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Contemporary Funny Fiction

By Phil's humble estimation, the best part about the pandemic was being able to work from home without wearing pants. It was even better than the superiority he felt from being "pretty much bilingual thanks to Telemundo" in a country of arrogant English-only speakers. Even better than not having to smell a client's day-old-tuna-fish breath. Even better than turning up to a job jelly-limbed and wasted, which he could do so much more easily now.


Take today, for example. Nine in the morning and he'd already downed three Irish coffees, which gave him both a blissful numbness from the whiskey's buzz and a laxative-like jumpiness from the espresso. And best of all: there was no Bill to tell him not to.


And bestest of all: no pants.


He could hear Bill's voice now, reproachful like a jellyfish, if a jellyfish could speak. "Phil, cocktail hour isn't until you get home" or "Phil, you have to wear pants—yes, even on a Zoom call!" or, as was the case the week before, "Phil, I don't think this relationship is working out between us anymore."


Well, who needed him? More Irish coffees for Phil.


And anyway, everyone knew couples with rhyming names had a fifty-percent success rate of staying together. If it hadn't happened last Friday, it would've eventually. Maybe not on a Friday, but it would've happened. Phil was sure.


No sooner had he had that Friday thought—or was it Thursday? Irish coffees made it so difficult to keep the days of the week and the number of fingers being held up from blurring together—than his laptop blared with the squawking of an incoming Zoom call. He shuffled to the couch, set his fourth—okay, maybe it was his seventh—cocktail of the day down on the coffee table next to his laptop, and adjusted the angle of the computer screen. When his pantless lower half was sufficiently out of view, he answered.


His boss, Mr. Miller, appeared on the monitor. Or, rather, his darting eyes and the bridge of his pug nose appeared, much too close, enlarged like a raisin that'd been exposed to too much sunlight. It had been only a few weeks since the company had switched to Zoom and there was so much transitioning, so many subtleties, that Mr. Miller had yet to learn.


Phil bet he was even still wearing his pants.


Next came the faces of the others in the office—there was uppity Brenda, who tried to get Phil fired last month after she smelled his liquor-crusted breath in a meeting; there was sweet-sweet Randy, who tried to get Brenda fired for unfairly discriminating against an LGBTQIA2S+ coworker; there was Dil, who Bill (good riddance!) once remarked, at an office party, looked "nice" dressed as Santa Claus.


Now, Phil encouraged the possibility of a relationship between them, wished it might happen. He knew the truth about rhyming names.


On screen, at Brenda's request, Mr. Miller repositioned his webcam, so now they were treated to a view of his mouth and nothing else whenever he spoke. "I shouldn't have to tell you," his uvula was saying, "but this deal is major. Major! You know this. It could mean the difference between our company having a future ten years from now or all of us being absolutely fuc—"


In a blink, a call brringed on the screen, interrupting Mr. Miller's saliva-heavy pep talk. A new set of faces emerged, and Phil recognized them as the clients. Or, at least, he recognized the big guy in the middle with the fuzzy caterpillar mustache above his lip.


Mr. Miller greeted them with his best attempt at non-Telemundo-aided Spanish, loudly finger-poked a few buttons on his keyboard, took another step back when Brenda told him to.


Phil caught a glimpse of khakis.


"Mic check, mic check," Mr. Miller wailed into the computer with all the authority of a first-time DJ. "One-two, one-two."


To this, apropos of nothing, perhaps to break the tension, or perhaps not, Phil responded with the first two bars of Gangsta's Paradise, a song whose lyrics he couldn't recall while sober but could recite with Coolio's natural steez while he was one or two or seventh Irish coffees deep. He finished, expecting applause for his rapping prowess, or at least quiet admiration in the form of hip-hop-head nods. Then he realized he'd said the words only in his mind and his mouth was instead wrapped around the rim of his coffee mug.


He took a sip.


