A Fable of Schadenfreude

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By Peter Lavin,

Even after six months of ownership Mick Moneypenny still took pleasure in opening the door of his BMW. It swung smoothly and soundlessly with minimum effort. The car was perfectly engineered, right down to the hinges.

He climbed into his car and pulled out of the driveway at 100 Hedge Fund Way. His vehicle was the latest model in the 7 series. At his age, he really should have been driving a sportier 5 series model, but he found the higher price of a 7 irresistible. It was more exclusive and exclusivity was something he treasured. He had a personalized plate number but never called it a vanity plate. He corrected anyone who was presumptuous enough to do so.

It was hard to find a good personalized plate—most were already taken—but he came up with “1 2 PWR 1”. He was pleased with himself for creating something so pithy and appropriate. People who understood that his plate was a mathematical expression—and unsurprisingly there were many who didn’t—would say, “But isn’t one to the power of one still one?”

He would respond, “Yes. But I’m exponentially number one.” Finding a spot near the cafe, he parked the car carefully because he considered it a part of himself, his exterior shell, his exoskeleton. Any imperfection on its surface was his imperfection. The sheen of its surface was his sheen. He got out of the car and took a few steps towards the cafe when his shoe caught on an uneven join in the sidewalk and his heel slipped out. He steadied himself on a dumpster as he pulled his shoe back on. A crow that was perched on the edge of the dumpster, hopped forward and pecked his hand. It wasn’t a vicious peck, it didn’t even break the skin. It was more an ownership claim, as if to say, “Hands off. This is my bin, buddy.”

“What the …” exclaimed Mick, more in surprise than pain. “You fucking stupid scavenger,” he said, but his phone rang interrupting what would have been an extended diatribe, a long invective against all things dark and avian. He put his bluetooth earbuds into his ears and answered the phone. No tangled cords for him. He strutted back and forth along the sidewalk in front of the cafe, walking with a slight shoulder roll and nod of his head, talking in what he thought was a decisive and animated way. A pigeon with splayed tail feathers imitated his motion. It cooed, crossed his path and he absentmindedly kicked out at it. In typical pigeon fashion, it waited until the last possible moment to flap lazily out of the way.

“I don’t care. Why should I?” “Look, that’s not my problem. Don’t even mention it again.” “Call me back when you’ve got something important to tell me.” He interspersed his conversion with a sound that mimicked laughter and whenever he did so, the nearby crow raised its head and peered at him. He entered the cafe and ordered a blue algae latte, a dark-roast Nigerian coffee with foamed milk coloured by a cyanobacterial additive reputed to be a superfood. Superfoods?

Everything was a superfood these days but he didn’t need any of them. It was the colour that he liked. It was the exact shade of his car’s interior. And, come to think of it, not too different from the bruise that was developing on his hand. Noticing the blemish, he once again cursed the crow. Feeling a bit peckish, he also ordered a sesame seed bagel.

The seeds, he thought, were a particularly tasty addition. Finishing his coffee, he stood up abruptly, brushed himself off, leaving coffee spills, bread crumbs and a crumpled napkin at his place. Exiting the cafe, he was quickly back inside the protective carapace of his car. As he prepared to pull out into traffic he checked his side view mirror and found he was looking into shattered glass.

“Doubtless the handlebars of some clumsy, cyclist,” he fumed. “Why do they let those people on the road?”


It wasn’t long afterwards that corvidity began to set in.

At first it was only a minor distraction. He found that he was attracted to shiny objects, foil gum wrappers jumped out at him from the sidewalk or he was fascinated by bits of clear broken glass that caught the light in just the right way. If a classic car with chrome bumpers and trim passed, his head jerked involuntarily in its direction and his eyes greedily followed its path.

But things quickly got out of hand. He found himself attracted to buttons, especially old-style, mother-of-pearl ones. They were so fascinating that he began to glue them to the hood of his car so that he could always have them in view. In no time at all his entire latest-model, 7 series BMW was covered. It would have been a suitable carriage for the most flamboyant of London Pearly Kings. He also found that he was inordinately hungry.

Every breakfast was a Sunday fry-up, followed by an early morning snack, elevenses (a snack with a name always seems less decadent) and a large lunch. Midafternoon “tea” preceded an early dinner and evenings were made up of serial snacking. Sometimes, he sat outside in his backyard in the twilight with a bowl of nuts, absently popping one after another into his mouth.

“I’m always ravenous,” he complained. There were also disturbing changes to his appearance. Studying himself in the mirror, he was sure his nose had become more elongated and was taking on a jaundiced hue. “It’s beginning to look like a beak,” he cried as he rubbed it hoping to change its colour. And his voice. He started to sound like an old Delta blues singer—after the initial shock, it was a sound he rather enjoyed. But this phase didn’t last long. His voice quickly turned into a dry and irritating squawk.

Most frightening of all was the bruise on his hand. It darkened in colour and when he stroked it, it felt like down. The next day a feather appeared, growing out of the back of his hand. Later he passed the dumpster where he’d been pecked. Sitting on its lip was the very crow that had pecked him. Of this he was certain—recently all birds had acquired an individuality that he had never previously noticed.

When the bird cawed at him, he was surprised that he understood exactly what was said: “Get away from my dumpster you fucking stupid scavenger.”

Moral: Crow about yourself and you’ll become one.

Peter Lavin is a writer who has been published in the Globe and Mail and a number of online magazines. He is also the author of two books on writing. He lives in the east end of Toronto. 

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