It was three o’clock in the morning when Delbert called to say that mama had locked herself in the closet again.
I quickly emptied my mind and did the straight math. Fenwick Island was eleven driving hours easy. I say eleven hours, but there is no telling what you might find out there on those county roads. Delbert had spoken of a new breed of Delaware alligator known to wander inland and snap at the occasional passing tire, causing blow-outs and worse. There were the seasonal winds to consider too, and the lightning. My tires were balding old dogs and I wouldn’t want to turn my Buick rims into rolling conductors for stray lightning shafts. I was just about to tell Delbert no when I realized he had hung up on me.
This was not a first with mama. She’d locked herself in when John Elway lost Super Bowl XXIV for the Broncos in 1990. She wouldn’t come out for what seemed like a solid week, and then only to complain that no one had brought her her daily slices of fried bologna in her exile. She reincarcerated herself the day they caught Pee Wee Herman squeezing himself in that Sarasota theater. These things upset her and there was no use looking for the staid hand of logic behind mama’s listlessness; mama just did not cavort with that fellow. Since Delbert had moved back in, mama’s recidivistic tendencies had only worsened.
My responsibility in all this wasn’t minor. Typically, I would drive 700 miles across the country to press her hand and lift a whiskey to her still-quivering lips and coax the reasons out of her. Why, mama? Why? Drive because mama knew I would never fly. I knew a thing or two about basic materials behavior and sheet iron was sheet iron no matter how you beat it into the semblance of a soaring bird. I was getting too old for this.
I tried to fall back asleep but every time I closed my eyes I was drawn back to the crisp blue luminescence of my bedside alarm clock. When finally I woke at 6 a.m., I found myself groping for my suitcase buckles like a sleepwalker. It seemed I would go through with this fool trip after all, though I could put forward three very good reasons why I shouldn’t.
Number one: I had a three-day weekend coming up, self-allotted. I was no summer vacationist, opting instead to scatter my days off blindly throughout the year and surprise myself with my mystery holidays. Yesterday, I found out that one of these days was coming up.
Number two: It was Tuesday. Was this a spur to spontaneous travel or perhaps an omen of doom in disguise?
Number three: Gas, car service, tires, etc. Lake Eerie to the Delmarva Peninsula was no breeze. I wouldn’t leave Parma without first servicing the old Buick and this would cost. And here is the kicker. The money I would waste on that car was to be the final payment on my Hubble II Personal Observatory. I had already put in the requisite 78 practice hours in my pod and was now authorized to report my astronomical findings back to the Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona via live satellite feed. I and the 573 other amateur astrophysicists around the country with their own Personal Hubbles who would be reinventing the space-time continuum as we knew it! I ate my cereal in a low funk.
I had noticed over the years how Captain Crunch had gotten crispier but that this crispiness varied from box to box and I couldn’t figure out how they would let something like that happen in this age of monotony and ennui and close-shaven geniuses.
I tried Delbert after breakfast but only got his clever barking dogs answering machine message. It seemed he would have to be thoroughly ensconced at mama’s to be tampering with her message. Either that or mama had been locked up for longer than Delbert had given me to believe and Delbert was having the run of the place. It sent a shiver down my spine to imagine Delbert as the sole regent of all mama’s taxable wealth.
I packed a single suitcase quickly and threw this in the backseat and drove out to Blair’s Auto. I decided to wait on the premises, in Blair’s lobby. This would give me some time, while I pepped myself up with a few cups of Blair’s complimentary coffee, to dig into my holiday reading, Colonel Sim Frank’s long-forgotten masterpiece on the various temperaments of comet gas, The Silo and the Furnace.
Here is what I read just two paragraphs in: One day soon the working man will be gazing at the colorful creatures of Saturn’s seven rings from the comfort of his living room. Where else would you find this wonderful stuff?
