We Are You
by Jack Phillips Lowe
|part 2 of 6|
6:58 pm: I had propped the door open to air the place out. The early autumn breeze carried the feint sound of whistling into the shop. It was a high, keening tune unlike any I’d ever heard.
6:59 pm: Light footsteps were drawing closer. At 7:00 pm, he walked in and our routine began.
“Hey, Bud!” I greeted him.
“Quiz,” he answered. “Soy milk, venti and straight up.”
You might forget Cousin Brenda from Milwaukee. You could fail to recognize the neighbor who has lived next to you for umpteen years. But certain people, even total strangers, have such an original look, their face is seared into your memory forever.
Bud was small, no more than five feet max, and pudgy. His uniform never changed: a black “X-Files” T-shirt and baggy jeans. A blue LL Cool J hat covered a thatch of blond hair. His skin was pale, nearly luminous, and his eyes were masked by a pair of John Lennon glasses. Rose-colored, believe it or not.
“You want some flavoring with that, Bud?” I asked, filling a cup. “We have a variety of flavors to complement —”
“Can the sales pitch. You know what I like.”
Plain soy milk is a bitter, slimy goop they put on the menu to accommodate the lactose intolerant. Nobody but they or strict vegans could take it straight. Except, maybe, a grade-A eccentric.
I passed him the soy milk. “Enjoy, my friend. Say, I should introduce you to Phoenix. She cashiers at the Wal-Mart two blocks over. Back in the 1960’s, she lived on a commune up near the Wisconsin Dells. She told me you sounded like someone she might’ve known then. You ever live on a commune, Bud?”
Bud handed me a ten-dollar bill. “What did I tell you?”
“You said you might —”
“Operative word, ‘might.’ I’m busy tonight. If I finish up early, then maybe.”
I struggled to keep my face from falling a thousand miles. “Oh, right. Sorry.” I gave him his change. “Can’t blame a guy for being curious.”
Bud turned away, sipping his slimy goop. “Remember what curiosity did to the cat.” He shuffled over to his regular table in the opposite corner, against a wall.
You don’t meet a genuine character every day. Bud was my Dr. Johnson, my Dean Moriarty. If I was to claim a slice of literary fame, it was make or break time. I grabbed a push-broom and slowly worked my way over to Bud’s table. He was, as usual, hunched over his PDA, tapping away on its little keyboard.
“Music or poetry?” I said.
He nearly jumped out of his chair. “What?”
“In a song, do the words or the music come first? Some say the lyrics drive the tune. Others claim the opposite. What do you think, Bud?”
“I think you’re a pest.”
“I noticed you typing over here. I figured if you said poetry, you’d be a writer. If you said music —”
“I’d be a musician. Sharp observations, Woodward, but I’m neither and you know that. I know what you’re up to. I can’t fault you for it, really, but I’ve got work to do.”
Okay, I thought, the indirect approach isn’t working. When you can’t reach the apples, you’ve got to shake the tree. I rummaged in my apron pocket and pulled out my ace.
“Bud, I can’t fool you. You know I want to interview you for my blog. But you have to understand that the blog’s not a hobby. It’s my passport to a new life!”
He ignored me and kept typing.
“I can’t handle this job anymore. It’s crushing my soul. Look at this, will you?” I held up a little prescription pill bottle and rattled the white tablets inside.
Bud looked up and considered the pill bottle.
“See these pills? They’re called Bu-Spar, a potent anti-anxiety drug. I’ve got to take four of these, just to get through the day!”
Bud wrinkled his brow. He was interested, if not concerned. I was careful to keep my hand over the name on the prescription label, lest Bud see that the Bu-Spar was for my hyperactive brat of a brother, not me.
“I can’t take the stress anymore! Everybody’s always like, ‘Gimme this, gimme that! It’s too cold, it’s too sweet!’ My boss is on my ass to work harder. I’ve got to memorize a list of a million ingredients or he’ll fire me.
“The panic attacks started a month ago; my shrink put me on these pills. Now, I swing back and forth between hysterics and a drug-induced haze! I’m cracking up, man, I swear!” I was on my knees at that point.
Bud sat back in his chair and regarded me coolly. “What does that have to do with your blog, or me, for that matter?”
“Don’t you see? I’m a man of words. My writer’s soul can’t handle this harsh, manual labor! See?” I rolled up my sleeve to reveal a bright pink burn on my forearm. “I’m so distracted by stress, I burned myself on one of the coffee urns!”
The burn was real. But it had actually occurred when Gina, a cute part-timer, and I were playing tonsil-hockey after closing one night and I leaned on something I shouldn’t have. That’s called turning a negative into a positive.
