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Chapter Seventeen

"Proud Mary, Blind Herbie"



    Dodging the dangling chimes that hung between me and the big brass cash register, I pulled out my three bucks - just as Ling opened her compact mouth.
    With frustration, her oriental forehead wrinkled. "David, fix hot plate please. Ling no like lectwicity. Fwee lunch fow whole week fow you."
    Putting my life savings away, I found the electrical panel in a nearby broom closet and switched on the tripped breaker.
    Giggling nervously, Ling said she didn't know it would be so easy to fix. "Fwee lunch fow two days only- OK?"
    I told her that would be fine. "But if the breaker trips again, you need to find out what's overloading the circuit."
    She bowed her head in big thanks. "Enjoy, enjoy!!"

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     Lopsidedly, I strolled with Moses through the tandem teakwood doors, out onto the salted sidewalk, and looked across the small lot. April was huddled inside her iced Toyota with Brownie and Heinie shaking their no-good fists at her.
    I made sure no innocent bystanders were in earshot and shouted out my challenge. "Hey, what the hell you pud-lickers want? Well come on and get it!!"
    Needless to say, the two dirtyshirts scurried back to Shitler and sputtered off as I made my way to the scene.
    Sprawling out of her under-sized compact, April said she was glad to see me, that her motor stalled and the two freaks came out shaking their fists at her. "They could have simply driven around me, but they said I was blocking their view of the restaurant. Look, they squashed their cigar on my windshield." The humongous female opened her fur coat and smoothed the front of her tweed business skirt, the outline of her panties and garter belt clearly visible. "How about a jump, big boy?"
    I told her I was sorry. "My cables are at home. I'm on foot."
    At least, I was on foot - until a horn beeped frantically and turned me around and off balance. A shiny red Dodge came screaming toward me, one wheel on the street, one on the sidewalk. Barely in time, I toppled backwards into a shrub, clearing its path. The lunatic blasted past, only a couple feet away.
    Collecting Moses and struggling to my feet, I asked April if she knew who the reckless idiot was.
    She massaged her hips. "It was Florence, the little lady from the library. Can you front little April some cab money, Captain Video?"
    Before I could explain my fiscal dilemma, the yuppie in yellow motored onto the lot and offered the stranded damsel a lift. Of course, she accepted.

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     Hoofing it west toward the library, I wondered why everything seemed so beautiful under cover of snow. Even the old lady's ton-and-a-half hot rod appeared harmless and playful. Maybe she was Florence Smith, Betty's twin sister.
    From the outside, the inviting library looked so cozy, covered with seamless drifts of glistening snow and puffing white billows of soft smoke from its little brick chimney. Following a cursory inspection of the hot rod that almost hit me, a like-new, shiny red Super Stock Dodge (circa 1963), I wiped the slush from my boots onto an antique plow and entered the public depository. The smell of fresh newsprint and, strangely, turkey dressing, filled the small room.
    I selected Steinbeck's WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT from a display rack and sat in an easy chair beside a picture window not far from the counter. Before I got through the foreword, though, the little old librarian began arguing with a lanky pair of loud punks.
    The cicatriced delinquents' pink hair was dirty, curly, and sectioned in half-inch stripes from front to back. Their sidewalls were shaved close to the scalp with razor nicks above, and chrome earrings hung from, each tiny ear.
    The ganglier of the two squeaked at the little librarian. "We got a constitutional right to smoke whenever and wherever we want."
    In a meager attempt to ignore the ignorant teens, I mulled over Steinbeck's first chapter - until the little old lady shrieked. Still screaming, she backed into the water cooler and pointed at the counter where the hyenic punks stood chuckling.
    Moses and I made our way to the counter and spotted the double cause of the commotion - piles of puke and dog shit. Not smelling anything, I cautiously poked with my cane. Oiled-plastic counterfeits - sick chicanery.