My invoice showed that I needed a new timing belt, fan belt, a quart of Blair’s specialty coolant, spark plugs, tires and air filter. In other words, about $1000 worth of Blair’s in-house servicing. I passed on the timing belt and tires and talked them down from NKG plugs to Sears Craftsmans, which I happened to have. Then I went around the block to the BP and bought a quart of their tried and true coolant for a $3.99 savings.
I settled my Diet Doctor Pepper in the cup holder and slipped in Colonel Sim Frank’s audio recording of Astral Missions of the Mind and I knocked 300 miles off the trip before I realized I was hungry. I pulled off at a Citgo plaza in central Pennsylvania and filled up on Hostess pies and liverwurst.
There was a Styrofoam cooler with a Styrofoam ice shovel inside for sale at $3.99. I bought that little thing with my coolant savings and outfitted it with an extra six-pack of Diet Doctor Pepper and some shaved ice from the soda dispensers. Oddly, I found that despite everything I’d been led to believe over the years about Styrofoam coolers, mine would only fit four cans.
On my way out I noticed an odd figure in the portico sitting on a pullout couch of untold years with his legs crossed like a genie. He wore no shoes or socks and the bottoms of his feet were darker than my tires. I was surprised, given the amount of time I spend peering at distant knots of stars for the breath of creation, that I had missed this queer bird on my way in. He asked me for two dollars so he could play the lottery for me.
I am often caught off-guard by funny requests just like this. My eyes dropped to my change pocket like a sick antelope and it took him just that amount of time to hit me with his little speech. He said his name was Hutch Rondo and that he had had ridiculous successes prognosticating winning Hog Heaven numbers, a $1 instant ticket in Pennsylvania. He said he’d drawn four “piggies” in a row but couldn’t himself set foot inside the Citgo to enrich himself on account of some personal hygiene problem he said the manager, a fat man who wore too-tight-fitting shirts, had cooked up to keep from doling out winnings the likes of which Tiberius of Rome might have seen only once.
For a moment I considered funding Rondo’s persecution fantasies if only to shut him up. I suspected the only things keeping him out of the Citgo were his very black feet. Then Rondo said he’d traveled all the way from California on his couch thanks to the goodwill of his fellow Americans.
Was I to believe this?
He said, “I can always leave it where I please and come back for it. My goal is to travel couch-bound from Frisco to Kitty Hawk.”
I found a dollar and went back in and bought a single lottery ticket. I brought this back out for Rondo to scratch, figuring if I didn’t he would complain that I’d jinxed him in some way. But Rondo just took one look at the ticket and told me I wouldn’t win anything. He said he wouldn’t even touch the ticket, so I scratched it myself and won $100 just like that.
Rondo wasn’t put out by this pitiful display of his divining gifts. I wondered at the man’s foolishness. What if I were some big, whiskery trucker he’d tried this on? Some middle American Dick Cheney supporter who wouldn’t scruple to bloody his couch? But no, he just unfolded his legs and looked the Buick over. He seemed to be sizing the Buick up for passenger foot room. He seemed to be imagining himself sitting inside it, a co-pilot, and I tried to picture this, Rondo’s very polluted feet on my recently sanitized car mats, and I said, “I’m not headed for the Outer Banks.”
“That was just the destination for my couch,” he said.
“I have other things to do where I’m headed is what I meant.”
“Sure you do. Family troubles, I bet.”
“Do you really see the numbers?”
“I told you I did. I wouldn’t have this if I didn’t, would I?”
Rondo shifted buttocks and found a fat wad of dirty money under the cushion he was now partially sitting on. He said, “My reputation has preceded me.”
Now I glanced at the Buick. I could see where this was going and I couldn’t see much harm coming from it. If Rondo paid his way, he would be unwittingly supporting my astronomical habit.
I said, “You want a ride, we go fifty-fifty on gas.”
Rondo shook his head and peeled off a ten-dollar bill. “Let’s say I pay for the gas until—where is it we’re headed?”
“When we get to Fenwick Island, I’ll thumb a ride back to my couch.”
