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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

Nor Does He Sleep

             After the divorce, Lionel took Madge, who was his African Grey Parrot, and moved into a nice house in a nice neighborhood in Multioak. He signed the Homeowner’s Association CC&R without reading it. He did not bring any furniture with him to his new house, got a decent job without much effort, and settled into a dazed routine. Lionel had thought he would be miserable, but his only interactions with misery were to occasionally spot it passing in the distance, hunting for him in the fog, its pale searchlight sweeping back and forth. It would find him someday, he assumed. It seemed inevitable. But until then, he would try to appreciate the state of non-misery in which he had been fortunate enough to land. The odds had not been in his favor.

               Lionel slept on his carpeted bedroom floor beneath a blue-and-brown afghan his grandmother had made for him. He ate take-out food standing up at the kitchen counter or in the car on the way home from wherever he had gotten the food. To pass the time, he either re-read books he’d owned for decades by the light of a desk lamp on the floor, watched movies from an illegal streaming site on his tablet, or talked with Madge. Lionel liked talking to Madge because he knew that if anything she said made sense, it was by accident. He sometimes also took showers that he did not know how to conclude until the hot water ran out.

               On a Saturday morning at the very end of November, Lionel woke up to the sound of neighborly merriment happening outside. He rose from the floor with the afghan draped over his narrow shoulders and pulled the blinds aside to look out of his second-story bedroom window. His neighbors were decorating their houses for Christmas. Not just some of his neighbors, but all of his neighbors. At every house that he could see from the vantage point of his window, Lionel saw neighbors stringing lights along their gutters, neighbors driving the pointed ends of giant wooden candy canes into their snow-dusted lawns, neighbors inflating inflatable Christmas inflatables.

               Lionel turned to Madge, whose perch he carried from room to room with him whenever he thought he’d be somewhere for a while, and said, “It looks like we’re going to be the only house on the street without any Christmas decorations.”

               “Rain or shine,” said Madge. “What a mess. How rude.”


               Later that day, when afternoon had become indistinguishable from evening, a knock at Lionel’s front door jarred him from a deep reverie. He found himself in the downstairs bathroom, leaning back against the sink with his arms folded. He did not know what he’d been thinking about. At the second knock, Lionel went to answer the door. There, he found a little plump man on his porch. The man wore an Air Force veteran cap and a thick coat that was nonetheless form-fitting, almost. He had great babyish eyes and the neighborly smile of a smiley neighbor. The hairs in his thick mustache were of three colors: red, black, and gray.

               “Hello,” said the man. “Gettin’ dark.”

               “Yeah,” said Lionel.

               “A lot harder to put your decorations up in the dark,” said the man. “Dangerous, too.”

               “Oh,” said Lionel. He did not know where this was going.

               “Do you need some help?” asked the man.

               “With what?” asked Lionel.

               “Putting your Christmas decorations up,” said the man.

               “I don’t have any Christmas decorations,” said Lionel. “Who are you?”

               “We’ve met,” said the man. “I’m with the HOA. I went through the CC&R with you.”

               “What’s the CC&R?” asked Lionel.

               “The Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions,” said the man. “One of the conditions of living here is that every house on this street must participate in our annual Miracle on 39th Street event.”

               “Miracle on 39th Street?” said Lionel.

               “That’s the street we live on,” said the man. “39th Street.”

               “I know that much,” said Lionel. “What did you say your name was?”

               “We’ve met,” said the man.

               “I understand that,” said Lionel. “I forgot your name.”

               The man huffed through his nose. He said, “People come from hours away to drive through our Miracle on 39th Street event. They tune their radios to 88.1 FM and they hear a mix of Christmas songs that we make. We update it every year, but we always keep a few classics in there. And Nancy, I don’t know how she does it, exactly, but she hooks all of our lights up so they blink in different ways to the rhythm of the music. Different lights blink at different times. So some lights on some houses might be synced to the kettle drums in some songs, whereas other lights might be synced to the sleigh bells. And anyway, the Miracle on 39th Street event starts tomorrow, which is why everyone is setting up their decorations and displays today. The first day is always one of the biggest in terms of how many cars come through.”

               “I don’t have any Christmas decorations,” said Lionel.

               “But everyone has to participate,” said the man. “It’s all in the CC&R that you signed. How’s it going to look if every house is covered in lights and decorations except yours, which is just dark and drab? Is that going to look like an actual miracle has occurred on 39th street?”

               “No,” said Lionel. He was certainly willing to admit that much.

               “So you’re going to put up your Christmas decorations?” asked the man.