The meeting limped forward like a horror movie survivor, slowly and painfully. Phil took coffee sips in between translating the negotiation offers between Mr. Miller and the fuzzy-lipped man, whom he had taken to calling "Tomás Selleck," but only in his head—and maybe once out loud, but he'd quickly faked a sneeze to throw anybody off his scent. 


It was only later, during a five minute recess, as he returned to the couch with a steaming fresh drink in hand, that the voices started to morph.


When Mr. Miller resumed the re-negotiations, his voice began to sound to Phil as though he were scuba-diving on Mars, somewhere far away, somewhere khaki-less. Phil could still pick out keywords here and there—"million" and "counteroffer" and maybe something about Bitcoin. But mostly it just sounded like the adults from those old Peanuts movies, like womp-womp and all that jazz. He translated to the best of his ability, making a judgment call to to leave out that Bitcoin part. 


As Tomás sat on the other end of the line and rubbed his non-caterpillar chin with one finger, Phil took a moment to look at the daily newspaper rolled up beside his laptop. He wondered, then, if they still ran Peanuts in the Comics section, the way they still ran the movies every holiday.


When he and Bill were together, they would read the Funny Pages every Sunday, and though they'd only been broken up for a week, Phil conceded that it wouldn't have been impossible for Peanuts, the comic, to stop being printed after the newspaper heard about his breakup. A lot could happen in a week. He knew that now.


What a shame that would be though. He kind of liked that one piano kid. And the girl who played keep-away with the football. And the kid who liked to eat all those hamburgers. Or was he thinking of another comic? Damn, it was going to eat at him if he didn't figure that out.


He glanced back at the screen where Tomás was leaning toward the screen of the man beside his, the two of them whispering behind their hands like kids playing a game of telephone, even though they were in separate rooms, separate buildings. It looked like it might take them a while to deliberate.


Phil decided checking the paper would be too loud, too crinkly, too distracting. Instead, he chose to Ask Jeeves, because he supported the underdogs in life.


With the silence of a subpar mime, he minimized the Zoom call, opened Google Chrome, remembered that whole mantra about supporting the underdogs, closed Google Chrome, then opened Ask Jeeves. That's when he found out it was now just called Ask.com.


"You learn something new every day," he whispered. Or maybe he'd thought it. He hoped he'd thought it.


He was knee-deep in Wikipedia's rabbit hole (he considered Wikipedia an underdog, because you weren't allowed to use it to cite your sources in college essays) when he heard Tomás's voice. Only, Phil's rabbit hole spanned a total of thirty-three tabs across his browser, and only twelve of them had loaded, and his piece of junk nine-year-old computer took now of all times to freeze. He caught the first half of the sentence, "Estamos listos," but the second half promptly got Marie Antoinetted.


"Come on, come on," he muttered, frantically trying to close as many tabs as he could. Which was none, because the computer was still frozen, and his apartment was quiet, filled with neither English nor Spanish, and certainly not the Spanglish with which he was trying to champion Telemundo. The clock behind him ticked. The sound of Ctrl+Alt+Delete tocked. He finished his drink, refilled it.


Two minutes and one promise never to support the underdogs later, the computer gave up on its practical joke and unlocked. At once the Wikipedia pages vanished, even the one he wanted to read about Marxism, and he maximized his Zoom screen again and immediately wished he hadn't.


There, right there, on the webcams of his six coworkers, his boss, Tomás Selleck and his mustache-less associates, all eyes were on him, waiting for him to do his job. To translate and make the decision final. To boldly send the company ten years into the future and allow them to buy hoverboards and robot dogs and Mega-Twinkies and whatever else came a decade ahead.


Phil weighed his options.


He could ask Tomás to repeat himself. No shame in that, right? But no—how could it explain his silence for the past few minutes, his absence from the conversation? The Marxism?


No, doing that would just make it seem like he hadn't been paying attention, like he was showing up to his job drunk again. Which wasn't untrue, but still. He could already see the twist in Brenda's upper lip, the way she could turn from friend to foe in an instant. He could spot an "I told you so" from a mile away. Bill taught him well.