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     I slammed my cane down on the pine counter to get the punks' undivided attention, then very lightly tapped each of their heads. "I think it's time for you two jokers to check yourselves out."
    Reaching into both their purple satin pockets, I calmly crushed their cigarette packs. "Don't I hear your mommies calling?"
    Scampering toward the door, they began to whimper and threaten legal action. I told them to go ahead and sue me for everything I had, then limped over to the door as they disappeared into the Lenexa Triangle.
    As I pulled the maple door to, the old lady grinned. "Pretty good work for a gimp, tough guy."
    After I apologized for raising my voice in the library, she introduced her pert self. "I'm Florence Smith. My adversaries call me Flo. You can call me Granny."
    While I shook her weathered hand, I told her that I ran into her twin sister outside Atlanta. "Betty sends her regards from the White House Motel."
    Granny teased. "Well, imagine the old fuddy futzin' around with a man your age. She looks seventy years your senior."
    I told her that she didn't understand. "Betty was the nightmaid."
    Granny said she knew all along, that she was just funnin'. "But sonny, don't you think I'm so much prettier than Betty?"
    I gasped. "I don't know. It's hard to say. You're both so attractive."
    Fanning herself with index cards, Granny claimed she was going to have the punks' parents sign them up for a couple summers in the Lenexa Triangle. "If that doesn't work, we should have the Public Service Act through Congress by the time they graduate high school." She blew her nose on a lace hankie and thanked me for running them off. "You drop into Smitty's Market up on the Sante Fe Trail and tell him Granny sent you for a couple KC Strips - on the house."

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     When I told her it wasn't necessary, she told me to shush, that Granny took care of good citizens. Besides, her grandson Smitty was one heck of an innovative butcher. "I live up above the produce." Adjusting her indoor bonnet, she asked what sort of literature I enjoyed.
    I admitted I wasn't very literate. "I haven't really read too much other than technical manuals and engineering magazines in a very long time."
    Granny reached under the counter. "You need to liberate your ambillect."
    "Liberate my ambi-what?"
    She said I needed to train my right and left brains to thrive in harmony. "Here's a leaflet I ghost-wrote on the subject, sonny."
    As I took THE AMBILLECTUAL AMBITION, she ordered me to sit back down by the window and have a look-see. "Then you take it on home and study it real good."
    Quietly, I read - until Granny announced the library was closing early so she could get to the beauty shop. "So's I can look purdee on the Hound Dog tonight while I deal out a little justice."
    Granny doused the lights and said I could have a lift in her musclebound MoPar, if I really wanted one. "But I think the walk might do your game leg more good, sonny boy."
    Following the likeable curmudgeon outside, Moses and I watched her lock up and stash the key in a copper turkey's mouth beside an old hurricane lantern. Waving her hankie at me, she toddled over to her ram-inducted Dodge and climbed into its cockpit. As the unmuffled Chrysler Product came to life, the sidewalk shook.

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     The cool air felt fresher than ever as the old female idled past me - then suddenly nailed it. A pair of swirling white dovetails lifted from her cleated rear treads, and I noticed the red rod's given name painted in white across the trunk. The ground rumbled and a nearby banker's head turned as the mighty MoPar named PROUD MARY disappeared down the eastbound parkway.
    Moses and I headed back east too. The curb was already packed with gray slush, but the sidewalk was still virgin white. Sauntering along, I wondered whether Florence Smith really had a twin sister. Had Menachem sent Granny to the White House in disguise to tell me about MOP? Hopefully, I'd learn the nature of our mission before I got too lame.
    Clearing a berm in the road, I approached a cockeyed car with its front wheel bashed into the curb. The Audi that picked up April had apparently blown another tire and rammed the curb. Its rim was bent, and its yuppie pilot was standing on the curb, hand raised, middle finger nervously distended. The collegiate milquetoast wore a yellow cashmere sweater, adonis spa embroidered in dark brown on its pocket - not to mention all over his khaki belt and baggy grey trousers. His white Adidas tennis shoes stood on what appeared to be a lady's fur coat.
    When I asked why his finger was out, he spoke perfunctory. "It's how you yankees hitchhike. Is it not?"
    I told him to use his thumb. "Someone's liable to get the wrong idea with your middle finger aimed at their face."
    He said he would do as he pleased. "You have cowboy boots on - how utterly ignorant."
    Patiently, I explained they were engineer boots. "But what if they were cowboy boots? You're European, aren't you?"
    He confessed that he was technically born in the rural American South. "Of course, my pater sent me to the continent as soon as I was old enough to consider matriculation."

