In which Citizen Jim arrives on a special mission from the highest office in the land—a mission that leads him to the doorstep of Chicken Sheets.
As someone who isn’t crazy about the way ointments and moisturizers and balms feel on my hands and lips, the dry air of winter is especially hateful to me. Thus, because we were in the throes of what passes for autumn in the Deep South, I saw winter approaching as a tableau of endless lotion application, always a step or two behind the dry, cracked skin that would torment me through Christmas, Groundhog Day, and halfway through National Frozen Food Month.
I found myself awake at four o’clock in the morning, and after tooling around on the Internet for an hour I was blocked from browsing any further when the “Nuclear Option” on my productivity application went into effect until eight o’clock. That meant I could play my solitaire game (I have a 92-percent win-rate on the Hard setting); I could write (I have a zero-percent success rate for publication); or I could go back to bed (something at which I definitely outclass many of my contemporaries).
After feeding the cat and reluctantly slathering myself in Verbena and Cream Goat’s Milk lotion, I bandaged the split skin on the fingers of my right hand, then I opted for going back to bed.
That was a mistake, and not just because I had dreams about dead people from which I couldn’t wake myself up.
Two hours after starting my sleep do-over I was awakened by the most violent pounding—in my head (from a seasonal sinus-thing) and at my front door (from what sounded like a mallet- and steel-toed boots-thing).
Now I was in a quandary. On top of everything else, the one McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese I allowed myself to eat per year had made my stomach violently reject it and everything else I’d consumed the day before, and refused to stay inside my body while I answered the door.
The pounding and the yelling continued, albeit in an ever-weakening state, even as I flushed the toilet and washed my hands. As I turned the corner I could see that the door wasn’t even locked, so I said, “Stop beating on the door! It’s open!”
“NOW you’re gonna tell me it’s open?” Citizen Jim yelled as he came stomping into my little Hobbit House.
“I’m sorry, I forgot,” I said.
Citizen Jim scowled at me, trying without success to pull the brass knuckles off the swollen fingers of his right hand.
“Wait right here,” I said.
When I returned, he said, “These knuckle dusters might’ve messed up the door, but they also hurt my hands, you inconsiderate little witch!”
He got a weird look on his face when he said the word “witch,” as if he were having the worst gas pains at the same time that someone was telling him his winning billion-dollar Megabucks ticket was counterfeit.
“Are you okay?” I asked, pumping a dollop of lotion into his palm.
“Dang! Dang, dang, and double-dang!” he said as he continued to struggle, finally pulling off the brass knuckles and watching them sail through the air toward the cat box. They landed in a fresh pile of cat mess.
“What’s the matter, Precious Lamb?”
“You ruined it! You made me get ahead of myself and now it’s not going to be as dramatic as it was supposed to be!” he yelled as he rubbed his lotion-tainted hands together.
I went to the kitchen and opened the freezer. I pulled out my $500 ice pack, courtesy of a chiropractor I had only seen a few of the 13 times I was entitled to after letting her staff talk me into a “great deal” that hadn’t yet shown itself to be great or much of a deal.
He snatched the ice pack from me and glowered for a long moment. I could tell he was trying to regain the momentum he’d built up before I accidentally ruined the execution of his plans for the morning.
“I’m glad you came to see me,” I said.
“You’re not gonna feel that way after you find out why I’m here,” he said.
“I doubt that. I’m always glad to see you no matter what,” I said.
“What if I told you I was here to accuse you of being a witch, and what if I had to follow up that accusation with a series of tests that will prove beyond a doubt that you’re a witch—unless you die during the investigation, in which case that may prove you aren’t a witch but it won’t matter because you’ll be dead? What about that bunch of whats?”
“You’re right—considering it’s the weekend, I think that would totally bum me out,” I said. “So don’t do that, at least not today. I have a headache and bellyache and I didn’t sleep well last night. Come back in a couple weeks.”
“No can do, traitor,” said Citizen Jim. He reached around to his back pocket and pulled free a piece of paper folded into a square. “This letter I got in the mail yesterday said the situation is DIRE! It says we need to find all the REAL witches so that the WITCH HUNT against the PRESIDENT will STOP!”
