For the first time in many months I can feel the breeze. The steel gate screeches locked behind me, kicking up a pillowcase-sized cloud of gray dust that soon settles beneath the oppressive heat of an Orange County summer sun. Standing still, my linen sack in a heap beside me, I realize that I, Young Mudd the reformed plagiarist, have nowhere to go, no one to turn to, no food to eat. Perhaps worse yet, I havenâ€™t an Ardor Meteora Giant to smoke. But come now. Patting my hands against my pockets: empty. What good would a pipe do me if I havenâ€™t any tobacco with which to pack it and smoke?
Another breeze passes, so slightly, and I still myself to catch it. The walls of the correctional facility no longer contain me. They serve no purpose in my life. They have done their duty and done it harshly. And in this breeze freedom beckons. It beckons like a gentle beating, a thump thump thumpâ€¦
â€œRonald!â€ in a fury I race to unzip my sack where Ronald has been kicking away, struggling for breath in the soaring temperature. â€œIâ€™m sorry, Ronald,â€ I say, tugging at the stuck closure. â€œI thought your kicking was the sound of freedom near and far, the march of proud Patriots, the languid stride of a weary pilgrimâ€™s feet.â€ The zipper snags and I tear around it at the stubborn fabric. â€œI didnâ€™t realize it was actually just the sound of me sort of killing you. But Iâ€™ve got you now, little fellow.â€ His nose pokes through, then a paw. Moments later Ronald, too, is free. And here we stand, brothers in freedom, feeling ourâ€¦ freeness. Standing here.
Just sort of standing here, and itâ€™s pretty hot. Oh, we stand.
â€œWe should go,â€ Ronald says. And I agree.
One never really knows about life until heâ€™s lived it on the inside. The massive concrete walls dotted with six inch by six inch barred windows, gangs of violent offenders huddled together by racial and political divisions, no HBO. I was fortunate enough to have been bunked with a powerfully influential cellmate who ruled our block with an iron fist. Her name was Martha and she confided that in her previous life she had been something of a decorator. â€œWhat are you in for?â€ I once asked her as she arranged broken cinderblocks into an Elizabethan Armoire.
â€œDonâ€™t you know, Muddy?â€ she hissed. â€œWeâ€™re all innocent in here.â€ Then she laughed with much the vigor of a kettle to the flame.
Eight or nine miles into our hike my head begins to spin. I can see the jutting expanse of LA on the horizon, can barely make out the hill where my hut lies waiting, but my body refuses to carry me further. Having no other option, Ronald, with his poor ravaged frame, hoists me onto his retractable shoulders and begins to carry me. My eyes shift between dreams of Cognac and Mixture 965, and the trembling reality of blinding sun and hot desert and a fourteen-pound housecat hauling me back home.
Home. Where the heart is. Thereâ€™s no place like it. Sweet home. I can see it now, there beyond the Quicki-mart and Dollar store. Despite the sour scratching of my rusty tongue against the roof of my mouth, the sore cracks of my calloused hands, the char and grit in my eyes, I can finally see my home. It appears to have grown bigger, more, well, modern. From this perch on Ronaldâ€™s back I could swear my dung hut has become some sort of temple or shrine. â€œDo you see that, Ronald?â€
Between heavy breaths he squeals, â€œPerhapsâ€¦ theyâ€™veâ€¦ made itâ€¦ an hisâ€¦ toricalâ€¦ monument.â€ He is right, I think. Clearly someone of universal influence read my tales of pipedom and donated my humble shanty to the Historical Preservation Society. I only wonder how they might manage the crowds for guided tours. With the deft restraint brought about by fatigue we softly sing.
â€œBig wheels keep on turning,â€ I wag my head gaily as the puny tickle of my voice finds its key.
