Making a Fool of Himself

copyright 2006


JAKE, The Jester: Brian Greenberg (One Tree Hill, The Perfect Score)
CASEY, The Boyfriend: Ryan Carnes (Desperate Housewives, Eating Out)

Jake moved at his fastest walking pace, trying his best to make good time while simultaneously doing his best to appear unhurried. It was what he'd come to think of as his official "man with a mission" stride, with which he could make excellent time while maintaining a look of professional indifference. Which is why it pissed him off so much when his cell phone rang and threw him off-stride.

Jake yanked the phone from his jacket pocket and assumed his junior executive voice. "Jake Quinely speaking."

"Hey, buddy", came the jovial voice on the other end.

"Casey! What the fuck are you calling me for??" The junior executive voice was gone.

"Good morning to you too, pal. Jeez, what crawled up your ass today?"

Jake gritted his teeth before answering. He was nearing the office building and despised being seen walking while talking on his cell. He thought it made him look like an amateurish poseur. "I have a very important meeting this morning. I thought you knew that."

Casey's voice sounded hurt, but he maintained his composure, answering, "Of course I knew it. I was calling to wish you good luck."

"Well, clearly you didn't know how important, otherwise you wouldn't have called now. Think of how disruptive it would have been if I'd already been at the board room table and my cell went off."

Now Casey's hurt was evident. "Well excuse me for giving a shit. Are you in the board room?"

"I'm going into the lobby now. I have to get off the phone. I look like a rube walking around gabbing into this thing."

Picking up on the stress in Jake's voice, Casey said quickly, "I know you'll do fine. Knock 'em dead, okay? Keep cool, focus, and you'll do fine. And hey, break a leg—"

Jake interrupted him. "I gotta go."

"Love you—" Casey began, but Jake cut him off as he swiftly clicked his phone shut. Then he turned it off as he made his way across the lobby to the elevator. Jake slipped his cell back into his jacket pocket, making certain to turn it off first. He took a deep breath in, feeling the weight of his briefcase in his right hand. He moved with purpose and confidence, only the later of which being feigned. He wanted to look as if he knew just what he was doing and where he was going. The fact that he had made three trips to the building over the weekend to trace the near-vacant halls to familiarize himself with the route to the boardroom and clock the time it took to walk there remained his own secret.

On the 26 th floor, Jake approached the receptionist who sat at the large desk that guarded the board room and all other conference rooms in the area. His eyes went to the ornate clock covering most of the wall behind the receptionist's head. There was still a quarter hour's time before the meeting's scheduled start time. He thought it would look good to be in the board room and waiting (looking relaxed yet busy with something or other in his briefcase, of course) when the boss entered.

Jake approached the desk and was greeted by a raised index finger from the receptionist. She did not look up. She busied herself with no less than four phones which surrounded her like wagon train set to defend against attacking Indians. her hands stabbed at buttons and switches on each telephone, both welcoming callers and telling them to hold until their call could be taken.

"Watkins Worldwide Entertainment, please hold." "Watkins Worldwide Entertainment, hold please. " Thank-you for calling Watkins, we'll be with you shortly."

With a casual touch, she activated a slender headset she wore—so slender in fact that Jake had not even noticed it when he entered—and announced incoming calls to various personnel, her fingers then stabbing again at buttons, first one call and then the corresponding recipient who would either assist or dispose of each caller.

"Mr. VanderStelt, promotion on line four. Transferring. STAB. Promotion, Mr. VanderStelt will take your call. STAB.

"Ms. Eberle, Concerned People for Ethical Considerations, line sixteen. Yes, I will. STAB. Ms. Eberle is not available, I'm transferring you to the appointment calendar director." STAB.

The receptionist glanced up at Jake, only half-interested in him, as her fingers paused in mid-stab. She said only one word. "Yes?" But her tone said "What do you want?"

Jake leaned forward, immediately realized that looked too eager, stood straight again. "Jake—er, Jacob Quinely. Junior exec for Theatrical Management. I was wondering if you could let me into the board room." She raised an eyebrow at him. God, he knew it! He sounded like an overeager brown-noser trying to suck up to the boss. How could he cover this so as not to appear as just that? Jake stammered, "I'd just like to do some work...some work of my own, before the meeting. It's not like I'm not prepared or, it's just that, I know it's early, but—"

The receptionist glanced at something on her desk. "About time you showed up." She grabbed a sheet of paper and thrust it onto the raised edge of her desk. "Sign in. They're all already in there. Meeting started nearly half an hour ago."

Flustered, Jake looked at the sign-in sheet and saw there a printout of the names of each department rep called to the meeting. Beside each name was a blank space for a signature. Each space held a signature to match its name. Each, that is, except Jake's, down toward the bottom. Jake grabbed a pen and scribbled his John Hancock furiously, looking again at the clock.

"The meeting's not scheduled to begin until the top of the hour." The receptionist just glanced at him, once again stabbing buttons, firing off curt comments and directions. Jake tried again. "I'm fifteen minutes early!"

She just looked at him with growing disdain. "So?"

He handed back the sign-in sheet, pulling his PDA from his other jacket pocket. He poked at it with the stylus, nodding. "See? The meeting was set for the time I had. I can't be late. I planned it out deliberately to make a good impression—"

She did not look up again. "The longer you spend trying to explain to me, the less time you have to explain in the board room."

Jake shoved the PDA back into his pocket, uncertain if he'd turned it off, deciding he didn't care. He dropped the stylus, watching it bounce once off the carpet. He fumbled to grab it, dropped it again, picked it up at last and crammed it into his pants pocket. Jake began to race down the hallway at the fastest walk he could muster.

"Other way", the receptionist said, still managing calls with deft and impersonal precision.

Jake stopped, whirling about quickly. He looked baffled. Had she been addressing him?

The receptionist jerked a thumb behind her. "The other way."

Jake realized that she was right. He had started going the wrong way down the hall. "Thanks!", he said as he zipped by. She ignored him. Jake made his way down the hall at top walking speed at first—how long were these damn halls, anyway??—then decided expedience was more important than decorum and burst into a full-out run.

At the door to the board room, Jake nearly skidded to a stop. Huffing and puffing, trying to collect himself quickly, Jake straightened his tie, took a deep breath, and stepped into the board room.

Jake saw that the meeting was indeed in full swing. The big boss himself was speaking, leaving the other department reps listening with rapt attention. Jake tried to tiptoe in surreptitiously, unnoticed. As the boss's back was to the group at the moment, his attention drawn to a chart projected on the overhead, Jake hoped he'd succeed in sneaking in.

Without turning, a cruel voice snarled out from the big boss. "Closed meeting! Get the hell out until we're done here!"

"Um, I'm sorry, sir, I—"

"Need help finding the door? You just walked through it. Now turn your ass around and reverse the process." The big boss still had not turned to face him. A few of the other execs in attendance seemed ready to laugh, but contained themselves. The board room was no place for whimsy.

Jake stammered, badly shaken. "B-but sir, I'm very sorry to disrupt things sir, but—"

"But what?!"

"But I'm supposed to be here."

The boss turned slightly, glaring at Jake over his shoulder. Jake continued.

"Sir. I'm Jacob Quinely, sir. Junior exec for The--"

"Theatrical Management. Yes, I know. Well, don't be sorry, be attentive. Sit down and shut up."

Jake took the one vacant seat, the one farthest from the front of the room, amid shaking heads and disparaging snorts from the other executives present. The man seated to Jake's left, nattily attired in a brown suit that appeared to have cost more than Jake made the previous year, cast him a look of disgust and edged his chair away. Jake felt suddenly scandalized and defensive. As he opened his briefcase he muttered, just loud enough for the snooty man beside him to hear, "The meeting wasn't scheduled to start for almost another quarter hour."

Mr. Snooty slowly rolled his eyes toward Jake, in an expression that conveyed the message, "As if that's an excuse?"

"The meetings begin when I say they begin, Mr. Quinley", came the voice of the big boss. He finally turned around and faced the room, or more specifically, Jake. "That I was here at 6AM this morning and you opted not to be is not my problem. Your continual disruption of this conference is. So if you've nothing further to add, or subtract, perhaps we might be allowed to continue."

Every man in the room squirmed in his seat and appeared less amused at Jake's misfortune and embarrassment than frightened by their superior's intense gaze. Jake simply looked down at his binder and day planner and elected to say nothing. It was a wise move.

The snooty exec to Jake's left slid a hard copy of the meeting's agenda over to Jake across the slick conference table's surface. Jake picked it up quickly, skimming it's contents and seeing from the display boards which the big boss referenced that the bulk of the meeting had already been covered. Jake whispered a terse thank-you to the man on his left. The man ignored him.

Jake looked at the top of the agenda sheet. Poised there was a headshot of a gleeful cartoon cat, Billy Bobcat, eyes wild and smiling mouth open so wide his large tongue dangled out of it. The was the cat upon which the late cartoonist Reggie Bilber had built an empire. But it was the current big boss, the man now running the show, who gave that cartoon cat teeth. Teeth that bit the ass off any competitors and claws to shred the opposition. This was the big boss that Jake had grown to admire even more than ol' Reggie, and whom Jake aspired to be like.

The man in question, the man in charge, was none other than Asner DeBaesar, currently the most respected and most feared man in the entertainment industry. DeBaesar had taken over one of the country's most renown—and ailing—family theme parks, along with its connected film empire, and whipped it back into shape. Prices were raised, new attractions added and old ones altered. He stepped lithely around the company's founding mission statement that they would only produce entertainment that the whole family could enjoy. He simply created a sister company that cranked out blood-soaked and tit-flashing R-rated blockbusters with alarming frequency. He used the revenue from those films to fund more of the same. On the side, he stormed the company's animators studio and fired long-treasured cartoonists left and right, bringing in computer specialists who could produce twice as many computer-animated features with ten times the pizzazz and half the cost. He was met with a shower of film awards. He proceeded to usurp and upgrade a variety of other parks, film studios, and animation houses, tearing them from whatever their founding roots were to gobble them up and shit them out as money-making members of the "DeBaesar Family".

Now the badass, no-nonsense entertainment tycoon had set his sights on a new target: theater. Amid a horrendous roar of spastic press, DeBaesar had announced the upcoming grand openings of several of his celebrated animated features to be reborn as lavish stage musicals. This would include no less than additional music to their already beaten-to-death scores, extravagant costumes, live special effects trickery, and eye-popping performances sure to justify the bankrupt-inducing ticket prices.

There was just one problem. Asner DeBaesar knew nothing whatever about the theater. This, he determined, would be no problem as he knew nothing about theme parks or animated features, either. And look how well that had turned out. DeBaesar's plan was a simple one. Bring in experts who actually knew what he did not, and allow the one who most impressed him to do the heavy lifting. Upon success (failure was not an option), DeBaesar had only to step in before the cameras and take all the credit. Flawless.

It was into this ulcer-inspiring atmosphere that Jake had brought himself with gusto. He had come up with a plan that he was certain would impress the entertainment tyrant, and he would begin by already waiting in the board room when the big man entered with his entourage. So far, Jake's plan was not going well.

DeBaesar had finished his introductory diatribe glorifying his plan about which everyone was already well-informed. He then took his seat at the head of the room. Jake wanted to jump in with his brilliant idea before anyone else had a chance to steal his thunder.

"Mr. DeBaesar, if I may—"

DeBaesar held up one hand abruptly and snapped out a harsh "Ut!" Jake sat back, silenced, and observed the other execs in the room as they shook their heads, appalled that Jake had so clumsily trampled over the established proceedings. He once again opted to keep his trap shut, biting back his eagerness to impress the boss. So far he was hardly doing a bang-up job.

DeBaesar produced a small ThinkPad and opened it up. Activating it, he surveyed the room. Jake saw form his vantage point opposite the big boss, that everyone else in the room tensed considerably at the sight of the ThinkPad. What was in there, he wondered? Jake very nearly asked, but then flashed back to advice his street-performing ex had once given him.

"Take a second or two if you have to. Get a feel for your audience and go forward based on that. There's no such thing as a bad crowd. Just a crowd you don't know enough about."

Jake watched and listened as one exec after another offered his own plans and insights on DeBaesar's foray into the world of the theater. It was a sad sight to see.

One young department rep who may have been in his late twenties but due to the bags under his eyes and the gray at his temples appeared at least forty, spoke up. "Sir, I've been looking into the Rosenthal Theater on Eight and Madison." DeBaesar's hand drifted to the keyboard of his ThinkPad. "The rent for the house is well within our budget and it seats at least—"

"KREE-Chooowww!" A ridiculous sound effect split the air in the room. Jake saw at once that DeBaesar's finger had pressed a key on his ThinkPad. It was like something out of an old black and white cartoon featuring an archaic machine breaking down. Everyone save Jake flinched as if they had just heard the high pitch of a dentist's drill.

"Of course the rent is well within our budget", DeBaesar snapped. "The place is a fucking dive! It'd cost us triple whatever the hell their rent is just to bring the place up to code!"

The rapidly aging young exec tried to salvage the situation. "Well, sir, I did take into account the long history of the theater, its location, and the good will it could engender if we played off of that reputati—"

"Waauuggh!" From the ThinkPad, the cry of an old cartoon goat with its head stuck in a fence. "And what about my reputation?", DeBaesar butted in. "Do I give a shit about the reputation of a goddamn building? And what good does it do us if the place falls down around our ears on opening night? Will its reputation cover the insurance loss? And that's only if we can persuade the public to cross the threshold to go inside without saying we're doing a stage version of our Haunted Castle ride." DeBaesar leaned forward, his finger hovering menacingly over his small computer's keyboard. "Tell me, have you ever actually seen the Rosenthal Theater?"

The young exec swallowed hard. "Well, no sir. I haven't actually been to the theater myself, but—"

"Uh-OH!!", came the wail of a 1930s animated school girl in a fit of pique. DeBaesar stabbed another button and there was the "fweeeeeeee—BHUM!" of a falling bomb detonating on impact. DeBaesar waved his hand and the young exec sat back, closing the folders he'd brought out to sell his idea. He had, quite literally, bombed. his face bore the look of someone who truly had lost a limb (or worse) on a battlefield.

DeBaesar sat back in his seat as well, but a look of disgust and annoyance on his face. He was met by silence and nervous fidgeting from all around. "Well?!"

Another young exec raised his hand and tentatively offered his proposal. "Sir, if I may suggest something?"

DeBaesar rolled his eyes. "Of course you can. What the hell do you think you're here for?" But as the exec began to speak, DeBaesar rolled his chair closer to the ThinkPad. His fingers edged closer to the keyboard. The exec was only forty seconds into his presentation when a the blare of a Model T car horn cut it short.

And so it went. Aspiring businessmen doing their level best to offer their ideas, their help, all being shot down in as humiliating a way as possible. Through it all, Jake watched. He remembered his former boyfriend Casey done up in jangling jester ensemble trying his level best to entertain a group of inner city kids outside a park on a side of town he'd never worked before. The kids had been brought to him as part of a community outreach program in conjunction with their school. But Casey's tricks; the juggling balls, the balloon animals, the snappy one-liners, did nothing to impress the querulous little brats. Jake watched in agony as his then-lover strove without result to get a smile out of just one of these angry kids. He too broke the silence with a sound effect. His was a popping balloon.

Casey held a long hat pin in one hand, a decimated balloon animal in the other. His eyes sparkled as he saw the bored children watching him wide-eyed. "So, you don't think much of balloon animals, huh, kids?" Casey rapidly produced three brightly-colored balls and juggled them at high speed. One of which he sent flying toward the face of a disgruntled teenager standing nearby, which Casey caught in one hand inches before impact with the boy's noggin. "Juggling does nothing for you, is that right?" The kids were paying attention now.

Casey then reached into his prop bag and brought out three small insulated batons. Jake knew what these were for. He too watched attentively. "What does your mom tell you about matches? What does the fire chief say when he visits during October's fire prevention week?", Casey asked.

A little girl down front said tentatively, "Don't play with fire?"

"That's right!", Casey agreed happily. He then lit the three batons and began to juggle the flaming torches. "Ahh, what do they know??"

The kids were first silently amazed, then applauding, then cheering. Casey was meant to distract the kids (instruction at that point would have been pure gravy) for about fifteen minutes. He held them rapt for an hour and a half.

Jake observed the cruel big boss as another variation of those grouchy inner city kids, if a far more powerful variety. DeBaesar had just sent another idea spiraling toward oblivion with the sound of what Jake thought might have been someone strangling a chicken. So, he wanted to see someone juggling fire, perhaps? Game on.

"So what the hell are we talking about here?", Jake blurted out.

Every eye was instantly upon him, all execs horrified at the gall of the outburst, and DeBaesar looking fit to burst, since Jake's question had interrupted him from unleashing another humiliating sound effect. A ray gun blast, no less.

"Telling you to sit down and shut up did not give you license to take a nap, Quinely", DeBaesar snarled. "We're talking about—"

"Wasting time and money." Jake pulled a file from his briefcase. He opened it casually, as if checking to verify a luncheon engagement, then remarked out loud to no one, "The Frizzell Auditorium." He flipped through a couple of the pages within the file, then nodded, apparently pleased with himself.

DeBaesar was not. "And why is renting the Frizzell, wherever the fuck that is, any better than what these other imbeciles are suggestin—"

"I'm not suggesting we rent it. I'm suggesting we buy it." Jake slid the folder down the length of the long table, and it would have landed right in DeBaesar's lap, had the big man not slapped his palm down upon it. Hesitantly, first flashing an angry eye at Jake, the boss man opened the file.

Jake narrated what DeBaesar read. "The Frizzell is one of the most neglected, yet exceptional theaters in the area. It has the size, the scope, even the recent upgrades that we'll need to launch the theatrical branch of the DeBaesar corporation."

DeBaesar took out a page, looked it over, frowned. "It isn't even located on the main drag. All the other theaters are more than two blocks away."

"Two and a half blocks and around the corner to the right, to be exact", Jake countered. "So since when does a DeBaesar show come crawling along behind where someone else has established? We announce what's hip now, not once upon a time. Let them come crawling to where we are. By owning our own theater, we can relocate the center of the theatrical district."

"You've been to this place?"

"Multiple times." Jake left out that he'd been there performing with his college troupe, during which time he and Casey romped about its nooks and crannies finding different places to make out. "If you'd take a look at the floor plan I've included, you can see the many cubbies and trap doors already in place that will add to the Bilber magic we've made famous and help to translate the thrill of the animated screen to the intimacy and immediacy of the live stage. There are a few discrepancies in the plans—"

"Such as?" The big man was interested now.

"That side door on page 4-A, for one. It's on the left, not the right as the floor plan shows. There are others. I've included an index page."

DeBaesar saw that he had. He nodded. "Tell me more."

Jake did. He quickly highlighted the points outlined in his Frizzell file, taking care to mention that he knew the big boss could go over them in detail on his own, and certainly did not Jake to read them all to him as one would a child's bedtime story. In truth, Jake wanted to get in and get out with this pitch. As high as the feeling he was getting was being in the limelight, he knew better than to give himself too much rope and thus hang himself. Casey often said, always leave them wanting more.

There was a moment of deathly silence when all in the room but DeBaesar sat on the edge of their seats. Then the moment of truth. DeBaesar closed his ThinkPad. There were two response, almost immediately. The first was that tension left the shoulders and faces of all of the department reps and executives in attendance. The sound effect barrage was over. Then came the steamy air of hatred, of jealousy, as all eyes turned toward Jake, the young upstart who'd had the audacity to show them up.

"We'll go ahead with this", DeBaesar stated. "For now."

Jake gave a respectful nod, but inside he was doing the happy dance and shouting "YES!!"

The execs around the room quietly slipped their own files and folders away. "Now's the time for grunt work", DeBaesar announced. "We need to go into the theater, check the structure, prepare for the facelift, see what properties we can keep, what needs to be tossed, all that jazz."

"I can oversee that", Jake offered eagerly.

DeBaesar's expression did not change. But his tone did. "Smart, and he's not afraid to get his hands dirty, too. Fine. Grunt work's on you, Quinely."

The group got up to leave, waiting for DeBaesar to go first, of course, when Jake stepped ahead of the trailing entourage with more papers. "The realtor's bid, sir. I knew you'd want to look it over."

One of the execs behind DeBaesar snatched it from Jake's hand. "I'll get this to the proper department, sir." The junior exec began to push forward again, but put the brakes on when he saw that DeBaesar was not moving.

"Not so fast, Hensley." DeBaesar reached into his jacket pocket and produced a small booklet. From it he tore something slick and shiny. He slapped it on Jake's lapel. It was a sticker of Billy Bobcat, with a caption curving over his head proclaiming, "I've been a good boy today!"

"Keep it up", DeBaesar said, marching out on his way, the other businessmen on his tail.

"Yes, sir", Jake said, beaming.

The last one out the door was Mr. Snooty. He sniped at Jake, "Nice suit. Sears?"

As a matter of fact, it was. And Jake could see now that the snooty man's wardrobe was Armani. Bastard.

Jake waited a while until after the group was well gone before staggering out into the hallway. Who knew a simple board meeting could be so damned exhausting? He made his way back to the receptionist's desk (staring out in the wrong direction again) and paused by the lady who was still stabbing at buttons and transferring calls with consummate skill. Only now she was also typing at a computer and drinking coffee from a mug with a faded cartoon bobcat upon it. All simultaneously. Jake waited for a moment, hoping for a break in the ongoing action when he could ask her something. Anticipating his inquiry, she spoke up.

