THE LADY FROM SHANG SHANG
Each and every morning Estelle poured olive oil over the top of her head, leaned forward and allowed it to drip off her bangs. As soon as the oil formed a good-sized puddle on the cracked urine stained tiles at her feet, she dragged a pinky down the middle of it all, uncovered one eye and examined herself in the booger-smeared bathroom mirror.
“Well that’s fittingly self-deprecating, don’t you think Estelle?” she whispered. Straight away she replied to herself: “No, it’s not. That greasy black waterfall is only half self-deprecating.”
Estelle let her hair fall back in place and remained silent, not asking the obvious follow up question: 'If my black waterfall is only half self-deprecating, then what about the other half?'
When she emerged from the restroom after her first olive oiling, Lester leered at her.
“You look like the Lady from Shang Shang or something, Estelle.”
“Guess that means you’d be trapped in a hall of mirrors, doesn’t it, Lester?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about, Estelle.”
“I know you don’t, Lester.”
Estelle knew a few things Lester didn't. For one, her olive oiled bangs covered two galaxy shaped clusters of maroon freckles on either cheek that Lester never paid much mind. Because of her distinctive marks, an old hag living two houses down from Estelle's childhood home called her “the little witch.” Spat betel juice onto the ground whenever the girl walked past her porch on the way to school. The woman became obsessed with Estelle's freckles, in fact, and each morning took to waiting by her mailbox. Followed the child to and from school, shaking a knarled finger in her direction, crossing and recrossing herself, sputtering curse after curse after curse. A devout Pentecostal, the woman felt bound to the task: Any form of display was an abomination, and in Estelle's case, those freckle clusters glowed a less-than-God-like orange, a pigmentation from hell.
“Something’s not right with the child. She carries the sign," the crone announced to members of her congregation. After that, one might have thought an agitated pack of coyotes had been turned loose inside that little church. Many took to the ground, writhing on their backs as if being electrocuted, speaking in voices seldom heard since ancient astronauts roamed the Earth.
By age seven, Estelle had decided to live the life of a rebel on top of what was already naturally ‘not right’ about her.
Living the life of a rebel signified different things to different people, of course. For Estelle, it meant wielding a teaspoon of magic every now and then, whenever that struck her fancy.
As it happened, the old lady was killed by a dump truck which for no apparent reason careened up onto the sidewalk where she had been standing. The hag had been in a particularly foul mood that day, hurling vehement curses toward little Estelle and punctuating these with dark blood-flecked spittle. More significantly, on that occasion Estelle's art teacher, Ms. Pledgefeather, had showed her class for the first time how to make collage. Estelle had been beside herself with all that realm of possibility and on her way home, had been in no mood for the old woman’s ranting, brown-staining an otherwise wonderful day with unfounded negativity. She slammed her front door, rushed upstairs and commenced snipping pictures out of magazines, knowing right away she had discovered a hidden garden within herself.
The hag planted her arthritic feet in front of the girl’s house and insisted on pointing her knobby cudgel upward toward the bedroom window only to continue her wet invective. Estelle yanked the blinds down at the exact instant that truck jumped the curb to pin the woman against the sturdy black tarred telephone pole which sat in front of Estelle’s house. He severed legs released onto the sidewalk making the dull percussions Mrs. Stillsbury next door said she heard, likening the sound to a butcher's delivery of ham hocks onto her back porch: Thump, thump.
Despite the woman being divided in half, the truck's engine managed to cauterize all her major blood vessels allowing her to raise a knarled finger one final time and point in the direction of Estelle, who peeked out from behind the blind, head filled with a myriad of ideas for both cut and paste as well as photo manipulation techniques.
The day Estelle found the red horned rims sitting on Lester’s bar top was what some people might call a game changer. She continued to apply the olive oil but stopped all her whispering inquiries. The red horned rims cinched her look: Self-deprecation was gobbled up by its opposite: An astute fashion statement. Whoever left the glasses on the bar top that night and where that person might have acquired horned rims that exquisite was anybody’s guess; there’d been too much of the usual yelling and screaming, beer mugs shattering and so forth to narrow down who that person might have been. The bottom line was, for Estelle, the red horned rims were a gift from some anonymous drunken angel swooping down from Heaven on a rope, like Tarzan, King of the Apes, placing the specs by the Schlitz tap for her to find.
She’d been mopping up a puddle of urine at the base of a bar stool when she spotted the glasses and right away recognized their potential. She threw a crumbled napkin over the top of them like some secret agent at Checkpoint Charlie, sliver of microfilm embedded in a rear molar. The last thing Estelle wanted at this point was call Lester's attention to the find. He would have 'confiscated' the glasses on the spot.
Lester had been counting money, straightening crumbled one dollar bills out on the side of his scuffed and dented cash register, like he always did that time of day. Estelle slipped her prize into an apron pocket and made a bee-line for the rest room, twirling once en route. She'd seen Sissy Spacek do that in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Any time she felt a rare semblance of hope, she twirled.
Stepping inside the silver fish ridden rest room and locking the flimsy door behind her, she right away clamped the glasses over her heavily olive-oil laden hair. They stuck fast: Red against black. Perfect. She uncovered an eye and peered closely at her reflection in the cracked mirror between smudges of grimy fingerprints. The whole experience was not unlike a visit to the Louvre itself; as if she'd flown all the way to Paris, France, and was met at the airport by the dead General Charles De Gaulle, only to have him plant a warm welcoming smacker on both her cheeks and bequeathing the Légion d'Honneur.
What a find, those red horned rims had been! They turned out to be more than a little something for her to clutch onto, more than a sturdy branch growing out the side of that sheer cliff face to which she'd been clinging all these years, ever since Lester had swiped her wand. The horned rims represented not just small case hope but Hope with a capital H. And Hope with a capital H was exactly what Estelle needed to stow in her apron pocket as opposed to the small case hope; she knew small case hope was something along the lines of baby Jesus will be waiting for somebody at the pearly gates and handing them a triple scoop ice cream cone.
Estelle needed those glasses along with Hope with a capital H because of what Lester had done to her. She couldn’t leave the bar for one. Her wand and its magic had been dictated those terms. Although she didn’t care so much about that, the real tragedy as she saw it was being unable to express herself or show anybody who mattered what she looked like in the new horn rims, how they contrasted perfectly against her trademark waterfall of oily black hair. Although if you pressed Estelle, she would admit she could have shown the regulars, the piss-in-your-pants sterno-drinkers staggering in and out of Lester's bar every evening. But they wouldn’t have cared if she showed up in a burlap sack with undies pulled down over her head.
Estelle wanted to make her fashion statement at the mall, not inside some dingy old beer hall squat down on the deserted outskirts of a factory town. Going to the mall with her glasses was ALL she wanted to do, that, and collage. Her needs were modest.
Lester didn't let her though. He could have, conceivably, as he was in possession of her wand. The magic would have technically allowed him to, according to ancient rules and all that. But Lester didn't because, as Estelle put it, and always in a whisper: “Lester was one big Asshole, an Asshole with a capital A.”
Year after year Estelle had stayed within the confines of the shabby bar, her wand hidden somewhere inside. She lived there twenty-four seven. Slept upstairs in the crawl space, dreaming of her mall days, when she'd been free to wander the stores, levels one, two and three, visit the craft shop, taking both up and down escalators while wearing the mod styles of the time; not those billowing brown and black one-piece shit-ass ankle length smocks Lester brought her from the Salvation Army store.
Estelle was forced to keep her deep dark secrets locked up. She was forced to play the good little church mouse whenever Lester was skulking around. Estelle was biding her time and Lester was in for a surprise, a big surprise, not one of those clapping your hands together goody goose egg types of surprises.
In her frustration, Estelle imagined herself pulling out hair follicles one by one, neurotically, as they termed it in Lester’s Encyclopedia of Mental Illness, just about her favorite book of all time; although she’d never admit that to him. Even though she imagined pulling her hair out, Estelle would never actually yank a single follicle; only real hair pulling nuts did that, not the intensely frustrated and imaginative collage making types of her ilk. In Lester's book hair pulling madness was called Trichotillomania. Estelle loved ten-dollar words like Trichotillomania and murmured them whenever Lester was out of earshot, sometimes in a tiny high-pitched voice. She'd every now and then she’d murmur a ten-dollar word and at the same time fire off an imaginary pistol, pointing an index finger at Lester's head, flexing her thumb back and forth, and making the "Pih-chew, pih-chew" sound.
What Estelle did do was remain proactive. She used the spine of Lester's book to scrape at the mortar between the bricks of her prison cell, scraping day after day, week after week, digging deeper and deeper in order to form an escape tunnel in her head, her book's spine equivalent to a toothbrush or a teaspoon back in the day when prisons were places you could escape from with toothbrushes and teaspoons, that is, if you were patient. Her digging with the book's spine, of course, was metaphoric. Estelle only had metaphors to dig with. She would have dug with a real bobby pin if she could but she couldn’t because she didn’t have her wand. Lester hid it and hid it good. She was forced to make the most of living with Lester in his dead-end toilet bowl of a bar.
"Fuck that shit-ass Lester," she'd whisper, grip her lids and roll up her eyes so only the whites showed. She couldn't see the effect of that in the dingy bathroom mirror but flipped them up anyway, imagining someone looking at her when she did.
Estelle would have to remain an apparition to her fans. Even if she had somehow managed to get outside the bar and make her way over to the mall, her fans wouldn't have been able to see her anyway. She needed her wand in order to be seen. In her mall days she had carried it with her at all times. The magic contained within brought with it fans who’d say things like, tres cool or that’s boss. She’d swing her little purse around and smack her gum. Now she felt herself to be an apparition to the customers at Lester’s Place, a specter in the throes of their deliria. She didn't exist and they weren’t her fans at all.
“Possibly they share some kind of collective tremens,” she murmured to herself in front of the marred mirror while biting her fingernails. Yet, she thought, being an apparition within someone else’s delirium might not be all that bad of a thing. Fact was, she had turned inward during those years she’d been holed up in Lester’s bar and if anything found she didn’t need to prance around the mall any longer, didn’t need all that adulation she thought she needed before. It was all different.
Estelle began to take the art of her collage making more seriously and those inner places she went to, all the while being comforted to know Lester had it coming.
“Lester had it coming good,” she’d whisper.
ESTELLE AND HER HOBBY CACHE
Estelle knew in her heart of hearts the whole chain of critical events had been nothing but a fluke; from her impulse to pour olive oil over the top of her head to the further decision, moments later, of combing her hair straight down, allowing for that amazing Cousin-It look. Ultimately however, it was the placement of the superb red plastic horned rims over her already heavily olive oiled hair-covered face that did the trick; that they didn't come sliding straight off onto the floor was transforming in itself.
She knew it wasn’t magic that held those glasses in place; it was Science, Science with a capital S.
That being said, Estelle didn't want to know anything about Science, whether spelled with capital or lower-case s.
Lester might have been able to explain why the glasses stayed on. He claimed himself to be “a repository of knowledge.” To some extent he was, although under her breath Estelle called him "the suppository of knowledge."
Because of her deep seeded resentment toward Lester, Estelle wasn’t about to ask him for an explanation of any sort, knowing she'd have to deal with the numbskull lording knowledge from one end of the bar to the other like Napoleon at Austerlitz. Her red horned rims stuck against her head and gave her the look she wanted. Estelle didn't give a rat's ass why.
And as far as Estelle's look went, she remained satisfied for the time being, and didn’t take it any further. She didn't use the Extra Virgin oil in any case, just the Plain, the cheap stuff stored in metal two-gallon containers, pressed from olives stolen off the back of a truck parked at a Palermo gas station while the driver was taking a leak. Lester agreed on buying her that particular brand whenever he made his weekly trip to the Piggly Wiggly.
