THINGS DONE: BAIT AND SWITCH
Sari’s doing her pujas. This is my time to slip off to the kitchen, frequently unoccupied at this hour, and enjoy some of the wonderful coffee from Celebes that is always available. The newspapers from around the world will have mostly arrived, and I relish reading them in silence. If Muladharma is up this early, it’s because he has to be somewhere and doesn’t have time to read, so it’s my private time. Just like back at home, when Langly and Frohike would continue to be snoring less than symphonically until daylight was high overhead.
Still, I wouldn’t mind if Frohike would wake up and join me, but I’m not about to disturb him. He and Mel have been asleep for nearly 24 hours now. Then again, I think Frohike stayed awake for four days, and from past experience, it’s not a pretty picture. I’ll let him get his beauty sleep.
I pad quietly into the hallways. Sari’s and my quarters are private but they are still attached to the house, and Devi, Muladharma and Palin are all night owls, meaning that unless they have a pressing commitment, they’ll be asleep as long as possible. I’ve noticed that unless absolutely unavoidable, Muladharma and Devi never schedule anything prior to 10 a.m., later if they can get away with it. I’ve never woken them up and I’m reasonably certain it’s an experience I can grow nicely into old age without.
This home used to be a palace, and it’s easy to get lost in the maze until one has learned to navigate it adequately. This took me a while. During the first weeks here, I would constantly get lost in the house. I had visions of never being found, which was probably ridiculous; despite its size, the hallways are small and the rooms are as well. There are simply a large number of them.
As I’m headed towards the staircase, I hear a door open, and startle mildly. Startling is more or less a way of life. The door I hear opening is from a room that to my knowledge has no occupants; I very much doubt that Devi and Muladharma take in many strays after midnight, so I’m mildly freaked out as the door continues to creak.
“Christ, where’s the frickin’ bathroom in this place?” I jump. The voice is groggy, and familiar in its nasality. I turn about sharply and come face to face with a tall, gangly man…
With cropped blonde hair!
“Langly?” I knew he was due in soon, but no one said anything about him arriving last night.
“Byers?” His voice carries the disbelief of the sleepy.
“Langly!” I can’t help myself. I grab him, impulse power taking over, and despite his half conscious state, he just about lifts me off the ground.
“Dude! Man, it’s really you! Goddamn!” We’re both laughing, and at this point, making no attempts to restrain ourselves from happily making noise. It’s not every day you see a person who’s among the most important people in the world to you—and especially after you’ve nearly lost him in more ways than one. He’s laughing joyously. “Man, I’d say you were looking good, but I can’t see shit right now.”
“Glasses might help,” I tease him.
“Oh yeah. Right. I was wondering if I was gonna have to piss out the window.”
“The place is a bit of a maze. C’mon, let me show you where it is. The learning curve for geography in this house is steeper than you might imagine.”
He looks thin. He’s always looked thin, but I suspect his favorite foods were even less available to him than they were to me; it’s not as if he had Devi to bring him a Costco case of Snickers bars to him. It’s not a bad thin, though—he’s gotten pretty sinewy, as if he’s done manual labor, which, he’s indicated in email, he has.
“You going back to bed?” I ask him.
“Nah, I’m up. Gonna let Deb sleep, though. Man, she’s wrecked.”
“Not feeling well, I take it.”
“Unless you count wanting to puke all the time as feeling good, don’t think so.”
He follows me, still dressed in his boxers and wife beater (somehow, I don’t think Devi and Muladharma will care, although were there any extraneous relatives here, they might), after grabbing his glasses as quietly as possible.
“How’re you doing with all this?” I’m referring to Deborah’s expectant state.
“Byers, man, in case you forgot, I don’t do questions before coffee.”
I smile. Some things never change. I actually take pleasure in his grumpiness, and look forward to the day when I’m annoyed by it again. Probably sometime within the next week.
“Oh man, papers.” Langly looks like a kid at Christmastime. “I miss reading the papers, man.” He starts rummaging through the stack. “I got dibs on the Post, man.”
“Knock yourself out.”
We sip coffee in silence. When he’s downed his second cup, the power of speech returns to him.
“Know what I love about this place?” he says, squinting in the bright morning light pouring in through the windows. I can see that he’s been outside—there’s a sunburnt cast to his skin and his arms and face are splotched with freckles.
“Indoor plumbing. We got here, Deb and me, we stood in the shower till all the hot water was gone.”
