When I came home from work I found Bullwinkle sitting on my couch, drinking a Coke, and watching TV. His legs stretched out so far that he didn't need the remote to turn down the volume; he just tapped the TV's VOLUME button with a hoof so hard it could have put a hole through the screen. He turned his head toward me and grunted as his right antler bumped against the ceiling. I stared into two irisless ink-black pupils, suspended in two big white ovals that took up nearly half his face.
His eyes narrowed. Before I could even think of running he reached out and wrapped his four-fingered hand around my wrist.
"What's the hurry?" he asked, but not in the voice he used on his show. The voice was my father's.
Bullwinkle was the only thing my father and I had in common. Even after we stopped talking to each other, we could still sit in the same room together and watch Boris and Natasha plot to hold the entire world's supply of mustard for ransom and thus raise enough money to buy some beach-front property in the Ukraine. I suppose it made sense that two months after my father died of a stroke brought on by years of untreated hypoglycemia, he would come back as Bullwinkle and live with his son, his only surviving relative.
He let go of my wrist and handed me the empty Coke can. "When did you stop drinking Pepsi?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "I just decided I like Coke better. I can go to the store and get you some Pepsi, if you want."
He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed, not hard enough to cause pain, but hard enough to let me know I wasn't going anywhere. "Sit down and watch with me," he said.
I had to sit on the floor; there wasn't enough room on the couch. A cartoon was on: an enormous bipedal moose, his tubelike legs extended before him, sat on a couch barely wide enough and long enough to support his massive buttocks; on the floor beside him sat a little boy holding a Coke can. When I absentmindedly raised my empty Coke can to my lips, the cartoon boy on TV raised his Coke can. When I looked up at Bullwinkle, the cartoon boy looked up at his moose.
"Bring me another Coke," Bullwinkle said.
"Bring me another Coke," the moose on TV said. The cartoon boy and I stood up, and he walked off-screen as I went into the kitchen, and returned on-screen when I brought Bullwinkle his Coke. Neither the cartoon boy nor I had Cokes of our own. We weren't thirsty.
Bullwinkle and I watched cartoons of ourselves watch cartoons of themselves until Bullwinkle finally drank all of my Cokes.
His hoof tapped the TV's ON/OFF button, then tapped the VCR's EJECT button. A cassette emerged. "Bring me that," he said.
I took out the cassette and examined its label, written in characters that may have been Greek, or Hebrew, or Arabic, or Kryptonese for all I knew.
"I didn't tell you to look at it. I told you to bring it to me." The hand reaching for the cassette could have wrapped around my head and squeezed it like a tomato. I gave him the cassette, and he set it on the couch's right armrest. "I'll put it away later," he said.
Then he clamped his left hand on my shoulder, forcing me to sit down on the floor beside him. He closed his eyes and drooped his head forward, letting the tip of his bent proboscis lie upon his chest.
Within five minutes his snoring brought the woman in the neighboring apartment to my door. But her pounding failed to awaken Bullwinkle, whose grip on my shoulder prevented me from reaching the door. Eventually the pounding stopped, and the woman returned to her own apartment, but then the phone rang. And rang, and rang, and rang, and rang. And Bullwinkle slept.
I was still awake the next morning. Bullwinkle let me go to work. "I want you home by eight," he said. "Don't make me have to look for you." He told me to pick up some Pepsi on the way back. "And make sure it's Pepsi this time," he said. Then his hoof tapped ON/OFF, then RECORD.
"You forgot to load the VCR," I said.
"Don't worry about it. Just go."
I didn't go to work. I called in sick from a payphone, then I called Stephen. I couldn't talk to him; I just cried into the phone. He invited me over. When I arrived he invited me to stay overnight. I told him I had to be home by eight.
I didn't tell Stephen about Bullwinkle, who was still watching TV when I returned with a 12-pack of Pepsi. When I took it out of the bag he said, "Just set it over there," and nodded toward the armrest where the cassette had been.
As I climbed over his legs and placed the 12-pack on the armrest, I noticed a U-shaped tear in the carpet. Before I could examine it further, however, Bullwinkle lifted me up over his legs and set me on the floor to his left.
We watched the cartoon boy and the cartoon moose watch us as Bullwinkle took his first Pepsi from the 12-pack. He offered me one, but I said I wasn't thirsty.