He softened over the years when it came to Estelle's personal needs although this was no consolation for her; in fact, it made her even more angry, adding insult to injury as she saw it while contributing to the vehemence of what ultimately happened during she later described as "Lester's final moment of truth."
The practical reason Estelle poured the olive oil over the top of her head was so Lester wouldn’t want to touch her. She knew one thing gave Lester a major case of heebie-jeebies and that was getting grease on his fingers. Whenever he did, he’d spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the washroom sink, a jumbo-sized squeeze bottle of detergent in one hand, a toothbrush in the other. He'd scrub and scrub and scrub, like some old crazy man locked away in an insane asylum, usually until his hands bled.
Interestingly, the phrase Kitschy Cousin It had fluttered into Estelle's head like a leaf through a kitchen window on the very morning of the day she discovered that pair of red horned rims.
Estelle got premonitions all the time. She had them with her collages too, envisioning patterns or cut outs before running across the shape in what she termed one of her many boxes of possibilities.
Estelle had one of her prems right before the stranger arrived, glimpsing his silhouette inside the bar room door, light from the parking lot streaming in all around him; as if he was post crucifixion, day three, busted out of the tomb and looking to have himself a cold one. She knew what it meant right away and tried her best to conceal her unbridled joy and lust for vengeance.
As soon as Estelle set the horned rims on her head and had stood in front of the grimy rest room mirror, she had been inexplicably moved to part her hair no more than a few millimeters to the left, wide enough to see out of that one eye. As soon as she did that, she blinked. It had been a while she’d seen her eye. Estelle suspected something was going to change after that and wore the glasses constantly; even while assembling her collages. As light in the filthy bar was scarce, she popped both the lenses out and kept them in her pocket for the day she would emerge into the real light of day.
As mysterious as any of that had been, on the day the stranger came, bizarre circumstance and conversation ensued, commencing with Estelle brushing the index finger of her left hand against a single strand of olive oiled hair. She then utilized the adherent properties of that same greasy phalanx to turn the many times molested page of her January True Criminal magazine, perusing her two favorite sections, Forensic Cases and Ads. She liberally employed the fine control scissors plucked from her hobby cache, one of Lester’s old cigarillo boxes sequined to appear over-the-top-tacky. On that morning, she cut out all the severed limbs she could find from the black and white crime scene photos and laid them down inside an old shoe box painted black on the outside, white on the inside, the one she identified as her "no tellin’ when box.”
Lester was speaking out loud that morning, so loud that the bottles of booze on the glass shelf behind him started rattling. Lester normally spoke a whole lot of nothing as far as Estelle was concerned and when he did, she usually took to her whispering. Estelle called that specific kind of whispering her “describing my process whispering.” She had torn that very phrase, “describing my process,” out of a vintage craft magazine years back and kept it, always thinking how remarkably funny and stone cold perfect it was: The typography had been quilted, for one. She’d been saving the little scrap for just the right collage to come along, trying it out on each and every one: Laying it, turning it, flipping it. Sadly, each time she had to return it back to the no tellin’ when box, disappointed. The quilted quote had to fit and fit exactly if she were to use it at all.
After cutting out the last image that morning, a traumatically amputated foot, Estelle whispered to herself:
“I just love sifting through my little cut out boxes looking for those special somethings. When I spot one, I'll plunk it down, grab a second one, scoot that one up against the first, lift the first, veer it, press it, twist the second just a skosh, torque the first a mere titch, and presto change-oh, we're living on South Beach, all zinc oxide and shuffleboard."
As soon as the words left her lips, amounting to nothing short of an incantation, Estelle spotted an advertisement she hadn't noticed before, encased in a cheap ornate swirl. She raised her hand in front of her mouth like a Japanese schoolgirl.
Estelle wasn’t a Japanese schoolgirl by a long shot but had, in an old National Geographic, taken careful note of a gaggle of weathered photos featuring giggling Japanese schoolgirls. She’d been enthralled straight away, to some degree obsessed, not only with Japanese schoolgirl tittering but the postures they assumed while doing that tittering. She massacred, as she liked to describe it, that particular issue, removing all the schoolgirl hands, their tittering mouths, tittering eyes and portions of their tittering school girl uniforms. She essentially created a hobby within a hobby on that day: A collection of images for one, as well as an inexplicable desire to emulate Japanese school girl postures, especially the tittering-behind-a-flattened-hand pose.
She tapped the ad and flapped the paper at Lester.
“Les. This ad says here you can make money from your angry impulses. Only five ninety-five for the introductory booklet. ‘Turn your displaced anger into profit,’ it says. I thought that was an interesting headline.”
“It’s not really a headline, is it, Estelle?”
“Well, Lester, then maybe what I meant to say was, it’s more like an interesting title for an ad.”
“OK. That’s more like it. Be specific, Estelle. Whether it’s a line of typeset or a line of . . I don’t know, trains or something, it’s entertainment is what it is, entertainment with a capital E.”
She’d heard Lester talk about his theory of entertainment many times before. In fact, he’d mention it once a day, usually at night while they were lying in bed and Estelle was trying to sleep. When he started in on that, she’s take her two pillows, press them as tight as she could either side of her head. After that, she would be barely able to hear his philosophical droning.
Lester saw all human activity as boiling down to the need to seek entertainment during their idle hours on Earth.
“Lofty constitutional change, Nobel Prize winning research or the creation of masterworks of art is the same as whittling on a stick of hickory,” Lester told her. “It’s all just a god dang means of passing the time.”
Estelle didn’t necessarily disagree with all that. Didn’t care one way or the other and certainly, at bedtime, didn’t want to hear anything about it. Only buzzing was present in Estelle's head at that time of day, buzzing like that coming from a hive of honey bees or the white noise from the TV set after 3 am. That's all there was and that's all she wanted to be in there, not any of Lester’s half-baked theories. Estelle thought Lester was too militant about his business of entertainment anyway, to the point of being close minded about other possibilities.
She never told him that. She never told Lester a lot of things. For one, Estelle couldn’t. Not until she got her wand back, that little paint brush of hers.
When she did, she might tell Lester a thing or two.
LESTER MAKES A DEAL WITH ESTELLE’S ROMANIAN COUSINS
As far as modern relationships went, in particular the one between Lester and Estelle, unspoken terms had been spread across the table like cutlery, salt shakers and flower arrangements. Estelle figured Lester was paying for the meal and he certainly owed her at least that; to provide a bare semblance of stability along with the rudiments of collage making supplies, a minimum of what she needed to stave off the anxiety associated with an artistic temperament. She didn’t consider this to be a fair trade though. She’d been coerced into the deal and knew it wasn’t even a deal. In coming from practical stock, the concept was nevertheless not unfamiliar to her. Her genes were shared with a lineage of witches who had lived in thatched huts deep within thick forests of Romania's Carpathians. At first, in keeping with the wisdom of their customs, she claimed Lester to be her one and only; attesting their union had been etched in the stars and transcended time itself.
Lester loved all that, as men generally did, but the truth was more mundane. Lester liked bacon and so did Estelle. She liked Japanese samurai movies from the sixties, the black and white ones; Lester kept a few of those within his rather extensive "classics collection." That was about all they had in common.
Lester was aware himself to be lucky: Estelle was low maintenance as far as witches from that region went; most of them could be described as hard-assed bitches, women who battered their men regularly, even castrated them and devoured their genitals at the slightest provocation. Estelle kept her cool in this way; that is, until Lester decided to get greedy.
“I’m storing up all my Romanian hoo-doo for you Lester,” she whispered to herself. “One day it’ll rain down on your head like a blizzard of ten penny nails from the mountain top.”
Estelle met Lester waitressing in the bar he had once owned on the downtown strip. All his bars were called Lester's Place, not Lester's Place Two or Lester's Place Three. Lester had been impressed with Estelle's single mindedness, unlike others in his employment. After each shift, Estelle made a beeline home to labor on her collages until falling asleep from exhaustion. With no genuine interest in social life, her natural appearance was incorrectly interpreted by men with whom she interacted as wanton and seductive.
As time went on, in order to negotiate the ever-increasing rents and utility bills, Estelle found herself spending more and more time at the bar than doing what needed to be done in the cut and paste department. She had become more waitress than artist. Lester's offer had been sheer luck. Th term was norocul in her language, a concept in which she didn't really invest but accepted. Despite this good fortune, Estelle nevertheless understood Lester, overall, to be a fucking knob.
"You have what's called a neurosis, Estelle. You could be pulling your hair out follicle by follicle or biting your fingernails down to their nubbins until they bled, but instead you choose to glue little pieces of paper together. Something happened to you as a child. You won't tell me what that something was but someday I hope that you will."
A lot happened to Estelle during her childhood but nothing along the lines of what Lester imagined. And what happened in Estelle's childhood didn't matter, certainly not to her. What mattered was the present and the fact she could sense a bend in the road ahead. Precisely because of that premonition, on that very morning of the stranger's appearance, Estelle was moved to make what sounded like a sympathetic remark to Lester. She rarely made sympathetic remarks to Lester so he was initially pleased, but ended up becoming irritated.
“After what happened to you, Lester, you don’t believe in rainbows and buttercups any more, do you, honey?”
The tone of the question suggested genuine interest in his well-being, even a hint of compassion, but the subject matter was of a different sort.
“I take that as a compliment, Estelle," he asserted, grinning.
His grin faded and he remained silent, thinking about what she had said further. After a minute of thought, he sputtered,
"Well who wouldn’t be cynical? With the note I owe those gangsters? Those Romanian SONS of BITCHES!”
After he betrayed her, Estelle relished any opportunity to fire Lester up. She certainly knew his sore spots. She ceased to care in general how he felt and concerned herself with matters of collage making, becoming single minded in the pursuit, shutting Lester out of her mind almost entirely, offering silly banter only when necessary. On this occasion however, Estelle sat back in her chair, pursed her lips, narrowed her large oval eyes, and affixed them on Lester's sagging and petulant jowl. Her eyes, placed by nature above a set of high contoured cheekbones, radiated a somewhat unkind expression, described by men as sultry, the very look which attracted Lester to Estelle in the first place. He had fancied Estelle to be shrewd and had thought,
"She's just the kind of dangerous woman I like."
Estelle indeed succeeded in firing Lester up the morning the stranger turned up and observed him bang on the table with both hands. She pursed her lips a bit more and tried not to smile. When thinking about the Romanian gangsters and what they had done to him, Lester became embittered and emotional, often behaving like a big baby, or worse, a big baby who had just shat himself. He admitted to this:
“Emotional with a capital E is what I get every time I think about those SONS OF BITCHES!”
And every time Lester called the Romanians "those sons of bitches," Estelle knew to turn her face away, as a good half-cup of spittle would inevitably shower from his mouth as he enunciated the es of bitches.
Over time, Estelle had grown tired of hearing Lester rant on and on and on about the dilapidated building he purchased from "those Romanian sons of bitches," about his personal debt, and then, about how only a few individuals on Earth actually owned property outright.
On that fateful morning, Estelle sensed the bend in the road was just ahead and wanted to hear Lester go off one final time, for old time’s sake. She knew that would be the last time.
“Very few actually own. Most of us owe,” he grumbled as she had heard him grumble a thousand times before.
“I’m still tired of hearing your bullshit, Lester," Estelle whispered under her breath, as she too had whispered over a thousand and one times before. Estelle had adapted a "whispering persona," as Lester liked to call it, ever since he stole her paintbrush. Lester hid the brush in the last bar without owning up he had done so; or even once admitting that a magic paintbrush even existed. This enraged Estelle to no end, but silently so. They both knew, of course: He knew she knew. Estelle, as well, never spoke outright of the issue. She would never give Lester that satisfaction.
Estelle was certain she would get her brush back, and knew, when she did, what was going to happen to him. Lester did not know what was going to happen to him. If he had, he might have thought twice before hiding the paint brush in the first place.
