Chapter 6


The door swung open suddenly, as if kicked, banging back against the wall, only cushioned by the clothes hanging there. Turning away from my computer, I didn't see the cause at first - but then I heard a small quacking sound, as if someone were muttering under his breath.

A short cartoon character appeared: a duck, wearing a captain's cap and an aviator's jacket which hung down to cover most of him down to his stocky webbed feet. He waddled in and jumped into the spare chair I kept ostensibly for visitors when I wasn't using it to stack things on - right now it was empty save for some shirts hanging of the back of it.

"Well?" the duck began to speak, breaking the sudden silence in the room.

I closed my open mouth and started to form some words, but the duck beat me to the punch.

"And hello to you to! Remember me, Colonel Drake? You haven't drawn me in years. But you haven't forgotten, have you. That collection of artwork over there on the shelf, those xeroxes are the only evidence that I exist. And by the way, thanks for that - otherwise I'd have a hard time staying in existence in that crowded imagination of yours."

Colonel Drake was a character I had created to fill the shoes of another tradition which Rhino had started in the Center. Practically, an excuse to cartoon. Never thought he would show up here in my room in a wing off the Big House.

"But how have you been, all these years? Don't see you around much, as you haven't been - ahem - drawing much." Some disapproval had crept into his nasal voice. "You know it's good for you, that creative outlet. If you'd just draw more, you'd be happier - and ultimately, you could have a fat stack to show off to publishers for syndication. Much more profitable than those boxes of floppy disks and recorded CD's you have sitting around."

I cringed at that. Phil and I had indeed been stacking up CD's with all the various downloads and subsequent lack of space on the hard drives. We had been studying up on new web development as well as getting virtual libraries of mirrored websites - none of this would actually do much in terms of getting a job, they just furthered the mounting pile of stuff, virtual or actual.

To my credit, Pita and I had been working up artwork, improving skills on Photoshop, along with other programs and so could create almost anything with that program in terms of illustration or photo-tweaking or fine art. These digital files could create print-outs which would be useful and salable.

Drake interrupted my chain of thought, "But drawing, scratching around with pencils and pens and markers is something that you used to do all the time. Most of those drawings of me were done on the paper under the clipboard you used to carry around. Just a few pens and markers in your pocket did the rest - xerox-ready artwork which was published by the local Centerites in their daily rag."

"You need to keep this going, make some stuff all the time which you can use somewhere." Drake was quacking emphatic now, almost rocking himself off the chair with his wide and explosive gestures. "Look, this stuff helps cheer you up, gives you an outlet to the world, some way to express yourself. It always has, always will. Ever since you were watching Disney on TV, you had the itch to cartoon. But you've always been drawing - you just have to use your talents and go with your own flow..."

Now he did jump down from his perch, hitting the carpet with both webbed feet, an audible thump. "OK, you still aren't convinced. I can see it on your face. Come on, let's go. Got to show you some people you used to know pretty well." He strode over to the far wall to a small door under the window. I know that wasn't there before.

"No," as if reading my thoughts, "this door is here when you need it. Like the other stuff that hangs out in your over-active imagination, this door is just a portal to your other worlds. It's small like this, because you borrowed the device from Lewis Carroll - Alice used something like this to enter her own world. Come on."

With that last word, he grunted and pulled the door open, nearly falling over - he had had to put one of his feet on the door frame to lever the door from its frame.

"Look, if you used it more often, it wouldn't get so stuck and rusty. But you can write this anyway you like - I prefer to be graceful and athletic, but we cartoon characters are more often described as comic than suave and sophisticated." That last sounded like some Warner Bros. duck character. "See what I mean? Always comic, never serious."

He strode through the door, his cap barely missing the top of the frame. Quickly he was out of sight, having apparently descended some stairs which turned immediately to the right.

I couldn't see how I was going to get through that door, which was almost as wide as it was tall, but was still shorter than I could even crouch and make it. Down on my hands and knees, I started to look into the darker substance beyond the room I was in. No apparent stairs to use. Where did Colonel Drake go?

A breeze came up, from behind me. There seemed to be a light from somewhere inside that space, but indistinct as to source. But in an Alice and Wonderland moment, the door and floor took on more of a cartoon aspect. They had become line outlines, colored like cel animation. Before I could see if the effect had spread to the rest of my room, the floor started stretching down, along with the bottom of the door frame, such that I began sliding down into the doorway, which now extended out of my reach above and on either side. Sliding faster, I was soon engulfed, much as Alice, falling into that gray void.

Slowly the falling stopped and I was able to assume an upright, walking position. The gray turned into a warm fog, which became lighter and started to thin.

