Success as Failure

This episode, in a slightly different form, was originally published in Unlikely 2.0 in February, 2007. It is included here to help new readers catch up to our returning column, A Sardine on Vacation.


Has success diverted the Sardine from the column’s true calling?

He never expected to become popular or have a dedicated stalker tracking him into the column itself.  Success makes it easier to find him.

While Joe T. and Antigone are pleased that he finally published the column about their marriage, Sardine 49 represents an ominous development.  He could go like that for four months and not write anything new.  Also, it would please others greatly, especially Frank Weathers, whose existence more and more depends on being mentioned in the column.

Worse, the Today Show and Newsweek have contacted the Sardine for interviews, which the reticent fish wants to blow off.  Also, the less the column has to say, the more intensely the nation’s readers have accepted it.

Melinda’s mad at him for wanting to turn down opportunities to publicize the column.  The Syndicate will probably want to sue.  Frank Weathers might want to take over the column!

Should I tell them that I also sent an interested publisher packing?

“Wasn’t this what you wanted as a writer?” they ask, knowing my every move.  “Didn’t you want some recognition?  Start debates on important issues?  Make a movie from the Sardine’s adventures?”

Actually, that’s exactly what I had not planned for the Sardine.  Already Wal-terr and Frank are agitating for a larger venue.  A television show, perhaps.  Frank’s asking for his own spin-off column called “The Return of Frank Weathers.”

“I think it sounds catchy.”

I suspect he wants to return the “favors” done to him by me!

In fact, everyone is calling me stupid for not capitalizing on the column’s success.

“He could be the next Andy Rooney,” Honey said to Melinda.

I asked McNulty what he thought.

“I’ve known you a long time,” he said, “you’ve sacrificed a lot, including many friendships, to get this thing syndicated.  What are you going to do?”

“What’s the problem?” asked Honey.  “Don’t those ‘sardine’ thingies come out natural?”

McNulty spent the next half hour lecturing his wife on creative imagination and the long process of making one of the columns.

“It probably takes six or seven drafts to get what he wants.”

The lecture conveniently took him from the end of his vodka and tonic, through the Grand Mariner, into his finale, Anisette on the rocks.

What would I do for a new act?  A book, perhaps, or try my fin at film reviews. Or just return to the tin.

“Honey’s right,” said Wal- terr. “Just go on writing the column.  We’ll feed you material.  Honey will be a ceaseless flow of Honeyisms. [Actually, that was a subject off one of the unblessed columns.]  The regular habits of the newspaper-reading public will continue to infuriate you.  Heck, you could make a year’s worth of columns on Joe T.’s marriage to Tig.”

“Did he call her that when you two went out?” Joe T. asked.

The “problem” is that the impetus of the column fed on its own anticipation of rejection.  Rejection was success.  The majority’s always wrong, remember.  A pirate exalts in his piracy and doesn’t want to open up a shop on the boardwalk and become a member of the Chamber of Commerce.  I knew I was in trouble when Frank began agreeing with some of the Sardine’s ideas.

“You are going to spoil everything for us,” said Frank, “just because you’re uncomfortable.”

“I thought he became too self-conscious during the ‘Parodies of Ourselves’ column,” said Joe T.

“If the Sardine quits, it’ll be Joe T.’s fault,” said Wal-terr.

“I wouldn’t mind it ending,” said Joe T.  “I don’t want people knowing I can’t get anything from my wife in the sack.”

“No one’s ending anything,” a voice boomed from a table nearby.  A man around sixty in a blue suit approached us at the bar.  “Get me a B & B, bartender.”

Wal-terr silently swore and went for the drink.

“Who the hell are you?” asked Frank Weathers.

“I’m Thomas Mabuse, head of the Kingfisher Syndicate.”

“The Sardine’s syndicate,” Frank croaked.  He went to shake the man’s hand.  “Please to meet you.  Are you looking for a replacement for the Sardine?”

“Why?” Mabuse chortled.  “We’re willing to double the price we pay for his little delicacies.  I have the contract in my jacket pocket.  Who has a pen?”

Mabuse’s blunt appearance in The Attic didn’t make my decision any easier.  I had come to the bar to have a final drink with my pals.  Break the news and move on. 

No arguments.  Maybe a few tears from Honey and Frank. Relief from Joe T.  Nothing Mabuse could say or day could change my mind.

“Stupid move,” said Mabuse.  “Your friends are right for thinking you’re an idiot.”

Why would Mabuse want it to continue?  The Sardine represents the contrary to all he and his syndicate and the syndicate’s readers stand for. What satisfaction does he get from irritating the readers?

“What are you talking about?  What do you know about the readers?  Or me?  I delight in terrorizing the readers’ morality,” Mabuse grinned, “as long as I can make a profit.  Sure, I revile A Sardine on Vacation.  I still can’t figure out whether the ‘I’ and the Sardine are one in the same.  Or who this joker is trying to track you down? But that’s all on the personal level.  The business level’s another animal, if not the smarter part of the animal I am.  It allows me to operate beyond the limitations of my personal opinions and morality.”

Mabuse wants to be the pirate but doesn’t have the imagination to do it.

I was ready to disappoint him.  The Sardine column would cease in a couple weeks. 

Neither a suicide or a mercy killing, the death of this column would be a metamorphosis but without a destination or purposeful shape.



Bob Castle, a.k.a A Sardine on Vacation has regularly published articles for Bright Lights Film Journal since 2000 and in 2020 his novel, The Hidden Life, was published.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Friday, November 17, 2023 - 20:57