“Are there any sharks?”
I almost fell into the pond. The beer came squirting out through my nose with a swishing sound and I fought for my life all of the next five minutes unable to decide if I was dying choking with laughter or just, well, choking. I looked at my miserable quarter of an acre of swampy steamy water, hardly enough of it for a pair of frogs to add an heir to the dynasty, then looked obliquely up at the guy asking the question while still coughing and sneezing my way out of limbo. For the better part of the last hour I have been deeply immersed in miserable contemplation of the different constructive ways in which I could have missed (ha) pulling my ex husband by his hair back into the boat that day long ago, the present sudden intrusion pitilessly shattering the sweet gurgling sounds of the last ascending air bubbles filling my imagination. Hadn’t heard the guy approaching, and the surprise dropped me from a crouching position into a butt sitting one. He was blocking the sun, yet I still had to squint when trying to look up at him from the disadvantage of my unladylike position. All I could see was a dark grey shape and some blinding corona where his head was supposed to be.
“Yes, and the Niagara Falls have run dry.”
“Oh...” Seemed to me like he was hesitating. “I didn’t know that. When?”
He was serious. I was just about to pour into my body another mouthful of beer, and this one ended same as the previous, out through my nose. And I almost fell into the pond again. I stood up, giving up completely my previous wishful thinking investigation, and moving my attention to this particular exemplar of other things asking be investigated. When I finally finished exuding all the sounds related to cleaning my nose, catching my breath, spitting, and inefficient cursing (tough with a blocked larynx) I raised my eyes at him, a sudden suspicion clouding my euphoria bound mood.
“Hey, I wonder, is not my no good sister Janet that put you up to this? You know, playing the buffoon and scaring the shit out of me. She should know it is neither my birthday nor is it April Fool’s day, I didn’t ask for any surprise young male strippers, and I don’t see a damn place around here to hide a candid camera.” I squinted, trying to get a better look at the funny fellow. “God, are you from he moon or something?”
Again that short hesitation followed by some throat cleansing.
“No... I am from Emel, Oklahoma”.
Luckily I was careful enough this time not to have my mouth anywhere close to the can of beer. But this time I did fall in. Headlong, and even in the putrid stinking water I could not stop my body from shaking with laughter. The guy looked at me, clearly hesitating if he should jump in after me. Probably fearing the sharks and yet “...that’s what people around here seem to do when they laugh...” and just the thought of it sent me reeling into the water again. When I finally calmed down, I clambered on all fours back to the muddy bank, stopped for one additional moment to shake off the spasms of another laughter attack, and tried to stand up. I was aware of my long greasy hair and disgusting green moss plastered all over my face, not to mention my nipples embarrassingly sticking out through my wet shirt. I didn’t give a shit, this phenomenon begged for additional research and my weekend had been just too boring till now. He tried to help me in a clumsy kind of way, his palm accidentally brushing against my breast. We froze. I didn’t panic, I guess HE did.
“OK, you can take your hand away from my breast.”
I don’t think he was brazen, rather scared to death of the consequences.
“Well, because I like it too, and if you don’t then I am going to kick your jewels from here till Sylvester.”
“I don’t have jewels, but I have twenty dollars and seventy four cents” he said hurriedly, taking his hand off my breast and starting a frantic search in his pockets.
This was just too much. If I hadn’t done it earlier on, I would have fallen into the pond right then and there. But haven gotten already my daily infusion of green water I maintained my precarious balance by just gesticulating wildly all azimuths through the next twenty seconds or so of convulsive laughter. My God, never met such a creature in my life. I got even closer to him, judging his appearance with a detached portion of my brains - not too tall, thirtyish, well proportioned, a face not really every girl’s dream to take home to mom, but not her nightmare either.
“Let me see...” I said, taking his hand, and feeling the strained muscle going suddenly limp “... you do look human to me, you know. I see you have fingerprint lines, open your mouth.... yes, looks like you like sweets, you are unshaven...” ...something devilish was taking control of my behavior, I wasn’t a squeamish virgin or something and nobody was looking, so what the hell... I got as close to him as his trapped rabbit regard allowed me to, actually so close that my still awakened femininity almost touched his shirt. Then I gave him one minute, looking intently at his under the waist portion of the body... definitely human, yes, definitely. I let go of his hand and took a step back. I felt a certain undefined adventurous mood enveloping my senses, much aware that a reasonable chunk of it belonged to three cans of beer induced fantasies. So what, I felt just great.
“Listen young man, you are definitely here on private property, my property, you are definitely not a color-it bibles for children seller, and you don’t seem to be a nuts case, though it is something I would like to investigate further.” A joke passed through my head. “Hey, are you not a humanoid robot by any chance, you know, escaped from some secret military lab, hit by lightning and suddenly you discover you have human attributes. Like in this movie, with Steve Guttenberg... what’s its name...?”
“That’s it. Well, you certainly look more human than the bug eyed sweet horror in that movie. Reminds me...” I kept on babbling, wondering in the background if really most of that joviality originated in the damned Belgian beer? I ran a half second long summary of my life, just for kicks. Divorced one year ago, my husband made sure to spend all of our money on this property, letting me “win” it together with a hefty mortgage yoke, while he found a rich floozy that went for his Latino looks and they both flew over to Acapulco “...the ultimate of tests. If you are human you can laugh at a joke. Right?”
I didn’t mean it as a question, but now that he answered I felt even better about it.
“OK, I will tell you a joke, and if you laugh I accept you as my next of kin. If not then I cut you in two and check which side of your electronic brain wires into which side of your body.”
He started laughing, but I mean laughing...
“Hey wait, I didn’t tell you my joke yet...”
He disregarded my gesticulations, and after several seconds jumped into the pond. Did I say he didn’t seem to be a nuts case? I was certainly wrong. The guy really thought he should jump in “...because that’s what people around here seem to do when they laugh...” as I was saying earlier on. Forgetting the “seem” part of it. And definitely deciding to disregard any sharks warning provided earlier on. Freedom of choice... my God, what does the world breed today? When he got out he was shivering. I was glad there were no sparks and small pieces of burning flesh spluttering all over the place like in the movies... He stuttered.
“B-b-ut yes, you did tell a joke. Imagine I wouldn’t laugh, then you would have cut me to find out I am all flesh and b-b-bone and b-b-blood. This is a b-b-big joke.”
I did not quite follow his reasoning, but somehow I warmed up a bit to the odd creature. And the poor guy was now shivering for real. Why was he stuttering only on b’s?...
“What’s your name? And don’t tell me Johnny Five or I’ll take my six shooter and put five bullets through your heart.”
He puzzled a bit over the statement, clearly amused by the “intricacy” of it. Gave him time to join me in having whiffs of steam rising from his clothing in the blazing sun glare.
“And what will you do with the sixth?”
“Don’t know, never thought of it.” I actually didn’t. “Maybe put it through my brains, I think they need a bit of fresh air. Five sounds to me like a nice round number.”
“Six is a round number in the normal world.”
“And do I look normal to you? Any normal woman would by now have run home, bolted all doors and windows and screamed her head off.”
He hesitated. Then he took my hand and started examining my fingers “... you do look human to me, you know. I see you have fingerprint lines, open your mouth.... wow, no sweets... you should try some, are you sure these are not plastic capped steel..., hmmm...you are in need of some shaving...” the guy was clearly trying his version of a joke and he was getting there... “human, yes, definitely human...” he approached me almost same distance as I did him, guarding intently MY lower half of the body.
“Nothing will grow out there, you know?” I said, girlish mischief creeping into my voice.
Oh, my goodness...
“Johnny Six”. That was just too much. The guy was either as phony as this expensive stamp I bought three weeks ago (grrrrrrrrrrrr...) or as genuine and innocent as a newborn’s smooth bottom. And he found my laughing button and I hated him for that. I had to lean on him while trying unsuccessfully to recover from the hiccup induced by my latest laughter contortions.
“Yes, and I am Mona Lisa”. He was going to say something and I made an imperative gesture with my hand that would have stopped a herd of charging elephants. “Okay, I know, Lisa hangs in the Louver in Paris guarded by a one yard thick glass panel and twenty armed guards.”