“How is my doing an interview for your blog going to fix all this?”
I pocketed the pills and stood up. “You’ve got a story to tell, Bud, I can feel it. Journalists know these things. If I put an unusual story on my blog, it might attract some serious attention and I could use it as a springboard into big-time magazines or newspapers. With your help, I could fulfill my destiny... and you of course could become rich, or at least famous.”
Bud blinked at me through his tinted lenses. “Quiz, it’s not that I don’t care. I’ve worked my share of lousy jobs. But we go through a variation of this every week and I’m tired of it. At first, it was funny. I laughed when you thought I was the guy who played Little Enos in ‘Smokey and the Bandit’.”
“You do sort of look like him.”
“Maybe. But it took me two weeks to convince you otherwise. Remember why I call you Quiz?”
“It’s short for ‘quiz-master,’ because I ask so many questions.”
“That’s right, and I meant it as reverse psychology. Someone calling you something you’re not. Doesn’t it annoy you?”
“Naw. I know you eccentrics are ‘quirky’ like that.” I raised my voice an octave and made quotation marks with my fingers when I said “quirky.” I could see it irked him. You can’t let anyone push you around. Not even your Dr. Johnson.
“I’m not an eccentric. I’m a surveyor. I’m checking out several vacant acres nearby that the town plans to build on. I come in here for peace and quiet while I catch up on my office work. How is that eccentric?”
“It’s not. But your car is.”
“I spoke with this customer named Steve the other day. Steve’s a mailman, and a car buff. He said he saw you and some guy in a green hooded jogging suit poking around the old Nike missile base on the outskirts of town.”
Back in the Cold War days, Uncle Sam had built the base as one of a series stretched out across the boonies, an inland defense system designed to protect America’s Heartland from a Soviet bomber attack that never came. Since the Iron Curtain fell, the vacant property in Farmingdale had served as a discreet place for teenagers to drink, smoke pot, and screw. Or, ahem, so I’d heard.
“Yeah. Steve spotted your car parked by the side of the road. A 1958 Ford Edsel Citation two-door hardtop, with a frost white body, ember red scallops and a white vinyl interior. That’s one groovycool ride.”
Bud took a drink of soy milk. “The former Nike base is one of the areas I’m working on. The guy in the green jogging suit is my assistant, a student intern from a local college. And yeah, I drive an Edsel. So what?”
“Who drives a classic car through bumpy, dusty back roads to survey vacant property in a little town like Farmingdale?
“Is it a sin to be unique?”
I pulled a chair up to Bud’s table and planted myself. “Spill it.”
“If you’re a surveyor, then I’m a hula-dancer.”
“You must’ve missed a dose of those pills. You are freaking out.”
“Bud, you’ve got Hollywood written all over you. They shot parts of ‘Batman Begins’ sequel in the Chicago area. You’re scouting locations for ‘Batman 3,’ right? The old Nike base would make a great Batcave. Exteriors, at least.”
Bud switched off his PDA, pocketed it and stood up. “No peace and quiet here. I guess it’s Starbuck’s from now on.” He cut a path to the door.
I chased after him. “Wait, Bud! I promise I won’t bug you anymore! Sit down, please. Have a refill on the house. Peace and quiet from now on, I swear!”
He hesitated, and then returned to his table. Freebies get them every time. I hurried to top off his soy milk. For extra incentive, I served it up with a complimentary brownie.
“Well, that’s decent of you, Quiz.” Bud poked at the chocolate goodie with his thumb. “But this sugary stuff will kill you. I don’t partake.”
In a flash, I whisked the brownie away. “Sorry, I didn’t know! I didn’t mean it. Forgive me.”
Bud adjusted his glasses. “You know, kid, you caught me at the right time. It’s been a long day and I don’t really feel like working anymore. You seem especially sad this evening, so I’m going to throw you a bone.”
“Really? Do you know somebody who used to know a celebrity? If so, save it. I’ve heard enough of that kind of stuff.”
Bud shook his head and took a long draught of soy milk. Jesus, how could he stand the sludge?
“No famous people. Go get that notebook you’re always scribbling in. This is a story based on true life experience.”
“It’s not about surveying, is it? No one gives a damn about that.”
“Way to insult my profession, Quiz. It’s not about surveying. It’s more of a human-interest story.”
Score! I dashed around the counter and got my spiral. You’ve heard of the three R’s — reading, writing and arithmetic? When you’re hunting for a story, always remember the three B’s — brown-nosing, bull and bribery. They put me right where I wanted to be. All that was left was the telling.
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Copyright © 2008 by Jack Phillips Lowe