Patrol, Lads!


The thing on the bar of the smoke shop was oblong, heavy dark plastic with a simulated wood grain. Its tiny black curtain opened on a retro telephone. The telephone’s cord looked like an umbilical—thick, twisted, blue, and translucent. 

“Why, it’s a miniature confessional booth,” Magnum said, staring in bemused astonishment.

Ron Brell beamed, blowing a smoke ring out past his hand-rolled and personally blended cigar. “Oh yes,” he confessed proudly. “And I’m going to order five thousand of them initially, for a Sunday ad in Parade magazine.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Am I?” The two men stared each other down. Former friends during their University of Hawaii fraternity days, they’d been known to swap pranks in the past. But this was middle age now, a reunion for them a lifetime later in the choice-blasted landscape of compact cars, sensible shoes, and 401Ks.

“What have you been drinking as well as smoking?” Magnum asked. He noted Brell’s thinning red hair, one hand resting on his widening paunch, where his fingers drummed as if testing a market watermelon. “You got some weed mixed in there, too?” Magnum added, and nodded at Brell’s cigar. “Is this what a mid life crisis looks like?”

Brell smiled thinly, hiding his golden teeth. His pate might look like a cue ball soon, perfectly round and hairless as he regularly used a razor to reject God’s meagre allowance. By contrast, Magnum’s gut was still flat, due to innumerable sit-ups and the tight support of elastic. Above a Madras shirt, Brell’s eyes fluttered like American flags—red, white, and very blue. “I’ve bet the farm on development costs,” he told his ex roommate, evenly. “It’s a sure thing, which is why I’m already celebrating with a fine cigar.” Brell took another long draw, savored it, then exhaled slowly, bathing Magnum with the aroma as if to chastise him, Higgins-style, for driving a Fiat instead of a Ferrari.

Magnum glanced back at the confessional telephone on the bar, noticing a thin cord which snaked behind it under the counter. His stool squeaked under him as he turned fully to study it more closely. “You’re not even Catholic, though,” he heard himself say, testing the first of an entire litany of objections he knew would soon come to his attention.

Brell laughed. “My market base is non-Catholics. Do you know how many non-Catholics there are? Or Catholics with a sense of humor about the Pope?”

As if on cue, the phone rang in its miniature confessional enclosure. Or rather chimed. The bartender answered it, exchanging glances with Brell. “It’s for you,” he said, and handed the receiver to a surprised Magnum.

“Who knows I’m here?” Magnum asked Brell, whose smile now flashed golden in the recessed lighting as he tilted back to lock his hands behind his head. Into the phone Magnum said, “Hello?”

The voice on the other end was upbeat, up tempo. “What do you think so far?” it asked him.

“Excuse me? Who is this…Higgins?”

“Gordon Bellamy, Magnum. Ron’s publicist and manager. Yours too, if you come aboard.” Magnum was speechless, although his mouth dropped slightly before hanging to one side. Half an hour later, as he pulled shut the tiny black curtain with his forefinger and thumb, Magnum was chastised again with a long, slow ring of smoke which encircled his head like a noose.

“I have to confess,” Magnum began, over lunch the next day at Ric’s New Cafe, “it does have a kind of kitschy appeal.” He stabbed a hunk of beef with his fork, lathered it in A-1, and chewed for a moment of consideration. “I like the ad too. Avoids sacrilegious references. Challenges the buyer. How’d you come up with the idea of promoting truth and honesty?”

Brell smiled. “Makes a great gift for the boyfriend, son, or gossipy old aunt, doesn’t it?” Magnum lifted the mock ad, as it would appear in Parade should he agree to write a check for it in a sum equivalent to his savings during five years as a P.I.. In the image at the upper left was the confessional booth, seemingly full size, its curtain closed. Is there something you need to confess? the ad asked. In the lower left was an image of the confessional open, the phone showing. Remember–you must not tell a lie. Or else.

“Makes a great gift,” Brell repeated, tapping the slogan in the lower right, where details were given, along with an 800 number. He grinned. “The price is right, too. Twenty nine, ninety-five. Under thirty, because if you go any higher than that magic number, you lose half your audience. At five thousand initial stock, if we sell out we clear ten bucks each, that’s–”

“I can do the math,” Magnum said. “But what if we don’t sell out?”

