Yardstick Men

By Todd Easton Mills

BILLY stood at the sink, unable to see his reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror. The room was filled with steam from the bath, but that wasn’t the reason for his invisibility. He wiped his feet on the bath mat, wrapped a guest towel around his waist, and went into the bedroom.

“Hey, Slitz, you awake? Get up, lazy bones.” Billy was ready to pull back the covers, when he heard a birdlike complaint.

“Gur-r-r-r-up.”

“There you are, funny man. Ready for breakfast?”

Slitzy was sitting up in the crib with his knit cap pulled down, rocking back and forth excitedly.

“Hungry are you, Slitz? I’m cooking eggs this morning, if that’s all right with you?”

“Neit,” came the answer.

“Don’t want eggs?”

“Neit.”

“Beans on toast?”

“Neit.”

Billy, a handsome man, well-proportioned but only four feet four inches tall, pulled out a yardstick and started pointing to cans of food on the top shelf of the pantry.

“SpaghettiOs?”

“Neit.”

“Cocktail wieners?”

“Gur-r-rl!”

“Wieners! I get it.”

“Yeit-yeit!” Slitzy’s voice sounded like a happy parrot.

Well, Billy thought, that’s what he had yesterday for breakfast. Funny little guy. Doesn’t usually eat the same thing two days in a row.

*

It was three o’clock and they hadn’t had a customer all day. Billy checked to see if he had forgotten to hang the OPEN FOR BUSINESS sign. Business was bad for everyone in Hollywood since they painted the curbs yellow for LOADING ONLY. Just then, there was a jingle like sleigh bells, and a young woman entered the store. She was pretty, slender, and pale and wore a tank top without a bra, but it was her muscular arms and the definition of her shoulders and collarbone that caught Billy’s eye. He remembered an aerialist from long ago with such a physique.

“I need a costume,” she said, looking up from the rack.

“For yourself?” Billy asked eagerly.

“For us, really. Something with sequins—”

“What color?”

“Gold would be nice.”

“I just might.”

The young woman smiled.

Billy jumped off his stool with a youthful spring and disappeared through the showroom door.

“Slitzy, do you remember where I put my gold costume? The one with the sequins? Is it in one of the trunks? Can you remember?”

The little man in the crib shook his head.

Billy bounded downstairs without holding the handrail. The trunks were stored on wooden pallets: the first one was filled with clown suits, big shoes, noisemakers, and a seltzer bottle with a squirt-bulb. In the next, Billy found the straps and braces he used to help Slitzy walk after his fall. He didn’t have time to fold the costumes—he had a customer! He ran back upstairs.

“Hey, Slitz. How would you like to entertain a pretty young lady?”

Slitzy nodded his head—he liked meeting new people.

“Gur-r-r-l.”

“Come on, I’ll introduce you.” She was trying on a feathered cap. “Young lady, this is my brother, Slitzy. Say hello, Slitzy.”

“Grrllip.”

“That’s very good, Slitzy.”

“He’s beautiful,” the girl said. “A microcephalic, isn’t he?”

“That’s right, Slitzy the Pinhead. The most famous microcephalic in the world.”

“My name is Gretchen,” the girl said, shaking the tiny man’s hand.

“Slitzy has entertained kings and presidents, haven’t you Slitzy?”

Slitzy grinned.

“Would you like to hold him?” Billy asked.

Gretchen looked him over like a doctor on a first visit.

“Slitzy had a stroke, so he can’t talk. He likes to be held—don’t be afraid.”

“I’m not,” she said confidently.

“He’s strong. I’ll show you.”

Billy held out his arm and Slitzy grabbed on. He pulled himself up like he was doing a chin-up—then did it again. “Pretty good, huh?”

“Impressive,” Gretchen said.

“I’ll let you two get to know each other while I look for your costume. You said gold sequins, didn’t you?”

“Gold sequins would be perfect.”

Billy had hardly left the room, when Gretchen peeled back the tiny man’s stocking cap.

“Grrllp.”

They had been aerial clowns at the circus. Billy was a superb athlete who could skip on the tightwire, juggling clubs, and climb the rope with Slitzy in the act’s false-bottom suitcase. When the circus closed, the two brothers joined a ten-in-one show, where Slitzy exhibited himself as the man with the world’s smallest head.