"Well, Phil?" Mr. Miller said. He looked more like a Basset Hound than a pug now, in a way that Phil could see but was too drunk to articulate. But trust him on that one.


Tomás made a sound of disgust, like when you go to a buffet and realize they don't use sneeze guards. "Él ésta ebrio!" he huffed, pointing a finger into his webcam in the direction of Phil's video square, as though he could smell the stench of whiskey from the other side of the screen.


"Yeah, I agree," Mr. Miller said hesitantly, with all the authority of a second-time DJ who was only brought back because no one else was available.


It seemed to Phil at that moment, with the accusation of him being drunk threatening to take away his Mega-Twinkie dream, that there was only one option.


Tomás was convulsing on his webcam, speaking rapidly, a single word with the sound and the fury of many: "Ebrio, ebrio, ebrio!" And perhaps because he talked so fast, or perhaps because the rest of Phil's coworkers didn't have an Xfinity package that offered Telemundo, no one bothered to search for the word's translation.


And that was just the opening Phil needed.


"Deal!" he shouted, feeling particularly inspired. "That's what he's saying. Ebrio. It means deal. In Spanish, you know. They want to accept our counteroffer."


The line went quiet for all of a second. Then, like a firework, exploded.


Tears streamed down the features of Mr. Miller's Basset-Hound-pug face. Dil let out a ho-ho-ho, for old times' sake. Brenda made a face that Phil vowed to remember for as long as he lived, or as long as he remained drunk. Whichever came first.


It didn't matter. The company was going ahead. Forward. Into the future.


Then, in the midst of the joy and the celebration, just as everyone was deciding how to spend their upcoming fortune, a sound rang out through the ether, a noise like thunder meeting the side of a tree. They turned to see the source.


Tomás had clapped his hands together, just once, not in a gesture of late applause for the Gangsta's Paradise rendition that Phil had never actually rapped, but to get their attention. And it worked.


Everyone went quiet long enough for Google Translate's robotic voice to flood the call, first in Spanish: "Él ésta ebrio!" and then rendered in English even Mr. Miller could understand: "He is drunk!" Tomás made a show of singling out Phil on the translation. Then, because he could, Tomás also ran the word "liar" through Google Translate.


Later, Phil couldn't recall which had happened first: Brenda's Heath Ledger smile poking out from the shadow of her lips, followed by her sanctimonious "I told you so," or Tomás shaking his head and, in the style of a game show contestant, saying in perfect English "No deal!" and exiting the call, with his other associates logging off right after him.


Mr. Miller and Phil and the rest of the team looked around, watching the light fade from each others' eyes, the dreams of technology and beach houses and mega-junk food turning into steam, wisps, slipping through hands and fingers and cracks.


And just like that, it was over.


Then, apropos of nothing, perhaps to break the tension, or perhaps not, Brenda said, "I told you so" one last time.


Mr. Miller's face was splotched red, like he'd washed it with ketchup and then paprika. And the others must have taken that as a sign, an omen, because Phil watched each of them drop the call one by one—first Randy, then Dil, then that one lady who looked like Brenda with a blonde wig, and then even Brenda herself, smiling and waving a Phil like a cartoon character ending a broadcast.


It was only Phil and Mr. Miller after that.


"Phillip Carney," he said, each name like an accusation, like a surprise witness being called up to the stand. "Phillip Carney!"


Phil supposed there was a kind of dog for what his boss looked like now, but he couldn't think of the name. Now Mr. Miller's temple veins were showing, a network of cross-shaped insignias from the base of his skull down to his eyelids. An incoming call came from Brenda, no doubt changing her mind about not wanting to watch. He didn't want to give her the satisfaction.


With each word getting louder and louder, Mr. Miller said, "Do you have any idea what you've just done to my company? What you've just cost me?" He leaned forward. His uvula was back on camera. "You miserable, little fuc—"


Whatever his boss was going to say was cut short, this time not because of the computer freezing, but because Phil lunged forward in a flurry of arms and legs and closed the laptop, plunging the apartment into the type of silence found only after a song from a Milli Vanilli concert. He was spared.