We. Oh boy, he’d said it, now. It had slipped out, and he knew what that meant. Brell knew it too. Now it was Brell’s job to move past it as fast as possible.

“That’s just initially,” Ron cooed, ignoring the question. “There are other ads to run as well, and other magazines, like the Enquirer. Other venues too.”

“Such as?”

“Late night television. The Home Shopping Network. We should get plenty of free local publicity too, with such a unique product. Imagine the possibilities. We could go on radio and TV talk shows and talk about how we want to clean up phone sex with minors. Talk about how good people will feel to get things off their chest and tell the truth for once. How people need to communicate with someone they’ve neglected calling, or treated badly in the past. A former classmate, an in-law. We could say that’s how we got back in touch, too. You and me! We could say we had a fight back years ago, and that we hated each other, underneath it all, back then. Then a late night phone call, a little reunion of old buddies, plenty of confessions, forgiveness on both sides, and now we’re thick as thieves.”

“Good analogy. You’re not serious.”

“No? Well, I’m thinking of writing a book, too. A companion volume to the phone, titled I Cannot Tell a Lie. How confession leads to discovering your inner self, and that speaking the truth sets you free! With sample conversations…even tips on how to confess your sins and cleanse your soul. Hell, it should be a bestseller! Buyers of the confessional phone can be pitched about the book later, or get it now as part of a deal for thirty-nine ninety-five.”

Magnum shook his head in amazement. “You got it all worked out, haven’t you. You and. . .”

“Gordon. Yeah. He’s presenting the idea to various talk show hosts now. He’s very creative. The phone call to you at the bar was his idea, you know.”

“For what percentage?”

“He gets fifteen percent. The rest of the profit goes to pay back our development and advertising costs.”

“You talking net or gross for Gordon?”

“Net, of course! After unit product costs.”

“What if the units don’t sell? Who pays Gordo then?”

Brell pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’ve got to think long term, Magnum. I know that’s hard for you, but after we’ve paid ourselves back the investment we made for development and startup, it’ll be pure profit, plenty of money for everybody.” He looked up and grinned. “We’ll be rich, my son!”

Magnum sat back and studied the half moon of fat rimming his plate, where his steak had been. He didn’t realize he’d been so hungry. When the bill came, though, Brell got up to take a smoke outside.

Sunday morning, five weeks later, 9 A.M.. Magnum approached the corner table of the smoke shop, near the window. He set down his Colombian–-cream, no sugar-–and lit up a Dominican. Then he pulled Parade magazine free of the newspaper he carried in his other hand. Next he sat and began to leaf methodically through each page, scanning the contents like a typical reader might, letting the articles and ads catch or lose his interest in turn. As he neared page 21, where Gordon told him the half page ad would appear in nearly every newspaper in America, he tensed involuntarily, and then paused before turning.

Then he did it. The page turned and fell. He was staring down at a full page ad for a commemorative medallion celebrating the battle of Gettysburg, in .999 fine silver, shown 4x size, at $99 plus $8 shipping and handling. Visa and Master card accepted.

 He looked down for the page number, and stared at it as his heart skipped, beating erratically now, faster and faster, like an old Fiat—accustomed to slow speeds and needing a tuneup—when it is floored for the first time in years.

Page 21. There was no mistake. The opposite page displayed an article—an interview with grade school students on what they thought of mandatory school uniforms and turnstile metal detectors. He flipped to the end, hoping for some last minute placement adjustment, but the last pages displayed discounted vitamins and interviews with aging movie stars. Now he went in reverse, thumbing through each crisp, colorful page like a nervous junkie in search of a fix. When he got to page 1, he accidentally spilled his coffee, sloshing one leg. The heat of it burning into his thigh failed, however, to stop his head from turning to view the pay phone just outside. He rose and exited, walking robot-like, oblivious to stares from an old geezer in the corner, his throat emitting a low, sustained growl of pain edged with a plaintive, almost pleading quality. He dialed Brell’s number first. There was a click, then a mechanical voice said, “We’re sorry, but this number is no longer in service. Please hang up and try again.”

