Chapter 1: Into the Cellar
John was beginning to get very tired of sitting up against the wall of the bodega where Nick had left him five minutes prior with an admonition not to fall over. Once or twice, he tried reading the Socialist leaflet soaking in the puddle under his nose, but it had no pictures or paragraph breaks in it. Also, the text was blurry, in part because of the water, and in part because John was very drunk.
John was pondering whether the pleasure of going indoors and making Nick buy him some biscotti would be worth the effort of getting up, when suddenly a black rat ran past him.
There was nothing so very remarkable in that, it being New York and all. However, as the rat scuttled past his leg through the propped-open bodega door, John was somewhat surprised to hear it grumble:
“Outta my way, pal.”
“I’m sorry,” said John automatically, for he was a very polite young man, and moved his leg so that the doorway would be entirely unobstructed, but the rat had already gone inside.
He probably didn’t hear me, John though, struggling to his feet. I should go after him and apologize properly.
The cashier glanced up as he stumbled in, then went back to reading her romance novel. John looked around. Except for him, the bodega was empty of customers. The rat wasn’t by the Chinese-language ATM, or the chips stand, or the deli counter, or the shelves with gum and candy.
He walked farther, between the shelves with cookies and cereal. One of the shelves, stacked high with Oreo boxes labeled in the Cyrillic alphabet, had a cat on it. The cat was washing its face and paid John no mind.
“Pardon me, have you seen a rat go by?” John asked the cat.
The cat stopped its ablutions and looked at him with round light green eyes that seemed somehow familiar. Then it opened its huge sharp-toothed maw and creaked out a mew which morphed halfway into a yawn. John decided not to bother it further. It was probably on break.
The shelves with foreign cookies soon gave way to shelves with pasta and condiments, then Goya beans in a rainbow of flavors, then off brand household cleaners. And then, by the wall of phone chargers, all of them for Nokias at least three years out of date, John spotted the rat. It was scampering just ahead and grumbling to itself:
“Fuck me, I’m going to be so late…”
John was about to call out to it, when the floor under his feet gave way, and he fell into the cellar.
* * *
Either the cellar was very deep, or he fell very slowly, or the ten nickel shots he had at O’Halligan’s were making themselves felt, but John had plenty of time as he went down to look around and wonder what was going to happen next.
First, he tried to look down, but it was too dark to see anything. Then he looked around. The walls were lined with yet more shelves with random items on them. There was shampoo (within reach), tampons (not within reach), and even a TV with old-fashioned rabbit ears showing a soccer game (West Germany was tied with Netherlands 1-1). There were also old maps of New York on the walls; sun-faded shots of Daniel Aiello; pegs with old-fashioned 1940s newsman fedoras...
At one point, John passed by a shelf stacked with boxes of biscotti and tried to grab one. However, the box snapped at his fingers, and John withdrew his hand with haste.
Down, down down… ‘How deep do they build the cellars in these god-forsaken bodegas, anyway?’ thought John. ‘I must’ve fallen a mile by now. Any further down and I’ll land on Dubya’s approval rating. Ba-dum-ts! Seriously, though, I’ve got work tomorrow. There better be an elevator to take me back to the surface, because I am SO not walking up stairs…’
John tried to calculate in his head how many stairs it would take to go up one mile, and he got so far as ‘four and five equals twelve’, when he landed into a pile of something soft and pungent, and the fall was over.
Chapter 2: The Unreachable Stage
John was not a bit hurt, except in his lower back and his hips and his knees, but that was just ugh, you know, life? He got up from what turned out to be a heap of oily rags that smelled of engine oil and creosote and looked around. It was very dark.
‘I must’ve fallen into a subway tunnel,’ John thought and tried to remember which train line ran under the bodega. As far as he knew, there were none. However, it was common knowledge that the MTA had all sorts of spare tunnels, so he was not entirely surprised.
Up ahead, he could hear the Black Rat scurrying ahead and still muttering to itself in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy:
“Fuck me right up my furry little asshole, I’m going to be so fucking late...”
John felt in his pocket and struck a light from his lighter. There were no rails on the ground, but he was indeed in a long, fairly narrow tunnel, and the rags he had so fortunately landed on were indeed stained with motor oil, as were now his jeans. He started ahead, following the echoing mutterings of the Black Rat and soon found himself in a long, low hall with rows of lamps hanging from the roof – presumably a disused train station.
The lighter in his hand heated up, and John released the wheel with a curse. It turned out that the lamps were aglow, just barely, with a sort of quarter-power luminosity one sometimes experiences in excruciatingly cheap diner bathrooms.
Speaking of bathrooms, thought John, looking around. There were doors all around, and for a while John walked up and down the large, echoing hall trying each one, but they were all locked.
John walked out to the middle and put his hands to his mouth.
‘Hello!’ he screamed out, then louder: ‘HELLO?!’
‘…Oh… he-eelloo?…’ the echo answered in a slightly oleaginous tone.
Suddenly John noticed a small three-legged wrong iron table with a glass top. On it, there was a key attached by means of a short chain to a cinderblock – a bodega bathroom key, if he ever saw one! Now if he only knew which door it went to…
John grabbed the cinderblock and trotted with it to the closest door. But alas! Either the locks were too large, or the key was too small, but at any rate it would not open any of them. However, on the second time around, John came upon a low curtain of red velvet, as though veiling a miniature stage. Behind it was a little door about fifteen inches in height. He tried the key in it, and to his great delight, it fit!
John lay down on the cold stone floor with a groan, for he was much too tall to be able to look in otherwise, and pushed open the tiny door. It led to a small passage about the size of a rat hole, which indeed opened out to a stage!
Suddenly, John knew two things beyond all doubt: first, he wanted to get to that stage more than he had ever wanted anything in his entire life, and second, wherever that stage was, it definitely had a bathroom.
Tormenting himself with visions of pristine porcelain toilets, rows of sinks with hot and cold running water (for this sojourn to the underground was making him exceptionally grimy), and well-stocked paper towel dispensers, John went back to the little wrought-iron table, hoping that there might be another key somewhere on it that he missed.