"What else did you get?" he asked, eying the bag I still held.
"Nothing. I just bought the Pepsi."
"No you didn't. Look inside."
I reached inside the bag and brought out a bottle of white-out. I didn't remember buying the white-out. In fact, I hadn't used it in weeks, not since I had finally broken down and joined the masses and had replaced my manual typewriter with a personal computer, the day before, or the day after, my father died.
"May I put this away?" I asked.
He let me climb over his legs and enter my bedroom, where, in the bottom drawer of the dresser beside my bed, I found six more bottles of white-out.
I returned to the living room and the cartoon boy returned with me, climbing over the legs of his cartoon moose and sitting on the floor beside him. The cartoon moose and Bullwinkle finished their first Pepsis and handed the empty cans to the cartoon boy and me. We took the cans into our kitchens, threw them away, returned to our living rooms, and sat back down beside those hairy tube-legs that were almost as thick as our own waists.
Bullwinkle tapped REWIND, and the cartoon boy bolted back up and did not run, but walked, backwards, faster than any flesh-and-blood boy could walk backwards, back into the kitchen, to the trash can beside the dishwasher, and a Pepsi can flew up, out of the trash can, into the cartoon boy's hand, and the cartoon boy rushed, backwards, back into the living room, and handed the can to the cartoon moose and sat back down and the cartoon moose lifted the can to his lips and spat Pepsi into the can and lowered it and lifted it again and again faster and faster and the cartoon boy bolted up and backstepped over the cartoon moose's legs and rushed into his bedroom so swiftly he was a blur, and the whole screen was a blur, a shapeless, throbbing, glowing, sometimes red, now blue, now yellow, now green, now blue again, blur.
Bullwinkle tapped STOP, then PLAY. Now the cartoon boy was in another boy's bedroom. The other boy had a red crewcut and green eyes and thin lips and a long, freckled face, just like Stephen. The cartoon boys kissed. Cartoon-Stephen asked the other boy why he had to return home by eight. He received no answer. They kissed again.
Bullwinkle tapped FASTFORWARD. The cartoon boys kissed again and again, lips, necks, lower, they unbuttoned each other's shirts and kissed shoulders and chests and nipples and bellybuttons and blurred, red, blue, yellow, green, blue.
Bullwinkle tapped STOP, then PLAY. The cartoon boy, sitting up on a bed with his knees extended and his feet tucked under his buttocks, straddled Cartoon-Stephen, who lay on his back, looking up at the cartoon boy, expectantly, impatiently. The cartoon boy kept his head bent downward, his eyes tightly shut. Stephen rested his right hand on the cartoon boy's left thigh, and with his left hand he stroked, and squeezed, and fondled the cartoon boy's penis. The cartoon boy's arms hung loosely at his sides as he slowly, methodically, twisted clumps of the bedsheet, let go, grasped the bedsheet, and twisted it in his hands, slowly, slowly. Stephen let go of the cartoon boy's penis, and in one commaless run-on sentence said, "Something better happen pretty darned quick my hand is getting tired."
"Nothing's happening, nothing's going to happen, I'm sorry," the cartoon boy said.
FASTFORWARD, blur, PLAY. And the cartoon boy had returned to his own living room, seated beside the cartoon moose, watching me watch him.
I looked up at Bullwinkle but our eyes did not meet. He drank his Pepsi and stared at the cartoon moose staring at him.
When he finally ran out of Pepsi he turned off the TV and ejected another cassette from the VCR. (Either he had put in a cassette earlier or the VCR was somehow creating new ones and popping them out like eggs.) I brought the cassette to him and placed it on the couch's armrest, next to the empty 12-pack carton. "I'll put it away later," he said. Then he closed his eyes and drooped his head forward, letting the tip of his bent proboscis lie upon his chest.
This time both his hands were in his lap, and I was free to move about. I climbed over his legs, to the other side of the couch, and found the U-shaped tear in the carpet. As I lifted the torn flap a silverfish slithered up my arm. I brushed it off and crushed it beneath my palm. Underneath the flap I found more cassettes, tightly packed together. I pried some of the cassettes loose, revealing another layer of cassettes beneath the first, and a third layer beneath that. I dug down to twelve layers before finally giving up. I tore away more of the carpet, revealing still more cassettes. Apparently my apartment sat upon a vast underground vault of VHS videocassettes, labeled with characters of neither Greek nor Hebrew nor Arabic nor any other alphabet formed by any human hand.