He did, but this time he dialed Gordo. “We’re sorry,” the same voice repeated, “but this num–”

Magnum slammed the phone back hard into its cradle for a ten count. Number ten cracked the black plastic on the receiver end, and drew a series of honks from a laughing gaggle of frat boys passing outside in a Camaro. He clamped shut his eyes and took several deep breaths as he remembered Brell’s words: We hated each other, underneath it all, back then. Had it been true? For Brell, at least, it was now obviously true. Secretly, Brell had hated and envied him all along. Had it started when he began dating Brell’s ex girlfriend, Jill Conners, their Junior year? Jill and Ron had seemed finished at the time, but maybe Ron had hoped to rekindle something with her, and he had spoiled it. What a bizarre way to get revenge, though, twenty years later. Unless he was looking for a mark, was in town for a while, and Magnum seemed easier to scam than a stranger. Maybe Brell had gotten the plastic confessional phone out of some Taiwan novelty catalog. Was he in Hilo already, showing the thing to some other patsy in a bar or smoke shop?

Smoke shop.

Magnum called the owner over, asked asked for a phone book. No matter what it took, he would track Brell to the gates of Hell. If what he did next required a priest for absolution. so be it. Not that he cared. He wasn’t even Catholic.

“Why, it’s a miniature confessional booth,” Ed Weiss said, staring in bemused astonishment.

Ron Brell beamed, blowing a thick smoke ring straight up toward the ceiling. “Oh yes,” he confessed proudly, once again, for old times sake. “And I’m going to order five thousand of them initially, for a Sunday ad in Parade magazine.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I never kid,” Brell replied, smiling his golden smile. As if on cue, then, the phone chimed in its miniature confessional enclosure. The bartender answered it, exchanging a surprised look with Brell. “It’s. . . for you,” the bartender said, and then handed the receiver to an even more surprised Ron Brell.

“Hello? Gordon?” Brell said tentatively, looking out at the L.A. skyline. For an odd instant he half imagined a killer standing beside the dead body of Gordon Bellamy, gripping a still smoking 45 mm. Then he shook it off. “Gordon?” he asked again.

The phone went dead. Brell replaced the receiver slowly. His face drained.

“Who was that?” the newest mark named Weiss asked.

“I’m not sure,” Brell confessed. “And as you know, on this phone, I cannot tell a lie.” He smiled, then sat motionless for a moment, stymied, as his own smoke ring gently settled back down over his head like a noose. –0–