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     A female plea came from inside the catawampus vehicle. "Stanley, please hurry, sugar. I'm getting a horrible chill."
    Peering over Stanley's padded shoulder, I saw April inside the car and asked if she was all right. After she motored her frosty window the rest of the way down, I asked what happened to her fur coat.
    Shivering, she pointed to Stanley's feet. "God forbid, should my sugar daddy's Adidas get wet."
    I was just about to rip Stanley's sweater off, when a tow truck appeared on the scene. While it latched on to the crippled Audi, April said that Lucky told her I was into video production. "Can you make me a movie star?"
    I told her that I honestly doubted it, but I did need to talk to her about a new marketing strategy for Babylonic. "Drop by the shop at noon one day. Maybe I can fit you into a local tv commercial that's coming up."
    She smiled wide. "You're on, sweetheart."
    While the tow truck driver loaned April his giant bearcoat, I finally noticed the personalized Tennessee tag on Stanley's Audi: S PYRE
    As the aspiring yuppie shifted out of park and got towed away, I speculated whether he could have really been the two-year old son of Mort Pyre from Clark City. It had to be - the spoiled brat.
    Breaking into a disjointed jog, by the time I arrived at Poor Richard's fire-escape I needed both broom and cane to climp up to my apartment. I struggled out of my jacket and dialed Puberty Park, to see if Mr. Sam was feeling better. Maybe he could even shed some light on my current confusion.
    A husky woman answered. "Hello, Palooka Cohen here."

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     I told her it was David again, that I'd like to talk to Mr. Sam. "If he's up to it yet."
    She said that as a matter of fact he was feeling much better since my last call and he'd been waiting for me to call again. "But don't go gettin' him all riled up. He's still in a delicate condition. Hold on."
    While I waited, I wondered whether my prayer for Mr. Sam's health had indeed been heard.
    An old, deep voice filtered over the long-distance line. "This is Sam Cohen. Is that you, David?"
    I told him that it sure was. "How are you, Mr. Sam?"
    He claimed he'd be okay if he hadn't smoked so damn many cigars. "They've about done me in, but you sound good, David. Why don't you come see us?"
    When I asked how his nieces were doing, he said they were fine. "Donna went into show business and Rhonda's in law enforcement. Neither is married yet. How 'bout you?"
    I told him that I wasn't married either. "But I hope to some day soon."
    Mr. Sam cleared his throat. "What sort of work are you up to?"
    I told him I was just taking it easy at the moment, then changed the subject, asking about Cyrus. "Is the silly bird still alive?"
    The old salt said he didn't know. "But a few years ago, before he flew off, he was messin' round with a redheaded woodpecker and spawned a whole litter. You know, David, you were the only visitor to Puberty Park that Cyrus ever perched on." Sam paused. "You down on your luck?"
    I told him that things were better than ever, which they were. "I just called to tell you I met Menachem and Judy last summer. I was at their house when Palooka called."

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     Sam said he knew. "Judith told Palooka you stopped in Kingdom City for dinner."
    I told Sam that a few days later I met Margot Morningstar in Florida. "She told me she knew you too." I refrained from mentioning our three mutual friends had since disappeared.
    Sam claimed that modern man came from a smaller family than I thought, then asked where I lived. After I told him, he expectorated loudly and said he had something to send me. "Next Thursday at 4:01 PM, exactly one hour before sunset, you be at the Lenexa Post Office for a very special delivery, ignoramus. Until the return, then - Ha-Tikvah. And don't dare forget the Ark!!" Summarily - Mr. Sam hung up.
    Suspecting the old veteran was sending me either a miniature Marine Corps statue or Ark for inspiration, I took my fortune cookie's advice to prepare for something big. Ninety pushups and forty-five sit ups later, I crawled to the couch for a nap, thankful my upper body was still able for action.


    About midnight, after a warm shower, I made my way up to O. Henry's. Surprisingly, Biff was still on duty, and I asked why he was working the graveyard shift.
    Lubricating the snow cone machine, he barked for me to leave him alone, that he was in a bad mood. "You gonna buy somethin' or just loiter?"
    When I asked if he had any out-of-date pastry for less than a dollar, he said he wasn't running the Salvation Army, but he did know where I could buy all the two-day-old donuts I could carry for 69¢. "I hear they don't taste any different than the fresh ones and the donut girls are topless. But you gotta be there at exactly 2 AM. Daisie's Topless Donuts up on Nieman."