If anything, Estelle's constant whispering seemed to get the best of Lester; the fact he couldn't hear what she whispered drove him what he called bat shit crazy. Unlike Estelle, he couldn't control his emotions.
"That dad-gum whispering is driving me bat shit crazy, Estelle, goddammit. Can you please bring it down a notch? Or just speak in a normal tone? You know that makes me feel like I’m starring in Last House on the Left, don't you? I can’t remember if there was whispering in that one but you know what I mean. You sound like dead children.”
Estelle never did tone down her whispering. It represented one of her few freedoms. Collage was another; pouring olive oil over her head, a not too distant third.
Lester bought the current bar for more than its market price, located in what became, shortly after that purchase, a deserted and desolate industrial ghost town. He closed on the building the day before the large plumbing fixture plant next door shut its gates permanently. He hadn’t known the plant was sold when he signed and had sunk his entire life savings into the deal, taking on a hefty note to be paid off over a fifteen-year period. He visited the two Romanian brothers the day after the plant's closing, and asked for his money back, insisting they hadn’t told him about the factory closure. When Lester threatened to sue, the Romanian brothers regarded one another and began laughing.
Wadim, the older one, calmly explained he couldn’t have his money back, that his money had already been deposited in a European bank. The younger, Decebal, then explained, equally as calmly, how they would break every one of Lester’s fingers if he fell behind in even a single payment.
Estelle had been responsible for the whole thing.
At first, before Lester had hidden the brush, she trusted him and was even impressed to a degree, by his ambition and ability to navigate through the world out there, a world which she loathed. She thought of him as a conduit in that regard, a necessary one. She inadvertently revealed to him information about her witchy ways, specifically that he could have her all to himself, or any witch he liked, simply if he took that witches wand and hid it. This was not any grand secret. Many stories and legends had already related something to that effect. Few understood these legends were based on fact: Estelle would be physically bound to the house in which her wand was hidden.
When Lester hid her wand in the newly purchase bar, Estelle had no choice but to follow him there and take up residence in the shit hole upstairs apartment, more like a crawlspace than a living quarter.
Estelle had turned on the sugar right before, informing Lester through urgent breathy whispers of her inside tip she received from her trusted Romanian cousins, owners of a bar situated beside one of the busiest factories in the city, a factory with over twelve hundred employees, all of them beer drinkers. Her cousins had made a fortune there. Upon hearing the news, Lester had been elated, fully believing he would soon be making money hand over fist, and that their dreams would come true. In his excitement, he did not once consider what he had done to Estelle or the impact that might have had.
The place was packed that first night and Lester took in over three thousand dollars, far more than he had ever made in one day. Toward the end of the evening, he leaned across the bar and happily yelled out to one of the foremen, asking the joyously rhetorical question if he should always be expecting crowds like this to be drinking up his beer. He laughed heartily and winked, not expecting an answer.
“No!” The foreman screamed back, loud enough to be heard over the din: “The factory closed!”
Lester put his hand to one ear and yelled, “Come again?”
The foreman leaned a little closer and again bellowed, “No!” He went on to explain they’d just completed their last shift and there had been no plans by the company to put anything in the factory’s stead.
“The machines that make these parts are all so fucking antiquated they’re selling the metal for scrap, disassembling them as we speak. They’re farming out labor and manufacturing to China. Money has changed hands and the place is going to be a ghost town by daybreak.”
“Come again?“ Lester croaked, this time almost inaudibly.
The foreman had already careened away to join his friends for one last toast while Lester remained in a daze, feeling like he had just eaten a sock he’d been wearing for a week. After closing, he hit the wood paneled wall so hard, his newly mounted picture of the ‘27 Yankees, a prized family heirloom, shifted. The photo remained crooked like for nearly ten years, until the day of the stranger's arrival.
ESTELLE WHISPERS SOME PRETTY NASTY THINGS AS SHE PREPARES FOR THE BIG DAY
On that momentous morning of the stranger’s arrival, Estelle had been assembling a collage on one of the bar room tables, her usual spot. Only when she became emotionally taxed with Lester and his drivel would she remand herself to the upstairs crawlspace closet, size of an airplane toilet, and allow her tears, usually hidden by the black olive oil waterfall of hair, to freely cascade down the side of her cheeks. The olive oil and tears co-mingled, dripping off her bangs and descending directly onto the paper, melding with the transparent matte and acrylics, imbuing it all with a much sought-after effect. Her torn and smudged newsprint images increased in demand significantly because of it, lauded by artistic society within the salons of Eastern Europe. Estelle’s collages sold like hotcakes in her native Romania where she came to be regarded as a national treasure.
Estelle became the artist for the under-represented. In terrains where people were hard put to purchase their weekly loaf of bread, her collages were gobbled up greedily. Estelle becoming famous in regions where people drank shots of home-made liquor from rusty sardine cans, who darned their socks in the light of coal burning stoves. These people bought her collages instead of buying potatoes and hung them prominently on threadbare living room walls. The paper she utilized was thought to hold enormous power in itself, bringing good fortune to the owner. Amongst “travelers,” for instance, Estelle's collages were more frequently acquired than national lottery tickets. Wealthy gangsters from cities, an example being Estelle's two cousins, the "sons of bitches" who burned Lester, traded individual works like currency. She spoke their language through these images, a language of shit and blood, her shapes and colors being “words” impartial to man, intolerable for many to hear, detestable even, for anyone not understanding the true concept of shit.
Lester had begrudgingly allowed Estelle to quit waitressing and do her collage full time. The truth was, he had to. She cranked them out, packaged them and Lester brought them to the post office for shipping overseas. She left a portion of the proceeds in the bar's cash register at the end of each week. Lester said nothing, knowing full well where the money was coming from. Only because of Estelle's collage income was Lester able to pay off his note to the loan sharks month after month after month. The consolation for Estelle was simply to be present and bear witness to every moment of Lester’s suffering. Only on one occasion, on a day they would both remember, did Estelle’s frustration bubble to the surface and she said a few things out loud as opposed to whispering them:
“That’s all you do, Lester. Work this old bar. And look where it is: fucking TURDSVILLE! We’re not even in Altoona. Why did you buy this dump in the first place, Lester? Why the fuck why, Lester, you lamebrain dickhead!”
“You were the one that introduced me to those sons of bitches, Estelle, need I remind you? Those Romanian swindlers, those SON OF A BITCHS. You said they were your artsy-fartsy friends and I could trust them. And I did. I explained to you what was to be. The bar was going to be the legacy I would leave my sons. I already explained all that. So now I’m here and I've had not word from either son in years. I have you, Estelle, that’s all. And I hold you personally responsible the mess I’m in. You know as well as I do that neither of us are going anywhere.”
On that day the truth came spilling out the cracks in the gates of hell. Lester remarked the day, had been “just like Hoover dam had been attacked by Mothra,” and thereafter referred to the day as Mothra-Versus-Hoover-Dam day. He’d say things like:
“We’re not going to have another one of our Mothra-Versus-Hoover-Dam days, are we? Boy, that was a real melt down bumper crop.”
“Your sons don’t speak with you,” Estelle had gone on to remind him on that ugly Mothra-Versus-Hoover-Dam day. “Your sons are living in Saskatchewan with their mother. Your dreams backfired, Lester. I’d say big time. You could have bought a place in the Florida Keys and they could have visited you there, not here, in this stopped up toilet of a dead-end shithole. They will never visit you here. Oh, but I'm sorry, I didn't mean to describe it as a shithole. What I meant to describe it as was a CRACKED PORCELAIN TOILET SITTING LOPSIDED IN THE MIDDLE OF A DEADEND BOULEVARD SUROUNDED BY NOTHING BUT ABANDONED FACTORIES ALL THE WAY TO THE HORIZON WITH CLOUDS LOOKING LIKE WET STINKING TOILET PAPER THAT’D BEEN WIPED ACROSS YOUR ASS TWO WEEKS BEFORE AND HUNG UP TO DRY. ER, NO, MAKE THAT WIPED ACROSS YOUR ASS TWO YEARS BEFORE AND NOT HANGING BUT FALLING FROM THE SKY AND . . . STOPPING UP ALL THE TOILETS IN THE WORLD BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT YOU DO, LESTER: STOP UP ALL THE TOILETS WITH YOUR STINKING TOILET PAPER. YOUR DUMPS ARE SO BIG AND STINKY THAT I HAVE TO GET THE PLUNGER OUT EVERY TIME YOU LEAVE THE RESTROOM AND HAVE TO STAND THERE FOR TWENTY MINUTES PRAYING IT WILL ALL GO DOWN! PRAYING! AND I’M AN ATHEIST. I DON’T EVEN BELIEVE IN GOD. I’M THAT DESPERATE THAT I WOULD PRAY TO A GOD I DON'T BELEIVE IN!”
She let Lester have it with both barrels on Mothra-Versus-Hoover-Dam day and afterward none of what had been mentioned was ever mentioned again. Estelle internalized her thoughts, whispering to herself into the night. When she did make the occasional offhand remark out loud, it would throw Lester into a tizzy.
The previous week, for instance, Lester had offered, “Politicians have to be entertainers, both the right and left wingers. Liberals, for instance, can’t admit they like taking vacations to places like Brazil where people change their urine stained bed sheets then go back to their tin roof slum houses. The status quo would be upset if they admitted that and the system would come tumbling down. And the right wingers have to keep saying keep those goddamn poor people out of my country when they’re hiring those same poor people out their back door and are licking their fingers and counting their money the same way the liberals are counting their money. And the poor people themselves are yelling at the top of their lungs yeah, keep the other poor people out because we’re not the same poor people as they are and going along with whatever rich person is yelling and screaming the loudest pretending to be one of them. And it’s all entertainment and the entertainment industry is licking their fingers and counting their money as well, only it’s a bigger pile. But it’s all made out to be a serious problem-solving endeavor.”
Estelle responded out loud. She couldn't help herself.
“I don’t think that’s true, Lester,” she said. Estelle had her own theories about how things worked and didn’t think it was like that at all. Lester wouldn't understand her theory. Most people wouldn't. All she cared about was Lester had something she wanted. What was true and what wasn’t true was irrelevant.
“Sometimes I think you disagree with me ON PURPOSE, Estelle!” Lester shouted and pounded the bar with both hands. He didn’t like Estelle disagreeing with him. He didn't like anybody disagreeing with him. The only saving grace of living in the crawl space and working at the bar was that few people could disagree with him. His customers were blind drunk most of the time and tended to go along with all his theories.
“That’s a good one, Lester,” they’d say.
On the day the stranger arrived, while Estelle was scissor-butchering her January True Criminal magazine, Lester had finally stopped blathering about his entertainment philosophy and Estelle returned her attention to the little ad she had spotted.
“I just thought that was an interesting thing for an ad to say, interesting with a capital I, Lester, so I’m cutting it out for you. Only five ninety-five to get the booklet that would teach you how to make money from your angry impulses.”
“You said that already.”
“I just thought.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t think. Stick with your collages. They don’t require much thinking, it seems to me, just, what would you call impulsive decision making. Thinking is my department. I’m also head of the business department.”
“That you are, Les,” she said, and whispered, “As a result we’re surrounded by nothing but opulence as far as the eye can see.”
“I heard that, Estelle. You wield your sarcasm like a straight razor slashing, slashing, slashing at my joog-yew-ler, Estelle. You don’t think I notice? I do. I’m trying my best here. But you know what I think? I think you wouldn’t be with me unless you thought there was something to what I am trying to accomplish AND accomplishing it right before your very eyes. Am I right? Did I split the arrow?”
Estelle lowered her whisper down a notch, so Lester wouldn't hear.
