Leaves from the Smorgasbord by Hank Kirton

Book: Leaves from the Smorgasbord

Author: Hank Kirton

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, flash fiction

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because the collection begins with this disclaimer:

Most of these stories were written while I was either going through chemotherapy or locked in rehab. That might help explain things. Or not.

Availability: Published by Crumbling Asphalt in 2017, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Oh god, that disclaimer tore my heart into several pieces. And filtering these stories through that disclaimer ground those pieces up into a sort of heart hamburger. I don’t know Hank Kirton very well. I know him in that vague way many of us know each other – he read my site, I read his books, sometimes I see him on Twitter, I wouldn’t recognize him in real life though he might recognize me if I haven’t changed my hair in a while. But even though I don’t know him, I still know him because there are too many times his words have stepped off the page and recognized me and I waved back. Those words know me because Kirton and I share similarly strange cultural references. They know me because Hank Kirton writes in a way that gives shape to some of my thoughts, creating cultural links between unlikely ideas. There is a confluence of ideas, concepts, and milestones that happens when I read Kirton’s short fiction.

I still think of his story “Jelly” every time I hear Ulver’s “Nowhere Catastrophe.” Had Kirton heard that song before writing “Jelly”? Did it somehow influence him? It makes me wonder because the two pieces merge so seamlessly, a story and a song about human transformation into music, the written and musical notes at the end of a transfiguration.  Because he is able to tap veins so similar to my own, I think of Hank Kirton, the Writer, several times a month. Which is awful because as I consider him in his role as the Writer, I had no idea he was suffering as Hank Kirton, the Human Being. I know now. I have the physical representation of his time in hell right here in front of me, waiting for me to finally discuss it. I keep putting it off because this year is the decade anniversary of my own time in hell, a different sort of hell than Kirton’s but similar enough to show me that, again, I know Kirton, in the most miraculous and miserable ways possible.

Leaves from the Smorgasbord is a collection of 32 stories but is only 181 pages long. Kirton is a master of flash fiction, but routinely nails longer stories, too. This collection begins with “Hello,” a story about a desperate fifteen-year-old girl reaching out for help as she experiences a bad acid trip. She randomly dials a number in the middle of the night, and reaches Don, a 47-year-old Asian man who is sufficiently alarmed and kind enough to stay on the line with the frightened teen until she feels settled and safe. Then the rug gets abruptly pulled out from under the reader with a nasty slap in the face. When I finished this piece I recalled Johnny Truant’s story of salvation in House of Leaves that turned out to be a lie that any astute reader understood was a lie. I missed the lie and had a warm feeling of relief, that Johnny, strung out and without tether, was finally going to be okay. At the end of that lie and “Hello,” I felt the same sense of “how the fuck can I, an adult in Current Year, still buy into and feel comforted by treacly examples of human beings at their best?” But I do. And it still feels bad when my faith in mankind is tested and mankind fails. But this story is also pretty much a fantastic way to begin a short story collection written by a man who was undergoing chemo or detox as he wrote it. Goddamn it.

This story was strange for me because it was short, consisted solely of dialogue, yet I felt like I knew Don at the end.  I had the sense that even though there was no way I could really make such an assertion, Don was the sort of man who, even after being set up for cruelty, would not hang up the phone should another person call in the middle of the night, needing someone to talk to. I don’t think Don was ultimately bothered much – he was probably just relieved to learn no one was really in any sort of trouble. Don is sort of a placid lake onto which tiresome stones were skipped but ultimately his surface would smooth out once more. Don is a stable mooring to which the other stories are secured, keeping the reader from drifting out into a miserable sea of bad, baffling and surreal behavior.

Hank hits way too close to home for me with “Blimpo Saves.” It’s 1971 and Neal, a stoner up way too early on a Sunday morning, eating a bowl of Frankenberry cereal, is watching a Christian cartoon wherein a blobby clicking atrocity brings the love of Jesus to the children unlucky enough to be awake and watching television before the sun comes up on the Sabbath. Neal becomes increasingly disturbed by Blimpo. The kids in the cartoon translate Blimpo’s weird clicks but Neal senses that there is some sort of unholy Morse code behind the clicks, and Blimpy triggers a paranoia I’m so completely familiar with.

Blimpo says, “Click-click clickety click.  Click click click!” and Neal shivers as if he’s just heard his own epitaph.  The kids translate: “You don’t have to be scared of God’s love. It will protect you.” They say this to a frightened cartoon puffin named Paul.

Then Neal wonders if the kids translating Blimpo are actually Satanic minions, a reasonable conclusion to reach.

Neal begins to resent Blimpo for giving him The Fear. He decides Blimpo is a misguided messenger for Christian deliverance.  Those clicks of his are jive, he tells himself, mere jive, but this notion offers no consolation. He wants to change the channel but is afraid to move. He feels hypnotized by Blimpo’s clicks, his swollen ping-pong eyes.

Neal’s feelings about Blimpo closely mirror my own about Jon Konrath’s fine lunacy. But I also know what he means about Blimpo, a gross Christian pablum panderer that I sense may be based on the eerie and unwholesome JOT.