He had a pretty good idea of what Mr. Miller would've said, though.


And then that word left his own lips and he completed Mr. Miller's sentence for him as he felt a painful, scalding sensation running down his leg. Wincing, he looked down to find his Irish coffee mug toppled over, the liquid running along the underside of his laptop, over the newspaper on the table, down his hairy, bare, exposed leg. So much Irish coffee.


Maybe Bill had had a point about cocktail hour. Maybe Bill had had a point about a few things.


Outside, the morning sun filled Phil's living room with light and the promise of a future. Not a future with robot dogs or Mega-Twinkies he could claim, but a future he'd have to stride toward regardless.


With a sigh, he grabbed the newspaper that was soaking up the coffee like a ShamWow and a pen from the cup by his TV. He flipped past the Funny Pages, Peanuts and all, straight to the soggy Help Wanted section. He could tell it was going to be a long day. Maybe he'd get an interview if he was lucky.


But first, he had to put on some pants.

December 24, 2022 04:57

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29 comments

Naomi Onyeanakwe
18:54 Dec 24, 2022

Two stories from Zack! We're eating good this week. Phil, what a mess of a character! As someone who watches Telemundo, the Telemundo lines cracked me up. And my favourite line was, “He shuffled to the couch, set his fourth—okay, maybe it was his seventh—cocktail...” Also really liked the ending. Good luck!

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Zack Powell
09:39 Dec 25, 2022

Thanks as always, Naomi! Messy characters are my absolute favorite to write, and Phil was the hottest of hot messes. Beyond glad to know the Telemundo punchlines hit for you - that was the joke I was most worried about. Hopefully there's gonna be another story this week too, but if not, I hope to see you again in 2023!

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Riel Rosehill
17:02 Dec 24, 2022

Hey Zack! Merry Christmas!🥂❄️ I'm late - been busy with pets and food the whole day, which I suppose isn't the worst thing in life but I didn't get around reading until now! Does your new job involve zoom calls by any chance? 😂 This was so nice to read by the fire at the end of the day, just the easy entertainment I needed. Loved the jokes about rhyming names and how Phil wanted Bill and Dil to get together for that reason LOL. Also - can't believe you actually posted two stories. I'm impressed! PS: before I forget "Irish coffees mad...

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Zack Powell
09:36 Dec 25, 2022

🥂❄️ Merry Christmas! We made it to the end of 2022 (almost) in one piece. 🙏 And what gave away the relationship between my new job and Zoom? 🤣 I've always hated video calls with a passion - Skype, Zoom, all of it - and this year hasn't definitely done anything to change my stance on that, LOL. "Easy entertainment" was exactly the feel I was going for with this one. Just having fun and letting loose and not taking myself as seriously this time around. Totally liberating. And two stories in one week was something to cross off my Reedsy buck...

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Liv Chocolate
01:47 Dec 26, 2022

"Pretty much bilingual thanks to Telemundo" XD And then when I thought it couldn't get any more hilarious: "LGBTQIA2S+ coworker"!!!!! Oh and "Bestest" Well, this story is the bestest. Thanks for adding lightness to the pandemic. No surprise here that this is another wonderfully done piece.

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Zack Powell
07:13 Dec 29, 2022

Belated thank you, Liv! Just came from your story, and damn did I love it, so this is some high praise. This one was a blast to write, and the LGBTQIA2S+ joke was "so wrong it's funny" territory to me, so I'm glad someone else found it hilarious. Thanks again!

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Liv Chocolate
18:57 Dec 29, 2022

That line seriously had me dying. It sounds like a story in itself! I'd love to see what the A2S+ stand for

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Wendy Kaminski
00:47 Dec 26, 2022

Holy cow, this was a blast to read! What a light-hearted jaunt into someone's complete career/life meltdown. There's a word for the enjoyment of someone else's misery, but what is it when they're too drunk to be miserable? Jaegerfreud? It's still a helluva lotta fun! We totally need a word. Some favorites: "whom he had taken to calling "Tomás Selleck,"" LOL! -- and "But no—how could it explain ....The Marxism?" oh my god rofl! Your humor is ruthless! :) And finally, "Phil supposed there was a kind of dog for what his boss looked like now, ...