“You know very well why I’m with you, Lester. You think I’d forget? Why even bother saying that? Just wait to see what I have in store for you, Lester Asster. I feel the tide is about to change.”
Lester’s place stunk of stale beer and ammonia that morning, more so than usual. He had scattered sawdust on the floor the night before when a man named Heffler, one of his best customers, urinated just under the bar. Lester hadn’t bothered to mop the area at the time but threw down a handful of saw dust at the base of the man’s stool. He waited just in case Heffler had the urge to piss a second time as he sometimes did. Lester didn’t want to mop twice. Heffler lived under the bridge on the bar side of the Industrial Canal. The rest of the customers were what one might be called transients and drank nothing but Lester’s malt liquor as it was the cheapest alcohol Lester sold. When Heffler peed, everybody in the place had been howling Heffler this and Heffler that, goading Heffler on until he took out his pecker and they all cheered, drunk as spinning tops. The whole place ended up like it usually did by closing time, as if an atomic bomb of crotch rot had exploded, enveloping everybody in the fallout of sweat, stale beer and urine vapor.
Estelle stroked her newly cut-out severed limbs as if they were cute little kittens. Behind her bangs she whispered with even greater urgency:
“I think you’d be surprised what I don’t tell you, Les. You’d be surprised what thoughts are in this pretty little head. You’d be surprised, Lester Ass-ster Master ass, fuckin’ ass-HOLE, not just an ass but an ass HOLE out of which shit come squeezing like play dough through a plastic template for all the kids to ogle at with wonder and applaud thinking, oh, its chocolate time. Spring had sprung in la-la land, sun’s coming up, cakes on the griddle and a nice big pile of brown play dough is laying there for us to play with. I bet you didn’t know Milton Bradley or whatever company makes brown Play Dough? They don’t, Lester. But wait, what’s that smell? It’s Lester’s shit is what that smell is. The kids don’t know that. Only I know that. All is not what it seems, Lester. You have no idea what I do when you are asleep, where I go; and it’s all driven by hate, the opposite of love. I hate you Lester, hate you with a capital H. The change is coming soon, real soon Lester, maybe even later today, maybe sometime between the hours of one to two pm . . .”
STRANGER AT THE DOOR
After a long silence, Lester spoke.
“Stool is underrated.”
Estelle shrugged. She was tired of hearing Lester’s speculations. She knew whenever he made a flat statement like that, a mile-long train filled with bullshit would soon be pulling up 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 mornings 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 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. The glare of stark sunlight streamed around his darkened silhouette as if Jesus had emerged from the tomb, post crucifixion day three, and was 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 atop 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 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 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 had envisioned him.
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 profound urine stink or its 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 came 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 was forced to send Granger that day because all his other investigators were down with the flu. Granger was the only one in the office because he waded off the infection by doing tai chi, chi gong, guzzling freshly squeezed orange juice and power sucking zinc lozenges.
“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 were there the next morning, extending from ceiling to floor. Whatever had so violently gouged the wood gave the impression of being possessed by a personality with 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 also knew the insurance company was bound to send somebody out if Lester filed a claim. That somebody was now standing in the doorway: Roddy Granger.
Right after Roddy Granger took that single step inside, out of the dull glare of parking lot sun into abject morose gloom, he turned his head and spotted a woman sitting at a table, her jet-black hair flickering in the blue neon of the short-circuiting Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sign hanging over a disheveled bar. She was wearing a sheik pair of red horned rimmed glasses and looked like a female version of Cousin It with a whole lot of teeny weeny bits of paper spread out in front of her in addition to 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 here, didn’t it?”
Roddy Granger asked his question cheerfully. Making conversation was 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 spoon inserted down into a malted milk shake glass, stirring in whispers intimating the unkempt-ness of a pubic bush, that along with a few drops of glistening olive oil for good measure. This particular insurance claim investigator indeed felt like he had been placed inside a milk shake blender and was being poured on top of the tropical miasma of a gyrating Carmen Miranda’s fruit hat. That resulting fruit hat slurry had a sweetness unimaginable to Roddy Granger prior to that day.
Roddy Granger’s head started to spin. He clutched his church card 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. He had always been careful, no matter what the circumstance, not to crinkle or bend it but simply clutch the talisman. The card was a symbol for that necessary mindset necessary to assume when taking on each and every day. As he stood there inside the bar room door, he stroked the church card deep inside the 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. He stroked it in a manner similar to Estelle stroking her cut outs of severed limbs.
But Roddy Granger’s church card was by no means a real rabbit. Roddy Granger’s church card was a square piece of rigid paper, just as Estelle’s cut outs weren’t kittens or severed limbs. They were faded black and white photographs of severed limbs taken at crime scenes and printed in a magazine.
“Drafts are two bucks, Stranger. Happy Hour begins at five but see the clock. Its 1 pm. That means 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 have of “liking it,” having learned from his psychiatrist how easily his could get his head 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.
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 Investigate; and make no mistake: That’s big boy Investigation with a capital I.
The odd thing was, 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 was being served in a toilet bowl. He momentarily forgot about them; then, after a few moments, he absolutely forgot about them, 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 a panoply of intricate looking hobby scissors.
Roddy Granger, despite having a robust home and church life, knew he was in his element, like underwear hanging lazily 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!?”
ESTELLE HAS AN “AGENDA”
When Lester took his attention away from the stranger for no more than a split second, directing his gaze toward the money he'd been counting, Estelle’s hand shot out, took hold of Roddy Granger’s index finger and began squeezing it and not only squeezing it but rhythmically squeezing it; to the point it hurt Granger just a tad: squeeze, squeeze, squeeeeeze; squeeze, squeeze, squeeeeze. Roddy Granger had to yank his finger away. He caressed it a moment before tentatively floating his hand forward in order to receive more of that oddly painful yet pleasurable "secret communication."
Granger hadn’t asked for secret communication but was getting it; getting it in spades. Granger shut his eyes tight and to the exact cadence of his finger being squeezed in turn squeezed his church card, still shoved deep down in his pants pocket, his trusty church card which was always present for him, always available for Emergencies with a capital E.
In the course of having his finger squeezed, Roddy Granger opened his eyes wider than they'd ever been opened in his entire life. He opened his eyes with a capital O in realizing ESTELLE HAD BEEN TRANSMITTING TO HIM IN MORSE CODE!
Squeeze squeeze squeeeeze was the international radiotelegraphic character for the letter U. Estelle was transmitting U, U, U.
Before marriage, his mortgage, the car, in the course of what he liked to call his “wild years,” Roddy Granger came into possession of a commercial shipboard radiotelegraphic license 2nd class. Although never having worked aboard ship, Roddy nevertheless managed to pass the FCC's notoriously difficult sending and receiving examination as well as the equally challenging theory component in garnering that prized ticket. Naturally, he hung the framed certificate over his bed, a foot above his foam pillow with its posturepedic contours.
Now a full-fledged school trained insurance fraud field investigator, it was mere child’s play for him to deduce that Estelle had been sending him a radiotelegraphic message. He felt equally certain he was the only person in the world who could both understand the request and act upon it.
“You, you, you,” Estelle was telling him, essentially asking to be saved and for Roddy Granger specifically to save her: You you you.
Oddly, Roddy Granger had a vague notion, which came out of nowhere, that these thoughts were placed inside his head by a long set of pincers. And if he had thought to ask himself, by whom, he would have immediately received the answer: “By an omniscient God, Roddy Granger.”
Even though Estelle appeared to be concentrating as she squeezed, she did not know a single character of Morse Code. She was simply squeezing Roddy Granger’s finger as part of her own pulling out all the stops gambit. The stranger had arrived, just as she had premmed he would, and appeared in need of a help in order to get motivated. He wasn’t exactly the broad-shouldered Jesus figure she expected: Full head of heavy metal shoulder length silky hair, Nordic features and tribal tattoos. No matter. There was one thing Estelle knew to be true if nothing else: Every man on the planet, no matter what they looked like on the outside, was a dufus on the inside; and rhythmically squeezing their index finger worked in just about every case.
"Just squeeze their pointing finger like I’ve shown you and they'll do anything you want," one of her Romanian aunties advised her as a child. She’d been dead right.
In the meanwhile, Lester kept up his banter, caressing his uncounted money.
“It’s like the land of the weeping willows in here at the moment, the whispering mists of Avalon or whatever, secrets being divulged just out of earshot. Am I right?” Lester banged on the bar with both hands and bellowed: "Am I right, stranger?!"
Estelle withdrew her hand. Roddy flinched then blinked, emerging from the hypnotic oscillatory state Estelle had placed him in. All he knew now was that he needed to save her, and not just save her but rearing up on his white stallion Lone Ranger save her. He was sure all the elements of his investigation would tie together like a red bow around a gift box, a gift box he'd undoubtedly drop on his supervisor's desk, after solving the case and saving the olive haired woman in the same deep breath. He imagined himself dropping that gift box onto his supervisor's desk at the same time working the gaps between his incisors with a toothpick. All seasoned insurance fraud investigators worked their incisors; at least Roddy Granger assumed they did.
Estelle didn’t blink, naturally, when Lester banged on the bar but turned to Roddy Granger and asked, in a voice calm as lava flowing from a volcano’s fissure:
“What’s a big strong man like you doing swimming in a toilet bowl like this?”
Estelle couldn't easily hide her bitterness and resentment of being trapped. Roddy Granger, of course, understood nothing of her situation and was only impressed the lady spoke to him with Southern Belle lyricism.
“Do I need to be jealous, Estelle?” Lester barked right away. "DO I NEED TO BE JEALOUS!" He banged on the table a second time. An empty Schlitz cans jumped, making a “tink” when it landed.
After Lester completed his violent arm motions, Roddy Granger couldn't help himself and sniffed the air. Lester had begun to sweat as soon as the stranger appeared at the door, a rancid secretion evinced from a subspecies of apocrine gland present at the apex of his crusted yellow armpits, activated only on occasions of extreme duress. His body knew something he didn't.
Estelle ignored Lester, as she usually did, and continued to watch Roddy Granger like a peregrine falcon. Roddy Granger started to fidget: The woman with the oily hair was watching him a little bit too wild eyed for comfort. He couldn’t actually see her eyes, of course, somewhere behind the red rimmed glasses stuck against her jet-black olive oiled bangs but imagined her nevertheless to be watching him wild eyed. He imagined and imagined oddly, her gaze not to be that of a peregrine falcon but of a gazelle being chased by a cougar. As soon as he imagined that, he imagined that same cougar skidding to a halt as the gazelle, equally as suddenly, had stopped in her tracks, turned and affixed upon the cougar a particularly unnerving bug-eyed look.
Roddy Granger fidgeted some more. He didn't understand how he could be imagining all this, of a gazelle skidding to a halt and turning. The woman was not only fixing him with the same bug-eyed look of the gazelle he imagined but was waiting for him to answer a hypothetical question which she hadn't posed out loud but released, he further imagined, with a medicine dropper, drop by drop, onto the goopy protoplasm of his own cerebral cortex.
Why WOULD a cougar all of a sudden stop chasing a gazelle EVEN IF that gazelle was looking at him in a peculiar way? A gazelle, for all intents and purposes, was the equivalent of a mouth-watering cheeseburger for a cougar. What gives with the cougar stopping look?
Roddy Granger’s head spun like a top with all the gazelles and cougars and questions.
Lester at that point raised his voice a notch and commenced, what Estelle referred to as background banter, his usual routine while counting money. He was flipping through the same stack of bills for the fifth time that day, licking his fingers (a little bit too much licking, Roddy Granger thought), in order to make the count accurate; so he wouldn’t miss any of what he called the “stuck-togethers.”
The customers paid Lester with crumpled up currency that stank of sweat, urine and sometimes shit, whatever made its way into their grimy pockets. They paid for their drafts or cans of Miller with ones, once in a blue moon, a fiver. Lester didn't like making change. He liked keeping all the money that was handed to him.
