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June 1, 2007 | Fiction

Snakes & Ladders

Michael Loughrey

Snakes & Ladders photo

A ticket to watch Cindy do her striptease cost a dollar and an ice cream.

Terms and conditions of business were:

1) The dollar could be paid as a bill or in loose change, but currency from The Walled Territories was not accepted.

2) The only admissible ice cream was a double chili pepper and passion fruit sundae purchased from Doolie's Deli on Main Street.

3) Tickets were sold only to males under eighteen.

4) Photographing Cindy stripping was not allowed, but color postcards of her in explicit poses were available for fifty cents each, although Cindy's face was pixelized out for discretionary reasons.

5) Masturbation was permissible during the five minute seance, but talking dirty was forbidden since Cindy's religion frowned on blasphemy.

When word of his striptease enterprise reached the unwashed ears of the town's male youth, Proby Root realized he would soon be rich. The town of Gettingham was a subliminal yawn in the motormouth of progress, a jumbled, anachronistic cluster of flaking clapboard under patchworked tarpaper roofs, punctured fly screens and boarded up store fronts isolated in an infinity of arid farmland, a stretched loop of ennui where the most exciting thing a young soul could do was visit the cemetery and trace their incestuous lineage from tombstone to tombstone.

As Cindy's beau, Proby Root was the envy of every young male in town, for sultry Cindy was the most physically precocious sixteen year old anyone in Gettingham had ever laid eyes on. And all the boys knew that the lucky sonofagun Proby Root was laying more than just his eyes on Cindy and they were ready and willing to pay a dollar and an ice cream to get the next best thing.

Cindy's and Proby's bedroom windows faced each other from their parent's houses either side of a narrow alley pungent with urine and triffid-like weeds sprouting through decaying strata of consumerism's cast-offs. Ever since Proby had been thirteen, he would stand at his bedroom window mesmerized by Cindy's exhibitionism as she ran her reptilian tongue over creamy mounds of double chili pepper and passion fruit sundaes whilst performing ingenue strip-tease, knowing full well he was ogling her like a tomcat in front of a goldfish bowl. One-sided voyeurism developed into mutual onanism until Proby's fifteenth birthday when he purloined a ladder from Cindy's stepfather's garage, and clutching not one but two double chili pepper and passion fruit sundaes ascended the nectar lined passage into heaven.

As it happens, it was this very act which inspired him to conspire with Cindy to make a business out of her body, which although he didn't know it then, was an idea which would transform the moratorium of the bankrupt backwater into a Mecca of prosperity.

Within a week Proby Root had spread word of his idea to every young male in Gettingham who had come to know the joys of their sap rising, stolen a ream of the school's letter paper which he trimmed to make tickets leaving just the words Gettingham High and customized Cindy's stepfather's ladder into a red carpet leading up to the show.

Inauguration evening was not entirely without problems. The democratic first come, first served, policy that Proby had announced worked for the first few boys that climbed the ladder to feast their eyes for five minutes as Cindy stripped and smeared ice cream over her curvaceous body, now and then scooping chunks that ran down her breasts and thighs to pop into the permanent pout of her full red lips. But other would-be Romeo's waiting their turn in the toe-tapping, testosterone charged queue soon found themselves covered in molten ice cream as the sweltering heat that was one of Gettingham's curses took its toll.

Not as bright as she was beautiful, Cindy had an insatiable appetite for sex that came a close second to her appetite for ice cream. When Proby Root first suggested the business idea to her, the artiste was blase about the financial aspect but did insist on a contract with an ice cream clause. So when the first latecomer scaled the ladder with molten ice cream dripping from fist to armpit to present her with the dismal offering of a soggy wafer cone, a vengeful Cindy pulled down the blind and went on strike.

Drawing on a Thespian maxim, Proby Root told himself the show must go on. Before the line of paramours formed for the next night's performance, he rescued an antique refrigerator from an abandoned house and positioned it amongst other junk in the alley to keep his customer's ice cream chilled.