               “I don’t have any,” said Lionel. “I don’t even have furniture.”

               “So you’ll go buy some?” asked the man. “And then put them up on your house?”

               “No, I don’t think so,” said Lionel. “I’m not going to do that.”

               “You have to,” said the man. “You signed the CC&R!”

               “Well, I’m not going to put up any decorations,” said Lionel.

               “Then you’ll be fined!” said the man, stomping his left foot in a way that could have actually been intimidating to someone other than Lionel in his current state.

               “All right, I’ll pay the fine,” said Lionel. “How much?”

               “You’re just going to pay?” asked the man. “It’s going to be much more than the cost of a few Christmas decorations. You don’t have to go crazy with them, just a nice amount so it’s clear to the people visiting our street that you’re participating along with everyone else.”

               “No, I’ll just pay the fine,” said Lionel. “Let me know how much it is and when the deadline for paying it is.”

               “It’s going to be hundreds of dollars,” said the man. “I’ll have to check, but it’s going to be hundreds of dollars.”

               “Oh, good,” said Lionel. “I thought it might be four figures.”

               “It might be,” said the man.

               “Well, whatever,” said Lionel. “Let me know. Good night.” He closed the door and went to check on Madge, who was shuffling back and forth on her perch.

               “Not by a long shot,” said Madge. “Not half bad. I’m over the moon. Big deal.”


               In less than an hour, the man from the HOA was back. This time, his knock on the front door rang with resentment. Lionel rose from the floor where he had been sitting against the wall in his empty living room and reading a collection of science fiction short stories he’d acquired at a garage sale when he was 13.

               The man was not alone this time. Behind him stood three people – two women and a man – bearing boxes filled with Christmas decorations.

               “We thought of a solution,” said the HOA man. “This way you won’t have to buy decorations, you won’t have to put any decorations up, you won’t get fined, but it will still look as if you’re participating in the Miracle on 39th Street event. You will be participating in the Miracle on 39th Street event, in a way.”

               “What do you mean?” asked Lionel.

               The HOA man motioned with his gloved hands to the people behind him. “Some of our neighbors have generously volunteered to put some of their spare decorations on and around your house. These decorations aren’t bad, they just don’t fit with the current themes of these neighbors’ displays, or they’ve been upgraded. But they all still work, they’re still nice, your house will not look noticeably worse than any of the lower-tier displays on the street. It may actually look better than some.”

               “I’m not going to put those up,” said Lionel. “Sorry.”

               “That’s not what we’re offering,” said the HOA man. “We’re going to put them up for you. You won’t have to do anything.”

               Lionel regarded the man with his habitual blankness, but he felt something beginning to stir inside of him, a little worm of irritation twitching in his gut. It frightened him. If irritation had found him, could misery be far behind? Worse, he could already feel the twitching of the worm of irritation impacting his thoughts, influencing his decisions.

               “No,” said Lionel. “You can’t put anything on my house. You can’t put anything in my yard. I’m not participating.”

               The HOA man appeared to notice the change in Lionel’s tone. “Is it the electric bill you’re worried about? I can promise you it won’t be nearly as high as the fine would be. Not nearly. You’ll come out way ahead if you let us do this for you.”

               “No,” said Lionel.

               “All right,” said the man. “We’ll compare your December electric bill to your November electric bill, and I’ll pay the difference.”

               “No,” said Lionel.

               “I’ll pay your December electric bill outright,” said the man. “I’ll pay the whole thing.”

               “Get off my porch,” said Lionel. “Take your decorations. I’m not participating.”

               “You’ll have to pay the fine!” said the man.

               “I know,” said Lionel. “I was already planning on that.”

               “Please,” said the man. “We’ve been doing this for 15 years and we –”

               Lionel closed the door in the man’s face and returned to the living room.

               “Too much of a good thing,” said Madge. “Long way to the top.”


               Lionel paced in his empty living room. Madge watched him with one perceptive eye, her head swiveling back and forth to track his progress. After a minute, Lionel felt ashamed of his open display of agitation, and he returned to his seated position against the wall, picking up his book where he’d left off when the knock had interrupted him. Was this really the story he had been reading? What was all this about “conjoined clones” and “psychic rifts” and “perpendicular timelines?” For the first time since he’d moved into the house, Lionel felt physically uncomfortable. Sitting against the wall made his back hurt. Changing the position of his legs only shifted the discomfort to a different part of his back. What he wanted was a chair. This realization made Lionel furious and he flung the book across the room. There was nothing to impede its flight, so it struck the opposite wall and fell to the carpet.

