Friday, June 29, 2007

Do they watch game shows in Hell?...Part Three

The first two parts of this were posted in May, so I've included links to them. My apologies for taking so long to complete it. Besides the usual level of procrastination, I've been up against those pesky obligations of work and family, but once I was able to remember my children's names again, family life settled down. The piece is long at 2500 words.

You didn't think I would leave Wally wandering in the desert, did you?

(Link to Part One)

(Link to Part Two)

Do they watch game shows in Hell? Part Three.

The Revelations of Wally of Arabia

Months passed. Wally disappeared after making his escape from jail. Various law enforcement agencies stopped by my house, trying to find any leads to his whereabouts, but the visits eventually tapered off. A steady stream of young women called or dropped by as well, but they were less frequent as the weeks and months passed. Some of them were far more persistent than the cops. I wondered about their motives, but was afraid to ask.

Winter changed to a pleasant spring, and spring gave way to summer's heat. The cicadas buzzed incessantly from every direction. Between the heat and the whining, I was about to go barking mad. Sleep was almost nonexistent. My kids just turned up their music to drown out the bugs. It's quite possible I was going deaf from all the noise.

Just after dusk one evening, the doorbell rang. There was a short pause and it rang again. I wandered out to the living room to answer it. Apparently no one else in the house could hear the bell over all the tribal music. They could hear a telephone ring at 200 meters, but not a doorbell. I've often wondered why they don't have teenagers doing the track and field events in the Olympics. An average teen could out-sprint any professional athlete if it meant answering a telephone before the third ring.

A Bedouin stood on my doorstep. But on second glance, I realized Bedouins probably don't wear colorful fitted sheets. This one more closely resembled a drunk Shriner on a tight budget.

He stood there blinking into the lights, a thin, hard-looking man who looked vaguely like Wally. His eyes appeared to be sunken into his cheeks and he had the deepest tan I'd ever seen. But he grinned hugely and said, “It's good to be home again! I mostly hitch-hiked but the further I got from California, the fewer rides I received. I walked most of the way across Oklahoma.” Had I seen him walking down the road dressed like that, I wouldn't have picked him up either.

It really was Wally! I looked up and down the street to see in any cops were parked nearby.

Where have you been?” I asked. “The police have been here looking for you. So have a bunch of women. Are you OK?” I hustled him inside.

I'm fine now,” he said. “I was living in a kind of commune out in the desert. We got up in the morning and worked in the fields until it got too hot. My job was to haul water from the well. Then we spent the middle of the day in what they called spiritual learning. It was all about self-reliance and being resolute in the face of adversity. I swear they got all that stuff off the Lifetime Network and daytime television. We lived on rice, lentils, and tea. If I never see another lentil, I'll be a happy man.”

He went on describing his time in the commune. It sounded like a hard way of life, scratching food out of desert soil. But while he made light of the labor and mocked the attitudes of some of the people, I could see that the time had a profound effect on my friend. He learned self-denial by living with people who had no more than him. Wally liked to indulge in good food and drink, but in the desert there was none to be had. For the first time in his adult life, he'd fallen on hard times and it had an undeniable impact. Some people would have become angry and bitter, but not Wally. He actually engaged in some introspection for once, and he'd developed a self-deprecating style of humor. His stay in the desert wasn't a loss.

He started talking about the jail break. “So after I dumped the catering truck, I walked for a couple of miles, but walking makes you look instantly suspicious in California. I found some kid's mountain bike laying in the yard, swiped his Mom's laundry from the line, and lashed it all to the bike. I took a straw hat from a trash can, too, just so people would think I was an immigrant riding off to do laundry. I figured I could cross the desert by riding at night and hiding out during the day. I used one of the stolen sheets as an awning. I made this outfit from the other. It's good protection from the sun, but it looks kinda funny.”

I couldn't agree more.

Wally said, “I rode that mountain bike just off one of the highways, out of sight of the headlights. It was a good plan until I wandered a bit too far from the road and got lost. You remember all that stuff about surviving in the desert that I said I'd learned from movies? It's all bunk. I thought I was gonna die until I blundered into that commune.”