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     Biff claimed he couldn't check the place out for himself because he was married, so I promised to stop on the way back with a full report.
    The heavy snow added to the challenge of limping three miles to the donut shop in under two hours. As I whistled, my pace quickened and I wondered whether gospel singing really made a slave's suffering bearable. Was the opiate of song the tool of the slaveholder? Or did it indeed give the victims the will to survive until delivery?
    DAISIE'S single parking spot was taken by a banged-up old Plymouth station wagon with four flat tires. Flour dusted my lungs as the dry heat sucked me right into the claustrophobic establishment - so narrow I had to turn sideways to move.
    Down at the far end, no more than ten feet away and arranging the only donut case in the house, there stood a terribly skinny girl. Outfitted with a flowered midriff that was blanched with flour dust, the fragile child told me her name was Fanny. Her red eyes bulged from a large wan face cradled on concave shoulders as she volunteered her situation. "My mommy Daisie had a bad breakdown when the SwizzleSticks started to come in with their pants down."
    After she sold me a stapled sack of forty-five aging donuts for 69¢, I gave her a bit of unsolicited advice. "You need to get some rest."
    She said that she slept in the back room, next to the ovens. "I haven't left mommy Daisie's donut shop since her big breakdown four months ago."
    When I recommended a vacation, Fanny said she was going to visit her father on Thanksgiving. "He lives across the street, but he's not usually home. He has to work three jobs to pay mommy's medical bills."
    Pointing Moses up front, I told her to get rid of the "TOPPLES" sign over the door outside. "It attracts perverts like fly paper." I asked for the keys so I could check to make sure the doors locked properly. "And have a window installed so you can look out. As a matter of fact, get your coat and I'll show you where to put it."

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     Fanny claimed she had no coat, so I gave her mine as we stepped out into the cold, fresh air. I locked the door and escorted her across the street to her parents' house.
    When I found no one home and the electric heat off, I told her I'd bring the donut shop keys back in a couple days. "Keep my coat until then. My car's still warm."
    Heading home, my eyes started to kill me, but I tried not to rub them too hard. Maybe some of Fanny's flour had plugged up my tear ducts. Anger heated my innards - anger at the health and security system that allowed little Fanny's family to fall through the safety net. The return journey to Poor Richard's seemed to be taking longer than the trip up, my many donuts having lost their appeal when I considered that even the infamous Form had more room than Fanny's lonely shop - and it was nazi-free to boot.
    To squealch the creeping melancholy, I sang a revisionist rendition of Dion's classic - "THE WONDERER." My off-key voice echoed from the wide street's voluminous storm drains as I crossed from Merriam back into Lenexa.
    When a lazy siren approached from a side street, I stopped singing and hoisted Moses for a high sign to Weiland Walker. In the process, I almost fell over.
    Weiland's Crown Vic rolled to a smooth stop on the wrong side of the well-lighted thoroughfare and the cruiser's chrome megaphone growled over the beat of its big block motor. "What are you doin' singin' outside so late, David?"
    I limped over and Walker asked if I was drunk.

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     I asked if I looked drunk. "You're the one on the wrong side of the road."
    He claimed to be qualified and trained to bend the rules to fit the situation. "Jump in. I'll give you a lift home."
    Circling the car, Moses and I crawled in beside the seasoned enforcer and servant. Hanging a wide U-turn, Walker jumped the tile median and issued a warning. "People who sing outside in winter without a coat are usually under the influence."
    I propped Moses up beside the shotgun. "It's too bad that only drunks sing in public anymore." I checked out all the high tech instrumentation. "I thought Lenexa had the lowest crime rate in the Midwest."
    Walker punched a button on the dash and two quartz lights illuminated a highly sophisticated, smart-weapons rack beneath the dash. "And we intend to keep it that way until Judgement Day - now don't we?"
    I gave Walker the keys to Daisie's Donuts and explained Fanny's predicament. He agreed to return them to her in a few days, though it was technically out of his jurisdiction.
    I told him that she was a very fragile young lady. "But I guarantee you'll love her - and her donuts."
    Walker smiled wide. "How 'bout doin' some dunkin' right now?"
    Without my answer, Walker swerved gracefully into the Emporium's empty lot and came to a jerkless halt. He left the motor rumbling and I followed him in.
    Suprisingly - O'Henry's was empty - save for the buzzing of fluorescent tubes, the churning of the snow cone machine, and a very occasional crunch from the ice maker. Biff Drake nowhere to be seen, Officer Walker drew his .44 Magnum, the magnanimous Mayor Pecker.