This time, he found a little bottle on it (‘which certainly was not here before,’ thought John, for he was not one to miss a bottle anywhere). Round the neck of the bottle was a paper label, with the words ‘DRINK ME’ beautifully printed on it in large letters.
‘Bold of you to assume I wouldn’t have if you were unlabeled,’ thought John and took a sip. The flavor was confusing (if John had to describe it, it would be as a mix of chicken cacciatore, cottage cheese, and strawberry daiquiris garnished with Ambien), but since he was asked to drink it, John had to be polite and finish it off.
* * *
‘Well, this is just great,’ John thought as he watched the table in front of him grow bigger and bigger. “You better be the one growing, motherfucker,” he told the table, “because if I’m the one who’s shrinking, I’m going to sue this goddamn city back into bankruptcy!”
But judging by the size of the now-huge doors all around him, John was indeed the one shrinking – in fact, he was now about the size of his own action figure, should anyone ever have the terrible idea to release one. (‘Maybe not an action figure,’ thought John. ‘Just a regular pull-string talking doll that’s got unbendable joints and, like, fifty different facts about the Cosby Show.’)
When the room around him stopped growing, John thought he might as well take advantage of the situation and go through the small door to the magical stage, but alas! he has forgotten the key with its cinderblock up on the table. He could see it plainly through the glass, and short as he now was, he could no longer reach it.
“To whom it may concern: I don’t care for this shit at all,” grumbled John as he tried to climb one of the wrought iron legs up to the glass top and slid back down almost immediately. He tried again and again, but he was not an athletic child, and he didn’t grow up into an athletic adult, and whatever he was now at ten inches tall, it was not athletic either.
The next time he slid off the table leg onto the floor, his butt landed on something hard. It turned out to be a little glass box. John opened it and found in it a brownie, on which the words ‘EAT ME’ were beautifully marked in mini M&Ms.
‘Fine,’ said John. ‘I’ll eat it, and if makes me grow larger, I can reach the key, and if it makes me grow smaller, I’ll crawl under the door. And if it's a pot brownie, I'll conk out, and the rats will eat me. Either way, I’m outta here.”
He took a bite and put his hand to the top of his head, to see which way he was growing. Annoyingly, he seemed to be the same size as before. To be sure, this generally happens when one eats brownies, unless one eats them to excess over a period of many months or years. But John was miffed.
“Well, that sucked,” he said, and finished the brownie in two bites to console himself.
Chapter 3: The Pool of Damp
“Now that's more like it,” John said as the table started to shrink once more. “Seriously, you don't take a six-foot man and make him a midget. You just don’t. Especially when he has, like, NOTHING else going for him.”
The table continued to recede downward. After a while, John began to worry.
“I'm starting to look like an NBA rookie,” he muttered. “Any taller and I'll be able to do no-jump dunks. Which isn't *terrible* but I’ve got back troubles as it is… What's my life going to be when I'm the size of Yao Ming but without any of the skills? And what's my shoe size going to be now, eighteen? Twenty?? Where does one even find shoes that big?..”
Just then his head struck against the roof of the hall. Groaning, he bent down to grab the cinderblock with the key and headed to the tiny door.
Of course, now the idea of getting through it was more hopeless than ever.
“Oh, you think this is funny?!” John yelled into the rat-hole to no one in particular. “You think it’s funny, jerking me around like that when I need to use the bathroom? What if I go ahead and stick my dick through your fucking door, how about that? You better think hard about this! Do you want me inside your world pissing out or outside pissing in?”
It was a hollow threat, of course. For one thing, the door was too low to the ground to permit such acrobatics. And for another, John knew better than to burn bridges in show business.
He sat back against the wall and huffed. “And now I’m all damp… Can’t believe I got sweaty just from screaming. Nick’s right, I need to quit smoking… No, fuck Nick, it’s his fault I need to pee. ‘You gotta hydrate bro…’ fuck outta here with your hydration…”
He fell silent. A little pattering of feet could be heard in the distance. It was the Black Rat returning, now dressed in a Billabong t-shirt and four little white sneakers. He was trotting along in a great hurry and muttering to himself:
“He’s gonna be pissed, fuck me, he’s going to be so pissed if I’m late…”
“Excuse me,” said John pleadingly, “is there a bathroom…”
The Black Rat started violently – so violently, in fact, that he slid clean out of his T-shirt and his front paw sneakers, and scurried away into the darkness as hard as he could.
John picked up the tiny sneakers, put the tips of his fingers into them, and began dancing them up and down the stone floor, Charlie Chaplin style.
“What a day,” he told himself. “This has to be the weirdest day of my life.” And then added: “Probably.”
He finger-walked the sneakers over to a pebble and began to drive it forwards and backwards along the wall with little finger-kicks.
“I mean, I only remember, what, 20% of my life past six pm? It’s always work, lunch, work, back to Nick’s place. Then some club, a set, a couple of drinks, I black out, and then I wake up on Nick’s couch and it’s time to go to work again. For all I know, I’ve been here like fifty times. No, that’s unlikely. I’d have had the foresight to bring down a chamber pot. Or leave myself a note. Like, ‘Hey idiot, open the door first, prop it open, *then* drink from the stupid bottle.’” Or no, I guess I wouldn't, if I never remembered having been here before...
John lay down and stretched out on his back, putting his hands under his head.
"Great acoustics though... Hang some curtains to dampen the echoes, bring in some chairs, and it’s almost a theatre.”
John took in a big lungful of air and began to sing:
“ 'Ow do you do? My name's Sweeney Todd
These are my razors, this is my shop
My skin is pale, and my eye is odd
Here I come for you, chop, chop, chop...”
“Hang on, those aren’t the right words,” he said as the echo faded away. “Well, this isn’t good. Blacking out every night is one thing, but if I can’t remember Les Mis lyrics, why even live on this earth?”
John sat up and realized something: the sneakers, which had been on his fingertips before, were now big enough to engulf his whole fingers!
