Sunday Stories: “Punxsutawney Phil and the Executioners in Top Hats”


Punxsutawney Phil and the Executioners in Top Hats
by Bo Fisher

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and neither am I that other thing they say I am. I don’t say the word. My mom has no problem saying it, and neither does Row who’s rummaging through her bag at the door as we speak. It’s only that when the cigarette smoke starts to mix with the early February snow on the Ohio that my head gets foggy and I have to part the debris to see what really is. I can still see it, and though they cannot, I can empathize with their blindness—I can empathize. Row doesn’t care to look at the goddamn snow, and that’s why she’s mumbling something or another about my concerns regarding the government’s contamination of our tap water and how cigarette ash has become hotter in the last three years. 

She’s outside now, screaming something about medication and top hats being a sign of respectability. But while I’m digging for another cigarette, the Ohio swallows her up and the snow brushes me back before I can clarify my points. 

The Tough & the Lovely are blaring on the record player Row bought me for Christmas. She bought the record too, and I want to tell my neighbor that when he insists on banging our shared wall at 4 in the morning. It’s not my music, I want him to know, though I can certainly think to it, and that’s not a small thing. So where’s the editorial responsibility in banging on my wall when you are explained such a thing? 

Row didn’t finish the pack of White Claws she brought, and when I pass the laptop on my way to the refrigerator, I notice the open webpage and remember what it was we were fighting about in the first place. The reason she felt comfortable telling me I was “manic-bordering-on-frightening.” Last time I checked, manic was frightening. I’ve never been manic in my life, though I’ve been called plenty of things. Row’s just always looking for a new adjective to add to her repertoire—the perils of a liberal education. 

It’s his face I see on the open laptop. Small black eyes you’d think didn’t deserve compassion or mercy. But when you read about the men who want him murdered, you remember you’re a human being above all else. Because that is what they will do. Come tomorrow morning, February 2, if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, the men in the top hats will kill him at dusk. 

Check their website if you don’t believe me. Look at the names that make up the so-called Inner Circle. Bill Deeley, the former inner circle president, bow tie and all, telling you to your face that when he’s not working the Groundhog Day ceremony he’s busy “working.” The man’s busy prodding every caged, on-deck groundhog, making sure the bastards know what happened to the last piece of shit who saw its shadow. Don’t fuck around, he wheezes and jabs one with his cane before coming above ground. Jeff Lundy, the current circle president, who says Phil tells him any day above ground is a good day, will deceive you. Just look at those red cheeks—the cheeks of a murderous down-home, country-tone politician if I’ve ever seen one. Not to mention any man who hides his teeth while smiling has no issue hiding something else. And then there’s Butch. Butch fucking Philliber. Better known as “The Iceman.” Butch is the one who brings the axe down on any groundhog who can’t help but see its shadow. He says he’s working the information center on Groundhog’s Day, and that’s not a lie: he’s assuring the citizens of Punxsutawney and America that this year’s groundhog will be held accountable if it doesn’t do its job and predict an early spring. He will see to that personally. 

But when I told Row I bought us Greyhound tickets to Punxsutawney so we can find Butch and Jeff and Bill and put them in the same underground cage they keep their groundhogs, she choked on her hand-rolled cigarette and said I’d gone too far. 

Outside, the snow is growing fatter by the second, smacking against my hot cheek and melting upon impact. It coats and sticks to and buries my window which I want to smash to bits before it too tries to stop me from saving Phil. For I know there will be six weeks more of winter, and with that another groundhog murdered at the hands of the Groundhog Day Committee. 

“There’s no executioner!” Row screams below me, her form now clear amidst snow and waves crashing about my window. She’s nine stories down, and though her voice cuts through the government-funded, so-called natural distractions, I now see her for what she is: just another agent working for the million-dollar business which is the Groundhog Day Committee. Kill every groundhog until the others learn their lesson and start abandoning their shadows so the United States economy can enjoy springtime. 

“I know what I’m talking about here, Row,” I scream.

“They’re just little old men in top hats!”

“I’ve done research on this, goddamnit!” I yell, riffling through text messages and emails, looking for the one that will turn her. But when I look up to make sure she’s still there, the Ohio has done its job again at the behest of Tom Wolf and Mike DeWine. 