               As Lionel struggled to his feet, Madge said, “What’s so funny? Not so hot. Go for it.”

               “What does that mean?” asked Lionel.

               Madge seemed surprised to be addressed in this tone. She clammed up.

               “I’m listening,” said Lionel. “You might think I’m not, but I am.”

               Madge shuffled to the opposite end of her perch and began grooming the feathers on her breast.

               Lionel left the house to run errands, any errands he could think of. He had lost his cover, and he wanted to be actively mundane, he wanted to move swiftly through mundane spaces and accomplish mundane tasks. Maybe as a moving, unthreatening target, he would be difficult to pin down until the fog could again close in around him.

               As he pulled out of his driveway, Lionel noted the attention of his neighbors. It was not friendly attention, their faces blinking different colors of disapproval as the strings and sheets and blobs and waves of lights layered over their homes pulsed to the rhythm of a holiday song that Lionel could not hear.


               To an extent, the errands worked. By the time Lionel got back to 39th Street, he had not quite disappeared into the fog again, but had successfully reduced himself to an inconspicuous silhouette, all but stilling the worm of irritation in his gut. He noticed the looks of his neighbors as he drove past them, but did not interpret the looks, did not even think to try. He found himself looking forward to returning to that book he’d thrown across the room. When he was in the proper headspace, he liked all that nonsensical sci-fi terminology, he found it soothing.

               Lionel almost drove past his own driveway. Then he realized, no, this was his house, he just hadn’t recognized it because it was covered in Christmas lights. There was also a flimsy wooden cutout of Santa’s sleigh on his roof, a manger scene with all the human characters missing in his front yard, and a plastic figure of some kind of Christmas monster he was not familiar with strapped to the post of his mailbox. Lionel swerved into his driveway, stopped short of the garage, and emerged from the car feeling eyes upon him. But when he turned in a circle searching for his spying violators, he did not see them. All of his neighbors who were outdoors were focused on putting the finishing touches on their own displays.

               Lionel tried not to think about his own feelings as he strode around the side of the house, searching for the main source of his imposed Christmas display’s power. In the back yard, he found a thick, orange extension cord running up to his roof. The female end of the cord was out of reach. He turned and followed the cord to where it ran beneath his back fence. He grabbed the cord with both hands and yanked, but nothing happened. He tried twice more to no avail. It was as if the male end of the cord had been welded into whichever it outlet from which it was drawing power.

               Hedge clippers. If Lionel could find the hedge clippers, he could cut the power cord. Did he have the hedge clippers? Were they in the garage? He entered the house through the back and tracked wetness across the kitchen floor on his way to the garage. From the living room, Madge called, “Hard work! Not so fast! Better to give!”

               “Shut up!” shouted Lionel.

               “You’ll electrocute yourself!” called Madge.

               Lionel stopped with his hand on the knob of the door leading from the kitchen to the garage. He stared at his hand and the knob. To Madge, he called, “What?” and in this stalled moment, Lionel realized that the worm of irritation in his gut had grown and transformed into a glowing serpent of fury, and that this glow – made literal in the form of the Christmas lights on his house – was a beacon for misery, and he realized that misery had followed that beacon and was now hovering overhead, and misery reached down into the fog, guided by the glow of the serpent of fury within Lionel, and plucked Lionel up with a robotic tentacle, and the clash of mismatched and imprecise imagery only served to make it more powerful, and Lionel sank to the floor, overcome. He was in misery.


               Lionel crawled upstairs to his bedroom and pulled the blue-and-brown afghan over him like a burial shroud. He had not turned on the light in the room, but the Christmas lights on his house and the Christmas lights on his neighbors’ houses penetrated the blinds in his window and cast his room in varying shades of merriment. This strange lighting contributed to the misery in which Lionel was now encased. Everything contributed to the misery. All of existence had turned traitor and joined up with the misery the moment it had found Lionel. All of the carefully curated neutrality with which Lionel had surrounded himself had revealed itself to be against him the moment the worm of irritation had changed to the serpent of fury and used the glow of the unwelcome Christmas lights to summon the misery to Lionel’s hiding place in the fog.

               With the afghan over his face, Lionel heard tiny footsteps approaching on the carpet. They stopped next to his head.

               “I should have closed the door,” said Lionel.

               “I saved your life,” said Madge.

               “I doubt the hedge clippers are even in the garage,” said Lionel.

               “You weren’t thinking clearly,” said Madge. “You may have tried something else. You may have tried to gnaw through the cord.”

               “You aren’t making me feel better,” said Lionel. “Not at all.”