"If you're waiting for me to stop and acknowledge you, you'd better take a seat. It's going to be a while. If you have something to say, say it."

Uneasy but not about to pass up the fleeting opportunity, Jake spoke. "Do the meetings with Mr. DeBaesar often start early? I mean, that early? Like an hour ahead of time?"

She kept right on going full steam but answered without looking at Jake, "All the time. You get here when he gets here, you stay until he's ready to leave. Unwritten rule. If he plans to stay the night, you better have a cot in your office. He wants you here whenever he may need you, no exceptions, and he doesn't care if your grandma just died. Send a card and flowers, but be here and be ready to work.'

Jake's first response was one of shock and disapproval, but then he considered all the headway this man had made in the short time he'd been in charge of the Bilber empire and made it part of Watkins Worldwide. That couldn't be done by loafing around with family and friends at movies and baseball games. Impressive. It also meant that Jake had better haul ass to the Frizzell Auditorium if he wanted to make his own headway in getting the once-over to their soon-to-be acquired theater.

Jake started a rapid walk/run to the elevator, working out bus schedules in his head, wondering which line would get him to the theater fastest, if he'd have to make any transfers. Then he stopped before the elevator even as the doors opened. What was he thinking? What the hell did he have an expense account for? Jake held the door of the elevator open and turned back to the receptionist.

"Could you call me a cab, please?"

She kept right on working, and at first Jake thought she was ignoring him. "Yes, Watkins Worldwide. Hold, please." STAB. "Mr. Rybiki, accounting on line 6." STAB. "Jeannine Feldspar for Mrs. Mazpur. Go ahead, Ms. Feldspar." STAB. "Regional Cab? I need a taxi downstairs at Watkins Worldwide main office. When?" She looked at Jake, who pointed at his watch and mouthed the word "NOW". "Right away, please. Thank-you, goodbye." STAB. Horse Feathers Animation? Your appointment with Mr. Clifton has been changed."

Jake sauntered easily into the elevator and let the doors close with a soft ping. He was going to like this job.


Jake hopped out of the cab with a spring in his step which he quickly toned down to appear more professional. He was ecstatic about returning to the Frizzell, but he didn't need passersby on the street or any other execs who might be walking by to see him acting like a hyperactive college kid.

Jake found the side door entrance off the street was unlocked. It was always unlocked, he remembered. Just inside, Jake passed by the dusty old full-length mirror that seemed to have stood here for ages. It was a prop that was used in some fairytale or Arthurian production or other, was later tucked to the side here in the hallway outside the backstage area and simply never relocated. Jake and Casey used to vamp before it, acting out melodramatic dialogues, working their level best to make each other crack up. But that was a while ago. A lifetime ago. Now he was more concerned with his reflection being that of an up-and-coming professional rather than a joker.

"Hello, there! Hep ya?"

Jake turned to see an older gentlemen of thin frame and monstrous white moustache approaching him. Jake recognized him instantly. "Struthers? Is that you?"

The old man hobbled closer, uncertain who was addressing him. "And who might you be, then?"

Jake jumped right up to the old man's face, his eyes wide with excitement. "Take a good look, Geezer!"

"Geezer? You best take care, boy. That was a sacred nickname given to me by two talented young pups who—" He paused, the light dawning. "Jacob? Jacob Daniel Quinely, have you come back to bless this theater with your presence a'gin? C'mere, you!" The old man and the junior executive shared a warm hug. Pulling away from each other, old Struthers looked the lad over. "My God, it's been a lifetime!"

"I was just thinking that."

"Sakes alive, look at you! All done up in that three-piecer. Used to seein' you and yer best pal Casey in every form of getup but that. You landed a part in Inherit The Wind or the like?"

"Hardly. I'm into the business end of things now. You are looking at the Junior Executive for Theatrical Management for the DeBaesar division of Watkins Worldwide Entertainment!"

Old man Struthers looked at Jake with great uncertainty. "Is that right?"

"Yep. Hung up the old childhood dream fantasies and gone legit."

"Is that what you call it?"

Struthers just stared at Jake, a pained look in his eyes. Finally, Jake had to break the uncomfortable silence between them. "Anyway, I'm here to give the place the once-over and do some cataloguing of properties in preparation for the sale."

" Sale o' what?"

"The Frizzell! DeBaesar's gonna buy it! Produce all his shows from here. His stage shows, anyway. How great is that?"

"So he's the one's gonna buy it, then?" Struthers suddenly looked quite sad. "Heard someone might."

"Hey, no worries, Geez. I'll see to it they keep you on. Place wouldn't be the same without you."

"Place hasn't been the same since you and Casey weren't in it."

"We had to grow up and move on, Geez."

"Theater For Children program just dried up and blew away after you and your college buddies took off."

"We didn't just take off, Geez. We graduated. We had to move on, pursue our goals, our dreams—"

"Thought you said you threw those out."

Jake paused. He was unaccustomed to seeing his old mentor so glum. Or speaking so pointedly. "Hey, how's about you show me around again, for old time's sake?"

"I suspect you still know where everything is."

"Yeah, but there have to be some new stuff in the props and costume shop, right? I mean, come on."

Struthers couldn't help but smile. "You an' Casey always did have a thing for props an' costumes."

"But first", Jake said, placing a hand on Struthers' shoulder, "a drink. You still make as good a cup of coffee as you used to?"

"Best in the whole damn theatrical district. Follow me to my office."

Struthers' office was typical of a theater superintendent, maintenance man and caretaker. There was shit and debris everywhere. Light gels cluttered the desk and nearby tables, cords and reels of wiring and cables were strewn in every corner. Unfinished mechanical gadgets that never came to work rested on an extra desk beside other devices that worked perfectly but nobody could find a use for. Jake settled himself into a torn foam-cushioned chair half-repaired with gaffing tape. "I don't think I've ever been in your office before, Geez", he realized aloud.

"You and your young cronies were always too busy spinning about every which way to make it to my office. I always had to bring the java to you."

Jake set his elbow upon the desktop to rest his hand in his palm, and scraped himself even through his suit jacket. "Ow!"

"Careful there, Jake. You can pumice your tootsies on that desk. It's seen a few spills of everything from set flat gesso to paint stripper." Handing a mug of coffee to Jake, Struthers then tossed down a flimsy circle of cork adorned with a stained illustration from a long-forgotten civic opera production. "Coaster, buddy."

Jake looked at the decimated desk top and raised an eyebrow. "It's a little too late for that, wouldn't you say?"

"You'd be surprised what it's never too late for."

Jake forwent the coaster, choosing instead to get up and carry his steaming mug of joe with him as he wandered around the room. "Look at all these old playbills. Photos, too."

"Precious keepsakes all", Struthers declared.

Jake stopped before a bulletin pin board festooned with glossy and matte images. One, the most faded by far, showed a smiling man of average looks with a trim moustache in a maintenance uniform much like Struthers wore, save that it was crisply new. His arm was around a homely but warmly smiling woman in pearls. Jake started to sip from his cup, stopped. "Jesus, Geez, is this you?" Struthers nodded, smiling broadly.

"Back in the day."

"Who's the lady?"

"My beloved Clarissa."

Jake turned and looked at his old mentor. "You were married, Geez? I never knew that."

"Nigh on fifty years, 'til cancer took her. We were inseparable, Cl'riss and I. Kind of like you and Casey were. When you two were here."

Jake suddenly felt the gap of years between the two of them. "Oh. It's not like that, Geez. I mean, we were best friends, sure, but we never—I mean, it's not as if we, you know—"

Struthers laughed. "Jacob, I've been working in the theater most of my life, and I can tell two lovers, no matter which side of their anatomy they wear their privates on. You two had it bad for each other."

Jake thought about that, his eyes resting on a pair of Polaroids of he and Casey from years ago, both of them dressed as clowns, both laughing hysterically. "Yeah, I guess we did at that." Jake sipped his coffee. It was as good as he remembered.

"That", Struthers continued, "and you always forgot to pick up your damn used rubbers after you two went rompin' around the scene shop playing Naked Cowboys or whatever the hell it was you were doing."

Jake sprayed down a nearby shelf of dusty videotapes with a magnificent spit take.

Struthers shrugged. "Should've carried the coaster with you."

Jake coughed, trying to compose himself. "Why--why's this old poster framed when none of the others are, Geez?" He hoped he could quickly change the subject.

"That? That was my official stage debut."

"I didn't know you acted, Geez."

He laughed again. "I didn't. Not really. I was an extra."

"Oh", Jake said, feeling bad that he had mentioned it.

"Stands for extra-special, you know", Struthers said proudly. "Three performances over one weekend, September 1974. It was a thrill, I tellya. Even with no lines. Didn't get over it for months."

"You always loved the stage, huh?"

"The stage, the backstage, the dressing rooms, the light booth, the damn toilets that always back up during final dress. The whole blamed lot of it." Struthers put his feet up on his desk (without a coaster), pushing aside a rickety office telephone that must have already been old thirty years before. "Hell, I knew I was a terrible actor, but that didn't matter to me. I loved the theater, loved the people, the shows, when things went really right on a production." He considered that. "Loved it went things went wrong, too."

"So you chose to be the guy that keeps the whole thing up and running."

"Still part of the magic, Jake. Can't do anything onstage without folks backstage. The actors'd just be naked people with nothing to hold onto—"

"Standing around in the dark", Jake said, completing the thought.

"Always knew you were paying attention, even when your drama coach swore you weren't."

Jake took in the room, its energy, its clutter, the many hundred photos of faces of laughing and mugging performers of all ages, multiples of his favorites (like Jake and Casey), their names and roles long forgotten to all but one. Jake started to feel that tingle rise up from his feet, to resuscitate the old butterflies in his stomach. The wonder of the theater. He slugged back the last of his coffee, hoping perhaps to drown the sensation before it gained too much life.

"Let's hit that prop and costume shop, shall we?" Struthers nodded, getting up from his chair. "Oh, and Geez? It was called Nude Buckaroos, I'll have you know." The man called Geezer gave his old apprentice a sideways glance, then shuffled off toward the shop in question.


The prop and costume shop was as cramped and cold and dusty as Jake remembered it. Struthers, despite his age, seemed to navigate it without any trouble at all. Jake could not say the same. Though he was familiar with the prop shop (although not all its most recent acquisitions), he was busy trying to make sure the dust and grime of the many props and set pieces did not ruin his suit as he made his way awkwardly through the narrow openings and twisting passages of the cluttered storage area.

Jake was in the midst of what looked like a bizarre dance move, with arms raised up and legs stepping high and wide to avoid the various protruding objects and many faux stage devices. He looked even more absurd, this paradoxical figure in freshly dry-cleaned business suit amid theatrical rubble, when he froze in mid-step. "Hey, I remember this!", Jake said, snatching up a mock spear. "Casey and I made these freshmen year!"

"I remember", Struthers said, continuing on his way through the clutter without pausing.

"We were so pissed at being relegated to spear carriers that term that we made these absolutely kickass spears", he eyed the hilt, then continued, "with glitter and rhinestones in the handles and along the blades. Anytime that stuck-up hag who had the lead started chewing scenery, we'd tilt them so they'd catch the light and then all eyes were on us and our shining spears rather than on her bad acting." He lanced at the air once or twice, then returned the spear to the old barrel from which it came.

"Stuff you'll most likely want to see is this way", Struthers said, nudging Jake on. He didn't get very far.

"Holy shit, the golden goose!" Jake picked up a large plastic garden swan that had been swaddled in an old curtain to imply feathers and hot-glued into place. "This was from Do You Believe In Make Believe?. The children's workshop we hosted as part of our thesis project. This little birdie was quite a piece of work!"

"Specially since it was used the year before as part of a hat."

Jake looked wide-eyed at the old man. "You remember that?"

"I remember the fun you two boys had making it. Showing the kids how a can of spray paint can make a colored curtain look like feathers. Or an elastic strap and Velcro tabs could make it into a fancy chapeau. You were a good teacher."

"Thanks", Jake said back, but his heart was not in his response, his eyes on the plastic goose/swan.

"So where is Casey these days?"

Jake snapped himself back into the present. "Oh, he's still teaching." Jake put the goose down.


"Yeah." Jake began to press on through the magical stage rubbish but Struthers stayed in place, looking at him. He said nothing, but Jake felt the reason for Struthers barring the way. Jake fussed with his tie, brushing off some dust, looked at Struthers, his expression encouraging him to move. Struthers just looked back. Jake sighed.

"He teaches children's theater. Does day camps, that kind of thing. That's about it."


Jake looked the old man in the eye. "He still does street performing, like we did in college", he said, sounding exasperated. "He goes down to the midtown square and tries to amuse businessmen on their lunch hour, kids on their way to and from classes. He gets himself all dressed up like an idiot—"

Struthers cut him off. "Classical idiot, or man who has a shitty costumer idiot?"

Jake snorted. "Classical idiot. Tights, loud tunic, cap and bells, the works."

Struthers smiled broadly. "A jester!", he beamed.

"A fool", Jake corrected.

"He's gettin' back to his theatrical roots", Struthers suggested.

"He's getting back to a life living on nothing but ramen", Jake stated.

"You don't approve." It was not a question.

"We broke up."

"Sorry to hear that."

"It had to happen."

"And why's that?"

Jake looked again at the old man, saw in his eyes that this question could not be brushed aside. He didn't want to go into it, but he owed Geezer at least a brief synopsis. "We just started growing in different directions."

"And what direction would that be?"

Jake sighed. "I started looking at the big picture. The bills piling up, the dead-end circle of doing kids' theater, racing around for little or no pay, teaching kids to dream about the same thing only so they can grow up and just as broke as we were..." He stopped for a moment, and the glint in his eye that had been there as he held his golden goose now hardened. "I saw that the business aspect is where the real security is. So I took some courses, got a second degree, hit the ground running. This year I'm making more than three times what I made teaching and I'm still at the bottom of the ladder."

"Can't have left yourself much time for family and friends if you conquered so much schooling in so short a time."

Jake bit his lower lip, thinking about whether he should comment. Decide he may as well. "I pretty much cut myself off from my family. At least until I'm established."

Struthers looked on with disapproval. "What for? They trying to talk you out of it?"

"No, no. Mom is supportive of pretty much anything I do, Dad's relieved beyond belief that I'm focusing on something that I can actually support myself with. But no, when it comes to business, too much peripheral interaction with those unconnected with your goals if just a distraction." He sounded as if he were quoting an obsolete text book which he may have memorized.

Struthers' gaze grew darker. "Is that right." He turned away from Jake and began to move back through the prop shop, away from the aspiring young businessman. Within moments, he was already several paces ahead of Jake, seeming not to care that he could leave the junior professional behind. Without warning, he stopped suddenly and turned back. "Wait. Weren't you the one with all them little nephews?"

Jake struggled to catch up with Struthers, pushing through the cramped quarters, trying to keep his suit intact. "Four nephews, two nieces. My sister's kids, yeah."

"When's the last time you saw them?"

"Ah, I don't remember." Jake had caught up to Struthers, but again the old man barred his way. Jake knew the toll to continue on would be more information. "You don't understand, Geez. Whenever I saw them, all those kids wanted was for 'Unca Jake' to perform for them. Do handstands, juggle their toys, do card tricks. I wasn't a respected relative, I was a one-man kiddie show. If that's not a distraction from important things, I don't know what—"

"Maybe they respected you because you could perform for them. Or even more, because you would."

Jake felt very defensive and he wasn't sure why. He answered with a voice a bit louder than he had intended. "I'm making something of myself now, Geez."

Struthers looked him over as one would a specially-rigged prop that had failed to perform properly. "Yeah, you're making something of yourself, alright."

Jake looked down at his shoes to break away from the old man's harsh gaze, but as soon as he did, he saw the dust that had gathered his feet. "Man! It's gonna take forever to get the shine back now!"

"I was afraid of that, too", Struthers mumbled, and pressed on through the rubble and detritus of past shows and faded magic. Coming into the next of the interconnecting rooms that made up the prop and costume storage area, Struthers said, "So you and Casey broke up then, huh?"

"That's right", Jake answered, sounded tired of this line of questioning.

"He know it?"

Jake sped up to keep pace with the old guy. "What do you mean, does he know it? I stopped seeing him, I'm not returning his calls, I moved out—"

"You were sharing? Living together?"

"Yeah, but that's all in the past now. When he called me this morning, I hope I was brusque enough to give him the hint not to keep—"

"You broke up, he knows it, and he still calls you?" Struthers stopped walking again. Jake blew hot wind from between clenched teeth. Time for more information.

"He called my cell to tell me to break a leg at this morning's meeting."

"And you're sure he knows you two broke up?"

Jake laughed a truncated snort, more of disgust than amusement. "He told me that I'll always have a place beside him on the street corner if 'this business thing' ever flops on me. Can you fucking believe that?"

"I do believe he sounds like a catch."

"What he sounds like is an idiot."

"Is he happy?"

Jake just stood there, mouth agape, as if he couldn't understand the question. "What?"

"Is he happy?"

Jake ran a hand through his hair, giving the room a quick survey, as if he'd find the right answer among the bits of bobs and brocade. "Happiness doesn't pay the rent", was all he could come up with.

"No, but it makes living in squalor a lot more bearable."

"Living in squalor isn't something you should have to bear at all if you can help it." Jake pressed on past Struthers. He was done following his lead. He had stopped doing that a long time ago. Why go back to it now? Jake pushed into the next room and found row upon row of costumes, some in dry cleaning bags, most not, all hanging as neatly as possible (which wasn't saying much) from long metal racks. They were stacked three high with thick metal bars holding up old rusty hangers and musty ensembles. There was a bit more room to move, and Jake made use of it as he surveyed the many hanging outfits of many discarded stage identities.

"A lot of this stuff is gonna have to go", he announced, taking on the tone of one in charge. "It's too old, too cheaply made. Not enough dazzle."

Struthers had made his way into the room. "Yeah, loss of dazzle is always a problem with some of the once-precious things from theater."

Jake ignored him. "We may be able to keep some of the nicer stuff, the fancier outfits. Maybe for the stage version of the Bilber cartoon Greasepaint Kit. There's a run-down old theater in that story."

"Run-down old theater, yeah, that about sums it up", Struthers said, his tone increasingly saddened.

Jake had had enough. "Look, I know this clutter means a lot to you, but it's done it's job and now it's just a lot of junk. Mostly, anyway. Most of it has got to be trashed to make way for the new. That's just the way of things. We may be able to salvage some of it, rip it down to spare parts or whatever, but the vast majority of it has got to be trashed." He turned away before he could get another veiled criticism from Struthers.

"Now, how many rooms are we talking, here? I know I've been in a lot of them, but by no means all—" Jake walked right into a cluster of hanging ball gowns, the clear plastic bags atop which gladly gave up their dusty coverings to coat Jake's jacket.

"GodDAMN it! I should have fucking changed before ever coming back here!" Struthers put his tongue firmly in his cheek, about to offer a comment, but Jake stabbed a finger in his direction. "Not a fucking word!" Struthers waved a wrinkled hand before his face, his smile directed at the filthy floorboards. I didn't say anything...

Jake tried to brush away the dusty layer, but succeed only in pressing it deeper into the suit's fabric. "Fuck, I look like a goddamn hobo! No way I'm gonna get this clean in time for the next meeting! Shit!"

Struthers had seen this side of Jake before, but usually only during the inevitable catastrophes that came from final dress. "Just take it easy. You can always put on another suit while that one's getting spruced up. It'll be okay."

"This is my only suit!!", Jake shouted. Then fighting to compose himself, he added, "I only had the money for one suit after I got my condo furnished. This is the only one I have until next payday—which isn't until the middle of the month!"

Struthers saw the hurt in the young man's eyes, the desperate need to impress, the drive to succeed, the panic at possibly not making it. And he felt genuine compassion for the boy. "Come with me. I have something that I think could help you."

Struthers led his charge through the many rows of hanging costumes, and the frustrated young executive wasn't sure what to make of this change in the old man's demeanor. "What, have you got a miniature dry cleaning service tucked away back here?"

"You said you needed a change of clothes. What the sam hill have we got all 'round us if not all the changes of clothes a man could want?"

"Ohh no", Jake protested, his tone suspicious. "I'm not putting on a stage costume while you run this to the cleaners. You leave me here done up in horse suit or as a toy solder while I soak up the theatrical ambience and get all gooey with nostalgia while you take your own sweet time bringing back my clean suit—"

Struthers put a warm hand on Jake's arm. "Trust me." And Jake did.

"So what do you have for me?"

"Something special."

Struthers led Jake to a back room, sealed with a padlock, and into another room—more a cubby hole—beyond that.

"I've never been in here before", Jake admitted.

"Authorized personnel only", Struthers said. "Which means whoever happens to have the key." He jangled a ring with a considerable number of keys upon it. "What we want's back here." Struthers made his way to the back of the cramped cubby, past a row of boxes marked as holding gloves, belt buckles, faux jewelry, hair ribbons, and clutch purses. Opposite the boxes were more rows of costumes, these lined so high that a metal stepladder was needed to reach the tallest of them. Struthers stopped at the farthest wall, pushing aside a plank which covered a final costume bag. He pointed at it, a wide grin on his face. This was it.

Struthers pulled from the rack the dark blue clothing bag of heavy vinyl. Unlike the many other coverings for the costumes, it was free of dust. It was zipped neatly up the front with a shining gold zipper. Upon the top of it's metal hanger (no rust) was a cardboard tag which read tersely: STRUTHERS. HANDS OFF!