"About time you got here." Colonel Drake spoke behind me. I turned and saw him seated in a chair sipping something steamy from a mug through a long straw, his webbed feet sticking up in the air, straight out and on the cushion. Another big overstuffed chair faced that one at a bit of an angle.

"Too Matrix for you? Come have a seat and enjoy the fire." He waved to one side, where a cheery fireplace outlined itself and filled out, with matching panelled wall surrounding it. All Cartoon, of course. The fireplace turned up slightly at the corners of the mantle, showing a slight smile, while eyes winked above, watching me with an amused look. Pictures above the mantle of various historic figures seemed also happy to see me, with small smiles on their faces and seeming to wink and whisper to each other when I turned to look at Drake again.

"What will you have, Herbert? I like caffe mocha, with emphasis on the mocha. Here, try some."

A mug appeared to my right on the sidetable, frothy and steamy, chocolate scent filling the air and a long straw sticking out to drink it from. Raising this to my lips, the taste was perfect. Zing of caffine with a hint of cinnamon.

"But, please, tell me your thoughts. I'm not here to do anything but enable you to find yourself and your own interests. Cartoons are not selfish, like regular people. We know where our bread and butter comes from - like the ancient gods or Tinkerbelle, we only exist where we are believed in, so if we never get drawn and published or on film, we won't exist for some later generation to find. People vote with their pocketbook and entertainment beats politics in this regard. So, what say you?"

"Well, this is all very nice - and thanks for the drink, great stuff. I don't get all of what you are saying. Why would I invest all that time and energy into cartoons, when it's been proven long and away that artists starve in garrets..."

Drake choked and spewed chocolate foam into the air, "Oh COME ON! Disney died rich, doing what he wanted his entire life. Charles Schultz is the second-richest dead person in the world, right behind Elvis. Rockwell, who did caricatures of people for most of his life, lived a great life and built two studios with the money he made. Maxfield Parrish was making $75,000 a year during the Depression from royalties alone. Artists make money if they are any good. Just like any factory worker. The bad ones get fired and have to start over from the bottom. Wal-Mart and McDonalds are jobs mostly for the up-and-coming or the result of not being able to get anything better paying in their community or for their job-set.

"Look, you're GOOD.You've got talent. The only thing holding you back is your own considerations. Right now, you've been licking your wounds after finding that you have nothing to show for 20+ years working for someone else's false vision. Yes, you helped a lot of people. But nothing particular to show for it, no financial reserves, no children, no retirement. But those aren't the important things, really."

I was skeptical. This wasn't what I had been told all my life.

Drake continued. "You've every right to doubt this. But what do you have to lose? You always wanted a chance to draw for a living - but you always suspected those with their corporate interests at heart. Why live in a cubicle drawing for someone else? Yet these are all the apparent choices. And working for a syndicated scene let you work at home, but required 5 good strips a week, plus a weekend color panel... There are other options, you just have to find them."

Thinking this over, I could see his point.

"But enough of this, you aren't going to be persuaded based on one cartoon character's opinion, even if it is your own... Come on, we have some people to meet - cartoons of your past want to say their piece."

He jumped down from the chair, barely setting his mug on the sidetable, which moved quickly to support it and keep it from falling. I more carefully set mine down on the coaster, which was appreciated by the table, according to its expression. Rising, I had to lengthen my strides to start catching up with Colonel Drake, who was quickly moving down a paneled hallway. Quiet now, his flapping, webbed feet made most of the sound; he had come in while I worked in sock feet and I'd not put on shoes before I came into his world. At least the floor was warm.

Drake suddenly stopped, faced a door and read a label at his eye-level, then reached up and turned the knob, throwing the door open with a slam. Bright light streamed out of the room and then subsided. Drake disappeared into its glare. I followed, squinting.

This new room at first appeared to be one of those all-white Matrix moments, but soon darkened. Floating planets were scene, 3D with animated weather swirls on their surface. Suns and stars were in the distance, part of the ambient lighting, but also clouds were in the sky and underfoot as a fog.These planets were in motion and some could be seen to be zooming around in the distance. Some of them appeared to have a figure on top, riding the planet.

One of these came closer, more visible. It was a young lad who was obviously enjoying himself on the ride.

"Remember him? You drew him in a veiled promotion for the Center once. Name is Able Tee. Yeah, we all have oddball names here. But talk to him yourself - here he comes."

The boy was blond and grinning, his planet brought him up to us, within comfortable talking distance. One could only wonder what was going thorough his mind with those twinkling eyes.