               “That’s an immature way to categorize every interaction in your life,” said Madge. “You do it with people, you do it with me, you even do it with inanimate objects.”

               “It was working,” said Lionel. “It had worked for months.”

               “So that’s what you want?” asked Madge. “You want to go back to how it was for the last few months?”

               “Yes,” said Lionel.

               “That sucks for me,” said Madge. “You know you haven’t communicated a coherent thought to me since the divorce? It’s just been a string of disconnected clichés. Awful.”

               “You prefer me like this?” asked Lionel. “Is that what you’re saying? You want me to be in misery?”

               “I want you to be in something,” said Madge.

               “You sound like Judith,” said Lionel.

               “I’m one of the best mimics in the animal kingdom,” said Madge.

               “If you want to make me feel better,” said Lionel, “then go fly around outside and take down all those lights our neighbors used to vandalize our property.”

               “I don’t want to make you feel better,” said Madge. “I want you to feel better because you are better.”

               “So you’re a traitor too,” said Lionel. He thought about telling Madge about the worm and the serpent and the glow and the fog and misery’s robotic tentacle, but he doubted his ability to articulate it in such a way that she would understand the gravity of the situation. She would laugh at the metaphors’ mixed-ness and their logical inconsistencies, and she had a very piercing laugh.

               “Are you going to bring my perch in here tonight?” asked Madge.

               “No,” said Lionel. “I’m not getting up.” After a slight rustling of feathers, he heard tiny footsteps departing. Then he heard the door close, and he had no idea how Madge could have managed that, and it almost made him curious enough to get up and ask, but no, he was too deep in misery to do that. He stayed where he was and instead contemplated the traitorous nature of everything.


               The next day was Sunday, and Lionel spent it how he had spent every Sunday since he’d moved to Multioak: sleeping late, eating a bland meal, and spending unstructured, unfocused time in different rooms in his house. The difference was that this time he did all those things while in misery, so instead of time evaporating in big, vaporous chunks, Lionel felt like he was hacking his way through every second. He did not set foot outside of his home. The decorations stayed up. The serpent of fury that had animated Lionel’s brief intention to hunt for the hedge clippers had gone dormant ever since misery had grabbed him, and he did not have the energy to spend hours going up and down a ladder in order to reclaim his right of non-participation in the Miracle on 39th Street event. And he didn’t own a ladder. He would have to borrow a ladder from one of his neighbors, and he suspected they would not loan him one because they would know why he wanted it and would not approve.

               When the sun went down, the Christmas lights came on all at once in the whole neighborhood. Lionel surmised that they were connected to some sort of central source, a master switch, which only made sense since they were all synced to the same music. Lionel was relieved that he would be spared the music, at least, but that did not turn out to be the case. Many of his neighbors had set up speakers in their driveways to blast the music for the benefit of the Miracle on 39th Street visitors who were on foot. Lionel soon discovered that there was not a room in his house in which he was sufficiently insulated from the music. His best option was the downstairs bathroom with the fan running, which would have suited him fine when he was not in misery, but now that he was in misery, he found the bathroom to be just too uncomfortable of a location in which to spend an entire evening.

               And this was only the first night of the Miracle on 39th Street event. Lionel didn’t know any specific details beyond what he remembered of what the man from the Homeowner’s Association had told him, but he knew the event must run through Christmas, at least, and probably through New Year’s Day. How would he withstand it? How much deeper within misery could he possibly go?

               Lionel went to his front window, which had neither blinds nor curtains, and stood there with his hands attempting to squeeze the life out of each other behind his back. His pulse pounded pain in both of his temples. He felt exhausted and also felt the impossibility of sleep. He watched the unbroken stream of cars chug past his house at slower-than-walking speed. He watched bundled couples and families walk past his house at exactly walking speed. He watched the faces of the people – those on the sidewalk and those visible through the windows of their vehicles – as they took in the decorations on his home and accepted them without hesitation. Lionel watched them take his participation for granted. Not a single one of them showed even a glimpse of doubt that his house might belong to someone who was being forced to participate. None of them, not a single one, displayed any sign that they suspected what his participation had cost him.

               Madge had kept a polite distance all day, but now, to Lionel’s reflection in the window, she said, “A lot of people find the holidays to be an especially difficult time of year.”

               “I’m going back to the bathroom,” said Lionel.

               “It’s possible to be sad without being miserable,” said Madge. “It’s possible to be disappointed and feel guilty without being miserable.”