Maybe Rondo thought Buick had outfitted their ‘97 Regals with little Japanese clown tanks. I didn’t really think so but accepted his niggardly contribution anyway. Rondo stood. He was a short man with enormous buttocks, enormous buttocks and an enormous waist and thin, flabby lady’s arms. He’d been snacking on some pudding-filled packaged sweet and the sugar coating and pudding had dried in his side whiskers. He put his feet to the cement like he was testing hot bath water and hitched up the elastic waistband of his oversized shorts and he started to make his way towards my vehicle.
I said, “What about your clothes? Your things?”
“I travel with only the shirt on my back and an extra change of underwear,” Rondo said.
I saw the shirt, of course—THE KOLACHE SHOPPE: HOME OF THE ORIGINAL TEXAS KOLACHE. It was red and hung almost to Rondo’s knees. But there was no evidence of any spare underwear. Rondo said he kept the spare rolled up and hidden on a spot on his person he would not reveal because he was in the process of patenting his secret, a friend of his was, a professor in Houston with media connections.
“Shall we get this hunk of junk rolling then?” Rondo said.
“You’re just leaving your couch?”
“If that fat man touches my couch, he’ll be perpetrating an interstate crime, premeditated. He knows that.”
I went inside and claimed my $100 and we set off.
Contrary to my worst Rondo passenger fears, Rondo was not a big talker and this was a relief. Though he continued to finance his end of the bargain with impecunious $10 gift packages peeled off his dirty money roll.
Outside Manassas it was so quiet in the Buick I began to regret that I hadn’t picked up someone with a better feeling for passenger-driver camaraderie. I pressed play on the tape deck and prepared myself to listen to the final chapter of Astral Missions of the Mind. This demanded utmost concentration.
Rondo, glazed for miles, snapped to at Colonel Frank’s rousing final words. The Colonel was describing the unguessed at guises the life forms of Saturn’s many rings and moons might assume so as to protect the human eye from their death-dealing brilliance. It always brought a tear to my eye to hear Colonel Frank’s interstellar message of hope, and it was even better in the car, I thought, where you might pretend you were on a very slow-moving space shuttle.
At the very end, when Colonel Frank signs off from the cockpit, I began to hear some furtive rodent noises coming from Rondo’s personal space. Rondo was tittering to himself. His rat noises got louder. Then he said, “Garbage.”
I pulled over at the Dale City town limits and switched Colonel Frank off.
“Did you just say something?”
“How long have you been listening to this maniac?” Rondo asked.
This was the first time someone had challenged the Colonel in my presence and I felt a sudden murderous rage for Rondo and all his filthiness. I said, “That’s Colonel Sim Frank, Astronaut of the Mind, you’re disparaging. If you were familiar with the basic sources, you’d know that even Hawking is a fan of the Colonel. That part you said is garbage is like my own private Ephesians.”
“You ever seen a heifer chewing on cud all afternoon?” Rondo said.
“That’s what this maniac sounds like to me.”
I ejected the tape and re-cased it carefully with one hand. I reached over Rondo’s pale knees and dropped it in the glove box.
Rondo said, “You say he’s so clever but what about that bit about those eyeless fetuses? You think if those space creatures took the time to come all the way down to Earth they’d want to look like fetuses?”
“To protect us,” I said.
“If they appeared as they are, they would burn out our eyes.”
“Sure they would.”
“Do you have a better explanation?”
Without knowing it, I had opened up a Pandora’s box of interstellar Rondo theories and this, not Rondo’s surliness or his poor conversation skills, became the great regret of my trip. When we finally rolled through Fenwick Island city limits, I was so worn out by Rondo’s “seven great hypotheses to explain sentience as we know it” and his “essential dichotomies” and his “theory of the mirror and the anti-mirror” I hadn’t even thought to ask where Rondo intended to stay, why he’d come this far with me.
It was Rondo again who was the first to comment on mama’s front yard, which had given way to a trampoline and a giant curved wooden structure I couldn’t for the life of me place. It seemed to be a miniature coliseum of sorts.