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Zack Powell
07:15 Dec 29, 2022

A late thank you, Wendy! This one was a lot of fun to write, so I'm just glad to see it got some laughs. (By the way, Jaegerfreud should totally be a word if it isn't already!) Thank you for the Tomás Selleck line shoutout - I was wondering if that joke was going to translate! Such a nice comment - totally made my day!

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J.C. Lovero
14:12 Dec 25, 2022

Long lost penpal, Happy holidays friend! I've been away from Reedsy for quite some time, but what better way to spend Christmas morning than catch up to short stories from some of my favorite Reedsy people! Your first line is a catcher. Of course, we all want to work from home without wearing pants (though I work in health care and pants are kind of required at the hospital, but a man can dream right?). Excellent job building up the tension in the middle. I felt my chest tighten thinking about when the computer freezes up in the middle of...

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Zack Powell
07:10 Dec 29, 2022

Belated thank you, pen pal! Finally got back from all my holiday endeavors, and your story was the first place I stopped - LOVED it, by the way. Always happy to see your name pop up on here. (Now if only it'd pop up more often...👀👀👀 Just kidding...kinda.) And +1 for wanting to work from home with no pants but not being able to. I feel you on that. Always nice to see what lines resonated with you! I was giggling to myself with the "bestest" line (even though spellcheck wasn't trying to accept it.) Side note: I can't even imagine dating someo...

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J.C. Lovero
14:44 Dec 29, 2022

Side note: I can't even imagine dating someone with the same name - that just sounds like a lot of work when someone's calling out your name in a public place, LOL. I made him go by his last name lol. --- Double side note: Thank you for getting the Milli Vanilli reference! I literally was like "This is SO dated, and no one is even going to catch this - and now I feel highly vindicated.) I was shocked to see it in your story lol. I thought they were WAY before your time. Perhaps you were a baby when they were at their peak? 🤔 --- (Now...

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Amanda Lieser
18:57 Jan 22, 2023

Hi Zack, Holy cow this one was jam packed. I loved the way you started it off right away with the deeper theme of alcoholism. I also thought that you paid homage to the insanity of the pandemic very well. I felt like everyone just sorta went off the deepens. I had a friend who remarked to me that there was a huge increase in substance abuse during this time. It’s truly tragic. But I thought you captured the tragedy with the humor very well in this piece. All of your characters were beautifully described and I loved the way you ended the stor...

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Zack Powell
20:59 Jan 22, 2023

Thanks, Amanda. I'm glad you saw what I was going for - substance abuse itself is no joke, but I think humor is a pretty good way to broach a subject. Same goes for the insanity of the pandemic. I'm hoping for the best for these characters too. As you know, I like to return comments, so please don't hesitate to let me know the name of one of the stories in your collection that you'd like me to look at and give feedback on.

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Marty B
08:16 Dec 30, 2022

"Not a future with robot dogs or Mega-Twinkies-" Love the Easter eggs :) Phil is having some issues with the work-from-home world which seemed all too familiar (specifically the 30+ tabs open and getting lost trying to get back to the zoom meeting). What I dont understand is what is the big deal about pants? Not necessary- while Irish coffees, come on! Especially in a work appropriate coffee mug- I mean how do you get through those late afternoon meetings?!

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Zack Powell
09:32 Dec 30, 2022

Hear, hear! Definitely agree with you there - pants and Irish coffees don't mix. And throwing afternoon meetings into the mix? Forget about it. Thanks for the read, Marty!