Struthers handed the bag toward Jake. Jake reached out to take the bag from the old man. "Jesus, Geez, what's in here?" As Jake's fingers encircled the top of the hanger, Struthers' own aged hand curled around Jake's own.

"Now you just think for a minute, Jake. You think about how you'd like to look, who you want to be, how you wanna present yourself, how you want that big ol' audience out there to see you. Think you can do that?" It was the same speech he gave to Jake and Casey when they were theater students. It gave him shivers, taking him back years to who he once was. Jake only nodded, feeling very much the child again.

Struthers gestured toward the suit bag, removing his hand from the hanger, which had seemed to have grown warm in Jake's hand. "Go ahead, then."

Slowly, Jake unzipped the bag and revealed the suit of his dreams. A dark, double-breasted suit of the finest quality. Jake could feel his heart in his throat. "Omigod, Geez. Is this a Versace?"

Struthers shrugged. "Cain't remember. Check the label." Jake did.

The ebony tag bore only a logo of what could have been a breakaway graphic of a face, lined in gold. Jake did not recognize it. Still, the suit was amazing. Jake turned the outfit over, trying not to take it from the bag and expose it to the dust and filth of the room, when he saw a smaller bag dangling from the hanger within the bag.

"Holy crap, Geez. It comes with shoes, too?"

Struthers looked into the bag as if to verify Jake's claim. "It does", he decided.

"Dude, I so have to put this on."

"We kin use the washroom connected to the old lobby. It's the one I use." Jake started to say something, but Struthers interjected. "It' clean, it's clean."

It was more than clean. The small bathroom was immaculate. Jake had to smile at how easily Struthers kept the two aspects of his life distinguished. "You can't have the restroom looking like the paint room", Jake repeated, the phrase he'd heard his old mentor recite on more than one occasion when Jake was just a kid. His well-dusted original suit lay draped over the countertop and Jake admired himself in the miniscule circular mirror that hung over the sink. He straightened his exquisite tie (it even came with a shirt and tie!) and couldn't suppress a smile of childlike glee.

"You decent?" Struthers' voice came from beyond the door.

Jake thrust open the door to reveal himself. "I'm better than decent. I'm fucking spectacular!" He did look truly impressive.

"Very smart", Struthers observed.

Then Jake's face fell. "I can't go back in there like this. I'll ruin it."

"What would'ja wanna go back in for?"

"The survey! I need to catalog all the contents of the—"

"Don't need to. Already done. We did it ourselves here last summer. Got everything on a list upstairs."

Jake looked at the ceiling, letting out a laugh. "Geez, why the hell didn't you say something?"

"What, and pass up time I could spend with one of my boys?" Then Struthers was all business. "I'll get the list to ya by the end of the work day." Jake began to say something, but Struthers cut him off. "Your work day, not mine. It'll be in your hands by five, not midnight." Jake opened his mouth again, Struthers continued. "An' it won't be scrawled on the back of old programs, it'll be printed out and lookin' all professional. Don't worry." Jake gave the old man a sideways glance. "Oh, I've got a computer around here someplace. I just need to unbury it. I'm not a complete fossil."

Jake turned back to peer inside the bathroom at his dusty suit. "What do I do about--?"

"I'll get that. Just leave it. Now that you've gussied yourself up, you don't wanna get dusty again. I'm on good terms with the folks at Sheldon's down the block. I'll have it gleaming like new by mornin'."

Jake let out a satisfied sigh and smiled at the old man. "Thanks, Geez. really, I mean it."

"Don't thank me just yet. Go out and impress people first. And I expect a full report after you've made your impression."

"Oh, I'm gonna make an impression in this, alright."

Struthers raised an eyebrow. "Got no doubt about that."

Jake put his hands on his hips, looking himself over. "How the hell did you happen have something like this in exactly my size? I mean, the shoes and everything. It fits like it was made for me—"

"You'll wanna go down to that door and hang a left. It'll take you right back to the hallway you came in." Struthers seemed strangely eager to be rid of 'one of his boys' all of a sudden.

"Say, can you call me a cab?"

"Why don'tcha do that down on the corner? Let folks on the street get an eyeful of you first. Take 'er for a spin. Show yourself off."

Jake smiled. "I think I'll do that."

The young executive strode down the hallway and tossed off a quick wave to the old maintenance man without turning back. Struthers had not expected him to. Not yet.

True to his word, Struthers direction brought Jake quickly right back to the hallway by which he'd entered the Frizzell Auditorium. As the young man, filled with renewed confidence, marched toward the door, he spotted the old full-length mirror once again. It was so much bigger than the dinky glass in the restroom, Jake had to pause to take a gander at himself.

Jake stood and admired himself in the old, ornately-framed mirror of the backstage hallway. He was amazed at how good he looked. No more comments from smartass department reps about getting his suits from Sears. Though Jake had yet to place the label on this one, he knew a high-class, designer ensemble when he saw one. Jake felt suddenly giddy. He may have eagerly (over-eagerly?) accepted what others perceived as a shit job for his first task for the big man, but he could feel a change beginning for himself. He was on the way up, and the others would just have to deal with it.

Moving closer to the mirror, Jake straightened his tie. Then something caught his eye. Something in the weave of the fabric? Jake brushed aside some of the dust which had settled in a fine layer upon the glass. He needed a better look at himself. First he gave the mirror a slight wipe with his fingers, but that did little more than spread the dust around and obscure his view. Jake took a sudden step back from the glass. the last thing he wanted was to get this new suit all dusty as he had his other one.

Looking around the hallway, Jake's eyes fell upon a small carpenter's box with an assortment of cleaning rags and sponges. Odd, he hadn't noticed that when he first came in... Picking up a spotted handkerchief from the box, Jake proceeded to dust off the mirror again. A little better.

Jake then fogged the mirror with his breath and began seriously cleaning up the glass. Much better. Now, what was it about the fabric of his new suit coat that had caught his eye a moment ago? Jake continued to wipe off the mirror. "Well, now that I've made a clean spot...", he muttered.

Jake glanced at his nattily-attired arm as he wiped off the rest of the mirror, smirking at the irony of the two visuals, taking great care to keep the former from directly touching the latter. The dusty old mirror and the designer outfit. It was then that the diamond pattern in the weave of his jacket caught his eye again. Was the crisscrossing pattern a bit larger than he'd thought it was? Must be the better reflection allowing him to see more detail. A few more wipes and the mirror was clean, or as clean as he was going to get it with a castoff hanky. Jake looked at the now-filthy rag and made an icky-face expression. He tossed the wrecked handkerchief to the side. Then he went back to admiring himself in the mirror.

Jake straightened out his jacket and posed as if he were adjusting his cufflinks. Now, wait a second. The diamond weave did look a bit bigger. Bigger than just a dusty reflection in an old mirror might conceal. Jake began to drop his hands from their "cuff link pose" when his right sleeve suddenly felt too tight. Had he twisted the sleeve around his arm somehow? He tugged a bit on the sleeve in attempt to loosen it up, but only made it worse. "What the hell here?", he said to himself.

Jake then felt the left sleeve follow suit. It too was suddenly far too tight. "Hey, what is this?", Jake wondered aloud. Did it have something to do with the age of the vintage suit? Was it somehow worn out, too old to be used effectively? But who had every heard of such a thing? A suit shrinking without exposure to hot water, detergent, or some other elements. Could an old suit begin to shrink upon contact with the air? He had to figure this out, and fast. He wanted to impress the other businessmen, especially the boss. Not look like an idiot. Whulp!

Jake felt his crotch suddenly strapped, as if he'd been forcibly thrust into a dancer's belt. Material pressed angrily against his cock, and made a wedgie up his ass. "Holy shit! What is the deal with this thing?" Jake saw his reflection in the old looking glass and now saw without a doubt that the trousers of the suit were constricting against his legs. They were rapidly changing from sleek, neatly creased pants to tights.

Jake yanked at the outer seams of the pant legs to find that there didn't appear to be any seams there to grasp. It was if the pants had become one seamless piece somehow. And now there was no question about the diamond weave of the jacket. The diamonds were growing, increasing in size like something out of an old Windsor McCay comic strip of the 1900's. "Oh my freakin' God, I'm turning into the Rarebit Fiend", Jake observed, horrified. Even the tie around his neck began to undulate and flap about.

The lapels of the jacket started to tear and fray, losing their slim line and zigzagging in and out in a pattern like a sunburst, or a huge flower. Jake had to inhale. The sleeves, the pants, were far too tight now. He tried to tear the cloth away from his body, but now he felt his arms and legs jerk about, as if he were some human marionette, being made to dance not by strings, but by the very clothes on his back. "Get OFF me!", Jake howled. But if the magic clothes had the means to hear him, they ignored his cries.

The necktie whirled up and, elongating, wrapped itself around Jake's head. Then it too split, but into three separate pieces all attached at the base. Jake's fingers clawed at the tie, which seemed to hug rather than strangle him, but the tightening sleeves pulled Jake's hands away. Jake's legs began to dance. Some weird, medieval madrigal prance, his feet up on tiptoes, his arms akimbo. Jake did a slow rotation, his body posture looking oddly gleeful and in direct contrast to his horrified expression.

Jake called out for the old man backstage. "Geezer! Help! I need some help here! PLEASE!! Get me out of this!" There was no response. Silence from the bowels of the theater. The place was huge, it's backstage area cavernous. The old man could be anywhere by now. The only response to Jake's call for help seemed to be the strumming of some old instrument. A mandolin, perhaps. Or a lyre? Where was it coming from? Jake's feet began to dance to it.

Looking down at his dancing feet, Jake saw his nice new shoes change from polished leather to cloth. The toes extended and grew to a point. Then they curled backwards upon themselves, like a summer slug protecting itself within its shell. The shoes went from stiff to soft and pliable, their professional feel reducing itself to the comfort of bedroom slippers, but with the somewhat firmer soles of dancing shoes.

Helpless to stop his parading about like a puppet, Jake watched himself in the mirror again. He truly looked like a complete asshole now, he thought. A splintered tie bobbing atop his head, his shoes looking like something from a street market in Turkey, his jacket sliced gaily with slashes of large diamond shapes. And though the torso of his jacket remained loose—its jagged lapel (or collar, now) draping itself around Jake's shoulders—the sleeves and pants continued to tighten against Jake's limbs. They grew more and more snug until they conformed perfectly to his physique. And while Jake's musculature was flattering, this was far from the way he'd prefer to show it off. His suit which appeared so dashing but a moment ago now hugged him like long underwear. No, not so bulky. More like tights. Like the type of theatrical tights a superhero character would wear. Or a ballet dancer. Jake gasped.

"Or a jester..."

A wave of fear flushed through Jake's system. He knew what was happening to him. The how was still a mystery, but now he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what he was being transformed into. He had known his ex-boyfriend and his penchant for street performance far too long not to recognize this costume. He had even been coerced into wearing one once before. There was no simple coercion this time. This felt more like an irresistible force of nature.

The splayed tie now formed a perfect fool's cap upon Jake's head, it's triple-torn shreds widening and thickening, forming the metaphorical ass's ears. The sunburst collar that had once been his lapels settled neatly around his shoulders, sticking out at the sides, draping majestically over his chest and drooping low in the back. The belt that had once held up his pants now appeared around his waist atop his tunic, a leering comedy mask for a belt buckle. The coat trim extended downward a few inches past his crotch, as would a knight's low-hanging tunic from a production of Camelot. Then the bottom edge of the tunic split apart like the collar had, bursting cheerfully into multiple triangles that pointed toward the floor.

"No,no,no...", Jake, muttered, helpless to stop the deterioration of his magnificent suit. "No, not this! Stop! HEEELLLLPP!!! GEEZ!!!" Jake had stopped turning around in circles. Now he faced the old mirror and watched spellbound as his metamorphosis neared completion. Jake's pointy shoes rose up to almost mid-calf and formed snug-fitting boots. The top cuffs of which curled over and sported miniature triangular zigzags that matched his tunic. His shirt and pants were now tights, form-fitting, irremovable. His tunic was splashed with huge diamonds interconnecting and wrapping loudly around his chest and back. The cap upon his head bore three dangling ears, or tails, that seemed to bob and dance of their own accord. The worst of the cap was, for Jake, that it included no mask. His face was clearly exposed, and anyone could see easily who he was. Then came the second to last alteration of Jake's precious suit.

The subdued colors of his newly-transformed jester suit came alive with color. Cardinal reds, Kelly greens, and trims and lashes of golden yellow. He was no longer a promising young junior executive. Without question, he was a clown. Jake saw his face in the mirror and it looked as if he were going to cry. He began to dance again.

"God, no", he whimpered. "Make it stop."

But as he danced to the strains of that strange music that only he could hear, the final change, the finishing touch, came upon his costume. Tiny bells appeared throughout his jester suit. At the end of each tail upon his cap. Jingle-jangle. At the tip of each triangle flopping from the bottom edge of his tunic. Clang-clingitty-clang. And at last, on each of the curled toes of his pointy boots. Ting-ting-a-ling.

Jake struck a pose of the happy fool. Arms at his sides, palms open, one leg out to the side as if frozen in mid-dance step. His bells jingled happily and his face became a mask of glee, a man ready to amuse the world. The tears finally came.

Jake looked on and saw himself in that mirror as a fool beyond all fools. An idiot, a moron, a jackass born to ridicule and derision. His face was one of wide-eyed beaming happiness, but tears still began to trickle from the corners of his eyes. What had he been reduced to?

Jake the Jester bowed to his reflection. It was showtime. With a spring in his step, he bounded down the backstage hallway toward the side door, the street, and the world beyond. His heart aching, the gleeful jester danced on his way, some nameless tune at play upon his lips.


Jake skipped and pranced his way down the street, his jangling steps gathering stares from passersby. Businessmen looked at him as if he were a freak, students looked at him disapprovingly (as if he were unemployed), and shopping mothers pulled their children in tow closer to prevent them from investigating the strange character. A pair of men in shirts and ties who walked down the avenue lost in conversation simply parted, allowing the dancing fool to pass between them, then rejoined their side-by-side promenade without ever pausing in their discussion. A homeless man squatting in an unused doorway was not so blasé in his observation of the passing fool. Upon seeing this brilliantly-colored dancing loon bounding past his doorway, the disenfranchised fellow was quick to peer down the neck of his bottle, fearful that he had guzzled something more potent than he'd anticipated.

Jake danced merrily along, waving to folks on the street, skipping gaily, peppering his steps with the occasional bell kick, and once or twice a cartwheel. Jake's face bore a bright smile and eager eyes, but inside he was screaming for release. He fought with all the might he had to resist his impromptu performance, but the energy, the relish of what he was doing had overtaken his body. It was like fighting against the combined thrust of every moment of youthful enthusiasm he'd ever had. The venom of the acting bug that coursed through his blood as a child, a teenager, and as a young adult. And the force they commanded was just too powerful.

So Jake tried his level best to at least tone down his high-stepping antics. Perhaps a subdued jester walking at a normal pace would gather fewer gawks, would make him even a trifle less conspicuous. Who knows—maybe people would simply think he had a job delivering flowers or something. But no. Jake had spent too many hours studying dance, exploring character motivation, immersing himself in roles, not to fall reflexively into this one. His feet, his arms, glided easily from one step to the next, his body already four or five movements beyond the one his mind was trying to halt. His face projected what his heart knew a jester should look like, his eyes conveying what the silly court buffoon should feel. The stalwart junior executive was being stomped into oblivion by a pair of belled slipper boots.

Jake pranced his way down the street toward a corner he knew only too well. It was the bus stop. "Oh, God", Jake thought, "please do not let me get on the bus like this." The fact that in his new jesterfied identity he hardly had any bus tokens on him, to say nothing of a wallet or change purse to pay his way, didn't even enter his mind. But he jangled right up to the small cluster of people who were waiting for the mass transit to pull up to the stop. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, hands behind his back, Jake the Jester smiled amiably at the waiting pedestrians, tossing out an occasional compliment in regard to a lady's shoes or a gentleman's tie. A few stepped away from the jovial goof, an done even walked away rapidly, grumbling, "I'll get the next one." But most simply stared straight ahead, trying to ignore the jester completely.

Finally the bus pulled up to the stop and opened its doors. The passengers crowded on, anxious to put some space between themselves and the madrigal imbecile beside them. Jake lingered behind, making grand gestures of allowing others to board ahead of him, bowing to the women, saluting the men. When it was finally Jake's turn to climb onto the bus, he was met with an incredulous stare by the driver, a balding, heavyset man of his mid fifties. The stare was not that of a man who never saw anything odd during his tenure as a bus driver, but of one that read a silent message to himself. That message being, "Oh, boy. Add another fruitcake to the list. Wait until the wife hears about this."

Jake bowed to the man. "Good day to you, good driver of this noble community chariot! Tell me, what fee is required to secure passage on this transport?"

The man didn't bat an eye. He stated the fee flatly, tilting his head slightly toward the large sign at the head of the bus which said the same thing. "Exact change only, Mr. Jester."

Jake patted his tunic, swirled his hands around to the tights hugging his butt in search of pockets, found nothing. No wallet, no front pockets holding loose change. "Egad, good sir!", Jake declared. "I appear to be without funding! Mayhap I could be allowed to board in exchange for a moment of amusement on your behalf?" He did a little dance in place, and with arms spread wide offered a brilliant grin.

"Coin of the realm only, fiend", the drive said.

"Alas, it appears that I have wasted your time!", Jake replied. Inside, he felt a rush of relief that he would not in fact be climbing aboard the bus and taking his asinine act on the road. "It seems you must depart without me. But farewell unto thee and best of luck to you who have called me friend!"

"Rotsa ruck, pal", the drive said, closing the door.

Jake then skipped backward, did a quick cartwheel, and two backward leaps, sending him into the air and landing lightly beside a bench not far from the bus stop. He bowed majestically, giving what a court jester no doubt thought was a proper sendoff.

"That was cool!"

Jake looked down beside him to see a little girl of perhaps five or six. She was bright-eyed and amazed at the colorful oddball who had just "spoken all fancy" to the bus driver and did the way-cool flip-flops over to the bench where she sat. The eagerness sin her expression, her wide smile lessened the inner struggle a bit which Jake was involved in to break away from his forced role as public spectacle. Jake went down on one knee before the adorable urchin.

"And who might you be, milady?"

"I'm not Milladee, I'm Jordan! And you funny clothes are cool!"

"Why, thank-you, Lady Jordan", and Jake bowed his head graciously to the tot.

"I'm not a lady, I'm just a girl!", Jordan giggled.

"A girl with something in her ear", Jake said, reaching over to Jordan's ear and through classic sleight-of-hand producing a golden coin of perhaps half-dollar size, upon which was engraved the face of a smiling jester (who looked remarkably like Jake). He presented the coin to young Jordan. "For you."

Inside, Jake thought sarcastically, "Great, now the damn thing's sleeves are hacking up little keepsakes..."

Hesitantly at first, the little girl reached for the coin and then snatched it away quickly for fear of losing it. She looked it over and giggled some more, holding it tightly now with both hands.

"What do you say?", came a woman's voice from behind the little girl. Jake glanced past the little girl to spy a woman of perhaps her late twenties who was undoubtedly Jordan's mother.

"Thank-you", Jordan said sheepishly.

"Twas my pleasure", Jake replied.

Jordan allowed her precious coin to stay in one hand while she reached out with the other. "Can I jingle your bells?" He small fingers groped toward Jake's cap and bells.

"Nothing would make me happier." Jake bowed his head down toward the little girl, who gleefully tugged and tickled the multiple bells protruding there, filling the air between them with soft jingles and chimes.

"Mom, howcum we can't wear stuff with bells on 'em?", Jordan asked her mother, turning back to face her.

The mother simply put an affectionate arm around her child and smiled appreciatively at this odd newcomer who had made her daughter laugh and smile. "Do you work with children?", the mother asked. "Teach theater, perhaps?"

Jake's voice went back to normal for a moment, his 'thee's and 'thou's receding to permit him to address the woman as he normally would. He could still feel the rest of his body very much under the strange suit's control. "Yeah, I got to work with children's theater for quite a few years. Performed in it when I was younger, too. Until I outgrew it."

"Looks as if you haven't outgrown it yet."

Jake grinned. (Why wasn't he telling her to call someone to help him out of this thing? The police, a paramedic, a fucking tailor??) "Well, I'd outgrown the age requirement for class sign-up, anyway."

"But the love of it never goes away, does it? You're always caught up in it."

"I'm beginning to think that", Jake admitted.

The woman looked at Jake with eyes that seemed to see more than the average. They were indeed the eyes of a mother. "So what are you doing out today?"

I'm being held captive by a magic suit that my old theater maintenance man mentor tricked me into putting on while it was in its camouflage disguise as normal business clothes and now I'm being mind and body controlled into making a public spectacle of myself.

Jake bowed his head, his voice control gone as his hand went to his chest. "That, my dear madam, would be telling."

The mother smiled at how easily Jake slid back into character. "Not even a hint?"

Jake was thinking, "Not a fucking one even for me", when little Jordan piped up. "Ooh! Is he gonna ride with us? Is he? That would be so cool!" Ride with them?

In the near distance, there was a clang. No, make that a clang-clang-clang.

The trolley.

Oh, shit.