Rondo said, “This is a work of art.”
He was bent over the trampoline but this comment was directed at the coliseum.
“Whoever built this knows what he’s doing,” he said.
“Are you going somewhere now?”
Rondo appeared to be taken aback by my brusqueness.
“We’ve come this far, haven’t we?”
“This is a family trip.”
“Partially funded by strangers.”
“You paid $30 of a $100 gas tab.”
“As per our agreement.”
“That wasn’t our agreement, as far as I recall.”
“This vehicle leaks. If I’d been aware how much she guzzles, I would have specified sixty-forty.”
“I just had it serviced.”
“You only paid thirty.”
“It was my gut instinct.”
I left Rondo speculating on the origins of the coliseum and went inside to find Delbert. I was very quiet so as not to wake mama, who was probably asleep. It was always easier to coax her out of the closet when freshly woken from a nap.
I called out to Delbert but stumbled across him in the kitchen before I got his whole name out. We both stared at each other across the peach and brown linoleum floor for a moment as if we were not twin brothers but two closely related species vying for relevance on the food chain. Delbert quickly swept the table free of a deep sprinkling of what looked to be colored paper wrappers. He stood, wiping the wrappers into a suitcase. He moved this suitcase to the floor and said, “Did you fly?”
I said I hadn’t. Delbert bolted for the window and looked out. Rondo was preparing to breach the coliseum.
“It’s not a pool!” Delbert called out to Rondo, who pretended not to have heard. “Where did you find this character?” he asked me.
Character! This was too good. Delbert, a grown man of forty plus years who had no stable residence, who had never gotten his diploma from pastry college and filled his answering machine tape with the sounds of dogs barking, had discovered the eccentric in Rondo. And what of his newfound paper fetish?
“What is it then?” I asked.
“Do you remember Leroy?”
“Leroy built this?”
“It’s a paint ball court.”
“It looks like a gladiatorial arena.”
“That was the idea.”
We went out for a look. Rondo had somehow gotten inside the coliseum and was skirting the perimeter, tapping the varnished wooden boards with a studied hand.
“Pit fights?” he asked Delbert.
Rondo didn’t seem to hear this either. He said, “You modeled it on the Roman arenas of yore I see. Do you put roosters in here to fight to the death? Big bad daddy roosters? You need a bench or two. And an umpire’s stand. Where is your death chute?”
Delbert cooked us corned beef hash for dinner, not on the range but in the microwave. He heated the hash, and when he remembered we couldn’t properly eat hash without fried eggs, we still went eggless because Delbert wouldn’t dirty a pan. I looked around. Frankly, I was amazed at the cleanliness.
Rondo said, “You cook some mean hash, Del old boy.”
These two had taken to each other like peacock mates.
“We don’t need eggs,” Delbert said.
“Where’s mama?” I said.
I meant, which closet.
Delbert glanced over at the hall closet, the umbrella and winter coat closet. He stabbed his fork at it too.
I said, “I’m going in.”
“Tomorrow,” Delbert said.
“I haven’t heard a thing. I want to make sure she’s got enough oxygen.”
“I poked some holes in the dry wall.”
“You did what? I’m going in.”
I stood. Delbert also stood. He said, “Let’s grab us a beer first. The back porch is perfect for that, isn’t it, Hutch?”
Delbert checked the refrigerator and saw that he’d drunk up all the beer so he mixed us up a batch of a cocktail he’d discovered in a little Mexican town he’d been through once upon a time. It was called the Scudzo.
I recall a pleasant helium-like light-headedness. I quickly lost sight of the closet, which I’d been periodically checking for the furtive, self-inculpating movements mama always surrenders to at the end of her week-long incarcerations. Then it was Rondo doing his impression of a sportscaster announcing what he called four, five, six times “a tragedy on ice!”, and then nothing else.
When I awoke the next afternoon, I was told that it was not the next afternoon, it was the evening of the second day of our sojourn. I hopped out of my childhood bed and ran downstairs and threw open the hall closet but found it empty of both mama and her smell.