â€œDoo! Doo! Doo!â€ Ronald exclaims. â€œSweet home Alaâ€¦â€
The Palace de Mudd moves clearly into view and I struggle to read the sign above the automatic door. â€œMuddmart?â€ I say. â€œWalMudd? Ronald, I canâ€™t quite make it out. What great name have they chosen for my cathedral?â€ I lean closer, crushing Ronald Livingston beneath my weight.
â€œSweet home,â€ he sings, â€œAlaâ€¦ Walmart.â€
This canâ€™t be, I think. There must be some mistake. Out of desperation I slap Ronald for daring take us to the wrong mountain retreat and together we fall to the parking lot pavement. â€œBut, this is my home,â€ I beg. â€œComing forâ€™ to carry me home.â€
In a whirl of sadness and confusion I am catapulted back to prison life in my mind. I see a tribe of CEOs circling my gentle feline companion in the courtyard. He is paralyzed by fear, knowing that with just one swipe of the pen any of these beastly criminals could cut his bank statement down to zero, fraudulently donating last yearâ€™s earnings to Ralph Nader. I stand helplessly by as they jab at his portfolio and question his investments in Grabow Industries, Olsen Twins dolls, and McDonaldâ€™s latest venture, McWMDs. Suddenly, in a blinding flash, Martha appears between Ronald and his foes. â€œMartha Muffins!â€ they scream, a name she has earned since revealing a lifelike tattoo of a muffin tin stretching across her belly. Cautiously they back away. She raises a pair of shank-scissors and grabs the necktie of a former Enron executive, cutting it in quick snips into a handy and rather adorable change purse. â€œNo!â€ he hollers. â€œFor all that is righteous and Holy, Nooo!â€ And the image fades.
The parking lot toots and revs with happy weekend Walmart shoppers picking up do-it-yourself French doors made in North Korea and nifty car window flag holders injection molded in Taiwan. I find the nearest payphone and call the only person I know who might be able to resolve this new and life-altering dilemma.
â€œMuffin,â€ I say. â€œI really need your help. Iâ€™m a manboy of pipes and little more. My hut has been stolen by outside investors and both Ronald and I are nearing frenzy. I donâ€™t trust myself. Iâ€™m scared Iâ€™ll do something rash.â€ Martha listens calmly, knowingly. Through the buzz of silence on the line I sense that she has known the answer all along.
â€œOkay Muddy,â€ she says. â€œIâ€™ll help. But first you need to do something for yourself. You see, I know that you slapped Ronald and Iâ€™m not going to let that stand.â€
â€œHow can you know that?â€ I ask. â€œI just did it, like, five minutes ago.â€
â€œLetâ€™s just say I got a call from my financial advisor and he gave me the inside scoop.â€ I scratch my head.â€œBut thatâ€™s neither here nor there,â€ she continues. â€œYou have a responsibility at www.pipes.org to answer questions for those who need help. Only you can do it, but not in this violent state of mind. Prison has hardened you, Young Mudd, and itâ€™s time for you to soften up. Iâ€™ve arranged an appointment for you at a sensitivity training class. When you arrive, youâ€™ll understand why I sent you. Good luck, and call me when youâ€™re done. Then weâ€™ll deal with Walmart.â€ She relays the address and hangs up, leaving me to wonder how sensitivity training could possibly help me answer questions at www.pipes.org. But who am I to question the divine wisdom of a woman like Martha Muffins?
â€œGood morning, class!â€ Sandy Sureheart, the team leader, extends her arms for a group hug. When I arrived this morning I was certain I had come to the wrong place. Inserted like an AA pamphlet behind two campy boutiques on Melrose stands a single door propped open with a broken air conditioner. The sign on the door reads, â€œMake it YOUR day! Love life YOUR way! Let YOUR troubles melt away!â€ Then in smaller text, â€œWomen only. Please be courteous to our neighbors. No loud music or alcoholic beverages. No verbal abuse. Shoes required. No pets.â€
This is utterly stupid, I thought. How can I learn from a group that hides its message behind poorly thought out rhymes? Make it MY day? Why not simply sway in the hay? Heck, the weatherâ€™s right to lay in the sleigh!