“I wanted to say you are much prettier than the Mona Lisa...” ...now he was talking business my way... if I could only control this sudden onrush of blush that was conquering my face at such an aggressive pace... “but...” ...I hated this but... “...your smile is as beautiful as hers...” ...well, there’s nothing wrong with but’s, is there?
“Matilda. The name is Matilda, and my first ever murderous impulse was when I heard my parents calling me by this name the first time.”
“But you were just born...”
“Right, imagine what it did to my still immature personality. Since then everybody had to call me Sam, or else...”
This time he smiled, and this time he really meant it. I found myself liking the smile.
“I like Matilda. I like also the song.”
“Hey, you are not an Aussie or something like that? You do have a funny accent, not to mention behavior, you know.”
“No, I told you, I am an Oklie...” and he laughed, clearly amused at his demonstrated linguistic ingenuity. Did I already say I liked him? No, I said I liked his smile. Now I found myself liking him.
“How old are you Johnny?”
“And don’t you dare ask my age...”
“...Or you’ll take your six shooter and put five bullets through my heart... I know. And five is an even number...” Yes, I remember I said I liked him, only I think liked him was using the wrong words. I was taken by him like by a storm. “And your age is thirty years and five days.”
Bang. Hit by a running train straight into the head. My overly festive mood was about to crumble into the molecular components of suspicion. I “celebrated’ my birthday with my parrot and a bottle of wine exactly five days ago. I was still carrying hangover traces from the cheap wine and my parrot was still hanging upside down.
“And how do you know it, Johnny ‘nosey’ Six?”
“I saw it on the annular rings of you thumb.”
The liar. The cheeky bastard... my sister Janet was parading again in my mind... I looked up at him. Something genuine was lurking there in these eyes, something... no, c’mon Sam, you’re not a paranoiac, not after the real frightening... lol... years with Paolo.
“Are you serious?”
“Oh, yes. And I could tell you also the exact composition of your blood, your diet components, your hormonal levels...”
“Hey, wait... leave my hormonal levels alone please...” The guy was on the level. Whatever outworldly elements this body of his was composed of, there was something terribly intriguing about him. But right then I started feeling, well, hungry. I’ve always been a very practical person, every riddle had a solution and given time I found solutions to all of them. I was a Mensa member since the age of thirteen, which was probably one of the reasons most of my parties were danced with somebody’s little brother. The “big brothers” didn’t like wise girls. The little ones just loved them. Paolo, my husband for ten hellish years, just didn’t know my history. And neither did I his, otherwise I would have shipped him back to Cuba and made sure he was jailed as an imperialist spy for the rest of his life. So, back on track, I just knew there was a logical explanation to this little riddle and it could wait.
“Tell me Johnny...” back to my jovial mood “are you here by car or something?”
“No, I came by foot. I have no driving license and no car.”
“But can you drive?”
Of course. If he could tell my age to three decimal digits (I was tempted to try...) he definitely could drive a shift stick car.
“A shift stick car?”
“Yes. I saw it in a movie.”
Suddenly he started laughing, and I looked at him and all those grimaces, this was definitely a day for definitely’s and for laughter too. I didn’t find any crack at the seat of my pants, so whenever he stopped his wheezing and weeping, I dared ask.
“What is so funny around here?”
He kept panting, and betweens gasps of laboring breath he succeeded to blubber...
“I just remembered, you asked me if I was from the moon. Don’t you know there is no life on the moon?”
An intellectual, that’s all I needed right now. Okay, I stopped asking questions, first things first, and food was foremost. I picked up the plastic bag from the grass, took out the keys and handed them over to him. “Let’s go to my place, one mile up this gravel road, have a shower, a change of clothes, and go for some shopping in town. Then we come back home and make one huge calories rich dinner and stuff ourselves till we can roll around the house.”
“Okay.” So simple, just Okay. “You are lacking vitamin A”. Well, it was almost so simple.
“I don’t want to know, I just want to eat, Johnny. Be a kind stranger and bring me home. I stink.”
“Yes you do.” The guy was certainly not learned in worldly manners. Did I say already that I liked him? I really did? It seems I was starting to forget things and kind of starting to float...
The drive to the house was uneventful to the point of being boring. I had to show him how to start the car, ...this they didn’t show in the movie..., but except for that and for his absolute concentration on the road, this one minute drive was like that of any Old Lady from Pasadena. His braking was a bit rough, skinning some tire on the gravel, and he allowed me to show him how to turn the motor off.
“Listen, Johnny, you are now entering my house, where I am queen, and Cheeta my parrot, is king. You are only a guest and if you break the law...”
“You shoot me five times through the heart...”
“No, I kick your butt out and you will have to find some other house in the neighborhood to feed you. Talking of which, THEY will probably shoot you first and then feed you. I give you a chance to live it the other way around. Accepted?”
He did not answer, fascinated by the cheap white limestone lions guarding my porch, another ex-hubby legacy. I interpreted it as a tacit “yes”, unlocked the door and went in. I left the airco running low speed when I left this morning, the coolness of the shadowed interior was another version of Eden. Cheeta shrieked one short “hello” and flew over to sit on my guest’s shoulder. I was startled. I never held it in a cage, and usually it was very guest wary since that one time when it had a damaging encounter with a seven years old. Johnny (was he really Six?...) took it in the most natural way, didn’t mind the sharp nails biting into his shoulder, picked a nut from his pocket and held it between his lips. I wanted to warn him that the parrot may take the nut off with half of his lip, but it was like they were an old couple rediscovering each other. Cheeta took the nut in its beak, crunched it, swallowed it, and flew to sit on Johnny’s head, while my guest sat in my TV armchair, pushed the remote control, and started watching intently whatever was there on the screen. It was a “how to do a perfect wedding cake” program. Welcome to insanity. I made a desperate sign with my hand and started upstairs to have a shower.
“Oh, and remember, if you make like running away with the silver plated, made in China, plastic cutlery posing as silverware, Cheeta is going to tear you to thin ribbons and decorate its cage with your ears.” Cheeta just lifted one foot, said “hello” and stuck its head under its wing. Parrots... just when you need them the most... I pulled out some airy lingerie, a wide, short, low cut (nothing on purpose, I swear) pink dress and closed the shower door behind me. A stranger in my house and I felt at ease... strange, I thought, laughing at the imaginary words game.
Twenty minutes later I emerged, a completely new person, refreshed, perfumed, gay... I peeked downstairs, the wedding cake was still showing, and my guest was still immersed in it. Cheeta raised one clawed foot as usual, said “hi...” hi?... what’s that, all its life all it ever said was hello and now it was degrading from bi-syllables to mono-syllables?... “...beautiful” he continued, and I think I blushed, shot myself five times in the head for even starting to get cross at my guest, and cried down to him.
“Johnny, the shower is yours, I left in there dry things from my husband, hope they fit you...”
“Ex. Don’t worry, I saved my five silver bullets for him if he shows up.” I kept waving my gun and the five bullets as if I shot more than just five empty coke cans in my back yard... well, I certainly hit all of them right smack in the middle, including a double hit on the one that flew up with the sixth bullet, and felt mighty proud of it.... The wedding cake demonstration was over and he got to his feet. Cheeta flew over to its cage and made a show of hanging upside down, Johnny looked up at me and smiled.
“I like Chanel 5, it has a nice smell.” I knitted my eyebrows for a few seconds, trying to second guess how in hell did he know what I used and that I used what I used. It wasn’t likely he peeked through the keyhole, not with Cheeta around. But I liked flattery, if flattery it was. “I like also other smells, orange blossom, lilac blossom, white lily blossom, like every blossoming smell, it is like getting born...” He came up the stairs, didn’t even look down my deep cut dress top, though I did my best to bend just by chance to pull my sandals up, he just kneeled close to me, fit the sandals to my feet, first left, then right, then went into the bathroom and closed the door. I thought I was dying...
The clothes I prepared for him were a bit big, my ex was a muscles worshipper, but he looked fresh, clean and...
“Say, did you also use my Chanel?...” I smiled. He returned my smile.