Delbert said, “She’s moved.”
“She’s moved to some other closet.”
“But she never does that.”
I sat, stumped. Rondo had assembled a fleet of oily Slim Jim wrappers before himself on the kitchen table and was examining them carefully with some sort of miner’s helmet lamp he’d dug up. He didn’t seem interested in talking to me and yet, for my part, the oddness of Rondo hadn’t worn off.
I said, “Staying in town then?”
“Oh, you know.”
“No, in fact, I don’t.”
“I’m on to something,” Rondo said. “I’m on to something and I need my quiet.”
Delbert said, “Hutch has isolated a component in Slim Jim oil, maybe the oil itself, that puts out fires.”
I went to the refrigerator and found it filled with little round yellow party cheeses and nothing else. In the bread box was a loaf of souring white bread with the edges nibbled off. I went back upstairs and threw on a new suit. I needed to fill my stomach before I could think clearly but I thought it would be foolish to mention where I was headed for fear of inciting Rondo’s appetite. I told Delbert I was going to the bank to see about a transaction.
I quickly realized my mistake when Rondo handed me a creased pink check he’d been keeping in an inside shorts pocket. He asked me to stand him forty or so dollars. “Forty or so” was what he said but when I asked him to specify he bumped it right up to fifty.
Then I realized with a start that Rondo wasn’t wearing shorts at all, which as far as I know do not come with inside pockets, but a swimsuit.
“Doesn’t that chaff?” I asked him.
“I don’t understand.”
“Your swim trunks.”
“What on earth gave you the impression that I went around in swim trunks? My inside pocket? Every pair of shorts has an inside pocket; most are too small to be noticed. I had mine let out.”
He was lying.
I took a look at the check. It was printed by the Universal Bank of the Americas. I turned it over and found its Spanish counterpart. A bilingual check! I pocketed the thing in case I was ever forced to bring Rondo’s professional indigence up with the Fenwick Island sheriff’s office. I would need some actual proof of malfeasance.
I had a high stack of wholegrain pancakes at Dirty Harry’s and two eggs and a pot of coffee. I took in the pleasant salty air of my youth driving along the beach road with the windows down and I began to feel that I might one day regain the bodily equilibrium that my single glass of Scudzo had robbed me of.
I found Rondo and Delbert at the kitchen table with matching heaps of wrappers. Delbert’s suitcase was open on the floor and out of it hundreds of additional wrappers poured. Rondo was saying, “This is genius! Pure genius!”
“What’s going on?” I said.
They both turned to the hallway, Delbert making useless efforts to conceal what he could of his great work-in-progress, his wrapper collection. He looked like a boy of dissipated habits taking a bath in someone else’s garbage.
“You ate,” Rondo said.
It wasn’t a statement or a question, Rondo seemed to be insulted that I’d eaten without him. He’d detected my satiety.
I said, “This is family business. What’s going on, Delbert?”
Here Delbert and Rondo conferred in whispers, though Rondo did most of the nodding and suggesting and strategic fine-tuning. I poured myself an iced tea in the meanwhile, sniffing first for alcohol.
“Delbert is willing to talk provided you agree to our demands first,” Rondo said.
I refused to look at Rondo. I said, “Delbert, what’s going on? What are these? You’ve got hundreds of the damn things.”
“Thousands,” Rondo said.
“91,250,” Delbert said.
“And he only needs 8,750 more to complete his collection,” Rondo added.
“This is not a collection,” I said. I picked up a wrapper. It seemed to have once belonged to a Tootsie Blow Pop. The date of its demise was penciled in on the back in a wandering hand. They had all come from Tootsie Blow Pops. It was a hecatomb of Tootsie Blow Pops and my head began to spin.
“Only $2,187.50,” Rondo said. “What a deal.”
“A deal?” I said.