Jake looked down the street to see the local trolley rolling its way toward them. The trolley was introduced few years before, in a failed attempt to renew interest in the struggling lakeshore boardwalk, and draw some of the public away from the massive theme parks and toward the smaller attractions of local businesses. Rather than riding on an intricate railing system, the open-air trolley rode on four wheels rather like a small truck and kept to a strict route leading from the downtown theater area to the boardwalk by the lake and then back again. There was no fare, but there was also virtually no interest. It seemed the vast majority of the public would rather pay through the nose for the flash and dazzle of the Bilber parks than ride for free to dingy local shop keepers with aged carnival-style games offering stale popcorn and indigestible corn dogs.

Of late, the trolley had been relegated for rental use as a shuttle to bring attendants from parking ramps to weddings and their subsequent receptions. Beyond that, with the death of the boardwalk, the free trolley ride was pretty much left with only one obvious destination.

"The mall", Jake said. His voice was a harsh whisper, his heart was sinking in his chest. The jester suit was taking him to the mall, where throngs of people crowded the stores, the hallways, the food courts. He would have a captive audience before which he could humiliate himself completely.

The mother and her little girl Jordan stood up from their bench, along with the few stragglers nearby whom Jake had failed to notice, who clearly were here for the same purpose. It was only as the passengers lined up by the lamp post beside the bench that Jake saw the large green and gold sign posted there which declared, "Official stop for our area's famous trolley!" Infamous might have been a more wisely chosen adjective, standing as it did as the mobile reminder of the small businesses' demise under the hell of the huge conglomerates.

Jake gave one last heroic push from inside himself to turn and run, but his body gave no heed and he stood tall, bells a-jangling, to wait along with everyone else for the trolley to come to a stop.

When it did, Jake skipped lithely to its doors and with grand gestures and courteous remarks welcomed everyone aboard the trolley. "Step up, my friends! Oh, watch your step there, milady! Handsome tie, good sir. Hold hands and stick together, fine citizens!" Inside himself, amid the flurry of babble, Jakes was thinking only three words. Shoot me now.

When he was the last one left on the curb, Jake thought, "This is it! Run like the wind! Go, GO!" But alas, he hopped instead onto the bottom step of the trolley and greeted its driver. "What-ho, noble trolley pilot!"

The trolley driver, a gaunt woman with frowsy hair and bag under her eyes big enough to pack for a week-long getaway, simply stared with half-closed lids at the colorful fool. "I don't even want to know." She jerked a thumb toward the trolley's interior. "Just get on and either take a seat or hang onto one of the ceiling straps."

Jake bowed and danced his way on board. He was somewhat relieved that he was not made to prance or perform his way to his seat. Still, his jaunty stride was embarrassing enough. He found his way to the back of the trolley, where Jordan and her mother sat. "Is this seat taken?", he asked the little girl. With another giggle, she scooted over to let the funny man sit down.

Jake sat dreading what awaited him at the mall when the little girl asked what, to him, was the inevitable question. "Can you juggle?"

Jake seemed shocked at the need for the question. "Can I juggle? Can I juggle?!" He tilted his head (jingle), "Why, is Bigfoot really an alien?" The little girl stared blankly. "Nobody knows! But let's see what I can do for you here."

From the front of the trolley, the driver said loudly over her shoulder, "No throwing objects inside the trolley!"

"Fear not, brave driver!", Jake called back. He held a finger up to Jordan and her mother. Reaching under the cuffs of his tight sleeves, Jake pulled out a sheer handkerchief of bright red. Oh man, not this old chestnut... As the little girl watched with wide eyes, Jake proceeded to produce two more handkerchiefs, one of bright yellow, the last of royal blue. Slowly and with great deliberation, Jake began to toss the light fabric into the air before him. As each cloth floated toward the ground, Jake snatched them out of the air and placed them back into space higher up, then back again. It looked for all the world as if he were juggling in slow motion. The motions were the same as if he'd been using rubber balls or large tenpins, but the airy hankies allowed him to move much more slowly, to play up his facial expressions and clowning gestures. The little girl watched with amazement, too young to understand how this magical belled creature before her had managed to slow time at his whim. The mother smiled and snickered, a few passengers applauded.

"Remain in your seats or holding onto the straps", the driver said, concerned others would get up for a closer look at the performance. She was far more preoccupied with liability than their entertainment.

Jake turned in his seat to give everyone a good view. He kept them all amused for the entire ride to the mall.


Once inside the cavernous shopping center, Jake found himself skipping and prancing once more. Jingle, jangle, ting-ting-a-ling. Shoppers gave him the occasional passing glance, also gave him a wide berth as he skipped by, but for the most part paid him no heed. That would have to change, a forceful thought burned within Jake's brow. No sooner had the thought struck him than he tried to counter it. No, no. Being ignored is good! I like not being noticed. Especially like this!

But the suit was in full control and simply would not have it. Jake stopped in mid-prance. His head jerked this way and that, his entire frame spun around taking in the layout. He was being made to scan the area to find the best place to make himself noticed. Chatting with passing shoppers and mall walkers could be seen as disturbing the mall's routine and no doubt bring security in short order. Yeah, do that, Jake thought, piss someone off and get yourself locked up in some small security office. Filing cabinets need to laugh too, you know! Hopping from table to table in the food court would easily be taken as harassing the customers, so that's out. Hey, Chik-Fil-A. Yummy-yummy. The trick would be to place myself where I can be seen by all but still be distanced enough that all onlookers would have to come to me. Jake furrowed his brow (it let him do that, at least) and thought, Oh, you are not gonna make me do what I think you're gonna make me do...

It was. And it did. In a series of spectacular cartwheels and back flips, Jake sent himself down the long stretch of shop fronts to the centermost platform in the large mall. Unlike the various raised platforms peppering the floor of the shopping mall, which featured specialty kiosks with custom jewelry, hot seasoned cashews, or airbrushed T-shirts, the largest platform, set dead-center in the mall beneath high ceilings and a starburst skylight, was saved for special occasions and sponsored presentations. It had half a dozen steps leading up to its octagonal floor, and when not covered in some dazzling display, was used for such things as Santa Claus's visit for hearing children's wishes, miniature fashion parades, or the focal point of auto shows.

As Jake's ill fortune would have it, the center platform was between presentations and festive decor at the moment, leaving him with a good-sized stage upon which he could be humiliated for all to see. With some impressive hops and jumps, Jake mounted the steps up to the center platform and alighted there with arms out and legs ready to move. Silently, Jake cursed every theatrical dance and gymnastic class he'd ever taken, which were many.

Passersby did not notice him much at first, save for the few small children and those young at heart attuned to such things. Caught up as they were in their day's errands, most did not wish to be distracted by the tomfoolery of what was obviously a licensed icon character for some company or other. Their disinterest would not last long.

A few people were already gathered near the center platform anyway. A cluster of college students took their lunch sitting upon the steps, books and folders lay open near their hands and feet. An attractive business woman sat opposite the students, busily going over a day runner, checking appointments. A man on a wooden bench beside a tree that had planted in the tiled floor in some attempt to appear environmentally conscious waited impatiently for his wife to finish up in the boutique across the way. Not far from him, a man doing his level best to make a living scribbled caricatures for tourists and locals with colored chalks.

"Good day to you, fine people, lovely mall-goers!", Jake hollered to one and all. No one seemed to care. "Do take a moment from your busy day and share a laugh and a smile with me!" Folks kept on going about their business. The college students moved closer together and raised their voices to be heard over any further outbursts from the fool. The business woman never looked up from her day runner.

Take the goddman hint, Jake thought. Give it up and let me get the hell out of here.

But the suit would not have it. Within seconds, Jake had his colored hankies out again and was in the midst of his slow-motion juggling act. "Look upon this wondrous feat of skill, good people!", Jake cried out. One or two glances, then back to whatever they were doing. "Aw, come ON, it's not gonna kill you to look up here for two minutes!", Jake snarled, his own attitude suddenly blending with the costume's. More people glanced up at him. A few stopped to do so.

Jake put away the handkerchiefs. Well, more accurately, he wadded them up into balls, and on by one, tossing them behind his back and over his shoulder, transformed them into colorful balls bearing moons and stars. Now how the hell--? Jake thought, but it was clear there was more to this costume than met the eye. More people stopped to stare, the students turned to face him.

Somewhere, Jake was certain only he could hear, a faint jingling of bells and the strum of a lyre.

Jake went into full jester mode, juggling the balls over his head, under one leg, while doing a quick cartwheel. More looks, more pauses. "Kind of like what most of us have to do every day it seems, eh folks?", Jake queried. A few chuckles. "There goes the office agendas!" A ball flew up to signify that. "Get the kids to school!" Another ball airborne. "Pick up the dry cleaning!" There went the third. "Whoop! Was that soccer practice for today??" Another ball appeared as if out of nowhere, though Jake knew he had yanked it from his baggy tunic. It was an old street performer's trick. Damn Casey for teaching it to him. Onlookers began to laugh at his antics. "It's called multitasking, they tell us. Or perhaps just the slow road to a nervous breakdown!", Jake made funny faces and garnered more laughs. Another ball, smaller than the others, popped out of his tunic. Still juggling the others, Jake raced after it. "There goes Fido! Needs to go for a walk! Don't you chase that squirrel, you naughty pooch!"

One or two people began to applaud. The sketch artist turned to look at what was going on. "Gotta keep all these balls in the air and still make time to get to our stress therapist!" More laughs. Suddenly there were four—count them, four—tiny balls that popped loose (there were inside the tunic, velcroed to the underside of Jake's belt), making Jake's chase a frantic one. Three of them rolled in different directions across the platform stage. Jake was off and running after them.

With the other four larger balls now being kept circling in a steady spin in one hand, Jake was still able to grab the first of the tiny spherical quartet and get it in motion along with the one representing Fido. "Oh boy, forgot about that conference call!", he said, keeping the ball up in the air. Laughs again. Skillfully, Jake tucked the Fido ball into the cuff of his sleeve. It was a snug fit. "Sit, precious, daddy's on the phone with Tokyo." one business man, on a cell phone himself, almost bust a gut laughing.

Jake held the small ball to his ear, still racing after the other three. "Oh, yessir, an additional expense sounds great. You need the month-long project in four days, no problem!" More laughter, louder now. Out of the corner of his mouth, Jake barked. Hollering into his wrist, he snapped, "Not now! Daddy's on the phone!" With an impressive leap, Jake (still juggling with both hands) bound across the platform and caught one ball as it was just about to roll off the surface and down the stairs. Snatching it up, he tossed it across the stage. "Here, fetch!" And then he tossed the Fido ball after it, letting out a quick " Yap!" as he did so. He continued to talk into the "phone" ball, going on with inane patter. "Increase work hours for the employees and allow more leisure time for upper management? Brilliant, sir! May I also suggest a pay cut and loss of benefits?" The few passersby had become a small crowd. And they were enjoying themselves immensely.

Jake dropped to his knees and slid with great speed across the stage (and it was indeed a stage now) in another direction, grabbing up a ball as it made its way bouncing down the first step, then the next, then into Jake's hand. "Oop! Forgot about that time for the gym!", he said, assigning that ball to the general public's concern for physical fitness. Then the fitness ball and the phone conference ball were both in the air in one hand, the original four still going strong in his right. "Do I have time for the cross trainer or the stair climber? Stair climber?? Fido!"

Again, Jester Jake slid across the stage, this time on his soft slippers, standing tall, and hopped like a skateboarder—minus board—off the far side of the stage and captured the now rolling Fido ball and his fetch-n-toss target. Grabbing them up, Jake said to each ball already in his hand, "Please hold", and "Reschedule me for Tuesday, would ya, Biff?" and tucked the two balls tightly under his chin, his head lowered in a ridiculous posture. Now Fido and the spare ball were being bounced, like racquetballs, against the floor as the other four were kept circling in his right hand, almost forgotten. Jake casually made his way back up the steps, bouncing the two balls against each step in turn as he made his way back up to the stage. Enthusiastic applause followed him.

In between bounces of the two rubber balls in his left hand, Jake retrieved the two tucked under his chin. "Gotta get back to you on that, Tokyo. Have my girl call your girl." The ball disappeared back into his tunic. Then the next came out from under his jaw, "Biff, are you still there? Get back to work—there's a sale on Power Bars at the health store!" It too was gone. "Whoooaa! Clean up in aisle five!"

Jake dashed across the stage and in a dazzling standing, no-hands cartwheel, leapt off the platform to retrieve the final rubber ball, which had long since gone down the stairs and was rolling its way down the floor, past the jewelers, the lingerie shop, and Spencers. The effect was amazing, but it also caused a cascade of juggling balls that did not follow him along in his athletic dance step. Jake snatched up the rolling ball and with consummate skill turned back on a dime and retreated toward the stage he'd just left, picking up every lost ball along the way.

Man, I was never this good even when I was still working with Casey, Jake thought. As disgusted as he was with his life being hijacked, he could not deny the rush of performing and having it going good. The jingle of bells seemed less faint, the tempo of the lyre more upbeat.

Jake was once again back onstage, with a good-sized crowd of mall shoppers all around him, applauding happily. He could see a few mall security personnel nearby, speaking into walkie-talkies. He hoped for a moment that this would be it. No unauthorized performers on the mall proper. I'm afraid we're going to have to ask you to leave, sir. But Jake knew enough about body language to read what was happening, even when unable to hear the precise words being spoken from some twenty-five feet away. The men talked into their little black devices. No, I didn't think anything was scheduled today. No, no one registered with me, either. Should we throw him out? No, he's not disturbing anyone. Yeah, they seem to be enjoying it. No, he's not blocking anyone's way. He's up on the empty center platform. Okay, we'll leave him be for now. We'll just leave someone here to keep an eye on him just in case.

Jake watched as the larger of the two rent-a-cops walked away, the other leaning against the far wall with a slightly bored look on his face. Jake knew they were not about to haul him off.


The best he could hope for now would be that the onlookers would become bored with his shenanigans and just start walking away. But there was little chance of that happening. Jake then began, very much against his will (not that you'd know it by his expression and attitude) to do the one thing that is sure to hold his audience captive. He began to interact with the crowd.

Two of the balls in his right hand found they way deftly back into his tunic—or perhaps through whatever mystic portal was hidden there—and he kept two of them still going in his right hand, only now they rode in a smooth pattern across his palm, kept moving by his fingers. Jake slid over to the students and put two of the boys to work. the first wore a green hoodie with the name of his university arcing across his chest. "Here, fella. Help a guy out. I'm getting tired doing this all by myself. Hold your hand out like this. Palm up." Then he turned to the next boy, this one wearing glasses. "You too. Other hand, don't move."

Jake then began to bounce the two smaller boys back and forth off the palms of the students' hands, lightly sending them from his hand to theirs, lithely switching the balls and sending them from one student to the other, never losing pace. The boys laughed, delighted by the trick as much as by the break from their studies.

"Now don't jostle around, you don't want 'em bouncing off your noggin."

Pretending to ignore what he was doing with the small rubber balls ricocheting off the young men's palms, Jake leaned back on one elbow and began to chat up the girl student. "You may not believe this, but I find intelligence a very striking quality in a lady." Onlookers laughed and offered encouraging remarks. The bookish girl blushed. "So whatcha readin? Study of modern language and colloquialisms!" he looked once to the two boys and said only, "Both hands." They barely had time to put their other hands up when Jake increased the speed of his juggling and starting bouncing the balls off all four exposed palms. He went back to the girl, ignoring the growing nervousness of the college men.

"So tell me, since you're mastering the intricacies of our lingua, tell me—why is "abbreviated" such a long word? And why do they call them APARTments when they're so close together? has anyone ever come up with a special name for the tops of our feet?"

The crowd laughed, and so did the college boys, who found the stupid little jokes far funnier due to their predicament as human handball walls. One boys started to guffaw, his hand dropping only an inch or so, and Jake deliberately bounced one ball—lightly—off the boy's forehead.

"Whoops! See? Warned you."

The other boy laughed loudly and got a ball in the face himself for his trouble. The impact was almost unfelt, but the bray of laughter from his study buddy impacted everyone. Quickly, Jake drew all the balls back into the control of his own hands and while keeping them in a steady circle of one hand, took the hand of the dowdy college girl and offered a kiss above her knuckles. "Twas a pleasure making your acquaintance." The girl smiled brightly, improving her looks threefold.

Jake made his way back to the center of the stage, bringing back a couple of the juggling balls secreted into his tunic and now had six in the air, circling in an ever-increasing arc. He began to dance a little soft shoe and sang a nonsensical madrigal song.

"And so the fool he leapt about, delight for eye and ear.

For takes more courage to dress the buffoon but an hour

Than wear a suit for all the year--!"

Jake didn't want to enjoy what he was doing. He really, really did not want to take pleasure in this absolute ass he was making of himself. He had put all this behind him. Now here he was, parading about in a mall, looking like an imbecile, dressed for ridicule, when he should be rushing to impress his boss with how well he was putting his proposals into action. Yet here he was. And he was enjoying it. He couldn't deny it, and it was getting harder and harder to resist. There was a gladness inside him that he hadn't felt since he started studying business (though he assumed that feeling would come as he made more money) and it was swelling with every smile, every laugh, every moment of applause. He feared that if something didn't come along to shake him out of this, he'd soon be lost to it. He'd literally have made a fool of himself, permanently. He needed a shock, a cold splash of reality. He did not have long to wait.

There, approaching from outside the ring of the crowd as the one person he did not want to see him like this, even more so than a Watkins Worldwide executive or Mr. DeBaesar himself. It was Casey.

Casey the ex-boyfriend, his spiky blond hair almost alive atop his head, his muscled arms well displayed by his typical black wife beater, his smile as bright as it ever had been. He carried in his arms a shopping bag stuffed with booty of some kind, with three high school students, most likely from his theater class, following along on his heels.

That was all it took. The sight of Casey. Jake felt his muscles come back under his control, his mouth released of its stupid grin, his feet able to stand still instead of prancing about. The jingle of distant bells receded and the strum of lyre music faded away to the recesses of wherever it had come. With practiced skill, or perhaps some carryover lingering from his jester possession, Jake managed to snatch every tumbling ball from the air and hold them in his hands. Then he looked the crowd over, saw their expectant faces wanting more and through panting breath spoke two words.

"Show's over."

There were a few giggles, some people whispering to one another, assuming this was yet another set up for more comedic mischief, but Jake reiterated. "No, really. I mean it. The show's over, folks. Nothing more to see here." And with a hardened expression, he looked Casey in the eye and said firmly, "I'm done."

Jake, bells jingling harshly now as he made his way down the steps of the platform, frowned and kept his expression hard to deter anyone from approaching and asking him who he was, what he'd been doing there, if he'd been advertising something, did he do children's parties. It worked. One or two began to move toward him, but seeing his smoldering look soon turned away. Casey did not see Jake's deterring glares, or perhaps he did not want to.

Dropping his shopping bag upon the floor, Casey raced over to his boyfriend and scooped him up in his arms, giving him a big bear hug. "JAKE!!" He spun Jake around, shouting out how delighted he was not just to see him, but to see him like this. "I am so proud of you! I only caught the end of your act, but it looked amazing. You've been practicing. You must have! God, I love you!"

Casey kissed the side of Jake's head, and that, like a fairy tale being pushed forcibly in reverse, was enough to break the last of the spell cast upon Jake. "Get OFF me!" He shoved the handsome young man away.

"Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—I know I get demonstrative, but I'm just proud of you, that's all. To see you've got this whole business obsession out of your system, to find you here, doing this—" Casey paused, looking hurt. "It's 2006, man. I mean, who gives a shit if two guys kiss, right?"

Jake looked daggers at Casey. "Look, I don't give a shit about that, alright? It's just—whatever you think this is, this isn't what it looks like—its just not, okay? So back the fuck off."

Casey wasn't sure what to make of this. "But, the way you're dressed, you're costume—which, by the way, is freakin' awesome. Where did you get--?"

"It's not mine, okay?"

"Sure suits you." It was one of the three theater students who had spoken, and Jake glared angrily at him, prompting the boy to stare down at the floor.

"This is something for work. That's all." Jake huffed through his nostrils, as if a strong enough exhale would rid him of this encounter, this entire experience. "What are you doing romping around the mall, anyway? Aren't you supposed to be teaching today?"

"Prop day. This is when I take the students on prop duty to get materials for the upcoming play's props. Dollar Store. You know that." Casey jerked his head back toward the small shop lined with useless trinkets and cheaply-made doodads that could all be netted for a buck apiece. The life-saving Mecca for all civic theater productions with no budget for props, or anything else.

Jake sneered. "Oh, I was worried that you'd quit—you know, that the steady paycheck from the teaching job didn't compare to the thrill of living off street performing, of never knowing where your next meal is coming from."

Casey felt a pang in his heart. "That's not fair. I never tried to be poverty-stricken or claim there was any nobility in being poor."

"You sure as hell never made an efforts at getting rich. Or hell's bells, even breaking even for once."

Casey looked into Jake's eyes and could not find the man he loved there. Casey gestured to the empty platform stage. "Then what was that? I watched you juggle, I saw your face. If you hate it so much, why did you go to all this trouble—"

"To prove to myself that I'm not leaving anything of worth behind."

Casey's eyes looked on the verge of tears. "That include me?"

"You could be something of worth, if you pulled your head out of the clouds, or out of your ass--!"


It was only one word, but it held immeasurable power and caused Jake to fall silent. Casey moved very close to Jake. "Don't do this. Not here."

Jake raised his voice again. "Why, does the truth hurt that—"

"I have my kids here."

Jake looked back at the three students. Young, hopeful, ambitious, now looking suddenly stricken.

Casey whispered, "I'm trying to help them."