He looked around frantically. The ceiling was once more far away, and the doors around him loomed taller than ever.
John got up and ran to the table as fast as he could (which wasn’t fast at all, to be honest), managing to grab the cinderblock just as the top of his head passed the tabletop on its way back down.
“Hah HAH!” he said, dragging the cinderblock off the table to the floor. “Now if I could just stop shrinking again… Oh no! The sneakers!”
He threw them down hastily, just in time to avoid disappearing altogether.
“Well that wasn't ideal,” said John, looking up at the table and the cinderblock, which now loomed larger than ever. “But at least I can go through the oh FUCK ME!”
(He had looked behind him just in time to see the little door blown shut by the draft.)
In a rage, John kicked a tiny pebble with all his might, which was now less mighty than ever. Unfortunately, his foot-eye coordination was also terrible, and instead of connecting with the pebble, his foot simply slipped.
In another moment, splash! John was up to his chin in salt water.
Chapter 4: The Sermon on the Bank
“What am I swimming in?” John asked himself as he splashed about, and then added, “which is never a good question to ask yourself.”
He was, in fact, swimming in a puddle of his own damp that he had made when he was a giant. The tiny patch of dampness under his butt on the stones had now become a pool that stretched as far as the eye could see, which admittedly in this dark underground hall was not very far.
“Well, it could’ve been worse,” thought John. “It could be pee. Speaking of which…”
Ordinarily, John would be above peeing in the pool like a small child. However, the pool being essentially his own butt sweat, he figured things were already at peak grossness, and adding a little urine to the mix could hardly make them any worse.
Upon relieving himself, John did his best to swim away from the scene of the crime. To John’s surprise, after a couple of minutes of vigorous dog-paddling, he realized that he was not in the pool alone. Someone else was splashing nearby. At first John thought it must be a walrus or a hippopotamus, but then he remembered how small he was now.
He hoped at first it was the Black Rat, and he might be able to corner him and get some answers for a change. But it was not the Black Rat. It was, in fact, a French bulldog.
“I should try to talk to her,” thought John. “If the rat talked, maybe the dog talks too. But how does one address a dog?”
“WHO’S A GOOD GIRL??!” John called out.
The French bulldog turned its wrinkled face to him without ceasing its dog-paddling.
Oh, right, she’s French, thought John. He raked his memory for any French greeting whatsoever.
“Voulez Vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” he enunciated finally.
“What deed you say to mee, you cahcksuckair?” the bulldog replied with a heavy French accent. “Nique ta mère, you elongated bag of bones.”
“Sorry,” said John, abashed. “It’s just that’s all the French I know.”
“Look at mee, look at ze surprise on my face,” said the French bulldog. “Look at how surprised I ahm zat you don't know a sing.”
“I know a lot about Law and Order,” offered John.
“Ah, you pauvre con,” said the French bulldog with what appeared to be a sneer, though it was hard to tell amid all the wrinkles. “Ziss place, eet lies beyond lahw ahnd outside ordair.”
“Actually, that’s what I would like to know,” said John. “Where exactly are we?”
“Where do you sink, you eembecile? New York Ceety.”
“I just came from New York City, and it didn’t look anything like this.”
John tried to gesture with one arm all around him. Beyond the pool of damp, he could now see several fires, hear police and fire sirens, and smell smoke.
“Zis ees ze real New York, mon ami infantile,” said the French bulldog. “And now if you excuse mee, I am getting out of this putain de piscine.”
John looked around. The pool around them was getting quite crowded. There were floating tires manned by babies armed with knives; there was also a raccoon; a goose; a turkey; a horse, who looked to be as confused as John himself; and a great number of other creatures besides.
With the French bulldog leading the way and John following close, the whole party soon swam to shore.
And what a party it was! It had everything: a wise old turtle that looked like Quincy Jones, a sheepdog that looked like Bruce Vilanch, and a shaved lion that looked like Mario Batali, all of them dripping wet, cross, and uncomfortable.
The babies kept pointing at John, some with fingers, others with their knives. In fact, everything on the bank looked angry with him. The goose was hissing with its pink mouth open, showing two rows of sharp teeth (John gulped). The turkey was puffing out its chest. And as for the horse, John could read plainly in its face: “If you so much as look at me, I will stomp you to death with my hooves.”
In short, John felt not just wet and cold but severely outnumbered.
“Silence!” said the French bulldog. “Je suis Petunia, and I ahm the alpha here.”
No one disputed.
“Now eef you will listen to mee, I know what will make us all dry,” she said. “What is ze driest sing in ze world?"
Everyone looked at each other. No one said anything.
“The world’s biggest towel fresh out of the world’s biggest dryer?” finally said John.
One of the babies looked at him with especial intensity and drew a pudgy finger across its throat.
“Mass!” said Petunia, as though John had not spoken. “The driest thing of all ees eh Mass. Fazer, s’il Vous plait…”
A priest made his way through the throng. John was mildly surprised to see another fully grown fully human man in this assembly, until the father passed him and John noticed a long wet monkey tail poking out the back of his vestments and swishing back and forth along the dirty stones.
The priest stood in front of the assembly and waited with patently false humility for the din of muttering to die down. Then he began to drone while crossing himself:
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”
“Amen,” answered the congregation dutifully.
“…may the Risen Lord be with you.”
“And with your spirit,” answered the congregation at the same time as John answered “And also with you.”
Everyone turned to stare at him. The priest gave him a pitying look.
“Now wait just a goddamn minute,” said John. “I’ve gone to Mass every week practically since birth. When the priest says, ‘the Lord be with you,’ you answer, ‘And also with you.’”
“You are wrong, my child,” said the priest patronizingly.
“I am NOT wrong, father, and if you would consult the missal…”
“The missal is also wrong,” said the priest and, skipping for some reason over the rest of the Introductory Rites, continued:
“A reading from the book of Judges: “After the time of Abimelek, a man of Issachar named Tola, son of Puah, the son of Dodo…”
“What?” said a voice from the crowd.
