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The Publicists 

Wednesday, Apr 12 2006
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THIS HERE’S A SAD, SAD STORY about Hank Praml and what he did with his long and luxurious life until he got pulled up to heaven, so if you don’t have it in you to digest such a story right now, you might want to set it aside and watch your Fox News instead. That should cheer you right up. Or maybe give it a read for a paragraph or two — with your Fox on in the background — and then if you start to feel unrightly, just set the story aside, turn up the volume on the television, get yourself a slice of peach pie and a cup of coffee, and you’ll feel fine in about 20 minutes.

Hank was raised and lived his days in tornado country, mostly indoors, among lots of right-thinking friends and family.

Thing is, Hank never seemed to need anything. He’d get tired, and there’d be a bed. He’d get hungry, and there’d be food. He’d get randy, and there’d be a friendly young lady to roll around with. So Hank smiled ’most always, even while he was asleep. Some folks are just that way.

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Life was good for Hank. He studied Scripture, and grew strong and tall. Then he turned 27 and decided to commit suicide. Decided to take his time with it, do it right. Suicide’s a complicated thing. Hank figured it might take 40 or 50 years.

First step: a job. All the dead people that Hank could think of had gotten that way by having jobs.

“I decided what I’m gonna do,” Hank announced at the breakfast table.

“What’s that, Hank?” said his mother, Charlotte Praml.

“I’m gonna commit suicide with a job!” said Hank.

“Well, well, well,” said his father, Willie-Roy Praml. “Looks like Hank here’s finally growin’ up!”

THERE WAS A JOB OPENING at the Twohey factory, a.k.a. Twohey Rotational Industries or TRI, the wheelchair factory on the highway just outside of town. The pay wasn’t bad, and most employees were offered health insurance after a 16-year probation period, provided they were documented Christians. But Hank wasn’t too concerned about money. The elder Pramls had made millions years ago as the founders of Praml Public Relations Ltd., providing personalized public-relations services for some of the nation’s top slave traders. Later, around the turn of the century, they put their money into electricity and opium. No Praml would be hurting for money, but all the men were expected to get jobs. It’s the decent thing to do.

So Hank went down to Twohey’s factory to fill out the job application and wound up getting hired on the spot. Wasn’t any big surprise — the Twoheys were an old local family, just like the Pramls. Hank’s great-great-grandfather used to share slaves with ol’ Fester Twohey, the inventor of the Twohey Roll-o-matic.

Turned out that Hank’s new job was in the public-relations department. A traveling job. A muscle job. At night, mostly. Hank would drive around from county to county, surreptitiously visiting hospitals, entering patients’ rooms, injecting them with the special Twohey MixT of methohexital, morphine and ketamine, and breaking their legs as they slept. Hank had to spread the breakage around the state, so as not to draw undue attention to TRI’s inventive marketing techniques.

Business was good. Hank liked his job. Sure, the Bible said it was wrong to break strangers’ legs for a living, but they were always asleep when he did it, and they were already in the hospital. And if anyone ever died from Hank’s work, he never heard tell of it.

People fall out of beds and die all the time.

Well, soon enough, Hank turned 30 and married a young woman named Amy-Lynn Higgins, whose pretty little legs he’d broken in the Jessup County ICU. After the wedding, the Pramls and the Higginses pitched in and bought the newlyweds a big house on six acres of riverfront property, just five minutes up the road from the factory. Hank and Amy-Lynn filled their new house with eight artificial children that they bought at the Wal-Mart up in Memphis — Timmy-Joe, Slimmy-Jean, Jimmy-Dean, Millie-Bean, Shimmie-Joy, Demi-Roy, Kimmy-Boy and Ron-Jeremy — and built a greenhouse out back, which they filled with artificial plants, also from Wal-Mart, which really does have low prices.

HANK AND AMY TURNED 40 AND 50 AND 60; the kids stayed 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14 and 16. Once or twice a year, for hoots, Amy-Lynn would get up in the middle of the night, inject Hank with a good dose of Twohey MixT, and break his legs with a big sledgehammer. That way, Hank could take some time off to spend with the family. It was all good fun.

On Saturdays, Hank got up early and took the big white F150 down to Smith’s Drug Store, where he’d meet up with his friends at the lunch counter, eat pie, drink coffee, and catch up on the past week’s Peabody Award–winning The O’Reilly Factor, which the Smiths recorded during the week specifically to entertain the Saturday-morning crew.

“Look who’s finally awake! Hey, Hank!”

“Hey, Chucker!”

“Howdy, Hank! How’s she runnin’?”

“Hidy, Fenton!”

“Hey, Hank! Saved you a seat, if you c’n still fit in it! Heh!”

“Look who’s talkin’, Timmy!” Hank’d say, always, and always, always smile. Then Becky-Lynn’d fix Hank up with a slice of peach pie and a steamin’ cup of coffee, without Hank even having to ask.

“Thanks, Becky-Lynn,” Hank’d say, every time. “How’s things with you and Pete?”

“Pretty good,” she’d reply. “How’s Amy-Lynn? How’s your suicide a-comin’?”

“Pretty good, pretty good,” Hank’d say. “Shouldn’t be much longer now.”

The good-natured teasing and joking would continue, and somebody — usually Timmy — would pull out a little flask of something to season the coffee with, and they’d make a day of it.

HANK TURNED 70 AND RETIRED. His project was almost over. The kids had been resold. He and Amy-Lynn spent their days happily in the greenhouse, tending to the artificial plants.

Tornado season arrived late on a Friday afternoon. There was that color to the sky, below the cloudline — a cold, sickly green-yellow that cast coarse-edged shadows.

Amy-Lynn looked up through the greenhouse roof and watched the first batch of funnel clouds struggling downward, directly toward them. She smiled, and motioned for Hank to take a look.

“Well, look at that,” said Hank, smiling back. “Looks like it’s just about that time.”

Dave Shulman will read from his essays at the Torrance Art Museum, Thursday, April 27, 7-9 p.m. Call (310) 618-2376 to RSVP for advance seating.

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