”
This was Phil, a middle-aged Outer Hornerite generally considered a slightly bitter nobody. Many years before, Phil had, from across the border, fallen in love with a largely vertical, left-trending Inner Hornerite named Carol. He was captivated by her glossy black filaments and transparent oscillating membranes, the delicate curve of her exposed spine, her habit of demurely scratching one bearing with a furry glovelike appendage, and spent many hours casually circling Inner Horner, hoping to catch her eye, inflating and deflating his central bladder in order to look more manly and attractive. But no. Carol was in love with Cal, an Inner Hornerite who resembled a gigantic belt buckle with a blue dot affixed to it, if a gigantic belt buckle with a blue dot affixed to it had been stapled to a tuna fish can.
The day of the wedding was the worst of Phil’s life.
He stood across the border, heartbroken, passing bits of machine oil from his lower strata as the Inner Hornerites performed their marriage ritual, which consisted of standing even more closely together than usual and singing sentimental songs about the enviable compactness of their country.
Over the years Phil’s bitterness increased, as day after day he watched Carol polishing Cal’s belt buckle and playfully opening and closing Cal’s tuna fish can. When Carol and Cal’s son, Little Andy, was born, Phil’s bitterness was complete. He couldn’t help thinking that, if only Carol had used better judgment and shown better taste, Little Andy could’ve been his son. Although if Little Andy had been his son, Little Andy would no doubt have been better-looking and more intelligent and certainly wouldn’t have been given a dopey Inner Horner—sounding name like Little Andy.
“You tax them,” Phil said again. “You charge them for every day they take up room in our beloved land.”
“Wow, great idea,” said Larry. “How much do we charge?”
“How much do they have?” said Phil.
“How much do you have?” Larry asked the Inner Hornerites.
Using his octagonal shovel-like receptacle, Elmer opened the cash box, which occupied the entire northwest region of Inner Horner.
“Four smolokas,” he said.
“Then tax them four,” said Phil.
“But then we’ll have zero,” said Cal.
“Tax them four,” said Phil. “They pay us four, they can stay in the Short-Term Residency Zone the rest of the day. That’s how you do it. That’s fair.”
“Pretty smart guy,” said Larry.
“Yeah, who knew?” said Melvin.
Now, in addition to having been jilted by the love of his life, Phil had another problem, which was that the bolt holding his brain in position on his tremendous sliding rack occasionally fell out, causing his brain to slide rapidly down his rack and smash into the ground. This happened now. His brain slid down, smashed into the ground, popped off his rack, and rolled into a ditch.
“I’ll tell you something else about which I’ve been lately thinking!” he bellowed in a suddenly stentorian voice. “I’ve been thinking about our beautiful country! Who gave it to us? I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of His own. It is not my place to start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why He gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!”