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

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

“It’s open.”

“Hey, man.”


“Check those out.”

“What are those — shoes?”

“Those are my feet; Grape had them tattooed to look like

“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

“Drug-testing tattoos?”

“They change colors when they detect the presence of certain

“Interesting! Merry Christmas!”


“Hello. Have we met?”

“I don’t think so. Nice tape-recorder tattoo. Did Grape design

“Uh, yes.”


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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