“Stay out of the stranger’s business, Estelle," Lester grumbled, paused in his counting and raised his voice to an even more irritating volume. "In fact, come to think of it. I don’t think the stranger HAS business here as far as I can tell. He’s just passing through and will be leaving after finishing his paid for draft. There is no sense in getting to know him. And besides, what did I tell you, Estelle? You don’t know the man. You don’t know anything about the man, this stranger, where’s he’s been, what he’s been thinking. He pushes through the door as you whispered he did, don’t think I didn’t hear that, and could be just about anyone. That’s why I don’t like you talking to strangers. And he’s a stranger with a capital S is what he is. No offense mister but I’m teaching Estelle how to be careful out there in the real world and I’m using you as an example, which might be obvious; you, having just walked in off the street, providing us with the perfect example of an untrustworthy, potentially dangerous stranger encounter.”
“No offense taken," Roddy Granger tipped an imaginary hat. "Is Estelle your daughter?”
Estelle giggled behind a flattened hand, cocked her head and trained the red horned rims in the direction of Roddy Granger's ears. And as soon as she did, Roddy Granger felt as though yet another thought had been inserted directly into his head by the same mysterious masked surgical personage, this time utilizing an extremely long pair of alligator forceps.
"I have to take a leak!" Roddy Granger blurted, surprising himself even at the unexpected suddenness of the outburst. He had peed before he got in the car but oddly, the prospect of going for another tinkle seemed like not such a bad idea; once in the restroom, he would be able to catch up on a few moments of quality alone time with his church bulletin.
"God only knows that I'll be needing to harness the power of the bulletin right about now," he whispered. “And everybody knows the bulletin carries more oomph than the church card.”
Estelle cocked her head.
Roddy Granger had been getting more than just a bit "touchy-feelie" lately on the advice of his psychiatrist. Dr. Kerpowski informed Roddy everything was going to be just fine: He simply had a garden variety anxiety disorder and told him the way to deal with it was by living in his anxiety.
“Feel it. Wear its skin, Granger. Take up residence inside of it. It will teach you all you need to know."
Through living in his anxiety, as Dr. Kerpowski advised, Roddy became a flaming train wreck within a few short days. At the same time, did learn to heed emotional cues.
He realized he had just received one of those cues from the oily haired woman.
Estelle brushed the tips of her fingers across Roddy Granger's forearm at the exact moment Lester had turned his head to look down at his money. Roddy had also been working with his psychiatrist on telling the difference between emotional cues and boners. He was pretty sure this was an emotional cue he had just received and NOT a boner. A boner would be unthinkable and inappropriate.
Roddey gave his head a shake, realizing he’d been dawdling and it was time to start thinking like a claims investigator. Lester hadn't answered the question put to him as to whether or not Estelle was his daughter. Roddy deduced from that that Estelle might very well be Lester’s young wife; perhaps the man had taken her as a teenage bride. Roddy Granger pursed his lips: His job to draw conclusions. Any clue might prove significant in the bear claw claim investigation. At the same time, he didn't want to get into the young wife thing, did and didn't. There was something about Estelle that spelled trouble. Lester would certainly have spelled that kind of Trouble with a capital T. Roddy just wasn’t sure what that something was. To complicate matters, she was asking for his help. “You, you, you,” she had transmitted in her squeezing Morse code.
Roddy Granger puffed out his cheeks. He couldn’t lie to himself. He knew exactly what that certain something was about Estelle. He just didn't want to admit what that certain something was in the midst of a field investigation. Plain as the nose on his face:
Estelle was carrying a bushel full of sex appeal right down the middle of main street on the shady side of boner city!
He would never have expected his first assignment in the field be THIS arduous; it was proving to be much the same as an animal getting its paw caught in an iron trap then not wanting to admit to itself that its paw had been trapped; that would mean the animal would have to knaw its paw off in order to get free. The animal didn’t face the reality of being trapped because the animal simply did not want to go through with the knowing; knawing would hurt like a mofo.
Dr. Kerpowski frequently evoked the image of the animal with its paw getting caught in a trap in order to help Roddy confront his garden variety anxiety issues. From across the room, Dr. Kerpowski would yell: "Knaw it off, Roddy Granger. Knaw your paw OFF!"
Roddy flinched whenever his psychiatrist yelled OFF like that. His psychiatrist always chuckled when he observed Roddy Granger flinch. His psychiatrist enjoyed making Roddy Granger flinch. As often as he could Dr. Kerpowski raised his voice suddenly or lunged forward with both arms outstretched or clapped his hands together without warning. Roddy Granger’s psychiatrist was not only bored with his job but hated it; hated his job with a capital H as well as hating all of his patients, including and in particular, Roddy Granger.
Roddy Granger felt a stirring, as if a magnet and lump of iron had simultaneously been dropped down the front of his pants while two other magnets were inserted into both of his ear canals and pushed straight through into his right and left temporal lobes. Roddy Granger needed to get into that rest room stall right away, take out his church bulletin, unfold it, smooth it (and not just smooth it but smooth it good), and start looking at it; licking his lips if he had to while he looked. He’d take his sweet time pouring over that sucker. He stood abruptly and made a beeline toward the little alcove over which hung a crooked and filthy sign reading 'water closet.'
“That reminds me, I have to take a leak too,” Estelle announced and lurched to a standing position, inadvertently knocking her chair over with a loud THUNK.
RODDY GRANGER ENTERS THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE
Directly after Estelle followed Roddy Granger into the rest room's alcove, Lester's voice rose as if somebody had pried off one of his fingernails.
He slipped off his stool and in doing so inadvertently got his sleeve caught on the sink's faucet.
Estelle had already covered the distance between bar and restroom like a cheetah emerging from high grass on the African veldt. She pushed the stranger up against the warped wood paneling alongside the alcove wall, just out of Lester's sight, as her breath, hot as a Bunsen burner’s flame, caused Roddy Granger's nostril hairs to curl. His head was propelled backward against the wall, making a dull thump.
Lester bellowed, "What was that goddamn dull thump I just heard? SHOULD I BE CONCERNED, ESTELLE? Somehow, I’ve managed to . . . " Lester yanked on his sleeve, entangling it even more on the spout. "I don't understand how this, this goddamn. . . " Lester began muttering.
The bar's plumbing seemed to have caught him in its irrational grasp. Estelle paid no attention to Lester, her jet-black hair parting to one side to reveal a single reddish wisp dangling over one dark green oval eye. The whisp swung like a pendulum past her prominent patch of freckles now glowing madly as if fueled by radioactive isotopes.
Estelle's hair had been fire-engine red since birth. Upon turning five, the elders of her little Transylvanian village decreed that Estelle’s parents were to dye their child’s hair black so as to avoid inadvertent questioning concerning her lineage by any outsiders passing through. Estelle’s father gave her his own tin of black shoe polish and bid her to apply it every day:
"You need to conceal that you're of a ginger, or the outsiders will hunt you down and burn you alive at the stake."
Estelle continued the practice till the present day, only now used the cheap store-bought dye that Jerry, one of the bar’s full-timers slipped into her hobby cache every couple of weeks in exchange for a half-pint of rye whiskey Estelle pinched from one of Lester’s boxes in the basement. She kept her father's original tin of shoe polish secure on the end of a hemp lanyard and wore it around her neck.
On seeing the dangling red wisp, Roddy Granger wanted to ask Estelle a question. As if anticipating this need, Estelle placed her index finger across the stranger's lips.
"Tut tut. Now is not the time for questions but a time for listening, stranger. I need to tell you a few things."
Only a week earlier, while at his office and seated in front of his duty station's PC, Roddy Granger had intended on typing the letters MLB into his Google search engine. He wanted to check the recent Minnesota Twins box score. His fingers got a little bit ahead of themselves in all the excitement and instead of typing MLB, he typed MILF. Curiously, there appeared right away fifty or more JPEG images of scantily clad older women all of whom had taken photographs of themselves standing in front of bathroom mirrors. Roddy Granger scrolled through the images one by one, stroking both church card and church bulletin with trembling hands.
"Granger what the hell are you looking at?!"
Mr. Jenkins, the head of Investigations, just happened to pop his head through the office door at that precise moment.
"Masturbating to MILF JPEGs? Well why don't I give you a little privacy then."
Jenkins gently shut the door behind him. Afterward, Granger could hear his voice followed by roars of laughter. Roddy Granger arose, face beet red, and stumbled drunkenly toward the door. He flung it open and stammered to all those present, trying desperately to explain he had nothing to conceal. Mr. Jenkins was leaning against the coffee machine, sharing Granger's proclivities with the rest of the fraud team, all gathered and listening eagerly, paper cups in hand.
"No," Roddy stammered, "You don't understand. I had meant to type MLB!"
Mr. Jenkins pointed at Granger as if he'd made a funny.
"Sure you did, Granger, sure you did. Don't worry about it, fella. If anything, we were beginning to wonder about you. Who doesn't like MILFs to be honest?"
There were grins and nods from all the other seasoned investigators: All the boys in fraud loved MILFs! For the rest of the day, Roddy received more than his share of pats on the back and nudges in the ribs. When he returned to his office, Roddy Granger quite deliberately left his door propped wide open, cleared his entire search history and vowed never EVER to type MILF in the Google bar again. He certainly didn't mention anything to the missus about what set of JPEGs he had inadvertently lingered upon, lingered upon as if a few drops of some hypnotic love potion had been slipped into his decaf.
The following Sunday, Roddy had been by far the loudest member of his congregation singing the doxology; even Pastor Reynolds complemented him after the service at the foot of the church steps.
The thing was, right before being interrupted by Mr. Jenkins, Roddy Granger glimpsed one of those very MILFs who had taken her own photograph, not in the bathroom mirror like all the others, but crouched within some oddly cramped and disheveled attic crawl space. Roddy Granger, being a full-fledged fraud investigator, retained memory of that crawl space MILF, the one with oily black hair parted to one side and a red wisp dangling over a set of throbbing cold fusion freckles. That MILF looked an awful lot like Estelle, the woman who presently had him pinned up against the rest room alcove wall.
The truth of it all: Estelle WAS that crawl space MILF!
Estelle joined every MILF chat room she could find the night Lester stole her wand. Even though she was unable to leave the bar, she continued to troll the internet, casting out powerfully frustrated horny housewife vibes hoping some on-line masturbator would show up to rescue her. It didn’t matter who.
Estelle began whispering frantically to the stranger:
"Stranger, you need to know a few things right off the bat. It's male and female elements, stranger, but not exactly gender specific. I'm the narrator, you're the narrator, Lester's the narrator. It doesn't make any difference. You're me, I'm you and every little piece of paper you saw out there on my work table represents an aspect of us both. Do you understand so far, stranger?"
Roddy Granger didn't understand a cotton-picking thing but was thinking and thinking hard, trying to put what she was telling him into the insurance fraud investigation algorithm, what he'd been taught in training, to funnel it all toward the light at the end of the appropriate tunnel. Roddy Granger blinked, shifted his lips then shifted them back, like a cartoon cat.
Some of the things Estelle was saying she'd been needing to get off her chest for a long long time. She placed one hand over the stranger's hand, ever so lightly, still out of Lester’s sight. She didn’t care she was touching him, didn’t care one bit, Bit with a capital B. She’d seen this day coming and wasn’t about to waste the opportunity. She put something in the stranger's hand and closed her hand around his. In that way, she formed his hand into a fist which in turn enclosed itself around the little ball of paper she had placed there.
“Take this little scrap of paper, stranger and get us help. It's got our address on it. Get us all the help you can get. He’s holding us prisoner, Lester is. Get us help, Stranger. Lester’s an ass hole with a capital A. I call him Asster in my head, Lester ASS-TER. I say that to myself all the time. Listen to me, going on and all, after you have just. . . pushed yourself through that big ole door and all.”
