The Grape Lambtrap Undercover Christmas-Party Stakeout

Illustration by Mitch Handsone

FOR THE PAST FEW YEARS, I’ve taken on occasional freelance, freeform glyphery assignments from the Elliot Tanpool Mangrave Institute of Modern Hieroglyphic Studies. I like doing work for the Mangrave Institute. The pay’s not great, but the work’s always interesting, even though I’m really not too sure, exactly, what it is. They send me off to make audio recordings at various social gatherings and public events, and after I return, we sit in a large conference room in the Institute’s basement — the graphophobia editors and myself — and draw pictures as we listen to the recordings. I don’t know what happens to the pictures after that, but I gather that they’re analyzed in some way by officials at the Institute, and integrated with their ongoing studies.

Assignments arrive by telephone, at odd moments, often around the holidays, usually from George Hatfield Kostas, the Mangrave’s associate graphophobia editor, who’s easygoing and articulate. But occasionally an assignment comes from his high-strung boss, senior graphophobia editor Hazel Pettigrew.

Answering machine, 6 p.m.: "Dave?" said a frazzled voice reminiscent of Bob Goldthwait with a gun to his head. "It’s Hazel Pettigrew. At the Mangrave. Go away." Pettigrew went on to describe, in a manner I won’t attempt to re-create here, how I must depart early the next morning for the Northlands, where I was to record conversations taking place at a Christmas party at the home of renowned physicist and tattoo designer Grape Lambtrap. That was all she could say for now. That, and that she’d call again later that night, with details.

At midnight, while I was doing a background check on Grape Lambtrap and researching the effects of combining large amounts of caffeine with small amounts of benzodiazepines, SSRIs and pale ale, Pettigrew called again. Unable to speak, I monitored her message: "Show up at Lambtrap’s tomorrow evening, between 5 and 5:30," she said, her voice now considerably more relaxed. Maybe she’s only high-strung before sundown. Anyway, "There’ll be people there," she went on, "behaving festively. Lots of exclamations. You know the drill. Get everything you can, especially about tattoos. Call me back." And that was all.

So I did another half-hour of research, then called her back. And she picked up, but was now in the middle of editing some glyphs. "I’ll call you soon," she said. "Within the hour."

She didn’t call back, however, and I didn’t want to disturb her, so I poked around the Internet until I found Grape Lambtrap’s address, and the next morning I left for the Northlands.


WHEN NORTHLANDS-BOUND from the backwoods sprawl of Los Angeles, one generally chooses among three routes: the breathtakingly scenic and quite curvy one (Pacific Coast Highway, which takes forever), the moderately scenic and moderately curvy one (U.S. 101, which takes a few hours less) or the ugly straight one (Interstate 5, which takes, with the proper mix of chemicals, no time at all).

In no time at all, I arrived at Grape Lambtrap’s massive estate, located in the Northlands’ finest city, behind a thick and towering wall of vegetation in an area I’m not at liberty to discuss. It’s an enormous place, fully twice the size of anywhere else. And it was flowing with terribly fascinating people, objects and sounds, which, in accordance with my contract, I cannot describe for you here. Sorry. I have been cleared, however, to reveal the following excerpt:

"It’s open."

"Hey, man."


"Check those out."

"What are those — shoes?"

"Those are my feet; Grape had them tattooed to look like shoes."

"Christmas present?"


"That’s what I’m talkin’ about!"

"How much?"

"A hundred thousand dollars."

"Is the game on yet?"

"They’re out in the back."

"Oh, hey! Come on in!"

"Holy fuck! Is that?"

"Yeah! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!"

"Why? Who’s that?"

"That’s what I’m sayin’!"

"Jesus — are those shoes?"


"Must’ve cost quite a bit."

"I guess. Brown ink’s tough."

"Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas!"

"Man. They look just like Florsheim wingtips."

"Laces and everything. Aren’t you cold?"

"Merry Christmas!"

"Game on yet? Heyyyy! Boob job?"

"Padded bra."

"Been workin’ out?"

"That’s what I’m sayin’."

"That’s what I’m talkin’ about!"

"Are you recording this?"


"Yes you are."


"Isn’t that a tape recorder?"



"It’s a tattoo of a tape recorder."

"Oh. Cool."

"Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!"

"Yeah, that’s what I’m sayin’."




"How low?"

"You guys? Game’s starting!"

"Thanks! You guys?"

"Whoa! Now that’s an interesting tattoo!"

"Which one?"

"On your forearm. What does it say?"

"‘Freedom Ink.’"

"What’s that?"

"That’s the name of the company where I work. It’s required."


"Yep. Just like drug testing."

"Jesus! Where do you work?"

"It’s one of Grape’s new companies. We market drug-testing tattoos."

"Drug-testing tattoos?"

"They change colors when they detect the presence of certain chemicals."

"Interesting! Merry Christmas!"


"Hello. Have we met?"

"I don’t think so. Nice tape-recorder tattoo. Did Grape design that?"

"Uh, yes."


IT WAS A WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS PARTY, the best one of the season so far. I stayed up all night, moving from room to room, conversation to conversation, covering as much territory as possible while sampling a vast and delectable assortment of expensive solids, liquids and vapors. Unfortunately, I was due back at the Mangrave Institute by noon, so at 5 a.m., I said goodbye to the many fascinating people and left the chilly Northlands behind. At 6 a.m., I broke through the frozen mountains onto southbound Interstate 5 and straight into a big raw burning red sunrise at 100 miles per hour.

In no time at all, I was sitting with Pettigrew and Kostas in the Mangrave Institute’s basement, listening to the party conversation, rendering glyphs all afternoon and editing them well into the night. Pettigrew seemed unusually calm.

Around midnight, the editors rolled up their sleeves, and I noticed that they both had fresh, matching "Mangrave Institute" tattoos on their right forearms. Almost matching, that is — while Kostas’ ink was a staid, deep blue, Pettigrew’s glowed, oscillating from green to red and back again.


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