By: Patrick Sweeney
My excalibur pen, won at Excalibur Casino where everybody wins, is a spade and heart-sprinkled shaft topped with a bell jar containing two bright orange die. The jar’s discolored with the same gunk (luck residue?) that precludes a vigorous die-casting rattle by anchoring the cubes to the base. Been banging the damn thing on the dashboard for days but would probably have to bust it to shake them free. Ink flow’s iffy too and it’s the only pen in the van thanks to Ned. My cretinous partner forgets that when you’re self-employed, petty theft from your employer is no longer a perk.
No matter, not quite yet. I don’t yet have a box to blacken. It’s just a $150 game show question, more vogued than posed on the screen above my steering wheel, “If a major celebrity, 80& recognition ratings, multiple Emmygrammyoscars is moving through a thick crowd discreetly stabbing people with a bayonet – maybe they’re a little too distracted to dodge properly- and you’re about 10 feet away and you’re packing, can you blow away America’s beloved entertainer? What would the survivors have witnessed? Is it wrong to cut him slack on a few nobodies? If you kill him, you rob millions of one of the few pleasures they have left.”
It goes without saying that we’re talking a pc star, one who contributes to the community. The nobodies he slashes and gouges are small, brown and badly dressed. No class whatsoever. They do, of course, have the decency to hesitate about making a fuss.
So maybe it’s a pc star who was only nominated, but widely loved, an icon that no one can dispute. The pressures of stardom are our fault after all.”
Before the audience members cast their votes, the contestant has a shot at clarifying a few points. It’s the skill part of the problem-solving consensus-building on ‘Conundrum’ and the part I have to nail before my appearance next month. You need to dominate the exchange with the host and steer voters into your camp. Ned, nested in packing material at the rear of the van, will be sitting in for the host during the commercial break. Stopwatch set.
“Is he actually killing these folks!”
“Possibly. All happening too fast.”
“Could I get close enough to kneecap him or explode a shoulder?”
“Not super quickly. You’ve got to measure time in additional stabbings. You have a sterling torso shot right now. The bullet would expand on contact so you pose no danger to innocent nobodies.”
“Would the cardinal forgive me for killing a beloved star to save nobodies? He’d have to talk about it on his radio show.” Religion’s a fair trump card, but the player’s papistry could marginalize him.
“The cardinal’s gotten his certificate of infallibility so anything he says on his show will stand up in court now. As to how he’d feel, slaughtering an entertainer for exercising a little bloodlust reeks of old testament, don’t you think?”
“But brown little nobodies tend to be Catholic.” If the host doesn’t supply a killer name for the hypothetical celebrity, I’d say our contestant is headed for the big money round.
Commercial over, I brace for the next round, “That’s all the time we have for tonight’s show. Stew on this one till tomorrow!”
“Bastard!” I start channel-surfing with the remote buttons along the inside rim of the steering wheel. Ned, now snoring in the back of the van, isn’t bothered. I’ll wake him when the next episode of “Repo Man” comes on. We never tire of it and there is the occasional useful tip.
They’re trying to pass a law, “they” being no one I know, to outlaw dashboard televisions. A few more of us get mashed on the road in the name of quality time, what’s the problem? “They” can spare a few bureaucrats for highway cleanup.
Ned’s bunched up a long-sleeved camisole for a pillow. He’s like a cat, napping till it’ time to pounce. I don’t begrudge him. Incidentally, you won’t see this camisole in Victoria’s Secret, it’s the formal name of the classic wrap-around straightjacket. Strapping someone in can be one ferocious undertaking. The improvised pillow makes his hair stand frighteningly on end, a nice psychological advantage in a fracas.
The hospitals give us bounties for two distinct populations. Should we happen upon some random person seriously acting out, we’re informally empowered to get them off the street. On tonight’s Good Friday/April Fool’s eve, trolling Avenue X for wayward souls, we’re giving conflicted folks a chance to cool out and we’re local law enforcement’s hamburger helper.
The second group’s a little more complicated. Employee Assistance Program advisors, school guidance counselors, scout leaders or clergy will, for a piece of the action of course, refer viable prospects to us. Theoretically, they’ve screened for factors like revenge, bullying and disputed wills. Our own bullshit detectors are pretty keen, even Ned’s, and we’re the last line of defense for those unjustly targeted. Perfect system? Hardly, but you come up with a better one.
Armed with their haunts, habits, insurance status and hot buttons, we observe them a bit, have a little chat and, as warranted, gently discombobulate them; just get them totally unnerved, incoherent, flailing. Ever wanna see how easy that is, just holler and I’ll turn you to jelly in minutes. Then we take them to a place of refuge. Much as we may deny it, everyone needs this from time to time; we have the resolve and the chops to provide it. You’re welcome.
Just added another neat trick to our repertoire. Ned, who’s not such a cretin on balance, made one of those eavesdropping devices that runs a barrel the length of a book’s spine and aims a microphone like a gun to target a specific conversation within a crowd. He then repurposed it to allow speaking directly to a single person. Once he’s drawn a bead on that person, his words echo in the recipient’s skull, taking on an intimate but hostile tone like the voice of an angry god, though modeled after Frank Zappa’s central scrutinizer.