Did you ever see a JOT cartoon before you had the vocabulary and life experience to explain why watching it felt so very, very wrong? God, that thing was absolutely horrible, but at least Jot could speak.  And actually, now that I think about it, clicking would have been better than that chirping voice that shows that the Uncanny Valley can have an audio component.

When I was a kid, there was a locally-produced show in Dallas that came on before church called The Children’s Hour. The host, a well-intentioned man, I am sure, entertained children in a Christian manner, showing Christian cartoons and offering commentary. Puppets were involved. I am unsure what the goals of that show were but I suspect that they didn’t mean to plant seeds that bloomed into atheism. But what sort of lessons did they hope to convey, showing JOT, this minimalist biblical burden on children who don’t need to ponder the moral relativity of not getting dirty when they can’t even really speak properly yet? JOT was twitchy, man, with those hands (dirty or clean) that disappeared when he wasn’t moving.  Where was his nose?  Why didn’t his mother notice her small son had hands caked in mud, spit in a tissue and wipe him down before sending him off to Sunday school? Better yet, why didn’t the dumb creature just go back inside and wash his hands quickly before it was time for church?  If he could open the door and get out into the yard, he could have gone back in and quickly washed his hands. But then they’d have had to teach us how dawdling made Jesus cry so there was really no way out of being taught a largely irrelevant moral lesson about how being a small child capable only of the thoughts of a small child was probably an affront to God. The only truth I could find was that devout children as portrayed in cheaply-made cartoons were very stupid.

But The Children’s Hour brought me The Fear in the form of Davey and Goliath. Better known than JOT, Davey and Goliath featured a creepy claymation boy named Davey and his dopey dog, Goliath. They too learned about the love of Jesus through obedience and clean hands and being polite over dinner.  But then there was the time Davey fantasized about killing a rival in a way one could associate with any number of sadistic Quentin Tarantino characters or maybe meaner members of Mafia clans.  A kid got Davey framed for writing his name in wet cement, and Davey is understandably upset.  So he fantasizes about violent revenge, as you do, and imagined pressing the rival kid’s face in the wet concrete, the kid’s legs flailing as he tries to breathe.

This seriously fucked me up.  It was in episode 63, entitled “What’s His Name” and I can’t find it online (probably because the episode messed up other kids, and other episodes have been sanitized so modern audiences don’t cringe at the casual racism and sexism) though I have to admit I didn’t look too long because in just locating the episode name I was reminded of how awful this gross little show was.  Davey essentially launching a pogrom against kids who wear polka-dot ties; Davey basically being shamed so badly for believing in “finder’s keepers” that I’m surprised he didn’t become a serial killer; Davey being punished for his dog not wearing a collar because I guess you’re never too young to learn about rendering unto Caesar; seeing all the biblical lessons that come from getting plowed over by a sled or learning about contaminants in beverages; the biblical victory in tricking a blind black kid who hates white people into seeing the error of his ways, so to speak.  The program was a straight-up horror show and I still remember that sick feeling I would get when I watched Davey push his enemy’s face down into the cement, sort of picturing what would happen if Davey kept on top of him and held him until the cement hardened and he died.

Thanks television. (Also, The Children’s Hour would read Sunday morning “funnies” and that was beyond fucked up.  Andy Capp beating his wife.  Snuffy Smith beating his wife and his son, Potato.  Family Circus and all the times they wiped up after Barfy the Dog and inexplicably put the cleaning cloth back on the kitchen counter for Mom to use when drying dishes. Whatever the general’s name was in Beetle Bailey and how he was always drunk and yelling at his wife. Everything in Alley Oop.  Being a kid in the 1970s was a psychological crap shoot, at best. If there wasn’t some forgotten teen actress shooting heroin in a very special after-school program, it was nuclear war, gas shortages, or casual domestic violence in Hagar the Horrible being read to pre-schoolers on network television.)

“The Synaptic Sedition of Palomina Himpe” is another story that is pretty much a text representation of my brain and Kirton’s brain connected by some fleshy tunnel, crammed into a jar, and suspended in formaldehyde at some godless carnival side show.  Herbie Himpe (rhymes with “shrimpy”) owns a car dealership, called “Himpe’s Auto Circus” and his daughter, Palomina, agrees to be in a monthly commercial with her father when she was too young to understand how terrible it is to be in a car commercial monthly with your father.  She’s miserable, standing next to her old man, parroting out the same mindless phrases, but as she says these same lines over and over, her mind is grinding on quietly behind the scenes, desperate to escape the rote humiliation and badgering perfectionism her father expects from her.

Every commercial ended the same way.

He: “So come on down to the Himpe Auto Circus!  This ain’t no dog-and-pony show!”

She: “We aren’t clowning around.  You won’t find better deals under any other big top.”

Whatever that meant.

And it should not go without mentioning that Herbie Himpe dresses as a circus ringmaster during these commercials, even holding a black whip, and Palomina is forced to dress like a cross between a trapeze artist and a ballerina, donning a tutu and a tiara.  She’s basically naked except for a leotard, standing in a freezing car lot in the middle of January, parroting the same stupid lines as her mother Eunice watches on anxiously, when the silicon chips inside her head get switched to overload (all apologies to Bob Geldof).