               Back in the downstairs bathroom, Lionel was just about to turn on the fan in order to muffle a dance mix of “Good King Wenceslas” when he heard a knock on the front door. His instinct was to not answer it. He knew that whoever was at the door, they were on misery’s side along with the rest of all that existed. However, this thought was followed by a perverse desire to prove himself right, so Lionel exited the bathroom, went to the front door, and answered it just as a mother and two small children were turning away. When they heard the door open, they spun around again, the mother beaming a smile of pure panic, the young boy looking annoyed, and the younger girl contorting her face in ways clearly meant to relieve pressure on her bladder.

               “I’m so sorry,” said the mother. “We were out walking, enjoying the lights, and Marissa, my daughter, suddenly said she had to go to the bathroom, and it’s an emergency, and I didn’t know what else to do except knock on the door of the closest house, and we just happened to be in front of – ”

               “Come in, come in,” said Lionel. “Hurry! The bathroom’s right down that hall on the left.”

               “Thank you,” said the mother, pushing her daughter ahead of her as she rushed past Lionel. “Christophe, just stay and talk to the man until we’re done. We won’t be long!” They thumped down the hall in their boots and slammed the bathroom door behind them.

               “Did you only let us in because you think my mom’s pretty?” asked Christophe. His nose was red with cold, but dry, which was a relief to Lionel who was disgusted at the sight of nose wetness in others.

               “No,” said Lionel. “I didn’t want your sister to have an accident on my porch.”

               “Where’s your furniture?” asked Christophe. Lionel guessed that he was 10.

               “I don’t own any,” said Lionel.

               “Is that your bird?”

               “Yes,” said Lionel. “Madge.”

               “Does she talk?”

               “She talks a lot,” said Lionel.

               “What can she say?” asked Christophe. He approached Madge’s perch with conscious bravery.

               “All kinds of things,” said Lionel. “She still surprises me and I’ve had her for 15 years.”

               “What should I say to her?” asked Christophe.

               “Just say ‘hello,’” said Lionel. “She likes it when you say her name too.”

               “Hello, Madge,” said Christophe.

               Madge shifted from foot to foot on her perch, bobbed her head, and said, “Laugh it off. Time’s up. Look no further.”

               “Ha ha!” said Christophe.

               In the hall, Lionel heard the bathroom door open and the steps of differently-sized boots attached to differently-sized strides.

               “Thank you so much,” said the mother. “We made it just in time!”

               “No problem,” said Lionel.

               “I normally wouldn’t impose on a stranger like this,” said the mother. “But I figured since you were participating in such a nice, family-friendly event, you wouldn’t be a grump or a creep or anything like that. I knew you must be a nice person.”

               “Marissa, come here,” said Christophe. “Come say hello to this bird! Her name is Madge.”

               “Will she bite?” asked Marissa. She looked at Lionel. There were vestiges of shame at everyone’s knowledge of her bathroom emergency in her expression, and Lionel felt her shame like a dart in the heart.

               “No, she won’t bite,” said Lionel. “She’d love to talk to you. Go say ‘hi!’”

               Christophe took his sister by the hand and led her over to Madge’s perch. Madge lowered her head and turned it to one side so she could train one beady eye on the little girl.

               “She’s listening,” said Lionel.

               “Hi, Madge,” said Marissa.

               “Buy it in bulk,” said Madge. “Show ‘em who’s boss. None of my business.”

               Marissa broke into a huge grin, Christophe burst out laughing, and the mother beamed a smile without a trace of panic in it at Lionel. She touched his elbow, too.

               Within Lionel, the glowing serpent of fury that had been the wriggling worm of irritation began to shed its skin. As Lionel waved goodbye to the family, he recognized the new form of the creature in his gut: it was a caterpillar of hope.


               Wearing the only coat he could find and the only hat he could find, Lionel walked down 39th Street among the visitors on the sidewalk, eavesdropping on their comments, noting the displays they liked the most, the ones to which they seemed ambivalent. Quantity of lights seemed to be a major deciding factor. The more densely-packed the lights on a property, the more the visitors stopped to gawk and take pictures in front of it, ooh-ing and taking wild stabs at specific numbers. Lionel did not know if their guesses were correct or not, absurd or not.

               16 houses down from his own, Lionel stopped in front of the most impressive display he had yet seen. He didn’t think it would be possible for the house to be much more decorated than it was. The effect was impressive.


               It took Lionel a moment to recognize the man from the HOA, the one who had forced the decorations upon him.

               “Glad to see you out and about!” said the man. He clapped Lionel on the shoulders as if there were no tension between them. “What do you think of my display?”

               “This is your house?” asked Lionel. All around him, people exclaimed over the extremity of the display, speculating aloud about the devotion a human being would have to possess to accomplish something like this. And all to make them happy!