Jake answered back, not whispering but in a tone lower than he had been using, "If you really want to help them, start by telling them the truth. The almost everyone in your profession is unemployed. And you are setting them up for a lifetime of failure and bitterness."

Casey swallowed hard, determined to retain his composure. "It's not a profession. It's a calling."

"And I'm calling it quits", Jake announced. He let the balls he'd been holding fall from his hands. They rolled willy-nilly across the floor where they were abandoned. As Jake started to leave, someone approached him, placing a hand on his shoulder.

"Hold on a sec. This is for you. Finished it as fast as I could." It was the man from the artist's booth, grinning from ear to ear. He was holding a piece of 11x14" sketch paper which he extended to Jake. "Great show, man. Great show." The man walked away, a spring in his step.

Jake glanced at the paper, then simply tossed it to Casey. "You take it. It's not like I want anything to do with it."

The jester who had formerly delighted his audience stomped off fuming. Casey looked at the paper. Upon it was a hastily-crafted drawing in colored chalk of the dancing jester leaping about the mall stage, colorful balls juggled in midair. Upon the face of the illustrated jester was a bright smile that belied the harsh words which had just been issued by its real-life counterpart.

Casey carefully rolled up the drawing and slipped it into the shopping bag, which he then lifted up form the mall floor. His three students looked at him with sorrow and regret, wanting very much to offer some words of comfort, but having neither the proper phrases nor the experience to deliver them.

"Come on", was all Casey said. "Let's get a move on. We're running late."



Jake was forced to take the trolley back to the Frizzell Auditorium. The magic tunic Struthers had stuck him in which could instantly produce juggling balls evidently fell short when it came to providing cab fare.

Jake sat in the back. On the seat he'd formerly shared with the friendly young mother and her cheerful daughter Jordan. There were no giddy greetings from the gaudily-clad jester this time. No prancing down the aisle to his seat when he entered. He sat with his arms crossed tightly over his chest, his head down in a scowl. he would not be pulling handkerchiefs form his sleeve for a slow motion juggle during this ride.

Jake flashed angry glances at any who looked his way, fending off the curious who might speak to him, of worse, request some type of performance. Jake eyed those aboard the trolley. How many would recognize him? How many knew someone who knew someone? Was his job already in jeopardy from his forced lunacy at the mall? And the mall—what if some businessmen who do work with the company were there, what if someone he knew, or should know, professionally, saw his ridiculous act? Jake lowered his head, closed his eyes, clenched his fists beneath his arms. He was ready to kill old man Struthers.

By the time the trolley had arrived back at the stop nearby the Frizzell, all had moved up toward the front of the vehicle, giving the angry jester a wide berth. All were quick to dismount as the trolley pulled up, clanging its bell, to its scheduled stop. As Jake shuffled his slippered feet toward the exit, the haggard lady behind the wheel spied how defeated he looked.

"Show at the mall didn't go all that well, huh?"

"You don't know the half of it", Jake responded, dismounting the steps while trying to keep his bell jangling to a minimum.

Jake wasn't sure what to do next. Well, that wasn't exactly true. He knew he had to get out of the stupid jester suit. He'd have stripped it off already if not for the laws against indecent exposure. Jake walked back toward the Frizzell. Struthers had a hell of a lot of explaining to do. The bells dangling all over Jake's ensemble jingled and chimed as he walked. He was so sick of the sound of bells he could puke. He decided that even though he couldn't undress in public, he could at least be rid of the stupid hat. Jake reached up and grabbed one of the donkey's ears and gave it a good yank.


It was like he was pulling a handful of his own hair. Jake let go, unsure of what he had just experienced. Was the damn thing pinned on somehow? Jake tugged, lightly this time, at the side of the crown and it didn't feel any different than any costume chapeau should. He then took two of the dangling ears, one in each hand, and slowly but very firmly tried to pull the entire hat off his skull.

"Agh! Shit!"

Again, it felt as if he were trying to tear up large portions of his own hair, this time feeling some of the skin of his scalp pull. "Terrific", Jake sneered. "The goddamn thing is glued to me." But he knew that wasn't right. Not glued. More like...bonded. Like it was an extension of his body, or perhaps...he paused. "I'm an extension of it?"

Jake stopped in his march toward the Frizzell and thought for a moment. What the hell was happening to him? He ducked into an alleyway off the sidewalk and reached down for the jovial comedy mask that served as his belt buckle. He tugged on it. Nothing doing. He reached around under it and along the sides of it, looking for a clasp, some type of release. Nada. He then forgot the belt buckle and just stuck his thumbs under the belt itself and gave it a good strong pull. You'd think he'd have learned his lesson with the hat.

"AAghhk!!" It was if he'd just dug his fingernails into the flesh along his waist and tore outward. Jake let the belt go, beginning to realize that it was not coming off anytime soon by pulling on it. Jake leaned forward, his hands on his knees, collecting himself. Then he spied a large piece of broken glass on the ground of the alley.

Gingerly, Jake reached over and picked up the large section of brown bottle. He could see that the edge of it was still very sharp. The smell of beer was still heavy on the glass. This was a recent break. Hence the sharp edge. Slowly, Jake lowered the piece of glass down toward his belt and prepared to cut the belt away. For several moments, Jake's hand hovered there, as he remembered the discomfort of tugging on the fool's cap, the pain when he tried to yank off the belt. Like he was trying to tear off pieces of his own body.

If simply pulling on the costume felt that bad, how would feel when he actually cut into it?

"DAMN it!!" Jake threw the piece of glass against the brick wall of the alley, where it shattered into smithereens. Jake paced around in circles, horrified at the thought that he might spend the rest of his life as a jester. He was frustrated and frightened and felt as if he might break down and cry. He needed to get his wits about him before storming back into the theater and confronting his old mentor. Or maybe it would be better if he burst in crying and wailing, showing the old man what he had done to him.

"Or maybe", Jake said aloud to no one, "I could just keep pacing in circles and thinking about it and not do a fucking thing until one day the police find a skeleton in a jester suit in an alley off the theater district!"

Half laughing, half sobbing, Jake ran his fingers through his hair. He had truly thought he was finally in control of his life. Now he was not only in control, he was actually being controlled by a fool's costume. Jake grasped and released his hair in fistfuls. It was a terrible habit he'd developed years before. It left him looking like he had a rag mop on top of his head, but it seemed to moderately soothe him, and at this point, he could use all the soothing he could get. Then he froze.

How could he be messing up his hair through the cap and bells?

Gingerly, Jake lowered his hands and found his arms covered in the impressive pressed sleeves of the fine business suit. He looked down at himself and found he was back in the double-breasted suit coat, trousers, and shined shoes. Jake looked heavenward.

"Thank-you, God, thank-you..."

Jake then raced out of the alley and the block or two down to the theater. He made it as far as the passageway leading to the backstage door and reached for the handle when something stopped him.

"Thought I'd catch you here. Knew you couldn't be gone already."

Jake turned to find DeBaeser standing there on the sidewalk facing him. Behind him was a limousine with the door open and the motor running. Jake froze in his tracks. Did Debaser hear about his little outing as a court jester? That he had embarrassed—no, mortified—the firm? Was it so bad that the big boss had come to shitcan him personally?

"So it would seem you've had quite the eventful morning, young man", DeBaesar said.

Oh, shit. He did know.

DeBaesar held up an inventory list of several pages. "This is without question the most comprehensive inventory and evaluation I've ever seen.

Jake blinked. "What is?" Then he looked at the pages. Struthers inventory. He must have faxed it over or something. "It is?" Jake cleared his throat, "Well, of course it is! I mean, I'm glad you think it is, sir."

DeBaesar didn't seem to notice Jake's discomfort. He seldom noticed much that did not personally involve himself. "With notations and commentaries yet. Nicely done. Is there more to this?"

Jake wasn't sure what Struthers had included in the list, but Jake was certain he'd have plenty more to add of his own regardless. "When did you receive--?", he let his voice trail off.

"We got the e-mail not more than twenty, twenty-five minutes ago. I had my driver bring me right over."

E-mail. Struthers was becoming more modernized than Jake was willing to give him credit for. But then, he considered the suit he had on and knew full well that there were considerably more secrets to old Geezer than he ever knew, much less admitted.

"You were really that impressed with it?", Jake asked.

"Look, Quinely, I don't screw around and waste time just to impress my workers. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think you did an impressive job. And you've only been here what, a few hours, maybe?"

"I confess it seemed longer than that, sir."

"Well, don't lose track of time at this stage. I want you back at the office with me. There are some people I want you to meet."

"Right now, sir?"

DeBaesar jerked his head toward the waiting limo. "Motor's running. Knew if I came right over I'd catch you as you left the building." Jake could hardly tell the big man he'd been possessed by a magic business suit that could morph into a jester outfit and back again, but he needed to get changed (of his own free will) before he went back to the office.

"Ah, there is something I left in the theater, sir. I really should go back and get it before—"

"Get it later", DeBaesar ordered. "This is important and I want you back at the office." He pointed at the limo's open door. "Now."

Jake thought fast. "Right you are, sir! Just let me make sure I locked that side door. Can't have anyone breaking into your new purchase, now can we?" Jake started to trot back toward the door at a speed which he hoped did not look desperate.

"Hold it, Quinely!" Ah, fuck. Slowly, Jake turned around. "There's something different about you from this morning." This was it. The boss man would want to know why Jake had changed into another suit—a far better quality suit—just to inventory an old theater. DeBaesar's eyebrows rose slightly as he figured it out. "Yes, that's it. Your hair looks like shit. What have you been doing, pulling at it with a hand rake? Mussed it rooting around all that old garbage inside, I imagine. Well, comb it on the way to the office, for God's sake. Can't let anyone think I let unhygienic slobs work for me."

"No sir", Jake agreed. Then he ran back to the door that would take him to the backstage hallway and to Struthers and, he hoped, freedom from this cursed suit. If he was quick enough, he could burst in the ever-open door and find the old man in no time. Behind him, the limo's horn honked. No time to lose. Jake grasped the door handle and pulled.

It was locked. Of course it was.


In the elevator on the way up to meet the important client DeBaesar seemed so distracted by, Jake felt more nervous than he had when being bawled out for coming into his first meeting late (early, technically). Of course, then he had no worries about his nice new suit suddenly turning into a jester outfit and forcing him to prance about doing juggling tricks. Jake's mind flashed back to the horror of being possessed by his own clothes, by being walked off to an uncertain location, being made to perform against his will. Jake shivered at the recollection of having no control over his body, his hands, his voice, his very smile.

"Stop shaking", DeBaesar snapped.

"Wh-what, sir?"

"You're getting yourself all wound up. He's an important client, but it's not as if you won't be meeting those by the truckload in this job. Now pull yourself together and act professional. Trust me, if there's something you need to be nervous about, I'll let you know."


But this was something to be nervous about. Jake imagined himself extending a hand to this important client, only to find his jacket sleeve constricting to bright red tights, his extended hand suddenly producing trick handkerchiefs, balloon animals, or reaching up to pull a coin from the man's ear.

Jake snickered. Now that would be funny.

"Nervous laughter doesn't leave a good impression any more than trembling, Quinely."

"No, sir. Not laughing, er...I was smothering a sneeze. Allergies."

"Wipe your nose, then."

Jake squinted his eyes tightly closed. The suit had changed back already. Maybe that was it. Maybe the suit was only good for a single transformation and now it's magic—or whatever—was exhausted. He could hope, couldn't he?

Or better yet...

Maybe Jake had forced the suit to change back. It was possible, wasn't it? Consider the train of events. He'd seen Casey, the symbol of all he disliked about his life, all wanted to leave behind. Bam, he'd regained control of his body. He kept focused on returning to the Frizzell, returning to business at hand. And he'd kept control over his voice, his actions, his expression. He fought to get the damn thing off, to return it to where it came from, and the next thing he knew it was a business suit again. Was that it? Had Jake done it himself? Had he willed the fool thing (no pun intended) back to something normal, to an acceptable form?

Jake looked over at DeBaesar. He was a large man, with considerable presence. He was the man Jake had decided he wanted to be. Focus on that, Jake thought. Focus on who you really are, who you want to be, and keep yourself there. With that idea held firmly in mind, Jake would not allow himself to be reduced again to a jester. To endure the possession, the humiliation, the ridicule.

The fun...

Jake's eyes popped open wide. No, he would not admit it. He would not admit even silently to himself that a part of him enjoyed making a fool of himself, of losing control to that cursed actor's obsession with performing, with being someone else, the center of attention. With being himself.

Jake gritted his teeth. That was not him anymore. And if he had anything to say about it, it never would be. But that was the rub, wasn't it? Did he have anything to say about it now?

There was the soft ping of a bell.

Jake gasped.

DeBaesar looked at him as if he'd suddenly spoken Cantonese. "Have you never ridden in an elevator before, Quinely?" At that, the doors opened on their intended floor. The chime had been from the elevator announcing their arrival. Jake exhaled heavily and followed his boss out into the corridor.

Where he heard the sound of distant music. The strumming of an archaic instrument...

DeBaesar looked back to find Jake frozen in his tracks. Oh shit, oh shit, it was starting again. DeBaesar glared at Jake. "Now what?"

"I'm sorry, sir. I just—it's only—I thought I heard---er, something—"

DeBaesar took Jake by the arm and yanked him forward. "Ignore it. Let's go."

Jake was stunned. "Y-you heard it too?"

"I'm old, I'm not deaf yet." Jake looked at the big boss questioningly, a look which the boss misinterpreted but provided the answer Jake sought anyway. "They're mandolins, or whatever they are. Lyres, ukuleles, banjos. It's rehearsal. A flight or two upstairs. They're getting ready for the big madrigal festival Renaissance fair thing. It's doesn't bring in much bank, but it's very big with the local press."

Jake felt relief wash over him. "A-and they rehearse—in our building?"

"It's a longtime commitment. Part of the building has always been relegated to theater groups connected to Watkins Worldwide, to use for that sort of thing. It's a pain in the ass if you ask me, but it's supposed to gender a feeling of community with all aspects of our entertainment family and blah, blah, blah. A load of tripe, if you ask me. Don't worry, by this time next year I'll have them all the hell out of here. If this theater purchase flies the way you've got me thinking it will, I'll stuff 'em all into their own rehearsal hall. What's a few mil on the side if it gets them and their medieval show tunes out of range of my daily business?"

Jake nodded. Man, this guy thought of everything.

They had arrived at the office where their client was waiting. DeBaesar pushed Jake through the door first and followed hot on his heels. Waiting for them there were two people, both of round face and squat build. A man and a woman. The man was balding, with glasses and gray hair, with a small tuft of a goatee on his chin. Though he was of heavy build, he was immaculately attired in a tailored suit. The woman was also of graying hair, though not as badly as her companion, and lavishly styled. She wore a designer gown that, like the man's wardrobe, appeared to have been designed specifically for her.

"Ah, my good man!", the male client said. "Here you are at last. I had begun to disparage of your arrival."

DeBaesar opened his mouth, but Jake's instinct knew there were certain times when it was appropriate to interrupt the boss. "Entirely my fault, sir. Mr. DeBaesar was right on time, and I tarried a bit too long at the theater, making us run late. I hope you can forgive the delay I've caused you." DeBaesar eyed Jake and gave a tiny, almost imperceptible, nod. Good job, Quinely.

The jovial client took Jake by the hand. "This is a sharp one, Asner. He knows when to take the blame for the boss. A good sign indeed." Shaking his hand, the man offered Jake a wink. "You show promise, young man."

"Thank-you, sir."

"So nice to see someone your age so flush with the excitement of the entertainment business", he smiled. "And looking so sharp! Why, I owned a suit just like yours years ago—mind you, back then my build was closer to yours than what I have today." He playfully patted his belly.

The woman chided him, though she smiled as well. "Henry, stop it."

"It's true, my darling!" Then back to Jake, "And in those days it took me ages to save up for the thing. I started on the other side of the show biz world, you see."

"He did Vaudeville", the woman offered.

"I did indeed", the man confirmed. "Money's tighter on that end of things, you know."

"Much tighter", Jake agreed, needing no prodding to do so.

The man's eyes lit up. "Have you performed, young man? No, wait, don't tell me. I can see by that light in your eyes that you have. I can still recognize a fellow thespian when I see one." To his darling, the man remarked, in a tone he'd use as if they were suddenly alone, "By jove, this young fellow knows what it's like to feel the burn of the spot, the creak beneath his feet as he trods the boards."

"I see it too, Henry."

Then back to Jake, "Tell me, lad. Have you performed recently?"

Jake swallowed. "More recently than you can imagine."

The man's face split into a delighted smile. "Oh-ho! And what were you in?" The fight of my life, Jake thought.

DeBaesar steeped between them. This was not how he had wanted the meeting to go. Gooey-eyed nostalgia would not garner monetary backing nor secure company loyalties. The large man reached down and separated the hands of the young and old actors. They were both still shaking hands, though neither of them had realized it and broken their hold. It was a connection they both found strangely comforting.

DeBaesar found it irritating. "Mr. Farnsworth, I'd like you to meet Jacob Quinely, our new junior executive for Theatrical Management. Quinely, Mr. Farnsworth, one of our longest-standing supporters and contributors."

"We needn't be so formal, Asner", Farnsworth smiled, clearly annoying the big boss. "You may call me Henry, and this is my lovely wife Margaret."

She extended a hand to Jake. "It's Maggie for me. Jacob, a pleasure."

"Jake is fine", he said casually, immediately regretting it, fearing he sounded too informal, less professional.

The older man didn't seem to mind. "Jake, then!" He reached toward Jake's shoulder, as if to pull him aside, possibly to continue their discussion about theater, but DeBaesar was quick enough to step between them, derailing the potential chat.

"Jake then", DeBaesar interrupted, "is the promising young talent I told you about this morning." Jake found the description odd, since this morning the boss seemed to have no idea who Jake was, nor cared when he did. "And Mr. Farnsworth", DeBaesar went on.

"Henry", Mr. Farnsworth corrected.

"Henry", DeBaesar acquiesced, "is one who loves to meet our promising young talents. Particularly when they have some connection to his beloved theatrical history."

"Yes, I received a copy of your rather impressive inventory notes on the Frizzell", Mr. Farnsworth said, waving a page or two. "And told Asner here that I had to come right over and meet you."

"You have an interest in the theater endeavor of Watkins Worldwide, or in the Frizzell in particular?", Jake inquired.

"Oh, he is a sharp one!", Farnsworth said to his wife. She nodded in happy agreement. "Yes, years ago I performed at the Frizzell. I was only in my college years back then, of course."

"I did too", Jake said, "and I was that age, too."

"Oh, marvelous, marvelous!", Farnsworth bubbled, taking Jake's hand in two of his own. "I can see we'll get along just famously! Tell me, have you any further plans or proposals regarding that grand old performance house?"

"As a matter of fact I do—", Jake began.

DeBaesar cut him off. "Yes, and I know the perfect spot for us all to go over those together. Tonight at the banquet."

"Banquet?", Jake asked, befuddled.

"Why, the Bilber Botanical Gardens Banquet, dear heart!", wife Maggie grinned. "To formally announce the new purchase of the state's garden park and show as part of the Bilber theme park network. Surely you've heard about it!"

In fact, Jake had, but only in whispered washroom gossip and water cooler speculation. One of the formerly most lush and beautiful gardens, since fallen into disrepair, was rumored as being considered for purchase by Watkins and being "DeBaesed" back into money-making life. Jake was able to maintain his composure, saying, "I have indeed, but only as a work in progress." He looked to DeBaesar. "The deal's gone through?"

"We don't throw banquets over failed ventures."

"Well, of course you don't, dear", Maggie jumped in, her chipper tone clearly trying to defuse the edge in DeBaesar's own.

"I was under the impression, sir", Jake said in as respectful a tone as he could muster, "that any such banquet already had a seating chart well in advance, and it was by invitation only."

"I'm inviting you", DeBaesar said, the edge in his voice growing rougher.

"And if he didn't, I would", Henry Farnsworth beamed. "Any chance to reminisce with a fellow thespian, especially one who played the Frizzell, is a joy I couldn't pass up."

"To say nothing of hearing what you have in mind to spruce up the old place", Maggie added. Jake smiled at their charming, if a bit unwarranted, faith in him.

"It will be an event worth attending", DeBaesar said, trying to regain the figurative spotlight. Jake was feeling a fond connection with the happy old actor and his wife and was getting a bit annoyed by DeBaesar's repeated self-centered interruptions. "I myself will be giving the keynote address", DeBaesar proclaimed.

"Gee, will the rest of us be given little children's sound effect machines so we can gong you when you start to bore us?" The words were out of Jake's mouth before he realized he'd said them. Holy shit, what was he thinking?? Somewhere distantly, there was a jingling of bells...

"O-ho! Good one, my boy!", Farnsworth cheered.

DeBaesar looked at Jake with a seething glare that said if there weren't witnesses around, he'd gut the young exec like a trout. Jake looked back with eyes that begged forgiveness, but the big boss could not see past the sultry fog of his own hatred.

In a very level voice, he said, "Loathe as I am to break up this...wonderful little visit...Mr. and Mrs. Farnsworth have a few other projects to see, a couple other events Id like to make them aware of."

"He means he needs to pump us for cash, Jake dear", Maggie said, though she smiled as if the idea did not disagree with her.

"Um, I really need to go home and change before the banquet anyway", Jake offered, hoping to make a quick escape, if not to get to the theater and retrieve his own clothes, but to at least escape the awkward situation his babbling mouth had created.