“I beg your pardon?” said the priest coldly.
“You called my name,” said the voice.
“I did no such thing,” said the priest. “To proceed: ‘the son of Dodo rose to save Israel. He lived in Shamir, in the hill country of Ephraim. He led Israel twenty-three years; then he died and was buried in Shamir. He was followed by Jair of Gilead, who led Israel twenty-two years…’”
“Hey father, can we speed up this countdown?” said John, dancing in place a little to stay warm.
“’He had thirty sons,” the priest read on through clenched teeth, “who rode thirty donkeys.’”
“This is not working,” proclaimed the shaved lion who looked like Mario Batali. “I’m as wet and miserable as ever.”
“Perhaps a Psalm?” suggested Petunia. She was now smoking a cigarette, which John found puzzling: even supposing that she somehow stored both the cigarette and the lighter in her manifold facial wrinkles, it was entirely unclear how she managed to keep them dry in the pool.
“Yes, yes, a Psalm,” agreed the priest.
A frog in livery stepped forth – the usher, John guessed – and began to sing loudly and badly:
♪ The bread of God is bread ♪
♪ He will bring us bread ♪
♪ No one but the one from Jericho ♪
♪ Can bring bread to bread ♪
The congregation hummed along uncertainly. It was plain to see that without pamphlets to guide them, no one knew their lines for shit.
♪ The bread of bread is bread ♪
♪ Bread is God is bread ♪
Suddenly, red and blue lights began to flash over in the distance.
“It’s the police!” said someone in the crowd.
Everyone turned to John expectantly.
“Fuck da police!” yelled John.
The lights came flashing closer. The crowd began to murmur in panic. Then someone yelled:
And everyone ran in different directions.
Chapter 5: The Eviction
But it was not, in fact, the police.
It was the Black Rat, trotting slowly back again and looking anxiously about as it went, as if it had lost something. The Rat had four new sneakers on, and these sneakers were flashing blue and red lights. Once again, John could hear it muttering:
"He is going to be so pissed, man oh man is he going to be pissed. I can't show up naked! He's going to punt me into the Hudson! Where the hell did I drop it?..
John guessed that the rat must be looking for its Billabong T-shirt, and he very good-naturedly began hunting about for it, but it was nowhere to be seen. Everything seemed to have changed since his swim in the pool, and the mysterious hall, with the glass table and the little door, had vanished completely.
Very soon the Rat noticed John, as he went hunting about for the shirt.
"Penelope!" the Rat yelled in an angry tone. "Penelope, what the hell are you doing out here? Run home and get me a T-shirt to wear for the ball, stat!"
John was so scared that he ran off at once in the direction the rat pointed to, without trying to explain the mistake it had made.
"Who the hell did it think I was?' John said to himself as he ran. "Penelope, or whatever her name was? I should introduce myself properly when I get a chance. But I'd better find it a T-shirt first."
As he said this, he came upon a little house. There was no name or number on it, but John knew it must be the Rat's. It had a very ratty look about it.
John walked up the stoop, stepping over an old dried slice of pizza.
"Knock knock?" he said timidly as he poked his head in. Then he realized the only person who might answer him would be the real Penelope, whoever she might be, and the last thing he wanted now was another confrontation.
"This is odd, isn't it?" John asked himself as he walked up the creaking stairs. "Stepping and fetching for a rat? Must be a vibe I give off."
By now he had found his way into a small rat-hole of a room with piles of junk moldering in every corner. It occurred then to John that he had no idea where the Rat kept its various garments.
Fortunately, there was already a T-shirt on the dresser, probably judged to be too dirty to be folded and replaced in the dresser and too clean to toss in the hamper. It had Kanye on the front and Kim Kardashian on the back, and it gleamed with gold paint.
"Perfect," thought John. "He's going to a ball, after all, and it doesn't get any baller than Kanye."
He was just going to leave the room when his eye fell upon an old antique bottle that stood on the night-stand. This time, there was no label on it with the words 'DRINK ME', or any other label for that matter.
"Is this whiskey or perfume?" wondered John.
He grabbed the bottle, uncapped it, and drank all of it.
"It's perfume," he said.
And it was.
"Oh well!" said John. "I know something interesting is sure to happen. Maybe I'll grow again. Maybe I'll shrink into nothingness. Maybe I'll get an ulcer! I hope it's the first thing though."
Before he even finished that thought, he found his head pressing against the ceiling, and he had to stoop to save his neck from being broken.
"Uh oh," he said. "I shouldn't have drunk quite so much. Well, I guess the first step is admitting that you have a problem."
But presently John had a much more pressing problem, in that the house was literally pressing on him from all sides. He was now kneeling on the floor, but in another minute, there was not even room for that, and he had to lie down with one elbow against the door and one arm curled around his head. Still, he went on growing, and, as a last resource, he put his other arm out of the window.
"That's it," John said to himself. "This is as small as I can make myself. If I grow any more, either the house goes, or I do."
Luckily for him, the little magic bottle of perfume had now had its full effect. And it was a good thing, because John now occupied practically every single cubic foot of the house.
On the bright side, his burps smelled delightful.
"It was much pleasanter at home," mused John. "Well, not at home. On Nick's couch. It was much pleasanter on Nick's couch. At least there I wasn't growing smaller and larger all the time, and being ordered around by rats and French bulldogs. I almost wish I hadn't followed that rat into the bodega. Then again, I always did want to grow up big and strong. And I don't know about strong, but I've certainly got big covered now..."
And so he went on, weighing the pros and cons of his predicament, until soon he heard a voice outside and stopped to listen.
"Penelope! Penelope!!" said the voice. "Fetch me my T-shirt this instant!"
Then came a little pattering of feet on the stairs. John knew was the Rat coming to look for him. Presently, someone tried to open the door; but, as the door opened inwards, and John's elbow was pressed hard against it, that attempt proved a failure.
John heard it say to itself, "Then I'll go round and get in at the window."
