After a long silence, Lester said, “Stool is underrated.”
Estelle shrugged. She was tired of hearing Lester’s speculations. She also knew whenever he made a flat statement like that, a mile-long train filled with bullshit would soon be arriving at the station.
“Just like I don’t want to hear about religion or sexual preferences, I don’t want to hear about stool or how a person passes their stool. But on the other hand, there is no sense in denying the importance of the gastrointestinal tract in every day life. We're not just talking taste buds on TV commercials, permissible to discuss. We’re talking Bowel Movements with a capital B, capital M. We don’t discuss bowel movements, ever notice that, Estelle?”
“No. I haven’t noticed that, Lester,” Estelle said absently.
“I know you haven’t noticed that. That’s my department, the noticing things department. Bowel movements are taboo. They might mention the word constipation on commercials but . . .”
Lester droned on and on. Estelle tuned out, listening only to the tone of his rumbling, ascending and descending, up hill and down dale, imbued, to an extent, with a soothing quality, she had to admit. That morning had turned out to be a surprisingly peaceful one as they went, at least up until the time the stranger arrived. Lester and Estelle had been engaged in parallel play; Estelle with her cut outs, Lester with his money counting and promulgating, about as good as it got between the two of them.
Then something remarkable happened.
Estelle turned Lester's ad to the right ever so slightly and removed from her box the quilt bordered "describing my process" tear-out she'd been saving for the perfect placement. With no expectation whatsoever, she lowered it onto the paper in front of her; as soon as she did, Estelle’s hand shot up to her mouth. She tittered like a Japanese schoolgirl: A perfect fit! Both borders ran together like cool mountain spring water. Estelle needed nothing more to complete her composition.
But what made the moment even more fantastic was that Immediately following the gluing of her "describing my process" piece, the door of the bar was abruptly flung wide open.
Roddy Granger, married, two kids, mortgage, car loan, titular counselor by profession (in modern vernacular, an investigative clerk for an insurance company), took one step inside and stood, glare of stark sunlight streaming around his darkened silhouette as if Jesus had emerged from the tomb, post crucifixion day three, looking for Action with a capital A. The needle on the juke box careened off its 45, sounding as if somebody held a microphone up to a blackboard being raked by sharp fingernail extensions, the studio engineer amping up the reverb while knocking a heaping dollop of squelch off his wooden spoon on top of the whole audio kit and caboodle. The Beach Boys Barbara Ann had been playing, Lester's “just about most favorite song of all time.” For Estelle, hearing that particular song was like having live 110 AC power cord wires alligator clipped to each of her ear lobes.
Estelle’s head turned at the same speed as the needle ripped across the juke box turntable. A bobby pin flew off her head of black olive oiled hair and made an audible tic on the bar room’s linoleum floor. The bobby pin then tumbled although its tumbling could not be heard, by virtue of its coating, a fine layer of molded plastic which muffled tumbling in general.
“He pushed through that door. Pushed,” Estelle whispered, more than urgently.
“Is this?” Roddy Granger began.
Never had anyone entered Lester’s Place enveloped in sunshine so early in the afternoon. All the bar's customers were asleep at this hour. Right away, Lester did not like the looks of the man or how Estelle’s head had turned so suddenly to focus all her attention in his direction. He growled like a big bald Mastiff, pausing in his money counting.
“I can tell you right now, we don’t want whatever it is you’re selling, stranger.”
“I’m not selling anything. I’m looking for a Lester . . .”
“No, you’re not. Because Lester doesn’t know you and you obviously don’t know him because Lester’s standing right where I’m standing. And getting back to the first-person: I’m Lester.”
“Ass-ster,” Estelle whispered and turned to examine the stranger. Her nostrils flared, opening and closing, opening and closing. He appeared just as she envisioned he would appear.
Lester then said something somewhat interesting; although in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t all that much so.
“Estelle, don’t think that I can’t hear your whispers. I can. Your whispers are entertaining to me even though they are generally comprised of insults. That’s why I don’t say anything when you whisper. You seem to think your whispers are like thought bubbles, that I would go on my merry way oblivious to them, as if they comprised some aside in a play I know you have entitled Your-stinking-life-at-Lester’s-dead-end-bar. Surprised? What, you don’t think I’m capable of thinking, Miss Eastern European abstract collage maker popularity contest winner? That’s where you’re wrong. You judge me on appearances solely and have never gone beyond that. I’m just a stereotype of some kind of oppressive ogre."