Moreover, I was not a woman and refused to go anywhere without my animal companion. I would have turned around right then and there had I not made a promise to Martha. And without her help I would never rid myself of Walmart. And if I never rid myself of Walmart I would never again be able to comfort, support, and nurture the patrons of www.pipes.org.
â€œClimb back in the bag, Ronald.â€ I opened the linen sack and, against his better judgment, Ronald crawled inside. Hurrying back to the more welcoming side of the building I shopped a quaint boutique and found a delicately embroidered silk maternity dress, jade green with pink fringe. â€œItâ€™s for my mother,â€ I explained to the clerk, a darling gal in her early thirties. â€œSheâ€™s always getting pregnant so these are good to have around.â€ I asked her to cut the tags, wrapped the shoulder strap of my sack around my neck so the bulk of Ronald hung at my waist, and headed for day one of training.
â€œGood morning,â€ the class staggeringly replies in unenthused whispers, dumping back super-sized coffee and picking discerningly â€“ without earned privilege, I feel â€“ at lemon and cream cheese pastries. Ms. Sureheart refuses to sink in this swamp of cattle-like complainers, women who have spent the first five minutes of class bickering with equal zeal about both their delinquent ex-husbands and the emergence of varicose veins in their legs. A therapeutic CD of catchy television jingles begins to play and the ladies â€œpipe down,â€ then hum along to brilliantly re-mastered renditions of Subway! Eat smart! and I want my baby-back baby-back baby-back! Chileâ€™s baby-back ribs! When Ms. Sureheart is confident that order has been restored she arranges the ladies into a formation known as the cradle. As anyone knows, she tells us, healing really begins in the cradle.
â€œClass, Iâ€™d like to introduce you to our newest member. Everybody please give a warm welcome to Ms., um, Ms. Muddlet.â€ A woman named Karen cups her hand over her mouth and whispers to me that if I try to steal any of her fire sheâ€™ll cut my throat. I nod in agreement that this is her class, HER class, and ainâ€™t no one gonna take it from her. I commend her on her emotional progress and proceed to meet the other ladies.
â€œMs. Muddlet comes to us from the LA department of corrections. Sheâ€™s a hardened criminal with a history of animal abuse.â€ Ms. Sureheart smiles as though she has just recited a prayer-filled homily and I wave at the group that yes, Iâ€™m a crazy-eyed killer, but Iâ€™m ready to rediscover the love that was stolen from me as a child by a caravan of Satanic high priests.
The weeks pass and Ronald and I find shelter in a heating duct above the Salvation Army. Itâ€™s small and ferociously hot, but we like to think of it as home. In my off hours I carve a bent billiard from a stack of compressed cardboard I find in the dumpster behind Pink Dot. With spare change I panhandle, posing as a single pregnant woman, I am able to by a few ounces of Lane Burley blend at the Tinderbox in Santa Monica. Slowly, in the weariness and uncertainty of my days, I come to discover why Martha asked me to partake in this sensitive adventure. In short, I am learning what itâ€™s like to be a new woman pipe smoker.
Let me tell you this: It is not easy for a young man to be with-child. My back aches constantly, my toes curl and spasm when I sleep, my appetite is erratic, and my mood is downright hostile. Perhaps the only pleasure I gain comes from the slow and deliberate puffing of my corrugated pipe. The sweetness of the burley combined with chalky burning of the board sooth my frayed nerves. Robert tries to be understanding but because he is the child I am with, Iâ€™m afraid he cannot be both the cause of my suffering and my savior. â€œI hate you, Ronald!â€ I sometimes yell, then burst into tears overwhelmed by the sporadic firing of hormones and chemicals due to pregnancy. He coyly hands me my pipe and I wipe my tears on the pink fringe of my gown. â€œIâ€™m sorry, baby,â€ I say when at last I have come to my senses.