Back in business, Cindy strutted her stuff in her bedroom whilst Proby Root gloated over a growing roll of sticky banknotes at the base of the ladder. Further teething problems, however, forced him to modify his business methods. During a Sunday evening performance after the entire population of Gettingham had filed out of church, Baz Botnick, a hairy, illiterate pillock of Promethean proportions attempted to climb through the window to get more than his money's worth. An outraged Cindy slammed the guillotine window down, trapping Botnick's distended penis between the window frame and the ledge.

Overnight, Proby Root remedied the situation by connecting an electric cable to the metal ladder which Cindy could switch on at a socket in her room should other snakes on the ladder be tempted to replicate Baz Botnick's antics.

There was also near disaster the night Cindy's stepfather investigated a commotion in the alley. Shooed away by Cindy because his five minutes were up, a gangly youth called Theo Svenhaka hadn't hitched his dungarees up before descending the ladder. Halfway down they bunched up around his ankles causing him to fall screaming onto the alley. Dogs barked at the disturbance and the light on the front porch of Cindy's house came on. Her stepfather came hurtling down the ramp from the porch in his wheelchair, a shotgun across disabled legs.

'Proby? Proby Root? That you in them shadows boy?'

'Yes sir, Mr. Pewter, it's me all right.'

'What you doing out here this time of night? Why in the name of Lucifer's longjohns is my ladder painted fluorescent pink and covered in Christmas tree lights?'

The Principal of Gettingham High had once declared that Proby Root had such an exceptionally guileful mind that if ever he were put before a firing squad he would be capable of charming the bullets around in mid-air and felling his executioners.

'Mr. Pewter, sir, what appear to be Christmas tree lights on the ladder are not that at all. It's luminous polychrome barbed wire. A trap to catch the infamous Gettingham weather vane thief.'

'Darnation. What's the cesspit of civilization coming to? Fourteen years since I fell into this damned wheelchair putting that weather vane up there. Town's gone to hell in a handbasket, but no weather vane thief is getting his dirty mitts on my aluminum cock.'

Soon, the small mountain of cash that had accrued under the young entrepreneur's mattress stopped growing in proportion to the dwindling number of boys queuing for Cindy's nocturnal performances. Word on the street was that they were having trouble extracting the daily dollar from their parents to continue their rise to manhood via the ladder.

Pondering this catastrophe whilst Cindy did her utmost to coax him to satisfy her for the fourth time that evening, Proby Root realized Cindy's curvaceous yet slender figure had suffered metamorphosis from eating too much ice cream. He saw no immediate solution to this problem. Solving the cash-flow problem, however, came to him in a flash of inspiration.

'You boys gotta go to work.' He yelled from atop a packing crate in the fusty smog of the abandoned railway yard later that night. 'Get your hands as dirty as your minds.'

'Work?' Said a youth excavating sow-like nostrils set in an oval of pustulence and downy stubble. 'Hell, I only take the trouble to breathe 'cos it don't involve no effort.'

'C'mon guys.' Proby Root pleaded. 'Clean a window. Mow a lawn. Wash a dish. Walk a dog. Yer folks will cough up the cash if ya all do some chores. Cindy's real sad not to see you coming around. She's even thinking of becoming a Nun.'

That did it. Next morning, malodorous body after malodorous body crawled lethargically from crusty blankets to earn a dollar or three. Picket fences were painted, hedges trimmed, weeds plucked and flowers planted, brooms and mops brandished like dervishes' sabres as detergent and disinfectant flowed and the yellow duster temporarily replaced the man-sized Kleenex as the pennant of Gettingham's male youth.

The refurbishment was timely. Days after spit and polish had brought a glimmer of dignity to the town, a gilded rickshaw pulled by an emaciated Chinaman came slowly along Main Street.

Dozing in a hammock on his freshly-painted porch, Sheriff Goolhooney heard the sound of hubs in need of oil and sounded the alarm. When the rickshaw halted before Doolie's Deli, two men in pin-striped suits and Derby hats alighted, brushing trail dust from their clothing.

'Sure this is the right place?' Said the man who sported a bootlace moustache.

'Map's out of date.' Replied his colleague, polishing his monocle before studying a clipboard. 'Better check the name's the same as on the work order.'

'They got ice cream.' Chuckled the first official, peering into the gleaming window of Doolie's Deli. 'Things can't be all that bad.'