And now I’m at the bus station, milling around with the other anxious trigger fingers and cocked fists, thinking about when this all started in 2004. When for the fourth straight year the groundhog shook before its shadow. He knew what was coming that year; Butch made it known in the weeks leading up. In the immediate aftermath of the results, a small riot broke out on the streets of Punxsutawney: three fire hydrants were popped by teenagers, and the flooding water gave way to ice, shutting off one of the more heavily trafficked streets in town. A local Church Youth Group, as a result, couldn’t make it to a Christian Folk show they’d planned for six months, and what began was a brutal affirmation of cold exhaustion: one brave bible chucker set fire to every car in the parking lot of a nearby CVS. In the neighborhood next over a golf course superintendent decided it best to set fire to every opposing course in town. He figured if he couldn’t make money because of ice and impending winter, his competitors should suffer an identical fate. That same night, students at IUP’s Punxsutawney campus gutted every pharmacy of its painkillers and then sledded naked on their backs down streets of ice until their skin bleed with rebellion. By dawn, the groundhog responsible for it all was put down, and a ritual began. 

It’s five o’clock, and I bump the man in front of me in line. He turns halfway and looks at me sideways. I ask if he got the text, too.

“What text?” he asks, coy as he should be. Who knows who could be listening?

“Don’t worry, patriot,” I tell him. “I got the same code sent to me a week before the text. 32F7390J. Shit, I shouldn’t have said that out loud, should I have?” His eyebrow raises again, and he sighs. “Fuck. My bad. Yeah, I know. I get it. I got the other text about discretion too. Shit. I think we’re good. Are you going from Pittsburgh, or did you come from somewhere else?”

His back to me, looking ahead, he sighs again, deeper this time, breathes, “Columbus. I missed my fucking bus to Philadelphia.”

“There you go, Patriot. You got the swing of things. You got a backstory. I’m with you, brother. Me, I’m coming from Athens, Ohio. Got tossed off my bus by some undercover girl cop who saw me sipping on a miniature of Jack and thought I was gonna turn the whole goddamn bus over. I put this chick in her place, but the driver wasn’t having shit, and he kicked me off somewhere in Wheeling. So, here I am.”

The lady in front of Patriot left the counter and the small man with a mustache behind it called next. Patriot laid two hands on the counter and tilted his head to the right, said he missed his ride to Philly. Next bus was two hours from then, Mustache said. Patriot acted mad and even stormed off without saying goodbye to me, but I knew he had to put on for whoever might be watching. I measured my steps to the counter, said I was on my way to Punxsutawney from Athens when I was unreasonably kicked off the bus in Wheeling.

“Athens,” Mustache repeated suspiciously. He looked at his computer, an eye on me all the while. “We don’t have any buses coming in from Athens tonight. You say you got kicked off the bus?” 

“I wasn’t kicked off. It was a misunderstanding. A mutual separation. We both went on our ways, and I was promised a ticket when I arrived in Pittsburgh. I’ve been walking all night.”

“Okay, who promised you that?”

“The driver. The one headed for Punxsutawney. Call him, and he’ll tell you.”

“Okay, sir, there aren’t any buses headed for Punxsutawney tonight. Take a minute to figure out where you’re going and come back.”

Patriot is nearby shouting into a cell phone. I sidle up to him and, while he yells, whisper,

“There are other ways to get where we’re going.”

He tells the person on the other end to wait, puts a hand over the receiver, squints down at me. Asks what I mean.

“Just what I said. We’re going to the same place, Patriot.”

“You’re going to Philadelphia? Do you have a car?”

“It’s right outside, brother. We’re going to the same place. We’ve got the same code.”

Outside, in front of the Pittsburgh bus station, Patriot looks around, still on the phone, tells someone he has a car. He asks me where it is. 

“It’ll be here. They sent for it. We’re on the list. 32F7390J. They can’t use Enterprise or Uber or Avis for obvious reasons. The government runs all car rental companies so they know where everyone is even when we try to use different cars. And this time of year, when they know who we’re trying to save, it’s all the more important to be discrete.”

Patriot mumbles something into his phone and walks back inside. 

I know there’s a car coming eventually. There must be. I know that. The counter agency needs all the help they can get. Yet, here I am standing on the corner of 11th, white flakes materializing from the black sky to coat and cool my brow, and I don’t hear anything. The street is quiet, a bus hums from around back. All I can do is wait. Wait and try not to fall asleep, the warmth from the station brushing against the backs of my legs every time someone comes outside. Wait and stave off the rising of the sun. Wait and promise I’ll make it in time. Wait and ignore the distant sensation of screams, a groundhog’s muzzle snared by the executioners in top hats. 


Bo Fisher lives somewhere in Queens, New York. His fiction has appeared in Adelaide, Monkeybicycle, Potluck, and elsewhere. He’s worked in kosher Chinese restaurants and butcher shops; in schools and bookstores; on golf courses and literary publications; and for a brief time in 2012 he held a position titled “goose slayer” for which he won’t go into detail. He can be found @BEdward26 most likely threatening to fight Mr. Met or reminding Mike Huckabee that he’s going to hell. Bo is originally from Columbus, OH.

Image: Ralph Katieb/Unsplash

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