my future with carolynThe long ride up in the Turd Fergus was one of the oddest experiences I have ever had. With death staring me in the face like a bill collector with a nail-studded baseball bat due to an unknown quantity of quality explosive nestled not so safely in the back seat of a lurching vehicle which seemed to practice testing the limits of the law of gravity every time a tire looked at a pothole crosswise, I was in no mood to coddle reality. I felt most of the time as if I was floating on a sea of freeze-dried coffee crystals on their way to a pot of boiling water. It was surreal, not to mention distasteful. That Carolyn spent most of the drive in the seat across from me humming a merry Elizabethan raga only added to an atmosphere of Dali-esque disjointedness. “Would you stop that, please?”

“What?”

“Humming that funeral dirge.”

“It’s not a funeral dirge.”

“It sounds like a funeral dirge.”

“Well, it’s not. It’s a lively Patamanian Peasant Dance. I learned it from one of my clients.”

“There’s no such thing as a Patamanian Peasant Dance. You made that up.”

“O, ye of little faith.”

“Alright, you had a Patamanian client and he taught you one of his Peasant Dances. What was he on trial for, wearing those balloon pants in public?”

“Patamanians do not prance their Peasant Dances in balloon pants. They parade around in plaid pants pleated and treated with partially-hydrogenated peanut oil. It’s very colorful.”

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As the pit of my stomach hit the floor on its second bounce, I noticed a suitcase sitting in the middle of it. The floor, not my stomach. “What’s that?”

“A suitcase.”

For the sake of The Mission, I suppressed the growl that rose from my toes even though doing so nearly choked me. “I can see that,” I said patiently. “What’s it doing on the floor?”

“Nothing. Just resting. Luggage doesn’t do much. It tends to be rather passive. Like some men I know.”

“Carolyn,” I said, sighing, “at any other moment I’d probably be among the first to applaud your vibrant wit and subtle insults, but right now is not that time. All I want to know is that you’re not bringing it with you.”

“Oh, but I am.” She raised an eyebrow one-sixteenth of a centimeter too high on the left for true innocence. “It’s my trousseau.”

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I’ll say this for it, it was a bright, warm day for a long, long ride. I picked Carolyn up at 3 sharp. Her house was on the sunny side of $half a mil, and with a Jag peeking its cheeky nose out of her garage, I had to wonder why we were taking Aunt Harriet’s Turd Fergus.

“Because mine would be too conspicuous for a get-away, silly,” she answered as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Is this how we end up?“Getaway?” I inquired shakily. The morning’s bathrobe-inspired bravery was wearing off fast in the face of Carolyn’s breezy glee. “Are we going to need to make a getaway?”

“Don’t you think so?” she asked, bemused by my rank innocence. “We’re stealing something, aren’t we?”

“You think they’ll chase us for stealing a knitting trophy?”

Dahling,” she said, “you clearly don’t know much about needle-knockers. They’re vicious.”

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Friday night was almost unbearable. Sleep was a gazillion miles away, give or take a few parsecs. I lay on sotted, sopping sheets sweating like a racehorse after a 5-mile jog and shaking so badly you could have used me as a cuisinart. Whenever I closed my eyes, movies played on the theater of my eyelids, movies about pit-wolves with huge, razor-sharp fangs dripping with blood – my blood – and marriages to black widow spiders with huge, razor-sharp pincers dripping with blood – my blood – and trophies that came to life sporting huge, razor-sharp needles dripping with – Well, you get the drift. It was horrific, worse than being down front at a Britney Spears concert.

What am I saying? It was worse than being down front at a concert featuring Britney Spears, Barry Manilow, and Kenny G playing Beethoven’s Third Symphony on, respectively, a nose flute, a zither, and a pair of Xavier Cougat’s cast-off timbales.

Morning came slowly, and when at last the sun rose it was blood red, the sky dripping with– I sat up with a jolt. I had to stop this. I was working myself into a state of marginal panic. No, strike that. I was working myself into a state of flat-out, full-bore, all-cylinders-pumping panic. All that blood and gore was sapping my strength, weakening my resolve, and ruining my sheets. Get a grip on yourself, I said to myself, as if I were someone else (which was at that moment my dearest wish – an Eskimo, say, or Marv Alpert, which shows you how far gone I was). I tried to tell myself there was hope but I knew I was lying (which demonstrates how difficult a 2-way conversation can be when only one of you is in the room).

With the sun up at last, I went into the kitchen and made pancakes with peanut butter. I didn’t eat them. I made coffee with the shards of a broken cup. I didn’t drink it. For all I know, I hung a string of bowling balls from the ceiling and played pin-the-tail-on-the-wapiti. I don’t remember. My entire being was subsumed with the consideration and visualization of the forthcoming catastrophe, the impending cataclysm, the imminent doom, the blazing, boisterous bathysphere of blood and–

“Stop it,” I said out loud just as Aunt Harriet wandered into the kitchen in search of her morning beaker of boiled baby seals and bunny brains barbecued in bloody– “Stop it,” I said again.