I took out two of the cassettes, climbed back over the sleeping Bullwinkle's legs, loaded one of the cassettes into the VCR, turned on the TV, and pressed PLAY.
The cartoon boy, in the living room of his father's house, sat on the couch, beside his father. His father was not an enormous cartoon moose; he was bald and pot-bellied, and was only as tall as the cartoon boy.
They must have been watching TV. I couldn't see the TV, of course, but I could hear Bullwinkle—the cartoon Bullwinkle, not the one sleeping near me—say, "Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!"
And his little pal Rocky, the flying squirrel, moaned, "Again?!"
"Nothin' up my sleeve," declared Bullwinkle.
But it wasn't a rabbit that Bullwinkle pulled out of his hat. The next thing I heard was a lion's roar.
And even though it probably wasn't the first time they had seen this—the lion-out-of-the-hat gag, or its variation, the rhinoceros-out-of-the-hat gag, appeared in every single episode—the cartoon boy and his father laughed anyway.
I pressed STOP, then FASTFORWARD, then PLAY. The cartoon boy, alone in his bedroom, was reading a paperback copy of Empire Star, by Samuel R. Delany—a book I had read when I was fourteen—in which our galaxy is delivered from the schemes of Prince Nactor by the young musician Comet Jo ... or something like that. ("He had: a waist-length braid of blond hair; a body that was brown and slim like a cat's [...] grey eyes too small for his small, feral face; brass claws on his left hand with which he had killed ...")
I let the tape run another five minutes. The cartoon boy had not yet turned a single page. Either he had encountered the most fascinating prose passage of his entire fourteen year old life, or, as the bulge under his zipper suggested, he chose to supplement Delany's text with certain episodes of his own imagining. He rubbed his fingertips back and forth back and forth across the book's cover. It was time to unravel that waist-length braid of blond hair.
I pressed STOP, then EJECT, and inserted the second cassette.
A hospital room: the cartoon boy's father, much older, fatter, balder, and smaller than in the previous tape, and wearing a flimsy blue gown and white sandals, sat in a blue folding chair, at a round white table near the window opposite the room's doorway. In the center of the table was a Coke can. The cartoon boy stood next to the table, opposite his father, and was unfolding a red chair. His father, staring out the window, not looking at the cartoon boy, said, "... going to kill you one of these days."
I looked up at Bullwinkle and whispered, "He never said that. You big shithead, he never said that."
I'd gone back too far. Now the cartoon boy stood before an almost ceiling-high bookshelf containing row upon row of old paperbacks: Aldriss, Anderson, Asimov, Ballard ... the science fiction section ... Bester, Boese, Butler, Campbell, Clarke, Davidson, Delany.
He pulled out a copy of Empire Star. It had the same cover as the copy he had been reading in the previous tape—bare-chested Comet Jo (the artist had neglected to give him nipples), holding his lynx-like six-legged pet, his "devil kitten", Di'k—and with its faded covers, creased spine, and thirty-five-cent cover price, it even looked old enough to be the same copy. But it wasn't. It didn't have the creases running down the front and back covers. It wasn't the same book he had gripped so tightly that afternoon in his bedroom in his father's house, thirty years ago.
Back to the hospital room. The cartoon boy and his father sat opposite each other at the round white table. In the center of the table was a Coke can.
His father said, "No, he'd help bring it about. Peabody would want a crucifixion. He'd go back two thousand years so that he could start Christianity."
"It would be his idea?" the cartoon boy asked.
"They were all his ideas, stupid. That's what I keep telling you. The telephone, the submarine, radio, the French Revolution ... Everything. They were all his. He didn't simply help history find its 'proper course'—there is no 'proper course'—he actually started it all. In every single episode he had to lead the so-called 'inventor' by the hand step by goddamned step and show him how to build a telephone, a lightbulb, a submarine, whatever, and then show him how to use the goddamned thing. Bell, Edison, Marconi, whoever, they were all chumps, bunglers, useless. Peabody was the real inventor. That fuckin' dog and his Wayback Machine did everything. It's all his."
