Fate Pays The Rent (Eighth Installment)

It had taken Clement closer to an hour to get to Anna’s and he had found Jeff on his way out to the car. Taking a trick from Dolores’s book, he had seized his elbow to steer him back to a booth in the corner. Clement bit into a quarter-pound cheeseburger and, as the red onion gave between his teeth, he felt tomato juice running down his chin. He snatched up two napkins and quickly wiped his face. “You know, he didn’t really look the way I’d pictured him. I envisioned him as being a lot more guarded. A man with a past. The keeper of the secret flame. But he wasn’t like that at all.”
“Mari’s ex-boyfriend.”
Jeff’s hand stopped halfway to his mouth. He stared at Clement then at the French fry between his fingers as if trying to decide which to focus on. Clement won and the fry returned to the plate. “You met him?”
“No. I could have met him. Dolores, who works at the end of the third floor and is very protective of the minority-won cleaning contract for the building, wanted me to meet him but he actually was out of the building getting his nails buffed or whatever.”
“So how do you know what he looks like?”
“There’s a very nice picture of him in his office. It’s on the right-hand wall as you walk in. Very ‘founder of this business empire’ touch.”
“You were in the office? Did you get the photos?”
“Yes, I did. I just said, ‘Dolores, you’re right. I was putting one over on you about being a custodial supervisor. My real purpose was to get into this office and steal some nude photos of the owner’s ex-girlfriend. Now that you’ve been vindicated you can go right on back to your office and close up for the day’.”
“So, no then.”
“No. The trip wasn’t a complete loss. I managed to slip this piece of paper past Dolores. It was on the floor behind the desk and I picked it up after I knocked the pencil on the floor.”
“What pencil?”
“The one I was using to write him a note asking him to call and let us know what he thought of our cleaning service. Don’t worry. Dolores says he said he’d be gone until Friday but she didn’t know where. I’ll get the note back tomorrow night, I’ll have made Dolores happy, and no one will be the wiser.”
“Tomorrow night?”
“When I go back in.”
“Why would you? I mean you almost got caught today, right?”
“That’s why I’m going back. It’s personal now. I want to prove I can go in and get these pictures. It’s no longer just about making Mari happy so you’ll be happy. It is now The Impossible Dream and I’m going to achieve it.”
“I don’t think you should go.”
“Too bad. I’m going.” Clement speared one of his own French fries and chewed it thoughtfully. “So, shall we see what’s on this paper?”
“You didn’t look at it yet?”
“I slipped it into my shoe, put the note on the desk, thanked the lovely Dolores for her help and support, told her to keep her eyes on the prize, and hustled over here before you could leave me.”
“Í wasn’t leaving you; I was leaving here. I wasn’t sure how long I’d have to sit here so I thought I should go over to the ATM and get some more money.”
“And you waited an hour to do that because?”
Jeff put the abandoned French fry into his mouth and said around it, “Do we have to argue all the time? Are we gonna look at this piece of paper or not?”
Clement reached into his shoe, slipped the paper out and unfolded it. He smoothed it onto the table partway between himself and Jeff. “What do you make of this?”
“Looks like a really big window.”
“So why are there letters in the window?”
“It’s one of those puzzles?”
“I‘m pretty sure you only get one letter in each square.”
“Then I dunno. Maybe it’s one of those Joe-Harvey windows.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Mari talked about them one time. It’s all about your relationship to another person and your relationship to yourself and how they all get along.”
“Wouldn’t it have names or something on it instead of big and little letters?”
“You keep asking me like I’m gonna know. Let me see it closer. B. Br. O. W. ‘Cannot be duplicated’.”
“Where’d that come from?”
“Down here in the corner. See? Under all the windows. It says, ‘Too many possibilities. Cannot be duplicated. Hey, somebody drew a little cat on here.”
Clement shrugged and stabbed another fry. “I don’t get it. I’ll put it back tomorrow when I go for the pictures.”
“Yeah, about that. It’s gonna have to be after lunch.”