“I like it. You like it. I like you.” He had this knack for simple answers... “Sorry, Matilda... or shall I call you Sam?...”
“YOU can call me Matilda.” Hey lady, time to stop blushing that often at your age.
“Can I make a phone call?” That took me by surprise. I expected either a return compliment or any kind of request but... a phone call? He was supposed to be a lost lonely roustabout dreamer. A phone sounded so... technical, out of character.
“Certainly, go ahead”. He went to the phone, dialed, and after a few seconds I could swear I heard something as close to inhuman as distance would allow me to interpret, some whistling, some broken... English?... syllables. Then he cut the connection, and turned a beautiful sunshine smile on me.
“Thanks, shall we go?” If he was ET in person, I did not give a damn. I was simply... craving for food. We went downstairs, I went to pick up the car keys and we went out. Mr. genius slash mysterious here was carrying a big secret, but did not make any move to hide it. Wasn’t he? He certainly wasn’t disclosing any. I wondered, gave him my keys and let him back the car out of the driveway and then onto the main road. I guided him monosyllabically, till I couldn’t resist any longer.
“Who was it you called?”
“Friends, told them not to worry, I am okay.”
“Friends? Let me guess, you play chess with them.” I didn’t mean it to sound nasty but that’s how it came up. I was immediately sorry for the tone of my voice, but he did not hear it that way. He certainly did not seem to mind.
“No, no way, it wouldn’t be fair, nobody can beat me. We see movies together. And play soccer. There we are on more or less on equal ground.”
“Who are you?”
It was immediately obvious that the question bothered him. He wanted to talk, yet, funnily and like a little kid, he kind of pouted and preferred to concentrate on driving the car. I could not blame him for trying to be devious. Just hesitating. I insisted.
“I mean, where do you come from, no luggage, no serious money in your pocket but not a bum either, how did you come to this place? What do you do for a living, Johnny?”
That was a most stupid answer for someone unbeatable at chess, I thought to myself.
“I know you live, I live too, but where do you work, where did you go to school, are you a genius, or a secret agent or something, and you ran away from your secret and boring governmental duties and decided to see the world?”
“I live. I decided I want to live because when I will be around sixty five I will die. So I want to taste real life as long as I can. And I am not a genius. And I like you.”
Of all the irrelevancies I met throughout my stormy life, and a stormy one it was, this was the stupidest and most irrelevant answer I ever heard. I categorized it in the trash directory, not yet deleted and with an option to pull back again if somehow I missed the point. Of course we will die, all of us, at sixty five, or seventy, or ninety five. So what was so special about you? My goodness, Johnny Six... what kind of a name was that?
I decided to let it go for the time being. I felt he was trying hard not to tell me, and I knew that before long I would know what was it he was hiding there under this wrinkled concentrated forehead of his. Till then, what the hell, let’s enjoy the ride and... well, right Johnny, let’s live... I let out a screaming yahooooooooo... kicked the sandals off my feet, lifted my (nice, you bet) legs on the car’s dashboard and let the wind billow my dress, fluttering like the national flag of my body. I saw him sneaking side glances from time to time in the direction of my legs. Definitely human. Giving in, Mr. Six? Bet if I bend now, this low cut of mine will take us into the ravine. And bet I lose my bet. His control of the car was perfect. Bet (another one?) he could drive and look at me at the same time and have perfect control of both. It was his choice to behave as human so as not to frighten me... I snickered... maybe you are from the moon, Johnny Six? I decided that, when back home, I’ll look up this Emel, Oklahoma place. After dinner, of course.
Eating is something I love. Shopping for food is something I hate. We got into the big mega store about five miles from my place, gave Mr. Six one trolley with clear instructions to buy whatever he wants up to fifty bucks, and we departed in opposite directions. I started checking the meat, the vegetables, the dates, the prices, smelling, shaking, pulling, drawing angry looks from the personnel that had just so nicely arranged the old stuff in the front and the fresh one in the back... long live freedom of choice. In about half an hour I was finished, and started looking for my partner. He surely did not run away with the money I did not give him, so where the hell was he hiding if not among the food, then the cleaning stuff, electricity... where are you Mr. Six?... passed a worried look around the female underwear... who knows... thank God he wasn’t there trying out anything either... I found him fifteen hungry minutes (and angrier by each passing minute) later, in the toys section, a bunch of eight... nine, kids all ages and shapes sitting on the floor around him in half a circle, frozen in fascination as he was working one Rubik’s Cube after another. I did not make a sound, just counted and timed. I let him do ten more before I called him, and the longest it ever took him for getting a cube nicely uniformly colored on all sides was 67 moves in 25 seconds. I refused to believe what the shortest was and made a mental note to check my internet tonight. Quite a number of things to check tonight.
He got up, made a solemn statement he shopped only for 49.99 and no way he could get to a round fifty sum, and after accepting my evil eye as a sign of praise, cheerfully dragged both trolleys to the cashier. The fat, red wigged lady was not at her first attempt to try to rob me, this time of a full forty five cents, she just didn’t count on my personal calculating machine watching carefully as she typed the prices in and pointing at the machine’s inaccuracy which we could prove only after calling the store manager and using his pocket calculator. Well, so it was not the fat lady that tried to rob me, it was her shop. I youpeeeeed outside the shop, gave Johnny a wet smooch on the cheek and was ready for the night’s celebration. What the hell, it’s only once in a life time that you are thirty years and six days old. Not to mention being saved from daytime robbery in the nick of time on the very same festive date.
I knew that Johnny’s secret would reveal itself to me that very night. As usual I was betting with myself on that. As usual, I was about to lose my bet.
We got home and I started messing the kitchen immediately, after feeding poor Cheeta who was screaming its head off for the nuts I always brought for it from the shop. That’s the way I like it, dirty, all tools of trade out of the drawers and cupboards just in case I get an uncontrollable urge to use an exotic one of them, heavenly smells penetrating every pore of my body, flour flying in the air and painting my face, my apron smeared with splashing red’s and green’s and yellow’s, vegetables cut, crushed, roasted... my kitchen, my kingdom, and nobody ever dared get there when I was in, that is nobody until... Johnny. He followed me in, unloaded ‘his’ stuff on the table and started working at it with not even one look in my direction. Okay, as long as he keeps to his corner... I didn’t even ask him what he was preparing, it was so clear to me - a wedding cake, for goodness sake. I wasn’t a Mensa member for my beautiful eyes, I thought proudly, took out the cheese, the nuts, the spaghetti, made a face at Cheeta which chased it screaming back to its cage... It took us exactly 53 minutes and 22 seconds to get it all done, competing only on the oven but finally I gave up and changed slightly my plans... then another 15 minutes 13 seconds to set up the table, candles, cutlery... when you’re hungry you count the seconds, and that’s what I was doing... then asked Johnny to sit down, lighted the candles, and rushed upstairs. Why, do you ask, does a dangerously hungry thirty-something (...smirk...) female, alone with a strange and unproven undangerous man in her house, rush upstairs thus delaying the satisfaction of her ravenous instincts another 13 minutes and 11 seconds? Actually, because of that exactly, she being a thirty-something and an intriguing strange man in her house. A fast shower, brushed my hair, lipstick, a change of lingerie, a long black velvet dress, pearls, a touch of Chanel... hey, lady, don’t you overdo it? No, I answered myself, about time this lady gets out of the jeans closet and starts meeting, well, men... even at the price of hungering another few minutes.
Cheeta’s cage was covered. Johnny got up, pulled the chair for me, and pushed it back for me to sit, then sat down himself.
“Don’t tell me, you saw it in a movie.”
“Yes, I saw it in many movies, it is nice. And you look smashing.”
“And from which movie is that?”
“From me...” and after I gave him a drilling ironic look that got him blushing... “...and from many movies too.”
“That’s much better, Johnny, don’t you ever lie to me under my roof.” and I winked, I had to make sure he understood I meant it as a joke.
“Then I hope you are not going to ask me if I like your food.”
The poor guy was serious.
“Why do you think you will not like it?” I asked, knowing better than getting insulted before perpetration of the unforgivable crime.