“That you are, Lester,” Estelle whispered.
Lester turned to the stranger.
"I’m sorry, Mister, but there is no good time to talk about relationship issues. Generally, people don’t: I’m too sleepy to talk right now, or, there’s someone listening, like, for instance, a funny looking stranger standing in the doorway, so we can’t talk type of excuses. Avoidance is what it is. People choose complacency over pain. That’s right. People not only don't deal with their issues, they refrain from talking out loud in the company of strangers for fear of being embarrassed. Not me. I’d bicker in front of Ann Landers herself, that premier gossip columnist, if an issue came up that I felt was worth bickering over. But you might say I was a natural bickerer and have that, shall we say, skill set.”
“Well, I’ll just take a quick draft then and be on my way.” Roddy Granger offered, wondering if he had the right bar. The man didn't deny his name was Lester, the name Benson, his supervisor at Hellman’s Insurance, had written on the triplicated assignment sheet. Benson mentioned nothing of the bar’s stink of urine and short circuiting ambient light, only that Lester, the man who owned it, had submitted a damage claim, insisting his insured property had been attacked by a “big ole bear that had come down from the mountains” and that there were "claw marks running up and down the walls." He’d written all that in his statement, which included snapshots. The whole thing smelled fishy to Benson. He had to send Granger over there that day because his other investigators were all down with the flu. Granger was the only one in the office. He’d been doing tai chi, chi gong, guzzling freshly squeezed orange juice and power sucking zinc lozenges all week long.
“Just remember, Granger,” Benson told him. “There are no mountains anywhere near that part of town or anywhere near town period. This is a get in get out job. An experience investigator would recognize that.”
“But I haven’t even started my pre-investigation check list . . .”
“We ain’t paying him a cent, I don’t care what your report says.”
The fact remained that there WERE claw marks present on the walls of Lester's bar, lots of them. Shortly after moving in, right after Estelle’s wand was hidden and she was forced to spend her first night up in the crawlspace, the markings appeared, extending from ceiling to floor. Whatever had so violently gouged the wood gave the impression of being possessed by a personality with some anger management issues.
"Like some big old bear came crawling out of the canal looking for berries, couldn’t find any in here and started clawing and clawing and clawing," Lester moaned the next morning after seeing all the damage. "I'm filing a claim, Estelle."
"You go right ahead and do that, Lester. You are certainly entitled to compensation."
“Glad you agree, Estelle.”
She knew full well how those claw marks got there and that the insurance company was bound to send somebody out if Lester filed that claim. That somebody was now standing in the doorway: Roddy Granger.
When Roddy Granger took that step through the doorway, out of the dull glare of parking lot sun into abject morose gloom, he turned his head and spotted the woman sitting at a table, jet-black hair flickering in the blue neon of a short-circuiting Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sign hanging over the disheveled bar. She was wearing a sheik pair of red horned rims, looking like a female version of Cousin It, a lot of teeny bits of paper spread out in front of her as well a couple pairs of hobby scissors. Roddy Ranger had been trained to notice such things, to make assessments.
Roddy Granger thought, and not only thought but came to a definite conclusion: “This woman was more than just a handful."
There was something else, a big something else. Roddy Granger didn’t want to think about the something else, clutching the church card he always handy kept his right-hand pants pocket. Roddy Granger knew the moment he walked through that door that he was about to be sorely tested. Fresh out of Insurance Claim Investigation School he knew the day would come when he would find himself in the field and sent on his first assignment. That day had finally come, big as life, and here he was standing there like John Wayne in Hondo carrying his saddle bags and a rifle. Who would have thought that for that first assignment he would be directed to a seedy dive at the dead end of a lonely oil slicked garbage strewn industrial highway beside the abandoned factory.
“The plumbing fixture factory used to be right behind, didn’t it?” Roddy Granger asked cheerfully, making conversation as he had been taught in Investigation school.
Estelle immediately started to whisper: “An irreversible falling into, a trap door opening, a drop from the gallows, a descent of the guillotine blade, and I fall backward, arms outstretched, trusting . . .“
She projected what she whispered next toward the quivering ears of Roddy Granger: “That no one would see my enormous and unkempt black bush extending down both my thighs.”
