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Red Leather Tassels

Once there was a captain of industry who lost his shoes. They were fine brown shoes, with red leather tassels. The captain of industry, whose name was George, sat in a board meeting in his socks. Everyone was upset about the stock market crash and they all had opinions, but George could not pay any attention to them at all because he was so worried about his shoes. So he said, “Excuse me” and got up from his soft leather chair, and even though he was the most important of them all, they were arguing so hard that no one noticed when he left the room.

He went onto the roof because he thought his shoes might be there, and because he had a thing about roofs. He walked carefully over the gravel, among the ventilator fans, which looked like giant steel mushrooms with spinning heads. He also stopped to pick up the gravel with his toes, which he could do in his socks because he was a talented man. He could even throw the gravel off the roof into the parking lot with his toes.

Then a flock of pigeons came and took ahold of his suit in their beaks and lifted him into the air.

At first George fought with the birds and tried to kick them, but that did no good.

Soon they were high over Lake Geneva.

Looking down, George saw a beautiful woman with no shirt on sunning herself on the deck of a sailboat. He fell in love. He fell in love with her saucy French lips, with her air of wise amusement, with her breasts like extra-large scoops of insouciant almond ice cream melting in the breeze. He called to her, but she was too far below. So he took out his cell phone and dropped it into the crow’s nest of the sailboat. His aim was good; he was a talented man.

Then he sang to the birds, mainly Cole Porter songs, because falling in love put him in a nostalgic mood. He sang “Anything Goes.” He sang “Too Darn Hot.” He sang “I Get a Kick Out of You.” He also sang “The Logical Song” by Supertramp.

The birds liked it.

In the crow’s nest of the sailboat, the cell phone rang. The woman, whose name was Francesca, climbed up into the crow’s nest to answer it. It was George’s wife.

“Honey,” said George’s wife in a rush, “you forgot your shoes this morning.”

“I am not Honey,” said Francesca. “I am Francesca.”

“Oh!” said George’s wife, and turned red. She dropped the shoes onto the Navajo rug. There was a woodpecker hammering outside her window.

The woodpecker was a thousand years old. He had stayed alive all this time because, when he was young, he had built his nest in the hair of a famous Hindu ascetic who was standing very still. The ascetic had taught the woodpecker how to breathe properly, how to conserve his semen, and how to chew his food very carefully, so that he would not age. The woodpecker had built up a great deal of wisdom and spiritual merit in his thousand years. However, the woodpecker was now sick of this crap. He just wanted to get laid.

When the woodpecker saw George’s wife looking distraught, staring at the phone in her hand and then staring at the shoes with the red leather tassels on the Navajo rug, he became aroused, because he liked distraught women.

He flew in through the window and convinced George’s wife to make love to him. She felt depressed and listless and not at all like having sex. However, she felt very angry at George for leaving his cell phone with a woman named Francesca, and she loved cartoons. So sex with a woodpecker might be just the thing.

She took off her house dress, as the woodpecker instructed, and, naked except for her white bunny slippers, leaned her head and elbows on the fuzzy taupe sofa.

The woodpecker mounted George’s wife and began to copulate with her.

Oh!—thought the woodpecker—to at last be making love! Pfui on the silence that allows the discursive ego to fall away! Pfui on the enlightenment that dissolves the illusory distinction between the self and the universal background of bliss! Let me at your cloaca, baby! Yes! Uh! Uh!

George’s wife felt a pleasant, feathery tickling.

The woodpecker felt a great heat, a great trembling, building—and then it rushed through him in a wave and, without meaning to, he slammed his beak three times against the woman’s tailbone—


bang bang bang


“Ouch!” cried George’s wife. “Stop it! Don’t do that again!”

“Sorry, sorry,” said the woodpecker, continuing to copulate with her. The trembling came again. He crossed his eyes. He held his breath. He felt the wave shooting through him and he leaned forward, trying to keep control—but all the same, his beak came down in the small of the woman’s back—


bang bang bang


“Ouch!” cried George’s wife, and she smacked the woodpecker off her back with one hand, so that he flew onto the kitchen table, knocking over the milk and getting quince jelly in his feathers (she had been a little depressed before the phone call anyway and had not yet cleared the breakfast dishes).

“Just who do you think you are?” yelled George’s wife. She rubbed her back and licked the blood off her fingers. She felt angry and powerful, and she imagined that she could smack Francesca off the polar bear rug on which she was undoubtedly sitting, wearing a teddy and garters and things, so that Francesca would tumble out the window of her penthouse apartment and into the street below.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said the woodpecker, and he shook his feathers, spraying jelly on the Navajo rug.

“What the heck were you thinking?”

The woodpecker looked her in the eye. “Ma’am,” he said, “I am a woodpecker.”

They watched a rivulet of spilled milk run along the baseboard of the dining room until it reached the cedar bookshelf.

“If you like, I’ll go,” the woodpecker said.

Without a word, George’s wife went to her son’s room (the son was at boarding school) and returned with a miniature foam rubber football. With the bread knife, she made an incision in the football, and then she stuck it on the woodpecker’s beak. Then she returned to her position at the couch.

The woodpecker wondered: what would be appropriate at this juncture? The foam rubber football on his beak made him feel ridiculous, despite all of his spiritual merit. By tilting his head, he could see past the large blob of out-of-focus blue to the woman’s vast, attractive buttocks like two large summer moons against a fuzzy taupe sky.

Trying to preserve a modicum of dignity, he fluttered over to the woman and began to copulate with her again.

The woman was starting to enjoy the sex. It felt like the fluttering of a feather duster against her bottom, an insistent, passionate feather duster. Sometimes she could feel a hard little nobbin that might be the tiny penis of the woodpecker. Compared to her woodpecker lover she felt gigantic, powerful, an Amazon queen.

I will control myself this time, the woodpecker thought. I will not humiliate myself again by rapping this lovely creature as if she were a tree full of worms! A large white tree, like a birch, with incredibly smooth, silken bark, and luscious plump worms burrowing beneath its surface, a goddess tree with holy worms, singing, singing, calling—

The woodpecker launched himself into the air, flapped once, and landed against the woman’s neck, slamming his beak against her—


fop fop fop


The woman giggled.

The woodpecker slid back down and ejaculated into the hole his beak had made near the base of the woman’s spine.

The thousand years he owed entropy pounced on him in that moment, and he turned to dust.

The spiritual merit of the woodpecker surged up the woman’s spine. Her skin glowed red. She could hear nothing but her own breathing, which was a roar like a freight train passing—a roar like the ocean—a roar like a trillion lions, if every atom of the earth became a lion, a huge globe of lions roaring and clawing at each other in the depths of space.

The miniature foam rubber football, now dusty, rolled from her back onto the Navajo rug.

The woman stood up. She kicked off her bunny slippers. Now she was naked.

She slipped her feet into George’s shoes, the ones with the red leather tassels.

She went into the backyard.

She took a deep breath full of her years with George: fabric softener, diapers, midnight snacks before the cold fridge, stupid show tunes floating down from the roof, and the embrace of her son’s small arms when he was three.

She bent her legs. Her knees no longer creaked.

She jumped into the wide suburban sky.