"That you won't," thought John, and, after waiting till he heard the Rat just under the window, he spread out his hand and made a snatch in the air. He did not get a hold of anything, but he heard a little shriek and a fall, and a crash of metal, from which he concluded that the Rat had fallen into a garbage can.
Next came an angry voice - the Rat's:
"Penelope, if you don't come out here with a T-shirt this instant..."
"First things first, I'm not Penelope," interrupted John.
"Or whatever her name was," conceded the Rat.
"It's John... hey, what do you mean, 'was'?" asked John sharply. "Is Penelope a ghost? Did you kill Penelope?"
"Listen, John, - can I call you John?"
"Porcupine, please," said John graciously.
"Get the fuck out of my house, John!"
"You were the one who sent me to your house, idiot!" John's patience was failing him. "
"I'm going to send the marshal after you! With an eviction notice!"
"And what's he going to do once he's inside?" asked John. "Drag me out the door that's now the size of one and a half of my dick?"
The Rat said nothing. Possibly he was also mentally measuring the door, though probably not in units of John's dick.
"Besides," said John, "I've got squatter's rights now. Even if I am mostly lying down."
There was a storm of cursing outside, and more metallic sounds, presumably as the Rat climbed back out of the garbage can John inadvertently flung it into.
And then items began to fly in through the open window. John did not see most of them, as he could not turn his head very well, but one of them landed right on his arm and stuck to it.
It was the dried pizza slice from the stoop.
John looked at it for a moment.
"Eh, I've eaten worse," he said, and licked it off his arm.
He was delighted to find that he began shrinking immediately. As soon as he was small enough to get through the door, he ran out of the house. Somewhere behind him, there was a scramble and the noise of many feet trampling through garbage, but John ran as fast as he could, and soon found himself alone and safe in a forest.
"The first thing I've got to do," he wheezed to himself as he wandered through the forest holding his side, which had developed a stitch from the running, "is grow to my right size again... And the second thing... is to find that stage. And the third thing... the third thing is to quit smoking."
It sounded an excellent plan, no doubt, and very neatly and simply arranged. John liked a to-do list. The only difficulty was, he had not the slightest idea how to set about it.
While John was peering about anxiously among the trees, a honk just over his head made him look up in a great hurry.
An enormous goose was looking down at him with beady eyes.
"Nice duckling..." John said in a coaxing tone.
"Too old to be a duckling!" said the goose, and added, unnecessarily: "Quack, quack!"
"Yes, quite," said John without breaking eye contact with the goose.
What does it want from me? he thought frantically.
"Can I help you?" he finally asked.
The goose said nothing and advanced on John, opening its beak and brandishing two rows of sharp teeth.
John took a step back and began searching frantically through his pockets. He had few hopes of finding anything useful in them, after the swim he had, but it was worth checking.
To his astonishment, his left pocket did have something in it: a money clip with a crisp $50 bill inside. A clip and a bill John could swear he had never seen before.
'It must be the Rat's!' he realized. 'Mister Rat must've chucked it at me through the window, and it fell into my then-enormous pocket!'
John looked closer at the money clip. It was engraved with the following devise in beautiful calligraphic cursive:
"Eat ass, suck a dick, and sell drugs"
The goose advanced again, hissing and opening its wings as if to beat John over the head with them.
John raised the money clip high over his head. "You want it?" he asked the goose, and threw the money clip into the bushes as hard as he could. "Go get it!"
The goose's eyes followed the movement of the shiny trinket.
This seemed to John a good opportunity for making his escape. He set off at once, and ran till he was quite tired and out of breath, and till the goose's enraged honking sounded quite faint in the distance.
Chapter 6: Advice from a Caterpillar
“That’s it, I’ve got to grow again,” muttered John as he wondered through the woods. “I suppose I ought to eat or drink something or other… but the question is, what?”
What, was indeed the question. John looked all round at the flowers and the blades of grass but didn’t see anything that looked like the right thing to eat or drink under the circumstances. There was, however, a large mushroom growing near him, about the same height as himself. John looked under it, and on both sides of it, and behind it, and then it occurred to him that he might as well look and see what was on top of it.
He stretched himself up on tiptoe and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and his eyes immediately met those of a large caterpillar, that was sitting on the top and smoking a bong.
The Caterpillar and John looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the glass pipe of its mouth and said:
“Who the fuck are you?”
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.
“I hardly know, just at present,” John replied, rather shyly. “I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” asked the Caterpillar. “Did you piss yourself or something?”
“No,” said John, you know, like a liar. “But I don’t mean changed that way. I mean, I keep growing and shrinking.”
The Caterpillar giggled a nasty little ‘huh huh’.
“What do you mean, ‘huh huh’? It’s confusing, being several different sizes in a day!”
“No it isn’t,” said the Caterpillar with a smirk.
“Well, maybe not to you,” said John. “It is to me.”
“And just who the fuck are you?”
Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation. John felt a little irritated.
“I think, you ought to tell me who you are first.”
Here was another puzzling question. And as John could not think of any good reason, and as the Caterpillar seemed quite determined to be a dick, he turned away to go.
“Come back!” the Caterpillar yelled after him. “I need to tell you something important!”
This sounded promising. John turned again and came back.
The Caterpillar took another long bong hit and exhaled a rather skunky cloud.
“When you grow and shrink,” he finally asked, “does your dick grow and shrink with you?”
“Of course,” said John.
“So, like, it’s never happened to you that you shrank, but your dick, like, stayed the same size?"
“You mean, have I ever turned into a huge penis with a wee homunculus attached to it? No, thankfully I have not,” said John. “That would probably be very uncomfortable.”
The Caterpillar shrugged. “You get used to it in time,” he said and put his lips to the glass pipe again.
John thought about it, looked closer at the Caterpillar, which he just noticed was not green at all but a sort of fleshy pink, and decided to stop thinking about it. And possibly bleach his brain when he got home.
The Caterpillar took another long bong hit. While he did so, John pondered how to wrap up this conversation. But before he could volunteer any polite goodbyes, the Caterpillar exhaled, coughed, and spoke again:
“How big do you want to be?”