Where was the gold costume? He tried two more trunks. “Here it is!” He inspected the elastic bands and threads holding the sequins. “Found it!” Billy yelled. “Last one in the trunk, wouldn’t you know.” He held it up to the naked bulb in the basement, twisting it to make it glitter, then raced upstairs.

“What’s this? You’re standing up little brother! What the—”

Gretchen had improvised a harness with a leather belt and had looped it so that Slitzy could stand by himself.

“Well, look at you.”

With the belt wrapped around her hand, she reverse-curled the little man and placed him back in his stroller.

“That’s nice. All safe now, Slitzy?” Billy said.

“Very nice costume. My size?” She held it up. “Maybe a little short in the legs, but let me try it on.”

Facing him, she stripped down to a thin white thong. His heart beat faster as she squeezed into the one-piece costume, stretching it here and there until it fit like her own skin.

“Can you help zip me up, Billy?”

“Uh, sure, Gretchen.”

She admired herself for a minute in the standing mirror. “Can I have it?” she asked.

Billy wasn’t sure what he heard.

“I want it,” she said in a firm voice.

“I don’t understand, Gretchen.”

“I want the costume, Billy. If I don’t get it, it’s going to be bad.”

“You want me to give it to you? Is that what you want? If you don’t have money, maybe I can help you with, uh—”

“If you don’t give it to me, Billy, it’s going to be bad.”

“I can sell it to you, of course. The regular price for something like this would be $500—would $250 be fair?”

“I’m going to wear it out of here, Billy.”

“Well, Gretchen, let me see—why don’t you take it off and let me check if the sequins need mending.”

“No tricks, Billy. You know what I’m saying.”

“No tricks—of course not. Gretchen,” he stammered, “it definitely needs some work. Take it off, I will—”

“I’m taking it now, Billy. I’m taking the costume and Slitzy is coming with me.”

Billy’s face turned white. “Take Slitzy?”

“He’s coming with me, Billy.”

“That’s kidnapping, Gretchen.”

“No more rehearsals, Billy. This is prime time.” She pulled Slitzy out of the cradle by the harness. “Prime time, Billy.”

“Look, Gretchen, Slitzy had a stroke. He can’t go anywhere—”

“Gur-r-r-rl,” Slitzy said.

“Get back behind the counter, Billy. Don’t make a move for five minutes, or it’s going to be bad.”

Billy couldn’t take the chance. He waited a few seconds, then panicked and ran to the store window. He couldn’t see which way they went.

“Slitzy, where are you? I’m coming little brother.”

He ran down Santa Monica Boulevard, then up Western and down on the alleys, but they had vanished.

Back in the store, he found the telephone line was cut. “Oh Slitzy, I should have fought for you,” he moaned. Then Billy remembered a variety show playing at the Fa-Fa Theater. Maybe that’s where they went?

*

Sixty years earlier the theater had been a granary. It was three stories with small windows on the third floor. There was a canvas poster, hand-painted, with people walking on stilts, some wearing feathers. There was a magician, giant masks on poles, and a young woman on a trapeze. Was it Gretchen? He banged on the door. “Open up. I know you’re in there! Open up.”

An old man opened the door a crack. “Nobody’s here. Beat it little man.”

Down the street Billy saw searchlights and catering trucks. Talk show host Tom Barker had promoted the event for weeks. It would be an evening of “high strangeness.” Tonight the mysterious caller would make a public appearance. Thousands of fans had gathered for the event. It was a street party: open bottles, fans dressed as movie aliens and monsters.

Barker was a serious man. On the subject of the paranormal, he was always willing to give his guests, no matter how unconventional, a serious forum. “Let’s get right down to it. Are you saying that you are from another world?”

No, she wasn’t saying that.

On the third broadcast she revealed her name—YOTI. She said she looked like a human, but there was a part of her that was unusual. She called it her protuberance. The word was provocative, but Tom Barker was too earnest to make an off-color joke.

“So you look like a normal human, but you have some, uh, auxiliary part to your anatomy.”

“You could say that,” she said.

“Alien! Alien! Alien!” the crowd outside Ted’s Market chanted.

“Show us your protuberance,” read a sign.

When the phone call came, the crowd was starting to riot. A bottle of beer exploded against the broadcast truck. Tom Barker took the call off the air.