"Oh, but why, dear?", Maggie asked, sounding almost hurt. "You look so handsome as you are."

"Yes, my boy", Henry agreed. "Do keep that dashing suit on. Seeing you in it is rather like chatting with a younger version of myself, 'in a mirror through time', as the play went."

"If a bit more handsome", Maggie chided.

"Oh, you--!", Henry smiled back.

"A moment alone with our good Mr. Quinely before he goes, please", DeBaesar said to his honored guests, walking Jake aside.

"Really, sir, I should go home and change into something else, I've been puttering around that theater all morning and afternoo—"

DeBaesar held up a finger. Shut the fuck up. Jake did. "Forget the dinge of your suit. If they want you to come in a bunny costume, that's what you'll have on, got it?"

Jake nodded. Yes, sir.

DeBaesar then took hold of Jake's lapel. Jake winced. It felt like the big man had gripped the skin of his chest and was trying to wrap his fingers around a good chunk of it. "As to any funny commentaries about how I conduct business, you leave that to me, got it? These old farts may be all happy with you as the young hopeful and want to connect with you, but they'll have to leave eventually and then you'll have to deal with me. Capice?"

Again, Jake nodded.

Them cautiously, Jake leaned forward and whispered to his boss. "But sir, we're a multinational corporation. Do we really need these people's money?"

A dark glint came over the large man's eyes. "Any money that's isn't already ours, we need, Quinely. Remember that."

Jake nodded again, although this time he felt more like he was acting out the automatic action of a bobble-head dog in the back window of a car rather than an executive agreeing with the experienced wisdom of his employer.

"And Quinely", DeBaesar added, his voice a threatening hiss, "your proposal about the Frizzell's renovations had better be fucking brilliant."

Jake swallowed hard. "Yes, sir." Jake turned to go away when something stopped him in his tracks. It was a remark made by the jovial Henry Farnsworth.

"I say, did anyone else here a slight jingle of bells a moment or two ago?"


Jake arrived at his condo looking like a million bucks in his new suit, feeling like less than zero. He had decided that his only solution to his predicament of being ordered to remain in the suit was to buy one just like it. He'd max out his credit cards, if he had to, to find a suit of similar cut and style and wear that instead. He'd shuck off the monstrosity he had on as soon as he got through his apartment door. He'd burn it in the tub if he had to.

At the door of his condo, Jake found a note from the superintendent taped there, saying that his dry cleaning had arrived and that it had been placed inside for him.

Jake raised an eyebrow. What dry cleaning? Then his heart leapt in his chest. Oh my God, the suit form the theater—MY suit! Jake fumbled with the keys and burst inside, tossing his briefcase on the kitchen table, where it slid across the surface and fell with a sharp smack upon the floor. Jake looked around the room frantically. Where was it?? Then he saw it, draped across the back of the couch, the plastic dry cleaner's bag. Jake snatched it up and saw a note pinned there. The handwriting was Struthers's.

Jake~ Told you those cleaners were fast.

Here's your old suit. Keep the one from

the costume shop as long as you like.

I sure hope it works for you.


"It works alright", Jake scoffed. "You know damn well how it works. But that shit's over." Jake set the dry cleaning bag down and reached up to take his cursed magic suit off. One hand grabbed the neck tie, the other started unbuttoning the jacket. That's when the tie curled up and wrapped around the hand trying to undo its knot, and the buttons suddenly increased in size so that they wouldn't fit through their buttonholes.

"Ohh, no...", Jake whined, exasperated. "You cannot fucking do this to me!" Jake reached for the dry cleaning bag. "I need this! This suit! Not you!" But Jake's hands couldn't even get close to the bag. The sleeves had begun to tighten around his arms and were pulling him away from it. They hadn't turned into tights yet, but their grip was undeniable. "!"

Frustrated, Jake turned on his heel and ran toward the far end of the room. He was gathering up speed and momentum. Once at the far end of the living room, he turned again hard and ran back toward the bagged suit. Two feet from the suit, his shoes stopped, as if nailed to the floor, and Jake fell forward, arms flailing to catch himself. He landed against the floor with a sad THWAP!


Jake pushed himself up off the floor, seething. "Okay, you little bastard. You wanna play hardball, huh?" As if in response, his right hand, gripped tightly by the jacket sleeve, gave him two sharp, playful slaps on the side of his face. "So that's how it's gonna be with you?" Now his other hand, equally beyond his control, knocked three times atop his head. Stiffly, trying to regain control of himself, Jake forced himself up to his feet. His arms shot out at his sides, the sleeves surrounding them feeling like steel pipes, held him immobile, his upper limbs useless. Jake could feel the legs of his trousers tightening as well, soon to reach the stranglehold that he was experiencing in his sleeves.

"I am...not...gonna give up...", Jake mumbled through gritted teeth. "I will not be bested by a wad of fucking cloth and thread!" Moving like a rusting tin man, Jake walked stiff-legged toward the precious dry cleaning bag and his suit held within. It was as if he were moving in a wind tunnel against the press of the gale, his feet fighting against a fast-acting epoxy that covered the floor. One foot up. Then down. Leg up, leg over. Foot down. It was an onerous, even painful, process.

"I am OFF me...dammitt!"

It took the better part of five minutes for the junior executive to cross the distance of six feet or so. But he did it. He stood over his bagged suit, arms stuck out like a crossing guard, sweating and laughing. "A-ha! I did it! I beat you, you cursed three-piece from hell! Whattaya think of that, huh? HUH?!"

More than a bit crazed at this point, Jake tried to bend over and twist his body so his imprisoned arms could grab the bag. He did not have much luck. Each time he thought he had the bag, the stiffened sleeves would yank him away, amid a torrent of much cursing from Jake. He would lean down and twist, fingers clawing, the suit would make him spring back up in the opposite direction. He'd try to grasp the bag from the other direction, same thing. Back up, spun away.

"What the hell do you WANT from me, you fucker?!", Jake screamed.

Slowly, the sleeves lessened their grip on Jake's arms and allowed him to lower his arms to his sides. He flexed a bit and could feel that the suit felt just like a suit should again. "That's better", he said aloud. "Looks like we're coming to some sort of understanding." Jake ran his hands through his hair again. God in heaven, I'm talking to a suit.

Jake leaned over to pick up the dry cleaning bag when his right toes started tapping against the floor. Oh, no. Jake looked down to see that now his entire right foot was engaging in this playful bit of tapping, lost in keeping rhythm with some unheard melody. "Aww, come on..." Then his left foot joined in. Tapping toes, then slapping feet. "Do not DO this! Don't you fucking dare give me happy feet!"

The phrase was one of Casey's favorites, though he stole it from Steve Martin, and Casey used it often in dance and movement classes. Now it acted as some sort of trigger phrase for the dress shoes that came with Jake's new suit. In short order, Jake's dancing shoes were taking his feet, his legs, and the rest of him on a fast-stepping parade away from the cleaner's bag on the couch and around the room. Jake had always been a good dancer, better even than Casey. And the shoes had apparently tapped into that inherent gift and given it new life. Of course, the look on Jake's face was hardly one of a joyous chorus boy finally given the spotlight. it was the horrified look of the possessed man trying to regain control of his body.

The distant sound of lyres and bells came more loudly into Jake's consciousness, and his feet followed along, dancing him lithely around the kitchen table, past the living room, and into the bedroom. Had his condo's furnishings been set pieces on a stage, this would make for an impressive dance number. Jake held his breath and pressed his lips tightly together. With a final effort of will he launched himself off the ground and onto his bed. His feet in the air, Jake clutched at the shoes, trying valiantly to yank them off. he could almost feel one of them give—though in truth it felt as though it could have easily been some of the skin from the soles of his feet—when the sleeves once again spun tightly around his arms and yanked them high over Jake's head.

Jake cried out. "NNnnnnooOOOO!!" He half hoped that someone next door would hear him and call the police, but he knew it was unlikely. One of the attractions of this condo was never having to see your neighbors, so the walls were very well soundproofed. besides, what would he tell the police when they arrived? "Help me, I'm being held hostage by my suit?" And knowing the luck Jake had had today, the suit would revert to normal upon the authorities arrival, like the singing and dancing frog in the Warner Brothers cartoons.

His feet spinning about wildly over his head, his legs twisting like those of a skilled break-dancer, Jake was made to launch himself back onto his feet and continue dancing. He found himself in front of his full-length, narrow closet mirror where he danced about as if showing off to an impressionable relative. His arms and legs flailed about with grace and polish, his feet moved with consummate skill. Then he struck the pose. He was going to do a pirouette.

"You're not going to spin me until I puke, are you?", he asked the suit.

The suit of course did not answer, but did in fact send Jake into a series of perfectly executed pirouettes, spinning around like a master ballet dancer. As he spun, Jake felt the sleeves and trousers grow tighter on his frame, the jacket billow out like a tunic, the belt on his waist move above rather than beneath the jacket fabric, his shoes grow softer and more comfortable. It all happened very rapidly.

After not more than five pirouettes, Jake stopped before the closet mirror again, now clad once more in his full ensemble as a court jester. He took in his returned humiliating costume, realized what had just happened. "Oh great. Now I'm freakin' Wonder Woman."

Jake's arm shot out and he snatched up an old discarded song-and-dance cane that had been leaning against the wall beside the closet. Deftly, Jake's arm whirled the black cane with the white tip around and brought it down upon the dresser, where it speared a round scented candle that sat there. Jake brought up the candle stuck on the end of the cane to eye level and pondered aloud, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this, now? Do a scene form Bedknobs and Broomsticks?"

Jake found his hands twirling the odd combination cane and candle between his palms until it spun in a blur, whereupon Jake tossed it up in the air (not quite as high as the high ceiling), spun around once himself and caught it as it came down to earth. The cane, like it's holder, had been transformed. It was now a candy-striped cane laced with the bold colors of Jake's jester suit. The former scented candle atop was a leeringingly happy jester head, carved into the perfect likeness of Jake, fool's cap and bells and all.

"Oh, this is all I needed. A staff of office." Jake looked at his tiny duplicate and snarled, "I want to be rid of you! I want you gone. Got me?"

Jake began to dance lightly around the room and then skipped high into the living room, where he sent himself leaping toward the stereo. He popped in the cast album of Judy Garland's A Star Is Born and soon the room was booming with the manic pounding of "Ya Gotta Have Me Go With You". As Jake's feet fell in prefect step to the rhythm, he sighed, "I'll take that as a no." He was about to scream in frustration when he found his voice was once again gone too. He was singing along with the album.

"Ya wanna have bells that'll ring, you wanna have songs that'll sing, you want your sky of baby blue, ya gotta have me go with you!"

Jake may not have been as good a singer as he was a dancer, but he was damn good, and here he was doing a fine job carrying on a duet with the recorded voice of Judy. What's more, he did so leaping about the room, dancing up walls and back-flipping off to the floor again, leaping across the kitchen table and sliding over to the side opposite to hop upon his discarded briefcase. The routine the jester suit was making him carry out in seconds would've taken months to choreograph on a stage.

By the end of the song, Jake felt more exhilarated than spent, and despised the feeling. "This part of my life is over!", Jake screamed at no one, or rather, one in particular who could not hear. "Get that through your goddamn head, Geez! I don't want your damn magic jester suit! I can't be that stupid starry-eyed college kid forever--I have to grow up sometime! I'm a serious business man now!"

The hand holding Jake's new jester staff shot out and stabbed at the stereo controls, shutting the music off. Jake was then made to dance to a place he had not anticipated. The refrigerator.

"Whuh-what are we doing here?", Jake asked. "What do you have in mind?"

He was made to open the refrigerator and he pulled out three eggs. before he could question their purpose, Jake had tucked his staff under his belt and was juggling the eggs there in the kitchen, one slipper kicked back to close the fridge door.

"What—why? Why am I juggling eggs?", Jake asked. Then it dawned on him. He had said he had to grow up. Grownups don't engage in foolish horseplay. The eggs were being juggled faster and faster, going up higher and higher.

"Don't you do it", Jake demanded. "Don't you dare do it!"

Too late. CRACK! One of the eggs smashed against Jake's forehead, shell flying out to the sides, yolk and dribble spreading across his face. It was twice as humiliating for the fact that Jake's own hand had been made to do it. "Aggh!" The remaining two juggled about some more, then, "Come on, please!" SMACK! The second egg got him right across his nose. Yolk spattered all over him, going into his eyes, up his nose. "GLAHH! Alright! Enough already!" But apparently it was not enough. As Jake tried to wipe off his face with one hand (which was pulling away), the other kept juggling the final egg, up and down in a perfect oval pattern. "I get it!", Jake begged. "I'm a fool! I'm a stupid, clueless fool and whatever else you think I'm supposed to be! Unconditional surrender! Just stop with the—" THWACK! The last egg found its mark right between Jake's eyes. His face was a mask of yellowish goo, his skin saturated in sticky humiliation.

Jake stood there, in the middle of his kitchen, breathing heavily, feeling every bit the fool that he looked like. After a few minutes of wallowing in utter degradation, he said softly, "Can I at least clean myself off?"

In a heartbeat, he slid across the linoleum floor on his slippers and grabbed the small hose by the sink faucet. One of his hands cranked the cold water on full blast, then he gripped the dish washing hose with both hands. "No, wait! Not like THAAA--!" Jake shot himself full force in the face with the sink hose. He blubbered and spluttered as water sprayed him harshly, spattering the walls and cupboards around him, but eventually the suit decided that he'd been washed off sufficiently and allowed him to let go of the trigger.

Jake released the hose and shut off the water. At least he was clean of the egg yolk now. Jake looked around at the mess of his kitchen and wondered if he'd have enough time to clean it up before the banquet. The banquet? Jake leaned forward and rested his hands upon his knees. No, there would be no banquet. As long as he was trapped in this insidious fool's outfit, he would not show his face in public again. That was final. He'd give some excuse; a sudden illness, a dead relative, a high terror alert, anything. But he would not again place himself, his career, and his self respect in further jeopardy by going outside in this suit.

Something felt funny inside his tunic. Then Jake realized it wasn't just the tunic, it was his own sides, his ribs. If the damn thing had caused him to crack a rib during all this idiocy... Then he felt it again. This time he recognized the feeling. "No, not this. C'mon, man, wasn't the egg in the face enough??"

Besides being a good singer and an excellent dancer, there was something else that Jake was. Extremely ticklish. And being a part of him now, the suit knew it.

"Please, don't tickle me—heheheeheehaahahaahaahohohhoohh-!"

The jester costume was merciless in reducing Jake to a trembling state of helpless mirth. As soon as Jake was convulsed in uncontrollable laughter, the suit made him dance again. He pulled his staff from beneath his belt , and twirling it like a baton, he danced about the room, his bells jingling happily, his mouth a grotesque masked of forced glee as he howled like a hyena on nitrous oxide.

The tickling made it's way all around Jake's sides, across his abs, around his back, down the back of his legs, to the soles of his feet. And all the while he dance about, trying to escape the sensations that scampered up and down his flesh, enhanced by the suit to which he was bonded. As he was danced back into the bedroom, Jake caught a glimpse of himself in his mirror, and almost did not recognize himself. His face split with a huge grin, his eyes wide and tearing up, his brightly-colored body hopping about.

The tickling, the laughter, the jangling of bells went on relentlessly for longer than Jake could keep track. Finally it did subside, and breathless and spent, Jake fell backwards, arms spread-eagled, upon his bed. With a final jangle of bells, he sank into the soft spread and felt his body grow heavy with sleep. he could not move, could barely think. All he could do was barely register the receding sound of an old mandolin as he lost consciousness.


Did he hear a horn?

Jake opened his eyes. He felt surprisingly rested and alert. he sat up and looked himself over when his movement failed to create a jingle of bells. He was back in the business suit aspect of his costume. How long had he been asleep? He looked at the light of his clock and saw that it was approximately a half hour before the banquet.

Again, he heard a horn, distantly.

Jake moved to the window and looked down to the street. There was a limousine parked in front of the condominium. DeBaesar had sent a car for him. His cell phone rang. Jake answered it reflexively before thinking about what excuse he had chosen not to attend the evening's festivities. "Jake Quinely speaking."

"Mr. Quinely, this is your car downstairs. Mr. DeBaesar sent me over to pick you up. He told me to expect you to be, um—"

"What?", Jake asked.

"He said that you'd probably be waiting with your nose pressed against the window pane and that I should just honk the horn for you. But I thought that after two honks, maybe I should—"

"Yeah, yeah. I get it.", Jake said. "Hang on a minute, willya?"

"Yes, sir, but we shouldn't take too long."

Jake let out a long breath. He couldn't go, that much was certain. Not after the little home display he'd been forced to endure earlier. Jake yanked at the knot on his tie and the tie pulled out of his hand and tucked itself very neatly back into the jacket, the one loose button of which quickly buttoned itself up. Jake tried to peel off one shoe with the heel of the other and it felt as if he were scraping his bare skin along an unsanded wood piling. He loosened his belt and it simply rebuckled itself instantly. No, he was not going anywhere. He put the cell back up to his head.

"Say, listen, driver? I need to tell you—" In a heartbeat, Jake was on his feet. In broad, overstated strides like some royal guard soldier, Jake began high-step marching toward his door. Before he could stop himself, he was out the door, his free hand adroitly locking it behind him. halfway down the hallway, the marching stride left him and he was able to regain control of himself.

"Sir? What was that?", the driver asked. "Are you there?"

Gasping, Jake began to walk back toward his condo door. "Yes, I'm here, it's just that—" And again, his legs went rigid and he spun on his heel, marching back toward the elevator at the end of the hall. This time he was marched within five feet of the elevator before he was given back control. Jake took two steps gingerly toward the elevator, testing his ability to walk on his own. Then he took two backward. Then two more. Then three. He turned quickly and raced like a madman back toward his condo again, only this time he stopped as if skidding on the brakes, both heels digging into the carpet, as he then spun back around.

"This is fucking ridiculous", Jake said to himself.

He then danced back toward the elevator, high-stepping and bell-kicking his way along, until he reached the door of the elevator, where he did a quick soft shoe before its doors. Feeling his control returned yet again, Jake took one step backwards. He did another five-second soft shoe. Jake held his cell back up to his ear.

"Sir? You there? Did our call get dropped? Hello?"

Jake's finger pressed the button and the elevator doors opened. "Yeah, I'm here."

"It's important we leave soon if we're going to be on time, Mr. Quinely", came the reply. "What is it you wanted to say, sir?"

"That I'm on my way down", Jake sighed.

And the doors closed shut before him.

When Jake stepped through the open doors of the banquet hall, he was amazed at how lavishly the banquet had been prepared. The hall was one of the many in the hotels connected to one of the Bilber theme parks. Being the closets to the Our Many Lands In Our One World pavilion, this room was already designed to resemble an old Louis XIV palace ballroom. Provided with ceilings, gold molding, murals of cherubs and scantily-clad (though still G-rated) maidens draped in flowing sashes, all punctuated with ostentatious sculptures and urns. Mind you, the lavish paintings of Venuses, the scenes of kings and queens in courtly repose, even the ornate sculptures all clearly resembled the vast assemblage of Bilber cartoon characters, but that was to be expected.

But of course, Jake, having never been in this hotel, much less this banquet hall, had not expected anything close to this. In addition to the already overstated decor, the room was strung from wall to high ceiling with golden draperies that sparkled in the light of the hundreds of electric faux candles. Blooming flowers burst like explosives from every table, every corner, every alcove. This much Jake did expect, since the banquet was to celebrate the company's purchase of a botanical gardens park. But again, he had not anticipated anything to this extent. No roses and daffodils here. Strange and exotic plants and lush flowers filled the room with a rich bouquet—though strangely, not an overpowering one—and made one feel as if he'd just been dropped into the center of a living Jackson Pollack canvas. But the grandest effect of all came from the hall's head table, or rather, above it.

In typical Bilber theme park fashion, and most especially in the spirit of its over-the-top CEO Asner DeBaesar, a spectacular effect had been set up to celebrate the glory that was the Bilber magic, Watkins Worldwide Entertainment, and, again most especially, their over-the-top CEO Asner DeBaesar. A humungous glass sphere had been fastened to the back wall and braced securely from the ceiling. Within that sphere were countless colorful blooms, none of which smaller than a large poinsettia. The sphere was filled nearly to the top with a clear viscous fluid—not water, but something else blended with special chemicals that would preserve the blooms for hours and keep them looking fresh and alive even after having been cut from their roots and vines and flung about.

Oh, yes. The blooms were all being flung about with great gusto. The clear fluid within the giant glass bulb was being agitated in such a way that it spun the flowers around inside in a fast yet majestic pattern, creating the illusion of a snowstorm of blooming petals. The strange fluid also bubbled and fizzed, so that as lights from below and behind shined upon it, the liquid itself took on the festive tones of blue, yellow, and red. Just enough to add zest to the whirl of floral extravagance. Upon beholding the room, the added decor, and the incredible sphere of flying blooms, Jake had but one thing to say.


The room was already full to bursting with anybody who anybody. Executives, junior vice presidents, vice presidents, heads of departments, sponsors, corporate associates, local officials, members of the Board of Tourism, a sprinkling of celebrities, their agents, and just enough publicity and promotion people to make sure the event was well covered without making anyone important appear desperate to do so.

And everyone was important here, in one way or another. Jake suddenly felt anything but. He was a very small fish in a massive pond the breadth of which would have frightened Jacques Cousteau. Jake unconsciously straightened his tie, tugged on his jacket, looked down to make sure his shoes were polished. And not curved upward. Or sporting little bells. They weren't.