“I don’t think, I just don’t know. And I don’t want you to think badly of me. Because I like you.” The guy was too good to be true, and I tried a real pinch of my own hand, taking my yelp of pain as acceptable proof that reality was still governing my life.
“Let’s eat, Johnny, and this decision will be taken later.” We ate, moving through my secret mozzarella entry with my secret oil mixture, then through my secret spaghetti main dish, with my secret sauce and my secret spices... all of it so secret that I didn’t even dare think of it conscientiously afraid someone might read my mind. I was sticking to small talk, my mouth too full for any serious conversation, and my belly too empty for same. I was telling him small anecdotes about my life, my swamp, my ex... funny, I could talk to him about my ex without any anger. All the time watching him, trying to guess his reaction from his mumbled answers, his grimaces. I was not in any way kidding myself - I was courting this guy I learned to know just earlier on this very day today, and I had some hot plans for later tonight. Time to stuff my widow garments with moth balls and forget them in the deep corners of the attic where hopefully some moths will get through the moth balls. I smiled to myself. The wine was part of the problem and of the plan and it started doing its job. I felt good, high, free spirited. He finished the last of his spaghetti, a bit uneasy that nothing was left on the plate.
“Johnny, I decided, and you have no choice but to tell me the truth. Did you like it?”
“Yes. It was the most delicious meal I ever ate in my life.” I felt like dancing. He was not lying, he really loved it.
“And now you would probably like me to tell you my secret recipes.”
“No, I know them. If I start with the mozzarella and the oil mix...”
“Stop! Not one word more. The walls have ears and if you say one more single word I swear... no, I don’t shoot you this time, I... I...” I was slightly drunk, slightly, stuttering, slightly embarrassed.
“What do you mean dance?”
“No, it was a question. Dance? I mean, would you like to dance with me?”
And I was thinking all the time it is I who was making passes at him, now the poor man was making a pass at me in the worst possible way. I laughed, not wickedly but joyfully.
“I have a funny feeling you are not joking. Listen, there is no music, I am a terrible dancer, and I bet you don’t know to dance neither.”
“True, but now I know you want to dance. And I can solve the other problems”.
“And how do you know that?” I snickered. I was not so sure I wanted to dance, though I probably would have liked to test these arms trying to hold me upright in my half drunk state.
He stood up. Took my left arm and put in on his right shoulder, took my right in his left, his right hand on my hip, and started singing softly...oh, my God... Waltzing Matilda. And his voice was rough but the toning was perfect, and the rhythm was changed to a perfect... waltz?... I never danced a waltz in my life, I was a disco generation, yet I followed his movements as if I was Ginger Rogers with clouds my dancing floor... If this was what he could learn from his movies, then, speaking about my wide bed upstairs...
The phone rang. The sound jarring, stabbing mercilessly at this intimacy that started enveloping us, oh no, not now. I disregarded it, but then it stopped and started again. Unforgivable mistake, I should have disconnected it, where was your stupid head you hormones flushed woman, up your bottom and now you pay the price. Probably the stupid temp on duty at the law firm where I was working decided he had an emergency worthy of disturbing a junior member of the management team. I felt like screaming. The mood was bust. Johnny stopped moving and singing and watched me questioningly.
“Hell!” I was really pissed off, angry. I picked up the receiver and snapped at it the most unfriendly “Sam here, what’s the matter?...” that I could muster. Then the anger changed into incomprehension. “It’s for you.”
He did not look surprised at all, came over took the receiver and listened. I stayed as close and as impolitely as I felt I had the right to be. I could have bitten him, so furious I felt. If you are ET then I want to listen to it as well. And if you are not I want to scream at it. I did not hear the other side, but then Johnny said a short soft “Okay, I’m coming...” in plain English, laid the receiver down and looked at me, for the first time since we met, with a straight, penetrating stare.
“Matilda, I must leave. You must forgive me, I must go.” He looked imploringly at me, but I suddenly felt as bitchy as only a scorned woman can feel.
“Sam for you, you hear me you son of a bitch, it’s Sam for you. OK, go to your space ship. One thing, buster, next time you are around better bring a bulletproof vest with you, because you are going to get plugged with all six of them. Now beat it. And don’t forget to send the clothes back.” I was meaner than I intended to be, maybe because it mattered more than I intended it to matter? I felt hurt, drunk, disappointed, wanted sex and couldn’t have it. I hit him in the face. He looked surprised, but did not move, waiting for a second one. Frustration tears were streaming down my eyes blinding my view. I heard the door clicking. I ran to the window, and saw him walking down the gravel path. Far on the road the red lights of a waiting car could be seen. I rushed upstairs, picked a pair of field glasses and tried to see the car. The trees blocked my view, and all I could identify was that it was a big, dark colored car. It took him long to get there, and I moved my attention from the car to the walking figure. I was suddenly sorry I reacted so meanly, I knew part of it was the wine.
I went back downstairs, ready to smash some plates on the floor. First I went to the phone and pressed the re-dial button. The meaningless number did have an Oklahoma area code. I listened to the receiver being picked up at the other end and an automated reply asking for a password tone. I smashed it back down, entered the kitchen and watched the wedding cake, snorted in disgust and went to it, knowing this was going to be my second punching victim for the night. I looked at the miniature marzipan figures stuck on the top, the bride and the groom. I looked closer. In tiny letters, the bride was marked with an M. The groom with a question mark. Why the hell did I suddenly feel like seriously weeping my eyes out?
The weekend was over. I returned to my office and got immersed in work, trying hard to get over that one crazy day in my life. I was a lawyer, junior associate, with a large firm taking on mostly cases of poor people against rich people or organizations. I had this idealistic strain in me and this was the ideal way for me to channel it. Of course, we lost a lot of cases, even though we did our best to investigate the legitimacy of any litigation. But poor people does not necessarily mean honest and/or innocent, and on quite a number of occasions we found ourselves defending an undefendable case of a screwball that found the wrong idea of getting rich. And since neither are rich people or organizations crooked and/or stupid, the battles were anything but boring. With the “just” cases, I was proudly presenting a one hundred percent success in getting money out of the “rich unjust’, either by an out of court friendly (ha) arrangement, or by winning the case in court. Several cases won on behalf of VVAF members against the government gave me special satisfaction. I was a fervent anti-war activist, and cases of our own forces falling victim to our own government’s bureaucracy and obtuseness were always the reddest of any flags waved in front of my eyes. To say that the firm itself was there for the good Samaritan satisfaction coming with defending the miserable souls of this world would be a terrible dishonest statement. They were there for the money, of course, and this niche was as profitable as any. So everybody was happy.
I had three hot cases and twenty one under investigation, enough to keep me long hours in the office, away from home and from that wedding cake which finally I did not demolish but rather deep froze it. Why? Why does the earth rotate? I expected something to happen after my mishap, the world to split up or something, but nothing did. As a compensation for the cataclysm that refused to happen, either in the world or in my life, I was stuffing myself with cheap junk food. And everything with French fries. Even the ice cream. My colleagues knew better than asking for reasons, and the few male contacts that previously were ongoingly trying to build a relationship with me, started finding excuses for not trying any more. I wished they would just stop finding excuses and stop bothering me. The days passed. Twelve of them, but who’s counting? I tried all available encyclopedias and net search engines, but the closest town name I found was Hemel in the UK. The search helped me though raise a bit my spirits. Do you know there is a town called Intercourse in Pennsylvania? Then there is Lay in Colorado, French Lick in Indiana, and Eros in Louisiana. I wasn’t stuck only on ‘hot’ names. There was also Peasedown in the UK (bet they mis-spelled it most of the time, lol) and one name thirty seven letters (!) long, most of it consonants, in the UK too. Actually, I felt I was losing it, no joke, focusing on accumulated nonsense, and it was high time for a well merited time off, or soon I would have had to be strait-jacketed and confined for some cooling down period.
