Chapter 15

Dinner at Carl’s

I

     Freddy Flowers sat at his desk at the main farm, busy over papers and bills.

Classical music played from the speakers positioned in the corner of his office.

When the business was finished, Freddy grabbed the squirt bottle on the edge of

his desk and began to spray his beautiful children—as he called them—humming

to Mozart and admiring the greenery that turned his office into a jungle. Three

knocks came at the door.

     “Come in.”

     A well-built man with an obvious hairpiece entered. Stubble covered his

leather-tanned face and his eyes seemed to pierce through everything they looked

at. They were the brightest blue Freddy had ever seen.

     “Oh yes. John Smith I presume?”

     Max nodded, looking over his shoulder at the strange plants that

surrounded him.

     “Don’t worry, they’re harmless. Unlike other creatures that inhabit this

hole we call a planet. Please sit.”

     Max sat, looked around, and pulled at his clothing as if it itched. It was

apparent that he was afraid of something more than exotic plants.

     “There is nothing to worry about, Mr. Smith. The only law around here is

I. Nothing happens in this town without my approval. The only thing you need to

worry yourself about is work.” The Flower could see the tension drain from John

Smith as he spoke the reassuring words. “And work, you will have plenty of.”

      The Flower stood from his chair and reached out his hand. “I’m Freddy

Flowers and I’m glad to have you on board.” Freddy glanced down at John’s

forearm as they shook.

      They both sat again. “That’s a brilliant tattoo you have there, something

that fits well with our philosophies here.”

     Max pulled down his sleeve to cover the picture on his arm. He gave a

laugh, something that was forced instead of flowing naturally. Freddy thought it

was the sound of a man who hadn’t laughed much. “It’s from another life,” Max

said. “Something I want to forget.”

     “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to pry, only to compliment. Let’s get down to

business shall we?”

      The Flower pulled out several photographs, pictures of the inside and

outside of what the warehouse that housed Extravaganza used to look like, and also

stills of the half-blackened mess that remained.

      “Dogey said that you’re one of the best carpenters he’s ever seen. Is that

true, Mr. Smith?”

     “I worked more with crafting furniture and the artwork on such fixtures,”

Max answered.

     “But can you fix my beautiful building?”

      Max paused. “I can. But I’ll need a lot of men and a lot of lumber.”

     “Man power is not a problem, dear Mr. Smith. This town is crawling with

low life gutter-dwellers that will work for as little as the scraps from my plate. Tell

me what you need.”

      Freddy and Max worked out the fine points of the arrangement. An

arrangement Max found, that would bring him more money than any other of his

countless jobs had through the years. A purely cash salary, and when the

warehouse was complete, Freddy promised more work, maybe even a partnership

in a furniture business. Freddy also provided for Max’s housing, at an apartment

complex he owned on the East Side of town next to a church on a corner

frequented by hookers. “You can go to hell and heaven without walking more than

fifty feet,” The Flower joked.

II

      Supper was at 6:00. We met at Roman’s and all walked over together. As

reluctant as I was to put anything in my mouth that Carl considered fine dining, I

was starving. My increased workouts burned the calories quicker than usual, and

my stomach was like a bottomless pit. It also helped that when we opened the door

a rush of warm aroma hit us in the face, something you smelled as a kid at

grandma’s house after a long day of riding bikes and playing ball.

        It was the same pea-green, dimly lit living room. What sounded like some

kind of Buddhist chanting came from the tape deck in Carl’s radio. The sound of

the low humming monks was accompanied only by something simmering in a pot

around the corner in the kitchen. Our host was nowhere to be found.

      Exhausted of all other possibilities, the three of us walked down the

basement stairs. I could see all the junk as we descended, the boxes of papers or

whatever they were and the bicycle and countless other pieces of crap. I could

hear something before Carl came into view, a low hissing or buzzing, air being let

out of a tire maybe. My mind wandered into a thousand different scenarios before

I reached the bottom.

      I knew Carl was very odd. In fact I had no doubt the man walked a daily

tight rope, balancing his life between sanity and schizophrenia, with his

cockamamie stories of aliens and full moons, his paranoid theories of the

government, the visiting crack whores, and his cunning charm that wooed the

geniuses and teenage hot bodies alike. None of it was adequate preparation for the

sight before me.

      I told you briefly—the day Brunno shit his pants—of the weird looking box

in the middle of Carl’s basement, a structure with four legs underneath and several

consecutive screens inside of it. The buzzing noise was apparent now, hundreds

and hundreds of small bees, trapped in some sort of man-made beehive. Carl was

farming bees.

