Here comes the Grateful Man.
He says, “I am grateful for the sunny sky.”
See how dark billows gather and pour torrents of rain on the Grateful Man.
He continues to smile. He says, “I am grateful for liquid sunshine that makes the flowers bloom.”
See how the deluge sweeps away topsoil, taking with it tulips, daffodils, marigolds, and calla lilies.
“The rain carries the flowers down the hill so that people at the bottom can enjoy them, and for this I am grateful.”
The flowers swirl and disappear down a sewer grate.
“I am grateful for sewers,” says the Grateful Man.
He is relentless.
Beware the Grateful Man.
My name is Lance Tinley. After ten years in New York, racing around Manhattan with the other rats, my wife Barb and I were burnt out.
“Lance,” she said, “I hope you’re not going to say, ‘It’s time for us to make a fresh start.’”
“Why don’t you want me to say it?”
“Because I want to say it!”
She said it. Then she squealed and I squealed, and we jumped up and down for an hour.
We sold our condo in Chelsea and looked for the ideal upstate town to begin our new lives.
Slag City was a Rust Belt town, no longer thriving, which meant there were real estate bargains galore. We bought a three-story building on Main Street. Our plan was to live on the upper floors and use the first floor for our new business: Creative Names by Lance and Barb, Inc.
I loved drinking craft beers with names like Hop Devil, and Hop Demon, and Double Dark Hop Demon. I thought, I could do that, I could name beers. I would become a professional craft beer namer. Slag City alone had six craft breweries.
Barb always loved the funny names of hair salons like Julius Scissors and Shearlock Combs, so she would handle that end of our naming business.
We were so excited about starting our own business that we failed to notice the town’s homeless problem, as well as its domestic abuse and murder and obesity and alcohol problems.
One day a fat man in an ill-fitting suit came into our shop. I’d seen him in the town square, conning the homeless with three-card monte.
He was trembling.
“I need a drink bad,” he said, looking at the sample labels on the wall. “Gimme a pint of Hop, Skip, and a Jump.”
“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t sell beer, I just sell beer names.”
“That’s fine, I’m trying to cut down anyway. Gimme the label.”
I served him, then asked, “Are you okay?”
“Do I look okay?” he said, nervously licking the sticky side. “I heard a rumor. He’s coming back. Same again.”
I served him his second label and said, “Who is he?”
He stared at me. “You really don’t know, do you?”
The fat man pointed out the front window with a shaking hand.
“Who do you think made Slag City the way it is?”
“Someone named Slag?”
The fat man snorted. He backed up to the door.
“You’ll see. He’ll come back, and then you’ll see. ”
And with that he was gone, off to find another beer-label shop.
“That was weird,” I said.
“How’s this for a hair salon name?” said Barb. “The Hoppy Hairport.”
“I don’t think you should use the word ‘hop’ in a hair salon name. That’s just for craft beers.”
“Okay. Thanks for the feedback.”
I considered the domestic abuse and drug deals and the other Slag City problems, many of which were visible through our front window.
“This town really is sort of depressed. And the fat guy said one man was responsible. Who was he talking about?”
“Beats me. You know,” said Barb, taking down the hair salon signs with the word ‘hop’ in them, “usually in these towns there’s an irascible old man who can tell you the town’s history. I saw that in a movie.”
“Yes, and Star Wars too.”
“I bet we can find an irascible old man at the local tavern.”
“Yes!” said Barb, getting excited. “He’ll be sitting in the corner, scratching his stubbly beard.”
“And spitting on the floor.”
“What are we waiting for?!”
We hung a sign on our front door that read, gone fishin’—for information.
In the town square, the fat guy was running the same three-card monte on the same homeless people who apparently had yet to learn their lesson.
At the end of Main Street stood the Slag City Tavern.
As we entered the old dark establishment, we were assaulted by the odors of peanuts, stale vomit, fresh vomit, and craft beer.