â€œIâ€™m not your baby,â€ he replies. â€œAnd youâ€™re not pregnant, you loony. Youâ€™re a freaking man, Young Mudd!â€
â€œSshhhâ€¦ Donâ€™t say such things, Ronald. I see youâ€™re resisting treatment. Ronald? Itâ€™s not your fault.â€
â€œOh shut up, Mudd. You look stupid in that stupid dress.â€
â€œRonald. Itâ€™s not your fault.â€ I press the issue seeing if heâ€™ll break.
â€œShut! Up! Do you know what a freak you are? I mean, look at yourself. Do you think the other ladies donâ€™t notice your twelve-inch curly beard? Do you think they donâ€™t talk about you behind your back saying what an ugly, hairy woman you are?â€
â€œRonald! Itâ€™s not your fault.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s not my fault?â€ he yells. â€œIs that some stupid line from a movie or something? It doesnâ€™t make any sense at all. Iâ€™m leaving.â€ As I stuff his hissing, howling form back into the linen sack I find myself wondering if all of this sensitivity training has been in vain. Maybe I was meant to be rock hard, cold as ice, and filled with sociopathic rage. I replace the dress across my stomach and apply earphones playing Mozartâ€™s 9th, a melody certain to inspire the unknown child.
Arriving for my last class early I find the door locked. Inside I hear the sounds of chairs grating against the linoleum floor, voices quarreling in hushed screams, balancing between rage and laughter. I knock on the door and the chaos disassembles into a hush of â€œsshh, sheâ€™s here.â€ â€œWhoâ€™s here?â€ â€œMuddlet!â€ â€œSshh.â€ With a conspicuous click the deadbolt unlocks and the door squeaks open. The hall is dark, as if the preceding noises had been nothing more than the captured souls of students who refused to learn what it means to be sensitive.
Sensitively I enter, holding my swollen belly/sack in my right hand and grasping my lower back with the other. I puff my soggy pipe with nervous anticipation. What on earth could these silly buffoons be doing, I sensitively wonder? Sweet Jesus they sure are a gaggle of Goosy Lucyâ€™s. Thanks to a solid six weeks of training I no longer refer to my fellow students in the harsh dialect I acquired in prison. For example, on many occasions Ms. Sureheart had reminded me that Glenda, my Bake Fair partner, was by no means a â€œretched, haggard, dried up, ass-face.â€ And she was right. Glenda, I learned, was not an ass-face at all. Her face didnâ€™t even resemble an ass. She was just a sad, sad, woman filled with a fear and self-doubt that occasionally led her to assault unsuspecting passers-by on urban streets with household appliances. A Goosy Lucy, pretty as a pony, Iâ€™d say!
â€œSurprise!â€ The light flicks on and my teammates jump from behind garbage cans and folding card tables. A foam-core sign above the coffee pot reads, â€œHappy Baby Shower Ms. Muddlet.â€ The ladies gather around bearing gifts and offering butterfly hugs, an endearing motion that expresses love without invading oneâ€™s personal space. Alas, I am moved to tears.
â€œNo oneâ€™s ever treated me so sensitively before,â€ I weep. â€œI donâ€™t know how Iâ€™ll ever repay you, you Soupy Sallyâ€™s.â€
The hours pass so quickly, so beautifully, like the memory of a dream. Ms. Sureheart gives me a few sets of footy pajamas and matching knit caps. A few of the other gals went in on a stroller that folds into a car seat, a handy gift, they tell me, should I ever get a car. Glenda bought me a Gillette razor and assures me itâ€™s for my legs. Even Mr. Chin, the caterer, bought me a little trinket; a rattle embossed with the face of Bedun Choekyi Nyima, the Panchen Lama. Such a thoughtful, personal gift.