               “It’s mine, all right,” said the man.

               “You put all this up since yesterday?” asked Lionel.

               “Oh, no,” laughed the man. “No, no, we usually get started right after Halloween.”

               “Ah, I should have known,” said Lionel.

               “Do you like it?” asked the man.

               “I like how much everyone else likes it,” said Lionel. “The visitors. They love it.”

               “Yes,” said the man. “That’s the goal. That’s the point of the whole thing. Now you’re starting to get it. That’s the miracle of the Miracle on 39th Street event: the way it impacts the visitors.”

               “It’s so bright,” said Lionel, squinting as he looked at the house, the different colors blending together into a twinkling, rippling mass of light.

               “Sure is,” said the man. “All our neighbors have black-out curtains.”

               “Has joy found you?” asked Lionel. “I would think joy would have a pretty easy time finding you.”

               “Has joy found me?” asked the man, his brow wrinkling. He had been enjoying the normality of the conversation, and didn’t appear to care for this injection of strangeness.

               “Has it?” asked Lionel.

               “Like, am I joyful?” asked the man. “Sure, I’d say so. I get a kick out of this time of year. You could call it Christmas spirit, I suppose.”

               “Well, have a good night,” said Lionel. He turned on his heel and headed home without waiting for the man’s response.


               “So now you want to participate?” asked Madge.

               “Yes,” said Lionel. “But no, not just participate. I need to stand out. I need to be above the rest.”

               “And this is because of those kids who talked to me?” asked Madge.

               “Yes, sort of,” said Lionel. “That was the first time I’ve felt anything good since the divorce. That’s the direction I need to go.”

               “Why isn’t just participating good enough?” asked Madge. She dipped into her seeds, scattering more onto the floor than she got into her beak.

               “I don’t want to say,” said Lionel.

               “It’s about the caterpillar in your gut,” said Madge. “Isn’t it?”

               “Yes,” said Lionel. “I can’t explain it how you’d understand it, though.”

               “Caterpillars make cocoons,” said Madge. “They emerge as something else. You’re hoping that if given the right conditions, which you will accomplish by pleasing the visitors to the Miracle on 39th Street event, the caterpillar of hope in your stomach will spin a cocoon, transform, and emerge as a butterfly of contentment. And that contentment will create a glowing beacon, represented by the literal glow of the Christmas lights on our house, that will summon joy to you, and joy will break you out of misery, and you will be transported away from misery by joy.”

               “Exactly,” said Lionel. “I guess you know all about it.”

               “It won’t work,” said Madge. “I know that much.”

               “Ah, shut up,” said Lionel. “You don’t know anything about it.”


               The next morning, Lionel got up early, called his workplace, and quit. Then he took his car to Never Not Christmas, Multioak’s year-round Christmas supply retailer, and purchased an extension ladder – which the employees had to help him strap to his car’s roof –, a few more extension cords, and an enormous quantity of Christmas lights. He did not even consider the other varieties of decoration: no cutouts, no plastic figures, no inflatables. He needed the brightness, the glow, the beacon to joy.

               Lionel spent the rest of the morning, afternoon, and early evening getting the lights onto his house. He was not practiced and almost fell off of the roof more than once, but he stuck with it, and the more he worked, the more adept he became, so the efficiency of his Christmas light application increased as the day went on. He figured as long as everything connected back to the cord running from beneath his back fence to the back of his roof, then the new lights would sync with the music just like the others. By the time night two of the Miracle on 39th Street event rolled around, Lionel’s display was drastically improved. As he stood in his front window and watched the faces of the passersby, both walking and driving, he noted a marked increase in the appreciation he saw on their faces when they looked at his display. And within his gut, the caterpillar of hope matured. It would, Lionel told himself, begin to spin its cocoon soon. And maybe there was a way to speed it up. It seemed to be nourished by the pleasure of the Miracle on 39th Street visitors. The next morning, Lionel was back at Never Not Christmas, then back on his front lawn, back on his front porch, back in his front flower bed, back on his ladder, back on his roof, stringing and stringing and stringing lights. That night, the appreciation of the visitors who looked at his house began to show signs of awe within it. The caterpillar of hope in Lionel’s gut loved those signs of awe within the visitors’ appreciation of Lionel’s display. It matured even more. It began to think about a cocoon. It was in the planning stages. Next morning, Lionel was back at Never Not Christmas.

               “More lights?” asked the sales clerk.

               “Just ring them up,” said Lionel. “You don’t have to comment.”

