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Illustration by Mitch Handsone

“Office! Step into my Johnson!”

“Sir?”
“Now, Johnson!”
“Yes, sir!”
The home office, the 43rd floor. Johnson marches in, masterfully ducking a punch
from the spring-loaded boxing glove in the doorjamb. General Charleston Edmund
Cheesewood, MBA, stands at the window beyond his desk, gazing into the infinity
of a fog bank, which has spoiled his view of the lesser office buildings that
recede for miles to the sea.
General Cheesewood has a problem, you see. Someone leaked a top-secret memo
indicating that the Emperor lied to his planet and duped his nation’s legislators
into funding a private war. And now the citizens who aren’t demanding jail time
are demanding impeachment. The vice emperor e-mailed the secretary of mayhem,
and she called on Cheesewood to fix everything and save the world. Cheesewood
bought news directors, offered tax deductions to pollute and pillage, flooded
the airwaves with news that Tom Cruise would soon marry Katie Holmes to Michael
Jackson in a ceremony sponsored by General Motors, Coors Light and Jesus. But
the polls show that most citizens haven’t taken the bait; they’re still awake,
and more and more are raising their voices, demanding apology and justice.
The good general has stayed cool. Stayed cool and called Johnson and Steinberg.
Cheesewood withdraws from the window and gestures for Johnson to sit
in one of the two matching snakeskin chairs, the one not already filled with
Johnson’s partner, Steinberg, who sits cross-legged in his, squeezing his artificial
nose.
Johnson sits more traditionally. Cheesewood opens the humidor on his desk and
offers Johnson and Steinberg monstrous panatelas. They accept, and Cheesewood
lights them up and walks back to the window.
Ten luxurious, aromatic seconds later, the cigars explode, leaving Johnson and
Steinberg robustly charred and frowning at each other through plumes of acrid
smoke. They hate this part of Cheesewood assignments.
“It just gets funnier with time,” Cheesewood chuckles, wiping a tear and returning
his gaze to the cold gray infinity, dreaming of the winter sea. And taking a
deep breath.
When he lets the breath back out, it says, “Get packing, gentlemen. First flight
leaves at dawn.”
General Cheesewood signs the papers, and Steinberg and Johnson are flown
far, far away and dropped through the night sky onto the desert floor, a good
three days’ journey from their destination.
“West?” says Steinberg hopefully to Johnson, whose form is barely discernible
in the starless, moonless dark. “I have a cold.”
Johnson sniffs the foul air and points north. “South,” he says, and begins walking
east. “Wish I had a cold.”
Steinberg loosely repacks the parachutes and follows.
Even six hours later, neither can see a damn thing.
But at last the sun pierces the horizon ahead, revealing a lifeless,
three-layered panorama: sand on the bottom, sky in the middle and thick, stale,
black clouds on top, courtesy of the burning oil fields in the distance.
And traipsing alone through this toxic triple-digit heat are two dead-serious
clowns in full circus regalia. Sweat pours freely from beneath Johnson’s miniature
derby and Steinberg’s rainbow Afro, gliding down their red-and-white waterproof
face paint, dripping from perma-smile lips onto polka-dot bow ties, baggy multicolored
nylon jump suits and knee-high bumblebee socks. Squish squish squish squish
squish squish squish
go the floppy yellow shoes in the sand.
It’s well over 100. Johnson’s impressed by how well his nose is staying in place,
courtesy of a top-secret adhesive. Steinberg’s hips sport a pair of surgical-steel
BANG!-flag pistols in red plastic holsters; both wear double-extra-jumbo sunglasses
and rainbow suspenders.
The going is slow, as they each carry 5 gallons of drinking water beneath their
uniforms in enormous hip-mounted canteens. The canteens are rigged to sunflower
boutonnieres on their lapels; get thirsty, drink in squirts.
The air hangs thick and foul with airborne petroleum.
Johnson and Steinberg are professional patriots.
As the third evening falls, stadium lights appear on the horizon. Johnson
and Steinberg pick up the pace, running toward the roar emanating from an enormous
amphitheater carved deep into the desert floor.
“Ladies and gentlemen! The Halliburton Amphitheater in beautiful down-home
New Crawford is proud to present the best entertainment ever! Ladies and gentlemen!
Put your hands together! For Tinky and Peppy! The Best and Most Funny Clowns
Ever™
.”
Deafening appreciation roars through the PA speakers, stirring the oil clouds
above. The appreciation isn’t coming from the amphitheater audience, however,
because there is no audience; rather, it was recorded in July 1976, during Lynyrd
Skynyrd concerts at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Stock shots of cheering crowds
appear on huge monitors on both sides of the stage, intercut with shots of the
Emperor smiling in a sea of logos and slogans of all six of the planet’s corporations.
The clowns take the stage. Deafening gets louder.
“Hello, New Crawford!” shouts Peppy Steinberg, with both BANG!-flag pistols
a-blazin’.
“Are you ready for the best thing ever?” shouts Tinky Johnson, squirting Peppy
with a bottle of seltzer, then whipping out an oversize mallet and knocking
him over the head.
The pre-recorded crowd goes nutz.
Peppy rises to give Tinky a facial from his boutonniere, then both clowns slip
and fall to the ground.
The crowd goes nutzer.
Muddy scenes from Woodstock appear on the monitors.
And 10,000 miles away, someone in an office double-clicks on something, and
Khachaturian’s “Saber Dance” fills the stadium and miles of desert in all directions,
as Tinky and Peppy perform for the cameras.
The fog has rolled in again, right up to the 43rd floor. Inside, General
Cheesewood shares his best ­conference room with Nikki Cougar Chipwicke, the
secretary of mayhem.
They’ve been at it for the better part of the week, watching the Emperor’s approval
ratings climb and climb, as breaking news of Tinky & Peppy’s performance is
pounded out through the networks and pounded out again. Live via satellite at
first, and then over and over, evolving, spreading out, becoming nature; and
the Emperor’s popularity grows and grows. Tinky & Peppy Poker. Tinky & Peppy
action figures. The Tinky & Peppy diet. The Making of Tinky & Peppy.
The First Church of Tinky & Peppy, Tinky & Peppy Save the World.
Secretary Chipwicke wears a tasteful uniform, with yellow plastic DKNY water-pistol
holsters and a pale-cranberry Gucci rubber nose. Which splashes into her champagne
during the first toast.
The general does a spit-take and laughs. “Mission accomplished?” he says.
“Almost,” says Chipwicke, placing her glass on the table and dropping to her
knees.

LA Weekly