When evening comes it is time to bid my Goosies adieu. I have experienced the trials and tribulations of a new woman pipe smoker just as Martha had requested, and now I need to return home, my real home, Walmart.
â€œRemember,â€ my teammates holler as I disappear down the street. â€œWhen you smile the world will smile back at you!â€
â€œF that,â€ Ronald snarls from the cramped confines of the linen sack. â€œIâ€™m done with this, Young Mudd. I suggest you take your head out of the dark side and pay some damn attention to whatâ€™s really important. Itâ€™s time to save our home from corporate America. Think about it, Mudd. If you donâ€™t have a home, just where on earth are you supposed to get drunk every morning? And where will you pass out every night?â€ He has a point and his point hits hard. But his mood changes when he sees the display of gifts I am carrying. â€œFor me?â€ he asks.
â€œYes, Mr. Livingston. Youâ€™re sure to be the best dressed cat in town.â€ After dressing Ronald in pale blue footy pajamas and buckling him into the stroller we hurry to find the nearest payphone, the Bedun Choekyi Nyima rattle jingling and jangling between his paws.
After three rings a voice sounds on the line. â€œMartha!â€ I exclaim. â€œMartha, we did it. Ronald and I did it. Now tell me how to restore my remote hermitage to its former state of pristine solitude so Iâ€™ll forever have a home in which to drink absurd amounts of Makerâ€™s Mark.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve done well,â€ Martha concedes. â€œNow all you need to do is click your heals three times.â€
â€œThatâ€™s all!â€ I yell. â€œAfter so many weeks of struggling thatâ€™s all I needed to do?â€
â€œNo, you fool,â€ she says. â€œIâ€™m messing with you. God youâ€™re stupid.â€
â€œYes,â€ I agree, â€œbut I need your help. Please.â€
â€œListen, Young Mudd. Are you familiar with an article written a few years back titled, â€œAnatomy of a Pipe?â€
â€œFamiliar,â€ I scowl. â€œThe author found both the means and inspiration for that article through a psychic connection with me. In a trancelike meditation he broke the code of my unconscious mind and peeled from it like a rind the genius therein, spattering it ruefully upon his stolen page.â€
â€œSo youâ€™ve read it?â€
â€œYes,â€ I say. â€œI think so.â€
â€œWell what you need to do is find a computer and look up the blueprint for your local Walmart. Iâ€™m confident that when you find the blueprint the answer will come to you. Have faith, Young Mudd.â€
â€œIâ€™ll do my best, Muffin.â€ I wonder where on earth Iâ€™ll find a computer, scratching my beard and piercing my lips. Ronald shakes his rattle and pops a binky from his mouth.
â€œThereâ€™s an internet cafÃ© right next to you. God,â€ he says, then returns to chewing his binky. Iâ€™ll know what to do when I see it, she says. Iâ€™ll know what to do. I fumble at the computer keys, Googling for a blueprint. Somewhere, somehow, there has got to be one.
The roomful of students and elderly beatnik-types jump back, startled at my sudden explosion of whooping and howling. â€œIâ€™ve found it!â€ I exclaim. â€œIâ€™ve found the answer! Iâ€™ve learned the secret of Walmart!â€ A patron asks me to kindly quiet down so as not to disturb others. â€œGo screw!â€ I yell sensitively. â€œI, Young Mudd, have answered the question that no other American would even dare ask!â€ With that I grab my stroller and head to the hills, my hills, my home.
â€œYou see, Ronald,â€ I huff, cantering across the rocky terrain, â€œWalmart was founded by a fellow named Sam Walton in 1945. He opened a single store and didnâ€™t open a second for seven years. But Mr. Walton understood two things; compound interest and pipes.
