Who gets the last laughter?
It was Fourth of July all month in Milwaukee, and everyone went to the mall. Everything was star spangled and 50 per cent off the lowest-ticketed price. Prin’s wife and her two sisters and all the little girls set out for the sales bins with canvas bags full of canvas bags. With the other uncles out of town, Prin was the ranking uncle and had clearance to take the boys to a matinée. Transformers: Terror Alliance had just opened, and the stars of the WNBA spent much of the movie lunging around in shredded titanium spandex. Nevertheless, Prin was still surprised at the size of the crowd gathered in front of the escalator to the movieplex.
“Hello Milwaukee! Hello America!”
A big man was calling out to the crowd from a small stage. He had a face like a beefsteak tomato. He was wearing a T-shirt with crescent blades and crescent moons floating around the word HISTORY, which was written across it in Arabic-style letters with a giant STOP sign stamped overtop.
“Hello Schlaffler!” the crowd called back.
“Oh, Uncle Prin, can we watch this?” his nephew Juan-Diego asked.
“What is it?” asked Prin.
“What is it? Seriously? It’s Schlaffler, Uncle Prin! His radio show’s on every night, between Hannity and Rush. They don’t play it in Toronto?” asked his nephew, Xavier.
“No,” said Prin.
“Mom hates him,” said his nephew John-Paul.
“Yeah, but moms only listen to NPR,” said Juan-Diego.
“National Pointless Radio!” said all of his nephews.
“I’m guessing he’s a right-wing radio guy?” Prin asked.
“He’s a reality-check radio guy, Uncle Prin,” Xavier said.
“Hey folks! Question for ya. Who gets the last laughter?” asked Juan-Diego.
“Schlaffler!” said his other nephews.
A moment later, the man on stage asked the same question and the crowd called out the same answer.
“Guys, we’re going to miss the trailers if we don’t go up to the theatre now,” said Prin.
He didn’t like the crowd, beefy men in beards and Green Bay Packer caps taking pictures of Schlaffler with phones fitted out in thick rubber cases. The few women in attendance had, in general, no facial hair, and their cases were pink rather than jet black or black and dump-truck yellow; otherwise, they looked and weighed about the same. Prin could say he wanted to leave because he knew his wife and sisters-in-law wouldn’t approve, but he knew his nephews would counter that their dads would have let them stay. Their adolescent American voices, golden, pure, and cracking like the Liberty Bell, would have tolled hard in his ears, his professorial, sonless, ethnic Toronto ears. Come on, Prin, be a normal guy for once.
“Okay, we can stay for a few minutes and then go to the movie,” said Prin.
They all high-fived him and Prin suddenly felt great and at one with America, this ham and savage land where people actually said things like
“USA! USA! USA!”
“Welcome to our Honor American Heroes Rally at Plymouth Heights Mall. A quick thank you to our sponsor, Greinke Auto Detailing. And now, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to just a tremendous great American hero, Bryan ‘Big Bear’ Kowalski, who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the greatest army on Earth before returning home to Wisconsin to find out his job at the local paper mill got folded up and mailed to Mexico,” said Schlaffler.
“But did he just give up and get on the Democrats’ welfare-wagon-to-nowhere?” asked Schlaffler.
“That’s right. He tried to re-enlist. But guess what? Those chicken hawks and turkey vultures and plain old turkeys in Washington had just passed more cutbacks to our armed forces, so there was no re-enlisting. Okay, I know what you’re thinking: now he gets on that Washington welfare wagon. Right? WRONG!” said Schlaffler.
“USA! USA! USA!”
“Guess what this guy did? With beautiful wife Jenny and new baby girl Ivanka and three-year-old son Barron at home, he went back over using his own family’s life-savings! He joined some freedom fighters in Syria, took on the radical Muslim jihadi crusaders in basically the most dangerous part of the world, and now he’s come home, and he’s decided to join us here, today, at Plymouth Heights Mall, to tell us all about it. He’s going to be on the Schlaffler Show tonight as well, 7 pm on WXUSA 1850 and Sirius 145, so tell all your friends and enemies to tune in. And now, we’re going to hear from a red-blooded beacon of Bravery and Freedom. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a Schlaffler DefCon 1 welcome for my friend, my personal hero, Brian ‘Big Bear’ Kowalski!” said Schlaffler.
A big guy with an embarrassed smile climbed onto the stage, gave a thumbs-up to the crowd, and awkwardly bear-hugged Schlaffler, who then stood back, took off his Schlaffler Show cap and placed it on his heart. He saluted the young man. Everyone in the crowd did the same.