               That afternoon, while Lionel was making his way across the peak of his roof to take down the wooden cutout of Santa’s sleigh to make room for more lights, the man from the HOA came strolling into his yard. “You’re really getting into it, huh?” the man called up to Lionel.

               “Yes,” said Lionel. “I am.” He examined the base of the sleigh, trying to figure out how it was attached to his roof.

               “Looks like you’re almost trying to have as many lights as we do,” called the man. “My wife and me, I mean.”

               “I’m trying to have more than you,” said Lionel. “Almost there.”

               The HOA man chortled. “No, no, I’d say you’re a ways off still. You got a late start, it’d be pretty tough to compete at this point.”

               “Did you nail this to my roof?” asked Lionel. He straddled the peak and tried to push the sleigh one way, then the other.

               “Actually,” said the HOA man. “Since you have plenty of your own lights now, the people who loaned you lights want theirs back.”

               Lionel stopped struggling with the sleigh long enough to say, “It’d be impossible to separate mine from theirs at this point. I’d have to take everything down.”

               “Well, then maybe you’ll have to do that,” said the man. “They were pretty insistent.”

               “I didn’t ask for them in the first place,” said Lionel. “I said I didn’t want them, but you put them up anyway. They’re staying.”

               “I don’t see how it’s really your decision,” said the man.

               With a grunt, Lionel grasped the sleigh cutout with both hands and wrenched it free of the roof with a groan of a wood, tearing of shingles, and popping of nails. He did not lose his balance nor come close. He felt very comfortable on the roof these days. He flung the sleigh off of the roof toward the HOA man, who had to spring backward to avoid being struck.

               “You’ve lost it!” shouted the HOA man.

               “You wanted me to participate,” said Lionel. “This is how I participate.”

               “You know, I think I could fit a few more lights onto my property,” said the man. “A lot more, actually. Think I’ll head over to Never Not Christmas, see if they have any I like.”

               “Do that,” said Lionel. “Do that. I’ll be right behind you.”

               The HOA man stalked down the sidewalk toward his house. In Lionel’s gut, the new cocoon spasmed. Lionel winced.


               The HOA man did add more lights to his house, but so did Lionel. But then the HOA man added more lights to his house, and Lionel did as well. This happened a few times. Repeatedly. Lionel was adding more lights to his house than the HOA man was adding to his, but the rate at which Lionel was closing the gap had slowed significantly. Another problem was that the HOA man’s house and property were both much larger than Lionel’s, which meant that they could accommodate more lights as a plain fact. Lionel didn’t know what he could do about this beyond selling his house and buying a bigger one with a bigger property and more room for lights, which was not feasible, especially since it would need to be on 39th street to benefit from the visitors who came for the event. And he would need to hire people to help him take his lights down, then put them up again, and, no, it just wasn’t feasible, not in the short time remaining before the Miracle on 39th Street event came to an end. What could he do? How could he compete? How could he possibly draw joy away from the beacon of the HOA man’s superior Christmas display? In retrospect, he should not have antagonized the HOA man by throwing the sleigh cutout at him. But would that one bad decision mean that joy would never find him? That didn’t seem fair. Of course, that hadn’t been Lionel’s only bad decision. There had been many decisions that had led him to his current predicament. He ran through a few more of them in his head, as had become his habit during his time in misery.

               “Why are you moaning?” asked Madge. It was past midnight. The displays were shut off for the night, the visitors had gone home.

               On the floor with his back against the wall, Lionel clutched his stomach. “It’s nothing.”

               “It’s that cocoon,” said Madge. “It’s hurting you again.”

               “The butterfly of contentment is frustrated,” said Lionel. “It can’t emerge until I’m content, and I can’t be content until my Christmas display is the biggest beacon for joy around.”

               “I think you have it mixed up,” said Madge. “I think if you’re content to not have the biggest beacon for joy around, then –”

               “You’re a bird,” said Lionel.

Madge did not dispute this.

Lionel rose and walked to the front window. Behind his back, his hands picked and pecked at each other, squabbling while Lionel’s attention was elsewhere.

“Maybe you should be patient,” said Madge. “Maybe a Christmas display isn’t the only way to create a beacon for joy to find you. Surely, it can’t be that dependent on the season.”

               “I can’t be patient,” said Lionel. “I am in misery. Every second. Do you know what that’s like? And the caterpillar of hope, the cocoon, it makes it all feel worse in the moment because I can’t just resign myself to the misery. The only good thing about it is that it offers the possibility that this might be over soon. Soon.”

