By Ted R. Larsen
He walks into the room, all white walls and cotton sheets, monitors and tubes. His friend is sleeping – at least he hopes that’s true.
Ah. The chest moves up and down lightly. Sleeping it is.
He clears his throat, runs his hand through what remains of his hair. He coughs, a tentative sound.
Opening his eyes, his friend’s face crinkles into a smile. “You made it. Thanks for coming in.”
“Glad to be here.” He actually is. He hadn’t known that would be so, but to his surprise, it’s the bone’s truth.
His friend waves his hand vaguely at the equipment and laughs. “Can you believe this shit?”
They laugh together until their laughs jag into harsh coughing.
His friend nods. “You’re not doing much better’n me, old pal.”
“Nope.” Unexpected, this. His heart was still catching up with his head. Who knew that all these years, all their history, could slip out so unnoted, nothing to mark the passing but a cough and a whimper? Not with a bang.
“How’d we ever end up here?”
His friend shakes his head. “No idea. Whoda thunk it, huh?”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
His friend coughs, smiles, nods. “Take me fishing.”
Tom idly tossed a pebble into the pond. Gently reflected in the water, summer clouds lazed across the sky. Two red and white fishing bobbers, identical in every way, danced on the surface.
7th grade was coming – a change of life —
Tom flipped another stone, which splashed loudly. Ted whacked him on the arm. “Cut it out. You’re scaring away the fish!”
Laughing, Tom turned and bounced a pebble off Ted’s cheek. After a moment, Ted laughed with him.
Laying back in the grass, they watched a hawk circling below the clouds. Two identical poles lay next to them in the grass. Tall reeds behind them bowed in the gentle breeze, touching the ground and springing back up. Plant calisthenics.
In the distance, the brand-new turnpike screamed, birthing pangs of the modern world; but here, at this pond, another universe lived. Green, quiet, inaccessible by car.
Sometimes they would walk in, but more often – like today – they crashed their bikes through the weeds, fishing poles balanced on the handlebars, shouting and laughing the whole way.
The pond was always deserted, theirs and theirs alone. They never saw anyone else hanging around, much less actually fishing there.
“How do you think the fish get here? Into this little pond?”
Tom shook his head. “Dunno.”
“Maybe God does it? Maybe they blow here from other ponds in the breeze. At night. What do you think?”
Tom put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. “I think you think too much.”
Ted leaned back too, but the quiet moment could not hold. “I’m gonna check my worm.” He grabbed a pole and started to reel in.
Tom rolled his eyes. “You also worry too much. Relax. Fishing takes patience.”
Cranking his reel, Ted set his jaw. “Doesn’t hurt to check.” His bobber climbed towards his pole, followed by the empty hook.
“See? No worm! Some fish probably ate it. Probably while you were flinging pebbles so I couldn’t see the bobber move.”
“Uh huh. That’s exactly what happened.” Tom rolled his eyes.
Ted pointed to the hook. “Hey, Tommy, can you put a worm on for me?”
Tom shook his head. “Whyn’t you do it?”
“It’s just kinda gross.”
“Bah. Just worm slime,” Tom huffed. “Who in the world is afraid of a little slime?”
“Please? I’ll buy you a candy bar on the way home.” Ted still had half a buck in his pocket, paper route money.
Tom grabbed the hook. “Forget it. I don’t need a candy bar.” He shook his head again. “I don’t get it. You’re a whole year older’n me – why do you need my help?”
He quickly hooked the worm and dropped the line. “There. Good to go.” He wiped his hands on his pants. “Next time, Teddyboy, hook your own.”
“Thanks.” Ted tossed the bobber and worm back into the pond.
The breeze pushed both bobbers around, slow scrolls on the still surface. After a bit, one of the bobbers started to dance on its own.
“A fish! On my line!” Ted grabbed his pole.
Tom sat straight up and reached for his own pole. “No, no. Mine! I bet it’s a whopper!” He yanked the pole, and the bobber and worm flew straight back at them at the speed of sound. Ted barely had time to flinch before getting hit in the face.
Tom laughed. “It’s just slime.”
“Just gross.” A shudder rippled across Ted’s shoulders.
Tom snatched the worm and smeared it on Ted’s crew cut. “Just gotta get used to it, Teddyboy!”
Ted laughed. And shuddered. And laughed.