© 2004 in Plots with Guns by Jonathan Lowe



Father Figure


Beside the tall red fence.
—    A breeze blowing warmly.
—    Late afternoon.
—    With my homemade periscope I could see Mrs. Robbins through the French windows, coming into her kitchen with a big bag of groceries, back from the store. Mr. Robbins was in his usual place, watching TV on the patio, and didn’t offer to help.
—    Mr. Robbins was huge now. HUGE. Way he looked, he must have weighed a ton or more. And he just sat there in the lounge chair out back while his wife did all the shopping, went to work, and did the dishes. Used to be he was the State cycling champ, but gradually the kids took over, and he was one of those who had to be first or nothing. Or so it’s said. Now he never rode his bike anywhere. He had a stand beside him where he’d put his crackers, beer and things, and he’d just sit there eating and watching, eating and watching in the warm mornings, the hot afternoons, the cool evenings while his gut hung out of his belt like great folds of dough. Since the redwood fence was erected, it didn’t bother him to move out of the house onto the patio with the wide screen HD TV Mrs. Robbins made the mistake of buying. Mom said something about him being lazy, and being out of a job. Dad said a few things Mom would have washed my mouth out with soap for saying. He was tired of hearing about those old trophies at their lodge meeting.
—    “So what’s going on?” repeated Peter Fibbs, my sometimes friend and classmate.
—   “Shhhhh. . .she’s inside,” I said, waiting for the argument I’d heard every night for weeks and weeks. “She’s taking the groceries out of the bag.”
—    “What’s this, uh. . . Cyclist doin’?”
—    “Watching TV again.”
—    “Watching TV,” Peter Fibbs mimicked in a dead monotone, then let the silence soak it in. “And I’ve got to go home. We start school tomorrow, ya know. High school.”
—    I turned and whispered hotly.”Will ya wait a minute?  She’s coming out on the patio now. She’s got a can in her hand. This is it. This is where she lets him have it!”
—    The TV droned, babbling like a happy baby off under a cloud-crowded sky.
—    Peter Fibbs stood beside my kid brother Ernie, shaking his head impatiently as we listened.
—    “Here,” Mrs. Robbins words drifted to us through the late August air, “is your beer, darling. Want a roast pork sandwich?”
—    “Yeah,” answered the fat man. “Thanks.”
—    “After that,” said Mrs. Robbins pleasantly, “I’ll fix you some short ribs with potatoes and gravy. Won’t that be nice?”
—   “You’re. . .feeling all right, are you, Alice?”
—    “Sure, sure. Never better. Let’s stop our arguing.”
—    My heart sank, weighted down by her words. Why had she smiled at him?  It didn’t make sense.
—    Ernie started whining then, and reached for my periscope. “Shhhhhh,” I hissed, and slapped his hand.
—    The Cyclist lolled his head in our direction. His face was–I don’t know how to put it–pasty-looking. Like spaghetti that’s been overcooked. I held my periscope rock-steady thinking he’d spot it. But he didn’t.
—     “So what’s the tub a’ lard doin now?” Peter whispered after a minute, very bored.
—     “Just drinking beer. Wait. Here she comes again!”
—    While Ernie kept tugging at my sleeve, I stared at what pretty Mrs. Robbins was now carrying to her husband, the Cyclist: A six pack on a bowl of ice.
—    I let Peter have a peek. “Well, that’s just. . . stupid,” Peter said, mildly intrigued.
—    “Isn’t it, though,” I said, then added, “unless. . .” I paused a moment, trying to think up something so Peter would stay. I remembered what Dad said about the Cyclist going to the hospital after he tried to ride his bike at the park one Saturday. A couple of maintenance men found him sprawled out on the ball field, clutching his chest. So trying to sound important, I said, “Listen, I heard this psychologist on 20/20 say some men marry just to be mothered. You know, to have someone clean up after them, baby them, an’ pamper them like they were used to growing up? He said exercise is what you watch other people doing on the tube, along with fast food commercials. Well, just suppose that Mrs. Robbins somehow decided she doesn’t want to watch her life go down the crapper too. What does she do? Well, maybe just what she’s always done. Only somewhere along the way, she’s crossed that thin line.”
—    “What thin line?”
—    “Like the man said, the one between love and hate. Suppose she’s decided subconsciously to pamper him to death. Like some cholesterol sludge in his veins breaks off, jams something up, an’ he just. . .”
—    “Dies?”
—    We stared at my periscope for the longest time as I turned it round and round nervously in the half light under faint stars. It was getting dark in a hurry.
—    A cricket chirped.
—    The weeping willow wept.
—    Over the fence, a very fat man sat in a circle of television light, a swallowing machine, a human disposal. Behind him, against the garage, was what was once a beautiful Italian-framed racing bike, its Campagnolo pantographed components now crusted, its spokes rusted from neglect and rain.
—    But Peter Fibbs was not impressed.
—    “You’re crazy,” he said. “You need school.”
—    “But Mrs. Robbins isn’t screaming anymore,” I said, defensively. “And here she is, pumping him big as a blimp, bringing him God knows what for dessert. What would you think?”