Estelle normally did not have a southern belle accent but had assumed one because she read the stranger like a cheap romance novel and knew exactly what he needed to hear and how he needed to hear it.
In the meantime, Roddy Granger was giddy with excitement, investigative mode in full swing. He leaned forward and in turn, whispered into Estelle's ear.
“Is there someone else being held here? You said us?”
Estelle didn’t move away when the stranger whispered. Most people would have because his mouth was too close to her ear and Roddy Granger was slobbering. But Estelle felt herself to be in the homestretch and allowed him to slobber-whisper in her ear if that's what was REALLY necessary.
As soon as Roddy Granger began to whisper (without realizing he was slobbering as bad as Sylvester the cartoon cat) into Estelle's ear, he was struck with a strong inclination to whisper some more; it didn't matter what, even if it was gibberish. He didn't care if she answered his questions, for instance, the one concerning who else might be held there.
The fact of the matter was: Roddy Granger suddenly didn’t want to share Estelle. What an odd thought. And further, it was as if his own wife and children ceased to exist and frankly, he didn’t care if there WAS somebody else being held there; he didn’t care about them either, who they were or if they had any feelings. He'd leave them behind.
“Fuck ‘em” the hoarse Linda Blairish voice within his head bellowed.
He wanted Estelle all to himself. With that wisp of concealed red hair and prominent freckles and her being that very same MILF in the disconcerting crawl space, he found himself no longer clutching his church bulletin but crushing it, crushing it like an ape at the zoo crushing a banana with the intention of peeing on it then eating it.
Estelle saw the dull expression on the stranger's face and knew it was all going according to plan. She wanted the stranger to continue to whisper if that's what would keep him occupied, to whisper as close as he could get to her ear, right into her ear if he wanted to, as if he was irrigating her canal with warm hydrogen peroxide and tap water solution.
Roddy Granger continued to whisper his gibberish as if he were the Oracle at Delphi breathing the Sulphur-laden fart-like vapors ascending underneath his tripod; as if he were dressed in a well hewn toga, parted slightly to reveal the ambiguous genitalia of a soothsayer. He had to summon his inner Superman power, a power which upheld truth, justice and the American Way, so as NOT to stick the tip of his nose into Estelle's ear (because that's what he really wanted to do big time).
As if reading his thoughts, Estelle whispered back,
“I can tell you’re as strong as Superman, stranger. I’ve never been in the presence of anyone as strong as you before.”
“You mean my power to resist?“
Roddy Granger wasn’t sure whether or not she was talking about his power to resist. In that moment of confusion, he located his church bulletin again and stroked it. In his other hand, he clutched the crumbled-up piece of paper she had place in his sweating palm, presumably upon it was written the address of the bar. Strange. He already knew the address so why would she give him the address. He suspected there was some OTHER bit of secret information inscribed on the parchment, in lemon juice more than likely, perhaps some secret message of a romantic sort. He might have to hone his hand-writing analysis skills once back at the lab. His heart was pounding.
All this transpired in the dingy alcove while Lester struggled to disengage his sleeve from the faucet. His growing rage had got himself further tangled. The dish washing hose attached to the fixture had snaked up into his sleeve, out his shirt collar and now thwacked the side of his neck.
“GODDAMMIT! This is NOT what I wanted to happen. What are you two talking about over there? What’s all that buzz-buzzing in the restroom alcove I’m hearing? Stranger, what business have you with Estelle? Let me just pull this fucking thing out of my. . .and I'll show you what business. . . “
It was as if the sink had grabbed a hold of Lester, as if the sink was conspiring against Lester, and was in cahoots, in goddamn cahoots, with the goddamn stranger, with Estelle, with the whole conspiratorial kit and caboodle including the legacy of JFK being unthinkably assassinated by his crass vice-president Lyndon Baines Johnson; all that was holding Lester back, a cacophony of covert supernatural and mundane forces yammering at the same instant.
He thought all that had been put behind him. Apparently not. Lester hadn’t had an issue with any of it for donkey’s years. Estelle and he had been living in peace and quiet since he'd stolen her paint brush: Until now.
“What should I do?”
The stranger whispered frantically back into Estelle’s ear, his own breath hot and humid as a summer dusk descending on a Bourbon Street strip show barker’s head. Roddy Granger felt the sudden inexplicable urge to prod Estelle’s ear with the tip of his nose; this time he just went ahead and did it. He didn’t care if he inadvertently inhaled a big ball of her ear wax in the process; it was worth the risk just to prod and prod and prod.
The thought to prod her ear with his nose had come to him out of the blue, yet again as if placed into his cranial vault by a pair of nimble hands holding a bent coat hanger, the thought slid down over its tip like a marshmallow. Roddy Granger felt like Estelle had shoved a grenade with its pin pulled out up his behind, and that it ended up into his sigmoid colon, lying there ticking. He didn't know why he thought that. He had never seen a woman with such prominent freckles before, along with such greasy jet-black hair and red horned rims stuck over the top of it all. Yes, she was naughty, naughtier, he sensed, than all the other MILFs in all the JPEGs put together.
He couldn’t hold that against her though.
He whispered urgently, this time drenching Estelle’s horned rims in more spittle:
"She can do no wrong, like some innocent alien who had landed on planet Earth and is looking for someone to mate with using her thorny proboscis."
Estelle wished for a moment her horned rims had little windshield wipers, but they didn’t. She nodded and whispered back to Roddy Granger, not in her Southern Belle vernacular but with a very matter of fact tone, as if she were Roddy Granger's accountant:
“Go pee, stranger, like its business as usual. You need to pee. I knew the moment you walked through that door you had to. DON’T ask me how I knew. I just knew. Like putting a piece of red paper on a blue outline of a mustache. I just knew.”
“You knew,” Roddy Granger answered back mechanically. He winced: He had to pee now and pee bad. He hadn’t a moment before. Not only that, he felt himself abruptly to be swirling and swirling, caught up in a maelstrom off the coast of Florida: Roddy Granger couldn't explain why but felt for certain he was about to experience what the Bermuda Triangle, the same Bermuda Triangle he’d been hearing about in all those television specials he’d watched over the years, what that Bermuda Triangle was all about.
THE STRANGER EATS HIS CHURCH BULLETIN WHILE PEEING
Roddy Granger looked down at the congealing green puddle on the alcove floor, sitting in front of the men's room door.
“The lost city of Atlantis,” he whispered in Estelle’s ear, spattering her again, and to an even greater degree, with spittle. She nodded solemnly and whispered back, trying to slobber as much as she could into his ear canal. It was pay-back time.
“You have magical powers, stranger. I see the green glow of Atlantis as well, but only because I am drowning in its swirling vortex. There is very little time. Water fills my lungs and bronchial passageways as we speak. The sand in the top half of the hour glass has almost run . . .” She coughed loudly, hawking a loogie into his ear, causing the stranger to flinch and in doing so emerge from his reverie.
Roddy Granger realized there was no time. He needed to gasp the bull by its horns in being the only Lone Ranger in the bar with no Tonto to help him, his horse Silver having fucked off. The bottom line was: Rescuing needed to be done and done pronto. Finding himself within the restroom alcove in this seamy bar on the industrial outskirts of a deserted city, not knowing exactly what he had just whispered into the ear of a raven-haired MILF enchantresses' ear was NO ACCIDENT. He sensed Danger with a capital D, as if he had just arrived unclothed, pale and hairless, 2000 years BC, at the cave entrance of a Neanderthal family having lunch, the Daddy thall gawking at him, a brontosaurus burger tipping out of his hand onto the dirt floor.
Roddy Granger knew EXACTLY what he was: An Insurance Fraud Investigator, an Investigator with a capital I, naturally. No one could take the title away and few would comprehend what his calling precisely entailed. All he knew he had to STAND STRONG and HOLD HIS GROUND. Thoughts in his head were coming off the psychic conveyor belt so fast he had trouble keeping up, like the I Love Lucy episode: Lucy was forced to start eating the candy travelling along the all too speedy conveyor belt, cramming pieces down into her shirt as well, her and Ethyl.
“What I need to do is ingest my church bulletin in its entirety and thereby harness its power," he whispered to Estelle. "Not just fondle it in my pocket."
Estelle regarded him closely. She was beginning to wonder if this dunderhead would be able to help her at all. She had not placed that last thought in his head.
Roddy Granger, on the other hand, knew this was one of those occasions when the sign clearly read: “Break glass in case of emergency.”
Estelle whispered back at him with more urgency.
“We don't have time for church bulletins, stranger. We both have to be selfless at a time like this, both of us have to give to charity and follow the agenda of others. Your South node is in Aries. It's time to give, stranger, not to take. Uh. . ."
Estelle paused, trying to think of something else to say.
"Lester is too old and too angry but there’s more, a lot more.”
She took a deep breath and went on.
“And you wouldn’t want to know the more part. That’s why you have to go out in the world and get help, get all the help you can find. Go pee then finish your beer and leave to get help. Oh, but before you leave to get help, there's a little something I'm going to ask you to do for me, just a little something. I'll tell you what that little something is while you are peeing. I . . . "
Estelle wasn't entirely sure what the something was yet. All was proceeding as had been foretold, that a stranger would come and help her find the thing Lester hid. The cards just didn't reveal any details beforehand. That was the way it worked. She knew she needed to kill a little more time until the answers became clear. She said the first thing that came into her head. Estelle was good at improvising. As Lester had quite rightly described her:
"Estelle is a goddamn Transylvanian survivor!"
"Pretend like we’re not talking," she whispered to Roddy Granger. "Don’t let Lester see you talking to me, Mister. Oh mister, don’t let him see us talking. Now, go pee.”
Estelle ran her hand down the stranger’s chest as if she wanted to tear the stranger’s chest open and eat his organs. The stranger didn't know this was what she wanted to do, only that she looked to be behaving extremely MILFishly, very JPEGishly. Her freckles seemed to vibrate. This was impossible: Freckles didn't vibrate. She ran her hand down the stranger's pants leg without him telling him she was going to do that. Roddy Granger could not help but flinch again and blurt out:
“Are you some kind of fandangled MILF stripper or something?”
Estelle hesitated then replied calm and cool as an Alpine lake.
“I was, stranger, a stripper and an MILF . . . all at the same time.”
“What are you two whispering about over there, goddammit, all comfy cozy," Lester bellowed. "MISTER! You heard my question!”
“The stranger’s just peeing, Les. I’m fixing to pee as well.”
The stranger and Estelle proceeded into their respective rest rooms, the men’s room and the woman’s room. Estelle sat on the toilet, supported her chin in one palm and listened, bored expression on her face. Her thick stream splashed the bowl. The stranger stood in front of his urinal, removed his penis and directed the tip toward the holes of the drain so his urine would create less back splash.
Estelle hissed, projecting her voice through the door, penetrating the men’s restroom:
“Mister, you’re going to have to tell Lester something. Tell him something, Mister, and make it good.”
It occurred to Estelle at that moment that everything taking place was very much like the assemblage of a collage. She knew in that instant she must utilize her instincts to their fullest extent. There was no turning back now. This was the day she would regain her freedom.
Roddy Granger heard what Estelle said, as if she were standing right behind him breathing down the back of his neck. He reached into his pants pocket, surprised to discover how damp it had become. Unbeknownst to him, Roddy had been peeing everywhere; everywhere but where he should have been peeing; that is, into the porcelain target area. He had peed all over himself. He removed his crushed and soggy church card from his pants pocket, placed it in his mouth and started chewing.
Roddy Granger knew Estelle wasn’t actually standing there behind him but suspected, quite rightly, Estelle was like some kind of oily raven haired freckled witch!