Our eyes adjusted to the dark, and we saw him. The irascible old guy. Then our eyes further adjusted, and we saw more irascible old guys. There were more irascible old guys in the bar than there were corners for them to sit in.
“Pick one,” I said to Barb. She pointed to an old guy with more teeth than the others.
“My name is Old Peck,” he rasped, “and I’ll tell you the town’s history if you buy me a shot of rotgut hooch.”
“You sure you wouldn’t rather have a pint of”—I squinted at the craft beer menu behind the bar—“Hop-a-Doodle-Doo?”
Old Peck vomited on the floor.
“Rotgut hooch,” I said to the bartender.
We took our seats. Old Peck began his tale.
“This used to be a thriving Rust Belt town,” he began. “Everybody worked at the plant. We made not only rust-colored belts but sienna, tawny, burnt umber—every shade of brown you can imagine.”
He took a sip of his hooch, coughed, and continued.
“Everybody was happy. America was on top. We wore bell-bottoms and danced to REO Speedwagon. Everyone owned a pocket calculator. We didn’t think life could get any better.”
Old Peck’s face clouded.
“Then everything changed.”
He looked at me with pleading eyes. “Gimme a pint of Hoppy Hoppy Joy Joy.”
Old Peck sniffed his beer, vomited, and continued.
“One day we decided to have a little fair in the town square. The theme of the fair was ‘It’s an REO Speedwagon World.’ There would be hot dogs, cotton candy, games with prizes, and lots of dancing to REO Speedwagon.
“There was this new guy in town. We called him Smiley ’cause he smiled all the time. He worked on the belt-buckle line, and he was terrible, always putting buckles on crooked or backward, but I guess he got the job ’cause of his smile.
“Well, he was setting up cutouts of the band with the faces removed so people could put their heads in the holes and pretend they were in REO Speedwagon. And he suddenly stopped.
“‘Hey, everybody!’ he shouted out to us, smiling his big smiley smile. ‘I just want to say I’m grateful, so grateful, for everything. Grateful for this wonderful town. Grateful for the belt factory. Grateful for our prosperity and our families. I’m grateful for this beautiful sunshiny day. Grateful for my bell-bottoms and my pocket calculator. Man, am I ever grateful!’
The old man fell silent.
“So what happened?” I said.
Old Peck took a sip of Hoppy Hoppy Joy Joy and managed to keep it down.
“The sky turned dark. Rain poured down. A wind blew away our pocket calculators. Then it blew away our houses and our wives and our children.”
“Must’ve been a strong wind,” said Barb.
“You ain’t lyin’, sister. All of a sudden, we went from having everything to having nothing. We couldn’t believe it. And then he did it again.”
“Who did what again?” I said.
“Smiley,” said Old Peck bitterly. “He said, ‘Sure, the wind blew away everything we have. But look at us.’”
Old Peck was shaking so much his teeth rattled.
“Then he said, ‘At least we have our’”—Old Peck swallowed hard—“‘health.’”
“I was there,” said a one-armed old guy who had been listening in.
“I knew it was trouble when he said it,” said another old guy with no legs.
“Brap ssss ttt,” said a fourth old guy through a faulty mechanical voice box.
Barb and I glanced around at the bar filled with the aging, unhealthy, unsightly victims of Smiley’s gratitude.
“We did our best to run him out of town,” said Old Peck. “Not an easy task with our lungs failing and our limbs dropping off. But we did it!”
“Yeah!” said the other old guys.
“And he’s never coming back!” declared Old Peck.
“That’s not what the big guy in the town square said,” I told them.
“You mean Three-Card Monte Monty? He’s called Three-Card Monty for short. What did Monty say?”
“There’s a rumor he was coming back,” I said.
Panic gripped the room. The bar patrons ordered drinks and knocked them back faster than the bartender could serve them.
“Everybody be on guard,” warned Old Peck. “If he shows up again, he’ll find something else to be grateful for, and we’re doomed.”
“What does he look like?” I asked. “Big smile?”
“You’ve seen him!” shouted Old Peck.