Tommy turned on his transistor radio and set it in the grass, cranked as loud as it could go. Ted hoped to hear something good, maybe even a little Sly. “Hot Fun in the Summertime” would be good. He groaned when “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes” came on. The music was mostly crap this summer.
Ted already had his bobber in the water, while Tommy outfitted his fly line with his newest fly. He paused and admired his set up.
“You should get into fly fishing, Teddyboy. It’s more authentic.”
Ted nodded. They’d had this stupid discussion before; no real reason to have it again. “I’m good.” He gave the rod a tug, watched the bobber bob.
Across the pond, new homes baked in the sun, where shade used to be. After the developers had cut down the trees and built the houses, they added a beach, with an exclusive swimming area cordoned off by red and white floats.
Ted and Tom stayed on their side of the pond. They knew where they were not welcomed, and anyway, there was still plenty of pond left for them to fish. It had been upsetting when the developers moved in, but at least most of the pond was still theirs
“Hey, aren’t you s’posed to be in summer basketball camp, Tommy?”
Tom snorted. “Not on the team anymore.”
“Why’d you quit? You’re so good!”
“Coach kicked me off.” Tom shrugged. “Got caught smoking one too many times.”
The shadow from a passing cloud passed over them.
“Well, it’s only the freshman team. You can make JV next year.”
“Uh huh.” Tom spat. “Like I’d even want to be a Jooonier Varrrrsity dork.”
Ted jiggled his bobber one more time. “Well. You’re good. That’s all I’m saying.”
They let the breeze curl around them in silence for a bit. Ted closed his eyes.
“Hey!” Tommy pointed to his right. “Who’s that?”
Some guy sat on a folding chair in the weeds at the edge of the pond, in Tommy’s favorite spot. A clipboard, no, a drawing board sat on his lap. He was dressed for the office: dark tie, short-sleeved white shirt, pencil behind his ear.
In Tommy’s sacred spot.
“What’s he doing here?” Tom reeled in his fly as he spoke, cranking the reel like he wanted to rip its little head off.
“I dunno.” Ted reeled in as well, and they walked toward the man.
“Excuse me? Mister?”
Without turning his head, the man’s eyes shifted towards Tom. Tom waved as the man slowly nodded, one bob of his head, down and up.
The man took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. “I’m sorry, son. I don’t have time to talk. I’m working here, if you don’t mind.”
Tom smiled. “No sir, we don’t mind at all.” He set his fishing rod in the grass and walked a little closer.”Whatcha drawin’?”
The man put down his pencil. “Houses. This is prime property. See all those houses over there?” He pointed, as if the boys hadn’t noticed them every day since the building had begun
Tommy nodded. “Yes, sir, we do. They sure are beautiful, huh?”
After a long look under pursed eyebrows, the man nodded. “Yes, they are. And I’m going to build more of them. Right where you’re standing, as a matter of fact.” He turned back to his drawing pad. Dismissal.
Tommy stared at him for a minute, then peeled off his shirt. “Well. If you don’t mind, we’d like to swim here. While we still can.” He whooped and cannonballed into the pond.
The splash, huge even by Tom’s semi-professional standards, landed squarely on the drawing pad. Collateral damage included the pencils, the highly-polished shoes, and the stupid white shirt.
Tommy stood and turned to the man. “Gosh, mister. Sorry about that.”
The man leaped to his feet, face bright red, sputtering “outa here” and “calling the cops” and “you better hope I never…” As they sprinted through the weeds back to their bikes, it was hard for the boys to make out the words. Tom laughed and howled like an air raid siren.
Riding away, Ted turned to Tom. “So, what’d you do that for, anyway?”
“I don’t want The Man building more houses here.”
“He’s not ‘the man.’ Just some guy doin’ his job.”
“If that’s his job, then he’s workin’ for The Man. He’s an accessory.”
Ted spat. “That’s stupid.”
“He’s bourgeoisie, man. Good to shake him up. Teach him something.”
Ted screeched his bike to a halt. “What. Are. You. Talking. About? All you taught him is that he needs to build a fence to keep us out. And he’s gonna, Tommy.”
Tom laughed long and loud. “Do I care? Do I? He stomped on the bike’s pedals and flew away. “Nope. I was tired of fishin’ here anyway.”
Tom pumped his fist in the air all the way home.