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     Whispering for me to stay put, he cocked the unwieldy weapon. "I'm going to check out the back room; don't move or say a fuckin' thing."
    Crouched down, Walker moved like the pro he certainly was. Arms extended rigidly, gripping the heavy piece in both hands, he aimed dead ahead. After a pause at the door to the back room, he took a deep breath and jerked around the corner like a mechanical man. "FREEZE!!"
    A familiar voice bellowed back. "I'm frozen! Don't shoot me! I was in the can, cleanin' up a mess."
    As Biff walked out shaking his head, Walker put Mayor Pecker away.
    Walker put his hand on Biff's hefty shoulder and told him to lock the front door next time he went in back. "I thought some wild Merriam women had infiltrated the city and tied you up."
    Wiping his hands on a shop towel, Biff explained he'd been in back for half an hour, scrubbing the newfangled mop sink I'd connected. "You know Smitty's kid brother Herbie, don't you Walker?"
    Licking his lips, Walker said he certainly did. "Blind as a bat, but the kid still has the moxie to be a newspaper boy."
    Biff growled. "Little blind Herbie, good kid or not, took a real bad crap in my hydraulic mop squeegee. And when he went to flush, he nearly got his gonads ripped off."
    After he finished laughing, Walker squinted at Biff. "You been piggin' out on those out-of-date chili-dogs again, guy?"
    Biff grimaced. "No, why?"
    Walker cocked his head painfully. "Then what the hell is that brown crud smeared all over your face?"
    I tossed my two cents in. "Maybe he ate a Junkyard Dog or Sloppy Joe."
    Biff scrambled to the ice sink and began to splash his face frantically.

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     Walker yelled out the truth. "Hey guy, we was just kiddin'!"
    The fun done, Biff took his place behind the cash register, still grumbling. "So what can I do for you latenight comics?"
    Between guffaws, Walker managed to request his official coffee mug. "Got any out-of-date Sara Lee's?"
    Biff handed him the jewelled cup but said he didn't have any out-of-dater's. "I'll rip open a new box of Piker's Pastry."
    Walker shook his head. "That wouldn't be kosher, kid. I'll do without."
    I opened my sack of donuts and offered them to Walker.
    Lips pursed, he took one. "If you insist, citizen Daniels."
    After filling his registered twenty-year mug, Walker started to dunk and Biff asked why he was on the prowl so late.
    Drowning a second donut, Walker explained the department had a rookie they wanted to break-in on the day shift. "Those 144,000 acres of undeveloped land we annexed last summer are still too wild at night for a tenderfoot - especially a female."
    After Biff handed me a quart of what he said was slightly sour milk, I asked Walker why the city annexed so much undeveloped land.
    He said Mayor Becker heard an Israeli construction outfit was interested in building a new international temple-state on it and decided his City of the Rising Star might as well be part of it. "The Israeli contractor bought an option on the tract last summer, but never got back with us."
    I told Walker that Menachem, my missing friend who I'd already told him about, was probably the one who purchased the option. "On the subject of missing persons, Walker, a big girl in a bright yellow Marine Corps sweatshirt left my apartment last night and never came back. Her name is Blanche Barnes."

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     Biff wiped strawberry milk from his lips. "Just before dawn last night, she came in here and wanted all five pairs of my discontinued deluxe partyhose, queen-size Head Pins. She said her name was Big Brandy and she only had five bucks, so I gave her an unauthorized rebate."
    Our discussion was checked by Weiland's walkie-talkie. "Unit One, Unit One, Ten-O-Nine now in progress. Respond immediately. Number 1560, Suite A, Sante Fe Trail Drive. Repeat, Ten-O-Nine now in progress." Dropping his mug where he stood, Walker dashed out to the idling cruiser and was gone in a colorful cloud of smoking rubber and flashing lights.
    Over the mind-piercing siren, I asked if a Ten-0-Nine was a murder.
    Biff said he wasn't really supposed to divulge the code numbers, but, as a matter of record, it was quite the opposite from a murder. "A woman having a baby at home. Poor Weiland."
    As I picked up Walker's unmarred mug from the floor, Biff explained that twenty year mugs were bulletproof. "And lucky for Walker, Lenexa goes first class with Zirconium chips, not rhinestones."
    My eyes were getting worse. "I think I got some flour in them up at Daisie's. I better head home and get some shut-eye."
    Biff put his pink milk down. "Fill me in on the topless donut chicks."
    I steered Moses toward the door and told Biff to forget about it, that a real nice lady worked there. "Remind Walker to take her keys back. And convey my condolences to Herbie's gonads."
    As I made my cumbersome way through the dim woods, my vision began to blurr and I wondered whether Prescott Construction had really chosen 144,000 Kansas acres for New West Jerusalem.

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     By the time I got settled into my couch and tried to read Granny's ambillectual brochure, the vision in my right eye was nearly gone. Since Brandy only spent five of the ten dollars, I decided, she must have surely meant to bring me change. Where had she and her Head Pins gone?
    Hoping for a better day in the late morning and maybe some answers, I doused the light, pulled the shade down and dropped into Alpha sleep.

end chap 17



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