It was Friday evening. I prepared the car, loaded it with tent, camping stuff, ropes, food, I was getting ready to spend the weekend in the mountains and do my best at getting lost. It felt like the time of year for the friendly companionship of bears and mountain lions. They don’t dump you, at most your leftovers. I giggled, another stress sign so uncharacteristic of serious lawyer me. Cheeta was entrusted to Rachel, the office receptionist and my good friend. Cheeta was scaring the shit out of her three cats, an unending source of amusement for her kids. The car was loaded. I left it unlocked and returned to house for a light meal. I wanted to start early therefore I planned to go to bed early. I prepared a small salad, two fried eggs, and was busy cleaning the plate with a piece of bread when there was a knock on the door. Not the bell, mind you, like any civilized person would do. I froze in mid movement. I didn’t answer. I got up, took the plate, bread, fork, to the kitchen, then returned and called...
The door opened. Yes, Johnny, he was on the threshold, wearing other clothes and a plastic bag in his left hand, with one single flower (plucked from my garden, I could recognize my prize roses anywhere...) hanging limp from his right hand. I looked at him, not reacting any more than I would have reacted seeing a grinning troll out there. These things simply don’t exist except in the hot imagination of people inclined to hot imagination. I was not one of these. I watched him shuffling his feet for at least one minute. Then went back to my bedroom, took my pistol, checked that it was fully loaded, and returned to the entrance, where I saw him opening his shirt and dropping it on the floor. He was wearing a bullet proof vest underneath. The rose was still in his hand. I laid the pistol on the table, went over to him, unclipped all five locks of the vest, pulled it off his shoulders and let it fall down next to his shirt. Then went back to the table, picked the pistol, went back to face him, took the rose from his hand and stuck it in the barrel, went to the car and threw it on the back seat via the open window. I came back in, kicked the door closed behind me, took him by the hand and practically pulled him upstairs, into the bedroom, where I kicked the bedroom’s door shut as well.
I kissed him, hard, wild, biting his lips till I felt blood pouring into mine, my hands tearing at his back’s skin while his hands clumsily tried to enter underneath my shirt and undo my bra. I did it for him. He was wanting. I was desperate. I took full control, he was going to pay with the pain in his body the pleasures he owed me, the affront I had to face. I was the animal. He was the victim. And we both fulfilled our roles to perfection.
It was nine in the morning. The night was the wildest I ever experienced. I woke him up four times and forced him four times to make love to me. The frenzy of the first time, made place to the amazed realization of the second time, to the warmth of the third time, and to the tenderness of the fourth time. It was his first encounter with a woman. I was stupefied, happy, curious, maybe in love? Big word, love, one night of perfect sex is not yet love. Can it grow into one? He woke up before me, and I found him staring at my naked body, intently, shamelessly. I felt shameless as well. Very unlike me, one of the continuous disputes between me and Paolo... you are a frigid old maiden... he used to complain when I wasn’t giving in to his demands. And here I was with a complete stranger and as free as Eve in Eden before biting the apple. Thank you, Eve, for finally biting into it...
“You smile...” he said, “you have a nice smile when you don’t know you are smiling.”
I crawled over the bed sheets and snuggled into him, my head on his hairless, almost effeminate, chest, his hand tracing undisturbed the hills and valleys of my body. I shivered with pleasure. I didn’t feel like asking. I didn’t care. My weekend in the mountains was gone to hell, the bears and the lions would have to do for a while without legal advice.
“I know, I owe you an explanation...”
“No, Johnny, you don’t owe me anything, I know already you are from the moon and your skin is actually pale green underneath this artificial plastic epidermis. You don’t owe me anything except my ex’s rags... so I can burn them.”
He laughed, easily, as if it was a real joke. He loved laughing, even while lovemaking he at times burst into a childish embarrassed laughter while I was busy explaining some feminine professional secret. I was not offended by his laughter at any time, actually I felt even more satisfied for the natural way in which he accepted making love to me.
“Matilda... are we back on Matilda terms?...”
“Yes, silly, back on Matilda terms. Johnny, are you going to stay?” I asked and hated myself for asking, because I did not want to hear the answer which might come as a result.
“Matilda, I have invited some... guests. They will arrive here in about one hour. Do you mind?”
“What do you mean you invited some guests? Didn’t you believe I would really shoot you?”
“I wore a bullet proof vest, didn’t I?” I smiled. The big secret was on its way to getting unraveled, did I mind? I was good at solving riddles but I always hated solving them. Gone the puzzled wonder, gone the mystery, simple reality rules kicking in and proving that life was actually devoid of real magic. Real magic. What a contradiction of terms. I straddled his chest, let him play a few absent minded moments with my breasts, then kissed him roughly on his swollen lips, and descended from the bed.
“Then I should better make myself presentable.” I went to the bathroom, turned on the shower, and let it wash away the bodily memories of last night. No shower would ever wash away the brain encrusted memories of same. He followed me, shaved with my lady shave razor, and I almost rolled laughing from my john position, watching the narrow traces it was leaving on his face. I made a fast and dirty breakfast, enjoying all of a sudden the kitchen window view of my swamp, my yellowing grass, and the peeling tail of one of the lions visible from this window. Life was beautiful. Everything was beautiful. Time was almost ten when Johnny said...
“They are coming.”
I didn’t hear anything for a while, till several moments later when I started hearing the soft humming of a motor and the crunch of gravel as it neared the house. Several car door thumps. Then the (civilized, lol...) ring at the door. We went to the door together and I opened it.
“Hi mom, hi pa.” He said it and I felt like swooning. There were three persons at the door. A young pair, about Johnny’s age, whom he addressed as mom and pa. And accompanying them there was this monstrous, huge, ugly, scarred, bald aberration wearing colorful army general clothes, medals, and things, and as serious as a eulogy. Something was wrong somewhere. Either with the inadequate mom and pa or with the monster, and for a few moments it was not clear to me who of them was responsible for my outdated almost faint. It was not almost. I woke up on the sofa, didn’t remember getting there of my own accord, and sat up with a start. Johnny was watching me with worried eyes until I jumped back to my feet, and only then relaxed. I wanted to talk, found myself stuttering uncontrollably, then drank half the glass of water that was prepared for me on the table, and only then I found myself able to think and react coherently. My lawyer’s instincts were taking cool control, thank God. I looked at the pair, seated by now on the sofa, and at the... thing, standing at their side, a gleaming small metal badge on his breast pocket saying Military Labs, and an out of place medal of some kind stuck next to it. Wondered where he bought it. I didn’t know why I focused on him. His body rigid, his hands, which I bet could easily bend a railroad track into a double knot - and this one bet I was confident on winning, fiddling uneasily with his removed cap. I took a long look at him, instinctive repulsion gathering in my throat. I hated the army, hated uniforms, and hated generals, or colonels, or whatevers, surely ugly ones. Sending young boys to death was not in line with my likes in life. As I mentioned already, I was an ardent pacifist, and as Paolo was saying, he being an ardent pain-in-the-ass’ist, luckily you were not there during Nam, we would have pulled out five years earlier... For him it was an insult, for me the biggest of compliments.
“These your parents? You must be joking. Were you adopted by your kindergarten seniors, or what? And who is the nightmare?” I was impolite, vicious, probably a reaction to feeling pissed off at fainting for the first time in my life in such “distinguished” company. And to make things worse, the nightmare smiled a malicious smile, he really did and only half his mouth moved, the other half was rigid, linked at the corner of the lips to this long ugly triple scar. Did I see metallic flashes for teeth? Meet you in the dark and I die, I thought to myself. Richard Kiel as Jaws is a gentle baby compared to you.
Johnny was... well, he was undeniably excited.
“Matilda, meet Nightmare. Nightmare, meet Matilda.”
I refused to shake his proffered hand, I still needed mine for picking my nose and things.
“What do you mean Nightmare?” I asked, taken aback for a moment.
“You guessed right, this is his name.”