Jake made his way into the crowded room, uncertain of where he was meant to go. Every table had place cards, but they were small enough and written in such a fine calligraphic hand that made it very difficult to see who was to be seated where without leaning down and shoving his face right up to the tiny cards. Best, he thought, to mingle for now and find his way as he went along. That soon turned out to be a less than brilliant idea. As Jake made his way around the room, past tables and distinguished guests, it became clear to him that he was less than welcome. Senior executives eyed him as one would a beggar at the feast, and junior execs who had more years with the company glared daggers as he passed. This was the intruder, the brown-noser, the hot dogger who grandstanded at the board meeting. And worse, he was the only one in company history who did not get "sound effected" on his first day in front of the boss. His competitive peers did not just want Jake gone, they wanted him destroyed.

Most of the juniors simply passed by Jake returning his eager smile with a glare. Others sought to do the childish "shoulder bump" as they walked passed him, nearly knocking Jake off his feet and pretending not to have noticed their impact, no matter how hard or clearly deliberate. The last of these—he'd been bashed into three time in a row—came by way of a large, lumbering man of about 25 who despite his sharp suit looked as if he'd be more at home on a football field. The sizeable exec's impact with Jake's shoulder nearly sent the aspiring young businessman flat onto his kiester, had he not stumbled backwards into a chair which he managed to cling to. Unlike the previous two impacts, this time the assailant actually glanced backwards over his shoulder to send a silent message to Jake. Stay the fuck away and watch yourself, little man.

Jake was no longer feeling out of place so much as he was feeling pissed off. He glared back at the large exec with the high school locker room attitude and with his eyes Jake sent back his own message. In your dreams, pal. The large man squinted in return, an additional warning to take his unspoken threat seriously. Jake felt the blood pumping in his veins and his heart rate increase. He also felt the sleeve of his left arm tighten and looked down into the palm of his hand to find something there. Three eggs. The image of himself as a full-blown, out of control jester sending a hail of eggs into the face of the jackass junior exec burst into his mind clearer than a direct satellite feed.

Oh, no, Jake thought. I'm not freakin' Wonder Woman, I'm the goddamn Incredible Hulk. And you wouldn't like me when I'm angry... Quickly, Jake got fully to his feet and shied his face away from the much larger man. He sneered back at Jake. Huh. A wuss. Thought so. He then turned away to schmooze others far more important than he was, having no idea what he'd just been saved from. Jake very smoothly left the three eggs (and where the Sam Hill had they come from, anyway?) on a nearby butter dish and continued to walk away, gratefully feeling his sleeve loosening back into its suit jacket shape. He did not get far.

"Nice threads. See you took my advice about the stupid Sears suit." It was Mr. Snooty, the irritating exec from the morning's meeting. He was blocking Jake's path, hands in pockets, trying to look confident, but looking a bit more like a spoiled brat than anything else.

"Don't flatter yourself too much", Jake said. "I have a tendency to change my clothes after a long day's work, regardless the infantile insults I hear at the office. I see you didn't."

In truth, Snooty had not. He simply placed a large, flowery boutonnière upon his lapel. the bloom not only did not work well with his attire, but it was the same family of flower as adorned the seat nearest Mr. DeBaesar's chair at the head table. Jake thought it could not have been more clear what the intention for the boutonnière was were it a little sign that read "I live to kiss ass". Mr. Snooty, while apparently very fond of his own keen powers of observation, did not care for the same abilities in Jake.

Mr. Snooty stepped closer. "I don't know who the hell you think you are, laughing boy, but if you think the rest of us are going to just stand around and let you waltz in off the streets and steal our thunder without paying your dues, you've got another think coming."

"What thunder? The only rumbling noise I heard this morning was the sound effects from DeBaesar's laptop emphasizing what a gang of losers you all were. I had the pitch, I saw my chance, I took it. Get over it." Jake started to push past the obnoxious coworker, but Mr. Snooty grabbed his arm.

"We're not through here."

"Oh, you're through alright", Jake hissed. "Me, I'm just getting started."

Jake pushed past the man, breaking free from his hold. He wished he felt as confident as he sounded. But everything was starting to weigh upon him very heavily. The pressure of trying to please the boss, seeing the old theater and feeling Geezer's disapproval, the jester suit taking control of him, more pressure to impress longstanding clients, being made a puppet by the jester suit again, and now all the open hostility pouring in on him from all sides. His head was spinning.

Jake made his way to a large crystal punch bowl in the hopes that a drink would steady his nerves. Nothing alcoholic, he decided. The last thing he needed was to lose control tonight. By the side wall before the punch bowl, Jake was served a drink in a beautiful tiny glass goblet. The woman serving him was, as all the staff, in elaborate period dress. Jake nodded in thanks to her, turned and took in the room, bracing for the next attack. But what he took in was not a mounting assault by the jealous junior executives. Not yet, anyway. Jake was instead overwhelmed by the illusion of the royal air created for the banquet. The decor, the flowers, the servants, the thick carpeting, the murals, the columns and candelabras. It was indeed like some grand court, a royal palace, and all that was needed to complete the setting was perhaps a royal court itself, perhaps a few knights and maidens.

And a court jester.

Jake heard the jingling of bells again, the soft play of the lyre. Oh, no. Not again. Jake's shoes suddenly felt very, very comfortable, and he looked down to see the toes curl upward and point back toward him. "Oh shit", Jake mumbled, spilling some of his punch. His heart pounded in his chest as he anticipated what was sure to come next. He searched vainly for quick routes to the nearest exit (Why bother? The suit'll just make you prance back in here anyway.), shaking away negative thoughts of surrender, trying to divine ways to cleave through the thick crowd and reach the main entrance, all side exits being either concealed or blocked by guests. There was no easy way to make a bid for freedom. And things were about to get worse.

Jake saw Mr. Snooty on his way back toward him. This time he had a small cluster of five (six?) other juniors with him, all ready to surround Jake and let him know that his antics at pursuing corporate success more competently than they would not be tolerated. They were closing fast. And the sound of jangling bells was less distant now. Jake's feet not only felt wonderful, they were starting to tap to some unheard music, a gay tune that sounded hopeful but spelled doom for the dancer. Jake looked down. The gleaming black of his shoes were taking on a distinctly red hue, and it was getting brighter. From a dull acra to a brilliant cardinal red. Small nobs forming on the tip toes of the curling shoes were soon to turn into bells. Jake looked up. Mr. Snooty was leading his charge. A tickle was forming in Jake's chest and he was about to burst out laughing. His sleeve cuffs were tightening around his wrists. The crowd pushed in around him. There was no way he could even get a decent distance from the angry young executives, much less hope to reach the exits before becoming fully jesterized. Mr. Snooty extended an angry hand with pointing finger and opened his mouth to speak his first renewed threat.

"THERE you are, dear boy!"

Jake turned to his right to see Henry Farnsworth standing there with his wife Maggie. He smiled happily and reached out to take Jake by the shoulder and lead him closer to them. The junior executive army froze in their tracks. "What a pleasure to find you amid this sea of humanity at last!" He eagerly shook Jake's hand, the warmth of his personality reaching over to the young man. Jake suddenly felt quite safe. The young man, no longer feeling quite so doomed, glanced over at the pack of jealous juniors, watched them retreating. Their self-righteous faces had gone sour. They saw now that the company's new golden boy had a sponsor. They were too late. As the sullen group of failures slinked off, Snooty fired off one last look of malevolence with intent to kill in Jake's direction. Just you wait, mister.

Jake half stuck his tongue out at the jerk. Nyah-nyah, ferret-face.

"I see you took my advice and wore that dashing suit", Farnsworth beamed.

"Yes, sir", Jake answered, feeling a smile return to his face. One that was not forced to be there. "It was...well, it was almost as if I had no choice in the matter."

The rotund man laughed, thinking Jake was making a good-natured joke at both their expense. "Well, we don't always, do we? When we've found our match, sometimes we just need to give in to it. Speaking of which, we mustn't overlook the one I never had a choice to be with, from the moment I first met her."

"Mrs. Farsnwor—Maggie", Jake said, catching himself.

"Such a joy to have you here, Jake", she said, glowing. She was attired in a ruffled dress of creams and pinks, with just enough red trim and tinge to make it pop. On anyone else, the dress with all its crinkles and curls, might have looked absurd, but on Maggie it seemed somehow endearing, and not just a little bit flattering, large build or not.

"Wow", Jake said. "Maggie, you"

"You're looking quite wow yourself, dearest, but I suppose you get that a lot at your age."

"Not so much as you might think", he said, and Maggie gave him a hug. He had only just met them a few hours before, but he had the feeling he had known them his entire life. No one but Casey had ever had that kind of effect on him.

"Now, I don't care where they've got you seated, probably somewhere in the back forty, but you're going to be sitting with us, and I won't hear a word otherwise", Farnsworth announced, placing his arm around Jake's shoulder.

"Wouldn't dream of it, sir", Jake said happily.

"And we'll have none of this 'sir' nonsense, either. I told you it's Henry. You address me as Mister of Sir or any of that and it'll cost you three demerits."

"Well, I guess I've been warned then", Jake smiled.

"Now there it is again!", Farnsworth said. "I'm telling you, it's like being following about by Tinkerbell.

"Now that time I didn't hear it, my sweet", Maggie observed.

"It was quicker that time, darling. Just for a moment, but I heard it, I tell you."

Jake seemed worried for them. "What are you hearing, si—Henry?"

"I swear I keep hearing the tinkle of bells."

Jake's eyes widened. "I-I'm sure they have all kinds of things in the orchestra over there. Bells, xylophones, that sort of thing."

"They didn't have the orchestra in the office this afternoon, dear", Maggie countered.

"Unless old Asner had them stuffed in the filing cabinets", Farnsworth grinned. "No matter! The mystery will resolve itself eventually. Do let's enjoy ourselves! I want hear from my fellow thespian about his plans for the Frizzell."

As the hefty duo made their way through the crowd, those who recognized them making room immediately, Jake took another quick glance down at his shoes, fearing the worst. They were just shoes again. He breathed a sigh of relief and followed his companions to their table.

Taking his seat at the table closest to the long head table, Jake had to smile as Henry Farnsworth casually lifted up the card placed upon the plate of the setting next to his and read it, scrunched his brow, and tossed it over his shoulder. He looked at Jake and grinned, "Haven't the faintest idea who Thomas H. W. Sangfred is, but I've no doubt I wouldn't have liked him, anyway." He then pulled out a chair for Jake. "Sit, sit."

As Jake took his seat, Henry then stepped to the other side and pulled out a chair for Maggie. Seeing this, Jake nearly leapt to his feet, recalling that it was impolite to sit down before a lady had been seated. Maggie waved a hand at him.

"Oh, pish, Jake dear. No need to stand on ceremony."

"Yes", beamed Henry, "good Lord, we have enough ceremony standing all about us for that! No need to do it ourselves." He and his wife giggled at each other and he gave his lady a peck on the cheek before sitting down himself. Jake would have found their interaction a bit too sugary for his tastes, were their affection not so plainly genuine. Even as Henry Farnsworth turned to speak to Jake, he reflexively rested his hand upon his wife's.

"Now, before we launch into our reminiscences about performing at the Frizzell", Henry started.

"Or on the street", Maggie smiled.

Jake blinked. "What? You were a street performer too, Henry?"

Henry practically laughed with delight. "A-ha! There we go! You see the danger of us old hams getting together in an enclosed space. There'll be time enough for all those stories in a bit, I promise you."

"Ask him about the dead rabbit trick", Maggie suggested, chuckling. Jake leaned forward, arms resting on the table, etiquette forgotten, his eyes wide with interest.

Henry was now waving hands at both of them. "Now, now, what did I just say? In a bit, in a bit." And he turned to his wife, "And I swear to this day, the thing was more than alive when I started, I tell you."

"Scarred a group of kindergarteners for life, I imagine", Maggie opined. Jake started to laugh just imagining the story.

"Oh, they're bound to be over it by now", Henry said dismissively. "It was years ago. If not, what the hell do we have therapy for?" He tapped the table top with is hands. "Now, let's do get this part over with. I know full well that Asner had a bee in his bonnet about you selling me on this whole Frizzell deal. Well, I hardly think a party is the best place to conduct business, so do just give me the bare bones breakdown and we can get on to our storytelling."

"And drinks", Maggie added.

"My God yes", Henry agreed, looking suspiciously at his glass of water. "A man could die of thirst around here."

"They've got some good punch over near the bar", Jake said.

"Rubbish! This calls for champagne or some other beverage with a bit more fizz and kick." Henry started snapping his fingers, looking around him. "Garcon! Cocktails for three of your most distinguished guests!"

Maggie found her husband's antics a treat, but as Jake gazed around them, he saw that he was garnering evil stares from passersby, not just for being favored by the wealthy benefactor, but for enjoying the privilege. Quickly, Jake started patting his pockets in search of his proposal. After everything that had happened to him earlier, he had no idea if he'd even find it on him and had neglected to check while in the limo. For all he knew, he'd be pulling a rubber chicken out of his jacket pocket. But Jake was in luck and produced a slender envelope with the label "Frizzell Renovations" upon it. He handed it to Henry Farnsworth.

"Take a look at that", Jake said.

"And what have we here?", Henry said, withdrawing the small document. He gave it a quick once-over, and smiled graciously. "Oh, I say, I rather like this. Good, good. Very promising indeed. Though I dare say a bit too good for the likes of Asner." He laughed at his own joke, but Jake squirmed a bit over laughing at his employer's expense. Henry picked up on Jake's discomfort and said, "Now, no need to flinch, son. I'm merely saying that old Asner doesn't have the performing chops to understand a lot of what you suggest here. Nor do those yes-men he tends to surround himself with. Bold thinking here, Jake." He tapped the page, admiring the outline. Henry then looked over the top of the paper at Jake. "I trust you have more in the way of details, execution plans, and all that?"

Jake held up a computer CD he'd also found in his jacket pocket (thank heavens). "Right here. Everything you'd ever wanted to know about buying and sprucing up an old theater but were afraid to ask." He slid the CD over to Mr. Farnsworth.

"Splendid. Just splendid." Henry took the CD and handed it to Maggie, who secreted it away in her handbag. Henry folded up the paper and slipped it back into its envelope, putting it into his own jacket pocket.

"So if you like the proposal, you'll support the purchase of the Frizzell?", Jake asked hopefully. And by support he meant help pay for, or fund completely.

"Let's leave that for later, until I've gone over that disc-thing", Henry said. "Now where on earth are our drinks?"

"Henry, Margaret, so nice to see you!"

DeBaesar had found them. He was dressed in a tuxedo, smiling like a shark, or a child molester, as he oiled his way from table to table, buddying up to all attendees with deep pockets and a history of sponsorship. His shark's smile lilted considerably when he laid eyes on Jake. "Quinely. What are you doing up here?", he said, trying to sound pleasant enough, but coming off as merely annoyed.

"Um, I was just visiting with Henry and Maggi—er, Mr. and Mrs. Farnsworth, sir", Jake answered lamely.

"There seems to be some mistake", DeBaesar said, his smile oozing back. "Mr. Quinely has reserved seating...elsewhere in the ballroom. He's not intended to sit in this area."

"Up here with the rich folk, you mean", Henry scoffed. "Now see here, Az, I invited the boy to sit here with us. I'll not have you shuffling him off to some far corner to hide him behind a fern." DeBaesar, increasingly irritated but trying to hide it, began to speak again, but Farnsworth cut him off. "Besides, didn't you want Jake here to spend the night pitching his Frizzell proposal to me?"

DeBaesar's smile didn't waver, but it took on a cast of stone. "The idea, Henry, was to have someone bring Quinely's proposal to you. I had no doubt that you and Jake would have a chance to visit at some point during the evening."

"Oh, pish-tosh", Maggie chimed in. "Where's the fun in that? We need a human face on the idea if we're to get the slightest thing out of it. Otherwise the boy could have mailed the proposal to us."

"Just so, my darling", Henry agreed.

Jake just looked at his boss with the helpless expression of one who is doing his best to please two opposing sides and is caught in the middle. DeBaesar tried to make the best of the situation. "Well, as long as you're prepared to hear a bit of business, I have something else I need you to see, concerning our Bilber Botanical Garden venture." DeBaesar snapped his fingers and a sniveling toady, not more than ten or fifteen feet away, dashed up and handed the bog man a manila file folder, then retreated to whatever crevasse he'd slithered from.

DeBaesar set the folder down on the table before the portly gent. "Take a look through this, if you'd be good enough, Henry. I think you'll find—"

Farnsworth pshawed. "Oh, seriously, Asner! Look at this thing. I haven't the time tonight to read a novella. Can't we save it for the office on Monday? It's a party tonight!"

DeBaesar couldn't understand what magic Jake had worked on these people that he, the obviously superior businessman, could not mimic. "I'm sure that when Quinely here talks to you about the Frizzell, you can take a few minutes to consider my—"

"But he's already pitched the Frizzell", Maggie said.

"He has?", DeBaesar said.

"A quick and compelling pitch and the rest put on a disc for me to look over later. You could learn a thing or two from this lad, Asner. Get into the spirit of speedy business and then back to the festivities. You'd best stay sharp or soon he'll have your job."

Jake swallowed so hard at that comment he was certain the gulp was heard in the kitchens. DeBaesar simply looked on, stony-faced, then picked up the folder. "Far be it from me to spoil your evening. But if I could...borrow...Mr. Quinely for a moment. Excuse us."

"Don't keep him long!", Farnsworth called. "I was about to tell him about the dead rabbit trick!"

DeBaesar squinted his eyes and gritted his teeth. "Christ, not the dead rabbit story again..." He whispered menacingly to Jake even as he lay a friendly arm around his shoulder, keeping their backs to the Farnsworths. "First chance you get, you find a reason to excuse yourself, Quinely. You get up in search of an hors d'oeuvre tray, you see a friend from across the room, you get your bony ass out of that chair and make a spot for Sangfred to sit there. I seated them together for a reason." Jake nodded, not knowing what else to do. "I'm not going to have photos of this affair showing up with a nobody sitting next to one of our biggest sponsors. No offense, but let's be practical about this."

In point of fact, Jake did take great offense at the idea of being considered a nobody. He'd busted his "bony ass" to work in business so that just the opposite was true. He kept nodding and pretending to listen to his boss, but in his mind he was jangling with bells and smashing the pretentious oaf full in the face with a mile high lemon meringue. Unheard by either of them, Henry Farnsworth was leaning over to his wife and asking her something about hearing bells again. The portly lady nodded back to him.

"Now, since you seem to have the fat man's ear", DeBaesar went on to Jake, "you make damn sure that before you do make your exit, he's sure as hell got this." And DeBaesar pressed the folder against Jake's chest. "You got that?" Again, Jake nodded. Again, he imagined the pleasure of letting the obnoxious money-grubber have it. This time with a giant makeup powder puff, followed by a high-pressure seltzer bottle.

DeBaesar looked around the room and saw that people were being ushered to their tables, with only a few stragglers among the busy wait staff left standing. DeBaesar gave a few quick signals and a fellow whom Jake divined to be Sangfred, the intended occupant of his chair, took a seat at the next table over, glaring hatefully at Jake. Great, another Christmas card I'm not gonna get. DeBaesar reached over to the garish bouquet atop that table and plucked one of the flowers from it. "Here. If you're going to be near to my table, I want it obvious to everyone who might see you that you're a supporter of me." He tucked the blossom into Jake's lapel, making him look a bit like a member of the Mr. Snooty's Ass-Kissing Club.

Jake took his seat next to Henry Farnsworth again as DeBaesar made his way to the head table, shaking hands and offering bright smiles along the way. No sooner had Jake situated himself beside his jovial new friend, than the lights began to dim and a voice came over the speaker system welcoming them all to the affair.

"Looks like we're in for the flood of gibber-jabber", Henry frowned. "Fear not, they eventually run out of wind and then we can all visit over dinner. We'll get to the rabbit story."

Maggie added in a stage whisper, "It really is worth waiting for."

Jake offered a smile and only half listened as the voice overhead spoke in glowing terms of the wondrous addition of the botanical gardens to the line of Bilber theme parks. And of course, the obligatory windup to the man who made it all possible, yadda-yadda-yadda, and here's our man of the hour to talk your ear off, none other than Asner DeBaesar, do let's all smooch his butt. Insert thunderous applause. Jake offered a half-hearted golf clap and that was all he felt the man whom only hours ago he admired so much had earned.

As the rest of the room offered their more enthusiastic applause, be it genuine or posed, DeBaesar got up from his seat at the head table, bowed, and made his way to the podium. Jake was impressed by the speaker's setup. It was arranged with a clear plexiglass podium, raised up several feet above the floor, at a vantage point to survey the entire room. The podium itself stood upon a rostrum that extended out above the floor of the hall, where it appeared to hover over a small enclosed pond alive with flowers and decorative shrubbery which bloomed behind a protective shield of the same material as the podium. Within the shield, an artificial brook silently rushed around the blossoms and over strategically placed rocks. Directly above and slightly behind the podium was that giant sphere of whirling flowers and sparkling fluids.

As DeBaesar took his place behind the microphone, cameras flashed, videos whirred, and it appeared as if, from his lofty station, that he were the maker of all magic in this world he had created. The ground bloomed beneath him and ran freely with life-giving water, a wondrous creation of beauty was awhirl above him like some majestic arboreous halo. Jake felt his stomach whirl almost in time to the swoosh of the oversized goo-globe.