—    “I’d say they made up,” Peter Fibbs said. “And so would anyone else.”
—    “But that’s exactly my point!”
—    “Give it up, Donny,” he said. “You been watching too many episodes of The Family Guy.” He laughed.
—    “Oh sure,” I said, dully. “That’s it, sure.”
—    Just then, the screen door opened on our house. Mom leaned out. “Time for supper!” she called.
—    “See you tomorrow, Stewie,” said Peter Fibbs, his back to me already.
—    I watched Peter mount his Schwinn and glide out and down the street without pedaling, with all the time in the world. Peter Fibbs. Sometimes I wonder why I bothered. Where was his sense of adventure, anyway? How did I rate such a dullard for a friend in the first place? Whenever we’d talked about the future, was it ever him who thought of NASA first? No, Peter wanted to be like his dad. An accountant. What kind of future was that?
—    After Peter was gone I tugged Ernie’s hand and, reluctantly, we went in to eat.
—    In the dining room Dad sat, drinking coffee. Meanwhile Mom was serving dinner: veal cutlets and mash potatoes.
—    “Dad?” I said.
—    “Yes, son?”
—    “Dad, I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I told you I have a theory about Mrs. Robbins trying to murder the Cy. . . I mean, Mister Robbins. With a heart attack.”
—    Dad let out something like a war hoop, and slapped his own widening paunch. “It wouldn’t surprise me, son,” he laughed.
—    “Careful now, dear,” said Mom, holding the table steady, and then, seeing me toy with my fork, “Now what made you say something like that, Donald?”
—    I told her. She stared at me with a face like a jury member filing in for a verdict.
—    “Maybe you should check it out, Paul,” said Mom, still expressionless.
—    Dad shook his head, no dice. “The playoff’s on in a minute. I can’t miss that.”
—    “But this is actually important,” I pleaded one last time.
—    Dad looked at me funny-like. So’s this, the look said. And then that same sense of sadness came over me, just like it had with Peter Fibbs. But this time it was multiplied by the feeling of farewells. Farewell to summer, hello to long gray autumn days of drizzle and homework. Farewell to Junior High, hello to acne and SAT scores. Farewell to imagination, and hello to. . . what? CPA school? Job interviews? Retirement programs?
—    “No dessert tonight, Donald?” asked Mom as I pushed back my plate.
After dinner, Mom went into the kitchen, and started on the dishes. Lips sealed. Of course I never really expected her to take my side, because she was neutral. Like Switzerland. Maybe it was safer that way since she had to live with Dad while I was away at school, growing up way before my time.
—    I watched Dad go into the living room and cut on the TV, having already forgotten about me. He just settled back into his leather armchair, and gave out this little self-satisfied sigh, almost like he’d mastered the secret of how to make us kids invisible. “Bring me a beer, will ya?” he called to Mom.
—    Mom opened the refrigerator.
—    Mom passed us with Dad’s beer.
—    “Time for bed,” she said finally, turning Ernie toward the hall with her hand. “School tomorrow, bright and early.”
—    I saw on the TV there was an advertisement about a show featuring cyclists racing across America. They all looked exhausted, but thin and healthy. Watching this, Dad was expressionless, just sitting there, staring like one of those department store mannequins, and I was reminded of that fat kid on The Family Guy who once had a transmitter planted in back of his head by little Stewie, who remotely controlled him. But when Mom came in, he suddenly seemed to see her pulling at Ernie, who was whining.
—    “Do I have to–”
—    “MOVE!” said Mom.
—    Mom was acting oddly too, somehow. And there was something in the way she looked at me over dinner. I figured she’d wanted to go out that night, only Dad got his way again because he could talk louder. Mom would never try and shout back at him, of course. Usually she just went into her room and closed the door for a while.
—    Usually, but not that night.
—    We went to our room. Ernie started to slam the door, but I stopped him, and left it open a crack. For some reason I wanted to hear what Mom said, and if she was all right out there with Dad, the robot. But when Ernie started hitting me, I had to defend myself.
—    “Well, I  thought it was a good theory,” I said, trying hard now to imagine the sirens going, the fat man sitting there limp and pasty-faced next to his rusted racing bike, the TV blaring, and that one woman smiling. “I thought so, anyway.”
—    As I unbuttoned my shirt and threw it down, Ernie went over to where Mom had laid out our school clothes across the bureau. “You need school,” he mimicked Peter Fibbs exact words. Then we slid into bed and cut the light.
—    It was in the pitch darkness a moment later that Ernie said, like it had just hit him, “Summer’s over.”
—    “Imagine that,” I said sadly, and pulled the covers snug.
—    We listened to the muffled TV noises coming from the living room, and once or twice more heard Dad call, “Another beer in there!” and Mom answer, “Coming right up, dear.  . . .You want another roast pork sandwich?”
© 2003 by JL