Wearing a silver leotard and lime green trainers, Cindy jogged by, sweating under the burden of a backpack filled with wet sand Proby Root forced her to run five miles a day with to regain her previously svelte figure.

'Hey. Miss.' Called out the official with the monocle. 'This here Gettingham?'

A breathless Cindy panted her reply. 'Youbetcha. Pearl of the Middle Lands.'

Weaving between tumbleweed, she jogged on, beads of perspiration flying from her forehead.

'Nice ass.' Said the mustached official, spitting chewing tobacco. 'This can't be the place.'

Mayor Bludget had been languishing in an inflatable paddling pool on his newly-mown lawn when he had received word that strangers were in town. He galumphed down Main Street, mustering authority best as he could in the incongruous ensemble of baggy Hawaiian shorts, flip-flops, sun visor, blue mayoral sash and gold chains of office.

'Howdy.' He blathered with faltering cheer as he approached the strangers. 'Been expecting a visit for some time. But when nothing happened, well, we hoped you'd forgotten about us. Place looks pretty good, huh? Can I offer you boys some ice cream?'

When no reply was forthcoming, Mayor Bludget scratched his bald pate. 'You are who I'm thinking you are?' He mumbled.

Before the strangers lowered their gaze, Mayor Bludget thought he saw a flicker of pity in their steely eyes.

'The Bailiffs of Existence?' Whimpered the Mayor.

Both officials nodded solemnly.

'Ain't no easy job.' Said one, tugging shirt cuffs free from the sleeve of his coat before raising his eyes to meet the Mayor's. 'But your heart gets hardened.'

'So maybe my generation let things slide a little,' the Mayor said, his voice choked with emotion, 'we coulda made efforts. Set up a Chamber of Commerce. A Rotarian's Club. Opened laundromats, bowling alleys, maybe a casino. Even one of them shopping malls rumors tell of in The Walled Territories. But our offspring plan to right our wrongs. Youngsters with heads on their shoulders. Got this new concept in funerals. Sending the deceased into outer space. Coffins floating around up yonder, getting closer to Heaven instead of lowering them into the ground where they're closer to Hell. Now that's the mother of invention, and don't tell me investors wouldn't like to peek into the silver lining of her bloomers.'

The Bailiffs of Existence huddled together to confer in muted tones. When they climbed into the rickshaw, Mayor Bludget's hopes soared.

'Now don't you go getting your hopes up,' said the bailiff with the monocle as if he'd read the Mayor's thoughts, 'we'll just mosey around some.'

As the Chinaman hauled the rickshaw up the potholed incline of Main Street, the bailiffs inspected the spotless conglomeration of the newly cleaned town. Approaching the outskirts they espied Proby Root, poised on scaffolding cladding the walls of the derelict Bijou theatre as he affixed a giant sign that read: Root's Rumpus Room. Starring Miss Cindy Pewter. Beside the words there was a crudely airbrushed mural of a scantily-clad Cindy sucking suggestively on a purple popsicle.

'Listen.' Said the bailiff with the monocle to his colleague. 'Something tells me a mistake's been made. These people got ice cream. And they're about to get a strip joint. These are signs of civilization in progress.'

'Mistakes have been made.' Sighed his counterpart. 'Remember Babylon? Not so much a bureaucratic bungle as a fiasco.'

'Rome got stuck in my throat. Damned pen pushers issue orders. We do the dirty work. Then they discover they got their paperwork wrong.'

The bailiff with the moustache grinned. 'What say we file a BNS42B? Map co-ordinate error. Tell headquarters we couldn't find this place.'

Four youths approached bearing a glass coffin on their shoulders.

'Howdy.' Puffed one of the pallbearers, pointing skywards. 'Fine day to meet your Maker.'

Completing her tour of the town, Cindy jogged towards the group, waving at the bailiffs as she made her way towards the Bijou.

'Ya'all coming to the show?' She chirped, thrusting out her pert little breasts. 'Ice cream's on the house.'

'Maybe later.' Called back both bailiffs in perfect synchronization as the rickshaw moved slowly past a sign that read: You Are Now Leaving Gettingham. Please Drive Safely.

image: Sean Carman


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