He chewed the bulletin and swallowed hard. The reason Roddy Granger joined the church in the first place so many years ago was a feeling that would overtake him from time to time, a feeling of liking evil and a feeling of wanting evil. Evil was exciting. Life was boring. He had found himself thinking these very pre-church bulletin thoughts AGAIN and he hadn’t thought them in years. He desperately hoped by digesting the church bulletin, the warm and all too pleasant tropical breeze of evil thinking would be extinguished like a match stick being blown out. Things had been so good for so long without him having evil thoughts.
Incredibly though, the honest truth was for Roddy Granger, at that very moment, while peeing into the filthy urinal as well as on himself, with the imaginary Estelle standing right behind him, he never wanted evil back in his life as much.
“I want someone to stuff a real hand grenade up my ass,” he whispered, the thought seemingly syringed into his brain by some unknown cosmic physician. As soon as he whispered these words, it was as if a murder of crows began to caw and fly just below the rest room ceiling. He swatted at them with his hand and in doing so, peed all over his shoes with the remaining urine in his bladder.
“What was that, mister?” What where when?”
Lester was bellerin’ like Faulkner's Benji running alongside the cow pasture. Roddy Granger indeed had been whispering a bit too loudly.
“What are you whispering about to the stranger, Estelle? I’m out here trying to disenfuckingtangle myself, of all the goddamn times this would fucking happen, naturally, right when the goddamn stranger hits town. . . “
Roddy Granger stepped out of the lavatory at that moment and did his best to amble, or at least appear to amble, back toward the bar, his pants obviously stained with his own urine. He had thought of something to say to Lester. Lester had mentioned “bowel movements” at the exact moment he’d pushed through the bar’s front door. “Bowel movements” was something he could definitely run with.
Roddy Granger had an issue with constipation from time to time, sometimes a big issue: You might even say, he was somewhat of an “expert” when it came to “issues of the stool.”.
LESTER FELT THE STRANGER’S BEHAVIOR HAD BECOME REPULSIVE, EVEN BY HIS STANDARDS
Emerging from the rest room alcove, Roddy Granger tipped an imaginary hat in Lester's direction and assumed a cheerful tone.
“I literally came in here just to have a bowel movement, Lester, nothing else. Sorry about the misunderstanding."
Lester stopped tugging at the hose which had by then snaked all the way up his shirt sleeve, simultaneously tangling itself around the sink's faucet. Estelle knawed on a thumb nail, standing just inside the woman's wash room door, listening intently. She was unsure where the stranger was going with this. She'd have to make double sure he didn't blow it. She was only a hop, skip and a jump away from Freedom with a capital F. Estelle called out,
"The stranger has apparently had constipation issues in the past, Lester."
With deliberate stride, she entered the bar room space as an actor might after receiving her on stage cue. Lester stared suspiciously from her to the stranger.
"A constipation issue? What the hell does that have to do with me? We don't just take constipated people in off the street, stranger. 'Hey Lester, can I use your bathroom. I'm constipated.' See a proctologist, why don't you, but see one on your own time. I don't let any old Bob Jones waltz in here and have a . . . what did you call it? A bowel movement? D'you hear him Estelle? He said he came in here just to have a BOWEL MOVEMENT."
Lester chuckled. Estelle chuckled as well, loud enough for Lester to hear. She didn't usually chuckle at Lester's jokes. Lester was immediately pleased Estelle had chuckled. Estelle knew he was pleased, of course.
"I knew you'd find that funny, Estelle, that's why I said it. See, stranger. We aren't laughing with you. We are laughing at you."
Roddy Granger blinked.
"I understand completely. I'm not asking for sympathy, Lester. I ordered the beer so using your facilities wouldn’t pose a financial imposition. After each log I flush, see; wipe then flush; then wipe again and flush a third time, rarely a fourth time although the day after a burger, I might wipe and flush up to twelve times. This adds up in a water bill, take my word for it. I just happened to be passing by your bar constipated as all get out, the place looked friendly enough, so I waddled in. That's all. Saw your name on the mailbox, figured you must be the head honcho and felt it was only right to clear it with you first. That’s why I asked for you by name: Lester.”
Estelle realized she needed to help the stranger, however unpleasant what she had in mind might be for him. The stranger had gotten off on the constipation tangent. She wouldn't have suggested he take that tact but he took it. The stranger was just going to have to run with that football.
Roddy Granger, in the meantime, continued to improvise.
“I was just asking that woman over there, Lester, whispering to her really because frankly I was embarrassed. I whispered: ‘Can you smell me?' She whispered back, ‘Yes I can smell you. You smell like a landfill.’ That was insulting enough but she went on to call me ‘a filthy good for nothing tramp.’ Lester, my feelings were hurt at that point, frankly, so I'll be finishing my paid for draft and leaving; probably won't ever come back.”
Lester sputtered, “That’s my girl. Estelle. Did you really say that to the stranger? And I was struggling this whole time trying to disentangle myself from the hose and all. No, that’s exactly what you should be saying to strangers and I shouldn’t have gotten all riled up if I had known that’s what you two were talking about, all about the stranger’s bowel movements and that freakish wiping he does. What you said was exactly what you should have said. Lay the truth down like a steamroller; make it clear which side of the parade route you stand on, which flag you'll be waving. What you’d call him again?” Lester chuckled. “A good for nothing tramp? I like that. A good for nothing tramp! And that hurt the stranger’s feelings as it should have. The stranger needed to respect our agenda here, for one. Come barreling in here wanted to take a dump in my facility. You just fired a warning shot across his bow, Estelle. And mister, you heard the woman. You best be finishing that paid for draft you were lucky enough to be served and be on your merry way. I don’t have anything against you personally but apparently Estelle does. And if Estelle has an issue then I have an issue. Gabeish?”
“I’m just swigging this last little bit down and I’ll be out of here in a diddle-daddle
“In a what?” Lester asked.
Keeping both hands in her dour dress pockets, Estelle began wiggling her fingers in a complex manner, as if she were a potter sitting in front of her pottery wheel, molding a large lump of clay. Her fingers kneaded and caressed, making subtle corrections to hidden contours; then, after a minute, abruptly extended all fingers outward in the direction of the stranger; more precisely, in the direction of the stranger's behind.
"In a . . . " Roddy Granger began to say and stopped abruptly, feeling as if a hand had been clamped across his throat, crushing his vocal cords. He felt strangely compelled to speak the following words:
"I might as well be wearing a banana hat eating a banana split on a banana boat bound for Costa Rica, the banana capital of the world!"
"What the hell did you just say?" Lester asked.
It was as if those nonsensical words had been placed on his tongue by some invisible spatula. There was something else happening, a rumbling in his tummy. Without warning, Roddy Granger gripped his sides and fell off the barstool, reflexively arching his spine in the most agonizing of angles, as if in the throes of exorcism.
"Oh my GAWD!" Estelle exclaimed, flattened hand rising in front of her mouth. "Look at the stranger, Lester!"
Granger had curled up on the bar floor into a tight fetal position, the very posture he had assumed on one previous occasion, when his gut had expanded with air and he had felt, not just “like diarrhea” but "like bad diarrhea." He had described it to his family afterward in detail none of them wanted to hear: He ended up on the floor of his own bathroom following a week of intense studying for his Fraud Investigation School finals. He'd sent his wife and children upstate to the in-laws place so he could perform non-stop power cramming; in doing so, he had not allotted a single minute to have a bowel movement; simply forgot to add that to his to-do list. He ended up becoming impacted, a term a emergency room doctor used. He ended up tearing his rectum as a result of trying to push and pull the impacted thing Out, Out with a big capital O.
"Jesus." Lester peered over the top of the bar at him. "You think what we're seeing is the stranger's constipation problem, Estelle?"
"I think that's exactly what we're seeing, Lester. He has to pass stool but can't. Looks like he's in agony."
"Estelle, I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't. . . This topic is one I'd prefer never to discuss. WHO WANTS TO HEAR ABOUT THAT?!
“I have to pass hard stool again," the stranger moaned. "Like I did before. . . "
Estelle's fingers had again started to move inside her dress pocket. Roddy Granger spoke mechanically, almost electronically, as if he had a voice box:
"I had to break a number two pencil in half and start chipping away at the log, the petrified log, half hanging out, chip at it when its head was sticking out; had to chip away at it then make myself push and pull it in and out, chip away at it, push and pull it, chip away at it some more, until at last I was able to push out a softball sized lump of granite hard stool. It was as if I had delivered a new born baby."
"You passed a WHAT?" Lester bellowed, clearly upset, contorting his face. "That's disgusting!"
Lester began struggling even harder with the hose. His intention now was to come out from behind the bar and drag the stranger out his door by both arms, set him down in the parking lot and lock the door behind him. He decided to keep the bar closed for the remainder of the day. Lester started mumbling to himself.
"The stranger is welcome to struggle with his constipation issue in the parking lot. But not in here. Not on my watch . . ."
The rock-hard ball of stool appeared abruptly within Roddy Granger's sigmoid colon as if placed there by some an unseen set of invisible tongs. This one was bigger than the first one he passed. Estelle made sure of that: This one was the size of an NFL football.
Lester said, "I'm frankly embarrassed. I'm embarrassed for myself, embarrassed for you Estelle and embarrassed for the stranger. What I just heard him say was pathetic and inappropriate."
Lester pointed a finger not just toward but AT the stranger.
Roddy Granger shrieked. Again, Estelle was moving her fingers around in a witchy way. When she flicked the index, the stranger started rolling along the floor, picking up debris, his shirt becoming sopping wet hitting congealed puddle after congealed puddle of day-old urine. Something was happening beyond his control. He couldn't pull himself up off that stinky old bar room floor for all the tea in China!
Lester was becoming more alarmed by the stranger's shenanigans and struggled even harder with the hose, all the while continuing to mumble.
“Uh, that floor’s filthy, Mister. Some man pissed just about where you’re rolling, and I didn’t have a chance to mop that area . . . completely.”
Estelle began shrieking at the top of her lungs and bent over the stranger, hissing:
"You're the whole Spartan Army wrapped up into one fighting machine, stranger, and you need to hold them off at Thermopylae. Hold the Persians off, stranger. Hold them off!"
She flicked a finger. The stranger winced. The stool inside was getting even bigger, almost the size of a kettle bell.
"Incentive," she hissed.
If he could have, Roddy Granger would have vomited up his church bulletin, chewed it and swallowed it again. But he wasn't even thinking about church bulletins now. He was thinking about passing the stool, now size of the Hindenburg.
Estelle raised her voice, “He’s hurt, Lester. The stranger’s hurt bad. Lester honey, why did you have to shoot him? Why did you have to shoot him, Les? He’s just some old tramp.”
Lester stopped struggling with the hose again, confused.
“I didn’t shoot him, Estelle. Did you see me shoot him? The one thing I don’t like is being accused of something I DID NOT DO! That’s the one thing I can’t. . . DEAL WITH! My mother used to accuse me of things I did NOT do. I did not do any of the things she said I did.”
Estelle knew Lester didn’t like being accused of things he didn’t do. She knew his buttons and this was precisely the time to start pressing them, press them like she was playing a church organ with pedals. She lifted two fingers in her pocket, causing the stranger to start rolling even faster and bounce along the floor erratically, straight toward the old antique telephone booth which hadn't been used in years, its receiver long since yanked from the wall and sitting cordless in the cradle.
When Lester saw where the stranger was headed, he began to struggle even more fiercely with the hose and bellow like a mastodon stuck in a tar pit.
“Now what’s he doing? Estelle, don’t let him go over there. Stand in front of him, Estelle.”
“Pass that stool, stranger,” Estelle hissed, her voice descending in register to the depths of a hellish Wagnerian bass, rattling the bottles behind Lester’s back. Whiskey and Tequila began toppling off the glass shelf, first the Resposado, Lester's favorite, then the single malt, his second favorite, all of it clattering and causing Lester to flinch; and not just once but flinch Twice with a capital T.