Estelle knew she had to pull out all her stops. She just pulled one out too, the unkempt pubic bush stop; or, as Lester called it, "the seshuwul stop."
The fact of the matter was, Estelle, by virtue of simply her appearance, stirred men up, like a long swirling spoons inserted into a malted milk shake glass stirred in whispers intimating the unkempt-ness of a pubic bush, along with a few drops of a little glistening olive oil for good measure. This particular insurance claim investigator indeed felt like he had been placed inside a milk shake blender and in was being poured the tropical miasma of a gyrating Carmen Miranda’s fruit hat, the resulting fruit hat slurry and its sweetness unimaginably to Roddy Granger prior to that day. His head started to spin.
Roddy Granger clutched his church card even harder than he had been before, almost to the point of bending it.
In the past, when spiritually challenged, Roddy took a firm hold of his church card yet had always been careful, no matter what the circumstance, not to crinkle or bend but simply clutch it, the talisman it represented, and symbol for a necessary mindset with which to go about each and every day. As he stood there inside the bar room door, he stroked the church card deep inside that pocket, as if the card were some furry little rabbit and he were the 'tard in that well-thumbed and earmarked Steinbeck novel he so cherished; stroked it in a manner similar to Estelle stroking her cut outs of severed limbs moments before he had inserted himself into the dank interior.
Roddy Granger’s church card was by no means a real rabbit but a square piece of rigid paper, just as Estelle’s cut outs weren’t kittens nor actual severed limbs: They were faded black and white photographs of severed limbs taken at crime scenes and printed in her magazine.
“Drafts are two bucks, Stranger. Happy hour’s at five but its 1 pm so the drafts are two. Looks like you miss-timed your visit.”
Roddy Granger took a few steps forward, fished inside his left hand pant’s pocket, the pocket opposite the one in which he kept his church card, and pulled out two crumbled dollar bills. He placed these on the bar top.
Roddy Granger liked it Lester had called him “stranger,” feeling more John Wayne Shane-ish than ever. But at the same time he knew he had to be careful, real careful, with any inclination he might acquire of “liking it,” of liking anything really, having learned from his psychiatrist how easily his could get his head all bunched up in some fandangled “fantasy land” when he got to liking something, same as if his underwear got bunched up inside the crack of his ass. The last place Roddy Granger needed to be was bunched up inside the ass crack of his own mind, inside some kind a fantasy land amusement park of “liking it,” either while he was seated in front of his PC at the office or investigating a desolate industrial highway gin joint rife with the sour aroma of insurance fraud.
Well aware that this was his first outing without training wheels, Roddy Granger did NOT want to blow it; and that was NOT with a capital N, capital O, capital T. He was living his dream out there in the field Investigating like the big boys do; and when Big Boys Investigate, it was always spelled with a capital I.
The odd thing was, and something they certainly did not teach him in fraud investigation school was as soon as he stepped foot inside the dingy bar at the address assigned to the claim origin, he forgot all about his wife and children. At first, he was simply struck by the pungent odors, like breakfast being served in the toilet bowl kind of odors and momentarily forgot about them; then, in a few moments, he absolutely forgot about them, so mesmerized was he by the oily waterfall haired woman wearing the red horned rims, the saucy female version of Cousin It, sitting in front of a table full of tiny little magazine clippings and the panoply of intricate looking hobby scissors.
Roddy Granger, despite having a robust home and church life, knew at that moment he was in his element, like underwear hanging on a clothes line.
“And knew it good,” Roddy whispered. “Living the touch and go, the moment to moment, like Chuckie Yeager getting his jowls pushed back by the g forces revealing two rows of sparkling white teeth and pink gum lines.”
Roddy Granger had a way of narrating his own life, similar to Estelle. Although that may have been the only thing he and Estelle had in common.
“What was that?” Lester asked, cocking his head. “Another whisperer? What did I just get through saying? I can hear whispers. My hearing is like that of a bat, responding to pings in the night. Goddamn Sonar used to be my moniker in the Navy; and there was good reason for that, stranger. I could hear Estelle’s bobby pin drop on the floor when you walked through that door, right after Barbara Ann got wrecked. Stranger, could it be that you are as bad as her in the whispering department, like two peas in some freak show of a pod!?”