DeBaesar loved an audience, especially a captive one. And since no one present had been served dinner yet, he knew this group was not going anywhere. He could talk all he wanted and there was little anyone could do about it. Well, almost anyone.

It only took Jake about two minutes to get bored beyond belief with DeBaesar's self-aggrandized ramblings, and not having brought anything else to read, Jake opened the folder he'd been given to pass on to Henry Farnsworth. In short order, Jake was intrigued. It would seem that the purchase of the botanical gardens was a much more lucrative venture than he could have ever imagined.

"Good evening everybody and thank-you so much for coming", DeBaesar glowed, soaking up the crowd's adoration. "I, as you know, am Asner DeBaesar—" Cue applause, there it is. "Thank-you, thank-you. You're too kind. And this is our special banquet to announce the upcoming opening of the brand new Bilber Botanical Gardens!" More applause, oohs, and ahhs.

Jake stared at the first few pages of the file. The park itself was indeed impressive. What was once a cluster of interconnected flowery walkways and elaborate greenhouses had been transformed into a lavish park with rides, concessions, animal attractions, sexy young hostesses, and even educational areas about the environment. Then came the proposed enhancements and alterations, expansions, to follow over the course of the next few years in anticipation of the park's success with the public. Again, impressive. Nature tours, sky rides, wilderness adventures, river rides. Even if the park only made the minimum expected profit the investors would come out well ahead.

As Jake read the file, DeBaesar was well into the opening thrust of his talk. "The reason for the acquisition of the botanical gardens is not just to add a new park attraction to the Bilber vacation spots, nor is it to just make more money. Mind you, if we do turn a profit, that's fine, but that should never be the only goal of any endeavor, and especially not here. We need to preserve our precious and dwindling natural resources, our planet's glorious beauty that is being trampled by aggressive corporate advances."

Jake was taking a sip of his water and almost choked when he saw the projected figures for the park if it achieved optimum attendance following a successful advertising saturation campaign and promotion. Jake didn't realize there were that many zeroes outside of a Battlestar Galactica convention.

"And we need to pass on the importance of our planet's beauty to our children", DeBaesar blathered on, giving great conviction to words he felt little conviction for. "Which is why, among other things, we have an educational area in the park. If we can see our vision through, I hope to have several more teaching attractions, possibly even a television channel to share our message of conservation. The Billy Bobcat Bloomin' Network for kids."

Jake turned the pages as if captured by the twisting plot of a thriller. Indeed, the comparison was apt. The plans unfolded with each page, moderate enhancement, major promotion, massive profit. The charts and graphs that followed explained how any investor would reap a very generous return for his contribution to the new garden park.

"Of course", DeBaesar said, his tone growing serious, "Caring for these magnificent plants, the animals, and the landscape is not an easy prospect. It calls for a certain amount of sacrifice on our parts. Sacrifice in time, in effort, in knowledge, and of course in expenses."

Jake flipped ahead. He looked for the information which he suspected that, legally, DeBaesar would have to include in the proposal. But there was no law that said how large the information had to be printed. And as the saying goes, "the large print giveth and the small print taketh away". Soon enough, Jake found it. What DeBaesar himself would net from this little venture. Just from the initial launch of the botanical gardens, Asner DeBaesar would be paid $250 million. If his advances and additions to the park went through, he could double that income inside of a year, possibly less.

"You hypocritical son of a bitch...", Jake muttered to himself.

DeBaesar was into full mooch mode now. "I know that all of you have given so much already, but your contributions toward this endeavor would mean so much. To benefit others, we can all find some areas in our lives we can do without—"

"Yeah, what the hell do you need to buy food for when you can come to one of these banquets every time you open a new park?!"

A hush fell over the crowd. Glasses stopped clinking, chairs ceased moving beneath their occupants, the wait staff froze in mid-step. DeBaesar stared blankly at the audience, the spot shining on him making it impossible to determine from where the heckling remark had come. Jake sat like a statue in his chair, his eyes wide as an owl's. He had no idea he was going to spit out the comment until it had left his mouth. In his ears, the soft ringing of bells...

"Er, ahem, as I was saying", DeBaesar began again, "in all seriousness, sacrifices have to be made. And we call on you to make them. Consider the children who would benefit from experiencing the park." At fifty bucks a head, Jake thought. "How we could share the fragile beauty of our world with them." When not chopping it into bits to put into gigantic suspended snow globes. "And for those who could not experience the park firsthand, to tune in to a high-quality channel to share superior programming with messages on preservation, conservation, and environment." And further lining your pockets. "Why, even my own employees will be making the sacrifice of a minimal pay cut to benefit the gardens and set a better example for all of us—"

"Hoo-BOY! Looks like Adam and Eve weren't the only ones who had to deal with having a snake in their garden!!"

This time there was no mistaking it. The outburst had come from the Farnsworth table, or thereabouts. Henry and Maggie turned back to see if the remark had come from Jake, or someone behind him. The darkened room made it difficult for anyone to pinpoint the exact loudmouth in question, and that was made worse by the glare of the spotlight above, and the rising buzz of murmuring questions from the banquet goers.

Jake looked down into his hand and found his makeshift boutonnière there, ripped from his lapel where DeBaesar had put it, and scrunched into a smothered wad. A lyre was strumming in the back of Jake's head just as a liar was standing before him at the podium. He had to get out of there fast.

Stumbling to his feet and pushing back his chair, Jake tried to make a discreet exit. No sooner was he up and standing than the lower trim of his jacket billowed out and plunged down into jester tunic form, his belt appearing over the top of it. The colors had not yet burst back to life, and no bells were upon him at this point, but Jake knew his time for escape was limited.

"Excuse me, I'm sorry, beg your pardon", Jake whispered as he bumped into tables, chairs, and guests as he tried to navigate the darkened room to the door. His footwear went from dress shoes to stage slippers in short order and his jacket, changing all the more rapidly into a tunic, now had loose folds of fabric that were getting caught on nearly everything he passed.

DeBaesar was up at the podium trying to collect himself, to remember the last point in his speech (he always memorized them in a specific order) so that he might continue with his oh-so important message. "Ah, as I was saying, concerning sacrifice", he stumbled, his meaningful remarks punctuated by the thuds and bumps of the strange, unknown figure making his way through the darkened ballroom. "Sorry." Whump, clud. "Please, excuse me. I have to go." Thud, jangle.

"Yes, for the greater good, we have to acknowledge that sacrifices must be made—" jingle, thud, clang, "Oof! Sorry."

DeBaesar continued to stammer for a the next few moments it took Jake to clear the room. He had pushed his way around the crowded room of darkened tables, the occupants of which having their chairs pushed out and around at a number of different positions and angles as various as they were. But despite the countless blockades and obstacles, Jake found his way to a source of light, a doorway leading, he thought, to freedom. He thought wrong.

The doorway Jake staggered through was nowhere near the main entrance. It's was an employee passageway leading to the kitchens, the locker rooms, and other service and stewarding areas. Jake had gotten himself so turned around in his bid for freedom that he wound up completely lost. Should he duck down the connecting hall that led to the employees locker rooms? Surely there was an exit past there? Or make a dash through the kitchens? Or maybe—


Too late. Jake looked down at himself and saw his trouser become tights, his sleeves hug his arms, his jacket flap around his waist in its tunic form. Bells burst forth all over his costume like the burst of flower blooms awhirl within the giant sphere behind the speaker's podium. Jake's tie was gone before he could reach for it in any attempt to hold it in place. His cap and bells was back atop his head, his triple ears jangling happily. Reflexively, Jake reached up to pull the cap off, knowing it would feel as if he were tearing at his own scalp, knowing it would be painful, but willing to risk it. Halfway up to clasp his head, Jake's hand stopped. And he began to giggle.

Oh, no. No more than just the costume, the attitude and personality of the jester was sweeping over him. In the back of his mind, themed by rising mandolin music, Jake recalled something Casey had told him as he dressed his boyfriend and lover in his very first fool's costume.

"Everyone thinks the court jester is the fool, but that's not necessarily true. The best jesters use their foolishness to point out the idiocy of others. The real-life buffoons, the schemers, the liars, the insincere. So your performance as a jester will always work best if you have a real stooge for a target."

Out in the ballroom, DeBaesar had thoroughly lost his place. "I'm sorry, everyone. Did the person needing to leave make their way out alright? Was someone sick at all? Did they need a doctor? Perhaps we can bring up the lights for a moment." In truth, DeBaesar was just hoping to get a good look at the unworthy bastard who had ruined the flow of his speech. He hoped it was someone in his employ, so he could have the pleasure of firing them. All the better if the person really was sick. A downed victim makes no move to escape when you kick them.

From his hidden vantage point, Jake grinned wide. A real stooge. Inside, Jake was seeing his job, his career, his future, about to be destroyed by a jangle of bells and a dance in tights. His arm shot out and grabbed something. It was an old 14 th-century cane to be used by one of the walk-on server characters. Not anymore. In a flash it was Jake's jester staff, complete with his own caricatured face atop the candy-striped pole. Gracefully, Jake began to twirl the cane in one hand like a baton. Yes, he was about to end his very short-lived career, of that there was no doubt in his mind. But as he eyed Asner DeBaesar holding court from his high pedestal, Jake found that his mind really didn't care just then. The tiny part of Jake's mind that still did care, that still did resist, took solace in knowing that the jester would never make it through the cramped floor arrangement very easily. He'd have to make his jackass performance from the back of the room.

In a whoop of laughter and singing, Jake cart wheeled out into the room and spun across the table tops, making his way to the dead center of the room in less than twenty seconds flat. So much for that hope, Jake thought. It was his last thought as a free man as the jester he was inside and out took over.

"Greetings, fair people of the Botanical Banquet! Welcome one and all to this glorious and most festive occasion!" The patrons all looked up in surprise and shock as Jake danced about the table tops, missing drinking glasses and skipping past people's heads without disturbing much, save for the stray centerpiece that toppled as he passed.

DeBaesar stood dumbfounded, having no clue what was going on.

"Speeches are nice", Jake declared, "but I tell you that actions speak louder than words. And since I don't have a hundred thousand dollar P.A. system, my actions had better be preeettty noisy!" Jake then proceeded to execute a wondrous display of tumbles, spins, and jumps from table to table, leaping and dancing in the air, with impressive high-kicks and bell kicks and even martial arts kicks as he bounded across the room like Daffy Duck.

DeBaesar signalled to one of his assistants to approach the podium. He needed to know what was going on, and he needed to know now.

Back by the kitchen entryway, two costumed servers conferred. "Did you know about this?", asked the one.

"No", said the other. "They never tell us anything. Thank Christ I wasn't out there making a Caesar when that asshole went leaping by."

"Probably that asshole Plympton they use for acrobatic shows on Fairytale Island. He's such a fucking ham." The first server ducked into the kitchen. "Keep the dinner on a slow broil, fellas. They sent in a goddamn jester." The kitchen staff and chefs cursed and adjusted their meal preparations, but took the unscheduled interruption as business as usual.

Out in the banquet hall, Jake was fast winning over the crowd. He hopped from one table to another, making comments and wisecracks as he went. "Boy, putting a spin on yourself is much more tiring than putting a spin on a money-raising pitch, I tellya." DeBaesar's face reddened, but the crowd laughed in appreciation. Jake spun his jester's cane around and indicated a tall glass of water near his feet. "Do you mind?" Deftly, the jester knocked the glass up into the air with his cane, spun on his heel, grabbed it with one hand, downed it in a single gulp. "Ah! Jetsering is thirsty work!"

At the podium. DeBaesar was verifying that the interference was not sanctioned. "Nothing scheduled, sir" said the today with the printed agenda. "This man is not supposed to be here."

"Thought so", DeBaesar frowned. "Call security."

Meanwhile, Jake had balanced the glass atop his staff, spin it there at a furious pace, made swaying gestures with is arms and legs, as if he were losing his balance and about to drop it, "Whhoooaaa---Yaaahhh--!", garnering laughs and gasps from onlookers. Then in a majestic twist, Jake spun himself down into a squat, dropping the glass down into his hand as, unnoticed by the crowd, he snatched up a handful of flowers from the centerpiece and stuffed them into the glass.

He handed the flowered goblet back to the woman and said, "For your many considerations, madam."

As the applause for his gracious gesture began, Jake was already airborne again and grabbing small plates and roll baskets, juggling them, spinning them atop his staff. "There's lots to juggle when you're a big-time CEO", Jake announced. Then Jake went into a routine much like he did at the mall, only this time instead of bouncing balls, he was tossing plates, silverware, a small potted centerpiece, and a basket of rolls spinning atop his miniature head on his cane, which sheer centrifugal force kept form spilling bread all over the floor.

Jake began to converse with each item as it passed. "Just a small contribution", he said to a glass. "If you remember to sponsor us, that'll make you a commemorative plate", he said to a plate. "Just a wee bit o' silver, man!", he said to a passing butter knife. "Our dwindling natural resources", he began to the potted flowers, stopping himself with, "Ah, hell. You already know about that!" The group started applauding and laughing cheerfully. Moving his juggling to one hand, Jake let the basket of rolls drop as he tucked his cane under one arm. Catching the basket on his belled toe, his other hand easily started juggling the rolls. As they spun, he brought one to his mouth and took a hefty chomp. "Mmm! Hungry!" With a mouth full of roll, Jake announced to the spinning baked good, "Thorry! Thacrifices muth be made!"

The audience loved it. At a table close to the podium, one corporate head leaned to another and said, "Leave it to DeBaesar to whip up some skit making himself the butt of the jokes!"

His companion retorted, "Makes it easier to reach for my checkbook!"

DeBaesar signalled his today. "Hold it." Realizing the audience thought he was behind it, and that this helped them cough up monetary support, DeBaesar was not going to dissuade them from this assumption. "Forget security", he told the underling. "Let him do his show. We're good."

Jake hopped about from table to table, his movements so rhythmic he did not require background music. Still, the orchestra caught on and soon placed soft up-tempo beats behind the frolicking clown. As the maestro conducted his band, he muttered, "No one ever informs me of these things..."

Jake landed atop a table where a woman carried a small toy poodle with her, the frightened and shivering animal held snugly in her wrap. The pet seemed more for show than anything else. It was clearly overwhelmed by the crowds, the noise, the activity. had the woman truly cared about her dog she would have left it home in a soft bed with the lights dimmed and a small rawhide chew nearby. Jake pointed to her with his staff.

"Milady! Your adorable little snookums doth remind me of a far-off kingdom where equine steeds—horses, that is—were hard to come by. Enormous dogs were bred instead and the brave warriors of the castle rode astride the massive hounds into battle and on their quests." The woman snickered, cuddling her frightened little pooch, who seemed ready to run for cover.

Jake leaned close, "One evening when a terrible storm lashed at the castle ramparts, Sir Valiant was called by his majesty to ride forth into the harsh conditions. But brought out from the stables was a hound that yours!" Swiftly but delicately, Jake scooped up the little dog and held it out to the crowd. "Whereupon his highness declared, 'I wouldn't send a knight out on a dog like this!!'" The audience roared at the terrible pun, and Jake held the frightened doggie close to him, touching noses with it. Quietly, he whispered to it, "It'll be alright." And the tiny dog's tail started to wag.

Jake handed the dog back to the lady, the now happy dog yapping after Jake, indicating it wanted to stay with him. Jake waved toward the woman in a grand gesture. "Ladies and gentleman, a big hand for Mrs. Eupheginia WhoopieCushion of Fairbanks, Alaska!" Jake bounded forward, landing upon the table where the Farnsworths were seated. He froze for a moment, just a fraction of a second, but long enough for something to pass between himself and Henry Farnsworth. Their eyes met, and Jake lost his stage presence in that moment. Jake's eyes were wide and his expression seemed to convey to the older man but two words. "I'm sorry." Farnsworth's expression was unreadable.

The moment's pause was long enough for someone else to get a good look at the performing fool, as well, It was one of the first moments he'd stopped in his madcap journey across the room, pausing in his antics so that he might be recognized.

From the podium, DeBaesar stared in harsh realization. "That's Quinely!"

But by now Jake was atop the tables surrounding the podium, and as DeBaesar had decided to play along, he maintained the smiling look of one who was all part of the joke. "And do let's hear it for our verbose keynote speaker and host and all his flowery words!"

A few tables of attendees applauded cheerfully, anticipating what jokes were to follow next, while other guests were fidgeting nervously, not entirely certain what would come of ribbing the boss. But they were in the minority. As DeBaesar smiled on supportively, it seemed clear to most that this was a gag he was indeed in on.

"What better way to begin our evening than with a droning speech so dull that our considerate host has provided each table with its very own grass we could watch grow instead." More guffaws from the tables. DeBaesar looked down, pretending to smile, waving a hand as if to say, "Now, now, folks..." as he imagined all the ways he was going to string up Quinely by his balls.

Jake hopped lithely up to a nearby railing circling the raised rostrum, plucking a bloom from one of the many bouquets also surrounding it. "And what a lovely thing is a flower. But what an effort is needed to grow just one! You have to be ready to shovel plenty of manure to fertilize the smallest garden." Jake sniffed the bloom dramatically. Then added quickly, "Lucky for us we've had truckloads of that stuff being shoveled out right here tonight!"

A roar of laughter from the room, and DeBaesar stood staring hateful daggers at Jake, his smile frozen like stone, with about as much warmth. Jake grabbed up three potted plants and began to juggle them. As the lush blooms circled around him in a blur of color, Jake rambled on, "As absolutely FAScinating as tonight's talk has been, what with its talk of education and self-sacrifice, I thought it might behoove us to consider the aspect of a little Botany 101. Show of hands, who actually remembers all that study of plants we had to suffer through in tenth grade Biology class?'

Jake raised one of his hands, and it looked as if all three plants would drop to the floor, their pots shattered, but at the last moment, he snatched them all up, one barely scraping the top of a nearby table. "Whoop! Thought not. Me neither. I had to look it up before I came here tonight. Did you know that the flowers, the blooms themselves, are actually the sex organs of the plant?"

He switched his juggling to one hand again, stage whispering to one side, "I'm sorry if this untoward talk is shocking, ladies, but it's true." Back to two hands. "Why, consider it! We've got the Ovule, the Anther, the Style—and isn't our host just oozing with style!" DeBaesar began to take a little bow. "Or maybe he's just oozing." The boss stopped in mid-bow, everyone laughing at him.

"Then there's the Sepal, the Peduncle—not to be confused with the PedAunt, or even the Ped-Aunt-Tick—oh, and there we are, back to that opening speech again." More laughter, DeBaesar's smile becoming more forced, less effective.

"And the thingie that receives pollen is the Stigma, which can also be something you can get if you hog too much money while in the act of claiming to help the kiddies learn about the pwetty flares!" DeBaesar's smile was gone. The room was alive with laughter and clapping.

"Aaannnd of course we all remember the Pistil, something that I suspect our dear host is ready to use on me right about now!"

DeBaesar leaned into the microphone and said very pointedly, "Wrap it up, kid."

That only made it worse. Everyone assumed his straight-man deadpan comment was the final proof that he was behind the entire ingratiating routine. The boss's warning comment earned a boom of applause. As the room tried to get ahold of itself, Jake had made his way to the topmost rail beside the giant sphere, his staff whirling in his hand like a bo staff.

"Indeed I shall! So, putting aside that next Mother's day you'll be handy dear mommy a bundle of ovaries, or that on Valentine's Day your sweetheart will look forward to two dozen long-stemmed sex organs, let us not forget that tonight we must acknowledge that our host, our fearless leader, Asner DeBaeser, does indeed lloooovvvve the flowers! And they, in turn, love him!"

And looking his big boss, his former idol, right in the eye, Jake whispered for only the two of them to hear, "And nothing says 'Fuck you' like flowers."

With a lightning-fast strike, Jake brought the butt of his staff right into the base of the giant sphere of flowers whirling in their bubbling goo. There was a hideous cracking noise and the base of the globe burst open, sending a terrible cascade of petals and viscous slime raining down upon the head of Asner DeBaesar. It was as if a Hawaiian waterfall had upchucked all over the company CEO. Water, foam, bubbles, and more smashed into him, drenching his suit, his skin his hair. The microphone screeched as the gooey substance hit the wires, sending a whine throughout the room.

Drenched and decimated flowers washed over the big man's shoulders, sticking here and there to his suit, one to the side of his head, two atop it, another plastered against his forehead. The showpiece beneath him of the rock garden and brook, with its personal plexiglass shield and drainage system, served to keep much, if not all, of the torrent from spreading out about the room in general, or soaking those at the nearest tables. Many guests were spattered and sprinkled, but it was surprising how most took it as all part of the show and the fun at DeBaesar's expense.

As one man, the attendees rose to their feet in standing ovation for the hijinks the celebrated corporate head had unleashed upon himself. Cheers and whistles filled the air, and a few more outgoing business men picked up some of the fallen flowers and tossed them in DeBaesar's direction, shouting "Bravo!" as they did so.

By the time DeBaesar turned, shaken, drenched, shamed, toward Jake, the spry young jester had already hopped several feet away. In a cartwheel or two, he'd be halfway to the door, another few back flips and he'd be gone. But for the moment, time stood still. The eyes of the young junior exec met with the man in charge. The fire, the fury, that burned within the big boss's eyes was clear, and the message of certain destruction they conveyed was more than clear, even at a distance.

"Oh God", Jake thought, trembling inside even as his costumed jingled in escape. "I'm fucked."

Read next part