“Listen Johnny, I like you immensely, and you know it. But army generals are not welcome to my place, surely not those watching over your shoulder that you don’t spill your beans over whatever new devil’s device you are developing there in those military labs of which you obviously are part of. And which will be probably the reason I will stop liking you very fast, unless you come up with some even faster acceptable explanations. And before that, I expect general Nightmare here, if this is his real name, to get the hell out of my house.” It suddenly clicked in my mind. Military Labs. ML. Emel. That’s what Johnny was referring too, and the big enigma looked suddenly so disappointingly small. Tears were invading my vision in frustration. I would have preferred him to be a green skinned Selenite and not a medals clad army scientist. I was shaking with fury and anger. He saw my coming tears and my anger, and the happy look on his face changed to one of dismay.
“But Matilda, Nightmare is only a captain, and he is my best friend. I invited him to come here, he didn’t want to come at all. He doesn’t feel at ease when out of the base.”
No wonder, I thought to myself, Dracula hates daylight... I missed Johnny’s last sentences and it seemed to me I missed something important.
For the first time since I met him I was able to see a flicker of anger in his eyes.
“He was wounded in the last days of Vietnam. He is a fucking war hero and my friend. I wanted to share it with you and now I don’t want anymore. I thought that you are different. Why did I?”
And I thought he didn’t even know any ‘f’ words. I kicked myself viciously in the head in my mind, and put the whole six bullets of my pistol through my brain, which at that very moment I felt I deserved. Johnny was getting up, determinedly. Suddenly I felt tired, very tired.
“I apologize, my God, I am so ashamed. I apologize”. He looked at me, uncertain if I was mocking them, or mean it seriously. “Talk...” I asked in what sounded like a voice a mile away, “...please talk.”
“Martin, dear, please sit down.” It was the first time she talked. I completely forgot about them, seated at the far away corner of the sofa, so far from my immediate field of vision and so quiet. Her voice was soothing, soft, with a certain commanding quality to it. I looked at her. Nice brown hair, tanned skin, brown eyes, wearing a simple white T-shirt and black jeans. The man next to her wearing thick eyeglasses, a striped shirt, black trousers. Mr. and Mrs. nobody. Yet, it seemed that they held at this moment the keys to the secrets of the universe and they were going to share these with me. Johnny (Martin?) sat down, and the big guy was looking at me with undeniable fascination. Fascination at what, at a mouth bigger than the brains? I thought bitterly.
“Matilda, may I call you Matilda or shall I call you Sam?” She smiled, a nice smile, it lit up her face. I found myself liking her, surely not the typical mother in law type, I thought irrelevantly. I didn’t answer immediately so she continued. “Dear Matilda, my name is Jane Roswell... no...” she smiled at my sudden head jerk “...promise you it is simple coincidence. My husband is Tim Roswell, Martin is our second son. We left his big brother, Jeremy, with my parents, back home in Boulder, Nevada. I am twenty eight years old and so is Tim, my husband.” I felt like it was getting spookier by the moment. But I was in full control of myself, wait, Mat, wait, everything has a logical explanation, doesn’t it? and I pinched myself hard. “We are no government agents, neither is Martin, Johnny as he likes calling himself, a government employee of any kind. We are simple people, leading a simple life, that is - led a simple life until Martin came into our lives. Will you feel more at ease if I call him Johnny, since this is the name you know him by?”
She paused, waited for my nod, and looked at Johnny who smiled back. Then she interlaced her fingers with her husband’s before continuing.
“Matilda, Johnny is dying.” I felt a sudden constriction of my chest, my face muscles, goose bumps covering my whole body. Almost unconscientiously I closed my fingers around Johnny’s hand. All the irrelevancies of the situation pushed aside in face of this dry factual declaration.
“What do you mean dying? He is thirty one, he will live to the age of sixty five, he told me so himself and I don’t care how he knows it.”
“Matilda, it may sound to you the spookiest of stories you ever heard, but it is not. Johnny did not lie to you. Except that he did not mention to you he is thirty one months old.” That was just too much, I felt like exploding in either hysterical laughter, or hysterical sobs, what the hell was going on here? I started pulling my hand away from Johnny’s hand, when I saw the mute pleading in the eyes of the big uniformed monster... why did I keep calling him a monster?... and I stopped my move. I tightened my grip even more. She was sensitive enough to let me re-gather my wits before continuing.
Johnny was born at term, nothing special. Nobody paid any attention more than habitually demanded by a baby, till the doctors started exchanging glances between them one week later, and she herself felt something was wrong. The baby was growing at visible pace, more like in a horror movie than in real life.
“Experts were called in, nobody had a clue what was going on. It was like he was living in another time dimension, that’s what one of them defined it, and he was living there a full life on a timescale of his own. That was before they started finding normal anomalies with his body. His senses were as sharp as an animal’s, his muscular reactions those of a tense spring, his brain capacity seemed to be on a superhuman level. There was no way we could cope with this by ourselves. We needed support. That’s when the army came in. They were the only environment having the means to allow our boy develop at his own pace without hindrance and without considering him a monster. He does not help in any kind of war programs. Our contract with them allows them to examine his body for two months after his death. Then we can bury him.”
I had a million questions in my mind, all my lawyer’s instincts and training mixing up with my basic human and deeper female instincts, but I hardly could formulate any. One I had to ask, had to.
“So when he says he expects to live to sixty five...”
“He means months.” She finished the sentence for me. My lock on Johnny’s hand was a vise grip. She went softly on. “He educated himself, if you can call it education, by regarding videos, listening to cassettes, reading video books, computer information. He is very intelligent. Since he is able to do it at an accelerated pace he covered a lot of ground. For what use?” She was struggling, she got to a point where self control was slipping and she fought very hard to keep it. Not for her own sake. “His world was gyrating around media. Then one day he saw the movie Truman’s World. That’s when he decided he wanted to see the outside. He is very naïve. It failed nine times. You were the tenth, he almost gave up on trying to make contact. We are indebted to you for letting him feel part of the other world. And I insisted to come over and explain the situation to you. I ask for your forgiveness that maybe we misled you, I hope you can forgive us. Now I think it is better that we leave. We have taken already enough of your time and we must take him back to Oklahoma.” She stood up, her husband - never having said one word - stood up as well, still holding hands. I saw the pain there, terrible pain.
“Why?” I asked.
She shot me a sharp glance. Then looked at Johnny, her eyes begging for help.
“Matilda...”, his voice calm, reassuring, any trace of anger gone, “...mom omitted one last detail. On the night I received the phone call, it was because the last cell exams showed an additional deterioration and they wanted my urgent assessment... My cells start degenerating at an increasing speed. I won’t reach sixty five.”
They were gone. A gentle breeze caressed my bare shoulders and feet. I lay cuddled on the swing, my head in Johnny’s lap, his fingers playfully braiding and unbraiding my long locks. I did not want the details, they did not matter. But he expected me to ask him. And then he answered.
“Is there a name to this thing you have, is it a sickness or something?”
“No, just one of those games nature plays with statistics. Trial and error. Some are survivors, some are not. I am not. Actually nothing is wrong with me genetically, only the commands sent from my weird brain to my body are different. Nobody can explain the process, including myself.” It was after he told me he participated as one ‘extra computer’ in the human genome identification process. The process was in its final phase and he volunteered his computing power to the pool. “I probably retarded the whole process” he joked. I knew by now better than to believe this statement. The military are not so generous with free meals. He had his small lab, access to a powerful mainframe computer networked nationwide to others, and he was trying to build a mathematical model to explain his body’s behavior. The success was very limited, only to a reasonable prediction of his aging based on blood samples. I was not interested in the mathematics.
“Are you afraid?”
He laughed and pulled my hair, then kissed the hurting spot.
“No. I live my life, the way it was given to me, in full. This doctor in physics was not so far from the mark, after all, I do live in some different time frame. In this time frame I am aging at what I consider a normal rate. Only you, low level human mammals, cannot comprehend it.”
I did not want to comprehend it, or understand it, or any other synonym it.
“How did you know to make love to me? It was your first time.”
“How do you know?”
“I know. A woman always knows, even with a monster such as you.”
He kissed my cheek.
“I saw it in many movies. I was disappointed when I did it with you.”
“What?” I sat up and fixed him with a dark gaze, only partly jokingly. He pulled my head back into his lap, going on with the unfinished braiding business.