Everyone ran back to the bar for another drink.
“I’m just guessing,” I said.
“Brrr zpp,” said Faulty Voice Box.
Barb and I walked back to our shop, past the town square, where Monty was returning money to the homeless so he could con them again.
“I thought being grateful brought more good things into your life,” said Barb.
“Me too! I thought gratitude was a good investment. I wrote that down in my gratitude journal.”
I was glad we didn’t stay at the Slag City Tavern, drinking with Old Peck and the limbless patrons, because work was piling up. When we checked our voice mail, we had dozens of requests for names, requests that kept us busy for a month. The best one I came up with was Hoppy Days Are Beer Again. Barb hit a home run with Bangs! Bangs! Your Dreads!
As busy as we were, we never let down our guard. We kept an eye out for anyone who smiled, or anyone named Smiley, or anyone named Grinny, in case he was using an alias.
Thanks to my clever names, the six breweries in Slag City were thriving. Now everyone in Slag City had jobs making craft beer: Old Peck, the old guys at the tavern, even the homeless who were still homeless, because even with steady paychecks, they kept losing money to Monty.
With this newfound wealth, there was a demand for more hair salons, because wealthy people got their hair done several times a day. People came from all over to open salons, and Barb could barely keep up with the demand. Names like Hair Pie and Hair Up Your Ass were not her best work, but no one cared.
The next logical step was to make Slag City the new state capital. Thousands of workers came to build the sleek new modern capital building. Of course, with all the new workers in town, that meant more craft beer breweries and hair salons, plus more casinos and whorehouses.
The revitalization of Slag City was national news, and it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling, thinking our story would make a great movie. They filmed all the interiors right here in town. The Slag City exteriors were done on a Hollywood soundstage. They asked us what movie stars should play us on the big screen. I was realistic, never expecting to be played by Brad Pitt. Instead, my character was a digitized version of a camel with the head of thirties character actor Edward Everett Horton, which is easy to do these days.
Everybody in town got to go to the Academy Awards. It was a thrill to sit in the audience and hear them say, “The Oscar for Best Picture goes to . . . Slag City: A New Hop.”(I got to name the film.)
Everyone from Slag City came onstage and gave a little acceptance speech. The orchestra didn’t dare play us off, not with all the limbless old guys up there.
When it was my turn to speak—I don’t know, maybe it was the bright lights, or the glamorous movie star company, or Barb standing next to me wearing a gown that made her look like a soft-serve ice cream cone—I began:
“I’d like to thank the academy . . .”
And then time stopped. I saw everything clearly. The success we were enjoying was not an accident. It had a single cause:
My gratitude journal.
It’s true. If you want more good things in your life, you must express gratitude in your journal for what you already have. So that’s what I did.
I felt a smile growing on my face. I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t help myself.
“I am just so damn grateful!”
Then the earthquake hit.
Magnitude 7.5. Madness.
Even so, with people screaming and EMS workers combing through the wreckage of the Dolby Theatre, I still couldn’t shut up.
“I’m grateful for these brave first responders . . .”
Who were unprepared for the aftershock that buried them under what remained of the Dolby Theatre roof.
“But mostly,“ I said, dusting myself off, my smile bigger than ever, “I am grateful for my wife, Barb . . .”
Here I come.
I say, “I am grateful for the clear blue sky.”
See how the torrential rain washes away the topsoil and the flowers.
I say, “I am grateful for the second and third and fourth responders who I’m sure will find Barb once they save the movie stars.”
Do I keep smiling? Of course I do. You can call me Smiley.
I’m coming to your town.
See you soon.
Mark Nutter grew up in a motel near Joliet, Illinois, which is not as glamorous as it sounds. He developed a taste for absurd comedy in the womb. Mark has written two short fiction collections (Giant Banana Over Texas, and Sunset Cruise on the River Styx). He’s also written musicals (ReAnimator the Musical), television (SNL, 3rd Rock from the Sun), and film (Almost Heroes).