Lunch hour was always too short, and Tom was late. Typical. Tom was never any good at respecting other’s calendars. He had probably never made a to-do list in his life.
Ted made four a day.
Well, if lunch was cut short, that was not Ted’s fault. Tom would just have to understand that time was precious. Most days, Ted worked right through lunch, which was fine, Skipping lunch kept his belly trim and his yellow power tie stain-free.
Ted’s fingers drummed on the tabletop. The waiter came by and refilled his water. Around the waiter’s neck hung a gold chain. Was that still a thing? Hadn’t Disco died?
Ted gently smiled. God help him, he kinda missed Disco. Missed the days when everyone’s life was easy. AIDS hadn’t terrified everyone, famine hadn’t made Ethiopa a horror. No one sang, or needed to sing, “We Are The World.”
And now that he had thought of it, the song instantly became the ear worm du jour. Ted grinned. God help him, he was okay with that.
Something, probably from the salad bar, bounced off the back of his head. Ted closed his eyes, shook his head, and laughed. Tommy was here.
Tom pulled out a chair, put his denim-clad elbows on the table. “How’s it goin’, Teddyboy?”
“I’m fine. You’re late.”
“Uh huh.” Tom looked around the room. “Nice digs.”
“Yeah, if I get to have lunch, it’s my favorite place to eat when I work downtown. Sometimes it’s good to get away from the real world grind, you know?”
Tom stood, pulled off his jacket, and hung it on the back of the chair. The maître d’ hustled over with a hanger, but Tom held up his hand. “No thanks, pal. It’s fine where it is.”
The maître d’ opened his mouth to speak, then snapped it shut and walked away.
“You think they didn’t like my jacket hangin’ here? Somethin’ wrong with denim?”
Ted sipped his water. “Maybe the cannabis embroidery was a little off-putting?”
“Nothing wrong with celebrating Mother Nature, now, is there?” Tom raised one eyebrow. “And who in the world says ‘off-putting’?”
“Me. Sorry. Do you find my vocabulary vexing?”
Tom bounced another pea off Ted’s forehead. He waved the waiter over. “Can we order please?”
“Of course, sir.” The waiter pulled out his pad.
Ted ordered grilled salmon salad. Tom leaned over conspiratorially to the waiter. “I didn’t really look at the menu, but could you ask the chef to put together a nice mac ‘n’ cheese for me?”
The waiter stared for a moment, and Tom smiled and patted him on the back. “Thanks. You’re a good man.”
He turned back to Ted. “Don’t you think this place is a just a bit pretentious?”
“It’s just a place to get away, Tom. Don’t you need a place like this sometimes?”
Tom shook his head. “Man, I don’t ever need a place like this. This is a pretend world.”
“The real world’s where it’s at, man. You want to get away from it? I want to dig deeper in.” He picked up the cut crystal vase and twirled it in the light from the chandelier. “This is bullshit, man.”
Ted set down his fork. “Hey, man. Don’t get all high-horsey with me. We’ve known each other too long for that.” He leaned over. “Sometimes, you can be such a jerk. I care about the real world, too, you know. You think you’re the only one who’s socially conscious? That’s a crock.” Ted listened to the song in his head. “Hey, I donated to ‘We Are The World,’ didn’t I?”
Tom stared at him, and started to laugh. “It’s ‘USA for Africa’, not ‘We Are The World.’ You want to prove you’re hip? Forget about some feel-good group of zillionaires stroking each other’s ego while they sing some crappy song.”
“I like that song.”
“You’re allowed to like it. Just don’t think it makes you cool. Get hip to the artists who are really tuned in. The artists trying to disrupt The Man. Like Simple Minds. They’re starting to sing about South Africa, Biko. All the ways The Man sticks it to the rest of us”
A vein started to pulse in Ted’s forehead. “You think you’re the only one who cares about what’s going on in the world?”
“No. There’s plenty of us. But there’s plenty more that don’t notice at all. And that, Teddyboy, seems to include you.” He stood and slipped on his jacket. “Enjoy your lunch.” He headed for the door.
Ted chased after him. “What makes you so goddamn right?”
Tom stepped outside the restaurant, and pointed down the street. “Look around. The real world, man. Look at it.”
Seven or eight people leaned against the building. Most of them smoked cigarettes. All of them looked like they could use a shower.
“You see that, Teddyboy? That’s real. Hunger. Homeless. You see any homeless in your quiet little suburb?”