“I was actually thinking about doing it during lunch, since I figured fewer people would be in the building, but after lunch works too. Why? You wanna go with?”
“It’s not that. You can’t do during lunch because we have plans for lunch.”
“At the White House? Why are you talking in code? I feel like I need a Navajo to come in and tell me what the hell you’re saying.”
“That’s because you’re not going to like what I have to tell you.”
“But I’m going to like it so much better if it’s presented in the form of a riddle. Okay, I’ll play. Animal, vegetable or mineral?”
“Chandler Elementary School.”
“Okay, that probably counts as animal and mineral. Chandler Elementary School what?”
“Chandler Elementary School is where our lunch plans are. While you were out retaking that office building for the white majority, the boss called.”
“No no no. We had to go last time. They can send somebody else this time.”
“They’re sending everybody.”
“What? All the schools are having Career Day on the same day?”
“It’s not Career Day. We really are having lunch there.”
“With the kids? I got jelly thrown at me already this week; Now I gotta get hit in the back of the head with a buttered roll?”
“That’s what kids do to you if they don’t like you. They throw a buttered roll at the back of your head. You never even know it’s coming until it hits you and then you have to walk around the rest of the day with this greasy spot in your hair. It doesn’t matter if you go to the bathroom and try to wash it out. You can use hand soap. You can go beg the cafeteria ladies to use dish soap. You can ‘borrow’ some rubbing alcohol from the library. You can try to comb it out or comb your hair over it. Doesn’t matter. You’re gonna have that wet slimy place there and everybody’s gonna know you got hit with a roll.”
“I never heard of that before.”
“You never got hit with a roll in the back of the head?”
“What? Did you go to private school?”
“No. I just didn’t go to a school where they let the kids hit each other in the back of the head with bread products. We weren’t allowed to throw our food.”
“You never had a Jell-O fight?”
“Where did you go to school? The zoo? Did the students also pee in the corners to mark their territory and throw feces at the teachers when they became distressed?”
“Where’s this coming from? Is this because I got you to admit you’d like to beat that guy to death?”
“No. I’m just wondering what kind of things a child could learn in that sort of environment. Apparently you students were only this far from being completely feral.” He held his thumb and forefinger apart so light was barely visible in the space between them. “I hope the kids aren’t like that tomorrow. Maybe we should wear our company gimme caps just in case.”
“It’d give them something to aim at but it might deflect a little of the grease.”
“You going home after this?”
“Yeah. You? Going out with Mari?”
“Nah. She’s meeting some friends. Some female friends.”
“What do I care? So what are you gonna do?”
“Go home and read.”
“Right. What?”
“It’s a book about a serial killer who’s also a cannibal. You know, like Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s fascinating though because all through the book they put in some of his recipes.”
“That’s disgusting. What’s the name of this crap?”
“’Goat’s-Head Soup’.”~
“That’s the name of a Rolling Stones record. What the hell? Does the guy eat goats?”
“No, it’s a metaphor. Metaphor? You know, a symbol.”
“For what?”
“The author says that serial killers aren’t really bad because everyone would kill a lot of different people if they had the guts and thought they could get away with it. Serial killers are the scapegoats that carry out the bad thoughts everybody has.”
“So the serial killer is the goat?”
“And the serial killer isn’t the one that gets eaten?”
“Then it’s an even stupider name for a book because it also doesn’t make sense.”
“Calling it ‘Goat’s-Head Soup’ makes it sound like there’s a soup and in the soup is the head of a goat. But if the cannibal is the goat then it’s the goat’s head that’s doing the eating. See my point?”
“It’s still a good book.”
“It’s a disgusting book. This whole thing makes me wish I hadn’t had dinner. Or maybe it’s good I had dinner because I won’t be eating anything for a while. Especially because it’s gonna be hard to eat tomorrow when I gotta keep one eye on the back of my head the whole time.”