Jonathan Lowe

What’s Eating You?

Tall TalesHarry Swain sat uneasily in the back of the tour bus, where the view was good.  DO NOT GET OUT OF CAR, the sign outside read.  DO NOT ROLL DOWN WINDOWS.  And:  HONK IF IN TROUBLE.
       When they ran over the cattle crossing in the road the guide up front was reminded to begin his spiel.  The bus crept forward past the gate, then; into an imitation veldt sculptured with grasslands, water holes, and feline hierarchies.  Here gazelle grazed, occasionally crossing a paved road which facilitated man’s intrusion into this bogus wilderness.  Here, a very realistic September sun burned with a relentlessness as African as any over Kenya.  But Swain snickered to see how it even made wavy lines rise out over the whole San Diego valley just like in the TV safari films.  Now the same heat also lent its effect to the hoods of the cars that threaded slowly along like shiny snake’s scales.
       “And up on the left we have the majestic African Elephant,” the guide announced as they drew near the first man-made water hole.  “See how he enjoys the cool water he’s throwing on his back?”
       “Yes,” said Harry aloud, despite an old woman in a straw hat scowling next to him.  “Oh yes, I see.”  And where’s our free drink, anyway?
       “See how the baby gnu is wading in for a refreshing drink?”
       “Indeed,” he said, wearily wiping his own forehead, “I do.”
       “Luckily for us,” said the guide, “we’ve managed to place more and more of these beautiful animals on the endangered species list so they won’t become extinct from poachers.”
       “But what about me?”  suggested Harry, under his breath.
       “Yeah,” said the old woman, tilting the brim of her hat abruptly up.  “What about you?  Maybe we can stop the bus, let you out, and see if you become extinct.”   
       It was just like something Stanley might say.  Harry was about to let it pass, but then focused on it instead.  True, the tourists–and in particular this old biddy in the straw hat–only reminded him of all the people he’d known superficially.  Even the guide, who soon lingered inordinately on gestation periods and mating habits, reminded him of a psychiatrist he’d wasted money on, back in Tampa.  But the meaning of the old woman’s retort caught his attention, reminded him why he’d come to town, and re-suggested a method to exorcise his personal demon.
    What’s eating you, wacko?
    Was Stanley Cramer a wacko too, though?  Had Stanley gone to a shrink as well?  Probably not, the lucky stiff.  By contrast–God!–the things he remembered saying about himself to his own shrink.  The forced memory of a petty and tedious life lived in search of . . . what?  Happiness?  Justice?  After twenty years as a retail department manager, with the customers always Right even when they were dead Wrong, he’d grown tired of the pretense.  Until that bleak Tuesday morning when he got out of bed and something in him snapped.  He couldn’t smile at all after that.  Not even when they’d said “You’re not happy here, Harry,” and replaced him with a younger face promising automatic have-a-nice-day smiles.  The kind they gave you at the takeout window at Taco Bell.
        The day before his little breakdown, of course, a man who was a dead ringer for Stanley Cramer had come into the store and bought a drill, then two hours later returned it for another–claiming it had burned out, and stating the guarantee.  And then, just before closing, the same man had come back again with the second drill.  “Why don’t you buy a commercial model?” he’d asked the fool.  “It would fit your needs for years.”
       The man had smiled that trademark Stanley Cramer smile, then.  And suddenly it was as if Stanley was there again–forever optimistic and confident, ready to continue the battering of other people’s self concepts and senses of sanity.  “But I’m finished now,” Cramer’s look-alike had even replied, and then added:  “Why should I buy a commercial model anyway, when I can get a new one every time?”
       There was no beating them, those saccharin optimists who laughed at logic and whom women adored.  
    Or was there?  Only his dying mother’s words held any hope at all:  “Son, you’ve gotta DO something to change your life,” she’d said.  “Yer too pessimistic, too withdrawn for your own damn good!  Lordie Lordie, if you worked for the post office I’d be hearing about you on the news . . . yer gonna crack up if ya don’t shape up first!”
    Do something.  Anything.  Even something . . . crazy?
                     *          *          *
He wondered about that as he walked up to the house.  What if it was possible to revenge this symbol of his past?  Could his life really begin all over again, at forty-four, a new year with a new life?