â€œSam was a pipe guy with a taste for Brandy and Perique. Knowing that profits increase exponentially upon expansion (1+1=3, so to speak), he planned a merger between his love of pipes and money. What most people donâ€™t know is that Sam Walton designed each and every Walmart, thirty-eight stores in twenty-five years, strictly upon the anatomy of a pipe. Today the company is expanding at sixteen percent per year, and each store is still designed according to Mr. Waltonâ€™s original blueprints.â€
â€œThatâ€™s truly fascinating, Mudd,â€ Ronald interrupts, â€œbut how does that solve our problem?â€
â€œRonald,â€ I laugh, â€œIf thereâ€™s one thing I know how to do itâ€™s to smoke a pipe. Even if that pipe is Walmart!â€
We creep up slowly behind the loading docks at the rear entrance of the store. Itâ€™s almost midnight and the security is limited to auto-repeat cameras. With the help of Ronald Iâ€™ve chopped, dried, and cured some local foliage and stacked it onto our converted stroller. Iâ€™m sweating now, losing confidence in my plan. â€œThis store is just so darned big, Ronald,â€ I whisper.
â€œYes,â€ he agrees. â€œBut youâ€™ve smoked some pretty deep bowls in your day. Donâ€™t be intimidated.â€
With a single blow of the Panchen Lama rattle we break the lock off of the employee entrance. With caution we advance, six hundred pounds of local weed in tow. Acting with stealth and know-how Ronald begins unloading, racing the plants to the center of the store gently at first, then adding a few hundred pounds and applying slightly greater pressure, and finally packing the last two hundred pounds with the strength of two hundred menâ€™s thumbs. As Ronald packs a proper bowl I search the store for its elusive stem. Although every store, according to the blueprint, has a stem, its placement varies. Without the stem Iâ€™ll have no way of finding the bit outside.
â€œIâ€™m done, Young Mudd,â€ Ronald shouts from a floor to ceiling lamp in the home dÃ©cor department. But where on earth is the stem!
With no time to lose I discover, deeply hidden behind the garden hoses, a two-foot hole vanishing behind a wall of shelving. This shelving, upon examination, is undoubtedly aged Algerian Briar. The code is broken. The stem is found. Victory is moments away.
Having learned that matches are the first choice of any discerning pipe smoker, I ignite a pile of two-by-fours and toss them onto Ronaldâ€™s expertly packed bowl. We run to escape the smoldering weeds, sealing the employee entrance behind us. At the other end of the building I calculate the location of the bit. It is cleverly disguised as a propane tank, but Ronald and I are not fooled. We twist the knob, exhale, and together we take turns pulling the cool smoke of home-cured leaf into our mouths, rolling the rich smoke under our tongues, and puffing it forth in billowing rings.
The roof of Walmart is aglow with a perfectly tamped ember, but Ronald suddenly looks pale and uneasy. â€œWhat is it, Ronald?â€ I ask.
â€œWell, Young Mudd, I just thought, if the building is designed like a pipe, wonâ€™t it just develop a nice wall of carbon and survive decades for others like ourselves to smoke?â€
I laugh in a tone rich with wisdom. â€œNot if we smoke the first bowl hot.â€ And we resume puffing. The sides split in the roasting heat and sirens blare among flashing lights in the distance. Windows shatter and the foundation shakes, crumbling the Walmart Garden Center to the ground.
As the ash and dust clear Iâ€™m certain that I see it. There, still standing, I see the humble shanty that once defined me. I see its earthen roof, its bark-shingled walls half submerged in the rich soil of Los Angeles. I see my home, a pillar of strength, a beacon of meaning wading in a river of heat beneath the largest pipe ever smoked.
Had I never been a woman I would not have allowed myself the single tear that falls now. I would have thought it weak and revealing. But I have been pregnant and am thus a new man. Laugh if you will. Young Mudd is home again. Weeping with joy, embracing my cat, listening, if I so choose, to Broadway musicals. Ronald pats my shoulder with his claws retracted and begins to sing. â€œSweet home Ala-Young Mudd.â€ He puffs the propane bit and spins with joy. â€œLord Iâ€™m coming home to you!â€