“Oh, I’m not very particular as to size,” John replied. “As long as it’s the same size all the time, you know?”
“I don’t know,” said the Caterpillar. “Do you like how big you are *now*?”
"Well, I’d like to be a little larger, obviously,” said John. “I’m what, ten inches now? Which sucks.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” said the Caterpillar angrily, rearing itself upright as he spoke. “Ten inches is fucking awesome!”
“If you say so,” said John politely.
The Caterpillar shook his head. “Tell your lady she’s fucking spoiled, dude.” He then yawned once or twice, and shook himself. Then he got down off the mushroom and crawled away in the grass, remarking as he went:
“One side makes you larger, and the other makes you small.”
‘One side of what?’ thought John to himself.
“Of the mushroom,” said the Caterpillar, just as if John had asked this aloud. “Duh. And don’t take dick pills. They don’t do anything at all.”
In another moment, he was out of sight.
John remained looking thoughtfully at the mushroom for a minute, trying to make out which were the two sides of it. Since it was perfectly round, he found this a very difficult question. At last, he stretched his arms round it as far as they would go and broke off a bit of the edge with each hand.
“Now, which is which?” he said to himself and nibbled a little of the right-hand bit to try the effect. The next moment he felt a violent blow underneath his chin: it had struck his foot!
There was no time to be lost, as he was shrinking rapidly. His chin was pressed so closely against his foot that there was hardly room to open his mouth; but he did it at last, and managed to swallow a morsel of the left-hand bit.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Whew, my head’s free at last,” said John in a tone of delight, which changed into alarm in another moment, when he found that his shoulders were nowhere to be found. All he could see, when he looked down, was an immense length of neck, which seemed to rise like a stalk out of a sea of green leaves that lay below him.
“But where did my shoulders go? And my hands, why can’t I see them?” He was moving them about as he spoke, with no result except a little shaking among the green leaves.
As there was no chance of getting his hands up to his head, he tried to get his head down to them, and was delighted to find that his neck would bend easily in any direction. He curved it down into a graceful zigzag and was going to dive in among the leaves, which were just the tops of the trees under which he had been wandering, when a squawk made him draw back.
A large pigeon flew into his face and began beating him violently with its wings.
“Snake!” squawked the Pigeon.
“I’m not a snake!” said John indignantly. “Leave me alone!”
“That’s what I thought you’d say, you dumb fucking snake!” squawked the Pigeon and beat him harder.
“Look at my teeth,” said John and bared his teeth. “See? All blunt. No fangs.”
“I know a snake when I see one,” said the Pigeon. “Long and skinny and squinty-eyed, that’s a snake.”
‘Everyone is so goddamn rude here,’ thought John. ‘No wonder New York used to have such a bad reputation.’
“As if it weren’t enough I gotta hatch the damn eggs, all alone mind you, with my worthless husband chasing chicks all day, doesn’t bring a breadcrumb home most evenings, but I gotta look out for snakes too! I haven’t had a wink of sleep in three weeks!”
“I’m sorry for your predicament, ma’m,” said John, who was beginning to understand.
“And just as I take them to the highest tree in the park,” continued the Pigeon, raising her voice to a shriek, “and just as I’m thinking I’m free of the damn snakes at last, here they come wriggling down from the sky!”
“But I’m not a snake, I tell you!” said John. “I’m a—I’m a—”
“Well! What are you?” said the Pigeon. “I can see you’re trying to invent something!”
“I—I’m a man?” said John, rather dubiously, as he remembered the number of changes he had gone through that day.
“Yeah right!” said the Pigeon in a tone of the deepest contempt. “I’ve seen a good many men in my time, but never one with such a neck as that!”
“Okay, now, that’s just not nice,” said John.
“I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!”
“I have tasted eggs, certainly,” said John, who was not always a liar, “but men eat eggs quite as much as snakes, you know.”
“I don’t believe it,” said the Pigeon. “But if they do, then they’re just a kind of snake, is what I say.”
This was such a new idea to John that he was quite silent for a minute or two, which gave the Pigeon the opportunity of adding, “Besides, you’re looking for eggs, I know that, so what does it matter to me whether you’re a man or a snake?”
“Well it matters to me!” said John. “I mean, sure, I’m long and skinny, and I don’t eat often, and I’ve got an elongated head with eyes on either side, and I strike out at people viciously when I feel the least bit threatened, but I’m not a snake!”
There was a moment’s pause.
“Besides, I’m not looking for eggs,” added John. “I’m not hungry. And I don't have a bottle rocket with me.”
“And what would you want eggs for if you did?” said the Pigeon suspiciously.
“Well, sometimes I like to put a bottle rocket in a carton of eggs,” confessed John, “so that when I light off the bottle rocket, the eggs would explode everywhere.”
“Oh, well, that’s every interesting,” said the Pigeon with tremendous sarcasm. “And what brought you to that experiment?”
“Oh well, thank you for asking,” said John. “You know how I’m filled with rage? I'm just so horny and angry all the time, and I have no outlet for it. So... eggs.”
At that point, the Pigeon had heard enough, and she began to flap her wings at John’s face again.
John retreated hurriedly under the tree canopy. His neck kept getting entangled among the branches, and every now and then he had to stop and untwist it. But eventually he got his head back down to his hands and the pieces of mushroom in them.
He set to work very carefully, nibbling first at one and then at the other, and growing sometimes taller and sometimes shorter, until he had succeeded in bringing himself down to his usual height.
It was so long since he had been anything near the right size, that it felt quite strange at first; but he got used to it in a few minutes, and began talking to herself, as usual.
“Well, there’s half my plan done! Now I just have to find that stage. This place looks a hell of a lot like Central Park, and the stage is probably at 30 Rock, so all I have to do is bear south, and I’m bound to find it… right? Now, which way is South?”
There was no way to tell. He was on a footpath, however, and he decided to follow it to the end, to see where it ended up taking him.
Chapter 7: Coke and Diet Coke
John came upon an open place with a little house in it, about four feet high.