Ted shook his head.
“You got a nice life, man. Green grass. BLTs. That’s fine. But life is more than that.”
Ted shook his head. “You’re yelling at me because I have a nice house?”
Tommy closed his eyes took a deep breath. “You don’t get it. I’m not saying your life is wrong. I’m just sayin’ there’s a lot more than that.” He pointed down the street. “Look. I’ve seen that guy before.”
A tall thin man walked towards them. He wore a button down shirt that barely came to his belt. His face was dirty, his eyes unsettled.
“I’m pretty sure he sleeps under a bridge.”
The man waved his hand like a frustrated craps shooter, muttering. At first, Ted couldn’t make out the words, but slowly he came to realize the guy was chanting “Hell’s bells” over and over, interspersed with an occasional “Just like apple pie.”
Tommy patted Ted’s shoulder. “That’s real life, man.” He turned his back, and walked away.
The beauty part of salmon fishing is the fair amount of time spent sitting back, waiting for something unseen to happen beneath the waves as you cruise. He needed this vacation. Wellington Bank was a pressure cooker.
Ted picked up a magazine as the fall sunlight warmed his face. He rapidly flipped through the pages searching for some story, any story, that did not have the words “Whitewater” or “Lewinsky” in it. That turned out to be harder than expected.
He finally found an interview with the notorious “social disrupter” known as Harlequin. The guy began his crusade as a graffiti artist. He quit when he realized it was actually considered a legitimate art form. He had no time for anything considered legit.
After that, he spent some time in society’s shadow, posting and trolling on internet sites. That didn’t last long. He also tried his hand as a hacker, but that didn’t satisfy him, either. It caused inconvenience and cost people time, but didn’t really cause anyone to think. They endured the pause, then forged on, foot after foot, lemmings on Xanax.
Harlequin finally emerged when he realized that only personal contact can actually reach people. Now, when he runs through corporate lobbies, upscale restaurants, debutante balls, in his checked suit and mask, no one can look away from him. And when he slimes someone – sometimes whole groups of people – he can’t be ignored. He will be remembered, his message will be heard.
And what is his message? Simple: lighten up! Who in the world is afraid of a little slime?
The police are searching for him – thus the mask – but he has no intention of being caught. The world needs a little chaos.
Ted closed the magazine, put it on the deck, and leaned his head back.
Oh, Tommy. What in the world have you gotten yourself into?
The visitor’s entrance creaked when it opened, like an ancient coffin. The guard led Ted to the visitor’s area, and Ted thanked him. The man regarded him through half-lidded eyes and barely nodded.
“Just wait here. When your friend comes in, he’ll be on the other side of that glass. Just pick up the phone and talk.” The sound of the door slamming behind him made Ted jump.
Well, okay. It was a jail, right? Soft fuzzy social skills probably did not rank too highly on their job requirements.
Ted stood, quietly looking around. A gray cinderblock wall with three windows split the room in half. Black plastic phones with impossibly twisted cords hung on each side of the windows.
As the only one in the room, Ted had his choice of phones. He walked to the middle window, pulled out the gray metal folding chair, and had a seat.
The unyielding metal was cold.
On the other side of the glass, a door opened. Tom walked in wearing a brown uniform. The pants were tattered at the ankles. On his shirt, it was impossible to distinguish background color from a Jackson Pollock of uncountable stains.
The manacles looked awkward, but Tom managed to pull the seat out and pick up the phone while his guard watched and smirked.
“Thanks for coming to see me.”
Ted stared at his hands. “I didn’t want to come.”
“I didn’t want to ask you.”
Silence settled in. Ted took a deep breath.
“Why are you doing this, Tommy?”
Tommy shook his head, let out a deep breath, shook his head again. “You know why. Gotta do what I was born to do.”
“You were born to slime people?”
“You think that’s all I’m doing?” Tom frowned “I’m here to make people think. Point fingers, ping a few Mings.”
“And pissing people off is your solution to all the problems in the world?”
“No. Nope. That’s not it at all. ” Tom pursed his lips, squinted his eyes. “I’m not the solution guy. I point the problems out, make people open their eyes. I’m following my own path.”
Ted stared at him.
Tom pointed his finger at Ted. “You’re following yours too, eyeball deep in corporate America. You really think you’re making the world better?”
“There’s nothing wrong with working for a living.”