He: “So come on down to the Himpe Auto Circus!  This ain’t no dog-and-pony show!”

She: “And a convict’s yellow eyes will wink at stimulating leaves.”

The commercials have been the same for so long that it takes Herbie and the director a moment to realize that Palomina has gone off script.  He forces Palomina to reshoot the commercial.

“Or drive home this Chevrolet Cruz sedan for just $139 a month!”

And, as if broadcast from behind her, Palomina said, “God transmits dreams into the lettuce womb with a telepathic echo.”

“CUT!” Herbie Himpe shouted. “What the fuck was that? Quit fucking around, Palomina!”

The wheel was spinning, clicking, she felt carsick.  She kept picturing purple words describing… “I’m sorry…”

“What’s got into you?”

“I’m sorry, I felt (chest cavity filled with pink foam) dizzy for a minute.” (Stay with us.)

Eunice Himpe tries to help and comfort her daughter but Herbie is having none of it.

“Stay there!” Herbie Himpe warned her. “We’re gonna get this motherfucker done if it kills me! Again, Pedro!” He turned and faced the camera.  “Go again!”

Pedro looked into the lens.  “Yessir, okay.  Rolling… Action.”

“Ballyhoo!  And welcome to the Himpe Auto Circus where you’ll find the best deals under our big top!”

“Where we’ll get this motherfucker done if it if kills my father.”

He turned to her, hot blood in his face.  He didn’t say a word.

Palomina flinched from his eyes (Fuck you are now rent with clogged plug). “Sorry.  I’m sorry…”

And she is sorry but she is now broken, her mind in shards, her words making no sense yet making perfect sense.

Her parents stared at her.

In a little girl voice: “I have a squirrel’s tiny brown heart.  It’s here, it’s pure, you can smell it,” she said, indicating her chest.  “Like bacon.” The roulette wheel began to slow, each tick, tick…

Fuck my life (and yours too, quite frankly) but what I am about to share with you needs videos to prove it because it’s just that unreal.  If you have been in the Texas Hill Country for a couple of decades, you may remember the Chapman Motors Sales commercials.  It’s been a while since I or anyone else watched television via basic cable so I don’t remember which came first, the camel or Kimarie Lynn, but I need you to know that Chapman Motor Sales had both a camel and a little niece yodeling in their commercials.  Much of the horribleness has been lost over time, but here’s an example of the camel, helpfully dubbed into Spanish just to give it that extra bit of “I Don’t Like Mondays” realness, with Kimarie Lynn as a guest star:

I cannot find any of the Kimarie Lynn (pronounced “Kimmerylin”) videos from when she was a kid, but know they were real and that others remember them, too.  Imagine, if you can, a young, pretty girl dressed like Laura Ingalls Wilder crossed with Michelle Duggar, singing about how her uncles will give you the best deal on a used car, and then yodeling at the end of the commercial.  Yodeling. “Tell ’em Kimmerylin sent you!”  I can only assume all the videos of this are lost to time because her uncles, bound and quivering with fear at the business end of a flame thrower, agreed to take them down. As Kimarie Lynn got older, another Chapman lass replaced her with the yodeling and there may well still be another Chapman girl, adorned in the best Apostolic Pentecostal cum Dolly Parton dress available in girls’ petite, waiting in the wings to warble her heart out for her uncles’ many car lots.

Every time I saw and heard that pretty girl singing for her uncles’ suppers, I wondered how she felt about it.  I would wonder how I would feel in her place.  Did her classmates approve of this use of her talent?  Were they jealous she was  on TV or did they shudder every time the commercials came on?  Did they thank their lucky stars their uncles were in the Army fighting in one of Bush’s oil wars and not parading them and a camel all around Marble Falls?  In her place I would have gone the Palomina route but since this is Texas there might have been a gun involved. Or maybe she really enjoyed it and remembers it fondly. Seriously, I kind of hope she did find it fun to sing about used cars. Maybe Kimarie’s a song-writer in Nashville now, with a great back story to give her rise to behind-the-scenes stardom that special bit of oomph.

But being who I am, I read “The Synaptic Sedition of Palomina Himpe” I kept remembering Kimarie Lynn and that camel, both of them descending into madness, yodeling gibberish, falling apart under the crushing strain of being a child (or hapless desert creature) forced to engage in an automotive hoe-down every month.

On a positive note, both have been replaced with hand puppets.

And I’m going to stop here because I can go on for another fifteen thousand words or so, talking about all the bells Kirton rang with this collection. All I can say is that you need to read this book. Even if you don’t immediately have some horrific cultural reference to link together all these stories in your psyche, Kirton’s eagle eye into the human condition, simultaneously kind yet unflinching, reveling in the absurd and the painful, is worth it for all readers, even those lucky enough not to have that stupid claymation Davey ruining their dreams or visions of talking camels yodeling coming over them suddenly as they are loading the dishwasher.

Highly recommended, read it so Hank can be your literary friend, too.  Read this offering from his squirrel’s tiny brown heart and see if yours bleeds along with it.

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