They welcomed me like a long-lost brother. The group consisted of 5 men and 8 women who've been living in the desert for years. They're tough, savvy folks. They're deeply religious but oddly reluctant to talk about it. I wasn't too concerned, at first, because I needed a place to hide out. Besides, they, um, adapted to hot days and cold nights by changing their clothes a couple of times during the day. At mid-day when the heat was most intense, they stripped down to almost nothing.”

I could well understand the appeal this had for Wally, especially in light of the male-to-female ratio.

He went on. “They were very friendly and open, for the most part. One of the women had that lean and hungry look. You know the one. Such women are dangerous and should be watched.” Wally was attracted to dangerous women and he'd watch them as closely as possible. Sometimes this led to restraining orders. At others it had led to marriage.

After the third month, they allowed me into the inner sanctuary. All that time I'd thought they were some sort of Buddhists or one of the other eastern religions, though they were awfully tight lipped about it. Most cults are downright chatty about trying to convert us unbelievers, but not that bunch. When they finally took me inside, it wasn't a statue of a fat, smiling Buddha. It was a fat, smiling Dick Cheney! That's when I knew I had to escape. I'd fallen into the clutches of some weird Republican cult! I took off as soon as it got dark.”

He talked about spiritual learning, higher powers, and the mystic possibilities inherent in spending a night under the desert stars. During a long soliloquy on the cultivation and preparation of lentils, I must have drifted off until Wally said, “But she left me when I dove into a cheeseburger with everything. I'll miss her. You got anything to eat?” We went out to the kitchen for some sandwiches. Mary wandered in, saw Wally and exclaimed, “Wally! You're home!” in that happy tone that women use, but in an instant it turned to that other, far more accusatory one that I hear all too often. “Just where have you been?” He had to explain himself all over again.

I offered Wally a bed at our house for the night. His apartment had already been leased to new tenants when the landlord hadn't heard from him, and the rent hadn't been paid. Most of Wally's possessions were piled up on the curb, where I rescued what I could from his marauding horde of neighbors. At least I saved all his bicycles, tools, and parts. His collection of exotic, wildly colorful boxer shorts sat on the curb for weeks.

He tried to report back to work at the University of Northeastern Oklahoma extension campus in Broken Elbow. But when he showed up, they immediately fired him. He was told to report to the human resources department. Maurice Brinton Steelgrave III, the HR weenie, said Wally had “besmirched the august reputation of the extension campus and defiled its image far and wide”. He went on like that for nearly an hour while the faculty assembled outside his office. Now, the Broken Elbow extension campus is completely unknown over in the next county, so the 'far and wide' nonsense was nothing more than hyperbole. Maurice the Weenie was a big fish in a small pond and he relished the role. He had wanted to fire Wally for a long time, and the extended absence offered the perfect opportunity. Of course, this may have had something to do with Wally dating Ivana, the former Mrs. Steelgrave and the weenie's ex-wife, but her name was never mentioned. Eventually, he got around to saying that Wally was to be “summarily dismissed with extreme prejudice” which is ivory-tower-speak for a ceremony in which the assembled tenured professors removed Wally's mortarboard and ritually broke each of its corners before placing it back atop his head. They cut his tassel in half. As he was frog-marched out of the building, the professors symbolically turned their backs, then lifted their gowns and mooned him. If you've ever wondered what they wear under those caps and gowns, in all honesty, you're better off not knowing. I'm told this is far from a universal collegiate drumming-out ceremony, but it's how things are done here in Broken Elbow.

Three days later, Steelgrave complained of an overpowering stench in his office. He found a couple of raw chicken wings decomposing under his desk. But the stink didn't go away. That afternoon, university maintenance workers discovered a rotting chicken cleverly hidden inside the air conditioning duct. Wally was the prime suspect, though nothing could be proved. The maintenance guys bought him several rounds of drinks down at Larry's Cafe. They didn't like the weenie, either.