“No. Someone’s gotta do the actual work. The stuff that makes everything work. You like your electricity? Your phone? Gas for your car?”
Tommy laughed. “I’m still driving that ol’ beater, by the way.”
“Well, good for you. Aren’t you glad the machine keeps it fueled up for you?”
Ted placed his hand on the counter between them, rolled his eyes, and picked it back up. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and began to wipe the grime off his fingers. “This place is disgusting, Tommy.”
Tom nodded. “Tell me about it.”
Ted tucked his handkerchief back into his pocket, and looked his friend in the eyes. “Why did you call me? What do you want?”
No answer. Tom’s face remained closed. Looking at the floor. “Do I have to say it?”
Ted nodded. “Yes.”
Still looking at the floor. “I’m broke. I can’t make bail.”
Ted’s eyes rolled. “And…?”
“Can you help me? Get me out of here?”
“Don’t thank me yet. There are conditions.”
Tom set down the phone and stared at Ted through the glass. Tom rolled his eyes, shook his head. Ted stared back, neck rigid, mouth compressed and lipless
Tom picked the phone back up. “Of course there are conditions, Teddyboy. You live in conditions. You thrive there. Hell, you are conditions. Shackles.”
Tom laughed. “And you always have been.”
Ted pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Don’t you want to hear the stipulations?”
Tom’s eyes closed. “I sincerely doubt it.”
Ted ticked off the list on his left hand. “One: the whole Harlequin sliming thing has got to stop. Two: get a job. I’m not saying you can’t protest injustice and oppression, Tom. Hell, I’m proud of you for that. Just be a part of useful society. All I’m asking.”
Ted stopped. “No?”
“No. I’m already wearing shackles. I don’t need yours. I didn’t come here to be lectured by you. “
“That’s true, Tom. You came here to be arrested.”
“I’m not changing for you. Or anyone. I can’t. Don’t you see that?”
Ted shook his head.
“Well. If you can’t help me, I’ll find someone else. Something else.”
“Okay.” Ted hung up the phone and stood up. He knocked on the door for the guard.
Tom rapped his phone on the glass, and Ted turned back. Tom mouthed the words “Help me.”
Ted picked up his phone. “I’m glad to give you help, Tommy. You know I am.”
“But you have to meet me halfway. You know my conditions.”
Tom shrugged, and his head slowly sagged. “I can’t.”
The door behind Ted opened. The guard stepped through and gestured at the opening with his head. Ted turned and walked through it without looking back.
Tom has a hard time getting out of his wheelchair, but he insists on sitting on the ground. “Ain’t fishing if you ain’t on the ground.”
Ted laughs. “What the hell does that mean?”
“No idea. Does it matter?”
Ted lays back in the grass. “Nope.”
They sit by the side of a lake. Their fishing rods, identical, lie in the grass next to them.
Tom looks over to Ted. “Thanks for bringing me here.”
“De nada.” Ted smiles. “I really didn’t think your doctor would let you come.”
Tom laughs. “I didn’t really discuss it with him. I’m not much for negotiation. Or being told what to do.”
The water is as still as a carol. Two bobbers, identical, barely drift. They remain side by side in their slow meander.
Ted rolls over onto one elbow. “So. How much more time you figure you got on this earth?”
“Well, I don’t figure. I know.” Tom shakes his head. “I got about 6 months, if all the cards fall into place.”
“Yeah. That’s about what I have, too. Probably a bit less.”
“This world is strange and unlikely, ain’t it?” Tom coughs a bit, then laughs. “Who’da thunk I might outlive you?”
Ted laughs with him. “No one. You always were a sneaky bastard.”
A hawk scrolls above them, a silent ballet.
“Hey, Ted? I need to know. Did we make the world a better place?”
Ted takes his time. “You know, I’d like to think so. I think you did.”
“God knows I tried.” Tom places his hand on Ted’s shoulder. “You too, you know. In our way, we both did what we could.” He coughs, and nods. “We are who we are, Teddyboy.”
One of their bobbers starts to dance and weave. Tom points. “That’s yours, I think.”
Ted shakes his head. “No, I think it’s yours. You were always so much better at this than me.”
They both watch it, neither one picking up his rod. A gentle breeze picks up, and the plants bow down behind them. They watch the bobber gently move, perhaps from a fish softly taking his meal, perhaps from currents too soft and subtle to see.