       As expected, the house was a beautiful split-level in a newly built subdivision that afforded a nice view of the bay.  He’d looked Cramer up in the phonebook, and finally–a plan forged after a nervous week of vacillation–had driven out in his rented car.
      Stanley Cramer was even fatter.  Fat, affluent:  a true sanguine, a true optimist.  He stood in the doorway, a tight smile on his round face, a live martini in one hand.
       “That’s right.  Who are you?”
       “You mean . . . you don’t recognize me?”  Oh God.
       Cramer straightened himself.  The smile vanished, then flickered on and off–an evanescent smirk, here and gone.
       “Junior High,” Swain hinted.
       It had no effect.  Only a puzzlement came to Cramer’s pudgy Republican face.
       “The playground, and later the ball field,” Swain suggested.  “Hit and laugh, your favorite game?”
       Oh yes.  Stanley seemed to remember now.  His idiot smile returned briefly, then subtly faded into offense.
       “Harry,” Swain pronounced, evenly.
       “Harry?  Oh, oh . . . Harry!”   The puzzlement returned.  “Harry, why are you. . .”  He waved it away.  “Come on in, Harry.”
       They talked for an hour about old times.  Mostly Cramer’s old times.  And Cramer’s new times too.  Like how he made eighty grand a year as a procurement buyer to an oil company subsidiary.  “We’re the ones who make the barrels,” Cramer joked, and with that same optimistic smile which now suggested that even his jokes were successful.
       “Say, listen, Stanley,” Swain heard himself say after the evening was half wasted.  “I’m only in town for a few days and was wondering, could you, maybe–“
       “–you’re not about to ask me for money, Harry,” Cramer laughed.
       Swain was shocked at the thought.  “No, no, I was wondering if you could show me around.  My kid brother is stationed in the Navy here, but he’s busy and, well. . .”
       “I didn’t know you had a kid brother, Harry.”
       Sure he didn’t.  But he couldn’t mention the gun in his pocket as insurance and last resort, either.  That would be too unbelievable.  Especially to an optimist like Stanley Cramer.
      Cramer stroked his chin.  “I’m not working tomorrow.  Where would you like to go?”
       “Well, I caught Sea World last time,” Swain lied.  “And the business district, and the beach . . . and Balboa Park.”
       “Been to the Wildlife Park?”
       “No,” Swain replied with peaked interest.  “What’s it like?”
       “Lots of cars, I’m told.  Which is why I haven’t been there yet myself.”
       “Well, we don’t have to go during peak hours, do we?”
        Cramer smiled an optimist’s smile.  “No, we could go when it’s just opening.”
       “Smart thinking,” Swain replied, venturing a mortician’s smile in return.
                           *        *        *
Swain made sure they were early, and inside the park the very instant the gates opened.  Insisted they take his rented car too, and not Cramer’s red Mercedes convertible.  A car he’d rented with cash and a fake I.D., just in case.  He drove quickly, passing the elephants, the ponds, the zebra, and down the narrow winding road to the very center of the park.  And then, he suddenly saw them:  the lions were all standing around, waiting for feed time in the slanted morning light.  Their tongues lolled out of their mouths, like they were sick.  But no, it was not sickness.  It was hunger that had set in during the night; and wasn’t feed time still half an hour away?   
    Oh yes. . .
       Not wasting time, he pulled as close to the lions as possible, and then, as Cramer was watching them and rattling on about a proposed vacation to South Africa, reached under the dash and parted two wires.
       The engine died.
       “Hey, the engine quit,” Cramer pointed out.
       “So it has,” Harry replied incredulously.  He tried several times to start it, using the ignition; he tried to smile.  “I think it’s that crazy automatic choke again.  It’ll have to be held open before it’ll start.  Just take you a second.”
       “Who–me?”  Cramer found the suggestion amusing.  “I’m not going out there.  Are you crazy?”  You wacko, you.
       Swain didn’t reply.  He’d been asked the question often enough.  Once by his only wife, before she left him.  And at least once by a loan officer at the First National Bank of Tampa.  But after not getting an answer, Cramer merely reached over to touch the horn.
       Dead.  Like you’re gonna be to me, Stan, my man.  Finally.
       Now Cramer was aghast.  “What’s wrong with you?  Why are you staring at me like that?”  What’s eating you, you nut job?  “I can’t go out there.  You go out there.”
       “Me?”  Harry chuckled, dryly.   
    Oh yes.  There was only one thing to do now.  He hadn’t wanted to show it, in case Cramer survived–luck was always with the optimist.  But now he had no choice.  As soon as Cramer was out, he would lock the door, connect the wires, and beat a hasty retreat.  If he could spook the lions into action, so much the better.  If not. . .