Delbert explained. He thought he was explaining but I had more trouble than I typically did following the Byzantine aberrations of his mind. There was something about a Chief Shooting Star, a major player, Delbert said. This Chief Shooting Star appeared on select Tootsie Blow Pop wrappers, say one in five, though Delbert suspected the frequency of the Chief’s appearances might have been much higher than that. I was to believe that Delbert had been collecting these wrappers for twenty-five years, sucking ten pops a day religiously. He was doing this so as to reach the fabled 100,000 mark. When you reached this mark, the Tootsie Company would let you design the next Chief Shooting Star, which didn’t even have to be a Chief, Delbert said, it might just as well be a komodo dragon or a flaming skeleton. Delbert had his design all ready to go, but it was Rondo who was smirking as if he’d just co-invented the light bulb.
I said, “And you need three thousand dollars for that? To buy hard candy?”
“$2,187.50,” Rondo said.
Tuning Rondo out was harder than I’d thought. His lingering eye contact was what did it. “Why couldn’t you have just asked over the phone?” I said.
“You never give over the phone,” Delbert said.
“Isn’t this why?”
“If I don’t hurry, I’m going to lose, Tim.”
“Just take a look at this,” Rondo said.
Delbert had come into a battered Toshiba laptop computer that appeared to be smoking as it chugged through the labyrinthine byways of our 21st century digital Sodom. It finally came to rest on an article from the Salisbury Times bubbling with advertisements for mortgage loans and hair treatments and pepping powders and pills. I hadn’t brought my eyeglasses with me but I could see a boy on the screen, ten years old or thereabouts, who in his five short years of Tootsie Blow Pop hoarding had already hit the 75,000 mark. Delbert was sweating. I had been betrayed again.
“Then where’s mama?” I said.
Delbert hung his head. Rondo also hung his head. I flew to the hall closet. She was not inside. I checked the blanket box in the dining room and then ran upstairs and checked the walk-in closet where mama had set up a little bill paying station in her dotage. She was not there and she was not in the attic either. I was sweating and red and itching simultaneously all over my body. My sweat stank like Scudzo. I hadn’t been so physically agitated since moving into my cubicle at State Farms in Parma.
When I joined Delbert and Rondo in the kitchen, Delbert said, “Hutch did his best.”
“Best what? What did he do?”
I was now ready to kill them both. But I’m happy to say I thought instead of Colonel Sim Frank and his elegant proposition that says that when we finally do have our first extraterrestrial encounter, that encounter will very likely be trying. The sight of humans in space suits might trigger some erratic defense mechanism our deep space friends can’t control, similar to that of the chameleon puffing fish. And what would become of our millennia of diligent deep space work if NASA fired back, blowing them to sawdust? These two, Delbert and Rondo, perhaps deserved my pity.
“In the fireplace,” Delbert said.
“I didn’t hear that,” I said.
Oh, but I had. I tore down the hallway, past the blanket box and into the family room, and there was mama. Her shins had turned a walnut color and they were as shiny as shoehorns. Her house slippers, those long-haired purple mops she had for so many years buried her delicate toes in, were sooty from a recent misguided effort at barbecuing. There was not a breath of life left in her frame and I wondered if a man like Rondo would even scruple to roast a frankfurter in a flue that shared space with a human corpse. I fell to my knees.
My head sank into her lap but I found myself physically repulsed by an unnatural odor that was the not the stink of decomposition. Mama had been varnished.
“I had to do it!” Delbert called out from the kitchen.
“Had to do it?”
“You would have blamed me.”
“For what? For shellacking mother? I do blame you, you fool!”
“For negligence. It wasn’t my fault, she passed on Monday. I just needed a day or two to convince you.”
“You’re talking about your Tootsie Pops, aren’t you? Are you saying your wrapper collection is worth more to you than the physical integrity of the womb that gave birth to you?”
Delbert was silent for a long moment. Then he said, “Rondo thought the varnish would slow down the decomposition process.”
“I said, are you saying this Chief Shooting Star means more to you than your own mother?”