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Rebecca Miles
07:00 Dec 30, 2022

I'm sure you know that in England pants are your undergarments, not trousers, so I allowed myself a bit of a liberty and read this British English; it cranked up the humour all the more! You captured the horror and humour of digital remote working so well. The sneaky multitasking and the inevitable retribution, here delivered with the frozen browser. You made Phil a right mess indeed and I did enjoy the poor guy's struggles. Thanks for the early morning laughs.

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Zack Powell
07:42 Dec 30, 2022

Now that "pants" thing a hilarious distinction I hadn't considered! This definitely reads a little different to the folks across the pond, doesn't it? Thanks for the read and giving me a laugh of my own, Rebecca.

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S N
14:46 Dec 29, 2022

I do not understand why, but the part about the ketchup and paprika on that man's face just had me rolling. It's excellent and unexpected imagery that so keenly demonstrates his anger. By that point I had a few laughs, but after that it was ALL laughs. I love how complete the story feels, the fact that he starts off in such a negative space and it only gets worse until at the end you have the faintest hope that it will get better... even with the restrictions on word count, it's so COMPLETE. Amazing.

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Zack Powell
22:14 Dec 29, 2022

Thanks, Sasha! The ketchup and paprika line almost got deleted because I thought it was too random for a punchline, so now I'm glad I kept it in. Glad this story felt complete to you - kept thinking I was missing something while writing it, but maybe not. Thanks again for the read!

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S N
02:38 Dec 30, 2022

Anything that makes me think of barbecue sauce is pretty perfect in my book. Thank you for sharing, it's a very fun read.

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Michał Przywara
04:17 Dec 29, 2022

Very fun :) I don't have the discipline to work from home and not wear pants - and so it seems, neither does Phil. But then again, he's clearly dealing with some things. The breakup hit hard and not all at once. It was kind of a large smear of misery that spanned multiple days, until he finally completely crapped out, taking his job with him. Good drunk writing. You get that shifting mental narrative, that "I know I should be paying attention but eh, whatever", the dipping in and out of anecdotes and memories. Lots of nice lines in this ...

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Zack Powell
07:02 Dec 29, 2022

Thanks as always, Michał! I wish I'd read your story for this prompt before posting this one - could've saved myself some money! Live and learn, right? LOL. Very glad the "drunk writing" aspect came through - wanted this to read exactly that way, with the dipping in and out and the disjointed analogies and all. And the line you quote was one of my favorites, so I'm happy to see you enjoyed it. Thanks again!

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20:35 Dec 28, 2022

Good story! Glad to see you active on Reedsy again! :)

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Zack Powell
07:03 Dec 29, 2022

Thank you very much, Ms. Wafflez! Hopefully 2023 will be a more active year for me.

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Rama Shaar
19:42 Dec 28, 2022

What a great disaster you've created here, Zack! Self-sabotage and cringe behaviour at its best/worst. I like the the ending with him starting by putting on some pants!

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10:26 Dec 27, 2022

Looks like Bill has hit rock bottom on a Zoom call like a 2020's Big Lebowski without pants. Good work pulling off gags on the pandemic, Zoom, Wikipedia and Google Translate all in one story. I like how the ending was just him closing the laptop. That's def a move someone might do after seven Irish Coffees.

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Mike Panasitti
23:41 Dec 26, 2022

This story and Michal Przywara's for the week shared the common theme of disastrous consequences for a less than capable interpreter. They were both a laugh and each story's main character is now in search of a job as a result of their big time bungling. You tend to serve up fare that is heavier in terms of the moral quandaries faced by characters. This was a welcome comedic swerve, but the consequences for Phil were quite serious. I must admit, online conferencing has been a godsend for me, but I've never deigned to go pant-less in ...

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Zack Powell
07:05 Dec 29, 2022

Thanks for the love, Mike! Yeah, my usual realm isn't comedy, but I just couldn't resist this prompt. Glad it was a welcome deviation. And ugh, now I'm totally kicking myself for not seeing the unintentionally exposure punchline before submitting this! That is such a good suggestion that it's absolutely making it into the second draft of this story. (Full credit will go to you, I promise.)

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