"But he didn't take the credit? Why not? Why did he need Edison and Marconi and all those others?"
"Who knows? Mr. Peabody works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform and all that shit."
"What about Sherman?"
"What about him?"
"What did he do, Dad? Why did Peabody need him?"
"To rev up the Wayback Machine, I guess. Maybe they were fucking. I don't know."
Another cartoon boy, this one in a blue nurse's uniform, a red-headed boy with a long, freckled face, entered the room. He bore a tray which held a covered dish and a pint-sized milk carton.
"Who's fucking?" he asked.
"Nobody," the cartoon father said. "What I said was, 'It's about fucking time my food got here.' Right, Son?"
"Sure, Dad." The cartoon boy smiled up at the nurse, who was now setting the tray in front of the cartoon father. "Hi, Stephen."
"Hello yourself," the nurse said, without turning away from the cartoon father. He uncovered the plate. "Num-NUM! Look what we have here!"
"Yeah, I'm lookin'," the cartoon father said.
"Creamed corn. Brown rice. Two sticks of celery. And your favorite." Next to the plate was a clear plastic package. The nurse tore open the package and removed a fork, a spoon, a knife, and a napkin. He handed the spoon to the father and placed the other items back on the tray.
"What's my favorite?" the cartoon father asked.
"De-ee-licious lactose-free milk!"
"That's my favorite? Are you sure?"
"Absolutely, sir! Apple-so-lutely!" The nurse opened the milk carton. "Num-num!"
"You said that already."
"And I'm saying it again, by golly! Num-num! Num-num-NUM-num-num! Look at them victuals! Just look at 'em!"
"I have to eat it, too, right?"
"No, you don't have to eat it."
"You want to eat it, you want to eat your creamed corn. Who, sir, would not want to eat his creamed corn? Who?"
"I haven't the foggiest notion." He put down the spoon. "Tell me, nurse ... Stephen ... whoever you are ..."
"It's Stephen, Dad," the cartoon boy said.
"Whatever. Tell me, why are you always so fucking cheerful? What's there to be happy about?"
"You don't know?" the nurse asked.
"No, Stephen, I don't know. If I knew, Stephen, why the fuck would I be asking ..." He took in a deep breath. The cartoon boy and the cartoon nurse waited for him to finish.
"No, sorry," he finally said. "Sorry, guys, sorry. I don't know." He looked over at his son, then he looked back up at the nurse.
"It's easy," the nurse said. "Lesson Eleven."
"Lesson Eleven," the father said.
"Lesson Eleven, Paragraph Two, Axiom Seven: Once one dismisses the rest of all possible worlds ..."
Then, in a high-pitched monotone, the other cartoon boy, the father's son, sang:
The two boys sang together:
"Whatever," the cartoon father said. He picked up the spoon and scooped up a mouthful of creamed corn.
STOP. REWIND. PLAY.
"They were all his ideas, stupid," the cartoon father said. "That's what I keep telling you. The telephone, the submarine ..."
The cartoon boy and his father continued talking and talking and blurred, red, blue, yellow ...
"Shit," I said, and pressed STOP.
The cartoon boy was in a bathroom, pointing his little penis at the viewer and pissing into an off-screen toilet.
"Okay," I said, "let's zip it up and get this over with. I pressed FASTFORWARD, just long enough to get him out of the bathroom, and then pressed PLAY.
The bathroom led directly into the cartoon father's hospital room. The father sat at the round white table near the window opposite the room's main doorway. He watched his son walk toward the table and then turn back around.
"Again?!" the cartoon father moaned.
"I forgot something," the cartoon boy said. The cartoon boy went back into the bathroom. On the sink was a Coke can. He picked up the can and returned to the hospital room, and placed the can in the center of the round white table. Then he found a folded-up red chair that was leaning against the wall, near his father's bed. He brought the chair to the table and began unfolding it.
The father, no longer looking at the cartoon boy, but simply staring out the window, or staring at the window, or staring at the light coming through the window, said, "Stuff's going to kill you one of these days. You know how much sugar there is in just one can?"
"I'm not thirsty," I said.