We took it out to the train station of a notoriously dysfunctional beach community for a dry run and quickly latched onto the shirtless and deeply sunburned redheaded dude pacing the platform and promising to “Take a bunch of you pigfuckers out with me!”
He paused for a harangue with his nice melon head finally still and Ned latched on with, “ Run away! Take shelter in the orange van! Hurry!” Ginger dived into the van and the camisole before the crowd had a chance to flinch. We delivered this mutt and knocked off early to enjoy a nice, placid boardwalk afternoon. We would come up with our own protocols for responsible use and we’d skip the patent route as that could put us in some scary circles.
Some states have legislation against psychiatric hospitals using bounty hunters. There were even congressional hearings decades ago. Some regulatory text resulted but nothing to actually stop us. If we don’t overstep our role, we’re golden. If we screw up, we can get the hospital sued and people in our line of work are routinely yanked off the street themselves. We’re hardly the only “orange van” in town. We’re often obliged to deliver our quarry to the night clinic (emergency room) as warranted and that’s a sucking black hole of dead time.
Albion Meadows Psychiatric Community has it over most vacation resorts I’d seen before starting this work. Upon confirmation of valid medical coverage, you get coddled recreation with some gentle restrictions on mobility. Art class, gardening, even tennis lessons are modes of therapy. You leave with a prescription for Prozac, Xanax, or some other mood treat which you evidently weren’t hip to before meeting us. Afterwards, you can improve your close relationships and get discounts on your medication by referring family and friends to the prescribing physician.
I spot a prospect “window shopping” for who knows what on a grubby ribbon of public park so I roust Ned to let him know we have a viable. The guy looks pretty clean and alert. We may not have to wrap him up in a tarp. He carries on an amiable argument with an invisible friend and there is no blue tooth in sight.
Maybe he’s a Talmudic scholar working up some choreography for the head of a pin. Maybe he’s practicing lines for a theatrical production. Nonetheless, Ned now ambles along half a block behind him with the camisole rolled up in an unshouldered gradeschool knapsack.
I slow to match the prospect’s walking speed, set the cruise control, and lean out the passenger window,” Hey Socrates, Who’s winning?”
“Oops! One forgets one’s visible sometimes.”
“Well, one of you is.”
“This is just how I puzzle through my dilemmas. Must look awful.”
“Looked like fun. Any use for a sounding board?”
“Long’s you stay in the van. In this town, trust is far crazier than talking to yourself.”
” I hear ya. Lemme just pull over, cruise control has its limits. See, I do my best thinking when I’m driving around. I’ll be a contestant on “Conundrum” next month and I’m practicing for it.”
“Mock imponderables or mob psychology?”
“A little of both. What do you need?”
“Neither. Um..I seem to have powerful enemies. I’m not sure what their grievance is but they’ve started broadcasting to me over the radio. WTYT, welcome to your trial. Damn thing doesn’t even need to be on. So, do I flee in the hope that they’re not powerful enough to track me down or do I simply comply with their instructions to get my own neighborhood broadcasting kit and respond to charges over a designated frequency?”
I’m sure it’s all a misunderstanding and I’d love to clear it up. But imagine how I’d sound; this is YGMW, You’ve Got Me All Wrong broadcasting from the green house around the corner.”
” Geez, you’d think with bandwidth overcrowding, they’d pick another medium.”
“Exactly. The saving grace is that neighbors are more likely to be using satellite radio or internet these days. Plus, neither station is something that would give them pause online. Still, it’s like ‘Hey everyone, I’m cuckoo, come and get me.’ And my choice of medium would remove any doubt”
“ I think I know a place where you can stay until this all blows over. All-around safe house for those who can’t get a break through normal channels. I know they have a signal de-scrambler that might work for you. They’re kinda particular about identification, though. What are you carrying?”
Jack Albin docilely places his wallet in my hand. He has a fair sampling of the standard IDs. I spot a PruCare Plus silver card. Pru’s case manager for Albion Meadows gets a handsome commission plus codeine for case mismanagement and he keeps it sweet for us. This’ll do just fine.
I start filling out forms with excalibur then recall the Pru advantage. I pass the card’s bar code under a scanner. Jack’s medical, employment, and credit histories pop up on the screen as, “Del Monte Succotash 2/.89”
That’s the life. Geez, of all the people to have a pocketful of sketchy identities! It sure served him well this time. My absent-minded excalibur banging has gotten a bit savage and freed the die, but they’re evidently soldered to each other.
” Listen, Jack, I think this’ll work but I’ll need to go on alone. Sit on those swings out past the light and I’ll be back in a few hours. Wait, you may need this.”
I proffer the dicey hilt of excalibur.
” Thanks, Bud, I owe you big.”
Ned is in on the driver’s side before I stop waving farewell, “Not crazy enough?”
“Hardly, but underfunded. Let’s swing back onto the college circuit. Keep it simple.”