“Yes, I was disappointed with the movies. They never showed making love could be so beautiful, pleasant, so gentle yet so fierce.” I mmmmmmm’d like a cat, straddled his lap, and let his hands send shivers on my bare back underneath my shirt. “I knew I was a full grown man, you proved it to me.” He bared my shoulder and kissed it.
“Tell me about Nightmare.” I asked, almost inaudibly, almost afraid it may have triggered again a reaction of anger. It was just the opposite. His tone softened more, a deep emotion taking control of his senses, his hands slowed down, even his breathing slowed down.
“His name is Kalman.” I opened my eyes for a startled moment.
“What? What kind of a name is that?”
“It is Jewish, and not even biblical. He was born in Brooklyn, into a family of orthodox Jews, knowing nothing of the world except whatever he got from his Talmudic lessons. A much closed society. Everything went the way it is expected to go in these surroundings until he was about fifteen years of age. His father had a small business, and decided to take his son one day on a purchasing trip. One stop was at a slaughterhouse. The way he told me - it was then that something went snap in his mind. When back home he shaved his face and head, dumped his traditional clothes, and left home without even a goodbye. He became an outcast with his own family and clan. He never saw them again. Then, via social welfare, joined a military cadets school, graduated with honors, and in several years ended as junior officer in an army’s supplies depot. A sworn vegetarian, couldn’t hurt a fly even if it would bite him to death.”
“How did he end up in Nam?”
“He volunteered. He was on the sending end of the damned plastic body bags and on the receiving end of the same, filled up. It was eating him alive. He volunteered as medic, temporarily gave up his rank, joined several weeks of training, and was flown over. And all in all participated in only two combat actions.”
“And the medal, is it real? From two actions?”
“Yes, real. That’s how he ended up with ML.” He stopped to whoosh away an insistent wasp, and didn’t continue immediately. I waited patiently.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. “I still have the wedding cake...” He exploded in a contagious laughter, and I joined him freely.
“I miss Cheeta. Where is it?”
“With friends. Shall we drive and bring it back tonight?”
“OK, let’s go inside and I’ll make something to eat first.”
It was around eight when we took my second car and drove over to bring back the parrot. This time I was driving and Johnny sat next to me, eyes closed, in some world of his own. I turned on the radio to a country music station, letting a soft Billie Joe Spears penetrate my bones.
“I like her.” He spoke with eyes still closed, I wondered if he really never slept as he claimed. “I like country music. Some of it is so charmingly simple. I like simple things.” He opened his eyes and looked at me. “And I like you intensely. Because you are so complicated.”
“You mean because I am a woman.”
“That too. And because you apologized.” I was wondering when this subject would come up again, this was probably the time.
“Johnny, I really am sorry about the way I reacted to your friend.”
“I know you are. Otherwise I would not be here now.” The remark frightened me for a moment, with all these extra sensorial whatevers that he possessed, could he read my thoughts?... I snickered and threw a side glance to him. He laughed again, God, I loved it when he was laughing so easily. “No, if you ask yourself if I am reading your thoughts then the answer is no. But I know when you lie and I know when you tell me the truth. And I know when you are sincere.”
“Johnny, why Johnny? And why Nightmare?”
“And Rain Man, and Geronimo, and Juliet...”
“There were more of you over there?”
“A whole bunch of us. Section F. Some temporary, some permanent residents.”
“Section F, like Ferrari?” I giggled. He smiled back.
“Section F. Like A, B, C...F. Of course we know better. Section F like Freaks. And we like it, actually, makes us kind of special. Do you know that Rain Man can store a full telephone book in his memory? All he has to do is leaf through it one time. And he has stored by now seventy one. All of them major cities.”
“Yes, Nightmare... anyway he hated Kalman... His first action duty, one week after arriving to hell and getting acclimatized to its fires, he and a patrol of seven were ordered to inspect a meaningless point on the map. They were dropped close to it by chopper, and all the while they were flying, the sergeant commanding the mission was bitching about this commanding shit-head fresh from West-Point that was sending them on a meaningless suicide mission in an area whose only interest is for mosquito researchers and renegade Charlie’s busy with smuggling opium. They were dropped close to a peasants’ village, rounded up some men, bound their hands, put them on their knees and started interrogating them about possible hidden arms. Most of it was done by shouting, intimidation, threats. At one point the sergeant pulled out his pistol, cocked it, put it against a man’s head and started counting.” He stopped, thoughtful. C’mon Johnny...
“Soooooo?... Don’t you go asleep on me right now, c’mon, Johnny....”
“Nightmare went over, took the pistol out of his hand as if it was a kid with a plastic toy, removed the clip and squashed it in his paw...” he smiled hearing his own words... “...and started going out of the village. He was thrown in jail, ready for a court martial.”
“This certainly didn’t earn him a medal?”
“No, and neither did he tell me any of the stories. I took it from his personal file.”
“You got access to his personal file?”
“I didn’t say I got it, I took it.” He smiled, touched my cheek with one fingertip, put it against his lips and went on. We were about fifteen miles from my friends’ house. “There was a shortage of medics and they needed one urgently for a planned cleanup operation. He got a special release from prison and was promised a “deal” if he agreed to volunteer for this mission. They should not have offered any deal, he was always ready to help. But the offer was welcome. This time they were part of a bigger operation and they were headed for real enemy territory. He was attached to a small, ten men unit supposed to guard one of the access routes to their target. It was when they were filing through a shriveled trees area that it happened. He was around the middle with a young lieutenant responsible for his unit, when the guy in front of him hit a trip wire and a jumping mine sprung up to their left. The way the lieutenant, that was right behind him, described it, it just could not have happened. But it did. The mine was about half a yard above ground when Nightmare’s palm hit it like a power piston sending it in between two tree trunks where it exploded. He got most of the blast and shrapnel in his face, chest, legs. The lieutenant got a shard in his thigh. They were the only two casualties. There could have been five dead at least. He was in coma for two weeks, when he woke up he found himself back in the states, some of the shrapnel forever in his body, some additional surgical metal covering holes in his jaws, chest, legs. And one piece of decorative metal on his chest. The bionic man. His vas deferens were ripped. He can never father babies.”
He stopped. I felt there was more that he wanted to tell me but I had to let him come to it by himself. It was clear the recount was a heavy drain on his emotions. Not the content, but the way he related to the content. He was talking about a friend. And he was feeling his pain as if it was his.
We rang the front door bell, Rachel opened the door to the mayhem inside. She was a sweet person, her kids grew as free as if they were growing in the wild, and the house was always full of light, music, voices. And above all voices one could clearly hear the “hi beautiful” of Cheeta as it flew over to the door, straight to... Johnny’s shoulder, causing me a quickly forgotten pang of jealousy, bent over and kissed his lips parrot way. The kids were delighted, the cats probably too and for different reasons, at last quiet returns to their heaven. We sat for a coffee and a piece of tasteless cake (she was as bad a cook as she was a sweet person), and started driving back home. Cheeta made its usual cat meowing sounds that always lasted for several days after such a visit, but never for a second did it leave Johnny’s shoulder. Almost like a dog. More, maybe?
Johnny finished the story on the way back. ML hired Nightmare for running tests on his reaction nerves and muscles, and he stayed with them further on as the interface to the other “freaks”. He introduced himself as Nightmare to general acclaim, and from that moment on everyone chose his own nickname and it became the rule rather than the exception.
“I arrived there one month old. He was my brother, my babysitter, my friend. He still is. I chose my name based on the Short Circuit movie, funny that you mentioned it when we met. You know, he is the only one in this world that can beat me at “draw” with electronic guns?” He said it with tears in his eyes. Johnny was proud of his friend. I kept clicking the trigger of the pistol aimed mentally to my head, thinking about the way I treated him that first time.
“Johnny, do you think Nightmare could come stay with us?”
I could see him through the corner of my eye turning his head and looking at me intently. My regard left the road for a few seconds, enough for me to discern in his eyes something deeper than pure affection, than thirst for friendship. Cheeta’s eyelids were closed. Johnny, you swept me like a hurricane...