I went into the kitchen and found a steak knife in the dishwasher. I uprooted the carpet bordering the kitchen floor, brushed away the silverfish slithering underneath, pried loose another two cassettes, and popped one in the VCR.
The cartoon boy and the cartoon moose, both drinking Pepsis, sat in the living room and watched TV watch them.
The phone rang. The cartoon boy remained seated. It rang three more times. From off-screen the cartoon boy's voice answered, "You've reached my machine. You know the drill." (But I didn't even have an answering machine. Not yet, anyway.)
A beep, then Stephen's voice: "What in the world is wrong with you?! I called your boss; he said you'd quit last week. I've been to your apartment a couple of times. I know you're in there; you haven't fixed those blinds. They don't close all the way and I can peek under them. What's so important about that TV that you can't even go to work or answer the door or pick up the stupid phone? I know you're in there. Pick up the phone. Pick up the stupid phone ... please ... pick up ... oh God damn it ..."
"Pick up the stupid motherfucking phone!"
I played another cassette.
The cartoon boy and the cartoon moose watched TV watch them. Both held Pepsis, but during the five minutes I watched them, neither took a drink.
Another five minutes of the cartoon boy and the cartoon moose watching TV watch them and holding Pepsis they never drank.
I climbed over the sleeping Bullwinkle's legs and entered my bedroom. I took the seven bottles of white-out from the bottom drawer of the dresser beside my bed, returned to the living room, opened the first bottle, and splashed the white-out onto Bullwinkle's right leg. The white-out spread up and down his entire leg and absorbed into his hide, and the leg faded, faded, faded, and disappeared. I splashed the second bottle of white-out onto the other leg, and it, too, faded, fainter and fainter, and disappeared.
The legless Bullwinkle rolled off the couch and his nose hit the floor. "Christ!" he yelled.
He propped himself up with his arms and aimed his two ink-black pupils at me, two bottomless black holes that would not let me look away, and said, "About time you figured it out."
Those two dark ovals, absolutely dark ovals, pulled me in deeper and deeper, and grew, and grew, swallowing the apartment, the apartment building, the world, the rest of all possible worlds ...
Somewhere far away two hands fumbled open another bottle of white-out and splashed it onto Bullwinkle's face, and his mouth, nose, ears, antlers, faded, faded, disappeared, and I was back in my apartment, opening another bottle of white-out and splashing it onto his chest. And his torso, arms, and hands disappeared, but the pupils remained—two miniature black holes suspended in my living room.
At least I could look away from them now. Part of me still didn't want to look away, but at least I could. Without the rest of Bullwinkle to guide them, they didn't seem quite so big and dark and deep.
I splashed two more bottles of white-out onto them. The liquid not only passed through the pupils, leaving them unharmed, but instead of passing out the other side and staining my carpet, the white-out was absorbed into them, as if the pupils were a portal into some other world, a world inhabited by the dead of this world, who kept a meticulous video record of the living, and who spoke a language that was not Greek or Hebrew or Arabic or any other human tongue, and who sometimes returned to the living in the skins of cartoon characters, so that they could watch TV and drink Pepsi with the living.
I tossed the six empty white-out bottles into the pupils. I saved the remaining full bottle, just in case any more dead relatives should visit. Then I pulled back the U-shaped tear in the carpet, brushed away the silverfish, took out a couple of cassettes, and tossed them into the pupils.
Each cassette recorded one day of my life. 44 years, 365 days per year, 16,060 cassettes chronicling my life thus far. And what about the rest of my life, my future? Not just the future without Bullwinkle, a future he anticipated ("About time you figured it out."), but the future I saw on those tapes, the one where he remains with me in my living room, watching cartoons of himself and holding a can of Pepsi from which he will never drink, and all the other possible futures in the rest of all possible worlds? Were they, too, neatly packed below? After I destroyed my past, how many thousands, millions, more days would I have left to feed those pupils?
The phone rang. I couldn't answer it. I had my work cut out for me.
Webmaster's note: I first came across this story, which I admire immensely, in 2000 on no-longer-existing http://www.freespeech.org/bullwinkle. I've tried to locate the author, with no success. Rather than see it lost to the world, I've placed it here in hopes that others who enjoyed it will find it again, and to be able to introduce it to new readers. If Tom Hartley is still out there, or if anyone knows him or what happened to him, please e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.