“All right, I understand, I certainly understand. I would feel the same way, YOTI, but everyone wants to see you. Is there somewhere we can meet so that I can confirm—”

Back on the air, Barker told his audience YOTI was worried about her safety. “But folks, she has offered to meet me.”

“In the meantime, enjoy yourselves tonight. Ted’s is going to serve drinks and Hostess CupCakes to all the fans. I don’t have anything more. Sorry, folks. I’m in the dark, just like you.”

An hour and a half later, the phone rang and Tom left the parking lot. He went around the block several times to make sure no one was following him. Twice he checked his camera to see if it was working. The meeting place would be in a gray van parked outside a liquor store on Western Avenue.

Barker was met by a driver who rolled down his window and said he would have to be blindfolded until they got to the next location.

“In for a penny, in for a pound,” Tom murmured.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing.”

“How’s your heart?” the driver asked.

“Not so good.”

“Well, prepare yourself. This is going to be a shock.”

*

At two in the morning Barker’s producer called him at home. “I’ve been trying to reach you all night. What happened? There are people calling us from all over the world. What the hell happened?”

“I met her.”

“You met the alien?”

“When I saw her, I thought she looked human,” Barker began. “The room was dark. I had the feeling they took me to a bunker somewhere. They gave me a flashlight, but warned me not to use it more than once because it could hurt her.”

“What did she look like? Did you see the protuberance?”

“I couldn’t see it at first, but with the flashlight I got a good look. She had two heads!”

“A two-headed alien!”

“A normal human head, and a weird tiny head growing out of her neck. The little head couldn’t talk, but it made weird gurgling sounds.”

“Tom, this sounds like B movie stuff.”

“That’s not all. She had golden scales, and I don’t think she was wearing any clothes.”

“My God, Tom. Did you get the shot?”

“My hands were shaking, but I got it.”

“Does it show the head?”

“Yes, a clear head-shot.”

“That’s a relief—otherwise, who’s going to believe you? What did she tell you? What was her message?”

Barker took a breath. “She said the planet was about to destroy itself, and we don’t have much time. She said we must disarm, or every human on the earth will die. She wants me to invite representatives from all the nuclear-armed countries on the show.”

“Well, there’s always been a nuclear threat. Why now?”

“Too many weapons—and we’ve lost track of them. Kazakhstan has fourteen hundred for God’s sake. The Ukraine has five thousand! She kept saying if I don’t follow her instructions, it’s going to be bad.”

“Why is she calling you?”

“Why not? We’ve got the biggest audience in radio.”

“Tom, this is crazy. Why not the networks? Did she admit she was an alien?”

“She didn’t say. She could be anything—a time traveler, an interdimensional. She said I wasn’t capable of understanding all this.”

“Well, she’s got that right. What else?”

“That’s pretty much it.”

“Do you think it’s a hoax?”

Tom Barker was lost for words. He bobbed his head like a spring-loaded doll. “It doesn’t matter what I think, I just ask the questions.”

“The ratings went through the roof last night. You gotta get her on the show.”

“I don’t think she’ll come on.”

“Does she want money?” the producer asked, rubbing his thinning hair.

“No, she wants to save the goddamn—”

Before Tom Barker could complete his sentence, there was flash of light over Hollywood Boulevard. A mushroom cloud formed: a clown-faced Silly Putty with an overlarge grin, false nose, and fright-wig fringe. Soon, the Cinerama Dome glowed red, and all the folks with dreams went up: the Best Boys and gaffers, the insurance writers and movie stars. All the folks with dreams and all the folks who cruise the dream, those in baseball caps with cameras on their wrists and those making love in motel rooms with louvered windows. They all went up, even Tom Barker, who could no longer see himself in the reflection of the bathroom mirror. There was smoke in the room, but that wasn’t the reason for his invisibility.

___

Todd Easton Mills received his bachelor’s degree from Antioch University. As a young man he defined himself as a traveler, working his way around the world and supporting himself as a laborer, cook, and teacher in faraway places like the Highlands of New Guinea. Now, with his drifter days behind him, he lives comfortably with his Zimbabwean wife in Santa Barbara, California.

He cowrote and produced the documentary film Timothy Leary’s Dead. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Alembic, The Legendary, ONTHEBUS, Voices, The Coe Review, Yellow Silk, AUSB Odyssey, Sage Trail, RiverSedge, Paranoia VHS, Collage, Antiochracy, and in the anthology Poets on 9-11.


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