      It was over the beehive box that he stood now, shirtless, with his back

turned to us. Carl slid open a small window on the top of it, an entrance just big

enough to get a hand into. With the whipping finesse of a frog’s tongue, he

reached in, held his hand open for several seconds, and with two fingers snatched

out of the air one of the gold and black insects by its wings. He began to lift the

bee—stinger first—toward the bulging vein in his own neck.

      “Carl!” Heather pleaded.

      Heather’s scream did not detour our gray-haired host. There was no

hesitation of movement towards the vein as he spoke. “No worries my dear, Carl

has done this many times.” A second later the stinger poked into his neck. The

bee’s abdomen shuddered as it pumped its venom. Carl made only one sound, not

a wince of pain as I imagined, but a sigh of relief, that of a heroin addict finally

getting his fix. The other bees flew to the top of the cage as if they were worried

about their brother. Roman explained to me later that when bees sting they admit a

pheromone that stimulates the others for attack.

      There was no brigade of bomber bees, on account of the screen. And now

Carl turned to us with a wide smile. As if the events up to now weren’t enough, I

noticed Carl’s chest.

      On his torso were three wide scars, black gashes that started where his neck

met his left shoulder, and traveled diagonally down his stomach to his right hip.

My imagination warped me through space and time, and suddenly I was in a

Vietnam jungle watching as a seven foot gray alien slashed Carl with its three

elongated fingernails because the Colonel would not give up his weapon and go

with the creature. Another flash, and I was back in Carl’s basement watching as he

buttoned up his shirt. My knees weakened a bit but I managed to stay on my feet.

     “I hope your appetites are hearty. I made enough to feed the third

battalion.”

III

      He could’ve have fed me rat poison and I wouldn’t have known the

difference. My brain was still deciding whether it was in Collingston or

Cambodia, and my appetite was still on overdrive. Heather must have been as

thunderstruck as myself, because she hadn’t spoken a word either. Roman, of

course, was not shocked—he’d probably been to stranger events in his journeys

into book land.

      Carl placed a bowl of some kind of stew in front of me. It was gray and

slimy but smelled wonderful. There was at least the familiar sight of a carrot and a

meatball-like object floating on the top. I took a cautious half-spoonful. The stew

was creamy and the meatballs better than any I’d ever tasted. They were kinda

hard on the outside, but once bitten into the juice was very tasty. There was some

kind of skin floating in there as well, the texture was tough like cooked cabbage

but it tasted good. I decided after the first bite it was delicious, and before I knew

it three large bowls worth were in my stomach. Carl offered homemade bread on

several occasions, but I declined claiming I needed room for more of the stew.

      I sometimes felt that Heather thought of food as she did everything else,

like it was a competition. Like she couldn’t let the food beat her. It must have

been one of those times, because her bowl emptied and refilled more quickly and

more frequently than mine. I had seen her eat two super burgers at Better Burgers

one time after a basketball game, but I think she had that beat.

     Roman chewed at his nonchalant pace, like the food was more of a

nuisance than anything else. He was probably deciphering how much energy could

be converted from the caloric intake of the stew or some shit. He did though shake

his head in satisfaction a couple of times.

     Carl put a fourth bowl in front of me, but I had to at least take a break. I

thought it a good time to ask about the stupid ideas whirling around in my head.

     “So what’s up with the bees Carl?”

     “I have to house ’em in the basement on account of the goddamn cold.”

     “No, I mean stingin’ yourself with ‘em. Does it keep the aliens away or

some shit?”

    “Ah no, only medicine, guy. They keep Carl in control over his broken

down body. I got the shakes not long after I turned seventy, and the bees cure me.”

    “Shakes?” I asked again.

    “Ah, what do you call it, uh...Perkinsons?”

    “Parkinson’s disease?” Heather joined in.

    “Aye, ’tis it.”

    Heather looked at Roman who seemed not even to be listening. Or maybe

he had already heard the story. “So you’re telling me,” Heather began, “that you

have Parkinson’s disease and that by stinging yourself with bees you don’t have

any symptoms at all. You’re not on any medicine? I mean drugs.”

    “Ha, drugs. Just a goddamn way to keep you sick and line the pockets of

some bastard sitting in an office. Fuck the drug companies I say.”

     Heather just shook her head.

     “So where’d you get this remedy from, some healer in Zimbabwe or

what?” I said laughing.

     “Not Zimbabwe. A lot closer than that mind ya. My neighbor.” Carl

looked to his right. He looked at Roman.

     Me and Heather stared at Roman as well, our silence urging him into an

explanation. “It’s not that big a deal. People have been using venom therapy for

centuries. I read a couple of books on the subject and when Carl refused any

medication, I suggested the bees. Holistic healers use snake, spider, scorpion, and

even jellyfish venom. I thought bees might be our safest route. Synapses that are

not working correctly or not at all in the brain, seem to fire up again when the

venom makes its way through the blood stream. Sometimes nature has the answer

before science does.”

