In honor of the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, I present to you, my festive readers, the Hanukkah party scene from The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501 (excerpted from chapters 5 and 6).
Just to bring you up to speed: we’re in the year 2041, when the government has outlawed all high-calorie, “unhealthy” foods, and officially sanctioned vigilantes called the Good Humor Men enforce those dictates. Dr. Louis Shmalzberg, who very recently resigned from the Good Humor Men after a bout of guilt stemming from his participation in a botched raid, is attending his cousin Cindy’s Hanukkah party, where illegal potato pancakes, or latkes, fried in high-fat oil, will be secretly served.
If you like what you read here, please remember, books make great Hanukkah or Christmas gifts! The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501 is available as either a trade paperback or in any of the popular ebook formats: a Kindle book, a Nook book, an Apple iBook, and a Sony Reader ebook. So now buying the novel Booklist selected as one of their 10 Best SF and Fantasy Novels of 2010 is more convenient than ever, amigos!
In the meantime, treasure your freedom to eat those potato pancakes and Christmas cookies and slurp down that eggnog without Big Brother (or the Good Humor Men) looking over your shoulder…
**** THE LATKE RAID ****
Shit. I’m late for Cindy’s dinner party in La Jolla. Apart from my father, she’s the only family I have left. Worse, I forgot to get out to the store to buy a gift. I search the kitchen for something to bring. The best I can find is a bottle of California table wine. I wrap it in tin foil and hope Cindy won’t notice that the top fifth of the bottle is empty. …
Buddy answers the door. I’ve never much cared for him. According to Cindy, he’s been an emotionally removed husband and father, burying himself in his engineering business. It’s probably the resemblance to my own father that irks me. But he’s certainly provided my cousin and their son with a comfortable home.
“Hello, Lou. Cindy was just wondering whether you’d make it.”
“Hi, Buddy. How are you?” We awkwardly shake hands. I catch him looking curiously at my black eye. “You haven’t fed the last crumbs of the latkes to the dogs yet?”
“Not yet. Cindy’s just taking them out of the oil now.”
“The latkes or the dogs?”
No smile. “The latkes.”
“Good. I understand Will is scheming to make you a grandfather?”
“Yeah. Isn’t that a kick in the head?” He almost smiles. “He and Blair are out in the solarium, if you want to go congratulate them.”
“I’ll do that. Here’s a little something for the party.”
He takes my wine and mumbles his thanks. The rich aroma of frying latkes greets me. I exchange nods of familiarity with several of the other guests. Many of them must have heard I’m a Good Humor Man. I wonder how they feel about that, sipping their fat-laden matzoh ball soup at Passover and eating their latkes at Hanukkah next to a man with the power to revoke their health care privileges. …
I find Cindy in the kitchen, wrapping her latkes in paper towels to absorb the excess oil. I sneak up behind her and put my hands on her shoulders. “Miss, tell me the name of the black marketeer you bought that oil from,” I say, “and it’ll go easier on you.”
She turns around. “Lou! You made it!” Her bright-eyed smile immediately turns to shock, however. “Jesus Christ! What happened to your face, honey?”
Cindy’s nine years younger than me. Despite the age difference, we were close growing up. She was a lifeline for me after Emily died. I’ve never been able to lie to her. “A bad day in the food confiscation business,” I admit.
“Shit,” she scowls, pulling off her cooking mitts and lightly touching the bruises around my eyes. “They beat you up? Where were those macho pals of yours? Aren’t they supposed to protect you? You’re too old for all that crap, Lou. How long have I been begging you to give it up? It’s not as if you believe in it anymore.”
She’ll certainly be happy to hear my next bit of news. “I resigned. Just last night.”
Her eyes go wide. “Really?”
“Really. I’ve confiscated my last chocolate bar.”
She hugs me tightly. “That’s great, Lou. That’s really great. That’s the best news I’ve heard since — well, the second-best news, after Will and Blair deciding to have a kid.”
“I told them I’d pitch in for the embryologist’s fees.”
“That’s awfully sweet of you. But can you afford that?”
“I’ll do whatever I can. I figure it’s my patriotic duty to help grow the population. Although it sure would be wonderful, not to mention enormously cheaper, if they were willing and able to get pregnant the old-fashioned way.”
“Heh. Yeah.” She smiles ruefully, multiplying the tiny age lines around her eyes. “But you can’t expect kids today to put up with what our generation did, Lou. Blair’s seen the pictures of me pregnant with Will. I was El Blimpo, remember? She’s heard how long it took me to drop all that excess blubber. Asking her to get pregnant au naturel would be like asking her to cut off her arm.” She doffs her apron and puts her arm around my waist. “C’mon into the dining room. The kids are about to light the candles. Then we’ll eat.”