It had gone suddenly quiet in the kitchen. I made a wild grab for the fire poker. I made plenty of noise clomping back to the kitchen in my leather heels. Rondo, with the extra weight of his buttocks, would need this head start at the very least.
But they had fled, they and their wrapper collections. I groped for the front window in a frenzy and caught the tail end of Rondo, his buttocks, as he squeezed himself into the coliseum and the door was latched from inside.
I went to the kitchen and made myself a Scudzo and then called Burbage Funeral Home in nearby Berlin, though, fingering Rondo’s fake pink check moments later, I wondered if I should have just called the fuzz instead.
The service was a modest, flowerless affair but Mama could not be cremated, according to her wishes, because of Rondo’s shellacking. Burbage’s ovens couldn’t handle the toxins. So we placed her in the ground that afternoon as Rondo read a poem over her daintily retreating form he said was inspired by a line of Saki. Rondo himself had appeared at the funeral parlor in a brown suit borrowed from Delbert. The origin of this suit was debatable but I suspected it had once belonged to the old man, a Burbage alumnus himself.
That afternoon I called State Farms in Parma and cashed in a week of mystery holidays, fearing that they would never again carry with them the spontaneous relief of snow days. I went upstairs and stripped to my underwear and threw on my robe and sank into bed and fell immediately asleep.
It was two days before I thought to get back out. By this time Delbert and Rondo had settled into a routine of steady scientific endeavor. I wouldn’t talk to Delbert, of course, but I knew he was serious about his wrappers, and it reminded me of my own collecting frenzy in the fourth grade when I thought I would collect the complete works of Bazooka Joe. Delbert had saved half of his allowance for a year to help me along. Had I then perhaps infected him with the lunatic hoarding bug after all?
Rondo was a special case and I was almost certain some grief would come of that partnership. Forget that I had found the man on a couch he said had come with him all the way from San Francisco, never mind his coal black feet and his miserliness and general life attitude. Now he was collecting Lilliputian amounts of oil pressed from Slim Jims. He was convinced he’d discovered the solution to some deep alchemical puzzle and was depositing into a plant mister whatever he managed to press along with a special “controlling substance” he wouldn’t name. He was experimenting on shrubs with this potion of his, lighting them on fire and then trying to retard the fire.
Delbert continued to buy and suck his Tootsie Pops. He had upped his consumption to twenty pops a day but I could see this would take its toll. He would either have to find a job or borrow from Rondo, and I didn’t see either of these things happening. I wondered if I shouldn’t just send a check to that boy in Salisbury and be done with the nonsense once and for all.
When Friday rolled around, I decided I’d stayed long enough. I wouldn’t discuss property issues. Mama had willed the house to both of us and I would let Delbert have it. If he chose to have Rondo as his lodger, let him. Beyond his physical and intellectual presence, Rondo wouldn’t be much of a burden. I relayed this news to Delbert through Rondo.
That night I had perhaps my last she crab soup at Charlie’s Bayside. I put away two draft beers and a shot of bourbon and wept loudly into my shirtfront on the way back home.
I found Delbert weeping in the kitchen with a single lit memorial candle, drink in hand, and it was beyond my control to refuse a brotherly shoulder. He cleared his latest wrappers into a heap in a corner of the table and poured me a Scudzo.
“She’s gone,” he said.
“She passed. You wanted me here and it doesn’t matter why or how I came to be here.”
“I had her varnished.”
“That was Rondo.”
Rondo, I thought. Where was Rondo?
I said, “Look, Del, I’ve been thinking. It isn’t that you deserve it or anything, but twenty-five years is— ” Crazy, dumb, an unconscionably long time to be sucking on Tootsie Pops. “That’s a hell of a long time. It shows perseverance, and something like diligence. Just the sort of thing that could land you on the managerial track at State Farms.”
Delbert’s eyes shriveled up into two mean specks and he began to swat his wrappers back into his suitcase, muttering under his breath. He had nearly gone through a batch of Scudzo by himself and I saw this getting nasty.
I said, “I’d like to write you that check, Del.”