       Stanley suddenly touched his shoulder, his fingers gently laying there on his shirt.  “What’s wrong, anyway?” Cramer now wanted to know, like the father he never had.  What’s eating you, son?
       What was eating him? Harry wondered.  All he wanted was to remember Cramer as he’d last seen him in the rear view mirror, with those lions all around, just like the invisible lions bequeathed him.  Was that so wrong?  To  be free somehow, in a way he’d never been able to be?  And when the thing was over, to be able to look on the future as if there really was a bright side to it?  Maybe even just like an optimist?  Maybe even just like Stanley himself, with all his wonderful childhood memories and easy life?  Was that wrong?  
       He pulled out his gun and placed it against Cramer’s ribs.  “Get out,” he said, dully, almost regretfully.                                                         
       Stanley’s hand left his shoulder.  He got out with that same stupid look of perplexed amazement often seen on the faces of the Blessed when they crossed his path and into any shared distress.  There was no use trying to explain it, of course.  It would be too unbelievable, after thirty years.  Too inconceivable to imagine someone flying down in a jet out of the past, obsessed and desperate, and no accounting for it on that smug, self-satisfied ledger called Logic.
       Swain locked the door, then bent quickly forward and started reattaching the wires.  Before he could complete the connection, though, Cramer somehow got the car’s hood up.
       Harold rolled down the window and waved his gun. “Go on, get out of there!”
       The lions were getting nervous now.  They pranced in widening semi-circles, edging down from the shelter of the trees.  There were four of them:  two giant discolored males, a panting female, and a cub.  Seeing them, Stanley seemed ready to panic.  Then the hood slammed down, accidentally.  At that, Cramer whirled.
    With perfect timing, Harry smiled his old cynic’s smile.  
    How does it feel, buddy?  What’s eating me?  No, no.  What’s eating YOU.  That’s the question this time.  What’s eating YOU.
    It felt good to smile again, even if it was totally devoid of the kind of charm you needed to make people feel good about you.  Better a dead grin than none at all.  Still not comprehending it, though, the pudgy man who was Stanley Cramer didn’t run, but merely backed away.  Drawing the lions further out.  Then, as if on cue, the big felines stopped exactly twenty yards from the car.  
    Swain finished attaching the ignition wires.  Then he turned the key.  Nothing.  The engine wouldn’t start.  
    He looked up.  Was that a smile playing on Stanley’s own face, or a twisted and nervous tic?  Amazingly, Stanley turned and even began to walk away at a measured clip, doubtless to get the police.  Peering over the hood, Harold saw something else, too:  the main ignition cable–the one that went from the distributor to the starter.  It lay on the ground right at the spot where Cramer had stood.  
        Harry sat and fingered his gun, weighing his choices.  Just as the lions waited.  . . . Cramer, his own childhood, his empty life, his divorce . . . and now Cramer again?  It had come full circle like a bizarre morality play.  But why?  He was a good person!  He paid his taxes, and only had a few vices.  Why the bleakness?  Why the snooty little snots passing him on the freeway and slowing down?  If all you had to do was pretend that people weren’t selfish, or that things would turn out for the best. . . well, it still just wasn’t fair.  Not if you couldn’t pretend.  No, it just wasn’t fair, this thing that had been eating at him for so long. . . the fact that no one and nothing had ever been fair for him.  Not fair at all!  
       So pretend you’re an optimist then, he told himself.  Just for once, pretend that, then.
       Easier said than done, but wasn’t that the ticket?  If so, could he do it?  Could he become like Stanley simply by thinking the way Stanley did?  
    Maybe, he told himself.  Just maybe.  It was worth a shot, at least.  
    Very carefully, he opened the car door, and even smiled a first tentative smile.  Yes, this might work, he told himself.  Just like Anthony Robbins and all those other success gurus said.  See, it’s working already. . .I can pretend too.
       He crossed to the hood.  At the moment of truth, however, his gun misfired.
                              *            *           *
       “Well, doc?” said Stanley Cramer, a look of hope in his eyes, when the door to surgery finally opened.
       The surgeon stiffened, giving a nod of recognition to the police sergeant. “In all fairness at this point,” the wiry old man said, gravely, “I’ll have to say . . . we’re not too optimistic.”


©1998 as “What’s Eating You?” by Jonathan Lowe