The guests are all gathered around the ornate brass menorah, the ceremonial candelabra with its branches for each of the eight days of Hanukkah. Although I’ve never been particularly religious, I have warm feelings for this holiday, with its symbolism of ever-increasing light. Tonight six candles will be lit.
Blair, the youngest person present, sings the ancient prayers of praise in Hebrew and then in English, while touching the wick of each candle with the flame of the shamas, the lead candle. The sixth candle, the one for tonight, isn’t seated firmly enough. Blair jostles it with the shamas while trying to light it. The burning candle falls onto the tablecloth.
Blair’s face goes white. “Damn — so clumsy —”
Not wanting Cindy’s heirloom tablecloth to get burned, I reach for the wick. “It’s all right —” My fingers burn as I snuff out the fire.
“Lou, your fingers — let me get some first aid cream,” Cindy says.
“Not necessary. I’m fine.” I take a knife and dig the excess wax from the candle holder, then reset the candle in the menorah. “Go ahead, Blair. Finish the prayers.”
Cindy makes an ice pack for me nevertheless. The guests and I sit ourselves around the dining table. The long table is covered with platters of fruits, vegetables, and prime cuts of Leanie-Lean meats. Cindy emerges from the kitchen with the pièce de résistance — a heaping tray of steaming, crispy latkes. We all applaud. Especially this ex-Good Humor Man.
The oldest among us look the happiest. I watch guests in their sixties or seventies eagerly place three or four latkes on their plates at a time. Blair, however, quivers with distaste as she reluctantly spears one small potato pancake, then cuts it in half and quickly shoves the other half onto her husband’s plate.
I take three, plus a generous helping of the sour cream Cindy has managed to conjure up. If there are any latkes left over, I may ask Cindy if she’d wrap some up for my father. The aroma… it’s as if I’m standing in my mother’s kitchen again. I dip a latke in the sour cream and take a bite. It’s just as delicious as I remember. Maybe more so this year, because this is the taste of hope, of fresh beginnings.
The room is quiet. The only sounds are the crunching of latkes and faint music outside, coming from somewhere down the road. It gets gradually louder, as if it’s coming closer.
That first latke goes sour in my stomach.
The approaching music is the false cheer of a calliope.
I glance around the table. The pit of my stomach begins to churn. Some of the others hear the music, too. I see the anticipatory dread in their faces. And worse, accusation, aimed at me like a blowtorch blast.
Maybe the truck is going to another house? The calliope gets louder. Cindy catches my eye. I feel sick. I desperately shake my head, struggle to wordlessly convey I don’t know a thing — this has nothing to do with me…
I hear the truck come to a halt, then the clatter of doors being shoved open, men grunting beneath the weight of equipment, disposal pots banging as they’re unloaded. It’s all so familiar. Only I’ve never heard it from this side of the equation before.
Blair spits out the piece of latke and hides it in her napkin. Her act unfreezes everyone else at the table. Plates clatter and water glasses spill. Guests rush to the kitchen garbage disposal or bathrooms. Many will force themselves to vomit; I’ve seen all this before.
But it’s too late. Already the Good Humor Men are smashing in the door. I stay at the deserted table, eating my last two latkes. I know better than to try to hide the evidence of my “crime.” I have my credentials on me. Perhaps by confronting these men calmly, as a colleague, I can convince them that nothing illegal has occurred, that Cindy obtained a special religious exemption for using the oil… even though no such exemptions exist.
An axe blade bursts through the front door. The first Good Humor Man enters my cousin’s house. And my world is plunged into queasy, inexplicable nightmare again.
“Aww, fucking hell,” he says when he sees me. “I didn’t want to believe you’d really be here.”
He can’t be here. This is thirty miles south of the edge of our district.
“You — you have no enforcement powers here,” I say. “You don’t have… what is your authority to make a raid outside our district?”
“My district, you mean. Didn’t you just quit us?”
“Yes. I did.” The anger and hurt in his voice hit me like burning arrows. But again I ask, “What is your authority?”
“Special dispensation,” he says slowly, his eyes tracing the trail of latkes crushed into the carpet. Brad and Alex, Jr. enter, Brad carrying the dragon, Alex bowed beneath the weight of the clumsy disposal tubs. Brad sprints into the other rooms to round up the guests. His eyes don’t meet mine. But Alex’s eyes do. He stares at me with the shocked, stung look of a little boy who has caught his father making love to a mistress.
“The local crew gave us permission to operate on their turf,” Mitch says. “When I explained it might involve a case of corruption inside our unit, they didn’t have any choice but to say yes.”