     I could tell Heather was becoming flustered. “You don’t really believe that

some little bee venom is a cure for an illness that modern medicine spends millions

of dollars and countless hours on every year?”

     Roman chuckled a little and kissed her on the cheek—a response I saw

more and more these days to Heather’s intellectual challenges and her need to

compete with him. To Roman it was just a way to disarm her. I think it only made

her madder, but in a good way. “I don’t know that it’s a cure,” Roman said with a

laugh in his voice. “I do know the day after he started the therapy his symptoms

stopped and haven’t returned.”

     “To the bees,” Carl raised his mug of beer and chugged it down.

Heather was out of responses.

     “To the bees,” I said raising my glass of milk.

     “To the bees,” Roman said with his ginger ale.

      Heather finally lifted her glass. She spoke softly. “To the bees.”

      The conversation was enough of a break to recharge my hunger, and the

fourth bowl went down like the ones before it. I crushed one of the meatballs in

my teeth and the juice squirted down my throat, like I just ate a cooked grape. It

was at the moment that my curiosity returned. It was delicious yes, but for the life

of me I couldn’t place what exactly it was.

     “So what kinda stew is this anyway?”

     Carl lit his pipe, an act that took several seconds when you counted in the

puffing and re-lighting. “Mountain oyster,” he responded.

    “Huh? Mountain oyster stew. Don’t think I’ve ever heard of it. Come to

think of it, how the hell are there oysters in the mountains?”

     “There aren’t any oysters in the mountains,” Heather answered for me. She

had a look of fright, an expression that said we had just done—or eaten—

something terribly, terribly wrong.

     Carl looked at me through the smoke with a shocked expression that I’d

never heard of mountain oysters. “Pig jewels if it does ya.”

     “Pig jewels?” I asked in denial.

     Heather covered her mouth with both hands and mumbled. “I’m going to

be sick.”

     “Hog testicles,” Roman interjected.

      I looked down at my bowl and shook my head. It now occurred to me what

the rubbery cabbage thing in my bowl was and why it was so chewy. I had just

eaten four bowls of pig scrotum soup. For some reason my stomach didn’t heave

and I had no urge to puke. What filled me was anger.

     “How in the hell do you have people over and feed them pig balls without

even tellin’ ’em? That’s just wrong.”

     “Do you like hot dogs guy?”

     “Sure.”

     “Well I once made my living working in a factory that wrapped dogs. And

I tell ya not one scrap of pig ball nor mice terd lying on the floor was denied

processing. You’ve put far worse in your belly than the sack of a hog. My

grandmammy passed this recipe down to mama. Back then we could only afford

the cheapest parts of the animal, but she turned something ugly into something

good for the soul. Now I say to ya, hot dogs or Carl’s delicious stew?” Carl toked

on his pipe, with that smug look of his.

      I didn’t answer his question. “Ya know you sit there like some kind of

philosopher with your gray beard and pipe, thinking you’ve got it all figured out,

but the truth is you’re just an old man that drinks too much and fucks too many

crack whores.”

     “Tony that’s enough,” Roman said.

     “No it’s not and I’m not done yet. You and the bees in your basement, and

the green tea, and the off the wall stories about aliens tryin’ to take ya. All of this

shit so you can impress us and maybe have a friend or two. You’re nothing

special, just plain ole crazy. You’re just fuckin’ crazy.”

     “Tony.” Roman stood up.

     “Let him be. Let him be.” Carl took the pipe out of his mouth and set it on

the table. “Ah, maybe you’re right guy. Carl does drink too much and have the

company of whores from time to time. I tell ya though, I have no reason to lie

about the rest of it, there’s plenty of ’em down at the Tavern that listen to Carl’s

stories without him havin’ to have ’em over for dinner. The truth is, I see you, and

your friend, and the pretty lady as partners. Many apologies guy, if I’ve made

offense. I’m just trying to make up for lost time, I am.”

      What the fuck was I doing? Ripping Carl because he was a bit off. I’d had

a stressful day at school and just needed to vent I guess. Frenchy with his rolling J

and limp handshake kept playing over in my head. “Look, Carl, I’m sorry. I was

way out of line and you, of all people, don’t deserve to hear any of those things. I

had a bad day and I’m just taking it out on you.”

     “No worries my friend. Carl has seen enough bad days to know what you

speak of. But it sounds like your anger comes because of a woman.”

I didn’t respond or even look up, but I could feel both Roman and Heather

staring a hole through me.