I imagine that Delbert was not as stupid as he was often thought to be. After all, he had not worked for forty-five years and he was still alive, just like me, living in a house that would soon be his.
Delbert said, “You’re going to help me whip that little sucker’s butt then?”
“You’re going to redesign Chief Shooting Star into a flaming skeleton, Del.”
Delbert got to his feet, but with all that Scudzo sloshing around his head and the sudden change in altitude he began to stumble and took out the candle and his latest Tootsie specimens went up in flames. He tried to rescue them from danger but only managed to sweep the candle into his suitcase.
I have never seen a man watch twenty-five years of his life go up in flames but I imagine Delbert suffered more than a man watching his house burn. It was at this critical juncture that Rondo reappeared in his miner’s helmet aiming his plant mister at both of us.
I urged Rondo back, away from the fire, but he wouldn’t listen. He cited Galileo, Paracelsus and some minor figure of industry named Weber Farley. He shooed me off the scene as if I were an irritating summer bug drawn to a light bulb and sprayed his concoction at Delbert’s suitcase and the wall went up instantly in flames. I hadn’t seen a more devastating acceleration since Cape Canaveral, 1981. The PVC caught easily. Then Mama’s old carpet at the edge of the hallway went up like tinder and the living room was aflame.
On the wings of this breathtaking turbine, Rondo was spurring the elements on, misting like mad. Soon the bannister had caught and I knew it was all over. Delbert had missed his chance and it was my fault. I had brought Rondo into the house and he had destroyed it.
There was nothing to salvage when the Fenwick Island fire department roared up in their hook and ladder, just the house next-door, which suffered smoke stains and nothing else. The coliseum and trampoline had survived unscathed. I put Delbert up in the Sands Motel that night. To Rondo I offered the Buick. It wasn’t technically his fault he had evolved into the being that he was. I was too tired to be done with him anyway. I would shoo him off tomorrow.
The next morning I woke early, at 6 a.m., with no Scudzo residuals and I thought I would surprise Delbert not with the stale coffee and donuts they kept at reception but with a hot bag of Dunkin Donuts.
Sad to say, I didn’t find Delbert. I found a note he’d left instead of a forwarding address. The note was a hopeful ode to our striding over the many obstacles that might fall onto our path over the course of our wanderings; it was a mea culpa, a life philosophy in no clear terms. It said he would phone as soon as he’d gotten back on his feet again, and I couldn’t help thinking that this would somehow entail a midnight arrival at my townhouse with Delbert out of breath, looking over his shoulder for unsmiling creditors in dark gray suits with pointy collars, maybe paler and more beaten down than he already was. But that was life, was it not? How little do we actually learn.
I settled the bill and found Rondo in the passenger seat of my vehicle clipping his toenails. I could only wonder where he was depositing these jewels. Rondo asked for a donut and I gave him the bag. He was suspicious but suffering from something like remorse so he didn’t open his mouth. I suspected that mama’s house had little to do with it, Rondo was just mourning the death of his one great scientific idea. I told him I would drive him to the first Citgo plaza we came to and he agreed. The first Citgo plaza we came to was the one where I’d picked him up, in Boiling Springs. His couch was still there, unmolested by the fat clerk.
I popped Colonel Sim Frank back in the tape deck and I waved Rondo off as the tape rewound. Rondo was wearing the old man’s brown suit and it fit him like a bag of potatoes. He peeled off another crumbling ten-dollar bill at the window but I wouldn’t take it and Rondo said he would remember me the next time he won a fortune at Hog Heaven for some lucky fellow who had more respect for naturally occurring anomalies than I did. He kept my bag of donuts.
The tape had stopped moving backwards. I pressed play and put on a genuine mask of concentration. I forgot about mama and Delbert and Rondo and our burnt house and the last she crab soup I might ever eat on Fenwick Island and prepared myself for the Colonel’s Address to the Sentient Wanderers from Afar. You needed to. If you didn’t, you might just get swept away.
Photo by Jeremy Brooks