“Stop what?” she asked. “Are you talking to me?”

“No,” I mumbled.

“Then who on earth are you talking to?”

“The Angel of Death,” I said gloomily.

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We went over to a corner of the bar near the exit and stood under the ominous portrait of a frowning Tony Scalia. If I believed in omens, I would have left then. “So what do you need to talk to me about?”

“You first. You’re looking for a favor, too, aren’t you?”

“What makes you think I want to ask a favor? Maybe I want to tell you something you need to know.”

She raised a skeptical brow. “Like what, for instance?” she asked in the kind of tone that suggested she found it almost impossible to credit the notion that someone like me could have anything of importance to tell someone like her that she didn’t already know. I don’t even think she meant it; it was automatic. A tiger may smile playfully but with blood on its teeth, chances are you won’t take it that way. No wonder she was a trial lawyer.

“Like maybe I’m pregnant and you’re the father,” I said. She laughed. I always liked her laugh. Unlike everything she ever said to me, her laugh didn’t feel like it was aimed at my genitals. “OK, so I’m not pregnant and you’re not the father. Maybe I inherited a million dollars and I want you to help me spend it.” That got her attention. Money always did.

“Did you? Inherit a million dollars?” She didn’t believe it for a second but hope was writ large in her eyes just the same, like the hungry croc who sees a big, juicy antelope on the shore hoping that this one time the damn thing will be dumb enough to go swimming. If I had inherited a million bucks, I’d be lunch.

“You wish. No, you’re right. It’s a favor. But a really smaaaaall one…” I put my thumb and finger less than a nose-hair apart. “That big. No bigger.”

“Oh, goody!” She clapped her hands in delight. “Maybe we can trade. I’ll help you, then you can help me. So brief me. What’s up?”

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I took a bus downtown and walked to a place called “The Legal Eagle Bar and Grille” right across from the courthouse. Carolyn always lunched there with the other liars–er, lawyers–who had cases that day. It was toney as hell – brass rails at the bar, wood paneling on the walls, paintings of State Supreme Court Justices glaring down at you from above every oak booth, $7 beer and $25 hamburgers that tasted as if someone had poured cheap gravy over sawdust and paint chips and then fried a ball of the stuff in grease that hadn’t been changed since 1937. Lawyers loved it.

I ordered a small ginger ale – $3.50 for a 4-ounce glass that was worth, maybe, 50 cents on the hoof counting a 100% markup over cost. When the bartender wasn’t looking, I slipped one of their cheap plastic ashtrays into my coat pocket. Damned if I was going out of there with nothing to show for that extra 3 bucks.

I didn’t have long to wait. Carolyn arrived promptly at noon in the middle of a clutch of male lawyers who were, I swear, giggling, probably at something she’d said. That may have been unusual behavior for lawyers, giggling, but it was standard behavior for men hanging around Carolyn.

There was nothing wrong with her figure and there never had been, I’ll say that for her. Whether it was in the way her hips swam when she walked or the way she ducked her head coyly and flipped her hair or the way her breasts insisted on bouncing even when she was standing still, she somehow contrived to render her severe tailored suit all but useless for taming the glory that was underneath. I was aware of it from across the damn room. I couldn’t physically see the curves but I knew they were jiggling like mad, I just knew it. So did every other male in the bar judging by where they were looking.

If they knew what I knew, they’d be concentrating more on their lobster bisque.

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I needed help, and I needed it from someone who knew their way around both dogs and grand larceny. There was only one person I knew who fit that description – Carolyn Emblehoff. She was a lawyer, which covered both ends of the larceny problem, and she loved dogs. All kinds, but especially big ones with sharp teeth. She and I had been, well, close for a while, if you know what I mean, and there was a time when I really thought she was The One. She’s beautiful, she’s intelligent, and she’s a healthy devil in the sack.

Unfortunately, she’s also a devil out of it. She has a lamentable fondness for one of the most juvenile forms of humor in the known universe, a form I despise with every fiber of my being – practical jokes. I would almost have put up with it (I mean, this is a picture of her I took at the beach that summer –

carolyn.jpg

– so you can see what I was up against) if it hadn’t been for the Great Dane Hustle.

We had broken up over a practical joke that also happened to involve a dog, an enormous Great Dane that she had installed in my apartment without bothering to tell me that it had acute indigestion and had to be fed Maalox at every meal or it would vomit on the sofa (it preferred sofas for vomiting purposes, don’t ask me why). She waited a week before informing me of both the condition and its cure, meanwhile deriving many a hearty guffaw at my expense.