Jeff started laughing and Clement punched him in the arm. “Ow! What’s wrong with you? You said something funny. If you say something funny then I’m gonna laugh.” He rubbed his arm then pulled up his sleeve and blew on the red mark. “Ow! Why are you hitting people?”
“I’m not hitting people; I’m hitting you. The reason I’m hitting you is because you’re deliberately misunderstanding what I say so you can laugh at me.”
“I’m a person and we don’t hit people.”
“Thanks, Mom. I didn’t- You know what? It’s not worth it. Just take me back to my car.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a green thing with wheels and an engine that travels on roads but that’s not important now.”
“So am I allowed to laugh at that? You’re being intentionally funny? I wouldn’t want to misunderstand.”
“I’m intentionally trying to say it’s been a rough couple of days and you don’t deserve everything I’m throwing at you. Some of it? Yeah.”
“You’re such a jerk.”
“Thanks. That means a lot coming from you.”
Jeff placed the tip under a corner of his plate. Clement added a dollar and rearranged the bills so they were at right angle to the napkin dispenser. Jeff got to the door first and started to hold it open.
“You know, last time someone held the door open for me I ended up nearly wetting myself so I better get that.”
Jeff stepped aside with a bow, both men walked through and continued to Jeff’s car. “Did they really throw buttered rolls at your school?”
“No, some were the throwers and some were the thrown at.”
“That’s right. I was a thrown at. Once you’re a thrown at you don’t move to the other side. Even when you move on to junior high.” He sighed. “Even when you move on to high school.”
“And that’s why you’re such a jerk.”
“That’s why.”
“It’s a heart-warming story really. It’s a lot like that show with Mickey Rooney where you find out how the baby grew up to be Santa Claus.”
“It’s exactly like that. Thanks for noticing.”
“I have another book at my house if you wanna come over for a while.”
“Jeff, we’re not bonding; I am just trying to let you know what we’re in for tomorrow and why you shouldn’t be surprised if I grab a kid by the shirt-front and march him backwards to the principal’s office.”
“Okay okay. So how are you planning to get back into the office tomorrow and return that paper?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“But it’s my girlfriend and her pictures.”
“No. This was about your girlfriend and her pictures but now it’s not. Now it’s about me being able to get in there without having to ride the bus for hours and without having to explain what the hell I’m doing there. I told you before: It’s personal now.”
“She’s still my girlfriend.”
“I understand that. You have to understand that the fewer people who know what I’m planning to do the better it is for everyone. You asked me to do you a favor and now I’m doing one without being asked.”
“I don’t get it.”
“If I tell you when I’m going into that office and how and then something happens and the police find out that you knew ahead of time and didn’t tell anyone then it’s gonna be bad for you.”
“But if I don’t tell you and you don’t know then if the police come to you and ask if you knew anything you can truthfully say ‘no’. ‘I have no idea. He said something about red geraniums and asked me about the best thing to use if he wanted to bleach his hair. Didn’t mean anything to me. I told him to get some Summer Blonde and a heat lamp and call his mother’.”
“What if something happens to you?”
“Nothing happened to me last night. You had no idea where I was or what the hell I was doing until I came in this morning and told you. I guarantee tomorrow’s going to be a day at the park after that.”
“Let’s stop at Walgreen’s and get you one of those medical alert bracelets.”
“What the hell for?”
“Let’s say somebody comes up behind you and hits you on the head with something harder than a buttered roll. As you’re headed for the ground, just before you lose consciousness, you press the button and the emergency people come.”
“No, they don’t. An ambulance comes. Maybe a fire truck comes. No police will be coming to rescue me. The police don’t go to alert calls where somebody fell and broke their hip and can’t reach the phone. Anyway, what’s with all this talk about me getting hit on the head? It’s an office. It’s located near other offices. I’m not going into a war zone. I’m not doing anything dangerous. Nobody’s even gonna know I’m there so who would hit me?”
“I’d just feel better if you told me.”
“No. You know my lunch plans and that’s it.”
“Your lunch plans?”
“Yes, idiot. You’re going to be there too.”
“Oh, yeah.”

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