“Whoever lives here, I probably shouldn’t show myself to them while I’m six feet tall,” thought John.
So he began nibbling at the right-hand bit of mushroom and didn’t venture to go near the house until he had brought himself down to nine inches high.
For a minute or two, John stood looking at the house, wondering what to do next. Suddenly, a deliveryman in a brown uniform came running out of the woods. (John thought him a deliveryman because he was in a uniform: otherwise, judging by his face only, he would have called him a fish.)
The deliveryman rapped loudly at the door with his knuckles.
The door was opened by another uniformed man, with a round face and large eyes, like a frog.
The Fish-man produced from under his arm a huge letter, nearly as large as himself, and handed it over to the other, saying, in a solemn tone:
“For Mister Jagger. An invitation from Mister Lorne to host the program.”
The Frog-man took the envelope and repeated, in the same solemn tone, only changing the order of the words a little:
“From Mister Lorne. An invitation for Mister Jagger to host the program.”
Then they bowed to each other and accidentally knocked their heads together.
John burst out laughing and had to run back into the woods for fear of their overhearing him. When he next peeped out, the Fish-man was gone, and the other was sitting on the ground near the door, staring stupidly up into the sky.
John went timidly up to the door and crouched down.
“Knock-knock?” he said and knocked.
“There’s no sort of use in knocking,” said the Frog-man. “And especially in saying ‘knock-knock’. For two reasons. First, because I’m on the same side of the door as you are. Secondly, because they’re making such a noise inside, no one could possibly hear you.”
Indeed, there was a most extraordinary noise going on within—a constant howling and sneezing, and every now and then a great crash, as if a dish had been broken to pieces.
“True,” said John. “So how am I to get in?”
“There might be some sense in your knocking,” the Frog-man went on without attending to John, “if we had the door between us. For instance, if you were inside, you might knock, and I could let you out, you know?”
He was looking up into the sky all the time he was speaking, and this John thought decidedly uncivil. ‘But perhaps he can’t help it,’ he said to himself, ‘his eyes are practically at the top of his head. Still, at any rate, he might at least answer questions?’
“How am I to get in?” he repeated, aloud.
“’Sittin’ on the dock of the bay,” sang out the Frog-man, “watching the tide ro-o-oll away, sitting on the dock of the bay…”
At this moment the door of the house opened, and a can of Diet Coke flew out, straight at the Frog-man’s head: it just grazed his nose, and exploded into a shower of drops and aluminum scraps against one of the trees behind him.
“…wasting ti-ime,” the Frog-man continued in the same tone, exactly as if nothing had happened.
“How am I to get in?!” asked John again, in a louder tone.
“Are you to get in?’ asked the Frog-man. “That’s the first question, you know.”
It was, no doubt: only John didn’t like to be told so.
“It’s really dreadful,” he muttered to himself, “the way all these creatures argue.”
The Frog-man seemed to think this a good opportunity for another solo.
“Looks like nothing’s gonna change
Everything seems to stay the same…”
“Oh, there’s no use in talking to him,” said John desperately. “He’s perfectly idiotic!” And he opened the door and went in.
The door led right into a large kitchen, which was hazy with white clouds from one end to the other. In the middle, on a three-legged stool, sat Mick Jagger holding a baby. Over by the kitchen counter stood Gary Busey and kneaded dough. Flour covered the counter, as well as his hands, arms, and most of his face.
“There’s too much flour in that dough,” John said to himself and sneezed.
There was certainly too much of it in the air. Even Mick Jagger sneezed occasionally; and as for the baby, it was sneezing and howling alternately without a moment’s pause. The only things in the kitchen that did not sneeze, were Gary Busey and a large cat which was sitting on the hearth and grinning from ear to ear.
“Why is your cat grinning like that?” asked John hesitantly, unsure if it was polite to start a conversation in this way, especially after barging in uninvited.
“He’s a Westchester cat,” said the Mick Jagger, “that’s why. NO!!”
He said the last word with such sudden violence that John quite jumped; but he saw in another moment that it was addressed to the baby, who was fixing to sneeze again, and not to him.
“I didn’t know that Westchester cats could grin,” said John. “In fact, I didn’t know that any cats could grin.”
“They all can,” said Mick Jagger, “and most of ‘em do.”
While John was thinking of something else to say, Gary Busey began to knead the dough vigorously again, setting clouds of flour airborne once more. Mick Jagger did not seem to mind this, nor did the baby, if only because both of them were already sniffling and sneezing so much it was impossible to tell they even noticed.
John sniffed at the air. ‘Hang on,’ he thought, flicking his tongue out and tasting the airborne white particles. ‘This isn’t flour. It’s cocaine!’
“Is this really healthy for the baby?” he volunteered timidly. “I mean, I’m no poster boy for clean living, but surely …”
“NO,” Mick Jagger said in a hoarse growl.
‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ wondered John. ‘No, as in it’s not healthy and I know it? No, as in I have no room to talk about keeping kids off drugs?’
‘I’m just saying,’ went on John, who felt very glad to get an opportunity of showing off a little of his worldliness. ‘I started doing coke early myself, but I was at least old enough to walk myself over to a stranger’s car and get inside to buy it.’
“NOT FUNNY!” said Mick Jagger.
“Not in retrospect, no,” agreed John. “I’m amazed I’m still alive, to be honest.”
At that, Mick Jagger began singing a sort of lullaby to the baby, and giving it a violent shake at the end of every line:
Sweet Rosalie, she’s workin’ at the five and dime
Train back to Hackensack with rosemary wine
Yo deedle doidle dee… cocaine!
CHORUS (in which Gary Busey and the baby joined)
We both like to do cocaine!
“The word ‘both’ has to refer to two parties,” remarked John, slightly shell-shocked. “And there are three of you.”
“Here, you take him then,” Mick Jagger said to John, flinging the baby at him as he spoke. “I must go and get ready to host Lorne’s programme.”
And he hurried out of the room, with Gary Busey sending up a valedictory cloud of cocaine dust after him as he left.