“So, ‘Big Bear,’ what can you tell us about the situation over there?” asked Schlaffler.
“Well, yeah, you know, it’s pretty complicated, all the different groups fighting each other. And sometimes they fight, you know, one group’s members start fighting each other, and then the Russians and Turks and Iranians and us get all mixed up in it too. Pretty confusing,” said Kowalski.
“But basically, they all hate America, right?” asked Schlaffler.
“No. No way! The rebel group I was with, man, they just love America,” said Kowalski.
“USA! USA! USA!”
“That’s not what the so-called mainstream media tells us, with its so-called facts and truths, you know, Brian,” said Schlaffler.
“Right. But, well, I went over and helped train a group of Christian militia fighters who were trying to protect their village because the national army and the coalition people basically weren’t doing anything,” said Kowalski.
“Wow. The Bible says, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name.’ Even there, in the Middle East, it’s true, huh? So Brian, did you all pray together?” asked Schlaffler.
“Actually, when we weren’t training, mostly we just talked about football,” said Kowalski.
“Okay, but when you say football, you mean soccer, like those Europeans call it, right?” asked Schlaffler.
Here Schlaffler held his hands out in mincing fashion and did an off-balance dainty dance to hoots from the growing crowd.
“No, when I say football, I mean, you know, football. When I first got there, this one guy, Muktar, I called him Mookie, anyway, he asked me where I was from, and I said Neenah, Wisconsin, up near Green Bay. And Mookie smiles and does the Aaron Rogers touchdown move, you all know it, the Championship Belt,” said Kowalski.
Schlaffler, Big Bear, and everyone in the crowd pantomimed buckling up a giant belt to their heavy, thrusting hips.
Prin kept his hands vaguely on his waist.
“NO KIDDING!” said Schlaffler.
“That’s right. Anyway, before we went out on perimeter duty together that first night, Mookie says to me, ‘The Packers are America’s team!’” said Kowalski.
At that, the mall crowd went wild and stayed wild for a long while. They died down just as Prin saw two bearded men in ballcaps and long coats running towards the stage from the side.
“THEY’VE GOT GUNS!”
Prin was knocked down and someone trampled his arm. From near the stage he heard a snapping sound, shots fired. He got up and could only see two of his nephews knocking about as people scrambled in all directions. Someone grabbed his arm, hard – the third nephew. He reached into a mass of moving, screaming bodies. He pulled one of his other nephews towards him; the other pushed and found him, but he didn’t know which way to go with them, it was like they were stuck in a wind turbine. Whoever had the guns, my God, where were they now? And where were Molly and the girls?
But with the crush of plump, pulsing bodies, his nephews gripping his arms – he couldn’t run for his wife and children if he tried. And still he tried, dragging his nephews with him, pushing and pushing to get to empty space and hide them and run as fast as he could, in an unknown direction, to save his wife and children from unknown gunmen. His face squished into the hot Easter ham of someone’s tank-top bared shoulder and he turned his face and that’s when his eyes went back to the stage and he saw Schlaffler down on one knee, his hat knocked off and his bald head blood-spattered. Under the mall lights, his blood ran hot pink.
“Back to our continuing coverage of today’s Terror at Plymouth Heights Mall. What we know so far is that shortly before 2 p.m., two anti-war activists staged a terrorism-style attack on popular conservative talk-radio personality Perry Schlaffler. They shot him with fluorescent paintball bullets, and in the process disrupted his rally to celebrate a Wisconsin veteran who recently returned from the fighting in Syria. In an odd twist, the assailants were tackled by the veteran, 29-year-old Brian Kowalski, a recently-divorced father of two, and are now under heavy police guard at Columbia-St. Mary’s Hospital as they recover from their injuries. A dozen other people sustained minor injuries.
“In a YouTube video released shortly after the attack began, the activists claimed their actions were meant to draw attention to post-traumatic stress disorder among returning soldiers. Plymouth Heights Mall will be closed for the rest of the week while law enforcement conducts its investigation. Damage and lost revenue are predicted to run into the millions. And if you’re wondering about Schlaffler himself, he promises his next Rally for American Heroes will be even bigger and reminds his listeners that he always gets the last laughter. He also says he’ll keep his head painted pink until October to raise money for breast cancer.”
Adapted from Randy Boyagoda’s Original Prin, which will be published in September.