Thursday, December 29, 2016

And here's another short story I couldn't sell. Enjoy.

Almonds; delicious but deadly. No, that's not what this story is about.

Note: This, too, was another failed attempt at topical humor. It was supposed to be published before the election. It wasn't. But just so it doesn't completely go to waste, here it is. It has aged like fine milk. This is less a short story than it is a cautionary tale about how not to write a short story. Appreciate it on that level. J.B.

The Most Hated Man In America: An Interview

You all know his name. By this point, the whole country is painfully aware of Byron Cubbins, 46, the Minnesota businessman whose blatantly discriminatory lifestyle has shaken America to its very core. Non-violent demonstrations continue outside his Eden Prairie home on a 24/7 basis these days, with protesters constructing a makeshift tent community on his street. Spontaneous drum circles tend to form every 45 minutes or so there. Politicians and industrialists alike have scrambled to distance themselves from Cubbins, with figures from both sides of the aisle offering firm denunciations of the man.

If there is an upside to this sordid saga, it's that hatred of Cubbins has become the basis for what could be called a cottage industry. Grotesque "Clueless Hatemonger" masks clearly modeled on Cubbins, were hot sellers this Halloween. Beacon of Hate: The Byron Cubbins Saga is in production at Lifetime, with Ron Perlman set to star. Lena Dunham's book about Cubbins, simply called This Guy, Am I Right?, currently tops the New York Times bestseller list. Even comedian Dana Carvey has catapulted back to relevance again with his dead-on Cubbins impression, turning "That's really none of your business!" into a T-shirt-ready catchphrase.

At the heart of the storm is Cubbins himself. Slight of build, his hair thinning on top and graying at the temples, he is hardly an imposing figure. His voice, when he chooses to speak, is quiet-ish and halting. Fashion-wise, he prefers button-up shirts and khaki slacks. His face, with his eyes hidden behind owlish glasses, conveys not hate or anger but utter bewilderment, as if he truly does not understand how he came to represent everything that's wrong with America in 2016. 

When I speak with him, it is in the modest, sunken living room of his three-bedroom home. Cubbins' wife and children were airlifted out for their own safety weeks ago and are currently in an undisclosed location. The chants of protesters could be heard very faintly in the background throughout this conversation.

Q: Mr. Cubbins, thank you for visiting with me today.

Oh, uh, you're welcome. And, uh, thank you for giving me this, um, opportunity to... well, you know... clear my, um...

Q: Name?

Right. Name. Exactly. Thank you.

Q: Let's get down to cases. You self-identify as white?

I, uh... I do. Yes. My, um... my mother's side was Dutch, and I believe my father's family came from the north of England. As you can see, uh... I'm, um... pretty pale.

Q: Mm hmm. In addition, you refer to yourself as male?

I, uh... (looks down at his lap) Yes, I do.

Q: And straight?


Q: You are a straight person? That is, a heterosexual?

Oh, uh, yes. That. Straight. I'm married, I mean. To a woman. And we have two children.

Q: Are you saying that being married and having children are things that only straight people do?

No, no. Uh, no, not at all. Just that I am, uh, married, you know... to a, uh... woman. And our children were, um, you know... begotten, as it were... um, biologically.

Q: So you would define yourself, then, as a heterosexual Caucasian male?

Uh, let's see here. (repeating the words slowly) "Heterosexual... Caucasian..." What was the rest of that?

Q: Mr. Cubbins, this is 2016. Almost 2017. A.D. How do you defend these choices of yours?

Well, uh... I don't, um... I don't consider them to be "choices," per se. They just sort of, you know, happened. To me. You know, I was just, uh... I didn't have any real say in the matter. You know?

Q: But, Mr. Cubbins, don't you see how offensive your very existence is to great swaths of the American public? The very space you're occupying now could be occupied by two black lesbians.

Yes. Well, uh... I'm sorry about that. I really am. But there's really not much I can do about it. I mean, um... I've apologized on numerous occasions. Both publicly and to specific individuals.

Q: Specific individuals?

Well, yes. You know, it gets kind of chilly here in Eden Prairie at night, so occasionally I circulate among the, um... the protesters. I bring them soup and, uh, blankets. And when I do, I always tell them how sorry I am about this whole mess. Really. Very sorry.

Q: As if that made it all better! Mr. Cubbins, you still don't get it.

No, uh... No, I'm afraid I don't. Um...

Q: Let's move on to your family. It, too, is exclusively white? 
Uh, yes, it is. Listen, is this going to take much longer? It's getting dark, and I have a lot of soup to get ready for tonight. Uh, you know I used to just make chicken soup, but then a lot of the folks in the tent city were asking for a vegan option. So, uh...

Q: And your business. This, too, lacks diversity?

Diversity? Uh....

Q: You have yet to hire a single minority employee.

Well, uh... I do most of the work myself. It's a pretty small operation. I mean, it's one of those stands that sells roasted almonds. You've probably seen those. I have a little kiosk in the mall by the cell phone place. Gretchen helps me carry in the almonds occasionally.

Q: And Gretchen would be?

Uh, Gretchen is... that's, um, my wife.

Q: "Your" wife. I see. And this Gretchen, is she paid for her services?

Well, uh, no... No, she isn't.

Q: I thought the 13th Amendment had abolished slavery. But I see that it's alive and well here in Eden Prairie, thanks to you, Mr. Cubbins.

(No audible response. His face goes blank.)

Q: Is that a crucifix I see on your wall?

Oh, God.

Q: Don't impose your religious beliefs on me, Mr. Cubbins.

(He faints.)

And there you have it: Byron Cubbins, a man who has built an almond-flavored empire on a foundation of hatred, chauvinism, homophobia, prejudice, bigotry, and (I'm just assuming here) antisemitism. A week after our chat, Mr. Cubbins' lawyer contacted me to say that his client would soon be undergoing radical reconstructive surgery. Or, rather, a series of surgeries, for it will take numerous, expensive procedures to transform this middle-aged white man into two African-American women, both lesbians. Whether this will be enough to satiate his critics remains unknown. Either way, says his lawyer, Byron Cubbins wants the world to know that he is very, very sorry. Really. For everything.