"My booze," was all Lester could say, realizing what was happening: The day of reckoning had come. And Estelle knew he knew. The stranger didn’t know anything, and continued to roll and flail, pull and push.
Oddly, the closer the stranger rolled toward the old phone booth, the less pressure he felt down below. This was reason enough to keep rolling: It was as though the impacted ball of stool had some kind of fandangled modern electronic embedded homing device serving to melt it from the inside out the closer he got to that old rickety phone booth. Roddy Granger didn't care about the technical details - he just knew he felt less pain if he rolled in a particular direction.
"No!!" Lester yelled, trapped completely in the hose-faucet-sink apparatus, a fly in a spider's web.
Estelle followed the stranger, trotting alongside of him, like a sweeper in Olympic curling.
"Thrash, stranger, thrash. That’s right. You’re needing to pass that big hard bowel movement as you called it, but its getting smaller, isn't it, if you head in one direction? Wonder why that is? I'd go in that one direction then if I were you. Go! Go hard in that direction, stranger!"
Estelle flipped the red horned rim glasses up onto her forehead and raked one finger down the center of her oily jet-black hair, renting it to one side so her cold green eye became completely exposed along with the set of freckles that were glowing like fiery coals on the Wabash Cannonball.
“Roddy Granger,” she incanted.
“Don’t call him by name, Estelle,” Lester said weakly. "I don't like that. . . "
Estelle turned to train her eye upon Lester, gaping helplessly at the unfolding scene.
Then he became still. He no longer struggled having realized the futility.
“The stranger needs medical attention, Lester, as you will in a moment . . .”
Roddy Granger ploughed, be-hind first, into the old phone box, mule kicking the panel just under the cracked wooden seat, arching his back in that instant as he pushed out the NFL sized football of stool into his underwear, experiencing immediate Relief with a capital R.
The whole wooden panel and seat clattered onto the barroom floor and out flew a small non-descript paintbrush, making a distinctive "tic" against one of the bar stool legs.
The bar was filled with eerie silence. It also smelled worse than it ever had before which was pretty bad.
AFTER ESTELLE GOT HER THING BACK, THE STRANGER HAD SOME ODD THOUGHTS, WHILE LESTER . . .
The clatter behind the stranger crescendoed as he clawed his way on hands and feet toward the door, ajar just enough to allow a thin haze to slice the bar's internal gloom, the dust particles suspended within the cut tumbling ever so slowly, as if residing in another world altogether. Gelled urine, stale beer and boogers adhered to the stranger's shirt and pants like he was a snowball gathering twigs and leaves.
Roddy Granger couldn't care less: He needed to get the fuck out of that insane asylum.
With one hand, Estelle fished inside the defect at the back of the telephone booth and removed the frayed umbrella Lester had also hid along with her paintbrush years previously. She opened it, spun the top about, brushed the dust away, collapsed it and secured the clasp. Covering the distance to the bar stool in two strides, Estelle picked up her paint brush and wiped the dust off that as well. Lester watched her do this, looking like he had tried to swallow a whole grapefruit and it got stuck in his throat.
With the umbrella's handle, Estelle deliberately pushed her oily black bangs away from her face, pulling the red horned rims down onto the bridge of her nose. She cocked her head and affixed her two green eyes on Lester with a curious expression, much like an alien might arriving on Earth for the first time with intention of collecting a specimen or two for probing. Without shifting her gaze, she spoke over one shoulder to the stranger who had almost reached the door.
"Leave this place, stranger, and don't so much as look back."
Roddy Granger didn't need to be told, although oddly, despite the commotion and his frantic efforts to escape, he felt an inner repose the likes of which he’d never experienced: Roddy Granger realized all he ever wanted to be was a fraud investigator, "to live it and breath it," like Fred F'in Macmurray, "THE man" as far as he was concerned, the reason he got into this balls to the wall profession in the first place.
It hadn't been about the money.
As Roddy Granger pushed the bar room door open and crawled out into the hazy light of the gravel strewn parking lot, the promise of that good life, the life he was supposed to be living, the life depicted on billboards, of palms trees and 16-ounce glasses of freshly squeezed Florida orange juice, was within his grasp. He had pointed out those very billboards from behind the wheel of his new Pontiac fifteen years earlier, when all the kids still riding in the backseat.
"THAT'S what I'm talking about, Marsha," he had proclaimed. "That right there. THAT'S what I'm talking about."
Marsha had squeezed his hand because THAT was what she wanted as well, all that.
"We'll get there, Roddy Granger. And you'll get us there, honey. We're depending on you, sweetheart. We're all depending on you. You still have your cross hairs on that Fraud Investigator position, don't you?"
"Like a Japanese Zero on the USS Ticonderoga!"
"That a boy! We'll get there then. It'll just take a little time. Maybe a year or two more."
The conversation of fifteen years previous seemed like it had taken place only yesterday although things were a little different. Last week Marsha had gone off on another one of her so called "retreats" with Roger Flanagan, the Roger Flanagan from sales. Another meditation retreat with Roger Flanagan just so, as she put it, Roddy could 'get on with his first assignment without any interruptions and concentrate on the case at hand.'
She had said similar things to him in the past.
“I'm going on my retreat so you can concentrate, honey. I'm going with Roger Flanagan. You know Roger, from Sales?"
After skidding to a halt on that gravel strewn parking lot, Roddy Granger realized something else:
"I don't WANT to fucking concentrate."
Roddy Granger didn't know exactly what he wanted to do. In that blinding dirty sunlight, his thoughts had become a jambalaya with fresh hot jalapenos tossed into a pot of psychic Cajun stew. He knew what he didn't want. Well, he wasn't altogether sure of that either. Something had happened to him in that bar. Maybe it was the rock-hard regulation sized NFL football stool he had to pass. Whatever that something was, that something had changed Roddy Granger's life and changed it with a capital C.
He shifted his weight onto one side and was in the process of kicking the door closed with one foot when he caught an ever-so-briefest glimpse of Estelle standing atop the bar directly above Lester, holding her umbrella with both hands far over Lester’s head. Just before the door drew to a close, in an infinitesimal moment of recognition, he watched the umbrella's tip drive straight down into Lester's gaping mouth and heard him issue one final grotesque and truncated cry.
Roddy Granger lay staring at the door a full minute after it shut, recalling the final glimpse of that wooden umbrella handle protruding from Lester's mouth, blood sputtering up around it like a coffee pot's first morning percolation.
Roddy Granger collapsed backward and lay on the gravel, brick and asphalt rubble, squinting directly at the hazy sun, something you were told not to do as a kid. He squinted at it until he could no longer see anything at all. He did not understand what had just taken place inside Lester's Place and wasn't sure he wanted to understand. He shut his eyes tightly, regarding the bright ball which had just been burned onto his retina. He wasn't sure if he cared what had just happened in that bar. The sun was warm. A fly buzzed a little too close to one of his ears. Roddy Granger opened his eyes, as if for the first time in his life and smacked himself on the side of the head.
He raised onto one elbow, scissoring his legs back and forth, shifting then scissoring again. He turned over on one side, lifted his belt away then his underwear elastic, scooted his bottom out from under him and peered down into his tidy-whities: Spotless. Not a single skid mark nor hint of stool!
He regarded his shirt: Dry as a bone and smelling of fabric softener, the Purple Rainbow Marsha used. He arose and brushed himself off. The bar itself looked to have been closed for quite some time, its windows boarded with plywood and two by fours. Graffiti had been spray painted everywhere but not just yesterday, or even, the day before that.
Granger turned to examine his old Pontiac, the old beut he'd just kept running over the years because he couldn't afford to buy a new one. Thing was, refinancing his mortgage that year together with the new promotion to Fraud Investigator, earned him that two-week vacay in Miami he and Marsha had been babbling about for years.
Yes, all of it was now within his grasp. The problem was, he couldn't give a fuck any more. But that was a good thing, a real good thing, the same thing they told the kid in the Twilight Zone episode so that he wouldn't turn them all into jack-in-o-boxes:
"A real good thing."
Driving away, Roddy Granger realized he hadn't addressed the issue of the insurance claim itself, his very first case in the field and the reason why he had showed up there in the first place. He rolled the window down and extended his arm, feeling the warm breeze and buffeting of the air. He decided to falsify the paperwork, to document that he had seen no evidence of a bear attack. He would forge Lester's signature.
"Fuck that shit," he said aloud. The claim would simply be denied. "Lester's fucking shish- kabob anyway," he said. It felt good to say it so he said it again, this time a little louder: "LESTER'S FUCKING SHISH-KABOB!"
He wouldn't mention Lester’s last truncated shriek in the memo, of course, nor the woman's oily bangs, the restroom, the telephone booth, the paintbrush, umbrella, none of it. Just that there was no evidence of a bear attack.
Roddy Granger’s children graduated from high school. He settled down with Marsha; and yeah, she’d been having that affair with the guy from Sales. Roddy Granger couldn't have cared less. Marsha and he began drinking martinis every night, good stiff ones.
"All that's part of the American Dream anyway, am I right, boys," he'd tell them all, standing by the coffee maker. "All of it part of one big goddamn fucking LIE!"
Whenever he passed Flanagan from Sales, he'd call out. "Marsha said you had big time problems with impotence, you sniveling little shit eating turd bucket!" He'd laugh heartily. Turns out Roddy Granger became one of the most popular fraud investigators on the floor. Eventually made supervisor.
"Who the fuck cares, Jones or Smith or whatever your name is. Why don't you just get on with it," was one of his favorite lines. The junior investigators all quoted him, whispered and pointed when he sauntered past. He was their Fred F’in Macmurray. They loved him for treating people based on his own jaded version of the golden rule:
"If it's good enough for you, then its good enough for the next guy. Now fuck off."
Roddy Granger, head of Fraud, never did forget about that first assignment; how the raven haired MILF so urgently had whispered in his ear; how he ate his church bulletin in that stinky restroom; how he pretended to be constipated then all of a sudden WAS constipated and ended up passing that football sized stool and not finding one trace of it in his pants when he finally crawled out into the parking lot. Never told a soul but that case turned out to be the highlight of his career. Roddy Granger often wondered, what if? What if he had turned back that day and gone back in the bar? He didn’t know the answer, down what road that would that have taken him, essentially a left hand turn at Albuquerque. The fact was he hadn't gone back in. He kind of suspected the whole incident messed him up mentally, messed him up bad, placing doubt where doubt should never have been placed, making him want to question the meaning of life and not only life but the American Dream itself. But all that made him the popular guy he was and kept Marsha second guessing him too with all his erratic and senseless behavior; like him investing in all that cryptocurrency with their savings, buying the VPN so he could surf the dark web, the novels he wrote under various pseudonyms, the novels that didn't make sense to her or him either.
“Is there something I need to know?” Marsha asked him periodically.
“No. Nothing. But how about another martini?”
But even after years had passed, Roddy Granger still couldn't help but think about that restroom alcove, where it all had begun, about Estelle’s hands, flittering to and fro. Every now and then, he had to hit his head and hit it hard, over and over down the middle of his TV tray with his TV dinner sitting on it, getting Salisbury Steak gravy and diced carrots all over his cheeks and chin.
"What are you doing now, Roddy Ranger, hitting your head like that? That’s too hard, Roddy. Dr. Phil talks about brain contusions and uh huh, that’s not the road you want to travel down."
"You're right, Marsh."
At time like those, Roddy Granger would simply put it all out of his mind, put Estelle out of his mind, put Lester out of his mind, the umbrella, the truncated shriek, the whole bloody kit and caboodle out of his mind, until one day, ten years after it happened, he was called upstate to investigate a claim of a dead pet.
It all came back to bite Roddy Granger on the ass; and bite him good.