“That only takes about half an hour around here.”
“Whatever. I’m gonna do it again this morning. God, I missed showers. Among other things. Like, do they have a Pizza Hut or Mickey D’s here yet?”
“Sorry, you’re out of luck. But Devi does almost all the cooking, she and Sari.”
“Good deal. Get some meat on Deb. She’s gonna have a baby, I mean, aren’t you supposed to gain weight, not lose it?”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“It’s not, man.”
I study him. He looks…scared.
“Are you okay with all this? I mean, having kids is a big step.”
“Am I okay with it? Good question. I mean, Deb got pregnant. Not having it for her, she’s Catholic. Not an option here. So it kind of doesn’t matter. I mean, I sorta got her into it, y’know.”
I almost fall over. Ringo Langly has grown up and taken responsibility. I guess there are some things that do change; the only problem is that sometimes I’m not prepared for miracles at this hour of the day.
“I mean,” he goes on, “I like kids. Me and Deb wanted ‘em…someday. Guess someday is now. Only thing is, I don’t wanna be having a million miles from home.”
“I hear that.”
“We gotta get home, man. Soon. Not like a year from now.”
“I can understand wanting your son or daughter to be born on American soil.”
“Well, yeah, there’s that, but mostly, I want a cheesesteak.”
I smile. The new Langly hasn’t totally left behind the old one. That’s good. I think.
We’re interrupted by a set of clomping footsteps that can only belong to Frohike. “What’s with all the racket out here? A man can’t get any sleep anywhere—“ he stops dead in his rant as he sees both of us at the table. He lowers his glasses, raises them again, lowers them, and shakes his head. “Langly?”
“Last time I checked,” he smiles in his smartassed way, but as he’s doing it, he’s already on his feet to give Frohike a bear hug.
As Frohike grabs him hard, he says, “You sure it’s you? The Langly I knew would’ve never cut his hair unless held down and tortured.”
“Living in the jungle’s something like that,” Langly agrees. “You old bastard, you’re looking as ugly as ever.”
“It’s you, all right.” Frohike rolls his eyes. “I better have some coffee before I start believing this is true. Where’s the Post?”
“I got it,” Langly says.
“Well, hand it over.”
“No fucking way, I haven’t read the comics in months!”
“And you think I have?”
“How long you been here?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t been awake for most of it.”
“Doesn’t count. I got first dibs on it.”
And the baiting begins. I can’t remember when it felt so wonderful.
We’re joined while we’re still joking and bantering about by Sari, bypassing the coffee pot in favor of her tea; by Mel, hair still unbraided, appearing much more refreshed and relaxed than she did the other night, and by Deborah, looking gaunt and rather green. Devi, never one to miss what could conceivably pass as a party, joins in, throwing one liners out at us and offering to make Deborah some of the tea she used when she was pregnant with Palin. Deborah looks skeptical.
“What I really need is a cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate shake,” she says. I’m not sure how she can think of that in her nauseated state, but I sympathize. I’m looking forward to such treats myself.
“A double cheeseburger,” Langly concurs with her.
“Y’know, that sounds awfully good right now,” Devi agrees. “I craved McDonalds’ fries the entire time I was pregnant.”
“Devi, that’s disgusting!” Sari winces.
“For me, it was Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese. Don’t ask.” Mel grins. “All I know’s that before we went to ground, I thought I could never face the stuff again…but right now, I wouldn’t mind a little bit of something you toss in the microwave.”
“Ribs. With Western Carolina barbecue sauce,” Frohike says dreamily. “Olathe corn on the cob.”
“That’s Kansas corn! That sucks!” Langly, a Nebraska native, wrinkles his nose.
“Any corn on the cob sounds good right now,” I say, thinking of sweet butter and sugar corn. Cobb salad…pizza…
“Bad pizza would hit it about now,” Frohike adds.
“I’d settle for frozen,” Langly adds. “It’s not delivery, it’s DiGiorno!”
I step into my usual role as party pooper. “If we’re going to enjoy these culinary delights again, we need to start working on nailing Runtz. It’s the only way we’re going to get home.”
Everyone turns sober. “Yeah,” Frohike says. “Besides, Muladharma’s bathrobe doesn’t fit right.” It hangs down to the floor on him.
Deborah, who’s been nibbling on rice and toast, has been very quiet throughout. “I want our baby born at home.”