IV

      We cleaned up the kitchen. Carl washed. Heather dried. Me and Roman

cleaned the table off and brought them the dishes. I felt so bad about goin’ off on

Carl, I was about to do the unthinkable: I asked if he ever came across the aliens

again.

      His hands froze immediately in the soapy water. After a second or two, he

regained himself and gazed out the window just above his sink, like he could see

the ET’s out in the yard. It was the same gaze Roman had when he told of his

parents, the Pentochs, and Agent Johnson.

     “Only once more, and that time they weren’t after Carl. After the service I

got a job working security for one of the government labs. Not hard work after ya

been through a war. They had a goddamn fence like Fort Knox, with security gates

and armed men. My job was to just walk the halls and make sure nobody was in

there that ought not to be. On one of my rounds I tuned the corner and there it was,

halfway down the hallway, just standing there lookin’ the other way. Same seven

feet tall. Same slimy gray skin. I just froze. My heart flippin’ a mile a second.

Then he turned to his left and opened one of the lab doors. I walked down the hall,

shaking like a damn wet dog, and peeked around the doorway. The thing was

holdin’ a scientist with one arm and with the other...”

     Carl wiped his face with his sudsy hand, like he almost couldn’t finish the

story.

     “With the other he did what?” Heather asked.

     The look on Roman’s face was one I’d never seen. It was almost like he’d

been there too and was remembering. It was beginning to freak me out a little.

     “With the other hand he had the doctor’s face. Those damn long fingers

and nails covered it like he was going to squeeze his head in. The lights in the lab

and the hallway started flickering. There was an awful loud humming sound, not

in my ears, but in my head. The doctor just laid there, like he was passed out from

the drink, and all of a sudden.” Carl stopped and swallowed hard. “Electrical

energy or I don’t know what started flying around the alien’s head. Some sort of

bright yellow or blue waves circled around the thing’s head and then down his arm,

and out those sharp nails into the good doctor’s head. He shook like he was being

electrocuted, but it wouldn’t have taken that long to kill him as this went. I wish I

would’ve pulled my gun and shot the bastard right there. But I never even took it

out of the holster. It stopped after a minute or so. The lights came on. The

creature leaned the doctor over a chair and then turned and looked at me. He was

smiling I tell ya, even though he had no mouth. And poof, just like in the jungle,

evaporated into thin air. I woke the doctor, saw he was not injured on his body,

but his mind; he gibbered away, asking me if I saw the angels and telling me what

they told him.”

      “What did they tell him?” I asked.

      “That the machine they left inside of his head would finally bring peace to

the world.”

     “What was the doctor’s name?”

     “Doctor Jesup,” Carl answered.

     “Dr. Sebastian Jesup,” Roman added.

V

      We finished the cleaning, and the clearing of our minds. I apologized to

Carl for the twentieth time, and now the three of us found ourselves in Roman’s

front room. The janitor was visibly shaken by the conversation at Carl’s and he

paced the room—as much as Roman could do such a thing I guess—trying to

digest Carl’s story with the potent acid in his mind.

      “So you’re tellin’ me this alien shit is for real?” I asked.

      Before Roman could answer Heather shot another question at him. “How’d

you know the doctor’s name?”

      Roman stopped walking laps around the room and looked at us. I’m not

calling him a liar, but Roman’s brain chose his words very carefully. He answered

Heather first of course. “I came across a document during my stay with NN.

Somebody made a mistake and put it with the codes I was supposed to be

breaking. I ran out of codes, so naturally I opened the file. It was schematics for

some type of machine, accompanied by a profile of Dr. Jesup and his work. The

doctor claimed that angels came down from heaven and gave him the blueprints for

the device. It was quite similar to Carl’s story of an alien downloading it to his

brain.”

     “So this alien shit is for real?” I asked again.

     “Jesup put the plans down on paper. Halfway through the blueprints Jesup

got scared, nobody really knows why, and ran. The NN still hasn’t found him.

That’s also part of the reason Johnson won’t leave me alone. He knows I saw the

file.”

     “What field was Jesup in?” Heather asked.

     “Nuclear physics.”

     “They want him to build a bomb?”

     “No it wasn’t a bomb, it was beyond anything I’d ever seen. I’m still not

sure what it was or what it does.”

     Something told me that Roman knew exactly what the machine did. But I

didn’t pursue the issue. “Goddamn it, so you’re sayin’ there really is aliens?”

     “All that I know is that there is a Doctor Jesup and that the government

wants him because of his knowledge of how to construct this machine. What the

doctor and Carl saw that night is up for interpretation.”

    “This is all above me man. I’m goin’ home. You comin’?” I said to

Heather. “Of course you’re not.”

      Despite the evening’s events she had her arms around him and her mouth

on his before I even got out the door.

 

 

           


 

 

 

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