“Mat...” again this shiver, I only called myself this way in my thoughts... “... you are a good decent person. I believe he can. ML will be glad to get rid of his healthy appetite while at the same time keeping an eye on their property, on me.” He sounded delighted, and it was probably the only time in our relationship that he did not sense my cringe of distress at his mention of the word property.
One week later Nightmare entered my life. Never imagined a nightmare could be something as wonderful. We laughed till tears when I told him two weeks later he was as wonderful as he was ugly.
“You know” he said “you are one hell of a warm person yourself when you are making the effort, and one hell of a beautiful bimbo too.”
No one, but I mean NO ONE calls me a bimbo and lives to tell the story.
“Why, thank you Nightmare...” and I believe I even blushed. It was the same day, later, that I caught him at the kitchen table, thoughtful, scribbling down something on paper.
“Hi, Nightmare, hungry?” He wasn’t hungry, but his big paw rested on the piece of paper as heavy as a ton of potatoes, and his face, oh God, the red color creeping up his cheeks would have made a tomato apply for a job in the black & white section of a magazine. Johnny followed me in the kitchen, passed his hands around my waist and whispered in my ears so that only deaf people in Alaska could not hear.
“Nightmare is writing a poem...”
“You must be joking...” I spurted and was immediately sorry. “Nightmare, is it a poem?” His huge head made an unconvincing up down movement, his eyes regarding Johnny accusingly yet immensely pleased. “Is it a love poem?” This time the movement was from side to side, accompanied by his ugly side loped snicker. “A nature poem?”
“He is writing kids poems.”
“What?” I shrieked in delight and rushed to the table, moved the paw aside as if it was made of feathers and snatched the paper from the desk. Nightmare put his forehead on his arms on the table and didn’t move. I read it aloud.
“Bright pink dress and shoes so white.
Hair in curls and a smile so bright.
Must hurry up just can’t be late!
Daddy’s taking baby on her first date.
She’ll be a princess dancing under the light.
Daddy daughter dance is at seven tonight.
The music is playing their favorite song.
Princess and Daddy dance all night long.
He’s holding her tight, gliding across the floor.
Arms around his neck, baby can’t dance no more.
She’s all tuckered out and fast asleep.
Daddy keeps dancing to the two step beat.
He casually wipes a tear from his eye,
The last song is over, yes, daddies do cry.
Look at his princess, she’s growing up fast.
His heart will remember, his daughter’s first dance...”
Tears were choking me. I kissed the bald head and ran out of the kitchen.
Suddenly time was rushing by painlessly, not one moment to breathe, to be sorry, to get bored. On an almost weekly basis another freak, sometimes two, visited us at Johnny’s insistence, and Nightmare played the perfect host, almost as if it was the house he was born in. Somewhere my basic distaste with the military system started fading into recognizing the fact that it provided a warm house for these outcasts. Sure, the military had its own agenda, but for these people it was a blessing. We even celebrated one internal marriage, a first, between the forty years old Rain Man and a newcomer, Liza Doolittle. She was a fifty years old natural blonde, speaking fluently twelve languages including Japanese, and who fainted for real (reminding me of someone... grrrrrrrrrrr...) the first time my door opened for her and she came face to face with Nightmare. One month later the “young” couple were married by an army chaplain, and I asked Johnny to teach Cheeta to call kiss the bride. At the end of the ceremony, at a sign from Johnny, Cheeta started of course shrieking fuck the bride, fuck the bride to an uproar of applause from part of the audience, indignation shouts from the other part, and an undeniable smirk on the young chaplain’s face. I felt like burying myself in the ground, as I was best maid and, wanting to be original, persuaded (Johnny did it actually) Cheeta to be perched on my shoulder for the occasion. I threw Johnny a killing stare. He pulled his shoulders innocently up, and I saw Nightmare trying uselessly to hide behind three other people. Not with his size. I knew that small I will have some big ears to pull when back home. Cheeta was of course enchanted at the attention and started meowing in Rachel’s three cats voices. The guard dogs surrounding the compound started barking frantically, and a few lap-size poodles in the chapel started peeing excitedly on the chairs’ legs. It was the best marriage I ever participated in. The mayhem was terrific. Rain Man punched Nightmare on the chin and sprained his wrist. Nightmare hugged him drunkenly and both men kissed on the lips - I was always disgusted at this “Russian” kiss, till this time. I saw tears streaming down Nightmare’s cheeks and almost started wailing myself... well, maybe there was something to overvalued male comradeship after all. Next it was Liza Doolittle’s turn to disappear inside those huge arms, and I counted to twenty one (got used to counting with these guys...) till finally she re-emerged, seemingly unharmed, and on her way to joining both the “Russian” club and the wailing nation. Rain Man grabbed the ecstatic bride’s hand and pulled her through the gesticulating crowd, probably on their way to take Cheeta’s advice literally.
We rushed away before the crowd got a chance to turn into a mob, laughing our heads off the entire drive home, the full two weeks of it. We arrived by car and decided to do it slowly and visit the countryside on the way. Cheeta finally released Johnny’s shoulder for Nightmare’s, and my head could find again its favorite nook. I hadn’t noticed earlier that Cheeta betrayed Johnny to gain Nightmare’s attention and favors - Nightmare was definitely a better cook than Johnny. One day I told Cheeta my honest opinion.
“If you were a chicken, it is long ago you would have been roasted, spiced and served. Come to think of it, I have never tasted parrot before...”
“Hi beautiful...” it retorted. I melted.
It was heaven.
Johnny passed away twelve months after the wedding event. Two months earlier he asked my permission to return to the army compound, he did not want me to see him shrivel. I was courageous but not that courageous, and I accepted. Nightmare joined him. We stayed behind, sad I, distressed Cheeta, and the six months happily growing bud in my belly. We did all necessary tests, the foetus showed no sign of anomalies and I trusted Johnny’s analysis. It will be our girl, and she will never know her father.
After the army’s two months of sampling, and cutting, and probing, the body was entrusted back into his parents’ hands. They agreed to have him buried in my town, your kid needs a memory they said, and I loved them for that. I married Nightmare six months later. He was too shy to ask my hand, so he used Cheeta as intermediary. I responded in kind. This time Cheeta did shriek kiss the bride and he did kiss me. The big baboon was as soft as chocolate in the sun. The only thing he loved more than me was my daughter. Cheeta held an honorary third place.
My daughter is now seven years old. She will grow to be a healthy young woman. Now I know for certain. Two weeks ago we were asked to the school for an urgent end of year meeting with her teacher, Mrs. Smith, of all names. We went together with Johnny... yes, I called her Johnny. Mrs. Smith was, well, fuming? distressed? acrid?
“I am afraid your daughter will need psychiatric attention during the summer vacation”, she said, throwing uneasy glances in Nightmare’s direction. “Please read what she wrote in the last class assignment she received last week.”
I read it.
“Dear Mrs. Smith. I have two fathers. One was a freak called Johnny Six. I think I dream of him daily. He was cut by the government and buried many years ago. My new father is a freak called Nightmare and he is the ugliest in the world. I love him BIG.” The word BIG was underlined three times. “My brother is a crazy parrot called Cheeta. My mom told me that once at a marriage he started shrieking...” I couldn’t go further, I exploded in a hysterical laughter that just couldn’t stop... Nightmare had to carry me out underneath his arm and I was still shrieking with laughter. Mrs. Smith certainly got a heart attack the moment we closed the door behind us. When I finally calmed down (two day later), I hugged Johnny to my chest and whispered in her ear “...you are the daughter of two wonderful men, one crazy parrot, and a woman that loves you insanely, you are living proof that wonders do happen in this world...”
The class’s end of year party was almost over. Girls danced with girls and boys fought over the last drops of the over-sweetened punch. Johnny was sleepy and Nightmare picked her up in his arms, her head on his shoulder. In his arms she looked no bigger than a Barbie doll. And more fragile. As he was moving in his own slow motion mode under the blasting music they passed close by to where I was sitting. I could clearly hear him murmuring.
“...He casually wipes a tear from his eye,
the last song is over, yes, daddies do cry.
Look at his princess, she’s growing up fast.
His heart will remember, his daughter’s first dance...”