Brad ushers the guests back into the dining room. Several of them stare fearfully at his flamethrower. Grown men playing soldier. Why didn’t I ever let myself see it before? Because I was one of the toy soldiers.
Someone is hanging back in the hallway. Brad grabs her arm and pulls her roughly into the room. It’s Blair. The poor thing wipes flecks of vomit from the corners of her mouth.
“Brad!” I shout, standing. “Don’t be rough with her. With any of them. It’s not necessary.”
“Lou?” Cindy stands at the edge of the crowd, an oven mitt still dangling from one hand. “Lou, these are… friends of yours? Can’t you make them go away?”
“Cindy, please believe me, I don’t have anything to do with this —”
Her voice is plaintive, quivery, almost childlike. “Can’t you make them go away?”
I turn to Mitch, my oldest friend, hoping I’ll find some pity in his weathered face. I don’t see what I’m hoping to see. He jerks his head toward the door. “Lou. Let’s you and me step outside a minute.”
Out on the porch, Mitch whirls on me, his face distorted with fury. “Lou, how could you do this to me?”
I’m momentarily wordless, stunned that he can view himself as the injured party. He sticks his contorted face close, too close, to mine. “Do you realize the position you’ve put me in? What the fuck do twenty-five years of friendship mean to you? Don’t you have a single goddamn thing to say for yourself?”
“Who was the informant, Mitch?”
“Who told you I’d be here, and that latkes would be on the menu?”
My unexpected question deflates his anger. Fury gone, he looks like a graying sixty-six-year-old man again. “Hell, I can’t tell you that. You know better than to ask that, Lou.”
I nod. He chews his bottom lip, twists the axe handle in his hands. “Lou… I don’t understand any of this.” He stares at the ground. “Why you quit. Why I found you in the middle of this crime scene. Maybe you’re hacked off at what happened the other day in Mex-Town. About me and the boys not being there to back you up when you needed us. Maybe this is your way of gettin’ even. I don’t know.” He looks up, and his voice gets stronger. “But what I do know is that we’ve been friends for an awful long time, Lou. I don’t like throwin’ friendships away.”
“I don’t either.”
“Good. I’ll make you a deal. Come back inside with me and help finish up the raid. Let’s pretend this quitting business of yours never happened. Agree to come back to the unit, and I’ll explain to the other guys that this was a sting operation, that you were on the side of the angels the whole time. How about it, Lou? Can we make these last three days just disappear?”
Becoming a Good Humor Man again… that rates dead even with necrophilia and cannibalism on my “to-do” list. But I’d eat my own arm if it would save my family from humiliation and financial hardship. “I’ll rejoin the unit, Mitch, on one condition. You let the others know this was all a mistake. The three of you leave those people in there alone. My family and all their guests.”
His eyes fall to the ground again. He shakes his head slowly. “You’re asking too much.”
“Why? Why too much?”
“That should be goddamned self-evident, Lou.” His fury reawakens. “Brad and Alex saw what those people dumped in the toilets. They watched those girls in there make themselves throw up. What do you expect me to tell them, huh? How am I supposed to keep their respect, their allegiance, if I tell them some bald-faced lie? It’d mean the end of the unit!”
“You’d be lying to them anyway,” I say as calmly as I can manage. “You want things between us to go back to how they were? I’ve told you what I need.”
His half-hissed obscenity barely reaches my ears before he swings his axe in a violent arc, embedding its blade in one of the porch’s wooden posts. “It’s impossible!” he shouts. “Why are you being such a suicidal asshole? Those people in there — they’re going down no matter what you do. You can save yourself, save your reputation, and they’re going down. Or you can sacrifice yourself, like some fuckin’ idiot, and they’re still going down. So what’s the goddamn difference, Lou?”
He doesn’t see it. He doesn’t see the difference, and that is terribly sad. “ ‘Those people’ are my family, Mitch. If you can’t see a difference between my betraying them and my standing with them… then our friendship is done.”
I see something break behind his eyes. I’ve done it. I’ve stepped into the abyss.
I follow Mitch back into the house. Cindy’s guests are doctors, engineers, and architects. Most of them have probably never even been issued a traffic citation, and now each of them will have this century’s scarlet letter permanently affixed to their record and reputation: “G” for Glutton. Their eyes beseech me for mercy, as though I control their fates. But I’m plummeting through the abyss right alongside them.
“Collect their health system cards,” Mitch says to Brad. He indicates me with a twitch of his thumb. “His, too.”
I open up my wallet and remove the laminated card. Sixty-eight years old. I’d better pray for good health.…