“In which case, we’d better get cracking,” Frohike says. “And Langly, as for using up all the hot water? Don’t try the hair as an excuse.”
Langly gives him the middle finger salute.
It feels good. It feels right. It feels…almost normal.
Now for the last, and most difficult, step of the journey.
Langly and Frohike leave to shower. There will definitely be no hot water for a long time. I hope Muladharma is planning to sleep in. I’m bearing witness to an argument among the women, during which I silently retreat to the newspapers.
“You should really see a doctor, Deborah dear,” Mel says gently to her.
“I don’t need a doctor. I am one,” Deborah protests.
“And what’s the old adage about the doctor who has himself for a patient being a fool?” Mel shoots back.
“You’d know if something was wrong,” Deborah argues her down.
“No, dear. Mel Scarlett does not do OB nursing.” Mel crosses her arms firmly.
“I have a really good gyno here in Colombo. You should really see her,” Devi insists.
“She is very good. I think you’ll like her,” Sari tries to be reassuring.
“No! I want to be home with my friends! In my own hospital! I want to be working! I…” at this point, Deborah breaks down and cries.
Sari looks over at me and silently mouths, ‘hormones.’ I nod furtively and mouth back, ‘homesickness.’
“We all do,” Sari says, wrapping her arms around her. I’m surprised, but Deborah doesn’t protest. She’s not very huggable, but she isn’t resisting at all. “And we’ll get there. But in the meantime, you should really have some care. I’m sure Ringo would agree.”
“How long do you think we’ll be here?” Mel asks me, very softly.
“I don’t know. I hope I’ll have a better answer once the guys are out of the shower.”
“Hmm. I have a plan,” Sari grins wickedly.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Devi demands of her older sister.
“I’m going to shut off the hot water heater.”
This breaks the tension, and we all laugh. I love it.
“I’ll come with you,” I offer. I could use some levity before we hit the ground running.
Langly and Frohike are both fussing and fuming but they’re definitely ready to get to work. Sari, Mel, and Devi poke their heads in, saying they’ve got an appointment for Deborah to see Devi’s physician and that they’ll be out for a while.
“How’d you do that?” Langly stares up at them. “She wouldn’t listen to me.”
“That’s because she’s got half a brain,” Frohike mutters.
“Hey, my kung fu can blast the nuts off yours, dude!”
“Good. Let’s see you put your money where your mouth is.”
We spend some time going over everything that’s happened. We’ve been in communication via email, but it’s been spotty, and here at Muladharma’s, we have access to many more resources, including the finest in hardware. I told Muladharma I needed some better equipment, but I had no idea that he would clean out a Fry’s in the process. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised. He and his wife are nothing but generous. They’ll give you the shirt off their backs—and it’ll be pure silk.
“This stuff kicks ass. We gotta get some of it when we get back.” Langly is salivating over the new machines at our disposal.
“With what? It’s not exactly like we’re rolling in dough,” Frohike barks at him.
“There is the matter of a 5 million dollar reward from Interpol for bringing in Runtz.”
“Dead or alive?” Frohike asks.
“I don’t think they’re that picky.”
Muladharma is finally up. He’s got a serious agenda today—he’s headed for the golf course.
“Bloody rotten sport. But it’s how business gets done.” He stares at us enviously. “Good luck, gentlemen. I’ll expect an update when I come back.”
“What sport would you rather play?” Langly asks him innocently.
“Rugby. The most damage you can do to another human and walk free.” There’s a gleam in Muladharma’s eye when he says this. “Be careful, whatever you do. I think this is more dangerous than golfing with a group of Japanese businessmen.”
After he’s gone, Frohike glances at us. “He’s got a real hard on for this guy.”
“He’s jealous,” I say, winking. “He’d rather be out chasing him instead of romancing captains of industry.”
“He might change his mind if he knew what we’re about to do,” Frohike looks leery.
The doorbell interrupts us. “I’ll get it. Maybe the maid forgot her key.” She normally comes around this time of day.
“Just make sure they’re not carrying anything deadlier than a feather duster,” Frohike calls after me.
It’s a fair distance from our offices on the second floor to the front door. I’m a bit baffled; the maid normally enters through the back, but perhaps without her key, she felt she wouldn’t be heard (and she’d be right).
I check the security camera mounted near the door. There’s a woman there, all right. But it’s not the maid.
It’s Lois Runtz.
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