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The next morning I was sent off to the supermarket with explicit instructions as to exactly what kind of steak to buy – top round, lightly marbled, and when I squeezed it, it should stay squeezed.

“That means it’s tender,” Aunt Harriet said.

“Aunt Harriet, please. It’s a goddamn dog. It will wolf down anything that’s meat. Turkey franks would do. Perhaps with a little sauerkraut on top -”

She was scandalized. “Brutus,” she said huffily, “is a thoroughbred.” As if that explained anything. I gave up and headed for the store. Sort of.

I was not, of course, allowed to use her car for this trip. “It’s going to take a lot longer,” I warned.

“My car,” she thundered, “is NOT a toy. Besides, if you think I’m going to give you a chance to wrap it around a telephone pole so you can get out of stealing that trophy, you’re off your chump. That dumb I ain’t.”

As a matter of fact, I had been doing a lot of thinking since the night before and an untimely “accident” had occurred to me as one of my possible options, but I had dismissed it almost as soon as it poked its head above the covers. My Aunt Harriet’s inexplicable love for her Ferg Turdis ruled it out. If I survived the backlash of her anger and her certainty that I’d done it on purpose, it would likely be as a cyborg whose muscle and sinew had had to be replaced by wheels and pulleys. That dumb, I’m not.

I must confess I’ve never understood her deep affection for that machine. It isn’t particularly attractive, it doesn’t have much power or speed, it doesn’t handle very well, and it’s in the shop half its life for maintenance. It’s only a couple of years old but already the door handles don’t work, the buttons fall off if you look at them cross-eyed, and the seats feel as if they were stuffed with especially sharp rocks. The day it came off the showroom floor, it was already obsolete. Yet despite all this, my Aunt coos to it, purrs to it, pats it on its hood and strokes its tail, worships the very ground it rolls on. It’s spooky.

But my prolonged wrestling match with the Masked Avenger of my mind had not been entirely negative, and my remark about the length of time my errand was going to eat up wasn’t a casual one. I had formed a plan and I was laying the groundwork for a little side trip.

The Andrea Doria sank without a trace. All hands were lost – but one, floating on a spike of spar. “But what about the dog? How am I supposed to get past the dog you said is guarding it?”

“Aha!” She beamed triumphantly and reached into that Chamber of Horrors pretending to be a handbag. From it emerged a small vial filled with a thick, noxious green liquid that looked just like the alien blood in Martian Monsters From the Forgotten Pool of the Black Lagoon.

I recoiled in shock. “Poison! I won’t do it, Aunt Harriet, I won’t poison a dumb animal no matter how big his teeth are. You’ve gone too far!”

“Get a grip, you nincompoop,” she snapped. “This isn’t poison, it’s a sleeping draught. A teaspoonful of this,” she cooed, rubbing its cap and patting its label as if it were an infant of unbounded cuteness, “sprinkled on a nice hunk of steak, and Brutus – that’s his name – will sleep like the dead for hours. You’ll be safe as houses.” And just how safe are they? one wanted to ask, and one might have had her purse been a few more feet from her fingertips and several dozen tons lighter than it was.

The single spar cracked, broke in two, and the last crewman slipped beneath the waves. My fate was in the hands of an aunt who had proved, in the final analysis, to be as ruthless as a bargain-hunter at Filene’s and as loopy as a sunstruck viper. I was chilled to the m of my b’s and I must have looked it because she asked the most superfluous question of the decade.

The Most Superfluous Question of the Decade: “You’re not afraid, are you, Ponsie?”

My Aunt Harriet’s idea of having it “all worked out” was roughly akin to a schizophrenic’s notion of an improvised therapy session.

“Lettitia is having a party to celebrate the theft of the trophy. You’re invited.”

“I can’t be. I don’t know them.”

“I know them and it’s all arranged.” Reaching into her pocketbook, she pulled out a piece of paper that proved on closer examination to be an invitation, though it was badly crumpled (no doubt from being unceremoniously shoved into the handbag crushed between her brass knuckles and her home-made thumbscrews) and equally badly stained. I tried not to notice how much the stain looked like dried blood but its decidedly darkish red color was…unhelpful in that regard.

She passed it over and I held it between my thumb and forefinger so as not to compromise any fingerprints that might later prove helpful to the police when whatever crime it represented was discovered. My stomach was rehearsing the last scene of The Sinking of the Andrea Doria . I could see no escape from my impending Doom, though I considered for a moment setting fire–accidentally, of course–to the rag of paper. It wouldn’t have worked, tempting though it was. Aunt Harriet would see through that old wheeze in a NY minute and Agnes De Renville would be at my door dressed in white before you could say “I do, damn your eyes!” But then, just as I was about to surrender, I saw on the invitation something that made Hope Dawn again.

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