John caught the baby with some difficulty, as it was a queer-shaped little creature, and held out its arms and legs in all directions, ‘just like a star-fish,’ thought John. The poor little thing was snorting like a steam-engine when he caught it, - ‘little wonder, with all the coke it hovered up’ - and wriggling like mad, so that for the first minute or two, John’s attention was mostly focused on not dropping it.
As soon as he had made out the proper way of holding it, (which was to twist it up into a sort of knot, and then keep tight hold of its right ear and left foot, so as to prevent its undoing itself,) he carried it out into the open air.
“If I don’t take this child away with me,” thought John, “they’re sure to kill it in a day or two.”
It did not worry him overmuch that Mick Jagger had just handed him, a stranger, a baby. Let’s face it, if you leave your baby with John Mulaney tonight, you’re not going to race home to check the nanny cam. But if you leave your baby with Gary Busey…
“Yes, it would definitely be murder to leave you behind,” said John to the baby.
The little thing grunted in reply (it had left off snorting and sneezing by this time).
“Don’t grunt,” said John. “That’s not at all a proper way of expressing yourself. And don’t point at me. I don’t care for that shit at all.”
The baby grunted again. John looked anxiously into its face to see what was the matter with it. There could be no doubt that it had a very turn-up nose, much more like a snout than a real nose; also its eyes were getting extremely small for a baby.
‘But really, who am I to judge a child based on a snub nose and squinty little eyes?’ thought John.
“Uncle John has a penis,” said the baby suddenly with such volume and clarity that John looked around frantically to see if anyone had overheard this.
“If you’re going to get personal,” he said to the baby seriously, “I’ll have nothing more to do with you.”
The poor thing grunted again but made no more pronouncements. For some while, they walked on in silence.
John was just beginning to think to himself, ‘Now, what am I to do with this creature when I get it home?’ when it grunted again, so violently that he looked down into its face in some alarm.
This time there could be no mistake about it: it was neither more nor less than a pig.
“Yeah, we’re done here,” said John. “I don’t think Nick’s apartment is zoned for swine.”
He set the little creature down and felt quite relieved to see it trot away quietly into the wood.
“If it had grown up,” he said to himself, “it would have made a dreadfully ugly child: but it makes rather a handsome pig, I think.”
And he began thinking over other children he knew, who might do very well as pigs, goblins, and various vermin, not sparing himself from the line-up, when he was startled by seeing the Westchester Cat sitting on a bough of a tree a few yards off.
The Cat saw John and grinned. It looked good-natured, John thought, with its stout furry bulk and its big green eyes; still it had very long claws and a great many sharp teeth, so he felt that it ought to be treated with respect.
“Mr. Westchester,” said John rather timidly, as he did not know whether the Cat liked the name. The Cat only grinned wider. ‘Well, it hasn’t eaten me yet,’ thought John and asked: “Could you tell me which way I should go?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to end up,” said the Cat in a pleasant rumbling baritone that John couldn’t help but find familiar.
“I don’t really care…” began John, examining the dark markings around the Cat’s eyes. They looked remarkably like a pair of glasses.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“…as long as I get somewhere,” John added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat. “If you walk long enough.”
John felt that this could not be denied, so he tried another question.
“What sort of people live around here?”
“In that direction,” the Cat waved its right front paw, “lives George St. Geegland, the playwright. And in that direction,” it waved the other paw, “lives Gil Faizon, the actor. Visit either if you like: they’re both crazy.”
“Think I’ll stay away from them, then,” said John. “I’m done with crazy for today, I think.”
“You think?” said the Cat, its smile widening.
Suddenly, it rose up off out of its placid cat-loaf pose and jumped springily down to the ground. On the ground, it turned out to be remarkably large, even considering John’s current diminutive state. John watched the Cat shake dry leaves off its haunches and scratch itself behind the ear, and surreptitiously nibbled a bit of the mushroom to make himself grow, hoping that the Cat wouldn’t notice.
Judging from its smile, which widened even further when it looked at John, the Cat did notice.
“You can’t be done with crazy here, buddy,” it purred, stalking softly towards John. “We’re all crazy here. I’m crazy. You’re crazy.”
John watched it approach with wariness. Despite his mushroom snack, the Cat still came up to about his waist. Had it stood up on its hind paws, it and John would’ve been practically eye to eye.
“How do you know I’m crazy?” said John, lowering his voice as the Cat came closer.
“You must be,” said the Cat. “Or else you wouldn’t have come here.”
The thought flashed through John's mind, unbidden: ‘I came here because I was cold, and wet, and tired of waiting for you to come out of that bodega.' But instead he said:
“And how do you know that you are crazy?”
“What else would you call my running after you?” said the Cat with something like melancholy, fixing its round green eyes on John’s.
John felt as though he was on the verge of understanding something – something very important, something that would change his life forever if he could only grasp it. But then the Cat blinked, and the spell was broken.
“Are you coming to the show tonight?” asked the Cat, in a more mundane tone.
“I’d love nothing more,” said John. “But I haven’t been invited yet.”
“You’ll see me there,” said the Cat and vanished.
John was not much surprised at this. He was getting used to weird things happening. While he was looking at the place where the Cat had just been, he suddenly appeared there again.
“Incidentally, what became of the baby?” said the Cat. “I’d nearly forgotten to ask.”
“It turned into a pig,” John said, unfazed.
“I thought it would,” said the Cat and vanished again.
John waited a little, half expecting to see the Cat again, but it did not appear. After a minute or two, John walked off in the direction in which the playwright was said to live.
“I’ve seen actors before,” he said to himself. “They are insufferable. Let’s see if playwrights are any better.”
As he said this, he looked up, and there was the Cat again, sitting on a branch of a tree.
“Did you say ‘pig’ or ‘fig’?” asked the Cat.
“Pig,” replied John. “Listen, can you appear and disappear a bit less suddenly? You’re giving me vertigo.”
“Sure thing,” said the Cat and this time vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of him was gone.
“Well!” said John to himself watching as the grin too finally dissolved into thin air. “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat? That is something.”