I snatched the paper from him and unfolded it, scanning text that was, like Jim’s previous statement to me, LITTERED with child-like CAPITALIZATION and more exclamation points than a FIGHT scene in a BATMAN COMIC BOOK! At the bottom of the tirade was the unmistakable signature of Donald J. Trump—a signature that few people seem to notice bears more than a passing resemblance to dead Nazi Heinrich Himmler’s signature.*
I handed it back to him. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen, a cheap trick,” I said. “The White House sent those letters out to distract people from the impeachment hearings.”
“You wouldn’t dare say that to a Witchfinder General,” he said, then narrowed his eyes at me. “Unless you were a witch!”
I considered him with an exhausted stare. “Do you want a cup of tea?”
“No, I don’t want a cup of tea. I want you to come with me so I can get my twenty pounds for bringing you to the authorities,” he said.
“Twenty pounds of what?” I asked, moving into the kitchen and filling my electric kettle with water.
“Twenty pounds STERLING, you idiot! That’s what I’m going to get paid every time I find a real witch on my REAL witch hunt—when this Brexit thing goes through and everyone realizes what a great deal Britain has with the US, the value of the pound is going to shoot through the roof,” he said. “And that’s when I’ll cash in.”
“Good luck with that,” I said, dropping a Yorkshire tea bag into my cup. I leaned against the kitchen counter and shook my head. “If you aren’t going to leave and you’re not going to have a cup of tea with me, let’s do what we need to do so I can get on with my day.”
“NOW you’re talkin! You need to find me a needle so I can give you some pokes to find your Devil’s mark. While you do that I’ll go fill your bathtub with water for the swimming test,” he said. He placed a hand on my shoulder. “Thanks for being a pal, Stimpy.”
“Hang on, Hopkins,” I said. “I might have a better idea to help you out.”
He covered his chest with his hands and closed his eyes. “Oh, thank God,” he said, sighing. “Jesus jumping on a waterbed but I’m tired—and I haven’t proved a single person guilty of witchcraft since I left Birmingham yesterday,” he said. “WITCH HUNTING is hard work for not much reward, I’m finding out.”
I agreed before I went on to lay out my alternate plan for Citizen Jim.
“Hey! I think I like it!” he said when I was finished. “The Witchfunder Finder General has a more modern ring to it. But something doesn’t seem right—if I go out and round up all the people donating to Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, that’s still not going to guarantee a victory for Mr. Trump.”
I stayed silent.
“I mean, what about Grandpa Bernie?” he asked. “If Warren doesn’t get the nomination, that means Bernie might be the candidate instead. And if that happens, Trump’ll be sunk. He’s gonna look like a chump. That old grump’s gonna thump Trump’s rump.”
I wanted to come up with a counter-rhyme, but I couldn’t be bothered. Plus, Jim had made my point for me, so.
I shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. But if you can knock Warren out of the race by starving her war chest, you’ll probably get paid more than twenty pounds a head for every witchfunder you find. You might even get paid American federal reserve notes!”
“Are those worth more than US dollars?” he asked, then stood very still, scratching the top of his head and squinting at something in the distance.
“I’m telling you: when Donald Trump hears what you’re doing to help him, he’s going to call you by name in a ‘VERY FINE PEOPLE’ Tweet, I promise you,” I said. “That bully’s nothing if not sort of somewhat, kind of loyal sometimes but not always to the people who blindly follow and praise him without ever admitting what a vile, disgusting, cheap hustler he is.”
Citizen Jim winced and said, “Ow, don’t make me think about that.”
“Yeah, you’d better be careful or the cognitive dissonance might shatter your skull,” I said.
“I need to go,” he said, holding the top of his head with both hands.
“If I can do anything to help you keep Warren out of the race, just let me know,” I said, walking him out the door.
He half-turned and said, “I don’t accept help from traitors. Or WITCHES.”
I nodded. “Fair enough,” I said.
“And you need to fish my knuckle dusters out of the cat box and sterilize them for me,” he called out over his shoulder. “You also better mail them to my house before your demonic familiar lays a curse on them.”
I smiled widely, paying no attention to his parting words as I waved goodbye. I looked behind me at my “demonic familiar,” who was deeply concentrating on burying those brass knuckles under the clumps of litter in her box. I would not be touching them later.
Citizen Jim climbed into his buggy and commanded two gray mules to start moving down the street, a black cloak rising ominously as soon as the wind hit it.
*—After I wrote this sentence I looked it up just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, and I found I am wrong about one thing, anyway: “many people,” to borrow a phrase, have noticed the similarity between Trump’s signature and Himmler’s.