               “OK, I get that,” said Madge. “But my thing is, like, I have fundamental issues with this whole system that you describe: the worms, the beacons, the fog, these big concepts searching for you.”

               “I’ll be back,” said Lionel, and he went to the garage, got into his car, and drove away.


               Lionel came back to the house with several new five-gallon gas cans full of gasoline. He poured the gasoline all around the house, inside and out. With Madge on his shoulder, he drove his car down the street, parked it at the curb, and walked back to his house.

               “Think about what you’re doing,” said Madge. “Does this really seem like a good strategy for summoning joy?”

               “All the displays are off for the night,” said Lionel. “This will be the brightest beacon by far.”

               “There’s no one to see it,” said Madge. “The visitors are gone.”

               “The cocoon is opening without them,” said Lionel. “The butterfly of contentment is emerging. It’s now or never.” He stood on the sidewalk facing his property. With the Christmas lights turned off, the only sign of Lionel’s participatory efforts was an odd texture to the shadows on the front of his house, line upon line of green cord and dark bulbs. The aroma of gas was strong in his nostrils. It gave him a headache, but the butterfly in his gut, shaking off the last of the strands connecting it to the cocoon, loved it.

               Lionel lit a match, dropped it to the puddle of gasoline at his feet, and watched the flame race across the lawn and in through the house’s open front door. Within minutes, maybe seconds, the house was engulfed. Even faster, Lionel thought, than was possible with nothing more than gasoline and a match. He felt Madge’s claws digging into his shoulder, her wings flapping against his face, but that was nothing compared to the sensation in his gut as the butterfly of contentment glowed with a brilliance matched only by the beacon of Lionel’s house, and indeed, their glows were the same glow. And as the butterfly of contentment’s beacon flared higher and brighter, it caught the notice, at last, of joy. Joy saw Lionel. It had found him, against all odds, and it was coming for him. He waited in misery, and had never felt so much an inhabitant of misery, had never felt so much that misery was where he belonged, but he was leaving soon, in minutes, in seconds now, joy was coming to transport him away from misery whether he belonged in it or not.

               And now joy was above him. The butterfly of contentment flapped wildly in his gut, whipping his insides into a froth. From joy, a tentacle of flesh came down to him, guided by the beacon, crashing through layer upon layer of misery’s defenses, seeking Lionel like a homing missile. And then it had him, it coiled around his neck, an indelicate way to grasp him, but who was he to question joy’s methods? Joy’s tentacle of flesh began to lift him, and Lionel felt as if his head were swelling, but he was leaving misery, and that was what mattered, and temporary discomfort was nothing compared to –”

               Lionel tried to shout at the sharp, burrowing pain in his stomach, but the shout was strangled by the tentacle around his throat. He looked down to see the cause of the pain, which had become agonizing, and he saw Madge tearing at his stomach with beak and claw, deeper and deeper into his gut. He tried to swat her away, but he was too weak, the tentacle around his neck was making him dizzy, making him see spots at the corners of his vision. In fact, the only thing keeping him conscious was the terrible sensation of his pet African Grey Parrot opening his middle. He looked down again, and Madge’s head was now all the way inside the hole in his stomach. He could feel her rooting around inside of him, snapping and hissing, her claws sunk deep into the flesh around the hole so she could maintain her position and leverage.

               “No, Madge,” said Lionel. “Bad bird.”

               Inside his gut, then, Madge snapped once more, but this time with finality, and when she pulled her head out, there was a huge, dark moth in her beak, its body a series of senseless segments, its wings scattering dust as they shuddered in death. Madge opened her beak once again to gather more of the moth inside, snapped it closed again, and swallowed. The tentacle released its grip on Lionel’s neck, Lionel took one gasping breath, and plunged back down into the fog.

               Perched on his shoulder, Madge pecked gently at Lionel’s forehead. He was not conscious. The house fire roared like a mob. “There’s a first time for everything,” said Madge. “What’s the big idea? Tell me about it. That’s what you think.”

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think a remake of Frosty the Snowman except its Frosty the Inflatable Snowman is as funny of an idea as I do? Unlikely.

  • What do you think it was that found Lionel at the end of the story? What do you think the moth in his gut was?

  • What’s the best thing one could possibly teach an African Grey Parrot to say?

  • What percentage of Christmas decorations should be about “the troops?”

  • Have you been to one of those streets where every house is decorated and they’re all synced to music? To what extent do you pity the people who live there? How sick of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra do you think they are?

  • Name a state of being you’d rather be in than misery. Name a state of being you would NOT rather be in than misery. Name a state of being you’d feel exactly the same about being in as being in a state of misery.