That Saturday evening, we went out for a walk along my street. An occasional car passed by. Wally had his bobbed tassel dangling from a finger. He eyed it morosely. “I really liked that job,” he said. “I got to hang around in the library without getting yelled at. I did research into all manner of interesting things, and I had a lovely office in the old faculty building. It had bookshelves and leaded glass windows. It was a place with character, not some anonymous cubicle in a building that resembles a Velveeta cheese box!”

As we reached the corner, I tried to distract him. “What happened with the American Idolatry show? You never did tell me about that.” Wally didn't even look up. He continued staring at the remains of his tassel as he stepped off the curb.

That's when the car hit him. Wally flew across the sidewalk and landed unconscious in Mr. Presley's favorite topiary, a finely sculpted hedge that looked like a thorny, green hound dog. (Yes, THAT Mr. Presley, but it's a story for another time.)

The Neidermeier twins, Jenny and Bambi, were out for a cruise in Bambi's new hybrid. Absorbed as we were in our conversation, we never heard it coming down the street. Wally simply stepped right in front of the car and I would have joined him if I hadn't been half a step slower. The twins, lusty in body and vacuous in thought, bunted him a good 20 feet. The doors flew open and they leaped out of the car. As usual, they were dressed provocatively in a way that would make Daisy Duke blush.

Is he dead?-Does he need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?-Do you know first aid?-Who is he?-What about my car?-Is he bleeding?-Is he dead?-Why did he step in front of me?-Where did he get that tan?” The twins fired off a continuous string of questions, observations, and off-the-wall comments. They were slightly hysterical, but only slightly. Their normal demeanor was nearly so, anyway. Jenny completed Bambi's sentences. Bambi asked questions that Jenny repeated seconds later. As a rule, they avoided Wally and his friends, but since I was married and therefore a little bit more respectable, they'd talk with me in that polite but distant way women reserve for harmless old men. But Wally's reputation preceded him and they point blank refused to talk to him.

It's Wally Crankset”, I said. “He's been away for a while on a kind of, um, spiritual pilgrimage in the desert.” It was difficult to talk with either of the twins and keep looking at their eyes. They tended to wiggle unnervingly as they talked. Sure, I may have been an old man to their way of thinking, but I wasn't dead yet.

Spiritual?-I thought he looked different.-Is he dead?-Is there a desert around here?-Is he hurt badly?-Should we call 911?” My eyes hurt from bouncing back and forth between their identical blue ones.

But that last question got my attention. If they called for an ambulance, the Broken Elbow Police were bound to show up and investigate. I didn't know if Wally was still a fugitive from California justice, and it didn't seem to be a good time to find out. I was pretty sure Chief Fred wouldn't care, but Deputy Ethel would hand Wally over to the California authorities if he had any chance.

Wally moaned. “Oh you poor man!” one of them exclaimed. Before I could stop them, they lifted him out of the hedge and bundled him into the car. Frankly, I was surprised because under all the curves and assorted wiggles, both women were very strong and perfectly capable of lifting his weight. They sped off toward the emergency room. I gave up trying to understand women a very long time ago, eventually coming around to the idea that I'm the only sane person on the planet. Everyone else is stark, raving mad. While it's not strictly true, of course, it's an idea that has greatly simplified my life.

I ran home, got in the car, and drove to the hospital. The doc said Wally had a mild concussion. He was conscious, but they decided to keep him overnight for observation. The twins hovered in his room, plumping his pillow, holding his hand, and even spoon feeding him. They glared at any nurses with the effrontery to enter the room. Wally just took it all in stride, because the effects of the concussion had given him the emotional depth of a Steven Segall movie, which is a polite way of saying his mind was an especially shallow pond at the moment. I checked to see that he was OK while the twin lionesses stared holes into my back, then made my exit.

A week later, I found Wally in the public library researching information on polygamous marriages. I wanted to shout – are you out of your mind? But what good would it do?



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